Fallout: Equestria - A Guardian's Tale

by Pallydan

First published

Aria, a noblepony and a member of Luna's Royal Guard, is thrown through time to a bleak future.

Aria always idolized her aunt, Princess Luna. So when the war began to ravage Equestria she answered the call to arms and joined the Royal Guard, specifically Princess Luna's personal guard. But on her first day as her aunt's protector, a zebra plot is discovered, and Aria sacrifices her life to save Canterlot. Or did she? Waking up in Stable 63, Aria is confronted with the horrifying reality that all she ever knew and loved died in an explosion of hellfire two hundred years ago. Now she must leave Stable 63 and venture into ruins of Trottingham so she can try to save the failing Stable, discover why she is still alive, and unravel the secrets of a mysterious prophecy given to her by an equally mysterious group of gods. (Or is she just going crazy?)
Cover art done by http://serenamidori.deviantart.com/.

Prologue - A Life of Privilege Denied

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Fallout: Equestria - A Guardian's Tale
Prologue: A Life of Privilege Denied

Life isn't fair; but, as long as you keep going and never give up, you can find the moments that make it worth living. That is what my grandmother always told me when the barbed arrows that had perforated my life since the day I was born hit me for yet another blow. It's hard to live with a family surrounded by wealth and privilege and be excluded due to the circumstances of your birth.

My name is Aria and I am a bastard. Not in the sense that I'm a mean pony, some ponies think I am quite nice, but in the sense that my father was not my mother's husband. To make it worse my family, if you could call them that, were members of Canterlot royalty. Appearance, position, and stature mean everything to nobles, especially my Uncle Blueblood. But before I get ahead of myself, I should start my story at the beginning. Let's start at the point where the shame, that was no fault of my own, began.

I was born on the longest day of the thousandth year. To some ponies that might not mean anything, but many remember it as the return of Nightmare Moon and her salvation at the hands of Twilight Sparkle and the other bearers of the Elements of Harmony. The friendship those six ponies shared had allowed the sun to finally rise and for Princess Luna to be returned to Equestria. I was born, just before dawn, on the day Princess Luna was reborn. You would think that would be a sign of good things to come or maybe an omen of a great destiny.

Nope. Not to my family. The baby born on the day of Princess Luna's return was not their child. She was not a princess because of her mother's sin. My mother, Elegant Star, was Prince Blueblood's older sister and a princess in her own right; had given birth to a reddish-brown baby unicorn with an equally dark brown mane, accented by a streak of dark blue. The only thing about me that seemed 'royal' were my violet eyes, but they were flecked with green spots. My grandmother always told me that my eyes had been kissed by dragon fire before I was born. My uncle said I was cursed.

Now you may be asking, 'Aria, what's so bad about being brown? Lots of ponies are brown.' And you would be right. The only problem is that my mother and her husband were both white coated and had golden blond manes; as did my Uncle Blueblood and Grandmother White Rose. My grandfather had had a light blue mane and a dark blue coat so maybe that was where the streak came from. My Aunt Celestia had purple eyes, so maybe mine came from her. But no member of the royal family was brown. Brown was not a royal color. Purple, cobalt, red, white, and gold. Those were the colors of nobility. Brown was the color of commoners. It's the color of the lower classes. It's a color, for my mother and me, of shame. And that wasn't where the unfairness ended.

My mother was forced to admit her adultery, but would not reveal the name of my biological father. Having her confession in hoof, her husband quickly divorced her and left Canterlot for his estate in Manehatten, taking my older brother with him. A few days later, my mother flung herself from Canterlot's highest tower and was gone. She had committed suicide and left me, a helpless little girl not even a week old, all alone in a frightening world. War was brewing with the zebras and the shame of a bastard in the aristocracy was a distraction that the royal family did not need. I don't know what happened next, but by the grace of Celestia, I was adopted by my elderly grandmother.

Grandmother White Rose was kind, yet firm. She took very little lip from me, nor would she allow any undue complaining, but still treated me like I was her own daughter, not her daughter's mistake. She was tough, but fair, and trained me in the ways of Canterlot nobility even though I had no chance of ever being considered a real member of our family. I was trained in etiquette, fencing, fashion, poise, and speech, but my favorite lessons were something I took to on my own. I'm a unicorn, so every unicorn knows a few spells. The easiest spells that most unicorn foals learn relatively early are levitation and casting light from our horns. I had mastered those by the time I was only five years old and wanted to learn more. I needed to learn more. That was when I first met her and my life changed forever. That was the night I first met Princess Luna.

I had just finished reading my book on 'Levitation and Lighting for Foals' for what seemed like the hundredth time, and I decided I wanted another book to read. Did I mention that I love books? They're amazing. Fiction allowed me to escape my fate as the shunned bastard and become a hero like Daring Do while Non-Fiction allowed me to expand my mind and learn anything and everything about any number of topics. Magic was what I wanted to learn more than anything else, but there was a slew of topics right behind it to interest me. Books about the developing arcane sciences were interesting, but well over my capabilities as a filly, and tomes on history were almost as enrapturing as the stories of fictional characters. I especially liked the old tales of the valiant knights of Old Equestria like Sir Golden Lance the Bold or Sir Swift Strike the Gallant. I'm rambling, aren't I? Sorry. Um, where was I? Oh, yes, the night I met Princess Luna.

I needed to get into the Royal Library, but first I had to get past the guards that patrolled the castle. Being a little filly who was always forced into the background and ignored at family functions and parties, I had become quite proficient at not being seen. I needed to use all of my considerable sneakiness and diminutive size to sneak into the Royal Library. Thankfully, the royal guards never looked down when on patrol and the feat was much easier than I had imagined. No pony expects the quiet little filly with the dark brown coat.

It had been a simple matter on sneaking past the guards when they entered or left the library and, with a well timed dash through the door, I was in. Surrounded by books on all sides, some on shelves reaching almost fifty feet into the air, I was awestruck. I did not know where to begin. I just stood between two massive rows of books and stared with my mouth hanging open, my eyes wide in delight. To my left were history books that chronicled the entirety of Equestria's long history and to my right were books on spellcraft and magic. I loved this aisle immediately. History or magic? History or magic? My head kept turning back and forth between the two shelves in a vain attempt to decide which section I should raid for a new book to read. That was when I heard a giggle and spun around, almost losing my balance, and was face to face with a brown, leather bound book.

Floating in an aura of dark blue magic that sparkled like the stars in a clear night sky was a book titled The Life and Works of Star Swirl the Bearded. I smiled, amazed as the most perfect book I had ever seen floated before my eyes, and then I saw her. Beyond the book, sitting regally at a table further down the aisle, was Princess Luna! She ignited a candle on her table lined with stacks of books and I took in the majesty of the Princess of the Night. Even by candlelight, her midnight blue coat made her blend with the dark library around her better than I ever could and her luxurious mane flowed on a nonexistent wind and sparkled like the night sky she commanded.

"P-P-Princess Luna," I stammered. My little filly heart was filled with a mixture of unbridled excitement at finally getting to meet Equestria's night time monarch and pure terror at the thought that she might call the guards on me. A small smile crossed her face and I tried to match it as best as I could. My eyes kept darting to the book hovering to my right. I couldn't help myself and took the book into my own light blue magical grasp. I felt Princess Luna's levitation magic dissipate and had to quickly adjust to the increased strain on my horn.

"Good evening, child. It is odd to see a little pony as young as you in the library so late at night. Should you not be in bed?" she asked so pleasantly that I had been caught off guard and almost dropped the book. She had noticed and just continued smiling at me, although her soft grin grew just a little bit more as I fumbled to keep the book aloft. Any time my uncles or aunts would find me where I wasn't supposed to be I would get the tongue lashing of a lifetime. Especially if Uncle Blueblood caught me. He seemed to hate me instead of just look down on me like the rest of my family. I don't know how many times I went crying back to the comforting arms of my grandmother after a particularly nasty comment from my uncle.

"You may not be a real princess, deary, but you will always be my little princess," she would tell me as she stroked my mane with a tenderness that only a mother could give. I would cry and she would rock me in her rocking chair until I either stopped crying or fell asleep.

"Why are you so nice to me when everypony else doesn't like me?" I remembered myself asking one time, and she chuckled sadly.

"Because I failed as a mother. I will not fail as a grandmother too," she whispered. I did not understand what she meant at the time, but it made me sad to think she had failed too. I keep getting off track, don't I? I'm sorry. It's just that when you try to condense an entire life story into a single prologue it can get a bit difficult. I'm sure you would rather hear about Princess Luna instead so let's get back to that. I'll try not to let it happen again.

"I-I wanted a new book to read," I told the princess, sitting on my haunches and hugging the book she had given me to my chest. I would have offered a prayer to her not to call the guards, but I realized that would be stupid since it was her decision to turn me in or not anyway. Praying to a goddess not to do what a goddess wanted to do seemed counterproductive and a little bit foolish. She was sitting right in front of me after all.

"That is always a good pursuit, but you do not have to sit on the ground. Come. Sit with me," she said and gestured for me to sit across the table from her.

I let out a relieved sigh and nodded before climbing back to my hooves. I took the book back into my magical levitation aura and struggled to keep my focus on both lifting the precious literature and keeping my enamored gaze on the alicorn princess sitting at the table before me. She magically pulled the chair back for me and I climbed into the tall seat as quickly and carefully as I could. The chairs in the library were not made for a filly like me; I had to set the book on the table, stand on my hind legs, and place my forehooves on the table for balance just to see over the table. I stared at Princess Luna in silence, unable to think of anything to say to her. She was a princess... no, the princess. She and her older sister ruled all of Equestria and they were both practically gods! Princess Celestia raised the sun every day and Princess Luna raised the moon and the stars every night. As I watched Princess Luna, she furrowed her brow and pursed her lips before nodding to herself.

"You are our niece, are you not?"

I almost lost my balance and fell out of the chair right then and there. Princess Luna knew who I was! She even called me her niece! This was a dream come true. I nodded happily before remembering my true place and looking away.

"No. I'm not your niece. I'm not a real princess like my grandmother or a prince like my uncle or bro... my half brother. I'm a mistake," I said sadly, echoing what my family always called me. Princess Luna's eyebrows shot up as she seemed to be taken aback by my statement.

"Who told you this?" Luna asked, her cobalt eyes filled with concern.

"Uncle-er, Prince Blueblood," I replied, staring at the book on the table before me. "Keep your eyes low when addressing nobility, Aria. You may be from their blood, but they will most likely never accept you." I remembered my grandmother telling me once. It had hurt so much to hear, but she had been right. None of the nobility I had ever met gave me more than a passing glance. Well, besides Grandmother White Rose, of course. I felt a hoof placed on mine and looked up to see Princess Luna smiling at me.

"Can you keep a secret?" she asked, and I nodded.

"I do not very much care for your Uncle Blueblood," she confessed, and I could not help but giggle. Princess Luna let out a small, breathy giggle of her own. "What is your name, little niece."

"Aria," I whispered, barely able to speak after she called me her niece for a second time.

"Aria. That is a good name. Would you care to read with me, Aria?" she asked, a kindness I had never known emanating from her words. I nodded and she watched me open the book and dive into the history and magic of Star Swirl the Bearded. Sitting in the candlelit library, reading about an amazing unicorn from before the founding of Equestria, I was happier than I had ever been. Whenever I came across a word that I didn't know, like 'amniomorphic' or 'temporal,' she would explain the meaning until I understood and we would both return our books. I liked this. For once I wasn't Aria the mistake, but just Aria, Princess Luna's niece and reading partner. I never wanted this night to end, but after a few hours my tired eyes could barely stay open and I let out a loud yawn that even startled me. I quickly clamped my hooves over my mouth and wobbled precariously on my chair while a dark crimson blush flooded to my cheeks.

"It appears you have been awake far too late, Aria. You should go to bed," Luna told me, and I pouted.

"But I don't wanna go to bed. I like reading with you," I whined before my mouth released another yawn. I tried to clench my mouth shut, but it hurt and I had to let the air out. I had to blink a few times to force my eyes open for her. "See. I'm wide awake!" Princess Luna let out a breathy chuckle and shook her head.

"I'm sure we will be able to read together again. Perhaps your talent is magic and you can come to my school at Littlehorn when you get older?" she asked me, and I nodded profusely.

"Yes! I'd love that!" I shouted before throwing my hooves over my mouth again. Princess Luna simply smiled.

"Well, if I'm going to be your teacher some day, then you're going to have to be a good little girl and go to bed. Understood?" she asked and I smiled.

"But what about your book?" I asked, looking down at the amazing tome laying open on the table in front of me. I had only made it to the second chapter and I wanted to read it some more. Grandmother had a dictionary back in our suite that I could use to figure out the big words.

"Keep it."

"What? Really?" I asked, my eyes sparkling as the little emerald stars on my violet irises danced happily for the princess.

"Yes, really. But promise me you will take good care of it and be good for your grandmother, alright?" she asked, her tone gentle, yet firm. I could not stop nodding or smiling. This was the day I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. If I couldn't be a princess, I would be a princess' student. I took my future teacher's commands to heart, wrapped the book in my light blue magical glow, and jumped out of my chair. I bowed respectfully, spun around, and dashed out of the library with book in tow. I heard her giggle as I left and did not care about the shouts and nasty looks the guards shot me. I had found my life's goal and I vowed to myself that I was going to pursue it to the ends of Equestria and beyond. Little did I know how much of an understatement that vow was at the time.

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Reading and magic were my new passion. I so desperately wanted to spend more time with Princess Luna, but with the war came more responsibilities for her and Princess Celestia. Grandmother told me that Princess Luna only had time for her royal duties and her students. She was hardly in Canterlot anymore, usually teleporting between Littlehorn and Hoofington, but that just hardened my resolve. If I had to go to her school to have more amazing nights like I had had in the library, then I would study my flanks off and get into Princess Luna's School for Gifted Unicorns at Littlehorn.

Grandmother supported me wholeheartedly. She even found me a tutor to teach me magic while I spent hours with my nose buried in book after book. I didn't have time to go find foals my own age. Most kids around the castle were either my relatives who shunned me or other nobles who would probably do the same once they found out my lineage. So when I wasn't learning fencing or etiquette I was reading and pouring every fiber of my being into learning new tricks. New ways to use light and levitation led to new spells all together. But one spell absolutely astounded me, I had read about it in a book on knights. Not my usual kid's books about knights slaying dragons and saving princesses, although I enjoyed those from time to time, but a history of the Knights of Equestria.

Apparently, each race of pony had a spell, even pegasi and earth ponies, that they could use that was the pinnacle of knightly achievement. In order to be considered a true knight of Equestria, a pony had to be able to master their race's natural spell-like ability. Earth ponies could slam their hooves to the ground, calling upon the strength of the earth itself, to open fissures in the ground and swallow their enemies whole. This was called the Earth Tremor. Pegasi could fly at supersonic speeds. They would fly so fast that they would break both the sound barrier and the visible light spectrum at the same time and release a blast of sound and energy powerful enough to shatter rocks and structures miles away. This was the Sonic Rainboom.

These were all well and good, and they all sounded pretty cool to be honest, but I was focused on one spell in particular. The Lightning Charge. A unicorn knight would call forth the power of lightning and wrap himself in a magical aura of electricity. The electrical barrier would act as an energy focus and propel the unicorn to speeds that only pegasi could normally attain, electrifying anything or anypony the charging unicorn knight would touch. I wanted to learn that spell. I needed to learn that spell.

For years I tried and for years I failed. The best I could ever summon up was a spark of electricity about as powerful as a bit of static shock from rubbing your hooves on a carpet and touching a door knob, but I never gave up. I needed to learn a spell so awesome that there would be no way I couldn't be accepted to Princess Luna's school. Little did I know that soon it would not matter, but I'm getting ahead of myself again.

One day, there was a visitor to Canterlot Castle and, more specifically, my grandmother. I awoke that morning and entered the living room with a yawn, stretching my legs and trying to wake up. I had stayed up reading for far too long the night before and I was still feeling the ill effects as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. There, sitting on the couch across from my grandmother's rocking chair and discussing something with her, was a gentlecolt I had never met before. He was a handsome unicorn stallion, about ten years my elder, with flowing aqua hair and a coat as pure as fresh fallen snow. He heard me yawn and turned his sea blue eyes towards me before giving me a bright smile. He looked a bit like Prince Blueblood, but he certainly did not act like my hateful uncle.

"Hello. You must be Aria. It is so nice to meet you," he told me and offered his hoof as I walked up to him. I shook it, surprised that any noble besides Grandmother would greet me at all. With the exceptions of Grandmother and Princess Luna, I had not seen any such kindness from the rest of the Canterlot aristocracy. I could tell that this dashing young stallion was a member of nobility, he carried himself as such, but he was different. "I'm Golden Star. It is nice to finally meet you."

"H-Hel..." I stopped. Grandmother had told me that name before. My eyes widened with realization, I took a step back in shock, and I could hardly breathe. This stallion sitting in my living room, talking to my grandmother, was also sitting in his living room and talking to his grandmother. This was my older brother, Golden Star. "No, my half brother." I told myself.

"Don't be rude, Aria. Say hello to your brother," Grandmother scolded me and I tensed up.

"H-Hello," I stuttered and Golden Star grinned.

"How about you come give your big brother a hug, sis?" he asked and opened his hooves to me. I took a deep breath and tried to take a step forward, but I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to hug him. My entire life he had never come to see me and now here he was like we had grown up together. Golden Star must have seen the anger in my eyes because his smile melted and he climbed to his hooves. As he approached me, tears began to well up in my eyes and I held my breath. He was mad at me. All of my family hated me and he, for whatever reason, had wanted a hug that I refused to give him. I was a lesser pony, the bastard, and I had denied his request. Grandmother had always told me to do whatever a noblepony asked of me unless it would get me hurt, but I knew hugging him would hurt. Did my emotions not count?

He towered over me, making me realize that he was a very tall, very strong looking unicorn. I could feel my knees shaking and was about to run when he knelt down to my level and took me in his hooves. I cried. I hugged his neck and cried my little eyes out, but this time it wasn't like when Grandmother hugged me after Uncle Blueblood's verbal abuse. This time I cried happy tears because I knew I had a brother. He had been eight years late, but he was finally here for me. My big brother, Golden Star. After a few minutes, he pulled away and wiped the tears off my cheeks. "So I hear Grandmother has been having you take fencing lessons, but I wonder..."

"What?" I asked, sniffing loudly against the snot that threatened to run down my nose.

"I wonder how my little sister is with a shield?"

____________________________

I rode my brother's back all the way down to the castle gardens, giggling like a little school filly the entire time. Don't judge me, I was eight at the time so I think that it was justified. Nobleponies, many our relatives, stared as a prince carried a bastard on his back and were baffled as he laughed along with me. They did not understand why he would show love towards what they saw as a stain on the royal family's reputation. I didn't know the words then, but if I had I would have told them to 'Kiss my flank!'

The gardens had always been a great place for me to read. The soft singing of the birds and playful skittering of the squirrels in the trees was always peaceful and would not distract from your reading. Coupled with the lovely flowers that gave the gardens a wonderful potpourri of smells, they were the perfect place to crack open a good book, hide behind a hedgerow or a tree, and consume all the knowledge the book had within its leather bound pages. But Golden Star had other things to teach me on his mind.

My big brother was a captain in the Equestrian military. I know, how cool is that? He even had a cutie mark of a saber with a golden crown for its hilt. He was a born warrior and leader. While most of the nobles of Equestria supported the war, very few had actually joined the fight. Golden Star had and he was one of the best when it came to close combat on the front lines. His magically enchanted shield, a triangular silver aegis with a lustrous gold trim and backing, could actually deflect bullets and magical energy blasts and he was an expert with a long sword. His troops respected him for his ability to lead the charge and defeat any enemy in his path, but that didn't matter to me. It was cool, but I marveled at the spellcraft that had gone into his magical weapons as he showed them to me. I could feel the power radiating off of them. I wanted to know how they were made and who made them, but before I could ask, he put them away.

He then pulled out two pairs of padded swords and shields with a grace that I simply did not have yet when carrying something with my telepathy. Golden Star's golden aura lifted a set over to me and I gingerly accepted them into my own light blue magical grip. I was comfortable with the sword. It was a short sword and similar to the fencing sabers I had used during my lessons. I just had to keep reminding myself it was made for slashing and piercing, unlike a fencing rapier.

The shield, on the other hoof, had a completely different feel to it. It gave me a feeling of power and a sense of protection at the same time. When I lifted the wood and cloth shield I felt strong for the first time in my life. I lifted both sword and shield in a defensive posture and smiled nervously at Golden Star.

"You should take the initiative. Make the first move, Aria," he said while returning my smile. I nodded and thought back to my books about knights. What I had read in books had been my only experience when it came to fighting with a sword and shield and I was unsure as to what I should do. Most jousts and tournament battles began with a grand charge so I swallowed hard and did the only thing I could think to do. I charged. Pumping my little legs, I ran at Golden Star as fast as I could, sword at my side while my shield floated in front of me protectively. Golden Star simply side stepped my charge and delivered a light rap against my side with his padded blade. Although it was buffered, his sword stung as it nicked my side and I jumped away more out of fear of the pain than any real planned maneuver. "Good job, princess. If you had been wearing armor, then that blow wouldn't have phased you."

"Please don't call me princess," I said softly as I turned around to face him.

"What's that, princess?" he asked with a goofy grin on his face.

"Please don't call me princess," I repeated, this time louder and a bit annoyed. I wasn't a princess. I could never call myself that. Even Grandmother had told me I wasn't a princess and I did not want him calling me that. Not just because I might get in trouble, but also because it genuinely hurt.

"Well then, come and get me to stop, princess," he teased and I growled. Looking back on it, I'm sure it was just some good natured teasing from an older brother to his younger sister, but I didn't see it that way. How could I? I hadn't had a brother for more than thirty minutes! Him calling me a princess brought back all the hurtful memories of what my family had said to me. It made me have to face that which I could never be; I could never be a princess or a full member of our family. How was it my fault that my father wasn't his father? Why was I tainted by my mother's sin? Why was I considered a mistake when I had done nothing wrong? Sadness and rage welled up inside me like never before. I felt power in that anger and, coupled with the strength I felt holding the shield in my magical grasp, a surge of energy flowed to my head. A spark of static popped off my horn, giving us the smallest window of warning, and the magic surged through me.

"BZZZAP!"

A bolt of lightning shot off of my horn, followed immediately by a small clap of thunder as the oxygen in the garden was vaporized by the electrical blast and the air filled with the thick smell of ozone. Golden Star raised his shield reflexively, probably thinking he had his magical shield instead of the padded one he was now wielding, and the bolt slammed into the wooden shield with an arcane force I didn't know I could manage. The shield burst into splinters and the lightning bolt continued its path through his broken barrier to strike my brother square in the chest. My eyes widened and I dropped my weapons as I galloped to him as fast as my little legs would carry me. Then I heard him laughing.

"Aria, that was amazing! You really have a talent for magical combat," he told me as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. His light blue hair was standing on end and he had a brownish black mark on the breast to his red uniform, but he seemed alright. He grinned at me, reaching out his hoof and tousling my mane. I giggled, happy to see he wasn't hurt and even happier to receive the praise. Then he whistled, impressed as he stared behind me. "Oh! I see fate had the same idea too."

Following his gaze to my flanks, my smile brightened at the sight of a golden triangular shield, two blue bolts of lightning crossing the shield's surface, as it lay on a bed of bright green flames. I had gotten my cutie mark!

"I got my cutie mark! Golden Star! I got my cutie mark! Let's go tell Grandmother! Oh my Celestia! It's a magical cutie mark! Do you know what this means?" I cried, hopping up and down with an excitement that electrified my body even more than I had just done to Golden Star. In a metaphorical sense, of course. When it came to actual voltage coursing through somepony's body, he had me beat at the moment. But that didn't matter. I felt happier than I had ever felt in my entire life.

"No, what does that mean?" he asked, climbing to his hooves with a ginger steadiness that betrayed his bravado. My lightning bolt spell had been weak and unfocused so it was only a minor shock, but it still took its toll.

"It means I can go to Princess Luna's school now! Quick! Let's go tell Grandmother so I can send in my application! Come on, big brother!" I urged and he followed at a slow canter that would not be able to keep up with my excited gallop. I ran past the adults that all sought to tend to Golden Star's wounds, each one he sent away with a smile and a wave of his hoof, and continued into the castle. I was so excited I didn't even realize I had left my older brother behind in my quest to show Grandmother my cutie mark and get my application in the mail as soon as possible. My dreams were finally about to come true. But you know what they say about dreams. They're fleeting, and they can quickly turn into nightmares.

That night was the night of the Littlehorn Massacre. Hundreds of ponies, most of which were only fillies and colts around my age, were slaughtered by the zebras. The school I had dreamed of going to for years was destroyed, Princess Celestia stepped down and Princess Luna was the new leader of Equestria. You all probably know what happened next. Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash were made leaders of their own branches of the new Equestrian government. They were the Ministry Mares and they had turned the political and social norms that had held Equestrian society together for over one thousand years upside down. Mares that had no royal blood were the second most powerful ponies in Equestria, right behind Princess Luna and Princess Celestia. I saw first hand how much this infuriated my family, especially Uncle Blueblood. Something about the Mare of the Ministry of Image really got to him.

I did not have to worry about my uncle's problems though. I had problems of my own. Do you know how horrible it is for an eight year old filly to have to face her own mortality? Princess Luna's school was gone and, if my cutie mark had come earlier, I would be dead with all of her other students. My life's ambition had been taken away from me by those stupid, evil zebras and they could have taken away my life just as easily. They could take away Golden Star's or Grandmother's life too. There was a war going on and I had been so busy trying to go to school that I had forgotten about it. I knew I had to re-evaluate my life. I could always go to Princess Celestia's school in Canterlot, but it wouldn't be the same.

I had loved spending time with Princess Luna in the library that one fateful night. She had been the first pony to actually treat me like a pony and a member of her family instead of a lesser pony. Even Grandmother hadn't been that kind. She always reminded me I wasn't a princess. For every bit of love she gave me, I knew that a part of her might still be blaming me for my mom's dishonor and death. But Princess Luna had called me her niece. Just like Golden Star calling me his sister, she had named me a member of her family without even a thought of my parentage.

One night, as I sat on a bench in the castle gardens, I thought about my life. I hadn't gone far from Grandmother and my suite, I could see the exact open area where I had gotten my cutie mark just shy of a month ago. Grandmother had actually allowed me to go out into the garden by myself; I didn't have to sneak out. As long as I promised to only go to the garden she let me leave without a fight. I didn't know if she was letting me go because I was more grown up now that I had a cutie mark proudly plastered on my rump or if she understood my feelings, but it felt comforting that she trusted me. I still wished Golden Star had been here. The massacre and the government shake up had forced his leave to end early and he was called back to the front lines. For a pony who I had never known until a few weeks ago, I sure missed him a lot. I worried for him even more now that I had discovered the realities of death and war. I had lost a part of my innocence to the zebra who had killed my dreams along with Princess Luna's school and all the innocent ponies inside.

I looked up to the moon, wondering how Princess Luna was doing now that she had taken her older sister's place, and sighed. I knew I felt an emptiness now that I had lost my purpose, but how did it feel to suddenly have the fate of an entire nation thrust onto your shoulders after losing so much. The burden must have been great for her to have needed to create the Ministries. Now I not only wanted to spend time with Princess Luna, but I also wanted to help her. If the Element Bearers could help her, then so could I! (The overconfidence and energy of youth, huh?) The real question that gave me pause as I stared up at the golden full moon floating slowly across the heavens was 'How?' Fate must have been smiling down on me because, up in the sky, I saw my answer.

At first I had thought it was a bird or a bat, but, as it drew closer, I saw it was a pony. He was a pegasus pony, for lack of a better term, but I could see the strange, leathery black wings that propelled the stallion through the starry night towards the castle. He was wearing a very distinctive armor, and I felt my lips curve into a smile. He was a member of Princess Luna's personal guard. Clad in purple and light blue armor, the bat-pony landed gracefully onto the balcony of Princess Luna's tower and trotted in with all the authority of his station. I knew right then and there what I wanted to do. Looking down at the golden shield, the lightning, and the fire on my flank, I smiled. The war had reached a new point and would probably get worse from here on out. My new goal in life was set. The student was gone, destroyed by the war that loomed ever present on the horizon, and had been replaced by the knight. I was going to be a member of Princess Luna's personal guard.

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Footnote: Level Up
New Perk: Intense Training (Endurance) - Through your intense training, your Endurace Stat increases by one.

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.

Chapter One - Into the Future

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Chapter One: Into the Future
"It's not scientifically possible. You are not scientifically possible!"

Eight Years Later

"A wise mare once told me, 'Life isn't fair, but, as long as you keep going and never give up, you can find the moments that make life worth living.' That has always been sound advice, but I'd like to add something else. Equestria's at war, and we're a part of its military. We're its guardians. So while this war may not be fair, we have to keep going and never give up so we can find those moments and things worth living for and protect them with every fiber of our being. Those things are the ponies of Equestria and the ponies we love. So I say to you, my fellow royal guardsponies, let's go find and protect all of Equestria. Because I can assure you, it is worth living and dying for."

Applause. The graduation ceremony erupted into a nationalistic flood of hoof stomps, all of their approval targeted at me. The applause would have sounded like a stampede if it hadn't been for the whistles and shouts of 'Yeah! Equestria forever!' I blinked, stunned at the vast amounts of love and approval pouring out of the audience. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn't and stayed composed. At least I hoped I stayed composed.

Looking back to my classmates, I saw most of them were nodding and applauding along with the crowd. Although I could not fail to notice Silver Storm staring daggers at me. The teal pegasus with her purple mane in a braid looked like she wanted to kill me. Of course she would, she thought this was supposed to be her moment. I had beaten her for the valedictorian spot by .04 GPA. "That's what you get for slacking off in Royal Guard History and getting a 'B,' Storm," I thought while giving her a small grin.

I had every right to be happy, I had graduated from the Royal Guard Academy top of my class. Golden Star had told me I had every right and I completely agreed with him. My eye caught a midnight blue shape moving in from the side of the stage and my heart skipped a beat. Walking out onto the stage, her wings spread wide as she regally strode towards the podium, was Princess Luna. The crowd immediately hushed and I could not help but smile like a complete idiot. This was the closest I had been to the princess since I was only five years old and sneaking into the Royal Library. She gracefully stepped up to the podium, which I quickly stepped aside for her to take while I bowed deeply, and I started backing away towards my seat.

"Lieutenant Aria, please stay on the stage. I would also like Sergeant Silver Storm to join me," she ordered with that sweet, polite voice I had remembered, but it had taken on a power and a steadiness that years of ruling must have given her. Silver Storm and I were in complete agreement for once. We were both shocked. Usually the princess would ask the valedictorian and the salutatorian of each graduating class to join her personal guard, but in private. This was unheard of. I had been to two graduations while I had been a cadet and Princess Luna always stayed in her box seat high up in the back of the auditorium.

I watched some of my classmates push Silver Storm to her hooves and she walked up to Princess Luna's side so that we both flanked her in our golden armor. We almost looked like her personal guards ponies already. I did not like Silver Storm, she was my biggest rival at the Academy, but I respected her. I don't know if she respected me, but she would have to learn. We'd be working together soon enough and Princess Luna would demand a professional relationship from us. Princess Luna cleared her throat authoritatively and I watched the blue and black alicorn, enraptured by her mere presence.

"I would like to say that I am very proud of all of the Royal Guard, especially our new recruits. You keep all of Equestria safe while our brave mares and stallions in the military fight the good fight against the zebras at home and abroad. But I wanted to give personal recognition to the two ponies standing beside me. For the past seven years of the war, I have extended an invitation to the valedictorian and the salutatorian of each year's graduating class. This invitation is one of the greatest honors I can bestow, but I wanted to give the two ponies receiving it a little extra praise. These ponies both achieved almost perfect scores on every test they encountered during their two years at the Royal Guard Academy," she told the crowd, and I winced.

I had missed the fact that the test suspect I had arrested on the final had been strung out on Mint-als. Not a major mistake, especially since the test pony was an actor pretending to be on the zebra drug, so it only cost me a few points, but I had a stain on my perfect academic record that made me feel a little less proud of my accomplishments. Thankfully, Silver Storm had gotten a B in Royal Guard history and accidentally shot a fluffy white cat cut-out in the firearms course. I wasn't an amazing shot, but I had at least hit all the targets and did not shoot any civilians. I realized I had zoned out, kicking my constantly moving and thinking brain for the insult to the princess, and returned my attention to Princess Luna.

"...And so I congratulate them, and publicly extend the invitation to salutatorian, Silver Storm and valedictorian, Aria. What are your answers?"

Silver Storm was still a bit shell shocked by Princess Luna's offer and could only nod. But I felt like a little filly again and beamed at her.

"Yes, your highness, I will gladly accept your offer!" I told her proudly while giving her my best salute. The crowd applauded and cheered again, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Grandmother White Rose and Golden Star smiling at me from their seats in the front row. The crowd's stomping quieted down until only a smattering of hoof stomps could be heard and Princess Luna turned to us.

"Then I must equip my newest guards with weapons befitting their skills," she announced, and her horn ignited in that lovely cobalt glow that matched her eyes. Out of thin air, a shield and a pair of mechanical horse shoes appeared before Silver Storm and me. The shield was the most beautiful shield I had ever seen. It didn't have the magical aura that Golden Star's shield had, but it was a work of art and skill that had few equals. An ebony shield painted with a crescent moon and dark blue wings while a silver trim etched the edges. I accepted the shield while Princess Luna teleported the Power Shoes onto Silver Storm's hooves with almost uncanny ease. I could teleport small items and, with a lot of focus, myself, but Princess Luna did the magical feat like it was no more challenging than breathing or blinking.

"Wow," Silver Storm muttered as she admired the technologically advanced bucking weapons while I marveled at the craftsponyship of the shield.

"Th-Thank you, Princess Luna," I said, and Silver Storm echoed my appreciation. Princess Luna smiled at us and nodded before turning back to the podium and the crowd.

"I shall see you both tomorrow morning at the palace for your first day of duty. I must go, but congratulations again to all of Equestria's new Royal Guard."

And in another flash of midnight blue light, a teleportation spell much stronger than I could ever muster, Princess Luna was gone. I had to ask her to show me how to do that sometime. Sergeant Drill Bit, an old earth pony that thought of himself as the greatest guard to ever wear the uniform, approached us and grimaced. That frown never seemed to leave his burgundy coated face.

"We'll be handing out the diplomas, so take your seats, ya bunch of fillies," he mocked before his frown faded into what I could only assume was a smile. The upturn on his tight, wrinkled lips was so small it was almost non-existent. I smiled back and trotted back to my seat next to Silver Storm. One of the detriments of arranging the seats by class rank was that I had to sit next to Silver Storm for the entire ceremony. It was weird how one moment she had been staring like she wanted to kill me, but now she was smiling. Perhaps she was coming around? Maybe we could one day be friends instead of enemies? I'd have liked that.

____________________________

"Congratulations, sis," Golden Star said proudly, and I threw my hooves around his neck. He grinned and hugged me back, looking very prim and proper in his formal military attire. Him in his red and blue uniform and me in my golden armor, we must have looked liked quite the pair. Pulling her wheelchair up next to us, Grandmother White Rose smiled weakly at both of us.

"Don't I get a hug too?" she joked, her voice shaky with age, and I broke away from Golden Star to take her into the biggest, most loving hug I could possibly give her without worrying about hurting her.

"Thank you for everything, Grandmother," I whispered in her ear and she stroked my mane like she had when I was a foal.

"I'm very proud of you, Aria. You were dealt a raw hand, but you made us proud. You're mother would be proud too," she told me, and I couldn't help but shed a tear. It was a mixture of joy and heartache, but I think she took it as joy.

"Thank you," I whispered again, and broke away from the hug. Looking around, I didn't see Silver Storm anywhere. We were going to be working together and I wanted to bury the hatchet. The rivalry between us had been good, but I did not want it to hurt our professional relationship. It would be stupid of me and a gross oversight for a guard of my new position.

"Looking for your little coltfriend? What was his name again, Blightburn?" Golden Star laughed, obviously teasing me about my coltfriend.

Brightlight. My coltfriend. The unicorn I had met in the market one day who had asked me out the next. How he had found out where I lived I still don't know, but I was happy that he did. We had been dating for a little over a year now. Weekend movies or dinners ending with the occasional make out sessions, however, I would never go any further. I couldn't. I had to focus on my career and sex always complicated things. I have to admit that I had been tempted, but I fought those urges tooth and hoof.

Brightlight said he understood and it was okay if I wanted to wait since it would be my first time. That wasn't it though. I wanted to wait until marriage. Not for any religious or spiritual reasons, but for a far more important reason; I didn't want to bring another bastard into this world, another bastard like me.

"It's Brightlight, and no, I'm not looking for him. He had a meeting at the Ministry of Arcane Sciences so he couldn't come. I was looking for Silver Storm so we could talk through our problems. We're going to be working together protecting Princess Luna, after all," I explained and Golden Star shook his head and let out a small chuckle.

"I think you should focus on your coltfriend and not your filly friend. Well, unless you're planning to let your barn door swing that way too," he joked and I punched him on the shoulder.

"Shut up! I'm not like that," I hissed while giving him my best 'drop it or I'm going to electrocute you again' look I could muster up. I had gotten a lot better at magic in the past eight years and he knew it. His grin became a little more nervous and he held his hooves up defensively.

"Okay, I got it. Aria's barn door doesn't swing that way," he said, and I smirked at him like I had won a great victory.

"You two quit arguing and pay your old grandmother a little attention. I've got something important to give you," Grandmother White Rose said softly, yet with the firmness we knew meant that she had something very important to say. We both knelt down to her wheelchair's level and watched as she levitated out a small chest from her bag in her pink magical aura. It wobbled as she floated it onto her lap, and she smiled to cover up the strain the once simple feat of magic had inflicted on her. I was yet again reminded of how old she had become. "Now you two know the story about how your grandfather took me on a cruise and we stopped in the zebra lands, right?"

We nodded. We had heard the story before, but what was she going to tell us that was new? What was in the chest that was so important?

"Well, while we were eating at a nice little restaurant, the only one in the village, a star fell from the sky only a block away and destroyed a little hut. Your grandfather, being the stallion he was, rushed to go see what happened and offer his assistance. The occupants were safe and relatively unharmed, but their house had been completely destroyed. Then he saw them. Lying in the crater were the two most perfect gems he had ever seen. Two matching gems, a ruby and a sapphire, that glowed with a mysterious light that faded the moment he touched them, but their otherworldly beauty remained. He offered the zebra family five thousand bits for them, much more than any similar gems would be worth, but your grandfather was a generous pony.

"After some protests about the stars being evil and some other foolishness, he purchased them and gave them to me as an anniversary gift. Then I gave them to your mother on her wedding day and in she stated in her will that she wanted me to give them to both of you," she explained, and opened the chest to reveal two amazingly beautiful gems, a bright blue sapphire and a fiery red ruby, embedded into two golden bracers. "Since you both are in the military I figured having them made into a piece of armor would work. They could remind you of your family and keep you safe at the same time. There's a magic to these stones; I can feel it."

I was awestruck. So was Golden Star. Our mother had left these priceless gems to us? Okay, not priceless. Technically, they had been bought for five thousand bits, but that didn't matter. They had belonged to my grandparents and my mother, and she had left one of the two to me? I could already feel the tears building up in my eyes.

"Which one is for which of us?" Golden Star asked after putting a hoof around my shoulders. He always knew how to help and I let him hold me. I loved my brother.

"You two figure that out. The will did not specify," Grandmother replied, and Golden Star looked at me with a comforting smile.

"Which one do you want, Aria. I'll take the other."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I look good in both red and blue so it doesn't matter. Today's your big day, so you get to choose," he told me, and I smiled at him while fighting back tears of joy.

"I like blue," I said, and mentally slapped myself. 'I like blue!' That's like saying 'I like her mane!' It's something a filly would say. Golden Star nodded and levitated the sapphire set bracer to me. I offered my right hoof and he clamped it shut around my fetlock. I marveled at the gem while he attached the other bracer to his left fetlock.

"See? Now we match," he said, holding up his bracer to mine and I took both him and Grandmother into a big hug that they gladly returned.

"I love you two so much," I told them, and they returned the sentiment. Then I realized that there was somepony I loved too and had been neglecting. He had wanted something and had been so understanding when I wouldn't give it to him. Brightlight. I needed to talk to him and give him something that he had so patiently been waiting for. My life's goal had been completed and maybe it was time. As long as we were careful, I was sure we could do it and avoid what I had always feared.

"Wow. I'm thinking about that now when I'm hugging my brother and grandmother. Pull yourself together, Aria."

I released them both and glanced anxiously towards the side door out of the Academy. It opened up onto the sidewalk leading towards the Celestia Monument, the castle, and Ministry Walk.

"I-I have to go see Brightlight at work. I'll see you both at dinner, okay?" I told them, and they both nodded.

"You go see that little pencil pusher of yours and tell him he had better be at your celebratory dinner tonight," Golden Star replied and gave me a light, brotherly punch on the shoulder. I returned it in kind.

"Or he'll have to answer to me," Grandmother added with a ferocity that did not match her elderly stature, and we all laughed. I hugged them one last time, turned, and ran out the door. Little did I know that that was the last time I'd see or hug either one of them.

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The Ministry of Arcane Sciences. This was the place where the most of cutting edge in magical technology was created. Overseen my Twilight Sparkle, the Ministry Mare and Bearer of the Element of Magic, the greatest magical minds in Equestria were always hard at work developing the arcane spells and implements that would help propel Equestria to victory against the zebra menace. If I hadn't decided to be a member of Princess Luna's royal guard all those years ago, I could see myself working here. I read every book, article, and paper I could find that dealt with the Ministry of Magic and Stable-Tec, the two leaders in the development of magical technology.

Talismans, Power Armor, magical energy weapons, advanced terminals, and Pip Bucks. Magical Science was right next to Magic in general and History as my favorite subjects to read about; why else would I be a subscriber to Stable-Tec Monthly? Of course, what I knew was whatever was released to the general public. My only real experience with technology was my terminal at home. I had read the manual at least three times and was relatively proficient in service and maintenance of the personal computer Grandmother had bought me for my thirteenth birthday. I may be wearing guard armor, but I'm still an egghead at heart.

It filled me we pride every time I thought about how Brightlight worked here. He was such a good coltfriend, putting up with my overly focused pursuit of my dreams. I was going to tell him I was ready for him. I just hoped he'd wait until tonight when we could do things safely and not want to jump me in a supply closet or something. I wanted my first time to be special, not a fling in a bathroom stall.

I trotted quietly over to Brightlight's stall and was surprised to see it was empty. His meeting should have been over by now. There was a yellow sticky note stuck to his terminal screen and I stepped into the cubicle to read it. The note was in distinctly feminine mouthwriting, it was far too sloppy to be made with magical calligraphy, and I furrowed my brow.

'Meet me in meeting room 3-A!'

That must be where his meeting was. A sneaky though crossed my mind. Maybe I could surprise him. I was a member of Princess Luna's royal guard now; it was how I had gotten into the Ministry building so easily. As long as the meeting was not in some top secret area I should be able to find it without any trouble.

Trotting my way down the row of cubicles, I followed the signs to a hallway with rows of doors facing walls covered in motivational posters. 'Your discovery could bring an end to the zebra threat,' read a poster depicting a unicorn stallion, wearing a white lab coat and magically holding a beaker filled with blue liquid, as he stood proudly over the corpse of a bloody zebra. Kind of morbid, but I think it got its point across. These were the best and the brightest unicorns in all of Equestria. If they couldn't stop the zebras, no pony could. 1-A. 2-A. 3-A. There we go. I couldn't hear anything on the other side of the door, but I carefully and quietly opened it and peaked inside.

I did not like what I saw on the other side.

The thrusting. The grunting. The moaning. The fact that Brightlight was doing it at all made me feel numb at first, then devastated, then furious as I watched his pale yellow form thrust into the teal pegasus as she buried her face in a MAS sweater to muffle her moans of pleasure. Brightlight's eyes were clenched shut, his blue mane slick with sweat, and his breathing was heavy between moans of ecstasy. Wait, teal pegasus? I saw her purple hair and the golden armor and Power Shoes piled in the corner, and felt my heart shatter. I must had made a sound because as the tears started to form in my eyes Brightlight and Silver Storm both looked up and spotted me in the doorway. My knees shook and my eyes were wide in shocked disbelief while Brightlight stumbled away from me in a panic.

"Aria!?" he cried, and I watched him flop out of Silver Storm. It disgusted me. Not because of what it was, but because of where it had been. He had been having sex with my greatest rival. No, a rival wouldn't do this. A rival can be a bit mean, but this was just evil. Silver Storm was now my greatest enemy. Rage and sorrow filled me and I could barely stop myself from frying the both of them where they stood. I wanted to so badly. Silver Storm leaned on the meeting room table and laughed.

"Well, I guess the pony's out of the stable. Hey, look at it this way, I was actually better than you at something, huh, Aria," she mocked while giving me a cruel grin.

"Aria! Wait! I can explain!" Brightlight called out, but I was gone in a burst of bright blue magical energy. Before I knew it, I was galloping down the halls of the Ministry of Arcane Science, tears streaming down my face. I could barely see where I was going, but I didn't really care. I just wanted to get out of this place of pain and heartache. By the time my legs gave out I realized I was in a parking garage next to the ministry building. I didn't know how I got there, but I sat between two sky chariots, hugging the shield Princess Luna had given me. I sobbed into the metal aegis, wishing it could protect my broken heart, and I silently raged against the world. I didn't yell, I had been taught not to scream when angry, but I lashed out in my mind at the unfairness of it all.

This was supposed to be the happiest day of my life! I was going to be Princess Luna's defender. I'd get to spend time with her like I always wanted. My family was actually proud of me. Even Uncle Blueblood had congratulated me in passing while discussing with Grandmother his catering choices for some party he would be throwing. But the world had turned against me again. Silver Storm had taken Brightlight from me. No! Brightlight had cheated on me! But if I had just had sex with him this wouldn't have happened. No! If he loved me, then he should have waited for me. Why did everypony I love leave me? Am I not good enough? Do I really have 'The Bastard's Curse?' I don't know how long I sat in that garage, shaking all over and having a complete emotional breakdown, but by the time I was only crying softly and rocking in place I was exhausted.

"Aria, don't cry. You need to look up," a mysterious, feminine voice told me sweetly. I snapped my head up and looked around through bloodshot, red eyes while snot flowed out of both my nostrils. I must have looked like a complete mess because I certainly felt like one. That was when I caught sight of a blurred form trotting past me and I held my breath. I'm not the most observant pony. I can read and figure things out, but I tend to miss the tiny details that are usually so important. I guess I'm more of a big picture kind of girl. That was probably why I hadn't guessed Silver Storm was nailing my coltfriend. Or that he was nailing her, to be more precise. But, needless to say, I would have completely missed the cloaked person if not for the unknown mare's warning.

I was barely able to hold back a growl as I watched the translucent, pony-like form duck around a corner and into another section of the garage marked 'Closed for Renovations.' Something was wrong here. Getting to my hooves, my body feeling sluggish from all of my crying, I crouched low and began to sneak after the ghostly figure. I carefully navigated past the roped off section and into the closed garage. Inside it looked like the other section. There was no signs of damage or need for repair. There was even a sky chariot parked in the corner. If the parking structure had been repaired, why were the signs still up? Then I spotted them.

Two zebras, both standing at opposite ends of a small pile of glowing eggs that pulsed with a sick, ever changing light, were chanting something in their native tongue. Runes made of what I hoped wasn't blood circled the pile of what I immediately recognized as balefire eggs. I didn't know what the zebras were trying to do with those eggs, but I knew from my classes on possible zebra threats that just one of those things could do some serious damage. There had to be at least ten eggs set up in the magical circle. Staring at the ritualistic ring, I was taken aback at how familiar the runes on the floor looked. As opposed to what little I knew of zebra magic, which was restricted to their use of fetishes and potions to cast spells, these runes looked much more like pony magic. But I didn't see a unicorn traitor anywhere near these two. My eyes narrowed and I lifted up my new shield with my magic. I was a wreck. I was depressed. However, something else was bubbling up inside me that sobered me up and turned my focus away from my own pity party and onto stopping these zebras.

I was pissed off!

Using my rage as a source of power, I fired off a lance of lightning from my horn that struck the first zebra spy in the back and sent him spasming to the floor. I had caught the first by surprise and was already charging the second with my ebony shield lowered and a smile on my puffy face. I must have looked pathetic and terrifying all at the same time.

"For Princess Luna!" I screamed and the second zebra faltered for a moment as he tried to pull the pistol out of his holster. I was on top of him as he took the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his tongue. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off of my shield. Arching the shield around, I chopped the edge of my shield into the gun's barrel and sent it flying from my striped enemies mouth with a sickening crunch of his teeth. Another reason I was glad to be a unicorn; there was no need to hold a weapon in my mouth. He hissed and immediately spat a mouth full of blood in my face, the crimson liquid dripping into my eyes. "Ugh! Gross! You filthy savage!"

I staggered back for a moment before sending a buck to his face. Of course, he gracefully rolled under my feeble attack and I internally cursed my shoddy hoof-to-hoof skills. A lady should never curse out loud, my grandmother would always tell me and, even though I wasn't a Lady of the Court, I was still a lady. Rolling into a standing position, the zebra launched himself at me with his forehooves outstretched for a powerful punch, but I had my moon painted shield up and waiting for him. I slammed it into his hooves and his face smashed into the metal as I sent him flying over the pile of eggs to land in a heap next to his unconscious zebra companion. I heard something break as he hit the ground with a nasty, yet satisfying crack of marrow separating and breaking in his right foreleg.

"Stealth plus a lightning bolt to the butt means nighty night zebra scum," I mocked as I trotted over to the two spies I had beaten. I was happy again. My first day on the force and I had stopped a zebra terrorist attack. Maybe things weren't so bad. That was when I heard the battered and broken one chuckling to himself. "Why do I jinx myself?"

"You ponies are so stupid and vain. We may not have gotten the megaspell operational, but we can still set off the balefire eggs," he laughed diabolically as he pulled out a small, tubular device with a red button on one end. I didn't need to be a smart pony to know what that meant. He pressed the button and smirked. "Thirty seconds, little pony. They may not be able to wipe out Canterlot, but those bombs can certainly destroy this entire building and all the ponies inside it."

My mind was reeling. Thirty seconds. I knew very little on how balefire bombs worked so disarming them was out of the question. I could try teleporting the bombs away... or could I? I didn't know if I could handle ten at once. They were small enough for me to handle if they were normal objects, but would the dark magics inside their shell-like structure interfere with my teleportation spell? And where would I put them? I didn't know how to teleport to some place I couldn't see. I definitely couldn't see a way out of this. The entire time, the zebra terrorist held his partner, who I now realized was female, in his good hoof while he cradled the broken one against their chests.

"We weren't able to complete our mission, my love, but we'll be able to take that bitch, Twilight Sparkle, and the rest of her evil ministry out with us," he told his unconscious lover/co-terrorist while giggling to himself. Just then, I saw a door open to my left and a yellow coated mare in a gray business suit, her bright red hair pulled back into a bun, stepped into the garage on the far side of the area that was supposed to be closed off. The mare saw the glowing mass of eggs, then the zebras, then me. She paled, her orange eyes wide with terrified understanding.

"Run! They're trying to set off a megaspell! I stopped it, but the eggs are about to go off!" I yelled, but the mare just stood there.

"The blast might take out the whole buildin'! We can't run from that!" she shouted in a drawl that reminded me of speeches I had heard from the Mare of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, Applejack. They actually looked a bit alike. That was when I recognized this pony. She was Applebloom, the founder of Stable-Tec. She was almost always pictured somewhere in every issue of Stable-Tec Monthly. I can't believe I didn't recognize her from the start. I had to save her. I had to save Twilight Sparkle and the rest of the Ministry of Arcane Science. Not just because it was my duty as a guard, but also because these were the ponies that would save Equestria. These were the ponies making the world a better place. I was just one guard. One bastard that didn't amount to much. I knew what I had to do.

"I-I've got this. Just get out of here and get the guards!" I ordered, and she nodded before she turned back to the door. Then she stopped.

"What's your name?" she asked, looking back at me with sadness as she realized what I was about to do.

"My name is Aria. Tell my grandmother and big brother, Golden Star, I love them," I said, and watched her nod again and gallop out the door. No time left. I had to act. I took a deep breath and leaped onto the pile of glowing eggs. My shield beneath me, I focused my magical energies as I fell. A orb of glowing blue magic surrounded me and the balefire eggs as I fell on top of them. If they set themselves off all at the same time, the blast would be huge. But if they went off in a cascade and were contained within my magical barrier, then the blast might be restrained enough to keep the damage within the empty garage. Well, empty except for me and the zebra. Now you might be wondering, 'Aria, why not throw a rock, put a shield around the eggs, and run? That seems like the smart thing to do.'

That's a good question and there's a simple explanation for that, my little ponies.

While I could create a decent magical shield, nowhere near as impressive as Captain Shining Armor or Twilight Sparkle herself, I had the serious handicap of only being able to construct it around myself. The center of the bubble's radius had to be me.

Yeah, not so handy in this situation, huh?

So as I felt the glowing balefire eggs break and clenched my eyes shut against the blast I knew was coming, I hoped that my shields, both physical and magical, and my body would soften the explosion and save the ponies in the buildings next door to the parking structure. If I could just save one pony, it would all be worth it. The fire erupted beneath me, but I didn't hear the explosion. I didn't feel any pain or heat either. I thought it would be louder and that getting vaporized would hurt, but instead I just felt weightless. I figured I was just dead before the sound reached me and that vaporization was a painless death.

I know I'm a smart pony, but even I can be wrong sometimes.

____________________________

Falling. That's what I was feeling. I was falling. It was a weird, slow fall like I was sinking in water that gave no physical resistance, but I knew I was falling. Opening my eyes, I was confronted with the most beautiful and most terrifying thing I had ever seen. I was in a tunnel of swirling blue energy, floating through the swirling void as lightning arched all around me. A few struck me, but I felt no pain as the current was drawn to the bracer on my right foreleg. That was weird. Okay, to be fair, everything about this was weird. I was falling down a rabbit hole towards who knows what and I couldn't understand what was going on. This was impossible. Images would flash into existence, showing me any number of things. Ponies, zebra, dragons, empty fields piled high with the corpses of fallen soldiers. Wow, I did not like seeing that image. Also, voices would fade in and out before I could make out what they were saying.

"They got megasp..."

"This is Scoo..."

"You're a traitor, Flu..."

This was getting way too confusing. I wanted out. I needed this vortex of craziness to drop me off at the nearest sky bus stop. Of course, the tunnel of terror had other things in mind. I flailed, realizing as I struggled that my armor and shield were gone, and I tried to swim against the unseen current that was carrying me farther towards the end of the tunnel. If there was a light at the end of this tunnel, I would think I was dead, but this didn't feel dead. Now that I think about it, I had no experience with death. I just always pictured it as being... different.

Horror is what met me next and I knew I was on my way to Hell.

Explosions. Massive explosions. Hundreds of them. Manehatten was gone in an instant. My thoughts immediately went to my brother. Was Golden Star at home?

"Goddesses, no!"

Then Canterlot appeared, surrounded by a massive energy sphere, as pink mist seeped in and poisoned every pony within the shield's protection. I watched as ponies on the steps of the Ministry of Wartime Technology choked, gasped, and died before reaching whatever protection the Ministry would have given them. I saw an elderly mare in a wheelchair who reminded me of my grandmother being pushed by an older stallion up the steps. They never made it. The poisonous pink cloud was even overtaking the palace gardens and entering the palace.

"Grandmother! Oh no! Princess Luna!" I cried, but the images were gone. I floated for what seemed like hours. It could have been a few minutes. I have no way of know. I fell, wrapping my forelegs around myself in the fetal position as I tried to rock myself in an attempt to comfort my abused mind. It wasn't helping. I was occasionally shown glimpses of a wasteland, devoid of life. Then I saw ponies coming out of the ground. Then, any sign of life I did see were ponies killing each other. Zombie ponies and monsters walked through Canterlot like they owned the place. Crying. Pain. That was what the words and screams told me. I could feel tears rolling off my face and onto my legs as I pressed them into my chest. I prayed. I prayed to whatever gods out there would help me. I even prayed to the stupid stars that the stupid zebras feared so much. "Please, I want to get out of here. I want to go home. Please."

"Please. Grandma always said this stone was magical. So help us. I know I'm not a unicorn, but I need this to work. They're trying to get in. Help us," a voice asked from oblivion. She was scared and I noticed she had a Trottingham accent. I searched for any sign of her.

"I'll help you! Just get me out of here!" I told her, shouting out into the swirling vortex. I hoped she could hear me and she wasn't just another ethereal voice calling out from the abyss. Suddenly, my leg felt cold. I looked down at the bracer on my right leg and saw it shining with a spectral glow. My breath caught as the vortex swirling around me began to melt away and beams of light lanced across the void. I felt gravity take me again and I fell. Not the slow floaty fall of the vortex, but real falling.

THUD!

My shoulder hurt terribly as I slammed hard into a gray, metal floor and heard a sickening pop. I sucked in a pained breath and held my shoulder in agony. My eyes focused and I could see I was in a dull, steel room lined with motivational posters. The floors were covered with stacks of books on a wide variety of subjects and various technological parts and devices. Somepony screamed and I rolled over to see a teal pegasus, her blue eyes watching me in a mixture of surprise and curiosity.

"Who... Who are you? Where did you come from?" she asked while tugging on her long, blond braid like it was a rope that was the only thing keeping her tethered to the earth. Her voice. She was the voice I heard pleading from the vortex.

"Aria," I hissed and my eyes drifted to her forelegs. Around her fetlocks were two bracers. One was a device that looked like a portable terminal. It was like a bracer of chrome-colored, metal housing a bright green screen. The other was very familiar. It was my brother's bracer, complete with the Star Ruby set in the golden leg guard. Turning over far faster than I should have with my injured shoulder, I rolled onto my stomach and grunted as pain pulsed through my upper body. "How did you get that bracer?"

"M-My grandma gave it to me. It's been in my family for two hundred years. How did you get in here?" the teal pegasus asked, more curious than frightened. I pushed myself up, feeling another lance of pain stab dully into my shoulder, and grimaced.

"Yep, that's dislocated. Hope it's not broken. What do you mean two hundred years? My grandmother gave that bracer to my brother only a few hours ago," I said as I tried to push my shoulder back into place. I screamed, but it wouldn't go back into the socket. The weight of the bracer was holding it down just enough for the simple act of relocating my shoulder to be impossible for me to do before the pain caused my body to pull away and stop pushing. The pegasus mare got up quickly and helped steady me.

"Let me call my coltfriend. He can help you. He's a doctor. Well, a physician-in-training, really."

Almost on queue, two unicorn stallions burst through the door, one teal coated and wearing black and blue barding while the other was orange and red and carrying a doctor's bag in his teeth. The orange one looked like he had seen a ghost, the color draining out of his face while his brown eyes bulged in fear behind his glasses. I was surprised he didn't drop the bag and run. Seeming less impressed and more angry, the teal unicorn pulled a revolver out of his Security barding's holster and leveled it at me.

"Oh no! They've gotten in already!" the orange unicorn shouted, his glasses falling down the bridge of his nose. He looked ready to bolt out the door at the first sign of a struggle. "Are you alright, Melody? Has she hurt you?"

"Hooves and horn where I can see them, raider! Let my sister go!" the stallion, who was obviously the pegasus... er, Melody's brother.

"Starshine, it's okay. She's not holding me hostage and she's not one of them. I-I think grandma's ruby brought her here," she told him and he scrunched his nose into a facial expression that I could only guess was a mixture of surprise and I don't know what.

"What the hell are you talking about, Melody? How did she get in here?" Starshine demanded, his gaze never leaving me as his gun floated dangerously in my direction.

"Look. My name is Aria. I was in Canterlot fighting zebras one second, and then, the next thing I know, I'm here. I know you're not going to believe me, but I got blown up by a bunch of balefire eggs and then I ended up here," I tried to explain, and braced myself for the gunshot I knew was going to come next. He probably though I was some mad pony that wanted to kill them all and not a seriously confused and slightly hurt member of the Royal Guard. What happened next surprised me the most. Well, maybe in the top five for the day, but it was surprising. His eyes narrowed until he blinked a few times and his jaw dropped.

"Celestia's beard. I-I don't believe it. Melody, look at her."

"I told you that you wouldn't believe me. Also, Princess Celestia doesn't have a beard. She's a mare," I said, and hissed in pain as Melody dropped my shoulder. I turned, seeing a similar look of stunned confusion on her face, and shook my head.

"What are you two looking at?" I asked, but was immediately cut off as Melody threw her hooves around me and hugged me with all her might. I screamed and almost blacked out as it felt like my shoulder had exploded under her affectionate assault. She smiled sheepishly as she let me go. "What was that for?"

"You're her! You're Aunt Aria! You're Aunt Aria from the painting in the Stable Sixty-Three History Museum!" she cried, and I looked at her like she was the crazy one this time. "Compass, get over here and help her with her shoulder. The Star Ruby gave us a miracle!"

The orange unicorn nodded before taking my shoulder in his magical grasp. He focused his magic and before I could say anything to stop him, he wrenched it back into its proper position. I screamed again, but the pain was soon reduced to a dull throb and I could stand on my right hoof again.

"A little warning next time. What's this about me being an aunt? And a museum?" I asked, my brain hurting more and more with each bit of information the three ponies gave me.

"No time! The raiders are trying to get in! Security won't be able to stop them so I prayed for help and you appeared! The Goddesses sent you, didn't they? You have to help us!" Melody pleaded, holding my hooves in hers while her sea blue eyes looked at me with all the hope and admiration in the world. I sighed. I was a guard and it was my first and foremost duty to protect ponies.

"Alright, I'll help you. Where am I, who's trying to get in, and how can I help?"

____________________________

It was gone. Equestria was gone. The zebra had succeeded and I had failed. Well, I had stopped the bomb in the parking garage from doing more than weakening the structural integrity of the building and forcing the garage's demolition. But it couldn't have been more than a year or two later when the zebra's launched balefire missiles and set off balefire bombs to wipe out all of Equestria. We had lost the war. Starshine said that Equestria used megaspells of our own to wipe out the zebras, but that was little comfort. It took me three or four minutes to move again. I felt numb. I had died for nothing.

Wait. No. I hadn't died. I was here. How, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it was scientifically impossible. A time travel spell? But that would have just deposited me back in the middle of the explosion when it wore off. I had been here for five minutes, well past the theoretical limit of any temporal manipulation spells I knew about. I read that book on Star Swirl the Bearded, cover to cover, at least one hundred times. Time travel spells had a limit of approximately sixty-two seconds. Why sixty-two? I don't know, but I had been in Stable Sixty-Three for a lot longer than that. "Hey! Sixty-Two... Sixty-Three? Nah, that's probably just a coincidence."

"But what were you talking about a painting in the museum? I'm in a museum?" I asked, wondering why they had a museum in Stable Sixty-Three. Weren't Stable-Tec Stables made to house and save ponies in case of an Omega level threat? Maybe I should ask them and... Oh! Starshine, my nephew apparently, was talking. "Stop thinking too much, Aria!"

"... In the museum. When the bombs fell, Stable Sixty-Three's goal was to protect Equestria's history and culture. That's why it was built under the Natural History Museum in Trottingham and the majority of its inhabitants were academics or artists. Our ancestor's parents entered the Stable as some of the few essential personnel that weren't part of the secondary goal. They needed a chief of security so they brought in a retired military captain, Captain Golden Star. They-"

"Golden Star was retired when the bombs fell? Why?" I asked, astounded that my big brother would ever leave the front lines before the war was won.

"His journal said he got shot in the back by friendly fire. He recovered, but not enough to be let back onto the field. He moved to his family estate here in Trottingham and then came down here to be the Stable's Security Chief. Things went well because he was such good friends with our other ancestor, Chief Engineer Brightlight, and his wife..."

It was like a balefire bomb went off in my chest.

"What!? They were friends! How could they be friends after what Bri..." I shouted, but stopped, surprising the three Stable dwellers and sending the surprisingly meek Compass jumping away from me and into the wall with a loud 'thud.' I smiled nervously. Fume and yell later, hear the story first. "Sorry. Brightlight and I didn't leave things on good terms."

"Oh. I'm sorry. Did you two have a fight? Wow, Melody, isn't it weird to be talking to somepony who knew our super great grandparents?" Starshine asked his sister.

"Weird? She's our super duper great aunt come back from the grave! Of course it's weird," she replied and my rage suddenly became mixed with the feeling of suddenly being very old.

"I'm not old! I'm sixteen!" I shouted and the three Stable ponies laughed until Starshine stopped and became dreadfully serious. I could see we were approaching the Security office and the Security Chief needed to be all business.

The door opened and two earth ponies, a white mare and a pink mare who might have been twins if not for their coloration, turned from a bank of monitors with worried expressions. I couldn't help but notice that the security office, like the halls, was the a dull gray with hardly any decoration besides a few gun racks. Everything was so spartan and uniform. Melody's disorganized decorative choices suddenly seemed a little more practical to me now.

"Report!" Starshine barked, more as an order than a question, and the two mares saluted.

"Captain, the raiders outside the vault door have stopped using the flamethrowers and rippers and are falling back. I think they're giving up, but Strawberry Milk thinks they're just going to bring more powerful weapons to get them through," the white pony reported nervously, all the while constantly glancing back to the monitors.

"The raiders have been pounding on that door and weakening the structural integrity for three days straight, sir. They even destroyed the turrets. They wouldn't give up so easily now. The Stable Sixty-Three door can only ta... Who's she?" Strawberry Milk asked when she noticed me.

"Our aunt from the stone age who I summoned from heaven to stop the raiders. I told you the Star Ruby was magical!" Melody cheered next to me while wrapping her left hoof around my neck. I marveled at the arcane science and ingenuity that went into her Pipbuck, I realized that it had to be a Pipbuck. This was a much more advanced model than the ones I had seen in Stable-Tec Monthly. It currently displayed a Vault-Pony to symbolize her health and well-being and the medical items she had in her saddlebags at the moment, but the buttons underneath the screen would allow her to display its other functions. If Stable-Tec had been able to put in half of the features that they wanted to put in after the first generation models, then I wanted one so bad. The models the rich and the aristocrats had were Pipbuck 1000's. These beautiful pieces of arcane technology were Pipbuck 3000's. I needed to see if I could get one and check it out for myself.

"Um, hi," I told the two earth pony mares with a wave of my hoof, and they paled as they took a good look at me. Why did everypony do that?

"But you're supposed to be dead! You're on the Wall of Fallen Heroes!" the white security mare pointed out. I arched an eyebrow at her.

"Wall of Fallen Heroes?" I asked, but Strawberry Milk gasped.

"Captain Starshine! Swiss Cheese! Get over here!" she called, and I groaned internally. Their names were Strawberry Milk and Swiss Cheese? These ponies sounded more like dairy farmers than security officers. Starshine trotted over to the monitor banks and swallowed hard; I could see his Adam's apple jump up and then settle back down in his throat.

"Luna damn us," he cursed, and I growled under my breath. Who would ever say such a thing? Princess Luna would never damn anypony! She was the nicest, most amazing mare I had ever... Oh, that's why.

Over his shoulder, I could see the security monitor for what must have been the feed outside the Stable Sixty-Three entrance. It was a dark service tunnel lined with dimly glowing emergency lighting and I could see the figures of multiple ponies galloping up to the large, gear shaped door with the number '63' painted on the outside. Then I watched a ghostly glowing object floating down the hall. This time it was my turn for my mouth dropped open. A unicorn stallion, his hide so cut up that he had more scars than fur, was carrying a glowing egg in his magical grasp. A balefire egg.

"Oh cud," I whispered.

"Oh cud is right." Starshine replied.

Then the raider turned and spoke to the camera.

"You Stablepussies see this!?" I recoiled at the raider's foul language. "It's a balefire egg! We've been weakening your door for a reason. Now we're gonna give you fuckers five minutes to open up this door or we're gonna blow it to hell! You got that? These things weren't made to take a direct hit from balefire. We know. You ever seen Stable Sixty-Two? Well, of course you tunnel loving ponies haven't, but you get my drift! Open the sodding door or we're gonna blow it straight up Celestia and Luna's asses!" he shouted in an extremely thick Trottingham accent. I felt out of place with my very neutral, Canterlot accent. I didn't even have the faux-Trottingham accent that many of the nobles and wealthy ponies of Canterlot high society adopted.

But that wasn't important right now.

I knew what a balefire egg could do. I didn't know if what the raiders were claiming was true, but it probably wasn't a good idea to doubt them. My left eye twitched and I scowled at the evil little ponies on the screen. They were ponies trying to rob and murder other ponies. Not filthy zebras, but ponies!

"Why are they doing this?" I asked and Strawberry Milk sighed.

"Because the Trottingham Wasteland is the most fucked up place in all of Equestria. Well, from our own experience."

"Any luck on the radio? Have we been able to get a response from our distress beacon?" Starshine asked, and Swiss Cheese shook her head, her bright pink locks swishing gently.

"No, sir. Nothing. I think w-"

"This is the Steel Rangers, Trottingham Division. We've received your distress beacon and are en route. We will be arriving at the old Museum of Natural History in T-Minus fifteen minutes. Please hold on. We're sending the Brotherhood of Steel," the deep, distinctly not Trottingham accented voice on the other end of the radio cut in. Strawberry Milk smiled nervously.

"We have contact from the outside! Somepony's coming to save us?" she said cautiously, a mixture of a statement and a question as she looked up at Starshine expecting some form of comfort.

"The only problem is that we don't have fifteen minutes." That was the statement of the century. The raiders began setting up sticks of dynamite into a seriously messed up mockery of a nest at the base of the Stable door. We had five minutes, at the most.

"Can the door hold out that long?" Swiss Cheese asked, fear apparent in her pale blue eyes.

"I don't know. What do you think, sis? You're the technology expert," Starshine asked and turned to his sister standing next to me.

"I don't know either. The Stable door's taken a pounding and could be structurally unsound now, but I don't know anything about balefire eggs. Those things are some serious zebra voodoo."

"I think it might actually break the door open if set up properly," I said, and the Stable ponies looked at me with horrified expressions. Even determined Starshine seemed a bit deflated by my analysis. I mentally smacked myself for my blunt honesty and textbook conclusion. I needed to give these ponies hope. "We might be able to hold them off at the entrance if we use the door as a choke point. Set up a wall and hold them back with suppressing fire until the cavalry arrives."

"There's no time to set up defenses!" Strawberry Milk cried, and I cringed.

"You've had three days notice to an invasion and you haven't set up any defenses!?" I shouted, and she wilted under my verbal assault. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a moment. Give them hope, not rage. "I'm sorry, but why not?"

"We're peaceful Stable ponies. The worst we've ever had is a few pranksters releasing radroaches into the mare's room. We didn't know what to do," Swiss Cheese explained, on the verge of tears, and I sighed.

"Alright, then I'll be the first line of defense. Do you have any armor and a shield?" I asked and Melody's familiar, sea blue eyes practically sparkled as a knowing smile crossed her face.

"I know just where we can find you the perfect armor and shield. Follow me!"

____________________________

The Stable Sixty-Three History Museum took up an entire floor of the underground bunker that my distant niece and nephew lived in. Wow, that's going to take some getting used to if I really was going to believe what these two were telling me. The entrance held a twenty-foot tall dragon skeleton and a visitor's center while six hallways, two on each wall, led out to other exhibits. Behind us was the entrance and off to the side was a door marked 'Curator.' Melody, Compass and I rushed past the dragon bones and through a door with the words 'Heroes of the War' written above it on a glowing yellow marquee. We only had five minutes and the run through the maintenance corridors had already eaten two minutes off our constantly ticking clock.

Starshine and his extremely lackluster duo of security mares had rushed to the atrium, the large room that the Stable's doorway fed into, and were trying to set up some semblance of a fortified defense. I needed armor and a weapon, a shield preferably, and Melody had said that the museum had the perfect set of armor for me and a shield I would love. I didn't know how she knew I would like them, but I followed her anyway, hoping they would be better than the security armor that Starshine and his mares had. She led us down the hall as fast as her wings could take her, which, although faster than Compass or myself, actually wasn't that fast for a pegasus. As I followed her, I couldn't help but notice her cutie mark. A computer terminal with sheet music displayed on the screen. Now that was an interesting cutie mark. Not shield and lightning on balefire interesting, but still interesting in its own right. When we entered the Hall of Fallen Heroes, I stopped in my tracks and Compass barely avoided running into me from behind.

"Hey!"

I didn't hear him. I fell onto my rump, complete blown away at what I saw on the far wall. A mural, quite possibly the most beautiful mural I had ever seen, was painted above multiple display cases housing armor, weapons, books, paintings, and sculptures. The mural depicted some of Equestria's greatest heroes. It regally depicted had Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and the Ministry Mares. But I also saw heroic Big Macintosh and Macintosh's Marauders, the Steel Rangers followed by many Ministry of Peace medics. I saw the Shadowbolts led by Rainbow Dash as they soared over the army of heroic ponies below. They were all fighting a horde of demonic looking zebras with hoof, gun, blades, and magic. They were amazing.

And on the front lines, charging a particularly nasty looking pair of bat winged zebras, was... me? Clad in the purple and silver armor of Princess Luna's royal guard, was a beautifully depicted reddish-brown unicorn mare with fierce purple eyes flecked with green and a dark blue streak down her mane and tail. She was much more beautiful than I was, and she was wielding Golden Star's triangular shield as she charged, but I could tell it was supposed to be me.

"You know, I think you're even prettier in person," Compass said, and Melody nodded in agreement. I blushed, not knowing what to say, and then saw a golden metal square at the bottom of the mural. A plaque.

"Commissioned by Captain Golden Star. Dedicated to his sister who he loved so dearly and lost too soon."

Before I knew it, I was practically bawling. I felt Melody's hoof on my shoulder and I took her into a hug as I sobbed into her breast. She held me close, stroking my mane like Grandmother White Rose once had, and shushed softly at me. They were gone. Golden Star. Grandmother. Even Uncle Blueblood, Silver Storm, and Brightlight. They were all gone! I was still alive in the hell that was left after we lost the war, but they were gone. I was the one who had been blown up! I was the one who should be dead! Why was I alive and not them? Why!? Then I heard singing.

"Everything's going to be alright,
as long as we continue to fight.
Life may not be fair,
but as long as we keep going
the good times we can share,
will come to us."

I looked up at Melody, her sea blue eyes looking down at me with all the comfort that Golden Star's kind, strong eyes usually gave me, and I sniffed loudly. This was a song using my grandmother's words as lyrics. It was a little different, but the message was still the same.

"You really are my brother's super great granddaughter, aren't you?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Mm-hmm. Let me show you to your armor and shield, okay?" she said, a feathered wing brushing away a tear from my cheek, and helped me back to my hooves. She then shot Compass a look as he stood in the doorway. He looked at us with all the awkwardness I was sure his orange frame could muster.

"What? I'm not that good with crying mares, okay? Mares in general really. You know it took me thirteen years to ask you out!" he retorted and Melody just rolled her eyes. She turned me towards a display case beneath the mural's depiction of myself, and I saw a dressform mannequin clad in the same armor the mural me was wearing. Next to it was a shield. A very familiar and very important triangular, silver shield with golden trim and backing. Golden Star's shield. There were other items, like a few books that I immediately recognized as mine, and a copy of my diploma from the Royal Guard Academy.

"So are you going to take your armor and shield back?" Compass asked, watching us from the doorway through his thick framed, black glasses.

"I-The shield was Golden Star's, not mine. I-"

KABOOM!

The room shook and my eyes widened in terror as alarms began claxoning throughout the entirety of Stable Sixty-Three. My emotional breakdown, however short it had been, had cost us precious time and now the door might be blown open. I had to hurry. Reaching out with my magic, I teleported the armor onto my body and summoned the shield through the glass display case with a loud crash of shattering glass. The security glass tinked and cracked as it broke into tiny shards on the metallic floor. The armor fit like it had been made just for me. Then I realized that it probably had. Princess Luna likely had my measurements and was going to give this armor to me on my first day as a member of her personal guard. When I 'died,' she probably gave this armor to my brother. Turning to my companions, I gave them my best smile while I sniffed away my tears.

"Alright, let's do this. We've got a Stable to save!"

____________________________

We rushed back through the maintenance corridors as fast as our legs and wings would take us. At one point, as we rounded the last corner to the Pipbuck repair stalls and the stairs up to the Atrium, Melody ducked into the stalls and called for us to go on without her.

"I'll be right there! I gotta get something from my stall! Don't worry! I'm right behind you!"

I looked at Compass and the bespectacled unicorn shrugged his shoulders. Shaking my head and pursing my lips, we bolted up the stairs into the atrium. Everything was quiet. No shooting. No screams of death or 'Stablepussies.' It was quiet. I hate to be cliché, but it was too quiet. Gray metal tables were overturned and the chairs were strewn about in front of them to act as some sort of crude obstacle. Starshine's helmeted head popped up over one of the tables and he waved us over.

"Come on, you lot. Let's go. They've breached the front door and they're coming. Doc's gonna need your help with injuries, Compass. Let's-"

BOOM!

A second explosion, this one a lot smaller than the balefire egg's blast, ripped open the atrium door. I could hear shouts of maniacal glee and horrible strings of obscenities and blasphemies coming from within. Picking up Compass in my magical aura so that he floated alongside Golden Star's shield, I jumped over the wall of tables just in time for the piece of furniture to catch a bullet right where I had been standing a second earlier. Out of the smoke and debris charged a gray earth pony raider, covered in bloody leather armor, with a pistol in his mouth. I stared at him, focusing my magic in order to unleash a deadly blast of electricity and... I couldn't do it. I froze, staring like a deer in a train's headlight.

I knew these ponies were here to kill us and I had been trained to kill if necessary. We had been taught that zebra commandos might invade and we royal guards might have to kill them like our soldiers in the field. We were the last line of defense. We couldn't be afraid or show pity to enemies that were trying with all of their might to end our lives and the lives of the ponies we cared about and were sworn to protect. These ponies weren't zebras, but their intent was still the same. "Just focus your magic and shoot, Aria!"

I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Killing paper cutouts versus killing flesh and blood ponies were completely different. He took my moment of shocked hesitation to line up a shot, pulling the trigger with his tongue. I was barely able to duck back behind the tables in time as a shot rang out, whizzing harmlessly over my head. Or at least I thought it did.

I heard a horrifying scream and turned to see blood spurting out of a yellow earth pony mare's neck. The blood was like a red fountain, her precious bodily fluids spraying around her hooves as she tried to hold it in. She stared at me as if I had shot her myself. To be completely unfair to myself and fair to her, I sort of had. She hit the ground, a dark puddle already forming around her, and I watched as Compass ran to the dying mare's side. If I had shot the raider, she might not have been.

"Never again!" I peeked over the table, spying a green mare with a stick of dynamite running in, and I knew what I had to do. I fired off a lance of electricity at the unsuspecting raiders. As a third raider carrying a shotgun in his magical grasp walked in, the bolt hit the sickly looking mare dead in the face and immediately the dynamite was set off. Did I mention that I'm a smart pony? The explosion ripped the mare and the unicorn into a bloody paste and sent the pistol pony flying into our debris field. The red mist splattered the entrance and I felt sick. Okay, no more gloating about killing.

BANG!

The stunned and bleeding raider was quickly dispatched by a well placed rifle round through the head, courtesy of my great nephew. A silence descended upon the Atrium that gave everypony an odd sense of pause. Were they giving up? Where was the balefire egg wielding unicorn with the foul mouth? "That was too easy..." Why does the universe hate me?

A bellow of unearthly rage ripped through the smoking entryway as the largest earth pony stallion I had ever seen came barreling through the door covered in spiked metal armor and wielding a sledgehammer in his teeth. How could anypony hold a twenty pound sledgehammer between their teeth!? Our bullets ricocheted off his armor and my lightning did not seem to faze him one bit. It hit him square in the chest and I saw the electricity sparking and traveling through his armor and muscles, but he just charged on. Magic was out and so were bullets. Let's see how Mr. Raider liked a little blunt force trauma.

I leaped back over the tables, shield at the ready, and charged the monstrously strong, metal covered pony. With the grace of my natural agility and years of practice, I struck out at the raider's face and smacked his helmet hard with my shield.

Big mistake.

Just like the bullets currently ringing off his armor and my own electric spells, the behemoth of a pony was almost completely unaffected by my strike. All I did was dent his helmet and piss him off even more. He turned his head and grinned at me over his sledgehammer. I could see his eyes through the slits of his helmet and there was barely any whites to them. He was all pupils. This pony was probably hopped up on every drug I could imagine and then some I had probably never even heard of.

He whipped his head back and brought his hammer around in a wild arch that barely gave me enough time to react. Ducking under the swing and bringing my shield up so that the attack glanced harmlessly off its silver surface, I saw him coming around for another swing. He was going way too fast for a pony of his weight, size, and build. He definitely was using Dash and probably some Buck. Thinking fast, I remembered that Dash addicts sometimes had a high sensitivity to bright lights and hoped to Luna that this worked. In theory, it should. His pupils were the size of bottle caps after all.

My horn flared and a bright burst of light erupted directly in front of the hammer pony's dilated eyes. He screamed, letting go of his hammer right as it slammed into my shield and continued onto me. He threw his helmet off so he could rub the spots out of his eyes, and his head exploded into a fountain of blood as Starshine shot a bullet directly into the raider's right temple. That worked better than I though. It was disgusting and horrifying, but I guess that was war.

I stumbled and fell over as the weight of the flying hammer slammed into me, knocking the wind out of my lungs. If it hadn't been for my helmet, armor, and shield, that hammer would have done some serious damage. I still felt like I had been tackled by a hoofball linebacker and I would probably be bruised and battered and feel it in the morning, but at least nothing seemed broken. I really wished I had one of those Pipbucks.

Even though Starshine, his security mares, and a few Stable ponies I didn't know were picking off the lightly armored raiders one by one as they emerged from the blown out doorway, the evil, drug crazed, blood covered ponies just kept coming. I shot another lightning bolt into a pony wearing what looked an awful lot like a hat made from another pony's scalp and mane, and watched him fall to the group, flailing until a bullet to his chest left him a bloody, twitching mess. For a bunch of peaceful artists and academics, Stable Sixty-Three's ragtag group of defenders were actually doing pretty well. Of course, I'm not a lucky pony and the fates hate me, so that moment was when a strange, whirring noise echoed across the atrium and a familiar, scarred unicorn stallion entered floating a minigun turret at his side. He gave me a wicked smile and opened fire.

I lifted my shield, but not before a few bullets struck me hard. Most glanced off my magically treated armor but one ripped through my upper left foreleg sending fire arching through my good shoulder. Another bounced heavily off my bracer and rang out a loud clang. My front legs fell out from under me and it took all of my focus to keep my shield between me and the hail of bullets slamming into my silver aegis. The minigun raider laughed, his jaundice stricken eyes wide with glee as his gun continued its rapid, bullet fueled drum roll assault on my only defense against the certain death he was raining down on me.

My vision blurred for a moment and I felt increasingly tired as my precious lifeblood flowed from my foreleg and down onto the cold, metal floor. It was starting to pool around my knees and I felt nauseous from the pain and blood loss. Did I really survive getting blown up by balefire just to be riddled with bullets two hundred year later? What was the point of surviving certain death to die in a hole in the ground less than thirty minutes after my life had been spared? I was about to give up when the bullets stopped and I heard a series of clicks. The minigun had run out of ammo.

I looked around my shield, which was in surprisingly good shape for the beating it had just taken, and saw the cut up unicorn look down at his weapon with a strange sense of surprise. Did he really expect it to never run out of bullets? He then saw my glare and swallowed hard while attempting to feed more bullets from his saddle bags into his massive gun's chambers.

I charged the raider ringleader. Each step was agony as I galloped forward. There were other raiders in the Atrium now, but I didn't care. Starshine and his ponies could take care of them. They were holding them off as I watched gore covered ponies drop all around me. I felt a bullet ring off my armored flanks from the Stable side, but I barely gave it any notice. I had to get to that minigun raider before the bullets began to rain down on us again. Just as he finished reloading, I swung my shield hard into the side of his face. I heard teeth and bone crack under my shield strike and watched him fall to the ground in a heap. I had to finish him. I couldn't give him a chance to retaliate like I had with the zebra in Canterlot. I had learned my lesson and I brought my shield up so I could bring it down and crush his skull.

Then a bullet rang off my helmet and I winced at the hollow echo it left in my head gear. I turned and saw a filly in bloody armor, only a few years younger than me, smiling from around her pistol. I blinked, unable to comprehend why such a young pony would be with these monsters, and I opened my mouth to ask her why she was here. That is, until she shot me again in the my helmet, only an inch from my horn.

Rage filled me and I didn't care anymore. I unleashed a bolt of lightning that fried the little pony and she fell to the floor, her coat smoking. What had I done!? I felt cold dread fill my chest as I realized I might have killed a little filly. I killed a child! I saw her take a slow, labored breath and felt the strangest sense of relief. She had tried to kill me and I had been worried about killing her? It made no sense, intellectually speaking. Then I heard the chuckling at my hooves. I looked down, seeing the metal apple in the minigun raider's teeth and watched the pin drop from his lips.

"Later, bitch."

I had only a second to react and it wasn't enough. I jumped back and put my shield between the grenade and myself. In hindsight, I should have thrown it telepathically down the hall, but hindsight's twenty/twenty, right? The blast ripped into my shield and the shock wave sent me flying. Pieces of shrapnel glanced off my armor, but a few pieces dug into my neck and sent hot fire through my entire body. I hit the ground ten feet away from the blast, but also fifteen feet away from the table wall that the Stable Sixty-Three militia took cover behind. I was too far away for the doctor or Compass to get to me without drawing fire from the raiders.

Wait, why weren't the raiders shooting? I flopped my head over into the slowly growing pool of my own blood and saw that the raiders were standing in the doorway. They were just as stunned as me and the Stable ponies. Some were stunned by the blast, some were even killed by it, but most stopped because they were shocked by the death of their leader. Maybe they'd run? I'm not that lucky. I saw a red unicorn mare with a beat up service rifle smile at me and a little red dot from her scope appeared on my forehead. Well, I had a good run I guess.

Then a beam of red light flashed and she was a pile of pink ash.

"Woohoo!" Melody cried as she fired a flurry of bolts from the magical laser pistol in her teeth. She flew above them, raining scarlet beams of death upon the ponies invading her home. Raiders cried out, turning their attentions and guns towards the pegasus swooping around in armored Vault Sixty-Three utility barding and away from me and the other, earthbound defenders. The ponies behind the bullet riddled tables provided suppressing fire and raider after raider dropped with burns and bullet holes sprouting from their skin.

I heard somepony gallop up to me and saw Compass take me in his hooves, cradling my head while he shoved a bright purple healing potion down my throat. I felt the bullets and shrapnel push their way out of my body and my wounds close up behind them. That was a weird experience. I gasped for air as the cool magical elixir finished its work and he smiled.

"You still with us, Aunt Aria?" he asked as I pushed myself back up to a standing position, feeling extremely woozy from the loss of blood, and having to shake the cobwebs of a formerly impending unconsciousness out of my head. Then I felt a needle being inserted into my shoulder and whipped my head around to see Compass administering a syringe of Med-X. I shot him a dirty look, and he chuckled nervously. "I thought it would help."

"You want to know what would help? Stop calling me aunt."

I charged back into the fray, smashing raider faces left and right until I was covered with blood, most of it theirs. My armor and shield were stopping most of the bullets and strikes, but I did split my lip when I got hit from the side with a baseball bat. Helmet's saved lives, but they really cut into one's peripheral vision. I quickly showed that raggedy old raider that my melee weapon was better than his and he joined the ponies with broken skulls lying at my hooves.

Standing over three half dead, unconscious raiders who had dared try to take me on with pool cues, I took the moment of silence to catch my breath. I had a few burns on my legs from grazing shots and swallowed hard against the dull pain and wobbling of my front left leg. It had been healed, but not fully. Looking at the carnage, I couldn't believe I had done some of this. I noticed a severe lack of raiders. For a second, I thought the tide was turning and I was beginning to feel hopeful about our chances. That was until more explosions rang out from the Stable Sixty-Three entry hall.

"Biscuits!" I cursed.

I started backpedaling, as a rather mean looking, sickly yellow unicorn mare with a three foot long spear charged me from the door. I parried her thrust, the sharp metal point missing my left eye by less than three inches, and continued to back towards the wall of tables. If another explosive wielding raider was coming, then we had to fall back. Now! Our line of defense was no longer holding off the bullets and numerous holes could be seen through the bulwark. The raider stabbed again and her spear shattered against my shield. I smiled at her, and the raider's wicked grin melted away. She wasn't laughing anymore.

"I give u-"

I smashed my shield into her face before she could finish the sentence. I know what you're saying, 'Royal guard brutality!' But you know what, I didn't care. She could have been trying to say 'I give upper class ponies crude sex acts for bits' for all I cared. They had brought a war to my niece and nephew's front door, and I was not a happy camper. I tazed a raider just for good measure before I leapt back over the tables.

I was astounded at how easily I had gone from guard to killer. Years of bottled up pain and anger and the heat of battle had pushed me across that line pretty quickly. It was actually kind of scary. I felt a twinge of relief when I saw that I was shaking. I sat behind a somewhat sturdier stretch of table and looked at my hooves tremble before my eyes. I didn't know if it was because the fighting and killing had shaken me to my core or if I was just at my limit, but I took the tremors to mean it was the former. I needed it to be the former.

I think it was as my heart felt heavy at the sight of the Stable ponies around me. The old unicorn doctor and Compass were tending to the wounded. Strawberry Milk and the few Stable ponies who I didn't know were laid out on the metallic floor, wrapped in bandages, and being administered weak healing poultices. Had they given me the only good one or had they already run out?

I suddenly felt numb at the sight of a pony I didn't even know lying dead underneath his or her bloody barding. She was gone. She had died because I had hesitated. I did not want that blue cloth to be any pony's funeral shroud. We were not going to die here. I wasn't going to let any pony else die here. I could feel my anger spurring me back to action, but I could also feel something else stirring inside of me. Kindness. I was still worried about the innocent ponies around me. I wasn't a heartless killer yet, just a soldier drafted onto the front lines of a brand new war. No. I was still a guard.

I went to the injured ponies to see if I could help. No pony looked like they were about to die, but they certainly weren't in any condition to keep fighting. One mauve earth pony looked up at me, her eyes tired and her throat dry, and paled.

"No. I don't wanna die. I'm not a hero. Please, fallen hero, don't let the reaper take me," she rasped, tears welling up until she shut her amber eyes tight against the spirit of death she saw in me. That made me feel like somepony was walking on my grave. Although, come to think of it, I probably had a grave in Canterlot.

"Wow. That's a morbid thought." I decided I should just stay away from the injured ponies of Stable Sixty-Three.

Melody had landed behind the bulwark and was helping her brother keep up suppressing fire. Most of the later raiders had only crude melee weapons, so the brother and sister were able to keep them at bay for now. Starshine had magical bandages wrapped around his head, back right leg, and teal coat was matted with blood and sweat, but he continued firing his blood drenched rifle at the oncoming invaders.

Another explosion snapped me out of my depressed daze, this time much closer, and I turned my focus back to the approaching raider army at the front door. I was tired and sore and emotionally spent, but I still had enough juice in me to fire off a few more bolts of electric blue lightning into the doorway. I knew most of them were just stunned by the magical blasts, but their twitching, electrified bodies would slow the raiders behind them enough for my family finish them off.

Wow. I have a niece and nephew now, and I was bonding with them over killing ponies. Strawberry Milk was right. The Trottingham Wasteland is one of the most fucked up places in all of Equestria.

Things were looking grim as two raiders made it to the shield wall and jumped over it, grenades held in their mouths as slobber frothed over the lips and coated the metallic apples. They were right in front of Melody, her laser pistol open as she was in the middle of changing out the empty spark battery, and she fell onto her back and dropped her pistol. Starshine pointed his gun at the one in front of his sister and his eyes widened in abject terror as his rifle jammed with a horrifying click. The raiders giggled and I swung my shield around. I wasn't fast enough. I wouldn't be able to reach them in time, especially not both of the kamikaze ponies.

Pftt! Pfft!

Two shots that sounded like somepony blowing really loud were immediately followed by blood spraying out of the back of the raiders' heads. They fell on top of Melody, dead, and she looked like she was about to pass out, the color draining from her bright teal face and transforming her coloration to a dull, sickly green. I looked to my right and saw the same shimmering figure like what I had seen when the zebras snuck into the MAS parking garage only half an hour earlier. Or two hundred years earlier if you wanted to be technical. I spun around, swinging my shield at the camouflaged pony shape, snarling with renewed rage, and the cloaked figure ducked under my swing. I heard a soft beep and then an earth pony in black and silver armor appeared before me.

He had a helmet that obscured all but his mouth and a silenced pistol and sniper rifle were mounted on either sides of his battle saddle. He smiled at me and gave me a nod before pressing the button on his right front fetlock and vanishing again into that strange, shimmering invisibility cloak.

Another explosion ripped through the hallway and then a storm of bullets tore through the raiders in the Atrium. Most were coming from behind in the familiar drumming pattern of a minigun, but a few silent shots came from the ghostly stealth pony that had saved Melody a moment earlier. I glanced over to see Melody sitting on her rump in shocked, but still unharmed silence and returned my gaze to the slaughter in front of me. It lasted only a few more moments, but, when it was all over, four stallions in black and silver painted power armor stood in the doorway.

They looked like the Steel Rangers from the MWT recruitment posters, powerful and heroic, but they were even more amazing because they had just saved us. Maybe I was having a fangirl moment, but Steel Ranger Power Armor was some of the most amazing magically enhanced technology out there. Like the Pipbucks, they were a perfect merge of two of my loves. Science and magic working as one. The stealth pony materialized next to them and they grinned at each other while the earth pony with the rocket launcher patted the smaller operative on the back.

"You guys the reinforcements?" Starshine asked as he popped his bandaged head out from behind the barely standing wall. Our last line of defense looked more like Swiss cheese than the tables they had once been. Remembering the dairy named pony, I looked back and saw Swiss Cheese and her sister standing behind us. They watched the Steel Rangers in the doorway with apprehension as the white pony supported her pink coated sibling.

"Yes sir," the large earth pony with the minigun mounted to the side of his armor replied with a grin. Another pony with a Trottingham accent. I knew I was in a Stable under Trottingham, but I still felt out of place.

"Who are you guys?" Compass asked after setting his doctor's bag down and sitting on one of the few chairs that remained behind our defenses.

"Us?" the stealth pony asked as he took off his helmet to reveal his snowy white coat and raven black mane. Thankfully, he didn't have a Trottingham accent. He gave us all a roguish grin and chuckled. "We're the Brotherhood of Steel, at your service."

________________________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up
New Perk: Intense Training (Strength) - Through intense training, your Strength stat increases by one.
New Quest Perk: Superior Guard - With the Superior Guard perk, you gain +5 to your damage and +10 to your armor rating when standing still.

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.

Chapter Two - Mourning Two Lives Lost

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Chapter Two: Mourning Two Lives Lost
" I could've gained a sister. But instead... I just lost a brother."

Biscuits. Her name was Toffee Biscuits. She was Stable Sixty-Three's resident baker. She specialized in cupcakes. Why was a baker fighting on the front lines? The only death dealt to the Stable Sixty-Three was a yellow earth pony mare named Toffee Biscuits.

I knew all about her because her sister had told me so as we sat our vigil over her remains until the cupcake making pony's body would be taken away to be incinerated. The idea of her body being further brutalized by fire until nothing was left but ash made it hurt even more.

She had taken a bullet through the right carotid artery and had lost a lot of blood before she had even hit the ground. To make matters worse, the bullet's path had torn into her windpipe and collapsed her airway. If she hadn't passed out from the drop in blood pressure, then she would have felt herself suffocate. The thought of that made me feel even worse.

Toffee Biscuits had been killed by the raider's bullet. The bullet I had ducked under. The bullet that had only been fired because I had hesitated at frying a raider pony's brains before he could pull the trigger. She was dead because of me. I had essentially killed Toffee Biscuits with my inaction.

As the Brotherhood of Steel and Starshine worked to confiscate the dead raiders' weapons and any technology they had been carrying in their assault of Stable Sixty-Three, I sat in reverent silence over the barding covered corpse of Toffee Biscuits. Next to me stood her sister, Leaflet, the Stable's librarian, and we mourned her together. My legs still shook and my shoulder still throbbed with a ghost-like pain where I had been shot, but I took my silent vigil over the pony I couldn't save. The healing potion had worked its magic. My shoulder was fully healed, but for some strange reason I could still feel the pain of the bullet ripping through the spot just below my armor's shoulderpads.

"Why are you here?" Leaflet, a light green earth pony with a curly purple mane asked. We had been silent for the past few minutes, just sitting by the lifeless body that had once been her sister. Her tears were still flowing and her voice was weak and shaky, but it felt like she was shouting at me. She should have been shouting at me. She should be beating the ever loving horse apples out of me. Instead, she just looked at me with a mixture of sadness, confusion, and sympathy.

"I don't know. I should be dead," I answered, almost as if I were pre-programmed like a robot to say it.

"You shouldn't say that. We'd all be dead if it wasn't for you," she replied, and put her hoof on my shoulder. I shrugged it off, both from the imaginary pain that pulsed when she touched me and also from the guilt her gentle hoof's consoling intent gave me.

"Toffee Biscuits would still be alive if it weren't for me," I whispered. She seemed surprised by my statement.

"What? Why? The raider shot her, not you. You blew him and those other two pony's surface high," Leaflet said, before sucking mucus back into her nose with a loud snort. It was a little disgusting, but I made sure not to show my disdain. That had been me less than an hour ago in the museum. "Biscuits and I knew what we were getting in to when we volunteered to fight."

I looked at her with my own stare of confusion and shock, a mirror of the one the Stable ponies always gave me when they saw me. I was unable to understand why she was taking everything so well. Her sister was dead! Sure, she was crying and obviously torn up about it, but how could she be consoling me when I had been partially responsible for her sister's death.

"But I froze and he took the shot. If I had blasted him, he wouldn't have been able to kill your sister," I said, and she seemed to look even sadder instead of angry. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you. It's not your fault and you have no reason to be sorry, but thank you," she told me, her words cutting through me like the shrapnel that had ripped into my neck. None of the tiny pieces of metal had hit anything vital and that was the only reason Compass could have gotten to me in time. It seemed so unfair. I should already be dead. Why was I given another chance, but not Toffee Biscuits? I stared at Leaflet until she broke into a sad smile. "You're not what I'd expect a fallen hero to be like."

"What?"

"You're Aria, right? The one from the museum? You look just like on the mural and you can sure swing that shield around like you were born to do it, but I always imagined you... different," she said, almost like it was a common thing to say.

"What do you mean?" I asked, still confused and infuriated by her calm demeanor. I looked back down at the still, bloody form of Toffee Biscuits and felt bile rising in my throat. I forced it back down with a hard swallow. Puking on the dead was not something I wanted to do. Ever. Especially not on Toffee Biscuits.

"I saw it. There were a few times out there that you were afraid to kill. Not just that first raider, but also the filly." I winced. If she had seen that, then everypony probably had.

"Aren't you?" I asked before adding. "And she was just a filly."

"I know, but she shot you. You shouldn't care if the pony trying to kill you or the ponies you love is a kid or two hundred years old... no offense," she told me, her watery eyes suddenly stern as she tried to drill the point home. I blinked at her last statement until I realized I was, in fact, over two hundred years old to them. If we went by my date of birth, then I'd be one of the oldest ponies in existence now. Now I really felt old.

Being an aunt, I can deal with that, there are plenty of young aunts and uncles, but being two centuries old now? It felt weird, especially since I knew I was really only sixteen. I turned my gaze away from Leaflet and back to the body.

"I'm sorry. I know I can't make this up to you, or your family, or Toffee Biscuits, but.. but I want to." I told her, never looking up, but being as sincere as I possibly could.

"Then do better and don't let it happen again," Leaflet said curtly. Her words hurt, just like I had wanted, and I could feel her stare. I kept my gaze on the still form beneath the blue and yellow barding. Leaflet and I sat in silence for a few minutes more until Starshine walked up, looking tired, and began speaking to Leaflet in hushed tones.

I tuned their conversation out, purposefully allowing my natural ability to become consumed in thought to take me away. I couldn't think about what I could have done to save her because I already knew. I should have shot him. I hesitated. An innocent pony got killed. The simple answer was to shoot him and it was the correct answer.

I let my mind wander to whatever subject it would let me latch onto, but it always found its way back to Toffee Biscuits. I felt a hoof on my shoulder and I looked up to see Leaflet giving me that sad smile again while Starshine stood next to her, his face tired and stoic.

"I'm sorry if I was a little hard on you. I have to go tell my family about Toffee. They should be letting the others out of the lower maintenance tunnels by now."

With that, they left me alone with Leaflet's sister's remains.

Toffee Biscuits.

Dang it, her name was too close to one of my replacement curses!

You're probably wondering what I mean by replacement curses. Well, when I was a little filly and Uncle Blueblood was cutting me down with another verbal barrage about my being a bastard, I said a word I definitely wasn't supposed to say. I had heard a guard say it and figured out it's meaning through how he used it. Let's just say it rhymes with 'mitt' and I called him a piece of it just like the guard had called his annoying little brother. My dear uncle was furious and my grandmother not only took a paddle to my flanks, but also washed my mouth out with soap. It was the most miserable experience of my life up until today.

Since that day, I picked up the little idiosyncrasy of replacing curse words with food. The 'rhymes with witch' word was blueberry, the 'F' word was fudge, (I know, not very original) and the 'mitt' word was replaced with 'biscuits.' Only now that was a problem because I couldn't have my replacement for that word being Toffee Biscuit's name as well. I'd have to come up with something else.

"So you're the hero back from the dead, huh?" I heard a smooth, masculine voice ask from behind me. I started, turning around and drawing my shield, only to see the stealth pony and the large, minigun pony standing behind me. The smaller earth pony was giving me his most charming grin through the opening in his helmet while the heavy gunner, a large, well-muscled beige earth pony, stared down at me, expectantly.

"Huh?" I said in a daze. Was he trying to make a joke? I was in the middle of mourning the dead and he comes over here just to make jokes!? What an ass! (I can curse in my head just fine, thank you very much) I must have made a face or something because the white coated earth pony's smile faded and the big pony's lips turned up into a goofy grin.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to offend."

"Well, you did! I screwed up and got Toffee Biscuits killed and you interrupted me paying my respects!" I snapped, narrowing my eyes at him to try my best at 'The Stare.' He seemed sorry, but whether or not it was because of my pathetic attempt at seeming tough, I don't know. I placed my brother's shield on my back and turned away from them, giving Toffee a final nod of respect, before storming off through the door leading deeper into the Stable.

"Hey, hey! She's a feisty one. If you don't call dibs, I sure as hell will," I heard the distinctive Trottingham accented voice of the minigun toting Steel Ranger say, and I growled angrily. I didn't hear what the stealth Ranger had said, but I didn't care. I needed some space and time to think and the Atrium was getting too loud and too crowded.

Stable Sixty-Three was still relatively devoid of life. While the injured had been taken to the Clinic by Compass and Cornea, the unicorn who I now knew was the Stable's head doctor and Compass' father, Swiss Cheese had gone down to the Maintenance tunnels to tell the Stable's population that it was safe to return to their rooms and the upper levels of the underground bunker they called home.

I passed a couple of new faces and watched as each one froze on the spot and just stared at me. I'd say it was like they were seeing a ghost again, but now I knew that they actually were. At least, in their minds I was a ghost come back from beyond the grave.

"Hello," I said as cordially as I could in my current state. Anger and depression fought for control of my psyche and I couldn't tell you who was winning. They must have noticed my mood and said nothing, the color draining from their faces. Sighing, I turned a corner and followed the hallway back to the museum, leaving the scared denizens of Stable Sixty-Three behind me.

I don't know why I was going to the museum, I just knew that was where I had to go. Every fork told me the direction that would take me to either the Natural History Museum or the Art Museum. I was interested to see what works of art might have survived down here, but that was for another time.

I arrived in the museum and proceeded down the familiar path to the 'Heroes of the War' wing. It was only a short watch before I arrived in the mural covered room. I was awed by the pieces of Equestrian History that they had collected. Although now that I think about it, this stuff had been my modern collector's items in my time. One of Big Macintosh's yokes sat on display under his picture on the mural, a simple wooden piece of neck wear that was more for utility than any form of a fashion statement.

However, my eyes couldn't help being drawn to the magnificent dress under the painting of the Ministry Mares. A dress form mannequin, identical to the one my armor had been on, proudly stood beneath the six powerful mares wearing a dress made of sapphire blue fabric covered in silver stars. The silver stars were complimented by four silver shoes and a silver saddle while the gown was completed with a high collar that, although an odd choice, fit the style perfectly. It was gorgeous! Whoever had designed this dress was a genius and a master with a needle and thread.

I noticed a framed letter prominently displayed on a sealed pedestal in front of the exhibit and walked over to it. My eyes widened as I began to read it and saw the first three words, two names, on the page.

Sweetie Belle,

Rarity told me what you and the girls are doing with Stable Sixty-Three. I know she 'Pinkie Pie Promised', but she just had to tell me; you can be mad at her if you want, okay? I know things are getting pretty tense right now, but I think you, Applebloom, and Scootaloo are doing a good thing. We should be prepared for the worst. Even if the worse never comes, and I hope it won't, we have to have a plan for Equestria in case it does.

The fact that you girls are trying to save Equestria's history and art inside Stable Sixty-Three is an amazing goal. I don't think I should be doing this, but Rarity insists I send something to show my support. She thinks that there should be something in your underground museum to represent us.

I don't want what represents our friendship and our accomplishments to have anything to do with this war. I want ponies to remember things before all this craziness. I couldn't think of anything more fitting than my old Grand Galloping Gala dress that your sister made for me.

Those were the days. Back when all we had to worry about were dreams of the 'Best Night Ever' and all you and your friends had to worry about was finding your cutie marks. Sometimes I wish I could just give this all up, go back to the library in Ponyville with all my friends, and the war would be over. But I guess that's what growing up is, facing harsh reality. Anyway, I hope this is good enough for your museum. I know it's not much, but it means a lot to me.

Keep up the good work,

Twilight Sparkle

Ministry Mare of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences

Dictated and read

Wow. A dress that Twilight Sparkle had worn to the Grand Galloping Gala. The formal wear held so much weight and yet felt out of place at the same time. Big Macintosh's yoke. Rainbow Dash's autograph. My armor. The dress. It just felt... odd to see stuff that had seemed so mundane or mildly important suddenly enshrined like the armor of famous knights or the works of brilliant scholars. Everything that had been normal only a few hours ago had become priceless works of art or irreplaceable antiquities.

I suddenly felt very uncomfortable wearing my own Lunar Guard armor or using my brother's shield. I continued down the line until I reached my broken display. That was stupid of me. I had been in such a hurry I had forgotten I could have teleported the shield out from behind the glass like I had with my armor.

I gingerly stepped across the field of broken glass and over to the books on the shelf. My old books had been perfectly preserved; Golden Star must have saved them for me. My Big Book of Arcane Sciences, First Edition, sat next to my copy of Zebra Infiltration Tactics, a required read at the Royal Guard Academy. Not all my books were here, but at least the most important one was on the shelf.

It was here. The book that had started it all. The Life and Works of Star Swirl the Bearded. It's cover was faded and its pages were tattered, but I couldn't help myself as I levitated the book to me and I hugged it to my chest just like I had done as a little filly. I hummed softly to myself as I held the most precious thing in the world to me. I hadn't realized I had missed it until just now, but holding that old book in my hooves made me feel less hollow and alone. It made me feel good.

I had to take my stuff. They were my personal belongings after all. Who was going to tell me I couldn't take my own property? But a new question popped into my mind. Where was I going to put it? I didn't have any saddlebags.

Sighing, I realized I would probably have to ask somepony for a bag to hold my things. Opening my eyes, I saw a book that I did not recognize leaning against the other books. It hadn't been hidden, I just didn't pay it any attention until now. I miss the little details a lot. It was a small book, leather bound and held closed by a tied off flap that attached the back cover to the front. There wasn't any writing on either the cover or the spine so I had no idea what it could be. If this book wasn't mine, why was it on the shelf with my stuff? I gently removed the cord tying the covers together with my magic and opened the book.

Entry 1

Aria always said I should keep a journal. She said it would some day be read by scholars, university students, and fillies like her. She said Sir Golden Lance the Bold's Diary was one of the most interesting reads she had ever read. It was in her Top 5 favorite historical texts. Leave it to my egghead of a sister to have a Top 5 for historical texts.

Golden Star? This was Golden Star's journal? I remembered telling him all about Golden Lance's diary when I was twelve. The stories inside were amazing. Some were kind of a stretch, like the tale of the black shield that appeared in the sky while he was urinating and disintegrated his old mentor, Sir Swift Strike the Gallant. He blamed dragons, which made no sense, and it is my belief that he and Swift Strike had had way to much to drink after slaying the dragon that attacked Manehatten.

While that story had been odd, most were amazing tales of valor or a keen insight into the mind of Medieval Equestria's greatest champion. My eyes returned to the pages and I wondered if I should continue reading Golden Star's private diary. Was it wrong now that he was dead for over two hundred years? Luna help me, it depressed me to think about that. After a few moments of internal debate, I couldn't hold back my own curiosity and resumed my study of my brother's journal.

I decided to start writing this as my way of honoring her. Not just for her heroic sacrifice, I always knew she was destined for greatness, but to honor the little filly that loved books so much. It was funny how her talent was magical combat, yet she acted like a librarian half the time. Her funeral's tomorrow. Grandmother's not taking it well. She's distant and seems to have lost that spark. She was already getting pretty weak, but now I don't think she has long left. I don't want to lose her too. I know she's old, but it's not fair. 'Life's not fair...' I hate that saying.

Entry 2

That could have gone better.

Aria's funeral was today. I can't believe we buried an empty casket, but the coroner said that the balefire eggs had completely vaporized her body. At least her plot is next to mom's. Princess Luna decreed it. The entire family came, even Uncle Blueblood and Uncle Vanity. Vanity was a military pony until Big Macintosh's death. He understands sacrifice. But Blueblood and the rest? Those ponies didn't care a lick for Aria. She was the family embarrassment to them. Just seeing them riding Aria's sacrifice for their own gain was infuriating, but Grandmother made me promise not to say anything.

Grandmother was supposed to speak first, but she could barely manage to whisper. She's really not doing well. I spoke next. I tried my best to let them know the real Aria. I'm pretty sure half the crowd didn't even know her from a salespony at Rich's Barnyard Bargains. I was mad, but at least they were paying their respects for a real hero.

I told them about the day she got her cutie mark. About how she blasted me with a lightning bolt from across the garden. I laughed and they laughed with me. I couldn't help it, but I really didn't feel like laughing. I told them about the fact that she had probably read half the books in the Canterlot Library by the time she joined the Academy. I told them about her desire to protect Princess Luna more than anything else. I think they understood.

Brightlight was next. He never seemed like the confident type and today was no exception. He could barely speak. I think it was a mixture of fear of the crowd and his own grief. He had lost his marefriend after all. Silver Storm was there too. I don't know what to think about that. It might be just me, but she was a little too consoling towards Brightlight for my tastes. I wanted to say 'Hey! It's my sister's funeral, you bitch!' Aria would have slapped me for not calling her a blueberry.

I felt angry and devastated all over again. Angry because Brightlight and Silver Storm had been there, pretending that they hadn't done what they had done. I was also sad because I could feel the anger and the hurt radiating off my brother's words and into the growing hole in my chest where my heart was supposed to be. Although, at those last two lines I couldn't help but smile.

I wasn't surprised that Twilight Sparkle, the Mare of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, showed up and paid her respects. Aria had saved her Ministry; it was only right that she come pay her respects. She didn't speak to the crowd, but she thanked our family for Aria's sacrifice and told her that it wouldn't be in vain. That we would win the war for her and all the other ponies we had lost. I sure hope so.

The big surprise was Applebloom, the CEO of Stable-Tec, showing up and wanting to speak. I didn't know why. I mean, I knew Aria was a big fan and subscribed to their magazine, (She had a box in her room where she kept every issue. EVERY ISSUE!) but I didn't know that they knew each other. Applebloom set a sheet of paper down and cleared her throat before pausing for a few seconds to collect herself.

Then she started speaking, and I couldn't help crying. I said I wouldn't, I said I'd be strong, but I couldn't hold it back any longer.

She said that although she had met Aria only a few seconds before her death, she couldn't help feeling like she knew her. Applebloom said that Aria's last thoughts were about getting her safely away from the balefire eggs and for her to tell Grandmother and me that she loved them. She looked right at us and that was when the tears started flowing.

She kept talking about how she loved her big brother, Big Macintosh, and how her Granny Smith had raised her, but I was only partially listening. Grandmother started crying as well and was using my chest and hooves for support. The thought that Aria's last words was that she loved us was too much.

I love you too, Aria.

Luna save me, I was crying too. I didn't realize it until a tear landed on the word 'much' and smeared the ink until it looked more like 'nug' then 'much.' I pulled myself away from the diary, curled into the corner of the exhibit stall, and cried my eyes out for the second time that day. At least, for the second time since I had woken up two hundred years ago.

"I'm sorry, Golden Star. I'm sorry, Grandmother. I'm sorry I made you cry. I'm sorry," I whispered to my family, hoping that somehow they could hear me from across time or up in heaven. I shook and sobbed and cried until I couldn't cry any more. In that tiny stall dedicated to my memory, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

____________________________

Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.

I opened my eyes to a world of muted agony. Everything hurt. My shoulder pulsed with phantom pains in time with the beating of my heart. My back and neck were stiff and aching. Of course, this was probably because I had slept against a wall, still wearing my armor and in rolled up into a tight little ball. Grunting and stretching, I tried to get my body to stop aching, but I felt like death. Seeing as how I should be dead already, I guess my body liked being ironic.

"Ah, you're awake. I hope I didn't wake you."

I turned my gaze to the mare sweeping up the glass at the base of the exhibit I had been sleeping in. She was an mustard colored earth pony, her brown mane streaked with gray, and she smiled at me while holding the broom up with her right forehoof. I blinked. Had she been sweeping with her hooves? Had she been standing on her back hooves like a minotaur? No, she had probably taken the broom out of her mouth to speak. That was the more sensible answer. I shook my head as both an answer to the negative and a way to loosen up my stiff neck muscles.

"That's good. It's not every day one of my museum exhibits comes to life, takes her armor and shield, fights off an army of raiders, and falls asleep reading her brother's diary," she said with wry smile. I slowly and painfully stood up.

"I-I'm sorry I destroyed your exhibit. I wasn't thinking," I told her while bowing my head. It was how I had been taught. Bowing your head was the ultimate sign of deference. It left your neck exposed to possible retribution from the injured party, but it also showed your willingness and earnest in begging for forgiveness.

"Aren't you the polite one. It's nothing, Miss Aria. They are your things after all. It would be rude of me to want to keep somepony's stuff when it's not really mine," she said before setting aside her broom, stepping around the pile of broken glass, and offering me her hoof. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Aria. My name is Curio, and meeting you is like a dream come true."

"Huh? Really?" I asked while politely shaking her hoof.

"Of course! When I apprenticed under the museum's former curator I wrote my thesis on you and Big Macintosh! The two heroes of the war who sacrificed themselves to stop zebra terrorist plots off the battlefield. You will not believe how hard it was to find any information about you. Well, outside that diary," she practically gushed, and I felt immensely awkward. Not only because she was comparing me to Big Macintosh, the hero who gave his life to save Princess Celestia at Shattered Hoof Ridge, but also by the fact that the older mare was practically bouncing as she spoke.

"Why is that?" I asked, turning my gaze back to the books and my shield on the ground behind me.

"Well, from what I've been able to gather, mainly from second hand sources and a particularly damning first draft of the article about your funeral, you were almost erased from the public eye before you could be elevated to the status of a Big Macintosh level hero. It seems your uncle, Prince Blueblood, used whatever leverage he had to edit your sacrifice and funeral down to a minor affair. Your brother said Ministry Mares, Stable-Tec heads, multiple prominent nobles, and Princess Luna herself had attended, but the official article in the national newspapers had you reduced to barely a quarter page article without any picture on the seventh page," Curio explained, and I scrunched my nose up in disgust.

"Why would Prince Blueblood do that?" I asked, wondering what my abusive and neglectful uncle would even care about how ponies saw me. Wouldn't it have been a boon for the family to have a hero in it even if I was a bastard?

"You didn't read very far into your brother's journal, did you?" she asked me as she peered at the little brown book on the ground near my shield.

"I guess not. I couldn't make it past Applebloom's speech. I started crying and I think I smudged one of the words," I admitted sheepishly. Curio chuckled softly and shook her head.

"No. It's okay. The tear of a historical figure on a book she cried over gives it character," Curio told me, and I nodded sadly. Every mention of my family being dead was like a new wound inflicted upon my already broken heart. "You should read the next couple entries. I'd forward a digital copy of the journal to your Pipbuck if you had one, but I see that you don't."

Curio really knew how to push all of my buttons without even trying. Past my ever growing sea of depression, a small boat of jealousy rode over the waves at the sight of Curio's Pipbuck. I kept forgetting that everypony in Stable Sixty-Three had one. I sighed, turned back to the book, and settled down to continue reading while Curio returned to her sweeping. I glanced back and saw her using her mouth and right foreleg to sweep. Theory confirmed.

The last speaker was supposed to be Princess Luna, but Uncle Blueblood approached the pulpit with a look of somber remorse plastered on his face. I didn't know what was going on. That is, until he started speaking.

He started talking about how he and Aria had been so close. About how he always knew she was destined for greatness and how he always saw Aria as the daughter he never had. Grandmother was shocked and just stared at her son as he talked. She was trembling with anger, but she could never bring herself to make a scene. She was too polite and proper.

I wasn't.

Maybe it was the years of fighting in the war. Maybe it was the years of being around the ponies that made Equestria great; the non-elites like the soldiers and the servants and Aria. I couldn't take another lie out of Blueblood's smug, egotistical, overly pampered face.

Before he could say another word, spout off another lie about his relationship with Aria, I threw myself at the pulpit and smashed Blueblood's nose into an ugly, bloody mess with my shield. I screamed that he was a liar and that he had made Aria's life a living hell. I screamed that he was a pompous ass that had called her a stain and a curse on our family. I wanted so badly to hit him again, but by that time Princess Luna's guards had pulled me off him and Blueblood was crying for medical attention. The wuss thought he was dying from a broken nose.

I railed against him as the two bat-ponies pulled me away from the funeral. Boy, those weird pegasus ponies were strong. I calmed down a little when the one called Lionheart whispered that he thought I should get a medal for hitting Blueblood. When I stopped resisting, he added that he didn't know Aria, but he would have liked to have known her and was proud she was a part of their guard. That made me a little happier and I let them take me away without any further trouble.

Looking back, I'm really sorry I did it. Not because I hurt Blueblood, that jackass doesn't deserve to be called my uncle, but because it had ruined the ceremony honoring my little sister. I would have been formally arrested and probably dishonorably discharged from the military if Uncle Vanity and Grandmother hadn't forced Blueblood to drop the charges. I'm sorry I couldn't be better, Aria.

Anyway, I ship back out to the front lines tomorrow. Heading out to Miramare to help with the zebra incursions there. I hope you're watching out for me from wherever you are, little sis. I love you and miss you a whole hell of a lot."

I was crying again. Not just tears of sadness, but tears of joy. Those tears rolled down my face and around my smiling lips before they fell to the floor. The idea of Golden Star breaking Blueblood's nose filled me with a very wrong, but very satisfying sense of happiness. If Blueblood had done that at my funeral, then I was happy he had been killed in a fiery explosion two hundred years ago. It serves him right.

"I see you approve of your brother's actions," Curio said, noticing my expression as she swept the last of the glass into a dust pan. I nodded.

"That fiasco was why Blueblood had the articles pulled and downgraded. He didn't want anypony to know about his disgraceful actions. Applebloom was the one who saved the real articles in our library database. Somepony sent them to her. I guess she felt that she owed you enough to make sure your real history and your sacrifice would be known, even if it was only to the ponies of this Stable. I bet she'd be surprised that you survived in this Stable dedicated to keeping Equestrian History alive, huh?" the curator pony said with a small grin. I nodded again.

"It's ironic," I said with a small laugh.

"No. I think it's destiny," she replied, and I stared at her for a moment. She just continued smiling until she seemed to remember something. "I'd like to keep that journal, if you don't mind, but I brought you a pair of saddlebags to carry your other belongings. I know we have a copy of The Big Book of Arcane Sciences and Zebra Infiltration Tactics in our own library so it's not going to hurt our collection. You can also take your copy of The Life and Works of Star Swirl the Bearded. It's an amazingly old book, old even by your standards, but we copied it ourselves one hundred fifty years ago so we don't need yours anymore." She paused. "Might I ask where you got your copy?"

"Princess Luna gave it to me when I was a filly," I told her after she gave me the saddlebags, and her eyes lit up.

"Princess Luna gave that to you? I have a book in my collection owned by a Goddess!? Oh my Goddesses! I-I-I mean, it's yours so it's not in my collection anymore, but I can't believe it!" she gushed, prancing in place as I placed my framed diploma and the three books in the bags I now had on my back. I replaced my brother's diary on the shelf, sad to let it go. Curio was right, that book wasn't mine. My brother had left it to the museum so here was where it belonged. Maybe I'd get those digital files if I ever got my hooves on one of those Pipbucks. When she had finally settled down, her smile became a little less jubilant and a little more embarrassed. "Oh, look at me. Prancing around like a little school filly. I'm making a fool of myself."

"It's alright, Miss Curio."

"Thank you, Miss Aria, but you don't have to call me 'miss.' Just call me Curio, alright?" she said, offering her hoof to me again. I shook it and gave her my best smile. I actually felt a little like smiling for the first time since I walked in on Brightlight and Silver Storm. I had my treasure back. The book that Princess Luna had given me felt good in my new saddlebags.

"Alright, Curio, but only if you just call me Aria. Deal?"

"Deal."

____________________________

The door to Melody's room opened just as I turned the corner and trotted towards my niece's living quarters. Melody and a pink unicorn with a podium for a cutie mark exited and, upon seeing me, the green and white maned pony's smile disappeared and she gave me a cold stare. She looked about Melody and my age, maybe a little older, but she seemed much older as she carried herself with a certain poise and grandeur I had normally only seen in Canterlot elites and the aristocracy.

"There you are, Aunt Aria! The Overmare's been looking for you," Melody said happily before turning to her companion. "Overmare Tea Leaves, this is my super great aunt, Aria."

"Hello," Overmare Tea Leave said calmly. Even I noticed that she didn't offer me her hoof like Curio had.

"I'm guessing the Overmare is the leader of Stable Sixty-Three, right?" I asked politely as I offered my own hoof to the Stable's commander-in-chief. She didn't return my gesture and just stared at my purple shod hoof like it was a monstrous claw instead of a normal pony hoof.

"Um, no thank you. I know you helped us out with the raiders and everything, but I barely feel comfortable being around you," she said coldly.

"Huh?" I asked, thoroughly confused by the Overmare's reaction to my presence. She rolled her magenta eyes at me and I narrowed mine. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for starters, you're not a resident of Stable Sixty-Three and you were not given the authority to enter this Stable. We sought out the Steel Rangers for assistance, but you just appeared without clearance or permission. Secondly, you're supposed to be dead. If not by the balefire eggs you supposedly jumped on to make you a 'hero,' then by the two hundred years that have passed. You look mighty young and healthy for two hundred and sixteen years old. And thirdly, and most importantly, you're still covered in blood and gore from who knows where. I can't tell which is yours and which is those filthy raiders' bloodily fluids."

Looking down at myself for the first time since the battle, I realized I was covered in dried, flaking blood. It was matted in my fur and staining my armor black and dark red. I swallowed, suddenly feeling completely disgusted with myself, and tried my best to smile. I think it looked more like a weird curl of my upper lip because the Overmare looked even more repulsed by me.

"Okay. Sorry. So is there any place I can go to get a bath or a shower?" I asked, hoping the dismissive leader of Stable Sixty-Three would at least give me that. She rolled her eyes at me again and I fought the urge to scowl. I was really starting to not like this pony.

"Oh! You can use my bathroom! And while your taking a bath I can clean and fix up your armor!" Melody volunteered, far louder than was acceptable for the situation or the confined quarters we were currently in. For once, Tea Leaves and I were in complete agreement as we both winced at my niece's over exuberance. She grabbed me by the right forehoof and began to pull me towards the open door. "Come on! I'll brush your hair afterwards! It'll be fun!"

"Yes, you do that," Tea Leaves said curtly, watching with disdain as Melody dragged me into her room. The door swished shut behind us and Melody started working at my armor's straps. Her hooves and teeth flew to each strap and my armor started falling off loudly onto the gray metal floor.

I felt extremely uncomfortable with this. Not only was another mare undressing me for a bath, but she was my niece! I was still adjusting to the fact that I had a niece that was my age and I was beginning to accept it, but her taking my clothes off was just plain weird. I pulled away from her and she smiled at me.

"Oh come on, Aunt Aria! I'm just trying to help you out of that armor. It's absolutely filthy," she told me, inching closer while I backed away from her.

"No, it's alright. I can do it myself," I told her, taking another few steps back. I focused my horn while walking away and my armor, shield, and saddlebags teleported into a neat pile near her workbench. I smiled as I continued to back pedal from her. "See. Magical armor remov-Augh!"

I tumbled, head over hooves, into the metal bathtub and landed in a heap. Staring up at my purple covered hooves I chuckled. I forgot my shoes when I teleported my armor off. I always miss the little things. Melody hovered over me and laughed.

"If you wanted to get into the tub that fast, you should have told me. Let me help you get your shoes off," she giggled and righted me in the bathtub. She then popped off each of my shoes with ease and this time I let her without a struggle. I was embarrassed enough already. Another mare taking off my shoes wasn't that bad. She winked at me playfully and I could feel the heat rushing to my cheeks.

This was highly inappropriate and I felt strangely naked. Okay, I was naked, but lots of ponies went around casually without clothes or barding on. I had on many occasions too. But in the privacy of a bathtub, it felt wrong. Melody turned on the faucet, poured in some blue liquid, and let the warm water fill the tub with soft, sweet smelling bubbles. The water was perfect and as it slowly rose around my rump, I let out a sigh. The aroma of the bubble bath eased my sore and tight muscles just as much as the hot water.

"Now you get yourself nice and clean and I'll get to work on your armor," she almost sang before bouncing out of the bathroom and settling in at her workbench.

She didn't closed the door behind her, but I didn't mind. The bath felt heavenly. I let the sound of the running water sooth my mind while the steaming, soapy water soothed my body. Turning off the faucet when the bath was full, I leaned back into the tub, letting the water rise to my chin, and closed my eyes. In the solitude of the darkness I could just be. No thinking about the carnage I had just taken part in. No remembering the family I had lost. No wondering what I could have done to save Toffee Biscuits.

"Cud!"

And there went my moment of serenity.

____________________________

I looked at myself in the mirror after wrapping a towel around my head and giggled. I honestly giggled. I thought, for just a brief, fleeting second that the towel made me look like a gypsy soothsayer. It was silly, but it was actual, honest to goodness laughter, and it felt good.

I emerged from the bathroom clean, refreshed, and renewed, and Melody gave me a bright smile that I returned with a small grin of my own. I still hurt, mind, body, soul, but the pain was now a dull throb instead of the open sore it had been in the museum.

"Check it out! I saw that your armor had a few gaps in it so I figured I'd give you a little upgrade. Well, actually, your legs and part of your chest were completely exposed. I hope you don't mind," Melody said cheerily as she showed me the repairs and modifications she had made to my armor. It had been repaired and repainted with an expert's care. I couldn't see any sign of the blood, dents, or scratches from the chaotic battle only a few hours earlier. What I did notice was a small hook on the back of my armor that didn't make any sense.

"What's that for?" I asked, pointing to the small protrusion on my armor.

"Oh! It's for your shield! I put a leather strap on the back of it so you could hook it on and effectively holster it. Balancing it on your back is all well and good Aunt Aria, but if you have to run or get knocked down it'll fall off and you might lose it," she explained, showing me the strap in question and how it easily hooked on and was just as easily released. The hook could bend back if pushed correctly with a hoof or with magic so it wouldn't bend and would only release when it was deliberately pushed up and towards my head.

"Wow, that's actually pretty ingenious," I complimented, and she beamed at me. It was actually a little unsettling for her to be so ecstatic at my simple praise. "But can you please stop calling me 'aunt.' Aria's fine."

"But you are my aunt. I've never had an aunt before. The Stable only allows siblings every three generations so I've only had my mom, my dad, and my brother," she told me, slightly disappointed at me for quashing her dreams of calling me aunt. I sighed.

"Alright, you can all me aunt if you want," I relented, my ears drooping against the back of my head.

"Yay! Thank you! Let me show you what I made for you!" she cheered before flitting across the room to a large drum in the corner. When she opened the lid, I was suddenly hit with a powerful odor of chemicals and dyes that made my eyes water. She then fished a set of purple Stable Sixty-Three barding out of the drum that matched the dominant color of my armor. "See! I made you your own underbarding. I'm gonna armor the legs and portions of the chest to cover the weaknesses in your armor. I don't think that Lunar Guard armor was really made for heavy combat. It won't be as tough as your steel plate armor, but it'll protect your legs, shoulders, and chest better since they're exposed."

"I-Wh-Wow. Thank you. That... you really are amazing at making things, you know?" I told her, and she was practically vibrating with glee.

"You should see me with a terminal and my Pipbuck. I can crack any code and fix any problem. I've got a tech cutie mark and I am a Pipbuck Technician's Assistant after all," she proudly proclaimed, and I looked back at the barding covering her flank.

"I seem to remember sheet music on the screen, Melody. You are a pretty good singer," I told her, and she froze before turning away from me, a crimson flush darkening her teal cheeks. Setting up a wire over the vat, I couldn't help but notice she didn't want me to see her flustered.

"Thank you Aria. I like singing, but I'm too afraid to do it in front of a lot of ponies. I'm glad you like it," she said softly while tugging on her braid with her wings. Wow. Now that's a feat. Melody had really flexible wings.

"Thank you for not calling me aunt. Uh, can I ask you a question?"

"Oh sure. Ask me anything," Melody said while hanging the purple barding up to dry. The yellow streaks had turned a lighter purple that almost matched the secondary colors of my armor. I bit my lower lip. If only they had turned silver it would perfectly match my Lunar Guard armor.

"Why was Tea Leaves acting like such a blueberry to me?" Melody turned and arched an eyebrow at me.

"What now?" she asked, and chuckled.

"Sorry. I forget that not everyone knows my replacement swears. Let me rephrase that. Why was Tea Leaves being... less than amiable towards me?" I asked as I picked up a very interesting book from her desk. Pipbuck Maintenance Manual. I was so tempted to read it.

"Oh, well, that's complicated. She doesn't trust outsiders besides the Steel Rangers. They saved our first, and only, expedition outside the Stable," she told me, a twinge of sadness evident in her voice.

"Only? What happened?" I asked, putting the book down and walking over to her.

"The radiation readings were satisfactory twenty years ago. They didn't send anyone out until two years ago. The previous Overmare had been too cautious and refused to let anypony out to go investigate and see if it was safe for us to leave," she continued, her eyes never leaving the light purple '63' on the barding's back and shoulders. "The stripes and numbers would look better if they were silver."

"Tea Leaves took over as Overmare two years ago, didn't she?" I deduced, and Melody took a few moments before she nodded.

"She sent out ten ponies, including her sister. Dad and Starshine went with them." She paused, tears welling up in her blue eyes. I placed my hoof on her shoulder, already figuring out what she was having trouble saying.

"Your dad didn't come back, did he?" I asked, and she shut her eyes against the tears and the surge of bad memories. I turned my niece around and took her into a hug while she cried. This time I'd be her support. She had been there for me in the museum so I would be here for her now.

"Starshine and Toffee Biscuits were in pretty bad shape when the Steel Rangers got them back to us."

Toffee Biscuits. You had gone outside and barely come back alive. No wonder a baker would volunteer to fight raiders from the outside. You didn't want the outside getting in because you had almost died to whatever was out there.

That was why Toffee Biscuits chose to fight. To protect her family from the outside she feared so much. I had even more respect for the little baker mare and felt the hole in my heart grow a little bigger to remind me of what the world had lost because of my mistake. I remembered Leaflet's words. I wouldn't... no, I couldn't let it happen again. Melody began to whimper into my chest.

"They'd have been dead if the Ranger patrol hadn't been nearby and heard the shooting. Starshine and Toffee wouldn't talk about it, but when the raiders started attacking the Stable door, Toffee was one of the first to volunteer to defend us if they broke in."

"The Overmare lost her sister on the outside and she doesn't trust the outsiders because of it. I get it now. You don't have to say anything else," I said softly, hugging Melody until she stopped crying. She wiped some snot from her nose with the back of her hoof and smiled weakly at me.

"So how about we make those stripes silver, huh?" she asked, trying so desperately to return to her cheerful self, and I nodded. I'd help her finish my underbarding, but I needed to go talk to a few ponies. If I was going to keep Toffee Biscuits in my heart, then I'd also have to keep her Stable safe and away from the dangers of the outside. I may have been lost, but I finally found a goal. I had to keep Stable Sixty-Three safe, not just for my family, but also for all the families that a very important little baker gave her life to protect.

____________________________

Clad in my armor and new underbarding, I strode through the hallways of Stable Sixty-Three with renewed vigor. I knew it would mean leaving my new family behind, (I realized after I left Melody's room that I still hadn't met her and Starshine's mother) but I knew what I was going to do. To accomplish my goal, I'd have to leave the Stable and venture out into the Trottingham Wasteland above. First things first, I'd need some guidance.

Who better to ask what I'd need than ponies who lived up there. Ponies I was told I could trust. They may have been crude and a little obnoxious in our first meeting, but perhaps the rest of the 'Brotherhood of Steel' could be of some help. I still had three other Steel Rangers who hadn't left a bad taste in my mouth. I hoped they would help me.

"Hey Aria! Wait up!" I heard a familiar voice call out from behind me, and stopped, clenching my eyes shut against the cat calls I knew were about to come. I turned around to see the stealth Ranger trotting up to me. Still clad in his black and silver stealth armor, I would have been extremely impressed with him and his armor if he hadn't made a complete ass of himself earlier. I did notice that he was a bit small for a Steel Ranger. He was an average size for a stallion, maybe a little shorter, but definitely different from the rest of his squad. He was a stealth and reconnaissance pony, so I guessed his smaller, more agile frame would be a benefit.

"Why me?" I prayed, but I was sure no gods would hear my plea.

"Hey, about earlier..."

Yep, no deity loved me. He wasn't puking frogs or transforming into a pillar of salt yet.

"What? Did you call dibs or something?" I asked, narrowing my eyes, and was pleasantly surprised when he winced.

"Oh... you heard Bulletstorm say that, huh?" he said with a strange unsteadiness. He actually diverted his gray eyes away from mine. Was he... embarrassed? "Look, I'm sorry, okay. About what happened earlier."

"Really?" I asked, sarcasm dripping from my voice.

"Really. I didn't mean to be rude. I just saw you sitting next to that body and-"

"Her name was Toffee Biscuits."

"Oh. I saw you sitting next to Toffee Biscuits and asked Starshine who you were. You were wearing some really interesting armor and looked so sad." I rolled my eyes.

"I was sitting vigil over a dead pony with her sister! Of course I was sad!" I growled, and he held his hooves up defensively.

"I know. I know. But when he told me you were his aunt back from the grave I just had to come talk to you," he said, and I couldn't tell if he was being serious or not. "Is it true?"

"I guess. A few hours ago I was jumping on a pile of balefire eggs in Canterlot and then I was falling... falling in here," I told him, although I think he noticed my apprehension. I didn't want to tell anypony about the blue vortex, or the voices and visions, or the bombs. Maybe that was just the entrance to the other side and I got pulled back by Melody's Star Ruby? That was just as plausible as anything else, I guess, but it was still pretty weird. "I'd like to speak with your superior officer. Can you walk and talk?" I started trotting down the hallway, not waiting for him to follow.

"Interesting... Yeah. Sure," he replied, quickly trotting up next to me. "So... did you meet the Goddesses on the other side?"

I stopped, wondering what the hell he was talking about, and he seemed surprised.

"What? You worked for Princess Luna, how could you not know the Goddesses? These Stable ponies are always spouting on about how Celestia and Luna ascended into heaven and are watching over us," he said with a content smirk.

"And I'm guessing you don't believe they have," I said curtly. The stealth pony shook his head.

"If you've seen the outside world, then you'd wouldn't believe in some god ponies we can't see watching over us. The only alicorns I've ever seen are the mutant ones that fly around the wastes back across the sea." he said, before leaving me behind and forcing me to trot after him.

"Wait. What do you mean mutant alicorns?" I asked as I trotted back along side him.

"Bunch of blue, purple, and green monsters that fly around kidnapping unicorns. I haven't seen any in Trottingham since I got here five years ago and that's a really good break on our part. Those things are strong, powerful, and the only pony who I've heard of that's ever taken them down is Star Paladin Steelhooves back in Manehatten."

"Where did they come from?" I asked, my natural egghead curiosity peaked. Could balefire radiation actually create alicorns like Celestia and Luna? If so, what did that mean about the princesses?

"No idea. They're probably a bunch of rad or taint warped monsters," he told me, and his smile grew. "Before you ask what taint is, I'll tell ya. I don't know. Some kinda radioactive magical by-product or something, but it's a lot worse than radiation. If you see any place that's marked as having taint, run, and if you find an unmarked area you better pray to your make believe goddesses that it doesn't fuck you up too much."

"I don't know if I believe that Celestia and Luna have ascended to godhood or not, but if any pony could it would be Princess Luna. She was amazing. So was her sister. I don't know," I said, and he seemed mildly pleased with my answer. I guess agnosticism is close enough to atheism for my companion's taste.

We entered the Atrium where Starshine and the other Steel Rangers were almost finished clearing away the raider bodies. Toffee Biscuits' body was gone, but there was still a phantom image of her floating in the back of my mind.

"But if things outside this Stable are bad enough that a baker would willingly volunteer to fight it back with her life, then I don't see any problem in some ponies holding on to something that gives them hope. Now which one is your commanding officer... Wow, I don't even know your name."

Little things.

"Call me Shadowbuck," he replied with that confident grin that seemed to be his default facial expression. I didn't know if it was charming or annoying. Maybe a little of both. I arched an eyebrow.

"Really? Shadowbuck? Your name is Shadowbuck?" I asked, disbelieving that anypony would name their child Shadowbuck.

"It's my code name. Every stallion in the Brotherhood of Steel had a code name. Only ponies that get to know our real names are us Brotherhood members and Elder Lemon Scones."

"Little bit of military fun then? So you don't get to tell anypony your real name?"

"Nope. It's part of the responsibilities of being a member of the Brotherhood. We're the elite and losing our real names is a way to show our loyalty and commitment. We're assigned our new names by the Elder when we join and we only get to tell our wives our real names since that's a pretty big commitment too. Lifelong commitment for marriage, lifelong commitment for to Brotherhood," he continued, and I couldn't help but look at him and his fellow Steel Ranger elites in a new light.

Giving up your name was a major commitment. It was essentially giving up your identity to the Steel Rangers' cause. I knew they still had their original names, but being called by a nickname not of your own choosing for the rest of your life would be a big deal to me.

I could never give up my name. Aria was the name my mother gave me before she killed herself. It was the only connection I had to a mother I never knew. Even though she had abandoned me, I couldn't be mad at her. A part of me still loved her. A part of me blamed myself.

"Well, it's been a pleasure to meet you, Shadowbuck. You make a much better second impression than a first. You should work at that," I joked, and looked back to the other four Rangers. "Which one is your superior officer?" (Was that the third time I asked that? We really couldn't help getting side tracked, huh?)

"Star Paladin Buzzsaw. The one with the chainsaws," he replied, nodding his head towards the stock beige earth pony with the wicked brush clearing tools mounted to his sides. Even I noticed the blood stains caked to the saw chains and gulped as I approached him with what I hoped was my winningest smile. When the Steel Ranger with the flamethrower saw me, he said something to his commanding officer and Buzzsaw turned to me with a cocky smile. Did all Steel Rangers give every pony that smile or just me?

"Hey everypony! Looks like we've got the prettiest living fossil I've ever seen!" he shouted before letting out a loud, boisterous laugh that the other Steel Rangers joined in on. I shot Shadowbuck a look and was surprised to see he wasn't laughing. It looked more like he was chuckling nervously.

The large minigun wielding pony named Bulletstorm came up behind my new... friend? Acquaintance? I didn't know what Shadowbuck and I were. After our first two meetings, I'd say we were on neutral ground. The obnoxiously loud earth pony slapped his much smaller companion hard on the back, causing his legs to buckle beneath him. Shadowbuck barely caught himself in time to avoid falling on his face and shot Bulletstorm a look that mirrored my own.

"Looks like somepony's got a crush on the pretty ghoulie. Don't ya, Shadow," Bulletstorm said before stomping his hoof and bursting out into far louder laughter than was appropriate for the situation. His fellow Brotherhood of Steel members laughed, except for Shadowbuck, but even they were a little off put by their 'brother's' overly enthusiastic mirth.

"Ghoulie?" I asked, both my annoyance at the jests and my curiosity at the use of the term evident in my question.

"She is not a ghoul!" Starshine yelled as he turned to confront Bulletstorm for me.

He looked terrible. He was far worse than when I had seen him last after the battle. Thick, dark bags hung under his sea blue eyes; they had lost that luster I had seen in them when he pointed his gun at me and during the heat of the battle. His mane and fur were still matted with sweat and covered in blood and grime and he looked like he could barely stand. If I felt like death before my bath, he looked like death right now.

"Starshine, are you okay?" I asked, his tired eyes revealing that he was barely able to register my question.

"What else would you call a girl that got blown up by a balefire bomb, survived, and is still walking around two hundred years later?" the rocket launcher pony asked.

"What's a ghoulie?" I asked again, becoming just a little more annoyed with each passing second as the Steel Rangers continued to ignore my question.

"She's not one of those monsters! The goddesses sent her cause my sister wished for it on the Star Ruby!" Starshine practically screamed, completely losing his cool in a way I had never seen. Even when surrounded by death with his life and the lives of everypony he knew on the line, Starshine remained cool, calm, and collected. It seemed the Brotherhood noticed his mood too and suddenly shut up. Well, all except Bulletstorm who was laughing far too loudly.

"Okay. I gather that ghoulies are bad, but what are they?" I asked when Bulletstorm finally realized no one else was laughing and had promptly shut his massive pie hole.

"Aunt Aria," Starshine said, and I held back a sigh. I really hated being called aunt by a stallion only a few years older than me. "Ghouls are ponies that got hit by so much radiation that their bodies decayed, but they didn't die. They're like zombies, I guess. They just want to eat anything that isn't balefire spawn like them."

"There are a few ghouls that kept their sanity and are like really smelly, really rotten, regular ponies, but they're few a far between," Rocket Launcher Ranger added, and I shuddered. Being mindless zombies due to necrotic magic I could handle. It made sense. But being stuck in a never dying body for hundreds of years while your body slowly decayed was just creepy.

"And if we don't figure out a way to seal the Stable door back up, we'll have a whole bunch of zombies running in here from upstairs," Shadowbuck added, and I whipped my head around.

"What? There's a bunch of these ghoulie monsters upstairs?" I asked, completely stunned that the Brotherhood of Steel would leave a bunch of zombies walking around up above Stable Sixty-Three.

"Yeah. Whenever we come by to trade with the Stable we have to clear out the stranglers that come down onto the main floor, but who knows how many of those things are on the upper floors of the museum?" Buzzsaw added, and I frowned.

"How often do you guys trade with the Stable?" I asked, hoping it was a lot farther apart then...

"Once a month. The Stable was lucky we were in the area when the attack happened. We weren't scheduled to come for another two weeks," Flamethrower Ranger chimed in, and my heart sunk. If the zombie ponies needed to be cleared out by the Rangers every month, then they would find their way into the Stable before the Rangers returned. The thought of zombies invading my niece and nephew's and Toffee Biscuit's home sent a chill down my spine.

"Then we're gonna have to clear out the museum upstairs first," I said with as confident a smile as I could.

"Oh? Is it we now? Like I said, missy, it could be suicide," Buzzsaw added, his smirk disappearing and his face transforming into a stone that even his saws couldn't cut.

"And it would be negligent homicide to leave those monsters up there with the Stable door blown open. I plan on going out and finding something to fix it, but if there's a threat to the Stable like that upstairs, then we've got to take care of it first," I argued, never taking my eyes away from Star Paladin Buzzsaw's beady amber eyes. He stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, I narrowed my eyes in response, and the world seemed to stand still as even the ever obnoxious Bulletstorm held his breath. Then the Star Paladin's grinned and his laughter returned with renewed vigor.

"I like this one. Alright, hero, we'll help you. When we're ready to go in the morning we'll go with you to clear out the upper floors. But that's it, okay? We don't have time to go on a quest with you. The Trottingham Steel Rangers protect four different settlements in the Trottingham Ruins, not to mention our own base in Big Buck. We don't have time to go looking for a new Stable door. Understood, soldier?" he asked, and I saluted as I had been taught in the Academy. He saluted back, and I could feel a little more warmth and a lot less condescension in his smile.

"Oh no, Star Paladin! I don't think your wife is gonna like you having a marefriend on the side," Bulletstorm joked, and Buzzsaw, Shadowhoof, and I turned on the overly jovial Steel Ranger at the same time.

"Shut up, Bulletstorm!" we shouted in unison. For good measure, Shadowbuck jumped up and smacked his fellow Steel Ranger upside the back of his head and Bulletstorm yelped.

"That's another point in your favor, Shadowbuck."

The Brotherhood of Steel laughed as Bulletstorm wilted under the brotherly abuse and I laughed with them. Perhaps this good-natured teasing did have a bonding aspect to it after all.

"Aunt Aria..." I heard Starshine rasp weakly, and I turned just in time to see him fall. I threw my hooves out to catch him and was barely able to stop his head from hitting the floor.

"Starshine! You look terrible. When was the last time you slept?" I asked as I held him up. Even though I was stronger than the normal unicorn mare due to years of physical training at the Academy, my exhausted nephew was too much for me to hold up for long. I slowly laid him out on the ground, cradling his head, and brushed his dirty, sweat matted mane out of his sea blue eyes. He had Golden Star's eyes just like Melody. "Shadowbuck! Go get a doctor!"

"Don't..." Starshine whispered as Shadowbuck nodded and ran off towards the Medical Lab.

"Don't what?"

"Don't do it. Don't..." He couldn't complete his sentence as he was consumed by the Sandmare's embrace.

I stayed with him until Compass' father arrived with Leaflet and a gurney. The doctor carefully levitated Starshine onto the stretcher while the librarian nuzzled his neck once he was safely on the roll away bed. My jaw dropped.

"Huh?" I grunted, and Leaflet smiled down at Starshine, never taking her eyes off me.

"He's such an idiot, but I love my big idiot," she said sadly as she and the doctor began to wheel him away.

"Wait. I'm coming with you," I cried as I tried to jump to my hooves and began to follow them.

"It's okay, Aria. You've done enough," she said calmly, but I could hear bitterness in her words. Or was I imagining her bitterness, hoping that Toffee Biscuits' sister would be mad at me? Why wasn't she mad at me?

"Please be mad at me!" I screamed in my head at the pony I now realized was Starshine's marefriend. I watched as they trotted back through the Atrium door and left me behind. They had spoken so intimately to each other, and I now remembered them hugging at our vigil. I hadn't paid any mind to them in my depressed funk, and that made me feel worse. My entire being wanted Leaflet to be mad at me, but she kept denying me my punishment. Why was she so nice!?

Wow.

I was getting mad at a pony for being nice to me. How screwed up is that?

"Aria," Shadowbuck said, and I nearly jumped out of my armor. Gasping for air and holding my chest as my heartbeat skyrocketed, I turned to see the stealth pony materialize behind me with a grin.

"Celestia darn it! What is your problem, Shadowbuck!?" I snarled, and he shrugged. "Back down to neutral you go."

"I like to make a memorable entrance." I glared at him. "Heh, um, yeah. The Overmare wants to see you. I ran into her on the way back and she asked me to get you."

"You take orders from the Overmare too?" I asked, sighing as the pounding in my breast began to settle. The surge of adrenaline the fright he given me had left my extremities tingling and cool. I did not like that feeling.

"As long as we're under her roof and she doesn't give me orders that contradict Star Paladin Buzzsaw or Elder Cherry Scones, then yeah. I do," he replied. I frowned and rolled my eyes. "You shouldn't frown so much."

"You shouldn't sneak up on ponies," I retorted, before turning away from him.

"Touché," he added with a chuckle, and I shook my head. That stallion was a pendulum of camaraderie. One moment I thought he was insightful and interesting to talk to. Another moment he was an immature jerk.

"Why can't ponies be as cut and dry as Melody?" I thought as I left the Atrium and followed the signs to the Overmare's office.

____________________________

"Aria. I want you to le-"

"I'm leaving the Stable." I interrupted Overmare Tea Leaves. At first, she seemed stunned, but that quickly melted away into a content smile.

"Well, the door's completely melted so you can just walk on out," she said smugly. I cleared my throat to tell her I wasn't finished and that smile quickly turned into a scowl. "What?"

"I'm not leaving for good. I'm going outside to see if I can find something to fix the Stable Sixty-Three door. I need to make things right. I need to protect my family," I said sternly, leaving out my need to make things up to Toffee Biscuits.

"What do you know about family? You were dead until a few hours ago. Why are you so attached to your distant relatives?" she asked dismissively, waving her hoof at me like I were no more than a fly.

"Because they're the only family I have left!" I snapped, not realizing until it was too late that I was shouting.

"What should you care. I heard what happened up there. You're probably going to hide and get them killed too. Some hero you tur-Oof!" Before I knew what I was doing, I was over her desk, sending papers, folders, and a statuette of Ministry Mare Applejack flying, and had her pinned up against the large terminal bank behind her. "What are you doing!?"

"I'm not a hero! And I know I messed up! But what gives you the fudging right to act like such a witch to me?" I snarled, leaving 'blueberry' behind for the much more direct 'witch.' Tea Leaves could subtract the 'W' and add the 'B' for me.

"Because I wished on Melody's stupid bracer and my sister didn't come back! Or my parents! Why do you get to come back to life, but not them!? Why!? Tell me damn it!" she shouted at me, and I froze.

For the longest time, I stared at her while she glared back at me with those angry, sad brown eyes that I finally understood. It wasn't just me feeling guilty that I was alive, but others who had lost family members were beginning to resent me. The stares I saw from the ponies around me weren't just fear of a walking fossil as Buzzsaw had put it, but some had been glares of resentment just like Tea Leaves. I was a living embodiment of how unfair life could be. Life isn't fair.

I was a bastard, cursed from conception. Pushed aside and forgotten by most of my family. My dreams were always shattered in front of my eyes right as I was about to achieve them. But when it came down to the simple act of dying, I had been spared the reaper's embrace while every other pony in the world hadn't. Was all the bad karma flung my way really enough to balance out the massive amounts of luck my survival had used? Why was I alive and not the Ministry Mares? Or Princess Celestia and Princess Luna? Or Big Macintosh?

I let Tea Leaves go and stared at the floor.

"I don't know." It was all I could say as Tea Leaves rubbed her neck and growled at me. 'I don't know' was obviously not the correct answer.

SMACK!

My face stung and I looked up to see the Overmare shaking with rage as she brought her hoof around to slap me again.

"Don't you dare patronize me! I'm the Overmare! You're nopony! You're no hero! You didn't even die! You're a fraud!" she screamed, slapping me at the end of each exclamation to drive her point home. One, two, three, four, five, six. Okay. That was enough. I opened my eyes, my cheeks and left eye stinging from the Overmare's angry attacks, and focused my horn on throwing her against the wall again. With a flash of blue magic, Tea Leaves was slammed into the wall, two feet off the ground, and staring at me in absolute terror.

"Have you gotten all that out of your system?" I asked, doing everything I could not to choke her with a simple redirection of my focus to her neck. I know I sounded a little condescending, but I didn't care. Overmare Tea Leaves nodded and I let her go again. Dropping to her knees, she glared up at me through watery green eyes.

"Get out. You have until tomorrow morning to get the hell out of my Stable. If you're going to fix the door, then I might reconsider letting you return, but until then, never come back," she hissed, and I turned away from her. I didn't want to stay here anyway. Maybe I had, but not now.

I had been through hell and this pony was mad at me for being alive. If it had been Leaflet, that would be one thing. But this was different. I had tried to be understanding. I had tried to let Tea Leaves take her irrational hatred out on me to help ease her pain. However, I saw such anger in her eyes. This pony didn't want to stop hating.

She had been holding in her anger for so long that it had festered. She had just needed something she could hate because she hated herself. She hated herself for sending her sister and Melody's father out to their deaths. I was just the perfect reminder of her failure and the perfect target for her wrath.

As I left the Overmare's office, I knew I had two mysteries ahead of me. One was how I was going to repair Stable Sixty-Three's entrance. The other was how I had survived the balefire eggs and ended up two hundred years in the future. Both goals were much easier said than done when it came to solving them. That being said, I knew one thing.

I wasn't going to be life's punching bag anymore.

____________________________

The Medical Bay was not where I needed to go. I had gone to check up on Starshine, but the doctor, Compass' father, Syringe, had told me he had checked him out and sent him home for bed rest. Of course, he asked me about the red marks on my left cheek. I told him I fell and just needed a weak healing potion. He obliged, but I could tell he wasn't believing a word I said.

After downing the light purple potion, I promptly left the doctor's office before he could ask any more questions. I was mad at the Overmare, even hoping I would be able to get even with her, but tattling on Tea Leaves would be stupid. All she did was slap me... seven times. My face and jaw thanked the universe that Tea Leaves was a pencil pushing bureaucrat instead of a body builder. I don't think my teeth would have liked seven hooves to the face from a subterranean roid rager.

I trotted up to Starshine's door and knocked. Syringe had said he had released him to his mother so I guessed she was out of the maintenance tunnels and staying with him until he was better. The good doctor had even been kind enough to give me directions to my nephew's room. Starshine's mother was nursing him back to health.

"That must be nice." I really missed my grandmother.

After a few seconds, an older white mare with a long blond mane and kind blue eyes answered. She had crows feet around her eyes and smile lines on her cheeks, but she looked extremely familiar. I think she thought the same thing because both of us stared at each other, stunned by the appearance of the mare on the opposite side of the door. She looked just like a younger version of my grandmother. "Grandmother White Rose."

"I..." My voice caught as I choked back tears I knew were coming. I had to get out of here. Nothing against this pony, I'm was sure she was a lovely mare, but I couldn't stay in a Stable with a mare who looked so much like the pony who had raised me. The pony who I had lost so suddenly two hundred years ago. I started backing away, trying to mumble out some apology, when Leaflet stepped into view behind her and smiled sadly. "Quit smiling at me, damn it!"

"Hello, Aria. Have you come to check up on Starshine?" Leaflet asked, and I took another step away from the mare in the doorway who was staring at me with my grandmother's eyes.

"I didn't believe them. I couldn't believe them. You... you look just like the painting," she mumbled, her eyes wide with disbelief.

"I've been getting that a lot... you look just like my grandmother." She even smiled just like her.

"Oh? Are you alright, dear?" she asked as my lower lip started quiver. "I will not cry. I will not cry."

"Who are you?"

"This is Elegant Star, Starshine's mom," Leaflet said kindly. "She has my mom's name? She has mom's name!" And for the umpteenth time in in twenty-four hours, I was bawling my eyes out.

"Oh no, dear, is something wrong?" Elegant Star asked while putting her hoof on my shoulder. She then tensed up as I threw my hooves around her neck and cried.

"You look like my grandmother and you're named after my mom! Why does the universe hate me so much!?" I cried, and I felt her soften and take me into an embrace. I felt another set of hooves hug me, realizing it was Leaflet, and I held her too. My anger at her acceptance had vanished like my old life. I didn't know why the little earth pony librarian was so loving and forgiving, and I no longer cared because I needed that connection.

I thought I was better. I thought I had new resolve. I thought wrong. I was still hurting. I was just putting on a show. I needed family and these ponies were kind and loving. They accepted me so quickly unlike my real family. Except for my brother. They were Golden Star's children's children's children's children, but they still carried a bit of my brother inside all of them.

"It will be alright, dear. Let it out," Elegant Star whispered, while Leaflet just shushed me calmly. I sniffed loudly and tried to rebuild the emotional dam within my mind, the cement of their love helping me expedite the process.

I soon had myself back under control and Elegant Star, my niece, not my mother, handed me a tissue with her magic. Wiping my eyes, I smiled weakly at them and Leaflet handed me another tissue. I chuckled softly at both pieces of tissue paper. "If I had more family members, I'd have the more tissues than I'd know what to do with."

"Thank you, I-I'm sorry I'm such a mess. How's Starshine doing?" I asked, and blew my nose a little louder than I had wanted to.

"He'll be okay. Starshine's always been like that. Whenever he's determined to do something he'll work himself until he passes out. I'm surprised he made it this long after the attack," Leaflet said after releasing me from her embrace. Okay, I liked her. I still felt horrible every time I saw her, I don't think I ever would stop feeling horrible about Toffee Biscuits, but I could see she had a kind heart. I was suddenly glad that she was dating Starshine. With Melody, Leaflet, and Elegant Star by his side, I knew that if I could find a way to fix the Stable door, Stable Sixty-Three would be safe in the Chief of Security's overworked, but capable hooves.

"I wanted to come say good-bye before I left tomorrow morning," I told them, still trying to collect myself.

"You're leaving? Why?"

I turned to see Melody and Compass in the hall behind me and sighed.

"Yeah. I'm leaving. Not just because the Overmare wants me to leave, but because I have to. I have to find a way to fix your door and... other things," I added, not wanting to tell them about my other quest. They believed that Celestia and Luna had sent me to them through their prayers on Golden Star's Star Ruby bracer. I couldn't bring myself to tell them that I didn't know why I had survived or that I had never been to heaven with the princesses. I may have been a bit agnostic in the eyes of most of these ponies, but I wasn't going to be a jerk about it. I wasn't going to shatter their hopes.

"But you just got here. I wanted to talk to you about knights. I've read all the library's books on them and Grandpa Golden Star's journal said you liked reading about knights. And..." Melody stopped, peering down at the ground with her ears lying flat against her head. I could see the disappointment in her eyes and felt a pang of guilt.

"Melody. If she's leaving to find a way to fix the door, then she'll be coming back," Elegant Star half scolded/half consoled her daughter. Melody grumbled to herself before looking up at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen.

"Then can you stay the night at my place and we can have a slumber party?" she asked, my eyebrows shooting up in surprise.

"Melody, you're sixteen years old. You need to start acting your age," her mother sighed.

"A-A slumber party?" I asked, completely taken off my guard by her request. My first thought was 'What is she? Four years old?' but then a nicer, more vulnerable part of me jumped forward and body checked my cynical self back into the recesses of my mind with a well-timed shield smash. That made me smile. 'Oh! I've never been to a slumber party before! Let's go!' the happy little filly-me cried and I nodded.

"But mom, she's leaving tomorrow morning. We only have tonight to hang out. What better way than with a slumber party?" Melody fired back with a logical, if not a bit childish, response. Compass stood in the background, quieted by the large number of mares arguing, and looked like the most awkward stallion in the entire world. Leaflet smiled her sad smile and rolled her eyes.

"Melody," Elegant Star sighed, and shook her head. "Maybe I let you move out too early."

"Mom!"

"Melody. You-"

"I'd like that," I said happily, which brought a smile to Melody's face and a surprised look to her mother's. "I've never been to a slumber party before."

"Really!? Alright! I'll go back to my room and get things ready! Come by in an hour or so. We can't have a slumber party with a vat of purple dye in the corner!"

With that, she was out the door as fast as her teal wings could carry her. We stood in silence, some stunned, some disappointed. Me? I was smiling. She was a bit immature, but I really liked Melody.

"Ugh... can you girls keep it down out there!"


Starshine's ragged voice broke the awkward silence and Evening Star turned towards the closed door that I assumed lead to his bedroom.

"I'll go get him some water. He sounds terrible," she said with all the concern a mother should have for her child, even one who was fully grown and Head of Security for Stable Sixty-Three. Leaflet shook her head and stopped Elegant Star with a gentle hoof on the shoulder.

"No, mom, I've got it," she told the older mare while giving her that sad, kind smile that I loved and hated at the same time. Then my brain broke.

"Wait. What? Mom?"

"Of course I called her mom. She is my mother-in-law." Same sad smile!

"You're married to Starshine!?" I asked, pretty sure my eyes were about to pop out of my head like in one of those old cartoons with the cat chasing the mouse or the duck and the rabbit fighting.

"Oh? Didn't I tell you that? I'm sorry," she apologized casually, and the door to Starshine's room... no wait, their room opened with a hiss. I watched in silence as she trotted through and the pneumatic door closed quietly behind her. I looked to Elegant Star and she chuckled.

"What? I thought you knew? She said she talked to you," my niece, the matriarch, said so matter-of-factly it made my brain hurt.

I really don't notice the little things.

____________________________

An hour later, I stepped into a completely changed living room JUST as Melody was finishing her preparations. The vats of mystery chemicals had disappeared, the workbench was cleared off and covered in books, and the piles of technical equipment, parts, and scrap metal that had covered her benches were piled up in a corner and covered with a blanket. I chuckled to myself and shook my head at the mound of metal.

Did she really think I couldn't see the mess because she covered it with a sheet? Even I wasn't that oblivious to the world around me. Spinning around at the sound of the door opening, Melody smiled at me nervously.

"Heh, um, you're here early. I thought you'd stay with mom and Starshine for a bit longer. I still have to put up the pillow fort!"

"Pillow fort?" I asked, my interest peaking, while my mind tried to comprehend the purpose of a pillow fort. Pillows weren't materials one would generally use as a line of defense for any fortification.

"Yeah! Everypony knows you've gotta make a fort out of pillows and blankets to hang out and sleep in at a sleep over. Or at least that's what I've read," she said so matter-of-factly that I could only submit to her logic and help her set up our fluffy fort.

The combination of wing power and magical finesse had the pillow fort set up in no time. It was a modest structure. Flat ramparts of pillows (where Melody had acquired so many pillows was beyond me) made up the walls while a blanket provided us a roof over the two sleeping bags Melody had rolled out inside. All the blankets and pillows were a dull gray, but the fun we had had making the fort made it seem more like a real fort to me then just another boring part of Stable Sixty-Three.

We squeezed our way through the small front door to our comfortable castle and Melody sprawled out on her gray sleeping bag. Stable-Tec were geniuses when it came to keeping ponies alive, marvelous technological advancements, and constructing things to last, but their tastes in color and decor left a lot to be desired. Besides the blue and yellow barding every pony wore, and the paintings, posters, and murals the residents had put up, everything was so drab and lifeless. I wondered how any pony could live their entire lives in this place.

"And I dub this grand fort, Fort Aria," she declared, and I smiled sheepishly. Melody stared at me for a moment, trying to understand why I seemed embarrassed, until revelation dawned on her.

"Oh! I always name my reading forts after you. I'm sorry if that made you feel uncomfortable."

"It's alright. Do you make reading forts often?" I asked, my interest reaching a new peak beyond the simple curiosity of a pillow fort. I had never made a pillow fort as a foal, but apparently Melody made them many times. "Pillow forts, technology, and repairs. That's quite the résumé you've got there, Melody."

"Sometimes. It helps me forget."

"Forget what?" I asked, my curiosity almost surmounting the peak of Mount Inquisition.

"Oh, um, I... I guess... being down here, you know? It's depressing. When I make a pillow fort I can pretend I'm in old Canterlot in the Royal Library. I can pretend to be someplace else... Or somebody else," she said, trailing off for a moment before picking a book and tossing it to me. "Like a knight. I used to love to pretend to be Sir Swift Strike the Gallant when I was a filly."

"Really? I used to pretend I was Sir Golden Lance and Golden Star would be my squire. Well, whenever he was on leave from the front lines." I smiled down at the book titled Medieval Equestrian History Volume II, remembering better days with as much happiness as my broken heart could muster. I thought I would cry again, but the tears didn't come. "He said it was a good way to help with my magical combat training, but I think he just wanted the chance to play with me."

"You and Super Great Grandpa were really close, weren't you?"

"Yeah. The funny thing is that we didn't even meet until I was eight and he was eighteen and had just made captain," I explained, watching Melody nod as I spoke.

It was so odd to have somepony be so enraptured by what I was telling them. Most ponies either ignored me, like most of my family, or were unable to understand me, like Grandmother White Rose. That was why I loved Brightlight so much and why what he did hurt even more. I thought I had finally met somepony who understood me and saw me for me instead of seeing me as their granddaughter, or their sister, or a mistake.

The tears wouldn't come. Had I cried out all of my tears? Was that even possible?

"That's so nice. So, Little Miss Living History, I have one question for you," she asked, a wicked glint sparkling in her blue eyes.

"Yes?" I asked, swallowing hard and hoping it wasn't going to be too personal a question.

"I think a dragon finally got its revenge on Sir Golden Lance and killed him, but the books I've read think otherwise. What do you think?" Melody asked, that wicked glint transforming into an inquisitive, wide-eyed stare that I knew all to well.

"Oh. Is that all? That's easy," I said, giggling and rolling my eyes. "It's pretty obvious that Golden Lance was killed by his squire in a fit of jealous rage. Sword and Shield was obviously in love with his liege's wife, Princess Aria."

(Yes, I know I'm named after a Medieval Equestrian princess. I quickly got over that fact when I learned what a bastard meant and had my first meeting with Prince Blueblood about how worthless I really am. Lots of crying in Grandmother White Rose's rocking chair that night... I was two years old.)

"No way! I hate that theory! Sword and Shield idolized Sir Golden Lance!" she shouted passionately, slamming her book open and flipping through the pages as fast as her wings would allow her. I smiled and opened my own book, mimicking her desire to support my own theory. This led to hours of lively debate and furious reading that only two eggheads like Melody and myself could appreciate. I think I'll just leave this moment right here. Don't worry, you're not missing much. No whip cream fights or make out sessions here. Just boring eggheads talking about nerdy pursuits. (Is that really what stallions think girls do at slumber parties?)

____________________________

The next morning, I arrived at the melted and blasted out remains of Stable Sixty-Three's main door. The top half looked like a massive gear, it's teeth holding on to the circular door frame for all it was worth. However, the melted out remains of the bottom half of the gear left a hole wide enough for two ponies to walk through at a time without much difficulty. It was astounding how small the hole was in comparison to the blast that had ripped through it the day before. I guess it was a testament to Stable-Tec engineering.

Standing near the entrance were the Brotherhood of Steel, all five members suited up and looking as if they were ready for war. They didn't have their helmets on yet so they could talk with Starshine, Elegant Star, and Leaflet without sounding like a bunch of walkie talkies. I looked around, I even looked up, but I didn't see Melody anywhere.

I thought the night had gone well. We had spent much of it discussing history, science, and magic in a way that only true eggheads like us could enjoy. She even showed me how her Pipbuck worked, much to my glee and amazement.

I didn't understand why she wasn't here. When I had left her room less than thirty minutes earlier to go stock my saddlebags with food, water, and medicine, she had said she'd meet me at the entrance. Where was she? It actually hurt that she wasn't here to see me off. I knew she was my niece, but I felt she was also my friend. She might even be the closest thing I had ever had to a sister.

"Where's Melody?" I asked as I trotted up to my family.

"She's not with you?" Elegant Star asked, looking a bit worried. I shook my head, and she sighed.

"I don't know. I'm sorry for my daughter's behavior," she apologized.

"What? Melody and I had a great time last night," I said, and immediately got snickers from the Steel Rangers. I shot the boy's club a look, especially at Shadowbuck as he grinned at me suggestively. "I stayed the night at her place and we had a slumber party."

"Did you have a naked pillow fight?" Bulletstorm joked, and the Steel Rangers burst out into more fits of laughter. That is, until they received the dual stare of fury from Elegant Star's and my own fierce glares.

"Aria," I heard Leaflet's soft, kind voice say to my right. I turned to see her fishing a bundle wrapped in white cloth from her saddlebags and arched an eyebrow. "I have something for you.

"What? You don't have to give me anything," I added, feeling incredibly uncomfortable with the fact she had gotten me a gift. I figured it was probably a lunch or a book from her library, but I couldn't help my persistent guilt over Toffee Biscuits.

"No. I insist. I think Toffee would have wanted me to give this to you," she said quietly, and began to unwrap the package with her teeth.

"Toffee? Wh-Oh my Celetsia." I tried to speak, but I was forced into stunned silence when she unwrapped a Pipbuck from under the sheet. I knew where that Pipbuck had come from and I sure as hell wasn't going to take it. I couldn't. I shook my head, over and over, while she just smiled that sad smile. "I can't accept that."

"Of course you can. Toffee would have wanted her Pipbuck to go to good use." She continued smiling and I screamed inside my head. I hated that sad smile! Everytime I saw it, it made me remember how I had gotten Toffee Biscuits killed. But Leaflet just kept smiling. Just kept being kind. Just kept forgiving me.

"Why me?" I asked, trying to find some way to convince her not to give me this gift. I wanted a Pipbuck like the ponies of Stable Sixty-Three since the moment I saw one. I was so envious of the amazing arcane technology strapped to their legs that they seemed to take for granted. But not like this.

"Because you said you were sorry," she said quietly. My eyes widened and my breath caught. She looked down at the technological leg bracer and bit her lower lip. "Toffee didn't have any foals to leave her Pipbuck to. It would just be put in a store room until a child without a Pipbuck to receive from his parents gets his or her cutie mark. It won't have any significance. No pony will remember Toffee every time the look at it. Except you, Aria. You would remember her every time you used it. I know you will, right?"

She paused, and I stared at the Pipbuck with new reverence. There was a lot of logic and emotion behind this gift. Could I really deny her request now because of my guilty conscience? I noticed the overwhelming silence that had descended upon our group. Looking to my left, I noticed that the Steel Rangers were waiting outside the destroyed Stable door. They were giving us some space. I saw Shadowbuck giving me his usual casual grin and furrowed my brow. What was his deal?

"I-"

"Please, Aria, I'm the reason Toffee Biscuit's is dead, not you," she said, bowing her head and closing her eyes against my confused stare. "She didn't want to fight the raiders. She wanted nothing to do with the outside. It scared her to death to think the outside was coming for her, but I volunteered to fight alongside my husband. I was the first one to volunteer," she confessed.

"Leaflet, you d-"

"Yes I do, Starshine! Aria keeps blaming herself, but it's not her fault Toffee's dead. It's mine!" she cried, the tears beginning to escape past her tightly shut eyelids. Starshine put a hoof on her shoulder and I fell to my haunches, floored by the sudden burst of sadness coming from Leaflet. That sad smile. It wasn't kindness, it was a way to mask her own pain and guilt. She didn't blame me for Toffee Biscuits' death, she blamed herself. "If I hadn't gone, she would still be alive. It's my fault."

"But if you hadn't gone, then other ponies might have been killed. We can't say that one way or another." Starshine tried to reason with her.

"Please, stop it, Starshine!"

"I-It's neither of our faults, Leaflet," I said, her green eyes, watery and desperate, snapping open to peer into mine.

"Wh-What do you mean?"

"I mean, it's our faults, but not our faults. I hesitated and the raider got his shot. But I didn't shoot her. The raider did. You volunteered, but Toffee followed you," I said before taking her into a hug. This time, I would not cry. "The real culprits are the raiders and the evil out there that can turn ponies into that. I know we'll never stop blaming ourselves, but we've gotta try. You've gotta keep going and being the amazing pony you are. Keep helping ponies down here love books and keep being there for Starshine. And..."

I paused, not knowing what else to say. She was a librarian. I couldn't help admire her just on that fact, but what could I do?

"And I'll be here for you, Leaf," Starshine added before I let her go and into his loving hooves. She cried for a while, letting out all the pain she had been bottling up, and I stood there, waiting for her to put herself back together again. Leaflet, Curio, Elegant Star, and Melody had helped me. The amazing mares of Stable Sixty-Three. I needed to help her. I wracked my brain for any possible way I could help her. When she finally stopped crying and looked up, I marveled at how, even though her eyes were red and her nose was running, she still had that inner beauty I had seen in that sad smile.

"And I'll continue trying my hardest to protect ponies. I'll take her Pipbuck, but under one condition," I said, nodding towards Toffee Biscuits' Pipbuck between us.

"Yes?" she asked, sniffing loudly and wiping away her tears. The sad smile returned, but this time I think it was a little more genuine.

"Don't beat yourself up, Leaflet, and I won't either. We have to keep your sister's memory and... and remember what she taught us. I won't hesitate anymore and you'll be brave, okay?"

She nodded.

"Okay." She looked at the Pipbuck and cocked an eyebrow. "How do we get it on your leg?"

"Wait, what? It doesn't just open and close with a latch or something?" I asked, finally picking up the arcane technological device with my magic. Turning it over, I saw only the smallest hint of a line where the Pipbuck would open slightly and allow a hoof to slip in through the sides. However, I did not find a way to open the device like I would my bracer. No latch was visible and none of the buttons or features I could find would release it. "What do we do?"

"I can help with that!" Melody called out as she swooped through the door leading to the Atrium. She was wearing her armored utility barding and carrying her energy pistol in a shoulder mounted holster. Smiling at me as if we had just finished laughing at an inside joke, she fished some tools out of her pocket with her wings. "Pipbuck Maintenance, at your service."

"Melody," Elegant Star said as her daughter set to work on Toffee Biscuit's Pipbuck. Her wings held the tools with a finesse I had only ever seen in unicorn magic. The way she used her feathery appendages was a sight to behold. I looked to my left, seeing the stern, angry glare Melody's mother was giving her and suddenly felt very nervous for my niece. Why was she giving Melody such an angry look? "Where do you think your going?"

Click.

Ignoring her mother, Melody deftly released the latch on the Pipbuck and smiled.

"There you go. Just slip it on and the Pipbuck will adjust to optimum sizing to maximize comfort while keeping the Pipbuck from ever falling off."

"Melody. Do not ignore me." Elegant Star stomped a hoof and Melody turned her head to give her mother one of the most uncomfortable and guilty smiles I had ever seen. "Young lady, where are you going with that pistol and those saddlebags?"

Saddlebags? Yep. I missed the saddlebags.

On either side of Melody's torso, strapped around her wings as not to hinder her ability to fly, were two bags full of who-knows-what. Knowing her there were probably plenty of books, piles of scrap metal and mechanical parts, and only a few days worth of food and water. She wasn't... She wouldn't... Would she?

"I'm going with Aria to find a way to fix the Stable Sixty-Three door, mom."

She was.

"Oh no you're not, Melody!" Elegant Star exclaimed, trying her hardest to wrap her daughter in a levitation spell. The only problem with trying to levitate a pegasus is that it takes some serious magical talent to stop them from just flapping their wings a few times and escaping the unicorn's magical grasp. To her credit, after stowing her Pipbuck tools, that's exactly what Melody did. Fluttering above her family, Melody frowned and placed her hooves on her hips.

"Melody! I'm not letting you out of this Stable! There's no reason for you to go out there!" Starshine added as he tried to grab his sister with his arcane abilities and, just like his mother, he failed to catch the nimble pegasus.

"Mom! Starshine! I have to go with her. Once the Brotherhood has to go back to their base, she'll be all alone," Melody said, and I saw Elegant Star turn her gaze to me.

"Did you talk her into this, Aria?" she fumed, and I backed away, smiling nervously.

"What? No! I didn't know about any of this," I tried to explain, but Elegant Star's eyes narrowed and she gave me an awful stare.

"She's telling the truth, mom. I'm thought this through on my own. She'll need me. Not just for backup, but I'm the only tech expert Stable Sixty-Three can spare to help her find a way to replace or fix the door. She won't know what we need."

"Hey!" I cried, and Melody shrugged.

"It's true," she replied. I grunted indignantly. I knew she was probably right, but it was still pretty insulting to my intelligence.

"What about Compass?" Leaflet asked, her green eyes now filled with worry.

"I asked Compass to come with me, but he's too scared to leave. I... I'm not leaving him, I just need to leave the Stable for a bit."

"Melody, why do you have to go?" Starshine asked, but it sounded more like a demand for an answer than a simple inquiry.

"Because... because I have to, Starshine," she replied, suddenly losing that fire she had had for the entire argument. Another heavy silence descended on our group, but it was short lived as Starshine seemed to realize what she was trying to say and chuckled to himself.

"Then get down here and give your brother and mom a hug before you go, okay?" he said while giving his younger sister a loving and understanding smile.

"Starshine!? What are you doing?" Elegant Star asked.

"Mom, you know we gotta let her fly free. She's a pegasus and we're not. There are some things about her we're not going to understand," Starshine rebutted.

"We just have to trust her, Elegant," Leaflet said, putting her hoof on her mother-in-law's shoulder and giving her that sad smile. Elegant Star's features seemed to soften a bit and she walked with Leaflet to stand next to her son. Melody landed softly next to her family and wrapped them both in a tight hug.

"Thank you. This means everything to me," Melody said softly, but my ears were actually able to pick up her words. That was when I realized that the Brotherhood of Steel had been silent this entire time, watching us from the blown out doorway. I cocked an eyebrow at the sight of the Rocket Launcher Ranger, I think his name was Boom, tearing up. When I smiled, he noticed my expression and quickly shoved his helmet over his head to hide his display of emotion. I guess even Steel Rangers could have a soft heart under all that power armor.

"Augh!"

I turned back just in time to receive an enthusiastic flying tackle/hug from my enthusiastic niece. The only thing keeping me from falling onto my backside was the fact that Melody had actually lifted me a few inches off the ground.

"I get to go with you! You've got a Pipbuck and I get to go outside with you! This is awesome!" Melody cheered into my ear as I blinked against the disorienting sight of her teal wings beating like mad to keep us hovering above the ground.

"Whoopie... Can you put me down now?" I asked.

"Oops. Sorry," she said, embarrassed by her showing of unbridled joy, and released me from her aerial hug. I watched as Elegant Star, Starshine, and Leaflet watched us expectantly.

"Now why do you have to come with me? Besides me being completely inept at identifying anything we can use to fix the door, of course," I asked, sarcastically.

"Because I've gotta fly and I can't do that down here. I want to spread my wings, Aria," she said with such earnest that I couldn't stop myself from nodding in agreement.

"Alright. You can come with me. But be prepared for anything. If there's ghoulies out there, then I shudder to think what else the balefire bombs created. Necrotic magic is some vile stuff."

"Aria," Elegant Star said calmly before pushing past Melody and taking me into a tight hug. Actually, it was a little too tight. She placed her mouth next to my right ear and her breath caused me to shudder. Or perhaps it was the message she gave me. "You remember your promise to Leaflet. Don't hesitate. Protect my daughter. Because if anything happens to her, I'll never forgive you. Got it?"

She broke the hug and I nodded again, finding it incredibly hard to speak.

"I-I will," I stammered, and a simple nod was all she gave me. Next was Leaflet and Starshine. Leaflet gave me a simple hug and a reminder to remember her sister while Starshine smiled and gave me a salute.

"Lieutenant Aria," he said simply, and I returned his salute.

"Captain Starshine. Melody and I will be back as fast as we can with supplies and a way to repair the door. Please keep sentries here so that no pony can sneak in here or catch you off guard," I warned him, and he rolled his eyes.

"What do you think they're here for?" he asked, pointing back towards Strawberry Milk and Swiss Cheese standing in the doorway leading back into the Stable. I noticed Strawberry Milk walking with a limp and the medical brace around her right foreleg, but made sure to give her a reassuring smile. The security mares smiled back.

"Give the Wasteland hell, Aria!" Swiss Cheese called out with a wave.

"And get back soon so I can get back to taking naps at work," Strawberry Milk laughed, until her captain shot her a look that silenced her mirth.

"So you ready to go yet, princess?" I heard Buzzsaw call out and I Melody giggled. I looked down at my new Pipbuck, seeing a recipe for 'Toffee Biscuits' Signature Toffee Biscuits' in the notes section, and gave the Star Paladin my own look that turned his laugh into a small smile. I guess I wasn't as good at silencing jokes and laughter as my nephew.

"Yeah," I said, giving Melody a nod as we took our first fateful steps out of Stable Sixty-Three. What was beyond this broken steel gate besides ghoulies and raiders, I didn't know. But one thing was for certain. Somewhere out in the Equestrian Wasteland, hopefully in the Trottingham Ruins, was the answer to why I had survived. I may be pretty agnostic, but I didn't believe in coincidences as huge as my current circumstances. Stepping through the blast hole, Melody and I fell in next to Shadowbuck. The Steel Rangers, Melody, and I began to march down the dimly lit hallway towards the world above, and I shot another glare at Buzzsaw. He rolled his eyes and gave me his usual smug grin.

"What now?" he asked, and I gave him a small smile of my own.

"Don't call me princess."

________________________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up
New Perk: Egghead: They just can't peel you away from those books. You add +3 skill points every time you gain a new experience level.
Melee Weapons Skill: 50
Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.

Chapter Three - Who Said Museums Were Boring?

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Chapter Three: Who Said Museums Were Boring?
"This puzzling pony plague afflicted a population of ponies back in the paleopony period."

The hallway beneath the Trottingham Natural History Museum was gloomy, dark, and covered in the broken remains of long dead pony skeletons. I felt the hole in my heart growing wider as my hooves delicately stepped around the bones of the ponies that had died in this tunnel two hundred years ago. The Brotherhood of Steel trotted as carefully as they could in their power armor, but I shuddered every time one of their massive, steel encased hooves crunched a femur into a fine, brown powder. There was no sunlight down in the tunnels to bleach the radiation tainted bones white and each new skull denoted another horrible death that had occurred on this site.

"Why hasn't anypony given these ponies a proper burial?" I asked.

I had to leap over the twisted bones of three ponies, two adults and a foal, that died in each other's hooves. Most of their body had been crushed by what I assumed was the charging raiders, but I could still see the little unicorn's horn and that sense of dread became mixed with a sickening feeling of remorse. More dead ponies when I was still walking around. I should be on that floor with them. I shook my head, trying to shake away the world's strongest case of survivor's guilt, and looked up to see Melody hovering just off the ground, completely avoiding any chance of crushing or touching the skeletal remains. I really envied her wings.

"Because there's no time for a burial, and any fire you start that's bigger than a small cook fire will be spotted by the monsters in no time," Buzzsaw replied, his hoof crushing a few vertebrae with a loud and sickening snap.

"Are the monsters really that bad here in Trottingham?" I asked, continuing my line of questions as I tried to educate myself on the horrible new world that awaited me outside Stable Sixty-Three. I remembered their descriptions of ghoulies living above Stable Sixty-Three and swallowed hard at the thought of the surface being covered with creatures just as bad as ghoulies, or possible even worse.

"Yeah. It's crazy out there. Manticores, bloodwings, and brahmintaurs roam the markets while ghouls occupy most of the Noble District," Shadowbuck said nonchalantly, and I bit my lower lip.

"OK, what are bloodwings and brahmintaurs?" I pressed further, dreading to hear more about the horrible creatures the necrotic balefire radiation had created. At least I knew what manticores were and how I could beat them. Their noses were extremely sensitive and they were exposed to flanking attacks while stinging with their tail. Simple stuff really, especially with a good shield and sword. "Dang it! I need to get my hooves on a sword."

"Bloodwings are giant, mutant vampire bats that can suck all the blood, juices, and organs out of a pony in a single bite."

I had to swallow the bile rising in my throat at the thought of a horrible death at the wings of a Bloodwing. "Note to self, avoid bloodwings like the plague."

"And brahmintaurs?" I asked with some trepidation apparent in my voice.

"Mutated minotaur. Got two heads and four arms. Nasty things. I hear they like to rip ponies in half with their bare hands and put the skulls of their victims on their horns," Bulletstorm said, adding himself to the conversation.

"Cud! Is everything up there trying to kill ponies... including other ponies!"

"Oh. Is that all?" I said, giving them my most convincing, 'Discord may care' smile. Shadowbuck rolled his eyes and I was pretty sure none of them bought my false bravado.

"Not even close. You got voidowls, yao guai, and even more manticores out near the Trottingham Forest to the north, mirelurks and radgulls off the coast and by the river, and our old pals the Royal Flush raiders based out of Piccadilly Rodeo in the West End," the flamethrower Ranger named Backdraft listed and I could feel my ears drooping against the back of my head. I didn't know what mirelurks, yao guai, voidowl, or radgulls were, but if they were anywhere near as bad as bloodwings and barhmintaurs, then I was beginning to doubt my chances on the surface.

"Don't worry, Aria. A mare with your talents at coming back from the dead should do fine," Melody said cheerfully, giving me a reassuring pat on the back as she fluttered along next to me.

"I'm not sure if I can perform that trick more than once, Melody."

"Well, look on the bright side, you've got me along to help you out. We'll clear out the ghouls and have that Stable door fixed in no time."

"Yeah. S-Sounds like a plan," I forced myself to mumble.

"Here we are fillies and gentlecolts. Welcome to Hell," Buzzsaw said with a grin. He pushed a button on the wall and a door swung outward to reveal the museum beyond and...

Hell was kind of underwhelming.

There were still skeletons, that seemed to be the common motif of everything outside of Stable Sixty-Three, their bones defiled, crushed, and thrown about the room with little regard for the ponies they had once been or the horrific manner in which they had died. The floor was covered with a layer of dust as a brownish gray snow silently danced in the extremely dull light pouring through the door on the far side of the room. I could see numerous fresh hoof prints marring the coat of dirt... or was that ash?

Balefire might have burned up so many ponies that the film on the ground could actually be what was left of the ponies of Trottingham. I could be breathing in pony! My eyes widened at that horrifying thought, and I started to gasp for air.

"Wait! What am I doing!"

That's when I realized I was possibly breathing in more equine ash and forced myself to hold my breath. As the Brotherhood of Steel stepped out of the picture frame door and into the museum, Melody and Shadowbuck turned to me with worried expressions on their faces.

"What's wrong, Aria?" Melody asked. I shook my head, looked around and buried my mouth and nose into the collar of my Stable Sixty-Three underbarding.

"What if we're breathing in the ashes of balefire cremated ponies?" I whispered, using the material as a barrier between the crematorium I was possibly breathing in and my lungs. Melody's eyes widened, and she threw her hooves over her mouth to mimic my collar breathing mask trick. Shaking his head, Shadowbuck chuckled to himself.

"Aria, this is just dust. Every pony that died this far out died from the radiation. The bomb hit to the north between the city and the forest. Too bad Stable Sixty-Two was right under the blast," Shadowbuck told me, his voice respectful of the ponies that had died so long ago.

I slowly removed my muzzle from behind my collar and smiled sheepishly. I would trust him on this one, but the thought of breathing in dead pony ashes made the flesh under my coat break out into ever growing fields of goosebumps.

"O-Okay. So where are these ghoulies?" I asked before taking a testing breath. The air didn't taste much different than it had in the tunnels or the Stable. It was a little musty and humid, probably due to the museum's years of neglect. Then I stepped out of the hidden entryway and onto the filthy, debris scattered floor that led out to the Trottingham Natural History Museum and the ruined city beyond.

"We cleared out the ground floor. There's still two more floors above us, and the lobby leads to the stairs so be quiet," Shadowbuck said in hushed tones, and I nodded.

"Yeah. We don't want you Stable ponies flipping out and pulling the entire population down on us when we're not ready," Star Paladin Buzzsaw added with a huff. Melody giggled softly.

"I won't flip out, sir, and Aria's not a Stable pony. She's a two hundred year old Lunar Guard pony who came back from Heaven to help us. I think she can handle some ghoulies," Melody replied with her usual bright smile. Great. Melody had all the confidence in the world, in herself and in me, but I was barely able to stop myself from shaking in my purple horseshoes.

"Yeah."

"Well, let's get this suicide mission over with. I really hope a shield swinging unicorn and a winged stable technician can actually turn the tide for us," Buzzsaw said with such a blasé sigh that I could almost see his apprehension through his armor.

The painting that hid the entrance hallway to Stable Sixty-Three slid closed behind me on surprisingly silent hinges, and I noticed the faded canvas the large frame housed. I could make out a once beautiful portrait of an earth pony couple, the blue mare sporting a beehive of red and white hair and the red stallion looking regal with his tuxedo, neatly trimmed white mustache, and slicked back mane. The painting had aged horribly and a large gash had been recently cut across the necks of the couple. They looked familiar and it didn't take me long before I realized who they were.

The Duke and Duchess of Trottingham had been immortalized in this portrait, their happy smiles almost lost to the ravages of time, and I felt another pang of loss. Duchess Duchess (Yes, she was the Duchess of Trottingham and had been named Duchess.) and Duke Union Jack had been my mother's cousins. They were distant cousins, but I was yet again faced with another reminder that my family, for all their faults, was gone.

"You coming, Aria?" Melody asked. I turned to give her a weak smile as she landed next to me and looked up at the painting with her inquisitive blue eyes. "Did you know them."

"Y-Yeah. No. Kind of. They were distant cousins," I said, and sighed. "Come on, Melody. We've gotta show these Steel Rangers how a unicorn and pegasus takes care of monsters."

"Really now?" Shadowbuck said smugly, and I started. I turned around to see that overly confident smile and glared.

"Really. The earth pony way is all well and good, but you boys could stand for some magical assistance and air support to aid your Brotherhood of Steel. Maybe a feminine touch, too," I said, giving him a smug smile of my own as I walked past him, Melody at my side.

"Yeah. Wings and horns can really help where hooves and power armor can't," Melody added, almost perfectly mimicking my confident canter.

"Mares," Shadowbuck sighed, and followed us as we trotted after the Steel Ranger elites.

____________________________

As we entered the Ambassador Puddinghead Memorial Hall, I could finally see this place as the museum it had once been. The tattered curtains hanging from the walls had once been beautiful tapestries depicting ancient pony history. In the center of the massive entry hall was an equally massive dragon skeleton. Melody and I were instantly drawn to the skeleton, it was twice the size of the one in Stable Sixty-Three, while the Brotherhood of Steel prepared their battle saddles and armor for the upcoming fight upstairs.

I had been quite perturbed by the sight of the dragon's missing claws, obviously the act of raider looting, while Melody had flown up to inspect the dragon's massive jaws; at least the raiders hadn't taken the mighty beast's teeth. You know, there's something horribly strange and a bit disturbing about museums having dragon skeletons on display.

I mean, think about it. Dragons had been both Equestria's enemies and allies from time to time. The zebra's and Equestria were allied with different factions of dragons during the war. Students at the magical schools had dragon assistants and there was word that a brood mother had lived beneath Canterlot. A dragon skeleton in a museum was actually pretty morbid when you think about it. Did dragons have pony skeletons on display in their museums? Wait, no, there are no dragon museums; we blew the world up.

"HHHHIIIIIISSSSSS!"

We all turned towards the darkened hallway that Buzzsaw had said led to the stairwell and elevators as the most horrifying sight I had ever seen charged out of the shadows like a Nightmare Night horror story come to life. Or undeath, I guess.

The creature's skin hung to it like loose fitting barding, it's mane was non-existent, and its teeth and hooves had been chewed down into sharp points. That wasn't the worst part though. What scared me the most were it's sunken, yellow, lifeless eyes that only seemed to hold rage and an unfathomable hunger.

It locked its horrific eyes on me as it charged, it's mouth open in a ravenous cry for food, and I screamed. Firing off a bolt of lightning, the zombie pony hit the ground and spasmed and flailed until a quick shot from Shadowbuck's pistol silenced it for good. Brain matter oozed from the well placed bullet hole, and I let out a haggard breath.

"I thought you were ready for this, Miss Lunar Guard?" Bulletstorm asked dismissively, and the Brotherhood chuckled at the burly Ranger's jab.

"Hey! You ponies are used to this stuff. Melody and I aren't," I quipped, annoyed not only at the Brotherhood, but also at myself for screaming like a little filly.

"I didn't scream," Melody argued, but we all stopped arguing when a familiar hiss rang out from down the hall again. Then another. And another. We turned to the shadows of the northern hallway as the sound of bony hoofbeats on marble rumbled from the darkness.

"Fall back, Steel Rangers! Use the dragon display as higher ground!" Buzzsaw ordered, and, even though Melody and I weren't Steel Rangers, we flew and teleported up onto the raised dais.

At first only a few of the ghoulish creatures charged through the doorway at a time, (I get their name now) and a well placed grenade or hail of minigun fire would handle the slow, but steady stream.

That didn't last long.

What we had feared had come to pass. The sound of the fighting just brought more and more ghoulies down upon us. The moment Boom and Bulletstorm had to reload, the mass of monsters flooded the main hall.

"Goddesses! I thought you said the first floor was cleared!" Melody yelled over the din of gunfire, explosions, laser blasts, and thunderclaps. I didn't have time to answer with my own hypothesis as I smashed Golden Star's shield into the rotting skull of a monster that had once been a normal pony like me. Ichor, brain matter, and gore splattered my shield's silver surface and the zombie pony went down with a stomach churning crunch.

"The raiders that escaped must have attracted more down from the higher floors before they left," Shadowbuck called back from wherever he was hiding before a silent shot ripped through the left eye of a monster to Bulletstorm's left, splashing the Steel Ranger's armor in a disgusting post modern painting of horrible bodily fluids.

The chaos that had erupted in the lobby made the last stand in Stable Sixty-Three's Atrium look organized and civil. Bullets and explosions decimated decayed flesh and broke bone, but the undead kept coming. The steady blasts and gunfire was almost deafening. I needed to drown the din of battle out and fight. Helping save Melody, the Brotherhood of Steel, and myself was all that mattered now.

BZZAP!

"Cud!"

My lightning bolts were of little help. With the ghoulies' deadened nervous system, the electricity wasn't traveling through their necrotic forms as well as it would in the case of a living, flesh and blood pony. I guess the lack of bodily fluids or a heartbeat aided into their electrical resistance too. It took a lethal shot to stun them and I didn't think I could fire off a powerful enough bolt to actually kill them with one blast. Unless I got a headshot; it seemed fried zombie brains stopped working just as fast as fried pony brains.

One of the horrifying creatures launched itself at me, it's pointed hooves outstretched and its mouth drooling with anticipation at a meal of fresh me, and I raised my shield to bat it away like a fly. As it struck my shield, my eyes went wide and my magic began to give. The creature, although rotten and emaciated, was a lot heavier and stronger than I had guessed. It pushed itself over my shield, bucking it aside, and lunged with sharp, snapping teeth aimed for my throat. I threw my hooves up to protect my face, it's vile maw clamping down hard on Toffee Biscuit's Pipbuck. The ghoulie's brown, decayed teeth shattered on the metal casing as I fell onto my back and reflexively rolled, pushing with all my strength, and bucking the creature off of me.

Pfft.

A silenced sniper bullet tore through the zombie's skull and splattered me with gore. I could feel the brownish-green goo soaking into my mane and coat and it made my skin crawl. Part of me wanted to be mad, I had just gotten clean and now I was covered in ghoulie gunk, but the rest of my rational brain threw that idiotic part of me into a Stable in the back of my mind as I looked over to the shimmering Stealth Ranger on the dragon's foot above me.

"Thanks," I said with a nod, and quickly pulled myself back up to my hooves. I think the blurry stallion nodded, but I couldn't tell as his magically hidden form blended back into the chaotic battle around us. Over the shrieks and hisses of the ghouls, I could hear Bulletstorm's minigun unloading on the monsters as he cackled with a slightly unnerving delight.

Thankfully, Melody was using her standard and very effective tactic of firing her flurry of energy bolts down from the safety of the air above us while the other Brotherhood members formed a perimeter of heavy weapons. Boom lobbed grenades and fired missiles into the ever growing mob while Backdraft lit them up with a torrent of flame.

It was Buzzsaw and my job to hold our flank from the smaller stream of zombies rushing in through side doors. I stood back to back with the larger Steel Ranger, my shield raised and my horn glowing furiously.

"Looks like you got your wish, princess! I just wish it wasn't getting us all of these ghoul freaks at once!" he cried before burying his chainsaw into the shoulder of a rather beefy looking ghoul. As the spinning blade of death severed most of the monster's neck, the blade gave off a shrill whine and stopped in the now dead ghoul's collar and sternum. "Shit! It's jammed! Cover me!"

Buzzsaw pulled his chainsaw free just as a ghoul leapt over a bench, pointed hooves outstretched, and watched as the necrotic construct of pony flesh bounced off a glowing blue bubble of magical energy. My horn flared as I wrapped the two of us in my shield and my comrade-in-arms nodded with approval. Ghouls began to batter my protective barrier with their hooves and I had to keep my focus on the spell. Each strike of their spear like hooves sent a pinprick of fatigue arching through my brain, their combined efforts like a small swarm of ants gnawing through my brain. He worked fervently, noticing my determined gaze, and I took deep, calming breaths as the monstrous horde continued to grow beyond the glowing blue wall.

"Thanks princess."

"I told you not to call me princess!" I retorted, and he chuckled as he smacked his right chainsaw against the shield. It roared back to life and a satisfied sneer crept across the Star Paladin's lips.

"Round two you smelly sons of bitches!" he roared, letting out a jovial laugh as I dropped my shield and we tore into the zombies anew. My shield smashed into zombie skulls while his blades ripped through putrid flesh, but it was too late. Even with the occasional hidden sniper shots exploding the heads of the undead army or Melody's weapon randomly transforming our enemies into piles of pink dust, the ground we had given up while Buzzsaw fixed his weapons had allowed too many ghouls to attack our flank. There were too many for the two of us to handle.

We were outnumbered. The entire museum was descending upon us. The heavy gunners and Shadowbuck had already fallen back to the center of the raised dragon platform and Melody was tangled up in a dogfight with a ravenous pegasus ghoul. Where had that thing come from? How could it fly without feathers or skin covering its bony wings?

"Melody! Watch out!" I yelled as the creature swooped down at her, raking its sharp hooves through her mane, and she shrieked as the two tumbled onto a second floor walkway and I lost sight of them.

"Outta fuel!" Backdraft cried, and pulled out a service pistol from a shoulder mount. With the way he fired it, I was pretty sure it wasn't a preferred weapon.

"I'm out too!" Bulletstorm yelled, and smashed his heavy, steel plated hooves through the squishy neck of a ghoul as it started to climb onto the dais.

"Bis-Cud!" I yelled, firing off another bolt of lightning into the skull of a zombie unicorn and watched as the bolt vaporized everything above its shoulders. That was nice, but I didn't think I could repeat the feat again. We needed a weapon with more bite. "Think Aria! Think!"

"Anyway we can get some backup from down below?" Boom called out as he fired his last missile into a pack, sending necrotic limbs flying out of the gout of flame like a macabre confetti bomb.

"I don't know if they'll come, but we can try!" Backdraft shouted back before hitting a button on his right front fetlock. "Stable Sixty-Three! Come in Stable Sixty-Three! This is the Brotherhood of Steel! Shit's hit the fan in the entrance hall! The whole museum's down on top of us! We need your help this time!"

"Yeah!" Melody cheered as she flew into the air, spinning in mid air, and blasted the pegasus ghoul hot on her tail. In a flash of crimson light, the decayed pegasus disintegrated and showered us in a rain of the most disgusting pink dust I could ever imagine. I couldn't think about how absolutely disgusting I felt right now. I had to think!

That was when my flank hit the massive right foot of the dragon skeleton. Looking up at the gargantuan reptile, a small smile began to creep across my face and I laughed. I love being a smart pony. A weapon with more bite!

"Bite! Guys, cover me!" I yelled over the chaos, closing my eyes and taking deep breaths so I could focus.

"What do you think we're doing, Aria!" Shadowbuck yelled as his pistol clicked loudly and was forced to pull a knife off his shoulder harness and hold it in his mouth.

"This isn't the time to be taking a nap, girl!" Buzzsaw shouted, his saws and the Brotherhood's hooves being my only line of defense against the evil legion swarming us. Melody was blasting fewer and fewer ghouls, aiming each shot as best she could before taking it. She was running low on spark packs for her energy weapon too. I really hoped this worked.

"Shut up and let her concentrate! She's using magic!" Melody reprimanded the Star Paladin before blasting another zombie. This time it didn't transform into a pile of magical ash, instead opting to have its raggedy barding erupt into flames and engulf it and two other ghouls in the process.

Focusing all my magic on the dragon's mouth, I wrapped each fang into an aura of blue magical energy; there was a whole hell of a lot of teeth in this thing's mouth. I needed to focus. "Focus, Aria. Focus!"

The teeth began to shake as I heard one of the Brotherhood members scream. My eyes snapped open and I saw Backdraft being pulled down by the undead army. I had to push myself. I had to save them. It had been my idea to clear out the ghoulies. I wouldn't let any more ponies die for me. The Brotherhood of Steel was not going to be another Toffee Biscuits.

"Backdraft!" Star Paladin Buzzsaw screamed, turning to begin cutting through the horde to get to his fallen subordinate.

My horn flared even brighter, a second coat of overglow wrapping around the first, as my magic finally began pulling the teeth free. I started flinging the razor sharp blades through the air, fang after fang decapitating ghouls and ripping through necrotically animated flesh. Bile and gore burst and oozed from the rends and gashes I was leaving in the undead host and most toppled to the floor in ever growing mounds of finally dead zombie flesh. Sometimes multiple zombies were eviscerated by the the foot long, flying teeth and gut wrenching cries of primal rage and terror filled the museum.

Sweat poured off my brow and over my eyes and cheeks, but I continued focusing on my rain of draconic dentistry until I felt myself reaching my limit. There were still a few zombies left and we were out of ammo. I had to push on. I had to keep going. I had to...

I felt something inside my head pop.

My eyes went wide as lights danced across my vision. My heartbeat raced in my ears and I suddenly felt extremely nauseated. The entry hall looked more like a night club slaughterhouse than a history museum.

"That's not good."

Only a few were left alive, which Star Paladin Buzzsaw was already dispatching with gusto as he marched over to the fallen form of Backdraft, and some of the zombie ponies were impaled and stuck to the floor by the bony blades, their gastly cries the only thing telling me that they were still undead. Decayed limbs and heads were scattered everywhere, a minefield of rotten zombie parts, and I smiled as I saw the Brotherhood of Steel turn back to me in stunned silence.

My horn hurt, my head pounded like one of DJ-PON3's songs that I hated so much, (I think they called it club music because it sounded like you were being clubbed over the head by an angry scavenger bird) and my eyes felt heavy, but I did it. I blinked as another droplet of sweat fell into my eyes, and I started swaying on very unsteady legs.

"I-I did... I di..."

Then darkness rushed around my vision and began to overtake me. My legs gave out and I felt myself fall, I didn't even feel the impact as I hit the cold marble dais. As I lay on my side, my head propped against the dragon's declawed foot, I stared up at the skeleton looming over me. If I had been at Princess Luna's school, my dragon might be this big by now. Melody swooped down and took my head in her hooves.

"Aunt Aria! Aria! What's the matter!? Can..."

I closed my eyes, they were so heavy it felt like anvils were chained to my eyelashes, and saw a small green flame the size of a candle flickering in the darkness. It seemed to call out to me with its weak yet enticing dance, but it quickly disappeared as the darkness behind my eyelids was consumed by a blinding white light.

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

I was swinging a padded shield at a brown unicorn with an electric blue streak through his mane. No wait, I wasn't fighting this stallion. The body I was in was fighting. Something felt off. For one thing, I was a whole lot shorter than I should have been, my neck was craned up to look at the stallion as we sparred.

My senses were assaulted by the sudden overwhelming and tantalizing scents of fresh cut grass and the rows of strawberries to my right. At the moment, I really wished I could control this body and go chow down on the plump, red berries. To my left I could see a mansion, built in a very old style I didn't recognize, and the large estate was surrounded by a high wall that kept a lush green forest at bay.

The short body I was occupying barely dodged a swipe from the older unicorn's attack before countering with one of her own. I figured I had to be in a memory orb. That was the only logical explanation. At least I was a mare. I had heard horror stories of memory orbs that had you locked in the body of a pony of the opposite sex; sometimes they'd even be having sex! At least this seemed to be a wholesome memory, if a little unconventional.

"Great job, princess. You're really getting the hang of things," he told me, his brown eyes kind and loving, and I realized I was in a filly's body. This body was the stallion's daughter. Who had put me in a memory orb of a filly and her dad sparring with shields and swords? It was cruel, especially since this stallion looked a lot like me. He could have actually been my father.

"Daddy! Quit calling me princess! I'm too old for you to call me that. You're a knight, not a king. I'm NOT a princess!" the filly cried in a very familiar voice. My voice. It was higher, like when I was a filly, but it was definitely my voice. She/me swung her/my shield wildly at her father's face. The older unicorn jumped away from our attack and began jogging backwards to avoid the novice shield swings that the little filly-me was launching at my would-be father.

"You'll always be my little princess," my happy father laughed. I stopped, narrowing my eyes at him angrily, and he watched me intently. "Oh don't make that face, princess. You've gotta handle a little teasing if you're going to be a guard when you grow up."

"I am a grown up! Miss Sweetie Belle told me I could get my cutie mark any day now!" I shouted. Sweetie Belle? The singer and Stable-Tec spokespony? What did she have to do with-woah! Sparks began to fly off the filly's horn, and I was dumbfounded. This little filly version of me was summoning lightning magic beyond the tiny bolt I had fired at Golden Star. Massive amounts of voltage danced across my vision and made my/her hair stand on end. "I'm not a filly anymore!"

Suddenly, my vision became tinted by an electric blue light as the little filly launched herself at her father at astounding speeds. Wind whipped at her mane while an electric whine filled the air. The filly's father nimbly leapt aside, and I sailed past him into a large plot of flowers, sending a plume of dirt and plants into my... er, her... um, our eyes. This was getting confusing. She shut her eyes tight as the tears welled up and the burning began to lessen. Then she/we rubbed our eyes and blinked away enough dirt to see her father standing over her.

"D-d-d-d-daddy! What happened?" she cried, and I could feel her body shaking and her lower lip quivering as the tears started to fall. I didn't feel any pain except for the stinging in her eyes so she was probably more scared than hurt. Was it weird that I felt a need to hug and comfort myself? Was this girl really me? What the hell was going on? He took her in his hooves and held her tightly against his chest as she cried.

"Shhhh. It's alright, princess. I'm here," he whispered, and I felt like I could cry too. I wished I had had a dad to hug me like this stallion was hugging his daughter. She may have sounded like me, but I wished I had been her. My heart, which I didn't know existed in this weird dream, ached, and I yearned to join in the embrace with every fiber of my non-existent being. He looked down on the little filly and smiled brightly. "Well look what you've got there."

She followed his gaze down to her flanks and saw a golden shield, crossed by two blue bolts of lightning as they lay of a bed of green flames. That was my cutie mark! She had my cutie mark!

"Guardian Heart! Is Aria alright?" I heard a mare with a Trottingham accent call out. The girl that shared my name and cutie mark turned her head to see a gray earth pony with charcoal black hair and brilliant violet eyes galloping towards us. She had my eyes! Ugh! I had her eyes! Whatever! I blinked and the world stood still.

My tear that had been falling was suspended in mid air, floating only inches from the ground, and the dust the mare had been kicking up refused to even drift as it held its amorphous shape. The mare's hooves weren't even touching the ground as she flew in mid gallop. I watched in horror as the mare's eyes began to bubble and run like a painting doused with paint thinner and her gray coat bled into her black mane to make a brackish glob that tore away from her form. Then the grass started to pop and vanish into nothingness. The terrifying scene continued as the world around me began to look more and more like a running canvas of watercolors as white light began to pierce through the cracks and holes of the dissolving world.

"What's going on?" I asked, realizing I could finally talk. I looked down at my fully grown body and felt a sense of pause as I noticed the ground beneath me had vanished and was replaced by nothingness. There was a void where the ground should be, but I could feel something solid underneath my hooves. Then I felt an immense sense of loss as I realized the stallion, I think his name was Guardian Heart, had vanished with the rest of the world.

"Welcome," a voice said from the empty space to my right, and I spun around to face the new visitor.

Before me stood the last thing I would have ever expected. In the space of emptiness that the strawberry fields had been occupying stood an alicorn unlike any I had ever seen. The alicorn was vastly different from Celestia, Luna, Cadence, or even the description Shadowbuck had given me of the mutant alicorns roaming the Equestrian Wasteland.

First, the alicorn was male. I had never seen a male alicorn before. I wasn't sure anypony ever had. Second, his coat and wings were pure white, but they were mostly covered by a long black cloak that matched the mysterious alicorn's long, shaggy mane. It stuck out in all directions and if it had ever been combed it would have been a surprise to me. Third, the alicorn's eyes were baggy and sunken in as if he had never slept a day in his life, but the small black gems that shone out from within their shadowy alcoves glistened with a disturbing focus.

But finally, and most disturbingly, the sleepy looking alicorn was standing upside down above me. My eyes widened, and I gave the strange winged unicorn a weak smile.

"H-Hi... Who are you?" I asked while craning my neck to look into the alicorn's tiny black eyes.

"I am Eternal."

"Huh? Your name is Eternal?" I asked. He blinked. I think he blinked. It was hard to tell. Did I surprise him?

"I'm sorry. I do not speak to mortal ponies very often anymore. I am Dream," he responded in a monotonous tone that somehow had a strange rhythm to it. I had heard it before, but I just couldn't place it.

"So your name is Dream?"

"And your life is not your own," he replied, his dark eyes shining with a knowing light.

"What do you mean. What was that... scene I just saw?" I asked. I had so many questions popping into my head, but that one seemed the most pertinent.

"It is what could have been. A life never achieved. A simple dark whisper changed everything. One choice changed the path you must take," Dream said cryptically.

"That doesn't make any sense. Who were those ponies? What do you mean?" I asked, taking a step towards the white alicorn. To my surprise, I stepped up towards him like I was ascending a set of stairs connecting the two of us.

"Our futures are not set in stone. Time is like a river flowing into an ocean. Most timelines lead to the same destination, but how we get there is in the hooves of the living," he answered, and I stopped my ascent.

"Are you dead? Am... Am I dead?"

"No. If you were dead, my sister would be here for you. You are in my realm and within my reach again," Dream explained, and the gears finally clicked into place.

"Then this is a dream," I whispered, but Dream seemed to hear me and nodded. "What do you mean I'm within your reach again?"

"I would not contact you before your trip to Trottingham because I did not know if his influence had completely changed your future. I couldn't. We are outside of time so time no longer affects us. When you still followed that path, the path into the flames, I could not reach you within Stable Sixty-Three."

"You didn't answer who those ponies were," I said, narrowing my eyes at Dream. I grinned slightly as he tensed under my glare and appeared nervous. "I think I'm getting better at this."

"They were the parents you could have had before he interfered."

"Who?" I asked, and Dream seemed to grow sadder.

"Voi-"

FOOOM!

Off in the distance, I saw the first scenery this realm devoid of features finally gave me, and my eyes widened in terror. Out of nothingness emerged a wall of green fire lined with prismatic, ever changing light that rushed across the emptiness at us. It was coming at us fast and I felt my heart drop in my chest. Was this what ponies saw just before the balefire bombs incinerated them? Dream's rhythmic breathing caught in his chest at the sight of the tidal wave of flame.

"Run."

"What about you?" I asked as I began to step away from the rapidly approaching balefire. Weird, the invisible stairs were gone.

"Darkness approaches. I can handle myself. It is not my time," Dream said as his horn erupted in a pale yellow light. Suddenly my body became engulfed in his horn's golden glow.

"How can you know that?" I asked, and Dream turned to me with a sad smile.

"I am not the first of the three. We shall meet again," he said, continuing his cryptic conversational method. "My sister is working to help you. She will find you soon."

"Wait!" I cried, just as the blast of dark fire sought to overtake us. Dream disappeared in a burst of golden sand as the stark white world vanished into the calm, peaceful black of unconsciousness. For a few moments, there was nothing. I couldn't see, I couldn't hear, I couldn't use any of my senses.

But from the darkness came a deep, throaty laughter that chilled my very soul. There was evil in that voice, pure and unadulterated evil. I thrashed in the new void, trying to run from the horrible laughter, but no matter how hard I tried the laughter grew closer. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I needed to wake up! I was about to give up hope until a familiar, female voice whispered in my ear,

"Seven gods wait at the end of time,
When one rebels, two shall die.
But before the world can be strengthened Harmony’s glow,
The pony of darkness shall rend a god low."

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

"Ugh," I moaned as the dull throbbing in my head woke me from my fitful sleep. I opened my eyes and noticed light flickering across the gray ceiling above me. Was I back in Stable Sixty-Three? No. The gray ceiling was made of stone, not steel, and the light was more of a flickering orange than the white, humming fluorescent lights of the underground bunker.

"Look who's back in the land of the living," Shadowbuck said to my left, and I turned my head towards the sound of his voice. My head felt heavy, and the light of the campfire hurt my eyes. "Again."

"What happened?" I groaned.

"You saved all our lives for one. I guess you were right about unicorn magic and pegasus air power, huh?" Shadowbuck replied as he looked at me from across the small campfire. He was giving me that confident smile like always, but for once I actually liked seeing it. Although, with the state my head was in, I probably had a concussion and wasn't in my right mind.

"Where's Melody? And Backdraft? I saw the ghoulies pull him off the dais."

"You actually hit him with one of those teeth when you cut off the ghouls attacking him," he said, and his smile widened as he saw my eyes do the same. "Don't worry, Aria, he's fine. His armor's pretty banged up and his injuries drained almost all of its meds and potions, but he'll survive. Melody's fine too and probably would have been the only survivor of that snafu if it hadn't been for your little magic trick."

"Yeah," I mumbled, suddenly feeling very thirsty, and reached out with my magic to grab the canteen from my saddlebags. And I reached out... and I reached out...

Nothing!

"I-I can't do magic!" I stammered, rolling over onto my stomach to stare at my saddlebags lying a few feet away from me. I strained and focused until my brain felt like it was about to explode, but no matter what I did I couldn't even lift the flap. A stabbing pain shot from one temple to the next, and I pressed my hooves to my brow. "Ow! Ow! Ow!"

"I figured that would happen. Magical burnout," Shadowbuck chuckled, and I was hurting too much to glare at him. I heard him stand and walk over to me through the steady war march beating in my head. I opened my eyes and looked up at him offering me a syringe of Med-X with his hoof while he held a bottle of wine in his mouth. "Try jish."

I looked at him for a few seconds, my half-lidded stare a mix of pain, exhaustion, and disbelief, before I took the syringe in my mouth, took a deep breath, stabbed it into my shoulder, and pushed the plunger down. Almost immediately I felt a rush of relief and my headache vanished. I let out a sigh as Shadowbuck sat down next to me and popped the cork on the bottle of wine.

"What's that for?" I asked as I pulled myself into a sitting position.

"Med-X for the headache, vino for what ails ya," he said, giving me the bottle and a smile that I felt was much more charming than usual. It was definitely the drugs talking, but as I took the bottle apprehensively and looked around the smaller exhibit hall I noticed we were alone save for the sleeping form of Melody lying to my left. I set the bottle down between my legs and turned my attention back to him.

"Where'd everypony go?"

"They had to get going. We were out of ammo and most of us were out of meds too," he explained, looking into the fire as if his brothers were there.

"They left you behind?" I asked, concerned that the Brotherhood of Steel might have abandoned their brother.

"No. I asked to stay. I wasn't just going to leave you two alone out here, especially with you knocked out for who knows how long. I just hope I don't lose points with Elder Cherry Scones for this." I barely heard that last part as he mumbled it under his breath.

"Why didn't you just take me back to Stable Sixty-Three?" I asked, feeling more like an interrogator then just a pony talking to her friend. Was Shadowbuck my friend? Well, if he stayed behind to help us, then I guess he was pretty close to a friend. Shadowbuck gave a small, exasperated chuckle.

"We tried that, but when Melody called up her brother on her broadcaster, the Overmare interrupted and said that you and the Brotherhood weren't needed and were not allowed back into Stable Sixty-Three until we brought back something to fix the door. Talk about gratitude, huh?" Shadowbuck said sarcastically, and I sighed.

"That's my fault," I admitted, lifting the bottle of wine to my lips and taking a swig. I shuddered at the bittersweet taste and swallowed, feeling a warmth fill my chest and stomach that was actually quite pleasant.

"Really?" Shadowbuck said as he watched me take another sip. This stuff wasn't that bad; it tasted like strong grape juice with a bit of a bite to it.

"Yeah, um, I kinda threw her into a wall." Shadowbuck stared at me. "She slapped me seven times!"

"Oh okay. If it had been six times I would have thought you were a sociopath, but seven is just too many times to get slapped," Shadowbuck joked, and I took a third sip. He held out his hoof, clearing his throat to get my attention, and I stared at it for a moment. "Are you going to share, Aria? They did teach you how to share back in the olden days, right?"

"Heh, sorry," I said, handing him the bottle and watching as he downed a few gulps of the grapey goodness. How do earth ponies hold things in their hooves like that, especially smooth objects like glass bottles of wine. I needed both hooves to hold the bottle and had to use my teeth to safely turn the bottle over to drink. He let out a satisfied breath and passed the bottle back to me.

"Sharing a drink with a comrade in arms, no better way to get to know a pony. You okay? Besides the magical burnout of course."

"Yeah," I said nervously, staring at the bottle with the slight apprehension. Was I really okay? My whole life was gone, I wasn't dead, and now I was having really freaky dreams about a father that I had never dreamed about before. I mean, I had dreamed about having a dad when I was a filly, I think any kid in my position would, but he never looked like that. I always thought of him as some sleazy conpony who had tricked or seduced my mother into cheating on her husband and left her to die.

I closed my eyes and pushed the depressing thoughts into the Stable with the thoughts of my own nastiness. I really wanted some more wine, but Shadowbuck had just put his mouth on it. I glanced over at him, nervous about contracting some radioactive super disease that modern ponies had become immune to, but sighed as the desire to drink away my dream overtook my hypochondria. I took another swig and giggled, feeling a little light headed but very good.

"Wow, it's already hitting you? You're a real lightweight, you know?"

"Shut up. This is my first time drinking," I replied before taking another drink. My tummy felt warm, my head felt light, and I wasn't thinking about everything at a mile a minute. That was new. And I felt confident! "I love this stuff!" I thought, before reluctantly giving the bottle back to Shadowbuck so he could take a sip or two.

"Wow, you're like an alcohol virgin. Sorry I popped your booze cherry with such crappy wine," he joked, and I felt my face warming like my chest and stomach. Shadowbuck noticed my expression and blinked before coughing uncomfortably. "I'm sorry. That was inappropriate. I shouldn't have said that. I forget that you olden days ponies were a lot more proper than us wasteland ponies. Not supposed to talk about sex, the nobility, the ministries, and religion, right?"

"Yeah," I replied, looking away from him as I fought to hold back the blush that was burning my cheeks. For a few minutes we just sat in silence, watching the popping campfire at the center of our indoor camp. We silently shared the bottle, not wanting to look at each other for more than a few moments. The only sound that broke through the tension was the crack of a piece of wood shattering under the heat of the flames. "Ahhh, awkward silence. My greatest ally." Awkward silence was always there when I talked to a boy. I needed to change the subject. "It's not bad wine. I like it... Where did you find it?"

"There was a safe behind the greeter's terminal in one of the side exhibits. Looks like the info desk mare really liked her red and white," Shadowbuck chuckled while passing the bottle back to me. I shook the bottle and pouted at the realization that we had already consumed half of it. I then smiled at him demurely and greddily chugged down four mouthfuls of the wine. "Hey! Share, princess, share!"

I smacked him upside the head with the back of my hoof, and he scowled at me.

"Hey! What was that for!?" he shouted, and I glared at him after pulling the bottle away from my lips.

"I told you idiots not to call me princess," I grumbled.

"You've had too much to drink," he said, reaching for my bottle, and I hugged it to my chest protectively. "Okay, keep it. But why don't you want to be called princess? Melody and Starshine said your mom was a princess and your brother was a prince. Wouldn't that make you a princess?"

"No, it wouldn't," I snapped, turning away from him. I was angry, but also ashamed of what I knew I'd have to tell him.

"Why not?" he asked, placing his hoof on my shoulder, and I shrugged it away.

"Because I'm a bastard, okay!? My father wasn't my mom's husband. He wasn't Golden Star's dad. My mom had sex with somepony she shouldn't have and I'm the mistake. It's why I never had sex with Bright-" Why did I just say that? It's like my mouth and my brain didn't have a filter anymore.

"So?" he asked, and I turned to see actual concern in his steel gray eyes. I really wanted to kiss him and then punch him in the eye. And then maybe kiss him again. Wow! Was this what alcohol did to ponies? It made me feel good, but I could already see the downside to drinking it. "What does it matter who your dad was? As long as you're a good pony, does it matter that your folks weren't married or your mom cheated on her husband? They screwed up, not you! You're you and your parents and themselves." Not a very eloquent statement, but it really started to tilt my body in the direction of kissing instead of punching. "But why didn't you have sex with your coltfriend? You don't seem the religious type. I, um, if you don't mind me asking, of course."

"I-I didn't because I didn't want to risk bringing another bastard into the world. I wanted to wait until we were married... but I guess Brightlight couldn't," I said, sniffing loudly against the tears that were forming in my eyes. I could still remember the thrusting and the groaning and the moaning. It disgusted me and made me furious at Brightlight and Silver Storm, but I was also angry at myself for not realizing it sooner. "I'm so stupid."

"You're not stupid, Aria. His loss for breaking up with you," Shadowbuck said kindly, and placed his hoof back on my shoulder. This time I accepted it as I started to cry while hugging my bottle of wine. I really missed my Snuggle Bunny doll. I wanted to hold that little stuffed bunny that had been my grandmother's, then my mom's, and then mine. I could picture the little white doll with her frilly lace dress being incinerated by horrible green flames as Canterlot was destroyed by the balefire bombs. No, wait, that weird cloud had killed the ponies of Canterlot. Could Snuggle Bunny still be okay?

"He didn't break up with me!" I shouted. "He cheated on me with Silver Storm! I didn't even know until I walked in on them.... doing it! I should have seen it sooner! I'm so stupid!"

"Aria... I'm sorry th-"

"Did Great Grandpa Brightlight really cheat on you?" I heard Melody ask, and I looked up to see her sitting up in her sleeping bag. Her blue eyes were filled with hurt and shame that made me feel guilty. Why was I feeling guilty? Her grandfather was the one who cheated on me! Her grandmother was a lying, conniving witch of a pony that I wish I had hit even harder during combat practice. She must have seen the anger flash across my face because she bit her lower lip and whimpered, "Are you mad at me?"

"What!? Melody..." I tried to stand way too fast, knocking over the bottle of wine, and the world started spinning. I was barely able to keep my hooves under me as I stumbled over to her. She held me up as I leaned against her, pushing her hair out of her eyes as she inspected me in my inebriated state. She looked just like Silver Storm, but she had Golden Star's eyes. "I-I-"

"You're drunk," she said, her sadness slowly being replaced with disappointment. Why did the disappointment in her voice and eyes hurt so much? She had no right to be disappointed in... Why was I blaming her for what her ancestors did!?

"I-I-Yes. But why would I be mad at you?" I asked, suddenly realizing that I had been mad at her. I had no right to be mad at her just because of what her grandparents did to me two hundred years ago. "I'm mad at Silver Star and Brightlight."

"You're mad at me because I'm a pegasus like her. I look like her. I'm..." she said, tears shimmering in her sea blue eyes. She had Golden Star's eyes. I didn't want to see those eyes crying. Why did she have to have his eyes!? No... I knew why. She had Golden Star's eyes because she was Golden Star's granddaughter too.

"What? No. No, Melody. No. You're my friend. You..." I wracked my brain for something else to tell her. Something that could comfort her, but nothing was coming to me. Not being able to think straight was coming back to bite me in the rump.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, looking away from me with a look of shame that I usually saw in the mirror after a particularly painful reminder of my lineage. Was I being just as bad as Uncle Blueblood?

"Why are you sorry? It's not your fault," I told her, putting my hooves around her in a comforting display. Melody turned back to me, her gaze soft and vulnerable, before she leaned into my hug. I didn't even think about hugging her, I just did it. Maybe I shouldn't try to think when I'm drunk? It was hard for me, but that seemed like the smarter idea. Although maybe that was the booze talking.

"Because I'm descended from them," she said. "They hurt you and it hurts me that they hurt you."

Princess Luna, wherever you are, why did she have to be so kind? Whatever hatred towards Brightlight and Silver Storm I was holding over her subconsciously vanished with her admission of her intense empathy.

"Melody, you're not just descended from them. You're descended from Golden Star. You're my niece. You have his eyes," I told her, smiling as sympathetically as I could. It was hard to think under the influence, but when I let myself go I could sometimes come up with just the right thing to say. Alcohol sure was such a double edged sword.

"I do?" she asked, her smile slowly returning.

"Yes, you do. You shouldn't beat yourself up for what your ancestors did. You're an amazing pony and my friend. You're still you and that's all that matters," I said, and took her in a big hug.

"Thank you," she whispered, and hugged me back.

"Heh."

I broke the hug and turned my gaze to Shadowbuck. He was laughing under his breath and shaking his head dismissively.

"What?"

"You're a real piece of work, you know that? You beat yourself up over your parents doing the nasty out of wedlock, but you tell her that her ancestry doesn't matter. You really need to take your own advice, Aria," Shadowbuck said before giving me his usual smile that had returned to the smugness I hated. It was no longer even remotely charming; even the haze the wine had placed over my mind couldn't change that.

"You're a real pendulum, you know that?" I said angrily.

"What's that? Another one of your replacement curses?" Melody asked. Shadowbuck cocked an eyebrow.

"Let him figure that out," I said, before returning to my sleeping bag. I tried to take the bottle of wine sitting next to Shadowbuck, forgetting that I had burned out my magic, and resigned myself to an annoyed grumble before turning away from my companions.

"I'll take next watch, Shadowbuck. I'm awake now so you should get some sleep," Melody said softly.

"Yeah. Sure. Aria, you should really think about what you and just I said, okay?" he said before sighing and laying down beside his saddlebags. I didn't turn to watch him do it, but I heard it all the same. For the next few minutes, I laid on top of my sleeping bag and stared into the darkness beyond the light of our campfire. There was very little light pouring into the room through the open window, I guessed it must be pretty cloudy outside for there to be no moonlight or stars to brighten the night sky. A gentle breeze blew through the window and brought with it the smell of salt and rain.

"We must be near the sea," I mused, feeling the wine's befuddlement slowly seeping out of my mind. Then I heard a faint beep from Toffee Biscuit's Pipbuck and lifted my leg to see a new note had been added. Actually, an entire book was displayed, entry by entry, in the notes section of my Pipbuck. Golden Star's journal. I heard a soft giggle and rolled over to see Melody smiling at me.

"I thought you'd want to read it. Curio said you got to read a little bit of it so I thought you'd want to read more. I've had that copy on my Pipbuck for years."

"Yeah. Thank you," I replied, and returned my gaze to the little green screen on my leg. I tapped the buttons, bringing up 'Entry 3,' and was surprised to see the date. It was six months after the last entry.

Entry 3

Sorry I couldn't keep writing, Aria. I know it's silly for me to think I'm writing this journal to you, but it helps me think of it more like a conversation then me bragging about my day to some historian two hundred years in the future. There's a reason I haven't been writing for the past 6 months. I've been in a coma. I shipped out to Hoofington and was stationed at Miramare, but there was a zebra attack the night my unit and I arrived. It was a standard skirmish, nothing big and we could have handled it, but, as I led the charge after the fleeing stripes, I was shot.

Somepony shot me in the back, used an armor-piercing round that ripped through my armor and spine like it was tissue paper. The medics barely got me to the Fluttershy Clinic in time to save me, and I've been out for a while. I can still move my back hooves, thankfully, but my left leg just isn't working right. I'm being given a Purple Moon and being honorably discharged, but things aren't all war heroes and commendations.

Dad disowned me. Well, not disowned, that would be a scandal in and of itself, but he made it known that he didn't like me hitting Unc Blueblood at your funeral. It wasn't the noble and dignified thing for a Prince to do. He's written me out of his will and is only giving me mom's villa in Trottingham, but that was mine to begin with. Sorry I never got to bring you there, Aria. I'm sorry about a lot of things. I don't feel sorry about what I did to Blueblood. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I just wish dad wasn't so stuck up and focused on appearances that he would act like that.

I just wish the nobility were more like Uncle Vanity or Aunt Celestia instead of the way they are. Maybe you or mom would still be alive if they were.

I miss you, Sis.

That's how he ended up in Trottingham. He had been shot by one of his own ponies and almost died. Something was nagging at the back of my mind, a suspicion that it wasn't just accidental friendly fire that almost killed my brother. I had no proof, but it all seemed pretty coincidental, especially after Blueblood's erasing me from the papers and the history books. I glanced at Melody as she watched the darkened entryway into the showroom and smiled. At least Golden Star had survived and moved to Trottingham so he could be in Stable Sixty-Three when the bombs fell. At least he had had mom's villa to live in.

I didn't even know mom had had a villa here in Trottingham or that she had left it to him in her will. Reading the diary entry just made me remember that I had never known her. Grandmother had told me stories, but those were just stories told through the prism of a loving mother talking about her daughter's better years. There was always a hint of shame in Grandmother's voice when I asked her about anything closer to when I was born. Grandmother's little girl had shamed our family and, as Blueblood always seemed to remind me, I was a reminder of that shame.

I turned over, looking at the sleeping form of Shadowbuck on the other side of the fire. He was turned away from me, but I could see the steady rise and fall of his breathing that signaled that he was asleep. That steady rhythm that seemed familiar.

"That's the rhythm that Dream spoke in," I realized, feeling quiet proud of myself for figuring out such a mundane detail of my crazy dream. It was just a dream after all. That same nagging feeling sprung to my mind as I looked down at my note screen and noticed a strange discrepancy. There were forty-five entries in Golden Star's journal; with Toffee Biscuit's recipe there should be forty-six notes. So why was there forty-seven notes stored in my Pipbuck?

I toggled down, letting entry after entry flash by without even reading their contents. I'd return to the rest of Golden Star's journal later. Eighteen... Twenty-Three... Thirty-One... Forty-Three...

"Goddesses..." I whispered, my eyes widening in shock. I found it hard to breath as I saw the note nestled between 'Entry 45' and 'Toffee Biscuits' Signature Toffee Biscuits.' A note that shouldn't be there. A note titled 'The Guardian's Prophecy - Quatrain One.'

"Seven gods wait at the end of time,
When one rebels, two shall die.
But before the world can be strengthened Harmony’s glow,
The pony of darkness shall rend a god low."

____________________________

My headache returned with a vengeance. My horn no longer hurt, but I had a horrible case of cotton mouth and the throbbing in my temples was making its comeback known. I spent most of breakfast, a delicious farewell package of toffee biscuits baked with love by Leaflet, glaring at Shadowbuck as he ate his own breakfast of Sugar Apple Bombs, sans milk. I knew I had been the one to drink too much of that wine, but he was the one who gave it to me and I wasn't going to let him hear the end of it until my hangover was gone.

"I already told you I'm sorry, Aria. I didn't think you hadn't drunk alcohol before. And I definitely didn't think you'd down half a bottle of red wine by yourself," he apologized for the third time. Of course, he had done it after about ten minutes of me training my angry gaze on him so I think I was counting it as apology under duress. I wasn't really mad at him anymore and I knew he had just been trying to help. That didn't mean I wouldn't give him a hard time about it though. "So how's your horn? Did getting some rest get any of your mojo going again?"

"No," I mumbled after swallowing the last of Toffee Biscuit's signature dish.

"Maybe you two should come with me to Big Buck and talk to Elder Cherry Scones. She might know a remedy for magical burnout," he said through a mouthful of dry cereal.

"Chew and swallow your food before you speak, Shadowbuck," I said, pointing a hoof at him to drive my point home.

"Yes, Miss Manners," he replied sarcastically after taking another hoof full of cereal and tossing it in his mouth. I frowned, intensifying my glare, and he just smiled.

"Ugh! Back down into the negatives, Shadow!"

"Um, Shadowbuck, I have a question." Melody asked, raising her hoof politely as if she were in a school classroom.

"Yeah?"

"Why would an earth pony know how to fix Aria's horn?" she asked.

"Huh?"

"Yeah, why would Elder Cherry Scones know anything about magical burnout?" I added as I started to pack up my sleeping bag. I noticed my headache was starting to dull a bit and realized that the breakfast was helping with the hangover. I lifted up a silent thank you to Leaflet and Toffee Biscuits, wherever she was, while looking down at her Pipbuck on my foreleg.

"Why wouldn't she? She is a unicorn after all," he replied, finally speaking with his mouth clear of food, and I just stared at him, confused.

"I thought all Steel Rangers were earth ponies. You know, Applejack's 'earth pony way' and earth pony tech and stuff," Melody said as if she were trying to summarize a text book passage on the Ministry of Wartime Technology.

"Yeah, well, that's true. Almost all Steel Ranger power armor was made for earth ponies, it gave us an edge in the war since we didn't have unicorn magic or pegasus flight. Actually, almost all Steel Rangers are earth ponies. That doesn't mean we don't need unicorns for spell matrix work and research so we have scribes. Most scribes in the Steel Rangers are actually unicorns."

"Okay. That still doesn't explain why a scribe would be your leader," I added after finally tying the gray sleeping bag to my saddlebags. Shadowbuck sighed.

"Jeez, am I gonna have to discuss the length and breath of Steel Ranger politics with you two? Look, when an Elder dies the local chapter votes in either a Head Scribe or a Star Paladin as the new Elder. After Elder Litwick died, we voted Head Scribe Cherry Scones as our new Elder. Simple as that," he said with a huff before turning his attention to his empty weapons on the battle saddle. Shaking his head, he sighed again. "Okay folks, let's get to looting the upstairs before we leave. Don't wanna let raiders get to the pre-war goodies before us. There might even be some ammo and weapons up there that we can use."

"Why would there be ammo and guns in a museum?" I asked as I shrugged my saddlebags over my flanks and struggled to hook Golden Star's shield onto the hook on the back of my armor.

"You'd be surprised," Shadowbuck said as he walked over to me and grabbed my shield in his teeth.

"Hey!"

"Let me help you with that," he said kindly. In one fluid motion, he had my shield on my back and smiled. Gah! Why did that stupid grin have to go back to being charming.

"You know I'm still mad at you," I told him before letting out an exasperated breath. "But thank you."

"You're welcome. Now come on Stable ponies, we're burning daylight and we got a lot of ground to cover," he said, leading us out of the display room.

"I'm not a Stable pony."

"Okay, Stable pony and two hundred year old aunt of a Stable pony, let's go," he said as he put on his helmet, and chuckled as we followed him back into the corpse filled entrance hall.

The stench was overwhelming. In the heat of battle, I remember the ghoulies' fetid breath and rotten flesh smelling bad, but a night of true decay had given their horrid stench a new life. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say a new death. Melody and I gagged, coughing as we held our noses to the collars of our Stable Sixty Three barding. We watched the face plate extended over Shadowbuck's mouth as it allowed him to breathe through his armor's rebreather.

"Guh!" Melody croaked as she backed away from the wall of stench and back down the hallway.

"We can't go in there! It smells horrible!" I shouted after joining Melody a good twenty feet back. The smell was slowly expanding, but it hadn't reached the door to our former campsite. Shadowbuck turned around and shook his head.

"Just hold your breath and run," he said simply before he turned back towards the far hallway and trotted away. I scowled, turning my attention to Melody as she gave me an extremely weak smile.

"Ready?" she asked with an extremely strained cheerfulness that I knew was the farthest thing from genuine.

"I guess," I moaned, and braced myself for the horror that was to come.

Killing raiders? That was a shock to the system that I was still dealing with, but I knew it was a necessary evil to stop another Toffee Biscuits from being killed by bad ponies. Killing ghoulies? Terrifying, but no different than slaying any other monsters that would harm innocent ponies. But this smell? This was the stuff of nightmares.

We lit our Pipbucks' light spell and rushed past the corpses as fast as we could, leaving Shadowbuck in our literal dust as we kicked up two hundred years of accumulated sediment. Melody flew past me as I ran down the dark hallway the ghouls had come out of yesterday, her wings flapping for dear life as her cheeks bulged with the strain of flying while holding her breath. Galloping up the stairs, I found that the air on the first landing was cleaner and collapsed in a heap, gulping down breath after breath of precious oxygen. I didn't care anymore if I was breathing in pony ashes, just as long as it didn't smell like death and rotting ghoulie.

"Yeah, sorry about that. We couldn't really dispose of the ghoul corpses without attracting more monsters," Shadowbuck told us as he started climbing the stairs up to us. I shot him the dirtiest look I could muster up as he retracted his helmet's face plate.

"I hate you right now, you know that?" I spat, literally and figuratively, as I tried to get the taste of that foul air out of my mouth. Shadowbuck smiled nervously.

"I said I was sorry."

"Let's... let's just keep going... and we're taking another exit out of here... when we're done," Melody said between gasps of precious stale air.

"Yeah. Sure," I grumbled, and we both followed Shadowbuck up the stairs, our Pipbucks and his armor's lamp lighting the way.

____________________________

"Everypony stay close, especially you Aria. We don't know if there's any stragglers up here and you don't have a usable weapon without your magic," Shadowbuck warned as we entered the second floor atrium dedicated to Medieval Equestria.

"Thanks for reminding me. I'm sure my headache isn't enough of a reminder of that," I snapped, making sure my voice had just enough bite to it for him to notice my foul mood. My eyes took in the rusted suits of armor and the broken displays with a pang of regret. Such treasures left behind, unable to be saved down in Stable Sixty-Three. It was a tragedy in and of itself.

Paintings and tapestries were torn to pieces and pieces of medieval armor, twelve hundred years old or more, were strewn across the exhibit hall like worthless bottlecaps or scrap metal. Some were crushed under years of bony hooves, and most were dented and twisted into the oddest shapes. Also, the strange stains on the ground and walls made me really hope that ghoulies didn't have to defecate.

The ghoulies had done a good deal of damage to this place over the centuries. Or perhaps this was just the steady march of time without the care of ponies to fight back the advancing entropy. Perhaps the ghoulies were the ultimate embodiment of chaos and entropy and our constant struggle to hold on to life and some semblance of order and... Ow! Too much thinking for this much headache.

"Oh! This is so cool!" Melody said as she sat on her haunches and picked up a surprisingly intact silver helmet designed to look like a wolf's head. Her Pipbuck started clicking rapidly, and her eyes widened in shock. "What the hell? Radiation?"

"Get rid of it, Melody!" I shouted, and she quickly tossed the helmet away.

"What's that about?" Shadowbuck asked, looking around the room for something I couldn't see. "My suit's not detecting any signs of radiation in here so why was that helmet ticking like there's no tomorrow?"

"Nickel. Back in the medieval era, any time some noblepony wanted silver plated armor, blacksmiths would regularly use a nickel/silver alloy to skim a little of the nobility's silver for themselves. There was no way to prove if it really was silver or an alloy so almost every blacksmith did it. The silver in itself is fine, but the nickel absorbs and holds radiation like a sponge. Anything silver in here probably has a good deal of radiation stored up in in. Unless it's truesilver, that stuff is magically treated. Doesn't rust and can repel most magic."

"Like your shield," Melody added. I nodded, glancing at my brother's favorite weapon/armor as it lay uselessly strapped to my back.

"So it's a magical shield, huh?" Shadowbuck commented.

"Yeah. It's made of truesilver, moonsteel, and gold, three strong magical metals. That's why it can deflect energy and bullets," I explained, smiling sadly as I continued walking through the hall.

"It got a name?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Your shield. Most awesome weapons and armor have cool names. My dad called my stealth armor the Stealth Suit MK I. I figured out a way to upgrade it to allow Stealthbucks to recharge off the spell matrix so I renamed it Stealth Suit MK II," he explained, giving me a proud little grin. I rolled my eyes to hide my true feelings. I was actually quite impressed with his father and his achievements with his suit of power armor. It was a feat of arcane technology that he should be proud of, but I wasn't going to admit that to him. "So what's your shield's name?"

"I-I don't know. I don't think Golden Star ever named it."

It was true. Golden Star wasn't the kind of pony to show off or talk himself up. He always got the mission done so he could get his squad back home. It was like pulling teeth with him to get him to talk about his missions with me. I sincerely doubted that he would have ever thought to name it.

"Then why don't you give it a name, Aunt Aria?" Melody said as she inspected a mural too high up for the ghoulies to reach. I knew the mural, I had seen the original in Canterlot. It was a depiction of Princess Luna and Princess Celestia turning Discord to stone at the Battle of Canterlot Mountain.

"Yeah. What's the first thing that pops into your head when you see your shield?" Shadowbuck asked as he moved over to a tipped over trashcan to inspect it for anything we could use.

I stopped in front of a side door and looked at the shield on my back again. This was Golden Star's shield. He had commissioned it and had it forged when the war started and he was about to go off to the military academy in Manehatten. He carried it into every battle against the zebras. He would show me different tricks with it as a reward for doing well in school. It was his offensive weapon and his aegis against Equestria's enemies who would seek to hurt him and his homeland. Well, until one of those enemies had been his friend.

"Wait."

"Wait what?" Shadowbuck asked, pulling away from the trash can. "This isn't nickel too, is it? I'm not picking up any rad readings."

"No. I'm sorry. I was just talking to myself. I think I've got a name," I said, giving him a smile of my own in apology.

"Oh yeah?" he asked as he turned his attention back to the trash can. "Hmm... couple bobby pins. Nothing else useful in here."

"Um, I was thinking Golden Star's Aegis," I replied.

"Oh! I like it," Melody said as she fluttered down next to an information terminal. She pressed a button, grimaced when the computer wouldn't turn on, and then smacked it on the side of its casing with a hoof. With a beep and a hum, the screen came to life and cast Melody's smiling face in a deep green glow. She giggled. "Yep, I still got the touch."

"Seems kind of a mouthful to me," Shadowbuck said, stowing the bobby pins in a forearm mounted pouch, before trotting slowly over to me. Why did a stallion need bobby pins? Shadowbuck wore a helmet most of the time so I really doubted he cared about his mane that much.

"And Stealth Suit MK II isn't a mouth full?"

"She's got ya there, Shadowbuck," Melody laughed as her wingtips flew across the keyboard with practiced ease. There was a beep and I could hear Melody whisper, "And I got you too, my pretty. First try. You gave up way too easy, Miss Terminal."

"I usually just call it the Mark Two, thank you very much," he said smugly before nodding his head off to the side. "Looks like you found the curator's office. It locked?"

"Uh..." I said, realizing I had been standing in front of the curator's office the entire time and hadn't even noticed it. I stepped aside and Shadowbuck tried the door, but the handle wouldn't turn. "Yes."

"I'll take care of that," he replied, crouching down to the lock as a blade like tool extended from his left fetlock with the press of a button. He grabbed one of the bobby pins from the pouch in his teeth and set to work at picking the lock.

"Ugh! Is that one of the ones you just got out of the trash?" I asked, thoroughly disgusted at myself for even thinking about kissing a mouth that held garbage pins on a regular basis.

"Maybe. So you're gonna stick with Golden Star's Aegis?" he asked through clenched teeth while the pin and blade turned slowly.

"If need be I'll call it Aegis. Happy?" I asked, and he grinned around the bobby pin.

"Yup." The lock gave off a happy little click and he spit the pin back into his pin pouch. "And double yup. Don't see anything on E.F.S. so you wanna give this room a once over? You seem like the type that would really like a curator's office."

"And what type is that?" I asked, giving him a look that wanted him to take as 'If you make a fossil joke like your buddies, I'm gonna turn you into one."

"An egghead who really likes history," he said simply, and I blinked. He turned to me and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly before trotting off towards the bathrooms at the end of the exhibit hall.

I looked at the now unlocked door to the curator's office and tried to read the faded and chipped words on the plaque mounted next to the wooden frame.

"Dr... of... rott?" I whispered, feeling a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Dr. Of Rott was not a good name to have in a museum full of zombie ponies. How did Shadowbuck know it was safe inside the office? He had said something about E.F.S. What was E.F... Eyes Forward Sparkle!? Eyes Forward Sparkle was just an idea in Stable-Tec Monthly back when I got blown two hundred years into the future. Did they actually get the Friend or Foe system working and put it in Power Armor and Pipbucks? Looking down at Toffee's Pipbuck on my wrist, I clicked over to the 'Options' menu and smiled at the option to 'Turn on Eyes Forward Sparkle.'

Pressing the button and toggling the selection to 'Yes,' I marveled as the little yellow compass bar and health readout appear to the left of my vision and the ammo and weapon condition mod to my right. I turned my head and the bars remained, but the compass changed position and reveal two yellow bars that corresponded to Melody and Shadowbuck's position. This was amazing! No wonder Shadowbuck was so confident about the office. Stable-Tec were a bunch of absolute geniuses!

And then I noticed three red bar appear in the same direction as Shadowbuck.

"Shadow! There's three red bars in the bathroom," I called, and he put his hoof to his mouth to silence me. I watched, absolutely terrified for the Steel Ranger, as he activated his Stealth Suit MK II and his shimmering form ducked into the Mare's restroom. A few moments later, I heard a sharp screech and a sickening crunch as one of the red lights winked out.

"Just some radroaches! Come here you little buggers!" he shouted, and another crunch caused a second light to extinguish. I sighed with relief at how easy these radroaches were to kill, until a big brown blob streaked out of the bathroom and made a beeline straight for me. "Crap! One got away."

I reached out with my magic for my shield, my eyes wide with surprise, as the radroach scuttled across the dirty museum floor as fast as its grotesque little legs could carry it only to have my horn spark uselessly in response. I had already forgotten that my horn wasn't working! I spotted a dented bronze breastplate on the floor a few feet to my right and lunged for the broken armor. Grabbing it with both my hooves, I spun around just in time to raise it and block the giant bug as it leaped at my face.

I deflected the airborne insect off the breastplate and it landed on its back, hissing and clicking its disgusting mandibles at me. I brought the impromptu shield down hard on the radroach, an angry growl escaping my lips. It's chitinous body burst under the pressure of my attack and the little red bar disappeared. However I wasn't done with this little monster as I hopped on top of the breastplate, over and over again, until I was damn sure this thing was dead.

"And stay dead!" I shouted, huffing angrily at the pulped roach underneath the breastplate, and turned to see Melody and Shadowbuck watching me with bemused looks on their faces. "What!? I don't like bugs!"

"Okay," Melody snorted as she fought to hold back the giggle fit burning in her throat. Shadowbuck just smiled.

"Always smiling, aren't you Shadowbuck?" I thought, giving them both a nasty look before turning back to the curator's office and opening the door. I heard Melody giggling as I slammed the door behind me. I need to work on my 'shut up' look. At least it had worked on Dream.

I was surprised to see that the small office was relatively clean. There was a layer of dust covering everything, just like in the museum, but the shelves were lined with books and the terminal on the desk cast the room in its dull green glow. I walked over to the bookshelves, awed at the sight of the faded book covers, and grabbed one titled 'A Study of Zebra Magical Heritage' with my teeth.

Poof.

My tongue was coated in a layer of brittle paper as the pages disintegrated in my mouth. I spat the book out and scraped my tongue with my teeth as I tried to get the ancient paper debris and its horrible taste off on my palette. After I washed my mouth out with water from my canteen, which was easier to get out of my bags thanks to my Pipbuck's sorting spell, I poked a few of the books with my hooves. Time, radiation, and neglect had left the pages in the books so brittle that they turned to dust with the slightest touch. It was so sad to see so much knowledge disappear before my eyes that I wanted to cry.

I shed a tear for the lost tomes, my teardrop falling and leaving a tiny dark circle on the hard wood floor, and turned my attention away from the books and to the desk and terminal. As I approached the desk, my eyes spotted a dusty nameplate at the end of the desk. Taking a deep breath, I blew as hard as I could and kicked up a cloud of dust off the nameplate and the desk behind it. I coughed, fanning away the dust until it thinned enough for me to see the name on the little placard.

"Dr. Hoofentrotter, Curator"

"Dr. Hoofentrotter? What were you doing here?" I whispered, suddenly realizing that I knew the pony who had occupied this office two hundred years ago. Dr. Hoofentrotter had been a teacher at the Royal Guard Academy, Royal Guard History and Monster Defense were his subjects, and I had always found his classes interesting. He had been a proctor at the Academy and a senior fellow at the Canterlot Royal University for almost twenty years when he apparently had a fight with Sergeant Drill Bit and quit. That was about three months before from my graduation and I never knew where he had ended up. "Well, at least you found a much better job, doc."

Sitting down behind the desk, I looked out the brown stained window at the dark blanket of clouds in the skies.

"Looks like rain." I looked around his office, feeling a little like a big time museum curator as I did, and smiled as I saw the faded portrait of Dr. Hoofentrotter, a very distinguished earth pony with a light brown coat and a gray mane, as he held in his hooves a mustard colored pegasus mare with black and gray streaked hair. She was still very pretty, even with the crows feat and age around her dark pink eyes, and, for some strange reason, she looked very familiar. I couldn't quite place it, but I knew I had seen her before.

"I didn't know you were married, doc," I said sadly. Looking at the computer screen, I saw it was open to an e-mail Dr. Hoofentrotter had left open so many years ago.

D.D.
I hope you are well and you are not overdoing things. You are there to learn and find some common ground ponies and zebras might have that can help bridge the gap between our warring societies, not play the hero in a forbidden temple.

If you're right, and you usually are, then these zebra legends about these 'Eternals' might be the common ground/enemy Equestria needs to at least start peace talks. Those prophecies you found are way too chilling for the zebras to ignore. They are a superstitious lot after all.

Things are getting far too tense and there has to be some way to make peace... I sure hope the MoM doesn't intercept this, they might hit me with some sedition charges for even hoping for peace.

Ahuizotl's been dead for years and you're no longer an adventuring archaeologist, you're retired so please act like it. We're not as young as we once were. I always worry about you when you're away, you know that, so don't give me any lip about me being a worry wart. Just, please, take my advice. Find what we need and get home safely.

I've been asked to be Stable Sixty-Three's curator if the worst should happen and I have passage for the both of us. Daring, the sirens are going off! I have to get downstairs as fast as possible. I think it's happening. Find someplace safe. I really hope it's just a false alarm. If not, stay safe and good-bye.

I love you,

Hoof

(Failure to send message.)

Ahuizotl? The villain from the Daring Do books? But I thought those were just fictional stories? They were great books, I loved them as a filly, but why was Dr. Hoofentrotter writing to a fictional character? And why would he get a portrait commissioned of him with a fictional character? I remembered now where I had seen the mare; she looked just like an older Daring Do. Had he lost his mind near the end? Was that why he left? Had he been fired?

I was about to leave, feeling extremely confused by the revelation about a pony I had once known, when I saw a framed photograph on the desk, dust obscuring my view of the picture, and I picked it up gingerly between my hooves. I wiped away the dust with my right hoof and was shocked to see a photo of a very young Dr. Hoofentrotter as Daring Do herself kissed him lovingly on the cheek.

Daring Do had been a real pony!

I was about to return the picture to its rightful place on the desk when I felt another pang of regret. This photo was precious to the old doc, it was him with the mare he loved, and it looked like he never got to say good-bye to her. If I just left this photo here, time or a raider would take it and it would be destroyed for sure. I quietly slipped the photo into my saddlebag next to my books, feeling slightly wrong as if I was stealing it, and returned my attention to the computer. I felt a little guilty for taking it, but I was preserving a historical artifact, just like Dr. Hoofentrotter and Daring Do did. I was an archaeologist who had known the ponies in the historical documents I dug up. I was the world's first fossil/archaeologist.

As I pressed the 'Esc' key, the screen flashed, and a new screen took it's place. 'Enter Password.'

"It needs a password? Ugh. Okay, what was that stupid command prompt that brought up the backdoor subroutine again?" I asked myself, trying to wrack my brain to remember the code for the frowned upon act of hacking a terminal. We had been taught how to do it at the Royal Guard Academy during my first year, in case a suspect had time sensitive data on a terminal, but the dull pain around my temples was making calling upon that older information a lot harder than it should have been. "I know this!"

"Set Terminal, forward slash, inquire," Melody said from the doorway, making me jump in my seat. She giggled and I smiled back at her sheepishly. "Trying to hack the curator's terminal?"

"Yeah," I said, typing 'Set Terminal/Inquire' into the password box and a string of code appeared. Most of it was garbage, but occasionally a six-letter word would pop up among the garbled letters and symbols. My eyes were immediately drawn to one word, Daring, so I selected it and pressed 'Enter.'

'Entry Denied. 1/6 Correct.'

"What? Her name wasn't your password?" I growled under my breath.

"Need some help?" Melody asked, and I shook my head. She rolled her eyes and started trotting out the door. "If you get three wrong, turn the computer off and then turn it back on and try again. Otherwise you'll get locked out."

"Thanks," I muttered as I scoured the code for more words.

"Temple," I said as I hit the enter key at the selected word.

'Entry Denied. 2/6 Correct.'

"Grr... How about relics?"

'Entry Denied. 1/6 Correct.'

"Gah! This thing is busted!" I growled, and began to reach my hoof towards the red power button at the bottom of the screen when I saw one more word.

'DeeDee.'

I knew the smart thing was to back out and let it reset before the computer locked me out, but I also knew that it would change the password to one of the other four passwords in its data banks. I could be here all night. Or worse, I'd have to ask Melody for help. Asking Melody wouldn't be that bad, but I could hear Shadowbuck's mocking jabs at how 'It's okay. You are from the olden days' and 'Well, the elderly do tend to have trouble with technology.'

Okay, to be fair, Shadowbuck hadn't really mocked me like the rest of the Brotherhood of Steel had, but I didn't want to take the risk. So of course, I took the risk on the computer instead, highlighting 'DeeDee' and pressing 'Enter.'

'Access Granted.'

"Yes!" I cheered as the computer revealed it secrets to me. However, my jubilation was quickly stymied by the revelation that the majority of the computer's secrets were just interoffice memos to Dr. Hoofentrotter's staff and more love letters between him and Daring. Those I kept, for posterity of course, and I scrolled down until I saw two choices that didn't lead to lunch options or meeting times.

'Open Safe' and 'Open Display Case.' I looked around the room, not seeing a display case or a safe anywhere in the room, and sighed.

"Might as well," I said and hit the 'Enter' key for both options. After I hit 'Open Safe' I heard a faint click come from near the door, and after I hit 'Open Display Case' I heard nothing. However that was soon followed by Shadowbuck calling out,

"Hey! The display case just popped open!"

"I did that!" I shouted, pride obvious in my voice, as I trotted out towards the door. Looking outside, I saw door to the display case across the exhibit hall that displayed medieval weapons was now ajar. "Nice. I wonder where the safe is."

"If there's a safe, they're usually either next to or under the desk or behind paintings," Shadowbuck said as he trotted over to the open case.

"Hey! Don't go looting the case I opened without me!" I cried before finally noticing that the painting by the door was now being propped away from the wall by something.

Removing the painting with my hooves was a trial in itself, I wasn't going to just throw such an important painting on the ground like it was an apple core or some gum. Actually, I'd never throw gum on the ground either. That's just rude; it would stick to somepony's hoof and make a mess. After carefully setting the painting down on a dusty old chair, I opened the safe to find a bag of bits, a nine millimeter pistol with a mouth grip in a shoulder harness, three boxes of bullets, and a book on top of a bound pile of papers.

"Wow." They had been perfectly preserved inside the safe, I couldn't see any sign of decay or age. Was this safe made my Stable-Tec too? I equipped myself with the gun, after loading it of course. I knew I wasn't very good with firearms, but any weapon was better than no weapon at all. Finally, after pushing the bits and ammo into my saddlebags, I turned my attention to the book and the papers.

Tales of Chivalry, by Dr, Hoofentrotter.

Nice. I'd been waiting for this book to release back in my time. An in depth look at the tactics and lives of some of Equestria's greatest knights, a book right up my alley. Next time I had some free time I'd have to read it. However, the real treasure hidden in this safe was made clear to me when I opened the cover of the bright blue folder. My eyes widened as I read the title page, my hooves shaking with disbelief.

Daring Do and the Last Crusade by Trot and Hoof. Final Draft.

I was holding the final draft of the last Daring Do book! I had read every single book in the series, and now I had the chance that no other Daring Do fan had ever or would ever have again. I let out a delighted little squeal as I bounced up and down like a little filly waiting in line at a Ministry of Morale amusement park. I was so ecstatic that I didn't even beat myself up for not thinking of the obvious connection between Dr. Hoofentrotter and Daring Do's authors Trot and Hoof.

I always miss the little things, but this time it didn't matter.

"Hey Aria! Everything okay in there? I think I found something you might like!" I heard Shadowbuck call, and I saw Melody pop her head in through the open door. I turned to her, smiling like an idiot, and giggling like mad.

"I think she found something she likes already," Melody laughed, and landed next to me. "So what do you have there?"

"The last Daring Do book! It's the last Daring Do book, Melody! It was never published!" I cheered before I gently tucked it and Tales of Chivalry into my saddlebags. I needed to find someplace safe to keep this stuff, but where would they be safe in all of the Wasteland?

"Daring Do? The children's books?" Melody asked.

"They're not children's books! They're young adult's books! They're thrilling adventure novels!" I argued, stomping my hoof angrily.

"Okay. Okay. They're young adult's novels. Congratulations on a great find, but I think you'll like what Shadowbuck found in the display case even more," she told me before flitting back out the door.

I followed Melody back into the second floor exhibit hall where Shadowbuck was equipping himself with an entire case full of medieval weapons.

"Hey Aria, you're the walking textbook, how many caps do you think we can for these things?"

"Caps? Don't you mean bits?" I asked.

"Bits? Those things are damn near worthless these days. Bottlecaps are the universal currency of the wasteland," Shadowbuck said, and whistled before picking up a short sword with a golden hilt and a red scabbard enameled with golden vines. My eyes were drawn to the nameplate underneath the sword, and I gasped. "Wow. This should fetch a pretty big sum of caps."

"Leave that alone! We're not selling any of this!" I cried, wrenching the sword out of his mouth with a flare of my magic. Then the electric blue aura imploded as my brain exploded with a sharp, new pain. "Ow! I shouldn't have done that."

"Yeah," Shadowbuck growled while rubbing his jaw painfully. "What was that for?"

"These are historical treasures. They belong in a museum like down in Stable Sixty-Three! That's the Sword of Everfree!" I yelled, clenching my eyes shut against the throbbing in my temples.

"Everfree? Like the forest?" Melody asked before a shocked look of epiphany caused her jaw to drop. "Like Sword and Shield Everfree?"

"Yeah. That sword belonged to the family that controlled the Everfree Forest and what's now Ponyville... or was Ponyville. Their oldest son died, or disappeared, fighting along side Sir Golden Lance the Bold and this was his family's sword. This-"

"Alright, enough with the history lesson. Are you saying we just give all this loot to Stable Sixty-Three?" Shadowbuck asked, disgust and disbelief apparent in his voice.

"I guess. I mean, some of these have no real historical significance. The warmaul was Sir Warhammer the Unyielding's, the shield was House Mane's family coat of arms, and the sword is the Sword of Everfree, but I guess we could try to sell the rest of this," I said as I surveyed the 'loot' with my right eye closed. For some odd reason, keeping one eyes shut actually made the headache hurt less.

"Ugh... Okay. How about this. We'll get Melody to bring any of the big history loot back down to the Stable and we'll sell the rest. Does that sound fair, Aria?" Shadowbuck relented, showing a lot of maturity by seeking compromise. I watched him for a moment, trying to figure out what his deal was. He seemed reluctant to let the artifacts go, but he also seemed like he wanted to make a deal with me.

"Why do you have to keep bouncing back into neutral territory? You're making things so much harder for me! Do I hate you or like you!? Ugh!" I screamed in my head before sighing, defeated.

"Yeah. That sounds fair. Melody, would you be willing to fly the sword, shield, and the maul down?" I asked, slinging the sword and scabbard over my shoulder, before adding, "And maybe a painting?"

"A painting?"

"How about we finish clearing out the museum before we make some more trips down to the Stable? We gotta go through that stink cloud, remember?" Shadowbuck said, cracking his neck loudly and giving me another grin. "We got a few more offices, a few more exhibits, and another floor above us to check, so let's get rolling."

____________________________

The rest of the second floor went pretty smoothly. A healing potion and some bandages in the Stallion's Restroom's medical box, a few caps and some Wild Pegasus in a security guard's locker, and, to my utter delight, a bottle of Sunrise Sarsaparilla in a kiosk at the base of the stairs. I absolutely loved Sunrise Sarsaparilla. When Shadowbuck saw my grin, he moved his head like he was rolling his eyes at me, I couldn't see his eyes with his helmet on, and passed the bottle to me.

"You like this stuff?" he asked as he held it out to me.

"Oh yeah! Much better than Sparkle-Cola and a lot better for you too," I said before frowning at the bottle. "But it's probably gone flat. It's been in this desk for over two hundred years."

"Give it a try," Shadowbuck said, and popped the cap off with his hoof. The bottle gave a fizzy hiss and I saw the steady stream of bubbles floating to the top of the dark brown soda. It wasn't flat! If Celestia and Luna were actually up there, they were definitely smiling down on me right now. He flipped the cap over to reveal a little black star and grinned. "Looks like it's your lucky day."

"Ooooo! A Star Cap!" I cooed happily, and took a sip of the bubbly root beer. It tasted almost as good as if I had bought it two hundred years ago. It was a little flatter than usual, but still really good. "Thank you."

"No prob. Hold on to that cap. Let it remind you of better days. Now come on. We've got one more floor to go," he said, trotting up the stairs and leaving us behind.

"I think he likes you," Melody teased, and I looked down at my pre-war soda pop, watching the bubbles burst on the surface for a few moments before taking a sip.

"Yeah, well, he's a dumb steelneck," I said before drinking my soda and hiding my face in the shadows, not wanting her to see the blush spreading across my cheeks. At least one advantage of being brown instead of white is that it was a lot harder for ponies to see me blush. I downed the rest of Sunrise Sarsaparilla much faster than I would have liked, and marched up the stairs with Melody following me and giggling the whole way up to the third floor. Well, up until we reached the big steel gate blocking our entry into the third floor.

The gate reached all the way to the ceiling and blocked everything past the landing. It was pretty sturdy, the ghouls hadn't been able to even bend it. Looking through the diamond shaped gaps in the gate, I could see an Ancient Zebgyptian exhibit, the skylight above illuminating the hall in the dull glow of overcast Equestrian skies.

'Exhibit Hall Closed By Order Of The The Ministry Of Morale.'

"Well... that's unexpected," Shadowbuck mumbled as he surveyed the obstacle in front of us.

"So I'm guessing the pegasi scheduled a real downpour for later today," I said, looking at the roiling clouds through the skylight.

"There are more pegasi?" Melody asked, hope and anticipation heavy in her voice. Shadowbuck spotted the small lock and sighed.

"Nope."

"What? Then why is the sky covered in clouds like that?" I asked as he fished out a bobby pin and extended the blade on his hoof.

"Because the pegasi closed up the sky when the balefire bombs blew up Cloudsdale. They abandoned Equestria and now the weather runs wild," Shadowbuck hissed through his teeth as he began to pick the lock. "Buncha cowards."

"I'm not a coward!" Melody shouted, stomping her hoof and furrowing her brow.

"Never said you were, just saying the pegasi up in the clouds are. You're a Stable pony, Mel. You're made of better stuff then them," he said, eliciting a smile from Melody and a click from the lock. "There we go. At least we don't have to worry about ghouls in here. Thank whoever you want for small miracles."

"Yeah, thank Celestia. Let's split up and cover more ground. We've got E.F.S. so I think we'll be okay. Nothing showing up for me," Melody said, and Shadowbuck and I nodded in agreement.

"Sounds good, Mel. We're gonna take the exhibit hall. Aria, you take the bathrooms. Let's get this done as fast as possible, get the important crap down into the Stable, and get going for Big Buck. Star Paladin Buzzsaw said I could stay to help you, but I don't know if Elder Cherry Scones is gonna like me being out with you two for too long." Shadowbuck ordered.

"Yeah, yeah. I got it," I said, rolling my eyes and giving him a half-hearted salute while Melody nodded and flew off into the exhibit hall. "Hey!"

"Yeah?" Shadowbuck asked, turning around just in time for me to pull out two of my three ammo boxes with my teeth. I hated not having magic, I felt crippled having to use my teeth all the time. How did pegasi and earth ponies do it? I placed the boxes on the ground and slid them across the floor to him.

"You've got a nine millimeter pistol on your battle saddle, right? Here. I found this in Dr. Hoofentrotter's office safe."

"I was wondering where you got that piece," he said, nodding towards the pistol on my shoulder.

"Yeah," I mumbled, frowning at the sight of his attempt at a charming smile. "Just make sure Melody stays safe. Okay?"

"Aye, aye captain!" he joked.

"That's the Navy, Shadow. I was in the Royal Guard and a lieutenant."

"Lieutenant huh? Fancy. You know, with a sword on one shoulder, gun on the other, a shield on your back, and fully decked out in armor you sure you're not a wastelander instead of a lieutenant, Aria?"

"Just take the bullets and be happy, Shadow," I shot back and trotted into the Mare's Restroom before he could say anything else. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of another snarky comment; I was having the last word this time. "Wait... Was I just playing hard to get? I wasn't! I really hope he wasn't thinking that I was playing hard to get! Ugh!"

"Let's see... bobby pin and bottle caps in the garbage, nasty habit you got there Shadow, but if bottle caps are the new bits, then I hit the jackpot," I said as I poured my 'loot' into my saddlebags. My Pipbuck chimed and a little display telling me I had two bobby pins and twelve caps appeared in the top left corner of my vision. "Interesting feature, Stable-Tec."

The bathrooms gave up a lot of medical supplies, such as a few rolls of medical bandages, two potions, a syringe of Med-X, and a bag of Rad-Away, but little else. With the exception of a few more caps, there was practically nothing of value in the four washrooms on this floor. I shook my head, letting out an exasperated breath, and trotted out into the Zebgyptian exhibit. The displays were completely intact, almost everything inside was inside the cases were untouched. A few of the more fragile items, such as woven baskets and wooden casks, had already decayed and begun to fall apart, but most of the jewelry and sculptures were perfectly preserved.

CRACK!

I whipped around, looking for the source of the loud noise, only to see Melody floating above a large, golden sarcophagus while bucking a crowbar lodged in the top of the luxurious coffin. The sarcophagus, depicting some ancient zebra pharaoh with an ankh in her mouth and wearing a jeweled tiara made of gold, was standing on a pedestal at the end of the hall.

"Come on! Open up! I know you've got gold in there," Shadowbuck yelled as he pried at the sarcophagus with his hidden hoof blade.

"What are you two doing?" I asked, wondering what Shadowbuck was doing out here. I wasn't angry, just curious. You'd think I'd be angry at the desecration of a historical artifact/coffin, but I could care less. It was a filthy zebra mummy so who really cared if we broke into its sarcophagus.

"I remember reading that these mummies were buried with their treasures. The locks on those cases are too hard for Shadow to open so we're gonna pop this bad boy open instead," Melody explained as she kicked the crowbar again. The sarcophagus gave another loud crack and the lid wobbled on its hinges.

"Why do we need caps and gold so bad?" I asked, really wishing my magic was working. If it had been working, then I would have been able to rip that lid open without any trouble.

"Cause helping ponies still costs money, especially when we go through ammo and supplies like we did in the lobby. The Elder's gonna kill me if I don't come back with something worth selling or a whole lot of caps."

"Really?"

"Yeah. It's bad enough that we used up all of our ammo and meds helping Stable Sixty-Three, don't get me wrong, we wanted to help, but I stayed behind to help you girls too. I might need something big to get on Cherry Scones' good side again," Shadowbuck explained, worry evident in his voice. Whoever Elder Cherry Scones was, she sounded like a real stickler when it came to the Trottingham Steel Rangers' budget. "That was one of the reasons Buzzsaw let me stay, I had to bring something awesome back and some ancient zebra treasure might be just the ticket for some extra funding. Saving Trottingham ain't cheap, ya know?"

"How would you even be able to get a good price for ancient treasures? Who would pay for ancient jewelry in a post-apocalyptic society?" I asked, my inner egg head shining through.

"The Queen's Court would. The queen and her high muckity mucks would pay a ton of caps for anything fancy like what's in these cases. It might finally let us get our hoof in the door at Trottingham Palace," he said, pulling as hard as he could without risking bending his lock picking blade.

"One more should do it!" Melody shouted before taking off towards the skylight. When she reached the roof, she stopped, turned around, and dove back down, hooves first, straight for the crowbar. She slammed her hooves into the metal bar with such force that the sarcophagus cracked open just as she had promised. "Ow! Damn it!"

Melody flittered back from the sarcophagus, her face twisted in pain, and landed gingerly on three of her hooves. She held her right back hoof up, thick crimson blood dripping from the side of her leg, and she hissed at the sight of it.

"Melody! I've got some magical bandages. Let me take a look at that," I said as I ran to her side. I didn't know much about medicine, but I knew magical bandages weren't going to cut it with this cut. It was deep and she might have gotten ancient zebra mummy dust in the gash on her leg. I pulled up my Pipbuck's magical inventory sorter and had it bring a healing potion and my newly acquired bandages to the top of my saddlebags. "Here. Drink this while I wrap your leg. That was pretty reckless, Melody."

"Yeah. Sorry Aria," she apologized, and downed the healing potion. Wrapping the leg wasn't so easy, especially without my magic. I knew some first aid basics, but I had always used my horn to apply medical dressings. As I tried to wrap the slowly closing wound, Shadowbuck let out a huff and took the bandages from me.

"Let me take care of it, Aria. You're the walking history book so you can go see if any of that zebra crap is worth anything," he ordered as he deftly began wrapping Melody's leg.

"I could have gotten it," I growled, reluctantly leaving the field medicine to the Steel Ranger as I climbed the short set of stairs up to the mummy's makeshift tomb. I mean, really, what else would you call a cold, lifeless museum filled with undead monsters other than a tomb?

The mummy was a shriveled, dried out husk of what used to be a zebra. It's entire body was wrapped in gray, tattered bandages. What I could see between the wrapping was tight, gray skin. I couldn't see any stripes. Without fur the zebra almost looked like a pony. Atop its head was a beautifully crafted golden crown, adorned with emeralds and rubies, and around its neck was a golden ankh like the one on the sarcophagus' lid.

"You are one ugly, formerly striped pile of bones," I whispered as I reached out for the crown with my magic only to have my horn spark uselessly. I rolled my eyes, trying to make myself remember I couldn't use my magic, and reached out my hooves for...

Laughter. Dark, deep laughter.

"What?" The laughter grew louder inside my ears. I looked back to see if my friends were hearing it, but Shadow was just putting the finishing touches on Melody's bandages. Turning back to the mummy, I recoiled away from it. It's mouth was hanging open with a slight curve to its dried out, cracked lips. It almost looked like it was laughing at me. Just like the laughter in my head. Just like the laughter in my dreams.

I felt a chill run down my spine. I shuddered, and I could see my breath hanging in the air in front of me. I blinked, and for a split second I saw the green flame flicker across my vision. Then, the laughter suddenly stopped. I let out a sigh, releasing the tension that had suddenly wound me up like a ball of yarn, and shook my head. Was I going crazy?

Thump! Thump!

"Did you hear that?" I asked.

"Hear what?" Meldoy asked back, testing how much pressure she could put on her magically bandaged hoof before it hurt.

"I-I thought I heard something," I said before reaching for the crown.

"You're just being paranoid, Aria. Need any help with that?" Shadowbuck asked as he started to walk towards the sarcophagus.

Thump! Thump!

"No, I got it," I said, and turned back to the mummy.

Thump! Thump!

The mummy's eyes snapped opened, glowing green with the same unholy light as the wall of flame, and a red bar appeared on my E.F.S. Before I could think, before I could scream, before I could do anything, the undead zebra let out a terrifying hiss, far worse and more unearthly than anything the ghoulies had mustered, and lunged at my neck with its loosely wrapped hooves.

"Ahhh!" I screamed as the zebra pharaoh's weight toppled me over and I fell hard on my back. It roared at me, dust and rancid breath filling my nostrils and knocking me for a loop. The world around me spun, my vision swam, and I coughed and hacked against the filthy breath burning my lungs. Oh, and my headache was getting worse by the moment because the universe obviously never wanted me to get my magic back.

Pfft. Pftt. Pew! Pew!

The zebra's shoulder exploded with a cloud of dust puffing out its back as red laser blasts scorched its bandaged torso. The creature of out of every filly and colts nightmares roared at my friends before sneering at me with brown, rotted teeth. What can be scarier to a filly who grew up in a nation at war with zebras than an undead zebra that could not be killed?

"Darkness approaches!" it whispered into my mind before charging Shadowbuck. Bullets and laser beams riddled its body, igniting dried flesh and sending rivulets of corpse dust out of each bullet wound as it sprouted, and still the undead zebra continued it's charge. It slammed into Shadowbuck with enough force to send him to the ground with the vile zebra mummy on top of him.

I wanted to help, but my body wasn't working properly. As I tried to stand, my knees buckled and I fell hard on my face. My eyes were watering as I started hacking up blood, and I stabbed at my Pipbuck wildly. I needed another healing potion!

The zebra cried out a string of random sounds that I could only guess was some ancient zebra language before Shadowbuck started spasming on the floor.

"What the fuck!? My legs!" he shouted as Melody continued to fire at the undead horror. Why hadn't she taken off already? Was she afraid she'd hit us if she attacked from a higher vantage point?

The mummy's body erupted into flame as it turned on Melody, hissing as its eyes burned an awful hate straight through her soul, and she screamed. I jabbed my Pipbuck and turned my head to grab a potion from my saddlebags. Biting down hard on the potion's cap, I fought as hard as I could not to cough up the restorative drought as the purple liquid rushed down my throat. I felt the burning in my lungs begin to recede and my headache beginning to lessen as the potion took effect.

I spit out the bottle and rolled over, gasping for air, as Melody flapped her wings hard. She was trying to take off, but the zebra was approaching much too fast for a creature in its state of immolation and decay to be moving. I pulled my pistol out of the holster as the flaming inferno that was the mummy leapt at Melody. The mummy sailed through the air, vaulting off a display with a grace that I thought only a pegasus could pull off, and wrapped its burning hooves around Melody's waist.

It hissed and bit down hard on her legs as it pulled her back down to earth. She screamed, the fire catching off her coat and starting burning her flesh and braid, as they both plummeted hard into a display case that shattered underneath them. The reanimated corpse reared its head back, its mouth open wide, as it let out a vile roar. I lined up my shot, desperation and fear sending cold jolts of adrenaline through my body. I couldn't let her die! I promised Elegant Star! It lunged its head towards Melody's throat, going in for the kill, and...

BANG!

I dropped the gun from my lips as the back of the mummy's head exploded, brain matter splattering all over a display case holding a silver scarab beetle pendant. I looked down at the pistol, realizing that I hadn't pulled the trigger, and spotted an orange unicorn, dressed in a white lab coat rushing over to Melody.

"Compass!" I cried as I pushed myself up to my hooves and rushed over to Melody. She had barely been able to roll away from the mummy when the shot rang out, but she was completely still a few feet away as what remained of her coat smoldered and gave off the disgusting smell of cooking meat. Compass flung the burning corpse away with his magic and pulled a super rejuvenation potion out of his doctor's bag. Pressing it gently to Melody's lips, Compass cradled her head in his hooves with a tenderness that came from love and not simple medical procedures.

"Come on, Melody, drink this. You're going to be okay," he said, tears shimmering in his brown eyes, as Melody sipped at the potion slowly. She pushed away from it, coughing hard as tears ran down her red, cracked cheeks. "Melody, you've got to finish the potion."

I was crying, silently praying to Celestia and Luna that she would be okay. I was even praying to that weird alicorn, Dream, just to try to cover all my deity bases. I didn't know if they would hear me, but I needed Melody to be alright. Her body was burnt and raw, a good portion of her mane and coat were seared off, and her breathing was labored and ragged. The black char that had been the skin around her waist almost caused me to vomit and the smell of her and the mummy was absolutely gut wrenching. I knelt down next to her, holding her hoof gently while biting my lower lip in an attempt to keep my breakfast down.

"Please drink the potion, Melody. We've gotta save your Stable and... and have adventures like Sir Golden Lance and Sir Swift Strike and Sword and Shield. We can't do that unless you drink the potion," I cried, nuzzling her hoof as Compass pushed the potion back to her lips.

"Please Melody... I love you," Compass said, tears falling and pooling on the inside of his glasses, as he poured the potion down her throat while pouring his heart out to her. She swallowed the purple liquid slowly, but as she did I could see her burns beginning to fade. The blackened skin became red welts and the strips of lesser burns were vanishing. Compass pulled out a regular healing potion and held it to her lips too. "Here. One more. Drink it."

As Melody drank, the wounds started to melt away more and more. Her mane and coat would have to grow back normally, but her wounds had been healed by the miraculous potions designed by the Ministry of Peace so many years ago. Melody opened her beautiful sea blue eyes and smiled weakly at Compass.

"Hey you big knucklehead. What are you doing here?" she rasped, placing a hoof on his cheek as Compass bit both his upper and lower lip while fighting back the urge to cry even harder.

"Eagle Eye Compass here brained that flaming pile of bones and saved all our lives," Shadowbuck said from over my shoulder, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I would have been mad at him for scaring me again, but I was too happy that Melody was going to be okay to let that bother me. "And don't worry, I'm fine. My legs started working again the second 'hero boy' killed the mummy."

"You did? You saved me? Did... did I hear you say that you loved me?" she asked, and Compass nodded, trying his best to smile brightly at her.

"I love you too, you big idiot," she replied, taking him in a very weak, but very sincere hug. She kissed him softly on the cheek, and Compass blushed profusely. I could even see the red flush through his orange coat. How could a pony who was as outgoing as Melody be with a pony as shy and introverted as Compass? I guess opposites do attract, and not just with magnets.

"Not that I don't mind the help, Compass, but what are you doing out here?" Shadowbuck asked, drawing my attention away from my injured niece and back to glaring at our Steel Ranger companion. This was becoming our regular thing. "What!? It's a good question!"

"You like making me hate you just enough, don't you?" I thought while narrowing my eyes at him.

"I-I heard that Aria had been hurt so I decided I'd come help and I can see you guys need a medic. It... it just took me some time to get my things and convince my dad and the Overmare that I was leaving... And convince myself too. I eventually had to just sneak out with Starshine's help," he explained, never letting go of his marefriend as she held him close.

"Good ol' Starshine. He might be afraid to leave the Stable again, but at least he's brave enough to stick it to the Overmare when she needs a good sticking," Shadowbuck joked, all three of us turning our gaze to him with a mixture of looks ranging from embarrassment to shock to my usual glare. "Heh, sorry. That came out wrong. So what we gonna do with old striped, dead, and crispy?"

"Well, the crown and ankh look intact," I said after turning to appraise the smoldering corpse a few feet to our right. Thankfully dead bodies didn't burn hot enough to melt gold. I watched as Shadowbuck trotted over to the body, took the jewelry from the mummy's corpse, and gave the mummy a strong buck to its skull just for good measure.

I pursed my lips, finally glad to see that the source of the horrible laughter from my dreams was dead, but I was worried about what the zebra pharaoh had said. It was the same as what Dream had told me. Darkness approaches. With my crazy dreams, this mummy rising from the grave, and the weird prophecy in my Pipbuck, I just couldn't shake the feeling of intense dread that was clouding my mind. Hopefully this was over.

"I'm just glad he's dead," I said under my breath.

"He? Aria, that was Queen Cleopatra. Didn't you read th-" Melody said before covering her mouth against a fit of coughs.

"Melody! Do you need another healing potion?" Compass asked as he began to fish out more potions with his magic.

"No. I'm okay. Just got a little tickle in my throat. That's all. I think it comes with being burned alive," she laughed, weakly but still with a hint of that jovial nature we all loved.

"Wait. The mummy was a she?" I asked, turning my head towards the corpse one more time. I swallowed hard, fighting against my subconscious mind as it started to drum up the memory of that horrible, distinctly male laughter. I stared at the zebra's charred face, my heart beginning to race in my chest. It wasn't over. The mummy wasn't the approaching darkness. I looked down at my Pipbuck, the screen mysteriously set to 'The Guardian's Prophecy' note, and then back to the mummy.

I could have sworn it was smiling at me.

________________________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up
New Perk: Bookworm: You pay much closer attention to the smaller details when reading. You gain one additional skill point when reading books.
New Quest Perk: Versatile Combat Telekinesis: Your skill at wielding more than one weapon with your telekinesis has greatly increased. When using melee or thrown weapons, you can now use two weapons at once without penalty. Of course, you've got to get your horn working again before you can even try to use this new found skill.
Science Skill: 50
Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.

Chapter Four - Gigaton

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Chapter Four: Gigaton
"Iron Will's my name, training ponies is my game."

"Hold still, Melody! I'm trying to save your hair here," I ordered. With a frown, my obstinate niece stopped squirming and sat quietly on the Stable Sixty-Three museum entrance floor. I brushed her hair into the closest thing I could achieve that could be considered style, dreading each tug on her frazzled mane. Melody's beautiful blonde hair was frayed and burned, her luxurious golden braid had ignited and was consumed along with most of the hair up to her lower neck. I bit my lower lip at the sight of the uneven, blackened mane and swallowed hard. This was not going to be a pretty fix.

"Where's Compass with those supplies you need? We need to get out of the museum and get on our way to Big Buck," Shadowbuck muttered as he stared down the dimly lit hallway that led to Stable Sixty-Three. He obviously couldn't see the damaged Stable's door, but he was watching the doorway behind the painting like a phoenix eyeing its prey.

"Hold your horses, Shadow. Compass is only used to carrying one item at a time in his telekinesis field. That gear and that painting are probably weighing him down," Melody said, defending her boyfriend.

At least I had decided to keep the Sword of Everfree. I needed something besides a shield to fight and I was not very good with a gun. I was a lot better at swinging a sword with my teeth than firing a pistol with the mouth grip. Until I got my magic back, the sword would have be my main weapon to defend myself. (Hey, don't judge me! I was going to use the blade to kill monsters, not sell it for personal gain.) Melody looked up at me, hope shimmering in her bright blue eyes.

"Is it really that bad?" she asked as she tried to tug on the braid that no longer hung past her shoulders. She pressed her lips together and looked at her shoulder with a longing that I found odd.

I remembered having lost a large chunk of my hair when I was younger due to a cousin putting gum in it while I slept, but I hadn't felt the dejection and loss that Melody seemed to be feeling. Her scalp had not been burned, as well as her face and much of her shoulders and forelegs, and since the burns weren't magical, and since Compass had administered heavy doses of magical potion, her hair would grow back.

I glanced over at the doorway, silently thanking Compass again for braving the outside and saving Melody, and I heard Melody whimper.

"That bad." Great. Melody was taking my silence as an affirmative to her fears. I spit out the brush, balancing it on my right hoof, and gave her a weak smile.

"Uh, I, um... No. I-I think can fix it. You know, make it look nice. I just need Compass to bring a pair of scissors and a mirror back and can use these bobby pins I found-"

"They'd be better off being used for lock picks," Shadowbuck said, looking down at his right hoof.

"I wasn't the one who broke almost all your bobby pins on those display cases," I answered.

"I would've gotten it eventually," he mumbled.

I rolled my eyes and strained to pick up a simple bobby pin in my magical grasp. My whole body shook as I placed the simple hair accessory in Melody's hair to hold back her bangs, and I let out a sigh of relief as I snapped it into place. Sitting down hard and panting, I stared at the open doorway along with Melody while Shadowbuck turned his head towards us.

"Is it getting any better?" he asked, and I nodded while closing my eyes and blowing my own bangs back. It didn't do anything, the brown and blue locks fell back into place easily, but it made me feel better. Shadowbuck could obviously see my annoyance through my attempt at being nonchalant. "Like I said, maybe Elder Cherry Scones can help."

"I hope so."

Suddenly, we could hear the soft clopping of hooves on metal, the rhythmic trot echoing down the hallway to us and getting louder as its source drew closer. Then another set of hooves. And another. Then, out of the shadows emerged Compass, Starshine, and Swiss Cheese, the two Security ponies carrying rifles and wearing heavy security barding.

"Starshine!" Melody squeaked before dashing behind me, trying her best to hide from her older brother.

"Melody? What happened to you?" he asked, his eyes wide as he rushed us. I stepped aside, being the 'kind and thoughtful' aunt that I was, and watched as he grabbed his sister by the shoulders and looked her over. “Goddesses, Melody, what happened to your hair? And your coat? You're almost completely hairless from the shoulders down! And where's your barding?"

"Glad to see you too, Shine. Please tell me mom's not with you," Melody whimpered, looking past Starshine and Swiss Cheese at the dark hallway behind him.

"No. She's back in the Stable. I have half a mind to take you back with me so you'd best tell me what happened Melody," he demanded, his voice firm and borderline angry. Who he was mad at I couldn't tell, but I really hope he wouldn't turn that anger towards me. I had promised to keep her safe and she had almost died on her second day out of Stable Sixty-Three.

"I got attacked by a flaming zebra mummy," Melody said simply, giving Starshine the biggest smile she could muster. Starshine blinked back a stare of disbelief, although I noticed a hint of fear in his blue eyes, and turned to look at Shadowbuck.

"You didn't tell me there were flaming zebra mummies on the surface!" he shouted. It came out as a strange exclamation halfway between yelling and snarling, but it forced me to step away from him. I don't know why, but something about Starshine yelling at us made it feel, subconsciously, like Golden Star was yelling at me.

"There aren't. That thing was sealed in a sarcophagus up stairs for a couple thousand years. That was some ancient zebra hoodoo, but it's dead now so there’s no need to worry," Shadowbuck assured Starshine.

"Yeah. Compass saved me, and the only reason it was on fire was cause my lasers ignited its wrappings," Melody said cheerily. I stared at her, trying to understand how a pony could stay so happy only an hour after getting burned alive by a creature as horrifying as Queen Cleopatra had been, until I noticed Starshine glaring at me.

"You promised Mom that you'd keep her safe," he said, his eyes cutting into me worse than the dragon's teeth had cut into the zombie horde.

"I-I-"

"Don't blame her, Starshine! Her horn isn't working! If Tea Leaves wasn't being so stupid, we would have been down in the Stable getting her magic working again. Then she could have taken out the mummy like she did all those ghouls!" Melody chastised her brother, turning his attention away from me so I could release the breath I hadn't realized I had been holding.

"But-"

"No buts! It was my fault, but I'm okay now. Plus it was my fault," Melody argued, adding that it was her fault twice. I furrowed my brow at her strange choice of counter argument. "Compass saved me so there's no reason to mad at anypony."
"Melody."

"Don't 'Melody' me! I'm sixteen, I'm an adult, and I'm out here to help Aria save our Stable... Wait, why are you out here?"

Starshine looked away from her and back down the hallway to Stable Sixty-Three.

"Cause Compass told me what happened, and I was worried. Is that so hard to believe?" Melody stared at him for a few moments, the room suddenly becoming dead silent and everypony tensed up. The awkward silence floated among us like a mournful spirit until Starshine sighed. "And when Compass brought down those relics and paintings and said the ghouls were all dead, the Overmare ordered we go look for anything else for the museum."

"Really?" I asked as Compass walked up to me with a bag full of supplies. "Thanks, Compass." The doctor-in-training simply nodded back nervously and stepped aside, before turning back to Melody. "Alright, Melody, let's get that crop chopped." Melody groaned before taking a seat facing away from me.

"Yes," Starshine replied, his shoulders slumping. "Saving historical artifacts is the Stable's main mission beyond saving ponies. The Overmare wants us to save as much as we can up here. Now that the threats are gone of course."

"Oh. Are you okay with that?" I said as I took one of the scissors' handles in my mouth and the other with my hoof. My horn sparked uselessly, unable to lift even a few strands of hair, and gritted my teeth around the scissors . The bobby pin had burned out the rest of my magic. "Cud."

"Let me help you with that," Swiss Cheese offered, and took an uneven lock of burnt blonde hair in her hoof. I snipped the lock and smiled.

"Thanks," I mumbled through clenched teeth.

"No, but it's my duty," Starshine sighed, and turned to address Shadowbuck. "Think you can give me a full report? Compass isn't the best when it comes to talking, you know?"

I set to work while Shadowbuck spoke to Starshine about what to expect in the museum. I listened as they talked about possible monster incursions and the fact that we had taken some of the zebra artifacts to sell. Thankfully for Shadowbuck, zebra artifacts weren't much of a priority for Starshine or the Overmare. Pony history was a priority, not world histroy. After about twenty minutes, Swiss Cheese and I had Melody's hair cut into a short, pixie cut that I honestly thought looked about as good as we could do with what we had to work with. I removed the bobby pins and smiled nervously. "There we go."

"I think it looks cute," Swiss Cheese added, trying to sound as encouraging as possible as she gave Melody a small mirror.

"I'll take those, thank you very much," Shadowbuck said, grabbing the three bobby pins from my hoof and adding them to his hoof compartment.

"Hey! Just don't go breaking them on those cases on the third floor!" I cried, but my annoyance was quickly diverted as I heard Melody whine.

"My hair." She reached for her braid and winced as she could no longer pull of the stylized rope of hair. Turning to look at Compass, Melody whimpered, "Do you think it looks cute?"

Compass froze, his eyes wide and darting back and forth between Melody, Starshine, Shadowbuck, and myself. I blinked. The stallion who had gotten the kill shot on an undead mummy, saved his marefriend, and confessed his love for her was unable to say one word about her hair? He looked at me like he was asking 'What do I say?’ and I spun my hoof at him. He looked to Starshine, but the stallion mimicked my gesture. Finally, Compass took a deep breath.

"Yes." I was completely dumbfounded. Shadowbuck seemed to be reading my mind because he turned to Compass and shouted,

"That's it? After all that build up all you can say is-"

"Thank you! If you like it, then I like it," Melody said with a happy smile as she threw her hooves around his neck and nuzzled him affectionately. Was everypony from Stable Sixty-Three a little bit crazy or just my family and their loved ones? No, the Overmare was pretty crazy, so that worked in favor of the everypony category. At least Curio and Leaflet seemed sane. "Stop thinking like that, Aria! They’re nice ponies. They’re not crazy. They're just... different."

"Alright, if we've got the trip to the beauty salon finished, then Starshine's gotta go scouting and we gotta get going. We're burning daylight and you do not want to see the streets of Trottingham after dark," Shadowbuck said, addressing us like we were soldiers going off to war, before turning to Starshine again. "Remember to incinerate those ghoul bodies and keep the doors locked. We've got a side door key so we'll lock it behind us, okay?"

"Got it, Shadow. Thanks again for all your help. Oh, and tell your Elder thanks for us too," he replied, and Shadowbuck nodded.

"Will do, Cap."

"Bye, Starshine. I know I already said it, but we'll be back with a new door in no time," Melody said with a bright grin and she placed the remaining hair care products in her saddlebags.

I simply nodded to Starshine, feeling a desire to avoid repeating myself from our previous goodbye, and turned to follow Shadowbuck out of the Trottingham Natural History Museum.

____________________________

I was practically a ghoul. My legs moved as I followed my companions out into the devastated remains of what had once been Trottingham, but I was hardly controlling them. I had never been to Trottingham before the bombs, it was across the Marediterranean Sea after all, but I had seen pictures of it. The proud skyline of the historical city looked more like a jagged range of mountains, numerous buildings had either been destroyed, collapsed on each other to lean in haphazard and random piles, or had gaping holes where balefire had burned out the buildings but failed to consume them.

The streets were empty save for us and mounds upon mounds of debris blocking many of the side streets. Collapsed buildings and giant sinkholes had turned the neat and orderly cobblestone roads of old Trottingham into the treacherous maze that was the Trottingham Ruins. It was a miracle that the concrete and marble structure of the history museum was still standing, dirty and charred but for the most part untouched by balefire or time's destructive influence. The only other structures that I could see still intact were the railway lines of the Duchess and Union Jack Lines and a large, glass building further down the street that I could recognize by the yellowed and damaged marquee as a Four Star station.

Even nature itself was wrong. The brownish gray clouds blanketed the world in a dull light as Celestia's sun tried its hardest to give Equestria its warm and loving embrace. However, the cloud cover the pegasi had enveloped the world in stopped even the might of the sun from reaching the surface. What had happened to the pegasi that they would all become cowards who would steal the sun and the moon and horde their gifts for themselves? I could smell the sea, but I couldn't hear seagulls or see the ocean past the wall of debris to my right. Even the air tasted wrong.

I knew why. I knew why everything was wrong. Zebra... and ponies had killed the world. Our fighting over something as stupid as rocks had destroyed everything. Equestria, and the rest of the world, was dead. Everything was dead. The sun and moon were gone, monsters roamed the earth, and everypony I had ever known, crossed paths with, or had never even met were dead. And yet, here in this hellhole two hundred years later, I walked in a haze outside the remains of an old Four Star station.

Golden Star and Grandmother were dead, and I was alive. The Ministry Mares were dead, and I was alive. The zebra Caesar was dead, and I was alive. The princesses, the keepers of the sun and moon and rulers all of Equestria, were dead, and I was alive! I had failed to save Princess Luna! I had failed to protect Equestria! My sacrifice was not a sacrifice at all! It had been in vain!

"Aria, are you alright?" Melody asked, her voice heavy with concern.

"Yeah. Sure. I'm okay. Why do you ask?" I lied through my teeth.

"Then why are you crying?" Shadowbuck asked, sounding equally worried.

"What? I'm not..." I touched my face and felt wet fur matted to my cheeks. Luna... I really was crying! The tears were flowing and I didn't even realize it. "I-"

My voice caught as a sob finally erupted from my lips, my conscious mind finally catching up to my emotionally devastated subconscious. I could feel my entire body shaking, I was even having trouble breathing, but I felt empty inside.
"Everything is gone. We blew it up. I-I failed." I sat on the ground, my hind legs finally giving way. I didn’t know how long my forelegs would hold out as they shook to hold me in a seated position.

"Aria. This wasn't your fault. This was a bunch of ponies from... oh..." Shadowbuck stopped, realizing what he was saying. But I knew what he was going to say. I was one of those ponies. I was a pony who joined the Royal Guard, a branch of the military, who helped escalate the war to this. I was just as guilty as the ponies who had created megaspells and the zebras who stole them and set the balefire megaspells off.

"I even failed to protect Princess Luna! My main goal in life, and I failed at that. I couldn't go to her school. I couldn't save Equestria. I failed," I cried, rocking back and forth as I held my knees tight to my chest.

I shut my eyes tight against the tears and saw the tiny green flame dancing in the darkness. It was calling out to me, speaking no words, but I could understand its every movement. The flame danced it seductive samba, calling out for me to feed it all my pain, my anger, my sorrows. It called for me to give it what it desired and it would give me strength. It would give me the power to keep going. I was alone, I needed it. I felt its tantalizing power caressing my lips and I wanted it so badly. I wanted to give in.

Then I felt a set of hooves wrap around my neck. Then, after somepony cleared their throat, another pony took me into their warm embrace. I opened my eyes, abandoning the flame and saw an armored blue set of badly burned utility barding. Looking up, I could see Compass looking rather awkward hugging me, he never quite made eye contact, while Melody held me tight and smiled sadly.

"You might have failed, Aunt Aria, but your making up for your generation's mistakes. You've been given the chance to help us. You’re helping us save Stable Sixty-Three. We didn’t ask you to, you volunteered to do it. You’re a good pony. You've got to keep going, okay?" she asked. Turning to Shadowbuck, the Steel Ranger was standing to my right looking about as tense and nervous as I had ever seen him, and Melody cleared her throat again.

"Get in here, Shadow."

"I'm not really the hugging type. Sharing a drink, bitching about our problems, sure. Maybe even helping a pony kick the tar out of a few monsters to work it all out. But I'm not really all that into the touchy feely kinda stuff," Shadow said plainly before trying to give Melody a convincing grin. It didn't seem to work.

"Get over here and hug Aria or I'm going to tell her what you told me in the mummy exhibit," she said, and I felt the slightest spark of laughter begin to burn through my depression.

I was depressed. That was the only thing this heavy, empty feeling could be. In my current state, I didn't know if I could ever crawl out of the dark pit I had fallen into. How could I when the whole world reflected that chasm of horrors that sat within my chest. My heart was ravaged and felt empty, just like the world. Hell, even the eternal cloud cover mirrored the dark cloud over my mind.

"I... Ugh, alright." Shadowbuck threw his hooves around us for almost an entire second before pulling away. "Look, okay, if you need a hug, and Mel and Compass aren't around, then... I guess you can ask me."

"Th-" I was about to say as I looked up at him and spotted movement on the rooftop across the street. A unicorn, his hide a ragged and mottled gray, was levitating a sniper rifle and lining up a shot on one of us. Doing the only thing I could think of at such short notice, I wrapped my hooves around Melody and Compass and started to pull them over the ledge down into the sunken courtyard outside the Four Star's station. "Get down!"

I didn't hear the shot, the rifle was obviously silenced, but I sure as hell felt the round slam into my back. The steel plates of my Lunar Guard armor stopped the bullet from ripping through my back and into my heart, but the force knocked the wind out of me as I fell on top of my Stable dwelling companions.

"Shit! Flushers!" Shadowbuck yelled as he jumped down to us and used the wall of the courtyard as cover. "Is she okay?"

"I-Ack! I'm fine," I coughed, feeling the pressure of a large dent pressing into my shoulder blade.

"My E.F.S. only shows one hostile. I'll get him," Melody announced and turned to take off.

"Wait. We need a plan," Compass said, grabbing her hoof with his magic and pulling her back. A split second later, the concrete beyond erupted into a miniature explosion that would have lined up perfectly with Melody's head.

"Eep!" she squeaked, pressing herself against the low wall as if she were trying to meld with it. Looking back at Compass, eyes wide, she tried to give him a weak smile. "If we get out of this and find someplace quiet, you get as much private time as you want."

Compass' eyes widened to match hers, his orange fur yet again darkening with a crimson flush, and he nodded.

"We need a plan," he said to Shadowbuck and me.

"Any ideas?" I asked, looking to the Steel Ranger expectantly.

"Yeah. You three stay here. He's gunning for Melody right now so I'll just sneak around, get a better shot, and take him out," he said, giving us a confident grin that I couldn't help admiring. Touching the device on his fetlock, he vanished from view. I strained to watch his blurred form creep towards the stairs only to hear a metal wrenching bang, see a shower of sparks, and watch as the blur hit the ground hard as his stealth spell deactivated.

"Compass! Pull him back!" I shouted, and our medical pony enveloped Shadowbuck in his magical aura as another heavy round smashed into Shadowbuck's neck. Pulling him back to safety, I saw that the rounds hadn't pierced through his armor, but one shot to the helmet and another to his neck had left him in pretty bad shape. He was out cold and even I could see that he was having trouble breathing.

Before I could give an order to help him, Compass was already on it, removing the helmet carefully and administering a healing potion, so I turned to Melody. She looked scared, her eyes wide, her lower lip quivering slightly, and her hooves grasping for a braid that no longer hung from her shoulders.

I nodded to her, hoping it would ease her nerves, and peaked over our bulwark at our mysterious assailant. His rifle's barrel and the top of his blue, spiked mane was all I could see over the edge of the building across the street. There was almost nothing to let us get a decent shot off on him, and, with my firearm's skill and inability to use much magic, I knew I wasn't any use here.

Suddenly, the corner of the wall showered me with dust as a bullet narrowly avoided taking my head off and I screamed. Ducking behind the wall again, I could hear a shrill chorus of laughter coming from the rooftops. There were other ponies up there and they were all laughing at me. I held my head in my hooves and felt myself starting to cry again.

"Augh! I'm completely useless!" I growled, the weight in my chest starting to consume what was left of my heart.

"Aria! You're not useless!" Melody shouted as she took me by the shoulders.

"Yes I am! My talent is magical combat! What good am I if I can barely lift a stupid bobby pin!"

"You're not useless, Aria! Grandpa Golden Star said in his diary that you were the smartest pony he ever met! I've seen you hack computers and know just what to do in combat against those raiders! I believe him! You're a smart pony, Aria, so think us a way out of here!" Melody shouted, shaking me literally and figuratively out of my depression for long enough to see that she was crying too. She was absolutely terrified and so was Compass as he tried his hardest to help Shadowbuck. As the potion started taking effect, the unconscious Steel Ranger let out a low moan and his eyes opened slowly.

"Ugh. What hit me?"

"The sniper did. He hit you in the head and neck. You're armor's all that saved you," Compass explained, showing him the shallow crater in the side of his helmet.

"Crap! The bastard's got infrared. If he can see my heat signature when I'm stealthed, then we're pinned until his back up arrives," he cursed, taking his helmet and returning it to his head. He pressed another button and I watched as his suit opened up to let him throw a piece of scrap metal inside. I knew that Steel Ranger armor could self repair, but watching the two large dents in his armor pop back into place was a marvel of arcane science and technology.

"I think they're already here and they're just toying with us. There were a lot of ponies laughing up there when I screamed," I muttered.

"Then we need to think of something and fast!"

I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the emerald flame dancing in the back of my mind, and tried to do just that. Thinking. Golden Star was right, I was a smart pony. I may not have my horn to rely on, but I still had my brain. Another mini explosion of street detonated in the plaza as the sniper shot through the batlike plume of my helmet, and I realized that he was toying with us.

"Goddesses. I don't want to die," Compass moaned.

"Okay, Aria. Think," I mumbled to myself, crouching lower behind the wall. If we left the safety of the wall or tried to take shots at the sniper, he'd blow our heads off. Shadowbuck and my helmet might stop one hit, but his helmet was sturdier than mine and he had been knocked him out cold for a few moments. Aegis could block the shots, but without my magic it was almost impossible for me to wield effectively.

"More hostiles on the E.F.S." Melody said, and my heart sank. They were finally getting ready to kill us. We were going to die. "This is hopeless."

As that thought crossed my mind, the flame undulated and almost seemed to be laughing. It offered me power beyond my wildest dreams as it multiplied and was joined by a host of sparks and exact copies of itself. They waltzed among the shadows, their movements refined and seductive. I saw myself, stepping through the darkness towards the flame, my features gaunt and my face a mask of terror. I looked like a living ghoul, my coat was patchy and faded, my eyes sunken and yellow, and my hooves were sharpened bone. I marched towards the beckoning of the balefire that had marked me since that fateful day with Golden Star in the garden. I marched with single minded purpose. My mind's eye was perfectly mirroring how I felt inside.

"That's it!" I proclaimed, causing my companions to turn on me like I was crazy. I started writing out figures and drawing triangles in the dirt, eliciting more strange looks from my friends, and glanced up at the windows of the Four Star station. I looked back to the figures, adjusting my math slighting, and then one last look at the sniper. This could work. "I've got a plan. It's risky, but it's the only way."

"Okay, egghead, where do I need to shoot?" Shadowbuck asked, cocking his sniper rifle and giving me his usual, confident grin.

"You don't. You're the distraction. I need you to run for that door. Serpentine and dodge as best you can, okay? I don’t want you dying for this or I might just follow you," I told him and watched his grin turn into a scowl.
"I'm a sniper and a scout. I don't do distractions."

"Then how are you with energy weapons?" The scowl deepened and he let out an annoyed nicker. "Okay, Melody, I need your mirror."

"Is checking your hair really appropriate right now?" Compass asked, and I shot him a look that immediately shut him up. Thank goodness for Melody's taste in smart, yet bashful stallions.

"Okay, here. But what are you going to do?" she asked after giving me the mirror.

"Easy. We're going to beat the sniper with science!"

They stared at me like a radroach had just popped out of my left eye.

"Just trust me here. When I give the signal, you distract him Shadow." I pointed at the Steel Ranger before turning to Compass. "Then, Compass, I'm going to make a light mote for you to levitate the mirror to. When it's in position, I'll adjust it and set up a light on the mirrored windows. Melody, that's where you come in. I want you to shoot the windows at the exact point of the light mote. Okay?"

"I guess. Can your horn handle it?" Melody asked. I nodded, giving her a small smile. I sure as hell hoped this worked.

"Then what do we do next?" Shadow asked.

"When he's distracted by having been shot, we make a break for the station and try to lose the other raiders," I replied, eyeing the red bars on my Eyes Forward Sparkle. I really wished Stable-Tec had designed these with a way to depict how far the enemies were instead of just their general direction.

"And if the door's locked?"

"Then I guess we die."

Silence. Melody put her hoof on my shoulder, giving me a confident nod before glancing back up at the angel of death just out of sight. The red bars stopped moving as I saw the sniper hold a hoof up, say something I couldn't make out, and his back up let out another burst of laughter.

"Alright. Let's do this guys," I said solemnly, nodding to Shadowbuck. He looked down for a moment before throwing his hooves around my neck. I tensed under the odd showing of affection, feeling a strange mixture of desire and heartache from his hug. As he broke the embrace he gave me a sad smile.

"I'll see you on the other side, princess," he said, turned, and dashed out into the plaza. Just as he jumped to his right, a bullet embedded itself into the ground where he had been standing. Zigging and zagging across the pavement, never allowing himself to move in one direction for more than a few moments, Shadowbuck narrowly avoided shot after shot from the skilled markspony across the street.

"Let's hurry," I said, focusing as hard as I could on a single point in the air above me. As the tiny blue will-o-wisp appeared above us, Compass lifted the hand mirror into the air as fast as he could. Higher and higher the mirror climbed. Through the air, foot by foot, as I kept my gaze steady on the light I was conjuring. I really hoped the sniper didn’t notice our magic show or thought a mirror couldn’t hurt him until it reached the mote of magical energy.

It seemed that was the case as the mirror finally reach its position, higher than even the roof of the building our assailant was perched on. Peering back at the plaza, my breath caught and the magical light disappeared as Shadowbuck skidded on a dirty plastic bag, barely catching himself before falling on his face (and most likely to his death) but not before taking a grazing shot from a high powered round to his left hind leg.

"Okay," I whispered as I reached out with my magic, a dull pain starting to form around my temples, and adjusted the mirror to the correct angle. Lifting the mirror would have been impossible for me at the moment, but adjusting a weightless object was only a minor strain on my already taxed horn. When the mirror was in place, I nodded to Melody before pushing my feeble horn as hard as I could.

I summoned the flickering spark of magic in front of the mirror-like window panes of the Four Star station, my entire body shaking with the effort that performing such a simple cantrip was inflicting upon it, and watched as Melody lined up the shot.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her Pipbuck's screen light up, a green glow emanating from the arcanotech's screen, and I was worried it would help the sniper get a better shot. Then, to my surprise, she unleashed a barrage of five scarlet red laser blasts from the magical energy pistol in her mouth. Each blast of energy struck the mirrored glass on the outside of the station at the exact spot I had marked as my light spell struggled to stay alive and were reflected directly at the hand mirror. Perfectly angled, each shot bounced off the mirror and five scorching beams shot down at the sniper, peppering him with energy blasts that forced him to stop firing on Shadowbuck.

Then, as if Celestia and Luna themselves, or maybe Dream and his sister, were smiling on us, the fifth shot bounced off the mirror, which shattered into tiny reflective shards under the repeated stress, and struck the sniper pony in the shoulder. His magical grasp on the sniper rifle imploded, sending it tumbling to the ground below where it clattered loudly on the cobblestone sidewalk, and I watched as the final shot turned him into pink ash. The ocean breeze immediately picked up the dust that had once been a unicorn stallion, scattering it across the street between us, and our assailant was no more.

I let out a sigh of relief, a wave of tension the size of the balefire tidal wave from my nightmare leaving my body, and smiled weakly at my friends. Everything hurt. My muscles were cramped, my head was pounding, and I was pretty sure I might have burned myself out again, but we were all alive. Shadowbuck let out a whoop of delight and collapsed against the station's front door. As his head and shoulder hit the steel door it swung open behind him and he fell through into the darkness. I wanted to rush over to see if he was okay, but my worries were put to rest as I heard the Steel Ranger cackling with a delirious delight that only a pony having come so close to death and come back relatively unscathed could muster up. Then Melody started giggling, followed by a nervous laugh from Compass. Even I let out a tired chuckle.

That is, until I noticed the red lines had started moving again. Some had turned yellow, but the majority of the markers on my E.F.S. showed hostiles moving around us.

"They killed Ace! Kill'em! Kill’em all!" A mare called down from the rooftops.

"I think that's our cue to get out of here!" Compass cried, scooping up his doctor bag. Shadowbuck bolted upright.

"Ace!? Compass! Grab that sniper rifle! Now! It’s too important to leave behind!" Shadow called, pointing at the assassin's weapon lying across the street.

"We don't have ti-" I tried to explain as we ran for the open door.

"Do it now!" he shouted, and we all realized that for some odd reason Ace and that rifle were very important to Shadowbuck. Obviously not wanting to get a tongue lashing from our Steel Ranger friend, Compass levitated the rifle towards the open door as we ran for the station. That was when we saw them.

Twelve raiders, almost all of them carrying semi-automatic or long range rifles, mounted the lip of the building Ace had once been occupying. They immediately opened on us, bullets whizzing by Compass and me as we ran. As Melody flew through the door, I realized Compass was falling too far behind, his focus split between running and carrying our would-be assassin's gun. I growled at Shadowbuck as he started taking shots with his own rifle and pulled out my own pistol.

"Aria, use S.A.T.S. It'll help you with your shots," Melody explained as she unloaded the last of her spark charges in a vain attempt at suppression fire. A bullet struck Compass in the flank and he began to falter, but, as his eyes met Melody's, his face twisted in as he put weight on his injured back leg and he pushed himself forward.

"What!?" I asked through the gun's bit, wildly firing the gun in the raiders' general direction. Our cover fire was barely holding their own attacks at bay, especially with my absolutely horrible shots mixed in.

"Compass!"

I didn't have time to try the S.A.T.S. thing as Compass barreled past us, the rifle sailing through the air right behind him. Shadow slammed the door shut as Compass collapsed on the grime covered lobby of the Four Star's rail station. I turned the lock, which actually worked, and looked over at Compass as he lie on his uninjured side panting heavily while a steadily growing blob began to dye his white lab coat a dark red.

"Will the door hold?" I asked.

"It should hold. Well, if they don't have a lock picker," Shadowbuck replied as I pulled myself back up to my hooves.
"You're a lock picker." I noticed that the red bars were moving, but I couldn't tell if they were moving towards us or away. I really hoped they had decided to abandon their pursuit.

"Yeah, well, believe it or not, most ponies can't do it." Shadowbuck said, slinging Ace's sniper rifle over his shoulder and looking at Compass, obviously concerned. "You okay, Eagle Eye?"

"I never want to run again," Compass moaned as Melody grabbed a potion from his doctor's bag. Even I noticed that the once full bag was already starting to get emptier and much lighter. The wasteland was hell. Two hundred years ago, a healing potion in a medical box could go unused for years. Now we were drinking them like they were Sunrise Sarsaparillas just to stay alive. Melody administered the potion, stroking his mane lovingly as he drank.

"You just rest up. You'll need all the stamina you can muster the next time we find a private bedroom," I heard her whisper, and Compass and I both blushed. I looked away, out towards the filth covered remains of the Four Star station. The lobby, like everything else in the Trottingham Ruins, was covered with a thick layer of dirt. While the mirror windows that covered much of the building's exterior had been almost pristine, the concrete and marble inside had actually cracked from the force of the balefire blast. My theory about those windows had been correct; they had been magically treated not to break and were pretty much magical mirrors.

The lobby was pretty cramped for a train terminal. It was no Grand Canterlot Station, that was for sure, but the design was interesting. The first floor housed rows of ticket tellers and multiple rows of benches, old convenience stores where ponies would have bought food, magazines, or books, and behind the teller banks were the two exits leading to the Duchess Line. Along the upper walls was a second floor lined with a long balcony that met on a bridge just before the ticket booths. The bridge had two staircases, obviously designed so that one was for climbing up and the other for climbing down, but the one on our right had been crushed by a falling slab of ceiling. Beyond the bridge, almost in mirror to the first floor, were two wide paths leading out to the raised Union Jack Line.

"Great job out there, Aria." I felt Shadowbuck place a hoof on my shoulder. He had taken off his helmet which was now hooked onto his battle saddle, and his mane was matted and disheveled, but again I thought that cocky smile was charming. How could the same upturn of a pony's lips seem so attractive at one moment and so infuriating at another?

"I didn't do anything really. You put your life on the line, Compass held the mirror, and Melody killed the raider," I mumbled, shrugging off his hoof and walking towards the stairs to the second floor. He trotted after me.

"Didn't do anything!? Aria, you used a window and a hand mirror to kill one of the Big Five of the Royal Flush Raiders!" he exclaimed, grabbing me by the shoulder and spinning me around to look at him.

"Melody shot him! Compass held the mirror! My talent is magical combat and I can't do magic!" I shouted back.

"You figured out all that math crap!"

"Math can't kill!"

“Of course it can!”

“I didn’t do anything!”

"Why are you so stubborn!?"

"Why are you!?"

For a very long, very awkward few moments, we stood, inches apart, furiously glaring at each other. Neither of us would yield in our angry staring contest, never blinking as my violet and green eyes peered into his hard gray eyes. I felt my lip twitching and I noticed his breathing was uneven. I wasn't going to lose this, and I didn't know why. He was right, we had all contributed and it was my plan, but I was hurting, physically and emotionally, and I did not want to lose this completely inane and pointless debate.

"Just kiss already!" Melody shouted, and we both turned on her, screaming in unison.

"Why would I ever kiss him! He's the most stubborn idiot I've ever met!"

"Why would I ever kiss her! She's the most stubborn idiot I've ever met!"

My eyes widened and I glanced over at him through the corner of my eye. Amazingly, his face almost perfectly mirrored mine, his eyes were just as wide and his mouth was agape. We turned away from each other in a huff and then jumped as a loud bang on the door stopping our arguing. It was then followed shortly by another. And another.
We all prepared, although Melody and I were out of ammo, and I knew Compass and Shadow were pretty low. If the raiders got in we were probably dead. I really did not like being in life and death situations every minute of my life. How did Shadow do it? A fourth bang and then silence.

For the longest time, we waited. The red dots milled around the locked door, presumably trying to pick the lock, but all we could hear was our own breathing. The next minute passed by as if each second that passed was an eternity. I was pretty sure Melody had stopped breathing. I looked at her, taking deep, slow breaths to tell her to breathe, and rolled my eyes when she finally exhaled and took a deep gulp of the musty station air.

I turned back towards the door, shaking my head at my niece's absurdity, and noticed that the red lights were gone. They were all yellow now and more and more were disappearing. First one. Then another winked out of existence, followed by another. Soon they were almost all gone.

"They're leaving?"

"Okay! New game plan! Mels, you're with me. We're looting and scouting the first floor!" Shadow shouted as he stormed off towards the ticket counters.

"Fine then! Compass, you and me upstairs!" I ordered, and started taking the stairs two at a time. I reached the landing and looked back to see Compass following me up the stairs slowly, a slight limp in his gait, and I suddenly felt guilty. I looked down at Shadow and Melody as they were working their way around the ticket stalls.

"Hold on... Melody, you and Compass take the first floor. And see to his limp. Shadow... We'll take the second floor," I said half heartedly.

"Sounds good! Come on Compass!" Melody replied, her happy grin returning. Compass smiled up at me appreciatively and nodded before turning to head back down the stairs.

"Why should I go with you, Aria?" he said curtly, looking under the first ticket counter dismissively. I sighed.

"Because I was wrong and we need to talk, okay?" I admitted, and his ears perked up.

"What was that?" he said as much hated cocky smile returned to his face.

"You heard me Shadow so don't milk it," I snapped back. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, chuckling under his breath, before heading up the stairs to meet me.

"Okay, you were wrong, and you need to talk. So what's up?" Shadow asked as he joined me on the second floor landing.

"I-Uh..." I looked down at Melody and Compass on the first floor before spying an office door left ajar to my left. "Not here. Come on."

"Oh ho! Actually taking Melody's advice? But what makes you think I’m that kind of stallion" he laughed, sarcasm practically oozing from his every word, as I pulled him through the door marked, 'C.E.O. St...hi..'s Office.' Amazing how the word 'office' always seemed to be perfectly preserved, but the name of Four Star's C.E.O. was missing. Something about that fact kept needling at the back of my mind, but I couldn't remember who it was. Wasn't Four Star started by four ponies who were all joint C.E.O. of the company? Could you have joint C.E.O.’s? "Ugh! I don't need to be thinking about this right now!"

"Shut up!" I snapped, loudly closing the door behind him with a swift kick of my back right hoof, and turned on him. I stood in silence for a few moments, trying to collect my thoughts. I didn't know if I could actually say what I wanted to admit. "I could really use a drink for this."

"You're feeling all messed up inside." Shadowbuck said plainly. I blinked. "You're lost, you've just seen the end of everything you held dear, the world you knew is gone, and you're blaming yourself. I understand."

"No you don't! No one does!" I cried, feeling the tears coming on again.

I sat down hard and started shaking. Was all this crying normal? Was anything about me normal? I had dreams about gods, mysterious prophecies appearing on my Pipbuck, dancing balefire flames calling out to me, and I couldn't stop crying unless I was being shot at. Any time I wasn't sad, I was angry. Oh, and let’s not forget that getting blown up by balefire sends me hurtling through time and space.

I felt a set of hooves around my shoulders, wrapping me in a cold and metallic, yet somehow warm and comforting, embrace. I closed my eyes, ignoring the flame, and smiled as I pretended the stallion hugging me wasn't Shadow, but my big brother holding me in his strong and comforting hooves. I cried for a few minutes more, letting all the pain wash out of me until only the dull ache and the hole in my heart remained. Would anything ever fill that hole?

"I thought you said you weren't going to hug me?" I said as I leaned my head against Shadowbuck's shoulder.

"Only when Melody and Compass weren't around," he replied in a hushed, comforting tone, and I couldn't help but smile.

"You're a real pendulum, you know that right?"

"What word is that replacing?" he asked.

"It's not. You're like a pendulum. You almost never stay on one side or another. Sometimes I think I could actually like you and then others I hate your guts," I whispered, and felt his chest shake as he laughed silently.

"You hate my guts?"

"Sometimes. When you're acting like an arrogant jerk or joking around too much," I said, my eyes still closed as I tried to collect myself.

"That's how I deal," he said, his voice somber and with a hint of pain tinting his admission. I opened my eyes and looked at him resting his head on my shoulder. He looked tired as he smiled at me weakly. "I've lost a lot too. Everyone in the wasteland has. Joking around is how I deal with all the crap the world sends my way."

"Oh... I'm sorry," I said, looking at the Star Sapphire bracer on my foreleg.

"You've got no reason to be sorry, Aria." he replied, hugging me a little tighter for a moment. It actually felt good for him to hold me like this. This was definitely swinging his pendulum hard towards my good side.

"Of course I do. I was one of those ponies that made the war and the world end like this."

"No. You were a guard. You were trying to protect ponies. You were trying to protect the princess," he said, his voice becoming for forceful.

"But..." Suddenly, he spun me around, looked me in the eyes, and snarled.

"No buts. You're a smart, strong, beautiful mare who's lost almost everything! You've lost more than any other pony in the wasteland! And faster than any pony. Ghouls at least had centuries to get used to this crap or go feral. You haven’t.

“We all may have lost the sun and the moon and the princesses, some have even lost our families, but you remember all of what we've lost. You remember the sun on your face! You met Princess Luna! I won't let you add undeserved guilt to the sadness you're fighting!" I really, really, really wanted to kiss him right now. I started to lean towards him, but before I could even move more than an inch a metal shod hoof was on my lips. "And I won't have you kissing me because you're an emotional wreck right now."

"I-" I felt my face heat up like an oven baking one thousand toffee biscuits on the sun and looked away from Shadow, unable to bear what I had just tried to do. I really was an emotional wreck. I... "No."

"What?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at me.

"No, Not again. Not..."

Behind him, on the wall by the door was another painting. Another painting of a pony I had known. Two ponies actually. One who had been my best friend, the other the family I had never known. A much younger version of my brother stared out at me, probably only eight or nine years old, being held by a white unicorn mare with dazzling blue eyes and a curly blond mane that I would have died to have. She was wearing a shimmering silver gown and a diamond tiara that denoted her rank as a Princess of Equestria, but even without the dress or jewelry a pony could tell she was special. An aura of royalty and beauty practically radiated off her. I had only seen her in photos, but this painting truly captured her beauty, grace, and poise.

Finally, standing proud and regal next to them was a white unicorn stallion in a tuxedo, his sandy blonde mane tied back into a ponytail, while he gave a handsome and debonair smile to the painter.

"Do you know them?" Shadow asked as I broke his hug and slowly walked towards the painting of my family. Golden Star, my mother, and his father were together, alive and whole. This was before I was born. This was before my mother's indiscretion and my birth tore this happy family apart. This was the world before me.

"Yes. It's my mother, my brother, and his father, Starshine." I remembered why I knew so much about Four Star. Golden Star had told me about his father starting a metropolitan rail company in Manehatten, Canterlot, and Trottingham with two of his friends and his friend's daughter. Rising Star, the famous actor, General Five Stars, the decorated war hero, and Silver Star, Five Star's daughter and a former Royal Guard turned businessmare. And Lord Starshine, the Manehatten noble and former husband of a princess.

"So Cap Starshine was named after his super great grandpa. Huh. Didn't know he had been prez of Four Star," Shadowbuck muttered as I reached out to touch the painting. It was dusty and faded, but I felt a mixture of deeper pain and subtle joy as my hoof brushed gently against my mother's face. She had been so beautiful. One mistake, me, had taken this beauty from the world. "Your mom was beautiful."

"Yeah. She was." I rested my head against my painted mother's chest, wishing it was really her. Shadow took a breath, as if he were trying to say something else, and I felt a hard lump on the other side of the canvas. I reached up and grabbed two corners of the painting with my hooves. "Hey Shadow, there's something behind the portrait. Can you help me with this?"
"Yeah, sure." He hurried over to me and we carefully removed the painting to reveal one of the most interesting and intricate looking safes I had ever seen. The jet black safe had a keyhole and a combination dial, two things you would usually see on a safe, but not at the same time, and the words 'Safecracker’s Bane' were written across the face in big red letters. Also, there was a weird hoof shaped pad in the lower right corner and a tiny antenna on the top right corner that emitted a faint bluish glow. Shadowbuck let out an impressed whistle.

"Wow. This is a thing of beauty. Whatever Grandpa Starshine was trying to hide in here, he sure as hell didn't want anypony else getting at it."

"Can you open it?" I asked.

"Maybe. This this is the work of a master safe builder. I might need to pop some mint-als for this one," he replied as he began digging through one of the carrying compartments on his armor.

"Mint-als? That nasty zebra drug? You know those are illegal, right?"

"Kinda hard for something to be illegal when there's no government to enforce the laws," he said as he pulled a small tin of a smiling zebra out of a compartment on his shoulder.

"But they’re highly addictive drugs."

"I know that, but so are Buck and Rampage and us Steel Rangers have that stuff pumped into us through our suit's medical program all the time," he said calmly before popping a tiny mint into his mouth.

"You're a drug addict!?" And Shadow rushed back into the negatives.

"No, I'm a soldier. This is what soldiers have been doing since back in your time. I'm using chems responsibly, when I need them to get a job done, and then, when the mission's done, I go back to Big Buck and Medical purges my system of the drugs and any chemical addictions I might have gotten from taking them," he explained as he put his helmet back on, hit a button, and a shallow cone formed over his ear. "This thing's got a key, dial, computer code, and biological scanner for security. Once one gets cracked we'll probably have about ten seconds to crack the other. If my hunch is correct, three out of the four are required just in case something happens to the biological match, so I'm going to set up the dial and tumblers to the point where they're almost ready. You’re gonna have to hack the terminal since we can't crack the genetic lock, okay?"

"Can't we get Melody in here? She's descended from Starshine so it should let her through," I replied as I slowly went around the desk to the still working terminal. When I turned on the screen, I was immediately confronted with the odd fact that it was blue instead of the normal green. "That's different."

"In theory, maybe. It might work a lot like those old bypass spells that no one can seem to crack. But Melody's a pegasus..."

"And that would mean she would be farther removed from his genome than, say, Starshine or Elegant Star," I finished for him.

"Exactly. Now I need some quiet for this dial lock," he told me and I set to work on hacking my mother's husband's terminal. Wow. That was a weird thought.

The wall of garbage code appeared on the screen and the passcodes that appeared were an astounding eleven characters long. My heart jumped into my throat and my brain suddenly felt like sludge. There was no way I would be able to figure out this code unless dumb luck was on my side, I took a flank load of Mint-als, and probably had a couple books on the subject of computers and hacking. This was... "Oh you have got to be kidding me!"

There, sitting among the random piles of junk code was a name I knew all too well. Grandma never called my mother Elegant Star. She always called her Elegant Rose, or Rose for short. That what my mom's maiden name had been, she had changed it when she married Starshine. Staring out at me from the glowing blue screen was eleven simple letters that held so much weight. 'ELEGANTROSE.'

I pressed 'Enter' and the screen came to life. The junk code vanished, replaced by two simple commands and two notes, and Starshine's computer was open me. My mother's name was his password, after all the years between the my birth, mom's death, and the end of the world, Starshine still had her picture on his wall and her name as his password. Even after betraying him, he still loved her. I knew from Grandmother's stories that Golden Star's dad had been angry and yelled at mom when I was born. He had called her all sorts of horrible things, I didn’t know what but they made Grandmother sad and angry every time she thought about it, and the next day Mother killed herself.

He had every right to be mad; mom had betrayed him and given birth to a bastard. But he must have blamed himself for her death. He must have forgiven her and realized he had always loved her.

I looked up at the portrait of a once happy family and felt another stab of regret through my already wounded heart. My birth had destroyed an entire family. I really was a curse on my family. Why had Golden Star been so nice to me? I had been one of the reasons he didn't have a mother anymore.

"Alright, dials are set pretty close to the right number. Gonna start working on the lock," Shadowbuck told me, snapping me out of my downward spiral of depression.

I needed to take my mind off of my family. I couldn't lose it now while Shadowbuck needed my help. Inside were two commands, 'Execute Command Link' and 'Disengage Safe Lock.' I didn't know what the Command Link was, and while Shadow was working on the other locks I wouldn't try anything funny, but I could at least look at the two notes.

Mr. Starshine,

I cleaned out your terminal just like you asked. If you ever need the files, I've sent them with a trusted courier to be hidden in your 'Special Spot.' Don't worry, if the MoM comes and tries to get the files out of the cache, then the mini E.M.P. will go off and destroy the entire computer. I told you I was a smart pony. ;)

Your faithful secretary,

Lilyrose

The Ministry of Morale? Why would they try to take files from Golden Star's dad's computer? Also, Lilyrose, a smiley face? She was either twelve years old or had a major crush on Starshine, and I seriously doubted Starshine hired twelve year old computer whizzes as his secretary. Why was a pony who could rig up a cache triggered electro-magnetic pulse to destroy a computer a mere secretary? That made no sense. I bit my lower lip and selected the other note, dated on a very familiar date; it was the same date as Dr. Hoofentrotter's e-mail to Daring Do. The day the bombs fell.

Lilyrose,

I'm going to pick up my son and his family. My personal zeppelin will be picking us up there. Meet us and come with me to our company Stable in Manehatten. I know you and Golden Star have passage into Stable Sixty-Three, but those Stable-Tec idiots don't know how it's going to go down. We don't need to hide in the ground for hundreds of years, Golden Star will probably be the next in line so we need him to establish a new kingdom after the war is over. I'd like you to be in that kingdom and not locked in the ground until you die. We’ll only have to wait a few weeks. I'm heading there now so please be at his estate in an hour. You are a smart pony, remember?

Starshine

New kingdom? Four Star Stable in Manehatten? How had he known the war was going to end soon? Did Starshine know about the balefire bombs? No... That's impossible. If he did, he would have known that the bombs would wipe out everything and a few weeks wouldn't cut it for enough of the magical radiation to subside. What had been going on two hundred years ago?

"Hey Aria, got that terminal hacked yet?"

I snapped back to reality, blinking the thoughts of what my brother's father had been up to away and throwing them into the Stable in the back of my mind. I smiled nervously.

"Yeah. Got it first try. His password was my mother's name," I said, trying to sound confident, and he smiled.

"Good job. I'm going to turn over the tumblers and when I say go, you hit the terminal release. Got it?" he said through gritted teeth as he returned his attention to the keyhole lock.

"Got it. Ready when you are."

"Alright, I just need quiet here," he said in a hushed tone, and I pursed my lips together. If the terminal had a E.M.P. fail safe, what kind of fail safe could the safe have? I heard a click and watched as Shadow quickly pressed his helmet's ear cone to the safe and gently turned the dial clockwise until that let out a click as well.

"Now, Aria!" he shouted, and I hurried back to the main menu, selected 'Disengage Safe Lock,' and pressed 'Enter.'

There was a loud click and a hiss as the safe's locks opened and the steel door slowly swung open. Stepping away from the safe to let the door open I heard Shadow let out another impressed whistle Stepping around the desk, I saw the safe's contents and I joined with an impressed whistle of my own. Inside the safe was a briefcase, not that impressive but well made, some sort of jewelry case, and a glowing white memory orb.

"A white memory orb? I've never seen one that color. Aren't they usually purple?" I asked as I reflexively reached out with my magic for the orb. Of course, my magic just sparked uselessly, failing to lift the orb or even make a connection, and I sighed.

"Every memory orb I've ever found has been purple so this is quite the find. Wonder why it's white?" he replied, carefully picking up the orb with his hoof, I seriously hated that earth ponies could do that, and he offered it to me. "Most of my compartments are full and you actually have saddlebags. You should carry this stuff, especially since it was your stepdad's."

"He wasn't my stepdad," I growled, not realizing I was doing it until the angry utterance had escaped my lips.

"Oh. Sorry," Shadow apologized before picking up the jewelry case and gingerly opening it to reveal a diamond tiara. The multitude of tiny diamonds set into the golden framework glistened with a light all their own. In the dull light of the office, the gems should have been dull and lifeless, but these diamonds had a magical luster to them. "Is this what I think it is?"

"My mother's tiara," I replied, staring at the beautiful crown with a reverence and longing that was bringing tears to my eyes again. Why was the wasteland taunting me so? I was on the other side of the world from Canterlot, two hundred years after my death, and yet I kept running into reminders of the life I had lost.

"Here," Shadow said, offering me the tiara as well. "It was your mother's, so now it's definitely yours."

"Thank you," I whispered, barely able to speak as he slipped the jewelry case into my saddlebags next to the memory orb. I watched in silence as he opened the briefcase and sighed at the mountain of bits that was stored inside. In my day, if a pony found a treasure chest full of golden bits, then they would have been ecstatic. But in the Wasteland, that treasure was garbage and bottle caps, the ultimate garbage of my time, were a true treasure. "At least this much can get us something. It's enough melt down to make something else so we might get a better deal in bulk." He turned back to me. "So you find anything else on the computer?"

"Not much. Some notes about where Starshine was when the bombs fell, the lock function, and something about a command link."

"Then let's check that out before we get going. It's almost three o'clock. Thankfully it's almost summer so it stays light out until about seven," he replied as he trotted over to the terminal.

"It's almost summer?" I asked, following him to the desk.

"Yeah, your Pipbuck should have a date function on the main menu," he told me as he jabbed the 'Enter' key and the words ‘Establishing Connection’ appeared on the screen. I lifted my left hoof, switching my Pipbuck over to the main menu, and froze as I saw the date.

"It's only four days until my birthday."

"Really, how old you turning?" he asked as the computer read off various names.

Silver Star, Manehatten Terminal: Failure to Connect.

Rising Star, Canterlot Terminal: Failure to Connect.

General Five Stars, Manehatten Terminal: No Longer In Service.

"Seventeen for me, but two hundred and sixteen by the date," I replied.

"Well then we'll just have to throw you a party this weekend," Shadowbuck replied with a small smile. "What's this? We have a connection!"

Connection Established. Connection Established.

"I see your natural curiosity has brought you to Starshine's terminal, Mister Shadowbuck," a harsh, male voice said as an empty black box appeared on the screen. "Just as I thought it would."

"Huh? So you know who I am? I guess I'm at a disadvantage here," he replied sarcastically.

"Ah, Shadowbuck of the Brotherhood of Steel's caustic wit. Allow me to introduce myself. I am King."
Shadowbuck's jaw dropped, and if he hadn't had his helmet on I was pretty sure his eyes would have popped out of his head.

"King? As in the King!? Nopony outside the Royal Flush gang has ever talked to you! How do I know you're really King?" he asked, trying to compose himself and appear more confident than he obviously was.

"If I wasn't King, how do you think I could have called off Ace's flunkies?" the gravelly voice on the other end said. His voice was rough, but the way he spoke denoted a certain air of superiority and confidence that I usually only saw in the Canterlot aristocracy. He even had the accent of a Canterlot elitist down pat; there wasn't even a hint of a Trottingham accent to be found.

"You called off your own gangers? Why?" Shadowbuck asked as I watched in silence. More post-apocalyptic Trottingham politics that I didn't understand. I mean, I got that this was the mysterious leader of the Royal Flush Raiders who attacked us outside the station and in Stable Sixty-Three, but he seemed to be focused on Shadowbuck and the Steel Rangers. I just wanted to fix Stable Sixty-Three and keep my family safe, not taunt a gangster.

"Because I respect you, Mister Shadowbuck. You and your Brotherhood of Steel have killed two of my lieutenants in the past three days. When Ten-Thousand Scars led an army to attack Stable Sixty-Three, the Brotherhood and a few Stable ponies killed him. And when Ace tried to kill you one-on-one, you came out on top. Say what you will about me, Mister Shadowbuck, but I am a fair player of the game,"

"What game?" I asked before I could stop myself.

"Ah, is that the little pegasus mare that Ace tried to kill? The one from Stable Sixty-Three? Well my dear, you're new to the surface so I shall explain." He misidentified me, meaning this thing's camera wasn't on, but I wasn't going to correct him just yet. "Everyone in the Equestrian Wasteland is playing a little game. A Game of Kings and Queens, or Princesses if you want to be classical. The great powers are beginning to make their moves to make Equestria in their own image. The Goddess seeks control and assimilation, Red Eye seeks his world of slaves and lords, I seek the throne of the old world." Shadowbuck growled. "And my oh so pleasant friend in the power armor and his cohorts in the Steel Rangers seek to control the old world's technology."

"Trottingham Steel Rangers are different! We take after Elder Litwick and Star Paladin Steelhooves' example," Shadowbuck replied curtly. King simply laughed on the other end of the connection.

"Yes, yes. Following Ministry Mare Applejack's belief that your should protect ponies with technology instead of just protecting technology itself," he replied mockingly. I could see Shadow gritting his teeth and his hooves were shaking as he held the desk like it was a life boat keeping him afloat on a stormy sea.

"Calm down, Shadow. He's just trying to rile you up," I whispered.

"Yeah, well, it's working," he hissed before King continued.

"I seek to return Equestria to its former glory. The glory before Luna made commoners into mini-princesses and helped destroy the world."

"You're a monster that leads an army of rapists, murderers, and thieves!" Shadow yelled.

"The rapists are a means to an ends. Fear is a powerful deterrent to any who might oppose my rule. The thieves are taking that which belongs to no one since the true owners are long since dead. And murderers? Really, Mister Shadowbuck? We are at war, a war for the fate of ponykind, and we are just on two sides of that battlefront. That is why I respect you, my sworn enemy, and have not had my raiders kill you.

“But the chessboard has a new player. Miss Stable Dweller, what is your goal. I can gather the goals of every actor on the Trottingham stage, but you are a new unknown in my ever growing kingdom. That is why I spared you my followers' wrath. Before I am forced to either recruit you or kill you I must know your intentions for my Trottingham," the mysterious King asked. Somehow, through his harsh and gravelly voice, he sounded smooth and charismatic.

"Don't answer him, Aria. You killed two of his lackeys already so he's got no right to be asking you anything," Shadow snarled.

"What? You killed Ten and Ace? Not-Wait... Stable Sixty Three... What did you say your name was?" he hissed, his voice dripping with a venomous rage boiling just beneath his smooth exterior.

"Aria," I said calmly. There was silence on the other end of the connection.

"Come on, Aria, we've gotta get going. I gotta get back to Big Buck, you gotta start looking for a way to fix Stable Sixty-Three's door," Shadowbuck said coolly as he placed his hoof on my shoulder.

"You wish to save your family in the Stable then? That is your goal?" King asked so suddenly I almost jumped out of my horseshoes.

"Yes," I replied as smoothly as I could.

"Are you related to Prince Golden Star? Was he one of your ancestors?" he asked, and I felt my heart leap into my throat. Even Shadowbuck stared at the terminal, too shocked to say anything else. After a few moments of stunned silence, I finally found my voice.

"How do you know his name?" I whispered, barely able to speak.

"Because my dear..." The top of the terminal opened up, revealing a camera and a bright white light that blinded us both. I couldn't see; the sudden change from the dull, cloud and dirt filtered light coming from the windows to the painful glare of the terminal lamp had made it impossible for me to see the figure on the screen. "I-No... That's impossible. Y-You're dead! You're dead!" King screamed. Before I could see what he looked like, the screen went black and the terminal gave a loud pop. The smell of burning wires and ancient dust let me know that the computer was dead.

"Crap! We almost saw him! We almost saw who King is! Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!" Shadow yelled as he banged on the terminal's casing.

"We need to go," I muttered.

"We gotta get this thing working again! This is the closest anypony's ever been to seeing King's face! If we knew who he was, we could find him and kill him! End this stupid gang war and focus on clearing out the monsters!" Shadow yelled, hitting the keyboard hard enough to break it and send numerous letters flying. A letter 'D' hit me in the right eye and I snarled. I had had enough. Grabbing Shadow by the collar, pulled him in close, and stared into his visor so he could look me square in the eyes. I couldn’t see his, but he certainly could see mine..

"Listen to me! I may be depressed as all hell and a little bit suicidal, but I'm not ready to die yet! And I sure as hell am not going to let a bunch of rapists, murderers, and thieves get their bloody hooves on Melody while you're beating up a burnt out computer! If King could call those raiders off, then he can call them back on too! They could be on us any minute now! He knows who I am and I'm pretty sure that last 'You're dead' was a curse, not a statement of presumed fact! So shut up, pack up, and let's get the hell out of here!" I yelled, my eyes narrowed to angry little slits and my nose twitching furiously. Shadow stood there, held by the collar for a few moments, until he finally seemed to calm down and collect himself.

"You're right. Let's go. If we take the Union Jack Line, it'll take us away from the bridge to Big Buck, but it should take us near Gigaton. We'll be safe there, and we can take the ferry to Big Buck tomorrow morning," he said, finally snapping out of his hissy fit and giving me the confident smile I liked instead of the one I hated.

"Glad to have you back, Paladin Shadowbuck," I said, taking a deep breath to calm myself down before following Shadowbuck out the door.

"Melody! Compass! Let's go. The raiders are coming back and we don't want to be here when they arrive! We're taking the Union Jack Line outta here!" Shadow yelled down to our companions as they trotted out of the restrooms with medical boxes in their mouths. Melody gave us a salute with her right wing before taking off to join us on the second floor, while Compass galloped after her. We waited at the top of the stairs for Compass to catch up and rushed out onto the abandoned platform.

"Melody," Compass panted as Shadow and Melody helped him tie the boxes to his saddlebags. "You're flying a lot faster than you used to down in Sixty-Three."

"I guess having wide open space has been good for me," she giggled. Then her giggling stopped and she pulled us all down low. "They're coming down the street. We need to hurry."

Right as she said that, a host of red dots appeared to the East on my E.F.S. Crouching low and trying to be as quiet as possible, we jumped down onto the rail line and started to sneak away from the station. I'm pretty sure we were all holding our breath as we crept quietly along between the rails and the five foot tall guard railings. Thankfully, the raiders passed right under us on their way to the Four Star Station, the guard railings had kept us hidden from any pony on the ground's view, and when we were far enough away we started to sprint down the line, following Shadowbuck to the supposed safety of a place named 'Gigaton.'

____________________________

The rest of our trip down the Union Jack Line was surprisingly uneventful. After we left the train station behind us, the train tracks were almost a solace from the ruins below. I was especially glad we had taken this route when Melody spotted two very large manticores prowling the streets below. The bat-winged, lion-like creatures were using their tails to sift through piles of debris.

"What are forest monsters like manticores doing roaming the city?" I asked Shadowbuck, making sure to whisper as not to attract the leonine creatures below us.

"Ever since the bomb hit the area north of the Trottingham Forest, the monsters that live there have been pretty bold. They come out into the city to hunt for food."

"How much food can they find down here?" Melody asked as she walked, balancing on one of the rails like a tightrope walker. If it hadn't been for the fact that the city had been without power for over two hundred years, I would have told her not to do that, especially since the rail she was walking was in fact the third rail, but it seemed pointless to say anything now.

"Plenty since pony seems mighty tasty to most monster palettes," Shadowbuck remarked casually, but I couldn't help smiling at the shocked look on Melody's face as she glanced back at the manticores.

"They eat ponies? But they look so cute," Melody whimpered. I stopped, staring at her as she walked by me. "What? They are. They're like big fuzzy kitties."

"Big fuzzy kitties with razor sharp fangs and claws, bat wings, and scorpion tails that pack enough poison to paralyze or kill a pony with one sting," I replied, trotting past her as she stopped to look back one more time.

"They're still cute," she mumbled as the railway turned a corner and the line of tall buildings ended to reveal the most depressing, yet amazing sight I had seen so far.

The Union Jack Line gave us a perfect view of the riverfront and the bay the river let out into. A few miles up stream I could see a large bridge, and beyond it the imposing structure of Big Buck, it’s yellowed face looking down on Trottingham. The river was a nasty brown, even from our vantage point I could tell it was obviously polluted and not suited for pony consumption. It moved slowly until it reached the churning, wild sea, its waters matching the brown clouds above us. Large sea gulls the size of sky wagons flew over the brown cliff in the distance that had once been the Green Cliffs of Clover. As if all color had been sucked out of the world, everything seemed to be brown. And standing atop the dead cliffs was Trottingham Palace, its tall towers and sturdy walls still standing strong as if the apocalypse had never happened.

Beyond the palace, far in the distance, I could see a single, ivory white tower jutting into the sky and piercing through the cloud cover like a needle piercing through a wool sweater. At least the broadcast towers that the Ministry of Awesome built had survived the apocalypse, although I wondered if anypony still used them. However, that wasn't the most impressive part of our almost panoramic view of the Trottingham Ruins.

On the waterfront, in what had once been a Ministry of Morale amusement park, stood a town. It was nestled within the skeletal frame of a massive Ferris wheel that had been knocked free from its support structure, fallen on its side, and was surrounded by half of a faded pink roller coaster. It wasn't much to look at, the cars had been cut free and moved into the interior of the wheel to make houses and buildings. Some were stacked on top of each other and had stairs snaking up their sides to make multiple floor domiciles. Others had been welded together to make makeshift longhouses. Finally, the ponies that lived here had erected massive steel walls all along the perimeter of the roller coaster and Ferris wheel husks. I didn't think anything short of a dragon or an ursa major could overcome the twenty feet of solid steel surrounding Gigaton.

Facing out towards us was a gate, the only opening I could see in the wall surrounding the town, and I could see ponies on energy turrets mounted on either side. Actually, there were turrets around the entire perimeter of the small, amusement park turned community. They were spaced about twenty to thirty yards apart, each helmed by a tough looking stallion or mare. It also appeared that the bumper car pavilion had been turned into some sort of fort as the once open structure had been walled off like the Ferris wheel and had the biggest anti-air cannon I had ever seen mounted on its roof. This time I let out the impressed whistle.

"Welcome to Gigaton, mares and gentlecolt," Shadow said with a wave of his hoof.

"This place has got to be the most secure place in all of Equestria," Melody remarked, marveling at the feat of pony engineering that lay before us. Compass simply nodded in agreement.

"Not quite. Fillydelphia's almost impenetrable thanks to Red Eye's tech and his griffin mercs. And Tenpony Tower has a freaking energy shield they can erect when in danger, or at least that's what I hear, but you gotta be something special to get in there for more than a day anyway. And of course, no pony gets into Trottingham Castle without Queen Cadence's permission," Shadowbuck explained. I nodded absentmindedly until he mentioned Queen Cadence and stopped.

"Huh? Queen Cadence? Don't you mean Princess Cadence?" I asked.

"I guess she'd have been Princess Cadence before her mom died in the Royal Stable, but no, she calls herself queen now," Shadowbuck said nonchalantly as he kept trotting towards the station down the tracks where we would be getting down.

"Wait, so Queen Cadence isn't the alicorn princess who rules the Crystal Empire?"

"Pfft! No! She's a unicorn. Alicorn princess? Come on. Celestia and Luna died two hundred years ago, Aria." Melody cleared her throat angrily and Shadow sighed. "And ascended into heaven where they watch over us... Anyway, what the hell's a Crystal Empire? Or a Princess Cadence for that matter?"

"I think I read something about her in a book in the library. Not much about her except she ruled the Crystal Empire to the north after she and her husband defeated somepony named Queen Chrysalis. Only other thing I saw was that she did something pretty bad just before the bombs fell, I think a couple months or something. Then Princess Luna annexed the Crystal Empire and Cadence was banished. Don't know where either," Melody replied dully. Obviously, the events of wartime Equestria that did not involve Golden Star or me did not seem interest my usually studious niece very much.

"What did she do?" Compass asked me. I shrugged.

"Don't know. Relations with the Crystal Empire were fine before I got blown up. I guess whatever happened happened after that." There had to be a better way to phrase my time travel experience as 'before I got blown up' and 'after I got blown up.' "So is this Queen Cadence the Royal Flush Raiders' Queen too?"

“How’d you know about the Royal Flush Queen?” Shadowbuck asked, obviously surprised that I had known such ‘top secret’ information.

“Cause they’re a Royal Flush. A hand of a Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace of the same suit. We met King on the terminal and Ten and Ace are dead, so it’s pretty obvious what the pattern is,” I explained, getting strange looks from Melody and Compass. “It’s Poker! It’s a card game! Did you not have Poker down in your Stable?”

“Nope. I like Go Fish,” Compass said meekly. I looked to Shadowbuck for help.

"We tend to play Blackjack, but I guess it makes sense. Poker's the game Backdraft likes, but he's originally from Hoofington so maybe it's a regional game," Shadowbuck said dismissively. I sighed, feeling extremely odd that Poker, a game I occasionally played with the other cadets when weekend leave was canceled, was actually something I knew more about than any of my companions.

“Nevermind. So is Queen Cadence the Flusher Queen or not?” I asked, adopting Shadowbuck’s derogatory term for the killer gang vying for control of Trottingham.

"I wish. That would make things easy for us. We've checked, and even though the queen's a bitch and a half, she doesn't seem to have any connection to the Flushers. She even has a bounty out on Queen since she believes that she is the only pony that should hold the title 'Queen' in Trottingham." He nickered with disgust and shook his head. "It's not like she's doing a very good job of ruling though. She just holds up in her castle with her noble cousins and court, sends ponies out to control the rail lines on the other side of the river, and use their special badges to escort traders around the ruins. It's all about her royal parties and making money with her."

"Special badges?" Compass asked, again breaking his silence only to ask questions that I was about to ask anyway.

"Yeah. All the Queen's Court has special badges to show they have Cadence's approval, but they're also some pretty interesting tech. Whenever a pony with a badge is nearby, all the monsters in the area run and hide. Well, except for feral ghouls, but I have no idea how they work so who knows why that is."

"You don't know how they work? Really?" I asked, slightly skeptical that the Steel Rangers didn't know how tech might work. “Are you sure they’re not magical in nature?”

"The Queen's Court keeps them pretty tight to the vest, literally. We know they're not magical because our scribes don't sense any magic coming from them, but we haven't been able to get our hooves on one to check what kind of tech it is," Shadowbuck told us as we finally arrived at the next Four Star station and climbed back up onto the platform. "Let's hurry to Gigaton. We've only got less than an hour left of daylight and we do not want to be stuck outside when the gates close."

"Cause of the monsters, right?" Melody asked as we followed Shadowbuck onto the landing.

"You got it. Night time is never the right time in Trottingham,"

"It doesn't look that far away and..." I stopped as we left the platform and entered the station terminal, confronted by another slap in the face courtesy of the Wasteland. The interior of the Four Star station was the same as the one near the museum except for one key detail. The ceiling had collapsed centuries ago and destroyed both sets of stairs. We had no way down to the first floor and the wide open doors leading out to Gigaton.

"Well, that's a problem," Compass muttered, looking over the edge at the jagged rocks and twisted metal below. "I don't think we can jump down from here."

"What if I flew you guys down over there? It looks safe under those balconies." Melody pointed to the walkways closer to the exit.

"You sure you're up for it?" Compass asked, his voice worried and unsteady.

"I think so, I'm getting better at flying every minute I'm out here. You should be no problem, but I think we'll need to have Shadow and Aria take off their armor and toss it down. You two are way too heavy for me to carry. I'll lower Compass down while you guys get undressed."

Us getting undressed? That was not what I wanted to think about doing with Shadow right now. Maybe two hours ago when I really wanted to kiss him, and it would have definitely stopped at some light 'heavy petting,' but now that I was a little more balanced that was definitely a no go. Turning away from Shadowbuck, slightly ashamed that I had even thought about that, I again tried to use magic and my horn sparked uselessly.

"Cud. Okay," I mumbled as I slowly began to loosen straps on my armor with my teeth and carefully pull off each plate. Meanwhile, Melody took Compass' two forelegs in hers and, flapping her wings hard and letting out a soft grunt, slowly began to lower him to the ground below.

Again, this would have been a lot easier with magic. I probably could have just teleported down instead of having to go through all this fuss. I could have even lowered Compass and Shadowbuck down telekinetically. Another fog of gloom began to wrap around me mind as I realized, again, that I was pretty much useless without my magic. As I pulled away the last of my armor, stripping down to my underbarding, Shadowbuck frowned. "What? What's with that face? Hey! Why haven't you started getting out of your armor?"

"Nothing. And I don't need a lift so I don’t need to strip down," Shadow said so matter-of-factly that his position far on the side on my good side was starting to shake and inch back towards the center. He trotted over to a railing, detached a small grappling hook and a line from his barrel, and hooked it around the railing. He gave us a smile and a salute. "See you on the other side."

With that, he was over the edge and slowly lowering himself to the floor. Twisting slightly as he descended, he was safely on the rubble strewn ground floor with Compass in a matter of moments. A quick tug on the line released the hook and the line zipped back into its compartment with a loud whine and a thunk.

"Cool," Melody remarked.

"Yeah... Real cool," I said sarcastically, rolling my eyes. Then I slowly and carefully started pushing my armor to the edge of the second floor railing and looked down at Compass. "Can you float this down, Compass?"

"I can try."

Furrowing his brow, Compass took my armor in his ruby colored magical grasp and piece by piece it lifted my armor into the air. Slowly, the pieces descended to the floor, but each piece was taking more and more of toll on Compass. Sweat was beginning to form on his brow and occasionally his magic would flicker. Was my armor really that heavy? Although, now that I think about it, I had been wearing cadet armor for years and my magical levitation spell was a lot stronger than normal unicorns. My talent was magical combat after all, it would have to be for me to swing a shield or sword around like I did.
When my armor had safely joined Compass and Shadowbuck on the ground floor, I turned to Melody.

"Ready?" I asked, nervous as to whether she would be able to safely carry me down. I knew, even though I was stronger and more muscled than the average mare, that I was lighter than Compass, but it still didn't make me feel any less nervous about being slowly lowered over the debris covered floor below.

"Yep," she said with a smile as she flew over me. I reared back onto my hindlegs and let her wrap her forelegs around mine. She grunted as she flapped her wings with all her strength and my back hooves slowly left the ground. Thoughts of being dropped and impaled by a skewer of rebar or a twisted piece of railing flash across my mind.

A sudden drop. Bones snapping as I hit the ground. Leg bones jutting through flesh. A spear of industrial piping piercing my chest, making my heart pop out of my back like a shish kabob as a crimson fountain of blood sprayed all over my friends. The light fading from my eyes as... Luna save me! What the hell was wrong with me!?

As we set down safely, I had trouble breathing, my heart was pounding in my chest, and I had to close my eyes and try to focus.

That didn't help.

There it was, the dancing green flame, waiting for me in the darkness of my mind. It moved gracefully across my subconscious to the beat of an unknown waltz. It promised me power so that no pony, not even the King, could hurt my friends. It promised me wings so that I would never fall. It promised me a future. All I had to do was give it everything it desired. My pain. My anger. My sorrow.

Myself.

"Shut up!" I screamed, my eyes snapping open as I pushed the flame away.

"Celestia damn it, Aria! I just asked if you were okay! You don't have to bite my head off," Shadowbuck snapped back, taking his hoof off my shoulder and turning away from me dismissively.

"I-I'm sorry. I wasn't talking to you," I mumbled, turning away from him and slowly trying to put my armor back on.

“Then who the hell were you talking to?” he snapped. I didn’t answer.

"Are you okay, Aria?" Melody asked, her voice and Compass' expression looking almost pained. They felt sorry for me. They felt sorry for me!?

I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t talk. I didn’t want to look at them. I kept fumbling and biting at straps and plates, trying my hardest to put my armor back on without my magic, but for some strange reason I couldn't do it. I had done it earlier, but now this was beyond me.

"Aria? Are you okay? Do you need help?" Melody asked again, putting her hoof on my shoulder as she tried to comfort me and help adjust my dented shoulder pad. "I can fix this if you want."

I nodded. The more I worked on each piece of armor, the more my hooves started shaking and the stupider I felt. My brain wanted to do magic. My soul wanted to perform a simple trick. Everything about me was magical, and yet here I was trying to learn the earth pony/pegasus way of putting on armor. Magical burnout had reduced me to an earth pony with a horn.

I hated it.

I felt useless. I hated feeling useless. I felt crippled. I hated feeling lame and crippled. I didn’t know if I could do this. I didn’t know if I could keep on going. I didn’t know if I wanted to keep on going.

I closed my eyes for a moment longer and saw the flame waiting for me. I could feel it smiling at me. The flicker of balefire burning away my sanity promised me that my horn would work again. I wanted it to work again. I needed my horn to work again. I wanted to give the flame what it wanted, but I was afraid. Why was I afraid? It was offering me exactly what I wanted, but was I willing to pay the cost? And was the flame and its promises even real or was I just going crazy?

"There we go, Aria. All better," Melody said, and I turned to see her happy grin. She had been assaulted and burned, lost her mane and coat, and she was still smiling. A kind and genuine smile. I wished I had her mental fortitude. I threw my hooves around her, taking her warmth into me as I tried to fill the hole in my heart with just the smallest scoop of her love.

"Thank you," I whispered before reluctantly letting go and turning to Shadowbuck and Compass. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. We should get going, right?"

"Yeah. It's no problem. Sorry I yelled too," Shadow said. I nodded and he led us back out into the Trottingham Ruins.

As we walked down the street to Gigaton, I noticed we were not alone. Strange shadows started to dance in the windows of the abandoned stores and brownstone apartments that flanked us on either side. Trottingham was bathed in a sudden orange glow as the sun began to make its descent beneath the cloud cover.

A horrible and depressing thought crossed my mind as I looked West towards the steadily brightening sunset. If Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were both dead, then that meant the sun and the moon were rising and setting on their own. The sun and the moon, the ever present and comforting celestial bodies that my aunts had once commanded, were now just as wild as the Everfree Forest.

"Aria," a familiar voice called out from the ruins. A kind, yet feeble voice that had once held such life. An impossible voice. "Everything's going to be alright, Aria."

"Grandmother?" I whispered, and I stopped in my tracks, confused by the voice of the elderly mare who had raised me calling out from the window of a three story tenement.

"Huh?" Melody and the other stopped and stared at me. "What is it, Aria?"

"Aria!" Golden Star called from a diner next door to Grandmother White Rose's apartment complex. I saw something move in the shadows behind the diner's counter and took a step towards my brother.

"Golden Star! You're alive!" I started to move forward, feeling myself compelled to find my family.

"Oh shit! Aria, run! Everypony run!" Shadowbuck cried, and Melody and Compass started dashing off towards the open gates of Gigaton.

But he was wrong. I didn't need to run, my family was nearby. I had to find my family. I started to walk faster. I needed to find them. If I got blown up and launched into the future by balefire eggs, then they might have been sent here too. That had to be it.

I leaned forward, trying to gallop towards the ponies that I loved, but a heavy, metal encased earth pony who I thought was my friend lunged at me. Armored hooves wrapped around my neck, this time not in a comforting display of understanding and friendship, but in a wrenching motion that pulled us both to the ground.

"What are you doing, Shadow! My family's in there!" I thrashed, my armor clashing against his as I kicked and tried to throw the much heavier stallion off me. If I had had my magic it would have been easy, but the weight of his power armor added to his own natural weight was holding me to the ground as if I were only a child.

"Help us, Aria! The fire's trying to burn us! Save us from the fire," I heard Brightlight call from another tenement window high above.

"Please let me go, Shadow! I have to save them!" I cried, tears streaming down my face as I fought in vain to free myself from the Steel Ranger's grasp.

"Aria! It's not real! We need to get out of here! Your brother died in Stable Sixty-Three! Remember? Ow!" he shouted as I slammed my elbow into his jaw. Then I felt the fog clouding my mind begin to part as I remembered that Golden Star had died an old stallion, safe down in Stable Sixty-Three with a loving family around him. I also remembered that Brightlight had died in Stable Sixty-Three as well. And Grandmother had probably died before the bombs. But...

"Aria. It's mommy. Come to mommy," I heard a mare call from the rooftops above. Her voice was so beautiful, as if a nightingale had learned to speak and was caressing my ears with words made from ethereal silk. I had never heard the voice before, at least not that I remembered consciously, but it made my heart ache worse than I had ever felt. It was as if my very soul was being ripped in two. I knew in the pit that had once been the bottom of my heart that this voice was my mother's and the compulsion to find my family vanished.

"What... What's going on!?"

"Run, Aria! They're coming for you! We need to get to Gigaton before..." And that was when we noticed the line of darkness racing towards us. The sun was setting. Even though Shadow was wearing his helmet, I was sure his eyes were as wide as dinner plates behind that dark visor. "Run!"

I didn't argue. I jumped to my hooves with him and we immediately burst into a frantic gallop. My legs pumped as hard as I could as we raced towards Gigaton's front gates.

The already closing front gates.

Our metal horse shoes clopped heavily against the broken cobblestone streets, I could hear the terror in Shadowbuck's breathing as we ran. Or was that my own heavy, panicked breathing I was hearing?

"ARIA!" my mother cried as I heard glass shatter and a rush of wind accosted us on all sides.

"Don't look back!" Shadowbuck shouted. Why did he have to say that? I wasn't going to look back! But now I had the sudden urge to do it. It's like telling somepony with a fear of heights not to look down while crossing a bridge.
So of course, I looked back and felt my blood turn to ice.

Swooping out of every open window along the street as the wall of night followed us, were owl-like creatures straight out of the most depraved horror film. Their bodies were covered in a inky, flowing substance that almost seemed like living oil, their wings beat silently and their clawed talons were extended towards us. I couldn't make out the creatures' beaks, the only feature I could see on their faces were their glowing, tennis ball sized green eyes, but I was sure they were salivating with the thought of ripping off our flesh strip by strip. The flock grew and began to form a flapping, screaming wave of evil incarnate. What made matters worse were that they were all calling my name in perfect imitations of my loved ones' voices.

"ARIA! WHY DID YOU FAIL ME, ARIA!? WHY DID YOU LET ME DIE, ARIA!?" they wailed in unison in Princess Luna's powerful, yet sorrow filled voice.

Fear gripped me and spurred me on faster, my legs burning and my heart feeling like it was about to explode. Every hair on my body was standing straight up and pushing uncomfortably against my armor, but I paid it no mind. Looking forward, the gate was already half closed and the ponies on the walls were already turning their turrets on the flock of monsters hot on our tails. I could almost feel the wind off their inky wings blowing on my neck.

"Hold the gate! Open fire on those damned monsters! Save those ponies your worthless sons of mules!" an authoritative voice called from the wall, and, with that order, the ponies of Gigaton opened fire on the demonic owls.
Emerald bolts of magical energy arched over our heads, some of the shot zipping by us close enough for me to feel the heat as it engulfed our feathered foes. Almost immediately, the energy blasts were reducing them to nothing more than wisps of shadow and ash. The creatures screamed with my family's voices, each more gut wrenching than the last, and some began to peel away from us. But they were still gaining on us, I could practically hear their ebony beaks clacking open and shut as they hungered for our flesh.

Suddenly, a rocket streaked across the evening sky and a familiar minigun began to join in the owlicious slaughter. The screams of my loved ones as the owls were engulfed in flames or ripped out of the sky were becoming maddening. It was almost as if I were with them as the balefire burned them away to ash.

As we reached the gates, I threw myself through the small gap, the opening barely large enough for one pony to pass through at a time, and slammed into what felt like a brick wall. My neck wrenched, my nose exploded with pain, and I felt the dent in my shoulder guard stab into my shoulder blade. I screamed as I hit the ground, trying to hold everything by curling up into a fetal position.

"Oh, sorry about that, kid," a rough and masculine voice said as I wiped blood away from my nose.

"Sheriff! Close the door!" a mare ordered, and I heard a contemptuous snort.

"Please, we are not a pair of ignoramuses. Only a single moron occupies this corporeal form," a gentle voice replied, his Trottingham accent more refined than any I had met so far, as the first voice laughed.

"Yeah," the first voice grunted. I watched the gates slam closed behind Shadowbuck as he jumped through, deftly rolling to the side and around my prone form. "So shut your yap before we snap back!"

"Ugh. Thank you. I-"

Standing above me was another terrifying sight. You know, with the way the past three days had been going, I might as well stop telling you something was terrifying and start telling you when something wasn't. It seemed, that in the Wasteland, terrifying was par for the course.

He stood at nearly eight feet tall, his lower half was hoofed and covered in thick cobalt fur. My eyes drifted up his muscled, blue torso, his two pairs of arms as thick as tree trunks and covered by a long brown, four armed brown duster. Around his neck was a thin black tie with a sheriff's badge pinned to it, although it looked more like one of those tin Sunrise Sarsaparilla promotional badges instead of a real one. His hair was styled into a mohawk between his steel gray horns, and he had a tuft of hair beneath his chin that seemed to suit him well. I swallowed hard as the minotaur's yellow eyes peered down at me, seeming to glow in the dim light.

Then I saw the second head turn and peer around the other.

"Hello, my dear. Do you need some assistance?" the second head asked as he glanced around the first. This head's hair was long and tied back into a tight ponytail while he wore a monocle over his right eye that appeared to be made from the bottom of a Sparkle Cola bottle.

"Yeah, how can Sheriff Iron Will," the first head said.

"And Steel Bill," the second head added.

"Help ya?" Will finished while offering his lower right hand to me.

"Br-Br-Bra-Brahmintaur!" I screamed, backing away from the monster looming over me.

“Woah! I ain’t gonna hurt ya, kid!” Iron Will told me, but I wasn’t listening. I continued backing away until I ran into somepony. Looking up, I saw Shadowbuck smiling down at me.

"It's alright, Aria. Old Sheriff Will's a good guy. A little rough around the edges, but he's one of the few good brahmintaur out there," he said, trying to reassure me as a I stared at him, wide eyed and pretty sure he was just as crazy as me. He began to help me to my hooves as I looked around Gigaton's entrance.

"But-But-But... Where's Melody?" I asked, suddenly realizing my niece was nowhere to be seen.

"With me, Lieutenant Aria," a mare said calmly as somepony finally lit a torch. The screams of the owls had begun to die down, as had did the laser turret fire, to my relief. Into the light strode a peach colored unicorn, her mane a bright white, wearing strange blue robes and a thick, yet somewhat stylish pair of glasses. She was older, not like my Grandmother, more like the Ministry Mares, and seemed to exude a confidence that I knew all too well from the Royal Guard Academy. Behind her stood Compass and the Brotherhood of Steel while Melody fluttered over them.

"Are you okay, Aria?" Melody asked. I really hated how everyone kept asking me that. I was pretty sure it was obvious that I wasn't. Before I could answer, Shadowbuck coughed and sputtered.

"Elder Cherry Scones!" Shadowbuck straightened up and gave the older mare a proper salute. Elder Cherry Scones? Leader of the Trottingham Steel Rangers? I quickly turned and gave her a salute as well. A military officer of higher rank deserved just as much respect, if not more, as a Royal Guard officer.

"Glad you made it, Shadow. When we heard Howling Buck's report, we figured you four would end up here instead of Big Buck," Star Paladin Buzzsaw said, acknowledging his subordinate happily. He noticed the sniper rifle strapped to Shadow's back and a bright smile crossed his face. "And I see Buck's still just as accurate as ever. Can't believe we took out Ten and Ace in just three days."

"Yes. That is quite the achievement, but it is not why we are here, Star Paladin Buzzsaw," Elder Cherry Scones said curtly. "At ease, Paladin. You as well, Lieutenant.”

“You know my rank?” I asked as I lowered my salute first. I was surprised that anypony outside of Stable Sixty-Three knew who I was. First King, now Elder Cherry Scones. For a pony whose ‘sacrifice’ had been practically erased, I sure was popular.

“Yes, Lieutenant Aria. I don’t know if you really are who Star Paladin Buzzsaw and Stable Sixty-Three’s denizens say you are, but I have been made aware of your past, your rank, and your actions since arriving in the Trottingham Ruins. I have to stay abreast of any new players on the Trottingham stage.”

Wow, she really was all business. I could see why Shadowbuck was so worried about money problems with this mare. She made the Canterlot elite seem like real party animals.

"If I may ask, Elder, why are you here? You rarely leave Big Buck anymore. It's too dangerous, especially now that the Flushers will be looking for blood," Shadowbuck respectfully asked as he lowered his salute.

"You gonna tell 'em, or should we?" Iron Will asked the Elder, both sets of arms crossed as he leaned casually against a set of stairs leading up to the wall.

"I shall, Sheriff. Thank you," she said, nodding politely to the two headed minotaur. "We are here with a task of the gravest importance."

A flaming owl screeched as it flew over the wall and crashed into a maypole on the other side. It splashed down in a filthy looking puddle of water, flailed for a few moments in an attempt to put out the flames, before shuddering and bursting into a puff of shadow.

"The day we have feared has finally come, Shadowbuck. The balefire missile lodged in the center of Gigaton has become unstable. It is slowly leaking radiation and may even detonate if we are truly unlucky. If we cannot defuse it, then all life in Trottingham will most likely come to a sudden and terrifying end."

Oh biscuits.

________________________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up

New Perk: Tough Hide (Level One) : The brutal experiences of the Trottingham Wasteland (Plus all that Royal Guard training) have hardened you. You gain +10% Damage Threshold for each level of this perk you take.

Sneak Skill: 50

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.

Chapter Five - The Path To Hell Part One

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[center]Chapter Five: The Path To Hell Part One
“I'd say she's handlin' things pretty well, considering.”“What do you mean there’s a balefire missile in the middle of Gigaton?” I asked, still trying to process what Elder Cherry Scones had just said. They had a balefire missile... in their town!?

“Exactly what I said, the balefire missile lodged into the center of the Ferris wheel has become unstable and is starting to leak radiation,” Cherry Scones repeated, sounding slightly annoyed at having to waste her time on such a triviality. “Now then, I have some radiation suits for everypony that needs them. Lieutenant Aria, you are to come with us.”

“Huh? Why?” I asked, taken aback by her order. I wasn’t one of her Steel Rangers, and I didn’t know how I’d be able to do anything that would help with a balefire missile.

“Because, according to Star Paladin Buzzsaw’s reports, you are quite proficient in the magical arts.”

“Okay, yeah, I am. But this is a megaspell in a zebra missile. Those are two schools of magic that I know absolutely nothing about!” I argued, eliciting an even sharper frown from the Elder. “And plus, even if I did, I can’t use magic. I’ve burned my horn out, and its not really coming back on its own.”

Her eyes narrowed at me.

“What? You honestly don’t know anything about megaspells, Aria? You lived around that stuff,” Buzzsaw asked, sounding more disappointed than I thought was necessary. Why did they think I knew anything about megaspells?

“No. I was a guard, not a scientist for the MAS. Different bran-”

“Looks like our last guests have arrived, Sheriff Will!” a mare called down from the wall. Iron Will and Steel Bill’s ears perked up and they pushed off the stairwell. Elder Cherry Scones turned on the brahmintaur and arched an eyebrow.

“Other guests?” she asked, sounding a bit indignant at the idea of the two headed minotaur calling for more help.

“Hold up, it’s nighttime. The monsters are coming out. Those voidowls are probably still out there too. Who’s stupid enough to come here at night?” Shadowbuck asked, but his jaw dropped as realization instantly struck him. “Oh no! You didn’t invite them, Will! You couldn’t!”

“Of course we did, you ninny,” Steel Bill retorted as Iron Will began to walk over to the gates. “Gigaton is a neutral establishment of trade and a safe haven for peaceful creatures of all persuasions. Any pony, ghoul, griffin, or whatever you may have that sticks to the rules and is here under a banner of peace is welcome. The Queen’s Court and the Royal Flush Gang both know of the importance of Gigaton and each have a right to assist in keeping it safe.”

“You invited the Flushers too!?” Backdraft asked, breaking his silence and receiving a nasty glare from the Elder.

“Yes, he invited us,” a harsh voice hissed from the roof of a Ferris wheel car behind us. A gust of wind brought down a dragon the size of two stallions put together, but this was no ordinary drake. Its wings were mere bones and sinew and its gray, rotten scales were hanging loose on its body and were even missing under his wings. The dragon’s glossy yellow eyes passed over each of us, sizing us up until they fell upon Shadowbuck and me. I swallowed hard and let out a tiny whimper as the dragon’s mouth curled up into a nasty grin. Why was everything in the wasteland so scary? “Hello, Shadowbuck. Did you and your marefriend have a nice chat with the boss?”

“Jack,” Shadow hissed, and I had to fight my completely understandable urge to flee. Not only was this thing a dragon ghoulie, but he was also a ranking member of the Royal Flush Raiders. For a second, I thought the fact that we had killed Ten and Ace would make Jack, Queen, and King a little easier. I mean, Shadow said King was always in hiding, ordering his raiders without ever showing his face, and no pony knew who Queen was. How tough could a gang led by two leaders that never showed themselves be?

Now I knew why they never showed themselves. When you had a lieutenant that was an undead dragon, even if he wasn’t fully grown, why would you ever need to enter the battlefield?

“You spoke with King?” Cherry Scones asked, her voice finally betraying a hint of emotion.

“Yeah. The bastard taunted us, but got spooked when he saw Aria,” Shadow said, trying his best to sound calm. How he was doing that, I didn’t know. There was a zombie dragon standing only a few feet away from us, eyeing us like we were daisy and carrot kabobs on a buffet at the palace. Did ghoulies need to eat? I guess it would make sense; the pony ghouls in the museum sure did like to bite at us.

“If it weren’t for Gigaton’s rules and the rows of turrets I’d be killing both of you. King’s put a fifty thousand cap bounty on the two of you, dead.” I was suddenly extremely glad for those rules and turrets.

“Don’t you mean dead or alive?” Melody asked after landing next to me while Compass hesitantly stepped behind Shadow, although he noticeably kept his eyes downcast and refused to look directly at the ghoulie dragon.

“Nope. Just dead.”

I let out another small squeak and Jack’s grin grew. He ran a dry, black tongue across his cracked, scaly lips and I felt my stomach tie in knots. I was surprised my legs could still support me, but that was probably because they had locked up at the very sight of Jack. Melody put a hoof around my shoulder and started to pull me away when the gates drew our attention as they creaked and whined with the strain of Sheriff Will opening them.

On the other side stood a contingent of fancy dress ponies, although their frilly dresses and three piece suits were aged and needed some maintenance. Their formal wear was frayed along some of the edges and had seen numerous patch jobs already, but they were still some of the most exquisite clothing I had seen since arriving in the Trottingham Ruins. Beyond them I could see the flock of voidowls flitting back into the tenements and empty buildings. They almost seemed afraid of the ponies standing on the other side of the gate.

A purple earth pony in a poofy white shirt stepped forward with a crystal flugelhorn, raised the instrument to his lips, and played a fanfare usually reserved for royalty back in my time.

“Hear ye! Hear ye! All commoners bow before your rightful queen. Presenting her majesty, Queen Cadence,” the stallion announced, and the entourage of about twenty finely dressed unicorns and earth ponies parted to form a path for their ruler.

Some ponies in purple barding wearing strange collars around their necks set down the pink curtained litter they had been carrying. For some reason, the collars looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had seen them. They certainly weren’t stylish by any means, and their conical design reminded me of half a dog surgery collar. The curtains to the litter parted, and I gasped as the purple curtains parted to reveal the Queen of Trottingham.

A tall, pink unicorn stepped off the litter, her violet eyes taking her surroundings in with an air of contempt. Her tricolor mane, striped gold, pink, and purple, fell in a tumble of well groomed curls while a ruby tiara sat on her head behind her horn. She was the spitting image of Princess Cadence, Celestia and Luna’s niece and my distant cousin.

My eyes drifted past the jeweled necklaces and the royal purple gown she wore, expecting to see a pair of wings, but was surprised to see that Queen Cadence actually was a pink unicorn with purple and gold curls. There wasn’t even a hint of a bulge as if she were trying to hide a pair of wings.

As she continued walking through the gates of Gigaton, her retainers bowing low to the ground in two lines, Iron Will and Steel Bill bowed their collective heads respectfully. I noticed the Steel Rangers weren’t bowing, nor was Jack, but Melody and Compass almost threw themselves down before the regal unicorn. I guess they had never seen the air of royalty displayed so oppressively by a pony, but I was unimpressed. This queen may have looked like Princess Cadence, but she severely lacked the grace and stature of any of my alicorn family members.

Queen Cadence gave a cordial nod to Iron Will, shot a look of absolute disgust to Jack, and seemed completely ambivalent about the Steel Rangers. Then her gaze stopped on me, and I could have sworn she looked shocked to see me.

“Who are you to wear the armor of my aunt’s personal guard?” she asked, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly. I blinked and tried to find my voice under the vast amount of fear radiating deep from within me. A zombie dragon wanted me dead, and now a queen that looked just like Princess Cadence, minus the wings, was questioning my armor while said dragon watched.

“Um. I-Uh... Who? Me?” I asked, pointing at myself and watching as the queen rolled her eyes and nodded. “Um, Aria.”
“Aria? That is a royal name. The name of a medieval princess, I believe” she continued, her stare intensifying. I tried to swallow hard, but my throat was suddenly very dry. I guess running from those voidowl things, being confronted by an undead dragon, and now being grilled by a ‘queen’ had left me with a pretty bad case of cotton mouth. I knew from years of etiquette lessons that taking a drink from my canteen would be in poor taste and probably draw Queen Cadence’s ire.

“You don’t have to tell her anything, Aria,” Shadowbuck said under his breath, cold anger permeating his every word. Cadence just smirked at him.

“Ah, the Steel Rangers. Still just as uncouth as ever. This is between me and the girl who dares to wear Lunar Guard armor and bear the name of a princess. Your contemptuous kind need not speak unless addressed,” she said, addressing Shadowbuck like he were no more than an insect and giving him half the respect allotted a simple ladybug.

“She’s descended from Princess Elegant Star, just like me,” Melody said meekly as she slowly climbed to her hooves to help me.

“Really? If I’m not mistaken Elegant Star only had one legitimate heir.” I winced at that. Queen Cadence seemed to be very knowledgable about the royal family and its lineage if she knew about my birth being illegitimate. Of course, she probably thought I was just descended from Elegant Star, which is technically true, and probably didn’t think I was the actual bastard that tainted the royal lineage of White Rose’s family. “Who are you two descended from?”

“Her son, Golden Star. Aria’s my aunt, so you can figure that out,” Melody quickly added before I could even attempt at saying anything else. Besides the Brotherhood of Steel and the ponies of Stable Sixty-Three, no pony knew about me being from the past. I doubted any pony who heard my story would believe me unless they had been to the Stable Sixty-Three History Museum, and I was surprised as many ponies believed me with that evidence. “Aria’s named for his half-sister who sacrificed herself to save Canterlot. That’s her armor.”

Technically I was named for the medieval princess, not myself. Wow, that’s a weird thought. I really had to take a look at Melody’s genealogy, there might have actually been ponies in Stable Sixty-Three named after me.

“Can she not speak for herself? And I would expect a cousin of mine to look a little more... presentable,” Cadence said dismissively, her eyes looking over Melody’s half hairless appearance with disgust.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I got tackled by a flaming zebra mummy earlier today. But Compass saved me.” She flew over Shadow and threw her hooves around her boyfriend’s neck. “He’s the best doctor ever!”

I could barely contain myself as I watched Cadence’s face. I almost burst out laughing when she mouthed ‘flaming zebra mummy’ before she blinked, shook her head, and regained her air of superiority.

“Yes. Well... How did Golden Star come to be in Stable Sixty-Three and not Stable Sixty-Four beneath Trottingham Castle?” Cadence asked as she stepped closer to us, looking even more intimidating than I thought a pink pony in a dress and jewels could appear.

“Look, your majesty,” Buzzsaw said, his voice thick with sarcasm. “We’ve got a bomb that’s becoming unstable so why don’t we leave the royal meet and greet for later, okay?”

“How dare you speak to her royal highness in such a manner!” the purple earth pony exclaimed as he started to pull a white glove from his breast pocket and step forward.

“Buzzsaw! Apologize! We may not agree with the queen, but you shall not be rude to her in my presence,” Cherry Scones scolded the leader of the Brotherhood of Steel. Buzzsaw muttered something that vaguely sounded like ‘I’m sorry’ before the Elder turned to Queen Cadence. “I apologize for my subordinate’s brash behavior, but let’s just say that we can vouch for Aria and Melody’s lineage. You can use your genetic scanning spells later, but right now I think we can all agree that the balefire bomb takes priority at the moment.”

“I’d drink to that,” Jack growled as he began to pick a chunk of meat out of his teeth.

“Can you even drink, zombie gut?” Bulletstorm quipped, and the undead dragon stared at the metal encased earth pony for a few moments before flicking a chunk of something wet and furry at his hooves.

“Sure can. And eat too. I don’t have to, but I’ve developed a taste for pony since the end of the world,” Jack said, giving the Steel Rangers a toothy grin as we all looked at the dental debris on the ground with disgust. Jack turned towards a collared pony dressed in brown rags and chuckled. “You mind picking that up, slave?”

“S-Slave?” Compass asked, his eyes widening at the horrific revelation that the collared ponies were not mere servants. They were slaves! How could any pony do that to another pony? I turned my glare, which I realized was starting to become my default facial expression in the Wasteland, on Queen Cadence and watched as she rolled her eyes.

“Please spare me your insulting insinuations, vile beast. These ponies are indentured servants. They and their families are clothed, fed, and protected for the cost of six years of service to my court. On the first day of the seventh year, they are freed and made citizens of my kingdom. Their children may even squire themselves out to our knights in hopes of caste advancement and glory,” she explained casually, and I felt my glare soften. It wasn’t what I would call ideal, and I certainly didn’t approve of it, but I could see how a society as unstable as one growing in the Trottingham Ruins might need the practice of indentured servitude. Cadence cast her gaze back to the lump of mystery meat and groaned. “But yes, please get that horrid slab of rancid meat out of my sight while we are taking appraisal of the bomb. I do not wish for it to mar my view as I leave Gigaton.”

The queen strode away from us, her head held high and her chin leading the way like the many Canterlot nobles I had seen so many years ago. I always thought it looked silly to walk like that; it reduced the pony’s vision and made them look like they were constantly smelling old cheese and gym socks.

We began to follow after Jack, not wanting to have the fire breathing Flusher walking behind us. Did zombie dragons breathe fire? Could they even breathe? I had a very morbid inkling to try to autopsy the ghoulified reptile once we killed him... If we killed him... before he killed us. Watching the disgusting shifting of his lifeless scales as Jack lumbered down Gigaton’s main street was making me sick to my stomach for more than one reason.

“Biggest bunch of horse apples I ever heard,” Shadow muttered under his breath.

“What is?” I whispered back, noticing his hushed tone and figuring he wanted to keep attention off us.

“That indentured servitude crap. No pony ever makes it the full six years. Plus, how many servants working of their own free will need bomb collars strapped around their necks?” he spat. I looked back at the servants... no, slaves as they began to wearily clean up Jack’s mess. That’s where I had seen those collars before, they were bomb collars. We used them on zebra detainees at the internment camps I had seen on the news. My gaze returned to Queen Cadence and my right eye twitched. How could any pony treat another pony like a filthy, evil zebra and call herself a queen?

I had to get my mind off of my outrage or I might just try to tackle Cadence and ring her pink, fake queen neck. I needed to think about something else. Looking around, I noticed another one of those black owls fly over head, it’s shadowy wings flapping silently, only to be vaporized by a well placed turret blast. Well, that was something else to talk about.

“Shadow, what were those owl things? You called them voidowls, right?” I asked, continuing to keep my voice low.

“Yeah, why was Aria freaking out like that?” Melody asked while Compass nodded and watched me, appraisingly.

“What? You couldn’t hear them?” I asked, confused as to why my friends hadn’t heard my family’s voices coming from the voidowls. And Brightlight. Why had I heard Brightlight?

“No. We couldn’t hear anything. You just started talking about Grandpa Golden Star and Shadow told us to run to Gigaton.”

“What? How?” I asked, looking to Shadowbuck for some seriously needed answers.

“Because that’s what they do. Voidowls are psionic monsters, infused by the balefire with dark magic. They scan the minds of their prey, find the one who is mentally weakest and has sustained the most emotional trauma, and then make the pony think their greatest desire is coming true. I guess you can say it’s like a siren song,” he explained.

“But why? Why do they do it? And why couldn’t we hear anything?” Melody asked, putting a hoof in her ear to try to take some invisible blockage out of her ear canal as she flew next to us.

“Because Aria was the target. They try to draw you to them through psychic auditory illusions and then rip you to shreds. If that doesn’t work, they try to attack you by further traumatizing you and turning you into a lump of emotional jelly so they can rip you to shreds.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Compass asked meekly.

“Then they just go for the swarm tactic and rip you to shreds.”

Always with the ripping to shreds.

“But why did they attack only me?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but wanting him to tell me something different. “Lie to me, Shadowbuck!”

“Because you’re the weakest. Their mental probes probably told them you had no magic and you were the easiest to manipulate. You’ve lost so much so fast that a simple vocal manipulation would have drawn you in.” Just what I thought.

“You didn’t have to be so blunt about it,” I mumbled, looking away from them, but everywhere I looked just made me feel worse.

To my left and right were buildings made of carnival rides, their bright colors faded and chipped away by time to reveal the brown rusted metal beneath. Occasionally, I would catch glimpses of thinner than normal ponies covered in dirt and grime as they tried to avoid our parade of mismatched city leaders. So far I had only seen the Steel Rangers, their features mostly hidden by their armor, and the Queen’s Court in their tattered finery. I hadn’t realized that the norm of the Wasteland was dirty, hungry ponies barely surviving in towns only a step above internment camps. Which, in hindsight, was pretty freaking stupid of me.

Ahead of us were Iron Will, the ‘Queen,’ and the disgusting form of Jack. Two of those three people I wouldn’t mind roasting alive on a spit and... Wow! What’s wrong with me!? I mean, yeah Jack wanted to kill us and Not-Queen Cadence was an evil slave queen, but Cadence was still a pony. I never actively thought about killing a pony. The raiders had been in self defense and the ghouls were monsters like Jack, but... Why was I thinking like this?

Suddenly, I ran into a fleshy wall and a tree trunk sized tail slammed into me, sending me flying into a dull red building. I hit the wall hard, the dent in my armor stabbing me in the shoulder blade, and I let out a pained scream as I fell to the ground in a heap. Jack was over me, smoke streaming from his mouth as he snarled at me.

“Claws off the unicorn, Jack! Otherwise I’ll smack you flat!” Iron Will shouted as he began to push his way through the group towards us. Two turrets turned down upon the undead dragon, his eyes appraising the threats around him for a moment, and he blew a plume of smoke in my face. I coughed and hacked as I tried to fan away the black cloud engulfing me. Jack took a few steps back, his hot, rancid breath no longer filling my lungs, and the smoke started to clear. I opened my watery eyes and saw Melody and Shadowbuck standing between Jack and me.

“Back off, Scaley!” Melody shouted, her empty laser pistol at the ready.

“No fighting is allowed in Gigaton! Please step back or we will attack!” Steel Bill shouted as he and his ‘brother’ pulled Jack away.

“Hey! She ran into me!” Jack snarled.

“Well, she’ll watch where she’s going and you won’t go assaulting any more ponies, got it, bub?” Will snarled back as he held the dragon by his loose scales on the back of his neck with his upper right hand. Wow, brahmintaurs were incredibly strong.

“We can’t all be blessed with pencil thin tails... or other pencil thin things,” Jack taunted as he ripped his neck away, literally leaving a disgusting chunk of mottled gray skin in Iron Will’s fist. Black ooze, the same ichor like substance I had seen the museum ghoulies bleed, was draining slowly from the open wound. Iron Will growled, threw the decayed flesh away, and watched Jack intently. Jack then turned his head, letting out a small puff of green flames onto his back that caught me by surprise. My eyes widened as the Pipbuck on my leg started ticking and the black ooze that was seeping from the gash in Jack’s neck started to recede and his skin miraculously grew back. In only a few moments, the radiation from his necrotic green fire breath had healed him. How could he heal himself with radioactive fire!? “What? Can’t get a rise out of the good sheriff? What happened to your balls, Will? Oh, right. You brahmintaur lose ‘em when you grow a third head, don’tcha?”

“Now brother, we don’t need to-”

“Treat me like a pushover, and you’ll get the once over!” Will roared before lunging at Jack, all four arms instantly wrapping around his neck and torso. Every turret around us turned inward and pointed in our general direction, waiting for a clear shot on the dragon.

Jack’s wings beat hard as he tried to push away from Will’s death lock, but the Royal Flush lieutenant was easily thrown to the ground as the powerful brahmintaur pinned him. Before the sheriff could do anything else, Jack opened his mouth and sucked in a deep breath aiming for Iron Will and the three of us behind him. Another spasm of coughing had me doubled over, barely able to watch the carnage, as tiny puffs of soot escaped my throat with each convulsion.

“Shit! Aria, get out of the way!” Shadowbuck shouted as he and Melody grabbed my underbarding in their teeth and dragged me away.

Searing heat tore at us as my friends pulled me away. Melody screamed as she threw herself into a puddle, only to realize she wasn’t on fire, and Compass ran over to her, a healing potion already in his magical grasp. I looked back at the towering inferno that was the sheriff of Gigaton only to see the fires being beaten out by his powerful upper arms while his lower arms held Jack to the ground. Amazingly enough, the burns were beginning to close up just like Jack’s had. Since when did dragon fire heal people?

“This is your final warning, chump. Fly right, or you’re gonna fry. Got it?” Iron Will said, and, after a few moments of growling, Will slammed the dragon’s head against the broken pavement beneath us. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Jack spat before Iron Will let him go.

“Did we really have to resort to violence? I thought we were beyond this, brother,” Steel Bill said genteelly as the lower set of arms began to try to fix Iron Will’s hair.

“Shut up, will ya. Look, I stopped because all you non-rads have gotta put of radiation suits. The bomb’s rad radius is slowly growing, so I’d rather you folks be safe instead of sorry,” Iron Will explained, and gestured us towards a little shop to our right. “Brownstone’ll get y’all set up.”

In the doorway of the quaint establishment based out of a couple old carnival game booths was a pegasus mare. She turned to us, her eyes glossed over but still an interesting shade of green, and her skin hanging on to her bony frame. She smiled, her brown and chipped teeth a crooked prison for her tongue. I quickly realized what she was.

“Ah! A ghoulie!” I shouted, immediately jumping behind Shadowbuck for safety before coughing like a madpony and hacking up a glob of black phlegm. Why wasn’t anypony shooting?

I looked up and everyone just stared at me, Elder Cherry Scones looking at me like I was completely crazy before pulling Buzzsaw’s head down to her level with her magic and angrily whispering into where his ear was under his helmet. I looked to my friends and saw that while Melody looked a little uneasy as she hovered above us, Shadowbuck was smiling, most likely trying to hide his embarrassment, and Compass was staring at the pegasus ghoul with an almost morbid fascination. She wasn’t attacking us? Why wasn’t she attacking... “Oh... She’s a sane ghoul? I-I’m sorry.” Real smooth, Aria.

“Yeah,” Iron Will responded curtly.

“You didn’t have to be rude to the girl,” Steel Bill replied.

“I said shut up, Bill!” Will retorted, trying to slap his other head without hitting himself.

“Why do you always resort to violence! Let us talk like civilized gentleminotaurs,” Bill pleaded, weaving his head back and forth as the lower arms tried to hold back the upper arms.

“Drop it! We’ll be down by the missile when you ponies are done suiting up!” Iron Will ordered before storming off down the street towards the center of town, arguing with Steel Bill the entire way.

“Heh, I don’t need any stupid suits,” Jack muttered as he lumbered past Queen Cadence and her entourage, the snooty ponies all raising their noses into the air in disgust. Whether it was because of their disapproval of the Royal Flush Raider, his undead stench, or both, I couldn’t tell.

“Aria, come on. We need to get these suits on,” Shadowbuck told me, nudging my flank with his so that I stumbled towards the non-feral ghoul. I stared at the decayed pegasus, noticing that she was completely bald except for a single strand of green hair, although she strangely had an almost full tail of dark green hair, and my eyes widened at the sight of one skinless wing that was missing its partner.

“Oh, I see you noticed Lefty,” she said as she lifted the bony appendage and gave it a useless flap. Her voice a bit gravelly and rougher than normal for mares and her accent was the strange type I recognized as northern Equestrian, perhaps Stalliongrad or Whinnisota. Soon I realized I was staring and looked away sheepishly, noticing that the queen and her escort were already donning the yellow radiation suits from a rack to the pegasus’ right.

“I-I’m sorry for staring. And yelling. We... we’ve had some bad experiences with ghouls since leaving Stable Sixty-Three,” I apologized, trying to not stare at the astonishly sane zombie standing in front of me.

“So you’re not going to try to eat us?” Melody asked, peering around me at Brownstone. That was her name, right?

“Oh heavens no. I don’t need to eat at all, although I can’t help trying a few of Ditsy Doo’s muffins whenever she comes to do some trade with me. Good girl, Ditsy is,” Brownstone said with a bright smile that I really wished she would stop doing. I knew she was amiable and happy, but she had the worst smile I had ever seen in my entire life. Although, maybe it was the best smile a zombie pony could give, all things considered. “Oh! I know just the thing for you Stableponies. Get out of that armor and into these suits and I’ll be right back.”

With that, Brownstone galloped into her store, the door opening with a pleasant ding that made me smile sadly. It reminded me of shopping in pre-apocalypse stores and meeting Brightlight for the first time.

“Augh! Why do I keep thinking about that son of a blueberry, Brightlight? He cheated on me! Do I still have feelings for him even though he cheated on me? And he’s been dead for two hundred years... What’s wrong with me?” I thought again, trying to swallow and smother the growing pit in my chest.

“Come on, Aria. Let’s get these suits on,” Melody said.

I turned and was surprised to see the Brotherhood of Steel actually taking off their armor, including Shadowbuck. I stared as the plates over his lean, well muscled chest started to fall away and reveal a slightly sweaty, white coated barrel.

While the other Brotherhood members were massive and overly bulky, Shadowbuck was well proportioned. His height was just above average, his muscles were strong, but not too large, and his snow white coat looked brighter and cleaner than the green, orange and red coats of his comrades. He wasn’t like the larger guard ponies at the Academy, or the smaller and skinny types like Brightlight. He was a happy medium that I couldn’t take my eyes away from. They were almost immediately drawn to his flanks as his armor fell away from them and the golden telescope with a diamond lens he had for his cutie mark.

A diamond spyglass, the perfect symbol for an exceptional scout.

“Heh. Like what you see, Aria?” Shadowbuck asked, giving me that smug smile as he noticed my staring. My eyes widened and I felt myself blush intensely. I even heard Melody snickering to my right as she was putting on a radiation suit of her own. “I showed you my cutie mark, so let’s see yours, huh?” I really hated Shadowbuck’s cocky grin right now.

“I-I-” I mumbled before the Brotherhood started laughing and nudging Shadowbuck in the ribs. This was a game to them!? “Augh!” I shouted, rushing into the store and grabbing a suit in my teeth as I rushed by the rack. Throwing open the door, I stepped through and slammed it before the bell even had a chance to finish chiming.

The inside of walled off game booths were lined with tables that made up aisles, each one holding different items. Food, most of which was pre-war, pre-packaged items like Sugar Apple Bombs and Fancy Buck cakes, and bottles of water and alcohol lined one table, armor and barding lined another, while ammunition lined a third.

Near the far wall were three counters, each separated a third of the way down their length, and guns of almost every type imaginable were being displayed on the shelves behind the counters. From nine millimeter pistols to semi automatic rifles to the massive rocket launcher on the top shelf, the selection of guns that Brownstone had in her little shop, which I could guess was called ‘Absolutely Everything Too’ thanks to the sign above the back shelving, was the most impressive, and scary, thing I had ever seen.

“Oh! I was going to bring this out to you, but do come in if you want,” Brownstone said cheerfully, although I could tell I had surprised her. She trotted around the counter of the modest shop with a white book held beneath her fleshless wing.

“I’m sorry to intrude, I just need someplace to change... in private,” I said sheepishly as she met me in the aisle between the food and armor. I noticed cans of Cram sitting next to the potato chips and grimaced. Why was there Cram for sale in this store? Were there meat eating creatures living in Gigaton? Maybe some diamond dogs lived underground nearby. “I guess that makes sense. Do brahmintaurs eat meat?”

“Oh really? Modest one, aren’tcha?” Brownstone said while giving me what I assumed was a reassuring smile; it was kind of hard to tell with the decayed state of her lips and teeth. “For a pony galavanting around the ruins in Lunar Guard armor, you sure need to toughen up a bit. You just don’t seem like Lunar Guard material.”

“What?” I asked, both surprised and a little hurt by Brownstone’s accusation. How could I not be Lunar Guard material when I was a member of the Lunar Guard? “No. Everypony except the Steel Rangers thinks I’m a Stable pony. Nopony outside of them and Stable Sixty-Three would believe that I’m from the past anyway. I’m not a Lunar Guard anymore... Princess Luna is dead.”

“I’m guessing by the underbarding you’re from Stable Sixty-Three. Good to see they’re finally opening up,” she said as she offered me the white book with a pony skull on the cover. “Here you go, 'The Wasteland Survival Guide,' by my old pal, Ditsy Doo. You might wanna take a look at it. Disty gave me permission to add some stuff about the unique monsters here in Trottingham so it’ll help you and your kin out.”

"Thank you. Do you mean Ditsy Doo, the mail mare?” I asked, gingerly accepting the book with my teeth, hoping against all odds I wouldn’t get some necrotic disease from contact with Brownstone. She seemed nice and all, but I really didn’t want to become a zombie pony because I took a book from her without my magic. She must have seen my expression as I took the book because she shook her head.

“Yep. Absolutely Everything’s her store. I just run this branch for her since I can’t do the deliveries. And no, ghoulism is not transmitted through touch or bite, just so ya know.”

“Thanks again. Um, where can I change?” I asked, looking around the store for some sort of back room, but I only noticed the fact that there was a second floor with a catwalk connecting two sections of an upper floor to a set of stairs to my left. I quickly stowed ‘The Wasteland Survival Guide’ in my saddlebags with my other tomes of knowledge for later study.

“Oh sure. You can go change upstairs. If you want, I can take care of your armor for you too. It looks like its got some dings and scrapes that could use a little T-L-C.”

“I don’t have any caps.” She seemed a little dismayed by that statement. “But I’ve got something I might be able to trade.”

I brought up the ankh on my Pipbuck’s sorter spell and the ancient golden cross rose to the surface of my bag so I could grab it. While the jewelry and scarabs could be sold for their beauty or decoration, Shadowbuck had thought the Queen’s Court would not want to trade for the ankh. After having met Queen Cadence and her Court, I really didn’t want those beautiful pieces of history, even if they were zebra history, in her hooves, but it couldn’t be helped. The Steel Rangers needed the money and, at the moment, I didn’t. As I pulled the golden ankh out of my saddlebags, Brownstone’s foggy green eyes widened at the sight of it.

“Now where did you get that?” Brownstone cooed, which was weird because I didn’t think decayed, zombie ponies could coo. It was actually borderline scary. Not as scary as a whole museum of screaming ghoulies rushing you and trying to eat your face, but still a little jarring to say the least.

“Off a dead zebra mummy queen.”

“Where did you find a dead zebra mummy queen?” she asked before taking the ankh in her mouth and giving it a hard bite with her brown and yellow teeth. Okay, she bought it now. You bite it, you bought it.

“In the Trottingham Natural History Museum,” I said as she took the ancient golden ornament out of her mouth and weighed it with her wing.

“Oh! You Stable ponies finally cleared out the museum. Good on ya. Never liked my more feral cousins. So rude. Won’t even trade with us regular ghouls, don’tcha know?” she asked, holding the ankh up to the lamp above us and smiled. I grimaced again at the sight of those nasty teeth. I know she was dead, but would it kill her again to brush her teeth from time to time? Did toothbrushes still exist outside of Stable Sixty-Three? I hoped not. “Good stuff. I’ll give you... five hundred caps for it.”

“Is that a lot?” I asked, giving her my best smile in return.

“Oh yeah. You Stable ponies don’t know much about using bottlecaps as money. Let’s just say that can get you a fair amount of food and drink or a heap of light clothing or leather barding. Maybe a few guns and some ammo, but not too much,” she explained while trotting over to a cash register and pulling out a medium sized pouch full of what I assumed were bottlecaps. They sure jingled like a bag full of bottle caps. “And you have the distinct disadvantage of no familiarity with monetary bartering since everything’s provided in those holes in the ground. Don’t worry, I’m not in the business of ripping people off. Ditsy’s a wonderful mare, but she’d have my figurative head if word got back to her that I was giving anyone a raw deal.”

“Glad to hear that, but I’m familiar with money. Bits is more of my forte. What could I buy with bits, pre-bombs falling, with this?”

“You know bits?” she asked, her rotten smile turning a little more sly and the ridge where her eyebrows had been rose slightly.

“I’m a bit of a history buff,” I said, stretching the truth a bit, and her smile grew.

“Well call me a brahmin’s backside, that’s how you knew who Ditsy Doo was, huh? I like a girl who knows her stuff. To answer your question, you probably coulda bought an old Stable-Tec desktop terminal with the bit equivalent of that. Sound like a good deal,” she asked, and I nodded.

Five hundred caps equaled about two hundred to three hundred bits. Not ideal, but I could probably get some more ammo for the group’s nine millimeters and some spark batteries for Melody’s laser pistol. I might even have enough for some food and a healing potion or two. Would I need Rad-X and RadAway too? What else would I need to survive in the Trottingham Ruins? I really needed to find time to read Ditsy Doo’s book.

I took the pouch and dropped it in my saddlebags, my Pipbuck readout displaying that I had received ‘500 caps.’ That really was a handy little feature Stable-Tec programmed into the Pipbuck. I silently thanked Toffee Biscuits and Leaflet again for their gift.

“Aria,” Shadowbuck said as he entered, the door chiming softly. He was wearing the yellow hazard suit, the helmet’s windowed face mask fogging slightly with each breath. I glared at him, and I smirked internally as he tensed up. I was getting good at this. “You’re getting good at that.” Great. Now Shadow was a mind reader.

“I’m going upstairs to change. If you follow me, I swear I’m going to figure out how to break your nose through that thing,” I replied before turning around and trotting upstairs.

“Oh! Is this a little lover’s spat, Shadow? I didn’t know you had a thing for unicorns,” Brownstone said playfully. I would have growled, but that was cut off by the surprised coughing from Shadowbuck, a tale tell sign that he had almost choked on his own spit. That made me smile a little.

“What!? No! We-we’re just friends,” he replied.

“Really?” I called down as I started removing my armor. You know, handling armor without magic was a lot easier when you weren’t having a complete emotional breakdown. “I didn’t know many friends who made comments like that to me back in my... home.”

“I’m sorry, okay. I was making a joke and my mouth got the better of me,” he plead as I heard him start to mount the stairs.

“What did I say about following me?” I called down and stifled a snicker as the muted clops on the metal stairs stopped. There was silence for a few moments and then a rough giggle from Brownstone.

“What are you laughing at, Brownie?” Shadowbuck quipped, and she laughed even harder.

“I love the drama you living ponies bring into my store. It’s almost like my stories from back in the day. I miss ‘All My Foals’,” Brownstone said, and I frowned. I hated soap operas; they were such stupid and poorly written drivel.

I removed the last of my armor and tried to pull the radiation suit over my underbarding, but the stretchy yellow material wouldn’t pull over the plates. I grunted, slightly annoyed, and started unzipping my under armor as well. As the augmented Stable Sixty-Three jumpsuit fell to the floor, I heard a sharp intake of air from behind me. I whipped around, my horn sparking as I tried to reach for Aegis, and saw Shadowbuck standing on the landing.

“Why you little... You’re a peeping tom!” I shouted through gritted teeth, stomping my hoof.
“I just had to see, okay? Melody said you had balefire on your cutie mark, but I didn’t believe her,” he said candidly. He walked closer to me, my body shaking as my fury began to rise. As I blinked, I could see the green flame dancing, urging me to make him burn. It was almost whispering to me just as he whispered into my ear. “I was worried. Have you gotten yourself checked out, medically speaking?”

“What?”

“I mean have you always had that green flame on your cutie mark?”

“What? Yes!” I shouted, before he started to shush me. I bit my lower lip angrily, my eyes narrowing at him. “What does it matter? Why would you have been worried about my cutie mark?”

“Because you said you got blown up by balefire eggs and survived. That’s not normal and most ponies end up ghoulified if they survive that kind of thing. You didn’t do either so I’m worried something else might have happened, okay?”

“Like what?” I whispered back as I started to pull on the radiation suit so I could cover my cutie mark.

“Some sort of mutation for one thing. Too much rads sometimes has some weird side effects. Maybe that’s why your horn isn’t recovering as fast as it should.”

“It’s only been a day since I burned it out and, if you haven’t noticed, I’m really dependant on it and keep trying to use it. I’m not letting myself heal, that’s all,” I countered, pulling the suit over my shoulders and then thrusting the helmet over my head. “Do you mind zipping me up?”

“You two sound like an old married couple from my day. Or Dr. Grazer and Sky Dreams from Fluttershy General Hospital. ‘I’m mad at you, Doctor! Now zip me up so we can go to the charity ball and make up before my evil twin tries to kill me.’ Good stuff,” Brownstone said as she reached the top of the stairs.

“Why do ponies keep thinking we’re together!?” I growled, turning away from the two of them in a huff. Of course, with my suit unzipped, it fell off my shoulders and pulled at my hooves, almost making me lose my balance. Brownstone trotted over to me, looked me over, and grabbed the zipper with her wing, much to my chagrin. Before I could protest, she pulled on the zipper’s handle thingy, (I know it has a name but it escapes me) and the suit and helmet were sealed.
Containment against radiation was officially achieved by a radioactive zombie pegasus; the irony and heebie jeebies were not lost on me.

“There ya go, dearie. You know I’ll need that suit back when you kids are done fixing that bomb. And don’t worry about your armor, I’ll fix that little dent for free as thanks for that little bit of entertainment. It’s not every day I can reminisce about my soaps,” she said with that nasty, yet somehow cheery smile.

“Uh, thank you,” I said, trying my best to smile while not shuddering and show my utter disgust. “Just be careful with my shield. It was my brother’s.”

“Okay, you two, get going. All your friends are outside waiting for you,” Brownstone said, cocking her head towards the stairs and the exit down below. I frowned at Shadowbuck and he just smiled at me.

“You look better when you smile.”

“How would you know?” I replied, and started trotting down the stairs. I heard him follow.

“Come on. Is that little joke really pissing you off this much?” he asked, keeping up with me, but staying a few steps behind. I think he thought I might applebuck him if I got mad enough and, to be perfectly honest, I might have.

“I told you I wanted privacy and you snuck in on me to ‘check out my cutie mark.’ How does the topic of my cutie mark having balefire on it even come up in conversation?” I asked as we exited the shop, the soft chime of the doorbell being the perfect antithesis to my mood.

“Hey guys! Come on! We’re gonna go check out the balefire missile!” Melody called, waving at us from down the street. Melody’s wings were stuck in the hazard suit so she was standing on the ground along with the Queen’s Court and the Steel Rangers.

“On our way!” I called back.

“You said your talent was magical combat so I asked her what a magical combat cutie mark looked like,” he replied, falling in step beside me. Well, that was one way to avoid a swift kick for being a jerk.

“Why would you care what a magical combat cutie mark looks like? You’re an earth pony.”

“Because my mom’s talent was magic, and magically talented unicorns are pretty rare,” he answered, and I cocked an eyebrow.

“You’re mom was a magically talented unicorn?” I asked, surprise and curiosity starting to overtake my anger towards Shadowbuck.

“Yeah. She was great at all kinds of tricks. She had a top hat and wand for her cutie mark.” I watched as Shadowbuck’s eyes slowly softened with each passing thought about his mother.

“What kinds of spells could she cast?”

“Tons. Teleportation, levitation, healing. Hell, she could even turn rocks into clothing.”

“Rocks into clothing? That doesn’t sound like a very useful spell,” I replied, a small smile beginning to inch across my face. This was a side of Shadowbuck that I hadn’t seen before and it at least explained his curiosity about my cutie mark.

“No. It wasn’t. But it was interesting. She once even used her magic to play a trick on my dad while he was napping. She gave him the goofiest handlebar mustache just to make my sisters and me laugh,” he said, and shook his head, a small chuckle escaping his lips.

“You have sisters?”

“Had... Autumn Winds and Spring Breeze are gone. Mom too,” he said, and turned his head back towards the center of town.

“I-I’m sorry. How...” But I was cut off as we passed a three story tall stack of Ferris wheel cars and I was given a clear view of the center of town.

The massive wheel’s spokes all came together at the center, a giant iris for a gargantuan eye, and nestled among the lines of metallic spaghetti was a black and white striped missile. The weapon of mass destruction hung about twenty feet over head, it’s cone shaped warhead dented and sunken in, but the bomb obviously had not gone off on impact. The Brotherhood of Steel, the Queen’s Court, Melody, Compass, Jack, and Iron Will were all standing at the bottom of a cherry picker, the basket extended up to the missile, and I could see two figures staring into an open panel. From the panel came a shifting white light that looked extremely different from the pale green glow of balefire eggs. As Shadowbuck and I arrived at the square underneath the bomb, the cherry picker started to descend.

“So you two on speaking terms again?” Melody asked as the low whine of machinery came to a halt. Two unicorns in hazmat suits, one being Elder Cherry Scones and the other a mare I didn’t recognize, climbed out of the basket and down to the ground next to Iron Will.

“Yeah. But who was the genius that decided to build a town around a balefire bomb?” I asked.

“That would be my esteemed brother. I tried to warn him of such folly, but he never listens,” Steel Bill answered, his nose held up in a contemptuous display of independence from his other half.

“You did not! Me and the other non-ferals built this place one hundred and seventy-seven years ago back when you were just a nasty tumor that refused to stay cut off!” Iron Will grumbled before turning on me. “Gigaton has been fine for almost two hundred years. If you’re such a genius, why don’t you go up with Checkers and take a look?”

“Me?” I asked, trying to take a step away, but I was stopped cold as Shadowbuck bumped me with his flank towards the cherry picker.

Again!?

The mare I didn’t know turned towards me and gave me a very pleased smile. She was a bright purple that was bordering on pink, her red and dark indigo mane was cropped short, and for some strange reason she was wearing sunglasses at night. I also noticed that a small chunk of her left ear was missing near the point as if something had bitten it clean off.

“Oh! Who is this filly with the most beautiful set of purple peepers I’ve ever seen?” she asked and, I noticed from the sudden and quick drop of one of her eyebrows, gave me a wink. Well, at least she didn’t have a Trottingham accent, this one was closer to Applebloom’s.“Ya got a name, bright eyes?”

“Really? I-Um, A-Aria,” I replied, shaken by the mare’s sudden advances. I was so rarely hit on by stallions that the sudden attention from another mare had me completely thrown off guard. (And I was a guard so that was really embarrassing.) It was weird to say the least. Did Shadowbuck’s annoying little jokes count as being hit on? If so, then that would bring my total up to four ponies that had ever shown interest in me in my entire life. And two of them had been in the past three days? What the fudge?

“Lovely name ya got there, Aria. I’m Checkers, Check for short. I’m Gigaton’s resident explosives expert, bartender, and comedienne extraordinaire,” she said, fanning down applause that nopony was giving her.

“Don’t forget Trottingham’s number one whore,” Bulletstorm said with an exuberant laugh that no pony reciprocated. However, it was quickly silenced by a grenade flying out of Check’s saddlebags at astounding speed and coming to a stop in front of Bulletstorm, floating inches from his nose in a gray magical aura.

“Just because I like to have a good time between the sheets with anyone I fancy doesn’t make me a whore, Bulletstorm. I don’t think ya were complaining last month when I finally took pity on your pathetic attempts at bedding me,” she said, turquoise eyes appraising the Steel Ranger from over the black rims of her sunglasses.

“Hey! I was kidding! You know I love you, baby,” he said, a bead of sweat already forming on his brow.

“I know, but is the feeling mutual?” she replied before shrugging and floating the tiny metal apple back into her bag. Everypony seemed to let out a collectively held breath as the grenade vanished from sight. A whore with explosives and a penchant to use them was hitting on me? Maybe I should just play nice for now.

“How come she can threaten to blow him up, but I can’t smack around a kid playing knight in big girl armor?” Jack griped.

“Because she’s useful in more ways than one, and you’re an undead lizard that already delivered the Royal Flush Raiders’ contribution to stopping the bomb from blowing up,” Iron Will said angrily before turning back to Elder Cherry Scones. “So you figure anything out?”

“No,” she said gravely. “It is unstable and leaking radiation at an alarming rate, but...”

“But I don’t think it’s gonna blow.” All eyes turned to Check. “Continue the exponential growth of radiation leak until all non-ghoul or radspawned life in Trottingham dies a slow, miserable, and painful death of radiation poisoning? Yes. But explode? I don’t think so. The firing mechanism was a dud to begin with, that’s why it didn’t blow when it hit the Ferris wheel. It would take a spell or a new firing mechanism to set it off now.”

“So it’s not gonna vaporize us?” Jack asked.

“Don’t think so.”

“Well, that’s great. I don’t have to give two shits then. I’ll be taking back the balefire egg King sent with me and be on my way,” Jack said with a sick smile, but the smile faded at the growl from both heads of a very angry brahmintaur.

“You ain’t getting nothing back, Jack! You may be immune to rads, but you’re crew ain’t. You gonna let them all die?” Iron Will roared, stomping towards the undead dragon as everypony parted to let him through or risk being trampled beneath his mighty hooves.

“You are the worst kind of ruffian, do you hear me?” Iron Bill roared, as he turned his head to try to get a good look at their opponent. Will stooped down to Jack’s level, green tinted steam billowing out of four sets of nostrils as he stared into Jack’s foggy amber eyes. After how easily Iron Will had subdued the dragon, it would have been foolish for Jack to fight back. Thankfully, the decayed drake’s brain seemed to be in working order and he smirked at Will and Bill.

“Heh, I don’t really care. King and Queen are in safe locations and I’m sure enough of our crew will get ghoulified for us to have the forces to take over Trottingham when it’s all said and done. So sheriff, you can keep the egg, but I’ll just be going now. Later, meatbags,” he mocked before taking to the skies, his bone and sinew wings flapping without disturbing much of the air around him, and flying towards the outer wall. How could he fly with his wings in that kind of condition? It made no sense!

“You gonna blast him, sheriff?” Check asked as he started flapping closer and closer towards a line of turrets.

“Such a dreadful creature. I really wish you would, Sheriff Will,” Queen Cadence said as she waved a hoof at the Flusher dismissively.

“No. I’d like to, but I don’t wanna start a war with the Royal Flush while this is going on. Hold your fire!” he ordered as the turrets began to turn on the fleeing ganger The ponies on guard seemed to comply as they watched the grey dragon dart past them and off into the night. Iron Will turned back towards us, his eyes still wide with unresolved fury, and then nodded to the cherry picker. “Buzzsaw says you’ve got the most experience with balefire bombs that they know of. You and Check put your horns together and try to figure this out.”

“I’d like to put more than our horns together, if ya catch my drift, princess,” Check purred in my ear. A mixture of rage, shock, and something else I couldn’t quite place filled me and I turned on Check to give her my best glare. She, unlike Compass and Shadowbuck, was completely unaffected by it. Did my glare only work on stallions? Check just smiled, grabbed my right foreleg, and pulled me towards the cherry picker’s basket. “Come on, princess. Let’s see what you have to say about our zebra bomb up there!”

“Don’t call me princess,” I growled as she pulled me into the cherry picker.

“Why not?” she whined as the cherry picker’s door closed behind me and she gave me a pout. “You’re the queenie’s cousin, right? That makes ya a princess, if I’m not mistaken.” I hardened my glare. “Your niece was talking with her about it.”

“Melody, you’re my niece, and I love you, but darn it you have a big mouth!” I thought as Check put her hooves on the controls and pushed a lever forward.

“Hold on to that sweet flank of yours!”

“Wha-Ah!” I shouted as the cherry picker suddenly thrust us into the air a lot faster than I thought it would. I held on to the side as we lurched upwards towards the suspended bomb and Check laughed.

“Don’t like heights? I guess that’s no surprise for a Stable pony,” Check joked as she stopped the basket only inches from the open panel on the side of the bomb. Turning her head to look at me with what I could guess was a seductive smile, my eyes widened in disbelief at this crazy pony as she laughed at my completely rational fear of being catapulted towards a zebra megaspell bomb!

“You’re crazy!” I shouted, eliciting snickers from the Brotherhood and my friends down below. Check just smiled.

“Ya know ya love it.”

“My barn door doesn’t swing that way,” I replied curtly, and she let out a breathy chuckle.

“Everypony’s barn door swings that way. Ya just gotta grease the hinges, usually with alcohol,” she replied. Note to self, don’t drink wine around this pony. “So whatcha think, Miss Balefire Bomb Expert?”

“I’m not a... woah!”

Floating in the center of the missile was a fully formed balefire bomb. It looked absolutely nothing like the pile of balefire eggs I had seen in the M.A.S. parking garage. The floating orb was made of a pulsing white light, its surface constantly shifting and even collapsing and expanding through each other. How could something so beautiful and mesmerizing contain the power to destroy the world?

Tick. Tick. Tick.


The fainting clicking sound coming from my Pipbuck let me know that it definitely could. At this range, the hazmat suit was unable to protect me from the all radiation pouring out of the balefire bomb.

“Have you been studying the bomb long? This radiation can’t be good for you,” I asked Check, never taking my eyes off the balefire bomb. It was like a sea full of poisonous jellyfish, hauntingly beautiful as it gave off its eerie light, but even more deadly.

“I didn’t know ya cared,” she said, throwing her hooves around me and giving me a hug. I shrugged her off and shot her another look. Again, she was completely immune to its ‘magic.’ “In all seriousness, I’ve been downing RadAway all day. I’m never going to get the taste of orange and cough syrup off my tongue. Unless I taste something a little more sweet. How about ya help me with that?”

Right hoof, meet back on Checkers’ head. Again, she just smiled.

“Ow! I see ya like it rough. I’ll make sure to carry some cuffs with me from now on.”

“Knock it off. I told you I like stallions,” I said as I returned my attention to the bomb. It was still dancing like the balefire flame behind my eyelids and it wasn’t giving me any more clues as to how ten green eggs could become one big white bomb. The nest of balefire eggs had damaged the parking garage beyond repair so I knew they were destructive. The question was how did ten eggs that could weaken a parking structure be transformed into a weapon with this much destructive power? Could it be... No...

“Maybe...”

“Maybe what? Ya got something?” Check asked as she put her hooves on my shoulders to look into missile.

“Maybe I’ve got something, and maybe you should get off me! There’s enough room in here for both of us!” I growled.

“But I like being close to ya, my prickly little princess,” she flirted. Maintain Aria, you’re standing next to a bomb. I should take the time to thank Luna that my horn wasn’t working right at that moment or I might not have been responsible for my actions.

“Look at the runes,” I said through gritted teeth as I pointed at the strange, alien symbols painted around the balefire bomb inside the missile’s casing.

“Yeah? Can ya read them? Cause they aren’t zebra, I already had Tekash check them out and he can’t make hide nor hair of this chicken scratch.”

“Tekash? That’s a zebra name,” I said, turning to look at her as she threw her hooves around me to hug my neck.

“Yup. Great guy, dynamite in bed. If you’re into a a few extra partners, we could have him join our fun and games?” she whispered seductively in my ear. She added a little bass to her voice that actually made her sound a bit like a stallion. It might even have sent a shiver up my spine, but too bad for Check that ‘zebra’ was one of my major turn offs.

“Get off me, stripe lover,” I growled, and pushed her off me.

“What now?” she asked, looking hurt by my words. Good! She deserved to be! Sex with a zebra? That’s a serious low. That’s beyond being a whore; it was treason!

“You’re a pony! How could you have sex with a zebra?”

“Well, the penis go-”

“Not like that! Zebra and ponykind are enemies!” I shouted, getting a surprised look from the purple and red unicorn.

“Since when? The war’s been over for two hundred years. Hold a grudge much?” she snapped back sarcastically before turning to the controls. “We’re done here. Ya can let everyone down there know about your hunch, little miss bigot.”

“Bigot!? They blew up the world!” I snapped back as we started to descend.

“No, zebras and ponies from two hundred years ago blew up the world. Tekash sells potions and herbal remedies.”

“I-” I stopped. She was right. Not about zebra not being evil and wrong, but about the end of the war. We destroyed the world. Although it was more the zebra’s fault... Okay, we made the megaspells that they stole, but they turned them into bombs... Although we were probably going to do the same thing. Blame goes seventy-five/twenty-five, the majority on the zebra. But, nevertheless, the guilt train was coming around for another pass.

“Cat got your tongue?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Come on girl, you’re smart. It’s not like you’re one of those idiots from the fucking stone age that got us all in this mess. You’ve just got some bad teaching down in that Stable,” Check said with a friendly smile. “Ya need to get over that chip on your shoulder about zebras. It’s very ugly and very unbecoming of ya.”

“Wow! Brutally honest much?” I mumbled as we reached the ground.

“Truth hurts sometimes, darling, but ya gotta wear it,” Check said while throwing her hoof around my shoulder to bring me into a friendly embrace.

“You’re not so bad when you’re not trying to get into my hazard suit,” I said, giving her a weak grin.

“And you’re not so bad when you’re not spewing pre-programmed hate speech,” she replied. The glare returned. She was right that ponies and zebra were both responsible for the apocalypse, but I wasn’t going to yield that all zebra weren’t filthy, evil creatures that opposed everything ponykind stood for! “But I bet you’re a real bombshell in bed.”

“And that moment is over,” I sighed, my face suddenly burning, before jumping out of the basket next to Melody.

“What was all that shouting about? Did you two figure something out?” Melody asked.

“She’s got issues with zebras,” Check replied coyly. “But she might have an idea too.”

“You do know that the plural of zebra is zebra, right?” I pointed out.

“Will you two stop debating proper grammar and tell us what you learned about the bomb?” Shadowbuck asked, rolling his eyes.

“Yes. I for one would like to hear what Lieutenant Aria has to say,” Elder Cherry Scones said. She had a weird way of saying lieutenant. Not in the Trottingham accent way versus Canterlot accent, but it just had a weird turn to her speech patterns that I couldn’t place.

“And I as well,” Queen Cadence added, turning her haughty gaze towards me.

“Oh! A mare in uniform. I like,” Check added, giving me a seductive little grin. And now all eyes were on me. Great.

“Um, yes, well, from what I saw of those runes, they aren’t pony in nature.”

“We already knew that,” Bulletstorm said.

“And they aren’t zebra.”

“I told her that,” Check added.

“Can you please hold the comments until after the lecture!” I snapped, getting shocked looks from everypony except

Queen Cadence who was smiling at me, approvingly. “Now, as I was saying, they’re not either, or even draconic in nature, but I know the unfinished balefire bomb I stopped mid-ritual had pony runes around a pile of balefire eggs.”

“Hold, cousin Aria. You stopped a balefire bomb as it was being formed? When?” Queen Cadence interrupted.

“Oh cud. Me and my big mouth.”

Shadowbuck gave me a hard glare of his own as if to say ‘Don’t let her know you’re from the past,’ and I swallowed hard. Even Cherry Scones was watching me intently while Buzzsaw looked unnaturally pale. Think Aria. Think!

“Oh! Did I say ‘I’ again. Sorry. It was a memory of the Aria from two hundred years ago. We’re so similar that I sometimes get her memories and mine mixed up,” I lied, hoping the queen would believe it. Thankfully, her features softened and she shook her head.

“Yes, sometimes the memories of others can be confusing. Do continue.”

Dodged that bullet.

“Anyway, the original used pony runes while the zebra were chanting and doing other arcane rituals. I think those runes are pony with zebra drawn over them. They combined two schools of magic to make balefire bombs. It makes sense. Balefire eggs are zebra necromancy and megaspells are based off of unicorn magic.”

“So a balefire bomb’s made of a bunch of balefire eggs? I know a bit about those,” Check added while looking back up at the missile suspended above us.

I nodded.

“Yeah. I think the purpose of a megaspell is to take a bunch of small spells, combine them, and magnify their power.”

“Like the spell matrix in our power armor?” Elder Cherry Scones asked. “But how do you know about how megaspells work?”

“Maybe. I’m just guessing right now. There was a battle during the war that was covered in all the newspapers. A healing megaspell was tested by the Ministries. Ponies and zebra who were practically eviscerated and had no hope of being saved were all healed. Organs put back into bodies. Legs magically regrown. Bullets expelled from bodies and even gaping head wounds were healed. As long as the pony or zebra wasn’t already dead, they were healed to the point as if the battle had never happened,” I explained.

“That sounds amazing! Why didn’t we keep doing that?” Boom asked.

“Because everyone who had just fought a battle that almost a thousand ponies died for was suddenly at the peak of their health. The zebra forces had been on the retreat, but now they had back up in the form of their fallen soldiers. Equestrian forces had to fight the battle all over again. Most ponies believe that more ponies died overall from fighting the battle again then would have if the megaspell hadn’t been used,” I explained, watching Boom slump his shoulders in defeat as Elder Cherry Scones cocked an eyebrow at me.

“For a pony who doesn’t know much about megaspells you sure are one smart cookie. But how does this all help us?” Check asked after nudging me side playfully.

“If we can get the memory of the unfinished bomb out of my memory, then we might be able to figure out which parts of the runes are pony and which are zebra and then deconstruct them. Then, if we knew the basic spell structure of a megaspell, maybe we could work backwards from the megaspell to a balefire egg since the megaspell takes smaller spells, merges them together, and then amplifies them.”

“The megaspell amplifies the magic? Is that another guess?” Cadence asked.

“Yeah. The ten eggs gutted a parking garage, but they certainly were needed to make a megaspell balefire bomb. For them to do the damage of a real balefire bomb, the spellwork of a megaspell would have to amplify the power of the base spells ten or twenty fold. Perhaps even more...” I noticed everypony was staring at me except for Cherry Scones. She seemed to be deep in thought. “Sorry. Went off on a tangent.”

“This is all well and good, but I should get out of this radiation. I don’t see why I was invited here. There is nothing my court or I can offer. It seems you ponies have everything well in hoof here so I shall take my leave.”

“Hold it, Queen Cadence. I was the one who asked Will to summon you,” Cherry Scones interrupted. Cadence scowled at the Steel Rangers’ leader, obviously annoyed by her informal, and slightly rude, tone. “We do have need of you. I suspected as much, so I knew we’d have to summon you too. What we need, more precisely, is one of your monster repelling badges.”

Was this really the appropriate time for acquiring new technology?

“Cherry Scones, I will not give you one of my badges. Not even ten bombs leaking a thousand times more radiation would make me give you one,” Cadence replied, a hint of bile rising in her voice.

“I know, your majesty.” That seemed to placate her a little. “I just need one of your ponies to escort a small group to the MASPWT building up the river. Time is of the essence and waiting until the monsters thin out at dawn is not an option.”

“You mean to have your Steel Rangers go there?” She paused for a moment to mull it over, placing her right hoof under her chin. “It is rather dangerous.”

“What’s the MASPWT building?” I asked.

“The Ministry of Arcane Sciences, Peace, and Wartime Technology building,” Shadowbuck answered before stepping forward. “If I may speak freely, you can’t be serious, ma’am. Elder Litwick led a full scale assault against that place and those self repairing robot guards slaughtered us. I barely got out alive when I went in stealthed last year. I doubt any ponies without a suit like mine can sneak in there. Plus, there’s that weird bypass field in the MAS wing.”

“The Ministries of Arcane Sciences, Peace, and Wartime Technology shared a hub here in Trottingham?” I asked, but I guess I was ignored as Queen Cadence waved Cherry Scones away from her.

“Yes, I would rather not have one of my subjects needlessly slaughtered, Cherry Scones. Our badges do not work on robots. This plan of yours has too many flaws,” Cadence said dismissively.

“But we have a secret weapon now,” Cherry Scones said with a confident smile before turning her gaze back at me.

“Me?”

“I’ve seen the mural, Lieutenant Aria. You are the spitting image of your namesake.” Do I look the spitting image of me? Yes. Of the Aria I’m named after, not so much. “The robots at the Ministry always ask for identification before they start shooting. They’re set to pre-apocalypse military and ministry roles and records. Even though we are Steel Rangers, the last of the Steel Rangers the robots know of died over a century ago.”

“What does that have to do with me looking like... Oh... Oh!” You are one sly diamond dog, Elder Cherry Scones.

“Exactly. You could pass their visual scans and, if what Star Paladin Buzzsaw has told me is true, then you also know your aunt’s Lunar Guard Rank and Identification number. You do, don’t you?”

“Of course I do I... know everything about my Aunt Aria,” I said weakly. Elder Cherry Scones smiled and nodded to me before turning to Check.

“Civilian Checkers, will you go get Tekash. I will retrieve the memory of the memory orb from Aria, then you you two can try to untangle the two sets of runes. If Aria’s hunch is correct, we’ll need to know how to dispel those runes,” she said before giving me a brief look out of the corner of her eye. Why did she keep looking at me like that? Check saluted her in a far too over the top manner to ever be considered sincere.

“Aye, Aye, Captain!”

“Can we trust Tekash?” I asked, getting a glare of my own from Check that was much more effective than mine had been on her.

“Of course we can. You need to get your mind right girl or I might have to punish you.” Her face broke out into an evil little grin. “And then reward you when you’re all better.” With that, she gave me a wink, accented by a pleased little nicker, and dashed off towards the north side of Gigaton.

“Cud.”

“Besides one of my subjects to escort them and Aria, who else are you sending?” Queen Cadence asked.

“Oh! Oh! Compass and I are going!” Melody shouted, raising her hoof enthusiastically. “If Aria’s going, then we’re going too!”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Cherry Scones said with a warm smile I didn’t think her face could twist into. “You three and Paladin Shadowbuck make an interesting team. Killing Ace is quite the accomplishment. I’ve also been told you’re a Pipbuck Maintenance pony and Compass is a doctor.”

“Doctor-in-training, ma’am,” Compass said meekly.

“Still, a medic, a tech expert, a stealth ranger, and...” She paused, giving me another glance before finally finding the words she was looking for. “A magic expert make a potent team. I’d like you four to go to the Ministry hub and find something we can use to defuse the bomb.”

“Yes ma’am!” Shadowbuck said with a salute. Melody, Compass, and I mirrored his salute, and Cherry Scones nodded back to us cooly.

“I will prepare my subject to escort your team, Cherry Scones. We will be waiting at the main gate for you,” Queen Cadence told the Steel Rangers’ leader.

“Actually, you should meet us at the docks. I’m going to have a small contingent of my rangers take the group up river on our boat.” Something about that sentence seemed to put both Trottingham leaders on edge. “We need to hurry and get this resolved as fast as possible. We do not know how long Gigaton has before it’s completely covered in a radioactive aura.” Cherry Scones turned to us one more time. “Shadowbuck, you said you have some items that the Queen and her court might be interested in buying.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve got the Queen Cleopatra’s crown and a jeweled scarab back at AE Too with Knight Crumpets,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder towards Brownstone’s shop.

“Queen who?” Cadence asked, her eyes narrowing slightly and I noticed her upper lip twitch slightly.

“Queen Cleopatra. She was an ancient zebra queen from like two thousand years ago. We got her jewelry from the exhibit in the museum,” Melody told her cheerfully. A twinkle sparked across Cadence’s eyes, and a small smile cross her face.

“An ancient queen? I would love to see these pieces. Bronze Scales, we shall accompany Shadowbuck to Absolutely Everything Too and trade him for these pieces if they are to my tastes,” she told a gray earth pony stallion standing beside her. Bronze Scales simply bowed his head to Shadowbuck, and the two royal ponies watched him expectantly. After a few moments of awkward silence, Cherry Scones gave Shadowbuck a harsh look and his eyes widened.

“Oh, um, if you will follow me, your majesty,” he said, although the honorific seemed a bit forced. Before he turned away, our eyes met for a passing moment, and then he led the queen and her entourage back towards the other side of town. I watched them go, my feelings about my distant cousin mixed. She practiced slavery and was a little too stuck up for my taste, but she at least seemed willing to work with the Steel Rangers for the common good.

“Iron Will, do you have some place where I can extract Lieutenant Aria’s memories in private?” Cherry Scones asked the brahmintaur sheriff, although I was really beginning to notice a strange tone to her voice as she mentioned my rank. Actually, looking back at it, I think she had that strange tone every time she said my name and rank, I just hadn’t noticed it before. I thought it was just the way she pronounced the word that was throwing me off, but now I was noticing something else.

“Yeah. Got an old house that’s been abandoned. The former owner tried to rob Brownstone,” Iron Will grinned menacingly.

“The rapscallion did not make it five steps outside Absolutely Everything’s front door before he was turned into a fine mist of blood and dust,” Steel Bill finished. I looked up at the rows of turrets around Gigaton and chewed the inside of my left cheek. What had the world come to when murdering a simple shoplifter was something to brag about?

“Very good. Will you follow us?” Elder Cherry Scones asked me as Iron Will started to march off towards the east side of town. Melody, Compass, and I started to trot after him and the Elder, but she shook her head. “I just need Aria.”

“What about us?” Melody asked.

“You two should retrieve your things and stock up on supplies,” she said with a little grin. Her horn glowed violet and a small pouch floated out of one of her suit’s pockets and she gave it to Melody. “Here. Buy yourself some food, ammo, and medicine for the mission.”

“Oh wow! Thank you, Elder Cherry Scones! Come on Compass, let’s go shopping!” Melody let out a little squeal of delight. “I’ve never been shopping before! This is going to be so much fun!” Before I could even say anything, Melody was dashing off towards Absolutely Everything Too. Compass gave me a worried look and a weak smile before he galloped off after his marefriend.

“Come, Lieutenant Aria,” Cherry Scones told me, and I followed somewhat reluctantly. What was that weird tone to her voice? It sounded like... sarcasm? When the Brotherhood of Steel started to follow, Cherry Scones sighed.

“What are our orders, Elder?” Buzzsaw asked.

“I’m sending Bulletstorm and a small group of Knights to protect the boat to and from the Ministry hub.”

“Hell yeah,” Bulletstorm said, pumping his hoof.

“Yes... Hell yeah... Boom, you are our explosives expert so you shall help Checkers study the bomb and balefire egg.”

“Nice,” Boom said, which elicited an annoyed eyeroll from the Elder.

“Star Paladin Buzzsaw, you and Backdraft are going to help defend the bomb. I don’t trust Jack and the Royal Flush Raiders to not try something. Jack seemed far too dismissive about everything, and it is not sitting well with me. Something’s not right,” she ordered as we trotted after Sheriff Iron Will. “But Buzzsaw, you’re coming with us first. I need someone to watch over us while I’m casting the memory spell.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the Brotherhood shouted in unison before all but Buzzsaw broke off to perform their duties.

The three of us trotted along through the broken asphalt streets of Gigaton, makeshift buildings built from various amusement park mainstays like cotton candy booths were all around us. We even passed a strange series of hanging apartments built from a broken down tilt-a-whirl ride.

Some buildings were lined up on either side of us to make roads while others were arranged without any reason or design in mind. It was pretty obvious by the gaps in buildings that Gigaton had gone through a few population booms over the years without any real thought put central towards planning. I wondered if there was there any pony out in the Equestrian Wasteland with a civil engineering cutie mark? After seeing some of the horrific cutie marks some of the raiders had (How does a pony get a pony heart with a bite taken out of it as a mark of their special talent?) I wondered if such a mundane and civilized cutie mark was possible.

As we approached a two story building made of two fused together Ferris wheel cars on top of a pair of converted cargo containers, Iron Will pulled a keyring out from inside his duster. The bounty of keys jangled loudly as he held them up to try to get a better look at them. Without the stars and the moon to illuminate the night sky, I had had to turn on my Pipbuck’s light spell to see more than a few feet ahead of me. I guessed Iron Will was also using my light to try to find the right key.

Looking up at the building before us, I was surprised at how much bigger this house was compared to all the other buildings in Gigaton, aside from the fort near the west end of town and Absolutely Everything Too.

“How did a thief own this house? I really doubt he stole it from somepony on your watch,” I said as Iron Will started going through the numerous keys.

“Five Card Stud was a gambler. He won this house in a Poker game against the last Ten. Only reason he robbed Brownstone was cause he got robbed himself. Lost everything. The Flushers aren’t the most gracious of losers. They hit him hard on his way to Stableton for a big blackjack tournament at The Leaky Reactor.”

“I really hope that’s the name of a bar,” I muttered, and Iron Will snorted, amused by my comment.

“Yes, Miss Aria, it is. It is so sad about Mister Stud though. He was such a pleasant fellow. A little paranoid, always carrying all his money with him, but a good enough chap. The devil’s own luck when it came to cards,” Steel Bill responded.

“There we go,” Iron Will said as he selected a key and slid it into the lock. The key turned and gave a click, and he opened the door for us. “Alright folks, I’m gonna give you three the key. Lock up when you’re done and return it to me. Can’t go around giving Steel Rangers houses. Looks bad for our neutrality.”

“We’re at war, Will. You’re gonna have to choose a side sooner or later,” Buzzsaw said as he entered the house to make sure it was safe for us to enter.

“I’m tired of fighting, Buzz. All I used to do was fight and act like a jerk. I don’t want to go back to that life,” Iron Will explained, his and Steel Bill’s features becoming softer and his face showing much more fatigue than it had. “Gigaton’s all I got now. I’ll be damned if you ponies pull it into another stupid war that gets people I care about killed... or worse.”

Wow. I was seeing the gargantuan blue bovine in a whole new light. The years of immortality his mutation had given him were a blessing and a curse. The centuries of living among a few non-feral ghouls and building and leading Gigaton had allowed Iron Will to grow as a person. But those very same years were ripping away at his will to keep going. Protecting Gigaton was his life.

“But is turning a blind eye to the Royal Flush Raiders’ actions to protect Gigaton really worth the cost?” I asked myself, but immediately realized how stupid I was in thinking that. How could I judge him? He did what he thought best to protect something he loved. And I should know better too. I was like him, a creature from the past stuck in this war spawned hellscape. War was what the Flushers and the Rangers were trying to bring to his doorstep, and war would destroy Gigaton.

“Just like how it destroyed Equestria.”

“We will be sure to take care of it and return the key to you as soon as we are done, sheriff. Thank you,” Cherry Scones said. Iron Will gave us a sad smile before turning and slowly trudging off back towards the center of town. “Now then, let us hurry and get that memory.”

“Okay,” I said. Entering the house, I was unable to see very far into the dark room. Elder Cherry Scones fixed that by casting a spark of magic that ignited an oil lantern hanging from the ceiling. The Elder and Buzzsaw removed their helmets and set them down on a small table near the door.

I was instantly struck by the spartan nature of the dwelling. I could see an oven and a refrigerator, both of which I couldn’t see working in the current state of Trottingham’s decay. I had seen powerlines hanging from the upper wheel spokes, but even if they all worked I doubted Iron Will was allowing power to be routed to an empty house. Besides that and the table by the door, I couldn’t see anything else on the first floor. I guess there would be a bed upstairs, but anything else in this poorly decorated home would be a surprise to me.

“Find us a suitable place to cast the memory spell, Star Paladin. I’m sure this Five Card Stud at least had a bed.” Elder Cherry Scones ordered as she gave the house a disapproving once over. I guess she and I were thinking the same thing.

Removing my hazard suit’s helmet and placing it with theirs, I stood in the ‘living room’ and quietly waited until Buzzsaw called down for us to come upstairs.

“Got a bed in the room at the top of the stairs. Will that do?” he asked as we started to climb to the second floor. We entered the room, which only had a bed, a desk, and a small safe underneath the desk for decoration, and Cherry Scones smiled.

“Yes. This bed will work. Aria, it would be best in you would lie down on the bed. It might take a few minutes, alright?” she said, her smile widening ever so slightly.

“Okay,” I said reluctantly as I eyed the dirty mattress. It was a yellowish-brown color from many years of sleeping without sheets or a shower to wash off the grime and sweat Five Card Stud had accumulated in the Trottingham Ruins. I really hoped this bed didn’t have fleas or bedbugs. They were a pain to get rid of in my time; I was pretty sure they’d be nearly impossible to remove now without a serious chemical bath.

I slowly climbed onto the bed, hoping my hazard suit would protect me from parasitic insects as well as it had from radiation, and stared at Elder Cherry Scones as her horn already began to glow.

“Alright, Aria, this should hurt too much,” she said with that same strange grin. Buzzsaw stood in the doorway, watching us as his leader began to cast her memory magic. Just a simple spell to get a snapshot memory of the megaspell runes and we’d be done. Nothing to worry about.

“Then why am I so nervous?” I thought, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath to try to calm myself. The flame was waiting for me, flickering frantically.

“Do not trust her,” it said in a deep, authoritative voice. My eyes shot back open just as Cherry Scones started lowering her horn to mine.

“I’ll show you the truth so you can stop this stupid fantasy and start getting better,” she whispered.

“What?” I asked, but her horn touched mine and the world disappeared.

Everything started flooding back to me. She was looking at my memories, delving too far back for her to actually be looking for the megaspell memory. Cherry Scones had begun sifting through my memories of the week before. Everything was moving in fast motion like somepony had pressed fast forward to skim through a movie, but all the emotions each memory brought were being ripped out of my subconscious and thrust through me like a serrated knife. It was complete agony to my already abused psyche, even worse than the voidowl’s psionic attacks.

The stress of studying and taking my finals came first. Days of little to no sleep, followed by the field exam, and the nerve wracking agony of each shot I took with the practice pistol. I still don’t know how I did as well on that test as I did. The sheer joy at seeing my results and running home to tell anypony who would listen.

Wow, I had forgotten I had even hugged Blueblood in my elation, but that just made things worse knowing what he did at my funeral.

The hoof biting stress of writing and giving a valedictorian speech washed over me, but it was quickly replaced by the elation I felt as Princess Luna gave me that beautiful shield and accepted me as a member of her guard. The eye of the emotional storm was the love and warmth given to me by Golden Star and Grandmother after the ceremony. I could almost feel the Star Sapphire radiating that love on my foreleg, but I didn’t have a foreleg at the moment. At least that helped soothe the pain I was feeling as Elder Cherry Scones ravaged my mind looking for the memory I had been willing to give her.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached the most painful memories. Me walking in on Brightlight and Silver Storm’s betrayal. I raged within my head, trying to force my memory self to beat Silver Storm and Brightlight into a bloody pulp, but I just ran. I wanted to scream and cry, but all I did was repeat my previous actions. It was almost maddening. Why was Elder Cherry Scones doing this to me?

I was crying in the parking garage, feeling the hurt and betrayal rip through me as if Cherry Scones had ripped open a fresh bandage and was scraping at the wound with her hoof. The mysterious mare’s voice whispered in my ear, telling me to look up, and my fight with the zebra terrorists began.

The fast motion stopped and I could feel Cherry Scones watching every moment of my fight. The lightning bolt fried the female zebra again and then I watched myself struggle for the male’s gun. Looking back, I noticed now that the runes around the balefire eggs were in fact sloppily drawn out symbols used my unicorn mages for transcribing spells. I actually knew what most of them did, and I was right about one thing. Megaspells had to combine and amplify magical effects for them to work the way they did. The type of runes used told me this just as much as the end result.

Then the world seemed to slow as I watched the zebra set off the timer, heard myself speak my final words to Applebloom, and then felt the heart pounding terror of my impending ‘death’ as I threw myself onto the stack of balefire eggs. The world disappeared again in a blaze of green flames that had no heat. I was falling through that swirling blue tunnel. I heard screaming again, but I knew that it was too soon. The screaming happened after the voices. Something was wrong.

The real world, the horrible post-apocalyptic world that had replaced my Equestria, snapped back into existence and my entire being hurt. My head was pounding and my mind and soul felt raw. An entire week of powerful emotions had been thrust into the forefront of my mind and I realized I was in the fetal position, crying my eyes out. And somepony was screaming.

Through the tears I could see Buzzsaw holding Elder Cherry Scones, the unicorn screaming in such unimaginable terror that I was pretty sure her voice would give out at any moment.

“Elder! What’s wrong? It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re in Gigaton. You’re safe. Did you get the memory?” he asked, trying his hardest to calm his frantic leader. For the next few minutes, he held her as she cried and screamed while I just held my knees and sobbed into that filthy mattress.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep living like this. I couldn’t keep living in this world. I’d lost so much. There was nothing for me here in this hellhole that the world had become. I didn’t want to hurt any more. My mind felt violated by Cherry Scones’ mental ravaging. I couldn’t stop crying.

Eventually, the Elder’s screaming stopped, and I looked up to see her staring at me. I knew this look all too well. I had seen it from Uncle Blueblood and from Tea Leaves. Hatred at my very existence. Disbelief that I should still be alive. Hurt that I even continued breathing while others they deemed far more important were dead.

“You! What the fuck are you? What makes you so special?” she hissed at me the moment our eyes met.
I couldn’t answer. I opened my mouth, but a wave of depression and sorrow overtook me. All that came out was a weak and haggard sob.

“Elder Cherry Scones, what’s the matter? What did you see?” Buzzsaw asked before she pushed herself away from him angrily.

“She was telling the truth. A week’s worth of memories and no breaks. No memory orb can hold that much. She really is from the past. I didn’t believe it, but...” she said to no one in particular. I think she was too busy pouring all of her hatred into me through her eyes to focus on anything else. Without warning she lunged, grabbing me by the collar of my radiation suit, and pulled me in close, our faces only inches apart. “I want to know, you stupid bitch! Tell me! Why are you still alive? What was that tunnel? How did you survive it? I saw it for only a moment, and I damn near lost it! Who the fuck are you!?”

“Woah! Come on, Elder Cherry Scones! Back off! I told you she was somepony from the past! Give her some room to breathe!” Buzzsaw shouted, pulling her away from me again.

She kicked and raged, throwing every possible slur and swear my way, but I couldn’t move. My body didn’t want to respond. I was completely paralyzed by the overflow of memories and emotions. Her spell breaking so suddenly had been such a shock to my system that I could hardly think of anything besides how violated I felt. Finally, she calmed, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, before running her hoof through her mane.

“Yes, well, what’s done is done. We have the spell seals and runes. I’ll give you a few minutes to collect yourself, Lieutenant Aria, and then I’d expect you to be at the boat and on your way.” I think I was able to muster up a look. I don’t know if it was a good ‘I’m going to kill you’ look or just a pathetic one, but it got a reaction out of her. “What the hay. I’m feeling generous. I’ll give you thirty minutes time and then send your friends to come collect you.”

I let out a pained sob that was supposed to be a ‘Fudge you’ except without the censorship. She shook her head.

“It wasn’t that bad, girl. Pull yourself together and get your friends into that Ministry hub. Otherwise you are just resigning them to a slow and painful death alongside you.” With that, she turned and stepped past Buzzsaw. The Star Paladin seemed conflicted. He looked at me, genuine worry in his eyes, and then back to his superior officer. I just lay on that filthy, stained bed, shaking as the tears rolled down my cheeks and the snot started flowing out of my nose. “Move out, Star Paladin Buzzsaw. We have much to do!”

“I-I’m sorry,” he whispered before turning, following her down the stairs, and out the front door.

I heard the door slam behind them and realized I was all alone. Worse, I was an emotional mess, in a post-apocalyptic town where raiders who wanted me dead could roam free as long as the didn’t openly commit crimes, and I didn’t hear them lock the door behind them. My eyes, blurred by tears and stinging something fierce, spotted the key to the front door sitting on the desk and a new emotion was added to the raw mixture of sorrow, anger, intense worry, and loneliness I was currently feeling.

Fear.

I don’t know how long I stayed on that bed, paralyzed by my own emotions and thoughts, staring at the key. I needed to get that key, but my body didn’t want to work. My mind screamed for my forelegs to let go of my tail and start working, but my body just wanted to stay curled up in a tight little ball and cry. I should have been jumping off of this stained mattress like it was on fire, which probably would have been an improvement, but I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes against the pain, hoping to find solace in sleep, but was only greeted by the flame.

“Why didn’t you kill her, Aria?” it whispered to me. It’s voice was deep and alluring and had a strength that I so desperately needed. My heartache worsened at the sound of his voice (Could fire have a gender?) and I let out another sob.

“I couldn’t. I’m not a killer. I-”

“Really? You killed those raiders so easily.”

“They were going to kill us,” I whimpered.

“So kill or be killed makes it right? Are we animals?” the flame replied. In a way, the flame was right. But this was the world that Equestria had become. “So why didn’t you kill her?”

“She... she’s leader of the Steel Rangers.”

“So?”

“But they’re Steel Rangers. They work for the Ministry of Wartime Technology. They work for Princess Luna,” I argued.

“Do they? Luna is dead. Ministry Mare Applejack is dead. They seem more like glorified raiders than true knights to me.”

He had a point. A very alluring point, but...

“What about Shadowbuck? What about the Brotherhood of Steel?” I asked, and the flame seemed to take a moment to pause and think about my point. I waited in the darkness of my own mind, wondering what the voice would say next.

“Why should the sins of so many ponies be excused by the virtue of so few? Did Buzzsaw not just stand there and let you be tormented and ravaged by that mare? Cleanse the Steel Rangers. Cleanse the Royal Flush Raiders. Cleanse the Queen’s Court. Cleanse Trottingham and all of Equestria of evil and strife,” he commanded, his every whisper more seductive than the last.

“But how? I’m just one pony with a broken horn. I can’t perform magic. I can’t do anything.”

“I can give you the power you need. The strength to remake Equestria in a true and righteous image. Make it a world without pain. I can make you better, Aria. All you need to do is prove yourself worthy. All you need to do is give me what I desire,” he said, his words were like sweet strawberry pie and milk on a hungry palette to my battered mind .

“How? How can I prove my worth? What do you want from me? What do you desire?” I asked the flame, and he shook with laughter.

“You know what I require, but first you must show me that my gift would not be wasted on a helpless shell that once had been a beautiful and magnificent mare. Get up and take that key. Force yourself above the filth of this world and lock that door.”

That’s it? I could get my magic back from doing what I already wanted to do? I could become stronger than I could ever imagine from such a simple act?

“I’ll try,” I whispered back, my voice harsh and my throat burning with each word that escaped my lips. Opening my red, dried out eyes, I focused on the key sitting only a few feet away from me. However, it might as well have been at the top of Canterlot Mountain for how far away it felt.

“Do not try! Achieve!” the voice proclaimed.

I felt a surge of energy, whether it was from the flame or my own will to survive pushing me to action I don’t know, but I could finally move my legs. I slowly pulled myself, inch by inch, off the edge of the grime stained bed. If I had been even half within my own mind, I probably would have been off the bed, down the street, and swimming in a river of radioactive waste just to try to get myself even an iota of cleanliness.

As I reached the edge of the mattress, I felt like I really had achieved something. The simple act of willing myself forward when all my body wanted to do was shut down felt amazing. I was trying so hard to get my body to respond to my commands that I think I finally understand how a terminal feels when it’s processors get over taxed. As Luna as my witness, I shall never lock up a computer again!

“Good. Use that spark and reach out for the key,” the voice urged, and I couldn’t deny him such a simple request. Focusing with all my might, my horn sparked and sputtered until the tiniest sheathe of glowing blue light encompassed the tip of my horn and the key. After a few moments, the key finally lifted off the desk, the tip dragging along the steel surface as it moved towards me. Closer and closer it crawled until the key jumped from the edge and into the chasm between the desk and the bed.

Dipping and flipping through the air at a snail’s pace, I stretched my neck out like the world’s most stunted giraffe. Teeth bared, I deftly snatched the key from the air... only to realize I had stretched out too far and fell directly on my head.

Hey! Give me a break! At least I didn’t drop the key!

“Sweet Celestia on a cracker! That hurt!” I groaned internally as I flopped to the ground in the least graceful display of agility and poise I had ever accomplished. But I was on the ground and off the bed and, discounting the growing headache I now had pounding a DJ-PON3 beat in my head (Did I mention I hated her music?), I had accomplished another small victory.

Pushing myself up to my hooves was almost an act of obstinate futility. My body just wanted to curl up and cry. I could tell because of the completely involuntary tears still pouring down my cheeks, but I wouldn’t give it that chance! Before I knew it I was up, key proudly gripped between my teeth as the taste of my own salty tears started to leak into my mouth, and trudging towards the door.

“One hoof in front of the other, Aria,” I told myself, my chest heaving from the undesired exertion of just walking out the door and- “Biscuits! I’m falling!”

Down to the first floor I plummeted. I had forgotten that I was on the second floor and walked clear off the landing, forgetting about the stairs. This house really needed guard railings. My front hoof had stepped into nothingness and I tumbled head over hindquarters, landing hard on my side. I was suddenly very angry that Five Card Stud had not at least invested in a living room couch. Pain erupted from my shoulder yet again and I let out a yelp. Why did the world hate my shoulder?

Gulp.

I swallowed the key. I swallowed the key! Fear gripped me at both the prospect of not being able to lock the door and having to explain why I couldn’t give Sheriff Iron Will his key back. “He’s going to take me in a headlock like Jack.” I just realized how filthy this key probably was! I hadn’t seen the sheriff wash his hands after brahmintaur handling Jack. Oh Luna, not that mental image!

Guh. Guh. Hurgh!

That was one way to get the key back. As I lay in the middle of what should have been this house’s living room, I stared at the key as it sat in the middle of a pool of my vomit. Thankfully, I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and the majority of the contents of the yellowish puddle were a pungent smelling liquid. It didn’t help that the puke had started to expand and I could feel its wet warmth on my cheek and starting to seep through the open neck of my hazard suit..

“Aria!”

Just then I heard somepony call out my name. My eyes widened and I tried to focus my magic again, but my horn didn’t even spark. Somepony was coming for me! I had to do something. But could I really push myself to pick up a vomit soaked, zombie filth covered key with my mouth?

The door let out a soft click as the handle began to turn. They were here. The Flushers here and they were going to kill me!

Twisting my neck and dragging my face through my hot sick, I could feel the viscous vomit matting my coat and warming the side of my face. Opening my mouth, I wrapped my lips around the key that tasted like a smoothie made of cheese pizza and orange juice, but it was too late. The door slowly swung open and standing in the doorway was...

“Silver Storm,” I gasped at the sight of the supposedly long dead bane of my existence.

“Aria? Oh my goddesses! Are you-”

“Leave me alone, you whore!” I shouted before the taste of my own vomit caused me to gag. I clenched my eyes shut as my stomach convulsed and sent me into a fit of coughs and hacks that shot needles of pain through my shoulder.

“Shit. What the hell happened to her?” somepony else asked, but I couldn’t care less. I felt Silver Storm kneel next to me, trying to avoid the pool of vomit, and saw her form silhouetted against lantern above us. She put her hoof on my left shoulder, and I hissed in pain. I threw a right hoof at her face, missing wildly in my crazed haze, and began to flail.

“I said leave me alone you fudging blueberry! You’re a cheating whore and I hate you!” I screamed, thrashing and rolling in pain.

“Compass! What’s wrong with her? She needs help.”

Compass?

“Right. I’ll see what I can do,” Compass said as Silver Storm took my hoof in hers.

The rippling, bubbling pond in the mist filled forest of my mind began to clear, the sun appearing overhead and burning through the dense fog, and through it’s glassy surface I could see Melody smiling back at me. Sweet, kind, and mostly hairless Melody was there for me with her usual infectious smile, although her eyes betrayed worry and stress. To my right was Compass, his horn glowing as he magically began to give me an arcanely powered check up. And behind him, looking just as worried, was Check, watching me from over the rims of her stylish, yet nighttime inappropriate sunglasses.

“What happened to you? Elder Cherry Scones showed back up, but we couldn’t find you. Buzzsaw said you were here, and Cherry Scones said you just needed a little rest after the memory spell,” Melody asked, and I could feel the tears welling up again.

“This doesn’t look like rest to me. She’s been ‘resting’ for almost an hour,” Check muttered as she picked up the key with her magic and grimaced. “Nasty.”

“Melody. I-she-he-it-key-stairs-” I stammered, finding it extremely hard to speak, before completely breaking down and bawling like a baby. I curled up into a tight ball, trying my best to describe what had happened between sobs, but I think it mostly came out as frantic gibberish. Eventually, after a Med-X shot from Compass, I was able to get out enough strings of intelligible sentences for Check and my friends to understand what I was trying to tell them.

“What? She did what? Oh, Aria, come here,” Melody said softly, taking me into a hug as I sobbed.

“She fucking mind raped ya for something ya were already gonna give her?” Check asked, practically flabbergasted by what had happened to me. Mind rape seemed a little... harsh, but somehow it seemed appropriate.

Cherry Scones had ravaged my mind without permission, ripping through my memories with little regard for my safety or mental health, and left me feeling raw, emotionally imbalanced, and slightly violated. I had never been raped and prayed I never would, but my mind felt abused and near its breaking point. If it hadn’t been for the flame urging me on, I probably would have snapped and curled up to die on that bed. Although, maybe the flame was my mind snapping like a twig and inventing a separate personality.

Was I going crazy? Did knowing you were going crazy mean you weren’t crazy? How did that make any sense? Knowing your getting sick doesn’t mean you weren’t sick or going to become sick. Well, at least I was overthinking completely random things again. That had to be a good sign, right?

“Is there a bath anywhere around here, Check? We need to get Aria cleaned up,” Melody asked.

“That might be best” Compass said, and gave a slight grimace as he looked at me. Was there something on my face? Oh yeah, vomit.

“Yeah. The shower should be upstairs near the rain collector on the roof. Compass, could ya see about cleaning this up while we take care of cleaning her up?” Check said, and Compass let out a sigh and nodded before giving the pool of puke the same grimace he gave me. I guess Compass didn’t like vomit, although, come to think of it, did anypony in their right mind like vomit?

“I don’t know if I can go back upstairs,” I sniffed, trying my hardest not to cry anymore as I lay on the ground next to Melody.

“Come on, up you go,” Melody said cheerfully. She lifted my foreleg and put it around her shoulder while Check knelt down and did the same. The two stood up slowly, helping lift me onto my back hooves, and slowly started to walk me towards the stairs.

“You’ll feel better once you’re clean,” Melody said softly.

“We don’t have any warm water like y’all do down in Stable Sixty-Three, but maybe a cold shower will wake ya back up and help get your mind back in order,” Check said as we started to ascend the stairs towards the bathroom.

Wow. Check had gone a whole five minutes without hitting on me. Maybe she had finally got the message that I wasn’t attracted to other mares. Will miracles never cease?

After a slow climb up the stairs, Melody, Check, and I entered a small bathroom around the corner from the bedroom. The toilet bowl was almost yellow from urine stains and rust and the bathtub had a golden ring that would make any blushing bride jealous/disgusted. I could even see a thin layer of... something on the bottom of the tub. The sheer disgusting and chaotic nature of practically everything in post-apocalyptic Equestria was reaching Discordian in scale.

“Do I have to get into that tub?” I asked weakly.

“I think a little sliminess on your hooves is better than puke all over your body, huh?” Check said with a smile that I returned weakly.

“We’ll make sure to pay extra attention and care to your hooves,” Melody said cheerfully. I nodded, biting my upper and lower lips as I tried not to cry again. Melody was such a great friend. I felt horrible for mistaking her for Silver Storm and calling her a whore.

“I’m sorry I called you a whore,” I apologized as they helped me into the tub. I could feel the thin layer of slimy film and mildew beneath my hooves and cringed. This was absolutely disgusting! At least when it came to my own vomit I knew where it had been.

“It’s alright. You weren’t thinking straight.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, hanging my head in a mixture of shame and exhaustion. Melody looked around the bathroom and grunted angrily.

“There’s no soap,” she complained. That got a chuckle from Check.

“No kidding, but I think the water should do be enough to clean her up. If all else fails, I got some old perfume Shimmering Crown gave me,” Check said, pulling out a small, heart shaped bottle of ‘Eau de Trotlette,’ a cheap perfume made in Fancee back in my time.

“Who’s Shimmering Crown?” Melody asked as she turned the shower knob and nothing happened. We all stared at the nozzle above me for the longest three seconds of my life that didn’t involve getting shot at or blown up. Finally, the nozzle started to shake and a stream water shot out of the wall.

“Yipe!” I screamed as the ice cold shower struck me, instantly waking me from my daze with the force of a winter gale. My body still hurt, and I felt like a load of cud, but at least my brain was starting to fire on all cylinders again.

“Get used to that, princess. We ain’t go no hot water talismans out here in the wasteland,” Check said with a smile while Melody giggled. “But to answer your question, Shimmering Crown is one hell of a nice buck from the Queen’s Court. Every time we hook up, I can usually expect him to be a real gentlestallion and shower me with gifts. I don’t do it for the presents, but they’re a nice little bonus.”

The two set to work helping me clean off the sick and filth covering my face, neck, and chest with surprisingly clean rags. I reflexively pulled my tail in tight around my flanks to try to hide them from Check, but she didn’t even try to touch anything below my shoulders.

“That’s so sweet,” Melody said.

“They have deer in the Queen’s Court?” I asked, getting another set of ‘are you crazy’ stares from the two mares.

“What? You said he was a buck.”

“Wow, Aria, a buck is a stallion. Even I know that,” Melody said, rolling her eyes at me like I was stupid!

“No, buck is a verb. As in to kick with your back legs. It’s also a noun when used as a synonym to describe a male deer. A male pony is not a buck, he’s a stallion,” I explained, getting a wry and slightly condescending laugh from Check.

“Woah, easy off the correctional gas there, Miss Grammar Legate,” Check joked, and I stared at her for a bit until finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I laughed. It was more like a weak giggle really, but I genuinely laughed. For all her faults, Check was actually pretty funny and seemed to be a good pony, her sexual deviancy notwithstanding. “I told ya I was a comedianne extraordinaire.”

“That was pretty funny,” Melody giggled. She wrung out her rag with her wings and snapped the cloth over the edge of the bathtub before turning off the water abruptly. “I think that should do it. Let’s get you dried off and back in your armor before you catch a cold.”

“Yeah,” I said as I gingerly climbed out of the tub and onto the rusty metal floor. A shiver ran throughout my entire body as my cold, wet fur and chilled skin met the mild, early summer air. I guess without exposure to sunlight, summer would be more like early fall or late spring in climate. I hated to see what the winters in the Equestrian Wasteland were like.

Taking the towel Check was carrying in her magical grasp, I began drying myself off as best I could. My body seemed to be responding a little easier, the damage was all in my mind after all, and having Melody near me was helping. Actually, for some strange reason, Check’s company and friendly banter was helping too.

“Thank you for not... hitting on me,” I said, putting it as best I could. Not the most eloquent of statements, but it seemed to get the point across.

“You’re not in any shape for that. There’s a time and a place for everything, and in your current state that time is not now,” Check explained before taking the towel from me and throwing it over my mane. After a few quick tossels, she pulled it away and I could see her very sad eyes over the rims of her glasses. “I know what it’s like to be used and abused.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing. You’re all cleaned up and seem to be feeling a little better. We got your gear and stocked ya guys up at Brownstone’s so let’s get ya three rolling towards the Ministry hub. Gotta save the Trottingham Ruins, Miss Lunar Guard,” Check said, her voice strangely tired while still holding a slight glimmer of her usual sarcastic wit.

“Thank you, Check,” I said.

“Yes, thank you,” Melody added. Check’s sad smile grew a little warmer.

“It’s no problem at all, fire flanks,” she said, and gave me a wink. I blinked, shocked for a moment by her sudden return to flirting with me before she chuckled and pointed at my cutie mark. “Sorry, I had to do it. It was too good to pass up.”

“I... I guess we’ll be going,” I mumbled, my brain almost re-entering the funk cloud that had slowed it to a crawl. Why were future ponies so crazy and confusing? But, in all honesty, I wasn’t mad this time. Was the future’s crazy rubbing off on me? Was that why I was seeing things and hearing voices?

“Y’all forgetting something?” Check said, and cocked her head towards my armor and saddlebags in the corner. How did those get there? Did she carry them? I didn’t even remember that happening.

“Oh... yeah.”

“I’ll go tell Compass y’all are almost ready,” she said, picking up my discarded hazard suit with her levitation spell and trotting out the door.

“Alright, Aria, let’s get you into your armor.”
Melody helped me get my armor and gear on, throwing my saddlebags and weapons on last, with relatively little hassle. I guess we were getting better at equipping me without magical assistance even though it still made me feel like a cripple.

“Thanks, Melody,” I told her as she lifted Golden Star’s Aegis onto my back and fastened it to the easy release hook.

“It’s no problem, Aunt Aria. You’ve done so much for me so this is the least I can do for you. Until you get better, of course.”

“Really?”

“More than you know,” she whispered as she left the bathroom. I was just barely able to hear it, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t meant to hear her say that. I wanted to press further, but as I blinked I noticed the balefire flame was a little brighter than usual.

“You did not lock the door, but you survived. You did not pass my test, but you did not fail either. Perhaps you need a re-test,” the flame mused. I would have answered him, I wanted to please him for some odd reason, but Melody turned back to me.

“Are you coming or are you just going to stare into space all night?” Melody joked. I chuckled softly and trotted after her to catch up.

“Are you feeling any better, Aria?” Compass asked, adjusting his glasses as he stared up the stairs at us.

“I've been better, but I don’t have time to be a vomit covered lump,” I replied, eliciting a giggle from Melody and a laugh from Check.

We did have a mission to do, after all, and I didn’t have time for chats with my own crazy hallucinations or breaking down from the inside out. The pit in my chest was still there, and I was pretty sure Cherry Scones had taken an excavator to it with her little foray through my mind, but as long as I had Melody and Compass with me I was pretty sure I could manage.
I just felt stronger when they were around. Maybe my friends could be my coping mechanism for surviving the Equestrian Wasteland. Shadowbuck had his jokes, and I could have my friends.

However, there was a new question nagging at the back of my mind.

After what Elder Cherry Scones had done, where did I stand on the Steel Rangers, the Brotherhood of Steel, and could I really trust Shadowbuck anymore. As long as he served under that mare, could I really count him as one of my friends?

____________________________

Melody, Compass, and I arrived at the docks not too far from Five Card Stud’s house. Both were on the river, so there was no need to put our radiation suits back on. Check had to go back to help Boom and... Tekash with the bomb so she took our suits back to Brownstone for us. Surprisingly, even with all her faults, there was something about Check that I really did like. Not like that, I’m into stallions, but she seemed like a good pony once you got past the flirting and the zebra loving. Everypony has their flaws.

A small schooner, it’s hull painted a dark gray and its sails marked with the three gears pierced by a saber that symbolized the Ministry of Wartime Technology, was moored at the end of a small dock made of driftwood and metal panels from an old funnel cake stand. I could hear Bulletstorm on the boat, barking out orders to the knights and scribes that were on board the ship. The docks were crazy with activity, mostly from the ten or so Steel Rangers that were galloping around the dock and boat and following Bulletstorm’s orders.

“Come on! I’m just as good as any of that sorry lot Bulletstorm’s taking with him! No! I’m better! You gotta let me go with ya!” a mare in full Steel Ranger armor screamed in a thick, Cockney accent. She was shouting at Shadowbuck and Buzzsaw as they blocked her from getting on the boat.

“Not gonna happen, Crumpets. You’re Elder Cherry Scones’ daughter and she’d kill us if we sent you on a mission this dangerous,” Buzzsaw said, sounding more like a worried father than a commanding officer. That was almost as surprising as the revelation that Cherry Scones had actually reproduced. I guess she wasn’t a total blueberry ice queen after all; or at least she hadn’t been in her youth.

“I don’t know, Buzzsaw. Have you seen her two shotguns? One for up close combat and... one for up close combat?” Shadowbuck taunted, getting the intended rise out of Crumpets as she tried her best to tackle my Steel Ranger companion.

“You may be my cousin, Shadowbuck, but you sure as hell ain’t gonna get away with mocking me!” she yelled as Star Paladin Buzzsaw put himself between his two quibbling subordinates. Wait... Did that make Cherry Scones Shadowbuck’s aunt?

“Please let it be by marriage. Please let it be by marriage.”

“Paladin Shadowbuck, quit teasing the girl.”

“I’m not a girl! I’m a Knight of the Steel Rangers!” she argued.

“Then you, Knight Crumpets, should get your ass to Moorheart’s Tavern and help take care of your mother. The memory spell took a lot out of her and she’s not feeling well,” Buzzsaw ordered, his voice finally hardening to sound like the Star Paladin he was supposed to be. This seemed to deflate the younger knight’s bravado a little and she nickered under her breath.

“Is that an order?”

“Yes, that’s an order! Go!” he shouted, and we all watched as she spun around faster than I thought possible in that big, bulky armor and rushed past us. We coughed and waved our hooves to try to keep ourselves from breathing in the dust she kicked up, but Melody’s wings were more than enough to blow away the brown cloud assaulting our lungs. “Lieutenant Aria, a word please.”

“Y-Yes?” I stammered, suddenly feeling that hole in my chest and the weight in my stomach fighting for supremacy of my torso while my conscious and subconscious started screaming differing orders. Mostly they were ‘Don’t run!’ and ‘Run!’ so I just stood there. The flame was surprisingly silent as Buzzsaw pulled me aside.

Every muscle in my body was wound as tight as they would possibly go. What did he want? Was he going to hurt me like his elder had? Would Shadowbuck help me or him? I glanced at Shadow as he stood on the dock, giving me a reassuring smile as if nothing had happened to me. How could he be smiling unless...

“You didn’t tell anypony about what happened,” I said angrily.

“And I’d like it to stay that way, Aria. I-I don’t know what happened back there. I don’t know what Elder Cherry Scones did or why she started screaming. I’m an earth pony; I don’t know anything about magic, but you have to believe me when I say that I’m sorry,” he said before pausing to think something over. How long had it taken to think up this little speech? Was he just trying to cover for his leader? Was he afraid I’d kill her like Ten Thousand Scars, the ghoulies, or Ace? I hadn’t even been the one to kill Ace!

“Aria.” I took a step away from him, giving him my newly patented, stallion scaring glare, but I couldn’t tell if it was working behind his Steel Ranger helmet. “I know you probably don’t believe me, but Elder Cherry Scones isn’t that bad. She’s just been... different since her husband died.”

“Her husband?” I asked, my curiosity peeking out from behind my distrust and anger.

“Star Paladin Orange Marmalade, my predecessor.”

“That doesn’t sound like a Brotherhood name to me.”

“It’s not. It’s his real name. Only our brothers, wives, and children can learn our real names when we’re alive, but everypony is to know our real name when we die in battle,” he said reverently.

“How’d he die?”

“Killed by the last Ten of the Royal Flush raiders.”

“Ten? That guy wasn’t that bad. Heck, he killed himself instead of letting me beat him,” I said dismissively.

“That’s because he was supposed to do that. The only reason you’re still alive was because he used his balefire egg on Stable Sixty-Three’s door,” he said, a hint of anger ringing through the tinny tone of his helmet’s speakers.

“Huh?”

“The thing about Ten is that he’s the first of the Flush, but also the most disposable with the most to prove. Ten has never been killed in battle.” I laughed under my breath. “Because each Ten is fanatical enough that if he or she is about to be beaten, they blow themselves up with a balefire egg that King gives them when they’re promoted.”

That was a buck to the gut. I had been standing right on top of Ten Thousand Scars when he pulled the grenade on himself to blow me up with him. I wouldn’t be alive today if Compass hadn’t given me a healing potion. If he had had his balefire egg still, then... Would I be lucky enough to survive two balefire explosions? I knew my family and Stable Sixty-Three’s residents wouldn’t have. I suddenly realized why everypony was making such a big deal about me ‘killing’ Ten and surviving.

“Killing Ten wasn’t the accomplishment. It was the fact that you lived. Hell, you survived one balefire bomb, maybe you would have survived his too,” Buzzsaw said, slapping me on the back hard. My armor clanged loudly against his and caused more than one Steel Ranger to jump into a ready position as if we were under attack. “Heh. Sorry folks! False alarm!”

“The last Ten killed Star Paladin Orange Marmalade with a balefire egg, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. I think that’s why Elder Cherry Scones didn’t believe your story.”

Oh great. Survivor’s guilt was returning with a vengeance. I had just had my mind ripped through like weeds through a lawnmower because I had survived where everypony else in the world hadn’t. Did I deserve this?

“No. No!” Everypony suddenly stopped and looked our direction. Shadowbuck, Compass, and Melody all started to walk over to us, their eyes widening with worry and surprise. If Buzzsaw wanted this conversation private, then I better make this quick. “No, Buzzsaw. I’m sorry that she lost her husband, I really am, but that’s not an excuse for what she did. I... I didn’t deserve that.”

“No, Aria, you didn’t. I can’t make you forgive her, but I’m just asking you to try. Okay?” It was really hard to make any emotional connection with a pony whose head was encased in metal. At least Shadow’s helmet opened and closed to show his smile. Even though it annoyed me sometimes, that smile made conversations with him a lot more like talking with a pony and a lot less like talking to a robot.

“I won’t. Not when she’s having you apologize,” I said as my friends walked up to us.

“Is everything okay, Aria? I was just trying to tell Shadowbuck what happened an-”

“Everything’s fine. I heard Aria’s horn wasn’t working right, and I know how good she is at magical combat, so I figured she needed a better weapon than a sword,” Buzzsaw interrupted before grabbing a knife and a shoulder holster and offering it to me.

Okay, a knife was an understatement.

It was a Ripper. I remembered soldiers in the war using them on the front lines for when they had to face armored opponents in hoof-to-hoof combat. It was like a miniature chainsaw, barely bigger than a combat knife, and had a trigger on the hilt to activate the spinning teeth. I had never used one, but an earth pony guard cadet had wielded one during our combat exam. I shuddered as the memory of the spinning teeth on the blade ripping into the training dummy and sending white fluffy stuffing spraying everywhere bubbled up to the surface of my mind. Buzzsaw wanted me to use this?

“Thank you,” I said weakly as he tied it around me so it was on the opposite shoulder from the Sword of Everfree. As he overly tightened the straps, I winced and suddenly very thankful that Compass had healed my shoulder. When had he done that? I didn’t remember taking a healing potion.

“You are quite welcome, Lieutenant Aria,” he said, putting his hoof on my shoulder. I flinched again at the contact before he nodded towards the boat. “You four should get going. The Queen’s escort is already on board. I think Bulletstorm should be ready any moment.

“Come on, Aria. We should get going,” Melody said. Before I could say anything, Melody flitted off to the deck of the boat. Compass sighed, shaking his head, before slowly trotting down the dock and onto the boat’s gangplank.

“Was what Melody said true?” Shadow asked as I started trotting towards the boat.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Wait up, Aria! You need to talk about this!” he called as he rushed to walk beside me.

“Okay, then I’ll talk about it with Melody and Compass,” I fired back, pushing my way past two scribes in red robes.

“I picked up another bottle of wine at Moorheart’s. Much better stuff than in the museum. We can share a few drinks and talk about it,” he said with a sympathetic grin. I didn’t take it that way. I spun around, staring daggers that cut through his stealth armor like a diamond dog’s claws through sand, and nickered angrily.

“You don’t see a problem with me getting drunk and talking about what your leader did to me when I let my guard down? Leave me alone, Shadow,” I hissed.

“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. I turned and started up the gangplank. “But are you going to take this out on me?” I stopped at the top of the plank.

“No,” I said, hanging my head and sighing. “Just give me some time and show me that not all Steel Rangers are like her, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied. “The trip is about three hours upriver. The Queen’s pony already commandeered the captain’s quarters, but you, Melody, and Compass can get some sleep in the first mate’s room. I think they’re already down below.”

“Thanks,” I said, turning my head to give Shadow a weak smile. I at least owed him that.

“I’ll come wake you when we get there,” he said as I reached door below deck. I should have said something else, but I didn’t. I just nodded, opened the door, and left Shadowbuck out on the deck with the rushing deck hands, Steel Rangers, and Bulletstorm as he barked orders from up on the bridge.

It was relatively easy to find the first mate’s quarters; there was only four doors below deck and each one was marked by a metal placard. I opened the door marked ‘First Mate’s Cabin’ to a surprising sight.

Compass and Melody, forelegs wrapped around each other, were in the throes of a very intense make out sessions. The wet sound of tongues intertwining and moans of passion filled the room and my eyes widened as Melody’s patchy teal wings fully extended and stiffened as Compass stroked them gently. She moaned softly as he kissed her neck and let out a soft giggle when he nipped her gently where it met her shoulder.

Wow.

Compass was an extremely good kisser. Who knew? Compass’ eyes opened slightly, a small smile on his face, until he noticed me and they shot open. For a moment, our eyes met, he stopped kissing, and neither one of us knew what to do.

“Shit! Aria!?” he yelled, pushing away from Melody and throwing himself under the covers. With the way he was covering his nether regions, I was really glad that Melody’s body had been obstructing my vision of Compass’ more private parts. I was also really glad I had come in now instead of a few minutes later because walking in on two sessions of pegasus/unicorn love making in three days was more than I think I could handle.

“Aunt Aria!? What are you doing here so soon?” She called me aunt again. Great. That made made me remember that this pegasus was not only my friend, but also my niece. Way to make things much more awkward, Melody.

“I-I’m sorry. I just needed to get some sleep. I needed to...” I paused, tears forming in my eyes. Why was I crying when I had just walked in on my niece about to get ‘busy’ with her coltfriend? I really was a mess, wasn’t I?

Melody took off the bed and flew over to me, her barding half unzipped and barely holding onto her shoulders, and took me in a rushed hugged. I started crying, for which reason I didn’t know, and Melody started to stroke my mane like Grandmother White Rose used to.

“Shh. It’s alright,” she cooed before turning towards her coltfriend. “Compass, I know I said...”

“It’s alright. You two get some rest,” he said, pulling his lab coat back on and walking towards the bathroom with a pillow floating near his hips. “I’ll just take a nice, cold shower and then find somewhere else to...” He looked away nervously.
I did not need that mental picture in my head. Stop it, brain! Just stop it!

“Thank you, hun. I know I promised you some private time, so how about we make it an all day affair when we get done with the mission?” Melody said, and the mental picture changed for the worse. I needed a cold brain shower now! Compass nodded and smiled before walking into the bathroom and closing the door.

“Mel...” I sobbed, and Melody noticed that I was crying more. I was shaking my head as I tried to shake loose the mental images that just wouldn’t quit popping into my head. “Oh no. I’m sorry. Let’s get you out of that armor again and get you to bed.”

Wow, she was getting really good at getting me out of my armor. Stop it! Really bad mental image! As we climbed into the clean, slightly disheveled bed, I remembered my one year anniversary with Brightlight. He had taken me out to one of the fanciest restaurants in Canterlot after a moonlit carriage ride. It was the most romantic thing I had ever experienced and we ended up back at his place.

We even ended up in his bed, kissing each other all over and taking in each other like a marefriend and coltfriend should do. Things started getting hot and heavy and I let him go further than I ever had before; I think some ponies called it ‘third base.’ His tongue on my most sensitive places felt amazing. I felt like I was on fire and melting into the bed.

Then I felt him trying to mount me, his hooves on my flanks, and I was so close to letting him. But fear of getting pregnant, even though the chances when not on your estrous cycle were slim, spurred me away from him and stopped him from taking what should have been his. I bucked and accidentally almost kicked him in his most sensitive spot.

Oh no. I just realized something.

My fear drove Brightlight into Silver Storm’s wings. He had had enough of getting so close and me ‘kicking him where the sun doesn’t shine.’ And I survived a balefire explosion when no pony else had. Millions of ponies, including Star Paladin Orange Marmalade, had been incinerated by balefire, but I didn’t. No wonder Cherry Scones hated me.

Everything was my fault.

I started sobbing even worse into Melody’s shoulder while she held me tight, stroking my mane and telling me everything would be alright. But I knew it wouldn’t work. Nothing would ever be alright again. As I cried, the flame watched me in silence.

“I’m so tired,” I moaned, talking more about being tired of living than actual exhaustion, but that was true too.

“Go to sleep. I’ll stay with you and keep you safe,” Melody comforted.

“As will I, Aria,” the flame said, his voice soothing and strong.

“Please. Can you leave me alone. I... I need to sleep,” I plead with the flame. I could almost feel him smile. Could a flame smile? Then, almost instantly, the flame was gone and all I saw was the darkness behind my own eyes. However, with the flame gone, the last thing keeping me awake was gone as well. Before I could let out another sob or think another depressing thought, I had already drifted off to sleep.

______________________________________________________________

Footnote: 50% to next level.

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.
Special Note: Thanks for putting up with the long break between chapters. I got a temporary new job that has me working some crazy hours for the holidays and this is such a major chapter that I had to do it justice. Actually, Chapter Five has been split in half so the rest of ‘The Path To Hell’ will be out, hopefully, a lot sooner. This is pretty much the halfway point in the chapter, and it’s already over 23k words, almost 24k, so you can see why I had to split it. Hope you guys enjoy it and thanks for putting up with my crazy update schedule.

Chapter Six - The Path To Hell Part Two

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Chapter Six: The Path To Hell - Part Two
“We better get moving. There are things out here that we really don’t want to run into after dark.”

"A wise mare once told me, 'Life isn't fair, but, as long as you keep going and never give up, you can find the moments that make life worth living.' That has always been sound advice, but I'd like to add something else. Equestria's at war, and we're a part of its military. We're it guardians. So while this war may not be fair, we have to keep going and never give up so we can find those moments and things worth living for and protect them with every fiber of our being. Those things are the ponies of Equestria and the ponies we love. So I say to you, my fellow royal guardsponies, let's go find those zebra scum and protect all of Equestria. Because I can assure you, it is worth living and dying for."

Applause. The graduation ceremony erupted into a nationalistic flood of hoof stomps, all of their approval targeted at me. The applause would have sounded like a stampede if it hadn't been for the whistles and shouts of 'Yeah! Equestria forever!' I blinked, stunned at the vast amounts of love and approval pouring out of the audience. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn't and stayed composed. At least I hoped I stayed composed.

Then my eyes fell on my family sitting in the front row. My mom, Elegant Rose, held a tissue to her left eye, wiping away a tear as she watched me on the stage. His foreleg wrapped lovingly around her shoulder, my dad, Guardian Heart, smiled like any proud father should. My grandmother sat in her wheelchair, giving me a tired, but proud nod, while my brother, Golden Star, stood up and ‘whooped’ exuberantly while pumping his forehoof in the air. I couldn’t be any happier. Princess Luna had even personally given me my own set of Lunar Guard armor and a beautiful shield before the ceremony, thus welcoming me as a member of her royal guard, and, more personally, as her niece.

The icing on the cupcake? Silver Storm got caught cheating on her finals and was expelled!

I swept my gaze across the ceremony hall and noticed a yellow unicorn mare with pink and blue striped hair in the third row. I only noticed her above everypony else because she was eating a bucket of caramel coated popcorn and watching me intently. How did she sneak a snack into the graduation ceremony? Whatever. It didn’t matter.

After we received our diplomas and left the stage, I was immediately thrown into a tight bear hug by Golden Star. His forelegs wrapped around my shoulders, pinning my forelegs to my sides, he lifted me up and spun me around.

“I’m so proud of you, sis,” he said.

“Thanks, big bro, but can you put me down?” I laughed, and he complied only so my mother could pull me into an overly teary hug.

“I can’t believe my little girl is all grown up,” my mom cried as my dad tousled my mane.

“Congratulations, princess. We’re all really proud of you,” he told me with that proud smile and those soft brown eyes that only a truly loving father could give you.

“Excuse me, Rose, didn’t you want to give your children something?” Grandmother asked, her voice strong for her age and condition.

“Oh, right! Golden Star. Aria. There’s something I want to give you both,” Mom said as she pulled out two bracers, each with a precious gem set into the golden band, and held them out to us. “These are very special. My mother gave them to me, so I’m giving them to you. Since it’s your big day, Aria, why do you choose which one you want?”

“I like blue,” I said, instantly feeling a little childish for wording my desire for the bracer with the large sapphire in such an immature way.

“I’ll take the ruby then,” Golden Star said, taking the ruby bracer in his levitation aura and gently placing it on his right foreleg. Dad took the other and placed it on my foreleg.

“There you go. It looks great with your Lunar Guard armor,” he said, giving me a wink. I nodded before looking at the exit to our left. “Oh. Somepony’s anxious to leave and see her little coltfriend.”

“Yeah, what’s his name again? Rightbite?” Golden Star teased, and I punched him in the shoulder. “Ow!” he complained as he faked injury, and I gave him a playful grin.

“It’s Brightlight and you know it. He would have been here, but I got a message that Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle wanted to see him for an important meeting just before the ceremony. He said I should meet him at his office afterwards cause he’s got a surprise for me,” I told them, practically beaming, and saw my mom tearing up again. Why was she so teary today?

“Well then you should go see him. You two have fun, and be sure to be back home for your celebratory dinner tonight,” Dad told me, his voice stern, but I could tell it was mostly for show.
I nodded, throwing my hooves around all of them to take my family into a great big group hug, before trotting off to the side door. A gray unicorn in a poofy pink dress, her blue mane pulled back into a ponytail, held the door open for me.

“Thank you,” I told her as I trotted through the doorway, noticing that she looked vaguely familiar.

“Don’t mention it, Miss Aria,” she said before I left her behind and headed towards the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.

____________________________

I arrived at Brightlight’s office on the tenth floor in record time. I hardly remembered the elevator ride up, I was so excited to see what surprise Brightlight had for me. Although, thinking back, I don’t remember a purple unicorn in a suit, her amber hair cut short, being the elevator operator for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences. I guess she was a new hire.

As I reached the office door, I knocked and slowly opened it to look inside. His office was empty so I trotted over to his desk. Mounds of paperwork sat in the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ bins and his terminal was casting a soft green glow that was eaten up by the sunlight pouring through his open windows. Brightlight’s office had a breathtaking view of Canterlot, in particular, my home at the palace. The towers of Canterlot Castle were breathtaking as they shot up to reach the sky and gave Princess Luna a perfect vantage to survey her kingdom. Tomorrow I might be standing with the princess on one of those towers, keeping Equestria safe and discussing magic with my favorite aunt.

I noticed the picture of Brightlight and me from our date to the Ministry of Morale park in Fillydelphia over Hearth’s Warming Eve break had a yellow sticky note on it. Peeling it away, I couldn’t help smiling at the picture of the two of us, soaking wet, after the water flume ride; his steel gray eyes were wide as I kissed him on the cheek. I could still taste the water on his matted yellow coat as I thought back to that magical day.

“Meet me in the MAS parking garage. Third floor, Section 3-A. I’ll be waiting with a big surprise.”
In what felt like a flash, I was there, in Section 3-A of the MAS parking garage. Standing next to a beautiful gold sky chariot was Brightlight, looking amazingly handsome in a black suit that perfectly complemented his black mane. He smiled at me and chuckled as I gaped at the chariot behind him.

“Where did you get that chariot? How could you afford it?” I asked as I trotted up next to him.

“You look amazing in your armor as well,” he said sarcastically, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Congratulations, Arry.”

“Thank you,” I said, returning his kiss before it quickly devolved into a short, yet passionate make out session. Our tongues danced in each others mouths as he stroked my mane in just the right way that only he knew how to do. He was such a good kisser. Before either of us got any naughty ideas, we broke apart and I smiled gently. Then, catching him off guard, I punched him in the shoulder. “You still didn’t answer my question. How can you can’t afford this?”

“It’s kind of hard to answer your question when you shove your tongue into my mouth,” he countered before shaking his head and chuckling softly. “But I can afford it now. Miss Twilight Sparkle has asked me to be her right hoof stallion. I’ve been promoted to the second highest position in the Ministry.”

“Really!?” I cried as my jaw almost hit the floor.

“Really,” he said softly, his steel gray eyes as kind and reassuring as any good stallion’s should be. “And I’ve got something important to ask you.”

“What?” I asked as he knelt down before me. My eyes went wide, knowing exactly what was going to happen next. His horn lit up, and a small velvet case emerged from his pocket. He smiled, holding out the case to me, and slowly opened it to reveal the most lustrous diamond horn ring I had ever seen.

“Aria Rose, will you marry me?” he asked, and I could feel the tears pooling behind my eyelids. I nodded, almost too stunned to speak, before he slid the ring onto my horn. It fit perfectly.

“Of course I’ll marry you!” I cried, a little later than I should have, and pulled my new fiance into the biggest hug I could muster. “I love you, Brightlight.”

“I love you too, Aria. With all of my heart,” he whispered into my ear. “We’ll be together forever.”

____________________________

I was standing in front of a grand doorway wearing the most luxurious and amazingly designed wedding dress I had ever seen. Apparently, Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle, who was one of the smartest mares I had ever met, had talked Ministry Mare Rarity into designing my dress. I had heard that Rarity had designed Princess Cadence’s wedding dress so that made my dress even more amazing.

“You ready, princess?” my dad asked as he stood next to me in a classy black coat and tails with a yellow tie that looked horrid against his brown coat. But it was mom’s favorite tie though so he had to wear it. I smiled up at him, not failing to notice that he looked just as nervous as me, and nodded.

“I am.”

“I love you, Aria,” he said before giving me a soft peck on the cheek.

“I love you too, daddy,” I replied just as the wedding march began to play. The doors opened, and we were walking down the aisle.

The sun was shining brightly, but it wasn’t too warm. The birds sang in tune with the band and made the most wonderful harmonies. I watched as my little niece, Melody, skipped happily down the aisle in front of us, spreading red rose petals at our hooves. I felt like crying as over one hundred sets of eyes suddenly turned towards my dad and me.

All of my friends and family were there, even Uncle Blueblood and Uncle Vanity, and I felt my smile widen as I saw Brightlight at the end of the red carpet. For some crazy reason, I had a nagging feeling that he would betray me and leave me at the altar, but that had just been just stupid. Brightlight was the best coltfriend ever, and he was going to be the best husband any mare could ever have.

I was even happier to see Golden Star standing next to him as his Best Stallion, and couldn’t help but chuckle as Melody rushed in my brother’s waiting hooves, her little teal wings flapping faster than a humminbird’s as she tried to fly over to him. He gave her a big hug, whispered something to her, and she buzzed off to stand at the base of the alter.
And there, standing regally between at the head of the alter, was Princess Luna, ready to officiate the ceremony. I was the happiest I had ever been. I looked over at my Mare-of-Honor and froze. Standing to Princess Luna’s right was a pony I didn’t know. Actually, it was a pony who couldn’t be there because this pony was not just a pony. This pony was an alicorn.

She was green and mauve. No... She was red with brown polka dots. Now she was white with stripes like a rainbow zebra. I watched, frozen in confusion, as her coloration and cutie mark constantly shifted before my eyes. The color shifting alicorn smiled, rolled her eyes, and shook her head.

“You’re a real piece of work right now, aren’t ya Miss Aria?” she asked, and I suddenly realized that everypony had stopped, not just me. The music had stopped playing, the birds had stopped chirping. Heck, even my dad had stopped walking mid stride.

“What is the meaning of this!?” I shouted, stomping my hoof in frustration. “Who are you? What have you done to Brightlight? You’re ruining my wedding!”

“Brightlight?” she asked, looking over at my soon to be husband and let out a low chuckle.

“Wait a minute... I know you! You’re that unicorn from the graduation ceremony! Both of them! What the hell? Why are you trying to ruin my life!?” I screamed as I rushed over to Brightlight, stroking his mane like he would stroke mine, but each follicle was hard to the touch. It was almost like trying to stroke a hedgehog’s quills. Everything about him was frozen, completely static and unmoving. “Who are you!?”

“I’m Psyche, Mistress of the Mind, and I’m here to help you,” she said sadly. “You need help, Miss Aria.”

“Why do you keep calling me ‘miss!?’ How is this helping!?” I gestured to the still and frozen world around me.

“Because this isn’t real, Miss Aria, and it just shows how messed up your mind has become in the past couple of days,” she said, pointing to Brightlight. “Don’t you see what’s wrong with him?”

“No! He’s perfect. Just the way he’s supposed to be,” I cooed, kissing him softly, but receiving no love or warmth in return.

“That’s the problem. For one thing, he doesn’t even look the same. You merged the real Brightlight with that Steel Ranger you’re crushing on.” She stomped her hoof, and suddenly two ponies were standing in front of me.

A white and black earth pony was standing next to a yellow and blue unicorn, the former’s body much more muscled and defined than the latter. I looked at the unicorn, who I remembered now was the real Brightlight, and rage started to build up within me. Memories of his betrayal flooded back to me, and I lashed out at him with the strongest lightning bolt I could muster. The blast of energy shattered my unfaithful ex-coltfriend and the rest of the world into a million tiny pieces that vanished in the blink of an eye, leaving only the alicorn named Psyche and myself floating in that same stark white abyss that I had met Dream in.

“Where are we?” I asked, suddenly regaining conscious control of my thoughts and actions.

“This,” she said as dozens of hooves sprouted from all over her body and pointed out in every possible direction. “Is the Void Between Worlds.”

“The what?”

“Well, it doesn’t have a real name or anything, but Timestream calls it that. It’s kind of like the world between all other worlds. It’s a kind of limbo, I guess. You know, the world between the living and the dead?” she said, stroking her chin with one of her multitude of hooves while another scratched her ever changing mane. Purple, then gold, then blue and green, then... I had to stop focusing on her constantly changing color scheme, it was making me nauseous. “Do you understand?”

“Not really, but I’m guessing it’s some kind of pocket dimension or something along those lines?” I said before shaking my head and turning back on her. “And what do you mean I’m a piece of work!?”

“Miss Aria,” she said as her extra limbs evaporated into a pink mist, her voice heavy and her eyes half lidded with sadness. “You know you’re not doing well out there in the real world. You’re a pony from a prosperous time. A time period ravaged by war, but compared to the Wasteland it was a paradise.”

“So?” I said obstinately, not wanting to admit that I was hurting so badly inside.

“You have to admit you have a problem. You need help.”

“And what? You’re going to help me?” I asked, turning my head away from her, but still watching the color shifting alicorn through the corner of my eye.

“Nope.”

“Huh?”

“I said, ‘Nope.’ I’m not going to help you. At least, not directly.” She looked to her right and frowned. “But you have to admit you have a problem first.”

“And why aren’t you going to help me?” I asked as I watched her trot off towards oblivion.

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because you don’t trust me. You need help from a pony you can trust, and I’m not that pony yet,” she said, reaching her hoof into the void and touching an arrow that appeared out of nothingness. “And it’s against the rules to help you directly. We Eternals gotta be all mysterious and junk.”

“Why?” I asked as the world around us started to flip through images from the world I had just been in like the worlds largest slideshow of my emotional and psychological issues.

“We’re gods, that’s how we roll,” she answered in such a flippant manner that I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. The flashing images stopped on me at the graduation, giving my speech to the crowd. “Okay, here’s where your dream starts.”

“My dream? That was a dream? It wasn’t some vision of an alternate world that could have been?” I asked, smiling as I tried to coax a better answer out of the ‘Mistress of the Mind.’

“Nope. Just your slowly cracking mind trying to create a false world for you to take comfort in. It was just a dream that would have ended when you woke up, but dreams are a good way for us to see some of your underlying problems,” she said before gesturing to my mom and dad in the audience. “Like this for instance. You’re mom’s alive and you’ve made the pony from the vision my dad showed you yesterday into your dad.”

“Your dad? Dream’s your dad?” I asked.

“Of course he’s my dad. You got a problem with that?” she asked, her eyes suddenly changing to a dark red that should have warned me to tread lightly. I, being the socially stupid pony that I am, did not take the hint.

“Well, he just doesn’t seem the... fatherly sort.”

Big mistake.

Psyche literally burst with rage, her mane and tail becoming an inferno of orange and red flames. Even her eyes seemed to be on fire as her wings flapped and accosted me with wave after wave of intense heat.

“Take that back! Dream’s the best father in the world! No! The universe! Shut up! What would you know about dads anyway!?” she screamed, but a buck to the chest would have been less painful. I turned away, gazing at the stallion in the front row with such longing, and felt the tears already flowing down my face. Psyche blinked and her fire suddenly went out in a puff of purple and gold polka dotted smoke. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I lost my head. I-I shouldn’t have said that, Miss Aria. It was mean and stupid and...”

“Right,” I said sadly. She was right. I shouldn’t judge a pony’s parenting skills or appearance. I didn’t have parents. But as I looked at the brown and blue stallion holding the mother I had never known, I so desperately wanted to have them. This had been a dream, a very good dream, but like all dreams it came to an end. “So what problem does this symbolize?”

“For me, the whole reason I shouldn’t be a psychiatrist. I’m too tapped into the collective pony psyche to ever be rational enough to give a pony the therapy they need. I can read minds, but I can’t be truly empathetic because I’ve got too many pony’s emotions in me to begin with.” I turned to the goddess standing next to me and sniffed against the tears in an attempt to restore the dam that held them back. “Oh, but on you it shows that you have some serious mother and father issues, which should be obvious, but it also shows that you have some inferiority issues that are manifesting as vanity to compensate.”

“Where did you get that from me wanting parents?” I asked.

“Oh, this has nothing to do with your parents. This has everything to do with the fact that you’re wearing your Lunar Guard armor so everypony knows you’re in Luna’s guard without Princess Luna actually appearing to upstage you. Also Silver Storm is nowhere to be found. It’s all about you. It’s just something your subconscious wants so desperately.”

“Am I really like that?” I asked, suddenly feeling very hollow inside. Deep down, I knew that what she was saying had a hint of truth to it. I felt amazed and powerful and moved when I saw the tribute to me in Stable Sixty-Three’s museum. I even felt hurt when everypony treated me not with the reverence that Melody showed me, but with fear and doubt. But was I really that petty?

“We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like. We have to face them, accept that they are a part of ourselves, and strive to become better. That’s how we become stronger,” Psyche said as she put her hoof around me... Her fifth hoof... Is it considered bad manners to shrug off a goddess’ extra appendages? “You spent your whole life being told you were lesser because of the circumstances of your birth. It’s only natural to want something more and to be treated better.”

“So what else is wrong with me?”

“Well, the fact that you were marrying an amalgam of your cheating ex-boyfriend and a guy you just met shows that you have feelings for both ponies, although you’re still can’t figure them out, and you’re not very mature when it comes to relationships.”

“Ouch.”

“It looks like you probably still love Brightlight even though he hurt you so badly and he’s long dead. But you probably have feelings for Shadowbuck, but the main problem with that is that you don’t know if you can trust him after what Cherry Scones did to you. Add to the list of problems that you really don’t know if you're just throwing yourself at the first buck to show any interest in you as a subconscious way to get back at your cheating ex or if you actually like him and you’ve got some serious relationship issues going on here.”

“Buck isn’t a synonym for stallion,” I said dryly. Psyche turned on me, her stern, ever shifting face suddenly melting, literally, and transforming into a shining grin, complete with a cartoonish twinkle of light off her sparkling white teeth.

“That’s the Miss Aria I know and love. Come on, let’s get a smile.” I didn’t feel like smiling, but the more I frowned, the larger her smile grew.

“No.”

“Please!” she pleaded as her smile stretched her face out to almost comical proportions.

“No!”

“Pleeeeeease!” Her smile grew even larger as her coat turned bright pink and her mane became a darker shade of pink and a mess of poofy curls; she looked the spitting image of Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie. A sudden burst of confetti as trumpets blared was my only warning that Psyche’s madness had left her head and entered the Void Between Worlds.

My eyes widened in shock as her grin burst out of her face and continued stretching outwards and upwards. Her mouth kept growing, larger and larger, until it had completely covered her face. Then her body. I was forced to back away and watch as the towering teeth climbed higher into the unending white void above us. Then the grinning crescent of enamel and lips five times the size of the Five Card Stud’s house stopped their expansion and loomed over me.

I felt like my brain had stopped working as it tried to comprehend the madness presented before me. On top of the smile, Psyche looked down at me, her coat now a light purple while her mane was a bright pink, and she waved.

“Sorry, I hate when that happens. It always feels like copyright infringement,” Psyche said through her giant talking mouth. My eye twitched and I cringed as my mane was blown back by the humid bursts of wind generated by her words.

Then I watched, in stupefied silence, as Psyche leapt off the ridge of her own lips, a rope tied to a harness around her barrel, and began repelling down the face of her front teeth. Why she didn’t just use her wings, I don’t know, but this was perhaps the most surreal thing I had ever seen in my life.

Until a dial appeared on the surface of her right incisor and a stethoscope appeared around her neck in a vibrant green cloud of smoke that almost instantly dissipated. That topped everything. I was watching a technicolor alicorn cracking a safe in her own teeth in her mouth that had grown to the size of a ten story building.

For a few silent moments, I watched Psyche work on her own safe, which in itself didn’t make sense because why wouldn’t she know her own safe combination, until a click resounded throughout the Void. The smile parted and my heart dropped.

“HOORAY!” she shouted, unleashing a hurricane gale of pony breath. I tried to brace myself against the force of the hot, moist blast, my hooves unable to hold on to anything in the nothingness around me, and I was sent flying.
End over end I was sent tumbling through nothingness, praying that I would wake up. But like every nightmare that you become aware of its state as a dream, the fact that I couldn’t open my eyes made it all the more terrifying. I flew, spinning wildly, and felt like vomiting again, but, mercifully, my stomach was running on empty.

Did I really have a stomach here? I doubted I just disappeared from the boat and appeared here. Both times I had come to the Void Between Worlds it had been when I was asleep. How the hell did I know if any of this was real or not?

My spin started to slow and I realized that I wasn’t alone. Soaring gracefully beside me, doing a backstroke through the air, was Psyche, her ever changing coat not helping with my nausea.

“Help me!” I screamed. The Mental Mistress (with emphasis on the ‘mental’ part) suddenly realized I couldn’t fly like her and grinned. She disappeared in a cloud of pink smoke that smelled like cupcakes and poofed back into existence ahead of me in a poof of green smoke that smelled of pine trees.

“Gotcha!” she cried as she scooped me up into her hooves, giggling wildly while swinging me round and round like Golden Star had done when I was a filly. After a few rotations, she set me down on the invisible ground and I staggered back and forth, trying to find my balance. If the world had had any distinguishing features, I was pretty sure they would have been spinning.

“Why did you do that?” I asked as I stumbled around the Void.

“Because you asked for help, silly,” she giggled.

“No! I meant get something out of a safe in your teeth!” Wow! I never thought I’d ever say that sentence in my entire life.

“Because I needed to get this to help you,” she replied, pulling a little orange prescription bottle out of thin air. I blinked, trying to get my eyes to focus, and saw one word written on the bottle.

Sertraline.

“What’s this?” I asked, completely unfamiliar with what kind of medicine this was.

“When a pony you can trust gives you this bottle, you should take his advice. It will help you.”

“Why are you helping me? How do I even know you’re real and not just more of me going crazy?” I asked, taking the bottle from her and inspecting it. Hey, at least my magic worked here.

“You don’t. You just gotta have faith. That’s us gods bread and butter, ya know?”

“That still doesn’t answer my question, Psyche. Why are you and Dream helping me?” I asked, tossing the pill bottle away and was shocked as it exploded into a puff of gingerbread scented smoke.

“Because Dad, Death, and me wanna help you stop Voidheart and-”

“Psyche! Enough!” a familiar feminine voice cried out from somewhere in the Void.

“Oh! Jeez! Spoilers, right. Sorry, Death!” Psyche answered.

“Wait! That was Death!? Death is a mare!?” I asked, but Psyche just smiled at me. Thankfully, this time, it was a normal smile and her features became very similar to Melody’s.

“Hey Aria, Shadow says we’re almost there. Time to wake up,” she said in Melody’s gentle voice.

“Huh?” I asked, but Psyche’s form dissolved into nothingness before my eyes and the Void between worlds was replaced by darkness. And for the briefest moment, faster than a flash of lightning, I saw an image of a stallion with a long black mane, his face turned away from me, and a crack like a branch being snapped in two echoed across the shadowscape.

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

“Wake up, sleepy head. We need to get your armor back on,” Melody said, almost singing as my eyes fluttered open.

“Ugh. Where is she?” I mumbled before realizing I was awake again.

“Who? Who are you looking for?”

“Huh? Nothing. Just... just a really weird dream,” I said.

“Okay, Aria. Let’s get our armor on. Shadowbuck said we’re almost at the Ministry Hub.” She then pulled me out of bed and over to our equipment piled as neatly as possible near the bathroom.

“Yeah. The Ministry Hub,” I replied, still trying to process my crazy dream and my celestial visitation. Had it really happened or was I still going crazy? If I really thought about it, I could have typed the ‘prophecy’ into my PipBuck and my crazy brain had made me forget. But then why would my hallucinations be trying to help me? Were they? “Ugh. Why does everything have to be so confusing.”

“Really?” Melody asked as she continued helping me put on my armor. She was almost done and I hadn’t even realized we had begun. If it wasn’t normal for me to get severely lost in thought, I would have counted that as a sign of my impending insanity. Or maybe I had already been insane and the Wasteland was just pushing me across the line between genius and insanity.

“Damn it! I am vain! Psyche was right... if she even exists!” I shouted at myself, cursing the craziness that my life had become. Well, if I’m going nuts, then I better listen to my imaginary goddess and find the pony I can trust who will help me.

“There we go, all finished,” Melody said, giving me a bright smile. “Feeling any better?”

“I guess,” I lied. In truth, my mind was still just as frazzled and my body, although a bit more rested, was still feeling sluggish.

“That’s good,” she told me as she slung my sword and Ripper onto my shoulders. “You just needed some sleep. You had a really bad day. We’ll save Gigaton, be heroes, and then get the rest we need, okay?”

“I think you just want your private time with Compass,” I joked half heartedly.

“Wouldn’t you? After almost dying like that, I really could use a little stress relieving fun.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I replied, my face burning like usual when the topic of sex came up. Was I really missing that much? Was sex really that good and that important that somepony would throw a pony they supposedly cared about away for an easier route to it?

“Oh! I’m sorry. I forgot,” Melody said bashfully as she fastened my shield to my back. There was a few moments of awkward silence before she patted my back and coughed. “Don’t worry, Aria. I’m sure there’s a buck out there for you somewhere.”

I looked at her, seeing the nervousness in her eyes, and sighed.

“Buck is not... You know what? Nevermind. What are you hiding?” I asked, leveling my gaze at her.

“Nothing! I-It’s nothing. Come on, Shadowbuck, Compass, and that Queen’s Court guy are waiting outside,” she said defensively before quickly opening the door and hurrying out. What was she hiding? What else could I do but follow her out onto the deck?

“Melody! Wait up! You’re-Woah!” I called out as I accidently charged out the door right into the purple earth pony herald from earlier. He fell to the floor, his green eyes staring up at me in disbelief for a moment before they suddenly widened with fright. “Oh! Sorry! I’m so sorry!”

“Oh no! It is I who should be apologizing to you, Princess Aria,” the Queen’s pony apologized as I helped him back to his hooves. “I should not have been in your way. You are descended from royalty while I am but a mere servant. Please, punish me as you see fit.”

“Please don’t call me princess,” I said, more ashamed than angry. This pony was absolutely afraid of me because he thought I was a princess. What did Cadence do to her servants to make them this afraid of offending the ‘royals’ of her court? “And it was my fault. I should have been more careful and watched what I was doing.”

“No! Please do not trouble yourself with me, my lady. I am but my Queen’s humble servant and, until this mission is over, yours as well, Princess Aria.”

“You’re not gonna budge on this, are you?” I asked. He shook his head, and I sighed. “Alright then. The faster we get the job done, the faster you can stop calling me princess.”

“As you wish, princess. Allow me to lead the way, princess.” And with that, he bowed before ascending the steps to the upper deck of the ship.

That was going to get really old, really fast.

“So what’s your name?” I asked, trying to at least be cordial to my temporary companion in the purple tunic.

“I am Brass Bugle, my lady,” he said as he opened the door at the top of the stairs, stepping aside to let me through first.

“Thank you, Brass Bugle,” I said as politely as I could and stepped out onto the deck. We were moored at a small, rickety looking dock near a massive complex. “Is that the Ministry Hub?”

“Hey everypony! It’s the mighty Nightmare Knight up from her nap,” Bulletstorm laughed from the bridge above us.

“Shut up, Bulletstorm!” I shouted, getting a few snickers and guffaws from the Knights flanking him.

“What does he mean ‘Nightmare Knight,’ Shadow?” Melody asked my Steel Ranger ‘friend.’ At least she, Compass, and Shadowbuck were waiting at the top of the ramp onto the dock, and they all seemed ready to go.

“Hold a moment, please. Princess Aria is the Nightmare Knight from Howling Buck’s broadcast?” Brass Bugle asked.

“What is this Nightmare Knight cud?” I spat, turning to Brass Bugle with a snarl. “Who is Howling Buck, and why is he calling me Nightmare Knight?”

“The local radio DJ. He maintains the big broadcasting tower for DJ Pon3 and handles the news breaks during the day,” Shadowbuck answered. “But since it’s night time, DJ Pon3 will be doing the news breaks. The time difference between here and Manehatten is pretty severe. It’s almost noon in mainland Equestria.”

“Vinyl Scratch is still alive? Is she a ghoulie like Ditsy Doo and Brownstone?” I asked. Could the ‘Queen of the Wartime Equestrian Nightlife’ really still be alive?

“She? DJ Pon3 is a buc-er-stallion. Last I heard, at least,” Shadowbuck said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. At least he was learning. “Who’s Vinyl Scratch?”

“So maybe he’s one of her ancestors. That would make sense. A radio DJ reporting the news would not be her usual modus operandi,” I mused until I noticed their stares. “Sorry. Just thinking out loud. But what’s this Nightmare Knight stuff?”

“Just another heroic handle. DJ Pon3 and Howling Buck always give ponies he deems to be ‘fighting the good fight’ a nickname of some sort,” Brass Bugle said. “I think it’s rather appropriate since you wear the armor of Princess Luna’s Lunar Guard.”

“Nightmare Knight? But that would... Princess Luna was not Nightmare Moon! They were different! She was...”

“She was what? You act as if you knew her personally.” Oh crap! I let my big mouth get the better of me.

“Yeah, um, I just remember her being kind and noble to super Great Aunt Aria. She’s... she wasn’t a monster.” Please believe that. Please.

“Yes. Princess Luna was a kind and noble monarch,” he said with a smile. Brass Bugle looked up at the ship’s ‘captain’ expectantly. “Are we clear to leave on the mission? I have my badge and your ‘special operations team’ seems ready to go.”

“Alright, Mr. Hoity Toity. You five roll out and get this done. We’ll be waiting for you here so we can take you back to Gigaton when you're finished. Got it?” Bulletstorm ordered.

“You can count on us!” a knight, a mare by the sound of her voice, said enthusiastically as she gave us a salute.

“Look at you, Bulletstorm, acting like a real leader pony. We know what we gotta do. You do your job, and we’ll do ours,” Shadowbuck replied with a chuckle. “We’ll see you when we have the mission objectives and save the day. Then we’ll get drinks at Moorheart’s to celebrate.”

“You’re offering, so you’re buying,” Bulletstorm laughed.

“You make sure the boat’s here when we get back, and it’s a deal.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get your ass in gear, Shadowbuck. I don’t wanna be sitting here all night with my hoof up my rump. Got it?”

“Got it, Bulletstorm. You’re sounding more and more like a leader already. Star Paladin Buzzsaw better watch himself. You’re gonna give him a run for his money some day,” Shadow said with a smirk before turning to me. “Ready, Aria?”

“Yeah.” I walked up next to him as Compass started slowly descending the gang plank with Melody hovering next to him for support. “Bulletstorm sure is... eloquent. How do you put up with it?”

“Like I said, we all have our ways to deal. Making really inappropriate remarks is his way of joking around. He’s like the little brother I never had,” Shadow joked.

“He’s twice your size.”

“Every stallion in the Steel Rangers is. I’m Stealth Ops. I’m practically the only sneaky Steel Ranger there is. That’s why I’m in the Brotherhood like my dad,” Shadow explained as Compass dismounted at the dock and started making his way to the shore. As Brass Bugle began to follow his lead, Shadow blew his mane off his brow. “Plus, he’s four years younger than me. He’s only seventeen.”

“What? He’s my age?”

“No. If I remember correctly, you turn seventeen in three days, right?”

“Right,” I said, mildly ecstatic at the fact that Shadow had remembered my birthday was coming up. “So you’re twenty-one then?”

“Yep. Although I hear Stable ponies make a big deal about it. Throwing parties and junk.” Brass Bugle made it to the end of the gang plank and it was now one of our turns. Shadow smiled, bowed in an over exaggerated fashion, and donned a horrible impression of Brass Bugle. “After you, mi’lady.”

“You’re just loving this, aren’t you? I grumbled as I started to descend to the dock.

“You know it.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“Hey! I have a lot of courage!” Shadow replied.

“Shadow...” I looked back up the gangplank to see him smiling at me.

“Gotcha, egghead.”

“You got me,” I laughed.

“Come on, Aria. Let’s get going,” Shadow said as we started to walk down the dock to meet the others. “Hey, Queenie, lead the way with that badge of yours, will ya?”

“My name is Brass Bugle, good sir. I would hope you would show me the respect to remember it,” our Queen’s Court escort replied, a bit of animosity that hadn’t been there before tinging his every word. Shadow and Brass Bugle had only spoken two sentences to each other and I could already feel the tension between them. Why did the Queen’s Court and the Steel Rangers hate each other that much? Was the indentured servitude/slavery practices that repugnant to the Rangers? And why did the Court hate them back?

Was it weird that I was actually pining for the simple indifference of the nobles of Canterlot?

“Can we just go please?” Compass asked meekly.

“Yes. That would be prudent,” Brass Bugle said before turning to lead us down the dock and to the road proper.

“Yeah. Whatever.”

In some strange sign of passive aggressiveness, Shadow shoved his helmet onto his head so hard I thought he would jam his neck or smash a few vertebrae together. Whether he did or not, I couldn’t tell, but it was an extremely foalish reaction.

“Stallions,” Melody huffed with an annoyed roll of her eyes before smiling at Compass. “But not you. You’ve got a brain between your ears. It’s almost like you’re half mare... except in the parts that really count.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled back. I don’t know if Compass was offended or took Melody’s ‘joke’ as a compliment, but he didn’t seem angry. If I hadn’t almost seen it, I would have wondered if he had any stallionhood... And from the way Melody talked, perhaps that was the only part of him that wasn’t meek...

Okay! Bad thoughts! Get out of here!

I quickly took those thoughts and imagined myself throwing them into the Void Between Worlds. Hopefully, they wouldn’t find me for a while and... that didn’t last long.

“I have to distract myself. Take in the sights.”

Okay, while they were distracting, the sights of the riverfront were utterly depressing.

To my left, standing at a modest, yet partially collapsed two stories, was a small waterfront estate. In its heyday it had probably been a noblepony’s riverfront home, the broken statues of what I assumed were dragons on the front doorstep were a dead giveaway of opulence and wealth. I would bet my five hundred caps that the dock had been where the rich aristocrat moored his or her pleasure yacht.

With the exception of a large hole in the western corner of the roof and some wear and tear, the house was actually in decent condition. Like many of the buildings in the Trottingham Ruins, it was almost completely random chance that decided if a tower or structure would collapse or be almost untouched by time. However, if I could tell that a pony of position had once owned that vacation home, then raiders and scavengers had probably already figured that out to and robbed the place blind.

It really made you wonder what happened to the original owners. Did they make it down into a Stable and live out the rest of their lives underground? Did they end up in Stable Sixty-Two and get incinerated by balefire when they believed themselves safe? Now that I think about it, didn’t Stable-Tec say their Stables could take a direct balefire blast? I guess that claim was either hopeful thinking, false advertising, or maybe just a horrible stroke of luck for the ponies of the destroyed Trottingham Stable.

But as my eyes passed over the features of the house I noticed a red curtain flapping in the breeze. Since the glass had been blown out ages ago, the curtain attracted my eye like a matador’s cape did to a raging bull. And, for the briefest of moments, I could have sworn I saw a mare standing in one of the windows, watching us. But in the blink of an eye she was gone, like the many ghosts of the past that seemed to haunt me.

It reminded me that most ponies didn’t make it into Stables. There had been a lottery for most positions in the underground shelters. Most likely the owners of this riverside manse had died slow, painful deaths due to radiation sickness.

That would be the most horrible way to go. Eaten away, your body slowly giving out as cancerous tumors formed and consumed your organs, your blood boiled. Then losing control of your bodily functions and dying as a mixture of blood, vomit, and stool vacated your body along with some of your internal organs. I shuddered at the thought.

Now I needed a distraction from my distraction.

Turning my attentions to my right, I was greeted with a tall, unassuming office building except for a few key points. It was a tall, grayish brown ten story building with rows upon rows of empty windows. Three symbols were engraved on the concrete overhang above the main entrance, three diamonds, three balloons, and a lightning bolt. Above them were in dark blue letters was the word ‘MAMI.’ Ss I continued to peer up the side of the building, hoping I wouldn’t see another figure in a window, I spotted the corner of a large, dark pink on bright pink cloth that folded at one point to take on the appearance of an ear.

I knew what was on the roof of the ‘MAMI’ building. I actually knew them quite well from my trip with Golden Star to Manehatten on my thirteenth birthday; there had to be a deflated Pinkie Pie balloon on the roof. That could only make this building the other joint Ministry hub.

“Why does it say ‘MAMI?’ Compass asked me.

“Huh? I don’t... Maybe it means “Ministries of Awesome, Morale, and Image? Cause it’s their hub?” I guessed, getting an approving smile from Shadowbuck.

“Yep, nail on the head, Aria.”

“I’m glad they didn’t call it the Ministries of Awesome, Image, and Morale Hub. ‘MAIM’ doesn’t sound all that nice,” Melody added before snorting to herself, amused. “Welcome to ‘MAIM.’ That would have been bad for business.”

“Public relations and appearances were what Ministry Mare Rarity did best. She made sure everything in the public eye was up to the standards of pony kind and no unsuitable messages or lies bothered the public,” I said plainly.

“So Image was essentially the Ministry of Propaganda,” Shadowbuck replied.

“Propaganda!? Princess Luna would never condone propaganda! Everything that came out of the Ministry of Image was the truth!” I retorted, slightly offended that Shadowbuck would even insinuate that Ministry Mare Rarity would stoop to the level of the vile, lie spewing zebra.

“Like how all zebra are evil vampire monsters, and all ponies are good?”

“Yes! I-”

“You know, Tekash is an awesome buck, zebra or not, and I’ve had to put down some heinous excuses for ponies in my time. Nothing is as black and white as a zebra’s stripes except for said zebra stripes, Aria,” Shadow interrupted, quickly pointing a hoof at me as we walked. “Check’s right, you’ve gotta get some serious deprogramming.”

“Zebras are vile creatures. Princess Aria has every right to hate them,” Brass Bugle responded. “Queen Cadence would see them all wiped out if she could, but they tend to congregate either in Gigaton or the less irradiated sections of the Trottingham Forest. Filthy savages.”

“You don’t want to be an uncaring bigot who hates zebras, griffons, and any other non-pony just because they’re different, do you Aria? I know you’re better than that. You’re too nice to just hate zebras for no reason,” Shadow chided me, and I felt my ears fall back under the weight of his verbal onslaught.

“The plural of zebra is zebra,” I said meekly, suddenly feeling the wind taken out of my sails. I knew I was right. Zebrakind was a twisted and evil race that stood for everything that ponies were against. I’d been taught that my entire life. Maybe this Tekash was the exception that proved the rule? Why else would seemingly smart and street savvy ponies like Shadowbuck and Check like him so much as to defend his entire cursed race? “Can we talk about something different?”

“Like what?” Melody asked as she hovered a few inches off the ground, checking her equipment as the rest of us earthbound ponies had to focus our hooves on walking.

“Like the queen?” That perked Brass Bugle right up, but also got a scowl out of Shadowbuck. You know what? I actually liked his cocky smile better than his scowl. I know it should be a no brainer, but I didn’t think anything could top that snide grin in its annoyance factor.

“What would you like to know, Princess Aria?” Okay, that was actually pretty fudging annoying too.

“I noticed how strikingly similar Princess Cadence, the ruler of the Crystal Empire, and Queen Cadence were in appearance and name. Are they related? They have to be. It’s too close to be a coincidence.”

“Ah, yes. You have a good eye. But how do you know what Princess Cadence looked like?”

“We have a painting in Stable Sixty-Three!” Melody interrupted before I could even think of a lie.

“Thanks for the save, Mel.”

“Really? That is amazing! We might have to buy such a portrait from your Stable. Now then,” Brass Bugle said clearing his throat. “Yes. Queen Cadence and the previous queens have all been descended from Princess Cadence.”

“Then where is Princess Cadence? She was an alicorn after all. She’s immortal,” I asked. Brass Bugle’s eyes lowered to the crack cobblestone roads, and he sighed.

“That, my dear, is a sad tale. When the bombs fell, Princess Cadence and her daughter, Princess Skyla, were living at Trottingham Castle. They were in the market district when the balefire bomb went off north of the city. Princess Cadence used her magic to protect her daughter and was able to make it to Stable Sixty-Four under the castle, but...”

“But?” Compass asked.

“But by the time they were safely inside, the radiation had taken its toll. Princess Cadence couldn’t be saved. They say that the radiation exposure was so severe that her wings melted off.”

“What!?” Melody shouted and wrapped herself in a tight embrace with her wings. “That’s possible?”

“Possibly. It happened almost two hundred years ago so I wasn’t even born then.”

“And what happened to Princess Skyla? She was an alicorn too,” I asked.

“There was an accident a few days before Stable Sixty-Four opened. There was an explosion in the maintenance tunnels and the entire area caved in. She was down there using her magic to repair our water talisman. Princess Skyla and the technicians were killed. That is why Queen Cadence, her great great great granddaughter and our ruler’s grandmother, took the title of ‘queen’ and decided to open the Stable.” He paused for a moment, his voice heavy with sadness. “The Stable became a reminder of how much we lost to her.”

“That’s so sad,” Melody whimpered, pulling Compass into a flying hug that made it hard for him to walk.

“But why was Princess Cadence and Princess Skyla in Trottingham instead of the Crystal Empire? They had their own kingdom. And where was Prince Shining Armor?” I asked.

“That’s simple. The Crystal Empire fell to darkness because of Princess Cadence’s actions. After what happened to her husband, I could see why it fell.”

“It fell? What happened to the Crystal Empire? What happened to Captain Shining Armor?” I asked, really wanting to know what had happened to the royal family of the Crystal Empire.

“Oh! Prince Shining Armor was travelling by ship to a diplomatic meeting between the Zebra Empire and the Crystal Empire when-”

BZZAP!

A bolt of green energy whizzed through the air, striking Brass Bugle in the face and we watched in horror as his form suddenly liquified into a puddle of glowing green goo. Beyond where the royal servant had been standing only a split second before, I could see a green Mr. Gutsy robot floating down the street. The magically powered piece of technology was essentially a hovering orb covered in mechanical arms that each held a powerful weapon. This model had three arms, one with a plasma pistol, its barrel smoking from the discharge, one with a miniature flamethrower, and the third with a Ripper.

“Shit! What’s that thing doing in the street!? We haven’t reached the Ministry Hub yet!” Shadowbuck shouted before grabbing my mane in his teeth and pulling me behind a marquee at a bus stop that proudly displayed Fluttershy drinking a bottle of Sparkle Cola, the yellow pegasus mare giving the world a faded nervous smile as she sipped the dark beverage through a straw.

“Halt! Please identify yourself or be vaporized!” the robot announced as he opened fire on Melody, literally. A deluge of orange flames poured out of the Mr. Gutsy’s flamethrower and Melody screamed, darting upward into the air.

“Melody! Get to cover!” Compass shouted, instantly realizing his mistake and I watched as the rogue robot turned its plasma pistol on our completely defenseless medical pony.

“No!” I shouted, trying to pour a lightning bolt through my horn, but only received a stabbing pain and another useless spark as my reward. Holding my head, I hit the pavement. The green energy blast shot wide, barely missing as it arch over Compass’ shoulder, and he dove for cover behind a tipped over trashcan. Naturally, the flimsy metal barrier took one shot before it melted into a very similar pile of emerald goo.

Pfft. Pftt.

Two sniper rifle rounds ripped into the Mr. Gutsy as Shadowbuck planted two shots into the painted white star on it’s dark green casing. The three armed monstrosity of science and magic sparked and sputtered for a moment, before it turned away from Compass as he cowered behind the remains of his cover and leveled the flamethrower on us.

“Leave them alone!” Melody screamed as she unleashed an aerial barrage of scarlet energy pistol fury that peppered the robots hull and sent it into convulsions.

“Halt!. Ha-Ha-Halt. Haaaaa...” the Mr. Gutsy sputtered, sparks flying from the holes in its frame, before its three glowing eyes dimmed and it collapsed to the ground in a crash of twisted metal. With a hiss and a whine, the Mr. Gutsy ceased functioning.

“Come on! We gotta hurry! We’ve got thirty seconds before the repair talisman fixes that thing and we’ve gotta fight it all over again! Aria, grab Brass Bugle’s badge!” Shadow ordered as he reloaded his rifle, which I now realized was not his original gun, but the magically enchanted rifle Ace had been using, and trained it on the malfunctioning security robot.

“What!?” I shouted, turning my attention to the pile of goo that had just seconds before been a purple earth pony and spotted the badge lying on the ground next to it. I darted over to the monster repelling badge and scooped it up in my mouth, tasting something salty that I hoped wasn’t Brass Bugle goo, and turned to follow my friends to safety.

“Hold on, I’ve got this!” Melody shouted as she swooped down, a screwdriver in her mouth, and she deftly removed a panel from the back of robot far faster than I would have thought possible for a non-unicorn.

“What are you doing, Melody! It-” Shadowbuck shouted, but that was all the time Melody needed. Transferring the screwdriver to her left wing, Melody wrenched a glowing yellow repair talisman out of the Mr. Gutsy in a shower of sparks that caused her remaining hair to stand on end, and the faint whirring inside the robot ceased. “Woah. Did you know you could do that?”

“Nope. But it’s simple arcano tech. The big glowing talisman is usually the most important part in arcano technological devices. It’s a major design flaw, really,” she replied as she stowed the no longer glowing talisman in her saddle bags while I did the same for the Queen’s Court badge. “We could strip this bad boy for some serious parts. I’m pretty sure the ammo from the pistol is compatible with mine.”

“Melody! You’re amazing!” Compass shouted as he raced over to us..

“Are you alright, Compass? It didn’t hit you, did it?”

“No. I’m fine. Are you okay? The fire-”

“Didn’t get me. I’m fine. Shadow, what do you want to do now? If the robots are shooting before Aria can talk to them, does that make the plan a bust?” Melody asked after quickly dismissing Compass’ worrisome question. She knelt down by the robot and started stripping it of parts. Apparently the weapons wouldn’t be useable by any non-unicorn ponies, but their ammo could be taken along with the spark batteries. At least that was something.

“I’ve never seen the bots leave the courtyard. Maybe that one malfunctioned or something. Let’s try to stick to the plan and hope the other security mechs are still in the ask questions before shooting mood instead of the other way around,” Shadow said, a dissatisfied frown on his face as he looked down at the goopy remains of Brass Bugle. “I really hope the mission didn’t just get shot to hell... literally.”

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” I said somberly, nodding towards our short time companion’s ‘body’ as a sign of respect. “Sorry, Brass Bugle.”

“Yeah, sorry. You almost finished with that, Mels?”

“Just let me pull some of this scrap metal and we’re good to go. This armor plating might make a nice upgrade for my reinforced barding if I can get enough of it. It’s light, yet sturdier than the ceramic plates in my current armor,” Melody said, more to herself than us. When she had finally stripped the Mr. Gutsy robot clean, she stood up and grinned at us. “Ready when you are, fearless leaders.”

“Then let’s roll, but let’s be extra quiet and on guard for anything,” Shadow ordered. We all nodded in agreement before slowly and silently following him down the street, hugging any cover we could as we snuck down the street. We still had the badge, so all we needed to worry about were the robots possibly coming out of the MASPWT Hub courtyard again.

But sneaking sure was torture. My every muscle was wound up tighter than a guitar string on the verge of popping. Seeing Brass Bugle vaporized in front of my very eyes had set me on edge, and the sudden demand to be slow and deliberate was causing my mind to scream. The cold flow of adrenaline flowing through me like a torrent of white water rapids screamed for me to either fight something or run, not slowly sneak towards my impending death.

Clank.

I leapt a good foot off the ground, spinning around in mid air, and reflexively tried to fire off a lightning bolt. Nothing happened except another sharp pain arching across my temples, but the only attacker behind us was Compass blushing as I realized he had accidentally kicked a crumpled up tin can. Melody, almost silent as she hovered a few inches off the ground, frowned at her coltfriend and put her hoof to her lips as she shushed him.

“Sorry,” he whispered, eliciting a shush from all three of us. Melody had her flight, I was pretty good at sneaking around, years of being a background pony in Canterlot Castle were finally paying off, and Shadowbuck was a master at the art of stealth. But Compass, no matter how deft he was at surgery and medicine, seemed to be all left hooves when it came to trying to be sneaky.

Returning to our ‘silent’ prowl through the streets of Trottingham, my head pounding from twice trying to use magic too strong for my burned out horn to handle, I was trying to stay vigilant for any other possible signs of an impending attack. My ears twitched, trying desperately to hear anything beside Compass’ hoofbeats or Melody’s wings, and my eyes scanned the ruins and my E.F.S. like mad. But all I saw as I scanned back and forth were two yellow bars.

Wait!? Two yellow bars?

As I looked to my right at Melody, a bar appeared. The same thing happened when I looked at Compass, who seemed to pale when I looked back at him again. But when I looked forward at Shadow as he took point, no bar appeared on my Eyes Forward Sparkle. His suit wasn’t active, I could still see him, so how was my Pipbuck’s tracking spell unable to see him?

At every corner we stopped to check the intersection for any signs of danger. However, almost every intersection was blocked by rubble. The only intersection that had been clear was the first one about five blocks from the river.
We finally arrived at a large building surrounded by a small retaining wall. We ducked low, Shadowbuck almost having to crawl to hide behind it. Shadow peered around the corner into the Ministry Hub courtyard and hissed.

“Crap. There’s at least ten bots in there. Four Gutsy models, four protectrons, and two sentries. Not good. Aria, you’re the only one who can get us through.” He sighed. “Are you ready?”

Was I ready to put my life on the line? Was I ready to most likely get vaporized if Cherry Scones, the pony who had ripped through my mind on a whim, and her plan was wrong? I took a deep breath, trying to calm my jittery mind and nervously shaking hooves, and smiled. I might as well appear confident even though I was feeling half dead on the inside already.

“Yeah.” Swallowing hard, I walked around the corner, each step feeling like a mile, just as an eleventh robot, another sentry that looked like a metal pony with tank treads instead of legs, came around the other side. How could something like that move so quietly? Or was I just that oblivious

“Halt! This is Ministry property! Please identify yourself or be vaporized!” the sentry commanded in a harsh, mechanical tone.

“I-” I froze as it leveled its minigun square in my face.

“You have ten seconds to comply or lethal force will be executed.”

I couldn’t even think. I should have spoke. I should have run. But my brain, tired, ravaged, and drained as it was, did not want to work. I needed to speak. I needed to tell the sentry bot my name, rank, and serial number, but I just stared, wide eyed and unblinking at the massive gun aimed directly at my head. I couldn’t remember any of it. Not even my own name.

“Sentry 804B3! Stop that this instant! That pony is obviously a member of Princess Luna’s Royal Guard!” another mechanical voice, this one much more proper and less harsh in tone, shouted out from the other side of the massive robot. The sentry turned its head on a swivel as a Mr. Handy, not a Mr. Gutsy, hovered around the Sentrybot and rotated back and forth as if he was shaking his head. Like a Mr. Gutsy, the robot was all head and limbs, but this one at least didn’t have any weapons at the end of its claw like arms.

“I am dreadfully sorry, madam. We have been on high alert for some time now so my fellow robots are a little testy. Could you please identify yourself before my companions decide to forget my insistence on not shooting you and do just that. I would hate to have to clean up more blood; it always stains the pavement,” the Mr. Handy asked politely.

I don’t know why, maybe because I was going crazy, but the quaint Trottingham accent of the Mr. Handy robot actually made me giggle. That simple release of endorphins and the strange sense of happiness it gave me allowed my brain to start working again and allowed some of the tension running through my entire body to ease. I immediately realized what I was doing and bit my lower lip.

“Sorry. Um, my name is Aria of Princess Luna’s Lunar Guard, rank lieutenant, serial number 86537779,” I replied, giving the robots my best, most nervous smile. I couldn’t help being nervous, the sentry still had an automatic weapon inches from my face.

“Scanning data banks,” both automatons said in unison as their eyes lit up with an eerie yellow glow. A few moments later, the glowing stopped and the Mr. Handy continued.

“Error. Visual scans confirm identity of one Lieutenant Aria of the Lunar Guard, but file is marked as deceased.”

“Oh cud!”

“Possibilities for this outcome, three. Changeling spy, illusion spell, or internal data error,” the sentry bot rattled off.

“Yes. Miss Aria, if you truly are who you say, would you mind if we perform a genetic scan to verify your identity?” Mr. Handy asked.

Genetic scan? Oh yeah! The hoofprints and hair samples in the Royal Guard databases. All soldiers and guards had to submit to it in order to defend against possible changeling incursion and espionage attempts during the war. With Queen Chrysalis’ hatred for Equestria, the possibility of the changelings joining the Zebra Empire was always a real and present danger... I guess it was a real and past danger now.

“Alright. Scan me.” The only reason I wasn’t freaking out about another possible mental attack was the fact that robots had no mental powers. Mr. Handy’s eyes lit up again as it reached out and plucked a hair from my mane. “Ow!”

“Please excuse the discomfort. This will only take a moment.”

I stood in nervous silence, waiting for the servant robot to complete the genetic match. I didn’t know why I was so nervous, of course I would match my own genetic scan, but the sentry bot still had its weapons trained on me. No matter how confident a pony thought they were, I doubt anypony could stare down the triple barrel of a sentry bot’s minigun and not start to sweat.

“DNA match confirmed. Welcome to the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, Peace, and Wartime Technologies Hub, Lieutenant Aria,” Mr. Handy said suddenly, sweeping his front arm out as if he were bowing to me.

“Oh. Um.” Think, Aria! Think! “Oh! I’m here to escort some key personnel and get them registered into the Hub’s databases as employees. Can you do that for me?”

“Processing... Yes, ma’am. We are still able to update our rolls, but we haven’t received orders about new personnel.”

“When was the last time you received any new orders?” I asked, knowing the answer already.

“Two hundred years, forty-two days, eleven hours, five minutes, and thirty-three seconds.”

“That seems like an error too,” I said.

“Yes. That would be illogical. In absence of the chain of command, the highest ranking officer present is to take command of Ministry security. Lieutenant Aria, are you to take command of this hub’s security as to your right as a member of Princess Luna’s guard and the highest ranking member of the Equestrian government present at the moment? Until the proper chain of command can be re-established, of course,” Mr. Handy asked, and I blinked.

What? I had that right? I could take over the hub? Just like that? The robots would be mine? The hub would be mine? There wouldn’t be any other ponies who could claim a higher rank than me. Sweet Celestia on buttered toast with a side of Luna lemonade... Wow, I’m obsessed with food, aren’t I?

Gurgle. Gurgle. Gurgle.

And thinking about food suddenly made me realize that I hadn’t eaten anything since a quick snack on the Union Jack line, which I vomited up a few hours ago. I really hoped there was some sort of food inside the Ministry Hub.

“Yes, Mr. Handy unit. I, Lieutenant Aria of Princess Luna’s Lunar Guard, will take command of this Ministry Hub’s security until the proper chain of command can be re-established,” I swore, and a strange series of beeps, static, and bongs started emitting from all the security bots, who I now noticed were all training their guns on me.

“Security has been transferred to you, Lieutenant Aria. Shall we commence in registering the new personnel?” Mr. Handy asked the moment the buzzing and beeping stopped.

“Yes. Yes, we shall.”

____________________________

“Well, that went well,” Shadowbuck said as we walked into the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, Peace, and Wartime Technology Hub as if we owned the place. Actually, now that security had been transferred to me and the robots were listening to me, I kind of did own the place. “That was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

“That’s because you were hiding behind a wall while I had a minigun pointed between my eyes.”

“Heh, you did good, Aria,” Shadowbuck said, giving me a confident grin.

“Yeah! We just wanted in the hub, now we’re running the place,” Melody said, practically beaming at every robot and terminal we passed. “I could spend years in here. Maybe there’s something to fix the Stable Sixty-Three door in the MWT wing?”

“Maybe. I’d like to see what kind of medical equipment they have in the Ministry of Peace wing,” Compass said.
The medical pony speaks!” Shadowbuck said playfully as he threw a hoof around Compass’ shoulder. “This is a big day for all of us. The Steel Rangers could definitely use this as a base. It-”

“No!” I snapped.

“What? But this is the Ministry of Wartime Technology too, Aria. The Steel Rangers are a part of it,” Shadowbuck argued, but I shot him a look that silenced him, and I’m pretty sure I almost popped a blood vessel in my right eye with how hard I was glaring at him; I could even feel my eyelid twitching.

“Cherry Scones is coming nowhere near this place. I’m head of security here and I’ll set the bots to tear her to pieces,” I spat, the taste of her name vile in my mouth.

“Aria. We need to talk about what happened. Elder Cherry Scones had to have a good reason for-”

“Shut up, Shadow!” I shouted, causing a Mr. Gutsy down the hall to go on high alert and turn his plasma rifle on my Steel Ranger companion.

“Do you need assistance detaining Knight Shadowbuck, Lieutenant Aria?”

Melody being an arcano-tech expert for the Ministry of Arcane Science and Compass being a doctor hired by the Ministry of Peace were lies that could be easily enforced, the military and ministry databases wouldn’t have extensive files on every mechanic and doctor in Equestria, but Shadowbuck having the rank of Paladin would throw up some red flags for the robots, possible server errors or not. They were in the service of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, just like the Steel Rangers. I had to say he was a newly appointed Knight in order for my new force of robot guards to not freak out and start questioning things; they were buggy enough as it was.

“No. I’m fine. Knight Shadowbuck and I are just having a disagreement. You may return to your duties,” I ordered. We watched in angry silence as the robot guard floated away, mumbling something about killing zebra scum. Okay, to be fair, Compass looked on in nervous silence, Melody was busy hacking a terminal, and Shadow actually looked a bit hurt.

“Aria...”

“Don’t ‘Aria’ me, Shadow! I’m letting you in, but that’s it! You’re the only Steel Ranger I trust right now and your constant attempts at defending that blueberry you call a leader is really starting to make that hard to do!” I shouted, drawing the attention of more mechs and even pulling Melody’s gaze away from the terminal screen.

“I’m trying to say that I don’t know why she did this, and it was wrong, but Elder Cherry Scones is a good person. She... I don’t know why she did this, Aria.”

“Because she wanted to make me stop saying I survived a balefire egg explosion! She couldn’t handle that I’m alive and her husband’s dead so she tried to rip my mind apart to prove a stupid point!” I screamed, turning away from him and marching off towards the elevator. Jabbing the up button with my hoof, the door immediately opened with a pleasant chime as the tinny tones of elevator music started to play. “Melody. You’re with me. We’re hitting the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.”

“And what about Compass and Shadow?” Melody asked.

“They can search the Ministry of Peace side. The MoP were the ones who developed the first megaspells, after all.” I replied coldly as Melody flitted over to join me in the elevator. Compass and Shadowbuck were already trotting over to us, and Shadow did not look happy.

“Oh hell no! We are not splitting up like that! We’re coming with you to the MAS wing!”

“Then you’ll have to take the stairs,” I said as I pressed the ‘Close Elevator’ button.

“Hey!” Melody and Shadowbuck shouted in unison as the doors closed in his face.

“Why’d you do that? You left Compass behind.” Melody scolded me until she noticed my face. I had been trying not to cry, even though I was furious the tears were still coming, but now that the door was closed I couldn’t hold them back any longer.

“I don’t want to hate him, Melody, but I don’t know if I can trust him,” I cried, falling onto my haunches and covering my eyes with my hooves. “I thought he was my friend, I thought I might like him. I-I thought he might like me. But he keeps defending her. Why, Melody? Why?”

“I-I don’t know. Maybe he’s having a hard time with it?”

“What?”

“She’s his leader, Aria. Maybe hearing about her doing that is hard for him to believe. What if you heard that Princess Luna or the Ministry Mares had done that?” she asked, putting her hoof gently on my shoulder.

“But they wouldn’t,” I whimpered.

“But what if they did? Wouldn’t that turn your whole worldview upside down? Maybe you should see it from his perspective,” she said, giving me a tender smile.

“What’s that?” I sniffed, wiping my eyes on the back of my hooves.

“He’s confused, he doesn’t know what to do, and he likes you.”

“Really?” I asked. The realization that he might like me was actually the least shocking thing about Melody’s statement. I could see that on my own. The interesting bit of insight was the fact that Shadow was confused and didn’t know what to do or where to go now that things had changed so drastically. It actually made me feel better to know somepony else was feeling the same way I was. Whether that was natural and innocent or messed up, selfish, and mean, I don’t know, but it helped.

The elevator let out a soft ding as we arrived on the third floor. The map had said that a sky bridge connected this building, which housed the Ministry of Peace and Ministry of Wartime Technology wings, with another smaller building on the compound that acted as the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.

Wiping my nose, I took a deep breath and tried to pull myself together.

“There we go. Let’s get those megaspell plans, save the day, and then we can take a good rest before we get back to finding a way to fix our Stable door, okay?” Melody said as she attempted to give me a little pep talk. Smiling, I tried to put on a brave face. That seemed to cheer her up even more. “Come on, Aria. Let’s go be heroes.”

As we stepped off the elevator, the door to the stairwell flew open and out galloped Shadowbuck.

“Aria... Wait... I... need to...” he panted, leaning against the wall as he tried to speak and catch his breath at the same time; neither was going very well for him.

“Shadow... How about we not talk about it until we both know what we want to say?” I asked, not really wanting to look at him.

“Huff... Okay... Sounds good.” Had he really sprinted up the stairs to catch me and Melody before we left for the Ministry Wing? I couldn’t decide if that was sweet or just really stupid.

Ding.

We all turned to see the other elevator slowly open and watched as Compass trotted out, his medical bag balanced on his back. We all stared at him, except for Melody who was smiling, and he pursed his lips and his eyes widened.

“Why are you all staring at me? I just took the other elevator. Did I do something wrong?”

We couldn’t help ourselves. Melody and I took one look at Shadowbuck as he leaned against the wall, hugging and puffing as he stared at Compass, completely dumbfounded, and we just started laughing. It started out as a low chuckle, but soon Shadow joined in with an exasperated laugh.

“I’m an idiot,” he chuckled, and we all burst out into full on laughter, even Compass.

As we laughed like a bunch of ponies, completely off their rocker, I realized something. I could see why Laughter was an Element of Harmony because I can honestly say that with all the horrible things thrown at me, laughing with my friends actually made it seem like a beam of sunshine had actually broken through the eternal cloud cover of the Equestrian Wasteland and warmed my heart as it rest at the bottom of the pit in my chest. Laughter really was a true virtue, not mine, but I seriously envied Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie right now.

If anypony could survive in the Wasteland, the bearer of the Element of Laughter would have a really good shot.

“Survive... I really should find the time to read that Wasteland Survival Guide when I get the chance.”

____________________________

The trip across the skybridge was easy. Just a simple walk across the covered walkway with only one large hole on one side leading to a three story drop to contend with, but slow and steady and a relatively large stable path made the broken section of bridge almost comically easy. However, the ‘obstacle’ did reveal a reason why taking the sky bridge was the better option for us to have taken, besides the fact that the exit to the courtyard from the main hub was blocked by a collapsed section of the second floor.

Below, hissing and moaning and just being all around nasty abominations was a pack of feral ghouls. They shambled around the burned and rotted out courtyard, numbering about thirty or so zombie ponies in all. Less than what we had faced in the Trottingham Natural History Museum, but this time we only had one Brotherhood of Steel Member in our group, not five. There was no way we could take them in a fair fight. I’d just have to remember to order the robots to clear them out later; right now we had to find some very important megaspell research.

The Ministry of Arcane Sciences was a mess. Like everything I had seen of the Trottingham Ruins, dust and decay ruled this office too. As we stepped into the main office space, a maze of cubicles leading to a hallway beyond that was just out of the light of our lamp spells. Almost every cubicle bathed the room in the pale green glow of active terminals.

“Alright ladies and gentlecolts, let’s get to started. There are a lot of filing cabinets and a ton of terminals so let’s get cracking,” Shadow ordered. Rolling my eyes, I sighed.

“We know, Shadow.”

“I call the terminals! Come help me with them Compass,” Melody shouted as she zipped into the first row of terminals.

“Right! Coming!” Compass called as he rushed after her.

“I guess that leaves us the desks and filing cabinets,” I said. Trotting over to the next row, I called out, “Yell out if you find anything!”

“We know, Aria,” Shadow said from the next row over, and the four of us set to work.

____________________________

Two hours and three floors later, we had found nothing. The filing cabinets were full of random assortments of ammunition, bottle caps, a burned or brittle piles of papers that disintegrated the moment I tried to pick them up. Occasionally we would find some useless TPS reports from a pony named Lumbergh, but for the most part everything in the physical world was a bust. Although it was a personal victory to find a MAS coffee mug, it’s ceramic white completely untarnished by time or radiation, and I immediately stowed it away. A clean drinking glass, even if it were just a mug, was a little piece of heaven for me in the hell that was the Wasteland.

When we finally converged on the fourth floor, every possible desk, cabinet, closet, and safe scavenged, we had amassed a large quantity of small firearm ammo, a few pistols, some medicine, and about two hundred caps, but nothing that could help us. As Shadow and I waited in the lobby on the third floor, waiting for Compass and Melody, I decided to turn on my Pipbuck’s radio feature and check out this ‘Howling Buck’ and ‘DJ Pon3’ for myself.

What I was confronted with was something I hadn’t been expecting. The flowing melody, the elegant tones of the singer, the emotionally driven plea of the song’s lyrics. I was once again thrown back in time, figuratively speaking this time.
I felt like I was sitting in my room, pouring over a magical theory text from the Royal Library and listening to my Sweetie Belle album for what must have been the hundredth time that month. Listening to the co-founder of Stable-Tec’s amazing singing while reading whatever book I checked out for the weekend was how I usually spent every evening of my youth before I entered the Royal Guard Academy or met Brightlight.

I knew every song by heart, every heartfelt word that poured out of the amazing unicorn’s lips. It was so hauntingly beautiful, yet utterly sad now that I knew her hymn-like prayer had gone unheard and the world had descended into the eternal darkness she feared.

“How can I fix this? How many times must I try? Please, this time, let me get it right!”

“We didn’t get it right, did we, Sweetie Belle?” I whispered, feeling the familiar weight of depression pulling at my heart.
As the music began to fade, a smooth talking stallion came on the air.

“And that was Sweetie Belle, letting us all know that we all make mistakes, but we can always try to do better. Words to live by, Sweetie Belle,” the disk jockey said. I couldn’t tell if this was DJ Pon3 or Howling Buck, but something about his voice made me want to trust him.

“This is your old pal, DJ Pon3, and how about a little news from across the pond? That’s right folks, things seem to be shaking up in that monster infested hell hole that we affectionately call Trottingham. My friend, Howling Buck, Trottingham’s daytime DJ when yours truly has to catch some shut eye and all around good buck, reported earlier that those royal pains, the Royal Flush Raiders, launched an attack on Stable Sixty-Three, and it has ended in a massacre. Well, my most faithful listeners, there’s good news here; the ponies that got massacred were the Royal Flush raiders.

“Apparently Stable Sixty-Three kicked their asses with the help of a unicorn in old Lunar Guard armor that Howling Buck’s calling the ‘Nightmare Knight.’ Personally, I don’t like the name, but if she stays a nightmare to the raiders and an ally to the good ponies of Trottingham, then she’ll be A-OK in my book.”

So that was DJ Pon3? Well, at least he had better taste in music than his namesake. The fact that I was on the radio wasn’t surprising, I already knew about that, but it was still a little embarrassing. I mean, I didn’t stop the raiders on my own. Starshine, Melody, Compass... Toffee Biscuits, they all helped. And we probably would have been killed without the Brotherhood of Steel’s help. Why did DJ Pon3 leave them out? Did he not get all the details from this Howling Buck guy?

“Getting some good press, huh?” Shadow asked as he searched the receptionist’s desk for any loot. “Well, there goes that theory,” he mumbled under his breath.

“I guess so,” I said.

“And that’s it for news out of Hoofington and Manehatten. I’d have news out of Fillydelphia, but it’s still running dark. If I were to take a guess, I’d say Red Eye’s being a real tool as usual. Now here’s some Sapphire Shores for your listening pleasure.”

And that was my queue to switch the radio off. It’s not that I hated Sapphire Shores’ music, some of her songs were actually just as good as Sweetie Belle’s. The only problem was listening to her music always left a bad taste in my mouth.
I had always heard about her reputation as a bit of a diva, but when I was ten and Golden Star brought me to Manehatten we had gone to one of her concerts and I experienced it for myself. When she showed up an hour late and then left without seeing any of the VIP ticket guests, which included Golden Star and me, it soured all her music for me from then on. I should have known though, what can you expect from a pony who wears a dress covered in gems anyway?

“Not a fan of Sapphire Shores?” Shadow asked.

“Long story. Anyway, who’s Red Eye?” I asked. Shadowbuck tensed up at my question and I heard his breath catch in his throat.

“He... he’s the leader of the slavers in Fillydelphia. He’s a real psychopath that makes Queen Cadence’s practices look like a five star hotel. He’s hurt a lot of ponies in pursuit of his ‘better Equestria through Unity,’ whatever the hell that means,” Shadow explained, his voice strained.

“Shadow... Did-”

Ding.

“Oh good! You’re here!” Melody cheered as the elevator doors slid open behind us. “Guess you two found the same info we did. The head ponies’ office is through there. Apparently they worked on megaspell research here and in Manehatten.”

“No, we didn’t find any info downstairs so we came up here. But the door’s locked,” I said.

“It’s not locked, I just said we can’t go any farther. I wanted to see if Melody could crack the terminal. We can probably get past the bypass field down the hall with it,” Shadow explained.

“Bypass field? In the hallway? How do you know that?” I asked, looking at him incredulously.

“Yeah. Cherry Scones sent me in here a few months ago to scout out the inside of the hub. Almost got caught a few times and wasn’t able to loot the place, but I got stopped when I arrived up here. When I unlocked the door I found the hallway blocked by a bypass field. A file under the receptionist desk told me that it was a bypass field set to a very select set of ponies genetic codes.”

“Whose DNA is it set to?” Melody asked as she started to trot over to the terminal.

“The file said it was some ponies named Gestalt and Mosaic’s office for when they were in town from Canterlot.”

“They were Twilight Sparkle’s right hoof ponies. Brightlight complained about them all the time. He said they were weird and a little crazy,” I added.

“Yeah, well, apparently all the bypass spells that the MAS made were set for certain ponies, but this one also had a bypass for Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Princess Luna,” Shadowbuck explained, and I nodded. It made sense for the Ministry Mares of this hub and the princesses to be able to go anywhere in their hubs. An impenetrable room, even in the hooves of trusted allies, was too much of a liability.

“So how do we get through? Mosaic and Gestalt had to have had visitors to their office. Otherwise, what’s the point of this lobby and a receptionist?” Compass asked.

“Bingo. I couldn’t hack the terminal, so I’m hoping that Melody can get us in through it. There has to be a command to turn it off,” Shadowbuck explained.

“Alrighty. One hack terminal, coming up.”

____________________________

One hour later, Melody was still hard at work trying to crack the password for the receptionist’s terminal. Since we couldn’t give up and the fate of Trottingham was resting on our shoulders, Melody sat glued to that emerald screen, her eyes scanning the lines of code furiously. About ten minutes in I had cracked open the Wasteland Survival Guide and started reading. I even passed my copy of Zebra Infiltration Tactics to Shadowbuck, although I made him Pinkie Pie Promise to give it back, and we passed the time through the magic of a good book.

“Okay... Let’s try this one more time,” she growled at the terminal as if her threats could sway it. Compass sat next to her, offering any help he could while giving her whatever moral support he could muster.

I reached a particularly interesting, and slightly useless given our current circumstances, chapter on getting pre-war technology to work for me and chuckled under my breath.

“I think I’ve got that covered in spades, Ditsy Doo,” I whispered, turning the page with my hoof. It had taken some getting used to, using my hoof to turn pages, since I normally just used my magic to handle such a mundane task. I really was starting to gain a new respect for earth ponies and pegasi. Shadow looked up from my old book and frowned.

“Crap on a radroach, Aria, do you even read books or do your eyes just consume the letters as you go?” Shadow cursed.

“What?” I blinked before realizing that I was on the third to last chapter. Remembering the ‘Table of Contents.’ all that was left was a chapter on the establishment of Friendship City, wherever that was, and Brownstone’s chapter on Trottingham exclusive monsters. Looking over at Shadow’s book, I saw that he was maybe fifty or so pages into the Royal Guard required reading. “Heh, I told you I like books. Who knew a delivery pony like Ditsy Doo would end up being a pretty decent writer.”

“Yeah, well, she’d have to be. Some slavers cut out her tongue some years back.”

“Luna!” I swore, putting my hooves to my mouth. “Why would anypony do that?”

“You are way too innocent for this world, Aria. Most ponies accept this crap as a common occurrence by your age,” he said, turning the page of his book nonchalantly.

“That doesn’t make it right!”

“Yeah, well, they’re slavers. They do horrible shit. That’s why I say we kill them all and be done with it,” Shadow said coldly. “Even those bastards and bitches in the Queen’s Court...” He caught my glare. "What?"

"That word..." I growled at him and smiled nervously back at me.

“Sorry. I mean, douchebags and bitches in the Queen’s Court.”

“Ah ha! I got ya, you stupid son of a bitch!” Melody cheered as the terminal finally cracked. Taking my books back, I stowed them in my saddlebags only to hear Melody curse again. “Aw, shit!”

“What?” Shadow asked, bolting around the receptionist’s desk and shoving Melody aside to stare at the screen. His jaw dropped and he swore too. “You have got to be fucking kidding me!”

Luna save me, my ears were burning.

“What’s the problem? Do we really have to curse so much?” I asked, trotting around to join my friends in the now cramped space behind the terminal. Only one command was listed on the screen, ‘Urgent Memo from Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle.’

That was it. Just a memo. No release code. No command to turn off the bypass field. Nothing. We had come all this way and found nothing. There was still the chance there was something on the Ministry of Peace side, but this had been our best bet. But our best bet had completely failed.

“Read the memo,” the strange feminine voice that seemed naggingly familiar whispered in my ear. Snapping my head in the direction of the voice, all I saw was the rest of the lobby.

“Okay. Now I’m definitely going nuts,” I thought to myself, closing my eyes and noticing that the flame was surprisingly absent. Was only one of my voices able to talk to me at a time?

Taking a deep breath, I nudged Shadow aside and opened the memo.

“What are you doing, Aria?” he asked.

“Reading. We might as well since Melody worked so hard to get in here,” I replied.

“Then read away, Madame Speed Reader.”

“Gestalt, Mosaic,

I know you two have the weekend off, and we have the final test at Maripony on Monday, but this is important. Rarity brought to my attention a very real weakness in our bypass fields. Her sister, Sweetie Belle, went to visit her at the Ministry of Image and just walked into her office while the bypass field was up. It was only supposed to allow myself, my fellow Ministry Mares, and the princesses through, but she just passed through it like it wasn’t even there.

I went there personally today and inspected the spellwork on almost every barrier in Canterlot. I had to disable most of them in the process, but I realized where the flaw comes from. The bypass spells do not just allow the ponies who are set to bypass, but also any pony that shares similar genetics. Sisters, cousins, even ponies that only share a common genome can get through.

This is a serious weakness in our security. Rarity’s freaking out that Blueblood could sneak into her office and be his usual obsessive self. I am actually in agreement with her. It is a distinct possibility, no matter how remote the chance. When we’re done with the experiment on Monday, please get to work on fixing this. This is your highest priority first thing Tuesday morning.

Twilight Sparkle,

Mare of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences

“Score one for reading!” I cheered.

“What’d you find?” Melody asked.

“You and I should be able to make it through the barrier. We’re related to Princess Luna so it might work for us.”

“Wait? Really? Why didn’t I think about that? The file did say something about that, didn't it? I completely forgot!” Shadow said, hitting himself on the side of his helmet with a resounding clang.

“Really? Cause you're the one who mentioned something about it in Starshine’s office,” I said with a casual grin.

“Yeah. Yeah. Why didn’t you remember then, Miss Brainiac?”

“Hey! Come on! That’s enough you two. If Aria and I can pass through it, then we can drop the barrier from the office so you guys can pass,” Melody shouted, stopping our argument before it could even start.

“You know things are bad when Melody’s the voice of reason,” Compass joked.

“Maybe I’ll just lock you out here and make you stew,” Melody told him with a grin that shut him up almost immediately.

“Sorry, Melody.”

“It’s alright, Compass.”

“So you ready to break on through to the other side, Aria?” Shadowbuck asked.

“Only if you’re ready to sit and wait for the girls to save the day,” I said. Turning to Melody with a confident grin, I added, “Ready to be my wingpony, Melody.”

“Sure, but that only works if you have wings. So that makes you my hornpony, right?”

“Wow, that doesn’t sound the least bit wrong,” I joked back as we threw open the doors leading to Gestalt and Mosaic’s office.

Lying between us and the double door, probably made of a stained oak or a dark mahogany, was a green magical barrier, a hum of energy and a buzz of static filled the air.

“Why do I suddenly feel like a fly in front of a bug zapper?” Melody moaned, her smile quickly fading.

“Come on, Melody. If crappy Uncle Blueblood could pass through one of these, then we definitely can,” I told her, praying that he actually could have and it wasn’t just Ministry Mare Rarity being paranoid.

“He could?” she asked as we approached the glowing green energy field.

“Maybe,” I said, pulling her towards the barrier before she could stop me.

“What!”

That was all she got to say before I passed through the bypass field, a warm tingle caressing my entire body, and I smiled. We did it. We...

“Ow!” I heard Melody shout as I realized I wasn’t holding her hoof anymore. Looking back down the hall, I saw Melody, her body pressed flat against the barrier, staring at me with a world of hurt in her sea blue eyes. She stared at me like I had just stabbed her in the heart, and I could almost feel the knife twisting in my own. “What happened? I couldn’t pass through it?”

“I’d like to know that too,” Shadowbuck said as Compass rushed over to Melody, wrapping his forelegs around her in a protective hug. I was so sure she was going to cry, the pain written all over her face, but she was just staring at me, begging for answers.

“I-I don’t know... Maybe she was too far removed. Maybe I’m just barely close enough to Princess Luna to count,” I hypothesised, trying to make sense as to why I could pass through, but not Melody. It didn’t make any sense.

“So... so I’m not close enough to be your niece?” she asked, her voice straining not to sob.

“No... no, Melody. You’re my niece. You’re Golden Star’s granddaughter. You... I guess you’re just not close enough to be Princess Luna’s niece, but only if you ask this stupid bypass spell. I bet you if Aunt Luna were here, she’d definitely call you her niece. And she’d want you to tell her all about terminals and Pipbucks and magical energy weapons.” I said, trying my hardest to sound convincing and try to cheer my distraught niece up. That had to be the answer. Maybe these bypass spells only worked on ponies from the time they were made along with the correct genetic makeup. It seemed illogical, but at this point it was the only theory that made any sense.

“Really?” she asked, a glimmer of hope returning to her eyes as a small smile crept to the edges of her lips.

“Really. I-I’m going to see if I can get this spell turned off. You guys sit tight and I’ll have you in as fast as possible,” I reassured them before turning around and trotting through the doors to Gestalt and Mosaic’s office.
I think I died and went to the hell, but found a secret tenth circle that was my own personal heaven. Bookshelves, half filled with at least two hundred tomes of knowledge of my lost age, lined the wall to my right. On the far wall was a bar, stocked with bottles of every type of alcohol I could think of and then some, and two vending machines, one Sparkle Cola and the other Sunrise Sarsparilla. On the wall by the door were two paintings of one pony, a green unicorn mare with an overly enthusiastic smile on her face. Why would some pony have two portraits made of one pony?

“Those two even complete their own sentences. I don’t care that they’re twins, it’s still really creepy. Are you listening to me, Aria? Aria! Can you get your nose out of that book for two seconds and at least try to listen to me.” I suddenly remembered Brightlight saying and felt extremely guilty.

I had ignored him. I hadn’t even realized I ignored him at times. I was just so focused on being valedictorian that I took him for granted. It was no wonder he cheated on me; I was a horrible marefriend. I wouldn’t sleep with him, I’d ignored him. He deserved to be with somepony better. Was Silver Storm better than me? Was I so-

“Aria! Any luck finding the terminal?” I heard Shadowbuck call from the hallway.

Snapping out of my self deprecating haze, I quickly spotted two desks sitting side by side in front of a large window with a panoramic view of the city and the riverfront. Back before the sky closed up and the world ended, I’m sure it would have been a lovely view. Sitty on each desk, much to my pleasure and my dismay, was a terminal.

“I-I think so! There’s two terminals in here!”

“Two? Which one drops the shield?” he asked as I rounded the desk. One of the terminals was burned out, it’s screen cracked and browned by a small electrical fire inside its casing.

“Well, that makes the decision a little easier,” I mumbled as I sat down behind the terminal on the desk closer to the door and brought up... a locked terminal screen. It needed a password. “Okay, Aria. Time to see if you can work the same magic your niece can...” I remembered my burned out horn and winced. “Okay, magic is the wrong word.”

Executing the hacking procedure, an absolute horror was presented to me in the form of ten simple words among a sea of garbage code. That was normal. The part that made my blood run cold was the fact that they were all eleven characters long. This was too much for my feeble hacking skills, and I knew it.

Dr. Hoofentrotter had been a challenge, and his was the nickname he gave his wife. Starshine’s password was almost as long as this one, but it was his wife’s name too. I only figured those out because I knew the ponies whose terminals I had been hacking. The Wasteland’s constant taunts had been running in my favor. But I didn’t know these ponies except from half heard complaints from my cheating ex-coltfriend!

It was crappy luck, but it looked like it had finally run out.

“It’s password protected! I-I don’t know if I can get this!”

“You can do it, Aria! You gotta believe in yourself. If things get too hard, back out and try again!” Melody called out, making me feel a little more relaxed to hear her voice strong and encouraging again.

“Okay,” I said weakly and set to work.

Three tries. Back out. Wait. Three tries. Back out. Wait.

Over and over I repeated this process, and over and over I failed to find the right password. After about the twentieth try, I screamed out in frustration. Three more tries, and all I had discovered was that the password this time ended in ‘I-N-G.’ The sad part is that this was the closest I had gotten yet. I was on the verge of tears as I sat at Gestalt’s, or was is Mosaic’s, desk, and I choked back a sob.

“What’s the matter, Aria? Are you okay?” Melody asked from down the hall.

“Yeah, you okay?” Shadow repeated, sounding equally worried.

“I can’t do it, Melody! I’m not as good at this as you are!” I cried as the tears started to leak from my eyes, rolling slowly down my cheeks. I was getting so tired of crying, but I couldn’t help myself. I really was a wreck.

“Yes, you can! I’ll walk you through it. How many letters have you figured out?” Melody asked, her voice oddly patient for a pony usually as energetic as her.

“Um, three. I’m pretty sure ‘I-N-G’ are the ending to this password.”

“Good. How many password possibilities have ‘I-N-G” at the end?”

Counting, I realized that out of the ten possible choices, seven ended with ‘I-N-G.’

“Seven!”

“And how many have you used with ‘I-N-G?”

“If I hear ‘I-N-G’ one more time, can you please just shoot me, Compass?” Shadowbuck complained.

“Shut up, Shadow!” Melody snapped. “How many have you tried already, Aria?”

“Two!”

“So you have two tries left?” she asked. I could almost hear her hopeful smile.

“No. I used the first one on ‘Testaments,’ I admitted, and I heard Melody groan.

“Oh, Aria! That’s that’s the first rule of hacking. If you see a lot with the same letters, try one of those first!” she complained. “But it’s okay. I want you to try something a little more advanced.”

“What!?”

“Go through the junk code, one character at a time,” she instructed.

“What’s that going to do?” I asked, feeling tired, hungry, and confused.

“Just do it! Slowly work your way through. When the prompt suddenly selects more than one character of code, stop scrolling and let me know!”

Slowly, I started tabbing through each character of junk code, completely ignoring the possible passwords as I passed them. It went against everything they told us at the Royal Guard Academy, and the Stable Tec terminal user documents never said anything about hacking, but I had to trust Melody. It seemed absurd for anything to be among the junk... What?
The cursor was now highlighting four pieces of junk code that read ‘_&%?’ as if it were a word.

“I think I found something!” I shouted, a little more confident than before as I wiped my tears away with a cloth napkin I spotted on the desk. I’d have to pocket that for later too.

“Good! Now hit ‘Enter!’”

“But-”

Don’t worry. Trust me!” she shouted back. Taking a deep breath, I hit the ‘Enter’ key and watched as the word ‘FAVOURITING’ disappeared from the screen and the prompt ‘Dud Removed’ appeared on the side of the block of text. Was that even a real word?

“A password choice disappeared!”

“Good! Keep doing that! Most of the time it removes a fake password, but sometimes the code will cause the terminal’s security to reset and restore your allotted tries before it detects you! Keep looking!”

And so, with a new weapon in my hacking arsenal, I set to work. Line after line of code revealed, little, only two more duds were removed, one being a choice I had already selected and another not ending in ‘I-N-G,’ and I was nearing the end of the block. If I didn’t get a refreshed allotment, I was going to have to back out and try again. We had already spent far too long hacking terminals tonight; Gigaton and the rest of the Trottingham Ruins didn’t have that much time.

My cursor highlighted another group of junk code and I stopped. There were still four possible choices left. If this removed a dud, then I’d have to back out, wait, and try again. But if it reset the terminal’s security, then I would be able to select all the possible choices and I couldn’t lose. Closing my eyes, the flame appeared and chuckled to itself.

“Do you have the courage?” It asked.

“Yes,” I muttered and stuck the ‘Enter’ key hard.

And I let out a cry of pure victory as my ‘ATTEMPT(S) LEFT:’ refilled.

“I got it! Hold on, I’m about to crack it!” I cheered.

“Woohoo! I knew you could do it!” Melody cheered back.

“Way to go, Aria!” Shadow added.

“Good job,” I heard Compass add, and I grinned. Even when cheering, Compass was shy.

The third choice was the charm, the password was ‘ENDEAVORING,’ and with a beautiful beep the terminal opened for me. There were a lot of files on the terminal so I downloaded everything immediately to my Pipbuck. In an instant, the files were all on my Pipbuck and the massive storage space on board went from one percent filled to thirty-three percent.

“Woah! That’s a lot of files,” I mumbled before selecting the ‘Open Safe’ function. Just like in Starshine’s office, a click sounded from behind one of the portraits and I knew I had just saved Shadowbuck all his bobby pins.

“Hey! What are you waiting for in there!?” Shadow called out impatiently.

“Hold your horses! I’m dropping the shield now!” I told them just before I hit ‘Enter’ on the option ‘Lower Barrier.’

ZUUM!

“Alright!” I heard Melody cry, and shook my head.

“Guess I did have the courage, huh?” I thought, taunting the green flame behind my eyelids.

POP! BANG! ZUUM!

Suddenly, I felt heat and a shower of pain as the terminal exploded in my face, tiny pieces of glass cutting my cheeks and forehead. If I hadn’t had my eyes closed, I was pretty sure it would have blinded me. I would have screamed, but my voice left me as I heard Melody let out a yelp and Shadowbuck scream bloody murder.

Wiping the glass from around my eyes, the tiny shards cutting my front hooves, I opened my eyes and bolted out the door. The barrier was back up and Melody was on my side, her tail singed and chopped to only about two inches from the base of her tail, as she stared, wide eyed and sickened, at the barrier. On the other side, Shadow was curled up into the fetal position, facing away from us, and screaming madly while Compass knelt by him, his horn glowing furiously. I noticed the steadily growing pool of blood staining their barding and armor and I suddenly realized what was going on and what Melody was really staring at.

On our side of the barrier, a small trickle of crimson blood pooling at its base, was about six inches of Shadowbuck’s severed hoof.

“Goddesses...” Melody said, and I felt the stale potato chips from the vending machine in the lobby suddenly coming up again for another visit. Swallowing hard, I rushed through the field and to Shadowbuck’s side. Pulling a healing potion out of my saddlebags, I noticed I only had two left, and I offered it to Compass.

“No, his suit is using up it’s meds and chems. The suit and my tourniquet spell are keeping him from bleeding out, but I need to get him to the Ministry of Peace wing. I need more supplies. I might be able to save the leg with the right healing talismans and his hoof,” he told me, somehow keeping calm as his magic was doing its best to stem the flow of blood.

“How do I get it back through?” I asked, peering back through the translucent green barrier at the severed hoof and Melody as she sat, completely in shock, near the office door.

“I don’t know, but I’ll need it to save his leg. Hurry!” he shouted. I didn’t have to be told twice. Galloping back through the bypass shield, I cringed before quickly grabbing the metal encased, blood soaked hoof in my mouth. I tasted copper and was trying my damndest not to vomit on Shadow’s severed limb; I was pretty sure that wouldn’t help in the healing process. Melody just stared at me, unable to move, and I gave her my most sympathetic look as I turned back to the barrier.

It wouldn’t let the hoof through.

What the hoof? Literally. What could I do, put it in my saddlebags? Would that work? Desperate, I tossed the limb into my bags and watched as my Pipbuck displayed the image of a dead pony head and the words ‘Shadowbuck’s Right Forehoof’ flash across my vision. Now that was morbid. Great job Stable-Tec.

Thankfully, and for some reason I don’t think I ever want to know, I was able to pass. The thin layer of saddlebag had somehow allowed the hoof to pass through the unpassable shield.

“Got it,” I spat, trying to get the taste of Shadow’s blood off of my tongue.

“Good. Carry him on your back, firepony’s carry, to the Ministry of Peace wing. I’ll keep the spell going.”

“Why not tie a real tourniquet? And what about Melody?” I asked, casting a glance at my near catatonic niece down the hall.

“She’s safe behind that barrier. We need to hurry. The spell’s safer than a real tourniquet, but I can’t hold it for too long. Let’s go!” he ordered, suddenly taking on an entirely new persona. The nervous and meek Compass had been replaced by Dr. Compass, Wasteland M.D. and I was actually pretty impressed by his cool head under these circumstances. “Come on, Aria!”

“Right!” I said. Pushing my head under Shadowbuck and getting a thin coat of blood on my face that made my skin crawl, I let gravity do the work. When he was safely on my back, I could feel his every shuddering breath, and hear every low moan as his entire body shook. I knew we had to hurry, even I was trying not to go into shock, so I gave Melody one last glance. “I’ll be right back, Melody. Just hang on. Everything’s going to be fine.”

I was lying through my teeth. I didn’t know if everything was going to be fine. Actually, I knew everything wasn’t going to be fine. Equestria and the princesses were gone and we were trapped in hell. Even if we got out of this, what other injuries, deaths, and horrors beyond my imagination waited out in those ruins.

“Aria,” Shadow muttered weakly from my back as we stood in the elevator.

“Yes?” I whispered.

“You remind me...”

“Wait! Remind you of what? ” It was too late. Before I could ask, he had already slipped into unconsciousness. A shiver ran down my spine and my mouth went as dry as the Appleloosan desert. “Hold on, Shadow. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Please don’t die on me.”

As we rushed back across the skybridge, Shadow’s blood slowly dripping down my back, I felt a sense that life in the Equestrian Wasteland was becoming an act of futility. Was saving Shadow really the right thing to do? If we couldn’t save his hoof, he’d never be able to walk properly again. Maybe death was a kindness in this horrible, mixed up world.
No! What was I thinking? I had to stay strong. I had to keep going. I couldn’t give up. Melody, Compass, and Shadow needed me for just a little bit longer. Compass wasn’t strong enough to lift Shadow, much less cast his healing magic and carry him, and Melody would need help getting out of Gestalt and Mosaic’s office.

“I have to keep going!” I told myself.

The flame just laughed.

______________________________________________________________

Footnote: 80% to next level.

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing.
Special Note: Again, I realized I needed to split things up. It looks like ‘The Path To Hell’ is getting a Part 3 too. Thanks for putting up with the constant changes, but the more I write, the longer the chapters get. I would change the titles, but they’re so perfect for what happens in these three parts and I don’t want one 60k word chapter. Anyway, my seasonal job’s over so I hope to get Part 3 out faster. I know I’ve said that before, but I mean it; it just doesn’t turn out that way in reality. Again, thanks to everyone for reading, and I’d like to wish you all Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.

Chapter Seven - The Path To Hell Part Three

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Chapter Seven: The Path To Hell - Part Three
“But if hatred and fear take hold...”

“Aria, quickly, give me the hoof and put him on the table!” Compass ordered with the forceful resolve of a battlefront trauma surgeon. Where was this pony when it came to simple things like talking? “Now, Aria! Just be careful with him too.”

“Right!” I responded quickly before carefully rolling Shadowbuck’s unconscious body onto an operating table in the Ministry of Peace Wing. Then, as fast as my hoof could bring it up, I used Toffee Biscuit’s Pipbuck’s sorting spell to bring up and give him ‘Shadowbuck’s Right Forehoof.’ His horn lit up, taking the severed hoof in his soft pink glow, and he slowly connected it with Shadowbuck’s stump.

“Dr. Compass, what is the patient’s blood type so that we may procure a bag for transfusion?” a medical Mr. Handy named Forceps asked politely. It seemed that, while a little out of the loop of the events of the past two hundred years, the robots of the Ministry Hub were, for the most part, in working order; the malfunctioning unit that had killed Brass Bugle seemed to have been in the minority.

“I don’t know, Forceps. Please take a sample, analyze, and get to doing just that. He’s lost a lot of blood and I don’t have time to hook Shadow up to any of the medical equipment,” Compass ordered before muttering under his breath, “If any of this crap still works.”

“Yes, sir,” Forceps replied before slowly inserting a needle into Shadowbuck’s neck.

“Hey! There’s enough blood on me and coming out of his stump! We don’t need any more holes in Shadow right now!” I yelled.

“I am sorry, Madam, but I need an uncontaminated sample to get an accurate reading.” The Mr. Handy unit buzzed for a moment before letting out a happy ding. “Scans show that Knight Shadowbuck’s blood type is A positive. We should have an abundant supply of blood in cold storage.”

“The blood wasn’t in statis?” Compass asked frantically, realizing something that I obviously didn’t. What was the problem with blood from a cooler versus blood that was kept in stasis?

“No, sir. Why would we waste power on stasis when blood donations and supplies are kept in cold storage for up to one year.” One year. That was good. There had to have been a blood drive recently. The Ministry of Peace held regular blood drives back in my time and...

“Oh cud.”

“The blood bank that's available won’t work. It’s been almost two hundred years since that batch was viable. All the donations are completely useless. I’m B positive so I’m not a match. Crap! Aria! What is your blood type?”

“O positive. Am I a match?” I asked, and watched as his eyes suddenly gain a whole new life.

“Are you a match!? You’re a potential match for almost everypony in the world!” Compass said happily, and I smiled, feeling dried blood cracking around my lips.

“Note to self, don’t lick your lips, Aria.”

“So how do we do this?”

“First, we need to reattach the leg and stop the bleeding, which I’m in the process of doing. I just need quiet, please,” he said, a hint of frustration sharpening his voice, and I realized that he had already begun magically reattaching the limb. Sweat was already beginning to form on his brow and he was biting his upper lip harder than I thought was necessary.
Each second that ticked by was agony. The waiting and worrying as I watched Compass work his magic was grueling for all of us. Shadow moaned in pain, half awake as the procedure continued, while Forceps dabbed away the sweat that kept accumulating on his brow and trying to run into Compass’ eyes.

All I could do was stand there and watch as Compass tried to save Shadowbuck’s leg and maybe his life. I know I’m a smart pony, but my areas of expertise are history, magic, and I can dabble in computers, three skills that were completely useless in a post-apocalyptic operating room. My medical expertise boiled down to broken bones are bad, blood stays inside the body, and to cover my mouth with my elbow when I sneezed to stop the spread of germs. What was it grandmother used to call it? Vampire sneeze?

So, like every other time I couldn’t keep going, my mind started to wander into a much darker place. All I could think about was how Shadow might lose a hoof or even die because I screwed up. It had to have been my fault. I must have tripped something or overtaxed the system to the point that the terminal overloaded.

“I should have dropped the barrier and then gotten the data,” I told myself. That way everypony would have made it through with me before the computer exploded. But what would have happened if dropping the barrier would have destroyed the terminal no matter which order I had done it? Had I made the right choice? As I stared down at Shadowbuck, his sweat and blood covered face drained of any of that jovial moxie that defined him, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I yelled at you, Shadow.”

Shadow did not answer. He just moaned softly as Compass worked to fix his amputated leg. The silence was killing me. The guilt was killing me. I couldn’t take this. However, Forceps and Compass ignored me, and the flame flickered in the darkness of my mind.

After about fifteen minutes of strained silence, the only sound cutting through the operating room being Forceps hover jets, Compass broke the air of solemn business with a growl of frustration.

“The nerves aren’t reattaching! The veins and arteries are back in place and the bleeding has stopped, but I can’t get the nerves to reattach!”

“But if you can’t reattach the nerves, then he won’t be able to use his hoof anymore,” I said meekly, our roles suddenly reversed in the blink of an eye. Why I sounded disappointed instead of ecstatic at the fact that he had saved Shadowbuck’s life and not left him with a stump, I don’t know, but I was pretty sure Shadow wouldn’t like anything short of full functionality back in his hoof.

“I know that, Aria!” he snapped before closing his eyes and resting his head on the table. “I thought I could do this. I thought I was as good as dad, I thought... but I’m not. If only this place had a healing talisman table.”

“Doctor Compass, we do have a healing talisman table.” We both turned to the medical robot. “My readings indicate that there are two talisman’s available and still operational in Operating Rooms Two and Three.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Compass cried.

“And why did you bring us here instead of to one of those two rooms, you stupid robot?” I snapped, a little angrier than Compass. I blinked, surprised at my response, and smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me. But why didn’t you bring us to the fully equipped operating room?”

“No. It is my fault, madam. I am, as you say, a stupid robot. I should have realized you would need the healing talismans to help Knight Shadowbuck. It is just that this is Operating Room One and it is available.”

“So?” Compass asked, moving Shadowbuck gently onto a slightly dusty gurney. I immediately knew why. It was simple, yet flawed logic, something only a child or the mediocre artificial intelligence of a Mr. Handy robot could ever think would be the right decision in this circumstance. Putting my hoof to my brow and closing my eyes, I pre-emptively groaned at the answer I knew was coming.

“Because, sir, one comes before two.”

____________________________

“Woah...” I muttered as the line separating Shadowbuck’s hoof from the rest of his leg vanish before my eyes. There wasn’t any disfigurement or even the slightest hint of a scar. The bright yellow glow enveloping Shadow was a work of magical expertise that I envied. I could only use my magic to fight, but skills like healing magic and talisman crafting were amazing, elegant examples of the true power of unicorn magic.

“Yeah. Healing talismans were amazing. I read about them in one of my ancestor’s copies of the 'Canterlot Journal of Medicine.' This variety were the most powerful and developed towards the end of the war at the Fluttershy Medical Center in Hoofington. Were lucky some of these made it to Trottingham,” Compass explained.

“It was lucky. We can do a lot of good with these, Compass. All the ponies who get sick or hurt out in the ruins could benefit from this magical technology,” I said, finally feeling a glimmer of hope in the darkness that had become my life. The Ministry Hub could really do some good with talismans like these. Maybe I could keep going in this world if I really could help ponies.

“We can’t do that, Aria,” Compass said sadly as he turned towards a cabinet filled with various bottles and containers that I could only guess were medicines and potions.

“Why not? Compass, you don’t want us to hoard these talismans for ourselves, do you?”

“What? No!” he replied before sighing. “I guess these were developed after you died...”

“Can we please stop calling it ‘after I died?’ How about ‘after I got blown up?’ A pony can sometimes survive getting blown up. Oh! Or how about ‘after I took that trip?”

“Yes, well, after you ‘took your trip’ these talismans were developed in Hoofington. The reason there are so few is because they break after use. They’re one treatment to completely heal a pony and then... poof. They’re gone,” he explained as he opened the cabinet and started going over its contents.

“Oh. So there’s only going to be one left when Shadow’s finished healing?” I asked, glancing over at my glowing Steel Ranger friend. My eyes took in his silver and black armor and a flare of anger coursed through me. Could he really be my friend if he served under Cherry Scones? Did I do the right thing by saving his leg at the cost of such a precious magical artifact?

“Yeah.” He paused for a while, the humming of the healing talisman adding only a monotone to the void filling the room. He picked up a small orange pill bottle, inspecting it carefully, before returning it to the shelf and sighing. “You should clean yourself up and head back to Melody. She... she doesn’t like to be alone. I think she’ll need you.”

“Yeah. We have to figure a way out of there,” I replied.

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll head back to the barrier when Shadow’s back on his hooves.” Again, he paused as he tried to find the right words. I took this as a sign that I should get going, but as I turned to exit Operating Room Two, giving Shadowbuck a final passing glance as I left, he spoke up. “Aria. Please take care of her. She’s all I’ve got out here.”

“I will, Compass. She’s all I’ve got too,” I replied before giving him a weak smile. He returned the it, although his was much more genuine compared to my hollow grin, and I headed out the door.

“First things first. I need to wash up,” I said, my mind suddenly becoming distinctly aware of the drying blood caking my armor, mane, and coat. I shivered and stopped to give myself a once over.

Dark red streaks, some slowly turning black as the red blood cells died and ruptured, covered me from head to hoof. I couldn’t see my mane, but the sticky wetness on my scalp and around my ears made my skin crawl. Golden Star’s Aegis was also covered in Shadowbuck’s blood, but I was surprised to see that the crimson fluid had not dried or even started to congeal. Arching an eyebrow, I experimentally sat down for the first time since arriving at the Ministry of Peace Wing and watched as tiny rivulets of blood simply flowed off of the shield’s silver surface and onto my lower back and tail.

“Okay, that’s a nifty little enchantment, but that’s really creepy that you thought to put that one the shield, Golden Star,” I whispered to the shield as if it were my brother sitting on my back. A part of me wanted to believe that he was still with me and a piece of him was in his old shield. I knew it was silly and superstitious, but it was slightly comforting. And a little bit depressing, now that I really thought about it.

Shaking the depressing thoughts of the life I lost out of my head, I turned and trotted into the dimly lit restroom marked ‘Mares.’ Stepping into the bathroom, I felt an amazing sense of relief at the sight of a clean and pristine bathroom. The lights flickered softly, but aside from that the restroom looked perfect. Forceps must have worked as a janitor along with its duties as a nurse.

“Ugh. I really hope that robot remembers to wash its pincers after cleaning in here,” I muttered before stepping into a stall. I might as well take advantage of a clean toilet with working plumbing while I still could, right?

After my little pit stop, I walked over to the sink, turned on the faucet, and unceremoniously dunked my head underneath the stream of lukewarm, radioactive water. My Pipbuck gave a steady ‘tick tick tick’ as it warned me about the hazardous nature of the water running through my mane as it washed the blood away in streams of pink and crimson. Closing my eyes, I let the refreshing nature of my impromptu cleansing wash away the grime and my stress.

Shadowbuck was going to be okay, we had access to the Ministry Hub and all its supplies, still untouched thanks to the overzealous security robots, and I’d find a way to get Melody out of that office. I had a game plan now so all I had to do was enact it.

“I can do this,” I told myself, ignoring the silent flickering of the flame as it danced its seductive dance in the back of my mind. It was calling to me, promising me power, but it didn’t speak a word. It didn’t have to; I already knew what it wanted from me.

“Your pain. Your sorrow. Your hate. Your rage. Give them to me and I shall grant you power beyond your wildest dreams. Power to cleanse this world.”

I could still hear its tantalizing whisper even when it did not speak. The flickering of the flame seemed to match the flickering of the fluorescent lights above me, their quiet hum slowly growing in volume. But I had to ignore it. It was only my mind slowly descending into the pits of insanity. If I gave in, I knew deep down that I would be lost.

Sighing, I turned off the faucet and lifted my eyes to the mirror, but what I saw reflected back was me, yet at the same time it wasn’t.

Standing in the mirror, her face wet with fresh blood and chunks of gore, was a mare out of a horror story. Her mane was alight with balefire, a crop of flickering green flame marked with a streak of blue. She smiled at me wickedly, her mouth baring sharp fangs as baleful flames sparked from deep within her throat and lapped around her curved teeth. Surrounding her was an aura of shadows that flowed her like mist on a tranquil lake on a calm winter’s night. The pulsing, rippling void behind her was like staring into the very soul of Discord himself. But what scared me the most, what caught my breath in my chest and made it impossible to breathe, what made my heart pound in my ears and my blood run cold, was her eyes.

They weren’t violet, but a sickly emerald, the same color as the fleck in my eyes. Even the whites of her eyes had turned a sinister shade of green with tendrils of green magical energy flowing out of them, but they were a lighter shade than her irises like the rind of a lime. The violet eyes that told me I was Celestia’s niece were gone, replaced by eyes that marked me a monstrous example of the worst of pony kind. But I couldn’t look away. Her eyes kept me frozen in place no matter how much my brain screamed for me to turn and run. I was trapped in this spider’s web and there was nothing I could do about it.

Her malevolent smile spoke of horrible deeds and evil acts perpetrated for reasons I couldn’t fathom. Her bloodstained coat spoke of vile murders by the score that she held no remorse over committing. It was me. As I stared into her veredian eyes, my own feeling like they were bulging out of my skull from the mixture of terror and confusion I was feeling, I could have sworn I smelled a hint of sulfur under the scents of water and rusty pipes that filled the bathroom.

All the while, the fear in my eyes seemed to cause the demon in the mirror’s smile to widen. The buzzing of the lights above me was becoming deafening. I could feel my heart slamming against the inside of my chest. The flames in the back of her throat started to rise, an inferno of balefire ready to erupt from her maw and consume me anew, and I wanted to scream. Somepony, anypony, please help me.

Tsksksksk.

Spinning around, my body finally deciding to move out of instinct instead of at my own behest, I fired off a useless spark at a radroach as it scurried into the restroom from the hallway. Grunting painfully, I did the only thing I could think of a pulled my gun. The massive pest finally seemed to notice me and hissed defensively while barring its disgusting mandibles at me. I lined up my shot as I had been taught at the Royal Guard Academy, but before I could pull the trigger with my tongue a crimson beam of magic energy struck the radroach in the back and it burst into flames. Letting out a high pitch screech, the radioactive bug was quickly reduced to ash and was no more.

“Huh?” I mumbled around the mouth guard and watched as a tredded Sentrybot entered the bathroom.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant. We are in the process of clearing out a pest problem. Most likely an escaped Ministry of Arcane Sciences experiment. Do you need assistance?” the robot asked in halting, mechanical tones. I glance back in the mirror, seeing only my own, soaking wet self reflected back at me in the flickering lights, and shook my head.

“No, I’m fine. Return to your duties,” I ordered.

“Yes, ma’am.”

I watched as the mechanical guard rolled out of the bathroom, leaving dirty tread marks in its wake, before shaking myself hard and sending a rain of water everywhere. After I had sufficiently shaken myself dry, although I could still feel some water trapped around the collar of my armor, I frowned at the mirror. It was covered in tiny droplets that slowly crawled down its surface, streaking and obscuring my reflection, but at least it was now showing what was real.

“Or is it?” I whispered, suddenly thinking a very dark thought that sent a ghastly chill down my spine.

I hated ponies saying I died two hundred years ago, it felt wrong to me for some strange reason, but what if they were right? What if I really had died when I fell on those balefire eggs. What if I hadn’t been transported to this post-apocalyptic future that I was currently struggling to survive in?

It made sense. Millions of ponies died in explosions of the same hellfire that I had experienced, but how many had been thrown through time and space? I had never heard any stories of time travellers from the future except those who had used Star Swirl the Bearded’s ‘Time Jaunt’ spell to traverse the space-time continuum and that spell was a one time thing that only lasted for one minute. I had been here for three days, well past the limit of the most advanced temporal magic ever developed.

I remembered the flames engulfing me, but I felt no heat or pain. I remembered witnessing the end of everything I knew and loved as I fell through a tunnel of swirling blue light.

And then I fell into Stable Sixty-Three.

Since then I had been forced to kill, confronted with my own past and how my life had destroyed the lives of others, and reminded that I shouldn’t exist on a constant basis. I was shown how my family and former coltfriend went on to have families of their own in Stable-Sixty Three while I had no one but Melody. I was thrown into a world of monsters, a world where evil and Chaos had replaced the virtues of Love and Harmony.

I was visited by gods I had never heard of and warned of an unimaginably evil being that no pony had ever written on. I was mentally attacked and raped twice in the span of an hour. I was seeing ghosts and hearing voices in my head. A pony I thought was my friend and I sort of liked was mutilated because of my actions. I had watched two ponies who had only tried to help me killed for their assistance. Toffee Biscuits had been joined by Brass Bugle in the hall of guilt that was setting up shop in the void within my heart.

And now I was seeing demonic versions of me in the mirror that vanished in the blink of an eye.

Maybe I wasn’t going crazy? There was a simple, yet terrifying explanation to all of this. It was the thought that kept repeating, over and over, and sent ice rushing through my veins.

What if I couldn’t trust what I saw and experienced. What if I had died? I had fallen out of that tunnel into the Equestrian Wasteland and was experiencing torments I could never have dreamed of in my worst nightmares. What if my soul really was stained by the circumstances of my birth, cursed by my mother’s sins. A horrible thought crossed my mind and wouldn’t leave me be.

“What if I’m dead and this is my hell?”

____________________________

The tingling feeling as I stepped through the bypass shield in the Ministry of Arcane Sciences wing was something I could never get used to. It was such an odd sensation, something beyond any real description besides ‘tingling.’ It was almost as if the energy field was trying to read every cell of skin and every strand of hair on my body as I passed through the green magical shield.

“I am really starting to not like the color green,” I thought.

I was surprised to see Melody wasn’t still in the hallway, but I couldn’t really blame her. The two pools of blood on the opposite sides of the barrier were disturbing reminders of how close she had come to losing a hoof. I cringed as the blood stained carpet squished loudly under my hooves and my stomach churned. At least my platinum horseshoes gave me protection from stepping directly in the sticky wet fluid.

Before I even stepped hoof into Gestalt and Mosaic’s office, I could hear her. The shallow, choppy breaths, the loud sniffs and and shuddering sighs. I knew those sounds all too well. I entered the office and saw Melody, hunkered over the blown out terminal with her back turned towards the door, as she tried her best not to cry. Her wings moved nimbly through the open back of the casing, gently removing parts that appeared to still be intact, but the sharpness of her breathing was like an equally sharp blade through my heart. Seeing my always cheerful niece in such a distraught state was a major blow to any shred of morale I had left.

“Melody,” I said softly. Surprised, Melody nearly jumped out of her barding and took to the air. Turning slowly in mid air, she wiped her face with her hoof and gave me the weakest, most insincere smile I had ever seen.

“Hey. I-Is Shadow going to be okay?”

“Yeah. Compass kept him stable long enough for us to get him to a healing talisman in the Ministry of Peace wing. He says Shadowbuck should make a full recovery.”

“That’s good,” she sniffed. “Shadowbuck’s a big, strong Steel Ranger, Compass is a great doctor...”

“Melody, why are you crying?”

“Because,” she sniffed before looking away from me again. “Because I’m a bad pony.”

“Why would you say that, Melody? You’re not a bad pony,” I told her and placed my hoof gently on her shoulder. “You’re not a bad pony.”

“Yes, I am. When Shadow got hurt the first thing I thought about was my tail. Shadow’s hoof got cut off and I was worried about my tail.”

“Oh, Melody, it’s only natural. Ponies notice their own injuries, or near injuries, before those of others,” I said, trying my best to comfort her. Why? I didn’t really know. I was beginning to think that this world really wasn’t real, but a part of me still yearned for the few good things here to not be just a passing phase of my eternal punishment. Out of everything and everyone I had met in Trottingham, Melody was the best thing I had going for me. Even if she might not be real, the sight of my niece beating up on herself was too much for me to bear.

“I know, but then I saw all the blood and I froze,” she argued, her eyes tearing up again.

“Well, that much blood can be shocking. You-”

“I wasn’t afraid of the blood, Aria! I was too busy thinking about how that could have been me! I could have lost a hoof. Or I could have been cut in half if I had been slower. I didn’t think to try to help Shadowbuck; all I did was sit in the corner and cry!” she shouted, turning away from me and taking her frustrations and verbal abuse out of the terminal.

“Melody, it’s okay to be scared,” I said, taking her into a hug from behind. I could feel her shaking, but she didn’t try to move away from me. “I-I’m scared too. This world is a nightmare even when I don’t compare it to my Equestria. Do you want to know how many times I saw somepony die before I came here? Never. Do you want to know how many times I’ve seen somepony gravely injured or mutilated before I came here?”

“Never...”

“Right. And I bet it’s the same for you too,” I added, pulling her in tighter. The feeling of holding her felt good. Something about the act of a hug was magical in its own right. Even as I questioned my own sanity or the reality of my situation, I felt like had to hold onto her. Melody, the only family I had in this hellhole and probably the best friend I had ever had. “Now come on, we’ve got to find you a way out of here so we can get back to Compass and Shadowbuck. He’s worried about you.”

“Yeah?” she asked, turning back to look at me before she let out a choked laugh. “He’s such a worry wart.”

“He cares about you.”

“Like you,” she said, her smile brightening.

“Of course I do,” I answered before giving her an affectionate squeeze. “You’re my niece and my best friend.”

“I’m your best friend?” she asked, her eyes practically sparkling. The way the light danced off her sea blue eyes, I could help but be reminded of Golden Star.

“Yep,” I said, smiling back. “This has to be real. I want it to be real. I... But wouldn’t that kind of delusion be exactly the kind of thing hell would want? How does one know if reality is real or not?”

“You’re my best friend too,” she said, spinning around and taking me into her embrace. When we broke apart, she giggled and wiped her eyes. “I think I might have a way for us to get out of here. Come check it out.”

Pulling me over to the open terminal, I grimaced at its burned out remains. Char covered its motherboard, the screen was just a rim of glass along the edges, and the wires and cables were frayed as if they had been chewed through.

“What am I looking at?” I asked, feeling the phantom sting of glass and plastic peppering my face.

“This is just the destroyed terminal, but it had some of the parts I needed to fix the other terminal. See?” she said, pointing to the other terminal that was now glowing softly on the opposite desk.

“You fixed it? Can this terminal drop the shield like the other one?” I asked before moving behind the desk, leaving the seat open for her to sit in. She was the tech expert in the family, after all.

“I don’t know, I just got it running again and got past the password when I noticed smoke coming from the blown out terminal. The motherboard had started burning so I put out the fire before it could spread. But then I saw the severed wires and... and I started thinking about how I could have been cut in half,” she said after sitting down, her voice trailing off to little more than a whisper before timidly looking back at the door.

“Then let’s see if we can use this to get out of here, okay?” I asked, trying to get Melody’s mind off her second brush with death in just as many days.

“Right,” she mumbled. Turning her attention to the screen, Melody’s nimble wings began to fly across the keyboard. At first, all I saw was a jumble of junk code and the occasional command line that I actually recognized, but the smile slowly creeping across Melody’s face told me that she knew exactly what to do.

“Annnnd.... Done!” she cheered, and the terminal let out a soft ‘bing’ as three commands popped up: “Bypass Research,” “E-mail Correspondences,” and “Open Safe.” “Darn it! The network connection to the bypass shield has been severed. How the hell am I going to get out of here if we can’t drop the shield?”

“There’s no way to fix the other computer?”

“No. The hard drive and the motherboard are shot. Even if we replaced them with this one’s parts, it wouldn’t have the network pathways or clearance to connect to the bypass shield’s overrides,” she explained Throwing her hooves into the air, she pushed herself away from the desk.

“Where are you going, Melody?”

“The only other place I can go in this stupid office! I’m going to get a drink!” she snapped, sounding more frustrated than angry, and flitted over to the bar. “Please have some apple whiskey...”

I watched her hover down the shelves of alcohol behind the bar for a few moments, hoping secretly that there was some wine back there too, before turning my attention to the computer.

“Open Safe?” I pressed the button and heard another click, this time realizing it was coming from behind one of the paintings on the wall nearest to me. “Huh? I already opened the safe. Why did it click again unless...”

“There are two safes!” I cried. Melody looked at me incredulously from behind the bar, a bottle of apple whiskey and a shot glass in front of her just waiting to be poured and filled.

“What?” she asked as she wrapped her wingtips around a bottle opener and thrust the tip through the wax covering the cork.

“Melody, can you hold up on the booze and come help me with these paintings,” I asked, trotting over to the painting of Gestalt (Or was it Mosaic?) and wrapped my hooves around the base and the right side. Melody sighed, setting the bottle back down, and flew over to grab the other side of my painting. “Alright, one, two, three... Lift!”

With a mighty heave, the two of us were able to lift the painting off its hook and slowly set it on the ground.

“We’re not bringing this painting to Stable Sixty-Three, are we?” she asked, giving me a wry smile.

“No. I’d like to, they were important ponies during the war, but these two should stay here. At least until things improve, logistically speaking of course.” She shook her head and I chuckled. Wasteland or not, possibility of the false nature of my current reality or not, I guess I was still an Egghead at heart. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the first safe, sitting slightly ajar, and took a deep breath before letting it out to blow my bangs out of my face. “Alright, let’s get the second painting down before you go back to your whiskey.”

“Sure. You want some?” she asked as we took our positions next to Mosaic/Gestalt’s portrait.

“Nah. Not a huge fan of apples. Now if there’s something strawberry flavored back there, I’ll give that a try. One, two, three, lift!”

We lifted the painting and set it down, although this time Melody let go a little too early and the painting landed hard and crashed down to the ground, face first.

“Oops, sorry.” she said, giving me a sheepish grin as she hovered above me. “But we got the safes open, you wanna check them out?”

“I thought you had a bottle of apple whiskey to attend to?”

“What can I say, curiosity got the better of me,” she answered before landing in front of the far safe and opening it up. “Aw come on! It’s just a bunch of files and junk.”

“Really?” I asked as I opened mine and saw about the same thing. Sitting in the safe was a small stack of folders and papers bound with clips and staples, however, sitting on top of the papers was a small device I had never seen before. It was a gray rectangle, about the size of my hoof, “Hey Melody, I got some weird tech sitting on top of my papers, do you have anything in your safe?”

“Hold on, let me check!” Suddenly, a shower of papers spewed forth from the safe, flung by the wingful by a rather impatient pegasus, until she clicked her tongue. “Nope, just a key.”

“Well here,” I said before tossing her the device. Catching it deftly between her hooves and hovering in the air, Melody’s eyes lit up at the sight of the little gray box.

“An energy pistol ammo recycler!? Oh my Goddesses, Aria, this is amazing! Do you know how many caps this is going to save us?”

“I don’t know, but I’m guessing it recycles energy pistol ammo.”

“Yeah. It captures some of the excess magical energy that the pistol radiates when firing and feeds it back into the gem pack. After so many shots it gathers enough energy to equal another blast before the gem pack expires,” she said excitedly. The child-like glee that I had grown so accustomed to seeing on Melody’s face had finally returned as she started equipping her trusty laser pistol with her newest modification. “This is so cool! Maybe if we find where this key goes we can find more cool stuff like this. I bet these Ministry ponies were loaded.”

“High end government salaries? Yeah, probably,” I muttered as I turned back to the safe. Seeing the stack of papers inside, an idea crossed my mind that wouldn’t hurt to at least test to verify. Lifting the papers with my hoof, I spotted a key, painted a bright blue. “Hey Melody, what color is that key you found?”

“Huh? Um, yellow, why? Is that important?” She asked after sliding the ammo recycler into place and giving the key gripped in her wing a cursory glance.

“Maybe. Two keys, one blue and the other yellow. A pair of twins... both green. They have to go to the same lock. Or maybe a pair of locks...” I mumbled, trying to piece together the mystery of the two keys. I almost felt like Sherclop Holmes, the master detective in the deerstalker hat of classic Trottingham literature. As I paced the floor, Melody searched the office with renewed vigor, turning over every seat cushion and rolling up every corner of the large green rug that felt so plush beneath my hooves. Then my eyes fell back on the other terminal and a small smile crossed my face. “Let’s see if you wrote something you shouldn’t have.”

Plopping down behind the desk, I moved the cursor over ‘E-mail correspondence’ and decided to open the last e-mail, one marked only three days before the bombs fell. An audio recording began to play and I listened intently to the mare who had been sitting here two hundred years earlier so she could compose this message.

“Stitches,

I had a good time last night, as always, and I am glad you could accommodate my schedule and privacy needs. I know these past couple months have not been... ideal for the courtship process, and I know our work and my sister have not made it any less stressful, but...

I’m glad you are so understanding of my dilemma. It has been hard to keep this from Gestalt. I know you do not believe me, but we really do read each other’s minds and it is very difficult to keep this from her.

You are the best coltfriend I have ever had... alright, honestly, you are the only coltfriend I have ever had. Not many stallions would ever put up with me and my idiosyncrasies or the hoops we have had to jump through. I love my sister, I really do, I believe the saying is that we are like two peas in a pod, but I am beginning to realize that there is one thing that Gestalt cannot give me, even with our bond...

I am afraid of what she might do if she found out I was dating somepony. I still remember how hurt she was when I said I liked Sunrise Sarsaparilla better than Sparkle Cola. She is so afraid of being alone, just as I once was, and we have never been apart. I think she believes any differences between us might pull us apart.

But you seem to fit that variable and fill me with so many odd and foreign emotions. Your kindness and skill at healing magic is a quality I marvel in you. Your understanding nature and willingness to be with me, no matter the personal expense, is something I find most admirable. I find myself experiencing emotions I have never felt before whenever I am around you, most illogical emotions really. But I also find that I like them. I find it rather amusing to say the least that we are so logically compatible under such illogical circumstances.

Is this what love is? I-”

Suddenly, a strange humming sound began to buzz in the background and Mosaic took a sharp breath.

“Stitches, she is taking the elevator up. I have to go. I promise I will deduce a way to tell her about us, to tell everypony, so she can see why I care about you just as much as her. I am sure she will find us a suitable match. We should meet in Manehatten at that coffee shop on Tuesday afternoon after our trip to Maripony. And to answer your question, I... I think I do love you too.”

The recording cut off and I could only stare at the screen. The green block that denoted the cursor kept flashing over the ‘Y’ in the command, ‘Download to Pipbuck? Y/N.’ I pressed the ‘Y’ button with a heavy heart and downloaded the message with a sad reverence. Mosaic had found a pony who she honestly loved, some stallion that she had secretly grown attached to almost as much, if not more, than her sister. Her voice had been so nervous and unsure and her message had revealed so much about their relationship.

Mosaic had never had a coltfriend, probably because of her admittedly close relationship with her sister, and she finally found another pony she could form a bond with. But she had been afraid of what her sister would think and wanted to take it slow and keep her relationship with Stitches a secret. It was beautiful, not just because they had both found love, but because Stitches had agreed to her request for secrecy in the pursuit of love.

Keeping their love and relationship a secret, such a heavy price that Stitches seemed to have been willing to pay. I envied Mosaic now. I had asked for Brightlight to wait for me and he couldn’t do that. We were still together, we could still share kisses and spend time with one another. Yes, I had a problem with getting distracted, but was that really a reason not to wait for me to be ready to have sex? Was that a reason to cheat on my with Silver Storm? If there were stallions out there that would keep their feelings a secret for the mare they loved, stallions that would jump through hoops and do anything for that mare, why couldn’t Brightlight have done the same for me?

“No, it wasn’t my fault. He cheated on me,” I told myself as I decided to download the rest of the files on the computer. Perhaps there would be more inspirational letters between these star crossed lovers. Or perhaps the notes on Gestalt and Mosaic’s Bypass Spell research would be an interesting and informative read. If one voice message, cut short by Gestalt arriving, could be something I... “Wait. The elevator... Melody! I need your help with something! If I’m right, then we might be able to get you out of here.”

“Huh?” she asked as she checked inside a light fixture for something that could help us.

“I’m going to go call the elevator up. I want you to sit behind this desk and try to hear it coming up, okay?”

“Yeah, sure. Let me just pour myself a drink, okay?”

“Could you just get a soda, I don’t need you being impaired by alcohol.”

“You mean you get to get drunk in a museum full of ghouls, but I can’t get drunk while stuck in the world’s most secure office? You’re no fun,” she griped. She fluttered down next to me, giving me an over exaggerated frown, and I shook my head.

“If this doesn’t work, then we can both get drunk and talk about boys, are you happy?” I asked.

“It’s a deal,” she said, her fake frown vanishing almost as fast as Psyche’s colors shifted. “I’ll get you nice and drunk so you won’t blush every time I bring up sex.”

“What?” I blinked, feeling the warmth flooding to my muzzle.

“See! Like that! You need to loosen up a bit, Aria!” she joked before pushing me out of Mosaic’s seat and taking it for her own. “Alright, let’s get this little experiment of yours under way. I want to be out of here or drunk off my flanks in the next thirty minutes. I’m getting really sick of this office.”

“That’s understandable, so let’s get you out of here,” I said before trotting out the door.

Again, I made the trip through the tingly bypass shield and back into the lobby. Of course when I reached the elevator I realized that the elevator car was on this floor and there would not be anything for Melody to here. Pressing the call button, the doors immediately opened and I stepped inside.

“Alright, I’ll just ride it a floor down and then-Woah!” I told myself until the doors suddenly closed behind me and the car started descending on its own.

Looking up at the light up display over the silver double doors, I saw that I was already passing up the fourth floor and stabbed at the emergency stop button, but nothing happened. The display read ‘3’ and the car slowed to a grinding stop. Pulling Dr. Hoofentrotter’s nine millimeter pistol, I aimed for the doors, readying it just as the ding signalling the them to open chimed. Slowly the doors parted, my jaw clenching around the pistol’s mouth grip, until it revealed a smugly smiling Shadowbuck and a bug eyed Compass, his brown eyes as wide as the coffee cups on the rows of desks behind him.

“Woah! Easy there, Aria. Just just got my hoof back, I don’t want you blowing my head off. I’ve grown quite attached to it,” he joked.

“Shadow?” I mumbled around the mouth piece. Then the realization set in that my friend, who had been horribly maimed less than an hour ago, was standing right in front of me. Letting the gun drop out of my mouth, I threw my hooves around his neck and hugged him as hard as I could. “Shadow! You’re okay!”

“Thanks to Doctor Compass here. The healing talisman didn’t have that much work to do and I was awake and walking around about ten minutes after you left,” he laughed as he hugged me back. Hugs felt good from anypony.

“But is he even real?” a tiny voice in the back of my mind asked, but I my elation at seeing him whole and healthy quickly steamrolled the doubting side of me out of the way for the happy parade’s procession into hug town.

“I-I just wish I had been better. Using up that healing talisman almost feels like a waste,” he said sadly.

“My hoof doesn’t think so,” Shadow said as he took his right hoof away from me to slap Compass on the back. “But ya did good, kid.”

“Um.” That was all that came out of Compass’ mouth as he smiled at us nervously and looked away. It was amazing. In doctor mode, Compass was the most calm, confident, and collected unicorn in the Trottingham Ruins, but the second he wasn’t needed he went back to being the most shy and introverted pony I had ever seen save what I had heard about Ministry Mare Fluttershy.

“What are you doing in the elevator? I thought you were trying to get Melody out of that office?” Shadow asked as he tried to push me off of him. Suddenly realizing that I was holding him a little too tightly, I sheepishly let go.

“I was about to ride the elevator down and then back up again to test something out, but then you two called it down and the emergency stop button doesn’t work,” I explained.

“Ride the elevator to test something? How is riding the elevator going to get Melody past that bypass barrier?” he asked, looking at me skeptically.

“Just ride back up with me and you can see, okay.” I told them before stepping back into the elevator. Shadowbuck shrugged and followed with Compass shadowing him.

We quickly returned to the fifth floor and when we stepped into the hall, Melody was waiting on the other side of the green bypass barrier.

“Compass!” she cried, her smile growing at the sight of her coltfriend. Then she seemed to notice Shadowbuck and he smile grew even larger. Not Psyche large, but I think her cheeks would start hurting soon if she didn’t stop grinning like that pretty soon. “Shadow! You’re okay!”

“Yeah, thanks to your coltfriend here,” he replied before turning to me. “So what was this experiment of yours? Why’d you have to ride the elevator down and back up.”

“Melody,” I said, dismissing his question smoothly. “Were you able to hear the elevator coming up from the office?”

“I couldn’t hear anything until it binged just now.”

“So you couldn’t hear an elevator whirring?” I asked.

“Why is the fact that she can hear the elevator or not important, Aria?” Shadow asked.

“Because, Shadowbuck, the recording on the terminal inside could pick up an elevator so that means only one thing,” I said as I stepped back through the energy field, the static tingle washing over my body for the umpteenth time.

“That the terminal’s got a really sensitive mic?” Shadow asked, but I saw the sudden flash of realization across Melody’s face and knew that she was thinking the same thing I was.

“That there’s another elevator somewhere in the office!”

“Yep! So Melody and I just have to tear that office apart and find the elevator. Then we’ll take it down and meet you guys on the first floor.”

“The first floor is sealed off remember? The stairs collapsed at the second floor landing and the main elevator doors won’t open,” Melody said.

“Well then, we’ll just go out the back way and meet you guys at the boat. The first intersection after the MAMI building was clear so we can meet you there,” I said, amending our plan.

“Okay, I guess that works, but what about the monster’s outside? I have some StealthBucks that Compass can use and I can sneak just fine with the Mark Two, but what about you two?” Shadow asked while Compass nodded vehemently.

“Yes. I don’t want any monsters hurting you... two while we’re not around.” Compass added, mostly looking to Melody, his eyes heavy with worry, but I noticed the pause before he added ‘two’ to his sentence to include me into his worry. He reached out his forehoof, his ears pinned against the back of his head, and placed his hoof on the energy field between him and Melody. Reaching out her own hoof, they met so that only the glowing green field separated the two lovebirds.

“Don’t worry, Compass, I have Aria with me. She’ll keep me safe. We’ll see you guys down by the river,” she told him while giving him a reassuring smile that seemed to put him a little more at ease. His ears twitched and rose a little off his head and he swallowed hard.

“And I have Brass Bugle’s badge, remember? It’ll keep us safe against everything but feral ghoulies, right?” I said, pulling the badge out and pinning it to the lapel of my underbarding.

“Yeah... Just hurry to the boat, okay?” Shadow said before turning back towards the lobby. However, Compass didn’t move as he locked eyes with Melody across the thin wall of translucent green light that might as well have been a billion light years apart.

“I love you, Melody Star,” he whispered, placing his forehead against the barrier.

“I love you too, Compass,” she replied, kissing his forehead through the green energy field before reluctantly turning away from him. A heavy sadness was apparent in her blue eyes, even I could see the facade her smile had taken on.

“We’ll get back to the boat, save Gigaton, and you two can have your... private time,” I said, embarrassment already flushing my cheeks a dark crimson.

“Yeah, come on, lover boy. Let’s finish looting the hospital for meds and then hurry on over to the rendezvous point,” he said, putting his hoof around Compass’ shoulder and gently guiding him back towards the elevator. “If you girls aren’t waiting for us at the intersection, we’re going to go looking for you.”

“Compass has our Pipbuck tags so that shouldn’t be too hard,” Melody told him.

“Right,” I heard him mumble, looking down at his Pipbuck, and Shadowbuck pulled him into the lobby and out of sight.

____________________________

After what felt like hours, although a quick glance at my Pipbuck told me it had been only twenty minutes, Melody and I had torn Gestalt and Mosaic’s office apart. We flipped every rug and table. We knocked on every wall. We even checked behind the bar until we had to give up and just settled with taking some apple whiskey and strawberry wine. Melody wanted the whiskey, but the idea of wine, which I sort of liked, mixed with strawberries, my absolute favorite food in the whole world, was too appealing for me to pass up.

There were two apple whiskey bottles and two wine bottles, both the exact same year and brand. Actually, now that I thought about it, everything in this office had a twin. The portraits, the desks, even the alcoholic beverages were matching pairs. Everything was the same except...

“The soda machines!” I shouted. I heard a yelp followed immediately by a thump and realized I must have startled Melody as she was checking underneath the desks for the fourth time.

“Ow! What about the soda machines?” she asked as she crawled out from underneath Mosaic’s desk, rubbing the crown of her head gently with her ears lying flat against it and one eye shut against the pain I had inadvertently caused.

“Oh! Sorry about that. But look at the soda machines, Melody. What’s different about them?” I asked, gesturing to the Sunrise Sarsaparilla and Sparkle Cola machines like one of those models on a weekday morning game show.

“Uh... They’re two different brands?”

“Exactly. And why is that weird?” I asked, trying to coax the answer out of my niece.

“It’s not. Who wouldn’t want some variety. Dad always liked Sparkle Cola and apple whiskey after work whenever he could...” A look of sudden epiphany appeared on Melody’s face and her eyes brightened. “But these two have two of everything in here. You don’t think the elevator’s behind the soda machines, do you?”

“Only one way to find out,” I said, taking a position next to the Sunrise Sarsaparilla machine. Placing my forehooves against the side, I tried to pull with all my might... and it wouldn’t budge. Looking down at the base of the soda machine, I couldn’t see anything blocking its path.

“What’s wrong?” Melody asked.

“I have no idea. The thing won’t even budge. I’m not that weak without my magic, am I?”

“I don’t think so. You look pretty strong for a unicorn mare. You’ve got a wider chest and are a little stockier than most and... I’ll shut up now...”

“Yeah...” Dropping to my knees, I could now see that the entire machine had been bolted to the floor. There was no way to move them, whatsoever. I couldn’t even see behind the machine as it was so close to the wall that it almost looked built into it. Closing my eyes and sighing with frustration, I was beginning to see the stupidity in having an elevator behind two soda machines, or even the absurdity of having a second elevator behind an nigh impenetrable wall of magical energy. It was paranoid, it was illogical, it was...

Suddenly, I felt a faint breeze against my face.

“What was that?”

“What was what?” Melody asked. I opened my eyes to see that she was fishing some bits out of one of the pockets in her barding with the tip of her wing.

“I think I just felt a breeze. Did you flap your wings?” I asked, climbing back up to my hooves.

“Nope. I’m just getting some Sparkle Cola. All this talk about soda machines is making me thirsty,” she answered before depositing two bits in the lightly humming machine. She pressed the first button... and nothing happened. The next... Nothing. “Oh come on!”

She tried button after button, but still the machine would not produce a soda. I couldn’t even hear the clicks of the machinery trying to dispense a soda from an empty slot inside the machine. Melody growled under her breath, obviously starting to get more angry at her current circumstances than distraught or annoyed like she had been earlier.

“Maybe it’s broken?”

“No way. I’m not giving up on this. I’m going to pick the lock on this stupid machine and get my Sparkle Cola!” she said, pulling a bobby pin from her hair and a screwdriver from her armored utility barding’s pockets.

“You can pick a lock?”

“Well, no, but how hard can it be?” she asked as she flipped open the metal box that covered the lock. We both stopped and stared at the strange lock underneath the black metal cover. For some odd reason, the lock had been painted yellow. “It’s yellow.”

“Yeah.”

“Like the key.”

“Yeah.” I said again, my brain still trying to come to terms with the fact that the answer had been staring us in the face for so long, but a stroke of dumb luck mixed with frustrated obstinance had been the only reason we had found the answer. The keys from the safes went to the drink machines and the drink machines... “Are the elevators... You have got to be kidding me.”

“Only one way to find out,” she said, putting away her screwdriver and taking out the yellow key. With a gentle turn and a hydraulic hiss, the Sparkle Cola machine opened to reveal a small elevator platform. Barely big enough for a pony to walk into and stay erect, there was no conceivable way for two ponies to take the elevator at the same time. A strange choice, but I guess it would mean that a pony couldn’t take Mosaic or Gestalt hostage and take the secret elevator up with them. “Try your key on the Sunrise machine.

“Okay.” I pulled the blue key out of my saddlebags, thanks mostly in part to the Pipbuck’s sorting spell, but as I tried to push the key in with my mouth, my nose kept hitting the machine and stopping me from fully inserting it. A pony would need magic, or double jointed wings like Melody’s, to insert the key and right now I had neither. “Um, I think I need some help.”

“Sure. Let me get that,” Melody said with a reassuring smile that made me feel even more useless before pushing the key the rest of the way in and turning it. The Sunrise Sarsaparilla machine slowly opened and I sighed.

“Ready to get out of here, Melody?”

“You have no idea,” she said, stepping into the hidden elevator.

“Next stop, ground floor. Radiation, mutants, and hell on Equestria. Going down.”

I heard Melody giggle as the soda machine closed on us and the elevators lurched slowly downwards. I closed my eyes and waited for the elevator cable to suddenly snap, plunging me to my death below. I could see my mangled corpse at the bottom, my blood caked bones jutting through skin where the metal framework hadn’t impaled me. I...

Shaking the suicidal thoughts out of my head, I shuddered against a sob. I needed to get out of this hell, be it literal or figurative, and I was afraid. Was the only way out of this my death? As I thought this over, as dark thoughts fought to overcome the slivers of light left in my life, the flame just watched in silence as if my inner turmoil was his ultimate spectator’s sport.

____________________________

“Cud! Cud! Cud! Cud! Cuuuuud!” I screamed as Melody and I raced through the Ministry Hub courtyard towards the double doors leading back into the Arcane Science wing.

Of course it would be just my luck that the elevators opened up into the ghoulie filled courtyard. The doors thankfully slid open without a sound and Melody and I were able to get our bearings and start to sneak past the zombie ponies. However, I was so worried about the zombie ponies, I didn’t watch where I was stepping and accidentally kicked an empty Sparkle Cola bottle.

The soft tinking of the glass bottle on broken cobblestone was like a thousand bombs going off in my ears and Melody and I froze as we watched the bottle roll slowly, clinking and chiming over and over, until it slowly rolled to a stop at the mangled, bony hooves of a rather decayed, yet still maniacally vicious looking earth pony mare.
It looked down at the bottle with confusion in its lifeless eyes before slowly raising its head and spotting us. With a guttural howl, the creature charged, its courtyard companions hot on its heels, and Melody and I were fleeing for our lives.

Almost forty stark raving mad ghouls were hot on our tails, literally; I could feel one’s hot, rancid air against my tail. The thought that one of these horrible creatures were less than a foot behind me sent cold fire flooding through my veins, spurring me onwards towards the door that Melody was now opening for me. Why did pegasi have to be so fast? Without my magic I was pretty much the world’s slowest, weakest Earth Pony. Pumping my legs as fast as I can, my heart trying its hardest to smash through my sternum, I dashed through the wide open door, pulling it and Melody through with me.

With a powerful blam that shook the reinforced, bulletproof glass and splattered it with brain matter and black blood, the ghoul that had been right behind me slammed into the door we had just closed. As the rest of the herd slammed into the glass, their bodies and sharpened hooves barely scratching the magically treated glass, Melody and I held the door shut for dear life. Our hooves wrapped around the push bars, we leaned back, putting all our weight into holding our pitiful bulwark in place.

The door shook as the ghouls slammed against it, their feral minds unable to grasp the idea of ‘pull,’ and I eyed the deadlock below my hooves frantically. If I only had my magic, I’d be able to turn the little knob and keep us secure from the zombie horde long enough for us to escape into the streets. Looking to Melody, I saw her eyes dart to the lock and she thrust her left wingtip forward. Twisting as hard and as fast as she could, Melody locked the door and we both collapsed backwards onto our haunches, gasping for every gulp of precious, radioactive, filthy, pony-dust filled air.

“Why... why didn’t the badge work on those things?” Melody asked.

“I think someone said something about it not working on ghouls,” I replied, spitting as I tried to ease the pain in my burning lungs.

“Then let’s avoid any more ghouls, okay?” Melody said while rotating her right wing and trying to work a kink out of it. “Almost pulled something there.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice. Do you need to take a break?”

“No,” she replied simply before pulling up her map on his Pipbuck. “The boys are leaving the Ministry hub from the other side. We should get going and try to get back to the boat as soon as possible.”

“Sound like a plan.”

My legs burned in protest as I forced myself to stand, my body just wanting to lie down and rest, but I didn’t have time. Plus, there was a nice comfy bed on the boat for me to rest in so the extra walking would be rewarded shortly.

Passing the wall of debris blocking the elevators and the stairwell, Melody and I reached the exit facing the street and calmly walked out the door. With the Queen’s Court badge on my lapel I felt safe stepping out into the gloomy, overcast Trottingham night. As long as we didn’t run into anymore ghoulies we should be just fine. Just six city blocks separated us from Compass and Shadowbuck as they snuck their way to the river while Melody and I casually strolled down the-

“Do you hear that?” Melody whispered.

Now that I was out of my own head, I could hear what sounded like... steady, muffled thunder? I was just about to ask Melody what it was when my answer rounded the corner down the block from us. Standing almost fifteen feet tall, it’s gray hide matted and covered in black stains that I could safely assume were blood, was a massive brahmintaur.

The monstrosity before us turned, its eyes bloodshot and yellowed, and sneered at us. I felt all the blood in my body suddenly rush to my hooves at the sight of four earth pony skulls decorating its horns and thee unicorn skulls hanging from a rope around its neck like a macabre set of prayer beads. Seven ponies. This thing had killed at least seven ponies. I heard Melody let out a tiny squeak as the creature approached us, its hooves echoing off the cobblestones with each powerful step.

We tried to move around it, slowly sidestepping towards the opposite sidewalk, but the brahmintaur mirrored our movements and blocked our path while giving us a wicked grin. No matter which way we moved, the brahmintaur copied us and continued to walk towards us. As it loomed over us, its heavy breath filling the air with the smell of rotten meat, I did the only thing I could think of. I smiled.

“Easy there, big fella. We don’t want any trouble. See! We have a badge. You can’t attack us because we ha-”

Pain exploded through my entire body and everything went dark as the brahmintaur spun faster than I could react and slammed two of its meaty fists into my right shoulder in a devestating backfisted double punch. I hit the ground like a ragdoll, limply skipping across the broken cobblestone as the rocky surface ripped into my flesh like a flat stone on a still pond. I hit the wall of what had once been a quaint little flower shop and crumpled to the ground in a heap of bent armor and broken bones. I blinked and quickly regained consciousness, my vision swimming as my eyes tried to make out the brahmintaur slowly approaching me.

“Aria!” I heard Melody scream and watched as the monster spun around, finally noticing her, and lunged at her, four arms outstretched. I filled my lungs with the precious air that had been knocked out of me, and pain came with it.

“Melody! Fly!” I was able to croak out. My Pipbuck was flashing warnings about my right foreleg and torso being ‘crippled’ although the fact that my leg could barely move was indication enough of that. Melody barely took to the air, catching her brahmintaur attacker off guard. The two headed monster was obviously not accustomed to hunting prey that could go airborne and Melody took full advantage of that fact as she backed out of its reach.

“Chicken!” it bellowed to the heavens before launching itself after her. I watched as its fingers brushed Melody’s hooves before plummeting through the second story window of a house across the street. A cloud of dust filled the air, and the roof of the building creaked and cracked loudly as beams strained to support the structure, but it was quickly drowned out by another guttural roar.

I poked the inventory screen with my nose, calling for the sorting spell to give me a healing potion. Once the healing brew had been magically summoned to the top of my saddlebags, I bit off the top and downed it. I felt my bones starting to mend, but as I stood I immediately knew that something was wrong. While I could stand, the weight made my bones ache and shudder inside my leg and I felt my ribs pop uncomfortably within my chest.

Leaping out of the roof, the brahmintaur swing wildly at Melody as she flew above us. A last second midair pirouette saved her from a very painful upper right cross, but something went wrong. Her wing kinked up and she let out a pained shout before she started a spinning nosedive to the streets below. I reached out with my magic, but found nothing. Melody didn’t even glow before hitting the ground, nor did I even get a spark of pain this time. My magic... was gone?

The brahmintaur thankfully crashed through another building, sending more debris and smoke into the air, and that gave me time to rush to Melody.

“I’m okay,” she coughed, jumping to her hooves as she tried to extend her wings. Hissing painfully, she pulled her wing back to her side and whimpered. “I think I tore something.”

“Here, take this potion and let’s get out of here.” I pulled up the second, and last, healing potion and gave it to Melody. Nodding, she drank it as fast as possible as we started to run down the street, only to hear a mighty crash.

Looking behind me, I saw the brahmintaur, two of it’s earth pony skulls missing from its grisly headdress, charging after us at full speed and somehow gaining ground at an alarming rate. How could something so big that only had two legs move that fast? We needed to think of something. We had guns and it didn’t so we just needed to move and shoot. But I couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn unless I had time to line up a shot and this thing was a moving, death barn with two heads and four massive arms. But Melody was pretty darn good with her laser pistol and the skies were the brahmintaur’s enemy.

“Melody! Fly out of his jumping range and blast him to hell!” I ordered as we ran at a full gallop yet again. My lungs and legs were screaming in agony, and I couldn’t keep this up much longer.
“But what about you?”

“I’ll be the distraction. I can take a hit better that you can and you’re the better shot. Don’t worry, Melody. I’ll be fine” I lied. She gave me a small glare before letting out a huff, extending her wings, and taking off.

The brahmintaur saw this and I knew what he was about to do the moment he roared the word ‘chicken’ again. I had to do my part and save Melody. If I died and this was hell, then this didn’t really matter, but if this was real unlike that small voice in the back of my mind kept saying, then she needed to survive. Spinning around, I pulled the nine millimeter pistol and fired wildly, unloading half the clip and actually scoring two hits to the beast’s massive chest as it started to bend its legs to jump after Melody.

The bullets caught it off guard and I smiled as it lost its balance. The smile immediately vanished as it flung itself, horns first, at me. I didn’t have time to dodge, all I was able to do was spin around, placing Golden Star’s Aegis on my back between me at the oncoming body slam. As the freight train of mutated flesh and horns barreled into me from behind, I felt unimaginable pain as my Pipbuck showed warnings that my torso, right foreleg, and both hind legs were all crippled. I even let go of Dr. Hoofentrotter’s pistol as I screamed out in agony.

From the searing pain in my lower back, ribs, and legs, I knew that they were all broken, possibly even shattered when it came to my right foreleg that now looked like a brown worm as it hung limply and bent in very odd directions. My broken hind legs flailed painfully as my body spasmed with each new pain. I wanted to pass out, but the pain was too great for me to force myself to do and my brain refused to shut down. Why couldn’t I just will myself to pass out? I wanted it so bad. I could barely think beyond the pain, it even felt like I was flying which was completely crazy since...

And that’s when I realized that I was suspended in the air, Golden Star’s Aegis stuck on my back and caught between the front head’s horns. The brahmintaur shook its head to try to get me off him. But when it realized he couldn’t shake me loose it reached up and touched my left hind leg. I had stopped moving, in most part because it hurt too much and for the other part because I was absolutely terrified, and when the brahmintaur pulled his hand away and saw sticky red blood covering his gray fingers, he let out a low chuckle. Looking down, I could see a bone sticking through my back leg and felt like vomiting again.

“Let me help you. I can heal you. I can give you the power to make this beast your slave. Just give me your pain. Give me your...” The flame said, but the suddenly light feeling and ringing in my ears were drowning him out. I would seriously love to give my crazy imaginary talking flame my pain, but I could barely stay conscious at the moment, much less make a bargain.

“Aria!” Melody shouted, snapping me back to reality. I was seeing stars and realized I was losing a lot of blood and maybe even had some internal bleeding. I was going to die if I didn’t think fast, but it was really hard to think through all this pain. Thankfully, Melody was in top shape thanks to that healing potion that I now wished I still had and she had the advantage of height and range. “Die, you two headed son of a bitch!”

Pulling her laser pistol, Melody fired shot and shot of blazing red magical energy into the brahmintaur’s chest. With a skill and keen eye that I could never muster unless I were willing the projectile with my magic, Melody deftly missed me entirely while peppering the beast with numerous burn wounds. It looked up at Melody, snorting angrily, before looking around for something I couldn’t see. Using its upper arms as a shield against Melody’s aerial barrage, gave me cover from the blasts as well. I had to get free, but how could I? There was no way my sword could cut through the horns that were holding me in place, especially if they were tougher than this thing’s hide. What could cut through something a bullet couldn’t pierce?

As the brahmintaur stopped moving, which was a relief for my battered and most likely broken back, something hit me in the chin. Looking down, I saw the answer given to me by a Steel Ranger who I hated almost as much as Cherry Scones. In the holster around my right shoulder was Star Paladin Buzzsaw’s Ripper. Drawing the weapon into my mouth, I wrapped my tongue around the trigger that would start the knife sized chainsaw and braced myself.

“Die, chicken! Die!” the brahmintaur screamed as if suddenly dropped down, sending a shockwave of pain through my entire that suddenly made me very glad that I had something hard to bite down on, and then began to spin. I realized too late that the brahmintaur had ripped free the wheel of an ancient sky chariot and watched in disoriented horror as he threw it like a discus straight at Melody.

“That all you got?” she shouted as she deftly dove under the spinning wheel of death. Then, with the grace of a natural flier, she performed a strafing run across the brahmintaur’s chest, flying sideways while her laser pistol belted out blast after blast in rapid succession. The brahmintaur turned its back to Melody’s attack, causing me to almost pass out from the sudden jolt as it spun.

Blinking away the spots swimming around my eyes, I heard another screech of metal on metal as the brahmintaur ripped free another wheel and spun, flinging it faster and more accurately than before. Why did this thing like to spin so much?

“Woah!” Melody shouted as she tucked in her wings, allowing herself to drop hard down to the ground below. The deadly frisbee of doom sailed over her and she fanned out her wings, slowing her descent so she could land safely. I felt the brahmintaur move again as it lowered its body and head to charge Melody as she descended. This was my one and only chance to save Melody.

Although the world was spinning, I cranked miniature engine inside the Ripper to life and plunged the spinning teeth into the Brahmintaur’s right horn. It screamed as I ripped through the horn about half way up, blood and chips of bone beginning to splatter my face, and it thrust its hand up to try to grab me.

As they hit the shield on my back, I was suddenly popped loose, flipped end over end, and landed hard on the back of the rear head’s neck, belly first. The Ripper kept going as I clenched my jaw against the pain, screaming bloody murder and tasting blood as my eyesight went black for a moment. Without even realizing it, I was sawing directly into the base of the front head’s skull.

Something hot and chunky splattered my face and before I knew it I was falling. I blinked, realizing that the hot, chunky stuff was a mixture of the brahmintaur’s blood and brain matter and I had just ripped into its upper spine and medulla oblongata. The brahmintaur’s other head screamed, thrashing and biting at me, but I was tired, angry, and in far too much pain to give the disgusting coat of crimson gray matter a second thought.

Turning my head, I screamed through my clenched teeth and motorized weapon and buried the spinning blade into the back head’s neck. Inch by meaty inch, the blade cut through muscle, arteries, marrow, and nerves, and I kept screaming. Screaming at this hell that I was being put through. Screaming as I imagined Brightlight, Cherry Scones, and Uncle Blueblood in place of this vile abomination. Screaming because I was hurting worse than I had ever hurt in my entire life and I was still going. And then, I was screaming at nothing as I watched, wide eyed and crazed as the brahmintaur’s read head rolled down its back and plopped hard on the ground below, staring at me with dead eyes still filled with rage.

For a few moments, I took breath after tortured breath, not moving or even hearing Melody galloping over to me. (Or maybe she flew and that’s why I didn’t hear her?) Then the tears came. The adrenaline was leaving me and only pain and horror remained. I was covered in blood and gore from my head to my hooves. I was beaten and broken beyond what any pony should have to go through. I was in a living hell, whether figurative or literal, I didn’t know.

“Aria, drink this!” Melody commanded, and I suddenly had a healing potion in my mouth. Cool, refreshing elixir washed the blood from my mouth and filled my body with an amazing, tingling feeling. My legs and back started to shift and move in a way I could only describe as disturbing, and I could suddenly breathe a little more comfortably again as my ribs gave a distinct pop.

“Melody,” I croaked, taking a deep breath through my sobs. The warnings in my vision had disappeared and I could suddenly move my legs without my brain threatening to shut down. Blinking away the spots that still danced in my eyes, I looked at my neice as she started to carefully pull me away from the brahmintaur’s corpse. “What was that?”

“A Super Restoration Potion. Compass gave me one after the mummy incident. Here’s a regular potion for you too.” Before I could say anything, I had another potion bottle thrust into my opening mouth and I drank from it greedily. Oh sweet Luna, never has medicine tasted so good. The potions were an almost instant relief and allowed me to roll over and try to stand. Helping me up slowly, Melody hoisted my front right leg over her shoulder to help support me. “Here, I’ve got two more, so here’s one for you. You really shouldn’t have given me one of your last potions, Aria.”

“How did you know I didn’t have anymore potions?” I asked as she slid a purple potion bottle into my bag and my Pipbuck flashed ‘1 Healing Potion.’

“Because otherwise you would have used it up on that thing’s head. But amazing job, Aunt Aria! I saw your legs and thought you were dead on it’s horns.” Melody said as we started limping down the street.

“I got stuck. Golden Star’s Aegis fit right between its horns and that’s probably what saved me. Two potions and I’m still feeling like I might just keel over right here...” I moaned, noticing that I wasn’t the only one limping. “Melody, you’re limping.”

“Sorry. I didn’t stick my landing all that well. My back hoof hit a pothole,” she laughed. “But I’m glad you’re not dead, Aria.”

“Me-”

“Aria! Aria, just die already! You know you should just die in a fire like the rest of us!”

“No!” I shouted, clenching my eyes shut against the voice of Brightlight echoing in my head.

“No what?” Melody asked, stopping, I could only assume, to look at me like I was crazy.

“Run! Get away from those abominations, Aria!” the flame told me, and I nodded.

“We need to get out of here,” I moaned as more voices from my past started assaulting my psyche. “They’re coming.”

“Give up! Give up and die and we’ll spare the girl,” Princess Luna whispered in my ear.

“Leave Melody alone!” I shouted

Then I heard her gasp.

“Voidowls!” she screamed, and my eyes shot open to see a flock of them, a dark swarm covering the ambient light of the Ministry building reflecting off the clouds above, heading straight for us. “We need to find a place to hide. They can’t get us if we’re inside.”

I really hoped that was true.

We hobbled down the street as fast as we could, looking for some way into one of the houses or businesses that lined the city streets. Why wasn’t the badge working? It was supposed to work on everything but feral ghouls, I had seen it repel voidowls myself, so why wasn’t it working for us? Had the robots plasma pistol actually damaged it in some way that we couldn’t see? There were no switches or buttons so I don’t think I turned it off, if that was even possible. What was going on?

“Aria, look! That door is open!” Melody cried as she started steering us towards a large building that, after she pointed it out, had its front door slightly ajar. Above the door was a metallic musical note that read ‘Philharmonica Instruments’ and I couldn’t help but think that this music store looked more like a large house than a proper place of business. “We can hide in there! Hurry!”

“Just die already, you stupid, worthless bitch!” Silver Storm screamed as the voidowls cleared the roofs of the buildings across the street, their voiceless beaks open and ready to rip us to shreds.
We didn’t have time to debate. Rushing towards the open door, Melody threw the door open right as I noticed the four yellow bars on my E.F.S.

“Melody!” I shouted, but it was too late.

“Shit! Ambush!” a mare shouted and green and red lights filled the room.

“Aria!” Melody screamed as she jumped between me and the volley of magical energy blasts. The flashes of light in the darkness of the music store forced me to blink, and when I opened my eyes, my heart stopped beating in my chest.

I watched Melody, her hooves wrapped around me protectively, burst into flame under the hail of laser and plasma fire. I watched her eyes stare at me, asking me why I let her die. I watched what was left of her mane was engulfed in a crown of magical fire and burned away. I then watched as her features melted away, turned into a searing hot pile of green goo that burned away at my face and chest. I felt my armor fuse into my skin, I felt my eyes burn away as the remains of my niece incinerated my eyelids, and I screamed as green flames erupted from my chest, finishing the job they had started three days ago.

And then I blinked and watched as Melody pulled me down to the ground, her side and back covered in magical energy burns, but still whole.

“Melody!” I cried as I checked to see if she was still breathing, completely forgetting about our attackers. I let out a sigh of relief as I saw that she was still breathing and almost cheered when I saw that the burns, while damaging and painful, had not actually burned completely through the plates of her armored barding. Actually, the only damage she had probably taken was from the melted plates burning her skin... But they were probably first and second degree burns that were causing her intense, sudden pain that caused her to black out.

“Sergeant Flash Frame! What have you done? They’re not ambushing us! They were running from those shadowbirds!” I heard another mare yell. Looking up, I finally saw that the voidowls had stopped their assault on my mind. They were circling above, but not diving us. Why had they stopped unless... they were afraid of magical energy blasts!

“Oh yeah, rookie? Then why is one of ‘em a Dashite?” the other said in a drawl not unlike Applebloom’s or Check’s.

“Holy crap, she is a pegasus! What’s she doing down here?” a stallion asked.

“Shit, her marefriend’s still up!” another stallion shouted as I turned my head towards them.

Inside were four pegasi, each wearing Ministry of Awesome pegasus power armor. A mare and a stallion with battle saddles mounted with antenna like objects that acted as either laser or plasma blasters, one mare with an energy lance on his back, and another stallion with power hooves on his forehooves. I would describe them a little better, but behind the insectoid like design and the black carapace it was hard to see anything but their mouths and chins.

“Wait! She’s wearing Lunar Guard armor!” the mare with the energy lance managed to shout before the two with the battle saddles opened fire on me.

Two beams of scarlet energy struck my chest and the side of my helmet, staggering me as the energy heated up my armor, however, when a green bolt of plasma struck my shoulder white hot pain scorched across my entire body and my legs gave out. The pegasus with the plasma pistols approached us as I lay helpless on the sidewalk next to Melody. Looking us over as my left shoulder convulsed involuntarily and I sucked in each breath through clenched teeth, she grimaced at me.

“Still awake? Damn, you’re a tough one to kill, huh?” She spat on Melody’s cheek who groaned softly in response. I mustered up an angry grunt and tried my best to stare daggers at her, but she wasn’t even fazed in the least. She actually laughed. “Don’t worry mudpony, we’re just gonna take care of your Dashite friend and then we’ll be on our way.”

“Wh-What’s a Dashite?” I asked.

“You don’t know?” she asked before shaking her head. “It’s what your friend is. A Dashite is a traitor to the Grand Pegasus Enclave. She abandoned us and came down here so she’s marked a Dashite and a traitor. Any of us Enclave that see a Dashite are to shoot on site. Haven’t you noticed her Dashite Brand?”

“Brand?” I asked, trying to queue up the healing potion Melody gave me through my Pipbuck’s sorting spell without this Pegasus seeing me.

“Right, she covers it with these saddle bags. See right here her cutie marks been...” Kicking aside Melody’s saddlebags, the Enclave pegasus froze at the sight of Melody’s cutie mark. Now was my chance. Hitting the selection button one more time, I grabbed the potion from my saddlebags, bit off the cap, and downed the healing liquid while the mare in the wicked black power armor stayed focused on Melody’s cutie mark. “What the hell? She should have been branded a Dashite if she fled down below.”

“That’s because she’s a Stablepony!” I shouted, drawing the Sword of Everfree in my mouth and charging her. My leg had been healed, but I could still feel the burning on my shoulder and the nasty scar etched into my flesh.

Before she could respond, I swiped at her neck, missing my target and only nicking the underside of her chin as she jumped away from me. I tried to keep the pressure on her, staying at her side to stay out of her battle saddle’s crosshairs and aiming thrusts for her neck. But without my magic, my accuracy was severely hampered and most of my attacks rang harmlessly off her armor’s plating.

Pew! Pew! Pew!

Laser blasts reflected off my shield, striking the wall to my left and hitting a voidowl as it circled above causing the shadowy predators to scatter and some to even flee. Jumping to the side, I put my back to the wall and stood defensively over Melody’s unconscious form.

“She’s a pegasus from Stable Sixty-Three and my niece. She’s not one of your Dashite traitors so you just l-”

Glass shards rained down on me as the pegasus with the powerhooves smashed through a window on the floor above and came down hard on my back. My shield took most of the force, but I was still driven to my knees. Then came two more laser blasts and a plasma bolt to my sides, the pinpoint specs of crimson staggering me to the right and allowing me to barely miss the deadly emerald glob of magical energy.

Blinking, I looked up just in time to receive a devastating powerhoof jab and felt my cheek bone shatter as the powerful attack sent me hard onto the cobblestone street. Tears had already begun streaming down my broken face as the three pegasi gathered around Melody.

“So what are we gonna do about these two, Sarge?” the laser stallion asked while the pugilist of the group eyed me coldly as I lay stunned in the middle of the street.

“Well, we’re definitely going to kill the dirt pounder. The bitch cut me,” the pegasus I realized must be Sergeant Flash Frame said, spitting in my direction, but falling short of actually reaching me. “But we’re going to have to brand the girl too so why don’t we let her auntie watch before we waste her?”

“B-Brand her?” the fourth pony with the energy lance asked, finally appearing through the doorway. “But ma’am, we don’t have an energy brand. We can’t brand her. Plus...” she said, trailing off at the end while looking at me. I couldn’t tell if she was sympathetic or not because of those stupid helmets, but her voice seemed uneasy about all this.

“Plus what, rookie?” the powerhoofed soldier asked, landing and cracking his wings menacingly.

“Well, plus, um, she’s not really a traitor, she’s just a genetic throwback from down here. So if she’s not a citizen of the Enclave trying to abandon us, then she can’t be a Dashite.”

“Good point, Private Star Runner,” the sergeant said suddenly, causing the two stallions’ mouths to drop. “About how we don’t have a brand. I couldn’t care less if she’s not a real Dashite. I’ve always wanted to brand one of those filthy traitors, but we haven’t had any pony turn Dashite since Deadshot Calamity.”

“Or that bitch, Dawn,” the laser pegasus added in disgust.

“Eh, who cares about your Thunderhead gripin’, Duster.” Powerhooves mocked, getting a growl from Duster.

“My folks left Thunderhead and became Neighvarro citizens when I was eight, Fly By. I’m not one of those ground loving idiots over Hoofington,” Duster spat back at Fly By.

“Enough arguing!” Sergeant Flash Frame barked, and all three Enclave soldiers instantly fell quiet. “Private Star Runner! Give me your energy lance so Duster can do some of his doodling on this Stablepony’s backside.”

“I-”

“No!” I shouted, the simple act of talking shooting needles of pain through my eyes and mouth.

“Shut the fuck up!” Duster shouted before planting his forehooves and giving me the hardest applebuck I think a pegasus could ever muster straight to my jaw.

My world went dark. The ringing sound in my ears was the only sensory input that told me I was still alive. As I started to open my eyes, I could taste blood and felt something weird in my mouth. As I spat, pieces of one of tooth came out with it. Probing my mouth with my tongue, I realized that the third right tooth from the center was missing and I had just spit it out in three tiny chunks. And that’s when I heard the screaming.

Looking up, I saw Sergeant Flash Frame on top of Melody, pinning her to the ground as the laser pony, Duster, was standing over her, a glowing blue energy lance in his mouth as he was cutting into Melody’s flanks. I couldn’t see what he was drawing, but I could smell burning flesh and hear Melody’s pained cries as the three Enclave pegasi laughed at the torture they were inflicting on her.

“Stop! Please! Stop! Not my cutie mark!” she screamed through sobs and gasps of intense pain.

“Melody,” I mumbled through my broken mouth, blood running down my chin. The fourth member, Star Runner, was standing in the doorway of the music shop, trying not to watch the atrocity her squadmates were committing until she saw me and placed her hoof over her mouth. However, Fly By seemed to notice me too and laughed.

“Wow, you’re a tough nag, horny. Usually the ponies I kick like that stay down for good,” he said as flew over to me, landing silently besides me.

Before I could do anything, he had my head pinned under his power hooves. He pushed hard as the rocks beneath my cheek started to grate against my skin painfully. Then, after he felt he had sufficiently ground my face into the bloody cobblestones, he bit down on my mane and lifted me up by my hair. Chuckling through his teeth while he kept his hooves painfully hard against my temples, he forced me to continue watching their ghastly work..

“You said she was your niece, right? Well, she’s gonna be a Dashite now. Just like Rainbow Dash.” He let go of my mane, turned his head to look directly at me, and spat in my eye. “Forever branded a traitor.”

“Why?” I asked. Fly By replied by applying pressure to the sides of my head and I screamed as electricity arced from one hoof to the other using my brain as a conduit. It was only for a brief moment, but the darkness was already taking me again.

“Why not? We can’t let her get above the cloud blanket. She’s probably got some nasty dirt dweller’s disease. Plus, it’s Sergeant’s orders, after all.”

“That’s no ex-”

And everything went black... again.

____________________________

And in the darkness, he was waiting for me. The flame, taking the shape of a powerful unicorn stallion, strode gallantly towards me. The heat off his emerald body warmed my cold, pained soul just like the sun and the moon once had. I couldn’t look away, he was magnificent in his glory.

“Aria.” the flame said in a sad voice. “You know what I require. You know what I can give you. Your pain. Your sorrow. Your rage. Your hatred. Give them to me and I can remake you. Unlock your hidden potential.”

“What hidden potential?” I asked, feeling so very tired, yet refusing to let sleep take me while I was in the flames presence.

“There is great power locked within you, Aria. You have the blood of gods pumping through your veins. You only need to unlock it.”

“You mean Aunt Luna and Aunt Celestia?” I asked. The flame bowed his head slightly and chuckled.

“Yes. Like Celestia and Luna. Give me what I desire from you and I shall give you the key to the power you need. The power to save those you cherish. The power to cleanse this land and make it like Equestria. Not the mockery it has become due to the foolish and horrid natures of the ponies that destroyed it, but the true Equestria that we know can still come.” His voice was smooth like strawberry milk and his offer was exactly what I needed. I needed to be stronger to save Melody. She needed my help. But a part of me was afraid. A part of me feared that this wasn’t real and that I was in Hell. And if I was in Hell, then wouldn’t the balefire stallion asking for my pain, sorrow, rage and hatred be the Demon Lord of the Underworld?

“I can’t.”

“Why do you hesitate? I can give you what you need.”

“I’m afraid.” Was it really that simple? “What if this isn’t real? What if I’m dead and just dreaming this?” I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘What if you’re the devil?’

“And what if this is real? Would you let Melody die?” I could feel tears running down my cheeks.

“No! I-I just...”

“Fine. Then I shall make you a deal. You are hurting, yes?”

“Uh huh.” I said weakly.

“Then give me your pain. I shall heal your body and give you a taste of the power within you. The power only I can grant you. Do it, Aria. Do it for Melody.”

The power to save Melody. The power to stop hurting. The power to make this world more like the Equestria I knew and loved. In the distance, I could hear Melody, crying out my name in unimaginable pain, her voice ripping through my soul. I knew what I had to do.

“Yes! I’ll do it! I’ll give you my pain if you can give me the power to save Melody!” I told the flame.

“Then feel my power coursing through your veins and use it well.”

Suddenly the flame was gone, replaced by a ring of balefire. The fire was all around me, dancing its warm and inviting dance as its spiral drew closer and closer to me. I wanted to run, but I was in a void of darkness, the polar opposite of The Void Beyond, and I couldn’t move. If the flame really was a demon and I had just failed Hell’s test, then I couldn’t fight off my punishment.

The flames jumped out to me, tendrils of flame crawling up my legs and filling my lungs as the most amazing feeling I had ever felt started to encompass my entire being. My whole being was burning, but it felt so good. I could feel my skin vibrating and my mane and tail tingling, but in a good way.

My eyes shot open and the world had a strange greenish tint, but I didn’t care. I felt absolutely amazing! The power coursing through me was practically orgasmic and I could feel it working wonders on my body. My bones were already mending much better than they had under the Super Restoration Potion’s effects and for the first time since before the ghoul attack in the museum I could feel magic flowing through my horn.

It was as if I had been paralyzed and could now walk again. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. I needed magic, and the flame gave it back to me. It was almost as if I had just spent a month in the desert and was given a nice, cool glass of water, although something deep down felt off. Like there was something wrong with this power. It felt like there was just the smallest drop of oil mixed in with my refreshing drink, but at the moment, I only had one focus, saving Melody. No, make that two focuses, saving Melody and killing these motherfuckers.

“Looks good, Duster. Want me to flip her over so you can start working on the other one or do you wanna fill this one in first?” the sergeant asked.

“Please, stop,” Melody whimpered. Flash Frame growled before smacking Melody hard on her burned and mutilated flank. She let out a blood curdling scream that filled me with such a rage that the fire within me felt like I was about to explode.

“Yeah! Let us have our fun, girl. You don’t wanna end up dead like your auntie here, do ya?” Fly By laughed, but when he looked down at me, his jaw dropped.

“Dead like me?” I said, and sent a bolt of green lightning arcing out of my lancing into Fly By’s chest.

My magic was a lot stronger than I thought now as the force of the blast sent the pegasus hurtling backwards and landing in a heap on the sidewalk, hopefully deader than that brahmintaur I slaughtered earlier. The two M.E.W. weilding pegasi opened fire, but their stunned surprise made them just a few moments too slow. Teleporting away in a flash of emerald magical energy, I appeared between Flash Frame and Duster as their twin beams of green and red magical energy scorched the air where I had been laying and burnt the wall of the business across the street.

“Who’s next?” I giggled, grasping the energy lance in my magical aura and ripping it out of Duster’s mouth with the added bonus of chipping his front teeth in the process. Next, I spun the weapon around and away from Melody as she looked up at me in stunned disbelief, her eyes filled with tears that these miserable excuse for ponies had made her shed. “Well then, I’ll just have to take back those tears in their blood.” The magically enhanced blade practically sang as I spun it around, making sure the arc of the whirlwind of death would catch Flash Frame in its deadly flow.

She saw the blade coming, but not fast enough. As she tried to take to the air, the blade caught her right across the throat, severing her voice box and larynx while cauterizing the wound immediately. She clutched her throat as she fell, suddenly unable to concentrate on flying after such a painful and devastating cut.

Turning my head back to Duster, he started to backpedal away from me, saying something like “Please do-” before I cackled gleefully, spinning the point to face him, before thrusting it forward, under his chin, and continued until the magical blade was planted squarely in the back of his helmet.
“Oh... Did that hurt?” I taunted the pony corpse at my hooves before turning back to Sergeant Flash Frame.

Clutching her throat and making strange noises that sounded like a mixture of a chicken and a clicking noise, I stepped towards her with a smile on my face. The look of sheer terror in her eyes was so deliciously fabulous that I didn’t want it to end.

“You don’t like being on the receiving end, do you Flash Frame?” I giggled as I stepped even closer to her. She tried to back away, but she was only able to flail on the ground as I made my approach. I realized now that she had no way of drawing another breath and was suffocating right here in front of me. Taking her head in my levitation field and making sure to pinch her wings together so she couldn’t try to fly away, I lifted her up, her legs kicking uselessly as I looked into her visor, a green glare staring back at me. “Oh? You can’t breathe? Such a shame. Well, I guess I can be a little bit merciful and put you out of your misery. Time to fry, Sergeant.”

I was about to summon up another blast of lightning, but suddenly I felt a warmth in my chest. It felt almost like acid reflux after eating way too much popcorn at the movies and I needed to burp. Before I knew what I was doing, I opened my mouth wide and felt a tickling at the back of my throat. Then, as I let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I had taken, a torrent of emerald flames shot from my mouth, the balefire ripping away at her power armor and cooking her alive inside her suit. She tried to scream, but no noise emerged from her lips and before I knew it, the red dot on my E.F.S. was no more. Whether it was the flames or the asphyxiation that did it, I don’t know, and in all honesty, I didn’t care.

“You bitch! Get in here and help me, rookie!” I heard Fly By scream from behind me.

Taking up Golden Star’s Aegis, I expected to see the Private, Star Runner, or the powerhoofed pony himself attacking me. Instead, I saw the pony that broke my face struggling to move his limbs as if his own suit were fighting against him while the younger pegasus stood paralyzed in the doorway, unable to move, but unable to look away from the carnage I was doling out to her fellow Enclave soldiers. Then I realized what was really going on and another sadistic giggle escaped my lips.

“Hehehe... I fried your spell matrix, didn’t I? Your power armor won’t move and the joints are all locked up, aren’t they?” I said with a strange glee before teleporting next to him.

“What would you know about Enclave power armor, you fucking demon bitch!” he shouted. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Demon bitch? That’s good. But to answer your question, I know a little bit about Ministry of Awesome Shadowbolt power armor. I heard rumors that the Ministry of Image designed them and that even the tail is a deadly weapon, although you seem to like hitting ponies into submission.”

“How the fuck would you know where this armor came from?”

“Because, Fly By, I’m wearing this armor for a reason. I’m a two hundred and sixteen year old member of the Lunar Guard. I was alive when that armor was developed. You just shot a member of Princess Luna’s Guard and I am within my right to do this!” I shouted before bringing my shield down on his head hard, cracking the helmet as blood splattered the shield’s silver and gold surface.

“Wait! No!” he screamed, but I just brought the shield down again and again and again.

Over and over I slammed Aegis down on the pathetic excuse for a pony lying before me, long after he had stopped moving and his skull was no more than paste littering the Trottingham streets, and with each blow the smile on my face growing larger and the giggle trickling out of my throat became more manic. Finally, after his decapitation was complete, I turned to spy two yellow blips on my E.F.S. One was Melody as she watched me in silent shock, tears still streaming down her bruised face, and the other pegasus, still rooted to the spot where she had stood the entire encounter.

“Good. I would hate to have to chase you down,” I said gleefully as I started my slow and steady approach.

This seemed to snap her out of her petrified state as Star Runner suddenly extended her wings and tried to leap into the air. However, I had my magic now and I knew exactly how to handle a pegasus. Reaching out with my magic, I grabbed both her wings and pulled them back towards me with a hard wrench that caused poor little Star Runner to scream out in agony. I was actually starting to enjoy this even though I wished it were Silver Storm I was about to string up and not this pathetic excuse for a chicken pony.

“Please! This is my first assignment! It’s my first day!” she cried, the tears already falling down her cheeks past her bug eyed visor. “I just want to go home.”

“Like us. It was our first day too,” a tiny voice cried out from the back of my mind, and for the briefest of moments I hesitated.

“So? You didn’t stop them from torturing and mutilating Melody,” I said, my anger rising and burning in my chest as I pushed the tiny voice away.

“But I tried to talk them out of it!”

“Not fucking good enough! It was your lance that did that!” I shouted, pointing back at Melody’s burned and warped cutie mark without even trying to look back.

“I’m sorry!” she cried, breaking down into frantic and terrified sobs before me.

“She’s not like them. Let her go!” the tiny voice proclaimed.

“Tell me something!” I demanded, and I felt her entire body go rigid and start shaking under the grasp of my telekinesis. “A Dashite is a traitor to the Enclave, correct?”

“Y-Yes.”

“And they’re named after Rainbow Dash, the Ministry Mare of the Ministry of Awesome, Leader of the Shadowbolts, and Bearer of the Element of Loyalty?” I asked, getting a desperate nod out of her.

“Right.”

“And what did the Element of Loyalty do to betray the Enclave, huh?” I asked, feeling my eyes tingle and watching as the strange green light flared against her visor.

“She... she went back down below. We... the Enclave were trying to rebuild after Cloudsdale got destroyed. But she said we had to help the ponies down below even though opening the cloud cover and going down below would've been suicide. S-So she abandoned the Enclave when we... they needed her most. She was a traitor,” she explained through sobs of sheer terror.

“Oh you’re not distancing yourself from them now, Star Runner. As I told your currently headless friend over there, I’m a member of the Lunar Guard, Princess Luna’s personal protectos, if you will. And as I see it, Rainbow Dash betrayed the Enclave by staying loyal to Equestria. So I have one question for you, Private Star Runner.” I said coldly.

I swore I could see her eyes trying to bulge through her visor she was so terrified. And you know what? I was loving every minute of it. I had the power now. I was in control. I was the one inflicting the pain on the horrid creatures of the world that called themselves ponies. Right now I really wished Uncle Blueblood had become a ghoul so I could find him, use this power, and rip his spoiled fucking head off.

“Y-Yes?”

"Address me as your superior officer!” I screamed, feeling the flames tickle my throat as I did.

“Yes, ma’am?” she screamed, and I let out a content little laugh.

“If consider somepony who is loyal to Equestria a traitor, and you were a part of Equestria, and you turned your back on it and let it die, what would you call that pony?” I asked. I lifted a hoof to play with the loose strands of purple hair hanging out of her helmet and then began to use them to tickle her chin playfully. It was so fun to be in control for once. I could even see the sweat forming underneath the matted baby blue of her fur. Swallowing hard, she nervously smiled at me.

“A traitor?”

“Very good!” I praised her before grinning and letting out a low chuckle. “And what was the penalty for treason back in my time?” I asked, watching her breath catch before ripping her helmet off her head to look into her terrified green eyes.
“Answer me!”

“Death!” she cried.

“Correct again! Tell her what she’s won, Jockey!” I proclaimed playfully, mimicking the voice of one of the old game show hosts from a show I would watch when I was younger.

“Huh?”

“She’s won an all expense trip to Hell! First class! So I just have one question for you, Star Runner. Would you like to fry like the pigeon you are?” I laughed as sparks began to fly off my horn while the fire began to scratch at my throat and the sides of my mouth as emerald flames began to trickle out around my lips. “Or burn in the hellfire you left Equestria to die in?”

“Please! That wasn’t me! I didn’t do that! It’s my first day! I didn’t want to do this, but my family needs the money! We were just supposed to get some stupid music file for Colonel Autumn Leaf! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! Please! I just want to see my mom and little brother again!” she plead desperately, and I froze.

“She’s not like them! Let her go! You’ll hate yourself if you kill her!”

“No!” I hissed, fighting within myself as to whether I would pass judgment on this girl. Was she innocent or guilty, and was I really suitable to be judge, jury, and executioner? Looking at her more closely, I suddenly realized that she was younger than me, maybe only fourteen or fifteen, and the notion that she hadn’t wanted any of this was beginning to take shape in my mind.

But she had just stood by and let this happen. She had to be punished!

With her life?

Yes! Think of all the ponies that died because of these Enclave sons of bitches!

But has she killed anypony?

I didn’t know what to do. The little voice was fighting as hard as it could against the sea of thoughts that sought Star Runner’s death and, for some strange reason, she was holding her own against my mind’s lust for vengeance that I hadn’t even known I needed until a few minutes ago.

I had to end this! I had to end her! But I couldn’t! But I must! But... but...

“Aria... Please don’t do this,” Melody said weakly as I felt a hoof delicately placed on my shoulder.

“Why not? Look what they did to you,” I said coldly, not even looking at her. I couldn’t take my eyes away from Star Runner’s, I could even see the flame within calling for me to end her.

“She didn’t do this. They took her lance. They threatened her. You killed the others, don’t do this. Please Aria, you’re not a monster,” she said, before her voice caught.

“A monster! How could you call me a-”

As I whipped around on her, I saw it. The window of the music shop was glowing bright green. I let Star Runner go and heard Melody tell her to run, but I was too mesmerized by the green flame in the dirty window to notice at the time. Was the flame on the other side? Could he tell me what to do? He would know what I should do with the pegasus. Reaching out my bloody hoof, I wiped away the dirt and grime coating the window, and what awaited me on the other side was not me.

Staring back at me was the demon from the bathroom mirror, but this time I knew it was me. The blood on my face was a mixture of the brahmintaur’s, Fly By’s, and my own. I could feel my mane tingling as the green and blue flames danced on the top of my head, the green energy flowing out of my eyes matched the light green tint the world had taken on, and my tongue poked at the sharp fangs that had replace many of my teeth, including the one that Fly By had knocked out. Turning to look at my backside, I could even see that my tail was a thick whip of balefire flames and blue streaks.

“Melody! Stand back I’ll... Aria?” I heard Shadowbuck announce before I spun around to see the two stallions turn a corner and rush towards us, only to stop when they realized that I was me and not a monster they would have to kill. As Compass rushed to Melody’s side, Shadowbuck slowly approached me, taking off his helmet and showing me the concern and fear in his gray eyes. “Aria. Wha-what happened to you?”

Looking at the carnage I had wrought upon the Enclave pegasi, I felt sick. The energy lance buried in Duster’s skull, the blue magical aura slowly cooking his brains inside a bone marrow skillet. The glowing green skeleton in a suit of power armor that had just minutes ago been Sergeant Flash Frame. I felt like vomiting as I saw the blood and brain matter splattering the cobblestones where Fly By’s head had once been.

I knew what had happened to me.

“I-I’m a monster,” I said, and suddenly felt the rush of power leave me. My mane stopped tingling, my gums shifted in the strangest manner, my vision became clearer, and I immediately felt weak and nauseous. Collapsing to my knees and then falling on my side, my head hanging off the sidewalk, I wrapped my hooves around my stomach as a surge of bile rushed out of my body. But what came out of me wasn’t vomit. No. It was some strange, rainbow colored liquid that poured out of my mouth and began to pool among the cobblestones. I heard a acidic hiss as the viscous liquid started to eat away at the street and heard Shadow yelp as he jumped away from me.

“Shit! What the fuck! Melody! Compass! Stay back! Don’t touch that shit!” he shouted, his words filling me with dread, but I couldn’t ask what was wrong as the not-vomit continued to pour from my mouth. I couldn’t breathe, it just kept coming, and I couldn’t feel an end to it.

Then, as I was about to pass out, it stopped, and I could breathe again. And then, the pain came.
So much pain. So much agony. It was like my body was trying to turn itself inside out. I needed help, but Compass and the others were backing away from me as I writhed and screamed on the sidewalk.

“Luna! It hurts so much! Help!” I screamed.

“Compass, try to pull her over here, but don’t get her in that Taint!”

“Taint? The stuff you warned us about?” Melody whimpered as Compass helped support her, his left forehoof around her protectively.

“Yeah! Get her away from that stuff! Help her!” Shadow shouted.

As Compass tried to pull me over to them, far away from the ‘Taint’ that I had vomited, I rolled again and came face to face with something that hadn’t been there a moment before. I know it hadn’t, and by everypony’s reactions, they knew it hadn’t been there either.

I reached out and wrapped my forelegs around a tiny statuette of a pony I knew from so very long ago. It was of a stallion that I loved with all my heart wielding a silver and gold shield that was currently lying in the middle of the street where Star Runner had once been groveling for her life. Hugging the miraculous little figurine to my chest, I started to cry. I kissed his light blue hair and marveled at his confident and loving sea blue eyes.

I closed my eyes against the tears while placing my horn against his, and a spark that I didn’t quite understand became a bridge between us. It was odd, but welcomed because I could feel him in it. I could feel Golden Star’s presence and the pain slipped away. As I made a connection to Golden Star’s statuette, everything disappeared and the hellish world around me was gone.

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

I was walking down a pristine Trottingham street with a slight limp. I felt something restricting, yet supporting my right hind leg allowing me to walk since it wasn’t moving quite right. It was almost as if my leg didn’t have the strength or desire to move with the rest of my legs. It wasn’t like my leg was broken, it was just... off. At least the smoothly paved sidewalk was better for walking than the cobblestone streets.

The sky was a gorgeous blue that I felt relieved to see. The gloomy eternal cloud cover of the Wasteland made me suddenly realize I missed the blue sky a lot. The birds swooped and sang a joyous tune and I really wished I could stop to take the world I once knew in. To just stand there and absorb the sunlight and revel in the sounds of the city around me. Chittering squirrels, the rhythmic clopping of the hooves as the ponies around me went about their busy days without having to decapitate anyone. But my host just continued walking, completely unaware like the rest of the world that the beauty all around them would soon be gone. Although why I was walking with my legs spread a little farther apart than they needed to be...

“Oh no! I’m in a stallion!” Wait a second. There was something familiar about the body I was now occupying. The lock of light blue hair that fell into his eyes looked extremely familiar. Did I know this stallion?

That question was quickly answered as the sound of choppy music began to play from a music shop he was passing and he stopped in front of a familiar window. He peered through the window as an orange earth pony mare with a bright orange mane of long flowing curls was giving a purple pegasus filly a piano lesson. The little filly was slowly pressing the keys as her teacher watched silently from beside her. The stallion smiled softly at the heart warming scene inside Philharmonica Instruments, and his aqua hair and bright blue eyes looked back at me. He seemed older and much more tired, but I knew this stallion and the sight of him filled me with so much joy and sadness I thought I might burst out of his mind any second and give him a hug.

I was experiencing one of Golden Star’s memories. Somehow, someway that I didn’t understand, the mysterious statuette was acting like a memory orb. How was such a thing possible? Where did it come from?

As these completely valid and highly puzzling questions kept bubbling to the surface of my mind, I realized that we were moving. My brother started limping away before turning around just in time to run headlong into a bespectacled earth pony mare who was too busy looking in the other window while walking to notice him. The powder blue earth pony toppled over, letting out a squeak of surprise as she thrust out her forehooves and wrapped her legs around Golden Star’s neck.

And with a strength that I knew my brother had, even with his bum leg, Golden Star stood firm, allowing the mare to catch herself, as her blue eyes met his over the rim of her glasses. I felt Golden Star’s heart flutter in his chest at the sight of her and found that a little odd. I mean, I guess she was pretty in a sense, but she was mostly average. To be honest, those eyes were about the only thing that she had going for her that set her apart from every other mare I had ever seen give Golden Star the slightest bit of his attention. Those eyes were the same as his, a sparkling blue like the sea on a clear morning.

“Are you okay, miss?” he asked as she set herself upright and pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. Wow... those things were thick. Could she see anything farther than a few inches in front of her without them?

“Oh. I-I’m sorry,” she apologized, letting go of his neck and trying to hide the blush crossing her cheeks.
Golden Star gave her a once over, although I really didn’t like how he lingered on her flanks a little longer than I felt comfortable with. It was only a few moments more, but I was seeing through my big brother’s eyes so I definitely noticed it. I never took Golden Star for the flank staring type. Did all stallions like to stare at flanks? I threatened Shadowbuck and he still did it. Was it just reflex for them? Why was I even trying to think of an excuse for this kind of behavior?

“No. It’s alright, miss. I should have been watching where I was going.”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been watching Dolly’s lessons and walking at the same time. I should have been more careful, but it’s always so cute seeing her teaching little Keynote to play an instrument,” she said until the little filly played a few sour notes in a row and caused the two to flinch. “I don’t know if piano is her talent either.”

“Do you know them?” Golden Star asked as he looked back through the window.

“Yes. That's Dolly, Da Capo Philharmonica's wife, and Keynote is the daughter of the head flautist and head violinist for the Royal Trottingham Symphony. She hasn’t found her special talent yet so she’s taking lessons from the Philharmonicas to try to discover it. So far the flute, the the violin, the trombone-” Another sour note cut her off and she smiled sadly. “And it seems the piano escapes her as well.”

“Maybe her talent isn’t in music?” Golden Star speculated. It would make sense. While families tended to share talents, like Golden Star and I sharing a talent for magical combat, but your family wasn’t an end all, be all in cutie mark destinies.

“That’s a possibility, but I don’t think she would like that very much,” the mare said.

“Why’s that? Are her parents that demanding?”

“No. It’s her brother, Grand Crescendo. He’s the new conductor for the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra and her dream is to work side by side with him some day. She adores her big brother and wants to be just like him,” she said, smiling contently. I could feel an ache spreading across Golden Star’s chest and his eyes left the unicorn filly at the piano and started staring at the ground.

“She wants to be just like him?” he asked sadly. The mare seemed to notice his change in mood and her smile faded, quickly replaced by concern.

“What’s wrong? You... you look like you’re about to cry,” she asked, placing her hoof on his shoulder.

“I-It’s nothing... It’s just that... I used to be a big brother.” The confusion that crossed the mare’s face suddenly turned to realization and then sadness as she finally noticed something.

“The war?” she asked. Golden Star looked back at his leg, finally showing me the black brace that allowed him to walk on his back right leg, and nodded.

“How did she die?” she asked before adding. “Oh! This is rude of me. I hardly know you and I shouldn’t be prying and-”

“Zebra terrorist attack in Canterlot. She sacrificed herself to save a lot of ponies. Probably saved all of Canterlot,” he said solemnly, never truly returning the mare’s gaze.

“A zebra terrorist attack on Canterlot... Was she a Lunar Guard?” she asked, snapping Golden Star’s attention back to her.

“Yes. How did you know that?” he asked. I’d like to know that too. From what I was told in Stable Sixty-Three, the initial report about my death made news, but everything was swept under the rug after the funeral the next day thanks to Uncle Blueblood.

“I’m a reporter for the Trottingham Herald,” she replied, showing her cutie mark to him. This time I actually paid attention to her flanks, the first time I was trying to be respectful, and saw that her cutie mark was a newspaper, but instead of words she had sheet music written across the front page. “Well, a music critic-slash-reporter, but I remember news about a Lunar Guard sacrificing herself to save Canterlot from a zebra attack. The next day we had one of our reporters out of our Canterlot office go to the funeral and she was sending us the article when the story got cancelled by the higher ups. It was weird stuff that usually only happens when Image or Morale steps in. I think the Canterlot Chronicle was the only paper that covered it and the article was short and on page six of section ‘E.’ I always wondered what happened there.”

“Blueblood happened,” Golden Star growled before turning back to the window with a sigh.

The mare turned to the window as well and they both watched as the filly was left alone while the earth pony mare had to go help a customer. They stood in silence and watched as Keynote left the piano and started walking among the instruments. Occasionally they would take sidelong glances at each other, but one would usually catch the other, a nervous smile would be exchanged, and their attentions would return to the filly. I watched through Golden Star’s eyes as Keynote moved over to the guitars and the mare finally broke the awkward silence. “So what was her name?”

“Aria.”

“What was she like?” she asked.

“She... she was great. She always had her nose firmly planted in every book that she could find. She loved to study, especially history and magic, even when her talent was magical combat. She... she idolized Aunt Luna and wanted to be a member of her personal guard,” he explained, getting a shocked reaction from his companion.

“Aunt Luna? But... You... I... You mean you and your sister were royalty? You’re a prince!? Oh my Celestia! I just... You... I-” she said, blown away by the realization that my brother was of the royal family. Realizing that she was on the verge of 'fangirlism,' the mare smiled and pushed her glasses up her nose. “I’m sorry. Continue. It’s just hard to believe that a princess was killed by zebra forces and it didn’t make the papers? How is that even possible? Even with Prince Blueblood’s interference, which I don’t understand, why would anypony do that to a princess who saved Canterlot?”

“It’s because Aria was considered illegitimate and not a real princess. Everypony considered her my bastard half-sister, but my mom insisted that she didn’t cheat on my dad. Then she suddenly confessed and killed herself, and I don’t buy it. I-I’ve always thought, especially after what he did to Aria, that Uncle Blueblood might have had something to do with that,” he snarled before closing his eyes tight. “And you want to know the really stupid thing?”

“What?” she asked, and when Golden Star opened his eyes he was greeted with an inquisitive set of blue eyes staring back at him.

“Since I moved here I ran into an old teacher of Aria’s, Dr. Hoofentrotter at the Trottingham Natural History Museum. I started researching my sister’s favorite things, especially Medieval Equestrian History. It was my way to honor her and, I guess, mourn...”

“What does Medieval Equestrian History have to do with your sister?” she asked, levelling the query that I was just thinking as well.

“The Everfree’s, the medieval lords of the lands where Ponyville is now built, were married into the royal family. Do you know what the most defining characteristic of the Everfree family was?”

“Can’t say that I do,” she said, shaking her head.

“They were brown. Up until six hundred years ago, brown was a common color among the royal family. Then the royal family seemed to constantly marry a certain type of pony, namely white coated unicorns of high station. That’s why my grandparents, my parents, my uncles, and I all have white coats, it’s a strong hereditary line. But Aria was born brown and everypony jumped to the conclusion that my mother had committed adultery. Now... Now I think my sister might really have been my legitimate sister and she was just a genetic throwback.”

What!? Was this true? Could I really be a throwback to the Everfree line? I had read that they had been brown of coat, but I never drew Golden Star’s conclusion. However, it made sense. If Melody could be born a pegasus two hundred years after her last pegasus ancestor, then was it really so far fetched that I could be born brown, but still be Starshine and Elegant Star’s legitimate daughter?

If I had had a body, I would probably have been shaking. If this was true, then mom really didn’t cheat on Golden Star’s dad and Starshine was actually my father too. But what about Dream’s vision? Could that be wrong? Was this ‘Guardian Heart’ not really my father? That made sense too, if I really thought about it. That gray earth pony mare wasn’t my mother, I knew that, so it was highly possible that the vision of a possible timeline that never came to be must have been radically different.

Or maybe even a lie.

Ow... Time-Space/Alternate Timeline Theory made my non-existent head hurt.

“Just look at me. I’m gushing all my frustrations and crazy theories about how screwed up my family is to a mare I just met. I don’t even know your name,” Golden Star said. Turning to her, he smiled as she offered him her hoof.

“My name is Page Turner and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Prince...”

“Golden Star. It’s just Golden Star. It’s an honor to meet you, Miss Page Turner,” he said, taking her hoof and bowing his head to genteelly kiss it. Wow. Smooth move, bro. I could tell by the blush on Page Turner’s cheeks and her wide eyed expression that he had made quite the impression on her.

Of course, I could also feel the heat tickling Golden Star’s muzzle and knew he was a little embarrassed by his actions as well. “And, again, I’m sorry that I just spilled my guts to you. It’s just that Aria’s death and my injury have been hard on everypony. It hit grandmother worst of all.”

“It’s no matter, Golden Star. I’m a reporter. I tend to have a knack for getting information out of ponies,” she giggled before she tapered off and nervously pushed up her glasses. “Oh... I’m sorry for your loss.”
Grandmother died because I died? Thank you universe for throwing more guilt on my shoulders! While you’re at it, why don’t you just tell me that my birth brought on the apocalypse too, huh?

“She’s not dead, but she might as well be,” he said solemnly. What!? How could you say that Golden Star!? “When I woke up in the hospital, a cousin came to visit and told me she was ill. When I finally was discharged and released from the military, I went back home.”

“What was the matter?” Page Turner asked, making me realize that this was more the prying questions of a newspony than any form of therapy, but maybe it would help Golden Star too. I really hoped this mare wasn’t taking advantage of my brother for her newspapers gain.

“Her mind’s practically gone. She just spends her entire day rolling around in her wheelchair and have imaginary conversations with Aria. She straightens Aria’s room every day and even scolds her for not keeping her room tidy and...”
I don’t know if you know this, but tears forming in a host pony’s eyes still sting just as much as your own would, especially if you want to cry just as bad as they do. But before the both of us could start crying, Page Turner did something I never would have expected of a complete stranger, she hugged him. Golden Star stiffened under her contact, but the kindness radiating through her physical touch even reached me in the spectral form I was taking in this memory.

“The war has inflicted too much pain on Equestria, Golden Star.”

“Ha-have you lost someone too?” he asked, his voice shuddering against his sorrows.

“No. But Da Capo Philharmonica has. His family and mine have been friends for years and I’ve watched the war rip them apart. The youngest boys all enlisted and only Pipsqueak came home. Windy Reed came back in a coffin and they never recovered Sliding Scale’s body. Their mother, Evening Hymn, died shortly after of a broken heart. And Octavia...” She suddenly trailed off, breaking the hug and re-adjusting her glasses. “Let’s just say that the Ministry of Morale doesn’t take kindly to wartime dissenters.”

“Yeah... the ministries...” Golden Star grumbled before looking back in the window.

Inside, Keynote had lifted an acoustic guitar into her magical grasp and was plucking strings experimentally. A smile crossed her face at the sound of the steel strings before she took the guitar’s neck between her left fetlock and started strumming away at the strings. My jaw would have dropped if I had one as the little filly started playing a skillful arpeggio, something more akin to a country western riff than anything rock and roll or classical, and her smile grew. Page Turner and Golden Star watched, a warmth growing in my brother’s chest as the little filly continued to play, and I even noticed that the mare and the customer stopped talking to watch.

And then an everyday miracle happened. A magical light that came to all fillies and colts who had discovered their special talent erupted from Keynote’s flanks. She did not even seem to notice as she continued playing the jaunty and high spirited guitar solo that was pouring forth from her very soul, but all the adults that were watching smiles as a guitar matching the one she was playing appeared and Keystone’s cutie mark has fully formed.

“She did it,” Page Turner said in hushed tones, and Golden Star let out an affirmative hum and gave a nod.
Inside, the orange mare was all smiles as she rushed over to Keynote and took her and her guitar into a big hug. The little filly seemed confused until the customer gave his congratulations and she suddenly realized she had a cutie mark. The little unicorn let out an excited cheer and Golden Star and I felt a gentle nudge from Page Turner.

“Makes you have some hope for the future, doesn’t it?” she asked, and Golden Star let out a small chuckle.

“Yeah. It does.”

“I have violin lessons with Da Capo in a few minutes. Why don’t you come in with me and congratulate Keynote?” she asked, nodding towards the entrance of Philharmonica Instruments.

“I wouldn’t want to intrude. I guess if you have someplace to be, then this is goodbye,” he said. An ache in his chest telling me that Golden Star did not want the brief time he shared with this kind, smart, and strange mare to end, but he was too proper and unsure to act on his feelings.

“Come on, Golden Star! Ask her out! Ask to see her again! Get her number!”

“But it would be rude not to do it, and we can’t have that, now can we?” she asked, and I laughed along with Golden Star at her mocking tone. She then sidled up next to him and looked up into his eyes from over her glasses. “You can be my guest.”

“No. I guess we can’t,” he mumbled before she came up next to him and I felt his heart flutter again. Wow. This mare really made an impression of Golden Star, didn’t she? Come on, bro, say something cool. “Okay.”

At least it was something.

“Okay,” she echoed before leading my brother into the music store as a gray earth pony stallion with charcoal black hair came out of the back room to see what all the commotion was about. “And maybe after my lessons we can get to know each other a little better over dinner?”

“Are you asking me on a date, Miss Page Turner, or is this your reporter’s instincts looking at a story?” he asked. She scoffed and rolled her eyes before smiling at Golden Star playfully.

“I’m a music critic, Golden Star, not a news hound. This will be strictly off the record.” She then turned her attention to the filly who was hugging her guitar with all her strength and beaming like it were Hearth’s Warming Eve and she had just gotten her favorite toy. “Congratulation, Keynote.”

“Thank you, Miss Page Turner! Who’s your coltfriend?” Keynote asked, getting a surprise out of my brother and a giggle out of Page Turner.

“Just a new friend I made recently. He wanted to say congratulations too. Didn’t you, Prince Golden Star?” she declared, causing every eye, including Golden Star’s, to go wide. Collecting himself far faster than I would have, Golden Star smiled and nodded to Keynote.

“Yes. Congratulations on your cutie mark, Keynote,” he told her before tousling her hair like he used to do to me. I felt a sadness pang at his heart while a smile crossed his face.

“Thank you, Prince Golden Star. I hope my big brother likes my cutie mark. He’s coming home to visit next week,” she giggled.

“I’m sure you’ll always make your big brother proud, no matter what, Keynote,” Golden Star said. Then, in the blink of an eye, the world was gone and replaced by a sea of white.

“Hey Aria,” I heard Golden Star’s voice say behind me, and I froze. Wide eyed, my heart racing, I slowly turned and was confronted by the soft blue eyes and the comforting smile of the most important stallion in my life. I could feel the tears already pouring down my face as I looked at him and I could see that they were starting to build in his eyes too.

“I-Is that really you?” I asked, and he nodded. “But how?”

“Death. She came to me and a few other ponies and asked for our help. She said that you were alive, but in a horrible place and that you needed our help if your were to survive,” he explained as I slowly approached him across the Void Between Worlds.

“But how is this possible? Why would Death do this?” I asked, reaching out and feeling his strong, powerful chest beneath my hoof. Then, before I even thought about doing it, I took him into the biggest hug of my life. I felt his hoof around my neck and nuzzled him lovingly, never wanting him to let go.

“I don’t know how it’s possible, but Death showed me things, showed me who she was and your future. She said she could make an empty soul and create something called a ‘linked soul jar’ to house them. They’d act as a connection between you and the souls of the ponies on the other side that want to help,” he explained as I cried and held him close.

“Why is she helping me? What does this soul jar even do?” I had no idea what a soul jar was, such magic was astounding and I should have been asking a thousand questions a second, but at the moment that was all I could ask as I held my brother tight.

“She said it would impart some of our strength to you, but she said she wanted something more. She said we had to give you hope so she imbued the statuettes with one of our memories before she placed them at the site our memory took place. That’s why you found it there and that’s why I showed you that. It was the happiest day of my life,” he said softly while stroking my mane the way he always had.

“Really? Why?”

“Because it’s the day I met my wife, Aria,” he said happily. I pulled away from him, looking up at him with a smile slowly spreading across my face.

“You mean Page Turner?”

“Yep. She’s the love of my life, Aria. She was kind, funny, and she loved to read. She actually reminded me a little of you,” he laughed before tousling my my mane. I giggled before taking him into another hug.

“I’m glad you found your special somepony, big bro. Is she with you in heaven?”

“Yeah, she is. And so are my children and grandchildren.”

“I wish I was there with you,” I whispered, but he stiffened as I said those words. Breaking apart the hug, he looked deep into my eyes, an anger I had never seen before making those calm blue eyes as turbulent as a stormy sea.

“Never say that, Aria! Life is a gift and you’ve been given a second chance!” he chastised me.

“But the world isn’t what it was. It’s a nightmare out there without you! I-I can’t do it, Golden Star. Equestria has become a living hell!” I argued before he pulled me back into a tight hug.

“I know, Aria! I know what happened. Death showed me. She showed all of us, but she also showed us the future. Your future. She showed us that there is hope for you and all of Equestria, but only if a few good ponies make sure the darkness doesn’t take over. The gardens will bloom someday, Aria, but if you die, if you just give up, then Voidheart will return and that day of sunshine and rainbows will never come. The Lightbringer will not succeed. You have to stop him, Aria!”

“Why me!? Why do I have to stop him? I’m just a stupid unicorn! Death and Dream and Psyche are alicorns, let them do it!” I shouted, burying my face in his shoulder as I let out frustrated and sorrowful tears.

“Because you have a destiny far greater than any of us could ever imagine, but you’ve got to remember something,” he said, holding me tightly as I cried.

“What?” I sobbed, not wanting to hear any more of this.

“You have to keep on fighting and never give up. Life is hard. Life isn’t fair. But we’ve gotta fight to find and protect the good things it gives us.” He then pulled me away again, looking in my tear filled eyes with a determine gaze that radiated with his strength. “Because no matter how hard things get, no matter how bad it looks, we have to protect the things most important to us. You have the potential for great things and you already have something you want to protect, don’t you, Aria?”

“Melody,” I whispered, remembering my niece. But I also remembered Shadowbuck, the stallion who was willing to leave behind his brothers to stay with us and make sure we were safe. And Compass, Melody’s coltfriend, who was willing to do anything to save us. “But what if this isn’t real, Golden Star? What if I’m just going crazy... or worse?”

“Then nothing you do will matter, will it? But I have one question for you, sis? What if all this is real? Would you let darkness descend on Equestria? Would you leave your friends or my granddaughter to die?”

“N-No!” I replied, feeling a new fire start to burn in my chest.

“Then keep on fighting! Keep fighting until the world is a world where you don’t need to fight anymore! Make this world more like the Equestria we knew!” he said confidently, and I nodded.

“You really think that I’m the one that prophecy was talking about?” I asked, and he just smiled.

“You were always destined for greatness, kid.”

“And... and do you really think that I’m your real sister?” I asked, remembering his conversation with his future wife.

“I know so. But even if you weren’t and mom really did have an affair, you’ll always be my sister. You were never a bastard or a half-sister in my eyes, Aria. You’re my sister and I’m your brother and you never forget that,” he said before letting go of me. I could see his image starting to flicker and fade before my very eyes and his smile faded.

“What’s going on?” I asked, reaching out for him again and watching as my hoof passed right through him.

“I think our connection is fading, Aria. Death said it was only a one time thing, I just didn’t think it would end so quickly. Listen to me. There are paintings and books all about our family in the Trottingham University Archives. They’ll tell you what I found out and get rid of any of your doubts. Oh! And you’re using my old shield now, right?”

“Yes! It’s saved my life more times than I can count,” I answered.

“Well, there’s a memory orb in a safe in my office at my estate. I was going to give it to Dr. Hoofentrotter, but I forgot it when the bombs fell in Manehatten and we had to rush to Stable Sixty-Three. The combination is six-twelve-eighteen. That’s a very special shield you’ve got, Aria. Take care of it,” he shouted as he began to fade into the stark white of the Void Between Worlds.

“I will! I love you, big brother!”

“I love you too, little sis! Remember to keep on fighting!” he called out. I reached out to him one last time, but he just smile at me. And then, without a brilliant flash or even a bright light, he was gone.
And that’s when I woke up.

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

My eyes snapped open to the sight of a dark and dusty living room. Two couches, arranged in an ‘L’ shape, and a recliner were aligned in front of an old television. I happened to be lying on the couch facing the kitchen and I frowned at the rancid taste of oranges coating my tongue. Smacking my lips, I fought the urge to vomit again before pushing myself up to a sitting position.

Thump.

Looking down, I saw that I had knocked the statuette off the couch and onto my saddlebags, armor, and shield that were lying on the floor beneath me. Before I could remember that my magic wasn’t working, I reached out and my horn sprang to life, engulfing the statuette in a blue aura of magic that filled my heart with joy. I smiled as I lifted the statuette of my brother into the air, giggling softly as I caused it to soar like a pegasus in flight, before I took into a hug and felt the warmth of Golden Star’s presence flow through me.

I looked over the detail of my brother’s ‘soul linked’ figurine as he saluted back at me. From his handsome features to his sparkling eyes, the statue was perfect. At it’s base were three simple words that held so much weight, ‘Keep On Fighting.’

“I will, Golden Star,” I whispered as I gave my miniature brother one final hug before slipping the statue in next to my mother’s tiara. My family deserved to be together, even if I wasn’t really one of them; they deserved that much. Letting out a pained sighed, I looked around the quaint little living room I was currently sitting in.

The room was also a dining room, which had a long table with ten places set, and it led into a kitchen that was divided from the joint family room by a long counter. Slowly getting off the couch while fighting a bit of nausea and dizziness, I stepped over my gear to a row of pictures on the wall. An image of three young stallions in uniform, two with charcoal hair and gray coat while the other had a white and brown spotted coat, were proudly saluting as Princess Luna walked by. Next to it was another picture, this one of the gray stallion and the orange mare from Golden Star’s memory in wedding attire. And finally a picture of two mares I knew on sight.

On the left was a white unicorn mare dressed in the most gaudy looking record player costume I had ever seen. Her two-toned blue hair was pulled up into a record shaped hat, her black dress was covered in white musical notes, and her tail had been used to thread a giant record needle. However, with her signature purple sunglasses, I could recognize the famous Vinyl Scratch, also known as the original DJ-Pon3, even when she was wearing a get up that made Photo Finish’s outfits look tasteful.

Even though I wasn’t a fan of her music, it was hard not to recognize the world famous DJ. She was a favorite at Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie’s parties, her albums were only second to Sweetie Belle’s in popularity, and her face was usually plastered across the Hesupermarket tabloids back in wartime Equestria.

It was her friend, the unassuming gray earth pony mare in the pink princess costume that drew my attention though because up until two days ago I would not have known her. Thanks to a strange vision courtesy of the Lord of Dreamland, I knew that this charcoal haired mare who shared my eyes as the mare that could have been my mother had the world been different. But now that I knew what Golden Star had discovered about House Everfree, I didn’t know if could trust that vision. Or anything these Eternals told me, for that matter.

And yet, I couldn’t look away from the photo. This mare whose name I did not even know had a poise and grace that she gave the camera through her demure and ladylike smile that I could never accomplish. Her grace and charisma just oozed out of the photograph. There was no way I could be her daughter just as I could not have been Golden Star’s sister. I was nothing like my family in either realities. I looked back at the statuette poking out of my saddlebags with a heavy heart before magically lifting the photo off the wall and sliding it in next to them.

I don’t know why I wanted to take the picture, I just did. The most rational explanation would be that I wanted another item of the past to remind me of where I came from and keep me sane. The irrational explanation would be that I wanted to get closer to a mare that my quickly evaporating mind wanted to hold onto as a mother figure. I knew this gray earth pony even less than I did my own mother, but the concern she showed in that vision was still more than I had ever received from Elegant Star. Sighing, I continued my reconnaissance mission of this strange house I had awoken in.

That’s when I came across the terminal in the corner. The screen was already open to a series of messages between somepony named Da Capo and another named Octavia. Sitting down, I opened the last e-mail and was greeted by the face of the stallion from the end of Golden Star’s memory.

“Hey Tavi! First off, let me say you are simply amazing! I can’t believe you were able to compose something like this. Okay, to be honest, I can. You’re the best musician this family has ever seen and only someone with your talents can write this breathtaking a piece of orchestral music. This is a symphony for the ages. I’m so glad you were able to get an orchestra, even one as small as the Hoofington Orchestra, to help you record this. This one puts your previous compositions to shame, Tavi,” Da Capo Philharmonica ranted and raved, holding up a print out of sheet music that was pretty much Fancee to me.

“Just so you know, I’m sending you my notes and also sending a copy to Maestro, G Major and Willow Wind’s son. He’s the new conductor at the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra and he’s always been a fan of yours, I’m sure he can talk the Board of Trustees into letting you back in after they hear this. I can’t bear to think of you working for chump change out there in Flankfurt. You are a star, Tavi, and you should be treated and paid like one. You shouldn’t be in this mess because of your political views...” his brown eyes fell to stare at a paper on the desk, and he sighed.

“The war’s taken a lot from us, but things are getting better. Dad’s coming out of his bunker downstairs every now and again, and Pip got a position in Security at Stable Sixty-Two, you know, if worst comes to worst. I know you believe in the best in everyone, pony and zebra alike, but things are getting crazy. You should try to get a pass for a Stable. Maybe you should try Stable Ninety? I hear it’s nearby Flankfurt.”

Suddenly, there was a buzzing coming from nearby and Da Capo’s brow furrowed in confusion. However, that look gave way to shock and horror as sudden realization crossed his face.

“Dolly! Dolly! Grab Opry and our things! We’ve got to get on the ferry to the museum!” he shouted, forgetting about the message that was recording as he leapt to his hooves and galloped out of view. As the recording kept playing, I heard more voices pop up.

“Da Capo! What’s going on?” a mare with a southern accent asked.

“We’ve got the call from Stable-Tec! The receiver's buzzing like crazy and there isn’t a drill scheduled for the next three weeks!” (Banging on a door.) “Dad! Come on! Something’s happening! This isn’t a drill! We’ve got to get to Stable Sixty-Three!”

“I’m not leaving my home for those striped bastards to plunder! This house and shop have been in our family for almost three hundred years!” an older male voice, muffled and rough, responded angrily.

“Dad, please, this is crazy.” Da Capo plead, but after a few moments of silence, his father did not bother to reply.

“Mum, dad, what’s going on?” a colt asked off screen, his voice filled with fear only because his parents seemed to be scared.

“Nothing, honey, just go get the things we said ya could bring with ya to the museum, okay?” Dolly said softly, but she was thankfully within range of the terminal’s built-in microphone. “We’re going on a little trip, but we’ve gotta hurry.”

“It’s like a game?” he asked, and my stomach clenched. The innocence of a child. On a day like the end of the world, a game would be preferable to the truth, wouldn’t it.

“Opry, go upstairs and get your things. Don’t forget your Ursa Ruxpin,” Da Capo told his son gently.

“Okay, dad.”

“Do you have everything Applebloom sent you?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure? The passes? The keys? The Pipbucks?” he asked again, and I could hear little hooves running around upstairs.

“Yes. Ah even have that statue of cousin Applejack she sent me. Ah... Ah don’t know if Ah can do this, Da Capo,” she lamented before slowly walking back into view.

The orange mare looked much older than she had in Golden Star’s vision. It was as if someone had placed the weight of the world on her shoulders and it had quickly drained the life from her. The bags under her eyes and wrinkles forming on her once youthful face betrayed the orange hair dye that was concealing her gray hair. That and the fact that I could see her roots.

Da Capo stepped back into view and hugged his wife from behind. They were so different. One gray, the other bright orange. One a refined classical musician from Trottingham, the other was obviously an Apple relative from the country. And yet, as Da Capo held Dolly while the world was coming to an end, I could tell that their love was strong.

“You’ll do great. You, Golden Star, Brightlight, and Dr. Hoofentrotter have done a simply brilliant job putting Stable Sixty-Three together with Stable-Tec. I know you’ll be an amazing Overmare.”

“Are ya sure?” she asked again.

“I am complete, one hundred and twenty percent sure,” he replied, giving his wife a comforting kiss that coaxed a smile smile from her.

Then there was a soft creaking sound as a door opened and the two turned towards it. Their sadness seemed to melt a bit and they both smiled.

“Baroque, I-” Dolly tried to say.

“I’m not coming with you,” the older voice from before interuppted.

“What? Why, dad?” Da Capo asked, letting go of Dolly and rushing to his father.

“Because... Because there are better ponies than me, younger ponies with lives that are worthwhile that need my spot more than I do.”

“Dad, that’s not true! Please-”

“I’ve made up my mind. I just came out to say goodbye to you two and my grandson,” Da Capo’s father said sternly. “I don’t have too much longer anyway, son, and... and I just want to go see your mother again.”

“Dad...”

“Baroque,” Dolly said softly, unable to say anything more.

“Dolly. I know I haven’t been the best father-in-law, I know I didn’t like you very much at first, but you’ve proven me wrong again and again. Come here and give me a hug, daughter” he said, and Dolly rushed off screen.

“I got my things, dad! Can I bring Ursa and Mr. Turtle?” I heard Opry call as his little hooves clopped down the stairwell.

“Grandpa!” The hoofbeats quickened and I could just imagine a family holding each other as the world was about to end. “Are you playing the game with us too, Grandpa?”

“No, Opry, I’m not. Grandpa’s just too old. I’ll be waiting right here for you when the game is over, okay?” he said comfortingly.

It was a necessary lie, but it felt like a punch to the gut. I knew they weren’t coming back. The adults knew it too. But this little colt was about to lose everything and almost everyone he had ever known and it tore me apart inside. And then I started thinking about the fact that this was happening all over the world and I couldn’t stop myself; I was crying again.

“Alright, we’ve gotta go. Ready to go to the museum, Opry?” Dolly asked.

“Yeah! We can’t let Uncle Golden Star and Aunt Page Turner beat us there!”

“Goodbye... dad,” Da Capo said one more time before suddenly realizing something. “My video message to Octavia.”

“Don’t worry, son. I’ll send it. I’d like to tell her something too. Get going,” Baroque said sadly before walking back into view.

“Bye, grandpa!” Opry shouted again.

“Yeah... bye, Baroque... Dad,” Dolly added as an elderly gray stallion walked into view. He simply nodded and a few seconds later I heard a door close.

“Octavia... I think this is it. I want you to stay strong. You’ve had it rough, but I’m so proud of you. I’ll always be proud of you. Maybe this is just another false alarm, but if it’s not... I love you and you will always be my little filly.”

And then the screen went dark except for two simple sentences, stark against the darkness of the empty terminal screen.

“Hoofington server not found. Failure to send.”

She never got it. The video. The orchestra music. Octavia never heard those final words from her family. She had either died in Flankfurt or made it to Stable Ninety, but either way she would have died without knowing what happened to her family. I could see that someone had recently downloaded the music file, the Enclave pegasi probably, but the video file was still there. I started to download it onto my Pipbuck when I suddenly remembered what had happened before.

The Enclave. The flame. What I had become. The horrible images of what I did came flooding back into my mind. I shut my eyes and tried to push them away, but they just kept coming. I wanted to deny that it was me, that the flame had taken control of my body and I had just been along for the ride, but I couldn’t. Deep down, I had wanted to murder those ponies, all of them, and I think I had finally snapped. I-

“Aria.”

I opened my stinging red eyes and saw Compass watching me from the other side of the desk. How long had I been crying? How long had he been standing there? By the sad look on his face, I would say he had been there long enough.

“Compass?”

“So you’re worse off than I initially thought.”

“Wha-What do you mean?” I asked as a hiccup of sadness escaped my throat.

“How long have you been like this, Aria? I saw the signs, but these kind of mood swings and fits are much more serious than I thought,” Compass replied coldly.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re obviously depressed, worse than I thought too. Have you been having suicidal thoughts?”

“I, um, the recording was...” I stopped. I had been having them all the time since I emerged into the wasteland. I wanted to lie to him and say I was okay, but I wasn’t. I wanted to die and be with Golden Star on the other side. I wanted this all to be my hell, my punishment for ever being born. “I need help.”

“That is the first step,” Compass said quietly, pulling me slowly back over to the couches. He sat me down on the other couch while he sat in the recliner. We sat there in silence for a while, me just crying and him just watching me. So many messed up and depressing thoughts kept swirling through my mind, but each time the spiral began I felt a little stronger, as if Golden Star really was with me and trying to comfort me.

“Say something!” I screamed at him, wanting him to do anything. His eyes, studying me from behind his glasses were ripping me apart inside. But all he did was place a hoof on my mouth and shake his head.

“Melody’s sleeping. She’s had it rough and needs her rest,” he said before pausing to take a deep breath. “She told me what happened. She told me about the brahmintaur and the pegasi and that... nightmare you became.”

A nightmare? That... that’s actually what it felt like. That mare that the window reflected back, the one who mercilessly slaughtered those pegasi and tried to kill Star Runner, she was like my nightmares incarnate. Born from the darkness within my mind, I was unable to resist her pull for long because she was a part of me. I shuddered at the thought and looked away.

“Is Melody alright?”

“Physically, if you discount the scarring and mutilation done to her right cutie mark, then yes. But mentally and emotionally... I don’t know. Brutality like that... and what it seems to have done to you...”

“What do I have to do with Melody’s mental health?” I snapped, instantly realizing that I came across too harsh and sighed. “Sorry.”

“Seeing you like that was a big blow to her emotionally. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Melody idolizes you,” he explained.

“Really?”

“Of course,” he said, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing. “Things were always hard for Melody when we were kids. First there was the fact that everypony freaked out when she was born with wings. There hadn’t been a pegasus in Stable Sixty-Three since her great grandmother, Silver Storm.”

“Yeah... Her.”

“Yes. Well, that revelation about her ancestry aside, she grew up ostracized by the other kids. With the exception of Starshine, Tea Leaves, and myself, she had no friends. The earth pony kids considered her weaker and more delicate than them and the unicorn kids didn’t like her because she wasn’t an earth pony, but couldn’t use magic either. She was different and you know how kids can be.”

“Yeah, I do.” I remember how cruel my cousins could be to me because of the circumstances behind my birth. At least I wasn’t physically different and a social stigma that not everyone adhered to was my reason to be shunned, but Melody’s had been a physical part of her. How was she always so happy when she had grown up like that? “But why were you and Tea Leaves friends with her?”

“Through our parents. We were all born around the same time. I’m only two days younger than Melody and Tea Leaves is only two months older than us. The daughter of the Overmare, the daughter of the Chief of Security, and the son of the Chief of Medical. Kids were afraid of Tea Leaves’ mother, Pulpit. She was strict, but fair. But kids see strict as scary so she was forced into the outcast click with us.”

“And you?”

“I... I couldn’t speak until I was five years old. It wasn’t that I was stupid-”

“That’s obvious,” I said, trying to at least add something to the conversation.

“Yes, well, um, right...” he stammered nervously. “It’s just that I couldn’t. It was a mental thing, I guess, but I didn’t need to talk either. I had Melody to do all the talking for me. We... we’ve been inseparable since... and...”

“And what?”

“And it hurts me that she’s so focused on the heroic you from her ancestor’s stories that the fact that you’re falling so short is tearing her apart. You were born different and removed from everypony around you, and so was she. She took inspiration from your story and the fact that you became a hero drove her to find her talent and her special ability to use her wings just as well as a unicorn can use magic. She always stood up to my bullies and never gave up. But...”

“But I’m not the Aria from that mural,” I said, lowering my head in shame. Melody looked up to me and all I was doing was letting her down. Compass must be telling me this because she’s too nice to say it and hurt my feelings.

“Right. You’re not. However, you are important to her, and I am training to be a doctor, so I’m going to try to help you, Aria,” he said, leaning over and placing his hoof on mine.

“H-How can you help me?”

“You need therapy, that’s for certain, but I can already tell that the wasteland isn’t very therapeutic. Thankfully, I saw the signs of severe depression a little while ago after your frequent breakdowns. You need medical treatment too, Aria. I have something for you,” he told me before his horn lit up and pulled a small pill bottle out of his lab coat. “It’s an anti-depression drug. I found some bottles of it in the Ministry of Peace wing while I was waiting for Shadowbuck to wake up. Here.”

As Compass floated the little orange bottle over to me, I had the strangest sense of deja vu. Taking it into my own magical aura, I turned the bottle over and saw one word, ‘Sertraline’ and froze. This... this is what Psyche was telling me about. She said I should trust Compass, but the real question was, could I trust Psyche?

“What do I do with this?” I asked.

“Take one pill every morning with breakfast. There’s five pills in there, not enough for you to overdose on, and I have a few more full bottles that I’ll keep on me. You should start feeling more balanced within a day or two after you start taking them,” he said, dry and clinical like any doctor from my time.

“But what about... the nightmare me?” I asked, hoping that maybe medicine could fix the broken, darker side of me. Compass sighed.

“I don’t know what that was, Aria. Do you?” I shook my head, unable to tell him about the flame or the Eternals that were haunting my dreams. Depression was one thing, but I couldn’t admit that I was going completely nuts. Not just yet. Sighing, Compass shrugged.

“Then I don’t know either. Can you tell me what you were feeling while the transformation was occurring?” he asked, pulling a notepad and pencil from his coat pocket.

“I-I was powerful. I felt invincible, but I was also... angry. And I didn’t care about if I was hurting those ponies or who I was hurting... As long as I could get revenge and protect Melody, that was all that mattered to me. I couldn’t control it. I-I liked it,” I admitted, hanging my head in shame. For a few minutes, we sat in silence, Compass writing on his notepad, occasionally stopping to chew on the eraser of his pencil and think, and I just sat there, reflecting on what I had done. Then I remembered the terror in Star Runner’s voice and the tears I was revealing in and began to cry yet again. “And what I almost did.”

“I think I have a theory, Aria,” Compass said as he put a comforting hoof on my shoulder. “It’s not good news, but it might at least give us a starting point to go off of. Would you like to hear it?”

I nodded, swallowing hard and trying to compose myself.

“I think you’re exposure to that balefire explosion and whatever magic brought you here has mutated you. I don’t know too much about mutations, just theory written in old books, but this fits the bill. You’ve probably been infused with the necrotic energies inherent in balefire in a different way than that ghouls or the rad monsters we’ve seen out here in the ruins. It would explain your change in appearance and the fact that your health is being affected detrimentally.”

“Wait... what?”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I forgot. When we found you, you were vomiting a highly toxic, acidic, and dangerous chemical that Shadowbuck was calling Taint. I don’t know if the Taint he knows and what you were expelling were the same thing, but that chemical, whatever it was, ate through the street and down into the sewers below. However, it doesn’t seem to affect you. Any of it that got on you was just absorbed back into your skin,” he explained.

“So I’m vomiting toxic waste, but it doesn’t affect me. That’s not so bad, I guess,” I said, trying my hardest to keep a positive outlook and give him a false smile. His dower expression sent that attempt fleeing for the hills.

“That’s not all. You were highly irradiated and we had to use almost all of our RadAway to cure you and Melody. She’s back to normal now, and there doesn’t seem to be any lingering effects, but you on the other hoof...”

“What?”

“Could you pull up your RAD meter on your Pipbuck?” he said, showing me how and I mirrored his commands. When I brought up the little bar, I noticed that his was firmly planted on the zero, but mine was between the zero and two hundred markers. “This is the RAD meter.”

“Okay. What’s it mean?” I asked, completely unfamiliar with this function.

“It’s the way the Pipbuck reads out the radiation saturation within your body. I currently have such a small amount of radiation within me that it reads zero. You however, have one hundred.”

“Right. I got that. Why don’t you just give me some more RadAway so we can knock out the rest of it?”

“That’s the problem, Aria. We did.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“We got you back down to one hundred rads, but no matter how much RadAway we gave you, the radiation levels inside you wouldn’t go any farther down,” Compass said, trying to sound as comforting as he possibly could.

“Well, maybe I’m just immune to radiation now. If I’ve mutated, maybe it’s not bad for me.” By the look on Compass’ face, I knew immediately that he didn’t agree.

“I checked you over thoroughly, Aria. You’re cells are fighting that radiation the same way normal ponies do. I theorize that another hundred rads would push you into Minor Radiation Poisoning, just like normal ponies, and then you’ll get sick. I also theorize that this ‘Nightmare Form’ is what’s causing your body to retain the radiation,” Compass sighed, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “Whatever this mutation is, it’s changing you... and it’s killing you.”

“What do you mean it’s changing me?” I asked, knowing full well that it definitely changed me for the worse while under its influence.

“You said it yourself. While you were under it, a darker side of you took control. In psychological terms, I’d say your id becomes your dominant personality trait. But it’s also changed you physically. Have you not noticed your teeth?”

“Huh? My...” As my tongue reflexively prodded my teeth, something felt different. Guiding my tongue down, I felt a tooth in the spot where Fly By had kicked it to pieces, but this one was wrong. What use to be a thin, square shaped tooth for ripping into a nice daisy sandwich or some toffee biscuits had been replaced by a long, sharp fang like the ones predators and monsters had. Flinching, I pulled my tongue away from the canine like tooth and cringed. “Okay. That was unexpected.”

Why couldn’t I stop poking it with my tongue?

“Look Aria, you’re important to Melody, so I want to help you. Please, take the medicine and get some sleep. Shadow says we’ve got to leave at first light to go defuse the balefire bomb and since the badge isn’t working we have to wait for dawn. We’re upstairs if you need us,” he said, slowly getting to his hooves and straightening his coat. “I still can’t believe that out of all the buildings in Trottingham, Melody finds the one full of evil pegasi and it happens to be the Philharmonica house.”

“Do you know this place?” I asked.

“Yes. Dolly Philharmonica was Stable Sixty-Three’s first Overmare. She got the Stable through some pretty bad times through music and her kind and caring ways. She’s a legend down there. Every Overmare since is descended from her and rubs the Applejack statuette they keep on their desk for good luck,” he said, and laughed. “It’s such a silly tradition.”

“So was Nightmare Night, but it was always a fun holiday,” I told him.

“Let’s not talk about nightmares, okay? Get some rest,” he told me. I nodded, and he turned and ascended the stairs.

“Goodnight, Compass,” I said.

“Goodnight, Aria. Please...” he said, stopping on the landing. “Please do better... For Melody’s sake.”

____________________________

Sleep did not come easy to me that night. Thoughts of the atrocities I had committed and the horrors I had wanted to commit kept swimming through my head. The pegasi burning alive, their heads crushed mercilessly by my brother’s shield, all of it too horrible to allow me get even one out of forty winks. Even the memory of the Ripper tearing through the brahmintaur’s neck would send my heart racing and my nerves on edge. After what seemed like hours of tossing and turning on that couch, I heard my companions stirring upstairs. Sighing, I pushed myself off of the couch and started equipping my gear. As I tied the last strap of my armor, a very disheartening thought crossed my mind.

“If this is life in the Wasteland, will I ever be able to sleep again?”

“Aria? Are you okay?” Melody asked, her voice weak and obviously tired. Looking up, I watched her limping slowly down the stairs, her flanks wrapped in magical bandages, as Compass helped give her support.

“I-Yeah. I’m so sorry, Melody,” I apologized, bowing my head low in shame.

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about, Aria. You saved me,” she told me as she reached the bottom of the stairs.

“But I scared you. I became a monster. I...”

“But you didn’t kill that pegasus mare. And you came back to us,” she said, flittering over to me and taking me into her embrace. “Just promise me you won’t turn into... her again, alright?”

“Mmhmm,” I hummed, finding it hard to speak.

“Promise me, please,” she begging. Shutting my eyes, I nodded, rubbing my muzzle against her neck. My heart was hurting, but I firmly believe that hugs have their own healing properties as the pain and emptiness lessened.

“I promise. I won’t let it happen again.”

“That would be for the best,” Shadowbuck said, coming out of a door under the stairs.

“Shadow!? Where did you come from?” I shouted, breaking the hug in my fright. He just rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Checking out this bunker. It’s full of food and anti-rad meds... and some poor S.O.B. who didn’t seem to even touch the stuff,” he explained.

“How’d you get in?”

“How else? I picked the lock last night and snuck down here while you were asleep. I didn’t want to wake you,” he said with a wink.

“Yeah. Asleep.” I mumbled, realizing that the Steel Ranger was far too stealthy for me to ever see coming. With that new sniper rifle and his uncanny sneakiness, I guess I’d have to rely on my E.F.S. to... “Why can’t I see you on my Eyes Forward Sparkle, Shadow?”

“That would be this baby. Ace’s sniper rifle has some of the most impressive enchantments I’ve ever seen. It’s got a silencer, obviously, but it has three zebra enchanted gems,” he said with a grin, turning to show off the red and green gems inlaid along the barrel and the blue gem on the side of the scope. “The ruby doubles the rifles range without sacrificing accuracy, the emerald makes the bullet in flight unaffected by wind or atmospheric conditions, and the aquamarine allows the scope to adjust its zoom between times one and time twenty magnification by merely aligning your eye to the eyepiece and thinking about it.”

“That still doesn’t answer my question, Shadow,” I grumbled, giving him a nice anti-stallion glare.

“I’m getting to that. See,” he said, showing off the stock of the rifle and a strange glyph on the side. There was something about the spiraling wave of black flame burned into the metal that sent chills down my spine. “It’s a zebra glyph that’s been magically infused with some kind of disruption enchantment or something. I think it makes the person carrying or using this rifle invisible to all magical detection spells, including E.F.S. I guess it was made to protect the sniper from being spotted by Steel Rangers or unicorns.”

“The Royal Flusher Raiders can make something like that?” Melody asked, inspecting the gun carefully. While I didn’t know firearms that well, I knew enough about enchantments to know that Ace’s rifle was the work of a skilled zebra shaman, not the drug crazed and murderous raiders of the Royal Flush. Unless King or Queen were zebra, but how would a zebra know about me?

“I don’t think so,” Shadow and I both said in unison.

“Sorry. Continue, Shadow,” I said, slightly embarrassed for interrupting.

“Yeah, well, this thing’s in great shape, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot older than it looks. It was probably made during the war. You ever heard of the zebra using weapons like this, Aria?”

“No. That probably means it was developed towards the end of the war. The question is, how did it get here in Trottingham?”

“That is a good question,” Compass said, eyeing the gun suspiciously as if it might start shooting us any minute.

“So does it have a name?” Melody asked.

“I’m calling it ‘Patricide.’” he growled before turning to descend back into the Philharmonica bunker.

“Why?” I asked, already dreading to hear the answer.

“Because this is the gun that killed my father.”

“Celestia... Why would you even use a gun like that?” Compass cursed, his eyes wide as he saw the rifle in a horrible new light.

“Because I’m going to use it to kill King, Queen, and Jack. Now let’s just drop it,” Shadow said coldly before looking back over his shoulder at us. “You coming? They’ve got a lot of fruit preserves down here.”

“What kind?” I asked, the promise of fruit waking me from my insomnia driven funk.

“Figs, apples, strawberries, pea-”

“Did you say strawberries?” I asked suddenly. Shadowbuck seemed taken aback and blinked a few times.

“Um, yeah.”

And like a bullet, I rushed down the stairs towards the promise of strawberries and Shadowbuck was lucky he got out of my way because no pony, and I mean no pony, gets between me and strawberries.
Ever!

The Philharmonica Bunker. Stocked from wall to wall with canned and preserved food, medicine, and bottles upon bottles of water, but none of it had been touched. I couldn’t see a single empty space on the shelves, but soon my eyes were drawn to a sadder sight. An earth pony skeleton, barely held together by a few strands of brittle and decayed sinew, was huddled in a corner, his hooves wrapped around two framed photographs.

Through his ribcage I could see one was of a happy family, Baroque, Evening Hymn, Da Capo, Dolly, Octavia, and two other boys I didn’t know all gathered around the Hearth’s Warming Eve tree. One of them, a little white colt with brown spots who still too young to even have his cutie mark, was hugging his mother, who he bore a striking resemblance to, as the others watched or opened their own presents. If I remembered Page Turner’s recount, there were four boys so the last must have been taking the picture.

The second photo was simply Baroque and his wife, young and happy, on their wedding day. He wore a simple suit, worn around the elbows and neckline, while she wore a simple white dress. They were poor, but happy, and that was what Baroque must have been trying to remember as he died. He hadn’t even tried to survive any longer in his bunker because without his family he didn’t want to live anymore.

“I hope you found her, Baroque,” I told the skeleton softly.

“This was Overmare Dolly’s father-in-law?” Melody asked as she slowly flew down the stairs.

“Yeah.”

“We-we should bury him,” Melody said.

“It’s only right,” Compass added.

“Guys, we need to get going soon. You know, slowly growing invisible cloud of radiation and all that jazz,” Shadowbuck interjected, and the three of us all gave him our best death-to-Shadowbuck stares. Wilting under our gaze, he looked away and coughed. “Alright. I get it. Just hurry up, will you? I’ll divide up these supplies into four groups so we can carry as much as we can back. This much clean food, water, and medicine can really help out Trottingham for the better.”

“Right. So where are we going to bury him?” Compass asked, trying to lift the body. When the sinew snapped and the bones separated, his magic wasn’t potent or versatile enough to catch everything and Baroque’s body fell apart in an implosion of magical energy. “And how are we going to move him?”

“I’ve got this,” I said, scooping up the bones and pictures in my magic and turning to go. Compass just stared at me while Melody was already turning to leave. Shadow, on the other hoof, was already hard at work looting the basement bunker for everything that wasn’t bolted to the wall or floor.

Out behind the house we found an old tool shed and the remains of a burned up pine tree, its gnarled black branches reaching for the sky before the ends twisted in on themselves. Trotting over to the tree, I set the bones down before taking up Golden Star’s Aegis.

“I think here is good. It must have been nice out here before the end.” I said before plunging the point of my shield into the ground and using it like a giant spade.

“I’ll go check the toolshed. Maybe there’s a shovel,” Melody said before flying off towards the shed. Meanwhile, I removed scoop after scoop of dirt, trying to at least get a few feet deep so I could properly bury a pony I hadn’t even known. But I needed to do this.

“I see your magic is back,” Compass said plainly.

“Yep.”

“I found some medicine in the Ministry of Peace wing that is supposed to help with magical burnout.”

“And when were you going to tell me about this?” I asked, never taking my eyes away from my work.

“Found one! Oops! Never mind! It’s a sledgehammer!” Melody called out from the shed.

“When I was sure you weren’t going to hurt Melody or anyone else. And with what you told me last night, I should add you to that list,” he said sternly, taking on the assertive nature of Dr. Compass and not the meek and mild nature of normal Compass.

“Well then, I guess it’s a good thing it came back to me naturally,” I snapped back, annoyed more at myself than him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being annoying.

“Have you taken the medicine I did give you?”

“Not yet.”

“Will you?”

“Yes,” I lied, not knowing if I would or not. Could I really trust Compass or Psyche? I trusted Golden Star, but that didn’t translate to Death or her celestial compatriots.

I returned to digging in silence, shield full after shield full of loose, dry dirt piling up next to me. After a few more minutes, Melody came back out looking a bit angry.

“The only shovel they have in there was broken in half. I think it might have been termites,” Melody said before stopping to look in the hole. “Sweet Luna above, Aria! You’re digging like a madmare!”

“Just a little deeper,” I said, not even noticing that I had dug a hole already two feet across and three feet deep. I didn’t notice the sweat on my brow, or the heaving in my chest. I was determined to give Baroque a burial. I had to give this pony a proper burial. I had to!

“You’re going to strain your horn again, Aria. Take a break,” Compass said, gentle concern returning to his voice.

“No.”

“Why not?” Melody asked.

“Because.

“Why not?” Compass asked as well.

“Because!” I growled.

“Why is burying the father-in-law of Stable Sixty-Three’s first Overmare so important to you?” Melody asked. “You’re not even from our Stable, Aria.”

Turning on her, I snarled.

“Because I need to do this so I can still feel like a decent pony! I turned into a monster last night! A literal monster! I need to do something good and decent! Something a monster would never do!” I shouted before turning away from them and back to Baroque’s bones.

Lifting them as gently as I could in my agitated state, I lowered them into the earth along with the photos. I wanted to keep them, especially the picture with Dolly so I could give it to Stable Sixty-Three, but I couldn’t. I could understand looting the possessions of long dead ponies, that was a necessary evil in this horrible world, but I would not steal from him. Killing in life or death situations, it still shook me, but it was understandable as well. But stealing from this pony is where I would draw the line. These were Baroque’s treasures, the items he held in his hooves as he drew his final breath, they deserved to be buried with him.

“May Celestia and Luna take you into their grace, Mr. Baroque,” Melody prayed. Looking over to them, I saw their heads were bowed respectfully in worship of my aunts, sending Baroque off to his final rest, and I nodded to the grave in my own sign of respect.

Turning away from the grave, I left them to their prayers. I didn’t know if Aunt Luna and Aunt Celestia were up there watching over us or if they were dead like the rest of the world, but as I glanced up at the rolling sea of clouds above and sighed. If my prayers would be answered, I’d like for that day of sunshine and rainbows that Golden Star was talking about to come today. The Wasteland might just be a little better off with the sun warming its heart and the blue skies above to give its spirit somewhere to soar.

That would be nice.

____________________________

The sun was rising behind us as we turned the corner onto the street leading to the docks. Our bags were stuffed full of every possible supply we could effectively carry in our saddlebags without weighing ourselves down. As the sun peaked over the horizon, but remained under the cloud cover, the monsters of Trottingham were forced to go back into hiding until nightfall. Shadow assured us that it was safe now, excluding the possibility of ghouls or manticores. But as the Steel Rangers’ boat came into view, we all let out a sigh of relief.

“Just a little bit longer and this nightmare is over,” Melody said, a soft smile returning to her face.

“Yeah, I...” Suddenly, I felt this odd, tingly feeling running up my mane and the base of my tail. I could feel a power pulsing from the river estate to our right. It felt similar to the power the flame had sent coursing through my veins, but it was different. More condensed. More... dangerous? “Wait... guys. What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Shadow asked, stopping to look at me funny.

Suddenly, a rose colored mare stepped out onto a second story balcony with a strange, rather large gun on her back. Spreading her legs to brace herself, she fired and the launched a large, green orb directly at the boat. Shadow watched in horror as the balefire egg arched over the manor fence and broke open on the deck of the ship, right between two very surprised acolytes.

FUSH... BOOM!

As the balefire egg erupted into an inferno of green flames, the flash temporarily blinding me as the miniature mushroom cloud began to build up towards the sky and a blast of super heated air struck us like a sky chariot. Knocking us all off our hooves and onto the hard cobblestone street beneath us, I even fell on Golden Star’s statuette as something sharp dug into my back between the plates of my armor, but didn’t cut me. Ow! That tiny horn hurt!

Groaning, my ears ringing and my eyes finding it hard to adjust, I rolled over to see the boat engulfed in sickly flames. Black smoke billowed into the sky as the distant sound of screaming and cheering began to break through the dull tone buzzing in my head. That’s when I saw them. Ten, no, twenty raiders rushing out of hiding spots inside the manor’s grounds towards the boat, unable to see us because of the bright sun rising behind us. A few knights emerged from the flames, their armor melted and parts of their flesh burned away enough to reveal bone and skull beneath, but they were only able to return a few shots before the raiders cut them down in a hail of gunfire.

Rat-tat-tat-at-tat-ta-tat!

A minigun screamed from within the burning wreckage as raider after raider was struck down by the unseen barrage. The Flushers who weren’t immediately gunned down took cover behind debris and the low retaining wall along the perimeter of the riverfront estate. I started hearing a ticking in my ear before I realized that my Pipbuck was reading a large amount of radiation coming from the area. Thankfully, we were just on its edge and the amount of rads per second was minimal.

Then, out of the smoke stepped Bulletstorm, his twin miniguns belting out round after round of deadly lead. The bullets tore into the raiders cover and made it impossible for them to return fire. Looking at him, his armor and helmet had been burned away to the top of his shoulders and a large portion of his jawbone was sticking out among his warped and blackened flesh, but miraculously he was still standing. The minigun made quick work of the raiders who took cover behind old trash cans or a sky bus stop, and he was beginning to tear the old wall apart when the loud crack of a rifle filled the air at the same time a bullet ripped into Bulletstorm’s left shoulder.

“Die, you Flusher fuckers!” he screamed, his voice harsh and bloody as he continued his assault unhindered by his wounds. How many combat drugs was the back half of his suit feeding in him?

“Ugh... Bulletstorm?” Shadow groaned as he started to come to along with the others. I shook my head, trying to help him up while Compass was already slowly pulling himself towards Melody, his legs still wobbly from the blast.

That’s when the shadow burst out of the smoke, descending upon Bulletstorm with the force of a small train car being dropped from twenty feet up. Bulletstorm screamed as the beast crashed down on top of him, but before he could turn his guns of the scaley demon, Jack opened his maw and in one swift bite removed the Steel Ranger’s head clean from his shoulders and blood sprayed into the back of his throat.

Blood dripping down his jaws, Jack smiled at his men as they let out cheers of victory. He pulled his head back like a serpent about to strike and deadly blow and spit Bulletstorm’s head down the street. Bouncing and rolling, wet, burned flesh squelching each time it struck the ground, the head came to a stop. His eyes still burned open in a visage of rage, Bulletstorm looked up at Shadow just as I was helping him to his hooves.

“Two hundred feet! That’s a new record, you goat fuckers!” Jack cried, eliciting another round of cheers from the Royal Flush Raiders.

I could feel the anger shaking his body and bubbling up from within him before he screamed, but I couldn’t stop him in time.

“I’ll kill you, you motherfucker!” Shadow screamed, lunging forward to charge the ten or eleven raider ponies and the undead dragon by himself, completely blinded by his rage and grief. If it hadn’t been for my hooves wrapped around him to help him up he would have been half way down the street in a pure bloodrage.

Squinting, Jack saw us as we stood near the entrance to the Ministry of Awesome, Morale, and Image building and smiled.

“Looks like we’ve got some more fun on our plate!” he ordered, pointing into the sun and giving away our position. “Kill ‘em all!”

As I held Shadowbuck back with all my might, two words escaped my lips.

“Oh shit...”

______________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up

New Perk: Advanced Spells - You have gained access to more advanced and more powerful spells. Add five additional advanced level spells to your spell list.

New Quest Perk: Nightmare Form - When you give into the darkness within, you become an embodiment of balefire. You exude 3 rads/round and gain Healing 5/round. You're potency and Strain increase by 20% (Rounded Up), but you lose control of your character. Lasts until shocked out of it or your strain goes below 10. Afterwards, you will vomit Taint and your total RADS permanently increases by 100. You are still susceptible to RAD sickness and death.
Keep On Fighting: +10 to Melee Weapons Skill

Melee Weapons Skill: 75

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing. Also, sorry for taking so long with this chapter, but life’s been a bit crazy lately and as you can see, it’s the longest chapter to date. Hope you all enjoyed it and Chapter Eight should definitely be shorter (The usually twenty thousandish words) and come out faster.

Chapter Eight - Nightmares

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Chapter Eight: Nightmares

“Giggle at the ghosty, guffaw at the grossly...”

Have you ever had one of those moments where everything feels dulled and the world kind of seems like its in slow motion? That moment where your blood runs cold and your mouth dries faster than a worm on a sidewalk in mid summer? That instant when your body doesn’t know whether to fight or flee. There’s something about that feeling that is both terrifying and exhilarating. Mostly terrifying though because this time I was having that feeling while holding back a Steel Ranger as a swarm of evil raiders turned on us.

I looked back, hoping we could make a break for the safety of the Ministry Hub I now controlled, only to see a smaller group raiders, about six in total, coming around the far corner of the Ministry of Awesome, Morale, and Image building, essentially cutting off our path. Shadow was hurling every obscenity in the ‘Big Book of Naughty Words’ while Melody and Compass, seeing that we were effectively boxed in, began to rush for the MAMI building entrance. I didn’t know what to do.

“Run!” Melody shouted as she flew through the door, Compass hot on her heels.

“Just shoot him in the back and leave him to die,” a darker voice inside of me ordered. I froze for a moment, startled by the new voice in my head, but then another idea crossed my mind. I would have to ignore the Nightmare for now.

“Let’s go, Shadow! We’ve got to run!” I shouted, lifting him and my shield in my telekinetic glow, trying to protect us both. The raiders all started laughing, even Jack, as I levitated my raging friend like he was a mere rag doll. As I turned, I yanked the half melted dogtags that had burned into the remains of Bulletsorm’s upper neck and jawline. With a nasty rip, they pulled away and my stomach did a flip in protest.

“Put me down, Aria! I gotta kill that scaley bastard!” Shadowbuck shouted, kicking wildly as I started moving towards the MAMI building. This got an even bigger laugh out of the raiders before a few started firing wildly from the estate across the street. I gritted my teeth, trying to hold Aegis in front of us while trying to not be angered by his word choice, but his thrashing was making it much harder for me to even move towards that door, much less concentrate.

And that’s when the bullets started to fly. Bullet after bullet rang off my shield, Shadowbuck’s power armor, and my own, ricocheting everywhere and causing me to wince as I rushed through the door. Large circles of pain were already spreading across my body as I dove through the door, and Shadow roared as I pulled him into the lobby

“Stop fighting me, Shadow! We need to get out of here!” I shouted as I tried to close the door while holding his flailing body. More shots ripped through the doorway, denting and pinging off my armor and sending us all crashing to the floor as my magic imploded in on itself. Shadow rolled to his hooves, firing two expertly placed rounds through two very unlucky raider skulls before I flung the bulletproof glass doors closed with my magic and locked the doors.

“Damn it, Aria! What are you doing?” he snarled, wheeling around on me and baring his teeth, jabbing me with his hoof as the raiders reached the doors and started opening fire on them, to little effect thankfully.

“Trying to save your life, Shadow! We need to get out of here! We’re completely outnumbered and outgunned!” I shouted back, batting his hoof away. I tried to lift him again, but he somehow dodged out of my magical field.

“They killed Bulletstorm! They killed my brothers and sisters! They deserve to die!”

“That can wait, Shadow! You’ll just get yourself killed!”

“You’re a coward!”

“What?” I asked, my nose twitching as I felt the anger rising inside me.

“Make him burn,” I heard the Nightmare inside me laugh.

“You really don’t know anything about honor, do you? Or being a soldier? Hell, you weren’t even a guard for more than a few hours before you got killed!” he snarled.

“What did you just say!?” I screamed, feeling my mane and tail starting to tingle and my teeth beginning to itch.

“Just what I said, Aria! You’re no hero! You’re just a little girl who doesn’t know an-”

BZZAP!

My lightning bolt struck him square in the chest, causing him to collapse to the ground in a twisted heap of smoking power armor. I angrily picked up my shield and Bulletstorm’s dogtags before throwing them onto Shadowbuck’s unconscious form.

“That’s what I know about honor and being a soldier,” I spat, before returning my shield to my back. I turned, seeing Melody and Compass watching me, horrified from the doorway leading to a stairwell and all the anger rushed out of me and was quickly replaced by shame.

“A-Aria?” Melody asked, her

“He-He wasn’t listening. He would have gotten us all killed. I just stunned him. See?” I said, picking him up and placing him on my back, closer to my flanks so he wouldn’t interfere with me drawing Aegis. “I can carry him now, let’s go.”

“Where can we go?” Melody asked, eyeing Shadowbuck’s unconscious form nervously. Meanwhile, the bullets continued to to hammer their deadly cacophony against the glass, shaking, but not even cracking the thick security barrier, and I sighed.

“I-I don’t know. They’ll have this place surrounded and-”

“Get out of the way, you fucking idiots! That glass is bulletproof, but let’s see if it’s dragon proof,” Jack shouted. I turned to see him land hard on the other side of the glass, smiling at me wickedly as green flames began to trickle out of the edges of his mouth and through his nostrils.

“Upstairs! Run!” I shouted, already starting my mad dash for the stairwell they were blocking. Seeing Jack rear back, Compass and Melody didn’t need to be told twice. They turned and started climbing the stairs as fast as they could as Jack let out of gout of balefire that turned the nigh indestructible glass into a melted pool of translucent chemicals.

Turning the corner into the stairwell, I barely escaped the flames, feeling their heat licking at my backside as my Pipbuck ticked steadily. Taking the stairs two at a time, I was shocked to hear the sudden claxon of an alarm and a moment later a symphony of gunfire erupted in the lobby behind me. On the landing, I stopped for a moment to look back and saw a turret had descended from the ceiling and started unloading on the attacking raiders. Bullets and energy blasts were returned in kind, but I decided I’d let the Ministry’s automated defenses take care of Jack and his raiders.

“Wow. For once I get lucky!” I cheered in my head as I turned to take the rest of the stairs, but my self congratulations were short lived as the turret exploded in a burst of sparks and fire and a reptilian head burst through the door at the bottom of the stairs. His face and shoulder were covered in rapidly healing bullet wounds, but thankfully he was just a little too large for a pony sized door.

“Ha!” I laughed before rushing up the stairs to the next floor. It was a good thing I ran instead of gloating any further, even with my legs starting to protest against Shadow’s added weight, because as I made it up the second step, another rush of balefire lit up the concrete stairwell and sent my Pipbuck clicking faster than ever before.

“Ha!” Jack shouted back as he tried to incinerate me, but I was thankfully shielded by the next flight of stairs. As I reached the next landing, my E.F.S. didn’t show Melody and Compass through the closed door to the second floor so I continued upwards, barely noticing the slowly increasing number of red dots swarming across my vision.

As I made it up the next flight, the stairs shook as a loud crash came from below and a cloud of debris filled the path behind me.

“I’m coming for you, you little bitch!” Jack roared as he broke down the doorframe and pulled himself through. I could hear his claws tearing into the half melted stairs a floor down, and I tried to put on some more speed. But with my armor, my gear, and the unconscious Steel Ranger on my back, just going at a brisk pace was difficult.

“Leave him! He called you a coward!” the Nightmare ordered, but I snarled. The fact that I was hearing another, darker version of me ordering me to leave somepony to die should have sent me into a panic, but right now the panic caused by physical murderers chasing me was vastly overwhelming the panic and fear my own crazy brain was trying to cause.

“Then he’d be right!” I shouted back, and the Nightmare laughed.

"Good point. Save his ass, rub it in his face, and make him your slave. I bet he’s pretty good with that big mouth of his,” she replied. I could feel my face burning, although that could have also been attributed to the radiation and heat filling the stairwell.

Making the turn up to the third floor, I was surprised to see Melody and Compass flanking the doorway.

“Run! Jack’s coming! What’s going on!?” I asked as I pushed myself up the last fourteen stairs to the landing.

“The stairs are blocked!” Melody shouted, and that was when I noticed the wall of rubbled sitting halfway up the next flight, the product of the stairs above collapsing down to the next floor.

“You have... Wait!” I shouted, first in anger, but it was quickly replaced by hope as a crazy idea crossed my mind.

Turning back to the stairs below me, I focused as much power as I could into a single spell. Sparks flew and enveloped my horn in an electrical aura, just as Jack started climbing up to the landing below me. Down on all fours like that, I couldn’t help but think he looked like a massive rotting alligator with wings.

Before Jack could open his mouth to let out another breath of balefire, I unleashed all my anger into one lightning bolt, the electrical burst slamming into the landing above him and sending a hail of rubble the size of a large filly crashing down on top of him. I could see his cloudy amber eyes widen in the first actual display of fear I had ever seen on a ghoul’s face before unfurling his wings and jumping backwards at the last possible moment. The ground beneath us began to shake as the entire stairwell started to collapse around us, my blast obviously pushing a weakened structure beyond its limit, and I turned back to my friends.

“Get out! Now!” I shouted, throwing the third floor door open and darting past them.

“But-” Melody tried to shout before another quake silenced her and she, followed immediately by Compass, darted through the door and quickly ducked behind a desk.

“Huh?” I asked, watching them dive for cover. A cloud of dust burst through the door after me and obscured everything around me. Fanning away the dust, I could hear Shadowbuck coughing and stirring on my back as I finally noticed the five red bars in front of me. Drawing my shield and sword, I stood ready for anything. As the dust began to settle, I finally got a good glimpse of the hostile targets on my Eyes Forward Sparkle.

Hovering a few feet off the ground were five spritebots. I started to relax, knowing that spritebots, no matter how annoying their constant playing of ‘March of the Parasprites’ could be, were not a threat. Looking down at the red bars, I wondered if all that balefire had screwed up my Pipbuck’s friend or foe software. How could spritebots be enemies? They don’t even have any weapons.

“Aria! Get down!” Melody said, half whispering, half shouting. I turned my head to her and smiled.

“Something’s wrong with E.F.S. Spritebots don’t have weapons. What are they going do, tuba me to death?” I laughed before turning back and... where did those barrels come from?

Pew! Pew! Pew!

I didn’t have time to draw Aegis. Diving for cover, bolts of pink magical energy struck me hard in the side. Two struck my side while the third narrowly missed striking Shadowbuck’s left shoulder. Landing and rolling under a desk, hissing as my burned flesh brushed against the coarse, filthy carpet and my heated armor burned me further.

“See! They shoot!” Melody hissed from her and Compass’ hiding place beneath a desk across the aisle from me. I nodded sheepishly before turning and poking my head up, only to be forced back down by the trio’s energy blasts.

“Cud! I can’t get a good shot! They’re too fast!” I cried, only to watch Melody pop up and fire three blasts from her laser pistol, each striking true, before ducking back down behind the cover of the desk just in time for three bolts to whiz over where her head had been only seconds before.

The spritebot wasn’t down, but when Compass popped up, fired off two shots of his own with his pistol, and ducked back down before he could get shot my jaw almost hit the floor. I barely even noticed the sizzling smell of burning wires or the crash and bang of the spritebot exploding.

“How!? How the hell did you two do that?” I shouted, drawing another stream of laser fire peppering my cover, heating the desk slightly with each beam.

“SATS! I told you about it at the Four Star Station! It slows down time and lines up your shots for you!” Melody called back, causing the lasers to turn towards her and Compass’ desk.

“Queue up some of your lightning bolts!” Compass advised as the two hid behind their cover and their shouts drew more and more laser fire from the two remaining spritebots. Wow... I didn’t realize how tough office furniture was back in my day... Okay, now I feel old.

“Right. SATS... How do I...”

Suddenly the world around me stopped, dropping into a weird slow motion like everything was trying to move through thick honey. A green highlight surrounded Melody’s hoof and gave me an eighteen percent chance. An eighteen percent chance of what? Turning my head, the highlight surround one of the spritebots and told me I had a ninety-five percent chance. A chance to hit maybe? But I didn’t have a gun anymore; I lost it when the brahmintaur almost gored me. How do I queue up a lightning bolt?

And there it was, a little message popped up in the corner of my vision saying “Spritebot: Body.” What? How do I even use this stupid thing to shoot... Suddenly the world sped back up and I felt a focusing magic charging through my horn. Using it as a guide, I unleashed a lightning bolt directly into the left spritebot’s casing and it exploded with a near deafening bang. However, the world was back to normal now and the third spritebot was already turning on me again.

“Eep!” I shouted, ducking back down just as the robot’s laser whizzed over my head.

“Ugh...” I heard Shadow moan as I felt him starting to stir on my back, the dog tags stuck on his collar dropped to the ground quietly.

“I got this!” Melody shouted before popping back up, slipping back into SATS, and unleashing five shots into the spritebot, four striking home while the fifth barely missed the insectoid robot. So you can still miss with SATS? That was good to know.

But that didn’t matter since four laser blasts were enough to send the spritebot into an overload and explode, spraying the general area with shrapnel and debris that Melody was just barely able to avoid.

“What!? Where!? Ow! My head!” Shadowbuck shouted before wincing and struggling to bring his hooves up to his helmet. “What the hell? I can’t-” Then he noticed he was on my back. “Aria? What the fuck, Aria!? You shot me! And you fried my suit’s spell matrix! I can barely move, damn it!”

“You’re lucky to still be alive! If I hadn’t you would have gotten yourself killed!” I snapped back, picking up Bulletstorm’s dogtags with my magic.

“You... you got his dog tags?” Shadowbuck asked, the anger slowly fading from his voice only to be replaced by sadness.

“Yeah. I know something about war and honor.”

“Then why didn’t you let me avenge my brother?” Shadow asked, snapping his teeth around the dogtags’ chain before flicking it around his neck. How did earth ponies do stuff like that? “Jack... Jack has to die.”

“Not if you have to die in the process, Shadow. Bulletstorm wouldn’t have wanted that. I don’t either... And neither does Melody and Compass,” I added, trying to mask the empathetic sadness I felt for my Steel Ranger friend.

“Yeah. We’ll get Jack when we have a better chance,” Melody said, trying to comfort him with a smile.

“Plus, if we don’t find a way to escape, then Jack and the Royal Flusher Raiders are going to kill us before we can even try to kill him,” Compass added, while looking around the room for said means of escape.

We were in a pretty standard office, dusty desks and broken terminals occupied rows and rows of cubicles. Whether this was a Ministry of Morale or Ministry of Image office, I didn’t know. At least I knew it wasn’t Ministry of Awesome. Besides those white radio towers, MAw did absolutely nothing; Rainbow Dash had always been too busy with the Shadowbolts and the war to actually do anything with her ministry.

“Even if we find a way out, the Flushers probably have the building surrounded,” Shadowbuck sighed. “This looks pretty bad even if my spell matrix weren’t fried.”

“That’s all? Give me five minutes and I can use my Pipbuck’s matrix to reboot yours,” Melody said dismissively as if it weren’t a big deal.

“Yeah, well, we can do that when we get to the roof,” I ordered, heading towards the door at the opposite side of the office.

“The roof? Why are we going to the roof?” Compass asked, following Melody as she flittered after me.

“A Pinkie Pie balloon. I saw it on the roof when we were walking to the MOPAST building.”

“A Pinkie Pie balloon? That... that might work. We’d just have to defend ourselves from Jack. That scaley bastard can fly after all,” Shadowbuck mused, looking dejected and a bit humorous as he lay over my back like an extremely heavy sack of potatoes.

“I blasted the upper stairs down on him while he was chasing me up. I think Jack might be busy trying to dig himself out of the stairwell, if he’s even still alive.”

“Oh, he’s still alive. He’s a tenacious son of a bitch. No matter how many bullets he takes, he always seems to regenerate and keep going,” Shadow explained. A girl can dream, can’t she?

We started searching for any way up to the roof, but the other stairwell was just as destroyed as the first. It was as if the Wasteland was taunting us and I was beginning to think that might be the case... Which further reinforced my belief that this might be Hell.

“If we’re going through Hell, at least we have each other,” the Nightmare whispered in the back of my mind before giving a giggle. “You know, if we’re so intent on saving Shadow and letting him ride us, then we might as well let him really ride us.”

That made me blush. I don’t know what the hell was going on and why I was hearing myself talk like that, but feeling the weight of Shadowbuck on my back had me thinking naughty thoughts that I shouldn’t really go into detail about. Let’s just say that Melody interrupting my fantasies was a welcome diversion from the Nightmare’s darker influences.

“So what did you think of SATS? Pretty cool, huh?” Melody said, finally breaking the tension of silence that was allowing my mind to wander.

“Yeah. It seems like a handy tool, although I wish it didn’t have to recharge,” I replied. Melody shrugged.

“That would be nice, but when you're slowing down time and helping establish targets, I’d be a little tuckered out too,” Melody said, touching her Pipbuck protectively as if it were her child.

“Actually, it’s not slowing down time, SATS is temporarily increasing the user’s reaction speed, thought processes, and reflexes so that it seems like time is slowing down, but you’re actually moving much faster,” I answered, eliciting even more stares from my companions.

“But the manual says it’s time magic,” Melody whined.

“Well, they were obviously lying to cover what they were actually doing. Like the whole Stable doors being ninety-eight percent effective against balefire bombs.”

“How do you know it’s not time magic?” Melody asked, pouting at me.

“Because temporal magic has a different feel to it. Every hair on your body stands on end when a spell that affects the time stream is being used. It’s like the world biggest static electricity charge is hanging in the air, just waiting to shock you,” I said, looking down at my hooves as we entered another office. “I should know.”

“Oh. Well... Sorry,” Melody apologized.

“Yeah, well, time magic or not y- Aria! Look out!” Shadow yelled from my back just in time for me to look up and see a moving mirage lunge at me and clamp its invisible jaws around my right foreleg. “Nightstalkers!”

“Augh!” I screamed as white hot fire burned through my leg and up to my shoulder. The bite had torn through my underbarding and sharp fangs bore deep into my flesh, injecting their deadly poison into veins.

In a pain driven attempt to get the blurry creature off me, I reflexively fired a blast of electricity into its form. That was a mistake. The electric current coursed through its body, into me and then onto Shadowbuck. Two ponies screamed and a strange, reptilian howl filled the ministry hub and I blacked out.

Blurred forms swarmed as snarls and hisses reached my ears. Darkness. Gunshots and laser blasts peppered the morning air. Darkness. A shrill howl tried to pierce the din, but was quickly silenced by a familiar Pfft Pfft.

I awoke with a serious case of cotton mouth and a dull throb in my temples as Compass was attending to my wounds. He looked worried as he poured a green potion over the bite on my leg before noticing I was awake.

“You're awake?” he asked, and then chuckled as he start rummaging through his bags. “You’re really lucky I grabbed a few medkits at the Ministry of Peace hub, otherwise I wouldn’t have had these antivenom potions for all of us.”

“What were those things?” I asked after noticing the twisted, mutated bodies lying around the room. They looked like dogs, but their tails and faces were distinctly reptilian; their snake-like eyes’ death stare twisting my stomach in knots.

“Nightstalkers. We see them around this part of town from time to time, but I think we just cleared out a nest,” Shadowbuck said, and I turned my head to see him lying behind me with Melody’s Pipbuck plugged into his suit. “They’re a combination of dogs and rattlesnakes.”

“A combination of dogs and rattlesnakes? Why can’t we ever find something that’s a combination of two nice things?”

“Like what?” Compass asked as he offered me a healing potion. After chugging it down and instantly feeling one hundred percent better, I started to get back to my hooves, much to Compass’ chagrin. “You should rest. Melody’s booting up Shadowbuck’s armor, you just got poisoned and electrocuted.”

“That’s twice you’ve shocked me, Aria. This better not become our thing,” Shadowbuck replied sarcastically while giving me a grin. At least he wasn’t mad at me.

“Sorry... But we don’t have time to sit around. Jack might unbury himself and try to get in from the roof. Then we’d be as good as dead.”

“There’s some sense to that, but are you strong enough to keep carrying Shadow? The reboot sequence has begun, so I can disconnect my Pipbuck, but it’s going to take about ten to fifteen minutes for his suit to restart itself and get the power running to his joints,” Melody explained, and I nodded. I wasn’t going to let a snake-dog bite get me down. If we died in here, then Gigaton, Trottingham, and probably Stable Sixty-Three were all doomed.

“Time for another piggy back ride, Shadow,” I said with my own snarky smile. I could just picture the proud steal ranger rolling his eyes under his helmet’s visor.

“Alright. Just no more close range lightning bolts, you got it?” Shadow retorted.

“I got it.”

“Then let’s go. Melody said there’s a collapsed stretch of ceiling we can use to climb up to the next floor,” Shadow said as I telekinetically lifted him back onto my back.

Continuing on into the collapsed office, Compass, Shadow, and I carefully climbed the debris up to the fourth floor. Upon reaching the next level, we noticed that the carpeting was ripped up, claw marks adorned every desk, and piles of bones littered the rows of cubicles.

“I think we found their den. Everyone stay quiet and stay on alert,” Shadow ordered from my back. It was good advice, but his current position did make the leadership position he was taking seem a little bit comical. Quietly we crept through the office, trying our hardest not to alert the invisible predators that might be lurking all around us, lying in wait for the perfect time to strike and plunge their venomous fangs into our flesh.

“I’ve got it,” Melody whispered excitedly.

“Got what?”

“What about a powder puff combined with a pony? That would be a combination of two nice things,” Melody replied with an excited smile.

“What would you even call something like that?” Compass asked in hushed tones.

“Why don’t we call it a Flufflepuff?” Melody whispered happily.

“Why don’t we shut up before... Crap...”

Shadow’s gaze was transfixed down the aisle behind us. At first I couldn’t see what he was looking at; the way we came seemed empty. But then I saw the air shimmer and move around a near invisible form and the entire group immediately froze. A bark quickly snapped every creature in the hub into action. Out of the cubicles came four other Nightstalkers, not even bothering to cloak themselves as they licked their chops at the sight of four pony shaped meals standing just twenty feet down the aisle from them.

“Run!” Shadow shouted, and I had to agree. We didn’t have the resources to survive more nightstalker venom coursing through our veins.

I erected a shield around us and we ran for the first door we could find. The canine carnivores activated their natural invisibility and gave chase. They were much faster than us, easily gaining ground on us before we could make it to the end of the cubicles, but their animalistic lack of knowledge of magic didn’t save them from running head first into the light blue force field erected in the path.

“Aria! Drop the shield and everybody run!” Shadow ordered. I looked back at him and saw the apple grenade clinched in his mouth and watched him smile as his tongue pulled the pin. I let the shield drop just as Shadow flicked his head and let the grenade arch through the air and land gently on the writhing nest of scales. Diving around the corner, the four of us barely made it out of the way before the explosive force of the grenade ripped into the nightstalkers and their barks and hisses were silenced.

Breathing heavily, my eyes closed, I could feel Shadowbuck’s weight on my head. Realizing he had fallen on my head when I had jumped for cover and hit the ground, I lifted him up and opened my eyes to realize that his nethers had been resting on my muzzle. If not for his armor, I would have been touching his... Wow, my face was really burning.

And the entire time the Nightmare was purring sweet nothings of sexual temptation into the back of my mind.

“That was quick thinking, Shadow,” I gasped, returning him carefully onto my back. Please let it be dark enough for him not to notice.

“Good job on that shield, Aria.”

I think he didn’t notice.

“Aria, why is your face so red?” Melody asked as I turned around. Of course Melody would notice! I’m a reddish brown and somehow she can tell, in the low light of this ancient office, that my face was just a little bit redder than normal. That was just my luck.

“Just a little dizzy, that’s all,” I replied, trying to catch my breath and banish the dirty thoughts racing through my mind.

“Did they bite you again?” Compass asked, concern weighing on his voice.

“No, I think I’m just coming down from an adrenaline rush,” I lied, but I think they bought it. “Let’s see if we can find a way up to the roof from here.”

“Hey! I’m in charge here. You Stable ponies almost got us killed back there. What part of be quiet did you not understand?” Shadow said angrily.

“We were whispering,” Melody replied. Compass nodded in agreement.

“I meant no noise. Nightstalkers have really good hearing just like dogs,” Shadowbuck explained. Melody frowned and pressed her ears against the back of her head.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. We don’t have dogs down in Stable Sixty-Three.”

“Fine, whatever. Let’s just go,” Shadowbuck sighed. “Let’s keep looking, Aria.”

“You’re a real back seat driver, Shadow?” I complained as we started walking again.

“More like backside driver, right?” Melody joked and playfully smacked my right flank. I let out a yipe and scowled back at her, but like usual my glare didn’t work on mares. Melody just smiled at me and Shadowbuck. “Although she can’t be that comfy in all that armor.”

“Melody!”

“Let’s just keep moving, ponies. And no more talking unless absolutely necessary. Got it?” Shadow interrupted.

“Got it,” Melody replied, seeming much more dejected than I thought she should have been.

The rest of the floor was relatively quiet. Besides two turrets that dropped down from the ceiling outside Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie’s office, we ran into no more trouble. And thanks to the wonderful little spell known as SATS, Melody, Compass, and I took care of those pesky turrets before more than a single bullet could bounce harmlessly off my armor.

We were all excited to get a look at Pinkie’s office, but after Shadowbuck clumsily picked the lock, we were confronted with the revelation that the entire floor above had collapsed into the office below, literally crushing any hopes of finding Ministry Mare worthy loot or historically significant artifacts. However, that did get us our pathway up to the next floor.

Our luck continued after skirting the edge of the collapsed laboratory above and entering another. Tise lab was completely empty save for tables, chairs, and a bottle marked ‘Zebra Tar Stuff,’ which Compass curiously added to his saddlebags. But on the other side of the room, mounted over a broken window, was the most glorious sign we had seen in a very long time.

Fire Escape-Roof Access.

Peering out the window, I could see a solid grating beneath and above were sturdy latter leading up to the roof. As long as they held up, we could all get up to the Pinkie Pie balloon.

“Here’s our way up! Let’s hurry!” I said, trying my best not to shout. There could be snipers outside and we would be sitting ducks until we got to the roof. Thankfully, the MAIM building (Why did you have to get that acronym stuck in my head, Melody?) was the tallest building for miles.

Ascending as quietly as we could, I could see a small group of raiders guarding the entrance below us. I was suddenly thanking whichever alicorn up there for the fact that they didn’t have griffins with them and that pegasi like Melody were so rare. Of course with my luck, the skies would open up and the Enclave would come to enact their revenge on the demon that killed their soldiers.

“That’s why we should have killed the other one. Letting her live was stupid.”

“Shut up!” I cursed back at the Nightmare internally, and I could hear her sigh as if I was frustrating her. She was the annoying one with all her desire to kill everyone who crosses me, her constant talking and wanting sex... Okay, I’ll admit that some of her ideas were tempting, but at the moment I had to focus about getting us safely back to Gigaton and not on the fact that my nose was still itching.

Reaching the last ladder up to the roof, I sighed with relief as the strain on my burning legs was partially abated. Taking those flights of stairs with a crazy undead dragon on my tail, nightstalker bites, the constant climbing, and the stress of trying to escape near certain death were beginning to wear on me.

Actually, I was pretty sure everything was beginning to wear on my entire being. I felt... different than I had before my trip to the Wasteland. I was angrier, I hurt more, and ever pony I killed seemed to affect me less and less. The Enclave ponies had been hard not because I had killed them, but because I had changed. Transformed into a monster I had killed them without mercy or remorse, just as a monster would have.

But those raiders, I wasn’t hesitating to kill them and I could see that I was already losing any shreds of remorse for committing acts that would have horrified me only four days ago. Was I really losing myself to this new Equestria already?

“Or is this the real you being let loose? The you without Luna’s approval as your goal. The you who finally lets out all the rage and hatred in your heart that has been building up inside you your entire life. What if we were always a monster, Aria, and the Wasteland is just letting us finally show it?” the Nightmare asked. To that, I couldn’t respond.

“Look, there’s the balloon!” Melody cheered as she flew over to the deflated Pinkie Pie head and landed next to the basket. Looking it over, Melody pulled a cord and a got a clicking sound in return. Frowning, she pulled the ignition cord over and over until after the forth tug a spark ignited and a bright orange flame erupted from the bottom. “Got it!”

As soon as the fire began to burn, hot air started to fill the bottom of the balloon and ripple through the crumpled pony head. As I watched the balloon dance along the ground and start to slowly swell, my face twisted at the sight of the deformed face of Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie.

“That’s kind of creepy,” Shadowbuck said, saying exactly what I was thinking. Pinkie Pie was a hero to Equestria and one of the Ministry Mares, but even back in my time there had always been something... off about her. Making balloons shaped like her head didn’t help her case one bit.

“Yeah, but at least it’s a later model. I heard the first Pinkie Pie balloons used a Hydrogen Talisman to keep them afloat, but that was a disaster waiting to happen so MWT made the next batch with these heated air engines instead of magical talismans. I don’t trust them as much as a good talisman not to fail, but they’re a lot safer than travelling by floating bombs.”

“That’s good to hear,” Shadowbuck said sarcastically. I looked back as he started wiggling around on my back and saw him frowning at his legs. His limbs were moving, but slower and with much more strain than normal. “Still gonna be a bit before everything’s back up to one hundred percent.”

“Maybe then he can ride us in a different, more pleasurable way.”

“Yeah,” I said absentmindedly. Then I realized I was talking more to the Nightmare and not to Shadowbuck and turned my gaze to the river.

I was ashamed that my mind was turning against me like this. I’ll admit that I had had thoughts like this before, mostly about Brightlight, but not like this. Was I really crazy? Did I really need the medicine Compass had given me? This Nightmare in my mind was worse than the flame. At least the flame was just tempting me for something as metaphysical and emotional as ‘giving it my hate, pain, etc.’

The Nightmare was tempting me in ways that would change me fundamentally. Never wanting to bring a bastard into the world was a part of me. I guess you could say it was my goal in life. Protect Princess Luna, earn my place in my own family, and not repeat my mother’s mistakes. But I couldn’t protect the princess anymore and Melody, Starshine, and Elegant Star were the only family I had left. That last vow was all I had left. But ever since I met Shadowbuck, ever since I came to Trottingham, that promise to myself was becoming harder and harder to keep.

“You do know that there’s no more Equestrian government. We can’t get married. Are we going to spend our entire life without feeling the touch of a stallion because you’re afraid of a foal?”

“Stop it,” I hissed.

“What’s that, Aria?” Shadowbuck asked.

“Nothing.” I lied. “The river snakes a lot. The trip from Gigaton took a few hours, but I think I can see it from here,” I said, trying to deflect his question and get my mind off of the more perverse thoughts bubbling up from my subconscious.

“You can just make out the rollercoaster from here. Trottingham was built around the river on both sides. There used to be a lot of bridges connecting each side, but only the Trottingham bridge remains to connect Trottingham Palace and Big Buck to the Gigaton and Stableton side of the river.”

“Stableton?”

“Yeah. Look upstream. Do you see an old riverboat? My dad said that it was a New Foalenean style riverboat. It’s stuck on the river bottom, but Stableton’s built next to it,” Shadowbuck explained as I squinted, trying my hardest to find the riverboat. Then I saw it.

The large wheel in the back was submerged and partially broken off and the deck was underwater, but the old dilapidated riverboat was barely visible from here. Around it I could make out numerous buildings and a semi circle city wall with the boat and the river acting as defense against attacks on the other side.

“Hey Shadow.”

“Hmm?”

“Before you passed out in the Ministry building you said I remind you of someone. Who do I remind you of?” I asked, and felt Shadowbuck shift nervously on my back.

“Um... You’re going to think this is stupid.”

“No I won’t. Who do I remind you of?”

“Honestly? You remind me of my mother,” he said sheepishly.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You two would have gotten along great. She was such an egghead.” He paused looking out over the serenity that was the view stretched out before us. Thinking back, this was pretty weird since we were inflating a giant Pinkie Pie head while trying to escape a group of murderous raiders led by a zombie dragon, but for some reason the strange serenity of the irradiated river and dead city was allowing the two of us time to have an odd little heart to heart.

“What was she like?”

“She was great. Always trying to find spell books and learn new spells every time she went out scavenging with dad. She used to be a scribe at Bucklyn Cross, but she fell for my dad, a stupid earth pony scavenger, and would sneak off to join him in the ruins. Then she got pregnant and had my older sister, Autumn Winds, and my mom decided to leave the Steel Rangers and settle down and make a family.”

“Why couldn’t she stay with the Steel Rangers?”

“Because romantic fraternization with tribals and non-Rangers is forbidden. Hell, some chapters forbid even talking with non-Rangers.”

“So why are you hanging out with us, Shadow?” I asked, smiling back at him without even realizing I was doing it.

“Because the Trottingham Steel Rangers are different. Elder Litwick was one of the dissenters to the isolationism that most other chapter follow. He believed Star Ranger Steelhooves was right and we should use our technology to help ponies like Ministry Mare Applejack wanted, not act like glorified raiders. That’s why we’re here in Trottingham, across the sea and far away from Equestria. There was almost a civil war ten years back and Elder Litwick gathered all the Rangers that sympathized with his ideals and moved us here to help Trottingham with their monster problem.”

“Where’s this Steelhooves guy then?”

“He stayed behind. No idea why, but he turned down becoming Elder of the Manehatten chapter and lives in a shack on the outskirts of the ruins. The old ghoul just couldn’t leave for some reason.”

“He’s a ghoul?” I asked, surprised that there were ghouls in the Steel Rangers.

“Yeah. He was a Steel Ranger back during the war. Did you know him?”

“No, but... Wow...” I said, letting my voice trail off at the sound of shouts from below. Looking back, I could see what they were shouting about. The Pinkie Pie balloon was already filling up and poking its head over the top of the roof. It wouldn’t be long now before the raiders realized we were up there and try to stop us from escaping.

“What happened to your mother, Shadow?” I asked, turning back towards the balloon so I could help get everything set for take off.

“I-I’d rather not talk about it, Aria.” He paused for a moment before taking a deep breath and then sighing. “But promise me something.”

“What?”

“We ran into spritebots earlier. If you ever come across a spritebot that starts talking to you and calls itself Watcher, don’t trust it. Fuck, just blast the hunk of junk out of the sky,” he growled.

“Why?”

“Because Watcher’s the name of the son of a bitch that got my mom and sisters killed,” he spat.
Someone named Watcher was using the spritebots to kill ponies? That was a scary thought. With those lasers and the sheer number of spritebots the Ministry of Morale were manufacturing before I got blown into the future, if even a tenth of them survived there would be more bots out there for this ‘Watcher’ to use then I really wanted to think about.

“Okay. I will,” I replied.

“I think it’s almost ready, Aria. We need to hurry and take off,” Compass said before jumping into the basket.

“Right,” I said, following him into the basket and turning to Melody. “Once we get off the ground, the balloon should be light enough for you to push towards Gigaton. It will get us there faster if you do. Think you can stay on course to the Southwest?”

“Yup!” Melody said, saluting me with a smile before showing her Pipbuck to me. “I’ve got Gigaton marked on my map and EFS. There’s no way I can miss it!”

“Good. Let’s just hope-”

A roar cut through the mid morning air that made my heart skip at least two beats. There was a rumbling inside the Ministry building and I swallowed hard.

“That answers that question,” Shadow moaned.

“Jack isn’t dead,” Compass answered.

“Biscuits,” I swore. The Nightmare laughed.

“Just say shit. You did it earlier.”

“Come on, you stupid balloon! Lift!” Melody shouted, giving the basket a kick that actually moved it about ten feet. “Huh? Aria! It’s barely off the ground!”

“Then let’s kick the flame in high gear!” I shouted, pulling the cord down harder and sending a torrent of flame and heating gas into Pinkie’s head. Compass, meanwhile, started cutting some of the sandbags and the balloon leapt a good fifteen feet into the air. With an exasperated laugh, Shadowbuck struggled to lift his right hoof and pointed Southwest.

“Aria! Set up one of your shields to protect the balloon from ground fire! Melody! Push us home!”

“Aye aye, Captain Backside!” Melody cheered before flying up to the basket and pushing us back towards Gigaton.

Focusing a protective barrier around the balloon, I frowned when I realized I wasn’t strong enough to extend the shield around the basket and the entire balloon. The top of Pinkie’s head and her puffy pink curls were poking out of the top of my shield, mocking me with their stupid designs.

But as the bullets started flying and bouncing off my energy shield, I realized that no pony on the ground could actually hit the exposed area of Pinkie Pie’s head unless they were the luckiest shots in the world.

“Luna’s Luscious Lemon Squares! I’m going to jinx myself!”

“It’s always food with us, isn’t it? I’m surprised we’re not as big as Canterlot Castle.”

ROOOOOAR!

As we reached the riverfront, another roar ripped out of the Ministry hub causing the raiders to stop firing and turn towards the entrance. Before any of us could even breathe, a surge of wicked green flame poured through the front door, engulfing a few raiders and killing them almost instantly. Then, like a batpony out of Tartarus, Jack emerged, his wings already unfurling, and he jumped into the sky.

His ascent was slow and laborious, but I could see why. Straddling his back, a sniper rifle held perfectly in her teeth and balanced on her forelegs, was the dark pink unicorn mare from before. Even as Jack fought for altitude, the sniper mare was already lining up a shot and firing, striking a heavy blow against the underside of my shield and sending a jolt of arcane feedback through my mind.

“Shit! If I could move, I could line up a shot and take them out!” Shadowbuck lamented, and I had to agree. With his skill with a sniper rifle, I could wait for the raider on Jack’s back to take a shot, drop my shield, and let Shadow blow Jack’s brains out. But with Shadow’s suit still rebooting, Melody focusing on pushing us back to Gigaton, and Compass’ low caliber weapon, and lightning bolts being almost worthless against the deadened nervous system of a ghoul, running and defense were our best bets.

“That shot hit pretty dang hard,” I said, pouring more magical strength into my shield as I tried to reinforce our barrier. No sooner had I fortified our defenses did the raider knock them right back down. My reserves of magical strength, stronger they may have been, would not be able to keep this up forever.

“Should I try fighting back?” Melody asked, looking over her shoulder as she pushed us.

“Keep going, Melody. I’ve got this,” I told her, gritting my teeth as another bullet struck the shield and caused it to flicker.

“You can do it, Aria. I’ve got the burnout remedy from the Ministry of Peace, and... and I think I have a plan,” Compass said nervously.

“What’s your plan?” I grunted after pushing more mana into my shield.

“Just hold on a little longer for Jack to get into position. When I give the signal, I’ll need you to drop the shield, I’ll throw this, and Shadow can shoot it so it breaks over Jack and his sniper friend,” Compass explained as he pulled out the bottle of Zebra Tar Stuff and smiled nervously.

“That’s a great plan, Compass, but I can’t shoot with my battle saddle until my suits done booting. It’s been stuck at ninety percent for five minutes an-oh, nevermind. Ninety-one percent,” Shadow complained until Compass offered him his pistol. “Will this do?”

“I guess...”

Meanwhile, Jack was slowly gaining altitude and ground, no wait, air on us. The undead dragon let out a roar, unleashing a torrent of flame from below us that sent me reeling. The shield flickered, barely catching the mare’s sniper round, before the shield and I both collapsed.

“Crap! No time like the present, Compass!” Shadow said, his head exposed as I realized he had thrust his legs over the edge of the basket and was aiming Compass’ pistol at Jack and his rider.

“Celestia, I hope this works,” Compass prayed, wrapping the mystery bottle in his magical aura and chucking it over the side. Spurred on by his magic and probably some help from SATS, the bottle shot at Jack like a rocket. Opening his mouth wide to send one final blast of balefire at us, Shadow lined up his shot and fired.

CRACK!

The jar burst and a disgusting globule of thick black tar fell down Jack’s open maw. While that tactic would have caused almost instant suffocation for a living dragon, the tar seemed to just cause Jack severe discomfort. Clawing at his mouth and flapping even harder to stay aloft, snipermare’s next shot went wide, missing Shadow’s head by only a few feet.

“Gotcha, bitch!” Shadow said around the mouthpiece of Compass’ gun before firing another shot directly at the mare.

However, right as he fired, the mare lost her grip on Jack’s back and slipped. Instead of blowing her head off, the bullet cut through her ear and into Jack’s left wing. Roaring in muffled pain, Jack’s wing buckled and he and the mare plummeted right as I got my hooves back underneath me. Or, she would have if I didn’t see one of the most impressive displays of the simplest of magic tricks I had ever seen.

Floating high above the city, suspended only by her own telekinetic field, the mare took aim with her sniper rifle and smirked. Thinking as fast as I could, I erected my shield once again, covering all but the top of the balloon in protective magic. I was tired, but I knew that I could last much longer than she could stay aloft; the strain was already showing on her face.

“And they call me a one trick pony!” she shouted, and turned her rifle upwards. Following its path, I suddenly realized what she was aiming for, but before I could alter my shield, she fired. The bullet ripped a hole through the pink curls on the top of Pinkie’s head and the balloon lurched and started steadily dropping.

“So long, losers! When ya get to hell, tell the devil Ace sent ya!” the mare laughed, blood pouring down the side of her face, before giving us a salute, releasing her levitation spell, and diving head first towards the city below. I gasped and Shadow snarled as he fired shot after shot, missing horribly, before disappearing from sight into the ruins of an old soccer stadium. (Although I think Trottingham residents called it hoofball.)

“Guys! You’re dropping really fast!” Melody shouted as she tried to pull on the balloon and keep us afloat, but it was no use.

“We’re losing too much air, Melody! Take Compass and I’ll teleport Shadow and myself to safety!” I ordered as we sailed back over the river. We had crossed two bends and were only two more bends away from reaching Gigaton. We were so close, but it was time to abandon ship.

“I’m not leaving you!” Melody shouted.

“Me neither!” Compass yelled back, but Shadow shook his head.

“Go! Aria and I will meet you on the shore!” he said, pointing to an old boardwalk. “Can you get us there?”

“No problem!” I lied, trying to sound more confident than I actually was. I was wiped, almost all of my energy spent after the running, fighting, and abuse of keeping that shield up had pushed me to my limits, but I was sure I could at least get us to the shore.

“Okay,” Melody said reluctantly, taking Compass’ forelegs in hers and flapping hard to take off out of the basket. “Be careful.”

I nodded, heaving Shadowbuck over my shoulders and placing him on my back on top of my saddlebags. There wasn’t any time for comfort as the river below started rushing towards us faster and faster. Pinkie’s head was shriveled and hissing and I could hear the churning waters below. Focusing my magic on Shadow on my back and the beach, I pushed myself as hard as I could until I heard a BZZAP and felt something pop in my head again.

I opened my eyes, seeing stars, before I realized that something wasn’t right. When I felt wicker beneath my hooves, but didn’t feel any weight on my back except that of my armor, I realized I had teleported Shadowbuck, my saddlebags, and Aegis, but not myself. Before I could even try using magic with my newly burned out horn, the basket struck the water hard, sending me flying head over hooves into the water. I skipped twice, almost getting the wind knocked out of me and causing my helmet to fall off, before I splashed down hard into the radioactive river.

Thrusting my hooves out and trying to swim as Golden Star had taught me so many summers ago on the beach in Manehatten, I just couldn’t keep my head above the water for very long. The extra weight was too much for me and it was already getting hard to breathe. It was at that moment that I realized something very important.

It is impossible to swim in twenty five pounds of armor.

Taking one last gulp of precious air, I could see Shadowbuck and my shield lying helplessly on the shore. I could even swear I heard him call my name as the weight of my Lunar Guard armor finally pulled me under and I started sinking into the murky depths, the steady tick tick tickety of my Pipbuck being the sad funeral march playing as I plunged into the watery grave beneath me.

“Don’t worry, Aria. I’ll never let anything happen to you. I’ll teach you how to swim and you’ll never have to worry about drowning. As long as I’m here, you have nothing to fear,” I could hear Golden Star reassuring the nine year old me across the span of time and memory.

But Golden Star wasn’t with me. He was over a century dead and his statuette was on the shore with Shadowbuck. My magic had been taken from me again and the armor I had wanted for so long, the symbol of my devotion to my princess, was going to be my death. I had nothing left, no magic, no strength, no hope. There was nothing left for me.

“Give me your sorrow. Give me your hate. Give me your rage. I can give you the strength to live. The strength to rule. The str-”

Before the flame could continue, before I could accept his offer, something slammed hard into my chest. Precious bubbles of air escaped my lungs, but the pain was just beginning. A vice like pressure gripped down on my left fetlock, wrenching my shoulder as my bracer crushed my foreleg with a nasty crack. I screamed in agony, watching the last of my air rush out of my mouth and the most intense burning sensation in my life replaced it.

I gasped, replacing the oxygen with irradiated water as the pressure on my leg increased and threatened to severe it. As my eyes rolled back into my head and darkness started creeping into the brackish gloom around me there was another sharp crack and my watery world was filled with a familiar blue light. Somehow the light pulled my sight back into focus just in time to see the Star Sapphire glowing with the same ethereal light as the tunnel that brought me to the future, and in that light I saw my aquatic adversary.

A creature armored like a tank with pincers larger than my head had my foreleg in a death grip. Its hooves kicked with a strange ease as it tried to pull me deeper into the depths of the Trottingham River. Its beady eyes were focused on the light erupting from my wrist as it continued to tighten its grip until another pop came from within the gem.

Suddenly, there was only the light. At first I thought I was dead, but everything hurt and burned. My next thought was that I had finally fallen into Hell, but why did I feel like I was floating? Then, in the blink of an eye, I realized I was actually floating in an abyss, suspended in mid air with a gulf of emptiness quickly being refilled by the river. I tried to gulp down a breath even with the water occupying my lungs, but I didn't have time for much more than that. Realizing now that I was falling, I saw that the water around me was gone, vanished in the blink of an eye in a flash of blue light.

Gravity had taken effect again, and I was falling towards the river bottom as a tidal wave of water was rushing to fill the void that had once been my own personal tomb. I tried for one last, pained breath as hundreds of pounds of force crashed down all around me and sent me spinning back into the abyss. And just as everything went black and I lost consciousness, I heard a young colt’s voice whisper one word.

“Mama?”

____________________________

“Wake up, Aria. We’ve made it to Manehatten,” Golden Star said as he gently shook me awake. My eyes fluttered open to see my brother’s smiling face. “You have a good nap, sis?”

“Yeah. I had a weird dream,” I said, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.

“Really? What about?”

“I can’t really remember. Something about a crab,” I mumbled until I caught sight of the Manehatten skyline, its skyscrapers reaching for the sun while the Bucklyn Bridge stretched the East River that separated Bucklyn from Manehatten. My eyes widened and I rushed to the window, smiling at the sight of Equestria’s second largest city. It was so different from Canterlot’s high mountain side infrastructure and grand castles and manes. Manehatten was a city by the sea made of brick and mortar. While Canterlot was a city for princesses and royalty, this was a city made by ponies, of ponies, and for ponies. “Wow!”

“Yeah. I guess it is pretty impressive, isn’t it?” Golden Star laughed, and I nodded without taking my eyes off the cityscape before me. “So you were dreaming of crabs, huh?” I guess you’re really excited to go swimming at the beach. It’ll be your first time, right?”

“Mmmhmm...” I hummed apprehensively.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m scared,” I said, watching the river flow beneath us as our train crossed the Hairy Cudson Bridge into Manehatten.

“Of what?”

“I can’t swim, Golden Star,” I admitted.

“Well then I’ll just have to teach you,” he said, giving me a reassuring smile.

“Really? But what if... what if I’m no good and I drown?”

“Don’t worry, Aria. I’ll never let anything happen to you. I’ll teach you how to swim and you’ll never have to worry about drowning. As long as I’m here, you have nothing to fear,” he said, putting his hooves around me and taking me into his strong, protective embrace. “So are you going to let me teach you?”

“Really?” I asked, turning away from the window.

“Of course. That’s what big brothers do, right? We protect our little sisters.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding and smiling happily. A week in Manehatten swimming at the beach, shopping on Fifth Avenue, and getting to see Sapphire Shores live? Plus, I was getting to do all of it with my big brother while he was on leave from the war? This was going to be the best weekend ever!

____________________________

“Woah! Your house is almost as big as the palace!” I gasped, staring in wide eyed wonder at the expansive mansion and estate on the edge of the city as the taxi carriage pulled up to the steps leading to the gilded front door.

“I don’t think it’s that big, Aria, but dad does well for himself,” he said, tousling my hair playfully.

“Y-your dad? I-Is he here?” I asked nervously. I had never met Golden Star’s father, but from what I had heard from Uncle Blueblood, he hated me.

“Nah. His company just landed the contract to build the new railroad in Trottingham. He won’t be home for weeks,” he reassured me.

“Oh. Okay,” I said as he helped me out of the carriage.

“Come on, kiddo. I’m getting kinda hungry so you must be starving. I’m sure Clementine’s got something for us to snack on until dinner,” Golden Star said, turning and coming face to face with an older stallion in a tuxedo.

“Welcome home, Master Golden Star,” the gray earth pony with the pencil thin black mustache said drolly. “I did not know you were bringing a lady caller; especially one so... young.”

“Tuxedo, it’s good to see you again. Let me introduce you to my sister, Aria,” he said, kneeling down to put his hoof around me. “Say hello to Mr. Tuxedo, Aria.”

“Aria?” he asked, his eyes widening in surprise. “Master Golden Star, do you really think this is such a good idea. Your father-”

“My father doesn’t need to know. He’s so busy with his company that he won’t even notice.”

“He was always ashamed of us. Look at him try to hide us from his father,” a mare whispered in my ear. I turned, but no one was there.

“But sir-”

“Nope. Not gonna hear it. Come on, Aria. I’m sure Clementine’s got some milk and pie for us in the kitchen. She makes amazing peach cobbler too,” Golden Star said, ushering me past the uptight butler and into the mansion. “Do you like peach cobbler?”

“It’s okay. I really like strawberries.”

“That’s good to know,” he said before a smile crossed his face. “You know, there’s an ice cream parlor at the beach that serves great sundaes. I’m sure they can make you the best strawberry sundae you’ve ever tasted.”

“Yum! I can’t wait!” I cheered, smiling brightly.

“Ha. Grandma always said you think about food just as much as magic. You better be careful, sis, or you’re going to get a big tummy,” he joked, poking my sides and making me giggle.

“Nuh uh! You’re gonna get a fat tummy!”

“Fat? That’s crossing the line! Come here!” he joked, grabbing me with his telekinesis and lifting me onto his back as I laughed uncontrollably. He started trotting towards the kitchens, giving me his patented ‘World’s Best Ponyback Ride.’ “Come on, I can hear some peach cobbler calling our names. Can you hear it? Golden Staaaaar. Ariaaaaaa. Come eat meeeee.”

“We’re coming to eat you, Peach Cobbler!” I shouted, pointing off towards no place in particular. I didn’t know where the kitchen was, but I was pointing the way anyway because as long as I was with Golden Star, it didn’t really matter where we went; I had my big brother.

____________________________

“Thank you, Miss Clementine! This cobbler is delicious.”

“You’re welcome, honey. I haven’t been able to cook for an appreciative young pony since your brother left to go to the military academy,” Clementine, an elderly orange mare with gray hair kept up in a hairnet, said, giving me a warm smile. “And please, dearie. Just call me Miss Clem.”

“Come on, Clem. I haven’t been gone that long,” Golden Star facetiously complained.

“It feels like ages for me. An old mare worries with you being shipped off to the front lines all the time. I’m sure little Aria worries about you too,” Clementine said, and I nodded while trying to swallow another mouthful of peachy goodness.

“Mmm-hmm. But getting to spend time with Golden Star when he gets to go on leave is awesome!”

“It’s fun for me too, sis. Just remember, my home is your home,” he said, ruffling my mane lovingly.

“But that doesn’t mean she is welcome in my home,” a stallion said harshly as he entered the kitchen, slamming the door open as he walked in.

“Dad? But I thought you were in Trottingham.” Golden Star leapt out of his chair, shocked as the blond maned unicorn burst through the door.

“I got back this morning, Rising Star is taking care of the final negotiations with the royals. How dare you bring her into my home!” Starshine shouted, thrusting his hoof into my brother’s chest.

“She’s my sister!”

“She’s not your sister, she’s your mother’s mistake!” Starshine yelled, piercing a hole in my heart deeper than any knife could have.

“Mr. Starshine! You shouldn’t say that in front of the filly!” Clem gasped, but Golden Star’s father didn’t hear her or care.

“Mom made a mistake, but Aria shouldn’t pay for it! She’s still my sister, dad!” Golden Star snarled, slapping his father’s accusing hoof away from him.

“She’s a constant reminder of your mother’s sin and I will not have her in my home!”

“Please... Don’t fight,” I pleaded meekly, but it fell on deaf ears.

“She doesn’t deserve to be treated like this!”

“She’s a bastard, Golden Star!”

“Don’t call her that!”

“Get that bastard out of my home! I will not have her under my roof!”

“Please...” I begged as the tears began to flow.

Clementine took me in a tight hug and whispered words of encouragement and consolement, trying her best to shield me from my brother and Starshine’s argument, but the words and the fear were hurting far more than any blows ever could. The fighting didn’t last much longer, mostly just Golden Star and Starshine repeating the same points over and over and shouting until finally Golden Star turned from his father in a huff.

“If she’s not welcome, then I’m not staying. I’m an adult now and actually fighting this war you keep running from. I’ll find my own place to stay and Aria will always be welcome there!” Golden Star shouted, before turning back to me. “We’re leaving Aria. We’ll go stay at the Mareyott Hotel, okay?”

“Don’t you turn your back on me, boy!” Starshine roared, reaching out with his hoof and spinning my brother away from me. “You’d choose this bastard over your own father!?”

“Let go of me, dad! I’m leaving!”

“You are making the biggest mistake of your life!” Starshine shouted, his eyes filled with rage as he grabbed Golden Star’s mane with his telekinesis.

“I don’t want to hurt you, dad!” Golden Star shouted, trying to wrench his hair free, but his father was holding tight.

“Yet you betray me like your mother!?”

“Leave him alone!” I shouted, a bolt of electricity leaving my horn in an uncontrollable burst of magical energy and striking Starshine with the intensity of all of my rage, pain, and sorrow. Starshine crumpled to the floor, releasing Golden Star’s mane so he could turn to stare at me in horror. Then, the world stood still.

“This is the power of our rage. This is the true us, Aria. If we had given into the power within us, this is how it could have been. Starshine dead and our brother all to ourselves. But instead we cowered and let him fight our battles. We let him get hurt. We should have given the flame what he wanted and escaped our watery grave, but instead you chose to give up and die,” the Nightmare whispered as she strode past me to take Golden Star in a hug, draping herself over his statuesque form. “We lost everything because you wanted to be good. You wanted to be Luna’s guardian, you wanted to get married. But what has that gotten us? Nothing!”

“But I’m not a bad pony!” I shouted, realizing I wasn’t a child anymore and back in my own body.

“Bad pony? Good pony? Who decides that? Celestia? She and the ponies of Equestria neglected Luna and shunned her gifts. But when she got angry over her mistreatment, what did they do? They banished her to the moon! You were loyal and good, but other ‘good ponies’ walked all over you! Good ponies are bad. Bad ponies can be good. There is no true good or evil, right or wrong, black or white! Embrace the strength within us and we can remake this broken world the way we see fit! It’s the only way to save Equestria!”

“But...” I looked to Golden Star, frozen in place with that repulsed look. Would Golden Star want this? Would Melody? But... I knew deep down that I was just so angry.

My family. Starshine. Brightlight. Cherry Scones.

The way they had treated me. All I had ever done was be alive and they treated me like garbage for it. To them the very act of my existence was enough to give me nothing but hate and scorn. Why did ponies who would treat me like that get such privilege while good ponies got hurt... or worse.

With that thought, the kitchen melted away, replaced by Canterlot as I had never seen it before. Pink mist filled the streets as horrifying ghouls shambled to and fro through the ruins of the once great capital city. Everything was dead in the city of dreams, the city that was home to goddesses.

“Look at Celestia and Luna’s folly, Aria,” the Nightmare said, gesturing to what my home had become. “They had the power to rule, the power to make their word reality, but they never took the steps to do it. They could have used the Elements of Harmony to bring true peace and harmony to Equestria. They could have remade the world in their image, but they didn’t.”

“Why not?” I asked, but the Nightmare just shrugged and took the skull of a long dead unicorn into her telekinetic grasp.

“They were powerful, but they were weak where it mattered most. They didn’t have the drive to do what needed to be done. But we have that chance, Aria. We can-”

A burst of white light burst forth from the Ministry of Wartime Technology building, and when we could see again, we were in the gardens in Canterlot. They were the way I remembered them, the bird singing beautiful melodies in the trees and the aroma of a multitude of gorgeous flowers filled my nostrils. Standing before us, Golden Star looked upon us gravely. From me to my darker self, he looked upon her with disgust and me with worry.

“Golden Star! Is this another dream or is that you?” I asked, rushing to him.

“It’s me, Aria. In your current state I could make another connection,” he explained, stepping over to the Nightmare.

“Golden Star...” She seemed just as torn as I was at Golden Star’s appearance. She still had that fire of hatred burning in her eyes, that horrible green glow dominating the violet that had once been, but it seemed to have softened at the sight of my... our brother. The way she looked at him, her eyes filled with the same joy and sorrow that I was feeling, I could truly believe that she really was me. A darker me, but me nonetheless.

“Aria. This isn’t you. You’re not like this,” he said, and the Nightmare looked away. Was she ashamed?

“But Golden Star,” she plead. “The world is such a horrible place. Even before the war, before the world turned to shit, ponies treated me like a monster. I was an outcast. But now I have this power within me. The flame promises me even more. What else am I supposed to do?”

“Keep on fighting, Aria. The Lightbringer has arrived in Equestria, but her light cannot reach the Elements of Harmony if the Darkness returns. Keep fighting, and stop Voidheart, then the day of sunshine and rainbows will come.”

“Why do you keep saying that? How can this Lightbringer really do all you say she will? Who is she?” I asked, approaching my brother and the Nightmare.

“She’s the spark, Aria. Remember that and remember what I keep telling you. Both of you,” he said calmly, taking us both into a hug. “Keep on fighting.”

____________________________

I slowly opened my eyes and a dull pain wracked my body. Everything was sore and it actually hurt a little every time I took a breath. Coughing into the pillow underneath my head, my eyes slowly began to focus on the nightstand next to the bed. Golden Star’s statuette stood proudly, standing a silent vigil as I slept, while the Star Sapphire bracer sat at its base, giving off a faint glow that disappeared as soon as I noticed it.

“Huh?” I heard a voice say behind me. I turned over, even as my body protested the sudden movement, and saw Check smiling back at me, a tray carrying a bowl of soup and mug floating at her side. “You’re awake. Ya had me worried there, ya know? All of us, actually.”

“Check?” I asked, confused as to where I was and how I had gotten here. “Where am I?”

“You’re back in Gigaton, Aria. You were in pretty bad shape when Shadow and the others got back. Compass said he had to use up every last bit of medicine y’all had left,” she explained, setting the tray down on a chair next to the bed.

“But... I was sinking. I...” I couldn’t continue. The balefire blast and fighting raiders were one thing, but drowning... That had to be the worst way to die. The futility in fighting, the pain as the oxygen in your lungs left and was replaced by unimaginable burning, the cold fire as the water filled your lungs.

“They said you washed up on shore and weren't breathing. Compass worked his magic and said he even gave you the kiss of life,” she said with a smirk after sitting at the edge of my bed. “Although he kept calling it CPR or something.”

“I...I’m alive?” I said in disbelief. “But that crab creature. And the bright light.”

“Well, the crab creature was probably a mirelurk, best I can guess, and the bright light was probably just the light at the end of the tunnel I always hear ponies seeing when they’re near death,” she explained, putting a reassuring hoof on mine. “But you're not dead and that’s what’s important. Welcome back to the world of the living, fire flanks.”

I was alive. For the second time, I had cheated Death. But was that a good thing or not? It seemed that she was on my side, giving me this connection to my brother from the other side, but I had my doubts. What were Death and her friends really after? I couldn’t help but wonder why gods, if they even existed, were so interested in me. Were they honestly trying to help me or was I just some pawn they were trying to get across the board so they could finish some celestial game of chess?

“Hey there, Equestria to Aria. Ya in there?” Check asked, knocking on my head playfully.

“Yeah... Wait a second! The bomb!” I shouted.

“No need to worry. Melody, Cherry Scones, and I took care of it. It was tough work, but Cherry Scones and I figured it out thanks to the data on your Pipbuck,” she explained, pointing down to the Pipbuck still on my wrist.
“You worked with Cherry Scones? After what she...” I started to say until another spasm of coughing overtook me.

“Woah! Here, try some of this,” Check said, helping me sit up and offering me the mug. Taking it in my telekinetic sheathe, I held back another bout of coughs and sipped the sweet tea slowly. The warm liquid ran down my throat and the slightly spicy scent filled my nostrils and eased the stress on my lungs. As the pain and coughing abated, I greedily downed more of the restorative tea until it was all gone and Check laughed. “Thirsty, I take it?”

I nodded and she shook her head.

“And I see it took care of your cough too. Don’t worry, Tekash has a lot more of his honeyspice root tea at his shack.”

That caused another round of coughing.

“Tekash!? The zebra!? You gave me zebra tea!?”

Check just rolled her eyes at me over the frames of her sunglasses.

“The whole zebra thing again? Didn’t you learn anything? Life’s too short to spend it hating someone, especially someone ya never met. Look at his tea, it helped ya, didn’t it?”

“I guess,” I admitted reluctantly. “But how could you work with Cherry Scones after what she did to me?”

“I didn’t like it just as much as you, but with you out of commission, she was the only unicorn with the magical know how to make heads or tales of those arcane designs and spells to disarm that bad boy,” she explained. I didn’t like it, but she had a point.

“But what about the radiation?”

“That was actually pretty easy to take care of once the bomb was defused back to its base parts. Tekash spent day and night during the crisis making some weird shaman totems that absorbed necrotic energy. Besides the town square, almost all traces of the radiation are gone. The square’s gonna take a lot more time to clean up,” Check said before offering me the bowl of soup. “Here. You should eat. You’ve been out cold for over a day.”

“A day?” I asked, letting out a sigh of relief. “At least I didn’t miss my birthday.”

“Your birthday’s coming up? We’ll have to celebrate then!”

“I don’t really feel like celebrating. I feel like I’m cursed,” I said, grabbing my hind legs with my forelegs and pulling myself into a sitting fetal position.

“Why ya think you’re cursed, honey?” Check said, sitting next to me and putting a protective foreleg around my shoulders. I sipped the soup, which had a strange flavor I had never tasted before, yet it was rather tasty and wholesome.

“Because I’ve almost died four times in the last four days,” I said before taking another gulp of the delicious tasting broth. Whatever this flavor was, it was really growing on me.

“Please, fire flanks. That’s just the way the Wasteland is. If ya aren’t almost getting killed, ya ain’t living,” she said, giving me an affectionate squeeze that felt good at the moment. Some form of pony contact was acting as a pretty good balm to my aching soul. “I’ve got an idea that’ll do you a whole world of good.”

“What’s that?” I asked, taking another gulp and realizing I had almost finished the shallow bowl.

“We’ll prove you aren’t cursed by getting your fortune told,” she replied with a bright smile.

“My fortune? There’s a unicorn that knows divination magic in town?” I asked, setting the bowl down, my interests peaked.

“Nope. Tekash is really good at divining the past and the future with his magic deck of cards. He perfectly told me my past and everything he’s predicted about my future has come true. Well, except that last part.”

“Tarot decks,” I groaned, rolling my eyes. “That’s not real divination, Check. It’s just a cheap parlor trick.”

“Not his, Aria! Tekash told me my whole life story and I hadn’t told anyone. Then he told me a bunch of stuff from my future and it’s all come true except for the last part,” Check rebutted, raising her voice in aggravation.

“And what was that?”

“That I would find the love I seek in the last place I’d expect it. The love I so desperately need to heal my broken heart,” she said solemnly, taking me into a tighter hug. “I think a lovely young hero from Stable Sixty-Three is the last place I’d expect it.”

“And we’re done here,” I said, pushing her away and trying to stand. However, my legs trembled underneath my weight and I was suddenly very glad that Check rushed to catch me.

“Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But ya need to calm down and give Tekash a chance. Ya shouldn’t judge someone and call them a monster just because of the color of their coat,” Check said as she helped me get my hooves under me and let my body get used to walking again. Who knew spending a day in bed could make walking so much harder.

But Check’s words resonated with me. Everypony in my family treated me differently because I was brown. They treated me like garbage because of my coat color... Was I really doing the same thing to Tekash? But he was a zebra, a sworn enemy of ponykind, and...

“Hello! Having an Aria moment in there? So ya wanna come with? I’ll pay for the reading,” Check said, trying to give me a reassuring smile.

“You’re not going to drop this, are you?”

“Not until we get that little racist bug outta your butt,” Check giggled, and I sighed.

“Alright,” I groaned, causing her smile to brighten. “But if he does anything funny I’m not going to hesitate to electrocute him where he stands.”

“Noted,” she said, taking me by the forehoof and pulling me out into the living room.

“Where are we anyway? And where’s Melody, Compass, and Shadow?”

“Oh! We’re at my old place, now your place,” she replied. I must have been giving the biggest ‘What the Hay?’ face because she just laughed and pulled me over to the door. “I’ll explain on the way. Will and Bill wanted to give y’all Five Card Stud’s old place, but after I told him what happened there I talked him into giving me Stud’s place and y’all now have my place in exchange.”

“Was I in your room?” I asked, suddenly feeling a little uneasy.

“Of course! It’s the best bed in the house,” she said before moving in close to whisper in my ear. “I’ll have to show you the secret panel where I usually keep my ‘toys.’ I even left one behind for you. You did say you like stallions, didn’t you?”

“Oh? Maybe a good time with toys will lighten you up,” the Nightmare said devilishly, finally breaking her silence and shocking me out of my slightly perverted stupor.

“That seemed to have gotten your attention,” Check said with a wink, misinterpreting the cause of my surprise.

“Speaking of stallions, you didn’t tell me where my friends are,” I said, quickly changing the subject.

“Oh, well, Shadowbuck’s helping his fellow rangers set up the memorial for Bulletstorm and the other rangers Jack killed. Everything that happened yesterday has kinda changed shaken things up a bit.”
“What do you mean?”

“To start, the Royal Flush Raiders have been kicked out and are officially banned from Gigaton. I even heard Stableton banned them too. Something about putting their petty war with the Steel Rangers ahead of saving the city finally caused Will and Mayor Crapshoot to finally take a stand against them,” Check explained.

“Mayor Crapshoot?”

“Yeah, good buck, but a real unfortunate name.”

“Okay, but where’s Melody and Compass?”

“Moorheart’s. They rented a room for some ‘special time.’ Lucky gal,” Check answered, causing me to suddenly have a flashback to the boat. Wow! Was my face burning!

“Okay, um, well, let’s get to Tekash’s then,” I said, trying to change the subject away from sex again. Why was that such a common topic now? It almost never came up back in Canterlot.

“That’s the spirit! Let’s get your future divined!”

“You mean, 'Let’s divine your future.'”

“Whatever ya say, ya grammar legate.”

____________________________

A short time later we arrived at Tekash’s house on the outskirts of town just inside the wall. It’s simple design made with the base of a concession stand reinforced with driftwood, metal beams, and wrapped in strange, out of place vines that I had no idea how to identify. To be honest, I was actually pretty nervous and wondering if this was such a good idea.

This was actually the first time I had ever seen a zebra in person. I was actually surprised he didn't have fangs or glowing red eyes. Of course, I had had fangs and glowing green eyes last night, so could I really judge anypony for that anymore? My tongue poked the back of the newly grown fang in my mouth, hoping that it had disappeared. I was yet again disappointed.

You must be wondering how I had never met a zebra in real life before. I had been only three years old when the Wonderbolts Incident occurred and the minor trade disputed took its first major steps towards erupting into the full out war that had destroyed the world. After that, Canterlot had pretty much became a no zebra zone and Equestria's zebra citizens were moved to camps and towns delegated just for them.

Now I was about to step foot into the home of a creature I had been told my entire life had no redeeming qualities and stood for everything ponykind opposed, but for some reason Shadowbuck, Check, and the citizens of Gigaton seemed to accept and respect him. Could zebrakind have changed for the better in the Wasteland while ponykind had obviously degraded? Or...

“Don’t tell me you're getting cold hooves, Fire Flanks?” Check asked, appraising me over the rims of her sunglasses.

“N-No!”

“Okay. Then I guess you ya won’t mind if I do this,” she said before knocking loudly on the shack’s aluminum door.

“Okay, Aria. Open mind. How bad can Tekash be if so many ponies like him? Exception that proves the rule, maybe? Or perhaps he was raised by ponies and that tempers the evil in his zebra heart? That could be an explanation, right?”

“Or he’s fooling all of these gullible, stupid ponies into believing his lies,” the Nightmare hypothesised.
Before I could think up any other explanations to calm my nerves, the door opened a crack and Tekash peaked through with half lidded green eyes.

“Oh, Checkers, is there some problem or deviation? Are the totems not cleansing the town of the radiation?” Tekash asked in a thick zebra accent and the rhyming speech pattern his race was known for. That did nothing for my mood or my preconceptions of Gigaton’s resident shaman. “And I see you have brought a friend. I’m am Tekash, I hope I did not offend.”

“Cut the rhyming, Tekash. She doesn’t need to be sold on anything. I already talked her into getting a reading. My treat. Aria, this is Tekash. Tekash, this is Aria, the Nightmare Knight. ”

That got his attention.

“The Nightmare Knight? Please come in,” Tekash said plainly, losing the accent and rhyme scheme altogether.

“Okay, that was weird.”

I followed check into the main room of the altered amusement park booth, its furnishing mostly comprised of red curtains, shelves covered in strange brews and totems, and a black table covered in strange, green glyphs of unknown origins, but most likely they were zebra.

“So you want me to give the Nightmare Knight a reading, huh? I’d usually say no since her affiliation with Nightmare Moon would be a bad omen.”

“It’s just a name that radio DJ gave me because I wear Lunar Guard armor,” I spat. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Settle down, girl. Let’s just keep things friendly,” Check said, putting a hoof on my shoulder. “But ya don’t got a problem with that, do ya?”

“I guess not. Howling Buck and DJ-Pon3 can be a little sensational at times,” he said with a shrug before taking a seat on the other end of the arcane table. Gesturing to the other seats, Tekash smiled. “And no charge. You did brave the Ministry Hub to get the town the key to saving it, so it’s the least I can do.”

“See, Aria? I told ya he was a good buck,” Check said righteously. Why didn’t my glare work on mares?

“Can we start so we can get this over with?” I sighed. Tekash gave me an unsettling smile before a deck of cards appeared in his left hoof.

“I told ya he was good, Fire Flanks,” Check said, nudging me in the side while giving me a smirk.

“It’s just a simple sleight of hoof trick. It’s not real magic.”

“Ah! So we have a skeptic? Allow me to show you the power granted by the spirits of old, Nightmare Knight Aria,” Tekash said, fanning out the cards across the table, face down. Then, with a simple tilt of his hoof, he deftly flipped all the cards to reveal a deck unlike any I had ever seen. It had a few of the standard suits and images of a tarot deck, but two cards drew my attention.

Devil and Death.

While having Celestia and Luna as Sun and Moon were normal across all cultures, even the zebra, this deck had two alicorns I had never seen depicted before. Death, a white alicorn mare clad in black robes and carrying a long scythe, and Devil, a black alicorn made completely of shadow, his glowing red eyes staring back at me.

But with another turn, the cards flipped back face down so Tekash could join the deck together, split it into two stacks, and flip one stack backwards before shuffling the two back together.

“That’s an odd tarot deck,” I said, as he started setting cards face down across the table.

“It has been in my family for countless generations. It is said my ancestors were priests in the Summersand Isles,” he said as he placed the final card and folded his hooves in front of his face, watching me intently.

“Um, okay?” I asked, unsure of what the relevance of such ancestry actually meant.

“Then I shall begin the ritual,” he said with a smirk, closing his eyes and fanning his hooves over the cards. “Oh great Dream, Lord of the Unseen World, grant me the sight to see the many fold destinies and divine their true purpose.”

“What?” I thought, my eyes widening in surprise as the cards let off a soft glow and an ethereal chill ran down my spine.

“He knows about Dream!”

“Oh, this is the real cool part,” Check murmured softly, but I nodded. I couldn’t see anything to point this trick as just a simple ruse or magician’s illusion. I dare not touch the cards to see if there was some sort of film to cause the glowing, but I couldn’t see any form of black light or hex flame to cause this reaction.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Oh great Timestream, Lady of the Sands of Fate, grant me the power to pierce the sapphire veil and cross the swirling vortex of your domain,” Tekash continued, and I swallowed hard. That was two Eternals he had just mentioned, and that sapphire veil and swirling vortex sure sounded familiar to me. “Of the Seven from the stars above, grant me sight beyond sight. Of the Six whose power is known, grant me strength. Of the One from Below, be gone from this place. Of the power of Destiny itself...”

Suddenly a gale of wind threw open the door and rushed past us, howling an unknown song, and three cards flipped over to reveal The Fortune, The Empress, and The Hermit. Tekash opened his eyes, a soft smile crossing his face that unnerved me more than the occult display Check and I had just witnesses.

“Are you ready to delve into your past, Nightmare Knight Aria?” Tekash asked, his voice somber and hushed.

Part of me wanted to find out how he had pulled off such tricks since he wasn’t a unicorn, but the invoking of Dream and Timestream during the ‘ritual’ had left me a little shellshocked so all I could do was nod. I didn’t believe he could tell me anything about my past, most likely it would just be vague ‘predictions’ of a charlatan fortune teller, but for now my skepticism was put in check by the mention of two of the divine beings that seemed to be playing an unknown game with my life.

“Three cards of your past in reverse, an odd combination. The Fortune is upside down, revealing to me that your life should have been one of privilege, but instead was one of poverty. Whether it was true poverty or one of love or spirit, I do not know,” he said, before looking into my eyes and bowing his head. “Although I sense the poverty was one of love.”

“I didn’t know you had it so rough, Aria,” Check said, putting a foreleg around my shoulder.

“That’s just coincidence, Aria. Nothing more that vague platitudes,” I told myself. It was all a part of the trick.

“The Empress is in reverse, telling me you were stripped of a role of power and leadership while the Hermit tells me you are alone in our world,” Tekash added.

“She’s got Melody and Compass, Tekash. I think your mojo’s a little off today,” Check added before whispering. “And ya got me too, if ya need a friend.”

Tekash simply gave me a knowing smile before touching the next card. As he turned the first, three others flipped with it even though they were not touching.

“I see your family. I see the warrior, standing stronger in your defense. A brother perhaps?”

“Golden Star...” I whispered before shaking myself out of my shocked revery. The Warrior being a father or brother was a simple association. He had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. He moved his hoof to three cards that had flipped onto each other, pulling the face down card underneath The Sun and Moon cards and placing it on top of them.

“Next I see the Twins, the family beyond your reach within The Sun and The Moon. This I do not understand.”

“Damn! You’re good, Tekash. Aria here’s a bonafide princess. Cadence was all over her and Melody for being related to Celestia and Luna.”

“C-Coincidence. You just set this up since you probably heard about my connection to Queen Cadence,” I said dismissively, and Tekash shrugged.

“Believe what you will, Nightmare Knight Aria,” he said before pointing to the last card. “The Lovers in reverse where your parents should be. You never knew you mother and father, did you?”

My eyes widened and Tekash chuckled, obviously amused by my reaction.

“Would you like for me to divine some information on them?”

All I could do was nod.

Flipping one card, Tekash revealed the The Priestess.

“Your mother was a mare with a great passion for knowledge, a great love in her heart, and a hidden truth that even she did not know.”

“And my father?” I asked, moving forward in my seat before I knew what I was doing.

“Your father,” he said, turning another random card and his breath caught. There it was. The Devil, his hateful green eyes staring back into my soul.

“The Devil? What the hell does that mean?” Check asked, her gaze passing back and forth between Tekash and myself.

“That her father was a stallion with great darkness in his heart. A deceiver and betrayer. He was one who was beyond redemption,” he said, returning his gaze to match my own. “I am sorry for this.”

“I...” I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to believe a word of this reading, but the longer it went, the more truth Tekash was able to divine from simple pieces of paper. My mother had studied Mathematics here in Trottingham when she was younger and had even furthered her education in Manehatten University; it was where she had met Starshine. Golden Star was The Warrior and The Sun and The Moon with the Twins had to represent Luna. Plus there was the whole lost privilege and alone in this world thing.

So could it be possible that he was right here too? Could my father have really been some horrible pony who deceived my mother? Or worse... Could the reason my mother said she never cheated on Starshine, but I wasn’t Starshine’s daughter be that she had been raped and was too ashamed to admit it? Could my father have raped my mother?

“I’m so sorry, Aria,” Check said, giving me a little squeeze that I barely felt through my shock. If my father was this horrible person, then who was Guardian Heart? I shut my eyes tight and fought the urge to scream.

“Damn it! Why did Dream have to show me that vision!? Why is this all so confusing!”

“I just want answers, damn it!” I shouted without realizing it and thrust my hooves over my mouth.

“Then answers I shall give for the cards will tell me your future. May it be better than your past,” he said. Flipping one card so that four more turned over as well, he stopped and stared once more, wide eyed and shaking his head. For the longest time he kept staring at the card while occasionally looking up at me and muttering something under his breath. Justice was upside down next to Death and The Judgment was on top of The World in reverse while the card before me revealed The Star. “No... No. This is not possible.”

Looking up at me, his eyes suddenly becoming darker and filled with a mixture of fear and hatred, he snarled.

“Get out,” he said in a low, angry tone.

“What?”

“I said get out! Be gone!” he said, raising his voice and leaping from his seat to point towards the door.

“Tekash! What the hell? This ain’t like you one bit! What’s got you so spooked!”

“I never believed the old tales, but the signs are here. The cards point to it. She is the one spoken of in prophecy, the one who only brings destruction.”

“I almost gave my life saving this stupid city!” I shouted, jumping to my hooves and letting my chair clatter down behind me.

“There is a great rage in you. Of this I am certain. You are she,” Tekash said angrily, his nose twitching more and more as his fury grew.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Tekash? Let’s just calm down you two,” Check said, trying to defuse the bomb that was already exploding in her face.

“The signs are here and in her eyes. The Nightmare Knight is the daughter of lies. As Nightmare Moon in whom she serves, destruction is all that she yearns. To zebrakind you are known near and far as the blighted Maiden of the Stars,” Tekash said.

“Not this bunch of horse apples again!” I scoffed. The zebra back in my time had called Princess Luna the Maiden of the Stars and used it as some sort of rallying cry in the war. It was a bunch of bullshit used to spread fear and make the zebra forces almost fanatical on the battlefield. I wasn’t going to stand for this slander.

“I see the balefire in your eyes and you served the Nightmare Mo-”

“Don’t you call her that, you dirty savage!” I screamed, wrapping him in my telekinesis and throwing him into the far wall.

“You are not of our world, but of the last! The cards have spoken! Death will come to Justice, tyranny shall reign, and dark judgment will befall our world and be destroyed! You are the Avatar of the Stars, the Maiden of Destruction! You were born to bring about this world’s destruction, Aria the Nightmare Knight!”

“Look around you, you damn stripe! Your kind already did that!”

“To stop the last Maiden from doing it first!”

“That’s the biggest load of-”

“Guys! Stop fighting! Tekash! Stop it! Aria’s not like that!”

“The Maiden is a deceiver, Check. How long have you know this girl? A day? Yet you are in her thrall already. Turn back or you will be one of her victims!”

“Enough!” I screamed, tossing him through the far wall and into a bedroom in the back. Crumpling against his bed, Tekash lifted his head to smile at me.

“You know it to be true,” he coughed. “You will destroy this world, Nightmare.”

“Sounds good to me,” she replied.

“No!” I screamed, picking him up again.

“Stop it! Both of you!” Check screamed and an apple grenade appeared next to both of us. The one near Tekash was a yellow banded stun grenade, but the one floating in front of my face was a blue banded, magic disrupting grenade. “Aria! Put him down! Tekash! Apologize!”

“Don’t listen to her. End him!” the Nightmare ordered, but the grenade made me pause. That kind of grenade at close range could shut down my magic all over again and leave me weak and useless. After two days without magic and almost dying multiple times because of it. I needed my magic to survive.

Turning, I stormed out the door. I had been right all along. That zebra was just like I had been told, a superstitious, lying, monster. They were hateful creatures who didn’t deserve to live and I had been right. That Maiden of the Stars crap was all just a bunch of zebra hoodoo. It wasn’t real magic or divination either.

Then why was I so spooked by his prediction? Was it because he knew about Dream? Or maybe because of what I had become yesterday. Or...

“Me?”

“Shut up!”

“Aria! Wait up!” Check shouted as she rushed out of Tekash’s shack to catch up to me. I turned a corner, hoping she took the hint and wouldn’t bother me, but instead she kept following. “Aria! Stop!”

“What!?” I shouted, spinning around on her. “What do you want? To tell me to give that stupid striped jerk another chance!? To let him tell me that Princess Luna was some monster and that I’m some demon?”

“Aren’t we? Well, by their standards?”

“Aria...” Check said, trailing off and looking away from me.

“I thought so.”

I turned away again, not knowing where I was going, but I wasn’t really in any kind of mood right now.

“Wait. Can we talk about this?” Check asked, placing her hoof on my shoulder again.

“What’s there to talk about. You were wrong. That zebra is everything I was ever taught about and worse. I can’t believe you would have sex with something like that,” I snarled, brushing her hoof off me.

“I-I don’t know what got into Tekash. He’s not like that. And... I just wanted to find something to fill that hole in my heart,” she said, her voice shaky. I turned to see tears streaming down her face.

“Check?” I asked as the anger in my heart started to melt away. Something about seeing this strong and confident pony breaking down in front of me made it hard for me to stay angry. “What do you mean?”

“I-I just want to be loved by somepony. I want to feel loved again. Like before...” Check sniffed. Taking off her sunglasses to wipe her tears, she revealed thick scars under her eyes. They followed the crease of her eyelids and looked as if somepony had tried to rip her eyes open by force. There was some fading, which I guess meant it had been many years ago, but the sight of those scars were pretty disturbing.

“What happened to you?” I asked, taking a step towards her.

“It... I don’t want to talk about it, but I... I’m sorry for bringing ya there, Aria. Please don’t be mad at me,” Check pleaded, replacing her glasses while trying to compose herself.

“Why? Why do you even care about what I think of you? Why are you so obsessed with me?”

“Because of what Tekash told me,” she said, rubbing the back of her right forehoof nervously.

“What did he tell you?”

“That... that I’d meet a mare with fire in her eyes, marked by lightning and flames, who would lead me to the love that would fill the hole in my heart. The love I would find in the last place I’d look to find it,” she explained before looking up over her glasses at me. “I think a mare from Stable Sixty-Three would be the last place I’d ever look.”

“Check... I don’t like mares like that. I’m not the pony for you. I can’t fill that hole in your heart. I wish I could...”

“Ya do?”

“Yeah... I-I never knew my parents. My family all but abandoned me except my grandmother and brother,” I admitted, feeling almost seventeen years of hurt bubbling up inside me and flowing out of my mouth.

“And ya have Melody,” Check said, trying to give me a reassuring smile while fighting back her own pain.

“And Melody.”

“Come here,” Check said, taking me into a completely platonic hug that I really needed and I’m sure she needed too.

“Maybe we can help each other,” Check whispered in my ear.

“Yeah...”

“And if you’re worried about being the Maiden of the Stars, I can help ya with that Maiden part too,” she laughed.

“No! Bad pony!” I shouted, breaking the hug as I started punching her on the shoulder.

“I’m joking! I’m joking!” she giggled. “Come on! I couldn’t resist! That was too good a joke to pass up!”

I growled at her, but ceased my pummeling while giving her my best glare. Yet again, it was completely useless against Check’s feminine anti-stare barrier.

“Come on. Don’t give me that look! How about we head over to Moorheart’s and I treat ya to a drink. What’s your poison?” Check asked, pulling me back down the road towards the bar.

As we started walking away, I took one last glance back at Tekash’s shack to see the zebra staring at me from his doorway. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t afraid of me, he actually seemed... sad?

“Zebra are crazy!” I thought, returning my attention to the road ahead. “Just push it out of your mind, Aria. That stripe was just that, a stupid, superstitious, primitive idiot.”

As we reached the bar, I looked up at the windows and makeshift balconies wondering which room Melody and Compass were in. Then I remembered what they were doing and had a new dark thought running through my mind, fighting for control of my subconscious nervous energy. As we stepped into the dimly lit tavern, I spied Shadowbuck, Boom, Backdraft, and Buzzsaw sitting around a table, their attentions focused on the beers in front of them and their voices hushed in reverence. I lifted a hoof to get Shadow’s attention until I suddenly felt another chill run down my spine. A colt whispered into the back of my mind again, stopping me cold.

“Mama. Where are you, mama?”

______________________________________________________________

Footnote: Level Up

New Perk: Spell Alacrity: The initial AP cost for casting spells is reduced by -10.

Quest Complete: Why I Learned To Love The Bomb.

Author's Footnote: Special thanks to my editor/pre-reader Chimpso for the help with editing. I'd also like to thank Volrathxp for the story recommendation and to Somber for letting me use her 'Maiden of the Stars' idea. The side story for the writing contest and life in general delayed this one, but I hope you enjoy it. Thanks again for reading and I hope to see all of you again for Chapter Nine - Into The Heart Of Darkness.

Chapter Nine - Into The Heart of Darkness

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Chapter Nine - Into The Heart of Darkness

“Nightmare Moon is gobbling Pipsqueak! Everypony run!”

“What was that?” I asked Check as Shadowbuck noticed me standing in the doorway and raised a hoof in return.

“That was a hoof wave. It usually means, ‘Hey, come on over and sit with me.’ Let’s go,” Check explained while rolling her eyes and pulling me towards the Brotherhood of Steel’s table.

But that wasn’t what I was asking. That colt’s voice couldn’t have come from inside the bar, everypony here was at least in their mid-to-late teens, and I was suddenly aware of the fact that I had heard that voice once before. I had thought it was just my brain firing off some random crap as I was drowning in the Trottingham River, but that time it was a lot clearer and I wasn’t on Death’s doorstep.

“Does Death have a house? She’d have to have one to have a doorstep. Or at least an apartment. Everypony says that somepony is on Death’s doorstep when they’re dying. But ponies also say that there’s a Sandmare, but I know he’s a Sandstallion. Maybe-”

“I think she’s stuck in her head again? What are you thinking about now, Aria?” Shadowbuck said with a sad smile. That was when I realized that we were standing in front of their table. When had I walked over?

“I call’em ‘Aria Moments.’ Ya really need to loosen up and get outta your head more often, Fire Flanks,” Check laughed before nudging me towards an open seat next to Shadowbuck while she took the seat on my other side.

“Does she do that often?” Backdraft asked after downing his mug of beer.

“Every now and then,” Check replied.

“You do realize I’m right standing right here?” I asked as I sat down.

“No, now you’re sitting,” Boom joked. I can let you know right now that he got the glare and it still worked. I think my hypothesis about it only working on stallions was true. “Sorry.”

“What were you thinking about now, Aria?” Shadowbuck asked before taking a sip of his beer.

“Oh...” I had to think fast. I couldn’t tell them that I was thinking about a strange voice in my head.

“Don’t you mean ‘another strange voice?’”

“Bulletstorm...” I blurted before looking down at the table, ashamed. I couldn’t believe that I had said that. I was lying through my muzzle about something so sensitive to Shadow and the other Brotherhood members just to cover up my steadily increasing insanity.

“I understand. You feel guilty that you couldn’t save him and the other knights and scribes, but you shouldn’t. You and your friends were in an impossible situation and you still brought Shadowbuck, Melody, and Compass back alive and completed your mission,” Star Paladin Buzzsaw replied. I looked up and everypony was giving me small smiles and nods of respect that I didn’t deserve. I felt a hoof on my shoulder and realized Shadow had taken me into a half bodied hug.

“You saved me and almost died . I’m sorry for what I said, and I’m sorry we couldn’t save Tar Hoof. You have nothing to be sorry for, Aria,” Shadow said solemnly. I would have been blushing intensely, but curiosity overwhelmed my social anxieties.

“Tar Hoof?”

“That was Bulletstorm’s real name. Like I said, we Brotherhood members honor our dead with their real names when they die honorably in combat.” He then lifted his half empty glass to the rest of the table. “To Paladin Tar Hoof, the best little brother we could ever have!”

“Here here!” Buzzsaw and the others shouted before completing the toast and downing their beers.

“Do you want some wine, Aria?” Shadow asked, his eyes dilated and his words slurring slightly. He also wasn’t taking his hoof off my shoulder.

“Are you drunk?”

“If you can get drunk after being thrown through time, I can get drunk after losing my brother,” he snapped. “So do you want some wine or not?”

“Thrown through time?” Check asked.

“Um, I, uh...” I stuttered, but, by the grace of my aunts, a voice interrupted over the speakers set up around the room.

“Alright everypony, we got a special treat for ya. Mando wants to play a song to honor Bulletstorm and the Steel Rangers who were lost so would you kindly shut your traps?” a gruff male voice ordered as an earth pony stallion with an orange mane and yellow coat walked out onto the stage at the front of the bar. To my surprise, the rowdy room full of drunk Steel Rangers, Wastelanders, and even the odd Queen’s Courtpony fell dead silent before this unassuming pony with the guitar on his back.

“Hi guys,” Mando said into the microphone as he unslung his guitar and put a shoe with a guitar pic on his right hoof. As I watched him, I couldn’t help be reminded of the little filly in Philharmonica Instruments; this stallion and Keynote even had similar guitar themed cutie marks. “I remembered that Bulletstorm always said this song reminded him of his dad and Shadowbuck’s mom so I figured I’d play it since it was one of his favorites. Check, would you join me for the female vocals?”

“Oh yeah, sure!” Check said excitedly and rushed onto the stage, completely forgetting about her question.

“Alright, you all know this song guys so sing along if you want to. This is 'A Long Way From Equestria,' Mando said into the microphone.

A few of the patrons gave clops of applause or a hoot of appreciation, but all fell silent as the pic on his right hoof plucked that first string. An arpeggio of lovely notes flowed from his guitar and, like magic, every face in the crowd took on a sad smile. I marvelled at the musical skill of the earth pony and the effect his music had on the hardened citizens of the Trottingham Ruins, but I was overwhelmed by the emotion pouring out of him as he began to sing.

He was different from the rest of the world
He chose the lovely every time
With a smile, he would bravely soldier on
Yeah, was that such a crime?

“No,” I thought, shaking my head.

He did not wear cynicism well
He chose the lovely every time
And they cut him down, the world cut him down
Yeah being peaceful was his crime.

And I don't understand
The way we all behave
In this world of ours.
This world we live in...

On that last line, Check joined in, adding her own melodious voice to his, and before I knew what was happening, the crowd began singing along.

We're a long way from Equestria
We're a long, long way
We're a long way from Equestria
A long, long, way

As their voices lifted up those four simple lines, I could already feel the tears beginning to fall. This world, the Equestrian Wasteland, was such a long way from the Equestria I had known as a child. It was even too far flung from the wartime Equestria I had left only a few days ago. This world was horrible and violent and more like the decaying corpse of a once beautiful and magical land than the shadow that some would call it.

I felt Shadow’s foreleg around my shoulder and began to appreciate its weight and embrace as I felt bittersweet memories of my lost homeland flowing out of me through my tears. Playing with Golden Star when he had leave to visit or reading a book under a shady tree in the castle gardens where no pony could find me. Or of that fateful night with Princess Luna. I leaned into Shadowbuck as he sang along, his voice strong though he was crying just like me. I could imagine thoughts of his mother and of Bulletstorm being brought to the surface by this song of loss and hope.

The second verse began with Check leading the vocals, her voice strong and beautiful. She looked natural on stage; it was as if she were born to be adored by cheering fans. Watching the flirtatious demolitions expert up there now, I wished she had been born in my time. Back in my Equestria, a pony as charming, funny, and talented as her would have been a star like Sapphire Shores or Sweetie Belle and she would have found the love she so desperately needed. But as the song said, we were a long way from Equestria.

This was the Trottingham Ruins, but here in Moorheart’s Tavern we were singing against the darkness the Wasteland brought to it.

She dared to love everybody
Yeah, she was nothing but kind
And the world told her she was wrong
Yeah, There must be something wrong with her mind

And she was just a child amongst thieves
Just a child looking for love
Yeah all the grown ups in the world told her she was wrong
To believe in something we're all dreaming of

And I don't understand
The wicked things we do
In this world of ours...
This world we live in...

The chorus renewed and there were very few dry eyes or closed lips in the room. Even I was singing, my horrible voice and tone deafness thankfully drowned out by the choir of Wastelanders as they impersonated angels for this one song. Before they were mourners, scavengers, and ruffians and afterwards they would probably return to that way of life, but for this one song they were a choir of hope and love.

I will never give up the fight.
I will never surrender to the hate
I know this world ain't perfect at all
But the world is just what we create

So let's make love,
Let's make friends,
Let's take time to make amends,
Let's make the world more like Equestria.

I remembered Golden Star’s words and his promise of a day of sunshine and rainbows to come. The way he said for me to keep on fighting resonated with the words of this one song and I couldn’t stop crying. Shadow held me and the Brotherhood of Steel continued their ode to their fallen brother. I even saw Melody and Compass walk up, a look of worry on my friends’ faces, but as the song came to a close and Melody moved over to check on me, another pony stepped in between us.

“It really is you isn’t it, Aria Star?” he asked, and Melody gasped. My eyes widened at the sight of him, his pale skin was tight and rotting at some points while his left eye was surrounded by a dark brown spot while an eyepatch covered his right. He was wearing a sailor’s jacket and a red bandana around his almost non-existent brown mane.

“Who are you? How do you know our last name?” Melody asked, her left wing slowly moving closer to her holster.
“A friend. Everyone calls me Howling Buck,” he said with the same gravelly voice that had just spoken over the loudspeakers.

“The DJ?” Compass asked, but his question was immediately drowned out the laughter coming from the Steel Rangers.

“Buck, you old son of a bitch! What are you doing down from your ivory tower?” Star Paladin Buzzsaw asked drunkenly, jumping to his hooves and slapping the gh