Fallout Equestria: Wasteland Economics

by Doctor Ham

First published

Alloy Shaper, a blacksmith in postapocalyptic New Oreins, is content to let others fight the 'good fight' and get themselves killed for it. All she'd rather do is keep her head down, tend to her forge and survive the Bayou.

What happens if you’re just another salespony in postapocalyptia, a blacksmith by and large focused on running your store day by day? Other ponies can fight and die in the "good fight," but for you, trade caravans come and go, random repair work around town keeps food on the table, and every so often you make enough at once to treat yourself. And in the stillness and privacy of the night, the ghost of a smile graces your muzzle as you work at your forge, making your mark on the Wasteland in small ways.

But... you've gotten a bit complacent with this safe life in the Bayou. And all at once, that security drops out from under you. The debt of a pony's life rests on your hooves, and all you've got are the skills that let you earn a living fixing a pistol to pay it off.

Edited by Pipistrelle, Mondo, and Promptanon. Title card artwork by PencilGuy.

Prologue - Business Model

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Prologue - Business Model

"The organization, structure, and practices of a business, defining and outlining its principal methods of making money."

"Buying or selling? I've got the finest armor and blades for a hundred miles. Or if you've got some good enough metal, I'll take it off your hooves, melt it down into something useful. I do repairs too, but it’ll cost you if you don’t have any spare parts.”

Goddesses, I needed to have that posted to a sign. It got old repeating the same spiel to every pony or otherwise that wandered up to my storefront as they were passing through. After a few minutes of standing in front of my counter and staring at my wares, asking to examine several weapons in particular, this amber mare decided to try a little conversation, probably to mask her indecisiveness. “So...you made all these yourself?”

One of my ears twitched in annoyance as I put a curved sword back on its shelf next to a pair of earrings. “That is what a blacksmith does.”

She scrunched up her snout as she looked away from the blades and towards the armor hanging on makeshift hooks behind me. “Well, I ain’t seen a blacksmith before.” Alright, it was reasonable, I was the only blacksmith I’d ever seen in my own (albeit limited) Wasteland experience, so it was likely not as common a profession as rancher, mercenary, or raider. Still didn’t stop me from wishing ponies would spend less time ogling and more time spending.

The unicorn mare pointed a hoof at a suit of reinforced leather barding, asking for me to take it down. But, instead of examining any of the practical qualities of the armor, she studied the pattern of engravings I had decorated the metal plates with. It was a depiction of the sun rising above the horizon, which I’d attempted to recreate from a picture book I’d seen as a filly. “This supposed to be the guard uniform for this town or something? I haven’t seen anypony else wearing one.” she asked me, her eyes not leaving the armor.

Here we go. I let out a short, quiet sigh as I idly scratched a hoof in the ground. “No, we don’t have guards in Four Shoes.”

She levitated the armor lower to look at me in surprise and confusion. “No guards? How the hell does that work?” Her eyes shot wide with a whinny and she dropped the armor, looking over her shoulder. “Turrets? Robots? Those things give me the creeps!”

“No. Look around you.” I swept a hoof out across the town market, and she turned to face the variety of storefronts like mine, almost all of them counters and shelves with slapdash awnings and roofs hanging overhead. My own awning was made from corrugated metal and a pair of wooden posts, sitting below a hoof-painted sign proclaiming my store to be ‘ALLOY SHAPER’S SMITHY.’ “Everypony manning one of these stores has a gun close at hoof. Disagreements tend to be short.”

The mare, a bit more at ease after being told there were no robots around, brought her attention back to the armor, specifically the engravings she’d asked about in the first place. “So then what’s this mean?”

I scratched my hoof at the ground again. “Nothing. Just,” I paused, thinking of the right word to use. “Just decoration.” The truth that I’d never tell anypony else was a little more complicated. Making these aesthetic touches to my work gave me a feeling of satisfaction and completeness, even if nopony appreciated it. The businessmare in me galled at the waste of resources, but that voice in my head was always silent when I was alone with my forge. And true to my expectations, the amber mare gave the armor a strange look and set it back on the counter, trotting away at the sound of somepony calling out to her. Fucking window-shoppers…

I suppose I should’ve been glad that ‘annoying non-customers’ were the worst trouble I regularly faced, at least while I was working my shop. I’d like to think it was something about being a unicorn surrounded by a dozen or so knives and swords at any given moment, but really it was more likely because of the ‘everypony has a gun’ policy I’d described to the window-shopper. I don't exactly cut an intimidating figure, being half a head shorter than other mares my age.

I forced myself to keep a neutral face as I hung the barding back on one of the makeshift hooks lining the wall behind me. Out of habit, I first hung the barding so that the engraved plates were proudly showcasing themselves, but then I shifted it around so that they were a bit more hidden off to the side. Around it were about half a dozen other sets of armored barding, all hung on the back wall of my shop, which also served as one of the walls of my house.

This morning in particular, a caravan was preparing to set out on its way to New Pegas, and the merchants and guards were making their last preparations. As one pony finished buying a hunting knife from me, an energetic voice called out, “Alloy! Hey!” I didn’t even have to look up from putting away my caps to know who it was.

“Grit,” I answered flatly, meeting his eyes. “You need something for the road, I take it?”

“You got it! One of my pistols needs a tune-up.” The sandy-coated buck beamed at me bright as Celestia herself, a tousled purple mane framing his face. In addition to our bevy of gun-toting merchants, Four Shoes had help keeping the peace in the form of this unicorn. Grit was something of a local hero, cheerfully keeping the roads safe for traders, and sometimes doing a bit of hunting. Four Shoes was at the northeastern border of New Oreins, built out of what used to be some sort of housing development before the war, out of the way of the biggest raider camps down south by the old harbor. Still, the Wasteland had no shortage of bastards relishing the opportunity to kill and steal, and caravans coming and going were juicy targets. Between them and the local fucked-up wildlife of the Bayou, the roads needed the extra protection, and Grit had done a lot toward securing them.

He levitated one of his 10mm semi-automatic pistols onto the counter, and I broke out my tools immediately. “ ‘Bout how long d’ya think? I don’t want to keep Tart and River Ford waitin’,” he asked in that chewy, drawling accent of most ponies around the Bayou. It was somewhat akin to the ponies from my old home in New Appleloosa, but had its own distinct sound.

I examined the trigger with a frown and a furrowed brow, willing it to divulge the secret to its malfunction. While I loved my smithing, there was something almost as enjoyable as taking things apart and putting them back together. It was like a puzzle, and figuring out how to make things tick kept my mind sharp. “Looks like the recoil spring is wearing out. I’ll have to replace it, but it’s a quick swap. Got a spare-” Pre-empting my question, another 10 mm pistol hovered onto the counter in a cushion of blue magic, and I couldn’t help but crack a small smile at how Grit knew my business model, something I appreciated in a repeat customer. “That should do it.” I nodded at the gun and wrapped it in my own emerald-green levitation field, the same shade as my eyes, as I took it apart. Soon the parts were swapped and I set Grit’s re-assembled gun down on the counter, the slide snapping into place much more fluidly than it had before.

“Now then, if you want to keep this other gun,” I said, tapping my hoof on the counter next to the pistol I had taken the replacement spring from, “It’ll be 50 caps. I’ll buy the spare gun from you for 20 caps, so you’ll only owe me 30.”

Grit winced a little, with a frown. “C’mon, that pistol ain’t in bad shape otherwise. It’s gotta be worth closer to 35 caps.”

I snorted with a swish of my short tail. “35? 10-mil guns aren’t that common, so only a few parts will be useful.”

“Okay, okay, but it still shoots. You could sell it as-is.”

“It’s pretty beat up if you didn’t notice, and nopony comes to my shop for guns. I don’t even carry ammo.”

He gave a sigh, drooping his head a little. I looked from him back to the gun thoughtfully. To be honest, I didn’t mind cutting him a better price for the gun, mostly because I’d probably end up taking more of his caps on either repairs or armor. And while on a personal note I found his efforts to seemingly make friends with everypony he met irritating, I couldn’t deny the help he gave the town. “I’ll give you 30 for the gun, and you owe 20 caps total.”

Grit’s youthful grin returned to his face at that, and he fished out a stack of caps from his saddlebags. He holstered his repaired pistol and began walking away while I started counting out the caps with a sharp winny.

That wily little...

“You overpaid,” I called to him, levitating the extra 5 caps he paid me as I walked from behind my counter.

He turned back to face me with a sheepish grin on his face. “Well, y’know, I just thought I might be courteous.”

I shook my head firmly. “I don’t take handouts. We agreed to a fair price.” He looked a little dejected as he took his caps back. I sighed and proverbially tipped my hoof. “Besides, you’ll spend some of those caps back at my store eventually.” That got a chuckle out of him, and I mentally kicked myself for giving that one away, but it was worth it so I didn’t feel indebted to him, and this wasn’t the first time he’d tried that on me. Though Luna knows why he was overpaying after haggling.

I returned to my smithy, keeping the store open for a little while after the caravan departed. Caravan mornings were always some of my better sales times, even beyond the traders and guards themselves. A trade caravan leaving got ponies thinking about raiders, and occasionally somepony would buy new armor or repairs from me after the caravan left. While the travelers coming and going from the town were concerned out of necessity, raiders weren’t really something Four Shoes itself had to deal with. I stepped out from behind the counter and looked up, brushing my orange-and-grey mane out of my eyes. I’d heard stories that before the war, ponies could tell the time by the position of the sun in the sky, but the idea of it was just baffling. The only times of day we could tell beneath the constant cloud layer were night, dawn, day, and dusk. Not terribly helpful overall. I’d usually keep my store open until a few hours past dawn, when I couldn’t ignore my pangs of hunger anymore, unless I had other work to do.

Today, I had other work to do.

Commissioned work was some of my better pay, and what I enjoyed the most, but it was rare. Not many ponies in the Wasteland thought of taking a load of scrap metal to a blacksmith and having it fashioned into a knife or armor plates. Then again, there weren’t many blacksmiths I’d heard about, so fair is fair. However, among my customers that morning was a griffin who’d asked for a set of wing blades. She’d provided the leather for straps to hold them in place, but the metal was up to me. It was something I’d never attempted before, but forging new weapons is how I ended up in this business. I knew the theoretical technique of how wing blades were made; even before I’d gotten my cutie mark I devoured every scrap of pre-war knowledge I could find on hoof-crafted tools and weapons.

I took down all of my merchandise and brought it into my house with my caps. There really wasn’t much to my living space: an old card table, a bedroll, a locker laying on its back where I kept some of my stuff, and a safe for my money and inventory. I made sure everything was locked away before heading out through the back door of my home, leading to where I truly lived as far as I was concerned. Under a larger awning, braced by the remains of a concrete support, was my forge. It paled in comparison to the forges in faded pictures from before the war -- mine was cobbled from the remains of a fireplace, but it was my life, and I mean that in more than just it was how I bought food every day. Look, the hoofful of times I’ve tried to explain it, I got rolling eyes and chuckles, or something like the morning’s window shopper, so just take it at that. Every morning and every evening, unless I had a commission, I lit my forge with a spark from my horn and I crafted tools, knives, patches for armor, or whatever else I felt like at the time. I was even lucky enough to have a proper anvil.

Being outside the view of most of the town, secluded and alone, was soothing. Realistically, anypony could walk up around my house and disturb my work, though they’d find me in a foul mood if they did so. I hung one item in particular next to my workspace: a straight, light sword that I’d forged for myself so long ago. It wasn’t the first thing I made, but I never let it get too far from me. I was decent at using it too, since I’d learned at an early age how important self-defense was. I dug through my collection of scrap to retrieve a few of my better bits of metal, gauging their weight and size, while referring back to the sheet of paper where I’d jotted down the griffin’s wing measurements. Once I thought I had enough, I leaned my head down and lit my forge with a spark and a crack of magic.

The theory was simple enough, but crafting the blades without fully melting down the metal was the real trick. With my mane in its usual tight braid to keep it out of the way, I focused on the metal in front of me, heating individual pieces of scrap in pairs to fuse them together into a single mass. I was constantly trying to visualize the next step and compensate for any mistakes as I took a haphazard grab bag of pre-war trash and gave it meaning and purpose. With a lot of help from my magic to reinforce the bonds and force it into the proper shape, the weapons began to appear in front of me instead of just in my mind. To make the last step in their transformation, I took my hammer and formed the blades themselves with quick, sharp strikes along the leading edge and regular trips back to the fire for reheating.

Hours later, I hovered the pair of completed blades in front of me for evaluation, and growled a string of obscenities when I realized one of them was bent too sharply. Fortunately, among the books I’d studied on pre-war forging, I’d picked up a few spells that would have been useful in Old Equestria, and that I couldn’t live without now. Setting aside the wing blade that was satisfactory, I lifted the bent one close to my horn, so that the it was almost touching the center of the imperfection. This particular spell was exhausting, and I felt my entire body protest as I flowed heat through my horn and into the metal, softening it just enough to use my telekinesis to bend it into place.

Setting the two blades down next to each other after the hours of work filled me with pride and satisfaction, and I’m not ashamed to say I just took a moment to sit and stare at them, with the excuse to myself of catching my breath after that spell. They weren’t pretty, but there was this inexplicable satisfaction in making something with your own hooves, even though a part of me nagged at every little imperfection.

I didn’t quite feel like stopping, having munched on some Sugar Apple Bombs and radigator meat before beginning the work, so I decided to fashion a new piece of jewelry. I almost never sold any, so I couldn’t always afford to use the best metal for them, but they brought a warmth to me that I couldn’t fully rationalize, a small smile sitting comfortably on my face like a foal’s daydream.

It might start with a particular piece of scrap. Somepony throws away a rusted half-can of beans, and I see what I can do with it. It doesn’t always work that way, either; sometimes I’ll get an idea in my head, something I want to make, and I’ll desperately rummage through my box of scrap metal until I find something suitable, shaping it to my mental image. It never comes out quite the way I envisioned either, but I love the reality far more than my fantasy. The smell of it, the feel of it being a real object I can touch with my hooves beats out a fleeting mental picture any day. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what I’m working on. When my forge is lit, and there’s something floating above the coals, held in place by my magic, I don’t feel tired or hungry or pissed. The world becomes that sheet-metal awning, that centuries-ruined fireplace, and an anvil that just watched. The fire warms me like a blanket and steals away the stresses of the day, leaving a quiet peace.

Only after I finished did the growling from my stomach get my attention, and I looked up at the sky to see that it was getting darker. Setting aside the necklace and wing blades and extinguishing my forge, I walked out to the market to find something to eat, hopefully a skewer of marshlurk. A smell of something stewed wafted past my nose, and I walked over to the pony serving up the unidentifiable meat dish, ordering a bowl. I sat down on my haunches, setting the bowl down in front of me, and started eating as the chatter and conversation got a bit louder. For lack of anything better to do while I ate dinner, I looked to see what was drawing all the attention, and then looked back down at my food when I caught sight of a familiar tuft of purple mane and sand-colored horn.

Grit had returned, and he’d cut it a bit close to dusk by the looks of the sky. I guessed he was recounting a story of something exciting he’d fought off from his expressive emoting, swinging his hooves around, rearing up on his hind legs, and making all manner of exaggerated facial expressions. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the half dozen or so ponies around him gasped and cheered at the appropriate intervals. After storytime was done, he made his way to the pony serving up the same stew I was munching on, and bought himself a bowl, stopping briefly by everypony on his way to an empty table, asking them about their day or other such nonsense small talk. He gave me a wave as well with his PipBuck-clad hoof, and I returned with a nod. I had to give it to him, he actually bothered to remember inconsequential details about ponies’ lives in Four Shoes, though I wished I knew why he bothered.

I finished up my bowl of stew before heading back home with one last item on my to-do list. On the way, I stopped at one of the other merchants’ stores just as he was packing up for the night and bought a thin sheet of metal that looked like it used to be part of a door. Back in my house, I pulled out a brush and bucket of paint that I’d bought when I first set up my shop a couple years ago and got to work. This wasn’t the same crafting I dedicated my life to, just an extra chore that needed to be done, and didn’t give me nearly the same satisfaction. Still, I got it done and left the sheet lying on its back to dry while I curled up in my bedroll and let sleep carry me away.

Carrying the newest addition to my storefront the next morning in the green grip of my magic, I held it up against one of the posts supporting my awning, then floated a pair of homemade nails in place, one at the top and one at the bottom. A little bit of hammering later, for which my smithing tools were comical overkill, I walked back behind my counter to await my customers for the day. It wasn’t long before an ash-grey buck walked over, examining my wares. When he looked up at me expectantly, maybe about to ask a question or maybe just curious at my silence, I gestured with a hoof to direct his attention at my new sign:


-Best Armor and Blades in New Oreins


-Tools, Jewelry, and Accessories



As the buck finished reading and looked back to me again, I prompted, “Buying or selling?”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Welcome to Level 1

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 1 - Customer Service

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Chapter 1 - Customer Service

"Customer relations form the backbone of any successful consumer-oriented business."

"No," I replied, pushing the pile of scrap back across the counter.

"’No?’ What, you need more scrap or somethin’?" The buck in front of me scowled, clearly wavering between irritation and confusion.

I kept my tone and face even, containing my own disgust. "I mean that I refuse to smelt you any pairs of hoofcuffs."

It's not as though I asked a customer’s occupation, or to see their cutie mark, or really anything else except whether they’re here to buy or sell. But when this particular green-coated pony with a grey mane approached my store in the early morning light and asked me to smelt him a few pairs of pony-sized hoofcuffs and collars, I could think of few logical explanations.

His previous confusion was evaporated by a rapidly boiling temper. He stomped one hoof in the dirt, causing the other salesponies to take notice as he shouted, "Why the fuck not?!"

I sighed and kept staring at him, forcing my composure as his companion started looking around nervously. "I don't sell to slavers."

He sneered at me at me, spitting his contempt onto the ground in a wad of tar-black chewing tobacco. “Where do you get off talkin’ to me like that?!”

The angry buck's companion, a nervous brown unicorn who kept shifting in place and looking around, ears twitching, finally intervened. “C’mon, Chain, let’s just get movin’. We don’t need that shit anyway.”

“Nah, no way, I ain’t gonna let this bitch tell me off!”

“Chain, calm down, take it easy.” The twitchy unicorn glanced around again, noticing the other traders that were now watching the proceedings carefully.

It was at this point I decided I’d had enough of these two stallions. I snorted and stabbed a hoof out past them. “Leave my store. You’re not welcome here.” My voice was distorted by my own rising annoyance.

“Oh I’ll show you welcome alright, you little-”


Chainlink had already drawn his gun. The firearm was suspended in midair, and pointed at my face. His head snapped around to look at the other pony. My own magic held a knife next to Chainlink’s neck. But what had caused his comrade to be so insistent was the half dozen other shopkeepers nearby that had drawn guns on the pair of slavers.

For a moment, it looked as though Chainlink would shoot me despite the inevitable retaliation, grinding his teeth as he glared at me. Finally, he holstered his gun with a snarl.

“You’re just lucky you’ve got numbers, blue. Won’t always have other ponies t’ hide behind. C’mon, Bean, let’s get outta here.”

As the pair walked away from my storefront, I gasped out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, feeling a jittery energy shoot through me as adrenaline wore off. I ducked back into my home and sat down hard to take a few shuddering breaths, hidden in privacy. I’d have to pretend to be more friendly the next time I had to turn somepony away. Levitating a piece of polished metal in front of my face, I peeled my lips back to give my reflection the best disarming smile I could manage. Then I dropped the bowed plate with a sharp recoil and jumped back. I hoped it was just the distortion from the curve of the metal that made my reflection so creepy.

Either way, there wasn’t time for me to to sit and take a break, as I had an important errand to run that would take the rest of the day. Discarding my shaken nerves with a snort, I walked back outside to see a plump, orange earth pony approaching my store. Gumbo, the de facto mayor of Four Shoes, by virtue of being one of the founding merchants. He wiped a hoof across his sweaty brow as he watched the two slavers leaving Four Shoes, then turned to me with a nervous grin. “Well now, that certainly was somethin’, wan’nt it? You alraight?” His voice was deep and jovial, and I swear he always sounded (and looked, frankly) like he had just finished gorging on cupcakes.

I nodded curtly. “Just fine.” I didn’t understand what Gumbo was here for. I’d paid the rent for my store this month. We stared at each other awkwardly for a few long moments. Or rather, I stared at him, and he met my eyes, glanced around at the various items I had for sale, and occasionally glanced back at me again. My patience worn thin, I broke the silence. “Something you need?”

“Oh! Uh… No, no, nothin’ in pa’ticulah. Jus’ makin’ sure them ponies didn’t rile you up none.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“O’course, o’course. Ah suppose ah jus’ want t’ point out that y’shouldn’t be argumentative with ponies like them. Don’t want no gang trouble this fahr north o’ th’ harbor.”

Aha. A lecture. That made sense now. “I’d prefer not to be shot just as much as you. Now I have something I need to take care of. Anything else?”

The buck shook his head, jostling his jowls along with his salt-and-pepper mane as he turned to walk away. “Nothin’ terrible important. Y’all have a good one.”

As soon as Gumbo had left, I started packing away my store’s inventory, locking up everything in my safe except for one of my suits of reinforced leather barding and a hoofful of caps for carrying around. I donned the armor, one of the few with no adornments on the added metal plates protecting the shoulders and sides, and picked up my weathered pair of saddlebags along with the checklist for this trip. Opening up my footlocker to start loading the bags, I tossed a dejected glance at the section set aside for my coal, though I knew it would be just as close to empty as it had been the past few days. Every time I brought back a load from Shipper I tried to conserve it as best I could, but I could only stretch it out for a couple weeks before I had to trek through the Bayou again to the small zebra village.

My education in history could generously be described as “sketchy,” but I had gleaned enough about the particulars of coal (and Equestria’s lack thereof) in my studies of pre-war metalworking and industry. I wasn’t sure how the zebras living in Shipper had managed to get a stockpile, but as long as they were willing to trade it to me I didn’t much care. When I’d first arrived in New Oreins, I would gather plant life to dry out and burn for fuel. You could actually find real, living plants in the Bayou. But odds were that something living in or near the plants - or the plants themselves - were trying to kill you. The journey through this murderous corner of paradise was the only way to get to Shipper, but it was at least better than aimlessly wandering into it once every few days to find wood.

With the zebras’ order sheet floating next to me, I picked up each item on the list one at a time, checking it off and packing it away. In the couple of years I’d been making this trip, I’d never gotten an order wrong and I wasn’t about to start. It was mostly tools and cookware, with the occasional request for a hunting knife or a new door hinge. Once I was sure I had everything, I closed up my saddlebags and strapped them on my back with my magic (really, how did earth ponies manage this shit?) and grabbed my full canteen. Though I always hoped for a safe journey, “safe” was an entirely subjective concept in the Bayou, so I strapped my sheathed sword to one side. For good measure, I also took the beaten-up 10 mm pistol I had bought from Grit the previous day and attached the holster to my barding as well.

Walking to the edge of Four Shoes, I found a particular rusted skeleton of a carriage with a scratched “X” on the hood, indicating the start of my route. As the occasional patch of muck sucked at my hooves, I set out toward Shipper, following the path in my memory.

The landscape was a chaotic jumble of bombed-out suburban ruins and swampy waterways, as if one had been accidentally upended into the other. Which, I suppose, wasn’t entirely inaccurate. A straight path from one point to another was impossible, even without the ruins to pick through. The air around me was thick and humid, mist still lingering in ravines and craters along the broken roads. More oppressively, it was quiet. The silence unnerved me more than anything else about this journey, being used to the scuffle of hooves and mutter of voices around me almost all the time. Every slight jangling and rustling of my saddlebags felt like I was drawing the attention of hundreds of hidden eyes as I passed.

Up ahead of me, I saw the first landmark on the path: a sky wagon that had crashed into somepony’s house. I crouched my whole body low, my ears nervously laid back flat against my head. On my last trip just over two weeks ago, I swore I’d heard growling coming from inside the ruined house. I wasn’t eager to see if anypony was home this time. I was so fixated on the wreckage, giving it a wide berth, that I didn’t see the metal bar lying on the ground in front of me until I accidentally kicked it with my front hoof.

My entire body tensed as the bar went bouncing down a hill, hitting a small section of wall with a loud clang! I quickly pressed myself as low to the ground as I could, squashing into the mud, painfully aware of how loud my heart was beating, my eyes darting left and right as my ears swivelled and flicked at the air, trying to tease out any changes in my surroundings even as I kept my head frozen in place.

I don’t know how long I laid in the muck before finally working up the nerve to keep moving, picking myself out of the mud and scooping up the pole in my magic. Scrap metal was scrap metal. As a bonus, it would ensure I didn’t repeat this particular mistake.

I continued on my weaving path from landmark to landmark, my steps shakier than before, and my head on a swivel.

* * * * * * *

One of the last landmarks on the route was also the least subtle. A deep ravine had cut through the landscape sometime over the nearly two hundred years since the bombs and caused half of a Ministry of Morale building to collapse into it, the remainder left standing in place with a battered cross-section exposed to the elements. To cross this particular waterway required me to walk into the building to the second story and use the roof of the collapsed section as a bridge. The giant, faded poster of a pink pony with a candy-cane striped mane staring at me from the entry hallway did nothing for my nerves as I crossed the doorway.

My horn lit with green magic and I telekinetically drew my sword and pistol, though I’d rather use the former than the latter--I only had the one magazine and I wasn’t a terrific shot in the first place, to say nothing of the booming noise. All I’ve got to do is walk up one flight of stairs and then cross the river. Simple enough.

But as I approached the stairwell, a buzzing caught my ear and I thought recognized the sound of insect wings. I stopped, cocking my head to one side as I strained to hear.

It’s getting closer.

My pulse leapt into overdrive as I jumped away from the staircase and galloped towards the main lobby. It was a wide-open enough area that nothing would get the jump on me before I caught sight of it, and it gave me a place to drop my heavily-laden saddlebags. I wheeled around, aiming my vision and pistol quickly between the door and the hallway where I’d come from. Just as I turned back towards the hallway, half a dozen bloated, grotesque bugs rounded the corner, charging me quickly. Needle-like mouths half as long as my leg oozed below pairs of thirsty, green eyes.


I panicked, and fired off a trio of shots in quick succession. All of them missed, the bullets embedding harmlessly in the wall as the building echoed the noise of the gun. Cursing, I ran away from their path towards the reception desk. My sword swung a wide arc in my magic as I took cover. A squelch-plop rewarded my wild swing, followed shortly by the clang of sword on ground. In a panic, I’d lost my magical grip on my blade after it left my sight. I crouched behind the desk, sucking down a few hurried breaths and holstering the pistol before leaping out and bolting for the stairwell, hooves clopping noisily on concrete. As I ran, I caught sight of my sword and swept it up in a fresh glow of magic, daring a glance over my shoulder. They were chasing me. I ran up two flights, stumbling and leaping over a filing cabinet, and turned to wait. A few breaths of buzzing air, and one of them rounded the corner. My sword swept out too low and missed, but my reflexes were better than my aim. I turned the blade and brought it back around towards me. This time, I cut through the wings of one of them. It dropped to the floor and tumbled down the stairs as I fled from the four still hungrily buzzing after me.

I galloped down a hallway and around a corner, into parts of the building I’d never been to. I needed another narrow gap so the little fuckers would have less room to maneuver. A doorway, a hole in a wall, something that could bottleneck them. I ran through an open door with light pouring through from the other side. The room had only a few rows of desks and no exit. A dead end. Turning and drawing the pistol again, I took aim at the doorway. The iron sights trembled in time with my thundering heart. The bloodsprites caught up and slowly rounded the sharp turn through the doorway. I pulled the trigger twice, and managed to hit one of the ugly things dead on, splattering it back against the wall behind it. The survivors dove straight for me, needle-mouths first. I galloped back towards the door, and wove to my right, vaulting over a desk. The tip of my sword met one of the sprites as it dove at me, skewering it. Before I reached the door, one of the remaining two dazed itself as its needle-mouth deflected off the metal plate armoring my shoulder. Back in the hallway again, I shook my sword vigorously to get the corpse off, and then turned in time to smash one of the bugs against the doorframe with the flat of my blade. With one bug remaining, I backed down the hallway away from the door until it came into view, flying slower now. The adrenaline pounding through me gave me the chance to line up one last sword swing, burying the blade halfway through the parasite.

For several tense seconds, I just stood still in the hallway, panting heavily and sweating in the midday humidity of the Bayou, listening for anything else to come my way. When I heard no more buzzing, I finally relaxed and dropped hard to my haunches to catch my breath. I levitated my canteen to my face and took a greedy gulp. The water was a bit irradiated, and it was only a little colder than I was, but it was delicious. Admittedly, bloodsprites weren’t exactly the most threatening predator in the Bayou, and one or two bites usually wouldn’t kill a pony, but they’d leave you weak and woozy after getting their fill, assuming they didn’t impale something important. And I had overheard stories of ponies being sucked dry by a swarm of them. I holstered the pistol, but looked around for something I could use to clean the ichor off of my sword. My eyes fell on a skeleton, a hole punched clean through the skull, huddled in the corner and wearing what was left of a purple business suit. I unceremoniously yanked away part of the tattered cloth and cleaned my sword before sheathing it again and walking back towards the stairwell so I could continue on to Shipper.

* * * * * * *

A little less than an hour later, the Bayou opened up to the familiar remains of a warehouse, the roof completely missing, with faded green lettering on the side declaring it to be the property of “Shipper’s Cargo Handling & Romance Novels.” An oversized sign had fallen onto its back and not been treated well by the ages, the edges showing a faded yellow pony ear, and what could have been a mane. I guessed it was a sign to go along with the name of the warehouse, but now it was just a ramp to get into the village of Shipper. Most of the homes looked like they were made from cargo containers, some of them stacked three high. Activity among the striped residents slowed until they recognized me, dissipating their brief suspicion.

One in particular with half an ear missing and a close-cropped mane excused himself from the conversation he was engaged in and greeted me with a nod of acknowledgement as he approached. “Blacksmith,” he said in a smooth, low voice. “It is good to see you again.” His accent, along with most of the zebras in Shipper, was strange and exotic, wholly different from the Oreins drawl I had grown accustomed to hearing.

“Nikale.” I answered, meeting his gaze. “I’ve got your order here.” I turned my head, unhooking my laden saddlebags from my back and bringing them forward. Following our established script, I opened up the saddlebags and hoofed him the list from my last visit. He opened them up and took inventory while I walked around the village, grateful for the chance to rest in a relatively safer environment than the husk of a Ministry building. It wasn’t unusual for me to wander off while Nikale took care of unloading my saddlebags and loading them back with coal, and the zebras were familiar enough with me that none of them bothered me.

Feeling a rumble in my stomach that I’d ignored for the past hour since leaving the MoM building, I pulled my lunch out of one of the pockets of my barding, a skewer of salted radhog wrapped in paper. The meat was delicious, and I briefly wondered how anypony had managed to get by as a vegetarian before the war. I pulled my canteen out again and cursed to myself when I realized there was only a tiny bit left. Looking around, I spotted a zebra cooking up a meal for the rest of the villagers, and had just finished buying water to refill my canteen when Nikale walked up to me with another zebra next to him. He had a look of concern on his face as he approached, giving me a nervous shudder. I let out a slow breath and met his eyes with confidence. “Something the matter, Nikale?”

There was a pause, a gap as he seemed to consider how to reply. “Yes,” he answered finally. The pause itself set me more at edge than the words he spoke. “I’m afraid we have a bit of an unusual request.” He motioned towards the younger zebra, who walked forward and presented me with a hunting rifle and a battle saddle.

I didn’t know this zebra, but that wasn’t a surprise. I looked at him for an explanation, and he glanced at Nikale before looking back to me. “It’s...I broke my gun. I need it to hunt for food. Can you fix it for me?”

I cocked one eye at him. “I don’t have any tools or spare parts with me. They’re all back at-” My ears flattened back against my head as I realized what the problem was. “...back at Four Shoes. You want me to make a second trip back, don’t you?”

Nikale nodded, drawing my attention to him again. “I know this is a difficult request, but we need every gun we have here. We will pay extra for this job.”

I leaned my head down to look at the gun, hovering it up into the air to study it, then the battle saddle. The gun itself was in decent condition, though the bolt could use a bit of greasing. The battle saddle, however, was more of a problem, and couldn’t pull a trigger without extensive repairs. I idly scratched a hoof at the ground as I estimated the cost. Truth be told, coal would be more valuable to me than caps, but estimating how much coal I could get for a repair job was harder than the cost in caps. I took another bite of meat from my radhog skewer and chewed it thoughtfully. Caps. Caps would be better at the moment. I was getting a bit low on my store’s funds to buy scrap metal from scavengers, not worryingly so, but I wanted to make sure I had a buffer. “225 caps.”

Nikale balked. “That is quite a price. Are you sure it would-”

I cut him off with a raised hoof. “I need to use my own spare parts for the gun, not to mention the fact that I need to rework the battle saddle entirely. Plus,” I looked up to him with a sting in my voice, “travel expenses.” After my fight with the bloodsprites earlier, I was particularly displeased with the prospect of making this trip again tomorrow or the next day.

“Very well,” he replied with a sigh. “How soon can you have it back?”

“Probably the day after tomorrow,” I answered honestly. When I got back to Four Shoes, it would be close to dusk, and I’d want to open up my store for a few hours, not to mention I had an overpowering desire to be at my forge again before going to sleep. “Will that be soon enough?” At the hesitation in their faces, I explained, “I’ll need time to repair it, and I won’t have enough to do the job right tonight. But because of the delay, I can knock the price down to 200.”

Nikale gave me a businesslike smile. “Then the day after tomorrow is fine. Thank you. I appreciate you doing this for us.”

I nodded back at him as I put on the battle saddle and picked up the gun in my magic. Collecting my saddlebags again, now laden full with coal and the order list for my next scheduled visit, I set off on the road again, back towards Four Shoes.

* * * * * * *

The trip home was blissfully uneventful, and my return to Four Shoes in the dying light of the day went similarly unnoticed. Admittedly, I had hesitated at the bank of the ravine bridged by the Ministry office, wary to re-enter the building, but couldn’t find another way across. My first few treks out through the Bayou had drawn a few curious questions, but I deflected them as best I could. Most of them were about as interested in me as I was in them, which started and ended with whether I was needing to buy something from their stores. They seemed more interested in what I was obtaining out in the Wasteland that I couldn’t get from Four Shoes itself, or the caravans passing through. And were our positions reversed, I can’t deny I’d be a little curious myself. Between the hoofful of ponies hunting and serving food, a couple general knick-knack stores and our local weapons dealers, the town should have been able to provide whatever anypony needed. There was even a pony who had managed to accumulate an inventory of pre-war smut magazines that was quite frankly impressive, given how rarely I’d seen any intact magazines at all.

After unloading my saddlebags in my house and bringing some of my store’s inventory out for display, I let myself relax, munching on the last of my Sugar Apple Bombs. Sure, I wasn’t looking forward to making the same trip back across the Bayou the day after tomorrow, but I was going to make a decent bit of money out of it, and truth be told I felt renewed confidence thanks to the six dead bloodsprites. My thoughts strayed to the battle saddle as I stood behind my counter in the dusk, my counter illuminated by a single lantern sitting on it. Luckily, battle saddles weren’t too rare, and I’d gotten my hooves on a few of them over the years, so determining what parts would need to be replaced was easy.

I closed up my shop about an hour later, though I’d had no customers except a mare who came by to sell me a pile of scrap metal. The rest of Four Shoes’ merchants were already packing up for the night, and I wanted to have time to do some metalworking before going to sleep.

In the privacy of my home, I took up the barding that I’d used that day and tilted my head, staring thoughtfully at the unadorned metal plating guarding the shoulders. It was scorched black, barring a few scratches and scrapes that exposed the metal underneath. Though I used this particular barding every time I made the journey to Shipper, I’d never thought of it as mine. But I could just wear it around Four Shoes, on colder days. Or really, I could wear it all the time. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and the voice of the businessmare in my head chimed in that modelling my own merchandise might attract sales. But that voice was drowned out by the more pleasing idea that I could make it mine. The way my sword was mine.

Yes. Yes, this armor would become my own, an indulgence perhaps, but one that I was more than willing to take. Ideas for decorations started flowing through my head at breakneck speeds, and I opened up my footlocker to yank out an old magazine, a propaganda piece from the war. The words and colors were faded, but all I really cared about was the iconography. Obviously, one shoulder I would have to adorn with something personal to me, maybe my cutie mark since the armor did cover my flank, but the other shoulder… I flipped page after page with my magic, sweeping my eyes over every emblem I saw and rejecting them after a moments’ visualization. I was almost to the end when my eyes fell upon an apple.

It was a picture promoting the Ministry of Wartime Technology, with an orange-coated mare standing over a design table with a proud stance and determination in her eyes, pointing to something while a ring of attentive younger ponies studied whatever mystery lay before them. The entire gathering was staged beneath a giant emblem that looked like three gears inside an apple, bisected by a sword. “Equestria Needs Bright Minds!” the blocky text declared. “Will YOU Build the Weapon to Wipe the Stripes? Apply to the Ministry of Wartime Technology TODAY!”

The earth pony leading the gathering drew my attention, and the similarity between her cutie mark of three apples and the proud emblem in the backdrop was not lost on me. This mare must have been the leader, or founder, of the Ministry of Wartime Technology. I looked into her green eyes, studying them. She looked as though she had an idea in her head, something she wanted to make, and she was rummaging through design documents and specifications, shaping them to her mental image. I wanted to acknowledge that drive somehow, even if it was two centuries late. The simplistically-stylized apple was visually appealing, and it would be easy to replicate.

I took a solid chunk of soot from my forge, taking several attempts to draw a sketch of the design I wanted on each shoulder. I lost count of how many times I angrily scrubbed off the ash, unsatisfied with my outline, before I finally had it. Setting the armor down on the ground, I laid down on my belly in front of it, the armor plate close to my face as I hovered up my makeshift engraving tool and began surgically tracing the designs. The sound of metal scratching and digging into metal whispered into the stillness of my home for hours, my eyes feeling heavy by the end of the task. I scrubbed away the leftover paint and admired my work in the flickering lantern light, setting the armor gingerly onto my table. On the right-shoulder armor, I’d etched an anvil, styled after the anvil in my own cutie mark, and on the left side, the outline of one of the orange mare’s apples from her cutie mark. I curled up in my bedroll, realizing I’d probably sleep in later than usual, but I decided it was worth the cost as I drifted into unconsciousness.

* * * * * * *

A few hours past dawn on the day I had promised Nikale his delivery, I started my trot through the Bayou again, carrying the repaired battle saddle and hunting rifle. I admit, wearing my newly-decorated barding gave me a little more bounce to my gait. I’d worn it all day at my store yesterday, and somepony had bought one of my other sets of armor, which the businessmare in me chalked up to advertising. With the money from the sale, I had considered bringing my saddlebags and negotiating with Nikale for coal instead of caps, but something felt dishonest about changing the agreed-upon deal after the fact. And hell, this was a decent chunk of hard cash I was going to collect. Between this job and the armor sale, I’d even have a decent savings tucked away. I could treat myself to a big meal tonight. Maybe use a portion of it to buy a stockpile of scrap off the next caravan to come into town, or see if they had any books on smithing. The ideas and possibilities of what to do with the money kept my spirits high, even as I re-entered the Ministry building.

My reverie was shattered by a cry of pain.

I was already on the second story of the Ministry building, approaching the gap where I could cross to the collapsed roof, when I heard it. And when I stopped to listen, other voices floated to my ears as well, coming from the opposite side of the ravine in angry shouts and cursing. Abandoning my passage across the ravine, I bolted up another flight of stairs to the third story and found a window facing the “bridge” to peer out of, trying to get some idea of what was going on. Hopefully while whoever was out there was still unaware of my presence. The water level was higher than it was the last time I passed through here. There was a twitchy unicorn next to a wide, flat boat with a giant fan on one side, tied to a piece of rebar jutting out of the collapsed section of the building.

Just as I wondered what he was waiting for (and why he looked familiar), two ponies came into view through the scraggly brush, though still some distance away, one of them yanking roughly on a chain and the other aiming a battle saddle-mounted rifle in the direction they’d come from. At the end of the chain were four zebras, heavy collars around their necks and hooked to the chain, hoofcuffs hobbling them to a slow shamble. One of the zebras I recognized as the owner of the hunting rifle I was supposed to be delivering.

Even from this distance I could see wounds on them, still dripping blood and staining the black-and-white coats. They’d fought back, that much was obvious; the slaver with the battle saddle was walking with a limp. He turned and bellowed something angrily at a zebra mare, stopping the whole procession as she cowered. Her face was half-covered in a spray of dried gore, as though a bucket of it had been tossed in her face some time ago. Or, I realized with a chill, somepony had been executed in front of her.

My head swam with anger and disgust. Frozen in place, I lay flat against the floor, my face inches from the half-broken window. My attention was swallowed by the sight of the freshly-captured slaves being marched to their fate.

Behind me, unnoticed, the sound of hooves on concrete approached.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 2 - Debits to the Left, Credits to the Right

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Chapter 2 - Debits to the Left, Credits to the Right

"When calculating the 'assets' half of the accounting equation, all debits, or increases to your asset holdings, must be on the left column of the T chart, while all credits, or decreases, must be on the right."

Slavers. And they were dragging away fresh “merchandise” with a sadistic glee that made me want to vomit. As the scene unfolded below, I found myself furiously yanking the hunting rifle out from my saddlebags, taking aim at the pony below me carrying a battle saddle-mounted energy rifle.

Before I could pull the trigger, however, a voice in my head screamed at me to calm down and think. What could I realistically do against three armed ponies in a firefight? If I got lucky and even hit--let alone kill--one of them with the shot I had a chance to line up there were still two more, and odds were they were better with a gun than I was. Or, at least, better with whatever energy gun that was down there. I certainly didn’t recognize its make, and that fact made me more than a little uneasy.

The slaver with the battle saddle fired a bolt of green energy over the line of zebras, yelling something. The mare with blood covering her face and neck ducked reflexively, and brought the rest of the procession to a halt as her sudden movement yanked the chain, sending another zebra toppling. Seeing the cuffs closed tightly around the zebras’ legs and necks caused my own neck and forelegs to itch and sting. I ground my teeth together in a snarl. The iron sights of my rifle lined up over the slaver’s head, and I could picture the bullet ripping through her, making her pay for this.

But I hesitated again. I was still outnumbered and outgunned, and getting killed was only one way this ended. What if I just ended up the fifth slave on that chain? I didn’t owe the zebras this risk. We had a perfectly fair trade agreement. Hell, if I had been half an hour later in my trip, I’d have probably missed them completely. I wouldn’t even have to lie; there’s no way Nikale could hold it against me that I didn’t try to fight slavers three to fucking one.

I still hadn't moved, my rifle hovering in the air when another pony's voice interrupted me.

“Well, well, well. Ain’t this my lucky day.”

The hunting rifle clattered to the concrete floor as my magic imploded. I tried to refocus and restore it, but I couldn’t even make a spark as my nerves failed me. My head began to turn slowly, trembling, my blood feeling like ice. I screamed at my body to stop, to not look, to bury myself against the wall, as if the other pony couldn’t threaten me if I didn’t look. My head kept turning. My mind screamed again just to get up and run, forget looking, it was pointless!

I stared up at the green buck with a grey mane. A very familiar green buck, wearing a vindictive grin and levitating a pair of hoofcuffs in front of him.

“Sorry, but it’s a little too late to change your mind about makin’ me some cuffs,” Chainlink said menacingly.

I had no words in response. Overwhelming terror froze me to the spot. I couldn’t even form a coherent thought. A field of levitation magic wrapped around his pistol and began pulling it out of its holster. Some part of me snapped back to awareness. I pushed away from the window to scramble to my hooves. A swift, brutally strong buck slammed my side. I tumbled to the floor again with a cry of pain and a fit of coughing. “Now what’s your hurry, bitch? You an’ me got plenty of time t’ work somethin’ out.” The barrel of his gun floated down to my face and it pressed at my cheek, silently threatening me to look up at my aggressor. “So how’s about we make us a new deal? You get these pretty little cuffs on, and I let you keep all four legs!” He grinned as he ground one hoof on top of one of my foreleg knees, twisting and pressing his weight on the joint. Sharp, drilling pain spiked up my leg, causing tears to well up in my eyes. The pressure felt so strong I instantly believed he could snap my leg off or crush my knee to dust. I nodded frantically. “Good,” he sneered at me, taking his leg off of mine.

I rolled onto my stomach, still lying down. Chainlink took a step closer to me. I saw the cuffs float up next to my foreleg, and I flinched away, turning my head towards the wall. I couldn’t watch. One cufflink secured itself tightly around my left foreleg and I flinched again, my gaze dropping.

I saw the hilt of my sword.

A voice from outside had shouted something I had missed, and Chainlink tossed his gaze out the window to answer, “...good, nothing’s wrong. Got ‘nother one up here!”

A primal instinct surged within me. A flash of fire to melt the terror freezing me to the spot. Just as he turned his attention back to me, I lit my horn. My sword sprung from its sheath. I rolled towards him and swung it in a flurry of desperation. There was a gunshot. A spurt of warm, arterial blood hit my face. Searing pain just behind my shoulder choked my mind. When focus came back to me, I saw Chainlink staggering. A deep gash ran across his neck. He stared at me, shock filling his eyes. A wet gurgle, a sickening gasp, and he started to fall. I scrambled as he collapsed towards me, kicking out with my hind legs. Every motion of my left foreleg was met by a fresh hammering of pain. My flailing kicked his body towards the open window, and he tumbled out. I heard the sound of a sandbag filled with dry branches meeting solid concrete once, twice, then splashing into water.

I was vaguely aware of the shouting from below. My attention was instead focused on the wound behind my left shoulder. I turned my head to examine it, and fortunately it didn’t look as bad as it felt. Dark red blood oozed out of the gash across my side, the bullet having only grazed me, but still tearing open armor, hide, and flesh in the process.

Beams of red sliced the air, scorching the window frame and ceiling, snapping me back to reality. I couldn’t stay here. The other slavers knew somepony was up here now, they had to know. Chainlink’s fucking body had fallen out the window. I heard shouting rage and dared a glimpse. Two ponies were galloping towards the building and the twichy unicorn stood by the boat, waving something boxy at the zebras before looking back at the building. Another red beam bolted above my head, and I ducked into cover.

My mind reeled as I forced myself to think out a plan. I couldn’t run. I could barely canter and bite through the pain for a short time. No way I could outrun two healthy, armed ponies. I had to fight them. Could I hide? Where would I hide? What if they found me? I’d be helpless. They’d probably just kill me now, or torture me and then kill me. I couldn’t fight two ponies on my own. I had no choice.

The stairs. They had to climb up the stairs. The memory of the filing cabinet I’d stumbled over the other day hit me in a flash. I went to the stairs as fast as I could, grabbing Chainlink’s dropped revolver in my magic. There was another toppled filing cabinet near the stairwell. My head throbbed as I tried lifting it with magic. It was too heavy. I heard hooves galloping on concrete below. They were climbing the stairs now. One of them screamed curses and promises of blood. I was able to lighten the cabinet with my magic just enough to slide it to the middle of the landing. I crouched behind it and peeked around, ready to buck it down the stairs at my attackers.

The sound of running got closer. A glimpse of movement. I heard a voice bellow, “There y-”

I kicked. I bucked as hard as I could, and stars swam in my vision as I staggered away from the stairs. The wound in my shoulder seared hotter than before. My front legs had to take my weight for that half second to buck the cabinet. And I was paying for it. My left foreleg was reduced to limping along. I had no idea if I’d managed to hurt one of the slavers. They were shouting again, and my heart was pounding in my chest. I aimed Chainlink’s revolver back towards the stairwell entrance and fired twice blindly. Their shouting stopped, at least. My bullets were instead answered by a small, round object. It flew up the stairs, hit the opposite wall with a metallic tink and bounced into the middle of the hallway.


My mind screamed at me, and I ran into the nearest room, fighting through the pain of my leg again and diving behind a desk. The hallway outside exploded. My ears rang, and I shook off the dizziness as best I could. I heard voices yelling in the hallway outside, but they sounded distant and muted, as though they were yelling through a wall of water. Shaking my head again firmly, I tried to force my senses to return. A spray of green bolts overhead did the trick. I was still curled up and hiding under the desk. I bit my lip hard, stopping myself from making noise as dirt and grime were smeared into my open wound. I checked Chainlink’s revolver. 3 bullets. Another volley of green energy. A desk to my right melted into goop. “Get the fuck out here! I’ll fucking kill you!” screamed a mare from the doorway. Another trio of burning green bolts, and I heard an explosion of sparks as one of them hit the terminal above my head. A startled yelp escaped me as I buried my muzzle between my forelegs. “There you are!” I heard hooves gallop towards me. Shit, shit, shi-

The battle-saddle mare rounded the corner, aiming at my hiding spot. My revolver was pointed back. I squeezed the trigger twice. A bolt of green shot past my head and my hind leg erupted in a hellfire of pain. The heavy-caliber bullets tore into the magical rifle, and it burst. Both of us screamed. Shrapnel from the exploding weapon peppered us. I regained my senses first and lunged out with my sword, plunging it halfway into her chest before sliding it out with a wet splotch. Her eyes drilled into mine before losing focus. I stood over her body, gasping for air. I heard a voice by the doorway. The other slaver stood frozen in place, staring at me in shock.

Thundering adrenaline blotted out the pain now, and I charged forward. He fled. My sword slashed through the air, knocking his pistol out of his mouth, and then opening a gash on his foreleg. He cried out and ran for the stairs. The blade sliced across his side, opening up his belly and letting meat and guts spill out. He tripped and stumbled to the floor to bleed out.

One more. One more and I’d be free. One more. I half-ran, half-limped, adrenaline wearing off as pain reasserted itself in force. My thoughts were focused on the last remaining slaver. I got to the opening in the building facing the bridge. The last shot from Chainlink’s revolver flew between us, barely aimed. It missed, but the twitchy unicorn dropped his own pistol into the water. He unhooked the boat and sped off as fast as he could down the canal.

A haze of black closed around my vision. I fell.

* * * * * * *

When I came to, opening my eyes wearily and shaking off the lightheadedness, I realized I was surrounded. I jumped to my hooves, and then immediately collapsed again. Now that the danger had passed and I had nothing else to focus on, the pain from my injuries overwhelmed my senses. My heartbeat slowed once I realized there was no one else around except for the zebras.

One of them approached me with a note of concern on his face. I swallowed hard, fighting back the tears in my eyes that I adamantly refused to show anypony. “Blacksmith,” he said cautiously, “You saved us. I,” he trailed off as if searching for words, “We are in your debt. Thank you.” I sucked in a few deep breaths and brought myself to a sitting position. My hind leg objected fiercely, but I denied it. I looked at him, recognizing this zebra as the younger buck who owned the hunting rifle.

I grimaced. I noticed that all of them were free of their cuffs and collars now. “You got the keys for the chains.” He gave me a nod. “Good.” One step at a time. I let myself draw in a slow, deep breath, ignoring my shakily weak muscles, focusing on nothing else but giving myself this moment. Collect myself. Reassess. Recompose.

I took another long breath and examined the wound behind my left shoulder, then the burn on my right hind leg. They both looked ugly, the latter was a splotch of charred flesh and hide surrounding dark red blood and muscle. The bullet graze behind my shoulder at least looked less damaging, though moving both limbs sent stinging aches through my body.

I needed some time alone.

“I need to find something for these,” I said, not addressing anyone in particular. “I’m going to check the building.” I was going to wander.

The young buck reached out a hoof to me, standing up to follow. “I can help.”

“No!” I snapped. I shut my eyes briefly, cursing myself for the outburst before looking back at him and lowering my voice to conversational levels. “No thank you. I’ll be fine on my own. I’ll look for supplies and we can all go to Shipper.” The zebra stopped following me and turned to rejoin the others. I saw one of them sifting through Chainlink’s saddlebags out of the corner of my eye, but I wasn’t concerned with the loss of whatever the slaver had been carrying.

Back in the Ministry office, I began wandering aimlessly, falling back on old scavenger habits I’d learned as a filly while letting my thoughts churn. I’d scraped through this, but only barely. With every step, I felt the stinging burn on my hind leg. The gash behind my shoulder. Both of them could have left me dead. All my work, everything I had done, amounting to bleeding out in the middle of nowhere. Something in the back of my mind taunted me with the idea of dying, and how easily it could have come to me.

I shoved the images of my own gruesome deaths out of my thoughts with what strength I could muster, shaking my head and turning to smack it against a wall so hard that it left me reeling. It worked, but instead I found myself dwelling on the three slavers. They weren’t the first lives I’d taken, and if the Wasteland had its way they’d be nowhere close to the last, but the memories were seared into my head. Chainlink’s look of shock as blood filled his throat. The mare’s rage and hatred as I impaled her. The gutted buck’s horror as his own organs brought him crashing down. No matter how I tried, these images refused to go away.

I was levitating my sword next to me as I walked, though I didn't remember picking it up, and I found myself standing before the skeleton I had found before, using its tattered clothing to clean my sword of bloodsprite ichor. I again made use of part of its suit to wipe the blood from my sword, and as I sheathed it I took the time to examine the skeletal remains. I hadn’t noticed before, but there was a hole in the wall next to its head, about the same size as the hole in the skull. I pushed the remains to one side gently, almost reverently. The first thing I noticed was that it had been sitting on a briefcase. The second was the heavy metal object that tumbled out of the lap of the remains. It landed on the concrete floor with a heavy metal klak.

A pistol. A small caliber gun, and nearly 200-years rusted over, but the barrel was a matching size to the hole in the wall. And a matching size to the hole through the skull of the unicorn. I took a few slow steps away from the body as the pieces assembled in my mind, then hastily limped away despite the protests of my wounded joints. I didn’t want to face more death today.

I found myself wandering into a bathroom as my mind continued to digest what had happened. What else could I have done? They would have killed me, or worse. You don’t know that, the retort came. Could I have paid them off? I had so completely locked up when Chainlink was getting ready to capture me that I hadn’t considered bribery.

I looked up from my slow, limping gait and saw myself in the shards of the broken mirror. Goddesses, I looked awful. Aside from the two aching wounds, I had about a dozen scratches peppering my face, neck, and forelegs, and splashes of blood patterning my barding, dying my light-blue coat a dark red. The sink had a pool of water in it, stagnant and tinted a sickly green, but it would do. I splashed some on my face, trying to rinse the blood out of my coat and mane. Looking up at the mirror again, I tilted my head this way and that, examining the handful of cuts and scratches. One of them ran right across my neck. And then I saw the scratch yawn wide, a hungry maw to devour my life, blood pouring down my front like a faucet.

I lost all control then and there, my hind legs plummeting out from under me as I vomited up my meager breakfast onto the cracked tile. I sat in that dark bathroom, heaving up the rest of my stomach’s contents with tears dripping from my eyes, the involuntary clenching of my muscles causing my wounds to re-open with fresh pain and oozes of blood. It must have been ten minutes that I sat on my haunches, staring at the mess. I couldn’t say for certain, but when I stood up again I did at least feel a little better. Thoughts of my own possible death were blissfully gone. Images of the slavers still flickered in my mind’s eye, but I felt composed enough to shut them out. They were slavers. Scum who kidnapped and sold other ponies and zebras. And what’s more, it was self-defense, so they got what was coming to them.

I walked out of the bathroom and back to the skeletal remains of the pony who had killed himself. Given that the skeleton hadn’t been disturbed before I came along, there was a possibility its briefcase held something worth scavenging. With a field of green magic, I opened the latches and flipped the case open, showing me a ruffled stack of old papers. They were largely intact, to my surprise; the briefcase must have been sealed against the environment. Wondering what could have warranted such protection, I lifted aside the stack of reports to reveal a compartment with a healing potion and two pouches of Rad-Away, alongside a key. I immediately chugged back the healing potion, feeling the warm energies restore strength to my body. I watched my torn and burned flesh knit itself mostly back together, a sight and sensation that made me feel a fresh wave of nausea, but once the process was complete, all that was left of the stinging, crippling pain was a dull ache like a bruise or a sprain. More than manageable. I tossed the pouches of Rad-Away into my saddlebags and hovered the key up to my eyes.

It was untarnished silver, perfectly preserved by the briefcase. I let it slowly spin in my magic, marvelling at every inch of its detail. On the grip was an engraving of a series of letters and numbers - 401S - along with a symbol I recognized. It was hard not to, since it was emblazoned on the faded poster in the lobby. A stylized trio of balloons, part of the emblem of the Ministry of Morale. They were even colored blue and yellow, and I caught myself staring at the detailed metalworking, trying to coax out the secrets of how the vividly-colored insignia was made.

As fascinating as the key was, I still needed to retrieve Xekan’s hunting rifle. I headed up the stairs to the third story, returning to the hallway where Chainlink had ambushed me. It was as I collected the weapon then that I noticed the placard embedded in the wall, marking the entrance beside it as “315W.” I pulled out the key and looked at its numbers again, then back at the placard.

In spite of what had just happened to me, at this very spot no less, I didn’t want to leave the Ministry building, not just yet. The prospect of facing anyone else still made my stomach twist. I looked again between the numbers on the key and the numbers on the placard. It was a puzzle, a task for me to focus on, putting together the pieces of this minor mystery. It wouldn’t take long. I already had a theory even, and I walked up the stairs to the fourth floor to test it.

The top story of the building still had tattered remains of red carpeting lining the floor. I scuffed at it curiously before walking down the only direction I could. A set of wooden double doors, half rotten away, marked the entrance to some kind of office. Sure enough, on a placard beside the doorway were the same letters and numbers as the key, 401S. I walked over the door that had fallen inward and looked around with mild awe.

The office was almost twice as big as my entire home, though really that wasn’t hard. Once I recovered from just looking at the tattered decor, I began yanking open desk drawers and sifting through the books on the shelves. I found nothing but rotten, faded paperwork, pens and pencils that were centuries beyond usability, and books that the humidity of the Bayou had reduced to clumps of grey and brown paper, barely bound together. I was about to leave, with the assumption that the key had been to open the now-thoroughly unlocked door, when a discoloration on the floor caught my eye. I planted my forelegs on the desk and pushed as hard as I could, shoving it a little further towards the door. I lifted the section of carpet that the desk had guarded for over two centuries and was rewarded with the discovery of a floor safe. Sure enough, the key slid right in and turned with a satisfying click, and I allowed myself a small smile. The safe swung open and my eyes went wide at the soft blue glow that now spilled into the room.

Next to a neat stack of papers and a sack that looked like it held pre-war gold bits, was a perfectly spherical glass orb in a protective case. I recognized it, though I’d only seen one a few times before in my life. A memory orb. Without thinking, my horn lit again and I was about to pick up the orb in my levitation before checking myself. If I remembered correctly, the moment you made any magical contact with one of these, you were lost into it, reliving the memories of somepony else. I grabbed the case instead, closing it with my magic and dropping it and the bag of bits in my saddlebags. I had no idea what I’d do with the orb, but my curiosity refused to let me leave it behind. Besides, I was sure it would be valuable to somepony. And I couldn’t well gauge its value without first watching it for myself at some point, right?


I walked back out to the zebras, my composure intact again. I gave the young buck (from the last snatches of conversation I’d overheard as I approached them, his name was Xekan) back his hunting rifle and battle saddle, and he seemed happier than ever to have a method of self defense at his disposal. With my composure restored and my wounds at least somewhat patched up, the five of us began walking back to Shipper.

* * * * * * *

We drew the attention of the entire village as we climbed up the entrance ramp. I remained completely silent, though I was the center of attention as Xekan regaled the other villagers of the story of their capture and subsequent rescue at my hooves. A sense of crushing unease grew in me as more and more eager eyes and faces turned to me for details, for stories and excitement, and I found myself backing slowly away, step by step by step until my flank hit the wall of the warehouse, causing me to jump in alarm. Finally, a deep, rich voice I recognized all too well cut through the chatter.

“That’s enough, give her room.” The crowd parted ways for Nikale to approach me. I cleared my throat and stood as straight as possible in front of my client. “The details are not important. We owe you a debt, Alloy.” He looked me over briefly, craning his head to see the mostly-knit flesh on my hind leg. “Let us at least tend to your wounds and give you food. You can rest here tonight.”

“That won’t be necessary,” I replied firmly, finding my center again. “I’d like to sleep in my own bed tonight.” I glanced at my wounds and briefly thought of the meals I had emptied onto the bathroom floor. The burn still looked tender, and probably could do with some more healing. “But I think I will take you up on your other two offers.” Nikale nodded and gestured to lead me away from the crowd, towards what I assumed was either food or medical help. He waved a hoof at the crowd and an older-looking zebra followed after us.

“And,” I continued in the relative privacy of our walk, “200 caps, per our agreement for the repairs of Xekan’s battle saddle and rifle. I appreciate the healing and food, but we did have an agreement.”

Nikale glanced at me with a thin smile. “Of course. I will bring your payment while you are with Maizan. It has been quite a commotion today.” He stopped in front of one of the cargo containers that had a functioning door, and the older zebra caught up to us. Outside the doorway, a cast iron pot was suspended over a crackling fire pit, and whatever was inside smelled absolutely delicious. Not for the first time since leaving the Ministry office, my stomach growled in protest of its emptiness. Nikale looked to the other zebra, then back at me. “I will return with your caps,” he said before walking off.

I looked to the zebra I assumed was Maizan, following him through the doorway. It was a densely-packed room with a hospital bed against one wall and a wide bookcase next to the door, lined with bottles, cases, and some actual books. A metal case near the bed held what I recognized as medical tools, and to my surprise there was space at the opposite end of the room afforded for a kitchen of some sort, supplies strewn on the countertop for what I assumed was the meal cooking outside. Though the prospect of eating whatever was in the pot still made my mouth water, it was a bit unsettling to see a meat cleaver and cutting board wet with red blood in such close proximity to the medical bed.

Maizan had started busying himself with cleaning up the cooking area somewhat. I was almost curious enough to ask about the odd combination of his two professions, but I silenced my questions in the name of expedience. I needed to get back to Four Shoes before it got dark, and wasting time with small talk wouldn’t help. He turned to me as he wiped the cleaver off with an old rag. “Well, lay down on the bed there, and I’ll take a look at that for you. You’ll have to take off your barding, too.” His accent was less pronounced than Nikale’s or Xekan’s, and felt somehow warmer. More inviting. Nurturing? Yes, that felt right. Between my forelegs and magic, I pulled the barding over my head easily, then I climbed up onto the bed and lay down with my forelegs under me, hind legs outstretched to face the room. It was a bit uncomfortable, but I assumed he’d want to see the burn.

Sure enough, he walked over and lifted my hind leg gingerly in one hoof, studying the mended tissue. It still felt sore, and now that there was nothing to distract me, a stinging, sharp pain pulsed from the edges of the burn in time with my heartbeat. Now that I stared at it, I realized that the mottled flesh hadn’t healed over nearly as smoothly as the gunshot graze. Maizan frowned, turning to grab a flashlight from a counter and clench it in his teeth to get a better look. Finally, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. “Is something wrong?” I asked, trying to mask the anxiety I felt.

The zebra put down his flashlight and took a moment to examine the healed bullet wound before walking to his medical supplies for a roll of bandages. “Nothing serious, no. There won’t be any permanent muscle damage here, and the cut behind your shoulder is completely fine. How soon did you drink a healing potion after being shot?”

I tilted my head as I thought, retracing my steps as clinically as I could. “It couldn’t have been more than half an hour. I passed out, but Xekan told me I was only unconscious for a few minutes.”

Maizan nodded. “You’re in luck, then.” He faced me again, meeting my eyes. “Magical energy weapons cause permanent scars, even if the wound isn’t crippling. Ordinarily, I could only clean the burn and bandage it, but because you drank a healing potion soon after getting hit, I can mix up a topical remedy that will at least allow your coat to grow back. Your hide will still be scarred underneath, but it won’t be as noticeable.”

I considered his offer, looking back to my leg. The burn wasn’t too large, I could cover it with my hoof. But the idea of walking around the rest of my life with that disfiguring blotch from an event I’d rather forget didn’t sit well with me. Not to mention the uncomfortable stares and questions I’d get from the other shopkeepers at Four Shoes. Yes, the less I had to acknowledge that today took place, the better. “How much will it cost?”

He shook his head and gave me a warm smile. “My dear, you’ve already done so much for us. Even setting aside what happened today, you hoof-crafted many of my tools, and they serve me well.” He chuckled, turning to begin picking a few bottles off his shelves. “That, and I have no shortage of ingredients for this particular remedy. This one is on me.”

“I...well, thank you.” I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised by his generosity. Maybe it was just growing up around merchants and traders and eking out a life of my own, but in the Wasteland as I experienced it, everything had a price tag.

I cleared my head and waited patiently as Maizan finished bandaging my leg. “There you go. Keep that bandage on through the night. Tomorrow as well, just to be sure. Your coat will take another day or two to regrow after that, but the medicine will help the follicles regenerate. Now then, how about we all share a bowl of soup before you get back on your way, hm? I think I see Nikale coming back.”

I slid off the bed, still feeling sore, but glad to be on all four hooves again. “I’d like to leave sooner rather than later. Need to make sure I’m home by dark.”

“We’ll make it a quick lunch, then. You can’t cross the Bayou on an empty stomach.” He carried a stack of bowls balanced on his nose before deftly hoofing them out onto a folding table outside in a display of dexterity I didn’t think possible. Clenching a ladle in his teeth, he spooned out three generous bowls of the soup for us. I stretched my hind leg in the air a bit, turning to stare at the bandage. It definitely felt better and didn’t ache when I walked anymore. I’d be able to keep a brisk pace back to Four Shoes.

Nikale approached as I sat down to start eating the (admittedly delicious) lunch and put a small bag down on the table, to the familiar jingle of caps. “Here is the money we owe you for the repairs. I will make sure we do not put this burden on you again."

I swallowed a mouthful of soup and nodded to him. “I don’t mind doing repairs for you, but I’d like to keep my trips back and forth to a minimum. I’ll bring some tools with me next time so I can take care of anything that needs a quick fix.”

He nodded, seeming to appreciate the offer. “I will keep that in mind for your next visit,” he answered, sitting down to join Maizan and I for the meal. The two zebras talked mostly about the incident with the slavers, and I tuned them out as I sipped on my lunch and counted out the caps. 200, just like we had agreed. I stowed them in my saddlebags and finished off the bowl of soup, not participating in the conversation. I thanked Maizan for the medicine for my burn and set out back to Four Shoes.

* * * * * * *

There was barely any light left in the sky when I got home. I walked in quietly and largely unnoticed. With one exception. As I approached my store, the glowing light of a Pipbuck trotted towards me, chasing Grit’s energetic voice. “Alloy! You’re back! I was startin’ t’get worried.”

I didn’t look towards him or change my pace as I closed the gap on my store. “I’m fine, Grit. I go out to the Bayou all the time.”

“Yea, but you’re always back before…” His voice trailed off and then picked up a note of concern. “What happened to your leg?”

My tail flicked in irritation. I glanced over to see him staring at the bandage on my hind leg and gave a snort.

“It’s fine.” I reached the doorway to my home, and turned to stare directly into his eyes, cutting him off before he could object. “Do you need anything right now? Buying, selling, repairs?”

“Well, no, I-”

“Then I’d like some privacy tonight. I’ll be open tomorrow morning.”

His ears fell back against his head and he nodded slowly, turning to walk away. I stepped into my home and dropped my saddlebags to the floor, not even bothering to unpack them. The echoes of Grit’s concern dredged back up my fears from earlier. Death is never far from anypony in the Wasteland, but I found myself turning to stare at the bandage on my leg, and shifting my left foreleg I felt the healed gash where the bullet had grazed me. The thoughts from earlier that day rose to the surface like some deep-sea predator.

I had almost died twice today.

Goddesses, I almost died. Twice.

The gash behind my shoulder and the burn on my leg. If both of them had been a little better-aimed, I’d be…

My blood chilled and I tried to stifle the thoughts of mortality from overwhelming me. I heaved and nearly vomited up my dinner. Tears threatened my eyes.

My forge. I needed my forge. I got to my hooves and snatched up some fresh coal. It was quickly tossed into the ruined fireplace and lit with a hasty spark from my horn. In the light of the fire, I sifted through my collection of scrap metal. I didn’t care what I made. I just wanted to have a task. I pulled out a random assortment and held them above the flames in a glow of levitation.

After a few minutes of watching the bits of scrap glow and become more malleable, I took a deep, relaxing breath, and let the metal shape itself. This was going to be a bracelet. The three different tints of the metal I was using mixed together as my magic forced them into shape, marbling the surface in a swirl of hypnotic patterns. The fire wrapped me and embraced me like a blanket, and it stole away the stresses and terrors of the day, leaving a quiet peace.

As I lifted the bracelet out of the fire to examine it, my thoughts strayed to Grit. I supposed I’d been a bit too harsh on him. He’d offered once to escort me on my trips through the Bayou. I’d declined for a few reasons, not the least of which being I didn’t want to be indebted to him. But his offer to help had been earnest, and I knew he was reliable. He may have loved the crowds and storytelling a bit too much, but I had no doubt of his skill in a fight. And if slavers were showing up in this part of the Bayou, I might have to reconsider making the journey alone. I decided to talk to him about it soon. There was no hurry to have that conversation, seeing as I had a fresh stockpile of coal, but I’d still seek him out tomorrow to apologize for my terseness. I’d been completely justified in brushing him off, but I wanted to smooth things over quickly so that maybe I could get a better deal for his protection through the Bayou.

I extinguished the fire and set aside the completed bracelet a few hours later. Walking back into my home, I properly unpacked my saddlebags and stripped off my barding. I ran a hoof over the gash in the material where the bullet had grazed me, setting it on my table so I’d remember I needed to pick up material to repair it. The bag of pre-war bits would make me a nice bit of extra pocket change, and the Rad-Away I’d keep on hoof when I went on my trips. I’d had the displeasure of experiencing mild radiation sickness a few times in my life, and had no desire to be that helpless again, foul-tasting medicine be damned. That left only one thing in my bags, and I gingerly lifted the box in my forehoof, opening it to let the faint blue glow stretch itself into my home.

The memory orb.

I knew about them, but I’d never experienced one before. I’d never had the chance, in truth. The idea of living the memory of somepony else, somepony from during or even before the war, was at once unnerving and captivating. It seemed like a dangerous idea, knocking myself out like this. But it was no different to sleeping right? And I could make some caps selling it, but only if I knew what was actually on it. I put it down and got up to check that my doors were locked, returning to my bed. Then I lifted the case in my magic and set it down next to me. Here goes. I tilted my head down until my horn touched the orb, and I flicked the faintest spark of magic through it.

- = = = o o o O O O o o o = = = -

Well, the world certainly looked different being this much taller. The pony I was watching was wearing some well-tailored clothing, made of a very comfortable material. Even in the old world, I couldn’t imagine this had been cheap. As we walked and rounded a corner in a carpeted hallway, I tried to wrap my head around feeling a different body than I was used to-oh sweet Celestia I was a stallion! Goddesses that was not what I had expected! I forced the alien sensation to the back of my mind and focused on what was going on instead. He approached a doorway with the name tag “Silver Trim” beside it, and a desk in front staffed by a pink mare. She gave my host a bored glance up from idly filing her hooves, and then did a double-take, eyes wide. “M-Mr. Trim! What are you doing here today?”

My host cocked one eye at her, and the confusion was clear in his refined-sounding voice. “What ever do you mean? It’s Tuesday. Where else would I be?”

Now it was the mare’s turn to look confused, with an added note of concern. “Your fishing trip,” she answered slowly, then paused, as though looking for some recognition. “The one you called me about yesterday?”

My host chuckled and shook his head. “I think you must have had a rough night, Cherry, my dear.” She picked up her phone and started to say something into it just as Silver strode past her into his office, the doorway labeled with an engraved design I couldn’t place. It looked like a backwards “D” with three diamond shapes inside it. He closed the door behind him and started busying himself with some paperwork. Most of it seemed to detail changes to be made to this textbook or that magazine, and quickly bored me. It looked like there were some technical blueprints in his stack of work, but they never crossed his desk where I could get a good look at them. Well, this was a waste of time. Nopony would be interested in buying a memory orb of some bureaucrat reviewing book changes. I only wished I could have exited the memory, but I was stuck here until it finished. Who the hell would even bother recording this?

My train of thought and Silver Trim’s work were both interrupted by a knock at the door. We got up from the desk and glanced up at the clock. It had only been about half an hour since my host had started his work day, but it had felt like eternity. He opened the door and I felt his entire body tense as he came muzzle to muzzle with two earth ponies in bright pink suits, wearing sunglasses. “Silver Trim?” one of them asked briskly.

“Yes, that’s me. How can I help you gentlecolts?” His voice sounded wary and suspicious. He looked over at his secretary, who was quickly overwhelmed by a fascination with the floor.

The two stallions in pink glanced at each other. “Please come with us, sir. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

My host whinnied and stamped a hoof on the ground. “Absolutely not. Do you have an inkling of how much work I need to get done today? I don’t have time for this. Make an appointment with my secretary.”

“Sir, you need to come with us.”

I felt my host’s lips curl in a dismissive sneer. “Am I being arrested?”


That froze him in his place. He looked between the two pink-suited stallions and his secretary. “You’re...you’re serious. On what charge?”

“Suspicion of conspiracy. Come with us.”

My host took a few steps back, his ears flat against his head. “But...I didn’t...I haven’t done anything.” His voice was cracked and on the verge of tears. “You can’t...you can’t!”

“We just want to ask you a few questions,” one of the stallions insisted.

My host turned and ran for the window in his office but didn’t get more than a few feet before I felt something sharp and pointed jab into his flank. My host collapsed and his vision started fading to black. Just before losing consciousness, I heard one of the suited stallions speaking again, “...service to Equestria, ma’am. We’ll take care of this traito…”

And then nothing.

- = = = o o o O O O o o o = = = -

I came to right where I had left myself, lying in my bed with nopony else in sight. I closed the case of the memory orb with one hoof and thought about what I’d just seen, though I’d barely understood any of it. I guessed those ponies in pink had been guards or police of some sort, but what was the deal with Silver Trim and his secretary? Why had she looked so scared of him? And why had he been so scared of the other stallions? Just before drifting off to sleep, I made a mental note to look into finding some pre-war books. The orb was worthless for resale, so I figured I might as well make sense of it.

* * * * * * *

Almost a week passed with business as usual. I left the memory of the slavers behind me, drifting away in the wind. I offered an excuse to Grit about my behavior the next time he came by my store, though to his credit, he didn’t ask once about my leg. I sought out a book on wartime Equestria from the junk dealer in Four Shoes, but didn’t find anything that would clue me in about the symbol on Silver Trim’s door or the pink-suited stallions. I eventually disregarded the whole mess as nonsense that could’ve only been understood by somepony who died two centuries ago, though I resented the 5 caps that the book had cost me, especially after paying up for rent.

In the quiet afternoon, with no caravans expected to arrive for at least another few days, everypony not staffing one of the storefronts just milled about and passed the day. The usual murmur of conversation and scuffle of hooves on dirt. Well, murmur of conversation but for one energetic, accented buck.

Grit was across the way, sharing a meal with a few of the other ponies that went with him on patrols and caravan escorts. The four of them had been chatting and laughing, and their voices, Grit’s especially, carried across the town. One of them had prompted the tan buck to tell a story, apparently involving Steel Rangers and radigators from the snatches I could hear from my storefront without straining to hear. He waved his forelegs in the air, slammed his PipBuck down on the table with dramatic timing, and contorted his muzzle into creative expressions. Curiosity got the better of me when I heard him exclaim, “...with a flugelhorn!” and I started paying attention.

“...whole platform came tumblin’ down! The biggest Goddesses-damned marshlurk you ever lay eyes on! Swear, he was twice’s tall’s me on my hind legs! Bastard heaved up outta th’ swamp an’ Knight Greenleaf made a face like…like…” Grit’s voice trailed away into the distance. At first I thought he had decided to continue his story without shouting it, but I looked up and saw him motionless at the table, staring straight forward. His mouth hung a little ajar as if he’d forgotten what to do with it. The other ponies at the table nudged him and teased him to continue the story. He just raised one hoof, indicating something straight ahead.

The other three ponies turned their heads, and then expressions changed to match Grit’s. A few other ponies around them started to take notice. Some stopped dead in their tracks in the middle of the town. All of them were staring towards the south road. I couldn’t see that direction as other buildings obscured my vision, but I couldn’t imagine what was so fascinating. The south road was never used by anypony. It lead into the heart of the New Oriens ruins. I walked out from behind my counter to get a look for myself. Everypony knew that there was nothing deep in the old city. Only the most vicious Bayou predators lived there. Well, them and...

...And raiders.

The sight froze me to the spot just as it had every soul in Four Shoes. A small army of raiders, walking calmly into town. At least a dozen ponies clad in bloodstained, spiked barding, decorated with bones, and pony hide. Some clenched sledgehammers or barbed spears, many of them mounted guns and energy weapons on battle saddles, or levitated them in multicolored grips. A massive stallion with a mask carried a heavy, belt-fed gatling gun on a battle saddle. Close to the front, I briefly recognized a particular, twitchy unicorn. The same brown unicorn who had run away from me at the Ministry office. The same twitchy unicorn, I realized, who had accompanied Chainlink into Four Shoes and been turned away at my store.

But the mare leading the pack seized my attention the second my gaze passed over her. I knew this mare. I’d never seen her for myself, but nopony lived in Four Shoes without hearing the stories. An ashen purple unicorn, with a wild yellow mane streaked with blue. Clad in mismatched black and steel grey armor plates assembled from Celestia knows where. A long-barrelled anti-machine rifle across her back. And some kind of armor I’d never even heard of mounted to her tail, segmented and ending in a lethally-bladed tip.

This was the leader of the New Oreins raider gang. Besides the predators, this was the reason nopony ever ventured further south than Four Shoes.


She stopped in the middle of the circle of shops, looking around with a sadistic grin on her face, purple eyes cowing everypony she glanced at. Nopony dared to draw a weapon. With a voice like poisoned candy, she broke the oppressive silence. “Well now, y’all always make a habit of greetin’ y’all’s customers like this?

“Ah mean, we’re jus’ here t’do a lil’...shoppin’.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Level up!
Perk Added: Extra S.P.E.C.I.A.L. - You’ve learned the importance of keeping your eyes peeled and your ears listening for anything trying to sneak up on you. Gain +1 PER.

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 3 - Limited Liability

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Chapter 3 - Limited Liability

“A limited liability corporation is established as a legally independent entity, such that its members are protected from some or all liability of the actions of the corporation.”

Her name was Malice.

When I first heard this, I assumed it couldn’t be her real name. Whatever she was born with, she had tossed it aside in favor of this one. It wasn’t uncommon in the Wasteland, a pony changing their name for one reason or another; a mercenary couldn’t exactly have a name like Sugar Cookie. And that’s what I had assumed to be the case for Malice.

Staring into those eyes as they panned around the residents of Four Shoes, murderous visions dancing behind them, I believed to my core that she had never had any other name.

Her armored, scorpion-like tail flicked this way and that idly, unable to sit still, as if it were sniffing for blood. My hooves were glued to the ground. As my eyes darted around, I saw everypony else locked in deathly stillness, not a tail twitch or a ear flick. A clatter of noise broke the rapture enough for me to turn my head. Grit had turned his table into a barricade, two 10-mm pistols hovering in front of him in a blue field of magic, while two of the ponies he’d been eating with had their own guns trained on the invaders.

Malice just shook her head casually, nickering. “Y’all’re disappointin’ me. I mean, I jus’ brought a few friends t’ town, and y’all treat us like this?” She tilted her head and stared right at Grit. “Tell ya what. This goes th’ way I want, nopony gets shot. Mah lil’ ponies have enough manners t’not shoot first, but if any one o’ y’all pulls a trigger, you’ll give us no choice but t’ defend ourselves. And I hope you'll excuse me for braggin', but my friends can be so very creative with their interp’tation of 'defense.'

“So. I think it’s a pretty fair deal. Drop th’ guns.”

Grit stared at her for a long moment, then glanced around at the other raiders. His head turned to scan the rest of the town, and then he faced Malice again, visibly frustrated. I could see his face twisting, but he lowered his pistols, setting them down on the bench he had been sitting on. Nervously, the other guard ponies set down their weapons as well. Finally, the hoofful of shopkeepers that had armed themselves also lowered their guns or moved mouths away from battle saddle triggers.

“That weren’t so hard!” She flashed a genuine smile of warmth, an ear-to-ear grin normally reserved for a filly’s birthday and not forcing a town to disarm.

“Interductions outta th’ way, I got some business here what dragged me out this far. I’m lookin’ for a particular unicorn. Blue mare, blacksmith, way I hear.”

Every word she said after that was lost to my ears. I tried to run. My body wouldn’t listen. Run! My hooves felt like they were sinking into the mud, but there was no mud. Run! It was like in the Ministry building with Chainlink all over again. Hide!


My legs were welded in place.

“There she is!” cried a voice, very different from Malice’s. It was louder, but said with less confidence behind it, instead sounding more strained and nervous. I snapped my head up to stare at the source. It was the twitchy, brown unicorn that had been with Chainlink at my shop. He stood beside Malice, stabbing his forehoof at me in accusation.

Malice turned to follow his gesture, and locked eyes with me, beaming as her eyes lit with delight. “There y’all are!” She waved a hoof at me, still grinning. “C’mon over here, lemme get a good look at y’all.”

Only now did my body listen to commands - Malice's commands. I slowly lifted one foreleg and dropped it in front of me, then one of my back legs. My whole body shook and shivered even though I was comfortably warm in my barding. I half-expected her to tell me to hurry up or look impatient, but she just kept smiling at me, waiting politely. I couldn’t say how long it took me to get to her, but it felt like hours. I stared at the ground the whole time, my head low and my ears still drooped flat against my head. She was going to kill me. She was going to torture me. The raiders would eat me alive.

I was going to die.

Tears welled up in my eyes. I stopped just a few feet from her, and found my gaze locked with her hooves.

“Aw, c’mon now, I came out all this way t’see y’all, s’rude to jus’ stare at th’ ground all day. Lift that pretty lil’ head o’ yours up for me, wontcha?” Still shivering, I tilted my head up so that my eyes met hers. “There we are. Now wha’s your name, honey?”

I swallowed, my throat suddenly feeling dry and weak. “A-Alloy.” I paused and swallowed again, trying to reinforce my hollow-sounding voice. “Alloy Shaper,” I answered, lifting my head up a little.

“Alloy, huh?” She paused and tilted her head. Her smile was gone, replaced with something resembling curiosity. “You’re shorter’n I expected.” She took a few steps to her left, bobbing her head up and down and side to side, visually scanning me before starting a slow, measured walk around me. I turned my head a little to try and follow her, to try and keep her in my vision, but I still could only barely move.

Malice completed her circle before speaking again. “So you’re the one who killed three o’ mah ponies.” My entire body tensed at once, ready to gallop away as fast as I could from this nightmare, but I was still locked in place as though my hooves were nailed down. Malice saw the truth in my eyes and gave me a small nod, brow arched and wearing a thin, satisfied smile. “I gotta say, I’m impressed.”

There was a pause as her head bobbed again, almost approvingly. Then suddenly, her head snapped to one side to face the twitchy unicorn. Her muzzle contorted in fury as she roared, “YOU’RE TELLIN’ ME YOU RAN AWAY FROM THIS SCRAWNY LIL’ BLUE UNICORN?!” I scurried back a few steps. Half the ponies in town jumped away. The scorpion tail of her armor pointed straight at the slaver as he cowered.

“B-but Malice, she… she killed ‘em all…” He swallowed and sunk lower to the ground. “She ran out… she was covered in blood ‘n’ she…” The buck swallowed again. “She had this sword, and-”

“And YOU had a fuckin’ gun, Red Bean!” She looked up from where her underling was cowering, and took a short breath.

Then she just turned back to me, flashing a polite smile, with all her previous pleasantness restored. “I apologize, gimme a moment here.” She waved a hoof in the air idly. “Management an’ some such, y’know how it is.”

I was too stunned to reply, but she didn’t wait. Her head snapped around to Red Bean again. “Well, WHAT d’you have t’ say for your goddess-damned self?! An’ speakin’ o’your gun, where th’ FUCK did it go, ‘cause you sure as shit didn’ come home with no gun!”

Red Bean took a step back before bumping into a massive raider stallion with a gatling gun mounted to a battle saddle, who just stared down at him impassively. His head spun around to the stallion, and then back to Malice. “I… she… she had Chainlink’s gun, and she… she killed ‘em all… there was a grenade an’ shootin’ an’ screamin’... she ran out with that bloody sword.” He was babbling and repeating himself, terrified of the mare.

She stood up straighter, looking down at him with less blazing fury and more of a controlled contempt. “A sword, huh.” Her attention turned back to me, causing me to jump another step back. For once, Malice wasn’t looking at me with a warm smile. “That right, lil’ blue? You killed Chainlink, Daisy Cutter, an’ Shank with a sword?”

I opened my mouth. My voice was lost to me. I swallowed and tried to speak again, but failed. I nodded slowly.

“In’erestin’.” Her mouth curled into a wicked grin. “Mind if I ask for a demonstration?”

My eyes darted around at the army of raiders staring at me. I focused back on Malice, quietly stammering my response. “I… wh-what?”

Red Bean was apparently equally confused. Malice ignored us both and turned to scan her assembled raiders. She telekinetically grabbed hold of a spiked baseball bat that one buck was clutching in his teeth, and he surrendered it quickly. Malice unceremoniously dropped the bat between her and Red Bean. “I want you t’ fight her, one on one.”

Red Bean’s eyes went wide. “What? With this?” He stabbed a brown hoof at the improvised mace. “B-but I’ve never-”

Malice took a step closer and his pleading stopped. She spoke to him much more sweetly than she had before, a smile slowly creeping across her face with every word. “Bean, I’ve just about reached th’ end o’ my very generous patience with you. You’re gonna fight her, or I’ll throw you in the next bone vine patch we see.” The twitchy unicorn blanched, and nodded slowly. With a defeated look, he picked up the bat in his magic. Malice turned back to face me, still beaming. “I do hope you’ll indulge me this. Consider it Chainlink’s last request.” She inclined her head and stepped back from the two of us.

My gaze snapped away from Malice as I heard Red Bean scream at me in desperation, charging in a full gallop with the bat above him. At the last second I ducked under the swing and forcibly shook my senses awake.

I jumped to all fours again and drew my sword out as quickly as I could manage, charging back at him with my sword flying through the air next to me. He sidestepped in a fumble. The bat swung at my side, too fast for me to dodge. I tried to swat it away with my sword. For a moment I thought it worked as I heard a clank of metal on wood. Then a blunt shock of pain hit my shoulder and leg. I gasped. Somehow I ended up on my side when I snapped back to my senses. My sword desperately lunged at the first target I saw, and stabbed into his unprotected back knee.

He screamed and I heard the bat drop, and I shot to my hooves, backing away from him as quickly as I could. My shoulder ached with every motion, but my armor had at least deflected the nails, and I wasn’t bleeding. Red Bean, on the other hoof, was curled in a ball and clutching his leg. Neither of us noticed Malice walking up behind him. “Not bad, not bad at all. But I was hoping for a fight t’ the death, y’know. More fun when th’ stakes’re high.” She chuckled a little, then looked down at the brown buck. “Ah well, more fun for me.” The tail of her armor flashed forward and impaled Red Bean through the throat.

He collapsed and began to choke as he died.

“Now then, as much fun’s this was, I believe it’s time t’ get t’ business.” Malice turned back to face me, taking a few steps forward. A handful of the raider ponies chuckled along with her.

My heart thundered in my chest, my eyes darted between Malice and Red Bean’s now-lifeless eyes. In my mind, I saw that bladed tail snapping forward to bleed the life from me. I started babbling half-coherently, desperately trying to think one step ahead of my own words as I backed away from the encroaching raiders who seemed to be getting larger and larger even though I kept retreating. “Wait… I didn’t mean to kill them… Ch-chainlink he… he ambushed me and then… out the window-”

The armored mare clicked her tongue at me in disapproval as she shook her head. “Aw, c’mon lil’ Alloy, I ain’t gonna hurtcha. I just have a job for y’all.” She smiled and stopped her advance, and though she was speaking just to me, her voice carried to the entire town now. “Y’see, I don’t mind so much that y’up an’ killed Chainlink, he was a fuckin’ asshole an’ prob’ly deserved it, but he did have a very important job he had t’do for me.” She shook her head and sighed, meeting my gaze again with a creepy touch of sadness to her voice. “I hate to admit it, but I lost somethin’ very near an’ dear to mah heart, and Chainlink was mah best tracker. An’ with him dead, I may never see my darlin’ Copper again.

“Which brings me t’you, lil’ blue. I could jus’ send out s’more o’ my ponies, but way I see it, you owe me a bit o’ debt. So, I want you t’do what Chainlink was ‘sposed to do, an’ find my lost pet. Track him down, bring him home t’me, an’ we’ll be square, you ‘n’ me. Hell, I’ll even throw in some caps for your trouble.”

She nodded appreciatively of her own plan. “But,” she hesitated, pondering, her voice dropping a little, “this is a time-sensitive job, you understand. I need t’keep you on a tight schedule. So I’ll give y’all… two weeks. If y’all don’t bring him back by then, I’ll jus’ have t’ hunt y’all down and find some other way for you t’repay your debt.” She grinned at me, but it had none of the pleasantness of her introduction. “An’ I promise, it won’t be pretty for you or anypony else what tries t’hide you from me.” She inclined her head and nodded back towards the assembled raiders. “Or we could just skip t’ th’ second option. I’m sure quite a few of my ponies here are just dyin’ to know what I could come up with.”

I immediately and rapidly shook my head. I lifted my head up so that I was standing up straight, trying to recover some of my dignity, though I was still shaking. “I’ll do the job,” I swallowed, trying to wet my throat so my voice wasn’t so cracked and weak. “Can you,” I took a breath. Focus. This was a business deal now. Ignore everypony else. Just another customer. My nerves calmed, and I found a bit of my strength again. “Can you give me any details? I’m guessing that this isn’t your lost radhog.”

Malice gave me a half-crazed giggle in reply. “Tha’s what I like t’ hear! Right down t’business! And nah, Copper’s an earth pony, lil’ Alloy. Teal coat, blue mane an’ eyes, got himself a big ol’ rock for a cutie mark. He went an’ lost his way ‘bout a week ago, an’ I miss him ever so much.” Her eyes lit up and her tail flicked at the ground as she exclaimed, “Oh! When y’all bring him back t’ me, I want a collar ‘round his neck. Think you c’n do that for me? Don’t have to be no bomb collar, jus’ somethin’ practical.” She glanced back at Red Bean’s corpse and gave it a kick with her back leg. “There’s prob’ly somthin y’all can use in there, I think he kept some spare cuffs an’ collars on ‘im.”

Hesitation threatened to worm into my voice again, but I brushed it aside with a flick of my tail, and insisted to myself that other things demanded my attention. Details. I needed more details. “Fine. Where do I bring him?”

The warm smile turned contemplative. “Well, I did say t’ bring him home, an’ I’m sure y’all could find th’ harbor. But frankly, s’a bit deep in th’ city. Tell y’all what. There’s an old ferry dock next t’ the highway, sittin’ on th’ riverbank. Bring ‘im there by th’ end o’ two weeks an’ I’ll have some friends there t’ take y’all to the harbor.”

I nodded. That seemed to be enough for her, and she returned the gesture. “I s’pose that takes care of everythin’! Pleasure doin’ business with y’all, an’ I look forward t’ seein you real soon, lil’ blue.” She smiled, turned, and walked calmly through the crowd of raiders. Most of them immediately turned to follow her down the road, though a few of them backed away, keeping their weapons trained on the town as they walked out of range. A few lingered before turning to leave, looking disappointed that nopony tried to start a fight. For a long stretch of minutes, the only sound in Four Shoes was the scuffing and clatter of hooves on broken concrete and dirt as the invading ponies simply left.

And then, nothing.

Oppressive silence fell on the town, somehow even thicker than the silence in the Bayou when I made my trips to Shipper. Nopony dared to move. I can’t be sure, but I think I was the first to break the hypnosis. As soon as Malice left my view, I turned in place and immediately walked into my home, locking the door shut behind me. The terror I had managed to suppress burst from me uncontrollably. I dropped to my haunches and hunched over, leaning against my door. The last ten minutes threatened to completely overwhelm me. I shut my eyes tight, hoping to block it all out.

Instead, I saw flashes of Malice walking towards me, her tail dripping with blood, her eyes full of joy at the idea of slowly killing me.

I saw Red Bean screaming and charging at me, desperate to fight for his life.

Goddesses, I even heard his scream again.

Had… had he been crying? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know if it had actually happened, or if it was just the tears in my own eyes now. She’d killed him… and now I was going to die if I couldn’t find a pony out in the Bayou.

How could I go into the Bayou and just… track somepony down? Let alone survive out there on my own! I couldn’t run away, there was no way I could take everything I wanted, and I couldn’t leave my forge, my anvil, my store! And if I did, what life would be waiting for me? A life of running and hiding alone, always afraid for my life? If I ran and settled down in a new town, I would spend every day for the rest of my life afraid of her finding me, afraid that a sniper would put a bullet in my head and kill me, and if I stayed on the move I’d never last in the Wasteland. And even if by some miracle of Celestia, I managed to track down and find Copper, could I really do it? Could I lock a collar around another pony and drag them to a fate worse than death? If I didn’t, I was going to die. Could I live with myself afterward? My forelegs suddenly itched, and I burst out with a sob, falling to my side as my eyes snapped open.

It was too much.

I started to cry, biting my bottom lip so hard I thought I was going to cut it open. Some part of me still stubbornly refused to sob or make even a whimper, even though tears flowed freely off of my face. I stood up and bucked a wall of my house as hard as I could. I wasn’t strong enough to do any damage to the dilapidated structure. I thought again about my forge, and I walked out to the back of my house.

I could hear the murmur of voices rising and falling, it sounded like there was a bit of a commotion going on in town, but I shut it out. I walked slowly over to the old fireplace and sat down, curling my tail around my haunches and hunching over to stare into it. I didn’t try to light it. Not yet. I would soon, I… I felt like I needed to, but for now I just wanted to sit and stare at it.

I wiped my eyes with one of my forelegs and sucked in a deep breath. I promised myself I would deal with things. I would figure out a plan. I needed to figure out a plan.

But not yet. Right now, I just wanted to sit at my forge. The murmur of voices were long forgotten, and I just stared at the dead ashes, letting time slip away quietly so that this tiny little alcove could be my world, where I could have peace. With another deep breath, I stood up. I still felt a twist in my gut from the weight of what had to be done, but I couldn’t run away. I couldn’t lose this.

I walked back into my house, crossing through to my storefront. All of my merchandise was still sitting out, and my eyes briefly widened as I realized I’d forgotten to take any of it inside earlier. I didn’t feel that there was much point to keeping the store open for now, so I started to carefully take everything down, making sure to double-check my inventory to be sure that nothing was taken. Fortunately, it seemed like everypony was too busy making a commotion over the visit of the raiders to engage in petty theft, and none of my wares had been disturbed.

I finished locking up my store, and then quietly went back to my forge, this time carrying a fresh lump of coal. With the fire lit, and a few choice bits of scrap metal floating in the air above it, I began to shape the metal into a single, long piece. A fresh hunting knife. I wanted to make sure I had a useful tool if I was going out into the Bayou, and my sword would dull if I used it day to day for utility. I’d need to take a gun, too, for emergencies.

I pulled the metal out of the fire, still glowing hot but now in one piece. Holding it against my anvil, I struck at it with my hammer, quick and precise swings, folding the metal and shaping it to my mental image, though I knew it wouldn’t come out quite like I envisioned.

Shipper. As I worked, the idea came to me. Shipper would be the best place to start. The zebras who were captured by Chainlink might have heard something. It was a shot in the dark at best, but it was the only idea I had. And it was close enough that I could leave tomorrow morning and be home again in the same day. I could use Four Shoes as my starting point and venture out to see what I could find, and still have a safe place to sleep. Grit might know some of the mercenaries that came into town to protect the caravans. Or maybe he knew somepony who knew a griffon. If I was lucky, I could try and get in touch with the griffon I’d forged the wing blades for. It hadn’t been that long, maybe he was still nearby. Maybe if I worked hard enough, pushed some more sales, saved up my caps, I’d be able to hire one. He could track down Copper for me, capture him even if he was screaming and crying for mercy.

The next hammer swing missed.

I flicked my tail at the air and focused on the motion of the hammer for the next few swings before letting my thoughts connect back to my plan. A griffon would probably be able to take care of things within a day or two. They were good at that sort of thing. Piece of cake. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about how to track, or have to even see Copper before I had to, or be the one to lock a collar around his neck.

I poured all of my focus into the next few swings of my hammer as I felt my neck itch.

I kept working for a few hours as I thought of ways to increase my profits and save up to hire a mercenary. It would take some experimentation, and a little trial and error, but I was convinced I could do it.

* * * * * * *

I had finished the knife by the time light was fading from the sky, and was in my home, studying my sales journal to determine what I could get away with increasing the cost of, and what I could discount a little to push sales, when there was a gentle knock at the door.

That was strange. Nopony ever tried to visit. Admittedly, it had been a strange day, and I’d closed the shop early. Best case I could hope for was somepony wanting to buy armor because of the raiders, but I doubted my luck would be that good. I put away my sales journal and walked to the door, unlocking and opening it with my magic. To my surprise, I was greeted by the plump form of Gumbo. He turned his head from idly staring at a spot on my wall to look at me as soon as the door opened, and gave me a weak smile. “ ‘Evening, Alloy,” he greeted. “Mind if I come in?”

“Gumbo,” I answered, a creeping edge of suspicion in my voice. I looked back inside, then at him again. I didn’t really want him in my home, but I’d had enough confrontation for one day. “I suppose not.” I stepped away from the doorway to let him in, and he immediately busied himself with craning his head around to scan my home.

He turned to close the door behind himself, then looked back at me. “Uh, so,” he paused a moment, looking me in the eyes, “how’re you holdin’ up? Quite a day we’ve had. Quite a day.”

I nodded slowly as the vivid memory of Malice staring me down returned, making me shudder a little. “You could say that. I’ve got things under control, though,” I told him, bleeding off far more confidence than I felt. “I’ve got a plan.”

He winced, looking away from me, slowly dropping his gaze to the floor as he started pacing back and forth restlessly. “Actually, I uh… I came here t’ talk about that.” I felt my body tense, but I said nothing, staring into his eyes as they actively avoided mine. “Some o’ th’ other merchants were talkin’, an’ were concerned, y’see.” He was stalling, and I knew it. And every word he said that wasn’t getting to the point just spiked my anxiety. “They had some concerns… an’ there was a good amount o’ talk.” His eyes darted to mine and then back to the floor. “Grit didn’ like it one bit, and defended you, but y’really shoulda been there t’ speak for yourself.”

I flicked my tail at the air, finally speaking up. “What do you mean?”

He grimaced again and then stopped his pacing with a sigh, closing his eyes for a few seconds before meeting my own, though his voice was still unsure. “I’m afraid that… you’ve gotta leave, Alloy. Th’ others don’t want you around town while your two weeks’re tickin’. They,” he swallowed, looking down to the floor for confidence, then back to me, “they wantcha out in the Bayou searchin’ for this Copper fella. An’ you can’t come back til’ after y’finish th’ job.”

My mouth fell open a little, and I felt my gut plummet into a chasm. I tried to answer, to say anything at all, but I couldn’t. No words would come to my throat as all my planning, business strategies, everything just collapsed. Gumbo became fascinated by the floor again, and didn’t watch me start to tremble. Finally, he said, “I’ll… I’ll see to it tha’ your shop stays secure while you’re gone.”

Finally, I was able to speak again. I tried swallowing some spit to wet my cracked throat, but my voice still wavered. “You can’t be serious.” He nodded, not taking his gaze off the floor “Gumbo,” my head darted to the wall and back, “two weeks in the Bayou?”

He cleared his throat weakly. “I’ll, uh… I’ll get you squared away with some supplies. Food, water, an’ some such.”

I looked at him incredulously. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Gumbo, this… you can’t.” He continued looking at the floor, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. With a snarl, a roar of fury, I bucked my table as hard as I could, sending it crashing into my wall. He to jumped to his hooves, meeting my eyes. I stomped a hoof on the floor, and shouted hysterically. “You can’t be fucking serious! Th-this is a fucking death sentence!” He backed away from me slowly. “I had a plan! I had a fucking plan! It’s not fair!” I dropped my voice low as my ears drooped. “It’s not fair.”

“You,” he licked his lips, “y’killed those slavers, Alloy. You brought this whole mess down on th’ town, an’ th’ other ponies don’t wanna take th’ chance Malice comes back for ya.” He backed away to the door and opened it quickly.

“I’m sorry… y’gotta leave tomorrah mornin’.”

I took another step towards him, but he quickly stepped outside. “I’m sorry,” he threw back at me and closed the door behind him, leaving me alone in the empty room.

* * * * * * *

I expected that I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep that night. I curled up in my bedroll, pulling it tight around me as if it I could hide inside it. My mind churned, trying and failing over and over to think of a way to make my old plan work. I thought my worrying would keep me up all night, but the truth was I was so completely drained that I promptly fell asleep.

I snapped awake in a cold sweat, jumping to my hooves like I’d been jolted me with electricity, but for the life of me I had no idea why. I blinked wearily at the bed and poked my head outside. Four Shoes was lit by the early morning grey light, and a couple of the other merchants were in front of their shops, getting set up. One of them glanced in my direction, and I slinked back inside, closing the door gently.

My actions from that point on were all automatic, as if I was watching somepony else puppet me along. I righted the card table in the middle of the room. Donned my barding and saddlebags. Rolled up my bed. Tied it to the top of my left saddlebag. Strapped my sword sheath to my right. Packed my canteen. And the entire time, all I could think was that I had nothing. My plan was completely shot. I probably could live at Shipper in my exile, and that was still my destination, for lack of anywhere else to go, but I had no plan for finding Copper. I couldn’t sell enough to hire a mercenary in the isolated village. And weighing me down even further was the thought that to live past two weeks, I would have to lock up another pony in chains.

Somepony had deposited Red Bean’s saddlebags in front of my door last night, probably Gumbo, and I took a moment to look through them. There was a 9 mm pistol with a holster, a spare magazine and extra ammo, two pairs of hoofcuffs, and what I could only imagine was a collar with a chain lead on it. I just stared at them for a long moment, unwilling to pick them up, even with my magic.

After a minute, my neck and forelegs started to itch and sting.

I shook my head violently and quickly snatched up the chains and cuffs, depositing them straight into my saddlebags before busying myself with attaching and securing the holster of the pistol, trying my hardest to ignore the jingling of the chains in my bags.

Something finally decided to go my way when a knock at the door gave me reprieve from my thoughts. I walked over and opened it, and found myself muzzle to muzzle with Grit. The sandy-coated buck was wearing his typical Stable 15 barding with a few extra bits of armor on it, but he also had a pair of large saddlebags on. He flashed me a nervous smile. “Hey, uhh, g’mornin’. Mind if I come in?”

Wordlessly, I stepped back from the doorway and walked over to my table, sitting down on my haunches and staring at him with a cocked eye. What was he doing here? As if he’d heard my unspoken question, he jerked his head back towards his saddlebags. “I brought you the food an’ supplies Gumbo promised.”

I felt my mouth twitch in disgust as I was reminded of Gumbo’s declaration that he’d be tossing me out on my flank. “Thanks,” I answered venomously, and Grit winced. I sighed and scratched a hoof at the floor, softening my voice. “I know you’re just running the errand. Gumbo told me you were against the whole thing.”

“Against it?” Now it was his turn to sneer, and I was surprised by how irritated he sounded. “It’s fucking bullshit is what it is. None of ‘em wanna let you have a chance.” He growled and shook his head. “They’re scared, I get it, but just… it’s not fair t’ toss you out on your own. An’ Gumbo,” he spat onto the ground like he’d tasted something foul, “just let ‘em canter all over him. Didn’t even try t’ take charge.”

I got up and shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. Thanks for bringing the food over, but I better get on my way. Could you give it here? I’ve still got enough room in my saddlebags.”

He looked back at me, his cheerful demeanor restored. “Well, I figure I’d hold onto it. Since I’m comin’ with you, if you’ll have me.”

I fell back on my haunches, too stunned to care that he was basking in my reaction. “Grit, that’s crazy! You realize it’s two weeks out in the Bayou, right? It’s-”

“Suicide? For one pony, sure. But for two ponies, travellin’ together, odds look a lot better.” He puffed his chest out proudly. “Not t’ mention you’ll be with the best caravan guard in th’ business. I can’t stomach hangin’ you out even if th’ rest of ‘em can. I’m sure the others can hold things together for a couple weeks.”

“Yeah, but are you sure you…” Wait. That was it.


That was it! My voice trailed off, but as the dots connected in my head, my eyes lit up and I couldn’t resist surging forward and hugging the surprised stallion. “That’s it!” I quickly pulled back from him and reasserted my calm professionalism, clearing my throat. “That is, if you’re sure you want to come with me on this.” In my head I was praying to Celestia and Luna both that he would.

“Well, sure. I wouldn’ta offered if I wasn’t sure.” He looked pleased, if a bit puzzled. “But uh… y’mind tellin’ me what’s goin’ on?”

I met his smile with my own. “A caravan. You and I, we’ll be a two-pony caravan. We’ll grab as much of my merchandise as we can carry, and sell stuff where we can. Gather information, if we can find any. We might have to do a lot of walking to the closest settlement besides Shipper, but it’s something.” If I was being honest with myself, I didn’t have the slightest clue if there even were any other settlements closer than Appleloosa, and that was both weeks away on hoof and a slaver town, but a scrap of a plan was better than no plan at all.

Grit thought for a moment, and then mused aloud, “We could prob’ly stop by 15.” I frowned and shook my head, clueless as to what he was talking about. “Stable 15. It’s a ways away, maybe two or three days on hoof t’ the east, but there should still be ponies livin’ there. An’ I’m sure somepony would be happy to see good ol’ hometown colt Grit return.” He grinned and jerked his head back to indicate the yellow “15” emblazoned on his back.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than I had ten minutes ago. “Alright, but I still want to stop by Shipper first. They might be able to help.”

He cocked an eye quizzically at me. “S’that the home of your mysterious tradin’ partners?”

I hesitated a moment. If he was going with me, he’d learn the whole of it sooner or later. It seemed like a petty time to be concerned about my privacy. “Yeah. It’s a village of zebras. Pathway starts out past a wreck of a carriage, that way.” I indicated with a hoof the direction that I’d walk to get to the start of the path. Cardinal directions be damned, I just knew it was ‘that way.’

Grit thought for a moment, staring at the wall in the direction I had indicated, frowning. “Ain’t that…” he mused to himself, then pulled up his PipBuck, pressing a few buttons magically and staring at the screen. I was trying to peek around him, curious as to what he was doing, but he put his foreleg back down before I got a good look. “Nah, I was wrong. Stable 15’s off t’ the south, but s’long as we don’t cross th’ Bridle, shouldn’t be much farther to 15 from here or Shipper.”

I shook my head. “No, my route crosses a few ravines and waterways, but definitely not the Bridle.” He gave me a nod and I turned to my safe. “Well then. Next order of business: if we’re going to be a trade caravan, we better stock up on inventory.” I unlocked it and spread out the contents. Assorted bits of jewelry, knives of varying size and intent, three sets of barding, a collection of tools, and all of the caps I had saved up. We distributed the load between the two of us, and I added in the rest of my scrap metal. All in all, our packs were heavy, but manageable. Grit was stronger than I had expected and took most of the load.

As the two of us trudged through the town, saddlebags loaded with the entire inventory from my store, we drew a few stares, and I caught a few glances of resentment shot my way. Ignoring them, while at the same time grateful that more ponies weren’t out and about to see us off, I led Grit to the start of my route to Shipper, past the rusted husk with the ‘X’ on the hood.

Our pace picked up a bit after we were out of Four Shoes, and Grit flashed me that wide smile he wore all the time. That bright, beaming grin. How the hell was he always so optimistic? I was tempted to ask him, but I shelved my curiosity for now. He started happily chatting away, just filling the air and dispelling the usual silence that I was used to in the Bayou. I gave him my attention, listening to his stories working with caravans and the little tips the traders told him they use over the years.

Somewhere in the in the back of my mind, I knew that the next two weeks would be grueling. But at that moment, and somewhat surprising even myself, all that mattered to me was that I wouldn’t be facing them alone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A


Alloy Shaper’s Travelling Smithy - NOW OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Chapter 4 - Partnership

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Chapter 4 - Partnership

“Defined as two or more persons in business, providing capital and sharing responsibility and liability for the business.”

“Oh, I know! How ‘bout, ‘Alloy an’ Grit’s Arms an’ Armor!’”

I shook my head. “No. First off, we’ve got more than just weapons and armor to sell. Secondly, we have no guns, and that’s what most ponies think of when you tell them it’s an ‘arms’ dealer.”

Grit tilted his head and scrunched his muzzle. “What about… ‘Alloy’s Caravan Metalworking.’ ”

I let out a sigh. We’d been at this for what felt like an hour now as we walked the winding path to Shipper, just as littered with wreckage, debris, and canals of irradiated water as it had always been. Grit insisted that the name of our caravan business was “too boring” and had been proposing catchy names, while I repeatedly shot them down. “Look, ‘Alloy Shaper’s Travelling Smithy’ works. It ties back to the name of my shop so that if--when I get back and re-open, maybe some other ponies will have heard of it and stop by. It’s name recognition.”

He smirked at me. “Do I have t’ be the one t’ point out that you ain’t exactly running a ‘smithy’ while you’re on the road? Don’t that imply there’s a forge?”

“First off, like I said, it’s name recognition. Second, how do you even know what a ‘smithy’ is?”

Grit nickered. “Well, I take offense t’ that. Maybe I ain’t gonna tell you now how or why I know.”

I flicked my tail with another sigh. “I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.”

He looked away from me with an exaggerated harumph, closing his eyes and tilting his head up to point at the sky. I just rolled my eyes and kept walking forward, briefly stepping around a tire in the path. After a few moments, I glanced back over to him. “You’re going to trip if you keep that up.”

With a chuckle, he lowered his snout and turned back to face me. “I’m just givin’ you a hard time. Didn’t really bother me.” He paused to levitate his canteen to his face, take a sip, and then hang it back around his neck. “And I went an’ found out what a ‘smithy’ was a lil’ after you moved t’ town. Was curious ‘bout the name o' your shop.”

I tilted my head at him. “Curious enough to research it on your own?” I stopped our walk for a moment as we reached one of the landmarks delineating the trail to Shipper, an old school with the bell tower toppled. The bell itself was lodged in the wall of the house next door.

We veered left away from it, continuing on the path. “Well, a brand new salespony moves t’ th’ town I’ve been lookin’ after for years, I figure I should make an effort t’ understand her business.”

“Hmm.” I glanced away from the path and back to him with a small smirk. “So why not just ask me?”

He kept his eyes on the path ahead as tilted his head in a conciliatory gesture. “Felt like it’d be rude.”

Suddenly, Grit’s head snapped around to his left and he shot his foreleg out in front of me to stop me, drawing one of his pistols and pointing it at the ridge he was staring at. I felt my muscles tense. My eyes darted over the ridge, searching for any changes, any movement. I lit my horn, drawing my sword while looking between Grit, the ridge, and anything else around us.

A pair of bloodsprites flew into view over the ridge a moment later, and before I could even shout a warning, three shots rang out. I jumped, startled by the sudden noise, crouching low into the mud. When I looked up again, only a few seconds later, I saw the two corpses tumbling down the hill towards us.

I stood up again and tried to conceal my amazement as I sheathed my sword. How the hell had he managed to shoot those ugly things down so quickly? I mean, I knew he had a reputation, but seeing it for myself was something else entirely. He popped the magazine out of his pistol and examined it a moment before sliding it home again and holstering the gun, then turned to me and flashed a grin. “Nothin’ t’ worry about.” He gestured with glance at the path. “Should keep movin’ though.”

I nodded, resuming our walk along the trail as I composed myself. “Right.” I knew where we were; we’d be approaching the Ministry office soon. The previously-unremarkable wrecked skywagons now served as silent reminders. I had been thinking of treating myself to big meal with the caps I’d make from repairing Xekan’s battle saddle and rifle. Expanding my business. I quietly bit my lip, trying to force the memories from my head. What in Equestria had possessed me to to get so Luna-damned cocky?

I cleared my throat and took a sharp breath. “That was,” I paused, looking for the right words, “impressive shooting.” We rounded a corner and the half-collapsed office building came into view. I remembered pressing myself to the floor as I looked out the window on the far side, spotting the slavers for the first time. “I mean, I didn’t doubt you had skill, but it’s something else entirely to see you in action.”

He blinked at me, looking a bit surprised. “Thanks. Though t’ be fair,” he bobbed his head to the side and back, “I do cheat a lil’ bit with my PipBuck.”

I looked down at the device secured around his left foreleg. I’d never understood much about them. I’d heard they had a map and radio, and that they were damn near indestructible, but little else. “How does that thing help?”

“Oh, lotsa ways!” He sat down and raised his foreleg, stopping us in the lobby of the Ministry building while using his blue-tinted telekinesis to scroll through the various screens and show me. “S’got a spell called S.A.T.S. built-in. Complicated t’ explain, but it helps me aim. Sorta slows down time an’ gives me a chance t’ line up a better shot. I really couldn’t tell ya how it works.” He lowered his foreleg and met my eyes. “Puts this display in my sight, too, so I can keep track o’ ammo, which direction I’m goin', and it’ll even put lil’ bars on the compass for other ponies an’ critters. Tells me if they’re friendly or not, too.” He stood up and we kept walking. I just nodded quietly, focusing on his words and trying to pay attention while absolutely not looking at the splatters of week-old pony blood on the lobby floor. “Got a few other handy things too, like a sorting spell t’ help you get stuff outta your saddlebags faster. Weirdest thing is, though, it's got a labellin’ system attached t’ the map. Ain’t got the slightest clue how it works, but somehow it knows the names o’ places. They’ll pop up in my vision t’ tell me when I go someplace new.”

We strode to the opening in the building, and a question on the tip of my mouth about the spell that sorted saddlebags dried up as I saw the larger splatters of blood on the bridge. I knew that this was where Chainlink had hit after tumbling out of the window. After I’d slashed his throat open. Because he had been about to enslave me.

I ignored the smell of gunfire that I knew couldn’t be there, and forced the question about Grit’s PipBuck out of my mouth. “That,” I swallowed, wetting my dry throat, “that sorting spell, how’s it work? Does it actually rearrange stuff in your bags?”

Grit narrowed his eyes at me suspiciously. “Yea… makes it easier t’ grab what y’need faster. An’ I’m not really sure how any of it works past ‘magic.’ ” He glanced ahead to the path as we crossed the ravine and veered south, away from the Ministry building and the splatters of blood, then looked back at me with a note of concern. “Somethin’ botherin’ ya?”

“I’m fine. Fine,” I answered all too quickly. The office was behind us now, and I held fast against the urge to look back and make sure nothing was following us. My companion, thankfully, didn’t press the issue, though he looked like he didn’t believe me. We walked in silence for a moment before he began talking about PipBucks again, and I was grateful for the distraction.

* * * * * * *

Our arrival at Shipper was met with equal parts suspicion and confusion, the former of which was reserved mostly for Grit, and the latter for myself. To his credit, Grit took it in stride, standing to the side and being cheerfully disarming while I asked for Nikale and offered my services and wares. Nikale, I was informed, was out for the day, hunting with some of the other zebras including Xekan. While I spotted at least one of the others who had been captured by the slavers, I didn’t want to approach them and start asking about what they might have heard about Copper. At least, not without somepony to introduce me and broach the subject more gently than I could. The villagers repeatedly asked what I was doing here so early, whether I had completed the order early, and who my companion was. I deflected as best I could, explaining that I was visiting on other business to see Nikale, but nothing I said seemed to satisfy them until I presented my inventory for sale.

Grit and I passed the afternoon doing odd jobs around town, and I sold a couple of tools, as well as the bracelet I had made with the marbled patterning. As the zebra buying it marvelled at the swirled patterns in the metal, I felt an inexplicable jab deep in my gut.

Watching that little bracelet being carried away, I had an intense desire to be back home. Back at my forge, back at my shop with its hoof-painted sign. Could I even pull this scheme off? What if I wasn’t asking for enough caps? I should re-evaluate my prices again. If I was on the move, I didn’t have the luxury of holding out for better prices. Or if I was moving around the Wasteland, did that mean my prices should go up? I was putting myself in danger to bring my wares to my customers, though I had no say in the matter. What about mercenary contacts? Should I be making requests as I go? I didn’t think anyone in Shipper would be able to help, but I should decide before getting to Stable 15. And for that matter, what would I do at 15? Should I come back here? Or stay there? Ask for other settlements?

I shook my head and breathed in a slow, deep breath. It calmed my anxiety-fueled thoughts, or at least stemmed the tide for now. My gut still felt like something was coiled around it, constricting just enough that I couldn’t forget about it entirely. As the customer left earshot, Grit stepped forward, leaving one foreleg hesitantly raised in mid step as he looked me over. “You okay? Never seen you this nervous runnin’ your store before.”

I sighed softly with a shake of my head. “It’s not nerves. Just getting used to the change of pace. Feels strange running my shop like this.” It was a partial truth, and that was enough.

Luckily, the return of Nikale, Xekan, and a hoofful of other zebras saved me from any further questions. They ascended the entry ramp to the town carrying a pair of radigator corpses, and it only took a moment for Nikale to notice me. It wasn’t as if Grit and I blended into the crowd very well with our multicolored coats and manes. He crossed the warehouse floor with an unhurried gait. As he stopped in front of us, I scuffed at the ground with a hoof. “Nikale. It’s good to see you.” I met his eyes, then glanced over to Grit, waving him forward. “This is my,” I hesitated for half a heartbeat, “business associate, Grit.”

Taking his cue, the sandy-coated unicorn took a step forward, wearing his beaming grin. “Pleasure t’ meetcha.” I’d thought he would launch into a telling of his achievements, maybe spiraling into one of the stories I’d heard him tell so often, but instead he just returned the nod Nikale gave him, then looked over to me expectantly. I’d been prepared to temper his enthusiasm, but instead I looked back to my trade partner.

“I understand that my visit is unusual,” I began, regaining my footing. “I’ve come to make a request, and conduct some business on the side.” The large zebra tilted his head quizzically at me. “I’d like to speak to the zebras that were held captive by the slavers, to ask them some questions. Xekan, in particular, but I need any information I can get.”

Now Nikale’s eyes narrowed a little, and I began to fear that I’d crossed a line. Had I abused my welcome to show up out of the blue like this, unannounced and unexpected? With a slow and measured pace, he asked, “Why would you need information from them? It is a strange thing to ask for.”

I winced slightly at the question. I’d been hoping to avoid answering a question about why I wanted to see Xekan, but in the short time I had considered excuses and lies, I’d been unable to think of anything innocuous or believable enough. And I had more to lose by lying and being caught.

Glancing around to ensure no one was in earshot aside from the three of us, and lowering my voice, I kept my response as concise as possible. “I’ve been… temporarily evicted from Four Shoes. I need to track down a specific pony in particular, or I’ll lose my shop. It’s somepony that the slavers would have known, so I need clues, and they’re my best shot.”

He stared at me for a long moment, meeting my eyes while I stared at his. With a glance behind himself, towards where Xekan was standing, he snorted. “You are not to speak to Jahaira about the slavers, for any reason. She is still recovering.” He paused, glancing to the side to contemplate. I almost spoke again before he looked back at me and continued. “They all are. Xekan is doing better. But you must not pressure him.”

I blinked, surprised at how stern he sounded. It was a side of Nikale I’d never seen before, and I nodded while trying to think again about the questions I was going to ask, wondering if any of them were too harsh. I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t the best judge. As Nikale turned to call out for Xekan, I remembered the last item I had to discuss with him. “Ah, one more thing.” Already in mid-turn, Nikale stopped and faced me again with an inquisitively cocked eye. “Grit and I need a place to sleep. We have bedrolls, but I don’t want to just roll them out and sleep on the floor without your permission. This is your town after all.”

Nikale smirked briefly and looked towards the entrance of Shipper, that centuries-collapsed doorway, and the cargo-container homes near it. “30 caps.”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. Nothing ever came free in the Wasteland, but somewhere in my mind I had assumed ‘empty space on the floor’ might be exempt. I scrunched my muzzle disapprovingly and nickered. “30 caps? For just a spot on the ground somewhere?”

The zebra shook his head. “It is not just any spot to you. Otherwise you would sleep outside, correct? You want safety.” He inclined his head. “Safety costs you 30 caps.”

“20. You can’t possibly get many chances to make a quick cap like this, and however it happened, I still saved those zebras. You should be able to cut me a little slack here.”

He chuckled, which irritated me. “But I already have. 30 caps. Were it anyone else, it would have been 50.”

I flicked my tail sharply in annoyance. He had my number, and that confidence in his eyes told me he knew it. I let out a sharp sigh. “Fine. 30 caps.” I opened my saddlebags and counted out the scratched-up bottlecaps for him, depositing them into his own saddlebag as he held it open with a foreleg. Though it wounded my pride a bit to have been outmaneuvered like that, 30 caps wasn’t an awfully expensive price. “Can I speak to Xekan now?”

Nikale turned to call out to the younger buck, waving a foreleg to get him to join the three of us. Grit leaned over with a smirk on his face, muttering to me, “Never thought I’d see th’ day y’got upstaged.” I shot him a sharp look as he chuckled at his own joke.

Before I could retort, Nikale answered him. “If it eases your mood, I would have asked for 55 from your friend.” He looked to Grit, then back at me. “He smells strange,” the zebra finished with a nod.

Grit’s smirk was immediately wiped clean from his muzzle and plastered onto my own, as I stifled a laugh and he craned his neck to smell himself at various angles. The older zebra cleared his throat to get our attention when Xekan stopped beside him. I immediately brought my attention around, meeting Nikale’s eyes. “Thank you.” I turned my head towards Xekan, who was more than a little confused. “I’d like to ask you some questions about the slavers.”

The young zebra instantly took a step back from me, tension writ plain on his face. His eyes shot to Nikale, who looked back with a slow nod. Xekan swallowed and then nodded at me, though he said nothing.

I decided I’d keep it short and cut straight to the point. “Did any of them mention a job that one of them was going to do? Specifically, the one with a green coat and grey mane?” I paused, seeking any kind of recognition on Xekan’s face. “Maybe something about a pony named Copper?” I added.

Xekan opened his mouth slightly, then looked at the ground, then back at me. “I… think I do remember something. They asked the green one about a pony named Copper.” My ears immediately perked at that, an actual lead! “The green one said that… that Copper had escaped on an airboat, but they think he crashed it.”


Nikale narrowed his gaze at me as I jumped at the chance for more information. Xekan, on the other hoof, stuttered nervously, teasing details from his memory. “I’m not sure, but… wait… n-no, he said that Copper… the pony’s boat was chased into a gator nest before it was lost.” He nodded, a little more confident. “Yes, they said it was a big gator nest.”

I deflated a little at this news. A radigator nest wasn’t exactly friendly to ponies visiting, especially by way of careening an airboat into them, if the story was even accurate. The pressure of my task began to loom over my mind again, and I forced it back, assuring myself that it wasn’t my problem. All I had to do was get enough caps, find a mercenary, and pass the information along. If Malice’s precious ‘pet’ had gotten himself killed in the Bayou, that was her problem. She didn’t have to push this on me if she wanted him back so badly. Didn’t have to make me enslave another pony.

At that moment, from a dark corner of my mind, I hoped that Copper was already dead.

With an abrupt shake of my head, I realized that Grit, Nikale, and Xekan were all staring at me silently, with expressions of concern, unreadable silence, and fear. I met Xekan’s eyes and nodded. “You don’t remember anything else?”

“No.” The younger buck’s ears drooped. “I am sorry.”

“No, I appreciate your help. Thank you.”

As the pair of zebras left, and I began rummaging through my saddlebags for my sales journal, Grit interjected. “Poor zebra was shaken up pretty bad. Only ever seen somepony like that after a nasty fight.” He paused and I heard him take a slow breath. I kept digging in my saddlebags and didn’t answer. “So… y’ever gonna tell me what happened?”

I glanced up at him for a moment, then back at my saddlebags. “I killed three slavers,” I answered flatly. A knot formed in my gut. I ignored it.

Grit nickered. “S’not what I meant. How’d it happen, why’d it happen, hell, how’d you end up fightin’ three-on-one? And winnin’?”

The aged journal was crushed towards the bottom of my bag. I’d definitely put it on the top, how did it end up down there? Pulling it out along with the old pencil I used to write in it, I flipped to the first blank space. Of course, I couldn’t remember any numbers with a certain unicorn stallion staring at me. “I know. But I don’t want to talk about it.” He kept staring at me until I dropped the pencil in my mounting irritation. “Look, another time, alright? Sometime when we have some more,” I paused, looking at the zebras milling around town, one of them walking a little closer past us, “when we have a little more privacy.”

Grit scrunched his muzzle up at this, but then sighed in acceptance. “Fine, fine. I’ll ask while we’re on th’ road t’ 15. Won’t be another soul ‘round for miles.”

My tail flicked at the air. I tried to focus on the journal, but now my frustration stopped my thoughts. I’d been hoping to stall him for longer than just until tomorrow. I snapped the journal closed and met his eyes. “Why does it matter anyway?”

He inclined his head. “Well, s’long as I’m out here with you, figure I should know th’ details. If only t’ get th’ story straight.”

I was about to retort something when we were interrupted by the growling of our stomachs. Neither of us had eaten since setting out from Four Shoes that morning, and the wafting smells of cooking food drifted all about the town. That knot in my stomach unwound at the prospect of dinner, and my annoyance along with it. Grit broke the silence with a chuckle. “How ‘bout we get some chow?” He looked around at the zebras milling about. “Y’know this place better than me. What’s good eatin’ in Shipper?”

I shook my head with a thin smile. “I’ve only eaten here once. It was good, though, a nice stew cooked up by their doctor.” I paused a moment to think of his name. “Maizan. That was it. But we have food in our packs, we don’t need to buy something.”

Grit sat down and held out a foreleg. “Nah, we need t’ save that. Gotta make sure we got somethin’ t’ eat on th’ road.”

He had a point. Pinching caps in this case was less important than preserving supplies for when we needed them, and it irked me that I hadn’t thought of that first. “Well, let’s go get some food then.” I glanced down at our saddlebags, lying on the floor and laden with inventory and scrap. I slid my sales journal into one pocket and began closing them up to hoist onto my back.

I was stopped by a tan hoof resting on the bag. “No need t’ carry this stuff ‘round. I’ll watch th’ bags, an’ you can get us somethin’ t’ eat.”

That idea made me freeze for a moment. My mind raced against the clock as my mouth formed the words on the spot. “No, I’ll… it makes more sense for me to stay. If one of us is staying, I’ll use the time to write down today’s sales. Just… take some of the caps and let me know how much dinner cost.” I turned and indicated across the empty space of the warehouse that formed the town plaza. “Maizan’s place is just over there. The yellow container with the Ministry of Peace emblem.”

Grit shrugged and stood up, levitating a small bag of caps with him as he walked off, following my directions. I let out a small sigh after he was a few paces away. Why had I just done that? I was trusting Grit with my life out in the Bayou, wasn’t I? But I couldn’t trust him to be alone with my inventory for five minutes? I sat down on my haunches, my tail curling around me as I slumped a little. I was screwed without his help, so I really had no choice but to start trusting him a little more. Hell, it was likely over the course of our trip we’d be sleeping out in the wasteland alone.

I pulled out my sales journal from my saddlebag and wrote down the day’s transactions, figuring I should at least maintain the poor excuse I’d given. Not long after, Grit returned with two servings of some sort of spicy soup. Our dinner conversation could hardly be called such, with mostly Grit talking at me as I nodded through mouthfuls of broth, and after we were both done, he happily scooped up the bowls and took them back to Maizan. It didn’t even occur to me until he was already walking back that I could have offered to take the bowls, to prove to myself that I could trust him. Some part of me was relieved I hadn’t thought of it until it was too late to decide.

In stark contrast to the previous night, when I laid down to sleep this time, I found myself lying awake for what seemed like hours. I would shift positions, lying on one side, flipping to the other, lying on my stomach, even briefly trying to lay on my back before rejecting the idea entirely. Ideas burned through my mind at such speeds that I couldn’t coax myself to rest for longer than a few short bursts, no matter how heavy my eyes felt. And once or twice I wondered if I could smell burning smoldering embers, the way my forge smelled after I had finished working.

Even worse was the knowledge that we’d have to get up early in the morning in order to get to Stable 15 before dark. Grit had warned me there was a considerable distance to cross, but after checking his PipBuck he was sure we could make it in one day.

Eventually I managed to drift off into some actual rest, but not before dreading how I would feel in the morning.

* * * * * * *

We woke begrudgingly early. Grit’s font of energy still appeared to be bottomless, and he woke me while the light outside was barely dim. After rolling up our beds, we both heaved our laden saddlebags onto our backs.

Lifting the whole pack, already stuffed with inventory and supplies was a strain, and I had to concentrate on the levitation spell to the point of gritting my teeth and grunting through the effort. Settled - gently - onto my back, the weight was far less strenuous. My pride was somewhat assuaged to see that Grit had almost as much difficulty with his own pack, at least judging by his visible relief as he settled the bag on his back. He lifted his PipBuck and pressed a few buttons with his nose and magic, and led us deeper into the Bayou.

To my companion’s credit, he did wait a good half an hour or so before asking about the slavers.

“Should be outta earshot from Shipper by now,” he began, with a glance behind us. “So this fight with th’ slavers then. How’d it happen?”

I shivered, but covered it up by exaggerating its effects, pretending it was just the cool morning air chilling me. The memories threatened to bubble to the forefront of my mind in detail, eager to have me relive the desperate fight for my life, but I cut them off by keeping my description as succinct as I could. “I was making a delivery out to Shipper, and saw the slavers taking some captive zebras to an airboat. I got ambushed. I managed to kill three of them, and the last one ran away on the boat.”

Grit arched his brow at me. “That’s all?”

“That’s it.” I looked around at our surroundings, trying to find something else to talk about before he pressed the issue further. Fortunately there was an easy distraction, as the Bridle River appeared off to our right, first only in glimpses between ruined buildings and underbrush, but just then our view cleared and we had an unobstructed view of the banks. I nodded in its direction. “I’ve never actually seen the river for myself.”

I’d never even seen pictures of it, truth be told. It was colossal, so wide that I wouldn’t have a hope of swimming its length. I’d never imagined a body of water so massive, and my pace slowed as I just stared in wonder. The ruined buildings along to the riverbank hadn’t withstood the ages as well as other ruins I’d seen, and given the state of ruins in the Wasteland, that was quite a feat. Most of the buildings along the river looked as though they’d been squashed underhoof, with a few exceptions in some of the larger, sturdier-looking structures. Even they were broken, partially-collapsed skeletons on the ground, twisted in Equestria’s death throes.

My eyes fell on a ship, too. It was capsized ahead of us, but easily a few hundred feet from the shore. I couldn’t tell what kind of ship it used to be, but it was easily five times the size of my house. A ferry maybe? The hull was snapped in two, violently dashed against one of the countless ruins and left capsized on dry land.

Grit nudged me, nodding towards the coastline. “Fastest route’s for us t’ follow th’ river for a bit.” He started walking and I followed, trudging over a broken wall of bare concrete, casting my gaze out towards the river again.

Just before I turned back to forget about my surroundings, a faint glow caught my eye. It was further downriver from where we were, maybe a few dozen feet from the close bank. It just… hung there above the water, bobbing and swaying gently, a little ball of yellow-green light that wanted to ease my worries. I felt a smile, a genuine smile of content, cross my muzzle. I wanted to reach out with a hoof and touch it, to bring it close to me and embrace it. The light could comfort me. I could go out to it, it wasn’t that far out… just a short swim and I could make i--NO!

I stopped dead in my tracks and snapped my head down to stare at my hooves. At some point I had veered from the path and started walking towards the river. No, no, no, Goddesses, no! I squeezed my eyes shut and just took a few slow breaths. When I opened them again, I looked up to see Grit staring at me with obvious concern. “You alright there?” he asked, looking around and drawing one of his pistols.

I nodded, taking another deep breath. “Fine. Just caught sight of a fisher, that’s all.”

Grit’s eyes widened, and he drew his other pistol, though he didn’t look around to try and spot the hypnotic predator. “Where?”

“Out on the river.” I gestured with towards the water, not daring to look in its direction and pointedly trying to ignore the splashing of a large creature in the distance. I stood up straight again and glanced at my saddlebags. I thought I heard another splash out on the water, but I couldn’t tell.

“Let’s just keep moving.”

* * * * * * *

We were able to follow the river for at least a few hours it seemed, snaking along the coastline, which had more open ground than I was used to seeing in the Bayou. Most of it was flattened buildings and old streets, but I’d take anything that wasn’t a jumbled maze of underbrush, rubble, and ravines. It even smelled different, the humid air mixed with a tangy reek that seemed to come from the river, solidifying my desire to never set hoof in that water. Since we had the privilege of such a broad field of view, Grit even turned on his radio for a bit. DJ-PON3 still had only the same few songs that always annoyed me whenever somepony threw on the radio at Four Shoes, but this time I found myself relaxing a little, and didn’t mind as Grit hummed along with the tune.

Eventually our path had to separate from the Bridle, and we once again trekked into the thick of the Bayou. The radio went off, and I kept my head on a swivel, listening and looking for anypony or anything trying to sneak up on us. This route was thicker with brush and skeletal trees than I was used to seeing on my trips to Shipper, and I initially jumped at every rustle of the wind until it began kicking up more powerful gusts later in the day. Along this route were still the usual scattered buildings and upended wagons in various states of ruin, some of them being forced apart by plants wedging into their foundation.

With sunset fast approaching, I kept apprehensively looking at the sky, while Grit started pointing out possible shelters for the night. I just wanted to press on and get to Stable 15. Even if we could find a decent shelter, I’d never camped out in the Bayou and I wasn’t eager to try. “That one looks like it’ll do.” Grit said, nodding towards a stout, grey building that looked like it was frozen in the middle of sinking into the ground.

“I know you’re trying to help, but I just want to get to someplace that’s a little more secure.” One of my ears flicked the air as I heard another rustle.

“S’why we keep watches, Alloy. I’m not sayin’ we just sleep on th’ ground, we find someplace with at least a couple walls an’ a roof, make ourselves a shelter.” He looked around, examining each building we passed.

“Look, you said that we could make it to Stable 15 by sundown, right? If we have a shot at it, we should take it.”

He paused, checking his PipBuck and making an indecisive groaning noise. “It was only a guess. But, looks like there’s a few places up ahead we can stop at, worst comes to worst.”

“Fine.” He had a reasonable point, to be sure. Even if we pressed on and hoped for the best, we had to make sure to plan for the worst. Still, I could see the highway in the distance, or what was left of it. Only the columns that had once supported the road leading towards the rest of Equestria remained, the road itself having mostly collapsed to ground level. But if we were close enough to see it, we were only a few miles away from it, and Grit had said that Stable 15 was just a little further south. I was sure we could make it as long as we kept a steady pace and conditions held.

* * * * * * *

Of course, conditions didn’t hold. I should have expected this, in hindsight. I shivered as rain water dripped off me onto the cracked floor. Not long after our conversation, a light drizzle began, picked up tempo, and became a full-force torrential thunderstorm. Grit pointed us towards the closest intact building, which was actually large enough that I couldn’t see the whole thing before we galloped in. I was first and foremost concerned with shedding my saddlebags and soaked barding. With that done, Grit and I both shook ourselves as dry as we could, making sure to be a good distance away from each other.

We looked out the doorway to the storm beyond. “Don’t look like it’ll let up anytime soon,” Grit mused.

I nodded. “We should look for a safe place to sleep in here.”

Grit turned to me in surprise. “Really? Not gonna insist we press on after th’ storm?”

With a roll of my eyes, I shook my head. “No. First of all, we don’t know how long this storm will last, but even if it dies down in an hour, we probably won’t make it to Stable 15 before dusk with the time we’ve lost.” Grit checked his PipBuck again, and nodded. “So if we already know we won’t make it, we should find a secure place to bed down.” I waved a hoof at our surroundings. “This is as good a place as any.”

He chuckled at something, still staring at his PipBuck. “Funny y’should mention we need some place ‘secure’...” He set his leg down on the floor after clicking the PipBuck’s light on. “Welcome t’the Equestrian Wartime Internment Facility. S’an awful fancy way o’ sayin’ ‘prison’ if y’ask me.”

I looked around at the room. We’d rushed in through what I’d guessed used to be a double-door entry, but there was no trace of any door. We stood in a wide room, with some kind of reception desk in the middle. I could still see the faded patches of pink wallpaper and decorative paintings of balloons on the walls. Definitely Ministry of Morale, then. A few doors in various conditions led to what I guessed were branching hallways, and one entrance stood in the middle, behind the reception desk. It was sturdier than the others, made of some kind of steel, and with no handle that I could see from a cursory examination.

The storm still hadn’t let up by the time it was dark outside, so we carried our supplies and inventory to the room we had scouted as a shelter. There was a short hallway leading from the entrance room that branched into about half a dozen offices that looked like they once had doors of their own. We chose the only one whose door was still standing as our refuge for the night. The lettering on the door was still intact enough to read: “Pincher.”

I had never seen so many books in such a small space before. The office was modestly sized, enough that Grit and I could have laid down end-to-end with our hooves outstretched and still be another pony’s length from reaching the opposite wall. However, a massive bookcase stood against one wall, all the shelves broken from age and the weight of its countless tomes. We shoved the desk aside to make room for our bedrolls, and closed the door. Grit volunteered to take the first watch, and while I was able to get some rest, if only because I realized how exhausted I was from the long walk, it seemed to take ages of turning over and over in my bed in an attempt to get comfortable. I passed my own watch flicking my ears at every creak and noise in the gloom while circling a few bits of scrap together by the light of my horn.

An idea came to me for something I wanted to make with these two particular pieces, a bevelled design of a cog on an armor plate. Ordinarily when these ideas would strike me, I would dash to my forge and simply make it a reality before it could fade from my mind. Instead, all I could do was watch the two pieces of metal float next to each other in the closest approximation of the cog in my mind, while I longed for the warm blanket of my forge’s fire to steal away the stresses of the days.

* * * * * * *

The next morning we packed up and split a can of Flam for breakfast. I wasn’t sure exactly what fresh, pre-war hay had tasted like, but if it was anything like this beige mush, I didn’t see the appeal. As we left the prison in the early light, I could see the two ruined guard towers that stood watch over the entrance. One of them was even mostly still standing. I glanced back at the building itself and slowed in my tracks. It was one of the largest pre-war buildings I’d ever seen, and though I could see rubble from some collapsed walls, more of it was intact than not. I turned away and kept pace with Grit as we set out for the Stable.

It was only maybe a two hour walk at most before we arrived. Our destination was a low, flat building that was mostly intact except for the large windows and wide doorways. A sign lay against the wall, lettered in embossed copper, though the metal was a bright teal from exposure to the rain. “NEW OREINS COMMUNITY CENTER” it read.

An earth pony mare came out from the main entrance, holstering a pistol. She had an icy coat with a light green mane and tail, wearing Stable 15 barding like Grit, except lacking the extra armor that reinforced his. Grit’s face immediately lit up, though she looked far more hesitant. “Hey!” he called out, waving a forehoof at her, “Meadow! S’good t’see you, been a while.”

The mare, meanwhile stopped just a few paces in front of us, glowering at Grit.

“Meadow…?” Grit repeated hesitantly, lowering his hoof to the ground. I didn’t like this one bit. My legs tensed up, ready to move, but I didn’t draw my sword. For the moment, the mare was at least unarmed and I didn’t want to provoke her.

Finally she answered in a low growl, staring right at Grit. “You got a lotta nerve comin’ back here, after what you pulled.”

His eyes darted to the building behind her, then back to her, “What…? I don’t kn-” He cut himself off as the mare reared up on her hind legs. Grit ducked low and backed away to avoid the blow. I lit my horn, but couldn’t react fast enough. Her forelegs sped downward.


I blinked, dumbfounded. Meadow had brought her hooves down, but didn’t hit Grit. Insead she had just raised one of them to the flinching buck’s nose and had tapped it. From his expression, Grit was just as confused as I was.

Suddenly, Meadow broke out laughing. “How’re ya doin’, you jerk? It’s good to see you too!” I let out my held breath in a sigh, shaking my head. Another pony came out of the community center to greet us. This one was a buck, an older unicorn with a grey coat and a blue mane streaked with grey.

He trotted up to Grit with a warm smile and immediately wrapped a foreleg around his neck in a tender hug. “I’ve missed you, kid.”

Grit returned the gesture and mumbled back, “Missed you too, dad.”

The pair separated, and all three of the other ponies looked my way. “Don’t be rude now,” Meadow said to my companion, “Introduce your friend here!”

I glanced over to him and then spoke up for myself first. I’d given some thought to how I would introduce myself. “I’m Alloy Shaper, owner of Alloy Shaper’s Smithy, though I’m bringing my business on the road for some extra caps. I make the finest armor and blades for a hundred miles, along with hoof-crafted tools and jewelry. I can do inexpensive repair work, too.”

A few seconds of awkward silence passed where I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. I couldn’t say what I was expecting, but the two of them just gave me a smile and a nod. I opened my mouth to say something else, to try and backpedal, maybe tell them how I knew Grit. Instead he spoke up, immediately grabbing their attention. “She’s one o’ th’ business ponies up north a ways, an’ I volunteered t’ help her get ‘round the Bayou.” He looked to me and gestured to the mare and older stallion respectively as he introduced them, “This here’s Meadow, an’ Spark, my father.”

Spark stepped forward and smiled at me. “Well, you’re certainly as welcome here as Grit is. Let’s all go inside, shall we? No sense standing around here.”

The four of us walked inside the community center, though Meadow stopped in the lobby. “I gotta finish my shift out here, but I’ll catch up with you later, promise!” She waved to Grit and drew her laser pistol again in her mouth, scanning the courtyard.

I looked around, but didn’t see anypony else. Grit and Spark were in the middle of catching up, saying something about PipBuck tags, so I just followed them as they walked down a flight of stairs and into the basement. At the end of a long hallway was the entrance to Stable 15. I’d never seen one for myself, and the massive cog-shaped door was imposing. I turned my head to stare as we passed through, but then my attention was grabbed by the clean metal of the entrance hallway. And then by the giant mechanism. And then by the bank of terminals sitting behind a glass window, overlooking the entrance.

I’d never seen so much pristine technology, let alone in one place. Everypony we passed wore a PipBuck, and even the most patchwork repairs I could pick out would have required tools I’d never dreamed of owning. And it all smelled so clean. I wasn’t aware of how accustomed I was to the smell of the humid air around me until it was replaced by Stable 15’s processed and clean air. As we descended a flight of stairs, I was suddenly acutely aware of my saddlebags laden with hoof-smelted and slapdash goods I was supposedly going to try and sell to these ponies.

I occupied myself as we walked by just trying to take in as much information as I could from my surroundings, to see if there maybe was something I could offer them. In the first place, it was possible that there were maintenance issues unaddressed down here, and I could make a few caps repairing odds and ends, or personal items like a toy. Curiously, we passed only one pony that was wearing armored barding, on a catwalk above the atrium. In stark contrast to the simple Stable 15 barding everypony else wore, his was layered in black, protective material. Honestly if I hadn’t seen the faded yellow “15” on his shoulder, I would have thought him to be a visitor of some sort. He stopped in the middle of whatever he had been doing and stared at me for the entire time the three of us walked through the atrium, sizing me up I supposed.

Finally we passed through one last door into a home. The worn furnishings and personal touches set this aside as somepony’s personal quarters. My attention returned to Grit and his father as the latter turned to face me. “You can sleep here if you like, Alloy, though the Overmare’ll want to speak to both of you.” He gestured towards a couch that looked like it was once a bright red, but now it was stained and leaking fluff through a few small tears. Still, it would be more comfortable than sleeping on the floor.

“Thank you,” I answered, looking around the room. “Should I be worried about meeting her?”

Spark shook his head. “Nah. Not much happens around here, so she’ll probably just wanna ask you some questions ‘bout yourself and your visit.” He paused to look at my and Grit’s laden saddlebags. “And if you’re wantin’ to set up a shop, you’ll have to talk to her anyway.”

I gave him a polite nod. “That seems reasonable.”

He turned back to Grit and gave his son another warm smile. “I’ve got to wrap some things up down in the tech lab. I better see you there for lunch. Half-past on the dot, got it?”

Grit chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world, dad. See you in a bit.”

With that, Spark tapped a hoof on the door panel and left to other parts of the stable, leaving Grit and me alone. Grit walked over to an empty corner and began unstrapping his saddlebags. I glanced at mine with a tense frown. On the one hoof, it would probably be awkward, not to mention tiring, to carry the bags all over the Stable. But at the same time, I had my concerns. “Is it really safe to leave the bags here?” I asked aloud, after Grit had already finished unloading his.

He tilted his head at me curiously. “ ‘Course it is. We’re deep in the heart of the Stable. What’s gonna get to ‘em down here?” He paused for a moment before realization dawned on him. “Ohh, I gotcha. Nah, nothin’ to worry about like that. Th’ lock on that door only lets me an’ my dad through. Well, us, Studio, an’ Pillar, but they need to. Studio’s th’ Overmare, you’ll meet her soon. An’ Pillar is our security pony. Th’ one givin’ you th’ stink eye when we walked in?”

“Ah. Well, alright then.” I walked to the corner, and unfastened my saddlebags as well, letting them slide off to the floor. I still wasn’t comfortable with the whole situation, but I couldn’t think of a better idea, nor a way to convince Grit to help me carry everything around with us. Then, something clicked in my mind, a pair of facts that didn’t line up. “Wait, Pillar is the security pony? Isn’t Meadow a guard or something?”

“Meadow?” Grit chuckled, “Nah, Meadow works in th’ orchard. Everypony takes shifts keepin’ watch outside, an’ when it’s not his shift, Pillar just keeps things organized inside.”

How the hell did every answer Grit gave me about the Stable just create more questions? “I thought Stables had more than one guard pony. And what’s an orchard?”

“They do normally, but Stable 15’s different. Well, they’re all a little different from each other, but that’s th’ bit I know. 15’s only got th’ one security pony. If y’wanna know why, you’ll have t’ ask th’ Overmare.” He walked over to the couch and poked at it with a hoof. “An’ th’ orchard is where we grow food. Got some apple trees an’ other stuff, but it’s th’ main food supply. Bit bland sometimes, but hey, it’s food that grows.” He glanced at his Pipbuck. “We’ve got some time before lunch with my dad, could see if Studio wants t’ meet with us first. But if s’all th’ same t’ you, I wanna have myself a shower.”

I lifted a foreleg to my muzzle, sniffing my coat gingerly. I probably should wash too, given that these were new ponies I was meeting. It’d be best to see them after I was clean, though I never looked forward to dousing myself in cold, irradiated water. “I should probably wash up, too,” I said with a groan. “Where’s the water for that?”

* * * * * * *

About an hour later, both of us had cleaned up and were headed for the Overmare’s office. The showers were about as far from my expectation as I could have imagined. The spray of soothing hot water on my coat and mane was so therapeutic I felt like I could stand there for hours. While I was rebraiding my mane, I had glanced at my barding, which was still as filthy as I had been. I was hesitant to put it back on until I got a chance to clean it, too. Grit said they had a place for washing their Stable 15 barding, and I could probably use that. In the meantime, however, I was walking around in just my coat. It had only been a little over a week since I started wearing my barding everywhere, but it already felt alien to go without.

I brought my attention back to the moment. While the luxuries of the Stable were a wonder to experience, I was here for business, after all. The security buck, the one Grit had identified as Pillar, escorted us to the Overmare’s office, and after a few minutes’ wait, the door opened. “Come in, come in, I’m so sorry for the wait,” a voice said through the doorway. The three of us entered, though Pillar stood by the entrance as the steel door slid closed.

The Overmare sat behind a rounded desk surfaced with polished wood. A window overlooked the atrium, and it was probably as good a view as one could hope for in an underground shelter. Behind her was a bank of terminals showing all sorts of data I couldn’t make heads or tails of, while another terminal sat in front of her. She was a middle-aged mare, with a light blue coat and pink mane. Decorating her flank was a picture of a chalkboard. She looked up from the terminal and gave us both a wide smile. “Well, hello there to both o’ you. I wish I could be the first to welcome you home, Grit, but welcome home all the same.” Her accent was similar to Grit’s, but far milder and her voice was soft and gentle. She turned to address me. “And I’ve heard some things about you as well, dear. Meadow tells me you’re some sorta salespony?”

I nodded. “A blacksmith, to be precise. I’m Alloy Shaper.” I stopped myself from going any further, thinking back on the awkward silence I received from Meadow and Spark.

“Well, it’s a pleasure t’ meet you, Alloy. Any friend Grit vouches for enough to bring here is welcome in my Stable.”

“Thank you.” I met her eyes as I continued. “I was hoping to offer some of my goods to the ponies here in Stable 15. Is there somewhere I could set up shop for a bit? I don’t need more than just a corner, preferably somewhere with a bit of traffic.”

“Well, I believe I can make some arrangements. We can get you set up in the atrium, as long as it’s temporary.”

I gave her another nod. “That’ll work just fine, thank you.”

“But, I’m afraid I’ve got some questions for you before then.” Studio walked back around to sit behind her desk, resting her forehooves on its surface.

“About me?”

“Well, in a way.” She waved a hoof idly in the air. “See, even though we opened our door years ago, we only have a rough picture of the New Oreins area. Oh sure, we get the news broadcasts from DJ-PON3 and hear the news of the Wasteland, but I’m interested in any local details. We have a few ponies qualified as scouts, but it’s a high-risk, volunteer job.” She paused a moment for a soft breath, reflecting on something private. “So if I can get any details from you, I would appreciate it.”

That wasn’t at all what I was expecting to hear. “I can tell you what I know, but it’s not much beyond what’s common knowledge in my town.”

Studio gave me a dry smile. “Given that I don’t even know where you’re from, it’ll be more helpful than you think.”

Grit and I told her what we could, though mostly it was just about Four Shoes and its business, naming my own store in the process, and about Shipper, though that was mostly Grit blurting it out before I had a chance to mull over whether I would share that information. And as I forced my own memories of dealing with Malice aside, I told Studio of the raiders based out of the harbor.

“Actually,” I said when I finished recounting the information I had, “I do have another request, if you don’t mind.”

The Overmare nodded. “Of course.”

“I’m… looking for information myself. Specifically about a buck, an earth pony. Teal coat, blue mane, cutie mark of a rock.” The Overmare rubbed her chin with a foreleg thoughtfully. “He would have been alone, maybe on an airboat.”

“Hmm… well I can certainly put the word out, ask if anypony that had scout duty saw somepony like that, but it’s a bit of a long shot, y’know.”

I inclined my head in acceptance. “Of course. But I didn’t see any harm in asking anyway.”

“Then I’d be happy to help,” she answered with a smile before getting up and walking out from behind her desk. “Now I’m afraid I do have a busy schedule ahead of me. It has been wonderful talking to you both, and I’ll let you know if I find anything on that teal pony of yours.” She gestured us gently towards the door, and from there, Pillar ushered us out of the hallway leading to her office.

* * * * * * *

We had some time to kill before meeting Spark for lunch, with Grit insisting I go as well, but not quite enough to get my storefront set up in the atrium. It would have been a disorganized mess that I would’ve had to disassemble and lock up in the room again shortly after. So instead, though I knew I was indulging myself a little, I got directions to the laundry room so that I could wash my barding. Accumulated grime, blood, sweat, and mud washed away down the drain, and I focused on not thinking about where it came from.

Or I tried, anyway. I had managed to avoid thinking or talking about my fight with the slavers the previous morning when Grit asked about it, but as I saw the dirty water drain away from my barding, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that some of it was mine, and some of it belonged to three different ponies. I’d gotten myself into this mess. I could have avoided all this, and as much as I hated Malice and Gumbo and Red Bean for forcing this situation on me, I hated myself for letting it all happen. I stomped the metal floor hard with a foreleg, squeezing my eyes shut. When did I lose control of my life?

I stamped my forehoof on the floor again, harder this time. There wasn’t any point to doing this. What I needed to do was look forward. I was a visiting merchant to this Stable. They probably had never seen metalworking like mine before, even if their tools were higher quality. I had armor, knives, and jewelry, as well as repair skills. I could make caps in this place, I was sure of it. It would get me closer to my goal, and then I would finally be able to go home.

Even with the pep talk to myself, the lump in my throat lingered, long after I left the laundry.

With my barding hung to dry, I met Grit in his father’s room, and he showed me to the cafeteria. I was a little disappointed to see there was no meat on offer, even though I knew the meal of oatmeal and apples was healthier and more nutritious. It wasn’t bad, either, just a bit bland, except for the apples. I’d never tasted anything like them, and Sugar Apple Bombs didn’t do the fruit justice. I was relishing my bowl just for them, while Grit and his father started their conversation without me. I assumed it would be a repeat of our walk through the Stable that morning (which would have been perfectly fine with me), but Spark turned to me shortly after greeting the two of us.

“So Alloy, you’re a salespony of some sort?”

I nodded, taking another mouthful of oatmeal. From the way that he and Grit were staring at me expectantly, I quickly realized that Spark was waiting for details, so I hastily swallowed my food. “I’m a blacksmith to be exact. I forge weapons, tools, jewelry, and a little bit of armor, mostly using scavenged goods and scrap metal. But most of my customers just want me to fix something for them, usually their gun.”

Spark nodded with a polite smile. “Ahh, I see, I see. And you run a store in this trading town Grit was telling me about, right? Must be fascinating, being able to meet ponies from around the Wasteland.” He gave a soft chuckle. “I suppose the Overmare told you we don’t get many visitors.”

I waved a hoof almost dismissively. “I never really talked much with visiting ponies.” Or anypony at all for that matter. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that my lack of practice was showing in this very conversation.

Spark grinned and shook his head. “I’m sure y’all have some stories to tell, though. Crazy customers, or just something strange and unusual.”

I glanced at Grit, hoping he would start something up, but he seemed just as eager as his father to hear a ‘story’ of mine. Truth be told, I barely remembered most of my customers, except for some of them that had commissioned something. I remembered most of those, simply because each time I created something unique. Maybe that would satisfy him. “I had a customer a couple weeks ago that paid me to forge him a pair of wing blades,” I began, “A griffon, actually.”

That made Spark sit up straighter. He looked absolutely thrilled to hear something like that, and immediately asked, “A griffon! Was he part of one of those mercenary companies we’ve heard about on the radio? What was he like? Oh, it must have been absolutely thrilling to work with somepony… well, someone like that!”

“It was…” What could I say about it, anyway? Almost all of our conversation had been business. He had been impressed to see a blacksmith, and asked if I had a forge nearby I used. I told him it was right next to my home, and he asked about the commission work I mentioned in the spiel I greeted all my customers with, before I had painted myself that sign. But something about the excited look in Spark’s eyes told me that wouldn’t satisfy the aging unicorn. “He… came in on one of the caravans,” I started, staying calm as I tried to think about how Grit told stories, embellishing small details or something. I was trying to make something up on the fly to make this encounter sound more interesting, and it was forcing me to speak slower, more deliberately. “I remember that he complained about the stores in Four Shoes, I think.”

My mind was scrambling to think of how to continue this story, when I was saved by the interruption of a foreleg stamping down on the table next to Grit, just hard enough to get his attention. It belonged to an earth pony mare with a peach coat and a light blue mane. Her cutie mark appeared to be a collection of bottles, of apparently random size, shape, and color. Grit looked up and her and then grinned sheepishly. “Oh! Hey there, High Spirits, how’s it goin’?”

Her face turned from annoyed to giddy and she ruffled Grit’s mane with a hoof. “Oh I’m the same as always, you little bastard! It’s great to see you, y’know, but how come you haven’t come down t’ the bar yet? Didn’t wanna say hi?” She hung her lip in an exaggerated pout.

Grit rolled his eyes and laughed. “It’s the middle of the day! Why would I be drinkin’ now?”

“Oh, it’s 6 o’clock somewhere in Equestria!” The mare returned his laugh and took up a seat next to Grit. “I’ll expect t’ see you down there tonight. Your stories always did liven up the place.”

“Sure thing, I wouldn’t miss it.”

“And speakin’ of stories,” she began, glancing over to me, “this must be the mare I heard you came back with.”

Grit nodded, waving a foreleg at me. “Alloy, this is High Spirits, the bartender in Stable 15. Spirits, this is Alloy Shaper.”

I swallowed a bite of my oatmeal and gave her a polite nod.

“Hmm hmm…” she gave me a smirk and glanced over to Grit, then back to me. “She’s a cute one, Grit!” the mare said with a singing glee, sliding up to him. She ran her eyes up and down, appraising me while I hastily occupied myself with eating my oatmeal. “Not quite mah taste, but mmm-mm! Those freckles’re just adorable!”

It was at this moment that I learned a pony cannot process food by inhalation.

Once I had recovered from the fit of coughing, I could see High Spirits and Spark doubled over laughing, while Grit was also almost choking on his oatmeal. Spirits had tears welling in her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself!” she said, patting Grit on the back. Part of me wanted to glare at her, part of me wanted to leave, but I settled on just staring into my oatmeal. Goddesses, why did my face feel so hot?

I absorbed myself into eating the rest of my food, and the burning in my face subsided quickly. Spark, Grit, and Spirits all got involved in a conversation of their own, and I was just fine being excluded.

* * * * * * *

Less than half an hour after leaving the cafeteria, I had set up my temporary shop in what I deemed to be the best corner of the Stable’s atrium. I had appropriated a bench and a small table for displaying some of my better merchandise, while other items were spread out before me. Wearing my clean leather barding, I sat on my haunches behind my impromptu shop and waited for customers.

Specifically customers. Because I certainly had no shortage of ponies gathered around my shop, admiring my wares. They were asking me questions about this or that item, what the difference between two knives was, how did I make all this myself, and so on, all before I had even finished setting up. I answered most of the questions flatly and with rudimentary details so as to speed along the conversation and make time for ponies who actually wanted to buy something.

But by the end of the day, and even after the Stable’s designated dinner time, nopony had bought anything. I hadn’t earned a single cap.

I had at least conducted a few trades. But with everypony it was the same story. The Stable only has so many caps. The Overmare has the Stable’s money. It needed to be tightly regulated so that Stable 15 could one day expand and establish homes outside the Stable. I grew numb to the excuses. Grit brought me dinner, which was another bowl of oatmeal, and I ate it for lack of anything else to do.

According to the clock on the wall of the atrium, it was a little after 9:00 at night, and I struggled to maintain my professional demeanor, while my hope that somepony would convince the Overmare to release a few caps for a purchase died away. That hope was rekindled when I saw Pillar approaching my store. I stood up and watched him as he examined the barding I had laid out on the bench. He picked up the heaviest set I had, one which was covered in armor plates, and bobbed it in one forehoof, judging its weight I guessed. “How much do you charge for your barding?” he asked, still examining the armor.

I felt my chest soar from that question. It was the closest I had been to a sale all day, and Celestia knew I needed to make a lot more caps to afford the mercenary I was planning to hire. “My lightest barding is 200 caps.” I pointed a foreleg at the heavier armor Pillar was holding. “That barding, however, is more expensive due to being the best armor I have. 400 caps for it.”

He gave a dismissive snort, and let it slide off his hoof unceremoniously. “I had ponies telling me for most of the day that you had armor to buy. But that,” he stabbed a hoof at my barding, “isn’t worth the expense.”

I fell to my haunches, as a boiling mix of anger, shame, and despair knotted up in my gut, twisting my emotions until I had no idea how I even felt. I ground my teeth together and tried to answer as calmly as I could, “What in the name of the Goddesses makes you think my barding isn’t ‘worth the expense?’ ” Despite my attempt to remain professional, I practically spat the last part of my question.

The buck shook his head. “I need weapons more than I need armor. If your armor was cheaper, or if you had real weapons to sell, I would consider buying it. But as it stands, from everything we know about the Bayou, we need to arm ourselves first.” He turned away from me and began to walk away. “Good night, Miss Shaper. I hope some of the items the ponies here have traded you will get you a good price elsewhere.”

And then I was alone in the atrium. But even if there was nopony else around, I still tucked my head into the corner so I could hide the few tears that escaped before I could stop myself.

* * * * * * *

He was right. Even through the haze clouding my thoughts, my teeth grinding and my face and ears burning from the confrontation, I knew he was right, and that made me all the more furious. I had packed up my inventory quickly and was returning to Spark’s room. There wasn’t any point to keeping the store open any longer. With a quick glance to make sure nopony was around, I snapped a kick at the metal wall, the dull clang tempering my anger. Everything I had seen today, everypony I had met, all of it reinforced the idea that I had nothing these ponies thought was worth spending their tightly-controlled caps on.

I forced myself to relive the conversation. To tease out Pillar’s words and find something, anything I could use. By my estimate, I’d need at least a thousand caps to pay for a mercenary. I wasn’t sure how much they cost, but I needed to save up that much, or as close to it as I could get, to make sure I had enough to pay for the job of capturing Copper while still having enough left over to run my shop. And last I checked, I didn’t even have half that.

I squeezed my eyes shut and tapped my head against the wall in a steady rhythm, forcing myself to focus. If only I could be at my forge. I could think in front of my forge. I shivered, although the hallway wasn’t cold.


My jewelry, tools, and blades were all sub-par or not useful to these ponies.

Tap. Tap.

Weapons, guns, those were more important to Pillar than armor.


There had to be an answer to this.


I refused to believe that there was nothing I could do.


Nothing I could even try.

With one last tap of my head against the cold wall, I rested it there, simply letting it support my weight as I slumped to my haunches. It felt like my mind was racing through thoughts at breakneck speeds, but at the same time getting nowhere. I dug through memories, through anything I could think of. Nothing gave me any ideas until…

My father’s words came to me. Teaching me the basics of business. Supply and demand, and responding to what the customer wanted. He was always more flexible about that sort of thing, dealing in the junk he did. “If you know what somepony needs, the rest is easy.” My thoughts drifted to the two of us scavenging ruins for odds and ends, anything valuable, always trying to anticipate that need.

I felt the prickle of an itch on my neck.

Shoving myself away from the wall and standing up, I refocused my thoughts. Fine, so they need guns. Where can I get guns? Guns would be tricky. There were only a few good starting places. Old military bases, factories, police stations…


I allowed myself a wide grin as I finished the walk to Spark’s quarters.

When the door slid open, I saw Grit sitting on the couch, reading an old comic book. I glanced around, but didn’t see any sign of Spark. Good. I wanted privacy to discuss business matters. He looked up at me when I walked in, beaming. “Evenin’, Alloy. How’d the sales go?”

I winced a little at the question, but shoved that feeling aside quickly. “No sales today,” I answered, sliding my saddlebags off of my back. I turned back to him, finishing my thought with a cocked smile of my own. “But I have a plan. Are you up for a bit of ruin-diving tomorrow?”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A
Quest Tracker - 11 days remaining

Alloy Shaper’s Travelling Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 5 - Supply and Demand

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Chapter 5 - Supply and Demand

The equilibrium price of a good or service is, at its most basic level, dependent upon the intersection of supply - the availability of the product - with the demand of that product by consumers.

Incarceration and YOU!

A Ditzy’s Guide to Parole

How Sedition is Causing Equestria’s Party Shortage

As I tossed aside more “informational” brochures, I briefly wondered what in the Goddesses’ names had possessed wartime ponies to write titles like these. There were dozens of them, but no sign of any kind of map that I was hoping to find behind the reception desk.

The early morning light shone through the visitor’s entrance to the prison, providing just enough light that I didn’t have to illuminate the drawers with my magic as I systematically yanked them open one after another, finding only more pamphlets. I sat back on my haunches and pulled out the last of my breakfast, half of a carrot. It was such a brilliant orange that I almost regretted eating it. But of course, I couldn’t resist that fantastically satisfying crunch, the juicy, sweet flavor with just a hint of tang to it. I’d never had a carrot before outside of the flavoring in a Sparkle~Cola, and part of me couldn’t believe they had taken such a delicious flavor and turned it into that candy-like drink.

I finished off the carrot and went back to yanking open drawers and cabinets. In one of them was an old clipboard, which I almost tossed on top of the stack of brochures when a name caught my eye, “Silver Trim.” It was close to the bottom of the page, and as I actually looked at the form, I found that it was some sort of paper for ponies to list who they were coming to visit. Something about the name felt familiar, but for I couldn’t put my hoof on it.

I flicked my tail and discarded the clipboard, refocusing on the task at hoof. If only the reception desk terminal wasn’t completely shattered on the ground… but no sense worrying about it now.

With a snort, I stood up from behind the desk and opened my mouth to report my failure to find a map to Grit, but stopped when I realized he wasn’t anywhere I could see. Walking out from behind the desk, I caught sight of him staring down the hallway behind the desk, past an armored door that looked like it had been ripped open. His head was tilted and he had one forehoof held in mid-step. I trotted up beside him, glancing at the stallion before staring down the hallway for myself. His head whipped towards me, eyes wide, before he let out a heavy breath. “Oh, s’just you.”

I met his eyes curiously, one eye cocked. “Who else would it be?”

He just shook his head and snorted. “Nah, forget ‘bout it. Was jus’ lettin’ my mind wander. Find a map?”

With a grimace, I shook my head and then looked back down the narrow corridor before us, immediately noticed the dim, green light spilling into the hallway from further ahead. “No, but looks like you found us a working terminal. That should help.” I squeezed through the doorway, carefully avoiding the sharp edges of the door, before trotting down the hallway.

It was a tiny, enclosed corridor, barely wide enough for two ponies shoulder-to-shoulder, and the roof was only a few feet above my head. Just about halfway to the other side, I was surprised when my hooves struck metal. I had been staring at the terminal in the adjacent room as it came into view, and hadn’t noticed that a small section of the floor was metallic. The cracked concrete continued on for the rest of the hallway, but for some strange reason, the floor right next to the terminal room was different.

I shrugged it off and turned back to Grit, who was still at the doorway. Nodding towards the terminal, I called back, “Are you any good with these?” While I was sure I could fix a broken terminal or energy weapon, working one was entirely different, and I hoped for both of our sakes that Grit had picked up that knowledge growing up in a Stable.

Grit nodded slowly from the entrance of the hallway and scooted himself through the doorway to come down to where I was standing. The room the terminal was in clearly wasn’t intended to be open to this hallway, but the wall had partially collapsed, allowing passage between the two. My companion walked over the pile of rubble to begin working at the terminal, while I just stood on the rubble where a wall had been. It was a tiny, barren room, with nothing but the terminal and a desk for it to sit upon. But, in the faint glow I spotted something else in the far corner. I took a breath and lit my horn, adding more hazy green light to the room. The shadow I spotted turned into a staircase leading down, into a basement level. I walked over to the staircase to pass the time while Grit tik-tak-tik’d at the keys of the terminal. A few steps down, I was able to peer into the rooms below, but stopped short as I realized the light of my horn was reflecting off the familiar sight of standing water. I couldn’t see the floor of this basement level, as the water was deep enough to obscure the end of the stairs. I immediately backed up and returned to Grit, not wanting to chance that there was something living in that water. In the Bayou, it was a safe bet. “Any luck?”

Grit nodded and and tapped a few more keys, though I could swear the screen was filled with utter nonsense. A few more key presses and the terminal gave a beep-beep, while Grit’s face became a grin. “I’m in. Was a bit tricky, but ain’t a problem.” He worked with the computer while I watched. As we sat together in the still room, Grit’s muzzle scrunched up several times. He would glance back at me, then type away at the keyboard with renewed effort before tossing another glance my way. Eventually, he spoke up. “Listen, Alloy… y’sure about this place? It’s givin’ me th’ chills. Somethin’ ain’t right.”

I scrunched up my muzzle. Of course there was was something wrong with the place, it was a wartime building in ruin. These places always had something wrong with them. Still, I couldn’t go scavenging without him. “Wartime buildings are always dangerous. We just need to stick together, be careful, and we’ll be in and out in no time.”

He nodded, but didn’t seem any more at ease. Didn’t matter, though. I was confident we could make it back to the Stable quickly if we stuck to my plan. Grit tapped a few more keys on the terminal and then brought his PipBuck leg up to check its screen. “Looks like we scored.” He nodded at the terminal as he stood up again. “This’ a security terminal, had a map fer guard patrols ‘n’ shifts. S’not too detailed, but it’ll do. Looks like those un’erground passes go all over th’ prison.” He started walking towards the stairwell that I had examined earlier.

I sighed and flicked an ear at the air. “I checked down the stairs while you were hacking into the terminal. The basement’s flooded.”

He immediately backed up the stairs as I heard his PipBuck make an odd clicking sound. “It’s radioactive down there, too. Well, guess we ain’t goin’ downstairs. No tellin’ if there’s anythin’ livin’ there, even without th’ radiation.”

I nodded and proceeded out of the security station, back to the hallway. “So where to? Let’s head to the closest armory and get out of here.”

Grit looked out at the hallway nervously, then took a deep breath and nodded. I shared his unease, though he looked particularly unnerved. I wondered what had gotten under his hide; he hadn’t been this worried when we slept here for the night. Had he? I couldn’t remember. Whatever the case, it was all the more reason for us to get in and out as quickly as possible. He hopped out next to me in the narrow corridor, and checked his PipBuck. “Ain’t far,” he said. “Looks like there’s somethin’ near th’ holdin’ cell. Through th’ visitin’ center.”

He led us through the rest of the hallway until it opened up into a much larger area, with a single long table that pressed against both walls, or would have except for one section that had been violently removed. It looked like somepony had thrown a grenade at it, judging by the blackened edges. I didn’t give the gap a second thought except to realize it was large enough for a pony to get through, but Grit gave it another long look. “Place musta gone t’ shit after the bombs dropped. Maybe th’ prisoners tried t’ get out?”

I looked down at the gap again and snorted. “Maybe.” Though I had to admit, there were times that the wartime mysteries that some ponies talked about now and again caught my curiosity, I couldn’t afford myself the luxury of trying to solve them. Maybe other ponies had time to hunt down the answers to the old puzzles left behind by balefire, but I had a store to run and a job to do.

* * * * * * *

There was another uncomfortably narrow corridor leading away from the visiting area, and another section of the floor with a metal plate embedded in it, but the walls were intact and exposed no hidden security room this time. Grey light gently peeked in through a few holes in the ceiling, showing the cloudy sky through a rusted web of twisted rebar. With Grit leading the way ahead of me, I could see him craning his neck around at the hallway. I wondered what was catching his attention, his head whipping from one wall to the other rapidly, ears flat against his head. Was he looking for something? I tried to examine the same spots on the wall he did, but saw only stained concrete.

The corridor opened up into a wide intersection, splitting into four branches, though I saw some of them split again ahead of us. Here and there were lights, long tubed bulbs in metal fixtures suspended from the ceiling, providing surprisingly bright illumination in wide pools, though some of them were off and dangling by the barest grip, and others flickered randomly. The holding cells were right in front of us, as well, a hoofful of large prison cells. Some of them were open, others were still locked up tight. A pile of bones in the corner of one of the closed cells stirred at my memory. The pony skeleton in the Ministry of Morale building who had killed himself. Fighting for my life against the slavers.

I snapped my head to look at Grit with a sharp snort, flicking my tail to keep the memories at bay. “Which way?”

Grit’s ears were still laid back against his head, which did nothing to calm my own mounting anxiety. He stared into the room for a moment, turning his head slowly, before pulling up his PipBuck. “To th’ right a ways. There’s a barracks up ‘head.”

He turned and lead on down the rightmost hallway, our hooves clopping on the broken concrete.

* * * * * * *

Of course it was locked. We had woven through several corridors, passing through security doors and leading further from any sign of actual prison cells, to find the barracks that Grit had mentioned, but the door was locked tight. Another one of those heavy metallic doors like in the Stable. Luckily there was a functioning terminal in a guard station next to it, this one not hidden behind a wall. Instead, it had been some sort of corner room with a long window to allow anypony in it an unobstructed view of the hallway. The window itself was long gone, but the terminal still glowed.

While Grit worked on it, I turned my attention to the ground nearby. The remains of a destroyed turret stood sentinel over three wrecked spritebots. No, not wrecked - broken. When I leaned in close to examine them, I realized that they weren’t that heavily damaged. A little worn from time, but whoever shot them had done so without completely destroying them.

As I stared at the puzzle pieces before me, examining the spritebots and how they could be repaired, my thoughts about Grit and my worries about the prison and sales all slipped away. A broken connection here, a damaged motor there… One had a cracked talisman… I moved from one spritebot to the next, lifting them and turning them with my magic. I wasn’t experienced in handling robotics, but I’d taken apart enough guns, battle saddles, even a cybernetic leg once. I’d taken apart broken robots before, too, to get at the more valuable parts to sell while repurposing the shell for scrap metal.

A nudging forehoof at my side made me jump away, heart pounding. I let out a sharp breath when I saw that it was just Grit. Levelling a glare at him, I cleared my throat with a flick of my tail. “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that,” I cautioned, giving another glance at the spritebots before looking over to the barracks entrance. It was wide open, waiting for us.

“I didn’t. Called out for ya, three times ‘n fact.” He chuckled. “Y’were so absorbed in those robots I don’t think ya even heard me.”

My eyes widened before I quickly masked my astonishment. Had I been that careless? With a short grunt, and an, “Oh,” I quickly changed the subject. “Well, the door’s open. Let’s get what we came for and head back to the Stable.”

As we walked into the barracks, I gave the spritebots one last glance. I couldn’t repair them, not without spare parts and tools, but I blinked with the realization that my anxiety had washed away somewhat. It wasn’t quite as refreshing as working with my forge, the warm fire stealing away the stresses of my day, but… it had helped.

* * * * * * *

As it turned out, I had needed that respite with the spritebots. After almost half an hour of tearing apart the entire room, every locker, every closet, checking every bed, mattress, and rotten pillowcase - and then checking them again - we had nothing to show for it. Whatever had once been here had been looted long ago.

I kicked the closest foot locker in a fit of frustration, sending the metallic box clattering across the floor.

Grit flinched at my petty display, and I felt a moment’s sheepishness wash over me. He flashed a nervous grin at me. “C’mon, Alloy, sure this didn’t pan out, but

I closed my eyes and let my ears fall flat against my head. Maybe there was another armory or maintenance room to check, somewhere else? Surely a prison this huge didn’t have just one barracks. I snorted at myself. Even if there was another supply room deeper in, odds were it had already been looted too. Probably the only things left in this place were scrap metal and junk parts.


My eyes shot open and I galloped to the entrance of the barracks. To the spritebots. I had to be sure. I picked up each spritebot again and gave them my undivided attention. Those circuits only needed a few connections restored, the motor for that one was completely shot but the rest was intact, and this one had a cracked talisman and needed some replacement armor… I could do it. I turned back towards the barracks to see Grit, standing in the doorway with a mixture of confusion and concern on his face. “Grit, pull up that map for me. See if you can find a maintenance room, or a mechanic’s office - somewhere we might be able to find spare parts for these spritebots.”

Grit arched a brow at me from the doorway. “Y’think you can fix ‘em? They look in pretty bad shape t’me.”

I nodded firmly. Whether I could or not was irrelevant, but by Celestia I was going to try. I gave the bots another glance as Grit pulled up his PipBuck. Maybe they did look a little worse for the wear, but their guns were still in one piece, and if I could fix them, I could sell them to Studio and Pillar. Some robots to back up their guards, maybe even do some reconnaissance. I could pitch them as having all manner of utility and make a tidy profit.

“Got a few options,” Grit mused to me, staring at his PipBuck screen. “Looks like they weren’t so centralized with their parts ‘n’ main’enance as their guns. S’one nearby, ‘round the corner, an’ there’s a couple other places t’ check deeper in.”

I snorted and felt a soft wave of relief. I wanted to chide myself on counting my assets before I had them in hoof, but it was just nice to catch a small break, if only briefly. Multiple maintenance rooms meant higher chances of finding what we needed. “Well, let’s get going then. It sounds like we’ve got a bit of ground to cover.”

* * * * * * *

The first supply room, which Grit’s map told him was the main workshop, had been completely inaccessible. The roof had collapsed in, crushing the hallway and entrance in a pile of rubble from the floor above, with no way to climb up and see if there was another way in. Our second stop had been more fruitful, but it had taken some walking, winding our way deep into one of the main prison wings, over catwalk bridges and past cells occupied by skeletons. There I found replacement spark batteries and motors, and some scrap metal I could use as improvised armor to patch over my repairs.

All I needed was a spare talisman and we could get the hell out. So we continued deeper into the prison, and I begrudgingly left my fate in Grit’s hooves, and his ability to read a map. The walk to get this far had taken what felt like an hour or more, owing to the absurd layout of the ruined complex. Security cordons and rubble blocked our passage, and collapsed walkways provided makeshift ramps and bridges through the insane maze. Even worse were the hoofful of feral ghouls we caught sight of through prison bars or aimlessly wandering the floors, though some of them aimlessly wandered the same hallways we did.

I heard the first one coming before Grit did. An uneven scraping and shuffling of hooves ahead. “Wait,” I hissed, under my breath, staring down the hallway. My ears flicked and twitched, trying to pinpoint the sound, then Grit’s eyes widened as he heard it too, or maybe his PipBuck saw it.

He turned to a nearby open door, a closet, and ushered me inside. We pressed ourselves to the floor and waited in silence. For a few long minutes, the hoofsteps shuffled closer to us, and I could hear it groan in a raspy voice. Eventually, it continued on its way, and we moved on once neither of us could hear it. “Why didn’t you shoot it?” I asked in a low voice.

Grit shook his head. “Nah. Gun’s too loud. We’d have half a dozen more of ‘em on top of us. Best not t’ shoot ‘less we have to.”

After weaving our way through no less than two wings of the prison, we arrived at the third maintenance room. When we finally pushed our way in against the weight of a locker that had fallen down in front of the door, we both had to light our horns to illuminate the area. Or rather, I lit mine, and Grit used his magic to turn on his PipBuck light, bathing the room in green shades. Dust swirled and spun in the light, kicked up by our passage. A table had been flipped onto its side and a skeleton sat behind it, a battered revolver next to it. I quickly snatched up the pistol with my magic and determined that it was still functional, though in poor condition and with no ammo, then turned my attention to the real prize. The sight of a huge double-door, still locked tight, gave me hope that what we needed was still inside.

Yet even as I sat in front of the entrance to the storage room, a ghost of a smile on my muzzle, a sinking feeling wormed its way from the pit of my gut, up through my throat. There was a broken terminal on the floor next to the door. The lock was nothing more than a standard pin lock requiring a key. The kind of lock you had to know how to pick your way through. My father had attempted to teach me the basics of lockpicking, but I decided I had no interest. I was going to be a blacksmith, not a junk salesman, so why would I need to learn how to break into an old lock?

So there I sat. As a blacksmith.

Unable to pick a lock.

I glanced over at Grit at about the same time he looked to me. “Don’t s’pose you know anythin’ about lockpickin’?”

I shook my head, sitting on my haunches. My gaze focused at the lock for a long moment, refusing to let this… this door of all things stop me, not after I came so far. Sure, I could probably repair at least one of the bots with the parts I had, but I needed every cap I could scrounge. And now just a simple metal lock stood between me and tripling my sale price.

Tilting my head and narrowing my eyes, I stared at it. An idea bubbled slowly to the surface of my mind. It was just a metal lock, wasn’t it? “I think I can get us in,” I said slowly. I didn’t like this application of my smithing spell, but it was the only idea I had. “I’m going to try to weaken the lock. When I give the word, buck the doors as hard as you can. Got it?”

Grit nodded and turned away from the doors, looking back at me with intense curiosity. There was a flash of hesitation in me, a moment’s hiccup that made me realize I was going to give away a trade secret, but I shook it aside. What did it matter if Grit saw a spell of mine? It wasn’t as though he could mimic it, and even if he told everypony in Four Shoes it wouldn’t affect my business. But to some small part of me, it felt like an invasion of privacy.

With a slow breath, I forced myself to remember that I was doing all this so that I could keep my shop in the first place. All I had to do was pay off a mercenary, and not think about what comes after. Realizing that Grit was still staring at me curiously, I shook myself from my reverie with a snort, leaning my head down until my horn was right in front of the lock. The glow of my magic from the light spell faded as I stared at the lock. In my minds’ eye, I pictured the deadbolt extending out from the lock to the other door, and focused on that point where the doors met. The green haze around my horn intensified as I took a long, slow breath, concentrating everything on that point, even as my eyes grew heavy and my knees weak. My stomach growled in protest. My head even felt light and dizzy. But all of these were familiar sensations, my strength sapping away as I cast the spell.

A minute passed, then more. I lost track of time as exhaustion cradled me and threatened to lull me to sleep. Given what I was trying to do, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I was going to have to hold my spell for longer than I had ever done. Eventually, my persistence was rewarded, and I saw a faint reddish glow from the crack in the doors. Immediately, I dropped my spell and took a few quick steps back. “Now!” I gasped out, falling to my haunches and staring at the floor, sucking down great gulps of air as dizziness threatened to drown my consciousness.


The sharp noise of Grit’s buck forced me to look up, and for a moment I thought that it didn’t work, that all my effort was for naught. But then I realized that the doors had started to open inward, bending the weakened deadbolt.

It was working!

Grit saw it, too, and snapped another hard buck a the doors. On the third buck, the doors crashed open. A satisfied smile spread across my muzzle, even through my exhaustion. I looked over at him, and he back at me, beaming a cheery grin of his own for the first time since we’d walked into this place.

I forced myself to my hooves, setting aside thoughts of rest for when we got back to Stable 15. To my satisfaction, it seemed as though this storage room really hadn’t been disturbed in 200 years, and on a shelf lining the right wall were spare talismans, of all different shapes and connectors. I wished I knew enough about wartime technology to figure out what each of these were for. Instead, I settled on scooping them all into my bags, figuring I’d determine which was the right one for the spritebots once I had them in my hooves aga-

The screeching wail of an alarm system jabbed knives in my ears and made me duck my head between my forelegs for protection. I couldn’t even think through the sudden noise, though a small part of me was aware of other sounds rumbling through the metal and stone of the prison.

Finally the alarms died away, and I opened my eyes and lifted my head again cautiously. I didn’t even remember squeezing my eyes shut, but they had been. The speakers instead crackled to life with a whine of protest, and a static-filled sniggering echoed through the halls and cell blocks. “Gotcha now!” the voice cheered, and gave another burst of crazed, deep giggling that made me take an step backwards. “This little riot’s over! I’ve got the lockdown on, and we’ve had enough of this shit!” Another crackle of static and more giggling. My ears fell flat against my head. “Surrender and you’ll get a quick execution!”

The speakers cut out and Grit and I met each others’ eyes. I wasn’t sure how my own gaze looked to him, but I saw worry and fear in his, and I immediately dashed through the storage doors and to the entrance of the maintenance room, hooves skidding a little on the metal floor. Metallic clanking and whirring, then a staccato of rapid-fire gunshots stopped me in my tracks just before poking my head out the door, heart thundering in time with the guns. But then I realized that the gunshots weren’t aimed at the doorway. They were too far. The sound was coming from below us. Cautiously, with sharp gasps of breath, I poked my head just out the door long enough to see at least 3 turrets, popped up from trapdoors in the floor. One of them was mowing down a group of advancing ghouls.

I immediately ducked back in. They were far away, but I wasn’t about to take my chances that they’d be able to target me from the ground floor. I turned back to see Grit on his haunches, staring at his PipBuck. “The hell are you looking at?!” I exclaimed. We had to do something! Some crazy fucking pony had trapped us in the prison, and he was just-

“Quiet,” he answered, hairline fractures in his voice. “I need to look and see what we’re dealing with.”

The harshness in his voice caught me off guard. This wasn’t a Grit I’d ever seen. Hell, I’d never even heard of him being anything other than a friendly pony. Though I’d never paid close attention to local gossip. Had I missed something?

I fell to my haunches as the ice-cold stone in my gut threatened to choke me. I tried to come up with a plan. Rationalize. It was just another puzzle, right? Nothing came to my mind.

Nothing except thoughts of dying of starvation, insanity, or worse in this place.

Grit walked over to me and nudged me with a fetlock. I looked up at him, seeing a gentler expression on his face. “Sorry ‘bout that. Look, I think I can get us outta here, but we gotta do this my way, got it?”

I nodded, swallowing even though my mouth was dry. “Right. Okay.” A deep breath. “What do we do?”

“S’complicated,” he started. “See, I’m better at sneakin’ my way ‘round an’ such. I’ll go out, scout ‘round an’ start clearin’ a path for us t’ get back out.”

I didn’t like where this was going. “If you’re scouting ahead, what do I do?”

He grimaced and looked towards the doorway. “Jus’ park yourself here an’ I’ll come getcha when it’s safe. I’ll probably have to move you a bunch just t’ make sure I can keep th’ path clear.”

Well, I’d been right. I definitely did not like where this idea had gone. “That’s insane!” I shouted. Eyes widening, I looked towards the door then back to Grit, lowering my voice with a nicker. “It’s safer in numbers, you know that.”

“Ord’narily, I’d agree, but t’ be blunt, you’d jus’ make it damn near impossible t’ sneak ‘round. I can make my own way an’ figure out where we need to go. It’ll be safer for both of us.”

“I am not just cooping myself up in a corner just to wait for it to be safe.” Alone, I added mentally.

“Sorry, s’the way it’s gotta be. You-” he paused for half a second. “We’re in this mess an’ this is th’ way we gotta deal with it.” He flashed me one of his familiar grins, though I could swear I saw it wavering. “Trust me, we’ll get outta here safe an’ sound. I’ll be back in… ‘bout half an hour.” And with that, he walked up to the door, crouching low and slipping out without making a sound.

* * * * * * *

Trust him.

That’s what he said to do. Just two days ago, I couldn’t trust him to watch the inventory of my store for five minutes. I got up off my haunches and started pacing, constantly flicking my tail at the air. Nothing about this scenario put me at ease. I heard the heavy, stomping and squeaking treads of robots, broken occasionally by a burst of gunshots.

And with every round of gunfire that echoed through the hallways outside, I wondered if it was just more ghouls, or if one of those had been aimed at Grit. If he died out there, I’d be left to… to die alone here. Or worse, what if he just abandoned me? Cut his losses and run? It wouldn’t even have to be so dishonorable, if there was only a way out for him and not for me. I was no stealth expert. He had a father, a family waiting for him back at Stable 15. I only had my own livelihood. Hell, nopony back at Four Shoes would even miss me, would they?

I curled up on the floor as I felt my chest tighten and tears welled in my eyes. I squeezed them shut to hide them from… well from, nopony. Nopony was here.

I was alone.

I tried to pick up bits of scrap metal in my magic, floating them around as I forced ideas to my head of things I could do with them. But forcing ideas like this gave me no comfort, to say nothing of the fact that I wasn’t anywhere close to my home and my forge. I just knew if I could get back to that familiar, ruined fireplace, to just have a moment to myself wrapped in that warm blanket of the fire, I could sort myself out.

As it was, I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering. I couldn’t focus myself on any one idea. My mind drifted to my shop again, and then to Malice. That fucking bitch. It was her fault I was out here, wasn’t it? Trapped in a Celestia-forsaken prison, helpless to even get myself out. All because she wanted me to find some stallion of hers. What did she even care about him anyway? Raider bitch like her probably had plenty of other suitors lining up.

But no, she had to have this one, this Copper. And because of that, and because of Gumbo, the fucking coward, I had to go out into the Bayou. The only small mercy from all this would be if I could find and hire a mercenary. Even if it was unlikely, I had to cling to that hope. But as I tried, flash of cynicism shot through me, sneering at me that I would fail.

With that thought, the cold, terrified pit in my stomach twisted up and made me nauseous. My neck itched. I squeezed my eyes shut and listened to another staccato of gunfire. I just wanted to be home.


That did it. A memory I didn’t want to dwell on bubbled to the surface involuntarily. New Appleloosa wasn’t my home anymore. I didn’t think of it that way. My home was here, in Four Shoes. But still, the single thought crossed my mind, that made me wonder how my mother and father were doing. I hadn’t thought of them in years. Not after my father and I screaming at each other. My mother crying, trying to moderate.

My heart tightened again, causing me to wince from an imagined pain. My memory started to slip further back from there. Just to taunt me. My neck itched again, and in my mind I saw the inside of a truck trailer.

I smacked my head against the floor, sending me reeling but stopping the memory in its tracks. I stood up and wiped my eyes and muzzle with a fetlock, cleaning my face of the tears that had been flowing, though I didn’t even remember starting to cry. How long had it been since Grit left? I had no way of telling time, I realized. He said he’d be back in half an hour, but that felt like it had been so long ago. I peeked my head out the door to look at the turrets down below, before returning to pace the room. I needed to find something to occupy my mind.

Before any real ideas could come to me about how to spend my time, however, the speaker crackled to life again, with the same gravelly, static-filled voice as before. “You prisoners are too quiet. What kinda riot is this, huh?! I’m onto your game! Unless… of course, of course! I see!” The stallion gave another burst of atonal giggling. “You’re the fucking PINKS aren’t you?! Trying to sneak in, huh?! Well it won’t work! You won’t find anything!” He started screaming into the speakers, sounding almost desperate. “We got the right ponies! You hear me?! We always got the right ponies! You can fucking take that all the way to Princess Luna herself!”

In the span of a minute, I had gone from fearing for my life to utter confusion. I started to roll over the crazy stallion’s words in my mind when the entrance of the maintenance room opened just a crack, enough for Grit to silently dart back in.

Worry and fear melted into relief as I saw him again, though his expression remained serious as he glanced back out the door. “Okay, we gotta make this quick. Stick close t’ me.”

I nodded, eager to leave behind that maintenance room. We darted out the door and onto the catwalk overlooking the prison wing below, galloping full speed on the metal grating. Briefly, I worried about its stability, but the catwalk held until we reached a stairwell, running down two flights until we got to a corridor between two different cell blocks. Grit raised a foreleg to stop me at the bottom of the stairs. He looked left, then right around the corner, and nodded to himself, walking out quickly. I followed, and he led me around another corner into some kind of wide-open room with rows of tables. It vaguely reminded me of the cafeteria in Stable 15. He walked up to a set of double doors and opened them, motioning for me to follow. Inside was an absolute wreck of a kitchen, confirming my theory about the previous room.

“Alright,” Grit began. “Stay put here for a bit. I ain’t gonna be able t’ get us out in one trip, but this spot should be safe. I’ll go ahead an’ clear the path t’ the next safe spot I can find.” He took a heavy breath and shut his eyes, then looked straight at me. “I guess I’ll see ya in another half hour.”

I gave him a slow nod, ignoring the thick stone in my throat, and he was gone again.

Trying to distract myself, I began mulling over what the crazy stallion had said over the speakers. Who were the pinks? From what I remembered about wartime Equestria, the derogatory name for zebras had been “stripes,” hadn’t it? I sat on my haunches, tail swishing on the floor as I searched my memory again for any context. Like with the name of that pony on the clipboard in the visitor lobby, something about the name “pinks” tugged at my mind. Silver Trim… and the pinks…

The memory orb!

I remembered it all in a flood. The memory orb that I’d found in the Ministry of Morale building after the fight with Chainlink and the other slavers. The ponies that had come to arrest him had been wearing pink suits. What Ministry did they work for? My first instinct would have been to attribute them to the Ministry of Morale, given the organization’s near-obsession with the color pink. But that didn’t make sense. Why would the Ministry of Morale send ponies to one of its own prisons? I must have been mistaken about who the pinks were associated with. It was one of the only Ministries I knew off the top of my head, by name, the other two being Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Wartime Technology.

I glanced down at my shoulder, with the engraving of the stylized apple from the latter’s emblem. In hindsight, it seemed so silly to give myself the symbol of an organization and mare I knew nothing about. But somehow remembering that orange mare in the propaganda poster and her focused determination gave me a small bit of comfort.

* * * * * * *

How long had it been? Certainly Grit had been gone longer than the first time, I was sure of it. But how long had he even been gone on his first trip? I had no way of knowing. It felt like I could have walked from Four Shoes to Shipper in the time he’d been gone, but every minute I was alone with my thoughts felt like an eternity. My mind still wandered aimlessly, and I jumped at shadows and noises from outside. Was that the sound of hoofsteps outside? A ghoul coming to pin me down and eat me alive as I screamed in agony? Or was it just my heart pounding in my ears?

I drew my sword slowly and held it in front of me, hovering and bobbing in midair. It gave me small comfort, but also made me regret not practicing with it more. I’d been so proud of forging it that I’d made a promise to myself to become an expert swordsmare. Of course, I’d still been a filly, and the sword had been through no less than two reforgings since. My efforts were focused instead on running my shop. Compared to a safe home and a steady business, what measure was the ability to be just a little better at stabbing a pony?

A clattering of metal on metal came from outside. I jumped into the air as my pulse raced. There was no mistaking that sound. It was too close to chalk it up to my imagination, too distinct. Something was outside in the cafeteria. I crouched low to the ground, my belly pressing against the floor. I forced my ears to stay perked, listening for any other sounds. My eyes had adjusted somewhat to the dim kitchen, but I still couldn’t make out much detail.

Could it finally be Grit? Why wasn’t he saying anything?

I couldn’t take the silence anymore. My nerves were strained and frayed. “G… Grit?” I whispered to the empty room, directed at the door. “Is that you?” Staying crouched low, I crept towards the double doors, sword still hovering next to me. I pushed through, though I didn’t see anything initially. “Grit?” I asked again, my voice wavering. I heard hoofsteps but no answer.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I partially stood up, craning my neck to look at the room, then immediately saw the ghoul aimlessly wandering the cafeteria. With a sharp gasp I ducked down. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I had to get back in the kitchen. Sneak back in. Close the door. Hide. It was a good spot. Only had one door.

I crawled back to the double doors. Each hoofstep was so loud, when had my hooves gotten so loud against the hard floor? I pushed the doors open with my flank, backing away the whole time, sword ready to strike. As the doors finally closed in front of me, I caved to my adrenaline-shocked instincts and scrambled back away from it. I needed distances between myself and the door.

My back leg caught on something. A handle maybe, a cabinet door. It didn’t matter. There was a deafening CLANG-CRASH of pots and pans and dishes clattering against each other and on the floor, a long, drawn-out cacophony of metal on metal. My face twisted into a grimace, and by the time the noise calmed down, I had just a second to reconize the sound of galloping hoofsteps heading towards me from outside.

The ghoul burst through the door, snarling and hissing.

It charged straight for me, melted flesh, bloodshot and glazed eyes, and yellow teeth. It gave a raspy whinny as I ducked under it at the last second, tripping it unintentionally as I ducked under its snapping jaw. The ghoul went crashing into the pile of pots with another snarl. It struggled to free itself, snapping its muzzle at me. Before it could make another lunge, I grabbed the nearest heavy pan in my magic and smashed its head over and over. Slam after slam, crunching bone and squashing flesh as I caved its skull in, until I was left panting over its body. For good measure, I swept up my sword and stabbed it through what was left of its brain. I didn’t even remember dropping the weapon, but at some point it had fallen out of my grip.

Just as I found a cloth to wipe the blood off, Grit came bursting through the kitchen, pistols drawn. He immediately looked from me to the ghoul and closed his eyes, letting out a breath before holstering his guns. “Heard a commotion. Sorry I was late comin’ back.” He turned away to peek back out the double doors.

“What the hell took you so long anyway?” I hissed at him, trying to keep my voice down against my mounting aggression. I was getting rubbed raw by every new second I spent in this place.

He looked over his shoulder to level a glare at me. “I was busy,” he spat, turning his side to show me a fresh gash on the side of his barding and neck. It looked like he’d bandaged it up, but there was a tear in his armor and blood staining the cloth.

I stabbed a hoof at the air, pointing out his wound. “See?! This is why I said I should go with you, it’s too dangerous.”

“If you’d been with me, you’da just gotten us both killed!” he shot back.

“Excuse me? The fuck kind of idiot do you take me for?” I realized I was starting to yell, and I quickly hushed my voice back to a growl. “I may not be some ‘professional caravan guard,’ but I know you don’t split up to go off on some crazy-”

“Alloy, shut up and lookit me!” he snapped. I was stunned into silence and met his harsh gaze. “I don’t like this place any more’n you do. I didn’t even wanna be here, but here I am. Because I,” he walked up to me and jabbed a foreleg at my chest. “wanted t’help you. But you have to let me do this show my way. Got it?”

I nodded slowly, still a little shocked by his tone.

“Good.” He peeked back out the door and nodded to himself. “Stick close, and stay quiet.”

He slipped out of the double doors as I followed closed behind, seething at him. He didn’t have to come along if he didn’t want to. Could have stayed back in the Stable; hell, back in Four Shoes. Truth be told, I needed help out in the Bayou, as was being proven that very second, but he did volunteer to come with me. He knew it’d be dangerous, so why the hell was he complaining? I’m the one that didn’t have a choice in the matter.

I continued to let my temper simmer as we crept around the prison, finally getting back to the staff areas. I’d swear some of the hallways were even familiar, ones we had crossed through on our hunt for spare parts. The only comfort I had for this whole scenario was that the parts were sitting comfortably in my saddlebags. Even if it was out of our way, I had every intention of gathering up the spritebots to repair back in the safety of Stable 15. I refused to let this trip be a complete waste.

We ducked into a bathroom and Grit turned to face me again, his face softened since leaving the kitchen. “I gotta leave ya here again, but this should be th’ last one. Tha’s th’ good news.”

I closed my eyes and took a slow, calming breath. “What’s the bad news?”

“Can’t get out th’ way we came in. Not without ending th’ lockdown. From what I’ve seen, looks like th’ only place t’ do that is the warden’s room. Were I a bettin’ pony, I’d wager that was him on th’ speakers, too.”

“Can we even get in there?”

“I can get us in. Jus’ gotta get into th’ basement, but I’ll be quick.” He took a deep breath, glancing out the corridor.

I gave a sharp nod and parked myself in a corner in the bathroom, staring at the door. “Fine. Whatever gets us the fuck out of this place.”

Grit looked over at me curiously for a moment, then just slowly nodded and slipped out into the hallway.

At least this bathroom was better lit than the kitchen had been. But I was still stuck with nothing to keep me company but my own thoughts. I knew what was lurking just on the edges of my memory, too. It wasn’t even ten minutes before I felt the prickle of a taunting itch on my neck. I shook my head violently, trying to force the sensation away. I stood up and started pacing again. The Ministries. The pinks that the crazy voice on the loudspeaker was talking about. I could focus on that. Anything to take my mind off my own memories.

In my mind I played back through the whole memory of Silver Trim getting arrested by those stallions in Pink. Had they said they were from a Ministry? I couldn’t remember. Suddenly, I wished I’d brought the memory orb along just so I could see if anything made sense the second time around.

I rounded back to the wall in my pacing, staring at the floor as gears spun in my head endlessly, trying to occupy myself, anything to stop thinking about how Luna-damned close the walls were to me. I thought again of the orange-coated mare. Who was she? I had so little knowledge of wartime Equestria. Maybe I should read up on it when I got home.

Of course I’d have a lot of business to catch up on when I got home, there probably wouldn’t be any time. I’d have to make sure I had enough caps left from my trip to pay the rent on my store again, and get my business back up and running. And of course I’d have to work twice as fast to get Shipper’s order done on time, even if I didn’t need any coal.

I fell to my haunches again and let out a bitter chuckle. There I was, just thinking about my business agenda as though I knew I’d get back home safe and sound. Sure, we were closer to the exit than we had been in what felt like hours, but every few minutes I heard gunfire in the distance. Even this close to freedom, I still had everything riding on Grit getting us into the warden’s office and shutting down the lockdown.

I could starve to death here, with freedom just out of reach. Gumbo would shut down my store and sell it to somepony else. The new occupant would probably pawn off my anvil, or just use it as a table, not caring for how much of my life I’d poured into it. I wiped away the beginnings of tears in my eyes. I’d have time to cry if--when I got home.

* * * * * * *

True to his word this time, Grit came back shortly after he’d left, or at least it didn’t feel like he’d taken as long as he had for even his first trip. He quickly led me out of the bathroom and up two flights of stairs to a short corridor ending in a well-worn wooden door with a broken window. I could see the eerie glowing light of terminal screens from the other side. Grit looked at me with a silent nod and drew his pistols as we crept closer to the door. After all that I’d gone through today, I was ready to storm through the door and finally get out of this fucking hellhole. We were finally right next to the door.

I grabbed the handle with my telekinesis and was about to yank it open and charge through when I heard voices. Multiple voices, talking to each other! There were at least two ponies talking, occasionally broken up by the unmistakable, grinding murmur of the ghoul from the speakers. Were there more ponies inside the office? Were we outnumbered? My ears fell flat against my head and I buried my muzzle in my forehooves to stop myself from screaming in frustration. After all this sneaking and hiding, and the terror of every moment in this prison, there wasn’t anything I could do to help Grit fight, and he couldn’t fight three ponies by hims-

Wait. No. My ear flicked at the air. Were the other voices… crackling? Yes, that was static. It sounded like a recording of some kind. I craned my neck as I tried to pick out the words.

“...member, we always get the right pony. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

The recording cut off, and I heard the raspy whisperings again, mumbling something.

I felt my cheeks burn. How could a fucking recording have shaken me like this? I should have been able to immediately tell the artificial voices from the ghoul’s. In the end, we weren’t outnumbered. He was alone.

He was alone, and I was done with this shit. I was done with ghouls and robots and turrets and crazy ramblings over the speakers. This was going to end now. I bucked the door open, breaking the hinges in the process. A dozen or more monitors lined the far wall, with a single desk in front of them. An earth pony ghoul in a tattered suit was hunched a terminal at his desk. His head snapped up when I stormed in. Grey eyes went wide, he drew a pistol on me, firing off a trio of wild shots.

Acting on instinct, I ducked low and galloped forward, vividly remembering how terrified and powerless I had felt for this entire escape. I hated every second of that memory. I hated this ghoul for inflicting it on me. Grit shouted something, but I couldn’t make it out. In seconds I had closed the gap to the warden and slashed my sword across his chest and neck. He stumbled backwards, raising his pistol again, but I stabbed my sword straight through his head. His body went limp, yanking the blade from my magical grip as it fell to the floor. Bracing against his head with one hoof, I tugged and yanked until it came free, wiping off the blood on his suit before sheathing it again.

Grit was levelling a glare at me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to end the lockdown, retrieve the spritebots, and get back to Stable 15. “Y’didn’t have to kill ‘im,” he grumbled, walking up to the terminals and beginning to shutdown the security systems.

I glanced from him down at the corpse of the warden. Maybe I didn’t, but I couldn’t think of a better solution at the time. “He shot at us,” I snorted. “And he was completely insane.”

My companion just gave another grunt and kept working at the computer terminals. I turned away from him to look at the warden’s desk. Another terminal sat at it, with some weird sequence of numbers on the screen, followed by the word “REPLAY.” The word was highlighted on the green screen. I didn’t care to talk to Grit at the moment, and I’d had quite enough of sitting on my flank doing nothing. It took a minute of studying the keyboard to find the right key, but eventually I hit “ENTER,” and voices crackled to life from the terminal.

“Sir, here’s the final report for case 5620829. We’ve finished extracting and reviewing Silver Trim’s memories,” a mare’s voice said.

“Good, good. Let me have a look,” a stallion’s voice this time, though I didn’t recognize it either. There was a moment of silence, except for the shuffling of papers. “Did you find the information we needed?”

“I’m,” the mare began, hesitating, “Well, to be honest, we didn’t, sir.”

There was another sound of papers. “Well, what happened, Dream?” The stallion’s voice was slow and deliberate.

“Nothing, sir. We’ve just extracted and reviewed all of the prisoner’s memories, and everything checks out. We never saw a memory of him going anywhere near the shipping docks.”

There was a loud slam-crack of a hoof on wood as the stallion shouted in response, “That’s impossible! You and I both saw the footage! He was there!”

“We reviewed the memories twice, sir! He doesn’t have any recollection of the harbor!”

Another hoof slamming down on wood, then a low growl. “That makes three of these harbor cases, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Somepony must be getting to our suspects before we can and altering their memories. It’s a simple enough spell… if you have the proper training.” Papers shuffle and rustle again. “File this case away as classified and initiate surveillance on all unicorns in our arcane division.”

“Sir? You don’t think that-”

“I do. And don’t say another word, Sweet Dream. Remember, we always get the right pony. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

With that, the static cut off, signalling the end of the recording. I looked back at Grit, who I realized had stopped working on the security systems to turn and listen to the recording as well. At the end of the recording, I’d been able to identify the stallion’s voice as belonging to the warden. It did at least explain the existence of Silver Trim’s memory orb. If this prison had extracted all of his memories, they were probably especially interested in what he was doing the morning of his arrest. Grit looked concerned, and opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again and finished lifting the lockdown.

I shook my head. It was all just wartime nonsense, a curiosity had nothing to do with my own business, or my need to raise enough caps for a mercenary. The recording gave a semblance of context to the memory orb, such that what I had seen resembled pieces to another puzzle. But it could wait.

Everything else could wait until I was safe and sound in my own home again.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Level up!
Perk Added: Royal Canterlot Voice - You’ve got that little extra knack to talk or negotiate your way out of a jam. Before the bombs fell, you might have even been able to sell apple pies at a fancy party! You gain +5 to Speech and Barter

Quest Tracker: 10 days remaining

Chapter 6 - Market Expansion

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Chapter 6 - Market Expansion

A period when a company assesses current markets, identifies untapped markets, and seeks opportunities for revenue growth through new market opportunities.

“Fucking… Goddesses DAMMIT!

With a flash of anger, I yanked the small screwdriver out of the open spritebot and slammed it against the metal floor. It bounced and flew across the room, just as the door to Grit’s living quarters opened. The tool bounced sharply off the wall next to him, making him jump in surprise. I turned back towards the partially-disassembled robot, feeling my face flush.

“Guess it ain’t goin’ any better?” Grit asked, walking in and closing the door behind him. I shook my head with a low groan as he flopped onto the overstuffed red couch.

I’d woken up as early as I could to try and repair the spritebots, despite my exhaustion from the prison. Hours later, it was becoming clear that while I understood approximately what I needed to do to get the robots working, actually getting them to turn on seemed to be beyond me. At the rate things were going, I was going to have to try and sell the broken bots, which wouldn’t get me even half the price I had originally hoped for.

One last time.

Biting my lip, I picked up the screwdriver with my magic and floated it back over to me. I’d give it one more try, with the spritebot that was in the best condition. Disconnecting the talisman from the circuitry, I carefully rechecked all of of the connections inside the robot, and their mounting inside the durable armored frame. Grit sat down nearby, watching me work but saying nothing. I held up each component that I could to the light, and brushed off a few stray crumbs of dirt.

Drawing in a long, slow breath, I replaced the last bit of circuitry, and stared intently at the core talisman as I screwed it back into place and reconnected it. Closing up the bot, I spun it around in my magic and stared at the front plate, the wings, the laser pistol, searching for any sign of life.


My head fell, throat and gut tightening with another wave of frustration. Some part of me urged me to try again, questioned whether I had missed something. But I knew that without going back to study the basics of wartime robot repair, I wasn’t going to get it working anytime soon. I set the spritebot down next to the other two. At least I’d managed to repair their armor and check that the onboard MEWs were working. That would have to do.

“Well, now what?” Grit craned his neck and stared at the bots.

I turned back to face him. “Now,” I answered, “I need to take these to the Overmare and Pillar, and try to get a decent price.”

“They’re prob’ly a bit busy. Might have t’ wait for a bit.”

I glanced back at the spritebots with a scowl, tapping a hoof idly against the metal floor. Barging into the office to push my merchandise wasn’t going to help me get the sale. “Think you could get us a meeting with them today?”

Grit rolled his eyes. “Oh sure, I’ll jus’ get right on that.” He grumbled something under his breath before standing back up walking towards the door.

Something in his flat tone made me uneasy, but I couldn’t put my hoof on it. It was a distant cousin to the anxiety I felt when a customer was starting to get annoyed, but with a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. “Something wrong?”

He snorted and started to say something over his shoulder, but then turned around sharply. “Know what, there is ‘n fact.” He took a few steps closer with a glare. I unconsciously took a step back, my ears flat against my head, and he stopped advancing. Grit took a deep breath and cut the edge from his voice. “You ain’t said a word o’ thanks for yesterday. Now I toldja I came along ‘cause I wanted to help, but I almost got killed more’n once in that damn prison.”

“That wasn’t my fault! I-”

Grit stomped a hoof on the metal floor, shouting back, “Th’ whole thing was your idea!” We stared at each other in silence for a long moment, as I felt my stomach twist into knots. He turned away, taking a deep breath and walking towards the door, opening it with a tap of his hoof. Looking back at me, he spoke in a quieter voice, “I don’t really blame ya for what happened, but,” he paused, looking down at the floor, “a lil’ gratitude’d be nice.”

The door slid shut behind him, leaving me with only the low buzz of the lights.

* * * * * * *

Left to my own devices, I occupied myself with cleaning the spritebots, wiping away the grime and grease from their outer plating with a rag. In the few minutes after Grit left me alone, I had initially tried to process his outburst. Had I really not thanked him? I couldn’t remember. We’d had the whole walk back from the prison, but I don’t remember exchanging a word with him. But after what we’d just been through, was it that unusual? It had been dusk in the Bayou. I’d been preoccupied with getting back to the Stable in one piece.

I was just finishing cleaning up the spritebots when Grit came back into the room. A quick glance at the clock nearby told me he’d been gone just over an hour, but the time had actually passed swiftly for me. I’d made it a point of pride to at least have the spritebots look good for their sale. I hadn’t even thought out what I was going to say to him now, and I mentally kicked myself for losing track of time like that.

Just as I opened my mouth to start to say something to him, he interrupted. “Studio an’ Pillar agreed t’ meet with ya in a few minutes, s’long as ya keep it short.”

I nodded and picked up the three spritebots in my magic, floating them along in front of me as I followed Grit out the door and through the hallway. A dozen different ideas of how to broach the subject of repaying him cropped up in my head, and I briefly opened my mouth to start one, when the door in front of us slid open to the atrium. A dozen or so ponies milled around the cavernous central room. The general murmur of conversation and hooves faltered a bit as we walked in and some of the Stable ponies turned to stare at me. I shut my mouth again. It could wait until we had some privacy. It’d be unprofessional if we got into another argument in public like this.

Grit led me across the atrium and up the flight of stairs to the Overmare’s office. Had the hallway leading to the office always been so long? I couldn’t remember. I felt my heart beat faster and my legs felt jittery, and I fought off the urge to gallop in a circle to work off the energy. We reached the door and Grit glanced back at me wordlessly. I gave him a nod. He rapped on the door with a hoof, and a moment later it slid open.

Overmare Studio gestured welcomingly with a hoof from behind her desk. “Ah, yes, Alloy. Come in, come in.” Pillar was in the office with her, stopped in mid-pace to turn and watch me enter. Where Stable 15’s security pony was glaring at me suspiciously, Studio had a soft smile on her face, but the way she held it in place made me realize she was just hiding her own doubts. “Grit tells us you have somethin’ we might be interested in buying. I take it those spritebots have something to do with it?”

I took a breath and cleared my throat, steadying myself. “They do. As a matter of fact, I think that these three spritebots would serve your needs well.” I walked up to a nearby coffee table and set the robots down gently, in a neat row. Pillar immediately walked up to them and leaned his head down for closer examination. “These spritebots can be programmed as autonomous scouts or escorts for your own ponies venturing out into the Bayou for supplies. Each one is equipped with a compact magical laser pistol, two-way radio communications, camera for visual recording and transmission, storage compartment for field supplies, and can hover well over or around any obstacles in the Bayou.” I picked one of the spritebots up with my magic and floated it gently over to Studio’s desk so she could examine one for herself. She raised a hoof and nudged the robot gently to examine the underside. “They,” I glanced over to Pillar, but he was still in a staring contest with one of the bots on the table. “They could go out and scout the area around Stable 15 without risking the Stable itself or anypony’s life. Or they could supplement the ponies guarding the Stable entrance.”

Studio looked up at me with a gentle smile. “Well they certainly sound impressive.”

Pillar snorted, stopping her short. “So why aren’t they on?”

My body tensed up at that. I knew the question would come, and I was prepared for it, but I still felt a momentary hesitation overcome me. “Well, unfortunately I lack the tools or technical expertise to get them functioning ag-”

He nickered, turning to stare at me. “So they’re broken?” He took a step closer, but I stood my ground. “You’re tryin’ to sell us broken robots?”

I levelled my own gaze into his grey eyes and answered him directly. “No, they are not functional, but I have all of the spare parts required with me, including spare magical talismans and circuitry. From what I’ve seen of Stable 15, you have more than enough resources to restore these spritebots back to working condition.”

Pillar threw his head back and barked a laugh. “So you ARE trying to sell us bro-”

Which is why,” I cut him off deliberately, stomping my hoof on the metal floor before turning to address the Overmare, “I’m prepared to offer them at a much deeper discount that you would find anywhere else in the Wasteland.” I could feel Pillar staring at the side of my head. “I will offer a refund on any spritebot you and your ponies cannot repair.” Finally I turned back to Pillar. “I think 250 caps each should be a fair price.”

Pillar let out a long sigh and walked over to Studio. The two of them muttered to each other for a minute or two while I sat down on my haunches. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Grit near the doorway.

Studio waved a hoof at Pillar and looked up to me. “750 caps would be quite a toll on our savings.” She examined the spritebot on her desk again. “We’d be more comfortable with 150 each.”

I flicked my tail at the air, keeping eye contact with the Overmare. “Absolutely not. The scrap and components here are worth that much parted out.”

“Please understand, it’s difficult for us to acquire more caps. We can’t afford t’ spend that much in one place.”

I let out a small sigh. I sympathized with her. Hell, I wasn’t even sure how they got 500 caps, let alone enough to afford these robots. But I needed this money. And I needed it within the next week. The spritebots were the best break I’d gotten since setting out from Four Shoes, and I had to make enough so that this trip would have been worth it. I looked from Studio to Pillar, and back again. “225.”

Pillar barked a laugh at my counter offer. “That’s barely a scratch off your first price! But fine, if that’s how you want to do it, we can afford to spend 175 caps per spritebot, but I warn you, we won’t go higher.”

I took a step towards the brown-coated security stallion, locking my eyes to his. “I could say the same to you. But I’ll negotiate. 200 caps is my final offer.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, glanced to the Overmare, then back to me. “I just told you, 175 is the-”

“Thank you for your interest, but that concludes our negotiations.” I wheeled around and swiftly picked up the three spritebots with my magic, walking towards the door. “I refuse to stand here and be patronized. Have a good day, Overmare, Pillar.”

I had just enough time to see the look of total shock on Grit’s face as I walked to the exit.


I stopped in my tracks, one foreleg still raised in mid-step. For the third time, I’d been interrupted by Pillar’s baritone, but this time a grin spread across my face, hidden from everypony in the room. I set my hoof down in the silence. Wiping the concealed smile from my face, I turned my head over my shoulder to stare directly at Pillar, one eye cocked questioningly. I said nothing.

Pillar scrunched his muzzle and looked at me, the floor, Grit, the window, and finally the Overmare. She gave him a small nod. “We’ll… pay the 600 caps,” he grumbled.

For a long moment, I didn’t answer. It wasn’t entirely deliberate, I was trying to gauge whether I’d milk this to bump back up the price again. Maybe to 215? But I glanced over to Studio and faltered. I’d let it go this time. “I’m glad we could come to an agreement,” I finally replied, turning back to them and gently replacing the three spritebots on the coffee table. Studio bent under her under her desk for a few minutes. I heard the click of a latch, and the familiar jingling sound of bags of caps. When she popped back up and sat in her chair again, there was a bag in her teeth, which she set down on the table. The bag certainly looked heavy enough to have the right amount of caps, but I wasn’t about to sit down and count them out in front of my customers. They weren’t going anywhere, and neither was I; I could double-check the number back in Spark’s quarters.

I picked up the bag in a haze of green magic and opened the door, stepping out. Grit started to follow me out before Studio called after him, “Grit, could you take these down to maintenance? I’d like them ready as soon as possible.”

Grit headed back into the office and the door closed between us. I lingered in the hallway, staring at the closed door for a moment, but Grit didn’t come back out. Damn. This would have been a good time to find a way to thank him. I turned and started walking back to Spark’s quarters to drop off the caps, with one last glance at the shut door.

There’ll be another time.

* * * * * * *

A few hours and some lunch later - oatmeal again, with a carrot because I couldn’t get enough of that crisp crunch - I had just finished counting out the caps in Spark’s quarters and tucking away the jingling bags in my saddlebags. I was wondering if I should head down to see how repairs were coming along when Grit burst into the room, beaming with glee. “There y’are! C’mon topside, ya gotta see this!” Without waiting for me, he darted back out the door. I gave chase, and had to keep to a canter to keep up with him, slowing only to weave through the ponies in the atrium.

We passed through the massive steel door of the Stable and into the courtyard of the Community Center. Spark was there, a white lab coat over his grey natural one, and I recognized Pillar, a holstered magical energy pistol at his side. And to my relief, there were three floating, perfectly functional spritebots. I nodded at Pillar as we approached, but he just gave me a scowl.

And then I heard the music. It was faint, and polluted with static, but the spritebots were playing some kind of music I’d never heard before. There was no singing voice lamenting better days, or a lost love, or cheering on the troops. This was a steady, majestic melody, almost regal. I’d never heard instruments like it in my life. I strained to pick out the various sounds amid the static, frustrated that I couldn’t hear it with clarity.

Grit chuckled. “Innit awesome? And that ain’t even th’ best part!” I looked at him, confused by what he meant. He drew himself up, playing for the theatrics of it. “Tha’s a transmission. An’ somepony’s alive on th’ other end. Th’ music cuts out for some chatter every now ‘n’ then.”

Wait. That was it? I gave a soft sigh and flicked my tail as I looked back to the spritebots. “Well, so somepony else has a transmitter besides DJ-PON3, I guess. The music is,” I hesitated. “It’s lovely. I’ve never heard anything like it. But I don’t see what’s so important.”

I looked back at Grit, and saw he was still grinning.

With a roll of my eyes, I started to put the pieces together. “There’s more, isn’t there.”


Meeting his giddy grin with a flat stare of my own, I didn’t say anything else.

Grit looked between me, his father, and Pillar, the latter of whom was clearly getting more annoyed than I was. His giddy expression deflated slightly. “Aw, fine, fine, I’ll tell ya. Th’ transmission’s comin’ from closer by than Tenpony. Hell, dad thinks it might even be in th’ Bayou! And good news is we can use th’ bots t’ figure out where the source is.”

Somepony, with a radio transmitter, here in the Bayou? If that was true, that would mean at least enough of a settlement to protect it. “Is there bad news?”

“Kinda.” Grit inclined his head and frowned, turning to his father.

Spark filled in the gaps for him. “I’ll need t’ send the spritebots out t’ triangulate the source, but from my initial calculations, it looks like it’s on the far side of the Bridle River.”

“But there’s a tunnel nearby!” Grit jumped in. “Somethin’ built for traffic before th’ war. Should still be intact, an’ we can use it t’ cross!”

The pieces slid into place, and I stared at the gently bobbing trio of spritebots. This could be the answer to what I needed. As of this sale, I finally had reached my goal of one thousand caps. I wouldn’t have much leftover for cash on hoof, but I had the thousand to offer a mercenary to find Copper for me. And if somepony was on the other end of this transmission, with a settlement, I could see about making use of the transmitter to find a merc to take the job. Surely a town big enough to have a radio broadcaster would have contacts, or at least somepony to set me on the right path. This was the break I was hoping for! “How long will it take to figure out where the source is?” I asked, turning to Spark.

The older stallion rubbed his chin with a fetlock, staring at the spritebots. “Well, it’ll depend on these spritebots, but I don’t see it taking more than a few hours.”

Grit turned to me with a grin. “I’m gonna help my dad t’ get things movin’ along.”

I nodded. “Well, if you can figure out the source, we can head out there first thing tomorrow morning.” The sooner this whole job was over and done with, the sooner I could get back home.

A flash of… something crossed Grit’s face. I couldn’t quite tell. He covered it up quickly before I could process it, and turned to his father. The two of them exchanged a few muttered words I couldn’t make out, and Pillar just stared disapprovingly at me. Eventually, Grit turned back to me and nodded. “Alright. I’ll get things sorted out with my dad, an’ we can head out in th’ mornin’.”

With one final nod, I turned and headed back down into the Stable. I had caught a break, and found a way that might help me contact a mercenary. And I still had more than a week to go before Malice’s deadline.

So why did I feel like I’d failed somehow?

* * * * * * *

I was restless. I couldn’t stop pacing around in circles, or wandering the corridors of the Stable. This was the single most uncomfortable, disquieting sensation I had ever experienced.

I was bored.

Since I knew setting up my shop in the atrium again wouldn’t get me any more caps, and Grit was busy with his father for the rest of the day, I found myself in the rare situation of having free time. I hated it. I couldn’t sit still. I felt somewhat tired after the previous day in the prison, but the idea of taking a nap galled me. What if I overslept and threw my entire sleep schedule out of whack? No, better to find something to do.

Eventually, wandering through the Stable delivered me to a room branching off of the atrium, lined with bookshelves. I wandered in, walking around the small library to see if they had any books on smithing, or wartime manufacturing. Something I could apply to my day-to-day work. Instead, what I mostly found were titles relating to Equestrian diplomacy, history books of Equestria and other cultures, and even a few on zebra culture.

Nothing really caught my attention until my eyes fell on the most colorful, intricate cover I’d ever seen. This book wasn’t like the others. It was thinner, and the cover was flimsy, flexible. On the front, instead of a dry title and a simple graphic, here was a caramel-colored earth pony mare with a brown mane, rearing up and holding a giant sword between her teeth. The blade was almost the size of her, and I was amazed she could even lift it, let alone wield it in a fight, but she was swinging it viciously at a towering equine figure wearing black armor. The figure had a sword of its own, and was locked in a duel with the caramel mare.

Several other ponies were gathered around her, battling a horde of dark creatures with glowing red eyes. A pink pegasus was swooping low and delivering a dive-buck to one of the monsters, while a pair of unicorns fired blasts of arcane magic. One of the unicorns had a white coat and soft blue mane, while the other had the reverse colors. And across the top, in bold, powerful lettering, were the words, “SWORD MARE #7: KNIGHT OF NIGHTMARES”

I flipped the book open curiously, and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen a book filled with colorful, lively, artwork like this. I stared at each new page in awe, marvelling at the depictions of this quartet in a heroic struggle against evil. There were even depictions of Celestia and Luna! The Goddesses themselves, right here in this book! I didn’t know when, but at some point, I had fallen to my haunches, sitting in the middle of the library. As soon as I saw the rendition of the Goddesses, I closed it and carried with my magic towards the desk I had seen at the front.

An elderly earth pony mare with a green coat sat at the desk, a book of her own open in front of her, glasses resting on her muzzle. When she looked up at me, recognition lit her eyes. “Oh, you’re that shopkeeper. What can I do for you, dear?”

Taking a deep breath, I tried to slow my heartbeat. I swallowed and floated the comic next to me. “I’d like to purchase this book.”

The older mare blinked in surprise, as if she wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Well, I’m afraid the books here aren’t for sale,” she finally said slowly. “Stable residents borrow them and bring them back.”

I felt a stabbing, deep weight in my chest. I did my best to mask my disappointment, but I felt my ears drop nonetheless. “I see.” I swallowed and turned to walk back to the shelf.

“Of course,” the mare began, catching my attention again. I looked back to her. “I suppose nopony would mind if I gave you a long-term loan.” She gave me a warm, sympathetic smile, thinking for a moment to herself. “I’ll have to ask for a small deposit in case the book isn’t in good condition when it’s returned.”

My face lit up, ears perking to attention again, figuring out what the mare was doing. I rooted around in the pockets of my barding, and found a few caps, just some spare change I kept on me. I gave her a slightly embarrassed look. “Would 5 caps cover it?”

She nodded and I deposited the caps on her desk, trotting off back to Spark’s quarters, unable to hide the grin on my face. It was all I could do to stop myself from trying to read it while I ran. When I arrived back in the room, I curled up on the old red couch, and began reading the story, about this Sword Mare and her friends fighting back against these monsters of evil. No wartime propaganda, no zebras hiding behind every door, just a simple story of good against evil. The story itself wasn’t important to me, and frankly was naive and simple. But every single page was filled with an artist’s passion, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

At some point after the tenth read or so, I fell asleep on the sofa, the book resting on top of me.

* * * * * * *

The next morning, with fresh supplies, my new book - a comic book, Grit told me it was called - tucked away in a protective baggie, and a blip on Grit’s PipBuck to follow, we crept out from the Community Center. A small crowd of the Stable ponies lurked at the giant, cog-shaped door of Stable 15 to see us off. Or rather, to see Grit off. A few of them glanced suspiciously at me and one or two mumbled a “Good luck,” but it was clear they weren’t there for me. I didn’t mind.

Spark took his son aside and the two spoke for a minute. I found a spot of wall to stare at to give the family some privacy. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized this before, but I hadn’t seen any sign of Grit’s mother. Grit and Spark hadn’t mentioned her either. I thought about asking later what had happened, but there really only could be one explanation, especially in the Wasteland. Better to not talk about the past. I knew I wouldn’t want somepony prying into mine.

Leaving the comforts of the Stable behind, we wove a path west through the broken streets and buildings, moving at a cautious pace through the misty morning. We could still see a fair ways, and Grit assured me that the mist didn’t interfere with his PipBuck’s ability to detect threats nearby, but I still kept glancing around warily as we walked. Plant growth had forced its way through the broken asphalt and crept its way up buildings and wagons alike. We rounded the corner of a once-tall office building that had toppled onto its side, crushing two side streets and dozens of wagons with its corpse, and the unmistakable sight of the Bridle River opened up before me once again. The coastline was still as jarring as before, the grey waters of the river stretching as far as I could see. The haze clinging to the waters made it impossible to see the opposite coastline.

I glanced over to Grit, who was sitting on his haunches, staring at his PipBuck. After a moment he stood up, nodding his head to our left. “Looks like th’ tunnel entrance’s this way. Jus’ a few blocks down.” He started walking, and I turned to follow.


I stopped, midstep as I thought I saw something in the corner of my eye. A faint pulse of light? A fire of some kind? No… It must have been my imagination. Shaking my head I quickened my pace to a brief trot to catch up to Grit. He glanced sidelong at me and wordlessly kept walking. His silence made me even more uncomfortable. I had to fix this somehow, even if it was a day late.

“Look,” I started, feeling a tingle as I caught him glancing at me again. “I know I haven’t shown my appreciation at all, but I really am grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I,” I paused, searching for the right words. Would this even work? “I couldn’t have made it this far without your help. So… Thank you.” He finally cracked a small smile, and inexplicably I felt… warmer from getting that off my chest. I was actually glad that he was smiling again. Where the hell did that come from? “When this is all over and we get back to Four Shoes, I promise I’ll find a way to repay you somehow. We can even negotiate the price now if you want, or some kind of store credit or-” I stopped my rambling as I realized Grit was snickering, trying and failing to stifle it. “What’s so funny?”

He finally let out his snicker and shook his head. “Nothin’, nothin’, jus’... ya never stop thinkin’ about business, do ya?” He flashed a smile and we veered towards a squat building near the coast, still largely intact somehow. “I toldja yesterday, I came along ‘cause I wanted t’ help. S’all there is to it. Y’don’t need t’ pay me.”

That didn’t make a bit of sense to me. Why in the name of the Goddesses would somepony risk their lives to help a merchant like me without any compensation? Helping for its own sake? The hell was the point of th-

My eyes shot wide.


Oh sweet Celestia, why didn’t I think of it before?

I was incredibly glad that at that very moment, Grit had his back to me, and couldn’t see my jaw fall open as the possibility hit me. Does… Goddesses above, does Grit have a crush on me?! I thought about it carefully. It was a possibility, sure, but I hadn’t noticed him acting any differently to me than he had anypony else in Four Shoes. Then again, it took me this long to even consider that idea, so apparently I was thicker than I realized. I’d have to be careful not to reciprocate. I didn’t want to send him the wrong message. But what if he does have a crush on me and I break his heart, and he leaves me out in the Wasteland? I rolled up my jaw and followed Grit through the streets. Alright, Alloy. Just… pay attention. Focus. You know now, so just… watch closely. Easy.

* * * * * * *

The tunnel loomed up in front of us, wagons piled up near the entrance. It looked like some of them had collided with each other when the bombs fell. Bones were strewn about the ancient wrecks, and I could pick out at least a few skulls. A rusted-out hulk of a truck nearly blocked the entire entrance by itself, but there was enough room cleared to one side for us to fit through. Grit led the way, flicking on his PipBuck light with a tap of his hoof and drawing one of his pistols in a haze of blue magic. I lit my own horn for light and followed him in.

The mist had settled into the tunnel as well, rippling and swirling around our hooves as we walked. Our pace was slow, cautious. Thankfully the tunnel seemed intact, though the air felt heavy, every breath thick with humidity I’d never felt before, even living in the Bayou for years. Grit’s PipBuck clicked softly, confirming my fear that the humid air was also irradiated. We had to make this a quick trip through the tunnel, there wasn’t going to be enough RadAway for us to get stuck down here too long. I swore I could already feel my stomach churning. The sensation of nausea almost made me wobble on my hooves, but I kept my balance as we pressed on.

When the tunnel finally levelled out, beneath the river itself, it made a gentle curve to the right. The walls were largely intact, but occasionally the eerie green light hinted at a web of cracks stretching beyond what we could see. Even if it had been bright, we couldn’t keep to more than a walking pace. Rusted-out wagons littered the tunnel, strewn and abandoned. The smell of their corpses was almost overpowering, that tang of stale air and old iron. And forever accompanying the wagons were the broken skeletons of centuries-dead ponies, left in the seats, by the doors, and littering the ground in the hundreds. I’d never seen just so many skeletons in one place. It sent a chill down my spine, and I focused on moving forward, following Grit, ignoring the occasional clicking from his PipBuck, walking around the old vehicles and remains.

And trying to ignore the reflective, wet patches of ground and wall.

I couldn’t keep silent anymore. I had to find something to take my mind off of the oppressive tunnel walls and heavy air. Grit wasn’t even telling stories the way he did on the way to Shipper, to Stable 15, or even to the prison. He was silent, carrying his pistol in a cushion of magic and slowly turning his head from side to side, watching for anything that might be living down here. Another soft crackling of his PipBuck. “How bad is the radiation?” I asked softly.

He glanced at me, and then back to our surroundings as we walked over the hood one wagon. “S’not bad. Never gets over 3 rads. Wouldn’t wanna sleep down here but we’ll be fine with th’ RadAway we’ve got.”

I nodded, though he wasn’t looking at me. My gut still churned and I thought I felt nausea, but I wondered if it really was the radiation, or I was just imagining it, making myself nauseous by focusing on the knowledge that radiation was seeping into me. I shook my head and just followed along, focusing on one hoof in front of the other, thinking about the caps I could feel in my saddlebags now. It’s just a tunnel. Just a small… underground ruin, like all the rest of the ruins. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to ignore how close the dark, damp walls felt.

And then I tripped and fell flat onto my muzzle.

Well, I supposed I had that coming. Closing my eyes even for a moment while walking in this debris-strewn tunnel was just asking for it. I pulled my face up from the hard asphalt, rubbing my bruised nose (and pride) on my foreleg. “Y’alright there? What happened?”

I looked up to see Grit standing over me, genuine concern on his face. He glanced around behind me, sweeping the area for creatures or predators. “I’m fine,” I groaned, getting to my hooves. “I just tripped.” Looking under me, I saw I had tripped on a dislodged bumper. I looked back to Grit to see him staring at one of the walls. “Let’s keep moving,” I said, snapping his attention back to me. “I’d like to get through here as quickly as possible.” We pressed on, and I gave one more glance back at the bumper. If it hadn’t been as long as I was tall, not to mention covered in rust, I would have taken it with me as scrap metal.

Although… ideas sprang into my head, ideas that would have me galloping to my forge so I could shape them into reality if I could. I wanted to use that concave design on something. An earing maybe? What about armor? Some kind of overlapping, banded plate? Designs and shapes raced through my head, even though I knew I couldn’t achieve any of them. I tried to hold them in my head as long as I could, focusing on the core, driving forces behind them. I couldn’t even stop to rummage through my saddlebags to find appropriate pieces of scrap to fit together, not with the radiation down here. A fresh ache formed in my gut, as I once again found myself wishing for the warmth of my forge’s fire. But at least, at the very least, these ideas gave me something to focus my attention on.

Even if they made my heart sore.

* * * * * * *

Barely 15 minutes later, I couldn’t focus on my designs anymore. I was instead focused on the dead end in front of us. A truck that looked like it was designed to carry other wagons and vehicles had been tossed and rammed against the walls of the tunnel. Between its twisted form that looked like the skeletal ribcage of a dragon, and the dozen wagons smashed around it, the tunnel was impassable.

We walked along the blockade, searching for some way through that wouldn’t result in getting impaled on the split ends of the wreckages, but found nothing. And the ticking of Grit’s PipBuck had gotten faster. We couldn’t linger here. “Well, this was a waste.” I sighed, letting my ears droop. “We’ll just have to head back to the Stable and see if there’s another way.”

Grit kicked at a rock, letting it ping off of a wreck. “Yea. Maybe we… we could…” His voice trailed off. I turned to look at him, and found him staring at the tunnel wall. He took a few cautious steps forward, cocking his head.

I walked up beside him, looking from him to the wall. “We could what?”

His gaze darted over to me and then back to the wall. “Uh, sorry, I just-” he cut himself off, walking closer towards the spot on the tunnel wall. “You see that?”

Huh? What in Equestria was he talking about? I looked at the spot on the wall. Even with the light from my horn and Grit’s PipBuck, visibility was dismal. Detail and definition were lost in the emerald green haze. Still, the section of wall looked no different to me than it did any other spot in this Celestia-forsaken tunnel. “I don’t see anything.” I turned away and started back the way we came. “C’mon, if we hurry we might be able to get back to the Stable in time to find a different way to cross the Bridle today.”

“Jus’... Hang on a tic’,” he said, closing the gap on the wall and reaching up with a foreleg. He rapped on the concrete with his hoof, and before I could ask him what he was doing, a section of the wall next to him shifted, popping outward slightly, then swinging open with a grinding whine of protest.

My mouth hung ajar, head tilted in bewilderment. “What,” I paused, taking a step closer to the ominous door. “What in Equestria is that?” My voice was a conspiratorial whisper.

Grit cautiously stepped towards the door and peeked his head around the corner. A moment later he fell to his haunches and stared at his PipBuck screen for a few minutes, fiddling with the buttons and dials. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he mused under his breath. He looked up at me and grinned his familiar grin. “Think this is our ticket t’ the other side. Looks like this tunnel here leads t’ the other side o’ th’ river.”

I perked up at this news, already feeling better. “That’s great for us, but how can you tell?” I walked towards the open door and poked my head through, green light spilling out of my horn and stretching down the corridor I could see. This tunnel looked a little more rough-hewn than its parent, some uneven patches in the walls and ceiling from a lack of concrete lining, but it at least had supports and a framework holding it together.

And as a point in its favor, it wasn’t filled with the choking stench of rust.

He tapped his PipBuck with a foreleg as he passed me, walking into the hidden passage. “This lil’ guy told me. But this way migh’ not be a straight shot ‘cross. Stick close, yea?”

I nodded, and followed him through the hidden door.

What I immediately noticed after a few minutes was that this passageway made me more nervous than the tunnel we’d just left. At least it smelled marginally better. The metallic support structure told me that ponies originally built it, but these winding tunnels just put me on edge, to say nothing of the smaller passageways branching haphazardly off of our path, making this place felt like some kind of nest. I drew out my revolver, to try and calm my nerves. I might have been a terrible shot, but in this confined space, maybe I could actually hit a target.

Several of the smaller side passages we walked past had no support structure. Ponies could still have fit down them, but I wondered if they really were originally part of this network. I hoped that they were.

We kept walking in silence, and as much as the quiet unnerved me, I didn’t want to risk making more noise than we already were, our hooves clacking and scuffling on the stone and packed dirt. We descended even further, and walked up ramps or spiraling paths, stopping every few minutes for Grit to check his PipBuck More than once, we stepped over or walked past skeletons of ponies, curled against the walls. And as we continued further on into the labyrinth, the ticking of Grit’s PipBuck was a constant reminder that we were on a timer.

Finally, we had to rest a moment. The nausea I hadn’t been sure of before had turned into a very real churning in the pit of my stomach, and my head felt light. A dull ache throbbed in my ears with every beat of my heart. Grit wasn’t looking much better. “Let’s” he began, speaking in a low mumble “let’s stop here a sec’. Should…” he swallowed, sitting down on his haunches, “Bust out th’ RadAway. Gon’ have t’ ration it though, I think we still got ‘bout half an hour t’ walk down here.”

I nodded, floating my own bag of the orange fluid from my saddlebags. Grit did the same with his own, and we each took a swig from the vile drink. If it hadn’t alleviated my mounting nausea, I would have puked up my breakfast right then and there. As it was, it just left me gagging and coughing. By the Goddesses, the taste of the cure alone was enough to make somepony never want to get radiation sickness, to say nothing of the actual radiation sickness.

We pressed on immediately after, though I holstered my revolver to pull out my canteen and a carrot from Stable 15. As we walked, I drank a mouthful of water - swishing it around my mouth first to wash down the RadAway - then bit into the crunchy vegetable, savoring what little taste it had. I only wished I could have carrots every day, and imagined how real, pre-war carrots must have tasted. If it was anything like this, I would have been in heaven from a single bite.

To my relief, our path started ascending, back towards the surface I hoped. Grit was still silent, sweeping the darkened caverns with one of his pistols, and I had my revolver out again. My thoughts kept drifting back to the caves themselves. Mostly they were winding, narrow corridors separating expansive, bulbous chambers, but I never saw any indication of their purpose. It didn’t really matter, but I needed something to take my mind off the constant, chattering clicks coming from Grit’s PipBuck. We must have been down there for an hour or so, and the Luna-damned thing never shut up.

Eventually, something did break the silent monotony: we hit another dead end.

Grit stared at his PipBuck, back at the wall, then his PipBuck again. “I don’ get it, th’ map says there’s a path here!” He tapped his PipBuck a few times with a hoof but only got the same staticy clicking of the geiger counter.

I stared at the end of the corridor. “Maybe there’s another hidden switch?” I walked towards the dead end, searching the sides of the wall as closely as I could. Grit followed my lead, nodding and checking the opposite wall. I didn’t see anything that looked like a switch, but then again I hadn’t seen the first one. Judging from Grit’s exasperated groan of frustration, he didn’t have much better luck.

“I don’ get it,” he repeated, staring at his PipBuck. I was about to suggest we turn back the way we came, see if there was a route we missed, when he turned and bucked the dead end in frustration. To both of our surprise, his back leg sunk into the wall and held there. “Th’ hell?” He tugged at his leg and it came free immediately, and both of us trotted up to the wall.

I brushed a foreleg along the dirt wall. “It’s looser than the cave walls. Maybe it was more recent?”

“Yea… yea tha’s gotta be it! C’mon, let’s dig our way through!” He immediately dove at the wall and started shoveling hooffulls of dirt aside with his forelegs.

“Grit,” I sighed, feeling that churning in my stomach again. “We don’t even know how thick this wall is.”

He groaned and looked back at me. “Well, sure, bu’ we should try. Wha’ if it’s only a few feet deep?”

“Fine, fine, we’ll give it a few minutes. But at least use this instead of your bare hooves." I opened my saddlebags and rooted around my collection of scrap metal. I knew it had to be somewhere in here. There! I pulled out two flattened pieces of metal. They used to be part of the armor on a robot, or maybe even pieces of power armor. I wasn’t exactly sure, to be honest. But the important part was that they were wide, relatively flat, and perfect for shovelling.

With a grin, Grit took one of them with his own blue-tinted magic, scooping away at the dirt wall with renewed vigor. I joined him and shoveled methodically, finding a rhythm that wouldn’t tire me out. I was already feeling the strain of keeping my horn lit for illumination as long as I had. I’d never used a light spell for that long, and I wasn’t as accustomed to it as I was my telekinesis. “But just so you know,” I told him, “we still can’t try this for long.”

“Yea, I know, I know, don’ have t’ be such a sourpuss. We’ll turn back after a few minutes, promise.” He glanced up at me between shovelfuls of dirt. “Wouldn’t kill ya t’ be optimistic once in a while, y’know.”

My only reply was a snort. Optimism? In the Wasteland? Grit was a damn good guardspony, but sometimes it really did show that he grew up in a Stable. I was debating whether to mention this to him when he gave a triumphant shout.

I leaned over his head, and to my amazement, only a few feet deep, he’d broken through to see the other side. “I toldja! See?” He gave me a nudge with one foreleg. “Jus’ gotta have a lil’ optimism every now ‘n’ then.”

Some ponies had all the fucking luck.

We cleared ourselves enough of a path to crawl through the dirt wall, and I immediately noticed the change in stench. Not that the traffic tunnel or the cave network we had crawled through had smelled pleasant, but this side smelled of something rotting. I couldn’t help myself anymore. Between the constant nausea from the radiation and now this wave of decay, I immediately turned to face a wall and braced myself. My eyes teared up, and the contents of my stomach emptied onto the ground. I wiped my mouth on a fetlock, coughing and spitting up the last of it. Carrots definitely did not have the same appeal coming back up.

“Y’okay there?” Grit walked over and leaned down next to me, furrowing his brow.

I nodded slowly, eyes squeezed shut. “I’m fine. Fine.” I opened my eyes and took a deep breath, trying my hardest to ignore the stench. It wasn’t quite as bad as the first overpowering whiff. “Let’s just get out of here as quickly as we can.”

Grit opened his mouth, about to say something, but stopped himself. “Alrigh’y then. Shouldn’t be too much longer anywho.” With another glance at his PipBuck, we continued along the passageway.

Nodding again, I followed after him, hoping he was right.

Something about this new passageway made my hide crawl within moments. I stopped to tug at my barding with my teeth, and realized that I could hear a faint sound of scratching and skittering in the dark. I looked around a corner as we passed it by, and saw the briefest glimpse of beady, shining eyes. Slamming a hoof over my mouth to stop myself from yelling in surprise, I glanced at Grit. One of his 10 mm pistols was floating in the blue grip of his magic as he slowly walked ahead.

I cantered up next to him, wincing at the noise I made when my hoof splashed down in a puddle of liquid, and gave him a nudge. When he slowly turned to look at me, I motioned back at the passageway I’d seen the eyes in. He looked past me, then back at me and slowly nodded. It seemed like he had noticed, too. I drew my revolver and stuck close, keeping pace with Grit. Every new turn quickened my heartbeat as he motioned for me to wait, peering slowly around another corner.

A booming gunshot and a flash lit up the tunnel ahead.

“MOVE!” he yelled. We leapt into a gallop, stealth abandoned. I tried to see what was ahead, but all I caught sight of were the bloody bodies that we trampled as our pace became a gallop through the caves. We stopped at another corner, Grit slamming to a halt, pistol barking and flashing in the dark. I turned to see four or five of them skittering up behind us.

Scraggly grey fur on bloated bodies, fleshy tails, and buck teeth. They were rats of some kind. I panicked, squeezing off two shots that went wild. They were small, only a little smaller than a bloatsprite, and fast, how the hell were they so fast?! I backed up quickly. The beady eyes and snarling teeth were coming for me. I tried to take a breath, to aim. I fired again, three times, and caught one. My heart was thundered in my chest, they were right on top of me now! I reared up and squashed one underneath a hoof. A spike of pain burned through the back of my neck, and I flailed and thrashed my head. I cried out, thrashing and bucking my head to get it off, twisting my head to see if I could grab it with my magic.

Another bang and a flash, and the jaws fell off my neck. Another two gunshots and two more died in front of me. I wheeled around to the sight of Grit aiming his pistol past me. “Run for it!” he yelled. I didn’t have to be told twice.

Our hooves were a thunderous beat matching my own heart. I glanced back now and again to see the rats chasing us. In the winding passageways, we couldn’t keep to a full gallop. “Almost there!” Grit called back, firing his pistol again and again ahead of us. Bloody bodies popped beneath our hooves. I saw the door! Straight ahead! We slammed to a stop right in front of it and turned to face the rats coming up behind us. Grit punched a switch on the wall.

I tossed my revolver in my bags in favor of my sword, slashing it at the wall of teeth and fur. I heard the door grinding, squealing open. Grit fired his pistol in a rhythm. I swung my sword wildly. There were too many. Just as the door opened and we turned to gallop into the cloudy daylight, I felt another pair of jaws close around my back leg. I let out a gasp and a cry, turning my sword to skewer the rat biting my leg. I ran outside, tumbling over Grit. We both quickly found our hooves and galloped away from the open door.

They didn’t follow.

We stood there in the clearing, facing the darkened doorway, for what felt like ages, falling to our haunches, gasping for breath. I looked at my sword in disgust, shaking the body of the rat off of it. The back of my neck and my leg throbbed in time with my racing heartbeat, and I felt the warmth of blood seeping into my coat. I looked over at Grit. He had fared much better than me, in fact it seemed like he hadn’t taken any injury at all. He looked over to me, and his eyes widened. “You’re bleedin’!”

I just nodded, still sucking down gulps of air. The motion of my neck made my bite wound sting with fresh pain. My head was spinning, and I felt like I was going to throw up again. I stared at the ground to try and catch my balance, and didn’t realize Grit was approaching me until I felt a bandage start to wrap around my neck. I glanced over at him, taking another deep breath. My first instinct was to object to him bandaging my wounds for me, but I didn’t know precisely where the bite on my neck was, so that at least made sense. I got to my feet when he was done and gave him a curt nod. “Thanks. I’ll get my leg.” Before he could object, I took the roll of bandages from him. They weren’t quite as good as a healing potion, but the small amount of magic in them would at least stop the bleeding and sterilize the probably-filthy bite wounds.

Once the bandage was tied off, I finally took a moment to look around at where we’d ended up. We had made it to the far side of the river. That much I knew right away from how different the surroundings were. A building here or there still lay in rubbled ruin, but they were fewer, and I knew I had never seen trees like this before. Most of them stood as skeletal leftovers of what they once were, but here and there I spotted a more twisted, yellow-barked plant growing up out of a ruined office, or forcing its way through half of a beached ship. A few of them were taller than my home.

Thankfully we were still by the coast, the vast expanse of the Bridle stretching out to our right. The door we had scrambled out of seemed to have once been part of somepony’s house. Looking out towards the river, I saw the bridge that used to span it, though I wasn’t sure where the exit was to our original tunnel route.

I waved a foreleg in the direction of the bridge. “How far off the track are we?”

Grit just shook his head and brought his PipBuck up to stare at it and fiddle with it some more. I stood up and walked a little closer towards the coast, staring across at the opposite shore. The skyline of the ruined city. I’d lost track of how many bombed out houses I’d seen, burnt skeletons, collapsed ruins, abandoned facilities. Hell, I lived in the remains of somepony’s house from before the war. But I’d never seen anything on this scale. I could see dozens upon dozens of broken buildings, collapsed, toppled into each other, and some even still standing, husks of their former glory. For just a brief moment, I caught myself imagining what the city might have looked like before the war.

I turned away, violently shaking my head.

No. No, I couldn’t start thinking about that now. Goddesses, it was the fucking Wasteland. There was enough that could drive a pony crazy without dwelling on what used to be Equestria. Just needed to get to the radio broadcaster, wherever it was, contact a mercenary, get Malice the pony- get Malice what she wanted, and go home. What I wouldn’t do for just ten minutes in front of my forge right now, to just stare into the warm, flickering fire and let it steal away the stresses of the days.

“Alrighty,” Grit called out behind me. I turned around and started to walk back towards him. He got back to his hooves and made his way to me. “Looks like we’re a lil’ further south than we need t’ be, but it shouldn’… be…” He trailed off, his eyes staring past me. He didn’t look shocked or terrified, he was just staring. I turned around to see what had his attention.

And just for half a second, too late to stop myself, I realized.

But then the realization disappeared, evaporating in my mind like so much mist. There, before my eyes, was the most heartbreakingly beautiful light I had ever seen. It bobbed and pulsed at me, weaving through the air in a dance of brilliant emerald that made me want to join it. I wanted nothing more than to embrace the light and dance with it, but why was it so far away from me? I had to reach out. What had I even been doing? It didn’t matter. My hooves moved me closer and closer to the light, my heart beating a slow rhythm in my chest.

Even as I moved forward, the light seemed to be getting farther away. Why couldn’t I reach it yet? I kept walking towards it, dreaming of the moment I could finally touch the light and protect it. It was the most precious thing in all the Wasteland. Dimly, I was aware that my hooves felt cold… and wet? It didn’t really matter. The light was right there… I was almost able to reach out to it…!

An ear-splitting shriek pierced my ears, and the light was gone. I blinked and looked up to see a serpent’s head towering over me, thrashing and spasming as it shrieked again, crying out with jaws big enough to swallow me whole. And I saw the unmistakable appendage bobbing and flailing from its forehead, the light at its tip extinguished. I scrambled away from the coastline as the creature dove under the water with another howl, somehow I’d gotten into the water up to my knees. Grit was right next to me, and we collapsed in shock just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge

A fisher.

We’d nearly…

Before I could get to my hooves, the serpent breached the water again, shrieking and howling, trying to jump out of the water? It jerked to a stop, and was yanked back by - by something. With a final, pained cry, it was dragged under.

A moment later, the churning water turned a deep red.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Bookworm - You pay much closer attention to details when reading. Just remember to stay aware of your surroundings. Gain 50% more skill points from books (and comics).

Quest Tracker - 8 days remaining

Alloy Shaper’s Traveling Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 7 - Elasticity

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Chapter 7 - Elasticity

The degree to which a supply or demand curve reacts to changes in price. For inelastic goods, changes in price do not affect quantity consumed, while consumption of elastic goods changes drastically in response to changes in price.

We ran.

Our hooves were dull thunder on the soft ground, or maybe that was just my heartbeat pounding in my ears.

I lost track of how long we ran, but eventually we collapsed on the wet muck, gasping for breath. Adrenaline still spiked through my body, but my muscles refused to budge an inch. Grit was at least still upright, sitting on his haunches, but I was lying on my side, gulping down air. I looked in the direction we had come, from the river. Running from whatever had happened back there. Had something else killed the fisher? I couldn’t even imagine the idea of something living in the Bayou that could overpower one of those serpentine monstrosities. Either way, it seemed like we weren’t being chased for now. “I…” my words were raspy, and gasped out between breaths, “I think… we lost it.”

Grit just nodded at me, and pulled out his canteen to take a drink. Feeling the chill of water seeping into my barding, I sat up and looked around. We had run deeper into the wetlands, which were thicker here than I had ever seen before. Across the river there had been dozens of buildings amid the marshes, some standing, some toppled, but here we were surrounded by thick trees. Some of them had burst up from inside ruined buildings, which now looked like eggshells of concrete and wood that still embraced the tree trunks. The canopy, dizzyingly high over our heads, was thick enough to obscure most of the sky from us and turn the already dim, grey light of day into shadows.

With a quick shake of my head, I snapped myself from my reverie. We could sightsee another time. I turned to Grit, who was still craning his neck to stare at the trees. “How far are we from the broadcast?”

He blinked a few times and looked at me, then his eyes widened. Sitting down on a drier patch of dirt, he studied the screen of his PipBuck for a few minutes before standing up and gesturing to his right. “Far ‘nough. We best get movin’, but I dunno if we can make it ‘fore it gets dark.”

I turned my head slowly to look at our surroundings again, stopping to stare at the precious few structures that still clung to the trees around us. None of them could offer any sort of protection for a night’s rest, and a chill ran down my spine. I closed my eyes for a moment, flicking my tail at the air before looking back a Grit. “Lead on. And,” I paused glancing back in the direction of the Bridle river, “keep an eye out for a place to sleep tonight.”

* * * * * * *

For hours, we crept as silently as we could through the thick marshes, but each hoofstep was accompanied by a splash or a slosh or a wet sucking of mud. We didn’t even dare to turn on Grit’s PipBuck for music. The few shafts of light that pierced the canopy above us, already filtered by the thick clouds, turned the world to a dim haze. The wall of trees and scattered rubble further closed the world in on us. We made good time whenever we had leftover road to walk on, but we’d often be forced to make a wide loop around deep patches of wet muck that sucked our legs down above the knee, threatening to drag us underground and suffocate us. Briefly, I imagined what would happen if I accidentally slipped into one of these patches of marshy mud, rolling over in my sleep or tripping. I shuddered and forced myself to look away from the reflective patches of ground. We tried wading through some of the shallower water, but Grit’s PipBuck crackled furiously whenever he stepped in it.

As night crept into the swamp, we stopped to camp in one of the few scattered ruins on our path - what used to be some kind of toy store. We climbed into the ruined building and made our camp between two shelves that were still standing, though empty of any of the store’s old merchandise.

I pulled out another can of Flam, since it was more filling than the carrots, and watched Grit fiddle with his PipBuck. “Think we can make it there tomorrow?”

He glanced up at me, and then back at the glowing green screen. “Yeah, should be able to. We’re not all tha’ far. Even if we have t’ wind around like today, worst case we get there t’morrow night.”

I swallowed a mouthful of poorly-preserved hay, while Grit munched on a Fancy Buck cake. We ate our dinners in silence, and with nothing to preoccupy me, the distinctly alive sounds I could hear from the wetlands outside made my ears twitch and my mind race. With every rustling of leaves and the rare splash of water, I pictured untold horrors lurking in the dark.

“What do you think killed the fisher?” I finally asked in a hushed tone. I had to take my mind off the sounds outside.

He sat back, curling up to go to sleep for the night. “Dunno. Never knew there was somethin’ that big an’ nasty lurkin’ in th’ river. But I wouldn’t worry about it chasin’ us.”

“How can you be sure?” I was surprised at how tense my own voice sounded. “I mean, what makes you say that?”

Grit turned his head, resting it on his fetlocks as he watched me curiously. “Well, th’ way I figure, somethin’ big enough t’ overpower a fisher needs deeper water. I don’t expect that sucker leaves th’ river much, or the bigger offshoots.”

That… actually made a decent amount of sense. I nodded and finished off my Flam, cleaning off the inside and storing the metal can with the rest of my scrap.

“Get some rest,” he added, pulling out one of his pistols and setting it down beside him. “Gonna wanna get an early start t’morrow. I’ll take first watch.”

“Right. Good night.” I unhooked my saddlebags and set them next to me, curling against a wall. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself sleep, but every time I thought I was on the verge of nodding off, one of the myriad sounds outside snapped me back to alertness, my heart racing as my mind screamed that I should run. Occasionally, a few insectile clicks joined the chorus of sounds from the world outside, some of them far closer than I would have ever liked.

I buried my head between my forelegs, trying to desperately block the sounds from shaking me awake. At first, it didn’t work, with the sharper noises penetrating the darkness and making my spine tingle and my tail twitch. But eventually, sheer exhaustion overcame my frayed nerves, and I nodded off to sleep.

* * * * * * *

As the clouds above grew dimmer, daylight dying on our second day west of the River, I looked every way I could to try and find some sign of modern civilization. We were tracking a radio signal, for Celestia’s sake. Surely a station capable of broadcasting a signal wasn’t something we could just walk past. But as we walked in wandering circles, doubts crept my mind. What if it was just some kind of automated signal, or a recording? Grit said that he and Spark had heard voices on the other end at random intervals, but how could they be sure? The way Grit kept checking his PipBuck did nothing to ease my worries.

“How much farther are we, anyway?” I asked, looking out into the Bayou, at least as much as the trees would allow. Grit didn’t answer. I rounded on him to find him sitting on his haunches, staring at the flickering green screen. “Grit?” I raised my voice, walking towards him.

“I dunno!” he shouted, stomping his forelegs in the mud. “We should be righ’ on top of it! But I don’t see nothin’. Luna-damned Pipbuck map won’t show elevation or th’ like.” He continued grumbling under his breath as he fidgeted with the buttons. I sat down to take a rest myself, pulling out one of my last few carrots and looking up at the sky. I’d hoped to try and determine how much longer we had until nightfall.

Instead, I saw a dozen or more ponies, staring down at us.

They stood on an intricate series of bridges and platforms, nestled up in the canopy of the trees around us. A few of them were armed with battle saddles, and at least four held guns in magical grips, floating by their side but thankfully not pointed in our direction. Past them, up in the treetops, I could see a metallic skeleton that could only be a radio tower.

“Grit.” I kept my gaze at the ponies above us, and tried to keep my voice as calm as possible.

“Nah, I know, I know. I think I almost got-”


I heard him start to say something, but judging that he didn’t answer me, I guessed he followed my gaze upward. After a long moment, he spoke up again, “Huh. Well y’don’t see that ev’ry day.”

“Th’ feelin’s mutual, I assure y’all,” a voice called out from above. In unison, Grit and I turned to watch a white-coated earth pony descending towards us on a platform, held by a series of ropes. It touched the ground with a soft squish of mud and moss, and he took a step off, brushing back his rich, blue mane. A fat, curly moustache adorned his muzzle, and he wore the best-maintained pinstripe suit I’d ever seen in the Wasteland, even if it was a blinding pink. “Ain’t ‘customed to travelers ‘round these parts. What’s y’all’s business this far out’n th’ Bayou?”

I briefly cleared my throat to start an introduction, but Grit beat me to it. “Evenin’, sir, no cause for alarm, we’re jus’ a travellin’ salespony an’ her capable bodyguard.” He gestured a hoof at me, and then himself as he introduced us. “Found ourselves followin’ a radio signal an’ hoped t’ find some friendly ponies on th’ other end.”

The stallion looked genuinely surprised at Grit’s answer. He glanced at our laden saddlebags, and I caught his eyes wandering to our weapons. After a long pause, he burst out laughing, in the most honest, deep-throated laughter I’d ever heard. I would have felt a tinge of annoyance at being laughed at, but there wasn’t a hint of mockery in it. “Well hell, I apologize, it’s just,” he shook his head, “when th’ lookouts told me there might be some raiders nearby, y’all were th’ last type o’ ponies I was expectin’.” He gave another hearty chuckle and looked back at us. “I tell you what, y’all were hopin’ t’ find some friendly ponies? Y’found th’ friendliest town this side o’ Canterlot. Welcome t’ Sugarland!”

* * * * * * *

I never considered myself afraid of heights. I grew up in New Appleloosa, a mountain of train cars piled to precarious heights. I’d scavenged old office buildings and been considerable distances from the ground. But even though all the pre-war structures I’d scaled were broken or in disrepair, they at least felt sturdy most of the time.

The swaying, creaking wood beneath my hooves now did not.

My joints were locked in place and my jaw tight, heart thundering in my chest, willing myself to look straight ahead. Looking at Grit was no help, because he seemed more panicky than I was, lying flat on his belly, eyes darting everywhere. The cream-coated stallion, who had introduced himself as Bourbon, tried not to chuckle at us, but I caught him smirking once. “Must be quite a shock for y’all, but hell if there ain’t a better example o’ pony ingenuity.” He nodded at the bridges and walkways above us. The town spanned dozens of the trees, gathered in a loose cluster around a massive, two-story structure in the center. “S’taken us years o’ hard work, mind you, but it keeps us safe.”

The platform raising us up to Sugarland finally jerked to a halt, and Bourbon hopped off, motioning us to follow. The walkways were, thankfully, much less prone to swaying, and I took a small breath to recompose myself.

I had never seen anything close to what Sugarland was. Dozens of trees around us were ringed by wide platforms, some wooden and some metal, with small houses built against the trunks. Some of the thicker trees had two or more platforms ringing them at different elevations. A web of cable and rope held carts and elevators in the air as they moved from platform to platform or level to level. Ponies, nearly all of them dressed in fancy, wartime clothes, crossed between platforms on an intricate system of rope suspension bridges.

At the center of it all stood a well-maintained three-story building connected to the radio tower above, the metal skeleton piercing through the canopy above. In sharp contrast to all the other structures in the town, part of this building seemed to be pre-war. Cradled in the gentle palm where half a dozen tree branches met rested a concrete-and-windowed structure the like of which I’d never seen. The glass on the windows was blown out centuries ago, but the holes left behind made a full ring around the entire structure, providing the ponies perched inside it a panoramic view of the town. I could make out a few figures inside, scanning the town below. I couldn’t say for certain from this distance, but some of them seemed to be staring at us.

As we crossed platforms and suspension bridges, heading towards the center of town, ponies passed us going the other way, giving us a wide berth and trying to hide their curious stares. Bourbon turned to me, a wide grin crossing his muzzle. “So tell me, Alloy was it?” I nodded. “What sorta business do y’do?”

My ears perked upright and I offered a courteous smile in return. “I’m a blacksmith. I can also repair odds and ends, but mostly I craft metal into weapons, armor, and jewelry.”

“Jewelry?” Bourbon stopped in his tracks, looking honestly surprised. “Well, by the Goddesses’ above, th’ townsponies’re gonna love you. Mares up here grew up with some more sophisticated taste, an’ there’s only so much o’ that stuff our scavengers an’ hunters can bring back.”

I blinked in stunned silence, racing to catch up to my own thoughts. Never in my life had I met anypony with more than a passing curiosity in my jewelry. They never sold well, and every piece was a vanity project of sorts, something I made for my own gratification out of metal I couldn’t otherwise use. When I realized several seconds had passed with my saying anything, I finally answered him. “I,” I swallowed, my throat a little dry, “I have my stock in my saddlebags. If you’ll provide me a space to set up shop, I can sell it to them.”

Bourbon smirked and turned to keep walking, leading us towards the center of town. “It’d be mah pleasure t’get y’all situated. S’perfect timin’ for th’ town dance tomorrah night.”

“Dance?” Grit’s face lit up, beaming a wide smile.

“Oh sure, we’ll celebrate most anythin’ up here. Which reminds me, gotta double-check th’ calendar ‘fore I sign off on th’ banners. Wouldn’t be right t’ put up a sign fer ‘Happy Festivus’ if’n it’s actually Carnation Day, am I right?” He laughed at his joke, tapping a hoof on the planks and making them creak. I froze for a second before flicking my tail and trying to change the subject.

“Actually there was one other thing,” I began, stopping our walk. Bourbon and Grit stopped as well, turning back towards me. “We came here following a radio signal. Your broadcast.” I waved a hoof in the direction of the radio tower that speared out of a nearby rooftop and peeked above the canopy of the trees overhead. “I actually need to use it for a few minutes to contact somepony -- someone -- from the Talons. Or any mercenary for that matter.” Bourbon’s muzzle scrunched up at this idea, and he took in a slow, contemplative breath through his nose. “I just need to ask them for a contract. It’s,” I hesitated to go into details, settling on the barest explanation I could manage. “It’s a personal matter.”

Bourbon groaned and rubbed his muzzle with one fetlock. “Ain’t at all what I was expectin’, but… I suppose it’s fine. Now I’m gonna have t’ ask that y’make your call with one or two guards around. I gotta watch out for m’ town, and can’t have y’all callin’ out t’ Celestia-knows-where.” I immediately nodded, just grateful that I’d get to try in the first place. “Alrigh’ then, I’ll talk t’ Tempo an’ get y’all access t’ th’ radio tomorrah mornin’. Speakin’ o’ which,” he nodded towards one of the buildings close to the town hall. “If y’all need a place t’sleep, Marty’s over there’s probably got a bed or two t’ rent.”

We crossed from one platform ringing a thick tree to another bridge, wood planks suspended in the air by rope that creaked and swayed far too much for my taste. The bridge deposited us on the largest platform in Sugarland that I’d seen, surrounding the two-story building. Above the entrance, a pre-war sign read, “The Sunniest City in Equestria!” Bourbon stopped at the entrance and gave us a curt nod. “Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some mayoral business what needs attending. Come find me tomorrah mornin’ in th’ town hall here an’ I’ll see what we can get squared away. Y’all have a good night.”

* * * * * * *

“Marty’s” turned out to be a general supplies store for ponies to buy and sell goods, though a quick scan of what he had on display revealed no jewelry, so at least we wouldn’t be competing on that front. A radio on the counter played the same smooth, graceful music I’d heard from the spritebots, but it was much clearer now, which I guessed it had something to do with the distance to the radio tower. I stopped mid-step to listen to it for a few moments, not wanting to interrupt the melody with the sound of my hooves on the wooden floor. Grit didn’t notice my distraction as he started walking around the room. One of my ears flicked in brief irritation, but I shook my head and started slowly moving around the other side of the store.

Remarkably, he had several rows of mannequins featuring all manner of dresses and suits. Some of them had faded colors, frayed edges, or stains that had been covered up with mismatched ribbons, but on the whole the set was remarkably well-maintained. There was nopony behind the sales counter, so I took a few minutes to walk among the dresses. They were all from wartime or pre-war, but that was the only category I could have grouped them into. Some of the dresses had stiff, arching collars high above the ear, and others were slim and elegant, adorned by a sash or tiara. They spanned as many colors as I could imagine, and the centuries had been remarkably kind to them. I stopped in front of a cream dress amidst the clutter.

It was, for lack of a better word, beautiful. Simple, but with a little bit of green frilling around the neckline and shoulder holes, and a green bustle pad, the same shade as my eyes, held in place with a ribbon, tied off in a neat bow. At the bottom of the hem was a neat row of frills and folded cloth, the same green as the bustle pad and frilling. It rolled in waves around the entire bottom of the dress. I glanced over my shoulder to see Grit examining the guns held behind the sales counter, and sidled up next to the dress to see how the cream and green looked against my light blue coat.

“You like that one? Dress rental is just 30 caps a night.” The gravelly voice jolted me out of my reverie, and I jumped away from the dress, whipping my head around to see a blue-coated stallion entering from one of the back rooms. He was a unicorn, with a mane that was just a few shades lighter than his coat. He walked across the room to me, looking at the dress I had been admiring. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Martini, but everypony calls me Marty.”

I cleared my throat and stepped away from the dress, trying to ignore Grit’s quizzical gaze. “Alloy Shaper. And this,” I waved a hoof at Grit, “is my business partner, Grit.”

“Pleased to meetcha!” the sandy-coated buck chimed in.

“Likewise. I guess y’all must be the travelers that caused the all the fuss?”

“So I’m told.” I cleared my throat and stood straighter. “Bourbon told us you might have a place for us to stay the night?”

Martini nodded, and glanced us over again. “Sure. It’ll be 50 caps a night.”

My jaw fell open, and my tail snapped at the air. “50 caps a night? We could just sleep out on the walkways for free!”

“Ah ah ah,” he clicked his tongue at me. “And risk rolling off the edge in your sleep? Or what if a bloodsprite flies up and decides to have a snack?” I scuffed at the flooring with one hoof, scrunching up my muzzle. “And the townsponies would complain about the sight of somepony just sleeping on the streets. They’d get their saddles in a twist, and demand Bourbon clean up the mess.”

I was stuck taking his word for it on the townsponies in Sugarland, since I’d only seen a few of them, and the curious looks and wide berth they gave me lent credence to his story. But, more importantly, I had to admit his first two points made enough sense on their own. With a resigned sigh and a flick of my tail, I began counting out the caps from my bags. I’d have to make up the cost of board with selling my jewelry.

Martini gave me a smug chuckle and stowed the money, gesturing to the room he’d come from. “Down that way, on your left. Have a pleasant night!”

* * * * * * *

My first thought, as Bourbon showed me into the radio room, was that the radio operator of Sugarland had simply lifted a wall straight out of Stable 15 and planted it in this tree. It was a narrow wall, but was lined floor-to-ceiling with whirring machinery and blinking lights. In the dead center, a blue crystal shone behind a glass case, pulsing light like a slow heartbeat.

The operator herself, Tempo if I remembered her name right, was busy at the small desk set up in front of the wall of machinery. The green unicorn was scribbling in a worn book, pausing every few moments to listen to the headphones sitting over her ears. A tarnished, silver microphone sat on a stand in front of her, and when she finally set down her pencil, she pulled the microphone close to her, speaking curtly into it. “That’s all stations in. Next update in two hours.” Her horn glowed, and a silvery cushion of magic pulled the headphones off her head and sat back with a sigh, rubbing her eyes with one fetlock.

Bourbon had led us in here first thing in the morning, but we had been asked to wait until the regular business of gathering reports from the lookout stations was complete. With the graceful music once again wafting out of the speakers in the room, it seemed like that business was over. I took a step forward and cleared my throat, and Tempo glanced back at us, adjusting a pair of glasses on her nose. “Ah, right. Bourbon told me about y’all. What do you need the radio for of all things?”

Direct and to the point. I couldn’t fault her for that. “I’m trying to contact a mercenary, and was hoping to use your radio to reach out to them for a job.”

“What kinda job?”

I tensed a little at the sudden question. “It’s a personal favor,” I answered, realizing that my ambiguity wasn’t putting Tempo at ease. “I guarantee it’s nothing that will put Sugarland in danger.”

Tempo stood up and took a few steps towards me, sizing me up. She looked tired, her mane tied back in an elegant but functional ponytail. My heart raced in my chest, but I met her gaze. I’d come this far already, and what I needed was right in this room. I was so close to putting this whole incident behind me, and all that stood in my way was this unicorn. Finally, she broke her silence. “Fine.” I felt a massive weight lift from my chest, and I wanted to grin, but kept myself in check as Tempo continued. “But you aren’t going to have any privacy, got it? I’ll be right here next to you. It’s been a while since we contacted the Talons in the area, so give me a minute.”

I nodded quickly, since I had no idea how to operate this massive machinery in the first place. With a sigh, she sifted through a drawer on the desk for a few minutes before digging out an old piece of paper. She gestured me over to the table and I sat down, bringing the microphone up to me. Tempo adjusted a few dials and switches on the wall, floating the headphones next to her ear. Her eyes stared at the machinery, unfocused, until at some arbitrary signal she stopped and unplugged the headphones. A soft static filled the room, and she turned to me, waving a hoof at the microphone stand. “Alright, you’re live. Just hold the button there to transmit, and let it go when you’re done talking.”

Looking down, I noticed a small button at the base of the microphone. I pushed it in with my forehoof and leaned towards the microphone hesitantly. “Hello?” I paused, lifting my forehoof off the button, listening to the static. “Hello, is this the Talon Company?”

Tempo sighed and grabbed the microphone in her own magic, pulling it to her muzzle. “This is Sugarland Radio calling Talon Company. There’s a pony here who is requesting a contract, over.” She placed the microphone back down on the desk, turning to me. “Don’t forget to say ‘over’ when you’re finished saying something.”

A minute passed of nothing but the same soft hiss of static. I was about to lean forward to the microphone and repeat the same message Tempo had given when the speakers crackled to life. “Yea, yea, Talon Company here, read you Sugarland. Whaddya want? Over,” an abrasive voice responded, though because of the poor signal, I couldn’t tell if the speaker was male or female.

I leaned into the microphone again, holding the button down with my forehoof. “I have a job I want done, and quickly. I have caps on hoof to pay for the contract. Over.”

“What - escort, bounty hunting? Over.”

“It’s…” My mind raced. “I need you to get something for me.” I swallowed, biting my lower lip before remembering to conclude the broadcast. “Over.” It was technically true.

“Retrieval, then.” There was another pause before the voice on the radio replied, “Per standard Talon regulations, all contracts must be signed in person, only one master copy of each contract allowed, the agreed price and contract terms are not subject to change, yadda yadda…” The voice devolved into monotone mumbling, but none of it came over the radio clearly, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to interference or the boredom of the speaker.

When the other line finally went dead, I leaned into the microphone again, “Talon? We couldn’t hear most of that. Over.”

“It means I gotta haul my ass down there for you to sign the contract!” The voice sounded much harsher this time, and it startled me. Had I said something wrong? After a moment, it continued, “I’ve gotta prep some papers, get supplies in order. I’ll be down there tomorrow morning. Talon Company, over and out.”

I stepped back from the microphone as Tempo plugged back in the headphones and waved a hoof towards the door. “Alright, you had your talk, now get going.”

Leaving the radio room, and waiting until we were out of earshot I noted, Bourbon turned to me, clearing his throat. “Well, I apologize for Tempo’s behavior. Bit of a stubborn one she is, but she does good work for th’ town, good work.” We descended a set of stairs and towards the double-doors leading out of the town hall. “Oh, and I got y’all a space set up right outside o’ Marty’s t’ sell your jewelry. Lotsa ponies rent dresses and suits from him for th’ dances, so seems like a match made by the Goddesses t’ have you selling your wares righ’ next door.”

I nodded. That made sense to me, too. I still had some doubts that I’d sell that much jewelry here, but thanked him for the business space anyway. Walking out of the town hall back towards Marty’s, my ear flicked at the air as I tried to figure out that conversation with the griffon. It was slightly disarming not being able to see somepony’s expression while talking to them. The griffon had sounded angry, but was that at me? The radio? Well, no matter – she or he would be showing up here tomorrow morning, and I had until then to set up shop. I needed to make 100 caps today to cover our room with Marty. If the ponies here really wanted jewelry, maybe I could get away with increasing some of my prices, just a little.

* * * * * * *

“I’ll give you 50 caps for this necklace! I need it!” the mare giddily shouted at me, and I hastily took her caps, glancing them over to make sure I had the right amount. A whole crowd of ponies had gathered around Grit and I, and he was doing a much better job managing them than I was. I could barely keep up with what was going on, trying to tease out numbers from the dozen voices that pressed close to look at my wares.

Each time a piece of jewelry was lifted up in a field of magic, I would have to yank it back down with my own telekinesis. “No pushing, no magic unless you buy it,” I called to the crowd, as an earth pony mare gave me a bag of caps for a bracelet. Grit was at his best here, showing off different pieces to the mares and keeping them calmer than they had been. My heart was pounding in my chest, but I was able to keep up with the sales and make scribbled, shorthand notes in my journal. With my attention focused on my inventory, and the numbers flying back and forth, I was in my element even amid the disorganized chaos. 15 caps for this bracelet – no. Too little. 20 caps and it’s hers. 25 for this necklace. Another 20 for a horn ring. Pair of earrings, no less than 20.

Within an hour, I was sold out, and the crowd vanished, I was 250 caps richer. Even with Bourbon’s words from the previous night, I never imagined I’d actually sell all my jewelry!

Grit helped me put away the caps and gave a relieved sigh. “Damn, that was a hell of a rush!” He beamed at me, while I finished rewriting the rapid notes I had jotted in shorthand in my journal.

“Mm.” I nodded, finishing the last of the tallying, then closing up the journal. “I suppose that’s all for us then until tomorrow morning. I’ll have to make more jewelry when I get back home.” Home. My forge. It felt like I was so close to it now, even miles across the Bayou.

“Well if that’s th’ case, think I’ll rent myself one o’ those suits from Marty. Head on down t’ th’ big party tonight, it sounds like fun!” He stood up and started walking towards the store, grabbing his saddlebags. “Why don’t you come, too?”

I picked mine up as well, hefting them onto my back, snorting at his idea dismissively. “Why? It’s just a party.”

“Well, sure, but we’re close t’ th’ end o’ this whole trip, right? Should celebrate.” He smiled at me. “’Sides, not like there’s anything better t’ do. Why not?”

* * * * * * *

‘Why not,’ huh?

The idea still echoed in my head. All I had done for the last few hours since then was buy a few books from Marty’s store (including a few very interesting ones on something called “arc welding”) and re-read my comic book again. The beautiful artwork still gripped me, but when I put it down, I felt that familiar restlessness, just like in Stable 15. I stored my books in the footlocker Marty had provided alongside the rest of our belongings, double-checking the lock before walking out to the storefront. Maybe a stroll around town would occupy my mind.

It was still there.

Almost all the dresses in the store were gone now, leaving empty mannequins, but that cream-and-green dress that had caught my eye before was still there.

I walked up to it, running a foreleg over the gentle fabric.

Grit was right, I had worked hard to get to this point. We both had, and I made a profit here far above what I’d expected. I could afford a dress rental, and I didn’t have to go to that party. I could just try it on, see how it looked and felt just to wear something like this. I’d seen pictures of elegant mares in Manehattan and Canterlot, and every now and then I’d wondered what that must be like.

At Martini’s agreement, I hurriedly took the dress back to our room, immediately taking off my barding to try it on.

The fabric was rougher than I had expected, but it was still comfortable. There was an adjustable band hidden underneath the ribbon to fit it to my chest. I was skinnier than whomever it was intended for centuries ago.

After I laced up the elegant forehoof shoes, I stepped back from the small mirror in Grit and I’s room. In spite of my slightly-frazzled mane and weary-looking eyes, I had to admit that I actually liked how it looked. I felt a small grin grow on my face as I turned this way and that, even pacing around the room just to feel the swish of air around my back legs as the skirt twirled and flapped. Outside, I could see the light starting to fade, and hear music start to pick up. A few sets of hooves clopped past on the wooden catwalks, headed for the dance I assumed.

I looked back at myself in the mirror.

All dressed up and nowhere to go, huh?

I looked out the window, leaning my head out, but I couldn’t see where the festivities were taking place. The idea of going to this party and socializing almost drove me to shut the window and forget the whole affair. But when would I have another opportunity to go to something like this, especially wearing this dress? I looked at the mirror again, and smiled faintly, feeling a little warmth kindle itself inside me.

Well… why not?

* * * * * * *

“-perfect, for a flying honeymoon, they say!

“Come fly with me, let’s fly!

“Wings up, let’s fly awaaaaay!”

The stallion on the recording held that last note for several seconds as the band crescendoed to a big finish. The few dozen ponies gathered burst into a cheer, those sitting at tables stomped their hooves on the decking in appreciation, and the couples on the dance floor finished with a flurry of motion. The party was taking place inside the town hall, with the central hallway mostly cleared for ponies to dance. A few strings of decorative lights hung around the walls, lighting the room enough for ponies to dance. Martini stood behind a makeshift bar set up at one corner, selling food and drinks. I had spent the entire party sitting down at one of the benches against a wall, just watching the festivities as another song broke out.

Was this what it was like before the bombs? This whole community had isolated itself from the world, living a life where they could afford to care about dresses and parties. Obviously there was more to it. There had to be. The town had a whole system of guard posts, if Tempo’s check-ins that I had seen were anything to go by. And Bourbon had mentioned scavengers.

But it seemed like the entire end goal was just… this. Ponies laughing, dancing, and just having fun. It was incredible. I even found myself bobbing my head or tapping a hoof to the music, which seemed to alternate between the slow, graceful songs that had brought Grit and I here and catchier, upbeat tunes that got the crowd excited and cheering Four Shoes had never been this lively – not even New Appleloosa on the best of days. As amazing as it was, I felt almost drained, even without having danced at all myself tonight, though several stallions had asked. I had declined all of them, including Grit, telling him I was content to just watch and listen. And in spite of myself, I was actually having fun.

I caught sight of him in the crowd dancing with one of the mares who had been at my store. He was actually smiling and laughing, having himself a good time. Goddesses, I hadn’t seen Grit acting like that since before Malice came to town. For the first time I wondered if this trip had been as taxing to him as it had to me.

Well, we’d both been through a lot in the past week, but it was finally almost over, and then we could both go home. Just closing my eyes and picturing the sight of my forge again in my mind’s eye, fire crackling, was enough to put me at ease. I might not even open my store for a full day after I got home, just spend the entire time at my forge. I would have to restock a little, wouldn’t I? I could justify one day of making new inventory. Maybe even a new suit of barding? Yes, I could picture it now: a heavier, but more resilient armor. I could add overlapping plates to cover the neck, and even engrave some kind of pattern along the ridges. Maybe just a waved line, ending in a curl and a spiral at each end. I’d have to write this idea down in my journal before I forgot abou-

“Enjoyin’ th’ festivities, Miss Shaper?”

The sudden, boisterous voice of Bourbon broke me from my reverie, and my eyes shot open as I looked over, finding him sitting next to me. He had a warm smile on his face, meeting my eyes briefly before looking back at the crowd. “I’m sure this sort of thing must be strange t’ you.” he said, watching the crowd. “Believe me, I understand better than many o’ these ponies here. I’ve been out in the world you live in.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer him, so I just nodded, looking back out at the crowd myself.

“These ponies, this town, they’re like my family, y’see. Hell, some o’ those fillies an’ colts out there were born here. So it may seem strange, but we live for these happy nights. Work hard for ‘em.”

“Mm.” I nodded again. I didn’t doubt him. I could only imagine how much work it had been building this town in the first place. When Bourbon didn’t say anything, I felt the need to answer him somehow, just to fill the awkward silence. “This town really is lovely.”

He smiled and glanced at me again. “See, I knew you’d understand, precisely because you’ve been out there. These ponies here,” he waved a hoof at the crowd, “they’ve gotten used to this life. They pull their weight up here, mind you, but they wouldn’t last down below. The Wasteland is cruel, y’know?”

I looked from the crowd to watch Bourbon now, wondering what he was driving at. “I hope y’all will forgive our precautions in dealing with you and your companion,” he continued. “But I have to look out for me and mine. We really can’t risk letting any of that cruelty seep its way up here.”

He turned to look at me, standing up. “I’m glad we could see eye to eye, Miss Shaper. Please, enjoy the rest o’ your evenin’.” He put a battered top hat on his head and gave me a curt nod before walking off into the crowd.

He had said nothing threatening to me, or even anything unfriendly. And the whole time he had been smiling, speaking as courteous and openly as he had when he greeted us for the first time.

So why was my heart racing in my chest and adrenaline rushing through my body?

* * * * * * *

Between the echoes of my conversation with Bourbon and the sounds of the party continuing long into the night, I found myself tossing and turning my way through an unpleasant sleep.

So it was that I slept in a little more than I was used to, woken by Grit shaking me from my bed with a forehoof. “Hey, Alloy, wake up sleepyhead! That griffon’s here already!”

The second that information seeped into my sleep-addled brain, I jolted out of bed, a knot forming in my stomach. I was late for my meeting with the Talon company mercenary? No no no no! I shook my head furiously, getting my bearings. “Where is he?”

“She,” Grit corrected. He chuckled and gestured next to him. “An’ she’s right here.”

I focused on her, noticing her for the first time. She was a bored-looking creature, with blueish-grey fur and light grey feathers streaked with darker patches. Her beak was dark, and the feathers atop her head and around her yellow eyes were highlighted purple. She wore a suit of black, heavily-armored barding, with a large gun of some kind slung at her side. On the whole, she would have intimidated me if it weren’t for the fact that she looked as tired as I felt. “I apologize for th-”

“Yea, yea, whatever,” she answered with a raspy voice. “Name’s Kyra, of the Talons. Here to negotiate that contract you wanted.”

“I’m Alloy Shaper,” I answered a little slowly, taken aback by Kyra’s mannerisms.

“So what’s this urgent job you have to have done, huh?” She dropped her hind legs down and leaned against the wall, staring at me with one eyebrow raised.

I cleared my throat. “Well, I,” I paused, suddenly afraid of how this griffon would react to a job like this. Too late now. I pressed on, forcing myself not to think about it. “I need you to find a pony. A blue-coated earth pony named Copper who would have crashed an airboat somewhere in the gator nests on this side of the river.” When Kyra’s expression didn’t change, I continued. “I need him brought back to me, alive. Or at least some proof of his death. Can you do that?”

The griffon gave a noise that was somewhere between a squawk and a chuckling snort. “Sure, whatever, but you should know that this job’ll cost ya a fat pile of caps. It’s at least a two- or three-wing job, and probably ‘round,” she trailed off, scratching under her beak thoughtfully, “750 caps.”

I allowed myself a small smile at her price. 750 was far below the numbers I’d been expecting. Opening up my saddlebags, I brought out my bag of caps. “Actually, I have that much ri-”


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Quest Tracker - 6 days remaining

Alloy Shaper’s Travelling Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 8 - Insourcing

View Online

Chapter 8 - Insourcing

The cessation by a company of contracting a business function and the commencement of performing it internally. Alternatively defined as bringing a third-party outsourcer to work inside a company’s facility.

“750 each?” I sputtered. My head was still hazy from the sudden awakening, and a headache threatened to bloom as I tried to run the mental math. Under normal circumstances, or even a busy sales day, I could have the answer in half a heartbeat, but now I cursed under my breath as I stumbled through it. If it was a two-griffon-job, Kyra was demanding at least... 1500 caps? With a possibility of the price exceeding two thousand if three griffons were involved? My breath caught in my throat as the headache lanced into my brain. Over a week of work, combined with my savings from my shop, and all I had in cash was 1100.

“That’s what I said.” Kyra wasn’t even looking at me, instead scratching under her beak with one claw.

I swallowed, gathering my thoughts. I could do this. I could talk her down. “I won’t go higher than 500 each.”

Kyra lowered her head to stare at me, with deadpan eyes. “So you’re telling me you need to have this job done right now, and you can’t pay higher than 500.” She snorted. “750. Two griffons minimum. That’s the lowest price you’ll find anywhere in the Wasteland, even if we weren’t the only game in town.” She clicked her tongue, grumbling under her breath, “ ‘less you wanna hire raiders.”

“I’ll pay you a thousand to do the job alone.”

“Fucking hell no. There aren’t enough caps in the Wasteland to make me head off on a ponyhunt alone.” She paused for a moment, then turned to leave. “We’re done here.”

“Wait! We can work something out, I can-”

“You only have a thousand caps.” My blood ran cold at her interruption. “I can’t lower our prices for someone who can’t pay.”

Grit stepped forward, putting himself between the griffon and the door. “Look, we could really use your help on this. S’important t’ her, got a lot ridin’ on this. What if she paid you th’ caps and you came along with us. Extra pair o’ hooves could help. Er, claws.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “So instead of paying me to head off alone, you’d pay me to babysit?” She snapped her tail on the floor. “A solo job of guarding two ponies in the Bayou is worse than heading out alone. The answer is no.”

She started walking towards the door, and stopped halfway outside. “Sorry,” she threw over her shoulder. “But if you get the caps and can contact us again, we can work somethin’ out.”

Kyra stepped outside, and closed the door. My mind raced to still try to think of something I could bargain with, and I jumped to my hooves to follow. The sound of wings flapping stopped me in my hooves.

She was gone.

My ears fell and I dropped to the floor. This was the whole plan! I’d scraped and saved and sold and run a gauntlet through a prison, all to have enough money to buy a mercenary!

I took a deep breath, closing my eyes. I still had almost a week. I could make some more sales, get enough caps together, and call the Talons again. Kyra even said the same herself. Maybe Bourbon had some kind of facility where I could set up a makeshift forge, or do some repairs around town. I could-

The door crashed open with a BANG as it hit the wall. My train of thought halted immediately, head snapping up to see the two unicorns in weathered barding step in. I recognized one of them from the watch tower when we first arrived in Sugarland. They each held rifles in magical grips, which they levelled straight at us. Following them a few steps later was Bourbon.

“What the hell is this?” I demanded.

The white-coated earth pony ignored me, turning instead to one of his guards. “Search their bags.”

Grit stomped a hoof. “Hey, th’ hell d’ya think you’re-” He cut himself off when a rifle swung to aim straight at his forehead.

“Simple,” Bourbon answered. “It’s like I told Miss Shaper over there. Lookin’ out for me an’ mine.”

He kept talking, while one of the unicorns upturned Grit’s saddlebags, sifting through the contents. “Y’all refused t’ give us a straight answer ‘bout your business with th’ Talons, so I had Martini set us up in th’ next room over. I’m disappointed in what I heard.”

My mouth opened to say something, but my mind was still reeling from Kyra’s rejection, the shock, and the headache. I couldn’t come up with a convincing lie. The pony searching us set aside Grit’s saddlebags and moved to grab mine. “Wait!” I jumped to my hooves.

“I’m ‘fraid we’re well past that point.” The guard upended my saddlebags, spilling their contents onto the floor. And right in the center of the pile, with a jangling of metal, the most damning evidence against me fell into perfect view.

Malice’s “gift” to me. The chains, collar, and hoofcuffs I was ordered to attach to Copper.

My blood ran cold and my neck and forelegs itched at the sight of them as Bourbon nudged at them with a forehoof. When he looked back at me, his scowl made my ears fall back against my head. I hit the wall behind me. I hadn’t even realized I was backing away from him. “It’s… It’s not what you think, I-”

“Save it,” Bourbon spat. “Get outta my town.”


“Get. Out.” His voice was a threatening growl now. “You’re lucky I’m not putting a bullet in both o’ y’all. Your kind ain’t welcome here.” He scooped the cuffs into my saddlebag with the rest of my things, and just as I was stepping forward to heft it onto my back, he spun and bucked the bag at me. I tried to jump, but the bag hammered into my side. Suddenly, I was on the floor, curled up and gasping for breath. I screamed at my lungs to inhale, but all I could do was rasp in small sips of air. My gut ached and tears welled in my eyes as I struggled to my hooves, and finally managed to get my saddlebags on.

I let Grit help me tie the strap down, and we walked out of Marty’s at gunpoint.

* * * * * * *

We stopped to rest at the first spot that gave us a little bit of shelter, though it was just a concrete wall in the middle of the swamp. The floor was uneven, cracked with patches of mud slowly swallowing it up. My side was still sore, and if I tried to take a deep breath, a sharp pain in my chest made me wince. I sat down on my haunches and stared at the ground, my ears falling flat against my head. My gut was locked in a vice, tightening up and strangling me from within as I tried to wriggle my way out of this.

“Hey,” Grit started, approaching me, “Don’t pay no mind t’ that asshole. We’ll figure somethin’ out, yea?”

I shuddered, feeling a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. I closed my eyes as tears threatened to form in them again, images of Malice grinning wickedly at me filling my mind. I wondered if she was tracking me now, watching through that rifle of hers and waiting to blow my head off, just wanting to get one last laugh out of me before she did. Her or her gang were probably watching me. I curled up on the ground, trying to hide from my own thoughts. My memory flickered back to that first night in my home, after Malice had left. After Gumbo had kicked me out.

I just wanted to go home.

Something poked me in the side, and I looked up to realize Grit was standing over me. There was something strange in his eyes, for just a moment. Was that pity? Goddesses… “We should find someplace t’ bunk down.” He glanced up at the sky, and as if on cue I saw a flicker of light above. A low grumbling of thunder. I nodded, and he started walking into the Bayou. I stood up and slowly walked after him.

My chest still ached.

* * * * * * *

The torrent of rain hit us fast, drenching us both to the bone and plastering our manes to our heads, even through the thick canopy overhead. Grit’s tail dragged in the mud, and mine glued itself to my hind legs as we trudged in the mud. Grit picked up his pace to a trot, and kept calling for me to move faster. I tried, but my hooves felt like they were shod in stone. I kept a slow trot, spraying mud and rainwater up around me. I thought I heard Grit call something about radiation, but I couldn’t make it out between the rainfall and cracks of thunder.

I picked up my pace as I felt nausea start to seep into me, and chills wracked my body. I felt my saddlebags get a little heavier, and so I pushed myself to follow Grit as he searched for any sort of shelter. Eventually, we found a field of skywagons and carriages, though most were rusted to nearly nothing. Grit ushered me towards one of the that were partially-intact; this one looked like it had been cut in half, leaving part of a cylinder lying in the mud. But it was dry inside, and the windows too small to let much rainwater in, so we hurried inside.

Inside, the smell of rust and mildew almost made me gag. Grit stripped off his sopping wet Stable barding and pulled out a bright orange packet of Rad-Away, sucking down half its contents before floating it over to me. I followed suit, pulling my own barding off and finishing the Rad-Away. As I tossed my armor to the floor, my eyes fell on the engravings that I’d carved on each shoulder. It was only a few weeks ago. The Ministry of Morale office. Chainlink. The zebras. My jaw tightened. How could I have been so stupid?! I snarled and reared a foreleg into the air, where it wavered. My tail flicked at the air. My teeth ground at each other. I thought I heard Grit’s voice. But I just stared at those two little shoulder plates. An anvil, like the one in my cutie mark. An apple, like the mare in that propaganda poster.

I smashed my forehoof down next to them, on the grimy floor, denting it with a resounding clang!

They were still my creations. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. I glanced up to see Grit staring at me again. Heat flushed my face in a rush; I’d forgotten he was in here with me. “C’mon, Alloy, we’ll figure somethin’ out. Let’s talk out a new plan, yea?”

I flopped to the floor, facing the wall and curling up, tail wrapping around my hind legs. Couldn’t even get a moment of privacy, and now I was wearing my emotions on my hoof like a filly. And I couldn’t kick him out of the wagon; there was nowhere else to go. “Just let me rest a moment,” I lied. “I’ll think of something.” Like last time I was backed into a corner. I thought of something. Safe at home, with my forge. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“No need t’ do this all yourself. C’mon, let’s brainstorm together”


“Oh hey, what if we-”


He fell silent, and I could feel his eyes boring into me. He wanted to help, I know. I couldn’t. I just wanted some peace to myself.

I convulsed and contorted with a hacking cough, rattling my lungs as my rapid breathing caught in my chest, choking me on the thick, humid air. The cold rainwater had seeped into my coat and hide, sending a shiver through me. If only it hadn’t been fucking raining. I tried to close my eyes and picture my home, imagining the rain was the crackling of my lit forge. The clatter of rainfall on the skywagon was a pale imitation, and when I opened my eyes, there was nothing but the rusty wall.

I curled up tighter on myself, my wet tail swishing on the floor. What the hell do I do…?

This is the Wasteland! The memory flashed into my mind.

My father. My last night in New Appleloosa.

“You do whatever you have to, or you die! The Wasteland’ll kill anypony who doesn’t, or worse!”

My ear flicked, and I flinched a little, even at the memory. He’d been furious. I was too. My throat raw from screaming. Eyes wet with tears. The whole town had probably heard us, but I hadn’t cared. I had called him a liar, a monster. “You won’t last a year out there!” I’d spat on the ground. Or maybe I’d kicked him. Or maybe I’d wanted to do those and instead just kept screaming. I couldn’t remember. He’d gotten the last word in: “YOU WON’T LAST A YEAR!”

No! My eyes shot open and I jumped back to my hooves, defiantly ignoring the aching from my chest and slamming both forehooves down on the metal floor. I will make it back home, and I will survive, no matter what he thinks! I screamed in my mind, trying to drown out the doubt that whispered failure in my ears. I took a deep breath and snorted it back out, standing to my hooves and flicking my tail.

I looked over to Grit, realizing he had recoiled away from me at my sudden show of vitality. “Are we near the gator nests?”

He nodded at me, checking his Pipbuck for a few seconds. “ ‘Bout a day’s walk north.” He cocked his head, “Plenty of distance ‘tween them an’ us.” He paused for a minute, looking out the bisected half of the skywagon before snapping his head back to stare at me, shock in his voice. “Are you thinkin’ what I think you are?”

“Grit…” I had to make him understand. This was the only way. “The only thing left for us is to head for where Copper’s airboat went missing ourselves. We don’t have any other choice.”

“The hell we don’t! We could…” his voice trailed off, leaving him scowling at the floor. “What if we go back t’ 15 an’ ask Studio t’ find Copper with th’ spritebots?”

“First, even if they agreed, the spritebots can’t pick up anything they find!” I’d raised my voice, but I didn’t care. “If they find his body, we’d still have to come back out here, and then make it back to where we need to meet Malice!” I stomped a forehoof on the floor with another clang! “Unless that PipBuck has a radio transmitter, this is all we can do! And this is how I get home safe!”

The sandy-coated buck looked away, and I wondered if I’d gone too far. He stepped towards the gaping entrance of the skywagon and stared out into the rain. I stared at the back of his head, wrestling with what else I could say to convince him. Did he have a better idea? Should I interrupt his train of thought? Was there another way that we-

“Fine,” he said, tossing his answer over his shoulder. “Let’s just wait until th’ rain clears up then, okay?” I nodded, not wanting to go out in the downpour myself, either.

The storm lasted until dark. In all that time, he didn’t say a word. It was peaceful, but somehow… unnerving. Whenever I stole a glance at him, looking up from the comforting pages of my comic book, I saw him curled up, looking away from me and staring at the glowing green light of his PipBuck.

It was for the best, he had to see it. This was the fastest way we could both get home to Four Shoes. Once we got home, I could pay him. Or work out some kind of deal. Life could go on, just as it had. We just had to get through the next few days, and it’d all be over. Just a few more days. Maybe when this was all over, he could spend some time back at Stable 15. Hell, with all the money I’d made, I could restock my store with all sorts of things. Take a few days off to just sit with my forge all day, like a vacation.

It was for the best.

* * * * * * *

At first light the next morning, I was jerked awake by my now-only-damp barding flopping onto my muzzle. I sprang to my hooves, violently shaking the armor off while barely registering the sound of a stallion’s laughter. “Rise an’ shine, sleepyhead. We got a trek ‘head of us.” I looked up to see Grit, dressed again in his armored Stable barding, ready for the journey. I was a little surprised to see him so chipper after last night, but I supposed someone like Grit would bounce back quickly.

I put my barding back on and hefted my saddlebags up with my magic, but something made me hesitate. I suppose it made sense after all the jewelry I’d sold in Sugarland, but my bags felt lighter. I didn’t have to strain my magic to lift them up anymore, though my back still ached when I strapped them on. Just one more reason to get back home, one more thing to look forward to.

Grit pointed the direction, and I trotted off, ignoring his protests to slow down. We could take it slower once we got closer to the nests. We could take it slower when we found Copper.

We could take it easy when we got home.

* * * * * * *

I did eventually slow my pace after we’d been walking and sloshing our way through the Bayou most of the day. I’d been so focused on moving forward that I hadn’t seen a slick patch of mud, toppling me onto my muzzle. I expected Grit to laugh, but instead he just winced and grimaced, waiting for me to get to my hooves again while floating one of his pistols next to him. “Luna’s sake!” he hissed under his breath, “Are ya even watchin’ where you’re goin’ anymore?” I glared at him as I tried to wipe mud off my mouth with a grimy fetlock, to no avail. “Look, we’re gettin’ close now, so just try t’ be more careful, alright? We’re in this t’gether, an’ if somethin’ hears you, we’re both snack food.”

At my nod, he took the lead, creeping along a steady walk instead of my determined trot. I followed suit, and looked around my surroundings, something I hadn’t taken the chance to do since we set out from the skywagon. The trees had gotten thicker, with cages of roots blooming out from their trunks, and the waterways were deeper and wider here. I suddenly realized how little I could see, and my ears fell back against my head. A small splash in the distance made me jump and close the gap between Grit and I a little. He was sweeping his head left and right, keeping his gun at the ready.

The silence echoed in my head and eventually I couldn’t stop myself from whispering, “How far are we anyway?”

Grit pulled his PipBuck up and examined the screen, his ears twitching, then dropping as he lowered his forehoof to the ground. “We’re… right in th’ heart of it. An’ it’s gettin’ late too…” He looked around, craning his neck nervously.

“How much longer?”

“Few hours til dark, prob’ly.” He nodded at one of the many cage-root trees that surrounded us. “Ain’t seen proper shelter in ages, so that’ll have t’ do.”

“Let’s…” I licked my lips, pausing as I thought I heard something in the distance again. “Then let’s look around a little. We’ll poke our heads in and leave for the night. We’ll search a few of the nearby waterways.” I was hoping we’d get lucky and find what we needed to, so that we wouldn’t have to come back tomorrow.

With a quiet sigh and a nod, Grit led the way again, as we slowly pressed into the swamp. We waded in the mud up to our fetlocks, trying to make as little sound as possible as Grit led us along the bank of one waterway. He’d said that this was the biggest waterway connecting to the Bridle river a few miles away, so it seemed like a good place to start. I could believe it, too; the creek was wide enough for some of the boats I’ve seen.

We crept through the muck as quietly as we could, following the waterways past a few branching paths for longer than I was comfortable. But, what if it was just around the next bend? What if we turned around and missed it? We’d have to stop soon, and I was resigned to turning around before we started losing the light, when something caught my eye.

It was a jagged, tangled mess perched on a bank. Its edges were hard, and the greys, oranges, and stained yellows stuck out underneath a veneer of mud. No doubt about it, it was something distinctly pony-made amid the flora of the swamp. I moved closer, nudging Grit to get his attention. His eyes went wide and he nodded. We crawled along the mud, and I didn’t pay attention to the cold wetness seeping into my barding. My focus was on the wreckage--and it was undeniably wreckage.

We rounded another thick tree, and a shape became clear. A pair of giant fans inside metal cage, both rusted and covered with muck.

It was a wrecked airboat.

I was barely able to stop myself from jumping to my hooves and galloping over to it. My ears flicked and my eyes were wide with excitement. Who needed a fucking mercenary? We had found it!

When we finally reached the boat, I climbed into it. It looked like the wreckage had been beached more than crashed, though I noticed that one of the engines had a few holes in it, and one pontoon was slashed open. “Let’s just find something we can show Malice and get the hell out of here,” I whispered. Now we just needed to find some kind of evidence that Copper was dead. Something to take back to that bitch so I could finally go home. There were a few lockboxes that looked like somepony had tried to rip them open. I opened up my bags and pulled out a piece of scrap, a metal bar, and wedged it under the lid. After a few minutes of heaving, and then with Grit’s help, we cracked open the lid, breaking the lock in the process. We both tumbled back, and I jumped back. Inside was a small sack made out of tarp, and a few books.

I stuffed them into my bags and stood up, just in time to feel a titanic weight slam me out of the boat and into the mud. It pinned me down, and something scaled and sharp tightened around my neck. I tasted blood in my mouth, and heard Grit cry out. When my vision recovered, my eyes went wide at the sight of a massive reptilian figure overhead. A wide, elongated mouth filled with teeth. It snarled and leaned over me.

A radigator.

I screamed and my horn flared to life, trying to draw my sword or pistol, anything. My head was slammed against the ground as a claw grabbed my horn and held my head down with it. “No magic,” it growled in a wet voice.

Wait… what? My head swam and throbbed, but the fact that it had spoken wasn’t lost on me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the gator holding me down turn his head over his shoulder and speak again. “Moi j'ai la p'tite bleue. Quoi du tien?” Only then did I realize that there were more of them. Two more were climbing out of the water. Where was Grit?

A different, raspier voice answered. “Ce connard m'a passé une calotte!”

The one pinning me down made some kind of guttural noise that I realized was laughter. “Si ti peux pas t'battre contre un poney ti devrais pas bien chasser avec nous, hein?”

“Prenez leurs armes.”

Frozen in the clawed grip of the gator on top of me, I felt my sword and pistol holster ripped away from my barding, tearing the straps holding them on. Another of the monstrous beasts opened up my saddlebags, picking through them.

“Celle-ci a des bouquins. Peut-être elle est pas le couyon qu'é paraît.”

“On verra bien.” The beast loomed over me, turning my head forcefully to meet my gaze. Something hit my forehooves as he leaned close, and I realized the gator was wearing some kind of necklace with a crescent moon on it. My attention snapped back to the gator when he started speaking again, in a strange accent I’d never heard before, “You resist, you die. You run, you die. You will answer to our elder. If we do not like your answers, you die.” He forcefully pulled me to my hooves, hauling me up by the horn. I gasped and cried out in pain, tears welling in my eyes. “Move!” it snarled.

I obeyed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Quest Tracker - 4 days remaining

Chapter 9 - Hostile Takeover

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Chapter 9 - Hostile Takeover

A takeover is the purchase or acquisition of one company by another, and is considered to be ‘hostile’ if the management of the purchased company rejects the purchase offer. The acquisition of the company is then conducted through other means.

I wasn’t really sure how long we’d been walking, but we eventually passed through a grove of trees and saw the glow of torches pushing back the shroud of night. The gators may not have been trying to kill us, but they were impatient and had kept us at a steady march. Our captors towered over us, even with their hunched gait. They walked upright, on their hind legs, with thick, scaly arms ending in yellowed claws that were long enough to hold the knives some of them had holstered. In the light of the torches ahead, I could make out different colors of scales, patterns of browns, greys, and dark green, and the light made their eyes glow yellow.

My legs and barding were soaking wet from wading through water and mud, my weapons taken, and even if I did run, where could I go? They’d catch me eventually, and I couldn’t leave Grit behind, assuming I didn’t slip into a river and get eaten.

I felt like screaming and laughing at the same time. Who up there had I pissed off to deserve this? Celestia? Luna? Both? I sucked in a deep breath through my nose, trying to force back the tears I felt forming in my eyes and the knot in my throat. Please… I just want to get out of this… I just want to go home.

The gators didn’t say much to us, growling the occasional unintelligible word in their own language as some crude structures came into view. The gator “nests.” Only a few of the central houses had used pre-war structures as a foundation, with all the rest built as simple lean-tos, braced against the trees. Roofs were made of everything from leaves and branches to sheets of corrugated metal, to discolored tarps. As we walked into town, and more of the gators slinked out of their homes to gawk at us, I kept my head down, trying to avoid the pricking on my neck as what felt like hundreds of gleaming eyes bored into me. They led us into one of the few concrete structures and shoved us into a cramped, unused room, shutting the door on us.

I turned in circles as my head swam. I tried to focus on the gaping hole in the roof instead of the walls around me. Imprisoning me. They said they’d come for us in the morning. Grit tried to calm me down, told me I’d work better on some shut-eye. As if I could sleep. Not when there was an entire town of ravenous things outside, probably waiting to eat me. I tried to close my eyes and shut out this cell we were in. Instead, the sound of Malice’s laughter rang in my head.

I told Grit I’d be fine, that he should sleep too.

I wasn’t sure he believed me.

But at least he didn’t fight me on it. Left me to lie awake in solitude. It was… quiet outside. My spine shuddered and my ears twitched and turned, trying to pick up anything, and eventually I did hear some more sounds of activity. Noises from outside the door, too. Sounded like they’d posted a guard. Of course they had.

I curled up in a corner, facing a wall. Tried to ignore the situation and get some rest.

It didn’t work.

* * * * * * *

The door slammed open against the wall with a loud crash! I jumped to my hooves, heart thundering in my chest. I must have finally fallen asleep at some point, but from the way my head throbbed and legs ached, it must not have been long. Another gator, different to the one that had captured us, stood at the door with his his teeth clacking. I could only tell the difference because this one had grey scales instead of dark green. He wore a stained bandolier across his shoulder, holding a crude knife, and a necklace of a crescent moon, roughly-cut from some kind of metal. He reeked of moss and mildew. “Follow,” he growled.

As we walked out, Grit softly cleared his throat, and I glanced up at him, catching sight of his confident grin. He leaned in close and nodded at me. “Lemme do the talkin’,” he whispered. “I’ll put ‘em at ease.” I nodded. I wasn’t even sure I could find my voice, let alone try to talk our way out of this. If they even wanted to talk. The one who had captured us said they wanted us to see their Elder, so maybe we still had a chance to escape alive.

Crossing the threshold of the building they kept us in, the knife-gator led us to the adjacent building. Fewer gators stopped to stare at us this time, but the smaller ones still watched our march. Kids, I figured. As I glanced around, I quickly realized that nearly all the gators wore necklaces. Some had crescent moons, and others had a symbol of the sun, seemingly at random. The smaller ones had none at all.

My head started to throb, and I stumbled, looked down at my hooves again, trying to regain my senses. Even if Grit was going to do the talking, I couldn’t imagine the Elder would let us go without my saying anything. I had to focus. Focus!

I looked up again as the ground beneath my hooves changed from mud and muck to broken concrete. We were being led up a flight of stairs to an open landing, nearly the only thing left intact from whatever building this once was. Getting to the top, I saw what I could only describe as an altar. Crude posts held a roof of corrugated metal above our heads, and shelves flanked us, lined with mud-caked books and jars of everything from different-colored leaves, to dirt, to… what the hell was in those?

But what held my attention was the gator standing over the altar, stirring some kind of liquid in a bowl and growling something in their language. This one was far, far older than any of the others I’d seen before, gaunt and wearing a vest covered in pockets. Its scales were nearly white, and its eyes crusted. In one of its bleached claws, it held an icon, shaped like the sun necklaces I’d seen on some of the gators, but around its neck was another necklace, with a moon pendant.

Our guard stopped before the altar and bowed. “Maîtresse Laveau, voici les poneys qu’on a attrapé la nuit dernière.”

The older gator dropped the sun pendant, letting it dangle from its neck again, and answered, in a creaking, maternal voice. “Merci, Remy. Attendes-là, s’y t’plaît.” Her attention turned to Grit and I, and she beckoned us with a clawed finger. Now that she was staring right at us, I could see that her eyes still burned fiercely. I looked away. “Step forward, ponies,” she ordered. Her accent was thick, nasal, and rolling, mixed with the accents of the ponies in Sugarland, but her voice was firm.

Grit nodded and walked forward. I glanced behind us to see another gator blocking off the staircase. My heart was pounding in my chest and ears. I swallowed and took a shaky breath, walking up to the altar next to Grit. The elder gator pulled out a wide, rust-stained knife. I jumped back, and she snapped her golden eyes to bore into mine. “I will need some of your blood,” she explained, “And if you mean us no 'arm, a small cut is de only price you will pay.” She retrieved two smaller bowls from beneath the altar and poured the purple goop she’d been mixing into them, gesturing again with her free claw. “Place a ‘oof on de table.”

I nodded and looked to Grit. He had a stern expression on his face, but it softened when he met my eyes. We did as she asked, putting one forehoof each on the table. I winced as she sliced a neat, but shallow, cut in my hide, letting some blood pool on the knife. She stirred the knife into one of the bowls as it briefly bubbled in reaction to my blood, then wiped it clean before repeating the process with Grit. When the knife with Grit’s blood was stirred into the second bowl, there was a small crackling and a spark of blue light. I glanced at the elderly gator, but she didn’t seem to react. “Drink de potion. De light of Celestia will bless dose who speak true,” she paused, taking off her sun pendant and placing it down on the altar, “and burn de lies from your voice.”

Glancing over at Grit, I saw him bob his head to the side and then down the potion in one gulp. I followed suit, lifting the bowl with my magic. I had no intention of finding out what she meant by “burning the lies from my voice” but I could make a pretty good guess. The potion had stayed the same murky purple, and made me gag on the moldy smell as it crawled down my throat.

Once both of us had set the cups down again, the elder of the gators spoke again, standing up straight. “I am Laveau, Maîtresse of de caimon. Who are you, and what race of pony are you”

“I’m Grit, a unicorn pony,” he answered first. After a moment, a broad smile crossed his muzzle.

“Alloy Shaper,” I croaked, though as I said the words, I felt a comforting warmth spread from my gut, easing my aches, even lifting my exhaustion. “I’m also a unicorn.” Suddenly I understood why Grit had smiled.

Laveau smiled slyly at us. “Now, wid de easy scales shed,” she leaned over the altar, her eyes burning into us, “What are you two doing in our waters?”

“T’ be honest, ma’am, we had no idea y’all were here,” Grit began. I looked over to him, keeping my mouth shut. “We’re huntin’ a bounty, y’see. Wanted pony ran here on a stolen airboat.”

Wait… what?

“All we knew ‘bout this place’s there was some kinda gator nest. Never heard o’ no talkin’ gators, that’s for sure.”

The elder gator’s attention was fully focused on Grit now. Mine was, as well, afraid of saying something that would contradict him. “A bounty?” she pressed.

He nodded and flicked an ear at the air. “He’s wanted for killin’ ponies an’ stealin’ from caravans up north. Pay’s good, but,” he trailed off, scuffing a hoof at the floor, “Honestly I wanted t’ do some good, y’know? He’s dangerous, an’ if y’all let us go, we could make th’ Wasteland jus’ a lil’ less evil.”

Laveau shook her head, accompanied by the jingling of her necklaces. “Not yet, p'tit. De odder one, who came 'ere on de boat, 'e stole medicines and 'urt tree of my caimon in de escape. Is dis de pony you speak of?”

Grit nodded. “Matches our information, at least. We’d heard our pony’d crashed an airboat in this part o’ th’ Bayou.” His eyes went wide, and he took a step toward Laveau. He had her undivided attention, and mine. “Hey, why don’tcha help us out then?”

The elder gator made a noise between a raspy cough and a hissing snarl, making me jump back from her. Only after a moment did I realize she was laughing. “Why would we?” She answered at last.

“Well,” Grit inclined his head, “this pony, Copper, who knows what he might do now that he knows y’all are here. Might even bring some o’ his buddies down with heavy guns.” The grin vanished from Laveau’s jaw. “If y’all help us track ‘im down, it’d be helping keep your secret, too.”

She leaned over the altar, slowly bringing her jaw threateningly close to Grit’s muzzle. “And what, would you do wid de same knowledge, p'tit?”

Grit took a step back, ears drooping a moment before snapping back to attention. “Look, Alloy an’ me, we’re honest folk. I spend most o’ my time guarding a town up north, an’ Alloy’s a damn fine repairpony. We don’t want no trouble with y’all.”

Laveau stood up straighter, her beady brown eyes burning into Grit, and then me. I met her gaze and forced myself not to flinch, though it took every scrap of effort I could muster.

“We cannot 'elp you, not widdout 'is life, but we will not keep you 'ere.” She waved a claw in the air, dismissively.

I felt an immense pressure lift from my chest, and the deep, clear breaths I took were enough to make me beam. But even so, as Grit thanked her, I mulled over what she’d said. “His… life?”

Laveau looked back at me, tapping a single claw on the knife she’d used to take drops of our blood, pulling back the corners of her mouth in a grin. “Wid de true life of anyone, caimon or pony, I can do more den you could dream of.”

A shiver went down my spine, and I flicked my tail at the air. “What if… what if I had some of his blood?” Now it was Grit’s turn to look at me in surprise as I opened my saddlebags and fished the small journal out of them, opening it to show the dried blood on its pages. “At least, I think it’s his.”

Laveau’s eyes went wide, and she grasped the book in her claws, holding it delicately, as if it would crumble if she even breathed on it. Laying it down on the table, she began to flip through its pages. From where I stood, I saw paragraphs of hoof-written notes and surprisingly-detailed drawings of something U-shaped. She squinted her eyes on that page, running a claw across the worn paper, then closed the book and snapped her gaze back to me. “We will 'elp you, in exchange for two tings.”

I cocked my head slightly, and my eyes narrowed. I could already guess that one was going to be that book, and I frankly couldn’t have cared less about Copper’s old journal. The less I knew about him the better. “What kind of help?”

She walked over to one of the shelves lined with jars and cans, taking a few items off the shelf. “I will make you a pendant. And tru’ it, de Princesses will guide you to dis pony. But we must wait for de correct timing.” She gestured at the sky, and I briefly followed her motion. Shadows still clung to the swamp around us, but through the canopy overhead I could see the thick cloud layer. “Such a cunjaa must be made wid unity in de world, when Celestia and Luna are in balance.” I furrowed my brow, trying to make sense of Laveau’s cryptic phrasing as I looked back at her. “Sundown,” she clarified. “It will give you time t’ get what we need.”

“I guess for starters, you want that book,” I said, nodding towards the battered journal. “What’s the second?”

Laveau cracked another smile, making me shudder. “We want a new radio.”


My face must have mirrored the surprise I felt, and she explained further. “We 'ad one, but it broke some time ago. My caimon liked de music.”

Okay. A radio it is. I mulled the idea over in my head, wondering how we’d go about getting one, and something struck me. “Do you still have the broken one?”

Laveau tilted her head, blinking and staring at me a moment before she answered slowly. “We... do. We did not want to get rid of it just yet.”

“Let me take a look at it,” I began, taking a step forward. “I might be able to get it working again.”

Laveau looked at me with wide eyes now. She stood over her altar, silent for a moment before answering. “If you can fix de radio, de price is paid.” She looked past us, to the gators standing guard at the stairs. “Remy.” The one who had opened our cell that morning stepped forward, and Laveau waved a claw at us. “Montre eux la radio. Dites-moi si é réussit.”

* * * * * * *

The radio was sitting on a table one of the nearby lean-tos; an Equestrian military model that was built to last. It wasn’t Stable-Tec, or at least I didn’t think so, but it was in surprisingly good shape. The gator, or caimon I supposed, who had escorted us here craned his neck over me to watch. My ear flicked, and I took a small step to my side to let him see, and get a little farther from his breath. Breaking out a few of my tools, it took me a while to get the radio open, but when I did, I could immediately see the problem.

Most of the parts were in good shape, but the spark battery was cracked. Some of the wires needed replacements too, but any radio could give them the replacements they needed. I set the radio down on the table and turned to the caimon that had stood guard over us. What had Laveau called him? Remy? “I’ll need some parts, but I can fix it.”

His eyes went wide. “Need what?” His accent was far thicker, and his Equestrian rougher than Laveau’s.

“A spark battery, and some wires. I don’t have any on me, but,” I paused, realizing how this next part was going to sound. “If we can go and get some parts from nearby, we could get it working again. Are there any nearby ruins? We could start there.”

He looked above me for a few moments, thinking, then stared into me. “Try to trick caimon?”

“No, no! I,” I grit my teeth and tried to think ahead of my words. “You can come with us. We won’t run. We need your help.”

Again, it took a long while before the gator answered, but eventually he nodded slowly. “We come wid you. Show you to ruins.”

* * * * * * *

Remy gathered two more gators and marched Grit and I into the Bayou again. Other members of the village watched us curiously as we left, gators of different colors and sizes, but almost all of them wore hoof-made (or claw-made I suppose) necklaces, all of them either of a crescent moon or a radiant sun. I looked to our guards, all of them wearing moon necklaces. Maybe it’s some kind of caste? Is that how they could tell the stallions from mares? Er… what did you even call male or female gators?

The five of us walked in relative silence for a few minutes. I stayed close to Grit, who seemed fascinated in watching the caimon as they walked with us, muttering and growling to each other. I wanted to ask him how he’d come up with the story for Laveau, but something told me I shouldn’t bring that up in front of our guards.

As my attention turned to the gators, I realized that all of them had grown quiet, bowing their heads low as we lost sight of the village. Up ahead was a statue of a pony, mostly intact but covered in wear and moss. What the centuries of exposure couldn’t hide were the shapes of wings and a broken horn.

The statue was propped against one of the massive tree trunks, and the caimon with us took it in turns to brush a claw over the stonework and mutter something under their breath. I noticed that they held their necklaces in the other claw as they did so. Grit seemed to notice too, and asked them about it once we were back on our way. “What’s th’ deal with th’ necklaces anyway?” he said to Remy.

He reached a claw to gently grip the rough moon-shape. “I am of blessed Luna, Princess of de Night. All tings part of Luna and Celestia, even caimon.”

“What about the young ones?” I blurted before I could stop myself.

Remy smirked, craning his head over his shoulder. “When caimon are old enough, Laveau will read der waters. Necklace comes after.”

Grit gave me a small smile as well, before following up. “ ‘Princess’ Luna, huh?” He stopped to consider that a moment. “Guess that was a statue o’ her y’all took us past?”

The caimon didn’t answer for a few minutes, tilting his head. Eventually, he nodded slowly. “Yes. We ask for Princess Luna’s blessing on dis ‘unt.”

“So if Luna’s th’ huntress, what’s Celestia stand for?”

“Trut’, home, and family. Peace, and de day.” Remy’s answer was immediate this time, as though lecturing a foal. “Princess Celestia is de shield, and Princess Luna de sword. Don’t ponies believe?”

“‘Course we do, s’just,” he hesitated. “Different for us.” Meanwhile, I felt my neck bristle. Of course I believed in the Goddesses, but nothing so nuanced. They just were the Goddesses, simple as that. Celestia moved the sun, and Luna the moon. But the more I dwelled on it, the more I wondered.

“We are ‘ere.” Remy’s guttural voice derailed my train of thought. I looked up from my hooves to see a ruin. This one was a squat building with ornately-shaped windows, and more colorful stonework than I’d seen in most wartime buildings. The whole structure was tilted, sagging under its own weight and partially-underwater. Whole sections of the upper floors had already broken away, exposing the interior and crushing the floors beneath. The caimon led us to a wide doorway, and I noticed some kind of diamond-shaped engraving on the floor before us

Remy stopped us and looked to the other two caimon. “Montez la garde. J’veux pas prendre du temps.” They nodded and slipped off down separate hallways, vanishing into the unlit depths. He turned to Grit and I next. “Find what you need, quickly. We will guard.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned to wade into the waters next to the building, slipping under the surface with only the smallest ripple.

I nodded to Grit and immediately set to scanning the first floor. “Look for anything that ran on power,” I told him. “Even if it’s broken, the battery might be still good.” He trotted off up the rounded stairs, hesitating as they trembled under his hoofsteps before moving slower to the upper floors. Meanwhile, I went further back from the entrance, rounding a corner into a wide-open room with desks bolted to the walls, and a sea of bones. I’d never seen so many pony skeletons all in one place. My heart thundered in my chest and my throat was dry as I gingerly stepped around the skeletons, clustered in pairs and small groups. I shook my head and snorted, forcing myself to look past them. There were broken and scattered terminals all over this room, and I needed to check every single one. No time to think about ponies two hundred years ago, huddled in corners and dying. I kicked over one terminal, prying its rusted case open with my screwdriver. But it had no battery, instead relying on a wall plug that hadn’t gotten power in a long time.

I covered the room from corner to corner, never staring at the skeletons for very long, but coming up empty-hooved. Crossing the hallway, I stopped in the entrance of the next room. “MAINTENANCE,” was written across the door, though a few of the letters had faded away. It was a good bet I’d find something I needed in there, but I could see part of the room was underwater, the floor collapsed or something. Light reflected off the slowly-swirling pool, coming from a hole in the wall I couldn’t see. I thought I tasted rust in my mouth, and I snorted. I couldn’t tell if the room was irradiated, but even if it was, all I had to do was poke my head in, right?

Just needed to poke in and see if it had anything.

I lit my horn, casting the room in a green glow as I walked in. Shadows stretched and flickered away from me, and I rounded the corner to see a whole row of storage cabinets, mostly still upright. I sat down in front of the first one, curling my tail around my haunches as I sifted through the bins and drawers. Wrenches of all different sizes, wires, a hammer or three, more wires, some kind of blue fabric, and more wires. I stuffed a few of the wires in the best condition into my saddlebags before I opened another bin that held...some kind of gun? It was like no gun I’d ever seen, with a snaking tube connected to a canister on the back end. I lifted it, spun it around, and turned to carefully stow it in my saddlebags. I wanted to know what it was, what made it tick. And I could probably get some kind of use out of it, once I was back home. I took a deep breath, closing my eyes and closing the cabinet shut. It won’t be long now. Just got to… just a little bit more and I can go home. I opened my eyes with a snort, jumping to my hooves and turning to leave.

I slammed to the floor, head spinning as something powerful pulled on my tail, dragging it down. I craned my head as the room spun and saw green scales and a thick body dragging me towards the water. I scrambled and screamed, trying to find something to dig my hooves into and pull myself away, but I just kept sliding.

Suddenly, I was free! I jumped to my hooves and bolted away from the water, turning to see what’d happened.

Remy was there, holding the radigator’s mouth shut with one massive claw, while he pinned its body beneath his own bulk. It thrashed and tried to roll, but he held firm. It looked like he’d swum up behind it in the water. With his free claw, he reached to his knife holster, and in one clean motion, swept the blade out and into the radigator’s jaw from below. Immediately, the thrashing stopped and the radigator became limp.

The grey-scaled caimon hauled the beast’s corpse up onto the concrete floor and dropped it, still clutching his knife. I panted, gasping for breath. “Thank you,” I finally managed, nodding at him. I wasn’t sure how he felt about killing something that was so close to him in kind. As I caught my breath, I stared at the dead radigator, and then at the caimon, who started to bend over it and skin it. I shuddered, trying to ignore the smell of blood and the wet sounds of tearing hide.

Grit came bolting around the corner that moment, pistols drawn. He looked between me and the gato-the caimon, and slowly holstered them again. “Y’alright?” he asked, tilting his head to look at me.

I simply nodded, taking a deep breath and centering myself, tossing a glance over my shoulder at my tail. “Find anything?”

“Yea, think I did. C’mon.” He turned and walked out of the room, waiting for me to follow before leading me up two flights of stairs to the third floor. The entire floor felt slanted and I took each hoofstep carefully on the wet concrete. But right away I could see what he’d found: a terminal that still glowed with green life.

I broke out my screwdriver and hammer, ready to rip the unfortunate computer apart, when Grit stepped in front of me. “Now hold up, there’s somethin’ I wanna see on this terminal, been tryin’ t’ hack it. Jus’ gimme a few minutes an’ then y’can take it apart.”

I opened my mouth to object, but closed it again. For the first time in a while, we had a little spare time, and after the encounter with the radigator I was more than happy to take a moment to calm down. I spent a few moments watching silently over Grit’s shoulder as he navigated a screen filled with gibberish, stopping every few minutes to close the screen before re-opening it. None of it made sense to me, but after a few tries the computer gave a compliant beep and allowed him in. He grinned and grabbed a cable from his PipBuck, plugging it in and pressing a few more buttons. “Downloadin’ th’ logs for later,” he explained to me as we waited. I just nodded and watched the progress bar move across the screen.

When it was finished, Grit punched a few more buttons on the keyboard before giving a small grunt. I walked up to him, my eyes flicking between the glowing green text and his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Somethin’ else on here. Hidden file with ‘nother password. Lemme jus’...” He trailed off, and I stared at him silently expecting him to finish his sentence at some point. Instead, he set about working on another screen of gibberish, and I wandered over to a window, looking out on the Bayou.

It was still outside. Almost peaceful, but for the trees and shadows pressing in, making it impossible to see very far. Even feeling a little crowded, it was actually almost… beautiful. I thought about how rare trees had been when I lived in New Appleloosa, but I shook my head before that train of thought could go any farther. Standing up and flicking my tail at the air, I turned back to Grit. “Almost done?”

“Jus’ about… Got it!” He grinned and tapped another key triumphantly. Nothing changed on the screen, but there was pop and a grinding sound. We both jumped and rounded on the source of the noise. A hidden section of the wall, that I couldn’t have differentiated from any other, swung outward to reveal a small compartment. A soft, blue-white light came from it, and I immediately saw the source.

A memory orb.

It was next to a small box, and Grit immediately walked over to it, gingerly scooping them both up and putting them in his saddlebags. “Figure I can give that a looksee when we ge’ home.”

I nodded and turned back to the terminal, not feeling particularly eager to experience of one of those orbs again. “Done with the terminal?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Yeah, go ‘head, it should have somethin’ for th’ radio.”

I pulled out my tools and quickly had the terminal open. Inside was a perfectly-intact Stable-tec issue battery, and I pulled it out along with a few more spare parts. With a small smile on my muzzle, we walked back downstairs to where Remy was waiting in the lobby, carrying the fresh radigator skin and meat in a small sack. “All done. Let’s head back,” I announced

Remy turned towards the entrance, calling out in his native language, “On y va!”

I walked past the caimon, but Grit couldn’t take his eyes off the bloody cargo. “That don’t bother you?”

As the three of us walked towards the entrance, Remy looked down at my companion. “I do not understand.”

“I mean,” he paused, tilting his head a little. “You killin’ that radigator. Ain’t it like one o’ your own?”

Remy made some kind of grunt, shaking his head. “Mais, like pony and cow. Or de creature la pischouette wears.”

I looked at my armor, which was mostly radhog hide. “Radhogs and ponies aren’t close to each other,” I said before I could stop myself.

“Exactly,” the caimon answered.

I suppose I had to credit him with that, and it wasn’t any of my business anyway.

We made a direct line back to the village, passing by that statue once again before our return. I didn’t waste any time, trotting back to where the radio was kept and breaking out my tools. It was a simple swap, replacing the battery and a few of the worn-out wires. Within minutes, it was reassembled and I set it back on the shelf, flicking the power switch. A raucous cheer erupted from behind me as music crackled to life from the speaker, and I jumped around to see a small crowd that had gathered to watch, maybe a dozen or more. Some of the the younger gators even started playing and dancing to the graceful song. I recognized it as similar to the music Sugarland played over its broadcaster, but with a faster tempo. Grit beamed at me, and he started bobbing his head in time with the music as the gators started to thank us and I offered just a sheepish smile in return.

I had just started to feel good about fixing the radio for them when the questions started.

* * * * * * *

Dusk couldn’t come soon enough. Ever since I fixed the radio, I couldn’t get a moment’s peace as a barrage of curious and eager questions came my way. Requests to fix other things. Asking about the engravings on my armor. I’d just wanted some time to myself, but none of it could be had. Grit tried to answer as much as he could, but there were too many. Soon enough though, two of them came for me, saving me from a trio of youngsters that didn’t have their necklaces yet.

He led Grit and I back up the stairs of the altar, to where Laveau was preparing her end of the bargain. She had a small, beaten-up pot sitting on the altar--the same one from this morning--and was starting to add pinches of different ingredients to the liquid inside, turning it from purple to green to red, and so on. When she noticed Grit and I had arrived, she beckoned us over. “The blood, vite.”

Opening up my saddlebags, I pulled out Copper’s journal and gingerly tore off one of the blank, bloodied pages. I could see the other gators nearby wince at the sound of paper tearing.

Laveau took the scrap of paper and dropped it into the bowl of liquid, which immediately turned a shade of teal, of rusted copper. “Keep de pony in your minds. Tink of 'im, and of what finding 'im means to you,” she told us, before closing her eyes and holding her claws above the pot. “May Celestia guide us along de pat'. May Luna see de 'unt be swift.” She shuddered, and as she continued to chant, breaking into her language, white fingers of frost began creeping out from the bottom of the pot. It curled up the sides, cradling it and slowly spreading out onto the altar itself. “May de unity of de Princesses guide us all,” she finished, and with this final incantation, the swirling, shifting potion in the small clay pot became completely still. Even my hoofsteps as I inched closer didn’t budge it. The surface was like stone.

Laveau picked up a small piece of metal, roughly shaped into a thin cone, an arrow. A piece of wire had been woven through the top to make a crude necklace, and she dipped the pendant into the potion. The surface immediately began to behave as normal liquid would, rippling and shaking, while the necklace became perfectly still, right until Laveau lifted it from the now-black liquid.

I could swear the shard of metal was glowing now, pulsing as it swung on the wire. It wobbled and pulled gently to the left. Laveau took the loop in both claws and put it around Grit’s neck. “De power of de Princesses will show you de way. 'unt well.” She nodded at something behind me.

I slammed to the floor beneath a crushing weight.

I choked and gasped for breath, air forced out of my lungs. Claws again wrapped around my neck. Voices screamed. I tried to shout too, but no words came. My eyes were wide, and I saw Grit snarling at Laveau. “We had a fuckin’ deal!” he screamed.

“We do!” Laveau bellowed back, grabbing his muzzle in her claw. “You are free to go, but dis one,” she pointed her free claw at me, “stays wid us. We need ‘er to stay. Fix tings, teach us more.”

I coughed. Tears watered in my eyes. This couldn’t be happening. No, no, no, Celestia, please, no! I still couldn’t speak. I wanted to say something, tell Grit to help me, tell Grit to leave me, scream at Laveau for betraying me, but all I could do was make rasping gasps. My chest felt like it was on fire.

Grit looked over at me, a warring mix of emotions in his eyes. Laveau waved at the gators next to him, and they picked him up between them, one of them grabbing both his hind legs, the other grabbing his forelegs. “Leave and find your prey.” The two gators carried him off, and I finally managed to sob, tears falling from my eyes.

* * * * * * *

They put me back in the little cell. I’d given up trying to scream at them.

Celestia, no… I can’t live the rest of my life like this! Even with no collar or cuffs around, I still felt my neck start to itch. I dropped into a corner, curling up, not bottling my tears up anymore. How could I let this happen? What’ve I done to deserve this!? It’s not fair! It’s not fair!! Celestia, what the FUCK did I ever do to deserve all of this shit?! The memories flooded back to me in a torrent; everything since the attack at the Ministry bridge. Malice’s ultimatum. Gumbo kicking me out. And then my thoughts ran back to New Appleloosa.

To a cramped cargo container.

To a burly, scarred stallion holding a collar above me.

I bolted out of my corner, shaking my head furiously, smashing my head against the wall to get rid of the memory. The image of the stallion trickled away, clinging to me for as long as it could, and the room spun as the pain made my heart race. How long had I been in that corner? And then something else caught my attention.

Somepony started shouting from outside, filtered in from the hole in the roof. No, not somepony. The gators were shouting at each other in their language, and curiosity took my attention, the weight of my situation feeling slightly lifted. Had Grit come back for me? He wouldn’t just abandon me, would he? I strained my ears, but couldn’t hear any gunfire or sounds of fighting.

“Psst! Up here!” A voice I’d never heard before came from above me. I looked up instinctively to see the shape of a pony hovering in the hole above me.

No, not a pony. A pegasus.

My jaw fell open and my eyes widened in shock. I’d never seen a pegasus before, and I backed away into the corner again. He landed next to me, and stole a glance towards the door. He was wearing some kind of armor, but I couldn’t make out any detail in the dark except for something that looked like a PipBuck on his forehoof. “C’mon, I’ll getcha outta here.”

I nodded, not about to turn down an escape. He hopped into air and wrapped his forelegs around my chest, hefting me into the air. We hovered up through the hole, and into the night. My heart thundered in my chest at being in the air and flying! His wings beat hard, and we launched through the air, flying through the upper branches of the thick trees, and it was all I could do to stop myself from screaming, pressing my fetlocks against my muzzle.

Once we were finally away into the night, we drifted back down to the ground. The second my hooves were steady again, I rounded on my savior. I sputtered over words I failed to form, trying to ask a million things at once, before all of them were cut off in a flash of green light. It lasted barely a second as it swept over the body of the pegasus, and then was gone.

In his place stood Grit.

For a heartbeat after the energy washed over him, his eyes were solid blue before they returned to normal. His horn lit, drawing one of his pistols as he glanced at me with a sheepish look.

“I uh… I don’t s’pose I can convince you this’ all a dream?”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Quest Tracker - 3 days remaining

Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Bump in the Night - Enough sneaking and running around in the swamp and you can adapt your stride. While sneaking, you make less noise and move 10% faster.

Chapter 10 - Return on Investment

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Chapter 10 - Return on Investment

The profit, or benefit, to an investor resulting from their contribution of goods, time, or capital into a venture or corporation. Typically used as a performance measure to compare the efficiency of a number of different investments.

I stopped in my tracks, glancing over my shoulder at the thinning trees. We’d left behind the towering canopy hours ago, and the brush around us was shorter and more sickly. “Alright, we’re far enough,” I said to Grit, making him come to a stop a few paces ahead of me. “You owe me a Celestia-damned explanation. How the hell did you do that? You just… transformed into a fucking pegasus!”

I’d been asking him all night, but he just kept brushing me off. Told me we needed to keep moving. That as soon as we were safe, he’d tell me what I wanted to know. But we’d been on the run all night, following the pendant, and as the first light of morning cast across the Bayou, I put my hoof down.

He closed his eyes and sighed, turning around and facing me. “Look, it’s complicated, alright? An’ I’m pretty sure savin’ your ass means I don’ owe you shit.”

I took a deep breath, slowing my heart and trying to calm down a little. “You’re right,” I said at last. “But what you did back there,” I paused, searching for the right words as my eyes darted around aimlessly. “It’s impossible! Or it should be! I mean, how would you even cast that kind of spell that just removes your horn?” I shuddered a little, as the million explanations I’d considered as we fled through the swamp came back to me in a flash. A potion? A zebra talisman? Or something stolen from the caimon?

“It wasn’ a spell. Or, not really.” He stood in front of me for a long while, motionless. Just when I started to wonder if I should say something else, he opened his eyes. “Look, what you saw, an’ what you’re askin’, only ‘bout three ‘r four other ponies know of. I need you t’ promise you won’t go tellin’ anypony ‘bout me, okay?”

My ear twitched, and I took a step towards him. “You’ve already shown me, you might as well tell me the whole story. If it’s such a big secret, then why risk coming back for me?”

“I couldn’ jus’ leave ya there t’ rot!” he snapped, startling me. “‘Course I knew what I was doin’, but I didn’t see any other way. I’ll tell you th’ rest, but you gotta promise t’ keep it a secret.”

I met his eyes, and he bored back into mine with an intensely stern expression I'd never seen on him before, and I finally realized how important this was to him. Though there really wasn’t anypony I would tell if I wanted to, I nodded. “I promise. Your secret’s safe with me, Grit.”

He nodded back to me, and took a deep breath before starting. “I’m not really a unicorn. I’m a… changeling. It’s a,” he thought for a moment, “we’re a race of pony tha’ can look like anypony.”

I flicked my tail, tilting my head in the silence that followed. Okay, “race of pony I’d never heard of before” hadn’t crossed my mind as we ran from the caimon. Still, the Wasteland was full of shit I’d never heard of. Finally, I asked the most obvious question on my mind. “So why’s that such a huge secret?”

“Well, for starters, nopony’d trust me if they knew I could jus’ flick my horn an’-” with a flash of green, an exact copy of myself was standing in front of me. “-look just like them.”

I took a few steps back from the duplicate me, eyes wide, shuddering. Seeing a copy of myself just standing there unnerved me. Thankfully, Grit changed back into himself. Or at least the form of his I was used to seeing. “So did you just…” Now it was my turn to struggle with the words. “I mean, that pony. The Grit that I’ve seen all this time. Was that you the whole time? Did you… take that appearance from somepony?”

He shook his head. “Naw. This here,” he pressed a fetlock to his chest, “th’ coat, mane, ‘n’ cutie mark I made up. Turned m’self into it a long time ago, an’ now I’m more used t’ this body than my real one.”

“So what does your real body look like?”

He chuckled for a moment. “Nah, trus’ me, I’m not sure you’d wanna see. Thing is, changelings, we…” He scuffed at the ground with a forehoof, glancing at the treeline. “Anyway, we feed off love.”

Oh he had to be messing with me now. I narrowed my eyes at him. “ ‘Love,’ huh? You give that line to all the mares?”

His eyes went wide. “Not that kind of love! Things like,” he scuffed a hoof at the muddy ground, wrinkling his muzzle. “Y’know how back at Four Shoes everypony’s nice and friendly t’ me, an’ appreciates the work I do? S’what I’ve been eatin’ for years now, an’ it works out great. I keep th’ town safe, an’ nopony has t’ know I’m a big ol’ bug pony.”

Did he say bug pony? Questions for later. “So if you eat ‘love,’ do you not need real food?”

“Not really. I try t’ eat jus’ enough so ponies don’t get ‘spicious, but I don’t get much outta eatin’ what you do.”

I scuffed a hoof at the ground. “So if that’s the case, what about Stable 15? They all seemed to like you there.” Wait a second… “Or are all of them these… changeling things, too?”

“No, no, no. Jus’ me. Far as I know, I’m th’ only livin’ changeling. Mom was one, and did th’ same as me, made up her own pony form t’ live in th’ Stable. ‘Parently a changelin’ got in when th’ doors were closin’, an’ there’s always been at least one changelin’ in th’ Stable at any time. Only really Pillar, Studio, and my dad know. Oh, an’ Dr. Patch, but it’d be hard t’ keep that one from him anyway.”

“But why not stay there?”

Grit winced at that, and turned away for a moment. “It’s,” he stopped, turning back to me. “Look, it wasn’t an easy choice, an’ it was a long time ago. I couldn’t live there anymore.” Before I could think of more questions, he asked me one in return. “So… are we good? I mean, y’seem t’ be takin’ all this in stride.”

To be honest, I was more curious about what he was and what he could do than anything else. “Well, you’re still Grit, right? And you’ll still help me finish this?”

He nodded. “ ‘Course.”

“Then we’re good. Just don’t turn into me again, okay?”

“Okay, okay, y’have my word.” He chuckled and raised a foreleg to tap against the pendant around his neck. The crude shard of metal was hovering in the air, pointing off to his left. “We should keep movin’. Dunno how much farther we’ve got t’ go.” Ending the conversation there, he turned at started walking the direction the necklace pointed

Trotting up after him until I was walking beside him again, I glanced up at the sky as thunder rolled in the dark grey clouds. “Can you fly us there?”

“Nahhh. Wish I could, though.” He glanced over, a familiar grin on his face. “Ain’t a very strong flyer. Not a lotta room t’ practice in a Stable. Took everythin’ I had just t’ get you outta th’ caimon village.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t even considered that. Come to think of it, there really wasn’t a lot I had considered when it came to Grit. He was just… there to help me this whole time, and now he had shown me his most closely-guarded secret. “Thank you. For saving me, I mean.”

His smile back lifted some of my exhaustion, and as we walked in more comfortable silence than before, my thoughts inevitably drifted back to what we were walking towards. To who we were walking towards.

And what I would have to do to him.

* * * * * * *

“Is it broken?”

“Nah, it still works. Watch.” Grit tapped at the pendant with a hoof. Instead of swinging freely, the piece of metal budged once, then immediately went back to pointing straight at the ground. “It’s jus’ tellin’ us Copper is… down.”

I stared at the patch of dirt below our hooves. It looked smooth and untouched, same as any other piece of the Bayou we’d walked over this whole time. Rain started to sprinkle down on our heads in a light, infrequent shower, and my gut clenched in dread. “Could he be dead already?”

“Could be, I guess, but how would he get…” Grit’s voice trailed off as he looked up from the dirt, head panning around the landscape. “Hang on a tick. What if he is un’erground?” I stared at him with a blank expression for a moment before my eyes went wide, realizing what he was saying. If he wasn’t dead and the necklace was still working, Copper must be in some underground facility. “ ‘xactly! Help me find some kinda door or somethin’.”

Grit trotted off towards a cluster of brush, and I walked the way we’d come, searching for any kind of entrance or building we missed that could lead underground, but the only structure was a small, single-room building smaller than even my house. Curiously, it stood apart from most of the underbrush, surrounded by cracked pavement.

I drifted towards it, opening up my saddlebags and pulling out a carrot to munch on for breakfast, my second-to-last one. After this, it’d be back to dried, preserved foods, or meat hunted down by somepony who could actually fight. I’d have to savor that last carrot.

Munching slowly, I walked around in circles and looping paths to try and find something that would indicate where we needed to go. As I trotted down a small slope, into a shallow ravine, my hoof hit something smooth with a small thunk. Stopping in my tracks, I looked at the unnaturally smooth surface I’d stepped on, but it was mostly covered up by dirt and mud. Out of idle curiosity, I brushed the dirt and mud away from the surface, and as I cleared it, I realized it was part of an old sign. I kept sweeping dirt away with my hooves until I could make out some of the words.


* * * * * * *

It hadn’t taken us long to find the entrance to the Stable itself, but by the time we did, the light drizzle had bloomed into a full-fledged storm. Luckily the short tunnel leading down to the Stable door shielded us from the rain. The massive, cog-shaped door was open, and inside I could see lights flickering. What little I could make out of the room past the entrance was in complete disrepair. Moss filled the room, and rust crawled its way up the walls.

Glancing over at Grit, I saw that the pendant pointed straight in, and down. He shared a look with me, drawing one of his pistols. “Looks like we’re headin’ in,” he said under his breath. “Y’ever been in an abandoned Stable?”

I looked back to the entrance, shaking my head slowly. “No. You?”

“Nope, but I’ve heard stories. An’ this place gives me th’ creeps. Best be ready for anythin’.”

In response, my horn lit and I drew Chainlink’s revolver out of its holster as the two of us crossed the threshold.

Inside, the stench of mildew and rusted metal filled my nostrils, making me gag. I snorted and flicked my tail at the air, forcing myself to think about the hallway ahead of us. Wrecked computer terminals and monitors lined each side of the entranceway, which lead to an elevator shaft. Though the power was on, judging by the flickering lights overhead, taking the elevator was not an option. A broken cable, frayed and dangling from the ceiling, was testament to that. I gingerly peered over the edge, listening for any signs of life. “Is there another way down?”

“Dunno. Each Stable’s ‘posed to be different from each other.” He looked around, squinting in the poor lighting. “But there’s gotta be some kinda… here we go!” Crossing the room, he pushed open a door that used to be painted red, revealing a staircase. “That’ll do us.”

The stairwell was surprisingly sturdy, and in much better condition than what I’d seen of the Stable so far. Only a few of the lights on the wall weren’t working, and we descended without a word, trying to make as little noise on the metal steps as possible.

When we finally reached the bottom, Grit put a hoof against my chest, and I saw him turning his head to stare at the door in front of us. Before I could ask what he was doing, he gave me an urgent whisper, “PipBuck says there’s hostiles out there.”

My eyes went wide and I sucked in a quick breath. “What kind?”

“Dunno.” He shook his head. “Damn thing doesn’t give me much info. Jus’ be on your guard.”

I nodded, and together we pushed the door open.

It screeched with a piercing whine of metal on metal, and immediately we heard the rasping snarls and clattering hoofsteps. A pair of ghouls rounded a corner. barreling straight at us. I squeezed the trigger on the pistol, firing off three shots at them before I could even take aim. More gunshots echoed. Grit’s pistol flared next to me, and the two ghouls dropped to the floor.

We stood in the empty hallway for what felt like an hour before we were convinced no more were coming. I slowly walked over to the ghouls, and immediately noticed the faded blue Stable barding. “Grit, look.”

He’d already seen it, though, and was staring intently at the ragged, gaunt ponies. After a moment, he gave a furious shake of his head. “Place is givin’ me th’ creeps. C’mon, let’s get movin’.”

We followed the hallway until it opened up into spacious, circular room, with a sign hanging from the ceiling, still intact. “WELCOME TO STABLE 36!” it announced, and then had three arrows below. Pointing down and to the left was an arrow labelled with a horseshoe. In the middle was an arrow pointing straight down, marked with a unicorn’s horn, and the third pointed down and to the right, next to a symbol of a wing. Three doors stood near where the arrows pointed, marked with the same symbols. I opened my mouth to ask Grit why this was so different to Stable 15, when the walls came alive with a crackle of static.

“Hello? Are… are you two for real…?”

It came from speakers on the walls, distorted by the old electronics. The voice was quiet, and sounded weak, and I froze up.

“Holy shit… I can’t believe it… I can’t believe it! You are real, aren’t you?!”

Grit took a hesitant step forward, looking around the room. “Yea. ‘Least I think we are. Who’re-”

“I-I’m sorry, there aren’t any microphones or anything. I’m using the Stable’s PA system and cameras, but I can’t hear you.” Grit closed his mouth and gave an exaggerated nod. “Great. Listen, I don’t know what brought you in here, but please, you gotta help me out, I’m beggin’ you. I’ve been trapped in the Overmare’s office for so long… must be days now, I think?” He paused, as more static filtered through, which I took a moment to realize was him chuckling. “Please, help me get out? I… I’ve got some caps here I can give you!”

I turned from the wall, towards Grit. “Do you think it’s him?”

“Dunno. But I’d like t’ help him out if we can. Seems like th’ poor colt’s at the end o’ his rope.”

I flicked my tail in the air. “We don’t have time to rescue any random pony we come across.” Malice’s deadline was almost up.

He tilted his head to one side. “Maybe, maybe not. But th’ necklace was pointin’ down t’ this Stable.” I glanced at it, and sure enough it wasn’t pointing down anymore, instead angling to point towards the door marked with a unicorn’s horn. “Even if it ain’t him, seems like we gotta dig ‘round in here t’ find him, and an extra pair o’ hooves’d help.”

“But what if it is him? You… you know what,” my throat was suddenly dry, despite the humid air, and my voice dropped to a whisper. “You know what Malice wanted.”

Grimacing, Grit looked away, then down at the necklace that was jittering and tugging at his neck. “Damn thing’s startin’ t’ get on my nerves,” he grumbled, lifting it off with telekinesis and stowing it in his bags.

Grit.” I pressed. I needed his help. I couldn’t do this alone.

“I know, I know! But we gotta jus’ keep goin’. It don’t sit right with me, but we’ve come this far. Th’ wasteland forces shitty choices on us all th’ time, but s’long as Malice doesn’t bother us anymore, s’worth it.”

Briefly I opened my mouth again, instinct pressing me to argue further, wanting him to argue further, but I stopped myself. “Fine, we’ll help him out.”

Turning back to face the walls, I looked around the room and gave an exaggerated nod of my head. “You… you’ll help me?” the voice came back. I nodded again. “Oh thank Celestia! Thank you Luna! Thank YOU two!! I’m trapped in the Overmare’s office for the Unicorn section. It shouldn’t be far past the entrance, just past the security gate, into the atrium, and up the stairs.” After a brief pause, the speakers came alive again. “Oh fuck, I totally forgot my name. My name’s Copper. And I’ll be damn pleased to meet you two!”

Grit and I glanced at each other as a lump formed in my throat. He led the way as we started to walk towards the Unicorn door, our weapons drawn.

Just beyond the door, we spotted the security checkpoint Copper had mentioned. The room was at least as big as the atrium in Stable 15, with a massive door on one end, and a broken terminal on a desk. Skeletons littered the floor, and I stepped gingerly around them to examine the door itself. Copper's voice crackled from a small speaker next to the door, “S-sorry, I didn’t check the cameras here. I guess the door closed when the Overmare’s office locked.”

I glanced up at the speakers, then turned to Grit. “Think you can get it open?”

With a short grunt, he shook his head. “Maybe if that terminal was workin’, but now? Don’t think so.”

“W-wait a second!” The speaker sprang to life again. “I think I can actually open that door from here! Just… one minute…” I heard gears start to clank and groan, and I stepped back from the doorway. “Got it! Wait, what’s-”

Two panels slid open on the floor. My eyes went wide. Grit screamed, “RUN!”

We bolted down the hallway again as the turrets began to shoot. Red flashing lights strobed past us and searing fire struck my backside and neck. I gasped and stumbled but kept on my hooves as we ran for the door, sealing it behind us again.

With my heart still racing, I collapsed onto my haunches, then immediately jumped up as the burns stabbed pain into me. Every motion of my hind legs and neck was met with fresh throbs. Grit had fared a little better, but it looked like he’d been hit, too. “Oh Celestia, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” Copper sounded terrified from his mistake. “Are… are you okay?” After a moment, we both nodded. “Okay. I can’t believe this… it’s locked me out of the system.” There was a long pause, long enough for Grit and I to pick ourselves back to our hooves. Had Copper locked himself out of the PA system too? I turned to examine the laser burns, each twist and pull of my hide making them sting like sandpaper grinding into me. Eventually, the speakers crackled to life again, “The… the only other way in is… through the Pegasus section.”

I stomped a hoof down on the metal floor, grinding my teeth. From the way Copper had said it, that sounded like a much longer trip than we’d planned. But still, it was the only way. We had to get to him. I had no other choice. I started to walk towards the door marked with a wing, and I heard Grit start to follow.

Copper’s voice came back over the PA. “W- wait, you’re… you two a-are still coming?” His voice was stuttering, interrupted by a hiccup.

Or maybe a sob.

Without stopping or looking away from the door to the pegasus section, I nodded my head.

“Oh sweet G-Goddesses, thank you! I d-don’t even know what to say, th-thank you! I’ll try to guide you along! You’ll need to get down to the Exchange, some kinda system they had for trading stuff between the different sections. H-hang on, I’ll look for the best route on the map!” The PA was silent for a while, before Copper’s voice returned. “Okay, just head into the Pegasus section and go down. The exchange is near the cafeteria. Thank you!”

I winced at his enthusiasm and relief, and Grit’s voice got my attention before I could drift into my memories. “Keep your head on a swivel. Still seein’ red bars on th’ PipBuck.”

I nodded, my throat feeling suddenly dry. Lighting my horn, I pulled my sword out of its sheath, and together we walked into the Pegasus section of Stable 36.

* * * * * * *

The security checkpoint for Pegasi was practically nonexistent. The door was wide open, and there were no signs of any turrets or even a terminal. In fact, the only indication that it was even guarded was a pair of skeletons crumpled in a corner, draped in tatters of armored barding.

Grit and I crept through the corridor of the Stable, silently as we could, though when the floor levelled off, we found ourselves stepping through a puddle of water covering the entire floor. It felt like hours before we got to the atrium. Both of us stopped to stare up at the towering ceiling, but only for a moment before the things inside caught our attention. The room was taller than anything I’d seen before, and inside were at least 7 or more ghouls, some of them drifting around the room on bony, near-featherless wings, others stumbling around on the floor. They all seemed to not even be aware of their surroundings, stumbling randomly and even smacking into walls repeatedly. The grounded ghouls were bloated and covered in fungus. Their occasional groan sounded like a drowning gurgle, and each step of their hooves made a wet slopping sound, like a wet sponge. It was all I could do to stop myself from gagging at the reek of mildew and waterlogged hide.

I saw Grit’s pistol hover up next to him, taking aim, and my eyes went wide. I nudged him with my side, getting his attention, and shaking my head fervently. They hadn’t noticed us yet, and if we could keep it that way all the better. Pressing myself low to the floor, I led the way as we crept out, hugging close to the wall. Across the atrium, I could see a door marked “STAIRS.” As much as I wanted to just keep my focus on the sign, ignoring the ghouls, I couldn’t afford to. I kept glancing out into the room, making sure we weren’t seen. My muzzle was clenched shut, forcing myself to breath as slowly and quietly as possible, even though my heart beat faster the closer we got to the door and every instinct in me screamed to run, run, RUN!

Just as we were closing on our goal, one of the bloated, waterlogged ghouls stumbled towards us. I froze. It was staring right at us. I stared back, eyes locked. My sword floated in front of me. My eyes darted to the left. Just a few more feet. Just a little bit farther. Was it blind? I took a cautious hoofstep, careful not to make a splash. No reaction from the ghoul. It stood in place, head lolling, and finally it began to move away from us. I took another step, not looking away. Too hard. My hoof hit the water too hard, made too much noise. Its ear flicked at the air, and it turned back to us, gurgling. Water spilled out of its gaping maw. I glanced back at Grit, seeing his pistol raised again. I sucked in a quick breath and shot my sword forward.

The blade rammed straight through the ghoul’s open mouth, piercing its rotten brain. I felt the strain on my magic as its body went limp around the sword. Gritting my teeth, I lowered the sword, and by extension the body, to the floor before pulling it free.

We crossed the last few feet to the exit, and none of the other ghouls seemed to notice.

Behind us, I heard the static of the PA coming alive, and I whipped my head around, ready to fend off the ghouls and run, but they had all charged the opposite direction, the pegasus ghouls smacking their heads against the wall while the grounded ones shuffled in the same direction. The speaker was on the far side, where Grit and I had come from. “H-hey, looks like I have access to the PA system in this section too! Guess Daisy really was as paranoid as her diary makes her sound. Oh, er, Daisy was the unicorn Overmare. I’ve… kinda had a lot of time to kill down here.” Copper gave a nervous laugh, while I just bit my lip. “That was a nice move with the sword, by the way! And don’t worry, I’ll make sure not to use any speakers near you. Don’t wanna draw attention, y’know.” I nodded slowly, calming myself down, wiping my sword clean of ghoul guts and trying to stop the pounding in my chest. “I-I’ll track your progress from the cameras when I have them, and try to help you out. Which reminds me, you need to go down the stairs on your left, but… according to the plans here, they only go down one flight. The Exchange is on the 5th level down.”

I turned to the door Copper had mentioned, but it was shut. Hesitantly, I pressed the button to open it, and it slid into the ceiling with a hiss-clank. Grit and I stepped through before closing it behind us.

* * * * * * *

“So… there might be a problem in the next room.” Copper’s voice crackled on the PA again, echoing through the halls. I could hear more waterlogged ghouls hissing and smashing their heads against the walls in nearby rooms. All around us, water was seeping in, dripping through cracks in the ceiling, trickling down the walls, pooling in the living quarters. Where the hell did all this water come from? Lights flickered and showed some rooms partially flooded around us. We stopped to listen to him, breathing the thick, stagnant air. “I… I can’t quite see what’s going on, one of the ghouls musta broken the camera. It’s pointed at the floor, and it looks like there’s a lotta water there. You just have to cross to the Cafeteria entrance. Be careful, ok?”

I ground my teeth against each other, wishing Copper would talk less. I didn’t want to think about him.

“How ya holdin’ up?” Grit’s voice snapped me from my train of thought again, and I gave a quiet snort, glaring at him. The burns on the back of my legs and neck were stinging and aching with every step, I was tired, hungry, wanted to puke up the meager meal we’d had this morning, and every breath felt like I was drinking swamp water. How the fuck did he think I was holding up?

“I’m fine,” I answered, looking away. He grunted in response, and I wondered if he could tell when I was lying with some… changeling-sense of his. I muttered under my breath, “I just want this all to be fucking over.”

“Almost is, though. That’s a plus. Jus’ gotta get through th’ Stable an’ then we can go home.”

I flicked my tail. “You forgot the part in the middle where-” I swallowed, my throat dry all of a sudden. “Nevermind. Let’s just get through the Stable.”

We left the last flight of stairs and rounded a corner to find the hallway just… stopped.

Or, more accurately, it opened up into a room that put the pegasi atrium to shame. It must have been as tall as the Stable was deep, and the room below us dropped away in a sheer wall, leading down to a murky pool of filthy liquid. The sides of the room were coated in moss, with water running down and feeding the pool below. I couldn’t tell exactly how deep it was, but there were three or four bloated ghouls idly floating on the surface. All throughout the room were flying pegasi ghouls, lazily drifting in midair.

About 30 feet below us, and on the opposite side of the room, I saw the door labelled “Cafeteria.” Below even that was the waterline. My head spun as I looked down, and I had to snap back to looking at Grit before I got too dizzy. This was nothing like the treehouses of Sugarland, it was just… a sheer drop down. “How the hell do we get across?” I muttered, under my breath. A pegasus ghoul turned its head toward us. It hovered in place. I froze, not even daring to breath.

After several agonizing seconds, it looked away and moved on, drifting towards a far wall before smacking its head against it. They must have been blind, too, like the bloated, moss-covered ones.

“Well, I got one idea,” Grit answered. He swallowed and motioned for me to step back before he closed the door in front of us. “Gimme a sec.” He quickly pulled off his barding and closed his eyes. After a moment, a wave of green energy washed over him, briefly lighting up the hallway. In the place of the sandy-coated buck I was familiar with, stood the pegasus who’d flown me out of the caimon’s cell.

He stuffed the barding into his bags, and turned back to me. “Alright, ready t’ do this?”

I nodded. It was a room designed for flying, in a section of a Stable designed for pegasi. He didn’t have to explain his plan.

I opened the door again, and the noise immediately drew the attention of a trio of nearby ghouls. They drifted close, hissing and snorting at the air. I pulled my sword out and held it steady, aimed at the blind pegasus ghouls. Took a deep breath. Waited. They drifted closer. Closer. Their pace was slow, but unlike last time they didn’t seem to be losing interest. I couldn’t get a shot at their heads.

I went for the next best thing.

With a sharp breath, I swung my sword at one of the ghouls’ wings. It sliced right through the rotten appendage, and the pegasus ghoul snarled as it dropped to the water below.

The room changed almost instantly. Pegasi ghouls started diving towards the water, toward the closest sound. The PA came alive again, and Copper started yelling frantically. Some of the ghouls started smashing their heads against the speaker.

Grit wasted no time, grabbing onto me and taking to the air. He flew down, towards the Cafeteria entrance. I felt my stomach lurch from the drop, but we were in the clear. All we had to do was la-

I was falling.

Something had hit Grit, sent us both tumbling down. I saw him spin, tumble, kick a pegasus ghoul off him. Right himself. I looked up to see him hovering, eyes wide in horror.

Then I hit the water. My back erupted in pain, and I paddled furiously to stay afloat. My bags. My fucking saddlebags! I lit my horn in a panic, trying to float them off of me, trying to make it easier to swim.

Teeth sank into my back leg, then my front. I screamed. I stabbed my sword down at where I’d been bit, and screamed again as the sword hit my own fucking leg. A ghoul, one of the waterlogged ones, drifted away from me as we both trailed blood. Then I was lifted away, grabbed by my haunches as Grit hauled me away, out of the reach of the snapping, gurgling monstrosities in the water.

He had one of his pistols in his mouth and he fired. Twice, three times, four. We crashed to the metal floor, and I had just enough time to see the swarm of ghouls charging towards us before the door slammed shut.

We both lay on the floor, gasping for breath, before another wave of green magic got my attention. Grit had turned back into his normal form, and was digging into his saddlebags for something. I turned back to look at my legs. A fresh set of bite marks and the stab wound were trailing rivers of blood from my left hind leg, and more ran from the bite in my right foreleg. They throbbed and stung, and had reopened the cuts from the rats in the tunnel.

Grit had done better, but not much. The back of his neck and his haunch were slashed by a series of cuts. Nothing too deep at least, but as I watched, I saw him dig out a roll of bandages from his bags. I tried to get to my hooves, but slipped and fell flat on my side. “Easy, easy,” he said, unrolling some of the bandage to wrap around my legs, before tending to his own. They were quickly stained red with blood, but none of it seeped down my leg anymore.

“Thanks,” I muttered, examining the bandages. I gingerly got to my hooves again, testing my legs. I could still walk, but putting too much weight on them sent jagged lances of pain through me. Shaking some of the water off of my coat, we pressed on without a word between us.

We opened the next door, and almost immediately the PA system came alive again. “You made it! Oh sweet Celestia, you made it through! Goddesses above I was so fucking worried, I thought I saw one of you hit the water! I don’t even care how you did it, I could just kiss you both!” My lips curled in a scowl as we stopped and listened. “Look, you don’t have far to go. Just go through the cafeteria, and the Exchange will be just down the next set of stairs. I’ll try to see if there’s any healing supplies left in the Unicorn medical office. Just keep at it!”

Why did the pony I was sent to enslave have to be so helpful? It would have been easier if he was cursing us out the whole way. No, that wouldn’t be better. It’d be better if he’d been silent. Or if he’d been dead. If he were dead, I wouldn’t have to enslave him. I wouldn’t have to drag him in chains back to the leader of a raider gang. To a fate worse than death. To the fate that haunted my nightmares for years. Why the hell did he have to be helping us? Why did I have to hear his voice the whole way through this Goddess-damned Stable?! “Why does he have to be so Luna-damned nice to us?!”

I blinked, panting as I realized I’d shouted that last part out loud. Grit just stared at me, still catching his own breath after the exerting flight. I shivered and shook my legs again to try and dry them off a bit, and was rewarded with a fresh slice of pain. Hissing under my breath, we kept walking towards the cafeteria.

* * * * * * *

Thankfully, the cafeteria and the stairs that followed were empty. The Exchange that Copper had kept talking about was a room lined with shelves and boxes, with two tunnels on the far wall. They were barely big enough for ponies to walk through, heads lowered, and above the entrances were the same signs we’d seen in the central atrium: one with a horseshoe, and the other with a horn. Crawling through the tunnel, we splashed through a few shallow puddles of water, pressing on as quickly as we could. Eventually, the tunnel turned up, and started to smell a little less of mildew. In the half-crouch, my injured legs screamed in pain with every step, making me wince and grind my teeth together.

Leading the way, Grit had one of his pistols out and floating in front of him, and stopped at the exit before tumbling through. I followed shortly after, sucking down gulps of the slightly fresher air.

“You made it!” Copper’s voice was a little clearer coming from the speakers in this side of the Stable. “Okay, you just gotta get up to the Overmare’s office now. Follow the signs to the atrium. Almost there, you guys, keep it up!”

My lip flickered in a snarl and my tail snapped at the air. Grit shot a glance over at me, but thankfully said nothing. I drew my sword and we crept out from the room the Exchange had dumped us in.

Following the signs to reach the staircase up, I muttered under my breath, “Any sign of ghouls?”

He nodded. “Still seein’ a lotta red bars. Could be upstairs or downstairs though. Hard t’ te-”

A rapping click-click-click of hooves on metal stopped him mid-sentence. It was coming from one of the connecting hallways. We both froze, then aimed our weapons down the hall. I saw the blueish glow before it rounded the hallway; it was another ghoul, but nothing like what we’d seen before. This one was a unicorn, for starters, and its horn was glowing a soft blue. No… not glowing. Leaking. The normally-steady glow of magic around a unicorn’s horn was pulsing with sick irregularity, and a stream of glowing blue was trickling down its forehead, dripping onto the floor, and vanishing as the light faded. Its eyes were trailing the same light as it hissed and sniffed at the air.

With a snarl, it broke into a gallop. Charging right at us! Grit fired his pistol twice, but it kept charging. I took a deep breath, ready to swing my sword. Its horn flared bright. Before I knew it, I was on the floor, coughing and gasping. My vision swam, my head ached. What had-

It jumped on me, landing on my hooves, snapping its teeth at my muzzle. I cried out, my eyes darting around. My sword! Where the fuck was my sword?!

Another shot. Then another, and a third, and the ghoul went limp on top of me. My breathing hadn’t slowed down yet, and I pushed it off with a grunt of effort.

Getting to my hooves and taking a deep breath, I looked down at the ghoul, but all traces of the strange, blue glow were gone. “What,” I swallowed, my mouth dry, “what the fuck was that? Did it use magic?”

"Dunno," Grit answered, still catching his breath as he reloaded his pistol. “Looked like it. Never seen anythin’ like it.” He holstered the pistol and drew out his other one, staring at the hallway the ghoul came from. “Don’t think it was blind like th’ others either. Best use your gun, don’t think they’ll letcha get close enough t’ use a sword.”

I blinked, processing that as I collected my sword from the ground. That made sense. However the ghoul had done what it did, it hadn’t tried until galloping down the hall at us. I sheathed my sword and pulled out the revolver, following Grit up the stairs.

* * * * * * *

“I told you, I’m fine,” I said through clenched teeth

“An’ I told you, th’ fuck you are.” Grit and I stood at a crossroads, with a sign pointing one way for “MEDICAL” and the opposite way for “ATRIUM,” “SECURITY,” and “OVERMARE.” He was insisting that we detour to medical to deal with my injured legs. “Even if you weren’t hurt, we’ll need th’ supplies while we can get ‘em, but the smell o’ blood might draw more o’ those things to us. An’ besides, that leg’ll get infected if we jus’ leave it be, an’ then you’ll have t’ get it cut off.”

Glancing back at my hind leg, I winced at the sight of the bandage stained with dirty water and blood. I wasn’t sure if Grit was right about infection and needing to cut it off, but I wasn’t willing to take the chance anymore. “Fine. But let’s be quick.”

“ ‘Course. I don’t wanna be down here any more’n you do.”

Grit walked on ahead of me, pistol hovering in front of him as we slowly made our way towards Medical. My injured legs made it hard to keep up anything except a slow walk, so I was grateful that he took it slow. Just as we had started our walk, the PA came alive again. “I g-guess you guys are headed for medical?” I looked around for a camera, but couldn’t find one, settling instead to just nod at a random spot on the wall. “Okay, I’ll keep an eye out for you. One second… damn. Camera feed’s dead inside Medical. Sorry about that.” His voice trailed off, and we kept walking.

After a few minutes of moving down the only hallway available to us, we came upon the double-door marked with the familiar Ministry of Peace butterflies. “Can you tell if there are any ghouls inside?” I whispered.

He just shook his head, staring at the sealed door. “Hope not. But th’ EFS is jus’ useless in here.” Moving towards the button, he glanced back at me. “Be ready for anythin’.”

“Right.” I pulled out the revolver, holding it in front of me. The door parted with a grinding squeal that made me jump back from the noise. I panned the gun left and right, scanning the wreckage of the medical room for any signs of an attacker.


Letting out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding, I gingerly stepped into the medical office alongside Grit, looking at the room in closer detail.

It was an absolute wreck, filled with broken skeletons and splatters of centuries-dried blood. Examining tables were flipped over, cabinets smashed, lights flickering, and delicate equipment in ruins. I had to watch every step carefully to not step on any of the broken glass littered around the place. In one corner, a smashed camera dangled from a sparking wire.

“Hope there’s still somethin’ left in here,” Grit said, poking at a tipped-over storage locker.

I grunted my agreement, wincing as I put weight on my bitten foreleg and started combing the room.

With about half an hour of searching behind us, we had scraped together a measly collection of supplies. Thank Celestia there were at least some bandages, painkillers, and rubbing alcohol, but no healing potions. We’d found the box where they were kept, dented and on the floor, filled with the shards of at least a dozen potions. I shook my head. Didn’t matter. We had enough to make it through, and that’s all we needed. I climbed up on one of the few intact examination tables, as Grit stood next to me with the alcohol and bandages. “Alrigh’, this is gonna sting. A lot.”

“Right. Just get it over with quick.” I turned away from my wounded hind leg, staring at a random spot on the wall.

Grit nodded, and poured some of the liquid onto a clean bandage, pressing it tight against the bite. I clenched my teeth hard, sucking in air between them. Celestia above, it felt like he was lighting my leg on fire! The burning sensation faded to a chilled ache as he wrapped up the bite, and repeated the process with my self-inflicted stab wound, and the bite mark on my foreleg. By the time he was done, I needed those fucking painkillers. Every movement and step of my legs sent new fire up my hide, and I immediately grabbed the bottle with my magic, popping a chalky, sour-tasting pill down my throat. “Alright, your turn.”

“What? Nah, I’m fine,” Grit waved a hoof in the air, taking a step back.

“The hell you are, you’ve got a nasty gash on your backside, not to mention that burn on the back of your neck,” I countered.

“S’not that bad.” He turned and winced, looking at the rough scrape that went down his flank.

“Shut up and get on the table,” I stomped my good foreleg on the floor, and Grit flicked an ear at the air before nodding and climbing up, lying on his side.

I picked up the bottle of alcohol and swished it around. Still almost full. I applied some to another bandage and pressed it down on Grit’s open wound. He squeezed his eyes shut and winced, but I ignored him, wrapping the bandage around him to secure it, my mind starting to wander. Would being injured like this stop him from transforming? Or would he transform, but keep his injury in the same spot? I guessed he’d gotten hurt when I did, getting battered by the flying ghouls. And he did transform with the burn marks, so I guess that answered that.

Come to think of it, he seemed to be able to transform into that pegasus body pretty easily. Had he practiced that? He made it seem like he wasn’t a very good flyer, and he said he was more used to this… ‘Grit’ body than his real form, but was that really true? Had he ever turned into other ponies in Four Shoes?

“Hey, Equestria t’ Alloy. Come in Alloy. Wake up!” I blinked, shaking my head briefly and realizing I’d been holding the bandage still as my mind drifted. “Y’alrigh’ there? I know those pills’re pretty good, but we still got a job t’ do.” He grinned, and I just nodded back at him, snipping the bandage and securing it.

I stowed the medical supplies in my saddlebags, and we picked our way back through the medical office, and then out to where we’d come from, following the signs for the Overmare’s office.

* * * * * * *

Finally, after so fucking long, we stood in front of the Overmare’s office. A camera above the doorway made a strained buzzing noise as it rotated to track us. “Holy shit you two made it!” A small, tinny speaker on the wall next to the door projected Copper’s voice this time, so much different from the way the PA system echoed and gave power to his voice. “Okay, the override for the door should be in the Security office, right behind you. Just hit the button and we can all get out together. You should be able to shut down the turrets that I uh… accidentally turned on before. The ones at the Unicorn checkpoint?” Grit nodded at the camera. “Great! Okay, we’re almost home free. There’re a couple ghouls in the Security office, though, watch out.”

“Nice of him to warn us this time…” I growled.

Grit just cocked his head and flicked one ear, aiming both his pistols at the door to the Security office. “Two of ‘em, I think. Alright Alloy, I’ll give a countdown, an’ on ‘three’ open th’ door. I’ll go inta SATS an’ take em out.”

I nodded and moved aside, standing by the control for the door.

With a glance at me, he began to count. “One…” His eyes narrowed. “Two…” I turned to stare at the doorway, my own gun drawn. “Three!” I hit the button.

The door slid open. Half a dozen shots split the air, and a ghoul dropped dead, falling across the threshold. Another still stood, pink light spilling from its horn and eyes. It snarled and its horn flared, and a flash of light rushed past me, hitting Grit and flinging him against the Overmare’s door behind him. The throaty hiss brought me back into focus. The ghoul jumped at Grit. I pulled the trigger, and again.

The ghoul’s body hit the floor just short of where Grit lay crumpled in the hall. I rushed over to him, and was relieved to see he was still alive. “Are you okay?”

With a grunt and a shake of his head, he slowly got to his hooves. “Well that coulda gone better.” Offering a wry smile, he holstered one of his pistols. “Good shot, Alloy. Thanks.”

I just nodded. I was amazed I even hit it, let alone killed it. “Let’s just get the lockdown lifted and get the hell out of here.”

“Couldn’ agree more.”

I kept my pistol out, reloading it before walking into the dimly-lit room. Banks of screens filled the far wall, showing camera feeds from around the Stable. Grit immediately trotted over to the desk, sitting down at the computer while I started opening drawers and cabinets. Most of them were empty, even the lockers in the adjacent room, but the last locker had a small toolbox and a full set of armored barding! I pulled it out and stowed them both in my saddlebags for later, folding the barding up neatly as Grit called for me. “Hey, come take a lookit this.”

I walked back into the main office and saw a video playing on the computer terminal. “What is it? Did you find the lockdown?”

He nodded, still staring at the screen. “Yea, but take a look. There was some old archive. It’s th’ camera feed from 200 years ago.” Tilting my head, I walked closer to get a look at the screen.

The footage was from the front door of the Stable, a grainy image of ponies galloping past the door. Lights were spinning and I could see the arm swinging down to roll the door into place. Even as it started to move, ponies were still galloping through. Then, a wall of water burst through the open door, hit the camera, and the video ended, looping back to the beginning.

I watched it loop again, before shaking my head and speaking up. “C’mon. Let’s just get out of here.”

Grit just took a short breath, closing the video down. “Yea. Yea, alrigh’.” He tapped a few more keys and I heard the door across the hall, the Overmare’s office, rachet and unlock.

A scrawny, teal-coated earth pony immediately burst from the open door, and just ran in circles until leaping over the desk to tackle me to the ground. “Holy shit! Holy shit holy shit, holy shit!! You did it! Thank you thank you thank yo-”

An ear-splitting klaxon cut him off. The lights in the stable turned red and alarms started blaring. The alarms paused for an atonal voice to announce, “Unauthorized Access in Central Security. Please enter valid access code.” The alarms resumed as the three of us stared at the speakers.

“MOVE!” Grit bellowed. The three of us galloped as fast as we could for the exit. A ghoul jumped out of a nearby room, tackling Copper to the floor. Grit’s pistol flared three times, even the gun’s blast was muffled by the alarms. The ghoul slumped, motionless. Copper shoved it off, eyes wide. We kept moving, but my injured leg refused to let me break into a full gallop.

The security door was open, but the automatic voice on the speaker had started to give a countdown to “Full Lockdown.” We bolted past the checkpoint, turrets still inactive, and skidded around the corner back towards the central atrium.

I nearly froze in my half-gallop. The room was swarming with ghouls, all snarling and running in circles. I didn’t dare stop. Somepony screamed. In quick glances, I saw a horde of them following us. My hooves splashed through flowing water, running down the hall towards the atrium. I skidded, stumbling and slowing to try and not trip, sparing a glance behind me again. Some of the ghouls had fallen over, slimming the numbers that were still chasing us upstream. And where the fuck was all this water coming from?

We turned another corner back to the entrance hall, red light still filling the halls. The door to the emergency staircase was still open, and water was flowing in a steady stream from it. “C’mon, almost there! Almost there!” Grit yelled, barely audible over the alarms.

Slowing to wade through the fetlock-deep water, we shoved through the door, and I stopped to try and close it. I pulled and pulled at the handle with all the strength my magic could muster, but the steady flow stopped me. Grit called from behind me, “Leave it! We gotta run!” I snarled, but he was right. I let go of the door and cantered up the stairs behind them, rounding up the flights. Glancing up, I saw a small waterfall pouring down from the top of the stairs, flowing past the railing and down on the ghouls below. They shoved and snarled at each other, getting caught in the doorway. A few of them shoved past and started galloping up the stairs behind us.

Grit stopped and took a few potshots below us, but if he hit any of them I couldn’t tell. He cursed and holstered the pistol, leading us to the top of the stairs. He slowed and pushed his way through the rushing water, now knee-deep in the narrow entryway. The water hammered at my legs, tearing the bandages away in an instant and exposing the bites underneath. I gasped and grunted from the sudden, sharp pain. It felt like the scabs had been ripped open. They probably had. I shook my head fiercely, forcing through and letting Copper follow after me.

A churning stream of water was rushing in from the open Stable door, flowing past us, trying to shove us back down the stairs or the elevator shaft. I leaned into the stream and we steadily climbed our way towards the cog-shaped door. The alarms weren’t blaring up here, and I could hear the snarling of ghouls behind us. I spared a quick glance back to see one of them stagger through the open door, a unicorn with green magic leaking out of its horn and eyes. It fixated on us and tried to leap into a gallop, but its hooves slipped out from under it, head hitting the floor with a sickening, wet crack. The water quickly swept it away, plunging it over the edge of the elevator shaft. I turned back to keep wading my way steadily upstream and through the cog-shaped door.

Outside, thunder rumbled and cracked overhead, a torrential downpour washing over us. I noticed that the rain was pooling and rushing down the tunnel of the Stable’s entrance. We ran across the clearing, making for the guardhouse that I’d found near the entrance, and I silently thanked Celestia that the roof was still intact. Once safely inside, the three of us stood there, catching our breath, soaked to the bone.

Copper broke the silence, falling over onto his side and letting out an exhausted laugh that got stronger and stronger, until Grit grinned and started to chuckle, too. Even I felt a smile threatening to cross my mouth, and collapsed onto my hind legs. “I vote,” Copper finally said, his laughter dying down, “to never go underground again as long as I live.”

Vigorously shaking my head to get water out of my mane, I took my saddlebags off and let them fall to the ground. The sound of them hitting the damp concrete, and of the metal chains inside jingling, immediately soured my mood. I sat facing a corner, as the sound of Copper’s laughter rung in my head. He still thought we’d saved him from that Stable. Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he? How would he know that I’d been sent by a raider to enslave him? I bit on my lip and my ear flicked at the air.

A hoof on my back snapped me out of my thoughts. I jumped to my hooves, spinning around to come face-to-face with a startled Copper. “Woah, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. You alright?” This was the first time I’d really gotten a chance to look at him, though the light in the guardhouse was dim. He was teal-coated earth pony with a brown mane, just like Malice had described him, though his frame was thin and undernourished, his eyes bloodshot.

“I’m fine,” I answered, flicking my tail and sitting down. My muzzle twisted in a wince as a fresh ache pulsed from the bite wound in my hind leg. “It’s just my legs.”

Seemingly satisfied with that, Copper stepped back and sat down, beaming at us as Grit rummaged in his own saddlebags. “Well, like I said before, my name’s Copper, and it’s a pleasure to meet you two! I thought I’d starve to death in that Stable.”

“I’m Grit, an’ likewise, Copper.” Grit just offered a genuine smile as he floated a roll of bandages out from his bags, moving towards me. “An’ hold out your legs, Alloy, gotta patch up those bites again.”

I nodded and turned to Copper to introduce myself. “I’m Alloy Shaper,” I said, standing up and stretching out my legs for Grit to rebandage. I noticed that blood was streaming down my drenched fur, and I shivered.

“Well I owe you two my life.” I winced a little, but not from Grit wrapping up my foreleg. “What brought you two out here anyway?”

Grit glanced at me, and opened his mouth, but I spoke first. “We were looking for something. Something important to me.” It was the truth.

“Oh. Oh shit, I’m sorry.” Copper’s ears drooped as he slumped a little. “Did you find it?” My throat clenched up, a knot blocking any speech. I just nodded, curling up on the ground. I didn’t have to put the chains and collar on Copper now, did I? It could wait until morning.

I glanced outside to see the sky turning dark as the rain kept pouring. “Look, I’m worn out from that Stable. I’m gonna get some sleep. We’ll get moving early in the morning.”

“Yea. Yea, okay, that makes sense. You don’t mind if I tag along, do you?”

I cringed a little, grateful that I was facing the wall. The lump in my throat threatened to choke the life out of me. It stole any strength from my voice. “Sure,” was all I could manage.

I curled up a little tighter next to my saddlebags, but couldn’t stop thinking about the chains inside them.

* * * * * * *

A nightmare. If only that’s all it was. I floated in midair, somewhere close enough to watch, but too far to change the memory. I saw a pony below. Me. Younger. Happy. It shifted to looking like Copper, and then back to me again, but it didn’t seem strange.

I walked in the Wasteland, alone. A cargo wagon, tilted on its side and open to the world, caught Copper’s attention. I trotted up to it, not a care in the world for my own safety. How could he have been so fucking stupid?

Too absorbed in sifting through the cargo containers, I didn’t hear the hoofsteps in the entrance behind me. Didn’t hear the clinking of chains. I screamed at Copper to get up, to turn around, to run!

It didn’t work.

The stallion who’d snuck up on me bashed the side of my head with a bat, then snapped a collar around my neck. I felt the itch of hide being rubbed raw, scratched bloody by the violent yank of the chain. I wasn’t watching from afar anymore, I was in the truck. My head spinning. The collar clenching around my neck. The cuffs locking around my forelegs. He told me to march. I tried to pull my sword up, but he clipped me in the head with his bat again.

I couldn’t stop crying, even when he threatened me. I’d left my father to go scavenging alone. Why hadn’t I listened? Celestia… Luna… help me… please…

I screamed just before I woke up.

* * * * * * *

My eyes bolted open and I scrambled to my hooves, breathing rapidly. I couldn’t shake the memory anymore. I felt the chains shifting around in my bags, resting against my back legs. A wave of nausea washed over me, and I trotted outside, carefully stepping over the sleeping form of Copper to breath in the morning air.

Dawn was just breaking, and mist clung to the Bayou around us like a web. Grit was already stretching his legs outside when I emerged, and I clenched my throat to force back the feeling of wanting to throw up.

“Sleep well?” he asked.

“Well enough.” I took a deep breath, looking at the mist around us. “We should head towards the river. Follow it south after that so that we don’t run into the Gators.”

Grit nodded, checking his PipBuck briefly. “Decent idea. But what about him?”

My blood ran cold. I glanced over my shoulder at the guard station and sighed. “I,” I swallowed, shaking my head. “I don’t know.”

“You really gonna go through with this? I mean, I know that’s been th’ plan this whole time, but…” his voice trailed off.

“I’ll think of something,” I dismissed.

“You’ll think o’ somethin’.” Grit’s response wasn’t a reassurance. His voice was flat, almost sarcastic.

“We already talked about this, Grit. And it’s my problem, anyway.” I snapped. He recoiled a little, our eyes locking together before he just looked away.

“Alright. Well we best get movin’. It’ll prob’ly take us two days t’ get from here t’ th’ bridge again, if that’s where we’re headed.” He checked his PipBuck again, and turned to head back to the guardhouse. “I’ll wake ‘im up.”

* * * * * * *

Copper had spent the whole trip through the Bayou making small talk with Grit, asking him where he was from, where I was from, and every little detail that could be expanded upon. It was fine by me, as the longer I could spend not looking at Copper joyful smile, the better. With each step, it felt like the weight in my saddlebags was getting heavier, and I was running out of time. What could I do? If I just… let him go, then I’d get hunted down by Malice and her crew and face a fate worse than death. If I just locked him up now and got it over with, I’d have to deal with dragging him against his will for longer. But then I’d be… And he’d be no different than I’d been, all those years ago. Just a run of bad luck.

Just the fucking Wasteland having its fun with me.

We reached the banks of the Bridle river sooner than I’d expected. How had we already gotten this far? It was too soon, I still had no plan! Grit said something that I missed, nodding his head to the right and starting to walk south.

Copper just stood still, rubbing one fetlock against the other. “Actually, uh… I was kinda heading north from here…before I got caught in that Stable I mean.” He gave a nervous chuckle.

Grit glanced over at me. My blood had run cold again. Of course he wouldn’t want to go south. He of all ponies knew that the further south we went, the closer we got to Malice and her gang. “Ah, but uh… our homes’re ‘cross th’ river,” Grit began. “We gotta head t’ th’ bridge so we can get back across an’ get home.”

The teal-coated earth pony nodded. “Right. Well, I mean, that’s fair. But I really do have to keep moving north. There’s… something I gotta do up, closer to New Appleloosa, y’see. So I guess this is goodbye!”

He turned around and started to walk away. No, no, no, no! My mind raced. If I drew my pistol or sword, he might just run for it. And I could barely aim my shots. I panicked, and opened my saddlebags.

Right on top was the collar and chain. I floated it out of my bag, ignoring the wide-eyed look from Grit as I snapped it around Copper’s neck and held the chain tight.

The sound of it locking into place, with the padlock over the clasp, was the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life.

For an eternity, none of us moved an inch. I stood, behind Copper, the chain held taut to stop him from trotting away. Copper faced away from me, his body twitching. The only sounds came from the river, water flowing past, splashing along the coast. Copper’s head twitched again.

I thought I could hear him sob quietly, but it could have just been the river.

It was just the river.

I couldn’t see Grit.

Finally, Copper turned back to face me, his eyes red and swollen. “So that’s how it is, huh?” I couldn’t find any words. None at all. I worked my mouth in silence and then just turned away from him, my own vision blurring. “So that’s how it fuckin’ is, huh?!” The chain jerked and I looked back to see him sitting on his haunches, laughing. “Un-fucking-believable… I really thought I’d caught a lucky break! But you two!” He stabbed an accusatory hoof at me. “My fucking saviors only rescued me for this!”

I tugged at the chain, feeling it twist up my insides as I did. I wanted to puke again.

Copper got up, following the chain and walking after me as I started to walk towards Grit, heading south along the riverbank. His eyes were wide, alternating between me and Copper. Behind us, he called out, “So tell me, did she send you?”

I stopped in a mid-step, hesitating, briefly wondering if I should answer before resuming my pace.

“I knew it, I fucking knew it!” Now Copper’s voice was wavering, sobs breaking up his accusations again. “Why d-don’t you just… fucking kill me now?” I didn’t dare look back. Just one hoof in front of the other. “Just kill me!” I can’t. “Please, you can’t take me back…” I can’t let you go. “Please… don’t do this…”

One hoof in front of the other. One hoof in front of the other. Copper fell silent.

I’m sorry.

* * * * * * *

The rest of the day’s walk had been in total silence. Not even Grit could lighten this mood. We found an old house to sleep in for the night, and the same nightmare flashed through my memory again, but this time it didn’t even bolt me awake.

I could only do one thing.

I heard Copper stir awake, though I didn’t turn my head to look at him. I just stared out the window, into the slowly-lightening sky. I couldn’t look at him. The rest of the journey wasn’t long, we’d make it to Malice’s camp by midday. I couldn’t procrastinate for much longer, and even if I wasn’t running out of time, the choice sitting before me was so terrifying I doubted I could stay sane for much longer. I’d been able to put it off before we found him, to not think about it. There had been other problems to deal with, more immediate hurdles. We had to find him first. We had to save him. We had to capture him. Don’t think about what comes after.

But now the moment had arrived. There was nothing else to think about.

“Figures,” Copper said in a groggy voice, breaking me from my thoughts. “Thought this whole thing mighta been a nightmare.” He tugged at the chain on his collar and shook his head with a forced chuckle.

“If only,” I said quietly, still staring out the window. I opened my saddlebags, rummaging around to find our food, and pulled out my last carrot from Stable 15, gently setting it down in front of our prisoner. “Here. Breakfast. It’s a carrot, what they used to make Sparkle~Cola with.”

Copper looked from me to the carrot suspiciously. “What, celebrating your victory early, breaking out the fancy food?” His question was bitter, and it jabbed at my heart with what I planned to do.

I winced, out of his view, and told myself repeatedly that this was the best way, the only way, like a mantra. But I just couldn’t bring myself to answer him, and he turned his attention back to the carrot, poking at it with a hoof before propping it up on a foreleg, leaning down to take a bite.

After a few seconds of chewing, he spoke up again, his voice regaining a little of the energy he had in Stable 36. “Not bad. Almost tastes better than Sparkle~Cola.”

I turned my head towards him, lighting my horn to rummage through my bags. “Yea,” I said in a voice as hollow as my faint smile.

With an earsplitting boom, my revolver went off, blasting him in the back of the head and sending blood splattering on the opposite wall. Copper’s lifeless head hit the floor.

“I think so, too.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Quest Failed

Chapter 11 - Bankruptcy

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Chapter 11 - Bankruptcy

“When a business or person is unable to repay its debts to its creditors, it enters a state of bankruptcy, and legal action typically follows for the reorganization of the business, or complete liquidation of assets to the creditors”

The silence didn’t last long.

“Alloy!” Grit’s voice bellowed from outside as he came bursting through the open doorway. His eyes went wide when he saw Copper’s body, still bleeding. The room stank of blood and smoke. “What happened?”

I looked from him to Copper’s body. I did the right thing, that’s what happened. I stopped somepony else from becoming a slave. There’d been no other choice. I couldn’t have just turned him over to Malice. The thought of it made my stomach churn and the room spin.

Or maybe that was the smell of the body.


I jumped at the noise. My magic cut out, and the pistol dropped to the floor with a deafening clatter. I looked to Grit, who was just staring at me from across the room. “I… I shot him.”

Silence again. He walked over to Copper’s body, then stomped at the ground, teeth grinding.

“But…” He trailed off, looking from me, to the body, nudging Copper with his hoof. “Luna-dammit we were so fuckin’ close!”

His head whipped around to look at me. “Are you okay? What happened?”

I picked up the gun again with my magic and stood up, shaking my head. My breathing was uneven, my voice hoarse. “I just… I couldn’t…”

“Did he attack or somethin’?”

All I could do was shake my head. I searched for the right words. Grit had to understand, he had to. He had to see it was the only way.

Grit leaned back over the body, nudging it with his forehoof for a moment. I could barely watch. Celestia, the smell was overpowering. There was no room for all of us, with the stench of blood and gunpowder filling the humid air. I swayed, and the room started to spin a little. Oh Goddesses, I can’t- My eyes went wide, and I bolted for the door, feeling a wave of nausea, my empty stomach heaving and clenching, trying to throw up. I thought I heard Grit call after me.

Wiping spit and bile off my muzzle, I could only stand in one place and try to stay calm. I didn’t have any other choice. If I let him go, Malice would find him. If I ran, Malice would find me. If I turned him over… I tried not to finish that thought, shaking my head furiously, but the images still came. Thoughts of Copper enslaved to Malice from my mind, the tortures she would’ve put him through.

“Alloy, y’gotta talk t’ me.”

I jumped, Grit’s voice startling me again. And then silence, again. He just stood there, in the doorway to the collapsed home, waiting. Didn’t he already know? Couldn’t he just… sense it or something? Coud he read my thoughts? Did he even need to? I looked at the ground, unable to meet his blue eyes. Did I have to say it? Finally, I answered, “I did what I had to.”

He took a few steps closer. “I get that, but c’mon. What happened in there?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to find the right words. I had to make him understand “I just…” It was the right way, wasn’t it? It was the only solution. He had to see it. I just. I had to explain it to him, somehow. “He…” I scrabbled in my mind. Grit was silent. “He woke up, and I just… shot him.”

His eyes went wide, and he took a step forward. “But why? What’d he do?”

“I couldn’t do it!” Silence again, except for my panting breaths. My throat ached from the scream, and my vision was blurring up. Why didn’t he understand?! “I just… couldn’t turn him over like that.” I turned away from Grit. He couldn’t see me like this. Celestia above, am I crying? On top of everything, why am I fucking crying? “I thought… I thought I could do anything, just to get home. The sight of him. In… In chains. And knowing I did that, it…” I took a shuddering breath, trying to steady my voice. I wasn’t sure if it worked. “It made me sick.” I dropped to my haunches, curling my tail around me as I heard Grit cautiously approach me from behind.

He stopped. Silence again. “Alloy, why th’ hell-” I flinched from his tone. “After everythin’ we went through, why didn’t you jus’... talk t’ me?”

Why didn’t I? The thought had never even occurred to me. Maybe he could have helped? I opened my mouth to answer, and closed it again. Even if I’d talked to Grit, it wouldn’t have mattered. I… I did the right thing. I had to kill him.

“So why not jus’ let ‘im go?”

“No!” I jumped up, wiping my eyes off with a fetlock. “What if Malice found him? And hell, who knows what she’d do to me if I went to her empty-hooved!”

He snorted, looking back at the house. “Well y’can’t go there now, either. Pretty sure she wanted him back.”

I felt my temper boil over, and a snarl formed on my muzzle. I spat on the ground. “Oh, I’ll do what that fucking bitch asked. Bring her Copper, with a collar around his neck. What happens after that… it’s my problem.”

Grit shook his head fervently. “Nah, we gotta think o’ somethin’ else. If we go t’ her with a fuckin’ corpse, she’ll kill us!” Goddesses-dammit, why was he so stubborn?

“Well then, I’ll just tell her he’s dead, and tell her where the body is.”

“But then we’re back t’ the same problem of going t’ her empty-hooved. You’re trustin’ that she’ll believe you long ‘nough t’ check. An’ by th’ time we get to th’ harbor and Malice sends somepony back, odds are somethin’ll have eaten him.”

“Then we’re back to dragging the body to her.”

Silence again. “What if I turn into him, an’ you hand me over? Then I’ll escape at night, fly away an’ everything’ll be fine.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “That’s insane! You have no idea what she’ll do to you, and you have no idea how she’ll lock you up.”

He stomped a hoof in the ground, snarling. “Well if you hadn’ta shot him…!”

I winced, tried to change the subject. “Grit, we should-”

“Nah, just-” His tail snapped at the air. “I mean, after everything we went through t’ get ‘im! Th’ prison, th’ fisher, th’ gators-”

“Grit, I just-”

“Oh, an’ don’t even get me started on th’ fuckin’ Stable or how I had t’ transform! Jus’ a lil communication woulda been nice!”

I was silent. He was right. Of course he was right. I should have talked to him. Why hadn’t that occurred to me? But this had been the only choice. It’d been the only choice.

Grit shouldn’t have to answer for this.

“Grit,” I began again, my voice still a cracked husk. “You should,” I swallowed. “You should go home.”

I glanced up at him, catching a glimpse of his wide-eyed expression before looking away. I imagined that was how I looked when he suggested transforming into Copper. “Why th’ hell would I do that? I can’t let you face Malice alone.”

“Yes you can,” I said, finally meeting his eyes. “I… I can talk to her, convince her somepony else shot Copper. Help me take the body to the meeting point, and I’ll go it alone from there.”

He stomped a hoof in the mud. “She’s a crazy raider, how th’ fuck’re you gonna ‘talk’ t’ her?”

“She’s sane enough to walk into Four Shoes and make the deal with me to capture Copper in the first place. She had to know there was a chance he’d be dead. Besides,” I tried to offer a smile to Grit, but his frown stayed in place. “I sold broken spritebots to Pillar and Studio. This’ll be easy.”

“That ain’t th’ same and you know it. An’ why do it alone? If you’re jus’ gonna talk t’ her, no reason I can’t go, too.”

“What if she gets some crazy idea to take you instead? Or tries to kill you?” You never had to be here. “I…” I looked away from him, past the trees. “It’ll be easier for me to negotiate with her without somepony there she can just take as a replacement. And I bet that’s just what she’d do, isn’t it? She’d have me chain you up and hand you over.” I shook my head vigorously, trying to get rid of the mental images. And of the idea that Malice might enslave me instead. “No. No, no, no, no!

“But what if she takes you instead?”

I’d rather she kill me. The thought surged to the front of my thoughts and made me drop back to my haunches, feeling my blood run cold. “I’d,” I swallowed, trying to find an answer. “I’d just find a way to escape.”

“An’ then what? Y’saw how escapin’ worked out for him!” Grit waved a hoof back at the house, where Copper’s body lay.

“I don’t know, alright?!” There was no good answer here. Malice would decide my fate. “There’s nothing else I can do!”

Grit took a step forward. “Yea, ‘cause you jus’ went ahead and killed Copper at th’ last minute, without even stoppin’ t’ talk t’ me!”

“It’s better than turning him over!” My throat was raw again. Why were we doing this again?! “I couldn’t hand him over, even if Malice…” I didn’t dare let myself finish that thought. “It’s done. I shot him,” I stared into Grit’s eyes, trying to stop myself from shouting. I don’t even know if I did. “Just go home, and let me deal with what comes next. It’s my problem, not yours.”


“So that’s it, huh? After everythin’, after draggin’ your ass through th’ Bayou all this time, you’re jus’ gonna send me back?”

I winced, my voice softer. “It’s not like that, Grit. I just,” I looked away from him. “Like you said, I shot him. Without talking to you about it. You shouldn’t have to deal with whatever Malice would do to me after. Plus, I’ll need your help after I’m done at the harbor.”

He opened his mouth with a snarl, and then closed it again, tilting his head. “What do you mean?”

“Look, I’m not gonna go to Malice loaded down with all my caps and valuables. I’ll need you to take most of it home for me. In a day or two, come back for me. Fly back south, and I’ll find a safe place to signal you, somewhere on top of a roof.”

He sat down, burying his muzzle in his fetlock for a moment, shutting his eyes, and for what felt like eternity, he didn’t answer.

“Fine.” He stood up and looked at me again. “But I don’t like it, y’hear?”

“I know.” I stood up, rummaging in my packs to start digging out my caps and the more valuable pieces of my store inventory, handing off everything but my sword, 200 caps, and some scrap metal that Grit couldn’t carry. I kept the pistol holster and ammo for the pistol, as well, and tried searching for it in my bags before remembering that I’d dropped it on the floor. Next to Copper.

We both walked back inside to get the body.

In silence.

* * * * * * *

“Looks like that’s the th’ place.”

Grit and I finally arrived at the west end of the bridge that once spanned the Bridle River. Once we had gotten close, our path had swerved towards a half-collapsed house that had a skywagon lodged in the roof. Enough of it still stood, though, that we could approach the bridge without being seen. On the shore, in the crook of where the bridge touched land again, a small boathouse and dock stood quietly, defiantly against the ages. Or maybe Malice’s gang had built it, given the shoddy state of the house. In either case, a large airboat sat in the water, tied to the dock and guarded by a pair of ponies in makeshift armor.

“Okay, give me the reins,” I said in a hushed tone. We had taken turns dragging Cop- the body for the past few hours, putting it on a sheet of corrugated metal roof and pulling it like a sled. Grit was able to pull it for longer. Each step I took while pulling sent knives of pain through the bite wound in my hind leg, and each time we switched I checked the bandages for signs of fresh blood. What I’d pay for a healing potion… Looking back at my hind legs, I caught sight of the patch of uneven hair covering the magical energy burn I’d taken weeks ago, back when all this started. Almost there. Just… just a bit more and I can go home.

All I had to do was take this body to the bridge, deliver it to Malice, and then I could go home.

I forced myself not to dwell on the alternative.

“Y’sure about this?” Grit asked.

I couldn’t look at him as I answered. “I’m fine. We can’t do this again. They’ll hear.”

Behind me, I heard him growl and stomp a hoof in the dirt. “Still don’t sit right with me.” He floated the tattered rope over to me, and I bit down on it, tasting mildew. Craning my head to look back, I saw his bags swelled to bursting, while I still had my supply of scrap, some of the armor, my sword, and the revolver. “I’ll look for ya t’morrow an’ th’ day after.” I nodded, looking at him to see him boring straight into my eyes. “An’ I better see you there, ‘cause I got more words for you ‘bout talkin’ before doin’.”

After a moment, I slowly nodded again.


We stood, staring at each other in awkward silence for almost a full minute before I turned around and started walking, pulling the sled around the corner and out into the open. It was easier to pull on the broken road than it’d been over rough terrain, but the weight still pulled at me. Dragged me down, wanting me to turn around and run. I didn’t dare turn around to look at the body.

After a minute or two, the raiders noticed me, but they didn’t move or say anything until I’d pulled the body all the way to the stairs leading to the dock. One of them was a grey-coated unicorn buck with a messy green mane, and the other was a scrawny earth pony with a white coat, though it was splotched with so much mud I mistook it for brown at first. The unicorn took a step forward and pulled out a shotgun, holding it near but not pointing it at me. “Stop right there. You the one Malice sent after Copper?” I nodded. “Well, where’s the fuckin’ bastard?” I winced, but nodded my head back towards the sled.

The earth pony spoke next, trotting up the stairs to look behind me. He grinned wide, snickering. “She’s got ‘im alright. Fucker’s dead. But she put chains on ‘im anyway.”

“Seriously?! Lemme see!” The unicorn, completely forgetting me, trotted up the stairs to get a look for himself. I didn’t dare move. “Hah! Oh, Malice’s gonna love this.” He looked at me, putting away the shotgun. “Alright, get him loaded on the boat an’ we’ll get goin’. Place is fuckin’ boring anyway.”

Grabbing the rope with my magic, I pulled it aside so I could speak. “I… I can’t lift him by myself.”

“Fuckin’ goddesses, alright, alright. I’ll help carry ‘im down.”

With two unicorns lifting the body, it was much easier to carry hi- it down to the boat. With the body loaded, the unicorn untied the boat and we took off south, down the Bridle river.

To Malice.

* * * * * * *

I thanked Celestia that the two raiders spent the whole trip ignoring me. Instead, they argued about who would win some upcoming pit fight. I just tried to block out their conversation, and tried to block out my own thoughts of Malice making me fight in whatever pit they were talking about. Ahead of us, as we traveled south, the river split into four significant forks, with dozens more streams and creeks burrowing away into the Bayou. We veered down the rightmost folk, and at first there wasn’t any major change to the landscape except a smell of salt in the air that got stronger the longer we traveled.

But then we reached the mouth of the river, and the sight of nothing but sheer, open water greeted me, and left my jaw hanging wide. Water stretched as far as the eye could see, and as the boat turned right to follow the coast, I stood up just to stare at the view. Was this the ocean? I’d heard stories of an ocean, but only that it was a big lake. This left me short of breath.

The boat rocked on a wave, and I laid back down out of fear of falling out, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the view. It was unbroken, nothing but water as far as the eye could see.

Wait, no. Not unbroken. In the distance stood a structure, something definitely pony-made. Some kind of platform, standing defiantly above the waves on four pillars, with wireframe buildings atop it. I tried to pick out details, but in the hazy light, all I could grasp was the basic shape. I wondered how far away it was, how big it was. What was it even for?

Staring at the mysterious building in the sea ended up passing the time well until we started turning into the coast again. I turned my head to look at the coast for the first time since we left the Bridle river, and saw the harbor.

Concrete fingers jutted out of the coastline, some empty, some with broken ships still tied to them. We passed these by, turning towards land and slowing down as we sailed through a short, artificial canal, past a series of docks with walls to block out the water. The scaffolding structures around us had decorations of spikes and makeshift bridges leading between them, and it looked like we were headed towards a gathering of at least a dozen airboats, all stopped and tied to one dock, huddling around one ship in particular.

Finally, we slowed to a stop, and the unicorn jerked his head to get me off his boat. The dock itself was a concrete slab with stairs leading away from the airboat, but before me was a massive steel structure, with metal scaffolding wrapping over the top of it. It looked like a ship, but it was larger than any I’d ever seen before. From where I was, I could see the top of a building of some kind built onto the deck, and I could still faintly make out the engraving of its name on the side of the hull. H.M.S. Shining Armor. But none of these were what held my attention.

Instead, I was preoccupied with the crowd of leering ponies on the ship, on the scaffolding, and on the docks around us.

They whispered amongst themselves, groaned, or grinned at me, and I quickly tried to find something else to look at, anything. I was the center of attention here. I could feel their eyes boring into me, watching me, judging me. A few of them called out in mocking voices, but I didn’t hear what they said.

One voice did cut through the noise, however. A voice like poisoned candy.

“Well, well, well, well! Lookit this! Lil’ blue came back after all!”

Malice. Just the sight of her standing on the hull of the ship, looking down at me, turned my entire body to ice. Her armored tail, idly swinging in the air behind her, snapped against the deck with a sharp clang, silencing the other conversations. “An’ she’s even on time. I tell you what, Alloy, I am very glad t’ see you. You’ve jus’ put quite a few shiny caps in my pocket.”

What? Of all the reactions, all the possible ways she could greet me, the things she might say, I had never expected… whatever this was. I swallowed, trying to wet my throat and answer, but all I could manage was, “What?”

The mare beamed at me. “Well, y’see, we had ourselves a bit of a wager goin’. Whether o’ not you’d come down here on time, whether you’d have Copper with you, or if you’d jus’ try t’ cut an’ run.” She stabbed a hoof at me. “Odds were not in your favor, lil’ blue. I think it was… 70-30, if I recall.” She started walking towards a boarding ramp, mismatched armor on her hooves clanking and thunking against the deck, descending towards me as she continued. “But I said t’ myself, ‘this one seems like th’ type t’ uphold a deal.’ ” She stopped her descent, turning from the scaffolding ramp she was on to look at me again. “An’ here. You. Are.”

My ears fell flat. Despite Malice’s “praise,” I hadn’t upheld the deal. I’d come back with Copper, even following the letter of the deal by bringing him here with a collar around his neck. I glanced back at the airboat where his body lay, then winced as I realized I was directing attention to the body. Fucking stupid! Everyone would have seen me looking. I was the center of fucking attention. Say something! I had to explain myself. Had to get ahead of this. I took a deep breath and opened my mouth.

“Yes, I had noticed, lil’ blue. Y’all held up your end of th’ deal, but it has not escaped me that Copper seems t’ be a bit… dead.” She got to the bottom of the last ramp, walking across the mud and broken concrete straight at me, tail waving in the air behind her as she marched closer. I slowly exhaled, trying to stay calm. “Now I understand this wa’n’t an easy job, di’n’t even have a guarantee o’ success. Much as it pains me t’ say so, I always knew there was a chance I’d never see my dear, sweet Copper again.” I heard some of the ponies around me snicker, but Malice silenced them again with a glare. “But I have t’ know, what happened out there? Killed by a radigator? Run inta trouble with a trigger-happy ghoul? Dead when you found ‘im? It would ease my weary heart t’ know how he died.” The raider leader stopped just in front of me. Her tail still swung in the air behind her idly, hungry for blood. “If you don’t know, own up to it. After all, I hate liars.” All sweetness in her voice was gone by the time she finished her last word. She met my eyes, and I couldn’t look away. She could see everything about me, I was sure of it. She could see what I was afraid of, what I was trying to hide, and what I held dear. I took a step back, but she didn’t budge. I wanted to run, to hide, maybe I could jump on the airboat and get away, but I knew that there were enough guns trained on me that I wouldn’t get three steps before being cut down, if Malice herself didn’t break into a gallop and catch me.

She was silent now. Watching me. Waiting patiently for an answer. I tried to force myself to speak, but I knew the longer I took to answer, the more damning my lie would be. I found him in a Stable. A ghoul in there shot him before I could get to him. I stared into her eyes again. I found him in a Stable! She could see. A ghoul in there shot him before I could get to him! I opened my mouth, but my throat was dry again. I couldn’t move. I found him! In a Stable!

“I found him in a Stable.” Malice’s expression was unchanged. “A ghoul…” She narrowed her eyes, and I took a step back.

She knew!

Before I could stop myself, I blurted out the truth. “I killed him after we got out.” Malice’s face was neutral, but her tail stopped swinging now. “I collared him, but then shot him after, just this morning.”

Malice just stood there for an eternity. Even her tail was still. Then she grinned, showing a row of filthy yellow teeth.

And then she just started laughing. She doubled over, snorting and giggling like a foal.

I’d never heard such a genuine laugh before.

* * * * * * *

After Malice had recovered, she’d ordered Copper’s body dragged out the boat and hung up by his collar on the scaffolding. I thanked Celestia that she invited me away so I wouldn’t have to see her order being carried out, and I numbly followed her up the ramp and back to the ship, still trying to process what had happened. She hadn’t said anything in response to my confession. Just the laughter. Was she so mad she wanted to torture me herself? Make me her new slave? The idea made my blood run cold again, and I stopped in my tracks. Malice turned to face me a few paces ahead. “What’sa matter? C’mon, keep up.” Her smile was back, and she waved a hoof. Her tail had been left to drag motionless along the ground as we walked, and I took that as good sign.

I forced myself to keep walking, following Malice into the structure that sat atop the ship. It was surprisingly intact, though covered in streaks of rust. We walked through the narrow corridors, barely wide enough for two ponies side-by-side, and anypony we came across immediately moved aside to let us pass. After ascending a few flights of stairs, we ended up in a wide room with a metal table in the middle, bolted to the floor and covered with an engraved grid. Encircling the room were places for half a dozen ponies to sit facing the walls or whatever was on the desks in front of them before Malice had moved in. Opposite the door was a makeshift throne, with a sharp, heavy sheet of metal serving as a high back, reaching almost to the ceiling. A mattress lay in the corner, and a random collection of junk lined the walls on haphazardly constructed shelves. It was almost all pre-war junk, but I picked out a few choice bits: some polished medals, a telescope, a partially-unrolled map. The anti-machine rifle she had carried into Four Shoes hung next to the throne, and behind it was a row of blown-out windows, offering an impressive view of the harbor, the Bridle River, and the ocean beyond. Once again, I saw that same structure offshore, the platform with four pillars holding it in place above the water. The way it just stood still, without rocking or swaying, made me think that it was just built tall enough to stand high above the waves, rather than floating.

“Wan’ a drink, lil’ blue?” Malice closed the heavy metal door behind us and trotted over to her throne. She plopped down on the overstuffed pink cushion that was its seat, and lit her horn, rustling around under the table before pulling out a bottle of amber liquid and two glasses. I nodded to her. Even if I had wanted to decline, the thought of upsetting her mood chilled me. But even that aside, by Luna I did want a fucking drink.

Malice poured out a little bit of the booze into each glass, sliding one across the filthy table to me. I picked it up in my magic, catching a whiff of something aged two hundred years past its prime. The other glass clinked against mine, making me jump and look up again. Malice’s purple magic was wrapped around the other glass, and she beamed at me from her throne. “Relax, Alloy! Y’all’re jumpier than ol’ Red Bean was!” Chuckling at her own joke, she tipped the glass into her lips and took a sip. I felt sick as the memory of the other slaver rushed back to me, the one Malice had made me fight in the town square of Four Shoes. The one she had killed when I beat him.

I focused on the glass, taking a sip and trying not to down the whole drink at once. My eyes went wide as I coughed and nearly gagged from the taste as it hit me like a buck to the throat, burning my nostrils and throat. I set the glass down in front of me on the table and sat down on the floor, staring at Malice. I couldn’t take all this anymore. For better or worse, I had to know what the fuck this was all about. “What,” I swallowed, taking a shaky breath and meeting the raider’s eyes. “What do you want from this? What are you going to do to me?”

Malice leaned back in her throne, cocking her head to one side and holding the drink aloft. “Why, I’m offended by that! What’s wrong with jus’ havin’ a drink with somepony?”

My eyes went wide. “N-no, that’s not what I-” I took another breath and another sip of the drink, this time relishing the punch to my throat, something to try and snap me to my senses. I needed to find my fucking nerves again! “I told you I shot Copper, and the next thing you do is give me a drink? Why? Aren’t you…” I hesitated. I wanted to ask why wasn’t she mad, why wasn’t she trying to kill me. Of all the ways I thought Malice would take this news, I never expected it would be this easy.

She beamed at me, setting her glass down on the table. “Aw, honey, I gotta come clean with y’all. I only wanted Copper back so I could kill th’ rat myself. I didn’ give a single shit ‘bout whether he came home alive or not!” She waved a hoof in the air idly. “I mean, think ‘bout it. If I’d really wanted ‘im back, I’da sent one o’ my own ponies after ‘im.”

If I hadn’t been sitting already, I was sure I’d have lost the balance in my legs. Already the room felt like it was spinning from what she’d said. Two weeks… All that work… for nothing?! I was sure my jaw was hanging open, but I didn’t care. If only somehow I’d known all she wanted was to have him dead, maybe if she had told me. Celestia above, the lies, getting forced out of Sugarland, let alone everything that happened this morning…

“Aw, don’ get all upset. I still wanted t’ be sure he was dead. S’like I told you before, Alloy, I hate liars an’ cheats. Copper tried t’ stab me in th’ back, an’ ran away when I found out.” She finished her drink and sat back in her throne, grinning at me. “But now he’s dead, an’ I wanted his body strung up t’ make sure ever’pony got th’ message.”

I finished my drink, my eyes wide. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. At some point, I must have leaned against the table for support. All of that was… she never even cared about having him home again? I winced, pain lancing up my hind leg from the bite and stab. “You just,” I swallowed, feeling lightheaded. The liquor left a lingering burn in my throat that travelled up to my head in a tingle. “All of that… for nothing?!”

“Now don’ go makin’ a scene, lil’ blue.” She stood up and put her forelegs on the table, so that she stared down at me. “Like I said, I did wanna be sure he was dead. An’ my promise if y’all had skipped town on me? I keep my promises.”

Malice stared into my eyes a moment before sitting back down on her haunches, smiling again. “But why send Chainlink, then? You,” I swallowed, trying to ease my parched throat, “You said you had given the job to him before…” I trailed off, trying to stop myself from reliving the fight at the Ministry building. Chainlink looming over me, ready to clap a collar around my neck. I shook my head firmly. Not now. Not now.

Malice giggled a little, lolling her head to one side. “Didn’ I tell y’all b’fore? Chainlink was an asshole. Hell, I gave ‘im th’ job ‘cause he was an asshole. Oh, lil’ blue, th’ look on his face when I told him what he needed t’ do!” She sat up in her throne, grinning and shaking her head. “An’ then he tried to blow it off, found himself in your neck o’ th’ Bayou, an’, well, th’ rest is history.”

She righted herself and picked up the bottle of liquor with a haze of purple magic, waving it to and fro. “But y’all took care o’ business, an’ showed me whatcha were made of! Ain’t just anypony can take care of a job like this.” She beamed, all hostility lost as she poured herself another drink with her magic. “I had eyes on you, lil’ blue. Not all th’ time, mind, but enough t’ see one tough mare out in th’ Wasteland. I commend your abilities.” Malice floated the bottle over towards me and I shook my head without thinking, preferring not to drink anymore. I had blurted out enough. She inclined her head quizzically, then set the bottle down again. “An’ this brings me right around t’ th’ reason I asked y’all up here.” With another sip, she slouched over her throne and waved a foreleg at me. “I want y’all t’ join me.”

“You… what?” I couldn’t help myself. I was stunned. Had I understood her right? She wanted me to join the harbor’s raider gang?!

“Well sure, why not? Y’all got th’ talent, resourcefulness, you’re a shrewd businessmare by all accounts, an’ I could use somepony with your metalworkin’ talent if I’m bein’ honest.” She lifted her glass again, swirling the golden liquid around the glass before taking another sip. “But none o’ those’re th’ reason y’all should join me.”

At this point, Malice had my rapt attention. Some part of me was… proud of how she had described me.

I remembered her screaming at Red Bean, then impaling him through the throat. I glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of Copper’s body dangling from the scaffolding by his collar and chain. The one I’d clasped around him. I forced myself to look away, back to Malice, trying to control my breathing.

The armored mare stood up from her throne and started walking around the table towards me, slowly and calmly. “Tell me, lil’ blue,” Her voice had dropped low, speaking softly, almost gently, “in all th’ time you spent walkin’ th’ Bayou, did you feel welcome anywhere?”

I winced, remembering Bourbon kicking me out of Sugarland. Laveau trying to capture me. Stable 15 had been nice, but I felt more like a curiosity there. Pillar seemed to want nothing to do with me. No, Four Shoes was home for me, and I knew it.

“An’ what about that town o’ yours. Th’ one I first met y’all in. I mean, my instructions didn’ say y’all had t’ leave your home. So how come I hear tell o’ y’all walkin’ through th’ Bayou yourself?”

I looked away. She was right. Four Shoes had kicked me out too when they felt threatened by Malice. It… It was Malice’s fault, but Gumbo and the other shopkeepers had caved so easily.

Malice stopped, tapping her tail against the ground. I looked up to see her standing just a few feet away. “But here, with jus’ a word from yours truly, you’d have a home right here. I could get y’all set up where y’could do your metalwork, trade with anypony here, an’ it’d be a damn sight better than that run-down tradin’ stop y’all got up north. But more’n that, you’d be part o’ th’ family.” She clicked a hoof against the ground for emphasis on the last word. Family. “Down here, we look out fer each other, an’ we help each other, an’ we do whatever we want t’ th’ shitty, fuckin’ Wasteland that thinks it can rip us t’ pieces.”

I swallowed. A single question hanging in my head like the body that swayed outside, just on the edge of sight. “What about…” I waved a hoof towards the window. “What about Copper?”

She looked outside with me and clicked her tongue. “S’Like I said, Copper tried t’ stab me in th’ back. He turned traitor, an’ tried t’ bring down mah family. His family. Turned his back on all of us. So.” She nodded her head towards the body. “There he is.” Her head turned back to me. “An’ here you are. So whaddya say?”

I said nothing. My mouth worked in silence as I tried to weigh the pros and cons. Tried to treat this like any business deal. That’s all this was, wasn’t it? I stood up and started pacing without even realizing it. Malice said nothing. I couldn’t believe I was even considering this. She was a raider! She was probably even lying. But at that very moment, I felt the my blood start to burn. Gumbo had been a wimp. Pillar was an asshole. Laveau had lied. Bourbon had been an asshole. And here I was, being offered a home. I felt a clawing sickness, but part of me wondered if-

“Tell ya what.” My train of thought derailed as Malice spoke again. “I know this inn’t an easy decision, an’ it’d be unfair o’ me t’ make y’all choose on th’ spot. Time comes y’all make up your mind, head on down t’ the bridge again. I’ll leave th’ door open for ya.” She cocked a warm smile and finished the last of her whiskey. “Well that’s quite enough talkin’ for t’day!” She reared up and stomped her armor-shod hooves on the metal deck emphatically. “I believe I’ve held y’all up long enough. Best be gettin’ on home ‘fore it gets dark. I’ll have one o’ my ponies take y’all as far north as we can so y’all can get back t’ town safe an’ sound.” She collected the two glasses, putting them away alongside the bottle of liquor, waving a hoof to shoo me out the door.

Without thinking, I walked towards the door, only turning back when Malice called out to me. “An’ Alloy? I ‘spect t’ hear from y’all soon.” She smiled again and then turned to look out the window, closing the door behind me as soon as I was out of the room.

* * * * * * *

The same unicorn and earth pony buck took me back, on the same airboat. But by the time they kicked me off and sped back to the harbor, it was already dark. I thought about finding shelter to sleep for the night when I realized where they’d dropped me.

The Ministry of Morale building. Where I’d fought and killed Chainlink and the other raiders. Where I’d passed through hundreds of times on my way back and forth to Shipper. I strained to listen, but didn’t hear anything trying to sneak up on me. With home only a few hours’ walk away, I set on the path I knew like my own cutie mark, making my way faster than usual, even as my bones ached and my wounds spiked.

I wasn’t sure how long it took me to get home. I heard things rustle in the dark, sometimes just the sound of my own heartbeat. I sped up, passing landmark after landmark for the journey. There was the toppled bell tower. There was the house with the skywagon in the roof. There was the wagon with the ‘X’ scratched into the hood.

And there, up ahead, were the torchlights of Four Shoes.

I’d finally made it home.

Nausea clawed at my stomach as my own shop came into view. I was finally home, but after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t even feel relief at being here. I was tired, hungry, and ached from a dozen different places. I couldn’t even muster the energy to find Grit and let him know I was okay. He was probably worried, but it could wait until morning.

I trotted up to my house. If anypony saw me, they didn’t say anything. Walking around the storefront, I just made a beeline for my workspace. My forge. At long last, my forge. As soon as I passed under the covered awning I’d set up in the back, I collapsed, and knew I wouldn’t be getting up for a few hours at least. That was fine.

I was finally home.

A chill ran down my spine, and I curled up for warmth, sweeping my tail close. It felt colder next to my forge than it had ever been, probably from disuse. I was finally here, this was what I’d worked so hard to get back. But I still felt sick to my stomach. I shuddered and closed my eyes, resting my muzzle on my fetlocks.


I’d feel better tomorrow.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Pathfinder - You’ve been all across the Bayou, and have gained a better understanding of how to move through it! Reduce travel times by 25%!

Chapter 12 - Sales Pitch

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Chapter 12 - Sales Pitch

A formal or informal presentation, designed as a brief introduction to a good or service, with the target audience having little prior knowledge on the subject. Often presented with visual aids, the intent is to close a sale on the good or service at the conclusion of the presentation.

“Buying or selling?”

The words fell from my muzzle robotically, echoed in the same way I’d said them to the last pony. Had it really been two weeks since I got home? I tried counting back in my head, marking the days that had passed with small moments. I broke my hammer… three days ago? Yes, it was three. And it was two days before that when a zebra had shown up at my door, asking about their order. There had been delays, I’d explained. The zebra seemed satisfied when she left, but I still felt a stone in my gut. Doubling down on my work time lead to breaking my hammer. Nothing major, nothing I couldn’t fix. Just a crack in the handle.

“How much for this one?” The question from the stallion at my counter snapped me out of my head. Relieved, I glanced at the piece he’d indicated - a sturdy, compact wrench.

“10 caps,” I responded, and the earth pony lifted one hoof, nudging it, turning it over. He nodded, then pulled a bag of caps from a neck pouch, counting out ten and taking the wrench with him.

Staring up at the light fading from the sky, I decided it was time to close up shop. Should get back to my forge. Needed to keep working. I began gathering up the tools, knives, and other supplies from the display counter and locking them up for the night. As I retrieved my stock of armored barding from the wall, I caught sight of Grit on the far side of the marketplace. For a few strained seconds, our eyes locked. Then he looked away and walked on. He and I had barely spoken since the morning after I returned from the Harbor.

He had, of course, immediately confronted me to ask what happened. Even I could tell how worried he was. I’d told him the whole story, that Malice had wanted Copper dead anyway, and she was satisfied.

“In the end,” I’d finished, “she even offered me a home down there.”

Grit had recoiled in shock. When I said nothing else, he urged me on. “An’ what’d y’ say?”

“Nothing. And then she sent me home on an airboat. Said she’d leave the offer open.”

He didn’t ask if I was going to take her up on it.

“What happens now?” he finally asked.

“We just… go back to our lives. That’s it.” It’s all I’d wanted the whole time. To be home. Back to my life, back to my forge and store.

“That’s it?”

I’d nodded, standing up. “I should get ready to open the shop soon. Need to make up for time, and I’ll need to make some new stock later.”

Grit took a step forward. Opened his mouth as if to object, to say something. But he closed it again, looking away from me with a deep breath and a flick of his ear. “Alrigh’ then.”

In the two weeks since then, he’d only stopped at my store once, and then only to fix a broken magazine on one of his pistols. The whole time he’d been there, he said nothing, setting me on edge. I barely said anything back. All business.

That’s what I’d wanted, right?

But pressing in at the forefront of my mind like somepony standing over my shoulder every waking hour was my complete lack of productivity when I sat down at my forge. Whenever I had my tools in front of me, the bits of metal in the bin, I just…. stared into it. Nothing would come to me. No inspiration, none of the scrap metal made any ideas spring to life. If I forced myself to make something basic, it came out just that - basic. Every step of the process was forced, every moment my mind wandered, and time simply dragged onward. What felt like hours and hours would pass, but light wouldn’t even have begun to fade from the sky.

Out of sheer habit, I forced myself to sit down at my forge every day at the same time, but it felt like I spent less and less time there each day. I searched my meager collection of magazines for inspiration, even rereading the Sword Mare comic book over and over, but nothing ever clicked. That spark, the feeling that had clutched my heart the first time I saw the comic’s art depicting Princess Luna and Celestia, didn’t come back.

My mind snapped back to my worktable, staring at the cluttered bits of scrap before me. I scowled briefly at the metal before brushing it back into the bin, cursing myself for letting my mind wander again. It was almost part of my routine at this point.

Tomorrow. I’d surely be able to discipline myself into getting more done tomorrow.

* * * * * * *

The next day, I found myself again staring at my bits of scrap. I’d at least managed to finish a few more tools for Nikale’s order and start on a set of leg armor. But after sketching out the concept for the armor on a worn piece of paper, I let myself take a break, feeling unjustly satisfied. Now the evening was almost over, and I still had so little to show for it.

A flapping of wings and then approaching steps reached my ears, drawing my attention to the muddied ground beyond my forge. Not like I was getting much done anyway. I pulled out my bin of junk metal, searching, rummaging. Maybe I’d find something to kickstart a new idea, but if not, I’d at least look busier than I felt. Discourage whoever was approaching. I heard the steps round the corner, and a voice exclaimed, “Well shit, whaddya know. I was hoping to find you here.”

The voice was familiar, somehow; a bit raspy, but familiar. I didn’t linger on it, or look up. “I’m closed for sales. Come back tomorrow.”

“That’s alright, I wasn’t gonna buy anythin’ anyway.” She paused, and finally I looked up at who had bothered me in my workspace.

A griffon.

She had blueish-grey fur, grey feathers, and a frosting of purple on her crest. The memory flashed through my head, unbidden: Grit and I standing in the small room in Sugarland, trying and failing to negotiate with the griffon for help with… Didn’t matter anymore. What was her name again? For the life of me, I couldn’t remember. I wrinkled my nose briefly. “It can wait until tomorrow, then,” I repeated, turning to rummage back through the bin of junk metal.

“Last I remember, you had something urgent you needed done,” she continued, walking in and leaning against my unlit forge, scratching one talon at the underside of her beak. “Something about a pony you needed found, right? I, uh,” she swallowed, pausing a moment. “I got permission from my boss t’ renegotiate the price if you-.”

“Job’s done,” I snapped back. Before I’d known what happened, my whole body was tense. Before me, a piece of a toy robot floated in a green haze of my magic.

A pause, long and slow. “Ah. Right, ‘course.” I glanced up at the griffon to find her still there, but no longer leaning against my forge. One of her front claws dug at the ground, idly scratching. “Anythin’ else the Talons can do for you?”

I cut my magic off and dropped the half-toy back into my scrap bin, staring at her and feeling that prickling on the back of my neck and ears as I clenched my jaw tight. Why won’t she just leave! “No.” I locked my eyes on hers, but she didn’t return the glare. “Go away.”

“I need a job.”

My temper simmered down, confusion replacing it. It was obvious that she’d been after something but for it to be so bluntly put just left me speechless. “Need a job?”

“My bosses…” she began, then cut herself off. “Look, it’s just internal Talon bullshit, alright?” She stood up and started walking away. “If you don’t have anything, I can ask around, but I figured you could use a bodyguard, or someone to run the shop while you’re out.”

Some small part of me spoke out of turn, stopping the griffon in her tracks as she was leaving. “Why me?”

“Was easy to get here, and last I knew you needed somethin’ done.” She looked away, towards my forge, gently swishing her long tail back and forth. “And I… didn’t really give you a fair cop back in Sugarland.” She fluffed her wings at her sides idly. “One o’ the other Talons at my base was able to point me to where I’d find you.”

She grinned and shook her head. “I swear, that dick Alda takes every chance she can t’ show off her fancy wing blades and brag ‘bout how she got em custom made. Even named em, too, if you can believe it!”

She had my full attention now. I remembered forging those wing blades. It felt so long ago now, before Malice or Copper or any of this. And the griffon liked my work that much? I’d been proud of them, of course--they’d posed a significant challenge to make--but nearly all of my interactions with clients were… impassive. The mental picture of someone bragging about the blades I’d made for them tugged at the corners of my mouth and washed away some of my weariness. I snapped back to the griffon still standing in my workspace. Silence hung in the air as I tried to determine a way to broach the next subject. With a slow, deep breath, I finally said, “I don’t remember your name.”

“Kyra.” She answered. “S’fine. Wasn’t like we met for very long either.” She shook her head briefly before meeting my gaze again. There was something about how she looked at me. I couldn’t put my hoof on it, but it called to mind the way ponies sometimes looked in New Appleloosa. “So, about that job?”

My mouth opened immediately and then closed again. This didn’t feel right. I didn’t like any part of it. The signs of a bad deal, one I was being pressured into before I had a chance to learn all the facts. Not to mention that Talons were supposed to be elite mercenaries, and yet here one was, practically begging for any menial job I could give her. I shook my head. “I don’t need to hire. I can look after myself and the shop.”

Kyra’s wings drooped a bit at my answer, and she didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Well,” she said, finally turning to leave, “If you think of anythin’ I can do, let me know, alright? I’ll be in town a bit longer, asking around.”

I nodded, and turned back to my scrap bin once she had walked out of view. Briefly I’d considered pointing her towards Grit, but--no. No, that had too many ways of going poorly. Kyra could ask around town and find out who to talk to for guard duty.

Anypony else could point her the right way.

* * * * * * *

Kyra was still around two days later, and on the third morning, as I started setting up shop for the day, I caught sight of her stumbling out of one of the unoccupied, caved-in houses further down the street, away from Four Shoes proper. She hurried to straighten out her feathers and fur before briskly walking towards the town, probably for breakfast. I wasn't sure if she had gotten a job from someone or not, but it didn’t seem like she was hanging around any one store in particular. She’ll probably move on soon.

I shook my head, trying to focus instead on the task at hoof. My shop had enough of the essentials stocked, but the order for Nikale was still incomplete. Wouldn’t be long now, though; another day or two and I’d be able to finish and head to Shipper.

“Alloy,” a voice called to me. I didn’t even need to look up from display case to know who it was, though the chewy, drawling accent sounded more brusque than I was used to hearing.

Grit came to a stop in front of my counter, stiffly watching me.

I nodded at him, gently scuffing at the ground with my forehoof.

“Grit,” I answered. “What can I do for you?”

“Got a favor t’ ask.”

Of course. “What kind of-”

“There y’are!” Kyra’s slightly raspy voice called out from above us, swooping down and perching herself atop the awning above my storefront, the metal creaking under her weight.

“Get down from there!” I barked, hurrying out from behind my counter to stand next to Grit and stare at her. “You’re going to break it!”

Kyra, lying down on her stomach with front claws and head hanging over the edge, looked down at the sheet of metal under her, rapping against it with a claw. It creaked again, but only briefly. “Naw, it’ll be fine. I’m lighter than I look.”

I snorted, flicking my tail sharply. “You break it, you fix it.”

She waved a claw at the air, dismissing me. Grit glanced between us for another few seconds before interjecting, sounding much more like his usual self. “Aren’t you th’ Talon from Sugarland?” He tilted his head to one side. “Kyra, right?”

“Got it in one.” She grinned, glancing at me. Of course Grit was better with names than I was.

“You were lookin’ for me?”

Kyra slouched a little. “For a bit now, yeah, ‘til someone mentioned you’d left on a little trip. Decided to settle in and wait for ya.”

“Sorry ‘bout that. Had somethin’ t’ track down by th’ old Ministry o’ Morale buildin’.” He smiled at her, chuckling casually. Hearing him laugh again-- “Well, I’m here now. Somethin’ y’need?”

“Sure do!” she answered from her perch. “I’m looking for a job. Nobody else seems to be hiring, so I asked about guard duty. The traders in town told me you were the pony to see, but I couldn’t find you.” She glanced around the town, and briefly I wondered what Four Shoes looked like from her vantage point, or even flying overhead. “I’m surprised the town doesn't have more guards. Are you the only one?”

Grit just waved a hoof in the air idly, giving a lopsided grin. “Somethin’ like that. Mostly I jus’ keep th’ caravans comin’ and goin’ safe. There’s a couple other ponies ‘round that help out, but they spend most o’ their time huntin’. Most everypony else in Four Shoes’ pretty good with a gun, so we don’t get a lotta trouble.” He glanced at me, then back up at Kyra. “But you said somethin’ ‘bout a job?”

“Yeah. I’d like to sign on as a guard. I’m a pro at this stuff, and especially with Bertha here.” She unslung the huge gun from her back and held it in one claw, patting the barrel with the other. I rolled my eyes. Hadn’t she laughed at her friend naming the wing blades? And ‘Bertha’?

Beside me, Grit just cocked an eye slightly. “What’s a Talon doin’ lookin’ for guard duty? I’m sure you’re damn good, jus’ a lil’ curious.”

She shifted in place, another series of creaks and groans issuing from the protesting metal awning, making me wince briefly. “Bosses want me to take on a contract. Don’t care what it is or what it pays. That’s all there is to it.”

For a long while, they just stared at each other. Finally, Grit broke the silence. “Might have somethin’ for ya. Gimme a few days t’ wrap up some more business an’ we’ll talk.”

The griffon’s head immediately perked up. “Sure thing! I got time, if you’ve got the work for me.” She extended her wings and leapt off the awning, causing it one last rattle and squeal before gliding in a circle and landing next to us both. “Hey, if it’s more of that ruin-digging you were talking about before, I can give you a claw.”

Grit shook his head briefly. “Naw, nothin’ like that, an’ I can handle myself out there anyway. It’s jus’ me diggin’ through some history. Old wartime stuff, like th’ history o’ the Ministry o’ Wartime Technology or th’ Pinks in-”

“The Pinks?” Kyra snickered, echoing my own thoughts. “No way, who the fuck names their group ‘Pinks?’ ”

“Ministry o’ Morale, apparently.” Grit smiled, shaking his head. “Even wore matchin’ pink suits! Y’couldn’t make this stuff up.”

Pink suits?

Kyra let out a squawking laugh. “You Stable ponies always love diving into this shit.”

The image flooded into my mind, of two ponies in pink suits and sunglasses. In my mind’s eye, there they were again, standing in the doorway to a plush office. “I think I’ve seen them,” I said quietly.

Grit and Kyra’s attention was immediately on me. Too late now. I turned to Grit, his eyes a little wide. “Ponies in matching pink suits, right?” He nodded. “I think I saw them in,” I glanced at Kyra for a heartbeat, “in a memory orb.”

Grit’s eyes went even wider, his ears standing up high. “Where’d you get it? D’you still have it?”

I nodded, turning back towards my door. “I got it from the Ministry of Morale office. Just a minute.” I walked into my house, and thanked Celestia they didn’t follow me in. Inside the small locker in my house, next to the compartment set aside for my coal, was the small wooden box holding the memory orb. What was the stallion’s name again? Silver something? I shook my head, dismissing the idle thought and lifting the box with a cushion of green magic and taking it back outside, passing it to Grit. “Here. I wasn’t doing anything with it anyway.”

Grit opened the box gingerly, staring at the soft, silver light of the orb, but taking care not to establish contact with it. He closed it, and set it inside his bags gingerly. “I,” he started, looking at me, scuffing a hoof at the ground. “Thanks, Alloy. This means a lot t’ me.” His voice lacked some of the energy he had when talking to Kyra.

I just watched him, waiting for him to elaborate on the favor he’d come to me about, but he said nothing. One of my ears flicked at the air, and I looked briefly at my store, and then back at Grit. Behind him, Kyra was just looking back and forth between us. “You said something about a favor?”

Grit’s eyes snapped back to mine. When had he looked away? “Oh. Oh! Right.” He nodded. “Well, while I was out, one o’ th’ spritebots from 15 showed up. Had a recorded message for me, from Pillar. He wants me t’ bring you down t’ th’ Stable for some big commission. Didn’t say what, but he seemed like he wanted it in a hurry.”

“Ah.” I looked back at my storefront, recalling the work I needed to still do for Nikale. “Sorry, I can’t yet.” I thought to myself about getting the jobs done, how long it might take to finish up. If I closed up now, I could work the rest of the day and finish everything. Then tomorrow I could bring the finished order to Shipper and come back. “I need to finish an order for Shipper. I’ll head out tomorrow morning for Shipper and come back before sundown, and then we can leave for Stable 15 the day after.” Grit’s face didn’t change, and an alternative hit me. “Or, we could both set out first thing in the morning, and pass through Shipper before continuing to 15.”

He nodded, looking off to one side for a moment. “I’ll go with you t’ Shipper t’morrow.”

“Okay.” I scuffed a hoof at the ground.

“Okay.” He didn’t move just yet, and I tried to find words, anything to say. Despite his old attitude being annoying sometimes, it was better than this… stiff, emotionless Grit I’d been seeing the past two weeks, and his conversation with Kyra had only thrown it into sharper light. “Guess I’ll see you t’morrow then.”

I just nodded. “Yeah.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” cut in a raspy voice. Both of us jumped, looking at Kyra. “Could you two be any more tense?” Neither of us said anything. “Alright, fuck it. Grit, I gotta idea. Nevermind on th’ town guard job, I’m officially making my job to go with you two to Stable 15 or wherever. The way you’re going on, you ponies are gonna choke each other on awkward silence, and then there’ll be nopony here to hire me for another job.”

I took a step back from her, ears flat against my head. A glance at Grit told me he was just as taken aback as I was, though he recovered faster. “Now… hold up a tick, that’s an awful fast judgement call t’ make ‘bout us. An’ this business could get a bit… personal.”

Kyra rolled her eyes, making a noise between a squawk and a snort. “Well, how about this, then: since the two of you are my best shot at landing a job, I’ll come along and watch your backs. Free of charge. Get to see a Talon on the job, then maybe you’ll find somethin’ for me when we get back.”

Her offer was appealing, in a few ways, even if I was still reeling from the way she first presented it. I’d certainly appreciate another gun along, not to mention if the two of them struck up conversation, they might leave me be for the long trek. With a glance at Grit, I stepped forward, “Well, I have no problems with it.”

Grit shot me a quick look before bobbing his head to the side. “Yea, alrigh’ then. Y’can come along. Be ready t’ leave t’morrow mornin’.”

“Won’t be too hard, not like I have to really pack,” she chuckled back. “And… thanks.” With that, she flew off, leaving Grit to give me one last glance over his shoulder before he walked back towards the town center.

Had I overstepped? Spoken up on something that was more his business than mine? It was me that Pillar wanted, so this was technically to meet a customer, but it was Grit’s home. I hadn’t even thought to ask how he felt about bringing along an outsider. For a few heartbeats, I was frozen in place, weighing if I should chase him down and say he could refuse her after all. But my legs refused to move. How would I even phrase that? It didn’t matter anyway, he had already agreed, and Kyra had made it clear she’d follow us if we wanted her or not.

A distant rumble of thunder brought my thoughts back in place as I glanced up at the darkening sky. I still had an order to finish. If Grit had sincerely objected to Kyra’s presence, he would have said something for himself.


Yes. Of course he would have.

* * * * * * *

Even closing up my shop right after they left, I still found myself working well past dark to finish Nikale’s order. My mind wandered at critical moments, racing with ideas of what might happen this time I left home. At least the trip to Stable 15 wasn’t far, but I still felt my blood turn to ice at the idea of leaving again, and with every swing of my hammer, I spat a new argument at my frozen nerves. Of course, I’d have to leave eventually. I owed Nikale an order. The trip to Shipper is one I’d made every month for years. I could make it alone.


I knew the route in my head.


This was just a short trip.


I’d be home again soon.


With a sharp yelp, breaking the calm night, my hammer glanced off my forehoof, instead of the half-formed screwdriver it was bracing, and skittered away from its intended target. Gingerly, I rubbed my nicked hoof against the back of my other foreleg, though it hadn’t hurt. Feeling my cheeks flush with anger, I searched the ground for my lost hammer, finding it relatively quickly in the flickering light of my forge. I was just tired. That was it. It was the last item on the order. Just needed to finish up and go to bed. That’s all.

I forced myself to focus on each swing of the hammer, like this was the first piece of metal I’d ever smithed. But that didn’t last long, either. The motions were too familiar to me, the process almost boring. None of the flair or intellectual challenge like that pair of wingblades I made for the griffon.

Shaking my head, I looked up at the crackling, roaring fire.

Maybe I need to get a radio. Play some of that DJ-PON3 music, even if I already knew every song on his playlist by heart. He didn’t have that many. How’d that one about a pegasus on his honeymoon go again?

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away…


If you can use some exotic booze…


* * * * * * *

There were times I wished for an alarm clock. Or any clock, really. I’d heard PipBucks had them. Maybe I should find an old clock and fix it. They couldn’t be that hard to work on. I didn’t need it to be that precise. And maybe then I’d be spared the embarrassment of having Grit and Kyra wake me up by banging loudly on my door.

“Well someone’s overslept!” Kyra declared with a grin as I opened the door, my mane ruffled and standing up in odd places. “Not that I can really judge.”

“I was working late. Sorry for the delay,” I stepped back from the door and dug out my saddlebags and barding. “Just let me get the order loaded and I’ll be ready.”

Grit just nodded, saying nothing and staying outside. Kyra let herself in, however, and immediately started digging through my stuff, ignoring my glares at her. I gave up quickly, and pulled out Nikale’s order to check each item off the list as it was loaded.

“Kinda small, innit?” she asked, looking around before her eyes fell on my open locker. “What’s all that black stuff?”

I gave her a sidelong glance, flicking my tail at the air. “It’s coal.”

“Oh, wow, where’d you get real coal?”

I didn’t answer at first, checking a few more pieces off the list. “From Nikale in Shipper.” Trying to preempt another question, I continued. “I make odds and ends for him, and he gives me coal to run my forge.”

It seemed to work, as Kyra just nodded and then leapt atop a cabinet with a flap of her wings. I was somewhat impressed she could even fit in the small space up there, but she seemed comfortable. She let one claw hang off the edge, swinging it back and forth and tapping it against the wood with each swing, like an old grandfather clock.

She kept that up until I’d finished loading, and I was about ready to smash her claw with my hammer to stop that fucking tapping, but at least she hadn’t pressed for more answers. With the order loaded, I strapped on my armored barding and ran a brush through my mane before re-braiding it in the reflection of a slightly-polished hubcap. Lastly, I grabbed my sheathed sword and-

I froze.

Next to my sword was the revolver. The one I’d used to…

It was just sitting there.

I could still smell th-

“You alright down there?”

I shook my head briefly, realizing Kyra was staring at me from her perch atop the bookshelf. “Fine.” Before she could say anything else, I swept up the sword and holstered pistol in my magical grip, strapping them to opposite sides. “Let’s go.”

She hopped down off the cabinet and followed me out, where Grit joined us as we started down the path to Shipper. I took the lead, watching for the little landmarks along the way.

* * * * * * *

“I can’t believe this place is still standing!” Kyra gave a low whistle as she sat atop a broken street light, staring at the Ministry of Morale building and then the sky above it. I glanced up at her and kept walking alongside Grit, crossing the threshold of the main entrance. “Woah, woah, we’re going in?”

Stopping, I turned back, one ear flicking at the air. “It’s the only crossing nearby for this ravine. And I’ve been through here for years. It’s safe.” Except for last time… when Chainlink and his crew were here. I shook my head briefly, then turned to head inside. The humid air stank, heavier than outside, and I reflexively snorted.

Overhead, I heard Kyra fly lazily through the windows and glide down to land atop the desk in front of us. “This where you went to hunt down that memory orb, Grit?”

He nodded as we kept walking. “Yeah. Found th’ open safe in th’ top floor office, too. Surprised y’ got it open, Alloy.”

I shook my head. “No, no, I just found a key.” We walked towards the staircase, Kyra following behind us. “Did you watch the orb yet?”

Grit glanced over at me, one eye cocked. “Pretty much soon’s I got home last night.”

“What’d you think?” I asked, part of me hoping he could make sense of it. I remembered what happened in the orb, with Silver Something being arrested by ponies in pink suits after his secretary called them.

He seemed genuinely surprised by my interest. “Well, it kinda confirmed somethin’ I wasn’t sure ‘bout, that somepony was, uh, impersonatin’ Silver Trim.” He gave an odd emphasis on “impersonating,” and briefly I wondered what he meant before the answer hit me.


A changeling had impersonated Silver Trim.

That’s why Grit had been hunting down wartime history. And suddenly, the secretary’s concern made a lot more sense. How much did wartime ponies know about changelings anyway? “Th’ rest of it though, jus’ raised more questions, heh. Seems like wartime ponies loved their secrets.” He chuckled, and I couldn’t help but smile a little in return. Hearing him speak more easily to me again was something of a relief, but I wasn’t even sure why.

I was about to ask him about the pink-suited ponies when Kyra, now hovering in front of us at the top of the first landing of stairs, raised a claw to stop us. Her eyes were narrow and her head cocked to one side. I strained my ears to listen, too, and then I heard it.

Buzzing wings.

My heart started pounding, and I yanked my sword free of its sheath. “Downstairs!” Kyra bellowed, before sending deafening gunshots down the hallway. She charged back down the stairs at us. I ran. Grit was beside me, his pistols drawn.

We stopped in the lobby, my breathing already heavy. Kyra bolted around the corner after us, firing again and again with her shotgun before she flew into the lobby herself

She wasn’t alone.

At least a dozen bloodsprites were hot on her tail, I couldn’t count them well at a glance. Grit and Kyra immediately started blasting away with their guns, popping them like reddened balloons. More kept coming. A pack broke off and flew towards me. I charged. Ducked under them and swung my sword up, slicing one of them cleanly in two. Something scraped my side, and I jumped away, whipping my head around, swinging wildly and catching another.

I didn’t stop to think.

The gunshots rang continuously. Kyra let loose a guttural roar. Or was that Grit? I didn’t know. My heart thundered as I ran.

My hoof caught a pool of goo and slipped. I crashed to one side, skidding along the ground. Two bloodsprites barreled at me, and I swept my sword in a wild arc as I stumbled to my hooves. One died, but the other got to me, sinking its needle-mouth into my flank.

My throat raw from a scream, I smashed it quickly, yanking the needle out. My sword floated before me, but no more of them came. Kyra and Grit stood among a sea of ichor and bodies, breathing heavily.

I took a few steps towards them, but my left hind leg wavered and I stumbled, slipping and almost falling over again. Glancing back, I saw the open wound where the bloodsprite had bit me, slowly leaking red. It looked worse than it felt, but I still scrambled to open my pack and root around to try and find a bandage.

“Y’alrigh’, Alloy?” Grit called out, trotting over to me as Kyra landed next to him.

Waving a hoof in the air at him, I kept digging. “I’m fine, just… got bit.” I must still have some leftover from my last trip, right?

“Here.” A roll of bandages hovered next to me, wrapped in Grit’s blue-tinted magic. “Lemme get that, I got a better angle.”

Nodding, I stood up and turned my side towards him so he could wrap the bandage around me, pressing a clean pad to the hole itself to staunch the bleeding. “Thanks.”

“Don’ mention it.” He finished, tying the wrap tightly. “Careful though, bloodsprites’r s’posed t’ have some kinda… poison I guess, t’ make blood flow more. Don’t do any runnin’ if y’ can help it.”

I nodded, and looked at Kyra, who was wiping her claws and gun clean, as well as some kind of spiked bat. I hadn’t seen her use it, but judging from the green and red staining it, she knew how. She put the weapon away and looked back at me. “Saw some of those moves. Not bad, not bad at all. Could use some work though, you swing that thing around way too much.” I scrunched my nose up at her, feeling defensive about her backhanded compliment. I knew I wasn’t especially great with my sword, but I felt some amount of pride. “Mind if I see your sword?” she asked, snapping me out of my train of thought.

Glancing at my still-messy blade, I found a torn-up couch nearby, wiped the ichor off on the cushions, and floated the blade to her. She gripped the handle firmly in one claw, staring at the edge before giving it a few test swings. “Hey, this’s good stuff, Blue.” I winced. She tossed it back to me, and I caught it midair with my magic before sheathing it. “I might ask you to do something for me later on.”

With a flick of my ear, I looked back towards the staircase of the Ministry building. “It’ll have to wait until we’re back home. Let’s keep moving.” I started walking, favoring my right hind leg as I did so. “And it’s Alloy.”

“Hey, we got time to kill. Why not hammer out the details now, eh?” She grinned as she floated in the air beside me, lazily flapping her wings to stay aloft. “I’m thinkin… maybe a spiked chainsaw! Oh! Or you could make some kinda chainsaw bayonet for ol’ Bertha!” I just stared at her, dumbfounded, almost tripping over a crack in the floor. Did she even understand what I did?

“I,” I glanced at Grit, hoping for some kind of change in conversation topic, but he just remained silent, turning on his PipBuck radio as we crossed the collapsed roof-bridge of the Ministry building. “I can’t make something mechanical like that. Not to mention it’d be too heavy for a bayonet.”

“Aww,” she answered, and landed to walk next to me again.

For a moment, I thought that was the end of it, but then she let out a triumphant squawk. “I got it! Electric gloves!”

* * * * * * *

It was a long walk to Shipper from the Ministry building.

By the time we arrived, I had managed to steer Kyra to the more practical solution of either a serrated machete, or a long bayonet for her shotgun. She seemed determined to have some kind of bayonet, despite my insistence that the weapon wouldn’t be as useful. The occasional glance I spared Grit showed me a grin he was trying to hide the whole time.

For the eighth or ninth time, Kyra was trying to talk me into wrapping the handle with barbed wire when the warehouse came into view, the familiar “Shipper’s Cargo Handling and Romance Novels” sign across the side. “Hold on,” I cut her off, meeting her eyes. “Let me talk to them.” Truthfully, I didn’t know how Nikale and the others would react to me bringing another new face to their home, but I braced myself for the worst. They trusted me, didn’t they? That must count for something.

As we ascended the ramp to Shipper, a few of the zebras turned to watch. Some younger ones bounced excitedly before being restrained by their parents.

“Blacksmith,” the rich, exotic voice of Nikale carried across open space serving as the main plaza. “I take it you are here with our goods?”

“I am.” I carefully unfastened my saddlebags, pulling out the list of goods requested, and unloading the contents of the saddlebag one by one.

Checking each item off the list, Nikale didn’t speak again until everything was accounted for. “Thank you. I will have Xekan bring you the coal in a moment.”

I nodded. “I…” I searched for the right words, “I apologize for the delay. Something came up. It shouldn’t be a problem again.” I wouldn’t be taking on any more 'errands' for Malice anyway.

Nikale shook his head. “It is no concern. Something to do with your visit several weeks ago, yes?” I said nothing. “Who is this griffon you have brought? Another business partner?”

Following his gaze to Kyra, I turned back to him. “Ah, she’s,” business partner was close enough, wasn’t it? “Yes, she’s working with Grit and I.”

“I see. You certainly keep interesting company, Blacksmith.”

Just what did that mean? I was about to answer him when Grit cleared his throat. Looking back at him, he jerked his head towards the café stand where a zebra was serving some kind of stew. “Gonna get us somethin’ t’ eat.”

Come to think of it, I was starving, too. The long-winded discussion with Kyra had distracted me long enough that I’d forgotten my growling stomach. “Okay.”

With that and nothing else, Grit walked off, Kyra following closely behind. I started to follow, but Nikale stopped me. “A moment, please.”

Turning around, I scuffed a hoof at the ground. “Something wrong?”

“I do not know. Is there?”

My tail flicked at the air. What was with the mystery? I started running through the order again in my head. Some of it wasn’t my best work, but it was all functional, if not pretty.

He chuckled, a low rumble in his voice. “I am sorry, I have bad habits from my grandfather.” He glanced past me, watching Kyra and Grit. I followed his gaze and saw the two of them laughing casually over something. Probably one of Grit’s stories. “I was just noticing. The way your unicorn friend acted around you, it was not like the last time you came here.”

Well, that was to be expected. A lot had happened. I wasn’t sure we could ever act that way around each other again, so casually. “Things change.”

“I suppose. But we can also make them change.” I turned back to face him. “Your voice, for example.”

I flicked my tail at the air sharply. The hell was he on about now?

Nikale took a step back, raising a hoof in the air. “I apologize again. Forget I mentioned anything.” He turned to walk away, but Luna-damn him, now I had to know.

“What do you mean?” I pressed, taking a few steps forward to catch up with him.

Turning back to face me, he bobbed his head briefly. “Simply that the way you speak is somehow different. You do not sound as sure of what you say. A businessmare should have more confidence, yes?”

My mouth worked in silence. How could I sound that differently? I tried to find the words to defend myself, but I couldn’t find any ground to stand on. Nopony else had said anything, but then again I was only ever close enough to Grit for him to say anything. Nopony else knew me very well, except the zebra before me.

Dipping his head low, Nikale continued in my silence, “Never you mind. Xekan will bring you the coal. Enjoy your meal, and do not concern yourself with my words.”

And with that, he just walked away.

The hell did he mean I sounded less confident? I sounded just fine! At least, I thought I did.

But what if he was onto something? Nikale had known me longer than almost anypony in the Bayou. Almost as long as…

I looked over at Grit, talking energetically with Kyra, smiling in a way I hadn’t seen him smile since the last time he and I passed through Shipper.

A gut feeling accompanied that realization. An instinct, reacting faster than I could imagine.

I needed to set things right with him.

But I had no idea how.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 13 - Goodwill

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Chapter 13 - Goodwill

Only entering the books upon the acquisition of one company by another, goodwill is defined as the value of intangible qualities of a company beyond its inventory and property, such as reputation and a loyal customer base.

“So there we were, standin’ like drugged-up brahmin, an th’ fisher had us dead t’ rights!”

Kyra’s eyes went wide. “Well, how’d you get away?”

Grit cocked his head to one side. “Luckily, it wasn’t th’ only thin’ lookin’ for a meal. Next thin’ we knew, somethin’ grabbed it an’ dragged it under, an’ we had our senses again. It thrashed ‘round for a sec’, ‘fore goin’ underwater again, then there was a lotta blood. We didn’ stick ‘round t’ find out what it was, an’ just ran for it.” He chuckled nervously, and I clenched my jaw at the memory. How could he laugh about that? We had just gotten lucky. “Still don’t know what ate ‘im, an’ I’m not sure I even wanna know.”

With a single flap of her wings, Kyra hopped onto the trailer of a half-buried truck, walking along it as she kept pace with us. “Damn, ‘fraid you win then. I’ve had a scuffle or two with hellhounds, but I always ended up flyin’ away from ‘em.” She took to the air from the hood of the truck, gliding around us in a lazy circle. “Tell you what, those little bastards are a lot less scary from above.”

For the third time, I glanced around, hesitantly checking to see if there was anything following us, though between Grit's PipBuck and Kyra's freaky griffon perception, I’d probably be the last one to notice. My gaze lingered on the sight of the Bridle River, sending a deep chill down my spine.

Grit had decided that we should set out for Stable 15 immediately rather than spending the night at Shipper. We could make good time, but only if we hurried, and we’d still arrive probably a little after dark. So just after we’d finished our lunch--some kind of chewy noodles mixed with an unidentifiable meat--we set out on the road again, my saddlebags now laden with coal. Kyra had offered to fly it back to Four Shoes for me, but I brushed her off. I didn’t trust her, plain and simple. She hadn’t pressed me on it.

“Oh, how ‘bout this?” Kyra asked, continuing her and Grit’s little competition. “Ain’t as big a beastie as a fisher, but this one time Alda an’ me were--” Without warning, she cut herself off, the mirth draining from her face as her legs froze, staring with laser precision at something ahead of us. My whole body tensed before I even realized it, following her gaze.

Up ahead of us, lying atop a mangled metal awning, was another griffon.

She stood up casually as she saw us, jumping down and approaching with a purposeful stride. I took a step back. The newcomer was bigger than Kyra, with brown fur and white feathers dusted with teal. She was well-armed, and dressed in the same black armor that Kyra wore. I swallowed, my throat suddenly feeling dry despite the humid air. A sideways glance at Grit showed him standing in place, expressionless. The other griffon finally reached us, stopping a safe distance away and sweeping her gaze over Grit and me.

Her yellow eyes settled on Kyra for a long, silent stretch.

“ ‘Afternoon,” she said at last, looking back at Grit. “Don’t mind me, I just need a minute with Kyra here.” Her voice was stiff and carefully measured. She paused, letting her eyes drift back to her fellow Talon. Kyra had barely moved a muscle since spotting the other griffon, and I took a deep breath, trying to force myself to calm down a little. I didn't know what to expect from this griffon, but at least she wasn't here for me.

Kyra nodded, tilting her head a little. “Alrigh’, let’s talk.”

The silence hung in the air for a few heartbeats as she narrowed her eyes at the newcomer, then glanced at Grit and I. The brown-furred griffon took to the air above us, motioning with a jerk of her head for Kyra to follow.

“I’ll uh… be right back,” Kyra said at last to the two of us before spreading her wings wide and shooting up into the sky. The two griffons hovered in midair above us, mostly out of earshot, though I caught snatches of raised voices every now and then.

Grit turned and sat down on his haunches, watching them with a slight flick of one ear. I sat down next to him, staring up at Kyra and her fellow Talon, with the occasional glance at Grit. He was watching them far more intently than I was. The sound of Kyra’s voice raising again caught my attention, and I looked up in time to see her make a rapid sweeping gesture towards Grit and I, followed by jabbing one talon at us.

Grit still had barely moved, watching with complete focus. Finally I spoke up. “What do you think they’re-”

“Sh,” he replied immediately, and I closed my mouth, suppressing a simmering of irritation in the back of my throat.

The other griffon looked down and stared at us, and I shifted slightly on my haunches, scuffing a forehoof at the dirt. Then she looked at Kyra again and said something else before turning and flying off. Kyra hovered in the air for a moment longer, staring the direction the other griffon went. “You could hear parts of that?”

“Bits an’ pieces. Couldn’t make much sense of it.”

I nodded, watching as Kyra descended back towards us, circling down in a steep glide then landing and meeting my gaze with a broad smile. “Well! Sorry ‘bout that, was just some more Talon shit. Nothin’ to worry about.” She stretched her back, kneading the mud and cracked pavement in her talons, before trotting right past us, continuing along the path to Stable 15. “C’mon, still got a ways to go, right?”

Grit nodded, sharing a glance with me before consulting his PipBuck. “Yeah, guess we do.”

Did Talons always behave like this? Admittedly I’d only ever interacted with a few before Kyra, but I remember the griffon who’d commissioned me for the wing blades being very collected and professional. Watching Kyra walk ahead of us, head on a swivel, she seemed to just be on edge, and the days prior she’d been anything but collected and professional. I wanted to ask Grit what he’d overheard, but not with Kyra here to listen to us.

“So, Alloy!” Kyra called back over her shoulder, snapping me from my thoughts. She slowed down to walk alongside me before continuing. “Y’gotta have some crazy customer stories. I’m sure some o’ the ponies you deal with aren’t the sharpest claw in the bunch.”

Whatever had just happened, Kyra didn’t say another word about it.

* * * * * * *

Sure enough, it was maybe an hour after light had faded from the sky that we reached the New Oreins Community Center that housed Stable 15. To my surprise, a voice greeted us before we'd even entered the building’s parking lot.

"Grit, you're back!" a stallion called out to us from the window of a mostly-intact house near our path His shadow vanished from sight for a few moments before he reappeared at the front door, beaming at us. “An’ you brought the blacksmith!” In the glow of his PipBuck screen, I could see his pale-yellow coat and the crowbar he carried next to him in a field of golden magic, though he wasn't wearing any Stable barding

“Yeah, I did,” he replied with a note of annoyance, glancing at me for a moment. “Any idea what this’s all ‘bout? Pillar’s message wan’t ‘zactly specific.”

The stallion flinched a little, ears falling flat against his head. “He should tell you ‘imself. C’mon.” Grit frowned at the stallion’s backside, and his face mirrored my own feelings. What the hell was going on, anyway? I looked over at Kyra, but her face seemed neutral, or was just unreadable to me in the dim light.

He led us into the basement of the community center and through the massive cog-shaped door, passing two ponies standing guard in their Stable 15 barding. They nodded at us as we passed, but even I could tell they were exhausted, slouching against the wall and eyes underscored by dark bags. I didn’t see them even give Kyra a second glance.

As we crossed the atrium and ascended the stairs to the Overmare’s office, I could hear raised voices, even through the sealed metal door, but I couldn’t make out any words. My throat clenched as my mind drifted to different possibilities. Was it something to do with the spritebots? Or the prison?

The stallion who had led us this far rapped on the door with his hoof, immediately silencing the yelling from inside. There was a soft click, and the door opened, sliding itself into the ceiling and floor. “Sorry to bother you, but…”

Pillar cut him off, seeing us through the door. “Grit, you’re finally here. Good. Come in.”

The three of us filed past the yellow-coated stallion, and Kyra earned a glare from Pillar, though it still didn’t seem to affect her. “Burlap, please excuse us. Go and relieve Cherry Pie and Scribble at the door for night watch.” The stallion nodded and left, closing the door behind him, and Pillar snapped his head to stare at Kyra again.

“Grit,” he growled, keeping his gaze on the griffon, “who is this?”

“Name’s Kyra. Talon mercenary,” Grit answered casually. “She’s helpin’ us out right now.”

Pillar’s eyes shifted to Grit. “And she has no place in this meeting. I want her out of this room, now.”

“Well, all ya gotta do is ask, skippy,” Kyra cut in with a grin. “I mean, I’m right here. Anyway, you ponies have your little pow wow. I’m gonna find somethin’ to eat. Alloy, Grit, I’ll catch up with y’all later.” And with that, she showed herself out, hitting the door-close button with a snap of her tail.

I opened my mouth to say something, hopefully get some answers, but Grit had other thoughts. “Alrigh’ Pillar, what’s your deal? Y’ upgrade the stick ‘n your ass for rebar?”

Pillar recoiled for a moment, but only for that long. “What were you thinking, bringing another outsider here, in the middle of this crisis?”

“Crisis? What ‘crisis?’ ” Grit took an insistent step forward. “All y’said was that you wanted Alloy down here for a job. Kyra wanted t’ come along for her own reasons, an’ if you wanted t’ keep this private, maybe y’ shoulda said somethin’.”

The larger stallion’s muzzle bunched up into a snarl. “Listen here, you little-”

“Pillar, stop. This isn’t getting us anywhere,” the Overmare’s voice cut in, her tone firm. The pink-coated mare walked out from behind her desk, approaching Grit and me. “I’ll start from the top, an’ fill y’all in on the situation.” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Pillar open his mouth a moment, but then close it again. Grit and I walked over to the sofa next to the small window in the office, and waited.

“A few months back,” she began, “a group of ponies found their way to our door. We were suspicious of them at first since they looked a bit unruly, but they were open and friendly enough. They said they were traders looking to buy some technical parts and food, an’ we came to an agreement on a price in caps. They said they’d be back with more things to trade. It,” she stopped a moment, taking a slow, deep breath. One of my ears flicked at the air as I tried to figure out Studio’s story ahead of her. “It made sense at the time. We wanted to eventually open ourselves up to the outside world, and we’d need currency t’ do that, but I never…” She shook her head. “They started coming back every few weeks, an’ then at least once a week. An’ as they did, th’ things they wanted got stranger an’ more sophisticated. More’n once they brought us a load of damaged weapons and asked that we fix them, but nopony in th’ Stable really knew how.”

I shifted uneasily in my seat. The longer Studio’s story went on, the more the tight ball in my gut grew. Who were these traders?

“After that, they started bringing blueprints. Schematics for engines an’ such. They wanted to know how they’d fix it, how they’d make new parts for this or the other.”

Slowly, she walked back to her desk and sat down behind it, taking a sip from a mug in front of her, as she simply closed her eyes a moment. Was she waiting on me? Her eyes opened again, and she continued, her voice softer than before.

“‘Bout a week ago, they came by with an entirely different request. They wanted a team of our best engineers to go with them out into the Wasteland to work on whatever it was they had. Even I was suspicious. Pillar wouldn’t hear of it, unless they gave us more details. They refused t’ even say how long our ponies would be there, only that they’d be ‘well taken care of.’ ” Studio’s eyes hardened, and her tail swished at the air briefly. “I refused, and told them that I’d never let the ponies under my care go out into th’ Wasteland like that.”

She walked back to her desk to take another sip from her mug, and Grit interjected softly, “Sounds like th’ right thing t’ do.”

“Yes. An’ my fears were confirmed when they returned three days later. They announced that in a week they’d be back with an army, an’ we’d give them our best technicians, or their boss would slaughter everypony in the Stable.”

My blood turned to ice. This whole story had been off from the beginning. A mysterious, “unruly” group of traders operating this far south without passing through Four Shoes?

But of course, they weren’t traders.

Grit found his voice first. “Did they say who their boss was?”

Studio nodded slowly.

I felt my throat clench as a feeling of dread overcame me.

No! No, no, no no…

“They called her ‘Malice.’ ”

No, no, Goddesses, no! This wasn’t happening to me again. My ears fell flat against my head, and I tried my hardest to keep myself rooted to the seat. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I just-

“We’re going to fight her,” Pillar said, though his voice sounded distant through the sound of my own heart pounding in my chest and ears. He glared hard at Grit and I. “The Stable has a perfect choke point. They’ll never get inside, but we need body armor.” He nodded in my direction. “That’s why I asked you here. We need armored barding, as much as you can make and as fast as you can make it.”

My mouth worked silently. This was crazy. It was fucking crazy!

Grit was shouting the same thing. “This is suicide! Just because y’ have a choke point don’t mean y’ can fight off raiders! Hell, you’re th’ only one who’s even seen a gun before, Pillar!”

“I’m training them!” he snapped back. “We’ll be ready. And it’s better than the alternative.”

“I disagree,” Studio answered, shaking her head. “I still say we simply close the Stable. Whatever weapons they may have, they’ll never get past that door.”

“How long do we keep it closed? Do we stay down here until Malice dies of old age? Until her successor comes along? We need to stop this, here and now!” Pillar stomped his forehoof on the metal floor for emphasis.

The Overmare was silent at that. So was Grit. I had backed into the wall and couldn’t find any words.

“We’ve gotta at least try, Studio,” Pillar said at last, his voice more soothing than I’d ever heard it. “We can’t give up everythin’ we’ve been workin’ on jus’ ‘cause of one raider gang. We’d be lockin’ away a whole ‘nother generation of Stable ponies, an’ even then we couldn’t be sure it was safe. An’ hell, the Wasteland’s never gonna be safe, not truly safe.”

Nopony said a word, and I just sat there, taking deep breaths and telling my heart to slow, ordering my limbs to stop shaking, why was I shaking? I had to calm down, had to focus on something. At last, I broke the silence. “If you need armor, I’ll need a place to work, since it sounds like you don’t have time for me to go back home and make it at my store.” Business. I could talk business. I had a job. A commission. They could do whatever they wanted with their lives and their Stable, as long as they paid me. It was what they called me here for. “Since you’ve got the materials, I’ll work for a discounted price.”

Pillar shot me a glare, his jaw tightening, but all he said was, “You’ll get 75 caps for every finished suit of barding.” He practically spat his price at me as he flicked his tail.

I swallowed, nodding as my ears dropped slightly. My stomach was still twisted into knots, but the money was good. They were hiring me for a job, not life advice. It was their decision, not mine.

Studio nodded slowly, letting out a slow breath and meeting Pillar’s eyes briefly. “You can work in our maintenance wing, starting in the morning. We’ve got a full set of facilities that should be more than enough.” She looked at Grit. “Grit should still know the way. Could you…?”

He nodded, glancing at me. “Yeah, sure. C’mon, Alloy.”

The two of us walked out of Studio’s office quietly. I glanced over my shoulder at Pillar and Studio, to see the latter sitting on her haunches and staring out the small window in her office, out to the atrium below and the ponies milling around the Stable.

Pillar stepped towards the window, and I had just enough time to see Studio turn towards him, eyes wet with tears and ears flat, before the door closed and gave them privacy again.

* * * * * * *

Ten minutes of walking and three levels down, but not one word was said between Grit and I before we arrived at a door labeled “TALISMAN RESEARCH 01.” The door slid open to show Spark dissecting one of the spritebots, a pure focus in his eyes.

“Hey Dad,” Grit said with a grin, snapping his father out of the work.

He glanced up from the spritebot, and then did a double-take, matching his son’s grin, though his eyes looked more tired than Grit’s. “Aw, there’s my lil’ colt. How ya doin’?!” Setting down his tools, he walked over to Grit and touched their foreheads together. “Take it you’ve come down t’ help with this lil’ raider problem we got?”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that,” Grit answered. “Pillar’s gonna get Alloy t’ make a buncha bardin’ t’ help fight ‘em off.”

Spark looked off to the side, the corners of his mouth tightening. He looked at me, and I immediately shifted my gaze to the bot he’d been working on. “What’s going on with the spritebots?”

“Hmm?” Spark looked over at the partially-disassembled ‘bot on his table. “Oh! Well, after Pillar had me send a message to Grit, I thought I’d try to get the radio fully functional again, so that we could communicate directly through the spritebots!” He trotted over to the work table, beaming as he picked up the inert robot in a field of blue magic, showing off the inner workings. I grit my teeth together as I stared inside, remembering the hours wasted trying to fix the robots myself.

“Well damn, that’ll be useful,” Grit chimed in with a grin. “It’d be nice t’ get a call from home ev’ry now’n then. Anythin’ I can do t’ help?”

“I’m afraid not, I’ve just gotta get a microphone t’ work with my PipBuck, an’ then it’ll be time t’ field test.” He picked up a PipBuck that had been lying on the table next to the spritebot and started pressing buttons, seemingly at random as far as I could tell. After a moment, he wrapped the device around his foreleg and secured it with a soft click. “The range won’t be far for now, but if I can tether my PipBuck t’ th’ old Stable-Tec Emergency Broadcast antenna, it should reach for miles.”

Stepping back from the worktable, he stretched out his back and neck, making a few audible popping noises as his ears flicked. “But down t’ more pressin’ business. Alloy, you’ll need a place t’ work, I take it?”

I nodded, scraping one forehoof on the floor. “Yes. Someplace quiet, with some spare metal and suits of barding to reinforce.”

“Sure thing. Workshop 4 should do th’ trick. I’ll get some materials scrounged up for ya first thing in th’ mornin’, but for now I think it’s quittin’ time.” Spark trotted around towards us, nodding his head at the door. “I’d be glad t’ show you th’ place, but it’s far too late t’ do any proper work. You’re welcome t’ stay at my quarters t’night! We still got that sofa, an’ we’ll be able to get started at the same time.”

I swallowed, glancing at Grit. I caught him opening his mouth briefly, but he closed it again. Was he about to object? He probably didn’t want me sleeping in his home. The silence stretched just longer than was normal. They were both looking at me. I nodded. “Thank you.”

He was right. It was too late to work, and I needed the sleep.

* * * * * * *

I needed the sleep.

My eyes felt heavy, my bones ached from the marathon of walking all day, and I’d barely had a moment to myself all Goddesses-damned day. But my mind still ran itself in circles, keeping me awake as surely as a screeching alarm or gunfire.

For the first time all day, I was alone.

It was how I always wanted things. Alone I could relax. Alone I could think.

But I was alone with nothing to occupy myself; alone with the cold Stable air, with the overstuffed couch that couldn’t muffle the thoughts in my head, no matter how I buried my head into it.

I tried to think about something simple. The armor. Spark had a place for me to work, and I could make the armor they wanted. Reinforcing some of their Stable barding would be easy enough.

As easy as it would have been to make Chainlink some hoofcuffs.

NO! I curled up tighter on the couch, pulling the blanket tight around me. This was different! And besides, if I’d made those fucking hoofcuffs for Chainlink all those weeks ago, maybe I’d have been better off. I could have been back home, sleeping like I’d done every day for years. Instead, I-

The image of Copper’s face after the chains went around him flashed through my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut.

The back of Copper’s head. My revolver, pointed straight at it.

I ground my teeth together, practically screaming inside my own head if only to drown out the fucking memories. Hell, I wouldn’t even be helping slavers this time, it was Stable ponies that wanted to fight back. What was so fucking wrong with that?

Why was it so Celestia-damned cold in here? Would it kill them to let the Bayou’s warm air inside once in a fucking while?

I curled my tail around me and drew the blanket tighter as consciousness finally faded from me.

* * * * * * *

I slept in starts and stops from that point, never able to let my heavy eyes rest for long. The next morning, Grit had to wake me, and my whole body felt like lead as I dragged myself to all fours, more by sheer force of will than any desire to leave the warm blanket and couch. A cup of hot tea and an apple helped give me some energy, but only just.

The cold air in Stable 15’s workshop room didn’t help matters. The ponies of the Stable had provided as much as I could have asked for. They set aside a pile of clean Stable 15 barding, ready to be reinforced for combat, and though they didn’t have a forge, they did have a blowtorch and a table-mounted spinning saw that they assured me could cut through metal. They’d even dug up a mannequin for me to use, which would make the fitting much easier.

But I couldn’t work properly. My hooves moved sluggishly, and my mind drifted. I pulled a sheet of metal over to me, placed it against the mannequin’s chest. Drew lines with a marker where I’d use the saw to cut before taking the metal over to the table.

Turning towards the saw to start cutting, I stared at the metal plate and picked it back up. Placed the metal up against the mannequin again before realizing I’d already drawn the lines on this one. I shook my head, snorting as I brought the metal plate back to the table again to resume working.

I tried turning on the radio for a few minutes, to give me some background noise. Maybe let me keep to a rhythm. I’d heard some ponies worked well with music.

After a few songs, I turned the radio off again. It wasn’t helping. I’d just sit there and try to focus on my work, but the lyrics distracted me. The warmth of the blowtorch helped a little, whenever it was on, but I missed the crackling fire of my forge, and Luna help me I even missed the sound of ponies milling around Four Shoes. I never realized before how much I was used to the sounds of a living town in the background as I worked.

Shaking my head again, I stared at the piece of metal I had measured to be a breastplate. Needed to focus.

Couldn’t let my mind wander.

“I still don’ like this,” Grit said flatly, making me jump back and my heart skip a beat. The piece of metal I’d been measuring clattered to the table. I hadn't even heard him come in.

“It’s-” I cut myself off. I’d been about to tell him it was none of my business what they wanted to do, but that wasn’t entirely true--especially not to Grit. I let out a slow breath, scuffing my forehoof at the metal floor. He was looking at me expectantly, patiently. “Neither of them is wrong,” I blurted at last. “Pillar’s idea may be suicidal, but he’s right that the Stable can’t just lock itself away forever.” I turned back to my worktable, at the meager pile of metal I had to use. Maybe the best idea would be for everypony to leave the Stable. Head north, far away from Malice. But where? New Pegas? New Appleloosa? I snorted at my own suggestion.

It wasn’t up to me anyway.

They’d made their own decision.

Just make the armor, and leave.

The deadline was fast approaching, and I had a different problem. “We need to go out for salvage,” I said. “Not enough metal here to make the barding Pillar wants. I can make three sets out of what they’ve got here, but I need more. Doesn’t have to be metal, but either way we need to go.”

Grit cocked one eye at me. “Where d’ya ‘spect t’ get metal ‘round here? An’ can’t they just yank enough off th’ walls or somethin’?”

“Maybe they can, but that’ll take time,” I paced around towards the door, trying to hide my sudden shiver. “We can head out and go scavenging while they get metal together from inside the Stable.” I need to get out of here. The cold, dry air in here was starting to seep into my bones. Work on the armor was going too slowly.

Just some fresh air, that’s all. I just need some fresh air.

“Alright, sounds like a plan,” Grit agreed. “Let’s track down Kyra first. Think she’s been hangin’ ‘round my dad, an’ I wan’ her t’ come along.”

I nodded. I’d be grateful for Kyra’s presence, even if she was more of a blabbermouth than Grit.

* * * * * * *

Sure enough, we found Kyra craning over Spark’s shoulders. She was more silent and still than I’d ever seen her, watching him work in total fascination. It seemed Spark had managed to connect the spritebot to his Pipbuck, and he asked us to take the bot with us on a field test, and they would get some more scrap together for the armor. Grit agreed.

Shortly after leaving Talisman Research, we started to run into other Stable ponies in the halls, and more frequently the closer we got to the atrium. Their eyes lit up as they saw Grit and I, though they regarded Kyra with curiosity and caution. The way their eyes sparkled as they looked at me made me want to walk faster, to get out of this crazy Stable. Why were they smiling at me? I gave them a brief nod occasionally, hurrying along to avoid any conversation.

Finally, we got to the atrium, where Pillar was giving some kind of lecture about a pistol. The presentation paused as our little parade walked through, with Pillar staring at us and the ponies in the crowd turning to watch as we passed. Most of them beamed, though I could still see lines of exhaustion under their eyes. It was a creepy change from the previous day. They must have heard about us helping them out, but how had it cheered them up so much?

As we crossed the threshold of the massive cog-shaped door of the Stable, I relaxed a little at the smell of the humid, warm air of the Bayou outside. Four ponies stood guard in the Community Center above ground, and an ice-blue coated mare with a light green tail approached us. I remembered she’d been the pony who had tricked Grit when we first arrived here weeks ago. “Oh, y’all leavin’ already?” she asked.

Grit shook his head. “Naw, jus’ going out for some supplies. Alloy needs s’more metal for Pillar an’ Studio.”

She seemed to relax a little, nodding at us. “Alrigh’, sounds good. Y’all be careful out there.” Her eyes flicked to mine, staring at me, and I could swear for a moment I saw a glimmer of that same gaze the other Stable ponies had looked at me with. She opened her mouth, closed it again, looking away for a moment before meeting my eyes again.

“Thank you,” she said at last. “What you’re doin’... What all o’ y’all are doin’, it means a lot to us.”

Ice shot through my heart and it was all I could do to try and keep my face impassive. Was there something I was missing? I was just making them armor. Barely even counted as armor. Grit had mentioned something about training, but they were still dead. Hopeless. They couldn’t fight against Malice. Nopony could.

Thankfully, Grit answered. “S’th’ least we can do, Meadow. We’ll get through this shit, y’hear?”

The mare smiled and nodded, stepping aside to let us pass as I tried to force my brain to work again. Was that why all those ponies had been happy to see us? Did they see us as some kind of saviors? All I was doing was making them armor! They were going to fight and bleed and die, and I’d make sure to be far away when it happened. And the ones who lived would be taken into slavery.

And I’d be far away when it happened.

* * * * * *

Once we were a few minutes away from the Community Center building, the spritebot’s speaker crackled to life, jarring me out of my thoughts. The three of us stopped as it began hissing static, then a hesitant stallion’s voice, tinny through the robot. “Testing, testing. Can you hear me?”

“Hey, it works!” Grit answered. “Can y’ hear us, Dad?”

“I can hear you, alright!” Even through the speaker, I could hear Spark’s excitement. “Okay, I’ll let you know when we’re done gathering metal from inside here, but try not to go too far. I’m not sure what the exact range is yet. Out.” The static cut out, and the spritebot hovered next to us impassively.

“Well, let’s get this show on the road again,” Kyra declared, stretching out her forelegs, then her back legs before starting to walk across the broken parking lot. “So are we just looking for any kind of metal, or somethin’ a bit more specific?”

Grit and I started trotting after her, the spritebot obediently hovering behind him. “Almost anything will do,” I answered, “but ideally we need some flat sheets that aren’t rusted. Rusty metal is worthless.”

“Sounds good!” Kyra said, flapping her wings to hover a bit above the ground. “I’ll take a quick look around from above, see if I can’t find a place t’ start. Back in a minute!”

And like that, Grit and I were alone again, walking through the Bayou. Just like last time. My thoughts drifted back to Meadow again. “Do you-,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. Grit glanced at me, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t press me for more, but I could almost feel the curiosity that he was holding back. “Does the whole Stable know about this plan? That I’m making armor for them?”

Grit nodded. “An’ Pillar agreed t’ let Kyra an’ me train ‘em how t’ fight.”

I snorted, flicking my ear at the air. It still didn’t make sense.

“They thought this’d be th’ end o’ th’ Stable as they’ve come t’ know it. Th’ end o’ their chance t’ live in th’ outside world. Even if it’s a small chance, they feel like we gave ‘em hope.”

“Armor and training to fight-” to fight an army of murderous raiders. I shook my head. “It’s barely any hope.”

“Maybe.” He turned to stare at me, and my ears flattened a little. “But I bet s’like how you felt when I told you I’d help y’ find Copper, innit?”

I froze up, my throat hitching as Grit’s words knifed through me.

No. No, our situations had been completely different.

I hadn’t been facing down an army. I’d just been given the impossible task of finding a pony in the Bayou. I’d been kicked out of my home, told I had to leave my only safe haven. The pit in my stomach solidified, and I scuffed at the ground with a forehoof.

I couldn’t fool myself for a even a moment.

Kyra flew back into view, landing a short distance in front of us. “Good news!” she shouted. “Found a neighborhood with a buncha big houses. It’s just a bit ahead of us, but I think it’s a good place t’ start.”

“Sounds good!” Grit called out to her as she closed the distance to us. “Lead th’ way.”

“Alright, c’mon.” Her eyes shifted to stare at me. I swallowed, trying to compose myself. “‘Sa matter with you? Look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She idly waved her tail at the air, grinning.

“I’m fine,” I answered sharply, walking up to meet the two of them. “Let’s get to those houses.” That’s all I needed to worry about. Find some metal. Make some barding. Get through the day. Focus.


* * * * * *

The first house in the upscale neighborhood hadn’t yielded any metal. Nor the second or the third. By the fourth house, the search was becoming routine. Without a word to me, Kyra and Grit split up to search the ground floor, while I went upstairs.

I swept through the belongings of the long-dead ponies with all the care and delicacy of a cargo truck. I hefted bins in my magic, upturning them to find only rusted-out cans. I violently yanked drawers out of chests to find only useless clothing, torn up by age and insect. Scowling at the contents of a closet, I tossed aside a wooden toy car and a few broken coffee cups, chucking them all into a corner with the rest of the worthless junk.


Nothing that I could sell, nothing that I could melt down into usable metal, let alone use to make armor for somepony.

My head swam. Couldn’t think, couldn’t focus. How was any of this going to fucking help? How did they- Why the hell were they pinning all their hopes on some stupid armor?!

Why should I care about these ponies that wanted to gallop to their deaths? It was a waste of time! We lived in a world built on the dead, so what was a few more bones for the foundation?

And then I walked into the bedroom.

The bed and nightstands were completely destroyed, though small patches of faded blue carpet still showed through on the floor. An easel had been set up next to the now-broken window, leaning against the wall as its legs slowly succumbed to mold. In front of it lay a skeleton of a unicorn, with half a dozen brushes scattered around its hooves, outstretched and reaching for the canvas. Centuries-dried paint pots were strewn around the bones and easel, the colors almost all faded. And on the canvas was a half-finished painting. Its edges were covered in dark faces with leering eyes, shapes of war and death in the shadows, all surrounding a spot of faded color in the middle. I slowly walked closer to it, staring at the empty space in the center.

Up close, I could see the faintest remnant of an outline, drawn rather than painted. Like how I’d sketch out a design on a piece of armor before etching it. From the outlines, it looked like there was supposed to be somepony in the middle, standing over a huddling form. Maybe banishing the darkness, protecting a friend that otherwise felt alone. Hopeless. Maybe I just hoped that’s what it was.

Instead, there was barely a ghost.

Slowly, I turned my head down to look down at the bones, my back legs giving out numbly. Whoever this pony had been, they had died before finishing their painting.

They had spent their final moments pouring their heart out onto a canvas that would never be what they wanted.

My vision blurred and I felt a lump in my throat as I looked around at the bedroom, as if I was seeing it for the first time. And I was, in truth. I didn't see a handful of scavengable goods amid a pile of useless trash.

I saw the memories of an entire life.

The broken coffee cups had layers and layers of paint caked inside, swirled into random patterns from mixing colors together. The wooden toy car, still in miraculous condition, was painted a vibrant blue with a yellow stripe down the side, with some writing proclaiming it the ‘Blue Lightning.’ The torn clothing was, in fact, not as torn as I’d thought. A little moth-eaten maybe, but the variety of wartime suits and dresses made me wish I could see what they’d looked like in mint condition. Finally, I looked back to the painting, my ears falling flat, wondering what it would feel like to pour the last of your life into one creation, one expression, and fail.

And then I wept.

I cried, and nothing could stop me, not even when Grit and Kyra came running in to see what was the matter. He didn't know how to handle the situation, and I hated letting them see this… but that didn't stop me from embracing Grit and burying my muzzle into his shoulder as he tried to comfort me.

And he just let me be, saying nothing. In that moment, even as tears flowed freely from my eyes, I was just grateful for his presence. Grateful that it was him instead of anyone else.

Grit, the town guard. Grit the changeling. Grit the happy-go-lucky, sociable, cheerful pony from Stable 15.

Grit, my friend.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 14 - Bear Market

View Online

Chapter 14 - Bear Market

Describing a decline in the price of securities and a widespread pessimism that tends to perpetuate the decline. The term is sourced from the tendency for investors to withdraw money from the market, as a bear would prepare for hibernation.

The air of the Stable wasn’t quite as dry or sterile as I’d remembered it from the morning. My hammer fell in quick, sharp strikes, and the blowtorch lit and warmed the room, driving back some of the Stable’s cold air. I found myself lost in my own rhythm, moving in regular patterns as I took a sheet of metal, measured it against the mannequin, cut, torched, bent, and hammered it into the shape I saw in my mind.

Another set of barding complete, I sat back and gave it a final inspection. Though the armor itself met with my standards, I hesitated, studying the blank plates of metal. This armor was going to be a uniform for the Stable’s defenders, so it’d be appropriate to have some kind of decorative design, wouldn’t it? I set the armor down and grabbed a pencil and sheet of paper from a nearby desk, holding them up to the chestplate and sketching out some quick ideas. My immediate thought was to place the number “15” right in the center of the chestplate, and so I started from there. Whatever I did would have to be simple, something I could replicate across at least half a dozen sets of barding. A gear, the shape of the Stable’s door? No, that’d be too tricky to be consistent, and would take too much time.

The insignia of Stable-Tec? That might work, but I wasn’t sure what it looked like. I looked up from the workbench and around at the room, trying to find any books or something that might have a good reference. But I had no such luck, and I couldn’t justify wandering the stable just to find a picture of the logo. I needed to think simpler. Maybe a glow, light coming off of the number? That seemed easy enough. I could just sketch some dark color around the edges, ringing the number. I scribbled an estimate of my idea, shading the edges of the paper in a rough circle.

But no sooner did I sit back to study this idea than I realized it was starting to look a great deal like the painting I’d found in that old house. The memory tugged at me, starting to replay in my mind; and with a slow, calm breath, I allowed it to do so.

Grit’d been polite enough to wait until Kyra was out of the room before asking me about my outburst. “So,” he’d asked, a bit hesitantly, “Y’okay?”

My eyes still felt swollen, and every now and then I felt my throat hitch, but I nodded. “Yeah, I think so.” I wiped my nose and muzzle with my foreleg, snorting in a deep smell of mud and wet hide as I did so. “Grit, I-” I paused, taking a deep breath. He was looking at me, with what I hoped was patience. “I’m sorry. For everything I’ve put you through.”

At first, he hadn’t said anything. I could swear I saw his eyes widen just a bit. He looked down at the floor and, for a long moment, stared at the remains of the moldy carpet. “I ‘ppreciate that, Alloy. I do.” He’d turned to face me. “But where’s all this comin’ from?”

I glanced back towards the painting. That empty center, surrounded on all sides by an encroaching darkness. Somepony’s life scattered around the easel. “Just had a lot to think about lately.”

Grit’s muzzle tightened, and he turned to get up. “Alrigh’, if you say so.”

“Look,” the interruption tumbled from my mouth before I had a chance to even think about the rest of the sentence. But it had stopped Grit as he was getting up to leave. After… after Copper, he’d said he wanted us to talk more, hadn’t he? And instead I’d dodged him ever since coming back to Four Shoes. My throat hitched again, jolting my whole body.


I just needed a little time. But after everything, maybe he was right. “Ask me again later, Grit. I just need…” I took a deep breath. I needed to sort things out in my head. Needed to have an explanation that satisfied myself. “I need some time. But ask me again later.”

He tilted his sandy-coated head at me, staring in… curiosity? Surprise? I had no idea. “Yeah,” He paused, sounding almost surprised at his own answer. “Yeah, okay. I will. Gonna be alrigh’ in here?”

I nodded, wiping my snout again. “I’ll be fine.”

A small, half-cocked smile crept up his lip, and he turned to leave the bedroom. At last, I stood up, giving the room one last sweep, taking in the settings and ensuring I wouldn’t forget this place. Just as I turned to walk out, my back hoof knocked against something. Glancing down, I caught sight of a paintbrush, about as thick as the end of my horn. The grip was in surprisingly good condition, though the bristles were splayed out in all directions, and some centuries-old paint was caked on the ends.

Still, I scooped it up in my magic, and stowed it in my saddlebags.

Now I stared at the same brush, lying on the worktable next to me in Stable 15. It shouldn’t be too hard to re-straighten the bristles, right? Or maybe it’d be best to just replace them entirely? I wondered what they were made of. I’d heard somewhere that it was actually pony hair, donated from manes or tails. Staring down at my tail, I cocked my head, evaluating how much I’d need to snip off. Not much at all, really. Something to research later, though.

I looked back at the pencil sketch of the glowing “15,” and crumpled it up. It would’ve been easy to replicate, but using a design inspired by that painting felt… wrong. Like I was trying to fill in the gaps its creator had left, to complete it.

It wasn’t mine to complete.

A yawn forced its way past my jaw, reminding me how late it was, and I set aside the idea of adding decorations to the armor. Three completed suits of barding lay on the table before me, metal plates fastened to the chest, haunches, and shoulders of each. In the end, Spark’d had some of his technicians cut metal off the walls of the Stable, down in the maintenance area. Kyra had found a cache of scrap metal, too. She said it’d been locked up in the back of a cargo truck, but hadn’t mentioned how she’d unlocked the truck. I suppose it didn’t matter much. The suits of barding they’d made weren’t pretty, but they were functional enough to deflect a knife or bat, and could stand up to a few gunshots. They’d probably fall apart under sustained fire, though I didn’t know of many suits of armor that wouldn’t, short of power armor.

More importantly, I didn’t think I could keep working without passing out at the workbench. The shadow of last night’s restless sleep still hung over me, dragging my eyelids down and making my muscles sluggish. I could easily finish up the rest of the armor tomorrow, but only if I let myself get enough rest tonight. An aching growl in my stomach reminded me that, along with sleep, I could use some dinner.

Putting away the grinding metal saw and blowtorch, and leaving the trio of completed barding folded up neatly on the table, I walked out into the hallways of the Stable to attempt to find my way to the cafeteria, hooves clicking on the metal floors.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to get there. I tried following the signs, but on three occasions managed to find a dead-end instead. Finally, I asked a nearby Stable pony, who was more than happy to walk me the whole way up.

There weren’t many ponies there, maybe a dozen or so, conversing in pockets of twos or threes. A few of them looked up and smiled at me, waving their hooves in the air to greet me. With a flick of my ear, I raised a forehoof in their direction, which seemed to satisfy them as they went back to their meals. I quickly walked up to the counter to ask for a bowl of hot oatmeal.

“Great choice, little mare!” the cook behind the counter exclaimed, sweeping up a bowl in his silvery-blue magic. He was a unicorn buck with a pale coat and a nametag on his apron, but I couldn’t read it, the way he swept this way and that to prepare my order. Before long, a fresh, gently-steaming bowl of the beige mush settled onto the counter in front of me. “I put some apple pieces in today’s oatmeal, a rare treat!”

Gingerly, I lifted the steaming bowl with my own magic, offering the cook a tight smile. “Thanks.” I turned to walk away, but stopped after half a step. “Do you have any carrots?”

“Carrots?” the cook echoed, scrunching his muzzle. “Naw, I’m ‘fraid not. Next crop o’ carrots ain’t for another few weeks.”

“Ah, I see.” I nodded to him, and then walked off to find myself a table. The oatmeal smelled appetizing enough, and I could see chunks of something white mixed into it, what I assumed to be the apple pieces he’d spoken of. They didn’t add a great deal of flavor to the mix, but it did vary up the texture of the slop, and it was at least warm with a savory taste of oats, which was more than enough for me.

I ate slowly, in no hurry and with thoughts of the armor dancing in my mind. With the scrap I had left, there was at least four or five more suits of barding I could make. I couldn’t get an accurate assessment without the metal in front of me. But at the rate I’d been going, I could probably finish the rest of the barding off by afternoon tomorrow, assuming I got an early enough start.

Once my bowl was half empty, a sharp laugh shook me from my thoughts and drew my gaze to the entrance of the cafeteria. About ten ponies had just milled in, chuckling among themselves, followed by Grit, Pillar, and… Kyra?

What was she doing with them?

The griffon stood beside Pillar and Grit, said something to the two of them, and then trotted towards the counter, where the other ponies had already gathered to place their orders. Pillar and Grit got in line shortly after, and Kyra spotted me as she hovered in the air with a plate of something held in her talons. She nudged Grit with her shoulder, nodded at me, and then flew over while Grit got dragged into a conversation with Pillar. Kyra sat down across from me and dove into her bowl of oatmeal. “Sho how’sh it comin’ on yo’ end, Alloy?” she asked, beak full of mush. Kyra swallowed the mouthful and then hung her tongue out in clear disgust. “Damned pony food…”

One of my ears flicked at the air, and I silently swallowed my own mouthful. “I’ve got three sets finished,” I answered before taking another bite of my oatmeal, still wondering how she’d gotten back into Pillar’s good graces. Then, it hit me that I could simply ask. “I thought Pillar didn’t like you being around.” Luna above, what was that? I grimaced at my own phrasing, and then hid the expression in another bite of oatmeal.

Kyra didn’t seem to care one way or another that I could tell. “Shtill doe’n’t.” For all her distaste for “pony food,” she certainly was inhaling it briskly. “But Grit tol’ ‘im I could help train the ponies tha’ wanna defend the Stable, so I’m doin’ that.”

Part of me wanted to ask if she was being paid for the job. But I stopped short. Of course she was, that was how the Talons worked. The real question was, how did the Stable manage to scrounge up the caps to fund a Talon as a drill sergeant? “I guess you gave them a discount?”

The griffon gave a brief squawk of a chuckle at that. “Sure did. 50 caps a day, plus all of this I want.” She nudged the bowl of oatmeal with a talon. “Think they mighta ripped me off on that last part…”

I looked down at my oatmeal and scraped up the last of it into a hefty bite, trying to quickly mask the fact that my eyes were bulging out of my head. 50 caps? That was it? First Kyra offered to escort Grit and I to the Stable for free, and now she was working for the Stable to train ponies, which I assumed was an all-day affair, and doing it for basically a token gesture? For Celestia’s sake, each set of barding I made was worth more to the Stable than that! Once I’d swallowed my oatmeal and trusted myself not to have shock written plain across my muzzle, I looked up at Kyra again. “That’s… quite generous of you.”

“Eh, I’ve got nothin’ better to do ‘round here.” She ruffled her wings in a shrug.

Before I could say anything else, Grit set his bowl down next to me and dropped to sit on his haunches, starting to ask Kyra something about their training that day. With the moment passed, it didn’t seem like I should press Kyra any further on the subject.

* * * * * * *

By the time Grit and I returned to his father’s quarters, the hallways were nearly deserted, most of the Stable ponies having turned in for the night. I wasn’t really sure what time it was, but the weights on my eyelids meant I didn’t really care either. I was going to collapse onto that overstuffed red sofa and, if the Goddesses gave me a break, sleep soundly. As the door slid shut behind me, giving Grit and I privacy from the rest of the Stable, I suddenly remembered something. “Hey, Grit,” I began, and he half-turned, meeting my eyes. It suddenly struck me how weary he looked. For a heartbeat I wondered whether or not I should even ask, but I’d already started. “You overheard some of Kyra’s conversation with that other griffon, right?”

“Yeah, bits an’ pieces.” He tilted his head in a half-nod. “Didn’ really make a whole lotta sense, but th’ other one was tellin’ Kyra somethin’ ‘bout contracts. Sounded ticked ‘bout th’ whole thing, an’ I think Kyra told th’ other Talon she was workin’ a job already.” He shook his head, scrunching up his muzzle. “Not really sure what t’ make of it, an’ not keen on pryin’. She’s doin’ a lot t’ help with th’ Stable ponies at least.”

“Barely getting paid for it, though,” I muttered, still loud enough for Grit to hear. My tail swished as I looked towards the walls, trying to parse what the other Talon said. Had she wanted Kyra for a different job? Guess it really didn’t matter for now. “Do you really think they’ll be ready?” The idea of Stable ponies fighting against raiders--it just seemed ludicrous to me.

Grit looked away with a sharp breath, and I instantly wished I hadn’t asked. “I dunno,” he answered at last. “Got a decent plan, but I think th’ best we can hope for is that they don’t bring a whole lotta ponies an’ Malice loses interest.”

“What makes you think she’ll just lose interest?

His deep-blue eyes met mine again, one of them cocked. “Well, she let you go.” I winced. Point taken. “But I dunno what we’re gonna do ‘bout weapons. Only gun in th’ whole Stable is Pillar’s.”

The hell? Only one gun? No matter how many ponies you recruited to defend yourself, if they didn’t have fucking guns it didn’t matter.

Where the hell were they gonna get guns?

* * * * * * *

Unfortunately, I found out the next afternoon.

The day had actually progressed well until then. I woke up early the next morning feeling more well-rested than I had in weeks, if a bit sore from the couch. Most of the day had been spent finishing the rest of the armor for Pillar and Studio, for a total of nine sets of reinforced Stable barding. I regretted that none of them would have helmets, but I didn’t have nearly enough raw material to make a practical helmet for nine ponies.

But I had narrowed the process to a fairly quick routine, getting accustomed to the use of the metal saw and blowtorch. I briefly wondered if Studio would consider selling the tools to me, or if they could even be transported from the Stable for that matter. Something to ask her later, after the immediate problem was over.

Pleased with the results of my work, I’d taken the barding to Pillar and Studio that evening, only to find them speaking with Grit on the very subject I’d been questioning the previous night. Apparently they wanted either Grit or I to go to the prison we’d previously visited and try to find guns there. And since Grit was needed to teach the Stable ponies how to fight, I was the only one who could make the journey.

“We already searched the guard barracks last time,” I pointed out. “Thoroughly. There was nothing there.” I couldn't forget the frustrating search, tearing open every locker and bunk in search of anything to sell to Stable 15. To say nothing of the desperate escape afterward… I blinked slowly, tensing to suppress a shudder.

Grit turned to me, motioning his head towards the door. I followed him out into the hallway, the door sliding shut ominously, leaving the two of us alone. “Might be somethin’ on th’ second floor,” he began. “We didn’t ‘xactly search th’ whole place after y’ found th’ bots.”

“That’s because of the fucking ghouls and robots that were attacking us!” I hissed back. “How the hell am I gonna get through there on my own?”

He recoiled a little at that. “Kyra’s goin’ with you, ‘course. B’lieve you me, I’d be shovin’ it back in Pillar’s face if he wanted y’ t’go alone. ‘Sides, th’ worst of it was ‘cause o’ that crazy ghoul in th’ admin office.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” I responded hastily, but I was more at ease. Closing my eyes, I took a slow breath, my ears standing upright again as my forehoof scuffed at the floor. Neither of us could be sure how much the delusional ghoul had been in charge of the prison’s operation. Certainly he had enough power to close certain doors, or at least just lock the prison down, and that had been the main source of our troubles. I suppose as long as we don’t go too deep into the building, it’ll be manageable... After an elongated few seconds, I opened my eyes again and met Grit’s. “Do you trust her?”

Grit cocked his head to one side. “I don’t distrust ‘er. Not ‘bout t’ tell ‘er any deep, dark secrets but I doubt she’d leave you high an’ dry. C’mon, Alloy, we need those guns.”

My jaw tightened and I took a deep breath. I owed Grit more than I could repay, and I couldn’t turn him down in his desperate hour. He’d offered to help me when I was backed into a corner, and this was far less of a commitment than he’d undertaken. Just there and back. Get to the prison. Look for weapons. Come back. There and back. I nodded. “Alright.”

He smiled back, some of the tension leaving his eyes. “Thanks. Don’t forget t’ look ‘round nearby, too. Dunno if there’s much ‘round th’ prison, but wouldn’t hurt t’ check. Just get back ‘fore dark.”

“Right. I guess worst case Kyra could run back to Four Shoes and buy some guns from them. I’m not sure how fast she can fly there, though.”

“Maybe,” Grit mused. “S’ more’n a full day’s walk from here t’ Four Shoes. Might take her two days ‘r more t’ make th’ trip, an’ we don’t know how long we’ve got. Need those guns sooner, an’ Stable 15’s caps’re runnin’ low.”

A trip to the prison it was then. Riskier, but faster, at a time when speed meant everything. “I suppose you’ll want us to head out now?”

Grit nodded. “Yeah, soon’s y’all can. An’ be safe out there, alrigh’?”

* * * * * * *

Less than an hour later, Kyra and I were alone, trekking out into the Bayou towards the prison. Grit gave Kyra a rough description of the building, enough that she could help orient us as we walked towards it. As a backup, they’d found us an old, magnetic compass to steer by, pointing us roughly north.

“So,” she began, once we were on our way proper and out of line of sight of the community center, “you do this kinda thing often? Run around the Bayou doin’ odd jobs for weird ponies?”

I walked around a twisted mass of wagons, wrapped around a concrete pillar, rebar splayed out from the top. “No, actually. Up until a month ago, the only time I left Four Shoes was to go to Shipper.”

“Huh.” Kyra took to the air briefly to crack the knuckles of her talons before landing again next to me. “Just stuck around all day and ran your blacksmith store?”

“Smithy. And yes.” It was a quiet, peaceful life. No raiders shooting at me or threatening me, no nightmares of Copper running through my mind… I shuddered briefly. After a long, silent pause, I glanced at the grey-furred griffon beside me. “How about you? I expect being a Talon is usually more exciting than this.” Though I could stand for my life to be less exciting these days.

“Eh, it can be. Spend a lot of time sittin’ around, though. Kinda nice.” Before I could ask about that last comment further, her head snapped to one side, and we both froze in place except for the shimmering of my green magic around the hilt of my sword. Kyra began moving to grasp the handle of her shotgun seconds before a claw the size of my foreleg snapped out of the underbrush. It lunged for Kyra’s back legs, but caught only empty air as she flew up. The full-grown marshlurk rushed out of the cover of the underbrush, barrelling straight for me on its blur of legs.

I pulled my sword from its sheath, swinging wildly. It was closing fast. I turned to run. My random swipes bounced uselessly off its claw and shelled back. It was gaining! My eyes wide, I started to gallop away, abandoning the sword.


A pair of deafening booms split the air, and the powerful stench of guts and gunsmoke began to swirl around Kyra, who stood beside the corpse. Her shotgun had made a ruin of its face, and she casually popped the drum magazine out, shoving two fresh shells into it before locking it back in place and holstering the weapon. “Doing alright back there?” she asked, turning to me with a grin.

Taking a deep breath to try and slow my heart and work out the adrenaline that had only just begun pounding through my system, I nodded. I’d only ever been this close to a marshlurk a few times, and every other encounter had led to me galloping full speed away. The corpse was twice as long as a pony, with a dozen legs beneath an elongated shell ending in a horrendous face and two long claws. Relighting my horn, I scooped my sword up and wiped the bits of gore that had splattered onto it before resheathing it. Meanwhile, Kyra had pulled an oversized but well-made knife from her bag and began sawing one of the claws off the body. “Really?” I knew what she was doing. I’d eaten enough marshlurk meat to know it made for a good meal, but the stench that hung in the air and forced my muzzle into a disgusted scrunch ruined any dream of food.

She stopped her work to look back at me. “What? They’re tasty as hell boiled up.” How the hell she still had an appetite was a mystery to me, but she quickly finished carving, covering the end of the amputated claw with some kind of cloth and tying it off before fastening it to her side, just above her bag. She nodded briefly at my sword as she stood upright again. “You swing that thing around way too much. It’s wasted movement.”

One of my ears flicked at the air indignantly. What? “I’ve held my own enough so far.” Sure some of my more recent encounters had gone sour, but I had fought off a horde of bloodsprites and a trio of slavers only a few weeks ago, before all this started.

Kyra gave a low squawk. “Maybe, but if you’re up against anything faster than a brahmin on your own you’re in trouble.” Before I could object further, she checked our compass and turned to keep walking, presumably in the direction of the prison. “I could show you how t’ really use it, though.”

My protests died down in the face of her genuine offer. “Really?”

“Sure. Lemme see it.”

I pulled my sword out and floated it into Kyra’s waiting claw. It wasn’t quite the first weapon I’d ever made but close to it, and I suddenly felt self-conscious about its make, even though she’d already complimented it just a few days ago.

“Thing is,” she took the hilt firmly in one claw, sweeping it left and right rapidly, followed by a sharp thrust. “Just ‘cause you’re a unicorn and you can send the whole thing swinging doesn’t mean you should.” The sword came down in a quick slice. “Also, you can thrust it out faster an’ farther than a griffon or an earth pony.” A quick jab, out and in, faster than I could ever move. “Do that more often instead of just waving it around.” One last, wide sweep to her right. She landed and offered the sword back to me, and I lifted it once again in a cushion of levitation, returning it to its sheath. “I can give you some better training, but it won’t be free.”

Ah, of course. That’s what this was about. Admittedly I wasn’t nearly the best fighter in the Wasteland, not by a long shot, but I knew basic self-defense. I wasn’t going to just fork over my caps for some dubiously-effective training. “I’m not convinced it’s worth paying for,” I retorted. “Though if it’s as cheap as Stable 15 is getting away with, I might reconsider.”

Kyra chuckled, her tail curling and waving in the air. “How ‘bout I give you a couple lessons for free. If you think I’m worth it, then we can talk price.”

That was a good proposal. But I couldn’t capitulate so quickly, at least not visibly. I tilted my head and glanced skyward, mulling it over in my head. As long as it wasn’t too expensive, it was a good idea. “Alright. But let’s focus on Stable 15 first. I wouldn’t want to take time away from their training.”


A fresh silence began to grow in the air. Though I’d somewhat casually brought up the subject in my brief negotiations, my thoughts lingered on Stable 15’s training. “Do you think they have a chance?” I asked aloud, not entirely expecting a reasonable answer.

Kyra stole a glance back at me while stepping over and through a pile of rubble. “Depends on how bad this raider gang really is. Every town out there seems t’ think whatever gang is closest is the most unstoppable army there ever was, since they’ve only seen the one. Just a matter of perspective, s’all.” I… supposed that made sense. I’d honestly never thought of it that way. “Either way, the plan seems alright.”

I hoped Kyra was right about the raiders. In my mind, I saw Malice and about a dozen heavily-armed raiders marching into Four Shoes to threaten the town, and the dozens more that were with her at the harbor.

I hoped I was wrong.

* * * * * * *

The prison looked just as ominous and threatening as the last time, though with the addition of a few ghouls wandering around outside. One was sitting on its haunches, muzzle deep into the open guts of some unidentifiable chunk of meat. It may have been a bloodsprite once, but it was too mutilated to tell.

“Keep your head down,” Kyra tossed at me before leaping over a toppled truck and whipping out her shotgun. The ghoul in the middle of its meal never got a chance to even look up before its head was rendered a bloody mess. The others looked up and gave a snarl, charging straight for Kyra, but she careened over their heads, laughing between the booming shots. And… was she singing?

It was over in seconds.

With the ghouls cleared from the front entrance and no sign of any more coming to follow the noise, Kyra waved in my direction, prompting me to hesitantly walk out from behind the truck and through the main door with her. “We already checked the guards’ lockers last time, but we didn’t look around in the offices upstairs,” I told her, nodding towards the side hallway and the stairwell that lay beyond.

“Sounds like a good place t’ start, then.” Kyra led the way towards the staircase, her wings ruffling at her side for a moment before walking up the two flights. At the doorway to the second floor, she peered around the corners before nodding an all-clear. “So what’d y’all come here for last time anyway?”

I glanced at her curiously. “Grit didn’t tell you?”

“Didn’t ask.”

“Oh.” Lighting my horn to bathe the hallway in a dull green, I immediately noticed the still-open door of the administrator’s office. That’s right, that ghoul did have a gun. Wonder if it’s still there. I led us towards the open door, answering Kyra’s question. “Well, I needed something I could sell to Stable 15. Thought I could scavenge something worthwhile here.” Rounding the corner into the office, I saw the body of the insane ghoul, still right where it had landed after I’d skewered its head with my sword. The stench made us both gag briefly. “Found a few broken spritebots, and parts to fix them deeper in, but this one,” I flicked my forehoof at the dead ghoul, “went crazy and put the place in lockdown. Grit got us out.”

“Looks like y’ took care of the ghoul there, too.” Kyra started opening drawers in desks, going through each one methodically.

“Mhm.” Is it still… aha! Sweeping the ground next to the dead ghoul, I found his pistol. A 9 mm, still in workable condition with a half-full magazine. I still remembered the last time we were in here. Barging in, at my wit’s end, I’d just attacked. “I don’t think Grit approved, or at least not without a chance to talk to him. He wasn’t feral, but he was nuts. Thought we were rioting prisoners.” Looking at the ghoul’s body now, I felt… well, it was hard to place. Regret? Then again, he was a delusional ghoul at the head of a prison full of robots and ferals, and the Wasteland was just a fraction safer for his absence. But maybe… pity? He’d been stuck in this place for 200 years, still lost in a past that had been washed away in balefire. Shaking my head, I turned back to Kyra. “Found his gun. Any ammo around?”

“Depends,” she answered, holding up a box of bullets with a promising jingle of brass. “Is it a 9 mm?”

A grin spread across my face. “Sure is.”

Moving to the rest of the offices, we quickly discovered they were all locked tight. Though covered by mostly-rotten wood panelling, the doors themselves were solid metal. Made sense for a prison, I supposed, but it meant we were never getting in. I looked into my bags at the filthy-but-working pistol from the administrator and let out a slow breath, tail swishing in the air. It was about what I could have expected from-

A soft click cut through my thoughts, and I spun around to see Kyra beaming triumphantly at me. “Good locks, but I’m better.” She put away some small, thin piece of metal, opening the door and gesturing flamboyantly with one claw. “After you.”

All told, the offices held another two 9 mm pistols in reasonable shape, plus one hunting rifle that was mounted on a wall rack alongside the snarling, lifeless heads of about half a dozen animals I didn’t recognize. But on the whole, the trip had gone surprisingly well. “I think three pistols and a rifle are about the best we could have hoped for,” I said, packing the pistols away into my saddlebags while Kyra examined the rifle. She slung it over her back and gave a low squawk.

“Well I vote we head back, pronto. Don’t wanna be out here after dark.” Without waiting for my agreement, Kyra began walking towards the stairs. My ear flicked at the air, but she was right. Following her out the door, I was surprised by the dwindling light. None of the offices had had any windows, so I’d frankly lost track of time as we searched the place. I swallowed, my throat dry despite the humid air.

We hastily started to make our way back to the Stable while the sky rumbled, threatening to unleash a downpour. We only had to stop a few times for Kyra to get her bearings, weaving through the rapidly-darkening underbrush and broken streets of the Bayou. At yet another rumbling of the sky overhead, I opened my mouth to suggest that we find shelter for the night, somewhere out here. Did she really know where she was going? A familiar landmark reassured me of that last question--the corpse of the marshlurk, though only a few pieces of it remained next to the hollowed-out shell.

I lit my horn as the last of twilight faded away. Kyra shot a glare back at me, but said nothing. Our pace became a canter, raindrops starting to patter on the road and on my mane. But only a few minutes after, we caught sight of the New Oreins Community Center sign, lit by something floating in the air next to it. The rains began in earnest, sheets of water pouring down from above as Kyra and I crossed the parking lot to the shelter of the ruined building, where we both immediately shook out some of the water soaking into our coats. I glanced back to see that the light had followed us in, belonging to one of the Stable’s spritebots. It quietly followed us down to the basement, and down the ramp into the Stable before turning around to leave again.

Grit and Meadow were just past the Stable’s threshold, and I could see the relief painted across his muzzle. “Alloy! Kyra! I’m glad t’ see y’all safe an’ sound.” He waved one forehoof in the air, turning to walk down the hallway. One of his ears flicked in the air, and his eyes darted between the two of us. “How’d it go? Didja find anythin’?”

“Sure did,” Kyra answered, while I stopped to furiously shake my head again, getting more of the water out of my mane.

I looked up to see Kyra and Grit both with matching grins on their faces. “Three pistols and a hunting rifle. Ammo for all of them, too,” I added. All in all, I couldn’t help but marvel at our luck. A cynical voice in my head reminded me that guns and armor would only get them so far.

But, I shot back at myself, at least now they were armed. Maybe they could hold their own, or at least turn back however many Harbor Raiders Malice sent. Maybe the raiders wouldn’t do much, figuring that some weak little Stable ponies would never fight back.

That cynical voice tried to shout over the rising tide of optimism in me, but my own muzzle parted in a smile all the same, wide enough to match Grit and Kyra’s.

* * * * * * *

The next two days passed in a flurry for everyone except me. No armor to craft and no willingness to make the trek back to Four Shoes by myself. I offered to make more suits of barding for the Stable, even for free since I had nothing else to do, but they said they didn’t have the spare metal, and there were only so many places they could afford to cut the metal off the walls.

With no routine to adhere to, I found myself pursuing my own set of goals. For one, I spent the bulk of my daylight hours in Stable 15’s library, looking for any books that might catch my interest. The size of it still amazed me, though I was sure the layout wound back on itself in such a way as to make it seem bigger than it was.

The first morning when I walked in, I was immediately greeted by the elderly, earth pony librarian sitting at the front desk, whose eyes lit up in recognition. “I was wondering if you’d have a moment to stop in, dear,” she said with a smile. “Please, help yourself. It’s been pretty empty in here the past few days.”

A pang of guilt struck me at once, and I nearly winced from the realization that I didn’t have the comic book I’d borrowed. Of course she’d have wanted it back. Why didn’t I think to bring it with me? I approached the desk. “Sorry, Miss…?”

“Page Turner, dear,” she said with a warm smile, looking up from her own book again.

“I’m…” I swallowed, taking a slow breath and composing myself. It’d been unprofessional of me to forget the comic book, so I needed to be sure to be professional now. “I owe you a sincere apology, Miss Turner. I mistakenly left behind the comic book you generously lent me. It’s at my home in Four Shoes.” The images in that book had been so compelling, I hated having to say the next sentence, but I knew the arrangement had been temporary. “At my next chance, I’ll bring it back here.”

The librarian pony just stared for a brief moment at me, as though a bit surprised, and then her face smoothed out into a smile. “Oh, don’t you worry about it. I’m just glad it’s in good hooves and you’re enjoying it.” She nodded her head out toward the collection of packed shelves. “And feel free to take anything you want to read back to your room for the evening if you’d like.”

Her complete forgiveness of the situation made me only feel worse for forgetting the comic, though after some hesitation, I did take her up on her offer of browsing their collection. It still held no books on blacksmithing, wartime manufacturing, or the like, but it could be a good way to pass the time. I sat down with a stack of books at one of the tables to begin reading, starting with “A Curator’s Guide to Equestria, Then and Now.” After briefly skimming over the table of contents (“The Crystal Empire’s Monument to Spike the Dragon,” “The Ruins of Everfree Forest,” “Coal in Equestria”) I decided to simply start from the beginning. The first chapter was just describing the founding beliefs of preserving history, and I ended up skimming over it until I reached the second chapter. That outlined various techniques for preserving or restoring historical relics one might find in the world, and even spent several pages detailing a spell that would undo metal corrosion. I pored over the spell again and again before asking Page Turner for some spare sheets of paper. Every word was transcribed faithfully, and then I carefully folded up my notes and stored them between the pages of my sales journal. I didn’t nearly have the time to learn how to actually cast it during those two days, not while I had another goal.

And especially not after Kyra decided to work me to the bone in our short training sessions with my sword.

“No, no, short ‘n’ quick, I told you,” she called from the armrest of the chair bolted to the wall of the Stable’s vacant gym and exercise room. Sweat matted my coat to my hide, even sticking my mane to my neck, and the mannequin in front of me was mockingly silent. The drill she’d decided needed specific attention was having me dash forward a few steps, thrust, then retreat. Dash, thrust, retreat. Dash, thrust, sidestep. Sidestep, thrust, sidestep. Sidestep, thrust, retreat. Over, and over, and over again the patterns continued. She would bark directions at me, randomizing the order, then if my form was lacking or my aim off, I’d repeat the single maneuver a dozen or more times until the action started to ingrain itself. All while she lay off to the side, doing nothing. “Wouldn’t this be more practical if we were… I don’t know, sparring?” I wasn’t entirely sure if that was true, but the sight of her just lounging on the relatively comfortable chair, munching on her hunk of marshlurk irritated me to no end.

“Naw,” she answered, chewing a small mouthful and then holding two of her claws in the air. “This way I can watch your movement better, an’ you don’t have to worry ‘bout stopping the sword.” Her tail gently swished on the seat behind her, and she stood her back legs up to stretch before lying back down. “Gotta get those motions hammered through that horned skull first before I ask ya t’ hold back. Which reminds me, talkin’ i’n’t short or quick. Hop to it, Blue!”

With an irritated flick of my ear at being called “Blue” again, I focused my attention back on the dummy. Sidestep, thrust, sidestep, repeat. Most importantly, this was at least getting me to work on my aiming while in motion, even if by the end of the evening all I wanted to do was collapse into bed.

Between browsing the library books during the day and sword training with Kyra in the evening, I had plenty to occupy my time. Staying busy was far better than just standing around scuffing my hooves, but more importantly, it occupied my mind. I was too tired to even have a passing thought to linger on Copper, Malice, or the fate of the Stable.

At least, not until Kyra struck up a conversation at the end of our second training session.

“You fought raiders before, Alloy?”

The question took me aback. Lacking any sort of preamble, and following a comment about my precision improving a bit, I hesitated for longer than I should have. “I,” A bottle of water hovered up to my muzzle in my magic, and I drank a deep gulp of the pure water. “Well, yes. I fought with three or four of them back before coming here for the first time.” It was three. Red Bean had run away, before I fought him later.

And then there was the time years and years ago. I shook my head, hiding the gesture as shaking my mane loose.

Kyra glanced at me, meeting my gaze with uncharacteristic intensity. “Killed ‘em?”

Slowly, I nodded, not certain what the griffon was getting at but giving her my undivided attention. We were alone in the gym, the repeatedly-stabbed mannequin silently perched in its corner.

“Me and Grit worked those ponies to the bone, gave em a rest today by just showing ‘em their assigned ambush points ‘long the trail t’ the Stable. But none of ‘em’s ever killed anyone before, except Pillar.”

I sharply inhaled through gritted teeth as an icicle pierced my neck, rapidly spreading through me. Kyra just stood there, silent, but her implications were not lost on me. No amount of training could brace somepony for their first kill. I shook my head, trying to dismiss the wave of dread that mounted. I’d already argued with Studio and Pillar over this. They knew the risks and had made their decision. “At least it’ll just be raiders,” I replied quietly.

Kyra’s head bobbed to the side a moment, then she snorted. “Well, ‘nuf of that. Want some grub? I’m starvin’, and tomorrow’s the big day.”

Despite the ache in my limbs and the lingering cobwebs of doubt that still clung to my mind, I nodded. “Sure.”

* * * * * * *

Grit was wide awake when I opened the door to Spark’s quarters, one of his pistols floating in his magical grip, and he looked up as I walked through the door. “Evenin’.” He slid the pistol’s magazine back into its grip and laid it down on the low table in front of the couch. “How’d trainin’ go?”

I’d mentioned the previous night about Kyra’s sword training. “Went well. I had my doubts, but I think I’m getting better.” I unstrapped my sheathed sword from my side and set it down next to Grit’s pistol before settling in on the overstuffed couch. Silence stretched out for a moment between us, and I again recalled our conversation in the ruined house. True to his word, he’d given me time, and hadn’t raised any questions since. But with the uncertainty of the next day looming, a voice in my mind reminded me I might not get another chance.

I’d had the time to sort out an explanation, but I had spent it reading and practicing with my sword.

Now I was out of time, and I still owed him something.

“Grit, about what happened a few days ago,” I began. My voice was calm, and it gave me a measure of confidence. “When we were scavenging for scrap metal.”

He looked at me, a bit of surprise in his face as he sat down across the low table, letting me speak at my own pace.

I mentally fumbled over myself. Where could I even begin?


My attitude and growing impatience had made our situation tense as we crossed the Bayou searching for him, but it was with Copper that a wedge had been driven between us.

Drawn out from my last conversation with Kyra, the memory of my first kill came to me again.

My neck itched.

I shuddered, but it made too much sense to start there. I had to start there. “The first pony I ever killed was a slaver,” I told Grit, who still hadn’t said a word. I opened my eyes, unsure when I’d closed them. “I was maybe… 13 or 14 years old, and had gone out with my father to scavenge.” My chest tightened, as if my body was trying to choke the words in my throat, to stop me from talking about it. I pressed on. “I’d gone off on my own. The slaver cornered me,” in a truck, no escape, “and caught me.” Shackled me, collared me, the sharp metal scratching at my neck.

The next few days had been hellish. Physical abuse, ridicule, and threats of further violence or worse. Assessing my price. I shook my head, grinding my teeth so hard I thought I’d break my own jaw. “I had a chance to get away after a few days,” I forced out, my voice sounding much weaker. He’d finally grown tired of threats and was moving to act on them. “I killed him,” shoved his body off of me, “and ran. Made it back to New Appleloosa a few days after.” Still chained up. Tears were welling in my eyes, and I wasn’t sure when they’d started.

Grit was beside me on the sofa now, and I felt him sitting close to me, offering silent comfort. I let the tears streak down my cheeks for a moment before sucking down a deep breath. Another slow, deep breath, and I managed to slow my heartbeat. I hadn’t let myself even think about those memories in years, let alone recount them, in any form. My throat hitched, and I looked up from the table to stare at Grit.

“Y’don’t gotta say more ‘bout it,” he told me, concern plain across his face. I nodded, and wiped my eyes on my foreleg, composing myself.

I had to at least bring this back to where I meant to bring it. “So… with Copper, I…” I closed my eyes again, searching for the words to put to the explanation. I’d acted almost on instinct, feeling backed into a corner with no way out except…

“I un’erstand,” Grit interrupted, his voice low and steady. “Don’t matter anymore. Alloy, I,” he swallowed, “I can’t imagine what that musta been like. Bein’ put ‘n that position.” I nodded. “Look, don’t worry ‘bout it, alrigh’? I know I gave y’ a hard time, but don’t worry ‘bout it anymore. We’re friends, yeah?” He smiled at me.

I returned his smile, and nodded. “Yeah.”

* * * * * * *

The morning had finally arrived, and the mood in the Stable was dour. Nervous smiles greeted me as I passed through the halls alongside Grit and Kyra, making for the entrance. Floating in the air behind us were the three spritebots, all of them feeding video back to Spark and Studio, though he still only had the one connected for two-way radio. I gathered that they meant to use the ‘bots for coordination and scouting, though one was going to stay near the community center, making sure none of the raiders slipped past. And behind the spritebots were the Stable ponies Grit and Kyra had been training, along with Pillar. Nine Stable ponies, three spritebots, Grit, and Kyra, versus an unknown number of raiders.

I wasn’t going to take part in the fight itself, instead settling in near the community center with the rearguard spritebot. Grit insisted repeatedly I didn’t have to join the ‘bot in rearguard duty, but I told him I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I had no desire to risk the journey to Shipper alone, and I’d been told what the final fallback plan was. If the raiders got through and got to the Stable, Studio was apparently standing by, ready to seal the door. Once our parade reached the parking lot outside, I turned to face Grit. “I’ll find somewhere to keep watch here.”

He stepped forward, and gave me a broad smile. “We’ll go give ‘em hell,” he answered, eliciting a low rumble of hooves stomping on the ground from the Stable ponies.

Suddenly it struck me that if things went badly, if the worst came to pass and Studio did close the door, that meant that Grit would… would be dead. Before I could think twice about the action, I stepped forward and pulled him close for a hug. “Good luck,” I muttered, then pulled away, taking a small breath.

Grit’s eyes were wide, but he returned my gesture with another smile, this one warmer. More genuine. “You too.”

Just as I was turning away, Pillar’s voice surprised me, stopping me before I could leave. “Alloy,” he called, his voice carrying a gentler edge than I’d ever heard it. “I just wanna say thank you. I know I haven’t always been th’ most agreeable, but… I’ve only ever had the Stable’s best interests in mind. You’ve been a tremendous help, and you’ll always be welcome in Stable 15.” He offered me a tense smile, and I just nodded in return, more than a little stunned, but grateful all the same.

The remaining ponies walked off into the Bayou to stand ready by their traps and ambush points, leaving me with one of the spritebots. And not long after, I found myself crouched in the husk of a bus, peering out the nearest window at the community center building. The robot hovered beside me, an utterly silent companion, but I was still grateful for its company.

Hours passed by in a crawl, and the only item I’d brought to occupy my time were my notes on the rust-reversal spell, which I couldn’t practice for risk of being spotted. As the day dragged on, staring at the vacant courtyard, my thoughts instead turned inward once more. I bit my lip at the memories of Copper, of Malice’s mirth at seeing him dead, and more pressingly, the decision to defend the Stable. And a single question surfaced in the forefront of my mind, unwanted, but this time I refused to flinch from it:

Had I done the right thing?

I couldn’t answer, to be honest. Not because I wanted to shake it from my mind, but because I didn’t know. Did it really matter? Maybe not, but with nothing else to dwell on, I kept my train of thought on the rails. Saving the zebras, killing Chainlink and his cohorts… that at least I surprised myself by not regretting. Maybe it would’ve been better to just move along, hide and pretend I’d seen nothing, but for once my memories tugged my focus towards the overwhelming gratitude that the zebras had shown. But of course, that resulted in Malice’s little visit, too. And… Copper.

A choking lump formed in my throat as that thought settled in firmly. I killed him, and I still didn’t know what I’d do differently. And as I pored over Malice’s reaction to having Copper’s body delivered, I realized how little I understood about her psyche. Maybe the “Sword Mare” hero from my comic would have saved Copper’s life at all costs, invading Malice’s territory to “slay the villainous fiend” as she put it, but I was no fighter, not really. If it’d just been Grit, maybe he would have turned Copper over. Maybe I would have too, if not for…

I shook my head. In hindsight, killing Copper ended up getting me off the hook with Malice. She’d had a drink with me, then sent me on my way, even dropped me off as close to home as she could manage. From a pragmatic standpoint, it worked out perfectly. So was that it?

Was pragmatism the “right thing”?

Maybe I was asking the wrong question.

So what was the “right thing”?

A distant crack pierced the thick air of the Bayou, snapping me out of my thoughts. A few more pops and cracks followed it, scattered and disorganized, ending in a muted peal of thunder.

A grenade? Even at the distance, I knew what was happening.

The battle had started.

I put away my spell notes and pulled out my sword, laying it down on the ground beside me. The glow from a unicorn’s horn was slight, but I couldn’t risk it. I wouldn’t risk it.

The distant percussion resumed again, just as sporadic and discordant as before, but I could swear it was closer this time, though I had no way to really tell. After that burst of gunfire, a long stretch of silence, punctuated by another rumble, then the Bayou was utterly still.

It felt like the entire world had frozen, even a breeze barely stirred the underbrush around me, though it did manage to send a chill down my spine.

Just when I thought the battle might already be over, a trio of booming shots echoed across the landscape, distinctly louder than before, but still some ways off. This time, the gunfire lasted for a few minutes. Movement caught my eye down the road. It loped and bounded over rubble, to the distinct sound of hooves on cracked concrete. I glanced down at my sword for a moment, reassuring myself it was nearby, just before the pony fully came into view.

A raider.

A lanky, mustard-yellow earth pony in patchwork armor, legs covered in mud and holding a pistol in his mouth. He spared a quick glance behind him before trotting towards… towards the community center.

Towards the Stable.

Before I could do anything, bright-red beams of energy lanced out at him. At some point when I wasn’t looking, the spritebot had left my side and started shooting. The raider dove for cover behind an empty planter box, popping off a pair of wild shots at the spritebot, which slowly started to circle around.

I grit my teeth and swallowed hard, tail twitching. It was what we were supposedly here for. Stopping raiders from slipping past. Worrying about the light from my horn was fairly moot at this point, but I could still sneak around maybe. With a decisive snort, I lit my horn and picked my sword up from the floor of the bus, turning to try and maybe flank the pistol-wielding raider.


I froze.

In a brief lull of the combat, the sound of a hoof on concrete was unmistakable. And it hadn’t been mine. The exchange of fire resumed again from the spritebot and earth pony, and with a deep breath, I charged forward, erupting out of the bus’ double-doors in time to see a surprised unicorn raider, with some kind of larger gun hovering in the air next to him.

I ducked reflexively, an ear-splitting BOOM roaring above my head. Coals of fire raked my back and choked a gasp from me. No time. My heart thundering, sword floating beside me, I lunged. Like I’d practiced. Quick movements. Forward, thrust. Thunk. My sword caught on the unicorn raider’s shotgun, yanking it from his magical grip. Stuck. I dropped the sword to the ground and whipped my revolver from its holster, but a grey-blue field of magic struck the pistol along with my own green magic. Straining, the gun wobbled in the air between us, the two colors at war, swirling, clashing, sparking off each other. I could feel warm liquid running down my back. I sucked quick breaths through clenched teeth.

Our eyes met for half a second. I saw a war of desperation and anger in his. I don’t know what he saw in mine. With a bellow of rage, he reared up and tried to crush me underhoof. I dodged to the side, just enough for it to glance off my shoulder. My head swung to one side, and came down across his neck with a hard impact. He reeled.

The gun came free in my grip.

A single shot punctuated our fight.

I stood above his body, breathing heavily, still hearing my heart roaring in my chest. As the adrenaline faded, I felt staggering pain from across my back, and finally dared a glance.

My armor was raked by maybe three or four grooves that had swelling patches of red across them. Buckshot from the unicorn’s gun, I guessed. But already I was starting to feel a bit weak in the knees. I collected my sword--and the shotgun, after separating the two--and stumbled out into the courtyard of the Community Center to see the spritebot hovering near the corpse of the other raider, his body pockmarked with burns. Good. Wasn’t sure I could fight another one.

Slowly, I dragged myself back behind the cover of the bus, my back throbbing with every hoofstep. Once at least partially out of view, I peeled off my torn armor and opened up my saddlebags. Somewhere in my bags I knew I had a roll of bandages, though not the magically-infused variety of the Ministry of Peace. Didn’t matter. Had to take what I could get, had to stop the bleeding, even if it had slowed to an ooze. I could feel every shift in my weight, every motion of my legs, pulling, stretching, tearing the gashes open anew. With the roll held aloft in my own field of green magic, I pressed it against my side and made half a dozen or so loops around my back and under my belly, covering at least most of the gashes up in pristine-white. Stains of red quickly appeared on the bandages, outlining the silhouettes of the wounds, but they stopped shortly after. I felt a small tingle down my back and just took a moment to sit still, taking in deep, slow breaths.

After only a few minutes, I perked my ears up again. Had to stay alert. Taken too much time on this. Glancing at my partially-shredded armor, I decided not to put it back on. Chances of tearing the bandages aside, it would also worsen the gashes in the leather. I’d probably have to replace the entire section, and I didn’t want it tearing off and falling around my legs during a fight. A distant crack caught my attention again, followed by another chattering of gunfire.

The battle lasted longer than the others had, or at least longer than the first. I couldn’t be sure how long the second one had gone, since my own fight had stolen my attention. But after a few minutes, the Bayou went silent again. I tried to crouch low inside the bus, but ended up simply laying on the metallic floor, spears of pain in my back stopping me from holding the crouch.

Eventually, motion stirred at the edges of the clearing. My ears flattened and I clenched my muzzle shut. More of them? Did the Stable ponies lose? Would the raiders see me? I glanced towards the bus’ door. There was a squat building maybe five feet away. I could snake my way in. Slip away into the Bayou, but then what?

Was I alone again?

Shuddering, I bit down on my lip and watched the movement. The shapes I could make out were moving slowly, but quietly. Few words were being exchanged, and that gave me some hope. If it was the raiders, they’d be louder. Wouldn’t they?

And then, leading the way into the courtyard, were Grit and Kyra.

A smile split my muzzle and a tidal wave of relief crashed down on me. I immediately stood up from my hiding spot and trotted out to meet them, but my smile faded as I finally noticed the somber mood.

And as I counted the survivors.

Grit had, surprisingly, emerged unhurt aside from a few scrapes and scratches. Kyra had a bandage wrapped around her right hind leg, and she was hovering in the air rather than walking. Of the eight volunteers that had left that morning, only four now followed Grit and Kyra. They were splattered in a collage of blood and mud, and one earth pony was walking with a visible limp, foreleg held stiff in a splint. And bringing up the rear were the two spritebots.

There was no sign of Pillar.

I slowly walked up to meet Grit and Kyra, the former of whose faces parted with a tired smile--a shell of the one he’d left me with that morning.

I didn’t say anything, just fell into the procession back into the Stable. Once inside, the mood was a roiling mixture of emotions. A few older-looking couples paced back and forth inside the entrance hallway, and fell upon their children with streams of tears. Spark was at the door, too, his eyes watering as he and his son held their heads together. Relief and grief were palpable in equal measure, and a quiet, choked snort escaped my own muzzle as a knot formed in my throat and tears welled in my eyes. Looking around the room, I didn’t see any couples empty-hooved, waiting for sons or daughters that would never come home. Had Studio already told them? Nopony there stood alone, except Kyra and I.

And Studio.

Catching sight of her, I saw the smile she was forcing, wiping away her own tears before clearing her throat. “Y’all did… did us all so proud. Stable 15 owes… owes each one o’ y’all more ‘n it can ever pay. Heroes, each an’-- each an’ ev’ry one o’ you.”

Grit stepped forward first, holding his composure together. “Studio, we should…” he glanced around at the families, only some of whom were paying attention at this point. “We should talk, ‘n private.”

The Overmare nodded slowly, gesturing with her head as she turned to lead Grit away from the gatherings. I gave them a small head start before walking down the hallway myself. Only Kyra followed me, leaving the Stable ponies to themselves. The whole situation felt unreal. They’d won, hadn’t they? Then again, all the training in Equestria couldn’t prepare you for losing your friends and loved ones.

I glanced over at Kyra, wondering how to broach the subject, letting the silence between us drag on for just a little too long. Finally, I spoke up, in an empty side hallway leading to the atrium. “How did it go?”

She took a deep breath and bobbed her head. “About as good as we coulda hoped for, honestly. Raiders brought about half a dozen, so we had ‘em outnumbered, and everyone fought hard. First ambush went about as well as we’d planned ‘til the raiders chucked a grenade at us. Killed Skip and Nutmeg." She winced, looking away for a moment. "Things got a bit rough at th’ second ambush spot, too. Sunnyside an’ Drill got shot, and the rest got pinned until Pillar…” she shook her head, snorting in a mirthless chuckle. “That crazy sonuvabitch charged right at ‘em so Vignette could get away. I made a distraction for the last of ‘em, an' that worked out, but right at the end there was a... complication."

A slow chill creeped into me at that. I watched her expectantly, waiting for her to continue.

“Last raider t’ go down started laughin’. Said he’d sent one of his goons back to Malice to tell her that the pansy Stable ponies hadn’t realized who they were dealing with.” She paused, eyes staring at the ceiling in contemplation. “He said, ‘Malice don’t take well t’ defiance, an’ she’ll bring the hammer now.’ ”

No… oh no, no… All their work, all their preparation… There was a hope in there that Malice wouldn’t waste any more effort on the Stable, but… The picture of the army she had milling around the harbor surged to the front of my mind’s eye. If the Stable had struggled against only a few raiders, how the hell would they deal with Malice’s full might?

As if answering my unspoken question, Kyra continued. “Studio an’ Spark heard the whole thing through the spritebot. They’ve already decided.” My ears fell flat, and somehow, I knew how this would end.

“They’re gonna seal the Stable.”

* * * * * * *

Studio held a memorial ceremony the next morning for the ponies that died, in the atrium. Near as I could tell, the entire Stable was packed into the room, shoulder to shoulder both at floor-level and on the balconies. The Overmare had set up a podium, and a few volunteers had gone up to say their peace about the ponies who’d died. Tones varied between speakers, but they were all respectful, even the unicorn stallion who insisted that everypony join him for drinks later that evening in High Spirits’ bar, that it’s the kind of ceremony the ponies who died would have wanted, happiness for everypony in the stable.

The last speaker was the Overmare herself. She walked calmly up to the podium, referencing a few notes, before beginning. “I’d like t’ thank each and every one of you that volunteered to say a few words tonight. The true feelings conveyed through y’all’s words were nothin’ short o’ moving.

“And I must echo them. Stable 15 has always been a place of community, and family. We cooperate, come together, and support each other, through good times and bad. Pillar, Drill Bit, Sunnyside, Pebble Skip, and Nutmeg proved this above all, an’ sacrificed everythin’ they could t’ defend our home and our families. Whatever else may be said, I feel that it’s most important t’ recognize that they an’ everypony else who fought to defend our home carried th’ belief that they could make th’ Wasteland better. Their bravery and selflessness will never be forgotten, not ‘long as there is a single pony alive that wears our bardin’.”

She paused there, closing her eyes and bowing her head slightly, and many of the ponies in the gathering did the same. After a few slow breaths, she opened her eyes again. “Much as I want t’ leave things at that, there is somethin’ else that needs t’ be said, while we have everypony here. Rumors spread quickly through our community, an’ it’s my duty t’ head ‘em off. Yes, Stable 15’s door will be closin’. I have learned of another band o’ raiders headin’ our way soon, bigger than th’ last. Stable 15 has already paid a heavy price for its freedom from such evil, an’ I will not have that sacrifice squandered. With Chief Engineer Spark’s help, we have devised a method for communication t’ the outside, through one of our spritebots. We’ll be sendin’ it topside along with our very own Grit, who will keep us apprised of Malice’s movements best he can. When such a time comes that it might be safe t’ open th’ door once again, we will gladly rejoin the surface in rebuilding our Equestria.

“With that out in th’ open, th’ Stable’s door will close in three days. Spark’ll keep an eye on the river with our spritebots, but I wanted t’ give y’all some time, both for Grit’s sake, who will be leavin’ us behind once more, an’ for any o’ y’all who want t’ go with ‘im.” My eyes widened slightly at that, and murmurs washed through the crowd before Studio rapped a hoof on the floor to quiet them. “I know this won’t be an easy decision for anypony, but as I said before, a heavy price was paid for this Stable’s freedom. Please, weigh the options carefully. I don’t expect th’ Stable t’ reopen for years at least. Whatever you decide t’ do, don’t do so hastily. Grit has volunteered t’ answer any questions ‘bout the Wasteland outside, if you want t’ consider leaving with him.” She nodded toward Grit, who stepped forward from the front row to face the crowds. “That’s all I have for today. Thank you.”

The dull roar of conversation in a confined space quickly started up, with ponies nearest the exits filing away to go back to their homes. As the press of bodies thinned slowly, I waited until I could make a relatively-unhindered approach to Grit, who was already talking to a pair of ponies, looking as serious as I had seen him. I wanted to ask him about the Stable’s plan, how long would they stay closed, what would he do for the Stable ponies who wanted to leave, and what if that number grew to be dozens upon dozens of ponies, venturing into the Bayou for the first time?

No, I could wait on those questions. A longer look at his expression told me everything. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat the situation out there, and he was determined to suss out exactly the reason a particular pony wanted to leave, and confront them with their own reasoning. No, with Grit at the helm, I knew that anypony who walked out that door with us in three days would know exactly what they were getting into.

* * * * * * *

The ponies of the Stable didn’t get a whole three days. At around late afternoon of the third day, Grit came bursting into the library, where I’d been studying. Spark had spotted a large group of raiders approaching, coming up off the river. They’d be at the Stable in a matter of hours.

I didn’t need any more encouragement.

Kyra and I were ready to go immediately, but Grit and the Stable pony couple that had wanted to leave with us took markedly longer, saying their goodbyes and receiving bags full of food and medical supplies. By the time they’d shown up, I could see that they’d each requested a suit of armored barding and a gun. Smart. Maybe they’d do alright in the Wasteland.

Spark and the spritebot were the last to join us, though only the latter would be leaving the Stable. “Grit,” he began, meeting his son’s eyes. “I know you always do, but you take care out there, okay?” He stepped forward and put his head against Grit’s, their ears flopping down as their eyes shut. “And no matter what, remember that I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

By the time Grit’s eyes opened once more, they were glistening with tears. “I’m proud o’ you too, dad. We’ll be in touch.”

Spark nodded with a forced smile. “Go on then. No time to lose.”

Our small party cantered up the ramp in the basement of the community center, while harsh klaxons blared behind us, accompanying an ominous grinding of gears and metal. Sparing a glance back at the base of the stairs, I saw a huge arm on the opposite side of the Stable door pulling a huge gear across the ground and heaving it into place.

Once out of the community center, Grit lead us for the cover of the nearest buildings to the north. “No tellin’ how close Malice is. Move from buildin’ t’ buildin’ until we’re far ‘nuff away.”

Keeping to this plan, the five of us plus one spritebot maneuvered our way through overgrown buildings and broken cars, winding a path north, vaguely in the direction of the prison. It was already far too late in the day to make it to Shipper; we’d have to walk all night. It was a sound plan, and Kyra and I’s visit there just a few days ago made me feel confident that it was safe.

We’d slowed to a walk after losing sight of the community center, and had been moving for maybe an hour, maybe less, when the spritebot’s speaker crackled to life, startling us all. “She’s here,” came Spark’s voice over the radio. “I’m watching through one o’ the spritebots, sittin’ on the ground in the basement. They’re… doing something in the community center, I can’t tell what.”

I froze in place, simultaneous to Grit. We glanced at each other, minds racing. “Is she trying to break in?”

“Can’t. But she’s got something big set up in the basement above us, but the shortest distance between the roof o’ the Stable and the ground is probably still ten solid feet of concrete an’ metal, plus whatever dirt’s above that. Looks like… ponies connecting somethin’ to the pillars?”

“What’s she got in th’ basement, can ya tell?” Grit cut in immediately.

“I can see th’ shape of it, but it doesn’t make sense. Looks kinda like a huge bullet, with something small and glowin’ on top.”

Frozen in place with fear, despite the thick air of the Bayou, I was torn between wanting to help whatever idea I was sure now ran through Grit’s mind, and wanting to run far, far away. I didn’t want anything to do with Malice’s raiders anymore. Then again, I’d already gotten myself entangled here.

Silence hung in the air, Kyra eyeing Grit and I inquisitively. “So if they can’t bust down the door, doesn’t matter what they do. Let’s keep movin’. I don’t mind sleepin’ outside, but I expect you ponies want a roof over your heads.”

Before Grit or I could answer, Spark said something first. “There’s somepony messing with the door panel outside, getting on the intercom.”

The next voice I heard was tinny, harshly filtered through the speakers of the intercom, and once more through Spark’s radio connection to the spritebot. But I could still make out the words. I could still identify the speaker.


“I must say, y’all disappoint me. Way I heard it, y’all decided y’wanted t’ fight. Now I’m not one t’ judge th’ poor decisions of others, but this here door bein’ shut tells me y’all don’t even wanna play anymore. No talkin’, no fightin’... so what’re y’all good for?”

The intercom fell silent for a while, a pause as though she was waiting for an answer to her question. None came. “Well if that’s how y’all wanna be, fine. I got more import’nt things t’ deal with, an’ I don’t have time t’ mess ‘round with Stable ponies. So if y’all wanna live underground, then be. My. Guests.”

The intercom speaker squawked harshly, then died. After another minute, Spark came back over the radio. “They’re leaving. It looks like they’re leaving the building. What was that all ab-”

Static erased Spark’s voice half a heartbeat before a thick, booming rumble echoed across the Bayou, rolling over the landscape. Even at this distance, I could feel the explosion in my bones. All of us looked south at the same time.

A plume of smoke and dust rose up from the skyline, tinted with green.

Grit was the first to take off, full gallop, heading south. Back to the Stable.

The rest of us took off after him, Kyra flying rather than running. Grit bounded ahead, leaping over cars and craters in the ground, abandoning any sense of stealth. Behind us, the static cleared from the radio, and Spark’s voice came back through the spritebot, saying something about losing visual on the basement. But we could still hear him. Then what had Malice…?

The community center.

The Stable was under a building--a building that had mostly withstood the centuries.

By the time we reached the now-familiar parking lot of the community center, I already knew what to expect.

Though the sign still proclaimed this the site of the New Oreins Community Center, only a few small pieces of wall still stood. The rest of the building was just a mound of smouldering rubble, collapsing inward. Even now, rebar groaned and snapped under the strain, adding more chunks of concrete to the pile, burying everything underneath.

Burying the Stable’s door.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Precision Swordsmare - Swords may be unconventional in the Wasteland, but you’ve learned your way around them. Accuracy with all melee weapons increased by 25%.

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 15 - Investment

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Chapter 15 - Investment

The purchase of an asset, either with cash or other allocation of resources, with the hope that the asset will generate income or appreciate in value in the future.

The dry, chalky dust swirled and mixed with the humid air of the Bayou, forcing me to cough up ashen gobbets of spit. Choked air drifted slowly towards the south, coating the nearby bushes and wrecks in a white film. As the view of the Wasteland’s newest crater cleared, my mouth hung ajar and my heart plummeted into my legs. Sure, Malice had her reputation for being a powerful raider boss in the Bayou, but to actually see her flexing her muscles, demolishing a building out of spite--it chilled me to the bone.

Grit looked to be on the verge of tears.

He rushed straight to the lip of the crater, but only got within a few feet before his PipBuck began crackling in rapid-fire, freezing him in his tracks and forcing him back until the noise settled. The two stable ponies that’d accompanied us, who had never even known a home beyond Stable 15, stood frozen in place, pure horror in their eyes. It was one thing to walk away from a home, and another to see it in ruins.

Spark’s voice came through the radio once again. “Grit? Alloy? What happened up there?”

I collected myself first, seeing all three Stable ponies turn around. The mare cried openly now, and Grit ran towards the spritebot in a full gallop. “Malice demolished the community center building,” I answered. “The whole thing came down on itself.”

“We’ll get it dug out, dad, I promise,” Grit cut in quickly, his face wavering where his voice didn’t. Hearing Spark through the eyebot, I took comfort in knowing that at least the Stable was still safe. Buried beneath tens of feet of compressed, irradiated rubble, but safe.

I shot a glance at him, opened my mouth reflexively to voice some kind of objection, then stopped myself, slowly letting out a breath instead, turning back to the spritebot. “Is the door damaged? Any radiation leaks?”

There was a brief pause before Spark’s voice replied over the tinny speaker. “No, the door seems fine, and the air’s clean.”

Grit seemed to relax a little, but only just. “Alloy, we gotta get ‘em out.”

I turned away from the spritebot to study the smouldering crater. Radiation aside, I didn’t even know if it was possible. Some of the chunks of wall that lay between us and Stable 15 were twice as big as me, and I didn’t have the telekinetic strength for that. I wasn’t sure, but I could fairly guess Grit didn’t either. “It’s…” Despite all my misgivings, the monumental nature of the problem, I stared into Grit’s eyes and saw the desperate plea.

He did the same for me.

“We’ll need to get some help. It’s not going to be easy, either, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.” I nodded my head back towards the path leading north. “We need to get on the road now so we can reach shelter before dark. Preferably the prison.”

“She’s right,” Kyra cut in, hovering in midair with her shotgun held in her talons. “Malice was just here. We can’t stick around right now. Stupid to run back so damn quickly, but now that you’ve seen it, we gotta leave.”

“But-” the younger Stable buck started, taking a step towards her.

“But nothin’. Look, I get it, but if you wanna stay alive t’ help ‘em, then we shouldn’t be here.”

Grit nodded, turning towards the spritebot. “We gotta find somewhere t’ hole up, dad, but we’ll come back. I’ll figure this out. I promise.” He swallowed, tears streaking his sandy coat. “I love you.”

* * * * * * *

Shortly after dark, we made it to the prison and took shelter in one of the intact offices. It felt like I had just begun to drift off to sleep when a noise jolted me from my slumber and brought me back to consciousness. My eyes opened and I stirred enough to notice that it was still the dead of night, and Kyra and the two Stable ponies were sound asleep. Lifting my head from between my forehooves, I looked around, ears swivelling for the noise to repeat itself, and only then did my clouded thoughts recognize the sound of rain pattering on the roof and walls. A low rumble of thunder rolled through the storm. With a soft breath I glanced back at our huddled group, about to settle back into sleep, when another observation struck me.

Where was Grit?

My head lifted again, and this time I was completely alert. Carefully, I stood up and slipped out the open door, resolving just to take a quick look outside before waking the others.

I didn’t have to look far. Down at the end of the hallway, sitting on his haunches in the lobby and watching the rain, was Grit. I could only barely make out his silhouette against the doorway. Just as I was considering heading back to sleep, a flash of lightning illuminated the world outside, and gave me a more detailed look at Grit for that instant.

His head was hung low, ears laid flat, facing away from me. I hesitated. Did he want to just be alone? Maybe he just didn’t want to wake us? I peered out a nearby hole in the wall, watching the rain for myself for a moment and catching the faint scent of wet, rusted metal in the air. A memory bubbled up in my mind, of Grit and I huddled in a small skywagon in a torrential downpour, just after getting kicked out of Sugarland. I winced, and looked back down the hallway at Grit, took a deep breath, and crossed the room to stand beside him. Even stepping as quietly as I could, Grit’s neck had straightened up as I approached, though I was trying to sneak more for the benefit of the others who were still asleep.

For a long moment, neither of us said anything as the soft percussion of the rain continued.

I was already here. Should I say something? Just standing here like a dope couldn’t be enough to help Grit with whatever was preoccupying him, though I knew what it was likely to be. Finally, I softly cleared my throat and glanced from the rain back at his face, sitting down on my haunches beside him. “Can’t sleep?”

He shook his head. Silence stretched out again for a few moments before he looked over to me. “Jus’ tryin’ t’ figure out how we’re gonna dig ‘em out.”

I nodded. Logistics. I could talk logistics. “Well, obviously the five of us can’t handle it on our own. We’ll have to ask for help,” I launched into a train of thought, holding Grit’s attention and vocalizing what would normally be kept in the confines of my own mind. “The logical place to start would be Four Shoes. Both of us know the ponies there, and it's a safe place to let the other two Stable ponies stay. But even with your reputation in Four Shoes, we’d be hard-pressed to find enough ponies willing to leave their stores and livelihoods to go and help. Everypony I know there counts on having their store open as much as possible.” I suppressed a wince as a nagging thought fluttered by, reminding me that my store was starting to fall behind on being open often enough. But this was important. “The only ponies you might be able to convince are passing caravan guards, but that’s a gamble, and even if we find some, they’d be expensive.”

Grit nodded, his ears drooping again. I caught the glimmer of despair that began to crease his face, and held up a hoof, trying to keep pace with my own thoughts as well. “There is another option. Shipper is closer than Four Shoes, though it’ll take all day for us to get there tomorrow.” Even then, it would be a hard stretch, I thought to myself, casting a glance back at the small office. The silence hung in the air for longer than I wanted it to, but I caught Grit staring at me with rapt attention.

Looking away from him and shifting on my haunches, I stared back out the darkened windows, fighting back an urge to keep all of this contained until I’d reasoned it out entirely.

But it kept him occupied for now.

“I’m not sure what we can offer them, but I can ask Nikale if he’d be willing to lend us his help. Either ponies - er, zebras - who can help dig out the Stable or else some kind of homebrew Rad-Away or Rad-X.” I flinched as the last words left my mouth, too late to do anything about my stream of consciousness except hope Grit wouldn’t press me on it.

I should’ve known better. His eyes were a little wider the next time lighting crashed across the sky. “They really got somethin’ like that?” There was a note of optimism in his voice, one that I hated having to smother.

“To be honest, I don’t know for sure.” I heard more than saw him slump a little. “But I’ve got reasonable indications. I know that Maizan brews a wide variety of potions. Hell, he even had something to regrow my hair on a laser burn.” I cast a glance down at my right hind leg. Even through the dim light I could swear the patch of slightly-mottled blue hair was visible. Shaking my head, I brought my train of thought to a close. “Like I said, I don’t know what we could offer them. Something like this, where we’d need extra hooves long-term, or else a steady supply of Rad-Away, won’t be cheap.” I didn’t even know if caps would cover it, or if they did, how much it would be worth to the Zebras. It was almost the worst negotiating position a buyer could be in, wanting something precious in return for whatever Nikale might want.

“Y’ said Maizan makes lots o’ potions?” Grit asked, breaking up my thoughts. I was jostled for only a brief moment this time, more curious as his tone took on a more pensive mood than I expected.

“Yeah, he does,” I answered tentatively. “I got the feeling that he doesn’t just sit on many already-made. He has a stock of ingredients, though.”

Grit pressed further, more urgently. “Use lotsa plants?”

“Yeah, probably… what’re you thinking?”

He tilted his head, making a noncommittal grunt. “Well, s’ a long shot, an’ I gotta clear it with Studio an’ Spark. Meadow, too. But I’m thinkin’ we offer ‘em growin’ space in th’ Stable’s orchard.”

Now my eyes went wide, gaping slightly. Goddesses above, that might work! But shortly after, my enthusiasm was tempered with a rising tide of doubts. “Doesn’t the Stable need all that growing space?”

“Ehh, if they were gonna stay down there a few years like th’ plan was, yeah. But they got a stockpile from bein’ underpopulated for a while.”

“And wouldn’t that mean opening the Stable door again for outsiders?” I pressed.

Grit shrunk back a little. “Well… yeah, guess it would, but they could close th’ Stable when th’ Zebras aren’ aroun’. S’better than th’ alternative.”

I closed my eyes and turned away, feeling a wave of exhaustion pass over me. There were plenty of other holes I could poke in Grit’s idea, but it just meant those were all holes I’d have to plug before pitching it to Nikale. But for now… I saw Grit’s slouch starting to creep back in. “It’s a good idea, Grit. Really. We just have to figure out the details before Studio or Nikale catch us without an answer.”

It looked like it worked, and I eased out a soft sigh as Grit’s ears stiffened again. He nodded, but didn’t say anything else.

A yawn forced my jaw opened, and need for sleep reasserted itself. Much as I wanted to brainstorm everything we’d need immediately, I knew that I’d think better in the morning and there wasn’t a risk of forgetting something. “We can discuss everything in the morning,” I said, standing back up.

Grit nodded, his purple mane bobbing and waving slightly. “Yeah. Yeah, ‘s’ late. Go on, I’ll crash pretty soon m’self. Jus’ gonna watch th’ rain a bit more.”

I hesitated as I turned away, but Grit wasn’t slouching quite as much anymore. “Alright. Goodnight, Grit.”

“ ‘Night, Alloy.”

* * * * * * *

Breakfast was hardly down our muzzles the next morning before logistics became the topic of the day. As luck had it, the buck that had joined us from Stable 15, Ginger Snap, had worked on the irrigation system of the Stable’s orchard, and knew enough to estimate how much growing space Studio could spare for a third party.

But as the conversations of gardening began to die down, Grit brought up a much touchier subject. “Y’all gotta stay in Four Shoes. Or better yet, head on up t’ New Appleloosa on th’ next caravan out.”

“Oh hell no!” the mare, Star, jumped in before Grit could continue. A unicorn with a faint lavender coat and blue mane, she glared at Grit with an intensity I had never seen anypony else look at him with. To be honest, I was barely able to suppress a snicker as Grit’s ears fell back and he stumbled away. “Look, we may be new to this whole ‘Wasteland’ thing, but we aren’t gonna just abandon the Stable when it needs help most.”

Ginger Snap stepped up to Star with a smile and gave her a gentle nuzzle. “Same. Y’ ain’t gettin’ rid of us that easy, so ya might ‘s well tell us how we can help.” The earth pony buck flashed him a grin, tossing his rough auburn mane to one side with a flick of his head.

Grit sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Worth a shot. Look, jus’ so y’know, this ain’t ‘xactly gonna be what y’all signed up for when y’ left. We gotta good plan, but when we get t’ Shipper, let Alloy do th’ talkin’.” The two of them shot a glance at me, and I offered them what I hoped was a disarming smile. I wasn’t sure if it worked. “Trus’ me, she could talk a griffon inta sellin’ her own feathers. Uh, no offense, Kyra.”

Kyra simply let out a squawking chuckle, shaking her head. “None taken!”

“But tha’ leads us t’... Studio.” Grit glanced at the spritebot, floating along behind us. “Guess we can’t put this off.” He gently tapped the side of the robot, causing it to bob in the air. “Dad? Overmare Studio? Either o’ y’all there?”

There was a long pause of several minutes before Studio’s calm voice, marred only a little by static, came through the speaker. “Yes, Grit, we’re both here. Spark and I were just discussing the final report from last night’s… incident.”

Grit looked down at the ground a moment, chewing on his lip before he continued. “Well, glad I got y’all both then. Alloy an’ I, we got a plan t’ dig out th’ Stable.”

Another pause. “Go on.”

I took the initiative to step forward. Getting Studio to agree to this half of the deal would be the practice round for Nikale. “Overmare, this is Alloy Shaper. I believe I can negotiate help from a village of zebras that live a day’s walk north of here, in a town called Shipper. I know you wanted to keep the Stable sealed for a number of years until Malice’s threat had passed, but I don’t think I need to remind you that with the debris blocking the door, you’ll never be able to rejoin the Bayou.”

I took a small breath, letting that last line sink in, but not allowing Studio a chance to interject. “I believe Nikale, the leader of the community at Shipper, could be convinced to help, but only if we offer them something worth the time and risk involved, something worth more than just caps. Talking the situation over with Ginger Snap, we came to the conclusion that a small plot of growing soil in the Stable’s orchard would be the perfect way to repay the zebras for their help.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Studio cut in, a note of alarm in the tinny voice. “You’d have us re-open the Stable door again? After what happened last time?”

“No, of course not,” I said calmly. I’d expected this answer. “Only when the zebras came to visit to collect or tend to their plants. You could open it briefly to let them in, then again to let them out, and have it closed for the rest of the time. Even if Malice were to return, she still couldn’t get in the door. And you still have effectively indefinite supplies down there, right?”

“Well… yes, we can produce food and water at least. And the air purifier is still working.” There was a low sound like a sigh, or maybe just a hiss of static, then another pause. “I don’t like this, but you’re right. How much growing space would we need to give them?”

I nodded to Ginger Snap. “Ginger has the numbers. I’ll leave you to talk it over with him and Spark.”

Taking my cue, Ginger Snap immediately started going through the details, how to move existing plants and how to keep the plants the zebras would grow separated to prevent cross-pollination. It was fascinating stuff, but I couldn’t spare any attention on it. Instead, it was time to focus on the real challenge: convincing Nikale. As Grit, Ginger Snap, Spark, and Studio discussed the finer points, I started working through the arguments in my head, preparing and rehearsing our proposal.

* * * * * * *

The curious stares of the zebras in Shipper had an added filter of suspicion draped over them. I couldn’t blame them, really. What had once been just a bi-weekly visit by a single pony was now a parade of four ponies, a griffin, and a spritebot, all of us armed. More of the suspicious looks seemed to be directed my way than anypony else’s, and my ears drooped lower as my gaze darted around from zebra to zebra, feeling an overwhelming desire to apologize for… something. It wasn’t as though the zebras had told me to keep their village a secret, but I still felt like I was violating their trust somehow.

I glanced over at Kyra for only a moment, before a deep, accented voice cut through my musings.

“Blacksmith,” Nikale greeted us, walking up to stop our procession roughly in the middle of town. His dark-grey eyes drifted across the assembled ponies before settling back to me again. “Your entourage grows with each time I see you. Perhaps the life of a craftsmare offers more celebrity than I realized.”

My eyes went wide, and I opened my mouth to object, then caught sight of his thin smile and closed it again, shaking my head. Next to me, Grit stifled a chuckle. “No, these ponies are just passing through, but I was hoping to speak with you, Nikale.” His smile partially melted as he cocked an eye, waiting for me to continue. Glancing around, I noted that a dozen or more zebra were still watching us with rapt attention. “Is there somewhere we can speak privately?”

The large zebra looked around briefly, then inclined his head off to his left. “Would Maizan’s home suffice?”

“That’ll be fine,” I replied, actually somewhat grateful for his choice of location. With any luck, if Maizan was there, he’d have some things to say in favor of our plan. “Actually, I was hoping to speak with him, too.”

Nikale cocked an eye at me again. “I do not believe all of us will fit.”

I nodded, figuring that would be the case, half-turning around. “Kyra, would you mind waiting out here with Star and Ginger Snap?”

Kyra gave a ruffle of her wings, and waved towards the two Stable ponies. “C’mon, let’s get y’all some grub. How d’ya feel about meat?”

Nikale began walking towards the combination kitchen and clinic with Grit, and I followed close behind, catching only a brief noise of shock from the stable ponies. Floating quietly behind us, the spritebot followed along. Sure enough, the older zebra was in his home, sitting at a small table with a notebook in front of him, pencil in his mouth. His head snapped up at the sudden intrusion, and he looked between Nikale, me, and Grit. “Well this is unexpected. I do hope this isn’t about the chili again.”

Nikale shook his head. “No, Alloy wished to speak with us in private.”

Maizan turned away from his desk, focusing on me. “I see. Well, I have some time. The chili is done, and Xekan can handle serving.” He waved a forehoof towards me. “How is your leg?”

Instinctively, I glanced back at my right hind leg and the slightly-thinner patch of light-blue coat covering the energy weapon burn. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I was in this office last, letting Maizan bandage my leg despite all protestations. Clearing my head with a deep breath, I stepped forward. “My leg’s doing fine, thank you. But I’m here with Grit today to propose a deal with you, between yourselves and the ponies of Stable 15.”

There was a lengthy, uncomfortable pause as Nikale and Maizan exchanged looks with each other, but I continued on with my prepared speech. “The spritebot with us has an intact radio connection with the Overmare of the Stable, who has agreed to provide Shipper with a plot of soil in the Stable’s orchard for you to use however you wish. They will provide as much or as little care to the plants as you require.” Maizan’s eyes widened slightly, but Nikale’s expression remained even. Pause here a moment. Let the idea sink in. “In exchange,” I resumed, trying to stay ahead of the question, “Stable 15 would need your assistance in clearing the rubble that has buried the Stable door.”

I took a slow breath, something primal wanting me to keep silent about the cause of the collapse. But I couldn’t. “Yesterday, Malice detonated some kind of bomb in the building above the Stable. She tried to take some of their ponies as labor, but they refused, closing the door instead. The Stable itself is fine, but the building collapsed and buried their only way out.” I swallowed, scuffing a forehoof at the ground. Had to finish this. Just a bit more. I could hear my heart thundering in my ears, but I kept my voice steady. “The other complication is that the crater is irradiated. Grit, Kyra, and I will find a way to combat the radiation, but we need help digging the rubble away. If a dozen zebras would be willing to volunteer and help us in the excavation, Overmare Studio will ensure that you have your plot to grow on.”

And with that, the speech was over. I let out a slow breath, and tried to slow my heart as I glanced between Nikale and Maizan. Neither one of them spoke at first, but Maizan looked like he wanted to. Instead, Nikale broke the silence. “We will, of course, need time to discuss this among ourselves.” I nodded. “But before that, several questions. First, will Malice not come back to look once her scouts see the work team?”

This question I was ready for. “I don’t think she’ll come back, or even check on the Stable. First, the entrance is some distance from the nearest waterway. She couldn’t get away with just sending an airboat for a drive-by, it would have to be a trip out solely to check on the Stable.” I paused a moment. Let my more logical argument sink in. My ear flicked at the air, hesitating on the next argument. But I had to sound confident, to remember Malice’s ‘proposal’ to me and her implication that nopony in the Bayou gave a shit.

“And she won’t send a dedicated trip because she won’t expect anyone to be there. She’s met Grit in passing once, and maybe even took note of what Stable he was from, but I doubt she even remembers him. And if she suspects anypony left the Stable before they closed the door, she didn’t show it. Hell, she didn’t even wait to see if anypony came back to the Stable after she blew up the Community Center. We galloped straight back after the explosion, and there was no sign of her. And if she does suspect some Stable ponies left, she doesn’t know about the spritebots, and she doesn’t think anypony will help.” I swallowed briefly, glancing between the fixed gazes of Nikale and Maizan. “Malice won’t be back anytime soon.”

With that assertion hanging in the air, silence held us all for a few moments. Grit was standing behind me, holding himself rigid. Even to my eyes, I could see tension lacing him to his core. Maizan was studying Nikale, the older zebra’s mind seemingly already made up, while Nikale’s head was cocked to one side, staring off into nowhere. I’d only seen his expression this pensive once before, when I first visited Shipper with my offer of a long-term trade agreement. The spritebot’s radio crackled and hissed as the speaker on the other end turned on, all heads snapping to stare at it. “Even if Alloy is mistaken about Malice, we will have this spritebot watching and patrolling the approaches to Stable 15. When she last made the trip out, we had more than an hour to get ready.”

“An’ I’ll do everythin’ I can to protect y’all,” Grit cut in, setting his jaw tight. I cast a quick glance at him, but did my best to suppress my annoyance. The stakes were high for him, but we were coming across too desperate.

At last, Nikale spoke. “How far away is the Stable? And how long do you think this excavation will take?”

I stepped in first, drawing Nikale’s attention quickly away from the hope dancing in Grit’s eyes. “It’s about a day’s walk from here. We’d be best off making camp somewhere away from the Stable, just in case. There are a few places I can recommend.” I paused to give his second question some thought. Truth be told I had no good idea for how long it would take, and I wasn’t sure if I should give him my best guess or just tell him as much. A compromise of the two, maybe. “As for how long, I’m not entirely sure. We can escort you down to the site to see for yourself, but the limiting factor will likely be the radiation.”

“Hmm,” the tall zebra answered, noncommittally. After taking a moment to rub at his muzzle with his fetlock, he let out a slow breath. “I have a few conditions, but I believe we can be of assistance.” Instantly, I could feel the crushing pressure on my chest ease, and I scuffed at the dirt with one forehoof. Grit looked like he was practically glowing.

I settled myself. Focus. Not done yet.

“What are your conditions?” I asked, my voice refusing to show how much more at ease I was, though I imagined Nikale could see through it.

“First, I will have to emphasize I will only take volunteers. If any of them deem the work too dangerous, they will be escorted back to Shipper. Safely.” His eyes narrowed as he enunciated his last word. I could understand his concern. Less scrupulous ponies may just decide that anyone who doesn’t want to work can find their own way home, but I wouldn’t do that to them. I nodded once, letting him continue. “Second, any caretakers we send to Stable 15 for the plants afterward must be similarly protected.”

That surprised me a little. There was no way I could commit to doing something like that, not with my store to run. I’d been away from it for too long as it was, and it looked like I would be away longer still with this excavation.

“I’ll do it,” Grit said, taking a step forward. “S’the least I can do t’ thank y’all.” There was a palpable relief on his face.

Nikale tilted his head slightly as the two of them locked eyes. Grit looked at ease, but the zebra was carved from stone. At last, he snorted quietly, then nodded. “Then I will announce to the village and gather volunteers.”

A smile tugged at the corners of my lips, and I let it pass with only a small flick of my ear. “Thank you, Nikale. We’ll let you know as soon as we have something to combat the radiation.” I still wasn’t completely sure what I’d do, but maybe some of the caravans passing through Four Shoes had some Rad-X, or maybe even masks. Failing that, I was sure one of them would know where I could get some. I turned to leave, but Nikale’s voice stopped me only half a step into the motion.

“Perhaps we can be of assistance in that matter as well,” he said, taking a step towards me. “We’ll see what we can do about the radiation, and discuss it further in the morning. You and your group may stay here for the night, of course, for a reasonable fee.”

Even with the looming threat of having to pay for a space to sleep, I wasn’t able to completely hide my astonishment at Nikale’s offer. Getting his help with the dig and the radiation was more than I could have hoped. Recomposing myself, I swallowed and cleared my throat. "We would certainly appreciate that. But as for room and board, what would you consider a reasonable fee?” I asked, cocking my head.

“As I recall, the price last time was 30 caps for yourself and your partner, Grit.” He paused and nodded out the door to where Kyra waited with Star and Ginger Snap. “As your party is now four ponies and one griffon, 75 caps seems to be appropriate.”

I snorted, flicking my tail at the air. 15 caps apiece was still far more than I wanted to pay for a place to sleep, but I knew it’d be best for our two Bayou newcomers, at least for now. Still, Nikale didn’t have to know that. “With five of us, including one Talon mercenary, I should think we have less need of your protection for the night. We can easily post watches and protect ourselves outside if need be. I certainly appreciate your hospitality, but I think 50 caps would cover us here.”

Nikale’s gazed locked with mine for a few seconds as he seemed to consider the idea. Eventually, he nodded. “Very well. 50 caps it is.”

“Thank you.” Opening my saddlebags, I retrieved the agreed amount and floated it over to him in a haze of green levitation.

With caps exchanged, Nikale walked with us out of Maizan’s home, a polite smile resting on his muzzle. “I do hope you sleep well.”

* * * * * * *

I definitely did not sleep well.

While I was sound asleep, an insistent hoof nudged at me several times, eventually forcing me awake. My eyelids felt as though they weighed more than my whole body as I pulled them open to see what the problem was. Standing above me was one of the zebras, though I couldn’t make out any details of their face, but they were motioning insistently now that I was looking.

Did they want me to follow?

For a few long seconds, I didn’t move, couldn’t move, watching the zebra trot away towards the door. With no apparent emergency, I wanted to just put my head back down on my forehooves and fall asleep again. But they’d just wake me back up, wouldn’t they?

Against the wailing protests of my muscles, I heaved myself to my hooves and glanced around at the rest of my group. I was the only one awake. Great. I lit my horn and grabbed my canteen of water to take a sip, letting the cool liquid snap at least some of my senses in place. Maybe now I could walk without tripping over anypony. I blinked a few more times and focused on the only spot of light I could see, a dim lantern illuminating the forms of Nikale and three other zebras. Nikale motioned at me with his foreleg. Without thinking, I groggily collected my sword and gun, slinging them both around my neck as I carefully stepped around Star and Ginger Snap’s sleeping forms. Their breathing didn’t change, nor did Grit’s light snore or Kyra’s soft chirps. Eventually, against the overwhelming weights of my legs, I walked out to meet Nikale and the other zebras at the entrance, glancing out at the night beyond.

As I came to a stop just outside the ramp leading to the Bayou proper, I finally asked in a low voice, “What’s this about?” A yawn forced its way past my muzzle, and I quickly shook my head to try and keep my senses focused.

Nikale kept his voice just as quiet as one of the other zebras yawned as well, and I slowly realized that he was wearing a battle-saddle-mounted rifle. “We are going to retrieve radiation-proof barding for the dig. You must come with us.”

My blood froze in my veins, and I stared at him in the pitch-black gloom, ears falling flat against my head. “What?!” I hissed at him, stealing a glance over my shoulder at Shipper, as though I was going to wake the whole town. “Now? Can’t it wait until morning?”

“No, it cannot,” Nikale answered in a low voice. “We need you to help us through the swamp.” In the scattered glow of light coming from the guard zebra’s lantern, I could see his eyes narrow. “And none of your companions can know of this.” He loomed over me, and I took half a step away without thinking, my heart audible in my ears.

He was serious.

I’d never seen him like this. He intended to go out into the Bayou at night and find this barding.

My forehoof scuffed at the wet ground, and I forced myself to breath slowly. “Where are we even going?”

“The Ministry of Morale office. Are those the only weapons you need?”

“Well, yes, I-”

“Good. Stay close.” Offering no further explanation or room to argue, Nikale simply turned away and began walking into the Bayou.

He gave no room to argue, but I made room anyway.

“Why do you need me for this?” I hissed, taking a step forward and flicking my tail at the air. If they were willing to take this insane risk, then fine. It was their business, and they sounded like they had a reason. If they wanted me to plunge in with them, that was another thing.

Nikale stopped mid-stride, and half-turned back towards me. “We need you to light the way. Our lanterns may attract more attention than a unicorn’s magic.”

And, like he already said, he didn’t trust anyone else. One of my ears flicked at the air, and I groaned harshly. Nothing about this felt right, but Nikale was insistent that he needed me for this trip. Part of me also wondered if refusing would jeopardize our deal, as well. “Fine. Lead the way.”

The larger zebra inclined his head towards me. “Thank you. We will keep you safe.”

I ground my teeth together, but said nothing, instead checking the straps on my holster and sword sheath before lighting my horn with a bright green light. Taking a slow, calming breath, I focused on the tingling sensation of magic and pulled back, allowing the light to dim to about as low as I was willing to hold it.

Nikale turned back towards the impenetrable darkness as two other zebras fell in line beside him, weapons ready. One of the other two had a battle saddle of his own, while the third held a pistol in his teeth. Walking behind them, casting a faint green glow across the landscape around us, I could see their shadows stretch out into the gloom.

* * * * * * *

Insects buzzed and chirped around us, the muddy ground sucking at our hooves as we slowly trod our way through the oppressive, sour-smelling shadows. After the lively conversation that had been a constant part of my last few trips through the Bayou, the crushing silence seemed to weigh my muscles down. And with nothing to occupy my mind, every flicker of motion, every brush of the wind through shrubs and weeds, and every irregular noise sent my head jerking back and forth. All I could think of were images of the ghouls in Stable 36 shambling out of the darkness towards me. Or the swarms of rats in the tunnels beneath the river. Or some new, horrifying monstrosity looming up out of the ground. Every shadow was a new threat, and I stared at each in turn until we passed it.

My sword hovered in the air before me, as though I could physically shield myself with it. I couldn’t remember drawing it.

Every now and then I caught myself audibly panting and focused on breathing slowly, calmly, and - most important - silently. The other two zebras that had come along were constantly looking to their left and right, sweeping the shadows for any signs of danger. At odd moments when a growl or wet steps pierced the muggy air, the four of us froze in our tracks, training weapons on the direction it came from and holding that stance for seconds or hours, I couldn’t tell. Eventually, Nikale would lift his forehoof in a deliberate gesture, and the other two zebras resumed their pace. I’d follow a moment after. Throughout all of this, Nikale seemed utterly unfazed. Though I couldn’t see his face, he walked with a steady gait, and simply shifted his gaze slightly to the left and right as he walked, careful but confident. As I watched him, my nerves calmed, at least a little.

At least until the sound of of shifting, slick muck froze us in our tracks.

As we stopped, so did the noise. I didn’t dare move my head, but my eyes darted across the landscape, trying to pick the danger out of the shadows around us. There! A glint of light. A reflection from the light of my horn, flickering off wet skin.

As though it realized it’d been seen, the thing lunged out towards us, barreling at a blinding speed. Our guns roared in the stillness of the night, and I caught brief glimpses of the creature in the flashes of light. Slick skin, six legs, and an impossibly wide mouth.

The first volley of shots went wide, and it skittered across the muck with a wet, muddy staccato. I could see it in my horn’s light now, but it was too fast to get a good look. It was headed for me! I jumped away, and felt my heart thunder in relief before a thick tail slapped into my forelegs. I fell. My head thumped against the soft mud and my head swam for a moment, and I felt my magic flicker off. Nikale shouted something about the light. I blinked, shook my head, reigniting the light of my horn.

The thing was charging me, mouth wide enough to swallow me whole.

I cried out, panic blinding me. I scrambled to get to my hooves. Where was my sword? Where was my sword?!

Another deafening boom. Another hiss-squeal, and the rapid stomping of feet died with the lizard-thing.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm myself down as I stared at the slimy corpse in front of me. With a quick shake of my head, I started searching for my sword in the mud where I’d been tripped, brightening the glow of my horn just a little. “What… what was that?” I hissed. I thought I’d at least heard of all of the Bayou’s worst creatures, but this was something else. I didn’t want to look at it, but some part of me kept casting glances at the lizard’s body. Now that it was still, I could see that it had no eyes, and I felt a shudder crawl across my back.

“Lurkilizard. We must keep moving. The noise may bring us more attention.”

I found my sword in the muck, near a stump of a metallic sign, collecting it and brushing off a clump of mud with one fetlock. “Alright,” I said, holding it in the air next to me as we pressed on into the night.

* * * * * * *

We arrived at the Ministry of Morale office with only one more stop - a pause to hide and wait for a swarm of bloodsprites to buzz past us, flying along a creek nearby and sending ripples through the waters. I had to extinguish my light the moment we heard them, but that seemed to save us. Though I was only barely able to see, I could tell from the shifting mass that there were dozens of the things. We’d waited another minute after they vanished before resuming our trek, rounding one bend to reach the bridge.

Once inside, I could feel myself relax slightly, and with that the sluggishness partially set in, tugging at my eyelids. I shook my head firmly, ears flicking upright once more after they’d started to droop. Nikale glanced back, but said nothing as he lead us through the decaying hallways, passing the stairwell and turning into the office at the end of the hall.

The other two zebra took up positions on either side of the door, guns ready, as Nikale gently tapped the door with one hoof, letting it swing open on a hinge that wailed in protest of the silent darkness. I felt my whole body tense, overwhelmed with the warring needs to run and the need to keep still, avoid making any more noise. My head slowly turned to look down the hallway. The door had been so loud, I was sure half the Bayou had heard it. Were those bloodsprites coming?


The dispassionate night gave us nothing.

With a slow, shaking breath, I stepped into the office after the zebras, flicking my tail at the air behind me. The office was smaller than the one I’d found the memory orb in, but had many of the same trappings. There was a cabinet against the far wall, made of metal covered by decorated wood panels. A simple desk stood near the cabinet, in surprisingly good condition, though there was no chair to be found, and against the wall to the right was a bookshelf whose shelves had long ago collapsed and spilled the now-rotten books across the floor. Nikale immediately trotted over to the cabinet, opening up one of the elaborately-carved doors and pressing something with his hoof that produced a soft click.

Without further warning, the desk slid forward, nearly bowling me over as it carried its shattered Stable-Tec terminal with it. I started to walk around the desk to the left to see what had been revealed, opening my mouth to say… something, but closed it. No point arguing over it. Need to get out of here as soon as we-

I’d expected a small safe like the one I’d found Silver Trim’s memory orb in. Instead a whole staircase stretched into the darkness below, though only wide enough for a single pony at a time. It dove into solid concrete around it, cracked slightly but largely intact, and in the glow of my horn, I could see a dull glint of metal at the end. I gaped, looking between the staircase and Nikale, trying to make sense of this staircase leading into solid rock that was on the second story of this building, but he merely gestured with his head towards the passageway. “Follow me, Alloy. Zecana, Wejin, stay here and keep guard.”

Flicking my tail again, I followed Nikale down into the stairwell, my muzzle scrunching up at the wretched, stale smell of mildew. Craning my neck to get a view around Nikale, we quickly came to a sealed metal door with a terminal set into the wall next to it. He lifted one forehoof and tapped several keys in quick succession, commanding the door to hiss and swing inward, and for a moment I marvelled at the thickness of the door.

I stopped mid-stride as the lights came up, showing me the room beyond.

At first, the sudden brightness hurt my eyes, and I squeezed them shut, only hesitantly opening them once the aching pain had begun to fade. The room opened up into a yawning cavern, drilling deep into the ground below us. From the catwalk, another staircase led the way down, doubling back on itself over and over again until it reached the bottom.

And there, looming before the bottom of the stairs, was the unmistakable cog-shape of a Stable door.

“A stable?” I hissed.

Nikale simply nodded, walking forward to start descending the stairs.

I glanced over my shoulder at the metal door, and the stairs beyond that led back to the Ministry office. “And this is where your barding is?” I kept my voice to an insistent whisper, but I did not move.

Finally, Nikale actually stopped and looked at me again. “It is safe. This Stable was one that succeeded in its mission. No one and nothing is left but a cache of supplies we use when necessary.” His gaze seemed to soften, but maybe it was just his own exhaustion starting to show through. “We will only be here a few minutes.”

I still refused to move, my temper flaring up. Deal or not, walking into some Celestia-damned Stable in the middle of the night was about where I drew the line. I stomped one forehoof on the metal grating to get his attention. “No, I want some answers, Nikale. How do you know it’s safe? And if it’s safe, why did we have to come here in the middle of the night?”

Nikale sighed and turned back towards me, something in his eyes. Exhaustion? Resignation? Either way, he took a deep breath and nodded. “I suppose you should know.” He jerked his head back towards the Stable door. “This Stable is where my ancestors took shelter from the bombs. I do not know why it is here, or what happened to the original inhabitants. It gave protection from the bombs and the worst of the radiation, but this shelter was not built to sustain ponies as long as other Stables were. Ever since our ancestors left this place, we have a commitment to resorting to the supplies here as rarely as possible, though nearly everything is already gone.

“Still, the Stable is one of our most closely-guarded secrets. A last resort. If we were not pressed for time, we would have not risked the visit at night, but we need it to be plausible to your companions that we found the barding in one of the cargo containers at Shipper. Your presence here both helps us light the way to get to the Stable, and now you can support us when we say we found the barding.” He paused and looked back down at the cog-shaped door again. “And I know it is safe because we’re the only ones who can get in.”

My mind scrambled to process all this at once. After a long pause, neither of us moving or saying anything, I finally answered what was pressing most at my mind. “You… want me to help you lie to my friends?” A knot formed in the pit of my stomach at the idea.

“It will be enough that you not contradict us.”

Glancing away from him, I scrunched up my muzzle. My discomfort persisted, but I didn’t want to stand out here all night and argue the point. Eventually, I nodded and started to trot towards the stairs. “Fine.”

Reaching into his pack, Nikale pulled out a thick, heavy band, clenching it in his teeth before he set it on the ground. Once it was free of his grip, I recognized it as an old, worn-out PipBuck, though one that had seen better days. Laying down on the ground in front of it, Nikale cradled the device with one fetlock before turning it on and tapping it a few times with the edge of his other forehoof.

The device let out a small chirping sound, and in response, a pair of whirling orange lights turned on to either side of the Stable door. A cacophony of metallic grinding and squealing took place on the far side of the heavy steel door, before the cog itself was pulled backward into the wall, then rolled to one side to allow us in. I held my breath, revolver at the ready as the entrance of the Stable was revealed to us.

The lights came up inside, though a few of them flickered in protest of their age, and aside from a film of dust and a dryness to the air that reminded me of Stable 15, there was nothing.

It looked like Nikale had been right.

He quickly led us through the atrium and down a flight of stairs to a door labelled “ENGINEERING,” where, true to his word, a trio of hazmat barding suits hung against the wall. With all three folded up neatly in his saddlebags, we trotted back to the entrance, and sealed the door behind us, though not before I noticed how small the atrium of this Stable seemed.

As the heavy cog door rolled back into place, I hesitated for a moment, waiting for it to settle so I could read the number.


I spent several seconds considering the “M” and its meaning, but the sound of Nikale’s hooves on the metal staircase snapped my focus back to the present.

Time to go.

* * * * * * *

Waking up never felt so utterly tortuous to me before. Every moment spent standing on all four hooves, I wanted nothing more than to find a marginally-soft spot of dirt and curl up on it. Even the cup of something hot and slightly tangy that Maizan offered me did little to completely clear the haze from my mind, though it did give me a measure of focus for a few minutes.

And in the midst of this, Kyra wanted to talk business.

“Alloy, gotta talk to ya for a sec,” she said, taking a seat next to me.

I shot her my best withering glare, but the griffon was unfazed. After a moment, she just kept talking.

“I offered to guard you an’ Grit to Stable 15 an’ back for free so y’all could see what I could do. An’ I did. If you want me t’ stick around for this excavation business, we’re gonna have t’ talk price.”

I looked away from her, staring into the cup of brown liquid before me. The steam wafted into my nostrils and gave me some of my energy, and I calmly lifted the cup in my forehooves, sipping a generous gulp of what was left. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell Kyra was watching me intently, but I wasn’t going to rush this on her account. She’d wait. Savoring the warmth and faint sweetness of the drink, I swallowed before calmly opening my eyes again and turning my focus on Kyra, alert for at least the next few minutes before the exhaustion took me again. “And what would you consider a fair price?” I prompted.

“30 caps a day.” She had answered without hesitation, meeting my gaze.

“No.” I turned away from her and took another sip from my cup, only catching a glimpse of Kyra’s beak hitting the floor.

“ ‘No’? That’s it? C’mon Alloy, that ain’t fair, I got shit I need taken care of, too!”

I nodded, looking back at her, hesitating for a second. There was a genuine worry there. I’d strung customers along to get a better price out of them, and I’d even gotten this reaction before, but usually over one of my nicer-looking swords, or a horn ring in one instance. I’d only meant to stonewall her for negotiation, but… I flicked an ear. “Can’t go that high,” I answered. “As long as I’m out there helping with this dig, I’m not at my shop. 15 caps per day.”

Kyra rubbed the side of her beak with one claw, and for another split-second I had the urge to bump the price up. But I held my gaze firm. “I mean, you’re right. But what if it only takes a couple days? I’ll come up pretty dry at 15.” She glanced away, then locked eyes with me again. “20. No lower!”

I shook my head. “15 is my limit.” I had the bargaining advantage here. By her own admission, Kyra needed a job. But all the same, she was right. “But I’ll cover you in case the whole thing is over in a few days. 15 caps per day is the rate, with a minimum payout of 150 caps. Deal?”

At last, she cracked her familiar smile. It didn’t have quite the same energy I was used to, but she smiled all the same. “That works for me. Hey, would you mind draftin’ that up into a formal contract for me?” I cocked one eye at her, and opened my mouth to question why, but she held up her talons in defense as soon as she saw my expression shift. “No, no! Just need somethin’ on paper. Talon bullshit.”

I relaxed slightly and nodded. “Sure. I’ll get you a written copy after we get to the prison tonight.” As Kyra stood up, I briefly wondered why she only wanted a written contract now. Was it the caps? Had Stable 15 drafted something up for her?

“You okay there?” Kyra’s voice snapped through my thoughts and shook me back to the moment. Kyra was tilting her head, watching me. Hadn’t she left? “I gotta say, y’ look like shit, Alloy. Didn’t sleep well?”

My blood ran cold for a moment. Did she know? Had she noticed my absence last night? I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head firmly, both to clear my thoughts and answer Kyra. “No, but I’ll be fine.”

She shrugged her wings nonchalantly before turning away again. She couldn’t have known. Could she? My concerns were soon forced to the side as Grit started to round us up to head back to Stable 15, all while the ground continued to look particularly comfortable.

* * * * * * *

All told, Nikale had found us nine volunteers. Among them, I noticed, were some of the Zebras that Chainlink had been carting off all those weeks ago, including Xekan, and upon arriving, we set up camp in one of the houses near where I’d found the incomplete painting. Over the next week, we each took it in turns to spend the day hauling rubble, standing guard, or just clearing away debris from our basecamp. I made it a personal project to mend the patchwork roof we had into something that would at least keep us out of the rain, mostly using pieces of the cars and skywagons left behind.

But while the dig was going about at the pace we could have hoped for, we quickly started running into a few problems.

Or more accurately, problems began running into us.

The first creatures to attack were a trio of marshlurks, which I only heard about after the fact. Lucky for me, I’d been at the basecamp working on the roof at the time, but Ginger Snap took a heavy blow to his head, and Kyra came back with a gash across her hind leg that she waved off as no big deal. For three days straight, bloodsprites came at us in swarms, until we found their nest and burned it down. One of the zebras got bit, but luckily the ‘sprite had died before it had a chance to drain him dry. We had one day of tense, nervous guard duty where nothing came at us, but the day after, a lurkilizard clamped its jaws around Xekan’s legs while he was momentarily distracted from guard duty. Grit killed the thing, but Xekan had to be bandaged up and quickly flown back to Shipper.

And all at once, the arguments started.

“You never told us we’d be under siege at all times, Blacksmith!” one of the zebras bellowed at me, with Grit stepping between us. I shrunk away, eyes darting between pairs of hostile eyes that burned into me.

“We didn’t know, we just-”

“We’re spending so much time digging, we’re exhausted for guard duty!” A chorus of agreements rose up around the zebra mare, and I glanced over to her, opening my mouth. I couldn’t get a single word out before the next one shouted at me.

“If you cannot keep us safe, take us home!”

Another chorus of agreements.

No, no, no, we’d been so close! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Grit’s exhausted expression, dark bags gathering under his eyes. He’d been working his damndest to keep the zebras safe, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t let this happen. We just needed more ponies, we needed-

Suddenly, cutting through the heated argument like a gust of cool air, the radio on the spritebot’s speaker crackled and hissed and began to play soothing, orchestral music, a piece I could swear I’d heard before but couldn’t place.

All thirteen of us, zebras and ponies, turned to stare at Kyra, who had been meddling with the robot and now stood proudly beside it, a triumphant grin on her face. “Figured y’all could use something t’ calm you down, y’know? And I figure, everyone likes music. So… ta-daaa!”

The zebras, along with Star and Ginger looked considerably calmer for the momentary distraction, and began talking amongst themselves in a much less heated manner.

Grit, on the other hand, was staring right at me.

He bobbed his head slightly, glancing to the spritebot. Then he met my gaze again.

And all of a sudden, I remembered where I’d heard the music before.

It’d been on Sugarland’s radio.

“No, there’s no way!” I hissed at Grit, incredulous.

He grimaced and waved one forehoof at the crowd of zebras who, thankfully, weren’t paying us close attention. “We do need more guards. An’ they’ve got radios, guns, gear, everythin’.”

“Bourbon would kill us on sight!” My blood was running cold. I couldn’t believe Grit was even thinking like this. Vivid memories of a night spent cold and wet inside a broken skywagon rushed back at me. All thanks to Sugarland’s assumption we were slavers.

“Not her,” he retorted, nodding at Kyra.

Immediately, her head jerked upward, turning towards Grit and I, despite the crowd between us. “What about me?”

And just like that, the conversation was no longer private. The gathering of zebras turned their attention first to Kyra, then followed her gaze to me. “Do you have an idea?” one of them asked hopefully.

My hoof was forced. The anger may have been diffused, but they were right. We couldn’t keep working under siege by the Bayou’s worst creatures daily. I looked over at Grit, who was as silent as me. I could tell he was trying to mull over how to phrase this, but every second we took to reply would make the zebras less confident in our plan, despite how little faith I had in it.

“Maybe,” I said, jumping to the answer while the initiative was ours. “Can you give us a few minutes to work this out? We’ll meet you back at basecamp.”

With only a little muttering, the herd of zebras began to walk back to our camp for the evening, while Grit and I trotted over to Kyra to fill her in. Maybe there was another way, maybe we could still find guards at Four Shoes, but it would only be one or two at most. We’d need experts.

We’d need Sugarland’s help.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
Sales Journal

Chapter 16 - Securities

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Chapter 16 - Securities

While various types of securities exist, their primary purpose is to represent an investment or partial stake in a publicly-traded corporation. Often these securities are bought and sold by third parties as well, creating a sub-market of their own.

“Yeesh. I mean, Bourbon’s a stick-in-the-mud, but…” Kyra grimaced, stretching out on the edge of a stone planter box. “Just kicked you out like that, huh? Not surprised he didn’t give y’all a chance to explain, but ‘least he didn’t just kill y’all either.”

“Yep,” Grit answered. He was fidgeting in place, standing on all fours while I laid down on the broken asphalt, glancing between them.

Kyra glanced between us for a moment, before scratching the side of her neck. “Crap. Well, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry ‘bout my part in that. Though if they really were listenin’, seems like it wouldn’ta mattered if I took the job or not.” Her tail brushed the road below the planter box as it hung off the edge, swishing idly. “But hey, if we really need their help, I can still go back there an’ talk to ‘em.”

“That’s what I was hopin’, too. Bring 'em someplace t' meet, outside o' Sugarland.”

I nodded absently, but I was preoccupied with my own thoughts. Why hadn’t she taken the job in Sugarland? I’d had more than a thousand caps on me at the time, and going by her current rates, I couldn’t piece together the 750 caps she’d quoted me at first. Had tracking down a pony really been that much more of a dangerous job? Was it the fact that it would’ve needed three griffons? Maybe after Grit had gone to bed I could ask. Or would she brush the whole thing off as more ‘Talon bullshit’? I glanced up at her, to catch both her and Grit staring at me curiously.

Flicking one ear, I cleared my throat and refocused on the conversation at hoof: Grit’s idea to meet ponies from Sugarland at a neutral location. “That might work,” I began, “but where will we meet them? And how will we get them back here? Even if the negotiations go well, we’d all have to cross the Bridle river.” I glanced over at Grit, cutting him off before he could bring up the subject. “And the tunnels under the river won’t work. Not if we want them to make it here without radiation poisoning.”

Grit winced briefly, and paced a couple steps. “Well, couldn’t we jus’ clear th’ wreckage in th’ main tunnel?”

I let out a slow breath. It might be possible, but it was yet more manual labor, and with very little in the way of tools to cut metal.

“What’s blockin’ the tunnel?” Kyra piped in.

“Wrecked wagons, mostly,” I answered. “They must have been down there when the bombs went off, and got smashed together. It’s completely barricaded the tunnel.”

She ruffled her wings in place. “Don’t sound so bad to me, but you’ve seen it.”

Grit made a low grunting noise, scrunching his muzzle up slightly as Kyra and I turned our attention to him. “Well… what ‘bout that heat spell you’ve got, Alloy?”

I stepped back, giving Grit an incredulous stare. “There’s no way I could cut through all that! I almost passed out just melting a lock.” Admittedly, Grit had only ever seen me use that spell once, but still, he had to know it was more than I could handle.

“Maybe you wouldn’t have to, though.” Kyra scratched the underside of her beak thoughtfully. Grit and I both stared at her expectantly before she finally continued. “I mean, I ain’t seen how bad it is under there, but if all we need is a path through, we could just weaken it, an’ then use a grenade or somethin’ to make a hole.”

I opened my mouth to protest again, but closed it again shortly after. It wasn’t impossible to suggest, really. At the very least, it’d be worth taking Kyra out to see the damage. But more importantly, “Do you even have grenades?”

“Ehh, I can improvise somethin’ up!” Kyra bounced back cheerfully, flapping her wings once to hop over Grit and I, yawning noisily after she landed.

“Well, we can take y’ out t’ see it t’morrow. Figure out if this might even work.”

I stood up, raising a forehoof in the air in front of me. “We can’t both go. One of us has to stay to keep the Zebras calm.”

Grit gave a low grunt and a stamp of his hoof. “You’re right. So who stays?”

“It has to be you.” I nodded towards him, then glanced at Kyra, half-turned away from us and clearly ready to go to sleep already. “Kyra needs to see the wreckage, and I’ll give it a closer look to see if I really can manage to weaken it with my heat spell.”

He sighed again. “Alrigh’, fine. We’ll keep everyone here ‘s best we can. Not gonna try t’ keep diggin’ while we’re down two for guard duty.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Kyra cut in before I could answer, yawning loudly again. “I’m gonna crash, though. Lemme know if ya change your mind in the mornin’.”

As she started towards our basecamp, I took one step towards her retreating form, about to stop her and ask to talk. Again, the subject of her price threshold was at the forefront of my mind. All this extra work, and she hadn’t once asked for more caps?

But I stopped myself. Maybe it was something personal. I glanced over to Grit, who’d seemed to notice my odd step, but didn’t say anything. “Good night, Grit,” I said, taking a few more steps after Kyra.

“Hang on a sec,” he said, stopping me midstride. “Somethin’s botherin’ you, I can tell.” He trotted up beside me, studying my face in profile. “Wha’s on your mind?”

I looked between him and Kyra, who may have still been close enough to earshot that I didn’t want to risk anything. “It’s probably nothing,” I said. Immediately, I saw the doubt in Grit’s eyes. “I mean,” I lowered my voice to a more private volume. “Isn’t it weird that Kyra’s working for so little now, when she asked for so much in Sugarland?”

Grit bobbed his head to one side. “Maybe a lil’ bit. But I’ve never met any other Talons ‘sides Kyra an’ th’ one that hired you a few weeks back, an’ she didn’ say much.”

“Me neither.” I looked towards Kyra, now vanishing into the ruined home we were camped in, “I want to ask her about it all the same.”

* * * * * * *

Despite what I’d said to Grit, I still had no idea how to even approach the subject. I had to ask casually, didn’t I? But she’d been cagey about it, deflecting whenever her and the Talons came up. Maybe I had to ask her bluntly? Or was I just reading into what wasn’t there?

Luckily, she gave me the perfect opening once we were well on our way to the bridge.

“So I gotta ask,” she said, leaping off a pair of stacked cars, making a quick spin in the air before padding back to ground-level. “How’d you figure on becomin’ a blacksmith?”

I gave a faint smile, glancing down a side-street as we passed before answering. “Hadn’t really planned on it. I wanted to be a trader, like my dad.” I snorted, continuing the story before Kyra could press me on that. “We found an old book once that talked about the basics, or close enough to let me try it out on my own. Got my cutie mark that way, and my dad encouraged me, since it meant more stuff he could sell. Something he could offer that other stores in New Appleloosa couldn’t.” I nickered softly, realized I had brought the topic back to my father again.

Kyra bobbed her head to the side once. “How come you left?”’

“Had an argument, went sour. Left afterward.” There. Brief and explanatory. I let out a short breath before asking, “How about you? Why’d you join the Talons?” Hopefully that’d stop her from prying into my past, and get her to answer questions about her own.

She waved a claw dismissively. “I was more born into it. My parents were Talons, so everyone just expected me to be one. Went with the flow, y’know?” She diverted her path to walk along a toppled streetlamp. “New Appleloosa’s a pretty safe place. Just left like that?”

My tail flicked at the air behind me. I knew I was trying to pick at her scabs, just like she was picking at mine. I had to keep things short, though. “It was a bad fight. And Railright would’ve taken my dad’s side.” I glanced over at her. “Mayor, of sorts. Doesn’t like to rock the boat.” I paused again, for longer this time. Gave her a reasonable opportunity to ask something else before I responded, “So… you didn’t want to be a Talon?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Her wings ruffled at her side. “I just never really thought about doing anything else, if that makes sense. Not like I don’t enjoy the fightin’,” She grinned at me, patting her shotgun for emphasis, “But it’s just been easier t’ go with the flow.”

“What would you do otherwise?” My question came blurted out, spurred by genuine curiosity now.

“What, if I couldn’t be a Talon?” I nodded, and she scratched under her beak idly, hovering alongside me now. “Never really thought about it. I guess… run a bar or somethin’? Maybe some gamblin’?” She flashed a wide smile. “Yeah, that sounds pretty damn good, to be honest. Get t’ have fun, rake in the caps, and bust up people that can’t pay.”

My eyes went a little wide at first, and I was about to press her on the idea, ask where she would even get supplies. She’d need drinks, food, and a supplier to replenish them quickly, just for starters--but I cut myself off before I could ask. It had been a hypothetical question, and she’d answered honestly. At least as honestly as I could tell. “Could you ever save up caps and leave?”

She hopped onto a pair of stacked cars and peered into the distance, craning her neck. Apparently satisfied, she leapt back down to ground level before answering. “Maybe. Don’t see why I couldn’t, but I never asked either.”

For a long stretch after, the air was filled only with the sounds of our steps on the cracked concrete.

The moment was slipping. “Kyra,” I began, stalling slightly while I composed my next sentence carefully. “Why did you want so much more money when we first met in Sugarland, compared to what you’re asking now?” I glanced over to see her cocking an eye at me suspiciously. I tried to cover myself. “Just curious, one businessmare to another.”

Looking towards and the small, beached boat that lay on the street ahead of us, she ruffled her wings again, but didn’t answer immediately. “Y’all just got lucky, really. Second time we met, situation was different back at HQ.” Before I could ask anything further, she held up a single talon. “Got trouble ahead. Find cover, I’ll deal with it.”

Nodding, I ducked behind one of the rusted-out skywagons, while Kyra drew her shotgun and charged at the husk of a boat. A quartet of ghouls galloped around its side and flung themselves at the griffon. Her shotgun roared, and a grin spread across her face.

Watching her fight with such a casual demeanor, I could believe that her prices were dictated more by her superiors than by herself, but at the same time, I couldn’t shake the insistent detail that she had explicitly sought me out for work. Talons never came looking for work. She’d said the situation had changed at HQ, but what did that mean? Were the Talons running out of cash? Or did some of the leadership die and the new bosses just wanted to charge less, and get more work done? And on top of all that, why had another Talon come looking for Kyra? It still didn’t sit right with me, and as Kyra killed the last of the ghouls, I started to formulate some follow-up questions, while the subject was still fresh on both our minds.

But before I could open my mouth to speak, she cut me off, holding her shotgun out for my inspection. “Hey, this look off to you?” she asked.

The sudden derailment caught me off guard. “Your gun?” Hesitantly, I lifted it in a field of magic, ejecting the magazine and emptying the chamber before examining the weapon more closely. “Off how?”

Too late I realized my mistake. Kyra immediately launched into a detailed list of minor issues she’d noticed over the last few days of using her gun, prompting me to check the various parts, all while trying to propose more ways I could customize it for her (“Wouldn’t be too hard to just make the barrel bigger, right?”).

And with her rambling, any hope of trying to satisfy the nagging questions in the back of my mind was lost.

* * * * * * *

After a few hours of walking, we finally arrived at the tunnel that crossed under the Bridle River. A thick fog clung to the trees that dominated the west side of the river, but the surface of the water itself was visible all the way to the far bank. Further to the south, the remains of the bridge that once crossed the waterway stood, towering concrete pillars with broken remnants of road still clinging to some of them like cobwebs. The whole shoreline stank of algae and dead fish, with the polluted current rushing out to sea. Occasionally, the surface was broken by a quick splash, something flailing in the river before diving back down into the dark water.

“The blockage is down in the tunnel itself,” I explained as we walked down the road, weaving between overturned wagons. Kyra shot a glance upward as we entered the tunnel, and the stench of mildew quickly became overwhelming.

After just a few minutes, we ran into the dead end Grit and I had encountered on our last journey. Just as before, a twisted mass of wagons, trucks, and other unidentifiable vehicles were smashed together into a wall of misshapen metal. I took a slow breath, focusing on the tip of my horn and producing a light bright enough to see most of the width of the tunnel. Then I looked over at Kyra expectantly.

She had started at the rightmost wall, carefully examining the wreckage, slowly pacing its length and running a single talon over the intertwined metal frames. As she moved, all I could do was watch, glancing between her and the barricade ;with a mixture of fascination and amazement. I’d never seen her so focused on something before. She waved her other talon at me rapidly, urging me closer. I trotted over, bringing the light closer to the spot on the wall she was examining, and as I did so, I realized she was quietly muttering something under her breath. I strained my ears a moment before picking out the tone.

The lyrical tone.

She was singing to herself.

I rolled my eyes slightly, but I couldn’t fault her for it. Evidently dissatisfied, she moved on from that spot and continued her slow pace of the wall, with me following alongside her.

After a few more tense minutes of searching, Kyra let out a sharply loud, “Got it!” The noise was so sudden I jumped, nearly staggering backward over a tire.

Quickly, I recovered myself and returned to her side. “You found a weak spot?”

She flashed a grin at me, waving me over to the spot she was standing at, somewhere near the top of the huge mound of wagons. I was able to carefully pick my way up to where she was, joining her in front of the spot she’d indicated. “See these beams here?” I nodded. There were about half a dozen intersecting metal bars that didn’t seem to have anything behind them on the other side. “Pop those out here, here, and here, and we’ve got our hole.”

I blinked in shock, retracing the points she’d indicated, and opened my mouth to object. The hole would’ve been big enough for a filly to walk through comfortably, sure, but a full-grown pony would have to crawl and pull their way through and hope not to cut themselves apart on the wreckage around them. “There has to be a better spot,” I said at last.

Kyra just tilted her head to the side indifferently. “I didn’t see one. Couple other spots we might pop lower down, but what’s left couldn’t hold the weight for long. It’ll be a tight fit, but s’your best shot.” With her judgement rendered, she jumped off the mound of wagons and glided to a safe landing, leaving me to carefully pick my way back down. I didn’t even get halfway down the pile before I heard a pair of wings hovering above me. “Faster this way,” she said with another grin, and then hoisted me up before I could object, her taloned forelegs poking at my armor, but luckily not breaking through, all while I tried my best not to squirm.

Glad to be back on solid ground once more, I took a deep breath, and motioned towards the tunnel exit. “We should get back. Tell the others what we found.” I glanced back at the blocked tunnel. Somewhere along the wall was a hidden door, leading to tunnels that wound below the river, crossing to the far side. A wave of nausea passed over me as I remembered the stink of the wet dirt, and the radiation that had poisoned Grit and I during our time there. I shook off the memory, flicking my ears as a chill ran up my spine.

* * * * * * *

“Well? Find whatcha needed?” Grit had wasted no time in running up to Kyra and I the moment we came into view of the basecamp. Light was already starting to fade from the sky. Behind him, I could see some of the zebras poking their heads out of the house we’d set up in, watching and craning their ears to eavesdrop. Two of them seemed to talk excitedly for a moment before starting to head our way

Kyra answered the question first. “Yeah, think so. Found a few weak spots near the ceilin’. It won’t be an easy climb up and down, but at least there’s no chance the rest of the wreckage’ll collapse back on you after we blow out the hole.

He eyed her warily. “What about the roof of the tunnel?”

“Oh, hell, no way a little grenade’s gonna do anything to that. Roof’s still in fine shape there even if it could.” She waved a talon dismissively at the idea.

I looked between Grit and Kyra, slowly asking the most pressing question on my mind, “How are you going to get grenades, though?”

She flashed us a smirk. “Oh, I had an idea ‘bout that, actually. Thought I might swing by my Talon station up north a ways, the one I was living at before I flew over to Four Shoes. I’m pretty sure I can requisition a couple grenades. Long-term assignment and all, though I’ll need t’ take the written contract with me. It’ll be a piece of cake. I can stop at Sugarland on my way back, an’ still make it back here before dark.”

Slowly, I nodded, adding, “Make sure you tell them it’s me they’re going to meet with, and that we’re working to save a caved-in Stable, and we want to hire guards to help us.”

“Y’sure ‘bout that? Tellin’ ‘em it’s you an’ all, I mean.” I looked over to see Grit staring at me, concern in the lines under his eyes. I suddenly realized he was looking thinner than he had before all this started.

“If they do agree to meet, they’ll come with armed guards, and if they see me when they weren’t expecting me, that might sour things.” Or worse, I thought, before briefly shaking my head. “We should be upfront with this. I have to prove I’m not who Bourbon thinks I am.”

Grit scuffed a hoof at the ground and let out a slow breath. “Alrigh’, makes sense t’ me. Kyra, can y’ leave first thing t’morrow?”

She offered a nonchalant ruffle of her wings. “Sure, won’t be a problem. But if I’m gonna head out early, I think that means it’s time t’ hit the hay.” Without waiting for either of us to respond, she began walking towards the basecamp, waving with one of her claws. “G’night you two!”

With Kyra departing the conversation, I looked towards the two zebras that stood nearby, politely trying to remain out of earshot. “Is there something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.

One of them stepped forward, a stallion, though I didn’t recognize him. He reached into his saddlebags and fished out a hammer with a metal grip, though it was bent at an unusable angle. “We had a hammer we were using to repair some of the buildings, but it broke. Would you mind fixing it for us?”

I wrapped the tool in a soft field of magic, lifting it over to me. Honestly, the damage didn’t seem that bad, though if not properly done, the handle could be made weaker when put back into shape. Looking up at the two of them, I gave a short nod. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Their faces lit up in relief, and the second zebra nudged the one that had spoken. “Thank you!” he blurted out, before hurrying back off, presumably to sleep.

Grit watched them retreat, then glanced around the plaza before stepping closer to me and asking in a low voice, “Y’ find out whatcha wanted from Kyra?”

I flicked my ear at the air. “Not really. She told me the price was different because the situation at her headquarters was different now. But then she flew off to fight some ghouls, and when she came back, all we talked about was her shotgun.”

Grit’s lips tightened, as he looked back towards the basecamp, and Kyra’s distant form. “Well… y’think we can trust her with this?”

I blinked, a little surprised at his blunt question. “We don’t really have any other options,” I said hesitantly. “But I do think she’ll honor her contract at least.”

He met my eyes for a long moment, then nodded. “Alrigh’, I trust you. I’m gonna turn in, too. ‘Night, Alloy.”

“G’night, Grit.”

He and I both knew I hadn’t actually answered his question.

* * * * * * *

Three days later, waking up at first light, I rolled over on the floormat set aside for me and grabbed my sales journal in a faint green glow of magic, flipping to the back pages. I’d begun filling the end of my journal with rough sketches. Drawings of designs I wanted to make once I was finally back at my forge, for good this time. A lump formed in my throat, and an emptiness in my gut that hunger couldn’t explain on its own. Soon. I finished drawing the design, a short dagger with an engraved mouthguard, and put the journal back into my bags. Once we get the Stable excavated. Won’t be long, now.

Kyra had come back as promised, with good news. She sported a new bandolier with half a dozen grenades hanging off it, strutting around as though she had bought a fancy new dress. According to her, the meeting with Sugarland had gone well, too. She’d been upfront with everything, like I’d asked, but skimmed over the details of the meeting with Bourbon. Still, apparently he had calmed down enough to meet with us on the far banks of the Bridle River. That only left the matter of actually crossing the river, and, more importantly, figuring out what I would say.

The spritebot would have to come. I had no idea what to even offer the ponies of Sugarland besides a few pre-war trinkets, or maybe the use of their library, but neither of those sat well with me. What if the Stable shared some of their crops? I let that idea stew in my mind for a moment, before nodding. That was a sound plan. I’d ask Studio about it on the way, but that made sense. Most of the ponies of Sugarland would jump at the chance to have some real fruits and vegetables, assuming they still valued luxury items in the way they had the last time I visited.

I climbed up out of bed and went outside to find Grit already awake and waiting, with the spritebot. He dropped a bag of something orange into his packs as I walked out. RadAway, maybe? Better safe than sorry, I guess. Hearing me exit, he turned around and flashed me a confident grin. “Ready for th’ big day?”

“Yeah. I have an idea of what to offer Sugarland for their help.” I nodded towards the waiting robot. “Is Studio there?”

The spritebot’s radio crackled and the deeper voice of Spark came through. “Naw, just me. I’ll go get ‘er.”

A few minutes passed in silence between Grit and I, staring into the thick fog. Nervously, I looked down to check my sword and pistol. The spritebot’s speaker let out a squeal of static, and then Studio’s voice came through. “Yes? Spark said you needed to speak with me, but I can’t stay here long.”

I turned back to the ‘bot and nodded. “I’ll be brief. Has Grit informed you of our need to hire additional guards for the dig?”

“He has, yes.”

“Good.” I spoke quickly and confidently, trying not to spend more time than was needed. “I believe we’ve found a group we can hire, but I’ll need something to offer them. These ponies favor pre-war luxuries, so I thought a share of fresh crops from the Stable might keep them happy.”

There was a long pause before Studio’s reply came back. “Our Stable may be underpopulated, but we can’t afford to give away too much. Maybe 10% of the crop at most.”

I glanced over to Grit. “Is that a lot?”

He cocked his head to one side a moment, considering. “Well, I didn’ really work ‘n th’ orchards, but I’d say that’d be a hefty crop for Sugarland.”

“Alright.” I turned back to the spritebot. “I can work with that. Thank you, Overmare.”

“Of course, Alloy. Grit. You two take care now.” With that, the radio clicked off again, but my mind was already spinning. With that much leeway, I’d start low. Offer them five percent at most, and negotiate up from there.

My head was still filled with numbers as Kyra flew over, followed closely by Star, Ginger Snap, and two of the zebras. One of them I didn’t know, but the other was the zebra that had vocalized their demands for extra protection in the first place - Selkan. Grit spoke up first as the seven of us, plus robot, formed a loose circle. “Alrigh’, listen, you two gotta be th’ ones t’ hold down th’ fort while we’re gone,” He nodded towards the other Stable ponies. “Should only be a few hours, an’ we’ll send Kyra back once th’ negotiatin’s done. I know ‘sa bit of a risk, but y’all wanted extra protection, so this’s how we gotta do things.”

Selkan scowled briefly, but nodded. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of all the different splits, either, but it was the only way that we could manage things without sending the zebras home or having me travel alone to the meeting site. We didn’t have time for the former anymore, and nobody had raised a voice to my insistence on having someone with me.

“We will stay inside until your return,” the second zebra chimed in, earning her a glance from Selkan.

“Well, we should get moving then,” I said. “Kyra, how fast can you fly across the river?”

She scoffed, waving one claw dismissively. “Ah, hell, flyin’ over takes no time at all.”

I nodded, turning back to the zebras, Ginger Snap, and Star. “She’ll probably be back sometime in the afternoon. Definitely before nightfall. Grit and I should get back closer to dusk.”

“Okay,” Star answered, an impressive confidence filling her voice. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this under control.”

* * * * * * *

The walk to the tunnel was thankfully uneventful, and we were only slightly delayed by the a group of bloodsprites bursting out of a ruined deli and charging at us. All half-dozen or so were cut down by Grit and Kyra before I could even aim a steady shot for myself.

Picking our way through the traffic tunnel, Grit and I lit our horns as the natural light vanished behind us, the blockage just a short distance ahead. I ate a stringy mouthful of of Flam, passing the can around for Grit and Kyra, though the latter eyed the canned hay suspiciously.

After she’d taken a begrudging bite of food, Kyra flew up to the corner in the upper-left of the blockage. “It’s up here!” she shouted, waving a claw for us to climb the twisted wreckage. Or at least, for me to. There wasn’t enough room for all three of us up there, and it was time to do my part.

“Hit this spot right here, here, and here,” she said, pointing with one talon to each of the three weakened points of metal. Bracing myself, I took a deep breath and lowered my head, nearly touching the tip of my horn to the first point and concentrating. After a few minutes, I could feel the heat washing over the top of my head, emanating from the glowing-hot metal bar. “That should do it,” Kyra said, and I released the spell, stepping away and catching my breath. After only one of these, I already felt like I’d galloped for miles.

After the third, my head was as light as a balloon, and I had trouble standing in one place, wobbling even though I stood on all fours firmly. Or I thought firmly.

“Woah, woah, easy there!” Kyra’s voice cut through the somewhat-familiar dizziness, and I felt a pair of claws grab me. They were sharp, and poked my gut even through the haze that clung to my mind. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the concrete floor of the tunnel next to Grit. I hadn’t fallen, though. Had Kyra carried me down? That made sense.

A canteen floated up in front of my muzzle, held aloft by a cushion of blue magic, and I gratefully drank a few gulps of the sour-tasting water. After a few breaths, I felt my mind stabilize, though I was still gasping for air. “I don’t mean t’ rush ya, but we gotta get t’ cover so Kyra can blow the hole open. Gotta work fast.”

Right. The grenades. I nodded, rasping out, “I’m fine. Where should we hide?”

Grit eyed me somewhat suspiciously, but led me over to a mostly-intact cargo wagon, where the two of us laid down. I tried to shut out the vision of a muscular pony looming over me. Chains dangling.

I clenched my jaw and took another deep breath.

“Fire in the hole!” Kyra shouted, and she dashed into the cargo wagon only a second later, flying faster than I’d ever seen her move before. I clamped my fetlocks over my ears, and a moment later, there was a thunderous BOOM! accompanied by a crash of noise, metal clanking on metal, shrapnel ricocheting off bits of other wagons. A few pieces bounced and scraped off the wagon we were hiding in, but nothing pierced through.

My ears were ringing, a high-pitched squeal that muffled nearly all other sounds. Once things had settled down, though my hearing was still muffled, Kyra flew out again, presumably to check her handiwork. “Well, it ain’t pretty,” she called back, barely audible to me, “but we’ll fit through just fine!”

Standing up uncertainly, I found my balance and managed to walk out of the cargo container with a steady gait, Grit following just behind me. Sure enough, in the dim green and blue light of our magic, there was a pony-sized hole in the blockage, just big enough for us to crawl through. Some of the pieces looked a little sharp, but for now we could just step carefully through. If we used the path later, I might be able to use some tools to blunt the edges.

Once the three of us had squeezed through, Kyra proclaimed, “I’ll fly on ahead, meet up with the Sugarland ponies. Might be better if they see me first, y’know?”

I nodded, and with that, Kyra dashed through the air, flying towards the west exit of the tunnel.

After she’d been gone some time, Grit turned to me. “Y’need a moment t’ rest? Probably ain’t gonna be easy t’ talk t’ Bourbon again.”

“I’m fine.” He narrowed his eyes at me questioningly. “No, really, I am. A little tired, but I’ll be over it by the time we get to the far side. I’ve prepared for this as best as I can. Just have to stick to my guns.”

If only I was as confident as I sounded.

* * * * * * *

As Grit and I emerged from the traffic tunnel, spritebot in tow, I was struck once again by the overwhelming size of the trees that formed a boundary of wilderness less than a city’s block away from the shoreline. I was still weary and light-headed from the use of my spell, and was about to open my mouth to ask for us to sit down a moment when a trio of ponies emerged from under the cagelike roots of one of the trees, with Kyra dropping down from above, gliding to a soft landing.

“What took y’all so long?” she said as she landed, grinning before pointing to the rust-colored earth pony leading the trio. “This here’s Captain Tangerine. Cap’, told ya they’d be here soon. The blue one’s Alloy Shaper, the grinning dope is Grit, and on the other end of the spritebot is Overmare Studio.”

My eyes went wide. “What about Bourbon?” I hissed, turning away from the trio of guards. Even if he had tossed us out, we needed to talk to him directly to make any kind of deal.

Kyra recoiled a little, arching her brow. “Bourbon? No, no, you don’t wanna talk to him. You need guards, you gotta talk to Tangerine.” She nodded towards the trio.

Clearing my throat, I turned back towards them and took a slow breath. All three were in simple, padded armors that were stained with a green and brown mixture. But Tangerine stood a full head taller than the others, his bulky frame looming over all of us. A scar ran from just above his left forehoof, painting a line up his leg until it disappeared under his armor. A bulky rifle sat in his battle saddle, but he just impassively watched. Waiting for me to speak. “I apologize, you three were just not who I had been expecting. I thought I’d be meeting with Bourbon.”

Tangerine snorted, and the grey-coated unicorn behind him rolled her eyes. “It’s us who’d be taking on this job,” he answered, his voice like a growl. “So it’s us you’ll talk to. And I remember who you are, Alloy. Don’t care what Bourbon thinks of you, but don’t try anything stupid with us.”

I shook my head. “No, Bourbon got the wrong idea. I’m not-”

“I. Don’t. Care.” The towering guard captain just stared at me blankly. “Kyra told us you’d want to hire us for some guard detail, and you’d make it worth our while.”

My eyes darted over to Kyra, but I supposed she had to entice them to come out somehow. “On the east side of the river, a group of zebras and us are trying to dig out a Stable. A bomb blew up the building above it, so we’re trying to free them.” I paused here, glancing at the other two guards for a moment, allowing them the chance for a question that I expected might come.

Sure enough, Tangerine obliged. “Who set off the bomb? Someone in the Stable?”

For the briefest moment, I considered concealing the truth, but it made too little sense to lie. Someone like him must know who would be the likely culprit, and all of the Zebras already knew, as well. “Malice. She wanted workers from the Stable, but Studio closed the door instead.” I kept the explanation succinct, hoping it would keep the guard captain in a good mood.

He gave a short grunt, then asked pointedly, “Has she come back since? That what you need us to guard against?”

Shaking my head, I relaxed slightly. He hadn’t shown any of the hesitation Nikale had on hearing Malice was involved. “No, she hasn’t been back in the two weeks since the dig started. However we’re under constant attack from the wildlife of the Bayou, and nobody wants to continue without extra protection.” I paused again, but no one else spoke up. “In exchange for your help, Overmare Studio would ensure Sugarland receives five percent of Stable 15’s crop of fruits and vegetables grown in their controlled climate.”

Tangerine’s expression was unchanged, and I braced myself for him to demand more. I had to start low, of course, but I hadn’t expected the guards to be quite as irritated as they seemed now. “We don’t want your crops. We all got family in Sugarland, and you’re asking me to thin my patrols, to make my home more vulnerable.” He snorted, glancing at Grit, then the spritebot, then back at me. “Five PipBucks. That’s what it’ll cost you.”

I managed to keep my expression mostly even, my eyes widening slightly, but Grit couldn’t contain himself. “Y’want what?!”

The guard captain slowly turned his head and locked eyes with Grit, boring into him with a stern glare. “Kid, you’ve got what, a hundred ponies down there? Two hundred?”

Grit shifted on his hooves. “Not really sure, but ‘s north o’ hundred or so.” I could see where Tangerine was going with this, but I didn’t want to interrupt him and sour his mood even further.

“Right. And how many of those ponies are trained to handle weapons?”

Grit paused. “Maybe ten.”

“So keep up with me on the math here, but that sounds like you got a lot of those PipBucks that’d be better off in somepony else’s hooves.” Tangerine’s stare had, if anything, gotten harsher as he spoke. “Five PipBucks, and a key to open them.”

Hiding a cringe, I stepped in. “Give us just a moment to speak with the Overmare.”

Tangerine inclined his head, turning towards his two guards while Kyra, Grit, and I stepped up to the spritebot. “Did you hear all that, Studio?” I asked, hesitantly.

“Most of it. Alloy, we can’t give him PipBucks. Ours have the standard combat spells, certainly, but they’re the only way that our ponies will survive in the Wasteland, let alone giving him the key.” She lowered her voice, even though it was already a soft whisper. “What would stop him from just taking more later?”

I glanced back at Tangerine. I didn’t necessarily trust him, but his priority was focused on protecting Sugarland at least. “They do need a way to remove the PipBucks if someone dies,” I mused, half to myself. “We can offer them support for the PipBucks. Let Tangerine bring them to you if they need to be repaired or removed.”

Grit glanced over at me, keeping his voice low to match the rest of us. “These things don’t break easy, Alloy. I dunno if that’ll be enough for ‘em.”

“Well, we can’t trust them with the key,” Studio’s voice insisted. “Go ahead, Alloy.”

Nodding to the three of them, I turned back to Tangerine and took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, we can’t give out the key to the PipBucks. But Studio has agreed to let you bring them to Stable 15 whenever they need service or removal. We’ve made a passage through the traffic tunnel, so it should only be a day’s trot to Stable 15 from Sugarland.”

Tangerine barked out a laugh. “Sure, sure, and what happens if somepony dies on duty? Am I s’posed to drag his body all the way across the river? Or do you just want me to hack off a leg and bring that?”

I felt my blood start to run cold. Tangerine had excellent points, and I couldn’t deny that the support offered was a token gesture at best. “They could meet you halfway,” I offered weakly. “All the same, Overmare Studio won’t part with a key to their PipBucks.”

The bulky earth pony grunted. “Then I’ll need more of them. At least ten, to compensate for the fact that some might be lost in the field.”

“Ten PipBucks?!” The speaker on the spritebot popped, the audio degrading from the volume of Studio’s reaction. “We can’t do without so many!”

“Well then, looks like you gotta find someone else to guard your dig.” Tangerine waved a hoof in the air, and then turned away, barking orders at the trees, “Alright, pack it in! Mist Light, you’re on point.” And without another word to us, he and the two ponies beside him started to walk back into the Bayou.

“Captain, w-” I called after him, unable to stop myself in time. Immediately, I felt my gut clench. I wanted to slam my head against the nearest tree for making such a stupid mistake. But the damage was already done. I tried to force a polite smile, and caught the hint of a grin on Tangerine’s muzzle.

He knew he had us.

Saying nothing else to him, I turned to the spritebot, lowering my voice to a whisper again. “Studio, I don’t know where else we’re going to get guards for the Stable. I can’t finance more Talons, and we’re already asking as much as we could get out of Shipper. I don’t see how this gets done without help from Sugarland.”

There was a long, drawn-out silence. Tangerine, at least, stayed where he was and didn’t turn to leave again. But, of course, he didn’t have to. I’d completely destroyed our negotiating position.

Finally, the speaker crackled again, and a resigned-sounding Studio came over the speaker. “Ten PipBucks, then.”

“Thank you,” I said, turning back to Tangerine. “We can meet your price. Ten PipBucks, to be given once Stable 15 is dug out.”

The guard captain grinned, inclining his head towards me. “Pleasure doing business. You’ve been so helpful, I might even put in a good word with Bourbon. Who knows, maybe he won’t wanna crush your skull th’ next time he sees you.” I clenched my jaw tight, but said nothing, scuffing at the ground with one forehoof. “I’ll have two squads head across the tunnel tomorrow. Meet them on the east side in the morning.” And with that, he turned once again and left.

* * * * * * *

None of us spoke to each other until we got back to the traffic tunnel. On reaching the mouth, Grit turned to Kyra. “Hey, can ya fly back t’ base camp with th’ spritebot? I’m worried ‘bout leavin’ Star an’ Ginger Snap alone for so long t’ guard.”

Kyra ruffled her wings, hopping into the air. “Sure thing, boss.” With nothing else said, she took off into the air, and the spritebot paused only a moment before it followed after her, floating along the darkened waters of the Bridle River.

Once they were out of earshot, he turned to me, a guilty look in his eyes. “There’s… somethin’ I wanna see on th’ way back. Might take us a li’l extra time, and it won’t be safe. I’ll understand if y’ don’t wanna help.”

I glanced over him, a mixture of curiosity and suspicion playing through my mind. “What is it?” was all I said. And why could Kyra not be here for it?

My unspoken question was answered almost immediately. “I found somethin’ in one o’ the memory orbs, an’ the files on that terminal a while back, with th’ Caimon. It’s…” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Y’know that tunnel we used t’ get ‘cross th’ River last time?”

I nodded slowly, wary of where the conversation was headed.

“That was… the top level o’ th’ New Oreins changelin’ hive. A secret tunnel tha’ was meant t’ get changelin’s ‘cross th’ River. But down below that is rest o’ th’ hive. I’m headed down there. Today.”

My jaw went slack as I stared, studying his face, and it was a long moment before he met my eyes, but when he did, I could see the determination there. He’d been thinking about this conversation for a while. He packed extra RadAway this morning. I took a breath, a dozen retorts crowding my throat and stopping me from saying anything at all, and after a moment I just closed my mouth again, looking towards the tunnel. I knew what would come next, and an icy chill sank through my veins. He wouldn’t ask me for help, and he might not even protest too much if I told him I couldn’t go with him.

But I would.

It was only then I realized how long we’d been standing there, utterly silent. I glanced up at him, and both of us spoke at once.

“Alloy, y’don-”

“I’m coming with you.”

Now it was his turn to recoil in surprise. I nodded at him, starting to walk towards the tunnel. “This is your last chance to go down there for a while, and so you’re going with or without me. It’s ultimately safer this way for everyone, and if you disappear, who knows what’ll happen with the Stable.” Grit’s shock faded slightly, and he nodded. I gave him a thin smile, satisfied I’d followed his train of thought correctly. “And you’re my friend.”

He just blinked a moment, then burst out laughing. I suddenly felt my face burn hot, regretting my addendum immediately. “What?” I demanded, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothin’, nothin’! Just weird t’ hear that outta ya, ‘s all.” A wide grin was plastered across his face, and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as we started walking into the mouth of the tunnel. “Thanks, Alloy.”

* * * * * * *

Once we’d crawled through the gap near the top of the blockade, Grit quickly found the door he’d opened all those weeks ago in our first trip through. As before, his hoof seemed to pass through a portion of the wall that seemed exactly like the wall around it, and a thick section of the tunnel wall separated and slid away, grinding against the concrete floor. I stepped up to the wall myself as Grit drew his pistols and walked through, touching my hoof against the wall where I could swear his hoof had been. The material was smoother, and whatever it was made the hairs on my leg stand on end, but I couldn’t push through. “What is this?” I asked him, before turning and following him through the doorway.

“Dunno, th’ orb didn’ tell me anythin’ ‘bout it.” He glanced over his shoulder, the door grinding shut once again.

I studied the wall in the dim light casting off the tips of our horns, looking for the way to open the door again, though I didn’t have to search long. The door itself was clearly visible from this side of the wall, metal framework and heavy machinery set into the surrounding rock, with a sturdy-looking switch beside the frame.

Satisfied, I followed Grit down the tunnels leading away from the door, turning right at the first split, away from the path we’d taken before. My revolver floated in a haze of magic before me, barrel aimed downward for now. The tunnels still reeked of rotten eggs, and I could hear Grit’s PipBuck clicking every now and then, though not as consistently as it had the last time we were down here, thankfully.

After only a short walk, the tunnel opened up into a wide chamber dominated by the last sight I thought I’d see - an elevator shaft. I paused, but Grit didn’t break his stride walking towards it, so I followed him down to the platform, studying the machinery. It… looked sturdy enough, not as rusted as I’d have expected, but I still felt my guts tighten at the thought of riding it. “Is that the only way down?”

Grit paused, looking over the gears and pulley system to glance back at me with a grimace. “ ‘Fraid so. It ain’t too deep, but s’the only way into th’ hive.”

The depth of the elevator itself wasn’t what worried me. If the elevator collapsed, we’d be completely trapped down there. I met his eyes and saw the determination there, and stepped into the cart, clenching my jaw as the ancient metal groaned under my weight.

A moment later, Grit boarded as well, accompanied by his own chorus of creaks and groans, and he tapped the switch to take us down.

The elevator renewed its cacophonous protest as it descended slowly into the tunnels, the noise making me wince and squeeze my eyes shut. For some insane reason, the floor was a metal grate that you could see right through, into the dizzying void below, so I just resolved to close my eyes. That didn’t work. Every single lurch or stutter of the elevator’s mechanisms was magnified until I was even more certain it would collapse below us.

So I opened my eyes. I kept them locked on a fixed point. The railings around us that framed the shaft itself. Just watched them scroll by lazily, focused on the differently-textured blotches and rust stains, drowning out everything else until I finally felt the elevator lurch to a stop.

It jarred us so suddenly that I nearly fell to the floor, but Grit didn’t seem to notice, though I caught him jumping to steady himself, too. He wrapped the gate that held us prisoner in that elevator and slid it to one side, stepping out into the tunnel beyond, though his PipBuck began a steady, worrying clicking.

The rock walls here seemed far more stable, though the entire tunnel stank of rotting eggs and… something else I couldn’t place but made my stomach clench, nearly costing me my meager lunch. Wiping a streak of spit off my muzzle with my fetlock, I followed Grit around the corner, where the tunnel suddenly opened up.

Then I immediately vomited onto the cave floor.

The utterly grotesque scene before me was like nothing I’d ever seen before, illuminated by the faint, flickering lights left on the floor. The walls and ceiling of the massive cavern chamber were lined with hardened green sacs, each big enough for a pony. At least half of them were shattered open, the contents dumped onto the floor, either dropping from the ceiling or slumping out, half-emerged. The sheer force of the stench slammed against my muzzle like a sledgehammer, a pungent, muggy cocktail of rotten meat and fungus that grew near the water, laced with an acidic sting that made my eyes water up. Rotten bodies of ponies lay scattered across the ground, bodies broken and rotting where they lay, pools of hardened mucus or slime spread around them. Some of the giant egg-like sacs were intact, partially translucent so that the inhabitants were visible, all preserved somewhat-better than the bodies covering the floor, but only slightly. None moved, and all that was left of them was an emaciated husk lying on the bottom of their eggs.

Grit seemed as troubled by all this as I was, but before either of us could say a word, a familiar raspy snarl came from the other side of the cave. Our attention and guns snapped up in time to see four rotted forms shamble around the corner. At first glance, I thought they were a group of unicorn ghouls, but then I saw the twisted, half-chewed appearance of their horns, the holes that ran straight through their bodies and legs seemingly at random, and the bizarre insect-like wings that sprouted from their backs. Goddesses, what-

They spotted us in the same moment, and as I was about to shoot the disfigured ghouls, their horns glowed in unison, and a shimmering green ring swept across their bodies.

I knew that magic.

It was the same magic Grit had used to transform.

Once the wave of magic had passed over the ghouls, we were left staring at half-transformed rotted corpses of us. Two of them had transformed into an imitation of Grit, while the others had attempted to transform into me, though none of them could complete the transformation. Their fur was matted and clung to their rotten flesh, as though it were a suit of skin made out of our own hides, and it flickered back and forth between their true forms and their attempted transformations. Blackened holes ringed by glowing green magic would spread at random, then close again, only to reappear elsewhere. All the while, their eyes were solid green, baleful and fixated on us.

They charged.

Grit took the first shots, his shot dropping one ghoul to the cave floor and missing the second. I squeezed the trigger on my revolver. Once, twice, three times. A leg exploded out from under the galloping form of one of the ghouls that was imitating me. Its face--my face--smashed to the ground. I clenched my jaw and tried to shoot the second. I missed, missed, missed! It was charging straight for me. I heard Grit’s guns firing again. I drew my sword, jumping to one side. My hooves hit a pile of the mucus, and slipped out from under me.

Suddenly a set of snapping jaws filled my vision, my forelegs pressed against the ghoul, holding it back long enough for my sword to swing around. It sliced into the skull, piercing it through under the jaw, and then it fell limp.

Heaving, I shoved the corpse off of me and tried to ignore the slimy substance that coated my back and flank. With an effort, I yanked my sword out of the skull of the ghoul, its body having reverted to its original appearance. My breathing was heavy, lungs burning as gulped down stale, disgusting air. Didn’t matter. I wiped my sword off a few times on my armor before sliding it back into its sheath. Grit had finished off the ghoul that I had tripped, and was watching the tunnel they’d come from carefully. Once my revolver was reloaded, I did the same, staring at the entrance until we were sure no more were coming.

Cautiously, fighting back the wave of nausea, I stepped towards the corpses of the ghouls. They were a sight unlike anything I’d ever seen up close before, black chitin covering their emaciated bodies, warped and oozing green pus. What the fuck were they? Grit stepped up next to me, a visible shudder passing through his spine. He glanced at the ghouls, but only for a moment before he looked away. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

He winced a little at the question. “Not this ‘n particular.” He took a short breath. “Changelin’ ghouls.”

My eyes went wide, and I looked between the fresh corpses and Grit. Those were changelings? The ghoulification had certainly done monstrous things to their bodies, but I’d seen plenty of ghoul ponies. Radiation could only do so much. Again I looked between the ghouls and Grit.

Did he look like that in his real form?

Grit avoided my gaze for a long while. Eventually he walked past and then gave a half-hearted chuckle. “Told you y’wouldn’t wanna see.”

I bit my lip and stepped around the bodies with him. Had to change the subject. I glanced around at the walls, at the egg sacs and the remains of ponies inside them. No. Not now, anyway. Instead, I focused on the insistent clicking of Grit’s PipBuck. “Sounds like the radiation isn’t bad, but we can’t stay down here long, Grit.”

He took a deep breath, some vitality restored to his voice. “Ah know. Shouldn’t be too hard t’ find.” He started walking towards the other side of the cave, pistols drawn.

Following along and picking my way around the corpses, I asked in a low whisper, “What are we even looking for?”

Grit didn’t answer immediately. I followed his gaze and saw him following the power cables that led out from the egg-filled cavern, until we came to a split in the path, cables running in both directions. “S’posed t’ have some records. Hopin’ t’ find my family history, or somethin’. Anythin’, really.” With that, he turned to the right, following the direction that appeared to be a branch off the tunnel to the left. He stopped to scuff an “X” in the floor next to the direction we came from before moving forward.

I didn’t ask him anything further. Whatever he hoped to find down here, I’d probably see it as soon as he did, and I didn’t want to make any more noise than I had to. We kept our horns lit, even though there were electric lights spaced through the tunnel. Every now and then some of them were out, or others would flicker in a desperate attempt to stave off the darkness.

* * * * * * *

After several minutes, we came to another split. Another changeling ghoul stood there waiting for us, but this one was just staring at the wall, its head swaying. Grit drew his pistols, then took a hesitant step forward. “Hey, uh… y’okay?” It didn’t react. “Hello?”

This time, its head snapped around, and its grotesque nostrils flared, sniffing the air. Finally, it let out a raspy shriek, and Grit squeezed the triggers. Two shots embedded themselves in its skull, and the mangled corpse fell limp. I thought I caught a glimpse of something mournful in Grit’s eyes as he stepped away, and I avoided looking at the body altogether, turning my attention to the fork in the caves.

Ahead, the tunnel went three different ways, but right in front of all three was a metal desk, its appearance almost comical in the carved-out tunnels around us.

But sitting atop the desk, projecting a bright, green glow, was a sturdy, Stable-Tec terminal.

Grit lost his composure, bounding across the room and pushing aside the chair to start accessing the terminal. He checked his PipBuck and punched in a password as I rounded the corner after him, in time to see the terminal’s response.


My eyes wide, I could only watch as Grit scrolled through records, downloading them all onto his PipBuck. “This… this’s great!” I could hear the exhaustion and relief at odds in his voice. “Don’t have time t’ read all this now, but I c’n copy it all real quick.” I was about to ask what the hell he was even copying from this old terminal, when he tapped a button for the next file.

Speakers crackled on from the terminal, and a pair of voices, centuries dead, filtered through.

“-firm entry of….able 15! Can y…” The first voice sounded distant, marred by static.

“I have no idea! I think Moon Dust got into 36, but I only know what you guys can tell me! Now get the fuck down here! Over!” The second voice, meanwhile, was much clearer. A haggered-sounding mare shouting back at the first speaker

“...ough! Ha… r nothing! Over.”

Fucking radio,” the mare hissed. “Repeat last, repeat last, over!”

There was a long pause, of nothing but static from the other line.

“Dew Drop! Come in!”

“...’m here. Sand, I th… 15 sealed, but… ound 36. Can’t come down yet. Have to…”

“There’s nothing you can do, just get down here, please!”

“...ta try.” There was a long, silent pause that didn’t seem to be caused by the radio interference at the time. “Goodbye, Sandy. Love you.”

“Dew? What the fuck are you doing?! Dew Dr-”

A sharp, burst of a squealing noise cut off the recording, and both Grit and I were left staring at the terminal. After a long, silent moment, I looked down under the desk, to the shape that just now caught my eye. There was a dried-out, grey husk, vaguely in the shape of a pony, curled up underneath. It had the same holes pockmarking its legs, the same gnarled horn, and skeletal frameworks of the same iridescent wings as the ghouls.

And sitting between its forelegs was a small radio transmitter, still connected to the desk above.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Footnote: N/A

Alloy Shaper’s Smithy
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