Fallout Equestria: Reformation

by Hardcover

First published

A direct sequel to the original, following a young alicorn through the wasteland of Equestria as he and his friends are led down the path to rebuilding their home. But can Equestria ever recover?

Ebonmane was born an alicorn. Other than that, his youth in Junction Town wasn't terribly remarkable, except for his deep admiration of the hero, Littlepip and the other heroes that he is surrounded by.

When he becomes a town watchpony, it's business as usual until a series of events puts him on the path to hunt down a kingpin of the Wasteland's sex trade industry. But diving into the dark heart of the Wasteland reveals a mote of light; a chance to rebuild the Equestria to its former glory.

No one is certain that Equestria can be saved. But Ebonmane believes in Littlepip's light, and what she stood for. Whether those beliefs are true virtues or foalish dreams remains to be seen, but if Ebonmane wants to succeed, he'll be forced to hold true to his convictions or discover just how dark reality can be.

Intended to be a direct sequel to K-Kat's original masterpiece. Cover art done by my lovely fiancee.

Prologue: Extraordinary

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I cannot explain to you with perfect accuracy the experience of childbirth unless you have seen it for yourself; unless you have a foal. While the mares in my life say that I still don’t understand the experience, being a stallion and unable to give birth, I quietly believe that they are wrong.

The birth of a foal is something that, statistically speaking, is relatively common. With enough research, we could tell how many foals are born every day. However, for the parents, it is something so staggering that even the father, who is not entirely necessary in the whole business, does well to listen to the breathing lessons given to his wife during the pregnancy.

After the year or so before the big day, or longer, if the couple plans their child, anxiety grips the imaginations of the would-be parents. Fears of birth defects, problems during birth, twins, triplets, even outlandish and uncommon fears like hermaphrodism or conjoinedness toss and turn in the expectant minds. This, of course, accompanies what are considered “normal” fears, whether the foal will be a colt or a filly (and the associated prayers for one or the other), what the foal’s talents will be, and of course, countless scenarios involving the foal’s growth, from lessons on bullies to dealing with the foal’s first date, first kiss, first time, etc.

All of these fears well up inside the parents, and just as powerful are the hopes and dreams for the happiness of the foal, along with the incredible, overwhelming power of love for one’s spouse, should the couple be exclusively together, otherwise further fear ensues at the prospect of facing the future more or less alone. All this good, all this bad, and all the more in between, comes to a head once the foal comes, and there is not a damn thing Celestia or Luna or even the demons of hell can do about it once it’s time.

This is why birth is called a miracle. It is a test like none other. The future is laid bare, a yawning abyss of possibility, and what seems like a narrow road to traverse it safely.

But as I stated earlier, objectively, birth is not inherently special. However, exceptions do exist.

I tell you this because this context is important for understanding the circumstance of my birth. Was it extraordinary? In some ways, yes. In others, no. There were many other foals like me out in the world, but my parents were normal ponies, and as such I was out of place. Some of the more superstitious took my birth to be a sign and others had been so disenchanted with the notions of the supernatural that they believed I was simply another quirk of genetics, a fortunate birth defect.

Try as they might, however, no one could quite explain how I came to be. But, in keeping with the proceedings of birth, I was what I was, and that was that.

In that sense, my birth was quite normal. I was a healthy colt, a little early, and I grew normally. But my life was forever marked by my birth, and in that sense, it was extraordinary.

After all, it’s not every day an alicorn is born.

Chapter 1: Firsts

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“You wouldn’t want to do anything to ruin Twilight’s first slumber party, would you?”

Every good story contains many first experiences. A character doesn’t learn anything unless they try new things and see the world in a different way. In keeping with this, my story truly begins with my first kill.

But I can’t simply start there. You need to know why I killed. And for that, I’ll pick up where I left off.

My parents named me Ebonmane. I suppose they chose an entirely un-extraordinary name for their alicorn son in an attempt to balance me out. Most ponies are named something far more interesting, but I was christened by my black mane. I suppose it contrasted with my white body in a particularly stark fashion, but my mane really isn’t anything special. It’s just my namesake.

I grew up in a stable home. Two parents, a unicorn brother ahead of me and an earth pony brother after me. My mother was a unicorn, my father an earth pony. My brothers and I were the Second Generation, my parents the First, the original Survivors. They had been through the pegasus Enclave’s Friendship City attack while they were engaged and found refuge in Junction Town, where I was raised. They had always been a little wary about the pegasi who came to live in Junction Town after Littlepip cleared the cloud curtain, but in time they grew to trust them.

My mother was quite the historian. I was raised on stories of the past, and adventure. Every foal had a favorite Ministry Mare, I happened to like Twilight Sparkle, but I particularly latched onto stories of her brother, Shining Armor, and his beloved wife, the Princess Cadence. I believe that he resonated with me more than the mares simply because he was a stallion, and from a young age I viewed him as an idealized role model. My head was filled with visions and ideas of bravery and chivalry, and I internalized the code of honor that he stood for. I grew up believing in the absolute power of love, and that someday I would have to fight to defend it.

In a world still tinged with everyday violence, I was not a terribly aggressive colt. I never gave up my beliefs in fighting the good fight, but the figures that I idolized always advocated nonviolence and mercy first, and used violence only as a last resort. This suited me. I was quiet from the day of my birth. As a foal, I knew I had some loud, obnoxious phases, but even then I was shy around strangers. I was a reader, an intellectual, and more honestly a bit of a nerd, and I never found my place among the bulk of colts my age, who were quite physical. It’s worth mentioning that my build had always been very lean, and quite tall, but not terribly strong. If I was built for anything, it was endurance, and I would come to rely on that.

I wasn’t an outcast, however. Despite my differences with other colts, I was likeable enough, and had friends and enemies like anyone else. Only on rare occasions was I ever reminded that being an alicorn made me different from others. Traders would come to town and ask my parents if I was adopted. Teachers would discuss the Princesses, stressing that their status as alicorns was not like the alicorns that were our classmates. When this was said, I could sometimes catch them stealing a glimpse at me.

I received my cutie mark in a rather mundane way. The parents of Junction Town had decided by a wide majority that foals under a certain age should not be allowed to read or listen to The Book of Littlepip due to the extreme graphic violence, instances of rape, and other sexual events that occurred over the course of the story. Once a foal reached the agreed age, however, they were highly encouraged to read it. In a way it was kind of a rite of passage. When I asked about the story, about who Littlepip was, my parents always told me that we owed her our lives, and that she watched over us and could see us wherever we went and hear what we said. Foals were encouraged to talk to her. As revered as she was, when I learned of her, I began to suspect that she might be an even greater hero than Shining Armor. I burned with the desire to read the book, and my older brother, Seacliff, described it as a masterpiece of literature when he got to read it.

I received my cutie mark the moment I closed the back cover, a black bishop chess piece. Reading the book had taken me a long time, and I had been forced to confront evils and question truths that I hardly knew existed. Unlike others, though, who had some inclination of what their cutie marks meant through the event of receiving them, I was left clueless.

Despite my confusion about the black bishop on my flank, I took solace in it. Littlepip hadn’t known what hers meant either.

I received a sword for my last birthday in Junction Town. I was old enough to truly be an adult, so I think my parents found it distasteful that Calamity had made me a weapon that most would consider useless in the age of energy weapons, not to mention a gift that was so reminiscent of my childhood delusions of chivalry.

I was thrilled, though. Simple in design, straight and long, it was created with the care and attention to detail that Calamity put into all of his projects. I think some worried that the gift would evoke delusions of grandeur within me, and that I was certain to strike out into the wasteland and get myself killed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first kill occurred in Junction Town, and the sword Calamity gave me ended the life.

I was looking at moving out of my parents’ house at the time, and Ditzy Doo’s business, “Absolutely Everything,” had grown to encompass enough to be worthy of the title since her time with Littlepip, including some small shacks that were being politely sold as “apartments.” As a young stallion whose cap income wasn’t too stable, it was really all I could afford. But everyone liked Ditzy Doo, and I knew she wouldn’t leave me with a total hole in the ground. She had always been kind to me, and as a foal had often given me free candy when I went to her store with my parents. This had been the beginning of my sweet tooth.

After I received the sword, I had asked Calamity for a position on the town watch. The watch of Junction Town mostly handled minor disturbances and never had to do much, but it paid a little and I had the attitude for helping others. Calamity, for whatever reason, was hesitant to give it to me, so I appealed to Velvet Remedy and she helped me convince him. My brothers and I had always been favorites of her, and I was arguably the most creative of us, and I had grown to see her as an aunt.

This was why I carried my sword with me into “Absolutely Everything” that day. As a watchpony, we all were very lightly armed in case something should happen. Silver Bell, who was a fair bit older than me, but not outside my generation, was working the counter.

“Hey!” she greeted me cheerfully. I must admit that the purple mare was attractive when she smiled, and she smiled quite often. A trait she learned from her adopted mother, Ditzy. “You’re here to see mom?” I told her I was. She must have known about the apartments. “She’s in the kitchen. Just a moment.” I could see Silver Bell trot off through the doorway behind the counter into the living room and disappear into the kitchen.

I waited for more than a moment. I wasn’t given to impatience, and normally I would have waited for much longer without a twinge of complaint. But I had recently been appointed as a watch, and I was very aware of the weight of the sword that was strapped between my folded wings. If it wasn’t for these factors, I would have never been receptive to any hints of danger.

Silver Bell had taken longer than a moment. I had seen her walk into the kitchen and she should have been right out. Was something wrong? If I hadn’t been a watch, I would have stood and waited. But I was a watch, and I felt it was my responsibility to at least check it out.

I strode behind the counter, my ears straining for sound, but I heard no voices. It was well known that Ditzy was mute, but I didn’t even hear the sound of chalk on the chalkboard that the ghoul carried with her around her neck.

My mind raced with worst-case scenarios. Had something been stolen? Had Ditzy disappeared? Had a group of raiders somehow snuck into town, broke into the shop, and were threatening the lives of these two mares?

The truth was worse than anything my mind could have imagined.

Silver Bell was standing at the entrance to the kitchen, and I could see the decrepit ghoul that was Ditzy Doo standing by the sink. Both seemed to be standing perfectly still, Silver Bell tense, worried.

“Mom?” she said in a small, scared voice.

Ditzy Doo turned her head slowly to look at her daughter, the usual smile on her squishy face replaced by a horrible grimace. A sound gurgled from her throat that was definitely unnatural, even for a ghoul.

I wrapped my blue magic field around my sword and drew it on instinct, the steel scraping against the sheath. Maybe it was the sound that agitated her. Maybe she could have been saved if we had both just backed away slowly. But it was clear that the ghoul had lost herself, as all ghouls do eventually. She had become a zombie.

In the instant my sword was free Ditzy pounced. It took one swing, and no thought, for me to remove her head from her shoulders.

Silver Bell screamed, and once Ditzy Doo lay on the kitchen floor, headless and motionless, Silver Bell went to her. “Mom!” she shouted, tears forming in her eyes.

My breathing was heavy and shaky, and I felt numb from head to toe. I had killed Ditzy Doo, the element of laughter. I slowly approached the body, looking over the bent form of Silver Bell, trying to face what I had done.

I saw Ditzy’s chalkboard on the table. It read, “Run, dear. Mommy loves you.”

Still shaken up, I took Silver Bell to see Calamity and Velvet Remedy. As captain of the watch, I was obliged to tell him about what happened, but I knew Velvet could help Silver deal with the loss. And I knew she could help me work through my feelings too.

Velvet took Silver Bell into another room immediately for rest while Calamity asked me about what had happened. Once I had told him everything, the cyborg pegasus simply left. I think he realized that I needed a moment.

I’m not a crier. I don’t say that in a display of machismo, but as a fact. Many times in my life have I felt like crying but the tears wouldn’t come, no matter how real the sorrow was. This was not one of those times. I cried like a foal.

I heard Velvet’s light hoofbeats against the floorboards, the graceful gait of a stage performer, and I tried to pull myself together once she entered.

I looked up at her, and she shook her head in pity. “Oh, Ebonmane. You poor thing.” She sat down on the sofa next to me and wrapped me in a warm, sympathetic embrace. “I don’t think any of us expected that you’d really have to do something like this. You’ve always been so sweet.”

“Was it this bad for you?” I asked her. “When you were with Littlepip?”

The charcoal unicorn drew away from me. I had dug up memories that she had seemingly buried so long ago. “My first one was, yes,” she started. “So I know how you feel. And as much as it hurt, I’m sure you remember when I learned that sometimes it’s necessary to protect others.” I recalled The Book of Littlepip, and remembered the sprees Velvet had gone on with her combat shotgun. It was hard to believe that the aging mare next to me was such a badass, but the gravity of her expression, her memories, made me feel very small.

“Don’t blame yourself,” she told me. “Even Silver Bell says she knew that old Ditzy Doo might lose it at any given moment. We just were all just hoping that it never would come.”

I gave a shuddering breath, attempting to release myself of my emotions. “It’s one thing to kill raiders or slavers,” I said. “But this is Ditzy Doo. Everypony loves her.”

Velvet Remedy turned to me and fixed me in the terribly fiery gaze of her sky blue eyes. “Listen to me. That wasn’t Ditzy. That was a zombie. Ditzy would have never attacked Silver Bell like that. You did the right thing. Do you hear me?”

I turned away before I nodded. Velvet sighed. “I think Silver Bell’s asleep. Do you need a moment? Or do you need me to stick around?”

I’m sure she had a lot to say to her husband, and I had always dealt with my problems in solitude. “I just need to be alone for a bit.” Velvet nodded understandingly and left. All I could do at that moment was lie down on her couch, but I couldn’t sleep. I just replayed what Velvet had said to me. That it wasn’t my fault. That there was nothing I could have done.

After an hour or so, my family showed up at Calamity’s house. I guess word got out quickly about what had happened, especially when I had led a sobbing Silver Bell out of “Absolutely Everything,” and they greeted me with concern. Seacliff had moved to New Appleloosa last year, so it was just my parents and my younger brother, whose name was Stonestar. They asked me if I was alright and what had happened, and I was forced to tell them the entire story all over again, after I had just told Calamity. Velvet went about offering hot beverages or food, giving me looks that said, “Just say the word and I’ll make them leave.” I let my family stay, even though I wasn’t in the mood to talk about it. Velvet could be so understanding.

Everypony stopped what they were doing when Silver Bell walked into the room. It seemed so hard to believe that she had given me such a charming smile when I walked into “Absolutely Everything” this morning. She seemed so worn down. So defeated. But when she closed her eyes, took a breath, and sat down next to me, I could still see flickers of hope. We were all relieved to see she was up and moving, to see that she was okay.

There was a long silence. I don’t know why she chose to reveal herself to my family, or why she sat next to me, and we all sat in puzzlement, not wanting to discuss the tragedy in front of her.

Finally, Calamity broke the silence. “Are ya hungry? Yer welcome to stay fer dinner.” She shook her head. Calamity moved hesitantly to his next offer. “Ah can walk ya home, if ya like.” She shook her head again.

In a soft, gentle voice, she spoke. “I don’t want to go home.”

Velvet answered her. “Where will you live?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” she replied, launching into her plan. “I can’t go back to ‘Absolutely Everything.’ It would just make me think of Mom, and she wouldn’t want that. Even this town…” she took a deep breath. “If I’m going to feel better, I can’t stay here. I was thinking about going to New Appleloosa, and maybe setting up another ‘Absolutely Everything’ like Mom did all that time ago.”

Velvet went to her, putting a hoof on her leg. “Are you sure? Leaving behind all your friends and… New Appleloosa isn’t as safe as Junction Town.”

Silver Bell nodded. “Now that Mom’s gone, I think it’s what she would have wanted. For me to be on my own. To make my own life. It’s… it really is a good time. And plus, Dad said he was in that area, so I can meet up with him and tell him the news. He’d want to hear it from me.” By Dad, she meant Lion Heart. Sweet Celestia, I had almost forgotten about the quiet ghoul stallion. I hoped I wouldn’t have to face him. He had been such a hero alongside Littlepip, and even now he held an aura of respect and reverence from me. If he knew what I had done, I was certain he would never forgive me. But I vowed to ask for his forgiveness one day.

I had to agree with Silver Bell’s decision, though. She was young, pretty… she had so much promise. So much ahead of her. I felt for her plight, and smiled at her courage.

“Ya can’t go alone,” Calamity said. “The road to New Appleloosa ain’t too bad these days, but Ah can take ya.”

“I’ll go,” I piped up. “It’s a couple days’ walk to New Appleloosa, and you shouldn’t have to drop everything for this.”

“What about you?” my mother asked. “You can’t go alone, either.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s like Calamity said, the roads aren’t that dangerous now. It’s just a precaution for her. And besides, I can visit Seacliff and maybe find someplace to live.” I knew that, despite my parents’ worries, the prospect of me getting out of the house and having independence would sell it to them. “I can leave whenever Silver Bell’s ready,” I told them.

“I’d like to go tomorrow,” she said. “We can take tonight to pack.”

It was settled. My parents worried and my little brother who had always been attached to me and Seacliff, was sad to see me go, but Silver Bell needed an escort, and they knew that this would be good for me.

And so my first kill would lead to my first adventure.

Calamity had told me to check in with him before I went to pick up Silver Bell. I knocked and was greeted by Velvet. Calamity waited inside.

Velvet, either by matronly instinct or adventurer’s know-how, gave me quite a run-down. “Do you have everything? Are your saddlebags too heavy? Make sure you take breaks, especially during the hottest parts of the day. Go at Silver Bell’s pace; it’s better to get there later than in poor condition. Don’t forget to set up camp away from the road. Do you know a firemaking spell?”

“No,” I answered. “You know that.” My only spell was levitation. At first this was a source of embarrassment for me, but after reading The Book of Littlepip, I took it as another point of comparison and comfort.

She huffed at me, and Calamity’s voice sounded behind her. “Don’t get all frazzled, darlin’. Pip did just fine with one spell.”

“That she did,” Velvet agreed solemnly, turning to him.

“Got somethin’ for ya,” Calamity said. He drew a pistol from a bag he carried.

Velvet Remedy scoffed at him. “You’re giving him that?”

He knickered at her. “And what’s wrong with it?”

“He’s going alone with Silver Bell! Go and get the good guns.”

“The good guns?”

Velvet let out a noise of frustration and left, retreating into their home to get “the good guns.” “I made this ‘un mahself,” Calamity informed me.

“Seems fine to me,” I agreed. Now that things were awkward enough, I began to wonder what was taking Velvet Remedy so long. Eventually she reappeared with a belt in her mouth. Two black pistols hung in holsters on the belt. I recognized them almost immediately, even though I had never seen them before.

“Are those… Reggie Grimfeather’s?” I asked tentatively.

“They are,” Calamity said. “She dropped ‘em off fer repair months ago and hasn’t come back fer ‘em yet. I don’t think she’d mind if you took ‘em. And one more thing.” Calamity reached into his bag again, pulling out a heavy, round object. “Ya can’t even imagine how long it took me to build this. I’m givin’ it to you to test it. Tell me how it works.”

I took the guns and PipBuck reverently. They were sending me out with quite an arsenal. After reading The Book of Littlepip, I knew exactly how useful PipBucks could be. An inventory sorter, medicine dispenser, mapping spell, not to mention the incredibly useful Eyes Forward Sparkle heads-up display and the legendary SATS targeting spell was enough to turn one pony, like Littlepip, into an ultimate survivor. Not to mention I would be vastly better armed than any rogue raider I might meet on the road.

“Now Ah know I don’t have to tell you that these ain’t toys,” Calamity began, “but I will tell ya to take very good care of these.” He stressed his words. “They ain’t gifts. They’re loans. Got it? I expect ‘em back.”

I nodded.

“One more thing,” Velvet Remedy said, drawing close to me, violating my personal space. “It’s going to be just you and Silver Bell out there. I know you’re a nice colt, but the moment you so much as dare to even think about laying a hoof on her, Celestia have mercy on your soul, because I will not. Understand?”

I nodded again. It was all I could do.

“Good.” And suddenly she was back to her kind, motherly self. “Have you said goodbye to your family yet?” I had. “Well then,” she said finally. “I guess it’s off you go. Good luck. Come back soon and tell us all about it.”

As I left, it felt strange to me that everypony seemed so very worried. I know it was just the two of us, and we had virtually no real combat experience between the two of us, and that it was a rather long trip, but things were safer now. There hadn’t been any raider near Junction Town in years, and New Appleloosa was just as strong a city as Junction Town. Didn’t they trust their own security? Didn’t they trust me?

Calamity had ran out the door towards me. “Ah almost forgot,” he said. “Ah sent a message ahead to the sheriff of New Appleloosa. He said he’d send somepony out to meet ya halfway.”

I guess that answered my question.

It occurred to me as we were leaving Junction Town that Silver Bell had seen a lot more of the wasteland than I had. I was curious about her experiences, but knew better to ask her. After The Book of Littlepip had been published, and all of her childhood traumas had been laid bare, she had refused to talk to anyone about her past. Now that Ditzy Doo had died, I felt obliged to offer some kind of understanding, but I wasn’t sure how, so I remained silent.

I had never really left Junction Town. There had been no need. All I knew about the wasteland came from Littlepip, so when I saw the singular blades of grass along the way, who knows where the seeds came from, and the blue sky above, clear save for Celestia’s sun, I was taken aback. Of course, the terrain itself was still ultimately barren and jagged, rock formations jutting up like teeth amongst the hills, but it seemed more natural. Littlepip must have been happy to see that the wasteland was no longer the nightmarish, soul-devouring plain of death that she had trudged across.

“Have you ever left Junction Town?” Silver Bell asked me.

“No,” I admitted. “I have to say, I’m excited to see what New Appleloosa will be like.”

“I think you’d like it,” she replied. “It’s… exciting,” she concluded. “There’s a lot to do if you know where to look.”

“You should show me around once we get there,” I offered. At the time, I felt so smooth.

“Well, it’s a lot different since I was last there,” she backpedaled. “You should ask your brother.”

“Of course,” I said. Shot down, but I wasn’t so easily dissuaded by the pretty mare. “By the way, if you need a place to stay while you’re looking for your own, I’m sure Seacliff could put you up for a few days. I’m staying with him while I look for someplace, too.”

“Actually, that would be a big help. Are you sure he wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all, especially if it’s for me and for Ditzy Doo’s daughter.” I realized I made a mistake as soon as the words slipped out of my mouth. Silver Bell acknowledged the sentiment, but the reminder of her mother still drew a cloud over her mood.

I tried to cheer her up. “Wanna hear a joke?”

“A joke?” she asked witheringly.

“How many earth ponies does it take to uncap a Sparkle Cola?”

She looked at me incredulously. “How many?” she asked anyway.

“One, but he won’t get the cap until a few days after he opens it.”

It took her a moment to get the joke. “That’s disgusting!” she said with a grand smile and a hint of blush. She responded with her own joke. “Why were alicorns only mares?”

She chose this joke on purpose. I gave a doubtful smile and asked, “Why?”

“Because they were already horny bastards with their heads in the clouds.”

I gave a shocked laugh. “Are you trying to say something?”

I think she was a little embarrassed. “No. It’s just the first joke I thought of.”

“Well, at least this it’ll be an interesting two days.”

We talked a lot about ourselves for the rest of the day, plodding along the dusty road that cut through the stony wilderness. I did most of the talking, because it soon became apparent that Littlepip had told me a lot about her already. She listened well enough, but when we compared experiences, I felt so much younger than her. She had seen hell and more, and I was still a colt by comparison. Maybe Calamity should have given her the good guns.

After a whole day, we hadn’t seen another soul on the worn path we took, but we still headed off a ways once the sun began to set, making camp by a big boulder. Silver Bell made the fire and instructed me how. I felt a little embarrassed that I couldn’t even make a fire, but I took her lessons gladly. After all, I might need them someday and it would be silly if my inability to even make fire would keep me from survival.

We ate dried fruit from our saddlebags for dinner, sitting next to each other around the fire. I had told Silver Bell about the group Calamity had sent for. “When do you think they’ll be here?” she asked.

“Tonight or next morning, depending on how they’re moving,” I said.

She nodded and batted her eyes sleepily. It had been a long walk for two ponies who weren’t use to travelling long distances on foot. “I’ll sleep over there,” I said, moving around to the other side of the boulder so that she could have the fire and some privacy. She nodded in thanks, and I lay down. The ground was colder here, but I reminded myself that my mother hadn’t died recently.

There was so much that I would have liked to say to Silver Bell, but I knew we weren’t close enough for me to offer any kind of comfort. We weren’t quite friends yet, but the fact that I had been the one to put down her mother drew us closer than we normally would be, but at the same time put so much strain on whatever friendship we had. I wanted to apologize, but I don’t think anything I said could have been good enough. I wanted to go around the rock to check on her, but I knew better. If she was upset, she would prefer to be alone than to have me there. I sighed and tried to go to sleep. Perhaps the awkwardness would go away with time.

It wasn’t easy sleeping outside when I was used to a bed. The wind distracted me and the stars and moon seemed so bright. But the weariness of travel overtook me eventually.

That was my first mistake.

I had fallen asleep knowing that the New Appleloosa group might come in the middle of the night, and I slept with one eye open. So when I heard hoofbeats close on me in the dirt, I didn’t suspect any danger.

My eyes snapped open when I heard Silver Bell scream.

There was the sound of a hoof strike, and then a cruel laughter from a group. “She picked a bad day to travel alone,” a mare said.

A stallion answered her. “She’d fetch a good price. She’s cute.”

Another stallion agreed. “I’d fuck her.”

“Easy, Rusty,” the mare said. “At least wait around until I don’t have to see it.”

“Since when do you buy Chain Gang’s whole ‘damaged good’s crap?” the first stallion asked.

“Oh, I don’t give two shits about her,” the mare said. “I just don’t want to be forced to witness Rusty try and get himself laid for once, no matter how brief it would be.”

“Ya wanna test that fer yerself, Nightshade?” Rusty answered the mare.

It seemed that Silver Bell was just unconscious. I couldn’t wield all three of my weapons at the same time, so I decided on a pistol and my sword. My Eyes Forward Sparkle told me there were five of them, even though I only heard three voices. The speakers were close enough where a few quick slashes could end them before they could draw their weapons. After that, I would have to rely on SATS to aim my pistol for me. I didn’t want to trust Silver Bell’s life to my natural accuracy. I knew I was outnumbered, but I had surprise on my side. Littlepip had faced far worse.

I believed I could do this.

Steadying my breath, I turned out from behind the boulder and charged. By the time their heads had turned to face their attacker, my blade was cutting into the unnamed stallion who was talking to Rusty. I could see each of the raiders was wearing suits of makeshift armor made of scraps of metal and leather. It wasn’t too strong, but it took me two of the three swings I had allotted myself to bring him down. The earth pony fell before he could even cry out.

The mare tried to move away, but I was on the warpath. A fierce stab to the base of the neck tore right through the plating, and she died, her pistol dropping from her unicorn magic.

The stallions in the back were drawing their weapons, and Rusty was charging at me with a beam of wood that was more iron nail than timber. There was no way I could get all three of them with SATS, but I had no choice now.

I pulled up the targeting spell for the first time, and my gun locked onto the targets in the back. I fired three shots at one as he was backing away. The first two missed, and the last clipped him in the shoulder. Definitely not a kill.

My heart began to race. Things were not looking good.

Rusty swung his nail board, but even in my first fight it was all too easy to block with my blade, parry, and run my point through his neck.

As he fell, all I could see were the final two raiders. And now there was nothing between them and me. I could see their weapons. Automatics.

I tried to retreat behind the boulder, and a hail of bullets followed me, many kicking up dust on the rock, and just as many thudding into my side and flank. The force of their impact was incredible as they tore through my unprotected body. With a cry of pain, my legs gave out, and I could feel the fur on my belly wet with blood as my body hit the dirt. My lungs tried to get air into me, but the wind was knocked out of me. I lied still, trying to breathe for the longest time, pain overwhelming my ability to move.

“Where the fuck did he come from?” I heard one ask.

“Forget him. Just grab her and get her to Greaves’. If there’s one, there’s gonna be more.”

Their voices were getting fainter. “What makes you think that?”

“No one’s stupid enough to attack alone.”

Insult to massive injury.

I had packed two healing potions, one for me and one for Silver Bell if needed. My magic had already opened my saddlebags and I brought the potion out.

I worked to uncork the bottle, but my consciousness was fading fast. The stopper loosened, but my strength waned rapidly before I could even bring the mouth to my lips.

Before darkness overcame me, there was a distinct feeling of uselessness. Because of me, my weakness, my inability to even down a healing potion, Silver Bell had been doomed to an unimaginable fate at the hooves of these raiders.

This wasn’t how heroes were supposed to go out. Not on the first fight. Shining Armor, Littlepip, Lion Heart, hell, even Calamity and Velvet should be so disappointed in me.

That’s what I felt when I finally dropped the bottle.

Disappointed in myself.

Chapter 2: Innocence

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“The zebra who hadn’t even spoken out when the slave-masters were raping her with a dead pony’s horn broke her silence for me.”

I was alive. How? What benevolent force had pitied me so much that they would restore my miserable existence?

My eyes opened to see a muted red unicorn tipping a bottle, helping me swallow the last of my healing potion.

She turned to a companion out of my view. “He’s alive.” Then to me. “Can you stand?”

I tried. I was absolutely exhausted from being on the brink of death, but I managed to get my hooves under me, wobbling only a little. I must not have been out for too long. It was still the middle of the night.

“Holy shit,” a steel blue pegasus mare approached. She looked younger than me, her gray mane in braided pigtails, a six-shooter strapped to her side. She had rainclouds as her cutie mark. “You looked so dead.”

“Well, I’m not.” Silver Bell was still out here. “Were you two sent from New Appleloosa?”

“Yeah. I’m Rosemary.” She offered a hoof to me, her big, dull-green eyes looking out at me from a messy mahogany mane. And glasses. She actually wore glasses. I was shocked.

“Cloud Chaser,” the pegasus offered me a hoof.

“Ebonmane,” I said. I shook neither of them, urgency overtaking me. “Those raiders kidnapped Silver Bell. How long have I been out?”

“Couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes,” Rosemary informed me. “Otherwise you would be dead.”

“Wait a second,” Cloud Chaser interrupted. “Do you even know where they were headed?”

“All they said is that they were taking her to Greaves’. Does that mean anything to you?” I prayed it did.

Prayer answered. Cloud Chaser spoke. “I think he’s talking about that old military outpost between here and Ponyville.”

“Well point the way,” I said. “There’s only two of them, and if I’ve only been out for fifteen minutes we can still catch them.” I checked my PipBuck’s map to see if the auto-mapper had located Ponyville or Greaves’. Neither, but I was anxious to save Silver Bell, so I started walking anyways. “What are you guys armed with?”

“I have my revolver,” Cloud Chaser piped up, “And I brought a knife.”

Not the best loadout for what might be a nest of raiders, but if she was careful it could work. Perhaps Rosemary was better off.

“I have a shotgun.”

A shotgun? I looked back at it. I wanted to facehoof.

“You brought a double-barrel?” I asked her.

“Don’t even start with me,” she said. “Like your weapons did you any better. Is that really a sword on your back?”

I groaned. I wasn’t going to get into it. I kept walking.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Rosemary said forcefully.

“Are you joking? There’s a mare who’s been captured by raiders, and we’re less than twenty minutes behind them. What the hell do you think I’m doing?” I was starting to lose my temper, which wasn’t like me, but when I thought of what might be happening to Silver Bell at this very moment… how could they not understand the urgency?

“Oh no,” Rosemary issued her ultimatum. “You, young stallion, are staying here. You’ve gotten shot enough as it is for one day.”

“Young stallion?” I whipped around to face her, puffing out my chest and rising to my full height. She barely reached my shoulders, but she stood resolute. And she couldn’t have been that much older than me. “And the two of you are going to take out a bunch of raiders? By yourselves? If you’re going to go after her we have to work together. Even the three of us are probably outnumbered pretty badly.”

“He has a point,” Cloud Chaser said. “And besides, it looks like he got three of them by himself. That’s not bad.” Thank you, Cloud Chaser. It was about time I got some credit.

“Still, we can’t just go rushing in there,” Rosemary said. “We need a plan.”

“A plan? Do you know invisibility spells, maybe? Can you teleport in?” I noticed that Rosemary’s cutie mark looked like a small swarm of fireflies. I doubted that translated to magical talent.

“No,” she returned, taking a tone with me that matched the one I used with her. “But a little deception goes a long way. Take one of the raider armors.”

“They’re not going to believe I’m one of them,” I said. “If the two that got away see me, they’ll recognize me on the spot.”

“Even so,” Rosemary asserted. “If they’re in the business of kidnapping mares, they’ll be more inclined to believe you if you come with two young mares to sell.”

Cloud Chaser turned to her friend with contempt. “You would think of a plan like that, Rosemary.”

“Yeah, because it’ll work.” She turned to me. “Well? Get dressed and let’s go.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said bitterly. In my head I told myself, “Just deal with it. For Silver Bell.”

Cloud Chaser and I were flying above Rosemary, looking for this old military outpost the raiders had spoken of. The night air was warm and clean, which I was very thankful for, because the raider armor I had filched off of the dead body reeked. Even before I had put it on, I knew my pristine white coat was stained with a lot of my blood, but that mixed with the scent of what must have been weeks’ worth of sweat and filth made me want to gag.

“You know, you’re kinda lucky,” Cloud Chaser piped up.

I was still in a surly mood about this whole situation and how easygoing the New Appleloosa mares seemed to be about it. “How do you figure? I almost died and the pony I’m supposed to protect could be getting raped right now for all I know. You call that lucky?”

“You’re not dead,” she said cuttingly. “And I get that you’re worried about her, but you have to relax. You’re just going to get yourself in a mess again if you don’t keep it under control.”

I had a million retorts lined up to that, starting with her age and combat experience, but I held my tongue with much difficulty because she was right. I snorted my frustration but said nothing.

“Feel better?” she offered.

“I’m fine.”

“Embarrassed that you got saved by two mares?” she asked in perfect honesty.

“Perhaps a little, but maybe rubbing it in would help,” I thought. I ignored her. “Do you see anything?”

“Hold on.” She shot up at a dizzying speed. Just as fast she returned to me. “I think it’ll be about a half hour more before we’ll see it.”

“How do you know?” I asked her. I didn’t see anything on the dead earth below.

“Just trust me,” she said tiredly. “Let’s get back to Rosemary.” We dove down to rejoin the little unicorn with the double-barrel. She had been marching almost directly below us.

“So what is this Greaves’ place?” I asked.

Rosemary answered me. “Some pre-war military outpost. What else is there to know?” She turned to me with a bit more sincerity. “Better?”

“No. Not until Silver Bell’s safe.” Rosemary responded with a long breath. I wondered what her problem was.

We didn’t say much more for the rest of the journey. The sky turned to a hazy, gray dawn and we saw the smudged silhouette of a crumbling building on the horizon. At that point, Rosemary and Cloud Chaser handed their weapons over to me. The closer and closer we got, the more and more I began to think that this plan was a surefire way to get us all killed. But I couldn’t think of anything better, so we’d just have to hope for the best.

By the time first light broke, I could see that there was only one guard posted at the doorway, and I didn’t recognize him. Half of the building lay in a heap of bricks on the ground, and the other half rose in three stories before us, blackened and pitted, windows blown out long ago. I had Rosemary’s shotgun out but lowered as we approached.

“Stop right there, pal,” the unicorn called to us. “What’s going on here?”

I looked at Rosemary and Cloud Chaser, and they cowered before me. But would the guard buy it? “You buy mares? I think these two got separated from some kind of caravan. Found ‘em wandering around unarmed.”

“You don’t say?” he said skeptically, eyeing them both.

“Yeah. Talk about my lucky day, huh?” I said in a hopefully friendly manner. He then gave me a hard look. The chocolate unicorn had blood red eyes.

“They don’t look too roughed up,” he said to me.

“Rusty told me a while back that you guys don’t like damaged goods,” I replied.

The name drop worked. “You know Rusty?”

“Not too well, if you catch my drift.” I was on fire.

“I hear ya,” the guard responded. “Small doses, right? C’mon. I’ll get you in to see Chain Gang.”

He led us into a dismal building with low ceilings, dim lighting, and cracked tile floors. The brick walls were covered with profanity and smashed furniture, metal even, littered the floor, a small path in each of the halls dividing the wreckage. The whole place smelled like shit, to be honest. I would have been more disgusted if it hadn’t been so expected.

The guard led us up the first flight of stairs. Before we reached the second story hallway, in an instant Cloud Chaser slid past me, knife in mouth, and slipped in front of the guard, slicing his throat along the way, cutting through the voice box. Blood sprayed her face and mane, but he died without a sound.

There was a long tense moment where Rosemary and I stood wide-eyed, open-mouthed in pure shock. I hadn’t even felt her take the knife from my side. She had killed so easily.

“What the hell Cloud Chaser?” Rosemary yelled in her quietest voice.

“Listen,” Cloud Chaser whispered back. “I don’t think there’s anypony on this floor.”

“What about the plan?” I asked.

“I’m not going to be thrown into the manticores’ nest unarmed. Now give me my pistol. The time for deception is over.”

I levitated it to her, and Rosemary took her shotgun from me. “And I suppose now’s the time to kick the door down guns blazing?” Rosemary was furious.

“No,” Cloud Chaser responded. “Now is the time for stealth.”

This seemed to appease Rosemary. We peeked down the corridors and saw nothing but door after door both ways, and the stairs to the third floor weren’t in sight either. My EFS came up blank, except the green dots that were my two companions.

“I bet they’re on the top floor,” I said. They agreed with the instinct, so we looked for the next staircase. My armor had a tendency to rattle, but if I moved slowly I could keep it to a minimum. We scanned each of the rooms and found the same story as downstairs, heaps of broken material, and the occasional toolbox sitting on a bent shelf or even a filing cabinet.

Cloud Chaser’s eyes lit up. “Not now,” Rosemary warned her.

“It’ll just take a second. You guys look ahead.” Before I could say anything about what might be happening to Silver Bell right this very second, she was gone. I tried not to get as frustrated as Rosemary. I remembered Calamity’s kleptomania. There was no stopping her.

Aside from some spare ammo and some caps, she really didn’t find much. But she always came back with a smile on her face. Rosemary and I shook our heads.

We stopped when we saw the first mattress that was occupied by a pegasus mare, sleeping in on this fine morning. We all froze, Rosemary giving me a “What the hell?” look. I guess my PipBuck had a hard time detecting targets that weren’t moving or making noise. I saw the red dot now.

Cloud Chaser mouthed to us. “Kill or no kill?” she looked fearsome with the blood still splattered on her face.

“No kill,” Rosemary and I answered her. The mare was out cold. It would be riskier to open the door.

We found five more sleeping in this hall. I knew that they would be up soon enough. The sunlight was getting bright through the open windows.

As soon as we found the stairs my compass came up red. I held up a hoof, telling them what I saw. Cloud Chaser seemed to be drooling over the device on my foreleg. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those.”

“I don’t think they’re directly above us,” I told them. “Just be careful.” I took the lead, pistols out.

The third floor landing was half gone, the landscape below open to us. The other half looked mostly complete and stable with a heavy door, still on its frame, in the wall. My compass indicated that the raiders were beyond that door.

We stacked up alongside the entrance. “I’ll open the door very slowly,” Cloud Chaser whispered. “And peek inside. You ready?” We nodded.

Guns out, Cloud Chaser turned the knob. After a moment with no reaction from within, she peeked out.

“I think the coast is clear,” she said.

“Not according to my PipBuck,” I informed her. I was counting at least five ahead.

“There’s a door on the other side of this room,” the pegasus said. “They’re probably all in there.”

Carefully we entered the next room, our ears straining for signs that we had been spotted. As I rounded the corner, my heart broke. At least five mares were chained to the floor, attached to heavy iron spikes, blood and dirt staining their coats in the dusty sunlight. Some were badly starved, and all looked to have suffered a lot of abuse and trauma.

Except for one.

“Silver Bell,” I said, going to the purple unicorn, crouching in front of her. “Please tell me you’re alright.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “They haven’t laid a hoof on me.”

“We’re getting you all out of here,” Rosemary told the other mares.

I wrapped my telekinetic field around her chain, gripping it with my mouth for extra leverage. I strained, but I couldn’t get it out until Silver Bell used her own magic as well, which had grown a lot stronger since her childhood. We felt it wiggle for a bit, then come out with a reverberating thud.

We froze, and I checked my compass. There was one ally and one enemy who weren’t in the room with us. Otherwise, all hostiles seemed to remain in place.

Carefully, we undid the chains of the other mares. Every pop of the spikes coming free from the tile caused us to wince. My eyes never left my compass. Any moment we could be up to our necks in raiders, and it was by luck that we had survived this much.

I breathed a sigh of relief once they were all free. But there was a question I had to ask Silver Bell. “Why didn’t they touch you?” I asked her.

The question brought tears to her eyes. “Their leader came in this morning. And he was going to take me. But a pegasus mare took my place. She volunteered to save me.”

Our gaze went to the other room. One green light and one red.

I unsheathed my sword.

“Ebonmane,” Rosemary cautioned. “Let’s at least get the other mares out first.”

“How?” I answered.

Cloud Chaser explained. She and Rosemary seemed to have been planning. “Rosemary and I can get out this window. From there, the mares should be able to jump, and we can catch them and levitate them down.”

There were two other pegasi that were in the group. “And they can just fly down. Let’s do it quickly,” I said.

Rosemary shook her head. “Their wings are broken.”

I exhaled in shock. Bastards.

We commenced with the plan. Everypony was afraid to make any noise, and every hoofbeat sounded like a gunshot. Still, I kept my eyes and ears trained on that other door, where the pegasus mare was with their leader, whose name I’m guessing was Chain Gang. I was dreading going into that room, knowing what I might see once I opened the door. Still, I had some hope. As of yet, I hadn’t heard any noise come out from the other side.

Once the last mare had jumped, I turned solemnly toward Chain Gang’s room, stepping quietly towards it.

“Hey,” a whisper sounded behind me. Cloud Chaser had flown back in through the window. “We have a problem.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Those ponies in the other room,” she motioned towards where the five on my compass were still sitting, “They’re all snipers, or at least long-range gunners. They can’t see us now because we’re so close to the building, but the moment we start to leave they’ll pick us all off.”

“Shit. How come they didn’t notice us before?” I asked her.

“It was twilight, so it was kinda dark, and there were only three of us,” she answered. “I don’t think they thought anything of it.”

I nodded. “We have to save the last one,” I said. “We just have to do it quietly. Open the door, and I can take him out with my sword before he can even say anything.”

“No,” Cloud Chaser said. “Ebonmane, I know you have this white knight complex, and you want to save the mare, but I’m quieter than you. Plus, if we get caught, you’re the big guns. Once they start coming out of the other room to check it out, I won’t be able to do anything.”

She was right. Again.

“Fine,” I said. “But I don’t have a white knight complex.”

“You’re right,” she said pacifyingly. Damn her.

Again, we stacked up on the door. I drew my pistols, placing my hoof on the handle. I mouthed the signals. Cloud Chaser took to the air, hovering in place. Flight was more silent than hoofbeats.

“Three… Two… One.” I opened the door.

It all happened in an instant. She flew in, I heard the metal sound of her knife. Then I heard it again. There was a subdued, male voice. Then silence.

I exhaled after a long moment. No one seemed to have heard.

Entering the room, I whispered, “We’re in the clear.” Even in the darkness of the office, I could see the mattress lying on the floor. Under the blankets were the dead body of a black stallion, his throat and chest ripped open, blood soaking the sheet, and a dark pegasus mare, holding her hoof over his mouth. Her coat was a deep violet, and her mane a dark indigo. She reminded me of the pictures I had seen recovered of the Princess Luna, but with her colors reversed.

“Let’s go,” Cloud Chaser told the pegasus. She nodded, withdrew her hoof from her dead rapist, and stood shakily. I didn’t see any blood on her that didn’t obviously come from Chain Gang, and I foolishly hoped that I could take her clean flank as a sign that she hadn’t been used after all. I noticed another similarity to Luna, in that her cutie mark was a full moon.

“Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser said to me. But I wasn’t looking at her or the mare we had saved.

There was a terminal sitting on the desk near the window.

“Just a second,” I told her. “This could be important.”

“We have to go!” she hissed at me.

“Not without knowing what’s going on here,” I told her. “They’re running an operation. They don’t just keep these mares for themselves. They’re selling them. What if we can find out where they’re taking the mares from, or who’s buying them? We could shut this whole thing down.”

She nodded. “Stupid white knight complex.”

I went to the terminal. I had learned a few tricks from reading Littlepip, but it still took me quite a bit to guess the password, and I had to back out several times. Hacking was not my forte.

But eventually I did get it. I knew every second we spent here increased our danger, so I downloaded everything I could to my PipBuck.

Heading back into the prison room, I asked Cloud Chaser, “Do we have a plan for the guards?”

She nodded. “Hit and run. Rosemary’s waiting for the sound of gunshots.”

It seemed a shame to sneak all the way through this pit only to blow our cover at the last minute. On purpose.

Again, we stacked up on the door. The night pegasus moved behind Cloud Chaser.

“What are you doing? Rosemary and the other unicorns can levitate you down if you jump. Get out of here.”

“I can help,” she asserted calmly.

“You don’t have a weapon,” I reasoned.

“I know some zebra techniques,” she came back. “I don’t need one.”

I wasn’t convinced. She couldn’t be that good if she wasn’t a zebra who had been training for years. I looked at Cloud Chaser to back me up.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Midnight,” she answered.

“Figures,” Cloud Chaser huffed. “On three.”

I protested. “Hold on,”


“Cloud Chaser, it isn’t safe-”


Fuck it.


She opened the door and I charged in, pistols out. Five ponies, sitting on a broken ledge with the wasteland before them that would all have to go down in one instant.

I slipped into SATS. At this range I couldn’t really miss, but the ease at which I could pick off multiple targets with the spell was unparalleled. Six bullets, three from each of my pistols. I killed the two targets to my right and wounded one in front of me.

Gunshots ripped into my left side, but I was still standing thanks to the armor. The bursts of fire were cut off as Cloud Chaser came out behind me and fired three of her six shots. Midnight jumped on another, but I didn’t turn my head to see how she fared.

The unicorn stallion in front of me, a sickly green, fought through his wound well. He levitated his sniper around, pointing it straight in my face.

I ducked my head as he fired, grabbing my sword in my teeth. In the same motion it took to free it, I cut into him. He fell backwards, and with my right pistol I finished him off. With my left, I turned to see Midnight pivot around, trying to evade the barrel of her combatant’s pistol.

Cloud Chaser and I fired at the same time, and he slumped, dead.

The raiders downstairs would be up here in a matter of seconds, and we wouldn’t have the element of surprise. “Jump!” I told Midnight.

Whether she trusted me or acted on instinct, Midnight jumped. Cloud Chaser and I spread our wings and flew to catch her, grabbing her under her forelegs after she had fallen about a story.

My hoof slipped.

My heart stopped as Cloud Chaser lost her grip with the sudden weight. Midnight began to plummet. I couldn’t believe my eyes when she hit the ground, rolling gracefully, and picked herself up, completely unharmed.

Rosemary and the other mares were galloping into the distance as fast as they could. We rejoined them, Cloud Chaser and I flying above them.

I looked back at Greaves’. I exhaled when I didn’t see anypony coming after us.

Travelling toward Greaves’ had actually put us more than a full day’s walk away from New Appleloosa. We travelled far enough to lose any raiders that might be tracking us, but by noon we were all exhausted, and we set up camp, passing out our food to the starved mares.

I offered my last healing potion to the others, but I was the only one who had sustained wounds. To tell the truth, I was glad I got to drink it. I don’t think I would ever get used to the crippling pain of being shot.

Once we had all settled in, I got a chance to talk to Silver Bell. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Really, I’m fine,” she assured me. “To be honest, I didn’t think I would be rescued. I thought you were dead.”

“I almost was,” I admitted. “Rosemary and Cloud Chaser came in the nick of time.”

“Why didn’t you get more reinforcements from New Appleloosa? Charging in with three lightly armed ponies is suicide,” Silver Bell said.

I sighed. “We thought we could reach you before they got a chance to… you know…”

“Rape me?” she finished.

I cringed. “Yeah.”

She turned and nodded. “I owe Midnight a lot.” Silver Bell looked at the dark pegasus, who was lying down away from the group. She seemed to be thinking.

“I guess I should thank her, too,” I said. “She protected you better than I could.”

“You did your best, Ebonmane. You came and you did get me out of there. That’s what matters.” I nodded, but I decided to leave Silver Bell alone for a moment. I wanted to talk to Midnight.

I approached her, but she didn’t even look up. I lied down next to her. Unintentionally, my hoof grazed her foreleg. She jumped like I had bit her.

“Are you alright?” I could feel the weight of the other mares’ eyes on me.

“Yes,” she said. “Just… stallions, you know?”

Oh. I flattened my ears in embarrassment. My face felt flushed. I shifted away from her and she sat down again, a healthy distance between us.

Despite the awkwardness already, I had to ask my question. “Midnight?” She finally looked at me. I spoke quietly. “Why did you do what you did for Silver Bell?”

She took a long moment before she answered. I could tell she was uncomfortable, but I had to know. “She was new. And I had been there for over a week. I had been used before. I knew I couldn’t protect her forever, but I knew things would be easier for her if she had time to turn it over and adjust. So I seduced Chain Gang. I told him I wanted it.” The tone in her voice told me how disgusted she was with herself, with what she had to do. But I don’t think she regretted it.

“That was very brave of you.”

“Or very stupid,” she returned. “A lot like you. Taking on a band of raiders with three lightly armed, inexperienced ponies?”

“It all worked out.”

“You got lucky.”

I sighed again, crestfallen. She was probably right. I looked over at the other mares that I had helped to save, but I couldn’t feel proud of what I had done. If it hadn’t been for my incompetence in protecting Silver Bell in the first place, the three of us would have never been there to rescue them, and Cloud Chaser and Rosemary wouldn’t have had to risk their lives to do it, either. It was all a stroke of luck, for us and for the mares, that we had made it out alive.

I knew in my head I had done some real good. I had killed a bunch of sex-trafficking slavers and saved a lot of mares, all without casualty to my party, but I didn’t feel good about it.

None of the mares gave more than a thanks for saving them. None of them said they owed me their lives. And I’m glad they didn’t. I didn’t deserve it. I knew I wasn’t a hero.

I spent the rest of the day reading what I had gotten off the terminal while I walked. Chain Gang had written a few entries it seemed, and I found an audio log that seemed to date from before the war.

I started with the slave records, with the most recent at the top, dated a few days ago, the last one about six months.

Just my luck. Just when things are starting to look up, I get screwed. I should have known Thunderfall was trying to fuck me over. “More pegasi,” he says. “Zebra if you can get it.” Like finding these mares is just like going to the farm. Like I can fucking pick them off the pegasi tree, then just skip over to the zebra tree for him so he can fucking collect ‘em all. Exotic my ass, do you know how hard it would be to catch a Zebra out of Glyphmark? And I sure as hell ain’t dragging my ass all the way out there. He can say he won’t buy the unicorns or earth ponies, but he’ll just have to buy what I fucking give him. Supply is short, and suppliers even fewer. He doesn’t have a choice.

It looks like I got some small-time buyers interested in New Appleloosa. Not the corporate stuff like Thunderfall, just some personal-use buyers, but caps are caps, and mares ain’t cheap, especially when we had to go all the way out to Sweet Apple Acres to get the latest bunch. Selling to pimps is what keeps the caps coming, but I’d bet that with a little outreach, I could start raking it in from all over. Friendship City to Fillydelphia. Now that I look at the numbers, these dumb bastards don’t know the first thing about business. They’ll probably pay anything, long as it’s good quality and kept quiet. I could retire in a month if this works out.

It’s a good thing Thundefall comes all the way out to me for his mares. Manehattan ain’t a walk in the garden, but I guess it’s hard to hide an operation like mine when you’re under the nose of Tenpony Tower. I think he knows that he’s our stallion out here, because he doesn’t even bother to haggle. Just names a price and it’s take it or leave it. I can’t deny him, it’s still kind of a deal, but I think about the caps I could be making and I start thinking that I have to start coming at this from a different angle.

Craziest shit happened today. After we raided that caravan from Fillydelphia, we decided to keep a couple of the mares. Good for morale, you know? Then wouldn’t you know it, some fat old unicorn comes waltzing along with a whole fucking entourage. Thought he was from Junction Town or something. He comes right up to the door, staring down all our guns, and says, “You woudn’t happen to be business ponies, would you?” Two hours later, I got a case with sixteen hundred caps sitting in my desk. Some of the boys were bitching about it. “I can’t believe you sold the mares, boss!” I told them that there would be more mares soon. A lot more. This racket’s a gold mine.

I have to be smart about this, though. Now that I got the password to this thing, I’ll keep track of the numbers and where the mares are going. Thunderfall’s got a real business pony on his hooves now.

When I read about the cap stash, I regretted not possessing Calamity’s kleptomania. They had probably been very close by. The rest was a bunch of numbers that I didn’t care to know.

My blood boiled at the thought of what he was going to do with Silver Bell and the rest of these mares, but I stayed calm, and told Rosemary and Cloud Chaser. They were concerned, but I was already planning. Manehattan would come later, though. First, we needed to get these mares someplace safe, and New Appleloosa was close by. From there, I figured I could round up a group and see if I couldn’t pay a visit to this Thunderfall. That’s why I told Rosemary and Cloud Chaser. Even if they weren’t willing to make the trek, they had to have some pull in New Appleloosa.

My mind was agitated that night as I tried to imagine every detail, every scenario that I would encounter in Manehattan, or what I would say to the sheriff of New Appleloosa. I was exhausted after sleeping so little last night and getting shot at so much this morning, but my thoughts pestered me.

As I tried to push them away when it began to get really late, I heard Rosemary and Cloud Chaser talking. They had volunteered to be sentries during the night in case the raiders managed to regroup and track us down.

“You look worried,” Cloud Chaser said. There was a pause. “Ebonmane?”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “He’s going to do something stupid, isn’t he?” I stayed still. Didn’t want to interrupt this.

Cloud Chaser defended me. “You don’t know that. He just wants to help these mares, and the mares in Manehattan. He might find something in New Appleloosa, especially with all those Harmony folks running around.”

“I doubt it,” Rosemary said. “No pony’s going to want to grab their guns and march all the way to Manehattan to stop a pimp. Ponies have enough to worry about on their own as it is.” Rosemary paused. “He’s just so young.”

“Hey,” Cloud Chaser came back. Good for you. Young does not mean stupid.

“Yeah, I know you’re quite a bit younger than him, but you’re an orphan. You were raised on the streets. Him… not so much.”

Cloud Chaser was an orphan? The sting of Rosemary’s insults were softened by that information.

“You’re not a whole lot older than him, though,” Cloud Chaser continued.

“But I’m not the one who jumps at the chance to be a hero. Who does he think he is? Littlepip?”

Cloud Chaser chuckled. “He has got a PipBuck.” I could feel Rosemary’s withering glare. “So what do you think he’s going to do?” Cloud Chaser continued.

Rosemary paused. “Give up, probably.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, if you ask me, I think a lot of this was done to impress Silver Bell. And she’ll be in New Appleloosa.” The contempt in her voice cut me like a blade.

“Really? Didn’t you just say that he wanted to be a hero? It might not have been smart for him, but his heart was in the right place, don’t you think?”

Rosemary sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got him all wrong. What do you think?”

Now Cloud Chaser paused. “I think you might be right. He thinks with his dick too much.”

Rosemary made an embarrassed noise, but didn’t say anything more.

Now I really couldn’t sleep. I was too angry and frustrated and insulted and embarrassed and… hurt. I realized that, for a moment, I thought at least Rosemary and Cloud Chaser believed in me, in the decisions I had made and my efforts to correct my mistakes. I knew they weren’t terribly impressed with me, but I had hoped that they had seen the best in me. Even if I was inexperienced, my heart was in the right place.

Wasn’t it? Silver Bell was pretty, but anypony would have gone after her in my position, right? After today’s ordeal, I certainly felt closer to her. I didn’t have feelings for her, but maybe I could. And after today, I thought that she could, too.

I brooded on this for the longest time. The part that hurt the most is when Cloud Chaser had said that I thought with my dick too much.

“How can they not see that I’m not like that?” I raged in my head. “I’m a good stallion. I didn’t think of mares as things for sex. Hell, I’m still a virgin! How could I?”

And then I stumbled upon why it had hurt so much.

“I’m not like those raiders,” I decided. “I’m not like Chain Gang. I would never use a mare. How could they think that?”

I looked over at Midnight, who seemingly blended in with the darkness, her body rising and falling peacefully.

My thoughts and feelings tortured me. I may have been a killer, but it was necessary. Necessary to save the lives of ponies like Midnight. Surely she appreciated what I had done for her?

“She jumped when you touched her,” a little pony in my head told me. “To her, you’re not much different than those rapists.”

That was one of those nights when I felt like crying, but couldn’t. I fell asleep, my breathing ragged, and my dreams blank.

Chapter 3: Inner Flame

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“Strength in numbers? There ain’t no such thing. Not in this day and age. Not when a single spell can wipe out an entire army.”


It overcame me the next morning. Weakness of body. My muscles protested with every move, reminding me of how the raiders’ bullets had torn them, how the only thing keeping me knit together was the magical bandage of the healing potions. I wore fatigue like a heavy blanket, and every movement only shifted the fabric, reminding me that I had endured strain I was not meant to endure.

Weakness of the mind. My emotions were ragged and dark once I opened my eyes, worse than they had been last night. I felt like a rapist. Me, who barely had the courage to flirt with Silver Bell, felt like a rapist. It seems crazy, and it was irrational, but I recognized within myself the elements of those stallions that drove them to such depravity. I did flirt with Silver Bell, I’ll admit it, and I was planning to again once we got to New Appleloosa. My intentions to convince her to have feelings for me felt like manipulation, and that didn’t feel many steps away from outright force. And while I had never had sex, I had lust, as anyone does, and I knew that factored into my motivations somewhere. I felt that it was possible for me to become as bad as those raiders simply by virtue of being a stallion.

Weakness of will. All of this led to a feeling of giving up. Rosemary’s words came back to me: “Who does he think he is? Littlepip?” And I didn’t. I realized how terribly far I was from the legendary hero, from all my heroes. Littlepip, no matter what she went through for others, never sought glory or recognition. She had hated her title of ‘Lightbringer.’ Shining Armor, from what I had read, had defeated great foes with the sheer power of the love between him and his wife. I didn’t stand for anything nearly so noble. Even my everyday heroes, Calamity, Velvet Remedy, my father… I felt they would be disappointed in me if they could see my heart. Rosemary had me figured out in a day. No wonder Calamity and Velvet didn’t trust me alone with Silver Bell.

In the moments of my waking up, for a brief thought, I decided to give up. To let somepony else handle Thunderfall, if he needed to be handled at all. After all, what could I really do about it?

Fate, I would come to learn, has a strong sense of irony.

I awoke to the sounds of soft crying. Rising from my patch of dirt early that morning, I discovered that the only other one awake at the time was Cloud Chaser.

I sat next to her. She noticed me and tried to cover her tears, wiping her eyes. “You’re up early,” she said.

It was obvious why she was crying. She still had some blood on her face. “It’s hard to sleep when you’ve killed,” I told her. “I take it that was your first real fight back there?”

She nodded. “It was so easy… he just…” her voice caught in a sob and she threw herself into me.

I was still angry and upset about what she and Rosemary had said about me last night, but it was easy for me to soften my heart for the pigtailed pegasus. It was just a few days ago that I had been in her exact position, and I may have been no Velvet Remedy, but I could try.

“You’re not a killer,” I told her, giving her a hug. “You’re not a murderer. Look at those mares.” She looked. “You caught a glimpse of what would happen to them when you saved Midnight. If it hadn’t been for you, that would have gone on for months. Years. The rest of their lives. You ended lives, but you gave them theirs. It was necessary.”

She nodded, resting her head on my shoulder. Calming herself down. I placed a hoof on her back and said nothing. After a few minutes, others started to wake up and Cloud Chaser pulled away. “Thanks,” she said with a grateful smile. “I needed that.”

“My first wasn’t that long ago. I know what it’s like, so if you want to talk about it…”

She nodded. Rosemary was up and doing what she could to prepare a breakfast instead of just giving out canned food. We were getting low with the additions to our group, but Rosemary seemed determined to make sure everypony was fed. Cloud Chaser went to pester her.

I didn’t bother her. I knew how she felt about me and I wasn’t going to make her pretend to like me. She spent a lot of time looking up at me, though, giving me weird looks. Her gaze pressed upon me, and I moved around, trying to avoid it.

For the remainder of the morning, I was silent. Cloud Chaser and Rosemary didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t try to talk to them. I still felt guilty about Silver Bell, and Midnight was right out. The other mares didn’t try to make conversation with me, either, and I wasn’t going to force it. The situation had left me ostensibly alone.

I remembered the audio file that I had gotten from Chain Gang’s terminal. Plugging in my earbuds, I decided to at least do something with my lack of social time.

A stallion spoke to me in the educated voice of a not-raider. “This place is turning out a lot better than expected. Captain Greaves may be a complete tool, I mean he did name the place after himself, but it’s not so bad. Homeland security is a lot better than the frontlines, staring down a bunch of zebras.

“It’s really all about appearances. As long as we look fit and ready to fight at any time, we could be here for the entire war. After all, this base was built to be the last line of infantry defense before Canterlot, so there’s no way Luna’s going to pull us out.

“And speaking of appearances, I wish I had gotten pictures of Captain Greaves when General Shining Armor showed up. After the salute, he went right to offering to take the General’s coat, then asked if he wanted coffee, complimenting him on everything. Princess Cadence’s face was priceless. I got the feeling that she didn’t like anypony else trying to suck her husband’s dick.

“Captain Greaves says that Shining Armor’s here to see how the elite are faring. Elite my ass. Half of us have never shot a zebra before in our lives. Lieutenant Fishhook even had the nerve to greet the General half-drunk. He let something slip about some sort of secret plan that the General was putting together. Even if there is some real top-secret stuff going on, I don’t know why the General stopped here. He’s sure as hell not going to find the ponies he needs in this daycare of a base.”

My heart jumped at the mention of Shining Armor. I had never heard about his activity during the war, and Littlepip didn’t either. The only stories about his life were pre-war. At first, I just assumed all of his war activities had been buried with the Crystal Empire when the bombs dropped, but if there really were something top-secret goings on, perhaps his activities had been covered up. I doubted I would learn anything more about him, but I secretly hoped that this wasn’t the only thing left about one of my old childhood heroes.

Soon we were up and moving again, on the final stretch of dusty road that led us to the promised land that had become New Appleloosa. I took the time to learn the names of each of the mares, but after that, conversational topics began to run dry. They all lived in Fillydelphia, and their shared experiences had caused them to stick close together, and I began to feel a little awkward.

“Turn on the radio,” Rosemary saved me.

I gave her a puzzled look, but then remembered that PipBucks could lock onto radio signals, and DJPon3 broadcasted everywhere. I unplugged my earbuds and turned up the volume for everpony to hear.

“…Next up, another reminder about those missin’ folks from the Fillydelphia caravan,” the smooth male voice rose through the static as I adjusted the signal. “It’s been about twelve days now since the poor souls were attacked and the group of mares went missing. Now I know what you’re thinking, that they’re probably long gone by now and it’s a terrible shame. And it is a terrible shame, but don’t give up hope yet. They were on the road to New Appleloosa, so if you’re traveling between those spots and you hear something, make sure to let somepony know! Don’t go and do anything reckless, now, but this is our Equestria now, and everypony’s gotta do their part to tell those raiders still left that they can’t have it.”

The news went on, but nopony said anything. We would bring the mares to the sheriff of New Appleloosa, and I was sure he’d get them back to Fillydelphia safely.

“Do you think that’s still Homage?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“I think she retired and passed the torch after The Book of Littlepip, after her cover was blown,” I answered.

“Or maybe that’s just what she wants you to think.” Cloud Chaser waggled an eyebrow. I didn’t buy the conspiracy. If I was Homage, I think I would be done after all that happened.

One of the mares shushed us to hear the last of the news. “…The Church of Harmony has asked me to read this statement about their new marriage policy. You know the one. Ahem. ‘Regarding our request that all new marriages be performed by the Church, we want to assure the ponies of Equestria that they have nothing to be upset about. We will of course recognize prior marriages as legitimate. Same-sex marriages will be allowed, especially concerning ex-Enclave members. Our goal is not to try and control the lives of Equestrians, but to restore an aspect of pre-war Equestria, the institution of marriage, that our ancestors knew.’”

DJPon3 continued. “There’s a lot more here, but you want music, and you get the idea. So in dedication to those Fillydelphia mares still out there, if you can hear us, here’s the comforting voice of good ol’ Velvet Remedy.”

Velvet’s song, the one she wrote for Littlepip, began to play, and I think everypony smiled. The charcoal unicorn never sang that song to me or in public, and I think Calamity was the only one who ever got to hear it live anymore.

“Do you think ponies are really going to go to the Church of Harmony to get married?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” Rosemary answered. “They’re still so new. I think a lot of ponies don’t want to recognize all the authority they’re giving themselves.”

“They’re kinda crazy,” Cloud Chaser agreed. “But if the weddings are good enough I don’t see why not.”

I had heard that Shining Armor and Princess Cadence were married in Canterlot Castle. While I didn’t think the Church could pull off anything as good as that, I felt that it was a nice move forward to try and revive Equestria back to what it once was. Another part of me felt that Equestria would never be the same as it was during the Ministry Mares’ time, but maybe, just maybe, it could be.

When I first laid eyes on New Appleloosa, though, I knew we still had a long way to go.

It had been years since the Enclave’s massacre at New Appleloosa. How were things still like this? The ponies here had rebuilt to the best of their abilities, but this was simply awful. The train rails leading into town seemed to be the only things still intact. Buildings, shacks really, rose on makeshift scaffolds made of scrap metal all around us. The wreckage of years past had been put into the building of these structures, sheets of metal and wood still blackened, and what was unusable had been fashioned into walls and fences. Trenches had been dug out for sewage lines along the back allies leading somewhere out of the city. Foals played in the streets, the bits of metal and broken glass having been swept to the side by the many hooves that had worn the paths between the buildings in the dirt.

“I don’t get it,” I said out loud as we headed past the outer wall. “Littlepip made it seem like New Appleloosa was a good place to live. What happened?”

“The Enclave,” Rosemary said. “It takes a while to recover from an attack like that.”

“It’s been years!” I responded in disbelief.

Rosemary shrugged her shoulders. This was the New Appleloosa she knew. It wasn’t perfect, but to her it was home.

“Are you going to see your brother?” Silver Bell asked me.

I shook my head. “Not yet, at least. I want to make sure that what I’ve found is taken care of.”

“Well before you go anywhere, you’re coming back to the inn with me,” Rosemary demanded.

“The inn?”

“Yes. I run the only inn in town, and you, young stallion, need some food, bedrest, and a bath.”

I wasn’t about to object. Those all sounded lovely at the moment.

Rosemary led us all up a rusty metal ramp to the second level of New (New) Appleloosa. After walking on rickety platforms and narrow catwalks constructed on pipes, we arrived at her place, “The Jade Dragon.” It was one of the larger buildings on this level, the platform it was constructed on a little sturdier than others. While the walls were made of metal, glass windows had been installed, and I could even see a balcony on the second floor. I didn’t bother to ask about the name. It had food and a bath inside, and she might deny me access if she felt I was criticizing her.

The interior was a lot better than the outside. The first floor was one large room containing the reception desk and terminal, a kitchen in the back, and a large dining table off to the side. The metal walls had been covered in extensive, hoof-painted murals that were colorful without being too distracting. The kitchen looked to have an oven and running water, and while none of the furniture and utensils in the dining room matched, they were all of good quality. She even had wood floors that seemed smooth enough.

“Did you do all of this yourself?” I asked the little unicorn in awe.

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave the walls blank and rusty.” Now that Rosemary had gotten us here, she turned to leave. “I’m going to go get the sheriff. Cloud Chaser, make sure everypony gets what they need, and he,” here she pointed at me forcefully, “gets a bath.” I got it. I stank. No need to rub it in.

“But I can’t cook!” Cloud Chaser shouted as Rosemary walked out the door.

“I won’t be gone that long! Boil water for me if you have to.” She was gone before Cloud Chaser could protest.

There were two bathrooms upstairs with two working bathtubs. The water lines ran to the tubs, but there was no way to heat the water. One of the unicorns could heat the water, and she did so for both baths, and the other mares let her take the first bath. I decided to let the poor mares go through first, after all they had been through, and Cloud Chaser began to run around like mad, trying to get everything ready.

I was sitting downstairs for the mares’ privacy, waiting for my turn when Cloud Chaser would come tearing downstairs, shouting something like “Rosemary, where the hell do you keep your clean bedsheets! I swear, this shouldn’t be this Luna-damned hard!” as if I wasn’t even there. Then she would race back upstairs empty-hooved, only to come down with a pile of folded blankets and stand around, blank-faced. “What am I even doing down here?”

I had to laugh at that. She snapped to me, glaring. Then her expression softened. “Ebonmane, could you lend a hoof and get dinner started?”

“I can’t cook,” I said. It was true. I had never really tried, but I always felt lost in a kitchen unless I had explicit, simple instructions.

“You can boil water and chop vegetables, can’t you?”

I wasn’t going to argue. I stood and made my way to the kitchen. After digging through cupboards to find a slew of pans I filled a couple with water from the sink and put them on the stove. It took a while for the electricity to get started, and even longer for the water to come to a boil. The mares were taking their sweet old time with the baths, though, and there was no sign of Rosemary as the sun began to set.

After I had told Cloud Chaser that I couldn’t do anything but stand around because I was waiting for the water to boil for the third time, I decided that I should at least attempt to cook. I decided on soup. Easy, right?

Rosemary had carrots and apples in the pantry and nothing else, so I chopped them up as best I could and threw them in. I found her spice rack, and was shocked to see how many spices she had stored up when she only had a sack of carrots and apples each for real food. It wouldn’t be good soup without spices, so I picked and chose carefully, smelling them in turn and adding pinches of what smelled good to the pot. Somepony had once told me that a little spice went a long way, so I tried to keep the herbs to a minimum.

Just as I was about to taste my concoction, Rosemary returned home, saddlebags full. She saw me in the kitchen, standing over her stove, spoon before me. She gave me a look that destroyed all my confidence, and I felt like I had been caught stealing.

“What are you doing?” she asked me, charging into the kitchen before I could answer. “What are you making?”

“Soup,” I answered defensively. “Cloud Chaser told me to make dinner.”

“I said I would be right back!” she seemed way more upset than was entirely necessary. She looked in the pot. “Carrots and apples? What made you think those would taste good together?”

I backed up. I suddenly realized how many knives she had in her kitchen. “They were all you had!”

“They’re perishable, so I can’t keep too many at once! I went grocery shopping. That’s what took me so long.” She backed off a bit, allowing me room to breathe while she smelled the pot. Then she turned back, her glare cold and deadly, and her voice even more so. She spoke slowly, menacingly. “What else did you put in?”

“Uh,” I struggled to remember. “Um, parsley, sage, some thyme, uh…”

“Get out,” she said quietly.

“What? Why?”

“OUT!” she roared. I left quickly, hearing a splash in the sink and a clattering of metal as she dumped all my hard work out. I heard her exclaim “Stallions!” as I headed upstairs.

Cloud Chaser appeared at the top. “Uh-uh. Back down you go.”

“But-” I began to protest.

“Nope. They’re almost all clean, and I don’t need you hanging around a bunch of wet mares. Back down you go.”

I groaned in frustration and headed back down. Sitting on the bottom step, staying as quiet as possible so Rosemary wouldn’t hear me, I waited for at least another half-hour before Cloud Chaser finally called me up for my bath.

Cloud Chaser led me up to the tub and I finally was able to remove the filthy armor. I gave it to her to throw away. Even if I needed it in the future, I could buy something cleaner and more functional.

The pegasus hesitated while I slipped into the warm water. The white tub was a little small for me, but nearly every bathtub was. I let out a sigh, but my relaxation couldn’t be complete until Cloud Chaser shut the door.

“Hm?” I said. Maybe she had just spaced out again.

“Sorry. I was just wondering what you were planning on doing now,” she asked.

I still wasn’t sure. But it seemed clear to me that the gung-ho approach of charging up to Manehattan wasn’t the best idea.

“I don’t know. Tell the sheriff about Thunderfall. See what he says.”

She was unsatisfied. “And what if he says you’re crazy?”

After last night, I wasn’t interested in playing this game with her. “What do you think I should do?” I reversed.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think… somepony should do something. And it sucks, because I don’t think anypony will.”

“That doesn’t mean I should. I mean, what can I do?” Suddenly I had found myself playing Discord’s advocate against me.

“I guess.” She seemed disappointed. Whose side were you on, Cloud Chaser? I thought she would leave me to my much-needed bath at this point, but she continued. I was starting to feel very self-conscious. “So you think you and Silver Bell are going to live here?”

That was it. I didn’t want to talk to them about Silver Bell or last night or anything like that, but Cloud Chaser certainly hadn’t mentioned her by mistake and I needed to defend my motivations if she was going to start to pry.

“Don’t even start,” I said. Before she could say anything I added, “I heard you and Rosemary last night.”

She blushed. Caught. “Really? How much did you hear?”

“Everything,” I told her. I shifted in the bath to face her, spilling some water on the floorboards. “I know exactly what you think about me and Silver Bell, but it’s not like that, okay? I mean, if that’s what kind of a stallion you think I am…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. There was so much I wanted to say, but I was getting too angry, and Cloud Chaser looked upset. “Just don’t even talk to me right now.” I turned away from her. More water on the floor.

“Ebonmane, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to hear that.” I believed she was honest, but I was still mad.

“Well, I did,” I told her. “I get it, you know? Maybe I didn’t think everything through, but I still ended up doing the right thing. So think what you want. I don’t care.” Even then, I felt like a drama queen, but my voice was strong enough to convince myself that I had done the right thing.

“Hold on,” Cloud Chaser said, walking up to me. I turned to face her again, spilling yet more water. “It sounds to me like we both know what you were hoping with Silver Bell, but that doesn’t make you a bad guy, okay? All stallions think like that. I grew up on these fine streets. I know. But you still are nothing like them, okay? I might have been a little harsh last night, but I wasn’t that harsh. You didn’t have to hide and beat yourself up about it.”

How come I was the idiot here? I was tempted to admit that she was right, but there was more that she just didn’t understand. “What did you expect? You saw the way Midnight jumped at me. I felt bad enough just being the same gender as those damn raiders. Explain to me how I can ‘think with my dick’ and still be a good guy.”

She paused for a moment. “Because you have a conscience. All of this…” she motioned to all of me. “These things you feel… They show that you care about doing the right thing for the right reasons. I don’t know what part of you was doing the thinking this morning, but…” she took a deep breath. “Either way, I’m glad you were there for me. And Rosemary doesn’t think so badly of you, either. Okay?”

I exhaled. I felt my emotions settle. “Okay.”

“So… friends?”

I nodded. “Friends.” I offered her a hoof, splashing her in the process. “Hey!” I smiled. “Jerk.” With that she left.

Finally. Surprisingly, I didn’t think about any of what had just been said. I was thinking about climbing into a nice fluffy bed after a delicious meal, but that made me sleepy, so I thought about Cloud Chaser’s original question. About what I would do.

I really had no idea. But I didn’t think I wanted to give up. Maybe I wouldn’t be fighting any time soon, but there was more to helping other ponies out than killing bad guys. I decided that I would make it my personal mission to make sure that Thunderfall was taken down in time, no matter who did it or how it got done. And if it had to be me, I would be more careful about it. Chain Gang had mentioned all sorts of cities, from Fillydelphia to Friendship City, that seemed to be involved. There were leads to follow.

Being the last one to get a bath, Rosemary had finished cooking dinner before I had time to really soak and enjoy myself. I came downstairs, still mostly wet, to see Rosemary set down a plate of vegetables covered in some homemade sauce before us. They were looking at me strangely, so I went into the kitchen and found a cloth to try to dry myself off with.

I took a bite. I had to admit, it was really good. Better than my mother’s and better than Velvet’s.

“So?” Rosemary asked. “Is it alright?” She seemed afraid that I would hate it.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “This is pretty good.” Pleased, she dug in herself.

“You’re not like other alicorns I’ve met,” one of the Fillydelphia mares, Ember, spoke up.

“I’m not really an alicorn,” I said. “My parents were normal ponies.”

“You have wings and a horn, don’t you?” Cloud Chaser spoke up. “How are you not really an alicorn?”

Rosemary explained. “Only alicorns give birth to alicorns.” She then turned to me. “So how are you an alicorn? Do you have any alicorn siblings?” I said that I didn’t.

“So how do you know your mom didn’t…” Cloud Chaser trailed off. Rosemary glared daggers at her.

I smiled. “I have too much of my father in me.”

Rosemary continued. “That still doesn’t answer the question.”

I shrugged and kept eating. “I don’t know, to tell the truth. No pony does.”

Rosemary seemed bothered by a question that should be so simple to answer, but she left it. She asked me to put the radio on again, and we ate while listening to Sweetie Bell.

Sweet Celestia was I hungry. I ate quickly, clearing my plate before the others had even made a dent, and they were half-starved themselves.

“I made enough for seconds,” Rosemary reassured me. I took her up on the offer.

While working through my second plate, I asked Rosemary. “What did the sheriff say?”

She spoke to the mares. “He said he could have a train ready to take you to Filllydelphia in the morning.” They all smiled at the news.

“Did you tell him what we found?” I asked.

“I thought I would leave that up to you,” she said. Which meant that she hadn’t told him. Why? “You’re the one with the evidence on your leg,” she said. Oh. That made sense. I guess she didn’t always have ulterior motives.

Rosemary showed me up to my moonlit room after dinner. The bed might have been a little small for me, but it was clean and freshly made, so I couldn’t complain. In a nice touch, the walls had been painted in a mountain panorama. All my equipment lay in a corner.

“I’ll take you to see the sheriff in the morning,” she said.

“Thanks,” I told her. Before she left, there were some things I wanted to know after my talk with Cloud Chaser, and now seemed like a good time. “Hey.” She stopped. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing by trying to stop Thunderfall?” It was kind of a trick question, but I didn’t want another fight.

She turned to face me, those big green eyes holding no deception. “No. I just think it would be smarter to let somepony else handle it. Like Tenpony Tower or Fillydelphia.”

“And what if nopony will?” I came back. “What if ponies just bat an eye?”

“There are lots of problems in the world right now,” Rosemary said. “Sometimes you have to pick your battles. I get what you’re trying to do… but I don’t want to see you get killed. You’re a good pony. You really are. And Equestria doesn’t need you charging to your death.”

I felt the notes of concern in her voice, but I was still disappointed that she had so little faith in me. Although I guess I couldn’t blame her. I wasn’t sure how much faith I had left in me, either.

“Alright then,” I said. “That’s all.”

She closed the door as she left. “Goodnight.”

I didn’t want to sleep right away, though. After everything that had happened over the past couple of days, I needed to get a lot of my thoughts out of my head.

I opened my window and flew into a warm night, sneaking quietly out of Rosemary’s inn. I rose higher and higher, searching for an isolated place. I found one out by the train tracks, on the crane operation platform. There wasn’t a pony in sight.

Despite feeling a little silly, I spoke freely. “Littlepip? It’s me, Ebonmane, again.” I took a deep breath. From what I understood, Littlepip was still in the Single Pegasus Project’s central hub. She had absolute control over all the weather, and for that she needed to be able to see all of Equestria. I had no idea how great her vision of the land really was, but I believed that she could hear me. And even though she couldn’t speak back to me, it was nice to feel like one of my heroes was listening.

“I don’t know if you saw what’s been going on with me for the past couple of days. Silver Bell got kidnapped. I’m sorry about that. I knew you cared about her. She’s alright, though, because we saved her from the raiders, Rosemary, Cloud Chaser, and me. We saved a lot of other mares, too. The raiders were going to sell them as sex slaves.”

Sometimes I wondered how much of my experiences should be recapped to her. Could she see more than one thing at once? Or was her vision limited? I didn’t know, but I continued with my thoughts. “I understand a lot of what you wrote now. About fighting and killing and getting shot and helping other ponies. I want to help other ponies, like I helped those mares.” I was getting ahead of myself. I hadn’t told her about Thunderfall. “There’s this stallion in Manehattan who probably would have bought Silver Bell and the others and made them be prostitutes, Thunderfall. Now that I know about him, we can stop him. But I’m worried that no pony’s going to want to stop him.

“You believed in the good in the world, and I do too. But even back then, ponies were only concerned with their own survival. You were probably the first to get them to care about others. You were the spark.”

I took a breath. I felt bad with what I was about to say. “But I don’t think the fire’s very big, Littlepip. And if no one goes after him, then who will? I want to, but… I’m not like you. It’s one thing to fight when you have to, like you did. Red Eye and Trixie and all the others… if you hadn’t stopped them, that would have been the end of Equestria. And you were the only pony around who knew how to stop them. That’s not the case with me. I… I might not even have friends around to help me, like you did.”

Hopelessness began to overtake me. “I just don’t know what to do. Am I responsible for this because I know about it? Or should I try to forget about it? There’s probably a lot worse things happening in the wasteland; why should I care so much about this? Because I can see it?”

It’s like I could hear her voice in my head. “Do you really want to be the kind of pony who turns his back on this?”

“I’m not sure if I could forgive myself if I let this go, if I stopped here, in New Appleloosa and made my life like everypony else. I’m not afraid to fight, and I have the information to do something about it… I’m just afraid to fail. To go in and die and leave everypony behind because I thought I could make a difference.”

I hung my head. “You weren’t afraid to die, Littlepip. You might have been at first, but even after you found Homage, you did what you had to. Anything less you considered selfishness.” With another deep breath I had my answer. “I’ll try. If it falls to me, I’ll give it my best shot. Celestia help me,” I finished, knowing full well that these were not smart things for me to be thinking.

But I fell asleep thinking that Littlepip had called her own brand of courage ‘stupid’ before.

The sheriff’s name was Caboose. He was probably the biggest earth pony I had ever seen. Rust colored, dark, and mean looking, he stood a head taller than me and probably doubled my weight. All muscle.

His office wasn’t far from where I had monologued last night. It was a cramped metal room, more of an oven on a hot day like today, with lots of filing cabinets. A radio sat on a scratched steel desk, single chairs situated on either side.

Caboose’s was the more comfortable one. He welcomed me in, sweat already dripping down my neck by the time I had sat down. There was a window, but for the love of Celestia why wasn’t it open? I felt a pang of sympathy for the big guy when I saw he was already coated in a sheen of sweat.

“You’re late,” he joked. It was tough to catch the humor in his deep bass. However, I may have smiled when I thought that he looked like he was sitting at a foal’s school desk. He was just so damn big.

“What do you mean?” I didn’t catch the joke.

“Calamity said you’d be here yesterday morning.”

“Sorry, I was too busy killing raiders within your jurisdiction.” I wanted to say it. So bad. But I held my tongue. Instead, I said, “Not everything went according to plan.”

“No,” he admitted, “But some might say they turned out better. We got a bunch of dead raiders, and some free mares, and no deaths on the good guys’ part. I have to admit, I’m mighty impressed.”

My ears perked up, and I smiled. “Thanks,” I said. Maybe he would listen to me after all. “But I’m here because there were more than just the raiders.”

“Oh?” he asked.

I stood and moved around the table, offering him my PipBuck with the journals on screen. “Take a look at these. They were written by the raiders’ leader.”

He scanned through them for a moment. “So?”

Not the response I was looking for, but it wasn’t a ‘no.’ “So, there’s something a lot bigger going on. Thunderfall is buying up lots of mares from a lot of different spots. This industry isn’t going to go away unless we take him out. If we do, then the raiders that are still left might crumble without his input.”

Caboose was quiet for a long time while he thought about what I had said, occasionally wiping sweat from his brow. I was very anxious. “Young stallion,” he started. My ears dropped. He was about to tell me no. “This thing doesn’t need Thunderfall. He’s like a hydra. Once you cut his head off, you’re going to see more of him pop up. His is the second oldest profession in the world, and it’s not going away any time soon. And neither are the raiders. Those things will take time.”
I nodded. “That’s what I thought you would say.” I turned to leave.

“Hey,” he called after me. “Try the group at Tenpony Tower. They got more to spare than we do.”

I left without response. At least there was a breeze outside.

Tenpony Tower wouldn’t help. They had guards, but the wealthy higher-ups there wouldn’t dream of sparing their security to go stop somepony like Thunderfall. If I got out a message to DJPon3, maybe he/she would put out a message, a call to arms against Thunderfall, but who in the right mind was crazy enough to answer?

‘The Jade Dragon’ awaited me. The mares had left for Fillydelphia, so it was quieter around, and Rosemary and Cloud Chaser had wanted to know how it went. I got the feeling that Cloud Chaser was living off of Rosemary’s charity, so I knew they would both be waiting there.

I opened the door, and my pegasus friend sat in the chair, waiting for me. “So when do we march?”

“Never,” I replied bitterly. “You guys were right. He didn’t think it was worth the effort.”

“Well, when the call went out to help escort two ponies from Junction Town, all you got was us,” Rosemary reminded me as she set down lunch on the table. “This town isn’t big on taking action.”

“So what are you going to do?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“We’ll see,” I said. I knew this wasn’t over yet, but letting them in on whatever I was thinking would be a form of persuasion. They had already risked a lot for me. They had their own lives here.

Rosemary sat down. With just Cloud Chaser here, I think she felt more comfortable speaking to me. I noted that for such a nice inn it wasn’t terribly busy.

“Ebonmane, I was thinking about what I said last night, so… I’m sorry.” I looked up at her. I didn’t expect those words to come out of her mouth. “Cloud Chaser told me about you overhearing, and I tried to explain myself, but I kept thinking about it, and I realized why you were really so set on finding Thunderfall.”

“And why’s that?” I prompted her.

She looked down slightly, her eyes peeking over her glasses. “This kind of thing really gets under your skin. Thinking about him treating all those mares like slaves… you won’t feel okay until you know it’s taken care of, will you?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. Maybe I could have turned my back away from this, but it’s like Littlepip seemed to say to me. I didn’t want to be that stallion.

“No. But I’m not going to rush into this, either,” I told them.

“So what’s the plan?” Cloud Chaser asked.

I shook my head. “It’s not really your problem. I’m not going to ask you to drop everything and follow me in this.”

Cloud Chaser stood. “And what makes you think that you’ve got a monopoly on feeling responsible? We know just as much as you do, and we’ve seen just as much trouble as you have. If you feel like you have to do something, then we should too, dammit.” Here she pounded her hoof on the table for emphasis.

I looked to Rosemary to see if she agreed. “We’ve been talking about this. I said I didn’t want to see you get killed, but if you go off and die and I’m not there, then I think it would be partially my fault for not going with you.”

There was one last thing that they were forgetting. “But what if you die because I led you there?”

Rosemary shook her head. “We know what we’re up against. We still want to help.”

Cloud Chaser nodded in agreement. “So? Do you have a next step?”

The smile on my face was too big to contain. “I think I do. Thunderfall must be in contact with other traffickers. Chain Gang said that he was selling to buyers in just about every major city. Don’t you think Thunderfall would be a part of this, too?”

“What do you mean?” Rosemary asked.

I tried to sort out my thoughts. “There have to be other ponies who have dealt with Thunderfall. If we find them, we can find out what they know about him. Any information will be useful. From there, we could go to Tenpony Tower, or maybe even Applejack’s Rangers.” I took a breath. “We wouldn’t be going in alone and outgunned then.”

“So when you say ‘information gathering,’ do you mean interrogation, hacking, theft..?” Cloud Chaser trailed off.

“Whatever it takes,” I answered.

“Where do we start?” Rosemary asked.

“Chain Gang said he definitely sold to somepony in New Appleloosa. But there’s no way a stallion here could be keeping a sex slave without anypony noticing. The town’s too small.”

“So?” Rosemary asked. I don’t think Cloud Chaser connected the dots yet, either.

“So, if it were me,” I said, my voice losing confidence, “I know where I would keep her.”

“Ohhhh,” Cloud Chaser said. Ding ding.

“What?” Rosemary asked. Cue buzzer. She could not think like a stallion.

“C’mon,” Cloud Chaser said, eager to get out the door. “There’s only one place in town seedy enough to hide a private whore without anypony noticing.”

Rosemary gasped in shock. I do believe she got it. “Cloud Chaser, no! And you, young stallion,” she whipped a hoof at me. Why was she always calling me that? “You are not going to a whore house!”

“Technically, it’s more of a strip club that gives a little extra on the side,” Cloud Chaser explained to me. “It’s kind of small, but you’re absolutely right. Our commodity’s got to be there, or everypony would notice.”

“Ebonmane, you will stay here. Cloud Chaser and I will find this mare and talk to her,” Rosemary said, stamping her foot.

I rose. This was just about enough. “First of all, Rosemary, you’re not my mother. I’m not going for any of that, I’m kind of going for the opposite reason, to put a stop to it. Second, what makes you think two mares are going to be able to just walk in and start asking questions without raising suspicions? You need me. I’m our only cover.”

Rosemary searched and searched for another reason, but couldn’t find one, even as Cloud Chaser led us through dirty alleyways to the shady underbelly of New Appleloosa.

“’Mareheat,’” I said out loud. “They actually named it ‘Mareheat?’” It sounded to me like Littlepip’s colorful curses had found an unintended audience of admirers. Even the little sign outside the stacks of patched-up boxcars had a mare’s silhouette in front of Celestia’s sun.

“Do you expect creativity out of these types?” Cloud Chaser returned.

Rosemary looked extremely uncomfortable. “Just how do you know about this place, Cloud Chaser?”

“What part of ‘grew up on these streets’ do you not understand?”

Rosemary was taken aback. “You never-”

“No!” Cloud Chaser shouted. “Of course not! I was never that desperate!”

Well, we were off to a good start.

I hesitated before entering, my hoof hanging in the doorway. I felt ashamed that I was about to do this. But Cloud Chaser and Rosemary had both agreed that this was the best lead in New Appleloosa. I was doing it to stop Thunderfall, and nothing else.

With that thought of self-fortification, I stepped inside.

The room was so dark it took my eyes a while to adjust fully. No windows, just single, dim light bulbs covered in colored plastic to turn areas of the room different shades of red and orange. The only music in the wasteland, DJPon3, played from a large radio in the corner. Homage would be so ashamed.

Cloud Chaser was right, though, even a pony like me could tell this thing was small-time. The stage in the back was small, with one bent pole jutting from the front. Tables were strewn about the rest of the floor, skinny mares in all sorts of ridiculous outfits walking between them or dancing on top of them. A modest group of stallions, who looked to be regulars by their disheveled appearances, watched eagerly as the mares moved their hips in ways I had never seen a mare move before. The current song was a slow parlor tune, but the mares seemed to work with it anyways. Small pouches hung from garters on their inner thighs, and stallions deposited caps, grabbing a feel and probably a little more when they paid up.

Rosemary and Cloud Chaser took a moment to enter behind me, seemingly having their own moments of self-doubt. I turned to see the reactions of my friends. Cloud Chaser was bug-eyed with shock, and Rosemary looked depressed.

“Wow…” Cloud Chaser stammered.

“It’s not fair,” Rosemary said. “They starve themselves!”

I had to keep them on track. “Or the boss starves them. Now we have to figure out which one’s the one we’re looking for.”

Before we could begin to narrow our search, one of the dancers, a pink unicorn with a red mane came up to greet us. “Hey there, big guy,” she said in a professionally sexy voice. She rubbed up against my chest as she passed, tossing her tail. Somehow, she smelled like cherries, which was her cutie mark. Suddenly I was feeling very warm. “Haven’t seen any of you around before.”

“It’s his first time,” Cloud Chaser said like she had rehearsed it. “You know, birthday?”

“Birthday buck?” Cherries said, batting her eyes at me. “You’re going to like this.” She put her hoof in her mouth and whistled sharply. “We got us a birthday, fillies, and a first timer to boot.” All the mares gave little cheers and gathered on stage. It was a tight fit, even though there were less than ten of them, but they pressed their bodies together on purpose. A mare dressed in a nurse’s outfit pulled a cord and a single sprinkler attached to the ceiling went off. They were all soaked within minutes, their necks and flanks glistening, their outfits clinging to their bodies-

I turned my head slightly and lowered my eyes. My heroes would be so ashamed of me.

But I looked up again in a double take. A red mare with a blonde mane, dressed in a black leather rodeo vest, had a barrel of apples as her cutie mark.

Chain Gang had mentioned that he had to go all the way out to Sweet Apple Acres to get a group of mares.

“Try not to stare too much, ‘birthday buck,’” Rosemary hissed at me.

“The one with the apples,” I said quietly to her. “She’s the one. I know it.”

Rosemary didn’t bother to ask how I knew. One of the patrons hit me on the back of the neck and pointed to the mares waiting on stage. “Go ahead. Take your pick.”

My hooves took a moment to get moving, but I walked right up to the stage and looked up at the apple mare. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Pink Lady,” she answered with a wink. Uh-huh. Sure it was.

At any rate, this seemed to have been enough to designate my choice, because she stepped off the stage, walking toward me confidently. I backed up, but she reached out and pushed me into a chair with a hoof. Was my balance normally that bad?

She then reared up and put her hooves on the shoulders of my seat. Oh Sweet Celestia, this was not what I had in mind when I imagined how things would go in here. My blood was starting to race now that her whole body was before my eyes. And I was feeling… very warm.

Rosemary and Cloud Chaser intervened. “Thank Luna,” I thought. If this went on for too much longer, they would never forgive me.

“Hey,” Cloud Chaser said quietly. “You wouldn’t happen to, uh, give ‘private performances’ would you?” My pegasus friend brought forth a small pouch of caps. My heart seemed to stop. I understood what Cloud Chaser’s plan was, but this was not helping me one bit.

Pink Lady took the caps. “You’ve got some generous friends,” she said. Then she looked at Rosemary, still overtop of me. “Most mares we see are the jealous types.” Rosemary’s scowl should have killed Pink Lady on the spot. And me too. “Come with me, lucky stallion.” She dismounted and led me past a curtain to the back, then up a flight of stairs. The other stallions were catcalling after me. Oh, the words Rosemary must be having with Cloud Chaser at this moment.

But I had things under control. Despite my warmth and the feeling that my heart was about to explode, I knew that the most embarrassing part was over. We would get to the room, and I would talk, and that would be all.

She led me down an equally dim hallway with several closed doors. We reached one at the end and she opened it. Inside was a very tiny room, lit by another dim bulb. The only thing inside was a small mattress and a tangle of thin blankets.

Once she closed the door, I spoke up before she could take another step toward me. “Stop,” I said. “I’m not here for that.”

She looked alarmed. Her hoof shot to the door. “What are you here for?”

“Just to talk,” I said to calm her. “You aren’t here of your own free will, are you? You were sold. By raiders who attacked you near Sweet Apple Acres.”

She gave me a hard look. “How the hell do you know that? Who are you?”

Looks like I picked the right one. “Me and the mares I came in with killed those raiders. But there’s more going on. There’s a whole industry of mares being captured and sold, and nopony seems to notice. It’s not on the radio. Everypony just assumes they’re dead or being held. But the stallion who bought you… who is he?”

“He owns the place,” Pink Lady answered me. “He’s a unicorn. Silver Bolt. But I’m the only one he’s bought. The others are just dancers, I think.”

I doubted that. “We need to find out what he knows about a pony named Thunderfall. Does Silver Bolt come here often? Does he get messages or meet with clients here?”

“He has a private room that I’ve never been in,” she told me. “But it’s locked.”

I was no lockpicker. Damn. “Okay,” I said, thinking quickly. “Get the two mares I came in with up here. Say it’s a foursome or something. They’ll be able to help.”

She nodded solemnly, walked out, and closed the door. I waited for not thirty seconds when the door burst open. Rosemary was furious.

“What’s this about a foursome!?”

“Keep your voice down!” I hissed at her. “I need to get past a locked door. Can either of you lockpick?”

Rosemary was still glaring at me. Cloud Chaser spoke up. “Bobby pin?” Pink Lady produced one. “Rosemary, come with me. You’re my screwdriver.” Rosemary huffed, but followed Cloud Chaser out of the room.

Leaving me and Pink Lady alone. “That’s not your real name, is it?” I said.

“No,” she admitted. “It’s Apple Bushel.” She laughed. “Not a very sexy name, is it?”

“Mine’s Ebonmane,” I told her. “But even a boring name’s better than a fake name, right?”

She nodded with a smile. “You three are really going to stop Silver Bolt and this Thunderfall guy?”

“We’re going to try,” I assured her.

She looked towards the door. This was taking a long time, and I was getting anxious. “You with the red one? She seemed pissed.”

“No. She’s just… strongly virtuous,” I concluded.

Apple Bushel laughed again. “I see. Must suck to be her. To have to come into a place like this.”

“Yeah.” What was taking those damn mares so long?

“Thanks,” Apple Bushel said. “You’re a good stallion, to go out of your way to stop ponies like them.”

I blushed at the compliment. “It all just kind of happened.”

She looked up at me, giving me her sexy eyes. “A hero deserves a ‘thank you,’” she said. Her words knocked the breath out of me. I couldn’t have found my voice if I tried. She drew closer to me. “You’ve really never, you know, done it before, have you? If you like, I wouldn’t mind…” she spoke into my ear now.


Her mouth moved down to my neck. My heartbeat must have been audible.


I could feel her breath on my chest. I was starting to feel an… uncomfortable pressure build.

“Of you.”

I put a hoof on her chin, stopping her from going any further. Then my mind caught up, and I knew why.

I simply shook my head, still wordless. I looked into her pink eyes. She was confused. Her life, her treatment, her abuse had so warped her mind that she thought this was an appropriate thank you, that this was what I wanted. And when I said ‘no,’ I realized that no stallion had ever said ‘no’ before. The word was foreign to her, despite all the times she had probably said it. She had no concept of the value of her body anymore. Silver Bolt and this entire fucking place had caused her to believe that she was… just a thing. A tool to be used by stallions.

And I wasn’t going to be another stallion who had used her.

She sat down on the bed next to me and didn’t look at me. I couldn’t tell if she was legitimately upset, or just worried that she had upset me, but neither of us spoke. We just waited for Cloud Chaser and Rosemary to come back.

Rosemary knocked. “Ebonmane. We found a terminal. We need your PipBuck.”

Eager to escape the situation, I opened the door. Rosemary gave me a look. “You alright?” she asked in a loaded tone.

“I’m fine,” I said softly. She seemed to sense that this was not the case.

Our ears perked up when we heard hoofbeats come down from nearby stairs. Before we could hide, he appeared. It was unmistakably Sillver Bolt.

Without a thought, Rosemary was using her magic before he could say anything. I saw her green glow wrap around his neck, and she pinned him to a wall, placing her foreleg against his neck, completely choking him.

She held him there, while he tried to speak, his voice coming out in weak splutters. Her eyes locked into his, watching as they slid into the back of his head. Never before had the little unicorn looked so terrifying.

Finally, he fell with a thud. “Leave him,” she said, heading down to the terminal room. “Let’s hurry before anypony finds him.”

This was bad. My mind was racing with too many thoughts to handle, too many scenarios to sift through. But I knew we were very close to losing it all.

I hardly even noticed the terminal or the room it was in. I just downloaded everything to my PipBuck.

“What happened?” Cloud Chaser asked Rosemary.

“A stallion came down. He’s unconscious.”

“That’s Silver Bolt,” I informed her. “He owns this place.”

Now Cloud Chaser was just as agitated as we were. “What the hell? Why didn’t you kill him?”

“What would you have done!?” Rosemary seethed. She took a breath, but I could see tears in her eyes. “Let’s just get out of here before he comes to.”

Download complete, we headed downstairs and out the door, sweet goodbyes following me out.

“He lives here, right?” My brain was starting to work now. “And he definitely saw you.”

“What’s he going to do?” Rosemary countered. “Accuse me of attacking him inside his strip club and stealing his rapist information?”

“No, but he might have, like mob connections or something!” Cloud Chaser’s brain, on the other hoof, seemed to be going wild. “We can’t live here anymore! He’s going to hunt us down and kill us and burn your inn down and-”

“Then it’s a good thing we’re leaving,” I said. They turned to me. Cloud Chaser seemed to have put fresh tears in Rosemary’s eyes. “Stable Two isn’t too far from here, and I bet there’ll be Applejack’s Rangers there.”

“What makes you think they’ll listen?” Cloud Chaser asked. “What makes you think we even found anything on that terminal?”

“Anything is better than nothing. It’s worth a shot, right?”

There didn’t seem to be another choice. We headed back to ‘The Jade Dragon’ and packed as quickly as possible, planning to find some traveling traders to buy anything else we would need. We didn’t have a lot of money, but enough to get by.

As we hurried out the gates of New Appleloosa, I didn’t feel anything. But there was a point where we had stopped by a stream that flowed from a larger river, our guide, that I began to feel terrible.

Rosemary didn’t help. “So what happened between you and what’s-her-face while we were doing all the work?”

I understood that she was upset about leaving her home and being faced with killing a pony and being unable to do so, but I wasn’t too happy about the whole thing either. I didn’t even get to let my brother or the rest of my family know that I was safe, and they were probably worried sick about me as it was. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Silver Bell, or apologize to Lion Heart for killing his wife, and if Silver Bolt really was connected, everypony we loved could be in danger if he recognized us. My point is, I was at my limit.

“Nothing!” I shouted at her, far too loudly. She turned and walked away. Even if she did believe me, which couldn’t be guaranteed, I had still made a mistake.

It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it, my voice hurt and full of rage. Even Cloud Chaser looked up from where she was filling her canteen in concern.

Thinking about my whole experience in ‘Mareheat’ left me feeling bitter and angry. Justifiably so, when I thought about how badly Apple Bushel’s mind had been damaged by her abuse, but a lot of the anger came from yet more confirmation that Cloud Chaser’s initial analysis had been right.

The thing was, I realized, that I had liked being in there. I was really turned on by all those mares, and even if nothing happened, Apple Bushel’s mouth still went far too low before I stopped her.

But the worst part is that a small part of me wondered what it would have been like if I didn’t stop her. She was, after all, a professional. I couldn’t tell myself that it wouldn’t have been amazing to feel her, to finally have my first time.

The good parts of me, as small as they felt, hated myself for lingering on those thoughts as long as I did.
I’ve heard that it wasn’t a sin to be tempted, but I wasn’t so convinced in that moment. The temptation was still with me. So I waded into the stream, splashing the cool, muddy water on my face, as if I could cleanse myself of it. But my face just became more soiled, and I knew that I was only seeing the fringes of the darkness inside me.
But we trudged on, the three of us not speaking for long periods of time, heading towards the very heart of evil. Bloodshed certain.

Chapter 4: Decay

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“Have you ever heard the saying, ‘the portal to hell is opened by the incantation of good intentions?’”

Now I could see the truth of the wasteland. Even without radiation and taint, even with its established cities and protectors, despite the decrease in monsters and raiders, the Equestria we knew and lived in was but a fluttering heartbeat. And the wasteland was venom.

My journey had begun not three days ago, and I was already unsure of my own virtues. Littlepip had tormented herself with the notion of corrupted kindness, and I tried not to do the same, but I had a dread feeling that the evil I had witnessed, and been exposed to, had only begun.

The cruelty of the wasteland was not the intensity of its violence and depravity, but how these things survived. They were parasitic. The wasteland infected good ponies, testing their hearts until they broke, and then new life was born from the husk of innocence. The wasteland spawned in the ponies who dared to face it, perpetuating the cycle.

I knew this not because I had seen everything the wasteland had to offer, but because I felt it plant its seeds within me. That day that we traveled along the river, I must have asked myself a hundred times, “What is my virtue?”

Rosemary’s was easy. Her hospitality, and the way she had given up everything to follow me and stop Thunderfall… she was generosity. Honesty seemed to come easy to Cloud Chaser, even when she was brutal about it, but with her happy-go-lucky nature I could see traces of laughter in her, too.

And me? I certainly wasn’t any of those. I had nothing to lose and much within me to hide. Magic? I still only had one spell. And I certainly hadn’t been too kind to Rosemary at the river.

Loyalty was the only one left. But the only thing I fought for was my own sense of righteousness. I wasn’t fighting for anyone else. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser were just along for the ride.

I realized that these virtues had always been embodied in groups of friends. But the three of us weren’t too friendly. Rosemary remained mad at me the entire day, and Cloud Chaser seemed to be angry with both of us. And I knew I wasn’t as compassionate or forgiving toward them as I could be.

It had been friendship that had carried Littlepip and her party through their ordeals, and the friendship of the Ministry Mares, in many ways, still survived to this day. But our friendship was tenuous at best. A failing pulse, and we were plunging into the viper’s nest.

“How would we survive?” I wondered. “If these virtues can’t tie us together, then what will?”

Stable Two was less than a day away by wing, but because Rosemary couldn’t fly, as Cloud Chaser loved to remind her during our detour, we had to find a place along the larger river that we could cross.

The stream we had washed in eventually connected to this wide river, and from there we followed its rocky banks. I marveled at how pure the water looked. No irradiation, no taint. It gleamed and cast cascades of light on the smoothed stones it had cut into, and its waters had begun to feed patches of stringy grass and low scrubs. Hills rose and fell beyond, the stretches of earth beyond the river left gray and barren, yet untouched by the healing waters.

After those hills, we would come upon Ponyville and Sweet Apple Acres, which contained the now-legendary Stable Two, famed for being the home of both Littlepip and Velvet Remedy. After Applejack’s Rangers had moved into Stable Twenty-Nine, they had begun to move to the other vacant stables, assimilating the old Steel Rangers in the process. The move made sense. Stables were tactical strongholds, impenetrable once sealed and easily defendable when not, in addition to containing all factors necessary to sustain life.

“Have either of you met a Ranger?” I asked the two mares. They shook their heads.

“They only come when trouble’s around,” Cloud Chaser explained, “And this is the first real trouble we’ve seen.”

I have to admit, I was excited to meet the Rangers. After their change of heart in honor of Applejack, I had always seen them as a blade in the darkness of the wasteland. If any group had the power and resources to purge Equestria of its evil dregs, it would be the red knights.

Of course the thought of joining them crossed my mind, but I pushed it away. I didn’t want to be fighting forever. Despite my aspirations to help others, even through combat, I never saw myself as a military pony. Early in my adolescence I had realized that it was unlikely that my life would ever realize the heroic likes of Littlepip or others, and I had resigned myself to more domestic aspirations. I still held on to these dreams of finding a way to help those around me, but while maintaining a comfortable home and heading a strong family. The Rangers didn’t lend to stability or romance.

We diverged from our path along the river to meet at a crossroads in the hopes of finding a merchant. We met one before we could even see the road. The earth pony stallion had gone toward the rushing river to water his brahmin. The creature that pulled the cart looked more disgusting that a ghoul. Without a coat, its flesh was pink and red with sores, and I could hardly tear my eyes away from the misshapen, oversized udder. The two heads were even more unsettling, as one was missing an eye.

The trader opened his cart to us, and we poured over the wares. He was rather well stocked, but anything that would have been a must-have, like some longer-range weapons or armor my size, he was fresh out of. This came much to Cloud Chaser’s dismay, who was getting sick of her knife and revolver. So when she laid eyes on the sleek black zebra stealth armor, she insisted on buying it.

Luckily for us, we had Rosemary. “You want how much?”

“This is one-of-a-kind stuff here,” the merchant said. “Light, quiet, and durable. You’re not going to find much better unless you become a Ranger yourself.”

“I think not,” Rosemary responded coolly. Cloud Chaser was about to whine Rosemary to death, but the little unicorn ignored her. She just picked out the ammo we would need, asking questions like, “Do you have any healing potions?”

“You wouldn’t need potions for your friend if you had armor,” he persuaded.

“So that’s a no.” Sweet Celestia, Rosemary sure knew how to turn on the ice. Then with a sigh, “Just the ammo, then.”

“But just look at it Rosemary!” Cloud Chaser clung to her like a spoiled foal.

“I know. I’d like to get it for you, but he just won’t budge even an inch.” With that, Rosemary turned.

Before she walked away, the merchant called back, “How about seventy caps?”

She snapped around. “Fifty-five.”

“I got it for fifty!”

She was already counting the caps out. “Well, you win some, you lose some.”

We took our lunch at the same spot after the merchant left, our little pegasus fawning over her new armor. “Rosemary, it’s official,” Cloud Chaser gushed. “You’re the team treasurer. Here,” Cloud Chaser dumped caps into her lap, “just take them.”

“Where did you get these?” Rosemary accused. “Did you steal them?”

“No! I was saving them as an emergency fund.” I had no idea whether she was lying or not.

“Still,” I admitted, “That was pretty impressive.”

She fidgeted with her hooves in the dirt. “It’s nothing. Back at the inn, I had to do that kind of thing all the time. Not just for rooms, but to pay for food and blankets. You just sort of pick it up.” Her mouth fell into a frown. She was thinking about leaving her old life behind.

I knew I was kind of an ass to her yesterday, so now I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about ‘The Jade Dragon,’” I started.

“Don’t worry about it,” she deflected.

“No, really. If I hadn’t-”

“It’s not your fault,” she cut me off with a little more force.

I persisted. “Listen. I understand.”

“Just drop it, Ebonmane.” She finally looked up at me, glaring.

What the hell had I done? I was trying to be understanding about everything that she had done for me. Did she blame me for this? But if she did, then wouldn’t my apology have at least softened her a little? Or was she just that much of a vindictive bitch?

None of these things were said. I just hung my head for a moment, dropping it. The awkwardness got to be a bit much, so I stood and left. Maybe giving Cloud Chaser a shot to talk to her alone would help.

The brunt of the feelings of dysfunction and corruption I described earlier occurred here. But I couldn’t be angry at Rosemary. I decided not to be. Whatever she was feeling was her problem, and if she didn’t want to talk, then I couldn’t make her. I couldn’t force a friendship.

But this instability wasn’t good for us. I seriously doubted how much she trusted me, and I knew that if things didn’t work out, Cloud Chaser would go with her. I needed her to trust me. Of course, I realized that if that was going to happen, I had to trust her as well.

I wanted to trust her. I wanted to know that despite whatever she was feeling, whatever doubts she was experiencing about her decisions and about me, that she would stay with me and fight against Thunderfall.

Wing beats sounded behind me. “Yes?” I asked.

“What is with you two?” Cloud Chaser asked me, just as defeated as I felt.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m asking myself the same thing. Did she say anything to you? She obviously won’t talk to me.”

“What makes you think she’ll talk to me?” Cloud Chaser alighted next to me.

“Aren’t you two good friends?”

“Not exactly,” Cloud Chaser rolled her head as she launched into her explanation. “I knew about Rosemary because she… fed me… and stuff. But we didn’t talk a lot. So a couple days ago, I was really hungry and I caught her leaving. I asked where she was going, and I ended up here.”

“Why?” I asked. It sounded like her life was bad enough without adding raiders to the mix.

“Because. Rosemary had done so much for me. I couldn’t let her go out alone. I owed her.” Cloud Chaser hung her head solemnly. I got the feeling that being in another pony’s debt was not a thing she took lightly.

“So you have no idea why she’s acting this way towards me?”

“She’s just upset. She’ll come around.” The pegasus smiled at me.

“Unless I screw up again?” I smiled back.

“Oh, I guarantee you will. But that’s okay. You’re cute when you’re stupid.”

Cute? What was that supposed to mean? “Thanks?” was all I could say.

“That.” She pointed at me. “That right there is what I mean.” I felt myself blushing, but I knew any response would only dig my hole deeper.

“Feel better?” She asked me. I nodded. “Then c’mon.”

We rejoined Rosemary, who looked calmer. She tossed looks at me and Cloud Chaser from over her glasses, but didn’t say anything. I turned on the radio to let her know that she didn’t have to.

Sapphire Shores was on, a personal favorite of Rosemary. I could tell by her smile, by the way she would be wiggling her hips when I stole a look back at her, only to see her blush and stop. After I caught her the second time, she told me to mind my own business and quit looking at her.

“Hey now, my little ponies, this is DJPon3 taking a quick break in the music to give you guys an update. Remember those kidnapped Fillydelphia mares? Well, they’re back now! I’m still just getting the whole story, but it seems like a group from New Appleloosa went into a whole mess o’ raiders to get those fillies out of there. Good on you, whoever you are, and if you happen to be around Tenpony Tower anytime, I got a round of cider waiting for you. On me. But for everypony else, we can rest easy with hard evidence that there’s a lot more good in this world than there is bad. With that, I give you the second half of our Sapphire Shores collection.”

This lightened our spirits, mine especially. It felt good to have some recognition. I didn’t care that DJPon3 didn’t use my name, but it was helpful to be able to step back and have someone on the outside assure me that I had helped, that for a moment, I was kind of a hero to those mares. If this Thunderfall thing worked out, I suppose we might make it on the radio again, but then I would be in Manehattan, so I would probably go tell DJPon3 the story myself, and make an attempt to preserve my anonymity. The last thing my ego needed was to hear praises sung in my name every day on the radio, but I felt okay in taking some pride in this quick pat on the back.

“I wonder how many ponies know it was us?” Rosemary asked.

“Well,” Cloud Chaser started, “Caboose definitely knows, and if ponies come to ask him, he’ll probably tell them. And Silver Bell, too, and she’s in New Appleloosa as well. It probably won’t take too long before the real story gets out, and then DJPon3 will tell everypony on the radio, and then all of Equestria will think we’re heroes!” She grew more and more excited with every word, her pigtails practically quivering with contained joy. She had never been recognized for anything good. She had always been pushed to the streets. Being a hero was a big change for her.

Rosemary seemed to get more uncomfortable the more excited Cloud Chaser got. I suppose she had a bit of stage fright. That, or she was the only truly modest pony in our group.

My radio cut suddenly. I looked down to see what was wrong, and my compass pulled up. There was a red dot.

Levitating out my guns, prompting the others to do the same, I pointed in the direction of the foe. Our eyes followed my hoof towards the river, but there was nothing to see.

“You sure that thing’s working right?” Cloud Chaser asked.

In a shattering of the tumbling rapids, the owner of the dot burst from the water, great and menacing. A long, snakelike body towered before us, blood red and covered in scales. Two fangs as long as my head jutted from the toothy snout, two long wisps of whiskers swept elegantly from its nose. Its cat eyes took in all of us. Prey for a mutated sea monster.

Cloud Chaser was already shooting, her revolver punching holes in the scaly hide, but it was so big it was like stabbing it with needles. My first instinct was to run, but when it roared I realized that it didn’t need water to breathe, and there was no reason it couldn’t slither out of the riverbed to devour us.

I didn’t even bother with SATS. How could I miss? Rather easily, as it turned out. It writhed in air, snapping at Cloud Chaser as she darted around it, aiming for the eyes.

It let out a roar of pain as a massive chunk was ripped from its body. Rosemary steadied again and fired, a deafening blast, and another bloody hunk exploded from its side.

The little unicorn backed up slowly, reloading, and I realized she had mis-identified her gun.

Another shot, another hunk of scales and flesh falling into the river. Those weren’t shotgun pellets. They were solid slugs. And the barrel was too long and narrow to be a shotgun.

Rosemary had a Celestia-damned manticore gun.

She missed her fourth shot, but was reloading quickly when you only needed to put in two bullets, heat shimmers and smoke rising from the mouth of her monster-slaying weapon. I was reloading my own pistols as well. Cloud Chaser and I were only providing a distracting target for the monster. The wounds it had sustained already would bring it down in no time.

But the wasteland didn’t play fair.

The sea monster moved so fast it sounded like thunder followed its movements. It lashed out from the water in a blur, and when it moved back, I could see Rosemary’s body hanging from its mouth, her side pierced by a fang.

I tossed aside any concerns for my safety. Spreading my wings and bringing my guns forth, I slipped into SATS and unloaded with each of my weapons, points of blood ripping along the nose of the monster. I knew my pistols could only do so much damage, and I found a third gun rising before me. The twin barrels pointed directly between the eyes of the monster, and I pulled the trigger.

It fell without a roar, the tiny unicorn tumbling from its mouth, toward the rushing waters below.

My levitation went out to her, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I strained to slow her fall as much as I could when a blue and black streak zipped past me. Cloud Chaser had caught the wounded mare, but she was heading towards the opposite riverbank, and there was a lot of water for her to cross.

Cloud Chaser’s wings beat furiously in an attempt to stay aloft, but she was losing altitude quickly. I didn’t have to observe long to see that they weren’t going to make it. Rosemary was dead weight and about to bring Cloud Chaser down with her.

I followed them, giving as much aid with my magic as I could, but I wasn’t Celestia and I wasn’t Littlepip. But then I saw a field of green appear around my field of blue, and their flight path evened out.

My heart skipped a beat. Rosemary was not only conscious, but using her magic. And it was stronger than mine.

Cloud Chaser landed with a thud on the rocky dirt of the other side, Rosemary tossing roughly from her back. I alighted next to the unicorn. There was a large hole where her shoulder met her neck, but it wasn’t too deep, and it appeared she hadn’t been impaled by one of the two main fangs. Blood seeped from the wound but didn’t gush.

Rosemary began convulsing. Her eyes were wide open, white foam forming on her lips.


My mind raced. I had to do something, but the merchant didn’t have any healing potions to sell to us. I tried to think of what Velvet Remedy would do, but I didn’t have her arsenal of magic or healing supplies. I couldn’t stop poison with levitation, could I? I couldn’t stop the venom in her blood from reaching her heart and killing her.

But there were spells that dealt with blood.

Littlepip had coached Life Bloom into making a blood cast before out of the blood blade spell. If he could do it, so could I.

I cast my magic out, taking the blood, forming it and shaping it, but it was just levitation. Nothing special was happening.

Perhaps if I got a little closer. I put my horn down and touched it to the wound. With a gasp, I felt a surge of energy pour forth from me.

Rosemary stopped moving.

I looked up. Was she dead?

No. Her wound was still open, and blood still came forth in shallow pulses. Her heart was still working.

“Make some bandages,” I ordered Cloud Chaser. The pegasus had sat, teary-eyed and unsure of what to do. She quickly tore a long strip from the hem of her black hooded cloak and we tied it around Rosemary’s neck tightly. Blood soaked the fabric, but it seemed to stop.

“She needs a doctor,” Cloud Chaser said. “And we’re across the river. Stable Two isn’t far from here.” She was right. Even if she managed to stop bleeding, her skin was bruising from the effects of the poison and that bandage wouldn’t stop an infection.

I lay down and Cloud Chaser helped me get Rosemary slung over my back. There was no way I could fly with this much weight, but we had to hurry. The pegasus took my guns and sword, and all I concentrated on was moving as fluidly and evenly as possible. Any sudden movements and her wound could rupture again. If that happened, I don’t think she would make it.

The going was slow. Slower than I would have liked it to be. I think I had somehow stopped the poison from moving within her, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t taking its toll.

The sun sunk lower on the horizon, finally dipping down below the dead hills. Stable Two still seemed so far away.

Cloud Chaser spoke to me once I started getting tired. Her golden eyes cast her gaze upwards at the stars, either in prayer or in wonder. “I didn’t know you could heal,” she said.

“I can’t,” I replied. And I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I had done, but I had done something.

“You stopped the poison. That’s healing magic.”

Was it really? But I didn’t know any healing spells, and I hadn’t been able to close Rosemary’s wound. And besides, even the best magical healers like Velvet Remedy and Life Bloom mostly relied on medicine to sustain the lives of their friends.

“Healing magic doesn’t work like that,” I informed her. “There are no spells to stop poison or to patch up wounds.”

“There are now,” she said simply.

I was about to protest. “Stop,” a weak whisper issued from my back. Cloud Chaser and I froze. “Let me down.”

Cloud Chaser and I weren’t about to argue with her. We set her down gently, and she reached out a hoof towards us. I lied down next to her to hear her better. Her eyes fluttered, and then closed.

“Rosemary?” I whispered.

“Is she asleep?” Cloud Chaser asked.

A slow, shuddering breath issued from the scarlet lips, her chest rising evenly. She was, indeed, asleep.

“I guess she couldn’t rest while riding on my back,” I said. I took comfort in this. Rosemary still needed medicine, but it was obvious that the poison had come out in her blood or by my magic, and the doctors of Stable Two could easily stop any infection at this point. Right now, sleep truly was the best thing for Rosemary.

And me too. My body was weary, not only from carrying her weight for half a day, but especially with the strain of worry. I lay down next to her, and smiled as she curled into me.

Cloud Chaser flopped down on the other side of Rosemary, providing her with warmth. The day had sapped her strength as well.

I felt closer to Rosemary in that moment, and I realized that I didn’t need to trust her, and I didn’t care if she could undoubtedly trust me. When her life was on the line, I would have risked anything to save her. Despite all the things we had said to each other, all the ways we butted heads, I was happy that in some small way I could protect her. I knew she was a good pony at heart, a better one than me, and I felt more in line with who I had hoped to be lying next to her, helping her sleep, making sure that she would live to see the sunrise tomorrow.

“Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser spoke up.

“Yeah?” I didn’t open my eyes. Sleep called, and Cloud Chaser was distracting me from answering.

“What’s your cutie mark talent?”

It took a while for me to answer, and when I did my voice was soft and embarrassed. “I don’t know.”

“Could it be healing?”

“I doubt it.” I knew that the most logical explanation of Rosemary’s recovery was that I had healed her, but I didn’t even know how I had done it. That didn’t make me a healer. It wasn’t my talent.

“Then is it fighting?”

I was puzzled. “What makes you think that?”

Her voice explained sleepily. “When you killed the sea monster, you were levitating three guns and firing them all at once. I’ve never seen a unicorn be able to use more than two weapons at the same time.”

This turned over in my head, but the need for rest forced me to conclude with a “Maybe,” before slipping into sweet unconsciousness.

I was the first to awake the next morning. My friends slept peacefully in the dirt together. By Cloud Chaser’s snoring I could tell she was a naturally heavy sleeper. I hated to wake Rosemary, but the sooner we got her to Stable Two, the better. I shook Cloud Chaser awake first, but after gentle prodding didn’t work, I was practically hitting her when her eyes snapped open. Then she groaned.

We woke Rosemary, but she was still pretty weak. Lifting her onto my back again, we headed out. The sun was a hazy smudge on the horizon, and the sky was still waking up.

No one knew what to say, so I turned on the radio, and a singer named Daisy Dell sang to us in a chipper, hopeful voice. For a moment, despite everything, there was some peace.

“Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser sidled alongside me, whispering, “Rosemary isn’t really getting better.”

“She will once we get to the stable,” I reassured her.

“But I think she’s getting worse.”

I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. Panic wouldn’t help Rosemary or any of us right now. “Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.”

“How can you say that?” she said, and I think she was starting to tear up. “What if she…”

“That won’t happen,” I said firmly, more to calm my own thoughts than to assure her.

“How can you be so sure?” Cloud Chaser asked. “Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of course I am,” I admitted. “But there’s nothing we can do. I promise you, Rosemary will be fine.”

“You can’t promise that,” Cloud Chaser said, hanging her head.

“Yes I can.” My voice was so confident, so strong, that I almost believed it myself.

For hours, I never felt Rosemary move on my back, but Cloud Chaser checked on her often, and she was still breathing. My nerves began to get the better of me, and I fervently wished I could speak out loud to Littlepip, but I didn’t. Nothing I could say would help. Even if Littlepip could see us, the only thing that would help Rosemary was for me to put one hoof in front of the other, and keep going.

My muscles ached after an hour. Once the sun rose full and clear in the sky I began to sweat. After the third hour my breathing became heavy.

“Do you want me to take her?” Cloud Chaser offered.

I just shook my head. Cloud Chaser was barely bigger than Rosemary. Even painfully, I could move faster than the pegasus could well-rested.

One hoof in front of the other.

The dry dirt felt so rough and unforgiving under my hooves, and the hills stretched on and on forever, every incline a battle that I refused to lose. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, at the base of every hill I told myself that Stable Two was just over the crest. It didn’t seem to help, but I still managed to make it.

Then we saw husks of charred trees. They stood at regular distances, as if they had been planted intentionally. We had reached Sweet Apple Acres.

Somehow, I found the energy to go faster. Flickers of hope raced through my body. The barn rose in the distance.

And red soldiers walked from it towards us.

Cloud Chaser flew out to meet them, and by the time they reached us, a mare’s voice was telling me, “We’ll take it from here.”

We transferred Rosemary to the Ranger’s back and followed them into the barn. I could see that Rosemary’s eyes were open, and she stared back at me. I smiled at her, and she returned it weakly.

The stable door was massive, but like a gate to heaven it was open for us. We descended into the halls, gray and dimly lit, just as Littlepip had described. I saw scores of Rangers, most of them not dressed in the full-body red armor, and the knights who were escorting us gave orders and told them to make way.

But for Cloud Chaser and me, the journey ended in the clinic waiting room.

We sat for a long time. Finally, my friend prompted me, “Maybe you should talk to their leader about Thunderfall.” I shook my head. Friends came first.

A nurse came out and asked us all sorts of questions about what had happened, and between the two of us we spilled the entire story. The nurse just wrote everything down and returned to the ward. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing in there. It took another two hours, but Cloud Chaser and I didn’t budge. There would always be time to explore the Stable and get on with what we came for, but we needed to know if Rosemary would be okay.

At long last, the doctor came out. “She’s going to need to sleep for a little longer, but you can see her now. You must have been worried.” He gave a kind smile. Celestia bless him. He led us to her room.

Rosemary lay in the simple white bed, her eyes heavy. She was hooked up to all sorts of machinery that looked too advanced for the simple stable, but Stable-Tec always went all-out on everything they built. Her gaze swam about listlessly before settling on us. “I hate needles,” she moaned.

A tiny couch was situated near the bed, and we moved it right up to the edge. “How do you feel?” Cloud Chaser asked.

Rosemary simply nodded. It didn’t answer the question, but we still felt relieved.

She seemed to slip back into sleep, a slight smile on her face, comforted by our presence, but there was something I had to say to her before she drifted off.

“Rosemary?” I took a deep breath, and spoke softly. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

She turned to me. “It’s okay.”

“We should let her sleep,” Cloud Chaser said. We didn’t leave her side, though. Rosemary drifted off, and Cloud Chaser rested her head on my shoulder, emotionally spent for the day. It was only for a few hours, we knew. Rosemary would regain her strength in no time with all the healing potions and other medicines they had running through her.

I recalled the nurse who had asked us about the sea monster. When I had told her that the poison had left Rosemary’s body, she had asked how and forced me to go into great detail. When I couldn’t give her a straight answer of how it was done, she had just gotten frustrated and moved on.

My thoughts lingered on this. I wasn’t willing to take credit for Rosemary’s life. I offered it up to the Princesses; it had been a miracle. And I certainly wasn’t a miracle worker.

But as we lay in Rosemary’s room, Cloud Chaser pressed against me, I extended a hoof and let it touch Rosemary’s, shutting my eyes. I couldn’t sleep like this, but I found rest.

The wasteland had torn at us with yet another challenge. And somehow we had survived. And I smiled now, because I knew that we were stronger for it. I knew that this moment wouldn’t fade, that we would all be closer, inextricably connected in a way that couldn’t be undone easily. We would fight in the future. Our personalities hadn’t changed. Rosemary was still stubborn, I was still foolish and self-centered, and Cloud Chaser was still flighty and pried a little too often for my tastes. But here we were, lying together, my hoof connected to Rosemary’s because none of us wanted to be separated from the other.

It truly was like a miracle. We would talk to the Rangers soon, and the next phase of our journey would begin. But now I had hope that we would continue. No matter what happened, I didn’t want to pass the burden of stopping Thundefall off to the knights and forget about it. I didn’t want to defer responsibility, and now I had the strength to follow up, to take responsibility. I had friends now. The wasteland could strike at us, but it wouldn’t take any of us until all of us had fought back hoof and tail.

We slept. Rosemary recovered. We were all weak. But we were unbreakable.

Chapter 5: The Order of Red Knights

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“A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

No matter how I tried, no matter how badly I wanted to rest, sleep simply would not come to me. While I had no problem with Cloud Chaser using me as a pillow at first, (her light snoring even gave me a smile,) but once she had fallen into a deeper sleep, the weight of her body hung on me, and her snoring got louder. After carrying Rosemary for the better part of two days, the soreness in my muscles had turned into a low, throbbing pain. Needless to say, Cloud Chaser’s heavy sleep was getting on my nerves, and I seriously considered shoving her off of me. Instead of being so rude, I gently tried to move her head onto the back of the seat. The entirety of her weight was on me, though, and her head slid into my lap. At that point, I gave up. Sleep would just have to come later.
I saw Rosemary awake through half-closed lids. She blinked sleepily at me, and I gave a smile. At least she looked better than I felt.

“Morning,” I greeted her. She groaned. “How are you feeling?”

She gave me a withering look. “Like I was almost eaten.”

I offered a smile. “You look great for somepony who was almost eaten.” I don’t think she took it as a compliment. “Do you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” she reassured me. I think she was just weary, and maybe a little sore, but I knew firsthand how miraculous healing potions were. “But I don’t really remember the past couple of days. Just bits and pieces.”

What would I say to her? I didn’t want to bring up that I had to carry her, or that I may have healed her. So I simply said, “You didn’t miss much.”

“Really?” she said. “I remember that you and Cloud Chaser were really worried.”

We turned to the pegasus. She let out a loud snore and rolled over. I steadied her to keep her from falling out of her seat. And I thought pegasi were supposed to be graceful. “We’re obviously not now.”

“How far did you carry me?” Rosemary asked.

I turned away. I didn’t want her to start saying that she owed me her life or anything. “It wasn’t too far.”

“The trip must have taken days. You look exhausted.”

“I’m fine,” I replied automatically. Lies. Without sleep, I felt like I would collapse soon.

She looked away too. “Thank you,” she said to me.

“You don’t have to thank me. You would have done the same thing in my position.”

“You still deserve thanks. You carried my weight for two days. I think most ponies would have collapsed.”

“I didn’t have a choice. If I didn’t, you probably would have died,” I explained.

“I heard stuff about you healing me, too,” she mentioned. I think she remembered a lot more than she let on.

“We don’t know what happened, alright? Just don’t worry about it.”

“Ebonmane.” She fixed me firm in her glowing green eyes. I couldn’t turn away from the challenge. “Look… I’m sorry. For everything. You’re a good pony, and I’ve been treating you like you weren’t.”

I didn’t expect an apology, but I didn’t want to accept it. “I haven’t been the greatest to you, either,” I reminded her. “I’m sorry, too.”

She looked frustrated with me, but she didn’t say anything else except for “Thanks.”

I nodded my thanks, just as the doctor came in to check on Rosemary. After a quick examination, he declared her well and removed the needles so that she could leave. Rosemary looked relieved.

Cloud Chaser didn’t awake through any of this until I shook her halfway through the examination. After her eyes opened, there was a lot of sluggish movement and yawning before she was fully awake. While the doctor was unplugging Rosemary, Cloud Chaser offered sleepy-voiced conversation to her. “It’s good that you’re awake. There are a lot of hot stallions here that you have to see.”

I resisted the urge to blush. “Really?” Rosemary asked. “We’ll see. I have very specific tastes.”

“We can check them out while he talks to the Elder. It’s not like he needs us there.”

“Deal.” Rosemary smiled. I knew they were mostly joking, but at least my ego wouldn’t have to deal with them admiring stallions within my earshot.

My hooves quavered underneath me as I struggled to rise, but eventually I got my balance as we left the clinic. The nurse offered to lead us to the Elder’s office. I was surprised that we weren’t be redirected to a lower-ranking officer first, but something about us must have said that we had come for an important reason. Or we were just lucky.

I finally got a good look at the stable that was once Littlepip’s home now that I had left the clinic. Part of me understood what she meant when she described the walls as drab and grey, but recently they had been painted red with apples and other symbols of encouragement that brought swaths of color to the dull shelter. Aside from that, I was amazed at the density and efficiency of the technology within the stable. Stable-Tec didn’t mess around. Everything from the locks on the doors to the equipment within each ward was more advanced than anything I had encountered so far, and each piece was rust-free and Stable-Tec durable. Just one terminal or maintenance device could sell for a sizeable amount of caps.

What amazed me even more, though, were the ponies who lived here. Only about one in ten of the Applejack’s Rangers were walking around in their red armor, but every stallion and mare looked tough and valiant, even the scribes. These were fighting ponies, through and through. These were the fabled knights that I had only dreamed of seeing this close, of meeting and talking to.

So of course my awe would be undercut by my companions.

“He’s a cutie,” Cloud Chaser would say quietly to Rosemary as a tall stallion in armor, minus his helmet, walked past.

“He’s pretty good,” Rosemary agreed. Then she would see another tall dark and handsome walking down the hall toward her. “Oh, hello there.” I saw him wink as he walked past. “The things I would do to that stallion,” Rosemary whispered. I mentioned my ego earlier, but it was nonexistent at this point. No mare would ever love me. Not while these gods of battle and sex walked the torn earth.

I think Rosemary and Cloud Chaser followed me to torment me, because they only left when we were right in front of the Elder’s door. Once I was alone, I took a breath and knocked. The door was opened by a middle-aged mare with a coat and mane that were vibrant shades of something between pink and red. Her cutie mark looked to be a porcelain cup with a saucer, of all things.

“You must be from that new group,” she concluded instantly. She scanned the halls. “I thought you had friends.”

“They’re… sightseeing,” I chose my word carefully.

“Ah. Come in,” she offered. I followed. She seemed very relaxed for a leader of a military division. “Elder Hibiscus Tea,” she offered her hoof. I wondered how the Ranger Elders got such strange names.

“Ebonmane.” I took it. She sat down at her desk, which was completely clean except for a terminal. In fact, the office was rather bare except for a squat metal bookshelf with a few thick volumes and a few boxes filled with memory storage cards for PipBucks and terminals. I sat down in a chair across from her.

“What can I do for you?” she asked. Again, I was surprised at how willing she was to listen. I had expected a lot more begging.

I remembered my manners. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“No trouble,” she returned the formality. She waited patiently.

“Well,” I began awkwardly. “I’m here because my friends and I have uncovered a bit of an operation going on in Manehattan that’s supporting the raiders everywhere else.”

“Oh?” she said as if I had informed her that the weather would be poor today.

“Yes,” I continued anyways. “There’s a… well, a pimp, really, named Thunderfall. He buys mares that raiders capture and forces them into prostitution. He’s giving the raiders caps and a goal to pursue.” The Elder said nothing. “If we could go to Manehattan and eliminate him, the raiders would be losing a lot of what’s feeding them, and it would be easier to clean them up from there. Plus, we’d be freeing a lot of mares from a terrible life,” I concluded for her.

“I see.” She said. She stood and began to pace. I was starting to sweat with nervousness. I was too tired to handle rejection right now. “You want me to send the troops, storm the streets, and wipe this Thunderfall off the face of Equestria in one massive display of firepower?”

Why were ponies always putting words in my mouth? I was too irritable to be treated like this at the moment. “No. It doesn’t have to be some massive operation. Just a unit or two would probably be enough. You don’t have to make a big deal about it, but don’t you think something should be done?” I realized that I was close to shouting at her.

She turned to me, and fixed me in the most intense and intimidating stare I had ever seen. “Of course I think something should be done. We’re Applejack’s Rangers for Luna’s sake. What would our founder think if we ignored this?”

I calmed some. “Then what are you going to do?”

She sighed. This seemed like bad news. “Try to understand. My Rangers are stretched thin as it is. Right now, we’re the only thing keeping the roads safe. And if the roads fall to the raiders, the towns won’t be far behind. We have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of ponies to cover it.” My ears flattened and I hung my head. “Hey,” she said firmly. “I’m going to help. I just can’t spare any units.”

I looked up. “Then what can you give me?”

She thought for a moment. “I can give you one soldier.”

My mouth fell open. Was she crazy? “One soldier? Thunderfall has a small army! One knight and three other ponies won’t be nearly enough.”

“You haven’t fought with one of our knights before then,” she smiled. “Come on. Let me take you to meet Paladin Ironbright.” She walked past me. Her confidence should have been reassuring, but no matter how much of a professional baddass this Ironbright guy was, there was no way he would be enough.

We wound through the halls again, and I saw Cloud Chaser and Rosemary sitting in the large atrium, still pony-watching. They didn’t see us walk on the level above them. Hibiscus Tea did seem right, though. The atrium was pretty sparsely populated, and we hadn’t passed many ponies in the halls. The ones we did were mostly scribes, not fighting knights. It seemed that the Rangers reported back here once they were off duty guarding the roads, but even with the ones that must have been out fighting, their combat forces must have been no more than a hundred. Across all the rangers, maybe five hundred.

Five hundred ponies stood between the raiders and the peace that made my relatively safe life possible. Safe until now, that is.

I heard running water, and I realized we were heading toward the showers. “Ironbright just got back from a week’s patrol about an hour ago,” the Elder explained. Well, I was sure this would be uncomfortable.

We rounded a corner, steam beginning to cloud the halls. I was surprised that the steel walls and floor weren’t rusting. Elder Hibiscus Tea stopped in front of the showers. “Ironbright,” she called. “I have somepony that I’d like you to talk to.”

Through the steam I could see him. He was a metal gray stallion about as tall as me, maybe a few inches shorter, but he made up for it in sheer muscle. His white mane was long and flowing, and when wet I’m sure it could have even made mares jealous. I made a note not to mess with this Ironbright. I was definitely intimated.

And as if to add insult to injury, she turned around.

Ironbright was definitely a mare. Her face might have been somewhat masculine, especially with the scar on her cheek, but she wasn’t bad looking. Now that I could see her, I would say that she was almost old enough to be Cloud Chaser’s mother if she gave birth at a young age. But time had obviously been good to her, because as she approached I could see with no doubt that she was much, much stronger than I could ever hope to be. And I noticed her cutie mark. It was a battle standard, with Celestia’s sun on the flag. She was a born knight of Equestria.

“This is Ebonmane. He’s from that group of wastelanders, and he’s here about a prostitution racket.”

Ironbright eyed me up, flashing silver. I could feel myself being measured. “And he wants our help?”

“Yes. Make sure he gets the run down,” Elder Hibiscus Tea said. Then added, “He’s had a hard travel, so I figured you could talk in the showers.” Before she left, she said to me in a low voice, “Besides, no offense dear, but you could use it.” Thanks.

And then I was alone with this beast of a mare. With a sigh, I stepped under the faucet next to her. The instant I did, any uncomfortable feelings I had about showering with a mare disappeared. The hot water reminded me how sore my muscles were, but then relieved me. I could have cried.

Ironbright let her mane fall over her face then tossed it back before speaking. “So what’s this about a prostitution racket?”

I didn’t even turn to her. I was dead and in heaven. “There’s a pimp named Thunderfall who’s buying mares captured by raiders. He’s in Manehattan, and the Elder said you would help us.”

She let out a breath, and I looked at her. Despite the large age difference and her bulk, I decided that she could be attractive in the right conditions. “I’m afraid it won’t be that simple,” she said. “Even though we are Applejack’s Rangers, we still follow many of the laws that bound the Steel Rangers. Those laws come with tape.”

“Are you serious?” It looked like Hibiscus Tea had just gotten my hopes up.

“Calm down. We are Applejack’s Rangers, and we have ways of getting around that tape. All we ask is that you help us before we can help you.”

I wasn’t going to like this. “What do you need us to do?”

“We found some information about a pre-war weapon made by Shining Armor.”

My ears picked up. “You know about Shining Armor?”

“I’m surprised you do,” she said. “All we have are some coded notes about something called Operation Blackheart. It seems that the operation was successful; they finished the weapon. But they never used it. Any guesses why?”

“It was too powerful. Do you think it was the first megaspell?” I asked.

“We think it might have been more powerful than any of the megaspells that were dropped. That’s the only reason they would have hidden it. At any rate, it’s been buried in the caves underneath Canterlot. Nopony has been able to reach it because of the taint, but ever since the Gardens of Equestria, now the caves should be open to us.”

There was still a question I had to ask. “What do you intend to do with it once you find it?”

“Not use it, if that’s what you’re asking,” she replied. “Applejack would never approve. We’re either going to study it or destroy it. Whatever’s necessary.”

I smiled. Ironbright, despite her fearsome appearance, was obviously a good pony.

“What about ghouls?” I asked.

“Nothing I can’t handle. And if I have three others with me we could have the weapon back here in less than three days. And then it would be off to Manehattan to deal with this Thunderfall.”

That was it? Just a trek to Canterlot? I knew enough about the wasteland to know that the Canterlot caverns were likely to be more dangerous than she let on, but Ironbright didn’t seem like the reckless type. If her timeline was correct, Thunderfall could be dead in a week. Then who knows how much longer it would be before the raiders died out. A year? Six months? Then ponies like Silver Bell and me or even Rosemary and Cloud Chaser could travel the roads safely.

“One more thing, though,” she turned to me. Of course. “It is forbidden for me to take you on this mission to Canterlot because you are a civilian. Applejack would never endanger the lives of her fellow Equestrians like that. This means that before any of this can happen, one of you must join Applejack’s Rangers, and it sounds like you’re the most likely candidate.”

I was stunned. “Me? A Ranger?”

“You’ve seen battle before. That much is obvious. And I’ve already heard about how you carried that mare here. My comrades all believe that you’ve come here to join in the first place. You’ve shown enough bravery and fortitude to impress the other knights. You could do well.”

“It’s just…” I started. “I’ve thought about it before I even came here. But I don’t want to be a soldier. I want to have a life, a family someday. I don’t want to die out there. I don’t want to fight until I’m an old stallion.”

“You won’t,” Ironbright said. “There are plenty of Rangers my age who have families and still serve. And most retire from combat once they’re a little older than me.”

“That won’t matter if I die,” I reminded her.

“Stick with me then. I promise I won’t let that happen.” She smiled. “I can already see the wheels turning in the Elder’s head. She wants me to take you under my wing. I know we’ve just met, but the Elder seems to think that you’re a good pony and that we would work well together. I trust her. I just need you to trust me.”

This was the first time any pony had given me their trust and confidence straight away. For some reason, the Elder believed in me, and because of that, Ironbright believed in me. I wanted to trust Ironbright.

“But what about you?” I asked. “You’re so willing to help me. I don’t understand.”

She swung her mane around to rinse it. “In all honesty, if you help me retrieve this weapon, I don’t think this Manehattan trip will cover what I owe you.” She looked straight ahead now, speaking from her heart. “This weapon means a lot to the Rangers. I’m lucky the Elder entrusted me with the Project Blackheart notes alone, let alone the retrieval mission. I believe she’s testing me.” Then she turned to me again. “Ebonmane, I think that if we succeed, she’ll promote me to Star Paladin.” Then she looked down and closed her eyes, her wet mane obscuring her face. “It’s more than I ever dreamed I would be when I joined the Rangers, but I’ve been working for years for this. Maybe I could even be Elder someday… and it all starts with this.”

I was taken aback by her honesty and humility. It was certainly more character than I possessed, and I don’t say that to degrade myself, but in recognition of her greatness. I believed in her, and it was plain that she believed in me.

“Then I would be happy to help.”

With a smile and a breath, she turned off the faucet. “Come find me once you’re done. We have to fit you for armor, Initiate.”

Her hooves faded against the steel floor and I was alone. My aching body may have been soothed by the steamy water, but my weary mind could find no solace. The decision I had just made would likely alter the course of my entire life, and I knew it wouldn’t be making it easier. But if this is what it took to protect my home, to protect the ones I cared about, I stood by my decision.

I stayed under the stream for a while longer, still desperate for rest, but I knew it wouldn’t come. With a heavy sigh, I turned the water off. I left to receive my armor and begin my new life as a Ranger of Applejack. As a soldier.

I headed back through the atrium to catch up with Ironbright, still wet and still sulky. I passed through the lower level to pick up Cloud Chaser and Rosemary. It looked like they had remained pony watchers, as they looked alone and rather unhappy about it.

“What’s going on? What did the Elder say?” Rosemary asked.

“Why are you wet?” Cloud Chaser followed up.

“I was in the shower. Follow me. You’re going to meet our new friend.” I continued walking.

“What’s going on?” Cloud Chaser sidled up to me.

A stallion called from behind us. “Hey. You’re those wastelanders, aren’t you?”

Why were they calling us that? I turned to look at him. He was tall, fiery colored and out of his armor, but definitely built like a soldier. Rosemary answered. “Yeah. Why?”

“Just thought I’d say hello,” he said, drawing closer to her, as Cloud Chaser was closer to me and therefore Rosemary was isolated and easy to pick off. “Maybe invite you and your friends back to my room for a drink.”

There was no way Rosemary was going to actually flirt with this guy, right? She basically hated stallions. My heart skipped a beat when I saw her smile.

“You know, you’re cute,” she looked up at him with half-open eyes. No. Way. “But overconfidence like that, you seem like one of those ‘compensating’ types. I mean, really, how many inches are we talking?”

“No way,” Cloud Chaser whispered to me.

“No need to be a bitch,” the stallion spat and walked away. Rosemary seemed unfazed.

Cloud Chaser, duly impressed, went to her. “Wow, Rosemary. Cold.”

“Please. He didn’t even introduce himself or ask what my name was. He wasn’t worth the time of day,” Rosemary replied.

It still seemed a little excessive to me. I almost felt bad for the guy, but I guess she had a point.

Regardless, they followed me as I navigated the halls. I realized I had no idea where I was going and Ironbright hadn’t mentioned where to find her, so I just followed some of the other soldiers to where I thought were the living quarters, hoping to find her room.

“So, new friend?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Her name is Ironbright,” I informed them.

“Her?” Rosemary commented. “We’re getting a female ranger?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Cloud Chaser asked innocently.

“She’s not really masculine is she?” Rosemary asked hopefully.

“She’s fine,” I answered. I don’t see why Rosemary cared.

“Is she hot?” Cloud Chaser asked. I just rolled my eyes to dodge that one.

“Do you even know where you’re going?” Rosemary asked.

“She’s gotta be somewhere around here,” I replied.

“Nope,” Cloud Chaser responded. Before I could even reassure them that I knew what I was doing, Rosemary was asking another pony for directions. Sure enough, Ironbright was seen heading towards the armory, and yes, he would be happy to show us.

“All of the rangers are so nice,” Cloud Chaser commented. I fully expected them to rub in my mistake, but they didn’t. They just liked to let it simmer so I would feel like an idiot on my own. And it worked.

We walked into a small room lit by a single bulb with a lot of bare metal shelves. Maybe a box or two. Honestly, when it came to the armory, I expected a little… more.

“This is it?” Cloud Chaser voiced our thoughts.

“Steel Ranger armor isn’t exactly easy to make. Or come by,” she replied. She stepped forward. “I’m Ironbright” she introduced herself. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser did likewise.

“I think we’ll just have to fit you in some temporary armor,” she said, walking in a circle around me. “Do you know your measurements?”

“No,” I answered. I had never needed them. Any clothing I wore never fit me anyway. Too skinny and too tall.

“I think you and I are the same size. Here,” she said. She grabbed the handle of a metal box off the shelves and dragged it to the floor where it fell with a heavy thud. She opened the lid to reveal a mess of slightly rusty plates and straps.

“Could you give me a hoof, Rosemary?” she asked. Rosemary levitated the plates out, suspending them. At least they looked light enough. I moved to take one from her, but Ironbright stopped me. “Just stand still. Getting a pony in this old armor requires a team.”

And it did. Rosemary held the plates around me as Cloud Chaser and Ironbright set and strapped them to my body. Honestly, the whole process involved a little more touching than I would have liked, but soon it became evident that there was no way a single pony could suit themselves up in this. It was especially frustrating for Cloud Chaser to shift the plates to allow my wings freedom.

It also became evident just how heavy this was. I must have been wearing seventy, maybe eighty pounds of armor. And then she put the helm on. Another twenty, as my neck strained under the weight.

“Is this necessary?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “This is the best we have. It might not move as intuitively, but be thankful that it’s a lot lighter. You’re lucky your horn even pokes through.”

I was sweating already. Cloud Chaser spoke up, annoyed. “Well, now we have to get this all off of him.”

“No,” Ironbright stopped her. “He needs to get used to wearing it. Put some muscle on.”

“I’m not that weak,” I protested, embarrassed and now defensive.

“Want to hoof wrestle?” she asked. I looked at her arms, her corded muscles. I knew I didn’t stand a chance. “Didn’t think so,” she finished. “Consider this a part of your training, Initiate. If you are to be a ranger, your body must be in top shape. I’ll get you there. Just do as I say, and you’ll make a great ranger someday.”

“Wait, wait,” Rosemary said. “Ebonmane? You’re becoming a ranger?” She didn’t seem pleased with this idea.

“I had to, or else they wouldn’t help us,” I told her.

“Then we don’t need their help. You should have said no. Chasing Thunderfall is one thing, but even if you survive that, you’re going to get yourself killed eventually if you keep fighting.”

“I can take care of myself,” I told her. I actually felt a little hurt. It was bad enough that she was probably right, but I expected at least a little more support.

“Let me talk to them, Ebonmane. You start heading out,” Ironbright told me. I just nodded, and they left.

I followed them. What would Ironbright say to them? Even if she was my new commander, Rosemary and Cloud Chaser were my friends, and I wasn’t going to let her yell at them.

I heard Ironbright’s voice from around the corner. “How much experience does Ebonmane have in the wasteland?”

“Not enough,” Rosemary answered. “I mean, neither do I, but that’s why I’m not signing up.”

“He’s not the soldier type,” Cloud Chaser explained. “He wants to protect everypony, yeah, but he’s lucky he’s survived this much. This kind of thing isn’t, like, his thing, you know?” she fumbled.

“You don’t think this is his destiny?” Ironbright asked.

“No,” Rosemary asked. “He’s got a good heart, but he’s got a family, and I think he wants to have a family, too. He’s the settling down type.”

Ironbright seemed to think on this for a moment. “Would you describe him as reckless?”

“Kind of,” Cloud Chaser answered.

“A little,” Rosemary said. “But I think he thinks this stuff through, too. He likes to have a plan.”

“So he’s not looking for glory or blood? That sounds like a good soldier to me,” Ironbright said. “Listen. Ebonmane made this decision on his own. He’s taken a big step forward in his life, for himself. You said it yourself, he wants to protect ponies. Let him. How is that a bad thing?”

“He could die, for starters,” Cloud Chaser said.

“There are worse fates than dying to protect the things you love,” Ironbright said solemnly. “Even if he does die young, in the wasteland, sometimes that’s a good thing. If he wants this, if he thinks this is a part of his destiny, you shouldn’t hold him back.” Ironbright sighed. “You two are coming with us to Canterlot, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Rosemary answered. “Canterlot?”

“We’re going after a pre-war artifact buried in the caves. And I suggest you worry about yourselves along the way,” she said, “after all, you’re just as inexperienced as he is. And at least now he has armor.”

“We’re careful,” Cloud Chaser reassured her.

“I have to ask you, though, why are you even out here?” Ironbright said convictingly.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Cloud Chaser said simply, betraying the vast loneliness it implied.

“We’re here because it’s the right thing to do,” Rosemary answered.

“You’ve got spirit, I’ll give you that,” Ironbright said. “Just stay behind me. I’ve taken plenty of bullets before, and if we’re careful, we can do this without any casualties.” She began to walk away.

Towards me.

Ironbright saw me and stopped. Caught. She gave me a look, but didn’t say anything. She just kept walking. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser, on the other hand, were contemplating on what they had said, now that they knew I had been eavesdropping.

“How you feeling?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“I’m fine,” I said. “What do you guys think about Ironbright?”

“She’s…” Rosemary started. “Alright I guess. Kind of stallion-ish, but I guess that’s to be expected.”

“Not all mares have to be ladylike, Rosemary,” Cloud Chaser admonished.

“You would know,” Rosemary answered, walking ahead.

“Hey, I have perfect manners!” Rosemary just laughed at that.

Once again, leaving me with my thoughts for a moment. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser clearly weren’t completely confident in me, even after Ironbright’s little talk. I don’t even think Ironbright was behind me all the way. But Ironbright had stood up for me, which wasn’t nothing.

But I realized now that my friends didn’t doubt me. They were just uncertain. I had been telling them that I could take care of myself, and that I did know what I was doing. They wanted to believe me. But they just needed some kind of evidence that I was stronger than I looked.

I would give them my best. Ultimately, they were following me, and they deserved to have a leader they could trust completely. But every step in the steel shell I wore thudded heavily, and my muscles were already tired again from lack of sleep. My armor weighed on me, and every drop of sweat my body produced sapped my confidence a little more.

The armor then proceeded to sap my body of all the water it contained. I don’t mean to be gross, but in the five hour walk outside the stable towards Canterlot we took before stopping for the evening, I must have generated at least the average bucket’s worth of sweat, not to mention we stopped four times so I could pee. When I checked the color, it warned me of a case of dehydration that was growing ever more serious.

Ironbright had filled us canteens full of purified water, but I had downed mine within the space of an hour. I drank like a camel when dressed normally, but the summer heat was killing me.

I was panting after twenty minutes, and Ironbright called back to me. “Keep up the pace, Initiate. We aren’t going to slow down for you.”

I didn’t even bother to reply. I was shocked at how much of a taskmaster she was being. I was also shocked at how easy she made it look. Ironbright was dressed in her full crimson armor. When she looked back, the green lenses in her helm flickered like an insect’s at me. She was leading, and setting a pace that was even tiring Rosemary out, but the armor gave her an aura that no one wanted to challenge.

Even if she was being hard on me, I understood why. This was my training. I was going to be an Applejack’s Ranger, and if I couldn’t keep up, I couldn’t contribute. When the wasteland was teeming with evil that spread and festered like a virus, only the strongest could stand against it. I knew better than to object.

Cloud Chaser didn’t.

After an hour, I began to lag, and Ironbright called after me. “Come on, what kind of stallion are you? You’re letting a bunch of mares beat you! You got balls between your legs or what?”

Rosemary was either too offended or too intimidated to say anything, but the young pegasus immediately rushed to my defense, hovering over the ranger. “Hey, what’s the big idea? He’s wearing, like, a hundred pounds of armor and you’re in a metal skinsuit. Give him a break. Can’t you see he’s tired?”

Big mistake. “Tired?” Ironbright stopped to turn to the young pegasus. Even with the elevation difference and the helm, Ironbright still managed to stare Cloud Chaser down. “Tired?” she repeated. “Well, let me tell you something, and I hope he’s listening, because he better get used to tired. He’s not going to feel rested for at least a month, maybe even the rest of his life. And maybe that seems hard, but when things get rough, I don’t think raiders are going to give him a potty break. You all could do with some toughening up, but if he’s going to be a ranger, then he really needs to put on some muscle, and this is the fastest way. The only credit I’ll give him at this point is that he didn’t complain, at least before you did. And now look. You’ve made me go and waste my speech.”

She turned to continue the march, but Rosemary spoke up. “Cloud Chaser does have a point, though,” she said plainly. “It’s just four of us, and if one of our tougher fighters is exhausted, won’t that just make him easier to pick off once we get to Canterlot? Not to mention raiders.”

Ironbright seemed to consider this. “It’s a point, but trust me, adrenaline will make up for any fatigue if it comes to that. He’s fine. Don’t let him fool you.”

They all looked back at me. I had no idea what expression I was wearing at the time, but it must not have been too impressive. “He’ll be fine, at least. Just let me know if he collapses.”

Such faith she had in me. But I didn’t say that. I was too tired.

As I mentioned, we only marched for five hours before it was time to unpack and set up camp. We must have left sometime in the afternoon, but with our exhausted sleep in the stable, I was never quite sure what time it was. It was nice to have the sun. I can’t imagine what the wasteland must have looked like in Littlepip’s day.

I flopped on the ground, using whatever energy I had left to lift the helm from my head. Sweet Celestia, my neck was sore.

“Ah ah ah!” Ironbright said. “If you’re going to get used to that armor, you’re sleeping in it.”

“Are you serious?” I asked.

She removed her own helm and glared at me. “Do I look like I’m joking, Initiate?” She did not.

I released the helm from my magical grip and let my head thud into the dirt. I wished my heart would stop beating, because with every pulse my muscles throbbed painfully. Ironbright was right. Even after today, I would be lucky if the pain subsided in a month’s time.

Rosemary faithfully produced a dinner that she deemed edible out of the bland but nutritious rations that Ironbright had provided from the stable. This made me think that when we left New Appleloosa, it was possible that Rosemary had simply filled her bags with spices and some ammo and nothing more. I accepted the plate she placed before me without comment.

While Rosemary cooked, Ironbright shed her armor while I looked on jealously. Despite the descriptions of my party I’ve given, I rarely find myself ogling a mare, but I could be back in that strip club and I would feel the same. My eyes looked hungrily at Ironbright’s body, but all I saw was the kiss of air against her skin that I was denied.

I hoped that my sweat-drenched body would cool with the night breeze, but no such luck. While it wasn’t humid, it wasn’t dry either, so I continued to sweat throughout the night. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser didn’t say much. The march had been tough for them, too, and I guess Ironbright had intimidated them from even the smallest quips or friendly conversation.

Sleep finally came as I looked toward at the mountain that used to support Canterlot. We would reach it by tomorrow, and then maybe I could get this nightmare over with. Except it would never end. This was my life now.

I felt like crying, but I was too tired, so I fell asleep.

I was shoved awake, but my first thought wasn’t about who was waking me. My throat may as well have been made of glass for how dry and cracked it felt. The heat was definitely getting to me. I wondered if I would start hallucinating.

My eyes opened to see Ironbright standing above me, dressed in full armor once more, helm off. Her silver eyes flashed in the dim light of the sunrise.

“Rise and shine, Initiate,” she said in a hushed tone. “While they sleep, you and I have training to do.”

I couldn’t speak. My throat would shatter with the slightest vibration. Instead, I answered her with a heavy breath as my lips moved, pathetically trying to answer.

“Here,” she said. She retrieved her canteen from her saddlebags. “It’s about half-full. It’ll have to do you for today.”

I drank my first sip greedily, but only one sip. “This won’t last me for today,” I finally told her.

“I know you’re dehydrated, but pure water is hard to come by in the wasteland, and we can’t have radiation in you while you’re still weak. You’d collapse.”

Again, I was touched by her faith in me. I suppose I couldn’t blame her, though. I was ready to collapse then. “Training?” I asked.

She walked out of earshot of the slumbering Cloud Chaser and Rosemary. I followed her, hoping that my friends might awaken so that we could begin marching and I wouldn’t have to do this. Neither of them did.

I managed to get to my hooves, but it nearly killed me to do so. The throbbing returned with a vengeance, but I managed to put one hoof in front of the other.

She stopped about two hundred feet from camp. “I’ll take it easy on you this morning, Initiate. We’re going to use some muscles that aren’t killing you yet. Start flying.”

Thank heavens. I opened my wings and took a few power flaps to get me off the ground. The air stirred around my body, but there wasn’t even an upward tug. I had no lift in this steel trap.

“Is that all you’ve got?” she asked me.


“That’s Paladin to you, Initiate,” she interrupted me. As I opened my mouth, she cut me off again. “Don’t you dare give me an excuse. Now fly.”

I tried. I flapped as hard as I could but it was no use.

“This armor’s too heavy,” I said. “No pegasus, no matter how strong, could fly in this. That’s why the Enclave had their special armor. This was made for earth ponies,” I reasoned.

“Do I look stupid?” she asked. I was caught off guard. “I know how much it weighs! Mine weighs at least fifty pounds more, and I can run a marathon in this. And you can’t even get an inch off the ground? Don’t give me that, Initiate. Fly!”

I tried one more time, but I knew it was in vain. “It’s impossible!” I told her.

She got right in my face, the steam from her nostrils heating my neck. “How dare you! Do you think I’m doing this to be a jerk? I’m doing you a favor. The only reason you even made it to that stable is because you got lucky, and we both know that. But Elder Hibiscus Tea thinks you’ve got what it takes to be a ranger, and you say it’s impossible? She believed in you and all you’ve got to show for it is failure after failure. You’re slow. You’re hilariously weak by a stallion’s standards. And the worst part is that you might be able to make something out of this heap of whatever your fancy Junction Town life made you, but you’ll never make it because you lose the battle in your mind before you even begin to try. Impossible? Did Applejack say making the best soldiers in Equestria was impossible? Did Xenith say that survival in Fillydelphia was impossible? Did Littlepip say getting into the SPP was impossible? Did Ditzy Doo, a shopkeeper for Luna’s sake, even think for a moment that a sonic rainboom was impossible? No! And I know what goes on in your head. I know why you’re out here. You want to be like them. You’re just like those foals, those Crusaders, who go out and get themselves killed, leaving good rangers to find the corpses. But this is a stallion’s fight, and you’ve got a colt’s mind. You want to make your heroes proud? Start by making something of yourself that you can live with, because right now, we both know that all you’ve been so far is a disappointment.”

She walked back towards camp. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t even think. I simply stood, my eyes following her. Once her form no longer dominated my vision, I could see the camp past her. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser were looking directly at me with concerned faces.

I tried not to hang my head as I followed her, but my helmet was too heavy, and it was all but impossible once we began to march.

Ironbright’s words burned in my mind, but instead of feeling broken and weak, as she had accused me, or motivated and impassioned, as I’m sure was her intention, I simply felt numb. I turned her rant over and over again in my mind but felt nothing. In some ways she was right. My biggest enemy had always been myself, and I knew I didn’t live up to the ideals I had set for myself, but I knew I wasn’t a disappointment either. I had saved lives. I’m sure if Ironbright were to ask Rosemary whether or not I was a failure, she would have a few choice words for the Paladin.

Speaking of my friends, they were remarkably quiet. Ever since Ironbright had taken over, they had been too intimidated to keep up their usual banter, but they had at least spoken enough to break uncomfortable silences. Now, the only sounds were the wind and the clanking of my armor.

It was still hot. I was still sweating to death, but I forced myself to drink only at scheduled intervals. After all, it would have to last me. At least it was enough to stave off dehydration. While drinking it, I wondered where Ironbright would get her water. I kept an eye on her throughout the day. She never took a drink.

I got used to the aggressive ache in my muscles. At least, as used to pain as a pony can get. As usual, I maintained my silence. Ironbright lightened up, but only a little.

“Come on, Initiate. If we don’t pick up the pace, we won’t reach Canterlot by nightfall. Are you a stallion or are you a mare?” I didn’t know how she wanted me to answer after the tirade.

Rosemary knew how, though. “You know, you’re a mare, Ironbright. Isn’t it a little stupid to insult yourself and the rest of us by teasing him like that?”

“If it works, it works,” she answered. “No skin off my muzzle. I’m at the front of the pack. He’s at the back.”

There wasn’t a whole lot of pride left in me for her to wound, so I said nothing. I think my silence was concerning my friends. Cloud Chaser and Rosemary came up to me during a break.

“You okay there, big guy?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I’m just thirsty.”

“You need to say something,” Rosemary told me. “You can’t let her push you around like that. She thinks you’re weak. You have to prove her wrong.”

“Talking back isn’t going to help. That would mean that she’s getting to me. I’m fine.”

“Ebonmane, if you don’t say anything, I will,” Cloud Chaser said. “And if I don’t, I know Rosemary will. And we all know that would be ugly.”

For the first time all day, I felt a stirring inside. I replied, “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

“But she’s so wrong about you,” Rosemary said. “You’re more of a hero than she is.”

“She is wrong,” I told them. “But not entirely. Some of that stuff was right on the head. But I’m not hurt. Just don’t worry about me, alright? Worry about yourselves.”

I don’t think that was the answer they wanted to hear, but Ironbright, intentionally or otherwise, was testing me. I was determined to pass. Not to show her that she was wrong, but because I had a mission. For the first time in my life, I was wearing this armor and going through hell and back to protect others. I had read the Book of Littlepip enough times to know that what heroes went through wasn’t easy, but at least now I knew how hard it was. And I hadn’t quit yet. Maybe I would down the road. Part of me wanted to right now, but I refused. After Thunderfall, I would see where my path took me, but for now, I was on the hero’s errand. Maybe it was foalish, but the knowledge that I could be as great as they were as long as I didn’t give up yet kept me going.

It was foalish. Ironbright had said that I had a colt’s mind. I knew she was right, but I didn’t care. If it weren’t for my foalish dreams of heroism, I wouldn’t have even gotten this far.

Although, I suppose that wasn’t entirely accurate, either. I would have died a long time ago if it weren’t for Rosemary and Cloud Chaser. I was happy to know that we were close enough that they would stick up for me like this, but the criticisms Ironbright had raised had been in my head longer than possibly any of them realized. I knew my weaknesses, but I had to overcome them; Cloud Chaser and Rosemary couldn’t do it by yelling at Ironbright, and not even Ironbright could do it by yelling at me, or pushing me, or whatever she thought she was doing.

But I would get better, somehow. If I wore this armor long enough, my muscles would get stronger. With experience, I would make less mistakes. And with time, I just might reach a point where I would stop having to prove myself all the time. I think that’s what I really wanted.

The remains of Canterlot lay before us, even the mountain missing a large crescent near the top. In the distance, the crumbled ruins of Zebratown were crushed beneath the bits of white stone and finery that the pristine city had brought when it fell. Ironic, if you ask me.

The entrance to the caves were on the south side, though, and Canterlot had perched on the eastern face of the mountain, so we wouldn’t be trudging through the city to reach our goal.

I expected some sort of briefing about our plan to find this weapon, but the silence we had established was unbreakable. Ironbright simply donned her helm and led us into the caves.

The entrance was blue and crystalline, light reflecting off all surfaces, illuminating the maze. After only a few minutes I felt the air grow cooler and cooler, until even I felt comfortable. This meant that Cloud Chaser and Rosemary were shivering.

The mares nervously drew their weapons, and with the tight corridors we were navigating, I decided to draw my sword.

“How do you know where you’re going?” I asked her.

“PipBuck auto-map,” Ironbright said. “You should have one, too.” Oh. I did. It didn’t give me an exact layout of the entire cave system, but I could see where we had been, and some dead ends that we hadn’t walked down. That was useful.

The floor began to slope downward, and the light began to get dimmer and dimmer. Once my friends were a blurry smudge in front of me, Ironbright suggested that Rosemary and I light our horns. With better vision, I could see that the crystal walls were less worn here, and our reflections walked with us across every facet. I simply looked ahead, keeping an eye on my friends’ backs to avoid confusion.

Ironbright had said that ghouls inhabited these caves, but we hadn’t seen hide nor tail of them. I remembered how dangerous Canterlot ghouls were. They were far stronger than the average pony and felt almost no pain. At least there wasn’t a taint cloud within these tunnels to fuel them. Or maybe none of them had turned zombie, and the survivors of the city’s collapse had fled down here, continuing what society they could craft.

I could only hope to be so lucky.

Ironbright stopped and raised a hoof for us to do likewise. I looked at my own PipBuck but saw nothing, but sure enough, I saw red dots on her foreleg. She was most definitely a professional.

“Stay here,” she ordered. “I’ve got this.”

“Wait,” Cloud Chaser whispered. “Don’t you think we should be quiet about this?”

“If you think your knife is going to take out a Canterlot Ghoul before it rips your throat out, you’ve got another thing coming. This is going to take some firepower. Just get ready to move.”

She walked around the corner, and I positioned myself in front of Rosemary and Cloud Chaser, sword drawn. They let me. After all, I had the armor.

There was a lot of growling. Some hoofbeats. Then the caves exploded in a barrage of bullets. Ironbright must have some heavy firepower. I could hear the thunder echoing deeper down the corridors.

She rounded the corner back to us. “Hurry up. We have to move.” She didn’t have to tell me twice. Not with those chain guns at her sides, extended and still smoking.

We passed the body of the Canterlot ghouls, and I couldn’t help but look. Their bodies were desiccated and rotting, their coats and manes fallen out long ago. Their flesh was patchy and worn, but there wasn’t much else to notice; Ironbright had blown their heads off, the remains of which lay splattered against the walls and floor.

We had all read the Book of Littlepip. Canterlot ghouls could only die by decapitation or vaporization. I hope my tired body could still swing my blade through a ghoul’s neck. My pistols weren’t strong enough to blow a head up.

While not galloping, we were going at a good run through the halls, navigating the corners as quickly as we could. My body reminded me that it was in pain rather rudely, my legs buckling when made a hard turn.

Around the bend, I came face to face with three more ghouls. They shrieked at me, their eyes glowing a sickly pink, the inside of their mouths a charred black, save for their broken, rotten teeth.

Ironbright’s double barrels started spinning, but their brief warm-up period would cost me. In that split second, I saw the ghoul closest to me take the plunge for my throat.

Its head exploded in a burst of guts that thudded against my armor. Rosemary snaked alongside me, using her small size to get around and fire off her second round. At this range, it was point and shoot. Ironbright vaporized the last head in a hail of bullets. My ears were ringing, but I was alive and unharmed.

“We can’t be too far away,” Ironbright called. “There’s a big chamber up ahead. Stick together.”

The dome we ran into was nothing like the cramped halls we had just came through. The crystals had turned a vibrant shade of pink mixed with the blue floors, and I could see bits of metal and wood that must have been ancient mine carts, rusted and broken on the floor around us.

Unfortunately, we had also found ourselves face to face with at least thirty ghouls.

Their unanimous shriek, like hell calling us to our graves, was only drowned out by the cracking of Ironbright’s dual miniguns. I knew her ammo was finite, but she unloaded like she sweat bullets. She aimed high, but the scattered fire was only successful in eliminating a few ghouls. Mostly, her burst just provided stopping power, which was enough to hold them back. The bullets tore at their sagging flesh as they fought towards us, struggling desperately as if swimming against rapids. Their jaws snapped hungrily, and their voices never ceased.

Cloud Chaser took wing, and my heart skipped a beat as she flew right at the group. Was she insane? Drawing her pistol, she fired downwards, putting bullets into rotting brains. While not fatal to the feral ghouls, the loss of nervous function caused them to drop for a few moments, but they didn’t appear to regenerate with Ironbright’s onslaught giving their tainted bodies other wounds to patch up.

Sure that she would be dead in a few moments, my voice caught as I tried to call to her. But the ghouls could only look up and snap at her, a few attempting to jump. There were no pegasi amongst them. The Enclave’s early departure had seen to that.

Following up Cloud Chaser’s plan, I drew my own pistol and aimed for heads. SATS helped immensely, but I wasn’t nearly as close as Cloud Chaser was. However, it was Rosemary who dealt the most finishing blows. The tide of ghouls slowly drew closer, but with Rosemary’s ridiculously powerful gun, she didn’t even have to hit the head, as a blow to the neck was usually enough to decapitate. Ironbright’s fire occasionally blew a rotten head to bloody chunks as well. The ghouls drew closer, dropping when the damage they had suffered was too much for their legs to function, but with Rosemary’s reload speed, we could only kill them so fast.

One of Ironbright’s guns was glowing, and she was forced to stop firing, lest it overheated. The tide rushed at us, our hooves backpedaling as quickly as possible, pulling them into the corridor we had come from. Cloud Chaser flew above, braining as many as she could with her disabling shots.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Now that they could move, they were galloping. All it took was a small running start for one of the front runners to leap up, catching Cloud Chaser’s ankle. They hovered for a moment, her losing altitude as my legs began to move. The weight was too much as I reached her, and with a bloodcurdling scream, she crashed to the ground. The last thing I saw was the look of terror in her eyes as she disappeared under the horde of undead.

I found myself in the thick of them before I even realized how I had gotten there. My sword was out, my horn straining to hack off as many heads as I could. Beneath the pile of limbs and heads beneath me, I saw Cloud Chaser screaming as she was eaten alive. The ghouls ignored me, drawn by her blood.

With a roar, I shoved them off of her, standing directly over her.

My sword never stopped. I could hear bullets behind me, tearing our attackers to shreds. But even between these things, we could not kill the ghouls fast enough.

Countless jaws clamped down on my armor, slowly bending and crushing the steel plates. I could feel the pressure threatening to break my bones, but I hacked the attackers away as fast as I could. My unarmored spots didn’t fare as well. I could feel the bones in my wings snapping like twigs as I cried out in pain. Teeth sank into spots on my flanks and neck, but I knew that if I moved, it would be Cloud Chaser’s life. The plates on my legs were bending, my legs breaking, but I would stand as long as I possibly could. Cloud Chaser would live if it killed me.

Heads rolled and exploded like fireworks around me. I was roaring in pain and fury, my voice being the only thing I could hear, the only thing keeping my legs locked.

When my breath ran out, I let out a gasping sob and collapsed. I fell to the side, so as not to crush Cloud Chaser.

The last ghoul’s head exploded with the crack of Rosemary’s rifle as I did.

I didn’t pass out this time. I had to see if Cloud Chaser was okay. I looked over at her. She was a bloody mess. Countless holes had been torn in her zebra armor, and I saw an exposed rib on her left side. Bu the armor had been enough, as she was blinking through tears, still breathing.

Rosemary ran between us, and we both looked at her. I was certain I wouldn’t die, and I did my best to give her a reassuring look. Rosemary held Cloud Chaser, and the two of them cried in fear and relief.

Ironbright, ever vigilant, stood above me, her guns rotating occasionally, prepped for any surprises. “Can you stand, Initiate?” she said.

My legs weren’t broken, but my front ones were definitely cracked. I shook my head.

“We need to get you moving,” she said. She laid down in front of me. “Put your forelegs over my back.” If it got me out of this hole, I would have danced if she told me to. “Now, stand up with me.” I did.

“Oh, sweet Celestia, Ebonmane,” I heard Cloud Chaser’s voice as I got my hindlegs under me. I turned my head to see her smiling, almost laughing at me.

Then I realized why. In this position, I could walk with my backlegs while Ironbright’s hindquarters carried the brunt of my weight. However…

“You are not seriously mounting your commander right now.”

But, as Cloud Chaser so eloquently put it, I was.

Ironbright began to walk forward as Rosemary helped Cloud Chaser to stand. Cloud Chaser’s legs were functional, so she didn’t need any form of embarrassing assistance, just a health potion. Ironbright silenced them by saying, “Regardless of what it looks like, it’ll get him out of here. Unless either of you would prefer to carry him.” I could have sworn I saw them blush. They didn’t comment after that.

“What about the weapon?” I asked.

“It’s here,” Ironbright said.

“How do you know?” Rosemary asked. “Because if it’s not, we need to leave. Maybe we can come back when we’re healed.”

“It is,” Ironbright said assuredly. “Those ghouls didn’t come up on either of our radars. That means that something must have been blocking it, and only taint or heavy radiation could do that. Plus, a heavy source of taint would draw those ghouls in the first place.”

We cast our eyes around. “There,” Cloud Chaser motioned with her muzzle. There was a gap in one of the crystal walls, but with the reflections of our bodies, it was difficult to tell where the walls were unless you were close enough to touch them. Now that I looked, though, there was a space beyond.

Ironbright entered the space, carrying me with her. It was a small, rounded room covered in the reflective crystals. My PipBuck wasn’t registering any radiation, but the built in radio was starting to give feedback, even though it wasn’t on.

Then I spotted it. Towards the far edge was a black crystal about the size of a pony’s head. I knew this must have been it, because it was carved. In the shape of a heart.

“Didn’t you say the project name was Operation Blackheart?” I asked Ironbright as I directed my light towards it.

“Then this must be it,” she concluded. “If you would be so kind, Initiate.”

I picked up the object in my telekinesis. As I went to place it in my saddlebags, my radio began to whine a high-pitched, eerie sound. While our brains remained intact, I recognized it as a corrupted Canterlot signal. Just weaker.

If mere proximity to this thing corrupted its surroundings with a weak taint… who knows what its intended purpose was.

“Come on, gang. Let’s scram. I’ve been eaten enough for one day,” Cloud Chaser said. We hurried to leave, Cloud Chaser and I limping and waddling as fast as we could. Ironbright must have been right about the ghouls being drawn to it, because we found no more on our way out. A bit of mercy, it would seem.

With our survival tentatively guaranteed, the mood lightened some. “Rosemary, take my knife and pry off some crystals,” Cloud Chaser whined.

“No. We’re leaving. That’s final,” Rosemary responded before even Ironbright could.

“But the ghouls are all dead and we can sell them.”


“C’mon,” her voice took an even more obnoxious tone. “I’m hurt and I can’t do it. And look at how shiny they are.”

Rosemary looked. They were beautiful. “Fine.”

Once Cloud Chaser was satisfied with her plunder, we wound our way back, following our PipBuck maps until we were out into the cool night air.

Immediately, Ironbright was speaking into her radio. “This is Paladin Ironbright of the Stable Two division of Applejack's Rangers requesting the aid of all nearby units. I have an injured civilian and Initiate with me who are in need of medical supplies if we are to make it back to base. Over.”

A stallion’s voice crackled through on the other end. “This is Paladin Truffle. Your PipBuck tag says you’re south of Canterlot. Not much we can do from that range, but if you head west, we just saved a merchant from some raiders who was mighty thankful. He’ll be low on healing supplies, but that’s better than nothing.”

Ironbright thanked him and signed off. We waddled a little distance away until we found a spot to make camp. The bulky mare set me down, then promised to return before morning with potions. “If anything comes up, Initiate, you can use the radio through my PipBuck tag.” We exchanged tags, and she was off.

Despite the furious pain in my crushed body, I slept like the dead.

When I awoke, it was still the middle of the night. Once again, Ironbright was shaking me, albeit much more gently than last time. Her helm was off, and I could see bags under her eyes.

“Drink up, Ebonmane,” she said, tipping a bottle into my mouth. I drank. It was the first liquid I had received since this afternoon, and I would have been happy even if it was just water. Once I had downed the potion I immediately felt my bones setting in the most releasing way, like cracking your neck. Some of my flesh wounds were still sore, but I knew that one healing potion wouldn’t be enough to heal me of the damage I had taken.

“What about Cloud Chaser?” I asked.

Ironbright motioned behind her. “She already got hers. Don’t tell her, but I took one of her crystals to pay for them.” She was snoring, exactly as Ironbright had left her. The pegasus’s head must have returned the dirt as soon as she finished the bottle. We couldn’t help but smile.

“She probably has them counted. You’re caught.” I almost laughed at my own joke. “You look tired,” I remarked.

“I’ll be alright,” she said.

“Thirsty?” I asked. She had given me her only water yesterday. She nodded. “But even as bad as that seems, I’ve been through worse.”

“I seriously doubt that,” I said. “That was pretty bad.”

“I’ll tell you about it later,” she said wearily. “Just rest. We’ll be up early so we can be at the stable as soon as possible, where there are real beds and more potions for you two.”

“Why didn’t we take any with us?” I asked.

“We shouldn’t have needed them, and they don’t like it when we squander supplies like that. I was predicting maybe twenty ghouls at most. But definitely not all at once. Ugh. The mission report for this is going to be a chore.”

“Report?” I asked.

“Yes. We have to fill out forms every time we return from duty, and the more combat, the more paperwork. Plus, I have to fill out an evaluation for you.”

“Really?” I asked. Seeing as how I had nearly gotten myself killed, I wasn’t looking forward to that.

“Yes. You won’t be able to join until you’ve been evaluated. And then the Elder, a couple Star Paladins, and I will go into a hearing about you. It’s a lengthy process. Especially considering that some would think your actions reckless.”

“I’m still alive,” I told her. “So is Cloud Chaser.”

Ironbright shook her head in disbelief. “That was a stupid move you made. You should both be dead.”

“But we’re not,” I reminded her hopefully.

“No, you’re not.” She sighed. “When I saw her get grabbed, I thought the only way she would survive was if you flew and got the ghoul off of her. It was up to you, and that was the only way.”

“I told you. I can’t fly in this armor. It’s impossible.”

She looked at me. “Even if you did take the hard way, I suppose you still came through for her.”

Ironbright didn’t sound impressed. But she did seem to be pondering my actions. This was the second time I had made the impossible happen. After healing Rosemary, I thought I was just lucky. I still felt lucky, but Ironbright was looking at me like I was hiding some kind of secret. What she was thinking, I didn’t know.

“Just go to sleep,” she told me. “We’ve got a long walk ahead of us and not a lot of water to do it on.”

I nodded and lay my head. I was still tired. I was still sweating to death. I was still in a dull, throbbing pain, and this armor was still too heavy. But it had saved my life, and Cloud Chaser’s life, even I told myself that I wouldn’t complain about the weight anymore, not even in my head. After all, I may not have been able to fly in it, but I had borne the weight and suffered the pain it caused me, and I knew I could do it again if I had to.

And I also knew that I would have to in the future. Manehattan was a few days away from stable two, and Thunderfall wouldn’t have survived this long if he couldn’t put up a strong fight. But just as with Cloud Chaser, if it all became too much, I knew what I would do.

Rosemary had her inn, her art, and probably a stallion and foals somewhere in her future. Cloud Chaser, too, but she had youth on her side as well. She especially had so much to live for, with her vivacity and wit. And Ironbright had her career that promised prestige, honor, and the chance to be at the helm of the only group of ponies that was making a difference in the wasteland.

But me? I had a family, yes, but I wasn’t an only child. I had been luckless in love so far, and lately very determined to get myself killed before I could even dream of a wife or family. My career prospects, save this one, were dim, and while I was young, I was old enough to know where I stood in this group.

If one of us had to die in Manehattan, I knew it would be me. And I was okay with that. That was the burden of the armor I wore, and I chose to wear it, no matter how much it interfered with my sleep, no matter how heavily it wore on me.

Chapter 6: The Blackheart

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“What could a silly, deluded little dragon possibly help me with? Besides… this nightmare has only just begun!”

I was parched when we awoke the next morning. Ironbright had purchased water as well, but it was irradiated and we only drank from it when necessary. I was confident that while I would still be uncomfortable and in pain on the walk back, I wouldn’t suffer from heat injury.

Rosemary was too tired to cook last night, but this morning she was in full hospitality mode. She refused to cook with the water Ironbright bought, saying it would ruin the flavor. It was just as well; we didn’t have much to begin with. Instead, Rosemary spent a good deal of time experimenting with ways to make the dry rations taste better without cooking them. She did what she could, but the meal was still subpar compared to her other concoctions.

We decided to only wake Cloud Chaser when there was food to serve to her. She had taken heavier injuries than I had, and Rosemary was particularly concerned about the wound in Cloud Chaser’s side that had exposed her rib. It had closed, but not entirely, and Ironbright had bandaged it as best as she could to stop the bleeding.

As soon as Cloud Chaser woke, the scabs cracked, and Rosemary had to change the bandages.

“This is why I’m not a morning pony,” she said miserably.

When we did eventually start to march, she hung back with me, her injured body finding my speed a little easier to handle.

“Hey,” she said quietly after a moment. “I think I owe you a ‘thank you.’”

“For what?” I asked.

“For saving my life. So… thanks… for saving my life.” I had never seen her look this way. Her gaze was cast downward and she looked humbled. Not humble, but almost humiliated. She felt weak. Useless.

“It’s not a big deal. You and Rosemary saved my life, remember? If we keep this up, I don’t think it’ll be the last either.” This seemed to help a little, that I wasn’t upset with her or criticizing her. I went a little further. “How about we make a deal not to keep score from now on, okay? Keeping track of who’s saved who doesn’t help us at all. It just makes us feel worse.”

“Alright,” she said, the beginnings of a smile forming on her face.

She gave me a hug, right then and there. It doesn’t seem like much, but I was so weary and stressed, and the act was so heartfelt, that I couldn’t help but feel relieved. I hugged her back, feeling close to the little pegasus.

She pulled away, her smile growing along with a blush in her cheeks. She didn’t turn away, but she looked up at me, probably glad that I had returned the affection.

Sweet Celestia, she looked so pretty then. I felt myself falling for her. Her charm, her spirit, her loyalty…

“Turn on the radio,” she told me. I tried, but the Blackheart was still giving me static.

“Are you sure it’s safe to be carrying that thing with you?” Rosemary asked.

“No,” I answered. But until I started showing symptoms of illness or injury other than the ones I already had, I didn’t really see another option. The best way to deal with whatever corruptive powers it might have would be to get it to Stable Two as quickly as possible and away from me.

Ironbright turned on her radio. DJPon3 didn’t have much to say today, but in the wasteland, where the antics of raiders were on the radio almost always, no news was good news. He/she dedicated a song to Ditzy Doo, but I knew that funeral must have been at least a week or more ago.

How long had I been gone? I replayed the events in my mind. I was always bad at keeping track of time long term, but I realized I was going on two weeks. Ditzy Doo’s death felt like an eternity ago.

At least Ironbright wasn’t saying much anymore. I didn’t want her to shut up; I understood that being drill sergeant to the new guy was part of her job, but she was silent nearly the entire walk. I was happy that I wasn’t being ridiculed, but I had no idea what was going through her mind to cause the change.

Rosemary and Cloud Chaser felt like we had scored a victory against her. And, of course, after a few hours of walking, Cloud Chaser couldn’t help but open her mouth during a particularly long silence.

“So,” she broke the tension. “Got nothing to say to Mister Mare back there now that he saved my life?” she said in a completely calm voice.

Ironbright stopped in her tracks. “Let’s break here. We haven’t drunk in hours.” She removed her helm, took a swig from her canteen, then turned to the other mares. “I need to talk with both of you. Alone.”

She wasn’t going to yell at them, was she? For some reason, I doubted it. And even if she did, I was willing to wager that my friends had been waiting for such an opportunity to unload on the Ranger. Ironbright could see that coming from a mile away. So what did she want with them? I would never hear what they talked about, because they walked a good distance away, and out in the open, I would never get close enough to them to eavesdrop.

So I lay down, drank some water, and waited. It wasn’t even a full minute before I was bored and curious. I tried to turn on the radio to distract myself, but the damn Blackheart was still giving me static.

I took the weapon out and looked it over. I probably shouldn’t have been messing around with a dangerous megaspell so carelessly, but it obviously wasn’t like most bombs. It probably had a special spell to trigger it, and I still only had one spell. Picking it up with my magic hadn’t done anything, so I figured looking at it wouldn’t do much either.

The craftsmanship was remarkable, though. Whoever cut this must have been an expert, because it was as smooth and flawless as a diamond. The facets were perfectly black, but in the light I swore I could see inside the gem. I tried holding it up to the sun, but that didn’t work. Only if it was at the right angle.

I turned it this way and that, but still nothing. I decided to use my horn’s light to see if that would work.

Big mistake.


I opened my eyes as if I had woken up from a dream, but I was already moving, so it was more like entering one. The experience was even more surreal considering that I wasn’t in control of my limbs. My hooves moved forward on their own.

I was walking in an opulent palace, the walls and floor of which were made of crystal not unlike the ones beneath Canterlot. I passed a few guards dressed in blue armor, but aside from them, I was soon alone.

My host looked down, and I realized that I was in a memory orb. I was having the same experiences as Littlepip. But how was that possible? I hadn’t found any orbs. My mind turned away from that question and began to immerse itself in the memory as I saw my host’s reflection in the polished floor. I was definitely a stallion, white with a blue mane, and quite handsome. I wasn’t wearing anything, but the nods the guards gave me made me suspect that I was somepony important in this palace. The captain, perhaps?

At any rate, he climbed a flight of stairs, and I realized that we were nearing the top floor of the palace as his peripheral vision caught a nearby window in the spiral stairwell and showed how high up we were. His breathing was calm, but his muscles were tense. Even though my real body was under just as much duress as his was, I couldn’t help but feel pity for him. Whatever his job was, it wasn’t easy.

We reached a long hallway devoid of anypony and he briefly glanced out a window. I was astonished. It was a beautiful day. The city outside was shining, literally. Most of the structures were made of, or at least coated in crystal. Even the streets were paved with the stuff. And beyond the glimmering city, verdant fields of grass and wildflowers grew until they met the horizon.

I had paid attention in history class. I knew when and where I was. This was the Crystal Empire, before the war.

And considering we were heading into the private royal chambers, signaled by the ornate, gem-studded door that lay at the end of the hall before us, I believed that my consciousness was inhabiting none other than Prince Shining Armor himself.

Part of me was quivering with excitement, but without control of my body, my emotions were difficult to express. That was soon replaced with a great amount of dread, though. Shining Armor was clearly in a bad place. I could feel it in his breathing, in his gait. He was not looking forward to walking beyond those doors.

But this was his room. He shared these chambers with his wife, Princess Cadence. Why would he be apprehensive about seeing her? Their love story was legendary.

He opened the doors to a sight I’ll never forget.

The royal chambers were more of a suite, and the central area was a small but tall dome with four doors leading to other areas. Shining Armor peered in an open door to see the pink flank and tail of a mare who must have been Cadence. There was crying.

Shining Armor stormed into the room, and I could feel his voice preparing to speak with some force, but it caught in his throat when he opened the door all the way.

Before him was the Princess of Love, her purple, pink, and butter mane a ragged mess. Her eyes were dripping black makeup, her cheeks stained with tears. Her belly protruded somewhat, and I would have lost my breath if I was in control of it.

But Shining Armor lost his breath as well. The pregnant Cadence was sitting on the bathroom floor, a bottle filled with a strange green fluid in front of her.

“Cadence,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“I- I thought you were returning tomorrow,” she said.

“Twilight’s very busy,” he said. “And after seeing what she was up to, I couldn’t stay. It was horrible. And now I find this.” His voice was riddled with a malice that made my heart break.

Cadence looked down, her spirit obviously broken long ago. She spoke in a defeated tone. “What did you expect? I felt like I haven’t seen you since Big Mac died.”

“I’ve been here nearly the entire time since then.”

“Have you?” she shouted. She started crying again. “You don’t come to bed at night. You don’t eat. We haven’t had a real moment together since I got pregnant.” She paused. “What’s happening to you? Where do you go? Why won’t you talk to me?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” he returned acidly, his voice raising. “All you care about is the kingdom. The mailmare gets more attention from you than I do! You want everypony to be happy and feel love, Cadence, but what about me?”

“I don’t know!” she shouted back, nearly hysterical. “I know you’re hurt, but I don’t know what to do! I… I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.”

There was an achingly long pause. After a while, Shining Armor simply turned to leave.

“Do you even still want to be a father?” she asked his back.

He didn’t turn around. He just stood in the doorway for a long time. “Just take your medicine. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Shining Armor left the suite without looking back. His face was drawn, and I can’t imagine what must have been running through his head.

But as the image began to blur and fade, I knew one thing just as well as he did.

That wasn’t medicine in that bottle.


The mares were surrounding me when I snapped out of it. I turned to look at them, and they gave sighs of relief.

My eyes were tearing up. Those were my heroes. As a colt, I had always dreamed of being like Shining Armor. I had hoped that I would find a mare as perfect as Cadence, and I wanted to love her as perfectly as he did.

They were asking me what had happened, but how could I explain? I knew they were worried about me. They didn’t know what was going on, but I was overwhelmed with grief. What had happened to turn their unbreakable marriage into that?

Part of me wanted to drop everything and find the truth, but another was afraid of what I would find.

Mostly, though, I wanted to cry.

So I did. It became clear to my friends that I was just upset, and they gathered around me while Cloud Chaser and Rosemary held me until I settled down. I couldn’t help but cry. It would have been one thing to hear about what had happened, but I had felt it. I had lived through it. It was too much anger and heartbreak all at once for my own heart to bear.

Once I had told myself that I was okay, and that everything would be fine long enough for me to calm down, Ironbright tried to ask me what happened again.

“The Blackheart,” I told her. “It’s a memory orb.”

“That can’t be right,” Ironbright responded. “It’s a weapon. Why would they put memories in it?”

“It is,” I repeated. “I saw Cadence and Shining Armor. They fought. And… Cadence was pregnant.” They all turned to me. “She was about to take something, some kind of potion to kill the foal. They fought.” I felt fresh tears forming. “He let her. He told her to.” I choked back sobs. “How could he do that? He just walked away and let her.”

“Calm down,” Rosemary told me, pressing my head into her neck. “It’s alright. You’re okay,” she repeated to me for a while. Her voice was softer than my mother’s.

Ironbright was looking over the Blackheart. “The notes clearly say that it was intended to be a magical weapon. A megaspell. This doesn’t add up. Maybe you just fell asleep,” she suggested. “It seems to have some kind of aura, and maybe that was messing with your dreams.”

“He was awake the entire time,” Cloud Chaser said. “I saw him staring at it, and he was making all sorts of faces. I just thought his injuries hurt, but I think he was reacting to what he was seeing.”

“Memory orbs don’t work like that,” Ironbright said. “The user sits with a blank expression, motionless, for the duration of the memory. That’s how it works. He couldn’t have been making faces.”

“But it’s not a memory orb,” Rosemary said. “It’s something else. You kept saying it’s a weapon. Who knows how the thing actually works? Did you research notes say anything about how to use it?”

“No,” Ironbright answered. “That was something they danced around. Very top secret, obviously. Burn after reading kind of thing.”

“Hm,” was all Rosemary said. She went up to the Blackheart.

“Don’t,” I told her. That memory was not something I would wish upon any other pony.

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I know what’s coming.” She touched her horn to it.

Nothing happened.

“Did I do it right?” she asked. She tried again. “Is there some special spell you cast?”

“No,” I said. “I just lit up my horn and touched it. I don’t get why it’s not working for you.”

“Maybe it’s a one-time thing?” Cloud Chaser offered. “Try it again, Ebonmane.”

“No,” Ironbright said. “We can worry about why it won’t work for Rosemary later. We’ve already spent enough time here. We have to keep moving.”

And that was the last words said about it until we stopped for the night. I couldn’t begin to piece together why the Blackheart didn’t work for Rosemary, and apparently everypony else was stumped, too. I was glad that Ironbright didn’t make me look into it again, because I really didn’t want to. I knew I would have to at some point, for the sake of understanding how it worked, and why only I could use it so far.

When we settled down to rest that night, everypony had theories. Rosemary thought I had done some sort of special magic, like when I healed her. Cloud Chaser still thought that it was a one-time use, and that we would have to put my memory of the event in a real memory orb if we wanted to see it again, making the Blackheart a kind of spying device. Ironbright told her that was dumb, but when the Ranger said that she believed that the magical process of creating the Blackheart had simply pulled some of Shining Armor’s memories by accident, Cloud Chaser and Rosemary both told her that it was the most ridiculous thing they ever heard. This started a small bickering that lasted until they all got fed up with each other and decided to go to bed.

I stayed silent, as usual. The memory turned over and over in my mind, replaying itself. It had been so vivid. But I don’t think I was capable of feeling the scorn that Shining Armor had felt for Cadence and his unborn foal, and that distanced me from the darkness of it somewhat.

I fell asleep developing theories of my own, but I didn’t come up with anything original. There were some nagging feelings that I couldn’t quite identify, but they were pushed away as I slowly lost consciousness.

Nightmares plagued me that night, preventing any sort of restful sleep. I dreamed that Shining Armor and Cadence were ghouls, and they chased my friends and me through a pitch black forest, hunting us down. My wings wouldn’t open, and they gained on us steadily, their screams echoing through the dead trees. Ironbright was the first to trip and fall, the couple descending on her, tearing her limb from limb. We kept moving, but Rosemary fell next, crying in fear and pain behind me. I turned my head just in time to see Cloud Chaser get caught by Rosemary, as the unicorn, now a rotten ghoul herself, tore her neck open. Cloud Chaser’s bloodcurdling scream replayed perfectly in my mind.

And then I was alone, stumbling clumsily along, feeling their breath on my back. I would try to look around, to see if I could lose the ghouls, but when I did, I saw that not only had my friends joined the ranks of my hunters, but so had my other loved ones. My brothers, my parents, Silver Bell, Ditzy Doo, Calamity, Velvet, even Littlepip, all rotten, ashen, and shrieking .

I tripped. I felt teeth sink into my spine. I rolled over to see my brothers biting into my flanks, the pain almost too real. My flesh was torn open, Rosemary tearing into my stomach while Cloud Chaser ripped through my organs. When I was certain that I should be dead, Shining Armor himself bit into my throat.

I awoke with a scream. Rosemary and Ironbright awoke to look at me, worried.

“Nightmare,” I told them. “It’s fine. Go back to sleep.”

They still looked concerned, but I wasn’t in tears, so they laid their heads back down, shifting occasionally.

The Blackheart was still in my bags, nearby. I thought about moving it, but I knew it wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t say anything to the others, but I had my theory.

I rarely dreamt, let alone had nightmares. And most of my dreams weren’t so vivid, and my nightmares had never been painful. These factors alone had led me to believe that it was the Blackheart’s influence that had caused the nightmares. Not simply looking into it. No, I had been the only one able to do that.

As crazy as it sounded, I think the Blackheart, like the Black Book, had some form of dark will. And it had chosen me as its victim.

I went back to a dreamless sleep eventually, as if the cursed stone were toying with me.

My recovery was slow as we trudged on toward the stable, same problems weighing me down. Not enough sleep, my armor too heavy, the air around me too hot. But now I had my troubled thoughts adding to the mix of my weariness. We were hoping to reach the stable by nightfall, and we hurried as fast as we could, each of us eager to be in a real bed, eating real food, drinking clean water, and enjoying those heavenly showers.

Rosemary and Cloud Chaser threw glances my way over the duration of our walk. They hadn’t seen me cry before, and it was obvious that they were worried. And honestly, this annoyed me. Yes, it was upsetting for me to see my idols fall so far, and I was terrified of what the Blackheart might do next, but I wasn’t a colt. Rosemary would check on me during meals, asking me if I was alright and how I was feeling, and I would grunt an answer out of politeness, but I didn’t need a mother to coddle me after a nightmare. I had never had the opportunity to stand up on my own strength. I had always been instructed and supervised in Junction Town, never truly having any independence, and now that I had it, I wanted to prove to myself most of all that I had what it took to be on my own. Perhaps it was foolish of me to refuse comfort for the sake of my pride, but it wasn’t that I wanted to do it alone. I just wanted everyone to stop underestimating what I could handle.

I knew the real reason I was so surly was because I was tired and hungry and in pain. I knew that all I had to do was put on a happy face and be thankful that my friends and I were alive, and that I had a promising future ahead of me as an Applejack’s Ranger. But somedays a pony simply just doesn’t feel like putting in that effort, and today was one of those days. I would apologize to the rest for my attitude later.

With the concern of my friends dampening their own spirits, conversation was limited. We listened to music, mostly, trudging across crusty, barren hills that seemed to stretch on forever.

My mind did wonder what Ironbright had to speak with the others about alone before I looked into the Blackheart. It was obvious that there hadn’t been a confrontation, but that only made it harder to guess what she had spoken to them about. I didn’t want to be so self-centered as to think that they were talking about me, but then why had I been excluded from the conversation?

So I swallowed my gruffness to satisfy my curiosity. I walked up alongside Rosemary, who had been pinned to Cloud Chaser’s side since we left Canterlot, talking to her and doing whatever she could to ease the pain of the pegasus’s injury, and I wasn’t about to come between them. “So, what did Ironbright say to you guys?” I asked bluntly.

“No one likes a snooper, Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser answered smugly.

“You’re one to talk,” Rosemary said with a grin.

“Hey! I’m just good at intel, like a spy!” the pegasus insisted.

I wasn’t distracted. “So you can’t tell me? What, is it a secret? That the Initiate can’t know but two civilians can?”

“Sure. A secret,” Rosemary said. They were being tough.

“Is it about me?” I at least wanted to satisfy that curiosity.

“Not everything is about you, Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser taunted.

“Don’t be so selfish,” Rosemary double-teamed. This game was getting annoying.

“It’s not selfish if it is though, it just means I’m a good guesser,” I defended.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Rosemary said in finality.

“When?” I persisted.

Ironbright called back to shut me up. “At the stable. So keep walking and quit bothering them about it. They’re not going to tell you.”

This was maddening, but I had no other choice but to shut up and endure. I didn’t much feel like talking to them, either, so I faded back and sunk again into silence. The two mares ahead of me glanced back occasionally, but they didn’t have any clue what to do or say to me, so they left me alone. I knew I was only giving them more to worry about, and all I had to do to ease their minds was to talk to them, but they would survive.

Celestia’s sun sank slowly into the hills until it eventually surrendered, it too being swallowed by the wasteland, allowing night to reign. We took dinner at twilight, Rosemary going out of her way to inspect a grove of nearby trees for fruit. Ironbright escorted her, leaving me with Cloud Chaser. She didn’t know what to say to me, and I was still too tired and depressed to talk, so we sat in silence. It was clear that this was uncomfortable for her. She was a very chatty young mare. But even if I wanted to break the ice, I wouldn’t know where to begin. So we just sat around the fire, gazing at the grove in the distance, waiting for the other half of our party to return.

Their journey was fruitful, pun intended. Now that we were closer to the stable and Ponyville, somehow apple seeds had survived, and ponies had planted them. Most of them were planted while radiation still ravaged the soil, but a few young ones had managed to sprout. Being late summer, and the trees themselves not full-sized, the apples were small, unripened and sour-looking, but Rosemary with her trusty stock of spices made a miracle soup out of her find. I knew we were closer to the stable, and eating what tasted like a real meal instead of rations combined with the thoughts of a bed tonight lightened my mood. I was still quiet in nature, but I was feeling a lot less grumpy.

Cloud Chaser, desperate for conversation after having to sit with a stoic me for the past forty minutes, took the risk of striking up conversation with Ironbright. “So where are you from?”

“Manehattan,” Ironbright replied simply. “Yourself?”

“New Appleloosa, both of us,” she answered for her and Rosemary.

“Do they have lots of pegasi in New Appleloosa? I thought that most of them were living in Junction Town or Friendship City. I would think that after Operation Cauterize, they wouldn’t be too welcome in New Appleloosa.”

“I’m the only one,” Cloud Chaser replied simply. “I’m an orphan, so it’s not like the ponies there could kick out a baby foal. They just got used to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Ironbright replied solemnly. “I didn’t know.” Cloud Chaser just waved her hoof, dismissing it. I smiled. It was amazing how difficult it was to bring Cloud Chaser down. But she had never had parents, so I guess she couldn’t feel the loss of something she never had. Perhaps some orphans could, but not her.

“Then how do you all know each other?” Ironbright asked.

Rosemary took over here. “I’ve always lived in New Appleloosa. My parents still live there, actually. But when I was old enough, I put all my caps into buying this big building and turning it into an inn. I met Cloud Chaser because she knew I had the best food.”

“You gave me free food when I was starving,” Cloud Chaser corrected. Again, I smiled at Rosemary’s attempt to spare Cloud Chaser’s dignity, but the pegasus refused to be ashamed of herself or the circumstances she couldn’t control.

Ironbright’s eyes turned to me, and I began my end of the story. “I grew up in Junction Town, and I was a neighborhood watchpony there. A friend of mine-”

“A mare,” Cloud Chaser interrupted with a sly smile.

I continued. She didn’t let me finish. “A friend of mine lost her mother, and she had no real father, so instead of living alone she decided to start over in New Appleloosa, and they were sent to meet us.”

“I see,” Ironbright nodded.

“Oh, can I tell her about the raiders?” Cloud Chaser piped up. She launched into the story before Rosemary or I could stop her, starting with how they found me nearly dead and ending with how we took on a room full of sniper ponies armed with nothing but cheap guns and the element of surprise, and she embellished the entire way, making every moment and decision one of daring skill or cunning. Hearing it from her mouth, we sounded like heroes.

Ironbright appeared to be slightly impressed, but when Cloud Chaser was finished, she said, “I didn’t know you were all so inexperienced.” She didn’t say anything more, and we didn’t know how to respond. As we finished our meals, preparing for the last leg of our journey, I could see wheels turning in Ironbright’s head. In her expression, I read guilt. We had been introduced to her as wastelanders, travelers who had at least a little experience on these dangerous roads. But now our age was apparent to her, and I could see her looking especially close at Cloud Chaser’s wound. She was responsible for taking us, Cloud Chaser and me barely a mare and stallion respectively, into battle. She had armed young ponies and led us to risk our lives for her order’s agenda. I could tell these thoughts would stick with her.

I understood her a little better then. Because no matter how badly she wanted to be Star Paladin, no amount of fame or glory could ever be worth risking the lives of children. I knew she was wrong to see us only for our age, and the gap between us in that respect, but I empathized, looking at Cloud Chaser and Rosemary ahead of me.

I too, had led young ponies into a fight that wasn’t theirs to handle. I was the reason those two were even out here in the first place.

Clouds raced along the night sky, blocking the moon from our vision by the time we reached Stable Two. We entered through the massive steel door in pitch darkness. Not even a star shone in the skies above.

“Help Ebonmane get his armor off, then you three can go to bed,” Ironbright told us.

“What will you do?” Rosemary asked.

“I have to report to Elder Hibiscus Tea. Then I’ll sleep.”

Cloud Chaser jumped in. “But what about-”

“Tomorrow,” Ironbright interrupted. Nothing more was said as she moved ahead of us.

The halls of Stable Two were still lively, even in the middle of the night, but they were noticeably quieter, as a lot of ponies were sleeping. The rangers who were up at this hour looked stoic and focused, barely giving us a glance as they passed, heading on toward their duties.

“Bet you’re ready to get out of that armor, huh?” Cloud Chaser remarked.

“I’m ready for bed,” I replied.

“You’re ready for a bath,” Rosemary said. “None of us should put that off.”

“Sleeeeep,” Cloud Chaser protested.

“You’ll fall asleep much more easily once you’ve had a nice, hot shower to soothe those muscles.”

“We should probably stop by the infirmary to see if we can’t score you another healing potion before we do anything,” I suggested. Cloud Chaser’s wounds were still large and scabby, and I worried about infection, as I’m sure Rosemary did.

“Ugh. Fine,” the pegasus gave up.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take more than a few minutes for Cloud Chaser to receive treatment. They simply looked her over, decided how much medicine to give her and that was that. It was remarkable how efficient the Rangers had become after doing away with the Steel Ranger’s red tape.

Maintenance was next, to have our armors cleaned and repaired. My heart gave a jolt of excitement when I realized that Littlepip herself had spent most of her time in this wing. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the most elaborate murals of all sprawling across the surface of the walls that she had found so dull and lifeless. The toaster repair pony would have been proud.

Cloud Chaser stripped her zebra armor first to have it sewn up, and then the two mares turned to the daunting task of getting me out of this shell. I tried to help, but Roesmary batted my muzzle away when I tried to undo the straps, so once again, I simply stood still while they worked, frustrated. I couldn’t be out of this steel skin fast enough.

They were taking a rather long time. “What’s the matter?” Rosemary asked Cloud Chaser, who was working on the plates on my flanks.

“It’s all sweaty,” Cloud Chaser replied. I saw Rosemary roll her eyes, and Cloud Chaser snapped back, “Hey, just wait till you get a plate off and touch the padding.”

“It’s not that bad,” Rosemary said quietly, trying to spare my feelings. The little unicorn was working on my chest plate. Even with magic, the plates still took some sort of mouth or hoof grip to remove, and I could see Rosemary wrinkling her nose as she peeled the large plate off. I couldn’t help but blush and wish I was dead. Even I could smell myself.

“Not that bad?” Cloud Chaser said. I began to pray that Celestia would spare me of Cloud Chaser’s next words. No such luck. “I get that it was hot out, but this is disgusting.”

“Cloud Chaser,” Rosemary said with a sharp tone, signaling her to cut it out.

“I just don’t get why stallions stink so much more than mares,” she continued as she got the other flank plate off.

“Cloud Chaser, stop. You’re embarrassing him.” Thanks Rosemary. Way to draw attention to it.

“Oh,” was all Cloud Chaser said, realizing her mistake. Luckily, she had the grace not to try to open her mouth to fix it.

The plates came off eventually, and smelly or not, I couldn’t help but smile when they did. I felt hundreds of pounds lighter.

“Showers?” Rosemary asked.

“Showers,” I nodded in agreement.

I stumbled when I took my first step. My legs felt like rubber.

“Are you alright?” Rosemary asked. “Are you sure that healing potion fixed your leg?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “I’ve just lost a lot of weight recently, and I’m not used to it.”

My legs flailed for a while as we headed to the showers before I got them under control. My friends seemed concerned, but I didn’t fall, so they didn’t rush to help me. I admit, I was a little worried, and I wondered what Ironbright had been thinking. I knew how training worked, but I also knew that it was possible to over-train. I doubted that my legs or any other part of me would end up much stronger. With healing potions, I didn’t think that I had suffered any serious damage, but I wondered how I would be feeling if Ironbright hadn’t found that merchant outside of Canterlot.

Steam wafted from the showers, signaling the presence of other ponies within. As we passed through the curtain of refreshing vapor, I only saw a couple of stallions washing quietly. They looked as tired as I was.

“Oh,” Rosemary said. I turned to see a visible blush on her face. She looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t know they were public…”

“Rosemary,” Cloud Chaser started, “what’s the big deal? Nopony’s going to touch you or anything. It’s just water.”

“I just don’t want anypony looking at me while I’m showering,” she answered, casting her gaze aside, her hoof pawing at the ground nervously.

“Why?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Because,” Rosemary said, unable to explain herself.

I interjected. “There are two sides, and one side is empty. You can take that side all by yourself,” I suggested. “Cloud Chaser and I will go on the other side. Our backs will be to you. You’ll basically be completely alone.”

“Fine…” she agreed. Cloud Chaser rolled her eyes, but we separated. The pegasus and I claimed spots beneath showerheads next to each other, the two other stallions a few spots down on either side of us.

Cloud Chaser moaned when she turned the water on. “Oh, sweet Celestia service me,” she said. I hadn’t heard Cloud Chaser speak like this before. She looked at me. “Turn it on. It’s better than sex.”

I did. I let out a sigh of release as the water splashed over my fatigued body, the stress and soreness and sweat washing away with the heated droplets. Cloud Chaser’s phrase was appropriate. This was better than a blowjob from Celestia herself.

But I couldn’t help but turn to Cloud Chaser once I had recovered the ability to think. “How would you know?” I asked her.

“It’s just an expression.” She shot me a withering look. I shut up. She let out another sigh. “Can you get these braids undone? I need to wash my mane,” she asked me.

I wouldn’t dare touch her after my last question, so I used magic to untie the bits of ribbon that held them in place, next combing my power through the locks to untangle them. Her mane went wild, curling around her face and neck. Her mane turned from cloudy to stormy as she soaked it under the stream, her head obscured in the tangles. Her mane was a lot longer unbraided than I thought.

She didn’t see me looking at her, but I knew if I kept staring she would. “Just relax,” I told myself. “Enjoy the water.” And it wasn’t too hard to do that. It was better than sex, after all.

My pegasus friend flipped her mane back once she felt it was clean, sending a spray of water across the tiled floor. Even without looking, I felt her eyes on me, and I sensed a smile before she spoke. “Big day for you tomorrow, huh?”

“What?” I turned back to her.

“Oh,” she backpedaled. It was clear that I wasn’t supposed to know about this.

“What’s happening tomorrow?” I pried.

“Nothing,” she said. “You’ll find out tomorrow.”

“So it’s not nothing,” I said.

She gave a frustrated sigh. “Just don’t worry about it, Ebonmane.”

One more question. “Will I like it?”

She looked away from me. “I hope so.”

“What does that mean?” I asked quietly.

“Just…” she looked at me again, her eyes full of sincerity. “No matter what happens tomorrow, you should know that you’re a good guy, alright? I know you can be hard on yourself, but you shouldn’t be. And I know Rosemary and I didn’t say the nicest things about you when we first met, but I think we were wrong.”

I didn’t think so. “What makes you say that?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Rosemary can be pretty blind sometimes, but I’m not. Remember Mareheat?” she asked wryly.

“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t like where this was going.

“After your outburst in the river, Rosemary got so worried that you did something with one of the whores. But I know you didn’t. I know something happened, because you looked so hurt when she asked you about it, but I know you still have your precious virginity intact.”

“That doesn’t make me a good guy,” I pointed out.

“It means you care about other ponies more than yourself. You won’t do something if you think it’s wrong. I grew up on the streets. There aren’t a lot of ponies who listen to themselves as well as you do.” She sighed. “You probably hate yourself more than anypony else, and who doesn’t really? But tomorrow, just do yourself a favor and cut yourself some slack, alright?”

Why was she saying this to me? I had too many questions to ask, but I knew she wouldn’t tell me and I didn’t know where to begin. So I just answered, “Okay.”

The soothing waters had worked their magic, so we gathered Rosemary and left the showers, using magic to wring out our manes and tails as we did. Not much was said on the way to the barracks. The beds were arranged in a large common room, and nopony owned any bed; you just picked one for the night. Most of the beds were already occupied, so Rosemary and Cloud Chaser picked the only two empty ones that were adjacent, and I found a stray one somewhere else.

My mind was alight with curiosity about the things that Cloud Chaser had said to me, but I knew I would find out quicker if I went straight to sleep. My lids became heavy as soon as my head touched the pillow, but my pesky thoughts kept me awake long enough to bring up a few more points.

Although Cloud Chaser had just showered me with compliments and encouragement, she clearly hadn’t done so to make me feel better. It was more like she was apologizing.

But for what? This question haunted me as I fell asleep. No nightmares tonight, but they weren’t entirely necessary. Cloud Chaser had said I was a good guy, but how honest was she really being?

It didn’t matter. All would be revealed tomorrow.

Despite my deep sleep, I awoke on my own. The beds around me were empty, and the lights had come on gradually to mimic the sunrise, so I figured I had slept in some. I rose, my mane a mess, my muscles punishingly sore, but my stomach demanded the majority of my attention.

I hoped I wasn’t late for breakfast. Stepping out into the hall, still having no idea how the stable was laid out, I just looked both ways and picked the direction the most ponies were travelling in. I was right, and I was led into the lower half of the atrium where ponies sat around tables, trays full of food before them.

After sitting in line, shifting impatiently, I got my food and found Ironbright at one of the tables, a space open for me. I noticed that her mane was wet when I sat down, and without her armor, she looked a lot less intimidating. She was still vastly stronger than I was, especially with my legs protesting whenever I asked too much of them, but she even looked to be in a good mood this morning.

“Sleep well?” she asked.

I nodded. “You?” She nodded back.

“So what are we doing today?” I asked, hoping I could get a clue as to what lie ahead.

She told me straight out. “Your hearing is today.” Oh.

“My hearing?” I asked, a little nervousness in my voice.

“If we’re going to Manehattan to chase after Thunderfall, you have to be more than an Initiate. Honestly, we’re really rushing the initiation process, but I told Hibiscus Tea you were ready. Canterlot was a lot more dangerous than I thought it would be. A lot of Rangers might have died where you didn’t.” I smiled, but she shook her head. “I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re not going to talk about it now.”

“When is it?” I asked.

“An hour, in the war room. Sometimes these things take a while, and you’ll want to get it over with. So be ready by then. Comb your mane or something.”

I ignored that. “I have to be there?”

She glanced at me as she took a sip of coffee. “You think we’d talk about you behind your back like that? Applejack wouldn’t approve.”

Great. I was beginning to understand. When Ironbright had taken Rosemary and Cloud Chaser aside, she had told them about the hearing, and what would happen when we got back to the stable. Cloud Chaser had said those things last night because she knew they were going to break me down in every possible way to see if I was fit to be a Ranger. This wasn’t what I expected. I thought I would simply be pacing nervously outside of the Elder’s office, waiting for a decision, but hearing what they had to say about me would be so much worse than fearing rejection. Even if I passed, I doubted it would be a glowing review. Everypony had flaws to consider, and I certainly was no exception.

I retreated to the barracks after eating my breakfast of oatmeal and apple juice. It wasn’t Rosemary’s cooking, but I barely noticed. The first thing I did when I sat on my bed was look for a comb, but I couldn’t find Rosemary or Cloud Chaser. The place was relatively empty, except for a few sleeping Rangers, but they were out cold, so I sifted furtively through my mare friends’ saddlebags looking for a comb to borrow. No such luck. I must have dug through Rosemary’s for at least five minutes; she was such a neat freak. But all I found were spices, ammo, and other essentials. Cloud Chaser’s weren’t much different: ammo, all the crystals she had taken from Canterlot, and bobby pins. I wasn’t going to pin my mane back, so I just ran my hooves through it until there was nothing left to do.

This consumed a good fifteen minutes, and the last forty-five were spent worrying and attempting to distract myself. I picked up my armor and sword, thanking the maintenance mare for cleaning, repairing and sharpening. My sword and armor gleamed with fresh polish, and you couldn’t smell a drop of sweat in the padding. That took fifteen minutes. After that I looked for Rosemary and Cloud Chaser, but for the love of Luna’s nightlife I couldn’t find them anywhere. That killed fifteen minutes, but I was getting more worried and impatient. So I sat in the barracks for the last quarter hour, letting the worry flow through me. What would they say? Would I pass? What would happen if I didn’t? These thoughts cycled through my head until the time came.

Suddenly I was at the war room, located in a rather remote section of the stable. I had no idea what it was used for before the Rangers took over, but as I entered, seeing a bare room with two tables facing each other, it felt like an interrogation room.

Ironbright and the Elder were seated at one table, but I froze when I saw who was seated next to them. Cloud Chaser and Rosemary.

What were they doing here?

“Take a seat, Initiate,” the Elder motioned to the table as I closed the door.

I did as I was told, taking a deep breath to steel myself. My courage was fading quickly with the presence of my friends, and I couldn’t even begin to muster enough clarity to guess as to why they were here. Everything would be explained soon, anyway, so I took another deep breath, waiting for the Elder to speak.

She took her time, sorting through a sheaf of papers. Had she been taking notes on me?

“Before we begin the hearing for the initiation of Ebonmane into the ranks of Applejack’s Rangers, we must take the Oath of Honesty,” The Elder said in a deep, commanding voice. When I had spoken to her before, she had been so subdued and polite. Now I saw the soldier within her. She continued. “In this hearing we will determine the skill of Ebonmane as a soldier and the character of him as a pony. If this is to be achieved, perfect honesty must be maintained. In the spirit of our Founder, the Ministry Mare Applejack, all present must vow to speak only the truth to the best of their ability, without regard to lesser concerns, such as the feelings of others present. This is a very serious matter, and sometimes Honesty can be brutal, but it is for the best of our Order. If anypony here does not believe themselves capable of this kind of honesty, I would ask them to remove themselves now, or be bound by the last of their silence.”

No one moved.

“Very well,” she said. “Thus begins the hearing. Let the pony who instructed Ebonmane in the ways of the Ranger and trained him in the ways of the soldier identify themselves.”

“I am his commander and mentor,” Ironbright declared.

The Elder continued. “Let all the ponies who call themselves his true friends identify themselves, for nopony is known better or judged more fairly than by the honesty of a friend.”

“I am a friend of Ebonmane.”

“I am a friend of Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser and Rosemary answered in turn.

“The Initiate’s superiors and peers are gathered. Let us hear the report of his commander.”

Ironbright stood, and moved to the center of the room, in between me and the Elder. She stood with her sides facing us, one eye visible to me and the Elder. She paused before she spoke.

Giving me time to think. This was happening too fast. What was going on? How did Cloud Chaser and Rosemary get mixed up in all of this? This hearing, this ritual, was moving along like they had rehearsed it, and I felt like I was watching my fate unfold without my consent.

“Ebonmane is a young stallion,” Ironbright began, “and a lot of the common descriptors of young stallions apply to him. He is ambitious, filled with the dreams of youth, and he is lonely, searching for his place in the world.” I had never thought that would be said of me, but I knew it was true the moment it came out of her mouth. “Unlike other young stallions, however, Ebonmane aspires to reach a state of moral purity and goodness, and he seeks to fill the holes in his life not with mares or achievements, but by finding a sense of purpose and usefulness in his life.” She paused here, and I couldn’t help but give a small smile. But Ironbright remained expressionless. “However, Ebonmane is not immune to the pitfalls of such thinking. No pony is ever pure, and Ebonmane strives for a version of himself that he is incapable of reaching. Likewise, his vision of purpose, of making Equestria a better place, is a dream that is unrealistic and shrouded in fantasy. As Rangers, you and I know, Elder, that every scrap of good we achieve is hard fought and small. It is still worth fighting for, but Ebonmane and this plan of his will not save the wasteland. It is debatable whether it will even have an effect on the sex trade.”

“I see,” the Elder said. It appeared that the Elder was going to question Ironbright. “What of Ebonmane as a Ranger?”

“As a Ranger, Ebonmane is difficult to classify,” Ironbright admitted. “His devotion to his sense of goodness could either make him an incredible asset to us, providing the Rangers with wisdom and insight beyond his years, or he could be a thorn, spurning authority to follow his own agenda. Even physically, Ebonmane is on the fence. He is significantly weaker than the average stallion, and his build will likely not yield a great amount of power, even with training. However, I’ve seen Ebonmane perform feats that even I may not be able to achieve. I witnessed him survive an onslaught of Canterlot ghouls in sub-par armor, standing under wounds that should have incapacitated, if not killed him. He did this through an impeccable fighting instinct and stubborn determination. I’ve learned that this is not the only instance of Ebonmane surviving near-death. It is also worth mentioning that he has only been in combat a few times, yet he fights with a skill that I find remarkable. He learns quickly, as a born fighter.”

The Elder spoke again. “Would you continue to train him?”

“Yes. He passed all of my tests. No matter how much I poked at his weaknesses, how worthless I made him feel, he kept the armor on. He decided to continue to be an Initiate, instead of letting his pride overcome him.”
“On a mission, would you hoof-pick Ebonmane to fight at your side?”

Ironbright thought for a while. “Yes. He is a wild card, a pony who has often surprised me. On a mission, he would be far more likely to be the finishing touch than the weakest link. What he lacks in a diverse skillset he makes up for in combat utility.”

“If he were to be promoted above you, would you follow his commands to the letter, without question?”

Ironbright did not speak for some time, considering her answer. My jaw was set. The tension was great. “Yes. In time, Ebonmane will mature beyond whatever aspects of a colt are left in him. His sensitivity to his gut is not a trait that can be taught to commanders, and despite his insecurities, no commander would sooner give his life to save his troops than Ebonmane.”

“Sometimes sacrifices must be made,” the Elder reminded Ironbright.

“Ebonmane understands that. But Big MacIntosh sacrificed himself for Celestia, and I recognize that instinct in Ebonmane. Suicidal, yes, but fearless.”

“Finally,” the Elder continued, “by your word, would give your support to Ebonmane to have him join our order, thus becoming like your own brother in blood?”

Ironbright hung her head. “I would not call Ebonmane a brother.” My heart sank. “I would sooner think of him as a nephew. But this is through no fault of his own. I simply see too much of an age difference. I would still support him as a Ranger.”

“That is not what I asked,” the Elder said harshly. “Would you call him your brother?”

Ironbright looked me in the eyes, and then turned to the Elder. “Someday, I want to. He could be a better brother to me than my own. We just don’t know each other that well, yet. And that is my fault. I am not quick to reveal my heart.”

The Elder put her hooves together, considering this, but finally said. “Thank you, Paladin Ironbright.” Ironbright took her seat again. “Next, let a friend of Ebonmane’s come forward.”

There was a long pause. Neither Rosemary or Cloud Chaser jumped up. They looked petrified. It was Rosemary who eventually broke the silence with her faint voice. “I will.”

She stood and took her position in the center of the room, facing the same direction as Ironbright. She did her best to stand tall and confidently, but her face had lost its color. I worried she might be sick. Why was she so nervous? I was the one on trial, not her.

“Who are you, friend of Ebonmane?” the Elder began.

“My name is Rosemary, of New Appleloosa.” Her voice was so timid, we could barely hear her.

“How did you meet Ebonmane? Speak up, girl,” the Elder asked.

“I met him on the road to New Appleloosa. He was escorting a friend of his from Junction Town when they were attacked by raiders. Cloud Chaser and I saved his life and helped him save his kidnapped friend.”

“I see.” The Elder’s tone was much warmer than it was with Ironbright, helping to take the pressure off of Rosemary. She sounded like the Elder I had met in her office. “So you have only known Ebonmane for a brief time?”

“Yes, but when you travel with a pony, spending all day with them, you get to know them quicker than usual.” Rosemary had a point. I certainly felt like I knew her fairly well.

“Then why don’t you start by telling us about him. What would you say about him if you were trying to make somepony understand what he’s like?” the Elder prompted.

Rosemary took a breath before starting. “Ebonmane is different than any other pony I’ve ever met. Sometimes I feel like I could never really understand what goes through his mind. He’s very complicated.” I winced. Complicated was different than complex, but Rosemary continued. “What I do know is that he cares a lot about other ponies. He wants to help others. I think that’s the main thing to know about him.”

“What do you mean?” The Elder asked.

“Well, you know about his plan to deal with Thunderfall. He doesn’t have to do that. No pony asked him to go to Manehattan and stop him, but he is, because it’s the right thing to do. And even if this doesn’t work, and you don’t let him become a Ranger, he’s going to go anyways and find a way to stop him. I know Ironbright said that he can be unrealistic, but I think that so many ponies are so worried about what they can or can’t do that they don’t even bother trying. It doesn’t matter if Ebonmane has his head in the clouds. At least he’s trying.”

“And you would say that’s his best quality?” the Elder asked.

“No,” Rosemary said, thinking for a moment. “I think his best quality is his sensitivity. Not that he’s sensitive, or not tough, but that he’s aware of what ponies around him are thinking or feeling. Ebonmane’s lowest moments aren’t when he makes a mistake, it’s when he hurts another pony’s feelings.”

“Does he do this often?” the Elder interrupted.

Rosemary turned her head away from me. “Sometimes.” I knew she was thinking about the time I shouted at her after Mareheat. “But when he does, he always makes up for it, too. He’s done… a lot for me. You know he carried me across the wasteland, and I still don’t know how he found the strength to do that. But what means the most to me is when he apologized to me after hurting my feelings. I could tell he was sorry as soon as he yelled at me, but I was too hurt and stubborn to forgive him. But Ebonmane, for all his pride, can be really humble. He thinks it’s more important to apologize than to be right.”

“Then what would you say is his worst quality?”

Rosemary paused. “Ebonmane can be really hard on himself. And when he gets down, he pushes other ponies away. He has to prove to himself that he’s good, and if somepony helps him then he feels weak. And he criticizes himself a lot, I can tell. I do it, too.” Rosemary turned to look at me for the first time. “It’s a lot of little things that add up to this depression and loneliness. But he always comes around. When he gets down, he gets really down, but he never stays there. He doesn’t let it stop him.”

The Elder paused before launching into her next series of questions. “Does Ebonmane’s friendship matter to you?”

“Yes,” Rosemary answered. “Now that I’ve gotten the chance to know him, I can’t stand to see him upset.” Ironbright smiled, thinking of the way she had yelled at me on the road. “He’s… one of the best friends I’ve ever had.” Rosemary said this as if it were a confession.

“If you were the one sitting in his seat right now and he was giving his opinion on you, would you listen even if he said things that hurt you?”

Rosemary considered this. “Yes. Ebonmane is, at heart, a good pony. I haven’t always been the nicest to him, but he’s never said a mean thing to me, or done anything to me to make me feel bad. He’s always been good to me and Cloud Chaser. Even if he were to criticize me, I know it would be said in the kindest way possible. It would be constructive. He knows right from wrong better than I do.” Her voice became quiet there.

“Do you believe that Ebonmane would do well in the roles he may be asked to play in his future, as a soldier, husband, father, or leader?”

“Yes,” Rosemary didn’t have to think about that one. “Ebonmane is completely dependable. I know it’s hard to believe because he can be so insecure and he seems so weak and sensitive at times, but as far as I can see whenever a pony has needed Ebonmane to come through for them, he has. I wouldn’t be here if not for his strength, and neither would Cloud Chaser. He would make a good soldier. And he would be an even better husband and father, because he would think about them so much more than he thinks about himself. And one day, I think he could be a great leader.” Rosemary’s smile glowed, and I felt its warmth.

“Who is Ebonmane to you?” the Elder asked.

“What do you mean?” Rosemary said.

“How do you relate to Ebonmane? What does he mean to you?”

Rosemary answered quietly. “He and Cloud Chaser are my best friends. My only friends.”
“Is that all?” the Elder asked cuttingly.

“I… I don’t know what else to say,” Rosemary replied nervously.

“Would you call him a brother?”

“No,” Rosemary said.

“Anything? Your cousin? A father figure? The love of your life? Anything?” The Elder was attacking her, and Rosemary faltered.

“He’s… He’s my best friend. That’s… why does he have to be more than that?”

For once, the Elder explained. “Friendship is powerful. But our truest friends are like family to us. Applejack counted the other ministry mares as family members. Would you count Ebonmane as family? Be honest.”

Rosemary hung her head. “No…”

“Why not?”

The little unicorn took a deep, shaky breath. She knew she was failing me, but she had to be honest. “I just… don’t think of him like that.”

“Why? What about him prevents you from being close to him? Be honest.” I hated the Elder in that moment. Rosemary was clearly upset, but the Elder was bullying her.

“I just don’t, alright!? But he’s a good pony, so leave him alone!” Rosemary shouted. I could see all the feelings she had felt when Ironbright yelled at me coming out. All the ways she wanted to defend me, and once more she was unable to. I didn’t blame her. I didn’t count her as a sister or anything like that. She was a good friend. What was wrong with that?

“Rosemary,” I said to her. “It’s alright. I understand. Thank you.”

Rosemary looked shaky, but she turned to sit down.

“Would any other friends of Ebonmane care to speak?” the Elder called.

“I would,” Cloud Chaser said confidently. Now that she had seen what the Elder had put Rosemary through, Cloud Chaser walked to the center of the room like she had a score to settle. She wouldn’t be bullied like that.

“Who are you, friend of Ebonmane?”

“I’m Cloud Chaser, orphan of New Appleloosa.”

“I believe we know how you met Ebonmane from Rosemary’s testimony, so why don’t you tell us about him?”

She smiled. “Ebonmane can be a real idiot sometimes.” I sank in my chair. What in the world was she doing? “I think that’s basically what Ironbright and Rosemary wanted to say, but they were just trying to sugar-coat it.”

“That’s a very dangerous thing to say after we’ve taken an Oath of Honesty,” the Elder warned.

“Then if they weren’t sugar-coating it, saying he’s an idiot is a good way to sum all of it up. They said he was out of touch, reckless, and clearly doesn’t have his priorities or sense of self-worth straightened out.”

The Elder seemed very interested in this talk. “So would you say that’s the worst quality of Ebonmane?”

“No,” she answered. Are you kidding me? “I think the worst thing about him is that he can be a real hypocrite.”

“Go on,” the Elder said with a smile.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ebonmane thinks with his dick too much.” Ouch. Didn’t she apologize for that? I was starting to get angry at her, because that wasn’t true. “He likes to think that he’s not mare-crazy or that he wants love more than sex, but even if he doesn’t care about sex as much as he says he doesn’t, which is bullshit, wanting love for love’s sake still counts as being mare-crazy.”

“So you think he’s a sex hound?” the Elder continued. Rosemary looked like she was going to skin Cloud Chaser alive. Ironbright simply sat back, watching this unfold with a blank expression. I just sank into my chair.

“As much of a sex hound as a virgin can be.”

“How do you know this?”
Cloud Chaser paused here. Finally, she dropped her cheerfully destructive tone and looked me in the eye with apology before turning to the Elder. “Because I’ve seen the way he looks at me and Rosemary.”

There was a long pause, but none of us knew what to say. “What do you mean?” the Elder continued.

Cloud Chaser took a deep breath. “It’s not hard to tell when a stallion’s attracted to a mare. I don’t know how he feels about us, but he does look at us a lot. I’m sure he’s thought about it.”

“About sleeping with you?”

“No. Well, maybe, but I don’t think that really matters. Everypony fantasizes, but that doesn’t mean anything. I think he thinks about being with us sometimes, and that’s why it’s hard to talk to him. Because he’s more concerned with love than friendship. He won’t be honest with us about how he feels because he’s worried that we’ll reject him, but he doesn’t understand that even if we do reject him, we still like him a lot.”

“Do you have feelings for Ebonmane?” the Elder asked. My heart stopped.

Cloud Chaser shrugged. “He’s a good guy. A lot of mares would be lucky to be with him. But so much is happening right now… I don’t know how anypony’s supposed to fall in love like this. I guess I haven’t really thought about my own feelings.”

“And now that you have?”

“It’s too soon to tell. We’re still getting to know him, me and Rosemary.”

“I see,” the Elder said. “So what would you say is his best quality?”

Cloud Chaser smiled. “I think his best quality is his worst quality. He’s mare-crazy.”


She looked at me again. “Ebonmane is really prejudiced towards mares. He feels like he needs to protect them, and he always acts like a gentlecolt around us, even though no stallion really thinks like that all of the time. He hates feeling like other stallions who are sex-hounds because he thinks that’s really disrespectful, and that all mares deserve respect. Maybe that’s wrong for him to have that prejudice, because he thinks less of his fellow stallions and more of mares, even if the mares don’t deserve that much respect. So that’s a flaw. He’s mare-crazy. But the fact that he’s mare-crazy not for sex, or even that he wants love, but because he feels like that’s the right thing to do says a lot about him. Rosemary and I both noticed this. His flaws are good points. He’s reckless, but his recklessness saved my life. He’s got his head in the clouds and he’ll never feel good enough to be the kind of pony he wants to be, but even if he is a crazy dreamer, he’ll never stop trying to make himself better. And maybe one day he’ll be able to pull off those dreams. You can ask any of us. We all thought that he was crazy when he was talking about taking down Thunderfall. Rosemary said that he should just let somepony else handle it. But now he’s here, and if he passes this, he’ll be making that dream a reality. We’ve all learned to believe in Ebonmane. You just have to take a chance and have some faith in him. He has a lot of flaws, but those flaws make him one of the best ponies I’ve ever met.”

The Elder paused, her smile becoming warmer. She began her series of questions. “Does Ebonmane’s friendship matter to you?”

“I need his friendship, because without it, I wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile in my life.” I smiled.
“If your positions were reversed, how would you feel about the things he might say about you?”
“I would take every word to heart, because he would give me a more honest review than I just gave of him, but it would be a lot nicer and a lot more helpful. He thinks about other ponies so much, sometimes I think he knows us better than ourselves.” I exhaled in surprise, my smile growing.
“Do you believe that he would do well in all the roles he may be asked to fill in his life?”
“Ebonmane could be the best soldier you’ve ever had because he refuses to give up. The mare he marries will be the happiest mare in the world. I don’t know a lot about fathers, but I would have killed to have a dad like Ebonmane. And if he gets promoted, Applejack’s Rangers might finally be able to restore Equestria to the way it was.” I could have sworn there were tears in my eyes.
“Who is Ebonmane to you?”

Cloud Chaser smiled warmly, turning directly toward the Elder. “Officially, Rosemary’s my best friend, so he’s not that. But he’s everything else. He’s like a brother to me, but I already said that if I had a father I wish he would have been like Ebonmane. Hell, I never really thought about colts before him, but even though I’m not in love with him or anything, he’s shown me the kind of colts I should be looking for. He’s a lot of things to me. I don’t think any of us here could live without him now that we’ve gotten to know him. He grows on you.”
I could have kissed her.

Cloud Chaser sat down, but I couldn’t stop staring at her and smiling. Everything she had said was perfect. Yes, I could be an idiot. No one knew this better than me. But for the first time in my life, she made me feel like that was okay. Like I didn’t have to beat myself up over my mistakes. She smiled back at me, and I felt so much well up within me that I couldn’t have begun to sort out my feelings.

“Ebonmane. Stand and come forward.”

The Elder’s voice cut through my elation, but after Cloud Chaser’s testimony, I couldn’t be nervous. I was starting to believe in myself. I took my position at the center of the room, facing my friends and the Elder.

“Sometimes, the most honest review is the one you give yourself,” she told me. “How do you feel about your progress over your training?”

My voice was calm and confident. “I know I’m not the strongest pony, but I look back at what I’ve accomplished and I can’t argue against myself, no matter how poorly I think of myself. I’ve killed a lot of ponies and survived a lot of wounds, but I’ve protected even more than I’ve killed. I think that’s the best measure of a soldier. Ironbright taught me a lot about myself and my limits over our trip to Canterlot, but I know I can learn more. I can be better and I will.”

The Elder continued with a blank expression. “What would you say is your best quality?”

I paused to think. “I would say my optimism, for lack of a better word. It’s been said that I can be hard on myself, and they’re right. But I don’t beat myself up just to feel bad or collect pity. Instead, it’s criticism, and a lot of it is constructive. It’s me being honest with myself, realizing my mistakes and learning from them. Sometimes, I make a lot of mistakes, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them, but I refuse not to learn from them. I’ve hurt my friends and made bad decisions, and sometimes things only worked out because I got lucky, but I don’t want to depend on luck, and I don’t want to hurt the ponies I care about. I say optimism because I’m always moving forward.”

“And your worst quality?”

Again, I paused to think. “Pride,” I answered. “Sometimes I think far too much about myself. About my own problems. I get so wrapped up in my mistakes that I don’t notice the other ponies around me. I don’t like it when others try to tell me I’m wrong; I’m the only one I’ll take criticism from. That’s not a good thing. But I work on that, too, to think more about others instead of worrying about myself all the time.”

“You can’t always improve,” the Elder said. “You can try and try to get better, but some of these flaws that you see in yourself are just who you are. What happens when you can’t change yourself?”


“Could you learn to accept yourself?” I was silent. She continued. “Mares have been brought up a lot today, and your relationship to the mares around you. What if you hide the parts of yourself that you don’t change?” She paused like she expected an answer, but I couldn’t give her one. “About these mares, then. Cloud Chaser said that you don’t like to focus on sex, instead turning to love or protectiveness to make you feel better. But is it accurate to say that you truly don’t think about sex?”

Something wasn’t right about that question. “What does it matter if I do?”

The Elder leaned back in her chair. “You tell me. You pursue mares for a lot of different reasons. How big of a reason is sex to you?”

“It’s not,” I told her. My friends looked at me with tense expressions. I felt cornered.
“Really? You’ve never felt the need to protect a mare or even be nice to a mare in the slight hope that she might fall in love with you?”
“That’s love,” I answered. “Emotions are completely different.”

“How can it be love if you hardly know them? Love doesn’t work that way, Ebonmane.”
I felt angry. She was trying to make me admit that I was just as bad as the stallions I pretended to be better than, but it wasn’t like that at all. “Hold on,” I said. “What does this have anything to do with me being a Ranger? Are all Rangers supposed to be celibate or something?”

“Of course not,” the Elder replied. “This is about you. You know that you’re not as good as you think or act like you are. It’s clear to me that you know yourself very, very well, but ponies like you are the ones that lay the most elaborate delusions to live with their flaws. What happens when they’re exposed?” She held up the stack of papers in front of her. “These are accounts of everything you’ve been through since you met Cloud Chaser and Rosemary, straight from their mouths. They say a lot about you. That you feel terrible about your friend, Silver Bell? And how she was almost raped? What was it you once said? That you feel bad for being the same gender as the rapists? But why would that be? You’re not a rapist, unless your lust has more control over you than you admit.”
“It doesn’t,” I defended. My friends’ faces were pleading with me to say something to prove her wrong, but her case was looking strong, and then what? This wasn’t nearly the darkest parts of me, I felt, but she was touching on them. What would happen when they were all laid bare?

She continued. “What I’m really curious about is this part in the whore house. Something happened behind a closed door between you and one of the dancers. I know it did because you got very touchy whenever it was brought up. Did you take advantage of her?”
“No,” I answered, feeling a little more confident. I looked Rosemary and Cloud Chaser in the eyes, taking a deep breath before explaining. “She offered to… thank me for helping her. She started to, but I stopped her before she ever touched me. I couldn’t let myself do that to a mare.”

“Then why didn’t you explain that to Rosemary instead of yelling at her?”

“Because,” I sighed. I had to be honest. “Because I felt bad for letting it get that close. I was tempted, alright? Who wouldn’t be? And I know I’ll be tempted again, and I don’t know what I might do if I could justify it to myself. And that scares me, because I could do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, but that doesn’t make it okay. I could have taken advantage of that mare and said that she wanted it, and she did offer, but she wasn’t mine to take.”

“And these temptations?” she continued.

“Of course I’m tempted. By a lot of things, but sex… that’s a really easy way to hurt anypony, and one of the worst ways, too. That’s why it’s such a big deal for me. But I’m not going to hurt anypony like that, no matter how badly I want to, or how in love I think I am. Because I want them to love me, too.” I took a deep breath. “I want the first one to be the only one.”

“That’s a lofty goal,” the Elder commented. “Almost every young stallion who thinks that way ends up hurting the mare he’s with. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m going to be sure before I let that happen.”

She shook her head. “Your friends are right about you. As Cloud Chaser said, you are an idiot. But when it comes to your love life, we’ll see if you can pull it off, like she believes you always do.” The Elder shuffled her papers. “All in all, your love life isn’t worth two caps to the Rangers. What matters is being honest with yourself. And you, young stallion, are a brutally honest pony.” I smiled. “That’s not always a good thing.” I stopped smiling. “One more question. What do you want to be when you join the Rangers?”

“I want to be a good soldier. I want to help others.”

“That’s it? Don’t you have any drive to be a commander? To gain enough influence to make a difference in Equestria?”

“I want to make a difference,” I answered. “And I want to be fit to lead, but I’m just a recruit. You probably don’t even know if I’ll ever be more than a Knight. If I do, great. But if I don’t, then that’s exactly where I belong.”

The Elder smiled. “Then let us call this hearing to a close.” She stood, Ironbright standing as well, Cloud Chaser and Rosemary following suit. The Elder stood before me. “I have heard the testimonies of your commander, your friends, and yourself, and believe that they come from the hearts of the ponies who spoke them, and represent their truest feelings. Based on this evidence, and my own opinions, gathered and formed honestly about you, I have made my decision. Kneel, Initiate.”

I bent my foreleg, lowering myself before the short Elder. “As Elder Hibiscus Tea of Applejack’s Rangers, and with the authority passed down to me by the spirit of Applejack herself, I would ask you to rise as Knight Ebonmane, and take your place under my command, doing everything in your power to serve Equestria and her people, until your spirit has departed your body, leaving only the memories of your deeds and goodness as an example to the future Knights of Equestria. Rise, my brother.”

I stood. I looked my friends in the eye. Cloud Chaser was beaming. Rosemary was wiping tears. Ironbright nodded to me in congratulations.

And my Elder placed her hoof on my shoulder. Its warmth spread in my body, and it weighed on me like my armor once did. But its pressure made me smile. It meant that I was a part of something now, and I had a chance to change things in the world, to protect others, and that I had a group of ponies who believed in me and who needed me.

But more than the weight of destiny or the warmth of acceptance, I felt yawning chasm of my future open up to me once more. My fate wasn’t any clearer than it was just moments ago, but now I could face the uncertainty in my future and within myself. Because I had a family, stronger than the one I was born to.

I looked at each of my friend’s smiling faces again, and I knew that the truest family I would ever belong to was fully assembled right in this room.

Chapter 7: Small

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"Good is not nice, polite, well-mannered, self-righteous, or naïve, though good characters may be some of these things."

The night I became a real ranger is one that I will never forget. I was now surrounded by the best, strongest, and most honest and humble ponies in the entire wasteland, and they accepted me. I was one of them, and those qualities were within me just as much as within them.

But did I deserve it? The question hovered in my mind as I was led from Hibiscus Tea’s meeting room. I hadn’t undergone the rigorous training that a ranger normally faces. I hadn’t seen the battles that even the greenest of knights had seen. In this sense, I wasn’t one of them.

I was plagued with worry and wonder about this ambiguity. Would I be accepted? Would they understand the arrangement I had with Hibiscus Tea, and that I never intended to disrespect the position I now held? I only wanted to do the right thing, to help them in protecting the wasteland when the rest of the rangers couldn’t. I knew I hadn’t earned it, but I did my best not to act like I had. I was young, inexperienced, and unfamiliar with their organization. In time, I could be like them, but I still felt like an outsider within the stable.

Quietly, though, I wondered if I had earned it. Ironbright had admitted that Canterlot had been far more dangerous than anypony had anticipated. Were my skills equal to that of other rangers? And Hibiscus Tea had put me through the same hearing that every other ranger had been through, and I had passed. And I felt like Hibiscus Tea hadn’t staged it, either. I think she was being as honest with me as I had been with her. She felt that I was ready to join them as a real Applejack’s Ranger.

So why did I feel so inadequate? Why did I feel so weak? So naïve? So dark, when the Rangers represented strength and light in the desolate, struggling wasteland? What did I lack?

Or what was within me that made me unworthy?

I had never been drunk before, but I have had a few drinking experiences. The first was with my older brother, Seacliff. The rest were mostly with Calamity, and they were few and far between. My parents knew that I had tasted alcohol, but they didn’t get any stories, mostly because I had none to tell.

The night I became a Ranger, I still did not get drunk. But I was about the only one.

Ironbright led us to the atrium with a grin on her face. Elder Hibiscus Tea left with a knowing smile. I would later learn that there was a rule about drinking and new members, but I also learned that most Elders or other authority figures made a habit to turn their heads if it was within reason. Celebration was great for morale, and Knights weren’t initiated every day.

The party didn’t start until Ironbright left the atrium, returning with a saddlebag full of bottles of hard apple cider. She uncorked them and passed them out to Rosemary, Cloud Chaser and me.

“To my newest brother in arms,” she said loudly. “To Ebonmane.” Cloud Chaser and Rosemary repeated my name quietly as we took the first drink. I didn’t say anything.

This was all it took for other rangers to take notice. Suddenly, as if by magic, the table we were sitting at began to fill up with drinking soldiers, mares and stallions alike.

“Where are they getting all this cider?” Rosemary asked.

“Sweet Apple Acres is just over there,” Ironbright motioned with a hoof. “In the past twenty years with no taint or radiation, we’ve been able to get some kind of crop out of it. And ponies will always pay for liquor. Honestly, it’s how most of our entire organization gets funded.”

“Oh,” was all Rosemary said. She took a drink and grimaced at the bitter taste. Over the years, I had grown somewhat used to the bite of booze, but even I winced at the first few sips. This stuff was strong. I had only really tried cheap vodka in Junction Town, so at least this tasted better.

The rangers around me congratulated me on becoming a knight and asked questions to get to know me, but the other soldiers weren’t too eager to greet the new guy. They were just happy for an excuse to party. And party they did. The radio had been patched through the loudspeakers of the atrium, and while most of DJPon3’s songs were not what I would think of when it came to parties, tables would still raise bottles and sing the chorus lines of their favorite tunes, the din getting louder and more raucous as the night came.

As for our group, Ironbright drank socially, a warm smile spreading over her face, but she didn’t get drunk. Rosemary sipped, and by the time Ironbright and I finished our first, Rosemary had barely cleared the neck. Cloud Chaser, on the other hoof, was downing ciders at an alarming rate. I blinked and there were three empty bottles in front of her.

“I’ve never been to a real party before,” she announced. “Ebonmane, you being a Knight was the best idea ever!” I noted that my knighthood would probably be the cause of my death, but kept my mouth shut. Cloud Chaser looked at Rosemary and me. “What is with you two? You look so depressed.”

I didn’t feel depressed. I was relaxing with my friends, having a good time. I shrugged. Rosemary took another sip. Cloud Chaser just groaned. “Somepony dance with me.”

All eyes turned to me.

I couldn’t take the pressure. “I can’t really dance,” I copped out.

Ironbright saved me from Cloud Chaser’s insistence. “I’ll dance with you,” she said, standing and crossing the table to Cloud Chaser’s side. Ponies were dancing in small groups all over the place, but Ironbright led her a small distance toward a more open area.

Rosemary watched them leave. She looked worried. “Cloud Chaser?” I asked. She nodded. “Ironbright won’t let anything happen to her.” I watched a few stallions start talking to them, though, smiles and blushes all around, and Rosemary’s ears began to flatten.

I tried to distract her. Cloud Chaser needed a little independence. “You don’t drink a lot, do you?” I asked.

“I’ve broken up too many drunken brawls to ever want to,” she replied. She turned away from Cloud Chaser, but her expression still looked annoyed.

“You should lighten up,” I suggested. “Just because there’s alcohol doesn’t mean that anything bad is going to happen.”

She just shook her head at me and took another sip. A couple of stallions walked up to us that I didn’t recognize. They weren’t dressed in their armor. One was a dark-colored earth pony and older than me, but the other was a unicorn about my age and had a light, shaggy mane. “Is he going to dance with you?” the older one asked.

“I don’t want to dance,” Rosemary replied simply.

“Alright. Then what’s with the sour face? Is he bothering you?” Why was I the bad guy?

“I’m fine. I’m not looking to hook up, so if that’s what this is about, you can keep going,” Rosemary sounded upset, but she managed to keep some strength in her voice.

“Well I’m happily married and he’s harmless, so relax,” the older one said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the younger one piped up. The older just rolled his eyes.

Then he looked at me. “How can we call ourselves knights if we let a mare sit here during a party having a bad time?” He smiled at her, motioning to me as he spoke. “You should dance with him. What could it hurt?”

She smiled back. “A lot, actually.”


The older one shrugged and said to the younger one, “You can’t win ‘em all, I guess.” They sat down on the other end of the table, still within talking distance in case Rosemary changed her mind.

There was a long pause before I finally spoke. “Are you mad at me?”

“No, I’m not mad at you,” she answered. She looked at the bottle of cider. It was almost empty by now. “I’m actually not feeling well. This stuff is a little too strong for me.”

“You don’t have to drink it. What’s wrong?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t the booze.

“I’m just worried,” she said.

“Cloud Chaser will be fine,” I reassured her.

“About everything,” she added. I didn’t know what she meant, but I didn’t know if I should ask. “I’m just going to go to bed,” she announced. I felt like I should follow her, but her tone told me that she didn’t want to talk to me right now. If she was going to push me away, I wasn’t going to chase her.

The two stallions slid over to me. “You’re the new guy, right?” the younger one asked. I confirmed, and they introduced themselves. The older one was Cobalt and the younger one was Sand Sprint.

“Hibiscus Tea said that you were the one that went with Ironbright to get the Blackheart,” Cobalt said.

“What about it?” I returned.

“What about it?” Sand Sprint repeated. “You obviously don’t know how to party with rangers. I’ll get you another cider. I want to hear this story.”

Cobalt spoke while his friend was away. “That’s my nephew. He was the new guy before you,” he explained. “Been wanting to be a ranger all his life. How about you?”

“Oh,” I faltered. Being a ranger was probably what most of these ponies had gotten their cutie marks over. They knew that this was their destiny. Me? Not so much. Suddenly I felt very out of place. “Well, I actually needed the Rangers’ help to stop this pimp who got my friend Silver Bell kidnapped, so…”

“They made you join,” he concluded. “That explains why we don’t know you. You must be good to get initiated that fast. How long you been fighting?”

“Two weeks,” I answered quietly. He whistled.

Sand Sprint returned with the ciders in his magical grip, setting them down before us. I uncorked mine. “So tell me about Canterlot. Were there still ghouls?”

I told the story as accurately as possible, downplaying my own achievements. I didn’t do it to give an impression of humility or to make what I had done seem like no big deal. I just felt like I had no room to brag when these two had probably accomplished much more than I ever would. Who was I to walk around like a hero when I was at a party filled with real ones?

Cloud Chaser sat down right after I finished talking about rescuing her from the ghouls. “Where’s Rosemary?” she asked, slurring the question. Oh boy.

“The cider was upsetting her stomach. She went to bed.”

Cloud Chaser gave a frustrated groan. “She is such a buzzkill!” She retrieved the cider she had left on the table when she went to dance, but it appeared that she had drank more while away.

“Maybe you should slow down on the cider,” I suggested.

“This is the last one,” she answered. I watched her shotgun it. Ironbright came to the table, her concerned expression mirroring mine.

“You- should dance with Ironbright,” Cloud Chaser slurred. “She’s reeaaallly good.”

I glanced at Ironbright. “Every stallion should know how to dance, Ebonmane. Especially one who has as many female friends as you.” It’s like they made me out to be some lady killer. I wasn’t. But she had a point.

“So who are you?” Cloud Chaser asked my two new companions as I stood. They introduced themselves, but for once I didn’t worry. I could tell that Cobalt wouldn’t let anything happen to Cloud Chaser that she wasn’t ready for.

Ironbright took me to a huddle of ponies, moving to a jazzy Sapphire Shores tune. She took the lead, teaching me basic steps. I wasn’t horrible, it seemed. But she moved like she had a dancing cutie mark.

“Where did you learn how to do this?” I asked once I was finally able to stop looking at my hooves.

“Tenpony Tower,” she said. “I’m actually doing pretty well, considering how drunk I am.”

“You don’t seem drunk,” I replied.

She smiled. “Only a little. But what happened to Rosemary?”

“She wasn’t feeling well. Said the cider was upsetting her stomach.”

Ironbright sighed. “You should have danced with her.”

“She doesn’t want to dance with me. She said so to Cobalt,” I defended.

“At least you’re meeting ponies,” she said.

“I think she’s mad at me.”

“Maybe I’ll go talk to her.”

“Don’t,” I warned. “She didn’t want to be bothered when she left.”

Ironbright smiled. “I think I can take whatever little Rosemary can dish out. But not until you get those hips moving. You’re still dancing like a colt.”

We ended up dancing for at least another hour. It was my first time dancing with a mare, but it felt like it shouldn’t have counted. Ironbright and I only talked about my dancing, and even though I was pressed into her, my neck against her hard body, it didn’t feel romantic or intimate at all, but it wasn’t awkward, either. I appreciated her skill, and despite her aggression and hard ways, I could appreciate the beauty of the mare before me. But she was my commander and a friend. We both knew that no matter how close we became, there would never be any attraction.

We stopped when Ironbright was satisfied that I wouldn’t embarrass myself when I did manage to step out with a mare, and she went to sit down after I took the lead successfully for a song. I found Cloud Chaser between Cobalt and Sand Sprint, laughing as the light unicorn told stories. It was obvious that he was attracted to her, but he kept a safe distance.

Cloud Chaser looked up at me. “You were right, Ebonmane. I should have shlowed down.” There were at least two more ciders in front of her.

“Cloud Chaser,” Ironbright admonished.

“Could- could you take me to the beds?” the pegasus asked me.

“Maybe Ironbright should,” Sand Sprint suggested.

“He’ll be fine,” Ironbright vouched for me. I nodded my thanks to her. Cloud Chaser was already up and shuffling, but I heard Sand Sprint talk before I followed her.

“I tell ya, Cobalt, if she wasn’t drunk…”

“But she is,” he replied. “And you’re doing yourself a world of good by steering clear.”

If I stood around too much longer, it would be suspicious, so I caught up to Cloud Chaser. She smiled up at me. “Have a good time?” I asked her.

“Yeah. I’ve never been to a party thish big before. All the ones in New Appleloosa are really boring. What about you?”

“I had fun,” I replied.

“Thoze guys are shuper nice,” she said. Then she giggled. “And Shand Shprint is reaaaalllly cuuuute.”

I rolled my eyes. “He thinks you’re cute, too.”

“I know. But Rozemary shays not to be a shlut.”

I wondered if there was a sexual scenario that Rosemary did approve of. Maybe she just wanted us all to be virgins. “Probably because she can’t get laid herself,” I thought. I immediately regretted it.

Hearing Cloud Chaser’s opinion on Sand Sprint made me feel anxious, though. She hardly knew him. She hadn’t spoken at his hearing. And he certainly hadn’t saved her life.

I knew this kind of thinking was silly, though, so I pushed it from my mind as we wandered the halls of Stable Two. With everypony in the atrium, it was rather empty, though in the darker parts I could hear the sounds of making out. I didn’t dare walk into any of the rooms without knocking.

Cloud Chaser stopped to go to the bathroom and I waited, sitting with my thoughts.

Assessing my situation, I understood two things: one, I was getting a little jealous of Sand Sprint because, two, I was attracted to Cloud Chaser. But now was not the night to make a move. Even though we would be heading to Manehattan tomorrow and could die before I had a chance to see if she liked me back, I was in the same spot Sand Sprint had been. I wouldn’t hit on a drunk filly.

When she came out, she looked deflated. There was even a hint of a frown on her face.

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked her.

“I’m not sick, just tired,” she answered, her slur mostly gone. We walked a little farther before she broke the silence. “Ebonmane, can I ask you something?”

“Sure?” I replied. My heart started to race.

“Do you like me?”

“Uh,” I faltered. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” she said. We had stopped and she was looking directly at me.

“Well, I don’t know,” I waffled, even though my pounding heart was telling me to confess my feelings.

“Really?” she asked. “Just tell the truth. Yes or no.”

There was a long pause. I looked away from her. “Yes,” I answered. I felt one weight lift off my shoulders only to feel the tension of her silence. I was dying waiting for her answer.


“What about you?” I pressed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I like you, but things are complicated right now, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, trying my best to be understanding. “What’s wrong?”

“Everything,” she said. “I just… I needed to know how you felt.”

“So now what?” I asked. “That’s it?” She was going to make me confess only to leave things up in the air? I felt wounded.

“I’ll know after we’re done in Manehattan,” she said. “I promise.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry,” I found myself saying.

“For what?”

“For putting you in this spot,” I said. “I bet it would be easier if we were just friends.”

She shook her head. “I didn’t exactly make it easy for you to be just friends, did I? I’m kind of a flirt…” she cast her gaze down. “I know it’s not easy for you to sit and wait like this.”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “I’d rather you figure it out than rush into something.”

“Thanks,” she said. “You won’t be hurt if I say no?”

“Don’t worry about me,” I told her. “Worry about what you want to say.”

I told her that because I knew I would be hurt if she did say no. But that shouldn’t affect her answer.

We finally entered the barracks, and across the sea of beds and passed-out rangers I could see Ironbright and Rosemary sitting across from each other, still awake. They looked at us as we entered.

“Feeling okay?” Cloud Chaser asked Rosemary.

“I’m fine,” she answered. “What about you?”

“I had a good time,” Cloud Chaser said with a small smile.

Unceremoniously, we all went to our beds without much of a goodnight.

I lay awake, feeling a little numb. I felt bad about putting Cloud Chaser in this situation, but I knew that those feelings had no ground. Cloud Chaser had admitted to flirting with me, and it wasn’t wrong for me to like a pony. But I still felt wrong.

The worst part was that I wanted to talk to somepony about it. But I didn’t want to tell any of my friends. Ironbright would tell me ‘tough luck’ and that all I could do was wait, and Rosemary would just tell me to back off. I wished I had more comforting friends.

But I realized that I could probably talk to Rosemary about Cloud Chaser, but now Rosemary’s behavior toward me took shape. She knew that Cloud Chaser was considering it, but for whatever reason didn’t want the little pegasus to be with me. I don’t know what I had done to convince her that I would hurt Cloud Chaser, but I must have done something.

Maybe Rosemary was jealous because I liked Cloud Chaser and not her. Maybe she was jealous because stallions hit on Cloud Chaser and not her. And in that moment, I felt bad for Rosemary. I understood why she was upset. After all, two other stallions had to suggest that I dance with her instead of me just asking myself and being polite.

Would Rosemary have even agreed to dance with me? Or did she really hate stallions as much as she made it look like she did? I knew the latter wasn’t true, but I still don’t think she would have danced with me.

At this point, I wondered why I was thinking so much about Rosemary when I had just confessed my feelings about Cloud Chaser. But for the record’s sake, I considered the possibility that I might have slight feelings for Rosemary, too.

Rosemary could be a bitch, but she was kind. She was gentle. And she could be surprising. But while I cared about Rosemary, I didn’t feel anything for her. But it was apparent that I had been a shitty friend to her, if it had taken me this long to consider why she acted the way she did.

I vowed to get to know her better. Even if I didn’t have feelings for her. She deserved to have somepony pay attention to her for once instead of Cloud Chaser, even if I did so as a friend.

But as I fell asleep, I allowed myself to look across the room at the cute pegasus, still hoping that she would say yes.

I woke up to find Cloud Chaser sitting on the end of my bed.

“Morning,” she said.

I rubbed my eyes. “Morning.” I could hear shaking in the next bed over, but I didn’t look. It must be pretty early.

“So… I was thinking about last night,” Cloud Chaser started.

“Don’t worry about it,” I replied.

“I’m not,” she told me with a smile. She began to draw closer. My heart began to race.

I heard Rosemary make a muffled sound of fear in the bed next to me, and the low chuckles of several stallions to accompany it.

But my head wouldn’t turn.

Cloud Chaser crawled up to me seductively, and I knew she was going to kiss me. But what was going on?

“Please, stop,” Rosemary sobbed. There was a striking sound and a yelp of pain. The shaking sounds still continued.

What was I doing? Why couldn’t I turn my head?

Cloud Chaser put a hoof on my bare chest, and I wrapped one around her neck, her warmth spreading through me. I wanted to say something, but my voice caught in my throat.

My eyes closed as I moved into Cloud Chaser, and we kissed. And it felt incredible. For a moment, I was lost in bliss.

But as soon as it broke, I regained control. My head snapped around to see Rosemary, lying beneath a group of filthy raider stallions. They were raping her as she bled out of a slash in her throat, the life draining away from her eyes as her tears hit the sheets.

I awoke with a start, panting and sweating. I couldn’t help but look around. The barracks was dark. Cloud Chaser and Rosemary in their beds. Stable Two was quiet. And safe.

Now that I had regained my whereabouts, I knew it was a dream. But I also knew that it was no normal dream. It had to be the doing of the Blackheart. My dreams were never so specific, and this one seemed to be incriminating me about the things I had fell asleep thinking. How I had been a terrible friend to Rosemary. How I had ignored her in pursuit of Cloud Chaser.

I put my head in my hooves. Yes, I had been a bad friend, but I hadn’t been that bad, had I? The Blackheart was just trying to mess with me. I would just have to ignore it. After all, it was only a nightmare.

As I rose from my bed, though, the image of a used, tearful, dying Rosemary was burned into my mind.

Weariness overtook me once again as I shambled to the showers to clean myself of last night’s booze and dancing. I knew that I should have awoken refreshed. I almost got plenty of sleep for once. But I was a haunted pony, tormented not by a relic of dark magic. No, that was simply the engine that made my ghosts manifest. In truth, I was possessed by my fears, my doubts, by my flaws and mistakes, all of which I had intentionally catalogued and bred in the name of keeping myself pure, humble, and good.

This was not the way, I knew. But this was who I was. And the Blackheart knew how to stab at my weak points. It knew that all it had to do was make me fight myself, as I always had done. I think that was the cruelest part of it all. When I turned the faucet, not even the steamy water could soothe me because the weariness I felt was not external. It was caused by me.

I sat under the stream and sighed. The nightmare had awoken me rather early, and I was alone in the showers. I took my time. I pushed my thoughts away as best as I could. I wished I could be less self-destructive. I wished that there were less flaws for me to want to fix.

But amidst my self-pity, which I also found myself hating, there were twists of hope. Maybe one day I wouldn’t be so foolish. Maybe one day I wouldn’t be so selfish. Maybe one day I could be brave. One day.

My shower must have lasted for at least forty minutes, and it would have lasted longer, but I shut the water off when another pony entered. I had taken too long as it was.

I returned to the barracks to find my friends still asleep. But they were some of the few. In the halls I had passed hung over ponies and ponies performing walks of shame, but at least they were awake. My friends didn’t have more of a reason to sleep in than they did.

But in a moment of wisdom, I started with Ironbright.

I shook her gently, and her eyes snapped open. “Ebonmane? What time is it?”

“About eight,” I told her.

“Oh,” she seemed relieved. Her soldier’s discipline had not been broken. She turned to me as she sat up. “You alright?”

I nodded. “Nightmares.”

“About what?” she asked.

“Cloud Chaser. Rosemary,” I told her. I didn’t want to go into detail, but I didn’t want to hide from her.

“They’ll be fine,” she reassured me. “That’s why we’re here.”

“I know. You don’t have to worry about me.” I sighed during the pause. “I’m going to go wake them up. If you hurry you might be able to get the showers while they’re empty.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” she smiled warmly. She stood and left, and I felt a little better.

Knowing full well how heavy a sleeper Cloud Chaser was, I decided to wake Rosemary first. Besides, I had things to say to her.

I approached her bed, but as I stood over her, I tried to decide how best to wake her without being a total creep. I tried using a soft voice so I wouldn’t have to touch her. “Rosemary,” I said. She didn’t move. I tried again, just a tiny bit louder. “Rosemary.” Nothing.

Hoping for the best, I tapped her shoulder gently. “Rosemary.” I hoped she wouldn’t jump or be scared. Instead, she rolled over gently, her eyes opening slowly.

“What…?” she had no idea why I was waking her. Why was I waking her again? This didn’t seem like a good idea.

“It’s time to get up,” I told her.

“Oh.” Then she turned away from me. “Just give me a moment.” I don’t think she wanted me to see her this closely in the morning, her mane all messy and her face still tired, at least until she was fully alert. I turned my head anyway. I didn’t see why it mattered. It’s not like something as trivial as morning could turn a pretty mare hideous. Or even an average-looking one for that matter.

Appearances aside, I felt the urge to apologize for being a shitty friend. But I wasn’t sure how. Just bringing it up would be really awkward. But I didn’t see any other way.

I braced myself for the awkwardness with an intake of breath. “By the way, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

She turned to look at me, the wonder in her green eyes rousing her and causing her to forget about her looks. “Why?”

I knew what I had to say. But I didn’t want to. “Cloud Chaser and I have been getting closer…”

“What did you do to her?” she accused.

“Nothing!” I answered quickly. “I haven’t laid a hoof on her. What I was going to say is that I’m sorry because I haven’t been a very good friend. I’ve ignored you going after Cloud Chaser, and I never stopped to think about how that would make you feel.”

Well, I said it. I stood and stared, awaiting her response.

“It’s… I’m fine.”

There was a pause. I continued to dig. “How does it make you feel, exactly?”

“It doesn’t bother me,” she insisted. “I just don’t want anypony to hurt her, but I know you won’t. So it’s fine.”

She didn’t look fine. She didn’t sound fine. Sure, she didn’t sound broken and distraught and in need of a strong and handsome stallion to rescue her from her life of neglect and loneliness, but she wasn’t fine. So I made a big move and sat down.

Perhaps I had a death wish, but I decided to test her a little. “So what would you do if I pursued her?”

“That depends,” she replied. “How far would you go?” I shrugged. I was just trying to get a reaction out of her, to see if she could back up her words. She shook her head. “She’s a big girl now. She can decide for herself how far she wants to go.” It sounded like she was speaking to herself rather than to me.

“I don’t want to use her. I don’t even want to get into bed with her,” I admitted.

Rosemary looked slightly relieved. “Then what do you want?”

Somehow she had turned the tables, as I found myself thinking about my answer. “I guess I just want somepony I can be close with.”

Rosemary sighed. “I know she likes you. She’s just nervous.”

“She said she needed time,” I told her. She sighed again, but didn’t say anything. “She’ll always be your friend,” I said. “I don’t want to come between you two. And I don’t think she wants me to, either.”

“I know,” she said in a quiet voice.

I didn’t know what to say after that. “Are you sure you’re alright?” I knew she wasn’t, but I wanted to give her one more chance to open up, to tell me what was wrong. I knew I wasn’t the best candidate to dump her feelings on, but how many other ponies could she talk to?

“I’m fine,” she repeated. I sighed. At least I tried. “I’m going to go get a shower,” she informed me, giving her an excuse to leave.

Well, the last one left was Cloud Chaser. I was really hesitant to wake her, but somepony had to do it or she would likely sleep in forever.

I went over to her snoring form, the covers wrapped around her like she was locked in battle with them. I knew she was a heavy sleeper, so I didn’t bother with the soft voice, knowing that I would have to shake her awake.

It took a few moments, but eventually I got a groan out of her. She turned over and buried her face into her pillow. Was she really ignoring me? I shook her again, and she pushed me away, pulling the pillow over her head. I snorted. This was getting ridiculous. I gripped the sheet in my teeth and yanked it away. Her legs pulled up to her body, but she was forced to confront me.

“What!?” she snapped at me.

“We’re leaving today. We have to get up.”

She peeked out from under the pillow to glare at me. “It can wait.”

“No it can’t. Everypony else is up. We really shouldn’t waste time.”

“But hangover,” she informed me. She rolled around, and I got a better look at her face. Bags were under her eyes and her mane was kind of messy. Last night was definitely getting the better of her.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I’ll ask Ironbright if there’s something that can be done.” She continued to glare at me. I knew waking her up would get me on her bad side, but somepony had to do it, and Ironbright and Rosemary had passed the buck to me.

She just groaned again. “Where’s Rosemary? She always has something to make you feel better.”

“She went to the showers.”

“Perfect.” The promise of a hot shower was enough to get her out of bed. I watched her go. She was cute even when she kind of looked like hell.

After she left, I was functionally alone. Many of the other rangers were still in their beds, and I had awoken some of them, but they had just rolled over to return to their dreams.

Speaking of which, I recalled my nightmare. I hadn’t yet told anypony about it in detail. Or the last one. But I decided that I really didn’t want to. How could I describe to them that I dreamed about Rosemary being raped? And I doubted that my Blackheart explanation would fly with them, but I knew it was true. I knew my dreaming patterns. This was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. But I knew the Blackheart was accusing me. The events of both dreams were symbolic enough. But why? I assumed that I was the only pony undergoing these dreams, as the others had never awoken screaming yet. I just guessed that I was the first one to touch it, and therefore I was the target. But this wasn’t what I wanted to know. I wanted to know why it used my friends like this. What did it hope to gain?

I couldn’t begin to guess. But one thing was certain. The nightmares would continue. And if I was a betting pony, I would wager that they were only going to get worse. And who knows what else the wretched stone had up its sleeve.

Part of me wanted to destroy it. But it was no longer under my control. Ironbright had turned it over to Elder Hibiscus Tea almost as soon as we had arrived. The Elder hadn’t mentioned any nightmares she’d had lately, so either it really was only after me or she hadn’t caught on yet.

I knew I should tell somepony. At least one of them was bound to take me at my word. But I didn’t want to. These dreams… so far, they had been exposing my fears, one by one. I knew I shouldn’t hide my fears from my friends. I knew it was silly of me to worry about what they would say. But I did worry. And I did hide. That was a part of me I wasn’t ready for them to see.

Since I had completed my morning routine before any of my friends were even awake, and since they were mares and took a lot longer to get ready for anything than a stallion did, I knew I had some time to kill. I sorted my gear and picked up my armor, but after that I could only wander around the stable. This wasn’t as boring as one might think, as this had been Littlepip’s old home, and the place was drenched in history, but I was still pretty bored on my walk. I spent it in silence, as I didn’t encounter anypony I knew.

After that, I went to the atrium for breakfast. Once I sat down with my tray of oatmeal and dried fruit, I saw Ironbright walk in. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser followed soon after, and the mares all sat down by me.

No pony really said anything. There wasn’t much to talk about. Cloud Chaser was still looking hung over, and we had the wisdom not to comment on her night. Rosemary seemed to have withdrawn further into herself. Ironbright observed all of us, but decided not to speak. And I had just as much reason to be silent as the rest of them.

Without conversation, we ended up eating quickly. The ponies around us were like us: tired, just hurrying so that they could leave on their own tasks. We all downed our bland meals, our bowls containing only fuel for the excitement that lay ahead of us. Despite their sleepy eyes, every ranger seemed prepared to go and fight what they would face. I couldn’t say the same for me.

When we finished, Ironbright and the rest sighed as they helped me with my armor, the task simply tedious at this point. The younger mares walked ahead, ready for this journey to be over with so that they could get back to their lives. Ironbright stopped me near the big stable door. “Are you sure about this?”

I nodded solemnly. Thunderfall might not be the most important target in the wasteland. Stopping him wouldn’t fix anything. But he was a target, and in a wasteland that was like a young plant, it needed all the help it could get if Equestria was to mature and blossom. He was a weed, and for better or worse, we were the ponies that had been selected to uproot him.

Squinting my eyes against the harsh summer sunlight, we headed out of the stable’s safety once more. Our hooves kicked up dust along the road that had become familiar to us. And my friends and I, a small band of hardy wastelanders, headed toward our fate, walking side by side, together for possibly the last time.

By this point, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After a few hours, it was back to the same thing. Heat, muscle soreness, and an uncomfortable silence. Sweat, pain, and boredom. At least my armor felt a little lighter. Perhaps I was getting stronger.

But not too much stronger. After our first break, I tried to rise and struggled to do so. Ironbright helped me up.

As we trekked north, the sparse patches of grass and scrawny trees fading into a general gray, dusty expanse dotted with wreckage and scrap metal, my steps once again getting heavy, my breath turning into pants under the sun, I began to feel like a burden on this mission rather than an asset. Now that we had Ironbright, I felt a lot better about our chances, but that didn’t mean that I was useful to the group. Empirically speaking, I had to be at least as useful as Cloud Chaser and Rosemary were, but was I even necessary in this fight against Thunderfall? Or would I end up in the way?

We would likely be infiltrating someplace, and Cloud Chaser was quiet as the night, especially in her stealth armor. Apart from Ironbright, Rosemary packed the heaviest gun, and had good ideas to boot. Ironbright’s usefulness couldn’t be overstated. But me? What did I offer? Ironbright also had a PipBuck. I wasn’t stealthy. I wasn’t particularly resilient. I didn’t pack a lot of firepower. All I seemed to possess that was noteworthy was my sword and romantic sense of justice. And considering I was bringing both of these to hellish gunfights, I should have been dead by now.

At least with this mammoth armor I could jump in front of a bullet and expect to live, within reason. Meat shield Ebonmane, away. As my weight began to drag me down, I did feel more and more like a pile of meat encased in a metal can.

Without conversation to vent my feelings, or at least distract my from them, they began to fester. I had decided that a pony left alone with his own thoughts was rarely a good thing. The Ministry Mares knew long ago that friendship was necessary for our survival, and theirs was a cautionary tale. But each of my friends had their own thoughts to manage, their own feelings, and we isolated ourselves, creating fortresses of loneliness for our minds. We needed to be friends now. We needed whatever morale and unity we could get. But what could I say?

Rosemary had made it clear that she didn’t want to talk to me by how persistently she pushed me away. The ball was stuck in Cloud Chaser’s court, as my confession had left a great deal of awkwardness between us, and her decision to wait to give me an answer left us stuck. With Ironbright, it wasn’t that there was something between us, but not enough at all to bridge the gap of unfamiliarity. I was beginning to know her, but not enough yet to depend on her to rescue me from my loneliness. She likely didn’t know me that well, either. She pushed ahead, either ignorant of our personal exiles or suffering from one herself. I couldn’t tell which.

The trip to Manehattan would take three days. Three days of this self-made anxiety. Sweat. Pain. Exhaustion. And now I could add loneliness and worry to that list of constants in my life.

The ruins of Manehattan appeared on the hazy horizon, the better part of a day’s walk away. I had traveled some during my foalhood in Junction Town, but not this far yet. Manehattan was a famous bed of danger, even now, and while Tenpony Tower was there to stake a place for stability and civilization amidst the crumbling city, it was not exactly a defense force for the ruins.

We all knew this. As soon as we were surrounded by towering walls and were stepping over broken glass and rubble, we were on a timer. Get in. Stop Thunderfall one way or another. Get out.

The wind seemed to sputter and die as we entered Manehattan. We moved in almost complete silence, every step and clank of armor seeming all the louder for lack of noise, and our confinement to these narrow streets and alleyways. My PipBuck’s automap looked like a maze.

My nerves were wound pretty tight. I was the first to pull my guns and sword out, and while this may have spooked my friends, they did so as well. Better safe than sorry. We had no idea what might be lurking around each corner. Literally. I didn’t know what to expect. Raiders? Ghouls? Other monsters? All seemed to be contained by these silent, empty streets, teeming, waiting to jump at us.

“Maybe we should regroup at Tenpony Tower,” Rosemary suggested. “They might know where to find Thunderfall. It’s got to be better than roaming aimlessly around the city.”

Cloud Chaser and I agreed. Ironbright didn’t say anything at first. When we looked at her, all she said was, “At least we can get more healing potions.” We only had one. Turns out that Ranger medical supplies were thinly stretched, and went on a strict-need basis, as with a dying Rosemary.

So we changed courses. Ironbright led the way, but I kept my eye on my map in case it named a building that seemed likely to house Thunderfall.

We didn’t even make it close before we heard a mare shouting.

“Somepony, please! Help!” She was distressed. Not hysterical but something was clearly wrong.

We didn’t even question if we should help or not. She wasn’t too far away. “Stay put! We’ll find you!” Ironbright called in the loudest voice I have ever heard.

“Over here!” the mare answered.

On the other side of the block we saw a familiar face. The pegasus who had saved Silver Bell from rape by taking her place. Midnight.

“Midnight? What are you doing here?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“You know her?” Ironbright said.

“She was going to be sold to Thunderfall when we rescued her,” I explained. My two other friends ran up to her.

“My sister was taken by manticores!” she told us. “We were on our way to Friendship City and we must have gotten too close to their nest and…” She looked like she wanted to cry, but didn’t.

“How long and which way?” Ironbright asked.

“About ten minutes that way,” Midnight said. We started to move.

Ironbright took over. “How did you escape?”

“I ran. I learned zebra techniques at Glyphmark, so I beat them off of me. But when I was safe, Moondancer wasn’t with me.”

“You can fight?”

“You’re not going in without me.”

Ironbright paused for a moment. “You know that it would be a miracle if your sister was still alive, right? Manticores don’t play with their food.”

Midnight spoke adamantly. “She’s smart and she’s fast. Maybe she found a hiding spot. Their nest is in an old rail station. There’s plenty of ways for her to escape.”

“Alright,” Ironbright said to all of us. “Manticores are fast, but not too bright. If we enter their nest, they’re going to rush us. We just need to run and gun. Just don’t get cornered.”

We nodded. But already I was having serious doubts about this. We shouldn’t be taking Midnight. She was unarmed and distraught. She could die just as easily as her sister. But I understood her determination. She wouldn’t be swayed.

I floated out a pistol. “Here,” I told her.

“I don’t need it,” she said.

“Just in case.”

She took it and its holster begrudgingly. “What about you?”

“I have another, and armor to boot. But how would your sister feel if you died trying to save her? Every little bit counts.”

She sighed in acceptance. There wasn’t time to argue.

We were sprinting and flying, so it didn’t take Midnight too long to lead us to the Four Stars station she spoke of. It had been about fifteen minutes since her sister, Moondancer, had been taken by the manticores. Maybe she could be alive.

The station had two levels, a lower entrance and an opening through which the elevated railroad exited. The track was rusted and shoddy, barely standing. The station could have housed maybe fifty manticores, if I was guessing their size correctly. It wasn’t too big, but we couldn’t just peek in and hope to find her.

“Rosemary, you have the loudest gun,” Ironbright gave the cue as we stood outside.

Rosemary concisely squeezed off two rounds, our ears ringing as she reloaded and we waited. By the time her gun snapped closed, we could see black wings emerging from the building.

My heart stopped. They were huge. Their hulking bodies were at least four, maybe five times the size of an average pony. Their segmented scorpion tails were as thick as my neck, the stingers viciously sharp, as were their fangs. With their bushy manes and natural bulk, I feared that my sword wouldn’t be able to hack through their necks, and I knew it would take a lot of bullets to bring just one down. But there was no going back now. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Ironbright didn’t waste a second, her twin machine guns primed and blazing the moment we saw them. Her aim was good, and she was tearing into the massive throng of winged death that descended on us. Rosemary focused on the closer ones, her gun doing exactly what it was designed to do. It seemed like every bullet she fired brought one down. It was just a shame that she could only shoot twice before reloading, but she was doing so with nearly mechanical speed at this point. Cloud Chaser and I fired our pistols, each round barely causing them to flinch. Even so, I grew hopeful as the feline carcasses began to pile up at the base of the station.

But we couldn’t shoot fast enough. There might have been twenty of them, and it took them not even ten seconds to reach us, even as we backed away. Half of them were down as their claws extended toward us, and almost all of the rest were at least wounded. Hopefully we could finish them off.

That’s where I came in. I knew Ironbright could take care of herself, but the other mares were far more vulnerable. Blade ready, I became a permanent linebacker. The manticores began to dive toward us, landing, surrounding, and cutting us off. I kept close to Rosemary, coming between her and a charging manticore. I discouraged it with a few shots from my pistol, but hacked at it with my sword to finish it. It roared as it pressed forward, its body smelling like mud and its breath like rotting meat. It took four swings to kill it, and I had to block swiping claws as it surged forward, fending off its attacks with my blade. I was lucky that my magic afforded me more range than it had, despite its size. Turning to face another, I didn’t bother with SATS, instead aiming down my sights at its huge head as barreled at us. I fired three shots, two of them piercing the brain and killing it.

I hadn’t seen Rosemary or Cloud Chaser back away, leaving me and Ironbright pinned in a melee as we became their closest targets. I felt claws rake against my back, glancing off the plates. Once again, my legs didn’t fare so well as my haunches were ripped at through thin gaps in the metal. I leapt away, certain that my armor would be useless against their fangs.

The wind was knocked out of me as another one pounced on me, pinning me underneath its weight. The impact had loosened my weapons from my grip, and I turned to raise a hoof, jabbing for the manticore’s throat as it went for my own. I found contact, but I only managed to delay it, its thick mane blocking most of my punch’s impact.

Suddenly, it stiffened and fell with a thud, and Midnight gave it another kick to help me lift its dead weight off of me. She had snapped its spine with a single punch. The dark pegasus was better than I thought.

No time to think, though. As I got to my hooves, Midnight was tackled by another one. This is what I saved SATS for. Before it could bite, I raised my gun and moved around to the side, deciding to fire a few rounds into its belly, hopefully getting the lungs or heart. I hit neither, but all three of my bullets landed, and the beast reared and roared. Midnight drew the gun I gave her and fired point blank. A spray of blood exploded from the head.

Ironbright and Rosemary were finishing off the last of the manticores, so I went to Midnight to help shove the manticore carcass off of her. I put my shoulder against the brawny body, but it wouldn’t budge. Midnight wasn’t helping from underneath.

Cloud Chaser came to help, and we got the monster off of her. She was moving, but there was a large, red spot in her thigh, and blood mixed with a black ichor was dribbling out of a wound. The manticore had stung her. She looked up at us, weak and in pain.

Now that I could see the poison, I wasn’t going to rely on whatever magic the others thought I had. I knew what to do. I quickly pressed my hooves to her upper leg to cut off blood flow and prepared to suck out the venom. But before I could press my lips to her wound, she jerked, and I paused. She was fighting me.

Cloud Chaser took over, weaving in between her and me. Midnight wouldn’t relax until I had taken my hooves off of her, and once I did, Cloud Chaser continued treatment. After a few moments, Rosemary came around with a healing potion, and Ironbright told Cloud Chaser to stop, and that the potion would do the rest. Midnight drank it, and after a few moments of catching her breath, she was able to stand.

Nothing was said as she pushed past me. But I knew what had happened. She was so afraid of stallions after her rape that she couldn’t help but refuse my touch, even though I was clearly helping her. Whatever that monster, Chain Gang was his name, had done to her must have been bad.

I didn’t have time to be depressed though. Every moment could be the difference between Moondancer’s life or death.

Ironbright kept a cool head. “Rosemary, you and me will clear the bottom floor. Ebonmane, Cloud Chaser, Midnight, go in through the rail entrance and clear the top floor. Move slow, and he’s got the armor, so let him lead, ladies. Don’t hesitate to run if you need to. If you find Moondancer, get her out then fire a single shot from outside.”

“Ironbright, I can’t fly up to the second floor with this armor,” I reminded her.

She frowned at me. “Rosemary’s magic should help you up. Now let’s move.”

Rosemary wrapped her levitation around me, and I beat my wings. I tried to use my own levitation as well, but that was so exhausting that we made more progress without it. I was clearly not Littlepip. With Rosemary’s power, though, enough weight was lifted from me that my wings were able to clumsily carry me to the rails, where I could walk into the building.

Midnight and Cloud Chaser formed up behind me. Cloud Chaser, miraculously, had not suffered any wounds, and the gashes on my hindlegs were minor despite the blood flowing. The entrance ahead was a great shadowy opening that threatened to swallow us. But any remaining manticores would have to be much deeper within. As we proceeded, I lit up my horn, signaling to a live Moondancer that ponies were there, and drawing any manticores away from her.

The room we entered was long and relatively bare, a tiled floor rising a good distance above the tracks and leading further inside. Musty cobwebs wound around the metal beams of the ceiling, obscuring any other features of the room. The pegasi flew the five or six foot drop from the floor to the rails, turning back to help me clamber up in my bulky armor.

Once we left that room, we were surrounded by darkness, my horn our only source of light. The ceilings were lower and the halls were narrower, with plenty of smaller corridors that could hold all sorts of nasty surprises. But Moondancer could be hiding down any one of them. So we walked together and peeked down every one until we could see a dead end. Midnight began to call her name. We weren’t exactly going for stealth, and how many more could there possibly be?

We found the stairs down, and as we passed them we heard the crack of Rosemary’s gun. They found manticores. Cloud Chaser couldn’t help but dart down to check on our friends. She came up moments later. “They’ve got it covered,” she reported. At least that was good.

We found ourselves headed into a more open atrium, possibly a waiting room. The long room was nearly impossible to navigate with all of the broken benches and trash cans, not to mention countless other pieces of scrap metal that came from Celestia knows where. This room seemed empty, but doors on all sides of us betrayed our safety.

One by one, we poked through them. We found nothing in the first couple, but the third yielded results. A large kiosk dominated the room where train tickets were once sold, but the countertops had been smashed and raided long ago. We froze when we saw manticores, these ones not possessing manes, lying sleepily with bundles of little manticore cubs. Their young wings were stubby and their tails lacking the potent stingers, but their mothers looked agile and dangerous.

But we had to continue. Lying at the top of the kiosk, standing at the sight of us, was a dark blue mare. Moondancer.

We motioned for her to come to us. If she could stay quiet, we might be able to make it out without a fight. Besides, I really didn’t want to kill the cubs. Even if they were monsters, they were just animals. They didn’t need to be exterminated.

One of Moondancer’s wings were broken, and one of her hindlegs. How she managed to get on top of the kiosk safely, I had no idea, but perhaps she had done so during the commotion we had caused outside. Her only choice had been to lay there and hope that something would distract the mother manticores before she expired from any number of causes, from thirst to blood loss to discovery.

Midnight signaled that she would continue. I was too loud when I moved, and if something did happen, I wouldn’t be as effective if I was bogged down carrying another pony on my back. With painful silence, Midnight slinked into the room. She didn’t even dare stir a wing for the noise it caused. She stepped over broken shafts of wood and wound her way through the manticore piles, carving a path that never drew too close to them. It seemed to take forever, but Midnight eventually reached the base of the kiosk.

Moondancer inched forward slowly, preparing to slide down the side to minimize her fall distance onto Midnight’s back. Cloud Chaser and I held our breath.

She slipped, falling onto Midnight with a heavy thud and a stifled yelp of pain.

The manticores raised their heads.

Cloud Chaser moved like lightning. She knew we were caught, and she wasn’t giving these beasts time to pounce on the pegasi. Drawing her pistol she flew out and fired at the nearest targets, putting bullets through brains before the mothers could rise to attack.

I ran out to meet Midnight, now sprinting while she carried her sister. The manticores began to fly, and I fired at them to halt their advance, sword ready to tear into the first one I could reach.

They all pounced at once. I was lost in a flurry of claws, fangs, and tails, smelly fur and roaring jaws. I felt myself being bitten. I felt stingers and claws scrape against my armor, but the throng of bodies prevented the venomous tips from reaching me with any real force. One set of jaws pierced my shoulder, but I managed to shake her off by cracking the hilt of my sword against her skull. I didn’t have to kill all of them. I just had to get out from under them.

I shoved into them, my wounded shoulder screaming at me as it gave a fresh spurt of blood, my wound opening. Their weight fell where I was, and I placed them behind me, firing my gun into the pack as I sprinted as best I could. They were chasing me, but Midnight and Moondancer were almost into the atrium. We could make it.

Cloud Chaser fired more bullets to get them off of me. I ran like crazy. The pegasi around me seemed like they would be safe, but now I was the one at risk. My shoulder threatened to give with every step, the weight I put on it feeling like it would crush my bones, but my adrenaline carried me through. The door was just ahead.

We continued firing. I continued running. I didn’t feel their hot breath on my back. I didn’t feel any more claws or fangs. They backed off. At least the ones behind us did.

Only now did I realize that blindsiding was a manticore hunting strategy.

A lone mother came screaming from the side, bursting through the door as Midnight and Moondancer passed through it. She toppled the pegasi over, fixing on Moondancer, mauling her.

Midnight reached the manticore before Cloud Chaser and I could fire enough bullets to kill it. Swift and fluid as wind, she kicked it in the back, causing it to rear its head, allowing her to snap its neck.

Cloud Chaser and Midnight dragged a bloody Moondancer away from the door, but we weren’t pursued. The mothers didn’t want to leave their cubs now that the threat had passed beyond their vision. They laid the wounded sister down.

Her gashes were too numerous to count. Her coat was more blood than fur. She was gasping for air.

“Ebonmane, do something!” Cloud Chaser pleaded.

“What?” I asked. I didn’t have any healing potions.

“Heal her! Like you did with Rosemary.” Tears of fear and panic were streaming from her eyes. Moondancer was a dying pony.

I knelt over her, pressing my horn to her chest as I had done with Rosemary’s wounds. I poured my magic into her, willing it to save her. I felt it well up in my horn, but it wouldn’t flow out. The energy just seemed to leave me and dissipate into nothing.

I started to cry. It wasn’t working. Moondancer’s breathing was shallow. She was spluttering, blood bubbling from her lips, seeping out of every slash. But they just wouldn’t close.

“Celestia, please, save her!” I thought. “Help me heal her! I did it once, I can fucking do it again!”

But I couldn’t do it again. Suddenly, she stopped moving. Her eyes froze, staring lifelessly at the ceiling. She wasn’t breathing. No heartbeat. Moondancer was dead.

Midnight patted her cheek to get her to wake up but she wouldn’t. Tears streamed down the dark pegasus’s eyes as they scanned her sister’s body, looking for any signs of life, but there were none to find. Finally, she pressed her bloody head to her dark shoulder, sobbing, whispering, begging her sister to come back, but she wouldn’t.

I sat, frozen. Moondancer had died right before my eyes. Because I was unable to save her.

Midnight managed to keep it together better than I did. She stood and began to leave, refusing to look back at her sister’s corpse. Cloud Chaser and I weren’t as strong. The blood was beginning to pool as we left.

When we made it outside, I felt like I couldn’t breathe myself. I stared at the rails, trying to process what had just happened. I couldn’t. My mind wouldn’t cooperate.

A crack of a pistol brought me back to the present. Midnight lowered the firearm and spit my gun out at my feet. Thoughtlessly, I levitated it back onto my side, strapping it where it belonged.

A few moments later, Ironbright and Rosemary came out. Nothing was said. They could see our faces. Rosemary helped me fly down, but going down was harder than going up. I landed heavily, my wounded shoulder finally giving, and I fell to the ground. I started to cry, now that it was done and over. Midnight walked away from us, but her sobs were louder than mine. I heard Cloud Chaser explaining what had happened. My friends stood over me. I saw Rosemary’s hooves in front of me, but no pony touched me. Tears hit the ground from heads above.

This was the cost of trying to be a hero, of trying to save everypony. No matter how hard I tried, I would fail. And every failure would cost life. I learned this lesson the hard way.

We wordlessly headed to Tenpony Tower. The manticore nest had wounded me and Ironbright, my captain having several broken ribs from manticore bites. We couldn’t fight Thunderfall like this. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I couldn’t have another pony die on my account.

The fabled tower rose ahead of us, tall and austere. Guard ponies and snipers were situated at all levels of the tower, but wounded ponies and the presence of Ironbright in her red armor marked us as friendly. I was glad that rangers were better received in the wasteland nowadays.

Ironbright spoke with the guard captain, giving her a short version of our story. I couldn’t see what she looked like behind her armor, but long blonde mane and high voice signaled that it was indeed a mare, and it appeared that the two knew each other. We were quickly escorted into an elevator, heading to the medical facility.

“I owe you one for taking out those manticores, Ironbright,” the captain said. “Would have done it myself, but we just don’t have the firepower that you do.”

“It’s not firepower you lack. It’s tactical knowledge,” Ironbright retorted curtly. “If I can go in with me and four civillians and come out with what I came in with, then your contingent should have made short work of them.”

“We would have. And we would have gotten the mare.” All of us glared at her. But nothing more was said as the doors opened.

The captain didn’t stay with us, going back down in the elevator. The nurse who tended the lobby called the doctor, named Blue Breath, and showed Ironbright and I to an exam room where we laid on metal tables.

A black stallion with a blue mane, dressed in a white coat, entered. He was middle-aged, but the years were doing well for him. He smiled, tough but kind. His voice was rumbling as he spoke. “Just going to look you over.” Look was all he did, not poking or prodding until he had assessed the damage. Ironbright and I stared at the ceiling, just waiting for the pain and bleeding to stop.

The nurse, named Suture, helped us, mostly me, out of our armor as painlessly as possible. The shoulder plate was the only part that caused me to wince and gasp in pain, but once it was off I already felt better.

From there the prescription was painkillers and healing potions. We were helped into beds, Ironbright and I looking at each other solemnly. We didn’t have to speak. We were both disappointed. We were both upset. But we would both survive. Her gaze, however, begged a question. Would I fight another day? I looked away only to think, returning it when I knew the answer was yes. I had come too far now to give up. And now I had a score to settle. I had to do better next time.

As we settled in under the white sheets, Blue Breath asked the nurse to step out with him, leaving us alone.

“Ebonmane,” Ironbright said, staring straight ahead at the wall. I turned to her. “It’s not your fault she died. You’re not a healer. We know that. Don’t take responsibility for that.”

I nodded, but didn’t say anything.

We sat in silence for a long time after, wondering where our doctors were. Should we just go to sleep? They were probably just telling Cloud Chaser, Rosemary, and Midnight that we were okay.

But it wasn’t our doctors who entered the room next. It was a white stallion with a red mane, the only sign of age being the stray silver hairs in his mane. I recognized his red heart cutie mark, though. Standing before us was another hero. Life Bloom, the unicorn healer and expert spellcaster.

“My, my,” he said. His voice was soothing warm. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“Me either,” Ironbright replied. Was there a pony she didn’t have history with?

“Your parents don’t yet know that you’re here,” he told her.

“And it’s going to stay that way.”

Her parents? Ironbright was born here? She ran away? This was too much to process.

Life Bloom chuckled. “Of course. No pony can recognize you in that helmet, anyway. Your secret is safe with me.” There was a pause. He continued, sitting near the edge of her bed. “But I am curious, why have you returned?”

“We’re here on Ranger business, and we got sidetracked. Nothing we can control. We’ll be out of your mane as soon as possible.”

He smiled. “I doubt that. You’ve always been a thorn in Tenpony’s side, even after you left.”

“It’s been twenty years. Ponies still remember me?”

“Oh, it was the scandal of the century,” Life Bloom said emphatically. “Your parents still haven’t lived it down.”

She scoffed and he laughed. I think I missed something.

But he stopped teasing her to look toward me. “But who’s your friend here?”

“A new knight. Ebonmane.”

“Pleasure,” he said evenly to me. I nodded in response. I was too busy trying to keep up to properly respond.

Blue Breath came in at that point. He shot a cutting look at Life Bloom. “How many times do I have to tell you not to bother patients?”

Life Bloom gave a snarky smile in response. “It doesn’t matter, darling. I’m your boss.”

“But they’re my patients, love,” Blue Breath said with venom. “And I say out.” Life Bloom stood, shaking his head and left. He butted his head playfully against Blue Breath, but the doctor was having none of it. The black stallion turned and said, “Go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Then the door closed and they were gone.

There was a long silence. I was surprised Life Bloom was still here. After the Book of Littlepip, I would have imagined that the Twilight Society, of which he was probably now leader, would have moved to a more secretive spot. But it also seemed likely that he had abandoned the Society altogether to settle down.

“I left when I was thirteen,” Ironbright said abruptly. I hadn’t even gotten to the mystery of her story yet, but I started to follow along. “It was during the Enclave attacks. My parents were throwing all of their money around, hiring everypony they could to guard our family.” She paused. “It was selfish. It was corrupt. Even I could see that. I had always hated the dresses and the etiquette. It was clear I wasn’t going to turn out to be a catch to any of the stallions. All I would ever be worth was their money. Their family name.” Now she sighed a weary sigh. “I wanted more. I saw the bad guys, and I saw no pony in this whole Celestia-forsaken tower lifting a single hoof to help.”

“What about DJPon3 or the Twilight Society?” I reminded her.

“They were in the tower, but they weren’t a part of it. They kept to themselves. Everypony else was too busy rubbing their money into their Luna-cursed cunts to give a flying fuck about anypony. But I knew that there were others. The Rangers had always been looked down on by the tower, but the Applejack group was different. Oh, my parents still hated them, but I saw a chance. A chance to put everything I had to use. A chance to make a difference, instead of lying around, burning money and popping out foals to carry on some fat bastard of a stallion’s precious name.”

I nodded. I understood. Ironbright had never cursed so colorfully, and the bitterness in her voice was loud and clear. But I also knew that she was telling me this so that I, too, wouldn’t be trapped here. To remind me that we had a fight to win. We had a wasteland to change. She knew I was losing it. But she didn’t want me to give up. Her foalhood may have been filled with misunderstanding and anger, but her adult life had become one of valor and intellect. I might regret today, just as she regretted her family, but it would get better. I would improve. I would make a difference.

Sleep came quickly to my tired, sore body, but the seeds of my future were already sewn.

When I awoke, Cloud Chaser was sitting in a chair near my bed. She was raking a small stone across my sword, sharpening it for me, and it was the scraping sound that woke me.

“Thanks,” I said to inform her that I was up.

She smiled at me. I looked around. Ironbright was not in the bed next to me.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Dark-something,” she responded. I felt a lot better. Stiff, but my wounds had closed. I wasn’t hooked up to anything, so I climbed out of bed. My legs moved awkwardly, but I made them cooperate. “You have got to stop doing that thing where you jump into a mob and don’t die,” she said. “It’s not good for you.”

“As long as I don’t die, I don’t see why not,” I told her.

We began to walk, exiting the clinic, Cloud Chaser leading me to the beds that had been arranged for the night. I wondered if Ironbright’s influence had gotten us our rooms, or if it had been Rosemary’s negotiations.

My stomach growled as we entered the market floor. Only the restaurants were open at this time of night, and I hadn’t eaten nearly enough to fuel my suicidal actions. I knew the restaurants would be over-priced, but it didn’t matter. I picked a cheap one and got the food to go, just so I could shovel it in faster. Packaged rice, canned vegetables from two hundred years ago, and weak tea. Fifty caps. I fully expected the pricier ones to make me sign a contract for my firstborn colt.

But I sat on a fountain in the center of the plaza, listening to DJPon3’s music echoing throughout the empty space.

“How’s Rosemary holding up?” I asked.

“Fine,” Cloud Chaser responded. “She’s been with Midnight. Honestly, sometimes I think that little unicorn is the strongest one out of us. She hasn’t cried once since she got here.”

This implied that Cloud Chaser, and possibly Ironbright had shed their fair share of tears. But I didn’t want to think about Midnight. So I said, “How about you?”

She nodded. “It’s rough. I… I know our chances were slim, but I honestly thought we were going to make it.” I could see tears forming in her eyes, but she wiped them away and sucked it up. “I’m sorry, by the way.”

“For what?” I asked.

“I shouldn’t have pressured you like that. I just thought that…” She sighed.

I wanted to hold her. She needed a hug. She needed to not feel alone. But I knew that such an act would be teeming with romantic undertones. I didn’t want to pressure her like that now. She wasn’t ready to think about that yet.

But the tears kept coming, and I couldn’t just leave her there. So I slid over to her and wrapped a wing around her.

She buried her head into my neck. She cried.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a few minutes, wiping my fur with her hoof.

“You needed it,” I told her. She smiled and nodded.

“You’re a good friend, Ebonmane.”

But I didn’t want to be friends. Cloud Chaser understood me, and I understood her. Now, however, it felt like she needed me. She was strong, but I helped her. I gave her support and comfort. A shoulder to cry on and an ear that always listened.

I wanted her.

So I leaned down to kiss her. She didn’t stop me.

Her sweet breath washed over my face. Our lips met. I could taste the tears on her lips.

We parted. Something was very wrong.

She looked at me like I was a raider. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I didn’t know where to begin. Why was she looking at me like that?

She pushed away from me, and I didn’t fight her. After a few moments of tense silence, she stood and said, “I’m going to go check on Midnight. Give Rosemary a break.” I nodded and let her go.

I followed her. She was going to talk to Rosemary. I had to know what they were saying.

I was a whole elevator cycle behind her, so when I walked down the hall toward their room, the two mares were well into their conversation. Cloud Chaser was speaking now.

“I can’t describe it Rosemary. It wasn’t bad, really. It wasn’t good. It was just…”

“Wrong?” Rosemary supplied.


Rosemary sighed. “I can’t believe he did that.” My ears flattened, and I was crestfallen already. But I kept listening.

“Don’t blame him.”

“But you weren’t ready. You said so.”

“I know, but…”

“No buts. I don’t care if it was just a kiss. He should have known better.”

There was a long pause. “What are you going to say to him?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Nothing. I don’t want to talk to him right now. And you shouldn’t either. We should just kill this Thunderfall bastard and be done with him.”

Cloud Chaser seemed to be crying now. “It’s not like he raped me, Rosemary! It was just a kiss.”

“Then why do you feel so bad? Why was it wrong?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“I do. It’s because he just wants one thing. He said so in his hearing.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you Rosemary?”

Rosemary sighed again. “I don’t want to. But I’ve been talking to him more, too. He’s... he’s a good pony. But he’s blind. He doesn’t see the obvious. He didn’t notice that you didn’t want to kiss him.”

“I did a little,” she admitted in a small voice.

It sounded like Rosemary gave Cloud Chaser a peck on the forehead. “Well, you don’t have to anymore. You owe him nothing, okay? He’s probably going to be upset when you tell him you don’t want to be with him, but don’t let him guilt trip you.”

“I don’t think he’d do that.”

“…You’re right. He’s just going to beat himself up. But that’s not your fault, either, alright?”

“I know…”

I had heard enough. I left.

The elevator doors opened, and I pulled the lever to take me downstairs. I needed to take a walk. I needed to clear my head. I needed to think.

As I left Tenpony Tower, making sure to nod to the guards so they would let me back in, part of me felt like I should just keep going. I wondered if any of them would miss me. If they would fight Thunderfall without me. What they would tell Ironbright.

I stepped onto the sidewalk, the cracked concrete underneath me a chore to navigate with my still-healing legs. I hung my head. Questions flooded to me. Why did I do that? Why couldn’t I control myself? What did my friends see in me that they found so dark, so repulsive?

Even when I kissed her I knew I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was only thinking about getting my first kiss. All I wanted was Cloud Chaser. And I let out a breath, like I had been punched, when I admitted to myself that I really wanted her in the worst way. If she had returned the kiss, would I have stopped? Would I have let her? Things would have just escalated until I had given everything to her. No. Until I had taken everything from her. I knew I wouldn’t be giving her anything.

But Celestia castrate me with Her horn if I couldn’t stop to think in that situation. But I knew I wouldn’t. I so wanted to be strong, virtuous, and romantic, but I knew now that as soon as things heated up all of that would go to the wolves. This was a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I thought I was a stronger stallion when it came to my body. To my lust. I wasn’t.

And Rosemary knew that. And Cloud Chaser saw it, too, as soon as our lips met. That simple touch had been a conduit directly into my heart, and she had seen all the ugliness within.

“This is why you hide,” I told myself. “This is why you don’t tell them about your nightmares. About your thoughts. Once they see the real you, they know just how big of a liar you are.”

So much for my first kiss.

I finally looked above me, and against the slivered moon I saw a form flying. Midnight. Was she leaving? I had to know.

I flew up to meet her, and she turned and dove to alight in the street, still on the same block as the tower. “Where are you going?” I asked her.

“Friendship City,” she said. “You?”

“I’m just out,” I told her. She nodded, spreading her wings to take off again. “Did you tell the others?”

“Rosemary knows, so don’t worry,” she said.

But before she left, there was one burning question I had to ask her. “Can I ask you something?” I hesitated.

“Go ahead.”

“Why won’t you let me touch you?”

She drew back. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“I just… do I scare you?”

“All stallions scare me. Not just you.”

“But I would never…” I insisted.

“Never what? Rape a mare?” She sighed. “Face it. You’re a stallion. You have desires. I’ve seen you looking at Cloud Chaser. I saw you looking at Silver Bell. You’ve been thinking about them ever since we parted ways. And no, you might not rape them, but even if they agreed to be with you, don’t you think your desires would get the best of you? Do you think you would never pressure them to do something for you because you were pent up? Or because you felt lonely? You would use them. It’s in a stallion’s nature.”

“That’s not true,” I came back fiercely. “Ponies use one another. Not just stallions.”

“Even so. Mares and stallions use differently. At least you don’t deny it.”

And she was right. I didn’t deny it. I couldn’t. How could I? Had I not just pressured Cloud Chaser into kissing me? And didn’t I agree that I was incapable of controlling myself? I would use her. I would use anypony. For my own selfishness. For my own pleasure.

“But why do you hate me so much? I saved your life. And I nearly died trying to save your sister’s.”

“I don’t hate you. I’m just disappointed,” she said. She looked away from me. “I asked Life Bloom about healing magic. He said that in order to use it, a pony has to have light in their heart.” Her silver eyes glinted harshly as she looked at me. It was the most accusing gaze I had ever received.

With nothing more to say, she spread her wings and flew away. I felt fresh tears forming in my eyes.

Moondancer had died because I was too selfish. Because I was too weak. Because I had darkness in my heart.

I walked around the block some more, but I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I cast about, looking at all the buildings and the sky above, trying to find an answer. But I was dwarfed by my surroundings. I was alone in this city, trapped by its towering skyline that made the sky, my avenue of escape, feel so far away. I was crushed under the massive weight of what I had done, the pain I had inflicted, the bodies of ponies I had killed laying at my feet, Moondancer on top of the pile that felt like it was a growing mountain of bloodshed and guilt. But mostly, I was crushed by the giant of my own dark heart. My great adventure, the gaping future that had once stretched out before me was now a sentence written on the walls of my soul, and it decreed that the only things that lay ahead of me were more bloodshed, more failure, and more heartbreak. Each act committed by my own hooves ever so willingly.

It didn’t matter how good I tried to be. This wasn’t something I could overcome. My failures, my faults… they were a part of me. My selfishness, loneliness, doubt, callousness, and lust were my true colors. And everypony knew it. Ironbright thought she could train and reform me. Cloud Chaser thought I could overcome them. And Rosemary saw the truth.

But they were too great to get rid of. They were bigger than myself. They controlled me; I didn’t control them. I had always been guided by them, ever since Silver Bell, probably before then, and I always would be. I would always seek companionship to make myself feel better. I would always take and never give, never opening myself up. And I would never stop, because that was the kind of stallion I am.

The worst feeling in the world is realizing that you aren’t what you thought you were, and that night I felt so bad that I just wanted the night to swallow me. I wanted Manehattan to swallow me. I wanted to swallow me. I wanted to stop feeling these things. I wanted to cease my pathetic existence. Or at the very least, stop feeling anything at all.

But there was no way to do that. Ironbright would lead the others to fight Thunderfall tomorrow, with or without me, I knew. And I would go. Maybe to dull this cold realization and make me feel better about myself, or at least to provide a sturdy meat shield to those poor mares that I myself had dragged into this stupid fight in the first place.

The Blackheart’s nightmares called to me, beckoning me to succumb to my sleepy body, and I had to concede. I headed back to the tower. My room was nice, and the bed was softer than most, but my sleep was doomed to be tumultuous. I was wracked by my self-torment, and by the torment that Midnight and all my friends had inflicted upon me.

I wanted to go to them, to tell them that they were wrong, to prove to them that even despite all the truths I had learned, that there was some good in me. But I couldn’t find it. So I cowered in my bed, knowing that once tomorrow was over, we would no longer be friends. And I would be all alone.

Chapter 8: Takedown

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“I'll tell you what we've learned Discord. We've learned that friendship isn't always easy. But there's no doubt it's worth fighting for.”

We lost.

Thunderfall stood above us, a black stallion bigger and tougher than me by far, even more so than Ironbright. His cohorts flanked him on either side. And we lay on the ground, bloodied, riddled with bullets, not dead but defeated.

“What should we do with them?” one of them asked Thunderfall.

He turned his head, considering his options. He spoke in a deep bass. “Take the mares, of course.”

They began to surround my friends. I tried to rise, to help, but Thunderfall placed a hoof on my neck, threatening to snap it. Each struggled, but the mares were eventually bound by ropes. They fought even as they were dragged away.

They looked at me in turn as they passed through the doorway and out of my sight. Ironbright was defiant and strong as ever. Cloud Chaser was trembling in fear, flailing as she panicked. Her captors hit her to make her stop, laughing as she fell limp, dazed. I could hear Rosemary hyperventilating, tears streaming down her face. They begged me to save them. But I couldn’t.

I heard the stallions begin to push them around, and my friends give calls of resistance, trying to fight their attackers off. But it wasn’t enough.

“What should we do with him?” one of the remaining underlings asked.

Thunderfall paused before answering. “He’s worthless.”

I felt the hoof on my neck press until there was a loud snap.

Even though I awoke in a panic, once it faded I couldn’t say I was surprised. With my emotional state the night before, I was practically asking for the Blackheart to give me a nightmare.

I wished my fears didn’t revolve around my friends being raped so much, though. After these dreams, I felt like I would soon become accustomed to their voices sobbing the word ‘no,’ begging for their assailants to stop. Perhaps that was part of the Blackheart’s plan.

As I laid back down, my mattress soaked with sweat, I wondered if I was crazy. Maybe these nightmares were coming from the horrors of the wasteland. If I was wrong about the ominous gem’s powers, I would surely lose my sanity in time, becoming crazed with the nightmares, seeking out the gem’s destruction. I would have no peace until that happened.

“It should be destroyed anyway,” I thought. “There’s no justification for keeping it.”

All in all, I suppose it didn’t matter. I wasn’t in any position to do anything about the nightmares now. All I could do was try to wake up, and prepare for the fight ahead of me.

The dream took its desired effect as I got up from my bed to find a bath. We wouldn’t be lingering around the tower. By tonight Thunderfall would be dead, or we would be. Or worse, as my dream reminded me. There was always worse. Could we really stand up to him? Did we even stand a chance? Or would my friends be led to a terrible fate by my insistence, my sense of justice?

More than ever I felt like a foolish pony. My thoughts still lingered from the night before, and I felt terrible for the things that roiled within me. But I was foolish for thinking that this would go off without a hitch. Of course there would be casualties. We weren’t flawless soldiers. We weren’t killers. How could I allow them to go into this fight knowing what might happen to them? It wasn’t worth it. No matter how many ponies it would save, it wouldn’t be worth their lives. Their freedom.

I stopped in the hallway with that thought lingering. I knew what my friends would say, because I knew what I would say. If it were the other way around, I would tell them that it was worth the risk. My own fate didn’t matter. What mattered was trying to help others. I knew they must be afraid. I was afraid for them as well. But they had probably known all along how they might end up if things took a turn for the worse. And they hadn’t hesitated once to come here.

But I didn’t feel proud of them. I felt ashamed in myself for doubting them. For thinking that I knew best for them. They were the mares in the wasteland. They were the ones who would be victimized and abused. Just as my dream showed, I would most likely be killed in all scenarios. But their bodies belonged to them, and if they chose to risk themselves, then I had all the more respect for them.

They were the heroes in this story. Not me. And for once, I was happy not to be the center of my own world. I basked in the glow of these mares’ courage and strength, far more than any stallion I had ever met, and that empowered me.

“Celestia bless them,” I thought.

My good mood was cut short once I reached the baths. They were guarded, and there was a fee. Forty caps. I still had to pay to get my armor repaired, and the rest of my money would be going to health potions and food to get me back to Stable Two or New Appleloosa or wherever I ended up after this. I couldn’t spare a single cap. My poor mare friends would just have to endure me. I didn’t smell yet, but my face was sour again.

I decided to just find the others. I had been the one to sleep in this time around, so they were eating breakfast together in the marketplace. Things seemed to get remarkably quiet when I sat down, but Ironbright slid a bowl of cereal toward me with real milk and strawberries. Celestia could bless her doubly. This must have cost a fortune.

When the silence became too thick for me, I asked Ironbright where the repairpony was to get my armor fixed.

“How many caps do you have on you?” she asked.

“Two hundred.”

She shook her head. “You could get it fixed, but it would almost clean you out.”

“I can’t afford to go out with holes in it,” I said. “I’ll make do.”

“Let me look at it,” Rosemary offered. “If you can buy me a hammer or something I might be able to patch it up”

“Are you sure?” I asked her.

“You’ve seen my heating spell that I use to make campfires. I can probably heat your armor and seal the holes.”

I gave her a look but conceded. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Ironbright spoke in between gulps of water. “I hope Life Bloom sold you some good spells.”

“I got a better telekinesis spell for cheap,” she said. I think Ironbright rolled her eyes.

Cloud Chaser looked at Ironbright. “Is he ever going to get that fancy armor you have?”

“He’s an alicorn, so it’s tricky to fit. We have helms that allow for horns but not suits that fit wings. He’d have to have it custom-made. He’ll get it one day.”

The silence returned. Somehow, I knew that Ironbright had found out about my kiss. I wondered what she thought. If she was disappointed in me. At least Rosemary was staying civilized and not giving me the cold shoulder like I knew she wanted to. Rosemary was like a mother bear, and I knew I had upset her by hurting her precious little cub.

This caused me to take a closer look at the two younger mares. It was obvious that Rosemary had maternal feelings toward Cloud Chaser. She was an orphan, and Rosemary had given a lot of time and resources to ensure the pegasus’s safety and well-being. She worried about leaving Cloud Chaser on her own and got upset when somepony hurt her. I didn’t find it hard to believe that Rosemary truly felt like a mother figure to Cloud Chaser.

And despite her prickly nature, I had to give the little unicorn credit for that. At such a young age, that was a big responsibility to undertake, but a very noble one. I was duly impressed by her kindness.

I took Rosemary back to my room to give my armor to her, giving me a chance to talk to her alone. I knew that she was probably still mad at me, but I thought I would be able to smooth things over.

But of course, I had no idea what to say. I had to say something, though. I looked at her, walking quietly at my side, not a trace of fear or anxiety on her face. I wonder how she did it.

“Are you sure about this?” I blurted out.

“Patching armor can’t be too much different from patching clothes,” she answered.

“No. About Thunderfall.”

She sighed. “It has to be done. We all know that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do you know what will happen to you?” She stopped to look at me, trying to understand why I was talking like this.

“Of course I know. But aren’t you afraid of what might happen to you?”

“Dying is easy compared to what they would do with you and Cloud Chaser.”

She shook her head. “We saved those mares at Greave’s. They have lives now. They can heal. But if they died…”

“You’re not afraid?” I asked quietly.

She responded just as softly. “Of course I’m afraid. I’ve never… I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to have a stallion do that. But I’m more afraid for you and Cloud Chaser.”

“Me?” I asked.

She was able to look up at me, but only for a brief moment. “Yeah. You…” She exhaled with frustration. “Sometimes I just don’t understand you. I don’t know why you do the things you do.”

“I never meant to hurt Cloud Chaser,” I interrupted her.

“Really?” she accused.

I turned away this time. I couldn’t lie to her face. “I… I would hate myself forever if I pushed her into something like that.” That was the truth. I didn’t tell Rosemary that I wouldn’t have done it, because I know I could have. Easily. But I would have regretted it.

She smiled slightly. “I think you need to stop worrying about it. She’s just as confused as you are.”

“I’m not confused,” I corrected. “I just…” What I was about to say would be an awful lot of opening up. And I knew how that went. But Rosemary looked at me again with her big, motherly eyes and all the feelings I had experienced last night welled up within me. They wanted out. They weren’t meant to be bottled up. “I just hope that I would have been the stallion I hope I am instead of the stallion I know I am.”

“What do you mean?”

Why did she have to make this difficult? I exhaled, releasing all defenses. “I knew what I wanted, deep down, somewhere. But I’d like to believe that I would have resisted for her sake.”

“Are you serious?” she asked. I nodded. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you want that?”

There was a lot of awkwardness now, as we danced around discussing my sexual desire directly, but Rosemary had managed to push past it and make a very good point. Why did I want it? It wasn’t just for the sheer pleasure. It wasn’t something that I needed satisfied, like hunger or even an itch. Those might have been factors, as I’m sure they are for every stallion, but they were small factors. There was something else. But I didn’t know how it related to sex. Why did I want that specific thing from Cloud Chaser? Or any mare, for that matter?

“I don’t know,” was all I could say for myself. I felt ashamed as it left my lips.

Rosemary looked like she wanted to say something, but she was at a loss for words, just as I was.

We reached my room shortly. She stood awkwardly outside the door, looking at her hooves while I retrieved the armor. It wasn’t actually my room, so I don’t know what she was afraid of, but I hauled my hundred-pound burden off to the room she shared with Cloud Chaser so that she could work on it.

We knew it would take a few hours, but it was hardly past ten. Now that it occurred to me, I had no idea what the plan was regarding Thunderfall or even how to find him. So I was off to find Ironbright, who hopefully had it more together than I did.

She was in her room, sorting out packs of supplies for each of us. Both of the beds were neatly made, and I was reminded of Midnight. She had been staying with the paladin. I still had no idea why she left.

I knocked on the door frame with my hoof to signal my presence. The gray mare looked up. “Do you need anything?”

I didn’t want to start out by letting her know that I had no idea what I was doing. So I satisfied my curiosity about Midnight. “You were staying with Midnight. Did she say why she left?”

Ironbright shook her head. “She must have somepony she knows in Friendship City. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be headed there alone. She’s from Fillydelphia, I think.”

“Do you think she’s alright?” Personally, I was worried for her. She seemed to have a knack for getting into trouble.

“Friendship City is a short flight. She probably made it last night and is someplace safe.” Ironbright seemed confident in this.

I walked in to sit down on the other bed across from her. She didn’t look up from sorting out health potions. “Is that all?” she said.

She knew it wasn’t. “How are we going to find Thunderfall?”

“You can thank Life Bloom. He knows almost as much about what goes on as DJPon3 does. Said that the guards have been keeping an eye on him because of all the armed ponies that he controls, but of course they won’t do anything about it. Once they realized that he wasn’t trying to ruffle any feathers, it officially became not the tower’s problem. I’d bet that he’s even sold to the more corrupt stallions here.”

“With all of the rules they have about living here, I doubt it,” I said. “And rich ponies always gossip. You’d never be able to hide one.” Ironbright cocked her head as she considered my point. I understood that she hated being here, but despite its flaws, it was a good haven and a regrouping point. It would never be a home for either of us, though.

“At any rate, my old friend,” she spat the term, “was kind enough to give me directions to his hideout. Said we’d be in for a doozy. Patrolling guards, snipers, the whole nine yards.”

“So how are we going to get in?”

“Very carefully,” she said. “I imagine we’ll be ready to go this afternoon.”

“Wouldn’t we have a better chance of making it in the dark?” I asked.

“If we were all Cloud Chaser and had fancy zebra armor, maybe. But we’re not. We have me, and I’m a lot more accurate when I can see who I’m shooting at. Night vision isn’t as perfect as you’d like it to be.”

Ironbright seemed adamant about this. Again, as with Rosemary, I hoped she knew what she was doing.

The only party member I hadn’t talked to yet was Cloud Chaser. But after last night, I knew that wouldn’t go well. Rosemary had said she was confused. I would give her all the time she needed. I wasn’t even in a position to explain myself, let alone mend what I had broken.

Leaving me with nothing to do once I left Ironbright’s room. There were plenty of things I liked to do for fun, but I didn’t have a book to read or friends to pass the time with. I felt like I should be practicing with my sword or guns or something, but our weapons had been confiscated by the clinic when Ironbright and I went in for treatment. I ended up heading back to my own room. I tried not to stress. I did my best to relax. But even when I decided to just give up and go to sleep, I couldn’t even do that.

So I lay awake. Thinking about Thunderfall and my nightmare. About what could happen. I played the scenarios out in my mind like a reverse daydream, ending with all worst-case scenarios instead of me being the hero and getting the mare and all that crap. Instead, I only thought about murder, rape, and death. No wonder it was hard for me to sleep. I was already in a nightmare.

The hours passed as I slipped into a doze every once in a while, my active mind preventing full sleep. When Ironbright stopped by to wake me and hand me my bag of supplies, it was too soon. My morale was at an all-time low, and I felt far more tired than I should have. Ironbright sensed this.

“Ebonmane,” she told me. Then she sighed. “I wish I had more time to train you.”

Her tone sounded like my death was a certainty. “What do you mean?”

“I haven’t prepared you for a mission like this. I know you can kill, and you’re obviously not afraid to die, but I know you’re afraid for the rest of us.”

“Is it that obvious?” I asked.

“Who wouldn’t be?” she said. “But the best I can do is tell you not to be. A good soldier worries about himself first, no matter how crazy and wrong that may seem. But we want to see you get out alive and well just as much as you want the same for us.” She sighed again. “The past couple fights, you’ve been near suicidal. And it’s saved lives. But promise me you won’t pull a stunt like that again.”

“I’m not going to sit and watch any of you die or get captured,” I told her.

“It’s different this time. You…” she couldn’t look at me. I had never seen her soften up like this. “You’re so young…”

“I can handle myself. I can make my own choices.”

“No,” she said firmly. “I won’t have it. You still have so much to live for.” I had never thought Ironbright could speak like this. She was always so tough and businesslike. But she was reprimanding me like my own mother would have if she knew what I was about to do.

“This is worth it,” I found myself saying.

“Ebonmane… You don’t know what you’re saying. This is the first time you’ve ever left home. The first time you’ve ever killed a pony. You just got your first kiss last night. And when you were telling Hibiscus Tea how you wanted a family… Promise me you won’t throw that away.”

I knew she was trying to tell me how much she cared. I knew she was trying to protect me. But as much as I appreciated those things, I didn’t need to be protected. We were supposed to work together, and if that meant that one of us would sacrifice, there shouldn’t be any second thoughts.

“No,” I told her. She looked furious for a moment. “If I die, then I won’t know what I missed out on, will I?” Ironbright’s face dropped in a moment of disappointment, but I continued. “I knew this was crazy from the start. But I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I’ve been waiting for a chance to make a difference like this my whole life.” The words were flowing out of me, and I was speaking from a part of myself that I hadn’t felt stirring in a long time. “I know it’s stupid, but all I ever wanted to do was save ponies. I know that’s not right for me to want, but this time, I can actually help. I can fight to make the lives of others better. No matter what happens, as long as I’m doing that, I can die happy.”

I couldn’t believe those words were coming out of my mouth when I was wallowing in fear and anxiety just moments ago, but I had spoken them in a strong and sure voice that I didn’t even know I possessed. I felt so tall.

“That’s not the only thing you want, though,” she told me. “You want more. And we, your friends, want you to have those things. You deserve the life, the family you’ve always dreamt of. Don’t you want to know what it’s like to have a foal? Or even to get married? Or to tell a mare that you love her?” If Ironbright was the crying type, there might have been tears in her eyes. But instead, her voice’s strength was matching my own.

“How many of those things have you experienced, Ironbright?” I came back.

I could tell she wanted to punch me for back talking her. Her jaw set as she processed what I had just said. But she had no answer. And I was thankful that she met me as an equal, deciding to turn away and leave my room instead of pulling the commander card and yelling at me.

Ironbright and I travelled in silence to Rosemary’s and Cloud Chaser’s room. There, the mares helped me put on my armor one more time. One last time, as Ironbright suited up next to me. I was pleased to see that Rosemary had done a pretty good job fixing the holes. We strapped our packs to our flanks next to our weapons. One health potion, a syringe of Med-X, and a grenade each. But there was one more thing in my pack that I don’t think the others had.

It was a set of tiny yellow pills. I had two. “What are these?” I asked Ironbright.

“I sent Rosemary out to get those specifically for you. It’s Buck. That way, if you have to go melee, you might stand a chance. But it can be addictive, so you get one dose. Make it count.”

After Littlepip’s heart-wrenching struggle with addiction, drugs were something that the parents of Junction Town were very strict about forbidding. But if these pills could be the difference between life and death…

I looked at each of my friends, my face a mask of uncertainty and doubt. I saw the same expressions on their own faces. But at least we weren’t alone in our fears.

Ironbright’s face disappeared under her fearsome helm, and just like that it was time to go.

We retrieved our weapons from the guards on our way out. I made eye contact with each of the mares on a regular basis. Ironbright gave me nods. Rosemary gave weak smiles. And Cloud Chaser looked at me like she had forgotten me, but knew that I was somehow still important to her.

All of this was left behind as we marched down the streets of Manehattan. No more fear. No more doubt. No more uncertainty or strife. No more misunderstandings. No more pain. No more abuse. No more rape.

But there would be a little more death. And there would be no more Thunderfall.

According to Life Bloom’s information, Thunderfall occupied a three-story building that was part of a block that had remained mostly intact. It had been some small apartment complex, so we could expect lots of rooms with lots of ponies to hide in them. This didn’t seem to faze Ironbright.

Rosemary protested when the ranger suggested that Cloud Chaser go out ahead to scout for the building, but Cloud Chaser was off before the unicorn could stop her. I knew that the snipers wouldn’t be stupid enough not to look for a pegasus, but the towering structures that crowded every street would provide endless cover for her. We sat and waited for her return.

Not only did she find the location, but she had managed to see that the snipers were on the second floor. “Good work,” Ironbright commended her. “When we get closer, I’ll need those eyes of yours.” I could tell Rosemary was dying imagining what dangers Ironbright might put her young orphan through, but she kept her mouth shut.

I focused on my breathing during the walk. In my previous battles, I hadn’t had much time to meditate before my guns were out and ponies were dying. I had always been motivated by adrenaline or impending death or both. But this was deliberate. This was planned. Adrenaline and frayed nerves would not serve me here. If we were to survive, we had to listen to Ironbright perfectly. I needed to have a cool head. So I breathed deeply, steadying myself, quelling the rising panic within my heart.

Thunderfall’s apartments drew nearer with every step until they were around the corner from us. Ironbright pinned us all to an intact wall and spoke in a low voice. “Cloud Chaser, describe everything about the building you can remember to me.”

“Umm… It’s black?” I could see Ironbright rolling her eyes behind her helm. Cloud Chaser continued. “Three stories tall, like Life Bloom said. It’s not very big. There are a lot of windows, but I saw ponies poking out through curtains in each one on the second floor. There are buildings around it, so they probably don’t have snipers on the other side. Other than that, there’s one door, but I didn’t see any ponies guarding that on the outside.”

“Roof access?” Ironbright asked. Cloud Chaser shook her head. “How many snipers?”


Ironbright nodded solemnly. “Rosemary, have you tried out that new spell Life Bloom gave you?”

“The telekinetic grip? Yeah, um… I can’t do it,” she admitted sheepishly.

“Don’t worry about it. You didn’t exactly have time to practice.” She took a deep breath. “We’ll save the grenades, then. Here’s the plan. I’m going to go out alone to attract the snipers. I’ll start firing. After that, count to four, then sprint for the doorway. I’ll cover you. Once you’re inside, you three should shine in close-quarters hallway combat if Ebonmane leads. Fire around his flanks, and watch the doors. Once I get inside and we clear the halls, my guns should be able to rip through any closed door. We can chuck grenades in rooms that we’re unsure of.”

“What about captured mares?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“They’re not going to be on the first floor. Too easy to escape. Once we hit the second floor, clearing the rooms is going to be the biggest problem. I’ll just have to kick the door in and look.”

“Or I could fly out one widow and peek in them as I go,” Cloud Chaser suggested.

“No,” Rosemary finally spoke up. “That’s way too dangerous. We’ll just have to be careful.”

“She’s right,” Ironbright agreed. “My armor’s tough. Unless they have armor-piercing rounds, I’m not going down anytime soon.”

“Where do you think Thunderfall will be?” I asked.

“On the top floor,” she answered. “Hiding like a coward.”

There was nothing more to say. The plan was set. This was it. Ironbright exhaled.

Then her guns started whirring.

She leapt out, and from behind the corner, all we heard was shattering glass. A second later, loud cracks of sniper rifles rang out, but Ironbright’s barrage didn’t stop.

I counted out loud, trying not to picture what was going on out there.

“One. Two. Three. Four!”

My heart raced faster than I did around the corner. Ironbright’s bullets peppered the walls and windows on the second floor, passing over each one, going back and forth so that the snipers couldn’t poke their heads up. All I could see of them were the barrels of their long rifles. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser were behind me as we passed Ironbright. The door hurtled toward us. Fearless in my heavy armor, I put my shoulder to it as we reached it. It nearly came off its hinges.

I could see several stallions of all shapes and sizes scrambling, running around the halls for the guns. Anyone not in chains was a foe. My pistols came out and I used SATS to identify targets who had their guns handy. I took out one with a hail of bullets, firing rapidly toward another as I came out of the spell to score my second kill quickly. My sword was in front me as I charged ahead. Clearing the hall was the first priority.

I barreled over the startled guards, cutting them down quickly with my blade. I heard Rosemary and Cloud Chaser’s guns fire from behind me, and in a matter of seconds the hall was clear.

“The doors!” I called out. The hallway wasn’t bare. There was one door behind me, two open areas at the other end, and another door in the opposite wall. The one closer to the entrance drew my attention. I kicked it open. A small bathroom. Fortunately, no pony was in there.

There was a deafening explosion that came from the other areas. I turned to see that it was a common area, maybe a kitchen. Rosemary held a grenade within, fighting against any other unicorns who might have tried to return it. I don’t think any of the appliances worked well enough to explode, but I jumped around the corner, SATS ready. Three weakened ponies and two dead ones. My pistols took one effortlessly. The other two returned fire, but they didn’t get too far as my friends finished them off.

The second open area was a living room. No ponies were in that room.

Ironbright was inside now and giving orders. “One sniper down. Now up!” she commanded. We burst through the third door to find a set of spiral stairs cast in black metal leading to the other floors. We headed up one by one, Ironbright first, me second. Ironbright was certain that we didn’t need anypony bringing up the rear after the carnage we had just wreaked.

“I’m taking my Med-X,” she informed us. Her suit administered it to her automatically. “They’re all going to be behind cover, and as soon as we open that door, we’re going to be eating lead. I’ll go in first and take the shots. Ebonmane, Rosemary, get grenades around any corners. Cloud Chaser, watch the rooms we pass and get anypony trying to come out.”

Ironbright wasted no time kicking the door down. She was unloading before she even had time to see what she was shooting at. A hail of bullets met her. A lot of it clanged against her armor, direct hits not finding purchase. Shotgun blasts from closer managed to punch through, but she never flinched. I was awed.

Rosemary and I took our positions at her flanks, and I targeted the closer ponies, bringing down one of the unicorns carrying a shotgun. Rosemary’s gun was more accurate at a distance, and she focused on the ponies hiding around the corners. She didn’t have any luck in taking them out, her fire barely missing them as they ducked out, only to jump back.

There were four smaller halls we could turn down, and Rosemary and I only had two grenades. Ironbright knew this and she charged down to the first set of two. I knew her guns couldn’t rotate to face both side halls at once, so I followed her. She turned down one and opened up, taking shots in the back from another shotgun. Without regard to my own safety, I dove and began firing in SATS. I took him out before he could point his barrels at me.

The ponies further down the hall realized that we were preoccupied, and they stuck their heads out to fire. Ironbright and I both took bullets in the side, me ducking my head to protect it. I felt the bullets sting my back and flanks, but my armor sloughed off a lot of the damage. I could still stand. I was still fighting. One of our shooters was not so lucky. His head exploded as Rosemary put a slug into it, his assault rifle clattering to the floor from his magical grip.

They ducked back down their halls, but we had grenades for them. Rosemary and I simultaneously levitated ours out, pulled the pins, and tossed them down either end. I saw Rosemary’s grenade come back out in one of their magical fields, but Rosemary’s soon engulfed it, forcing it back. In terms of magic, she was a hulk of a unicorn. Two explosions rocked the halls, but there was no way anypony was walking out of those corridors.

“These rooms are empty,” Cloud Chaser informed us.

Things seemed quiet for a moment. “Where are the mares?” I wondered out loud.

“Maybe Thunderfall doesn’t keep them here,” Rosemary suggested. I turned to her as she spoke. She was bleeding from her shoulder. When did that happen? Why didn’t she take her healing potion? I guess she was alright, but still. I had been hoping that Ironbright and I would be the only ones to take bullets. But that was wishful thinking, and I knew it.

“There wouldn’t be these many guards for just him. He’d have to keep his income protected. We might find them on the next floor,” Ironbright said. The stairs were behind us, but we were looking at the four doors at the end of the hall.

“The snipers were in there,” Cloud Chaser said.

“Why didn’t they come out? They could have caused some real damage during that scrape,” Rosemary wondered aloud.

“They’re protecting something,” I said what we had all concluded.

“Wait here,” Cloud Chaser said. She moved to go back downstairs.

“No,” I told her, pulling on her tail with my magic. “We stick together.”

“Ironbright, didn’t you kill one of them?” she asked.

“Yeah, the furthest left, standing outside.”

“I’m going to get that rifle. Those rooms are separate. If you walk through those doors, you’re going to take bullets that you can’t shrug off. You need a distraction.”

“It’s not smart,” Ironbright agreed.

“If I have a sniper, I can shoot back and fly at the same time.”

“But what if they knocked down the walls on the inside?” I asked. “It would create a sniper’s nest out of those four rooms. You would be shot at as soon as you went to get the rifle.”

“It’s not a nest,” she said simply.

“Why not?”

She smiled. “Where are the mares? They should be on this floor. I’m going to bet they’re with the snipers. And no stallion wants to be watched while he’s being serviced.”

We were all taken aback, and Cloud Chaser used this time to sprint down before we could stop her.

“She’s probably right,” Ironbright concluded. But then something occurred to her. Her voice turned dark. “Get those doors open. Quick.”

She didn’t wait for us. We didn’t bother with the one furthest on the right, because that sniper was dead. I opened the next from the right. Empty. Ironbright opened the next. Empty.

Rosemary opened the last one. Bullets met her immediately, tearing at her chest and throat. She dove away from the door, in too much pain to even scream. The sniper bullets had done a number on her, and her potion shook in her magic field as she brought it out. I helped her open it and get it down. Her wounds closed, but not completely. She would have to be careful for the rest of the fight.

Ironbright stood in the doorway now, and a stallion spoke to her. “Don’t move, or they die.”

The bullets had stopped, so I got behind Ironbright to look at what was going on. Three stallions, two earth ponies with battle saddles and a unicorn, sat with their gun points touching the heads of three scared, ragged mares.

Shit. We couldn’t do much in a hostage situation. And it was only a matter of time before the ponies upstairs came down to see why it was so quiet. And then we’d all be dead.

“Easy,” Ironbright said. “If you let them go, we’ll let you go. No need for you to die here.”

“We’re not the ones dying, ranger cunt. You are.”

Ironbright laughed. “You think I give a shit about them? Casualties happen. It’s about the operation. Their sacrifices will be noted.” Super sun-shits. Ironbright, what were you saying?

“She’s bluffing,” another one said. “If that were true, you would have started firing.”

Ironbright didn’t have to say anything more. Two of their heads exploded in a split second. Rosemary, on the other side of Ironbright, took out the third before he could even realize what was happening. The room had become a blood bath, but the mares were safe.

Ironbright went to them, kneeling as they jumped away from their captors’ bodies. I looked out the window. Cloud Chaser was hovering outside, holding a sniper rifle in both of her forehooves. I smiled at her. That had been one hell of a shot. And Rosemary was faster than I thought.

“Are the other prisoners on this floor?” Ironbright asked them. They could only nod. “Get into the next room over and stay quiet. It’s empty and clean. Once we’re done upstairs, we’ll come down for you and take you to Tenpony Tower. If we’re not down in twenty minutes, leave without us.”

They thanked us and went into the next room. Cloud Chaser flew in through the window. After that, we began to sweep the floor as quickly as possible, opening all the doors. There were no more stallions left, but we did manage to find almost twenty more mares, all frightened and haggard, but glad to see us. They went to wait with the others.

Ironbright spoke again. “Ebonmane, you’re going to have to do what I did for this next floor. I’m out of Med-X and I used my potion, but I’ll cover you. Cloud Chaser, stay in the back. Rosemary, take my grenade and stay with Cloud Chaser. Just get them to take cover. If one grenade won’t cover what we need, you might have to use your buck, Ebonmane.”

“How come you don’t have any drugs, Ironbright?” Cloud Chaser asked as we headed up the stairs.

“Because they’re expensive, and I don’t need them. If I were to buy any for me, it would be something really heavy, like stampede or something.” Before I opened the door, she stopped me with one last note. “The fact that they didn’t come down means they had time to set up a trap. Be ready for anything.”

“Then why aren’t you going, Ironbright?” Rosemary asked accusingly.

“I’ll be alright,” I silenced her. I injected the Med-X and exhaled to calm my nerves. With a roar, I reared and kicked the door down.

A storm of bullets crashed into me, but I only felt thuds against my skin. The Med-X had rendered me numb, and I couldn’t tell the difference between a bullet tearing me apart and one that glanced off my armor. Without the drug, I would have been in too much pain to return fire. But I kept my head up. This floor seemed smaller, the halls forming a cross shape. Big stallions with assault rifles in their battle saddles were giving me everything they had. I brought up my SATS and unloaded. Three died. I even managed to catch a grenade before it landed at my hooves, flinging it back. It exploded before it could reach them, but they flinched long enough for Ironbright to come up beside me and take over.

Ironbright’s rapid fire made short work of the ones in front of us. Rosemary brought out the grenade to fling it down one end of the hall. Still fearless from my Med-X, I drew my sword after I reloaded and stormed the other hallway. One swing hacked off the head of the pony cowering around the corner, my blade sinking into the wall. My SATS hadn’t recharged, but with semi-auto on my pistols, I emptied my clip before the other stallion waiting could let off more than a shot with his shotgun.

“Ebonmane!” Rosemary called. I turned to her, but there wasn’t anypony other than us left.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What’s wrong? Look at yourself!” I looked down. There was no way I should be alive. I was a pulpy mess.

I quickly drank my healing potion before the Med-X wore off and I went into shock. I was still covered in my own blood, but I would live.

We searched the rooms on this floor. They were bigger than the ones previously, but we found no other ponies. It appeared that this was the floor that the soldiers lived on. Cloud Chaser wasted no time in looting, but didn’t have much time to really search and find anything of use.

The door at the end of the hall was saved for last. It was obvious that beyond it would be a much larger room, or maybe a system of rooms, like the penthouse. Thunderfall would be there.

“I’ll go first,” Ironbright said. “It’s all going to come down to speed. We’ve only got one health potion, so get in close if you have to. Make every bullet count.”

She kicked down the door.

A series of short clicks sounded. Then a huge, thunderous explosion, but there was no fire.

Ironbright toppled to the ground. Beyond where she stood, I saw three stallions. One of them was a unicorn, the light fading from his horn. He was yellow with a blue mane, and a black thundercloud was his cutie mark. Thunderfall.

I brought my guns up, but the other two stallions were waiting for us. They were armed with battle saddles, each one carrying powerful-looking shotguns. Thunderfall himself levitated a complex assault rifle. They were point-blank range, but they weren’t shooting. If they did, we’d be dead.

“Ironbright!” I called.

“EMP,” Thunderfall explained. “You rangers never expect it.” He sauntered up to her, already gloating, and I could see him better. He would have been a handsome stallion if he wasn’t so Celestia-damned fat. His belly almost reached his knees, and his flanks and neck jiggled with every step. How a pony could find enough food to be fat in the wasteland, I would never know. But he was disgusting.

And he wore a PipBuck on his foreleg.

“Clever,” Ironbright retorted, turning her head. I was just happy she was alive. But the tables had turned now. She was immobilized.

Suddenly, I felt a crushing grip around my throat. My weapons were knocked out of my magic. Before I could even fight back, I was being dragged toward Thunderfall. He wrapped a hoof around my neck as his magic released, but his gun was pointed to my head.

“You really make this too easy,” he said. “Super telekinesis, if you were curious.” Rosemary and Cloud Chaser still had their guns trained on Thunderfall. But with me hostage, they couldn’t do much.

“Let him go,” Ironbright spoke from the floor, her voice now muffled by her broken helm. “We’re the ones you want.”

“Surrender? Sounds like you’re one step ahead of me,” Thunderfall said.

“No,” I told them. “I’m not worth it. Finish this bastard.”

Thunderfall’s super telekinesis crushed my throat again. “Don’t even think about it. One move and he dies.”

“What’s the point?” Ironbright called from the floor. “If you capture us, you’re just going to kill him anyways. What use do you have for him other than a hostage? But once you kill him, you’re dead. We might die, but so would you, and you won’t accept a lose-lose situation, will you?”

“No,” I thought, looking at Rosemary and Cloud Chaser. “Just shoot him and run. The other two will kill me, but you can get out and find cover. You can win this fight. It’s worth it.” But I couldn’t tell them that. I could only hope they could read my mind.

“You make a good point,” Thunderfall said. “But he might be more useful than you think.” Then he spoke to me. “I’ll make you a deal. Tell them to drop their weapons. If they surrender, I’ll let all of you live. They’ll be captured, and instead of being under my control, I’ll put them under yours.”

“Why would I want that?” I said.

“Think. After all of this, I’m going to need more fighters. And you’ve already proven how strong you are. Plus, if you guard them, you can make sure that no pony touches them. I’ll even give you some input as to where they’re sold. Some stallions just want brides, not slaves. This doesn’t have to end badly.”

I wasn’t buying it. Not for a moment. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you just blow my head off, so that when my friends are done with you, in the time it takes you to get down to hell, I’ll have already paid off the demons to rape you for eternity to see how you like it.” I fully expected those to be my last words. I wanted them to be worth it.

He just laughed. “You know, you’re a lot like me.”

“We are nothing alike,” I spit at him.

“Oh? I was a stable colt like you, once. Escaped with a couple of mares, too. I had such a crush on one, but her sister wouldn’t allow it. But once we were out in the wasteland, fighting for our lives against raiders, I started to see the opportunity. No matter how many times I saved their lives, they never gave me so much as a thank you. I was never enough for them . Too fat. Too weak. But I began to see how power worked out here. And power, my young friend, lies with who carries the guns.”

“You’re nothing but a monster,” I told him.

“Am I? Then tell me this. Are you really travelling with these pretty young things out of coincidence? We’re both stallions. Be honest with me. Which one do you want? I can give her to you.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“The little red one looks like she’d be good in bed. But you’re a little ranger, aren’t you? Tell me you’ve never wanted to fuck your commander, just for revenge for all the hell she’s put you through. Or maybe you’ve got the hots for that cute pegasus.”

“Shut up!” I roared at him.

“She’s the one, isn’t she?” he smiled at me. “Oh, how many nights have you laid awake thinking about her?” Cloud Chaser looked at me, and the blood boiled in my veins. “Trust me. It might seem wrong at first, but it’s worth it once you’re inside of them.”

“That’s the difference between you and me,” I said. “I’d rather die than do that to them.”

“So high and mighty. But even if you didn’t have a gun to your head, could you really look them in the eyes and say that you’ve never thought about it? That you never wanted to? No matter what you tell them, they’ll never believe you.”

“Of course we would,” Cloud Chaser said. “He’s the best colt we know.”

“But you shouldn’t. Because he’s just like me. I can see it in his eyes. And I know you’ve seen it, too, little one.” He turned to me again. “Don’t they say something about protesting too much? Made a few wrong moves, did we big guy?”

“Shoot already, you fat piece of shit. Get it over with.”

“Not until you surrender. You hold the key to their fates.”

I looked at my friends. Each of them looked back at me, full of worry. This could be the end.

And it would. Perhaps I could convince them to surrender and find a way to escape later. Hadn’t Rosemary told me earlier that being raped was better than dying? My goal here should be to survive. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Thunderfall was messing with me. If I was going to be a soldier of his, he would have to break me some way or another. I’m sure he had a plan for that, and I knew it would involve me committing or witnessing the rape of my friends. And even if I could protect them, Thunderfall would be encouraging me to have my way with them the whole time. I could already see them chained to the floors, looking at me as I came in with fearful eyes, knowing that their lives and bodies were in my hooves, and that I could take whatever I wanted if I felt like it.

My friends’ eyes all stared at me. I met each one. I knew they didn’t trust me.

I was like Thunderfall.

But I wasn’t willing to stay like him.

With a roar, I shoved him, picking up my sword in my magic. I knew I would be dead before I could swing. I felt the eyes of his gun on the back of my head.

There was a bright flash of light. I closed my eyes.

After a second of being alive, I opened them. Green lightning was racing across Thunderfall’s body, each of his fat limbs spasming in pain. Rosemary stepped toward him, pumping more of her electricity into his body until his heart stopped. Then he dropped to the floor, dead.

Rosemary was panting, but her gun was still pointed at one of the other soldiers, Cloud Chaser having the other in her sniper’s sights. They looked at each other. Rosemary’s horn glowed again. They dropped their weapons.

“How…?” they asked.

“Lightning comes before thunder,” Rosemary answered. I could see Cloud Chaser smile.

Ironbright, still lying on the floor, still managed to be in control of the situation. “Leave. Both of you. Find new towns to live in. Get jobs. Forget about all of this.” They ran.

Cloud Chaser and Rosemary hugged me tightly, and I held them in my forehooves. I was alive. We were all alive. We had done it. And for once, there was nothing to say.

When they released me, I went to Ironbright on the floor. “My suit just needs a power-on signal from your PipBuck, not a full reboot. Shouldn’t take too long. Not even an EMP could cause any permanent damage.” I knelt down and found the plugs. Within a few minutes, she was standing.

“Rosemary, how the hell did you do that?” Cloud Chaser said what we were all wondering.

“I… I don’t know,” she answered.

“What do you mean?” I asked her. “How can you not know how you did a spell?”

“I could ask the same to you, mister healer,” she retorted. “I was just trying to do the super telekinesis that Life Bloom taught me to knock his gun away, and that’s just what came out.”

I just shook my head. There was no explaining it. We would just have to accept it.

Cloud Chaser was duly impressed though. “That was the most badass thing I have ever seen. And when you said that thing about the lightning I could have kissed you.” Rosemary just rolled her eyes.

As we headed downstairs to fetch the other mares, Cloud Chaser went on a full looting spree, and we couldn’t stop her no matter how hard we tried. She ended up getting into Thunderfall’s private safe. Two thousand caps, and a lot more on the dead raiders. Even split four ways evenly, I almost had enough money to buy a small house.
Ironbright opened the door that the former captives were hiding in. “All clear,” she told them. “Let’s get you all on your way home.” They filed out one by one. As they passed us, they thanked each one of us. Some gave us hugs, but I looked each one in the eye. Despite how miserable their bodies looked, their eyes were full of hope. I couldn’t help but smile.

We made it outside. The sun was beginning to set. Ironbright gave orders. “I’ll lead the way. Ebonmane, why don’t you guard the rear? Cloud Chaser and Rosemary, you help any stragglers.”

The going was slow, as a lot of them hadn’t walked too far in a long time, but it warmed my heart to see Cloud Chaser and Rosemary doing what they could to help the weaker ones, Rosemary yelling at Ironbright to slow down for them. The tower rose ahead of us by nightfall.

“Isn’t the tower security going to be pissed if we try to get all of these mares free rooms?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“I’ll just have to have another talk with the captain,” Ironbright said. I could tell she smiled as she did so.

When we walked up the steps with twenty mares though, I could tell that even the guards were surprised. Ironbright marched right up to them. But she didn’t have to say a word. “DJPon3 said that you would be coming with a bunch of mares. He has rooms waiting for them.”

“Well, you can tell DJPon3 that they aren’t leaving my sight. I won’t trust them to a stallion who won’t show himself,” Ironbright responded.

The guard looked like she had challenged the Princesses. But he led her and the mares into the tower.

While they filled the elevator in groups of five, I waited with Cloud Chaser and Rosemary. We were tired, and I personally knew that I was disgusting, covered head to hoof in blood and sweat, but I was too overjoyed to be self-conscious.

Ironbright ended up coming down just as the last group was coming up. “They’re in good hooves,” was all she said. Her tone discouraged question.

“Well, we did it,” Cloud Chaser said. “So… what now?”

“Back to the inn,” Rosemary said. “I don’t care how many caps you got off of those soldiers, they won’t last a lifetime. You can go back to working for me.”

“Please. I could buy the inn if I wanted.” Rosemary looked like she was about to reprimand her, but Cloud Chaser turned to me. “What about you Ebonmane?”

I sighed. “I’m a knight now. I’ll probably have to go through formal training or something.”

Ironbright spoke up. “I can buy you a week or so before then. You should at least tell your family about this. They would be proud.”

I nodded. Cloud Chaser spoke in a quiet voice. “Are we… are we ever going to be together again like this?”

The thought cut deeply at my heart. But Rosemary silenced all fear. “Of course. We may never fight again together, but we’ll be in New Appleloosa, and rangers travel all the time. You’ll always have a room waiting at the Jade Dragon. You can tell us all about where you go.” Rosemary smiled at me, and I couldn’t help but smile back. I had been so worried that this would be the last time I would ever see them. But she had solidified our eternal friendship in that sentence. We would never really be apart.

“Let’s get some sleep,” Ironbright suggested. “We’ve earned it.”

We agreed. In the elevator, I smiled all the way up. But when it opened to the hall and we walked to our rooms, my smile left me.

“What’s wrong?” Rosemary asked.

I tried to process my feelings as I thought of what to say. “I should have died,” I said.

“You shouldn’t have done that. You should have surrendered,” Ironbright replied. “We would have made it somehow.”

“Yeah. What were you thinking?” Cloud Chaser asked.

They all looked at me. “I don’t know,” was all I could say. I lowered my head to avoid their eyes.

“Did you believe him?” Rosemary asked.

I nodded. Cloud Chaser laughed. “That’s ridiculous.”

“It’s not,” I told her. “I mean… when we… kissed,” I said it in such a quiet voice I could barely hear it myself, “you seemed so afraid of me. And I realized that… I was afraid of me, too. Of what I could do.”

“You wouldn’t, though,” Rosemary said. “You know that.”

“But you don’t know that,” I said firmly. They all stopped and turned to me. I blushed under the weight of what I had just admitted.

Rosemary just stamped her hoof. “You’re being a stupid stallion again. If you were going to hurt any one of us, you would have done it by now. But you’re good. And you know it now, because you decided that you would rather die than hurt us. But we knew all along.”

I was finally able to look at them. They smiled back at me. Even Ironbright nodded in agreement.

I nodded back, my smile returning. I would never accuse Rosemary of being a bitch ever again.

Ironbright’s room was the first we stopped at. “Well done, everypony,” she said as she removed her helmet, her mane matted with sweat. “You could all be rangers, someday. I’m proud of you.” She looked at me as she said that last part.

Rosemary and Cloud Chaser’s room was next. “You’ll stop by the inn if you’re in town, right?”

“Of course,” I told her.

She smiled warmly. “Good night, then.”

Cloud Chaser was about to follow her, but turned her head back. “Hey, I know I said I would give you an answer after this was all over and…”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m alright.”

“I just want to talk about it sometime,” she said. “You deserve more than a ‘no.’”

I nodded. “It’ll be a good talk. Don’t worry.”

She smiled back, looking relieved. Their door closed, and I was alone.

In my room, I peeled my armor off, my eyes grazing over all of the wounds I had acquired. But it was all worth it to see those mares free, to know that the sex slave trade all over would be shutting down in a matter of time.

But that wasn’t what made my heart feel so light, lighter than Celestia’s golden sun. It wasn’t that I felt like a hero. It wasn’t that I was a white knight who had saved so many ponies from a dark fate, resisting even my own demons to do so.

It was that now, in the end of it all, I had friends.

I went to bed, bloody, dirty, and tired, but warm and happy on the inside. No nightmares would touch me tonight.

Before I drifted off, though, I went to my window and opened it. “Littlepip?” I asked aloud. “I did it. And I get it now. I understand all the things you were saying about friendship, all the things that you learned from the ministry mares. If you’ve been watching, you might have been worried about me. You might still be worried about me. But I’ll be okay. I… I didn’t do perfectly. I couldn’t save everypony, and I wasn’t a perfect friend. But I kept going, and I think I owe a lot of it to you. To what you taught me. So thank you.”

I laid my head on my pillow, but I could swear I could hear Littlepip’s voice in my dreamless sleep: “I had nothing to do with it.”

Chapter 9: Interlude

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“NO! NOTHING! In the name of Celestia, just sit there and do nothing!”

Ultimately, the next week of my life would be horribly uneventful. Not that I simply walked around in a daze, my days rife with boredom or activities of no interest, but mainly there was nothing to link Thunderfall’s death with the beginning of the next phase of my life.

But this week was still an important one in my life, and without it I would not have been able to face the challenges that lay ahead of me. It was a week of growth. Of bonding. Of refocusing. And, most importantly, of rest.

I slept like a foal. When I awoke there was a smile on my face. No nightmares. A small miracle. But when I opened my door, I noticed a note: “Free bath, courtesy of DJPon3,” signed Ironbright. A big miracle.

Sure enough, the stallion guarding the baths nodded to me and let me pass. The bathhouse was arranged into separate porcelain tubs divided by blocks of tiled stone. Hot water came from the pipes that ran through the walls and ceilings, and there was a section of a bar of soap waiting as well. No wonder it was so expensive. I hadn’t been able to afford soap since I attempted independence with my watchpony job at Junction Town. I had plenty of hot water and scrubbing, but no real soap. I could have cried.

The soak and scrub relieved my aching body of the pains that still plagued it from yesterday’s battle. I had been shot and battered, and small wounds still remained on my body, but they were manageable. Some gauze pads would be more than sufficient.

Somepony pulled aside the curtain and I jumped in surprise. Cloud Chaser. I exhaled, but I still wanted her out. How hard was it for a stallion to get a little privacy after a massive life-changing battle?

“Hey, I know you’re busy, but I was kind of hoping we could have that talk now,” she told me.

“Now?” I asked.

“I didn’t think I would get another chance. You’re kind of hard to approach…”

I sighed. “Alright. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Well, there’s nothing wrong, but there’s some things that are wrong but not wrong, you know?”

I had no idea. “Just say what you’re trying to say.” I sank into the water, prepared to listen.

She asked me a question. “How do you feel?”

“About us?” I asked. “Good, actually.” And I did feel good. Cloud Chaser was still beautiful and fun, but I knew I would only ruin the good relationship I already had with her if things became romantic. I mean, there would be other mares, right? I continued. “I’m sorry I kissed you, but I’m fine with just this.”

She shook her head. “I shouldn’t have led you on like that. That was a bitchy move.”

“You weren’t leading me on. You were flirting. I mean, it seemed like you were thinking about being a couple, right?”

“I was, but I was still being a bitch.” She seemed to think, but shook her head again. “Never mind that. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You are okay, right?”

“Yes,” I reassured her, turning to her with a smile. “Honestly. It was just a kiss, it’s not the end of the world.” But there was still a question I needed answered. “What even happened with the kiss?”

“Oh,” she replied. “I really don’t know. It wasn’t bad, really. I mean, it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t, like, your technique or anything.” Well, I least I had that. She looked away from me and lowered her voice. “I still don’t know what happened. When you did it, I just felt… weird. Like I wasn’t ready to be doing any of this.” She gave a tired sigh. “Maybe Rosemary was right. It was a bad idea.”

“I don’t think I was ready, either,” I told her. “Honestly, I felt things I wasn’t ready for too.”

“Like what?” she asked.

Shit. “Like…” I searched for a way to explain myself.

“Like you totally wanted to fuck me?”

I choked on my own breath. Celestia help me if I had a drink. “Uh…”

“It’s okay,” she gave me that wry smile. “You don’t have to be embarrassed.” She turned her head. “It’s not like you can help yourself, right?”

“I’m not sure I could have…” I said quietly.

Cloud Chaser just shook her head. “I think that’s normal. Hell, you should hear half the shit Rosemary and I say. We’d put the whores in Mareheat to shame.”

I couldn’t hold her gaze. I was smiling, trying to suppress a blush. But I did feel better. “So this is okay?”

“Of course,” she said. “I think I was just confused. I mean… I’ve never had a stallion as a friend before. So when we started to get close…”

“You thought it was love,” I finished for her. “I understand. But now that I’ve gotten some time, I think we’d be better as friends.”

“Really?” she sounded relieved.

I nodded. “I mean, do you even want foals?”

“Oh Celestia, no,” she answered instantly.

“There you go.”

“Does that really mean we’d be terrible?” she asked.

I thought for a moment. “Maybe not. But it wouldn’t work in the end. And I’m in it for the long haul. I said so in my hearing.”

She smiled. “That’s sweet, by the way.” Then she sighed, content. Free. “You’re my best friend, do you know that?”

“What about Rosemary?” I asked.

“She and I are something else,” she said. “Maybe like sisters. But you? You’re not a brother. But I hope I get to see you after we leave.”

“Me too,” I agreed.

She hugged me. The moment was right. But once it was over, she let me get back to my bath. She looked a lot happier, and my heart felt lighter as well. It hadn’t occurred to me before I said it, but Cloud Chaser and I wouldn’t work as a couple. We wanted completely different things out of life and love. But as a friend? I couldn’t have asked for a better one. She was so easy to be around, so quick and perceptive that I knew I could tell her anything. Whenever the mare of my dreams did show herself, I know Cloud Chaser would help me plan my every move. And I felt like she would compare whatever stallions she met to me first. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I couldn’t stay for much longer, though. The baths were in demand, and I only had an hour. After I got out and toweled off, I headed down to breakfast. I found my friends gathered around the fountain in the marketplace. I sat down with my breakfast to a chorus of “Good morning.” I smiled warmly.

“Morning,” I replied.

“Sleep well? You seem to be in a good mood,” Ironbright said.

I nodded. “I’m just glad we’re all alive. We’re all okay.”

“A miracle,” Rosemary nodded in agreement.

“Or maybe we’re just that badass,” Cloud Chaser said. We all rolled our eyes.

“Where are you going now, Ebonmane?” Rosemary asked.

I looked at Ironbright. “I was thinking about checking in with my brother in New Appleloosa.”

“What about your parents?” Ironbright asked.

I lowered my head with a smile. “I think they’d kill me. I’ll let Seacliff cool them off first.”

Ironbright nodded. “I’d like to go with you. I owe Rosemary my business after all the help she’s given me.” She smiled.
“So we’ll still have a few more days until you go back to Stable Two?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“A few more,” I told her. “You can show me around the city.”

“You’ve seen the most of it,” she told me. “You should just spend time at the inn. Rosemary has to give you a free room now.”

“I won’t take up space,” I declined. “I’ll stay with my brother. But I’ll be around. Promise.” The two smiled.

After breakfast, we gathered our supplies into our saddlebags. As loathe as I was to get back into my armor again, the road hadn’t gotten any less dangerous since yesterday, and it would be the ultimate shame if I were to die on my way home after all of this. Ironbright also packed extra food into our bags and hung canteens around our necks.

“Where did these come from?” I asked.

“Gift. From DJPon3,” Ironbright answered.

“Wow. He must have really liked us,” Rosemary remarked.

“Or she,” Cloud Chaser added. “You can never tell.”

“So you spoke to DJPon3?” I asked Ironbright. “What did they say?”

She was quiet for a bit. “They were grateful. They agreed that it needed to be done.”

We all sensed that Ironbright wasn’t saying as much as she could, but we knew prying would get us nowhere. So we didn’t even bother.

But we would get some clues. By the time we left Manehattan, wandering outside of the grey, rusty ruins into the open wastes, we deemed it safe to turn on the radio.

“Hey now,” DJPon3 said to us. “Got a very special news report for you today. Big things went down in Manehattan yesterday, and I’ve got the word straight from the ranger’s mouth. Little miss Ironbright with the Stable Two Rangers led a small group, four ponies total, including New Appleloosa mares Rosemary and Cloud Chaser as well as Knight Ebonmane of Stable Two into the manticore’s nest to take out a major sex slaver named Thunderfall. Long story short, he’s dead now. By the numbers, we also have nearly twenty dead raiders and just as many rescued mares. When asked about the daredevil mission and how in the world they made it out without casualties, Paladin Ironbright said that it would have never been possible if it weren’t for the brand-new Knight Ebonmane. Also, fun fact, you may remember those mares that got saved out by New Appleloosa a few weeks ago. Well, turns out that our young alicorn knight spearheaded that, too. Sounds to me like somepony’s trying to give Littlepip a run for her money, at least in attempted suicide. But let me be the first to say that we’re glad you’re out there. Good luck to ya, Ebonmane. Ironbright said you liked Velvet, so you’re getting Velvet.”

We all smiled. We knew that we didn’t go after Thunderfall for the fame, but it was nice to be recognized. To have our moments of glory. I knew Rosemary was especially glad for the business her fame would bring her. And if Cloud Chaser worked for her, then the profits would come to her as well. They would have security. A deal of freedom that they never had before. And I knew publicity had an effect on Ironbright as well. She was a bit of a hero now. Civillians would know her. And that influence couldn’t be fully utilized as a simple paladin. A promotion was natural.

But the effect of my own publicity couldn’t have been predicted by anypony.

Our trip back to New Appleloosa was easier than our journey from. Not that we didn’t have trouble, but the band of raiders that we spotted were picked off by Cloud Chaser’s sniper before they could even get close enough to shoot. I remembered from Littlepip’s first trip outside of the stable to look before you shoot, but the band was definitely dangerous and definitely headed toward us. We checked the bodies. Talismans made from pony body parts were around their necks. Cloud Chaser was disgusted by the variety of removed extremities, but we were satisfied that we had done the right thing.

Aside from that, things went well. The four of us talked. We joked and agreed on how much better things would be once life returned to normal. We had our apprehensions, sure. I was nervous about being a soldier full-time, and Cloud Chaser and Rosemary were nervous about their fame, and they agreed that they would miss us a lot, but the two of them were ready for a life without guns. I may not get that luxury, but at least things wouldn’t be quite as risky with a Ranger contingent at my back.

I nearly cried to see New Appleloosa’s rusty walls on the horizon. I could see ponies look at us, whispering. Only once we were well within the city did they come up and talk to us.

“Good to see you back, you two.”

“I can’t believe you, Rosemary, of all ponies… I’m just happy you’re safe.”

“What in Celestia’s name were you thinking?”

“We always knew you were meant for bigger things, Cloud Chaser.”




We heard it all. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser smiled and nodded at the compliments and pushed past the insults. I could see them sting. Even though the vast majority of ponies were happy to see my friends, the few who weren’t were the ones who made lasting impressions. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser looked like they were in need of rest.

“What do you all want for dinner?” Rosemary asked as we walked through the door of “The Jade Dragon.” When she saw her precious inn covered in a fine layer of dust, she frowned. It wasn’t that bad, though. It had only been a week or so.

“Something easy,” I answered.

“And fast. I’m starving,” Cloud Chaser added.

Rosemary took her position in front of her stovetop, her horn igniting the plates, and began to dig spices out of her bag. It was like she never left. The only clue was when she sat her gun in the kitchen corner, out of the way but still within view, a reminder of what was beyond these walls, of what she had just returned from. The frown disappeared from her face, replaced by an expression of half-focus. She began to dust absent-mindedly while she waited for a pot of water to boil.

Ironbright went upstairs to unpack her things. Cloud Chaser called dibs on the bath. I stood awkwardly. Rosemary threw me glances, but looked away when we made eye contact. It was awkward, and I wasn’t sure why. I guess coming home was strange for her when she had to bring me, the core reason for her departure in the first place, back home with her.

She didn’t ask me to help. I learned my lesson from the last time I tried to help. So I sat in a chair near the dining table and waited. Normally I would have gotten a bath and washed the filth of travel off of me, and I was still eager to do that, but Cloud Chaser was likely to take forever, and after that I just decided to let the mares have their turn. It would be easier than fighting Ironbright or Rosemary for a bath. Rosemary dusted and put pasta into the pot. I fiddled with my PipBuck. Silence prevailed. And while it was a rather awkward silence, once we both accepted it, it was a calm silence.

Until the door flew open. A young unicorn, Cloud Chaser’s age, almost a mare, rushed in. She was a cornflower blue color with a golden mane done in a long braid and icy blue eyes. A fleur-de-lis adorned with calligraphy strokes emblazoned her flank. “Sis!” she shouted and ran to Rosemary.

I didn’t know Rosemary had a sister.

“Flourish?” Rosemary confirmed, turning from her stove. She ran to her sister and wrapped her up in a big hug. If it weren’t for that, I would have never guessed they were sisters. They looked nothing alike. Flourish was taller, thinner, and younger in more ways than one. Her voice especially betrayed her youth and innocence.

Tears were in Flourish’s eyes. “We didn’t know what happened to you!”

“It’s okay,” Rosemary comforted her. “I’m safe. We’re all safe.” They hugged for a moment. I could only watch, an outsider witnessing this personal moment in Rosemary’s life. I could see tears in the red unicorn’s eyes, too. I felt like I should leave. But I didn’t know where to go.

“How are Mom and Dad?” Rosemary asked.

Flourish nodded. “They’re okay. They’ve been worried about you.”

“Really?” Rosemary asked. “I’m surprised.”

“I know. I was, too,” Flourish added. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. “I heard you had come back, so I wanted to make sure that you were okay.” Then she turned to me.

“That’s Ebonmane,” Rosemary said. “He’s a friend.” The two looked at each other in silence for a couple moments, and I had no idea what was passing between them, but I knew it was about me. Rosemary simply turned back to her cooking. “You should stay for dinner. Cloud Chaser’s here. She’ll tell you all about what happened.”

“Oh. Okay,” was all Flourish said.

Cloud Chaser came downstairs, her wet mane undone and falling around her shoulders. “Hey Rosemary, can you do my mane again?” Then she noticed Flourish. “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while.” They hugged briefly. “How are things around town?”

Flourish just shrugged. Rosemary turned to me. “Tell Ironbright that dinner will be ready soon.” I nodded and went upstairs. No use being a fifth wheel to them.

Mounting the stairs, I felt a cloud pass over me. How could I not have known that Rosemary had a sister? But it wasn’t my ignorance that bothered me. I suppose a part of me wondered what Flourish would think of me. But another part wondered what my own family would think of me. If I knew them, they weren’t likely to be too proud of me.

Ironbright bumped into me on the way down and interrupted my thoughts. “Dinner’s ready,” I told her.

She flipped her wet mane around her neck. “Oh. Good.” She then proceeded downstairs without saying anything more.

As I followed her down, I heard Rosemary say, “Oh, Ironbright, meet my sister, Flourish.”

“Charmed,” Ironbright returned cordially.

“Yeah. You’re the paladin on the radio?” Flourish asked.

Ironbright chuckled. “Yeah, that’s me.” It would seem that Flourish was impressed.

“Oh, okay, so after we killed the sea monster, Rosemary was looking totally dead,” Cloud Chaser continued.

I hoped to enter without drawing much attention to myself, but Flourish looked up at me as soon as I appeared from the staircase. And everypony else’s eyes followed her. Something had been said about me, but I had no idea what. I didn’t like it.

Nevertheless, I took my seat at Rosemary’s table as Cloud Chaser recapped our story in gory detail, embellishing often. Ironbright attempted to correct Cloud Chaser or at least slow the excitable pegasus down, and Rosemary and I didn’t say much. Flourish simply listened, avoiding eye contact with anypony, but me especially.

I ate my pasta quickly. After my plate had sat empty for a while, I rose from my seat.

“Hey, where are you going? This is the best part!” Cloud Chaser interrupted herself. Rosemary was just about to zap Thunderfall and save my life.

“It’s getting late, and my brother’s probably worried sick about me,” I excused myself.

“Are you sure you have to go?” Rosemary asked.

I looked at her and nodded. “I’ve put it off for too long. But I’ll be around tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay,” Rosemary said. I got my saddlebags and headed out with their eyes on my back.

I exhaled as I climbed down the rickety catwalks. I wished they would just be honest with me about whatever unspoken thing had passed between all of them. Secrets definitely did not make friends, and staying in that atmosphere was just too uncomfortable. Maybe it would blow over tomorrow.

But as eager as I was to leave the tension in Rosemary’s inn, I wasn’t exactly raring to reach my brother’s house, either. My relationship with him was… complicated. Not bad. But there were a lot of things between us that were mutually understood and never spoken of.

I would have to face him, and the rest of my family sooner or later, though. And aside from my little brother, Seacliff would be the easiest. So I wound my way through the rust and dirt as the sun sank behind me to a series of huge boxcars stacked next to and on top of one another to form an apartment complex. A shack at the base of it all served as the receptionist’s office, and I asked the mare inside which apartment my brother lived in. With directions, I headed up the fire escape-style stairs to his home.

It had been half a year since he’d moved out for good, but I still had yet to see his apartment. I wondered how his work had been going. Seacliff was a pony of many talents, but his passion was the water, and he had a scientist’s mind. While most of the water had been pure for the last twenty years, it was still a resource in high demand, and Equestria’s marine life hadn’t yet seen a full recovery since Gardens of Equestria. Last I knew, that’s what Seacliff had been working on, studying the very river near New Appleloosa that we had fought the sea monster in.

I hesitated a moment before knocking on his door, the shrill metallic sound echoing within. I was surprised to see it wasn’t Seacliff who answered, but Silver Bell.


“Ebonmane? Is that you?” she asked.

“Yeah. Is Seacliff here?” I was very confused.

“He’s in the bathroom, but come inside. Have a seat.”

I was led into my brother’s apartment. It was messy, but not overly so, which was not like Seacliff at all. If that fact alone wasn’t enough writing on the wall, I didn’t know what was. Silver Bell lived here, too, or at least visited often. Often enough to be sleeping with my brother.

My first reaction was a general awkwardness rather than jealousy. My feelings for the purple unicorn had only really been a crush, and I was aware of that even when I was crushing on her. It was just strange how things were staying in the family. I couldn’t be upset with my brother, though. He had romanced plenty more mares than I had, despite the fact that you could barely call my encounter with Cloud Chaser a romance, and it was strange to see Silver Bell with him, almost a notch on his bedpost. But I knew my brother wasn’t like that, so I tried to see him as a loving, caring stallion instead. It wasn’t easy.

I set down my things and took a seat on a lumpy couch while Silver Bell poked her head into the bathroom to tell Seacliff the news. Apparently he was in the bath. Could I have come at a more awkward time? At least it seemed that I hadn’t interrupted anything. Silver Bell was dry.

Seacliff came out quickly. I’ve mentioned that I was a pretty tall stallion, but Seacliff was noticeably taller and much broader. He was more comparable to the big sheriff, Caboose, than he was to me. He was an oak brown unicorn with a deep blue mane and a black star on his forehead, one thing each of us brothers shared, but like me, his messy mane covered it. He stood before me, and I had to tilt my head up for the first time in a long time. I had forgotten what it was like to look up to another pony.

“It’s a good thing you’re here,” he said in a serious tone as we wrapped our arms around each other’s necks in a tight hug. “What have you been doing? Mom and Dad were about ready to arrange a funeral when your name came on the radio.”

“Are they pissed?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to them in a few weeks, since you disappeared. What happened?”

Silver Bell interrupted us. “I’ll let you boys talk,” she said as she walked toward the door. “It’s good to see you again, Ebonmane.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged.

“Good night, Seacliff,” she called.

“’Night,” he responded. With a small smile, she closed the door.

I took my seat on the sofa as Seacliff sat across from me in an armchair. Seacliff stared at me, and I took a deep breath before I began my explanation. “You wouldn’t happen to know Rosemary and Cloud Chaser, would you? They live around here.”

He shook his head. “I spend a lot of time at the river. I’m still getting to know everypony.”

“Well, when I went out to escort Silver Bell, they were sent from here to help. They were there for the rescue mission.”

“She told me about that,” Seacliff said. “It was crazy for you to go in like that.”

“It gets worse,” I admitted. “We found some logs on a terminal at the old outpost. They pointed to a pony named Thunderfall who was buying mares captured by raiders and selling them to private buyers. I figured I could take him out.”

“You must have been really lucky,” Seacliff said, shaking his head. “You’ve never been a fighter, Ebonmane. How the hell did you pull that off?”

“I had help from the Rangers at Stable Two. I helped them recover some artifact from Canterlot and they helped me in Manehattan.”

“Wait, you went to Canterlot, too?” he seemed shocked. He sat back in his chair, looking at me like he didn’t recognize me. “Wow,” was all he said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s been pretty crazy.”

“Why, though?” he asked.

“Somepony had to stop him, and when I looked, no pony noticed he was even there. He almost got Silver Bell. And there are plenty of mares out there who aren’t as lucky as she was. They’re safe now.”

“But that wasn’t your fight,” Seacliff said. “You should have just let the Rangers take care of it.”

“They’re stretched thin enough as it is,” I repeated Elder Hibiscus Tea’s words. “They only sent one paladin with me. That’s all they could spare.”

“Still,” my brother argued. “What about Mom and Dad? You can’t just run off like that without telling anypony.”

“I didn’t have any time to leave a message. Everything happened too fast.” I knew that was a lame excuse and Seacliff was likely to rake me over the coals for it, but he just sat back again, silent, shaking his head at me. I decided to come clean. “It gets worse,” I said with a sheepish smile.

“How?” he asked, his gaze boring into me.

I sighed. “In order for me to receive the Rangers’ help, I had to join them. I’m a knight now.”

“What?” Seacliff spluttered. “You- you’re- what?” He stood, pacing now. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I did what I had to,” I answered strongly.

“No, you did what you thought would make you seem like a hero!” he accused. “You’d never even been outside of Junction Town before this, and now you think you can be a soldier? What about Mom and Dad? You can’t just run off and die on them so you can have your shining armor!”

“I’m not going to die. They’re going to train me.”

“You have no experience. You’re immature. You’re not even that strong. What makes you think you can be a soldier?”

I stood quickly, and he backed up. “Because I am one! News flash, Seacliff, but I’ve done a lot of fighting recently, more than you by a long shot. So what the hell makes you think you can tell me I can’t be a soldier?” I was shouting now, shaking.

“Because I know you.”

“No,” I said in a low voice, “you don’t.”

“Oh, grow up, Ebonmane. You’re not that hard to figure out.”

“But you still don’t get it,” I said to him. “This is my choice. I made it. I’m sticking with it.”

“Whatever,” he waved his hoof as he turned away. I simply stood, shaking uncontrollably. I sat again, trying to calm down. I never lost my temper like that. Not for anything. I hated it. But my brother always had a way of bringing my rage out. I was so close to hitting him…

“Where are you staying tonight?” he asked.

“Rosemary owns ‘The Jade Dragon.’ It’s an inn across town.”

He shook his head. “It’s late. You shouldn’t walk that far after dark. You can stay here.”


I had a feeling that Seacliff wouldn’t react well to what I had done. As he showed me to my room, I still felt a fiery conviction burning in my chest. It didn’t matter what my family thought. I had done the right thing. But as I felt asleep, playing the argument over and over again in my head, thinking about all the things I could have said but didn’t, I felt incredibly immature. Maybe I still had a lot of growing up to do. But it didn’t matter now, did it? I would just have to grow up very fast.

The bed was pretty good, but I didn’t sleep too well. Not nightmares. Just troubled thoughts. That, and the bed smelled like a mare, probably Silver Bell.

Seacliff slept in pretty late the next day, so I just wrote a note telling him I would be back tonight as I left the next morning. I had gotten used to waking up with the sun, and New Appleloosa was pretty sleepy as I headed toward “The Jade Dragon.” The streets were essentially empty, save a few ponies headed to their own early-morning jobs. I was just happy to be walking without any saddlebags again. My sword was still across my back, though. But that had been a habit back in Junction Town.

Ironbright was the only pony up at the inn, and I found her making coffee in Rosemary’s kitchen. I wondered if she would be yelled at when Rosemary knew what she was doing.

“Morning,” she greeted me.

“Morning,” I returned. “Sleep well?”

Ironbright nodded. “Rosemary has quite the place here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.
Ironbright didn’t let the natural pause last long. “Did you talk to your brother?”
“Yeah. I told him everything. It… didn’t go over so well.”

Ironbright lowered her head understandingly. “That happens a lot. Some ponies don’t like the thought of their loved ones going off to fight. They get angry instead of giving you the support you deserve for being so courageous.”

“I don’t think it was like that,” I said. “I think he was mad because he thinks I can’t do it.”

“You don’t think your brother’s worried about you?” Ironbright asked. “It doesn’t matter what he says. Of course they’re worried. But in time, they’ll see that you’re going to be just fine.”

Although I didn’t say it, I still thought Ironbright was wrong. Seacliff was angry because he thought I was being foalish. But was I being cold by believing that Seacliff’s emotions didn’t rise out of love for me? Or was our relationship really that distant, that broken? And what about the rest of my family? I can’t imagine how my parents were going to react.

“When do we leave?” I asked her.

“You’re not so eager to get out already, are you? Just because you got into a little fight with your brother doesn’t mean you need to disappear on them again.”

Why was she being so insistent about my family? It wasn’t like she cared much for hers. But I didn’t say that. “I’m just wondering, is all.”

“Probably tomorrow morning. I still have to give my report to the Elder about Manehattan. But she probably heard DJPon3’s radio announcement, so we might be able to put it off for a little longer if you want to go to Junction Town and see your family.”

I shook my head, against my better judgment. “I’m not ready to get into another fight with them. I’ll send a message or something. We’ll work it out later.”

Ironbright sipped her coffee and went over to Rosemary’s desk wordlessly. She fished out a scrap of paper and a pen. “Get writing.” It was an order.

I sighed. But I knew I had to or I would put it off. Ironbright went back to her room to give me some privacy. For the longest time, I sat at the dining table staring at a blank page, but soon I had a letter.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m writing to you to let you know that I’m alive, well, and happy. I know you’ve been worried, and I would have written to you sooner, but I haven’t really had the chance. The past few weeks, I’ve been working with Applejack’s Rangers to take out the stallion in charge of a big sex slave industry. Once I realized who he was and how he almost captured Silver Bell, I knew I had to make sure he was stopped. But when I found out that no pony, not even the Rangers, were willing to do much about it, I had to take matters into my own hooves.

I know you’re probably angry with me, and I’m sorry about that. I did what I felt was right. I couldn’t go home knowing that he was out there, working unopposed. But the worst part is that in order to secure the Rangers’ help, I had to join them. I’m a knight now.

I imagine you’re furious now, and I’m sorry for that, too. But trust me when I say that I knew what being a Ranger would mean for me, and the dangers it involves. I thought long and hard about the choice, and I’m not going to turn my back on it. This is my life now, and I’m okay with that.

The Rangers need me now, so I’ll be living in Stable Two from now on. I have all I need with me, so don’t worry about sending me the things I left behind. I’ll be home as soon as I can to talk things over. I’ve already spoken to Seacliff.

Try not to worry about me. I know it’s hard, but I’ve learned a lot and my commander, Ironbright, seems really impressed with me. I know I’m ready to do this. I just hope you won’t be too upset.

Love, Ebonmane

It wasn’t a fun letter to write. I knew my mother would be in tears for days, and my father would be preparing words for me the moment he read it. But at least time would help soften the blow once I met them face-to-face. Maybe there wouldn’t be an argument like there was with Seacliff.

Writing about Silver Bell in the letter made me think of her and Seacliff again. I couldn’t imagine her being with my brother; she didn’t seem like the type of mare. But then again, I guess I never really knew her in the first place. I wondered if Seacliff had told her about the fight. What would she say to him about my actions? Would she defend me? I hoped so. It was the least she could do for me.

Rosemary came down as I was rolling up the letter. She seemed a little surprised to see me, inhaling sharply, but smiled at me. “Morning,” she said, heading toward her kitchen.

“Morning,” I said to her.

“What are you doing?”

I held up the letter with a pained smile. “Writing to my parents.”

“Ah,” she said. “Have you eaten?” I shook my head. She began to make my breakfast as well.

“How’s your sister?” I asked.

“Better, now that she knows I’m safe,” Rosemary answered. “She doesn’t believe I did all those things.”

“You must not be very scary at home,” I told her.

She shook her head. “I’m pretty quiet around my family, actually. Flourish, too. But my parents don’t really talk to me.” The way she said it clued me in a little. I knew a thing or two about siblings. Her parents played favorites. Hard.

I didn’t want to just come out and ask what her sister thought of me, so I just said, “Where’s Cloud Chaser?”

“You know how she sleeps in,” Rosemary answered.

“Right,” I replied. At least I managed to change subjects.

“Ironbright says you’ll be leaving tomorrow,” Rosemary said quietly.

“I’m not sure we should have even come to New Appleloosa before going to Stable Two first,” I gave my impression. “It can’t be helped.” Rosemary cooked silently. I felt a pit in my stomach. Despite everything, I suppose I wasn’t quite ready to begin my life as a full-time soldier. To leave my friends. “What about you?” I asked.

“Actually,” Rosemary admitted, “I was thinking about joining the Church of Harmony as a missionary.”

“Really?” I was surprised. Working for the Church required a lifetime’s worth of dedication. It was a full-time job, and not an easy one. Church members weren’t just charity workers. They were community builders. Leaders. Their ultimate goal was to restore the very Elements of the Ministry Mares to the lives of Equestrians, to return life to the way it was before. And they had a long way to go. “Why?” I asked her.

“I’ll miss travelling, and I’ll get to help ponies. Plus, Cloud Chaser wants to get out, too. I’ve…” she took a deep breath. “I’ve been stuck in this town for so long…”

“You want out?” I finished. She nodded her head. “Good for you.”

She looked up at me and smiled. “You think I should?”

“If it’s what you want, yeah. If I can be a soldier, you can be a missionary,” I answered.
There was a pause, and I was itching for a bath. Rosemary’s bath was much better than Seacliff’s, so I told her I was going to take advantage of the situation while I could. By the time I got out, Rosemary was enticing Cloud Chaser out of bed with a stack of pancakes.

We ate breakfast. We spent the day together. Rosemary and Cloud Chaser gave us the official tour of New Appleloosa, but by now I had seen a lot of it. Cloud Chaser and I got into a little bit of a flying contest, which she won. We went shopping in the marketplace, but after the massive haul we had looted from Thunderfall, everything sold here was scraps. Rosemary got some customers, and Ironbright and I offered our help, which she couldn’t refuse at this point. But once the travelers had settled in and went about their own business, Ironbright bought a keg of ale and we just sat around Rosemary’s dining table after nightfall, laughing, talking, and telling stories from our hometowns. I didn’t know how cold Ironbright’s upbringing had been, how lonely Rosemary’s was, and how dangerous Cloud Chaser’s was. But for the last night, we felt like friends. When I said goodbye, there were almost tears on all sides.

But as promised, I retreated to my brother’s apartment. He was up drinking, too, he and Silver Bell. I ended up sitting a little with them. I asked him about his work, and the river was doing well. I asked Silver Bell about “Absolutely Everything,” and business was good. After that, I retired, yearning only for sleep, knowing I had a long walk ahead of me. I said nothing as Silver Bell and Seacliff went into his bedroom together.

The ale helped me get to sleep quickly. But I had stayed up too late. Before I knew it, Ironbright was knocking at my bedroom door in my brother’s apartment. I can’t imagine that introduction went cordially. But attitudes aside, my brother was awake to say goodbye to. Our parting wasn’t quite as emotional, but family was meant to be left, in my opinion. Not permanently, but we knew that someday we wouldn’t see each other as often as we did growing up. Today was one of those days.

I was still yawning by the time Ironbright had us on the road. The sun rose ahead of us, and I kept my head down. I didn’t even bother to play my radio. Without Cloud Chaser’s obnoxious singing or Rosemary’s not-so-secret dancing, it didn’t feel right. When I poked my head up to look around, nothing felt right. Half our group was missing. But this was what things would be like from now on.

We stopped for breaks less often. Ironbright and I had far more physical endurance than the other mares. But when we did, we didn’t talk much. The only exchange we had, which occurred during our first of two breaks, said it all.

“How are you holding up?” she asked me.

“Alright,” I replied. Sweat, exhaustion, inner turmoil. This was travel for me.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I miss ‘em too.”

What else was there to say?

Our fewer numbers and better physical condition allowed us to reach Stable Two in one very long day’s hike. Ironbright and I parted ways wordlessly, with me heading for the shower and her going to give her official report. I knew I wouldn’t see her for a long time. The more combat, the more paperwork, she had said, and there had been a lot of combat.

I happened to run into Cobalt, the older stallion from the party, when I walked into the shower. He smiled at me and asked me how I was, so I took a spot next to him, even though I kind of wanted to be alone. He was just so genuinely happy to see me that I couldn’t refuse him. I told him about Thunderfall.

“Wow. Your first mission?” he asked. “Are you gunning for Star Paladin or something?”

“It’s why I came here in the first place,” I told him. He whistled. “What about you?” I asked.

“Not nearly as exciting. Took Sand Sprint out to secure Greave’s, a little outpost out by New Appleloosa.”

“I know about it,” I said.

“Some raiders have been trying to reoccupy it. Some Church folk went with us and they’re using it as an outpost to watch the road between Appleloosa and Juction Town.”

“That’s good,” I said.

He turned off the water. “Sand Sprint actually took a bullet to the knee, so I’m going to go see him. But it was nice to see you, Ebonmane. Good luck out there.”

“Good luck,” I replied, nodding. Again, I felt his sincerity, but now I understood why. It was a reunion, and when you were a soldier, you couldn’t count on seeing the ponies you knew every day. Even though Rangers rarely died by virtue of being so ridiculously well-armed, survival was not a guarantee. I might never see Cobalt again, and I made sure to tell him good luck. I spent the rest of my shower thinking about reunions, and how I had left my loved ones. My parents had a letter. I had promised to see Rosemary and Cloud Chaser soon. My brother… we had hardly spoken. I felt guilty.

But after my shower, I went to lie down. It had been a long day. But it would be a little longer. I had hardly fallen asleep, it felt, when Ironbright was waking me up. “The Elder wants to see you,” she told me.

“What time is it?” was all I asked.

“Early morning. It shouldn’t be too long. You’re not in trouble.”

I didn’t think I was, but I dragged my sleepy ass out of bed anyway and headed to her office. When I entered, she looked more tired than I felt. “Morning, Elder,” I addressed her.

She nodded sarcastically. “Morning, indeed.” I sat down across from her. She brushed her cherry mane out of her face with a hoof. She didn’t look quite like a mess, but I got the feeling that Elders rarely slept. “Ironbright gave me her report about Manehattan. I was impressed.”

“I hope you haven’t been up all night reading it,” I said to her.

“No. I’ve been asking Ironbright questions. Which brings us to you.”

“What do you need?” I asked. I had no reason to be suspicious. Ironbright said I wasn’t in trouble, and I was glad she did, or else I would be very nervous right now.

“Our acolytes have been studying the Blackheart and its magic properties. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We still think it’s a weapon, but there’s a lot of magic tied up in there that can’t be explained. I’m not a unicorn, but from what I’m hearing, I’d call it dark magic.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The acolytes don’t like that term, but they can dance around it all they like. It’s evil. And you know it, don’t you?”

Did she know about the nightmares? How? “Yeah. But why does it matter?”

“Ironbright told me about your vision. She said you used it like a memory orb. But none of our other unicorns have been able to. And I don’t think she lied. She told me what you saw. The report was… detailed. But I’ve been waiting to address it until we learned more.” She stood and began to pace. “While you were in Manehattan, we were studying. We found that it’s not a weapon like a bomb. It’s not something you use. It’s something you activate.”

Oh shit. “You think I activated it?”

“We know you did. There’s magic flowing out of it. Very strange magic. The fact that it corrupts radio signals points to taint, but there’s something more. You wouldn’t happen to have any clues as to what, would you?”

I had to tell her about the dreams. My own comfort wasn’t worth keeping secrets. “I’ve been having nightmares ever since I looked into it. They’re very vivid, way more than any dream I’ve ever had. I know they’re coming from the Blackheart because they tie into my thoughts sometimes. When I’m not feeling so great, I have nightmares about what’s on my mind.”

“It’s toying with you?” she seemed very interested in this.

“That’s one way of putting it,” I told her. “I don’t know why though. Probably because I’m the first pony who looked into it.”

She sighed. “We won’t be able to know because no other pony can. Maybe because you were the first, or maybe because of something else…” she trailed off, looking directly at me. There was something she wasn’t saying. But I wasn’t the one asking questions.

“What should I do?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “I just needed to know about any magic it might have been using. But for whatever reason, it’s linked to you. You might continue to have nightmares, even though you’re away from it. But as long as they stay nightmares, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”

“But you don’t think they’re going to stay nightmares, do you?” I asked.

“You don’t either, it seems,” she replied. “No, I think it’ll get worse. But we won’t know what to do until it does.” I had nothing to say to that. I felt very unsafe. “I don’t think it can hurt you. It would have if it could. And it’s been a long time now. If the Blackheart had more destructive powers, it would have activated those by now, or else it wouldn’t be a very potent weapon. We’re still developing theories. All you need to do is keep an eye on yourself. If anything changes, your mood, your dreams, your thoughts, I need you to tell me.”

“Alright,” I said. “But what’s the use? I told you about my nightmares, and we still don’t know any more than before I came in here.”

“No,” she answered. “It tells us about the nature of the magic. It’s corruptive.”

“Corruptive?” I asked quietly.

“It’s in your head. It’s messing with you. It’ll do anything it can to break you down. But it’s weak now.”

“So what happens when it gets stronger?” I asked.

She looked at me. “You’ll be alright, Ebonmane. Don’t worry about that.” She sighed again. “I told Ironbright to head to the showers, and that you’d be fetching her when you and I were done. There’s something else I need to talk to you two about. And it can’t wait.”

Something else? Couldn’t we at least have a few hours’ rest? But I didn’t object. I went to find Ironbright. She was just as tired as the Elder and I were. But duty called, I guess. She turned the faucet and within minutes we were back in the Elder’s office. I could see how things piled up for Hibiscus Tea.

“You’re not going to like this,” the Elder said as we closed the door.

“You’re sending us out again?” Ironbright asked.

The Elder nodded. “We got a message from DJPon3. You’re heading to Tenpony Tower to go talk to him.”

Ironbright looked so pissed. “I already talked to him before we left. What could he have to say that’s so urgent?”

The Elder shook her head with a smile. “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. But it’s imperative that you leave right away.” I could tell Ironbright wanted to object so strongly, but we had our orders. “What was it you always say to the knights?” the Elder said to Ironbright with a slight smile. “You can sleep when you’re dead?”

I thought Ironbright might kill her. But she sighed, turned, and left.

Within an hour, I was back in my armor, the morning sun rising as we tried to fight off exhaustion. I was getting stronger, but Ironbright and I were both feeling it. We slept often, but never for a full night. With only two ponies and no sniper rifle, the danger of raiders was greater than ever and we had to sleep in shifts.

My thoughts turned in circles. What was going on that was so unbelievable the Elder couldn’t tell us? I asked Ironbright. “Do you have any idea what this is about?”

“No,” she said bitterly. “Not a damn clue.”

“What did DJPon3 say the first time you talked to him?” I asked.

“I told him about Thunderfall, and he interviewed me for his little radio broadcast. That was it.”

“Any guesses?” I kept up conversation.

“The world is ending,” Ironbright answered dryly. I understood her caustic tone all too well. It was too early for this shit.

The trip took two days. By the second day, we were seeing the familiar scraps of metal lying by the road that I had just left behind. Travelling to new places was exciting, but I decided that revisiting new places was unsettling. The mood of our travel was different without Cloud Chaser and Rosemary. Normally Ironbright and I minded our manners with Rosemary around, and Cloud Chaser being so young. But at this point, neither of us cared. We didn’t walk as far off as we normally would have to pee. We didn’t change out of our armor because there was no need. When the heat turned up on the second day, she began to complain in detail. “I weep for the poor soul that’s going to wash my armor when we get back to base.”

“Why not wash it at Tenpony Tower?” I suggested.

“It costs too damn much. But now that you mention it, it’s only going to ferment while we’re at the Tower. And who knows where else we’ll be whisked off to before we can get back to Stable Two?”

“That’s disgusting,” I remarked.

“At least my armor won’t smell like nut-sweat,” she came back. It was like she was trying to be gross. But two could play at that game.

“What happens when you go into heat in armor?” I asked. “You can wash sweat off.”

“Don’t remind me. Should be any day now.” I shut up. She won.

The whole time, I expected Rosemary to yell at us or Cloud Chaser to make an even more inappropriate remark, but it didn’t happen. While it was nice that we didn’t have to put up an act around each other, it was nicer having friends.

Manehattan couldn’t come quickly enough. On my first trip here, I was so nervous about Thunderfall. Now, I was just apprehensive. I wondered why we were here in the first place, but it didn’t cause me any anxiety. I wasn’t expecting any danger. Sure, we might encounter raiders or more manticores on our way to the Tower, but it shouldn’t be anything that Ironbright or I couldn’t handle.

The buildings rose above us as the sun set. But now that we were heading directly for the Tower, we were able to reach it once the moon rose. It was just as well. I would hate to be out in that deadly maze of a city after dark.

The guards knew to let us pass, and I sensed that Ironbright wished she had the opportunity to make a smart remark. Coming back here so soon had put her in a bad mood again. She didn’t bother looking around and got straight down to business. We took the elevator up to the top floor.

We came out to be greeted by an orange and purple earth pony stallion dressed in a fine suit. He greeted us with a smile and a kind voice. “Hi. I’m Glissando. You must be Ebonmane and Ironbright.”

“Who are you?” Ironbright asked.

“DJPon3’s assistant,” he answered. I would have immediately suspected him to be DJPon3, but Ironbright didn’t recognize him. I was burning with curiosity. “DJPon3 said to get you two baths before you went in to see him. Said you’d probably want it.”

“We want to talk,” Ironbright answered. “We walked two days straight to get here. Might as well get it over with.” She tried to push past him.

He blocked her off. “Actually, he’s waiting for a few more ponies to arrive. We can’t talk unless everypony’s here.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Don’t want to ruin the surprise,” he answered.

Ironbright grumbled, but I wasn’t going to turn down their luxurious baths. Our armor was taken to be washed as well. We were told to take our time, but my eyelids began to droop as soon as I was in the water. I heard Ironbright sigh from the area next to me, but she didn’t move much. A conversation would require speech loud enough for the whole bathhouse to hear, so I tried to stay awake while I soaked. It wasn’t a bad problem to have.

Glissando directed us toward dinner after our baths, still waiting. It was free, but even as expensive as I knew it was, it wasn’t Rosemary’s cooking. It wasn’t even my mother’s cooking. But the fruit salad was fresh enough, so I would survive.

After dinner, DJPon3’s assistant informed us that he was ready to speak to us. We headed up the elevator again. When the doors opened, I lost my breath. Cloud Chaser and Rosemary stood before us, looking well-traveled and tired.

“What are you doing here?” Cloud Chaser asked us.

“What are you doing here?” I returned. We all exchanged hugs, but they didn’t have to answer us. DJPon3 had called all of us. Ironbright and I had been waiting for them to arrive. As happy as I was to see them again, I wondered what the hell was going on.

It was late, though, and Glissando wasted no time in ushering us toward DJPon3’s room, cutting off our chance to talk. We stood before the tall wooden door, a mixture of excitement and overwhelming curiosity churning in our bellies.

A unicorn mare opened the door, and I knew it was DJPon3. But she was more than that. The white coat, showing slight signs of age. The azure and lightning-blue mane, spiked at the tips, with a few strands of grey. The crimson eyes, crow’s feet at the edges. The vinyl record cutie mark. Homage.

“Sorry to keep you up so late,” Littlepip’s lover greeted us. “Come on inside. We got a lot to talk about. I’m Homage, by the way,” she introduced herself.

It was then that Cloud Chaser realized who she was. “Wait, you’re DJPon3? How? You retired.”

“Yeah, that’s what we told them, didn’t we? After Littlepip published that book, everypony knew who I was, but I couldn’t stop what I was doing. So I lied a little bit. Got an assistant, for real, and most everypony thinks he’s DJPon3, and I’m just giving him advice. He does the broadcasts sometimes, but I’m still writing the material and making the playlists. Gliss will take over at some point, anyways.”

Her suite was nice. The best Tenpony Tower had to offer. Luxurious furniture, soft chairs, and all sorts of interesting ornaments decorated the main room, with others behind sturdy wooden doors. She led us to a sitting area, and I took my seat gingerly. Velvet Remedy had once mused as to how many pieces of furniture Littlepip and Homage had done it on. I know it had been twenty years, but still. It felt weird thinking of the middle-aged mare before me doing that.

I had a million questions for her about the Book of Littlepip and the Lightbringer herself, but Ironbright had been through our shock before and got straight down to business. “What’s going on?”

Homage sat down and gave a tired sigh. It was a late night for everypony, it seemed. “Okay, so I’m sorry to drag you all back here after you just left, but I’ve been getting some interesting reports on the vines.”

“About what?” I asked.

“You,” she answered quickly. She didn’t waste time in explaining. “It’s partially my fault. After I mentioned you were an alicorn in my report about Thunderfall, everything just exploded.”

“What are you talking about?” Rosemary asked.

She sighed again. “Okay, listen. After my report, my sources in each town, the ponies that send me rumors and things like that, started telling me that ponies were talking. It’s only been a few days, so it hasn’t spread far, but soon it’ll be all over the wasteland.”

“What will?” Ironbright asked.

“You don’t see it?” Homage asked. “Once I said ‘alicorn,’ ponies got interested. It started in Junction Town, because they know there that you’re a natural-born alicorn, Ebomane. Once that word got out, it spread like wildfire.”

“What did?” I asked. But I had a heavy, dead pit in my gut that told me what before she even answered.

She hung her head, and shook it a little, as if she couldn’t believe the words she was about to say herself. But finally, she looked me dead in the eye. “They think you’re the new Prince of Equestria, Ebonmane.”

None of us knew what to say. “What?” Rosemary asked after an endless, dazed pause.

“There hasn’t been an alicorn, a real one, in Equestria since the Princesses themselves,” Homage explained. “It’s kind of a funny coincidence, don’t you think? The Elements reform, the Gardens are activated, and not even a year later a real alicorn is born. The only one. In over two hundred years of recorded history, only one.”

“So you think he is too?” Ironbright, practically unfazed, asked.

“I don’t know what to think,” Homage admitted.

Finally, I found my voice. “Well, I hate to ruin everything, but I’m not a Prince,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter if you are or aren’t,” Homage said. “What matters is what they all think. And a lot of them think you are.”

“That’s crazy,” Cloud Chaser said.

“We live in crazy times,” Homage replied. “Ponies want Equestria to be whole again. They’re tired of raiders. They’re tired of using caps. They’re tired of living in shacks. They want a king to lead them to a better land.”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

She shook her head again. “It’s not the point. I called you here to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I asked.

“You’ve read the Book of Littlepip, and after your last adventure in Manehattan, you should know that the wasteland isn’t just a bunch of towns and bands of raiders. No, there are groups, only two or three, maybe, that really control this swath of dirt we live in. They’re powerful, and more importantly, hidden. I don’t even know who they are, but they’re out there. You’d have to be stupid to think they aren’t.”

“And they don’t like hearing that somepony’s going to get a crown and take over,” Ironbright finished for her.

Homage nodded. “You’re in danger, Ebonmane.”

I felt like my head was spinning. What the hell was going on? “How?”

“It’s just like Ironbright said. Those ponies are going to want you dead. And they have the resources to do it.” Then she smiled. “But we’re going to be one step ahead.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She stood and walked to her fireplace, looking at the painting of Maripony on the mantle. “Listen, one of the ponies who tipped me off about this was Littlepip herself. In that big machine up there, she sees and hears a lot. She was the one who told me to call you here. I’m just the messenger.”

“So what’s going to happen?” Rosemary asked.

“Littlepip wants to talk to you. She says she has a plan.”

Wow. That did it. It was all too much. I hung my head. “A plan?” I asked.

“Yeah. And if you know anything about Littlepip’s plans, you know it’s going to be a doozy. But it’ll probably work. And if it does, we just might get to find out who these ponies are that are pulling the strings of our home.”

“Aren’t you one of them?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Yeah, but I’m not trying to assassinate what might be our first Prince in over two hundred years.”

I broke. “I’m not a Prince!” I shouted. “I’m not trying to get assassinated!”

Homage drew closer to me, speaking in a more personal space. “Look, I know you didn’t ask for this. No pony asks for this. I mean… shit. Sounds like some bad luck to me.” She smiled. “But we can use this to our advantage. Prince or no Prince, the ponies who want you dead are ponies like Thunderfall. They’re greedy, evil, and powerful. But if we play our cards right, we can take them down. And once they’re all gone, who knows what will happen next? But without them, Equestria will be a lot better off, that much is certain. Didn’t you say you wanted to help ponies?” Homage asked me. And she was right. I just didn’t expect things to turn out like this.

“I guess that’s it. We’ll sleep for tonight. We’ll head out tomorrow morning,” Ironbright gave the orders.

“Just one thing,” Rosemary said before we left for bed. “Why did you call us here?”

Homage turned back and smiled at her. “If Ebonmane’s going to get through this, he’s going to need his friends. Should I have left you alone in New Appleloosa?”

“No,” Rosemary nodded. “I’m glad you called us.” I was glad she did, too.

My mind was numb as we headed down the elevator. Nothing was said on the walk to our rooms. What was there to say? The circumstances and implications were too much to process all at once. I just hoped Littlepip could make some sense of it.

I thought about talking to her before I went to bed. I looked out the big window. But I didn’t. I would see her soon enough. But I couldn’t even be excited about that. My mind was racing and dead simultaneously. This was all happening too fast.

A week. I had gotten one week as a break. But morning came too quickly, as it always did, and I was strapping on my armor, heading back out into the wasteland, feeling the weight of the guns at my side and the sword at my back. A new mission. But I knew this one had much more meaning than simply stopping a pimp. Much, much more. And the worst part was that my mind couldn’t even begin to image how much more this journey would mean. For me. For my friends. For all of Equestria.

Chapter 10: Light

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I had never known a king. Or a queen, or a princess for that matter. Or a goddess, but I wasn’t raised in a stable. It was strange to realize that throughout the majority of pony history we had been ruled by princesses. I took it as proof of how much work still remained if pony society was ever going to be restored to its former glory, if such a thing was even possible. But if the ponies of the wasteland were starting to call me a king, I wondered how different our world would be from what it used to be even if we had a pony sitting on a throne. I had a good understanding of history, but I had never heard of a good king. The best male ruler was Shining Armor, and my faith in him wasn’t as strong as it used to be.

I felt cursed. The only other king that I knew of was King Sombra, who was defeated by Princess Cadence and Shining Armor, allowing them to take the throne. And he was our textbooks’ definition of a tyrant. Maybe I would be surer of myself if I had been born a mare. Maybe then it would be easier to accept this news. But as I was, I didn’t believe I possessed enough gentleness, enough wisdom, enough love to be the ruler that I believed Celestia was. I was cold, quiet, and doubting, with a talent for combat that no ruler should rightfully have. Fighting is what had landed the wasteland in its current predicament in the first place.

But I needed to stop stressing about it, so I distracted myself by wondering what I would be like if I had been born a mare. Would I still have ended up a ranger? Probably not, despite my infatuation with Littlepip. Velvet’s influence was too strong, and Littlepip wasn’t entirely feminine. I also wondered if I would have ended up a sex slave, like the ones I had freed. I wondered who would have rescued me, or if I would have freed myself. I wondered if the whole royalty thing would have been recognized sooner with more historical precedent.

My musings were cut short by my companions. Ironbright gave a pained smile and called to me. “Hey, Ebonmane? Remember what I was telling you would happen any day now?”

I realized what she meant as I recoiled. “Why are you telling me about it?”

“Oh, you too?” Cloud Chaser joined in. “I guess you synced up with Roesmary and me, huh?”

Rosemary blushed. “Cloud Chaser, not in front of him!”

“I don’t see the point of sparing his innocence. It’s not like he has to go through it,” Ironbright remarked.

Suddenly I was thankful I was born a stallion, even if it was more morally complicated to be one in the wasteland.

Once the mares were comfortable with their situations, the rest of the journey was spent listening to them complain about cramps, hot flashes, and an unquenchable lust with no pony to fulfill it, at least, according to Cloud Chaser and Ironbright. I could only blush, lay my ears down and shut up, quietly thinking that my friends were becoming a little too comfortable with me.

Now that we were heading west, the landscape shifted dramatically once we left Manehattan. Instead of seeing scrap metal litter the barren desert, I was reminded of the area outside of Stable Two. Charred carcasses of trees, dried and dead long ago, began to get more and more frequent as the road disappeared. But these were not as unnerving as the unnatural green looming ahead of us. Trees were supposed to die when burned, after all.
We hit the edge of the Everfree Forest around nightfall, and we knew it would be prudent to enter the next morning. Once again, we were eating Rosemary’s cooking, but it appeared that she had caved and spent the heinous sums to obtain food from Tenpony Tower. The warm feeling in my belly was nullified by the tall trees we ate under. The trees in Junction Town were no taller than I was, being only twenty years old at most. Sitting this close to such a big, dead plant was enough to make me nervous.
“At least it’s cover,” I thought. I couldn’t help it. What Homage had said about assassins suddenly had me looking over my shoulder a lot. Were they really looking for me? Would they follow me here? I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping well tonight. If it bothered the others, I couldn’t tell.

But there was something else that was bothering them. They hadn’t said a word about the idea of me being a king. Not all day. I didn’t know what to make of that. Were they silent because they believed it? Or because they thought I couldn’t do it?

I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t even sure if I could do it. The idea was too big for me to fathom. I knew my friends’ opinions would help my feelings settle on the issue, but their silence had only hurt me, at least a little. Were they at least worried about me?

“Do you really think there are assassins, Ironbright?” I had to ask.

She smiled at me. “Not out here. If there are, they’re not going to follow us into the Everfree Forest. With Homage’s call, they likely don’t even have a lock on where you are yet. Personally, I think she’s paranoid, but even so, we can’t be too careful.” She paused, reading me. “You’ll be alright, Ebonmane.”

“Do you think you’ll take a throne?” Cloud Chaser asked me.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m nothing special. I’m not a Prince, or anything like that. But I can see what Homage meant when she said that what’s important is what other ponies think. If they believe in me, how can I just walk away because it makes me uncomfortable?” I sighed.

“You don’t think you could do a good job?” Rosemary asked.

“History isn’t exactly riddled with good kings, is it?” I retorted.

Ironbright laughed. “You really are black and white, you know that?” I didn’t laugh. Cloud Chaser did. Rosemary giggled. “It’s not about whether you’re a Prince or Princess. What matters is how much you care about your subjects. And you would care a lot about them.”

“I would just have to deal with the whole ‘subjects’ thing first,” I replied.

“You would be just fine,” Rosemary said. She was rubbing down her manticore gun with a dirty rag, cleaning it, and she spoke so casually. But I stared at her, her eyes flicking to mine nervously behind her glasses, the green showing through the reflection of the fire in her lenses. “What?”

“You think I could be king?” I asked in disbelief.

“Maybe you aren’t the perfect choice, but you’re the best I’ve seen yet. I mean, who else would be fit to rule?”

“You’d really follow my orders?” I asked, a smile growing on my face.

She frowned at my poking, “If you did something wrong, at least you’d have somepony to let you know so. And I’d have Lucy here to back me up.”

“You named it Lucy?” I asked incredulously.

“You didn’t know?” Ironbright asked. I didn’t reply. I just looked at Rosemary a little longer, more aware than ever that I didn’t know her. But we were getting tired, and conversation could wait. I fell asleep, resolving to get to talk to her one-on-one soon. After all, not only did she believe in me, out of all my friends, but she was best friends with Cloud Chaser, and I think she knew Ironbright on a personal level as well. Perhaps she could explain to me some things about my other friends. Why Ironbright had never attempted to repair the bridges at Tenpony Tower. Or why Cloud Chaser suddenly had no interest in me whatsoever.

Sleep didn’t come easily, what with all of the paranoia, doubt, and loneliness hanging over my head. But by now, I was used to not sleeping.

I was loathe to drag my carcass out of the dirt to enter the unholy abomination that was the Everfree Forest, but I didn’t have a choice. The only pony who could make any sense out of what was going on was Littlepip, and she was beyond these trees that extended their limbs toward us, beckoning us toward the dark maw that was the woods’ entrance. And I knew that if I didn’t show some kind of courage, it would only make it worse for the mares who had to follow me into those inky shadows so that I could find my answers.

A pang of fear gripped me as I stared into that foreboding forest, and I wondered if I could really ask my friends to risk their lives for me again like this. They didn’t need to see Littlepip. I did. “Perhaps I should tell them to stay back and wait for me,” I thought.

But I couldn’t. I needed them. If it weren’t for them, I would be dead on Thunderfall’s floor. As afraid as I was for them, I knew getting myself killed by going alone wasn’t what they wanted, either. We would do this together.

Rosemary wouldn’t let us leave until we had a good breakfast in us. “Just make it quick,” Ironbright told her. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take us to make it to the other side. If we get caught in there at night, I don’t think it’ll end well. The sooner we leave, the better.”

“So… what’s in the Everfree Forest, anyway?” Cloud Chaser asked.

Ironbright answered as she ate Rosemary’s stew. “No pony’s entirely sure anymore. Littlepip discovered the killing joke. We’re pretty sure the hellhounds have moved out. But the forest’s too big to know everything that lives there.”

“But I thought the Gardens of Equestria purged all the taint and stuff,” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Only the land,” Rosemary said. “Creatures created by taint are still the way they are. It’s harder to purge from living things.”

“How much worse than killing joke could it get, though?” Cloud Chaser asked. “It kills you and humiliates you.”

“There are worse things than being humiliated,” Rosemary said.

“Like what?” Cloud Chaser said. She was about to complete her own sentence before Ironbright cut her off.

“Don’t say another word unless you want to find out. Whatever you were going to say was probably something killing joke might use.”

Cloud Chaser gulped. “Right. ‘Cause that would suck.”

I sighed. “Our best bet is to avoid it in the first place.”

“What do you think it would do to you?” Cloud Chaser asked me.

“What did I just say?” Ironbright said. She huffed. “Come on. We should get going. Everypony stay close.”

Ironbright clicked on her headlamp, and before we even had the chance to see the rising sun in its full glory, we were swallowed by the forest.

My imagination had never quite been able to grasp what a forest might actually look like. I had heard of the lush ones that covered Equestria’s landscape, but the Everfree Forest had always been an exception. I imagined forests to be green, vibrant places that were springy and teeming with life.
The Everfree Forest fit that description. All around me were trees covered in moss, their canopies so thick I couldn’t see the sky in the gray twilight. Creatures sounded all around me, birds and rodents, and I could see beetles and spiders scuttle like forest spirits at the edges of my vision, maintaining the perception of sheer density that was this place.

But there was something far more sinister about this place as well. Even after an hour of walking, the blurry, dead light never brightened as the darkness only grew stronger. Ironbright’s lamp was of little use against the hazy veil of fog that wrapped out legs, like a beast waiting to swallow us from underneath. The worst part was also the most difficult to pin down. The corners of my eyes saw vines moving, glowing eyes in the distance, and I heard growls, turning to face nothing. After a while, a suspicion I had felt upon entering was confirmed for me: it didn’t feel like we were being watched. I knew we were. Not by any one predator, but by the forest itself, as it stalked us, waiting for us to stumble into the wrong area, preying upon our fears.

My heart fluttered at the deadliness of it all, but I couldn’t help but marvel at its fascinating beauty as well. As corrupted as it was, it was more alive than I felt at times.

“How are you holding up, Cloud Chaser?” Ironbright asked.

“Wait, why me?” she returned.

“You were pretty freaked out before we went in. I just want to make sure you’re doing okay.”

“I’m fine,” she spat out. “Just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I’m a baby.”

“I didn’t say you were.”

“You don’t have to worry about me, Ironbright. I’ve always been alright on my own.”

“Alright, alright,” Ironbright conceded. “No need to get touchy.”

Cloud Chaser wasn’t the only one with frayed nerves. My eyes were constantly scanning, and I got the persistent sense that I should check behind me. At my side, Rosemary jumped at every little noise, letting out big sighs when she realized that one of us had only stepped on a twig. Ironbright was the only one who appeared cool, but the way she marched, scanning so methodically gave her away. She responded to fear with thoroughness, and her serious demeanor told me that she was just as afraid as the rest of us.

It was obvious how terrified we were. By the second hour, our fear had gotten the better of us. When I asked to pee, they all had to go too. We just turned around because we were too scared to go out of each other’s sight. Rosemary in particular had a rough time of it. She asked Cloud Chaser to sing loudly so we couldn’t hear her. When she chose a starkly jolly Sapphire Shores tune, we all learned that she was not a gifted singer by any definition. But it did the trick.

When I was done shifting my plates back into place, we headed out again. Ironbright told Rosemary to pass out some food we could eat on the go as a lunch. “How could anypony be hungry?” I wondered. I was too nervous to eat much, but when Rosemary sorted out my ration of dry fruit, I wasn’t about to argue with my commander, much less the little unicorn. Especially not when Rosemary’s mood was so bad. I could hear the diatribe in my head at the very notion of refusing to eat.

But I could sense that the fear was affecting her differently than the rest of us. I didn’t know why, but she almost looked on the verge of tears from it all. “Are you okay?” I asked her quietly.

She just nodded. “It’s just the woods. I’ve been through worse, right?”

It clearly wasn’t the same. “Our fights happen so fast. This has been going on for hours. It’s alright if you’re feeling upset.”

“I’m fine. Just… stop worrying about me.” She motioned for me to back off with her hoof. I pulled my head up, but I knew she wiped a tear away when she thought I wouldn’t notice. In a crisis, I was often amazed at how cool of a head Rosemary kept. But this was different. Over time, the hours of stress wore on her. She was a soft pony, sensitive in a number of ways. This wasn’t good for her.

“It’s got to be past noon,” I told Ironbright. “The most dangerous stuff probably comes out at night. Maybe we should pick up the pace?” I asked.

“Can you all manage it?” she asked. Hell yes, we could. “Let’s go, then.” I heard Rosemary let out a small breath of relief. The sooner we could get out of here, the better. Not just for her, but for all of us.

As noble as my intentions may have been, I was wrong.

We heard another growl, and, as if on cue, Rosemary jumped for the hundredth time. I still turned to the source. But instead of seeing nothing, I saw glowing blue eyes. Never had something accompanied these growls, but by the time I drew my sword, they had blinked away into the shadows.

“What is it, Ebonmane?” Ironbright asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. A pair of eyes. It’s gone now, but…”

Ironbright nodded. “We’ll keep a look out. Just keep your weapons ready.” And we did.

Despite our heightened awareness, I was thrown off guard when a fragrance hit my nose. It was subtle at first, like flowers, but familiar and comforting, like Rosemary’s cooking. I thought it was Rosemary. When she noticed me staring at her, I turned away, but it got stronger. I had never smelled a rose before, but I was certain that I smelled one, low and sweet, and mixed in with something warm and spicy.

“Do you smell that?” I finally asked out loud.

Cloud Chaser took a whiff. “Yeah. It’s like… that smell after it rains? You know what I mean?”

What? I shook my head, but Rosemary spoke before I could. “No, it’s not. It smells like…” she didn’t finish her sentence.

“Stop,” Ironbright commanded. “Whatever’s going on, it’s not good.”

I turned too late to the growl at my back. With a cry I was tackled to the ground by a dense body. I felt something scrape against my plates, like claws, as many more tore into the exposed parts of my body. Jaws closed around my neck, the plates keeping me alive as the creature yanked up, nearly tearing my head off.

A barrage of my friends’ bullets sounded and I felt the creature collapse, like a bundle of logs on top of me. “Take my hoof,” Ironbright said. I grabbed on and she pulled me out. I struggled to catch my breath.

“Fucking Luna,” Cloud Chaser exclaimed with a gasp. My body was riddled with tiny punctures from where the beast had attacked me, and more than a few thorns were imbedded in my legs and belly, each one easily an inch long. I felt my blood draining from me. Rosemary dug out our last health potion.

I didn’t have time to take it, though, much less examine the attacker’s corpse. The smell was still in the air. More growls sounded, and we turned to face them. The blue eyes emerged from the thick undergrowth to reveal a wolf-like creature. Its body looked like something a foal would build as a toy from parts. Branches were twisted and molded into limbs, a tail, and head, crowned by the blue eyes. The dark wood that formed it was covered in long, daggerlike thorns. And as it growled, a blue mist seeped from its maw, wafting toward us, carrying the delicious scent.

But wolves were pack creatures. And two more appeared beside it, ready to pounce.

“Run,” Ironbright commanded. We did, as soon as we turned to sprint I heard the beasts tearing through the forest behind us.

Pain lanced through my belly as I ran, spreading to my pierced limbs as they seized and locked. I cried out, and my friends fired as they turned to help me. “Just keep running Ebonmane, don’t look behind you,” Ironbright ordered. I did as best as I could, but every stretch of my legs brought a tearing sensation to my hide, and I was worried my skin would just tear apart. But I didn’t look.

“You can make it Ebonmane,” Ironbright encouraged once again. “Rosemary, where’s that potion?”

Rosemary multitasked, reloading and floating the potion to me at the same time. My horn still worked, and I took it, uncorking it with as steady of a grip as I could manage while I bled and suffered. Within moments of drinking it, I was mobile, but the potion couldn’t eject the thorns from my skin. Every step still brought pain around the needles inside of me, but adrenaline dulled it enough for me to focus.

Gunshots cracked and echoed throughout the woods as Rosemary and Cloud Chaser blind fired behind them. Ironbright’s radar kept track of the wolves’ position. “We’re losing them,” she announced. “Just a little more.”

A little more. Even with the nails in my stomach and the fear still gnawing at my neck, I could make it a little more. But anything above that would kill me.

Ironbright led us to what seemed to be a clearing. The trees weren’t quite as dense in this particular area, but their boughs still stretched, and vines still wrapped around everything. She stopped here, and I could no longer smell the tantalizing scent of my death.

With a moment to breathe, I allowed myself to whimper and shed tears in pain. “Oh, shit, this hurts,” I told my friends.

“Let me see,” Rosemary said. She was so short she barely had to bend her legs to look at my belly. “We’re going to have to get those out soon,” she said. “Are we clear?”

“I think so,” Ironbright answered.

“Think again,” Cloud Chaser warned. We turned to face in her direction, but the threat was all around us. The vines that wrapped this area began to twist and slither beneath our hooves, writhing into a central mass before rising into the air, displaying their blue flowers.

“Killing joke,” Ironbright confirmed.

Then the sweet smell hit me again.

I drew my sword. It was do or die. Ironbright whipped around as her radar picked up the thornwolves. “My guns won’t do shit against those vines,” she said. “I’ll take the wolves. Can you fight Ebonmane?”

“Do I have a choice?” I retorted.

As soon as Ironbright’s guns began to blaze, the floating vines lashed at us. Rosemary was positioned behind me, her gun similarly useless against the killing joke. With every whipping strike of the vines I sliced with my sword, decapitating the flowers from their bodies. I wasn’t quite fast enough to kill every vine, but my armor was thick enough to protect me as I dodged. A direct hit would rip right through my plates. Cloud Chaser flew and weaved through the clearing, fending for herself with her mobility and knife.

Rosemary’s gun cracked as she took her shots against the wolves behind me. She didn’t see the vines swirl and swarm around Cloud Chaser, entangling her. I spread my wings to free her, but before I could take off, she was gone. Vanished into thin air.

“Cloud Chaser!” I called in panic. I flew to the spot where she had been. A mistake.

“Ah!” I heard Rosemary cry out. My blood froze. Without my body to protect her, Rosemary was a sitting duck. I turned to see her suspended in midair, vines immobilizing every limb. She looked at me. “Ebonmane!” she cried out in fear and desperation.

I was certain she was dead. The vines could have easily torn her legs off. But killing joke didn’t work like that. Instead, the plant reared and threw her at me. I caught her, but as we fell to the forest floor, her body impacted against mine, driving the thorns into my body even further.

We cried out in pain together as the vines immediately began to lash at her back, flaying her, blood spattering the grass below. I wrapped my hooves around her for protection, feeling my forelegs split open. The pain was intense, but it would keep her alive for a few more seconds while I reached for my sword. When my blade was before me, I began to hack at the tearing plants.

But it wasn’t enough. Rosemary still screamed in my arms as they tore at whatever exposed spots they could reach. It wouldn’t be much longer before she was dead in my arms.

Without a thought, I rolled over. I pinned her body beneath mine, hugging her as I felt the killing joke tear at me, denting and working to tear the plates from my back. I pressed her head against my shoulder, my other hoof wrapped around her neck. Better me than her.

Now the killing joke had a new target, and a new prank to play. For a second, I felt the vines relent. I raised my head to see what was happening, and in that instant, I felt razors tear across my forehead and temples and I screamed. Blood stained my vision as the thorny blades made a complete circle around my head.

They didn’t get the chance to finish me off. A surge of burning heat erupted over my shoulder, and the pain stopped. Rosemary was out from underneath me, and I rolled to see her launch another gout of flame. The plants shuddered and retreated, the petals of their blossoms catching as the fire spread down the vine.

The killing joke slinked back, but Ironbright stepped over me and her guns began to spin. With a torrent of concentrated fire, she shot into the heart of the killing joke plant, nestled beyond the trees, too far away to see, but the clusters of vines led Ironbright’s keen eye to their core. With an unnatural, gasping cry, the plants gave a final shudder and fell limp.

We were all left gasping. Ironbright moved around to help me up again, turning her back on the dozen or so thornwolf corpses she had cut down, and I could see even she was limping. But there was one question that we were all thinking, and the ranger voiced: “Where’s Cloud Chaser?”

I hung my head. I felt like crying. “I don’t know. The killing joke got to her and she just… disappeared.”

“She has to be around here somewhere. I’m not leaving this forest until I see a body.”

“Do you think she’s dead?” Rosemary asked fearfully.

“That depends on the joke it wanted to play on her.”

I shook my head. “We have no idea where it took her. We can’t just wander around the forest blindly.” I looked at Rosemary with a grimace. The slashes on her back were bad. “Not like this.”

“We’ll get to a safe zone, and I’ll let off some lightning,” Rosemary said. “If I do it enough, Cloud Chaser’s sure to see it, or hear it, or something.”

“And if she can’t reach us? How long should we wait for her?” Ironbright asked.

“As long as we can,” I answered. Rosemary nodded in agreement.

Ironbright hung her head. “We need to find the Sear, then. It might be our only chance.”

When Red Eye had planned to burn down the Everfree Forest way back in Littlepip’s day, the scar the wildfire had left on the land had come to be known as the Sear. But I had never met a pony who had seen it themselves. “Is it safe?” I asked.

“It’s open. That’s close enough. If Cloud Chaser’s smart, which she is, she’d fly up and out as soon as she realized she was alone. She’d see the Sear and head there. Parts of it are almost on our way to the SPP. It’s our best bet.”

There was a pit in my stomach at the thought of losing the sprightly little pegasus. It wasn’t fair. She was barely more than a filly. She couldn’t be dead. She deserved a life more than any of us. She deserved to live in a house of her very own. She deserved to see more of the world than the slums and raiders her life had been limited to. She deserved to find a love better than the pathetic kiss I had given her. I didn’t want to believe she was dead, and I told myself that we had a plan, and a good one.
I hoped it was enough. But we had more than hope on our side. I felt a drop on my nose, and I looked up to hear a pitter on the canopy above.

“It’s raining,” Rosemary pointed out. “She loves rain.”

Ironbright shook her head. “Listen.” We did. It was quiet for a rainstorm. “The rain is just above us, nowhere else. The cloud can’t be more than a few feet wide.”

“How is that possible?” I asked.

Before anypony could speculate, the pitter patter shifted ahead of us, away from the clearing, moving at a slow walking pace.

“Littlepip must know we’re here,” Ironbright concluded.

I felt like crying. Not only was this tangible proof to my hero’s presence and watchfulness, as I had always hoped, but I believed with all my heart she was taking us to Cloud Chaser.

We followed the little raincloud tapping on the canopy above us. We limped and bled against the forest floor, and Ironbright sidled up to Rosemary, sharing each other’s weight, easing the walk for one another. But no amount of pain could stop us from finding our poor little pegasus friend.

After twenty minutes, the trees stopped abruptly. Jagged, blackened stumps were entrenched on the forest’s edge. Beyond was a sea of tall, blackened trunks, ruins of the Everfree forest, every burned tree a derelict, black spire, its crown lying broken and scattered around its roots.

Our little ring of rain was more visible now, and indeed we looked up to see a small black raincloud above, weaving through the needles of trees. We stepped over the torn and charred limbs, branches and dust crunching beneath our hooves as we navigated the safest yet the most somber portion of the forest. Ironbright still remained alert, as threats could still hide amongst the charred corpses of the trees, but Rosemary and I could only focus on our point of light that was Littlepip’s raincloud.

We heard another sound. More than the patter of the rain, but still low and soft. We all froze.

It was crying.

I ran ahead, being the only pony capable of running in any degree. The wound on my head bled into my eyes as my motion aggravated it, but I didn’t care. I jumped over fallen trunks and wound through the branches as quickly as I could. “Cloud Chaser!” I called out.

“Ebonmane?” I heard her voice respond. We all let out a sigh of relief.

I saw her lying amongst a small thicket. Killing joke vines were wrapped around her limbs, pinning her to the ground, and I could see the cuts and tears the vines had inflicted under her stealth armor. Her face was stained with tears, and they started again, fresh once she saw me.

I wasted no time cutting the vines away, freeing her. She stood as soon as she was free and wrapped her hooves around my neck in a hug. “Thank Celestia,” she said. “I thought I was going to die alone.”

“We’re all here,” I told her. She looked past me to see Ironbright and Rosemary enter the thicket.

“She’s alright,” I told them.

They sighed in relief. “We’ll have to wait on the hugs. We’re all pretty beat up,” Ironbright told her.

We rejoined them. Now that everypony was more or less safe, we needed to think about what to do next. “We can’t go on like this,” Ironbright said. “We’re all wounded and we have no health potions. Plus,” she paused, speaking low, “Rosemary’s pretty bad.”

“I’m fine,” she answered softly. But I could tell she was already feeling weak from pain and blood loss. “I just need to lie down.” And she did, but we all knew she wasn’t moving from that spot anytime soon.

Now that she was firmly below us, we all got to see the extent of her wounds. Almost all of the hide had been stripped from her back, peeled away by the killing joke, her coat soaked with blood, and I could see now the few inches of white between her shoulders. Her spine. That she had walked this far was a miracle.

“If she doesn’t bleed out, she’s sure to get an infection,” Ironbright said.

“What do we do?” Cloud Chaser asked.

Ironbright was searching for answers, but she had nothing to say. Suddenly, Cloud Chaser spread her wings and darted upward. When she came back down, she said, “I can see the SPP tower from here. It’s not far. We might be able to reach it by sundown if we move quickly.”

Ironbright shook her head. “It’s a project, not a city. I doubt Littlepip has medical supplies in there. Besides…” Ironbright couldn’t finish the sentence, but she didn’t have to. I knew what she meant. Rosemary wouldn’t make it that far.

We all saw the twist of fear that passed through us in Rosemary’s eyes. She was terrified. She wasn’t ready to die. Not like this.

“I know it didn’t work last time, but…” Cloud Chaser said, tears forming in her eyes. She shook her head, but spoke anyways after a pause, her voice almost a whisper. “Can’t you heal her, Ebonmane?”

I felt the tears stinging at my eyes, too, hot and heavy. “No. Life Bloom said that only a pony with light in their hearts can do healing magic. That’s why I couldn’t heal Moondancer.”

“But you did it before!” Cloud Chaser shouted at me.

“I don’t know what I did!” I said with sorrow.

“You have to try!” Cloud Chaser said, crying freely.

I looked at Rosemary, at the flickering eyes behind her dirty lenses. I had to try.

I knelt down next to her, fighting back my own tears. The wrenching in my gut told me this wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t go through this again, believing I could save a pony when I couldn’t because I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to lose Rosemary like this. But I tipped my head, my horn hovering over her wounded back anyway.

“Ebonmane,” I head her weak voice whispering in my ear, soft and calmer than I felt. “It’s okay if you can’t. It’s not your fault.”

She was being strong for me. I could hear it in the faltering tone of her warm words. But if she could try, so could I.

Life Bloom had told Midnight that a pony needed light in his heart to heal. Maybe my own heart was too dark, too weak to find the virtue and strength needed to perform such magic. But Rosemary’s wasn’t. As I poured the magic through my horn, her words still swimming in my mind, I knew her heart was pure as the first snows that touched the streets of Junction Town, and as bright and warm as the hearth of her inn. Out of all of us, she deserved to live.

The magic poured out of me and over her, as it had done with Moondancer. But as my breath escaped my lips, tinged with hope and the smallest drops of faith, I felt a peace spread through me. I closed my eyes. I felt nothing, not the pain of my own wounds or the ground beneath me, save for this hope that had been instilled within me. My magic streamed forth, taking whatever was left in me with it.

When I opened my eyes, Rosemary’s wounds were but small scabs.

Cloud Chaser sobbed openly and ran to embrace Rosemary. In that hug, we all felt the fear we had caged within ourselves release us as Ironbright and I sighed.

“Ebonmane…” Ironbright said. But she didn’t have the words to express her feelings about what I had just done.

When Cloud Chaser finally let go, Rosemary hugged me, too, and I held her a little. It had been scary for all of us, but she would be alright. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t find the words to thank me properly at first. “You saved my life. Again,” she said finally, with tearful gratitude.

“You saved mine with that fire,” I told her. “And with Thunderfall. We’re even. So no more keeping score.”

She nodded and released me. “You did fire, Rosemary?” Cloud Chaser said, wiping her eyes as her relief was rapidly replaced with excited awe.

Rosemary nodded. “It’s not much different than lightning. I think I got the hang of them. You just sort of have to… feel it. Pay attention to how it works.”

I nodded. I had been paying attention, too. But I couldn’t know for certain if anything would come of my careful scrutiny unless I tried again.

“Cloud Chaser, come here,” I told her. “Lay down.” She did.

“What are you doing?” she asked as I put my horn over her.

“I think I got the hang of this, too.”

“What?” But I wasn’t paying attention. I had closed my eyes, accessing that hope within me, that hope I had felt when Rosemary had reassured me so bravely. I felt it move within me. And then the peace came over me again, as I poured my hope out over the cuts on Cloud Chaser’s chest. When I opened my eyes again, they were gone completely.

“No way,” she breathed.

I smiled, feeling a subdued excitement flow through me, fighting against my peacefulness. “Take off your armor so I can get at the rest of them.”

Once Cloud Chaser was healed, we helped Ironbright remove her armor. Her bruises faded quickly, but the tricky part was her fractured leg. I could feel the break, almost sensing the throbbing pain beneath her skin, but I managed to knit the bone back together. If it had been a full break, I don’t know if I could have done anything, but Ironbright was as good as new. We were all left smiling.

“What about you?” Rosemary asked.

I had all but forgotten about the thorns that lay embedded in my hide, about my own seeping wounds. I rolled on my back to lean my horn over my legs and belly, but that feeling of hope felt trapped within me, with nowhere to go. After a while of trying, I gave up, rolling back to my side. “It’s no use,” I told them. “It’s like levitating yourself.”

They nodded understandingly. “Well, we still have to fix you up,” Rosemary said. “You’re almost as bad as I was.”

That wasn’t quite true, but I didn’t argue. I was exhausted. “This is going to hurt, isn’t it?” I asked.

“I’m afraid so. I’ll be as gentle as possible.”

After Rosemary collided with me, the thorns were driven too deep for Rosemary to pluck out with her teeth, and to be honest, I was glad for that. A lot of them were a little too low on my belly for her to do such a thing and not have the situation be completely embarrassing. However, the only other alternative was for Rosemary to wedge them out with Cloud Chaser’s knife.

The little unicorn hesitated. “Go ahead,” I told her. “I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t. The feeling of the knife slipping into my skin, cutting and scraping with a surgeon’s precision was enough to leave me gasping and sweaty after one thorn. By the fourth I was nearly howling in pain.

“Here,” Ironbright offered me a strip of gauze that would serve as my bandages. I took them in my mouth, glad to have something to bite down on. Ironbright and Cloud Chaser moved around me, holding me down so that my thrashing wouldn’t make Rosemary’s job harder. When they were set, I nodded to Rosemary to continue.

Thirty-four thorns, in all. Each one worse than the last, but once she reached my legs, I was numbed by adrenaline. Once the last one popped out of my left thigh, I released the bandages, every inch of my body wracked in pain. They wrapped me up as quickly as they could, and once the bandages were in place, the pressure relieved some of my torment. I had gone through hell once more, but we were sure no infection would cripple me.

“Can you walk?” Ironbright asked me. I looked up at her and nodded.

“Oh, no,” Rosemary called out. “We aren’t going anywhere with him like this.”

“It’s too dangerous to stay here,” Ironbright said. “The SPP is just a few hours away. He can rest all he likes there.”

“No,” Rosemary stamped her hoof. “He isn’t moving an inch until he gets some sleep and that’s final.”

I wanted to be a stallion about this. I wanted to pretend like I had an impressive set of balls and trudge through the pain, but Rosemary’s tone silenced any argument. Even Ironbright said nothing, simply laying down where she stood. “I’ll take the first watch,” she volunteered.

“I can take the last,” I attempted to preserve some of my masculinity.

“You’ll sleep all the way through. You’re exhausted,” Rosemary countered me. And she was right. Between the extraordinarily difficult spellcasting spree and having half of my body carved up by Cloud Chaser’s knife, not to mention the toll of combat and adrenaline, I couldn’t find the energy to care. Pain or no pain, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the saddlebag Rosemary placed under my head.

Cloud Chaser had the last shift, and I had awoken sometime near the start of it, my body wracked with throbbing pain. I tried to soothe my body with sleep, but I had no such luck. After an hour of tossing, I told Cloud Chaser to wake everypony up. We were here so I could rest, and I wasn’t going to get any more of it. It was time to move out.

We didn’t start walking immediately, though. On her shift, Rosemary had started a meal simmering over the campfire, and she wouldn’t let me move until I had eaten every last boiled vegetable and straw of hay. I noticed that she gave me twice as much food as anypony else, but I didn’t say anything until she tried to give me a triple portion.

“I’m full, really,” I told her.

“You really should eat more,” she insisted. “You’re so skinny as it is, you’re going to shrivel up and die one of these days.”

“He’s not scrawny, he’s just lean,” Ironbright said, her patience with Rosemary finally running out. “Now let him up so we can get moving. We’ve spent too long out here already.”

The sun had set when we finally began to move out, throwing us once again into a gray twilight, quickly melding into a dark, moonless night. Rosemary’s protective instincts seemed to linger, as she stayed awfully close to me. But once it became clear that I was moving fine, despite my painful wounds, her eyes turned from their constant surveillance of me to her own thoughts, as she looked at her hooves. Once she did, she moved away from me by only a few inches, but it was enough to return things to how they had been before. She was distant again. Inscrutable.

What had happened? Why did it feel like we were no longer friends? Why did she care for me so deeply and obsessively one minute and shrink away from me the next? I wanted to ask, but my mere glance caused her to look away from me, and I knew there was no point in asking.

“Now that everything’s settled down, I have a question for you, Cloud Chaser,” Ironbright said.


“Why did the killing joke teleport you all the way out here?”

Cloud Chaser shuffled her wings nervously. “When Rosemary said that there were worse things than dying, I thought of a lot of different things. But I decided that it didn’t matter if I died, because dying out here would be way better than dying an orphan in New Appleloosa.”

“You wouldn’t have died in New Appleloosa,” Rosemary insisted.

“I would have,” Cloud Chaser replied quietly. “I was alone there, before I met you. And that’s why it’s better out here. Because at least I would die with ponies who cared about me. I wouldn’t die alone.”

We all understood. “What about Ebonmane?” Rosemary asked.

“That’s obvious. He was pretty adamant that he’s not a prince. Now he’s got a crown,” Ironbright pointed out. Their eyes turned to the bandage wrapped around my head. It would sit exactly where a crown would. And I was willing to bet it would scar nicely.

“What about you, Ironbright?” Cloud Chaser asked.

She shook her head. “The joke never got to me. Just you three.”

My eyes turned to Rosemary, and the others followed. “What happened to you?” Cloud Chaser asked quietly, sensing the tension.

“It threw her into Ebonmane, and he rolled on top of her to protect her,” Ironbright answered before Rosemary could speak.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s probably because I once said that you’d be the death of me or something, Ebonmane.”

“But I kept you alive when they tried to kill you,” I pointed out.

“I think it was a part of your deal, Ebonmane,” Cloud Chaser said. “You’re always all, ‘I’d rather die than let any of you mares get hurt,’” she did a stupid-sounding impersonation of me. “It knew you were going to protect her. It was probably going to kill you, then do her joke.”

“Then what about the crown?” Ironbright asked.

“Cherry on top,” Cloud Chaser said simply.

We looked at Rosemary again. But this time, I couldn’t bear to look at her. I felt guilty again. Had my stupid macho bravado been what had nearly gotten her killed in the first place?

Darkness had swallowed up this black, dead forest, and the SPP was no longer visible in the distance. But I wanted another miracle from Littlepip. Not a raincloud this time, though. I wanted her to tell me something that could fix me. Whatever was wrong with my way of thinking or whatever darkness was in my heart that had prevented me from saving Moondancer, I wanted her to tell me whatever she could tell me that could change me. But what in the world could possibly change me into a Prince?

It was too much to ask for. So I walked in silence, as usual.

We walked most of the night until the SPP’s silhouette was an amorphous black form ahead of us, a void amongst the stars of the dark night sky. The Sear opened up into these foothills, and these hills led into the mountains that nestled the most impressive machine pegasus technology could build.

“We’re really going to make it,” Cloud Chaser said with disbelief. “We’re really going to meet with Littlepip, aren’t we?”

Ironbright nodded. “It looks like it. Nervous?”

“Excited,” Cloud Chaser answered. “Who wouldn’t be?”

Excited wasn’t how I would describe my feelings. I’m not sure one word would be enough. I was excited, sure. But also nervous. Curious. Starstruck. Doubtful. Inadequate. Scared.

Was I really ready to hear whatever she had to say? But I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Homage had made it clear that this wasn’t about me. I was a pawn in the story of Equestria’s future, and somehow, that made it easier to approach the tower.

It was impossibly tall. Like the skyscrapers of Manehattan, once we reached its thick metal base, we had to crane our heads further back than they could to see the tip. Even if our necks were made of rubber, the last hundred feet or so were lost amongst a ring of clouds. This was the source of all of Equestria’s weather, the machine that laid the powers of all the heavens at the hooftips of a single pony. It was sufficiently awe-inspiring.

We circled the base, but even after our ten-minute lap around, we found no door.

“What the hell?” Cloud Chaser asked. “How do we get in?”

“Littlepip got in through the clouds,” I reminded them. “Maybe the entrance is accessible only to pegasi.”

“Makes sense,” Rosemary agreed. “That way only the pegasi could use it, like it was intended.”

“Then how does Homage get up there?” Cloud Chaser asked bluntly. “They meet up every so often to fuck, remember?”

Right. They did, didn’t they? And Homage was a unicorn. “Is there a spell that gives wings?” I asked.

“That would be so stupid,” Rosemary said. “Then what would even be the point of being a pegasus?”

“Let’s look around again,” Ironbright decided. So we did another lap, but halfway around, we found that two metal panels had been slid apart, revealing an entrance.

“Littlepip knows we’re here,” Cloud Chaser said. It appeared so.

The inside of the SPP was incredibly dark, but warmer than the outside. Everypony with a light lit theirs up, and we began to wander the path laid out between the pillars of coils and machinery, our hooves rapping against the metal floor.

We found the stairs only to find it utterly collapsed, as if some master telekinetic had ripped the first portion of the staircase right off the wall. When Ironbright cast her beam up, we could see the intact portion begin some thirty feet above us.

“At least we know bandits can’t get to her,” Ironbright concluded. “Even if they did manage to find the entrance.”

“What about pegasus bandits?” Cloud Chaser asked. We could only shrug, though.

We searched for a way up for a few more minutes. Finally, we saw tiny orange lights flickering regularly ahead. Ironbright shined her flashlight to reveal an elevator near the center of the tower. And the door was open.

Ironbright hit the button after we crowded on the cramped platform. As we rose, we could see the large coils follow us up, and new pieces of machinery affixed to the walls hummed and glowed with magical power as we ascended past them.

We rode for a long time. Rosemary begged us all to back away from her. The elevator was fairly open, only a low wall enclosing us, so she must not have been claustrophobic, but rather motion sick. Once the rest of us crammed into a corner, she seemed to calm down some, but not completely until we reached the top. This took a good ten minutes.

Then, all too quickly, we were there. The large, almost barren warehouse-like top floor of the SPP. And right next to the elevator shaft was the central console. The room that housed Littlepip.

We walked around to the door. Sure enough, there was the cloud interface, just like Littlepip had described. If it wasn’t for that, she would have never had to experience dragon fire to get inside. Luckily for us, we had Cloud Chaser. She had the door open within seconds.

As it slid open with a rush of air, we all glanced at one another. This place that we were about to enter… it was about as sacred a place as anypony had anymore. This place was our temple, our only point of hope that somepony had things under control. It felt wrong to walk into that chamber. But we had come too far to be daunted now.

The inside of the SPP was nigh heavenly. There were a lot of cloud interfaces, and monitors that showed the land of Equestria in its entirety. And it was growing. The night was warm, and grass grew up along the roads and across the rolling plains. One even showed a successful farm. I was breathless.

I stopped when my hoof nudged an object. We looked down. It was a bone, one of many.

We froze. Celestia’s bones. This was where she had died…

My thoughts raced for an instant, but a long one. This was what remained of Celestia herself. The most powerful Princess who had ever lived. Some, like Littlepip, had learned to worship her as a goddess. And I was here because ponies were comparing me to her, counting me as one of her kind, when they called me a Prince. More than ever, I was certain that I wasn’t worthy. I wasn’t even worthy to touch the bones of the one who gave light to Equestria.

“Thanks for coming,” a female voice sounded. It was young and light, unmistakably Littlepip. It was so startling that I felt like I was going to wet myself, but whether from surprise or shock of actually hearing her actual voice I couldn’t say.

I felt somepony behind me nudge my flank. “Uh… sure?” I responded. Smooth.

“It’s been a while since I’ve talked to somepony who isn’t Homage, so…” she paused. “It’s good to finally meet you, Ebonmane.”

“It’s good to meet you too,” I found my voice.

“I would come out, but it’s really not a good idea. I have to make a lot of preparations if I’m going to step out. That, and my body isn’t exactly in the best condition of its life.”

“So you’re really Littlepip?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Well, I’m a mind in a Crusader mainframe. If you don’t count the lack of a body, then yeah. I am.”

Ironbright moved things along. “Homage sent us. She told us that Ebonmane might be a Prince.”

There was a brief pause. “The word is getting out. I can see a lot of Equestria from up here, and no pony really knows what to think about you, Ebonmane. Homage really opened up a can of worms when she said you were an alicorn over the radio.”

“Are there really assassins after me?” I asked.

“I don’t know. But I do know from experience that things like this are never as simple as they seem. This rumor would threaten any pony with any kind of power, and those ponies are going to want you dead, Ebonmane.”

“But you have a plan, right?” Rosemary asked. “You can keep him alive?”

“I think so. It’s risky, and kind of crazy, but I guess all my plans are.” She paused. “But it’s only going to work if Ebonmane is ready to take this seriously.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Ebonmane, you could just go into hiding for a while. Hell, you could probably just go back to Homage and make a public statement or two that you’re not a Prince and that you don’t plan on being one anytime soon. As long as you kept your word by lying low, staying a Ranger, no pony would have any reason to doubt you.”

She knew I was a Ranger? “How much do you know about me?” I asked.

“Quite a bit. You’re pretty important. Because if you decide to work with me, we can do something with those wings and horn.” I didn’t know what to say. “Look at those screens again. Do you see how beautiful the land is becoming?” Littlepip asked.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“But the worst part is that it’s not enough. The Gardens of Equestria was only the first step. It healed the land, but it can’t fix everything. You’ve seen some of the worst Equestria has to offer yourself. Ponies don’t even call it Equestria. It’s the wasteland.”

I exhaled in defeat. “And you want me to unify it all by claiming a throne?”

“It’s not what you think,” Littlepip said. “It wouldn’t matter if you were an earth pony. If you had risen high enough in the Ranger’s ranks, you could have had a shot to unify Equestria. We just need a pony with the guts to do it.”

“And you think that’s me?” I asked incredulously. “I’m not exactly the gutsiest pony.”

“When it comes to ponies you care about, you are. Homage and I have learned everything we can about what you did with Thunderfall. You’d give your life for this country in a heartbeat. You’d never be in it for power or greed. You’re not the kind.”

A quiet whisper in my heart disagreed. I could be very greedy. I could take all too easily to being worshipped in the way Celestia was. Having whatever I say be written as law. But I didn’t say any of that. “How could I even begin?”

“First, we find out what, or who, you’re up against. Then, you need to appear more publicly. Campaign. Tell the ponies to follow you. Promise them safety, food, a future. They have the tools. It’s right in front of them, right on those screens. They just need to organize. That’s it. You can do that, and you can do it without using them like somepony like Red Eye would.” I didn’t believe her, but she wouldn’t let up. “I know you can.”

“How? Why me? I’m not like you,” I said.

“Yes, you are,” she said firmly. “Because I didn’t go alone. If I did, I would have never made it. I had friends, and you do, too. If Spike weren’t asleep, he would have told you the same thing he told me about finding a special group of friends. You might not be Bearers, but you’re so much more.”

“But I’ll be on a throne. We can’t all be Prince,” I argued.

“Once you get everypony together, you can give up the throne for all I care. But if we’re ever going to see an Equestria even close to what Celestia knew, it has to start now. And you’re the only pony worth following. Please believe me.”

She was pleading with me. But still, I faltered. I wanted to turn my back on Littlepip’s request.

“I do hear you, by the way,” she interrupted me before I could speak. “Sometimes, at night, you talk to me. It’s like you’re praying.” I didn’t know what to say. “It was really awkward for me at first, because I knew I didn’t deserve that kind of attention. I’m just a mare. Not much more than a toaster repair pony. And you’ll always be just a colt form Junction Town. But I realized that I gave you hope, somehow. You can do that for other ponies, Ebonmane. I know you can because I’ve listened to you pray for a long time now. Basically, all of your prayers boil down to the same thing. You always tell me that you wish you were more like me, that you were brave or clever or compassionate, and that you weren’t so afraid. But you already are. All you’ve ever wanted was to make a difference, even a little one, as selflessly as possible. All you’ve ever asked for was to be a good pony.” I knew that wasn’t entirely true, but she seemed to read even this quiet thought. “Well, that and a mare to fall desperately in love with.” I blushed.

“What do you mean?” I ignored it. “What are you trying to tell me? That you understand me?”

“Yes,” she said. “Not completely. But sometimes I still ask myself why I’m in here. Why I was picked to be the Lightbringer. Why not somepony smarter or stronger? I made so many mistakes…”

And my heart went out to her. Even knowing all her mistakes, I had always rooted for Littlepip. Now, her belief in me was starting to work.

She spoke again. “I understand why you’re afraid. You’re afraid you’ll screw up. You’ll let everypony down. But that’s not the worst thing you could do, Ebonmane. You’re only a stallion. You’re going to screw up. But that’s what you have your friends for. This isn’t a mission for Ebonmane. This is for all of you. Together.”

“What do you need us to do?” Ironbright asked.

“I need you to be in agreement,” Littlepip answered. “So what do you say? Can you bring Equestria together? Could you be Prince Ebonmane?”

It was too overwhelming to hear my hero address me like that. But she saw something in me.

“He can,” Ironbright said.

“We can do it,” Cloud Chaser followed.

“We’re in this together,” Rosemary said in turn.

Littlepip saw something in me. My friends saw something in me.

I nodded. I had no words.

“Good,” Littlepip said. I could hear her smile. “This is a three-part plan. Part one is to get the bad guys off your back. Part two is to start a movement by opening the last few stables. Once everypony’s here, you can start organizing them, getting them to follow you. If you manage to gain even a few faithful followers, you can start rebuilding. It’ll be slow at first, but once the public realizes that you’re not out to use them, they’ll help. Then step three is to forge a society. To get everypony to work together. And you’ll have Homage to help you gain favor. As long as you ask yourself, ‘will this make Homage say something bad about me on the radio?’ you should have no problem keeping public favor. After that, it’s just dodging assassins for long enough.”

“Easier said than done,” Ironbright remarked.

“Which is why we’re going to expose them in part one.”

“How?” I asked.

I could sense Littlepip’s smug grin. “This might sound crazy, but just listen. Celestia told me about this place out in the Everfree Forest.” I had forgotten that Celestia’s consciousness was in there with Littlepip. I wondered why she hadn’t spoken.

“We have to go back there?” Rosemary asked.

“It’s close to Ponyville, so you can take the Sear through most of it. You should be okay.”

“What is it?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“It’s an underground pool that Pinkie Pie found one day. It’s magical. If you walk into it, you can clone yourself.”

We had no idea what to say to that. “Like, a carbon-copy clone?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Not quite. According to Celestia, the clones don’t have the original’s memories. Just their basic personalities. Pinkie used it to clone herself so she could hang out with all her friends at once, but her clones made clones and thing got… out of hoof.” I could only imagine the understatement.

“How are we going to control our clones?” Ironbright asked.

“Well, for starters, you’re only going to clone Ebonmane. He’s pragmatic enough where the clone isn’t going to try to clone itself. And once you have the clone, you’re going to lie low, Ebonmane.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“This part seems weird, but just stay with me. You’re going to convince the Ebonmane clone to go out in public, probably Friendship City. It might be closed off, but there’s a lot of power there. If the bad guys see you there, they just might try to kill you. You’re going to let them kill the clone, but in doing so, you can keep an eye out and find out who wants you dead. From there, Homage should have no trouble sniffing out leads and info.”

“How in the world are we going to convince the clone to let himself get killed?” Rosemary asked. “Who would agree to that?”

“That’s also why it has to be Ebonmane. He’s just so damn ready to get himself killed for the good of others. And plus, I think Ebonmane’s psyche is stable enough to accept not being the original Ebonmane, and therefore he would listen to you.”

“You can’t predict that,” Ironbright said.

“But we can. Ebonmane,” she addressed me. “If you had come into here today, seen yourself standing before you, and I told you that you were his clone, would you follow this plan?”

And I had to smile. Because I would. “Yeah. If I’m not the real me, then I technically shouldn’t exist. My life would be worthless, but this plan, this death, would give me purpose. It would literally be my sole reason for being created.”

“Exactly.” Again, I could sense Littlepip’s smug smile.

“That’s kind of morbid,” Cloud Chaser remarked.

“That’s Ebonmane for you,” Littlepip said. “Now, if you link your PipBuck into my terminal, I can give you the coordinates of the Mirror Pool. From there, Homage is going to help you organize the rest. She found the locations of the closed Stables years ago.”

“This is still really dangerous,” Ironbright said.

Littlepip sighed. “I wouldn’t send you into something that I wasn’t sure you could walk out of. And I wouldn’t ask you to do something like this if I didn’t think you were the only one who could do it.”

Rosemary spoke up. “Homage said that it wasn’t a coincidence that an alicorn was born right around when the Gardens were activated. Do you… think he was meant to be a Prince?”

Littlepip seemed to think. “Ever since the Wasteland, my faith in all that kind of stuff has been a little rocky. But to be honest, yes. I do.”

Those words weighed on me more than anypony could have ever known.

“Well,” Ironbright said finally. “I guess we should head out.”

“The sun’s almost up,” Littlepip said. “Get some rest here if you need it. I don’t have supplies for you, but you’ve got a good team. You guys are unstoppable.”

“We are, aren’t we?” Cloud Chaser agreed.

But I wasn’t ready to leave. “Will we ever see you again?” I asked her.

“I hope so,” she said. “If you get things running again, maybe I can get out of this machine and…”

“Be with Homage,” I finished for her.

There was a pause. When she spoke, I heard sadness in her voice. “But you’re not doing this for me, alright? I made my choice. I’m ready to die in here, and Homage knows that, too. Do this for yourselves. Do this for Equestria.”

“We will,” I promised.

“Good luck.”

With that, we turned, the exit opening gently. As we stepped out into the barren, dark tower, I hesitated on the threshold. Behind me lay my hero, who believed in me in a way I could never have dreamed of. Before me lay my destiny. I hadn’t been prepared for what Littlepip had to say to me, but I didn’t feel any more prepared to leave.

The Lightbringer herself had told me that I was destined to be Prince. I wanted to believe her. I wanted to have my destiny before me, to finally understand my purpose, the meaning of the events that surrounded me, the things that had always surrounded me.

I left anyway.

Chapter 11: Mirror

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And just like that the dream was over. The fantasy ended. I had done it, the thing that I could never in my wildest imaginings dreamed I would do: talk to Littlepip. Now that we left the SPP, I didn’t feel the sense of fulfillment or epiphany that I hoped I might have. I felt lost. I wasn’t any better of a stallion than before I walked into that room. I wasn’t any more equipped to lead or do any of the things required of me. I wasn’t a hero. I was afraid. I was doubtful. I was alone with my duty.

It wasn’t fair to my friends to feel this way. They had stuck with me more than was probably smart for them to do so, and I would be forever thankful of their loyalty. But no matter what Littlepip or Homage said, no matter what the hope inside me said, I knew that when it was all over, I would be the one on a throne. The opportunity to save Equestria’s future may have rested with all of us, but the future itself sat squarely in my hooves.

I have spoken of burdens before. The burden of my armor. The burden of the future it promised me. The burden that my friendships and my own actions had caused me to bear. But this was unlike any of those. Littlepip had said that I would make mistakes, and that it would be okay. And she was right. I would make mistakes. But when the unity of an entire country, when the safety, security, and peace deserved by thousands and thousands of ponies was my burden to bear, and to bear alone, I didn’t feel like I had room to make mistakes.

I had to be a perfect pony. And when I examined myself, I knew I wasn’t. Failure felt imminent.

But Littlepip believed in me. That was the only reason I continued. The only one.

The sun had risen once more as we exited the SPP, bathing the wasteland in a golden, peaceful glow. Below us, beyond the foothills, stretched the Everfree, with the Sear a jagged scar, and yet it was a bastion within the twisted trees.

Our trip through the Everfree, with our odd sleep intervals, had left us all exhausted, but now that our journey would eventually lead us to Friendship City, only a few hours away from Manehattan, we decided that our poor bodies would survive a little more pushing.

We plodded along, over the fallen branches and trunks of the Sear, and now that I had more time to think, I began to ponder about the slave-driving Red Eye and his plan to save Equestria. Littlepip’s story had given me enough of a warning not to become so idealistic in my own attempts to save Equestria, but I did wonder what kind of ponies Littlepip and Homage believed were out for my blood. I had learned enough to know that they wouldn’t be as black-and-white evil as I hoped they would be. I mean, Red Eye was pretty evil, but I doubted whoever might threaten my claim to the throne would be a slave-driving, gladiator-supporting tyrant like the stallion who tried to burn down this forest.

It seemed inevitable that I would face opposition. But would they really be as bad as Red Eye? Or would they be more insane, like Trixie? Or would they be less distinguishably evil? Would they be ponies that I would be friends with under other circumstances? Would the differences between us be only a few points of view? Or as trivial as my horn and wings?

My companions had other questions on their minds. Cloud Chaser finally opened her mouth once we had made good headway through the Sear. “So, I’ve been thinking about these clones, and just how are we supposed to tell the difference between our Ebonmane and clone Ebonmane?”

“We’ll call the clone Ebonmane Prime,” Ironbright suggested. “Like in math.”

“Well, that answers a different question, but I was thinking more along the lines of the clone tricking us or not wanting to believe it’s a clone? What then?”

“We could always give Ebonmane a scar after we clone him,” Ironbright suggested. I hoped the tone in her voice was a jesting smile that I couldn’t see under her helm.

Rosemary put a stop to this talk. “According to Littlepip, the clone should want to identify itself. Even if it doesn’t, it won’t have Ebonmane’s memories. Just ask how many brothers he has or something.”

“That’s another thing,” Cloud Chaser continued. “If it doesn’t have your memories, how are we supposed to predict its behavior? I mean, our memories make up a lot of our personalities, why we do the things we do. The clone will basically be your distilled personality, but what is that, really? How could we possibly know what anypony’s core personality is?”

“That’s… surprisingly insightful, Cloud Chaser,” Ironbright remarked.

“I’m young, not dumb! All I know is, if I didn’t have my memories, I wouldn’t be nearly as careful as I am. I learned to stay safe by living on the streets. My experience is the only thing keeping my curiosity in check. But Ebonmane’s… tougher.” Cloud Chaser’s eyes turned to me, and suddenly I had the spotlight.

“I just know what I would do if I was a clone,” I responded. “I don’t know if that’s who I am at heart or a product of my experience. If the clone is uncooperative, we can always just kill it.”

“’Him,’” Rosemary corrected. “Not ‘it.’ And how could you? You’re giving this pony life, and you would just kill him if it didn’t work out?”

“It’s not alive like we know it,” I told her. “It’s a clone.”

“He,” she stressed again.

I rolled my eyes. “He wouldn’t have any parents or any memories.”

“So he would be no different than an orphan newborn,” she pointed out.

“No,” I replied. “Foals are born with a purpose. Parents decide to bring foals into the world for the sake of making new life, of having children. We’re making this clone for a specific purpose, like a machine. I know it might look like me and sound like me, but it won’t be me. It won’t ever be me.”

There was a shroud of silence as we saw we had touched a nerve. I realized how cold it was for me to make this thing… this pony, and just send him to die. How much different was I than Red Eye? And what if this new Ebonmane, without his memories, was a better version of myself than me? What if he, being less burdened, was nobler, more insightful, less doubtful, than I was? Who was to say that I shouldn’t be the one to die?

But he wouldn’t be me. Of that much I was certain. And there was some good in me, somewhere. Something that made me as priceless an individual as anypony was. Some spark that gave me value and worthiness beyond whatever decisions I had made and would make. I believed all life was valuable simply for its own sake, and while that was hard to hold onto in a wasteland filled with the most evil ponies ever spawned, why did I have so much trouble applying that to myself?

And surely my friends thought my life was more worthwhile than a clone’s. Wouldn’t they be able to tell the difference?

Their banter fell into lighter territory as Cloud Chaser continued on her list of questions. “So what would you guys do if you had a clone or two?”

“No,” Ironbright said firmly. “Rule one of this thing is: no pony gets to make a clone other than Ebonmane, and he gets one. You heard Littlepip say what happened when Pinkie did it.”

“She didn’t actually say what happened,” Cloud Chaser pointed out.


“Wow, way to be a stick in the mud, Ironbright,” Cloud Chaser folded her arms in flight. “I wasn’t actually going to make one. It was just a hypothetical question.”

“I wouldn’t make one,” Ironbright responded. “We would both want to be in command. Too much of a hassle.”

“I’d probably hate myself,” Rosemary remarked.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Another me wouldn’t be much fun.” Cloud Chaser agreed.

“Although, I don’t think Ebonmane would mind having a few more mares hanging around him,” Ironbright said, again with what I suspected was a masked grin. I didn’t smile, although I probably should have faked it. Conversation died off very quickly after that.

By the time it was well past noon, we had reached a point where we could no longer dither about in the relative openness and safety of the Sear. Littlepip’s coordinates would take us into the thick of the Everfree Forest and there was nothing we could do about it. We were afraid to go in the first time, but each of our own brushes with near-death had only increased the severity of our fears to enter it a second time. We may have been able to survive the thornwolves and killing joke, but who says we could do it again? And what other horrors might lurk beyond those trees that we had no hope of standing against?

At least at this point, we had become reasonably good at swallowing our fear and charging headlong into danger anyway.

Once again, despite the light, albeit cloudy day outside, the world of the forest was cast in a blurry gray light, and everything teemed with a sickly green life. We had entered the trees at a point that should have allowed us to pass directly to the spot Littlepip had mentioned, but any amount of time in this forest was too long.

The growls persisted. The hazy mist surrounded us. The ever-present feeling of being watched had every hair of my coat standing on end. I could see why Rosemary deteriorated so quickly from being here. Every second of this stress was surely taking minutes off of my lifespan.

Speaking of Rosemary, knowing the effect the forest had on her, I couldn’t help but keep a closer eye on her. It wasn’t hard, considering she walked right next to me, but every so often I would ask her how she was holding up. She usually gave terse responses, like, “Fine.” Normally, such distant and obviously false replies would frustrate me, but I could see some kind of gratitude in her eyes, a thankfulness for the fact that I cared, at least a little bit, and wasn’t thinking about myself like I usually did. I half expected Cloud Chaser or Ironbright to make a joke about my attentiveness, but the heavy, tense atmosphere of the Everfree Forest wasn’t terribly conducive to joking. We all walked rather quietly, we all checked up on each other, and we all responded that we were holding up. We kept each other moving.

And we moved as a team. At numerous occasions, Ironbright and I used our PipBucks to avoid any little red dots we happened upon, taking routes that skirted around possible danger. Cloud Chaser led the charge in keeping us quiet, and her expertise in stealth saved us at least a couple of times. And when we were so focused on everything else, Rosemary was focused on us. She kept us eating and drinking. She silenced anything more than playful bickering. I know I’ve accused her of acting like my mother, but every group needs a mom, and Rosemary was a good one. When I saw this dynamic at work, when I realized how effective we were, I began to give more credence to what Littlepip had said about me not having to be Prince alone. Even if I couldn’t nail down exactly what I contributed to this group aside from my status as an alicorn, my friends never complained about me, and I did everything I could to be useful. If I had to come down on it, I think I was moral support. Rosemary greased the wheels and Cloud Chaser was comic relief, but as whiny as this sounds, I think my friends realized that if I could keep going when I was looking at a throne and assassination, then they could, too. Even when I was afraid, I did my best to show courage. When I was wounded, I shrugged it off, not denying it for my pride, but ignoring it in favor of more important objectives. And when I fell into doubt and loneliness, I found a way to rally. I think my friends took inspiration from me, but the truth was that I wouldn’t have been able to take another step if not for them.

In the heart of the woods, I had a moment of gratefulness for them.

After almost two hours of trekking and skirting, we reached our destination behind curtains of thick brambles and vines that made me worry about lurking thornwolves or killing joke. If Littlepip’s marker on our PipBucks didn’t announce it, the landmark did. No pony would have looked twice at the massive boulder that sat at the entrance to the cave that held the pool, but because we knew the pool was here, the great stone only confirmed that we had arrived.

We relaxed. Our PipBucks had shown that any danger had passed, at least for now.

Cloud Chaser whistled. “Pinkie Pie must not have wanted anypony else to find this place. It must have taken all six of them to get this thing to budge.”

“Or one Twilight Sparkle,” Ironbright remarked. “She was a renowned telekinetic, after all.”

“Well, give it a shot, Rosemary,” Cloud Chaser offered.

“Perhaps Ebonmane should,” Ironbright suggested. “He’s stronger, after all.”

Rosemary and I glanced at one another. I don’t know why we couldn’t just both lift it, but it appeared some kind of contest was in place, and since strength was involved, I knew my stallionhood was implicitly being measured. I sighed and stepped forward.

I enveloped the boulder in my blue field and heaved, but I knew immediately this thing wasn’t budging. For the sake of pride, I hefted and strained for a few more moments, but it didn’t take my friends long to figure out that I had nothing.

Cloud Chaser was smiling. “Well, you’re up Rosemary.”

Even then, I would freely admit that Rosemary was a more powerful spellcaster than me, but I believed that the boulder was way beyond the limits of even a reasonably powerful unicorn. Only a specially trained one, like Crane or Littlepip, could hope to lift this thing.

But of course, I exhaled in surprise when Rosemary managed to make it budge. It rolled and wobbled, exposing the dark hole underneath, but she couldn’t quite get it off the ground.

With the point made, I added my magic to it, and we managed to roll it to the side, allowing us access. Cloud Chaser whistled again. “Damn, Rosemary, I didn’t know you were that strong. That rock must weigh a ton!”

Rosemary was winded, but smiled gratefully. “I couldn’t have done it without Ebonmane.”

“Uh huh,” Cloud Chaser agreed. Despite Rosemary’s gracefulness, it was clear that my magical abilities were weak.

Ironbright attempted to stand up for me. “Ebonmane might not have strength, but I don’t know of any other ponies who can wield three weapons with the accuracy that he does. What he lacks in strength he makes up for in dexterity.”

“That’s what all the stallions say, right up there with, ‘this is normal size,’” Cloud Chaser said with a cocky grin. I groaned and moved toward the hole. It was time to get on with it.

Luckily for us, it wasn’t a straight drop down, or we would have had a hell of a time getting Ironbright in and out. Rather, there was an easy ramp that led into the cavern, as if somepony had carved out the entrance, rather than the cave system forming more naturally. I wonder if Pinkie and her army of clones had made the access so easy, or if more ponies lost to history had used the pool. Sadly, I would never know.

Once we were inside, we turned our lights on to illuminate the pitch black, but hardly one light was necessary. The walls and floor were crammed with bioluminescent flowers. They lined the walls, sprouting from the loose earth that was the floor. I was surprised at the peacefulness of it all, how unobtrusive it was. The cavern didn’t even have a musty, earthy smell. It just smelled like stale, unmoved air. Not even the flowers had a fragrance.

After checking with Ironbright and me for signs of danger, Cloud Chaser immediately began to explore, and there was no hope of stopping her. The cavern seemed to stretch on past the lights, but a small stream led to the pool before us. The cave wasn’t too different from the one underneath Canterlot, and the Everfree Forest wasn’t too far away from the city. How had no pony known about it? With the efforts taken to hide this place, I wondered if what we were about to do was wise.

With the size of the cavern, it didn’t take long for us to find the pool. “This must be it,” Ironbright pointed out.

Cloud Chaser was at our side, the curiosity of what was about to happen overtaking her need to explore.

“So… what do I do?” I asked.

“How should we know?” Ironbright replied.

“Littlepip said that if you walk through it, you’ll make a clone,” Rosemary reminded us.

“How can he walk through a pool of water?” Cloud Chaser asked.

“Maybe there’s some sort of incline.”

While they argued about the semantics, I stood at the very edge of the pool. It was unlike any other water I had ever seen. I couldn’t see the bottom. Even when the water was only an inch deep, I couldn’t see the sand or stone underneath. I only saw the roof of the cavern. And myself, staring back, my own reflection.

It was the strangest thing. Parts of me were off. Parts that appeared on one side of me in a mirror, like a small scar I’ve had on my eyebrow since I was young, were on the wrong side. But they were really on the correct side. And with the cavern above reflected so perfectly, the pool looked less and less like a mirror and more and more like a portal.

But it was when I examined myself even more closely that threw me off. We both held perfectly still, my reflection and me, but the gentle motions, the idle swaying and stirrings, didn’t seem to match. Neither of us blinked. We were mesmerized.

I leaned my head closer to see if it was really my reflection in the pool. He leaned closer too.

My nose touched the water, and I felt no water. I felt myself being pulled in.

I took a step. He retreated.

It wasn’t a mirror! I stepped closer and closer, realizing that I was looking into the face of my clone, but he continued to retreat, around the curve of the pool. I followed him, not wanting to lose him now that I had found him.

I walked around the edge of the pool. And when I came around on the other side, there he was.

His appearance was so sudden that we bumped noses. We backed up and rubbed out snouts in the exact same way. “Sorry,” we said automatically. At the same time. The whole experience was a little eerie.

“Holy mother of Celestia,” Cloud Chaser said quietly. “I have the best idea right now.”

The others ignored that. “Okay, what’s my name?” Ironbright asked.

“Ironbright,” I answered. The other me examined her and the others carefully.

Ironbright designated us with her hoof, “Ebonmane, Ebonmane Prime.”

“Uhh, nice to meet you?” he said. Was I really that goofy?

“This is Cloud Chaser and Rosemary,” Ironbright continued. “We’re friends.”

“Alright, but… what’s going on? Why am I here?” Ebonmane Prime asked. Well, straight to the existential point. So far so good.

“Let me explain,” I started with him. He turned to me and regarded me with such intensity that it was a little off-putting. With him being just as tall as me, it was almost intimidating, but I began to inform him anyway. I decided to just tell him the truth straight out. Sugar-coating it probably wouldn’t help with something this big. “You’re a clone of me,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said simply, lowering his gaze. “I guess that makes sense… So, you made me?” he hazarded.

I nodded. “I needed a double for something very important. So we came here and made you.”

He cast his gaze around as he processed this, but he wasn’t showing many signs of panic or distress. “What did you make me to do?” he asked.

I took a breath as I launched into my explanation. “Because I’m an alicorn, a lot of ponies out there think that I’m supposed to be Prince. That’s a big deal, because right now, the land is lawless and brutal. There is no leader to keep the peace or protect ponies. Maybe it’s supposed to be me and maybe it’s not, but either way, I have a chance to start something that could save Equestria from a lot of death and hardship.”

“So you’re going after a throne?” he asked.

I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s not about the power. It’s about helping ponies.”

He scrutinized me further. “How can I be sure that you’re telling the truth?”

I had to smile. “Well, I’m you. What would you do if you were in my position?”

He thought for a moment. “I would try to help ponies.”

I smiled bigger, and felt less distant from him. Hearing my own voice answer back to me like that was a comfort, and I stepped toward him. “You have a chance to help them.”

He nodded, and I saw a slight smile on his own face. It disappeared before his next question. “What do I have to do?”

This was the other tough part to explain. “There are a lot of ponies who would be threatened by somepony trying to gain power like that,” I began.

“Just tell me,” he interrupted. “I know it’s not good.”

Again, I was taken aback by his, my, own forwardness. But I wouldn’t hold back from myself. “We need you to bait out the ponies who would want me dead.”

He looked down again as he processed this, and asked quietly, “I’m not going to survive, will I?”

My voice wouldn’t work. I struggled to give my answer as I watched a pained expression play out over my own face. “No.”

He nodded solemnly, but understandingly. “That’s why you made me? As bait?”

“I’m afraid so,” I replied as honestly as I could.

“Why were you made?” he asked suddenly.

He stared me straight in the eye, expecting an answer. And it was tough to give him one. “I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m not like you. I can’t talk to the ones who made me. I mean, I have parents, but they just wanted to have a foal. I don’t get to know what my grander purpose is.”

He nodded again, and I wondered what thoughts were going through his mind. His expression could be so hard to read, but I knew myself well enough to know that he was thinking about a lot of things at once. “I think I’ll try to help you with that, while I can.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“There is an advantage to knowing what your purpose is, even if it’s simply to die, like mine. It’s… easy to deal with. I mean, we all die, right? At least I know that my death will matter. But you… you really don’t know why you’re here, do you?” I shook my head. I didn’t have an answer for him. “If you’re going to go for a throne, you should know,” he said. “And if anypony can help you discover what your purpose, what… our purpose is, it’ll be me.”

I faced him again, and I was already feeling such a strong bond with him. It would be hard for me to let him die, but I knew already he wouldn’t have any of my sympathy. He had his purpose and he had accepted it. There was nothing more to say, but for him to promise to help me in such a selfless way was truly touching. And to think that somewhere inside of me lived him… it was almost too much for my emotions to handle.

He turned to the rest, and I followed his gaze. They all stared, blank and curious as they watched a pony talk with himself in the most literal way possible. I imagine it was quite entertaining. “Are you all close friends with Ebonmane?” he asked.

“We haven’t known him long, but we’ve grown close over our experiences. We’ve come a long way to reach where we are,” Ironbright answered.

He nodded. “Then I’m sure we’ll get along well.”

“We should get out of here,” I suggested. “Maybe we can make it out of the Everfree Forest before night falls.”

“Is the Everfree Forest dangerous?” Ebonmane Prime asked.

Cloud Chaser laughed. “You have no idea.”

Ebonmane Prime swallowed nervously, and I realized that without my memories, he wouldn’t have any of my combat experience. “Here,” I said, handing him my pistols. “These are pretty easy to use. Just because you’re meant to die doesn’t mean you’re expendable. You should be able to defend yourself.”

“Thanks, but what about you?” he asked.

“I have all this armor and my sword,” I said, drawing my blade to show him. The look in his eyes that lusted over the beautiful blade said more about me than I would have liked. I sheathed it. “I’ll be alright,” I reassured him.

We climbed up and out of the pool, and Rosemary and I replaced the boulder, wedging it firmly. Ebonmane Prime asked for their names again, and he did it with such forwardness that one of my suspicions was confirmed: without his memories, Ebonmane Prime was a lot more confident than I was. Ironically, this did not leave me feeling good.

As we headed out of the Everfree, keeping a quick pace to beat the night, Ebonmane Prime seemed be fearless, or at least, to mask his fear well. Even though it was obvious that Cloud Chaser was burning with more questions, as I’m sure the others were, we kept quiet until we reached a safer place. After what we had encountered in the forest, we didn’t want to take our chances with more killing joke, or worse.

Luckily for us, the fact that Pinkie was so easily able to find the pool meant that it was a short walk to Ponyville. As we exited the forest, looking down on the village ruins below, I asked Ironbright, “Do you think it’s safe?”

“With that Ranger base in Stable Twenty-Two so close by? This should be a good place for us to bunk down for the night.”

We wandered through the ruins of Ponyville. It seemed that the Rangers had done some work in cleaning up after the raiders that had made camps here twenty years ago, but aside from the lack of gore, it looked like not much had changed. Most everything was still in ruins, the streets filled with rubble and debris from the decimated buildings. The schoolhouse was still intact, and despite the raider graffiti that covered the walls, it was empty, and suited our purposes. Ebonmane Prime seemed dismayed by the profanity and pornography that covered the walls and chalkboard, but he said nothing while Rosemary wiped the board with a cloth. It didn’t help. A lot of it was etched in.

I couldn’t help but wonder which ponies from before the war had been taught in this school. Applebloom? Scootaloo? Twilight was from Canterlot, but Applejack wasn’t. And what was the teacher like? It was probably a mare, and I wondered if she was young or old, kind or stingy. I wondered if she ever saw the war coming. But I shook my head of these thoughts. They would get me nowhere.

Either way, we all breathed a sigh of relief once we laid down, Rosemary starting a fire in the charred hole in the center of the empty room. She began to cook, and once Ironbright had removed her helmet, to Ebonmane Prime’s scrutiny, she began to do what repair work she could on our weapons and armor after our scrape in the forest. Cloud Chaser bugged Rosemary, but Ebonmane Prime looked about restlessly. “Is there some way I can help?”

“Ebonmane really doesn’t do much, so don’t worry about it,” Cloud Chaser said.

He looked at me with a mixture of shame and dismay. “Nothing?”

“Well, I think he’s our main healer now, but none of us are injured,” Ironbright commented. “Sometimes, not being in the way is just as useful as anything else.”

“Yeah. Just look at me,” Cloud Chaser said.

“But you’re always in the way,” Rosemary joked back. “At least Ebonmane learned to keep his hooves to himself after I yelled at him.”

“Aww, don’t be like that Rosemary,” Cloud Chaser whined.

Ebonmane Prime smiled, as I did. He was learning to appreciate our friends.

“What was that idea you had? About Ebonmane Prime?” Ironbright asked Cloud Chaser.

“Oh, yeah! Heh,” she laughed nervously once she remembered. “Would you two mind doing me a favor?”

I was immediately suspicious, flattening my ears, but Ebonmane Prime answered gullibly. “Sure. What do you want?”

Cloud Chaser looked at both of us. “Do you think you two could kiss?”

We were both taken aback. We looked at one another, then back at her, then back at each other. We were both stallions, but was it really that gay…?

“No,” I answered firmly. Ebonmane Prime shook his head in agreement. “We’re not doing that.”

“You aren’t at least curious? And it would be soooo hot,” Cloud Chaser begged.

I must admit, I was at least a little bit curious, and I could see that Ebonmane Prime was, too. “Doesn’t that break some kind of rules about clones?” he asked.

“What rules?” Cloud Chaser came back.

“The rule that says that creating a clone so you can make out with yourself is a total abuse of power,” I said finally. “He might be a clone, but he’s just as much of a pony as I am. Do you think we have no dignity?”

“Fine, fine,” she backed off. “Just asking.”

Ebonmane Prime and I rolled our eyes, but I knew Cloud Chaser better than he did. That request was a little too bold of her. But the food was nearly done, and the hunger in my stomach overrode my constant analysis of my friends’ behavior.

Rosemary and I watched eagerly as Ebonmane Prime took his first bite of tonight’s soup. Even though her Tenpony Tower supplies were dwindling, I knew she had gone all out on this pot to impress him, and I wanted to see how I had reacted when I had first tasted the small heaven that was Rosemary’s cooking. I expected his reaction to be even greater, seeing as how this was technically his first meal.

He blew on the spoon forever. I knew I wasn’t that much of a wimp; I burned my mouth for Rosemary’s food nearly every night. I wondered if he was doing it to mess with us.

But eventually he took a bite. His eyes lit up as the flavors hit his tongue. The tomato broth, spiced so expertly, mixed in with all of the cooked vegetables in such a hearty, fulfilling way, it was like I could see the stresses melt off his face as his lust for the food grew. When he swallowed he said, “This is really good, Rosemary.”

She blushed, like she wasn’t expecting such lavish praise, and replied. “Thanks,” with as much grace as she could muster.

He took another bite. “No, I really like this. I mean, is all food this good?” he asked us.

We shook our heads. “Only Rosemary can cook like that,” Ironbright said. “You’re a lucky stallion, Ebonmane Prime. Not every pony gets to taste something that good in the wasteland.”

He smiled as he took another bite. “Well, I think I can die happy then.” It was painful to watch myself put my hoof in my mouth like that, but the joke failed and an awkward atmosphere was achieved. Way to go, me.

Either way, Ebonmane Prime and I downed our bowls, finishing first as was normal for us. I couldn’t stop looking at how sloppy of an eater I was. I just gulped it down like I was some kind of animal. Hadn’t my mother raised me better?

When the meal was finished, though Ebonmane Prime was clearly impressed. “What is this made of?” he asked her.

“Oh, it’s just tomatoes, carrots, and celery with a pinch of oregano, rosemary and basil,” she said, clearly flattered by him.

“Well, it’s amazing,” he said. His inexperience was almost cute. Rosemary was clearly caught off guard by how forward he was being, but despite her blush and lack of eye contact, she didn’t appear to be uncomfortable. Just basking in the glow of how incredibly impressed with her he was. “Where did you learn to cook like this?”

I listened intently. Where had she learned to cook? I had never thought to ask her…

“Well,” she began, “after my little sister was born, my parents got really busy taking jobs to pay for everything. When we were old enough where I could look after her, my parents left me in charge of the house while they worked. I… had to do everything. Cooking, cleaning, taking care of my sister, and she was just a baby…”

“Sounds difficult,” Ebonmane Prime remarked.

She nodded. “I was nine, so it took me all day to get my chores done.”

“What about your friends?” I asked her.

She looked away from both of us. “I… I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was that age. I was home most of the time.”

Suddenly, a lot of things about Rosemary made more sense to me. Ebonmane Prime saw it too, but he didn’t say anything about it, instead offering to, “Let me help you clean up.”

Why hadn’t I ever offered? I didn’t say a word as he stood to see if he could fetch water, so we wouldn’t have to dip into our drinking supply. He came back with a pan full and helped her scrub with a rag. The two of them sat near a corner of the schoolhouse as Cloud Chaser and Ironbright set up their beds. I watched them from afar.

“You alright, Ebonmane?” Ironbright asked me.

“Yeah,” I said, tearing my eyes away from them. “It’s just weird, seeing him.”

“How so?” she asked.

“It’s like… sometimes, he does the exact same things that I would do, and it’s kind of creepy to see just how alike we are. But other times, he does things that I had never thought of doing.”

“Like offering to help with the dishes?”

“Yeah…” I admitted.

She smiled. “It’s no big deal. You can help once he’s gone.”

I looked at him again, feeling the nearness of his death. “Is it wrong for us to do this to him?”

“He volunteered for it. We didn’t lie to him. It’s just as Littlepip said it would be.”

“But…” I had trouble finding my words. “He seems… more confident than me.”

“Ebonmane, what are you saying?” Ironbright cut to the chase.

I hung my head. “Maybe it should be me.”

Ironbright gave a concerned nicker. “What on earth would make you think that?”

“He’s… he’s better than me,” I said. “He doesn’t doubt himself at all. He’s so willing to give his life because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and I’m… I’m just letting him.”

“It’s the way things are supposed to be.”

“No,” I demanded. “That’s not good enough. Why shouldn’t it be me who dies?”

She looked at me long and hard. “It’s like he said. He gets to know why he was created. You don’t. None of us do. Don’t you deserve the chance to figure that out?”

“Maybe I was created to give my life for his,” I suggested.

She shook her head. “You were made for more than that. You know what it means to have a family because you’ve had one. You know what it’s like to feel fear and pain. He doesn’t. You can empathize with the ponies of the wasteland because you’ve lived in it. You were the one who was meant to go forward. Not him. He accepts that. Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain because you’re hard on yourself.”

I nodded my head, but felt shame. Once again, my desire to disregard my own worth for the worth of another had caused me to disrespect those around me, this time our friendships. But Cloud Chaser, who had been silent throughout this conversation but clearly within earshot, had a way of bringing me around again.

“Besides, you think he’s so much better than you, but to the trained eye, you’re pretty much the same.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at him. He’s crazy about food. He’s way too ready to get himself killed. Plus, he’s still thinking with his dick, and you seemed to have learned at least a little about doing that.”

“He is not!” I said, perhaps a little too defensively.

“Are you blind?” she said. “He might as well be drooling all over Rosemary.”

I looked at the two of them, talking, smiling, even laughing a little, and was about to say that neither of us knew the first thing about flirting, let alone had the presence of mind to do it intentionally, when I realized that she was joking. I just shook my head and said, “Whatever you say Cloud Chaser.”

“Right. So stop worrying.”

We all got sleepy, but Ebonmane Prime and Rosemary kept their beds close, talking quietly until they got tired. I wondered why he had been able to make friends with Rosemary so easily when I couldn’t. Every time I had tried to extend some sort of olive branch to her, she rejected me. Did she accept him because he didn’t have the history of misunderstanding and conflict with her like I did? Or was I just that dense, that unable to perceive whatever he had done to earn her trust and favor?

I worried about it for a good portion of the night. Rosemary should know not to get too close. He wasn’t going to last long, after all. So why did she? I guessed that her heart was just too big not to. She probably figured that he would only be around for so long, so she only had so much time to make friends. I smiled at that idea. It was awfully sweet.

But my concerns about his death still lingered. I knew Rosemary would take it particularly hard. Even before he had existed, she had lectured me on his status as a pony instead of a clone. To her, he was another individual, completely separate from me, and a friend who was walking to his death. She slept peacefully, but I knew she must be experiencing a lot of turmoil about this situation. I know I would have.

Once it was all over, I resolved to help her through it. In some way, he was still me, and I decided that if I was ever going to be friends with Rosemary and experience this joyful thing that Ebonmane Prime now seemed to treasure, I wouldn’t find a better opportunity than this. It might not be exactly the same for her, but hopefully I could imitate him close enough where she wouldn’t feel the loss so strongly. I hoped I could pick up the pieces.

Ironically enough, the bare schoolhouse floor provided me with more restful sleep than I had gotten in what felt like an eternity. Things were normal for once. We woke up when the sunlight was bright enough to rouse us. We ate breakfast. We bathed with the water left in the fountain Ebonmane Prime had found outside. We weren’t constantly scanning radars or complaining about injuries, even though mine still ached something fierce.

Ebonmane Prime and Rosemary still stuck pretty close together, and Rosemary looked happier in the morning than she had ever since I had met her. While I was glad that her new friend made things so much better for her, I still had lingering worries from last night about how his death would affect her.

But I knew she wasn’t blind and she wasn’t stupid. She was well aware of the circumstances, and for whatever her reasons, she chose to ignore them. I wasn’t about to question her decision.

“So now where are we headed?” Ebonmane Prime asked after helping clean up breakfast.

“Manehattan,” Ironbright answered as she put on her helmet. “It’s a big city, but you’re going to a smaller one within it called Friendship City.”

“It’s a city within a city?” he asked.

“It’s on a small island and it’s guarded,” Ironbright explained.

“About that,” Cloud Chaser piped up. “I was thinking that maybe it might not be a good idea to walk around, you know, out in the open with two Ebonmane’s in the same place?”

“You think we should split up?” Rosemary asked.

“It would be risky,” Ironbright commented.

I had to agree with Cloud Chaser. “It’s pretty smooth sailing from here to Manehattan, and if we’re seen anywhere near each other, our whole plan could be ruined. It’s riskier not to split up.”

“What will you do in the meantime, Ebonmane?” Rosemary asked.

“I should probably lay low,” I suggested. “Find a place to hide while he goes on ahead.”

“If we’re splitting up, we should have somepony with both of them. Even if you’re lying low, something bad could happen, Ebonmane.”

I nodded in agreement. “So who goes where?”

“You pick,” Cloud Chaser said. “This whole thing is your mission, and you should be guarded by somepony you trust to guard you.”

The others looked to me, implicitly agreeing. I began to pace a little as I thought about who to send where. Ironbright should go with Ebonmane Prime, for sure. She would have the best chance of identifying and tracking whoever might assassinate him, and if things turned bad, she would have the best chance of walking away unscathed.

That left Cloud Chaser and Rosemary. As worried as I was about Rosemary’s new friendship with Ebonmane Prime, I didn’t have the heart to tear them apart just yet. Besides, she brought him some comfort as well. His last moments should be with a friend. Plus, Ironbright could protect Rosemary better than Cloud Chaser could. And lying low was likely to be boring. Cloud Chaser would at least be fun to talk to.

“Ironbright and Rosemary should go with Ebonmane Prime,” I decided. “Cloud Chaser and I will find a spot to hide until you return.”

They all nodded silently, accepting my judgment as sound.

Ponyville wasn’t too far away from civilization, and we knew that we were parting ways as soon as we left the schoolhouse. We exchanged hugs, even me and Ebonmane Prime.

“We’re going to stop at this Tenpony Tower place to see if we can’t get more information from Homage,” he told me. “While I’m there, I think I’ll pick up a diary or something. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about me and you and why you’re here. I want you to be able to know if I figure something out before…” he trailed off.

“Yeah,” I understood. “That’s really kind of you. Thanks.”

He nodded. “You’d do the same for me.”

There was an awkward pause. I felt a lump in my throat. “I guess this is goodbye. If things go according to plan I… I doubt I’m going to see you again.”

He shook his head. “It’s not like that. I’m you.”

I shook my own head. “You’re not me. You’re special.”

“No. You made me. I’m a part of you. I’m somewhere in there,” he said, touching my armored chest. “As long as you can keep that alive… I’ll never be gone.” He was fighting back tears.

We hugged again, more tightly, and I wouldn’t let myself fight them any longer. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to him.

“Don’t be. I’m okay. Really. Just be ready to do your part.”

We didn’t want to let go. But somehow, we did. We wiped our eyes, and nodded once more to each other, wearing a slight smile. I promised myself I wouldn’t fail him.

And just like that, they were gone, walking off into the gray, cloudy horizon of the empty wasteland.

Cloud Chaser and I agreed to leave an hour behind them, and I was glad for the time. I needed to shake off my emotions. I needed a moment to grieve for Ebonmane Prime.

I only shed a few more tears. He wouldn’t want me to cry, I told myself. And, I decided that a part of him was right. We were special in the bond we shared. We may not have been one and the same, but he was a part of me. He was my heart. In that sense, mourning him was strange, but I was able to pull myself together as I swore oaths to keep him alive as best as I could. He deserved it. We deserved it. I deserved it.

When I returned to Equestria, I noticed that Cloud Chaser had been awfully quiet. She sat in a corner and fiddled with her knife, and her expression wasn’t too happy. “Ready to go?” I asked. It was about time.

“Yeah. Fine,” she agreed angrily. She sheathed her knife and pushed past me.

“Woah,” I said. “Is something wrong?”

“No, Ebonmane. Nothing’s wrong,” she replied impatiently.

“Is this about Ebonmane Prime?”

She stopped in her tracks on the schoolhouse steps, and after a long pause she whipped around, her face full of rage. “I swear to fucking Celestia’s holy sun, you have to be the most stupid, imperceptive, dense, stallion I could have ever come across in this entire fucking wasteland!”

“What the hell did I do?”

This only made her angrier. “You sent Rosemary off with Ebonmane Prime. Like an idiot.”

“She likes being around him. I wasn’t going to tear that up when he only has so much time left.”

She made a noise of pure exasperation. “No! Don’t you get it!? Or did Luna descend from on high and shit moon rocks into your head for brains!?”

Cloud Chaser was getting awfully adept at the cursing. “Get what?”

“ROSEMARY LIKES YOU!” she roared at me.


“She’s liked you ever since she laid eyes on you! Ever since she met you, she can’t stop thinking about you! And the first chance you get to be alone with her, to prove to her that you’ve ever really noticed her, that you even care just a little bit, you send her away, like you’d rather be alone with me, like you still have feelings for me!”

“But I don’t have feelings for you! Not anymore!” I insisted.

“Well, you could have fooled me!” she screamed. With a huff, she sat down on the school steps. After a few moments of heavy silence, I realized it was okay to sit next to her.

“Why didn’t either of you say anything? Why did you let it get so far between you and me?” I asked her.

She sighed. “Look, we both liked you when we saw you. You were noble and brave and kind and so damn hot,” she admitted. I almost blushed. “We decided that we weren’t going to ruin our friendship by fighting over you, though. If you decided that you liked either of us, the other one would accept your attraction.”

“And I fell for you and not her,” I finished.

“Yep,” she said. “Because I was skinny and young and a flirty whore, and…” she hit her head a few times. I had no idea she was beating herself up about this, or that this had even been going on.

“Ever since you met me?” I asked.

“Mmhmm,” she confirmed. “Right when we laid eyes on you.”

“So… what happened between us, then? Did you get guilty or something?” I asked.

“No, it’s not like that,” Cloud Chaser said. “Even though I was being a total bitch to Rosemary. She liked you way more than I did, and deep down I knew how much better for her you were than for me, but… I just didn’t want to be alone,” she admitted quietly.

“It’s alright. I’m sure Rosemary forgave you,” I said.

She nodded, but said, “That’s not the point.”

“Then what happened when I kissed you?” I asked quietly.

She took a deep breath. “I just… I started thinking about what was happening. I got really excited, because you’re, like, way hotter than I ever expected my first kiss to be, and I… I wanted to touch you and do…”

“I get it.”

“But when I thought about, like, touching you, and stuff… suddenly I didn’t really want to.”

“What do you mean?”

She shifted nervously as she tried to explain. “You weren’t as soft as I hoped you were. You were a stallion, and your skin, your body, even your lips were kind of hard and sturdy, you know? And then I thought about… other parts, and…”

“Cloud Chaser,” I put the pieces together. “Are you not attracted to stallions?”

She turned away from me. “I am. I still like to look.”

I spoke gently. “You’re not sexually attracted, though, are you?”

She shook her head.

“Do you think you’d prefer a mare?”

After a long pause, she nodded.

She turned back to me with tears in her eyes. “Am I weird?”

“No,” I said firmly. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” She looked in need of comfort, and I opened my arms for a hug, which she accepted. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“I’m only just coming to terms with it. It’s not easy. You and Rosemary are the only ones who know.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I promised her.

She released me and met my gaze again. “You really don’t think there’s anything wrong with me?”

I shook my head. “Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but there are a lot of really awesome mares who are lesbians, like Homage and Littlepip. And there was nothing wrong with them.”

She wiped her eyes. “I knew you’d bring them up.” A pause. “But it’s still nice to hear.”

I wrapped a wing around her. “It’s alright. I’m glad you told me.”

“Sorry I led you on like that. You were really head over heels for me, weren’t you?”

I looked away as my old feelings began to resurface. “I wasn’t head over heels. I wasn’t in love, I was just…”

“You were acting like a stallion who’s crazy about mares,” she said with a smile. “It’s alright.”

“At least we can check out mares together like you and Rosemary do with stallions,” I suggested.

She shook her head. “I would, but Rosemary wouldn’t like that. She’s already the jealous type, and now that you know there’s no excuse.”

There was another long pause before I spoke. “She really likes me, huh?”

Cloud Chaser nodded. “What about you? How do you feel about her?”

As I considered Cloud Chaser’s question, a lot of things came into the light for me. Rosemary only acted distant or angry when I showed favor to other mares over her. She was upset that I noticed them and not her, and I could understand her reaction. I had felt the same things myself. She pushed me away because she didn’t want me to hurt her anymore, yet at the same time, I understood how she knew so much about me, how perceptive she seemed, and why she had taken to Ebonmane Prime so well.

And I realized that all this time, Rosemary had her eyes on no pony else but me. Even when I had ignored her. Even when I had hurt her in a myriad of ways, she had always looked out for me. She held me when I had the vision about Shining Armor and Cadence. The surprising burst of power Rosemary created when she killed Thunderfall made sense: she was so afraid of losing me that her emotions fueled her magic. And now all the things that she had said at my hearing to become a Ranger, and especially the things that she didn’t say… she may have understood who I was, at my heart, better than any of my friends. And it was apparent that she had harbored these feelings for a long time, just like Cloud Chaser had said, but it was also clear that even when I was chasing after another mare, Rosemary still did her best for me. It wasn’t about finding love for the little unicorn. It was always about me.

“She’s perfect for me, isn’t she?” I questioned.

“A match made in heaven,” Cloud Chaser said.

“I don’t deserve her,” I concluded.

“A lot of ponies would say that you’re the one who’s out of her league,” she said with a small smile. “What makes you think that you’re the one who doesn’t deserve her?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter what I look like. She’s… she’s a wonderful mare. She’s kind, thoughtful, smart, devoted.”

“She’d be a good wife and mother,” Cloud Chaser said.

And I had to agree. Rosemary would fulfill those roles perfectly. “And I think she really understands me. Somehow.”

Cloud Chaser nodded. “Some days, I don’t know what she sees in you. But she sees something, so I think I’d have to agree with you.” Cloud Chaser stood.

“What do I have to do?” I asked. “How can I make all this up to her?”

My pegasus friend smiled at me. “Just go after her. When all this is over with, just sweep her off her feet. Tell her you’re sorry. Tell her you were stupid. Tell her exactly how you feel.”

“I…” I examined my feelings. This was all developing really fast. “I don’t know what I feel.”

“Love, Ebonmane. It’s called love,” Cloud Chaser explained warmly.

I shook my head. “It’s too soon. I just figured out that I liked her a few moments ago.”

“Like you can control love. It finds you Ebonmane. You, maybe more than any pony I’ve ever met, are a slave to your heart, and you, young stallion, are falling hard. You can’t change that any more than I can change my attraction to mares.”

I looked up at her, and she smiled at me. I found myself smiling back. “I want to tell her.”

“Well then, we had better go. We’re late already, and when this is over with, she’s going to need a big, hunky shoulder to cry into.”

“It’s not funny,” I said.

“She’d be so upset, she’d probably want to spend every minute with you.”

“Cloud Chaser.”

“The only way to comfort her would be with hot, raunchy sex.”

“Cloud Chaser!”

She was laughing her ass off. “Alright, alright. Sweet Celestia, you two are so touchy about it. Like I said: match made in heaven.”

We set out. A little more than an hour ahead of us was a pony who could have literally been my heart walking beside the pony to whom I wanted to give my heart. Cloud Chaser was right, even though I was hesitant to admit it at the time. I was in love. I wouldn’t admit it because I believed that love should develop slowly, but Rosemary and I, despite our clashes, were friends. Even though I hadn’t noticed her before, I noticed her now, and all of the little things she did, every habit and quirk making me smile warmly. I was certain that Ebonmane Prime was in love with her, too, and I knew that as long as I pursued these feelings that burned in my chest, he would be alive.

Ebonmane Prime had been a brief but strange experience for me. Without realizing it, he had played out all of my habits, my fears, and my emotions before I even knew about them. He had fallen in love with Rosemary before I had realized how perfect we were for one another. And yet, even though he was the core of me, my heart and my soul, I didn’t see myself reflected so perfectly in him.

The best parts of me were reflected in Rosemary’s love. My character was in her quiet devotion. My soul was in the tears she had wiped from my eyes. My life was in the hooves that had saved it. My love was in her.

I fell in love so fast. But for the first time in my life, it felt right. I knew where I needed to be.

Chapter 12: The Iron Maiden

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“It looks just like him,” Homage commented, her red eyes gazing at the mirror-likeness that was Ebonmane Prime. “And you’re sure you want to go through with this?”

Ebonmane Prime nodded. “Absolutely. It’s what I was made to do.” His voice ringed true with such confidence that Homage exhaled, clearly impressed.

“Littlepip’s plans don’t usually go this well,” Homage said. She paced around her suite for a bit, deep in thought.
“Do you think it’ll work?” Ironbright asked. “Even if he is ready and willing, that doesn’t mean they’ll take the bait, whoever you think they are, if they even exist.”

“What happens if no one tries to kill him?” What then?” Rosemary asked, moving out from behind Ironbright.

“One step at a time. That’s for the two of them to decide,” Homage answered. There was another long pause as she decided on what to say. Finally, she turned to her guests. “There’s a parade in a few days in Friendship City to honor the twentieth anniversary of the Enclave’s attack. If Ebonmane Prime presents himself to the ponies in charge, they’ll likely put him in it. If we’re lucky, they’ll make a huge deal about it. Announce it all over the city. I’ll keep an eye on things and create radio coverage as well. That should be enough bait for the assassins.”

Ironbright cut in. “Who says they’re going to fall for it? They might think we’re setting a trap. The real Ebonmane would have to be smart to survive what he did, and they know I’m working with them. And I’ve probably got a damn file of my field exploits. I’m shrewd, and they’ll know it.”

“Do we really think they’re going to be this smart?” Rosemary asked. “We don’t know who they are, so we don’t know what level of planning to expect. They could be no better than thugs for all we know.”

“It’s best not to underestimate them. Anypony who would try to kill Ebonmane, the Prince of Equestria, would have to have some kind of control over the land, a lot of power they don’t want to lose to some upstart alicorn colt. They’ll have a plan,” Homage answered.

“I’ll try to get into the parade myself as his guard. If he’s alone, they might be suspicious.” Ironbright then turned to Rosemary. “You should get a bird’s eye view of the parade. You just might be able to peg anypony who attacks Ebonmane.”

“But…” Rosemary hesitated. “What happens if we can save Ebonmane Prime?”

“It’s not a priority,” the quiet stallion answered. “My death will buy the real Ebonmane a lot of time and space to plan a counter-assault against the ponies who tried to kill him. It’s best that way.”

Rosemary’s gaze sank, and Ebonmane gently extended a wing to comfort her. She looked back up at him, hope and despair swimming in her eyes.

“I’m beginning to think the mark of a hero is suicidal tendencies,” Homage said with a smirk, trying to lighten the mood. “It’s a good plan. Let’s just hope we can pull this off.”

Homage turned and went into her room before she let her guests go to bed. She came back out with a plain white orb floating in her levitation. “I had a blank one saved so that I could make a memory-autobiography when I thought I was starting to kick the bucket. Life Bloom was going to take the best bits and pieces from my life and put them in here. But I hear your magic is pretty wild, Rosemary. If you’re lucky, you just might be able to learn the spell. Then Ebonmane Prime’s life, as short as it is, doesn’t have to be lost.”

Homage offered Rosemary the orb. They all turned to her, and with a steely glance, she accepted it.


My brief moment of elation quickly deflated into a very real amount of tension. Yes, I was still soaring about Rosemary, her affection, and the knowledge that I too had feelings for her, but my mind was quick to ask the question, “Now what?” And I wasn’t sure how to answer. Should I just tell Rosemary straight out that I wanted to be with her? Would that be too strong? But I knew she would likely still be down after the loss of Ebonmane Prime. Should I give her time? Could I even wait that long? Or would she want me to comfort her?

With Cloud Chaser privy to my feelings, I had no qualms about letting each and every one of these little worries out. At first, she did her best to answer my questions and help me formulate some sort of plan to get us together, but after a while she got tired. I stopped my barrage when she simply stopped mid-flight, turned around, and said, “Ebonmane. Chill. The fuck. Out.”

“Sorry,” I replied. I did my best to swallow my nervousness. Despite my frantic planning, I didn’t have a clue about how to confess my feelings to Rosemary. I resolved to put such thoughts aside.

Which left me locked inside my own mind once again. Cloud Chaser and I kept an easy pace along the scraggly wastes until we hit the barren, debris-strewn parts outside of Manehattan. It had taken a couple days, but the closer we neared the metropolitan ruins, the quieter I became. For some reason, I felt more than just romantic tension within me. Even though I knew my part of the plan was to simply lie low and stay put, I was still nervous. Would this plan of Littlepip’s really work? Were there really ponies after us that we could bait into this trap? And what if something went wrong? By the time I would receive word of any of my friends being hurt or anything going wrong, it would be far too late to do anything. Rosemary and Ironbright were out there alone. They had each other, sure, but if this foretold enemy caught wind of our plan, it would be them walking into a trap.

Once night fell, we stopped. Rosemary had rationed out dry food to us, and we had been assured that they were ready to eat, no cooking necessary, but I think Rosemary was too terrified of what might happen if we tried. At any rate, they were pretty dry and bland, but we were too busy scanning for raiders. Learning from my first mistake with Silver Bell, we didn’t even bother to make a fire.

Not much was said even as we tucked in to sleep. I could tell the silence had been making Cloud Chaser uneasy, but I wasn’t sure what to talk about that wouldn’t only increase her stress. But she was just as bothered as I was, and she broke the ice as we lay on our backs, watching the stars. “You think they’re going to be alright?”

“Worried about Rosemary?” I returned quietly.

“Both of them. Rosemary’s my best friend, yeah, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to Ironbright either.”

“They’ll be fine,” I reassured her. “Ironbright thinks of everything. You should know that her most dangerous weapon is her brain. If she thought they were walking into a trap, she’d prepare for it.” I had been telling myself that all evening, but I did my best to sound like I believed it.

“There’s just so much that could go wrong…” she sighed. “But I guess there’s no use worrying about it.”

“Right,” I said. “We should just go to sleep.”

But she wasn’t done yet. She rolled over to continue the conversation, and I turned my head to look at her. “So what else has been eating at you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Oh, come on. I know you’ve got more going on up there than just Rosemary.” I didn’t know how to respond to that. My fears about this mission were too numerous to express. What was I supposed to say? In the silence that I tried to find my words, Cloud Chaser filled them in. “Oh sweet Celestia, you are still thinking with your dick.” I looked at her to retaliate, but she was already chuckling to herself. “Okay, share. You’ll sleep better.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I’m worried about both of them, just like you are.”

“What happened to ‘they’ll be fine?’”

“I didn’t want you to be worried.”

“My hero.” The sarcastic bite I expected was absent. “Look, we both know this sucks. Sending them into the fire like this… but if something goes wrong, they’ll come to us, right?”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “If we’re holding Thunderfall’s old spot, it should be a safe place for them if things turn around.”

She nodded. But we both knew that answer wasn’t satisfactory. Cloud Chaser sighed, “Oh, what’s the use? All we can really do is wait it out, I guess.”

“Yeah. It’s only for a few days. We’ll survive.”

“I guess I can’t blame you for planning your imminent wedding. That’s gotta be easier than worrying.”

“Not really,” I said. “You’re the first filly I’ve ever even tried to get close to, and I was a wreck during that.”

“Really?” she asked. “You seemed normal to me.”

“Well, you’ve never seen me at a time when I wasn’t stressed out of my mind.”

Cloud Chaser laughed. “I’d pay caps to see you relaxed.”

“I’d pay caps to be relaxed,” I answered.

“What did I even do to have you so worried?”

I shook my head. “It wasn’t really you, per se. Just fillies.”

She waved her hoof in dismissal. “At least you’re cute. Rosemary’s only got eyes for you.”

There was a pause. The exact same idea hit us at the same time. We shared a glance, then turned away.

Cloud Chaser again broke the silence. “I mean, she likes you for more than your looks.”

“Like what?” I tested.

“Like…” she huffed. “Look, even if she does love Ebonmane Prime, you’re the same fucking pony.”

I shook my head. “We’re not.”

“Well, it’s not going to matter, is it? He’s a dead stallion walking. You’re not. She’ll end up with you.”

As harsh as what Cloud Chaser had said was, my next words were harsher. “Doesn’t mean she prefers me over him.”

“Damn,” Cloud Chaser said. “And I thought you didn’t get any more depressing.”

Another pause. But there was nothing more to say. Except, “Goodnight Cloud Chaser.”

“Yeah. Goodnight Ebonmane.”


“Morning, Ebonmane,” Ironbright said gruffly. Ebonmane Prime maneuvered through Homage’s furniture to sit at the breakfast table in her suite.

“I’m not Ebonmane, remember?” he said as he pulled back his chair. Ironbright rolled her eyes. “Does he normally sleep in this late?”

“Oh yeah,” Rosemary said. “On the road he’s fine. But once you get him in a bed…”

Ironbright smirked as she sipped her coffee. “I’d bet you’d know all about him in bed.”

Rosemary spluttered, blushing fiercely as she tried to defend herself. But Ironbright just laughed.

However, Ebonmane Prime tried to change the subject, at least for Rosemary’s sake. “Where’s Homage?”

“Doing her morning broadcast,” Ironbright answered. “Cup of coffee?”

He eyed the beverage suspiciously. “Does Ebonmane like it?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? This is the only cup I’ve had that’s even halfway decent. Most places just sell watered-down shit. Homage is serious about her mornings.”

Ironbright slid her mug over, and Ebonmane took it carefully. After examining it, he took a sip. Then he coughed. “No. He would not like that.”

“Cream and sugar?” Rosemary offered.

He shook his head. “I’m not sure you can fix that.”

His two friends smiled. “Well, eat something. We’re on the road to Friendship City today.”

He nodded and began to eat. Toast, fruit, even milk. The three of them speculated how Homage managed to get her hooves on such luxuries, but in the end, it was small talk. Small, but happy.

But when they were finished, they weren’t leaving just yet. Ironbright stood from the table. “Well, I’m off to pick up ammo. These miniguns are a bitch to load. Meet me back here when you’re ready, Rosemary.”

“What are you doing?” Ebonmane Prime asked.

“I was going to see if Life Bloom might be able to teach me that memory spell.”

“Mind if I join you?” he offered. With a smile she accepted.

While I normally might have been content to walk in silence with nothing better to say, Ebonmane Prime insisted on conversation once the silence became heavy. As he peered at all the finery of Tenpony Tower, the shops, the machinery, the clean clothing, he asked Rosemary, “So, where do you live?”

“Oh, it’s this small town called New Appleloosa. It’s kind of a mess, especially after the Enclave attacked, but I guess it’s home.”

“Who’s the Enclave?”

“Pegasi military. They attacked because they were tricking their citizens into believing everypony was dead down here, and if they came down they would figure out that the military lied to them so they wouldn’t have to come down from the clouds. The Enclave figured it was simply easier to kill us all. It was Littlepip, Homage’s lover, who stopped them by going into the SPP and breaking up the clouds.”

“But what about the pegasi? Doesn’t that mean that Littlepip kind of ruined their lives?”

Rosemary shrugged. “You’d have to ask them. Most are okay with it. Some are still resentful. Each one’s different. It was twenty years ago, after all.”

Ebonmane Prime nodded. “So if it’s such a mess after the attack, why did you move there?”

She blushed a little. “I didn’t move there. I was born there. I’ve… never left.”

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Twenty-two. The attack… it’s one of my first memories.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She shook her head. “I’ve never really told the others.”

Understandingly, he changed topics. “So where would you go now that you’ve seen the world?”

“Wow, I don’t know,” she answered. She examined her surroundings as they stepped into the elevator. “Not here. Too expensive. If Ponyville gets on its hooves, maybe I could live there. I don’t think I’d like a big city like Manehattan.”

“Well, maybe you’ll like Friendship City.”

“What about you?” Rosemary returned.

Ebonmane Prime smiled politely. “I think that’s a question for Ebonmane.”

She nodded. The silence resumed, but it wasn’t too far until Life Bloom’s office.

Life Bloom accepted Rosemary within, leaving Ebonmane Prime to wait outside.

A thin, black stallion with a blue mane approached him. “Feeling better?”

Ebonmane Prime assumed this was somepony Ebonmane knew, but he didn’t know how to respond. “Yes, thanks,” he decided.

The stallion turned his head. “Do you remember me?”

“I… I’m afraid not.”

He smiled. “I’m Blue Breath. Life Bloom’s… partner,” he said.

“Oh,” Ebonmane Prime nodded, a little taken aback. His only experience with relationships was with Rosemary. It had never occurred to him that two stallions could be together. But he set aside his shock as elegantly as possible. “Sorry.”

Blue Breath shook his head. “Not surprised. I forget a lot of my patients. Unless they’re alicorns, of course. With the dangerous things I hear you’ve been up to, you must see a different doctor every week. We probably all look the same to you.”

Ebonmane Prime laughed. “How have you been?” he asked.

“Well,” Blue Breath answered. “We live in good times.”

“Why’s that?”

Blue Breath paused before answering with a smile. “Because of you, that’s why.”

“Me?” Ebonmane Prime tried to piece his meaning together. “You mean… you think I’m a Prince?”

“Life Bloom thought you might feel that way, but I’m sure you’ll warm up to the idea.”

Ebonmane Prime regained his composure. “I’ll try my best.”

“Life Bloom saw something good in you,” Blue Breath said as he sat next to the young alicorn. “And word from Homage is that you’re from Junction Town. Were you good friends with Calamity and Velvet as well?”

“…Yes,” Ebonmane Prime blurted out.

Blue Breath only smiled brighter. “I know times are tough right now, but Life Bloom and I are sure this is a sign. You don’t have to worry. You have the Elements behind you.”

No pony had told Ebonmane Prime about the Elements of Harmony. So he simply nodded and said, “Thanks.”

Blue Breath stood and opened the door to Life Bloom’s office. “I’ll let you know if they’re close to finishing up.”

Ebonmane Prime had to wait for at least a half hour longer, but it was Rosemary who exited first. “How did it go?” he asked her.

“Great,” she nodded with a tired expression. He stood to stand by her.

Life Bloom followed her out. “I would get her something to drink, juice or something. Learning magic as fast as she does takes a lot out of a pony.”

“Is she alright?” he inquired, clearly worried.
“Of course,” Life Bloom answered. “In fact, I’ve never seen a pony quite like her. Very sensitive, this one. A natural spellcaster. Twilight Sparkle would have been very proud.”
Rosemary glowed, but Ebonmane Prime didn’t take his eyes off of her. Not only did he have no idea who Twilight Sparkle was, but it was one of the rare moments where Rosemary felt good about herself. Ebonmane Prime was aware of her self-esteem, and he counted himself lucky to be able to witness a happy moment like this in her life.
Nothing was said as they headed back. There was no need. Ebonmane Prime had plenty of questions, but there was no use explaining it all to him. He didn’t want to say something and spoil Rosemary’s good mood, but he did turn and smile at her often, offering his support. She smiled back.
When they met up with Ironbright, she was already suited up. Behind her dark visor, she asked, “How’d it go?”
“Great,” Rosemary answered. “Ebonmane Prime’s life won’t be forgotten.”

Ironbright nodded. “Well, better get everything set. We probably won’t be back this way for a while, so get your last bath if you want it.”

“Bath?” Ebonmane Prime asked.

They both turned slowly. “You don’t know what a bath is?” Ironbright asked dumbfounded.

He shook his head. “I’ll show him,” Rosemary offered, she grabbed his horn with her magic, yanking him toward Homage’s bathroom. She didn’t bother explaining until she had turned the faucet, the porcelain tub filling with steamy water. “You wash yourself in these. This is soap,” she levitated a bar. “It’s very rare, so make sure to scrub your entire body with it because you probably won’t get another chance.”

“Well, it’s kind of a waste then, isn’t it?” he asked. “I won’t get another chance anyway.”

Rosemary frowned, taken off guard. “Do it anyway. The real Ebonmane is probably filthy right now, and he’d kill to get a bar of soap. At least soak in the water. It’s very nice.”

The tub was nearly full, and Ebonmane Prime stepped in as Rosemary headed toward the door. “Where are you going?” he asked.

She blushed. “I… Most ponies bathe alone. It’s kind of a… private thing, you know?”

“Alright,” he said. He didn’t quite understand, but he let her close the door.

Ebonmane Prime had never examined his body before. But he had a good chance as he rubbed himself down with the soap, and I swear he had nearly the same thoughts I did. We were strong, but a little on the shrimpy side. Our coats were nice enough, but our fur had a tendency to be uneven, thicker in some places and patchy in others. When I watched the orb, it was almost a little embarrassing to watch him examine more sensitive parts of himself, but he didn’t share this sentiment. Those parts weren’t ‘private parts.’ They were just parts, and he clearly didn’t understand them very well.

I tell you this because as I watched the orb, I wondered to myself if we were really that different. We had the same bodies, but where it was apparently my destiny to use my body for different things, to be a Knight and Prince and hopefully a father, Ebonmane Prime would only understand his body as one thing: a tool to be used.


I kicked the door down to Thunderfall’s hideout with my guns drawn. Even after we cleared it out, there was no guarantee that ponies, even raiders, had not moved back in. We weren’t going to take any chances.

With Cloud Chaser behind me, we swept every room and every hallway. Nothing. “What gives?” I asked.

“Like anypony’s going to squat in a place that got hit by the Rangers,” Cloud Chaser said. “To the raiders, this place is probably cursed.”

Cloud Chaser was feeling ironic, insisting that we set up in the room where we killed Thunderfall. Soldiers from Tenpony Tower must have been in to clean up the bodies, but we still found the room streaked with blood, as the rest of the hideout was. I would have liked to occupy a less red room, but the others were filled with bolts and chains, and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with those next to me. So we laid down our blankets in here. At least the gore was dry.

As we sat down to rest, I turned on my radio, and we waited until we heard DJPon3’s voice come on.

“This is your host, DJPon3, brining you up to speed with the afternoon news. As a lot of you will probably remember, we’re nearing the twentieth anniversary of the Enclave attack on Friendship City. To commemorate that terrible day, the city has decided to put on a parade, the first one to be seen in Equestria in decades. Given the recovery the city’s made, coupled with rumors of a new Prince, who may or may not be in attendance, the city feels that Equestria has come far from its war-torn days, and wishes to honor the lives given to achieve what peace we’ve earned today, as well as encourage further efforts for safety and unity. Now, I know I’m often the bearer of bad news, but let me be the first to agree with their stance.

“But, as much as I’d like to end there, I do have to bear some bad news. Raiders have come after Fillydelphia again, and while I haven’t yet gotten any reports of kidnapping, each attack means more lives lost, and even if the raiders do eventually give up and fizzle out, the cost will be too high. I wish I had better info on how local Rangers plan to handle the situation, but they’ve been a little too quiet for my tastes. I’ll give you more on that as soon as I hear more…”

The report went on for a while. I listened intently. I wanted to go check in with the Rangers in Fillydelphia, and I knew that Ironbright would as well, especially if they weren’t doing their jobs as well as they could. I had never been to Fillydelphia, but now that I was getting used to thinking of myself as Prince, I knew I’d have to go sometime, especially if I was going to help them. I couldn’t leave any part of Equestria in the dark.

More music came. Then more news bits. Cloud Chaser listened to the music, roaming around the hideout occasionally when she got bored, especially around the news, but the news was the part I waited for. If I was going to be Prince, I felt like I should know my country. My people. What they were suffering through. What they were like. I could think of no better source to inform me than Homage.

But I didn’t say this to Cloud Chaser, and she didn’t catch it. Eventually, she got too restless. “I’m going to do a scouting flight. Want to come?” she asked.

“I’m alright. This armor’s going to take a while to get off,” I told her.

“I don’t know why you didn’t take it off earlier. You haven’t flown in days. I can’t imagine how badly you want to stretch your wings.”

“I’m not all pegasus. I don’t use my magic a whole lot, either. It’s different,” I said. I did miss flying, but the news was more important.

She simply shrugged, dove out of a window, and left. I sat and waited. I listened.

This went on for days. And every song, every report told me more about Equestria, and brought me closer to the one piece of news I didn’t want to hear but knew would come: the death of Ebonmane Prime.


“You didn’t tell me it was inside a statue,” Ebonmane Prime said on the ferry. It was a small boat that carried them across the sound to Friendship City, but it was a large, golden statue carrying a torch that housed their destination.

“I wanted to see the look on your face,” Ironbright answered. “Priceless, by the way.”

He couldn’t help but grin widely, almost laughing at the magnitude of it all. “How do they live in there?”

“Just wait and see,” Ironbright answered.

At the docks, the guards searched the newcomers, but they stopped when they saw Ebonmane Prime. “Uhh, are you…?”

“I’m Ebonmane,” he replied.

“Prince Ebonmane?” they asked.

He hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”

“W-Would you come with us? I think the mayor’s going to want to speak with you,” the stallions asked. As they headed into the statue, Ebonmane couldn’t help but notice one of them was a pegasus. “Do a lot of pegasi live in Friendship City?”

“Well, it’s safe,” the guard answered. “Only other place you can raise a family is Junction Town, but that’s a little small. We pegasi are spread all over the place.”

“Is there a lot of bad blood between the ponies and pegasi here?” he continued.

“Sometimes, but probably no worse than anywhere else,” he answered.

His companion, an earth pony, spoke up. “The Enclave’s dead. Basically, all pegasi are either citizens or ex-Enclave who turned their backs on what happened. In my opinion, the pegasi are one of the biggest things making the wasteland good.” The two smiled at one another, and the warmth spread to Ebonmane Prime.

The group headed up and up, and even though the staggering amount of stairs winded Ebonmane Prime, he couldn’t help but peek down every hall and through every open door. He saw meeting areas, their skeletons coated in metal. He saw markets, much busier and louder than the one at Tenpony Tower. He saw families, foals, playing together. He saw ponies living peacefully.

There was a moment when he closed his eyes, but I knew what he was thinking: this was worth dying for.

The mayor’s office was not at the top of the city, in the torch, as one might expect, but closer to the head, appropriately. He was a unicorn, and a big one, with a golden coat and a brown mane and a bushy beard and a golden dazzling sun as his cutie mark. He stood up from his cluttered desk in his tiny office and bowed. “Prince Ebonmane. I’m humbled.”

“Uh, you don’t have to do that,” Ebonmane Prime replied. He had no idea how ponies were supposed to treat Princes in the first place.

“Well, then, allow me to formally welcome you to Friendship City. I’m Mayor Sunburst.” With that, the mayor took Ebonmane Prime’s hoof and shook it vigorously. His huge size and energy may have intimidated Ebonmane Prime at first, but now he understood it as sincere and joyful.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Ebonmane Prime responded as courteously as he could.

“And these must be your friends,” Mayor Sunburst turned to Ironbright and Rosemary, and they introduced themselves to him. He made sure to look each of them in the eye, giving them the same heartfelt, warm greeting. Once the introductions were finished, he offered them all seats. Ironbright was forced to stand, as the office was small and cluttered. “What brings you all the way out here, Your Highness?”

“Ebonmane,” the alicorn answered. Even if he was me, neither of us were comfortable with the title yet. “And, well, we heard about your parade and…” Ebonmane Prime didn’t know if it was rude to ask if he could join the parade.

Ironbright had no such modesty. “We thought it would be a good symbol for Equestria if the Prince were to make a public appearance.”

Sunburst’s eyes grew huge. “The Prince? In our parade?” He steadied his great chest with a hoof. “What a splendid idea! We can put you at the very front! And…” he looked at Ebonmane Prime sheepishly. “Well, if it’s not asking too much, I know it would mean a lot if you would give a small speech. It’d be sure to end up all over the radio.”

The word ‘speech’ sent a jolt of fear through Ebonmane Prime, but he calmly remembered that he shouldn’t be alive at the time, so it wouldn’t matter. “I’d love to.”

“Splendid! I’ll inform the planning committee. Oh, this is exactly what we needed. Thank you so much!” Sunburst couldn’t help but shake Ebonmane Prime’s hoof again. “Tell you what. In thanks, I’ll get you the best rooms in the city. Free meals-”

“We have the caps to take care of ourselves,” Ironbright interrupted. No pony wanted to take advantage of the mayor. He was clueless to the fact that they were there to ruin the parade, not complete it.

“Nonsense. You’ll all be my personal guests. I wouldn’t have it any other way for the kindness you’ve done me. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer!”

And that was that. The mayor left his office to personally show them to their beds. A young mare, not unlike Rosemary, was running a hotel in the torch, and the view and spacious rooms had the prices soaring, but the mayor was quick to pay for their rooms as long as they needed them. Once the caps were exchanged, he turned to them. “Is there anything else I can do for you before I head off toward the committee?”

“Any restaurants to recommend? Tenpony Tower doesn’t exactly fill your stomach,” Ironbright said, one thing on her mind.

Mayor Sunburst scoffed. “I tell you, there’s no reason for prices there to be so high when…” he took a breath to calm himself, as if this was a rant he had gone on before. Once his smile returned, he said, “I’ll send a memo out to every restaurant about you three and pay for all you order. But honestly, most ponies get their food from the markets, and there simply aren’t a lot of restaurants around yet. But, if I might humbly suggest the Golden Lantern? If a young colt and filly were perhaps thinking of a romantic evening before the parade, I could secure a private booth.”

The three of them were stunned by the bold suggestion. Without an answer, the mayor simply said, “Ah, well. Let me know if you need anything else.” As he walked past them, he winked at Ebonmane Prime.

Rosemary didn’t dare look at them. Both were blushing terribly. Ironbright simply rolled her eyes and went into her room. Without a word, the others followed suit into their own rooms.


“Come on, Ebonmane, go flying with me,” Cloud Chaser begged.

“We’re supposed to be lying low remember? That phrase isn’t accidental. If somepony were to see me, it could ruin everything. It’s bad enough you’re out so much.”

“Fine,” she stood. “I want to go check out the south side some more. I think I saw a Carousel Boutique, and if anything’s left in there, it’s worth taking.”

“Just be careful. And try not to be gone too long,” I told her.

“I will. First sign of danger and I’m out. Promise,” she said. With that, she took wing again.

Today was the day of the parade. Ever since I had woken up, there had been a pit in my stomach. I hoped it would go away once news of the parade aired, but I knew it wouldn’t. Right now, the pit was composed of nervousness and worry. Afterwards, it would be guilt and sorrow.

But without Cloud Chaser, I was left alone with these feelings.


For whatever reason, the memory orb didn’t contain any memories of the next few days for Ebonmane Prime. It resumes as he heads into a dimly lit room.

He looked around as his eyes adjusted, the only light coming from shimmering, golden oil lamps hanging from chains on the ceiling. Tables with long white cloths sat beneath them, the ponies occupying them dressed as finely as possible, some unable to afford nice clothing, but the meals they ate were gourmet. The portions were good, and the ingredients alone were enough to make Rosemary swoon in jealousy.

However, she did let a small breath escape from her lips. Ebonmane Prime turned to her. “What do you think?”

“It’s lovely.” There were almost tears in her eyes.

The waiter was quick to serve them. “Prince Ebonmane, Mayor Sunburst has had a private booth reserved for you and the lovely lady. If you would follow me, please, I’ll show you to your seats.”

Music flowed in from above, slow, jazzy tunes from DJPon3’s own broadcast. Their hooves clanked quietly on the metal floor, and even though it was impossible to cover up the dim aesthetics of Friendship City, the low light, fine setting, and the luxury of good food and music completed the atmosphere. It was very romantic, and both Ebonmane Prime and Rosemary knew it.

Their table was situated in a circular alcove that had been gutted, but was away from any prying eyes. As they were led to the table, the other patrons looked at Ebonmane Prime and whispered, but no pony’s voice was raised above the music. A private table was a good idea indeed.

The waiter seated them, and Ebonmane Prime was even gracious enough to pull out Rosemary’s chair, though I have no idea where he learned such manners. Once they were seated with their menus, silence pervaded where there should have been conversation.

“This was really nice of you,” Rosemary said after a long while.

“I wanted to. I like you a lot, and I wanted to make some good memories about this place for the orb.”

She smiled, but the cloud of death could not be shaken. “You like me?” she said quietly.

He nodded with ease. “Yeah. You’ve been really kind to me, and… everything’s easier around you. I… I wanted you to have good memories of me.”

Rosemary sniffed, tears in her eyes. “This is…” Another sniff. “No pony’s ever asked me out on a date before.”

“Really?” he asked quietly.

“Never.” She wiped her eyes. “I guess I can’t blame them…”

Ebonmane ignored that. “I’m glad I got to take you out on your first date, then. I think it’s silly that it’s taken so long.”

She smiled in response to his kindness.

The waiter came by again for their orders. “The mayor sent you a small gift, in the event that you two might stop by.” He presented the two with a bottle of champagne. “A rare find, but Mayor Sunburst sent it from his personal collection for the both of you. He said it was ‘In the honor of young love.’”

With a smile, their drinks were poured, and the two watched their glasses fill, blushing furiously. With shy nods, they sipped together. The taste was magnificent. Perfect.

Ebonmane Prime shifted nervously, sitting up, preparing to speak. “Actually, I wanted to go on this date with you to ask you something.”

Rosemary could hardly look him in the eye. “What?”

“Do you love Ebonmane?”

She hesitated. The tears came to her eyes again. She couldn’t answer, but the way she looked down was enough.

Ebonmane Prime continued. “I thought so.”

“He doesn’t like me,” Rosemary said, her voice soft and hurt. “He’s never even noticed me.”

“I realized that,” Ebonmane Prime said. “He sticks to Cloud Chaser more, but there’s nothing there, right?”

“There was…”

Ebonmane Prime took a breath. “When this is over, and I’m gone, I want him to tell you exactly how he feels about you.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“When you take him the memory orb, he’ll see this conversation. And I’m telling him that he needs to tell you his feelings. He’s a coward if he can’t face you.”

Rosemary shook her head. “Don’t. He doesn’t have to do that.”

“Are you worried about what he’ll say?” Rosemary didn’t answer. Ebonmane Prime, in a moment of gentleness, reached a hoof across the table to touch hers warmly. “You shouldn’t. Ever since I’ve met you, I’ve thought you were interesting. I… I think I love you, Rosemary. And I hope… I hope that he loves you, too. You shouldn’t be alone. You should be with somepony who makes you happy.”

Rosemary was stunned by his confession. “What about you? You deserve to be happy, too.”

He shook his head. “You’re not supposed to be with me. I’m a clone. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t dare take his place like that. It’s bad enough that I’ve stolen your first date.”

“You haven’t stolen anything,” she insisted. “He had his chance.”

“Then please give him another,” Ebonmane Prime begged. “I don’t know why he didn’t fall for you the way I did, but I know he can. It’s… it’s not easy for me to say all this, and my life is simple compared to his. But he needs you. Trust him. He’ll come through for you.”

Rosemary could only nod.

Their meals were brought out shortly. Ebonmane Prime changed topics, asking her about the food, the quality of it, and how she would have prepared it. It was light conversation, but he listened patiently, intently, absolutely fixated on the little red mare.

As the night drew to a close, he dug deeper. “How did you get your cutie mark?” This was a story I had never heard before.

Rosemary hesitated before answering him. “I don’t like thunderstorms. When I was younger, after my little sister had just been born, I was terrified of them. My parents predicted that we would have a pretty bad summer storm coming one night, and I was really scared the entire day before it came. As the evening hit, I was playing in a field, and it got really dark. But before I headed back, I saw these firelies out in the field. I had never seen anything like them before, and even though they were bugs, I didn’t think they were irradiated or anything, so I caught as many as I could in my saddlebags before going home. When the storm hit that night, I put them in a jar and watched them all night. The thunder and lightning was so loud that I felt like crying, but the fireflies… they made me feel better. I wasn’t so afraid. When I woke up, I had my cutie mark.”

“What does it mean?” Ebonmane Prime asked, fascinated.

She looked at him over her glasses. “I didn’t know at first. But once I got older, I had to take care of my sister and clean my parents’ house all the time while they worked. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I was always inside, so I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was really lonely, but I remembered those fireflies, and how they made me feel. I wanted to make other ponies feel like that, too.”

“Safe?” he asked.

She nodded.

When their meals were finished, the two walked back together. A lot had been said, and it was clear they weren’t sure how to negotiate this new situation, but Ebonmane Prime overcame his nervousness and wrapped a wing around her as they walked. She snuggled up into him, her body warm and soft against his side.

But Rosemary was in tears once they reached their rooms. “What’s wrong?” Ebonmane Prime asked.

“I… I don’t want you to die.”

He used his wing to press her into his chest. Finally, she burst, and her tears flowed freely. Thinking nothing of it, he led her into his room and laid her in his bed.

She didn’t object, and he lay down next to her, holding her tightly to his broad shoulder as she cried.

“There, there,” he said. “As long as Ebonmane lives, I’ll never die. When he holds you, I promise it’ll feel just like this.”

“No,” she shook her head, despair in her voice. “I love you. I love you so much, Ebonmane Prime. I can’t… It’s not fair!” She began to sob again.

“I love you, too,” he responded, stroking her mane. He let out a tense breath. “I love you more than anything. But I’m not the one for you. Ebonmane is.”

“You don’t know that,” she said. “You can’t promise that he’ll even notice me.”

“I can,” he said firmly. “This love that I feel… it’s not an accident. This is a part of us. This is what I… what he was really made for. I know it.”

The two looked at each other, Rosemary’s eyes bright. Hopeful, she moved forward. To kiss him.

He turned away. “Your first kiss should be with him. Not me. I won’t take that from him.”

Painfully, Rosemary swallowed her feelings. She simply laid with him in the dark, her head rising evenly with his breathing, her hot cheek pressed against his strong chest.

The orb ends there.


The only sound I heard was the radio. I was almost asleep, even in the morning light. Sure, I was tense about the parade, but boredom is a powerful thing.

But I was instantly alert when I heard a click.

“Don’t move,” a low, female voice commanded me. I knew I had a gun trained on me. How did she get in here? But I froze. “Stand still.” I felt my weapons be levitated off from me. I didn’t hesitate. It appeared she wasn’t here to kill me. Maybe capture me. But Cloud Chaser would find me. Or Ironbright. She couldn’t take my PipBuck from me. Not without a considerable amount of time and tools. My friends would find me that way.

“Turn around. Slowly.” I did. I faced my attacker. She was an alicorn, tall, thin, beautiful, with a gunmetal body and electric mane, yellow with streaks of lightning blue. I had never seen anypony like her. Her eyes were silver. Her flank was blank. At her side levitated a powerful rifle.

“Who are you?” I asked.

She smiled. “Livewire. Now come here.”

I walked toward her. My mind raced, but I wasn’t thinking about her. I was planning my escape.

Once I was close, I seized her gun with my levitation, enough to keep it from firing. While her weapon was tied up, I picked up my sword, unsheathing it with my magic and swinging for her neck.

She ducked and tackled me, slamming me hard on my back. She pointed her gun at me, but I jabbed my horn at her. Pain shot through my horn as I came in contact with a shield, electricity crackling in the air between us. I saw her smile.

The butt of her rifle crashed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me. Again, she bashed my ribs, and I tried to curl, the force of the blow nearly breaking bones. I was helpless.

She stood, picking up my weapons, tossing them into another room and closing the door. Then she turned to me as I was finally able to look up. “What do you want?” I asked weakly.

“Just a moment of your time,” she said. Her gun was still pointed at me.

“You could have just asked.” I tried to stand, but pain shot through my body.

“Alright then,” she said. “Are you willing to cooperate?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course. If you work with me, this will be a lot easier. See?” I watched her put down her gun. But I didn’t bother trying to pick it up. She had her shield.

“What do you want?” I asked again.

She smiled. A cold, nightmarish smile. She walked right up to me, and sat down.

I watched in horror as she spread my legs.

“What are you doing?” My voiced was tinged with shock and fear.

“Don’t fight me,” she said. I felt a hoof on my private parts. My breath left me. No pony had ever touched me there before.
My mind was blank, but I listened to her explain. “You’re a pure alicorn. Not a mutant, like my parents. With your seed… it’s possible that we might be able to create another alicorn like you.”

“But- But my parents weren’t alicorns!” I shouted, ever conscious of her hoof on my genitals.

She smiled again. “Hush. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

I felt pleasure. And despite my dizzying mix of feelings, pain, fear, and confusion, I became aroused. Very aroused.

“Are you a virgin?” she asked. I couldn’t find the faculties to answer. “I thought so. Don’t worry. You’ll enjoy this, I promise.”

She stood, and offered her hoof to help me. I didn’t take it. “Stand up,” she ordered.
The pain in my ribs was subsiding as I fought through it to get to my hooves. All thoughts of escape left me. All thought left me. It was useless. And I was left numb inside.

Livewire turned, and a shocked breath escaped my lips as she raised her tail, revealing her entrance to me. Never before had I seen a mare like this, but I had always wondered what a real one would look like. Now I knew. And it was better than I ever imagined it would be.

“You know what to do, big fella,” she said.

And I did. But I hesitated.

“Well?” There was anger in her voice. I didn’t have a choice. At least it would feel good.

I mounted her. I felt heat against my tip.

My breath came quicker and quicker. This was really happening.

This wasn’t how I imagined things would happen. Ever since I learned about Rosemary’s feelings, I had been toying with the fantasy of giving our first times to one another. But none of that mattered now. Livewire was too enticing to pass up.

With a simple thrust of my hips, I entered her. She moaned. I moaned as the slick, wet heat wrapped itself around me.

But I knew I wasn’t a virgin anymore. This mare had taken it.

“Go on,” she encouraged from ahead of me. I pushed further into her, my stallionhood erupting into pleasure within her. So many times, in private sessions with myself, I had dreamt about what it would feel like to take a mare. It was far better than I could ever have dreamed.

But I couldn’t enjoy myself. I didn’t feel any joy. I felt nothing. Nothing but pleasure. I thrust mindlessly into Livewire, feeling the building tension within me.

It didn’t take long. I was a virgin. Less than a minute passed, and I was calling out, moaning with every breath. Then, all too suddenly, I lost myself within her.

Her wings wrapped around me, encouraging me to stay inside of her. She didn’t want to waste a single drop. After a few moments of stillness, the only movement being my rapid breathing, she lowered her wings allowing me to dismount.

She turned around to face me. “Congratulations on your first time, stud.” She picked up her rifle, slinging it over her shoulder. She knew I was too distraught to act. “Try not to go too far. If this doesn’t take, I’ll be back.”

I couldn’t answer her, but she didn’t wait for a reply. She spread her wings again, diving out a window and taking off into the morning.

I lay down. I tried to process what happened. I couldn’t. So I sat in stillness, an eternity passing by.

Finally, I turned on the radio. “…A horrible tragedy. So many reports coming in, but I don’t think I can deny it any longer: it appears that Prince Ebonmane is dead. He was shot in the head by an unknown assassin, and last we heard, Paladin Ironbright was giving pursuit to the suspect. No word on her yet, but-”

I turned the radio off. Ebonmane Prime was dead.

I started crying. I didn’t stop. Not when Cloud Chaser returned, her voice full of concern, even after she realized what happened to my clone and I didn’t tell her what happened to me. Not when she left again to find Ironbright. Not when night fell, and I tried to sleep.

At first, I thought I was crying because I had lost Ebonmane Prime, the very best parts of myself. But as I passed out, I realized that I was crying because I hadn’t lost this precious piece of myself when he died.

I lost it when Livewire raped me for my foal.