Fallout Equestria: Shaping Shadow - Book 4

by Mindrop

First published

After the betrayal, Shadow and the Inquisitors battle for survival below and try to get home.

Betrayed below and only aware of it because of Cardinal Spitfire's hasty message, the Inquisitors fight for survival and struggle with the betrayal. They have no idea who is for them, and who is against them. All the inquisitors know is that they murdered pegasi.

Life below isn't easy, and Rosemary no longer brings the comfort it once did. Alone, they have to find ways to survival until a rescue mission is mounted or a message can be received. Through it all, they are hunted. Dahlia isn't going to stop until either the Inquisitors or she is dead. There is a lot to find and adventures to be had and places to explore, but their wings are a death sentence.

The Inquisitors must survive until they are told to come home, or find out that all hope is truly lost and they are never able to return home.

*Biweekly Tuesday Releases.


Part 1: Survival 96 -102
Part 2: Blood and Fire 103 - 109
Part 3: Balance 110 - 117
Part 4: Righteous Fire 118 - 122
Part 5: Contract 123 - 125
Part 6: Manehattan 126 - 129
Part 7: Consequences 130 - 132


The Series:
Book 1: Training
Book 2: The Mission
Book 3: Above
Book 4: Below
Book 5: Grand Pegasus Enclave (Writing/releasing)
Sagas of Shanyisa: (Writing/releasing)
Anthology


- Like what I do? I have a Patreon.
*Missing or forgotten information? The Fallout Equestria Wiki has Shaping Shadow and anything you might need to know.


**Cover made with permission using vectors from Brisineo, Lightning5trike, and Vector-Brony.

Third Intermission Part B

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The Inquisitors have been betrayed. They are unsure who is for them, who is against them, and all they know is that they killed a group of Pegasi who were sanctioned by the Council. Death is what they believe is waiting for them if they head above. Until they can figure out that they are not going to be killed or branded and banished below, they can not risk it.

For now, it is survival. Survival and trying to restore connections with above. Survival means many things. They don't just have to sit around and wait. They can't. They need to keep moving and exploring. Their mission doesn't stop until they get above.

But they are down to half strength after Nor died getting them back to Rosemary, after they murdered the Pillars of the Community. The odds are stacked against them and the are still hunted by Dahlia and others certainly want them dead too.

All that transpired in Book 3 is happening as the Inquisitors fight for their survival.

Chapter 96 - A Journey Back In Time

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Shadow kept flapping his wings. It was cold and getting colder the further north he flew. He was a day out from the mountains at most. Shadow’s hope was that above the clouds was warmer. He had no idea what the weather down here was typically at, but it was only Autumn above. Late Autumn. There was no gliding with this cold.

Shadow found a shallow cave among the mountain’s craggy bottom. Wood was easy to retrieve to battle the cold. He burned through more than expected overnight.

Shadow gathered more after a few hours of sleep. His bags were near empty. He only grabbed a single one of the rad meds, one extra set of GPER and two Laser. His food was minimal as well. The less he carried, the faster he could fly. Plus, if he found anything useful, he needed to have space.

Shadow adjusted his saddlebags and took off, following the mountain, in the only direction a mountain travels, up. The clouds met him quickly and Shadow began to slide around the side to find where the clouds should not be fully controlled by the SPP Base.

Shadow quickly met Ice. The clouds were only a few dozen feet and the air had dropped well below zero C in a matter of feet.

Shadow leaned back and fell. He lined up and opened fire with his Novasurge. He blasted a hole in the ice. Above was amazing. And terrifying. Shadow had to head south in order to get further east to the entrance to the canyon to the cave.

The North’s breath had it’s teeth sunk into the area. The armor was slowing down, although there was no ice forming. It was a bitter, dry cold.

The cold soon bit through the armor’s outer shell and then encroached upon his coat, under the flight suit. It was a suit designed to keep the wearer warm in the frigid temperatures of the high skies.

Shadow looked south. He had grown up on these clouds and his eyes were sharp. He could see a farm in the distance. A log distance. To interact with them would put them in danger. But he needed a blanket. There was no going back. He was so close to leaving the message. With the way things were, nothing would change for months.

Shadow began to move south, barely above the ice, flapping to keep himself from locking up. He would snag a blanket, head to the cave and return it the day after. He would not steal from them, but they could survive a night or two missing one.

The farm was much closer than Shadow had believe. It was so iced over it it was amazing it was still standing. The storm had been fierce. Legendary.

Shadow steeled his heart. There may only be frozen bodies. There would be nothing he could do for them without revealing a visitor had come. Perhaps others had already come to care for them.

The house was weather protected, but quiet. It looked lived in. Shadow slipped into the house. It was a standard design. The occupants were not present. Their blankets were carefully folded for their return and the fire was down to a few calculated coals.

“HEY!” A stallion shouted from behind him. “WHO ARE YOU! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!”

Shadow was frozen in his crouched position. He was in no danger. It was they who were in danger. And he felt terrible.

“I asked you a question!”

“I am a traveler,” Shadow replied, grateful that the mask distorted his voice. “The cold for here at this time is, unexpected. I only wished to borrow a blanket while keeping you from knowing my presence. I should not be. It would be wise of you to forget me.”

“You won’t make it to the cave before the temperatures kill you, even with a blanket.”

Shadow turned his head to look at him. And what ended up being his family. They were relaxed, so Shadow stood up. He body was already freeze together at his joints.

“And if I am going to this, cave?”

“You will need to spend the night or freeze. The Grand Pegasus Enclave has correctly labeled this as a disaster. But, it is bringing in good things. I am wearing a winter coat they distributed and they have given us even more blankets. Good ones too. Things we never could afford. Food as well. This farm lost all of its crop.”

“I am sorry to hear of the misfortune,” Shadow replied. “But the rest is good news.”

“You must stay the night,” The Pegasus who had to be his wife said.

“I am a danger to you,” Shadow said shaking his head. “I should not be here.”

“Regardless, our hospitality beliefs make it so that we will take that risk.”

“I,” Shadow stumbled. “I. Can not risk it, as you have pointed out. I have to make it there. But to know of me…”

“You already said that,” The stallion stated. “What is done is done. We can not avoid it. I am Cinnamon Tulip. My wife Berry Song, our first born Daytime Shower, his wife Star Symphony and our second is Divine Sun. He has a little time to go, but wants to join the Enclave.”

“I do not fly their colors,” Shadow confidently stated. “But to know my name…”

“You are headed there, and a shadow,” Daytime Shower said. “We shall call you her. Rainbow Dash.”

“That is,” Shadow paused. It kept things less complicated. Shadow nodded. “Acceptable.”

“Good,” Cinnamon Tulip smiled. “Tomorrow morning then Daytime Shower will take you there.”

“That is a risk I can not allow,” Shadow objected as they settled under blankets and rebuilt the fire.

“Blanket first,” Berry Song insisted as she tossed one to Shadow. “And relax. Things can not be worse than they are.”

“Yes, they can be,” Shadow said warping himself up. “Which is why you can not see my face, or know the true sound of my voice. If you did...”

“You are well known?” Divine Sun asked.

“Of course,” Shadow said, smiling under his helmet. “Even as awesome as I am, I can not say any more. But I must go alone to the cave. There is a task of, great importance and secrecy.”

“I help the fillies and colts make the journey from here,” Daytime Shower stated. “I can get you there quickly and safely. Even with this weather.”

Shadow sighed. He knew the way, but not well enough. It was a risk Shadow could not afford with the weather.

“Fine,” Shadow nodded. “But what do you mean journey for these, young ones?”

Shadow had to look like he was not from here. He chose to say young like Nova would.

“It’s a ritual around here,” Berry Song smiled. “A coming of age. I remember when I went. It was a small group, of just us real locals. We wanted to get there first for the year before others came. We made it, and then two weeks later, the others started coming. You sneak away in groups and journey to the cave. Rainbow Dash is a legend, a figurehead here. One of loyalty, community. ”

Shadow nodded. “My, mission, won’t take long and my mission should never stop them from doing this, ritual. That is not part of my reason for going.”

“What do you know of Rainbow Dash?” Daytime Shower asked.

“I abandoned the Pegasus Race,” Shadow nodded.

“So we have heard,” Daytime Shower smiled. “We can not dispute that. We speak of Her before the spells came. We tell the stories of Her and her Shadow fighting the Zebras. Dozens of them of Her killing generals and other officers. Including a nemesis, Two Toned.”

“She kills them all?” Shadow asked.

“Not Two Toned,” Daytime Shower said shaking his head. “The spells came before then. She never met him again after their second encounter. Their first was-”

“Bloody,” Shadow finished. “I know what I did. I know all of the records. I recorded them. Including the death of Two Toned.”

“You know the final tale?” Daytime Shower stammered.

Shadow nodded his head. It was harmless to tell them the tail. It wouldn’t go anywhere. And it would help sell his persona.

“How? I have learned all I can. I am the master keeper of her stories. Not even the written copies have a hint of it.”

“Well,” Shadow chuckled. “I am the record. I know my life. I know that story very, very well.”

“I shall settle for learning just the final tale,” Daytime Shower sighed, laying his head down on the floor. “Tell me how you finished things with Two Toned.”

Shadow took a breath in. It was time to really act awesome. He didn’t feel awesome, but he had to be her. Tell it like her.

“It was a mission unlike any other,” Shadow started. “For Two Toned was resetting the Zebra army for a new strategy. He laid easy traps for the Equestrian military, losing most of the time, but letting them trust his leaks, how his secrets got revealed.”

“When the time came, he let me know where he was. But there was much more at stake. Two Toned had built a fortress, Kifopiga. It was unlike anything seen before. They cut it from the rock itself, chopping the top of a mountain clean off and made the front a cliff, with plenty of open ground in between so that they could not be surprised.”

“The division was put under my command. I was to lead them all in battle and destroy the fortress. This was now a mission under my ministry, the Ministry of Awesome. They needed the most daring, most fearless, most awesome leader Equestria had. Me! With me leading them, we could not lose.”

“My forces were gathered below the top of the cliff, hidden from view, or so I thought. The Zebras had cut hidden viewing holes in the rock face, so they knew we were there. It was going to be a standard attack formation, but with some special surprises.”

“My pegasi were ready, hovering just below the cliff. I slid up to it and perched, right below it, holding on for dear life. It was high up, and not using my wings while I held onto the slippery rock was a new sensation. I was going to be the first one over. I had such confidence, I wore my dress uniform and without a single weapon. I hate dress uniforms almost as much as I hate dresses. Although, mine looked pretty awesome.”

“Up I went, skimming over the top, keeping a low profile. They followed my lead, but it quickly became an all out charge. Some were low, but in the air, others on their hooves. I chose to stay on my hooves.”

“What we thought was halfway, was not. The base was very low and it made judging the distance impossible. For us that is. We had entered their kill zone. They opened up with artillery, cannons, and machine guns. A great many pegasi fell. There was no reason to dodge or weave, they couldn’t pick individuals out at that range.”

“I lost half my pegasi forces in the great charge when my Cloudships finally got into position above us and landed safely, their heavy forces galloping ahead of us. We were their distraction, their cover. Many cloudships got hit by artillery as they took off.

“The Earth Ponies were stunning in their glistening power armor. The Unicorns had all sorts of new, heavy weapons. The Pegasi were not done. They formed up and took to the sky. We had committed ourselves to this battle and we would win.”

“The ground forces began to be hit with Zebra rifle fire. TAT TAT TAT! TAT TAT TAT! No pony stopped. No pony second guessed what they were doing. We were one mind with one mission. It was awesome! I can’t describe how bone chilling it is to be there with so many asserting themselves and going right for the enemy. An enemy they could not see.”

“I had caught up to the front and got out in the definitive lead. The rifle fire was coming from slit trenches. You could barely see the Zebra heads popping out. I jumped over the first and into the middle ground between it and another slit trench.”

“Ponies behind me dropped grenades in or opened up with their new machine guns that spit bullets faster than anything seen before or since. The Zebras in the second trenches charged out with saber and spear to shed our blood the old fashioned way.”

“A spear was thrust at me by a charging Zebra. I lazily deflected it and side stepped his forward motion. I was not going to offensively touch a weapon and I was not going to fight. I was there to lead. He was killed by a Unicorn behind me, who’s job was to do just that.”

“The soldiers never stopped as they hopped up and over the low stone works and onto the top of the fort. Like I said, it was set into the stone. They turned some of the fort’s cannons against itself. But the cloudships were still not safe.”

“Two Toned released the dragons and the true epic battle for the sky began. Raptors materialized out from the cloudship cover to combat them. They proved why they were known as Raptors and were the true rulers of the sky.”

“We didn’t just bring guns that spit lead faster than ever, we brought fire like the dragons spit. The fortress was a giant bunker with slits where they fired machine guns from behind the safety of the thick concrete. So we spit flames down their throats and into their heart. What didn’t burn, died from suffocation as we poisoned the very air inside.”

“My army was crawling all over the outside, shutting down every defense and taking the trench system between the bunkers. We found the main door and busted it down. The inside was crawling with even more of them. And they were brewing something dark.”

“Unknown to us, Kifopiga had a spell chamber hidden inside. Our attack disrupted their work and the fools lost control. It… well, not all of us made it out before it consumed the whole fortress and we were able to fall back in a calculated retreat.”

“And Two Toned?” Daytime Shower begged.

Shadow sighed. “I killed him. It was like our first battle, but all the worse. He was waiting, ready for me. I made my way to his command room, sliding by soldiers fighting throughout the fort. I dashed in, throwing the first punch. There was no playing around, no feeling each other out. It was a strong block with the sole purpose of destruction. It hurt, like a real block should.”

“I faced down a series of blows, forcing me to take a step back as I deflected them. Pain was the game as I forced him to take an unwanted step. He came in with a fake strike. I saw it and slipped in, bashing my forehead into his eye.”

“The move was costly. Not only because it deals pain to both sides but because I was inside his range. Before I could respond he bucked me. I landed and rolled in pain. I wiped the blood from my nose as I rose up again.”

“I launched a series of blows which he expertly dealt with, often with simple dodge and weave tactics. He caught my rear hoof and brought his down, cracking it. The pain was… death is a worse fate than any and all pain.”

“I was the more agile one, compensating for my broken leg and cracked ribs. I was able to turn his strike against him with several quick blows. I almost buckled his rear hoof by striking the nerves, but he was a master and I got kicked in the face.”

“He attacked right where I had been. I had launched myself up and landed where he was exposed. I bucked him in the chest, tossing him back like a rag doll. I heard and felt my broken leg shattered more.”

“I was on top of him before he could move. Three was enough, but I made it four. Savage doesn’t capture the animal I had become in order to win, or at that point, survive. It was a deep blood lust. We had done it the time before. At our first meeting. Neither of us walked away whole.”

“I don’t know how he was able to rise from it, but he did. The fool still had his sword on. I drew it and sliced his head off. That finished the fight for good. And then before I could figure out where we were in the attack the balefire bomb exploded.”

“I give you only what will not leave you nightmares. There was more. There is always more.”

“I led the army in on an charge of epic legends. We fought. We spit lead and fire. Our Raptors ruled the skies after wiping out the last of the dragons. And I drew the only blood I would take from the fight. And they made their mistake, sealing their deaths.”

“You tell a good tale,” Daytime Shower said. “As if you were actually there. Like you actually fight him.”

Shadow gave a sad chuckled. “I was. I did. I am heading back for a reason. The ice was, unexpected.”

They were looking at Shadow as if he was the real Rainbow Dash. It dawned on Shadow that if The Captain had survived in the state he was in, Rainbow Dash could have as well. He was safest playing it off as he was her. It felt wrong, as if he was cheating her out of her awesomeness.

“Well Rainbow Dash,” Cinnamon Tulip said. “You have brought light to our community's mystery. This story will spread quickly among us. I am glad you didn’t hold back on the details as we pass it on. You deserve the honor for all you did during the war. And all you represent. Loyalty: always there to back each farm up.”

“You do not know how good it is to hear that,” Shadow replied. “It brings me joy. Things are tough. I go back, for… special reasons.”

“Well you can’t do it on an empty stomach,” Star Symphony said. “The Enclave has given us prepackage rations. And it is a good thing too because the cold is making cooking impossible.”

“I already ate today,” Shadow stated. “But thank you.”

“Once is not enough,” Star Symphony chastised.

“Really, these,” Shadow stumbled as he was thrown one.

He juggled it but caught it. It was not the same as what he had.

Shadow read it out loud. “Grand Pegasus Enclave E-Rations.”

Their K-Rations were much more compact and had toilet paper. These E-Rations actually looked edible. The only problem was his helmet. If he took it off, they would know him immediately. The community had passed on his words and they knew about the initial ice threat from him. At least his name and colors had to have been passed along.

Shadow tried to figure what to say. His stomach begged for the food loud enough to answer that question for everypegasus.

“You don’t want to see my face,” Shadow said ducking it away.

“You will be warm enough if you went to a bedroom to eat,” Star Symphony smiled. “And it probably would be good for you to be able to breath a bit without that helmet on.”

“Thanks,” Shadow chuckled. “I think I will. But the helmet does not bother me. Odd, I know. I have worn much, much worse.”

Shadow got up and went upstairs and opened the closest bedroom. It was a wall of cold. They kept the bedroom doors closed for a reason. He was surprised at how good removing the helmet felt.

The cold didn’t give him much luxury. Especially when the food was decent. It was leagues better than the K-Rations, but it was leagues behind in the calorie and nutrition department and not suitable for military use where one meal might be it for the day.

Shadow wrapped himself in blankets again and rolled onto his side with a sigh. It was much to early for sleep, but he felt like he was in the way. They had nothing better to do other than wait out the cold, but he had already contributed what he could. He already told them a new story.

Shadow realized they could still tell him them. He propped himself back up.

“So, I already told you about The Legend of Kifopiga and my final clash with Two Toned. But you have not told me any of the tales you tell of me. I do not even know what has survived.”

Shadow sat and listened late into the evening as they picked stories to tell. Each one told their favorite tale. Divine Sun’s favorite was the pirate ship tale. Shadow chuckled through it at his exploits. It was the best retelling of the tale he had ever heard.

The morning meant another quick meal in the cold bedroom before Shadow and Daytime Shower began. They warmed up with a several mile jog to get the blood flowing and their lungs accustomed to the cold.

They stayed low to the ground as they zipped along. Shadow picked up the pace, forcing Daytime Shower to pick his up. Shadow put good stress on their flight and they were soon in between the mountains and winding their way back to the cave. Daytime Shower was able to put out a very good pace. Especially for the cold.

The cave’s slim entrance was on the leeward side of the wind, shielding them. Shadow slipped in first, twisting his way back until it opened up into the first cavern. Halfway into the cave it was obviously cut out and reinforced with concrete.

The debris hadn’t moved from where he had last seen it years ago. The pathway was as clear as ever. The only thing different was the lights. As foals, they had to use flashlights to see anything. Now, lights he didn’t know existed where on. And they didn’t appear to be normal lights at all. At least, there was no actual fixture or bulb to be seen. Just a soft ambient glow from the ceiling. Shadow followed the path for now.

“Wow,” Daytime Shower stammered. “Lights have never come on.”

Lights were new. It had to be connected to something in Shadow’s suit. It was amazing that the system was still up and running.

Shadow shrugged. “Its connected to my suit.”

“What exactly did you do here?” Daytime Shower asked. He was referencing the destruction on the place.

“I didn’t do anything here,” Shadow replied. “I had others take care of here.”

Shadow stepped off of the path. He couldn't avoid disturbing some of the things littered around. Rainbow Dash wouldn’t care either.

The zebras painted on the wall were clear and clean. Ignoring the small chunks that had been picked out by time. The spots had been made by the darts on the floor and a few still in the wall. Now that Shadow got a solid look at them, they were a small flechette, not a dart.

Shadow looked around, focusing on the real mission at hoof. He could play around after. He walked over to the wall that jutted out from the cave. It was right there when you walked in. He flipped out his his laser cutter and went to work. Daytime Shower silently watched.

Shadow made a giant, obvious, heart. He made a cut down the center, just like their pendants had. CSF was inscribed in the middle in the proper location. The next thing was to inscribe the date. He put ‘Vengeful Inquisition’ below it. Shadow finished with their recon symbol and his stripes off to the heart’s right.

“Is that the mission?” Daytime Shower asked, unimpressed.

“I know, nothing to be impressed by,” Shadow chuckled. “But leaving coded messages can do more than you understand. It just takes the right group to understand and look for the codes. Otherwise, its just glossed over.”

“You put the date,” He pointed out. “That kind of cracks some of the code.”

Shadow shrugged. “Some things are unavoidable. Reconnecting can mean certain risks. Unavoidable. But if it works, which it should, the cascading events will move the entire foundation of all you know.”

“Now, to survey the damage.”

The area certainly had it’s perks, but it was hiding something. Nothing flowed. For starters, the wall coming out was odd. Sure, it funneled the room into the back area which had been collapsed, but it didn’t flow with the cave.

As he came around the side his HUD picked up the rectangle on it. It was a doorway. It’s trigger was not visible. Shadow just walked right up to it and then it opened. He smiled as he pushed his way in.

The door recognized the war time coding in his suit. Opening a random section of the wall looked impressive. Like he belonged.

Shadow examined the room inside. There was a desk with a battered cloud terminal on it and several filing cabinets. The walls had Wonderbolts posters, from before the war, tacked on.

Shadow tackled the computer first. It was powered on and working, but the keyboard had deteriorated. The top right corner had ‘Lightning Dust’ on it, like it was the user’s name. Since the keyboard didn’t work, Shadow pulled the back off and removed the data drives. He could plug them into a terminal back at Rosemary to read there.

Shadow opened the file cabinets and was surprised at what he saw. It wasn’t paper or any files. Not in the top one. A band with a clasp was just sitting in there. It had a circular divot opposite the clasp. There also was an orb four times the size of the one Nova had given him.

Shadow picked the band up. The divot was designed to cradle something. Shadow slipped his hoof into his saddlebags and withdrew the orb Nova had found. The band snatched the orb from his hoof as they were brought together.

It was too large to sit on the head well, but it would be large enough to clip around his neck. Shadow slipped it up to his neck around his armor. It was going to be a snug fit, but he clasped it in place.

As the clasp connected it all into one ring, Shadow felt as it he had been hit in the back of the head and his very person had been shoved out of his body. It fell into a new body, soaring in the clear skies above Equestria.

He couldn't look around. He was forced to just watch as the memory played out. At least it had sound.

“Ma’am, there!”

The view panned out over the water. A small line could be seen with a bit of smoke in the water, way below.

“There it is,” A somewhat raspy voice said. “Lets take them out. We can not afford for them to reach the bay. If they take out the docks there, the fleet will never get built in time. And if they intercept stardust while she is sailing out, that plan will be ruined too. They can not know about Operation Starfall!”

They picked up speed and headed straight for the ship. If Shadow could have gulped, he would have. He was freaking out, having this all played out with no control. His mind was the lesser of the two, but he was excited. He knew where this was going.

The Pegasus turned and dove straight at the ship. At the last moment, the wings were flipped out to break and a grenade was dropped. It exploded right before the landing. The other two with him dropped below the deck though the hole it made.

Shadow enjoyed the show as watched his favorite story be played out. He was being pulled more an more into it as he let go. He was Rainbow Dash as she cut her way through the crew, using only a few grenades for support. The sword fight was exhilarating as Shadow felt every movement, every single ping of vibration the blade transferred to his teeth as it clashed with another.

The First Mate opened fire, which was dodged, cloaked himself, and Shadow just knew where he was and threw the knife. It stripped the cloak off of him and then they charged into a contest of blades.

Shadow felt the blade ring through his hoof as he kicked away first mate’s sword and ran him through.

“You never stood a chance. I'm Awesome.”

The Captain was dead at the helm. The Shadowbolt, a stallion, in front of him had dealt with him.

“Well, looks like I get to check off being a pirate,” Rainbow Dash chuckled.

“Here!” The Shadowbolt said tossing Rainbow Dash a hat. “I snagged this before we left. Just in case. I wanted your fantasy fully fulfilled.”

“Then I officially commandeer this vessel in the name of Luna! For Equestria!”

“Dash!” The other Shadowbolt barged in, panting. “They rigged their magazines. This whole thing is going to blow.”

“Then lets make sure it doesn’t cause any trouble!”

Shadow pushed the controls to call forth all the power into the engines. He felt it shift as the ship was quickly but calmly turned to face east, away from the coast into open waters. With two strong bucks the controls were broken, ensuring the ship stayed at it’s new course.

They took off into the sky, looking back once it was safe. The explosion took a lot longer to happen than expected.

“Dang it. I wanted it to be torn in two, not sink like that. Like bluh. Just melting into the water. That was not an awesome ending to an awesome mission. But, I got to be a pirate and commandeer that vessel in the name of Equestria! Now for boring paperwork.”

Shadow blinking back to reality. He was cold. And on his side. He slowly moved to get up.

“Ah, you are awake,” Daytime Shower said from the corner where he was behind a fire. The wood was from what Shadow had stashed in his bags the day before. “You should have warned me. I had no idea what had happened other than you fell. It took me a moment to notice the collar and the ball.”

“Yeah,” Shadow said unhooking it. “I should have. I forgot you were here.”

“You already had that orb with you, didn’t you?”

“I told you that codded messages on the wall was a good way to communicate,” Shadow said sitting by the fire. “I had hoped to find out what this orb contained. But I needed that collar and I was reminded about here.”

“What did it contain?” Daytime Shower asked intrigued.

“Nothing you don’t already know. Just the account of me taking out the ship, from my point of view. That is what these collars and orbs do. Record and play back the memories it forges inside.”

“You were out almost an hour,” Daytime Shower nodded.

“I need to check the rest of the files, Shadow said getting up. “I probably wont get to come back here. At least not for many moons.”

The file cabinets had rows of orbs neatly filed by number. Inside was a master list of the numbers and what date and mission name they were. There were other drawers with cushioned tubes of fresh, unused orbs. Each one warned about broken orbs and partial memories.

Shadow stashed a dozen unused orbs and then began to empty the others.

“Let me help,” Daytime Shower said shivering.

They needed to leave soon. Very soon.

It didn’t take long to correctly file the orbs away with their number and the master list. Shadow grabbed the larger orb and they stepped out into the rest of the cave. The door closed behind them and blended in with the wall.

“One last thing,” Shadow said heading towards the collapsed back.

He had to leave the end of the trail and walk through some debris to meet up with the actual rubble. He poked his head in, trying to see into the darkness behind him. More lights flipped on from his proximity and Shadow peered behind the rubble.

He saw a row of lockers. Two were open and he could see their front. One had ‘Thunderlane’ on it, the other ‘Icy Mist.’

Shadow pulled his head back out and looked at Daytime Shower.

“We can go,” Shadow declared. “I already risked us too long with this weather. But I have confidence you can fly. Really fly.”

“We can make it before dark,” Daytime Shower smiled.

Chapter 97 - Treasure Hunting

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“Okay,” Shadow said to Thunder and Slice. “We have been sitting on our asses way to long, doing nothing but hoping to be spotted by another search party. With the ice in the north, there is no way Cardinal Spitfire or anypegasus else could get my message until spring. Probably summer. The North doesn’t look like it well let go until the very last moment.

“Yes, our occupied station above is important and so are our daily messages for help. But I am not going to sit here any longer. I am going treasure hunting.”

“You ran out memories to deal with, didn’t you?” Thunder asked.

“Not the point,” Shadow smiled, holding back a chuckle.

“Treasure hunting?” Slice asked. “What possible treasure could there be down here?”

“I heard that there was a gunsmith, Walter Arms, who did a lot of work in the design industry. From what I could pull from the terminals, he helped with some of Ironshod Firearms biggest designs. As well as for other companies.”

“I am not interested in what he did or did not do with them, rather what he did on his own workbench. Things that never got debuted, or were only half finished. There could be a lot of toys hidden there.”

“You have me hooked!” Slice grinned, scheming.

“Let’s go,” Thunder smiled. “But where?”

“Fillydelphia,” Shadow said flatly.

Slice rolled his eyes. “Really? It couldn’t be anywhere else?”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Shadow replied. “The city was a huge manufacturing hub. Where else would it be? The thing you are forgetting about is our naval combat armor we got in Baltimare. We can waltz right in as non pegasi and nopegasus is going to have a clue as to who we are.”

“I’m down,” Thunder shrugged. His stance hadn’t changed despite the location.

“Alright,” Slice sighed. “Fucking shit hole has a fucking shackle on us. It better not draw blood.”

“It won’t,” Shadow replied. “At least not for the same reason. This is us, having fun, on a treasure hunt. Nothing more. The Enclave is not involved. We could paint symbols on the armor if you want.”

“I would very much like that,” Slice smiled. “What design should we do?”

“How about a five pointed star in a circle,” Thunder said.

“Easy enough to paint on our chests,” Shadow stated. “But we should go with white, or an army green. Something that stands out, but doesn’t give anypegasus a target, like red.”

“Navy Blue?” Slice suggested.

“Yeah,” Shadow nodded. “Navy Blue on that sea gray would work great. Lets get to it!”

Painting the armor was easy. They only had to do their chests. The armor was not fitted for them though. That took the longest. But by the end of the day, they all had the armor fitting properly, battle saddles secured and their weapons locked and loaded.

The helmets used combat goggles and were little more than a hood with some hard parts to help repel a solid knock. It did have a com system built in. They opted to not wear the gecko cloaks for a lighter cloak that would fit their sleek, lightweight appearance. A cloak that was too heavy would draw attention and point to them hiding something.

Their wings were hidden with pieced together fabric from their adjustments. They were quickly sewn together and Shadow set up a button system to latch them down.

With everything prepared, Shadow exited Rosemary and sent a message from the hidden cloud terminal. It was a guarantee that there was no mishap in between the overseer’s terminal and their cloud terminal. There was no response as expected. But if the other terminal was ever powered on or looked at again, they all would be there.

Shadow spent some more time looking over Sanctuary. It had grown to a nice little town of about 20. They were keeping themselves on the down low to avoid raiders, but they had defenses built and a good farm going with decent internal trade.

Shadow felt like a god, watching over his creation. His only act was to allow it to grow so the would cover their tracks from Dahlia and others. It had worked. But he also felt responsible for them.

Slice had a solid breakfast ready for them when Shadow got up.

“This is unexpected,” Shadow stated as he sat down.

“I woke up early,” Slice shrugged.

As they were strapping on their gear, Slice spoke up. “No sword Shadow? You have been practicing with it every day and learning very well.”

“Yes, I have been, but no. It won’t work with this double sided saddle. We can work out a better battle saddle configuration for me when we get back. I would like something else, like a shotgun, as my second gun. These are small rounds.”

“I can do that easy,” Slice replied.

Kifo Herixleta had two secrets outside the flame. There was a soul set into the sword. At least part of one. A great master of the way of the sword. It was there to teach, guide and remind Mwokozi if needed.

The second secret was the reminder that heat and cold are not a duality. Cold is simply the lack of heat. The blade could have heat sent into it, igniting it into a blazing inferno, or it could have heat removed, frosting over the blade until the cold burned at the slightest touch.

Shadow drew his pistol, double checking that the band worked under the simple clothes. He was also carrying the Type 41 combat knife rather than the Enclave one since the band recognized it.

Before he stepped passed the stable door, Shadow double checked that he had his personals. Both armbands were secure. His necklace was as well, pressing against him with the weight of the thousand memories it held. His seeds were secure. The books had to be set inside a saddlebag, but they were coming along. The same with the Rainbow Dash Statuette. The more Shadow had it, the less he wanted to part with it.

It was weird, watching the stable door close. Last time, Slice and Thunder were waiting for him behind it. Now, it was no longer an Enclave outpost. It was a forsaken place. Leaving it almost felt right.

They were almost spotted by a unicorn who had gone out to cut down firewood. Thankfully they heard him in time to slide down low and avoid being seen. The agility this armor afforded them saved them for sure.

After that, it was a brisk trot out to Fillydelphia. They were three scavengers heading to Filly. Stupid, but heading to Filly.

As they entered Fillydelphia, they ran into a patrol of several Steel Rangers. These Rangers were not in power armor.

“What business do you have here?” The lead mare asked.

“Scavenging,” Shadow replied. “Trying to make our way.”

“You and your friends there have some heavy weapons to be simple scavengers.”

“We have gotten lucky,” Shadow smiled. “Hoping it holds out long enough here.”

The Ranger took a firm step forward. “You aren’t heading to try your luck with the Disciples, are you?”

“I have been informed of their residence here,” Shadow chuckled. “But their kind is not something we want to associate with. We are clean.”

“As you were, Ma’am, but remember, we are the Ministry of Wartime Technology. If you find anything important for the war effort, inform us or return it to use for the safekeeping. We are the ones left to protect Equestria. And we are always watching to protect its citizens. Even from the Disciples.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded.

“That is new,” Thunder whispered over their coms. “They never associated themselves with the ministry before. I guess they would have that right, but it is new.”

“We never have had direct contact with them as anything but soldiers,” Slice whispered back.

They slowly picked their way through the ruins. A firefight was breaking out every so often. They hadn’t heard this much activity when they had come before. Things were heating up.

“There,” Shadow said, looking at a crumbing building. It was unimpressive. “That should be the Walter Arms company.”

“That is plain,” Slice replied. “I expected more… armsy things.”

“They did designs, not actual production,” Shadow said. “So I expected dull.”

They moved out across the street. As Shadow neared the door, a sandstone colored stallion stepped out. He was smooth looking in an old black business suit and a slicked back dark brown mane. Beside him was what had to be called a ripper. It was well used by the rusted blood on the chains.

“Well, well, well,” He said with the voice of a god. “A mare and her toys. Sporting something fierce. To compensate for something?”

“Just get out of the way,” Shadow said rolling his eyes.

“We can’t do that,” He replied. “You are in our territory. We have our rules.”

Shadow sensed Thunder and Slice taking defensive positions to deal with some other threats behind them.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Slice whispered. “I thought only the Steel Rangers and the Disciples were here. How did we walk right into their territory without seeing them?”

“Obviously, other raider gangs still survive in this war zone,” Thunder replied.

“And what are your rules?” Shadow asked, stalling.

He smirked. “For one, Mares belong to me. Two, trespassers get to leave with their lives after they dump their sacks and give up everything.”

“Thunder?” Shadow openly asked. “Did we grab any caps?”

“I thought you did,” Thunder replied. “So no?”

“We got nuthin,” Shadow said to him. “Sorry.”

“You got some shiny things by your side,” He said still grinning. “And you might be small, but that armor can fit some of us. I did say everything. Of course I have a… special, to propose. You leave your boys and they get to walk out as they are. You ditch everything and come with me. I treat my Mares right, like the Queens they are.”

“And how many Mares do you have?” Slice asked.

“Four. Five if she is wise. It is a good life.”

“You are one patriarchal bastard,” Slice stated. “Your smooth voice intrigues me, but your words are poison.”

“So, I go with you and they get to leave free?” Shadow asked.

“We will kindly escort them to the edge of our territory and if they decide to come back, we will put a bullet into their soft skulls. If they give us trouble, we will put one in yours.”

“Let us consider your proposal,” Shadow said turning his back to him.

“So, we have to remember that everywhere, there are robbers and thieves,” Shadow immediately stated in the huddle.

“I am liking playing their mare angle,” Slice smiled. “We have seen you fight with your bare hooves. This has good potential. We leave and circle back in thirty minutes. They won’t bother him while he has his way with a new conquest.”

“I think the treasure hunter side is talking,” Thunder hesitated. “But part of me really wants to go with it and come back in blasting. I am sure you will get the first shot off.”

“And it is fun playing off of his mistake,” Shadow chuckled. “And I am the mare.”

“He called us toys,” Slice said through a half set jaw. “Your toys. I want revenge just for that. And right now, they have us surrounded and out gunned. And we are not in our armor. We could use a bit of a scenery change.”

“This is risky and stupid but sounds like so much fun,” Shadow chuckled quietly to them. “So yes, lets do it. Give me an hour. If the shooting hasn’t happened by then, move in.”

Shadow turned back to him and hung his head.

“Alright,” Shadow sighed. “We don’t have much choice. I’ll stay. But after they are clear. I have a com piece in my helmet. I will know when my brothers are safe. Until then, I will stay right here in this very spot.”

“Deal,” He smirked. “I am Vulpes, The Fox. And we are The Kings. I am so glad you are to be one of my Queens.”

“Weird ass name,” Slice grumbled as they began to escort them away.

They were led out a different way than they came in.

“All clear,” Thunder reported. “In a secure location. They didn’t try and shoot us in the back. All on you, Miss Shadow.”

“Understood,” Shadow replied, taking his helmet off.

Shadow stepped inside the building and Vulpes led him up two stories to his special place. The floor was office spaces that were converted to living quarters. Vulpes stepped over to a chest of drawers and opened it. He pulled out a red sequined dress and brought it over.

“Change in the bathroom dear, and leave your stuff. I will take care of it later. The girls are inside and will help you with your mane and such. I will be back in a bit after some business is taken care of.”

Shadow stepped into the bathroom. Thankfully it was a single pony bathroom. He slipped his helmet back on.

“Make it five hours. Scout their lines. I have some time.”

Shadow flipped the com off and set it down. He changed out of everything. The ceiling had movable tiles and he slipped his personal, special items away in there for safe keeping. He kept his necklace on and the band was going to stay. But even his totems were slipped into hiding.

The dress fit him well. Cardinal Spitfire would get a kick out of this story. He slid it over his wings and was able to tuck the combat knife and pistol under them. He had six shots, it wasn’t the most comfortable keeping everything tucked away, but it worked.

Vulpes was not there when he exited. He opened the door Vulpes had indicated and stepped in. It closed behind him and he found himself staring at four other mares in various attire and lounging on furniture and pillows. He opened his mouth to speak but closed it.

Shadow opened the door behind him. He had expected it to lock behind him. He was free to depart. Vulpes was an Earth Pony, but there had to be a Unicorn in The Kings. Perhaps they were under enchantment.

“Darling, lets fix your mane,” One of the mares said. “Vulpes said it was a mess. We can make you feel truly beautiful.”

“You can just leave,” Shadow said walking over.

“Of course,” Another said. “We are not prisoners here.”

“Why stay?” Shadow asked.

“You will see. He really does care for us.”

Shadow sat down beside the one who spoke first. She was a black Unicorn with a ruby mane and immediately began to brush his mane.

“Uh,” She said disgusted. “It wants to stand on end. That simply won’t do.”

“Forgive Rose Burst. She does all our manes, including Vulpes and some of the other Kings. I am Ivory Leaf, that is Purple Show and Ornate Charm. And you are?”

Ivory Leaf was well named, green coat with a ivory mane that had several streaks of green running through it. Purple Show was a solid purple with a purple and pink mane. Ornate Charm was a gold coated, silver and pink maned Unicorn.

Shadow coughed to clear his throat. “Shadow Flare.”

“Well, your coat and mane contrast is divine,” Ivory Leaf replied.

“Ow!” Shadow yelped as his mane snagged in the brush. “Thank you. No. Ow! I have never had that said before.”

Rose Burst forced Shadow to lay down alongside her for comfort and a better angle.

“Ow!” Shadow said making a face in pain as the revolver and knife clashed with the move and dress.

“Let’s see what Cutie Mark you have,” Rose Burst said. “Guesses?”

“I bet Shadow is an excellent dancer,” Ornate Charm said. “Ballet shoes?”

“No, its probably something lame,” Purple Show stated. “Just look at her. It will be more wasteland than shoes. I am going to guess a screwdriver. I bet she can fix up all sorts of things, able to wiggle under or into them with her size.”

Shadow forced down a laugh.

“No, I bet it is something to do with jewelry,” Ivory Leaf pitched. “She is wearing a necklace. Something special?”

“Very Special,” Shadow smiled.

“It certainly isn’t about beauty or fashion,” Rose Burst said. “Not with a mane like this. Please tell me it isn’t some ugly knife or gun.”

Shadow didn’t have time to respond as Rose Burst pulled up the dress to see. They stared at his Cutie Mark, trying to understand. Thankfully it was all they saw.

“Three arrowheads, with swords and lightning bolts,” Shadow chuckled. “One means Speed, another Agility, and the third is Power. I am a skilled acrobat. Hoofstands, vaults, back flips and tucks. I can do it all. I put on shows when I have the time.”

Shadow almost said without wings, but caught himself.

“But tell me, how long have you ladies been here?”

“Oh I grew up with Vulpes,” Rose Burst said. “He might have a rule, Mares are his Queens, but you don’t see the others. He keeps us because he is The King of the Kings. Most of The Kings are married. I was given to him when he took over. A King must have a Queen.”

“Vulpes saved me and Purple Show from slavers back a few years,” Ivory Leaf said.

“I ran into The Kings,” Ornate Charm sighed. “While scavenging. I was the smart one and chose to stay, the others fought.”

“And you really all want to stay?” Shadow asked. “I mean, I was just forced apart from my brothers in order to save them.”

“What matters is that he cares for us,” Rose Burst replied. “And cares for us very well.” Her sweet voice was hiding a rough tone that said ‘accept it and move on.’

“Rose is right,” Ivory Leaf smiled. “Yes, he rescued us, but he also truly cares. They all take very good care of us. In a world like this, that is what matters.”

“And where are we?” Shadow asked, moving on.

“Uh,” Rose Burst groaned. “Its a good location with great defenses for the group, but they have been trying to get into that workshop longer than I have been alive.”

“Walter Arms?” Shadow asked for clarification.

“Yes,” Rose Burst grumbled. “I assume you were caught trying to get in as well. Befitting a ruffian like you. But we will turn you into the lady you are inside.”

Shadow shook his head to clear the image from his mind. There was no lady inside. And the idea of it was revolting. Wearing a dress in a cover up was one thing, believing he was a lady another.

“Look,” Shadow said standing up. The brush was stuck in his mane. “I don’t think I can sit around all day, like this.”

“What else would you do?” Rose Burst asked, trying to pull him down. “Let go of trying to take care of yourself. You are safe. No worries.”

Shadow took a step away.

“This isn’t normal for me. This isn’t me.” They didn’t understand the full truth behind those words.

“It is a hard transition, but you will make it,” Rose Burst smiled. She didn’t get up, but she obviously wanted him to lay back down.

Shadow got a better look at the others. Rose Burst was in lingerie and full diva, including jewelry. Ivory Leaf was in a fancy dress and wearing earrings. Purple Show was in a simple dress, accented with a single gold bracelet.

Ornate Charm was stealing glances at him. She was the furthest away from the group and in regular clothes. She was resisting her position. She wasn’t talking unless directly engaged and when she had said that she was the smart one in her group, it wasn’t a happy smart.

“Sit down,” Rose Burst insisted. “You mane isn’t done. Vulpes won’t be back for a while. Relax. It will be okay.”

“Can I see where I will be sleeping?” Shadow asked.

“Mane first darling.”

“I’ll show you,” Ivory Leaf said getting off the couch. “It is the polite thing to do.”

She led him into the next room. There were four beds. Each one was neatly made up and each had a dresser and a nightstand to go with it.

“This is where we spend many of our nights. But in this room, this is where Vulpes sleeps. And likely you for the next few nights until there is a bed set up like ours. He is probably securing those for you right now. He wants us all to be comfortable and not feel forced. We are Queens, not harlots.”

Shadow stepped into Vulpes’ room. It was certainly love central. Red velvet, worn from the ages, pillows and somewhere they had wrestled up a heart shaped bed.

“And the bathroom?” Shadow asked.

“Same one you changed in,” Ivory Leaf smiled. “Only one on this floor. We use the old school dry sink for most of the washing. A bowl with a pitcher of water which we routinely refresh.”

“I should have gone when I changed,” Shadow admitted.

Shadow went out to the bathroom. He actually had to go. His stuff was still on the floor. Vulpes was either taking a huge risk, or just plain stupid. Shadow wanted to say he was stupid, but the mares didn’t notice he was a stallion. Still, they had been expecting a mare, so they saw and heard a mare.

The hairbrush stuck in his mane was stupid looking, so Shadow went back and sat with Rose Burst so she could continue.

“Your mane is impossible!” Rose Burst finally declared. “I don’t know what to do. We will have to work extra hard to condition and soften it.”

Shadow chuckled. “It has never played nice. No matter what was done. This is the nicest it has ever been.”

The door opened and Vulpes came in. “Hello ladies. How are we doing?”

“Shadow’s hair wont cooperate,” Rose Burst whined. “I did my best.”

“Well, you did wonders Rose,” Vulpes smiled. “And Shadow, your mattress is on it’s way up. We are piecing together your own bed unit like the others. It may take a few days, but we already have the perfect mattress for you.”

“Thank you,” Shadow smiled.

Vulpes was in there the whole time as the mattress was brought in and placed with the others. He bid them farewell for now. Shadow was getting concerned. It had been about two hours. There was no attempt to conquest. He was already conquered.

“I am surprised he has,” Shadow began, trying to find the words.

“He is a gentlepony,” Ivory Leaf stated. “He likes you. He offered you safety because of it. He cares for you. He isn’t going to ravish you.”

“Not at all what I was expecting,” Shadow stated.

“He is full of surprises,” Ornate Charm said, hiding something behind it.

“There is no place better in the wasteland than here,” Ivory Leaf smiled.

Shadow’s immediate thought was Rosemary, then Sanctuary. Next up was Dry Dock City. But no matter what, anywhere Cardinal Spitfire was automatically the best place in the world.

It was getting close to dark when Vulpes came back. And the five hours was nearing the end.

“Come Shadow, let us talk while there is still some light. This section of the building lost power a while ago, so it is candlelight after that.”

Shadow followed him into the room and sat down on the bed while Vulpes undid his suit.

“Get comfortable,” Vulpes said. “Whatever you want to wear, we will do our best to find it. I want you comfortable no matter what. But that dress looks lovely on you. You look like you are my Queen and I adore you.”

He was a very handsome stallion.

“I know today has been rough,” He smiled as he sat on the other side of the bed. “I hate days like today. You have a mattress. You can spend the night there if you wish. Or here. Whatever is most comfortable to you.”

Shadow took a deep breath in. He was running out of time and wanted to at least get Vulpes out of the way before things went down. He really needed him out of the way so he wasn’t in the position to hurt him or the other mares in retaliation.

“Where did you get this bracelet?” Vulpes asked Shadow.

“Off a dead guy,” Shadow chuckled. “Its a magic bracelet.”

“Well, it is simple, but eye catching,” Vulpes smiled.

“I found it on him after I killed him,” Shadow added.

“Ah,” Vulpes sighed. “I hate killing. It is nasty. I trust you had a good reason.”

“It was him or me,” Shadow sighed. “But I didn’t do it in a dress.”

Shadow stood up. It wasn’t easy to pull the dress off, but he did and the combat knife was out of it’s sheath and at Vulpes’ throat before the dress settled on the floor.

“Don’t speak,” Shadow ordered in a low voice to avoid being overheard. “Lets make this, interesting. Profitable.”

“Is that a?”

“I said don’t speak,” Shadow growled, pushing the tip of the knife into his skin, drawing a bead of blood. “And yes. It is a penis. I am a stallion. Looks are very deceiving when it comes to me.”

“Now, my friends are lining up to slaughter The Kings. If I can get to my armor, I can stop them. But only if we can work something out. I am getting into that workshop. I need to get in there. I need this whole building actually. Temporarily until we solve our, problem. We don’t care about you and won’t bother or hurt you so long as you peacefully surrender it to us.”

“We have worked too hard to get in,” Vulpes spat. “Not happening. But I will let you get your stuff and walk. Take it. Its your only smart option.”

Shadow chuckled. “You have no fucking idea what you are getting yourself into if you don’t temporarily surrender this building. There is key information I need in here before the workshop.”

“The Kings don’t back down. You kill me, the others will kill you and a new King will take my place. There is no escape.”

“You are an idiot,” Shadow said rolling his eyes.

Shadow let the knife sheath drop as he opened up his wing. The color faded from Vulpes’ face.

Shadow smirked. “Plenty of places for me to go. Plenty of places I will go. And I am not going in bed with you.”

Shadow plunged the knife into Vulpes’ throat, cutting off a scream. He pulled it out and wiped the blood off on Vulpes’ coat. Shadow picked up the sheath and returned the knife to it. He drew the revolver and exited the room.

The ladies were not in bed yet. Shadow walked straight past them. They finally noticed he was a stallion.

“What is going on!” Rose Burst yelled standing up.

Shadow pointed the pistol at her. She had no idea it took two hooves to operate.

“Sit down, all of you. Or you will be in trouble. Not from me. But I am trying to stop The Kings from being massacred.”

As Shadow closed the door behind him, Rose Burst and Ivory Leaf dashed into the back. Vulpes was an idiot. His gear had been moved, but only from the bathroom to a dresser. Shadow flipped the com line on and slapped on his helmet.

“This is Shadow Flare. Slice? Thunder?”

“There you are,” Thunder said with an audible sigh of relief. “We were getting worried. They are big and this will be a nasty fight. But we have some strong tactical options.”

“Vulpes is dead,” Shadow stated.

Rose Burst’s screams meant she had found him.

“So, as nasty as they are, that scream…”

“We heard it,” Slice stated. “And we will draw their fire. We got this.”

Guns opened up in a one-two pattern, taking guards down. They were taken from two different locations. Shadow swept everything up with his wings and arms and hobbled into the room with the others. He dumped it, locked the door and looked at the others as he slipped on his clothes.

“YOU KILLED HIM!” Rose Burst wailed. “Why! Because he mistook you for a mare?”

“No,” Shadow groaned. “Stop your pathetic whining. Its pointless. I am not so conceited to be offended when yet another calls me a mare.”

Shadow began to put his armor on when the door was tried.

“Vulpes? Anypony!”

“He killed him!” Rose Burst screamed.

Shadow rolled his eyes and head as they tried to force the door again. His armor was half on, making things hard. He drew his revolver and fired two shots through the door as a pony tried to force it open with his shoulder.

The door was bucked open by another pony, pistol in mouth. Shadow bobbed to the side, rotated the revolver so it was pointed towards himself, out of the way and throat punched the pony. The esophagus collapsed, putting him into a struggling death of suffocation.

“SHUT UP!” Shadow ordered the ladies. “I tried peace talks but he wouldn’t budge. We need to get into that workshop and he wouldn’t even give any peaceful options considerations. We are not interested in the Kings or their actions. Just the workshop. We need something inside and that is all. A quick matter.”

Shadow finally got the armor and saddle on.

“Now, if I were you, I would wait here until this nasty business is over. I have no qualms with any of you. In fact, Rose, you did a wonderful job on my mane and I appreciate it.”

As Shadow put his revolver’s holster on he felt something sharp be driven into his neck above the shoulder. In one smooth move he had the attacker flipped around so he was on top. As he had expected, it was Rose Burst.

Shadow put his hoof on her throat, limiting her oxygen intake and looked at the others.

“I don’t want to do this,” He pleaded. “But they trapped us both physically and mentally. We had to do their bidding. So, what did she stab me with?”

Ornate Charm spoke. “A file for hooves.”

“I thought I recognized the shape,” Shadow chuckled. “I have used those on my hooves plenty of times. Obviously she put an edge on it.”

Shadow got serious. “Are any of you going to squeal?”

“No,” Ornate Charm immediately said. “Take me with you!”

“Charm!” Ivory Leaf yelled. “They are going to kill him and his friends. Accept it.”

“No! I wont!”

“I will make sure they kill you!”

They looked over at Shadow and Rose Burst as Shadow made the sickening sound of breaking her neck. Shadow hurled at the feeling and sound of what he did.

Shadow panted. “Fuck that sound and the feeling is much worse.”

He had no time to recover as three more Kings bounded up the stairs. Shadow drew his revolver and gunned them down. The last went down in flames from the enchantment.

“Alright,” Shadow said turning his attention back to the three mares. “Ivory Leaf, you are obviously loyal to the death.”

“I will kill you if you turn your back on me!” She hissed.

“Good,” Shadow smile and put the last round into her head. “Just what I needed to make for a clean reload.”

Shadow broke the revolver open and inserted new magnum rounds. The sound was enthralling as he snapped the reloaded revolved back together and sheathed it. He was planning on using his battle saddle from then on.

“How are things?” Shadow asked over the coms.

“Ducking and diving,” Slice panted. “But surviving. No hits. Our superior training is paying off.”

A large explosion sounded.

“I got grenades,” Thunder chuckled. “We are wreaking havoc on their lines. They can’t find us. We might be using our special weapons”

“Cool,” Shadow stated. “I will be backing you up here momentarily. I have killed a few.”

Shadow sighed and looked at Ornate Charm and Purple Show.

“Can you take us with you?” Purple Show asked, almost begging.

“As long as you forget I have wings,” Shadow coldly replied.

“We should do something about that file,” Ornate Charm said. She was clearly unsure what to do.

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged. He immediately regretted the shrug, “My friends can take care of it. Stay here. We are taking The Kings out, but I know where to bring you two.”

Shadow skipped down the stairs. He cleared the empty first floor and then the bottom lobby. They had forgotten about the building, believing the others had killed him.

A group came running by, trying to get to where they thought somepegasus was. Shadow opened fire, easily dispatching them.

That drew attention back to him. But the stallions were off fighting on their territory boundaries. It was the mares and they were mad. They also lacked skill. Shadow shed a tear for each one he casually shot. Most of the rounds were head shots, making for a painless death. But it still hurt Shadow.

They spent another two hours poking around, trying to flush out any holdouts. There were none and they met up at the Walter Arms building.

“Lets barricade ourselves in the second floor,” Shadow said. “We can protect Ornate Charm and Purple Show. Both were Vulpes’ mares and neither wanted to be one. Especially Ornate Charm. She got trapped like we were, except her friends outright fought.”

“We have two mares to protect?” Slice asked concerned.

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “I promised them I have a place for them to be safe. We will take them to Sanctuary. Or better put, get them close and point them in the right direction the last little bit. Both have agreed to forget I have wings.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Thunder stated. He was tired and was not going to argue.

“I have a file that needs to be removed from my neck,” Shadow stated. “So lets get me upstairs and remove it.”

“Fine,” Slice groaned. “I hate stitching you up. But I have the best hooves for it. Sliding the needle through flesh though.”

Slice finished with a big shiver and then followed them upstairs. Ornate Charm knew how to sew and was the one who stitched Shadow up with the guidance of Slice.

“It is the least I could do for you guys getting me out of here and taking me to a safe place.”

Shadow groaned as he stupidly tried to shrug. Thunder answered for him.

“It isn’t anything special. Its kind of what we do. We just never plan it.”

“That clears out the bodies,” Slice informed them.

“And I will take first watch,” Thunder stated.

“I will take second,” Shadow yawned.

“I will take second,” Ornate Charm asserted. “I am not helpless and I used to run watch with our group all the time.”

“I am not arguing,” Shadow shrugged. “I trust her. I will take third.”

Chapter 98 - Soarin's Lighting

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Shadow awoke with a start. His immediate thought was his special items that were still hidden. The second that it was halfway into third watch. Ornate Charm was still diligently watching over everything.

“It’s okay,” She said before Shadow could say anything. “I wasn’t tired and you needed the rest. Stitched up and health potion doesn’t mean that you don’t need rest.”

Shadow got up. “I need to go to the bathroom,” he stated. “I will be right back.”

She nodded in response. Shadow did his business and then retrieved his lifelines. He was going to have to change to put his totems back on. He could do that when the others awoke. Shadow sat down next to Ornate Charm.

She spoke up. “My mind has been filled with the hope of a new life. A life of my own again and with a purpose. There was no sleep once I was awake.”

Shadow just nodded in understanding.

“You are not taking us back to where you are,” Ornate Charm stated. “You have another place in mind.”

“You can not go where we can,” Shadow stated. “But it is a good place. Aptly named. You should enjoy life there.”

“I am a fool to think that you are not taken. That necklace is from her?”

“You are no fool,” Shadow smiled at her. “I am taken. It holds the memories until we can finally be united again. Right now, we are cut off. But we will make it home.”

“And right now, you are just feeling the thrill of being rescued and you feel safe. You are just attracted to your rescuer. It happens. It is normal and it is okay. It is no different than how Purple Show and Ivory Leaf felt. They were not trapped, but they were in love of being rescued by a very handsome pony.”

Ornate Charm gave a sad chuckle. “You are right, but it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“And that is okay,” Shadow said bringing her in for a side hug. “You will soon realize it is for the best as things settle down. There is way too much excitement in the air. You even have trouble sleeping.”

“Thank you. For everything. I never expected you to bring hope to my life.”

“I hate killing,” Shadow sighed. “So it is nice to brighten the day of another. Even better to change their life for the better.”

They sat in silence as the rest of the watch finished up and things began to move. The Kings had ample food supplies. The pre-war packed stuff was much better than their shit rations. Shadow put his totems on and they got to work.

Purple Show picked up a pistol for self defense and Ornate Charm kept with the semi automatic rifle one of the ponies had been carrying when Shadow had gunned him down as he came up the stairs. It wasn’t hard for them to find enough ammo for both of them, and then some.

Slice and Shadow unplugged the terminals from the arms building and moved them across the street to a building The Kings had been using which had power. Slice went back to try and restore power. Thunder played look out while Shadow and the ladies combed through the terminals.

They were useless administrative ones with no value about anything the company was doing. Purple Show found one that was locked down. Shadow began to pick his way through the programming to hack in. He almost was locked out when he stumbled upon the back door and had full access to everything as the administrator.

Most of it was again, administrative, but it was Walter’s personal terminal. The CEO. One of the later, personal entries had what he need.


Project AZRS2P has been finished. There were some problems and with the recent security issues at several firms, the Project has been moved to the Bank of Equestria for safe keeping until the presentation day. The bank has multiple security features including plenty of turrets and automatic systems.

This project is bitter sweet after the unforeseen sequence of events and consequences. The bank vault password is 67CTRFSP68742T1. The key to the safes will be with me at all times.

The sooner this project is closed, the better.


Shadow took a step back and exited the terminal. He had what they needed, but he still wanted access to the inside.

“Guys, the exact treasure I was hoping was in there has been moved to the Bank of Equestria, which is nearby. But lets not leave this workshop unopened.”

“Fuck yeah we are getting inside,” Slice replied.

Slice yelped as he got shocked. This was basic electrical work. He knew how to do this.

Shadow shut down the terminal and moved it to the arms building. It made for a better defense and security for all. It wasn’t much longer before Slice had the power running again.

“Fucking idiots,” Slice grumbled. “They broke their own power lines and it was not hard to fix.”

“The workshop is still locked,” Shadow pointed out.

“Of course it is,” Slice chuckled. “It required two different keys to get in. And neither of them are normal. One is an internal cut key, the other is a centry key with three blades. Now, it will take some time, but I can get them to open.”

Slice pulled out his cloud master key and inserted it into the first lock. It was going to take a while for the key to conform to the proper configuration and it would take all of his concentration.

They gave him his space and Shadow began to look through Walter’s terminal since they had power again. It was all business with this terminal. Walter’s team had submitted multiple designs to the Ministry of Wartime Technology.

The last two designs that the Ministry had bought were the Applesnack Submachine Gun and the Applejack Rifle. Other designs were the M1S1, the U9S Unicorn 9mm pistol, and the 20mm artillery gun.

From the contracts, he was awarded a lot of money and the Ministry was even paying him to do more research. But Walter was not alone. He had a team that made sure they succeeded at creating a better, more secure Equestria.

Private companies had contracted out for a civilian version of the U9S and a pony version of the U9. The Striker Semiautomatic Defense gun in 5.56 was a popular contract and probably made up a considerable number of semiautomatic rifles found in the wasteland. The other one was the DCD Shotgun which was designed to fire non lethal beanbag rounds, but also accepted standard 12 gauge rounds. It’s downside was that there was no choke to allow for the bean bag rounds.

In the Workshop, Walter was joined by Firecracker Burst, a Unicorn, and Long Shot, a former paparazzi photographer with an eye for style and great at building scopes and sights for weapons.

Strike was their ballistic expert who designed new bullets and cartridges. Serena stayed out of the workshop and was their ‘receptionist’ who managed the business side of things and contracts. All except for Long Shot, they were from Ponyville and knew the Ministry Mares before the war.

“First one down,” Slice informed them. “It is getting late. You might want to secure lunch.”

Purple Show and Ornate Charm insisted on going to find food. They wanted to pull their own weight as much as possible and it was safe enough.

Slice did break for a quick lunch. He estimated the key was halfway done conforming to the lock. It was a lot more difficult than he had expected.

It was mid afternoon when they all heard the satisfying roll of multiple deadbolt locks snap out of their holes and the unlocking of doors.

Ornate Charm used her horn to light up the room until Slice could find the junction box. Multiple terminals booted up and so did the air filtration system. Each terminal was beside a work bench. There were seven work benches. Three along the side walls and one giant one along the back wall.

Thunder closed the doors and locked them again. It was easier than trying to guard the door. He wanted to have a look around, not stand guard.

There were three guns on workbenches. The first was on Workbench 3, along the left wall. The other two were on the right at 6 and 7. They approached 3 first. It had a picture of a sage Unicorn with a fiery mane and a flaming Cutie Mark.

The gun was unlike any they had seen before. It had mount points for a battle saddle, but it was almost like a shotgun, except it was one long tube with a box on the side. Shadow opened up the unsecured terminal. He clicked on ‘Project overview’ and read it aloud.


Project AZRS1,

The Zebras have begun to field powerful robot combatants. This is Project Anti Zebra Robot Service Weapon 1. The goal is to disable the robots without a conventional system.


Shadow skipped forward to the last entry and began to read it aloud.


Project AZRS1 is needed, but we can’t get it out of development stage. We have upped the shock power to lethal levels, but the waves won’t go beyond 50 yards. The troops need a weapon that can shut down the robots out to 300 yards.

How to deliver the electromagnetic shock out to those distances without a unleashing a conventional round is eluding us. Currently, the weapon only disables them for at most, 30 minutes. But that is enough time to deal with or reboot it to our advantage.

We have tried to focus it into a beam, but it still stays within 100 Yards and it has been burning out of the focuser even at low levels. Perhaps the problem lies within the enchanted gem itself.

We have contacted the Ministry of Arcane Sciences for assistance. They are sending somepony to take a look and help solve this problem.


“I don’t think their assistant made it,” Slice said holding the weapon. “But she is good out to 50 yards. I think we should take it.”

“Of course we are taking it,” Shadow said shaking his head. “Besides, the Bank of Equestria has major security shit and we need to disable it. Doing so in a manner that lets them go back online is a nice advantage. We can keep others from snooping after we leave. Leave no trace.”

Shadow stepped over to the large workbench. The picture above the terminal was of a large, brown Earth Pony with a short cropped mane. He pulled up the most recent project. Project AZRS2. “Check out the others. I want to take a look at this one. It should be about the treasure I have been seeking.”


Project AZRS2

The Zebras have begun to field powerful robot combatants. This is Project Anti Zebra Robot Service Weapon 2. Our primary goal is to use an unconventional weapon to disable the robots. While I am confident the project will be a success, I am preparing a conventional design to ensure our troops are safe.

Strike had recently developed a powerful round that will easily do the job and I am building the rifle around it. The round is already being used in several heave machine gun designs we are building. That young stallion is a ballistic genius. All of his days bowling have sharpened his mind for this type of work. Sad that his skill has to be applied in such a manner.


Shadow read through each report. Most were useless updates about materials and overcoming different aspects of design. Walter had tried to make the rifle semiautomatic, but was forced to ditch it for the more stable bolt action.


Today Applejack herself stormed into the workshop. It was an unscheduled visit and she was fuming.

The week prior I had let Dane Tee Dove take a spare prototype of the rifle to show Ironshod. She was impressed at our test results, but wanted to conduct some of their own before we presented it to the Ministry. I have never had a problem with her or them before, so I let her borrow it.

Applejack knows my designs well and came in raving, asking how we could have designed a rifle to kill our own. She called it an Anti-machine Rifle. Ironshod stole my design and put it into production without approval of anypony outside of their company.

I had no idea what to respond. I turned to the data we had acquired. The Steel Rangers have only been around a year or so, but I had designed a weapon that would easily punch through their armor. And it was a question of when, not if, the Zebras get a hold of the design and make their own.

It took time, but after letting her comb through every report, every test, everything pertaining to Project AZRS2 and showing her AZRS1 and all we had done there; but she removed us from any blame. Every test we had done was against robots. She could see that it was the honest truth that our designs were purely to protect Equestria, and that we had not realized the dark flaw in AZRS2.

I had never seen Applejack cry, but she broke down in tears in our workshop. I am not sure how much she has slept the past few days. The others had skillfully exited before to give us private time. She had gone through a rough few days dealing with Ironshod.

I am mortified that I did not foresee the dark side of the design. I never would have let it out of my workshop it if I had known. I would have locked everything away in our cellar.

I showed her the finished projects, Applejack and Applesnack, that we were about to pitch to the Ministry. She was optimistic, but wanted a full, official report to be drawn up for the presentation. Telling her that we had named it the Applejack Rifle because it had the power she had in a buck did bring a slight smile to her face.

She asked me to never to make another weapon powerful enough to kill our Steel Rangers. I pulled out Project AZRS2P for clearance. She wasn’t happy with it, but it was for a worthy cause. They had deserved it. She gave me permission to continue to make them, and only those two.

I feel terrible. As soon as the personal projects are done, I am sealing this project away for good.


“Shadow,” Thunder called. He was extremely happy. “This is the first Applesnack Submachine Gun! This was hoof produced and doesn’t even have serial number! The same with the Applejack Rifle!

“And they have this bow and a crossbow! They are fascinating designs that they hoped to field in combat for silent missions. I am taking them and their equipment. The project was rejected by the Ministry of Wartime Technology, but it is still really good!”

“Sweet!” Shadow grinned. “And, there is a cellar in here that holds the unknown. At least I think it is in here. Walter mentioned locking stuff away in a cellar.”

“Let’s find this bitch!” Ornate Charm said rearing up. “I may not get anything from it, but you are getting me to safety.”

Her horn glowed and she began to comb every inch of the floor with Slice. Purple Show was sitting at their break table, staying out of the way and drinking a room temperature Sparkle-Cola. She had several other bottles out from the rest of them. They had been sitting in the fridge all these years.

Shadow turned back to Project AZRS2P. This had to be the rifle for The Captain and Spitfire.

The log entries for that project continued after the AZRS2 ones.


Today the gems Trixie Lulamoon enchanted for us arrived. The came in a fancy box she had made with her Cutie Mark on top. It was not the container we sent the unenchanted gems in. Show off.

I have my doubts about using her magic, but the Ministry of Arcane Sciences trusts her and more importantly, the head Mare, Twilight Sparkle does. She was the one who gave the assignment to Trixie Lulamoon.


Onto the next one.


The gems have been installed and aligned with the help of Firecracker Burst. Tomorrow I am taking the rifles out to test. Strike is coming with me to be my spotter and to help carry the ammo.


And the next.


The rifles performed better than expected. I am astounded by Trixie’s skill. It is a lot better than when she came to Ponyville. She will never be able to defeat an Ursa Major, but her magic has improved dramatically.

Each rifle’s gems sucked up the recoil so it was incredibly easy to use. Like planned, these are perfect for a pegasus to snipe with. It won’t move the shooter like the regular version will and the weight is like a feather. It’s magic held, meaning some of the moving parts we removed were not needed. And the thing should never jam because we put a gemstone for that as well.

It’s ballistics are more accurate because of the magic, but it still is susceptible to wind and gravity over long distances because it fires real bullets.

Soarin’s Lighting was beyond expected. The rifle’s barrel lit up like lightning as it sucked up the recoil and the hit was phenomenal as the bullet itself struck like lighting. The inch thick metal target had burn marks. The only problem is that the burn marks are in the shape of Trixie Lulamoon’s Cutie Mark.

The rifle was able to surpass the basic rifles capability to blast through two inches of steel and punched through five. We stopped testing after five because we didn’t have thicker targets. Even if the round was stopped by armor, the target will get a very nice shock from the electrocuted round.

Spitfire’s Thunder was unique as well and performed to the same standards. She sounded like the god of thunder himself/herself had brought his/her hammer down on the target. No electricity, but the round punches like a hammer.

The round won’t fragment if it is completely stopped by armor. It will transfer all of the kinetic energy into the target which will be a devastating blow. Our test targets not only were pierced, but were rent apart. We were firing at heavy duty armor plating.

I do not expect the bullets will rend apart lighter armor. Like what the enemy troops wear, or even Steel Ranger armor. Those are too light. It will just punch in like a real round. They can’t stop it.

I hate to say it, but Trixie Lulamoon outdid herself.


The second to last entry.


The body pieces came back from the shop. They did an amazing job with the paint schemes. They are ready to be paired up with the expertly blued hardware.

Spitfire's Thunder’s name plate came out marvelously and fit perfectly with the flame-styled filigree I had asked for. Soarin’s Lighting was electric. Blue and white bolts cracking across the surface. Again, the embossed name plate was expertly set in so it flowed with the scheme.


The final entry surprised Shadow.


The rifles have been broken down for storage and are ready for presentation. The final details are being worked out on that. But soon, two of Equestria’s greatest pegasi will receiving weapons befitting them.


There was no mention of the move to the Bank of Equestria. It concerned Shadow, but he figured since it was an unsecured terminal, it probably didn’t have that information.

Shadow joined Purple Show and Thunder at the table, drinking Sparkle-Cola. They were watching Slice and Ornate Charm work to opened the cleverly hidden cellar. The floor was wooden, but the cellar flowed with them so pieces were sticking out and the top had to pulled up then out.

It was a third key, but of typical design. Slice had it open quickly. The light was turned on and they heard Slice’s wonder from below.

“This is amazing,” He called to them. “So much is in here.”

“We will come down if it is worth it,” Shadow called back. “Are we talking guns, or scrapped projects?”

“Most are scrapped designs,” Slice called back a bit later. “There is a set of locked boxes that hold successful designs, but none of them are impressive. Most of them are seen in the wasteland or their further developed counterparts are.”

Slice came back out.

“Yeah, not much of value,” He said as he locked the cellar. “I did grab their prototype DCD Shotgun and a ton of 12 gauge beanbag rounds. This baby doesn’t feed from a tube below the barrel like a typical shotgun. She has 10 round magazines. I grabbed the file on it. The magazines didn’t feed the beanbag rounds to their satisfaction. They set their bar high. Perfectly on the 12 gauge, but this baby was designed for civilian control via non-lethal rounds. So they went with the six round tube, hoping to work on the feed mechanism for the magazines later. I’m sure I can make it work.

“And then they have these giant ass rounds for their big project. I assume they have something to do with your treasure.”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “They do.”

“Well they are heavy,” Slice said as he let the ammo can thud onto the floor. “So it better be worth it.”

“I agree,” Shadow nodded. “It better be worth it. Now get over here, have a drink and some food.”

Slice left the ammo can on the floor and joined them. They didn’t have the luxury of lounging around for long, not locked inside like they were. Being unable to see outside was dangerous.

“Look, you saved my neck, now it is time for me to make sure you are safe as we exit,” Purple Show insisted as they prepared to leave.

They unlocked the door and she slipped out. It was all clear and they exited easily. It was getting late, almost dark.

“Should we hunker down for the night?” Slice asked.

“No, lets push to the bank and hold there,” Thunder said.

“I don’t want to stay,” Shadow said. “But we have no idea what the bank’s status is. We leave in the morning, for safety reason.”

Thunder grumbled but complied.

It was another painful night spent in the second floor of Walter Arms. Shadow didn’t like bringing the mares up here again. A reminder of what they just escaped. But it was the safest place they had. At least this time, they would actually leave in the morning.

Shadow walked to the back of the floor where he had killed Vulpes. The dress was there, right where he had dropped it. Shadow picked it up and examined it. It was in great shape and would fit Cardinal Spitfire. He also could wear it for laughs from her. He needed a good laugh. He needed to hear her laugh. Shadow put it in his bags. It would go back with him, for her.

The Kings had stockpiled plenty of food, meaning it was more prewar packaged goods before they began to stalk through the ruins. They were not going to be caught unaware by any gangs again.

A firefight erupted ahead of them and they dove for cover. They waited for the gunfire to die down before they pushed ahead with great caution.

“There it is,” Shadow whispered. “And its right next to a clinic? Interesting choice.”

They waited a while before believing it was secure and dashing across. Slice grabbed the door and pushed it in. Thunder darted through, clearing the empty place and Shadow was the last through, walking backwards in. Slice tried to lock the door, but that mechanism had broken a long time ago.

“It’s a bank,” Thunder stated. “This place has to have some real gems. Even after all these years.”

“Lets start with clearing the upstairs administrative and business sections,” Shadow said. “Slice, this floor is yours with the ladies.”

“Right,” Slice said trying to wink with the goggles. It failed.

“Don’t be stupid,” Shadow said.

The ladies joined Shadow in a quiet laugh.

The building was empty and no breaches anywhere. The top floor had a wall that looked a bit unstable, but that was nothing to worry about at the moment. They went back downstairs.

“Slice,” Shadow said. “It’s you and me. Have that AZRS1 on standby. This place is well protected on the way to the vault. Lets knock them offline.”

“Right,” Slice grinned.

It was a lot of diving and rolling, but Shadow and Slice worked to knock out all of the turrets. When they got to the vault, Shadow opened the terminal and was quickly unlocking the vault thanks to the password. Oddly, this door retracted down, into the floor.

“I am going to make sure that we don’t get shot in the back,” Slice said, giving Shadow the cloud master key. “That door is marked security for a reason. I will make sure we are on it’s approved list.”

Shadow just nodded and slipped into the vault. He was soon unlocking each and every safe, sweeping the often pointless contents into a bank bag. The vault had plenty empty bags. He filled one and then two. It was mostly old prewar coins and pony’s important papers. Little value to them.

Shadow got to a larger safe and pushed the key in. This one was tricky, but he let the key work it’s magic.

“Wow,” Slice said entering. “You certainly swept up everything.”

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged. “If you are going to rob a bank vault, do it right.”

Slice picked up the bags and put them in his saddlebags.

“I never got the system to recognize us,” Slice said. “But I got a robot up and running. Flamethrower and everything. We have about five minutes until everything comes back online.”

“Great,” Shadow groaned as he unlocked the largest safe. This one held toys. Military toys. Grenades and mines. Filled it to the top. All magic, which meant a whole lot of boom.

Shadow stuffed them into his bags and focused on the next safe. It finally clicked and Shadow pulled out the prize he was looking for. In a second he had Soarin’s Lightning pieced together.

It was lighter than he expected, even after reading about it. The lightning bolts infused in the metal danced as if they were alive. The blue gems that were set along the barrel to reduce the recoil glistened with life.

A beeping began, slow and stead.

“1 minute countdown!” Slice yelped.

Shadow grabbed the stack of papers in the safe and they dashed out. Slice kept running, but Shadow had to close the vault. He locked it up tight and dashed away as the turrets came online. Several shots were taken but they all missed as he dove out of the way.

“I also found this book,” Slice said as Shadow got up. “Increasing Your Sales Figures.”

“Are you going to read it?” Shadow asked.

“Fuck no,” Slice laughed before tossing it onto a desk. The book landed solidly but slid, down and off.

Shadow cheered as he failed while Slice booed. A little friendly competition never hurt anything.

“Try again?” Shadow asked.

“Nah, it may be the start of the hallway, but I don’t want to get any closer than I am right now to those turrets. I may have put their lethality and sensitivity up a few notches.”

“Of course you did,” Shadow chuckled.

They trotted over to the others in the lobby.

“Our perimeter is being probed,” Thunder said quietly. “So if you could keep the hollering down.”

“Steel Rangers?” Shadow asked.

“Worse,” Thunder said glancing at Shadow.

Thunder trotted over to him. “That is a fucking amazing gun,” He marveled.

“Designed for a Pegasus Sniper,” Shadow grinned. “We have not faced the business end of the regular model, thankfully.”

“This is a worthwhile treasure,” Thunder said taking it in his hooves. “Too bad he only made one.”

“I only had time to find the one,” Shadow sighed. “The turrets came back on line before I could get it’s sister. But we are not heading back down.”

“As beautiful and powerful it is, not worth it,” Thunder concurred.

“I found you magic grenades and mines,” Shadow grinned.

“Perfect,” Thunder chuckled. “We are going to use them to trap those bastards outside. If I set things right, when they come in, the trap will not only go off, but collapse the area so the door is pinned by rubble. Helping to ensure that the vault is never opened and that the other gun is safe.”

“Lets kill these fuckers,” Slice grinned.

They backed out, letting Thunder do his thing. Once things were set, Thunder opened the front door with little subtlety. They were all at a safe distance, but they heard several gruff Disciples charge in.

They set off the trap, which forced the door closed from the blast and did more than drop rubble onto the door. The explosion also cause the wall they were concerned about above to crumble.

Shadow crept up to the lobby and looked around. The door was secure. The blast was massive and stuff was still oozing. He saw the back of a safe on the now exposed wall of the clinic beside it. Whatever was in the safe was gone from the explosion. It would take somepony small, only a little bigger than Shadow, to slip through and even then, the front door was secure.

Gunfire erupted above Shadow and he scrambled to the top. The compromised wall had opened up to a joint building which housed raiders. Thunder and Ornate Charm were blasting away at them, making them bleed. Slice was pinned by another as he tried to protect Purple Show.

Shadow dashed in, vaulting over the gunfire into a roll. He came out of it, bucking a raider in the head. The raider’s head bounced off the wall with a crack and Shadow bucking it again to finish him.

Now that Slice was free, he was able to flank with Shadow and make the raiders pay for the way they decorated the place. Bloody walls, dead animals and other gross, horrible things that pointed to unchecked savagery, not reasonable beings.

They were having trouble with two pinned raiders. Each was behind cover that their pathetic 5.56 rounds couldn't pierce. Shadow pulled out his revolver and put a three rounds through the garbage can one was hiding behind. The can began to burn and the raider was silenced.

The other was trickier. He was behind a desk and out of the way, but in order to leave, they had to go past his direct line of fire. Thunder was out of grenades.

“Suggestions?” Shadow asked as he reloaded his revolver.

“We are wasting precious ammo,” Thunder said. “Can you hop out and fancy around?”

“This is a big risk,” Shadow replied. “I am not confident in that.”

They jumped as Ornate Charm racked a shotgun. “Or, I could use this and levitate it around. Bang bang, one of you jumps around to make sure he is dead.”

“Shadow,” Thunder and Slice volunteered.

“Fine, feed me to the wolves,” Shadow sighed playfully.

Ornate Charm emptied the shotgun and Shadow danced around. The raider had been hit in the leg with bird shot. Shadow kicked away her pistol and drew his combat knife. A knife to the throat always solved the problem. This time, the victim got a blood curdling scream off before the knife silenced her.

“Fuck! I hate that,” Shadow shivered. “Good work Ornate Charm. Blind firing like that isn’t easy.”

“Thanks,” She blushed. “But please, just call me Charm.”

Shadow nodded.

Ornate Charm picked up another shotgun and unloaded it. It was in poor condition. She decided to carry the shotgun as a secondary weapon. They helped her gather what shells were around before heading down the building and out into the street. They couldn’t fix there being one way into the bank. It’s defenses would have to hold it.

Thunder led them out, quickly moving through the streets on a westward pathway. They scrambled through a half destroyed building and kept their heads down as much as possible. There were several close calls, but they made it out into the suburbs as the light began to fade.

“Not a bad day,” Shadow smiled as they secured the house they had chosen to spend the night in. “Profitable.”

Slice shook his head. “If you call two bags of whatever was in the safes profitable, then yes.”

“Like I said, if you are going to rob a bank vault, get it all. If only we had another five minutes to finish out the last few safes and clean up the stuff I dropped.”

“I had to carry enough, thank you.” Slice shot back.

“Yeah, yeah,” Shadow said rolling his eyes. “Give me the ammo so I can carry my fair share.”

“Well, since you asked,” Slice said sarcastically. “I guess I can. It shouldn’t slow you down much.”

Shadow picked up the can. It was much heavier than he expected. He grunted. “How can this weight so much when the rifle weighs so little?”

“Magic,” Slice said waving his hooves in front of his face for effect.

The ammo can forced Shadow to reorganize his saddlebags.

“I need more bags,” Shadow stated. “Like our old double bags or something. But they have to be rugged.”

Shadow played with the idea of using Dream Catcher’s bags. Part of him believed she would have wanted him to carry them. But there would always be that constant reminder of everything. He had put the round through the bag. It was soiled.

“We shouldn’t have a problem adjusting our spares,” Thunder said. “Maybe next round, we go for a trading run. And actually bring caps.”

Both of them chuckled at their mistake.

The night was easy and the next day they were making an easy walk out of the suburbs and into farmland. Shadow wondered how long these farms would sustain themselves with the Disciples gaining territory. If a gang in Fillydelphia didn’t die fighting for their turf or join up, they would be pushed out and likely come after the easy pickings of the farms.

The Steel Rangers had to patrol these parts very well. It was vital to their survival. But they couldn’t be everywhere all the time.

As they were nearing the edge of the farms a group intersected them. Shadow knew from a ways off who they were. Their stupid cloaks gave them away.

“Let me talk,” Shadow said to the others. “Don’t say anything about us taking you to a safe place. It won’t be safe anymore if you do.”

They waited patiently for the Steel Rangers to intercept them.

“Lot’s of weapons you have on you,” Dahlia said.

“We got lucky,” Shadow replied. “We have been able to make a decent profit off this land. And we like to keep idiots from thinking twice about jumping us.”

“I haven’t see you three mares or either of you two stallions around,” Dahlia stated. “And I get around.”

“Obviously not enough,” Shadow calmly replied. “You can’t be everywhere. And who exactly are you?”

“Dahlia and these are my Dragoons.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded.

“So you have heard of us.”

“No,” Shadow chuckled. “No. Your reputation does not proceed you.”

“You are a bit, nervous,” Dahlia stated. “So are your companions.”

“There are eight of you,” Thunder asserted. “And five of us. You outnumber us, your team is spread out to cover us and you certainly have us out gunned. We might look like we are packing some heavy guns, but we had a hell of a time in Filly with some raiders. And they outnumbered us as well. Thank goodness we are the better shots.”

“Alright,” Dahlia said taking a step back. “We have no reason to detain you at all. And we mean you no harm. But if you find several pegasi in dark blue armor, let us know. Or any pegasi for that matter. They are wanted by the Ministry of Wartime Technology and are extremely dangerous. Don’t try and take them for a bounty. It doesn’t exist.”

Shadow kept them still until Dahlia was a ways away on their patrol. He breath a big sigh of relief and they pressed on.

“I know we don’t know things,” Ornate Charm hesitated. “But you have run into her before, haven’t you?”

“I wish I could deny it,” Shadow spat.

“How many of your friends has she killed?”

Shadow had to stop to think. “One. A horrible act. Deplorable. No mercy for us or our situation. The Steel Rangers killed another of us in cold blood.

“Dahlia is hunting us for a reason. Our retaliation for our first meeting, when they killed our friend while he was talking peacefully with them; well it was messy and they were unprepared for what we could dish out at the time.”

Shadow let out a sorrowful sigh as he hung his head. “But those days are gone.”

“I am truly sorry,” Ornate Charm said putting her hoof on Shadow’s shoulder. “I wish I had kept my mouth shut.”

“No, it is fine,” Shadow softly replied. “It helps the healing. Its not much for us three to talk about it together. Sadly.”

They continued on, making it to the forest.

“We will camp here,” Thunder decided.

“You mean again,” Slice said, uncovering one of their old campfires.

“Well, it is a good spot,” Thunder fumbled in response.

“Just settle in,” Shadow said annoyed. “I will grab some firewood. We have the time available to easily get a good coal bed going for warmth.”

Shadow used his hoof laser, a rock and some wood shavings to get the fire going. He removed the beam focuser so that the laser emitted a wider band that just heated the area. The rock got hot and helped catch the tinder on fire.

Shadow refocused the laser and put it away. They kept the fire low as they all ate field rations and they soon had a good coal bed going for warmth. It would hold through the night if it was gently fed more fuel.

Shadow took third watch. He was surprised when Ornate Charm woke up, soon after the watch started. She just needed the bathroom. But she was awake and there was no going to sleep so she sat beside him.

“You guys have been through a lot,” She finally said.

“Yep,” Shadow nodded. “Good and bad. Both extremes. We don’t belong here, but we are forced to be here, for now. Hopefully, we will soon disappear just like we came. And just leave a scar that will heal and disappear with time. Forgotten shadows on this wretched land.”

“You must come from a very different place.”

“Very,” Shadow nodded. “Very different. Where bullets are not thought about unless you are a soldier defending our homes and where death is of old age or by a freak accident. We have our fears, but they are trivial compared to this nightmare.”

“And you are stuck here?”

Shadow steeled his heart but hung his head. “Sadly, yes. We are journeyers. Our job was to reconnect with here. But we have not been told to come home. It seems we have been left and forgotten. We are here until they decide we can come back. They will shoot us if we are not allowed back. It is a broken system that we didn’t know was broken until after things broke. It has kept us as a whole safe, but our lives may be the very price of that safety.”

“Why not join us, where you are bringing us?”

“Because we have to hold on to hope that we will see our families again. My wife is waiting for me to come home. If we give up, and leave where they know we are supposed to be, then we have abandoned that hope for good.”

They sat in silence for a while before Ornate Charm had another question.

“Do you get mistaken for a mare a lot?”

Shadow chuckled. “Enough. It used to bother me when I was younger. But once I found my calling, it stopped. Now I get a kick out of it. It has it’s advantages, as you have seen. My wife will get a really good laugh out of Vulpes thinking I was a mare and becoming a Queen. Me wearing a dress, she will never let me live it down.”

“But that is where the fun lies. In being vulnerable about something I can not help, and surprising so many because they never expect me to be able to do what I do. When we talked Cutie Marks, I didn’t lie when I said that I am an acrobat.”

“And it only helped me be better for this job. I can strike fast and accurately, dealing hard enough strikes, few know what hit them when they have to face me. I am a mean hoof to hoof fighter. I hate it. I have a power that surprises even me.”

“Yeah,” Ornate Charm nodded. “You certainly can handle yourself in an up close fight.”

“I grew up on a farm. It was north, making for harsh farming conditions. We worked the land all year around, made our living well. We didn’t go without and we wanted little more than to make sure the others at home were fed. No matter what part of home there were at.

“I am stronger than I look and I can carry heavy weights. You can’t move me, but I can’t pull. My size puts me at a disadvantage for the angle. But I love working on the farm. A good purpose. A good life.”

“That explains some things,” Ornate Charm chuckled. “But there is a whole lot more to you.”

“Yes, I suppose there is,” Shadow replied.

Ornate Charm and Purple Show did not want to eat any field rations. They had eaten enough for a lifetime the night before. They were confused at the Inquisitors laughter. They were expecting their disapproval to be a slight against their food. Neither of them expected that they all shared the same feelings.

It was a nice walk through the woods as they finished their journey. They got within hearing distance of Sanctuary and pointed the two of them in the right direction.

“You two can take these,” Slice said pulling out the loot sacks from the bank. “We really do not need them. I am sure they have some value in them to you and where you are going. Fair warning, Shadow just dumped all the contents of the safes in here. We have no real idea what is in these bags.”

“Thank you,” Purple Show said as they were put in her bags. “We will never forget your kindness and generosity.”

“Goodbye,” Ornate Charm smiled. “I hope everything works out for you all.”

They turned back to head east for a bit before Shadow slipped around to check that they had made it. They did and we being warmly welcomed.

Shadow joined the others. They had unbuttoned the fabric hiding their wings. As soon as it was dark, they took off, climbing to a good height and cruising to the plateau, unseen.

Shadow checked the cloud terminal as the others opened the door. It had no new messages. Shadow sent one confirming they had come back and headed inside.

“To do list?” Slice asked when Shadow joined them.

“I need to adjust some bags,” Shadow stated. “And I want my saddle changed up so the sword can come and we drop one of the machine guns for a shotgun. I can’t carry a heavier arsenal than that without drawing major attention to myself.”

“On it,” Slice grinned. “Finally something to do.”

“I should adjust mine as well,” Thunder stated. “Shadow, can you make me an explosives bag?”

“Sure can,” Shadow nodded. “Slice, do you need a bag?”

“While you are at it, another set would be nice. Like on my back, in between my wings.”

“I was considering that for myself,” Shadow chuckled.

“Hey,” Thunder exclaimed. “We made it to Filly and back without a gunshot wound. Almost made it without losing any blood, but Shadow had to go and get stabbed.”

“I was in the most compromised position,” Shadow shot back. “But it was fun. I had way to much fun.”

“It was,” Slice sighed contently. “We went treasure hunting and we got treasure. And we also did some good again. We made a difference in their lives. We freed them. They may not have been slaves, but they were held against their will.”

“Agreed,” Shadow smiled. “I am so glad I had Soarin’s Lightning broken down when Dahlia intercepted us. Otherwise it would have been bad. She would have wanted it.”

“But, we fooled her,” Slice said elated. “We got away with talking to Steel Rangers without them knowing it was us. Twice! It was even better when we talked with Dahlia!”

“We did a really good job, all around,” Thunder said, beaming.

Chapter 99 - The Slog

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“Bleh,” Slice said examining his muddy hoof. They were heading south east to check out the Hayseed Swamp. He had just stepping into it’s northern boundary that the was hidden in the forest to it’s north. They were exploring on their own and had hoofed it the entire way.

Shadow had adjusted their saddlebags and they had worked on their weapon load outs. Slice cut out his left gun for more room to carry stuff. Thunder kept his to fully automatic but expanded his magazines.

Shadow’s set up was completely overhauled. The both guns had been removed to set them up properly. The right side had the DCD shotgun sitting on top of a 5.56 Rifle. Slice had gotten the magazines to work flawlessly with the beanbag rounds.

The rifle was overhauled too, making it very reliable and technical. Shadow could easily fire a single round, small bursts, or let it all go at up to 700 rounds per minute. It made things easier than working out a selector switch. The whole set up was designed so that he could wear the sword on his left while packing a punch bigger than he was.

The sword had some changes as well. It was so ornate it was dangerous to show. Shadow had to create a wrap to cover the belt up. The sheath, guard, grip, and pommel were also gilded, and needed to be disguised.

When it was all together, it fit well and suited their individual needs. They were light and maneuverable, yet able to carry more than enough food and water for the trip.

“Charting this spot,” Shadow said. “We have some fun coming up.”

“Messy,” Slice said trying to fling all of the filth off.

“We are heading into a swamp?” Thunder stated. “I figured you knew this would happen.”

“Knowing and experiencing are two different things,” Slice sighed.

“Lets continue,” Shadow said stepping out ahead of them.

They had to watch their step as the ground began to be more and more uneven. They soon were dashing around on small, squishy islands. They ended up in the muck and water more than they wanted to. Their hooves were caked in mud.

“We should make camp,” Slice said trying to clean his hooves off from his last misstep.

“We can make camp up there,” Thunder pointed.

“A tree?” Slice gawked.

“Its a good position,” Shadow shrugged. “Its got a really good trunk that flays out it’s branches perfectly. We can lay up there, out of the mud and water. Plus, we have the height advantage.”

“No fire,” Slice said annoyed.

“I bet we can,” Shadow chuckled as he hopped up into the tree. It was tall, but there were plenty of knots and side branches. They wouldn’t need their wings.

The tree was fully alive. There was no dead or hollowed center on the top. It was solid, green wood. Shadow set aside his gear and hopped down to gather wood. There were enough dead trees around to gather wood for a warm enough fire.

The fire dried their hooves and solidified the mud around them. It kept the damp out, just enough, but it was not enough for solid sleep. Slice was the crankiest in the morning. Shadow had survived a lot of harsh days and nights farming the north, but even this wasn’t something he couldn’t shake off. They all were fighting to not be persnickety.

They continued in a south east direction.

“I am serious,” Shadow replied. “These waters may be a swamp, but they have a flow. It is flowing south east.”

“He is probably right,” Thunder said. “Freaky, but right.”

Shadow dashed across a few rocks and onto a downed tree. It shifted beneath him and he almost fell in.

“That was close,” Thunder said as Shadow was catching his breath.

“Yeah,” Shadow coughed. “I don’t want to test the depth of the water.”

They bounded across a few patches of grass and then walked along a wide log towards the root base. Slice jumped up onto the base first and quickly jumped off with a screech. Thunder was right up and over to help him.

Shadow was last. Shadow saw nothing that should have made Slice screech like that. The ground shifted and Shadow dove off into a roll, coming around to look at where he had been standing. A giant snake head lifted off the ground, connected to the ‘log’ they had just been walking on.

It struck like an bullet. They dove out of the way, but Slice was tossed into the water. He was floundering with his gear. Thunder jumped into the water and it’s shifting floor to save him.

Shadow put a round into the head to distract it from it’s meal. The round did nothing but cause five more heads to rise out of the bog.

“Um, guys!” Shadow called out nervously.

“Hydra,” Slice coughed as he got his footing.

“So, run,” Shadow asked backing up.

“DUH!” Slice said crashing through the water to the nearest land.

Shadow stayed on land as much as possible as they ran but he was still forced to splash through it at times. They fanned out. Far enough to split the beast’s attention, close enough to aid if one of them had a problem. At one point or another, they each ended up submerged from tripping or a deep pocket in the water.

Shadow stumbled out of the water and onto dry land.

“Options?” Shadow coughed.

“Its only supposed to have four heads,” Slice gasped.

“Big help,” Shadow shot back.

Shadow calmed his mind and surveyed the area. A good ways out was a tree, alone. The tree and it’s clump were on the side of what could be considered a lake by the size of the clearing. It would guarantee Shadow had a clear shot.

“I’m heading for that solo tree!” Shadow said as he dashed off. “I will use it to lineup and shoot the thing with Soarin’s Lighting.”

“Got it,” Thunder panted.

Shadow jumped into the tree and pulled out Soarin’s Lighting. It was together in a few seconds and he put the magazine in. Shadow looked down the scope and lined up the shot. He wasn’t used to a bit trigger, but it wasn’t that hard to work.

The Hydra’s heads made it a poor choice to try and shoot them. If one was taken out, it would not effect the others. The beast was following after Slice and Thunder and turned its side to Shadow.

Shadow fired. The barrel lit up and practically shot a bolt of electricity across the short distance. The bullet hit the beast above the hip. Like promised, it’s round struck like lightning and the moon and wand Cutie Mark was burned onto the beast’s side.

It turned it’s attention to Shadow and began to close the short distance. Shadow fired again. This round was dead center. It wasn’t phased so Shadow quickly put in three more rounds into the upper chest, in between the heads.

The thing stumbled around for a bit before it toppled with a splash. Shadow relaxed as he looked at it in the water. A few seconds later the ground shifted and it sunk further into the water, almost fully submerged.

“She worked like a charm,” Shadow panted. “No kick, easy to work. And that strike is the stuff of legends.”

“Good,” Thunder gasped. “But lets get moving. I want to gain some distance before taking a break. Who knows what else we just stirred up.”

They bounded through the swamp at a quick pace. They were able to avoid the water, most of the time. It was a huge relief when they were able to reach a long island. They took a break there.

Shadow surveyed the area. He was using his knowledge of irrigation to see how the water was moving. Even as slow as it was, there were indicators if you looked close enough.

“The water is moving east,” Shadow told them.

“How does that change things?” Slice asked, shivering.

“I do not know,” Shadow replied. “I know we need to find strong shelter fast for you. Moving will help.”

They continued along the narrow island, often having to walk single file. It soon ended, but there was another one a few stone hops away. They rushed over without a second thought. Another mistake.

The rocks shifted and Shadow had to dance across them as they rolled and bucked. He landed hard on the soaked dirt. Behind him rose up a huge cragy beast with sharp teeth in it’s mouth. Shadow dove out of the way of it’s jaws and Thunder emptied his magazine into it. None of them penetrated it’s stone hide.

They were on the run again. And the beast was faster than the Hydra. It also called two of it’s friends. They were only half it’s giant size, but both of them had three or four times the size on Thunder.

They were only able to keep ahead of them by a small margin, limiting their offensive options. A giant downed tree was in their way. They hopped over it. Shadow tripped and slammed into the ground. He was on his hooves quickly, barely escaping their jaws.

The beasts were faster in the water. One was keeping up with them off to their side while the others followed on land.

Shadow surveyed everything around him for any advantage. He found the opposite. A cloaked figure was in the middle of a pool which had something in it. They were headed straight towards the figure. By the time it got out of the pool they were beside it.

“YOU WOKE UP CRAGADILES!” The figure yelled.

“Not on purpose,” Thunder panted. “You know what they are. How do we will them?”

“We have to shoot them in the mouth. They have rocks for their hides! But we know how to avoid them!”

“I would prefer another Hydra,” Slice coughed. “At least we could kill that with our guns.”

“You killed a Hydra!”

“Is that a problem?” Shadow asked.

“No, its just, three killing a Hydra,”

“Right,” Shadow said getting the drift.

Slice ate it again, tumbling into the water. Thunder was by his side to pull him out. The Cragadiles were too close so Shadow slid to a stop, revolver out.

Shadow put all six rounds into the big one. He reloaded quickly like he had practiced and put three into another smaller one. The third one that had been in the water came out behind them. Shadow put the last three into it.

None of them were pierced, but they all were feeling the burn. Shadow almost drew Kifo Herixleta with the band, but he realized the other individual that was helping pull Slice out and hadn’t seen him use the band. An advantage.

Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta with his mouth and charged the large one that was squirming. He slide around it’s thrashing body and drove the blade through it’s neck to slide into the skull from behind. With the blade deep inside, he iced over Kifo Herixleta for more damage and then drew the blade out.

He repeated it for the other one. The last Cragadile was also the smallest one. It was done thrashing by the time Shadow trotted over to it. He still drove the sword in deep for good measure.

“You killed it,” The cloaked figure stammered. The voice definitely was one of a ghoul. “You stabbed them.”

“We have a few tricks up our sleeves,” Shadow shrugged. “But that was out of desperation with no guarantee it would work.”

“What did you do?”

“Magic pistol,” Shadow said as if it was nothing special. “Burned them. Long enough for me to drive my blade into them. And a good blade goes a long way.”

“And you killed a Hydra?”

Shadow shrugged. “We know what we are doing. For most things. Obviously we are not at home in these swamps.”

“Did you take it’s heart?”

“No, why?”

“Hydra heart is delicious. The beasts are tough and hard to chew. But their hearts are wonderful and delicious. A delicacy. We do not hunt them. Can not hunt them. But if they attack.”

Shadow changed topics. “What had you out here, alone.

“Gathering wild tarberries. They grow well here in small pools. But we know how to avoid Cragadiles, and the Hydras tend to stay in the north.”

“You said we again,” Slice shivered. “Does that include a place where we could warm up and dry off.”

The cloaked figure was uneasy. Unsure. “I can’t… I can’t guarantee anything. It isn’t my call. We have strict rules for entrance that keep us safe.”

“Good enough,” Thunder said as Slice began a shivering fit. “It is a better chance than what we have now. We need to move fast.”

They followed after the individual. His cloak was still up and they hadn’t even gotten a peak at his face.

It wasn’t long before they saw the hill and the wooden palisade on it’s top. The hill was long. There was no road leading to the gate, but the further up the more worn things became, guiding them in.

The cloak was finally removed from his head as they approached the gate. It was a ghoul, explaining why the cloak hood stayed up.

“Wild Rock?” A guard asked. It was another ghoul.

“Yes, White Berry, it is me. I was out picking tarberries. I got a good amount before these three, explorers, came crashing by. They were being chased by three large Cragadiles. Long story short, they ended up killing all three. They also killed a Hydra on their way into the swamps. They are cold, and dirty and seek warmth. One looks ill.”

Slice was shivering a lot and the color was draining from his face. It was obvious to White Berry and the other guard.

“Please,” Wild Rock said. “Just let us talk with Governor Amber.”

“We shall speak with him.”

White Berry disappeared and they stood waiting for several minutes. The gate was opened and they were prompted to step inside, just enough for them to close the gates behind them. There were more armed guards boxing them in.

Slice staggered, weak. Thunder grabbed him and pulled him in tight to support him.

“The Slog is a Ghoul only place. A sanctuary for all Ghouls,” Governor Amber stated firmly.

“We just need a place to dry off for the night and rest easy,” Shadow pleaded. “We have lots of caps. Good, clean caps. We expected water and mud, but our friend is shivering. You can see he is not doing well. We will depart in the morning with no hesitation.”

“This is a very dangerous place for non Ghouls,” Governor Amber stated. “It is a refuge for our kind. Outsiders are only a problem. But your friend won’t survive the night without help. I would be remiss if I did not allow him to be given the basic care for him to survive.”

“You must follow our rules perfectly,” Governor Amber warned. “Stay with your guide. Stay calm and collected. Do not act without permission. Speak quietly.”

“We shall,” Thunder replied.

“Then follow me,” Governor Amber said turning around.

The backside of the hill was interesting. It was a small bump that slid back down into swampy waters after a good ways. The sides of it slid down to the water as well. The palisade wrapped all the way around, even in the water. It was lost in the swampy trees in the rear. Guard posts were stationed all along at various locations.

A large dock was off to the left and set further out in the wall. It was an old dock, probably from the war, but it wasn’t wood and it was holding together better than one would expect in these conditions.

Most of the city was swamp where ghouls were working in the ‘fields’ caring for various crops. The larger pool had nets blocking them off. They looked like they were there for fish.

The bulk of the buildings were along the main street that led straight down from the gate. They were still up on the ground far enough from the water to survive being rotted out or avoid flooding. Almost all were three stories or taller.

The Inquisitors were led to an unmarked one and entered.

“Lavender Dew,” Governor Amber called. “I have a special case for you. Don’t freak out.”

Lavender Dew came out of a room to greet them. There was not much to say about her other than she was a ghoul and they all looked alike to the Inquisitors.

“I hope you know what you are doing,” She said smiling at Governor Amber.

“I do,” He assured her.

Slice’s coughing fit turned their attention to the real problem.

“We have been exploring south,” Shadow explained. “We ended up in the water way to many times. We are all cold, but Slice here…”

“It’s a case of Swamp Fever,” Lavender Dew replied. “Get him in bed here. We will strip all of you and get your clothes dry. What are your names.”

Shadow almost stated his real name, but he stopped and thought it was safer to give false name. “I am Wind, Silent Wind. That is Nor’easter and our sick companion is Storm Eye.”

Stripping meant their wings would be revealed. But there was no avoiding that. It was better to show them than die. They stripped down and got Slice in bed. Lavender Dew stoked the fire until it was blazing. She got to work on a potion and soon had Slice drinking it.

“That will help warm him up,” She said. “Just like this will.”

She gave them each a cup of the same stuff. Shadow downed it while Thunder hesitated.

“Don’t think,” Shadow said to him.

Thunder rolled his eyes and downed his as well.

It certainly did warm them. Starting at the tummy, the warmth spread out until they were bathed in it. It pulsed like it was alive inside them.

Their bags were wet. Nothing was spared. Even their spare flight suits had been thoroughly soaked. The only things saved were Shadow’s books because he had wrapped them in a plastic bag to protect them from the damp air they were expecting. The Slog was used to speed drying clothes and bags.

Thunder and Shadow took up residence in two other beds in the clinic. Lavender Dew wanted to make sure neither of them developed Swamp Fever. They neatly stacked their equipment under their beds.

Shadow picked up a bottle of Rad-away. “We didn’t consider the toxins in the water. We probably should make sure we are clean.”

Shadow downed the bottle and Thunder was right behind him. Lavender Dew helped Slice. It wasn’t the best mixing treatments, but it would hopefully remove any side effects from radiation that would hinder his healing.

A bell tolled out. And again. And again. Thunder and Shadow looked at Lavender Dew. They didn’t have to ask the obvious question.

“It means something is attacking,” She sighed.

WHRRRRRRRRRRH WHRRRRRRRRRH WHRRRRRRRRRH

“And that siren means it’s a Hydra,” Lavender Dew added.

“Common?” Thunder asked.

Lavender Dew just shook her head.

Shadow rolled off his bed unto the floor. He grabbed Soarin’s Lighting. It had been hidden, wrapped in the Zebra cloak. It was snapped together and Shadow slipped on his revolver and Type 41 knife.

Thunder had one of the 44 Magnum revolvers and his combat knife.

“When did you grab those?” Shadow asked as he belted on Kifo Herixleta.

“Without the others, it was a wise choice,” Thunder replied. “You had the right idea and we had the spare.”

Shadow ignored his battle saddle, but Thunder slipped his on. Shadow wrapped Mwokozi’s cloak around him in a fashionable way, not to disguise himself.

They were out the door a moment later, dashing passed their appointed guides who had to then scramble after them.

Shadow picked up his speed. His wings were holding Soarin’s Lightning and the ammo they brought for it. He could use a sling for the rifle and another for the ammo. Thunder only had the little spare ammo his wings could hold.

“Shadow,” Thunder said nervously as they reached the closest guard tower. “One of those is a Feral Ghoul and is right behind us.”

“They said all Ghouls,” Shadow replied as he pushed his way to the rampart and set Soarin’s Lightning on the edge. “That is why we need guides. Bad call rushing ahead.”

“It’s charging,” Thunder gulped.

“Don’t hurt it, but put it into a submissive hold. Like number 12 or 17.

“Right,” Thunder nodded confident with the plan.

The thing stumbled up the stairs and Thunder expertly grappled it and locked it into a safe, secure hold. It put him out of the Hydra fight.

There were three Hydras crashing through the swamp. Soarin’s lightning was placed on the top of the protective wall. Shadow looked down the scope, getting his range. He elbowed the Ghoul next to him.

“You like the hearts right? Tap me on the chest where their hearts are so I can avoid hitting it.”

The Ghoul was still trying to comprehend a non-Ghoul being beside him and what was happening with Thunder.

“Here,” He said tapping Shadow's chest. “If you are looking at them, that is where their heart is.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said through the trigger bit.

Shadow put a round through the other half of the chest on the first Hydra. It struck like lightning and left it’s trademark burn pattern. Shadow put the second round into it’s left leg. Undeterred, he put a third into it’s right leg. Shadow wasn’t going to hit the heart yet, so he put a fourth dead center but high.

That round made the beast topple. Shadow repeated the same pattern for the other two. All three were still alive, struggling to move as they bled out.

Shadow pushed Soarin’s Lighting into the chest of the Ghoul beside him.

“Hold that for me,” Shadow said leap all the way down without using his wings.

Shadow trotted up to the third one, who was the furthest up the hill. He casually side stepped one of it’s six heads launching itself at him. He put a revolver round into it. Shadow worked his way along the Hydra, dodging strikes and shooting each head with a single bullet. Shadow moved on to take out finish off the other two. The last one was barely alive from the loss of blood, but he made sure it was dead.

Shadow trotted back up and jumped back up to where he had been. He had to flap his wings a bit to make it. Governor Amber was at the bottom of the guard post and he was not happy. Thunder was being helped up as they finished safely untangling him from the Feral Ghoul.

Shadow grabbed Soarin’s Lighting and trotted down to face the Governor.

“You broke all the rules,” Governor Amber snorted. “I am kind enough to let you in and you disregard the rules.”

“And you needed backup,” Shadow calmly replied. “We acted without thinking, and for that I am sorry. But we understood you rarely deal with Hydras and they are a real problem for you to take down. How could you have handled three? Because even with this baby, one isn’t easy. Its our job to protect. Or was before everything broke apart. Not to guard, but to protect. To attack things like Hydras and Cragadiles and other big concerns. To back up the regular guards when shit happens that they can’t take care of on their own. We have helped a few cities and towns outside of our own. Made a few rescues and such as well.”

“I get that you want to do the moral thing...”

“Moral?” Thunder cut him off. “We just act. Its not about moral or immoral. It is about what needs to be done.”

“You saved us from this odd circumstance,” The Govern said, still annoyed. “Obey the rules and stay with your guide for the safety of all. If there arises a defense concern, we will seek you out. Understood?”

“Yes,” Shadow and Thunder nodded.

Shadow repeated the rules. “Stay with your guide. Stay calm and collected. Do not act without permission. Speak quietly.”

“That is your only warning,” Governor Amber asserted.

“We will follow them from here on out,” Shadow said. “We won’t bring harm to you or any of your citizens.”

“You did show tactful restraint,” Governor Amber nodded.

“And we saved you their hearts,” Shadow added. “Wild Rock said they were a delicacy.”

Governor Amber didn’t know what to say to that.

Shadow turned to his guide. “Can we return to the room and retrieve our caps. We would like to do some trading since we are here.”

“Yes,” Shadow’s guide nodded.

Their trading post was small. Being so far out, they rarely had anything to actually trade. For the most part, they were self sufficient. Their ammo supply was interesting. They had no 44s, but they had the .50 cal ammo. The ammo was linked together with metal rings.

“Where did you get these?” Shadow asked.

“Years ago, off a boat down south. We got what we could off of it, but the boat sunk from our disruption. The gun couldn't be removed in time. But it wasn’t like the one you are carrying. That is for sure. If we did have it, we could make one hell of a defense against Cragadiles and Hydras.”

“Yes, you could,” Shadow replied as he violently shook the links. They held in place.

There were 32 linked rounds. An odd number for linked rounds. Many of them had to have been fired or lost with the boat. It didn’t matter because they were dirt cheap. Shadow bought them all and enough 5.56 rounds to refill what they had fired at the Cragadiles and the Hydra.

Thunder added in three Rad-aways they had laying around for next to nothing. None of the ghouls had any use for such medications. They had been sitting up on a high shelf, out of the way and collecting a mountain of dust. That brought their immediate stash back up to full strength.

They exited to find an argument happening in the street. The side that led into the fields was arguing with Governor Amber and others who were in the city. Who backed who was pretty obvious.

The Unicorn Ghoul spoke. “They don’t belong here and that decision was made a long time ago for a good reason! Tenpony Tower is a prime example of why we are here, protecting our own.”

“But they didn’t come looking for us,” Governor Amber replied, not budging. “Orange Harvest, I know what they did, but here we are safe. So, a few travelers made it through the dangers of the swamp. They will be leaving and they won’t be coming back. No one will be coming for us.”

“And you are using their acts against those Hydras as a basis for that?”

“You are right,” Shadow cut in, creating a third side. “You have no guarantee that we won’t. We would have never entered if our friend was not sick. And you probably would not have had three Hydras attack. Although they may not have followed us here. There is no answer to those ‘what if’ question.”

Shadow slid Soarin’s Lightning off his back and leaned against it. “But what matters is what has happened and what we can make happened.”

“Stay out of this,” Orange Harvest growled. “This isn’t about you. This is about Amber and his leadership. Or lack of it.”

“I have kept us safe and free. We have thrived under my leadership. Our expeditions are frequent and strong. They bring many new brothers to us and much needed supplies. Still, almost all we need is here. With us already. We grow it. That is the fruit of my leadership. And I stand by it.”

“I question if you have the leadership to take us any further. Letting them in is just the current matter. Now that the walls are up, that the farms are sewn, can you do anymore? I have not seen any new fruit there. Its been 10 years since this place was set down.”

“Ten good years!”

“Its been slowing down. We haven’t sent an expedition out for 8 months.”

“We haven’t needed too!”

“What about our brothers? What about the others stuck under the hoof of the regular ponies who look down on us. We haven’t gone to rescue more from death. You are ignoring them!”

“You have never made the journey. You do not know how difficult it is. You do not know the dangers. It is not a simple thing to get in here, it is not a simple thing to leave.”

“So, we should let outsiders brave it?”

“We didn’t brave it,” Thunder growled. “Stumbled or swam. It was foolish coming here. We didn’t brave coming here. We will have to work to survive leaving here. We are not coming back. Of that we are sure.

“Even if you were worth it for trade, its too dangerous. Hydras and Cragadiles are only the beginning of the dangers that must be here. And then, unless you are a ghoul, it is a very perilous time staying here.”

“This isn’t about you!” Orange Harvest shouted.

“You just made it about us again,” Shadow said passing Soarin’s Lighting off to Thunder and stepping out into the middle of the street.

Shadow pointed at Orange Harvest with his wing. “What legitimate charges do you bring against his leadership.”

“Who are you to judge!” Orange Harvest spat.

“An impartial outsider!” A mare spoke up from her window. “And they are not from below. They are from above the clouds. That is where their allegiance lies!”

Another in a window behind Shadow spoke up. “If that is where there allegiance lies, then they are a threat! They don’t care about us and will kill us!”

“SILENCE!” Shadow ordered.

The yell perked the interest of a Feral Ghoul who began to stumble over to Shadow. They watched as he was approached in the middle of the street. It came up and sniffed Shadow and then stood there. Shadow rolled his eyes and gently pushed it, sending it mindlessly stumbling off to the side, unharmed.

“Yes, we are from above,” Shadow announced. “But this has nothing to do with them. They won’t hear about this place. Its going to be locked away as a bad memory. We are not on speaking terms.”

“So, you have been to the Rock of Destiny?” The mare in the window asked.

“I have no idea what that is,” Shadow told her.

“Its where we Dashites leave the last bit of the Enclave behind us.”

Shadow cocked his head. “How long have you been down here?”

“A little over twenty years.”

Shadow was shocked. He stammered out his follow up question. “How are you a Ghoul? Its been almost two centuries since the spells went off.”

“I was sent to a highly irradiated place. I didn’t know were I was. All I know is that after stumbling into friendship city, sick, I came to a week later. They did what they could, but I had transformed. There was no reversing it. I don’t know how or why, but Ghouls are not all from the war.”

“I want to hear about this fate rock,” Shadow told her. “But this is off topic.”

“You shouldn’t even be in this topic,” Orange Harvest growled.

“And you still haven’t given any legitimate claim outside of personal distaste. One act of kindness spurs you to gather your ‘supporters’ and claim he is unfit to lead. And most of your supporters are Feral Ghouls who can’t speak for themselves.

“Your language and actions are designed to put yourself as caring for them. You don’t care any more than Governor Amber does. You are just using this moment to split and make things appear like he is against all that this place stands for.”

Shadow walked over to Orange Harvest.

“I know things must be tough for you. I do not know what I would do in all of your situations, but I have proudly fought beside a Ghoul. For the betterment of an entire city. I know the honor that can still be had. I know the respect that can still be held. Ghoul or not, it is the one inside that matters. And I am not seeing a selfless leader inside you. I see one who wants power, not love-”

Orange Harvest slapped Shadow hard, with the back of his hoof. It forced Shadow to take a step back in pain.

“You should respecting me like you did the other,” Orange Harvest ordered.

Shadow cracked his neck and grinned. “The Captain never had to strike any to gain respect. Or even as discipline.”

Shadow’s Type 41 combat knife was out and he was twirling it with the band. With the current light, the band was nearly imperceptible against Shadow's coat.

“I am going to make this very clear,” Shadow said halting the rotating blade. “I am an outsider. I do not belong in your politics. This is a personal disagreement. If you become governor over his generosity. Because he let three desperate, peaceful, outsiders spend the night, then I will come back and kill you.

“We are not apart of this city. And if you make this about us, you will have to deal with us. We may have come here by accident, well you have seen what we can do. You have seen some of our weapons. You know I will make good my word. Bring us into it, and I will have no choice but to defend the Ghoul who saved my friend and showed us mercy. I certainly will be showing him, and all of you mercy. Mercy to every single Feral Ghoul as well.”

Another Unicorn Ghoul with Orange Harvest let out a yell and charged Shadow, club ready. He swung and Shadow rolled back and out of the way. Shadow bounded off his back into a kip-up and forward onto his hooves. The combat knife was driven into the Unicorn’s shoulder so that it was sticking out the top.

Shadow kept the stunned Unicorn pulled in tight as he spoke to all. “Ghouls are healed by radiation. This knife wound may hurt, but it was designed as a warning. You can heal from this easier than a regular pony and it is only a minor wound that will heal quickly, with little complication.”

Shadow kicked the Unicorn away, cleanly withdrawing the blade. The same Feral Ghoul from earlier stumbled over to Shadow. Shadow gently pushed him away again, off in another safe direction.

“Idiot,” Shadow said about the Feral Ghoul.

Shadow headed over to the building where Lavender Dew was caring for Slice.

The Governor and others intercepted him. “How is it you can shove him away without any backlash?”

Shadow sighed, remembering Kifopiga, the good and the bad. “I once stood in a room with twenty or so Feral Ghouls. If you act right, in their territory, its easy to be mistaken. This is their territory. We are around you. It is easier to not raise suspicion because you accept us. Elsewhere, there is no middle ground. There are no sanctuaries.”

“And where were you when this happened?” A mare asked.

“Well,” Shadow said trying to think. “I can’t give you a decent location. But it was way outside of Equestria. We found a holdout Zebra outpost from the war. It proved to be a death trap, which we accidentally sprung. For protection, I ended up donning Zebra armor. Combined with my black and white colors, it took me killing one for them to realize I was not one of them. Although, I was also soaked in their blood by the time I was in that room.”

“You killed Zebra Ghouls? How many?”

“Way too many,” Shadow said deflecting specifics. “That is all that matters.”

“None had their minds?”

Shadow sighed and sat down on the bed. “Yeah. One. I got the honor of killing him in hoof to hoof combat. He nearly killed me. Its extremely complicated, but one of us was going to have to die. I did what I had to.”

Thunder passed Soarin’s Lighting to Shadow and he began to break it down.

The Pegasus Mare entered the room as Lavender Dew was shooing the others out.

“You are not marked,” She said.

“No, we are not,” Shadow sighed. “Months ago we were sent below to do heavy reconnaissance on specific parts of the wasteland. We did our job but then something happened above and we were betrayed. Missing In Action is what the special message said. To go back would be to face things we are not ready to or able to answer. Yet. For now, we have taken to doing some light exploring and such while we survive.

“Without marks, we are still Enclave. Which we are. None of us have betrayed or want to betray the Enclave. We want to get back home from this nightmare and have the time to mourn our fallen comrades. But you mentioned a rock?”

“Out near the apple farm by Ponyville, a bit north of it. Those of us who have left, or been forced to leave, give an item from our old lives. We do it to break the final tie to the evil that is the Enclave.”

Thunder sighed. “Each place, each government, has it good and bad. The Enclave is far from perfect, but evil is not the right word. I recognize that it has hurt you and many others.”

“And you?” She fired back. “It abandoned skilled soldiers.”

“We were betrayed,” Shadow corrected her. “By one or a few individuals. We have plenty who believe that but can’t help us. Plenty who we know tried to get us back. The Enclave Counsel itself has no idea about the move. They didn’t order it. We have family waiting for us. I have a brand new wife. I will figure it out and get us above.”

Shadow picked up the PipBuck he had with him.

“For the sake of trying to make a real map this entire land, where exactly is this rock at?”

“What is that?” The Pegasus Mare asked.

“It’s a PipBuck,” Governor Amber said. “And I am curious how you got it.”

“Blood,” Thunder replied solemnly. “Like everything, way to much blood. And if it wasn’t us spilling blood, it was ours being spilled.”

“You know you are supposed to wear them on your forehoof,” Governor Amber said.

“Yep,” Thunder slowly nodded. “But we don’t deserve that.”

Thunder pulled his out from under the bed. “We each have our own for its various uses. But we are not wearing them on our hooves.”

Shadow took a deep breath in. “We also need to figure out exactly where we are so we can leave in the morning.”

They charted the Rock of Destiny and the location of The Slog.

“Why didn’t you fly in,” The mare asked.

“Because too many are hunting our wings,” Shadow sighed. “Quite a few want to capture us and make us answer for crimes we did or did not do. It is getting confusing. Some things were done in self defense but not seen that way. Others are outright fabricated. I am sure there is a list of things that others want us to be convicted of to cover their crimes up.”

“I plan on taking us out of here on wings,” Shadow added. “Once we get free, we will drop down onto our hooves and secure them under our armor. When everything happened today, our wings were pinned. So we ended up swimming instead of flying.”

Shadow knew he should ask why she had been banished. But he couldn’t bring himself to bear the pain. There was a good chance she was banished for the wrong reasons. He couldn't handle trying to survive here and making it back knowing that an injustice had been done, unable to be righted, and that he was going home to the safety of her oppressors.

“Governor?” A stallion asked poking his head in. “They are almost done roasting the Hydra hearts.”

“Come,” Governor Amber smiled. “Join us in victory. Taste what their hearts are like. It is electrifying.”

“I won’t eat flesh,” Shadow replied. “I was given the option before, but passed.”

“I will pass too,” Thunder smiled. “I have tasted Radigator. It was good and I am sure this is even better, but I do not feel like eating. Thank you though.”

“We are from very different times in the Enclave,” The mare said.

“I am from the fringes on the Enclave,” Shadow stated. “But a lot has changed in the past ten years alone. Social unrest, new changes in the military, and new information about below has changed so much. Whether the regular citizen recognizes it or not, much has changed because of things down here.

“But it is my home. I will go back and finish my days farming with my family. I will go back and live with my wife and hopefully have foals. I will go back and do my duty, be it farming or protecting.”

“I will do whatever is best once I know what is happening above. Then it is back to my duty. My life. Judge me if you want, but I still have a future up there.”

“You were a farmer?” She asked shocked.

“Yep,” Shadow said with a slow nod. “Born and raised. I want to die working in the fields. I love it. Even more since I left home. My wife grew up farming as well. We will retire to peacefully farm the clouds and feed whoever needs it. I already have a room saved for me on my Sister’s farm. Where I am from, all the way out on the edge of the Enclave, we don’t even have to worry about the population limits.”

“Is it getting cold in here, or is it me?” Shadow asked.

“The sun is down,” She replied. “It gets cold fast in these swamps. The air is not good. But we are free from bigots. At least bigots against us being Ghouls. Orange Harvest isn’t a fan of me for my wings. He doesn’t quite see a Pegasus Ghoul as a Ghoul like he is. Not yet. He isn’t an old war ghoul either.”

“Well, if he causes you any major problems while we are here, I am just a call away.”

“You would do that for a Dashite?”

“I will do it for another pegasus. The fact that he rubs me the wrong way is just a bonus.”

She was concerned. “You would openly kill him, and enjoy it.”

“I have done a lot of good and a lot of bad. Exterminating bad guys is fun. We rarely get to kill real bad guys. A just killing is nice.”

“I think I am going to go eat,” She said backing away slowly.

“It’s okay,” Shadow smiled at her. “I know, its tough. Its not been easy for us. Its been hell. We have been forced to find enjoyment in the smallest of things which are not always easy to understand. The truth is, we don’t always understand them either.”

Chapter 100 - Unwelcomed Stay

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Shadow slept well, but he awoke early. He just laid there, enjoying the quiet. It was interrupted every so often by Slice’s coughing fits. Slice was not capable of leaving. Shadow didn’t exactly know what they would do. They were scheduled to leave in hours.

Shadow heard Lavender Dew come down the stairs and silently watched as she checked on Slice. The front door opened and Lavender Dew stepped out to greet the visitor. Shadow slipped out of bed and listened in.

“There is no way. He is too sick to move. We can’t send them away now. Even as outsiders.”

“Others may not see it that way. There is nothing for them here. This isn’t about caps. Its about the others. Few trust them. They may not bring us harm, but they still are a disruption. What are they to do? They don’t belong here. So they what, just sit here all day?”

Shadow shocked them. “You farm, I was born a farmer, farms always need the extra hoof. I know what I am doing. We have gotten stuck in cities before, waiting for one of us to heal. Actually, that ended up me healing. But in between things I was helping their local farms.”

“Storm Eye, the sick one, was helping reinforce and fix their city through his mechanical knowledge. Nor’easter was leading expeditions and building better defenses. The others, who have died, helped them in their various ways. We are not used to sitting on the sideline when there are things to do.

“Storm Eye is sick and we don’t have much of an option. I’ll take working in the dirt over sitting inside with nothing to do. Nor’easter will at least stand watch, invited or not.”

Governor Amber took a deep breath in. “I may be a governor, but this is not a decision I should make alone.”

Governor Amber left to gather others. Thunder was awake as well. Governor Amber arrived with six others, including Orange Harvest.

“Our visitors are stuck here,” Governor Amber stated. “Lavender Dew can tell you the medical side, but their comrade can not be moved.”

“He needs more time,” Lavender Dew asserted. “He is quite sick. Swamp Fever is doing it’s best to kill him. He is healthy. Very healthy. We can’t compare their health to ours they are so far above our standards. He will make a strong recovery. I expect the fever to break today, which means they will be able to get on their way soon.”

“Okay, they can stay until their friend is healed,” An Earth Pony said.

“We have caps to pay you,” Thunder said.

“Those three Hydra Hearts are good enough payment,” He replied.

Governor Amber moved on. “Do any of you have any qualms about them staying until they can safely leave?”

Orange Harvest snorted. “Nothing we can do since they are already here.”

“Good,” Governor Amber nodded. “That matter is solved. But that brings another one. Our friends have visited many places for various reason. They often assist in ways that are not only needed, but suit their talents.”

“Help?” A mare said annoyed.

“Please,” Shadow said quietly. “We respect you and your decision, but none of like to sit still below the clouds. I was born and raised a farmer. One of the oldest cloud farming family. Our heritage is old and our family line strong. Our farm is solid and I learned well.”

“I didn’t get time off until I joined the military. Farming was not just my duty, it was my life. Up in the morning, farm, relax a bit after dinner and bed. I learned a lot. I know everything I can know. My father and his best friend have gone all over the clouds to help struggling farms. Community and helping those in need is a big part of my life.

“I know a farm always needs extra hooves. And somehow, I am sure you could use an extra set of eyes and guns. Something tells me your defenses could use an assessment. Better put, Nor’easter will do it without thinking. I know he has to have a few ideas on how to improve them already.”

Thunder was chuckling. He had an idea or two.

“Governor,” A stallion said. “We are having those problems with the new crops. And he was already getting to know Cloudy Snow last night. She would make a good guide.”

“And we could use a guard on a the expedition we are marking. Your big gun would be a huge help. You could lay down so much powerful fire if we got in a pinch.”

Shadow and Thunder broke down laughing.

“Sorry,” Shadow said composing himself. “Its a special pegasus sniper rifle. Its not a fast firing weapon. And Nor’easter isn’t a pegasus you want behind it. Sure, he can shoot and could handle the rifle, but-”

“But its not my job,” Thunder shrugged. “I’m the guy who runs the distractions. Or who puts down so much firepower the enemy can’t move. I’m the tank. And I’m the guy who blows stuff up. That is what I am trained to do. I’m a good shot, but I’m not a sniper. Silent Wind carries it for a reason.”

“But, Nor’easter will take it along,” Shadow added. “Our bags are dry. We will break it down and put it in a throw bag for him to carry. Along with plenty of ammo.”

Thunder grinned. “No matter what I am using, I am fearless and will be the first in and last out. And since our wings are exposed, I can run things from the sky. I am not the flier that Silent Wind is, but I am better than any of you.”

Half of them chuckled with Shadow and Thunder.

Orange Harvest spoke up. He was not on board. “We are supposed to just trust them?”

“Trust wasn’t said,” Shadow chuckled. “We don’t have to trust each other to work together. Or use each other. Sometimes you just have to do, and trust comes later. You get another farm hoof, and a skilled one, for the day. And you get another top notch gun on that trip. And we get to stay active and feel like we are making a difference. How does that sound? Is it mutually beneficial?”

The room was silent. None of them could give an objection.

“Then, we have our answer,” Governor Amber said. “Lets get these two squared away. Nor’easter, River Watermelon will lead you to the expedition. And Silent Wind, Jazz Emerald will be showing you to the farmers who could use your assistance.”

“What is this expedition?” Thunder asked.

“I will show you to the others. Yesterday you bought ammo for your big gun. It was held together. We got it years ago on a boat down south. It had another type of gun that used it. It was mounted on the front. We want to try and recover it and anything else that might have been with it.”

“You are going diving,” Thunder nodded.

“Yep. Which is why we will need a good guard.”

“I am proficient at that. Very proficient. Come on Silent Wind, lets get me outfitted for some heavy lifting.”

It didn’t take them long to outfit Thunder.

“Have Soarin’s Lightning out as much as possible,” Shadow quietly said to Thunder. “They like it.”

“Right,” Thunder nodded. “Even if it’s just leaning against me, it looks good. She is a real beauty.”

When they came back out, it was just River Watermelon and Jazz Emerald.

“Silent Wind, you won’t want to take your pistol with you,” Jazz Emerald said. “Our farms are very wet. You will spend a good amount of your time in water. Deep for you because of your size.”

Shadow sighed. “Right. I forgot about that.”

Mwokozi’s revolver would have no problem with the water and swamp conditions. The spare ammo would be another case. Shadow expected the chambered rounds would be protected. He would at least carry his combat knife. A blade had many uses while farming. It was a good tool.

Shadow went back in and slipped the revolver inside Mwokozi’s Cloak, alongside Kifo Herixleta, hidden. He trusted them well enough, but we wasn’t going to take that chance. With the two of them, he could reclaim anything stolen from them.

Shadow was quick but Thunder was already gone. Jazz Emerald led Shadow across the street and behind the buildings to where a half dozen others were working in the ground. Most were trying to figure out how to work with their crops.

“Everypony, I am sure you have heard about our guests. This is Silent Wind. Their companion is still extremely sick and unable to leave as planned. Governor Amber gather several of us to discuss their predicament. The decision was to let them help where they can. Silent Wind was a farmer in his home before he joined their military.”

Shadow interjected. “And I will go back to farming once my service is up.”

“Yes, well. We are having trouble with some crops. We are trying to grow-”

Shadow put his wing up, stopping Jazz Emerald.

“You are trying to grow,” Shadow said heading to the closest patch.

Shadow was standing in water almost up to his belly. The plot was soaked. He took a bit of soil off of it and tasted it. It was all normal until the end when the mush of decay overpowered the nutrients. Shadow took a few deep breaths in to smell the air. They all were looking at him, unsure what to do.

“You are trying to grow beats, carrots, turnips, onions, ginger, parsnips, and… potatoes.”

They talked back and forth about his accurate assessment.

“I can also smell,” Shadow grinned. “Barley, Buckwheat, you have a huge asparagus field, a large dandelion plot, sea lettuce is abound and so is watercress. Wapato, water chestnuts, spinach, tomatoes, and celery are also grown in decent amounts. I must try the elder berries that are in season.”

“You have pecans, walnuts, and acorns growing and your myristica is a good choice. Nutmeg and Mace were not something we easily had available back home. I can also tell you are growing tarragon, allspice, basil, savory, fennel, marjoram, parsley and cilantro.”

“Are all cloud farmers about to tell all that by smell?” The pegasus, who they had called Cloudy Snow, asked.

Shadow shrugged. “I grew up with it. It just was apart of being a farmer. I know most didn’t. Its not easy to do, but we were expected to because we are A Homestead. The fifth homestead founded. It’s our duty to be there for others and a pillar in our farming community.”

“You have to be half earth pony,” another said.

Shadow laughed. “Well, if I am, its hiding. Very, anciently, deep. Its always been wings. Its not that my family has ever been against the other races, but its been pegasus genes as far back as we know. Well before the war. They were residents of Cloudsdale and only Cloudsdale. Before things happened.”

“So you were born and raised on the best farm in the Enclave?” Cloudy Snow asked.

“I can’t rank them,” Shadow replied. “I won’t even try. Each is unique and has it’s own charge and it’s own crop. I can say that every turnip grown in the Enclave has it’s roots in our farm. No other farms were growing them when the clouds were sealed up. We were the only farm with their seeds.”

“But that doesn’t solve your problem. You are attempting to grow root vegetables. Before, its been leafy greens and others above the soil or in the water. These are roots and they grow in the soil. They are rotting out because your soil has way too much water. The ground is rich enough in nutrients from what I could taste, but its not capable of growing these.

“But, you can still grow them easy enough. You can use this exact soil, you can use this water. You just need to remove the excess water by lifting the patches off the ground. That way, you can keep them dry while providing only the water needed.

“We are going to need a little bit of building supplies,” Shadow stated.

“You mean a lot if we are going to grow all of these,” Cloudy Snow stated. “We don’t have enough for that.”

“You will be able to get the wood,” Shadow pointed out. “That was not something we could easily do. Wood will obviously rot, so metal poles would be best. But we will start with what we can. First, a small plot. We can build it quickly and teach you how to properly care for these and grow them. With these wet conditions, it wont be easy.”

“But I have faith in you. I look around and I see success. I see a farm with a wide variety of crops that require a lot of different care methods. If you can do all that, then you can do this. It will be worth the work to have these in your cellars.”

Thunder was patrolling from the air. Below him four boats were making their way south through the channels and waterways. It was just a few hours south by boat, assuming they set a quick pace. It was rather boring, circling over them as they puttered their way through as quickly as possible.

It was an unimpressive area when they finally docked at a tree. A forest of large canopy trees with water all around them. They had been in deeper, more open water with little land for a long while and it only was growing. Thunder touched down on a boat. It got way to close to tipping over.

“Sorry,” Thunder blushed. “But, where is this boat?”

A Unicorn’s horn lit up and she touched it to the water. It cleared away all the muck and the water was crystal clear. More than one boat came into view. Of the seven, five were painted with faded stripes.

All of them were in bad shape, ripped apart by each other’s weapons. Thunder could see several small cannons and large machine guns he recognized, on both sides. The boats had impressive firepower compared to their sizes.

The Equestrian Boats were heavier armored and longer, almost 80 feet. But they were still shallow on the draft for use on the swamp waters. The Zebra boats were half that size and lightly armored. They appeared to have a motor that was as powerful as the Equestrian ones.

The Zebra ones were designed to strike fast and possibly deliver troops. The Equestrian boats were designed to patrol the swamps, rivers and lakes of Equestria. They probably could patrol the shores of the open waters to the east.

“Ever tried to float any of them?” Thunder asked.

“We only knew of the one boat,” The expedition leader, Blue Lemon replied. “We are here for weapons and supplies, that is all. Besides, our boats are more than sufficient.”

“You could strip the ships of their metal and other resources,” Thunder suggested. “But I will leave that to you. You know what is best for you.”

Thunder carefully took off and began to circle over the whole area. The tree canopy made it difficult to see anything. Thunder dropped below and began to patrol the areas between the trees. He glided to a stop at a tree when he saw something wrong.

Thunder examined the tree. There was a big gouge and scoring. The tree had healed well, but it obviously taken a beating from automatic weapon fire. Thunder moved to another and saw more damage. The trees in the area had taken more fire than that the boats had. It was a fast and fierce battle. The height of the marks showed the age of the battle. The marks were well above the level of water.

Thunder circled back around to check on the divers. Nothing had changed. There wasn’t much to do, despite being the only guard. Thunder slid his carry bag off and snapped together Soarin’s Lighting. He would stand watch on the boats for now.

Lunch came and they all relaxed around food. Thunder had some questions.

“You have boats, with motors, and know how to use them. But you don’t come south often?”

“No,” Blue Lemon said. “We do travel the waterways through the swamp, but this part is rarely visited. This is open waters, with few shores. The shores have Mirelurk nests, their fresh eggs are good to eat. If you can get at them.”

“Mirelurk?”

“Giant crabs with shells as hard as a rock. Don’t shoot the shell. Bullets don’t penetrate them.”

“What lurks in these waters?”

“I don’t know,” Blue Lemon replied. “But little in this swamp is friendly. Which is why we have our wall and really need these weapons.”

“I agree,” Thunder nodded. “A heavy machine gun will take care of the Hydras and give Cragadiles something to think about. I doubt that the Mirelurks shells could shrug off more than three bullets.

“But, you haven’t gotten a single gun recovered from below.”

“No, they are locked in tight. Its not rust. We can’t stay below long enough to really figure out how they are mounted. But, one of the Equestrian boats has a winch. We are going to pull it out of the water. If you can carry the chain up to the top of a tree, we can use that as leverage to pull it up out of the water.”

“I can do that,” Thunder nodded. “That sounds like it will be able to work.”

They went back to work. It wasn’t much longer until Thunder was flying the chain up into the trees where it was anchored. The winch worked off electricity, but it did have a manual crank. The divers worked in rotation cranking and pulling until the ship was dislodged. It popped out of the mud, shaking the swamp’s bottom and kicking up all sorts of debris, forcing them to stop for a bit.

When the ship was fully out of the water, they tapped several holes in the rear to drain the water. As the water drained out, the tree was able to pull itself fully upright again.

A noise sounded from the other side of the lake. A giant pincered, beast with a shell rose out of the water. It had been alerted by the dislodging of the boat.

“So much for easy,” Thunder sighed.

Thunder couldn’t get Soarin’s Lighting’s bipod to work with their shallow boats.

“You,” Thunder pointed. “Stand here. Fast!”

The boat rocked dangerously as they shuffled around.

“Stand still, and just relax,” Thunder coached. “Its safe.”

Thunder set Soarin’s Lighting’s barrel across the pony’s back. It provided the correct angle for Thunder to line up his shot. The first one was right in between the thing’s first set of eyes. It was, as expected, undeterred.

Thunder put another rough through an eye on the second row. That caused it to stumble a bit. Thunder put two more into it’s head in no particular place. Next, Thunder put four rounds into the chest of the beast, in a Z formation.

The beast continued to wade through the water to them at a concerning pace.

“Any suggestions?” Thunder asked, muffled by the bit.

Blue Lemon gulped. “Never seen this thing before.”

Thunder rolled his eyes and put a round right at the waterline. The shot exploded the beast’s abdomen, a combined effect with the water and the electricity of the enchanted bullet. It toppled with a wave. Their boats banged into each other and two of the divers fell overboard because they were standing up.

Thunder spat out the bit and pulled Soarin’s Lighting off the pony’s back.

“I wish I had my Novasurge,” Thunder grumbled. “Or well, any of my real weapons.”

“That was, amazing,” Blue Lemon stumbled.

Thunder shrugged. “None of what I have is my preferred weapon loadout or what I am supposed to have. We couldn’t take them with us when we left. I would have been able to blast that thing apart in a few shots. But, this baby did the job.”

“I don’t have anything to base it off of, but what you did, it was amazing. And the fact that the barrel light up with lightning bolts but didn’t harm Cola, I’m thrilled and shocked because of how it looks.”

“And feels,” Cola chuckled. “It tickled.”

Thunder chuckled as well.

They got back to work, draining and then patching the boat. When they let it down to sit in the water, they were able to get it to float. It sat very low in the water, but all of it’s weapons, equipment and stored supplies were inside, along with plenty of swamp water. They didn’t take inventory. They just needed to get it back before they lost the light they had.

Thunder cruised into their dock first. He was there to catch the ropes of the first boat and pull them into the dock and anchor them. He let the others who knew what they were doing take care of the rest.

Thunder took off to find Shadow. He was going to stay above their heads so he wouldn’t be a problem for any of the feral ghouls. He found him playing with a raised farm plot. Thunder slowed down to listen in.

Shadow was going over composting and more specifics on plant nutrition. He had moved away from the crops he was working on; into the other crops they were growing. He was talking about buckwheat.

Shadow turned to Thunder when he was done with his lecture.

“You have returned,” Shadow nodded. “By your face, it was successful.”

“To a point,” Thunder nodded. “It was unique. It didn’t end as expected. Not a bad ending, but we brought one of the boats back.”

“One?” Shadow asked with his eyebrow raised.

“Seven in total,” Thunder grinned. “Five were Zebras and they whole area had been pounded by medium and heavy caliber machine gun fire. Canons too. The Zebras were small and light. Their speed must have been impressive.”

“But the Equestrian boats were built to patrol these waters and larger bodies. Possibly off shore a ways. But even at twice as long and with armor, they had to be just as fast. Not as maneuverable, but even that would be impressive.

“Fleetfoot and Rapidfire would outmatch them. Even in the shoals. Still, I am surprised we never saw any of them around the fleet. They were clearly patrol boats and had some heavy firepower. That reminds me, I have to go disarm the four torpedoes they carry. The water really opens up and gets deep in the south.”

“Perhaps the patrol boats were sunk,” Shadow shrugged. “You saw all those others. Many of them were probably patrol boats. It would make sense for them to be there. I assume they were easy to produce.”

Thunder nodded. “Quite easy. But I have to go disarm those torpedoes before they blow themselves up. Here is Soarin’s Lightning back. I used eight rounds. None of us know what I shot, but it was coming for us once we dislodged the boat.”

“Have fun,” Shadow waved. “I’ll check it out in a bit.”

Shadow looked at the others and chuckled. “He will have fun. A lot of fun. He is well trained with explosives and won’t have a problem.”

“But,” Shadow smiled. “As much fun as he will have, I still had more fun with you all. I love getting my hooves in good farming soil.”

“And it was enjoyable,” Cloudy Snow smiled. “At least to me. I am happy to have new crops. We have a good amount of work ahead of us. But, we know what we are doing when it comes to building these plots and how to care for them. It will be worth it all when we get the first harvest in.”

Everypony agreed.

Another pony, Gold, spoke. “And we know how to take better care of our grains. That will increase the yields and make them taste better. A win all around. For us. Not for you.”

Shadow shrugged. “A win for me because I love this stuff. It is relaxing. And I didn’t sit in the room all day, board.”

“Lets get you some of the elder berries,” Gold smiled. “I want some as well.”

Shadow followed them off to where the berries were growing. They all were covered in mud. Shadow felt a little bit at home. It was nice to have another set of wings as well. Cloudy Snow was certainly happier with another pair of wings around.

As they came back from eating some berries right off the bushes a Feral Ghouls screamed and charged them. They were in the middle of the village and it was eight of them. Shadow should have blended in. He had been among the Ferals all day without a problem. Even without a direct guide.

Two of them jumped in front to protect Shadow. They were savagely tossed aside. Shadow’s reaction was slow. He didn’t want to hurt it. His dive was poor and the thing was on him immediately. Shadow tried to fend it off as he stood, but it bit him in the neck, definitely drawing blood.

Shadow used a pressure point to force it to let go and then used it’s weight against it and topple it onto the ground. It was tackled. Shadow backpedaled a bit to create distance. The Feral Ghoul bit one of the ponies and bucked the other hard as it broke free.

“Fine,” Shadow growled. “If you charge, I’ll have no other options outside of hurting you.”

It screamed in rage and charged. Shadow stepped in on time, grounding himself with his shoulder low. It’s chest slammed into Shadow. It continued forward as Shadow stood up, flipping it over his body.

It stood and Shadow swept it’s front legs. At the same time, he snapped one of the legs. It was a clear crack. Everypony who had gathered at the noise heard it and shivered.

Shadow took a few steps back before speaking.

“It’s a simple break,” Shadow announced. “All that needs to be done is a quick set and the radiation and time will do the rest. Good as new.”

“I’ve never set a bone,” Lavender Dew admitted as she came out of the door.

Shadow groaned. “Of course. Let me get a bandage on this and I’ll show you how.”

Shadow wasn’t the only one who needed the clinic. They had to take care of a broken rib and that other bite was nasty. Nopony was allowed in outside of them and Cloudy Snow, since she was Shadow’s guide.

“What happened to you?” Slice groaned, sitting up when he saw the blood.

“Eh, just needs a bandage. Nothing to fret about Storm Eye.”

Slice looked at him, trying to comprehend the name. He finally got it and stood up.

“Look, that needs some stitches. And I am probably the only one who knows how to do that.”

Lavender Dew blushed. “I have a few natural remedy and health books I work off of, but I was not a healer before or during the war. I am just the one who cares just enough about such things. Somepony has to do it. Little actually happens around here.”

“Well, you can learn stitches from me,” Slice groaned. “And then I see another bite that needs some as well. It’s pretty simple.”

Shadow pulled out a stitch kit and tossed it to Slice who playfully caught it on his wing. Shadow flipped up a magical bandage box where it joined the stitch kit. Shadow easily kicked up a health potion and caught it on his own wing.

Slice cleaned Shadow’s wound. He took the time to numb the area up and then put the stitches in. Most of the teeth marks only needed two. Slice moved to a cross stitch for the smaller ones. He stitched together more than needed in order to teach Lavender Dew.

Another quick wipe clean and Slice wrapped his neck in a magical bandage. Shadow finished it with a health potion and they were all done. For him.

Lavender Dew learned well from watching Slice. Using a real kit for sewing stitches was a big help. She would most likely have to make do with a regular needle and cotton thread. Pain meds may or may not be available to numb the area.

A quick healing salve was made up and put over the stitches. Then they bandaged off the wound and Slice sat back down on the bed.

“You feeling okay?” Shadow asked.

“Well enough,” Slice coughed. “Much better when the fever broke. What have you been up too?”

“Its a complicated story,” Shadow stated. “Its all Ghouls here. Including Ferals. We were able to work out me helping them with a farming problem and Nor’easter went out with them on a special expedition they had planned. His guard skills were put to good use apparently.”

“That is good to hear, Silent.” Slice said catching onto the name change. “I hope you have taken care of everything today. I am leaving in the morning.”

Shadow nodded. “We are. And good. That is what we were hoping for. Its not exactly been a welcomed stay. There are good reasons for it. Their generosity is beyond appreciated.”

Slice chuckled. “I don’t remember most of it, but it is. I don’t have the words to describe how much I appreciate it.”

The others were gone, except Lavender Dew and Cloudy Snow. Cloudy Snow finally asked her question.

“I don’t get it. Why did it attack you? And us. We have never had a problem. Nothing beyond a small bump from an absentminded one. And Steel Wrench usually is kept way out in the fields because he is such a powerful Feral Ghoul.”

Shadow let out a sad chuckled from his bed. “I can think of a few things. None of them pretty. My first thought is Rage. A dose of that would make it be able to sniff the odd one out. It also would explain attack it’s own kind. Maybe Stampede. Dash is also something that could be used to highlight the differences and make it attack.”

Lavender Dew and Cloudy Snow had no response. The idea of somepony purposefully giving Steel Wrench a drug was terrifying.

“But those are only guesses,” Shadow said, avoiding a shrug to not stress his neck wound. “We can’t prove it and it’s probably not the case. Just my initial thoughts. Initial, meaning they were not thought out.”

“Speaking of thought out,” Lavender Dew hesitated.

“Right,” Shadow said standing up. “We have to set that break. We shouldn’t put it off.”

Slice chuckled. “You broke it’s leg in self defense and nopony knows how to set it. Classic you.”

“Classic?” Cloudy Snow asked, very confused.

Shadow stopped chuckling to explain. “I have the habit of stuff going wrong or against me. Or stuff just happens. Somehow, I always get away. Luck favors me, despite some of the circumstances that I get tossed into. Specifics are too hard to explain. You have to be there.”

Governor Amber was waiting for them outside. He wanted to speak but he didn’t know how to say what he wanted to say.

Steel Wrench was working to stand, but he wasn’t aware enough to only use three hooves and couldn’t get up. He was flailing around, screaming. It only grew worse when he saw Shadow.

Shadow came closer to look at the break in detail. He was almost bitten. Shadow smacked Steel Wrench’s muzzle as a warning. After two more failed attempts, Shadow stepped on his neck, right at the base of the skull. He pinned his head and had just enough control over Steel Wrench while he figured out how to proceed. Steel Wrench was powerful.

Governor Amber called for Steel Wrench to be muzzled while they set the leg. With that problem taken care of, it was simple to hold him down and for Shadow to teach Lavender Dew how to properly set a break and make a splint.

Steel Wrench was calming down, but they still had to drag him away. They took him to where there was a pool of radiation where he could soak in. The Slog had wisely moved hazardous material that emitted radiation and put it in a pool. It was further out in the trees. They used the roots to lay back on as they relaxed in it’s warmth.

“I shall retire,” Shadow said before Governor Amber could speak. “And I know Nor’easter will not take any chances and head straight to our beds as soon as he is done disarming those warheads.”

“Warheads?” Governor Amber asked alarmed.

“He is an expert,” Shadow nodded. “But I guess there were some explosives that needed to be fully disarmed for your safety. Nor’easter enjoys explosives. It is his training. But he won’t put any of you at risk and will be done shortly. Also, He will be wise and stay on his wings until he reaches the door.”

Shadow walked off to his bed where he was going to eat food. Lavender Dew refused to let him eat field rations. She brought fresh food for him and Thunder.

When Thunder walked in, Shadow nodded. “We leave in the morning. Bright and early. I am packed. I know you have a little to do. And Storm Eye has been slowly doing his. Lavender Dew was extremely kind and made up some brews to help him recover better.”

“Good,” Thunder said with a nod.

That was the last thing Thunder said for the night. All three of them stayed silent. Shadow wrote a good thank you note. It was addressed to Lavender Dew and Governor Amber, but was for the whole city. He left it on the counter for her to easily find.

When Shadow woken up in the morning, there was a letter on his pack.




Silent Wind,

It was good to meet you. I enjoyed our time. Orange Harvest is looking to make a move for control soon after you leave. Talk is already happening. It isn’t very focused on Governor Amber’s choices when it came to you.

Orange Harvest dislikes me even more, but he will never do anything against me. Still, he is looking hard at Governor Amber’s role. Both of them would lead The Slog well and both will treat me fairly.

If you intend to make good on your word, and Orange Harvest takes over because of your visit, I will let you know. Your PipBucks can pick up the local radio station. The one with DJ Pon3. I can let you know with a message from there. He does speak in between songs and he does news segments and alerts.

Listen for something about an orange harvest. Maybe about it being past due, or time for one. Maybe a single Orange. It will be something easy to forget if you have no idea what it means and it will be something no one here would pick up on.

Few here listen to the radio. I own one of the five radios we have. The other four are owned by businesses or the Governor’s Office. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Cloudy Snow


Shadow slipped the letter into the plastic bag that was protecting his books. He shouldered his bags and they moved out. Lavender Dew wasn’t awake yet and it was still dark. It was just like Shadow planned.

Chapter 101 - And Then There Was None

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Shadow, Thunder and Slice made it back to Rosemary safely. They used their wings to leave the swamp, but they transitioned back to hooves before they left the forest for safety. Shadow put DJ Pon3’s radio station on in the background.

The others knew about the note and backed his decision. Slice showed Shadow a program Storm had prepared for radio screenings. It was designed to passively screen military radio frequencies for key words and notify them if something popped up that they needed. It wasn’t hard for it to start screening the civilian station for Orange. The cloud terminal took a little adjusting, but Slice got it working to start screening.

The Stable door closing behind them, sealing them in, was a horrible sound. It grated in Shadow's mind. They were once more locked away from the world. Shadow didn’t bother to send a message when they returned. Their was nothing to read and nothing to say.

Shadow fell into a routine of checking messages in the morning, then making breakfast, and then tending the hydroponics lab. He couldn't get the noise of the Stable door locking them out of his head. Shadow would make a light lunch and then a solid dinner. In between Shadow was working with Kifo Herixleta on the art of the sword.

They rarely ate together as they all fell into separate routines. Thunder was above most of the time. Slice was elsewhere, doing various projects. Shadow couldn't keep track of him.

Slice had recovered physically, but he struggled with not having helped out with the Slog. He knew there was something he could of done for them, but understood why he couldn't. Still, Shadow and Thunder had been able to make an impact there, and he dragged them down.

Shadow was messing with a dying row of carrots when Thunder burst in, panting.

“Shadow! Slice left!”

Shadow looked at Thunder, not understanding and raised his eyebrow.

“Left left! Gone! I was up top, he came up and just took off. Nothing on him. Not even saddle bags. I chased him down, but he is too fast for me.”

Shadow scrambled to the Stable door. Thunder had left it open.

“He went North over the mountains!” Thunder called after Shadow as he bolted out of the lab.

Shadow took to the air and put everything into his wings. Slice was truly gone. Shadow gave up chase and circled back. He couldn’t track Slice. Slice had too much of a head start.

“What happened?” Shadow panted as he met Thunder at the Stable door.

“I was at the surface camp, like normal,” Thunder shrugged. “I… he just came out, but didn’t look at me. He wasn’t even off the blast doors when he launched. I didn’t get it until he turned north.”

Thunder shivered. “I… I was too slow. I didn’t get it and I should have figured it out. I didn’t see him when I made chase.”

“Its okay,” Shadow said slowly. “You couldn't know. I knew it was wearing on him. But he had nothing?”

“Not that I saw,” Thunder said shaking his head.

Shadow let out a long sigh. “Its almost night. Keep the Stable door open in case he comes to his senses. I never expected him to just leave. And he isn’t make a run at the gate, not without gear. He may be lost to the wasteland.”

“So are we,” Thunder said, depressed. “At least to the Enclave.”

“We have to hold out,” Shadow stated. The words felt hollow.

“For what? The only ones looking for us is Dahlia. And she wants to kill us.”

“Just, quit?” Shadow asked.

“I don’t know,” Thunder admitted. “Maybe it is time to stop being soldiers. Become a wastelander. We blend in now.”

“We can’t,” Shadow said softly. “Its…”

“Not what an Enclave soldier would do,” Thunder said defeated. “Its abandoning what we are. There is no honor in it. I was raised in a military family. My parents, my brother, its… against who I am. I can’t. I would have to brand myself. I can’t do that.”

“We will figure it out,” Shadow said. The words somehow felt more empty than they did before.

“I’m going to bed,” Thunder finally said, breaking the silence.

Shadow stood there, unable to think. His mind was completely blank. He finally was able to wake it up and go to bed.

Shadow jolted awake as an loud noise echoed through the Stable. Shadow dashed out, Mwokozi’s revolver drawn. Shadow almost tripped over a PipBuck. It was on the floor, in the middle of the hallway right at the start to the residential quarters.

Shadow picked it up. The screen was open to an entry.


I have nothing but my honor left. I will not leave and abandon my race. But I can not continue. I chose death over the wasteland. I made my mistakes down here. I killed when I should have aided. I was the evil they saw me as. I am not proud of what I did. I am not the hero I would be hailed as. What little honor I have left is because deep down, I know that I acted in ignorance and not in malice. But my ignorance came with a heavy price. A price I can no longer bare. I pray to the hidden stars that you make it back. For all five of us.


Shadow bolted to the main room and saw what he feared. Not much was left. There was a pin on a nearby table. Thunder had put a grenade in his mouth and released the spoon. It was better than a bullet. It was a guarantee. Shadow doubted he regretted it.

Shadow’s anger welled up and he threw the revolver all the way across the room where it careened over the railing at clattered to the floor below.

Shadow picked up the biggest piece and moved it to the hydroponics lab. Each manageable piece was recovered and put in the recycler. It had several days of waste in it. But Shadow didn’t have the strength to clean it out. It was only a little bit of food waste.

Shadow hit the button and walked out. He was soaked in Thunder’s blood. Another that the wasteland had claimed. Shadow was the last Inquisitor alive. Shadow activated the robots to clean up the rest he couldn't. They would also get the spots of blood that slipped off him as he walked to his room.

Shadow lost track of how long he was in the shower. When he finally shut it off he still felt dirty. There was nothing worse than being soaked in a close friend's blood.

The next day, there was no sign anything was amiss. The robots had deactivated and put themselves away. Shadow picked up and labeled the bag of fertilizer and brought it to his room. Shadow moved Storm’s bag into his room. It had been in Slice’s.

Shadow cooked a meal for himself. Just for himself. Somehow it felt right. He didn’t have anything to do outside of the hydroponics and his sword practice.

Shadow had no plan. There was nothing in his mind. He had no idea how long he could last without a plan.

As Shadow trudged on, Rosemary began to lose control. The ghosts were coming. It started with hearing noises. Ponies being active. And then he began to see the Inquisitors in the corner of his vision. They weren’t there when he turned his head. Even worse, the Unicorns started to come, stalking the outer edges of his mind. The Stable door sounded like it opened at least once a day. Shadow checked multiple times when he started to hear it. But that was all it was, a hollow sound still echoing through the empty corridors.

Chapter 102 - Mtoaji

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“Shadow.”

“Shadow!”

“Shadow Flare!”

Shadow jumped out of bed, revolver out and ready. The ghosts were starting to speak! He turned the lights on and looked around.

“Shadow Flare!”

The voice came from Kifo Herixleta’s box. Shadow shakily stepped over to it. He nervously set the revolver down. Kifo Herixleta had ‘spoken’ to him as it taught him to wield the blade, but never out loud. And not in that voice.

It was a calm, old voice that had seen many years and many things. From great atrocities to wondrous miracles. How a stallion was speaking to him he had no idea.

Shadow carefully opened the case. Kifo Herixleta leaped for it’s scabbard and latched onto the band. Shadow followed through with the draw and swung it around and into his favorite ready position, Sword by his head, pointed along his line of sight.

“You have never spoken to me before,” Shadow stated. “What is it you want. Or better yet, what are you?”

“I am what you see that I am. But inside me holds a deep enchantment. It translates to your tongue as a soul jar. I am part of a soul. I know not my maker. I know not my enchanter. I know not who’s soul I am from.”

“I know I am powerful. I am old. Perhaps older than the sword itself is. I am from a great master of the art of the sword. You know that already. I am fire and I am ice.”

“You are a Zebra sword,” Shadow stated. “But I hear no rhymes.”

“Do you rhyme with all you speak?”

“No,” Shadow said shaking his head. Part of him wanted it to be a dream.

“Then I do not speak in rhymes.”

“Fair,” Shadow said, lowering the blade.

He set it in front of the box so he could see it better.

Kifo Herixleta spoke quickly. “What is your purpose? What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“You are alone, abandoned?”

“Yes?” Shadow said confused.

“Who has done this to you?”

“My officer...”

“NO! Who has done this to you? Where do your problems below come from?”

“I do not know.”

“The wasteland has done this to you.”

Shadow took a second to think.

“Many ponies and things have caused our deaths.”

“And they are of the wasteland. Here to claim what is pure and good. It wants to consume you.”

“I won’t let it,” Shadow replied confidently.

“How?”

“How? I just will.”

“It consumed the last two with you.”

“They…”

“The enemy knocks at your door. What do you do?”

“Fight?”

“Is that a question or an answer?”

“Fight,” Shadow stated. “Fight. Kick them off my doorstep.”

“Run them through. Kill your enemies. All who wish to kill you. That is your fate, is it not?”

“Fate?” Shadow replied. “When did I ever say that was my fate?

“Black and white,”

Shadow joined in. “Day and night, my two colors are such a sight. Your Glyphmark is a sign, so is mine. The three pieces of the puzzle, oh so subtle. Speed. Power. Agility.”

“There is more than you have said. Ages ago, the great sages spoke of someone, you. It lacks the same beauty the old language carries and the tenses shift, but it’s meaning is undeniable.”

“Shadow Flare you will be given, for by a strong desire you shall be driven. Black and white, day and night, your two colors will be such a sight. The split is a sign, that is to be a guideline. One white and black, blessed for life while on the attack. The three pieces of the puzzle, oh so subtle. Speed. Power. Agility.”

“Thus will be your school, that you should be a tool. To protect what you love, from everypony, even those above. You are a gift to all kind, to be a real mastermind.”

“Fate’s eye fell upon your head, even before you had your own bed. To lead your kind to victory, and rewrite history. You will have a duty to impose, beyond your humble abode. A farmer by trade, who shall wield a blade. Your life set to be the link, to save us all from the brink. The change must be forged in blood, or else it will be a dud. You will be sent to start that mend, and bring the separation to an end. Between you and your true heart’s desire is a land full of fire.”

“To quench it shall be your new battle cry, and all who oppose must die. They will spill your blood in hate and force you to lay in wait. When it is the time to rise, you will once again see the sky. All that stands in your way, has had it’s time to play.”

“Your charge is to cleanse the land, so the Pegasi may stay grand. You are the one foretold, Mtoaji. The Mender.”

Shadow nodded his head. “Few things are of starker contrast than mending something through spilling blood.”

“Wait,” Shadow said. “Mwokozi said something. ‘A warning I give. A full life combative. It was not for your kind, for it was a mark against ponykind.’”

“His was, but you are a Pegasus. When you first drew me, I knew what you were and who you are. I heard the words the seers spoke. I knew the ones spoken about Mwokozi, and I saw their similarities by their differences.”

“That is what we are united. It is why I give you my knowledge, strength and guidance. Fate gave me over to you, the new blessed one. So that you could strike hard and strike fast. Be a shadow in the light, killing but out of sight.”

Shadow’s heart was beating fast. Things were moving too quickly to fully comprehend. He slowed it down and repeated the destiny chant. Nor’s experience led Shadow to believe the chant. It had fit his life. He was sent here with a mission. He was sent here to change things and fix things.

He would make sure it happened. And he would cut down those that harmed him and his friends. Even if it meant cutting his way through Fillydelphia, the Steel Rangers and through the Disciples, all the way to Nesha.

“I will,” Shadow said firmly, the fire inside growing. “I will do it. The wasteland has robbed me in more ways than one and it will pay.”

Shadow picked up Kifo Herixleta and slid it into it’s sheath.

“If I am to head out and slay it, I need to prepare. I can’t just run out. There is gear I need to gather. Stuff I need to seal away from others like my sister and comrades. This place cannot fall into the wrong hooves. I need to secure the armor as well.”

“Do not make the mistake of waiting and letting fear hold you back!”

“I won’t,” Shadow growled. “My mind is set. I won’t forget.”

There was plenty of things to do. Shadow looked around the room for the first one. His eyes were drawn to the naval armor and the symbol they had painted on it’s chest. The circle with the star in it. That would make a fine badge to wear and the Enclave had been sent a message about their badge change. There was plenty of silver objects collecting dust in the Stable.

He knew Kifo Herixleta said some comment about it not being fruitful, but if he was going to do it, he was going to do it right. The Armory had the hardware he needed to melt the silver objects into one and form it into a circle.

He let it cool and put a drill press to work carving out the pieces so the star’s points were obvious. He fashioned a strong clasp from some of the armor equipment, heated the badge up enough for it to bond them together and then let it cool.

Shadow grabbed the other’s saddlebags. He stitched them together so he had one on each side and then one on top of each of those. Four bags, plus two on his flanks. Everything had zippers. He would use his throw bag as well. The bag for ammo was on his left, the lower one. The zippers were set up to facilitate fast reloads. Shadow also made a simple ammo sling.

The bag next to his guns would hold his books, the statuette, the Pipbuck and the records. He set everything up to download all records of their actions. Every personal report was also recorded, including video footage. Their entire mission would come with him. It was classified.

The records from the civilian group they had slaughtered stayed safe in the room, along with their personal artifacts. There was too much and no point in taking them. He would return here to take them home when the time came.

The bag also was going to have several empty mini memory orbs and a few of his favorites stashed away. The memory necklace didn’t take up much space.

If he was leaving, this place needed caring for. The Inquisitors had worked too hard to let it rot.

“They earned it,” Shadow said to Kifo Herixleta as he went to bed. “They have been our shield from Dahlia and others. They will keep the special stuff safe as I cleanse this wasteland and prepare it for my pegasi brethren. Everything sacred, that I will need when the time comes, will be kept here, under their watch.”

“And what if they break the seals?”

“I will have to trust they won’t. They will be getting a great gift, along with being spared. I hope that trust will hold.”

“Herixleta?”

“Yes?”

“Next to you is a statuette of Rainbow Dash. It says be awesome. I feel a lot more awesome with it by me.”

“It is a powerful fragment holding her essence. It isn’t a soul or a soul jar. But it is powerful. The others in the set will hold great power as well. Keep is close. Find the others.”

“I will. Hey, what do you know about the charm necklace Mwokozi wore. I took it off him.”

The calm voice turned harsh. “It is wards you should not dabble with. Fate may have chosen you to follow after him, but that is powerful Zebra magic. For Zebras only.”

“If I put it with my books, the reports, and such, will it keep them safe? They are shielded by the guns, but…”

The voice calmed down. “It should protect itself from harms so it doesn’t break. It probably will encompass the entire bag.”

“Good,” Shadow said rolling over to slip into slumber.

There was a lot more to do. He had to move all the power armor suits to be locked away. He put them in Slice’s room. He had to dry out as much rosemary as possible. He cleaned and prepared four canteens. He would be able to keep two out of the bag on a strap.

For good measure, he attached several grenades to the strap as well. He was trained, well, but Shadow had never like grenades. Now that he was on his own, and lightly armed and armored, he might need them.

All of their special ammo had to be moved. Every rocket, minigun powercell, the Novasurge and laser gun packs, it all had to go. The 7.62x51mm had too many cases to try moving. But there were no guns that used it in the armory.

Shadow put a dozen crates of the 7.62x51mm ammo in his room He added at least a crate of the other ammo cases. It was better to store them here so it was condensed when the time came to return. More stuff like meds and food rations were also put in storage in his room. All of it would be his backup in case the ponies were able to use the others. They were guaranteed to be there for him.

His sister and the others were already reverently laying there. Shadow pulled out the dress he had brought back for Cardinal Spitfire. He looked it over and then folded it back into the dresser. It would be here when he went back. For her.

The last thing to pack was food and final equipment like water purifiers, meds, and caps. He hated having to stock a full bag of field rations, but it was how it had to be. It was guaranteed food.

The very last thing Shadow had to do was bring in the cloud terminal. He sent one final message.




CSM Shadow Flare,

After all this time, alone, I leave. Outpost Rosemary is going to be left in good hooves. They shielded us, unknowingly, from enemies searching for us. Don’t harm them. They are the keepers of our legacy, our work. When the time comes, what matters will be safe. All of the files I will be locked away will be there for you to retrieve. Hopefully I will return when you do.

I go to hunt down the true enemies of the Pegasus Race


Shadow paused before hitting send. He look out over the landscape. What he was about to do, there was no returning. Not the same as he was. He was turning his back on it all, to serve a higher purpose.

Shadow cleaned up the whole stable. He had forgotten about Nor’s gecko project. They had grown quite big. He sliced one apart with Kifo Herixleta ablaze and the other one iced over. A quick flame removed the slime and Shadow sent the two robots to cleaning it up.

There was one last thing Shadow wanted done.


Honored Resident,

This is gift for all you have done that you did not know. I have only two simple request.

Rooms 15, 18 and 33 are NOT to be unlocked. They will not open without the proper authority, which should only be with me. But no matter what, do not unlock them. Do not enter them or even look in them.

The second is the Mission logs in this terminal. They are password protected, but leave them be. It is safest if you do not know anything mentioned inside them.

The hydroponics lab has it’s own terminal with all the information you need to run it and the fertilizer compactor. The reactor room is being cleaned up from an experiment that didn’t go as planned, but that will be clean soon.

Everything else is yours. All the weapons. All the ammo. All the armor. Everything.

Mtoaji


Shadow grabbed the last of the files that had finished copying to data devices and put those in his bag, next to his seeds. The seeds reminded him of a lot of things. Most important, he realized if he had to settle down outside of Rosemary for a time, he would want to do a little gardening. It was in his blood. Fate or no fate, it was in his blood.

Thankfully most seeds were small. A few more herbs, some other stuff like tomatoes that he could get seeds from again and such. A few packets of varied grains so he had something strong to eat. On a whim, he grabbed a packet of apple seeds. It was more than enough for him to live comfortably on.

Soarin’s Lightning was broken down and securely in a bag with plenty of ammo for it. With it was the neatly folded Zebra stealth cloak Mwokozi had. It was too pretty to take out, but they hadn’t brought any regular ones back. He would need to use it with a gun like Soarin’s Lighting for cover. Shadow hope the enchantment would hold if the cloak was pierced and stitched together.

One last night and Shadow donned his new gear. He had cut up one of his old, patched flight suit so that he would have an under tunic. On top of it was his red jacket armor with the medal broach he made. It was pinning the cloak on.

His customized battle saddle was locked and loaded and he strapped on Mwokozi’s revolver. He secured combat knifes in two locations. The Zebra one was by the revolver and easy to get with the band, the other was easy to grab with his mouth. A blade didn’t run out of ammo.

Shadow made sure Kifo Herixleta was wrapped up in its cloth sheath and the ornate belt was also wrapped securely. The last thing he needed was to be seen with a super fancy sword belted around his waist and hunted for it. With a little work, the handle and guard had been bound tightly with extra gecko leather to further hide it. Kifo Herixleta was not happy, but understood. And it could still easily be drawn with the band and with no side effects.

His four bags were heavy, but they also ensured that he would be able to hide his wings well. With everything he was wearing, he had to grab the heavy, gecko cloak. At least his bags would explain the big cloak. Shadow tossed on his throw bag into the middle of his back, settling things and put his stetson on.

Shadow took a deep breath in and let it out. He was a much different pony in the mirror than he felt. He could still feel the necklace burning against his skin. A good reminder.

What he saw in the mirror was a haggard, angry pony who was torn up and beaten by the wasteland. One who had no idea how to find rest. Shadow knew where rest was. He knew he had taken a beating below. But what he felt on the inside didn’t look like the outside. Shadow didn’t know if he had weathered things as well as he thought, or if the mirror was a true reflection of himself.

The stable door sealed behind him. Shadow was unsure if he really wanted to leave, but he knew he had to go. It was filled with ghosts that would only drive him to insanity. It was that first step that was the hardest.

The elevator needed to be hooked up, or else Rosemary was inaccessible. At least Slice had worked out a bottom switch. He couldn't fly up with the gear in place. That was the idea. Plus, the ponies would need it up, not down.

Shadow walked down to the gate. It was still locked. He pulled out Slice’s cloud key and unlocked it, forever breaking Rosemary’s seal. He slipped it back into his bags and pushed his hat down more to cover his face.

It was a longer of a walk that he remembered. But they had avoided being closer to the settlement as it grew. His presence was notice quickly, and many were shocked, unsure what to do as he just strolled into their midst from a direction they were not expecting. Shadow stopped and the head pony, an older stallion, walked over to him. Shadow was going to stand there and not move, not even to turn his head.

“The Overwatcher from the plateau,” He greeted him.

Shadow replied is a raspy voice, starting with a chuckle.

“I guess I was not a invisible as I had thought.”

“What brings you down to our fair Sanctuary.”

“A deep pain,” Shadow replied. “I was, not alone. But it is all over now.”

Shadow felt the pain and anger of their deaths grow. The pain that he was having to leave Rosemary, despite it’s ghosts. His unjust betrayal was added to the fire. The Wasteland had made it so Shadow had killed Dream Catcher.

It was evident, even in his adjusted voice. “I have some big debts to settle. But I can not leave her without an owner.”

Shadow tossed a big bag at his feet. It opened and two PipBucks rolled out. More were inside.

“Everything you need to enter and open the doorway is stored in there. Also how you operate the elevator and open the stable door from the outside.”

There were hushed whispers back and forth when he said stable.

“It is a good place. Rosemary is her name. Good hydroponics that will feed you well. Make good use of her and everything she has to offer. Make better use of her than we did.”

“That’s it?” He asked with an eyebrow raised.

“Just two minor things,” Shadow replied. “First, don’t open rooms 15, 18 and 33. They are locked. Don’t even think about it. If they open up somehow, seal them back up without looking inside. The second is the Mission Logs in the Overseer’s terminal. They are locked with a password I have, but you do not want to unlock them. For your safety and because you don’t need to know.”

“Safety?”

“If others, and you will know them, come. Do not resist. They may open the files.”

“Are you coming back?” A mare asked.

Shadow spoke slowly. “I don’t know. I want to say yes…”

“I don’t understand,” She followed up.

“You can’t understand,” Shadow snapped. “You just can’t. Don’t make this hard. Just accept and let me move out.”

“It is a very tough world out there,” The head pony said. “I wish you the best of luck collecting those debts. We will use Rosemary well. She will greatly aid in living here. We will need a place to trade and exist outside from underground, but we will use her to the best of our ability. Especially the hydroponics. Ours isn’t growing very well.”

“There is plenty of fertilizer inside the lab,” Shadow stated. “You soil out here is desperate for key nutrients. Use them. I always prefer real crops rather than hydroponics, but one can not be picky at times. And hydroponics grow much faster.”

“We will keep her safe,” He assured Shadow. “And more importantly, we will keep her ready and waiting for your return.”

Shadow took in a deep breath. He silently began to walk down the street. He had no idea where he was going to head to first. He had to get free of them before his pain was unleashed.

“Who was that?” A mare asked to the others. “You said he watched us from the plateau?”

“I assume she, and her friends, were the ones Dahlia was hunting all those times she barged in here. We can not let Dahlia or anypony know of Rosemary. They will try and take it from us. She might have entrusted it with us until her return, but we are really meant to keep it and use it permanently. And watch over those files and rooms. Nopony else is supposed to get close to them. Whatever it is, its a risk for her.”

“I think she is a stallion and his name is Shadow Flare.”

They all looked at Ornate Charm.

“You know my story. It was a small white pony with a black mane. I never caught sight of the Cutie Mark because of the cloak, but it has to be him. It would explain where the three of them disappeared to.”

“One now,” The head stallion said sadly. “One very hurt and very angry pony who was robbed of so much. We should check out Rosemary, his gift. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Let him deal with things as he needs to. In his way.”

“In what way?” Another asked.

“Blood,” Ornate Charm said, her heart aching for him and his pain. “We were rescued, but it was bloody. And that was fun. They called it treasure hunting because they were looking for something. But the trip was something not planned, on a whim, and even when it meant battle, it was free from something.

“But this isn’t a whim. He is going to go do what he wanted to do, but was restricted from doing before.”

Chapter 103 - Ponyville

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Shadow confidently set his hoof down on the other side of the train track bridge. He was on the edge of Ponyville. This is where he decided to come first.

The light was fading, giving him the advantage. When he was satisfied, Shadow took another sure step into Ponyville. A den of raiders and thieves, there was no better place to release his wrath upon. No better place to start mending this cursed land.

The first place Shadow saw was an nondescript building with most of the second floor collapsed. The soft glow of a candle was leaking from the busted out window. There were at least two shadows visible on the wall.

Shadow sauntered over to it and slid under the window to listen in.

“Brew’s food stockpile is here.”

“Lets approach from here. Brew has at least two guards in there at all times. We have to be quiet.”

“We need Blue and Sprocket to come back so we can get a final count.”

“We have to move fast. I am starving.”

That was three distinct voices. Shadow surveyed the area. Two ponies slinked into sight. Shadow slipped out from under the window and leaned against the wall by the door. They nodded to him as the walked up to the door. Shadow nodded back and twisted the doorknob to open it for them. They entered without question, assuming he was a friend guarding the door.

“They don’t expect an attack. Changing guards will happen in an hour. At least 4 are changing.”

“Then we strike right after, when they think their pals are still nearby. It will mask our arrival. Can we do it quietly?”

“I think so. If we stick to the shadows. We might have to fire once we are inside. But we don’t have to kill any inside so long as we can swipe what is needed without them noticing.”

“I’d rather take them down a few pegs after stealing our food and killing Quartz, Chain and Burn.”

“Food, then we can strike after a solid meal.”

“Spur? You were upstairs?”

“Yeah. Napping.”

“Then who is guarding the door?”

Shadow pulled out his combat knife with his teeth and drew the revolver. The door swung open with fury and as the first raider stepped out, Shadow plunged the knife into it’s throat. They were bottlenecked in the doorway as their buddy gargled a cough of blood, blocking their way. Shadow blasted four with his revolver.

He slipped to the window and stepped in front of it. He got the drop on another. His sixth shot missed and he barely escaped a volley of steel shot from a 12 gage.

Shadow reloaded and tried to figure out his next move. A grenade was an option, but his stock was limited and he didn’t know were the last raider was.

It didn’t matter as the raider knew where he was and jumped out of the front door. Shadow dove out from the wall as it opened fire. He came out the roll and fired two rounds. The first struck home, the second was wild.

Shadow broke open the revolver. His time practicing his reloading techniques paid off as he kept the live rounds in place, ejecting only the two spent casings. With a fresh reload he slipped into the building. Both floors were clear of raiders. Other than a weak stash of 53 caps, they had nothing special.

Shadow checked their ammo stocks. Nothing of value to him; no 44 Magnum rounds. He shouldn’t be surprised at that, but he was. Not many could handle it’s power. Shadow replaced the rounds he had removed from their slot on the outside of his holster.

Their map was crude, but Shadow saw where Brew was set up. She had a large operation going of thirty or so raiders. She was his next target. Shadow was going to kill fucking every raider in this town. They were the face of evil in this land.

Shadow stepped out of the building and headed deeper into the Ponyville. The map was certainly crude, but it was easy to find Brew’s territory. Shadow slipped into cover and tracked two raiders. He stepped out and fired six rounds at them from his rifle.

One hit and the others were misses. The hit wasn’t enough to knock the raider out and their yells alerted the whole area of his presence. Shadow dashed out from hiding to an alleyway. From there a few twists and turns put him out of their radar.

But he was not clear of Brew’s territory and three stumbled upon Shadow. Shadow’s red jacket was a dead giveaway. Shadow was faster on the draw and emptied his shotgun into them. Overkill.

They couldn't pin down where Shadow was, but it kept him on the run. Shadow had never been alone like this. Even in Filly, his comrades were nearby. Now he was afraid. He was truly alone. Alone. On the run. If they found him, he was going to die. Shadow had no control. And his shots were wild. Without his marksmanship, he was in trouble.

Shadow slammed into a Unicorn, tangling up with her. She wasn’t alone. There was no missing that such a close range. Shadow emptied Mwokozi’s revolver, one shot, one kill. Two went down in flames.

The Unicorn didn’t have to get up. She swung a pipe with circular saw blades attached at Shadow. Shadow had just enough time to roll out of the way, but it was a close call. From his curled up position it was hard to deal a solid strike. Shadow flipped the revolver around and put his anger and fear into a punch to the back of her head. He punched her again as she levitated the weapon up. A third time caused her to waver with it’s hold. A fourth. A fifth. Again. Again. Again. Shadow didn’t stop until his hoof was soaked with blood and other fluids as he crushed the back of her skull.

Shadow didn’t have time to think as others charged his position. He was saved by their lack of subtlety. Shadow played a game of cat and mouse with them. If they were in a restricted area, Shadow beat the shit out of them until they were unrecognizable, working their bodies as he systematically destroyed them. For open targets, he let loose with his rifle. Each time he missed, his anger rose. He was better than them. He should not be missing.

It was light when Shadow finished the last who were chasing him. There still were stationary guards, holding key points. He had to kill them.

Shadow struggled to breath from his hiding spot in a protected doorway. He shakily reloaded his weapons. He had burned through three magazines for his rifle and two on the shotgun. His 44 ammo was down by 18 rounds. For twenty targets, it was unexceptionable. Way to many had been used keeping heads down while he ran.

Shadow finished the last of his water and began to plan. He knew where their food storage was. He knew they were guarding two other buildings. He still had ten or so raiders to go. Shadow guessed where Brew was hiding and chose the other building. Food would be last.

Shadow slipped across the open road and up to the building. He stuck to the wall and slid around the corner. A window on the second floor was open. The building had a few spots for traction and Shadow flipped up to it. No one was in the room, but ponies slept in it.

Shadow eased the door open and listened. The voices were coming from downstairs.

“Draw me!” Kifo Herixleta ordered.

Shadow drew the sword and slipped into the other two empty bedrooms. Now he had to make his way down and to his target. The first step down creaked badly and the raiders reacted. Shadow stepped back up and out of the way. He cut three down and had the fourth against the wall, sword at her throat.

“Your no raider!” She spat. She had to be Brew. Her Cutie Mark had two beer bugs toasting.

“No,” Shadow grinned. “I am blood. I am death. I am your doom.”

Brew laughed heartily. “You? You might have a sword to my throat, but you don’t look like any of that.”

Shadow growled. “I hunted your crew down all night. I alone wiped them out. My hooves are soaked in their blood.”

“Still not scary,” Brew laughed. “I control the food here. Ponies fear me because they can see the scars on my face. The can see my muscles. They see my raw power. They know I have what it takes to make it to run a crew and live comfortably. The others come begging to me for food, bartering what they can for the scraps. They know that if the try and steal it, I kill them.

“You scurried around like a rat, picking my crew off one by one. While I admit, it was impressive that you kept yourself from being cornered they whole time, you are nothing to fear. Even with a blade at my throat. How do you think my face got this scar? An old whelp tried to do the same, but he missed the killing blow, slicing me open across the face. And then I gutted him. And then more ponies feared me and I had control. You will never be able to control ponies. You will have to fight too hard to keep them in control. You will be challenged at every turn.”

Shadow grinned. “It’s a good thing I am not here to control. I am not here to run my own gang or crew. I am here to kill. To quench this land of the evil fire that burns uncontrolled. I am to clean it from the filth. I am to mend it’s brokenness so that a new, unified land can arise.”

Brew rolled her eyes. “Talk all you want. But you have nothing to back it up. Nopony will quake in fear. You won’t last long. They will slowly destroy that idealistic heart of yours until you either die or slink into a gang to be at the bottom and just get by. Probably only being allowed to stay as the fuck bag. Serving only in that capacity. Keep the boss happy or die.”

“I’m a stallion,” Shadow hissed.

“Yeah? I know. That doesn’t mean a thing. That’s all you are good for. That is the only way you will ever make it to old age.”

Shadow let out a savage growl. “I will not submit to any raider. For any reason.”

Sliding the blade into Brew’s neck was dull. There was no joy. There was no feeling of accomplishment. It was empty. Even watching her gurgle and struggle, pinned to the wall by Kifo Herixleta did nothing.

Brew’s words were true. If he was able to instill fear into his enemies, he would win. He would control them. He could kill them with the accuracy he knew had been locked away. Instead he was unchecked rage and pain.

They took so much away from him and his friends. He would not become complacent. He would slaughter them all. He would make this land pay for it’s crimes. But he had to forge all of himself into a sharp point. He was alone and that meant he had to direct himself without any support.

“How?” Shadow asked Kifo Herixleta. “How do I make them fear me. If I wear Mwokozi’s cloak, they can’t see me. It only gives me the element of surprise.”

“But they wont shit their pants,” Kifo Herixleta replied firmly. “Your size is a problem. We must compensate somehow. You have the drive. The right mindset. You did what you were destined to do and are continuing with that destiny. But yes, there must be a better way than running. You need to make them run at the sight of you. To not see your size, but your projection.”

“I still have to interact with settlements,” Shadow advised him. “So I can’t always be that way.”

“How you are now will work fine for civilization,” Kifo Herixleta stated. “I am at a loss. I can train you to fight. Guide your tactics. Be a wise counsel. But I am not all knowing. I am like you. I am not of this place.”

“What would make your quake in fear? If you knew you were being hunted, what would you not want to see?”

“A face,” Kifo Herixleta stated immediately. “Your face must go. So must your bags. You have to remove all symbols, all items of being a pony. Of being tangible. They must believe that you can not die. That you don’t bleed.”

“I need my bags,” Shadow replied. “I will need to reload. If I am attacking a place like this, I can stash some of them. But on the go, I won’t have that choice.”

“We will take it one step at a time,” Kifo Herixleta said softly. “For now, kill the rest of the crew.”

“With pleasure,” Shadow grinned.

Shadow extended his hoof. With a little patience, Kifo Herixleta began to shake and then slipped free from the wall it was buried in and to the band. Brew plopped to the ground like a sack of turnips hitting the ground. Nothing in it holding together as they settled.

Shadow set the blade on fire to remove the blood. It wasn’t the best way to care for the blade. It should be wiped clean and every so often oiled to make it shine. The gems set inside protected it, but it still was the real, proper care that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Shadow wrapped himself in Mwokozi’s cloak. He wasn’t going to mess around. He dispatched the two at their gang’s housing and then the ones in their food depot were easy to cut down. They knew he was there, just not where. They did panic.

Shadow loaded his empty bag with food. He was starving. The only thing here was food and filtered water. The other two buildings held several stashes of caps, and he was able to restock his rifle ammo with decent quality rounds. Their shotgun rounds were too light of shot and worthless.

Shadow moved on to find a spot to hide and satisfy his stomach. He couldn’t risk staying in a place where the raiders came to get their food. As he slipped away, he saw a group slowly approaching the territory. He would kill them after a quick rest.

Shadow’s acrobatic skills were put to the test with all his gear, but he got up into a destroyed roof and was able to slip under the rubble for a safe place to eat and then sleep. He would continue cleansing the village after his body recovered from the rough night.

It was almost dark when he awoke and ate. He had two more meals from the amount he had swiped. Shadow slipped the cloak on and disappeared so he could look out over the village safely.

He had slept through a big fight. Most of it revolved around the now destroyed food vault. Raider gangs had figured out Brew was no longer in control and tried to make their way. He would not be facing hungry raiders. But he could count on them being tired and torn.

Shadow put his bags on and descended. Once on the ground he uncloaked himself. Sounds of victory as a gang toasted their success and freedom tickled his ears. Shadow zeroed in on their position. Kifo Herixleta was right. He needed to fight without his bags. Shadow shifted them off and tucked them away.

The gang was settled in around a fire and not paying too much attention. It was a dozen or so raiders and they had been drinking. Shadow slipped his hat down further and just walked out to them. By the time they realized they had a visitor it was too late.

Shadow used his speed to cut them down. After the first six, four tried to attack him, making them easy prey. Two stumbled off in a vein attempt to escape. Shadow sent Kifo Herixleta spinning through the air. He pinned one to a building through the waist. The hilt stopped the blade from going clean through. The Zebra combat knife took out the other.

Shadow retrieved Kifo Herixleta first and then the combat knife. Their little group didn’t have much. A spattering of caps and barely any ammunition. Nothing for Shadow to resupply.

Shadow moved onto the next. They were more attentive, but the cloak did it’s job as he silently sliced the heads off the guards. The rest were easy kills as he ran divide and conquer tactics. They had caps and ammunition for him. Shadow ignored the loose stuff, but they had a small crate filled with his rifle’s ammunition, loaded into magazines.

Shadow slipped into another attic and slept till noon. He wanted to hunt them in the light. He was well rewarded. A slaver crew was trying to pay their way through a raider gang’s territory. A good chunk of caps was being exchanged.

Shadow lined the shot up and blew the head off the raider who was doing the exchange. The raiders thought the slaves decided to fight and all hell broke loose. The raiders won, having the stronger position. They relaxed and Shadow made his move, dashing out at them, gunning down the last four with his focus back.

Shadow slowed down to a walk. He adjusted his hat to hide his face before walking over to the slaves.

“Thank you!” A mare said, tears of joy sliding out from her eyes. She was protecting a young colt.

Shadow switched to a raspy voice. “For?”

“Freeing us,” She replied, confused.

Shadow let out a few chuckles. “I didn’t come to do that. I am here to kill. I am here to cleans the wasteland of all impurities. It has had it’s time. It is time for the separation to end. The rift has to be mended. Only blood can do that.”

Her head was removed as Shadow drew his blade. The colt was sliced in half with a simple cross. Shadow walked down the line, cutting them down. They tried to bolt, but chained together they pulled each other in multiple directions, going nowhere.

As Shadow swung at the last one, she dove, barely escaping. Shadow had miscalculated the distance and wasn’t going to do it again. Her horn glowed and she shut her eyes tight. Shadow didn’t hesitate, he knew he had to cut her down before she attacked.

Kifo Herixleta sliced where she was. The chains fell but there was no body. A crack and she appeared behind Shadow. Shadow hadn’t ever seen a unicorns teleport. He whipped around in anger and fired his shotgun twice.

She was fast and her fear focused her magic. It was tough for her to teleport, but each time she was further away until she got around a corner and Shadow completely lost all contact. Even getting up on top of a house yielded nothing.

“She can spread the warning,” Kifo Herixleta said. “Leave her to warn the wasteland that it’s time is up.”

Shadow walked back to the epicenter and gathered the caps and some more food. He was by the town hall and headed inside. It was all clear. There was a basement that was locked. The lock was broken, sealing up the door.

Shadow pulled out his hoof laser cutter and cut the dead bolt. It was dusty and Shadow had to wait until his coughing fit was done to head further in. It was a records room. Birth and death certificate, legal documents, taxes, news, and more.

One of the desks had a project on it. Scattered about was a stack of newspaper clippings and photographs. A mare in a purple and dark blue jump suit, face mask hat and cape. “Mare-Do-Well.” A hero of Ponyville before the war. She disappeared as fast and mysteriously as she came. Whoever was working on this was trying to figure out who she was, in a vein hope of bringing Equestria a superhero as the war began to really hurt Equestria.

Shadow blew the dust off the largest photograph. She was receiving an award for her work.

“Kifo Herixleta,” Shadow asked. “How does this look? Black suit, same hat, face mask with red lenses.”

“The extra large cloak would float in the wind,” Kifo Herixleta commented. “It would hide your gear, while making you look bigger. The red lenses would keep anypony from reading you and unnerve them. You have to get the hoof wraps right. I say a navy blue suit with black cape and hat. The wraps should be a red like your eyes.”

“What should I do about the cape’s clasp?”

“Keep it. M for Mtoaji. But black with red.”

“Yes,” Shadow said piecing it together in his head. “I see it. I can piece this together with relative ease. The hardest thing will be the lenses and the clasp.”

Shadow swept up all the pictures to use them as a reference. He grabbed the documents to erase the information. If somepony connected the two, it could destroy the reputation he was trying to build.

Back on the hunt, the next gang was centered around the giant tree library thing. The multiple stories would make it interesting. The defenses were the immediate concern. They had dug in and put out plenty of whatever they could to make a low wall. Getting near would be impossible. They were tight on their defenses. Something valuable was inside. Something more valuable than territory.

Shadow pulled Mwokozi’s cloak out and wrapped himself in it. It was the only way he could get close. The distance was a stones throw, eliminating the effective use of Soarin’s Lightning.

Walking out into the middle of the street towards such heavy defenses was exhilarating. Shadow’s steps became stronger and his heart was filled with righteous judgment. They would never see their death coming. It was all they deserved.

Kifo Herixleta slipped from it’s sheath easily and the first head was sliced off and up. Shadow bucked it across at another guard where it slammed into it’s head. The move caused the spell to momentarily break. The guards had no idea what the blip was other than it was deadly.

They opened up and in their fear, two were opposite of each other and killed themselves. Shadow wasn’t near where their shots were. They quaked in fear, unsure where the entity was.

“Lock the door! Secure the Library! And kill that thing!”

The tree had everything shut up tight. The guards were gutsy and began to patrol, shooting anything they thought might be the creature. Shadow used the chaos to his advantage, slice one and then another. The more they moved, the more they made themselves easy targets.

With the outside cleared, Shadow looked to the top of the tree where a balcony was. The tree make it easy for him to work his acrobatic magic ascending it. At the balcony, he removed the cloak and tucked it away.

Shadow almost drew the revolver but stopped. If it set something on fire, he was in a tree. Trees burned. He didn’t want to set it on fire while he was inside. The shotgun would work and conserve his 44 ammo.

The combat knife made easy work of the old lock on the balcony’s doors. It wasn’t quiet, but Shadow was ready. Shadow blasted apart the two that came up the stairs and then a third that froze out in the open below him. It was amazing that the tree was so hollow and yet alive.

The openness worked both ways. Shadow ended up in a shootout that proved to be a stalemate. Shadow pulled the pin and tossed the first grenade he had chucked since working with Marble Falls. It did it’s job.

Shadow made sure it was all clear before he focused on the object they had been protecting. On a decayed bed, with a star and crescent moon covers, was a figure laying very still. Shadow slowly drew Kifo Herixleta as he stalked closer to the bed.

Shadow pushed the blade forward. When it met resistance, he continued to slowly push the tip in. Shadow hadn’t killed it. He knew two were guarding it when he came in.

The figure jumped off the bed and into the wall with a squeal. A turquoise shield was blocked any attack. The Unicorn was chained with a single cuff at her rear hoof and it was sunk deep into the floor.

“We said no torture,” She growled. He voice was too high pitched to make effective use of the growl. Shadow got a look as to what it must look like to others when he put up a fight.

“We didn’t make that deal,” Shadow stated. “But I am curious. Very curious. I killed them all. Inside and out.”

“That doesn’t sound good for me,” She replied, not lowering the shield.

“Depends,” Shadow replied, relaxing. “On why exactly you were chained up.”

“So you can try and take me to your gang?”

“I don’t have a gang,” Shadow smirked. “I kill raiders. I’ve wiped out half of Ponyville by now.”

“You are the one I’ve been hearing,” She said to herself. “What is it that you want?”

“What is it they wanted?” Shadow asked.

“That doesn’t concern you.”

Shadow took a second to examine the situation. Her shield hadn’t dropped. Her white coat was dirty and her orange main a mess. Her head was looking down. It hadn’t moved, but she wasn’t tense. She was blind, using her ears to predict what was happening.

“You’re blind,” Shadow stated. “That is why you are barely restrained. You can’t get out or use magic that way.”

She dropped her shield, giving up.

“You are right. I can’t see. Well, I can see basic shapes and colors. But I can’t see the lock, or a key. I have the wrong magic for that.”

“And what magic do you have?” Shadow asked cautiously.

She regretted her words. “They were having me enchant jewels. Or trying too. I know glass, not gems. But the fools can’t tell a difference. They see a jewel on my flank, not colored glass.”

“Glass?” Shadow said surprised. “Who needs glass out here?”

“No one,” She sighed. “But I love mosaics and stained glass windows. There were some pretty ones in Trottingham . They had survived all these years. I could tell their design by the colors the lights turned when they shown through.”

“What got you here?”

“Somepony figured out they could lie and say my Cutie Mark was gems and that I could enchant them. He got a lot for selling me. They moved me in here because I guess it was some Wizard’s place before the war. Useless since I can’t read to learn anything.”

“There isn’t much here anyway,” Shadow stated. “Who kidnapped you?”

“A stallion named Black Jackpot. Most know him as Gambit. He owns a shop in Trottingham and drives a hard bargain. My name is Blooming Glass. What are you going to do to me?”

“I have an idea,” Shadow smiled. “I need something made. Just how good are you with glass?”

“I can do a lot. Including fine and incredibly detailed work, if I can see a large enough picture.”

“How well can it withstand punishment?”

“Those stained glass windows have survived the war and after. I learned from them.”

“Good.”

“Why?”

“Because I need lenses made. Colored lenses.”

“What do they need to fit?”

“A mask I am about to make.”

“Why a mask?”

“Because ponies do not want to see my face. A trade? The lenses and a medallion for your freedom?”

“Yes. I just need a picture for the medallion. A large one. Or something to copy.”

“I have a large enough one,” Shadow replied.

Shadow stepped over to her and used the cloud key to unlock the simple cuff.

“I need glass. Sparkle-Cola glass will work just fine. I will refine and strengthen it on my own. A dozen empty and clean bottles. Pure. Get everything off of it. It is better to have more glass than to have to go find more and halt the process. What color lenses?”

“The outside needs to be bright, glowing red.”

“That will take time. I need Neodymium. Not an easy element to find. At least in large quantities. I can break materials down to get it. Like from magnets. The drives from old terminals use magnets as well. Headphones, microphones, speakers and such use magnets.”

“Have you done this color before?”

“Yes. But you need something different. You need to be able to see out of it like normal. This would blind your eyes unless I put a proper filter on.”

“I will gather the materials,” Shadow said. “I have to clear out the rest of Ponyville anyway.”

“I can’t really see you, but I do not doubt that you can. You have been causing a lot of problems for them the past few days. And you came in through the balcony. I wish I could see enough to climb like that.”

“I will leave the same way,” Shadow said. “That way the door will remain locked. I won’t unlock it for your protection.”

“Two things. The first is that there is only one more group left. I am sure of that. They may all be raiders, but they talk different. Everypony else is dead. They are near Sugarcube Corner. The second is I need some food.”

“Thank you,” Shadow replied.

Shadow unloaded some food for her and left. He would get the materials after he eliminated the last group. It had grown dark. Shadow didn’t need to use Mwokozi’s cloak. They were spread out and stupid. A simple noise drew them out to places where Shadow could jump them with a combat knife.

Sugarcube Corner was an old sweets shop. Shadow found plenty of Sparkle-Cola bottles. And nopony bothered to use soap, so there was plenty of that. The other was harder to gather.

Most of the stuff was small. There was no way to get a lot fast. Shadow pulled the terminal drives he could find. He found a house that had a lot of old speakers and turntables. It was all wrecked and useless so it was left alone. But it was enough for him to get a hold of what he needed.

Shadow left Blooming Glass the materials and went in search of fabric. At least enough for the mask. Shadow located an old boutique. It was stripped pretty well. Shadow combed it over for hidden storage spaces.

Behind a broken and dirty full length mirror was hidden a staircase. Shadow unlocked it an lead into a basement. There was rows upon rows of dresses and designs hung up. Trunks and drawers held even more. They were all special items made for single occasions and friends that were not to be sold.

These dresses told the tale of the designer’s life. Shadow found a locked box and opened it out of curiosity. A locked box in a hidden and locked room made a decent mystery. Newspapers were the first thing there and then beneath it patterns.

As Shadow dusted them off he realized exactly what he had uncovered. Mare-Do-Well’s costume. Or better put, costumes. At least five different ponies wore it. Two unicorns, a pegasus and two earth ponies.

They were expertly made and too big for him. Plus, they were not the color Shadow needed. He grabbed the pegasus set and the patterns. They would be the reference point he needed to copy it.

Shadow found the trunks full of bolts. All the spare cloth a boutique needed was down here. He raided the black and red ones. They were in excellent condition. A sewing machine, needles and thread were easy to find. Shadow carried it all back. It was tough to get it up into the tree, but he did it in one go.

Blooming Glass was working hard. She didn’t break her concentration, although she was aware he had come back. Shadow put himself to work. He had expected to free hoof the design. This made it a lot easier. He was able to make it fit well to cover over his armor.

It took Blooming Glass two days to purify the glass, separate the materials so she had the elements to color it and then forge them into the lenses. She held up the sheet to Shadow. On one side it was a bright, glowing red that was intimidating. The other it was clear. There was no indication that the other side was colored.

“Well done,” Shadow praised.

Shadow presented her with the mask.

“This is too simple,” Blooming Glass stated. “You need something to frame these lenses.”

Shadow showed her the original hood.

“This is fabric based for the eyes. It won’t stand up to the ages if worn long and it wont hold real lenses.”

“Alright,” Shadow sighed, frustrated. “I will find frames. In the mean time, can you make this clasp in the black with the red letter.”

Blooming Glass examined the picture. The original was too small for her to use outside of matching the size.

“Yes, I am can. Quite easily. Find me something to frame these lenses while I do that.”

Shadow went back and unlocked the boutique’s basement. There had to be something buried inside. Shadow began to look through any locked trunks. He opened a small box and finally found what he was looking for. Somewhat.

It was an armor design. Whoever the designer was, she made it all. It was just a design. The round helmet was joined with a full face mask with a filter and it looked armored, but it wasn’t. It was all simulated. The entire armor thing was simulated and very lightweight. It is why it fit in such a small case. Shadow grabbed the case and brought it back to the library.

The plates might have been simulated, but the mask’s frame wasn’t. The eyes were not the only thing framed. The mask’s curves and grooves were made out of wire that was covered in stretched, heavy duty cloth. The breathing filter and voice box were connected to the wire, just missing the inside pieces. The whole thing looked like the riot gear’s helmet and mask that Bull had presented to them in Aerial Combat School.

It was what Blooming Glass needed. Shadow covered the tan cloth with black and they fitted the helmet to him. With everything fitted, Blooming Glass began to cut the lenses from the sheet. Installing them was easy. The original had plastic lenses in, but they were secured well inside the frame.

Blooming Glass gave him the finished helmet and the medallion that was used as the pin for the cloak. Once it was all on, Shadow was a fearsome sight. Black with red wrapped hooves, a flowing cloak and wide brimmed hat. The red M stood out perfectly against the black. Shadow had accented the wide brimmed hat with a thin red band. He had used the original hat and just used the black fabric to color it.

“A deal is a deal,” Blooming Glass stated. “Can we make another?”

“Trottingham?” Shadow asked.

“Yes,” She nodded. “I want to go back home to my family. Perhaps you could also take care of Black Jackpot with that mask and suit. He would fear you. Despite your size.”

“I will right that wrong,” Shadow assured her. “I will bring you justice. Tell me, is there houses or something I could buy to keep some of my stuff there?”

“Yes. There is. You don’t have a place to call home?”

“Not near here,” Shadow said through his teeth.

“I may not be able to see you, but I hope you do stay. Either way, I never forget a voice.”

“I was afraid of that,” Shadow sighed.

Kifo Herixleta jumped from it’s sheath at Shadow’s call and he ran her through.

“Why?” She coughed as Shadow kept her in tight.

“I’ll kill him for you. But I am here to cleans the wasteland. No pony or beast can know my name or face. Not even my voice. I bring death to the wasteland so that it may be fixed. The separation must end. The wrongs righted. That is my job.

“If you didn’t know my voice, I probably could let you live. But I need anonymity. I need to be able to resupply and such while I do my job. I will be, and already am, hunted. No one will trade with me in this guise.”

“You bastard,” Blooming Glass coughed as she breathed her last.

Shadow pulled out Kifo Herixleta. He picked up the cloth he had made to keep the blade clean and wiped the blood off. Shadow had made another cloth to keep the blade oiled.

“Now we know where to head next,” Shadow said. “Trottingham. Time to find me a new home to work out of. And kill that bastard. To kidnap and then sell another under false pretenses, that is... murder is better than that.”

Chapter 104 - Trottingham

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Everything was connected by rail. The rails to Trottingham was non existent in areas. Nothing was coming by a great steel stead anytime soon. It would be easier to relay an entire new track. The area was well traveled. Old campfires were all over the place from the years spent moving goods.

Shadow slowed down as he approached derailed cars. A half dozen or so. Some were still standing upright, off the track. Shadow slipped into the brush off to the side and stalked forward.

A group of raiders were there, laying in wait. They were at their stations, ready. A caravan was coming towards them. It was a ways off. If they didn’t turn aside, they would fall prey.

Of course, Shadow wasn’t going to let that happen. Especially with them distracted. Shadow just walked forward and slit the throat of the unaware raider. The next three were the same. Except the last one attracted attention.

Shadow vaulted off of the train car and rolled. He came out of it, opening up with his rifle. He dropped two more while the last two took new positions. Shadow took the time to gain a new spot himself.

“Come out! I promise I will make it quick!”

Shadow rolled his eyes and vaulted off one car and then up to the top of the other. He ran, making sure they head his hoof steps. They were in no position to shoot him. Shadow jumped off and drove the combat knife into the back of one, playing off the misdirection.

“One left,” Shadow announced. “Just one.”

Shadow hear the pounding off hoof steps running away.

“Let him run,” Shadow chuckled. “Let him spread the fear.”

Shadow got on top of a train car to check on the caravan. They had disappeared. Shadow took to sorting through their stash. He found ammo for his rifle and some good shotgun rounds. Two of their rifles were in great shape, enough to make it a worthwhile sale.

Their owners had suspenders with slots to hold their magazines. Each rifle had 10 magazines and most of them were full of ammo. They didn’t fit his gun, so he would sell them and their suspenders, including the ammo inside the magazines, as a set.

Their caps stash went into his bags and he continued on.

Shadow cut across the railway to try and intersect the caravan. They were smart with their movements, but he was smarter. Shadow stepped out in front of them on the rabbit trail. They halted. Fear and curiosity on their faces. The last thing they were expecting was a pony in tights and a mask with glowing red eyes.

“Who are you?” One of the three asked.

“A pony who is going to bring the separation to an end,” Shadow replied. “Clean out the old and prepare this land for a greater ascension.”

Shadow opened fire, gunning them down. Future caravans would find their rotting corpses and goods. They would see only a death with no care for the goods. Not even to take the caps.

Shadow backtracked their run around and continued along the rails to find Trottingham. It wasn’t much farther and he camped with it in sight. Since it was still early, Shadow took the time to remove the hunting suit and put his regular cloak on, looking like any regular wastelander.

Shadow consolidated his caps into three unmarked bags. They looked clean. No association with a raider gang, city, group, or anything.

The way into Trottingham metropolitan was straightforward. The path to the surviving city was easy to find as well and clear of any threats. There was no real wall to quarter off the inhabited zone. It was secured by guard posts and automatic turrets. It wasn’t something to be trifled with.

The guards watched him approach and pass through their checkpoint. He wasn’t a threat, but they made it clear that they would have no problem dealing with him if he caused problems.

Out of their gaze, Shadow made sure he calmed his breathing to a regular pattern before heading in. It wasn’t easy for him to walk out into the open like that, rifles relaxed but at the ready to shoot him if he made one wrong move.

The surviving city was centered around three sky scrapers that were mostly intact. The rest had been cleared away and buildings of various quality put in place. The one that caught Shadow’s eye first was a furniture story.

Shadow stepped inside.

“Welcome to Quality Hardware,” A stallion greeted him. He was dressed nicely, but had a tough apron over the clothes. It had some tools slipped into slots designed for them. “We are the premier interior decorating store in the wasteland. What can I do for you?”

“You sell furniture?” Shadow asked confused.

“Ah, a newcomer,” He smiled. His voice was definitely one made to sell. “Yes. We hoof make all of our furniture. Beds, couches, tables, chairs, nightstands, dressers and anything you need. If you don’t see what you like, we do special orders for no extra charge. Want a different color? No extra charge either!”

“So the rumors were true,” Shadow smiled. “Trottingham does have places you can buy and call home.”

“That we do!” He said, not dropping his sales pitch voice. “You have to go to the municipal building to acquire one. Some of them come with furniture that the previous owner just left. Or you can purchase used furniture from the city. But they don’t hold an dozen caps to our high quality pieces.”

“Quality is always worth paying for,” Shadow replied. “You end up paying more in the long run if you purchase cheap stuff and have to replace it.”

“Exactly! A pony who knows how it really works.”

“Are you the only furniture story in the city?”

“No,” He said, still smiling. “Discount Dressers and Dinning Tables purchases and sells second hoofed furniture. Their stock is either stuff we made or stuff made during or before the war. You get what you pay for with them. But here, this store has been the place to get furniture for eighty years now, when my great grandpappy first began. Each of the foals learned and most worked in the shop.

“It’s just me and my two colts, who are both married now, that carry on that legacy. Still, even if it has our quality stamp, it isn’t 100% ours anymore and doesn’t have our guarantee. Our quality guarantee to replace any defective pieces within the first two years of their life only pertains to the original purchaser, or purchasers if you are buying it with your husband, wife, or for one of your foals.”

“That is a good warranty,” Shadow replied. “A good company always has some sort of guarantee their products are worth investing in. I first need to acquire housing.”

“Down main street, on the left. It isn’t in the center of town, but they didn’t build anything in front of it. It is the old courthouse. She has weathered the years very well. Including plenty of time before the war.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said as he left.

It was very easy to find, but Shadow never would have entered without being pointed in the right direction. The windows were beautiful stained glass, depicting a variety of scenes. It had to be the stained glass Blooming Glass spoke of.

Shadow opened the thick wooden doors. The receptionist inside pointed Shadow to the proper office. The door was open so Shadow cautiously entered.

“Hello,” A mare with a pretty smile and plenty of makeup said. “I am Sapphire Crown. Are you here about housing?”

“Yes Ma’am,” Shadow nodded.

“Take a seat,” She said, gesturing to one across from her desk. “How many ponies are you wanting to provide for?”

“Just me,” Shadow replied. “I am a long way from home. For now, I could use a steady place to come back to.”

“I see. The traveling life is hard, but we all have to make a living. If you are not planning to stay too long, I recommend you rent a place. You can either pay per month or prepay for several months. We have some lovely studio bedroom apartments starting at the low price of 32 caps a month. A single bedroom begins at and even 60.”

“How far out can I pay in advanced?”

“A year. No matter what place you choose, If you pay for a year, we give you one month free.”

“And if I were to buy a place? Avoid the hassle of making sure I pay rent?”

“We don’t have any studios available. Our cheapest single bedroom starts at 2000. Those are very limited right now. Demand is high.”

“I am not sure how much I have,” Shadow stated.

“The bank is behind the market. Look for the brick building. It was one of the few original buildings we use. The others are the sky scraper housing complexes. I must warn you, outside of this build is ‘Quick Order’s Helping Hoof.’ The city does not guarantee or protect you from them. They are a private business and we can’t prosecute them for any reason if you enter a contract with them for a loan or any other service the provide. We do have several guarantees that protect you from fraud and mismanagement of funds and such by the Trottingham’s Bank of Equestria.”

“Loans are always a bad idea,” Shadow said getting up. “I will go check in with the bank. Thank you.”

Shadow wandered around more than he wanted to before he finally found the bank. There were a few ponies inside so he had to wait for the single teller behind the bars to be free.

“I need to find out how many caps I have with me,” Shadow said.

“We can help you with that. We have an expert counter. But you need an account with us.”

“Then let me open an account.”

“The far door over there, enter and we will get you all set up.”

Shadow entered the empty room. There was another door that went to the back of the bank so that they didn’t have to go through the lobby with capital.

“Hello,” A young stallion said entering. “I am Swift.”

He closed the door to the lobby for privacy.

“I was told that you were here to open an account. And that you didn’t know what you had for funds?”

“Correct,” Shadow nodded. “It is part of the reason why I need to find a place to stay more permanently. I would like to purchase a house.”

He smiled warmly at Shadow. “Let’s see that you have.”

Shadow pulled out the bags and Swift’s eyes grew big.

“I’ve been here for a while, with no place solid to rest my head,” Shadow explained.

“I can see that,” Swift said shaking his head to focus on the task at hand. “I am the bank’s official calculator. I help manage the hard counts and such. Let me retrieve some of my tools.”

Swift came back with several square trays. He slid a holder onto the table and put a tray on in. He dumped the caps onto the table and began to count. He was fast and good at his job. He switched out trays and began to count again.

After all the trays were done with their set number, he gave the tally. 3232. He dumped the trays back onto the table and began a recount for accuracy. 3218. Again he recounted. 3224.

“This is normal for large sums of money,” Swift ensured Shadow. “I am here to make sure that you do not get ripped off. If you have 3232 caps, then you have 3232 caps. If you have 3218, and we put a higher number in, fees and a hassle can occur from the mistake. And we don’t want to cause you that hassle.”

Shadow nodded in quiet understanding. The numbers were not far off. He wouldn’t mind if it was entered low and lost a few caps.

Swift began again, using the trays. Once they were done, he didn’t touch the excess. Each tray held 200 caps. Swift began to recount each tray individually. He did a third count. Each tray was squared away with 200 caps and then it was easy to properly count the remaining caps on the table 28 caps were left on the table.

“Your total is 3228 caps. I recommend that you keep the 28 caps on you and only put 3200 in the bank to open your account. That way you can cover the cost of most things without having to come back and withdraw. Maybe add another hundred on you to make sure you are not making constant trips back here.”

“I need at least 2000 to purchase a home,” Shadow stated.

“Not to worry,” Swift replied. “We can open the account and give you a cashiers check. A paper that the municipal office will take from you, and then take here and we will transfer those caps to their account. It is safer and easier than carrying 2000 caps around. Do you have a specific place in mind?”

“No, I didn’t look at specifics,” Shadow said. “I was getting an estimate.”

“Then we can give you a blank one that you write the total amount on and give to them. For even safer measures, we will write it to the municipal office so nopony can steal it and write some number on it and cash it themselves. The only one who can cash a check is the pony or business it is written too.”

“That is useful,” Shadow replied. “Yes, let’s do that. And then can I get another for Quality Hardware?”

“Ah, going for the good stuff.”

“It is the wisest move,” Shadow replied.

“Let me just finish filling out the paperwork and we will get your account set up.”

Shadow signed the account as Mtoaji. A photo was taken so that nopony could say they were him. They had evidence of who opened the account and who could access it. Shadow was given a card printed on solid paper and laminated that was his account ID card with his number and name. He would have to present it for any transactions. Shadow only put an even 3000 in, opting to carry the other 200 in solid caps. He had no idea the prices of stuff here.

With the checks in his bags, Shadow headed back to the municipal office. Sapphire Crown greeted him with a smile.

“I want to purchase a one bedroom house,” Shadow said sitting down.

“Okay then. Let me get everything. What is your name?”

“Mtoaji.”

“Mtoaji?”

“Blame my parents. I am not from the area.”

Sapphire Crown pulled out a file from a cabinet. “Well Mr. Mtoaji. We have three condominiums available. These are the floor plans and some pictures of each. Each has one bedroom, a good sized living room, a utility room, bathroom and a kitchen. Electricity and running water are included. But if anything breaks within your walls, the repairs are up to you.”

“ Which has the best kitchen?” Shadow asked without thinking.

“432,” Sapphire Crown said, pushing that specific floor plan forward. “All four burners on the stove work and the oven can go as high as 400 degrees. The refrigerator comes with the kitchen and can get as cold as 33 degrees and will stay below 40. 432 also has a small ice chest that will provide a good freeze to store food longer term.

The floor plan didn’t mean much to Shadow, but the pictures did. The kitchen looked to be in good shape for 200 years.

“Is there better lighting?”

“No. You would have to upgrade that yourself. It shouldn’t be hard. 432 is priced to go. The furniture in the pictures is inside and can be purchased alongside the condominium for a small fee.”

Shadow took his time looking at all three. The lighting wasn’t great for any of them. The insides were about the same, just different colored walls. The kitchen in 432 was easily the best out of the three. Same with the bathroom.

“The price on 432?”

“2600.”

“Without the furniture?”

“2400 without the furniture.”

“I don’t want the furniture,” Shadow said.

“We will have to move it out tomorrow. It is too late to do it today. But by noon it will be ready to move in and you can get the key. We can still give you the deed now, yours to own as soon as you sign the papers.”

Shadow nodded and pulled out the check. “Then let’s do it.”

It took some time, but everything was signed over to him, Mtoaji, and the city put their records away. That left Shadow with 600 caps to buy furniture.

“Ah, there you are again!” He greeted Shadow.

“Yes, I am back,” Shadow smiled.

“Are you renting or did you buy?”

“Buying was less complicated,” Shadow replied. “So, lets get me outfitted with some good furniture.”

“I am Sawdust. I don’t think I introduced myself to you properly.”

“Mtoaji,” Shadow said as they shook hooves.

“Well, what did you purchase?”

“Condominium 432. A single bedroom.”

“Congratulation. 432 is a good buy. I do my best to know each available location to help my customers.

“Pine is our big seller. It is a softer wood and grows fast. That makes it easier to produce. But it doesn’t last as well and is prone to nicks and scrapes if you are not careful. I always try to point out that white oak is our more budget friendly hardwood that will last you for years to come. It will outlast pine with little care.”

“I don’t need much,” Shadow replied. “Just the basics. I plan to be gone most of the time.”

“A working pony still needs a good place to lay their head when they get back home.”

Sawdust began showing Shadow the furniture. A bed wasn’t just a bed. There was easily a dozen different styles. And not just for a bed. The dressers varied even more.

The radio was playing in the background. Shadow almost missed what DJ Pon3 said. He couldn't be sure. The news segment went right into a song.

“What did he say about a harvest?” Shadow asked Sawdust.

“Who?”

“Sorry,” Shadow said. “DJ Pon3 said something about a harvest?”

“Oh, I don’t know. But for the past week or so, he has made comments about some Orange Harvest that is apparently in need of help, or beginning, or something.”

“Huh,” Shadow said, shrugging so he played it off as not important.

Shadow picked a basic bed, and basic still covered several different styles. He picked one with a simple square headboard and footboard. But then he had to choose a mattress. Shadow went mid sized on the dresser and a single drawer nightstand. To save money, he purchased just a single, cushioned high backed chair. His table choice was very basic as well. At least it came with two free chairs. 525 caps later, Shadow had all the basics. They would be delivered tomorrow, in the afternoon.

Conveniently placed next door was a household goods shop. Shadow snagged an alarm clock and a bedside lamp. He grabbed sheets and some towels too. A basic cooking set caught his eye as well. He had nothing to actually cook with, so he bought it.

They pointed him to the nearest hotel and Shadow got an inexpensive room for the night. It would be the last night he needed to sleep with an eye open. At least for a few days.

Shadow patiently waited outside 432 as they removed the furniture. Sapphire Crown was there as the last piece was pulled out. After a quick inspection, she gave Shadow the set of keys.

The empty space felt good. This was the first place that was truly his. The first he had really bought. Not even Rosemary held that feeling. Rosemary was an Enclave operation, not a home. And above the clouds, he never had the time to lay claim to anything as his own.

Sawdust’s crew was fast at delivering his furniture and fast getting it inside through the hallways. They even organized it for Shadow. Shadow thanked them and looked around at his new place. It wasn’t the clouds, and it was missing Cardinal Spitfire, but he felt safe. A home even.

With the furniture in place, Shadow began laying plans. The walls needed a new coat of paint. He would need curtains as well. Shadow had three windows. It occurred to him that he should start window gardens like he had seen in New Cloudsdale. He could grow some herbs and make tea like his mother would. He knew some of the recipes. Especially the one for sore muscles and to sooth a hard day’s work.

Those plans would wait for the next day. He was just going to sleep. He hadn’t had a proper night sleep in a long time. It felt good to just crash. With no immediate cares or worries.

Chapter 105 - Gambit

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After Shadow ate breakfast, he began to put everything away. He had neglected to do any of it the day before. Food went in the pantry and he put three of his canteens next to the sink. He needed them all washed, and that meant getting some soap.

His books were put in the drawer of his nightstand. The statuette on top of his dresser, while he put the memory orbs, the memory necklace, the Zebra charm necklace, the PipBuck and the Inquisitor’s files in a drawer. Another one held the Mare-Do-Well items buried beneath the extra cloth he had taken.

Shadow kept his suit with him. Just in case. Same with the Zebra Cloak. He wasn’t going to leave any weapons either.

Shadow exited and went to first sell the rifles. He passed a few general items shops, but he was looking to barter with somepony who knew the real value of what he had and appreciate it. As Shadow passed by a larger emporium, a pony stepped in front of him.

“I couldn't help but notice your rifles in your pack. I assume they are for sale?”

“Yes, but unless you deal strictly with weapons...”

“Now, now, I will give you the best price on them out of anypony in this city,” He pressed. “I will buy high and sell low.”

“Do your know what rifle they are?”

He focused his eyes. “No. I do not know their specific name. But like I said, I will still give you the best prices.”

“And you are?” Shadow asked.

“Folks around here just call me Gambit. I didn’t come up with the name. I just rolled with it as my business grew. You can find most of what you need in my shop and for cheap.”

“Gambit, as in Black Jackpot?” Shadow asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well yes,” He smiled. “Like I said, I didn’t choose the nickname, I was given it. But I see my reputation proceeds me.”

“Yes, it does,” Shadow nodded. “But in a shady, bad business deal way.”

Gambit had nothing to say and Shadow walked off. After walking almost in circles he found a shop dedicated to weapons. It was tucked back a bit, not sporting anything outside the shop. And it had a door, which was closed. A specialty shop didn’t need to set itself apart from the general ones.

Shadow entered and immediately felt the luxury of a climate controlled shop. The walls were lined with weapons on display, easy to see and pick up to test their feel. The center had two old, low, open topped refrigerators from some store. Inside of their long length was sorted ammo of all kinds.

“Welcome!” An Earth Pony Stallion said coming out of the back. “I am Red Tip. What can I do for you?”

“You can give me a fair deal on some sets I have,” Shadow smiled.

“Sets you say?”

Shadow put one of the rifles on the counter top. He carefully laid out the ten magazines, making sure Red Tip saw they were loaded with ammo. Shadow flipped the last one upside down from the others. He placed the suspenders next to them as well.

“I have two sets,” Shadow stated. “Each was pulled off a dead raider. The magazines are full except the one I flipped. That came out of the rifle and I do not know how many are exactly are in there. The other 9 were inside a slot in the suspenders.”

“You certainly have a set,” Red Tip marveled. “I have never had somepony come in with all of this together. The suspenders are Equestrian military. From their condition, I would say they were found in storage rather recently. This is a rarity and special.”

“And will be a good seller,” Shadow stated. “Truthfully, what will you get from them? I won’t have time to sell these at a price you will. I know we can work out a fair deal that reflects that.”

“Let me think,” Red Tip said. “Can I see the other one?”

Shadow laid the other one out in the same style and began to browse the walls. It was all arranged by type. Side arms, small arms, heavy weapons, and then battle saddles. He only had three. None were good quality, being made post war. Each category was organized by Unicorn designs and general designs that anypony could use.

Shadow began to work through the ammo. He had 44 Magnum rounds. Two boxes of 24. Each box sold for 100 Caps. Red Tip had two 44 revolvers on his wall. Both were for unicorns. He could afford a higher cost for ammo. He might have more boxes in the back. There were no .50 Cal rounds.

“I think I have a fair price,” Red Tip said.

Shadow trotted over to hear the proposal.

“Each rifle is in great condition. I could easily sell them for 200. Each mag would sell for 20, not counting the ammo. Thirty rounds in each magazine makes 60 caps, at 2 a piece. Mark that at 600. I wouldn’t sell the gear, giving it to them in the deal. But for the sake of this, it would be sold for 200. Grand total for the set would be worth 1200 caps.”

“I would sell it for 800, creating a nice package deal, giving free ammo with the purchase. They would get the suspenders free, a 200 cap value, and get 150 rounds free, a 300 cap value.”

“So,” Red Tip said gathering his thoughts. “That is what I would do. How does 600 for each sound?”

“That sounds more than fair,” Shadow smiled. “But before we do it, can I check something?”

“Oh?”

“I would love to see what Gambit would give me. He pushed hard to get me to sell and he only saw the rifles.”

Red Tip chuckled. “Yeah. I bet he won’t go for more than 300. He makes a hard sell, but he plays with his stock to create value depending on what other shops have. I am not sure who his spy is. If the shops figured that out, the chap would have to leave the city, unable to enter any store.”

Shadow chuckled along with Red Tip. He gathered the gear and headed back out to check in with Gambit.

“Ah, coming to your senses?”

“I wandered around, but didn’t see a specific store for weapons. So, what will you give me? Each is going to be sold as a set.”

Shadow laid it all out carefully.

“I guarantee you that these 9 magazines have all 30 rounds in them,” Shadow added at the end.

“Well, few ponies are looking to get it all like this. But I could make a decent sell on it all. I’ll give you 200 caps total for all on the counter.”

“I have another set exactly like it,” Shadow added.

“Well, I will give you 450 for both then.”

“I think I can do better,” Shadow said shaking his head. “Even if I have to sell it on my own. What happened to your buy high, sell low policy.”

“That is dictated by what ponies will pay, and they don’t want all of that together. They are looking to buy each separately. Magazines are cheap, ammo isn’t. But I guess I can risk it and go as high as 550 caps.”

“To low,” Shadow replied, packing things up.

“Now now. 600 for the lot.”

“I’ll go elsewhere,” Shadow said walking out.

Red Tip was happy to see him. While they had made a gentlepony’s agreement, he could have still lost out.

“He went as high as 600 for both,” Shadow chuckled as he laid it all back out.

“Wow,” Red Tip shook his head. “I knew he shot low, but that is very low. But he probably doesn’t actually know that.”

“He said it wouldn’t sell well as a set. That ponies won’t want to buy it all as one.”

“He is right about that,” Red Tip replied. “They won’t. But if you get a guard or pony wanting to be a guard, this is exactly what they are looking for. And it’s exactly who I will let know I have some good stock. Most are squared away though. They know where to come or to send their employees to. But to their business, I won’t discount the ammo. And they will buy it with the ammo in it.

“It’s probably going to sell to some scavenger needing more firepower. One I can convince they should have everything they need, right there. So there is no guesswork when it comes to defending themselves. I must say, I am surprised you are not keeping one of the suspenders for yourself.”

“I’m fast with the reload,” Shadow chuckled as he whipped out a magazine. “Plus, a rifle and a shotgun combo has enough ammo to deal with most threats. Or at least long enough to duck my head and reload.”

“You do have a good saddle there,” Red Tip nodded. “How did you end up with it?”

“Me and some friends,” Shadow stopped. “Sorry, they passed recently. Anyway. We ran across a place far away and they needed help. We not only help them shore up defenses and I helped them learn some farming techniques, but we also were able to strike an occupied military compound. Mutant creatures held it.

“We had some other gear at the time that pack a big punch. That and we were a trained team. We kicked their butts, grabbed the stuff inside for them and got out cleanly. Mostly. Some died and others took injuries. I got hit in the head. Destroyed my helmet.”

“Anyway, in reward, they gave us some armor and these saddles. The armor is gone and the others went down with their saddles. I buried them with it. I couldn't take it all. I can only carry so much. It’s just me, alone. For now.”

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Red Tip replied. “They sounded like good friends you could weather anything with.”

“They were. And we were all resourceful in our ways. One of them helped me modify this saddle so it had the shotgun as well. I needed a little more punch.”

“With your size, that has to be up about as high of a punch as you can give.”

“Right about,” Shadow nodded.

“What is on your Left? I am not familiar with the design.”

Shadow pulled it out with his mouth. “It’s not from anywhere near here. A Mwokozi Revolver. It’s meant for unicorns, but my skilled hooves make it work. The hammer has to be manually worked.”

“Interesting,” Red Tip marveled. “What is it chambered in?”

“It will take 44 Magnum,” Shadow replied. “Speaking of that, I should stock up. Do you have more boxes than the two you have out?”

“I have 66 rounds in the back I can sell you. They won’t be in an original box, but they will be in one for safe keeping. I would rather keep those two on the shelf. To make sure that if somepony buys the revolvers on the wall, I can sell them some ammo. Otherwise, I have to move them to the back. It is pointless to have them out if I cant sell you something to shoot from it.

“It’s hard ammo to find. I am the only place in the city who will buy certain rounds. The others won’t touch such unique round. Every time a pony sells me some, they were directed here. The other shops won’t buy something they can’t sell. I have had my revolvers for at minimum, three years. One was here when I acquired this place fifteen years ago.”

“They pack a punch,” Shadow chuckled. “I have used the pony version. It kicks. Hard. But I am solid and can handle it despite my size.”

“I have no doubt about that at all.”

“44 is the only ammo I am low on,” Shadow said getting back on track. “I’ll take every 44 Magnum round you will sell me.”

“Alright,” Red Tip smiled. “Let me get them.”

Red Tip came back with more than the 44 Magnum rounds. He pulled a 5.56 round out. It had a red tip.

“Have you seen these?”

“No,” Shadow said shaking his head.

“This is premium ammo. The military didn’t use it because it because of cost and supply. They were just developing it. There are armor piercing rounds out and about and hollow points. On the military ammo, you can tell the armor piecing from the black tips. The green ones are the regular full metal jackets. But these red ones began circulating the market and some of us have kept it going. The red tip is a plastic material. It helps the round expand to its full size and do it as uniformly as possible. It’s sort of a hollow point with an expansion mechanism.”

“Useful,” Shadow nodded. “But I think I will stick with my regular rounds. At least for now.”

“I figured,” Red Tip shrugged. “But I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to show you anyway.”

“I would like to find a cache of the armor piercing ammo,” Shadow stated. “You know, without having to pay for it.”

“Ponies often try and sell me ones, painted with a black tip. But the bullet weighs different for each type. I know how to tell and I only buy legit ones. If you come in and try and sell me fake rounds, I won’t buy them even if you try and sell me it at it’s actual one. Not good business. Business works both ways.”

“Yes it does,” Shadow smiled. “How many do you have? I have been heckled by some Steel Heads for stupid shit.”

“Be careful around here,” Red Tip said lowering his voice. “They have a contingent here. Not in the south side where we are, but they are often in the city for trade and to get drunk. They had a place in the north ruins nearby.”

“Good to know,” Shadow replied in a hushed tone. “Do they buy it up?”

“No,” Red Tip shrugged. “The idiots won’t. They should at least be trying to get it out of the market and drive prices up. The rounds are a threat to their armor. They are not invincible.”

“How many do you have?”

“522. They are all loose, so no boxes for small sales. I will sell them at the same cost as the 44 rounds, 4 caps.”

“This is probably stupid,” Shadow said.

“By saying that, it is,” Red Tip chuckled.

“What do you say about a dead even exchange? I don’t need the 5.56 rounds. But I would love to pack some good ones that will do damage to anything I shoot.”

“Hmmm,” Red Tip said thinking. “I’ll give you 250 black tips and the 66 Magnum rounds in a dead exchange. At a price of 4 caps each, that is 234 rounds. But I will round it out to 250 for the bulk sale and give you an ammo can to take them in.”

“Deal,” Shadow grinned. “I am going to have to do something to fix my pockets. I have enough to slip by, but I can’t stay long without getting an income. The house and furniture cost me almost 3000 caps.”

“You bought a house,” Red Tip said nodding his head, a bit surprised.

“I need someplace to call home right now,” Shadow replied. “I didn’t want to deal with renting.”

“Understandable,” Red Tip nodded. “A lot of scavengers make that mistake. When the rent is up, you have a month. If it’s not payed by then, they get the place and everything in it. Since you bought your house, you have the option to sell when you want to, either to the city or another pony. Or you can give the deed to somepony else. The deed is only valid if the city oversees the exchange, for a small fee to cover paperwork.”

“Of course,” Shadow chuckled. “What happens if I die? Who would get my house and how would they know? They didn’t talk about this stuff.”

“No, because it’s in the fine print and to their advantage. If you could be confirmed dead, then things speed up. If you go two years without being seen, then its forfeit and the house goes back to the city. It happens often enough. Bank records are used a lot. So make sure you at least check your account whenever you come back in town.

“Of course, if you declare an heir, things change up. Scavengers, caravaners and others who spend a lot of time outside of the city often declare an heir and an extended time is set up for you to return. If you do not, or are confirmed dead, then it goes to the heir.”

“Okay,” Shadow said nodding his head.

“A lot of times heirs are family or a friend they make in the city. But the bank has an Heir Program. You pay so much to have a guarantee for that many years being absent. But their clock is often set further ahead than a friend’s, so you should always visit at the start of a trip and end with a trip to the bank.”

They made the straight exchange and Shadow left. He wanted to get the rest of the armor piercing rounds as soon as possible. When it was time to strike back at the Steel Rangers, he wanted it to be with bullets that would ensure they bled.

Gambit annoyingly caught up with Shadow as he passed by his store.

“I see you sold them to somepony else. Do you really think you got a better deal from them?”

Shadow laughed. “You are a fool. Of course I got a better deal. I sold the lot to Red Tip. He appreciates what a package looks like. Two ponies can now walk in and in minutes walk out completely ready to deal with the wasteland on their own. Or work as a guard. All with high quality items.”

“Hmph,” Gambit huffed. “And just how much did you pocket?”

“I ran a dead exchange,” Shadow shot back. “I needed some things he had. Mostly rare ammo. But he bought them each for twice the price you were going to give me. Because he knows quality and a good deal.”

“Oh, what did he have that I didn’t? I bet you can find it on my shelves!”

“44 Magnum,” Shadow said flatly. “To start.”

“What did he sell them to you at, 5 or 6 caps? I have plenty on my shelf. 3 caps each. I don’t let anypony have a monopoly. It isn’t good for the customers.”

“And how many do you have?”

“46,” Gambit declared.

“Not bad,” Shadow replied. “But he still had more and for the same price. And guess what, I am out of spending bits.”

Shadow held back a reaction from saying bits instead of caps. He hoped it would pass. It appeared to.

“Well, if you come to your senses, you will find that we can make some good bargains on just about everything you need. Even if you have heard some bad rep about me, you shouldn’t just write me off as a business partner just by listening to a pony or two. I am in business for a reason.”

“If I need candy, I will come to you,” Shadow shot back as he walked away.

Shadow noticed two ponies in Gambit’s shop slip out before he noticed. It made him feel good.

Shadow unlocked his room and stepped inside. His bags were heavy from the weight of the ammo. Red Tip had given him a can to keep it in as promised, but it still was heavy. Shadow wasn’t going to go around town carrying such a heavy load out. He could safely remove some magazines.

Shadow took the time to unload two of his magazines and load them with the black tips. His ‘Shit hit the fan’ back ups.

Shadow was going to need more caps. He was under 200 and food added up fast. That and he wanted to fix up the place a bit. Even if he was here a short time, it was worth it to him to have a nice place. To enjoy coming home after a long, hard time out taking care of the wasteland. Shaping and preparing it to end the separation.

Shadow removed his saddle and bags and relaxed in the chair. His mission wasn’t going to end with Ponyville. He needed to get back to it. But it was nice to not have an immediate thing to worry about. That and it was nice to have a comfortable chair to plan in.

The first thing Shadow decided to do was to slowly rob Gambit of the 44 magnum rounds. He couldn't take all at the same time. After their talk, it would point to him. He would slip his cloak on, take a few and slip some out of order so they looked he miscounted. He would need to wait a few days to let it cool down.

And if he was going to deal justice for Gambit’s choice to sell ponies, he would want to take them all before. That way an inventory check by a new owner wouldn’t find them. And Shadow only wanted to steal from a depraved pony such as Gambit.

Shadow had developed his own gambit to start to get revenge. He decided to head out in the morning and hit the Trottingham ruins. He needed to get more capital. He needed to be less selective with his pickings for weapons and items. Only after he fixed that would he be able to really develop his next move.

Chapter 106 - Fortune

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Shadow exited the inhabited city and began to work his way into the deeper ruins. He had no idea where others had scavenged, so he was hoping he would get lucky. For now, he wasn’t going to wear the suit. He was working to gain capital, not scalps.

Shadow headed towards a torn apart skyscraper. The door no longer was present, so Shadow proceeded. Slowly. It was, at least at some point, occupied. The elevator still worked. Which shocked Shadow. He stepped inside and hit the top floor. The elevator dinged every time he passed a floor. Shadow watched the numbers go higher and higher until the top.

The doors opened and Shadow stepped out onto an almost intact floor. He wasn’t expecting it to be so intact. Not the way the center looked. The floor was cleared out, by hoof, with a few beds in a protected corner. It had a metal workstation and some other items that you wanted to protect, like a trunk. The stairs had been caved in. The only way to the floor was the elevator.

“It’s about time!” A gruff voice said. “I have been waiting for you to come back from your shit.

Shadow dove for cover.

“Wrath?… Who’s there? This isn’t funny. That joke ended a long time ago.”

Shadow peaked out and finally saw where the pony had to be. A collapsed section of the roof served as a ramp to get on top of the building. Shadow was positioned behind it, so he couldn't see the pony.

For now, Shadow waited it out. A good choice as he heard the elevator ding and several ponies came out.

“Guys?”

“Yeah, we are here. Did someone come up?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” The pony said stepping into view.

“Spread out,” The one in charge ordered. “Let’s make sure its just a ghost.”

Shadow rolled out to take advantage of them while they were still together. He let loose a burst, taking down one and injuring a second. The third, fourth and, the one from the roof got away clean.

One of them threw a grenade and Shadow dashed away, out of the blast zone. He slid around and found himself alongside the one who threw the grenade. Shadow’s guns were at the ready and he fired his shotgun.

The last ones weren’t very smart. Shadow slipped up onto the ramp and let them stalk around until they had their back to Shadow. It was simple to kill them with a single shot to the head. By then, the one he had injured had bled out.

Shadow grabbed their guns and ammo, including two grenades, and then he trotted over to the trunk. He wanted to move fast in case more decided to show up. It was, as expected, locked. The cloud key opened it immediately and Shadow scrounged through it. Several pieces of nice armor were inside, including an old Equestrian military combat helmet with goggles.

A shotgun and three pistols made up the rest of the grab-ables. Why they were locked away here Shadow didn’t know, but he put them in his bag. A hefty cache of caps were inside and several boxes of assorted ammo, including more than enough 5.56 to resupply the little he fired.

The elevator dinged, signifying it had been called down. Shadow moved into a forward position. He lined up himself so that when the doors opened, his shotgun’s spread would fit within the elevator doors. Nopony would escape and nothing would be wasted.

Shadow saw the floor it started on and set his stance. As it opened, Shadow fired three times, shredding them. Shadow was unsure how many more were below, so he took one of their weapons his buckshot had pierced and jammed it so the doors wouldn’t close and it wouldn’t descend. As he finished picked their goods apart, the doors tried to close.

Shadow backed out, bucked the gun so it broke and let the doors close. Shadow retook his position and waited. And waited. They had decided to let him come to them. Shadow called the elevator up and then sent it down, empty.

It came back up, empty.

Shadow chuckled. “If they want to play, let’s play.”

Shadow took a grenades and rigged it so that when the doors open, the pin would be pulled and it would swing out of the elevator.

Shadow sent it down and slipped out as the doors closed. Nopony sent it back up. Shadow waited for a while and then called it up. It came up, empty. He sent it back down. After waiting a good while, Shadow called it back up. This time he sent it all the way down.

That got their attention. It stopped on their floor as they intercepted it with their call button. It went all the way down and then all the way back up. The doors opened, revealing yet another empty elevator.

Shadow stopped playing the game. He could do it all day long. But he decided to check out his options. From the roof he examined the other buildings. Shadow could undo his wings and descend in short hops. Bypassing them and disappearing like a ghost. It was daytime, risking exposure, but the area was quiet.

Before Shadow made that move, he set another grenade trap. When they doors opened, it would pull the pin and the countdown would start. It was one last ‘fuck you.’ Shadow hit the button to go all the way down and dashed off to the roof and to his target.

He made it safely and quickly went to the nearest stairwell. He was soon forced out by it’s collapse and onto a decaying floor. It had a hole in it and Shadow began to work his way down through his acrobatics. It was tough on him with the load he was carrying.

By late afternoon his decent was finished. Shadow peaked his head out, searching for enemies. He looked back up to the building he had flown out of. The roof gave a great view of the street. Perfect for catching ponies unaware beneath them.

Shadow maneuvered to a blind spot and made his way back. It was late when he got back. All of the stores had closed down for the day. The only places open served food and drink. Shadow just headed to his home. He didn’t feel like socializing, even after dropping his gear off.

Shadow grabbed Kifo Herixleta and sat in his chair. He drew the blade, holding it with the oil cloth. He needed to get oil for it. Shadow looked over the enchanted blade. Gold inlays and several small gems made up the blade. The gemstones were gutsy, but they held more magic, specific to the blade.

“You are shiny,” Shadow told Kifo Herixleta.

There was no response.

“You would be easy to recognize by my enemies. The costume thing isn’t enough to hide me. My signature blade must be plain and unmarked. I need to find a way to cover the blade.”

“You wouldn’t dare! My handle and hilt are one thing.”

“You know I am right,” Shadow said, cutting him off. “I need to find somepony to mask you. Probably a unicorn. Paint would be a bad thing.

“You would lose my fire and ice,” Kifo Herixleta warned.

“Touche,” Shadow replied.

The word brought a smile to his face as he thought of their wedding. The impromptu action that was the best thing he had ever done. Even in these conditions, Cardinal Spitfire would be happy. Just being with her would brighten this wasteland and turn it into a garden of life.

Shadow made sure Kifo Herixleta was attached to the band and lifted it up. He sent heat until it was glowing red hot, no flames. The details of the blade were lost to the glow. Shadow began to let the heat on and off, finding that balance to send the blade to so that it’s special details never were seen by those who escaped his wrath.

Shadow flipped it around so he iced over the blade. Shadow hadn’t worked so much on the ice aspect. The fire was more dramatic and what the enchantment was truly designed to do. The frost did a good job masking things. Shadow had to work hard to completely cover the blade in white ice. He worked late into the night with the magic in the blade. He was not going to let the image fall apart because of his sword’s ornate blade.

In the morning, Shadow ignored food as he grabbed only the bags he needed. He stopped at a place for a quick bite to eat and then headed to Red Tip’s shop.

“Back so soon?” Red Tip smiled at him as he came in. Red Tip turned back to the customer at hood.

“You really should get something heavier,” Red Tip said to the Unicorn. “You are trying to be hired as a caravan guard.”

“I am supposed to guard, not shoot up the place.”

“If you get into a scrap, you will want higher ammo capacity and some back up. You won’t have time to pick your targets. But it is your head, not mine. And I know your training is poor if this is your first gun.”

Shadow's ears perked up. “First gun?”

“Yep,” Red Tip said. “Care to help?”

Shadow chuckled as he trotted to the counter.

“You don’t want to go cheap. My first rifle was. When I got my upgrade, my shooting got a whole lot better. I became a dead shot. I’ve had a few weapons since then and now I am with these. A good soldier, or guard, is accentuated by their weapon. But you need a good one to be an excellent one. A poor weapon will fail you.”

“You have a few options as a Unicorn. What are you trying to be?”

“A caravan guard,” He said. He was young.

“A young one,” Shadow chuckled. “Now don’t make that face. Everype-”

Shadow coughed. And then coughed again. He put himself into a coughing fit to cover his mistake.

“Sorry,” Shadow smiled. “Everypony has to start somewhere. I started young as well. But to survive, you will need a rifle that will hold up to the ages. One you don’t need to replace for years to come. And you need the equipment to back it up. If you want to survive, you need to set yourself up for success, because the enemy can be anywhere, including right in front of you.”

“What did you do yesterday?” Red Tip asked Shadow.

“I went into the ruins to scavenge. Popped into this skyscraper. I don’t know which one. I was headed northwest. I didn’t know ponies were inside. Shoot first, ask questions later. But they had a nice perch to watch for ponies to pass so they could jump them.”

“You killed them all?” The Unicorn asked shocked.

“No, Shadow chuckled. “I don’t think I did. It was a bit of a game getting free. I think some were still around. I got pinned and had to work my way down, the hard way. Stairs were out and the elevator most likely had guards.

“Which is why you need good equipment. Because for a time, I didn’t have the ability to reload my guns, outside of a mag change.”

Red Tip raised an eyebrow at Shadow. “Did you hit the Hawks?”

Shadow shrugged. “I got in a tight spot, they didn’t look like they wanted to talk outside of spitting lead, so that is what happened.”

“Yeah, but you,” The Unicorn said looking at Shadow’s guns.

“Got set up well,” Shadow finished. “Without it, I have the same skill, but am limited. I have experienced quite a few different weapons changes in my time.”

“And that is your favorite?”

“No,” Shadow chuckled. “Not in the least. But its what I have and its optimized for me. I am not from near here. I just am currently in the area. My job as guards or soldiers or whatever you want to call me back then allowed me to have a better… selection. But a friend and I were able to optimize what we had available.

“Have you seen the set I brought in and sold to Red Tip the other day?”

“No,” He said. “My name is Dash.”

“Mtoaji,” Shadow said shaking his hoof.

“That isn’t a name from here,” Dash replied.

Red Tip set the gun on the counter. Shadow smiled and explained the gun.

“This is a premium, Striker Semiautomatic Rifle. She is a predecessor of some of the rifle designs here. I am guessing she was picked up with the rest of the equipment. I dragged her off a raider who was about to jump a caravan. They were distracted and it made them easier targets.”

“Durable iron sights with a great sight picture, reliable action, even when you haven’t been able to clean her in a while. Good rate of fire. And she has 30 round magazines. Also the suspenders were made for the gun and it’s magazines.”

“I have never heard of a Striker before,” Dash admitted.

“Neither have I,” Red Tip chuckled. “Out here, this is known as an assault rifle. And it’s military markings means it’s an M17.”

Shadow shrugged. “I know what I am looking at. But I was taught the design model. The rest is accurate.”

“That it is,” Red Tip replied with a quick nod.

“All this will make me a better guard?” Dash asked.

“All of that will help you be a better guard,” Shadow clarified. “What you become is up to you. But this will make sure you are not limited by the rifle.”

“How much?”

“800 caps,” Red Tip said. “Suspenders and half of the ammo in the mags come free when you buy it all.”

“You will only sell it as one package, won’t you.”

“No point it breaking it apart,” Red Tip replied.

“That’s a bit more than I was expecting. Or have right now. I will have to see if I can borrow some from my parents. They won’t like me becoming a guard.”

“At least you will do it with quality equipment that will last,” Shadow said. “Don’t leave that out.”

“Yeah,” Dash said, a bit down. “But what did you bring to sell?”

“I picked up some armor, in a chest, but these are what I wanted Red Tip to see. These were locked away with the pieces of armor.”

Shadow set the two pistols on the counter.

“Wow,” Red Tip said. “These are C9s. An early 9mm pistol. And in really good shape.”

Red Tip picked one up and worked the action. “Fluid. Smooth. It had work done on it. It was sitting in a chest?”

“Locked and guarded,” Shadow nodded.

“They obviously didn’t know what they had. This is better than my C9. No trigger surge. Somepony knew what they were doing. It really goes to show there are still gems out there to find.”

Red Tip set it further down the counter so he could privately purchase it. Shadow put the shotgun in front of him.

“A DCD shotgun. 6 round tube.”

“A what?” Red Tip asked. “We just call this a pump shotgun. You are all technical.”

Shadow chuckled with a shrug. “I learned technical stuff over the years. This specific design was made by Walter Arms. I don’t know the producer.”

“Walter arms?” Red Tip asked. “Can you prove it?”

Shadow pulled the grip down, opening the action. Along the underside of the barrel it was stamped ‘Designed by Walter Arms 12 Gage Dash’s Civilian Defense Shotgun.’

“Well I’ll be,” Red Tip marveled. “A real Walter. Not a knock off. A licensed firearm. Sure, some of the military ones are Walters, but they don’t get that stamp. This wasn’t made by Ironshod. The maker mark is scuffed off on the action, but they stamp their shit.”

“Nopony will want to pay for the value this holds,” Red Tip said. “Walter is all but forgotten about. But it does still stand for quality.”

“Dash’s as in Rainbow Dash?” Dash asked.

“I assume,” Shadow replied.

“Yes,” Red Tip nodded. “Rainbow Dash. Well, not officially licensed by her. She didn’t do that. But it was made with her in mind. You can’t own that.”

“You are going to put me out of business,” Red Tip smiled at Shadow. “You keep bringing me stuff like this, it’s going to be hard for me to move. And I see that you have plenty of other regular guns. I am going to have to figure out how to move my stock faster.”

Shadow chuckled. “I need my caps, but you know what I really need. And you know those rounds are not going to be bought by anypony else.”

“I will go see if I can get the extra caps,” Dash said.

“I’ll hold it for two days,” Red Tip said.

Red Tip moved the set into the back so that he could deal with what Shadow had. It was all basic stuff. Cheap. But Red Tip was willing to trade them their value for the armor piercing rounds.

“I have ammo as well,” Shadow said placing it on the counter. He had to organize the loose stuff.

“Blah blah,” Red Tip said, placing armor piercing rounds on the counter for his bid.

They made their ammo swap and then they focused on the unique pieces.

“Damn,” Red Tip sighed. “This shotgun had to have sold for 5000 bits, easily. But here, I can’t get that. I am surprised you don’t want to swap it out with yours.”

“I already have the DCD,” Shadow smiled. “Except mine is the rare 10 round magazine. Limited release.”

“Damn,” Red Tip said shaking his head. “Rifle?”

“A basic, old school one,” Shadow said. “I don’t know the name of it. Except it’s light and powerful. It was military issue, late war. I wish it fired a larger round, but she is a beauty. Even before we customized the action.”

“Well, I will give you a 1000 for the DCD,” Red Tip finally said. “It’s probably just going to sit, mounted behind the counter, while customers look at it funny when they see the sales tag.”

Red Tip shrugged. “Maybe I won’t even mark it.”

“That’s something you will have to work out on your own,” Shadow chuckled. “But I get keeping it for yourself.”

“I can’t collect them all,” Red Tip chuckled. “I am supposed to sell, and to some degree, work on guns.”

“The pistols?”

“Right! I will give you 200 for this one. It’s for myself so I’ll buy it at face value. 100 for the other.”

“That sounds good,” Shadow nodded.

“Can I make it out in a check?” Red Tip asked. “I have the caps if you want.”

“Check is fine,” Shadow replied. “I would just end up banking that much. I still have this armor to sell.”

Shadow showed him the armor.

“Fine pieces. Have you been in Pauldron’s? Steam will love to see this helmet, and buy it.”

“I have not,” Shadow replied. “I typically don’t have viable armor to scrounge. It ends up with a hole or two. Or just bloody. I prefer to keep clean bags.”

“I don’t blame you there. I am surprised you don’t want this helmet for yourself.”

“Eh, I have nothing against helmet. I should be wearing one. But its, not my thing right now. The stetson is.”

“Got it,” Red Tip nodded. “Too much connected to your past.”

Red Tip passed Shadow the helmet. The door opened, but it wasn’t Dash. Two Steel Rangers hulked in, helmets off.

“What can I do for you?” Red Tip asked.

“Got any rockets?”

“No,” Red Tip shook his head. “You guys know I send Gadget a message if I get the big stuff like that in. Is that it?”

One hesitantly walked over the counter. He looked at Shadow before speaking in a low tone.

“Do you have 308 rounds? The good stuff. I have a job that might require some distance.”

“I have some of our Signature Red Tips in stock and ready for sale. The 308s are really well balanced and have a flat trajectory. As flat as I can make them. But those are going to cost you 20 a piece.”

“I’ll take 50. I’ll pay with caps.”

Red Tip stepped into the back.

“What do you have for a 308?” Shadow asked.

“The target is irrelevant, citizen.”

“I don’t give a shit about the target,” Shadow spat. “I asked about the rifle.”

“A Palomino Scout.”

“Not heard of it,” Shadow said. “I assume they are hard to find.”

“They are a strict military weapon, used only by the Ministry of Wartime Technology for special assignments. No civilian models were ever produced.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded. “When the Equestrian military had to move south of Las Pegasus and prevent the Zebras from attacking it. They needed a long range rifle for that job.”

“How do you know that?” He asked, taking a step into Shadow.

Shadow chuckled. “It’s easy enough to guess from the name. What does it shoot, 308? Effective to what, 1600 yards?”

The Steel Ranger’s eyebrow rose in question.

“Hey,” Shadow shrugged. “Its just an estimated guess. A good sniper rifle should reach out that far. I’ve never used a long range rifle for sniping.”

All of Shadow's time spend with Soarin’s Lightning was short distances, within 600 yards.

“You won’t find anything like it in the wasteland,” The Steel Ranger assured him.

Red Tip stepped out from the back. He counted out the 50 rounds, showing the ranger each shiny round’s perfection. The ranger paid and they departed.

As soon as the door closed Shadow whipped his head around to Red Tip. He whispered to him. “How many do you have in the back?”

“Two,” Red Tip whispered back. “But both are brown tobiano pinto patterns. And the barrels have ridges that ring it. They are the civilian model, it was marketed very differently by Mustang Marathon Arsenal. It was a sport’s shooting gun for long distance competitions. I seriously have a problem with guns. Like I said, I end up collecting them.”

“How much?” Shadow asked.

“Those will run you an even 6000 caps. I can’t help you there. I have a few regular 308s on the wall, but none of them will reach past 800 yards, even with a scope. I also have a suppressor I could attach to it, but again, that’s a ton of caps. I make my own suppressors. Better for the ears.”

“Intriguing,” Shadow said. “A quieter sniper rifle like that is intriguing. Something I would love to own.”

“It weighs 14 points,” Red Tip warned.

Shadow shrugged.

The lights flickered a few times and then went out.

“Shit,” Red Tip swore. “Some jackass blew a transformer or worse, knocked out a grid.”

“Where does the power come from?” Shadow asked as Red Tip got candles lit.

“South. There is a hydroelectric plant south of us. It’s been running for ages on it’s own. Magic or some shit. But it was well protected from the start. Still is.”

“Raiders?”

“They have no use for it,” Red Tip replied. “It’s got automated systems and enough to deter them. Enough to stop us from trying to secure it. If it is raiders, wait for the city to form a team and join up then. Probably in the morning. They are fast at checking out the power failures.”

“Right,” Shadow nodded.

“Before I go, I have one question. We have been discussing behind the counter and powerhouses, do you have big ammo?”

“I buy, but do not sell, anti-machine ammo. I make that a rule.”

“So you have some of those rifles back there,” Shadow said thinking. “No way? If I already have a rifle?”

“If you actually have a rifle, I might consider it.”

“I don’t have spare caps anyway. I need to put this into the bank. I need food and some housing stuff. Like new paint for my walls.”

Shadow headed out. The whole city’s power was down, but ponies were not rushing around like it was a catastrophe. Gambit’s shop was usually well lit, but now it was dark. A lot of shadows had been cast from the outage. Shadow slipped into one and tossed on the Zebra cloak. There was no better time.

It was simple. Gambit was distracted further in the shop, getting candles lit. His store was well organized and he had a big sign to point to the ammo. The 44 Magnums were on the top shelf. Shadow swiped several of the loose ones and moved the one box a few shelves down like somepony had examined it.

On the way out, Shadow spotted candles and a matchbook. He slipped two into his bags and the matchbook. Kifo Herixleta would melt the entire candle if Shadow tried to use it to light the wick. Shadow was out before Gambit was done lighting the candles by the register.

The Bank had candles on standby, so it was well lit. It was mostly paper transactions, so the deposit went smoothly. Shadow took some more caps out and departed. On his way out, he used one of the candles to light one of his. Free fire.

The lights were still out when he got to his home. The candle provided just enough light to work with. Shadow set them down on his table as soon as he got in and went to his room. He had the light from the window to work with. It was just enough. The armor sale would wait for later.

Shadow changed into his suit. He was going for the electrical plant. If the raiders were there, they needed to be slain by his other side. The city couldn't get there first. Shadow had to make them fear whatever came at them.

Chapter 107 - Power

View Online

It wasn’t hard to find the power plant. It was separated into two sections. The dam and the Control Center Transformer. The damn looked clear from a close pass by, but the Control Center’s exterior defenses were shut down.

Shadow followed the tree line until he found the entrance. The thing was a citadel. Multiple defense matrix from all different types of turrets and even designated guard stations; mounted up high above the thick concrete walls that were crawling with live electric fence wires intermixed with razor wire.

Magic, laser, rocket, and ballistic turrets were all present. They were set up to automatically shoot anything that moved inside their zone. The nonrenewable ones had a closer search pattern. They all were shut down, not destroyed.

The spotlights and searchlights were still active and bright. They were the only defenses online. They were strong guards, glorious in the darkness.

There were two gruff stallions at the front of the gate, patrolling. Shadow used the brush that had grown up to approach undetected. He only had the essentials on him. He was ready to strike and only strike.

Shadow pounced on the first, cleanly cutting him in half. The other was kicked back into the wall and found himself with a red hot sword at his neck.

“What is going on here?” Shadow asked, adjusting the pitch in his voice an octave up. It wasn’t easy. “Speak truthfully and I will let you live.”

He gulped. “The boss said if we could take the power plan, Trottingham would give us food and tribute. We could live well here, unable to be defeated.”

“The defenses?”

The raider glanced at the sword again. He was feeling the heat from the blade. “A Unicorn, Techno, joined us a few months back. Not much of a raider, but he has a real knack for technical shit. We tested his skills elsewhere before hitting here. He will have them up and running soon. With us as friendlies.”

“Good choice,” Shadow said.

“My life?”

Shadow lower the blade from his neck but sliced off his rear legs. As the raider groaned in agony, Shadow chuckled.

“The heat cauterized the wound. You won’t bleed out. Easily anyway. I am here to cleanse the wasteland. To right the wrongs that have been done. Prepare it so that the separation can end and peace restored. You gain your life so that you will let others knows, play time is over. Nopony is safe.”

Shadow pushed open the gate and walked down the walled off security entrance. The open hallway was lined with turrets, all shut down. The hallway ended with a security building. Shadow opened it and found himself in a room with a receptionist desk and then other work stations off to the side.

“Hey! Grub, Dent, you are supposed to be guarding the front gate!”

A unicorn walked into view from the break room with a stuffed face and a plate of food hovering alongside him. Shadow blasted him with his shotgun. The noised caused two others around the corner to jump into action. Shadow put one down before he got into position.

Shadow used his acrobatic skills to advance closer. With only a side bag for ammo and a spare bag for his cloak and personals, Shadow was learn and fast. Nothing was holding him back.

Shadow vaulted over the desk and onto the other side of the raider. He bucked him into the metal desk and bucked him again when he bounded off it. The raider slumped down. Shadow pulled out the combat knife and slit his neck to make sure he was dead.

Outside was a different story. The center had all the transformers. They were sparking in place. The power was on, it just wasn’t allowed to flow to the city. The tower to Shadow's right had a raider in it. Shadow's first move had to be to neutralize their height advantage.

Shadow dashed off to the tower and began to scale the ladder that went straight up. At the top he halted for a second to draw the sword. He slipped up and over, driving the blade into the unaware raider for a quiet kill. Shadow slid down, squeezing the sides to control his descent.

The search lights gave him plenty of darkness to hide in, but not enough. Shadow ran into two wandering raiders. They were too far away to dispatch quietly. And his glowing eyes were a dead giveaway that he was not with them. Neither was he friendly.

“WHAT! WHO ARE”

Shadow opened up, taking them out with a quick burst. The whole area was alerted to his presence. Shadow moved to the cover of a set of power units to get out of sight from the enemies on his left. A tower was in view and the raider turned his rifle towards Shadow.

Shadow fired a quick burst, missing. It forced the raider to back up. He fired another and then another, finally hitting his target on the third burst. It was a stretch for the rifle to hit that long of a distance. The rounds were uncontrollable, meaning he had to rely on luck. Shadow changed magazines to be safe and headed out around the side.

He picked off a few more groups in the open who were responding to his presence. Not every tower had a raider on duty. That saved Shadow. He made his way to the control center. With them aware of his presence, there was only one option to safely breach the center.

Shadow flipped the cloak on and crawled to the door. He slowly opened it as it creaked. He did just enough to wiggle in along the ground. A guard desk was right in front of the door to block anypony from coming into the restricted area.

“SHOW YOURSELF! COWARD!”

An angry mare with a shotgun stepped around the desk. Shadow was stuffing the cloak into his bag, pressed against the desk. He jumped forward, staying tight against it. She fired as he ran her threw with the combat knife. It was wide from the shock of the blade piercing skin. Shadow slit the gut open with a flick of the wrist, ending any future resistance from her.

“Alright! Who are you!” A raider asked from behind the door frame he was peaking around.

“I am the one to fix this place,” Shadow replied. “I will bring peace. You have had your time to play, now justice shall be dealt and this land cleansed. It must be prepared so the separation will end.”

“Fuck you,” The raider spat. “Not going to happen.”

The raider fired three shots from his pistol. It blasted apart the desk. It was a magic pistol. Shadow vaulted over the desk, hoping some better option would present itself.

A coffee station had been set up ages ago. It had trays for treats to go with the coffee. One of them had a mug on it. Shadow landed on his forelegs and flipped over. His rear hoof caught the edge of the tray, sending the mug into the air. As Shadow continued his rotation, he reached with his hoof and was able to redirect it with a soft push that sent it hurling at the raider.

The raider ducked back behind the frame as the mug shattered on the door frame. He laughed as he poked his head out.

“You missed!”

“Nope!” Shadow said as he let his energy bounce him off the wall and redirect him straight to the door where he tackled the raider. Shadow recovered first and sliced off all of his legs with a red hot blade.

“Where is the Unicorn?” Shadow growled. “The one called Techno who shut this place down.”

“In the security building,” The raider spat. “But be ready. I am one mean mother fucker. He is one cold, calculating bastard. He just needs me to run the show so he can do his work.”

“So you run this gang?”

“Gunna kill me and claim my head?”

“No,” Shadow laughed. “I am going to let you live without your hooves. That way ponies will know I have arrived. I am here to cleanse the land of its impurities. To prepare it for the end of the separation. It is how it was foretold by the ancient sages. That I would come and right the wrongs. Avenge the death and misery caused by the wasteland. Stop this raging fire from burning so it can no longer consume souls.”

He laughed out loud. A real, jolly laugh from the gut. “That would require you to kill most of Equestria!”

“So?” Shadow asked coyly. “What of it.”

The raider’s laughter turned to fear as he stared into the red, unblinking eyes.

He gulped. “You can’t seriously think you can kill them all, can you?”

“I just strolled into this power plant you stole and killed most of your forces.”

Shadow backed away him and slipped Kifo Herixleta into it’s sheath. He calmly walked out. The magic pistol would fetch a handsome price. But he was here to kill. Not to take even a single cap. Not even a bullet, even if he was out of ammunition and still in the fight.

The rest had retreated to the security building. It was two stories tall. Shadow busted open the door, but didn’t enter, taking shelter further down the exterior wall. A series of explosions from traps set went off.

He was right in behind them to take out the two raiders who had thought they had cleverly blasted him backwards. His shotgun magazine was emptied on them and he made the quick switch. The bottom floor was clear and Shadow cautiously moved up the stairwell. It had a landing that cut back to get to the second floor.

The advantage was to the enemy to see him first. Shadow’s guns were ready. Nopony was there. As Shadow approached the door that wasn’t marked as the restroom, a robot, armed and ready, zipped out. It opened up with it’s flame thrower.

Shadow was faster, although expecting a bullet or magical blast, not flames. He bounded off the wall. As the robot came into alignment while Shadow executed his flip, he let his shotgun loose, ripping the outer shell to pieces. It was still intact so Shadow bucked it. It hurt meeting unyielding metal.

The robot swung an arm with a buzzsaw, but Shadow was inside it’s range and painfully blocked it. Kifo Herixleta slip out of it’s sheath at Shadow's call and he plunged it into the center of the robot while he fought to keep the saw from cutting him.

Shadow withdrew the white hot blade and sliced off the buzzsaw. He parried another arm and sliced it’s tool off. The flamethrower one was next and then the last tool. The robot didn’t know what to do without it’s weapons. Shadow emptied the shotgun into it’s center, finally causing it to crash to the floor, destroyed.

Shadow felt magic begin to restrain him.

“Well done,” Techno clapped. “I have never seen anypony be able to handle themselves with such skill. If you got here, then the rest are dead. I guess it is time for me to move on and find another crew. A regular life is so boring. There is no challenge to it. And when ponies really understood what I could do, then I became an outcast. They fear me. At least raiders try and use my skill to their advantage.”

“And that leaves us where?” Shadow asked.

“Short on time,” He replied as he stood face to face with Shadow. “Do you know if anypony else is coming here?”

“No,” Shadow replied. “Apparently this is one of the last places Trottingham will look. They believe it is impenetrable.”

“Typically it is. But I can switch them off with the simple flick of my horn. Robots and technology submit themselves to my will with ease.”

Shadow smiled to himself. He hadn’t tried to fight the restraints. But there was a good chance Techno’s skill to hold him in place was rather weak. He was a fine tuned kind of Unicorn. Focusing on the small, not the large. Kifo Herixleta was already drawn. It was time to see if his farming muscles were strong enough to win this fight.

Shadow tore himself down with all the force he could muster and then dove at Techno. The downward movement pulled the Unicorn into Shadow as he held on. As Shadow's shoulder met his chest the magic ended and Shadow swung Kifo Herixleta to slice off Techno’s right foreleg at the shoulder.

Shadow smoothly brought the blade around removed the horn at it’s base in the skull. It flew off and drove itself into the wall. Shadow stepped to the side and removed both rear legs with a beautiful ease.

“How?” Techno groaned in pain as Shadow sheathed the blade.

“I have more power than you can understand,” Shadow laughed. “For I am here to cleanse the land of its impurities. To right the wrongs suffered. To end the separation and bring in a new era. To save this land from itself. All who oppose me shall die.”

“But you,” Shadow chuckled. “You are finished. You shall await Trottingham’s arrival to restore the power. You shall be a testament to my power and to my calling.”

Shadow walked out, leaving the Unicorn in pain, struggling to cast magic of any kind. He was quickly out the front gate, running to the forest to circle back and not be missed in Trottingham. He had nopony to miss him, but Shadow was not going to take that chance. He wanted to be back in Trottingham as little past the morning light as possible.

As Shadow approached the inhabited city, he slipped his cloak on. Shadow couldn't be seen entering the city that he never left. It was a simple thing to slip by. But it was quickly clogged up as a group was forming.

They were being organized to head out to the power plant. The night before had proven useless to fixing the power shortage. Shadow knew he had to head back out with them.

It didn’t take long for Shadow to change and resupply. He kept things focused and left Kifo Herixleta home. He had left raiders alive. They couldn't see him with a sword. It would be an instant giveaway.

Shadow approached the guard running the tally for who joined.

“A bit late,” The guard said.

“Sorry,” Shadow panted.

“Guaranteed 200 caps for the trip. Don’t take anything unless directed too. This is a city venture, not personal. To take is to steal from the city and will be punished appropriately. Understood?

“Understood Sir!” Shadow saluted.

The guard rolled his eyes at the salute. “Name?”

“Mtoaji.”

“Ah, so you are the pony with the weird name. Head to D group. They are Yellow Team.”

Shadow got to Yellow Team and tired the ribbon he was given onto his arm.

“Psst!”

Shadow looked to where the sound came from. It was Red Tip and he was wearing a black band.

“I am surprised you are here,” Shadow said.

“Hey, I need to protect my shop,” Red Tip smiled. “And justify my personal collection.”

“And black is?”

“The long range shooters,” Red Tip stated. “That is why there are four of us in black. Not many can hit a target at 800 yards or more. We will be covering teams as they advance in closer.”

Shadow never had a chance to talk more as Yellow Team was called to move out. They stopped just outside the city’s defenses.

“For those that don’t know me, I am Fiery Blitz. We will be heading out to secure the Dam. If there are no raiders there, and the dam’s defenses are still running, we will hold there unless otherwise directed. It may take some time to retake the power plant if its has indeed, been captured.”

“Remember, do not take anything unless directed too. Or face an appropriate punishment for the crime. Your pay is the caps from the city, nothing else. Bonuses might be given, depending on what happens. Bonuses will be equally applied to all members, not just a group or small few.”

They followed Fiery Blitz out at a quick pace. Once outside the city, they could see Red and Blue were on the move as well. Green would be bringing up the rear. Yellow appeared to be the only ones heading to the damn. White finally caught up to them. There were four in the group, two were wearing Trottingham Guard gear. They were Yellow’s sniper team.

They slowed down and spread out in fire teams led by city guards. Fiery Blitz was Shadow’s fire team leader. Shadow was working hard to look unskilled in squad maneuvers. He was automatically flowing with their movements. Fiery Blitz held up his hoof to have them a bit back from the tree line. Shadow was on the flank and ignored it, like he hadn’t understood the signal. He slid to a tree right on the edge of the tree line.

“What do you see?” Fiery Blitz whispered to Shadow.

“Nothing,” Shadow replied. “No sign of anything. No exterior turrets. No smoke, or damage of any kind. But that doesn’t discount the fact that somepony could be inside and brought them back online.”

“You are small and hard to see,” Fiery Blitz replied. “Stay there and we will begin setting up a more spread out and defensive structure. White team should be set up shortly, and we can make our move from what their scopes can see.”

Shadow rolled his eyes to himself and peaked out. They had a decent spot looking down a bit on the dam. The only place Shadow couldn’t see enough to check for disruption was the far side of the dam. And their scopes or spotting equipment wouldn’t not reach that far.

Fiery Blitz shifted up to Shadow. “Still nothing here. But early reports from the power plant are coming in with a lot of dead raiders. The entire place is shut down. If things are what they look like, this might be the easiest 200 caps many of you ever make.”

“Who could of foreseen this?” Shadow asked. “Who could have done all that? Did they get caught in the crossfire of the turrets?”

“Not sure,” Fiery Blitz said. “But what matters is that the plant will be secured and then the defenses put back in place. We will have a presence here at all times. Which means more guards will have to be hired.”

Yellow was soon called to gather at the power plant.

“The plant is secured,” The leader of the expedition and head of Red Team declared to them all. “They all got caught in the crossfire of the turrets after back up security brought them online again. We will figure out what exactly they did to enter in the first place and make sure it never happens again.”

“It certainly wont!” A Steel Ranger declared. He was leading two dozen Steel Rangers. “I am Paladin Brandy. And we will be securing this station from here on out. I am to inform you that Trottingham will not have to pay or anything for us protecting it.”

“You don’t have backup power?” Shadow called out.

“We do citizen. But we noticed the problem and sent repair teams out. When everything was working normally, I was sent here to secure the plant. The automatic defenses will be brought online shortly. Our technical team is right behind us. Thank you for all of your concern and actions. We have it from here.”

“Team leaders,” Red Team’s Leader call. “Take control of your team and lets head out.”

Shadow followed Fiery Blitz and the rest of Yellow Team back to the city. They were paid their 200 caps at the bank. Shadow opted to not have his directly deposited in the bank. He wanted them in his pocket for a project.

Red Tip caught up with Shadow in the market place.

“How much did you hear?” Red Tip asked him quietly. “You were at he dam.”

“Not much,” Shadow said. “Really all that was at the end when we gathered.”

“Let’s go to my shop.”

Once inside the nice, cool, building, Red Tip jumped over the counter to take his usual place. He was officially open now.

“Red Team was the only team to enter,” Red Tip stated. “Blue Team and Green Team were held back in reserve. Half of Red Team were active guards. The other half was retired guards and long term residents they could trust. I was watching from my post. The raiders were not caught by active turrets. They pulled out three alive had limbs cleanly hacked off.

“They got those guys moving and back to the city before we were all brought together. They will interrogate them further in the city. Red Team was able to do some solid looting, to start. I think they got most of the raider’s weapons before the Steel Rangers barged in. I saw them coming from my perch and called it so they didn’t fully surprise us.

“Anyway, something hit those raiders and it hit them hard. I doubt we will hear anything more. Maybe a rumor or two, but that is it.”

“Nothing more?” Shadow asked.

“Nothing else solid,” Red Tip sighed. “It only makes sense. Its for our own good. You can’t let the citizens be afraid. At least the Steel Rangers won’t let the power station fall under the control of others.”

“You will never be able to take it from them,” Shadow pointed out.

“True, but we have good relations with them. Always have. They watch out for us more than we know. And they don’t bully us. Even when they get drunk, its not much of a problem.”

Shadow pushed himself off the counter. “I am going to go spend my caps on paint. Or window gardens. Probably the gardens first.”

“Window what?”

“Oh, you hang them outside your window and can plant flowers or some nice herbs or spices in them. Small stuff. Pots connected to your window.”

“Huh, interesting. How do you plan on getting that done?”

“I think Quality Hardware might be the best place to start.”

“Good luck,” Red Tip said.

Shadow headed to Quality Hardware. Sawdust was busy with another customer, so Shadow just looked around.

“Now, how can I help you,” Sawdust asked Shadow when he was finished.

“I need window gardens,” Shadow stated. “I have three windows and I want to hang little troughs on the outside that I can plant some herbs in.”

“It will have to be lightweight before the soil is put in,” Sawdust said thinking. “Show me the windows and I can work from there. But I am thinking we will avoid wood because of rot.”

Sawdust took all sorts of measurements.

“This is a new one for me. But I have some ideas. 200 caps and I will have them ready in a week. I will need to test some of the designs for stress and sustainability. Meanwhile, I suggest you purchase dirt and fertilizer from the farms to the north. Do not be alarmed when you see Steel Rangers. They are friendly enough and they watch over the farms.”

“You knew I went on the expedition, didn’t you?”

Sawdust laughed. “My son was in yellow. And I don’t have a way to give you an estimate.”

“Fair enough,” Shadow laughed.

Shadow counted out 200 and Sawdust departed. Shadow headed to the bank to grab more and then put in an order for paint and try and figure out lighting. He also sold off the armor pieces he had picked up. The helmet sold for three times what he was expecting.

Tomorrow would be his last day in town. He needed to answer the call from Cloudy Snow. Their pipbuck’s program had recorded all of the messages. It was certainly for him.

Chapter 108 - Blood Harvest

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Shadow was on his wings, barely above the tree tops of the Hayseed Swamp. He had pushed it on his hooves to arrive as soon as he could. Since the Mare-Do-Well patters had a design for wings, Shadow had made his with them as well. It was easy to keep the fabric tucked in and under, out of sight, like he did with his wings. He was happy he had made the wings. Missions like this required it.

Shadow put the breaks on and slowly glided to a stop. He descended straight down and found a tree to roost in until night. He was light on his bags for the mission, so it was easier to find a half decent spot to rest on until the night.

After dusk, Shadow circled over the Slog like a vulture over the dead. Which wasn’t far off. Not just because they were as good as dead, but because most of them where Ferals.

Shadow bobbed down slowly, getting lower and lower until he touched down on the soft dirt. Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta and iced the blade over. No light to alert the others. A ghoul came over to Shadow and he removed it’s head.

Shadow skipped across the dots of lands, trampling their crops and slicing one Ghoul after another. He stayed in the back, not alerting any non Ferals.

“Hello,” Shadow quietly greeted Steel Wrench.

The Ghoul cocked his head, confused.

“So you don’t remember me,” Shadow continued with a crooked smile under his mask. “I still get to enjoy paying you back for that bite!”

Shadow launched forward, slicing Steel Wench in half, length wise. A good, perfect cut. Steel Wrench turned his head to track Shadow. He looked down, trying to understand why his body wouldn’t turn. He opened his mouth to scream, but he had no air in the bits of his lungs to yell with. Eventually it all gave out and he toppled to the side. It took his body hitting the ground for them to split apart.

Shadow finished up just before dawn and slipped away. Their wails at their ‘misfortune’ kept Shadow awake during the day from his perch. Shadow had gone far enough they wouldn’t find him, but not far enough to escape their cries. Shadow shifted his focus from sleep around noon. They had stopped crying and began screaming. They were arguing. They didn’t know what to do.

Shadow was chomping at the bit to get going. Waiting until dark wasn’t easy. He waited an hour longer to make sure he didn’t jump the gun.

Shadow didn’t circle as high or as long. He dove onto a guard at his station, slicing his head off over on a low pass. Shadow flipped up and dove on another guard. He slid back around to the buildings. Shadow touched down behind them and slid forward to the street. It was quiet. A few lights were on.

Shadow slipped to the target door and slipped inside. He quietly worked his way up to the second floor. There were two doors. The front one was the proper one. And the lights were off.

Shadow slipped inside.

“Took you long enough,” Cloudy Snow whispered. “A week ago Amber was found dead. Lavender Dew didn’t find a cause, only that he died quietly in his sleep… Wait?”

She sat up, looking at Shadow. Her face was a mix of emotions. She didn’t fear him, but was afraid. She still felt she knew him and he was a friend. But she also didn’t recognize what she was looking at.

“Silent?” She asked, hesitantly.

Shadow shook his head. He stepped closer to her and pulled out a piece of paper. She took it and opened it. Cloudy Snow lit a candle to read by.







Cloudy Snow,




If you are reading this, then things went wrong. I didn’t make it. I hope that somepegasus is able to get this to you. If my promise to kill Orange Harvest for a hostile take over can’t be fulfilled, you can head north to a safe place.

Head east to the shore. Then fly as fast as possible north. I suggest flying past Fillydelphia at night. The Disciples are nasty.

In the north you will find Baltimare. You will find Dry Dock City nestled in Horseshoe Bay, near the center. It is founded in old dry docks and uses some of the ships being built in the docks for shelter. There you will find accepting ponies. The Captain is a friend of mine, and a Ghoul. Although, he knows me by another name, Shadow Flare. Below is my symbol, which he will recognize.

The north arm has Fort Strong, avoid it. Be careful of the southern side for Radigators. Most importantly, you must be vigilant to avoid the Super Ponies. They are mutated ponies, dumb and violent, and they can use weapons.

Land in the city center and show them this letter. Governor Silver Sifter and the others will treat you fairly. I hope that your compassion and drive will lead to citizenship, not just residency. They value hard work, and you have farm knowledge from the past few years. Hopefully that will help you. I know you will give them all you can, despite the hardships that come with adjusting to and living in a new place.




Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance Shadow Flare




Shadow’s Inquisitor rank symbol was bold and easy to see..

“And you are?” Cloudy Snow asked.

Shadow anticipated the question. He silently reached in his bag and pulled out the PipBuck. He didn’t give it to her, but let her see it just long enough to lead to the idea that he found them together on their bodies.

Cloudy Snow gulped, staring into his glowing eyes. “I will depart in the morning.”

Shadow slowly shook his head and turned his side to show off his guns a bit. She had seen his sword before. She wasn’t acquainted with his guns. The guns were the only safe thing to show her. To protect her from realizing who he now was. She had wings, pegasus wings, and he wasn’t capable of harming her.

She took a sharp breath in and nodded. Cloudy Snow grabbed her saddlebags and tossed some things in it before sliding the window open. She looked back at Shadow’s unblinking eyes and took off to safety before the massacre began.

Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta and stepped out of the room. He opened the door to the room behind Cloudy Snow’s and stepped inside. Shadow cleanly executed the occupant. The top floor was the same. Nopony occupied the bottom floor.

If he was going to do it, Shadow had to get the hard one over with first. He dashed across the street and into the clinic. The beds were empty. He walked upstairs and into the first bedroom. Two were in the bed. One groaned awake as the door opened.

It was Lavender Dew. Her eyes went wide in terror as Shadow sliced her, the other, and the bed in two. Shadow took a deep breath in. The hard part was over. Her reward for her aid was supposed to be a quick, painless death; unaware.

Shadow steeled his heart. Orange Harvest was going to pay. His fear would be just reward. Shadow wasn’t going to clear them all out tonight. No, he was going to let Orange Harvest and his little group live. Live to see the morning and find the others dead. They would find out what it really meant to be hunted.

Shadow worked from house to house, room by room, executing them. The rooms with lights on had more than one ghoul and they were being vigilant to survive the night. For now, Shadow took everypony else out.

Shadow stepped out into the street after the last room was done. He cleaned off Kifo Herixleta, but didn’t sheath it. Shadow still had some guards to take care of. He finished all but two, leaving them to report in the morning that they hadn’t seen or heard anything.

There was still some time, so Shadow headed to the store. The rooms above had been cleared. Shadow lit a candle and sorted through what they had. He grabbed the two radiation meds they had left and then quietly routed through everything else.

It was barren, outside of a pittance of useful ammo and caps. He would only take their caps and anything really necessary. He wanted to travel light, but the Slog would never be stumbled upon. Nopony knew they existed and nopony would come looking for them.

The morning brought screams of terror and a smile on Shadow’s masked face. The screams woke anypony else up and they all rushed out into the center of the streets. Shadow watched from the darkness as they gathered.

The last guards ran up and soon a shouting match ensued. Blame was being spread around, mixed with their fear. They could not deny the clean cut of a precision sword. They were beginning to turn on Orange Harvest. They had no other ideas. Shadow's words burned clear in their minds.

Shadow stepped out from an alley.

“Who are you!” Orange Harvest demanded.

Shadow let his anger rise into laughter. “I am the one to quench this fire. To right the wrongs inflicted. To make the wasteland ready for the day to come when it is no longer separated.”

“By killing ghouls!”

“Now now,” Shadow chided from behind his glowing eyes. “This has nothing to do with being a pony or a ghoul. It has to do with you all, and your choices. And the wrath that you have brought to this place. You broker your word. You lit this place on fire. And I quench the fire.”

“Take him!” A mare said, bucking Orange Harvest toward Shadow.

Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta in one clean move, slicing off Orange Harvest’s head. Shadow kept the sword pointed up and away as he walked past the body.

“What do you want!” One screamed.

Shadow let out a savage growl. “What I want is what is already mine. Your souls. And there is no escape.”

Two pissed themselves right there and one fled. Another tried to point his gun, but Shadow was too close. A simple skip in and he cut him down. The others were right there and Shadow let them suffer less for feeding him Orange Harvest. Their wisdom brought them a reward, just not one they were hoping for.

The runner couldn't escape Shadow. Shadow dove on him from the air, cleanly taking his head off. The body tripped and tumbled for a dozen feet before settling in the water, where it began to taint the decay ridden water with blood. The head came to rest in a pool of water, bobbing carelessly.

Shadow flipped back around. He raided the governor’s office and found a heft stash of caps. By the front gate was mounted one of the heavy machine guns. He grabbed the linked rounds that were in the crate and they clunked into the bag, pulling the bags heavily to one side. Shadow would have to take a second and balance his bags.

Shadow wanted one last thing. And it was in Cloudy Snow’s room. She had the radio. It would go well in his new home. They had to be expensive to buy, if they could be found.

Shadow climbed into the sky and began his trip back to Trottingham. He was safe to be on his wings for a little while. Just until he got out of the swamp.

Chapter 109 - Final Gambit

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Shadow strolled back into Trottingham. He had flown out of Hayseed Swamp, but trekked it on his hooves after that. He had run into a roving raider gang on the way. They never had the chance to fear him as he didn’t play around as he cut them down. Quick and clean.

Shadow didn’t raid anything they had. He just left them to rot and be found by others. The only thing Shadow had taken on the trip was the caps in the Slog and some of the useful ammo. That and he had taken the radio Cloudy Snow had. Nopony could tell anything had been taken.

It was early in the day. Shadow was going to store his stuff and and secure the black suit. Then he would check in with Sawdust. Sawdust should have his window gardens ready.

“Ah! Good to see you,” Sawdust exclaimed coming over to Shadow. “Your order is ready and should withstand the ages.”

“Wonderful,” Shadow smiled.

They headed back to Shadow’s home to set them up. They fit snuggly and the windows sealed better than they had before they were installed. They had transported them with the dirt inside them. Shadow planted some of his seeds: rosemary, mint, lavender and savory.

“So, they just grow there?” Sawdust asked.

“Yep,” Shadow nodded. “And when I need them, I will clip little bits off of them to use. Most will be used to make the teas my mother used to make me after a hard day’s work or when I was feeling ill.”

“Tea?” Sawdust asked, unsure of what tea was.

“Tea is a drink, usually hot, that uses leaves and herbs to flavor it. Lavender and mint is my favorite tea combination. You strain the leaves out so you only drink the flavored water. You only need a small amount to flavor quite a bit of water. I usually keep my canteens flavored with rosemary.”

“Well, I will take your word on that,” Sawdust replied. “It doesn’t sound like something I would drink. And despite your size, it doesn’t sound like something a hardened wastelander like yourself would drink.”

Shadow chuckled. “It’s not a wasteland drink. It is soft. But it’s a bit from my home so far away. It is comforting. A hardened wastelander can have their soft points. Plus, if I can kill you with a blink of the idea, what does it matter what I drink? It doesn’t change how I survive, scrounging through the ruins to make my living. Besides, it will take a bit from them to sprout and grow to the point I can use them for tea.”

“To each his own,” Sawdust shrugged. “But you have a radio? Where did you get that?”

Shadow turned the radio on and found DJ Pon3’s station. He kept the volume low. The music came across crystal clear.

“In an abandoned building on my last trip. It's in good condition, so I brought it back to enjoy. I don’t sell everything I scavenge.”

“I do have a question,” Shadow said changing the subject. “The lighting in this condominium is poor. Who can I can to improve it?”

“You want to improve this?” Sawdust said shocked. “This is better than most places here. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!”

“To me, it is broken,” Shadow shot back.

“It will cost you,” Sawdust warned. “But Forrest is the current owner of Inside Out, the construction company. They do most things in the city, from remodeling to designs to new builds. They have an office in the Municipal Building because they do so much work in the city. They seem to always be doing some project for the city. But money talks.”

“Thanks,” Shadow replied.

“This is DJ POn3 here,” The radio announced. “I have a warning for all my listeners. I have heard a few accounts of mysterious deaths. Death isn’t usually mystery out here. But these are raiders who still have their stuff. And a caravan that wasn’t touched outside of bullets to their heads. Ponyville was cleaned out, and even slaves being transported were cut down because they breathed. One escaped to tell the tale. Unchecked, unemotional killing is what they described.

“It’s not all been bad, and not just for Ponyville being gutted. Trottingham lost power after their source’s defenses were safely taken off line. These are defenses that formed a citadel that has stood since mid war. The city was able to take it back the next day, but they didn’t even have to lift a hoof to do it. They found every raider inside dead. Outside a few strategic ones left without their limbs to tell the tale.

“A pony dressed all in black, with their faced masked and glowing red eyes that never blinked. They couldn’t tell what guns she had, only that she had a red glowing sword. It was so hot it cauterized their wounds. She has come to cleanse the wasteland. To right the wrongs. To prepare the wasteland and bring some separation to an end. In Trottingham, they are calling her Black Widow.

“It isn’t clear what separation she is trying to end, or what wrongs she is trying to right, but she is here to kill and she is doing it and being found means death. There seems to be no escaping her when she hunts you.”

“Interesting,” Sawdust stated. “It explains the power plant. But I have not heard that name yet. Fitting for what she apparently did.”

Shadow shrugged. “Well, I never saw the power plant or anything. I was at the dam. But it does explain why we sat there with nothing happening, no shots fired.”

“Well,” Sawdust shrugged. “I have stuff that I need to do. A big order was put in yesterday. That is what matters to me, not some mystery mare who seems bent on killing.”

Shadow just wordlessly nodded as Sawdust left. Shadow grabbed the caps he had and headed to the bank. Most were going to be deposited. He needed to do the check in so he didn’t lose his stuff.

The Municipal Building was nearing closing time, but Shadow was able to get an appointment set up for the day after tomorrow. They would meet him at his condominium.

Shadow sat down at a restaurant, on their balcony. He had a perfect view of Gambit and his store. It was time to stalk his prey. Shadow noted his moves for the rest of the evening.

When the store closed, Shadow let the dark corners of the city hide him as he slipped his cloak on. The lock on the store was advanced. It took Shadow two minutes to get the cloud key to work. Two guard patrols walked by, forcing Shadow to hold his breath and pray to the stars that the enchantment held.

Shadow had to wait for several other ponies to move past to open the door. Once inside, Shadow quickly moved to the ammunition. Like before, Shadow grabbed the loose ammunition and then moved the boxed rounds to another shelf. Shadow had no problem exiting.

The next day was boring. Shadow spent it watching and tracking Gambit. Much of the time it was hidden under his cloak. It was a risk that Shadow didn’t like taking, but as the day wore on, he relaxed as he became more certain that they couldn’t see him.

After Gambit closed his shop and retired, Shadow had to make sure his suit and gear was securely hidden. With the team coming to check out the lighting, Shadow had to be positive they wouldn’t stumbled on top of anything they shouldn’t.

Shadow opened the door and two ponies came in, a Unicorn and an Earth Pony. Forrest wasn’t either of them.

“I’m Bright,” The Unicorn said. “I am the electrical specialist for Inside Out. And with me is Emerald Bubble. She is new and is already showing great skill with electrical aspects in the building industry.”

“It’s nice to be here,” She smiled sheepishly.

“Nice to have you joining us,” Shadow nodded.

“You said you need us to fix lighting?” Bright asked confused.

“Look around,” Shadow said looking around. “It’s not the brightest in here. The fan has a single light and the kitchen has two hanging lights. The bedroom is the same. Its bad. I am living here and I want to be able to see.”

“This is the top 10% for the lighting in the condos,” Bright replied. “I don’t know what you want us to do.”

“I want it redone,” Shadow stated. “I want it bright, like the stores. Definitely adding some more lights.”

“We can add more,” Emerald Bubble said confidently. “But making it brighter won’t be easy.”

“Or cheap,” Bright warned.

“I want to actually see what I am doing,” Shadow replied. “Draw me up a plan and an estimate.”

They walked through the rooms and Bright had Emerald Bubble doing the work. She was learning fast. At least the planning side of electrical work.

“This will provide you the lighting you want,” Bright declared. “But this will cost more than you paid for here. More than you could get for this place.”

“Can you give me an estimate on the raised value?”

“Its a 1 Bedroom condo,” Bright stated. “Its not going to sell for more than 5000 caps.”

Shadow shrugged. “The resale value isn’t really important. I am not planning on that. I just want to live in a nice place while I have to live here.”

Bright shrugged to Emerald Bubble. “Well, you will be looking at three days of work and 7000 caps. And it would be best for you to not be here so we can move faster.”

“How soon could you start?” Shadow asked.

“Next week,” Bright replied. “We would need half up front.”

“I have that in my bank,” Shadow said. “But it looks like I will have to come up with some more. I will have to really work to scavenge some good stuff to sell. Also, can you guys paint the place?”

“Of course. But that will add another 500. Its not too big to paint this entire place. Plus, we won’t have to worry about trying to match any holes. If we make some to run wires, we are going to paint it anyway. So no harm no foul.”

“That will be fine,” Shadow nodded. “More than fine.”

“I will bring the plans down to the office,” Bright stated. “When you have the funds, you can pay there.”

“I will get your funds,” Shadow said. “Thank you.”

They departed and Shadow began to plan. His best option was to be out of town as they worked, so that nopony could stumble upon the costume. But he still had the plans, patterns, papers and the cloth to hide. He didn’t expect them to do anything, but Shadow still had to be prepared for an accident.

Gambit had to go down before he left. There was no way around that. And Shadow couldn’t leave for another day at least to avoid being connected. Trottingham may be a large city, but he was known by enough ponies. Coming right off the wastelands from nowhere and buying a permanent residence peaked interest in his life.

Gambit didn’t seem to be married to his job. He had a few employees and he used them. Gambit hadn’t opened or closed the store the few times Shadow had observed him. His arrivals had been as the morning picked up and plenty of ponies were in the street.

Shadow would have the perfect opportunity to strike, out in the open so all could see. Shadow had no need for his guns, or his sword. The Zebra cloak would get him in and then after a quick escape, out. He would kill Gambit with the Zebra combat knife and the band. Ponies would most definitely be looking for a unicorn, and it wouldn’t be hard to adjust his voice to really sell that he was a mare. DJ Pon3 has used ‘she’ in his talk on the radio. Shadow had to keep the sentencing short. He wasn’t sure how the guards would react.

Blooming Glass would be avenged for being sold into slavery. She would be avenged for being put in a position that Shadow had to kill her. The ponies of Trottingham would know what happened to her. Her family would have closure and others may find it as well. Gambit may have sold more ponies.

Shadow only wore the small throw bag to hide his cloak and it was kept under his cape. He had to pop his unmasked head out of the door first to check if it was clear. It was so he could tossed his mask on and pulled the cloak over his body, disappearing.

Shadow took up a perch on a store’s roof. He observed it all as the day grew older and the city began to become organized chaos. Shadow watched as Gambit came into view.

Shadow pulled off the Zebra cloak in one clean move and slipped it into his bag. He saw ponies stop and stare. He wasn’t expecting to freeze the city, but he did. Gambit was frozen too, looking at him. There was no better opportunity.

“BLACK JACKPOT!” Shadow called out. “THE ONE THE CALL GAMBIT.”

Shadow dropped down off the roof with ease, causing ponies to marvel at his nonchalant attitude of the drop. Especially once they saw his size. Still, their view of him projected himself to be much bigger in their eyes because of their admiration or fear.

They gave him a wide berth as he walked all the way over to Gambit.

“My reputation precedes me to you,” Gambit smiled. “What can I do for somepony as yourself?”

“I AM HERE FOR YOU!” Shadow replied for all to here. “I KNOW WHAT YOU DID. I WAS AT PONYVILLE. I SAW HER, BLOOMING GLASS, CHAINED UP AND FORCED TO ATTEMPT TO DO SOMETHING SHE COULDN’T DO IN AN EFFORT TO SAVE HERSELF FROM THEIR MERCILESS HOOVES. I FOUND THEIR RECORDS. YOU KIDNAPPED HER AND YOU SOLD HER TO THAT GANG, SAYING THAT SHE COULD ENCHANT GEMSTONES! SHE WAS AN EASY TARGET BEING BLIND.”

Shadow had to pause to gather his voice. But it was perfect as ponies began to talk. Gambit was playing innocent and doing it very well. Several guards had arrived and pushed their way to the front or the crowd.

“You trust raiders?” Gambit asked shocked.

Shadow gave a single nod. “I TRUST WHAT I SAW AND I TRUST WHAT THEY WROTE DOWN ABOUT HER AND THEIR PLANS.”

“Do you have any of this proof?” Fiery Blitz asked. “We can all go to the Municipal Office and settle this.”

Shadow took several more steps closer. “I don’t take ‘proof,’ I AM PROOF!”

“That may be Miss Black Widow, but the law states we have to take this matter before a judge, and that starts at the Municipal Building.”

“I AM NOT ONE OF YOU!” Shadow said lunging forward the last little bit.

The combat knife dug deep into Gambit’s neck. Shadow paused, keeping it there as he let his hoof touch the ground. In front of a stunned crowd, ponies would guess magic, not hooves. And the band would call the blade to him, once again, magic. The guards were unsure how to act.

“I CAME FOR BLACK JACKPOT’S LIFE FOR HIS EVIL. I CAME TO CLEAN OUT SCUM LIKE HIM TO PREPARE THE WASTELAND FOR IT’S REJOINING. THE SEPARATION MUST END. BUT THAT REQUIRES A CLEANSING FIRE TO TAKE CARE OF THE ONES WHO FIGHT THIS AND KEEP THE WASTELAND SHATTERED. THEIR BLOOD MUST BE DRAINED SO THAT THEY NO LONGER STAND IN THE WAY!”

Shadow had held things there long enough. He pulled the knife from Gambit’s neck and took a few steps back, creating space in between him and Fiery Blitz. Other guards were loosely surrounding Shadow.

“ORDER! ORDER!” Paladin Brandy said making his presence known. Two others were with him. They all had their helmets off.

“You, in the mask and cape. You are in violation of the laws in this town. We protect this area, including the town. I suggest you come with us to sort out the killing of that pony. A fair and unbiased course of action will be taken.”

Shadow just slowly shook his head no and took a few steps back.

Paladin Brandy took a deep breath in, frustrated. “Are you the one that attacked the power plant? Clearing out the raiders?”

Shadow gave a slow nod.

“We must speak with you, immediately,” Paladin Brandy stated. It was a non negotiable request.

Shadow took a step back, the crowd opening up for him to move.

“Stay right there!” Paladin Brandy ordered, his guns clicking off safety.

Shadow took a half step back. The Paladin tensed up and the other two with him began to move around to the sides to pin Shadow.

“That is an unwise choice!” Shadow warned the Steel Rangers. “Don’t challenge me.”

“Challenge? You are the one causing chaos!”

“Securing the world, reorganize them after cleaning out the bad, causes temporary chaos. I am here to prepare the wasteland for a new order. New, good peace and prosperity. The wasteland will be united like Equestria of old. This now is chaos and it will become truly orderly.”

“We can discuss that, but you have to come with us.”

“The Steel Rangers are thieves and murderers. You take what you want, when you want. You use force to make everything happen. You can not be trusted. You will not listen or provide a fair trial.”

“You’re coming with me!” Paladin Brandy declared, crouching a bit as he lined up his guns.

Shadow bent down, ready to move. The Steel Rangers had the position on him. But the crowd hadn’t subsided. Shadow wasn’t ready to fight three Steel Rangers with his gear. The crowd made it all dangerous and an attack would be very risky, for both sides. It would be difficult to get away clean with the crowd as well.

“ENOUGH!” Fiery Blitz yelled, stepping into the area between Shadow and Paladin Brandy. “This is our city! We protect it and keep it in order. You both are out of order! And you, Paladin, are endangering the entire marketplace with your aggressive moves. Stand down and let us take care of it.”

Fiery Blitz turned to Shadow. “You, miss Black Widow. We need you to come with us, to the Municipal Building to discuss things. You are not in trouble, yet.”

Shadow crouched a bit lower. “I do not follow your misguided laws. You hold onto things of the past that no longer work.”

Shadow immediately did a back tuck. The crowd further opened up around him. He was able to use it to do several back flips away. The city guards surged forward. Some blocked the Steel Rangers, others tried to get to him.

Shadow landed right next to a café. He vaulted onto a table, breaking dishes and scattering food, and used it to skip cleanly onto the roof. He rolled on the roof, the cloak flipping out and Shadow expertly wrapped it around him. He might be invisible, but Shadow had to move quickly to escape and avoid a physical confrontation.

Shadow slid down into an alley as a Unicorn guard sent out a searching beam. Guards were yelling and communicating, trying to lock down the area. The crowd was working against them. After a few twists and turns, Shadow was free and hooked around to get back to his condominium.

Shadow had to wait for several ponies to pass by before he could get at his door. He was firmly pressed up against the door in an attempt to avoid a collision. They couldn’t see him and were walking side by side. It was close.

Shadow took a minute to relax, cloaked, in his room before he got undressed and put things away. Gambit was dead. He had made his word good. Nopony was there to see it though.

Shadow had to find caps. He needed a way to earn them fast in order to pay for the lighting project. Shadow would have to scavenge for real. Anything of value had to collected. Red Tip might have some ideas of where to start.

Shadow changed into just his hat and cloak and headed to the market. Red Tip cheerily greeted Shadow.

“My favorite gun nut, how can I help you?”

“I put in for a lighting overhaul in my place,” Shadow replied. “They found it crazy because apparently, I have some of the best lighting for the housing. Its costing more than the place is worth and it won’t raise the resale value that much.”

“But fuck resale. I want to see clearly. I need to see in my home. And I need caps to finish paying off the project. So I need a prime location to scavenge from. Not just weapons. Everything of value.”

Red Tip gave a slow nod. “I believe danger is not an issue?”

“Within reason,” Shadow smiled.

“Well,” Red Tip smiled back. “The north east part of the city has another, settlement of sorts. Its an old suburban city, the Lux, with a small town center. It was walled off to keep out the riff raft and only allow the purest of the purse, money wise. It is prime for the picking. The catch is that it is controlled by the White Glove Society.

“Now, the White Glove Society, they don’t really do scavenging. It is beneath their high class plots. But they don’t let ponies wander their area, let alone take stuff. Ponies go there to play. They have full services there. Alcohol, drugs, mares and stallions for both viewing and playing, and their mainstay, gambling.

“I do not know how good you are with luck, but I suspect you make your own. Perhaps you can persuade them to let you scavenge whatever you can from their territory.”

“Interesting,” Shadow grinned. “It sounds like a prime place to start.”

“How long do you have?” Red Tip asked.

“They start in a week,” Shadow replied. “I would like to be gone while they work. I would be out of their way and making a living. We shall see were life takes me around then.”

“I do suggest you check out Lux,” Red Tip said. “But as to what you will do next week, I don’t have any suggestions.”

Shadow finalized how to get there and departed. Red Tip had visited once, but it wasn’t his scene. Shadow would leave in the early morning. Somepony prominent knew where he was heading and why. He didn’t have any fears about being connected to Black Widow.

Chapter 110 - Strawberry

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It was an easy journey, but Shadow set a quick pace. He wanted to arrive early and get to business. Shadow figured the best way to get what he wanted was to make them hurt. If he could win enough, he could turn it back over to the White Glove Society in exchange for the ability to scavenge in their area.

They had kept the wall in great condition and the gates were strong, but beautiful. They had a floral design in their bars. Snappy dressed guards were there to greet visitors and ensure they understood the rules.

They were simple rules. Play fair. Stay on the main road. Ask, don’t assume. Don’t cause trouble.

The White Glove Society had restored or replaced the buildings lining the street. They had done a very good job of hiding the ruins of the rest of the Lux. The small hospital had been turned into the casino and main hotel.

Inside had been completely overhauled, and didn’t look like a hospital. Not even a hint. It wasn’t flashy, but it was a simple complexity that immersed the visitors in a soft cocoon of luxury; relaxing and helping keep the visitors from wanting to go back to the drab, painful world outside.

Shadow approached the front desk. The room was inexpensive. He dropped his bags and gear off in it and kept only a bag to carry his caps in. Shadow did take his revolver and the combat knife with him.

“Well hello,” A seductively dressed mare smiled at Shadow. “You might be small, but I bet you are not small where it counts.”

Shadow couldn’t help but blush as he rolled his eyes. She wasn’t Cardinal Spitfire. She probably was a lot hotter than Shadow saw her as. His eyes were only for Cardinal Spitfire.

“Married,” Shadow said gently pushing her to the side.

“So?” She cooed. “Is she here? I also do couples.”

Shadow kept walking. “No. But if that is how others treat their marriages, then they do not know what marriage is or means. Faithful to the end. Eyes only for the other. Nothing gets in the way. Enduring the hardship together, no matter what the distance is.”

She stopped following him, unable to come up with a better reply. Shadow sighed as he got to the main casino floor. There was a wide variety of games of chance available. Servers were all around with alcohol and some light chems. Worse yet was the tables that had been modified so that dancers could use them and a pole to put on a show for the enjoyment of others. Hedonism at it’s finest.

This place needed to burn. It was no good. Wanton depravity of pleasure and gluttony. The focus on the individual was so great it didn’t allowed for the consideration of others. Especially those providing the services.

The last thing Shadow wanted was some mare shaking her barely covered goods in front of him while he had a job to do.

Shadow walked among the tables, looking for his prize. He found the sole table with 5 cards down, two dealt to the player. A well dressed mare was at the dealer’s place. She was flanked by two players, each obviously playing for the house. The other three players could sit opposite of them.

Two stallions were playing. The first, He was drunk and probably high, working to forget his problems. And the other had two mares by his side. They were not mares for hire like in the hall. He was the stallion of the hour for them. They were enthralled by his everything.

Shadow watched two rounds play and took the last seat, in between the two stallions. The mare informed Shadow of the rules. It was standard poker like he grew up with. Shadow put 100 caps on the table and they were traded out for the black and white chips the casino used. Shadow had no idea the rules the two house players had to follow, but it changed things up drastically.

The cards were dealt and Shadow received a pair of 4s. As the new player, the bidding started with him. He opened high at 10 and the others matched. Three cards were flipped over, including another 4.

Shadow pushed the bet, forcing a house player out and the drunk stallion slapped his cards down on the table in defeat. The fifth card was flipped over, another 4. Shadow played aggressively. The other two stayed in.

On the reveal, Shadow had all 4s, the others had pairs. Shadow’s pile was more than tripled because he had bet aggressively. The dealer was a Unicorn. It was entirely possible the dealer had stacked the deck in his favor with the low pair because he had just joined. An attempt to keep him at the table.

Even if that was so, Shadow was going to stay. The next round went to the stallion on his right, who had the mares drooling over him. The next went to the house and the following two went to Shadow. His cards had been solid on all of the rounds.

The drunk stallion left in defeat. The other one acknowledged Shadow for the first time.

“You are an interesting one,” He said with a smooth voice, similar to Vulpes.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” Shadow said, brushing him off.

“So it is a stallion under that hat.”

Shadow shrugged in response and placed his bet.

“You have luck on your side,” The stallion said as Shadow won again.

“You are not bad yourself,” Shadow said with a slight smile. “But you don’t do this often.”

“You do?” He asked shocked.

“Not here,” Shadow sighed. “Back home I do. This is my game.”

Shadow bluffed his way to a win, as if on cue.

“I guess it is,” The stallion marveled. “Too much for me. Good luck against them.”

The stallion stood up. One of the mares took the chips and they headed off to another table. Shadow focused on the two house players, trying to figure out the rules they had to follow.

Shadow backed out after the first three cards were laid down and the round ended right there and then. There was no chance to watch them play each other. Shadow purposefully lost the next two in an attempt to figure them out. He had the left’s tell figured out. The poor fellow blinked three times for a good deal.

With that at his advantage, Shadow won the next five rounds with ease. As Shadow collected his winnings, a Unicorn stallion came up. He was well dressed, sporting a scarf rather than a tie.

“Thank you for playing. But this table is shutting down for the evening. Enjoy your stay. There are plenty of other games open. But remember, play fair.”

Shadow kindly nodded to him with a smile and put his chips in his bag. Shadow now had to find a table with something worth playing. Something had to be available that took skill, along with luck.

Two tables were close together with a third behind that which featured a red coated mare dancing and flipping her blond mane. “Strawberry” is what her garter had boldly stitched on it. The tables were Black Jack. Shadow had never played, but the rules were simple enough. Shadow was the fourth player at the table.

As Shadow sat down, he scanned the area for the stallion who had broken up the other table. There was no sign of the stallion. Strawberry got a good look at Shadow and blew him a kiss with a wink. Shadow didn’t have the chance to avoid seeing her let a little slip, just for him.

Shadow shook his head as his two cards were dealt, to focus on the task at hoof. An ace and a 9. Shadow called for another card. An 8. He stayed. The dealer struck out at 17 and Shadow got his reward.

Shadow quickly built up another pile. The game was simple. Very simple.

“Okay buddy,” The same stallion from earlier said behind Shadow. “The boss wants to see you.”

“Alright,” Shadow calmly said as he got up and grabbed his things.

They took him to the back and had him sit down at an empty table. A few silent minutes later a spearmint mare in a smooth ivory dress sat down across from Shadow.

“You certainly did a number at our tables tonight,” she said sweetly. “I am Marjoram, the head mare here. Are you playing fair?”

“Yes ma’am,” Shadow nodded. “I am. Forgive my surprise. This is not what I would call doing a number. These numbers are small compared to some of the big games back at my home. But, I know I am not home.”

“No, you are not,” She said, not dropping the smile. “We have no evidence you have not been playing fair, but we can not allow you to play at any of the card tables, just to be safe. There still are plenty of other games to enjoy.”

“Perhaps we can also come to a better arrangement,” Shadow said as he began to stack his chips on the table.

Shadow put 100 aside, the ones he came in with. Now that they were all stacked up, it was a lot more than he had realized.

“These are my winnings.”

Shadow moved 200 over to his 100.

“I will gladly give you these back, not play any more card games, for time scavenging the ruins.”

Marjoram's laugh was half a scoff. “If you wish to throw this away, I gladly accept. 3 days. Only you. Nopony else goes with you. The other members of our society will be notified and not bother you. The north of here is our housing, so you have to go south.”

“More than acceptable,” Shadow grinned.

“Your three days starts in the morning,” Marjoram finalized.

Shadow departed back to his room. He had just done the biggest bet of the night. This had to pay off, and not be rumors that they didn’t bother to scavenge.

Shadow’s room was at the end of the hall. Somepony was waiting outside of it. Shadow readied himself for a fight. Shadow relaxed as he realized who it was. There was little chance it would turn to a physical fight. Especially the way she was casually leaning against the wall.

“What do you want?” Shadow asked Strawberry, who was not wearing her ‘work uniform.’

“You are not like the others,” Strawberry replied.

Shadow unlocked the door.

“In what way?”

Strawberry followed Shadow inside. He wasn’t concerned that she was going to try anything. He was firm in his foundation. He wouldn’t bend or break. Cardinal Spitfire was better than anything else Equestria had to offer.

“You haven’t touched alcohol, or chems,” Strawberry explained. “And then you easily won round after round. They had to restrict you from playing.”

“I can still play, just no cards,” Shadow said sorting through his bags. “But that doesn’t explain what you want.”

Strawberry hesitated, checking that the door was closed. “I’ve spent the past five years here dancing. I have made my fair share and lived. But I am an object here. And I do not like it. I am sick of it. You didn’t respond to me. You focused on the game. And you have skill.”

“I have never played Black Jack before tonight,” Shadow said sitting down on the couch. Strawberry sat down on a chair.

“I have had a hard time believing that,” Strawberry said nervously.

Shadow shrugged. He lowered his voice. “You are here for a reason.”

“I thought you were leaving in the morning,” She said standing up.

“Still not an answer,” Shadow prodded.

Strawberry stood there for a minute, shifting nervously.

“I… I want out.”

“And what is stopping you?”

“I can’t…” Strawberry said shaking her head. “I… how am I supposed to get from here, to someplace safe? I might have some caps, but I’m a performer. I’m not a fighter. If I step out of those gates, I can never come back and I will have to fend for myself. And I don’t even know where I am on a map, let alone how to navigate to someplace safe.”

Shadow slowly nodded.

“Well… I am not leaving in the morning. I used my winnings to leverage a trade. I get to scavenge the ruins for three days. Only me, but I can move fast.”

“You traded all of that,” She said shocked. “Why?”

“Because I believe I can make more scavenging than what I had made at the tables.”

“That was your goal the whole time?”

Shadow shrugged. “I didn’t think I would win so fast.”

Strawberry lowered her voice. “Take me with you, when you leave. Please. I can help carry some stuff. I don’t want this life anymore.”

Shadow took a moment to look at Strawberry. She was wearing a loose T-shirt and pants. The exact opposite of the attire Shadow had first seen her sporting. It was like she was trying to hide inside the clothes after being exposed so long.

“Alright,” Shadow nodded. “Any suggestions on where I should look to first to scavenge?”

“The upper mansions have been pulled clean to furnish this place. The northern section around here is where all of our homes are, but the southern villas have been left alone. Nopony heads down that way. It is a good trek compared to others around. The river is a decent deterrent too.”

Marjoram’s decree that he had to go to the south wasn’t a limiter. It was the truth.

“Thank you,” Shadow said, distracted as he began to plan. “I need to get to sleep in order to be up early.”

Strawberry softly sighed. “I need to sleep too. I get to get some peace tonight. I don’t have to work until tomorrow evening. But I don’t always get to just dance on a table.”

Strawberry departed and Shadow picked up Kifo Herixleta. He drew the blade and laid it on the table.

“This place is evil. Depravity in the attempt to forget the pain around them. Ponies using other ponies on various different levels. They are what is wrong with this world.”

“And you will do?”

“Once I use them to get the resources I need, I will kill them.”

“Is that all?”

“Every fucking one of them will pay with their blood. Even those who are here to play will die by Black Widow’s hoof.”

“And Strawberry?”

“She will be my distraction.”

“Distraction? Are you going soft? And for a mare who isn’t your wife?”

“No,” Shadow growled quietly. “No. But she will leave with me, to no longer be used and abused. She will see me only in a good light. She will bear witness to my kind personality. She will be spared so that she can be a testament to that and keep my cover as Black Widow secret.”

“I do not like it. Kill her like you killed Blooming Glass. She is in the wrong place to receive mercy. She has misled so many others. She is part of the problem.”

“No,” Shadow said firmly. “My mind is made up. She lives. I take pity on her life and chose to use her to my advantage. She will be like Sanctuary, my shield. She will serve a greater purpose she doesn’t know about. It is better this way.”

“But,” Shadow chuckled to himself. “I should rob them. Now, so that when I come back later, all that is taken is their blood, and Black Widow will have struck again without needing petty things like money.”

Kifo Herixleta was done talking. Shadow put the blade away and slid under the covers.

The morning brought nothing new. Shadow belted on his gear and quickly made his way down to the street to get a quick breakfast. He moved quickly through the ruins to the south. It wasn’t much of a river separating the south villas from the rest of the area. It was just a wide creek with no real depth to it.

Shadow marveled at the condition of the houses. After 200 years, they were well preserved. He entered a random house and walked around inside. The furniture was in good condition and it hadn’t been touched.

The place was too preserved. Shadow was seeing ponies and movements in the corners of his vision. They were the inhabitants that lived in places like this.

The bedroom was locked. It didn’t take much for Shadow to force the lock and open the door. The bed was rotting, two skeletons embracing each other were on it. One was a unicorn and the other an earth pony. They each had been shot in the head. A revolver was next to them. A double suicide after finding themselves in a world they could not handle.

Shadow pocketed the revolver and moved to the roll top desk. The cloud key opened it with ease and Shadow sifted through papers and other junk. A few bottle caps had been lazily tossed in a drawer rather than tossing them out.

Shadow moved to the dresser. Inside was junk. He almost missed the hidden jewelry drawer. Inside was several necklaces, several bracelets and plenty of pairs of earrings. All were made of silver and gold with good gemstones. How much they would fetch down here was an unknown, but they were worth it.

Shadow laid a diamond bracelet on the dresser and their matching set of earrings. These were antiques before the spells came and very beautiful. He set them in his other bag. They would be gifts for Cardinal Spitfire.

Shadow also recovered a silver compact with some old, useless, make up. They were joined by a silver brush and a silver mirror. This place had plenty of silver.

Shadow moved to another building. He found much the same. Papers and junk that no longer mattered. He did find a pocket watch. Shadow put it in his bags for personal use.

Shadow mentally marked larger items in his head. He could grab a toaster or alarm clock here and there, but he left the items like radios waiting for a later pick up if it was advantageous.

One house had perfectly preserved formal dresses of all styles. Shadow grabbed them and carefully laid them in a bag. He was hoping they would be able to be sold to the White Glove Society.

Shadow’s bags quickly filled up with random stuff. The question was going to be what it was worth.

It was still early, but Shadow took it all back to his room and laid it all out. Shadow made a quick choice to try and sell the clothes and the jewelry. He would get the best prices here.

Shadow headed to the lobby and inquired at the desk. She didn’t have a response, but she stepped over to a phone and called somepony. It wasn’t long before a Unicorn arrived to escort Shadow. He was sat down at a random table in the back. Marjoram arrived and sat down on the other side.

Shadow held back a smile and spoke calmly and plainly. “I assume that you could always use quality clothing that fits your tastes and styles.”

“Depends,” Marjoram stated. “What do you think fits our tastes?”

Shadow pulled out the purple ball gown he had placed on top. Marjoram tried to hide her reaction, but her eyes wanted it. Shadow pulled out a tuxedo. She couldn’t hide her desire.

“We do need clothes at times,” Marjoram admitted. “I am surprised you found clothing of good quality.”

“So am I,” Shadow said with a short nod. “All I know is I found some very well preserved garments.”

Marjoram low balled every purchase, but Shadow was happy to sell them for what he did. Few outside of here would want to pay the prices she was for something so pretty. Don’t bite the hoof that feeds you.

Marjoram was blind sided when Shadow began to pull out the jewelry he had found. She didn’t try to deny wanting it.

“I can’t barter for those,” Marjoram stated. “It needs to be appraised by one of our specialists.”

“Okay,” Shadow calmly replied. “Then, can I leave these pieces with you to have them appraised? We could meet tomorrow evening and discuss their value.”

“Okay,” Marjoram replied. “Deal.”

Shadow got up. He had been paid with chips. He headed to the exchange office and made it. He would rather have the caps. If he needed to run, the chips didn’t have value.”

Shadow stopped in the hallway and looked at an office. It was open, but quiet. Inside several mares in sexy outfits and nightwear were around a desk that had a stallion sitting at it. He spoke to one and then she departed with a room key in her mouth. He sent another one out to another room.

They were being sold for their bodies. It might provide them caps. It might keep them warm and safe. But was it worth their bodies? To be used as another wanted. Their safety and life was held out in front of them and they were chasing it. The price of that safety was too high.

Shadow walked up to the door.

“Come in,” The stallion beckoned. “What services can we provide?”

“What do you offer?” Shadow asked flatly.

“We can provide classy companions for the evening, or somepony for an hour or two. If you want it, we probably have somepony here able to accommodate.”

“Spend the whole night?” Shadow asked quietly.

He smiled warmly. “That is what some of our mares prefer. But you will pay.”

“What about a Strawberry? I saw her dancing yesterday while I was gambling.”

“She comes on shift in less than an hour. I can certainly send her to your room for the night.”

“How much?”

“Five hundred for the full night. 8 to 8. All yours.”

“Done,” Shadow grinned.

Shadow passed off the caps and headed out to eat. He had swung a good deal from the clothes and he was feeling generous. Her eyes the night before were stuck in his head. And he had just bought her for the evening like a piece of clothing or other object.

Shadow ate slowly. He was watching everything, trying to understand the flow. If he knew the flow, he could pinch it off and easily end it when he came back. When he wasn’t scavenging, he would be watching.

Shadow got back to his room and almost drew his pistol. He had forgotten that he had paid for Strawberry to be there. She was lounging on the bed with lingerie “on” and had been fixated on the display which Shadow had laid out of his pickings.

She gave him a sweet smile. It held every ounce of her willingness to serve in it. She was doing a good job for wanting out.

“Relax,” Shadow said as he walked over to the bed. “You can go change out of those ridiculous items.”

Strawberry was unsure. “I’m not here to serve you?”

“No,” Shadow replied. “I am married, happily, and don’t want any of those services.”

“Oh,” Strawberry said confused. She was relieved, but unsure how to proceed.

“Go get something comfortable on,” Shadow said. “Not that shit. What you had on last night was perfect.”

“If I get caught outside your room, that will spell bad news. Even if you want me too.”

Shadow picked up a bag and slipped out the simple dress he had found.

“This should fit you. It is a bit too big for me, so it should work well for you.”

Strawberry cocked her head. “You want to wear this? You swing that way?”

“No,” Shadow chuckled. “It… I scale things off of my size. But my wife would get a kick seeing me in it. We also are about the same size for clothing.”

Strawberry complied and tossed the dress on. She still was expecting to do more of the usual.

“I sold some high class clothes I found,” Shadow told her. “And jewelry is being appraised by them. That is why I could afford you this evening. Fucking stupid and barbaric. Slavery. But, what do you think of my haul otherwise?”

“A lot of nice stuff,” Strawberry said, relaxing a bit more. She was still on the bed.

“I believe it will sell for well... well enough to cover the costs.”

“What costs?”

“Fixing lighting in my residence in Trottingham. Its costing more than the place is worth, but I like to see clearly. Even if I don’t stay long, its worth it.”

“Your wife isn’t there?”

“No,” Shadow sighed. “I am here looking for something. Once I find it, I can go home and be with her again.”

“You said the lingerie was stupid,” Strawberry prodded. “You don’t like it?”

Shadow shrugged. “I never have seen anypony wearing it. I am not sure why you would.”

“Ponies find it sexy,” Strawberry explained. “I conceals just enough to entice the other to want to see more. Your wife never wore any?”

“No,” Shadow shrugged. “We never did. I didn’t know they made stuff like that. But that isn’t a surprise. I didn’t know a lot.”

“Well,” Strawberry shrugged. “Maybe you will enjoy it on her. Your mind is firm, eyes only for her.”

“That is what marriage means,” Shadow replied as he moved a few of his scavenged items around. “The two of you together. Always. Nothing gets in the way.”

Shadow looked at his haul, concerned. “I need more. And more variety. I know of some big items that should sell like a radio or two.”

“I will gladly carry a radio,” Strawberry stated. “I don’t know how much I can carry, but I will carry whatever I can.”

Shadow got up and began to check his ammo. It was organized perfectly in the bag. His books and seeds were inside as well. Everything was as condensed as possible.

“You have some nice guns,” Strawberry said. “At least from what I can tell. I really do not know anything. It is nice that they are mounted. Are they hard to shoot?”

“I takes some getting used to,” Shadow replied. He stopped and looked at Strawberry. “Have you always lived here?”

Strawberry nodded. “My mom was a performer first, and then courtesan. I am a product of that. I grew up here. I know nothing else. As soon as I was old enough, I began dancing on the floor. That was five years ago. They had classes to teach us how to dance and the other services.”

Shadow stood there in shock. It was horrific to think that foals were raised to do this. There was no choice. This was pure evil. Abusive. She was schooled to do this and only this. She grew up in a world that her body was to be used by others. How could she not hate her body? It betrayed her, causing her all that trauma.

“Well, Trottingham is nearby,” Shadow said, unsure what else to say. “You won’t have to worry about that life. It will all be your own choices. A decent job shouldn’t be hard to get.”

“What job do you have?”

“I just scavenge,” Shadow replied. “Once I find what I need, I get to go home. But for now, our survival depends on me being out here. Traveling and searching out the answer.”

“I hope that goes well and you find it soon.”

“Me too,” Shadow sighed.

Shadow began to pile up everything he had found into closer piles and prepare his bags for the next day.

“I need sleep,” Shadow said. “I’ll take the couch. You get well deserved rest on the bed.”

“Oh no,” Strawberry said. “I’ll take the couch. If they find out, they will kill me.”

“I am paying for you to stay here,” Shadow shot back. “I am paying for you to sleep in the bed. They didn’t say I had to be in bed with you.”

Strawberry didn’t know what to do. Shadow grabbed a blanket and hopped onto the couch, ending any further discussion.

“Look,” Shadow said settling in. “This couch is way better than most of my nights. So do not feel bad.”

Shadow was asleep almost instantly. Strawberry had trouble falling asleep. For once, she was feeling good, and had a real bed to sleep in with nothing expected of her. Even on her nights off she could be awoken up at any time to work.

Shadow was gone by the time Strawberry woke up. It was almost 8am, which meant she had to hurry to check in.

“Another satisfied customer?”

“Yes,” Strawberry panted. “Very satisfied.”

“We will see you this evening.”

“Right,” Strawberry nodded.

She left to head to her room. She shared it with five others. Two to a bed. It was cramped. They were tired, but she had actually gotten a good night sleep. Strawberry was unsure what to do. Typically, they were asleep or resting up for the next night. To be awake and active meant you could work.

Shadow spent the morning packing up antique china from a villa. A whole set for 12, 80 pieces. He couldn’t pass it up. He would take it back and use it himself. If things went well, he would take it back to the farm to be used.

Shadow ignored lunch and continued to sift through whole houses. Most of them had been cleaned out for appliances and such. Still, there were plenty of safes, most hidden, that were untouched. Typically they were filled with old papers and junk from the past that was worthless.

Shadow opened the safe. Inside was faded and cracked papers, and other junk. Useless. However, a key was taped to the inside of the door. Shadow pulled it off. It wasn’t a simple key. It had two blades, at right angles. Somewhere in this villa was a bigger, better safe.

Shadow began to pull down every picture. He moved from room to room. Shadow circled back around to the master bedroom. He entered the bathroom and finally found the prize. It was behind the full length mirror.

Shadow opened the door and stepped into the safe room. It had been untouched. The money put into had been wasted. However, it held exactly what Shadow needed. The room was stocked with weapons, ammo, food, and there was armor as well. Whoever had this made would have been ready for the wasteland, including their whole family. Now, it was all Shadow’s.

Shadow began to stack and pack everything up. He wasn’t done with packing everything up when he departed. He had to be back for the appraisal. Shadow locked it back up, keeping it for day three.

Shadow sat down at the table. Marjoram was already there with all the pieces laid out on a tray. Each piece had a slip of paper with the officer. Shadow picked up the first bracelet. 123 caps. It was a simple bracelet.

Shadow passed it to Marjoram and caps were given to him. They continued with each piece. Shadow didn’t sell them all. He set three on his side, refusing their low offers. At this rate, he didn’t need those sales.

When it was finished, Marjoram passed Shadow three more offers. One for each item he withheld.

“Your pockets are pretty deep,” Shadow said with a slight smile.

“Well, we do set a standard. And ponies come from all around for it. It costs us. More than what most would think.”

Shadow passed the pieces over to her. “I won’t let you walk all over me when it comes to trading, but I am getting what I need.”

“Yes, you happened upon one of the the few closets we hadn’t collected from. I trust the rest of your trip is fruitful.”

“I do believe so,” Shadow replied leaning back. “I have not found any more clothes or jewelry, but still, some unique pieces, like an 80 piece china set that was antique before the spells. But that goes home with me, not to sell. I have one more day to make my choices.”

“I had apprehensions about sending you out. But it proved useful from your findings. It benefited us greatly.”

“I am happy that there is somepony who I can sell them to, who appreciates them and can offer a fair price knowing their real value. But, I must head to bed.”

“If I do not see you again, I hope that you can either have some fun at our tables before you leave, or come back for pure pleasure.”

“We will see what fate dictates,” Shadow said with a slow tip of his head. “For now, I have my mission.”

Chapter 111 - Exit Strategy

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Shadow got back to his room and had to figure out how to handle the guns and equipment he had stuffed in his bags. It wasn’t organized properly for the long haul and he had to go back and retrieve the rest in the morning.

A knock came at the door and Shadow opened it.

“Strawberry?” Shadow asked confused.

“I am here to serve your wants and desires,” She said seductively. “Marjoram sends her thanks.”

Strawberry carefully pushed a confused Shadow back so she could enter. She shut the door and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“I hate having to act like that,” She panted. “Marjoram found out you paid for me last night, and that I said you were very satisfied and so they sent me to do it again. Happy customers are better for all.”

“Huh,” Shadow said, unsure what else to say. “Unexpected. I probably should have foreseen this type of, generosity. But I never frequent this scene. Or know anything about it.”

“Well,” Strawberry shrugged. “This stuff happens often for the high rollers. And I would be in trouble if I didn’t tell you that whatever you want, I am yours.” She was serious. “What ever you want.”

Shadow nodded politely. “Thank you. But your company will be all that I desire.”

Shadow walked over the chair and picked up the dress he had Strawberry wear last night. He handed it to her.

“Thanks,” Strawberry blushed. “It gives me dignity. Something very lacking here for us.”

“Everype,” Shadow caught himself and gave a cough to try and cover the mistake. “Everypony deserves dignity.”

Strawberry took the dress into the bathroom to change, rather than tossing it over the lingerie She found Shadow sorting the guns into new piles.

“What are you doing?” She asked. “I don’t know what I am looking at except for guns.”

“Preparing,” Shadow replied distracted. “I have one more day of picking, but I have zeroed in on what I want. I am preparing things for final packing and hauling to Trottingham. Do you have saddlebags?”

“No,” Strawberry said shaking her head. “I have never needed them. And saddlebags are not sexy.”

“Well, I will solve that,” Shadow replied. “I plan to leave the morning after tomorrow. An early start because of the weight. If you still are coming, I will need you there tomorrow morning.”

“You know, doing some gambling tonight would look good,” Strawberry said. “With me on your arm, even loosing some, would give them a better view. Somepony who came here for something else, but who found enjoyment. It might even get me sent here tomorrow night.”

Shadow looked directly at her. “You don’t know how to leave, do you?”

“No, I do not. I spent the day hiding during my off time. If they knew I was well rested, then I might be pulled in to work.”

“Well then,” Shadow smiled standing up. “I have a tux here in my bags. It fits, so I was saving it. Its nice to have fancy clothes that fit me that are not dresses. I will get dressed and we shall hit the floor for a bit.”

Strawberry gave a half laugh. Shadow changed in the bathroom. He had to be careful. He was entering a dangerous, relaxed zone where his wings might be exposed. If she found out, she would have to die. Shadow didn’t want to have to punish her for his mistake.

The suit was loose, but Shadow knew how to keep his wings tucked in tight. He put his stetson on and they departed with Strawberry close at his side. She was almost a natural at making the client feel at ease. Admired. Wanted.

She knew how to get Shadow to push his luck one extra time. In craps it paid off, at the roulette table Shadow took it too far, twice. It was a unique experience. He was still the most serious gambler in the casino, but he was willing to throw some of the caps away for the facade. If he could get Strawberry back the next night, things would work out very well.

Shadow slept on the couch again. They were in bed much later than he had planned, but he could handle it. Shadow woke up later than planned, as Strawberry left. The dress was neatly laid out on the bed. Shadow left it there, hopefully for the next night.

He was off at a quick pace back to the safe room. Shadow quickly opened it up and got to work. He was better prepared to gather it all. There were some heavy duty saddlebags inside to help carry the last bits Shadow wanted to carry. On the way out, Shadow did swing by and nab the radio he had spotted before. It had to fetch a decent price, especially as pristine as it was. It was a bit of a wobble balancing it all. Shadow would do better for tomorrow, when he had ample time to arrange it all.

“My my,” Marjoram said, surprising Shadow as he entered the casino.

The stuff wobbled and Shadow struggled to get it under control. He desperately wished he had his wings for balance.

“It’s disorganized,” Shadow panted. “I have a plan for carrying it all out.”

“By yourself? You are not the biggest pony.” Marjoram was poking at him.

“I will leave here with it all on my back,” Shadow grunted as he moved towards the elevator. “I have it all planned out.”

“I do not wish to see your stay end, but I do wish to see this.”

“Well,” Shadow said holding the elevator open. “I am going to get this up to the room. Maybe I will find time to hit the casino floor again. Last night was a blast. I have never done anything like it. Its always work work work for me.”

“I do so hope you find time to relax,” Marjoram said as the doors closed.

Marjoram trotted back to her office. A black Unicorn came in wearing a tux.

“How is the mark on our high roller?”

“Strawberry had a good effect on him last night, but she isn’t enough. I suggest we send him Mist. She is alluring and will draw him out of that work mode. I think we can draw him in for more than what we sold him. I think we can nab all the stuff he brought back.”

“Good, then send him Mist.”

“Just one thing. He sticks to things well. He might not like a change.”

“Can Strawberry handle playing with both?”

“She never has done it before. She is primarily a dancer. But I will pull her in, just in case. Make sure she is ready.”

Shadow was in the middle of his pile when a knock came at the door. He stumbled to his feet and opened the door. A light blue Unicorn mare with a blue tinted white mane was standing before him. She was in an elegant white evening gown. One Shadow had just sold them. She was shimmering.

Shadow tapped her horn, ending the enchantment. “And you are?”

“I am Mist,” She smiled. “I am here for your company. For your enjoyment. You are a hard working stallion and I like that. There is a lot more in you than one would think. I can get you back on the card tables. You just have to have me on your hip. All fun, no cost. Compliments of Marjoram for your services the other day.”

“Thanks, but no,” Shadow said closing the door.

Her hoof expertly blocked it without messing up her perfect hooficure.

“I’m all yours, compliments of the house. What is stopping you from wanting to have some real fun tonight?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “If I want company, I want Strawberry.”

“Oh dear,” She laughed a bit. “Strawberry is a fine lady, but I am the best. And only the best for such a good friend of Marjoram.”

Shadow grumbled a sigh. “Best, in the case, is relative. What is best in my eyes, isn’t best in others. I have different tastes.”

“Well,” Mist said fanning herself with her hoof. “I will inform Marjoram of your desires. But, meet me in the bistro for dinner at 6. My treat. I will see what I can do about Strawberry.”

Mist turned and left. Shadow closed the door and made sure it was locked. The game had changed. He had a lot of caps, much more than he had when he bartered for the right to scavenge. And something more important, he had Strawberry’s attention. And she wanted out. Or at least that is what she said.

Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta and focused on slowly icing the blade over. Making the ice form in the patterns he wanted it to.

“What do you think?” Shadow asked Kifo Herixleta. “Who is playing me? What is the game?”

“The game is get as much out of you as possible. Of that, I am sure. Your gambit to get Strawberry back tonight worked too much. They see your value, and not just your caps. Everything. You have amassed a whole caravan’s amount and they want it. You did the pickings for them. Marjoram was definitely waiting for you to come back today.”

“And if I can’t get Strawberry?”

“Loose. And loose interest in playing, even the cards. Then quit for the evening and don’t let her in. If they do not send Strawberry to you tonight, wait another. Try playing. See if you can get her back. If not, then something is wrong on her end and leave. Come back for her. Her desire to leave would have been discovered and they won’t let her out of their sight.”

“You still want to rob them, correct?”

“If I can. But I have a lot to carry.”

“You will figure that out. Carry me to dinner. Remove my coverings and flash me. It will drive them nuts.”

Shadow began to unwrap Kifo Herixleta. He sheathed the blade and uncovered the rest. Shadow had to move quick to balance everything properly. Tonight would not mean rest if things went as he hoped.

Shadow dressed up and slipped the gilded blade on. He headed down to dinner with the Stetson on his head. The host knew him immediately and led him past the waiting ponies to the table where Mist was. She smiled at Shadow as he sat down.

“I spoke with my boss,” Mist smiled coyly. “And they were going to talk with Strawberry. But she is more the performer. Sure, she can handle herself in bed to your expectations, but she isn’t somepony who can take you to new heights under the covers. I am on reserve for the very best.”

Shadow decided to shoot straight. “And if I wasn’t doing anything with her outside of talking and enjoying her company? For who she is?”

Mist was taken aback, but recovered. “Now, why would somepony like you do that? We are here to please you. We can do a lot more than talk. And from her accounts, you did more than that. I can match her skill and double it.”

“You don’t like to listen,” Shadow stated. “That you can’t match.”

“Well,” She said fluttering her eyelids. “If you actually want to talk, I will listen. But so far, all I have gotten out of you is confusion.”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Fine. Do you see this blade?” Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta and set it on the table. “See how intricate it is and them gemstones inlaid into the steel itself? Do you know how somepony gets something like this?”

“Uhh,” Mist stammered.

“You don’t want to know,” Shadow said in a low voice.

“I am here to listed,” Mist grinned, not backing down. She was staring deep into Shadow’s eyes, trying to connect and rope him in.

“Alright then. Listen to the tale of… Mwokozi. I was traveling with some friends when we stumbled upon him. And worse, his hoard. A Zebra general turned Ghoul by their own magic with a full army locked away inside with him.”

Shadow got excited, and put all he could into scaring her. “They were trapped until we accidentally freed them. Only his mind was intact. But that was all. Things were falling off. I can see you don’t know much about Ghouls. Nasty, sticky beings where the flesh is rotting on them, but doesn’t quite fall off. If their mind is good, its like a normal pony, but Ferals only know the lust for flesh and blood.

“They shamble around, always searching, never sleeping. We opened their hiding place and found ourselves surrounded. It wasn’t long before we were hacking them apart with our little combat knives. Our ammo wasn’t infinite. It was beyond messy. I had to change clothes, into Zebra gear for some relief and new protection. They charge and bite and try and transfer their disease.”

Mist pulled back without thinking. Shadow smirked. She was right where he wanted her.

“She is failing,” The Black Unicorn in the tux told Strawberry. “It’s simple. Keep him happy. Get him to play, as much as possible. But more like last night. Make him feel like luck is on his side by your presence. When it comes to the pairs, let Mist lead. She won’t have a problem leading it. Just trust her. Do this right, and it might get you off the tables into easier work like this.”

Strawberry repeated the basics of it. “Just back her up. Let her run the show, just keep him happy. And, keep him playing.”

She received a silent nod of approval and headed over to the table. She was wearing a soft green dress with blue stars and trim. Strawberry sat down next to Shadow and gave a quick wink.

“Sorry I was late. It took me longer than expected to get ready. I am not used to being the evening companion, like Mist is. Which is why, you get a special treat. Both of us. Marjoram wants to let you know how thankful she is that you recovered those items.”

Shadow nodded in understanding. “Well, I was just regaling Mist with the story of how I got my sword.”

Strawberry raised an eyebrow. “Killed a ridiculous amount of ponies for it?”

“Zebra Ghouls,” Shadow corrected. “Very messy. Very tough. The fight against the general was horrible. I pounded his head into the floor. He broke my leg and almost me.”

“Zebra is a new one,” Strawberry said, trying to gain an air of sophistication.

“Not for me,” Shadow replied. “But an army of Ghouls is one thing. I had companions with me then. I have seen a lot more scary and concerning things on my travels.”

“Like Black Widow?” A stallion asked from the next table over. “My wife and I are here because we had to get out of Trottingham. She killed a pony in the market. Again!”

“Again?” Shadow asked. “I’ve heard of Black Widow, but only once on the radio. DJ Pon3 said something about the name. What is going on?”

“She killed somepony two days ago,” The mare said. “First one was the shop keeper, then a scavenger. We saw both. The city guards are afraid of her.”

“I was preparing for this trip when the shop keeper was killed,” Shadow said, concerned. “But somepony else spells bad news. What was the reason for the second one?”

“A murder,” The stallion replied. “Years ago though. Few even remember it. Not until it was brought to light again. It still is debated if he did it, but Black Widow passed judgment.”

“And who is Black Widow?” Strawberry asked.

“A shadow,” The stallion said. “She claims to deal justice, but she kills raiders and ponies alike. With or without proof. She has done good, but many ponies are concerned about her claims to purge and unify the land. They wonder who will have to fall. She hasn’t laid any guidelines out yet, only bodies.”

“What if she comes here,” Strawberry said without thinking.

The pair laughed. “There are ponies here, she couldn’t. The guards are well trained. Ponyville was fractured, a bunch of small raider gangs. They are unified here. A killing or two in public in Trottingham isn’t the same as taking on the whole city.”

Shadow sat back, thinking. He looked at the blade laying on the table. Somepony was a copycat. And that had to be dealt with to the highest degree. And publicly. Equestria had to know there was only one Black Widow. There was only one who could mend the rift torn by the war. And it wasn’t some Earth Pony or a Unicorn. Pegasi tore it and a pegasi had to mend it.

Both Strawberry and Mist was disturbed and didn’t feel secure. Mist was able to put it aside and swing back into character.

“Well, murderous pony or not, you are here and you might as well have fun while you can. You can’t fix that problem. We all just need to relax and enjoy ourselves. The White Glove Society is here to provide that rest and relaxation, as well as unparalleled fun.”

Shadow slipped Kifo Herixleta off the table and into it’s sheath with a smile. “Yes. All that is outside doesn’t matter. Enjoy what we have right here, right in front of us.”

Strawberry hugged Shadow for comfort. It was broken as their dishes were brought for them. They hadn’t placed an order, but Marjoram was going to give everything she could to keep him happy and distracted. It was the best food they could provide.

After dinner, they headed out onto the casino floor. It was a lot more crowded than before, probably a direct result of the last killing. Shadow stepped over to a roulette table. He put 25 chips on Red 5. The wheel spun and the ball was let loose.

Red 23.

Shadow exchanged 300 more caps and put 25 on Red 5. They waited anxiously for the ball to stop.

Red 5.

Shadow pulled his winnings to the side and left the same 25 on Red 5. He gave a nod to the dealer. She smiled back and spun the wheel. The ball went round and round and skipped to it’s stop.

Red 5.

“Again?” Strawberry asked as Shadow kept the 25 on Red 5.

Shadow nodded.

Black 31.

Shadow placed 25 more chips on Red 5.

00.

Shadow quietly shook his head and picked up his chips.

“To somewhere that makes sense!” Shadow announced.

They wondered a bit and Shadow stopped at the craps table. It was crowded, but ponies noticed his party and that he had money. They wanted to see a high roller play and Shadow obliged.

Shadow tossed the dice, resulting in his come out roll of 5.

“That five is certainly your friend,” Mist whispered in his ear. “Ride it.”

Shadow had eight throws before the dice betrayed him with a 7. The dice stayed with Shadow and he upped his bets. The throw was a 7, ending the round. He tossed another 5 and it was game on. Two tosses later he rolled another 7, ending that round. He lost a good deal on the last throw.

Mist enticed Shadow to play black jack. It turned favorable, fast. It was a pretty quiet game, but Mist was right there, maintaining light contact with Shadow. He definitely felt the pressure to show off.

“Not bad,” Mist smiled after another successful win. “But now that you have some real caps. You should try Baccarat. It’s another card game, similar to black jack, but in a private room. Its a high stakes game. Lots of fun.”

Shadow thought for a moment. It was getting late. At this point, he wasn’t trying to win caps, only look like he was having a good time. There was a lot to do to get ready to leave. Perhaps moving to the suggested game would get Mist to leave.

After learning the rules, Shadow set his bet and they began. It was calculated, with no real edge to either the house or the player. Shadow lost rounds and won rounds. A high roller could wreck or make a casino bank in a few rounds.

The banker drew the last card, winning the round and stripping Shadow of most of his winnings.

“Well,” Shadow said standing. “I think that is enough for the evening. I do not have enough caps to continue at this table, and it is getting late.”

“A wise move,” Mist cooed. “A wise player is so very hard to find. But now, a different type of game.”

Shadow rolled with the flirting and walked out, Strawberry and Mist in tow. They headed to his room. There was no shaking Mist. She had only grown more attached as the evening wore on.

As the door closed behind them, Shadow found Mist’s muzzle in his ear. “I am going to go freshen up. Just give me a minute. Strawberry needs to as well.”

Strawberry smiled sheepishly at Shadow, but didn’t head into the bathroom quite yet.

“We have to halt this,” Shadow whispered to her.

“Can you handle cuffs, or ties? Flip it so you tie her?”

“What?” Shadow asked. “Yes I can, but what?”

“Bondage play. Do you not know what that is?”

“No,” Shadow said shaking his head. “What?”

“When you tie the other down so they have no control and…”

“Why?” Shadow whispered back very confused.

“Because it’s sexy. A kink?”

“A what? Never mind. No. Cardinal Spitfire always melts into a pool of bliss. It would end bad. But what about keeping her out? Chems?”

“No,” Strawberry said shaking her head. “She uses. Both Med-X and Mint-als. Fairly heavy too. Drugs are off the table unless you want to overdose her.”

Shadow nodded. “Then we do it the hard way.”

Strawberry headed to the bathroom to freshen up. “Mist, he has never tried bondage.”

Mist purred. “A marvelous suggestion.”

Mist came out and walked to a picture on the wall. She pulled on it, allowing it to swing out from the wall. Behind it was a small safe. Her horn glowed and the safe cracked open. She pulled out a velvet bag from inside and closed it all back up.

Mist smiled mischievously. “The tools we need for a successful evening. Only special companions know where these are hidden, and more importantly, how to open them.”

Mist opened the bag and pulled out several pairs of fluffy hoofcuffs.

“These are the staples of the art. But I do not like their unyielding attitude. No, I prefer something like these silk ropes. Soft and smooth, but they won’t easily leave a mark. And then you have this, its a gag you place in the other’s mouth. It is oh so much fun to gag the other and have such control. Even better when you lose that control. This we won’t need, a Unicorn Horn Gag, to help block the use of magic. Strawberry is an Earth Pony.”

Shadow silently nodded as he was getting more and more anxious. They couldn’t find out he had wings.

Strawberry came out of the bathroom after freshening up. She had removed the dress and was in different lingerie than she had wore the previous evenings. Much nicer lingerie.

“On the bed dear,” Mist said to Strawberry.

Strawberry complied and Mist led Shadow into climbing on top of her. Mist gagged Strawberry first. Shadow took a rope from Mist. He looked down at Strawberry. She was doing what she could to keep calm, but she was not into this. She was terrified of being tied down.

Shadow followed after Mist in how to tie off the hoof snugly. He watched as she tied it off at special points on the headboard. Instead of leaning forward and tying his off, Shadow swiped the cuffs and had them clamped down on Mist’s hind hooves.

Mist turned around, unsure what was happened. Shadow shoved her off the edge of the bed and dove on her. The horn gag was in place before she could use her magic and Shadow drove a savage punch into Mist’s face. She would soon have a black eye from the hit. Mist couldn’t stop Shadow from restricting her airways and soon was passed out.

Shadow popped up on the bed and found himself staring at a very concerned Strawberry. She had tears in her eyes. Shadow pulled off the gag first and then undid her hoof. Mist was very good at securing things.

As Strawberry undid the binds on each hood, Shadow strapped the gag onto Mist. He began to truss up Mist so she couldn’t move. He wasn’t taking any chances. Her hooves were paired off for cuffing, and then Shadow cross cuffed them. For extra assurance, the cords were used to put her in a tight hold. It was tough, but Shadow soon had her pulled into the bathroom and into the shower.

He left her there, blind, gagged, cuffed and tied. The staff would find her in the morning.

“What is the plan?” Strawberry shakily asked Shadow.

“The window,” Shadow stated. “Get you out through it and then over the wall. To met up with me in the morning.”

“Outside!” Strawberry protested.

“It isn’t that bad,” Shadow reassured her. “And you can take a pistol to use for defense. But nothing will happen. It is calm around here.”

“What about Black Widow?”

“Black Widow isn’t going to do anything. She is just one pony and has other problems to deal with. Your chances are just as good out there as they are in here. Do you want out or not?”

Strawberry tried to control her breathing. She eventually had to suck air in and let it out into a single “Yes.”

Shadow forced open the window and poked his head out. It was a lot further down than he expected. Strawberry would never make it. Shadow stepped back in and trotted over to his gear.

Shadow pulled out the rope he was planning on using to keep the extra stuff in place. He cleaned off the coffee table and dragged it to the window. He tied the rope off on it and flipped it up against the window for his anchor.

“Climb on,” Shadow ordered.

“What?” Strawberry asked, terrified.

“Just hold onto my neck,” Shadow said, focusing on the way down. “I can get us down. Trust me. You have so far.”

Strawberry took a few deep breathes and walked over to Shadow. She got up on the ledge with him and grabbed on tight. Shadow carefully learned back and out, lowering them down slowly. He had good control. Strawberry was softly ‘eeeeking’ in his ear in fear as she held on.

The had to drop the last ten feet. Strawberry had a rough landing. Shadow rolled on his with practiced ease and he immediately began to move them out into the ruins. As they circled around, they had to avoid some random groups, but it went easily. It was just past midnight.

Shadow found a part of the wall that was close to debris and got them up and over it. Strawberry was shaking. She had never done anything like this. She had never snuck off, let alone left the Lux. Shadow led her a bit further in and sat her down in a hidden alcove in the ruins.

“Just stay here. I will get you by noon. You can defend here easily, but it won’t come to that.”

Shadow gave her the pistol and departed. He sprinted back to the wall. Despite his size, he easily vaulted up to the top and over. The rope hadn’t been discovered and Shadow climbed back up into his room.

Shadow sealed it all up and then checked on Mist. She was awake. When she heard him she thrashed as much as she could and screamed into the gag.

“Sorry Mist,” Shadow said. “I don’t have sex with anypony other than my wife. Strawberry understood and respected that. I had fun with her. Just with her company and talking. I didn’t plan on your joining in and have no idea what else to do.”

Shadow cut off her oxygen again to ease her time tied up.

It didn’t take long for Shadow to finalize his organization. The easy part was done. He not only had full bags, but plenty of loose gear that had to be tied down. Some of it would be passed off to Strawberry, but Shadow couldn’t rely on her to be able to carry much.

There was no time to rob the casino. Shadow would have to come back to specifically do that. For now, he had to make his escape.

Shadow stacked the bags on the bed. He expertly tipped them off, one by one, onto his back to carry. The radio was the last thing. It was jammed in between two bags and wouldn’t be moving. Shadow pushed out of the door and headed to the elevator.

Shadow tossed a bag with more than enough caps for the room to the front desk. As Shadow neared the front doors, Marjoram intersected him.

“My my,” She smiled at him. “You certainly did a lot the past few days. And you are going to carry it all back yourself?”

“It’s not far,” Shadow lightly grunted. “I can handle it. I’ve done worse, oddly.”

“You are just so small,” Marjoram replied. “But enough about stature. Did you have a good time?”

“Yes,” Shadow grunted with a smile. “I did. I didn’t get any sleep last night. But it was very enjoyable. I thank you for helping me get out of my overly focused mind for a bit to unwind. The extra thanks were appreciated. More than you can know. Now I have to get back to my job. Trottingham won’t move itself to me.”

Shadow trudged out the front door and down the street. He was shaking and moving awkwardly on purpose. He could steadily handle the weight and it’s distribution. He just needed to throw them off the trail at the start.

When they found Mist, they would come after him until they got to Trottingham. They would overrun Shadow easily. And he also had Strawberry to consider. Shadow would swing them south for a day before cutting west.

The gate was kindly opened and they wished him good luck and too see him back soon. Shadow continued as he was for a while until he was definitely out of their sight. Shadow made his way as quickly and covertly as possible to Strawberry.

“Strawberry, its safe to come out,” Shadow softly called.

Shadow heard her move and then stop right before coming out of the crevice. She looked around first before crawling out for sure.

“What can I carry?”

“The set of bags on the rear that are not tied down. And then the radio that is wedged in there. That will be all. Also, those bags have that dress so you can wear something decent.”

“That’s it?” Strawberry asked pulling off the first set of bags. Shadow head them hit the ground with an ‘umf’.

“It’s a lot harder than you would think,” Shadow replied.

“Yeah,” Strawberry grunted. “But I can handle it.”

They set off at the best pace they could make. Shadow didn’t explain his planned path to Strawberry. She didn’t care so long as they made it to Trottingham safely.

As the light went down, Shadow began to look for a good spot to spend the night.

“Do we have to?” Strawberry asked. “I would prefer to move quickly to the city without stops. It isn’t much further, right?”

Shadow let out a sigh. “No, it isn’t too far. We could probably make it by dawn. It shouldn’t carry too much risk.”

They cut a hard turn west and Shadow did what he could to pick up the pace. He had moved into his sleep deprived zone and was feeling it. They came to the city well after dawn. The guards gave Shadow a funny look, but no hassle.

“There you are!” Red Tip called out as they reached the marketplace. He trotted over to them. “Please tell me you got some smaller weapons. I’m sold out of my practical weapons. Black Widow is making ponies nervous and nervous ponies by guns.”

“I got some good ones,” Shadow panted. “I have to drop stuff off at my place first though.”

“Come on,” Red Tip said anxiously. “I will help you unpack.” Red Tip glanced at Strawberry’s load. “Both of you. I want to open again.”

“I caught word of another kill, after Gambit.”

“She killed a third yesterday. Wait? Is that a radio?”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “It is a radio. I already have one, so I hope it sells well.”

“Radios do sell well. Even if they do not work.”

They got to the room and Red Tip unlocked it for Shadow.

“Strawberry doesn’t need to unpack,” Shadow said as they entered. “Her bags are pure ammo. Shit I don’t need.”

Red Tip got Shadow’s gear off of him and they quickly unpacked them. Shadow was prepared with his organization. Most bags were either weapons or not. Red Tip shoulder a set of bags and they rushed out.

Ponies were outside of the shop, waiting to get in.

“Let me get through!” Red Tip ordered. “Now, let me buy these guns and organize it before you come in!”

“Let’s make this simple,” Shadow said as the door closed behind them. “40/60 split of the total profits.”

“Deal,” Red Tips said without needing to think about it.

They unpacked the weapons and laid them down on the counter. Pistols were grouped together at one end, the small arms in the middle, and ammo was hastily stacked at the end.

“You,” Red Tip said pointing at Strawberry. “10% cut to you to keep them in control, and no more than 5 in here at a time.”

“Okay,” Strawberry nodded unsure.

“Puff out your chest and present them with a hard wall!” Red Tip said, trying to put a fire in her heart.

“Right!” Strawberry replied stronger

Strawberry took a deep breath before opening the door. She held the surge back well. There was no way to get control of the crowd for real order into a single line. But she kept them at bay as only the five were making their purchases.

Shadow and Red Tip moved customers through as fast as possible, but most were not just looking to get their hooves on a gun. They ‘needed’ the ‘right’ gun to protect themselves from Black Widow. Since there was no right answer to that, it took longer than they wanted and they were left with headaches as they tried to explain impossibilities to customers.

When they were out of guns, Red Tip tried to get things closed down; but the ponies still wanted in. They didn’t trust him. Shadow came out with Kifo Herixleta blazing in his mouth. A few slices with it and they were all backing up.

“Listen up!” Shadow called. “All of the normal firearms are taken. Yes, there are some heavy weapons inside, and long range ones. But nothing for self defense is left. If you still want to browse, they are there. But they won’t make a good defense, even in a pinch.”

The crowd dispersed. A few hung around to check out the firearms left. They left quickly. Shadow flipped the sign outside to closed and locked the door. Red Tip was counting the caps and Strawberry was examining the battle saddle Red Tip had. It didn’t have any guns mounted on it.

A heavy knock came on the door.

“We are closed!” Red Tip called out.

“We are looking for ammo! This is Scribe Wheatly!”

At Red Tip’s nod, Strawberry opened the door for them.

“Forgive us,” Scribe Wheatly said stepping in with two other dressed like him. “We were planning on coming for a few days, but we didn’t know you were getting rushed.”

“What can I do for you?” Red Tip asked, still counting.

“I understand you have armor piercing rounds?”

“Not anymore,” Red Tip said stopping mid count. “I sold them. Others were interested and your fellow Steel Rangers never wanted them. Why?”

“It’s just with this character out there, we were thinking it was best if we could make sure the round penetrated any hidden armor.”

“I don’t think she is using armor. Not from the first account anyway. Small, tights, big cape, no. No armor. The face may have been a bigger mask, but that is all that was armored. Speed and agility was what Black Widow wishes. She will bleed just like any other pony when you shoot her. The real questions is, can you hit her?”

“What do you have to increase our chances?”

“Nothing,” Red Tip shrugged. “Nothing you do not already have. Unless, has she attacked you?”

“No, not yet.”

“Then, I do not think you need to worry. Your skills are top notch, your weapons are legendary, you just need to stay as vigilant as you claim you already are.”

Scribe Wheatly nodded and they departed. Red Tip went back to counting their sales.

“Well,” Red Tip said. “You brought back a good amount, but small. We didn’t inflate the prices too high. Yet still, we still came off at 5200 caps.”

“The ammo sales did most of that,” Shadow added.

“Yes, it did,” Red Tip smiled. “And you still have more to sell me.”

Shadow chuckled as Red Tip sorted their portions out. 2080 caps to Shadow, 520 caps to Strawberry and 2600 to Red Tip. A very good haul for Strawberry’s first day in Trottingham.

“And it is still early,” Shadow said as he slipped his caps into his bags.

“Now, I know I was a bit rude before,” Red Tip smiled at Strawberry. “But I never caught your name.”

“My name is…” Strawberry hesitated. “Sonata Concert. That is my real name. No pony knows that name anymore.”

“Well, it was a pleasure doing business with you Sonata Concert. You were a big help.”

“Lets get you a place to stay for the night,” Shadow followed up. “Its been a long road to get here.”

“Thanks,” Strawberry smiled. As the door closed behind them, Strawberry spoke up to explain her name change. “They decided Sonata or Concert wasn’t a good work name. They chose Strawberry because of my coat. I didn’t have a choice. It was what they called me. My mother named me Sonata Concert. She died shortly after I was born. A drug overdose.

“I never knew why I was named that. But I know she used to sing to me in a sweet, pristine voice. Just for me.

“But, you can call me Strawberry, you know, if you want. I don’t recall your name. Its easiest if we don’t get attached to somepony by a name.”

“Mtoaji,” Shadow replied. “It’s Mtoaji. I don’t recall telling you mine either.”

“I would have remembered that. It sounds almost like that name Mwokozi. At least it has the same feel.”

“I am not from around here,” Shadow replied. “I am very far from home. I will get back when I have what I need. But for now, we need to get you a place to stay and then a solid job. A real job.”

A room was easy to find. Trottingham was loosing it’s visitors due to the threat of Black Widow. Strawberry would begin to look for a job in the morning. Shadow called it an early night. He would begin to sell the rest of the stuff in the morning when he had a clearer head.

Chapter 112 - The Real Black Widow

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Shadow woke up early. He had stuff to get done. The most pressing concern was not something Shadow could directly deal with. He had gear to sell and a renovation to finish paying. Shadow groaned as the heavy bags once again pressed against his body, straining his muscles. He had to make sure he could become Black Widow at any moment, which meant carrying more stuff.

It didn’t take long for Shadow to make his trades. Shadow wasn’t picky. Except for the radio. That trade, Shadow shopped around. And the others knew he was looking for the best sale. The household goods store by Quality Hardware was the winner of that prize at 500 caps. They would make double that in the sale.

Shadow was about to get lunch when a commotion began in the center of the market. He knew it what it was. Shadow dashed to the back into an alley and tossed his bags in a trashcan and flipped into his Black Widow outfit. Getting onto a roof took three vaults, but he made it.

Shadow used the Zebra cloak to get in close and look over the scene. A poor copy was below and the target was obvious as the citizens singled him out. Mixes of fabrics, the wrong sized hat and the hoof wraps were missing. Shadow couldn’t see her face to evaluate that.

She wasn’t even going to try and give a sentence as she drew a pistol with magic. Shadow flipped the Zebra cloak off and dropped the two stories down. The cape flowed out and made a brilliant show as he came down. Shadow expertly rolled into a jump and landed right next to her. She was a solid hoof taller than he was.

“NOPONY IS ME BUT ME!” Shadow announced. “THERE IS ONLY ONE PUNISHMENT FOR THIS CRIME. FOR STEALING MY NAME! FOR ACTING ON MY BEHALF WITHOUT MY PERMISSION!”

The combat knife was out faster than light and her neck was slit open in one swift move. She slumped to the ground. Shadow pulled off the hood with relative ease. A pink head and springing mane popped out.

Shadow’s glowing red eyes shot straight to the stallion she had been singling out. He pointed his hoof at him. “WHO IS SHE!”

He gulped. “Sweetie Dash.”

Shadow took a few steps forward. “WHO IS SHE TO YOU!”

“We were together for a while. But its been over for months.”

Shadow continued slowly closing the difference.

“WHY WOULD SHE COME FOR YOU, DISGUISED AS ME!”

“She… I… might of hit her a few times. But she ended it! She was smart.”

The city guards stepped forward, blocking him from retreat and sealing in the stallion. Shadow was right by him at that point.

“YOU HIT HER?” Shadow declared. “NO CAUSE?”

“Ou… ou… out of anger. The drink, you know. I let it get to me. I’m sorry! But it it it is that enough to justify killing me?”

He was flanked by the guards now.

“WE!” Fiery Blitz declared. “WILL TAKE OF IT FROM HERE.”

Shadow tilted his head. “A HIT? WHAT IS A HIT?”

He was panicking and sweating. “It wasn’t that bad. Just some minor bruising! It haphaphapened like three times. It was wrong but I only struck her once. Not repeatedly. Not a beating.”

“A HIT FOR A HIT THEN?” Shadow asked. “IS THAT FAIR?”

The stallion nodded and the guards were unsure what to do.

“LIKE THIS?” Shadow asked as he threw a quick jab to his throat.

The stallion staggered into a guard and the others took aim at Shadow, prancing anxiously. The stallion was pushed back onto his feet but he collapsed, clutching his collapsed throat. The guards backed down as they watched him suffocate. They were afraid to try and bring Black Widow in.

“TWO OTHERS CONCEALED THEMSELVES AS ME!” Shadow announced. “TWO OTHERS TOOK THE LAW INTO THEIR OWN HOOVES, WHERE IT DOES NOT BELONG! TWO OTHERS SPILLED BLOOD THAT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE SPILLED! THEY HID BEHIND ME, IN MY SHADOW TO COVER THEIR CRIMES! I COME TO THIS CITY TO RIGHT A WRONG, LEFT TO DEAL WITH OTHERS LIKE BLACK JACKPOT, AND THIS IS WHAT YOU ALLOW TO HAPPEN? THEY WILL BE MADE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR CHOICE! AND IT WILL BE A PUBLIC SENTENCING!

“NO UNICORN, NO EARTH PONY, CAN DO THE JOB I WAS BORN TO DO. I ALONE AM TO BRING THE SEPARATION TO AN END, AS FORETOLD BY THE SEERS LONG AGO. BY EQUESTRIA’S REQUEST! I DID NOT CHOSE THIS LIFE!

“EQUESTRIA WILL BE UNITED ONCE IT IS BURNED THROUGH THE FIRE THAT WILL TEST IT. THE PROBLEMS WILL BE CONSUMED, FOR THEY DO NOT HAVE A PLACE IN THE FUTURE. THEIR TIME TO REIGN THROUGH TERROR IS OVER. THEIR TIME TO PLAY IS DONE. THE WASTELAND IS CHANGING. BUT IT MUST COME AT THE COST OF BLOOD. THE BLOOD OF THOSE WHO WILL HOLD IT BACK.”

Shadow put his unblinking glowing eyes right at Fiery Blitz. Fiery Blitz gulped as he stared back at them, unable to look away.

Shadow vaulted high, clear over Fiery Blitz and the other, not in a threatening way. His cloak billowed out, catching in the air, and making Shadow look twice as big as he was. They would remember that size, not standing right next to him. They instinctively ducked, the other guards raised there rifles but the crowd prevented them from taking any shots. They gave chase.

Shadow wound his way through the crowd quickly, but not plowing anypony over. The guards were ordering him to stop as they fought to get to him. He led them to towards Quality Hardware and the city exit, where Shadow ducked away and cloaked himself.

He led them the exact opposite way where he had come in. Getting back to his stuff was easy. Shadow got it up to a roof top to make the quick change out of it in relative privacy.

Now he had to go back to being normal. Shadow slipped down and then it was easy to duck into a shop and blend back in. The marketplace was a buzz as the guards tried to clean up both bodies and keep the area secure and with some semblance of control.

Shadow finally sat down for food, at the start of the marketplace proper, near the entrance of the city. He looked at the basic menu. It was all prewar shit. But it was better than nothing. His cupboards were bare and he would only be able to stock it with war shit because it would last in between his travels.

“Hi, I am Ocean Daisy and this is Sonata Concert, she is training,”

“Hey!” Strawberry replied, actually happy. She was glowing.

“Well,” Shadow smiled at her. “Its barely past noon and you have a job.”

Strawberry smiled proudly. “With everypony skipping town, a spot opened up. And I am not leaving unless this place burns to the ground. I have nothing to regret and don’t fear Black Widow.”

“Good,” Shadow nodded. “I am glad that things are making such a fast turn around. It is always good to know how my friends are doing.”

“This job should do nicely for me in the years to come,” Strawberry replied. “And I know I have barely been here a day, but I am already finding this place to be home. But I know you have to be hungry.”

“These Dandy Buck Apples and a serving of the instamash stuff,” Shadow sighed. He missed his home cooked meals. He missed cooking meals in Rosemary.

“A drink?” Ocean Daisy asked.

“Sparkle Cole,” Shadow replied. “Make it two.”

Shadow ate lunch, watching the crowd calm down. He couldn’t afford that luxury. Somewhere two more ponies had tried to use Black Widow to mask their crimes. And they would be brought to justice. He had to figure that out somehow. And he had nopony he could ask for inside knowledge.

As if on cue, the chair across from him was occupied.

“Red Tip,” Shadow said, almost jumping in surprised.

“Lost in your thoughts?” Red Tip asked.

“Yes,” Shadow said with a nod. “Black Widow struck again. The marketplace is in an odd balance between fear and awe. Makes me wonder where I fit into it all.”

“I heard about this last one,” Red Tip said.

Strawberry came over and Red Tip ordered a Sparkle Cola for himself and another for Shadow.

“I am out of guns and have closed down for a few days. To get a little vacation. Maybe not out of the city. But at least relax outside my shop. Doing something. Did you enjoy the Lux?”

Shadow shrugged. “I had some fun. You saw some of the pickings I got. I won big the first night and bartered it for scavenging rights. I won. And I got to sell them some high class jewelry I found and some outfits. I also found an untouched safe room. That is where the bulk of my haul came from. I did play some. Things got complicated, but I didn’t loose more than I started with.”

“And her?” Red Tip asked.

“Wanted out,” Shadow shrugged. “So I helped her out. But keep that sealed tight.”

“They won’t like that,” Red Tip nodded. “And I don’t like them either.”

Shadow chuckled. “I won’t be welcomed back. We will leave it there.”

They sat in silence for a while, enjoying their Sparkle Cola.

“So,” Shadow sighed. “While I was gone, two others were killed by false Black Widows?”

“Apparently,” Red Tip shrugged. “An old murder suspect. And somepony else that didn’t ring a bell.”

“Murder suspect?”

“Ten years ago. Nothing was proven that he did it, but the wife was very vocal and almost hostile for a while about it. Claiming injustice and calling the city guards crooks and ball less. Crazy type, but she had just had her husband brutally murdered, and to be fair, the city guards didn’t handle the whole thing the best. Especially her emotionally. They were callous.”

Shadow nodded his head. “Tragic. Has she spoke out?”

“Not that I know of,” Red Tip replied. “But apparently it was so bad, she took a vow of silence.”

“Complicated,” Shadow replied.

“It’s a city,” Red Tip replied with a sad chuckle. “Complicated is only looking at the surface.”

Shadow changed topics. “How are you going to spend your days off?”

“I might head out to the dam to practice my shooting skills. Make sure I am still sighted in.”

“That would be wise,” Shadow replied.

“I always do enjoy getting out by myself and taking some shots. It happens less and less as I grow older, but the shop has gotten busier too. And now I work alone.”

“That will do it,” Shadow replied, not pushing things more.

They sat in silence for a while until Red Tip said he was going to get ready to go shooting the next day. Shadow paid his bill and left to stock his cupboards. He sighed as he got back to his place and turned the lights on. It just wasn’t right. At least that was getting fixed.

With cupboards stocked, Shadow walked to his window. The gardens had sprouted. A lot faster than he had expected. They were growing well in the enriched soil. Maybe he wasn’t as bad at farming as he thought.

Shadow shut his eyes as the memories flooded back. He wanted to be back on the farm so badly. He wanted to be home. Tears welled up in the corner of his eyes as his thoughts moved to Dream Catcher. She was gone now. They could never all go back. And he had killed her.

Shadow leaped back from the window in rage over all he had lost and punched the wall. He felt it hit the stud and then his forehoof crack.

Shadow yelled in a mix of rage and pain. It felt good to have the physical pain to feel. The wasteland had consumed the Inquisitors and made them kill the Pillars of the Community. The fear of the wasteland infected and corrupted everything else.

He lost Silent. Shot by Steel Rangers trying to fight for the peace he didn’t believe could happen. Because he believed in Shadow. Nor had died protecting Shadow and helping get Dream Catcher back. At the callous, evil, hooves of Dahlia.

Storm had died in the jaws of a Manticore. There was nothing more wasteland than a creature that can consume a pony whole and isn’t touched by radiation. Slice had just given up and let the wasteland consume him and Thunder chose suicide over being turned into something he wasn’t.

Shadow poured even more memories into the pain as he gasped for air against the rage and tears. Cardinal Spitfire was all alone up there. He had no way to safely get back. And now he was further gone from her after leaving Rosemary. But Rosemary would have driven him to suicide. Her ghosts were too real.

Shadow collapsed from lack of oxygen, coming to a little while later when his heart had calmed down. The pool of tears was still fresh. Shadow just laid there on the hard floor, clutching his broken forehoof.

He was now even more determined to make the wasteland pay. He would have to be aggressive to punish the copy cats. And then he was going to take his sword to the Lux and burn it in a cleansing fire. All that filth had to be destroyed. Shadow would kill who he could, but if some survived to tell the tale, so be it. None would return to the Lux after he was done turning it to ash.

Chapter 113 - Copy Cats

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Shadow Flare slowly opened the file cabinet. He was in the city records, trying to find guard reports for both cases the week before and hopefully, the murder case from ten years ago. He was only in his Black Widow costume. He couldn’t risk them finding out about the Zebra cloak, so he kept it securely in his bags.

He was slow and trying to be quiet, but the drawers groaned and squeaked. Shadow was keeping as attentive as possible, but it was difficult to listen and read at the same time. Shadow heard the door squeak open too late.

“Don’t move!” The guard, a stallion, ordered. “Stay where you are and make no sudden movements. I am going to turn on the lights. Make no sudden movements when the lights come on.”

The light was flicked on. Shadow’s lenses filtered the light and didn’t blind him.

“Are you Black Widow?”

“That’s what I have been called,” Shadow Flare replied, still facing the file cabinet. “I didn’t name myself.”

“The policy is to bring you in for questioning and potential charging.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“No, I am not. You haven’t caused a problem for the guards, and you have gone out of the way to not harm us, or anypony but the target. And I was on Red Team when we breached the Power Plant. I saw first hoofed your skill.

“But, what are you doing here?”

“Hunting for clues,” Shadow replied. “Two others used my name to cover their choices. That isn’t acceptable.”

“Well you won’t find those records in that cabinet. I want them to come to justice. The guards haven’t followed up with anything. And the reports are the same. Black Widow as the description. They are just leaving them alone. Justice isn’t being explored. Even after finding out you were not the actor.”

“Why don’t you do something?” Shadow asked.

“I work nights. I can’t just walk up and knock on a door in the middle of the night for these cases. And I like working nights. It’s a very different job.”

“I need information on a murder ten years ago, which may have caused one of the copy cats.”

The guard trotted over to another cabinet and opened the bottom drawer. He pulled out the file and set it down on the table. It had nothing inside of it.

“The murder case from ten years ago. They didn’t do a good job. I remember it, but I was a young colt still in school. I looked at the file the other night, after his death.”

Shadow flipped it open. They had done little on the case. Justice hadn’t been given a chance.

“That gives me what I need to know,” Shadow replied. “For that case. Nothing on the other?”

The guard shrugged. “He was a caravaner. He had been in town several times. It was his third day in the city. Those in his party were with him when he was killed, so it wasn’t them. There were no leads and no real evidence given.”

Shadow nodded and turned to leave. “Thank you. You did a good thing to help clean up this city.”

Shadow ducked out and before the guard could get to the door had his cloak on. He was safely gone. For now.

Black Widow had claimed that both would be brought to justice publicly. He had a three days to figure it out before the came to do his lighting. Shadow couldn’t act too fast on the murder either. He needed to appear like he was digging up other sources.

He was going to confront the wife, Twilight Garden. She was the probable suspect for copying him. But he had to do it properly. Shadow was going to take the day off and sleep in a bit after being up so late. The day after he would search her house.

Shadow stalked her house, waiting for her to leave. When she finally did leave to go to work, Shadow quickly broken in with the cloud key. He locked the door behind him and the search began. She couldn’t know somepony had poked around, because if he found nothing he didn’t want her to have a reason to believe he she had been close to being killed by Black Widow.

It didn’t take long to find the costume stuffed away in the back of a drawer. With that secure, Shadow had to figure out how to confront her. He decided to wait in the bedroom. She would be gone for several more hours, but there was no better way in his mind.

Shadow finally heard the lock on the front door be manipulated and he readied himself. He stood in the corner, so that she wouldn’t easily see him. He wanted to scare the shit out of her to make sure she gave a good confession.

It didn’t take long for Twilight Garden to enter her bedroom. She half jumped.

“I was wondering when you would show up,” Twilight Garden said confidently.

Shadow gave a slow nod. “Your husband was brutally murdered and the city guard didn’t do anything of value. You voice was nothing, despite who you told or how loud you shouted.

“Your actions the other day solidified the restless sleep of your husband. He can never have justice served because you tried to deal it. Because of that, I can not find out if the stallion you murdered actually killed your husband.

“But that isn’t why I am here.”

Shadow threw the costume at her feet.

“You chose to act outside of the law here, to take things into your own hooves.”

“How is it different than you?” She calmly challenged.

“I was chosen by Equestria and brought here to break and destroy the very things that are stopping it from healing. I am answering it’s call. Trottingham has not been one of those problems. Yet.”

“But I am here not for that. I am here for you. Because you chose to act as me when you do not have that blessing. That is a serious crime against Equestria.”

“What are you going to do?” She asked with her chest out, defiantly. “You claimed it will be public. I am here, the public is not.”

“Oh, it will be,” Shadow replied.

Shadow struck faster than she had anticipated, deadening her nerves in her rear legs, forcing her to the ground. She was helpless as he gagged her and then bound her up tightly. Shadow limited her oxygen until she passed out and then got her on his back.

He took her to the Municipal Building. Once there, he slipped to the dark ally behind and carefully flew her to the roof. Shadow tied a noose and then anchored it on a sturdy vent on the roof. Shadow flare untied her and dressed her in her copy cat uniform, keeping the gag on under the mask. It was a snug fit. She had done a decent job.

Once dressed, Shadow tied her up again and then moved her to the edge of the building. He double checked the noose and then secured it around her neck. Then it was time to play the waiting game. Twilight Garden woke up several times. Shadow calmly limited her oxygen until she passed out.

As the morning dawned and the city awoke, she too came out of her latest sleep. Shadow waited until the market was defiantly awake. He put her on the very edge of the building, lifted her hood enough to rip the gag out.

She immediately began to scream in terror. The marketplace searched for the source. Shadow expertly popped her ties off until she was free, outside of the noose. He tipped her off the roof and confidently stood on the edge as she dropped below.

Twilight Garden didn’t die by suffocation. Her neck snapped and ripped. It was a significant enough drop to begin to tear her flesh at the point of the unyielding rope. She hung there, twisting as she settled down, above the entryway. Shadow wanted her lower, but had misjudge that. And they were not on center like he wanted. But he had a crowd to address.

“TWILIGHT GARDEN NOT ONLY ADMITTED THAT SHE TOOK MY NAME, BUT ALSO WAS FOUND WITH A POOR COPY OF ME. SHE KILLED IN AN ATTEMPT TO BRING PEACE TO HER HUSBAND, BUT SHE ONLY BROUGHT HIM ETERNAL RESTLESSNESS. I CAN NOT INVESTIGATE AND SPEAK WITH THE PRIME SUSPECT. I CAN NOT SOLVE THAT MYSTERY BECAUSE SHE KILLED HIM.

“TEN YEARS AGO THE CITY GUARD FAILED HER AND HER HUSBAND. THEY BRUSHED OFF THE MURDER AND DIDN’T LISTEN TO HER PLEAS. I HOPE THEIR CONDUCT IS NOT THE SAME AS IT WAS BACK THEN. AND I HAVE MY VALID CONCERNS. THEY PASSED TWO KILLINGS OFF AS ME WITHOUT EVEN TAKING A CLOSER LOOK. WITHOUT EVEN QUESTIONING TWILIGHT GARDEN ABOUT THE DEATH. THEY LET OBVIOUS COPY CATS ROAM FREE BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T CARE ENOUGH TO FACE ANY FEARS THEY MIGHT HAVE.

“THERE IS ONE MORE COPY CAT. I ALONE AM THE ONE EQUESTRIA CALLED TO DESTROY THOSE THAT WILL STOP HER FROM HEALING AND MOVING FORWARD. THE OTHER WILL BE FOUND AND KILLED, PUBLICLY. TROTTINGHAM DESERVES PEACEFUL STREETS.”

Shadow stepped down off the edge and quickly wrapped himself in the Zebra cloak. As expected, the guards were already making their way up the fire escape to get to the roof in search of him. Shadow stood on a corner as they reached the roof and rushed to try and find him. When it was clear, he used the fire escape to descend and secure his retreat.

Shadow retreated to his condominium to plan how to catch the last copy cat and pack. He had enough bags to wrap everything incriminating up to safely take with him. Soarin’s Lighting was also tucked away. Shadow went to a good hotel and payed up front for a room while they fixed his lighting.

The mare at the front knew him because of the lighting job. It had spread around that a new stallion in town was having his place renovated because he wanted to, not out of necessity. At least it was the opposite of what ponies would expect out of Black Widow.

Since Shadow had vacated his condo, he had no way to cook. Shadow went to the same place he had before, where Strawberry worked. She came over immediately.

“I thought you were not a fan of the pre-war stuff you had?” She asked.

“I’m not,” Shadow shrugged. “They are beginning the work on my lighting tomorrow, so I packed up what I needed to and I am in a temporary room until they are done. So I have to eat out, no cooking.”

Shadow certainly did hate the pre-war food. But it was still better than the field rations the Enclave provided them. And he enjoyed them on the days when he was really hungry.

“What do you want?” Strawberry asked.

“The apples and the instamash,” Shadow replied. “And a Sparkle Cola.”

“Alright, coming right up,” Strawberry smiled.

Shadow sat there, watching the crowd. It was a good place to work to read the city. And it was inconspicuous. You were supposed to sit back and relax at a restaurant. Looking around wasn’t too weird.

Shadow Flare fiddled around the market, killing time until he could justify going to bed. Shadow perked up as two guards met in front of the shop.

“I just got word that the other copy cat, the one who killed that random scav, she turned herself in for us to prosecute. To be safe from Black Widow. At least she will get a fair trial.”

“And how will she be safe?”

“The Mayor is going to make a public address in the morning. She will make it clear that the mare is ours, not Black Widow’s. That justice will be served.”


“Good Morning Trottingham,” Mayor Parchment said behind the pulpit and through the speakers that had been set up. “I am happy to stand before you today with some good news. For a few weeks, we have had the mysterious Black Widow on our minds. For some very good reasons, but now things have turned.

“We here at Trottingham have our guards. They do a good job keeping the peace and bringing justice to our city. They have their bad moments, but I believe that all in all, they are better than those and do real good.”

“Yesterday, the mare who killed another scavenger turned herself in. She killed him on our streets and will face our judge and a jury from Trottingham.”

A mare stepped forward, cuffed and flanked by two guards.

“This is Ruby Rivet. She killed Prismatic Mineral out over a long standing argument. She created a costume to mimic Black Widow and capitalize on our guards’ hesitation shown before. She turned it in along with herself.”

“So to Black Widow I say: yes, she faked being you. But justice will come for both that and killing Prismatic Mineral. We have the situation under control.”

CRACK!

Ruby Rivet stumbled back and tripped over the cuffs. The guards tried to catch her but failed. Her head hit the stone stairs with a smack, but the gash didn’t do her in. The bullet had fragmented inside her head, shredding her with tiny little claws that sought to devour flesh. A perfect shot between the eyes.

“FIND HER!” Mayor Parchment ordered.

“THERE!” A guard yelled. “In the window up there. Tenth floor!”

Shadow Flare ducked back out of the window. They had identified Black Widow and that was all he needed. He was cloaked and out of the room in a matter of seconds, locking the door behind him. He did leave behind the spent shell casing, just to confirm his actions and baffle them with his ability to lock and unlock doors.

The building was the same one that had Shadow’s condominium nestled inside it, but his was on the other side. Besides, it was being torn apart for the lighting job. However, one of the other single bedroom condominiums Shadow had looked at was on the face towards the Municipal Building. It was a stretch, but Shadow had made the shot with his rifle. Soarin’s Lighting was too big for this mid distance job. Plus, it was too recognizable.

Shadow got back to his rented room and stripped. He could finally relax. Shadow exited uncloaked and was greeted by the pony at the front desk. To him, Shadow Flare was leaving after sleeping in late. Shadow Flare hadn’t left through the only exit available. Leaving cloaked was easy.

Now he was off to hunt down the Hawks.


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Chapter 114 - The Citadel

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Shadow shuffled into Trottingham, bags full. He headed right to see if Red Tip was once again open. The lights were on and the sign was flipped so Shadow entered.

“Welcome!” Red Tip said from the back. “One moment.”

Red Tip came out of the back, covered in black soot.

“Sorry, I’ve been making our signature ammo.” Red Tip smiled when he saw it was Shadow. “Ah, its my favorite gun nut, who is also loaded down with guns. What did you do this time?”

“I targeted the Hawks,” Shadow stated as a matter of fact. “Got them all.”

“All? Including Razor?”

“Blue coat, steel gray mohawk?”

“Yep?” Red Tip nodded. “Did you turn her head in for a bounty?”

“Bounty?” Shadow asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, take her head to the Steel Rangers. Which means you didn’t.”

“Nope,” Shadow shrugged. “I got enough caps for a while.”

“You took them all down?” Red Tip asked, unsure.

“It took time,” Shadow shrugged. “But yeah. They had six buildings under their control throughout the city. It wasn’t easy, but I know how to handle them.”

Red Tip grinned and slid a piece of paper over the counter to Shadow.

“The Steel Rangers have a rodeo expo each year. Trottingham Rodeo and Expose. It started with the farms they protect, a way to blow off steam and have fun. The competitions reward are caps. Ponies from the area began to attend for enjoyment and it expanded into a big deal each year. It wasn’t long before the Steel Rangers began to do some stuff to show off their shooting skills and then they opened it up for citizens to test themselves against the Steel Rangers.

“If you can take out the Hawks, you should look at signing up for the Reactive Rifle Competition. You have pistols, rifle, and then long distance shooting competitions. Those are static, shooting at targets. Reactive rifle runs you through a moving course where you are timed, along with having to hit targets with as few shots as possible.”

Shadow nodded. “And where does this take place?”

“Most of the rodeo stuff is outside the Citadel, but a good deal of the Citadel is opened for viewing. They do some recruiting during that time period.”

“What is the Citadel?” Shadow asked intrigued.

“It is the place for the Steel Rangers in Trottingham. It was a pre-war building that has a giant central opening. Its been a while since I toured it, but its connected to the Steel Rangers before the spells came. They use that central area for training, while keeping the walls as their residence and such. Its been attacked multiple times, but its impossible to take. Especially with their skill.

“But for three days a year, they open up the place to be toured and such. They have designated tours, so you can only go certain places. But their cafeteria is easily accessible for food. Others set up food and game stands. The whole thing is a festival, but with heavy security. You definitely have to come. And you really should try your skill against others in their arms competitions.”

Shadow Flare gave a slow nod. This was the best, if not only chance, that he could get to see the inside of their home and see what he could do. They were outdated. They worked against peace and upheld a view that would continue to fight against unifying Equestria.

“Alright,” Shadow smiled. “I’ll sign up for the reactive rifle course. But… what about the long distance competition?”

“You think you can take on me?” Red Tip grinned. “The reigning champion.”

“You?” Shadow grinned back. “Yeah. I think I can. But I will need a different long range rifle. Do you recall my comment about the anti-machine rifle?”

Red Tip got serious. “You own a special one.”

Shadow pulled it out of his bag and carefully unwrapped it from the Zebra cloak. Red Tip’s eyes were glued to the special pieces as Shadow Flare put them together.

“Are those gems?” Red Tip marveled.

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “And if word got out, the Steel Rangers would kill me for it. I have seen it happen.”

“I believe it,” Red Tip replied. “They are not the gentlest. Some take things too far. But they have protected Equestria for all this time well. Their priorities can be questioned at times, and its probably changed more than we want to admit, but they have protected and let this city grow on its own. The Trottingham Contingent has been really good to us. And the other branches function in similar capacities. They have held back the darkness in many parts of Equestria. Still, Black Widow will probably have an easy time sentencing them.”

“Happier things,” Shadow said. “Can I borrow an anti-machine rifle for the competition?”

Red Tip gingerly picked up Soarin’s Lighting like it was a holy object.

“It’s so light,” Red Tip marveled. “How?”

“Its not a prototype,” Shadow explained. “Its a special build for an old Equestrian legend who ended up in the military. A powerful Pegasus. Walter Arms designed it, along with it’s sister. I never got a look at it’s sister. Both are as powerful and as unique as the pegasi they were designed. And since they were for pegasi...”

“They have to be lightweight,” Red Tip finished. “So they can be used anywhere, even in the sky.”

“Mhm,” Shadow nodded. He left out the way it shot.

“Alright,” Red Tip said setting it down reverently. “I’ll let you borrow an anti-machine rifle.”

“Can I pick it up a few days early?” Shadow asked. “So I can make sure she is pristine.”

“I trust you won’t run off with it,” Red Tip replied. “Especially since you already have this pristine beauty. I do trust you have shot her.”

Shadow chuckled. “Had to kill a few hydras with her. Damn things took 5 shots. They refuse to fall or even stop. I shot them in both legs and they kept going.”

“Hydras?” Red Tip asked, begging for more.

“Yeah, swamps in the southeast. Stay out. Bad idea that almost killed the whole group, multiple different ways and multiple different times. I’ll leave it there.”

“And so will I,” Red Tip said. “Write your name down on the sheet for the competitions. They will pick it up in 7 days and in 10 the expo starts. I’ll get the rifle.”

Shadow Flare wrote his name down. Nopony else had put their name on the sheet other than Red Tip. But, there had to be a dozen and more of these sheets posted around the city.

Red Tip set the rifle on the counter next to Soarin’s Lightning.

“I never got a chance to see how nice she is,” Shadow marveled. “I had nothing to compare her too.

“This is the best one in the back,” Red Tip stated. “But purely on aesthetics, yes, you have an amazing rifle. On the mechanics, I wish I could feel her work, but I understand why. She must shoot beautifully.”

“She shoots uniquely,” Shadow replied. It struck him that the bullet was enchanted, which meant it didn’t have the same ballistics as a regular rifle. “But I think a gem changes things. How do you test your range skills?”

“I’ll rent you my steel targets. One for 800, 1000, 1200, 1400, 1600 and 1800 yards. 100 caps for each target per day. They are red blues, so when you hit it, the force swings it to the other side instead of the bullet punching through. And its set to be used again.”

“That’s fair,” Shadow replied. “Very fair. I will rent them after I can take a look at the inside of this rifle in the comfort of my room, in the light. They should be done today. Still, too bad this rifle doesn’t break down.”

“That’s something special. I have head about take down rifles that pegasi would use when going in, but none have ever crossed my path.”

“Never heard of any rifles breaking down like that,” Shadow shrugged. “But, I have guns to sell.”

Red Tip chuckled. “And I have shelves that need filling. Black Widow won’t be a threat anymore. At least for a while until some idiot does something stupid enough to draw her back.”

Shadow put several guns on the counter and began to break down Soarin’s Lighting. He wrapped it in the Zebra cloak. Red Tip eyed the exotic print, but didn’t say a thing as Shadow put them away. They had business to discuss.

With the transactions done, he went to his condominium. They were not done. They were behind and a large section of the bedroom’s wall was ripped open. Shadow got a complicated update and took the moment to water his garden before letting them work in peace. The work they had done was amazing and already worth a few more days away.

Shadow had to pay for two extra nights, but when the work was done it was emasculate. Strong yellow lights lit up the whole room. They had to add in several extra switches to control them all, but it was beautiful.

And they had painted it beautifully. It wasn’t just thrown on there. None of the holes Shadow had seen when he stopped in where visible in any way. The place was perfect. Truly livable.

The new finish only pointed out how sparse his finishing was, so Shadow went out and bought a couch and coffee table from Quality Hardware. He also bought a workbench that he slid up against the windows for some natural light, what little the clouds let through.


Shadow Flare met Red Tip at the gate of Trottingham. It was the first day of the Trottingham Rodeo and Expose. They had to check in to see if they had any qualifying rounds in the competitions. That was determined by the number of participants.

It was a loose caravan heading out to the expose. It didn’t take too long, but the route wasn’t direct. The Hawks might have been exterminated, but few were going to risk it yet. Plus several buildings had crumbled to the point where they blocked the streets. It forced them to spend almost two hours to get to the Citadel.

Shadow stopped to marvel at the Citadel. It was one giant, six story building. They were facing the opening, a steel, three story gate that was currently swung out to greet everypony. It took up the central third of the wall. The gate alone required massive machinery to move. But it wasn’t new. It had been built that way.

Flanking the gate was the ministry symbols. Ministry of Arcane Sciences was at the top, then the Ministry of Wartime Technology, Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Image, Ministry of Moral, and then the Ministry of Awesome. Each symbol had been kept in pristine condition. Dead center over the gate was the flag of Equestria that took up almost the top three floors.

Outside of the building had roped or fenced off areas where various challenges and trials would be for the rodeo. There was plenty of stands and bleachers that had been assembled. The pistol and rifle rangers were easy to spot.

Shadow followed Red Tip past it all and in through the gate. Inside the courtyard was a chaotic mess organized and corralled by the Steel Rangers prepared layout. They had to wait in line for a bit to declare their arrival.

Reactive Rifle had a qualifying round but long range didn’t. Reactive Rifle’s qualifying round would score by timing alone. The rest would be timing and shot percentages. Whoever could move through the course fastest would be ranked and the top 30 would proceed. Reactive Rifle qualifiers were on day two, with the finals in the morning of day 3. Long Range was on Day 3, in the early afternoon.

“Lets get settle in and then take a tour,” Red Tip said.

Shadow nodded in agreement, still speechless about this place. Since they were competitors, they had free housing provided. It saved them from having to travel the hours it took one way. They got lanyards with “Competitor” written on it and on the back their competition and ID number for that competition.

The accommodations were simple bunk beds set up in a large room. The bunks were wooden and solid. The ones along the wall had lockers in between to share, like Shadow was used to. The two center rows had footlockers. One on either side of the bed. All of them had complimentary locks. Many of the competitors had expensive equipment to secure.

Shadow instinctively moved to the back right and took the bottom bunk. There was nowhere else he could take, and since it was first come first serve, few were occupied. Red Tip set up on the top bunk in the middle, where he had been for the last 7 years. It was an unspoken understanding that they took their spots for good luck. Whatever would give them the best edge.

“I definitely need a tour of this place,” Shadow declared to Red Tip.

“Then follow me,” Red Tip smiled. “Its been a while since I have taken a tour as well.”

It was a small group for the first one since few were bucking for a tour this early in the festivities. Their tour guide was a stallion dressed in maroon robes and who was black with a slate gray mane, cut in a short military style.

“My name is Initiate Black Powder. I will be your tour guide. There are some basic things to keep in mind and rules that must be followed. Please remember that while we are so very glad to have you here, this is an active military installation. We are not on break for these festivities. There also are places we can not go for security or safety reasons. So stay with the group. Feel free to ask any questions, although I may have to decline answering them. Weapons must stay holstered at all times, but are welcome. Do not act sporadically. I am armed and trained. Remember, it is a privilege to be here.”

With that, Black Powder led them into the building.

“This building was built during the early years of the war. It serves as one massive Hub for all six ministries. They tried something different due to how the city had already been built up. They had to condense them all into one big hub. At the time it was known as the Harmony Hexagon. One side for each Ministry. One side for each Elements of Harmony. We are in the Generosity Wing, where the Ministry of Image resided. Here you will find our food storage rooms and our cafeteria. If you are a contestant, the cafeteria is free for you.”

They walked into the cafeteria. It was massive, but smaller than Shadow expected.

“Excuse me Initiate?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Is this the only cafeteria. It seems small for a large scale military operation for this building.”

“There are a total of five cafeterias,” Initiate Black Powder replied. “But right now we only use two. This is the most accessible for the public. Each wing had their own cafeteria, except for the Ministry of Awesome who occupied the Loyalty Wing, which houses the gate. Not many worked there, so they would go to either the Ministry of Moral’s cafeteria beside them in the Laughter Wing or the Ministry of Wartime Technology’s in Honesty Wing.”

“So that puts us where?” A mare asked.

“I’ll step you through the location of the wings,” Initiate Black Powder smiled. “The gate is Loyalty Wing, which housed the Ministry of Awesome. Once inside, if you go to the right, it is the Honesty Wing with the Ministry of Wartime Technology. Next is the Kindness Wing and the Ministry of Peace. Following that and straight across from the gate is the Magic Wing and the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. Then where we are here in the Generosity Wing and the Ministry of Image. The last is the Laughter Wing and the Ministry of Moral, which is directly left of Loyalty Wing, taking us full circle.

“The Ministry of Image and Ministry of Peace did not approve of the joint hub, especially with it’s thick steel gate. But the Ministry of Arcane Sciences was leading the project and the Ministry of Moral believed it would be a good sign to Equestria to have all the Ministries share one hub in a city. The Ministry of Awesome never gave an opinion and the Ministry of Wartime Technology said it would allow them to better protect all of the hubs.

“We do what we can to keep the wing’s intended purposes true. We are in the Generosity Wing, and the accessible cafeteria is here, along with rooms converted for emergency shelter or to house guests in during the Exposition. Also kept here is the general quartermaster where ponies can come to trade. This wing sees a lot of use, as it also is where we house much of the food that comes in from the farmers for safe keeping. Together we work side by side to provide for their safety and security so they can feed not just themselves, but Trottingham as well.

“Now, as you follow me, you will notice down this hall that a very large and thick door is in place. It is the divide between the Generosity Wing and the Magic Wing. The reason why this door is so thick is to stop fire from leaping from one wing into the other. It is part of a giant fire wall system that divides the building.

“It proved to be a success late in the war when the Ministry of Moral caught on fire and soon the whole wing was ablaze. While the fire did leap into the Loyalty Wing, where it burned a large amount of Ministry of Awesome documents, the fire was held back by the fire wall between the laughter Wing and the Generosity Wing, where it protected an irreplaceable set of documents for a whole new line of posters the Ministry of Image was just finishing designing.

“Now, here in the Magic Wing, most of our scribes do their work. Much of it is done on arcane science technology as we work to preserve them and replicate what we need to. A lot of weapons and technology come in here to be worked on. You can see that this is one of those rooms where we work on the very weapons that our Steel Rangers charge into battle with. And then this one further down is dedicated to preserving information. This may be the single largest collection of terminals in Equestria.

“As we continue into the Kindness Wing, you will find another fire wall divider. This Wing is one of the two that is used 100% to it’s original intended purposes. Here, scribes work to make bandages, medicines, and others run the hospital. For those of you from Trottingham, this is a full service hospital and we do not turn anypony away. If it is more severe than what can be handled at their clinic, you can come here where skilled hooves will take care of almost any problem you could possibly be facing.

“We will just be passing through the Honesty Wing. This is the other wing used 100% for it’s intended purposes as it houses us and where most of the Steel Rangers function out of. The Ministry of Wartime Technology had a group serving here as guards and we use both the rooms and the built in firing range and training rooms to keep our skills sharp and prepare initiates like myself for our future roles inside the Steel Rangers.

“This is the most fun, the Loyalty Wing. Not much was done here. It was sparse to begin with. We will be taking the elevator up to the fourth floor and be crossing over the gate.”

It was a quiet elevator ride up. Shadow hated the ride. He felt the familiar unsteadiness come back and his wings begged to be used for balance. But he stood as strong as possible and kept his breathing slow.

The elevator moved quickly. It was not messing around. They exited and were led around to the outside of the building. It was impossible to see from outside, but many of the panes were one sided. You could easily see outside, over the whole field of festivities and the city, while remaining safe behind what had looked like a solid steel exterior. Shadow had no doubt that these panels were magic and able to shrug off direct hits from many weapons. Some of them were painted with the Equestrian Flag, but you couldn’t see that either.

“This walkway allows us to do more than just observe anything approaching,” Initiate Black Powder said. “Some of the panels can be opened slightly to allow one to fire from the safety of this wall. There are many spots like this all over the building. It was built to be a fortress if needed.”

They stayed on the fourth floor as they entered the Laughter Wing.

“This is the least used wing. Outside of some administrative aspects, most of this wing is storage. Much of the wing is still in need of repairs from the fire.”

“What caused the fire?” A stallion asked.

“That was never discussed,” Initiate Black Powder replied. “At least not in any known records in any of the wings. The fire was just something that happened and they were relieved that it never made it to the Generosity Wing. Most of us believe that the fire was started on purpose, which is why the sprinkler system never went off. No casualties were reported and only a few minor injuries from smoke inhalation were found in the Ministry of Peace’s terminals. A lot of records were lost. The Ministry of Awesome’s sprinklers half worked, so the general belief is that the fire was set so they could purposefully lose records. It also may have been sabotage from an outside source.

“But that now brings us full circle to the Generosity Wing. From up here you can see ponies setting up the Long Range Competition using Equestrian Drive as it’s range. The competition will begin on day 3, right after lunch, and the shooting positions are on the roof, where you can also find stands. There will be signs when you enter the Generosity Wing to direct you to the proper elevator so you can observe the competition. It is one of our most popular competitions. For the rest of you, Red Tip here is the current champion and several are looking to dethrone him.”

Red Tip gave a slight nod.

“We also have a new hot shot, Knight Yellow Quartz. She is looking to take the Reactive Rifle Course by storm and crush any competitors who try their hooves at the course. But, here is our exit elevator,” Initiate Black Powder said. “From here it is down to the first floor and then out along the hallway that will pass by the cafeteria.”

As they stepped outside and broke off from the others in their group, Shadow spoke. “What do you know of Knight Yellow Quartz?”

“Never heard of her,” Red Tip replied. “She must have been an initiate last year. Initiates can’t compete. The past several years the Trottingham Steel Rangers have been putting on a poor show in the Reactive Rifle Competition. Sure, its not the same as combat, but they still haven’t been showing clean, precise skill.

“It is one thing to lose the static competitions because anypony can learn to shoot and stand there. And few Steel Rangers enter the pistol competition because they focus on the rifles and heavy weapons. Even less ever focus on distance sniping. They don’t care much about those. But both rifle competitions are their pride and joy. Sure, its a new course from what they train on, but they have reactive courses to train on, so they should dominate.”

Shadow shook his head slowly, taking it all in. The crowd around them was much more behaved. Most of the competitors had checked in, relieving that line. Now it was ponies checking out the various stalls and games set up inside the giant central plaza. Since Shadow had walked the inside of the building, he was pretty sure the central courtyard about about 7 acres in total size. It was nice and big and allowed the Steel Rangers to do a lot in the safety of their Citadel.

They headed back out to where the rodeo competitions were already in full swing. Barrel Racing qualifiers were heating up. It amazed Shadow to see the Earth Ponies dashing around and in between barrels at high speeds and quick turns without giving them even the slightest tap.

Hay Bail stacking was next. It didn’t take long before a winner was declared. Speed Plowing was came next. It had to have taken a week to prepare that specialized field. Shadow wondered how Black and Buck would compare to these Earth Ponies. They were the same size and larger.

They moved on to a watch the qualifiers for an obstacle course. Up and over a variety of hurdles, around barrels in tight turns. Red Tip got more attentive when the announcer came over the speaker naming Earthen Charm as the next competitor. She was a lean, muscled, mud brown mare with golden locks braided in a similar way to Cardinal Spitfire’s braids. To keep them out of the way. And she was fast. Her speed put her easily in the number one spot. Earthen Charm trotted around in front of the stands in celebration. She stopped in front of them and gave a wink, clearly directed at Red Tip. She trotted off to the back to let the next pony up go.

Shadow just silently chuckled to himself. They hadn’t avoided the discussion, but they hadn’t pried deep into the other’s life either. It was good to know Red Tip wasn’t without any prospects. He put a lot of time into his work.

“Lets grab dinner,” Red Tip said. “They usually have good food for the competitors.”

“They give a lot of free stuff too us,” Shadow stated. “Why?”

“A place to rest our heads doesn’t costs much,” Red Tip replied. “Although they could charge. And they are giving caps as prizes for the winners. Those do add up. But the big thing is, it doesn’t cost much to feed or house us. The number of competitors is low compared to those who come to enjoy the show. They make way more on this exposition than they ever spend. And it also gives them a chance to scout the crowd and bring in new recruits. At least 20 join up every year because of this.”

Shadow was quiet while they got food. It reminded him of Fort Wind. Crowded mess hall with trays that got loaded down with food. Similar fixed bench tables and tight spaces in between to maximize seating.

Right after they sat down somepony popped down right next to Shadow, invading his personal space.

“Hey!” A cheery voice said. It was Earthen Charm and she had twice as much food on her tray than Shadow did. And Shadow could eat.

“Earthen Charm, this is Mtoaji,” Red Tip introduced them. “Mtoaji has become my biggest supplier.”

“Ah pleasure!” Earthen Charm beamed.

“Same,” Shadow smiled back.

“You know guns, are you going to be competing?” Earthen Charm fired back.

“Yeah,” Shadow replied setting his food aside for the moment. “The Reactive Rifle Competition and the Long Distance Competition.”

Her jaw dropped. “You are going up against Red Tip in long distance?”

Shadow gave a quick shrug. “Yeah.”

“You have a fight on your hooves,” She warned.

“I picked up on that,” Shadow chuckled. “But that is what makes it fun. I’ve never really tested my distance shooting, but I can handle my distance shots.”

“Charm,” Red Tip said. “If anypony new can take me, its Mtoaji. He is quite skilled.”

“Rumor is that there are a few new sharps in their ranks,” Earthen Charm warned. “A new Knight named Spotter has popped up in our circles. And then a new farmer, Slate, has a nice rifle that can play that game. Its going to be a great one.”

“That it will,” Red Tip smiled.

“So,” Shadow said, trying to finalize what he was going to say. “I haven’t been in the area long and have spent a lot of that traveling, but are you from the farms?”

“Yes,” Earthen Charm smiled. “I am. Although I am more than that.”

“You still don’t know if you want to farm for life or not,” Shadow stated.

“Yeah,” Earthen Charm blushed.

“I had to make my choice not long ago,” Shadow said. “Ultimately, I have family waiting for me when I do get back home. And I will live out the rest of those days playing in the dirt.”

“You don’t miss it?” Earthen Charm asked hesitantly.

“Every day,” Shadow sighed. “But that is one of the joys of my window gardens. I get to have some fresh herbs and dirt, even though I’m in a skyscraper in Trottingham a million miles from home.”

“Window Gardens?” Earthen Charm asked.

“Yep,” Shadow nodded. “Small rectangular pots mounted to the outside of my window where I put good soil I bought from the farms and planted some herbs in. Herbs to make tea.”

“Tea?” Earthen Charm asked confused.

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Its a drink. You put some leaves in hot water to soak. The flavor transfer to the water and you have tea. Just don’t drink the leaves. I have special mesh holders for mine so the leaves don’t float all around.”

“Interesting,” Earthen Charm replied. “Back home are those gardens popular?”

“I don’t know,” Shadow replied. “I’m not a city pony. I learned about them in a city, but I didn’t have opportunities to really explore who was doing it and with what. At that time I wasn’t heading out here. I tasked Quality Hardware with a special order for them.”

“Well, that is an idea,” Earthen Charm smiled.

“Its worked well for the short time I’ve had them,” Shadow replied.

Shadow finished eating and stood up. “I am going to check out the long distance range.”

“We’ll see you up there,” Red Tip smiled.

“Okay,” Shadow said walking away.

Shadow had intended on checking it out so he could give them alone time. He could handle navigating all of this without Red Tip. He had to be able to. All of this was in way to many ways familiar. He had to watch himself twice as hard so he didn’t slip up. Especially since the Steel Rangers would immediately jump him. They were everywhere and vigilant.

Shadow got to the elevator. Two knights were guarding it. They checked his badge to make sure it said long range on the back and let him head up. The light was almost fading as he stepped out onto the roof.

The range was clear and each competitor slot was neatly marked. There had to be seating for at least a thousand all around it. They stacked up high. Most of the ponies would probably be relying on an announcer for information. Even Shadow’s scope would have some difficulty at the longer ranges.

Shadow sat in the stands and looked out over the range. In two days he would be taking shots out to a mile. This was something that Marble Falls hadn’t directly trained him to do. But she had forged his shooting skills to hit tiny targets at fast speeds. Sizes that could equal distances of almost a mile in some of the set ups. But those were laser rifles that didn’t drop.

Still, Marble Falls would be impressed. So would Master Wind. If they could, they would be here yelling and hollering at him as he competed. They probably would get kicked out for making too much noise. He would win this for them, to show them he had really learned. The Reactive Rifle Course couldn't be worse than what Marble Falls put him through during either aerial combat segments.

Shadow sat there, contemplating how to deal with the Steel Rangers. The Trottingham branch certainly retained some good autonomy. He wasn’t sure how much, but the Inquisitor’s description wasn’t plastered everywhere as he had expected.

But to take on this complex, he couldn't. They were too present. Soldiers were never alone and the halls were a death trap. He couldn't lose them inside their home. Not when it was designed to be so straight and easy. If he went in, there would be no coming out. And they would blow the whole area apart to kill him. Trottingham was off limits for both Black Widow and Shadow Flare. He would have to wage that battle outside, killing patrols.

Shadow heard the elevator open and the laughter of Earthen Charm. Red Tip’s was quieter, as usual.

“Hey,” Red Tip greeted him when they saw him. “How do you like the view?”

“Its perfect for the competition,” Shadow replied solemnly.

“What’s got you down?” Red Tip asked, breaking away from Earthen Charm.

“My instructors would love to be here,” Shadow said quietly. “I couldn’t hit shit starting out. None of them could have seen a long range competition coming. But I know I can compete on the same level. I just wish they knew that. Being combat ready and being a sniper are two different things.”

“Well, you can tell them when you get back. Even second place will be impressive.”

They both chuckled. Shadow's was filled with memories and confidence. Red Tip’s was filled with concern. He felt threatened, but was doing his best to shrug it off.

Shadow stood up. “I know, its early, but I want to get some sleep. I have a tough day tomorrow when I hit that Reactive Rifle Course. Unless they are shit at creating a course, I will have to work to keep my position.”

“Your choice,” Earthen Charm said. “But you don’t have to go. And if you did take out the Hawks like Red Tip said, you will be fine. Yellow Quartz has this in the bag though. I am surprised she hasn’t sought you out to talk.”

Shadow sat back down.

“Do you ever get to go this high back at your home?” Earthen Charm asked Shadow.

Shadow gagged on a laugh. He had to cough several times before he could answer.

“I’ve been a lot higher,” Shadow calmly replied. “Over cities and over landscape. On this quest, I have been all over Equestria and even outside of it. Sure, this has a good view of the broken steel of Trottingham, but its not close to what I have gotten. It’s only six stories tall. Sure, there is the glimpse of the sea out there, but its not like its up thirty or forty stories up.”

Shadow looked around. Trottingham didn’t get hit like Fillydelphia, Baltimare or Manehatten, but it certainly hadn’t survived. The tallest buildings were twisted and crumbling. Nothing solid over 30 stories. And in the condition they were in, thirty wasn’t obtainable for most. Shadow had probably been on the tallest points when he eradicated the Hawks.

“This city is mighty short,” Shadow added. “I never noticed that until now.”

“I guess its different because you are not from here,” Earthen Charm giggled. “But I get all giddy getting up on top here. I live on the ground. None of our houses are even two stories.”

“All of the farmhouses back home are two story,” Shadow stated. “When you have large families, you can’t afford to make wide houses. That takes up land and we can’t afford to waste any. So we build up.”

“What did you grow up with?” Earthen Charm asked. “We do oats.”

“Turnips,” Shadow said smiling to himself. “Most of the farms in my community are parsnips. One a few grains. And then there is my sister’s cherry farm on the outskirts of the community. That’s where I am retiring too. With my wife. But I have to make it back safely.”

“What’s got you out here then?” Earthen Charms.

“It’s complicated,” Shadow shrugged, fighting off tears. He already had been thinking about home and didn’t have time to steel his heart. “But I have to find something. Until I do, I am here, scavenging while I search for a living. Its important to our security for me to find it. And that’s as much as I can say.”

“Oh,” Earthen Charm replied, unsure how to proceed.

“But,” Shadow said standing up. “I do think it is time for me to go to bed. I need to be able to see straight in the morning.”

Shadow took the elevator down and took the turn to the room. It was still early. The lights would be on for another hour. Shadow washed up and got in bed. He was tense and struggled to relax. He was afraid he would reveal his wings. Shadow was almost asleep when his bunkmate arrived. The whole bed shook as they jumped up and climbed under the covers. The bed was solid so the shaking wasn’t harsh, but it was enough to reset Shadow’s mind.

Chapter 115 - Exposition

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Shadow awoke nice and early. His body immediately reverted back to barracks mode. Nopony else was awake. Shadow knew what he had to do to be ready for the day. He quickly strapped on his battle saddle and then tossed the heavy anti-machine rifle on his back.

Shadow trotted out of the Citadel and began to move, sprinting to get his body back in sync. It had been neglected since leaving Rosemary. It felt good to run himself through the morning workout routines. To exercise his wings, Shadow moved to a building to get out of sight. Even short sprints down the straight hall and using the elevator shaft for a few stories of elevation sprints felt divine.

Shadow trotted back to the Citadel. He was soaked in sweat. He needed to change out of his sticky clothes, but had nothing to change into. His wings were a huge compromise. The showers were private enough that Shadow was able to quickly use one and only wear his armored jacket and cloak. Few ponies were still up. The tips of his wings stuck out from under the jacket. He had to find something fast. He cloak was not enough cover them for long.

Shadow headed to the Quartermaster shop to see when it was opened. The sign was flipped to open, despite it being marked closed on the store hours. Shadow opened up the door and stepped in.

“Welcome,” a tired mare yawned. “We are open 24 hours during the rodeo and exposition. What can I help you with? Oh, and I am Scribe Yearling.”

“I need another change of clothes,” Shadow Stated. “I am competing in the Reactive Rifle Competition and did a short workout. But now those are all sticky and yucky. I am looking for a body suit. Probably similar to what is worn under the power armor.”

“Follow me,” Scribe Yearling said waking up a bit more. “Nothing here is worn by Steel Rangers. Steel Ranger equipment is for Steel Rangers only. We have some similar choices that should be what you are looking for. This rack should be your size.”

Shadow began to flip through the rack. Most of it was dresses or distinctly mare fashion. The unisex stuff was loose fitting, and not tight enough for a base layer.

Shadow Flare skipped over a jacket but flipped back to it as something caught his eye. The jacket wasn’t alone. What had caught Shadow's eye was a beret, sky blue with a patch on display. 1st ESF division with a dagger flanked by wings.

The jacket reminded Shadow of The Captain’s jacket, and then Marble Fall’s Wonderbolt jacket. Shadow pulled out the blue suit underneath it. It was similar to the flight suits and would fit him. It had holes for wings. Shadow looked at the jacket again. It too had holes for the wings, but it also had a heavy flap on the back that could be secured to cover the wings, just like The Captain had. It was definitely designed to keep the elements out. It would hide his wings, even if he didn’t use the holes.

“What is this?” Shadow asked.

“Ah yes, the Blue Berets,” Scribe Yearling yawned. “They were the elite of the elite. The Pegasi who were first in and last out. They did the tough jobs nopony else could do during the war.”

“This is from the war?” Shadow asked.

“Yep,” Scribe Yearling nodded.

“Shouldn’t it be kept, preserved?”

Scribe Yearling laughed. “Why? The Pegasi might have been special back then. But their egos were bigger than anypony else’s. And then they left us to rot. So why would we care? Their job in history has been preserved. I am one of the keepers on history. But they were not as good or special as they were thought to be. Besides, we have pictures. We don’t need uniforms.”

“You keep history?” Shadow asked to clarify.

“Yes,” She nodded.

“What do you know about Kifopiga?”

“About what?”

“Okay, then a Captain Rumble? What do you know about him?”

“Never heard of Captain Rumble. Was he in the Steel Rangers?”

“No,” Shadow shook his head. “A Cloudship Captain during the war. He flew the Flash Magnus.”

“Never heard of it.”

“The Cloudship Red Dawn?”

“Nope.”

“The cloudship class Fairy?”

“Never heard of that class.”

“It was early war,” Shadow said disappointed. “What happened to Soarin?”

“Soarin? The Wonderbolt?”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded.

“He was a Wonderbolt, and when they were disbanded, nothing was heard from him.”

“Spitfire?”

“The same.”

“What about the Equestria Navy’s fleet.”

“Equestria never had a fleet per say. They did have multiple ships they outfitted for war, but nothing organized.”

“Two Toned?”

“Some Zebra general, but nothing specific. What are you getting at?”

Shadow shook his head, disappointed. “Things I learned over the years.”

Scribe Yearling smiled at Shadow Flare. “A lot of legends and lore have arisen about the great war. We preserve history. Stuff that we know happened. Yes, we do research lore to determine if it is history or fake. And we try and find out any new history, but much of it is just legends with no real foundation.”

Shadow was sad to hear that they were so out of touch. Even though some of it was happening the last few weeks of the war, he still expected more from them. They said they were the Equestrian Military, and that they preserved this history, yet they had no clue about some of these basics, critical aspects. Two Toned was a critical player in the war. The assault on Kifopiga took time to orchestrate, so they should have known something about it. The cloudship classes should be readily available. They should have known that Soarin was a teacher and that Equestria was building an organized navy.

Shadow Flare switched back to business. “I showered after I warmed up this morning, is there a place I can try this on.”

“Right back here,” Scribe Yearling directed him.

Shadow didn’t expect the suit to fit him as well as it did. He looked in the mirror and loved what he saw. It felt right. It was a Pegasus uniform, albeit an old one. He had to be extra careful to not slip up while wearing this.

Shadow fixed the beret on his head and felt even more at home with the pony staring back at him in the mirror. He didn’t feel the wasteland’s chains. He felt empowered. He felt strong and ready to face whatever the wasteland threw at him.

As expected, the jacket fit him very well. He didn’t put his wings through the holes and kept the flap secure, but it warmed him up in all the right ways. His wings loosened up as it swaddled them. Shadow stepped out of the changing room.

“This is what I was looking for,” Shadow declared. “Well, not exactly, but it does exactly what I need it to do.”

“Wonderful,” Scribe Yearly smiled. “Lets get you checked out.”

The whole thing cost Shadow 200 caps. Nopony wanted something associated with the pegasi. Shadow pinned his badge on the jacket on his left breast, where the training device would go. Now he felt complete.

Shadow took his red jacket, hat and cloak back to the locker and put it away. The room was busy as ponies were awake and getting ready for the day. Shadow headed out to the cafeteria for breakfast. He saw Earthen Charm and Red Tip ahead of him getting there food.

Shadow sat down with them.

“Wow,” Earthen Charm said, looking Shadow over. “That is a big change. You look great.”

“I have not seen you with this,” Red Tip added, approving.

“I got up early and did a workout,” Shadow stated. “Everything got sweaty, fast. So I needed something to wear after I showered. The quartermaster didn’t have much in my size for stallions. This was cheap and I can wear it under my soft armor jacket. Plus, this jacket is amazingly soft and warm, while not being overpowering during the summer. And the beret is nice.”

“What are the patches of?” Red Tip asked.

“A pegasus unit during the war,” Shadow stated blankly. “Some special unit, also known for their blue berets. Which meant it was cheap. Because nopony wants anything Pegasus. I don’t give a shit, obviously.”

“Well, you look totally different,” Earthen Charm said in between bites. “Like taller. Bigger. Much more confident. It suits you much more than the other.”

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled. “I will crush that course now. I’m not just another wastelander in this. It’s got that military feel to it. A similar feeling to what I had during my preparatory stage before heading out to the Equestrian wasteland.”

“But what about you?” Shadow asked Earthen Charm, flipping the conversation. “You qualified for the obstacle course. When are those finals?”

“This afternoon,” Earthen Charm replied.

“Is that your only competition?”

“No,” Earthen Charm giggled. “I am in everything. And the few things I am not in, I have teammates in. I am bucking for Top Rodeo Competitor and Top Rodeo Team. Only four can be in a team. We took third in the hay bail stack yesterday. And placed first in the Speed Plowing. We are a strong team this year. For solo competitions, you can have multiple team members competing. My specialty is that obstacle course and the marathon.

“Unfortunately, that means I miss most of the other competitions because I am always doing something. I do get to see the Long Distance Competition. Its the big finale of the exposition, despite the Steel Rangers not having much of a presence, it still brings a big crowd.”

“Speaking of that, I have to go. I have the lasso competition to get to.”

Earthen Charm got up and had to rush out.

“I’ll swing by to watch the Reactive Rifle qualifiers,” Red Tip said. “She probably won’t even be up while I watch you compete. Things move fast and get flipped around quickly.”

“Well, for now, we can watch her in the lasso thing,” Shadow said. “I will have to ditch soon to check in and be ready for my run.”

“They won’t let you see the course before you get in for your run,” Red Tip warned.

“Just like it should be,” Shadow chuckled enthusiastically.

Shadow stood up. “But lets go watch this competition. I have no idea what a lasso is.”

Red Tip laughed as he got up and began to explain it to Shadow. The stands were already crowded, but they were let into VIP seating. Earthen Charm had put them on her list of approved watchers. She was on Red Tip’s for the Long Distance Competition.

It was a trick competition. A set of actions set up in a routine that ended with the roping of hay bail to show full control of the lasso. It was impressive watching each competitor whirl the rope around and around.

Earthen Charm took third in the competition. The end marked the time when Shadow had to head to check in for the Reactive Rifle Competition. Shadow stepped out and trotted over to the giant wall that had been erected to keep out prying eyes. It was constructed from simple cloth sheets.

“Name?” The Initiate asked.

“Mtoaji,” Shadow replied.

“You are checked in. Take this number and pin it to yourself. Head in through the door for orientation.”

Shadow got Red Tip on his VIP list. As an afterthought, he put Earthen Charm down to be safe. Shadow stepped through the sheet and found himself with 20 others. An older stallion in power armor stepped onto a small riser stage.

“Welcome to the qualifiers. Your job is to move through the course hitting every target as fast as possible. We are not counting hit percentages or ammo costs. Just hit every target and move on. Any questions?”

Nopony had any so they were sent to the next staging area. It had plenty of seats for them to sit down on. Here they just had to wait until their number came up. Shadow was number 41.

A monochromatic yellow Steel Ranger trotted over. She was wearing well polished armor and had a small royal blue right shoulder cloak with a Yellow Gemstone on it’s corner.

“I’m Yellow Quartz,” She said without emotion. “You are Mtoaji. Identifying you is even easier since you bought that ridiculous blue beret costume. Trying to play soldier?”

“You have looked into me,” Shadow said back with a slight grin cresting on his left cheek. “You had to go through the trouble to find out what I could.”

“A pony doesn’t just go through and clean out the Hawks,” Yellow Quartz stated. “I was on the team sent out to see if the rumors were true. We found no evidence anypony survived the encounter. Every blood trail had a body at the end of it.

“Still, do you recall killing a blue mare with a silver mane put up in mohawk?”

“Yep,” Shadow said, letting the grin grow a bit. “Razor is what she was called. Put a 00 buck shell into her face. Blew out the back of her head. Not much was left.”

“Yes,” Yellow Quartz said slowly. “We found her decaying, barely together. We couldn’t even bring her head in for full confirmation. Thankfully, my superiors knew what she looked like. She had a bounty on her head. But you never turned it in.”

Shadow dropped the grin and shrugged. “I went after them for their guns. We had already clashed before. I didn’t know about the bounty until I got back to Trottingham. But it wasn’t worth it heading back out. I didn’t need it.”

“You come in here a short while back, immediately bought a condo, furnish it with brand new pieces, and then have them redo solid lighting to be perfect, including adding more. You spent twice as many caps on the remodel than you did on the place and you can’t get most of that back when you sell it. You don’t need caps after that?”

“Nope,” Shadow chuckled. “Like I said. I went for their guns. Got some other stuff and good deal of caps. Trottingham was bled dry for firearms after the interesting happenings with Black Widow. I left on a trip and came back in the middle of that storm. I made a good amount on a haul. And then the buying prices were still on the high end when I sold the Hawk’s haul off. So I made plenty.”

“Not many would pass up a free bounty,” Yellow Quartz cautioned. “Especially after they did the work. All you had to do was go back.”

Shadow shrugged.

“You come out of nowhere. Nopony knows where you are from. Your name isn’t Equestrian. We have no idea what it means. You are in search of something, but putting down roots and spending a lot of caps on digging them a nice deep hole to be planted in.”

Shadow chuckled deeply. “And the problem is what? My business is mine. How I chose to live while I do what I have to do is my choice. If I want to buy a place, I buy a place. If I want new furniture, okay. The real problem is, you can’t figure me out? You can’t read me? Guess what, that is expected. You don’t need to know any of that. It is personal and doesn’t involve you or anypony here or the Steel Rangers at all.”

“Lets make this simple,” Yellow Quartz said puffing her chest out. “It actually is a problem because I care for the safety of the citizens around here. I am supposed to get to know them and keep on the look out for trouble makers. You are going out of your way to be unknowable.”

Shadow smirked. “Earn it. But until then, you get to wonder how I beat your ass in this course. I assume you have been lined up for what, two, no, three years to take this by storm and reclaim the Steel Ranger honor on the Reactive Rifle Course?”

Shadow leaned in to whisper to her. He had to stretch up some. “Plus, I know that outside of that armor, you are just barely bigger than me.”

Her cheeks got red and she became more flustered, but had no answers. Yellow Quartz stormed off after another moment, leaving Shadow to sit down and relax. The others had given them wide berth. They might be there to compete, but they didn’t want to get swept up into a fight between a Steel Ranger and another. Especially a Steel Ranger as confident as Yellow Quartz.

More ponies flooded in as they checked in and were put through the short orientation. Most of them were antsy. Shadow just took deep breaths and brought his mind back to Black’s flight deck.

It floated away from him and moved the ACS. All that was in his mind was the Fillydelphia recreation course. Quick transitions as dictated by the flags, never going the same way for more than a few turns. If he could make it through there are deadly speeds, he could make it through this reactive course. Marble Falls had hammered a spherical 360 degree awareness into Shadow, and he didn’t have to worry about most of the directions.

30 minute warning was called. Shadow sat by while others began to fret even more. The first pony, a Unicorn, was up and soon the buzzer sounded and gunfire erupted. Number two was brought in almost immediately after, causing Shadow to shift tactics. He had to be ready immediately. They were moving faster than expected.

Shadow drew two rifle magazines and tapped them on the ground to make sure the rounds were seated in the back. He drew two shotgun magazines and tapped them back as well. It was a speed game, his 00 buck would probably be useful.

The announcer came over the PA system. “Next up, number 30, is a mare that has been itching to get into this competition for three years. Last year she could have torn it up, but she was still an initiate. Now she is a full blown Knight! Knight Yellow Quartz! She has been training hard the past few years to reclaim our lost glory in this competition. And she doesn’t just do courses either. Knight Yellow Quartz is constantly out on patrols, doing real work to keep you safe!”

The buzzer blared and Shadow heard a torrent of fire. It was over half a minute later and followed by a thunderous applause. Shadow was going to have his work cut out for him. At least he just had to pass the qualifiers.

Shadow focused on breathing as the numbers were getting closer and closer. Shadow stood on deck as #40 began his run. It took him a while. A good minute to clear the course.

An Initiate waved Shadow in. Shadow stepped into a long, wide hall. He could tell that it took a right turn at the end to continue on it’s way. There were walls to simulate cover and allow for a sturdy shooting platform if needed. Stands were all around the course, above it to watch. Unicorn magic was shielding them from stray bullets, fragments and any other dangers.

Shadow crouched low.

The red light at the end beeped and turned yellow. The buzzer sounded as the light turned green. A target swung out from the wall and Shadow shot it as he moved forward. Another popped out on the other side. Shadow shot it. Two popped out, flanking him. Shadow gunned them down in short bursts. He slowed his pace because he was getting ahead of the targets popping out.

Six targets popped up all at the same time at the end of the course before it turned. The first one went down but Shadow ran out. Shadow bumped the trigger rod to his shotgun and fired three times, letting the buckshot spread take the other five down. As they fell his reload on his rifle was done. Shadow bumped the trigger rod back to his rifle and dashed to the corner for the turn.

A target popped up all the way down the lane and Shadow put it immediately back down. He was focused, using short bursts to aggressively put the targets back in their place, some before they had locked all the way out. Two more turns and he was at the end, a nice perfect square.

“Thirty four seconds,” The Initiate said as Shadow stepped out of the course. “That puts you in an easy second place. Of course, you are just 41. There are 126 trying to qualify. Only a fourth have hit the course.”

“Of course,” Shadow said, working to catch his breath and calm his heart rate back down.

It was thrilling being in there. His adrenaline had him on a wonderful high. It was a lot easier than what they used in the Enclave training courses. Shadow could hear the targets move. He could see where they sat and might pop up.

He also noted where targets were that didn’t pop up. The swing out ones were easy to note. The swing up had to be placed out of the way, but also were easy to spy if you understood how they functioned. The sliding up ones were the most difficult. The same for the ones that slid out from the wall or cover. They could be hidden quite easily and didn’t take much of a mechanism to work. When struck, they flipped back to be retracted later.

Knight Yellow Quartz was standing by, stoically. But her eyes as she watched Shadow walk by conveyed her concern. Nopony had beaten 50 seconds, and even though only a quarter had gone, it didn’t look like they would be knocked out of the top spots in the qualifiers.

Yellow Quartz was the benchmark. She was #30 for a reason. After her, ponies began to be eliminated. The competitors had seating above the exit to watch the rest. Shadow Flare stayed in the pit with Yellow Quartz. It kept her on the edge of her hooves. Nopony else was dominating the course like they had. She wanted him out of sight to recover from the shock, but Shadow wasn’t going to give that to her.

Another Initiate stepped into the pit. “Mtoaji, you have a visitor.”

Shadow stood up and followed him around the corner to the outside. Red Tip was there, beaming.

Damn impressive. I am glad I stepped away to watch you because you destroyed that course. You used your shotgun to take down multiple targets! Nopony does that!”

Shadow chuckled. “Nopony brings Shotguns in here. Its partially my backup. I did what I needed to do with it.”

“While reloading! That takes skill. Military precision! I have never seen anypony reload like that.

“It was nothing special,” Shadow shrugged with a smile. “I just went in and shot the targets. They are going to have to be faster if they want to really test us.”

“Oh, they will get faster,” Red Tip chuckled. “I look forward to seeing you in the real competition.”

“You are on my VIP list,” Shadow said. “So you have a seat to be awed by me some more. I haven’t done anything special, yet.”

“How did you change your guns in the middle of the reload?” Red Tip asked.

“Its a simple technique that transfers the trigger bar to the trigger for that weapon. Since its only two, its up or down.”

“Only two? How many have you had at one?”

“Ummm,” Shadow said thinking. “Eight. But it used a different electrical system. We had manual overrides set up in a similar fashion. That was complicated and actually took time to pull the rod to make the switch. This is simple. I had a very good technician work this system out.”

“Insane,” Red Tip said shaking his head. “Insane. But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Not after getting to know you a little bit. How shaken is Knight Yellow Quartz?”

“A good amount,” Shadow replied. “And me staying in the pit instead of watching the others is driving her nuts.”

“I’ll let you get back to it,” Red Tip replied. “But Earthen Charm took first in the hay bail toss. Next up is the final runs for the obstacle course.”

Shadow was torn. He wanted to watch Earthen Charm, but staying here was advantageous.

“You have to wait and see where you land,” Red Tip finished. “I’ll update you.”

Shadow stepped back inside. Knight Yellow Quartz tensed up when she saw him round the corner. Number 53 also joined them. He took third place with 46 seconds on the clock.

“Impressive,” He said to both of them. “I wish I had gotten to see you both make your runs.”

“You fumbled the reload, didn’t you?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah,” He admitted. “I did.”

“You still shouldn’t be knocked out,” Shadow stated. “The way the spread is going, its going to be hard to push your to 31.”

“This is your first time here,” He said. “I am Primer. My parents were Steel Rangers, but I chose to marry a farmer and work the soil.”

“Good for you,” Shadow smiled. “Farming isn’t easy and it is very sorely needed.”

“I make them proud by competing here, letting them know I haven’t lost my touch. I’m the current champion. You two rushed the course, but you will have to take into account your shot percentages after this.”

“That is the way I like it,” Shadow chuckled. “This whole run and gun, fine. It has it’s use. But I hate wasting ammo and prefer to keep things clean and efficient.”

“That is what I like to hear,” Primer chuckled. “I know Knight Yellow Quartz knows how to do that. But seeing another citizen know the same, its going to make for a real fun time. And I see you are rocking two rifles.”

“Yep,” Shadow said with a nod. “A 5.56 auto and a DCD 10 round box magazine shotgun.”

“That’s a shotgun?” Primer asked shocked. Even Yellow Quartz’s ears perked up.

“Yep,” Shadow grinned. That row of 6 targets that popped up on the back. One went down and forced me to reload. As I did, I switched to it and took the last five down with 3 shots of 00 Buck. The reload was finished so I switched back to the 5.56 and kept rolling.”

“Impressive,” Primer replied. “Two guns on a battle saddle will come in mighty useful.”

“It would be better if I had my left gun installed,” Shadow said, immediately regretting it. “Yeah… I, I used to have another 5.56 rifle on my left. But I had it removed to facilitate a larger saddlebag. I haven’t regretted it, ever. Now it would be useful, but its just a dumb contest and I don’t have the rifle anymore. My set up is best for what I have to do while scavenging.”

“That is what matters,” Primer replied. “It doesn’t sound like you actually need that second gun. Or I guess it would be the third.”

“Nope,” Shadow smiled. “I don’t.”

They continued in silence, waiting as the others took their turn. Initiates had to go out and clean up spent brass every so often so others didn’t slip. An attempt to keep it as fair and safe as possible. The other top five from last year were sub 50 seconds, but none of them hit the 30s.

By the end, it was clear who the real contenders were. With the top 30 moving on, Shadow Flare was going second to last. Because he had the second best score. The scribe overseeing the Reactive Rifle Competition greeted them in the pit.

“Some rules to go over for the next round, which begins 8am tomorrow morning. There are three rounds planned. Each one will get progressively more difficult. Each one will knock off the lower 10. The scoring is simple. One target hit equals -1 point. The first round has 30 targets, the second round has 45 targets, and the final round has 60 targets. Every single bullet fired adds a point. The goal is to be at zero. A target and a bullet cancel each other out. Shoot two at a target and you add one point. There will be no ties. If there happens to be a tie for the last slot to move to the next round, neither will advance. The speed you move through will be the determining factor. Everything is on a timer. The targets will not pop up until the previous set are down. If you need more ammo, we sell it at the quartermaster shop in the Generosity Wing. Any questions?”

Nopony had any questions. Shadow filed out with the rest of them. The wall that faced the main center walkway had a chalk board mounted on it with each of their names and starting positions on display.

Shadow needed to double check his ammo supplies. He was certain he had enough, but Shadow wouldn’t rest with it on his mind. Shadow unlocked his locker and pulled his throw bag out. He untied it and pulled the ammo can out. He double counted his anti-machine rifle rounds. 90. The standard for that long distance was 30, five per distance. But the matches always had to go over that to finalize the winner.

Shadow unwrapped his loaded magazines. Six, 30 round magazines. That would mean two a round, and the final round would require 60 shots. Shadow also had a bag of 60 loose rounds. The Shotgun had four spare magazines with 20 loose shells. If Shadow could hit multiple targets with his shotgun, he could reach negative numbers to win. But he doubted they would put them in a row again.

Shadow packed it up and locked the cabinet. He went in search of Red Tip and Earthen Charm. Red Tip was easy to find. He was in the middle of the courtyard having a talk with an old stallion dressed in fancy scribe robes. Red Tip saw Shadow and waved him over.

“Mtoaji, this is High Scribe Pea Soup,” Red Tip said.

“Wonderful to meet you,” Pea Soup said extending a hoof.

Shadow shook his hoof with a smile. “It is good to be here. This is a unique and interesting place you have set up.”

“Thank you,” Pea Soup smiled. “But it doesn’t have to stay ours. We are looking for quality ponies to join up. Ponies who believe they can make a difference and you show you have the skill to make that difference. I am speaking about the Hawks.”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Not interested. I have a job to do that is unrelated to you and the Steel Rangers. I’m here, for now, until I can solve my problem and move on.”

“So I have heard,” Pea Soup replied. “But can you blame us for trying? Especially with somepony like yourself. Skilled, able to handle the wasteland, and just look at yourself; you can wear a uniform with a strong back and right mind. It looks marvelous on you. Even after competing, you barely broke a sweat.”

“I was only in there for 34 seconds,” Shadow replied. “No time to sweat.”

“Exactly!” Pea Soup exclaimed. “Everypony else was sweating right from the start. I watched Knight Yellow Quartz. She kept a cool head, but halfway through, she had some sweat. Not you though. You acted like you were trained for it.”

“I was,” Shadow stated blankly. “That was nothing.”

“Then what has you here, alone?” Pea Soup prodded,

“Fate,” Shadow said, resisting the urge to spit. “The reason I came is still the same and the requirements for leaving are… well that’s shifted, but I am managing. I just need the right information.”

“And if we have it?” Pea Soup asked.

“You don’t,” Shadow replied.

“Try me.”

“Alright,” Shadow grinned. “Are you any good with history?”

“I am the Proctor of the Order of the Quill. The history and record keeping division of the Steel Rangers.”

Shadow fired away. “What and where is Kifopiga?”

Pea Body took a second to prepare before responding. “Never heard of it. Perhaps it is under a different name?”

Shadow moved on. “Who is Two Toned?”

“A Zebra general. A nasty fellow who reigned terror on Equestria for the later part of the war. It is he who was responsible for the launching of the spells.”

“Who is Captain Rumble?”

“I do not recall a Captain Rumble,” Pea Soup admitted. “But Captains were a lower rank in the Equestrian Military.”

“He flew the Flash Magnus,” Shadow added.

“I do not know the airship captains,” Pea Soup replied. “Flash Magnus was a good name for a cloudship. The legendary character is from very, very old Equestria and he was an important Pegasus hero.”

“A cloudship named Red Dawn?”

“A Red Dawn served in a strong roll early on. An early version transport. She was soon out classed by larger, better ships which became known as Sky-Tanks. It was the Red Dawn who, alongside the Blue Berets, out maneuvered the Zebras at Stalliongrad, finally winning the battle after the whole thing started all over again from the Ministry of Peace’s miscalculation.”

Shadow gave an approving nod. “Who is Soarin?”

“A Wonderbolt before they were disbanded. He went on to teach after they were disbanded. Many pegasi learned to fight under his wing. The Legend says that it was his protegees who went on to create the Blue Beret.”

“You have answered more than Scribe Yearling could,” Shadow said.

“She is young, and still has much to learn,” Pea Soup replied. “And this information is stored away, now buried by more relevant information. Relevant to our survival.”

“Spitfire?”

“Another Wonderbolt, but I do not know what happened to her. She purposefully stayed out of the limelight.”

“What do you know about Equestria’s navy?”

“Equestria never fielded a proper navy. Luna was working to build a real fleet to secure the seas.”

Shadow stood there, thinking. Perhaps they had the equipment to reach the Enclave. “How do you keep in touch with the other contingents?”

“We send out patrols to directly contact them. Why?”

“No telecommunications?”

Pea Soup shook his head. “Only a short distance. We can’t even reach the power plant on most days. If the clouds cleared, we probably could with our set up now. We are getting things installed to be able to talk to the power plant directly. You wiping out the Hawks saved us a lot of time and blood.”

Shadow shook his head. “You do not have the information I need. I would pay dearly for it, but you do not know Kifopiga. That is the keystone to everything.”

“However,” Shadow said with a smile growing. Perhaps you could tell me more about these Blue Beret pegasi. I am wearing their uniform after all. I have to get more clothes. But that is off topic.”

“We don’t have much, but come with me. I can show you what we do know. They are fascinating. Small squads won whole battles for Equestria. Of course, they often needed the Steel Rangers to come in fast or they would not survive. But their job paved the way for the Equestrian Army to get to the goal with sometimes no extra forces. Whole charges across open land went unchallenged because the Zebras were dealing with the Blue Berets! They were the proudest thing to come out of Cloudsdale. Ever. Even over Rainbow Dash because she didn’t really do anything.”

Shadow sat down besides Pea Soup and began to read everything he could pull up about the Blue Berets. Not only were there written documents, but pictures and live combat footage. From them dashing out of the low openings of cloudship transports to fighting Zebras in bloody hoof to hoof combat.

One of the videos was from the helmet camera of a dead beret, laying there as his comrades fought to secure the drop zone. More of the cadences from Basic Training made sense as Shadow watched them literally take the drop zone so a cloudship could come in and drop troops off in advanced positions.

It all made Shadow proud to be a Pegasus. Fuck the current division. What they did back then was beyond that. They too were fighting for their families in the best way they knew how. Shadow skipped dinner to learn more and went to bed much later than he should have. But the songs they had recorded were stuck in his mind and they guided his dreams.


Music

Fighting soldiers from the sky

Fearless Pegasi who fly and die

Pegasi who mean just what they say

The brave Pegasi of the Blue Beret

Silver wings upon their chest

These are Pegasi, Equestria's best

One hundred Pegasi will test today

But only three win the Blue Beret

Trained to live off nature's land

Trained in combat, hoof-to-hoof

Pegasi who fight by night and day

Courage peak from the Blue Berets

Silver wings upon their chest

These are Pegasi, Equestria's best

One hundred Pegasi will test today

But only three win the Blue Beret

Back at home a young wife waits

Her Blue Beret has met his fate

He has died for those oppressed

Leaving her his last request

Put silver wings on my son's chest

Make him one of Equestria's best

He'll be a stallion they'll test one day

Have him win the Blue Beret.


Music

Lay the green sod on me

carve my name in stone

lay the green sod on me

the soldier has come home

don't mourn for me, my darling

don't cry when I am gone

don't mourn for me, my darling

the soldier will come home

my friends have gone before me

and layed their tired bodies down

my friends have gone before me

to prepare the resting ground

let me go to sleep now

to march and fight no more

let me go to sleep now

I'm tired, my body's sore

so lay the green sod on me

put the wreath upon my stone

lay the green sod on me

the soldier has come home


Music

Come all ye young mares

And hear my sad tale

'Bout a brave young trooper, who's wings did fail

As he went up into the cloudy sky

He sang a sad song on his way to die

He sang, "My love, is far-far from me. Far above the Equestrian ground,"

"I left her there, with a tear in her eye, for I must go where brave pegasi die."

Whoa-whoa-oh, yes I must go where brave pegasi die

As he went out of the ship into the stormy night

I saw the young trooper in a burst of fiery light

As he fell through the night, his armor all in flame

A smile on his lips, he cried out his girl's name

We found the young trooper

No longer will he be sore

From the great cloud bird, he'll jump no more

His face was pale, as pure as milk

And we wrapped him 'round in a soft cloud’s silk

Whoa-whoa-oh, yes we wrapped him 'round in a soft cloud’s silk

So all ye young maidens, come listen to me, never love a Pegasus trooper

You'll never be free

For some dark night when he falls through the sky

His wings will not open; your love will die

Whoa-whoa-oh, his wings will not open; your love will die


Music

12 pegasi strong and true

12 pegasi fight for you

On their heads a beret of blue

12 pegasi, invincible

The A-team

12 pegasi heard the call

Ready to give their all

They bring hope where they are seen

12 pegasi, invincible

The A-team

From Equestria's tropical jungle rains

All the way to The Zebra’s burning plains

Where ever there's trouble

Night or day

Go the pegasi of the Blue Beret

To fan the fire of freedoms dream

12 pegasi invincible the A-team

12 pegasi invincible the A-team


I'm A Lucky One
Badge of Courage
I'm Watching The Raindrops Fall
Salute To The Nurses
Garet Trooper
Bamiba

Chapter 116 - Reactive Rifle

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Shadow was up at 6am and began a simple workout. He skipped wings for fear that he was being watched after peaking their interest the day before. When it came to breakfast, Red Tip and Earthen Charm were nowhere to be seen. But Shadow hadn’t been around to make plans.

Shadow ate a solid meal and loaded up. He made his way out of Generosity Wing into the courtyard and towards the gate. Red Tip and Earthen Charm were right there, waiting to catch him at the gate.

“Hey,” Shadow greeted them as he came to a stop.

“Look who we got out here,” Red Tip said.

“Hey!” Strawberry chirped.

“I thought you were going to work through this,” Shadow said shocked. “Somepony needs to be back there.”

“Yeah, but nopony said you were going to decimate the Reactive Rifle Course like you did. You were blowing it off since you signed up. Red Tip got a note back to me last night. So of course I had to come out here and watch the fun.”

“Well,” Shadow stammered, unsure what else to say.

“Incoming,” Earthen Charm warned.

Shadow looked in the direction she was. It was Knight Yellow Quartz. And she was on an intercept mission. But it wasn’t for him. Shadow looked at where she was focusing on and gulped. Dahlia. And their meeting point would be right at the gate, next to them.

“Welcome Crusader,” Knight Yellow Quartz greeted Dahlia. “Perfectly timed too, because I want to speak to you about him.”

“It is good to be here,” Dahlia replied, taking off her helmet.

Shadow had never seen Dahlia’s head without it’s helmet on. It was a pity her light blue mane was cropped almost all the way off. It had the hint of real beauty. Her mint green coat was obviously soft to the touch. There were no blemishes on her head at all. Shadow was expecting to see a rougher, tougher face than the middle aged, joyful eyed one he was looking at.

“I am sad I missed yesterday’s rounds,” Dahlia continued. “But which him?”

“The small white one.”

“Ha ha,” Shadow sarcastically laughed.

“Know him?” Yellow Quartz asked.

“No,” Dahlia said shaking her head. “I certainly would know a pony like him. Is there a problem?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “I’ve got her rattled about the Reactive Rifle Competition. I am a threat to her winning, that is all.”

“Good morning Crusader,” Pea Soup said stopped on his way to somewhere.

“Yay,” Shadow groaned. “The gang is all here. The young blood who is pissed she will lose, the one who wants me to join and was baiting me with history lessons last night, and then the one who loves to fuck ponies over.”

“You know her?” Yellow Quartz asked.

“Unfortunately,” Shadow spat.

Pea Soup was confused. “Crusader Dahlia, you don’t know him?”

“No, I have never met him.”

“Up until yesterday he was wearing a heavy red jacket with a black under suit, Stetson and cape. Same symbol.”

“No,” Dahlia confidently shook her head. “But a lot of ponies know me.”

Shadow grinned. Now he had Dahlia on edge as well. “We have met, face to face. But, you thought I was a mare in that encounter.”

“That I can understand,” Red Tip bravely interjected. “I assume you were wearing something else.”

“Combat armor,” Dahlia stated annoyed. “Blue. No, gray. Gray plated combat armor with that same star symbol painted in dark blue on the chest and a protective helmet and hood. And you had guns on both sides. Where are the other four? Two stallions in the same gear and two mares.”

“In better places,” Shadow replied stoically.

“You change equipment a lot,” Red Tip stated. “How can you afford to.”

“Got lucky,” Shadow replied, fighting off the encroaching sorrow. “But each time I have to switch, I keep getting further and further away from the good stuff.”

“What happened to that combat armor?” Red Tip pushed.

“I buried it,” Shadow replied. “Along with the last two of my comrades. The game changed, so I had to change. Equestria loathes me, Luck favors me, Fate called me. But at least I am not you, Dahlia. Equestria must be warming up something special for all of your atrocities.”

“I protect this wasteland,” Dahlia defended. “I keep the monsters out of the cities. I catch them and bring them to justice. I patrol the dark places the main bulk of Steel Rangers can’t. I am their hunter. I serve a tough but important roll.”

Shadow was ready with his accusation. “You use brute tactics and force to bring submission by fear. You shoot before you protect. You do not risk your life by making sure you are in the right. You have no compassion, citing your rehearsed defense as reason to have none.”

Shadow took a definitive step into Dahlia’s personal space.

“You are going to want to take a step back, now!” Dahlia warned. “Citizen.”

“I know how your armor work,” Shadow said challenging her. “You are not safe inside of it. I can make it buckle just like I can make you buckle outside of it. You are nothing without it.”

Dahlia stepped in to push Shadow back, but she found a stunningly strong wall instead.

Shadow brought their heads together so they locked eyes as close as possible. “I may be small, especially to you in that armor, but you have never scared me.”

Dahlia responded with a growl and step in to try and force him back. Shadow had guessed the move and made his own. Dahlia found herself pushed back as she made her step. She had lost to a tiny stallion with no power armor because she threw herself off balance.

“I am going to stop this right here,” Pea Soup said, forcing them apart. “There are citizens around. Dahlia is far from perfect. I am sorry she mistook you as a mare.”

“I usually get a kick out of that,” Shadow interjected. “Especially that time.”

High Scribe Pea Soup had taken charge.“And we are working to make sure she represents us in the best light possible on her long and difficult routes. For instance, she is here to learn more about Black Widow. She will be hunting her across all of the wasteland.”

“Yeah,” Dahlia grinned. The grinned turn malicious. “You know a lot about me. Where have you been every time she pops up?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “Trottingham.”

“Just sitting there?” Yellow Quartz pushed.

“Now hold on,” Red Tip said stepping in confidently. “I can account to Mtoaji not being Black Widow. She has to hide as the Trottingham guard rips apart the city. Mtoaji is a savvy business pony who practically lives in the market. He is never gone when Black Widow strikes.”

“Plus, he saved me from a horrible life in the Lux,” Strawberry defended. “Black Widow doesn’t save ponies. But He got me out of a fourth floor window. We had to drop that last ten feet. His ability to roll and tuck saved him from a hard landing.”

And right then, it was worth saving Strawberry. Kifo Herixleta was not on Shadow to hear it. The sword was back in Trottingham. Safe.

“That’s how you took out the Hawks!” Red Tip said switching topics. “You can jump!”

Shadow let out a few chuckles. “Its not jumping. Its vaulting and rolling. The basics of acrobatics. I grew up learning it and performed, besting obstacle courses built for me. But yes, that is how I could out maneuver the Hawks in the buildings.

“At one point, I had to drop three stories onto a small ledge that may or may not hold me. And to dissipate the energy or break bones, I rolled off of it into another fall. At least I was able to kick off an I beam and land two floors down in a proper roll. It hurt like hell but I lived. And then I had to go back up to come in from below where they had secured. That’s how I got myself into position to kill Razor.”

“And then you never turned the bounty in,” Yellow Quartz said annoyed.

“I was only after them for their guns,” Shadow shrugged.

Pea Soup coughed to get their attention. “Black Widow is a Unicorn, not an Earth Pony like Mtoaji. Unicorns have horns.”

“I have a Unicorn horn,” Shadow stated. “It doesn’t work. I was dealing with Disciples in Fillydelphia and I got into a fight. I was, unsurprisingly, outnumbered. To get them to back off, I popped it off her head. Its currently back in Trottingham.”

Nopony knew what to say and they they stood there for a minute in silence.

Pea Soup got them back on track. “Knight Yellow Quartz, Mtoaji, you both have a competition to get to. Or else you will be disqualified and it will be a huge disappointment to everypony.”

“Yes Sir,” Shadow said immediately and doing a perfect, clean turn to head out. He easily out shined Yellow Quartz.

“I want to know what uniform he wore so badly,” Pea Soup said.

“Uniform?” Dahlia asked.

“He won’t give specifics, but he is out here for a reason. Something we might get in the way of. So he won’t speak anything close to details. That Blue Beret uniform fits him perfectly. And I am talking mentally, not physically. Although it fits him physically quite well.”

“I don’t trust him,” Dahlia spat.

“You don’t trust anypony,” Pea Soup shot back.

“I have to go too,” Earthen Charm said. “I have stuff to win. Red Tip, Strawberry, I will see you at the Long Distance Competition. Go watch Mtoaji. Its going to be a lot more exciting than watching us in the Marathon. And most of the time you can’t even see us.”

“Alright,” Red Tip said. “This way Strawberry.”

Shadow had made sure to add Strawberry to his entrance list so she could get prime seating for both events. And so she didn’t have to fight for a spot to watch.

“Good morning,” Primer greeted them before freezing. “My my, you two are already at each other’s throats. And we only just passed qualifiers. This is a competition of you against the course, not a direct action against the others. You two will want to cool off if you are to stand a chance to go past round one.”

Shadow took a deep breath in and began think back on his training. It failed. His mind was drawn to the Blue Berets and the combat footage he saw the night before. The Steel Rangers might not know he has wings, but he would carry their legacy on. And he would show them their training tactics were piss poor compared to the Enclave’s system.

Round One started and Shadow just sat there, waiting. Their group grew smaller and smaller as one by one they stepped out to face a new course. After every five competitors, initiates would sweep the brass off to the sides to keep it clear.

Shadow readied himself on deck. He might be the 29th to go, but he was still #41. They kept their original numbers to make things easier. Shadow has a magazine partially out of his saddlebag, but zipped down so he didn’t loose it. 30 targets, 30 shots. The most shots he had heard was 35. Shadow was in trouble if he had to do a mag change.

Shadow stepped out into the course. It now had a lot of walls and columns. There was only one way to see the back of the first half from the starting point. They had increased the number of targets on the field to make things much harder. Shadow took a deep breath and crouched down, ready to pounce.

The light beeped and switched from red to yellow. With that annoying buzz it turned green and two targets popped up on different sides. Shadow shot the one on the right wall and then easily picked off the one that came out from behind a wall further down as he moved.

The ching as metal unlocked and a target swung out keyed Shadow in on the new one and he drilled a round into before it was fully extended. It bounced back and forth erratically and then glowed as a unicorn manually set it back. Just because he shot it before it could flip all the way out didn’t diminish the shot’s truth.

Shadow moved on, diving and rolling. He dove into a roll behind cover as he he heard two targets pop up. Shadow vaulted out of the roll over the low wall and put a round in each of them. It was easy. They were relying on more possibilities to divert attention and the obstacles to slow down competitors and block line of sight.

But it wasn’t even a challenge to Shadow as he rounded the corner. For fun he popped the trigger bar up to his shotgun and took down the three waiting targets with ease. Shadow heard the cheers rise as he did the switch, impressing the crowd who was waiting for it to happen. He popped the trigger bad back to his rifle, keeping his shotgun as backup.

Shadow kept moving steadily through the course, picking the targets off as soon as they came up. He was also paying attention to every target location that wasn’t used. Every advantage was an advantage. The last three targets were along the wall a he came around that final turn. They were too spread out to take two down at once with his shotgun, but Shadow easily knocked them out with a single round per target.

Shadow stood up on his hind legs in victory as the crowd raged. He did a back flip to their enjoyment and waved as he exited.

“Very good Mtoaji,” The Initiate said as he stepped into the pit. “30 for 30, meaning a score of 0 in 48 second. You are in first by a solid six seconds. Primer now holds second.”

Primer came down from their stands to congratulate Shadow.

“Hey, you are in next too,” Shadow replied. “I wish I could’ve watch you go.”

“Oh you will,” Primer grinned. “Round two reverses. It is not an advantage to be in first. But lets get up there to see how Knight Yellow Quartz does. Scope out her skill.”

Shadow followed after him. They made it as the light turned green. Shadow watched as she dealt with the course with extreme military precision. She wasn’t playful like Shadow. She would make a deadly adversary. If Shadow was going to take out any of the Trottingham Steel Rangers, he would have to start with her.

As she rounded the last turn to face the final three targets her gun jammed. A round was stuck out, caught in a stovepipe jam. Her front hoof expertly slid back with tremendous force, pushing the bolt back as she forced the round out. It continued, cycling the bolt back to get a round in the chamber. She slammed it back to kick that round out and then opened fire, cleanly picking them off. She had easily landed herself in the top 10 and the crowd loved to see her clear a jam with such skill.

Shadow zipped down to the pit with Primer on his flank.

“How often does that happen?” Shadow immediately asked.

“I need my kit!” Yellow Quarts yelled to an initiate. The she focused on Shadow. “Every so often. I am used to. Cycle out to the round after to be safe.”

“What are those, 60 round magazines?”

“Yeah,” Yellow Quartz nodded. “But some oil will take care of it.”

“Is your ejector spring strong enough?”

“Yes, the gun is to specifications. Springs, rods, everything. Its old. It happens. The ammunition is usually old. We never use reloads for a reason. We need quality rounds we can count on, despite their age.”

Shadow stepped right beside her and jammed both hooves onto her rifle, dragging her down and toppling her. Everypony was stunned. She was furious but froze when she saw Shadow’s smiling face and outstretched hoof to help her up. She grabbed a hold of it and Shadow easily pulled her up.

“You have a lot of force for being so small,” Yellow Quartz said confused. “And a lot of strength. You beat power armor.”

“Dahlia knows bruit strength, I know form,” Shadow explained. “Real power comes from proper form. But your jamming because your front bolt is a tad loose, causing limp shouldering. It causes failure to eject when it can’t provide enough rigidity and resistance. It stops the cycle from properly happening. You need to remount it with new bolts and a washers. Double washers would be wise.”

“How do you know that?” Yellow Quartz stammered.

“Because when I first learned to shoot from a battle saddle, I was the limp shoulder. If my trainers could see me now, performing like this, they would be shocked and proud. Well the first one would be shocked. The second taught me heavy weapons and saw me actually fix that. Ever wear a heavy machine gun on your side?”

“A heavy machine gun?” Yellow Quartz said with wide eyes.

“Damn thing was longer than me, but the instructor wanted me to feel it. To better understand the relation the weapon has to the saddle and to me. That and get a good laugh. I had to take this really wide stance. And she wanted accurate burst fire so I couldn't cherry pick. I had to show full control. It made it a lot easier to handle basic rifles like these.

“But lets go get that rifle mount repaired.”

“We can’t leave,” Yellow Quartz reminded him.

“Can you get washers in?”

“Uhhh… Initiate, get me mount bolts and washers for that size! Now!”

“Yes, Knight!” the initiate who had brought her repair kit in said.

“They will have to take some time to get the next one set up,” Yellow Quartz said. “But not much. And you are first.”

“I got this,” Shadow said. “But lets get to the starting pit.”

They rushed out and around. Shadow ignored Red Tip and Strawberry. They saw he was busy with something.

Shadow had her saddle off before Yellow Quartz could explain how to unmount it. She was shocked beyond words. The initiate bounded in with a bag in his mouth. Shadow ripped it from his mouth and poured it out on the table. In a few seconds he had the rear bolts set up but the front bolt would not back out from the saddle frame.

“Initiate!” Shadow called. “You are a Unicorn, get that bolt free.”

“Uhhh, I can’t. My magic doesn’t work like that.”

“Well who can?” Shadow asked frustrated.

“I’M HERE!” A scribe said sliding into the wall in an attempt to make the sharp turn.

“The front mounting bolt if jammed.”

“You took it apart! That is why it’s jammed!”

“I’m not that dumb,” Shadow shot back. “I wear one too. I’ve been dealing with maintenance for a long time. Just get it undone!”

Her horn glowed and the bolt glowed before shattering.

“Idiot,” Shadow said pulling the frame off the table. “That doesn’t get all of it out. It needs to be backed out properly. Now I have to try and clear out all of the threads.”

Shadow hit it several times before tossing it back on the table.

“I’ve got this,” The scribe said, putting her hoof in the way.

“Are you the one who has been helping maintain her rifle? Who missed this?”

The scribe’s eyes narrowed but she withdrew his hoof. Shadow threaded the new bolt and secured it with washers. He pulled and tugged, feeling the connection. Without a word he slapped it onto Yellow Quartz, shocking her into a yelp as he got closer than she wanted to in certain areas. She was ready as Shadow pushed down like before.

“That should do it,” Shadow stated definitively. “We need to get you onto the course to let loose with some ammo.”

“I will do that,” the Scribe said, heading over to the entrance.

A minute later they were waved into the course. Shadow intently watched the rifle as she took a shot. She fired another.

“Just let loose,” Shadow told her, still rushing to the time line.

Yellow Quartz shrugged and let it all go.

“How did that feel?” Shadow asked before the brass was settled.

“Perfect,” Yellow Quartz said shocked. “I have never felt her better.”

Shadow Flare looked up to where they were controlling the targets. “Give us something to hit to make sure its calibrate!”

A target popped up and Yellow Quarts hit it. Two more it quick succession popped up and she knocked them down, dead center. They sent off a series of other targets and she promptly put them back down in their resting positions.

“Wow,” Yellow Quartz said stunned.

“You might want to look at that saddle after the competition to work on something without washers. And this a short distance, so you will need to sight her in to longer rangers. But it will be more than sufficient with you skill.”

“I doubt you knocked the accuracy off,” Yellow Quartz smiled.

“Lets go back in,” Shadow said. “We have a course to dominate.”

“I can’t believe you fixed it so easily,” Yellow Quartz said, still trying to wrap her head around it.

“I think I did,” Shadow corrected her. “I can’t be certain all the way yet, its not undergone stress testing.”

“Stress testing? I have never gotten to fire full auto for 60 rounds. She usually stove pipes at least once, hopefully any other jams are stove pipes.”

“Well, now you know,” Shadow said, tapping his magazines to make sure the bullets were seated correctly.

“Mtoaji, you are up,” An initiate said stepping into the area.

Shadow nodded to Yellow Quartz, gave the magazine a final tap and trotted to the opening. He checked his spare magazine was out but secure. He had 45 targets to knock down. He was going to have to do a reload at some point.

The light turned green and three targets popped up and were knocked right back down. Shadow played through the whole course. At one point he jumped off the wall into a back flip, shooting a target as he turned. It was pathetically easy.

Until Shadow messed up and was a step ahead of the targets. His time flying under Marble Falls helped him identify the mistake in time. He turned, bumping his shotgun into gear and put 00 buck into the back of it, slamming the mechanism down.

At the end, Shadow did another flip for the crowd and walked off. “45 for 45, meaning a score of 0 in 1:15. Not bad. And very good catch on the mistake.”

“They better double check that target,” Shadow warned him. “I probably broke it.”

“They are repairing it right now.”

“Repairing, or replacing? Shadow asked.

“It’s easiest and fastest to outright replace any potentially damaged targets.”

“Right,” Shadow chuckled.

Shadow headed up to watch the others. Shadow wasn’t the only one to get ahead of himself. But unlike him, the others bolted back to shoot the target from the front. And all seven who also made the mistake dropped below the top ten. Primer showed exceptional reaction, but he was cautious. Still, he ended with a score of 1:14, edging out Shadow.

Yellow Quartz looked a thousand times better as she swept through the course. She halted at the right spot and hit that trick target from a tough angle across the course. Without needing a magazine change, she slid into first at 1:12.

“Nice job,” Yellow Quartz sarcastically said to Shadow. “You hit the target but broke the course.”

Shadow shrugged. “Shooting metal at metal, something is going to break. But you hit it from that angle. That was impressive.”

“Both of you got ahead of yourself,” Primer said. “Both of you got lucky.”

“He has a point,” Shadow said. “He subbed 1:20, and he didn’t pass or almost pass the target.”

“Your shotgun echoes through the entire set up,” Yellow Quartz complained.

“I know,” Shadow smiled. “Its awesome. The crowd loves it.”

They were herded over to the starting pit where the scribe overseeing the course was waiting for them. “Now that we have our finalists, congratulations. Now there can be no errors. Only three of you will walk out with awards and only three of you will be remembered. Some of you will have to push if you want to get one of those slots. 60 targets. Shot them all when they pop up. Each bullet is a point, each target struck is negative point. I can guarantee that you will not win this if you have to fire 61 bullets. Now, we are setting up a roulette, so that you do not know when you are going until its time to enter.”

The scribe left and Shadow began to ready himself. He cleared both weapons and loaded fresh magazines. He kept the actions open for safety. There was no need to close them until he stepped out onto the course.

Primer was up first. The crowd cheered, the buzzer rang and the shots were fired. The crowd cheered as he finished. They thought he did marvelous. There was no obvious moments where he made a mistake.

Shadow sat there waiting as the others were called first. The Initiate poked his head around the corner. “Knight Yellow Quartz, you’re up.”

Shadow locked eyes with Yellow Quartz. She was concerned with him going after her, but she wasn’t going to give up. Shadow forced himself to not count the seconds she was in there. The crowd cheering pulled him out of his distraction.

Shadow stood up, took a deep breath in, and walked forward. Pictures of the Blue Berets flashed in his mind. Pieces of the courses Marble Falls had them fly were added in. Along with it came their first bumbling days, trying to stay out of the laser pointers brought a smile to his lips. Shadow Flare was ready.

Shadow entered with no antics and crouched down, staring at the red light one last time. He closed his eyes as it turned yellow to just listen. The crowd died down, waiting for the buzzer. Shadow heard it’s pitch and heard the first five pop, one at the end of the course.

Shadow shifted right as he opened his eyes and fired. The first target went down and then Shadow swept right to left. Unlike others, he shot the position, not the distance, cutting down on his time. Shadow moved forward, recognizing that he had 60 targets in a space that was perfect for 30. It was a lot slower. The first area had to hold the first thirty targets to space things correctly. Shadow was spot on as he basically walked forward. Multiple targets glowed as they were manually forced to react because he was so fast. 28 targets had him at the turn.

Shadow stepped out and saw the next three. Shadow chose his two targets. The last round always ejected up, and he was going to have some fun to loosen the mood.

The last round ejected. Shadow saw the case go straight up and shifted so that his back hoof kicked it back up as he bashed out the empty magazine. The new magazine was pulled out, Shadow spun backwards and kicked the shell casing at the third target. He snapped the magazine it place, dropped the bolt and aimed as the target fell backwards.

Shadow grinned. For show or not, the target obviously couldn’t tell the difference. He would have to remember it for the next time he faced raiders. Anything to keep the enemy heads down as he was forced to reload.

29 targets were left. Shadow moved with precision, adjusting to the sound of a target popping out. It was slow work moving forward. The last turn came and Shadow dove out to the other side. As he expected, the best angle was from the far wall.

Shadow slid to a stop out of the roll, bumping the trigger bar to the shotgun. From the far wall, Shadow almost had a double lined up. He fired at another target as he skipped into position, fired and bumped his rifle back online. Two targets dropped and Shadow picked off the other two that were immediately up.

Shadow was panting as he put the last target down with his rifle. The crowd’s noise assaulted his ears as he let his focus widen. Shadow reared up with a howl and jumped into a font tuck, flipping over perfectly to their enjoyment.

Shadow didn’t get a chance to leave as the others came out from the pit and the Scribe came around the corner to run the announcements.

“Thank you. Thank you,” The Scribe said, calming the crowd. “Yes, that final round by number 41, Mtoaji was a stunning run. All of our finalists gave us an amazing show. The raiders need to watch out for all of them. I certainly don’t want to be on the business side of their rifles.”

The crowd laughed.

“We have other competitions to see, so I will cut to the chase. In third place with a score of zero and a time of two minutes and thirty-six seconds, last year’s winner, Primer!”

A scribe pinned a yellow ribbon on Primer’s chest as the crowd cheered.

“Second place goes to a first timer with a score of zero and a time of two minutes and sixteen seconds, Knight Yellow Quartz! Our very own!”

Yellow Quartz’s head dropped. She was smiling, but she was so pissed she was second. She lifted it back up after the red ribbon was pinned on her blue cloak so it was draped onto her chest.

The Scribe let the crowd quiet down.

“First place gave us the best show each time. And we have never had anything like this happen, but with a score of negative two, meaning his slightly longer time of two minutes and twenty-four seconds doesn’t matter, Mtoaji! Our flipping friend!”

Shadow heard him say “flipping” so he immediately did a back flip in place. Once he was back on all fours, the scribe was able to pin the blue ribbon on his chest. He pinned it below his star, where a military medal would go. Shadow just smiled in shock as the Scribe said more to the crowd.

Shadow filed into the pit with the others.

“NEGATIVE TWO!” Yellow Quartz immediately protested. “How the fuck did you get negative TWO!”

“The last turn,” Shadow said. “I went out wide, and had the perfect shot for the way my shotgun spreads. You had to just be in the right spot, which I only caught as I dove out wide.”

“What about the other one?” Yellow Quartz asked furiously. “I had the better time too!”

Shadow chuckled. “I kicked a spent shell casing as it was ejected. The target was twenty yards away as I came around that first corner. I was reloading. It was showboating. But I guess I really knocked it hard. When the reload was done, the target fell before I could shoot.”

“You kicked a shell casing?” Primer said shocked. “I bet you couldn't do it again.”

“I bet I can’t either,” Shadow grinned, “But I would love to try.”

“Oh you will,” Yellow Quartz said accusingly. “Tonight, to end everything, is our challenge showcase. After some other rodeo awards are given out, challenges are allowed to be placed. You technically do not have to accept.”

Yellow Quartz growled. “You are going to accept and you are going to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Got it!”

Shadow stood there as she yelled the last part in his face.

“I got it,” Shadow said calmly. “Even if it is a fluke, I still would be at negative one.”

“I had the better time!” Yellow Quartz said sitting down hard. A tear began to form. “I had you beat by eight seconds. Eight whole fucking seconds. If it wasn’t for that stupid shotgun, I would of had that round. I would have the blue ribbon, not the red.”

“You reclaimed territory the Steel Rangers lost years ago in the competition,” Shadow pointed out. “Second by a good deal. I don’t know how you had eight seconds on me. They came up and I shot them down, with no hesitation.”

Yellow Quartz gave a chuckle. “Most of mine were hit as they came up.”

“You know how to read their patterns,” Shadow chuckled sitting beside her. “It wasn’t hard to figure out after the first round which ones were going to be used and be ready for them. They had a pattern to their techniques.”

Yellow Quartz chuckled again. “I kept telling them that. This year was a lot harder because I stopped a lot of it. It was a lot more dynamic than last year. I ran last year’s course after the Expo and I beat Primer by a whole 36 seconds. And I had to wait for targets to pop up.”

“It was a lot harder this year,” Primer agreed. He was the only other one in the pit. “They did a much better job at making it reactive. So I am glad that neither of you were here last year so I could win one. I don’t know about you Mtoaji, but Knight Yellow Quartz will be sticking around and dominating. Plenty of blue ribbons for her to come.”

“They probably will ban shotguns next year,” Shadow said.

“No, they wont,” Yellow Quartz said, pulling in a sniff. “Shotguns have low capacity. No known shotgun could compete against a rifle with a 30 round magazine. There just isn’t time to reload all those shots. But nopony ever enters with two guns. Most unicorns can’t shoot with two at the same time. At least not for sustained accuracy. You have a unique system. But your unique system requires a lot of training to make use of that little window where you can hit two targets at once. And, that is what can happen in real combat, which this is supposed to simulate. So no, they won’t ban shotguns. Even weird ones like yours with a detachable box magazine. What is that anyway?”

“A Walter DCD,” Shadow said. “This particular variant never hit the market. The DCD is designed for nonlethal bean bag rounds. But the box magazine had problems during production for feeding. I have one that was actually made on the benches of Walter Arms.”

“You got into Walter?” Yellow Quartz said shocked. “The Fillydelphia Contingent hasn’t been able to do that!”

“Well, they didn’t have control of it when I went in,” Shadow chuckled. “Had to clear a group out of there.”

“And that’s when you ran into Dahlia,” Yellow Quartz added.

“After, yes. Once we had left Fillydelphia. But no, we got in, found some cool shit, and locked it back up. Most of it was useless or the wasteland had better models out. But yeah, this was uncovered. And then we had to work on it. And then mount it on my saddle.”

“You didn’t get the saddle there?”

“Nope,” Shadow said. “We already had them. But after that, we removed my left gun and mounted the shotgun on top. I needed more power, but we didn’t have anything in a larger rifle caliber. And I didn’t want to have my left side taken up. I needed that for a large saddlebag, so it was mounted on top.”

“It was expertly done,” Primer said.

“Well, my friend might have been a mechanical genius. He is the one who got us into Walter.”

“That had to be nice,” Yellow Quartz said. “Our scribes are good, very good, but they work with old stuff mostly.”

“Yeah, he had some specialized equipment available and used it to his advantage. Some was hoof tooled.”

Yellow Quartz sighed. “Washer and two new bolts fixed my gun. Without your help, I would have jammed on that last course. And that would have eaten up a good six seconds. Still enough to take second, but you would have take first. Assuming it was only a single jam. Either way, you deserve first. You are going to prove that was a fluke with the shell case, but ignoring that, you still hit two targets with one shot. And I know its possible because I have done it before by clipping the forward target on the edge, shredding the bullet in two. I also had a lucky shot that was redirected into another target. It happens when it’s metal slamming into metal.”

“Mtoaji,” An initiate said trotting up. “I believe this is your magazine.”

“Thank you,” Shadow smiled. “I forgot about it.”

Shadow stood up with a groan. “I’m getting stiff from all that jumping around. But more importantly, I have a friend to beat in the Long Distance Competition. I need food and to swap out guns.”

Shadow popped the spent magazine in his saddlebag and walked out. Primer was right behind him. Shadow was met with open hooves and smiles from Red Tip, Strawberry and Earthen Charm.

“Earthen Charm,” Shadow said surprised.

“I got to get in and see you on the last run. I barely made it, but I saw you. And I didn’t believe it as you did things never seen before.”

Shadow gave a chuckle. “I need food. Lets talk over lunch.”

“You should need food,” Red Tip chuckled. “You were prancing around out there. It was a miracle you moved through the course as fast as you did.”

“His flourishes showed real skill,” Strawberry said. “And he kept moving forward. The others did a lot of stopping and starting which takes time.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said to Strawberry. “But yes, I was having fun out there. Until that last round. I was going to win. I was going to be the fastest. And if I hadn’t been able to line that shotgun round up right, I would have gotten second. I was 8 seconds behind.”

“I think they timed her faster,” Red Tip stated. “Steel Ranger Unicorns were controlling everything. While they never slowed anypony down, they might had been a little quick on the draw.”

“She was quick on the draw,” Shadow replied. “That is why. Its all timed out in segments. They don’t have direct control over the timing. Its set up on a timer of sorts, but each set of targets has to go down before the others can go up.”

“And that is why paper targets are better,” Red Tip declared. “And this line is going to suck. Will we even have time to eat?”

“Yes you will,” An initiate said coming over to them. “I am instructed to move you two ahead of the line since you are needed for the next competition and you need to have a solid meal in you to steady your blood sugar levels. All four of you, follow me.”

“This is unexpected,” Red Tip said. “I haven’t ever had this.”

“Well you are with Mtoaji,” The initiate said. “Mtoaji didn’t have a chance to eat earlier to compensate for the Long Distance Competition. We knew you would be watching him compete.”

“Thank you,” Shadow said as they were rushed to the front and seated at a saved table.

“We better eat fast,” Red Tip said catching the time. “We have time, but we don’t have time. And… you are done.”

“What?” Shadow shrugged as he swallowed the last bite. “You think I learned how to shoot and move like that lounging around is mess halls? Fuck no. My instructors would have none of that. It was always move move move move move!”

“Yeah, well did they teach you to shoot targets at a mile?” Red Tip popped back.

“Nope! I learned 300 and that was it. I never needed more. Until I got to Equestria. Fuck, that changed everything. Damn I have to get back home.”

Shadow stood up abruptly. “My equipment is in my locker. I will meet you on the roof, after I ditch this stuff.”

“Right,” Earthen Charm said for Red Tip who was trying to stuff his face.

Chapter 117 - Trick Shot

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Shadow reverently put away his battle saddle. He shouldered his anti-machine rifle and ammo bag, but stopped to look in the mirror. From the angle, all he could see was a Pegasus. He shifted to another angle but still, all he could see was a Pegasus, even with his wings hidden.

But he was getting away with it. That was what mattered. Shadow was sliding by with being Mtoaji, an Earth Pony from somewhere outside Equestria where names were different. And he was looking, and feeling, good in the uniform.

Shadow Flare wasn’t the first on the roof. He beat Red Tip, but Red Tip already had his rifle and equipment out. Shadow set his down and set up the bipod. The rifle barrel couldn’t go past the edge of the wall. Shadow made sure to keep it back a few inches as he laid out along the shooting mat.

He was at spot #3 of 20. There were 17 shooters in the competition. Four were Steel Rangers, only one was a veteran of the competition. It was that same Steel Ranger, Knight Ballistic Coefficient, who had picked up red tip 308s for a job. He was definitely using Red Tip ammo. So were several other shooters. Red Tip’s spot had white tips, not red. No doubt a way to differentiate his own special loads from the ones he made to sell. Five others were shooting anti-machine rifles, two of them being Steel Rangers.

The crowd was already packing the stands. It was good to have a spot reserved for Strawberry and Earthen Charm so they didn’t miss out. Not that they could see very well. Earthen Charm did have binoculars around her neck.

Red Tip nodded to Shadow from his spot after he settled in. It was a waiting game for the moment. Shadow crawled to the edge to look down. Below him he saw stands filled with Steel Rangers. They wouldn’t let civilians be below the wall, but they could trust their ranks to stay calm and safe. Yellow Quartz was below. Her yellow mane was visible, but it was the blue shoulder cloak with the red ribbon that gave her away.

Shadow moved back to his rifle on the mat. All the shooters were there. They were just waiting on the time. Five minutes before, an old Knight in well worn armor called to them from behind them. They rolled over to listen and the crowd hushed. He had a microphone unit on his head to project to everypony.

“I am Star Paladin Warding Blade. The announcer and overseer of this virtuous competition. It is good to see you back, Red Tip. Our five year champion who has shot at place number seven since he started seven years ago. Also back is our very own Knight Ballistic Coefficient who took third last year and the other all star, SD, who claimed second. For the newcomers, Red Tip, SD and Knight Ballistic Coefficient have been jockeying for the title for the past seven years. Longer for SD and Knight Ballistic Coefficient. They span 12 years of titles, staying at their same shooting positions since the start. So you new shooters, good luck.

“Now, here are the rules. Five shots will be taken at each distance. That will start at 800 yards, then advance to 1000, 1200, 1400, 1600 and 1800. As long as your shots are in the black, you advance. Miss one, you are out. That is the standard advancement. After 1800 yards, which is longer than a mile, we may change up target size or style and drop shots being fired from five to one depending on how the match is going. Any changes will be approved by all shooters before implemented.”

“Take your time. Don’t waste time. But breath and shoot when ready. This is about precision, not speed shooting. We will begin in two minutes, on my mark. Good luck to all of you.”

Shadow inserted his magazine and pushed the bolt forward and locked it down. He made his final adjustments and brought the rifle up. He didn’t grab the bit. He was using the scope to do final checks. Steel Rangers were down range tending the targets. They had the relief of the buildings to slip to for cover, and Unicorns were wielding magic shields. But they were relying on the competitors to be steady shots. Little down there could definitively stop the 50 cal anti-machine rifle, and Shadow doubted their shields and armor could stop the red tip 308s.

“You may fire when ready,” The announcer said.

Shadow took a deep breath in, grabbed the bit, lined up his shot and fired. He was ready for the kick but the crowd was not as Shadow skidded back two feet from the recoil. Red Tip’s head popped up over the others.

“Did you just slide back from the recoil?”

“Yep,” Shadow chuckled. “Nothing new.”

“Yeah, but I thought you knew how to shoot it, not get kicked around by it. The damn gun is almost twice your length!”

“I hit the target, dead center,” Shadow shot back.

“Mtoaji did hit the target, dead center,” The Star Paladin confirmed. “He might have been kicked back, but the shot was more than good.”

The others went back to lining up their shots. Shadow reset and lined up his. He pulled the trigger and was kicked back again. Shadow was keeping the rifle in tight, right where it was supposed to be. He was feeling the recoil, but not as much as it appeared. The mat was ensuring he wasn’t stuck digging his bones into steel for the competition. But the mat also didn’t allow him to grip the ground like dirt or cloud would.

Shadow got off his third shot before Spotter had even taken his first. Shadow was done with all five shots before any others had take their third. But all five of Shadow's were dead center. Shadow was sliding less as he learned to work with the rifle and the mat.

Shadow waited patiently for the others to finish. This would certainly take all afternoon. Once the round was over, Star Paladin Warding Blade announced the results.

“At 800 yards all seventeen contestants are in the black and advancing to 1000. Despite his sliding, Mtoaji has a very strong grouping. We will see if he can keep it up at the longer distances. I have just been given the green light. You may fire at the 1000 yard target when ready.”

Shadow didn’t mess around, but he didn’t waste time either. His shots were smooth but fast. He found his range, adjusted for wind and gravity and fired. He was done first. His speed was annoying some of the others. The same ones didn’t like any of the thundering anti-machine rifles.

Everypony cleared 1000 yards and 1200 yards. At 1400 two went just wide and were finished. 1600 booted five more, including two Steel Rangers.

The first round at 1800 booted out four more. It was down to the all stars and the three rising stars. SD at position 1, Mtoaji at position 3, Knight Ballistic Coefficient at position 4, Red Tip at position 7, Slate at position 9 and Knight Spotter at position 10.

“With just five left at 1800, it is customary to begin score keeping.” Star Paladin Wading Blade said. “Inside of the black is three parts. The center X, 10 ring and 9 ring. X counts for 10. The five shots will be scored for maximum score of 50. The shooters will be given their ranks by points. If you tie for the lead, you will move onto another round to sort that out. Now, shooters can be dropped out for a slight mistake inside the black, allowing for the best to be drawn out and prove their worth. Is this agreeable to the shooters?”

All six of them agreed and Star Paladin Warding Blade gave them license to begin the round.

Spotter took the first shot of the round. Shadow breathed deep and fired the same time as Red Tip. Shadow couldn't see the other targets. He was having to lead his target at 1800 yards. His scope wasn’t designed to go nice and close at that range. He had to run a calculated estimate, by using the tick marks on the scope to adjust for the distance and wind as his guide. The other shooters were having the same challenge with their scopes as well. Leading the target was common. It wasn’t that far of a lead off the target, but the black center was small, and the scope couldn’t tell the difference between the rings. The rifle handled the distance just fine as Shadow put all five round inside the size of a teacup.

“We are waiting on confirmation for two of the shooters. SD scored with a 50. Knight Ballistic Coefficient scored with a 50, Red Tip scored with a 50, Knight Spotter scored with a 50. I have received word confirming that Mtoaji doubled up his shots, scoring for 50. Slate is scored also with a very close 50. Targets are changed out, the scorekeepers are clear, you may begin round 3 at 1800 yards.”

Shadow wasn’t the only one loading up five shots before he could shoot. Shadow sighted in and opened fire. The open space before the round entered the shielded Equestrian Drive was treacherous. In between could be troublesome crosswinds that could blow the round off target. Sometimes even multiple crosswinds.

Shadow was done last. But all five were still in the X. Slate got booted with a 49. They were into round five at 1800. Shadow’s rounds were consistent in their location. Knight Spotter slipped and scored 49, ending his run.

“Last newbie Mtoaji,” Red Tip warned Shadow. “Think you can hold on as us old guys play around?”

“Lets find out,” Shadow laughed. “But I have to say, my instructors never trained me to this distance or anything close. At least five of them would laugh at the idea of me doing this competition. Then have a heart attack hearing how long I have survived.”

“That’s comforting to hear,” Knight Ballistic Coefficient said as he peered into his scope. “My friends are down there and you are firing a gun that is bigger than you and can pierce their cover if you miss. And you haven’t been trained on it. But I can’t really complain. You out shot Knight Spotter who I trained.”

“And who was supposed to beat you,” SD jeered right before pulling the trigger.

Red Tip fired. “And he stopped sliding.”

Shadow chuckled and tightened up. His shot was right on the X. The veterans might have relaxed and started poking at each other a bit, But only when it wasn’t going to mess up a shot. They were still on target. They all passed and moved onto round 6. They had fired 55 shots.

Shadow felt shot number 57. It tore into his shoulder. But it was still on target within the same teacup space as all 56 other shots before it.

Knight Ballistic Coefficient spoke up as he rested his shoulder for a second. “You ever notice that it is 308s in the finals every year? The 50s just don’t have the sustainability.”

“Its the premium red tip ammo,” Red Tip replied right before shooting his fourth round. “I can’t make red tip 50s.”

“You don’t sell 50 either,” Knight Ballistic Coefficient added.

“Nope! Nopony needs that much power.”

It was Knight Ballistic Coefficient who slipped. He fired his last round and caught a crosswind he didn’t foresee. The round pulled into the white, scoring 48. It still would have been center mass for most ponies, and even at a mile, almost certain death. He bowed gracefully as he exited, but he was pissed that a newbie, had beaten him. Even more that it wasn’t Knight Spotter.

“And that is it, we have out final three,” Star Paladin Warding Blade announced. “The positions are still up for grabs.”

SD rolled over to look at the announcing booth. “Single shots?”

“Does anypony protest single shot competition?”

“Nope,” Shadow replied loading his magazine.

“Perfect timing,” Red Tip added.

“Then one shot will be taken at 1800 yards for a top score of 10. You are clear to fire.”

“You know Mtoaji,” SD said. “Third place is nice, but it doesn’t cover the cost of the ammo you spent to get there. Not with that 50.”

“I know the cost of your 308 rounds,” Shadow poked back. “You don’t recover it either.”

Red Tip fired.

“Funny comment,” Red Tip said. “The power plant expedition, Mtoaji was place on yellow and sent to the damn.”

“He should have been at least white,” SD replied. “But then again, I watched him prance around and destroy the Reactive Rifle Course. I don’t know where he belongs.”

“At the forefront,” Red Tip replied. “Always ready to breach the hot zone first. If he needs to. he can enter and mount up a shooting post for longer ranges as the others move in. Give them cover fire.”

“I don’t know, his shots are combat effective. He is consistently the faster shooter.”

“No point in lolly gagging,” Shadow replied. “Line up the shot and take it.”

All three of them stopped talking, found their target and fired quickly. 61 was SD’s undoing as he barely edged into 9. The impact on the paper was on the 9/10 line, but halfway, therefore a score of 9.

“And third place goes to SD, on shot number 61!”

“Damn,” SD swore. “It’s not fair. The Red Tips are good, but your whites, you started winning when you brought them out. And only because you get to perfectly tune the rounds to your rifle. I can’t make my own. I have to rely on regular, high quality reds. And it makes a difference. Slight enough to take the lead from me, every year.”

“Yeah well, I can’t help it that you buy your high quality ammunition from me and I get to optimize my rounds to exactly how I shoot.”

They both chuckled and SD bowed graciously before he stepped off to watch from his reserved seat in the stands.

“Things just got really interesting,” Red Tip said to Shadow. “But time for you to go down. I can see you flinch after every shot. Can your shoulder keep taking the beating?”

“Why don’t we find out,” Shadow chuckled.

“Then, I call for target reduction!”

“Bring it!”

The targets were switched down to a smaller size and they continued. After another five shots, they had to screen Shadow's shots because he was shooting through open paper for shots four and five.

“Fine,” Red Tip huffed. “Lets make this easy. Clay targets. If it breaks, its a hit. Miss, and you take second.”

“Deal,” Shadow nodded.

Star Paladin Warding Blade spoke up. “While we get these targets changed out, I will take the time to inform you that these are simple clay circles painted red. They are two inches in diameter and make it very easy to tell who hit and who missed as they are fragile. They are meant for this. The last time we used clays in this competition was 7 years ago, when Red Tip faced off against SD for the title. After a heated round, almost like this one, Knight Ballistic Coefficient had taken third. Red Tip missed on his first shot, giving the title to SD. So Red Tip has an interesting challenge ahead.

“We will begin clay targets now, at shot number 67. That is a big pounding on any shoulder, especially for an unpadded shoulder firing an anti-machine rifle. I do know that Red Tip is utilizing a padded shoulder, although it is difficult to tell. He hides it that well.”

They both fired at the same time. It was pretty easy to tell that they both smashed their targets from the cloud it made in the air.

“Ha!” Red Tip exclaimed. “I passed round one of clays! Take that!”

“Cute,” Shadow laughed. “It was you against the clay, not you against me.”

“Yeah well… shut up!”

They laughed and were given the go ahead for the next shot. Shadow knew his was good but they had to wait a few seconds.

“And Red Tip is safe. He split his target. A split is common, especially when shooting a 308.”

Shadow put his next round dead center, but had to roll onto his back and let the rifle drop free. He was in a lot of pain from that last shot. It wasn’t in as tight as it should have been, and he paid the price for it.

“Both shots are clean, but is Mtoaji waving the white flag to avoid any more pain? Its a big, powerful rifle that anypony would feel after 68 shots in this short of a time span.”

“I’m fine,” Shadow said rolling back over and rotating his bolt.

Targets were replaced and Shadow took a deep breath. Red Tip fired before Shadow even looked down his scope. Shadow wasn’t taking these shots for himself. He had remind himself of each instructor that taught him to shoot. He was doing this to prove to them that he had what it took to be an expert shot at ridiculous ranges.

Shadow looked down his scope, adjusted for elevation and wind and fired. The recoil felt like a dull knife stabbing into his shoulder. But the round was good, blasting apart the clay target. 70 shots. He had 20 more bullets.

“Umm, how many rounds did you bring?” Red Tip asked.

“90,” Shadow replied. “You?”

“I followed my advice to you and brought 90. You can certainly take the pain. How do we make this more interesting? Its getting late. Almost dinner time.”

Shadow looked over his shoulder to where Star Paladin Warding Blade was. “I call for a change in targets. Lets rotate the clay targets from their face to profile.”

“Good one,” Red Tip chuckled. “This is going to be a pain.”

“Alright, we will rotated the targets to the side. They have a width of a half inch. Good luck.”

They were given the approval to fire. Even painted red, it was difficult to see the tiny slip of color at over a mile. Shadow fired first and knew he missed. He involuntarily held his breath, waiting for Red Tip. Red Tip pulled the trigger and his eye twitched from the pain of the recoil. His pad could only save him for so long.

“Both shooters missed the targets,” The Star Paladin announced. “They are clear to fire again.”

Shadow took aim and made his adjustments. At this point, luck was a major factor and the slightest miscalculation of the wind would mean a big error. Shadow wasn’t trained to read the wind in the detailed respect this distance deserved. Shadow pulled the trigger and lost his vision as the rifle’s kick forced tears to sprout in his eyes. Red Tip fired, but there was no reaction. He was as lost as Shadow.

“We have confirmation. This year’s winner, on shot number 72, Mtoaji! Red Tip has been dethroned to second place!”

Shadow rolled onto his back, just wanting to give his shoulder relief. It was over. No more adding to the pain. After a while, as the applause stopped, Shadow sat up. The crowd was being directed out in an orderly departure of the stands. The elevators were not ready to handle so many trying to leave at once. You had no choice in the matter, you had to leave when called.

Star Paladin Warding Blade was talking with the others. Knight Ballistic Coefficient had his yellow ribbon on a yellow string around his neck to display it on his armor. Red Tip had his red one on his chest as well. Shadow got up and trotted over to them.

“Glad you could join us,” The Star Paladin said with a smile. “We don’t do much ceremony here. We have to get a large crowd out through the small elevators. But here.”

The blue ribbon was pinned on right next to the other one.

“They look dashing on that military jacket,” Knight Ballistic Coefficient said. “It really suits you. I assume somepony has spoken to you about joining?”

“Scribe Pea Soup did,” Shadow replied. “High Scribe Pea Soup. I respectfully declined. He also let me brows the archives about the Blue Berets, who’s uniform I am wearing. Fascinating what they did for Equestria during the war.”

“What is with the uniform?” Star Paladin Warding Blade asked.

“I have one set of clothes,” Shadow explained. “And yesterday I did a warm up session to prep for the Reactive Rifle Competition. The clothing was all sticky from the sweat. I needed something else after I showered. And yes, I can tell by your looks, I need clothes. My training regiment had strict rules on that. It’s hard to find something that is okay for a stallion to wear in my size. But this was there, and it was cheap because nopony here wants anything to do with the pegasi, so I bought it. And I am really loving the beret. It won’t work as well as the stetson while traveling, but its fun to wear.”

“It definitely brought you good luck,” Red Tip added.

“I am a Star Paladin. I can organize my own operations outside of regular ones here at the Citadel. I often patrol the greater Trottingham region, especially along the trade routes, to keep the raiders away. Its never more than three in the group, often just me.

“You are still young. Why did you turn down such an offer? You would do well here with us, protecting other ponies. I can see Star Paladin position in your future because you are a pony who can operate in a variety of combat situations, which is often what a Star Paladin is forced to do.”

“What do you know about Kifopiga?” Shadow asked.

The Star Paladin thought. “I have no idea what Kifopiga is.”

“And that is the problem,” Shadow said with a half sigh. “I need that information to keep my home safe. Where my family is. I was trained to go out and pursue it. I have to, or else I can not go home and be safe. So until then, I am stuck, making a living off scavenging and such while I search for the information. To join an organization that would halt my pursuit of that is unwise. It would mean turning my back on my home. They need that information, desperately.”

“Perhaps we can help,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said.

“No,” Shadow shook his head. “You can not. Most likely, that information is too valuable to you. I have seen others killed over dumber shit.”

“I assume it was Dahlia?” Star Paladin Warding Blade asked. “I know you two had a big confrontation this morning.”

“She is a different set of issues,” Shadow replied. “But it was in Fillydelphia.”

“Fillydelphia is a sister contingent,” Star Paladin admitted. “And Dahlia’s home contingent. But we here, in Trottingham, we are not based out of a stable. We are based out of our Ministry of Wartime Technology’s Hub. The Trottingham Contingent Founders were protecting these hubs as the spells came. We have held true to that vision. To protect the ponies in and around Trottingham first and foremost.

“Yes, technology needs to be preserved and more importantly, kept out of the hooves of those who would use it to harm others. But we do not hide or hoard. We do not put technology over protecting ponies. We will sacrifice technology and figure out a way to reclaim it after the citizens are safe. And we have.

“Now that I have made that distinction, I hope that you will consider potential enterprises. As a Star Paladin, I can, and have, drawn in civilians who are specialized in certain areas to get a job done. Can I approach you about any upcoming jobs that would suit you? You do not have to accept and I recognize that you will not always be available. You would be compensated quite well. And perhaps we can find what you are looking for. I go on some interesting missions.”

Shadow took a second to think. He could judge if they were truly different if he was besides them. And they probably wouldn’t need him. And if they were different, they could be more willing to come to peaceful terms with the Enclave. Assuming the Enclave didn’t fuck it up.

“You may. I have to make a living while scouring the area. I am a full resident of Trottingham. I didn’t want to mess with rent, so I bought a place.”

“Wonderful,” Star Paladin Warding Blade smiled. “But I must say to all of you again, wonderful job. You all put down an excellent show and proved you can be relied upon to hit targets are long distances.”

“Oh, and you new guys, right after dinner is the order of ceremony and challenge off. All the awards will be named, and if you received one, you will be called forward so everypony present can see and congratulate you. So Mtoaji, stay ready to enter the area. They will mostly be rodeo ones. But this is so that the stuff you miss, you can see who won what.

“And then right after that, we open it up so that individual challenges can be made. Most of them end up being rodeo challenges, typically to settle a dispute that couldn't be settled in the competition. You can deny a challenge for any reason and its no strike against you. You all are probably safe, but often times Knights will challenge the other competition shooters to challenges because they had to work security and couldn’t compete themselves. Mtoaji, there may be one or two wanting to get some action with you for your amazing performance on the Reactive Rifle Course. I have seen a lot in my day, but nothing like that.”

Shadow blushed with a grin. “Knight Yellow Quartz already threw one down. We get to find out if me kicking the spent casing at the target and knocking it down was a fluke or not. I did it for show, not to score. So I am excited to test that out.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade laughed. “Ah, the festivities this year will be grand.”

They broke apart to clean up their rifles and gear. Initiates had already scoured the area for the brass. Some had fallen below. A bag with the recovered casings was set by Red Tip’s rifle, 308 and 50 cal. He cleaned and reused any decent brass. Any defects, even a minor one, and he would melt it down for recycling into brand new shell casings. He would do the same with the 50 cal cases. They let him have it because they quietly bought 308 rounds from him. The only post war production rounds they allowed in their rifles.

Shadow's rifle hadn’t changed weight, but the spent ammo lightened his load. They were led past the crowd and into the next elevator. They were the shooters, and even though the competition was over, they were still the ones that mattered. It felt good to rack his rifle in the locker and hang the ammo bag up. It was nice not having to worry about carrying anything. He would grab his battle saddle after dinner.

Strawberry and Earthen Charm were waiting for them outside of the cafeteria. Earthen Charm planted a kiss on Red Tip’s lips in greeting.

“You two did amazing,” Earthen Charm smiled. “That was one of the best competitions I have ever seen. They rarely hit 60 shots. And you guys got into the 70s.”

“How much is your shoulder hurting?” Strawberry asked Shadow.

“Uh, it’s sore,” Shadow replied, avoiding a shrug. “But I have felt much, much worse. I have had far worse falls on obstacle courses. I am excluding being shot.”

“So you haven’t escaped the wasteland’s teeth,” Red Tip chuckled. “Your vest is always nice and proper, no hits.”

“I have not gotten shot while wearing the vest yet, but I got shot or stabbed a few times when I had different gear. It’s part of the reason why I changed from my last set of combat armor. I need fast, light, and maneuverable. The combat armor was good, but stopping a 308, that would be questionable. So I chose to ditch it for speed and agility.”

“He flipped off the side of the wall and scored a shot mid air,” Red Tip told Earthen Charm.

“I could not have done that in the combat armor,” Shadow stated.

Earthen Charm spoke up. “So you do obstacle courses, like what?”

“Not what you do,” Shadow replied. “Most of mine were trick courses. A lot of up and down in a predesignated structure.”

“Can’t handle yourself on my turf?” Earthen Charm challenged innocently.

“I could always try,” Shadow batted back. “Unfortunately, there is no way to put you on my turf. That requires a big structure.”

“Well, you will get to play on mine,” Earthen Charm smirked. “I took first this year.”

“I am more than happy to play your little game,” Shadow chuckled. “But Yellow Quartz already has a challenge that I have accepted. I expect another challenge or two for something.”

“I will have to submit it immediately, right after we finish eating. They will need to get a basic course set up.”

“This is going to be fun,” Strawberry smiled.

The main rodeo area was set up with even more bleachers, taking over the ready are for the competitors. It was no longer needed. But the side backing the Citadel was left open as a backdrop for any firearm challenges. Shadow could see that targets were already set up for at least him. He was getting antsy. But first it was the closing ceremony.

Every winner was brought out for that event so that everypony could see the results. Then the announced the Top Rodeo Pony. It was close, but Earthen Charm pulled it off by taking second in a competition, when the other finalist took third. Earthen Charm was immediately back out there when their team was awarded the Top Rodeo Team.

Star Paladin Warding Blade stepped out onto the field. Flood lights were turned on to counter the darkness that was setting itself upon them all.

“Good evening. Congratulations to all the winners, especially the Top Rodeo Team and Top Rodeo Pony. Now enters the challenge time. As this year’s Rodeo Paladin, it is my pleasure to host this final event. We already have two lined up. Both for the same individual and a third challenge laid down for that one as well. Mtoaji, I know you are aware of the first two and have agreed to them.”

Shadow stepped out and went to meet him in the center.

“As you heard, Mtoaji took first in the Reactive Rifle Course and the Long Distance Course. This first one comes from second place in the Reactive Rifle Course. And here she is coming out now, Knight Yellow Quartz.

“Mtoaji scored a negative two on the final course to win. One time he was able to hit two targets with one shot, a phenomenal rarity but proof of his skill. The other was when he had to change magazines. As the final shell casing was being ejected, he kicked it up and then kicked it at the target as he switched magazines. Well it hit the target and it fell, resulting in a registered hit.

“So the challenge is that he couldn't pull it off again. That he can’t kicked that spent shell casing and knock a target down.”

“I’m all ready,” Shadow announced.

“Alright, well against the wall we have three falling targets, just like the one you knocked down. And behind them is a target to shoot with the live round so it ejects the shell casing. We want you to do it three times. It won’t change the outcome because you still secured first place simply by hitting both targets with one shot.”

Shadow pulled out a prepared magazine. “The last shell casing ejects straight up, and only the last. I have five loaded here to make sure that there is sufficient force from the internal spring to trigger it to kick the casing up, not out.”

“Alright, you are clear to load and fire!”

The Steel Rangers stepped back to a safe area and Shadow loaded the rifle. He loved the sound of it slamming that first round into the chamber. Shadow set himself and opened up, drilling the same spot in an instant with all five rounds.

The last case was obvious as it went up compared to the others that went out. Shadow saw it and kicked it up. That was the easy part, especially without having to worry about reloading. He spun, flipping his leg out to kick. It connected solidly and flew towards the target. It went wide, missing completely.

Shadow pulled out a second magazine. He held it up to show it was ready and they gave him a nod. Shadow let the spent magazine drop and set himself. A perfect repeat. Shadow kicked it up, spun and connected with the case. It shot off towards the second, middle, target and hit it dead center with loud PING!

Shadow ducked as the casing came back at him with force. He missed the target topple until it slammed to the ground.

“Oh come on!” Knight Yellow Quartz yelled. “We need better targets!”

“Want to see how hard I can kick it?” Shadow asked her.

“What do you mean?” Yellow Quartz asked.

The crowd was quiet, trying to hear. “Well, you go stand down there and I will kick it into your head and you can tell me if it was kicked hard enough to sufficiently drop these targets.”

“Are you nuts!” Yellow Quartz exclaimed. “I’m not standing downrange while you shoot and then try and kick a piece of metal at my head.”

“Exactly!” Shadow smirked.

Knight Yellow Quartz growled in defeat.

Shadow turned to the crowd. “But hey, we still have a third target right? And I have only tried twice!”

They went ecstatic, cheering him on. Star Paladin Warding Blade nodded in approval. Shadow put his third magazine in and let it go. He kicked the round but it went dead center of the three targets, right where the one he had already knocked down had been. It still had impressive force behind it.

“I have never seen anypony like you before,” Star Paladin Warding Blade told Shadow as the crowd died down.

Shadow held his tongue. He wanted to say it’s because he was a pegasus, not a blundering Earth Pony. He had grace.

Ponies began to move things into the area and Earthen Charm made her way out to them.

“Now Mtoaji,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said. “I know you have approved this next one as well. A competition on an obstacle course. Its this year’s qualifying course. A simple X system. Earthen Charm said you did this a lot growing up. And I recall seeing some moves on the Reactive Rifle Course.”

“You did,” Shadow replied into the mic. “I look forward to this.”

“Alright, well Earthen Charm, who took first in this event this year, will start off so you can see the course. But its follow the numbers. Back against the wall in corner 1, you will come up to the side to corner 2. Cut back across the field to corner 3, around the barrel and up to corner 4, back cutting across the field to corner 1, around that barrel, and to flag 5 where you will come straight up the middle. All while dealing with the obstacles.”

They were already done with the set up. The team were pros when it came to setting it up. Shadow began to play with his beret, flipping it on and off as Earthen Charm made her run.

At the buzzer she dashed off up the line, easily hopping over the obstacle wall. She skidded around the barrel, up and over the next and then the next as she crossed over the field. Each one was varying in height and distance to the next. Earthen Charm showed a beautiful, graceful form in every stride. She came around back up the center, flying gracefully over the last obstacle and past them for time.

“24 Seconds,” Star Paladin Warding Blade announced. “A whole two second faster than your qualifying run, which was also the fastest qualifying time. Mtoaji?”

Shadow flipped his beret around his hoof to land neatly back onto his head.

“Alright, I see what you did. Beautiful stride by the way.”

Shadow trotted over to the starting point and crouched, digging his hooves into the dirt for traction. Earthen Charm had handle each obstacle fine, easily clearing even the highest ones. But she had raced. Shadow was going to show them what it meant to really conquer an obstacle course. How to have fun.

The buzzer blared and Shadow took off, finding his stride immediately. The first obstacle came. Shadow jumped, putting his front hooves on it and then bringing his back hooves in to launch himself high into the sky where he did a lazy, but graceful flip.

He rolled on landing, sliding up to the barrel and coming around corner 2 with ease. As he cut across the field, he had to deal with two hurdles that were at odd distances. The first was the second highest and he jumped it with ease to show his small body could. The second he came right up onto it before planting his hooves and doing a back flip over it.

Shadow landed with practiced ease and kept the same speed as he came straight at the barrel. Shadow slid onto his flank alongside the barrel. He planted his hooves and use it to change direction and launch himself straight at corner 4. Two short walls stood in between him and the corner. And they were at an odd distance to break his pace. Shadow chose to leap over both in one go. It was a tough landing on the other side, but he didn’t loose too much speed.

Around the barrel and down the second long stretch. Shadow kicked the acrobatics up a notch, planting his left forehoof, then his right, and cartwheeling over it with ease. It was not a low hurdle. Shadow came out of it and immediately began to do back springs down the rest of the stretch, allowing him to clear the other hurdle.

He landed clear of the barrel in a dead stop but was ready. All of his training came back as he was back at pace in one move forward. He slid on his flank to make the 90 turn, like he did before, digging his hooves in to spring off in the new direction.

There was one last hurdle left. It was the tallest and it was right by the Star Paladin and Earthen Charm, the finish. Shadow brought his pace up and smiled. The bar was set as the highest on the course. He could clear it in one leap, but that wasn’t fun. Shadow dropped at the last moment, sliding under while also kicking his beret off to flip over the hurdle.

As Shadow came out of the slide the beret landed almost perfectly on his head and he reached his pace with ease to cross the finish line at a dead sprint. Shadow slid on all four hooves into a perfect stop as the crowd cheered. He smiled, fixed his beret, and bowed three times, facing a different part of the crowd on each bow.

The Star Paladin held his hoof up to quiet the crowd as Shadow joined them.

The Star Paladin was smiling. He was loving his job. “Well Mtoaji, your time on the course was 47. 23 seconds slower than Earthen Charm. That speed wouldn’t have been enough for you to pass the qualifier.”

“Well,” Shadow said into the stand alone mic with a shrug. “This is her course. You got a taste to see what I do. This is a race, she attacked it like a race. I do acrobatic obstacle courses. They are show. Pass or fail, not really timed. If I wanted to, I could have just jumped it like she did. But I wanted to have fun. I see ways to jump, flip, and vault off of every single obstacle. I would challenge her to mine, but you have to build a whole supporting structure and then the course.”

“And I want to note,” Shadow said getting everypony’s attention. “My battle saddle didn’t slow me down.”

“I can certainly see that,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said smiling. “And I can certainly say we have never had a pony like you here before. You didn’t take that challenge in the same way Earthen Charm did and meant to lay it down as, but it was a beautiful run. Stunning. And I would have to say I have never seen a pony be able to jump as long of a distance as you have.”

“I’ve done longer,” Shadow added. “And with a ceiling to force me to go low too.”

“Impressive,” The Star Paladin replied. “I wish we could set it up and see it. But now I have a third challenge. Remember, you do not have to accept this one and I would not.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade took a second to phrase the challenge correctly. “Crusader Dahlia, from our sister Steel Ranger Contingent in Fillydelphia, lays this challenge down. I understand you got into a slight altercation with her this morning.”

“I did,” Shadow confirmed.

“And her challenge is that you can not buckle her armor like you claimed you can.”

“Okay,” Shadow said organizing his thoughts. “So, I outright decline. I still say I can, because the armor is like our bodies and our nerves. If you know where to strike the body, you can deaden the nerves and cause the limb to lose control and for a leg, buckle and be unable to hold weight.

“But to prove it we would first off have to be in a fight. And even in a friendly competitive fight, where she is trying to not let me strike her, that is incredibly dangerous for me. An unarmored hoof against a plated, armored hoof, and one back by power armor, does not bode well for me even in a simple sparing match.

“The second, it would break the armor. And I am not going to break your armor over anything other than necessity to save my life. The comment was meant as a warning to get her to back down during a verbal exchange that got into some puffed chested shoving.”

“So you know power armor?”

“The basics,” Shadow replied. He had to tread lightly. “I do not know your power armor models. But it all works in a similar function and it has to work with the wearer’s body, meaning it has to function like their body does. A leg only goes a certain way and only so far.”

“Have you worn power armor?” Star Paladin asked.

The crowd was eating it up. They were loving listening to this show pony with skills and wanted to hear more into his unknown past. To learn how he got to be as good as he was. And this information about power armor was stuff the Steel Rangers would never discuss otherwise. Shadow wanted to let the ponies know the Steel Rangers had their weaknesses. That their armor could be beaten.

“I have,” Shadow replied. “But nothing like what you tote around. Equestrian Power armor isn’t available from where I come from. I know I told you I am in the area looking for something special to take care of my home and make sure it is secured from multiple different threats.”

“What kind of power armor do you mean then?” Star Paladin Warding Blade asked, fully intrigued.

“Its really crude, meant basically to help carry the big guns. And, its really just a steel frame for that gun and to put more protection for the pony carrying it who is usually forced out in the open more. Power armor is extremely rare. Have you ever seen Zebra power armor?”

“No, I have not seen Zebra power armor,” Star Paladin Warding Blade replied. “I didn’t even know they had power armor.”

“It was really late war,” Shadow said. “But, uh, yeah. I can’t really give you a better description if you don’t know what Zebra power armor looks like. But crude or not, they work the same and they break the same, just like all bones break the same.”

“Thank you Mtoaji,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said. “Just to check, are you a Zebra? You are black and white.”

Shadow laughed into the microphone. “That is a first. Being mistaken for a mare, that happens often enough. But no, I am not a Zebra. I am a pony. Still, Equestria is only a small part of the great, big world.”

An Initiate presented Star Paladin Warding Blade with a list. “I have a list of other requests here Half involve you, but you have done enough and the rest of these are not that fun so far.”

An older knight met them on the field, carrying his own mic. “Star Paladin Sir. I know my request isn’t on your list. I only interrupt before they are moved. I would like to challenge Mtoaji to a pistol shooting competition. 25 rounds for points. We have the targets already out from the first event.”

“I don’t compete in pistol,” Shadow immediately said.

“You carry one,” The knight replied. “You wore it the first day.”

“The purpose of my pistol, which is a revolver and a non-equestrian one at that, is to get to my rifle. Or shotgun. Its a back up. If I am reloading and get caught in a jam, I have my pistol. If its the night and somepony tries to jump me while I sleep, pistol. I didn’t put my name down for the pistol competition for a reason. You will out shoot me in the first five rounds. I can shoot well. I can survive, but my strength is in my long guns.”

“Alright,” The knight nodded. “Thank you.”

Shadow trotted off and the Star Paladin began mumbling through the list to get to viable challenges.

“You made me look bad,” Earthen Charm accused Shadow. The look slipped to a smile, turning it to a lighthearted jab.

“I wish,” Shadow smiled back. “Your form was stunning. Beautiful. I have never seen anypony run like you.”

“I also won the Marathon,” Earthen Charm reminded Shadow.

“Marathon pacing is different. You had marvelous form on that short pacing. You are a real master at those style courses. I’m used to vaulting off walls and objects, often going up. I had fun on the course, but you looked beautiful. I couldn't of shaved more than five seconds off my time.”

“But,” Shadow said tapping his chin. “That marathon. I have endurance. Twice what you would expect, and then multiply that by four. Short stride though. Unfortunately, I am exhausted. And I don’t even want to test that, ever.”

Earthen Charm, Red Tip, Strawberry and Shadow Flare all laughed. The competition was over for them all. They had lives to get back to.

Several rodeo challenges happened. They all were to settle the record for ponies that didn’t make it to be ranked. Pride alone was on the line. None of them were particularity interesting.

The Star Paladin called out a unicorn who met him on the field. They quickly discussed something.

“Okay, this next challenge is to anypony, but Gauge here puts the challenge out first to Mtoaji. A shotgun challenge.”

Shadow hopped the fence and walked over to them to get better details.

“Thank you,” Gauge greeted Shadow. “Its simple. I have been wanting to get this shooting event in the exposition for a while, but its been declined multiple times. Mostly because nopony gets it. But a lot of the farmers in my little corner play it. Its simple, its with the clay target disks. It gets thrown into the air and you shoot it.”

“That sounds cool,” Shadow said. “But I don’t have bird shot. I only have my 00 Buck. I only have a small selection of slugs, and I didn’t even bring those. I always pass up on bird shot whenever I find it.”

“I don’t know what bird shot is,” Gauge replied. “I am assuming you mean what we call small shot. The shotgun shells filled with really tiny balls.”

“Yes,” Shadow chuckled. “Its referred to as bird shot back at my home because the only thing it can do real damage to is a bird.”

“Makes sense,” Gauge chuckled. “So basically, my brother has a device that cradles the clay target and allows us to easily throw them out wide to shoot. A moving target in the air. And if slung right, it will bounce along the ground like a rabbit, or in practical terms, somepony dashing away.”

“It has good applications,” Shadow said. “Tracking, with horn eye, or hoof eye coordination. Its got it’s uses.”

“It just needs a real, proper demonstration,” Gauge said. “But if you are up for it, I have 12 gauge small shot shells you can use.”

Shadow smiled. “Let’s do it. Lets have some fun.”

“Ten targets each pony, in each style. I will start,” Gauge said.

Gauge’s brother arrived with the extra shells and the targets. He was an Earth Pony, not a Unicorn like Gauge. The throwing arm was sort of like a spoon. The first clay target was set and then thrown. It flew out, nice and neatly. Gauge easily tracked it and shot it. It exploded into small fragments.

“Very nice,” Shadow said as he put the freshly loaded magazine in his shotgun.

The brother threw the round almost the exact same way. Shadow adjusted and fired. The shot missed and the clay target sailed into the Citadel wall where it shattered.

They continued back and fourth. Shadow soon picked up tracking it and was nailing the clay targets with ease. Then it came time for the ten along the ground. The first clay was let loose. It bounded along the ground at a quick pace. Gauge missed. Shadow’s clay was bounding slightly differently, depending on what ground it hit. Shadow nailed his, putting the pressure on Gauge. It was a fun back and fourth. Despite knowing the challenge, Gauge missed four in total. He still beat Shadow who had missed eight.

“I really like it,” Shadow declared over the microphone. “That was unique and it is has its real life applications. Knowing how to handle a gun, track a target and hitting it is key. Whether that is in the air or on the ground, it is good training. We don’t always fight on the same plain, especially in the cities. I know not to come mess with you and your friends.”

They both laughed and then they split.

Stat Paladin spoke up. “That is it for the night. But I want to tell you all, I will be evaluating that shotgun event for the future. I won’t be the Rodeo Paladin next year. I don’t know who will be. But I would really love to see this shooting event be a demonstration next year. A few times over the course of the rodeo they put it on, compete among themselves. That way, others know what they will be getting into and can get ready to compete in it if they wish the following year. And we can take care of logistics by watching them.

“Again, thank you! Have a good, safe night. Especially if you are heading home now. If you are staying here for the evening, have a safe time traveling tomorrow.”

“That looked fun,” Red Tip said as Shadow got back. “Lots of fun. I wouldn’t mind trying my hoof at it. I know how to make shotgun shells, so I could customize it with my own loads.”

Shadow laughed heartily. “Will you compete without rounds you make?”

“Once you start, you cant go back!”

Both of them laughed. Then Shadow got serious.

“You make you own Shotgun shells?”

“I can make you magnum loads, but I advise you that you will need to be using a shotgun with a thick barrel to help prevent messing up the barrel. Its a heavy charge and with big balls bouncing around inside the barrel.”

“DCD,” Shadow said.

“Right,” Red Tip chuckled. “You have one of the best shotguns in Equestria. It will easily handle those. But they will cost you. And quite a bit more than regular shells. Four times more.”

“I can think of times where magnum loads would be appreciated,” Shadow said. “And worth the cost. Plus, the beanbag rounds are magnum loads. They have to be in order to get enough power into the bean bag.”

“We can take your shotgun out, get the spread pattern, and I can build you an optimized load. I trust you with it. I probably shouldn’t, but I do.”

It was late. Strawberry was the only one without a bed, and she didn’t trust heading back at night, even with others. Thankfully there were still spectator beds available and they were cheap. With the sheer number of spectators staying, the Steel Rangers made a lot of cash, easily. Shadow, Red Tip and Earthen Charm still had their beds free. They were still competitors until tomorrow, 10am.

Shadow didn’t bother to pack. It would be easy and take no time in the morning. He just took his ribbons off and set them in the locker, along with his winner checks. Each check was for 2000 caps.

The Trottingham Steel Rangers kept a bank account with the city for easy purchasing while in town, and for compensation. It worked just as well to hand out rewards. Many of the rodeo winners would cash their checks with the Steel Rangers rather than risk the long hike to the city and then back with them. Their homes were nearby.

Chapter 118 - Hunting

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Shadow was sitting at the workbench, tinkering with his battle saddle’s rifle. He had taken the rest of the day off after he had come back from the expo, and now it was time to get to work. He was putting it through a thorough cleaning and inspection. So far, wear was beginning to show, but nothing was close to being a problem. The gun had been in storage and then only began use right before he left Rosemary.

Shadow was preparing to hit the Lux. It was going to burn, but after he stole some caps. A few thousand would not be missed. But their debauchery earned them a cleansing, righteous fire.

A knock came at the door. It was heavier than a normal knock. Shadow got up, scanning the room. His sword was out, laying on the table. But it was carefully wrapped, being finished this morning. Soarin’s Lightning was broken down and in it’s bag, tucked away. Nothing else was out that could compromise him in any way.

Shadow tossed on the Blue Beret jacket before he opened the door. Behind it was Star Paladin Warding Blade. Dressed in full gear, helmet off.

“Have you heard the news?” Warding Blade asked, disturbed.

“Uh,” Shadow hesitated. “No. I’ve been inside all day cleaning my rifles. Step in and catch me up.”

“Have you heard the bells?” Warding Blade asked.

“Yeah,” Shadow replied. “But I’ve been inside all day.”

“Those bells spell bad news. Our Hellhound Patrol came back suddenly. A group broke off from their home and are heading this way.”

Shadow took in a deep breath and let it out. “And you are in need of grunts to head them off.”

“Not exactly,” Warding Blade said. “We have a unit that will be heading off to put up a defense if they make a move towards Trottingham. But the whole area is on alert. And the city will be drawing up more guards as well. I am looking to head up a mission to take them out if we can. Knight Yellow Quartz is the only other one I will trust on this job. And I am hoping we can put you as our third. A triangle is the hardest shape to break.”

Shadow took a deep breath in, thinking. “I…”

“Hellhounds are not to be trifled with,” Warding Blade said. “I understand if you decline. Have you seen a Hellhound?”

“Unfortunately I have,” Shadow replied. “I couldn't stop and chat with them at the time.”

“So you know what we are up against,” Warding Blade said.

“Somewhat,” Shadow replied. “I know they tunnel. And if its a pack, three will be out numbered fast.”

“That’s why we are hunting them,” Warding Blade said. “Hunt, not fight.”

“So, you want my long distance skill?”

“It would be a big advantage,” Warding Blade said. “The others are being fielded along the defense line.”

Shadow made his choice. The greatest danger right now, what had to be dealt with immediately before anything could be done, was to take out these Hellhounds. He would take out the Lux after. As an added bonus, missions like this would make him look better, less like Black Widow, and allow him to operate longer without being taking out or forced into deep hiding.

“The rifle isn’t here,” Shadow said. “Its at Red Tip’s, where I am doing some work on it. How fast do you need me ready?”

“We need to be gone now,” Warding Blade said. “Grab your stuff, we can meet at Red Tip’s. Knight Yellow Quartz is checking in on ammo there.”

“I’ll be there in 5,” Shadow replied. “It won’t be hard to get everything together. How long for food should I grab?”

“We will have the food for you,” Warding Blade said. “Knight Yellow Quartz has charge over some of our bags.”

“Alright,” Shadow replied. “I’ll meet you there shortly.”

“Thank you,” Warding Blade nodded. “You will be well compensated.”

“Assuming we walk out of this alive,” Shadow replied as he trotted over to his workbench.

The Star Paladin departed and Shadow put his rifle together. He picked his load out and then strapped on his gear. He went with his usual red jacket and cut up black flight suit. His bandoleer had two grenades on it, with four more in his pack. He had his four canteens filled and ready to go. All his ammo was swapped out for armor piercing rounds.

Shadow belted on his sword. He would risk that. But Soarin’s Lightning, Shadow was pretty certain he could get that anti-machine rifle back for this run. The trick would be to get it done quietly.

Loaded out, Shadow met them at the gun shop. Red Tip was in the front, quietly leaning against his counter.

“Yo,” Shadow called. “I am getting my rifle from the back. I’ll continue to fine tune her when I get back.”

“Need help?” Red Tip asked.

“If you could,” Shadow replied.

In the back, Red Tip was discreet. “What has you needing to borrow it with them out there.”

“I guess that annoying bell means Hellhounds,” Shadow shrugged.

“You are heading out to play defender with them?”

“Hunting,” Shadow grinned.

“Oh,” Red Tip said impressed. “So, this is a bigger deal then?”

Shadow shrugged. “I got a beef to finally settle with them. And a wandering group of Hellhounds is not conductive to my goals.”

“Well,” Red Tip said. “I guess we need to figure out payment for this rental.”

“2500 caps for the buy,” Shadow said. “Plus, I could use a restock on my ammo.”

Red Tip’s eyes narrowed. He trusted Mtoaji, but it went against his choice to not sell anti-machine rifles and ammo.

“Fine,” Red Tip quietly growled. “I trust you won’t use it poorly. You have that better one for that. And I guess you can’t use it in front of Steel Rangers”

“I need shotgun slugs,” Shadow stated.

“I got those,” Red Tip grinned. “I also have something that will pack a good punch. These are Tri-Ball 12 loads. 12 Gauge loads with three 0.60 inch balls. Normal 00 Buck has eight 0.33 inch balls. Its not the same spread, since you have only a third of the shot, but with a shotgun, you want as many balls to transfer the energy. Smaller shot, less energy per ball. 00 Buck was standard in the military for a reason. But these Tri-Balls, they were meant to rip apart armor from point blank range, rather than throw a single chunk of lead at the target.”

“Okay,” Shadow said thinking. “I guess a variety is the best solution.”

“Mhm,” Red Tip smirked. “Slug, Tri, 00, repeat. And you can knock down 3 shots quick and accurate. Which means optimal damage.”

“I like it,” Shadow grinned. “Let’s load me down with this pattern.

Shadow wrote him a check for the ammo and gun, and shouldered it before heading to the front. Shadow took his rations, which also included water. His canteens held more water than he had rationed out for four days in the field. Knight Yellow Quartz was jealous.

“You are well prepared,” Warding Blade said. “But I do not see a tent.”

“I do not have one,” Shadow replied.

“Well, we will certainly fix that. We can share the two tents we brought easily enough. After, you will take one with you. You should always have the ability to have shelter. That looks like the only field gear you are missing”

Shadow smiled at the Star Paladin. “I used to have one, but it got lost along the way. Thank you.”

“Now, we most move quickly and with great purpose,” Warding Blade said.

Shadow nodded and pulled open the door for the others. They quickly moved out, close off Warding Blade’s flank. For now, they didn’t need to fan out.

It took them out towards the Lux. Shadow hadn’t imagined they would stop for the night in a place like the Lux. It was too late to halt it when they were standing at the gates.

“Umm, they don’t like me,” Shadow said. “Like, I can’t come back here.”

“You are with me,” Warding Blade stated. “I will smooth it over for the night.”

“Do we have to?” Shadow pressed. “I could stay outside for the night.”

“We stick together,” Warding Blade said at the gate. “Plus they need to be warned and its a good bed to sleep in. So yes. With me, you will be fine.”

Shadow gulped and caught up. They were let in past the gate with no problem. But Shadow didn’t think they would put up a fight there. As they neared the center of the Lux guards surrounded them. They stopped and Warding Blade took his helmet off, giving Shadow a look, asking for an explanation.

Shadow took a defensive stance, an almost pointless action since he was surrounded. He was far outnumbered. It would not go well. This was the last way he wanted to die, roped into defending himself while he was trying to keep it safe so he could eliminate scum like them.

“I told you they wouldn't let me come back.”

Marjoram stepped out from behind guards.

“Star Paladin,” Marjoram smiled. “It is a pleasure to have you back with us. It is always a pleasure to have the Steel Rangers join us. However, your friend is less than welcome. He has done some terrible things.”

“And just what are the charges?” Warding Blade asked, keeping an open mind.

“Oh, not much. He beat and tied up one of our ladies. And after we were having such a good relationship.”

“That’s it?” Shadow asked without thinking.

“And what else where you concerned about?” Warding Blade asked.

“Uh,” Shadow hesitated. “Well I helped one of their other ladies escape.”

“It was sad to see her leave,” Marjoram stated sweatly. “She had no need to sneak away with you. Or escape as she might call it. They are not held against their will.”

“You might want to tell them that,” Shadow said sternly. “I know for a fact that many feel pressed into their situation. I won’t say slavery, but it can have a similar feeling.”

“I will make sure of that,” Marjoram smiled. “But that doesn’t explain why you beat up and hog tied Mist.”

Shadow smirked. “I will set the record clear here and now, I never beat Mist. I did tie her up. If you recall, I pressed hard to not have Mist around. It was Mist, at your direction, who would not leave me alone. Not even when Strawberry was with me. I made it clear.

“I also made it clear that I just had Strawberry around purely for her company. Nothing sexual. I am married and won’t break that promise. Mist pushed that and wasn’t taking no for an answer.”

Shadow relaxed. “So I was left with one option. I had to stop her. And I had to get Strawberry out of there. Strawberry said bondage, which I still don’t get, and I used it to reverse things and tie up Mist. She left me no other option than to restrain her. But I was gentle. I never beat her, just a single strike to keep her off her game so I could force her into submission. The most aggressive thing was knocking her off the bed.”

“I did choke her out, twice. But it was gentle and fast. The second time was for her comfort, rather than laying in the bathroom tied up for hours, freaking out. I know she was found fine in the morning. You keep a close eye on them all and neither of them checked in after you personally watched me depart.”

Marjoram’s eyes narrowed.

“And you did nothing else?” Warding Blade asked. “You only put her unconscious and tied her up?”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded. “And I was gentle with the ties. I’m sure it didn’t look like it, but it shouldn’t of left any marks. Maybe some light bruising. At most, it was undignified. But she wouldn't take no for an answer and leave without having sex.

“I would have told you earlier I wasn’t welcome, but I never guesses that you would want to stay here on this, excursion.”

Warding Blade took a deep breath. “Marjoram, we have a good relationship. You trust me. We are here on business, looking for a place to spend the night. If he stays by my side, or by Knight Yellow Quartz’s side, will that seem sufficient? There seems to be a lot of miscommunication on both sides. Things could have been handled much better, but nopony was hurt. Were they?”

“Fine,” Marjoram growled. “Mist only did take some bruising. So long as he stays with either of you. And no gambling!”

“I crushed their games,” Shadow chuckled to Warding Blade. “Then the times I pushed it, I knew I shouldn’t, but I was keeping up the facade, trying to get Strawberry out, and trying to get rid of Mist. I could take them for every cap they have, if given the chance. But that is boring.”

“And he can’t ever come back,” Marjoram spat.

“I may have need of him more,” Warding Blade said. “But the reason we are here is for a very serious one. We are dealing with Hellhounds. A group of them broke off and appear to be moving this way.”

Marjoram immediately began giving orders to tighten up their defenses and strengthen their guard.

“Star Paladin, if you have need of him, he can come with you. But no gambling and always must be by your side. He is your charge.”

“Of course,” Warding Blade said. “He won’t cause you any problems while under my charge. Or I will personally deal with him.”

“Then follow me,” Marjoram beckoned with a smile. “I know that we have an executive suite open for your stay. Will it just be overnight?”

“For now,” Warding Blade replied. “We may end up back near here if the hunt goes well.”

The room was beyond nice. There were three bedrooms centered around a large seating area. Shadow would be decently safe with his wings, especially in his bedroom. But they all shared a bathroom.

“You can order room service,” Warding Blade told them. “I am going to go meet Marjoram and have a pleasant discussion.”

“A what?” Yellow Quartz asked shocked.

“A conversation,” Warding Blade replied distracted. “I know Marjoram well. I stay here often enough. It is safe when going solo, unlike the field. Just stay here and order food through the telephone. I don’t need this informant cut off. They do a lot of good for me and they are very powerful. We try to keep them happy.”

“Great,” Yellow Quartz huffed after Star Paladin Warding Blade left. “First time at the Lux and I am trapped in the room, watching over a degenerate.”

“Hey,” Shadow shot back. “What would you have done if you had a stallion pushing to have sex with you and you didn’t want it? Huh?”

Shadow’s eyes were not going to let her wiggle out of the question.

“I don’t know,” Yellow Quartz finally said giving in.

“I did the best I could,” Shadow finished. “I was also trying to get one of their courtesans out of an abusive ‘work’ environment. That was more important.”

Yellow Quartz stepped out of her armor and laid down on the couch opposite of the one Shadow was on. They didn’t know what to do. They had met over a heated competition and they didn’t have any free time to possibly get to know them. On top of that, Shadow was nagged by the fact that he was probably going to have to kill her.

Shadow was the one who got them food. He just ordered two oat burgers and hay fries. Yellow Quartz had fallen into a light nap, and he wasn’t going to disturb her. She woke up when room service knocked on their door. And the meal was more than acceptable to her.

Shadow checked his gear before going to an early bed. There was no window in his room.

“You are going to wear that to bed?” Yellow Quartz asked suspiciously. “Even the cloak?”

Shadow shrugged. “No offense, but I’m not the most comfortable with this arrangement. Both being here again and bunking with Steel Rangers. The Star Paladin is alright, and you seem safe, but as a rule, its not been safe dealing with Steel Rangers. I didn’t make that up, you guys did as I just tried to do what I needed to.”

Knight Yellow Quartz didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t discount his experiences, and at the same time, she needed to know she could trust him to have her back. She didn’t see that trust coming any time soon.

Shadow awoke briefly when he heard the Star Paladin get back. It was late. But there was still time to get good solid sleep.

Shadow was the first up. He spent the morning loading and unloading his magazines, checking their springs. Star Paladin Warding Blade was awake soon after, and he got Knight Yellow Quartz up. They ordered breakfast and then were on their way.

Outside the gate, Warding Blade began to move them forward at a quick pace. They were heading east by northeast. Shadow was certain their goal was to begin the hunt on the far side, where the Hellhounds were not expecting them to come from.

They were picking their way through a wooded area when Shadow halted. He knew the feeling rising in his gut. The familiar feeling of danger getting close. Or more accurately, them walking into danger.

Warding Blade stopped as he noticed Shadow hang back. Shadow held up a hoof. He then pointed it, signaling for Knight Yellow Quartz to fan out of the right. Warding Blade took a few steps back toward Shadow and then began sliding to the left. Shadow continued forward, taking point.

It was only a minute or so when Shadow heard the familiar gruff voices of trouble. As he slid up to scope them out, he saw a group sitting around a camp fire. And it was at the entrance down into a cave that sunk into the ground. An odd location.

One of the biggest males farted loudly and they all laughed. Nothing out of the ordinary. Too much.

Shadow stepped out and moved confidently towards them. He was noticed quickly.

“Is that Black Widow?” One asked.

“No idiot,” The unicorn leader said punching him in the arm. “But it is a fresh sucker. Who by now can’t get away. So he should come join us around the fire. Or regret it.”

Shadow chuckled and walked forward to join them. “Well, its not something you get to dictate. This is how this is going. What you were planning to do to me, I am going to do to you. Including the same consequences.”

Shadow held up his hoof to stop them from talking. “And I am not alone. So. How shall we do this?”

“Hmph!” The leader grunted. “Go. Parting ways is the better option. No one gets hurt, no one gets in trouble.”

Shadow smirked. “Until the next sucker comes along. How shall we do this? You get one chance to step away to a new life.”

“He he,” One chuckled. “You got no friends. You got nothin to stand on. So drop the bags and guns and you can walk. We won’t do anything since you have been so calm.”

“Vagabonds don’t win when I come into play.”

The leader stood up, levitating a baseball bat. One of the others tried to stand but a crack rang out, knocking his head off.

Shadow shrugged with a grin. “I said I had friends.”

The Unicorn screamed and charged. The others stood up but were picked off from both directions. Shadow just stood there as he bore down on him. At the last moment he hopped in, scrunching up and twisting on his front legs. He bucked the unicorn in the muzzle.

It halted the attack and he stumbled back a few paces before tumbling to the side. Shadow stepped over to his side and looked down on him.

“Bad choice. Now you get to suffer as your nose bleeds into itself and it’s collapsed structure. Most likely, you will suffocate in extreme pain. A pity.”

Shadow shrugged and walked towards the campfire. The two Steel Rangers met him there.

“Impressive,” Warding Blade said with a nod. “I’ve seen some good buckers, but that was impressive and precise. He never saw it coming.”

Yellow Quartz gave an approving nod.

“I know we have a mission-”

“Yes,” The Star Paladin finished. “We need to clean up weapons and check for useful supplies.”

It was a poor haul. A few rusty guns. One was a pipe on a piece of wood. Crude, but it worked. Their medical stash had several potions and their caps were an impressive 500 odd strong. Shadow had two empty bags, so he carried them.

The cave didn’t go down deep. Shadow stood watch while Warding Blade and Yellow Quartz entered it. They were back out a few minutes later. It was all trash and useless objects.

Back on the move, they were working to make up for the lost time. They had to get into position with more than sufficient time to set their trap and hunting range. The opening seconds had to disrupt and confuse the Hellhounds if they were going to succeed.

Chapter 119 - Shuck

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Shadow was prone, behind the anti-machine rifle. Above and around him was an intricately laid out system of branches to simulate a bush. It was effective cover unless you got within 100 yards. Even then it was going to be difficult to spot him. If the Hellhounds got within that distance, they did something wrong.

Behind him a few yards was an anxious Knight Yellow Quartz, spotting for him. Somewhere else was Star Paladin Wading Blade. He had placed them here before the morning light cracked and then went his own way. Shadow just focused on his job. The Star Paladin was better off being in another location. It would help them look stronger and cause more confusion if they hit the group from two separate locations.

Outside of the patch of trees behind Shadow, there wasn’t much else for cover in the flat terrain. A tree here or there, but that was all. Yellow Quartz was concerned about not seeing the Star Paladin.

Shadow was tracking the lead group of Hellhounds. 10 by his count. A good two miles out from their position. But a bit north of them was another group about the same size and to their west was a third. Three groups of Hellhounds tactically fanned out. It spelled only ill news.

Worse yet, they couldn’t identify their leader. Shuck is what Warding Blade had called him. And he used a rifle. But about a third of the Hellhounds were carrying guns. Armor was hit or miss with them, but a lot had open face helmets.

“Closing on a mile,” Yellow Quartz told Shadow quietly. “No wind. Not even a breeze.”

Shadow didn’t respond as he kept them in his sights. He watched as they slowed down a bit under 1600 meters. They other groups stopped too. Shadow took in a deep breath as he realized what they were doing. They were sniffing. There was no wind to carry their scent, but these beasts had smelled them.

There was only one thing to do. Shadow set his mouth to the bit and fired at the Hellhound that he had the sights on. The half inch bullet slammed dead center into the body. It was easy to hit them at this distance.

Shadow rotated the bolt and got a new bullet in the chamber. They figured out where it came from. He could probably get two, maybe three shots off before they would be on the run.

They stopped, conflicted, as a set of rockets came out of nowhere and slammed into a single Hellhound. Shadow fired again, and again, and again. There was more bullets spewing from the same area as the rockets had come from. Out in the open with no pony or turret visible.

Shadow put one last round down at the beasts and pushed the rifle forward. He crawled out of the cover and reloaded the rifle.

“They are digging,” Yellow Quartz said nervously.

“It’s tough ground,” Shadow said. “Hard to dig. It will take them time.”

A bullet blasted a hole in the tree next to Yellow Quartz, forcing her to duck out of instinct.

“Right,” Shadow said rolling his eyes as he stood up and tossed the rifle on his back.

Shadow glanced around, tracking the groups one last time to decide their exit strategy. The Star Paladin had stopped firing any weapons and the group in the west was going to cut them off from their meeting point. They were on their own.

“Let’s go,” Shadow said running to the east.

“The regroup-”

“Is to our southwest and compromised,” Shadow said, cutting her off. “We will have to make do. For now, south?”

Shadow pulled ahead to lead them towards the small ancient town that was to their southeast. It was little more than rubble. However, it was one place they could get cover and the most logical place that Warding Blade would go.

They were making good headway. Every so often a bullet would get close enough to hear, but nothing to worry about. Shadow looked back as Yellow Quartz yelled in terror. The ground was giving way beneath her. She pawed her way out in time as the claws came out, followed by a head.

Shadow bumped his shotgun and let all 10 rounds slam into the head. He had set its pattern to a slug, Tri-Ball, and then 00 buck. It was a nasty combination that was designed to take down heavy body armor and strong beasts like a Hellhound. At the very least it would cause massive internal damage just from the sheer force involved.

The headless Hellhound slid back into his hole as Shadow expertly swapped out magazines. He made sure he stashed the shotgun magazine back into a saddlebag. He couldn’t afford to lose a single one.

Shadow heard Knight Yellow Quartz unleash fury behind him. He picked up his situational awareness as if he was flying. It was the only way to survive the hunters becoming the hunted.

Yellow Quartz was pumping the chest of a Hellhound full of copper jacketed lead. It swung its razor claws at her and Shadow blew the paw apart with three shotgun rounds. But it still slammed into her back with terrifying force, forcing her to buckle a bit. Her bags were shredded and the paw was left with half barely hanging on. There was most likely more damage than just shredded bags. But her helmet was on so she could grimace all she wanted and Shadow would be unable to read any of it.

The thing still towered over Yellow Quartz as it howled in pain. Two more tunneled up around them. Shadow put twenty rounds in it’s hind leg to cripple it so he could deal with the new ones. He was panicking a bit.

Yellow Quartz proved why she was out here. She unleashed half a magazine into the head of one. Plenty of the rounds found the beast’s eyes and the treasure that lay behind their sockets.

Shadow put six 12 gage rounds into the other’s legs and they he got them running again. It wasn’t for long. A stream of bullets cut them off and three more popped up in front of them.

Yellow Quartz had already turned to lay down fire upon the armed ones. Shadow charged straight in. He grabbed the Zebra combat bayonet. It’s 16 inches was going to do serious damage to the beasts.

Shadow slid beneath the middle Hellhound’s legs as it swiped at him. He slit the left ankle’s tendon and then flipped around, slitting the other one down to the bone. Shadow chose his next target by picked the one that the Hellhound didn’t fall into.

Shadow flipped the blade and jumped into the beast so that as he blocked the beast impaled it’s own paw on the blade. It’s howl was a sweat note in Shadow’s ear. Since his back was to the beast, Shadow used the band to flip the combat knife out and drive it into the beast’s chest. It was a great strike with a lot of power, but the blade only sunk in half way. That was the terrifying power of the Hellhound.

In his spin out to break contact, Shadow got a good slash at the beast’s throat. Yellow Quartz had the other one bearing down on her while she kept the two with guns busy. Shadow tackled it. It was on the small size, only eight times his size, but it was an effective strategy as he latched onto it’s head.

Yellow Quartz checked her six as Shadow viciously drove the combat knife in and out of the Hellhound’s eyes. Shadow held on as the beast toppled. He expertly slipped off as it landed and rolled to stand beside her.

“Go for the legs!” Shadow ordered. “Cripple them. It is a waist of ammo otherwise. Our small caliber is fucking trash.”

Knight Yellow Quartz nodded as a round exploded against her head. Her helmet did it’s job, but it still had to hurt. Shadow unloaded the last in his magazine at the two rifles and heads poking above the ground in their tunnels. Yellow Quartz finished her magazine as he reloaded and then they moved out while she changed magazines.

They had more time in between interruptions, but the Hellhounds were not giving up. The less they showed up, the more concerned Shadow was. They were reacting to where they popped up, making Shadow concerned that they were being herded.

Two exploded out from behind them and then another three to their left. They shifted to go right as two more popped up. Both had rifles.

“Barkin’ Saw shoot pony!” One yelled as he unloaded on them in a sweep.

Shadow grunted as the air was forced out of his lungs. Lead was slamming into his armored vest. At least that’s all Shadow believed they hit. The gun jammed as it honed in on Shadow’s head.

Shadow forced himself through the pain and fired three erratic shots. They missed anything vital as they claimed flesh. But they slammed into the head none the less. Barkin’ Saw slid down into the tunnel he had popped out of. At the very least, he was going to be deaf for life.

The other one in front of them also slid down into his tunnel as he bled out from the eyes. Yellow Quartz had drilled several bursts into each eye. They had the others on top of them. Shadow ripped into one’s knee with the shotgun. Yellow Quartz was keeping them at bay by peppering their faces with 5.56 rounds.

Shadow took the opportunity to dart in with Kifo Herixleta. In a few seconds each one was missing at least one foot. Shadow hopped up onto the back of the biggest one and sunk the blade into the skull, silencing it. There was a group of three more approaching. He was staring them down, daring them to try their luck among the howls of their drying comrades. Yellow Quartz caught his eye and turned around. She had just reloaded while he sliced their legs. She was ready to put them down if the came any closer.

They wised up and dug themselves into a retreat. Shadow jumped off the back of the carcass and led Knight Yellow Quartz on their way.

“I know where I am going,” Shadow said before she could ask. “Trust me.”

Shadow darted in and around some shrubs and clumps of trees. He was taking them east. For the most part, they had been driven south by the Hellhounds. Shadow found his target and moved straight for a solo tree. It was large, old by the time the war had started.

Shadow slid up to it’s tick trunk and hopped up onto a big root.

“We need to find the Star Paladin,” Yellow Quartz panted.

“He is right there,” Shadow said. “Trotting over to us.”

The air shimmered and the Star Paladin emerged from his cover as he trotted over to them.

“Good eye,” Star Paladin Wading Blade said to Shadow. “I am surprised you could see me, but then again, you are Mtoaji.”

Shadow shrugged and then grimaced. “Once you get used to it, you can tell.”

“You took bullets,” Warding Blade said concerned.

“We both did,” Shadow stated. “But its all been on the armor. I don’t know if Yellow Quartz’s armor was pieced by their claws or not.”

“Can you both move?” Warding Blade asked, ignoring specifics.

“Yes,” Yellow Quartz replied. “I can.”

“Me too,” Shadow nodded. “I have been through worse. I won’t stress myself too far.”

“I am so glad you shot when you did. They had picked up on my scent. I was in trouble. But you distracted them and we disrupted them badly. You killed that first one. I am sure of that.”

"I know I can claim two kills,” Yellow Quartz said. “And together we crippled five. I know Mtoaji had to hit double digits.”

Shadow knew his count. “I killed five, solo. And then another six were permanently crippled by me, alone. Many of those cripples might bleed out.”

Several howls pierced the finally quiet landscape.

“I didn’t get Shuck, did you?” The Star Paladin asked.

“Not that we know of,” Knight Yellow Quartz sighed. “But they had us on the run and almost boxed in a few times.”

Warding Blade peered around the tree. “They are about 2000 meters out. Only ten or so. But I see Shuck finally. He has a pistol. A 44 revolver. I guess he gave up his rifle.”

Shadow peered out. Without a helmet or spotter scope he wouldn’t see much. It was flat, so he could see them. But that was all.

“So we cut them down down a good third,” Yellow Quartz said as she took a look. “I see Shuck. Too bad we missed him.”

“I chose another over him,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said annoyed.

“What was your count?” Shadow asked, a bit out of breath.

“Nine,” The Star Paladin said flatly. “All kills.”

“They are at 2000 meters?” Shadow clarified.

“Yeah,” Warding Blade said, his voice picking up a bit. “Its a big target and no wind. Can you hit him?”

“Not from prone,” Shadow said as he swung his rifle out and dropped it onto the back of the Star Paladin. The Star Paladin didn’t give it a second thought, but Knight Yellow quartz was appalled.

He was basically standing as he adjusted. Shadow didn’t dilly dally He found Shuck easily. Even at 2000 meters, Shuck’s body fit in his scope. Shadow adjusted up. He was practically guaranteed a hit.

“Get ready to run,” Shadow said. “When I shoot, they will probably become hostile again.”

“We need him down,” Star Paladin Warding Blade stated. “Do it.”

Shadow made his final adjustment and then fired.

Shadow wasn’t ready. He had forgotten about the power. Being prone was one thing. He had learned to flow with the recoil. But he was standing and he was not ready. The rifle was tight into his shoulder but it moved back into him full kicked and Shadow was separated from the rifle as he was violently tossed backwards.

Shadow rolled to a stop in the dust with a groan. It hurt to breath. Shadow was not able to move. He wasn’t able to think clearly.

“Get him on my back!” Warding Blade ordered.

Yellow Quartz got him on his back, the wide guns giving a solid place for him to lay.

“Grab the gun!” Warding Blade followed up before dashing out.

Warding Blade ran. Yellow Quartz followed at a close pace. They never hit any resistance as they raced along. Yellow Quartz hated that she had lost where they were were on the map. She had to rely on the Star Paladin.

Nighttime brought them back to a familiar area. They came upon the Lux and Yellow Quartz understood why the Star Paladin used it. It was a very accessible place. The security was an added bonus.

The guards only let them in once they checked in with Marjoram. The Star Paladin lead them to the casino. When they entered, Marjoram wasn’t there. Star Paladin Warding Blade approached the front desk. Nothing had been told to the front desk. Marjoram came in a second later, through the main doors.

“Star Paladin,” She greeted them. There was no smile on her lips. “Is it over? And him?”

“It is,” Warding Blade stated. “And he took a beating. He was chosen for a reason, and he proved that today.”

“I’m alive,” Shadow groaned. “Just in a lot of pain.”

“Good,” Warding Blade grunted.

“Give me the keys the high roller suite,” Marjoram ordered the front desk attendant. “They need rest. Order whatever you need. Dinner is on me.”

“Thank you,” Warding Blade said. His helmet was still on, so Marjoram couldn’t see him smile.

Marjoram personally lead them to the room and let them in. Knight Yellow Quartz took her helmet off and took the keys with a smile.

“Thanks. We are all a bit battered and worn. Well, at least Mtoaji and I. I don’t know if the Star Paladin took any hits. I don’t think he would tell me if he did.”

“Have a good night. All three of you,” Marjoram smiled as she left.

“Okay,” Shadow groaned before he rolled off.

His hooves didn’t catch him at all. He pushed up onto them, favoring his right foreleg. He couldn’t really put pressure on it. The rifle had destroyed his shoulder. But he didn’t regret it.

“You are in bad shape,” Knight Yellow Quartz said. Her concern was obvious. “You need healing.”

“I just need a potion or two,” Shadow said, trying to reach one in his bag.

“Hmm,” Warding Blade said as he took his helmet off. “I have seen a lot of injuries in my time. But I know that one well enough.”

Warding Blade embraced Shadow around his should and squeezed. Shadow growled in pain and almost passed out as his shoulder was forced back into it’s socket. Shadow stumbled when he was let go, but all four hooves caught him. He was still sore and broken inside.

Shadow smiled at Warding Blade. The smile had a second meaning. The armored leg obviously couldn’t feel his wings as he embraced Shadow and popped his shoulder back in.

“Thanks.”

“Thank you,” Warding Blade said back with a gleam in his eye. “You hit Shuck dead center. I doubt it killed him or will kill him, but it was a solid hit. It will make him think twice.”

“Or put him into a rage,” Shadow replied.

“Not likely,” Warding Blade replied. “I’ve hunted him twice. He has eluded me both times. Not this time. You got him. He will rethink things. He knows it was me and my team.”

“It was a stellar shot,” Yellow Quartz added.

Shadow popped down a health potion.

“We should get you out of your jacket,” Warding Blade said. “I can see the eight bullets stuck in it’s armored padding.”

“No,” Shadow replied. “I’ll keep it on. It will keep things contained. Just some bruising. A broken rib or two. Yellow Quarts took a swipe from a paw. I saw her buckle under it’s weight.”

“It hurts,” Yellow Quartz admitted. “Can you help me out of it?”

Warding Blade helped his knight out of her armor. She had three punctures in her back, along her spine.

“Lay down,” Shadow ordered. “Let me see.”

Yellow Quartz gave him a concerned look but complied.

Shadow chuckled. “You think I came out all this way, was taught what I need to survive, and they didn’t teach me medical care?”

Shadow didn’t give them a chance to respond. His slight touch caused her a lot of pain.

“They are deep,” Shadow warned. “Very deep. And they are way to close to your spine. You are luck you can walk. Your armor saved you. I need a stitch kit.”

“Yellow Quartz had the medical supplies,” Warding Blade stated.

What was left of her bags was all ammunition.

“Well then, its time for mine. Its thread and a needle, but we need to close those wounds. They are too deep to risk closing on their own. Every time she moves, they open back up. Its not a lot of bleeding, but she will get an infection if its not treated.”

“I agree,” Warding Blade stated.

Shadow pulled out his medical kit. He first hit Yellow Quartz with Med-X before she even knew it was happening. Once she was under it’s influence, he began to stitch them up. It was a simple thing.

“I’m going to bed,” Shadow said to Warding Blade. “Even if I wasn’t injured, I can’t really move her to a bed easily.”

Warding Blade chuckled kindly. “Go, get your rest. I will take care of her. I need rest as well.”

Shadow was setting his gear aside when Warding Blade knocked on his door.

“Come in,” Shadow said.

“I don’t want to take your time, but I am impressed. I don’t even have the account of your battle, but your sniping was spot on. And more impressively, you saw me when I was invisible.”

Shadow chuckled with a tired smile. “The StealthBuck is a great tool, but it shimmers. The Zebra invisibility cloaks are much stronger and more impressive. So, its pretty easy to tell when one is using a StealthBuck. Even at a decent distance. Besides, it was the only way you could be hidden out in the open like you were at the start.”

“Still, I can’t even get most of the Steel Rangers to spot when I am using it. I’ve used them in the halls and they were clueless.”

Shadow almost stated he could tell the three times that Yellow Quartz used her E.F.S., but that would have revealed more than Shadow every wanted revealed.

“I will let you get your rest, but I am sad that you are not one of ours. Still, you make a valuable pony for your home. You are sure to succeed in your mission. I will do whatever I can, anything. You earned that for sure.”

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled as he hit himself with some Med-X. He felt safe to use it while sleeping alongside them.

Shadow was awake for a bit, silently laying in the bed, when the knock came at the door. It was quiet. Shadow was aching a bit, but it wasn’t too bad. Shadow listened in. Marjoram had come to the door. Three Hellhounds were at their gate.

“I’ll go,” Shadow said exiting his room. “I can handle them.”

“What?” Marjoram said shocked.

“They need an alpha,” Shadow stated. “They came from dogs, they still are dogs. I’ll give them their alpha.”

“You won’t go alone,” Warding Blade said. “I will put my armor on.”

“Me too,” Yellow Quartz groaned. “I swore to follow this through and stop their threat.”

Shadow stepped back into his room and belted on his sword, zebra knife, and Mwokozi’s revolver. He was not going to burden himself. He could open up with the blade and the band if he needed to, but that was doubtful.

Shadow was on point as they trotted out to the front gate. They were just standing there. Three giant Hellhounds. None had weapons, but all three had helmets and one was in full armor. Makeshift pieces of metal slammed together, but it did it’s job.

“You ponies are the ponies who attacked us?” The lead one asked. “You ponies killed Shuck?”

“I did,” Shadow stated, taking a step forward. “I shot him.”

“Pony took away our life. Pony took away our friend. Ponies attacked for no reason.”

“You Hellhounds don’t leave us alone,” Shadow stated. “You try to kill any ponies. All ponies deserve to die to you. I have heard you say it before.”

“What? Ponies did bad to us in war. But we didn’t want to kill them. We want our own place. Away from the others who want to hurt you.”

“Then get,” Shadow ordered. “Go.”

“No. Now we want to kill you for taking away Shuck. He was our savior!”

Shadow grinned and tipped his hat down. “You really want to do this?”

“Yes. Pony must pay,” the leader grinned.

“Mtoaji doesn’t want to hurt you,” Shadow smiled back.

Shadow took a sure step forward to give himself room.

“It’s okay,” Shadow told Warding Blade and Yellow Quartz. “I will show them what it means to be Mtoaji.”

Shadow didn’t hesitate after that. He leaped forward. The jump was jarring, but it snapped his mind into fight mode as it carried him into a sprint.

The Hellhound’s claws flashed as it took a swipe. Their size difference worked both ways. The Hellhound was easily ten times his size, but Shadow was a small target for it. Shadow slipped past the claws and struck hard at the inside thigh of the Hellhound. It wasn’t a pressure point, but it was a tender place to be hit.

The Hellhound whipped around, and Shadow slid around out of it’s sight. To him it was a giant bumbling thing and he was the fly. But this fly stung like a wasp.

Shadow bucked him in the outside of the knee, right at the pressure point. The knee buckled involuntarily. Shadow bucked it a second time to make sure it was dead.

The Hellhound howled in rage. It was all Shadow needed. Shadow vaulted up off it’s chest to buck it in the jaw. It clamped shut, biting it’s own tongue.

It stumbled back, tongue bitten off. Shadow was ready. He launched again at it. This time the combat knife was in his mouth and he slammed into it’s chest. The knife sunk all the way in. Shadow flipped in place, hooking his rear hooves around the blade in a motion that used his weight to tear it down.

Shadow caught himself in a hoofstand and expertly let himself down as the chest cavity began to drip blood onto his head. Shadow picked up the blade with his mouth as the stunned Hellhound stepped back a few paces, looking dumbly at his chest.

Shadow grinned with it in his mouth. “So, either of you want a taste of my blade? I’ll whip your asses one at a time or both of you together if you want.”

“Pony... pony crazy!” One stuttered in exclamation.

“Stay away from pony land,” Shadow spat. “Every time you guys move out towards our land, we have to be ready for you to attack. I’m the best of the best, but the others will still make short work of you. Because you threaten our homes. Unless you come in peace, expect to find only lead. And even then, there is plenty of land away from pony kind.”

“Pony crazy. What do other ponies say?”

“You know where we live,” Warding Blade asserted. “And your kind has gone on rampages before. You have killed for fun. We respond the way we do for a reason. Live where you will not disturb us! And if you move, go clear around us!”

“Now,” Warding Blade said getting reasonable. “I know the area around Trottingham is big. Come to us with a white flag displayed to talk of ways you can move. We will let you through if you need to. But we must do so delicately because of your past.”

“Bah!” The other Hellhound spat. “We don’t believe you. We leave now.”

Shadow watched them walk away, keeping composed until they were gone. He wiped his knife clean on the hide of the dead Hellhound.

“Ever tan Hellhound hide?” Shadow asked.

“What?” Warding Blade stuttered.

“Just wondering,” Shadow replied. “I don’t have time, but it might make decent leather armor.”

“As far as I am aware, nopony has ever done that. That is a disgusting idea.”

“I have seen worse,” Shadow stated with a shrug. “Ponies do weird shit to ‘live’.”

“I need sleep,” Shadow said.

They were let back into the gate and Marjoram was right there. She had been spying on things from behind the gate. She didn’t have to say anything to express how impressed she was, but she did.

“I am truly in your debt. All three of you. Mtoaji, that is begrudgingly. But I saw you skill. It is impressive. You should hunt Black Widow.”

“Why?” Shadow yawned. “What is the point?”

“To remove that threat!”

“Is she really a threat? Not to me from what I hear. I am not hunting her for you. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“Either way,” Marjoram said changing subjects. “I know you all need rest. So rest up. Food is on us. And I will gladly give you each 100 chips to play at our tables. I know you didn’t bring a lot with you since you were on a job, but I would really love for you to enjoy our tables. Even you Mtoaji.”

Shadow chuckled with a sly smile. “I’ll see you at the Baccarat table later tonight. And I will play all of your games before I get there. To prove I don’t make my own luck, I just enjoy the gifts it gives me.”

Shadow crashed on his bed. He just dropped his stuff at the foot of the bed after drinking another potion. He didn’t waste any energy.

Shadow emerged for dinner. He was still sore, but he wasn’t fighting holes. Only broken ribs and major bruising. That he could handle much easier. That could be patched faster than bullet holes with health potions.

“Perfect timing,” Warding Blade smiled. “Food just came. Simple salads, but food.”

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled as he sat down to join them. “Food is exactly what I need to heal.”

“So,” Warding Blade said as Shadow finished. “Be Mtoaji? What does it mean to be Mtoaji?”

“Oh,” Shadow said, stalling. “Well, long ago, the ancient sages foresaw the need that would be me. I don’t know when, only that they heard the whispers of what would be to come. Mtoaji serves as a name for me as I do what I need to do to protect my home.

“Equestria is big. Huge. Do you really think that there is just the Griffins, Dragons, Zebras, and the three pony kinds? The world is much bigger. Not all ponies lived in Equestria.”

“So, did they foresee the war?” Yellow Quartz asked.

“No idea,” Shadow replied. “I can tell you that part of the prophecy was also for at least one other. The sages only listened and recorded. They couldn’t predict things perfectly. It took another to realize the prophecy was for me.

“As to the war, if a cleansing rain were to come in a month, and you knew it, would the other Steel Rangers listen? No, because they can’t image what a rain that cleansed the land of all the chemicals and magic fallout would be. What it would mean for Equestria to sprout green and flowers.

“So even if a sage warned of the war, both sides never would have believed it. No one was ready for it. None of them had every seen a war like it was. A war like that wasn’t conceivable. So what could they really do?”

“Fair point,” Warding Blade replied. “But nothing to help you find what you need?”

“No,” Shadow sighed. “So much has changed. Finding anything is impossible. And we only had limited information on Equestria. Now most of that information is useless.”

“You have to have a stripe or two,” Yellow Quartz said.

“No,” Shadow smiled.

“What is the prophecy?” Warding Blade asked. “If you don’t mind. Maybe it can help me figure out what you need.”

Shadow heard Kifo Herixleta yelling warnings in his mind, but he ignored some of them. “I can tell you the part that has been spoken for at least one other.”

Shadow took a deep breath in. “Black and white, day and night, your two colors will be such a sight. The split is a sign, that is to be a guideline. One white and black, blessed for life while on the attack. The three pieces of the puzzle, oh so subtle. Speed. Power. Agility.”

“Interesting,” Warding Blade grunted.

“I know of another who had the same thing spoken about him,” Shadow reminded them. But my cutie mark is three arrowheads. Speed, Power, and Agility. You have seen all three displayed. Especially this morning.”

“We certainly have,” Warding Blade smiled.

“Prophecies are a difficult thing,” Shadow continued. “Scary since they say so much, yet nothing at the same time. Life changes some things. Not everything must come true, but not everything is avoidable. They are best left at a minimum for speaking about.”

“I guess they are,” Warding Blade replied.

Shadow wished he had a suit like last time he was here, but there was no way to fix that. He settled on unwrapping Kifo Herixleta. The sword didn’t protest. He wanted to be unwrapped and trusted the Steel Rangers to not confiscate him.

“That is gold,” Yellow Quartz stuttered when she saw the hilt.

“Yeah,” Shadow grinned as he undid the sheath’s cover and showed more gilding.

“I have seen swords before,” Warding Blade stated. “But that is not a style I have seen.”

Shadow slid most of the blade out to show it off. “It’s a Zebra blade. A rare style. It could easily be older than the war. I am not certain of all the enchantments it holds. It is a blade that gets passed along to the next to fulfill a prophecy.”

“That is beautiful,” Warding Blade stated, enthralled.

“Last time I was here, I had a suit and flashed this baby. It drove them nuts. Normally I keep him wrapped to keep eyes from wandering to dark places.”

“Understandable,” Warding Blade nodded. “Many Steel Rangers wouldn’t like that blade existing outside our vaults. Especially Dahlia. I know you two have had your run in.”

“It’s sad,” Shadow sighed. “Sad when protectors lose their focus for something as stupid as technology.”

“Trottingham has held better to that vision,” Warding Blade said. “But I understand that the others have caused you problems before. And that they have been known to get distracted.”

“Come on,” Shadow smirked. “Let’s hit the floor. I’m going to double those complementary chips in the first five minutes.”

“I will come out on top as well,” Warding Blade grinned. “Of course, I have more than 100 chips on reserve here. I keep a rather lucrative account here. It is a good staging point for me, as I believe you have seen.”

“That it does,” Shadow replied.

“Do you have more caps on you?” Yellow Quartz asked Shadow.

“200,” Shadow replied. “Spare change to cover any unexpected expenses. I won’t tap into them. More importantly, I won’t need to.”

They headed down to the floor and Shadow headed straight to a roulette table. Both Steel Rangers followed him to see how it would play out. The table was crowded. It took a minute for the round to finish and then Shadow put five chips on Red 5.

The other bets were placed and the wheel spun.

11 Black.

Shadow reset with 5 on Red 5. He was distracted from the spin as a burly unicorn walked up to him and invaded his personal space. He was in a very nice suit and obviously from the Lux.

“I am here to watch you play. My name is Black”

“Cool,” Shadow replied. “I know a Black back home. Amazing stallion. He is bigger than you, more imposing too. Still, I totally understand why you are watching me. Enjoy seeing luck favor me. I obviously have no horn to manipulate the games.”

“Red 5,” The attendant declared.

Shadow turned to Yellow Quartz. “And I told you I would double my 100 chips in five minutes.”

Shadow reset Red 5 with 25 chips and the ball went rolling round and round. Shadow closed his eyes as he heard it skip.

“Red 5 again!”

Shadow pulled his chips in, keeping 25 on Red 5. The ball once again on Red 5. The Unicorn glared heavily at Shadow.

“Why don’t you let her spin,” Shadow suggested.

No other bets were placed as the others enjoyed watching the duel of luck. Black spun the wheel and set the ball in motion. It bounced, skipped, and settled on Red 5.

“Luck is mine,” Shadow said, halting a shrug to avoid pain.

“Then you can play another number,” Black stated with a slight grin.

“I can’t,” Shadow sighed. “5 is a special number.”

“Oh?” Black pushed.

Shadow decided to test his luck. The truth wouldn’t hurt. “Five, one for each of my comrades who died in the Equestrian Wasteland. Five, for my younger sister who was murdered, as she was fifth born to my parents. I was fourth. Five is too important of a number to me.”

Shadow put 100 chips on Red 5. The attendant took his spot again and let things roll. 0.

“Luck says to move!” Shadow declared. “There are plenty of other tables to play!”

Shadow didn’t have a chance to take his chips as Black picked them up and organized them in an instant.

“I am here to watch and make sure you play fair. But that doesn’t mean I should not play the normal roll of accompaniment and helped you by holding your chips. Now you can focus on enjoying the games.”

“That is a big help,” Shadow smiled.

They flirted back and forth between tables. Yellow Quartz stuck with Shadow after Warding Blade disappeared. Shadow lost and won until he finally went to the Craps table. There he began to win again. Black was getting frustrated.

Shadow held up the dice. “Take a throw. Its my bet. See if luck favors me.”

Black obliged. He shook the dice well and tossed them carelessly onto the table. They bounced and roll. The first one stopped on a 2 and the second rolled up, almost tipping over but fell back down as a 3. 5. Exactly what Shadow needed.

“Luck does favor you,” Black smiled.

“My jacket I’m wearing, it took all the bullets last time. And then the gun jammed as it was finally pointed at my head. So, luck really does favor me. If I had magic, I would be an even meaner bastard to fight.”

It was still early. Shadow had no idea how many chips he had, but he knew he was up quite a bit.

“Time to hit the card tables,” Shadow declared. “These games of chance are great, but its time to actually think about my bets.”

Shadow found Warding Blade at a Black Jack table and joined him. Warding Blade never acknowledge their existence. He was at spot 3 so Shadow took the middle spot, 2, and Yellow Quartz joined them at spot 1. She had been going up and down all night, breaking even.

“What is that table over there?” Yellow Quartz asked.

“Five card poker,” Shadow stated. “That is the one game I won’t waste my time on. Its tough because while there are two players for the house, you also are playing against other patrons. It is the game of my village, but its not worth playing here. And I have played it here.”

“Your village has an official poker game?” Yellow Quartz asked, confused and excited. Warding Blade’s attention had peaked as well.

Shadow chuckled. “Well, not official. But when you are old enough, you get your chips. We play from time to time. They are worth reputation, not capital. If you have to borrow again, it is know. And if you cheat, you lose it all and you can’t play, and that is a huge hit. And means a boring existence.”

“Now, have you played black jack?” Shadow asked.

“No,” Yellow Quartz said looking at her 5 of Clubs and 7 of Hearts.

“Goal is to get to 21, but without going over. If you have the higher hand that the dealer, you win. You only see one card that the dealer has, and the dealer has to take a card if they have 16 or less. At 17-21 they stay. If you have the higher hand, you win your bet. So bet 1 chip, you get 1. You get 21 and win, you get 2. If you are dealt 21, you get 3 chips for 1 chip. If you tie, no one gains or looses. Aces are worth either 11 or 1, up to you.

“You have 12, so tell the dealer ‘hit’ to get another card. You won’t win with 12.”

“Hit,” Yellow Quartz said. She got a 6.

“I would stay at 18. If you get a 4 or higher, you bust out. And the odds are against you.”

Yellow Quartz nodded and stayed. Shadow looked at his cards. 8 and 8. Shadow tapped the table for a hit. He was given a 5 of hearts and he stayed. Warding Blade played out on his hand. The house flipped over for a 16 and then hit a for a 6 of Spades.

They got their payouts and continued. Yellow Quartz picked it up quickly, but she still lost ground even faster. Shadow was playing conservatively, most of the time. He was enjoying the game. When Yellow Quartz was out, he offered her 200 chips, no catch, but she declined. She just wanted to watch.

Shadow soon got a bit bored and put down 200 for the sake of the house. He was dealt 2 aces. He split his hand, doubling his bet 400. The first card flipped over was a King of Hearts. The second was a Jack of Diamonds. With double on the table, Shadow pulled 1200 from the house. He put 200 down again and lost on a tough hand of 19.

“Sir,” Black said, speaking for the first time in a while. “You have plenty to head to the back. I understand you wanted to play Baccarat.”

“Ah yes,” Shadow grinned. “I have no idea where I stand. So lets head to Baccarat!”

Shadow followed Black back to the private area. He noticed that a good chunk of his chips were gold, not the normal black. He knew they were not going to try and cheat him. It had to denote a higher count like 10 or 25.

Shadow didn’t concern himself with anything as he began to play. He only kept a pile of 25 in front of him, refreshing it after each round. He was playing for longevity, not to gain capital. He had no idea where he was at with his chips. Since it was complementary chips he had started with, it was totally different. He couldn’t lose unless he put chips in.

Shadow knew that Warding Blade had come back to a Baccarat table, but he wasn’t paying attention until he came over with Yellow Quartz in tow. Marjoram was also with them. It looked like she had been playing against Warding Blade. After all, they had a long relationship together.

“Very nice,” Marjoram said to Shadow as he won. “Have you considered raising it to high stakes?”

“Well, I don’t even know where I am at,” Shadow admitted. “I’ve just been enjoying the games. I know I’ve been winning in the long run, but not how much. I didn’t want to bust out early in the evening. So why not? Its getting late. Lets make it interesting.”

Marjoram sat down across from Shadow with a smile. “High stakes usually runs gold chips. Each is worth 100.”

“And how much would I have to start? I know you have been counting, Black.”

“Well, as we switch these final ones out, the count is 243 gold chips and 37 black chips.”

Shadow grinned. “Then we can have some real fun. I have never had this much in play before.”

“Are you serious!” Yellow Quartz interjected. “At least set aside some of it for-”

“Its not about that,” Shadow said cutting her off. “It is about the joy of the game. And having this many caps in play is exhilarating. Even if I look calm, well now the real fun begins.”

“You could buy a minigun and all the ammo you would ever need!”

“I’ve used them before and don’t want one again,” Shadow said annoyed. “I want to play Baccarat! And with the lovely Marjoram.”

Warding Blade chuckled as Yellow Quartz sighed.

“It’s something you may or may not learn,” Warding Blade told Yellow Quartz. “Just enjoy the experience. I know you did. And you know I didn’t cash out. I kept it in my account. Because I want to continue having fun whenever I come back here.”

Shadow lost the first three rounds. But then he pulled out a big win. That was Baccarat. Back and forth as they tested the luck of the cards. If both Shadow and Marjoram could rate their luck factors, they each had to have the same rate.

Their test of luck went back and forth. Shadow had no concept of time, but he knew it was beyond late. And the Steel Rangers were still watching and enjoying. Shadow didn’t know what he had for chips. He only knew he had enough in front of him each time. He was still playing most hands with 25 chips.

“What time is it?” Marjoram asked.

“It is 3:23 am.”

“I don’t think I can continue,” Marjoram smiled at Shadow. “I am tired and getting foggy. I know you have been yawning. Along with your friends.”

Shadow picked up a gold chip. “You do accounts, correct?”

“Yes, we do. No charges or fees.”

“Open one. I don’t care to know where I am at right now. I know I am up a good deal, that is all that matters.”

Shadow smiled warmly at Marjoram. “This has been a real pleasure. I have enjoyed myself this evening. I thank you for the complementary chips and allowing me to play. The best part was by far playing Baccarat. High stakes is addicting.”

“You have proved yourself well today,” Marjoram smiled back. “It has been a pleasure for us as well. I rarely play Baccarat, even less on the high stakes. But it is a big joy for me when I do get to play against a worthy opponent.”

Shadow stood up, not even bothering to look back at the table as he headed for the door. He kept that gold chip with him. He was going to keep it as a souvenir.

“You-”

“No,” Shadow cut Yellow Quartz off. “I don’t care right now. I know I did some damage to them, but I don’t care where the final count is. I enjoyed playing, that was all.”

They got back to their room and Shadow crashed until noon. While he was asleep, a folder was slid under the door containing his account information. Warding Blade had it on the table when Shadow woke up.

“Come,” Warding Blade smiled. “Let’s go down to the restaurant and actually eat. My treat.”

“No,” Shadow softly objected as he looked up from his account record. “My treat. And then I will set up an account for Yellow Quartz. I have more than enough to give her a good boost.”

Shadow heard Kifo Herixleta’s objection, but he pushed it away with a note that they will discuss it as soon as possible. Kifo Herixleta wasn’t happy, but obliged.

When they got to the restaurant, it was crowded as usual with a good group waiting. Shadow approached the Host, ahead of Warding Blade.

“Ah, our high roller,” He smiled. “Just you three?”

“Yes,” Shadow smiled. “How long is the wait?”

“No wait for the high rollers. We have tables in the back for you. Our high roller tables.”

They followed him to a separate section Shadow hadn’t seen before. There was five booths and six tables. All large and able to seat eight or more.

They were seated at a half circular booth. Shadow had to sit on the edge to accommodate Kifo Herixleta. Knight Yellow Quartz scooted into the center, enjoying the fluffy cushion. They ordered from a special menu that they withheld for special ponies.

After they ordered, Shadow excused himself to go to the bathroom. It was empty at the moment so he took the far stall and slid out Kifo Herixleta.

“Look, I don’t care what you think. Sometimes the best way to win is to flank. I set up an account here, I invest a bit here, when I strike, they won’t have a reason to believe its me. That investment secures my innocence.”

Shadow sheathed Kifo Herixleta, did his business and left. Lunch was exceptional. It was the best food Shadow had ever had down below.

After he took Yellow Quartz to open her account. She was only going because Warding Blade made her.

“Yes,” the accountant asked as Shadow approached.

“I have an account here, and I wanted to shift some to open another account for a friend, who is with me.”

“Okay,” The Accountant said. “I do have some stuff for you to sign to finalize your account.”

Shadow took the papers and signed them Mtoaji. It was a simple matter for Yellow Quartz to open an account and then Shadow transferred 20,000 chips into her account. He withdrew 20,000 in caps for himself and got a final receipt.”

“Thats 40,000 caps,” Yellow Quartz said as they headed back to the room. You have at least 20,000 more. You wouldn’t have done more than separate them into thirds. But how much do you have?”

Shadow sighed. “Baccarat can make or break a night for a casino. My account this morning had 123,000 caps in it.”

“Wow,” was all Yellow Quartz could say for a minute. “That must have really hurt their banks.”

“I doubt it,” Shadow replied. “In a month they easily make that. I would say within a week even. Ponies come here to get away from their problems. And they usually lose the games. If a high roller comes in and takes them for a spin like I did last night, it really only shows that they are vulnerable and ponies think they can win big too. They have no problem restricting players or cutting them off.

“They know I wasn’t playing like last time. I was having fun, where last time I was needing caps. Two different play styles. One is aggressive, the other isn’t. They also had eyes on me the whole time. They knew I wasn’t doing anything to play unfair. And they gambled to get me to play Baccarat where last time, I lost.”

Yellow Quartz nodded. She had a lot to learn. Back at the room, they began to make their plan.

“We need to head out in the morning,” Warding Blade told them. “Early start. I am certain that by now, our scouts have found the battle sight and tracked that they took major losses. The only question is if we survived.”

Shadow nodded. “We can make quick time back to the Citadel in the morning. Double time it back. It won’t be hard.” Shadow let a smile crease his lips until it slipped into a grin. “At least, it won’t be a problem for me.”

“I’m down,” Yellow Quartz said.

“Then a good dinner and we will head to bed early,” Warding Blade decreed.

Chapter 120 - Home Safe

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Shadow sat down in his chair, relaxing after finally getting home. It felt amazing to take his armor off and stretch his wings. They had been cooped up too long. The bruising was extensive, but healing. Health potions were a marvel. In a day or two he would be fine.

Shadow’s undershirt was wrecked. It was sweaty and cracking from his body’s juices. He would need to secure a new one. Better yet, he could use the basic pattern from the Mare-Do-Well to build a suit that would work. There was the extra fabric from his first set that he could use. The chance that somepony would recognize the same fabric was slim. It was just normal fabric after all.

Shadow used the bathroom tub to wash his shirt. For now, that needed to be done. It would take some time to stitch the other together. He didn’t have the energy to keep powering through everything without a real respite.

Shadow stayed in the next day, just resting his mind and body. His little gardens were growing well. A lot better than he had expected. In another week or two he could start making tea.

The next day meant Shadow had to go to the bank to check in and drop off a good chunk of his caps. They didn’t bother him with any questions as he banked 12,000 caps. Shadow found a lunchbox in a junk pile in a shop. He figured it would make a good place to stash a hefty set of the caps as a hidden back up reserve. He bought it.

Red Tip was happy to see Shadow.

“We found out that the Hellhounds had been neutralized a few days back. A Steel Ranger scout team found the battleground. Plenty of vacant tunnels, dried bloody dirt, spent shells, and dead Hellhounds. But no word about y’all.”

“Yeah, we had a fight,” Shadow sighed as he leaned against the counter. “We ended up having to work to just cripple their legs as they got around us. The Tri-Balls did their job, but I really want magnum rounds.”

“Yeah, we can get you those,” Red Tip nodded. He was more interested in the battle. “So, how many dead?”

Shadow sighed. “Most were killed close up, including bloody hoof to hoof, er paw, combat. I might have stabbed one or two with my combat knife in their eyes. It got really rough. I took a hail of bullets across the chest and need to secure new armor.”

“Damn,” Red Tip swore. “They had guns?”

“Some,” Shadow nodded. “But we cut them down. Knight Yellow Quartz took a swipe from an injured paw, but it still punctured her armor. I’m still healing from the broken ribs and deep bruising. The Star Paladin didn’t seem injured, but I can’t confirm anything.

“Most of our time was spent at the Lux healing.”

“Nice,” Red Tip chuckled.

“Even better,” Shadow smirked. “I took them for a good ride after they came us 100 complementary chips. I kept most in an account there, but I brought back several thousand.”

“Damn,” Red Tip grinned. “So I guess you need a restock?”

“Yeah,” Shadow nodded. “I need more shotgun rounds. I only fired a few 50 cal rounds. Everything quickly changed to close combat. My 5.56 rounds were all armor piercing, and I assume you are still cleaned out?”

“Yep. You bought them all.”

“I need new armor? Any ideas?”

“Try the shops, but I haven’t seen anything like what you wear. I try to keep up with their stocks to help patrons. You need something light enough to move with your agility. Because you solo way to much. If you find nothing here, head to the Citadel to their Quartermaster. Their citizen one might have something, but I doubt it.”

“It’s good armor,” Shadow sighed. “I can make a patch in the mean time. I don’t want to blow protection off, but I don’t know if I have a choice. I have worn a lot of different armor styles. I know what I need is rare. I know this piece is special.”

“But it saved your life,” Red Tip affirmed. “It did it’s job.”

“That it did,” Shadow smiled. “That it did.”

Shadow finished the restock and headed to the market. He didn’t find any armor that would do the job. His biggest problem was size.

He bought fresh food and made himself a home cooked dinner. It wasn’t the best meal he had ever cooked, but it beat the pre-war stuff still floating around. And it made him feel useful.

Shadow spent the evening cleaning his gear and planning. He decided to head north. It was time for him to check in with his message. He would need a light source. He would go at night.

The biggest problem was that to get there, he had to cross close to Hellhound territory. If they caught a whiff of him, he was dead. But he had to check.

Shadow deliberated well into the night and finally decided the risk was worth it. Death was inevitable, staying down here would make it come sooner. Right now, he had no better option to find his answer with the way he was doing things. He was getting nowhere and had enough caps to survive for a while. He could devote himself to going home without that worry.

In the morning Shadow didn’t feel bad. He felt like he was healed. So he headed out to get supplies. Once he was supplied with food, he checked in with the bank. It was recorded and he began to make his final preparations.

Shadow wanted to travel light, but he couldn’t risk the trip back if he had a recall message. Shadow packed up everything and prepared for an early more. Tent, plenty of ammo, all weapons – including Soarin’s Lightning – the Zebra cloak, the Blue Beret uniform, and his collectibles. The Rainbow Dash statuette was his most interesting piece. It gave him feelings of invincibility and he would not abandon it.

Shadow hadn’t fully loaded out in a while, so he was a bit unsteady for a while. Not because the load was settled improperly, rather that he hadn’t carried the weight of his whole home on him. Stuff had been left in Trottingham on each outing.

Shadow had decided the west coast was the best choice. Northeast was the straightest shot, but took him right through the center of Hellhound territory. The coast gave him something along his back to protect him. After making the trek to the mountains, he could use them for cover and then make it to the cave. His PipBuck had it’s location, he would find it easily this time.

The trip was entirely uneventful. It was wonderful to have a tent to keep the weather out as he slept. Shadow felt secure in it. Something he had lost once he was alone.

In the mountains, the North still had it’s bite below. Above had to be worse. Shadow didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was. Shadow settled in below the clouds for what might be his final rest in exile. He was going to avoid all trouble by going up at night.

Digging up through the clouds produced a beautiful chime as he broke ice fragments against each other. Shadow popped up and frowned. The northern sky was clouded over. The stars were still hidden from him.

The cold was certainly worse above. It was above freezing, but it was late to be this cold. The ice was gone, melted into rain or captured for use. That was a good sign for farming. The crops wouldn’t freeze, but they would hesitate to sprout.

Shadow was, again, unprepared for the cold. He couldn’t risk staying out in the open in the current conditions. His core body temperature was already dropping. Going even higher to get to see the stars was out of the question.

He rushed to the cave entrance and put the headlamp he had bought on. Shadow moved quickly through the winding passage into the cave and lit the wall up. Nothing had been written. The wall next to it was completely bare as well.

Shadow checked every wall and the floor. The hidden room didn’t recognize him, which was no surprised. There was no evidence that anything had been disturbed since he had last been here. Shadow wanted to update the info on the wall, but he didn’t have the hoof laser. And he couldn’t last much longer in the conditions. He was shivering as the cold pressed it’s claws into his coat, going straight for his heart.

Shadow dashed out, begging his muscled to work and not freeze. He found his hole and dove back down. But being below didn’t drive the cold away.

Shadow set his tent up and lit a very small fire. He coaxed it to life and then forced it to coals. He dragged them into the tent to provide warmth as he slept, without smoking himself out. It was a rough sleep as he tried to warm up.

Morning came and Shadow forced himself to get up. It was a risk since his core body temperature was still low, but he had to move for his mind. And he only had so much food left.

Shadow just kept himself moving. He pushed further than he should have, but he got home to Trottingham safe. It was late and he almost got shot by the guards, but he got to the warmth of his bed.

Shadow slept with his hoof pressed into his chest, the necklace sandwiched between. Shadow skipped breakfast to enjoy the warmth of his sheets. He had spent the past few days freezing and concerned with hypothermia. He had no leads and nothing to do, so he stayed in bed.

Bed was warm. It felt safe. It felt like home.


A note from the Author:

If you are wondering where Cardinal Spitfire's or the Wonderbolt's recall message are, they are not there yet. I would like to remind you that Book 3's timeline and Book 4's timeline run parallel to each other. I wrote them side by side. If you lined them up, it means they missed each other by days.

Chapter 121 - Black Widow

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Shadow was walking in the market after an unsuccessful search for new armor.

“MTOAJI!”

Shadow looked to where his name was called. Red Tip was waving at him from the balcony of the cafe. Shadow smiled back and headed up to him.

“Earthen Charm!” Shadow exclaimed as he walked over, ignoring Red Tip. “It is good to see you again. And in Trottingham this time.”

“It is good to see you too,” Earthen Charm smiled back. “But we can talk later. Red Tip’s look isn’t pouting for drama, he has been trying to reach you for a few days.”

“You were not home yesterday!” Red Tip exclaimed. “I have something that will interest you. Something very special. Grab your battle saddle and meet me in my shop. We just paid so meet you there.”

Earthen Charm smiled and shrugged. Shadow headed out and grabbed his battle saddle. When he got to the store he set it on the counter.

Red Tip set a small object on the counter. It looked like a large washer, but it had four small rubies set into it and the object had four ‘prongs.’ It was something Shadow hadn’t seen before.

“What is it?” Shadow asked after a moment.

“A sound dampener,” Red Tip grinned.

“Like, a silencer?” Shadow asked.

“No,” Red Tip smirked. “I can make silencers, and have some in stock. But a silencer or suppressor attaches to the end of the barrel and looks like a big extension of the barrel. It helps soften the sound, but only drops the sound of a gunshot by 30 or so decibels. And they effect the bullet trajectory, loosing distance and accuracy. They really are only good to give your ears a bit of a break.

“This is a dampener. It was developed after silencers were on the market for a while. This is magic. And unlike them, it neutralized all of the sound a gun makes from the tip of the barrel. It won’t stop the sound of the brass flying if you have an automatic bolt system. It won’t stop the noise of chambering a round. But it will stop the sound the bullet makes. No more bang. And no effect on the bullet’s path. It only captures the sound, even on fully automatic guns.”

“Then why is it called a dampener?” Shadow asked.

“Because the maker didn’t want the magic version get confused with the basic silencer and suppressor. This took master unicorns to make. The gems are enchanted. Although it is limited for this version. This can only fit on small caliber rifles. No shotguns.”

Red Tip picked it up and slid it only Shadow’s barrel. He twisted it in place and then took a small screwdriver and tightened four mini screws at the rear of the device so it would hold. Red Tip tested it, but it was solidly locked in place.

“The twist when you slide it on activates a mechanism that tightens down on the barrel. So it can take quite a few barrel sizes. And the screws make sure its locked in place. That is how easy it is to install.”

“How many were made?” Shadow asked.

“Not many,” Red Tip replied. “The military really didn’t have a need for this. At least for the regular soldiers. A waste of money, resources, and time.”

“Does it work for 7.62x51mm bullets?”

“As long as it can fit on the end, it will. Every 7.62 rifle barrel I have seen will take this.”

“How did you get this?”

“Well,” Red Tip said leaning against the counter. “I acquired them three days ago in a trade. The seller said they were flash hiders. It wasn’t until I tested one that I realized they were not.”

“Flash hider?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah, you know how at night, you often just shoot where the gun flash is because you can’t see the target, well a flash hider makes it harder to spot the explosion of gas. Many military guns come with one built into the end of the barrel, but there are some really effective ones that can be attached.”

Shadow nodded in understanding. He guess the reason why his gun barrel was lacking a flash hider was because they would add wind resistance and weight. Every little bit counted when you were flying high priority missions.

“Useful,” Shadow said. “But I assume this is the better catch.”

“Much. I didn’t know you had left the city. I have been itching to show you. Because you run solo, this could be a big advantage. If they don’t know where the bullet came from, well.”

Red Tip frown. “Hey, you don’t have anything to sell me?”

“Nope,” Shadow shrugged. “I have all the caps I need. For a while. I was out, investigating a lead. For my real job.”

“Damn. I was wanting to up my stock a bit. Black Widow is still good business, and I am not promoting anything.”

“How much for this dampener?”

“Well,” Red Tip sighed. “That’s the catch. I don’t know. Most ponies don’t need one, but I won’t let that drop the price. I also won’t put it out on the shelves. I will know if somepony could benefit from it. I have a lot back there that is held in reserve, waiting for the right pony. Most guards don’t even need this, because it is useless for them. And they need to be heard if they shoot.”

“So, make an offer?” Shadow asked.

“Yep,” Red Tip said with a nod.

“Eight,” Shadow said.

“Eight?” Red Tip snorted. “I sell a low end silencer for 800. This is worth-”

“Thousand,” Shadow clarified.

“Still not high enough. I still sell regular silencers for way more-”

“Eight thousand,” Shadow said firmly. “Eight thousand is what I meant.”

“Hmmm,” Red Tip said with a slow nod. “That sounds better. Let me think. You would be setting the price bar. I haven’t seen these before.”

Shadow let Red Tip think for a minute.

“Yeah, I’ll sell it to you for eight thousand. I think that is fair. I am not sure I could afford for it to go for less.”

“I assume its free installation?” Shadow asked.

Red Tip chuckled with Shadow.

Shadow wrote him a check. It was good that he brought so many caps back to the bank. Earthen Charm was the one who took the check to the bank.

“I trust you,” Red Tip stated. “But we have never done a real, big transaction. And I make it a rule to make sure it clears.”

“Totally understandable,” Shadow replied. “Earthen Charm is on your account?”

“Yeah,” Red Tip nodded. “I wanted to tell you a week ago when she finally came, but you slipped away. No one even knew you had gone.”

Shadow shrugged and Red Tip continued. “I really have to thank you. You are the one who helped Earthen Charm make her decision. She chose me and here, outside of planting and harvest time. And we already have window gardens on order.”

“That’s absolutely wonderful,” Shadow smiled. “Congratulation. Do you guys do marriages here?”

“We had the judge officiate for a small fee. Nothing big.”

The door opened but it wasn’t Earthen Charm. It was a guard, but he was very relaxed and calmly sauntered over to the counter to join them. All he was armed with was an automatic pistol.

“I have your answer,” He said to Red Tip.

“Good. I don’t think you two have either met. Mtoaji, this is Captain Loch, my best friend and cousin. He is the lead investigator and oversees all investigations done by the city guard.”

“A please to meet you,” Captain Lock nodded. “We have never met. But I understand you almost got shot by us last night.”

Shadow chuckled with him. “Yes, I got back after midnight. It was hairy there for a second, but they are stellar guards.”

“I also hear, you didn’t have much on you outside normal gear?”

“No,” Shadow grinned. “I was not out scavenging. I was looking for information. But what information have you been digging up.”

“I don’t know,” Loch shrugged. “Red Tip asked. So he will be putting it together.”

Loch took a breath in, figuring out how to start it with Mtoaji there. “I only found two others who remember her. Sonata Concert served her at dinner. She said she was quiet, polite, ate fast, and left more than enough to cover the food and a good tip. She never had a chance to check in with her, that is how fast dinner was.

“And the second?” Red Tip asked.

“The Prancing Pony Inn. She spent the night there. A quick in and out. Quiet and polite.”

“Okay,” Red Tip nodded. “So, Loch, you see this ring on the tip of Mtoaji’s barrel?”

Loch nodded.

“It’s a magic modification for a rifle. It completely dampens the sound of the gunshot. I was sold it, and several others, with the belief that they were flash hiders. The next day I tested one and found out what they really were.

“That is why my inquiry came. She said she already was taken care of when it came to her rifles. I never saw any guns. I don’t know where she picked these items up, but I doubt she didn’t know what she had. I would have wanted to buy them, but couldn’t pay for their real price.”

“Which is?” Loch asked.

“Mtoaji values it at 8,000 caps.”

“So you bought it,” Loch said to Shadow. “That is a lot of caps you have spent on your house and here. Why do you even care? Or is it just to have?”

“I solo most things,” Shadow shrugged. “Reducing my detection when I am dealing with a group of raiders is a big advantage. I can keep them guessing, which means I can kill more before the battle begins. Or kill all of them. Its a vital edge for me.”

“Why don’t you team up with others? I know you have a mission for your far away home, but you could bring in some scavengers who won’t care about anything but things to sell.”

“That information is dangerous for others to know,” Shadow warned him. “I would if I could.”

“So, why is this important?” Loch asked Red Tip, moving the conversation along.

“The description?” Red Tip asked before answering it himself. “An older Unicorn Mare, well traveled. Her gray coat and slate black mane are not the important parts. It’s her size. She is right about the same size as Mtoaji.”

“Damn,” Loch swore. “A perfect fit for Black Widow.”

Shadow grunted in recognition and agreement. It was a coincidence he wasn’t going to let slide by.

“What could you do if you found her?” Shadow asked.

“Nothing,” Loch stated. “I’m the lead investigator on that shit storm. But without proof, I can’t do anything. Just fitting the same basic shape means nothing real. If it did, you would have been raided a long time ago.”

“Raided?” Shadow asked shocked.

“Yeah,” Loch chuckled. “A lot of guards are concerned about you. You are a well known resident of Trottingham. Even though you have been here a short while, you have attracted a lot of attention. And yet, we know little about you. And it has some believing you are a very big threat to this city.”

Shadow nodded. “I guess I can understand that. I certainly haven’t made it easy to accept me. And winning at the Expo was a big focal lens on me.”

“Well, we can’t do anything without proof, and then a warrant signed by one of our three judges. Justice demands that an individual is innocent unless proven guilty. We have to take the time to get the evidence. Sure, it is frustrating, but it is best for everything. It protects the very things we hold dear, freedom. And we are a great city because of it.”

“That’s,” Shadow hesitated. “That’s not something I have ever considered. I don’t believe that is how it works back home. I never really saw that side, but I don’t believe that is how it works. It is a noble idea. But it is dangerous, as it allows criminals a chance to go free.”

“But it prevents the innocent,” Loch replied with a smile. “I know, it can seem problematic, and I get frustrated at the system as well. But we have it for a reason. And I can personally attest to it saving lives.”

“Saving lives back home is radically different,” Shadow admitted. “I hope that one day, things are not so complicated. I want us to be reconnected to Equestria. I want Equestria to be rid of the very things that keep each settlement separated. However that works. I don’t have an answer, only a hope.”

“Only a hope and yet you are here,” Red Tip stated.

“My home doesn’t have this reality. Not the same when it comes to the wasteland. I can’t let it become the wasteland, but I would be lying if I didn’t said I believed the separation is what will kill us. I grew up farming. A small community. We needed each other to feed the greater place that I call home. Most ponies can’t farm. We have other lives and roles that they need to play. So like us having to work together, my home really needs the communities in the Equestrian Wasteland. And they need us.”

Shadow sighed. “But security trumps all other concerns. And we are too compromised right now to play our role with the communities here.”

“A stable home is necessary,” Loch nodded. “I really do hope that your vision comes true. That’s why I hate Black Widow. She has her methods, but I believe her heart is right. And that her goal is a just one. Or, I think I do, and that scares me even more. Because where is Justice in all of that?”

Shadow shrugged. “The mystery of this wasteland. The old ways are gone. The old ways got us here. And now, we have nothing to hold to as a general rule. And it may be ripping us apart and making raiders. But, I also don’t come from a place that has such strong legal stance to protect the ponies from the justice department.”

“You may be right,” Loch nodded. “I am not one who even wants to have an answer to those questions.”

“So that leaves us where with Black Widow?” Shadow asked.

“More questions,” Loch shrugged. “Black Widow is something I am charged to answer, but I am not sure I want to answer it. And yes, the Mayor and the Judges know. I have made it clear. But they believe it helps make me the best for the job. So I do it.”

“Is it your only case?” Shadow asked.

“No,” Loch replied. “I have a half dozen open cases. Gambit’s take over has been problematic. A large number of his stock isn’t there. His record keeping was shit, and I believe its for a reason. It makes the perfect cover for him to sell that one mare, Blooming Glass. I was also in charge of her disappearance. But that also came up dry. Thanks to Black Widow, I closed that case. I probably shouldn’t have because I was never able to sit down with her and get an accurate report, but I did.

“And with that, I need to go. I will be writing this down in a report on the case. If she shows back up, I will look into her a bit more. I am still unsure how she came in and out of the city without the guards remembering anything. We have a lot of traffic, but not enough for them to not see her.

“Then again, we had no idea you even left. I don’t know how you of all ponies left without us knowing. They have a running bet about how much you will come back with. So they watch.”

All three of them chuckled. It was funny to Shadow. A bit unnerving that he was being watched so closely, but funny.

Shadow slipped his battle saddle on and went home. He put it on the workbench and sighed. He really felt at home here. And that was what felt wrong. This wasn’t home. Home was turnip fields and cherry trees. Home was above the clouds.

Those farms would survive without the cloud base. That was something Shadow knew. His community was good at what they did, better than most. They would survive if the clouds were ripped out from under them, but they were the exception, not the rule. Cardinal Spitfire’s farm community was a perfect example for that.

And the two worlds could not work together with the bulk of the clouds together. But most of the farms could build new, better communities below. Or lower cloud farms just above the damage land. Accessible to non pegasi. Suspending basic dirt on the clouds that low should be easy.

Still, that was a dream. A hope. A vision. Something so far away right now. Very far away if he couldn’t get above to help change things. Trottingham would make a good place to begin the rejoining. Fillydelphia still needed to burn, but the Trottingham Steel Rangers might be able to be reasoned with. There was no way to test that without compromising him. And for now, that was out of the question. It was too dangerous.

Shadow watered his window gardens, but the sprouting herbs didn’t bring a smile. The air smelled of death. The sun wasn’t shining. He closed the windows and tried to remember what clean air smelled like.

He couldn’t remember. There was too much rot here. It was rotting his nose from the inside out. It was rotting his brain. Shadow better understood why Nova felt like his brain had been fried. It would be easy to fall prey to the bad air down here. Nova had to have spent enough time below to make that happen.

Shadow sat in his chair and flipped through his books. He examined the pictures in his Basic Training photo book with new purpose. He could see how the exercises they were in the middle of were actually saving his life below.

Shadow felt a deep longing for freedom. To be a Pegasus again. To see the sun and count the stars. To be himself.

And then fear pounced. He had seen so many horrors. The soldier in this book was so naive. The soldier in the book that looked like him was the old him. Now he had fought, killed, murdered. He had drunk the Rad-Away to save his life, not to learn what it tasted like. Med-X had kept his mind free from real pain, pain that signaled his life was in jeopardy.

He was scarred both outside and inside. He was as much Mtoaji as he was Shadow. And as much as he was an Inquisitor. Shadow was being eclipsed.

How much was left of the Shadow that Cardinal Spitfire married was a mystery to him. Would she love the pegasus he had become?

“Draw me,” Kifo Herixleta ordered. “Draw me and set the world aflame. Burn it so that you can send a smoke signal above. Draw attention to your plight. You know they are watching, so give them something to investigate. And while you do that, you will forge the final links of the prophecy. And you will be hailed the hero that you are.”

Shadow sighed and a tear slipped out from the corner of his eye. Kifo Herixleta was probably right. But he wasn’t going to draw the blade at the moment. He was too emotional. That would seal his Pegasus side away. He needed to feel like a trapped Pegasus, not like Black Widow.

Soon Black Widow would rise from the ashes that was this wasteland. The dust would be set ablaze. And it would start again at the Lux.

Chapter 122 - Ashes

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Shadow stood looking over the Lux from a nearby crumbled house. The light was fading, which meant the scouting would begin. He had explored the southern region and the central entrance area was where the casino was. All around that was housing used by the workers. Then the northern section was a bit separate. It could barely be seen, but that was where the elites of these elites had lived before the war.

Shadow decided to go in from the north. They had stripped it clean to furnish the casino and such. But the Lux was a place of secrets and lies, all in the name of providing the wasteland ponies a good time and helping them forget their miseries.

Marjoram was the head that he had seen. But Shadow found it hard to believe that it all sat squarely on her shoulders. That was a big thing to balance while still being as available as she was.

As the light finally faded the Lux lit up. The center for the Casino was bright and vibrant as expected, and there were some lights to its north where workers were going to sleep and others were waking up. But the surprising lights were the ones in the far north in the mansion villas. One specific house had lights coming on.

Shadow dropped off the house he was perched on and made his way over the Lux’s well maintained wall. The place was deserted outside of the lit areas. It made for easy movement through the ruins.

The upper villas were physically above the others. They had probably been built on top of a hill, but it had been flattened and reshaped, requiring a tall retaining wall. It had held up remarkably well for 200 years, but the retaining wall had more than enough holds for Shadow to easily slip up.

Inside the villa were ten older mares and stallions. They were enjoying the luxury of being at the top. Their furniture was neatly restored, the walls perfectly painted, and they were drinking from sparkling clean glasses.

“What was the report?” One of the stallions asked the youngest of them.

“Very positive. The monthly income projection overpowers that big loss. So even if that stallion came to withdraw the rest in his account, we still made a good profit. Tomorrow, 30 Bricks are being moved from the casino to Vault 3.

“As to supplies, things are a bit low, but our caravans are a tad late. They should arrive in the morning and with fresh food and the other materials we need. The casino kitchen is needing some new hardware, and that is costing us. But that will hold for years when they are fixed.”

Shadow slipped away from their conversation. He need to find these vaults. They had at least 3. Whatever the bricks where, it didn’t matter. But he needed to figure out what they were holding.

Shadow worked his way around the mansions, trying to find one in good enough repair to slip up top and spy out the best options for movement. He didn’t need to strike right away, but once he struck, it had to be quick and clean. Which most likely meant striking as the morning crested when the bulk of the workers were asleep. They would be easy prey and take no time to put out of their misery.

Shadow looked around from the balcony he had slipped up onto. To the east of him was a bunch of houses that had been in the process of being built. Everywhere from needing final coats of paint to just the ground being blasted apart in preparation for their foundations to be laid down. Those holes would need explosives. And explosives were not something the Lux would just leave lying around. One of their vaults had to hold those materials. And explosives would be a better option than trying to burn the casino down with Kifo Herixleta.

Shadow searched the mansion and found that it did have a basement. He searched the crumbling ruins of the next one and it did not. He began to search the others. Most didn’t. One didn’t, but it had armored doors in the back, tucked away under bushes. On the doors were painted a 1. They were unlocked and a bit squeaky, but Shadow was small and slipped in with minimal movement.

The door beneath them was heavily reinforced and protective. Shadow smiled. This was designed to provide protection in case the worst happened. If the number on the outside doors meant anything, this was their first vault.

The door required a complex, push pin key. The Shadow wasn’t as skilled with the cloud key as Slice was, but it didn’t take long for the key to conform and open the door. The heavy steel door opened without a sound.

The lights were easy to switch on and Shadow found himself in a room full of boxes and bins of stuff. Much of it was building supplies, and plenty of it was in unmarked crates. A clipboard with paper was on the closest pile of boxes. There was paper on it.

Shadow picked it up and blew off the dust. It was a complete list of everything inside. The most important thing Shadow found as he scanned through the files was the blocks of explosives. And they had remote detonators.

Shadow had left his equipment back in the ruins to the south of the Lux, tucked away in hiding. In a place only a Pegasus could get to. Or Griffon. But Shadow hadn’t seen any Griffons in the area.

There were saddlebags in the storage. Big ones for the construction workers. They were sturdy and he began to load them up with the explosives. Shadow planned to move them out into the ruins and plan them in locations they wouldn’t be found, but he could easily retrieve them.

Once the set was fully loaded, Shadow grabbed a can of oil from the shelves and began to liberally apply it to the outside door hinges. They were dripping and could easily be set on fire, but they didn’t squeak by the time he was done.

After 8 loads were hidden, Shadow went back for one last thing. The last thing written on the list was “60 x Cap Brick”. He had no idea what that meant. He found the boxes and pulled out one of the bricks. It was wrapped in sturdy paper like a nice parcel.

“1000 Caps” was written on the paper. They had compressed 1000 caps into neat rows and then into bricks for storage. Shadow loaded one more set of saddlebags down with 10 bricks and slipped out for the last time. He locked up behind him and set the bricks in the attic of a mansion with the other bags.

Shadow grabbed a set of explosives and began to scout his way through the houses south. It was just harmless shadows. Nothing was even making noise outside of the casino. When Shadow got as close as he dared, he hid the explosives in an attic and repeated the process.

He grew bolder as he felt out the Lux. Shadow began to find the occupied houses and which ones were the day shift and which ones were the night shift. As he mapped it all out, he hid bags of explosives. Most of the houses would receive of a single brick to take them out.

Shadow was getting tired. He had traveled and then stayed up to work. But he wanted to do one thing before he got some rest. He moved the bricks of caps closer to the epicenter so they would be easier to grab.

Shadow took a few hours rest in the attic of a mansion. The goal was to start by killing the head of the snake. Once he was awake again, Shadow began to slip through the houses and find the guards.

With the Sound Dampener, the guards were easy to dispatch. They traveled in pairs, and he could knock both heads off in less than a second. The 5.56 round was too small to take out the pair with a well timed shot.

Shadow left them where they were at. Let them find the bodies. Let them find out they were killed without a shot heard. He was Black Widow, here to kill them for their crimes against the wasteland ponies. Their choices had caught up to them.

As the evening came, Shadow slipped back to the Mansions. There was a pair of well dressed workers heading up the road to the mansion. Shadow followed them up the road where they entered the mansion.

He listened in from under an open window. “Your lordships, there seem to have been some problems. The shipments came in as planned, but a pair of guards were killed. Bullets to the head but no shots heard. We are searching, but it seems to be an isolated case.”

“We can’t let it be Black Widow,” One of the ponies said. “Wake up the guards and begin a full sweep of the area. Leave nothing unturned.”

Shadow heard another pony running up the road. He slid into the bushes more.

The pony burst into the mansion. “Multiple guards found dead. All in their pairs and none appear to have know their attackers. Clean shots, one bullet to the head on each. It’s like they fell over and died side by side without a reason, except they were shot!”

“All shot!” A mare interjected. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” The pony panted. “All shot. And some were close enough that there was no way they couldn’t have heard a shot. But no, no blades. All bullets.”

“It still could be her. We must protect the ponies. They can not know about this, or they will lose faith in us. If they lose faith, we will have one hell of a time repairing our name and getting them to come play. They won’t trust us to help them forget their woes. We will be a woe.”

The three of the ponies left the leaders and Shadow shifted to follow them. He gunned them down with three quick shots to the backs of their heads. Then it was time for the real rulers of the Lux.

Shadow crawled into the house and silently drew Kifo Herixleta. They were all sitting around the dinner table. It was laid out with a nice assortment of food. They were in the perfect spot to have their heads rolled off and served to them.

Shadow struck with one leap across the room. He cut off half their heads in the clean move. He decapitated the Unicorn at the head of the table as he jumped to the other side and then bolted down the table again, knocking off the other half.

They were dead. But Marjoram was still in charge, and she could organize everything if need be. Shadow put all of their heads in a bag and then began to sprint toward the Casino.

Shadow entered a house. They were all in their individual rooms, asleep. Shadow knocked their heads off with ease and left the sack of heads in the kitchen.

Unencumbered, Shadow began to kill any pony with a gun. The game had changed. They were actively hunting him. He left each ambush where they dropped. Their numbers were quickly thinned.

Shadow finished hunting them as the night grew late. He turned his attention to the Casino. Inside was plenty of ponies who needed killing. Ponies who were leeching off the misfortune of others. Taking joy from those forced to dance and give their bodies for their own joy. Take, never give. That was the law here.

Shadow slipped into the Casino through a side entrance and danced his way to the front. He was after the information at the front desk. It was occupied by a pretty, young mare. Shadow drove a red hot Kifo Herixleta into her without her knowledge. It was through the neck. She never got a sound out.

Shadow pushed her under the desk as much as possible so she was hidden and then grabbed the guide. It was the book with the rooms that were rented out. But he needed an all access card, and one was easy to get.

He slipped over to the room where ponies could hire a mare or stallion for the evening. To do whatever they pleased. He put a bullet in the Stallion’s head. The Stallion’s shirt pocket had a key. Shadow slipped the key into his wraps. It was an easy way to carry the key and it was hidden, and looking like more magic if he was seen.

Shadow went to the closest set of stairs and went up one floor. He went room by room, opening them with a wave of his hoof in front of the reader. It was late, so most ponies were out cold from drugs, alcohol, or too much fun. They received their just reward for their hedonism.

If they were out of the room, Shadow locked up and let it go. It didn’t matter. Their lives were spared in that moment, and maybe forever. It took time, but Shadow was quick as he hit each of the floors.

As the morning was cresting, Shadow slipped out of a window. He moved to the night shift’s houses.

The first one he entered had five mares in it. Two were in the kitchen, one in the shower, and the last two were in their room. Shadow killed the two in the kitchen and then went into the room. They were asleep, in the same small bed. It was easy to slice their heads off in the same swing.

Shadow stepped into the restroom. She was using an old tub with a semi clear curtain around it. Plenty of steam was in the air.

“I will be out in a minute,” She yelled over the water.

Shadow saw where she was and thrust the blade through the curtain. She screamed in pain and Shadow withdrew the blade and she thudded into the tube. Her tears and blood mixed with the fresh water pouring out of the shower head.

Shadow left the house and continued to the others. They were easy to dispose of most of them while the occupants slept. The last place Shadow had to worry about was the main floor of the Casino. It was odd to him that there were no alerts being made. There was no way they couldn’t have found others.

Shadow undid the sound dampener. Now was not the time to be silent. He wanted to be heard. A rare magical piece could be tied back to him, so he wasn’t going to risk it when he made his big move. But outside was quiet. So Shadow walked to the casino. Inside was where the party was. Marjoram was with seven guards, a crooked smile on her face.

“I have been waiting for you. You killed a lot of us. You probably have some grand, moral reason that we deserve this. That our patrons deserve this. But it simply isn’t so. We provide what they want.”

Shadow just let his unblinking eyes speak for him.

“Fine,” Marjoram spat. “If that is how you want it, come kill me.”

Shadow did a back flip to the side, out of the torrent of bullets. As he rolled to the side, he let loose a stream of bullets, knocking out four. With a bounce forward, he sliced off two heads and then drove the bayonet into the neck of the last guard.

Marjoram stood there, a grin on her face. “Well, I guess I am out of tricks. Kill me if you wish. But the Steel Rangers are on their way. We sent for them immediately when we realized you had come. I have a friend there and he will not sit idly by as you destroy us. We are essential to the area around Trottingham.”

Shadow shrugged and sliced her head off with no ceremony. The rest of the place was deserted. The mare was still under the desk, but it was deserted.

Shadow exited the building and looked down the street. A large group on ponies were running down the street. Patrons, Dancers, Workers, they were all fleeing. Shadow opened fire, cutting down as many as possible. But the rifle was limited, and the ponies were far away and moving quickly.

Still, they knew it was Black Widow. Now, to finish the job. To bring the Lux down. And if the Steel Rangers had been called, he was on borrowed time.

Shadow dashed off to get the explosives. He loaded the Casino first. Bricks were armed and tossed into the exchange office where the caps were stored. Several were set in the main floor to rip the games apart. Each corner had bricks and at the structural supports. Shadow finished the Casino off by tossing bricks down the halls of the rooms.

Shadow exited it and began to move through the housing. He tossed armed bricks into each house, being as thorough as he could with his speed. As he tossed the last brick into a house, Shadow sped off to get the caps.

With them secured, he had one last task. He took a board, hammer, and nails. He drove the long nails though the board and then stuck a leader’s head on each nail. The board was placed in the street where it wouldn’t get knocked over from the blast. They were lined them up neatly. They would stand as a testament to how easily Black Widow did her work.

Shadow dashed down the road to check the gate. He passed a good 20 bodies. All had bled out by the time he passed them. The gate was left locked, but unguarded.

The Steel Rangers had to be close. Shadow went south to get over the walls and then hid in the ruins. He had a clear view of where the Steel Rangers would have to travel. They wouldn’t get hurt from the blast unless he set them off while they were inside a building, but that wasn’t his goal. He wanted them to believe that they were closer to catching them than he was.

It wasn’t a long wait. Shadow had time to put the sound dampener back on his rifle. But it was long enough that Shadow almost decided to blow the place and leave. It was satisfying to see them hit the deck as they reacted to the blast. They weren’t even at the gates but they all ran for cover like little foals in a thunderstorm.

It gave Shadow all the security he needed to make his final exit to his gear and get clear. There was no break. He had to get south. South enough that no one would really believe that he had gone anywhere else. Which meant he would have to risk it all and run.

Out of his Black Widow costume, he ran, using all his endurance training to the max. He was out of shape compared to when he was above, but he still knew how to run. His body was trained, and although the point had been dulled, it was still sharp enough to split apart flesh with ease.

Night wasn’t far away and with darkness set in, Shadow took to the sky, all the way to the clouds. He slid along, under the clouds, hidden from most eyes. He was fast enough to be difficult to track, and he blended in enough to their dark underside.

Shadow pushed harder than he had ever pushed in training. That was what training was for. To give him the edge he needed to do the toughest things in battle. So that survival was not only possible, but plausible.

His wings burned, he couldn’t suck in enough air to satisfy his body’s lust, his vision faded to focus only on his goal. He blocked out everything he could to fight the pain. To fight the urge to stop hurting himself. But he was a soldier. He was in control. He had a mission, and that was what mattered.

Shadow’s legs didn’t catch him when he tried to land. It was a difficult, hard landing as he rolled and tumbled. The bags made it incredibly awkward. He slammed into some rocks and groaned from the pain.

Shadow awoke past morning. He wasn’t sure how long he had been out, or his exact location. But he knew he had to show up in Trottingham soon, and coming in from the south. He needed to find the power plant. That was in the hooves of the Steel Rangers and they would know him and give an account that he came up from the south.

Shadow stumbled up and tried to find his bearing. As he stumbled around, he heard gruff orders. Orders and laughing. The kind of raiders. Raiders preying on the weak.

Shadow fought his tiredness and moved off towards the noise. It was a small, snarly farm. A family of 5 were trying to pull a living out of the soil. And a band of 8 was pressuring them for food and caps. He had the height advantage since the land sloped down. The farm was using the pooled water.

Shadow took a deep breath in and stepped out of cover and confidently walked towards them, being careful to not lose the height advantage.

“Cease and desist!” Shadow ordered.

The raider leader turned to look up at Shadow and laughed. His left eye was just a dry socket with a giant scar covering most of his face. It was unnerving to look at, but Shadow wasn’t going to waver.

“So you, one pony, think getting involved is smart?” He laughed.

Shadow shrugged. “Smart and the moral thing are two different things. And I wouldn’t get involved in anything I couldn’t win. Back out now, or face death.”

A unicorn cocked a pistol and put it to the head of a young mare. “This is our response.”

“Leave,” The one eyes pony grinned.

“Please,” Shadow laughed. “That is a dumb ass move. You Leave!”

He had their attention except for the Unicorn with the pistol. Now that the farmers were safe, Shadow shot the Unicorn and dove out of the way. All of them shots were at where he had been. Shadow chucked a grenade, with the pin still in place. It did it’s job scattering them. They didn’t stand a chance as he picked them off with perfect precision.

The precision that Marble Falls had drilled into him. The precision of a elite Enclave Pegasus. The precision worthy of the title Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance.

Shadow chuckled in victory as he trotted down to them. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” The oldest stallion said, shaking a bit. “We are. But you, you saved us?”

“It was nothing,” Shadow shrugged as he picked up the grenade. “I was in the area when I heard their foolish voices. They never stood a chance.”

“Not much is good down here,” The Stallion said. “What has you so far out of the way?”

“Searching for something specific,” Shadow said, dodging the question. “But I didn’t come out where I thought. I am a bit turned around. Where is Trottingham?”

“Its north,” He replied confused. “About a day’s walk north.”

“Then I must be going,” Shadow stated. “Keep their shit. I don’t care to loot their bodies. I don’t need the caps or gear. It should fetch a decent price, judging from the sounds they made when they shot at me. Or you could learn to use the guns.”

“Thanks,” One of the younger stallions said. “I keep saying we need to know how to defend ourselves since we are so far out of the way.”

“Wait!” The mare who had the gun to her head called out.

Shadow looked over his shoulder at her.

“What’s your name?”

“Mtoaji,” Shadow replied with a nod. “My name is Mtoaji.”

Shadow trotted off north. He picked up his speed. It hurt, but that wasn’t going to stop until he got rest. And the best place, only place, for that was his home in Trottingham.

As the night neared, Shadow came upon the power plant. It had changed, a lot. There were guards in every tower and more guard posts around the wall. Almost all of them were occupied by attentive Steel Rangers.

Shadow was forced to stop and he was questioned. His visit was recorded and he was sent off. They knew who he was, and they didn’t want to mess with a friend of their Star Paladin. Shadow heard them discussing the previous mission. It was enough to dispel any further questions and they didn’t push to see his packs. The Black Widow uniform was buried as deep as he could bury it, but the cap bricks were not buried deeply.

It was securely night by the time he arrived at Trottingham, but not too late for the occasional traveler. Not like the other night when they almost shot him. He headed straight to his condominium and bed. It felt good to have his wings out an stretched open. The long push on his wings and then keeping them locked in tight was not good for them.

Shadow woke up late. The first thing he needed to do was hide the bricks of caps. He pulled up the floorboards in the inside corner of his bedroom. A quick examination of the space proved very promising. The room below him had a major wall segment right under it, and there were no pipes or wires running through the space. There was little chance of it being found in repairs or construction.

Just two boards were enough for him to slip the bricks into the small space. There was plenty of room to hide more if needed. He didn’t need it right now, but it would be there if he needed it.

Shadow didn’t feel like cooking. He went to eat out. After, he went to check in with the bank and then headed to Red Tip for ammo. He had spent plenty of rounds on his escapade.

“Coming,” Red Tip yelled from the back. It took him a while to come out, and Shadow heard some angry muttering.

“Ah, its just you,” Red Tip smiled. He was covered in grease.

“Repairs?” Shadow asked.

“Painful ones,” Red Tip nodded. “Somepony got their hooves on an old medium machine gun. And some links for the ammo. Its chambered in 5.56mm, but its well rusted. And some of the parts are fused. I am trying to determine if its repairable, at a hefty price. But, do you need something?”

“Ammo,” Shadow said with a nod. “5.56. And I want to stock up on it too.”

“You had a stockpile,” Red Tip said. “I assume that is.”

“Some, but not enough.”

“What did you get into?”

“Uh, not sure,” Shadow replied with a grin. “Ghouls. Ferals. And an old military bunker. I came out in a different place than I went in. So I was turned around for a bit. South of here.”

“Did you go to Las Pegasus?”

“No,” Shadow replied dryly.

Shadow was avoiding the ground side ruins of Las Pegasus. It was too close to home.

“Avoid it at all cost,” Red Tip advised. “If you think the Steel Rangers are tough, or the Enclave are monsters, you haven’t met The Remnants. The whole city is ghouls. Nasty ones that include Pegasi. A Pegasus ghoul doesn’t even have feathers for their wings.” Red Tip shook his head in disgust and fear. “No, just bones for wings. Don’t ask me how they fly. But they are all remnants of the old Equestrian Military. And they are sour about being abandoned by the Enclave. They keep their territory closely guarded, and I am pretty sure they don’t hesitate to eat pony flesh. They are insane. Thankfully, they stay in the city ruins.”

“Why?” Shadow asked. “Why stay there?”

“Uh, no idea,” Red Tip said. He was concerned that they would finally snap and go on a rampage.

“Because,” Knight Yellow Quartz said coming over. They hadn’t heard the door open. Her helmet was off and secured on her back. “The Steel Rangers have an agreement with them. They stay there, and we don’t put them down. It would be a nasty war between the last bits of the Equestrian Military. And now we have the larger force. We would win, but it would be an ugly, horrible civil war. As far as I know, we don’t really speak with them.”

“Okay,” Shadow said, concerned. They would torture him, and if he was lucky, kill him. It was the last place he would ever go.

“What has you here,” Red Tip asked Yellow Quartz. “Its odd for any new Steel Rangers to come to town. You are not a regular. I have never heard of you coming here, and the Steel Rangers keep a tight control on who is allowed to visit.”

“I have a job. News actually,” Yellow Quartz said with a nod. “But I hope neither of you will make me regret telling you that bit of classified information. Its not the worst thing to become common knowledge, but we still prefer to keep it quiet.”

“Of course,” Shadow said with a nod. He knew the concern was still plastered all over his face. If it could get any whiter, it would be.

After Red Tip assured her with a nod, Knight Yellow Quartz continued. “I came here personally, with permission, to inform Mtoaji of some bad news. Black Widow destroyed the Lux.”

“WHAT!” Red Tip yelped in surprise. “She had the power and guts to hit it.”

“Yep,” Yellow Quartz said with a nod. “She killed workers and patrons. And then she blasted it apart. A good amount escaped, mostly patrons. But she gunned maybe 20 of them down as they made their final run for the gate. Just opened up with a full auto gun. It seems like it was small caliber from what we could recover. But she was killing guards silently. We think a special pistol since they couldn’t hear any shots and it was close up. A rifle that close, it was too precise.

“Anyway, I am not here about the hit. I am here to inform you that all the caps you had in that account are gone. She blew up the exchange counter and vault. Even if we could gather your caps, we don’t have the records to double check.”

Red Tip shook his head with a grin. “So the valiant Steel Rangers who went to the rescue get to scour the Lux and recover everything they had hidden there. Every cap and worthwhile item.”

Knight Yellow Quartz shrugged. “I was part of the initial response force, that was all. The scribes are there doing work, but I don’t know what is happening. I was sent home, but requested to come here first. I could confirm that you lost thousands in the hit.”

“I can only lose what I actually owned,” Shadow said with a shrug. “I didn’t need the others. I won an exorbitant amount by accident. I just had fun. I pulled what I needed. I don’t consider it a lose.” Shadow smiled warmly at Yellow Quartz. “But thanks for coming all the way here to tell me. It is appreciated.”

“What have you been up to?” Yellow Quartz asked, just chatting.

“He was down south,” Red Tip said. “And he was just getting to the good stuff when we got side tracked by Las Pegasus.”

“Its pretty boring,” Shadow said. “But I dove into some underground installation. I was killing feral ghouls for a day or two. I didn’t exit the same place I entered in, so I got pretty well turned around. It fucked with my mind. I got down to hoof to hoof combat a few times when I was out of ammo. But they had more 5.56 for me. Just different mags. So I had to pull them out and reload them into mine.”

“And you didn’t bring me anything?” Red Tip asked shocked, and annoyed.

“I was fighting for survival,” Shadow said, with a bit of a whine. “I was trying to get out. I opened a can of worms that I didn’t mean too. It was something I stumbled upon, and something I barely escaped. I probably couldn’t find it again. I hurt from it all. It took all my skill to escape.

“Besides, all of their weapons were rusted to shit. It was wet inside and little but their bodies survived. Killing some of them created clouds of rust as it destroyed their armor. That was difficult to breath in.

“After I got out, I ran into a small farm being accosted. The raiders wouldn’t back down, so they made me kill them. I tried to not, but by then I was exhausted. I just left the stuff for the farmers. They were struggling and on their own. They directed me back to Trottingham.”

“I have heard about those installations,” Yellow Quartz said. “Hidden bases dug into the ground. Often they used the natural caves. They didn’t keep good records of their locations, and they can be rather large. Ghouls makes sense. But tough.”

Shadow just shrugged. He had been pulling from his experience diving into Kifopiga. But if Equestria had done the same, he wasn’t going to argue with it. The more vague the better. It was safest to let Yellow Quartz fill in the blanks.

“I will let the Star Paladin know about the farm. He likes to keep up with the solo farms. We probably will head out soon. He was only at the Lux an hour tops. The heads of their leaders were chopped off and laying neatly in the street for us to find. It was unnerving.

“As you know, he liked to use the Lux to work out of. It was conveniently placed. It will hinder his patrols.”

“Sucks,” Shadow shrugged. “But it was a dark place. The dancers and consorts, they were basically slaves. Once you go in, there was no getting free.”

“What exactly do you know?” Yellow Quartz said narrowing her eyes at him.

“Uh, he got one of them out the first time he was there,” Red Tip interjected.

“Right,” Yellow Quartz said with a nod. “Which is why you were not allowed back in. You almost got shot when we dragged you in against your wishes.”

“Mhm,” Shadow nodded. “Nasty scene from what she told me. I risked a lot to get her out. But I don’t recall telling you that.”

“It was obvious,” Red Tip shrugged. “You coming back with a pretty mare who was loaded down with gear. She was fresh, with that naive, new look in her eyes. But she handled the crowd fine while we sold those weapons. That was a good day for business. Black Widow had whipped the city into quite a frenzy.”

“Damn,” Red Tip spat. “I can’t believe she had the balls to target the Lux. She had to be planning that hit for weeks, casing the whole thing to plan the timing of it all.”

“Then why did she let some go?” Yellow Quartz asked.

Shadow snorted. “Do you really think she could kill them all? She can’t freeze time. Not even you or I could do that. Or both of us together even. We would get locked into some combat and anypony with half a brain would get the patrons out while their guards kept us busy. The same goes for Black Widow for an all out assault.”

“Plus,” Red Tip shrugged. “It was a nice way to announce to the world that she had the skill and balls to do it. Some survivors don’t matter. She had to have wrecked the place bad enough that rebuilding it, well it would never be the same.”

“She blew it up,” Yellow Quartz said. “Right as we got to the gate, boom! We just missed her. Its all rubble now.”

“Damn,” Red Tip swore. “She has an innate knowledge of events to keep pulling off what she does.”

“Or really high luck,” Shadow said.

“There have been records of ponies with a bit of a fortune sense, before the war,” Yellow Quartz added. “But none were unicorns. Still, its not unfathomable.”

“Speak for yourself,” Shadow said. “That is something I can’t comprehend.”

Knight Yellow Quartz sighed. “I have to get back. And the streets of Trottingham are beginning to become dangerous again. The Hawks’ territory is being taken by smaller gangs looking to make a name. Our attempts to quell their advances are proving useless. They just hide.”

“Stay safe,” Shadow said with a nod. “I need you alive for a rematch next year.”

“And you will get your ass beaten next year,” Yellow Quartz smirked before she put her helmet on.

Shadow turned back to Red Tip. “I need 5.56, in bulk.”

“What? Three thousand rounds?”

“Only two,” Shadow said. “That’s all I should need. For now. Also, when can we get the Magnum shotgun rounds started?”

“We can do that tomorrow! I still have to finish with that machine gun.”

Chapter 123 - Contract

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Shadow was walking through the market. He wasn’t on a particular mission. He had spent the morning with Red Tip, just outside the city. They had shot his shotgun three dozen times, getting the spread of the 00 Buck and some small shot. Then, for fun, they got Red Tip into the saddle and he tried both guns out.

Red Tip was going to be making him 100 magnum rounds. The magnum rounds would be in a white shell casing. Red was the main color for 12 gauge, 00 Buck shells. So Red Tip had to use a different color for identification. There was no company that made white cased shotgun ammunition.

An entire day’s worth of activity over, right before lunch. And Shadow had no idea what his next move would be.

“Mtoaji!”

Shadow looked to where the voice was. An older Unicorn was sitting at the cafe and waving to him. Shadow walked over to him. He had never seen him before.

“Sit,” He said. “I was waiting for you to come by. I had heard you were back in town, and I know this is your go to place to eat. Hence the Sparkle Cola in front of you.

Shadow looked at it, took a sip and smiled. “So, you know me, but I do not know you. My name is apparently well known in this city. What can I do for you?”

“I am Jaborosa. I own The Hive Caravans, the largest caravan company in the wasteland! Well, I mostly let my daughter, Whiskey Rose, do all the work at my age. I did most of the labor, growing the caravan from nothing. A lot of long days on the trail. A lot of shots fired at raiders. A few bullets from those raiders as well.”

A plate was set in front of Shadow from the server. She also set one in front of Jaborosa.

“I figured business should be done over lunch. No? Its what you always order.”

Shadow gave a nod. “It’s impressive, growing a caravan company from nothing. I haven’t seen a store front for you, and I thought most of them were private enterprise.”

“A lot are. But its more stable to work for a company that will guarantee the movement of goods, and cover losses. You make less, but the guarantee is a hard thing to pass up. As to store front, I am in the business of moving good around, not buying and selling. My customers are businesses. I buy and sell to them and only them. Although, I hear your hauls might be big enough for me to purchase outright.”

“Understandable,” Shadow said when he was done chewing. “But if you got to know me, you also know I am a scavenger.”

“Yes, I know you are. I am hiring guards, and if you want to trade that life in, I will gladly hire you. Contracts are as short as you want, so you do not have to work for life.

“But I am not propositioning you as much as I am looking for a delivery. You have a reputation here for a reason. I saw the finals of the Reactive Rifle Course. I believe you can get a special deliver done.”

Shadow took a sip of the cola and nodded for him to continue.

“This past year, we sent three caravans to Fillydelphia. To the small trading post west of the city. Its mostly used by the farmers, and at times, the Fillydelphia Steel Rangers. The first one was successful, but warned us about the Disciples massive growth.

“Caravan two was raided by the Operators, who are a gang in South Filly. They swung out, killed the guards, took everything and murdered all but one of my merchants. They let the last go.

“The third and last, I doubled the guard. The Disciples got around the Steel Rangers and slaughtered them all. We only know what happened because word came back from a caravan heading here. They brought the news.

“Caravan guards are always in demand, and I pay well. They live a hard life. Half the time, their presence stops any shenanigans. Forty percent of the time, they fire a few shots and run the raiders off. The last ten, they die. So I always pay well and always add the extra guard or two.

“But guards are in short supply, and the market is competitive. Still, I have a plan and that’s where you come in. I want you to deliver this contract to that gang in south Filly, the Operators. The Disciples are pushing hard on the other gangs. Fillydelphia has always had a good ten strong gangs, but never an overlord like the Disciple have become. They are killing or forcing the others under their banner. They have to be pushing hard on the Operators.

“So I want you to deliver this contract to them. They walk away from raiding and come work for me. They go legitimate.”

Shadow was shocked. “You want raiders to go legitimate?”

“These guys are in it purely for the caps. That is what matters to them. The caps. The are lovers of money. And I am betting hard that they are getting desperate with the Disciples knocking on their door. Like I said, I already pay my guards well. I get guards who know what they are doing, they get lots of caps. Win win all around.”

Shadow took a long drink to think. “Filly draws my blood every time I enter it. Except the first. That time, it killed my friend. It isn’t that I am afraid of it, but its been bad to me every time I went. I have a huge grudge against it.”

Jaborosa grinned. “I know you like things a certain way. And it’s cost yah a good deal of caps. I believe your pad is still lightly furnished. You do this for me, its 2000 caps. 500 up front, 1500 when you get back after delivering the contract. I don’t need them to sign it, only take it and look it over.”

“That’s a risk,” Shadow replied. “I could just walk and come back without it.”

“Yes, you could. Business requires risk. But what is on the line is your word. I know you know how valuable that is. And if you don’t complete it and claim it, well, I have contacts all through the wasteland. You wouldn’t even be able to trade scraps in any of the cities. That’s just business. You don’t have to take the contract.”

Shadow leaned back and thought. On Jaborosa’s side, it was a good gamble. For Shadow though, it was a big gamble. No, he didn’t need the caps. But he wasn’t sure what his next move was going to be. Perhaps Fillydelphia would provide some new insight on how to get home, once it was time. He still had Dahlia to kill, and that would take some preparation.

“Alright,” Shadow said. “I will take the contract to The Operators. I can leave in the morning.”

They shook hooves.

“A pleasure doing business with you,” Jaborosa smiled. “Here is their contract, and here is our business contract. Sign here, and you get this check.”

Shadow signed everything and took the contract. It was sealed in a nice envelope and wouldn’t be easy to lose. Shadow was all set and ready to go. He had didn’t need to stop and get anything.

As their server came around to clear their plates, Shadow asked if Strawberry was working.

“She is covering the terrace. Did you need something?”

“I just need to speak with her for a quick second. I’ll catch her up there in a moment.”

Shadow finished his Sparkle Cola, nodded to Jaborosa, and headed up to the terrace. Strawberry looked worn out. And not from work as much as it looked like she hadn’t slept. She saw Shadow and that he wanted to speak to him. She got over as quickly as she could.

“You don’t look so good,” Shadow said. “Are you feeling alright?”

“What? Oh yes, I am fine. I haven’t slept well all week, that is all.”

“That’s all?” Shadow pressed. “I thought you had a good place secured.”

“Well, I did. But that ran out. The family I was leasing my room from found out they are having another foal. So, the month finished and I have been renting a room by week at the hotel while I figure out where I am staying next. Its only been a few days. I will find a place soon.”

“What time do you get off?” Shadow asked.

“I work until close, to offset the extra housing cost.”

“Well, take a break to meet me at the bank at 3.”

“Thanks,” Strawberry smiled. “But I don’t need your charity. You have already done so much for me.”

Shadow chuckled. “Its not what I can do for you, its what you can do for me.”

“What do you mean?” Strawberry asked. “I don’t know what I can do for you.”

“Just, show up,” Shadow said, walking away.

Strawberry showed up at the bank shortly after 3 pm. It was mostly empty. She was ten minutes late, but work hadn’t been able to get her there right at three.

“Ah, Miss Sonata Concert,” An employee said walking up to her. “This way.”

Strawberry was show to a side room where Shadow was sitting down with another employee.

“Ah, good,” Shadow smiled. “I was getting a little concerned with the timing, but I knew you would make it.”

“And what am I here for?” She asked, sitting down.

Shadow took in a deep breath. “I took a difficult contract over lunch. I have been juggling with the idea for some time, but I need and heir. Some, one, to look over my stuff and keep it safe on my extended trips. And one to receive my belongings in the unlikely event of my death.”

“Unlikely?” Strawberry asked. “Isn’t supposed to be likely?”

Shadow shrugged. “I’ve take bullets and walked away. Fate prefers me alive. Although, now I am heading back to Fillydelphia, so, things will get interesting.”

“Ah, you are heading out with the big caravan?” The employee asked.

“I didn’t know one was heading out,” Shadow replied. “I was just speaking with Jaborosa over lunch.”

“Nah, this isn’t him. Its being led by Rebel Queen. Her little group is known for taking riskier trips, and allowing anyone to join, for free. No fees. So a lot of private packers head out. Larger in size, but more guns.”

“It would be slower,” Shadow said, with a thinking nod. “But where would I find them?”

“You will find her inside the front gate. Somewhere around the entrance to the city. She is there to speak with. Its been a while since she has swung up here.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said. “But to important things. The heir program. I want to leave it all to you Sonata Concert. I have no one else to give it to. You would get all of my caps, guns, equipment, furniture and most importantly, my home. Its the ten year plan.”

“Ten year?” Strawberry asked.

“Yes,” The employee smiled. “Miss Sonata Concert. If Mtoaji goes missing, with no solid confirmation of his death, you retain protectorate over his holdings. At ten years from the last time he checks in, you will be deeded everything.”

“And during that missing period?” Strawberry asked.

“Your job is to maintain what he has. Mostly, that is just keeping it up for him. You won’t have to worry about his bank account, or most things. In this case, he has nothing that needs direct managing. You would be wise to pop in and clean his home every so often, but otherwise, nothing is needed for you to do. You are not overseeing any business transactions or something like that. This is a really long time, but its straightforward.”

“Is ten years that long?” Strawberry asked.

“We hold almost 700 active heir accounts. Most of those are 2 years, with plenty of 3 and 4 year plans. 125 are 5 year plans, but after that, only 17 are past 5 years. We don’t do longer than 10.”

Strawberry looked at Shadow, wanting an explanation.

Shadow just shrugged. “Ten years is what fate wants. I don’t know why, but ten years is what I have stuck in my head.”

Strawberry sighed and signed the paper. It was all on her, the heir to Mtoaji’s things. Once that was all done, Shadow gave her the spare key to his condo.

“Look, I appreciate you doing this for me. I also have a solution of sorts. Really, a mutual, symbiotic arrangement. I only have a one bedroom place, but half the time, I am not around. I am out doing my job. We can get you a bed and I know Sawdust can whip up some sort of wall we can put in to give you privacy.”

“Well,” Strawberry said. “I don’t… fuck I am so tired. Yes. At least for a little bit. I would prefer to be self sufficient. But I can work that out later.”

Shadow smiled at her. “You are a ray of sunshine to me while I am out here. I’ll get a bed for you for the night. Just come over when you get off from work. And if you need anything moved.”

Strawberry yawned. “Here, this is the key to my room. The number is on the fob. I don’t have much. Thanks. You have been a, just so much to me. A protector, an olderbrother in a lot of ways. Although, I think I am older.”

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged. “A sister just needs a strong brother. It doesn’t matter if its older or younger, so long as he is firm for her, but loving and soft with her. Especially in this broken, forsaken land.”

“Why do you say forsaken?”

Shadow sighed. “The light may come through the clouds, some. But its not really the sun. And really a lot worse, the stars and moon are hidden. They can not force their way through. They don’t care for this land.”

Strawberry leaned in close and whispered. “Have you seen the stars?”

Shadow nodded. “The clouds only cover Equestria. Oh gosh, I don’t even know where it is compared to where we are. My mental map is kind of shot right now. But yeah, I know the stars. I know the moon. I have seen sunrises and sunsets.

“We… that was a nasty fight. A good fight, but tough. Rank, despite being so dry. Damn Zebra ghouls.”

“They didn’t have what you needed?” Strawberry asked.

Shadow took a deep breath in. “Its, they did. But not all of it. In the end, it was a mistake. We got lucky. But we shouldn’t have breached it. No clouds though, that was nice. That was fresh.”

“I can’t image that,” Strawberry said, depressed.

“Yeah, but this place isn’t so bad. The sun can not be stopped. That is a huge surprise. Maybe one day I can take you to the sun, maybe. I would love to, but its more than just a trip.”

“Well, I have to get back to work. You need to focus on that caravan.”

“Right.”

Shadow smiled at her as she trotted off, back to her job. Back to her life, sunless. There was no way for her to walk on the clouds. And a trip south, that far south, would be difficult for her to endure. The Inquisitors were quick on their hooves and traveled well. And they were in the mountains, probably above them.

To remove the clouds, it would strip farms and homes. Foundations would crumble, and thousands would be homeless. They would starve within a year. It would take a lot for a farm to stay together if the cloud base was ripped away. And most farms were big, they would blanket large parts of the sky, permanently.

Shadow was at the gate. He had to turn his attention to the matter at hoof.

Rebel Queen was easy to spot, kicked back in a chair, leaning against the wall. She was in black clothes, with red combat gear. Her pale coat had several long scars on it’s face and neck. Her black mane was pulled back in a bun.

On her head was a yellow crown. It wasn’t just for show. Shadow saw the com system that was connected to it. It was expertly hidden in plain sight. You had to know what to look for though, and he did.

“Well well well,” She chuckled. “Mtoaji himself. What brings somepony of your caliber to me? Here to pay homage?”

Shadow grinned a bit. “You caught yourself up quickly, considering you haven’t been in town even a week.”

“Word about you travels. Trott loves to gossip. You still are hot on that train.”

Shadow shrugged. “Either way, it has come to my attention, that you are leading a caravan to Filly?”

She smirked. “Yeah. But we are going to New Appleloosa first. I got something I need to drop off. I got another dozen who are coming with. But most of them at stopping at NA and will come back on their own. After NA, to Filly. And we are going straight to the Steel Rangers. Or, as close as they will let us get to their precious, precious stable.”

“Stable?” Shadow asked.

“Yeah, their base is a stable. Don’t know don’t care what number. But I gurt some stuff they need. So, yeah. We gurt to go all the way to em. They probably won’t let the norms past the grocery.”

Shadow gave a nod in understanding. “Last time I was in Filly, they were all over the ruins. Where is this stable?”

“Yeah, they have a good hold on the city. And they purtect a lot of farmers. Some of our goods are for em, but we have some special pieces for them rangers.”

She was skillfully avoiding answering what he really wanted to know.

“Well, I have some business in the area around Filly. Not with the Steel Rangers.”

Rebel Queen grinned. “We would be glad to have yah along. But, this doesn’t seem like your scene. Especially with the stop at NA. A little too, slow.”

“When do you head back?” Shadow asked.

“Eh, business will take a few days. Probably the morning of four. If yah can catch us, sure. But if not, well, yah can handle yourself.”

Shadow was unsure what to say back.

“Wait, yah are afraid of Filly, ain’t yah?”

Shadow grinned, annoyed. “Well, she hasn’t been too nice to me. Blood, every time I get within her boundaries. So, I’ve got legitimate concerns with my business there.”

Rebel Queen chuckled twice. “We leave at O 600. The only rule is that you have to stay with the group and follow my instructions. You can only leave when we get to cities or towns. No leaving in the night. No walking too slow. No moving too fast. You step off to shit, you let me know. Capiche?”

Shadow’s eyebrow raised. He assumed ‘capiche’ meant agree. “I agree.”

“Good,” She smiled.

She extended her hoof to be bumped. Shadow obliged, sealing the deal.

With that over, Shadow trotted back in and to Quality Hardware. It wasn’t hard to get a simple, single pony bed for Strawberry. They had a good mattress already made. Shadow got a frame with drawers beneath the mattress. They were the frame style with a headboard attached. He also grabbed two small nightstands.

Sawdust knew exactly what Shadow needed. A privacy screen wasn’t something they usually, made, but Sawdust has several drawings in his books. They worked together to get Shadow the right one. It included hooks on the ‘inside’ so that things could be hung up, like in a closet. The hooks folded in flat so it could be folded all the way in.

Everything but the privacy screen was delivered right away. It was weird to have the bed in the corner, but it was good to have more life in the place. His chair and couch actually would be used.

Shadow pulled his battle saddle out. He broke everything down and cleaned it. He made them shine and ready for battle. The magazines were primed and ready, pristine. Shadow loaded his bags and then set them on the workbench.

Shadow’s next concern was making sure that the Black Widow stuff was hidden. He knew Strawberry wouldn’t snoop, but he had to make sure she wouldn’t accidentally stumble upon anything. They went into the stash under the floorboards. Nice and simple.

Shadow was still up when Strawberry got there. He was at the workbench and was working off of the original black widow pattern to make a new suit for regular wear. He had the extra fabric. And this pattern section had no immediate markers for Mare-do-well or the rest of the design. Only the wingless body suit.

“You’re up,” She said, flustered. “You should be in bed if you are heading out with the caravan.”

“Bah,” Shadow shrugged. “They will be moving slow. Its going to piss me off, but I have done a lot with little sleep. It won’t be a problem.”

“Did you?” Strawberry groaned, pouting a bit. “Did you buy me all of that? Its new! And it has drawers.”

Shadow chuckled. “Look around! I don’t buy used furniture. Only high quality new pieces. I have a privacy screen coming. Its a paneled, folding wall that we can extend or contract, depending on if it’s needed.”

“Mtoaji,” Strawberry pouted, sitting down on the couch. “You shouldn’t have done all of that. I don’t want to stay here a long time. But I don’t want to find a new place. Its so hard. And even when I had a solid place, I was looking for something better.”

Shadow chuckled warmly. “That is why I bought a place. I had the caps, it was worth it.”

“And then spent three times that on renovating it?”

“Well, I wanted to feel relaxed. Safe. This does that. Outside of here, I am sleeping with one eye open. Its… not fun. So yeah, I got the caps to do it. And that’s how I found you, the lighting project. Stop complaining and enjoy it. Because I can only half enjoy it since I am always gone. So enjoy it for me. I’m keeping the bedroom if that makes you happy.”

Strawberry sighed. “That does. It really does. I would throw a real fit if you tried to switch.”

Shadow just chuckled. “Relax. Enjoy not having to worry about a better place for you. Sure, its not your own, and its in the open, but the privacy screen will make a nice wall of sorts for you. And its safe. You won’t get evicted. You won’t have to worry about me selling it. Its all stable.”

“Well, until you finally get to head home.”

Shadow snorted. “When I get to head home, I won’t be needing 3,000 caps. Hell, even selling low at 2,000, I wouldn’t need it. We don’t use them. I had kind of figured on giving it to you once we met.”

“Why?” Strawberry whined. “Why are you so good to me. Getting me out was one thing, but its… you just keep taking care of me.”

Shadow set the sewing aside and sat in the chair. “And I enjoy having someone to share this with.”

“I know you are making a lot off this contract, but you need to have caps to live too.”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “I have enough. More than enough. But I need to head to bed. Its got fresh sheets and a blanket for you. I hope its enough to keep you warm.

“I just have one rule I need you to follow. You can do whatever you need to in here, use the kitchen and everything fully. Eat the food and do the shopping. But don’t poke around in my room.”

“Of course,” Strawberry smiled. “I won’t even go in there.”

“If you could water the window gardens, that would be appreciated. Every other day, just a full can. Its in the kitchen, you can’t miss it. There is one in my room. So, if you could slip in and water it while I am gone, that would be lovely.”

“One can, every other day,” Strawberry said, solidifying it in her head.

“Oh, and there is a lunchbox in the back of the pantry, behind the packaged food shit. If you need it, there are caps in there. Its the house’s spare. Its been there since the start. If you need it, use it. It was created as a backup reserve, in case I needed caps, but can’t get to the bank for some reason. Or the bank gets robbed and I lose everything in there. That’s always a strong possibility. I can’t believe no one has tried. At least, not that anyone can remember.”

“Okay,” Strawberry yawned. “I’ll take care of this place like it’s mine.”

“One last thing,” Shadow said from the bedroom doorway. “The delivery of the privacy screen, I probably won’t be here for that. If you need to, you can give the key to Sawdust’s team to deliver it. I trust them to give it right back to you.

“Oh, and enjoy yourself here. Its nicer to have someone else around. Don’t stress about housing. I would have gotten a two bedroom if I had foreseen you coming along in my life.”

“I will,” Strawberry yawned. “I will. I’m glad you didn’t, but the privacy screens will be nice.”

Shadow closed his bedroom door. He had always been clothed, even behind the locked door. He couldn’t risk his wings being exposed. He would slip them out and stretch them, keeping them warm and capable. But he didn’t trust it. Now he had a real reason to justify his careful actions. Strawberry wouldn’t be a problem, but he didn’t want to have to do that explaining.

He had killed for less compromising information.

Chapter 124 - Operators

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Shadow trotted up to the meeting point at 0550, everypony was already there. He had spent the morning in his bedroom behind the locked door, exercising his wings. They were crying out to him in the morning after being hidden and unopened since his last great push. It wasn’t good for them, the feathers, the bones, and the muscles.

“Well well well,” Rebel Queen said from the front. “Yah showed up. The great Mtoaji is actually traveling with us. You agree to my one rule?”

Shadow grinned. “No leaving the caravan except at scheduled destination stops. And while traveling, follow your commands. Keep up. Don’t get ahead, don’t fall behind, and don’t step off to take a shit without letting you know.”

“Yeah, you get my one rule,” Rebel Queen smiled.

She wasn’t stupid. She just enjoyed saying it was all one rule.

“You are light,” A mare said. She was carrying stuff on top of her full saddle bags. And all she had for defense was a pistol.

“I have business, that is all,” Shadow replied. “I don’t need stuff to do this business. Just myself.”

Her set up was similar to the others. Of the twelve extra ponies, 6 had rifles. And except for three, they were carry their hauls on their back. Those three had a brahmin carrying their stuff. Two were to guide it, one was the guard in light combat gear. He was wearing one of the sets Shadow had sold Red Tip when he first got to Trottingham.

Rebel Queen and her ‘soldiers’ were all in solid combat gear. Each had a different card painted on their armor. All were hearts. Ace was her second in command, Three was leading one brahmin, and Seven was leading the other. Nine and Jack were packing heavy on the weapons

If Shadow’s jacket was brighter, he would blend right in with their colors. His cloak and undershirt were black. He still needed to secure new armor. For now, he was stuck with the damaged gear. It didn’t look damaged after his expert repair job, but it was still damaged.

Shadow was heavy on the spare ammo. Half of his magazines were loaded with armor piecing rounds, in case the Steel Rangers chose to be a problem. He had the sword, revolver, and both combat knives on him. But Soarin’s Lightning was left home, and so was Mwokozi’s cloak.

Shadow’s bedroll and the simple tent the Star Paladin Warding Blade had given him were all that Shadow appeared to be carrying. They hid his food and spare canteens in his bags.

Shadow certainly didn’t appear to belong. And it had gotten him noticed. They were jealous that he was with them, but that he wasn’t having to haul anything. Despite it being their choice. He got to just carry his stuff and deal with himself alone.

“That’s everypony planned,” Ace said. “All additions are accounted for. Lets move out.”

Ace was bringing up the rear. Nine and Jack were playing it in the middle, to make sure nopony fell behind. They set a good pace for the ponies and the brahmin. It would be a tough journey for Shadow.

They headed south, following the train tracks. Eventually, the tipped over cars came into view. Jack and Ace slipped away to scout it out. It wasn’t occupied. Shadow popped his head in. He saw the bodies he had left. They were just bones and rags, but still there, warding off new occupants.

They made camp not long after that. The brahmin hated carrying the packs. But they were dumb animals that did what they were told.

Shadow had the nicest set up out of the additions. Rebel Queen and her soldiers had similar tents. Black, not steel colored. It lacked insignia like Shadow’s, but the same design. They probably got theirs from Steel Rangers as well. They dealt with them often enough.

Shadow took second watch with Ace and another addition.

“Yah have a nice set up,” Ace said, quietly. “Howd yah get ahole of SR equipment?”

“I ran a special project with Trottingham’s Star Paladin, and I was lacking, well lacking what they said was proper field equipment. So the gave me it and the bed roll.”

“You ran a project with them? What did yah do?”

“Eh,” Shadow hesitated. “Its best left in the past. We did what was needed to be done.”

Ace wasn’t satisfied. “What do you have that a SR doesn’t have?”

Shadow kept watch, never loosing his focus. “Range. And a free rifle. Apparently, they needed their specialists with distance shooting elsewhere.”

“Can’t believe yah worked with em,” Ace added.

“Life doesn’t always let you do what you want. It was mutually beneficial for a number of reasons, so yeah. I joined that proposition.”

After a while, Shadow stepped away and out to a tree where he leaned against, listening. He was pretty sure something was out there. Something that wanted them. But there was nothing tangible, yet.

Day two was no problem. They were still following the tracks. Shadow was more adventurous with how close he played it. For a while he was on their left flank, 50 yards away. Rebel Queen knew, but let him be. She knew he was silently working on their protection.

Shadow took second watch again. Ace was again, heading up second watch.

“Yah saw something,” Ace said quietly to him, halfway through the shift.

“Yeah,” Shadow quietly replied. “But I can’t pin it down. It could just be a fucking jack rabbit. Or well, multiple ones.”

“Not with your intuition,” Ace replied. “Besides, Nine has the same suspicions.”

Shadow let it sit there for a while. “Can I, scout ahead tomorrow?”

“How far ahead?”

“Honestly, no idea. But, if Nine has a concern as well, getting ahead and flank them if something is tracking us…”

“Yeah,” Ace said. “But take Nine with you. Head out now.”

They slipped up to the soldier’s tents.

“Psst!” Ace said. “Nine.”

“What’s up?” Rebel Queen groaned.

“Nine and Mtoaji are gunna run a scouting mission.”

“Mtoaji is tracking something too?” Nine quietly asked.

“Yeah,” Shadow whispered back. “I want to get ahead and flank it. At least it will dispel any false suspicions.”

“Do it,” Rebel Queen ordered. “Leave your tent Mtoaji. We will pack it up.”

They slipped out of the camp and spread out a bit as they made their way down the path they would be following. It was well established, which also meant raiders would prey along it.

Nothing came of it as the light came up. They moved off to the side and set up posts. They were hidden well. If something was following alongside it, they would catch them walking straight at them.

Mid afternoon brought the caravan in sight. And it also brought a shadow sulking off the side. Shadow caught Nine’s eye. He had seen it as well. They stayed down, letting it get closer.

The caravan was passing by them, but the thing didn’t. They stayed down and then it passed right in between them. It was plant thing that was floating along the ground. Shadow’s eyes expressed it all after it had passed. After it was safe, Nine crawled over to Shadow.

“Damn it,” Nine whispered. “That there is a Floater! Its a plant that uses those gas sacks to propel itself on a cushion. And that head, yeah, it likes flesh. Especially fresh blood.”

“Have you dealt with one before?” Shadow asked.

“Nah. They don’t show up often. But that is why we couldn’t see it. We were not looking for a carnivorous plant.”

“Alright,” Shadow said. “It shouldn’t be hard to kill.”

“The gas is flammable,” Nine warned.

“If we set it off, will it kill it?”

“Yeah, I think. But we can’t get too close. Or let it get close to the caravan. We don’t want to spook the brahmin, and the gas doesn’t say close.”

“Yeah,” Shadow groaned. “I am smelling it now. If we can smell it, it can ignite.”

“And the thing spits a poison thing from its tail thing. It burns. I’ve seen the result of survivor of the spit. And worst of all, they don’t usually travel alone.”

“Shit,” Shadow swore. “I can kill it from here. Blast it’s head off with the explosion. We are downwind, so the gas should stay contained and away from the group.”

Nine was unsure. “I don’t see any others. And I have only felt one being around. Lets blast it. But, we should get closer to make sure your shot is good. Lets not take a chance.”

They moved out, stalking it. Shadow slid up to a tree and was blocked from the view of Nine. He pulled out his revolver and fired.

BANG! BOOM! WHOOSH!

The entire area went up in flames the initial expositions ruptured the other gas sacks. Nine immediately took off after the caravan. He wanted to make sure their other side wasn’t being followed. Shadow held for a moment and then bolted down their flank as well.

Rebel Queen was issuing commands to the caravan. She kept them moving while Ace and Jack fanned out ahead of them all, securing their next move.

Nine took several shots and Shadow dashed to his location. He was backed up behind a tree as three assaulted his location. Their tails rose up, and shot goop from the end. He hugged the tree, his only protection. Blowing them up would be bad for Nine.

He hadn’t seen Shadow yet, so Shadow used the band to launch the Zebra bayonet. It pinned one to a tree along the stalk, dragging it back a foot with the strike. But it wasn’t dead yet.

Shadow jumped into the middle of them with Kifo Herixleta drawn in his mouth. The blade was iced over, concealing the gems. Shadow slashed the stalk of one, rolled out of the way of the other’s shot, sliced off the end sack that was shooting the goop as he roll. He stabbed the head of that one, forcing it to submit to the ice of the blade, leaving it to crack as it froze.

Shadow jumped up, slicing the head of the pinned one in half, ending that fight. But there still was the suffering one he has cut the stalk on. It was more than surviving. It was stalking him with it’s head, and it had a shot drawn up and ready on it’s tale.

Shadow circled it. It was matching his movements. It knew if it struck and missed, it was dead. It was not going to strike until it was certain it would succeed. The longer Shadow faced off against it, the higher the chance it would hit him.

Shadow reared up, pulled the blade back and launched it, end over end. It found it’s home in the tale, splattering toxic goop everywhere. It flinched in pain, giving Shadow all he need. His Enclave combat knife was drawn as he dove forward. He drove the blade up, into it’s flat head. In a savage movement he ripped through it, making sure it’s lower jaw portion was ripped apart. He never even pricked a gas sack.

Shadow rolled out from under it as it fell, dead. Nine poked his head out, in awe.

“Fuck dude, that was, I don’t want to fuck with you. But uh, your blade. Its covered in that toxic goop.”

Shadow pulled out the Zebra combat knife of the tree, dropping the floater to the ground. He sheathed it and looked at Nine.

“Yeah, I was thinking, cleanse by fire.”

“Fire?”

“This gas should burn the goop off of it.”

“You are insane,” Nine said, backing up a bit. “Are you sure you want to put your sword through that?”

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged. “It will be fine. And its the best I have off the top of my head.”

Nine nodded and dashed away. Shadow got himself clear and fired a shot from his revolver. The entire area exploded, ripping the floaters apart and destroying a tree or two. Kifo Herixleta was blasted away, towards the caravan.

“Fuck,” Shadow said, dashing after it.

A scream erupted from the caravan. A mare’s screech. Shadow was there a second later, sliding into the middle. Kifo Herixleta was in the center of the caravan, with it’s blade in the middle of a rock in the ground. The rock had cracked to allow it to enter.

It was fully exposed, for all to see. But it hadn’t hurt anypony.

“Damn,” Rebel Queen said. She trotted over to, but didn’t draw it. “What the fuck is this?”

“A sword,” Shadow replied, going to grab it with his mouth. He was blocked by Rebel Queen’s hoof.

“Yeah, but I have never see or heard of anything like it? And those are gemstones in the blade. In it. And saying it’s gilded is putting it lightly. Plus, the rock.”

Shadow snaked his head past her hoof and snatched it with his mouth. He slid it out of the rock. It shined in the light that was around them. It was unavoidable as he put it away.

“What the hell is that?” Rebel Queen pressed.

Shadow sighed. “Its not from here.”

“Duh,” Rebel Queen spat, annoyed at his attempt to deflect it.

“I got it a long ways from here,” Shadow said. “Kifo Herixleta is not an Equestrian sword. Its a Zebra blade.”

“Enchanted?” Rebel Queen asked.

“Yes,” Nine said. “The blade was ice.”

Rebel Queen still wanted Shadow to answer. “Very enchanted. Which is why I keep the hilt and handle wrapped. It was a gift. And something many down here would kill to take from me.”

“Huh,” Rebel Queen said. “I can see why. I also see that you still used it, despite the risk of it’s exposure. Thank you. It’s secret will be kept. By everypony here. We will get cloth to cover it up again as soon as we can. But your bags hide it well.”

“Thank you,” Shadow replied, tipping his head. “And they do. Its taken some time and effort to position so its has a low profile, but can still be drawn with ease.”

“Yah’ll got that right, that blade doesn’t exist.”

They all swore themselves to secrecy. It was as good as Shadow could get from the additions.

Shadow walked out front with Rebel Queen. They were slow to follow after the sharp disruption in their midst.

“Yah did good,” Rebel Queen said quietly. “Yah did very good. And I appreciate the lengths you took. I assume your weird revolver is the same?”

“Yes,” Shadow said with a nod. “I was given them at the same time. Its a break action. And its got the standard Zebra flames enchantment.”

“Caliber? Its small.”

“Yeah, it is. But it shoots 44 Magnum.”

“I assume that’s really not true. It handles 44, and shoots a Zeb round?”

“Yeah,” Shadow chuckled. “44 Mag is probably what the case came from. Its 44 Zebra. I don’t have rounds with me. They are impossible to find in Equestria.”

“I bet, but don’t they work better, with the enchantment?”

“I…” Shadow was shocked. He hadn’t considered that. “I hadn’t thought about it. I was given the pieces without explanation. But they still hold secrets. It very well may. But I know that typically, revolvers hold enchantments better and stronger than semiautomatic pistols. So there is a chance it can’t tell. Unless, the cartridge itself was enchanted, but that isn’t the case.”

“I know why yah keep it secret. That blade is beautiful. She was something that I know I will never get to see again. Something more beautiful than anything I have ever seen. Again, thank you for not keeping it secret, when it was the best option.”

“Nine’s good at his job,” Shadow replied. “It would have been on my head if he died because I was afraid to use my weapons. I took it along for a reason. I didn’t expect it to be covered it toxic goop at the end, but yeah.”

Rebel Queen chuckled. “Did you blow your sword up to clean it?”

Shadow chuckled. “Yeah. But I never would have guess it was going to head right at the caravan. Or bury itself in a rock. I knew it was tough enough to handle the explosion, but that was new.”

“If each of those gems holds and enchantment, it must be damn near indestructible. Probably could be a legendary magical artifact.”

“Legendary what?” Shadow asked confused.

“Eh, you wouldn’t get pony history I am guessing. Your name and your sword’s name give me that suspicion. You say you are not from here, and that is proof. Yeah, Equestria had some old magical things. Cloaks, wizard staffs, and more secrets pieces from powerful ponies of the past. I assume the Zebras have their own.”

“I… wouldn’t know,” Shadow replied. “I… that never was discussed when I was growing up. What happened to those artifacts? I mean, if this is how things ended up, surely one of them could’ve helped during the war.”

“I don’t know that they weren’t. I don’t have a list. They were kept secret. Outside of their general existence. If they survived, the SRs probably retain their ownership. They do have Unicorns behind the scenes. But, that doesn’t mean them unies are capable of using em.”

“Yeah,” was all Shadow said.

Neither of them had more to say. They still walked side by side for the rest of the day. Shadow didn’t take watch. He needed the sleep. So did Nine.

Nine sat down next to Shadow at breakfast. “Mtoaji, why can’t I shake the feeling that, you are going to attract more trouble?”

“Probably because I have a habit of it,” Shadow quietly replied.

“Habit?” Nine quietly pressed.

“Well, more like it decides to find me. But, fate always favor me too. And it’s given me the skills I need to survive and thrive. Equestria called me here, and it protects me.”

“Why are you afraid of going to Filly alone?”

“Cause, it likes the taste of my blood.”

“Huh,” was all Nine said. He turned to his food and finished in silence.

The last three days were uneventful. They swung south, wide of Ponyville and down to cross over the Toxic Trench, over the train tracks, and then to New Appleloosa.

They spent three whole days in New Appleloosa. Shadow spent his time at an outdoor cafe, watching and listening. Just like he did in Trottingham. This small city had information. It had secrets which could not be kept. You just had to know how to listen. So he spent his time listening.

They lost most of their caravan. Two solo additions and the three with the brahmin continued on with them. It would be a five day trip up to their end point in west Fillydelphia. They would be crossing at a ford, south of the train tracks.

They called the split where the overturned cars were Junction R-7. It was a known Talon Company outpost. An all Griffin mercenary group. It was better to go around and leave them alone then try their luck.

The trip was relaxed until the third day. Again, something was watching them. Nine and Ace knew it as well. Despite their probes, they couldn’t pin down anything solid. The Talons didn’t play the fringes like their watcher was.

“Black Widow?” One of the additions asked.

“No,” Rebel Queen said. “Its not her style.”

“What is her style?”

“Its best left untold,” Rebel Queen said. “But its not her.”

“Talons?”

“Nah,” Shadow said. “They would be more direct. I’m not entirely certain that our watcher has ill will in mind. Its almost as if they just are watching.”

“That Pegasus group the Steel Rangers are hunting?”

“That’s a possibility,” Rebel Queen said. “But I doubt they still are around. They disappeared a long time ago. There were only two confirmed sightings of them, and another time they popped up in New Appleloosa, in between those sightings. They are gone. Dahlia might still be hunting them, but they are gone.”

Shadow was playing wide on their west flank as they moved forward on the last day. They were headed dead north. Shadow felt like he was back in a unit. The way they were taking up their positions as they moved forward were cohesive. It was something he never would have said guards, or even ‘soldiers’ should know. Not without training. It wasn’t the only military thing he had noticed. Especially with their number of additions down.

“Mtoaji,” Ace called. “Bring it in. One mile to go. No need to play it hard core. We are securely in Steel Ranger territory.”

Shadow came in with the others. It wasn’t so much that they were protected, it was more about making sure they didn’t give the Steel Rangers a problem with visitors snooping around places they shouldn’t be. The path was clear.

When Shadow finally saw two guards, in full armor, his heart rate spiked. He had to step a bit to the side and away from the others as he held his breath and forced his body to calm down. He was in control, not fear.

They stopped at the guards. One was a mare, the other a stallion.

“Rebel Queen,” The Mare said. “What have you brought with you.”

“I have five to trade, and one with business in the city.”

“Business?”

Rebel Queen looked at Shadow, and the Steel Ranger’s gaze followed. Shadow didn’t move.

“It’s private business,” Shadow said.

“There isn’t much here for private business,” The Stallion said. His suspicion was clear.

“Its a contact int the city.And a talk.”

Shadow could feel the concealed eyes of the Steel Rangers narrowing. “The rest of the city is a den of thieves and raiders.”

“And?” Shadow asked. “A lot is stolen. There is a lot to gain.”

They had no response to that.

“Come on,” The Mare said. “The trading post is this way. And its in need of new supplies.”

“Oh,” Shadow said, halting them. “Were you guys watching us the past few days?”

“No,” The Mare said. “We would have come outright. We don’t need to sneak around when it comes to traders. Especially for a few days.”

Shadow nodded and began walking east, along the south line of the Steel Ranger territory. They were on the fringes of the city’s suburban forest. Stable-Tec headquarters was to the north. He had a good idea of how to get to the Operators, from the last time they were here. There were only so many central locations gangs could put up good holdings in the city. Even less with the Disciples and Steel Rangers warring against each other.

Rebel Queen left the additions at the trading post. It was still serving its purpose after all of the years. During the war, it had been a small market that served the suburban neighborhoods. Now it served all of the farms in the area.

Rebel Queen and her soldiers were brought into the city more, winding their way to the giant concrete building. It was a two story recruiting office and military post. It held more secrets, because nothing was simple.

They were forced to wait further back. A few paladins came out, along with the Elder.

“I have it,” Rebel Queen grinned while Three pulled out a locked, metal case. “I got you the request. It wasn’t an easy fight, but we secured it.”

Before he could respond, a noise distracted them.

“Prod me one more time and I will snap your neck! And I can even with the suit!”

“Shut up and move!”

Rebel Queen sighed, frustrated. “That would be Mtoaji. But why Dahlia is corralling him here, I have no idea. He had business elsewhere.”

They came around the corner and Shadow saw Rebel Queen and what was obviously the Elder. The building was clearly military, and he instantly knew it held bunkers below. But he doubted an actual stable had been built under it. It was a convenient power play if you were were ableto keep poniesfrom getting too close. And even a good bunker underneath was more than enough to scare off most attackers.

It probably had its own clean water system, hydroponics lab, and firing range. Everything they would need for survival. It just wasn’t build by Stable-Tec or with their trademark door.

“What is going on?” The Elder asked Dahlia.

Shadow got pushed again, without a reason other than to shove him. He steeled his front legs as he brought his rear in from the push. He let his abs do all the work as he contracted in. Before they knew what was happening, he struck, pushing back out and sweeping the legs of the Dragoon who had shoved him.

The Dragoon went down easily. Shadow ended his follow through perpendicular to Dahlia. He did a back spring, avoiding her guns that she trained on him. He landed in a roll and skipped to Rebel Queen’s side.

“STAND DOWN!” The Elder ordered. “What the fuck is going on!”

Shadow ignored him and looked at Rebel Queen. “It was Dahlia tracking us.”

Rebel Queen’s eyes flashed with anger. “Of course it was.”

Rebel Queen looked at the Elder. “Mtoaji here is good at surviving, but is no danger to us.”

“Crusader,” The Elder growled. “Explain yourself.”

Dahlia straightened up. “Mtoaji, as he is known, is the prime suspect for being Black Widow.”

Rebel Queen broke out laughing, unable to stay serious. “Mtoaji is a stallion. Black Widow is a mare.”

“That can be faked,” Dahlia fired back.

“And a confirmed Unicorn,” Rebel Queen finished. “Mtoaji is just a small Earth Pony. You can’t fake that.”

“You have never seen Black Widow,” Dahlia shot back. “And it’s my job to bring her to justice.”

“Neither have you,” Rebel Queen stated. “I got caught up on the news in Trottingham. Just like you did.”

“Mtoaji is still my prime suspect.”

The Elder sighed. “Suspect or not, why did you bring him here?”

“Because Elder, he was snooping around our perimeter.”

“You hunted me for three blocks,” Shadow spat. “You have been stalking us for three days as well. Its pathetic the lengths you are going after me over a suspicion. You still have no evidence in any way. At least none that you have given me.”

“What evidence do you actually have?” The Elder pressed.

“Mtoaji shows up out of nowhere, and proves to be an expert combatant. He wiped out the Hawks in Trottingham, without a second thought and on his own. He won several events at the Trottingham Exposition as well. He will only elude to seeking out something.”

Dahlia’s tone got mean. “For the protection of his home.”

“Fuck you!” Shadow spat. “My business out here is my own to keep. Stay out of it like I stay out of yours.”

“And where is it?”

“You think my parents decided to be mean and name me something foreign for shits and giggles? My name has more meaning than you can understand. I don’t lie when I say I am not from here. There is no point in lying about it when your name isn’t Equestrian.”

Dahlia snorted a laugh. “It’s still avoiding the question.”

Shadow was done with her mocking. “I don’t need your shit. That’s all you do, shit!”

“Hey! I hunt the dark things in the wasteland! Be that pony, or creature. I keep the dark places lit. Have you ever had to hunt down a pack of Hellhounds? Its not easy. Its danger is higher than you could understand.”

Shadow lost himself in laughter. “What, 12 Hellhounds?”

“14,” Dahlia growled.

“Star Paladin Warding Blade, Knight Yellow Quarts, and I just took out twice that, breaking up a large group that had come south and was threatening the whole area. And they were armed. I finished them off with a shot over a mile and a half long, killing their leader.

“And that included plenty of close combat. I slew them with my knife at times. I killed one in hoof to hoof combat. And both of them can attest to it. You may hunt the dark things and do a good job, but that doesn’t mean what you always hunt are the right things.”

“Have you ever killed a Star-Spawn?”

“Enough,” The Elder ordered. “Crusader. I know your job. You directly work for me after all. But enough. Unless he turns his guns against us, leave him be. If Star Paladin Warding Blade finds him a friend, I will not argue against that.”

“I can’t confirm that mission,” Dahlia replied.

“I can,” Rebel Queen growled. “At least the fact that he went on a high profile mission with the Star Paladin. I was in town when he got back. I saw them pass through the gate together. And Trottingham has its gossipers. The threat of the Hellhounds was hot news, along with their massacre.”

The Elder shook his head at Dahlia. “You need to think. Now, he has come to our very doorstep. Something few know specifics on. Let that sink in while you and your team cool off for a few days.”

“Yes Sir,” Dahlia said, saluting.

She kept her head up high, but it was obvious it hurt her as she led her Dragoons into the building.

“Nice, bunker,” Shadow said. “A bit far from Filly to run a strong front out of, but you can easily protect the farmers from here. And that is more important.”

“We have our forward command centers,” The Elder said. “But Dahlia brought up something of interest to me. You have business here. And its not with us or the farmers. I can’t let you leave from here without knowing where you are going.”

Shadow gave an understanding nod. “First, I have a question for Rebel Queen. Or is it Paladin Rebel Queen?”

Rebel Queen sighed. “When did you figure it out? We have never had anypony get close to the idea, let alone guess.”

“Eh, the others are dealing with keeping up and carrying their gear. It was nuances that added up. I wasn’t going to ask, until Dahlia brought me here.

“The biggest hint was that you had the same tents. No big deal since its known you make direct deliveries to them. But the really obvious thing was when I was working with you. It wasn’t guards, we were too military in the formations. Especially how we were handling Dahlia stalking us. It reminded me of the times I worked in our groups. Back when it wasn’t just me out here, searching.”

“Yah,” Rebel Queen replied. “I’m Paladin in rank. We’re procurement specialists. Ace is a Crusader n Jack a Knight. Three is ma Senior Scribe and Seven s still young, Journeyer Scribe. We go out an get what the Contingent needs. Usually, its general goods that are harder to find. This time, we actually were huntin somethin special.

“If we were a group of 8, like ah real Crusader would command, we would be too military an be picked out immediately. I know yah know how information can save yer neck. And that secrets can give you a edge. Just enough info, so that others know yah legit, but after that, need to know.”

“You have your answer,” The Elder said. “What business do you have in the city.”

“Actually,” Shadow grinned. “You can help me out. I need to talk with the Operators.”

“The raider gang?” The Elder asked shocked.

“Yeah,” Shadow said, hesitating. “They recently robbed a caravan. I’m not after specific goods. A business pony, well, I’m being paid a lot to give them a contract to go legitimate. Caravan guards who earn their caps through sweat and labor. With the Disciples big push, they might be willing to jump ship. Abandon their raiding and work for the caps they love so much. Worth a shot, right?”

“That’s a long shot,” Rebel Queen stated, surprised. “But, ifet gurts rid of a gang, why not?”

“That’s my thoughts,” Shadow replied.

“That’s ah big risk on yah head,” Rebel Queen added.

Shadow just replied with a nod.

“I hate saying it,” The Elder began. “I really think they should be prosecuted for their crimes. But that’s death. We know their crimes. If they choose to be caravan guards, I will put my approval for their safe change. But if they walk away from it, and turn back…”

“Death,” Shadow finished. “I’ll convey it strongly to them. Do you have their location?”

“A year ago, they were closer to the Disciples. They survived that battle, and then another right after to take over a hotel. Its the tallest building, on the south side.

“Be careful. A lot of gangs have gone missing this past year. The Kings died mysteriously. The Operators killed the Blades. The Fiends fragmented, half becoming the Red Rebels while the others joined the Disciples.”

“You are loosing your buffer,” Shadow said solemnly. “You had turned them to your advantage, but its disappearing, and fast.”

The Elder just nodded his head.

“Rebel Queen,” Shadow said. “You are departing on the fourth morning, correct?”

“Yep,” She smiled. “Back to NA then Trot. Not sure after that. We’ll know more once we gurt equipment orders.”

Shadow turned to leave. A Knight was assigned to escort him through their territory. He brought him to the edge, and to the best place for Shadow to head out to find the Operators. Shadow only got a short way before he barricaded himself in for the night.

He was in a building with several floors. The only thing still left for the floors above was the elevator shaft. Shadow used it to get his wings a lot of well deserved work. Safe work.

In the morning, He was out and moving though the streets carefully. Things were shifting and the territory lines didn’t always exist as they used to. Shadow played it very safe and found their lines late on the second day. He retreated to hold up in a nearby spot. Night recon was too risky.

A large battle erupted in the middle of the night. To the north. It kept going all night and into the early morning.

Shadow stepped outside and took a deep breath in. The city stunk. The blood spilled was in the air. Shadow steeled himself and moved out. He moved around their lines a bit until he saw the best point of entry.

“Hello,” Shadow called.

The stallion’s rifle was lazily raised at him. He was wearing simple iron armor over a suit. And he had ammo belted around him with a magazine tucked inside.

“I hear you are the Operators,” Shadow continued. “I am here to talk with your leader.”

“You’re heavily armed,” The Stallion said. “What’s to say you are not here to kill her.”

“Have you tried to get around in this city?” Shadow asked. He knew it was a stupid question, but it was rhetorical. “You don’t make it anywhere in this land without being armed. And this city, yeah. No, you can’t be sure. But I didn’t kill you. I am here to talk about a business opportunity. A profitable one.”

He narrowed his eyes at Shadow for a bit. He was intrigued.

“Fine, follow me. But, I’ll keep mah rifle on you. And some distance.”

“Perfectly reasonable choice,” Shadow smiled.

He was given several commands to turn at streets. They passed a few others on the way in, all dressed in a similar fashion. Shadow found himself at the hotel. But he wasn’t going in. Not yet anyway. They had plenty of rifles ready to shoot him if stepped out of line.

The front of the hotel had their symbol. It was on a canvas banner over the door. A scope’s sight, with a heart in the center, with three clean bullet holes, including their blood drips. But unlike the Disciples who had their markings everywhere, they kept it simple, almost sophisticated.

After a few minutes, a Unicorn mare came out. She too was wearing a steel plate body and wrapped in an ammo belt that formed an X on her chest. Under the steel armor was a nice checkered suit. The back part of her golden mane was pulled into a short tail, but she had the main part flipped up and over, accentuating her mane’s natural volume and luster.

“I’m the leader of the Operators, ‘Mags’ Black. What does the likes of you want with me?”

Mags was obviously a play on her avoidance of magazines, opting for an impractical ammo belt.

“I have a business proposition,” Shadow stated. “My name is Mtoaji, and I am representing a respected caravan owner, Jaborosa. He owns The Hive Caravan. He knows about you because you hit one of his recently.”

“The world really only cares about one thing, profit. He should have hired better guards if we hit it.”

Shadow chuckled a smile. “He isn’t mad. He is the one with a business proposition for you.”

“I’m not sure what business we can provide,” Mags stated. “But a profit is a profit. Speak.”

“That’s what I was hoping to hear. I have the full contract in my bags here.”

Shadow pulled out the envelope and she levitated it out of his hoof. She didn’t open it, wanting to hear him speak first.

“My job was only to deliver it,” Shadow said. “But its proposition is clear. You know the caps here are drying up. Fast. Gangs are getting knocked out or absorbed by the Disciples. And it is making it hard to do anything, especially since the Steel Rangers are on the other side, putting pressure on you.

“Jaborosa needs caravan guards. Walk out of here. Leave the raiding ways behind, and earn caps guarding his caravans. He pays well. And you get to be yourself. Mostly. You still carry your guns, you still get to operate for a profit.

“The Steel Ranger Elder here, we ended up having a chat. To get to you I had to talk with him. Not optimal. But he will let you pass. No prosecution if you leave all of the raiding ways behind. Go legit, and never go back. And it won’t be held against you.

“Become the best caravan guards this wasteland has ever seen. Make your profit, swim in the caps. And fuck, if anypony or thing tries to jump the caravan, have your fun killing them. You don’t have to leave that part behind. Because yeah, it can be fun to kill those who want to harm you. Just, don’t take it too far into raider methods. Because if you backslide, one step out of line, its over.”

“Ha!” Mags laughed. “Do you see this place? Do you smell here? Its clean! There are no bodies, there are no piles of shit laying around. We are not savages like the Disciples are. We are highly efficient in our operations. Don’t waste anything. Bullets cost money.

“I’m going to take this inside and talk with my brother and co-conspirator, Dizzy.”

Mags went back inside and Shadow waited outside. He could leave. But he was interested in how it would play out.

Rifle fire opened up nearby, a block or two north of them. Shadow looked at the stallion who brought him in and they dashed off with several others. They saw two dead operators, one had a Disciple standing over the body. The knife was dripping fresh blood.

Shadow shot her in the head without thinking and he dashed forward to where the others were retreating. The Operators took positions on their defensive line and checked their dead comrades.

Shadow skidded into the middle of the street. The six Disciples were visible as they rushed away. They were past 100 yards. Shadow put each down with three shots. He wanted to make sure they were down.

Shadow trotted forward, making sure they were not hiding anywhere. An Operator joined him. They ransacked the Disciples’ bodies of the few caps and the ammo they had. Three had rifles and all had their pistols. But none had much in way of ammunition. All of their crappy knives were taken as well.

They headed back to the hotel. Mags was waiting outside with a stallion and a younger mare.

“So, what did they do this time?”

Another Operator answered. “Jumped two guards. Slashed their throats. He cleanly gunned them down.”

The guns and knives were tossed in a pile at Mags’ feet. The ammo and caps joined them. Shadow took nothing.

“Not bad,” Mags smiled at him. “If you were more concerned with profit, you would make a fine Operator.”

Shadow smirked. “I have my own operation I am running. It just so happens that this contract, well, it worked to my favor to take it. I doubt any others would risk these ruins to find you.”

“Dizzy won’t get to conduct some of her chemistry experiments, but we accept. Anypony who doesn’t want to leave can join the Disciples, or hunt down The Pack. We are taking the name with us.

“You, small pony, are right. Things are no longer profitable here. And this gives us a solid market to reap from. Guarding Caravans isn’t glorious, but neither is this weakening existence. That’s the Disciples’ third attack this week. And that is the first time we have drawn their blood. Or more correctly, you spilled it, so we are still in the red.

Mags smiled at Shadow. “Now, how are you getting back to Trottingham?”

“Its going to be slow,” Shadow warned. “But I am joining a caravan that went from Trottingham to New Appleloosa, and then to the Fillydelphia farmer’s market. They are heading back in the morning. So I was going to have to push to get back. Its following the standard trails.”

Mags smiled coyly. “We may catch up with you then. It wouldn’t be a bad way to get used to a new life. It won’t take us long to pack. We don’t have much left after the Disciples booted us.”

Shadow left them to pack and he moved out. He chose to head south and then run in the open fields. It kept him safer. Nopony could jump him. He could be easily spotted, but it was an acceptable trade off.

Shadow got back late, and bedded down with the other additions outside of the market. He never even bother to set up his tent as he napped until the morning.

“You’re back,” Rebel Queen smiled as she came up to them in the morning. “Well?”

“Business was profitable,” Shadow smiled back. “We might gets some new associates joining us”

Rebel Queen nodded and they began the trek back. All of the additions were empty. They had sold it all. From what Shadow could tell, it was worth it to them. The farms rarely had anything to sell back.

A few hours later, they saw a group milling around in the middle of the road. They didn’t have much. Shadow trotted out ahead, just to be safe.

All together, there were 15. They had looked a lot bigger in the ruins than that. They may have lost some. But 15 would explain why they accepted that change rather quickly. They were being hunted, for sport.

“Looks like we were on time,” Mags smiled. “Because we don’t know these roads like we should. I guess, that will be changing.”

Shadow looked back at the others. They had wisely stopped. Rebel Queen was making her way out to them.

“Are you the additions?” She asked.

“Mags,” Mags smiled. “Mags Black. And these, we are the Operators. This proposition was a lot more profitable than what we could sustain in Fillydelphia. So we are taking the job as caravan guards. I hope us joining you won’t be a problem.”

“Mind your manors,” Rebel Queen replied. “I have one rule. You have to stay with the group and follow my instructions. You can only leave when we get to cities or towns. No leaving in the night. No walking too slow. No moving too fast. You step off to shit, you let me know. Capiche?”

“Simple enough,” Mags replied. “Lets get a move on it.”

New Appleloosa almost shot all of them. Rebel Queen barely got them to stand down. The Operators description was known, and even with the Elder’s stamp of approval, the change didn’t go over well.

Their group got even bigger as they left. Six more joined them, carrying a lot of goods. And the others made purchases in an attempt to gain a better profit. Heading back to Trottingham empty was stupid. The Operators didn’t try playing the caravan profit game. Not yet anyway.

They were a large caravan as they left New Appleloosa. It was a risk being so big. But most of the members were there to guard. That balanced things out in their favor.

Shadow was on second watch. Something was bugging him, again. But he couldn’t pin it down. There was no sign of anything. And that is what was giving him the most trouble. Something was there.

The brahmin snorted and one got to its feet. They smelled it too.

“Hey, whoa,” Three said, trying to calm the brahmin.

Shadow stepped over to Three. They had woken Three, so something was up.

“Mtoaji, what is it?” Three quietly asked Shadow.

“I don’t know,” Shadow whispered back. “But they are sensing it too.”

“We are big,” Three said. “Its not raiders. I’ll wake the others.”

Shadow sat down at the tents with the others. None of them had been on watch.

“What is it?” Rebel Queen asked.

“I don’t know,” Shadow said. “But now the brahmin are spooked.”

“This area, it could be anything,” Ace said. “But most likely, not raiders. We are big, but we are not heavy. Most are armed with rifles thanks to the Operators.”

“Has anypony felt anything watching us?” Three asked. “I know the brahmin haven’t been spooked until now.”

Three had to get up to quiet them as their second brahmin got up.

“Damn animals,” Jack swore. “They have a better sense than we do. The night could be hiding anything. And its not going to go away. If its a creature of the night, its almost done stalking us.”

They all got up and fanned out. The third brahmin got up and ‘mooed’. That woke everypony up. The rest of the Operators were at arms instantly.

“Its alright,” Rebel Queen said quietly, trying to control things. “We don’t know what is up, but we are going to figure it out.”

Mags Black sent a group out to poke around and a few others fell under Nine’s command. Rebel Queen and Shadow headed out with Ace, with Jack took the two guards for the addition’s brahmin with him.

They were a good fifty yards from camp when they stopped to just survey the dark land. They saw nothing.

“Just the usual,” Shadow sighed. “Night, trees, rocks, and stars. Not even scurrying rabbits.”

“Stars?” Rebel Queen gulped, backing up so they were side by side.

“Yeah,” Shadow said. And then it hit him. The stars were not visible here. “Shit.”

“Okay,” Rebel Queen said panting. “I see them. That is definitely a Star-Spawn.”

“That’s a lot of stars,” Shadow whispered back.

“Got anything in that hat of yours?”

“Uh… not anything that will deal a killing blow. Or make a decisive strike. I mean, I left the anti-machine rifle home.”

“You might not make it back.”

“Yeah, I don’t regret not carrying it though. Look, we have numbers on it. I hope its alone. Douse the fires, spread out,drop the brahmin packs, and cut them loose. And just shoot the fucking stars.”

“Good enough for me,” Rebel Queen whispered back.

They calmly got back to the camp. The others had gotten back as well. It wasn’t hard to organize the four pronged attack. The unskilled additions would be the rear prong, just shooting. While the other three squads would be directly assaulting it and trying to pull it in three different directions at once.

“That’s a surprise,” Mags said as Nine and Jack pulled out a rocket launcher and put a minigun on Ace.

“We hold a lot back,” Rebel Queen said quietly. “Better safe than sorry. Mtoaji, I have a plan. You and I are going to be another group. We will try and get behind it.”

Shadow nodded and they split to their decided locations. Their movement was noticed and as the lights were doused, they were struck with a thunderous roar. The force reminded Shadow of the back half of Marble Falls’ wind tracks. Powerful blast that would knock apart most Enclave teams.

The Brahmin were never released as Ace opened up with his minigun. Jack let the first missile go as they moved to flank it. Every group opened fire, except for Rebel Queen and Shadow.

They were trying to get around it. It was impossible to see where exactly it was. The night was to their advantage, barely. The ground explode in front of them as a limb slammed into it. Shadow and Rebel Queen slammed right into it, getting knocked back hard.

Shadow shook his head to stop his vision from splitting. His wings were begging to be unleashed. But they were not in that much trouble, yet.

Shadow saw the limb get picked up. He drew Kifo Herixleta and iced the blade as he dashed under it. Shadow jumped up, ramming the sword skyward. He was a lot closer than he expected and it went all the way to the hilt.

The thing’s roar was terrifying, but conveyed the pain it was feeling. A second rocket was launched, exploding in the sky as it found it’s mark. Ace reloaded their last 500 rounds and let go. They could tell it was turning.

The power and size was impressive. Shadow did several back springs away from the limb. He narrowly avoided a flying tree trunk it had swiped their way. Rebel Queen opened up a dozen yards away, but it had found it’s target. Shadow was all it wanted.

Shadow stared back at it. He knew it was right there. He was trying to see the pattern, not just a mass of sparkles. The real stars had a pattern. This had to have one as well.

It roared again, into the sky, as it tried to use it’s stabbed paw. Shadow saw the mouth for a split second and tracked it. His mind traced the stars like he had done countless times above. Except this time, he was seeing a grand creature that was as deadly as it was beautiful.

He saw the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mouth. And then he saw the head. Shadow forgot to breath as he realized the full scale of it. He saw the definition between the body and the limbs and where the curves ‘folded’ to adjust for how its body was positioned.

Shadow saw the step. It shook the ground and splintered a full grown tree. Shadow closed his eyes and let the wooden shrapnel hit him. He opened his eyes. He lost the profile. Then it shifted and saw what he needed to again.

“MOVE!” Rebel Queen yelled to Shadow. “Mtoaji! Its coming right for you!”

A rocket exploded, but Shadow couldn’t see it’s strike. It was on the backside.

Shadow grinned. He let the thing open it’s mouth and move to bite him. Shadow drew Mwokozi’s revolver and put all six rounds down it’s throat.

It roared back, knocking Shadow away from it’s power. But the rounds did what they needed to. Shadow stood and reloaded. He slammed it shut and all six rounds drove home in it’s left eye. Reload. Shadow put the rounds into it’s ear.

It turned it’s head to face him and swipe at him. Shadow put all six rounds into it’s right eye. It roared but the paw didn’t stop coming.

Shadow was hit, hard. But he was cupped in it’s paw. Which meant he was going to go flying. As he was launched, a claw caught his chest, going right through his armor. It was ripped off of him and he was gashed along his chest.

Shadow sailed straight towards a group of trees. His wings were free and he used them. The gash stopped him from breathing, but he was able to use his wings to make all of the quick, sharp, turns the group of trees required.

Shadow ground to a stop and then face planted. He rolled over and then stumbled up, screaming in agony. They had equally torn each other apart. Shadow fell again. He unzipped a bag to get his med kit. His armored jacket had been ripped off, but his saddlebags were not connected to it. He slammed the Med-X needle into his flank and put it all in him. He would fight with a high.

Shadow pulled out a health potion and stumbled as the Med-X took effect. It could only dull so much pain, but it was hitting his head hard. He forced himself to concentrate. He took things one step at a time. He downed the health potion. Step one down.

Step two was find his revolver. He would be finding a lot of things. Shadow put his hoof out and reached. It finally leaped to his hoof like the sword would. He had never tried it with the revolver. It was not linked in the same way the sword was to the band. But it had worked.

Shadow moved towards the fight. It was fierce. They were not giving up. And it was having trouble figuring out what was going on. Damaged eyesight made it difficult for it to run. Shadow stepped onto his cloak. He picked it up. The badge wasn’t on it so He tied it on. That gave his wings some cover.

But his heart stopped beating. There was nothing else around his neck. Nothing. He necklace was gone. The beast had ripped his very life from his neck.

Shadow felt a blood lust rising that he had never felt before. He was done messing around. It was going to die. He opened his wings and then stumbled in bloody agony as his chest ripped open more. There was no flying with his chest. Shadow struggled to his hooves and began to trot forward, back to the battle. Screams were joining the gunfire. Screams were never good.

Shadow could still pick it out. Once you knew what it looked like, it was it was hard to forget. Or, maybe that was just his training, being so well honed. The ACUs required recognizing something at blinding speeds and continuing to read it.

Shadow put a full load into it’s side. It roared into the sky and stamped around to face him. The sword wasn’t in its paw. Shadow fired, reloaded, and yelled a rallying battle cry to get it’s full attention.

He had it and he put six more rounds into it’s snout. As it stamped forward Shadow put six more into it’s left eye. He saw the spark of a flame flicker the hits. Shadow put six into its chest and trotted to the side so it crashed by harmlessly.

Shadow put another six into its butt, right at the only star that mattered in that area. It howled in pain and lost the use of it’s back legs.

Rebel Queen slid up to Shadow. “Mtoaji, how the fuck are you alive?”

“I’m not dead?” Shadow playfully asked. “Got any 44?”

“Uh,” She stuttered. “No?”

“Left saddlebag. I need you to be my loader.”

“Uh,” Rebel Queen muttered as she unzipped the bag.

Shadow broke open the revolver and the cases shot out, surprising Rebel Queen. She recovered and expertly put six rounds in. They began to circle the Star-Spawn as Shadow put round after around, all around it’s body. He was going to make sure it burned. It was at least responding to those shots.

Shadow stopped when he had 24 rounds left. He had circled the thing once again. Most of it’s noises were sad groans, cries of agony as its life slipped away.

Shadow fell against Rebel Queen. He coughed. “My chest is ripped open. But I need to find my necklace. Its my life.”

Rebel Queen was shocked and stammered. “Ah, how big is it?”

“Small. A tiny heart. Half of one. They pair up with my wife’s.”

“Lets get you patched up,” Rebel Queen stammered as she looked around at the flattened land.

“One of my bags has all I need. I took a potion and Med-X already. Just bandage me up.

She dragged Shadow back to their tent and laid him in hers. Three expertly removed Shadow’s battle saddle and saddlebags. Shadow was out of, falling prey to the lack of blood. But that wasn’t what drew their eyes.

Rebel Queen elbowed Three. “Patch him up!”

Three nodded and grabbed Shadow’s saddlebag. Shadow had a stitch kit was in there, along with a set of Magical bandages. Three was happy to see them. They didn’t have a stitch kit with them. The minigun took precedence. That would be changing.

Rebel Queen gathered the others. “We lived. Barely. But we all walked out. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Mtoaji?” Mags asked concerned.

“A nasty gash along the chest, but he walked off being bitch slapped by it. And he has a good chance at walking away in the end. But Mags, I need you to take everypony and head that way. The train tracks are that way. Once you hit them, follow them west. We never had time to release the brahmin. Take them all and just go. Go as long as you can. We will be coming up behind you.”

“I’m staying, with two others. But the Operators have this. My brother is more than competent at leading this.”

Mags didn’t fully trust them after they pulled out a hidden rocket launcher and minigun.

“Alright, then, Mtoaji was screaming about a necklace. His life he called it. Its a small half heart thing.”

“That’s helpful,” Mags said sarcastically. “But we will search it out.”

They got to work. Seven and Jack fanned out as well.

Shadow awoke a little after the sun had begun to force its way though. He coughed up blood.

“Easy, easy,” Three coached. “Take this.”

Shadow couldn’t see straight, but he knew it was a health potion. He grabbed it and Three made sure he didn’t spill it as he downed it. His head was pounding.

“Water,” Shadow panted.

Three passed Shadow one of his canteens and Shadow took a big gulp.

Shadow panted, not laying back down.

“We need to move,” Shadow finally said.

“They already have. All of the civilians and most of the Operators have. Its just us, Mags and two Operators.”

“I need my necklace,” Shadow groaned.

“We are looking for it,” Three said. “Just stay here, I will get Rebel and Mags.”

Shadow was in a lot of pain.

“Hello Mtoaji,” Rebel Queen smiled and sat down in front of him. “We are still looking for your sword and that necklace. Mind, uh, explaining things to us?”

“Huh? Well, I can get the sword back, easy, but the necklace. Its one of a kind. Matches only with my wife’s.”

“Anything else?”

It hit Shadow that he wasn’t wearing anything and his chest was wrapped tightly with bandages. His wings were fully exposed. And he didn’t have anything to fight his way out. It would require words. Careful words.

Shadow groaned a sigh. “Kifopiga.”

“Kite what?” Mags asked.

“Ki-foe-pee-gha,” Shadow said slowly. “Do either of you know it?”

“No,” Rebel Queen said. “What is it?”

“The answer.” Shadow took a deep breath in, through the pain as his chest expanded against the wound and let it out. “Its what matters for me and my home. The Steel Rangers have no fucking clue what it is either.”

“I know they are Steel Rangers,” Mags said. “No secrets. You can speak clearly now.”

“How did you figure it out?” Rebel Queen asked.

Mags shrugged. “Its what I do. Its how we have lived this long. You can’t make a profit if you can’t read the game. It helped the minigun ammo can has their symbol on it. It might have been dark, but I’m not blind.”

“Shit,” Rebel Queen swore. “I forgot about the ammo cans.”

“Dahlia?” Three asked.

“Is a fucking idiot,” Shadow groaned. “She would kill me if she knew. Its just you guys here. Otherwise, I think I am safe. Without you knowing Kifopiga, you can’t help me get what I need to so I can go home and keep it safe.

“Its knowledge you don’t have. Trottingham Contingent doesn’t have it either. I know that for certain. And its knowledge some would hoard.

“I scavenge for caps to survive, but those trips send me all across this forsaken land, looking for it. I’ll pick up work, like that contract delivery or with the Star Paladin, to keep that sack full.

“We can’t survive for long without it. I was blessed and sent out. But time is running short.”

“You took down that Star-Spawn,” Rebel Queen said, still shocked.

Shadow heard a word in his head.

“Where is my revolver?”

Rebel Queen pulled it out of Shadow’s Saddlebags and gave it to him. Shadow took it with the band. They hadn’t seen it before.

“Your name,” Shadow said to the revolver. “Its Nyotaki. Star Killer. I hear you now. It is good to know your name.”

“Okay,” Rebel Queen said leaning back. “I get talking to your gun. Even I’ve done that. But hearing it speak, that’s a whole different thing. And then knowing Zebra, that’s a whole level of weird I can’t even put on a scale.”

Shadow chuckled and then groaned in pain. “I’m not fluent. I know some. Its a whole, big, complicated thing. I know some, but its lost. At least to my home.”

Shadow stood up despite the others vocal disapproval.

“I’m up,” Shadow said. “A bit shaky, but yeah. I’m a farmer. We get hurt, and as soon as we can get back to doing what we can. No down time for minor shit.”

“I can get surviving,” Rebel Queen said shaking her head. “But you got bitch slapped by it’s paw.”

“Nah,” Shadow said, waving it off with a wing. That gesture confused the others. “Its so big the wind resistance is massive. It scooped me up and tossed me at high speed. I would have been fine, but it’s claw caught me.”

Shadow slowly walked over to the sparkling mound. It was much harder to see in the light.

“Its got a pattern to the stars,” Shadow said. “I’m not sure if its the same for all, but once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Its how I shot it in the mouth, then the eyes, the ear, up the snout, down the butt. Like the butt butt part.”

“You shot it in its shitter?” Mags asked.

Shadow chuckled quietly. “Yeah. It wasn’t happy.”

Shadow stood at it’s head. “Where did my jacket and clothes go?”

“We recovered them over there,” Mags said, pointing. “But a search of the area didn’t reveal the necklace.”

Shadow stretched out his foreleg and concentrated. After a minute he relaxed. “The sword is in its paw. It stepped down on it, ramming it inside. Where is my long combat knife?”

Three came back with both knives.

“This one,” Shadow said, grabbing it with the band.

“What is it?” Mags asked. “How do you hold it I mean.”

“A rare piece,” Shadow said, sighing as the memories flooded back. “The only one we knew of. Its from the sword. But it also latches onto the revolver and this Zebra bayonet combat knife.”

“That explains the hole in the guard,” Mags said.

“Yep,” Shadow nodded. “It fits on all standard Zebra infantry guns. They loved to have a long blade for combat. Equestria wasn’t raised with blades the same way. So their combat knives were short and their skills, lacking.

“I’d love to say this band is why they were so much better, but no one had the bands. It was a rare item, that was more like a myth and a legend to the average soldier. A way to hold the sword on your hoof, well its only doable with Zebra magic.”

Shadow sliced open the paw of the Star-Spawn. It didn’t move. It was dead. Shadow dug the blade in further and sliced more back. He stuck the knife in the ground and called to Kifo Herixleta. It slid out with a pop.

“There you are,” Shadow smiled to it. “It is good to have you back. Do you know where my necklace is?”

Shadow could feel how annoyed Kifo Herixleta was about their exposure. Shadow was working to play the Zebra homeland angle. The more he made it look like Mtoaji was really a foreigner from the south, the less they would be looking at his wings.

“What did it say?” Rebel Queen asked.

“Eh,” Shadow shrugged, groaning from the pain. “Its pissed off we got found out.”

“It’s pissed?” Rebel Queen asked, very concerned for Shadow’s mental health.

Shadow capitalized off of that concern. “Yeah. You haven’t heard of soul jars before?”

“A what jar?” Mags asked. Shadow could see the caps in her eyes.

“More Zebra magic. Kifo Herixleta is old. Ancient. Given to those chosen by the seers when it was first forged. The very essence of a master swordszebra was placed inside the center gem. From there, it can instruct and guide each and every generation it is passed onto. It knows who it will be given to and only speaks to those who were chosen. Otherwise its a piece of steel and none of it works. The sword would rather die than fight for someone else. And it will.”

“Makes sense,” Mags said. She was accepting it faster than the Steel Rangers. And they had seen Kifo Herixleta’s beauty the week before.

Shadow heard Kifo Herixleta just say ‘paw.’ “Oh, have you guys checked the paw that hit me?”

“I don’t know which paw that was,” Rebel Queen said. “But soul jar?”

“A powerful, dark, art. Immortality in a way. It locks away a piece of the soul and thus sealing the individual to that item. Gemstones are a lot easier to fuse than any other material. And if the item is forged with the stone, they are one.

“Its a dark art. For good reasons. And, Unicorns can do it. Or have in the past. I’m sure you Steel Rangers have some items that have souls in them. Probably from before the war. But, the thing is useless without a wielder or partner. It just collects dust.”

Shadow smirked at them. “Still, don’t think that its… friendly. That depends on the soul used.”

“Well,” Rebel Queen said, trying to get her bearing. “Uh, paw?”

“That one,” Shadow said, pointing with Kifo Herixleta. A bit of goop fell off of it when he pointed. “Yeah, I know, we need to clean you off.”

It took four of them to move the paw. They began to pry apart the toes, avoiding the invisible crawls.

“There!” Shadow exclaimed, dashing in.

He pulled on it. The chain broke. He dove back in. There was cloth stuck in between the fur and the claw. Shadow has to brush it away until he found the pendent. The chain was shattered into three pieces, but he had the precious pendent.

He stumbled back and fell, writhing in pain. “Worth it,” Shadow groaned as they got him back to the tents. Shadow downed the last health potion he had with him and they gave him Med-X to sooth him.

Shadow awoke at dinner time. He groaned as he sat up. “We need to get to moving. Bone pickers will be coming for the body. Its not safe. I can move.”

Rebel Queen shook her head at him. “We have some things to take care of first. We took your sword to a steam nearby. The wraps are gone, again, but she is clean. And looking nice. We didn’t put her into the scabbard yet. We figured, you would know how to best do that. There has to be some ceremony with that style blade.”

“Yeah, there is,” Shadow groaned. “What else?”

“Well, all your clothes are torn to shreds. The broach survived, but the rest… You didn’t have a spare. And if you want to keep your wings secret, that wont happen.”

“Fuck,” Shadow groaned.

“Yeah, well, I have another question,” Rebel Queen continued. “You have seen the stars?”

“Yeah,” Shadow sighed. “I miss looking up at them every night. I miss tracing their designs in the sky. If you head south enough, you will find, the clouds are gone. Here, it is forsaken. Blocked from the stars and moon.”

“You said your necklace is your life. Is that a soul item?”

“No,” Shadow replied. “It just holds every memory I have of her. Every smell. Every unique and special thing that is her.”

“Are you part Zebra?”

Shadow’s eyes went wide. He had never expected that question to be asked.

“I’m all pony,” Shadow replied. “All pure blooded pony.”

“If you went above?”

“We know what happens if we go above,” Shadow slowly replied. “Death. They don’t hold the answer for us either. They don’t know what Kifopiga is.”

“Ace,” Rebel Queen called. “How much of a risk is it if we were to take him to the Citadel. Can we get in and get clothing, hiding his wings under that cloak of his?”

“That’s a big risk,” Ace said.

“Send me in,” Mags said. “I go into Trottingham, buy a shirt, and come back out to you guys. Me zipping in and out won’t be noticed like you will be.”

“That works,” Shadow said, standing up.

His footing was solid. He belted on his sword and picked up Kifo Herixleta. He had been carefully washed and honorably taken care of. He showed no sign of any wear. The same glint of a well oiled blade was still evident. Shadow routinely wiped it down with oil, but it was still holding after the battle. It was a magnificent blade.

Shadow crossed the blade across his body, slid it along, guiding the blade and aligning it before slipping it into it’s sheath in full ceremony. He did it slow so that they could see.

Shadow carried his weight fine. The health potion right after being struck had done a lot of immediate repair, saving his life and speeding his recovery. Three was an expert with the stitches and dressing wounds for travel.

Chapter 125 - Recovery and Recuperation

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Mags came back out to them with a shirt and pants. They were definitely a few sized too big. But it only mattered long enough to get Mtoaji back to his condominium.

Shadow had pulled his weight, but he was dragging. He wasn’t quitting, but the pain was evident.

“The city is in a big uproar about the whole thing,” Mags said after they got him dressed. “I figured, if they ask, the stuff is for everypony else, to cover up some wounds.”

“Good call,” Rebel Queen said. “Now, lets get him there quickly.”

They got Shadow into his apartment with little trouble. They were given space. They locked the door and focused on getting him taken care of. As they finished with undoing his bags the door was unlocked and Strawberry stepped in.

She squealed as Mags pointed her gun at Strawberry.

“I live here,” Strawberry said, backed against the wall.

“Quiet down Mags,” Shadow groaned. “She does. “That’s her bed behind the privacy screen. They look good.”

Mags lowered her gun.

“Strawberry,” Shadow said. “Go back to your job. They will get me in bed.”

“They have me covered,” Strawberry shot back. “We knew you had taken a hit, and a bad one from what we knew. Its good to see you alive. I can miss work a day or two to make sure you stay that way.”

“We have him,” Rebel Queen said with a smile.

“He needs constant care,” Strawberry said. “And he has done so much for me already. I will. You have stuff to do with the caravan and all. And I think its you who’s caravan guards are raising a riot in the city and the Mayor wants to see you about that.”

“Ugh,” Mags groaned. “I’ll get to it shortly. Please tell me they haven’t cause trouble.”

“Uhh,” Strawberry hesitated. “Two are cooling off in jail for drunken conduct.”

“Oh,” Mags shrugged. “That’s not as bad I was fearing.”

“Otherwise, their presence is just a big stir.”

“Strawberry,” Shadow groaned. “Go back to work. I trust them. They have been caring for me for the past few days.”

“Three and I will stay,” Rebel Queen said. “The couch is comfy enough. Ace, go with Mags and help sort that out. Jack, take the others and get the business done. And you, Strawberry, Three patched him up really well. We have a good grip on medical care. Probably better than the hospital here.”

“Well…” Strawberry hesitated. “I guess…”

“Its fine,” Shadow quietly said. “They will take good care of me. I’ll see you when you are done with your shift. If I’m awake.”

“Al… right,” Strawberry said.

She glanced back one more time as she opened the door. Shadow flashed her a reassuring smile.

“To bed,” Three said, guiding Shadow the last 20 feet.

They pulled off the clothes. He was bleeding again.

Shadow coughed in pain. “There is a bag in the closet. Its got more bandages and such.”

Three retrieved it.

“This is, more than expected,” Three said as he pulled out stuff.

A dozen magical bandages were set on the nightstand. Half a dozen more health potions were added, 8 Rad-aways, 4 RadSafes, and 4 PWTs, without the box. 9 syringes of Med-X were at the bottom. There even was one stitch kit. The last one Shadow had taken with him as he left. It was all the last of the medical supplies he had taken.

“My stock started strong,” Shadow said quietly. “I need to buy more.”

Three was shocked at how casual Shadow was. “This would make most guards drool. Fuck, its making me drool. Half of the meds that were with the whole caravan were in your bags.”

“I just do what I got to do,” Shadow replied.

“Let’s get you wrapped up. Before Strawberry returns. I get the feeling she doesn’t know.”

Shadow chuckled, causing a cough. “Just our little group. Which makes what, 9? That’s it.”

“Then that is how it will stay,” Rebel Queen said confidently.

They changed the bandages. The wound was mostly sealed, but there was still parts inside healing. They would be keeping an eye out for any internal bleeding. What they would do if things went south, that would be determined if it needed to be.

Rebel Queen sat on the edge of Shadow’s bed as he settled into slumber. She watched him sleep. She wasn’t sure what it was about him that had really caught her attention.

Maybe it was his fearlessness. He hadn’t backed down multiple times. The floaters, then in front of the Elder against Dahlia. He knocked the hooves out from one of her Dragoons then, tiny him beat power armor. To top it off, he went into Fillydelphia on a very dangerous mission to contact raiders. He somehow walked out of that, and with them in tow.

But the Star-Spawn, he was something else then. He was precise. He was focused. He was smart, out thinking the beast and then driving home it’s weaknes. She only knew a few who could do the same. And they all were Steel Rangers. Higher up Steel Rangers and real, top notch soldiers. He had said something in front of the Elder about a group, but it didn’t explain his top notch skill. Only his ability to use tactics and work in a group.

Rebel Queen slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her. Three was at the table, looking at the medical stuff Shadow had in his bag.

“This has been bugging me,” Three said, referencing the stitch kit. “I mean, this isn’t normal. We have ours, but they are not sealed like this. This is hermetically sealed. No markings though. A severe lack of markings. No list of what is inside, not even a general description for its intended purpose. And this Med-X, its in a new syringe. Produced recently.”

“What about the rest?” Rebel Queen asked.

“The health potions are old. With this newer equipment, I would have sworn it was made post war, but this is a MoP seal and manufacturing date. And these magical bandages are the same. Old. Well before the spells.”

“These tablets are odd too. These are one time use tablets, sealed against the elements. Not an old school bottle with tablets. They are more precious than that if they are individually packaged. But I have no idea what. Again, no markings.”

“Well,” Rebel Queen shrugged. “We shouldn’t snoop.”

“I won’t. We know he has a really valid reason for secrecy, but its intriguing. Its a riddle with the answer sleeping in that room. And that riddle won’t crack.”

Rebel Queen sat down at the workbench. Shadow’s body suit was still there, partially done. The pattern was there as well.

Three pressed the issue a bit more. “Do you get the feeling that, we got too much information? That he was working hard to hide something more.”

Rebel Queen shrugged as she took a closer look at his work. It was well crafted. Better than some wasteland pony. Better than many of the designers and others who work with cloth. It was better than half of the Steel Ranger scribes who worked with fabric.

“Yeah, he was. But he was forced to be thinking on his hooves, while he bled out or woke up from bleeding out. He wasn’t expecting to have to be unveiling secrets this deep. He was just trying to survive, while giving us as little information as possible.”

Three looked at Shadow’s battle saddle against the wall. “Think the sword actually talks to him?”

Rebel Queen smiled to herself. “Yeah, I do. I absolutely do. Soul Jars wasn’t a ploy. No, he was telling us the full truth on that. And I believe that sword is one. However it works. His sword was probably pissed at us too. He had little choice, but it was a big secret. Can you imagine what our Elder would say?”

“Fuck. We would get in big trouble for letting him walk away with it. That’s not something that is safe to leave in the hooves of others. We saw where that got us with the war.”

Rebel Queen nodded solemnly. “Our Elder would be mad. But yes, I trust him with it. We saw that twice, it was used to save us. He doesn’t draw it lightly. And he risked it, and then he lost that gamble.”

“Yeah,” Three said, fidgeting with the health potion in his hooves. “We won’t let that gamble cost him any more than it already has.”

There was a knock at the door. Three answered it. It was Jack.

“Hey, so the Operators have every rentable place taken up. Mags surrendered one to us. Its a single bed in a small room. We can get four in there. One in the bed, three on the floor.”

“Then,” Rebel Queen sighed. “Three and I will definitely stay here. We have our bedrolls. Its not optimal, but what other options are there? Besides, we can look out for Mtoaji, and really need to stay on top of his healing. He could flop, easily.”

“Alright,” Jack said with a nod. “And Mags Black, Jaborosa who hired them, and a few others are in a big, heated argument. Ace stepped out so I could talk to him about the sleeping arrangements, but it could go either way.”

Rebel Queen stood up. “Three, you know what to do. I’ll go join this discussion. The Operators are clean, and they are going to be staying that way. They need to be polished a bit more, but still. I’ll throw my weight into it the discussion. The Operators need to stay, and they just earned that right against the Star-Spawn. We all know the Talons have done some really shady shit, and we let them walk free.”

It didn’t take long once Rebel Queen joined the talks. The Mayor and the Chief Guard knew she was a Steel Ranger, running equipment for them. It held the weight needed to end the discussion and drop all accusations. Jaborosa was already getting a caravan together, which would take away 4 of them.

The biggest issue was the name. The Operators were not giving it up. And worse, their symbol was staying. The idea of caravan guards having a shot up heart in crosshair wasn’t going over well. Its was viewed as aggressive and raiderish.

Mags Black and the Operators were working exclusively for Jaborosa. They were technically his employees, but they were retaining their autonomy in those ways. Jaborosa wasn’t thrilled at the start, but he had hired them as the Operators. And their confidence was key. Their symbol was a huge part of their confidence. They needed to stay the Operators. And in the end, they won that too.

Rebel Queen and Three sat quietly, not doing much. Three was still examining the medical equipment. Dinner came and went. They had enough in their packs to not worry about doing anything else.

Strawberry came home after her shift ended. She didn’t cut any time off of her shift.

“Oh, you are still here,” Strawberry said. “I guess that makes sense.”

“You want to care for him,” Rebel Queen said with a smile. “But its not love. Romantic love. What has you so concerned.”

“He saved me, from the Lux. They don’t disclose the information that, we who were born there, are free to leave. I had been forced into dancing, to start. And its not like I had anywhere to go, and certainly no way to safely make it to Trottingham. He got me out. He was kind to me, when nopony else really was.

“I lost my place to stay a few weeks back. The day before you all left, he found out. So, he got me to stay and made me his heir. This, this is what he bought for me. High quality, sturdy, new furniture. And then had the movable screens built so I wasn’t out in the open when I sleep.

“He has been so good to a perfect stranger, when he shouldn’t have been. He made sure we were not strangers, but good friends. I would like to give back, I feel like all I am doing is receiving. But, I guess, he really needs you to care for him. I certainly do not know anything about medicine.”

Strawberry sighed, a heavy weight on her mind. “How bad is it?”

Three shrugged. “Its been a tough fight. He took a big gash along the chest, but he is a hardy one. Its almost sealed up. It probably would be by now if he had been able to get the rest he needed. We couldn’t afford to stay. Now he gets to rest. But its going to scar. And its probably never going to go away. But it never went past his ribs. It gashed some of them though. But yeah, he will walk out of it.”

Strawberry smiled, a lot taken off of her mind. “I knew he was hardy. And something tells me, this isn’t his first major injury.”

“Maybe,” Rebel Queen said. “But I can guarantee it won’t be his last. We are alive because of him. And he fought hard after the injury, somehow. I am certain he will get shot up again. And he will walk away and heal. It doesn’t seem to break his mind. Its just something that happens while on his quests. Its almost like, he knew injury was unavoidable, and welcomes it. A fact and he continues despite it.”

Strawberry stepped into the kitchen. “Do you guys want anything? The cupboards are well stocked. I can make almost anything.”

“We ate,” Three said. “Road food, but it was good food.”

Strawberry poked her head out of the kitchen. “Would soup be good to make for Mtoaji? A light soup?”

Rebel Queen smiled warmly at Strawberry. “That would be great. That would do a lot. He needs to eat something warm, but light.”

Three slept on the floor, at the foot of the bed. He would be there if Shadow needed him. Rebel Queen fell asleep on the couch. It was nice to have a cushion under her. It had been a very stressful few days.

Rebel Queen was heading to the Citadel in the morning. Alone.

She was up early and on her way. She was fine on the walk and was easily let into the Citadel. They knew her well enough. She had done some high value procurements for them over the last year.

Rebel Queen walked into the Quartermaster’s office in the Honesty Wing. The Steel Ranger one. She approached the desk.

“I need something for a friend. I need lightweight combat armor. But its going to have to be small.”

The Quartermaster raised his eyebrow. “You don’t have anypony in your group that is small.”

“Well… its needed elsewhere.”

“Then it stays,” He huffed. “You know the rule. This is the Steel Ranger Quartermaster. Only for Steel Rangers. Go to the pony one. I don’t care what they did.”

“Ah, come on! They lost their armor saving me and my soldiers.”

“NO!” He growled. “You are lucky I let you in here. You are only half Ranger!”

“Fuck you! I am full ranger. Just because my role doesn’t fit in the cookie cutter organization doesn’t mean anything. We are backed by my elder and recognized by the others!”

“Steel Ranger gear is only for Steel Rangers! You know the rule.”

“You suck! I’m supposed to be able to get what I need from you.”

“But, you see, you don’t actually need it. You want it. And that is a big difference. You won’t be using, so no go. Besides, you carry goods and equipment in your caravan. You have to have armor.”

Rebel Queen rolled her eyes. “For one, it was sold. Two, nothing impressive. Nothing comparable to the armor that was shredded.”

“Well, go buy it yourself. It is a gift after all.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade sauntered in. “I am hoping you can help me out with something special.”

Rebel Queen was forgotten. But she wasn’t going to give up yet.

The Quartermaster smiled at the Star Paladin. “What’s the mission?”

“I need something unmarked, but combat ready. Something that will blend in with wastelanders, but give more than adequate protection.”

“I have a few things in mind. A normal stealth suit won’t do, I assume.”

“Correct. Its too noticeable in crowds. However, the bigger problem is going to be sizing.”

“Ah, a young one. Lucky one. I have an idea or two.”

The Quartermaster began to dig in the back. Warding Blade looked Rebel Queen over. He gave her a short nod and focused back on the Quartermaster.

The Quartermaster came back with a case. He popped it open and slid it around so the Star Paladin could see it. A set of dark maroon combat plates were attached to heavy weave fabric. It was all together in one suit.

“I have two caveats. First, I can have our logo on the chest plate and flank covered in a few minutes if you need that. This is a combat suit we toyed with. The plates are a lightweight, heavy duty ballistic fiber. The suit is reinforced jump suit. Its soft, yet breathable. The outside is a threaded ballistic fibers, allowing it to be woven into shirts, dresses, suits, and other basic clothing.”

“And the second?” Star Paladin Warding Blade asked.

“The second is that its helmet was shattered. We never made that again. Its a project from 40 something years ago. I don’t even think we have this material in stock. We could make more, but it would take a few weeks. Its not easy for the Unicorns to make.”

“A helmet might be too much,” The Star Paladin said. “Low profile is needed. I think it will work. Once the symbol is taken care of. What size is it exactly?”

The Quartermaster held it up. “This is the smallest it comes. I’ve got several other sets, but they are all bigger. A lot bigger. One would easily fit you, and it has the helmet. This was worn by an unusually small knight. And that mission didn’t end well for her. Hence the no helmet.”

“Its a bit big,” The Star Paladin said. “But I think it will work. Are those reinforcers for a battle saddle?”

“Yes, it is. Is that too Steel Ranger?”

“Nah, a cloak will cover those. That will work perfectly.”

“Are you sure you don’t want the symbol weathered off, or painted back to the original?”

“Hmm,” The Star Paladin thought. “I’ve never liked weathering. There is little reason for equipment to show wear like that. Even for lower profile missions. Paint it off entirely. We don’t need it. Its not something I want on the armor.”

The Quartermaster smiled. “Give me five.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade sighed as he leaned against the counter. He looked Rebel Queen over again.

“Something bothering you Knight?”

Rebel Queen gestured towards the back. “Won’t let me get something for a friend. Replacement armor for said friend.”

“Ah, the Star-Spawn?”

“You heard?”

“Oh, yeah. Most haven’t. But its my job to pay attention to things in the greater scheme of the area. I always know when you arrive in our area. The caravan bursting into Trottingham without you wasn’t subtle and with a bunch of reformed raiders, well it made the news. Its not like you are the only one out of all three contingents who has the odd jobs. The others tend to be quieter. And we have our allies in Trottingham. I was caught up quickly.

“I need to head out on a patrol run down that way and double check that other Star-Spawn are not in the area. It won’t be a fun fight if there is, but it needs to be done.”

Rebel Queen raised her eyebrow. “That fucking beast was almost impossible to take down. And yet, you seem confident it will go down easily?”

“I have, training and equipment you don’t have access too. And by now, its all been permanently checked out. I rarely have to come here. I have it all. My office is a mess.”

“Lucky you. I am probably going to have to head to the civilian QM and see if they have what I need. Probably not. I’ll fight here for a bit more. But, I do need to see what I can pick up for wherever we will go next. I have no direct orders. I’m not eager to leave. We haven’t stopped at a contingent outside of work in 8 months.”

“Take some well deserved rest. You could use it. Especially after your battle. I wish it was back at Filly for you.”

Rebel Queen grumbled. “Oh, here is better. There, I am a disappointment. Odd ball. I do the job because I couldn’t be a regular soldier. Do I want to be like those tools? Not really. I found my way for a reason. It was supported by the Elder. But, I didn’t choose Rebel Queen. I was branded it by some peers. Queen was added once I got a few others to join me.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade laughed. “I know you love the name.”

Rebel Queen grinned mischievously. “I do. It has its… nuisances. Its painful parts. But yeah. I certainly can wear it with pride. And do.”

The Quartermaster came back. He showed the armor to Star Paladin Warding Blade for his approval. It was put back into the container and the Star Paladin departed.

The Quartermaster immediately looked at Rebel Queen. “NO! And that is final. Get! Before I have you thrown out.”

Rebel Queen growled at him and walked out. She began to make her way all the way to the regular QM. Far too often she had to go there, even for basic stuff. It depended on who was working the shift. And usually, she couldn’t be picky. She was rarely here overnight. Just quick in and outs.

“Giving up that easy?”

Rebel Queen looked around to see who was talking. It was Star Paladin Warding Blade. He was in the middle of a doorway to some room. And he had obviously been waiting for her.

Rebel Queen sighed. “I was almost thrown out.”

“That’s not like the Rebel I have heard about.”

“Heh, well that Rebel is not like that inside her own halls. I often get kicked pretty hard. They don’t trust me, and that leads to a negative view.”

Star Paladin Warding Blade stepped out and began walking down the hallway. Rebel Queen followed. He was obviously wanting to say more.

“You and your team, you do an amazing job. I know some of the special things you have procured for us here. Unfortunately you fight against idiots who are afraid of a little change. They don’t like that they are not special. I see it far too often. Instead, they tear down the special ones.”

“Yeah, I do get torn into,” Rebel Queen admitted. “And every time I got a higher up backing what I needed, it would only give me more hell for everything else. They also don’t like being strong armed. My contingent can get away with a lot less, because it would get reported to our elder. I’m a respectable black sheep there.”

“Well, you certainly deserve more than you get,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said. “Its why I enjoy being a star paladin. I can do the things that need doing. I get left alone. I don’t ever want to be Elder. Too much responsibility.”

“I don’t blame you,” Rebel Queen replied, stopping.

Rebel Queen was confused. They were outside. Yes, the Star Paladin had taken the lead, but she was heading to the Civilian Quartermaster shop. And he knew that.

“Take this,” The Star Paladin said, setting the case at her hooves.

“What?” Rebel Queen stumbled, trying to catch up.

“I owe Mtoaji a lot. And it was our expedition against the Hellhounds where he took those bullets. He needed new armor. But I guess its a good thing he never had the chance to fix that.”

“But, you, you drew this. You have your miss-”

“No,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said, gently cutting her off. “I was heading over to check in with you about the Star-Spawn. Some details. But, I’ll go into town tomorrow, and the three of us can talk.”

“Okay,” Rebel Queen stuttered. “But wait, you lied, for this?”

Star Paladin Warding Blade grinned. “I never lied. I never told him who it was for, or even that it was for a mission. He assumed everything, like age because of the size. I had no need to correct him.

“I’ve given him gear he needed after our mission together, and I’ve done it with others before him. If they need it and are with me, they get it. I keep trying to hook Mtoaji in, but his mind still seems set. He needs it, and he earned it. And when I heard the QM giving you grief, well lets just say the Senior Scribe and I have our differences.”

“Thanks,” Rebel Queen smiled. “Its really appreciated. I don’t know the last time somepony stuck their neck out for me. Like actually stuck it out. Or supported me of their own free will. Usually they are backed into a corner somehow, or its with a catch.”

“Well, like I said. You do a lot of good for us. You play an important roll. More than most want to admit. And I know you have some stuff in town to do, but you need to come back here and take a break, in the safety of the Citadel.”

“I’ll make sure we do get a break. Thank you.”

“Oh,” Star Paladin Warding Blade said, stopping her. “If you ever wish to change locations of your home contingent, I am sure I can be of some assistance. It doesn’t stop your work, but it might make you happier. You serve all of the contingents well.”

Rebel Queen flashed him as smile and headed out. She would consider it, and speak with the others. It did feel as if they were more than unappreciated at Fillydelphia. Dahlia was practically praised, they were hated behind their backs.

Rebel Queen’s walk back to Trottingham was interesting. She ran into a squad of Steel Rangers working on a group of raiders holed up in a building. She was roped into helping to clear them out of the building. One more allowed them to evenly split their small group into three parts and put the pressure on the Raiders. Two groups to keep their heads down, the third to breach. Once they were taken out, half the Squad escorted Rebel Queen to Trottingham while the others cleaned up after the battle.

When she got back to Mtoaji’s place, Three let her in. Mtoaji was sitting in his cushioned chair, sewing. He was looking good.

Rebel Queen smiled at Shadow. “I procured something special for you. You won’t need that suit.”

“Eh, it was for when I had my jacket. But I’ll probably finish it since its started. What did you procure?”

“I had help,” Rebel Queen clarified. “The Star Paladin said you earned it. Its special combat armor, for a set of missions done ages ago. Its been collecting dust.”

Rebel Queen opened the box on the coffee table. “This was the colors it was made in. The SR symbol was removed. Its a snug fit, normally. I am hoping its not too big, and that your wings balance that out.”

Shadow stood up, grinning. “Let’s find out.”

They helped Shadow into it. It was certainly built for a small pony. But secured and with his wings, it fit fine. Everything was in place like it needed to be. It would hold in combat and perform well at high speeds.

“Thanks,” Shadow smiled. “Its appreciated. I know, I know, you say I earned it. You may say that, but its still an amazing gift to me. Because you didn’t have to help me.”

“Three, is it safe to test it with his battle saddle?”

Three nodded and pulled the saddle over.

“Interesting set up,” Rebel Queen said as they secured it to him.

“A friend did that for me. Before he died. I’ve been here so long, I have had to change gear a few times.”

“A friend?” Three asked.

Shadow sighed. “My two companions died a few months back. I came west, hoping to be able to handle here on my own, better than we could handle the east together. Besides, we had exhausted the resources there. Nothing about Kifopiga. Damn Disciples.”

The saddle fit even better with the armor. It was built for it after all. A different model, but the same in every place it mattered. They got him out of the battle saddle so he could rest.

“Oh, Star Paladin Warding Blade will be in town tomorrow. He wants to talk about the Star-Spawn, just us three.”

“I’ll be fine by then,” Shadow replied. “I think its all stitched up inside. Its going to be a nasty scar… but so is life.”

Three chuckled. “You have done this before, haven’t you?”

“Eh,” Shadow hesitated. “Yeah. I have. I’ve still got some bullets knocking around inside. That wasn’t a pretty fight. Damn Disciples.”

“There are no pretty fights,” Rebel Queen stated.

“Eh, I mean, define pretty. Some of the shit I have done, its tough. Animalistic. Have you ever watched two ponies fight to the death in hoof to hoof combat? There can be a real beauty to it. Before it ends with one bashing the others face into the concrete multiple times.”

“I’ve only ever fought with a gun,” Rebel Queen admitted. “That’s kind of the SR thing.”

“Well,” Shadow replied. “I guess I am going to take this off, and keep it clean. In case my wound opens up. I’ve got that big shirt to wear. But, the real beauty is what I got from the Citadel, over the exposition.”

Shadow tossed the Blue Beret uniform on.

“Wow, that fits you great.”

“Yeah,” Shadow blushed. “But its special. I won’t go out to do work in this. Plus, here is the jacket.”

“That’s a really nice jacket,” Three said. “It fits you perfectly. You are one with that jacket.”

“Well…” Shadow said, building suspense. They hadn’t picked up fully on the uniform. “It should. Because its a Pegasus uniform from the war. The Blue Berets were the elite troopers. Going in before the others, clearing the way for the heavy units to come in.

“They were the breakout unit for the pegasi, and then they kept getting better. Pegasi served. Pegasi fought in the air. But the Blue Berets were the best. Only purebred Pegasi from the clouds could join. Only purebreds could survive dropping out of the sky onto Zebra lines, slicing their way into them and making sure the charge across the open ground could be made. Or going in and hitting a specific target. The were fast and furious, carry a good armament. The were the stuff of legends.”

“How do you know that?” Rebel Queen asked.

“Oh, the proctor guy over history at the Citadel let me look. I wore this to all my events. I won them in this. I feel right in this. And he tried to hook me in more by letting me see the history files about these guys. But I knew what he was up to and didn’t join.”

Three and Rebel Queen chuckled.

“Well,” Rebel Queen said. “Its definitely you. But tomorrow, we should have you wear the new armor. I couldn’t have gotten it without the Star Paladin’s help.”

“I think we should stay in,” Shadow replied. “I’ll cook up a nice lunch for us. It will be more comfortable and private here. And I will stress less. Oh, and Star Paladin Warding Blade absolutely doesn’t know, not even a hint. And I ran a complex mission with him.”

Rebel Queen shot Shadow a wink. “He knows all he needs to know.”

There was a knock at the door. Rebel Queen looked at Shadow and what he was wearing. He was covered, but in the Pegasus uniform.

“I competed in this,” Shadow reminded her.

Rebel Queen opened the door. Jaborosa was there.

“Ah, is Mtoaji available?”

“Jaborosa,” Shadow said. “Come on it.”

“Ah,” Jaborosa grinned. “You are up on your hooves! And you are wearing that blue uniform. It looks wonderful on you. You won your competitions because of that uniform. I was there at all of them. I understand its kept private, safe.”

Shadow laughed. “They say the clothes don’t make the pony, but it definitely gave me the outward confidence to swagger in and win. Otherwise, I would have been boring, all business.”

“Ah! Yes! Business. I have for you, the rest of the agreed upon amount by the contract. You successfully delivered it. And I was surprised they joined up with you right away.”

“Damn,” Shadow said as he shook his head with a smile. “It was getting tight for them. The Disciples were hunting them for sport! They killed two guards while they were deliberating the contract. I gunned all 7 down. So, we got revenge, but they had to leave, or die fighting in a useless war. They chose the right path. And its good to hear they are keeping their name, their spirit, their essence.”

“That was a tricky subject,” Jaborosa admitted. “But thanks to Rebel Queen here, we got it all sorted out. I am surprised to find you and your friend here.”

“They’ve been helping me patch up. It was a nasty wound. I would have died, without there help. I still hurt.”

Rebel Queen laughed. “We would have died without you.”

“Well, I will leave you to heal. I just wanted to drop the check off. I wanted you too know that I do make good on my deals and that I wasn’t holding out, hoping you would die so I didn’t have to pay out.”

“Oh, I know you are not that kind of businesspony. I know you are smarter than that. I took the contract because I could tell what kind of pony you were. But thank you.”

“We should get lunch again, soon.”

“We should,” Shadow smiled. “I have stuff to sort out before I can make any plans. I have plans to make before I make small plans like that.”

“Well, you know where my business is. I am almost always around.”

Jaborosa closed the door behind himself. Rebel Queen had taken the envelope from Jaborosa. She popped the seal, looking at Shadow. He shrugged.

“Damn,” Rebel Queen swore. “He paid you that much, to drop a contract off at some raiders. No wonder why you said yes.”

Shadow chuckled quietly. “That was the other part. I was given caps up front as well.”

“Damn,” Three swore. “I wish our payouts were like this. Fuck. Usually its just a couple hundred on us. Even trading and selling. Well, our primary goal is to help our contingent and the others, so we loose money in the long run. But still.”

Shadow sat back down. “Rebel Queen. Do you have a place to stay in the city?”

“Well, not exactly. We have a small, one bedroom. But the Operators took out what was left. So if we could stay a day or two, it would be appreciated.”

“Yeah,” Shadow smiled. “No problem. I don’t think we can fit many more in here, but yeah. We can make it work. No worries.”

“Well, its only going to be a day or two more. We will be getting in some rest and relaxation in the Citadel. Maybe the day after tomorrow. Star Paladin Warding Blade extended that invitation, and we have no plans right now. No doubt, we will get our next mission from them. But it will be a good break.”

Chapter 126 - Next Step

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Shadow sat at his workbench tinkering with his rifle. He was examining it’s wear patterns and checking for trouble. There wasn’t even a hint at any possible complications. The rifle was clean since he had barely fired it on his last excursion.

Every time he pulled it apart, it reminded him of where he had gotten it. He wished he could visit Dry Dock City again, but if he did, he knew he never would leave. He still had hope of going home.

But that meant he needed to try and get a message above. DJ Pon3 was on the radio as background noise. When they first went to Manehatten, the plan was to raid his station and use it to contact above. He couldn’t raid it on his own, but he could see if it had what he needed.

It was the best move he could make, so Shadow began to plan. He replenished his med kit and began to pack. He wanted to get more medical supplies while he was in Trottingham before he left, in case he came back in need of them. And he wanted some better traveling food. He would go through New Appleloosa as a good pit stop.

Shadow had spent most of his time recovering sewing. He sewed a bigger Black Widow suit to fit over his armor. It would make field changes easier, if he had to rely on that.

Shadow went shopping and then packed everything up. He would feel out Manehatten while striking it as Black Widow. His target would be raiders, unless somepony gave him a reason to go after them.

Shadow was in bed before Strawberry was home and gone before she was awake. Unlike the last time he traveled the rails out of Trottingham, he moved quickly. Even when he wasn’t trying to, he still moved faster than the caravan did.

He spent the first night with a Hive Caravan that had left the day before. The Operators knew him. It was always best to camp together.

Shadow took third watch and after breakfast, he soon lost sight of them behind him. It was a simple, smooth trip to New Appleloosa. He cut across the country to Manehatten, ignoring the roads. He felt it was safer for a single pony. At one point he camped in the same cave he had used several times on the way to and back from The Slog. It was cozy and safe. The cave was little more than a divot in a short cliff. But it worked well enough.

The skyline of Manehatten came into view the next day. It forced Shadow to stop. It hurt. He had to seal his heart. This city swallowed Storm. It was their demise as a team. They lost their technical specialist, and their last chance to get a real message above.

This city was dark, but not evil like Fillydelphia. Fillydelphia had a blood lust. It was blood. Baltimare was a survivor, beautiful but strong. Like a wildflower that grew in the toughest places. New Appleloosa was free, but complicated. A puzzle. Trottingham was proud, like a valiant warrior.

The city wasn’t getting any younger, and Shadow was getting chemicals just standing there. He had a mission. There were raiders inside those ruins. Plenty of bloodthirsty raiders that Black Widow needed to deal with. He had a lot of chains he needed to forge for the reunification.

Shadow trotted off towards the city. His heart was finally ready to face the ruins of the city. He was alone. No friends to be killed.

The ruins blended together pretty quickly. Night was falling, and the forsaken land lost the little light it got quickly. Shadow dug into the attic of a second story house.

Shadow should be hunting raiders during the dark. But for now, he wanted to keep to the day. Until he found something to hunt, he needed to keep his head. Sleeping at night was natural and best.

Shadow began to search the ruins as he slowly made his general way towards Tenpony Tower. Eventually he saw a worn sign that peaked his attention. “Manehatten Zoo.” It had a variety of creatures painted around those lines. Zoo was a word Shadow didn’t know. He would ask at Tenpony Tower.

Shadow came upon the place he remembered. A turn down a side street ahead would take him to the area with the Manticores and where Storm died. The city was silent. No Manticores were present. Shadow wanted to pass it and forget it, but he couldn’t and found himself taking the street.

It was just as they left it, minus the Manticores. Their bodies had been picked clean with only a scattered bone to pay homage to the battle. But no one would see a battle. The wall that had fallen on Slice looked natural in this setting. Like time had forced it to fall.

Shadow walked around to the back of the building. The pile of toxic sludge was still there. He had tossed that crazy pony into it. And then he disappeared. But he appeared to be alive when he stopped rolling.

Shadow checked the rooftop. It was deserted. No sign of Manticores or any more recent life. The wind kept the building swept clean.

Shadow sat down, overtaken by grief. After Silent had died, it had been weeks, whole adventures, before Storm was claimed. They had thought they were almost invincible from death. Not injury, but death. Storm proved that wrong. And then Nor fell right after.

He lost track of time as he was overtaken by grief. Finally he got enough of his senses to stumble away and hide in another building. The inaccessible third floor.

Shadow woke up late and sore. His body had taken a beating from the grief. But he wasn’t sorry. He did what he had to do.

Shadow ate quickly and began to move out to Tenpony Tower. He had to get there to believe he had made some progress. It didn’t take him long.

But the city entrance was all the way up on the tram network, specifically the Celestial Line. Ponies came and went all the time from the tower, so it had to be reasonably accessible. It gave him the time to find a solid place to stash his troublesome pieces. In the upper floors of a nearby building he found a wall safe, connected to a terminal. It was big enough to fit the suit, his sword, and Soarin’s Lightning inside. He locked it with the Inquisitor’s code system via the PipBuck he carried.

Once he got up to the Tower, the security was impressive. It was a good thing the Inquisitors hadn’t tried to visit. Everything they were was restricted. He had to check his ammunition at the front. Guns were allowed, but not ammunition. He was glad he secured the items he did because they would have been suspicious and he couldn’t let them know he was Black Widow.

They sold some non-lethal ammunition. They had two interesting pieces of non-lethal rounds. They had 12 Gauge bean bag rounds. Shadow had left his home in Trottingham. Shadow bought 30 of the beanbag rounds. They also had a small stock of 44 Magnum rubber bullets, which probably would become enchanted if he fired them. He decided to not bother with the 5.56 rounds.

Reloaded with new ammunition he was finally able to enter the city. It was an amazing structure. The main floor was shops. It was all high class, fancy, stuff. The inside was a solid rival for the Lux with its marble and chandeliers.

Shadow secured a room for the night to start. Then he began to shop. It all was well above what Shadow would usually pay for. He would limit his stay here.

Shadow also noticed there was a lack of ghouls. It wasn’t that Trottingham had a lot of ghouls, but one of the main trading shops was owned by a ghoul. They were a big minority, but around.

After he noticed it, he remember the argument at the Slog. The one he got involved in between Orange Harvest and Governor Amber. They mentioned something about Tenpony Tower and ghouls. And it wasn’t a good thing. And that is what the outside sign must have meant when they said “No Zombies.”

Shadow sat observing ponies from a restaurant. He preferred the more open places in Trottingham and New Appleloosa. They allowed him to observe things in a wider context.

When the server came around again he ordered another sparkle cola. They were almost double the cost they were in Trottingham.

“Also a question,” Shadow said. “What is a Zoo? I saw a big prewar sign for it on my way here.”

“A zoo?” She asked, confused. “For animals?”

“Uh,” Shadow stumbled. “The sign had animals on it. And said Manehatten Zoo. I have no idea what a Zoo is.”

“How do you not know what a zoo is?”

“I’m not from here,” Shadow sighed. “Like anywhere near here. I have never heard of a zoo.”

“Oh,” She said taking a step back. “A zoo is where ponies used to keep animals. A place they could come from all around and visit them. Animals from all over that they never would get to see otherwise.”

“Oh,” Shadow snorted. “Simple enough. How did I not know what that was? Oh well. Thank you.”

She backed away several steps before finally turning away. Shadow sighed. These ponies were xenophobes. He had to be careful. They were nervous and could easily boot him, without giving him his gear. He could easily fix that, but it would be a pain.

As Shadow left the restaurant he was approached by two guards.

“You the one interested in the Zoo?” One gruffly asked.

“No,” Shadow replied. “I just didn’t know what one was.”

“That’s unlikely,” The other grunted.

“So what?” Shadow shrugged, getting ticked off. “I didn’t know what one was. Now I do. Its a place where ponies used to keep exotic animals and display them.”

“I don’t know,” The first one said to the other.

“Is there a real problem here?” Shadow asked. “Or a problem with the Zoo?”

“You would do best to stay away,” The second warned him. “The Pack runs it. And they are trouble.”

“The Pack?” Shadow asked with an eyebrow raised. “A raider gang I assume.”

“Ignorant fool,” The first spat. “Yeah. A nasty group who came from Filly recently. Stay away.”

“I have no interest in joining them,” Shadow assured him.

“I am sure you were warned at the front,” The second said, aloof.

“Yeah yeah,” Shadow replied annoyed. “Raider activity is strictly forbidden. Anything like that is strictly forbidden. Harsh punishments if I am found guilty. I know how to read and I know how to obey your rules.”

“And how did you get your current wallet of caps?”

Shadow rolled his eyes. “From a contract for the Hive Caravan.”

Shadow stepped past them and headed to his room. He needed to plan. First thing he did was turn the radio on. He needed to find the radio station center. Nor had calculated it as being on the top of Tenpony Tower. Which meant he was directly under it.

As Shadow planned, he decided the best thing was to rest up and hit The Pack. Leave and knock them out of the scene. They were the new gang on the blocks. But Black Widow was newer. And meaner. There was no mercy, only right and wrong. Black or white. And they were as black as Shadow’s mane.

Shadow rested easy and tried to figure the city out. He had to decipher how to get to the radio station on top. That was easier said than done. The security was tight and the building corners were blocked off. The best way in would be from the top. He would have to scout it out from the outside, without being seen.

Chapter 127 - The Pack

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Shadow watched the zoo from a nearby building. It was once an oasis from the city’s hustle and bustle. But now it was ruins like the rest of it.

Using the scope on Soarin's Lightning, Shadow mapped the zoo out. It was mostly set up in and East/West orientation. The vegetation was overgrown, the trees unkempt, and the entire area was trashed. The buildings, walls, and exhibits were crumbling, and there were giant holes in the cages. But it was a nicely self contained fortress.

These raiders were the animals they painted themselves to be. The animals they wore the masks, bones, and feathers of. Shadow’s favorites were the bird ones. Those ponies even wore colorful wings. They almost looked like painted pegasi.

Once you got past the well guarded ticket gate, the central area held a seal exhibit. The exhibit still had plenty of water, but it was gross and disgusting muck. Calling it water was an insult to real water.

West of that moved into a more temperate zone. He spied plaques that identified them as monkey cages, howler and spider. Still in the cluster was a jaguar, tiger, and flamingo cages.

North was a bear exhibit, lynx confine, flying squirrel compound, badger hole, and otter sanctuary. And then a bit south was the snake, reptile, and amphibian house.

On the South of the monkeys was a bird house, carrying all sorts of exotic and normal birds, like eagles, falcons, owls, toucans, parrots, and hummingbirds. They also had an insect house and a separate butterfly house.

A bit separate from the main zoo was a petting zoo for younger fillies and colts. Rabbits, sheep, ewes, guanine pigs, llamas, alpacas, and a few other plaques shadow couldn’t spy out for various reasons.

The buildings offered shelter for their beds and a place to hold food and supplies. One of the other buildings was a restaurant. If the kitchen equipment still worked, it was a wonderful find. Between the fridge, freezer, ovens, and stoves, they could do almost anything they needed too for cooking. Then again, they were raiders. How much they cooked was only a guess.

Shadow set up his bed for the evening and continued to watch The Pack. He was going to stay for a few days, trying to pick out the important parts. It would take time and he had it.

He finally identified where there leader was. He sat under a tree in the old bear cage. He rarely moved and sat on some built up area, his own throne.

Now who sat on the throne was a mystery. If their name and animal clothing was any indicator, they probably were called something like Alpha. Whoever was their Alpha, they had it good. Each member was rather individualistic, but they were still unified. They still held watch, and they had one nasty habit.

They bred dogs. Dogs for fighting. They put captured animals into the ring with the dogs, and they pit the best dogs against each other. It was barbaric. And bloody.

But it did give Shadow a glimpse at something else. The blood had to be cleaned up, and that honor was given to ragged ponies. Slaves with dog collars on to identify them. Shadow could only guess where they were kept. Shadow figured it was in the monkey cages, which didn’t have any natural coverings over the bars.

He kept watch over them for three days, planning and waiting. He wished he had a silent rifle he could shoot with. Soarin’s Lightning was rather loud. But it would do. And from his position he couldn’t be breached. There was no way to come all the way up. Rockets would be his only real weakness.

The next morning Shadow prepared for the assault. He threw a blanket over the barrel of Soarin’s lightning. An attempt at hiding the glow it caused. Then Shadow put on Black Widow’s uniform.

He packed everything up and then got behind his gun. There was no particular order for his attack. The Pack was going to hold their territory. He would shoot who he wanted and then the real assault on the ground would come, on his terms.

Shadow had to keep Black Widow’s mask off as he worked Soarin’s lightning. It was a trigger bit, something he should figure out how to fix. The wide hat would be enough cover at the distance he was shooting. That was if they could pick out the hole Shadow was shooting from.

The wooden barricade was strong, but not strong enough as the first shot blasted it to splinters. The bullet slammed into the target, rending the unicorn in two from the raw power. The other guard hit the deck and was shattered with splinters. The splinters were the worst of his worries as Shadow drilled him with a clean shot.

The blanket was still on the barrel. It wasn’t destroyed and it kept the light to a minimum. Shadow would have to test if it would be hidden by the Zebra Cloak. It was a powerful piece of magic. And it was a good sized piece of fabric. The size was designed to be practical, but easily styled into more than a simple cloak. And because of his size, it was more than enough to cover himself and the rifle.

The Pack was scrambling to respond. But their Alpha didn’t even bother to get up. The animal fortress was stronger than a single sniper. Even if it was an anti-machine rifle. Shadow picked his targets. He wasn’t in a rush. And he didn’t want them to pinpoint him. They would know it was Black Widow soon enough.

Shadow let the night be his cover to descend. The Pack had retreated into the Zoo. With the outer defenses blasted apart, they had fallen back to secondary defenses. Those defenses were difficult for Shadow to see from his scope.

Shadow used Mwokozi’s cloak to get around. The guards that were on duty easily fell to Kifo Herixleta. It was very easy, so long as he stayed away from the dog cages. Even if they couldn’t see him, they could sense him and they barked. It was probably because he was a new smell. Shadow wasn’t going to worry about them, for now.

He found the Alpha’s throne under it’s tree. It was covered in pelts. Many of them had been sewn into cushions. Despite the materials it was made of, it looked quite comfortable.

Shadow slinked away to hide as night came to an end. He watched as they tried to find him. He had killed enough of them over the night. He was safely up on an outcropping of rocks. Even their dogs couldn’t find him.

Shadow didn’t stay up there for long. Sleep was chomping at the bit to get to him. He danced his way over to the throne before he uncloaked behind it.

Shadow casually walked around to the front. The Alpha just smiled at him. His face was painted to accentuate his eyes and his horn. An ice wolf was the look he was going for.

“Well well. Black Widow. I was wondering if that was your work. You have plenty of skill, I must admit. Gutsy to come in like you did. But you don’t have the strength to actually lead anypony. Its why I am on this throne, and you are down there.”

“And if I come up there?” Shadow asked.

“I will teach you why I am the Alpha, and you are not.”

Shadow gave a slow nod in understanding. “But, I can’t let you continue. You will block the unification of this world.”

The Alpha laughed. “This is my pack. The last time we tried to play fair it was under Cobalt. And that ended with the Disciples backstabbing us and took over the entire Fillydelphia theme park. We can play fair.”

Shadow laughed. “I didn’t mean that. The Disciples will have what is coming for them. But what I mean is the unifying of the cities. Creating a new Equestria. A strong Equestria. And there is nowhere for The Pack, or any raiders, in that.”

“No, I guess there wouldn’t be.” The Alpha grinned. “I am not sure the others can play fair though. Tenpony Tower can’t even stand the idea of Ghouls. I am not a fan myself, but I have nothing against them. Most ghouls don’t have what it takes to join my pack, but if one did, I wouldn’t feed them to the dogs. The dogs get the scraps after all. If they failed, then the dogs would get them, because all they would be is the scraps.

“So until the others decide to play fair, there is no point is depriving us of the opportunity to take care of ourselves. Survival of the fittest is the Law of Nature. Its the law that every single city and settlement is playing by.

“So if you really want it to be unified, you should look to the cities, and become a politician. Practice what you preach. Prove you can do that, and perhaps we can play fair.”

Shadow grinned under Black Widow’s mask. “That’s good and all, but I wasn’t called to be a politician. I was called to burn this place to the ground. Everywhere that a fracture in society is, I must join together. And the only material that is able to fix that is blood. There is no other way. The Sages foresaw this, and they made it so that Equestria would have the ones it needed to fix things after I come.”

Shadow was quick, but the Alpha was quicker. He met Kifo Herixleta head on with an equestrian sword. Kifo Herixleta danced and struck resistance once again. The equestrian blade was old and it hadn’t been kept in good condition over the years. It was cared for well now, but its days were limited. It couldn’t face an enchanted zebra blade for long. The bite marks were evident every time the blades parted.

The Alpha was a unicorn and he had practiced with the blade. But he wasn’t Kifo Herixleta. He wasn’t a master with the sword. And even though as a unicorn he could move his blade in a lot more ways than the band could, Shadow was the more fluid swordsmaster.

Shadow brought the blade to life as he set it glowing hot. It slashed through the equestrian blade like butter and he flipped the blade around and stabbed the Alpha, driving the blade all the way to the hilt. Their muzzles were forced together.

“I am curious,” Shadow asked. “What is your name?”

The Alpha grunted under the pain. “My parents had a good sense of humor. They didn’t even think I had potential. They named me Mason Jar. After a stupid piece of glass.”

Shadow iced the blade and cut the Alpha open more as he pulled it out. It was a good death. A better death than what he deserved. He didn’t suffer much.

“Release the hounds!” A Pack Raider yelled.

Shadow glanced back as several dogs were unleashed. He slipped the cloak on and disappeared in a hail of bullets. It was a close call again as he avoided the dogs, but they couldn’t bite what they couldn’t see.

As Shadow got out of their grasp, he heard screams. The dogs had been let loose. All of them. And unleashed they turned on the slaves. If they were not apart of the Pack, they were torn to shreds. And when there was nopony left, the dogs went after each other.

They didn’t tear each other apart for long. As the ponies tried to reel the dogs back into line, the beasts organized on their own. At least three packs were made with the alphas quickly being sorted out. The dogs knew each other relatively well from their time on a leash.

Shadow had to be smart with the dogs. It didn’t give him a lot of room to maneuver. Shadow decided to forget them and shoot the Pack raiders as they tried to leash them. They were open and easy targets. And they were not safe until the dogs were leashed. The less they had, the harder it was to control them.

The dogs knew when there were only a few raiders left. They smelled their fear and outright attacked them. Shadow looked away as they sunk their teeth into flesh. What was left was gruesome.

The dogs were filling their bellies and drinking the blood. With the dogs distracted, Shadow began to picked them off, one by one. A silent rifle kept them from scattering. They were confused when the one next to them was hit, but it was an easy enough time.

It was a long day and into the evening, but The Pack was done.

Chapter 128 - DJ Pon3

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Shadow looked through the scope of Soarin’s Lightning. He was tracking a small raider gang. It wasn’t the first he had taken out since he eliminated The Pack. It certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Black Widow was cleaning up the streets of Manehatten.

He had been tracking their movements all morning. It was a group of no more than 8. Shadow had a perfect view through their window. He had three or four in sight at all times.

The raider on watch ducked down and the others moved to hiding positions. Shadow took note of where they were. The building walls would not stop his bullets.

Shadow pulled back from the scope and looked around. A pair of ponies came into sight. One blue and one gray. Side by side the carefully worked their ways through the ruins. They were no first timers. They knew how to move properly. Their bags had plenty of scraps and materials to sell. They were on track to head to Tenpony Tower.

A foal’s cry pierced the air. Shadow looked down his scope at the raiders. He saw nothing to indicate they had a foal. They didn’t even react to it.

Shadow glanced around from his perch. The blue pony had broken off from the other and was moving towards something in the street. Shadow realized it was a cart, probably to push a foal around. Back home they used clouds, but here that wouldn’t work. A four wheeled cart like the one below was a good way to get around with a foal.

Shadow missed the yells from the blue pony, but he didn’t miss their meaning. The bastards he had been watching all day had the cart rigged. The explosion went off and Shadow felt his heart shatter.

He had seen others in the city, moving and scavenging. They had never been a problem or gotten in the way. The raiders didn’t target them. This was the first time his hesitation and choice to observe caused a problem. A death. A preventable death. The raiders were small enough that he didn’t need superior tactics to take them out.

Shadow opened up with Soarin’s Lightning. He drilled the entire magazine along the wall. At least half were taken out by it. He abandoned everything and dashed down the building’s stairwell, leaping past the missing parts.

His hooves hit the pavement and he charged across the open ground. It went unchallenged. So did bucking open the front door. He didn’t even bring the cloak He was going to blast the inside apart. Shadow gunned down one unicorn poking his head around the stairwell. He bolted up the stairs.

He had gone unchallenged because the other half of their group was trying to recover. They were peppered with wall fragments. The powerful bullets had turned the inside of the building into a shotgun. Shadow knew who the leader was and pulled his revolver and dispatched the last three.

The Leader was his target. A mare with a nasty scar on her chest and a gimped rear leg. But she was strong enough to put fear into others and lead despite the physical abuse her body had taken.

Shadow bucked her into the wall and drew the zebra combat blade. “I watched your little trick. I have been watching you all morning. But I never saw that trap. If I had taken a small chance and come after you earlier, there is a chance they never would have died. You will be begging for a bullet to the head by the time I am through with you.”

She never had a chance to reply and Shadow slashed the blade along her spine. Immobilized from the pain, it was easy for Shadow to skin her alive. She deserved more than the little time he could afford to give her.

The blue mare’s actions reminded him of Dream Catcher. She would have been dumb enough to risk a trap to try and save a foal. It was noble. It was right. And Shadow was not going to let it ever happen again.

Once the coat was removed he tacked it to the wall. They had some cooking oil handy, so Shadow set it on their hot plate and heated it up. The mare was groaning in pain on the floor.

When the oil was boiling, Shadow pulled the pot off the hot plate and then set it in front of her. She couldn’t put up much of a fight as Shadow picked up a hoof and dropped it into the oil.

He had made his choice. He was blind to her suffering. It didn’t make him happy. He had no joy, only a deep sorrow. One that couldn’t be quenched. One that the Wasteland had stabbed him with. Six times it had driven it’s blade into his heart. It was barely functioning.

It felt like these rare moments were the times he was able to strike back the wasteland. He would be a monster when it was required. His very existence below had him labeled as a monster, just because he had wings.

Shadow did more to her. He spent three hours stretching her life out. By the end, she was barely alive. He left her like that. If anypony stumbled upon their den, they wouldn’t even believe she had been their leader. They would see a victim of vicious raiders.

Shadow went back to Tenpony tower, but he first he needed to secure his items. After washing the Black Widow clothes, locked the gear away and got up to the tram line. He was almost out of food and he was in need of a real bed, as expensive as it would be. He was learning how to take things here or there. Ways that even the best detective would not notice he had taken something. Plus, he found some real gems in the upper floors of the buildings that most ponies couldn’t scavenge from.

When Shadow saw what time it was he was confused. It was already dark outside. He had though he had lost track of time, but that wasn’t the case. It had gotten dark much earlier than it should have. The only reason the sky darkened early was for a storm. He doubted it was any different below than it was above, except that there was no weather ponies below the clouds.

Shadow got a room first and unloaded some things in it. Then he went to sell what he had scavenged. It was enough to offset his stay here, and barely cover the resupply.

As Shadow was eating dinner, he saw the same mare that had been in the street. It was unmistakably her. She had a microphone device on her flank, and her bags were filled with the stuff Storm was always picking up. Technology.

She was holding together well, but the pain was evident in her eyes. Shadow didn’t have to stare at them to see it. But the average pony never would have realized it. At least not how recent the trauma was. They all seemed to have deep traumas and just live with it.

The wasteland loved to take, but never gave.

With the rain falling in sheets Shadow had the perfect cover to go to the radio station above. It would cover any flying he would be doing. This storm would ground most Pegasi and it would blind most ponies if they looked up.

Getting out was the problem. The entrance was too secure. Even with the cloak, he couldn’t get in and out safely. Shadow turned to the back of his room. It didn’t have a window, but the exterior of the tower had glass. That meant they had probably sealed most of it up for safety and security. Besides, it wasn’t like they were blocking a good view.

The couch was along the back wall. With a little work Shadow was able to pop the painted board out from the wall. The window was thick, but cracked. Shadow let the howling wind and crashing lightning cover him as he broke more of it until he could squeeze through.

The board would be impossible to push open from outside. He braced it open with his battle saddle and then slipped out into the night with nothing on. He glided to the building where he had his stuff stored. It took nothing for him to log into the system he had set up and the safe popped open.

Shadow geared up and then faced the storm. It was torrential. And each drop carried with it a myriad of troublesome chemicals. He would have to cleanse himself when he got back. Chemicals or not, he would not fall out like he the first time he faced Marble Falls’ water day.

Shadow launched into the storm. He was going to have to tell Marble Falls this story. He was confident he could handle it because of her weather training sessions. They no longer felt over the top as they once did.

Shadow took his time and made strong, purposeful moves. The wind tried to pull him different ways and the rain was blocking his vision. But his training was superior.

The lightning was of little concern. It was a long held belief that a storm couldn’t strike Pegasi. If you found a way to purposefully shoot lightning at a Pegasus they could be hit, but to a storm, he wasn’t charged correctly to receive a bolt of lightning.

When he found the tower’s roof the array on top was impressive. It was accessible by a short ladder that was on the wall of an inset balcony. Shadow landed on the balcony and almost slipped. The rain was assaulting the wasteland faster than it could drain off the roof.

The door was reinforced glass, see through if the storm wasn’t so dark. It took nothing to unlock it and Shadow stepped into the building. He was certainly in the right room. To his left was a wall full of equipment. Shadow had no idea what he was looking at, but he knew he was in the right place.

The door ahead of him had light under it. The outside door opening and closing was noticed and a red unicorn stallion entered the room. He was levitating a teacup.

“Ah, I was wondering when you would show,” He said with a grin before taking a sip of his drink. “Come in from the door more. I don’t bite. And I know you are not here for me.”

“And how do you know that?” Shadow asked as he walked towards the Unicorn.

“Because I believe in you,” He said with a wink. “And all the stories I have heard, you have a reason. I can think of no reason for me. I am a simple pony who runs this station. I have for years. And before that, I ran errands for the DJ before me.”

“So, you are not DJ Pon3?” Shadow asked, confused.

“That is the great secret. But I know you care for your secrets. I am DJ Pon3, but I go by other names as well. The radio name, DJ Pon3, has been going since before the war. Passed on from DJ unicorn to DJ unicorn, just like the voice changing spell that allows us to all sound the same. It is to spread cheer and happiness through the wasteland. Mostly through music, but we share the news. We warn of danger, and we celebrate the good.”

“And I am?” Shadow asked.

His grin deepened. “So far, to me, good. But tell me, the truth for why you have come and why you do what you do. I only have second hoof accounts to work from. On the radio, most of my reports are neutral about you.”

“Alright,” Shadow said with a nod. “I did not come up with the name. It was given to me, and I was forced to own it. I am called by the sages, long ago. They knew a rift would be coming, so I was prepared. That is all I can speak on that matter. But I was not the only one, am not the only one. Other came before, and other are yet to come.

“I am the one sent to mend this rift. Equestria was once unified, but the war began to tear it apart, and then after the spells, it was fractured. Those that wish to keep it torn or act in ways to keep it torn, they must be stopped.

“The binding chain that I am forging to once again unify the land can only be made from blood. The blood of those who are guilty of destroying this land. The land must be purged, burned, so that a new, fresh growth can come. If there was any other way to do it, I would not have been foreseen, and Equestria would not have called me all the way here. For I am not from Equestria, but my ancestors are. And it is the land I hope to one day live in and raise my children in.

“So I go, to forge the rebirth. To prepare the land for the reunification. I don’t know who will unify it, but it is not me. I am a sword on this world. It will take somepony softer. One who can rally the different places to stand with them. But they won’t survive in such a dark place. I need to clean this place out for them. I need to reshape the balance so they will be safe. Well, safe enough.

“The scale I use has almost no balance point. Either you are weighed to be guilty, or you are weighed to be innocent. It is the same as either being black or white, the sun or the moon, the light or the dark. I don’t get to choose, I only get to act. And some days, that is a big burden.”

“I can imagine,” DJ Pon3 replied, thinking. “But, this is your first time in Manehattan?”

“I have been around, but my first time here as Black Widow.”

“I can image that you can not just go do around doing this unmasked. You have to live as well, and that requires caps and supplies. A safe place that no one will recognize you as Black Widow.”

Shadow gave a nod. “But I earn my caps legally. I do not raid the filth of the wasteland. Their sins must be showcased for all to see.”

“That is one thing I have heard about,” DJ Pon3 nodded. “Whole gangs cleaned out without anything taken, or bodies touched after they were killed. Some stories are more gruesome than others. And some are more understandable than others. You said your judgment scale doesn’t have much of a balance point. I assume the stories about the collateral damage about the chained slaves are true?”

Shadow didn’t duck his head away like he wanted to. He had to stay strong. He just stared at DJ Pon3.

“I do what I must do,” Shadow finally said. “Fire is not always easy to control.”

“And the dark places never stay cleaned out,” DJ Pon3 added. “Ponyville has new gangs in it. Trottingham has new gangs replacing the Hawks. Fillydelphia has changed hooves five times since I have been alive. Each gang rises and falls for various reasons.”

“But now they now have a spirit to kill them,” Shadow said firmly. “Now they have a ghost to give them something to think about. Now I am here.

“Although, while I was at Trottingham, I did not kill the Hawks. That was not my work. I killed a slave trader there, and two copycats who tired to pass their sins off as me. And I retook their power plant from a gang trying to extort them. Also, I recently blew up the Lux.”

“I caught wind of something about that. But I didn’t have details. Trottingham gets my station loud and clear, but it is not always easy to get reliable information from. They are on the other side of Equestria proper after all. The Lux was a casino, correct?”

Shadow gave a slow nod. “But it wasn’t a den of thieves. They played fair. But they were destroying lives, and knowingly doing. Offering debauchery as a service. As something that a pony had a right to. Drugs and Alcohol is one thing, but they had dancers barely clothed for their player’s viewing pleasure. And they sold them for the evening.

“Those ponies had no choice. Most of them were born into the Lux and were told what they would be. They were slaves, who if they didn’t do what they were told, they would be thrown out into a nasty world, with nothing to protect themselves, no map to get anywhere, and no usable skills to survive. And they didn’t care. I blew up the entire place, so that it could never be rebuilt.

“I know ponies will often retake the old raider territory, but at least I can go back and clean them out. It saves me the trouble of having to find their new dens. Besides, the newer raiders are not as dark as the previous ones. It slowly gets better.”

“Any plans for Manehattan?” DJ Pon3 asked. “At least that I can know of?”

Shadow smiled under the mask. “If I could issue a warning, I would. But I don’t know the names of any gangs left. I already I took out The Pack. Collateral damage was unavoidable, but it wasn’t by my hoof. They had trained attack dogs, and they unleashed them to hunt me. It failed, badly. Not just because the dogs were useless to find me, but the dogs turned on everypony. The slaves were torn apart. The dogs tore everything apart.

“Today was also a bad one.” Shadow took a deep breath in and let it out. “I was casing a den, picking out the target and making sure that when I strike, it was one swing and they go down. But I was too late.

“They had set a trap before I had arrived. I think it was a remote switch. It was a baby basket, rigged with an explosive. It was probably a recording of a crying foal. It baited one of two manes in. Both were smart enough to know of the risk, and both were adept at surviving. The blue one who died, she appeared to try and disarm it. I didn’t have the best view from my location, but it was over quickly. The other ran and I blasted the bastards apart. That pony was avenged, but it didn’t feel like a victory.

“The other, she made it to the tower. She appears to be tech savvy from her loaded saddlebags. It reminded me of an old friend, and the stuff he would scrounge up. I speak of it because I know you said you used to run errands for the previous DJ Pon3. And she may be a good candidate for you if you don’t have a runner. She has a audio speaker, microphone device thing on her flank. Technology isn’t my thing.”

DJ Pon3 sighed deeply. One soaked in pain and trouble. “I had one, but the Disciples got a hold of him. The pictures I got were anything but nice. They knew who he was. Are you going after the Disciples?”

“No,” Shadow said with a single shake. “I am not the one to do that. There is another who will destroy them. They will not last long though. I know… I know that’s not something which brings comfort to those the Disciples will prey upon in the mean time, but it is the truth.”

“I hope it is soon,” DJ Pon3 said with watery eyes.

“It will be,” Shadow said softly. “When I stop to listen, I hear the wasteland’s cries. And I hear Equestria’s responses. But maybe that is only for me, and ponies like me who have been Called.”

“Tell me, you know of Tenpony Tower and the no Ghoul rule?”

“The signs only,” Shadow replied.

“It wasn’t that long ago when it happened. It was a violent transition when they booted every Ghoul out of the tower. Many lost all they had. I am sure some died in the transition, or because of it. Do you have plans for that?”

Shadow stood there, thinking. Kifo Herixleta wasn’t on him, but he heard the whisper. If you could call it a whisper. It was a fact. He wasn’t the one to do it. Equestria had other plans.

“I have no ill will against Ghouls,” Shadow replied. “I have know some very great Ghouls, and in my younger days, even fought alongside one. But I am not the one to right that wrong. I don’t get to pick my targets. It will take a softer pony than I am to properly right that wrong. I am just a sword, a weapon.”

“You have a lot of ‘don’ts,’” DJ Pon3 commented.

“And too many ‘do’s,’” Shadow replied. “Too many.”

Shadow took a deep breath in. “But I have one big ‘do.’ The greatest rift of all. That between the land and the sky. The Pegasus Race is going to have to give some answers. The scale is not in their favor.”

DJ Pon3 chuckled deeply. “I am not going to be surprised to hear of you walking on the clouds. If anypony can figure out how, it seems like it would be you.”

“Can your radio contact them above? I know you use the SPP Towers.”

DJ Pon3 took a deep breath in. “I have tried, just like every other DJ Pon3 has tried before me. But even though I use the SPP towers, any attempts to breach the clouds ends up with them bouncing right back down. It is convenient for broadcasting at longer ranges. I am able to bounce broadcasts to where I am needed out in the boonies, far from the SPP towers.”

“Convenient,” Shadow replied. “But I need to get a message above. That will happen in due time.”

“I will get back to work trying to break through the clouds. If I do, or any DJ Pon3 does, we will make news announcements for you to hear. How does ‘Black Widow has ascended’ sound?”

Shadow chuckled twice. “It sounds good. Appropriate, subtle, but strong.”

Shadow turned around and headed for the door. He paused right before opening it. “Thank you. You have done good work. For me as well as for this forsaken land.”

“For you?” DJ Pon3 asked.

“I won’t give specifics, but you have given me import information and messages. I have saved the lives of ponies because of it, and I have protected others for it.”

“Your work may be dark, but its got redemption at it’s heart. Don’t lose focus on that.”

The door slammed shut behind Shadow and he launched straight up. It had been a long while since he had been able to launch straight up. Through all the sounds of the storm, he heard the door open. He hadn’t deployed his wings when he jumped and there had been no lightning. To that unicorn, he disappeared like the ghost he was supposed to be.

It was a hard fight back to the building where he could store Black Widow’s costume. But he knew how to manage the winds between the buildings thanks to Marble Falls. And then he managed it back to his room.

It was slippery, the outside rock was slick. He was on the leeward side of the storm, but he still got tossed around as he slipped in. The glass was sharp and sliced him along his back. Shadow fought the pain and kept himself from seizing up as he crawled in. Seizing up would cause more harm.

Inside, safe, Shadow quickly got himself bandaged up so he wouldn’t bleed all over everything. He had some blood he had to hide. The carpet was soaked at the window. Shadow let the boards go back to their position and he tried to patch it up.

He did a decent job, and when it all was put back together, the wet floor was under the couch. The couch was dry. He would have to hope that the staff would believe that the glass had been damaged in the storm and leaked. Few would believe he could have squeezed through as little as a hole as he did. And he didn’t make it cleanly through on his entry. It was the best he could do.

Shadow would have made an early exit, but the storm was still pounding away at them, keeping him locked. He was stuck inside for three more days before he could leave.

When Shadow finally got to leave he made a swift, but unhurried exit. He had to pick up some soap for his clothes before he headed out. Black Widow’s clothes were still soaked and starting to smell. Shadow took up residence by the safe and got a fire going. He washed them and then strung them out to dry properly. Over the next two days he washed and rewashed them several times, cleaning them back to their proper, pristine state. Pristine enough to not smell like mold.

Chapter 129 - Rock of Destiny

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Shadow looked back at Friendship City. He had stayed a few days there after another good week of hunting raiders. He had gutted the city pretty well. Well enough that he was going to do some light exploration as himself and then head back to Trottingham for some rest.

Shadow picked his way though the ruins. Most of the crumbled high rises had either lost their names, or were housing that was never named. It was easy to get lost in between them all, especially since they lacked any street signs.

The sign was long gone, but the pavement held firm. He explored what his eyes had caught sight of. They had dug out the concrete and replaced it with different bricks. A cross with butterflies in it. The door behind it was busted up and the glass blown out. Shadow slipped inside. It was definitely a clinic. But a clinic had less. The half busted directory showed that the entire building was Ministry of Peace. It was probably their central Hub in Manehattan. And inside it had to hold something good.

The lower floors were dedicated to healing. The fifth floor started the administration floors. The lower floors had been picked clean, but the broken staircase preserved the upper levels.

After a hop up a few caved in flights Shadow was at the top. The base had been held together. But that was all that was normal. Outside of a small atrium which held a receptionist desk, it was all clouds. The exterior was steel, but something was so important that it was exclusively for Pegasi.

Shadow hadn’t felt clouds in forever. At least not safely. He rolled around on the floor, letting them embrace him. He stripped out of his armor to let them fully envelope him. Shadow became one with the clouds.

Eventually he snapped out of it and suited up again. But this place was still worth his time. It held secrets after all this time. Before the spells came it held secrets.

The cloud terminals were spotty and they held no useful information. The most sensitive data was easily retrievable with Storm’s hacking program. A copy was still stored on the PipBuck.

And that information almost exclusively was about who was where. The deployment of the Ministry of Peace’s doctors and medics. The main set were deployed to active units who were moving around. Nothing was new about the forts or military sites they were deployed at. Most had been bombed out with the rest of the spells.

Shadow looked over at the decorative double cloud doors. They had held up, and not just their structure, but their beauty. They were locked, and not by a terminal. The doors had a physical key slot. Shadow pulled out the cloud key. He didn’t have to change it’s form. It was like the cloud mechanism conformed to it, recognizing it was cloud.

The doors swung open before Shadow could turn the key. The inside was beautiful. The clouds were colored to create a stunning mosaic. One side held animals of all kids, the other was two regal pegasi with horns, and six others with them. Two Earth Ponies, Two Unicorns, and Two Pegasus Ponies. All of the regular ponies were wearing jeweled necklaces except the Purple Unicorn. She wore a crown.

Shadow knew the Pegasi. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy. They were the two most important pegasi during the war. Rainbow Dash was the most important wartime Pegasus in Shadow’s world.

Outside of the mosaics on the walls, the back wall was lined cloud file cabinets. There was a big desk, mostly of clouds. But the top was wood, and there was several other things on and around it. Perches points for bids and an old bed for something small, like a bunny. Fluttershy loved her animals. It only made sense than she would keep some with her while she did the stressful work.

Shadow circled around the desk to sit down while he rifled through it. As he sat down he noticed something in front of a perch. It was a small statuette like the one he found in the Red Racer Factory. Except this time, it was the yellow Pegasus.

This one had “Be Pleasant” on it’s base. Shadow picked it up and felt power wash over him. The power in these little things was impressive. It was certainly more than the average object. They had to be a limited production.

Shadow set it down and opened the central drawer. Right on top was a folded letter, but no envelope. Shadow opened it up and read it.

Fluttershy,

I know Rarity made these for us, and it was sweet, but it is kind of creepy for me. Especially the one of me. Besides, I already am Awesome. I don’t need more. I have sent these to special Ponies in my life. I know you got a set, but I had to send this one to your Manehattan office. I know it will be safe there.

Remember me whenever you look at it. I know its been a while since we have seen each other and even longer since we were all together. You don’t always like what I have to do. I don’t always like it either.

But this one is really important. And its with the real military. This time, I am not sure I am coming back. I have a weird feeling about it. But this one might end the war. It’s our last shot. We can stop the Zebras with this attack. Two Toned is there waiting for me. So I have to go. And I will face him and win.

Keep it safe. I already sent the one of me to Scootaloo. You are awesome. Seriously Awesome. Nopony could care for Equestria in this war like you are. You don’t need any more awesomeness.

RBD

Shadow looked at the Statuette. This one had been given to Rainbow Dash. And the same for the one of Rainbow Dash. Both had been hers. That made them extra special to him.

The rest of desk turned up a few caps and nothing more. The cloud computer was full of nothing as well. But Shadow didn’t feel like leaving. Clouds. He missed the clouds.

He stayed. Shadow didn’t need his bedroll. He slept on the comfy clouds. He slept long and hard, safe in their silk embrace.

But the sleep wasn’t restful. Shadow tossed and turned as nightmares rolled through his mind. Waking up was always just out of his grasp as his mind tortured him.

Shadow found himself back ready to kill the Pillars of the Community. But instead of the pegasi he killed, they were his friends. He shot and killed each of his friends, ending with Cardinal Spitfire and then Dream Catcher.

Then he was above the clouds, flying back home. But as the farm came into view, it wasn’t there. The turnip farm was replaced by a carrot farm. Everything else was the same. He panicked and sped off to his sister’s house. It was there, but the flames were spreading. Early Blossom and Cherry Tart were nowhere to be found. And water only spurred the flames on even more.

As Shadow turned around, he was in Rainbow Dash’s cave. As the lights came on, the trash wasn’t there. It was bodies of fillies and colts, with brass lying all around his hooves. As he panicked they all began to bleed out from bullet wounds and Shadow found himself staring at them through the red lenses of Black Widow.

Death, pain, misery. Shadow killed everypony close to him a dozen times as he slept. Each time it was his fault. Each time is was gruesome. He was different versions of himself. Shadow Flare, Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance Shadow Flare, Recruit Shadow Flare, Inquisitor in full armor, Mtoaji, and Black Widow.

He pulled the pin on the grenade for Thunder. Slice didn’t leave Rosemary in despair, Shadow snuck into his room and smothered him. Then he tossed him into the recycler while Thunder mourned the sudden, natural death of his friend. Silent wasn’t killed by Steel Rangers, he was killed by Black Widow. Shadow dove off the roof, opening up like he actually did, except it was on a single Black Widow as she drove Kifo Herixleta into Silent. When his bullets hit her, she disappeared in smoke, but left Silent pieced by her sword. Black Widow also kicked down the wall on Slice and ran Storm through.

Nor was the only Inquisitor that Shadow, or Black Widow, didn’t kill. That was one nightmare that played out exactly how it happened. Dahlia clearly killed Nor, and with a smile on her helmetless lips.

Shadow had a headache when he woke up. As he rolled over to grab his canteen, he felt the the sticky. He had been sweating all night as he tossed and turned. And he was now dehydrated because of it.

Shadow got on his way as soon as he could rally himself to be up. It physically wasn’t easy. He was sore as he descended the missing floors. It made it difficult to make the transitions safely and stop himself without getting hurt.

Once on the ground, Shadow made a swift pace west. He missed whole sections of the city as he ran. His mind wasn’t on safety like it needed to be. His distraction kept him in the city. He had circled around a few times. Shadow got to a safe place and hunkered down for the night.

Again, his dreams tormented him. Fire raged and blood flowed as he actually burned the Lux down. Every pony inside had no idea he was there. He just kept swinging his sword and cutting them down. And nopony reacted to it. He was finally left panting inside the casino floor, soaked in blood, as the entire place went up in flames.

The targets at the exposition were not steel or paper. They were live ponies. Ponies from below and pegasi he knew. It didn’t matter. He killed them all perfectly. And the crowd cheered like they did at the exposition.

Shadow was frustrated and groggy in the morning. His head still hurt since he had sweat out most of his fluids overnight. Nightmares were not something Shadow was used to. And he never sweat during the night.

The road in the morning was hazy and quickly heated up. Shadow almost ran into a Steel Ranger patrol. Only their blundering sounds stopped him as his foggy head heard them in time. Barely.

Shadow began to track the patrol. He wasn’t on a time scale. They quickly moved through the city outskirts. They instinctively knew the trouble spots and how to avoid them as they headed out. Shadow had to put down two separate ghouls because he went where the Steel Rangers avoided.

They led him to an outpost. It reminded him of the Fillydelphia Contingent’s bunker. He didn’t have much information about it though. He didn’t have much information about the Manehatten Steel Rangers either.

Shadow posted up in a nearby six story building. Part of the outside had crumbled and he was easily able to set up a sniper nest that was well hidden. Especially when the Zebra Cloak was applied.

Not much was happening. The area was well secured by their defenses, which included turrets. Several buildings had been demolished for construction material and to remove blind spots.

The day passed quickly as Shadow tracked their moves. He wasn’t planning anything other than tracking them. It was difficult to tell if it was a base for the whole contingent, or a outpost.

Several times Shadow tracked what was certainly a very important Steel Ranger. He looked like the Steel Ranger on the old recruitment posters. A perfect copy, down to the armored tail and the big headlamp on the helmet. His armor was old, first generation old. It wasn’t polished like many of the other Steel Rangers. But it was still in great condition.

The Steel Rangers were known to carry heavy weapons on their battle saddles, but he took it to the extreme. His left had a box missile launcher, common enough. But the right had a grenade machine gun. Very few of the Trottingham Steel Rangers carried one in every day use, if at all. Both was overkill.

The night was rough. Shadow thrashed a bit as his dreams were once again torturous. Murder and mayhem caused by him and Black Widow. Often enough he was fighting Black Widow.

The morning was a welcome break from the nightmares. But it didn’t end there. He was distracted as he looked down the scope of Soarin’s Lightning. Shadow caught himself spacing out multiple times throughout the day.

The same thing happened as the light went down. Shadow didn’t know where the dream ended and reality began. He laid there in his spot staring at Black Widow and her unblinking red eyes. She was standing in the recess of the doorway, just visible in the low light. How long it was, he had no idea. It didn’t matter if it was a dream or a hallucination, he wasn’t rested in the morning.

Shadow ate and crawled back to the rifle. He almost gave up and moved when a disturbance caught his sight. A family moved through the ruins, approaching the outpost. The little filly had fully saddle bags, but the rest of the family didn’t.

She was there to join the Steel Rangers. The waited by the guard for a Paladin to come out from the main building to meet. They talked for a good while and then he talked with her for a while.

She was probably cute for a filly, but Shadow didn’t know what that meant anymore. Her coat was soft pink and her mane was a nice yellow pastel. He couldn’t see her cutie mark with what she was wearing. It was poor and ugly, but as bad as it was, the initiate robes she would be getting were worse.

The family separated and began their journey back while she continued with the Paladin. Shadow felt a blood lust snap. He had an opportunity to stop this filly from becoming the evil that was the Steel Ranger. A chance to stop her from becoming a soldier they would have to kill later. She would become a Pegasus killer.

Shadow set his mouth on the bit and focused the crosshair more. It was a simple shot from the short distance he was at. He had time as they walked to the main building, but they were at an angle that reduced their profile.

They stopped and She turned her head towards her parents. She called out and the Ranger turned to talk to her. She looked at him and Shadow settled his crosshair on her head. The gun lit up as he pulled the trigger.

Soarin’s Lightning blasted through the area with the sound of thunder. A great flash cracked as the round connected home with conductive steel. The Paladin behind her was thrown back, armor rended open from the center mass shot. His body flashed a few times as the electricity bounced around the electronics of his suit. Half of the trademarked Cutie Mark was burned on the visible armor.

But she wasn’t dead. She had barely avoided the bullet as she dashed back to say one last goodbye. She was tackled by the old Steel Ranger as he used his body to cover her from any more shots. He began to bark orders to the others.

Shadow rolled back, throwing everything together and dashing into the building. The building shook as rockets slammed into it’s face. The ceiling collapsed, forcing Shadow to dive out of the way and then head back towards the room he had come from. That wasn’t an option as the entire area was struck with a heavy burst from that grenade machine gun. It was that poster Steel Ranger, and he could bring a building down on his own.

The force caused a cavity to open up and he dashed down it. Shadow scrambled to get ahead of the Steel Rangers. If they surrounded the building, he was dead. He jumped out of a third story window and fell to the open street below. He landed into a roll and then tumbled to a stop. He survived, but it was rough. He was bruised and battered.

He didn’t have a chance to recovery as a patrol came around and into the street. Shadow dashed away, forcing his body to ignore the pain in his left foreleg. A cracked bone was nothing compared the bullets that had torn up the street he had just occupied.

Shadow used the buildings and took chanced going through them instead of around. Sometimes it worked, other times it caused him to be sighted. He needed a new tactic.

He slid to the backside of a pile of concrete and rebar. Shadow pulled out his med kit and popped a health potion. Once that was done he broke down Soarin’s Lightning and then put on the Zebra Cloak. It made things safer as he headed west, but they were on high alert and every Steel Ranger available was out in the ruins searching for him. Shadow caught sight of some well armed scribes working with knights to find him.

Shadow crammed into a house’s attic and went to sleep. As much as he could get as his own mind tortured him. Storm was in trouble, first from the Manticores, but Shadow killed them. Then he was in the building and Shadow leapt into the darkness to rescue him. As soon as he was inside, the wall behind him was intact and he was forced into a maze to try and make it to Storm. Ghouls popped up at random and Shadow killed them one by own. Each time he almost got to him he was ripped away and something else came up. It was a madhouse of chaos and slaughter as Shadow was sent into an anxiety attack as he slept.

Shadow got on the road again, forgoing breakfast. He made good time until he tripped on a rock and face planted. As he dusted himself off, he saw the silhouette of Dodge City. Shadow had always avoided Dodge City. It had been a rag tag city in the middle of nowhere before the war. During the war it have been revamped as an industrial center. Mostly ammunition if Shadow remembered correctly.

It was still inhabited. Shadow felt his heart burn and he pulled off his gear. He had one sudden desire, to see it burn. Just like the Lux had in his dream. It was something that actually held his attention. He didn’t bother to bring his battle saddle. Just his revolver and Kifo Herixleta.

It was a small city, but they were not ready for Black Widow. She slipped past their guard posts and murdered the guards before disappearing once again.

Cloak off, kill

Cloak on, move

Shadow repeated the process as he dashed back and forth and between buildings. There was no messing around as young and old fell to a burning Kifo Herixleta. There was no mercy and there was no escape. Fire claimed them all.

The buildings were mostly old wood and it didn’t take much to set them aflame with Kifo Herixleta. Shadow stood in the middle of the street, breathing in the crackling air and surveying his work. His heart was pleased, yet his mind saw the faces of the ponies he had cut down.

Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta and drove the blade into the ground in front of him.

“Well?” He asked the blade.

“Well what?” Kifo Herixleta replied.

“Why do I feel like I do? Why am I tortured?”

“I have always seen the fire in my steel, but you saw the ice. I have called for more destruction than you have been willing to do.”

“Okay?” Shadow asked, flustered. “That is fact, but it doesn’t help me.”

“I have no answer,” Kifo Herixleta replied. “I may be magic, I may know things, but I am not all knowing. I am limited, a piece of a soul set into a gem and given a set of prophecies.”

“And what did you tell Mwokozi? Where you more lenient or absolute when you were his blade?”

“I was never what I am to you for him. I was a tool. I reminded him to fight and instructed him in advanced forms. But that was all. I never was supposed to be anything more. The symbol of what I was was the most important thing. But I don’t recall much of my time with him. I have a limited memory, one designed to do my duty. Everything else goes away.”

Shadow put his hoof against the hilt and set it aflame while it was still in the ground. He could feel the heat. The more it burned him, the more he put his anger into the flames.

And then his Will shattered and the blade died. Shadow withdrew it and iced it over as he pulled it close. The ice danced and flowed into his favorite pattern.

Shadow sheathed the blade. He had made his choice. He remembered something and he was going to check it out.

He changed out of being Black Widow and began his walk to the Rock of Destiny. It was near Ponyville. DJ Pon3 had said Ponyville had been retaken by raiders. Shadow knew he had to change that.

Unlike the first time, Shadow had Black Widow’s costume to work with. It was where things had started. When he uncloaked the raiders quaked in fear. They missed because they didn’t think they could hit Black Widow. A self fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

Cleansing Ponyville meant he had to spend another night in the ruined town. He didn’t stay in the library. He stayed in the boutique he had found the materials in. In the morning he boarded it back up before he went to the rock.

It was entirely disappointing. He fished around inside to see what other Pegasi had left, but it all felt wrong to him. Nothing he had to give was related to the life he was giving up.

He wasn’t giving up, he was changing. And it wasn’t because the Enclave had banished him. These pegasi had brands. They wore the mark of a Dashite. He still wore his Cutie Mark. Proudly.

Shadow sighed and sat down with his back against the rock. He wasn’t sure what to do. He still had hope of going home. It was wrapped around his neck and tied around his limbs. His necklace was on a tough string. Star Paladin Warding Blade was getting the Unicorns in the Steel Rangers to fix his chain and strengthen it. It would be waiting for him when he got home to Trottingham.

His hope wasn’t gone. He bathed in the clouds because they were his true home. Nightmares or not, he wasted hours in that building and spent the night because he wanted to be surrounded by clouds.

He needed to go home. Real home above the clouds.

Shadow perked up when he remembered something. One of the orbs he had viewed was Rainbow Dash being interrupted at her home. But it wasn’t a traditional sky home. It was a basic shack, the place she could get away from being a Shadowbolt and leading Ministry of Awesome. That shack wasn’t far away. Not if he remembered the view of the landscape correctly.

Shadow began to make his way to the shack. He got there just before dark. It was up on the edge of a cliff. Shadow couldn’t unfurl his wings with the combat suit on, so he chose to climb. It wasn’t difficult of a climb, not after the years he had spent jumping and vaulting.

At the top was the prize. Nothing. Basic wasteland stuff, including a Pegasus skeleton. It wasn’t Rainbow Dash because the wings were too small.

Shadow sat in the doorway, looking out over the wasteland. The land was forsaken. Yet Rainbow Dash and others left the sun and stars to never return because they didn’t believe in the Enclave.

Shadow wasn’t sure if he did anymore. Or better put, if the Enclave was the right choice. They were good at their job, but was it the job that should be done? If it wasn’t it needed to be changed. But he couldn’t change it below. Black Widow’s judgment would have to be taken above.

Shadow recited the prophecy:

“Shadow Flare you will be given, for by a strong desire you shall be driven. Black and white, day and night, your two colors will be such a sight. The split is a sign, that is to be a guideline. One white and black, blessed for life while on the attack. The three pieces of the puzzle, oh so subtle. Speed. Power. Agility.

“Thus will be your school, that you should be a tool. To protect what you love, from everypony, even those above. You are a gift to all kind, to be a real mastermind.

“Fate’s eye fell upon your head, even before you had your own bed. To lead your kind to victory, and rewrite history. You will have a duty to impose, beyond your humble abode. A farmer by trade, who shall wield a blade. Your life set to be the link, to save us all from the brink. The change must be forged in blood, or else it will be a dud. You will be sent to start that mend, and bring the separation to an end. Between you and your true heart’s desire is a land full of fire.

“To quench it shall be your new battle cry, and all who oppose must die. They will spill your blood in hate and force you to lay in wait. When it is the time to rise, you will once again see the sky. All that stands in your way, has had it’s time to play.

“Your charge is to cleanse the land, so the Pegasi may stay grand. You are the one foretold, Mtoaji. The Mender.”

Shadow pulled out his PipBuck. He switched it to record.

“To fight or give mercy. What does it mean to forge these links I am called to forge. Cleaning out the Pack is a strong link. They threaten the existence of peace. Dodge City, I knew nothing about them. Gambit needed to go down, but Blooming Glass knew my secret. I spared Strawberry to be my cover, and it worked. Rebel Queen and Mags know my secret too, but I couldn’t kill them to cover myself.

“I will take down the Disciples. They are a clear threat. I will take down Dahlia. Dahlia is a threat to the existence of Pegasi. And she killed Nor.

“As much as I do down here, I must be ready to do above. I don’t know much about the government of the Grand Pegasus Enclave. What price does the safety they speak of come at? And how many in the lower government do whatever they wish, and get away with it. Because the Council doesn’t know?

“Communications have been cut off. The big gangs have fallen, or will fall. I am just one pony, I can’t take down the Steel Rangers. Killing that one the other day brought the entire contingent down on me. That would save a lot of trouble. But perhaps the one who is supposed to use the land I have started to mend will sort them out. I can’t solve everything. I clean it out, not build on top of it.

Shadow took in a few deep breaths and let them out. He pulled both Statuettes out and set them in front of him.

“I found Rainbow Dash as thing fell apart. I needed her help. But the power in this little thing is strong. Addicting. I can do anything with it. But I don’t need to do anything, do I? Not anymore. I have more to me than that.

“Equestria called me here for a reason. And now I have this other Statuette. Be Pleasant. Synonyms for Pleasant are: Agreeable, Friendly, Charming, Cheerful, Sweet, Delightful, Civil, Nice, and Kind.”

Shadow looked back out at the wasteland. Black Widow wasn’t kind. But before he went home, he had two things to wrap up. The Disciples and Dahlia.

“I know deep inside what needs to happen. I have had my time as Black Widow. I have had some real fun taking out the trash as her. She served a purpose, one that I don’t need anymore. At least not below. Both Dahlia and the Disciples have to be taken down as Command Sergeant Major Shadow Flare. The last surviving Inquisitor. But without the armor. I will destroy them without it. Then I will go home. My real home.

“If Black Widow has to go above the clouds, she will. But first I have to go above. And first, I have to chose. Pleasant or Awesome.”

Shadow Flare took a deep breath in and let it out. He touched his necklace through his armor. “Above, I wasn’t known as this ruthless killer. I was skilled, focused, but not ruthless. I was in control. I was kind and pleasant. I am becoming a wasteland pony, no, a nightmare. Worse than a raider. I am something I don’t want to be. I am my dreams.

“The wasteland takes but it never gives.

“I will leave this statuette here. I choose Fluttershy over Rainbow Dash. Pleasant doesn’t mean timid or pushover. But this drives me deeper than any other magic thing I have experienced. Even Kifo Herixleta doesn’t effect me, who I am. But this is too close to my heart.”

Shadow turned around to see where he should leave it. He was in a place that wasn’t easy to get to, but he didn’t want to just leave it. His eye finally caught the glimpse of a floor safe. He crawled over to it and unlocked it. Decayed junk was inside, but it had room for the statuette, so Shadow set it inside.

He felt the power drain from him. And instead of missing it, he felt relieved. He felt, normal. There wasn’t fear in his heart anymore. The pain was there, but he no longer felt on edge.

Shadow closed the safe and locked it. He began to climb down the cliff. It wasn’t too difficult, even in the dark. He needed to leave before he went back for the statuette. Perhaps it would benefit somepony else, later. He just wasn’t that pony. Not at the place he was in life.

Right now, he just needed to be home in Trottingham.

Chapter 130 - Beginning of the End

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Shadow almost made it to Trottingham before it got to late. Instead, he decided to settle down for the night and get to town early the next day. It was an easy trot into the city in the morning.

On the workbench in his home was the repaired and enhanced necklace chain. There was no letter, just the chain. Shadow grabbed it and then put his battle saddle on the workbench. Behind his closed bedroom door he disrobed and put the chain back on instead of the string. It felt a little heavier than it had before.

Shadow folded the Black Widow costume up neatly and stashed it inside the floor where it would be safe. Hidden forever. It was time for it to be retired. At least for below. Above might need it.

Shadow needed to wear something, and he was sick of the combat armor. He had sweat for nights in it. He put on his Blue Beret uniform, including the Jacket and beret. The jacket might look like a little much for the weather, but it was comforting to his wings. That was the design, to keep his wings warm and ready in every weather.

He went about his shopping. The first place was to visit Red Tip. His magnum rounds were done. He had already paid. He didn’t stay to chat. Shadow just focused on the final pieces. He restocked on some medical supplies and went home.

Shadow ate quickly and began to strip his entire set up down and clean it. He made it shine nice and pretty. It was still in stellar condition. It’s lack of wear was a testament to the love he poured into it.

Shadow set it aside, made some tea, and oiled Kifo Herixleta. Tracking Dahlia would be his first concern. But it might take a while. He hadn’t made much of a profit on his trip, so his reserves were nearly spent.

Shadow needed to fix that. But he didn’t want to work for it. Not too hard anyway. He had the stored bricks from the Lux, but that wasn’t that much. Still, that specific vault in the Lux was farther away from the epicenter. It may have escaped the Steel Ranger eyes.

Shadow grinned. He would make one last heist. But not as Black Widow. It would be his own. The Zebra Cloak would do the job.

Shadow packed the few things he needed and left. It was just his sword, revolver, and saddlebags with some food and his personals. A really light trip. He could make it there by dawn and have time to see if it was even possible.

As Shadow poked his head into the Lux it became clear that the Steel Ranger scribes were focused on the main set of buildings and the destruction there. The bodies of the Lux leaders were still at their table. He wasn’t even sure if they had checked out the upper villas. It meant Shadow easily got to his lookout and bedded down safely. He snoozed through most of the day and then was ready to go.

It was thrilling to be doing a heist as himself. It would have real ramifications if he failed. The doors were still well oiled and he slipped inside. The vault door was locked, but he fixed that.

Everything was where he had left it. They hadn’t found the vault yet. Shadow grabbed the manifest and stashed it in his bags. He wouldn’t leave them a list to check if they ever did find it. Shadow loaded every cap brick he could and then more in his throw bag. He was out and gone before it hit midnight.

If he was banished below, Shadow would make an expert thief. He would consider it if things played out that way. But he was becoming more and more sure that he would be welcomed back.

Shadow couldn’t just walk into the bank with the bricks of caps. That would be too noticeable. He spent an hour unpacking half of them and dumping them into sacks. He hadn’t checked in with the bank, so they wouldn’t find it odd that he brought in several thousand caps a few days later.

Shadow napped a few hours until it was mid morning. He got back on the road and back to Trottingham. Strawberry was working, so he had the time to stash the other half of the bricks in his room and head to the bank.

It was Mtoaji, they didn’t question a large number of caps being deposited. They were used to him putting near ridiculous amounts into his account. They knew what he was doing. It made sense, enough.

When Shadow got back to his home he had to get serious. He had to plan. Finding Dahlia was the biggest problem. She would pay for killing Nor and hunting him. For all the days he worried, looking over his shoulder for her. And never being able to unfold his wings because of her. Right before she died, she would discover that it was him she had been hunting, that her suspicions were correct.

Shadow needed to leave this place ready for his absence. He pulled out all the Black Widow information and stashed it under the floorboards with the rest of the stuff and the rest of the cap bricks. It was stuffed, but hidden. Nothing in the condominium was tied to that identity.

With that Shadow headed to bed. It had been another push, and he wasn’t on edge anymore. Shadow heard Strawberry get up in the morning, but laid in bed for a while still.

Shadow packed everything he would need. Everything needed to go home once he succeeded. The china stayed, along with the anti-machine rifle, and the Blue Beret uniform. If things went right, he could go back for them.

Taking on Dahlia meant he would need armor piercing rounds. Every magazine was switched out for the penetrating power of of the armor piercing rounds. Every shotgun magazine had the magnum rounds.

Shadow picked up a piece of paper and wrote a note for Strawberry.

Strawberry

I am making a run for information. I think I know where I need to go. If I am not back in six months, I am either dead, or I made it back. Then you should take over the bed room. Make it yours. It will be yours anyway when the time runs out.

The journey to my home is very long, difficult, and comes with its own dangers. If I am successful, there is a good chance I won’t come back to Trottingham.

It has been a great pleasure to know you. To call you a friend. You have done more for me than you realize.

Mtoaji

Shadow was gone before Strawberry was awake. He was going to New Appleloosa. From there, maybe he could find Dahlia’s trail.

The caravan trail was familiar by now, and very easy traveling. Shadow made quick work of the distance. Twice he met Hive Caravans with Operators guarding them. He arrived and bought a bed for a week.

Asking for a Steel Ranger, especially one that hunted others, was dangerous. So Shadow went to the outdoor cafe and spent the rest of the day sitting and watching. Listening to the city. It had very interesting things to say.

Shadow spent the next day watching from the same seat. He only got up to use the restroom. They were well compensated for the use of their table.

A unicorn stallion sat down at the table with him. “For two days you have been here, watching. What are you watching for?”

“Someone,” Shadow replied.

“Does this some one have a name?”

“Yes,” Shadow nodded.

“How about a description then?”

“I watch for a mint green mare, with a blue mane.”

“I know a mare like that. She comes around every so often. Last I know she went south. Which most likely means she will come north to here. There are not many places she could come back through.”

Shadow wasn’t dumb. He pulled out 100 caps and passed them to the unicorn in silent thanks.

It did give Shadow time to plan. He had 8 Steel Rangers to kill. 8 ways to kill them. He would devise special ways to kill each and tell her how he was going to hunt them down. He would make her quake in fear by the end. When she was the last, she would shit herself, knowing she would soon die. That she could not stop her own death. That she had caused her own demise.

First, he would drill a bullet into the head of the first one, unseen. The second would be from his pistol, concealed. The third, would walk into his blade. The fourth, he would kill with his battle saddle, seen. The fifth would fall prey to his shotgun at close range. The sixth and seventh would be cut in half with Kifo Herixleta, at the same time. And Dahlia herself, he would slay her in her quarters in Fillydelphia. Up close and personal.

Shadow had his second business in Fillydelphia. The Disciples would die. He wouldn’t have long to do the deed. He would have to take them down in one good go. And with them, their sky guns had to be taken down. Shadow couldn’t leave a single one operational.

At some point, the Enclave would come. And they were looking heavily at Filly. Those guns had to fall in order for Filly to be taken. Shadow wanted to see Fillydelphia fall. Fall into hooves that would take good care of it.

Shadow continued to watch and wait. Eventually he noticed an interesting pair take a seat at the table behind him. A crimson Earth Pony with a black mane. One eye was blue, the other had a patch wrapped around it. He was joined by an older pale gray Earth Pony, also with a black mane. They ordered food and settled in for a long wait.

It wasn’t hard to overhear their chit chat without looking at them. I was hard to ignore the black Griffon than came walking down the street and took a seat at their table. Especially since she had an anti-machine rifle on her back. It was impossible to not overhear them, even though it was loud in the cafe.

“My name is Stern. You seek an ally? A powerful one?”

“I wish to unify pony kind. Rebuild what was lost into an even greater society. This wasteland can be restored. I need strong ponies, or Griffons, to help me do that.”

“Where? And what makes you think you are strong enough.”

“My name is Red Eye. When my own kind turned its back on this world, I righted that wrong and am here now to share it. Where is the best place to start?”

“There isn’t exactly an opening. Fillydelphia is a war zone between the Disciples and the Steel Rangers. And if the Steel Rangers can’t eliminate them, well even I couldn’t gather an army big enough for you enough to do that.

“Las Pegasus will kill you. Their air is foul and they are a ghoul army. Canterlot is mostly pink cloud. What is left, it isn’t worth trying to set down any roots. Manehatten, if its not ruins, its occupied. And well, again you would have to have a massive army to take any of that. Trottingham is a Steel Ranger stronghold as well. They are fiercely loyal to the settlements around them.

“The biggest set of raiders have been eliminated. One called Black Widow did that. The last big raider gang is in Fillydelphia. I don’t know if Black Widow can or will try to eliminate them. She hit the Pack. That was an interesting strike.”

“So, you mean what?”

“I mean, I can provide you the muscle, but building it, that isn’t something we can easily do. You are going to need a better plan than muscle. Muscle will stop the raiders and keep social order, that is all. These guys are not farmers or builders.”

Shadow pulled out a new piece of paper as they continued their discussion.


If you really wish to rebuild this forsaken land, I have a proposition for you. The Disciples are not going to last much longer. They have slaves. Slaves who will be soon free. They may wish to rebuild their lives alongside you. That is up to them.

In two weeks the Disciples will fall. On the 14th morning from now, their gate will be unguarded and you may enter. It is a nasty area, decorated with blood and filth. It will require a lot of cleaning. But it may serve you well.

If you are really going to rebuild this world.


It was a lot of big talk. Stuff the Griffon didn’t quite believe. But Shadow knew that somepony would be coming after him. Somepony who could unite the wasteland and take it the final steps to being ready for unification as Equestria again. He was going to clean out the Disciples anyway. This gave the slaves the best option to stay free. Shadow was going to release them. They could work out how they rebuilt their lives with the crimson pony.

Shadow got up and walked across the street to Absolutely Everything. Inside he approached a Unicorn filly. She was ragged and starving.

“Hey,” Shadow said with a tap on her shoulder. “I was given this note to deliver to two ponies in the cafe across the street. But I’m too afraid of the Griffon. I have this thing about Griffons. So I’ll give you 50 caps to deliver it. Up front.”

She levitated the caps and the note from him.

“Its the pony with the crimson coat.”

She nodded and ran out. Shadow slipped up to the entrance to watch her. She delivered it to the right table and he slipped further into the shop. He got the zebra cloak on and was gone. He headed to his room for the rest of the evening.

Shadow had put himself onto a clock. Sitting around New Appleloosa wasn’t getting him anywhere. He would stick to it and have plenty of time to destroy the Disciples. Dahlia would go down after.

Shadow saw no sign of the others as he sat down to eat an early breakfast. When he finished and paid he glanced down the street one last time. He saw 8 familiar Steel Rangers coming into town from the south.

Shadow went into Absolutely Everything once again. He needed some supplies anyway. But he also needed to get them his hit list. Things would happen quickly. Very quickly. He found the same filly in there, trying to buy food.

“Here,” Shadow said, stepping over and paying.

“Thank you,” She said shakily. “Another message?”

“Yeah,” Shadow said, smiling at her. “But this one is a new pony. And here is 100 caps for doing it. This note is for the Steel Rangers.”

“I’ll give them it and run.” She took the note and caps and headed out.

Shadow quickly paid for his supplies. He slipped out and she was already heading down the street while Dahlia was opening the note. Shadow cloaked himself and watched from out of the way.

He had written the note to be straightforward.

Dahlia

I am your worst nightmare. As you have hunted me, so I will hunt you. I am the last survivor of the pegasus group you have hunted and killed. We came in peace, and you had other plans. You muted your ears and blinded your eyes. You have killed my friends, both with your own gun and because you have made it impossible for us to survive. Alone, you shall get your due.

8, I will take a dragoon and you will not see the bullet that will rip into his head. 7 shall be from my pistol. You will not know where it came from. 6 will be up close. They will walk into their death, making it shear them apart. 5 you will see me, but be unable to stop me from killing your Dragoon. 4 will fall prey to the claws of a shotgun’s balls. The 3 and 2 will die together.

You will find no rest until I send you to a worse place than this land. I will come for you when I want your head. You are powerless. My mercy is over. With your death, I will be able to go home. I will be free.


Dahlia was fuming and screaming. Her team spread out, trying to see who was watching. The entire area had frozen in their mid morning routines. An angry Dahlia was never a good thing.

“Helmets on,” Dahlia ordered. “We move out now!”

Shadow smiled under his cloak Her pain brought him pleasure. The Statuette reminded him to be pleasant. But they had caused him too much pain over the months.

Shadow maneuvered ahead of them out of New Appleloosa. He got outside of the city guard’s range and set up his position. Dahlia and her Dragoons were leaving in a good pattern. They were acting perfectly military. But they couldn’t avoid what they couldn’t see. And they couldn’t shoot back at him if they didn’t hear his shot.

Their predictable actions made the shot easy. Shadow dialed into the individual he numbered as 8. It was the least painted one. Shadow figured their orange and black painted accents were occurred over time, indicating the rookie from the senior knights.

The only way to tell a shot had been fired was the brass casing that dropped out from under his cloak into the dust. The Steel Ranger was hit in the back of the head. The body didn’t react, it just dropped. Slowly as the armor caught the weight of the body inside.

“What!” Dahlia called out.

“Simple Stone just dropped.”

“Dahlia, its a bullet. Small, back of the head.”

“What! How! Where!”

“Hit the deck!”

“I don’t see anypony.”

“Was it the New Appleloosa guards?”

“No, how? They don’t have the weapons to shoot this far. Especially small calibers. Can you confirm that?”

“I have blood, Dahlia. I pulled his helmet off. Its a small caliber, probably 5.56. Armor piercing. It stayed in the helmet. Massive damage. He’s gone. It was quick. A perfect shot.”

“If this is like the note, then we have a problem.”

“Alright,” Dahlia said getting her head back on straight. “We move. Straight to Filly. Fuck everything. Let’s just get to some allies and safety.”

They held onto the misguided idea of no soldier left behind. But it would only slow them down and make them easier to track. Shadow used the map to plan their most likely route and got ahead of them with a straight run, wide of their path. He waited for them to approach the trees. When they got inside, he would take down Number 7.

They were cautious as they entered the fringes of the trees. It gave them cover from longer ranges, but it meant they had to be more vigilant. Still, their flank could see any normal attackers trying to come across the open area.

Shadow found a tree on the edge to the clearing and climbed it. He would take 7 from the side. The target came into range. Shadow waited for a close shot. It mattered so that he didn’t miss. He was sure of his skills, but now wasn’t the time to test it. A mistake would give them hope.

The shot echoed off the trees as it kicked the Dragoon’s head to the side in a clean snap. The side kick blocked the downward trajectory of the shot. They didn’t rush over as he dropped. He laid there for a minute while they tried to find cover. They began to make the standard military call outs for identifying the threat. But they couldn’t see him and came up empty.

Shadow carefully moved over the branches of the tree and slid down the trunk before they began to move. By the time they checked 7, he was gone. Shadow could be out in the open without worrying about being seen.

6 was probably the most difficult, and he put that limitation on himself. He had to get Kifo Herixleta through the Steel Ranger armor as they walked into it. Close work, without being seen, heard, or sensed.

The best time for that was as the night took over. They would bed down, but that wasn’t necessarily bad. Taking out their guard would be easy. With several resting, it would be safer. In order to win, Shadow had to manage his safety margin. If he reduced the risk he took, he would succeed.

When they did bed down, the first shift was taken by Dahlia and her second. Shadow took the opportunity to sleep for a few hours. When he woke up and crawled over to their camp it was the start of third shift. His chosen 6 was still asleep, but 5 and 3 were on guard. 5 and 6 were not obviously different from each other, rank wise. It was an okay swap.

Shadow made it to their outside line. Against a tree, cloaked, he planned. They were moving in their vigil. It was enough movement for him to work with.

From his spot Shadow drew Kifo Herixleta. Shadow focused on the tip of the blade until the heat shifted there. For the moment, he slid the blade into the ground to conceal it. Shadow used the tree to hide and then kicked a stone over.

It caught the attention of both 5 and 3. 5 cautiously slipped over to get a look at the other side of the tree. It didn’t give him a chance to see the glowing blade as he stepped around. As he hit the point Shadow helped him by giving the blade the momentum it needed to cut through him. As it went in he added the heat to the rest of the blade.

Shadow pulled 5 in close as he transferred the blade from red hot to white ice. It was a quiet death. 5 may have had his helmet on, but it was easy to tell he wasn’t understanding what was happening. Shadow let go, killing the enchantment in the blade and pulled it out, slowly.

He took several steps back away from 5. He heard the other Steel Ranger call 5’s real name. He finally got to his fellow Steel Ranger as the body tipped to lean against the tree. The others jumped up as they heard his frantic calls.

“Move!” Dahlia ordered. “Move now! We can’t help them. We will outsmart him. No Pegasus Shithead will ever outsmart me and my Dragoons. Their head is in the clouds.”

“And probably he is,” 3 said. “Dahlia, that’s got to be how this keeps happening.”

“And still not seeing him?” Dahlia shot back. “Wings or not, we still can’t see him. He has to have a StealthBuck. Move! We need support.”

“The others?”

“Just grab their tags and lets go! Its all we have time for if we want to save our skins.”

Shadow watched them start off. He waited a bit to make sure he was tracking them at a safe distance. 6 would die with him known. He would have to let them confirm him, but be fast enough to not get hit.

His tracking didn’t take long until he found them harassing a pony. He took the advantage to get in position. What had them so focused when he was hunting them was of a big interest. They were on the run, not the hunt.

The five of them had corralled and encircled a brown stallion with an orangish yellow mane. He was unarmored, but some appeared to be at his feet. His brown eyes were flashing with fear.

“He’s got to be him!” 2 said.

“Too easy,” Dahlia shot back. “No way.”

“N...now ah ain’t-”

“I said shut up!” Dahlia ordered as she paced.

Shadow moved to the next tree over to see better. They had him circled up closely. The position gave him a new look at the stallion’s unarmored flank. It was bubbling red with open pockets of flesh. The telltale markers of a severe burn.

But the shape was of the burn was of a greater concern. The shape was a cloud, with a lightning bolt coming out of it. The stallion was forced back and he tripped on a root, causing him to rear back. For balance he opened his wings.

Shadow’s heart sank. Was this Pegasus really deserving of his brand? Cloudy Snow wasn’t. Was he? It was more than just a dark mark on his flank. It was a real, deep pain. One he would probably feel for the rest of his life, living on as a ghost in his head long after it had healed.

“Ah got branded cause ah spoke out! I broke muh orders when ah came below. And fer that, ah was kicked out of the Enclave.”

Shadow’s heart exploded with passion. He would not let them punish the Pegasus for having wings. He was innocent in this fight. It was between him and Dahlia. No one but the Inquisitors and Dahlia’s Dragoons were supposed to be involved.

“Dahlia!” Shadow yelled stepping out from the tree. “I’m over here!”

They froze as their attentions snapped to look at Shadow. He wasn’t concealed this time. His hat was low over his head and he had Mwokozi’s cloak wrapped around him like a robe. But he was identifiable.

“Whoever he is, he has no idea who I am. He is innocent!”

Dahlia telegraphed everything she was doing as she reared up to get her guns on Shadow. He stepped to the side and her shot missed. He returned fire, a single shot. It popped into 6’s chest. Shadow rolled to cover and he heard several shots ring out, but not at him. They had opened fire on the other Pegasus.

Dahlia charged towards Shadow’s location. He dashed out and led her on a simple chase deeper into the woods. She lost track of him quickly, thanks the cloak. Her Dragoons caught up to her and they ran off together. 6 was with them, but Shadow could see he was hurting. It was a perfect shot to the heart. The 5.56 round was stupid light, especially considering the small hole the armor piercing round made. Still, 6 would drop soon enough.

Eight Dragoons were down to four in a few hours.

Shadow got back and around to the Pegasus. He was slumped against the tree, unconscious. Shadow dropped down next to him and quickly got Med-X in him. He carefully massaged a health potion down his throat and then got to binding up the wounds. He pulled out his last stitch kit.

His head had a gash along its side where the armored hoof of a Dragoon had slammed into it. It was the reason he lost consciousness. But they had put lead in him as well. It wasn’t in any particular pattern as they rushed to get at Shadow.

The first bullet was impacted into the sternum. It was easy to pull out and stitch up. The second was a through and through at his shoulder. Again, easy to stitch up. Shadow had to watch his stitching so that he didn’t waste any of the thread. He would need it all. The third was in the foreleg. It was mushroomed out perfectly and resting against the cracked bone. The last was a nick in his neck. The bullet had grazed him. If it had been half an inch to the left he would have been dead.

After it was all patched up Shadow wrapped him with magical bandages. It took 3 packs to cover the wounds properly. That included his flanks. It was all simple things he had learned to do a long while ago. Shadow massaged another health potion down his throat.

The Pegasus was worn and scruffy. There was a chance he had taken radiation. He wasn’t going to try massaging RadAway down an unconscious pony.

Shadow had to complete his hit. He had promised Dahlia and he needed to keep that promise. He had to finish them off before she got to Fillydelphia. She had to arrive alone. If not, he was in trouble. Getting at more than her would be impossible.

Shadow had to believe he had done all he could do. Logically He had. Leaving the Pegasus was a risk. But he could leave him with the best he had.

The Pegasus’ gear was a little bit away. He had been corralled away from it. Shadow picked up the helmet that the Pegasus had. The helmet felt alien. Like he had never held it before. But he had worn the same at one time.

It had been on top of the rest of his armor. But he couldn’t wear it long, if at all, because of the burns. Shadow found the suit the Pegasus had been wearing under the armor. It was bloody and sticky on the flank. The inside was covered in his own puss and coat. He had been trying to dry it off and clean it before he wore it again.

It was all so familiar. It was all what he wanted. But it didn’t feel real. Maybe it was because it wasn’t his. But maybe it was because he no longer was an Enclave soldier.

The very idea of it brought tremendous fear. Shadow didn’t hear much of the conversation the Pegasus had with Dahlia, but it sounded like the Pegasus had been below, on a mission. Which meant missions were still happening. Recon was still running and Scouts were operating below. If they were operating, and he hadn’t heard about it, were they even searching for him? If they were not, was it because he was considered dead or worse, had he been banished? Banished without being able to make a defense for himself?

His vision faded as the implications choked out the light, bent on killing him while he sat there. Shadow touched his necklace. He felt it press against his coat and the darkness recede. He had no option but to push to go above. Home was still home. It was worth it.

He would leave the valuable stuff below, hidden in the mountains at Fort Griffon’s Gate. That way, he could recover them if he was banished. If not, he could slip down and recover them. His best chance was the Wonderbolts.

The Pegasus didn’t have much in his bags, just some scavenged wild food. He needed more if he was to survive. Shadow left him a box of the prewar apple shit. He put 500 caps inside as well and then moved the bags to his sleeping side. He added Med-X, a RadAway, and a health potion. With everything protected, inside the bags, he needed to move on. But a note was a good idea.


Pegasus,

Sorry you got caught up in this. This fight was between me and them. They had no reason to open fire on you. Other Steel Rangers are not so stupid, but caution is wise. Her actions have finally brought about a consequence she can not stop.

When you wake up, drink the health potion I put in your bag. I gave you one already, but you need it. The bigger bottle is RadAway. I don’t know how much radiation you have taken. Banish Pegasi often take massive amounts due to not knowing where to avoid. Take it if you need it. I would just to be safe. The syringe is Med-X, it helps ease pain. Use it if you need to, but you will get high, so be careful. You are wrapped with magical bandages to speed healing and I stitched you up well. Its all I could do physically. It would be hard to find better care out here unless you had a unicorn doctor.

I have to go finish my business with those Steel Rangers. They won’t be around to kill you. Dahlia hates wings. She kills Pegasi for being Pegasi. If your flanks are any indication, you were banished below. I don’t know how much you know. Below, the money is bottle caps, not bits. I put some in your bag to help you get started. Along with some food.

The crude map on the back will help point you towards the nearest town. Go there. They are friendly enough. It is safe. The other two marks are good ones for you two know. One is the shack of a Pegasus from the war or just after. Rainbow Dash is my belief. The second, many banished go to this rock and leave behind the last ties to their old life in the Enclave. Maybe it will be of some help to you. I hear it is a good way to get closure.

Good luck down here.


Shadow looked at the armor and clothes. Shadow had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be using them. He was going to have to go naked for a bit. He put his hat on top of the Pegasus’ head and edited the note.


P.S. Take my hat. It will give you some cover if you can’t wear your armor. I wouldn’t. But either way, I know Pegasus Soldiers don’t like to go naked. Its something the Enclave makes you believe in. At least you can have a hat to help keep the dust out of your face.


Shadow took the hard step away from him. He wanted to stay. To teach him for a few days and then move on. But he had a prey to kill and a home to get to.

The first step was the worst. He was soon moving fine, tracking what really mattered. Ten minutes later he found the body of 6. He approached cautiously. They didn’t set a trap. A poor choice. But it confirmed how deep the fear was that he has seeded inside of their mind.

Shadow put his endurance to the test. He quickly caught up to them. It was pathetic. They were tough fighters, or they wouldn’t have the reputation they had. But their endurance was lacking. Especially since they knew the land and were always on the move.

4 was shotgun. But he had time. Some anyway. They were clearly heading towards that Griffon junction. R-7 if he recalled correctly. They might stop there to get some support.

Shadow mixed tracking with staying ahead of them. He worked his way ahead, predicted where they would go, and watched the path they took. As the evening wore down, they didn’t come. He worked his way towards their last known point. They were near a stream, drinking and huffing. They were worn down.

Shadow took the moment to fill his canteens. They had the right idea. He was upstream from them. He contemplated trying to float a grenade down the stream, but grenades didn’t float. Getting one on a raft to carry it was not hard, but the stream wasn’t moving that quickly. He was better off striking while they were down, trying to rest.

It was easy to circle around. 3 was at the stream. Four was further than he wanted to deal with. 2 was obviously Dahlia’s second in command. 3 or 4, it didn’t matter. Just like 5 and 6. They were arbitrary numbers he assigned them to identify them.

So Shadow stepped out from cover on the other side of the stream. He bumped his battle saddle to his shotgun. That was enough for them to hear him and see him. 3 froze, head barely above the water that he was refilling his canteen in. Shadow fired three times before diving off to the side to avoid their gunfire. The magnum rounds had shredded the Steel Ranger armor like butter. The stream stopped them from pursuing him.

And then there was three.

Three very scared Steel Rangers. Shadow quickly turned around and tracked them. They were moving as fast as they could, making a beeline to Junction R-7. Shadow picked up his speed, following them. If they spread out they could put him a jam, but fear was reigning. Even if they did, his cloak was easy enough to put up and disappear.

Shadow was forced to put his cloak on as he got near the train tracks. He couldn’t risk being seen. The darkness only helped so much. He crossed quickly and arrived at the junction. Cloaked, he slipped past the defenses and got to the center. Dahlia, 3 and 2 were there, the Griffons formed a close semicircle around them.

“Talons,” Dahlia wheeze in the firelight. “I have a thousand caps to the Griffon that kills the Pegasus hunting us. Bring me the head and wings.”

“Thousand caps for a hit?” One of them asked, stepping forward. “Seems like you might be a little more generous for it.”

“Fine, fifteen hundred. Its a white pegasus. Weird robe, cowboy hat. Small. Don’t underestimate him.”

Shadow felt cocky. He wanted to make them all fear him. He was afraid of Griffons. More than he should be. Unicorns were worse. Striking now would make them all afraid, and conquer his fear.

Shadow wasn’t far from Dahlia and they all were focused on her. He drew Kifo Herixleta with his mouth and charged. At the last moment pulled the cloak off his head, transferred the blade to the band, and slid next to 3. He let loose a battle cry while holding the sword aloft with the band, flaming.

3’s head rolled and Shadow leaped over 3’s crumbling body, diving into a roll. 2 almost got his guns on Shadow, but he skipped to the side and used the maneuverability of the band to slice 2 all the way through. Chest to tail and through Steel Ranger armor. Kifo Herixleta wasn’t even phased.

Things felt slow as adrenaline kicked him into overdrive. Shadow caught Dahlia’s face and he smirked. They locked eyes for half a second, but the rest of the Griffons were bearing down on him.

Shadow vaulted forward as he used his left hoof to cover his head and activate the stealth cloak, while the other sheathed the blade under his cloak. The area he had just been was shredded with bullets, shotgun shot, and lasers. At least two had full blow magic weapons among the laser weapons.

But they couldn’t shoot what they couldn’t see. Taking to the air wasn’t wise, even in the night. The Griffons were already covering that and it was risky with the cloak. He hadn’t tested it flying. There was no guarantee that the enchantment would hold for a dead spit either. A good trot was the fastest he had done before.

Shadow danced around them. It was easier as they spread out in all directions. They were loud and trying to stay organized in the darkness, making it easier for him to avoid them. The night was always his friend. Even though he couldn’t see the stars, they were there for him.

Shadow got ahead of Dahlia’s projected path and bedded down, hidden by the cloak. He slept for an hour and got back on her trail. It was easy because four Griffons were with her. Two in the air and two walking with her. Whether she was paying them or they were trying to be as close to her as possible to get to his head, he couldn’t tell. But she was pathetically easy to track.

Shadow took the liberty to marathon it ahead of her to Fillydelphia and posted up in a two story house. It was near the path she would have to take to get to her contingent’s facility. He remembered the path Rebel Queen took him on.

Dahlia was dragging. Shadow power napped in 15 minute segments. It took her 3 hours to finally come into sight. Even then, Shadow had plenty of time.

The Griffons took off before having to deal with the rest of the Steel Rangers. They watched her stumble forward. Seeing her reminded Shadow of the endurance he possessed. Endurance he was using and often went unappreciated.

She staggered towards the concrete slab she called home. The recruiting center of the once great Equestrian Military. Shadow was using his cloak to get close. Getting inside would not be easy. It had to be cramped inside. There could be no mistakes. And his wings would make drafts, and drafts would not be inside a controlled system.

For now, Shadow watched Dahlia as she was stopped by a knight.

“Knight!” She huffed. “I, I, he killed them. My Dragoons are dead. We need to bring this base on full alert. He wants to kill me. He can! He said he would do it, and can. He can go invisible! He can be right next to you and you wouldn’t know it!”

“Calm down,” The Knight said.

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” Dahlia growled. “I just made the trek from New Appleloosa to here in three days! And on little sleep!”

A paladin stepped over and she tried to explain the situation again. But it just wasn’t coming out right. She stuttered and stumbled, expecting them to have information they didn’t have.

“Lets get you inside,” The Paladin said.

“I want to speak to the Elder!” Dahlia said digging her hooves in to resist being moved.

“He isn’t available today. He is negotiating some thing with Star Paladin Warding Blade from the Trottingham Contingent. But he will see you as soon as possible.”

“I don’t want to be left alone,” Dahlia said, starting to sob.

“Fine. But lets get you inside.”

Dahlia’s hoof didn’t catch her and she went down. They did a quick check, expecting it to be a wound after her rambling about being hunted. But it was just mental and physical exhaustion.

Shadow closely followed them into the building. It’s ground floor walls were painted with the glory of the Equestrian military. The main floor was being used as an outpost. Coffee and desks for planning the guards was set out. But it had too much activity to easily look at their charts and documents.

They carried Dahlia to the stairwell. The steel door was pulled open, split down the center. It was kept open. Something they would regret and soon change. Their entire idea of safety and regulations would be destroyed. And Shadow had to make sure it changed after he escaped the confines of the concrete.

The entire thing was steel. The stairs were very sharp and supported by bars that jutted out to support them. They supported a central walkway that acted as a floor, doubling their space. It was all steel with soft yellow lights illuminating the area. But they left plenty of dark places to hide along the walls.

Shadow had to flatten himself against the wall to avoid several Steel Rangers coming up the stairs. But the suspension of the stairs made it easy to go undetected. It was pathetic how easy it was for him to get in. If a door wasn’t open, it would be opened soon, allowing Shadow to slip through.

The sub structure was massive. He had lost the trail of Dahlia. On his quest, Shadow quickly found the hydroponics lab, armory, and a records room with a large number of terminals and giant mainframe. Multiple bedrooms were also found. Somewhere they had to have water reserves and recycling systems.

He finally found Dahlia in the infirmary. She was in the care of a scribe with a red cross on her robe’s sleeve. Shadow slipped in to watch. It was basic care, including a simple IV drip. Shadow just had to wait.

After a few hours she was moved to her room. That made things easier. As the scribes got her off the gurney, Shadow had the open door and sound cover to cover his entrance.

That left them alone. But Shadow couldn’t do anything until she was awake. He just had to wait, without falling asleep. Dahlia was checked on twice.

She awoke on her own. Before she could call out, Shadow stepped over to her and had the tip of Kifo Herixleta at her throat. It was placed to make it difficult to breath or talk.

“You,” Dahlia groaned. “How?”

“Way to easy,” Shadow replied quietly. “Way to easy.”

“So, Mtoaji, you have me. Are you going to kill me?”

“As promised,” Shadow replied coldly. “My real name is Command Sergeant Major of Reconnaissance Shadow Flare. Grand Pegasus Enclave. We came in peace, unsure of what was going on below. We tried, but you Steel Rangers opened fire on us during those talks, here in Fillydelphia. And then you went to hunt us.

“You have caused a deep division between the Steel Rangers and the Pegasus Race. And when the time comes for us to rejoin Equestria, you will be a problem. There will be a war.”

“So, why has it taken you all this time to kill me? And why just me?”

“Because,” Shadow growled. “I had better things to do most of that time. A