Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate

by Sprocket Doggingsworth

First published

A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand. She must learn to balance her life at home with her life on the other side of the veil, and fight to preserve her own sanity, and her own innocence.

She discovers that such a task is only possible through the magic of friendship.

The Wasteland

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PROLOGUE

There's always the bomb - the megaspell that's destined to obliterate Equestria. When I first saw the Wasteland in my dreams, I thought it was my job to stop it. To stop the war, to stop the megaspells, to stop us ponies from becoming the monsters I saw in visions of our dark future.

The trouble is: I can't stop it. Nopony can. You can change the future; you can change the present. Rumor has it that, with the right spells, you can even change the past, but some things simply won't budge. The apocalypse, sad to say, is one of them. It is going to happen. No matter what you do, the doomsday clock just keeps on ticking.

There's always the bomb.

* * *


BOOK ONE
THE GREAT ESCAPE


* * *

CHAPTER ONE – THE WASTELAND
"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." -T.S. Eliot

My story starts where so many other stories get started, and so many beginnings get begun - the quest for a cutie mark. What sets my experience apart from others' is that when I finally did achieve my cutie mark, it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It's supposed to be the happiest time in your childhood. You discover your purpose, your meaning, the one thing in the whole wide world you do better than anypony else.

Not me. I still don't know what the stupid symbol means.

Here’s the thing, though. That confusion wasn’t what made me miserable. Sure, it sucked, but it was a cover up – an excuse. What really ate at me was my secret life. I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really just wanted to be like every other kid.

I didn’t realize that that was what I wanted until the complete opposite happened. I found the Wasteland, or rather, it found me. I had to pass through every fire in Hell to do it, but I came out with a picture on my flank.

I was a totally changed pony, but I wasn’t sure it was for the better.

* * *

You see, I'd spent months trying to figure out what my special talent was. I wanted to be the first in my class to get one, so I laid out a plan. Have you ever noticed that a lot of ponies' names are pretty much just descriptions of their cutie marks? Well, I did, but nopony believed me, so while everypony was off joining clubs and sports and pursuing bizarre and irrelevant interests, I started right with my name - Rose Petal. I mean, that had to be it, right? Think about it! I looked almost identical to my sister Roseluck, except for the yellow, white, and pink streaks running through my red mane – all the different colors a rose could possibly be. It didn’t take a genius to figure out my destiny.

"Sis," I said. "Can you teach me to garden?"

She spat out her tea at the mention of it.

"Um…Are you sure?" She said, dabbing her chin with a napkin. It concealed her awkward smile.

I just grinned widely and nodded. My smile was cute enough to make a squeaky sound, so I knew I had her wrapped around my hoof.

Roseluck stared me down for a good long while, furrowing her brow, stroking her chin for dramatic effect as she silently weighed me with her eyeballs.

"Well," She said at long last. "If you really want to give it another try."

"I do! I do!" I bounced around her in circles.




After breakfast she led me into the garden - a cathedral of roses of every conceivable color. Bushes guarded the corners of each walkway like temple statues, or those big kitties I’d seen pictures of perched at the entranceway to the Manehattan Public Library. I don’t know why, but I pet them as I passed by, even though they were just regular old bushes. I even decided to name one of them. “Larry,” I called it, though I have no idea where the idea for the name came from. It just sounded like a funny word to me.

When you’re standing in Roseluck’s garden, great big vines arch over you from all directions - giant buttresses of flower. Sometimes, when the dew on the pedals catches the sunlight just right, it shines like a stained glass window. In fact, Roseluck says they're even brighter than Celestia’s windows, but she said we shouldn't tell Princess Celestia that, of course, because that's not very nice. Plus she's the princess and you don't say things like that to princesses. So far, I have not met any princesses, but if it ever does come up, I feel totally ready to be civil about the whole window thing.

Anyway, it was one of those stained glass window mornings. The sun was still low in the sky, the flowers were shining, and my sister was yelling at me again.

"Rose Petal, no!"

Before I knew it, the giant shears that I'd picked up were snatched right out of my hooves.

"But - but," I started to whine. A stern look zipped my lip pretty fast, and told me that that line of complaining wasn't going to get me anywhere. My poor sister looked exhausted. She tried to hide it, but she never was very good at that sort of thing.

"Why don't we start you out with…" Roseluck looked around at all of the various gardening tools, desperate for something she could give me that I wouldn't hurt myself with.

"Relax." I threw on my smoothest smile. "I can handle myself."

"Oh! I know!"

A big old sack of soil plopped down in front of me. A cloud of dust burst out when it hit the ground.

"Dirt?"

This time it was her turn to give the adorable squeaky smile. Older sisters shouldn't be able to do that! It’s not fair.

"See? All you gotta do is stomp out the clumps until they're nice and soft."

"That's it?" I said dryly.

Desperate as I was, I really didn't want to end up with a cutie mark in dirt. Luckily, as it turned out, I was in no danger of that. No sooner had Big Sis disappeared into the shed to get some supplies than I found myself face first in a pile of soil, and covered with thorn scratches from head to hoof. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but it started with a garden hose I tripped on, a rake to the face, a whirlwind of I don't even remember what, and, well, let's just say it escalated from there. I am not a graceful pony.

Gardening was out. Check.

* * *

Over the months that followed, I volunteered to help out in just about every shop and farm. My friend Blueberry Milkshake came with me every now and again, but she wasn’t as passionate in her search as I was, especially after she found her own cutie mark which was, as you may have already guessed, a blueberry milkshake. To her credit, she tagged along for my sake, but I was the one who really threw my heart into it, and pitched in toward every local activity I could think of.

Except school.

I liked Miss Cheerilee and all, but I wasn't about to spend any more time in that big red house than I had to. I'm not crazy! At least I wasn't crazy yet. I didn't start losing my mind until the dreams started happening.

Anyway, on the night I got my cutie mark, Roseluck tucked me in as always, and I was reluctant to let her, as usual. It wasn’t ‘cause I was afraid of nightmares or anything like that. At that point, I didn’t have any idea what awaited me on the other side of the veil, and the only nightmares I’d ever had had involved being late for school, or dropping a pile of dishes in front of everypony I knew, or something to do with that bitch* Diamond Tiara.

(Okay, I’m really, really, really not supposed to use that word, but since neither Diamond Tiara nor Roseluck are ever going to read this, I might as well get it out of my system now. Diamond Tiara is the bitchiest bitch who ever bitched in from Bitch Street down by the Bitch District of midtown Bitchville. Why? Because she’s just that big of a bitch, and even her cutie mark indicates that her special talent is being a spoiled bitch. I bet she will die alone. She will die alone of being a bitch. There, I said it.)

“Time for bed.” My sister called out in a sing-songy voice. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to soothe or insult me, but I didn’t care. I was in too bubbly a mood.

“What about sandwiches?”

“Not before bed.”

“What about a story?”

“Another one?”

“The other story wasn’t about sandwiches.” I whined as I literally tried to leap out of bed. Roseluck pulled me back down and pinned me gently but firmly under the covers.

“You can’t have a sandwich so you want me to tell you a story about sandwiches.”

“Can the story have pickles on it? And mayonnaise?”

Roseluck didn’t bat an eye. She’s just that used to me. “Sure,” she said, on condition of my going to sleep afterward.

I don’t remember what the story was about. I just know it started with, “Once upon a time there was a sandwich named Ryelight Sparkle, who journeyed to Sandwichville to oversee the planning for the Summer Sandwich Celebration.” Then I fell asleep.

* * *

At first it was black. Black as black blackitty black black. Then I saw a blinding green flash, and heard the screams of millions of ponies. It was like having a chalkboard inside your brain with countless razors scraping against it, only worse because every scratch was actually somepony crying.

I think I screamed. Yes, I must’ve. But I couldn’t hear my own voice. At all.

The next thing I knew, I found myself shivering, huddled against cold brick on every side. Celestia only knows how long I had been crouched there. I don’t even think I realized I had been huddling – that I was even cold. I didn’t realize I was anywhere at all. I had totally shut down after the chalkboard-full-of-explosions thingy that had happened in my brain. It was only nostrils full of smoke that slapped me in the face and made me come to.




I opened my eyes. I was alive. Out in the cold somewhere, surrounded by brick, I must have been in a broken old chimney or something, but I couldn’t tell. It was too damn dark. Covered in ash and dust, I squeezed out of a hole in the side of the chimney, and wriggled on out of there, snagging my mane on the jagged bricks as I fell. A dry yelp climbed out of my throat. I rubbed my sore scalp. It was definitely night time, but it had to be like, the darkest night in the history of ever. Luna’s beautiful moon was gone. Just gone. That’s how thick the clouds were.

I looked for a fire to determine if I was in any immediate danger, but found none – only clouds of smoke wafting aimlessly across a field. I stumbled around, looking desperately for signs of life - a place I might recognize, any sign of civilization at all, but there were only silhouettes of twisted metal framework around, and partially crumbled brick walls.

“Hello?” I called out with a cough.

The dust in my throat probably saved my life. Everypony in the Wasteland knows you don’t just call out blindly like that. You’re a whole lot safer if whoever is out there doesn’t find you. But I didn’t know that. I wasn’t from the Wasteland, was I? I cleared my throat meekly and went out in search of water.

Stumbling out over brick and rocks, I made my way over a toppled wall, and came down with a big stupid clumsy crash. I rode the skin of my knee all the way down a nasty little pile of rubble, and came up crying. Again I was saved by a small miracle. As banged up and bruised as I was, the moment I looked up, I saw something that knocked the wind right the buck out of me, and actually made me forget for a while that I had a great big ol' bleeding knee.

Right in front of me was that touch of civilization I’d been looking for - a bit of familiarity. But I was sorry I’d found it.

A sign bigger than a cottage loomed over me - at least the parts of it that were in tact. There was a zebra depicted in the center - unlike any zebra I’d ever seen. Okay, so I’d only ever seen one zebra back in Ponyville, but she was nothing like this. The zebra in the picture had features so exaggerated that she was hardly recognizable as pony at all! Giant white teeth and eyes, more rings on her ears and neck than any actual zebra could fit on her whole body, and a bone driven straight through her muzzle. She lurked maliciously in the back room of a bookstore, cackling over a cauldron full of skulls. An entire battalion of strangely dressed royal guards seized her, and reached into her satchel, but even then, she didn’t seem to want to take her attention off of that skull pot. It was as though it would take a dozen of Equestria’s Finest just to take out a single zebra by the sheer malice of her personality, and terrifying Evil of her intent. Standing in the corner was a concerned citizen, smiling like a dope, hoof pointed nobly at the zebra’s direction, and a crowd of proud onlookers patting him on the back.

The caption on the poster, in gigantic yellow letters, read “IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.”

There was a lot about that picture I didn’t understand at the time, and still don’t understand today. All I know is that it was clearly designed for grown-ups. I mean, look at it! It would have to be.

Sitting there in the middle of a wasteland, staring slack-jawed at this crazy image, I was reminded of how stupid adults are. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t understand them. I hope I never have to. I didn’t know who drew that ridiculous thing, but I did know that you were supposed to look at that Concerned Citizen, and think he’s a swell guy – a bucking hero. I couldn’t. All I saw in him was the worst thing anypony in the whole wide world could ever possibly hope to be – a tattletale. Any kid in the world could look at that poster and tell you that, but grown-ups - a lot of them anyway - just aren’t too bright.

I turned it over in my head a while, but it was just baffling. I mean, sure, there was this zebra lady everypony was terrified of when I was little, but she turned out to be okay, and even if she hadn’t, we hid from her. We didn’t attack her! Ponies don’t do things like that.

That’s the thing I had the hardest time understanding. The poster was like nothing that anypony in Ponyville would ever have dreamt up in their wildest nightmares.

I mean, the gleam in that zebra’s eye was so evil that you couldn’t possibly feel anything for her. Like she wasn’t a real pony at all – just a caricature - a thing. I was in a world where Celestia’s guards could rummage through your bag just because you were funny looking and stripy. Nopony saw a problem with this. You were actually rewarded for turning on your fellow horse!

It was too bewildering.

No. I decided. Celestia’s guards would never do anything like this! Luna’s neither.

I didn’t know where I was, or how I would ever manage to get home, but one thing was absolutely certain – this place was some new kind of hell, and I wasn’t in Equestria anymore.

* * *

It was only when I stared at that poster for a good long while that it dawned on me how far away from home I really was. I backed away slowly in disgust, knocking crumbling hunks of brick into one another as I stumbled. Nothing I’d ever seen in Equestria had ever lead me to believe that such a thing would even be possible – this kind of recklessness, this kind of hate.

That darn poster was to blame! I wanted to tear it down, or throw a rock at it or…something, but sadly, I didn’t get the chance. Instead, my hoof caught on a metal wire jutting out from a broken wall fragment, and I found myself flat on my back.

As suddenly as I had fallen, I heard hoof steps, or more precisely, that rattling sound when a rock tumbles down a pile of other rocks. I laid myself back down again. Slowly. I didn’t know what had happened to the world in the poster – the world I had, in my own head, named Jerkland – but I sure as hay didn’t trust anypony around here – the descendents of those left around to tell the tale.

The rocks tumbled closer. I remained dead silent. I didn’t even know what I was afraid of. I mean, anypony I ran into would logically want to get away from there as much as I did! But still something inside of me screamed. Hold still, hold still, hold still, omigosh, what the hay is going on, hold still! For once in my life, I listened and was quiet.

Tiny pebbles and particles of dust kicked up by the strangers’ hooves started raining on me. They were that close. I heard no talking, just tedious stomping. I wasn’t sure how many of them there were, but they weren’t friends, and they weren’t enjoying each other’s company. Scared as I was, I found that kind of sad.

I lay there quietly. I didn’t scream. It didn’t occur to me to scream. I would have coughed, but it didn’t occur to me to cough either. It didn’t even occur to me to breathe. I just sat there listening to my own heartbeat thundering in my head, terrified that its stupid thumping would give me away.

Then a hoof stomped inches from my forehead, and I flung my eyes open in terror. I couldn’t help it. I thought it would be the end. They passed right by me. Just like that. Before the dust cloud started stinging and my eyes began to water, I caught a quick glimpse of them.

There were two bad guys, each wearing matching pink cloaks with yellow daisies on them. That sounds cheerful, but their robes were tattered and covered with blood. Not the red stuff you see when you first bang yourself up, but that black stuff you see when you throw away the bandage. Whatever these guys were up to, it didn’t seem to bother them that they had nasty crusty old blood on their robes. They surely woulda had time to wash it off. They just didn’t care. The thought sent shivers up my spine.

Draped over one of their backs was a colt just barely older than I was. His hooves were bound. There was fresh blood in his mane, and he was looking right the buck at me. I don’t know how he saw me, but he did. In fact, he downright lit up at the sight of me.

I squeezed my eyes shut and wrinkled my nose, desperate not to sneeze as the dust and ash settled in full force on my face. What in Jerkland was going on? Why were they towing around some kid? What were they going to do to him?
It didn’t even make any sense. Why?!

As I squeezed my eyelids shut to keep the dust out, I started to shake with anger. I had to squeeze down even tighter just to keep from crying or screaming. Right in front of me, something horrible was happening, and there was nopony around to do anything about it! I was powerless to stop this colt from getting – well, I didn’t know what they were going to do to him, but I knew I needed to stop the Jerks from Jerkland from doing it.

I opened my eyes again just in time to watch the strange boy’s head sink. I’d let him down. I’d done nothing. Nopony had ever looked at me like that before. I mean, sure Roseluck had been disappointed in me from time time to time, but this was not that “we are mad at you for stealing from the cookie jar and knocking over the cookie jar, and trying to cover it up by pasting the cookie jar back together and sweet Celestia, look at you, how did you even manage to get entire cookies pasted into your mane?” kinda disappointment. No. I gave that strange little boy a glimpse of hope for a tiny moment – maybe even the last feeling of hope he would ever know before they locked him up in a dungeon with no toys and no books and no friends (or whatever it was they were planning to do to him). I gave him hope. Then I broke his heart.

To make matters more confusing, I heard a voice just then. It sounded like my voice, but I have no idea where the idea came from at all. It just sort of surfaced inside my head like a bubble coming up in the middle of the ocean.

Follow them.” It said.

It sounded just like me.

Follow them, are you crazy?” I snapped back at myself. I also sounded just like me.

Follow them.” The voice repeated.

I watched the silhouettes disappear behind the billboard. I could still hear them, but the sound was still all shuffling, and no talking. The two cloak-headed meanies were definitely not friends.

But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was out of their line of sight, and I needed to find some kind of safety. I rose to my hooves, brushed myself off, and tip-hooved out of there. I wanted to run. I wanted to gallop wildly in the total opposite direction, but everything in Jerkland was equally awful all around, so I made my way across the most even ground, and tried not to kick loose any rubble.

I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do, but I knew that it had to involve moving. I may not have had the guts to charge after that poor boy, slung helpless over the cloak-head’s back, but I didn’t have the heart to let him out of my sight either.

Steadily, I made for higher ground. The bad guys had come from the other side of a hill. I hadn’t heard a peep from them till they’d emerged over the top. That meant that, whatever else I might find on the other side, there had to be ground that I could move on quietly.

Maybe there would even be a village or something!

Follow them.” I told myself again, but couldn’t figure out why.

Maybe the boy has parents over there.” I reasoned with myself.

Follow them.

There was a pale light on the other side. Maybe somepony could help!

Follow them.” The voice repeated firmly. It was still my voice. Why did I keep saying that?
The ground gradually became more earth and less rubble, so I broke out into a trot. The hill was steep, and I was already running out of breath. But I didn’t care. Anything to make the voice stop.

Follow them.” It said yet again, louder than before.

“Follow them,” I parroted what it said under my breath in a nasal sing-songy voice. Maybe if I teased it, it would go away.

It didn’t. The voice just repeated itself.

“For the last time,” I shouted inside my head as I broke into a silent gallop. “There’s nothing I can do to save him.” A few more steps and I would reach the top of the hill.

Then the voice replied quietly and calmly. “He’s not the one you have to save.

I stopped in my tracks, and looked back over my shoulder. “What?” I actually said aloud. No answer came.

I could see the bad guys down there, far past the billboard – their shapes anyway. If I’m not supposed to save him, what in the hoof was I supposed to do then? Just follow them and watch?

Watch him die? Is that what they were going to do? Could ponies actually do that? Kill each other? Even Jerkland couldn’t be that terrible a place. Sure, this place had a tarnished past. Hate. Fear. All that fun stuff I’d seen in that stupid poster – that air of wrongness I could still smell in the air 190 years later. (How did I know it had been 190 years?) But killing children? And I was expected to watch it?

I kept my eye on the figures moving slowly and steadily across a vast gray wasteland. I kept walking without looking where I was going; I was so intent on staring down those strangers. They were actually going to kill him.

For some stupid reason I had to follow them, not even to save him, but to save somepony else who I hadn’t even seen. I wanted to scream, but instead, I walked right into the remains of a cement wall. It only went as high as my scuffed up knee. I’d reached the top of the hill, and hadn’t even noticed. Immediately, I whipped around to see what life was like on the other side.

There was a village, alright. I wouldn’t be getting any help from them any time soon. It was only a blotch in the distance, but it was a blotch that was on fire. Nopony was stampeding around trying to put it out. Nopony was rushing in or out of buildings, because anypony who could possibly have cared about the fate of the village was already gone. There were only figures moving calmly and dutifully away, towing some sort of cargo – as if the fires didn’t faze them. The bastards had done it on purpose. This is what ponydom had come to in Jerkland.

Looking past the village, or what remained of it, I saw something far worse. It was a mountainside. Built against the side of it was the silhouette of a castle – a skyline that I’d seen pictures of before lit up by millions of magic lamps. There were no lights now. It was just a shadow, but its shape was positively unmistakable. I was looking at the ruins of Canterlot.

The dirt in my hooves, the ash in my face – it was us. Not a bunch of jerks from some far away land where jerkiness was somehow more possible than in Equestria. The dust was Equestria. I was home, and somehow, the jerks had been us all along.

The ground gave way beneath me.

I felt weightless for a moment before I realized that I was falling. Falling off some cliff or some precipice I must not have seen. Falling into some Celestia-forsaken darkness. Falling, falling, falling. I couldn’t see a damn thing, and all I could hear was the barking of angry dogs.

* * *

I found myself on the floor of my bedroom screaming. Roseluck came rushing in. She knelt beside me. “Rose Petal, Rose Petal, answer me.” She said, gripping me by the shoulders. It was the first real terror I’d heard in her voice since Dad left. “Rose Petal!”

Suddenly, I looked around. I was home. Actual home, not some weird future home where everything sucks and is covered in ponydust.

I was back in Ponyville. I reached out and touched Roseluck’s cheek with my hoof. She was real. She ran her hoof over my mane, not a clue what had happened, but clearly terrified for me.

I threw myself against her chest and finally allowed myself to weep. She didn’t say a word.

Good Ponies

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CHAPTER TWO – GOOD PONIES
“Freedom’s just another word for ‘nothing-left-to-lose’.” – Janice Joplin


I know what you’re thinking, O, Book of Weird Magical Things That Have Happened To Me. I promised you a story about my cutie mark. Relax. I’m getting to that. Sheesh!

The fact of the matter is, when I woke up, I had a lot on my mind, and my flank wasn’t exactly the first thing I looked at when I tumbled out of bed screaming.

Roseluck held me for a long, long time. She didn’t stop me to ask why I was upset. She just let me cry.
In my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy to see my sister as I was that morning. It felt so good to be safe again, but all good things come to an end. When I was finally ready, I pulled away.

“You done?” She asked as she bopped me playfully on the nose.

I smiled meekly.

“Good. Let’s get those knees cleaned up. I’ll be right back, okay?” She waited for me to nod, and wandered off in search of rubbing alcohol.

I had no idea why I was nodding or what she had been talking about, but when I looked down, I saw that I was bleeding all over the floor. Blood. On the floor. My blood. Coming out of my knees – the same exact knees I’d scraped in my dream!

When the realization came crashing in on me, I shrieked a good, long drawn-out vowel. (I can’t remember which one it was, but I am pretty sure it was an “e.”). At the end of it, I had just enough breath left over to whisper to myself.

“How is that possible?”

“You fell out of bed, kid. Banged yourself up pretty good.” Roseluck called out from the other side of the house.

How did she do that? Roseluck had no business being that good of a whisper-hearer.

I brought my knees so close to my face that I lost balance and toppled over. Lying there with my back against the floor, I still kept my eyes on my wounds. Ordinarily, I’d revel at how cool they looked, and imagine myself with boss scars that I could show off at the playground, but I was a bit more concerned by the fact that I hadn’t gotten the wounds from falling. They looked like the skin had been scraped clean off by tumbling down a mound of the sort of rubble you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Roseluck was out of sight, so I lifted the sheets off the bed and took a little peek. There was blood there too. Whatever had happened to my knees happened in the middle of the night.

Roseluck appeared with a bottle, some cotton, and a package of bandages. I flung the blanket back down over the bed the moment I heard her hoof steps, but it was too late. She saw the terror in my eyes. Thinking quickly, I threw on my poker face, which just so happened to be a pair of glasses I kept near the edge of the bed with an exaggerated nose and mustache attached to them.

“You don’t have to pretend.” She caught me off guard.

“I don’t?” I said.

“You think I don’t know you’re scared?” She said with a touch of sass. “Who you think you’re fooling?”

I let the glasses drop to the ground. “I’m frightened.”

“Of course you are, but it’ll be over soon.” She said.

“It will?” My spirits lifted. How in Equestria could she know that? Maybe she knew more! Maybe she could tell me it was all gonna be okay, and it actually would. Maybe she could fix this! Maybe she could save that colt in my dreams. Big sisters can do that sort of thing! I looked to her desperately for answers.

“Come on.” She punched me gently in the shoulder. “It sucks. It hurts, and you’re scared, but give me your knee, I’ll swab it, and it'll all be over in 30 seconds. I promise.”

She knew nothing. My heart dropped into my stomach.

How could she know anything? Who sees the world destroyed in their dreams, and wakes up with scars to prove it’s gonna be real? Nopony! That’s who. Things like that just don’t happen. Except that apparently they do, and they were happening to me.

“It’s all gonna be okay.” She said, unknowingly twisting the knife further.

There was no way she could say that, and know what it really meant. I looked up at Roseluck’s smiling, reassuring face, and I faked a smile right back.

“You’re right.” I said. “Hit me with your best shot.”

I hate lying to Roseluck, but she has enough to worry about without having to fret over a little sister who’s going bonkers. I smiled for her. I winced at the knee swabs. I gave her a hoof bump, and when all was said and done, I felt more alone than ever.

Note to self: destroy those sheets.

Of course, Roseluck wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t the only one who could tell that my cuts were strange, but she didn’t ask any questions. Not after holding me for so long, and letting me blubber away into her mane.

Instead, we shared an abnormally quiet cup of tea over an abnormally quiet breakfast, and after a long dark silence, she finally turned to me, and said, “Did you have a bad dream?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to…I don’t know, talk about it?” She slid closer to me. She was really trying. I desperately wanted to meet her halfway. I’d never felt so distant from my sister before. We told each other everything! But I’d almost died in that wasteland. I couldn’t stand the thought of her worrying.

“I’d like to.” I said honestly. “But not right now.”

She nodded. “I didn’t know what my cutie mark meant when I first got it either.” Said Roseluck. “It’s not supposed to be that way, but you’re growing up now. Sometimes the answer isn’t always as clear as you’d like it to be.” She patted me on the back, and turned to clear the table.

What was she talking about? I whipped around, and shot my ever-perceptive gaze at the sight of my own flank.

* * *

“Rose petals? Really?” I squeaked aloud.

“What?” Said Blueberry Milkshake. “It’s what you always wanted.”

I leaned in close as we walked. I didn’t want every kid on the long slow death march to the schoolhouse to overhear us.

“I wanted to know my purpose.” I barked at her in whispers.

“And you still don’t.”

I shook my head frantically. I had been all jerky and twitchitty like that all morning. I needed real sleep.

“Hey, kid, you okay? What happened to your knees?” Asked the sofa pony as we passed him, quills dangling from his teeth.

“Ahh!” I shouted back in return.

Sweet Celestia, I had had one hoof in the grown up world for less than an hour, and already I was starting to act tense. Like a grown up. It made me feel dirty somehow.

“Well,” Blueberry Milkshake chewed on her pigtails as we trotted down Mane Street. “What were you doing just before you got it?”

“Nothing.”

I hate lying.

“Whattaya mean nothing?” Asked Blue.

“Whattaya mean, what do I mean, nothing?” I said. “I mean I was doing nothing.”

Saying that out loud stung. I mean, what had I done to help that poor kid, when you got right down to it? Nothing.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Said Blue. “Ponies don’t just get cutie marks for standing around! Whatever you were doing right before it showed up – that’s gotta be...like, your destiny.”

She gestured to the sky - her natural awe for the mysteries of the cutieverse coupled with a rather artificial flare for the dramatic. Sooo not in the mood.

“I didn’t just stand around!” I snapped.

Silence. Even the birds seemed to stop chirping for a moment as they flew over us on their southward journey. Blueberry stared at me. She wasn’t mad. She just stared.

Damn it, Rose Petal, you went and worried her too!

“I’m sorry.” I said at long last, head hung low.

“It’s okay.” She put a hoof on my shoulder. A comforting moment followed by the first awkward silence the two of us had ever shared. Even as she tried to comfort me, I stared off into space and got right back to thinking about what I was going to do to stop the megaspell.

It must have seemed like I wasn’t even there with her. I had to be the worst friend in the History of Ever.

“I was asleep.” I said at long last.

She looked at me blankly.

“When I got the cutie mark. I just sorta woke up and…well…” I gestured to my flank.

“Oh.” She nodded reassuringly,

We walked on after that in a far more comfortable silence. It only lasted a moment, though, because out of the blue, she dug into the ground and threw her hoof in front of me.

“Hold perfectly still.” She demanded.

Blueberry leaned in to examine the image further, as if a close look would reveal something special about a cutie mark earned while unconscious. Honestly, I don’t know what she expected to find. They were just a couple of red, pink, white, and yellow rose petals.

“You must have dreamt it.” She added with the firm authority of a diagnosing physician.

She brushed my bird’s nest of a mane out of my face. “Didja do anything, you know, special in your dreams?” She asked gently.

My eyes drifted as far away from her as they could possibly get. I focused on a pair of clouds that looked rather a lot like sandwiches.

“I don’t remember.” I said.

An obvious lie. When I finally worked up the nerve to turn and face her, I was met with a cocked eyebrow.

“Girl, please.” She said, bobbing and weaving her head. “Talk to me.”

I never could figure out how she did that bobby-weave-a-majig with her neck. It made me smile. She deserved an answer, or at least some kind of hint about how I was really feeling. But the only feelings I could put into words were about those silly sandwich clouds. They used to make me so happy. They used to make me want to eat sandwiches. Now they just seemed like a bunch of stupid old clouds.

“Are ponies good?” I blurted out at long last.

“What do you mean?”

“Us. Ponies. We control the Sun, the Moon, the weather. But are we, you know…good? In our hearts?”

She didn’t laugh at the question like I thought she would. She actually stopped to give it serious thought. We both stared on down the road in silence, watching our fellow Ponyvilleans getting ready for their busy days.

“Yes.” She said. “I think so. At least when we want to be.”

Hmm.

* * *

I was like that all day. Thinky.

I hate being thinky. I’d much rather be talky, or better yet, do-y. But there was nothing I could do to make it alright, and there was nothing I could say either.

I made it through the gauntlet of students’ oooh’ing and ahhh’ing over my cutie mark. Would you believe that nopony at school even thought twice about the bandages on my knees? (Was I really that clumsy and predictable?) But after getting sprayed with more attention than I cared for over the stupid rose petals on my flank, I finally made my way into that big red house o’ learning, where boredom kicked down a wall in my brain and made way for a whole new wave of thinkiness.

First of all, sounds, smells, shivers of unexplained cold, the taste of stale wasteland air on my tongue – they all drifted in and out of my consciousness at unexpected times. I hate that! It was so jarring; I didn’t even know where I was half the time.

Perhaps under different circumstances, I would have liked to forget that I was sitting in school, but everything about what was happening to me just felt totally wrong. To make matters worse, I kept nodding off.

Every time I so much as blinked, I saw that damn boy from the wasteland staring at me in disappointment again. Sometimes it was just the memory, but occasionally, I saw him in different landscapes, asleep on the back of one the meanies, trudging under the pale light of what apparently passed for dawn in the sunless wasteland.

It wasn’t long before I grew to hate blinking.

“So you see, class, it was Smart Cookie, Clover the Clever, and Private Pansy who made the first Hearth’s Warming Eve possible.” Miss Cheerilee’s voice drifted to me in fragments from the front of the classroom. “Equestria was built on the friendship and unity of everyday ponies like you and me, because the leaders at the time refused to do the right thing.”

I saw the boy and his captors in different places – traversing over dead buildings, over dead fields. I let it all wash over me in one great big giant exhausting mess. Then suddenly, it occurred to me what I’d been seeing. Just like that! With all of the thinkiness going on, I’d missed the obvious answer – I was watching their journey. I was following them.

Was part of me still there in the wasteland?

Cheerilee must have read the epiphany on my face, because the next thing I knew, my name was being called.

“Rose Petal,” (She said, as you might have guessed).

“Huh? What?” I asked with my usual poise and charm.

Miss Cheerilee tapped her hoof impatiently. She was standing right over me, staring me down.

Buck! I thought. She expected me to answer a question. “Um…Three!” I said confidently.

She looked up to the ceiling for a moment as she contemplated my answer.

“I suppose so, yes, but what did those three do?”

Darn it, our math lesson was over! When did that happen? What in Equestria was she asking me?

I sifted through the pile of loose leaf scraps scattered over the surface of my desk. Maybe I had jotted a note down somewhere – a clue of what she might be talking about! The problem was that piles of smoking wasteland rubble would have looked tidy compared to the disaster area that was my desk.

Doodles, doodles, my name and date on an otherwise blank piece of paper, more doodles, the phrase “April is the cruelest month,” scribbled down for no reason at all on an old piece of homework, doodles, doodle, still yet more strikingly haunting doodles.

Darn it, what did she ask me?

“Um…Umm…” I said.

The class giggled.

“Three…uh…um…Well, you see, the three ponies, what they did was, like…” I was starting to wish that I’d died in the wasteland the night before just so I wouldn’t have to die of embarrassment there in class.

“That’s enough.” Said Miss Cheerilee, who shot the gigglers a stern look, but thankfully chose not to make an example of me.

I closed my eyes and sighed. I didn’t get any real relief out of it, though - just a picture in my head of a boy who needed my help.

* * *

I’d hoped recess would be better, but it was too cold. That weird time of year just after the Running of the Leaves, and just before the first snow of winter. Not cold enough to need hats and scarves or to have snowball fights, but cold enough to be uncomfortable. Still, I almost wish it had been just a little bit chillier. Roseluck always sent me out in scarves when I didn’t actually need them, which is all fine and good except for the fact that if I lost one of the stupid things, it would be my fault. Again.

We jumped rope – the girls and I. It helped me think, or stop thinking, rather. It gave me the chance to just chill with Blueberry Milkshake and do something normal.

“I, 2, 3, 4! Nightmare Moon don’t dark my door. 5, 6, 7, 8! Whatcha gonna do to set her straight? Jump! Jump! Hop-skip-jump. Jump-n-skip and jump-n-skip and hop, skip, jump.”

Ok, I didn’t so much jump rope as I stood next to Blueberry and some other filly, (I don’t even remember which), calling out numbers. The last time I tried to physically jump over a piece of rope, I tripped, lost control, and when all was said and done, I had a giant bruise on my forehead, and my tail didn’t grow back for a month.

The point is, the thinkiness didn’t go away, but the rhythm of the rope sure did muffle a lot of it, which was a nice relief because I still had no idea how the hay I was supposed to single-hoofedly stop the apocalypse. The sound of clapping hooves, chanting fillies, and rope smacking against dry grass worked so well to calm me that I made it almost halfway through play time before stumbling across something I didn’t want to see.

It wasn’t a vision. Not like those phantom shivers and mysterious smells. No. Over by the schoolhouse there was a big gray pegasus colt, except that he wasn’t acting big. He was cowering. I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, but I know it was nothing good because his back was up against the wall. Literally.

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had him flanked from both sides. They weren’t touching him, of course, or pushing him or anything like that. No. They were subtler than that, but trust me, what they were doing was torture. There’s a reason I called Diamond Tiara a bitch earlier.

‘Cause she is.

She has a way of getting under your skin with her words, her judgments – her presence. She and Silver Spoon had done it to all of us at some point or another, so I could spot it a mile away when I saw it happening to somepony else.

The boy looked me in the eye for half a moment and cringed - averted his eyeballs like he’d done something wrong. Why? I took stock of the playground around me. There wasn’t a single filly or colt who hadn’t been picked on at one point or another (usually by the same two bitches). But whenever it happens, we curl up. We hide. We think that everypony else is laughing at us, or worse, watching us with sympathetic eyes. ‘Cause seriously, what good is your pity when you’re just standing there gawking, or turning your back pretending like you didn’t see anything. All you’re really thinking is “Glad it’s not me this time.” Yeah, thanks for the sympathy.

When that pegasus boy turned away from me in shame, it all suddenly made sense. We are Jerkland. Not war-torn Equestria, not Equestria hundreds of years from now. Right here. Right now. Jerkland.

The entire schoolyard was full of deaf ears and conveniently turned blind eyes, and that’s how the world is going to end – in front of deaf ears and blind eyes.


It starts out just like a new bully in town. It tests the water. It sees if you’re willing to stick up for the zebras you don’t particularly like. Just one little jerk move, but you don’t do anything about it. Then comes another jerkface move, and it starts to get a little scary, so you hide some more like that’s gonna fix it. Like the bully doesn’t notice.

The thing is: everypony can see that the bully is pushing you to see how far you’ll go, but they hide too because they’re glad it’s happening to you and not them. Before you know it, the whole schoolyard is Jerkland and you’re twirling a baton at the head of your own personal pity parade.

I was wrong to suspect that ponies are Evil. We’re not. We are Good! We do good deeds; we try each day to be a little better than we were the day before. Quarrels resolved, the charity work the Filly Scouts put their backs into, the cooperative spirit of Winter Wrap Up, the all-healing hoof bumps of forgiveness between friends – awesomeness all around. We are good when we want to be.

But doing good isn’t enough sometimes. Good though ponies may be, we are also afraid, and what good is goodness if you’re too chicken to use it when it’s needed the most?

In my life, I’d been picked on more times than I could count, and in all those years, I couldn’t think of a single occasion when somepony stood up for me. Not one! Can you?

That’s the war in a nutshell. It’s not the tattletale. It’s not the armed guards storming the zebra’s storefront, or even the colt who drew the poster depicting the whole sordid scene for all to see. It’s the folks who got up out of bed every morning to a world where that was normal. The ponies who try to be good – want to be good – the ponies who know the war is wrong, and know that the treatment of zebras is more than a thousand million jillion times unfair, but don’t do a darn thing about it. Or even say anything!

I wanted to be mad at them – to scream at the stupid ponies who are going to let the war happen, but I couldn’t. They were just afraid.

The boy from the wasteland was dragged off by truly Evil ponies right in front of my eyes, and I had done nothing to stop because I was afraid.

Who was I to judge?

The really bucked up thing is that the kid (who’d probably seen his house burned down in front of him) had had hope that I might save him. Just because I was there. The big gray pegasus colt standing right behind me didn’t even have the slightest expectation that somepony might come to his aid.

Think about that! A post-apocalyptic bucking wasteland was a place where you had more cause to expect help from a stranger than a playground in our own perfect little town. It wasn’t right. I couldn’t let it be like that. Not after what I’d seen. I had to do something, I needed to…

Wait a minute. Why is he standing behind me?

I took a quick look around. I was standing in front of Diamond Tiara. Right in her face. I was yelling. When did that happen?! How did that happen?

“…And nopony likes you, Diamond Tiara!” I shouted. “You hear me? Not even Silver Spoon. She just hangs around you to feel cool.”

Silver Spoon blushed and shrunk back into the crowd. Shocked as she was, Diamond Tiara smirked at the knowledge that her approval made other ponies feel cool.

“But you’re not cool!” I continued. She did her best to hold the smirk in place, but I could see it twitching.

“Nopony thinks you’re cool. Nopony wants to be like you. Nopony gets up in the morning and says ‘Gee, I hope whatever I do today makes Diamond Tiara happy,’ because nopony wants you to be happy. If I think of you in the morning, do you want to know what I say?” I took a series of shallow, rapid breaths.

“I say ‘I hope Diamond Tiara doesn’t show up to school today because she caught fire and she melted into goo and smoke and melty stuff.'”

Tears were streaming down my face. My voice was cracking.

“And I don’t like being that pony – somepony who thinks horrible things, because I’m a good pony. And I want to be good, but I do think these horrible things, and I’ve been thinking these horrible things because I was afraid of you.”

I was already only a few feet away, so before she could dare crack a smirk at me again, I charged right up to her and stared her down. I mean really stared her down. I got so close that our eyelashes could have gotten tangled together if one of us had blinked wrong.

“And you think that makes you cool, but you’re not!” I cried. “You are everything that is wrong with the world and you will never ever ever know what it’s like to have a real friend. So a million years from now, when you’re old and sick and crazy and crying all the time, nopony in the world is gonna take care of you. Because. No. Pony. Likes. You."

At some point in all of this, either I’d gotten taller, or Diamond Tiara’s knees had started to bend as she shrank from my aggressive stare, because I found myself looking straight down at her. My voice curled up into a low growl. She was actually shaking.

“Because I hate you, Diamond. He hates you, she hates you.” I pointed my hoof at random kids in the crowd without taking my eyes off of Diamond Tiara, even to blink. “Every single pony in the entire school hates you, and you are going to die sad, bitter, and alone.”

Her knees buckled completely, and her body flopped limply on the ground as it shook.


Silence.

Even the wind shut the heck up long enough to listen to what would happen next.

But Diamond Tiara didn’t have a word to say in her own defense. I, on the other hoof, was panting so hard that I was losing my breath. I mustered up my last bit of strength to bend down further just to drive one final point home.

“I’m not afraid of you any more.”

Thundering heartbeat. Panting. Wheezing. I was a mess. Handled with dignity, class, poise, and grace, Rose. Well done.

I’d backed off, and was busy catching my breath, so she had risen to her full height by the time I held my hoof up, and spun around slowly. I had one last thing to throw out there.

“P.S. You suck.” My little addendum.

The entire class was gathered ‘round in a semi-circle. Staring at me. The wind was making noise again. It had apparently stopped listening, but nopony else had. I scanned the crowd. Snips, Snails, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, my friend Blueberry who watched fearfully from the greatest distance of all in the crowd – every one of them was staring at me.

Suddenly, the adrenaline came crashing down. I wanted to curl up and hide. Like I’d done something wrong.

Diamond Tiara must have read the terror on my face, because she finally shook off her own shock, and whipped out the smirk again. I lowered my head to try to escape their stares, but even when I turned around to face the other way, there stood the pegasus kid I had defended – tears running down his face, just like mine.

I’d scared him! I had become the schoolyard menace. Why does everything have to be so ironic?!

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. There must be words that exist for telling somepony you’re sorry that you tried to help them but actually just ended up scaring them because you’re nothing but a big dummy, but I couldn’t think of any words like that, so I just closed my eyes.

Yes, Rose. That will make them all go away.

I don’t regret stepping in, but I really wished that I would stop messing up every single thing I tried to do. It was starting to get old.

I squeezed my eyes shut as tight as they would go, hoping the whole scene would just go away. Then, out of the dark, I heard the sound of clapping hooves. Like drops of rain on a tin roof, the sound gathered momentum. First one pair of hooves. Then another. Then a veritable storm of hoof.

I looked up. They were applauding me. My entire class. They were all applauding me.

I whipped around to face the pegasus behind me. He had his hoof held out. Were those tears of…joy?

I bumped his hoof. Slowly. Cautiously.

What had just happened?

The class walked right passed Diamond Tiara as though she wasn’t even there, and before I knew it, I was completely surrounded. They all wanted a piece.

I gave them all hoof bumps of course, but I did it while laughing. The kind of frantic, crazy hysterical laughter that rips out of you when there’s nothing funny at all going on.

I think my body just resorted to laughter because it didn’t know what else to do with the stress. I was all out of tears.

A Horse With No Name

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CHAPTER THREE – A HORSE WITH NO NAME
“Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” - Henry James




It was kind of awkward going back to class that afternoon. I mean, it’s one thing to tell a miserable, monstrous, no-good excuse for a filly that they’re gonna die alone someday; it’s quite another to sit two desks down from her a few minutes afterwards and get working on your papier-mâché volcano like nothing had ever happened. On the one hoof, you can’t just sit there all day staring at her, but on the other hoof, you can’t exactly freak out and dodge her eye contact either, (which totally sucks cause there’s this voice in your head screaming at you the whole time, saying Look away! Look away! Look away!).

For over an hour, the tension was in the air, but toward the end of the day, Miss Cheerilee passed around our art projects from the week before. Construction paper, glitter, paste - it was the perfect excuse not to look up from my desk for any reason whatsoever.

I’d already constructed a strong border for my portrait-to-be. It was made of popsicle sticks and phony gems. All four corners were speckled with confetti, raw macaroni, and bits of blotchy color, but right smack in the middle, there were still plenty of empty spaces that needed filling – the heart of my work.

I gripped a colored pencil, and stared at the empty canvas, (so to speak). At first, I latched on to all the tiny little distractions going on around me (and didn’t draw at all): Cheerilee’s watchful eyeballs as she roamed the aisles; Diamond Tiara’s hatred radiating from two rows down. Once that pencil started moving, though, it all just sorta melted away.

I scratched at the page feverishly, slashing sharp angles of contrasting color across the page. A shape was coming into focus before my eyes. I could see my own hoof scraping against the paper furiously, and lines slowly starting to articulate themselves into ideas, but honestly, I had no idea what was coming next. It was as though my hoof had a mind of its own.

Each pencil stroke scraped away the falsehood that was the blank page, and revealed something true underneath. Something I absolutely, positively, totally needed to see.

There were jagged edges framing the picture. Blades? No, wait, it was a hole – sharp corners of a gap in some grey concrete wall, and beyond that hole was the Most Importantest Of All Things.

A fragment of a face. Pink! No, red! No, yellow! A sullen eye stared back at me through the hole in the concrete. She was hopeless - defeated. I could see just barely enough of the face to know that it didn’t have a horn. It was an earth pony, (or maybe a pegasus), but what mattered more - what haunted me - was that she was afraid. This poor girl trapped in my drawing was terrified, and yet so darn calm and resigned - as if that fear had been all she’d ever known. As I looked down and pitied her, a song poked into my head. It even had lyrics that hid from me right on the tip of my tongue. But somehow, it all seemed to sum up what I already knew deep down inside - that nopony so young should ever feel such hopelessness.

The girl was imprisoned somewhere. That much was certain. She was behind a wall, wherever that was, and she was looking right at me, waiting for me to help her. I dropped my pencil in shock.

I couldn’t believe it. It was her. The one I’m meant to save.

I suddenly felt a hoof rest gently on my shoulder. It startled me so hard I nearly leapt out of my seat.

“That’s very good,” Said Miss Cheerilee. “Does she have a name?”

I looked up. The classroom was empty. Bare-naked empty. Everypony had rushed on out the door the second the bell rang. I didn’t even hear it.

“Oh…No. Not really, Miss Cheerilee.”

I froze. Here was this filly right in front of me, pleading with me through the pencil and the paper – this child who needed my help so badly that the Universe itself had put me in harm’s way just to get it to her. But I didn’t know her story. I didn’t even know her name. I only knew that she was trapped.

“What is this here?” She asked. “A wall?”

I nodded.

“And what’s this on the other end?”

I shrugged. “Um…That’s a filly.” I said.

Miss Cheerilee just nodded.

“She’s uh…peeking at stuff!” I added to assure her that the image was rather ordinary, and not, in fact, a plea for help. I didn’t need her thinking that I was messed up in the head.

“Well, I think it’s lovely.” Said Cheerilee. “It’s been a big day for you.”

Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no! The schoolyard gossip had reached her. She knew about what had happened between me and Diamond Tiara.

“It has?” I cringed.

“Of course!” She smiled. “First you get your cutie mark, and now, here you are, blossoming as an artist!”

I took another glimpse at the drawing: glitter and gumdrops adorning a scratchy whirlwind of colored pencil marks. It looked like a living nightmare with bits of macaroni stuck to the corners.

“Do you mind if I hang this on the wall for our Open House?”

“So everypony can gawk at it and point and laugh and be jerks to me about the window into my madness?” I clapped my hooves to my mouth.

I can’t believe I just blurted that out. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

“What makes you say that?” Said Miss Cheerilee earnestly.

“Um…” I leaped to my hooves and backed against the wall. Actually scouted both directions for a viable escape. I was desperate. She was asking too many questions and I was letting on too much.

“Rose Petal, Rose Petal, it’s okay.” She said. “Good art – really good art is supposed to be a little crazy. And you’re not in trouble, so relax. Nopony is going to laugh at you.”

That one caught me off guard. It even calmed my paranoia just long enough for me to stop and give it some serious thought. Art is supposed to be crazy.

“Let me get this straight, Miss Cheerilee.” I said to her, in utter confusion. “You mean to tell me that art is crazy.”

She shut her eyes and nodded with a smile.

“And that my art is good…because it’s also crazy?”

She nodded again.

“And you want to hang this weird…thing.” I gestured down at my scribbles. “Up on the wall, so that everypony can come by and look and see how good and how crazy it is?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and nodded again with another, bigger, wider smile. I was beginning to think that I wasn’t the only one in a room playing with only half a deck.

I sighed. There’s no sense trying to make sense out of grown-ups sometimes.

“Sure.” I said.


Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Cheerilee wanted to know everything there was to know about the picture, and all I wanted to do was high tail out of there. Luckily, there wasn’t that much to talk about, apart from the mystical significance of the picture (that I myself didn’t really understand, and didn’t want to talk about anyway).

“Can you tell me why this um, Filly With No Name over here is behind a wall?”

“I dunno. She’s stuck there, I guess.”

“Mmhmm. And what’s on the other side?” She continued. “What’s she looking at?”

“I guess she’s waiting for me to save her?” I really wasn’t sure what the filly in the picture was looking at. I guessed. All I knew for sure is that it felt like she was digging straight into my soul with her stare-ity eyeballs.

“That’s very nice, Rose Petal.” Said Miss Cheerilee, trying to mask her understandable apprehension with a giggle.

“Thanks, Miss Cheerilee. Can I, um, go now?”

That’s it, Rose Petal. Make a smooth exit.

“Oh, sure.” She laughed. “This isn’t detention, you know. You’re not in trouble.”

ZIP! I was halfway out the door when she called my name out one last time.

“One more thing.”

I spun silently on my hooves and faced her. At least I meant to spin. I ended up whacking one of my knees into the doorframe instead, and stumbling all over the room to regain my balance.

After the mutual reassurances occurred, (-“Yes, I’m fine, Miss Cheerilee. Jeez!” -“No, Rose Petal, don’t worry about the broken globe”), she asked me what she’d meant to ask me all along. The thing that had made her giggle at me all awkward-like a few moments before. Grown-ups always do that. They wait to tell you what’s really on their minds dead last.

“If something’s ever bothering you,” She said. “You know you can talk to me, right?”

“Of course, Miss Cheerilee.” I faked a smile.





* * *




After school, I had quite a lot of organizing to do.


LIST OF PONIES I WORRIED

[X} Cheerilee

[X] Roseluck

[X] Blue


Have you ever seen an earth pony try to write in a notebook while walking? It’s not pretty. I tried doing it on the way home - walked right into a tree and almost swallowed my pencil! That sort of thing happens all the time when you take the scenic route home.

Darn trees. I swear they leap at you out of nowhere.

“You okay?”

Huh? What? Who said that? The colt I’d helped back at the playground came trotting up beside me.

Great. He’s gonna wanna talk at me now. I thought.

“Grumble, grumble, grumble.” I said out loud in those exact words, and kept walking.

“Thanks, by the way.” He said nervously.

“I saaaaaid ‘grumble, grumble, grumble.’” This was starting to get irritating.

I had important business to attend to.

When I heard that thought bouncing around the inside of my head – important business - I took a long hard look at myself.

“Jeez,” I said. “You’re talking like one of them.”

“I’m sorry?” Asked the colt.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Had I said that aloud or was he listening to my brain? Holy cow, what else did he know?! Get rid of him! I urged myself. Do it now! Do it quick!

I turned to face the colt and snapped at him.

“Grumble!” I said before going about my business and stomping away further off into the hills.

I didn’t have time for talk. I had Equestria to save.

“You didn’t have to do that for me, you know.” He added.

I rolled my eyes. “ I didn’t do it for you. I gotta keep Diamond Tiara from destroying the world.”

I was way too tired to have any hope of making anything that could even be said to resemble sense.

“Yeah, I hear you.” Said the colt without skipping a beat.

I groaned and tucked my Ponies-I’ve-Worried checklist away into my saddlebag. It was clear I wasn’t going to get any more work done. Not that I’d accomplished all that much anyway.

I had yelled at Diamond Tiara, and she’d definitely had it coming, and for just a few moments, I’d felt great – I mean really fantastic. But what good had I done? I mean what good had really come of it?

The end was extremely bucking neigh, and if I couldn’t figure something out, the blood of millions would be on my hooves.

“Are you okay?” What’s-His-Face asked me flat out.

The dreaded question. I guessed I’d worn my worries on my face.

I spun around to snap at him again, but this kid, for some stupid reason looked up to me. When I glared at him, and saw only a Say-It-Ain’t-So pout on his face, the last thing in the world I ever expected to come out of my mouth actually went and fell right out of it – the truth.

“No.” I said.

Stupid mouth! Quit saying things!

“No, I’m not okay.”




* * *





I told him everything. I thought it was a dumb move, even as the words spilled right out of my mouth like water gushing out of a hole in a bucket (that you had clumsily tried to nail to a plank of wood for some reason). I just couldn’t help myself. I had to tell somepony.

So I talked, and I talked, and I talked, and I talked, and I talked, and – Sweet Celestia, was I sobbing?

Darn it, Rose, stop that! I thought.

I wiped my face off clumsily with my hooves and caught my breath. I’d actually been heaving. When I was done with that embarrassing display, the pegasus kid looked me up and down.

“I’m so sorry.” He said. His eyes were also filled with tears.

“That’s it?

He hung his head low, blue mane falling in front of his dull grey face.

“I wish I knew what else to say.” He whispered.

“No ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘You’re weird’?” He stared at me blankly. “No ‘Get away from me, you nut job?’”

“What?! No!” He objected.

“Well, why not?” I kicked a pebble. It knocked harmlessly against the display window of a storefront. “What’s wrong with you?”

He shrugged.

“What about me? What’s wrong with me?” I asked.

He shrugged again.

“What in the hoof am I gonna do?” My voice cracked with desperation.

I gave him a long and thorough stare down. He responded with yet another shrug.

“Why do you keep shrugging?” I yelled. He was starting to make me mad.

The boy just shrugged yet again. I stared at him hard.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” He pleaded.

Oh, jeez! I’m intimidating him.

One rant at a spoiled brat in the playground and I had become what I hated most in the world – a bully.

“No, no. Please.” I said as he unconsciously backed away from me.

“Please what?” He said.

It was my turn to shrug and shy away.

“Please don’t be afraid of me.” I muttered softly.

My hooves were shaking.





* * *




So I cut the nonsense and was nice to the kid. He bought me milkshakes. Plural. It’s a well known fact amongst us kids that a cousin of a friend of Peppermint Swirl’s Mom’s pen pal once walked the deserts of Los Pegasus alone, drank seven milkshakes in a row to cool himself down, and got so hyper that the little bits that we’re all made of started vibrating at a different frequency or something, and he disappeared into the ether, never to be seen or heard from again.

I was in no danger of that.

“Can I get you another?” My new kinda sorta friend-type pony asked.

I should have stopped to ask his name at some point, but we had been in the same class for a really long time, and I couldn’t just admit to him that I’d forgotten, or worse, that I’d never absorbed it in the first place.

I nodded with a weak smile.

“Sure, thanks. But two milkshakes is my limit.”

He ordered, and was kind enough to pay. We sat in silence for a bit as I gathered my thoughts. Before I knew it, Milkshake #2 was in front of me, and I was sucking it down.

“Cliff Diver!” I shouted out of the blue. His name was Cliff Diver. I remembered it!

“Yes?” He said.
I yelled his name real loud in public… And now he’s staring at me.

“Oh, um…I forgot what I was gonna say.”

I got back to work on my milkshake.


“Where’s the boy now?” Cliff Diver asked at long last.

“I wish I knew.” I said.

“Can you follow him?” I must have been looking at him like he had five legs and a suction cup growing out of his forehead, because he stifled a laugh and hurried to clarify. “You said you could see him during class, right? So where’s he now?”

Cliff was right. I had seen the poor captive shadow-boy from my dreams during class. I’d followed his journey over rubble-littered hill and dilapidated plain. As I sat there in the ice cream parlor and tried to concentrate on him, though, I came up with nothing.

“I don’t know.” I said at last

The colt nodded in contemplation. “So what are we gonna do?”

What were we gonna do? We. I had to think about that for a minute. We? Really? What was wrong with this kid?

My mind shot straight to thoughts of my best friend Blueberry Milkshake. First to give up on helping me find my cutie mark once she’d found her own, first to shrink back into the crowd and pretend she didn’t know me when I ranted at that bitch Diamond Tiara, and the very last to congratulate me on it – only after she had realized that the coast was clear, and that my explosion had actually turned me into some sort of playground folk hero.

That’s what I thought friendship was my whole life.

Then this pegasus kid comes along at the worst possible moment. He’s got absolutely nothing to gain, and in fact, has everything to lose by putting himself out on a limb for a nut job like me, and still, he decides that he wants to help. What gives?!

I gotta be honest with you, it freaked me out. It freaked me out good.

The last thing in the world I wanted to do is burden anypony else with my troubles, but one look at him told me I wouldn’t just be able to get rid of him with a clap of my hooves. I’d already selfishly invited him into my World O’ Rose Petal Problems when I’d opened up my big fat yap. That made him my responsibility.

Still, the question remained:

“What are we gonna do?” I said out loud to myself.

I thought about it grimly, and slurped my chocolate shake straight to the noisy slurpitty bottom. When I was finally done, and even my straw was sucked dry of every speck of foam, I looked up at him and said,

“We’re gonna stop the bucking war.”





* * *




I wanted to stop the war right then and there, 20 years before it was destined to happen. I was ready to run out and find whatever Evil was fated to cause the catastrophe and kick its flank. I wanted to hop a train to Canterlot, buck the door to the throne room wide open, grab a princess – any princess – and yell, “Do you have any idea what’s going to happen?”

But I couldn’t. I had to be home in time for dinner.

Besides, there was no flank to be kicked – only our own cowardice and fear. We weren’t facing the kind of Evil that laughs at you maniacally and tells you its plan like a Daring Do villain. This was a much harder Evil to tackle – the weakness inside of all of us – the part of every pony that stands by and does nothing as zebras in posters are victimized - the kind of Evil that whimpers.

The good news is that Cliff Diver had a plan. There wasn’t much time before sundown, but we at least had enough enough moments to spare to initiate Sequence Alpha (which is like super secret spy talk for Stage One): The Library.


“Helloooooo!” I shouted, banging on the door to Twilight Sparkle’s giant treebrary. “Anypony home?”

“Maybe we should--;”

“We don’t have time for this!” I shouted at the top of my lungs as I hurled myself against the door again and again. “Let us in, you book-o’s!”

“Um, Rose?” Said the boy behind me, but I just kept on hurling myself against the door.

Suddenly it swung open with no effort at all and I fell face forward into the darkness inside.

“Hello?” I said again, this time a bit more unsure of myself now that I had broken in to the joint, and was apparently all alone.

I coughed as I sucked in my first breath of treebrary air. It stank. I had to cover my mouth just to keep from choking. I turned around to gesture to Cliff Diver, but he was gone. The door was not only closed behind me, but barricaded too. I grabbed at the doorknob and yanked at it with all of my might, but came away only with a hoof full of grease.

Falling backwards into a little bit more light, I could see just well enough to tell that what I had touched wasn’t grease. It was pony.

The walls were lined with bits of dead ponies. I had to stuff my clean hoof all the way into my mouth just to keep from screaming. Disaster was everywhere. Somepony had ransacked the place. I mean, scorched it and spattered it! The books were gone. The globe was gone. I don’t even think I can describe what they had used as décor instead, but let me tell you, it was not an improvement.

I clenched every muscle I had at the sight of all the horror around me, and bit down into my hoof. Then, clear as day, in the middle of all the filth and the Evil, I saw one lone book, sitting out unmolested on the reading table against the wall. It was green with gold lettering.

It just sat there. Pristine. It was so clean that it even seemed to shine a little despite the darkness surrounding it. It didn’t belong there - not after whatever had happened. No, that book was definitely left on that table just for me. I knew it. I felt it in my bones.

The rotten floorboards beneath me moaned and creaked as I took two steps closer. I still couldn’t make out the lettering, so I moved in a little further, reached out with a steady hoof and tried and touch it, but the instant I acknowledged the book’s importance – the moment that I finally grasped that it was really, really, really, really, really actually just sitting there, waiting for me, the book disappeared into thin air.

So did the blood and the darkness and all of the shelves and upturned tables and things.


“Rose Petal?”

I squinted my eyes. It was broad daylight again. Cliff had a hoof on my shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

“What? Oh, yeah.” I said. “There’s um…nopony home.”

The smell of rot was still souring my nose so bad I could taste it. I threw up right there on Twilight Sparkle’s lawn.

Without even stopping to catch my breath, I whipped my head up cheerfully and flashed Cliff Diver a big “Really, I swear, I’m perfectly fine” grin.

He didn’t buy it. I just saw more worry on his face. With a sigh, I leaned against him. I wouldn’t ordinarily do such a thing, or seek this kind of comfort in another pony (except, of course, for my sister), but it had been a very weird day.

I grudgingly nuzzled up against him. I must have stank of vomit. It was so unfair to him! But I leaned in just the same, because I didn’t know what else to do. It was then and there that I decided that it was wrong that I should keep all of these dangerous secrets from Roseluck. I had confided in this boy I’d just met, who was turning out to be quite the loyal friend, (and that concept still freaked me out), but it wasn’t right that my own sister should be in the dark.

What I didn’t know is that my evening with Roseluck was gonna get weird. You see, both Roseluck and I had decided (totally separate from one another) that TONIGHT WAS THE NIGHT that we would share our deepest, strangest secrets. You know, because that sort of thing makes for the perfect fireside conversation.





* * *





I made it home in time for dinner, and with plenty of time to spare, but all I could do when I got there was lie around in bed staring at the ceiling with my eyes wide open. I desperately wanted to sleep, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not even for a nap. I was too afraid.

Besides, I needed to figure out how in Luna’s name I was going to tell Roseluck what had happened!

I turned the events of the day around in my head over and over and over again. The daydreams, the fight with Diamond Tiara, the sketch of the one I’m meant to save, the kid who followed me around, that stupid green book. Everything. But above all, I fixated on something that Cliff Diver had said to me just before I got home.

You see, I had demanded to know, quite reasonably, I think, why he believed my story about the future. I mean, it was all totally cuckoo bonkers insane, right? How could this kid just accept something like that? Like it was nothing! No questions asked.

Well, I wanted a reason, so I asked him flat out why the hay he believed my ridiculous story. Do you know what he said?

That boy looked me straight in the eyes, and with complete and total sincerity, he said to me, “Because you’re my friend.”


What kind of answer is that? What was up with that kid? He might have been the one pony in school crazier than I was for saying it, but whatever in the world was wrong with him also made him the most remarkable colt in the History of Ever! Beautiful in a way I hadn’t even thought possible before. I prayed he’d never change, the darn fool.

I was horrified by the idea the he wanted to weigh himself down with all of my problems, and to be honest, letting him do that even a little was already making me uncomfortable. But if nothing else, that boy had my respect.


Finally, after what seemed like an impossibly long quiet in my room, in which thoughts bounced and tumbled and swirled all around the inside of my brain like beads in a rattle, Roseluck called me downstairs. I sucked in a deep nervous breath, and blew a raspberry with my tongue.

Tonight’s the night, Rose Petal. You can do this.

The second I got downstairs, however, my purpose was distracted. Something was fishy. Very fishy.

For starters, the dinner table was empty. Instead our plates were laid out on the coffee table. A nice warm fire was raging in the wood stove we treated as a fireplace, and a cast iron teapot was cooling on a tile coaster right beside it. It smelt of roses and dried berries.

I approached the warm and comforting scene with suspicion.

Uh-oh.

Roseluck had made sandwiches. We never had sandwiches for dinner.

“What’s wrong?” I asked immediately.

Roseluck rolled her eyes.

“It’s your special day, dummy.” She grabbed me and gave me noogies that tangled up my mane something fierce. “And you’re very welcome.”

“Hey, quit it!” I giggled.

She let me go, and we both made for the coffee table where the food was laid out. I ate in silence, and by ate, I mean “shoveled food in my mouth faster than I could chew,” and by in silence, I mean “to the sound of my own teeth mashing and chomping against bread and flowers, and fruits, and greens.”

As always, I sat on the floor of the den. There was an extra Co-Z-Colt chair of course, but it was Mom’s Co-Z-Colt. Roseluck always insisted that Mom would have wanted me to use it, and she was probably right, but I just couldn’t. Roseluck plopped down in Dad’s old chair, (which nopony gave a darn about), and poured us both some tea.


Sandwiches can’t fix all of your problems, but when your mouth is stuffed full of them, it’s pretty much the next best thing. I was lying there, working on Sandwich #3 (green apples, rose petals, and mango mayonnaise on rye), when Roseluck started in on what she really wanted to say.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I got my cutie mark?” She asked.

“Hmmm.” Come to think about it, she never had. She was so good at gardening, and she had so much to say about stupid plants and stuff that I just sorta presumed that her cutie mark was mixed in there somewhere with one of her many flower anecdotes.

“I think it’s time you heard it.” She said, slurping at her tea. “Rose Petal, it happened in my dreams.”

I choked a little on a throat full of sandwich.

“That’s what happened to you last night, isn’t it?”

I nodded “yes.”

“I was about your age. Mom had just tucked me in like she used to.” Roseluck closed her eyes and smiled warmly as the light from the fire in the stove made her look like an orange pony. “You were already fast asleep in Dad’s lap.

“Pbbbbt.” I said.

“Well, when I drifted off, I sort of fell into the weirdest dream. It wasn’t like other dreams at all. It was like being totally alert and awake, but in another place altogether. Another time.

“A quick look around me told me I was in Canterlot. I had never been to Canterlot before, but I recognized the castle. All the ponies around me were dressed sort of funny – all ruffles and poofy shoulders and robes.

“At first I thought it was just Canterlot fashion, but it wasn’t. I was in the past.” She leaned in close. “Canterlot: six hundred years ago.”

“I got my cutie mark in the future!” I cried out. “Hundreds of years in the future!”

Finally, a sign that I wasn’t crazy – or at least that I wasn’t alone in being crazy.

Roseluck put her teacup down gently on the end table beside her.

“I thought it might be something like that.” She said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

I shook my head. “You first! You first! What was Canterlot like?”

I sprawled out on my belly and propped my head up eagerly with my hooves.

“To be honest,” Said Roseluck. “Smelly.”

I giggled.

“I wandered aimlessly.” She continued. “I figured out that it was six centuries in the past, not from any particular clues. The idea simply popped into my head, and it felt right.”

That’s exactly how I knew that my dream had been 190 years after the bomb! I dipped my fourth sandwich triangle in my tea and stared up at my sister, hanging on every word.

“I was all alone, afraid. Lost. Sure, there were other ponies, of course – hundreds of them actually, but nopony who I knew. Nopony who cared about me. I started to freak out. I even felt that lump way down deep here in my throat.” She gestured to her neck and spoke in a dark, dry voice. “You know, the kind you get just before you start to cry?”

I nodded.

“But I didn’t get to cry, because just before I lost it, I suddenly heard a sound that snapped me right out of my fool self.” She paused to take a giant gulping swig of her tea. I had never been terribly lady-like when it came to things like that, but Roseluck would've had to be pretty darn excited to rush a cup of tea.

“Well?” I asked impatiently. “What was it?”

“Somepony else who was crying. There were ponies everywhere all around me, but I could hear this one voice over it all, like it was calling to me. Like it was the whole reason I had gone back in time in the first place.”

My jaw dropped.

“Do you understand what I’m saying, Rose Petal?”

I gave her an enthusiastic nod. I knew that feeling too well.

“So I followed it until I came to an open window.” My sister continued. “It was too high for me to reach, so I stacked some crates that were lying around in the alleyway below. The actual crying wasn’t very loud, but I could still hear it echoing around inside my head, and I knew that I was close to something big.”

“When I finally got to the top, I peeked my head over the windowsill. I had to do it slow and careful to avoid being seen. There was a stallion there with a scraggly mane, sobbing boo-hoo-hoo into his long white beard.

“There were random planks of wood, and paintbrushes, and little wooden machines scattered everywhere - all across his room -and on the walls were some of the most beautiful drawings I’d ever seen.

“After standing there like a dope for Celestia only knows how long, I poked my whole head in through the window. I knew I couldn’t get what needed doing done just by standing there, so I summoned my courage and I asked him what was wrong.

“He looked up at me in confusion. ‘What magic is this?’ He said.

“Before I could answer, the old stallion rushed over and grabbed my hoof. I was scared! His grip was hard and his hooves were rough. Then the stack of crates gave out from under me and I understood what he was doing.

“That old stallion saved my life.”

“But why was he crying?” I mumbled, mouth full of sandwiches.

“I’m getting to that.” Roseluck bopped me on the nose. “When he pulled me in, I didn’t get a chance to thank him. He was too busy ranting at me about all the danger I had put myself in. You know, grown up stuff.”

She winked. I smiled at her.

“Well, after all of his blah-blah-blah’s, he finally said to me ‘What were you doing up there in the first place?’

“I cringed. His yelling had made me shy. He barked the question again until I finally whimpered out an answer. ‘Because I heard you crying.’”

I dug my hoof angrily into the rug beneath me. Nopony talks to my sister that way.

“What a jerk!” I shouted. “If I had been there, I woulda--;”

Roseluck reclined, stretched out her hind hoof, and plugged my mouth with it. I took the hint and shut up.

“He wasn’t a jerk.” She said. “I’d scared him is all.”

Ponies aren’t themselves when they’re afraid. I thought.

“Finally the old guy quit his ranting and just sighed. ‘And what business is it of yours if I was crying. Can’t a pony cry in peace? In his own room?’

“I pleaded and apologized and told him that I just wanted to see if he needed any help.

“Roseluck, seriously, why didn’t you just--;” I said.

FWOMP. She stuck her hoof in my mouth again. I furrowed my brow at her and gave her my best disapproving stare, but let her get on with the story.

“The old stallion asked me why I cared that he was crying. But I honestly didn’t know! I just shrugged and told him the truth. ‘Because you were crying.’

“He took a long, steady, silent look at me and then, completely out of the blue, startled me with the coarsest, most monstrous laughter I’d ever heard.

‘Thank you.’ He said. ‘Don’t ever lose that.’

“Of course the next thing I asked was, ‘Don’t lose what?’

“He wiped a loose lock of my mane out from in front of my eyes and told me that I had a beautiful heart. Said that if I wasn’t careful, the world would come along and sweep it away from me like dust.

“After that, we became friends. He opened up to me, told me all about his life and his work. It was mostly a bunch of crazy painter stuff that would bore you, and that I didn’t really understand either.

“Soon I was coming to his place constantly, and we had the sort of friendship where you didn’t exchange words, even names.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You went to his house constantly? How long were you there?”

Roseluck took a deep breath and hefty sigh.

She prodded the fire with a hot poker and said, “These things are weird, Rose Petal. Sometimes one night’s sleep will put you in a single time and place for months before you wake up. Sometimes you’ll spend a week over here in Ponyville trying to see the events of a single day through on the other side – a little bit each night.

“The point is: one day I showed up with some flowers, and he made a strange remark that changed both of our lives forever. Do you know what he said?”

I shook my head “no.”

“He said that my showing up at his window at that moment was proof that there was something out there, (whatever that meant), and that it cared about him. He told me he believed that, on the day that he’d been crying, I’d been sent to him by fate.”

Roseluck laughed out loud, and raised her teacup high as if to make a toast. “Well, I was. And I knew it!”

She pointed at me in an enthusiastic a-ha gesture.

“But I didn’t want to let on,” She whispered. “So I just kinda, smirked, you know? And it was at that moment that I saw the old stallion’s eyes brighten - like a colt seeing the lights on a Hearth’s Warming tree for the very first time.

“He ran up to me and grabbed my cheeks. Tears were streaming down his face, but he was laughing and smiling. I tried to ask what was going on, but he said ‘No, Wait! Please.’ He contained his laugher for a moment. He whispered to me in the most serious of tones, ‘Whatever you do, hold that smile!’

“He backed away slowly, never taking his eyes off of me, not even to blink. The awkwardness of the situation coupled with the fact that the whole fate talk had been what had triggered him in the first place – it just made me blush and smirk all the more.

“'That’s it!' He laughed and whipped out his brushes and started mixing his paints in a frantic hurry.

“And then he began to paint again.”


Roseluck sat there silently. The fire crackled and popped. I was fresh out of sandwiches.

“Well?!” I snapped at long last. “What happened next?”

“That’s it. I woke up.”

“What do you mean, that’s it? What about your cutie mark?”

She pointed to her flank. “Woke up with it that morning, just like you.”

“What does any of that have to do with roses?”

“Nothing.”

“What?! That’s stupid!” I exclaimed.

“I thought it was the flowers I’d picked for him that day that was the reason for the rose on my flank. I didn’t find out what it actually meant until I took a field trip to Canterlot with my graduating class years later.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” I said. “You get your cutie mark when you realize your special talent. You’re saying you didn’t realize it for years…”

“Sometimes these things have more than one meaning.” Said Roseluck. “Just because you found your talent doesn’t mean you’re done exploring it. Now, button your lip for one more minute. I’m almost done.”

Roseluck winked at me.

“We were all wandering the museum, giggling, being stupid teenagers, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sketch of the old stallion I’d dreamt of years before. I’d always known that those kinds of dreams were more than just dreams – that they were real (and yes, I’ve had many more like it since). But it’s one thing to know that they’re real, and a whole other thing to see the pony from your dreams sketched out on six-hundred-year-old parchment right in front of you.

“It was Leonardo DaWhinny. And do you know what I found all the way at the very end of the exhibit?” Roseluck whipped out a post card from the Royal Canterlot Museum of Art and Antiquities and placed it right in my hooves.

“My smile.” She said. “On the Pona Lisa.”

I examined it carefully, and for a long time. When I looked up from the picture, and saw my sister sitting in Dad’s old chair, there was the smirk. I had never looked at the painting all that closely. Ponyville doesn’t exactly have a lot of replicas lying around, but even on the post card, clear as day, I could tell that I was looking at my sister’s smile.

Cheerilee was right. Art is crazy.

Finally, I passed the card back to her.

“I don’t understand. How come I never heard this story before?”

“Nopony has.”

“Whattaya mean?”

“I mean I’ve never told anypony about this before.” She gestured at the post card.

“But that’s not fair, you totally, like, changed art! Like…Forever!” My voice squeaked with indignant enthusiasm. “…Or something. Didn’t you?”

“No,” Roseluck said, tucking the post card safely away in a drawer. “Leonardo DaWhinny did. I just warmed a sad old pony’s heart.”

“But without you--;”

“It’s not about me.” Roseluck interrupted very firmly.

This was starting to get really confusing.

“How do I explain this? There are great ponies who do great things, Rosie. Folks will talk about them for thousands and thousands of years after those great things are done.” She held out an open hoof. “And there are other ponies, equally great, (sometimes even more so), who do great things that nopony ever notices.

She held out her other hoof, and made a gesture mimicking a scale.

“Equestria needs all the greatness it can get sometimes, and can’t really be bothered dishing out credit everywhere that it’s deserved.”

“That sucks.” I pouted. “That’s not right. It’s not fair!”

I didn’t consider myself destined for any kind of greatness, but I was mad as Tartarus about my sister. Her name should be in history books - in art books. She should be making a living off of this, instead of just scraping by on a part time landscaping gig.

“No, seriously, Rose Petal. It’s an important job.” She looked at me with stark and serious eyes, suddenly all ablaze with the reflection of the fire in our chimney-stove. “These dreams are important! What if Princess Celestia and Luna had never discovered the Elements of Harmony?”

“That’s silly.”

“No it isn’t. Think about it! What if the whole reason we haven’t been living under Discord’s rule for thousands of years is that somepony like you or me came along and gave them a little clue. A nudge. Is that so impossible?”

“Yeah. They’re Celestia and Luna!” I said, voice cracking again. “Just…No way!”

Roseluck opened the drawer beside her again and thrust the post card of the Pona Lisa at me.

“Way.” She said.

Perhaps she had a point.


“Look, everypony wants to be a rock star, or a fashion designer, or the next big important leader who comes along and changes history, and gets parades thrown in her honor, but it just doesn’t work like that. Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, what the world really needs more than anything is a good background pony.”

I must have been visibly pouting, because Roseluck snapped at me.

“Hay! Being a background pony is nothing to be ashamed of. We make history happen.”

“I guess.” It still sounded like a raw deal.

I supposed I might have seemed mopey, but it was really just more thinkiness coming back and rearing its ugly head. I had a lot to digest.

“What has any of that got to do with your cutie mark?”

“Beauty,” She said. “My friendship showed an old pony beauty, and that’s what the rose symbolizes.”

She clapped her flank and smiled. “Beauty.”

“I see.” I hung my head. Moping for real. I could even feel those darn tears coming on again.

“But…but…but,” I sniffed. “Then why is mine all broken?”

There were, after all, no roses on my flank. Just petals.

“I don’t know.” Said Roseluck honestly. “I don’t see it as broken. Just a different kind of beauty, that’s all. A whole rose ends up in a vase, and rose petals, end up…um…they end up…in tea.” She smiled and took a sip.

“So my special talent is turning into tea?”

My sister shook her head. “No. Never mind. Bad analogy. I’m being a total foal. I’ll help you make sense of this as best I can, Rosie, I promise. Would you mind telling me about your dream, though? It’ll help.”

“Well,” I said, avoiding eye contact.

“That is, if you’re ready.” Roseluck jumped in.

“No, no, I am. It’s just--;” My turn to look her gravely in the eye.

“Just…What?” She prodded gently.

I took a deep breath and a hefty sigh. “We’re gonna need a lot more sandwiches.”

A Foal's Errand

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CHAPTER FOUR – A FOAL’S ERRAND

It is easy to go down into Hell…but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air – there’s the rub, the task.” – Virgil




The thing about the Moon is: you can always count on it. It rises in the evening, sets just before morning. It’s there when you need it. It’s there when you don’t.

I suppose you could say the same thing about the Sun. But not really. You see, this one time back when I was little, the Sun didn’t come up in the morning the way it’s supposed to. It was as though the Sun stepped out to the market to pick up some milk, promised it would be back by dawn, and then, just when nopony expected it, the damned thing ditched us and left us all up in the black.

Sure, we all know the story of Nightmare Moon, and yeah, I get that she was Evil and all. But one thing I will say for her is that even when Princess Luna was at her very worst, the Moon itself was always there. That’s cause the Moon is the sort of thing you can depend on.

On the night I went back to the Wasteland, I had a little talk with the Moon. I told it all about my problems, as I always do. I waited, and waited, and waited - hoping secretly that some way, somehow, Princess Luna would hear me and know exactly what to do.

But no answer came. That made two nights in a row.



I know what you’re thinking: Second night in a row? What happened to the first? Well ashamed as I am to say it, when it came time to get tucked in after Roseluck’s Leonardo DaWhinny story, I was too afraid to sleep.

So was Roseluck, actually. I mean, when she first heard the news, Rose gave me a supportive kiss. She gave me a supportive hug, but I could feel her shaking as she squeezed me. She was trying really, really hard just to hold still. She was afraid I’d notice her quivering and end up getting scared myself. I noticed, but didn’t say a word. Roseluck held me at shoulder’s length, looked me in the eye, took in a deep breath, and laid down words of wisdom and encouragement, and stuff. Solid, confident voice. Watery eyes.

But then the façade sorta cracked and crumbled, until finally, out of nowhere, she just flipped right out - and I mean totally flipped out. Shaking. Shivering. Even flailing around like a crazy pony. Seeing her like that was scarier than even the Wasteland its own self.

“Roseluck! Roseluck!” I shouted, but I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, helpless, watching her completely come apart. When it seemed to be over, I got my senses back, knelt down and helped my sister to her hooves. She threw herself around me so hard, I thought I would suffocate from hugginess. She apologized for losing her cool, called herself selfish, swore she would always, always, always be there for me.

I told her everything was gonna be alright. Of course it wouldn’t, but what else could I say? This wasn’t something I knew how to do!

I could be strong for the future. I could be strong for my sister. But there was no way in Equestria that I could do both.



In the end, Roseluck won. So after I had helped her to her feet, and got some tea in her, I lead her upstairs. I let her tuck me in, even though I knew I wouldn’t be getting any sleep.

I spent the entire night in bed wide awake. I really wanted to help those kids – to go to sleep and finish my business in the Wasteland once and for all, but I couldn’t. Roseluck needed me.

We spent the entire night just talking about old times, and holding hooves. She begged me to sleep, promised to watch over me, but we both knew that she couldn’t protect me.

The sun came up, and the day after was a total blur. I went to school at my own insistence, not because I liked school, but because I didn’t want all this Wasteland junk to control my life back home, you know?

Anyway, it was all a total mess. Cliff Diver had found my scarf after I’d lost it for the four-millionth time, and Diamond Tiara was her usual bitch self and decided that that scarf was some kind of evidence. She launched a smear campaign in rhyme form, articulating exactly the sorts of icky things that he and I had supposedly done together while “sitting in a tree.”

I was too tired and too stressed to care. My mind was making up for lost sleep and I was busy drifting in and out of waking visions. It all amounted to the same thing – save the filly behind the wall. The universe didn’t give a damn about what happened to the kid I’d seen two nights before.

So, the day was a total bust, the library was closed yet again, I must have made miserable company for Cliff, and to top it all off, I barely even remember any of it. So I’m just gonna spare you the dumb details, get straight to the point, and tell you about the night that came after. The night I discovered just how bad it could get in the Equestrian Wasteland.


It started with a conversation with the Moon. I talked, it listened. That’s how it goes. The Moon didn’t hear the news, leap out of the sky and run to my doorstep to hoof-deliver me a bushel full of easy answers – no paint-by-numbers instructions neither. It just listened. But sometimes that’s all you really need.

I begged The Moon - pleaded with it not to have to go back to that horrible place – to be able to leave all that Wasteland stuff behind, and forget that any of it had ever happened. But the Moon can’t grant wishes like that.

Besides, as desperately as I wanted to, it was still a half-hearted little wish. In the very same breath that I prayed for my freedom, I asked for something I wanted even more: for somepony – anypony – to help that poor boy I’d seen in my dreams.

He’s not the one I’m supposed to save. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but really, I don’t care what anypony says. He didn’t deserve what was happening to him, and it wasn’t right that nopony in the entire world – past, present, or future – cared.

So the evening started out with a quiet plea for mercy, but by the time the Moon was halfway across the sky and had listened to a meandering rant about my problems for the second night in a row, I’d made up my mind.

I was gonna save that boy. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know what kind of bucked up sideways Leonardo DaWhinny mission I was actually being sent on, or who the filly in the drawing was, but I didn’t give a buck. I was the only pony in the entire Universe who cared whether that boy lived or died, and that kinda left me no choice, did it?

All them thoughts were flooding my head and getting knocked around inside - bumping into one another like kernels of popcorn, but then everything calmed for a moment. Just calmed. And I finally got an answer of sorts. The Moon can do that for you sometimes, if you let it do it in its own way.

See, when I finally realized that I was the boy’s only hope, I looked up to that glorious Full Moon and felt a sense of solace – of peace. That’s how the great black sky-mystery answers you when you shut up long enough to listen. It answers you in feelings.


I was gonna go back. I was gonna find the filly behind the wall, and I was gonna save the mystery colt if I had to tear the whole darn Wasteland apart to do it.

Down the hatch. Time for some Sleepy Tea to calm my nerves.

I lay in bed waiting for the magic to happen. I didn’t even have any cookies with my tea! That’s how serious I was! Okay, maybe two cookies (two and a half, really, if you count that little piece that I picked up after it fell to the floor). The point is: I was finally getting some sleep. I was going back to the Wasteland, and there was no turning back.

Roseluck came to check in on me one last time before I passed out.

“I got this!” I told her, with my pluckiest smile.

She nodded - promised to be right down the hall in her bedroom if I needed her, but I could see right through her. She was lying right through her teeth. When the door closed, Rose didn’t make any hoofsteps. None at all. Cause she didn’t go to her room. She just sat there right outside of my door, keeping watch like one of those lion statues I was talking about that they have over at the Manehattan Public Library. Knowing her, she’d probably be there all night long. Poor Roseluck.

Anyway, just before my eyelids got real heavy, it crossed my mind how foolish and insane the whole expedition was. I mean, I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even know where I would be going.

What would Mom think if she knew I was doing something so reckless – so stupid? That her precious baby was leaping unarmed into the mouth of danger?

I started to panic. The world around me was fading to black.

There’s nothing scarier than leaping off a diving board only to realize too late that the pool don’t have no water. I got drowsy. I’d taken the plunge, and there was nothing left to do but wait until I smacked face-first against the bottom.




* * *


You know that feeling during hot summers, when it burns to breathe and the air you suck in feels like it weighs a thousand million pounds? Wasteland air is like that, even when it’s cold.

My awakening into the world of the future was a lot less jarring than it was the first time. No flash, no screams of millions, no piles of rubble to climb out of – just a few sparks, a mouth full of burning air and a bit of a coughing fit.

I rubbed my eyes and got my first good look at the scenic Equestrian Wasteland under what passed for the light of day. I’d been right the first time. The future sucks.

I leaned back. There was some kind of brick wall behind me. The horizon was broken and vast in all directions, but behind that one sturdy wall, I could hear sounds of life. Machinery turning. Ponies moving all around. Hoofbeats.

Alright, Rose Petal. Time for a peek.

I sucked in a chest full of Wasteland air and poked my head around the corner, all careful-like. Those cloaky jerkfaces with the daisy-patterned cloaks were everywhere. Wandering around, going to and fro.


I watched the cloaks for a while. They all seemed to be going more to than fro. The whole pack of them were sort of meandering toward the Mane Hall – this big clock-towery-looking building at the center of what appeared to be a normal (if a little run down) pony town.

This was it. The mouth of danger I’d been talking about – that swimming pool without any water in it. It almost seemed anticlimactic. Everypony in the town just sorta strolled along, minding their own business.

I crept around the corner. The coast was clear, so I kept going and darted over to the next building to get a closer look. Other folks in the square were hanging around too, not just the cloak-o’s. They all had on some variant of that pink cloth with the yellow daisy print. Colts had it on their ties, mares on their ribbons and fanciest hats. Like the cloak-o’s, every last one of the civilians was making their way toward the Mane Hall at the center of town, which, I noticed, was kept in really, really good condition, considering the fact that the rest of the village was a total dump.

I watched this little town go about its day for I don’t know how long. But it all seemed pretty normal. Then it dawned on me. I’d envisioned a compound full of cloaked evil do-ers, cackling over a stew, or chaining fillies up in dungeons or something. Stereotypes as flat and unoriginal as the zebra in the war poster I’d seen. But what if this wasn’t as simple as all that?

What if I’m storming a compound full of good ponies?

I locked up in terror. I might have to face the one thing worse than death – worse than capture – worse than torture! A socially awkward situation.

I tip-hooved closer to the action. I pressed my back against the side of some house or another, only to end up with a mane full of wet paint. It was not my lucky day.

I ran my hooves through my hair to try to clean it off, but only ended up with green all over myself. Finally, I just ignored the stupid mess and poked my head around the corner to get a closer look. I was so close to the mane square that I could actually throw a rock at one of the cloak-o’s if I wanted to.


Tock!

I spun around at the sound of hoof steps suddenly behind me. There were four cloak-o’s standing right there!

Darn it, Rose! A warzone is no place for thinkiness!

I crouched down low to avoid being seen. They were talking amongst themselves, flanks to me. It was only a matter of seconds before they noticed my presence and took it upon themselves to cook me or something! One of their tails flicked unexpectedly, and I had to duck just to avoid brushing up against it. And by “duck” I mean “fall over.”

Before they could even turn around, I dashed straight for the house I’d been leaning on, and yanked open the first door I could find. I threw myself inside, and swung the sturdy little door behind me as quietly as I could. I was heaving and panting so loud that I’m still legitimately surprised that the whole darn town couldn’t hear me.

But nopony followed.


It was dark inside. Not pitch dark, just dim. Apart from the crimson curtains, and a few knick-knacks on display in the windows where everypony could see them, the actual livable interior of the house was a horror show. Broken moldy furniture. A steadily dripping leak from Celestia-only-knows where in the ceiling. Warped floorboards.

The only decoration that seemed to be purely for the owners’ pleasure was a framed piece of needlepoint artwork – (you know, the kind that usually has “HOME SWEET HOME” or some other lame saying sewn clumsily into the fabric)? Well this one said “PURITY CORRUPTS,” and it hung proudly on the wall just over the indoor pipe chimney of a coal stove.

It would take one sick buck to sit there in his Co-Z-Colt every night, (or in this case, pile of wooden crates), look up at the mantle and draw inspiration from something like that. I didn’t know much about whoever lived here, but I didn’t like her. I needed to get out of there. Fast.

I snatched a daisy print hoofkerchief off the back of the chair, and tied it around my neck. If I was going to have any hope of blending in, I was going to have to wear one of those stupid things.

Peering out from behind the curtains, I could see the four-pack of cloak-o’s laughing, making their way toward the Mane Hall and merging with the rest of the herd. Spared for now.

I came to the obvious conclusion that I was in way over my head. I didn’t know anything about any of these ponies at all. Their strengths. Their weaknesses. Their hobbies (apart from bad needlepoint). All I could surmise was that they were totally nuts, and that there were a lot of them.

Get the buck out of town. Get out now! The little pony in my head tried to talk sense into me, but I wasn’t having any of it.

“Shut up, pony!” I said out loud in a whisper.

I was in the future for a reason. The girl behind the wall. The boy that time forgot. Some bucking answers! They were all in that big town hall-ish looking place, and I had to at least try to get my hooves on them.

I was just about ready to tip-hoof out the door, but when I backed away from the window, I didn’t find the door where I’d left it. Instead, I found a married couple, all dressed up in their finest clothes, staring at me, jaws agape. I know it must be odd to wander into your living room and find a total stranger standing there, getting green paint all over your curtains, but I gotta tell you, I wasn’t prepared for the stallion of the house to stumble backwards over a chair and shriek like a little girl in blind terror when he saw me. I cringed and leapt backwards, and found myself tangled in a window curtain which I then proceeded to panic and flail and thrash around in, till the whole darn thing came crashing down on me, and destroyed the precious tchotchkes of the ponies whose home I’d just broken into.

“Sorry!” I called out instinctively.

I made for the exit, dragging curtain and rod and just about everything else in the house with me. They made no effort to stop me, but that stallion wouldn’t stop shrieking. I flung open the door and bolted right on out of there. Toward the outside. Away from those crazy ponies. Away from the cloak-o’s. Away from the whole stupid compound.

At least that was my intention. The curtain had other plans. The rod caught on the doorframe, and like a fish on a hook, I snapped backwards when the cloth tugged on my belly. Sitting there on the floor like a dummy, I squirmed and tugged and yanked at the curtain until it tore away from the rod, and I fell forward flat on my face.

That’s right, Rose. Blend in.


In little more than an instant, I was out of view of the married couple. They stood in the doorway, staring out into the hustle and bustle in utter confusion, while I was already halfway into the herd. I threw the curtain around myself like it was a cape, and acted like I totally belonged there.

My daisy print hoofkerchief needed straightening, so I tugged at it daintily. Just act natural, and nopony will notice that you’re wearing the window treatment of the house you just vandalized.

At least that’s what I thought. But once I looked up and actually observed the crowd, I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. A young couple marching beside me stopped right in their tracks and stared at me in horror.

“Um…Nice day, Ma’am?” I laughed nervously.

They backed away without saying a word. An old guy did the same. One by one all the ponies in the crowd took notice, and every last one of their jaws dropped. That’s when I realized what was wrong with the picture. It wasn’t how I wore my kerchief. It wasn’t that they didn’t know me. It wasn’t even that I was wearing the tattered remains of some strange couple’s curtain. All around me were dozens, maybe even hundreds of ponies dressed in their best, which, when you looked at closely, may as well have been tailored out of curtains.

But among them was not a single child.


I gulped.

This town had no fillies. No colts. No foals. Just sad, terrified grown-ups. Every last one of them was staring at me slack-jawed. This wasn’t a situation I could bluff my way through.

I dashed for the exit – the way out of the compound – wherever the hay that was. The good news is, the crowd couldn’t wait to part for me. Like a blade cutting waves in the water, I sliced a path through the crowd.

Then, suddenly cloak-o’s. A wall of them. They weren’t the slightest bit timid.

I skidded to a halt in front of the goons, thrusting a cloud of dust in their faces. They coughed and rubbed at their eyes and reached for me in blind confusion. I shrieked so hard I sounded like an amateur flutist. That actually was enough to startle them believe it or not.

Then I somersaulted (not in that acrobatic Wonderbolts kinda way, but more in a I’m Falling All Over Myself And So Totally Not Doing This On Purpose kinda way), and came up galloping. Galloping in the wrong direction, straight toward the Town Hall building only a few steps away.

The sight of more cloak-o’s coming from the other side made me miss my step, trip on my own curtain, fall face first, and scrape my whole cheek against the ground.

When I opened my eyes, there was a concrete wall right in front of me, with a little hole chiseled away in it, and peeking from the other side was this eye staring right at me. The One I’m Meant to Save. Just like in the drawing.

Holy Celestia, I thought as I stared in wonderment.

“Don’t worry.” I finally said to her. “I’m gonna rescue you.”

I leapt to my feet. Cloak-o’s on both sides. There was absolutely no way to rescue her. There was absolutely no way out! I had maybe a few seconds before the jerkfaces caught me.

“Purity corrupts!” I shouted completely and totally out of nowhere.

That gave them pause. I was only buying a few seconds, but hay, it was better than nothing. They stopped, muttered some garbledygook amongst themselves, nodded, and started closing in on me just the same.

“So you um…” I did my best to stall a little longer. “You better watch out because I’m full of…uh…purity, and I might…um…corrupt… you?” I cracked a smile.

I am so bucked.

They grabbed me without so much as a rebuttal. Not even the common courtesy of a mwa-ha-ha. Just flung me over their shoulder like I was a sack of flour.

Then the son of a bitch clocked me on the head.


* * *


The light was pretty dim, but it was enough to drill into my brain like a drill of unpleasanty drillness. So I kept my eyelids shut. Darn it, my head hurt.

Am I home? I thought. Was that it? Was that all? Was it finally done with?

I turned myself over and groaned. Cold, gritty ground beneath me. No. I was definitely still in the Wasteland. I sucked in a shallow breath. The unconscionable stink confirmed my suspicion.

I wiped my eyes, rubbed my throbbing head and tried to figure out what in Luna’s name was going on.

A female voice was ranting about something or other, over what sounded like a tinny old loud speaker.

Innocence,” She said. “It was innocence that caused the waste and the ruin that you see when you look out your windows to the lands beyond our compound.

I blinked. Metal grating in front of my face. Bars. I was in some kind of cage. If I squinted real hard, I could just barely focus enough to make out the rest of the room – rows and rows and rows of other cages extending out into the blur.

Innocence of hate. Innocence of war.

It was hard as heck not to throw up. I probably would have hurled had my throat not been so dry.

Not yet. I said to myself. I added “throwing up” to my mental to-do list. First and foremost, as messed up as I was, I needed to try to assess my situation.

We all know the truth - that life is turmoil – that life is pain.

“Wuh?” I murmured. It all felt so dreamlike. I’d blink for a moment and suddenly see bars again. Then I’d forget where I was, and have to process everything all over again.

“Cage. Hmm.” I coughed.

190 years of poison – of darkness, and only now are you – you chosen – you few, learning the truth. Living the truth.

The room was fairly big, and on the far end of it sat a couple of cloaks.

“Oh, yeah. Those guys.” I whispered calmly from the depth of my stupor.

They seemed to be gathered around a glass screen with blurry images on it. I think it was flickering pictures of the mare giving the lame speech. I wished she would shut up.

The truth is that innocence is a disease. And that purity inevitably corrupts.

There was a cold metal water dish a few inches from my face. That water was more important than some yammery phantom voice in the distance. It was real, it was in front of me, and I needed some.

The only Universal Truth is that the world – the Wasteland – is an ugly place.

Why did I have a steel water dish in front of me again? Was I a cat? (Strange things cross your mind when you first come to after getting conked on the head).

If you come to expect strife from the world…

Once I got a few gulps down and a splash or two across my face, I was able to surmise that I was not, in fact, a cat. I could see and hear a little better too, which was kind of unfortunate, since that lady that the cloak-o’s were watching was starting to get on my last nerve.

And betrayal from your fellow pony…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I squinted. Tried to get a better view. Tried to get my bearings. Two cages down from me, there was a faint green glow. The entire cage just kinda glowing for no reason at all. I groaned. Weird stuff like that made bearing-getting next to impossible. Couldn’t I wake up to a normal dungeon?

…Accept this in your hearts, and you will come to experience the absolute bliss of never, ever knowing disappointment.

“Shut up!” I muttered and passed right out again.


The only reason I even remember half of that weird anti-innocence speech is that the cloak-o’s listened to it again and again and again during my stay in their stinky old stinkhole. Honestly, at the time I came to, the whole thing was just a blur.

But after a long, dreamless sleep, I was myself again, and ready to freak out good and proper-like. First I noticed the cracked concrete floor under my belly. Again. Then the rusty metal digging into me from both sides. Again. Then it all just sorta hit me at once. I was in a cage.

A cage! There had been a chase, and a parade of tacky daisy cloth. The cloak-o’s had captured me. My Luna! The cloak-o’s – they’re everywhere! And they’d…captured me!

Just like the boy I saw two nights before!

I was suddenly sharply aware of my surroundings. I was in a basement with dozens of other kids, all in cages. It was dark. It was cold. It was nasty and horrible, and it smelled bad and the room had ponies in it who wanted to do mean and terrible things to us, and I think I even saw a maggot and ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew!

I leapt up and banged my skull on the roof of the cage. Not good for my headache. I put my hoof to my head, and came away with a whole bunch of green crust.

I screamed. I was rotting! I was becoming a zombie! Or, wait, was it paint? Yeah, definitely paint.

“Calm down, Rose.” I said. “There’s a way out of this.”

I banged against the door to my cage with my hooves. It wouldn’t open no matter how hard I jiggled it. I bucked at the bars on my left, then my right. Tested all four sides plus the ceiling and the floor. There was no way out.

That’s why they call it a cage, dummy.

I couldn’t believe it! I was stuck. I’d lost. They were gonna do awful things to me. I’d never get to stop the war! I was gonna die! Roseluck would never ever see me again!

The bottom seemed to drop out from under me, and I felt a sickness in my stomach. A guilt. Roseluck was gonna be all alone in the world. Shivering. Shaking. Crying because I’d abandoned her. The worst thing anypony could ever possibly do.

How could I have been so crazy to try something like this? So selfish?

I took deep, nasty breaths, and spun around and around and around in place, I didn’t have room to pace back and forth.

“Omigosh, omigosh, omigosh, omigosh, omigosh.” I said.

My hoof hooked on a water dish, and splashed cold, fetid water everywhere.

“Hey, watch it!” Said a yellow colt behind me. He was trying to sleep.

“Sorry!” I whispered.

I looked all around, but I couldn’t find a single familiar face. “Hay, has anypony seen…”

It occurred to me that I had no idea what this kid actually looked like. “Um…A colt…I’m looking for a friend, you see. Well, he’s not really a friend, more like…he’s got, um…well, he’s got this really, really, really sad look in his eyes, you know?”

The other kids looked away from me. Like I didn’t even exist.

I guess they all had their own problems, and didn’t have time for my stupid hysterics.

I spun quickly to face the filly on the other side of me – a pink unicorn barely older than a foal. She wasn’t like the others at all. This one looked me right in the eye.

“You gotta help me,” I whispered. “How do we get outta here?”

“Fucked if I know, kid.” She said.

A real curse word. A hardcore curse word. The first I’d ever heard (bitch doesn’t count) – and from a filly so cute and squeaky!

“That guy’s busted out of his cage four times,” She continued. “Still hasn’t gotten nowhere.”

She gestured to the blue and purple unicorn beside her. The one in the glowy cage.

“I can escape any time I want.” He said in a strange accent. “Dees cage ees nothing!”

“Yuh-huh.” Said the little girl.

“Ees cheating! Skull Stomper, he use a force-a-field. His horn route through a maneframe, amplify signal like coward.” Said the foreign kid without bothering to turn and face any of us.

The aforementioned stomper of skulls appeared, pacing down the row of cages. He was a big brutish unicorn, but the foreign kid didn’t care. He shot his mouth off just the same.

“Hey, you! You call dees cage? In my country, we make cage. Twenty times stronger than your cage! We have to make bigger cages just to contain our smaller cages because these cages we make, they are so scary.”

Skull Stomper ignored him, though his eye twitched in anger. He wanted to beat us all into a pulp. He wanted to yell at us. He would take special pleasure in killing the loudmouth. But he did nothing.

He’s under orders not to talk to us. I realized.

“Not like dees cage!” The foreign kid spat - literally spat. “Dees cage is shit!”

Then Skull Stomper was gone.

“I don’t think you should do that.” I said.

“Ees coward. Ees afraid.”

“That guy is totally afraid,” I said. “But not of you.”

“What do you know?” He snapped.

“Leave the new kid alone.” Said the tiny filly next to me. “You can’t get out of here, neither. Even when you slipped out the cage, you were always right back down here in the shit with the rest of us a few minutes later.”

“I could have escaped any time.” The foreigner smiled warmly. “But you - I like you too much. I could never leave all y’all wonderful ponies behind.”

His attempted use of the word “y’all” was unnerving.

The pink girl just stared him down and rolled her eyes. “You mean you couldn’t leave your girrrrrrlfriend behind.”

“She’s not my girlfriend!” The foreigner whined, his slick façade crumbling away.

“Oooooooh,” Came a bunch of voices from cages scattered throughout the room.

He pouted and blushed. That’s when I stopped paying attention. I’d heard enough.


The cloak-o’s huddled around their console way off in the corner of the room. Three of them. Listening to the same old speech.

If you come to expect strife from the world, and betrayal from your fellow pony, you will begin to learn the truth – to live the truth. When you accept this in your hearts, you will come to experience the absolute bliss of never, ever knowing disappointment.”

The evil ponies were all so confident that they’d won, that they didn’t even pay us a wink of attention. And why shouldn’t they be confident? We were bickering in our cages while they were unified in whatever bucked up ideology those stupid cloaks represented.

I covered my ears. The other kids were razzing each other pretty good now, and it had started to get loud.

I was a foal to think I could do something good. I thought. To think I could save that kid. Or even help the one I was supposed to come here for. The whole thing is stupid.

It occurred to me then that maybe the reason that good ponies do nothing in the face of evil is that it’s just plain not worth it. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get your moment in the Sun, but it’s the best you can hope for. A single triumph. A glorious memory. When it’s all over, everything just goes back to the way it was. Or worse.

Even Diamond Tiara, who was just an everyday schoolyard jerk, had retaliated with a war against me back home that, honestly, I didn’t have the energy to keep up with, or even resist.

The teasing just got louder and louder, so I curled into a ball, buried my head in my legs, and cried. None of that single tear stuff, either. I bawled.

The night before may have been Roseluck’s time for coming apart, but in Jerkland, I had nopony left to stay strong for. So I totally lost it, and heaved ‘till I was gasping for air. For some stupid reason, I moaned the same five words again and again while I did it. I didn’t know where they came from, or why I was saying it, but they were only words that could squeeze their way past my teeth were “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

With all the snot and the sobbing and the gargling in the back of my throat, just that one thought hung at the center. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

Finally, when I was fresh out of crying, I felt a tiny hoof on my shoulder. It only just barely grazed me, since it was struggling so hard to fit through the bars, but it was enough to get me to turn around.

There was the jaded pink unicorn in the cage beside me. She was so tiny I thought she might fit in a saddlebag. I could tell from her droopy eyes that she was totally exhausted, but still, she took the time and the energy to reach out and touch me, simply because she knew I needed to be touched. (That or she was trying to shut me up; my caterwauling must have been pretty annoying).

“Sorry,” I said with a big loud sniffle. That word again. Sorry.

She cracked a warm smile. “Yeah, I gathered.”

That made me laugh. “This whole thing was stupid,” I said. “I should never have come.”

“If you came here on purpose, yeah, that’s pretty fucking stupid.”

I stared at her. It was amazing. This little girl had developed a talent for saying the coldest, harshest, most insulting things in the Universe, and yet, she had a way of making you smile when she did. I’d never seen anything like it.

“It’s not stupid.” A voice from the corner. Through the many rows of bars, I could just barely make out a yellow, pink and red earth pony filly perched on a stone jutting out of the wall in her cage. The hole she’d been peering through to the outside world shined a pale light on her. She was The One I’m Meant to Save.

“I saw what you tried to do.” She said softly, hiding behind her own raggedy bangs.

She shrugged her shoulders up so high that she was actually hiding behind those as well. “It was like, the bravest thing ever.”

“What?” I said. “No. I’m not…You really think…”

She shrunk back and murmured something to herself.

“But…Huh?” I asked her earnestly.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Said the pink girl who’d seemed so jaded just moments before.

“Yeah,” I sniffed bitterly. “Those cloak-o’s will do that later.”

“Dem guys?” She giggled brightly. “Nah.”

I perked up. I couldn’t have heard that correctly.

“They want us in good shape for when they sacrifice us to their fucked up whack-a-doo god.”

I must have looked like such a doof, because she giggled right at me and explained.

“Some crazy bullshit about how children everywhere are responsible for The War. And their god is hungry for innocence, or something. I don’t fucking know.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I know, right? Heard it in one o’ dem sermons. They cycled it out the day before you showed up.”

“Please stop it.” Whimpered The One I’m Meant to Save.

“What?” Snapped the pink filly beside me. “She’s gonna find out soon anyway. She should hear it from a friend.”

Okay, now, I definitely wasn’t hearing right.

“You’re my friend?” I was in shock.

“Sure.” She said.

“Why?”

The pink girl stopped and looked at me funny. “Whattaya mean why?” She mimicked my tone. “Why the fuck not?”

“Well, I dunno.” I said. “Maybe cause we’re all gonna die soon?”

“So?”

I shrugged. “I always thought that was the kind of thing, you know, ponies wouldn’t want to be around for.”

I’d given the subject a great deal of thought, believe it or not. Roseluck is the kindest, most amazing, awesomest sister in the history of ever, but she was way older than me. Once you did the math, the outcome seemed kinda obvious.

“I always thought I would, like, be alone when it was time for me to…you know.” I continued with another shrug. “I kinda liked it that way.”

“Jeez, kid. I thought I was fucked in the head.”

What is up with all these crazy ponies? I thought. First Cliff Diver, then this girl. They stick around when the going got tough, and act like it’s some kind of privilege to be there for all the stuff in your life that sucks. It didn’t make any sense. I kept waiting for the other horseshoe to drop.

“Hay, don’t leave me hanging.” She snapped

I shook myself out of my daze. Her hoof was reaching out to me, squeezing through the bars as far as it would go.

“Twinkle Eyes.” She said.

“Rose Petal.” I said nervously, and bumped hooves with her.

“Look, you don’t wanna do the death pact thing, that’s cool.” She giggled. “Death pacts are for squares anyway.”

“Are you two really having dees conversation?” Said the foreign kid.

“Shut the fuck up.” Snapped Twinkle Eyes.

“In my country, when a pony make a death pact, it is twenty times more--;”

“Don’t you make me come over there.” Twinkle growled through the bars.

“I’ll do it.” I said.

Silence. Twinkle turned to face me.

“Nah, forget it, kid. You don’t have to--;”

“We stick together.” I said firmly. “Like friends.”

She looked me in the eyes, and nodded solemnly. Back home, other little girls were swearing oaths about their cutie marks, and what they’d do over summer vacation. I’d just made a bucking death pact.

“No.” I decided I hadn’t made a death pact, after all. “We hold each other’s hooves till the end, but it’s not gonna end like that. It’s gonna be alright.”

“If you say so.” She said.

I plopped down and snuggled against her end of the cage. For hours. It was the most comfortable silence I’d ever known outside of Roseluck’s company. Twinkle braided my mane through the bars as best she could, (which is to say, not very good at all). For a little while, she was no longer afraid. Oddly enough, neither was I.


Eventually, I asked the big question. It took me a while (not because I’d been afraid to ask it before; I just didn’t want to ruin the moment).

“Twinkle Eyes?” I asked.

“Yeah?” Said the tiny filly.

“Why’d you pick me out? To be your friend, I mean.”

“Oh,” She said all matter-of-fact-like. “You’re one of the good ones. I can tell.”

One of the good ones.

“Not like this cockwaffle over here.” She gestured at the unicorn behind the glow.

“Bah!” He said. “What do you know? Friends, they just disappear on you anyways.”

“Yeah. Purity corrupts, huh?”

Every muscle in his body tensed. I could tell that one stung. He even lowered his brow at me and puffed up his chest with aggressive breaths. But really, in him, I saw only sadness. I could tell that, even two whole cages away.


* * *


We were locked up down there for a while. Like, a really, really, really, really, really, really, really long time. When you’re stuck in a cage, even if there are dozens of other kids in the same room, you end up sitting through these long horrible stretches of dead silence. You lie around. You drift in and out of sleep so much, you lose track of whether you’ve been there for hours, or days, or even weeks. The terror of facing death by ritual sacrifice is nothing compared to the dull, dull, dull reality of sitting there, bored out of your skull and waiting for it to actually happen.

“Misty Mountain.” Said the foreign kid in the glowy cage. Completely out of the blue.

“What?” Snorted Twinkle Eyes, half asleep.

“My name. Ees Misty Mountain.”

“Save your applause for the end, fillies and gentlecolts.” Said Twinkle. “It has a name.”

Misty stuck his tongue out at her. “I want somepony to know my name before they bury me alive. So shoot me.”

Everypony had a different theory about how they were going to kill us. I hadn’t heard the infamous Sacrifice Them All To Xanthrados or Whatever speech yet, so my theory had less to go on than others’, but part of me hoped that it would somehow involve a catapult.

“Pbbbt!” Twinkle Eyes blew the colt a raspberry.

“Where are you from, Misty?” I asked earnestly before an argument could break out.

“Eet does not matter.” He said heavily.

“Hmmph.” I said.

So much for trying to reach out to the boy.

“I told you he was an asshole.”

“Fine. I come from all over. Romane-ia as foal, then Jerhooveselem, then sunny Fillydelphia. Why you care?”

The whole room hushed. Just like that.

“What? I said.

Twinkle, of course, was the first to break the tension. “You fucking liar.”

She threw a pebble at him. The other kids joined in and started booing.

“What?” I said.

“You believe this guy?” Said the yellow colt behind me, who later introduced himself as Butterscotch.

“What’s wrong with Romane-ia?”

Then, just like that, they were all looking in my direction.

“What? I mean…Jerhooveselem?”

Even the shy girl in the corner – The One I’m Meant to Save – actually squeaked in shock. “Fillydelphia.” She shuttered

“So we’re not talking about Jerhooveselm or Romane-ia?”

The other kids just kept on staring.

“What?” I was starting to get annoyed.

“No, we’re not talking about Jerhooveselem, or Romane-ia. I never even heard of Jerhooveselm.” Said Butterscotch.

“Never heard of Jerhooveselem? Never heard of Jerhooveselem?!” Snapped Misty. “Let me tell you! In old country, we have dees yogurt. Ees twenty times bette--;”

“Would you shut up?” Twinkle and I said in unison.

“Harrumph.” He replied. “You don’t want to hear about de yogurt, you don’t get to hear about de yogurt.”

Twinkle turned to me. “You really never heard of Fillydelphia?”

“No.” I replied. A white lie. Of course I’d heard of it, but the Wasteland kids and I were clearly not talking about the same city.

“What are you, some kinda stable girl?” Came a voice from the far end of the room.

“A wha?”

“No, she ain’t got no Pip Buck.” Butterscotch grumbled.

“Her teeth are too white to be from anywhere else.” Another voice nearby.

I was arousing suspicion!

“Yeah, I’m a stable girl.” I snapped, trying to think fast. “So?”

Not the smartest move, I know, but else what was I supposed to say? Hi, I’m Rose Petal, this is all a dream, and I am actually a traveler from Equestria’s semi-utopian past?

They weren’t buying it though, so I embellished a little. “Been a stable girl my whole life.” I nodded proudly. “I just don’t have a, um…Pip Duck.”

In retrospect, they probably all woulda laughed at me for that had they not been so stunned at my ignorance.

“Now who ees liar?” Misty smirked.

I turned to him. “What’s wrong with you, you jerk? You know, I’m the only pony here who believed you about Fillydelphia even a little bit.”

That shut him up. I was starting to see why Twinkle Eyes hated him so much.

“Now would somepony please explain?”

The hum of distant machinery. The buzz of fluorescent lights. Silence. Just like that, everypony had stopped caring about my white teeth and my stupid Pip Duck. I honestly didn’t know what the hay was wrong with Fillydelphia, but the fact that somepony would have to explain it to me inspired some sort of strange solemnity. Had we been wearing hats, every last child in that room would have taken them off in reverence and horror.

“Slavers.” Misty said at long last.

“As in…slavery?” I asked.

“Yes, slavery.”

I was vaguely familiar with the concept from pirate novels and history books I’d read. The reality was too terrible to even picture – a world where one pony could own another – treat them like sheep or cows. I imagined a pen full of ponies, standing in the middle of Harmony Bell square, forced to watch the rest of the city trot and prance and roam free. Just thinking about it nearly made me cry.

“They took over city a long time ago.” Said Misty. “Eenslaved everypony. Has been Hell ever since.”

“The whole city?!” I squeaked.

“Every block. Every apartment. Every roller coaster.” He said.

Roller coasters?

I thought I could handle the Wasteland, but knowing that suffering on such a scale was even possible? It was too much for me to bear. I had been to Fillydelphia. Had cousins there I liked to spent summers with.

“That’s horrible.” I sniffed. “The whole city? Really?”

Twinkle gave me a somber nod.

“But what about you?” I asked Misty. “You seem alright.”

“It wasn’t always like dees.” It pained him to talk of Fillydelphia. That much was plain, but that didn’t explain why he started trembling all of a sudden – acting all nervous-like. He looked away from us all.

“Never mind. You’re right. I lied.” He said. “I never been to your Fillydelphia.”

I didn’t know what had happened to Ponyville in the centuries since The War. But if even the City of Sisterly Love had gone South, I didn’t want to know what had become of my little town. The thought of it made me cold.


* * *


The cloak-o’s had just wrapped up a shift, and were getting ready for what I could only guess was their culty cult-face version of supper when the news hit. The new guard wheeled out a cart with a box on it, and a long wire extending back to the console. Everypony groaned at the sight of it, but as soon as the image flickered on the glass panel, a stillness fell over the rowdy crowd. This was not the orientation film that those who had been there all week had seen. It was something new entirely.

“Good evening, children.” Said the mare we had all heard ranting about the evils of innocence a thousand times over.

A tall lavender unicorn, swathed in white and crimson robes. Not at all what I expected. Her warm, motherly voice and affectionate posture was disarming.

You almost wanted to like her.

“Some of you may feel conflicted and confused about your accommodations, and you have my apologies for that.”

You mean our bucking cages?

“Sadly necessary, under the circumstances.”

A float-a-majig with a bunch of doohickeys on it was hovering in the air beside her. I could see it on the screen.

“What’s that thing?” I whispered to Twinkle.

“Sprite bot.” She said. “It’s filming her.”

The shot switched to a close up from a different angle. I could only presume there were other sprite bots floating around beside her.

“But today is a new beginning.” The strange priestess continued. “This is the day we set you free.”

Misty shot to his hooves. The other kids broke out into a dull roar as Miss Cheerilee used to say. Even the quiet girl in the corner leapt off her ledge and flung herself to the front of her cage to get a better look. We all pretty much presumed the same thing – she was talking about killing us.

“That’s right, my little ponies. You’re free to go. Our little exam is over. Your guidance counselors will be around presently to escort you to safety, and of course, freedom.”

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. The cloak-o’s marched into the room in unison, and formed a line in front of our cages. They were wielding little bats. Those of us who had leaned forward up against our bars were now cringing at the back of our cages.

“Don’t let their appearance fool you. They won’t hurt you.”

Then what the buck are the bats for? I thought.

“…So long as you follow directions and exit in an orderly fashion.” The priestess continued. “Doesn’t that sound fun?”

She tried to force a giggle, but it was utterly soulless. The word “fun” must have tasted like poison on her tongue.

“Your guidance counselors are here to help. And once we’ve thrown you your going away party, they will guide you to your bold new futures.”

A quick look around told me that none of the other kids bought it either. I didn’t know about them, but I was starting to get seriously annoyed. It’s one thing to capture you – to torment you – to enslave you – to destroy you. It’s quite another to do so under the guise of friendship.

I was shaking. Partly out of fear, partly out of rage. I wanted to kill every last cloak-o in the room. Guidance counselors? Guidance counselors?! Really?

They were already escorting fillies and colts out of their cages three at a time. Every last one of them complied. They were paralyzed with fear. We all knew that freedom was not what awaited us beyond those double doors, but even the polite lie of a "bold new future" was just enough hope and uncertainty and confusion to keep us all obedient.

The last thing any cloak-o wants to face is a room full of ponies with nothing left to lose, even if they were just a bunch of little kids.

Then out of nowhere, the quiet girl in the corner started humming. It was just a simple tune, but hearing it made my own terror disappear. It was like riding a speeding train as it flew off a great big old cliff. I had never been on one, of course, but I imagine that just before the big kerplsat, somewhere in there, there’s gotta be like a perfect moment of weightlessness – of peace. Her humming did that to me.


I realized quickly that I knew the tune! It was the one that had been hiding in the back of my head as I drew “The Filly Behind the Wall” for Miss Cheerilee’s art class. She opened her mouth, and meekly started breathing words into the melody.

Old Raiders, yes they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit.

One by one, we all fell quiet. It spread like a fire. I don’t know where the song had actually come from, but something about it was magic. It had the power to make everything else in the world stop, stand completely still and just listen.

But my hooves have been made strong

By the light of the Sun and Moon.

She continued bravely.

It will be taken back for our generation

Triumphantly.”

Other kids were joining in now. Softly. They knew the words. I found out later that it had been some sort of zebra folk song during The War.

“Hey, stop that.” Said one of the guidance counselors, looking around, scanning the cages for the original instigator. He was eying The One I’m Meant to Save suspiciously. Before he reached her cage, I jumped in, and sang as loud as I possibly could, which, as it turns out, it pretty darn loud.

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?"

I knew the words. I don’t know how I knew them. They just sorta spilled right out of me.

It’s all I ever had

Redemption song.

The song was coming to me from a place far beyond hope of making sense – beyond reason. That part of the pony heart that we all share. It was starting to look like art wasn’t half as crazy as music.

The cloak-o poked around, and sniffed out our cages. Finally, he came right up to me, smiled, and stared with the purest hatred he could muster. That’s when Miisty joined in too. I don’t know if he did it specifically to save my flank, or just to be a jerk to the cloak-o, but he sang really loud and sounded like an opera dude, which totally succeeded in diverting his attention.

Eemancipate yourself from mental slavery.

None but ourselves can free our minds.

“He said knock it off!” Shouted another cloak-o, banging his club against Misty Mountain’s little cubicle.

But he didn’t stop. Neither did anypony else. We hummed. We sang. I spat the words out like they were rays of magic anger. Pew pew pew!

Have no fear for toxic energy

None of them can stop the time.

A few minutes ago, there had been rattling in our cages – nervous shaking. Now it was on purpose - a rhythmic hoof-on-steel stomp of protest. It kept the rhythm.

The cloakfaces yelled. They threatened to take away the freedom they’d promised if we didn’t quit disrespecting the instructional video starring their great fearless leader. Swore to revoke our bold new futures.

We didn’t care.

How long will they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look?

Some say it’s just a part of it

Gotta fulfill the book.

Twinkle grabbed my hoof through the bars and smiled at me. It felt good to have a friend, even for a short while. One of the cloak-o’s snarled at our gesture of friendship. We stuck our tongues out and giggled, and turned out attention back to the song.

Won’t you help to sing…


I was reasonably certain even then that it wasn’t going to end well for any of us, but it didn’t matter. We had defied them. We’d exposed their weakness. We sat back with giggles and songs and smiles, and watched them panic like fools.

They were afraid of a bunch of tiny children, even though they had us tucked safely behind metal fences keeping us from doing what we all really wanted to do. A song had scared them all pale.

And no matter what was to come afterward, it was totally worth it to see a bunch of armed cloak-o’s acting like a pack of ragey spazzoids just because they couldn’t handle the fact that a couple of singing schoolfillies.

We’d pay for it later, but that moment - it brought us all together. Like magic. Kids who’d done nothing but bicker mere hours before, holding hooves like true, true friends. When we called out “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?” We meant it. Because we weren’t just singing to ourselves. We were singing to each other.

We knew we were totally bucked, but those songs of freedom, those stolen moments, they’re ours.

The Hard Yellow Line

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CHAPTER FIVE - THE HARD YELLOW LINE


“If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" -Pink Floyd


We had our moment in the Sun. We sang. We smiled. We held hooves as closely as our cages would allow. But it wasn’t long before that all ground to a halt. You see, this young, slender fancy pants cloak-o waltzed in, and started barking orders. All of a sudden, just like that, the goons got their groove back. They quit screaming impotently at us and snapped to attention - even saluted and everything.

It was all the fault of that stupid mare. Just when it was starting to liven up a little bit down there, she had to come along and spoil the fun.

This lady wasn’t like the others. For starters, her cloak was totally clean. Then there was this funky bracelet thingy with a screen and a bunch of dials and stuff, all clamped down good and tight just above her right front hoof. Atop her head, just outside her hood was a silver circlet. It looked almost like a laurel, but with crazy glittery gems and whatnots all over it. You know, just in case we couldn’t already tell that she was some kind of super special snowflake.

After a few murmurs, shrugs, and hoof signals, the cloak-o’s apparently had some sort of a plan. They lined up at attention – stiff and stupid - and awaited the opportunity to spring into action. By the looks on their faces, most of them were itching for the chance.

Our voices wobbled a little bit at the somewhat unsettling turn of events, but we kept it up just the same.

Eventually, after an entire verse of noisy, nervous children vs. eerily silent guards, one of the thugs leaned over and whispered something sheepishly into Captain Super Special Snowflake’s ear.

He leapt back like a startled cat when she snapped at him, then lowered his dopey old head when she growled at him. He stopped and pointed a quivering hoof in my direction.

No, it wasn’t just my direction. It was me. He was pointing at me.

Alright, Rose Petal. It’s okay. It’s okay. Just keep singing. Just keep singing.

“Won’t you help to sing,” My voice cracked. “These songs of freedom.”

Then came the wild gestures from the underling cloak-o. He was clearly explaining something in animated detail. Special Snowflake made a point of not looking in my direction.

Stop it! I chided myself. Quit looking at them! Are you crazy, Rose? Quit looking at them! For the love of Luna what are you doing?! Quit looking at them! They won’t suspect you if you just ignore them and blend in.

Captain Super Special Snowflake clapped her hooves together, and ordered her troops into action. She may have been all busy pretending I was beneath her notice, but she had time to sneak a glance at me out of the corner of her eye. Somehow, it exuded pure contempt.


I gulped. It felt like a giant kickball in my throat. I kept my eyes on the cloak-o’s, figuring my doom would be coming from that direction at any moment. They were all humiliated grumble-grumbles and shrugs when they were talking to each other; and all ferocious Yes, Ma’am! No, Ma’am! when dealing with Super Special Snowflake over there.

Slowly but surely, though, all eyes drifted to me, and one by one, all their hooves pointed in my direction. For me they had nothing but hard eyes and gritted teeth. Those dumb-dumbs had decided I was some kind of ringleader.

My heart pounded so hard each beat felt like a sonic rainboom in my chest. I was in serious trouble. Not gee I’m sorry I broke the vase trouble either. Every bone in my body urged me to rattle the door to my cage - to cry and moan and thrash and panic and flail. I wanted to scream, “It wasn’t my idea! It was the quiet girl in the corner! The Girl I’m Meant to Save. She started it! It was all her idea! It wasn’t me, I swear, I swear, I swear! Blame her!”

Had to bite my lip just to keep from saying it out loud. I mean really bite it. ‘Till it bled. Finally, I couldn’t hold my tongue anymore, so I just threw my whole weight into the song again, to keep my fool mouth from giving away The One I’m Meant to Save.

I sang loudly. Badly. It was all I could do to keep from screaming.

“How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?”

Not so inspiring when the “prophet” is you.


* * *


The cloak-o’s took their sweet time in regrouping, but when it was time for the round up, they came for me first. That’s right. First. Singular. They took us out of our cages one at a time. Because nothing in the world scares a dozen armed goons more than a pair of shivering kindergarteners - or worse yet, a trio.

I don’t consider myself a brave pony. But the cloak-o’s cowardice – their fear of herding us out more than one at a time - really added insult to injury.

They’d sent a regular old unicorn to fetch me. No clubs. No shouting. Just a slow trot clapping against the concrete, as he came my way. He knelt down and sneered at me with a mouth full of rotten teeth. When the cage door opened up, I cringed.

“It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me.” I muttered.

Curled up into a ball, I anticipated the beating of a lifetime. But nothing happened. He just levitated me right off the ground like I was a sack of flour. No beatings necessary. As suddenly as it had started, I found myself cowering on the ground again. It made me feel like a total foal, but I guess that was the point.

I looked down. I was right in front of a yellow line. The concrete all around us was cracked and broken, but the paint job on that line was unusually pristine. I looked up. A great big old goon warned me not to cross it.

The singing had stopped. All eyes were on me. The ringleader. The rebel.

I could feel the smugness of the grown-ups around me. They had a song of their own in their hearts and it wasn’t about freedom.

Kids, the guard beside me, Captain Super Special Snowflake. It didn’t matter. Every last one of them held their breath, waiting to see what I would do next. Even the long row of saluting cloak-o’s broke formation just enough to lean forward and get a better look. Would I cross the line? Would I hang around behind the line, waiting my turn to die like an obedient chump?

I dug my hooves into the concrete. Felt the grit crunch beneath them. The big guy next to me licked his lips. He wanted me to step over that line so bad he was salivating. The moment of truth had come and every grain of dirt beneath me seemed to echo throughout the entire room.

I didn’t cross the line.



Sure, we had hearts full of fire and heads full of lightning when we were singing, but when push came to shove, we’d all keep our hooves where we were told to keep ‘em. I was certain of it. Even then, when I was still so idealistic.

The jailer jingled his keys in front of the next cage. I just stood there, head hung humble and low till the cloak-o to my right escorted me around the corner, and far out of sight of the rest of the kids. It was a relief. My friends wouldn’t have to witness my shame.

The cloak-o grumbled that he wouldn’t get to try out his shiny new whomping stick (which he had probably named Big Carl or something like that), and went back to his post. Guardian of the Yellow Line. It was probably some kinda high honor in the Ancient Order of the Sacred Wackadoo or whatever these jerk faces called themselves, but at the end of the day, he was nothing but a hall monitor with a license to kill.

I looked up and studied my surroundings. I could actually do that with the Guardian of the Yellow Line gone. The second room was even bigger than the first, and lined wall to wall with cages.

How many kids do they have? I thought. How many kids did they need?!

They were opening up of cages quicker in there, and processing them two or three at a time. This batch hadn’t rebelled or sung, so they apparently weren’t scary enough to warrant the one-at-a-time treatment.

There was not much to do but quiver and wait, so I just kept scanning the crowd, desperately looking for signs of that one kid. The one the Universe didn’t care about. I don’t even know why I bothered. It’s not like I could save him. Maybe I just wanted to tell him I was sorry, for whatever good it would do. Either way, I still had to know what had happened to him. I had to know if he was there.

The problem was that there were children absolutely everywhere: some standing behind various painted lines far, far apart from one another on opposite ends of the room; some huddled in cages; some being herded out of sight - whisked away behind a secret curtain. A lot of us just took it. Hung our heads low – docile, depressed, accepting of whatever horrors awaited us. Others shivered and kissed themselves like crazy nervous little dogs. A few bunched their shoulders up like squirrels and darted their eyes back and forth. They were waiting for the right moment – any moment – to spring into action – any action.

They jittered – hyper-alert. But no moment came. No action came, and worst of all, no sign of the mystery colt.



A stallion marched slowly up and down the room, stiffly lecturing us. We all snapped still as boards. I’m not gonna lie. I did too. The guy was loud.

“The outside world is shrouded with dangerous radiation.” He barked as he passed pamphlets around.

“For this reason,” He continued. “Our nurse will issue you one spoon full of medicine to protect you on your homeward journey. Refusal to comply will result in the cancellation of your homeward journey, and a return to your cage! Are there any questions?”

I don’t think any of us had faith in their staff nurse’s altruistic intentions, but none of us were stupid enough to raise our hooves about it. Truth is: we all had questions, and none of us knew a darn thing. But it did seem increasingly unlikely that what they were gonna do to us would involve a catapult. That of all things made me mad.

When the pamphlet finally made its way to me, I glanced down. It was a thin piece of stamped metal. No trees, no paper. Etched on it were smiling, happy fillies and colts, and in bright bold letters were printed the words “OBEDIENCE AND YOU.”

They had to be joking.



The two kids in front of me were called. Before any of us had any clue what was going on, they disappeared behind that big blue curtain. The last thing they did before they passed out of my sight was throw me desperate pleading looks.

Do something! Is what they would have said if they could.

I wanted to, but do what?! The cloak-o’s had won. We all wanted to do something, (especially those shifty-eyed squirrel kids who were literally waiting for a chance), but so long as there was confusion in the air, and questions racing through our minds, none of us would know when to act or how.

We were supposed to be lost in the chaos, clinging to our stupid yellow lines, and our nurse appointments - desperate for something that kinda, sorta looked a little bit familiar maybe. If there’s order and direction, you do what you’re told, right to the bitter end, even when it means almost certain death. Because there’s that almost part. And no matter how much you want to scream, to shout, to put your hoof over that stupid line just to prove that you can, you don’t. 'Cause while certain death may be impossible to ignore, almost certain death makes a coward out of just about anypony.


* * *


I’m not gonna lie and say I got some genius idea, or some great big amazingly awesome super funky cool burst of fiery courage. No. I just looked too hard, and saw something I wasn’t supposed to see.

I’d been keeping my panicky mind occupied by scanning every inch of the joint looking for that darn colt from my dream - going over every nook and cranny with my eyes. Looking, looking, looking.

Well, just as one of the cloak-o’s clapped a hoof on my shoulder, I saw past the bars, past the cloaks, past the crowd. A door all the way on the other end of the room swung half open – just for a second. On the other end was a wheelbarrow full of bodies.

There were four children in there. Broken. Twisted. Beaten.

Dead.

Nopony had even bothered to shut their eyes.



I know what the dead are supposed to look like. I’d seen it on the one pony in the world I loved the most - the one that I could barely remember. But it was nothing like the sight of those kids. Nothing. This wasn’t peaceful. It wasn't right. There was agony written all over their gaunt little faces. One of them seemed to be looking right at me.

So I stared into the lifeless eyes of a poor anonymous filly. It could have easily been me. Or Twinkle. Or Roseluck back home. Any one of us. Destroyed for no reason at all. I stared at her, and I did what any calm, rational pony would do: I shrieked. I shrieked loud and shrill the way only a little girl can. I did a jittery little dance and shrieked so loud the cloak-o next to me jumped backwards in shock. I was loose!

Next thing I knew I was running. Galloping even. As fast as I possibly could. It was not the graceful act of an elusive escape artist. It wasn’t even an escape. It was just a mad dash of purest crazy.

I dodged the cloak-o’s.

They leapt on me with their full weight, but still, I came up flailing and bucking till I found myself tumbling all over the floor, my hooves entangled all up in something or other. Based on the kicks to the ribs and the sounds that followed, it seemed that they were tripping all over me, and whatever the hay I’d been dragging behind me. The cloak-o’s fell like pins under a bowling ball.

Then my somersaultish thing was all out of momentum, and my face was on the floor. I blinked. Just underneath my chin was that stupid yellow line. In front of me was the long cold room I’d come from – the one that held all the ponies I’d grown to know and love like Twinkle Eyes and Misty and The One I’m Meant to Save.

Right above me was the captain of the cloak-o’s, Super Special Snowflake.

Her cold composure was gone. There was panic there, and confusion. Most of all, blind fury.

From where I lay, Super Special Snowflake looked like a giant. She snorted, stood up tall, raised her front hooves as if to stomp my head. Out came a battle whinny of purest rage.

This is it, I thought.



In a brief moment of lucidity (I have no idea where it came from), I had the presence of mind to reach up and yank her cloak. A jeweled circlet over your hood looks super flashy and super cool, but it also pins your hood to your head. So if you’re a great big scary cloak-o, and you happen to stand up tall on your hind hooves to stomp somepony’s brains out, and then some little kid happens to come along and yank on your cloak, it’s gonna jerk your head in whatever direction the little kid wants it to.

In this case, that direction was straight. Down.

Her neck twisted and contorted in ways that a neck had never been meant to twist or contort. Super Special Snowflake cried out in distress, and then, just like that, there she was - down on the floor, her giant head groaning beside me, looking up at me through a blurry haze of What the buck just happened?

I kicked her face. Then I kicked her again.

I’d never struck another pony before. Ever. But her face was there right in front of me, and to be honest, it scared the pants off of me, (or would have, had I been wearing pants). So I kicked it.

I wasn’t no ninja, but at the sight of me free and kicking cloak-o’s, the rest of the kids burst into cheers, and shouting and jubilation. I supposed it looked like I might have been doing all of that on purpose. They were in for disappointment, though, because all I was really doing was going totally bonkers and freaking out all over the place.



The tide of cloak-o’s was rising against me. The next thing I know, I’m running back down the room I came from. There were the cages, of course, and a hallway at the end of it. I saw Twinkle’s hopeful eyes sparkle as I passed her, and awe on the face of The One I’m Meant to Save. Even Misty sprung to his hooves in a sudden surge of hope.

And then, just like that, I was myself again. Not some panic stricken little girl stampeding her way into chaos and victory. Rose Petal. Me.

I looked back over my shoulder at the guards as I ran, and before I could so much as say “Uh-oh,” a gap in the concrete hooked my hoof, and I went tumbling down. I fell and I fell hard. Pebbles and hunks of concrete scattered from the hole in the ground. I grabbed one to defend myself and spun around.

Way back by the yellow line was Skull Stomper. He was bearing toward me, horn aglow, club raised, levitating effortlessly in the air. Behind him was every single cloak-o I’d ever seen - all in a cluster, creeping toward me like a tight wall.

There was no escaping that way.

Behind me was a hallway that lead Celestia-Only-Knows where. Maybe freedom. Maybe a pit full of eels and fire breathing tree snails. All I had was maybe a few seconds head start. Tops. And not a clue where to go.

Misty pressed his face to the front of the cage. Everything about him screamed If only I were out there. Next to him was Twinkle Eyes. Everything about her said Run!

But I couldn’t run. Not without her. And I definitely couldn’t stay either. That would be just plain bone stupid.

I sprang to my feet. There was one shot to get us all out of there:

The braggart. Everypony hated him, cause he’d escaped four times and never lifted a hoof to help anypony but his girlfriend. But there was more to him than that - I just knew it. He was a better pony than he thought he was.

The cloak-o’s were closing in fast. I threw Misty the firmest of firm looks. Don’t you run off on us. He nodded with the utmost seriousness. Good enough for me.

I had a few seconds left. Skull Stomper was charging at the front of the brigade – his horn still glowing the same color as the force field around Misty’s cage.



The plan was simple: get Skull Stomper to drop the field; trust Misty Mountain to come through. I gripped the hunk of concrete firmly in my hoof and hoped that the Romaneian was as good as he seemed to think he was.

I took aim. One rock. One moving target. One second to make my maneuver. And me – the clumsiest filly in all of Ponyville.

I started at that horn and thought about all the times I’d been picked dead last at sports – the wild pitches I’d thrown. Every absent minded trip. Every stumble. Every time a total stranger gave me a bit too much space when they passed me on the road, (because the whole town knew that Rose Petal the Klutz was a danger to herself and others).

A gazillion-million memories all rushed into my brain at once like floodwater. I tried to focus on that one goon’s glowing horn, but all I could think of was my own foibles. Accidents, injuries, disapproving glares, even supportive but condescending Don’t-you-worry-about-it-dear’s. All of it. Everything. Everything. Everything.

Like drowning in failure.

And then I thought of my friends, and for just one teeny tiny instant there was this silence. All those adorable failures. All the excuses I had ever made for myself – that others had made for me - all my doubt. It all shrunk down into one tiny spot – Skull Stomper’s horn, and it was literally all I could see.

I whispered to myself three simple words. “Not this time.”

And let it fly…



What happened next was so fast, it’s hard to even describe. The hunk of concrete struck true. Green lightning scattered everywhere. The force field went down, and so did Skully - his horn shattered like chalk. He cried and wailed like a little foal, except that it sounded like he had a throat full of hot gravel.

Then I looked up and saw the stampede of cloak-o’s coming straight toward me.

Misty’s horn lit up.

The cart with the movie box suddenly glowed the same color as his horn and flung itself across the floor, but it didn’t trip a single cloak-o. Just shattered like a cheap toy when it hit the ground.

Thanks a lot, Misty. Great work!

I stumbled backwards as the tidal wave of cloaks rushed toward me.

I cringed and waited for it to crash down on me, but then I heard this great big clang. Every water dish from every cage in the room took aim and flung itself against the bars, splashing the cloak-o’s. A giant puddle swept under their hooves. Right into the shattered movie box. Then, just like that, a pile of dead cloak-o’s laying lifeless in a pool full of lightning.

Misty clapped my shoulder. He was already out of his cage.

“You killed them.” I said.

“You are sharp as razor, my friend.” He disappeared behind me.

A glowing key ring flew a-jinglin' at all the cages. The doors swung open almost as fast as the lightning that licked its way across the puddle.
Misty keeps his promises.

A keyring hit me in the head.

“Grab a key,” He said smugly.

“They’re…dead.” I said.

“Am I goot or what?” He called out over his shoulder and laughed. “Come on, let’s open dees and get the fuck out of here, eh?”

I didn’t respond. I had other things on my mind.


* * *


Once the marauding wall of cloaky death was out of the way, I started to feel this tide sweeping me away from the center of the action, down toward the important filly at the end of the hall. The One I’m Meant to Save. The second I saw that Twinkle Eyes was alright and out of her cage, I darted back and answered the call.

Keys out, I galloped straight for the last cage in the joint – the one with a hole and a view. But the cage was already wide open. Misty had a hoof on her shoulder.

She’s your girlfriend?” I said, genuinely shocked.

They both protested at once.

“She’s not my girlfriend!” The foreigner whined, his more childish nature shining through for just a moment.

“I don’t even know this colt!” Growled The One I’m Meant to Save.

“You’re very welcome, now come on!” He charged into the eel hallway, Girl I’m Meant to Save in tow. She looked back at me, utterly confused.

“Go on.” I gestured, and pointed her towards what seemed at the time to be best escape route available.

“Dees a way!” Misty shouted.



I wanted to charge up the eel hallway with them, deal with the girl from my drawing, get the job done, and haul flank out of there. But there were still kids in those cages. Maybe even the one I’d left behind.

As if to prove the urgency of my point, those kids burst into a sudden wave of screams.

I rushed back. The puddle of lightning was drifting slowly toward the row of prison cells - kids still trapped inside. Keys in my mouth, I dove for the nearest locked cage. It was Butterscotch’s.

“Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die.” He said.

“I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!” I flipped through keys, fumbling with my teeth. None of the stupid things fit.

“Come on!” He shouted.

The water was starting to spread and inch up between my legs. One drop of that stuff and I was dead. I stood on the tips of my hooves and screamed.

“MMMMM!” I said, mouth full of keys.

In a few seconds, I would be surrounded by lightning water, and no longer able to escape. Butterscotch slammed his hooves against the cage as I tried to turn the key.

“Don’t let me die! Don’t let me die!” He was sobbing.

“Mmmmm! Mmmm!” I shouted back at him.

I won’t! I won’t!

Or at least I thought I wouldn’t. At the very last second, as I saw the water closing in on me, I leapt out of the way, and landed safely out of the puddle’s range. I watched in horror as it swept right up to the metal cages. That look of blind panic on Butterscotch’s face. The betrayal he felt – the desperation. But what could I have done? I’d stayed until the very last second. I’d done everything I could!

The water swept under them all, and they screamed like yowling cats. The crying was so loud that Misty actually came back, and stood in horror as he realized his error. But it was too late. The water swept under the cages.

I squeezed my eyes shut.

I should have stayed. I thought. Maybe one second longer, and I could have gotten at least one cage open. I should have stayed!

After about a minute of solid shrieking, we all opened our eyes, and one by one realized that nothing at all had happened.

The kids in the cages weren’t dead. Just wet.

I turned to Misty Mountain, who looked as rattled and confused as I was.

Twinkle appeared next to me, horn aglow. She levitated the plug from the movie box, which was no longer connected to the wall, and waved it in Misty Mountain’s face.

“Fucking asshole.” She said and dropped it on the ground.

For once, Misty didn’t have a smart answer.

“Come on,” Said Twinkle, magicking the keys into each of the cages one at a time. I grabbed a ring in my tooth and started playing turnkey too.

“Dees is enough! What are you doink? Dey are comink! We must go!” Said Misty. “Now!”

Everypony ignored him. He was the guy who’d left them all to fry. I made for Butterscotch. I didn’t have the nerve to look him in the eye. Not after I’d dodged the puddle and left him for dead. Finally, when I got the door open, he passed me by. He couldn’t look me in the eye either.

“Thanks,” he muttered under his breath, acid on his tongue.

As guilty as I’d felt, that tone made me mad. I wanted to scream at his ungrateful little flank. I could have rushed down the eel hallway by myself; I could have been safe on my way home and halfway out the compound by then, but no! I’d risked everything to get him and everypony else free, and dammit, I’d done everything for him I could! He had to understand that. I couldn’t get the door open in time. That’s all. I just couldn’t do it! It wasn’t my fault.

I couldn’t scream at Butterscotch, so I kicked Skull Stomper’s corpse instead, (because it happened to be near me). Ditching a friend. Stomping on the dead. Yeah, Rose Petal, you’re one of the good ones. Said the little pony in my head.



Misty, recognizing a lost cause when he saw one, levitated a ring of keys, and in a rapid whir of purple glow, opened cage after cage after cage.
Show off unicorns.

He turned to me, slapped my shoulder and said. “Ees done. We save dem. Congratulations. Whole world know Rose Petal is good pony. Now let’s get dee fuck out of here.”

“There’s more in the other room.” I grabbed him. “Come on!”

“Bah!” He snapped, shaking me off. “Go ahead. Take down entire compound one room at a time. Everything be fine! What do I know? I’m just silly colt with experience escaping from all of dee things!"

He threw his front hooves up in the air. "Dees is enough!" He pleaded. "We have to go!”

He whipped around in anger, clearly intending to storm off down that old eel hallway, but his companion, The One I’m Meant to Save, was already gone – slipped away while the two of us had been fighting. I looked around. She wasn’t near me, or Misty, or Twinkle, or the cluster of fillies and colts that were slowly congregating together. I didn’t know where she was.

Dear Luna, she’d probably run off in a panic all by herself! She was probably crying up and down the hallway, being attacked my eels and fire breathing tree snails. She was probably leading the cloak-o's straight to us! Misty and I both exchanged glances of terror.

“I’m over here.” She said dryly.

We found her all the way on the other side of the room, passed the dreaded yellow line. She was hovering over the guard’s console, banging keys and buttons and levers and stuff. She didn’t even deign to look at us.

“What are you doing? Come on!”

She plunged her hoof against my lips without taking her eyes off the screen, effectively hushing me. Misty came forward, but he didn’t even get to say a word before she kicked him in the shins. That girl wouldn’t peel her eyes off that console even for a moment.

With a final dramatic keystroke, she turned to us and said. “There are twelve guards. We took them all down except a nurse.”

“Yay team.” Said Misty sarcastically in his thick accent, and gestured toward the eel hallway.

“No.” Said The One I’m Meant to Save. “There’s only one way out that way, and it’s got tons of cloaks patrolling nearby.”

She pointed at some sort of map on the console screen. TOWNSHIP OF TROTTICA. MANE HALL. BASEMENT LEVEL 2. It read.

I had never seen anything like it before. Misty also scratched his head in sheepish confusion.

The One continued. “There’s also a single roaming patrol pony who could be here any minute now according to the work log…or twenty minutes from now. No telling.”

“How do you--;” I tried to ask, but Twinkle jumped in between us. Or should I say jumped up and down (she wasn’t tall enough to see the screen? “Rosie, do me a favor and--;”

Before I knew it she was climbing up me, and I was kneeling. The weight of her knobby knees and blunt hooves dug straight into my poor back.

“You in?” She asked The One I’m Meant to Save.

“Yes.”

They bumped hooves, and said a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand. Then they summed up the plan.

“We need to get all 27 kids in the other room, and the 16 of us here down through those doors, past some kind of backstage area, and then sneak out the service area here.”

I heard the sound of one of their hooves tapping at the screen.

“We don’t have time for 27 keeds!” Squeaked Misty in protest.

The One I’m Meant to Save snorted, and hit a single button. The cages in the second room unlocked. All of them at once.

“You are genius!” He said.



I could barely hear a word over the sound of her smirking, (that’s how smug it was), but I coughed out with a raspy voice the only question left on my mind. “What about the others? Who took the medicine?”

“It says they’re being processed.”

“Processed?” I heaved. “What does that mean?”

Both the techies frantically poured over the screen.

“Doesn’t say, but there’s another 40 of them.” Our resident hacker said at long last.

Twinkle finally hopped down. I collapsed on the floor.

Above me I could faintly hear Misty and The One I’m Meant to Save arguing away about what to do. To my left, Twinkle’s hooves clopped against the gritty old pavement and drifted off to Celestia-only-knows where. I was about to investigate where she might have been headed when I heard something that terrified me far more. The One I’m Meant to Save asserted, “We have to go deeper down.”

Down to the lower levels. According to what she was reading, that Town Hall was built over some kinda massive pit, and we were gonna go down into it with 40 some odd kids, navigate their labyrinth, and come back with 80. Most of them wouldn’t even be able to carry themselves.

I looked up at the girl. She was bold and resolute. Admirable. A leader.

At that instant I was seized by a sharp pain. It surged across my entire body. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Whatever she was planning, it was wrong. All wrong

I could see, clear as the ponies before me, The Girl I’m Meant to Save lying dead in the dark on a pile of rocks. Blood all up in her mane. A coin-sized circular wound going way deep into her chest. Her eyes stared up into nothing, covered with pebbles and dust.

It was too much. Too real. The pony in my head screamed “Stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it, stop it!”

It was like being in the middle of a nightmare, only you know you’re awake. Horrible pictures you can’t shut your eyes to, and this all-encompassing fight-or-flight panic running amuck up and down your bloodstream. I fought for consciousness through this long dark hole - this spasm of righteous terror, and clawed my way to the surface.

I had to warn them! I couldn’t let this happen. Not on my watch. I fought and fought and fought to no avail, and then, totally out of the blue, the pictures disappeared on their own.

“No!” Misty and I yelled at the same time.

It startled The One I'm Meant to Save so bad that she jumped backwards. I instinctively scrambled to my hooves and threw myself toward her. When I got there, I found Misty, flanking her from the other side. He was pale - terrified. Covered in sweat. For the first time since we’d met, Misty was genuinely, truly, honest-and-for-real terrified. He looked as though he had seen a ghost.

Or a vision.

Staring Contest With the Abyss

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CHAPTER SIX – STARING CONTEST WITH THE ABYSS

“’There must be some kind of way out of here.’ Said the Joker to the Thief.” – Bob Dylan

I read a lot. I mean, like, a lot. And the one thing I totally hate is when you’re in the middle of reading some totally awesome pirate story, and right when they’re all facing an army of skeletons or sea monsters or whatever, the pirates choose that exact moment to get all touchy-feely, and bicker about their special someponies or some garbage. I can’t stand that. Seriously! It drives me crazy. ‘Cause nothing in the world can ever be as pathetic as a whiny pirate.

Anyway, you can imagine my annoyance and frustration when the kids all around me started acting like that in real life. Getting all stupid and emotional when so much was at stake.

Ok, so I was guilty of it too. Yeah, I should have been focused on getting the hell out of there. I should have put my thinkiness aside for later - locked it away in a box somewhere with an envelope tied to it that says “DO NOT OPEN ‘TILL SAFE.”

But what could I do? It came out of nowhere. BOOM! Misty and I find each other, flanking The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save, and suddenly we knew that that panic - that vision, this whole mission – it was something that we shared.

Is Misty like me? Another traveler. A dreamer? A pony so completely out of his mind that he put his big stupid head on his pillow one night, and dreamt himself into this total dump of a future?

Or maybe he was another Wasteland kid who just so happened to be cursed with the same brain-boilingly vague mission that I was? Get the girl who’s stuck behind the hole in the wall to safety.

The one thing I could be absolutely certain of was that Misty knew something that I didn’t.

I looked up at The One I’m Meant to Save. Then back at Misty. Then back at her. And back at him. Her. Him. Her. Him. Her. Him.

The One finally snapped. “What the fuck is going on?”

I suddenly realized how awkward the whole thing must have looked from her end.

Misty and I just stood there while she glowered at us.

Neither of us knew what to say, so we just plain didn’t answer her at all. As if that would fix everything. Finally, The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save lost all patience and shouted her squeaky little brains out.

“Why does everypony in the whole fucking world want to save me?!” She stomped her hooves and panted.

It was kinda scary to see this soft-spoken little pony suddenly burst into blinding rage, but we had it coming. “Tell me what’s going on. Right. Now.” She demanded.

Misty Mountain was still in shock, so he pretty much kept on ignoring her. In fact, the dummy didn’t take his fool eyes off of me for even a moment.

“Ees cause you are such nice pony,” He told The One We Were Both Apparently Meant to Save in a monotone voice. “Ees cause we like you.”

“Arg!” She growled.

Misty was impossible. Which left the handling of The One We Were Meant to Save entirely up to me. Whatever else was going on, getting the hell outta there, and keeping this girl safe had to come first. I wasn’t going to let any kind of whiny piratetry ruin that.

So I leapt up and grabbed the girl by the shoulder. She jumped in surprise, but I held on all the tighter. For what I was gonna try, I needed The One I’m Meant to Save to look me in the eye.

“Listen.” I said. “Listen careful-like.”

She actually paused. Whatever she may have been expecting from us, I don’t think she saw a pounce coming.

“What’s your name?”

“Um…Strawberry Lemonade.” She said.

“Ok, Strawberry, how do I put this? There’s a lot of uh…weirdy weirdness going on.”

I looked to Misty, who nodded in agreement. Weirdy weirdness. That about summed it up.

“You want the truth? I said. “Why you need to be saved? You of all fillies?”

She nodded, eyebrow all crooked-like.

My hooves shook. I felt like I was going to vomit, but I just clutched right on to Strawberry, and wouldn’t let go. That sense of terror I’d felt? It didn’t just go away when the vision was over. It rattled around in my brain like my skull was full of hornets. So I gripped her for dear life - as hard as an earth pony possibly could. I looked her square in the eye, and tried my damnedest not to give away the fact that I was scared out of my wits.

“I have absolutely no idea.” I said to her at long last.

There you go, Rose Petal. Now you’re on the right track. Comfort her some more.

“But’cha do need to be!” I added.

Strawberry blinked in surprise. I mean, clearly she had braced herself to disbelieve me – that much was obvious. But my total lack of logical answers, and blunt honesty about how none of this made any sense whatsoever – that of all things seemed to actually make her start to take me seriously.

“I just know that if you charge down into that pit like you’re planning, we’re all gonna die.”

Misty butted in to show his support, “Ees true.”

Strawberry Lemonade eyed him suspiciously. So strange to see Misty in agreement with anypony.

“What? Ees true!” He shrugged.

Ok. So I was in the middle of the most important talk of my young life – convincing our new fearless navigator (the only one who knew how to dig around for information in those giant whirring console doo-hickeys), not to fearlessly navigate us into some kinda fiery pit of destruction and torture. Worse yet, I had to get her to understand that my fears were based on a whole lot more than me just being a chicken.

But when I happened to glance over her shoulder, what did I see? Twinkle Eyes, beating the snot out of somepony in a nurse’s hat. She wailed on him so hard, it was actually really hard to concentrate.

“So what are you saying?” Said Strawberry Lemonade.

Across the room, I could see the little filly whacking that cloaky nurse right behind the leg till he fell to his knees. Without sparing even a teeny tiny moment, she leapt on the nurse, stomped the back of his leg and drove his kneecap straight into the concrete. He let out a scream that would have woken the dead, except that it got muffled by the blood-soaked tatter of cloak that had been stuffed into his mouth.

“I’m saying that, um, well…”

A tribe of children had gathered round to have a go at the nursey bastard. They fell on him like timberwolves. It was damn distracting.

“What the?” Strawberry Lemonade motioned to turn around, so I upped the ante.

“I’ve got a plan!” I shouted.

Nice save. A brilliant diversion-a-majig if ever there was one.

So good that Strawberry ignored the muffled screaming and moved in closer (along with half the other kids in the compound) to listen to me. The only problem was that there was no actual plan.

“Yeah, that’s right.” I added, suddenly finding myself on the spot. “I’m saying that, uh…I have a plan, and that, um…it’s a good plan?”

The children now surrounding me inched in even closer to hear the details.

“My plan is…”

Come on! Come on! Stupid brain! I need the most brilliantest escape plan ever, and I need it in 7 seconds or less.

“My plan is to, um…leave!” I said. “And, uh…leave…quickly?

The small crowd hung on my every stuttered word. It’s amazing how much faith they gave me just because I’d kinda sorta implied that there might be a way out, and that I might conceivably know what it was.

Twinkle’s posse, on the other hoof, was busy dragging the nurse by his mane and stomping him with a hundred tiny hooves. My friend, the Pink Microscopic Unicorn of Doom, pulled the cloth from his mouth, forced his jaw open, and propped it over the step that lead up into his office.

What is she doing? I thought.

“And, uh, after we leave.” I said. “We will, um…”

Twinkle lifted her hoof slowly. She was gonna stomp on the back of the nurse’s head, and smash the nurse’s jaw into dust! This was getting crazy. Too crazy.

“Stop!” I shouted, and ran toward Twinkle, shoving my way through the crowd (and abandonizing it to Misty’s devices).

Killing all those cloak-o’s was bad enough, even in self-defense. But stomping somepony’s teeth into powdery chalky teethy bits? Twinkle was losing it. I mean really bucking losing it.

She had her hoof lifted, and was ready to stomp him. As though it were nothing at all. She didn’t even look angry. If anything, Twinkle looked cool and collected. I think the scariest thing about her was that she hadn’t actually snapped at all. This was just Twinkle Eyes being herself.

The hoof never came down on the nurse, cause as I ran toward them, totally out of the blue, he squealed like a foal and blurted something out, “Nine, okay? Nine! There are nine of them!”

Twinkle Eyes lowered her leg slowly. He was telling her what she wanted to hear.

“They won’t be awake for at least another two hours.” The nurse continued, but at that point, it was barely anything more than a whole bunch of sobbing and incoherent pleas for mercy.

Twinkle listened carefully to all the sobs, and when she’d gotten what she wanted, stepped right over him like he was a rock. “Was that so fucking hard, ya drama queen?” She broke into a trot.

Then she saw me standing there, watching, and stopped dead in her tracks. She didn’t say a word, or even look me in the eye.

Instead, there was this tense, horrible silence between us.

My eyeballs started to water. I don’t know why it had to happen then at that exact moment, especially after all the other stuff we’d been though.

I guess it’s cause, ‘till then, I’d kinda thought that, in fighting for our freedom, that maybe we were fighting for something bigger - that this was about more than just survival.

That goodness? That purity of heart that the Priestess had rounded us up so cruelly to destroy all symbolic-like? I really thought it was worth taking a stand for. Hell, with all the weird twisty-turny bits that fate seemed like to pull with us, I’d even gotten the idea that defending the ideal of innocence (or whatever you wanna call it) might even have been my whole reason for being there.

But I was wrong. The Universe just dishes out the whats. We make up our own whys.

It turned out all that sunshine and rainbows stuff was already dead.

I stood there catching my breath – getting my bearings. Twinkle Eyes just watched me silently. Somehow, she managed to stare at me without daring to make eye contact.

“I’m sorry.” She sighed at long last. “I never said I was one of the good ones too.”

Then she trotted by me in silence.

And that was that.

I couldn’t believe it. What had just happened? Were we not friends anymore?!

I wanted to scream – to grab her and talk to her and tell her that everything was gonna be okay, (and while I was at it, drag Strawberry Lemonade the buck to safety and smack Misty Mountain and ask him what the hell kinda mystical junk he was keeping from me). I wanted to do a lot of things. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even move. I just stood there crying, and tried my damnedest to do it quietly.

Damn it, Rose. Knock it off.

Then, totally out of the blue, I got this feeling. Like I was sailing. The hornets in my head that had been screeching at me constantly, saying things like, “Rose Petal, you screw up! Stop Strawberry Lemonade from sending you all down into the Great Below. She’s the one you’re meant to save. Don’t you realize that you moron?!”

They were all of a sudden quieter.

They didn’t shut up, mind you. Just got quieter. That alone was remarkable.

I looked up. Twinkle was talking to Misty and Strawberry Lemonade. They were pointing at that great big old glowy console again, (even explaining some of it to the kids who were still standing around). Charting a course, I’d bet.

Twinkle Eyes had information, and already the three of them had come up with a plan – an escape scheme that the hornets in my head didn’t hate. Had Twinkle not savagely beaten that nursey cloak-o, we probably would never have stood a chance of getting out of that room, let alone escaping the compound. Her total lack of scruples was the only thing that had empowered us to come up with a plan that shut the hornets up and let the rest of the night play out the way it’s supposed to happen.

Survival rewards the ruthless. I would have preferred the hornet’s nest to having to face that cold, awful realization.

It made me sick to my stomach.

But as I stood there, watching my friends hammer out a plan, pointing at screens and dials and things on the console, bickering over how best to save the kids headed for the great Down Below (without endangering Strawberry Lemonade, or dragging the other rescue-ees into harm’s way too much), I wondered if we had anything left that was even worth fighting for.

It was at that moment that I stopped and took a good hard look at myself – a filly with a mission, standing around in the middle of a danger zone, pining for lost ideals. I had become what I hated most in the world – a whiny pirate.


* * *


I wasn’t good at that “position so-and-so here” drawing-doodles-in-the-sand kinda stuff, so I let my friends do all the planning. Instead I went straight for the nurse. It wasn’t that I wanted to. It was just something I had to do.

First, I pulled the other kids off of the poor bastard. They were all kicking and grabbing and stomping at him while he was down.

“Buzz off!” I said as I yanked them away one by one. “Haven’t you heard those guys over there got a plan?” They bolted over to Misty in excitement.

When I finally got to the nurse, I knelt by him. Reached out to touch him with a hesitant hoof. I’d like to say that I mopped the sweat from his brow like some kind of noble Nurse Redheart and cleaned him - proved to him that even the ponies who he trampled on and jailed up could show him compassion. That we could be better than him. Or even that I’d made an effort to stop and make sense of pony brutality – to reflect on right and wrong and all that junk, and think about what Twinkle and the gang had actually done to him. Really think about it all philosophical like.

But that’s not what I did. I poked him. Just poked him. Like that dead squirrel I found in the woods once back when I was little. When the nurse didn’t respond, I poked him again. (I honestly wasn’t sure what else to do).

Eventually, his busted eye creaked open. He saw me crouched there next to him, all up-close in his face. First thing he did was cringe - tighten every muscle against every bone. Frozen like a statue of terror.

It freaked me out. I’d never imagined that anypony would ever look at me like that. That such an expression could even exist. That anypony would fear me. Was that the look that Diamond Tiara saw when she picked on defenseless kids on the playground? And the cloak-o guards! This is what their whole world must’ve looked like. A sea of horrified faces – ponies everywhere, not happy to see them.

I almost jumped back in horror. That pitiful look alone scared me out of my wits. But I stared at him right back. This was important, so I held my ground.

I watched him in silence. He cowered. We were the same height now – this child murderer and me.

And he was hiding his face from me cause he knew what I was only then slowly growing to realize.

I could do anything I wanted to him.

Avenge every kid who’d ever passed through his “Nurse’s Office.” Kiss his boo-boos. Chew on his eyeballs just to find out what eyeballs tasted like. Anything! He was completely and totally at my mercy, right up to whether he lived or died. The prisoner children of Trottica wouldn’t even bat an eye if I’d killed him. Hell, they’d probably call me a hero. It was a strange feeling.

I pulled the bloody cloth out of the nurse’s mouth, (the other kids had shoved it back in there after Twinkle was through with him). He coughed up a storm, and nasty liquid rained out of his mouth too.

“Why?” I said.

It was the one question I knew Twinkle didn’t ask him in the course of her interrogation.

He just looked at me blankly.

“Why?!” I shouted.

“Baal demands children.” He blubbered in blind panic. “It’s the only thing keeping our town alive since the mine dried up.”

Baal? Really? Your god is named Baal? I thought to myself dryly. What? Was “The Great De-Innocentizer of Souls” taken?

“When was that?” I asked. “How long have you been doing this?”

Nursey coughed and wheezed and took his sweet time catching his breath.

“I don’t know,” He said at last. “As long as I can remember. I was young when we started. But they wouldn’t let me join Baal. I was too big. The big ones enlist in the Honor Guard.”

Even with the busted up face and the broken bones, he managed to get all mopey about that of all things. The fact that he was too big to be eaten alive by his wackadoo god.

He must have been surprised that I hadn’t kicked or spat on him yet, because the moment he caught his breath, he turned to me for sympathy. Totally out of the blue.

“I know what you’re thinking!” He pleaded.

It startled me.

“But the De-Innocentizer of Souls is benevolent. He saved all of us! They don’t feel a thing, I swear. Believe me, please. I hear it’s bliss.”

“What’s bliss?”

Even his battered left eye somehow managed to light up at the mention of it.

“Drifting Down.” He nodded emphatically. “Being one with the Great Below.”

He smiled as best as anypony could in his condition. That was when I officially lost my patience with him.

“Bullshit!” I cried. My first real curse. “I saw them, you asshole. I saw the fucking wheelbarrow.”

A bushel of bodies had passed down a hallway a couple of yards from his office just a few minutes ago. There was no way this lying sack of nurse could have been in the dark!

He cringed from me again. He wasn’t getting far, though, because this time, I was grabbing him. Tugging on his mane.

Wait a minute, how did that happen? I thought. Sweet Celestia, I’m roughing him up!

I let go the second I realized. He literally dropped like a pile of meat to the floor.

“No, no, no! That wasn’t them.” He babbled. “Really, it’s in he 19th scroll! ‘When they pass into the Great Below, Baal shall transform them, and free them of their burdensome innocence. And then they shall know bliss.”

He was weeping with joy now as those words passed his busted up lips. “Should you see them after The Great De-Innocentizer of Souls has blessed them, be not afraid.”

It was his turn to clutch at me. Beaten though he was, his enthusiasm for the subject matter could not be shed. He reached up and brushed my bucked up mane out of my eyes.

“Pity not the little ones,” He smiled as much as his broken face would allow. “For the ugliness of the shells they leave behind is only the true face of the ignorance from which they have been freed.”

The nurse smiled at me. As though he’d just explained 2+2, and I should be excited at the prospect of leaping down to my horrible doom, just so I could experience the mind-blowingly amazing spiritual state of 4.

I stared at him in horror. I didn’t want to know anymore. I wanted to get away before he got any creepier, or before I scared myself more than I already had.

I had roughed up another pony. Even Diamond Tiara had never done that. And I had the nerve to judge Twinkle Eyes. At least when she had done it, it was serene. Calculated sadism. I’d ripped at the nurse’s mane cause I lost control.

Worse yet, part of me enjoyed it.

“I hear it’s beautiful.” The nurse wept.

I slowly backed away from him. The whole thing was just too weird.

"Lock him up," I said, tears running down my cheek. "Just, get him out of here."

"Awww," one of them said, "But we were gonna--;"

"Do it!" I snapped.

For whatever reason, they listened. Maybe because it was painfully obvious to anypony with eyes that I was on the verge of coming apart.






* * *


“Okay, make dee listening of the up!” Said Misty, standing elevated on a pile of something or other. He glanced in my direction from the makeshift pulpit, but immediately looked away when he saw me. What was he hiding?

“We have seven cheeldren here.” He said. “Totally asleep. Dee strongest of you – grab dem, and sling dem over your backs. Like saddlebag.”

Strawberry stood at his left and nodded. The One We’re Meant to Save, pushy though she was on the subject of tech, was still a bit too much of a wallflower to stand up and address the lot of us herself.

Twinkle, on the other hoof, who had become something of a leader when she’d headed the nurse-stomping brigade, was not really set up to give a stirring speech to the rest of us, seeing as how she was covered in blood, and liable to start ranting and cursing. The loudmouth Romaneian was, unfortunately, the only choice.

“Do you know the way out or not?” Asked Butterscotch.

“We have map.” Said Misty.

A truthful statement that didn’t quite answer the question.

“What’s the plan?” Asked another.

“We teep-hoof out, while Priestess Pony puts on her show.”

There was a moment of silence as the crowd waited for him to continue. He didn’t. There was nothing else to say.

“That’s it?” Squeaked a little green colt.

“That’s it.” He confirmed. “But don’t worry. Strawberry knows all their secrets ‘cause machine told her. She can even tell dem where to be.”

He leaned in for dramatic effect. “Or where not to be.”

The crowd started to murmur. Was it possible? Could they walk right out the back door completely and totally unnoticed? At the click of a button?

A wave of hope washed over the herd. Strawberry, on the other hoof, did not look pleased at what Misty had promised us on her behalf.

“But leesten.” He continued. “We are more than just bunch of keeds in dee same room. You, me, everypony here. We have been keecked around like Wasteland keeckball. I do not know how any of you got here, and honestly, I don’t care.

“But here we all are. Free. And ees our turn to do keecking.”

There were laughs and a few cautious cheers from the herd; he held up a hoof. “But first we have to get away. To do that, we stay together. We stay quiet. Close. And above all, we make sure not leef any pony behind.”

It was actually a pretty good speech. Strange thing is: Misty seemed to actually mean what he said. Our vision, our experience – that panic we both shared – I couldn’t help but wonder if it had shocked some decency into him.

The crowd was not so sure. A lot of folks remembered him as the pony who’d ditched them. Left them to shock and die in a puddle of lightning. A lot of the kids fiddled with their manes, ground their hooves into the concrete – found fidgety excuses not to look directly at him.

Misty acted quickly, and changed strategies to compensate.

“We can do eet,” Misty added. “Because of Rose Petal.”

Everypony turned to face me at once.

“Meep?” I meeped.

“Rose Petal ees like neenja. She took on all dee grown ups, and eet ees cause of her that you are all standing here instead of swallowed alive by whatever it is they are hiding under dat stage.”

I waved nervously. Yeah, sure, Misty. Now you look me in the eye. You jerk.

“Dees plan weel work.” He cheered. “Ees Rose Petal approved plan, yes?”

I laughed nervously. It made sense that Misty would use me as a spokespony since I was better liked than him…but damn!

“Um…Yeah.” I said. “Let’s, uh…do what he said and get out of here. With ponies on our backs.”

Silence.

Butterscotch turned and skulked away from the crowd. He was still pissed that I’d ditched him at the last moment. Left him to die. It was bad enough he thought that, but being up there on the spot – vulnerable, nervous, and touted as a hero undeserved-like – his grudge made me feel like crying.

“You know, cause they need us?”

More silence. Dead silence. I wanted to die.

Finally, an older colt spoke up. “I’ll take one of the sleepers.”

“Saddle me up.” Said another

“Give me two.” Said a filly who looked a bit too small to be carrying other fillies at all.

I sighed in relief. We were all finally coming together.

“Follow Meess Lemonade.” Said Misty Mountain. “She knows way.”

“Yeah. Strawberry, um…navigates the things!” I said, loaning him the weight of my bizarre heroine status.


* * *


We kids, confused and frazzled though we were, came to order all on our own. It was kinda like how the cloak-o guards got their groove back, only we didn’t have any training or drills to fall back on. No fancy weapons either, (except what some of us had scavenged from the dead cloak-o’s).

We had each other, and this amazing feeling that we could come out of it alive if we just stuck together. The bigger kids carried those too weak, sick, or drugged to walk, and the little ones stayed close at hoof, waiting for an opportunity to pitch in.

I looked up at Misty, who was standing right beside me, overseeing it all. It was amazing. He was like a totally different pony. One of the good ones.

He leaned down and whispered to me. “Eef dey catch us, stay close to me, and go opposite way of crowd. Dee keeds carrying extra on their back weel be slow, and we can outrun them.”

He smacked my shoulder, smiled, and maneuvered to the front of the crowd.

“Misty, wait!” I shouted.

He turned to face me.

“What about what we saw?!” I said.

Suddenly, panic on his face. “Saw?”

In the dark!” I shouted, referring to the vision of Strawberry Lemonade’s dead body, covered in soot and pebbles and stuff, bleeding from a great big old hole in her. I didn’t want to shout all the kooky details for the entire herd to hear, but Misty totally knew what I was talking about. It was an image that had been burned into his brain as well as mine.

“I see nothing.” Misty Mountain laughed nervously and put even more distance between us. “Ees not dark. Ees well lit here. Nice décor. Rustic Wasteland chic!”

“What?!” I said.

“I gotta go do dee things for to help all the ponies here. Bye!”

He ducked down low and disappeared into the crowd.

Arg!

I tried to chase him down, but in all the crazy confusion, everypony kept looking to me for support, and physically crowding me. Well played, Misty. Even in complementing me – in naming me spokespony, he’d had ulterior motives.

What I couldn’t figure out was why he was hiding from me in the first place.

Even more importantly, there was a very real and ever-growing danger. At any moment, we could get caught pre-mature like. Those damned nagging hornets in my brain got all stingy and fluttery. Stupid hornets.

I couldn’t even tell what they wanted this time. I had to assume that it had something to do with Strawberry Lemonade getting some idea in her head that wasn’t in harmony with the way it’s supposed to happen. Hornets get real fussy about details like that.

The kids were all rounded up and ready to go, (which was no easy feat). I had decided that, while it probably was best to lock the nurse up, he probably deserved the courtesy of a blanket. He had gathered some of his wits now, and trembling though he was, he still gave me a nod of gratitude when I passed it to him.

That was literally all I needed to do to feel ready to hit the road, but when I checked in on Strawberry, I saw that she was still glued to that stupid box-y thing.

“We should get going.” I said

“This is operating on the G-7.9 OS.” She said in awe, completely ignoring me.

“That’s OS Muffin!” She continued. “I can find out more. I can get us the answer.”

The hornets were getting worse. I could see Misty all the way on the other end of the crowd. He perked his head up and looked in our direction - even ditched the kids he was herding, and bolted straight for us. The lying bastard feels it too.

“Fuck that, Strawberry,” Said Twinkle Eyes. “Come on, let’s blow this joint.”

Celestia in the sky! Even Twinkle Eyes could feel how tremendously horrible and idea it would be to stick around for even a moment longer. You didn’t need signs and portents and visions to see that. We had to move.

The time for weepy pirating had passed.

But Strawberry Lemonade was stubborn.

“I can do this.” She insisted. “I can figure out a route to those kids headed down below.”

“Come on. You can hit up the next console.” Said Twinkle.

“…Almost kinda sorta re-direct these Cloaks to another part of the building, just like Misty said.” Strawberry ignored us.

“We have no time for almost!” Shouted Misty. “We go now!”

“No!” She shouted right back.

She turned to us all, panting. Frazzled. On the verge of tears. I’d clearly missed something. Twinkle and I exchanged confused glances.

Strawberry was having a totally different argument than the rest of us, and it was definitely not about tech. Twinkle and I exchanged confused glances.

“I’ve been pushed around. By these guys.” She pointed at the pile o’ dead cloak-o’s. “By the guys who owned me before them. And the guys who owned me before them. And the guys who owned me before them. I’ve even been a fucking pawn in your stupid game, Misty. And yours.”

She was pointing at me. I averted my eyes in shame.

Strawberry was right. She had been treated like an object by the ponies who’d captured her, and now here we were, rescuing her, doing the same damn thing. It wasn’t right.

“Since the day my parents fucking sold me, it’s been all “yes, sir; no, sir.”

“Sold?!” I said, but Twinkle Eyes butted in before I could finish the thought. Sold by your own parents!

“Hey, your folks sold you too?” Twink giggled. “Parent of the Year hoof bump!”

She held out a hoof. Strawberry glanced at it contemptuously.

“Sold by your own parents.” I whispered to myself.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fathom it. Children stolen from fiery villages in the middle of the night, children locked up, children killed – that’s the sort of things that cloak-o’s do. Bad guys. Horrible as it was, it was something I could wrap my brain around, because bad guys existed in my world. But a future Equestria where it’s just totally normal to up and sell your own kid? And that it was so common that it happened to both Twinkle and Strawberry?!

“Hmm.” Shrugged Misty Mountain as he casually mulled over the subject. “I am glad that my parents love me.”

Facehoof. You’re not helping, Misty.

“This.” Strawberry stared me down as she flicked a bunch of dials on the console. “This, I can do.”

“I can do it.” She added for good measure. “I can get us all out of here, Rose. Please, guys. Just give me two minutes.”

Except she wasn’t asking for two minutes. She was telling us that she was gonna take them. Our plans, both mystical and practical, all hinged on this filly actually surviving. So of course she picked that exact moment to grow a spine and become a pain in the flank.

Still, I nodded softly in agreement. If she did somehow manage to work her weird doo-hickey magic, it would totally be worth it. Besides, sometimes, you actually need a minute or two to get your pirate on before you can buckle down and push forward.

Misty, however, didn’t know when to shut up. “Enough of dees.

Fuck glowink box. We go, and we go now!”

He tried to grab her, but she recoiled at his touch, and thwacked him right in the face with her forehoof. “Fuck you, Misty.”

She kicked that glowy box with her hindquarters to punctuate her point. The front of her never stopped staring Misty down. “Fuck you!”

“ACCESS GRANTED.” Said the console suddenly. We all would have applauded, or even taken the time to pick our jaws up off the floor, but it was too late.

Before I could say a word. Before Misty could burst into shouting and cursing, (his face was already turning bright red with anger); before we could even absorb what had just happened inside the whirring machinery of that big hunky metal thing that our Chosen One had become so addicted to, there came a gravelly scream that interrupted us all. Right on cue, as if to confirm everypony’s growing fears.

We all rushed over and peeked around the corner. There, standing in the doorway to the eel hallway, was the biggest, meanest looking pony I had ever seen. His face was scarred to ribbons. His torso was no better.

The first thing he did was charge straight toward us. The room was long, and he was all the way on the other end of it, but still, I found myself throwing my hooves in front of my face for protection. He was just that big, and just that scary.

But he ignored us completely.

“Stompy!” The Monster shouted.

He threw his hooves around Skull Stomper’s limp body, and blubbered like a foal.

“My Stompy!”

I lowered my hooves from my face. The three of us stood at the end of the room, right there in plain sight, staring in silence.

The giant hulk of a cloak-o kissed the shattered horn of his fallen love, and ran his hoof through the corpse’s mane.

“Poor Stompy.” He wailed. “He never hurt a soul.”

“Run.” I whispered without peeling my eyes away.

It was only a matter of time before he snapped out of it, and realized that not only were there escaped children standing there a few feet away from him, but that we were to blame for the death of his beloved.

“Stompy!” He cried out again.

Then there was a bang and a splatter, and suddenly the hulk was silent. He dropped face forward onto Stompy’s corpse. Most of the back of his head was missing.

I’d never seen anything like it.

We turned around. Behind us was Misty, levitating some kind of L shaped piece of metal. Smoke drifted out of the end with the hole in it.

“Let’s get dee fuck out of here.” He said.


* * *


So we tip-hooved down this long hallway full of pipes and boxes and flickery lights and things. All of us. It was only a 100-foot stretch, and you could totally gallop it in, ten seconds flat, but when you have close to 200 hooves shuffling and clipping and clopping against gritty concrete, and you're trying to be quiet about it, you’ve got to do it real slow.

You don’t know which noise is gonna be the big one. The sound the cloak-o’s actually hear. But you wait for it, so every step feels like n eternity. Every tiny crackle of sand beneath your hooves sounds like thunder.

Above us were creaky moany floorboards. That meant that they probably would be able to hear us if we were too noisy. The building was hundreds of years old, and unlikely to keep secrets very well.

Whatever they were doing up there, the cloak-o’s were really hustling and bustling. Each bang and loud hoofstep made one of us startle. Scared though we were, though, we all managed to choke our little shrieks and exclamations into whispers.

We stuck together - mostly because we were terrified of what would happen if we didn't. We took comfort in the fact that we were all squeezed in and huddled up against one another from all sides. Whatever caution we took, whatever panicky impulses we swallowed, we were doing it as a team.

That herd mentality that made us slaves - that kept us from acting out - that had kept us docile and stupid in the face of yellow painted lines on concrete? It also saved our flanks, (ashamed as I am to say it).

It's that almost certain death thing. All it took was somepony to come along and say, "Hay! I have a plan. Follow me and everything is gonna be okay."

And just like that, we went from the weepy, whiny, soggy-upper-lip kind of pirates to the awesome, super-cool yarrrrrr kind of pirates. We did it cause when we looked around, it’s what everypony else was doing.


* * *


The herd moved along at a slow and steady pace. Our hooves sounded like a giant sheet of sandpaper sweeping slowly over a concrete floor.

“Pssst. Twinkle." I whispered.

The two of us were guarding the rear together.

"Shh!" She said.

My whisper totally didn't matter. In fact, it blended in to that sandpaper shuffley hoof sound so well, I was surprised that Twinkle could even hear me. But it was tense down there, and we all had little things that made us paranoid. So I shuffled along in silence. We all did - huddled up against one another, inching down that long maddening stretch of hallway full of old junk nopony could ever want.

As we crept along in silence, I started to feel cold. First on my flank. Then my back. Then in my actual bones. It wasn’t like stepping outside in the winter where it hits you in the face, either. This cold snuck up from behind, and hit me by degrees.

No breeze. No warning. Just cold.

Finally, I looked back over my shoulder. Shadows behind us. Buzzing lights.

There weren’t no cloak-o’s scheduled to come that way for at least another hour, so logically, I knew that we were probably in the clear. But when you’re the last pony in line, and nopony's got your back, you get scared of what might be following. I mean: this was their building. Any one of those shadows could hide a cloaky jerkface who wasn’t on Strawberry’s map.

Twinkle kept right on trotting. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. With all that’d happened in the last hour, there was so much to think about. So much to say.

I fought the urge to lean in. Whisper. Hug her.

It wasn’t right. Something was off. She seemed so far away. Like the shadows weren’t the only things around that had grown cold.

The further down the hallway we got, the thicker the tension. Not just for us, but for everypony. We didn’t hear as many cloak-o’s moving around above, but instead, there was this low booming rumble. Like talking, except that it was really, really loud, and there was no way to make out what was being said.

“Twinkle," I stuck my muzzle right up into her ear. There was no way anypony else could hear me.

She threw me a quizzical look then shoved her own muzzle in my ear right back. "Whatcha want?"

Time for the big question.

I didn’t know how to say it. "You…you’re still my friend, right?"

She put her hoof on my shoulder and stopped us both dead in our tracks. Right there in the middle of the hallway.

The herd kept on shuffling ahead of us.

I waited for her answer, but she just looked at me. Didn’t say a word. I waited for Twinkle to say that she hated me for judging her, or to hug me and tell me I was stupid for asking in the first place.

But she didn't do either of those things. She just shrugged.

"I dunno." She whispered and lowered her head.

I could hear my heart thundering. She didn’t know?! What was that even supposed to mean?

I watched her in silence.

I wished I hadn't been such a judgmental jerk to her. I wished I could have turned my back on what she was gonna do to the nurse - made an exception for my friend on the "no more sitting idly by" rule I had made for myself ever since that poor kid had showed up in my dream.

But I couldn't! I just couldn’t. I didn't have it in me to do that anymore.

I looked her in the eye. So much sadness. I kicked myself for letting my stupid morals and my stupid thinkiness turn me into such a horrible friend.

“Can you be friends with a fuck up?” Twinkle asked at long last.

“What?”

"I'd do it again." She said, and turned to face me. “I’m not gonna lie.”

But I couldn't promise I would be okay with that. Cause I would do it again too - intervene. Be a judgmental jerk. I couldn’t promise her I’d change. Where did that leave us?

I tried to think of something to say. Something funny. Something kind. Something wise. But we just stood there, all awkward-like, not even looking at one another after a point. Friendship impasse.

Meanwhile up ahead, the giant sheet of pony sandpaper was drifting further and further away.

Finally, Twinkle gave up and sighed, head hung low.

"We should catch up.” She said, and shuffled on forward.

I was left standing there. Confused. Angry. Shivering.

Twinkle made a real effort to tip-hoof slowly and quietly, but all that amounted to was the group making more and more distance.

I was working up the strength to follow, when I heard a noise behind me like a whisper in an echoy room. I whipped around to face it. Boxes. Pipes. Beat up old trunks. That same long hallway, and there sure wasn’t nopony following us.

Then one of the lights above buzzed and, flickered and went black, and then, for just a moment, I saw it.

It wasn't a cloak-o. It wasn't a kid. It wasn't a pony at all. But it was following us. When the lights flickered, the shadows got all strobey like a dance party, and took on weird unnatural shapes.

There was something in those odd patches of darkness. Formless. Shapeless. It didn’t even move. But it was there, and I felt its malice.

For a moment as the lights danced on and off, it looked back at me. I felt naked. Nakeder than skin. Nakeder than bones. I felt intruded. There was this terrible fear: everything bad I’d ever done, from stealing that cookie when I was four to tugging at Nurse Cloak-O’s mane. The whole world could see it all, and know me for who I really was. Roseluck. Twinkle. Cliff Diver. Everypony.

I could even hear my mother’s voice whisper at me in disgust and disappointment, “I’m not sorry anymore.” She said. “I’m not sorry anymore.”

I wasn’t even really sure what that meant, but it felt like the floor had dropped out beneath me. My skin fell away. Leaving this sad fragment of pony underneath. Shivering in the dark.

And then, just like that, the lights were back on, and the thing was gone. Just a boring old hallway.

I felt colder than ever. It was still watching me from the shadows, whatever it was. Waiting for the next flicker of darkness to spring on me, I’d bet.

I turned and made for the herd as fast as I reasonably could.

I had an easy enough time catching up to the great sea of flanks I saw up ahead. But Twinkle Eyes was having trouble. She wasn't too far behind them, but she was small and had to shuffle her hooves twice as hard just to keep up, (and that would make too much noise). From the looks of things, she had to struggle just to keep from falling further behind. Or falling over.

I made my way cautiously toward them. Shuffle, shuff-shuff-shuff, shuffle crack.

Above us that booming speech grew more and more articulate. The herd even started to pick up the pace a bit under the cover of the sound.

"Evils of innocence, blah blah blah, purity, yadda yadda yadda." Said the Priestess, almost directly above us now. The lady on all the screens.

But I didn't care. That thing in the shadows was getting closer. It was watching us - studying us. And I was powerless to fight it. I couldn’t even see it!

When I threw my head over my shoulder to check, there was nothing.

I did it again. Nothing.

I made my way forward, and me, being a not terribly graceful pony, snagged my hoof on a crack in the concrete floor and stumbled. Twinkle looked back at me with sad eyes. Not puppy dog sadness. She was too accustomed to disappointment for that. No, she wore the face of an old mare - that bleak "we can't have nice things" frown.

She kept on shuffling, getting angrier and angrier at the noisy floor and at her own stubby legs as she went. Determination. Frustration. Tears.

This was ridiculous. I had enough. Maybe we couldn't agree to agree on everything that was ever gonna happen. Maybe we’d even have serious fights over our unique takes on morals and violence and stuff like that, but this was just stupid. My whole life I’ve been terrified of being a burden on everypony else. And the little pony inside my head was screaming at me to hang back. To let her go on like this, just in case it might be awkward. But I didn’t care. I just couldn’t stand to watch it anymore.

Twinkle shuffled on, grinding her teeth, cursing under her breath, and falling slowly, slowly behind. Then her hooves found themselves scraping away at nothing - walking on thin air. Below her belly, she found me and my big head.

I didn't say a word. Neither did Twinkle. She just closed her eyes and hugged the back of my neck as she perched on me. Some apologies only get ruined when you open your yap and try to talk through ‘em.

I’d cried many, many tears for many, many ponies since I’d showed up at Trottica, and I’d shed many, many, many, many more before I left. But as I pushed forward, I found I still had enough water in me to cry. For relief. For Twinkle.

It felt good to be friends with her again, even if she clutched at my mane a bit too hard. I felt her breath - hot and stinky and blowing against my neck.

I wasn’t cold anymore.

The lights flickered out one more time before we reached the space under the Priestess’ stage. I looked back over my shoulder. The shadows had stopped staring at me. They were the same as they'd always been.

Just a bunch of black stuff.

The Low Priestess

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CHAPTER SEVEN - THE LOW PRIESTESS
"Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance in keeping its humanity repressed." - Berthold Brecht



Fake heads. Dressmaker’s mannequins. Buckets of paint long-dried. Decaying pieces of plywood cut out to look like trees. Trottica had once been home to a legitimate community theater. We found ourselves directly beneath it. The old stage.

Above us, the Priestess stomped emphatically. She was giving her speech. The old Innocence is Sin spiel. Not exactly the uplifting experience of attending Yokelahoma! or The Princess and I, like the performance space had been intended for so many years ago.

The herd came to a halt. Us kids in the back weren’t sure why. Twinkle Eyes just looked to me and shrugged. Even she was in the dark about what the hell was going on, and she had helped draft the escape plan in the first place.

I craned my neck and tried to get a peek over the crowd, but everypony in front of me was standing on their tippy-hooves, trying to do the same damn thing. All I could make out was a staircase at the far end of the room. Misty and Strawberry, who headed our little party, were hesitant to go up it. That left the rest of us standing around, getting nervous.

I looked around for living shadows and cloak-o’s and dragons and things. All I saw, apart from rotting props and set pieces, was this weird hole in the center of the room – a shaft that ran from floor-to-ceiling. It was surrounded by a fence - also floor-to-ceiling. When the bright stage lights poured down from above, it cast a hundred jagged shadows all over the place like something out of The Stable of Dr. Caligari or one of those fun house rooms that isn’t so much “fun” as it is a clumsy odyssey into the heart of madness and personal injury.

I hoped we were too dark to be seen from above. At just the right angle, when she paced back and forth for dramatic effect, I could catch tiny glimpses of the Priestess. The last pony on earth I wanted to notice us. It made my heart skip a beat every time.

“Suffering is truth, and it’s a truth we face every day.” Said Her Holiness. “But innocence – it’s an ignorance that makes all of ponykind suffer, for ‘Tyranny and War are beasts that prey hardest on the weak and the innocent and the blind.’ So sayeth Baal.”

I liked her better when she was a distorted warble of inarticulate noise.




Eventually a wave of whispers swept the crowd, and we finally got some news about our little delay. By the time it reached us, though, its reliability had gotten kinda questionable.

“There’s a hundred thousand cloak-o’s standing right at the top of the staircase.” Whispered one kid.

“There’s a dragon up there.” Whispered another.

“The door to escape has caught fire and it’s made out of snakes!”

You get the point.

Whatever else may have gone wrong, I could tell by the faint green glow at the front of the line that we had reached another console. Strawberry Lemonade was probably just screwing with it.

“Today is a beautiful day, my little ponies.” The Priestess yammered above us. “Today, Baal purifies our offerings – frees them of their terrible innocence, and blesses our humble township with prosperity. With life!”

Thomp, thomp, thomp, thomp, thomp.

Above us, a set of hooves trotted away in a hurry. As soon as they were gone, the herd stood and listened in terrified silence. For a split second, it had sounded like they were coming for us. But that feeling passed as soon as it came, and we all started moving again.

Strawberry Lemonade had figured out how to use those glowy boxes to re-direct the cloak-o’s like chess pieces. It was a miracle. Another wave of rumors swept the crowd.

“Strawberry Lemonade made all the daisy cape guys explode!”

“The dragon’s on our side now!”

“Princess Celestia is back from the dead, and she’s fighting the whole town!”

The entire herd was teeming with quiet excitement. But I had to bite back a scream. The princess was dead. Not in hiding. Not banished. Not turned to stone. Not off fighting evil somewhere, waiting for the right moment to come back and set things right. Dead.

I tried to digest that as we tip-hooved up the stairs, single file. But each step - each moment - felt like I was getting stabbed in the heart.

“You ok?” Asked Twinkle Eyes.

“Princess Celestia is dead.”

“Don’t tell me you buy into all ‘dem princess stories?”

I threw a look at her that was so nasty it could have curdled milk. Stories?!

“Sorry. Of course you do.” Said Twinkle.

“Luna? What about Luna?”

“Ssssh!”

Twinkle was right to shush me this time. We were reaching the final stretch. The top of the stairs. Cloaktown, EQ.




* * *



We made it as far as the wings before we finally got ourselves spotted. Strawberry Lemonade had reported a fake gas leak, (whatever that is), and that, for some reason or another, had made all the cloak-o’s gallop on over to the other side of the stage in an awful hurry. The tactic gave us enough time to get everypony up the stairs, and got us all at least pointed in the right direction. I only hoped that a bunch of cloaky guys didn’t end up rushing down that old eel hallway to help. They’d find a room full of dead cloak-o’s, empty cages, and a battered, locked up nurse. Twinkle Eyes had wanted to kill him, but I just couldn't bear it.

Not that it mattered.

Either way, we were totally bucked. With forty-some-odd kids just a few yards away from the Priestess herself, (not to mention her entire entourage), it really was only a matter of time before one of them spotted us and said “Hmmm, how peculiar.”

We crept along, slowly making for the door, trying desperately to be quiet. The problem was: we kept on stumbling into one another. Each of us had to stop and stare at the Priestess as we passed. When you’re behind a bunch of rubberneckers, you want to smack them till they get a move on. But when I finally took that step forward and saw it with my own two eyes, I understood.

The Priestess was standing over a small platform. She looked taller in person. On the platform was a white sheet covering what was really obviously a pile of unconscious children.

I mean, they were right there! Twenty feet away! Kids whose only crime was getting caged one or two rooms over from where we’d been. Kids who never got the chance to revolt. And they were gonna get fed to Baal or Living Shadows (or whatever the buck was down there) because of it.

We had to just walk on by. Like it wasn’t happening. Like it wasn’t our problem.

I felt nauseous again.

I stopped and stared like the others, maybe even for a little bit longer. Part of me actually almost made a run for the stage even. But in the end, I didn’t. That would be stupid. That would get everypony killed.

We have a plan.

We were gonna send a team of the nimblest colts and fillies to come back for them. But first we had to get the other refugees to safety, and find Strawberry Lemonade a console she could play with without getting noticed.

My eyes were drawn to a bronze-colored hoof dangling out from under the sheet. I wondered who it belonged to. What his name was. How’d he’d gotten there. Whether he had his cutie mark or not, and if so, how he’d gotten it. For all I knew, it was the hoof of that same kid I’d turned my back on during my last trip to the Wasteland. The one nopony cared about.

As far as I was concerned, every last body on that pile was him. I mean, one of them had to be, right?

“Psst!” Whispered Twinkle.

It was time to move on. To walk away from that poor kid in his hour of need. Again.

“We’ll be back.” I whispered at the drugged up children on stage. “I promise.”




“How do you do it?” Asked Twink as we tip-hooved away.

Now I was confused.

“Keep from running out there and killing the fucking Priestess?”

I shrugged. “How do you?”

I was feeling pretty sickened with myself, actually. I honestly didn’t know how I did it – kept myself from running out there like an idiot. If Twink had the answer – if there was some magic button I could push to make myself feel good about turning my back on those kids, I wanted to know about it.

Looking at her, she was taking it even worse than me. She who was used to the Wasteland and its stupid injustices. Twink, who didn’t have any love in her life, or even parents.

“I dunno.” She whispered, desperate not to cry.

I stopped and I grabbed her.

“We’re coming back.” I whispered.

“It’s like drowning.” She quaked, sobbing in silence. “Fucking drowning.”

I held her firmly.

“Then fucking swim.”

She looked at me, and nodded. Puffed out her chest. She could make it through this. So could I.

Cause I knew I would be back for those kids.




A quick glance over Twinkle’s shoulder told me that the cloak-o across the way was staring at us. Eyes flung open, gigantic and wide. We’d been spotted.

“Run.” I said out loud.

Murmurs washed over the crowd. Kids jerked their necks around looking for the direction of the danger.

“Run!” I yelled.

We stampeded like cows. Out of control. We just took off and ran.

Had this been an open space, there would have been no way at all that we could have stuck together. We would have scattered, and we would have died, come to think of it. But this was a theater. There was only direction that didn’t lead to the stage itself, and we all charged there in unison. There was only one door at the end of that stampede, and we made for it with purpose.

The good thing about being a massive cluster of stomping hooves is that grown-ups or not - armed-to-the-teeth or naked-as-newborns, there ain’t nopony fool enough to get in your way. All the cloak-o’s scattered, or at least tried to. One of them didn’t quite make it. By the time his body reached us kids in the back, it had been mashed into some kinda gak.

The doorway up ahead was covered with jewels and fancy paint and stuff. That had to be the super special room where the Priestess went to hang out. Knock back a cold pint of foal’s blood after a long hard day of giving speeches that made no bucking sense.

Her door would have a lock. I was certain of it.




Some of the herd was already inside. But there were a lot of us, and the cloaky troops were re-grouping, and charging from both directions, strange-looking weapons in tow. We ran and we ran and we ran, but no matter how I played it out in my head, the rear was gonna get cut off. We just were.

The unicorn cloak-o’s used their levitation powers to throw barriers in our way, and the unicorn kids parried them off. It looked like a tornado of old theater junk. Just a few feet ahead of me, a cloak-o was smacked in the face by a fake brick wall. The kid he’d been trying to grab stumbled and almost took a bunch of us with him.

“Come on!” I shouted as I caught him with my face. As if he didn’t already know that he ought to pick himself up in a hurry.

The plan was shot to Tartarus.

We could maybe possibly hopefully just about make it past the door, but what then? Buy ourselves 120 seconds while they dug around for the keys? It wasn’t enough. Even if we did make it in, there was no way we could make it all the way home.

It felt like watching the lightning water sneak up on those cages all over again, only this time, I was right in the middle of it. There was no dry spot to leap to - no smartass unicorns to unplug the box. We were thoroughly and completely screwed. All of us.

I turned to Twinkle as I ran.

“Twink?” I panted.

But she was gone! Totally gone! Skidding to a halt, I looked around all frantic-like. She turned out to be way behind - just inches from the cloak-o guard riding her tail. A seasoned Wastelander Twinkle Eyes might well have been, but her legs were just too damn tiny.

I ran toward them. They ran toward me. The cloak-o’s teeth chomped at Twinkle’s tail. She shrieked. He was so close to nabbing her! And so focused on that tail. The bastard didn’t see it coming when I leapt up in the air and threw myself at his face (with the opposite of expert precision).

We both went down pretty hard. But I was the only one who got back up. Twinkle leant a helping hoof in that, and steered my face in the general direction of the gilded door as I stumbled to my hooves.

The two of us darted for it with everything we had. The levitation whirlwind had bought us a little bit of time, but we were way behind the rest of the group. With them waiting for us - door wide open, the best we could hope for was a 30-second head start once we slammed the lock shut. I wasn’t even sure they would even be able to close it in time to keep the cloak-o’s out at all.

The plan wasn’t just shot to Tartarus. It was fucked. We were fucked. Yes, I actually said ‘fucked.’

That’s how completely and totally fucked we all were.




As we neared the door, I could see Misty Mountain standing behind the frame. It suddenly dawned on me what I had to do.

“Sorry,” I said.

Before Twinkle could respond, I reached around, grabbed her mane without any warning, and spun with all of my weight. I ended up tumbling and flinging her like a discus at the same time.

BAM!

I slammed the door shut with Twinkle on the other end. A cloak-o ran right into it face first, and fell on me from above - all busted up and unconscious-like.

“Eep!” I eeped.

I listened hard. Come on, come on, come on! I thought.

Click.

Yes! Misty’d bolted the door shut. I was locked out. And Twinkle Eyes was locked in.

“Rose!” She screamed and cried and banged on the door.

“I’ll be fine!” I shouted back at the thumping door and ran off.

BFF Death Pacts are one thing, but I had a shot at getting us all out of there alive, and I was gonna take it.

“Whatever you do, just keep going!” I hollered back.





* * *




We had a chance to get through this. I had to do something so crazy, and so stupid – something so catastrophically ginormous – so in your face – that the guards would think that I was more important than the exodus of forty some-odd child sacrifices rummaging through the Priestess’ junk and slipping out the back door.

In books, when you wanna distract a guard, you usually have to yell something stupid like “Over here!” or “This way!”

But that’s just dumb. It turns a clever plan into an obvious plan.

So I made straight for the Priestess and let the cloak-o’s make up their own minds to follow.




I ran. Of course, I tripped. I found myself face-to-face with a discarded box-cutter that had been slung around all over the unicornado. Grabbing it in my teeth, I scrambled to my hooves again, and ran some more. As hard as I could.

The second I turned and looked back to see if I was being followed, though, I stumbled like a great big ball of moron right into a curtain. Cloth everywhere! I shook myself free of it, and came up facing an army of panicked cloak-o’s. They charged straight for me.

Some of them came straight from the direction of the Priestess’ super special room where my friends made their escape. The plan was working. Working too well apparently! They ditched that door so hard and bolted for me so fast, that I wasn’t sure I could even get away before they caught up with me.

“Eeeeeeeeeek!” I said as best as I could with a mouth full of box cutter.

Shaking my hoof free of the last entanglement of the curtain, I took off. Next thing I know, it all comes flopping down, and the whole squad of cloak-o’s is buried in curtain like a giant fishing net.

There I was, right off stage, staring at the Priestess. She stared back, clearly shocked, but doing a decent job of keeping her cool, acting all princess-y and regal.

“A ha!” I mumbled.

I knew just what to do!

I opened that box cutter and started hacking at one of the ropes. It was attached to a sandbag directly above the Priestess’ head. One slash, and I could make it fall on her, and knock her out. Then the stage would be mine! I could run on up there, and, in all the confusion, buy some more time for my friends! Maybe even convince the townsponies that what they were doing was wrong.

And then, after that, um…rescue the druggy ones somehow!

…Except that theater ropes are thicker than they are in stories. I sawed and sawed and sawed and sawed and sawed. I got it to fray pretty close to the center, but no matter what, there was still no getting it to snap.

Meanwhile, the Priestess stood right there on stage, watching my every move.

“Arg!” I growled in frustration.

The element of surprise – totally ruined.

The guards squirmed looked like a basket of confused puppies with a blanket thrown over it. I looked back at the gilded door where I’d last seen my friends. No matter what, I couldn’t run back there. Hell, some of the cloak-o’s were already jiggling the knob and fussing with keys, trying to get inside.

I had nowhere left to run.

“This is it.” I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and bolted.

Stomping on the great big old pile of cloaky thugs under the curtain, I made for the one place left I hadn’t gone to yet. On stage.




The entire town gasped when I stepped into the spotlight. Then there was like this awkward silence. A really, really, really, really awkward silence. Tension hung on the air so thick you’d need to hack through it like the vines in one of them Daring Do jungles just to be able to breathe a little.

There I was. I was a child. Awake. Unchained. Not some deep secret de-ponified anonymous sacrifice prettied up to look like something holy. Not an enemy. Not an ideal to be fought and conquered, but a pony – a living breathing pony. With feelings and stuff.

I got the impression that that wasn’t a reality they had to face every day.

“Hi.” I said, waving to the crowd.

Unsure of what else to do, some of them actually waved back.

A whole mess of guards stood on the edge of the stage, haunting the wings, unsure of whether or not they should charge on out there, and make even more of a scene than I already had.

The High Priestess held up a hoof. They didn’t move.

Even the cloak-o’s who had been messing with the gilded door had dropped what they were doing, and charged up there to see what the commotion was. They stumbled into their fellow cloak-o’s’ flanks and froze in place when they saw the Priestess.

Well, I’ve got their attention. I thought.

I only hoped my friends could get away fast enough. If Strawberry Lemonade could just get to safety, this whole hornets-in-the-brain super-important-secret-mission thing would be over and done with. Then I could finally wake up. If not, then everything was about to get a whole lot worse.

“This, my little ponies.” Said the Priestess smugly, as though she’d planned my whole on stage cameo. “Is what you all used to be.”

Oh, great. An object lesson. I thought.

“Nervous. Weak. Vulnerable.”

“Hey!” I said.

The Priestess cocked an eyebrow at me but didn’t actually deign to respond.

“This is what we will never be again.” She continued.

I wanted to kill her. For what she had done to my friends – to countless other kids, I felt she deserved it. More importantly, I wanted to get off that damn stage, even if it meant running right into the hooves of those big mean guards waiting for me off in the wings.

But I was there to buy time, so that’s what I did. Or at least tried to do.

“Buy time, buy time, buy time, buy time, buy time.” I whispered to myself.

The crowd stared. The Priestess was already dragging it out all by her lonesome, making an example of me, so I decided to button my lip and let her do what she did best – yap.

“Blah blah blah blah blah innocence.” Said the Priestess.

My eyes drifted toward the drugged up kids under the sheet. That bronze hoof was still hanging out. I swear it was taunting me for not doing anything to save them.

“I’m trying!” I whispered as though the hoof could hear me.

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah horrors of war.” The Priestess continued.

Maybe if I tugged on the sheet a little. I thought. Maybe if the town was actually forced to look at what they were sacrificing, they’ll change.

“Yadda yadda yadda yadda yadda.” The pontiff continued.

“Maybe if I --;” I stopped when I realized I could suddenly hear myself loud and clear.

I looked up. The stage was silent. She’d finished making her big dumb elaborate point.

Wake up, wake up, wake up. I said to myself.

So far, no good.

The cloak-o guards started inching on to the stage from both sides. They no longer cared about being seen. They just stood there, as orderly as possible, waiting to snatch me up. None of them wanted to make the initial pounce, because it was kind of an undignified thing to do in front of the entire town. Scrambling around all-slapstick-like after some kid. Judging by the stern, but stage-frighty expressions on their big dumb faces, those cloak-o goons would probably never live it down.

I could see it so clearly. Some old mare mocking the cloak-o’s in my head. “Remember when Cloak-O Sergeant Stupidpants made an ass of himself on stage chasing that little one around.”

“But that was 20 years ago!” The poor cloak-o would reply.

“Funniest thing to happen in 20 years.” She’ll say.

Yeah, I wasn’t about to go quietly

Some things never change about small towns.

Whoever catches me is never gonna live it down.




I inched closer and closer toward the center. They inched closer and closer toward me. The Priestess stood firm as a statue – the very picture of regality, or Priestess-ality, or whatever you call some holier-than-thou despot.

Stage-left. Stage right. This time there was literally was nowhere to run.

The Priestess broke her pose for a firm nod, and just like that, a great white light came from below. That same fun house pattern of shadows that I’d seen from underneath the stage was shining upward now.

The big platform full of kids shook and rumbled.

“No.” I whispered.

I made for the platform. I had to do something to stop whatever it was that was happening!

I reached for the ceremonial sheet when I got there, but found an angry hoof stomping down right in front of my face. It was the Priestess. She’d lost her cool. Her patience. She was done toying around, playing teacher.

I stumbled backward and fell flat on my flank. From where I lied on the floor she seemed to stand a-hundred-thousand miles tall. With the mask of cordial dignity gone, all that was left was a demon’s eyes. No fury like a pontiff scorned.

She raised her hoof, and the floor made a terrible whirring noise. The Priestess may have been all “look at this innocenty thing” and cute rhetorical arguments and stuff when I was acting quiet and confused. But I’d made for her tray o’ Baal Meat. She was not gonna be trifled with on the subject of her sacrifices.

She bore down on me. I scrambled backward. Scary as she was, all I could focus on was that tray. It vibrated. It jittered. It lowered itself down. Under the stage. My heart sank with it. The kids were gone.

Gone!

All those children. That boy I saw in the Wasteland. The pony with the bronze hoof.

I’d made a promise to them five minutes before, and already, they were gone.

I wanted to throw myself at that stupid Priestess. To find the magic lever that would make the kids come back. To rescue them from Whatever Was Down There with a snap of a hoof and a bit of the old Rose Family Luck that had served me so well so far. But no matter how I sliced it, there was no stopping them. Even if I had a magic button, right in front of me was this big stupid mare ready to bite my throat out. It was crazy!

Over twenty kids were going deep down into that terrible Great Below and there wasn’t nothing in the whole world I could do to stop it! My lungs felt like they were full of concrete. I was just too damn horrified to remember how to breathe.

We lost.

The good guys lost.




I scrambled further backward. About two dozen of the Priestess’ closest and meanest friends were closing in on me from behind.

Meanwhile, Her Holiness watched me, and I her. A contest to see who could hate the other pony more using just their eyeballs. That bitch had just fed a bunch of kids to Baal, or whatever the hell was actually down there. The shadow that had followed us in the basement and interrogated my soul could have been the tip of the iceberg! What kind of dark creatures was this maniac keeping?

I shook with anger. Stupid. So fucking stupid. What had she done?!

The thugs gathered round like wolves, making a great big old semi-circle. Not quite ready to spring. They waited for The Word.

The kids? They were on their way down to Luna-only-knows-where.

The audience did what audiences do – they watched the fucking tragedy in silence. Twenty kids had just dipped down into some Hell, never to be seen again, and these jerks just sat there and watched.

For a long and terrible moment we all stood there, ready to spring, ready to run, ready to kill.

Then the sandbag fell. And all Hell broke loose.

I’d done a better job of cutting that rope than I thought.




The Priestess startled, and stumbled backward like a unicyclist who doesn’t know what she’s doing.

“Fuck it.” I said and charged her.

My only chance to make any kind of move at all.

The cloak-o’s gritty hooves were already reaching for me, but I’d broken into a gallop first. I leapt up as high as I could, using the fallen sandbag as an extra step. Flew at the Priestess, screaming and flailing wildly.

“Arrrrararararaghhhrrrr!” I said.

When I finally came down, I grabbed her by the face - clung to it, and dragged her even more off balance than she already was. Next thing I know, I’m flung across the stage, all the way over to the other side of the hole in the ground where the kids were still sinking. They hadn’t gotten far. The platform was slow.

I looked up. Right in front of me was a whole fresh troupe of cloak-o’s.

“Yipe!” I said, and I ran back the other way. Back toward center stage. Back toward the Priestess. Back toward the hole, stumbling around like Berry Punch as I went.

In all the confusion, I tripped on my own ankles and fell. With a desperate hoof, I caught one of the Priestess’ sprite bots. I’m not sure what exactly had gone down, but I was already a few feet into the hole, dangling over the platform full of kids. It sank deeper and deeper and deeper till it disappeared into that dark vertical tunnel below. I clung to that cheerful floaty metal sprite bot thingy for dear life, but it just kept drifting further and further down under my weight.

The damn thing wanted to get back to the Priestess so bad, it was pushing as hard as it could to go back upward, but I weighed too much. Meanwhile, that bitch Priestess was kneeling over the edge, rubbing her own head, trying to figure out which way was up. She just barely avoided stumbling into the hole herself.

“In the Name of The Great De-Innocentizer of Souls.” Said the Priestess with a tremble in her voice. “Let this sacrifice be consecrated.”

Even as she faltered, she had not forgotten her audience, or her purpose. A true showpony to the end.

And then, just like that, as if she had cast some kind of magic spell of really apt timing, the last of my grip slipped off the smooth metal surface, and the sprite bot went flying eagerly upward like a little kid rushing to greet his Mommy after work.

The last thing I heard was a thud and a giant twang. The sprite bot had hit its beloved Priestess in the face.

And me? I just dropped off into the Great Below.




* * *




I landed and I landed hard. I found myself flat on my back, head ringing. The cold metal floor jerked and hummed and made my chest feel hollow as it sank and sank and sank deeper down into the black.

We passed the area under the stage full of century-old set pieces, passed the hole in its floor, passed the weird lighting and jagged shadows through the fence, and kept going down into a dark rocky chute. Beside me was the ceremonial sheet. Underneath it were twenty of the luckiest kids I knew.

The trap door entrance above me was now nothing more than a bright light that shrank further and further away into the great big old blackness. Oh, and something was spiraling toward me violently from above.

I barely had a chance to blink, but when I realized that that shadow was actually gigantic, flailing around, and about to fall on me, I snapped wide awake and scurried away like a maniac. Right into the metal fence that lined the walls of the sinking box I was stuck in.

Twang!

Like an idiot maniac.

I didn’t even have a moment to get my bearing. WHAM! The Priestess’ big ugly head landed right there next to me.

“Ahhhhhh!” I said, a portrait of poise and grace, clinging to the fence behind me.





But she didn’t say anything. Didn’t even move. There was nothing at all going on but a sinking feeling, the grindy whirring sound of the machinery, and the pale light from the screen on the Priestess’ bracelet. It made all sorts of crazy green shadows on the rocky walls as they moved up and up and up and up and up.

In its light, the blood on the Priestess’ face looked gray.

After a long sinking silence, her big ugly head groaned. I climbed onto to the pile o’ kids, (careful not to hurt anypony), and put as much distance between myself and the Priestess as I could.

A seasoned Wastelandy traveler-type pony would probably have taken the opportunity to kill her or hold her hostage or something, but I didn’t think of that. I just waited. Whatever else was at the bottom of that terrible deep down below, every cloak-o in town was gonna come looking for us now that their beloved leader was injured, and stuck here with me.

It was a race, really.

All Strawberry had to do was get away.

I closed my eyes. Begged. Pleaded. Waited.

“Come on,” I whispered to myself. “Wake up.”

But nothing happened. Nothing at all! I just kept on getting lower and lower.

“Roseluck!” I yelled.

In desperation, I hoped that I could make myself talk in my sleep. That she could wake me up.

“Roseluck!” I shouted again, tears in my eyes.

But I was all alone.




We passed a tunnel – a hole in the walls that kept drifting upward.

Shovels. Boxes. Great big old holes that used to be Trottica’s mines. Abandoned.

It was hard to see much of anything. Eventually it rose above us and disappeared.




A dim light rose up to greet us from below. We were nearing the bottom.

Behind me: the groaning sound of pained laughter. The Priestess.

“You little bitch.” She croaked.

I turned away from my tear soaked hooves and stared at her in shock. It may sound stupid, considering all that was going on down there, but nopony had ever talked to me like that. Not even Diamond Tiara.

“Your virgin ears?” She snorted at me.

I slid against the floor and pressed my back against the grating as hard as I could. I didn’t like this conversation one bit. Had there been a cliff to jump off of with gators and spikes at the bottom, I would have taken the plunge just to get away from the Priestess.

“You thought you could make a foal out of me.” She said. “Thought you were clever.”

She grimaced as she tried to lift her head. It was clear her body wasn’t all it could be. Pity her mouth still worked.

“Now look at you. Cowering like a child.”

“I am a child!” I snapped at her.

She just watched me. Expressionless. We stared at each other in silence.

“Why do you hate us so much?” I shouted.

More contempt-y silence.

The light from below was getting brighter.

“Because.” She said at long last. “You waste away your lives on frivolity. On play.”

That last word was a bitter one for her. Judging by her face, it tasted bad just to say it out loud.

“While you’re busy frolicking about like blissful idiots, the world goes to shit.” She added. “Innocence – your innocence destroyed it.”

“Did not!” I shouted.

“Did too.” She replied.

“Did not.” I said again.

“Did too.” Said the Priestess.

“Did. Not!” I stomped on the metal beneath my hooves.

“Ugh.” The Priestess rolled her eyes. Too dignified to respond.

I didn’t know what universe she was from, but I’d seen Wasteland kids. They weren’t exactly a lollipops-and-sunshine crowd. But this Priestess was totally bonkers, so I doubted it would be a point worth debating.

Had any of them ever even seen a lollipop?!

As if to emphasize my point, we sunk further down – so far down my ears popped – and came upon the source of the light. Another tunnel. Like the one I’d seen just a few moments before, only this one wasn’t at all bare. Instead of great big old empty hallways, it was full of wormholes. I couldn’t quite figure them out at first, but a small avalanche poured from one, and out from the mound of rocks came a squirmy little dirt creature, wriggling to the surface. It gasped for breath with terrifying desperation. The hacking sound was so awful, it made me feel like I was drowning just to have to listen to it.

One of the cloak-o’s reached in and yanked the poor thing halfway out. It was a colt, buried up to his neck in dirt. The cloak-o mare held him by his mane until he spat out a gem.

She let go of his hair and he tumbled out on to the floor, erupting into a fit of heaving and wheezing.

“Hay!” Shouted the cloak-o mare.

She kicked him till he hobbled to his hooves and scurried meekly back into the hole.

The last thing I saw before going deeper down into the great below was a filly shackled to a cart of dirt more than twice her size. She looked right at me. It was like having a staring contest with the dead.

I just pressed my hoof against the metal gate as she and I passed one another. I was desperate to say something. Anything. But I couldn’t find the words.

I continued staring, even as we sunk down some more and my view of the tunnel was gone. I never saw that girl again. I was left watching the stone walls rise.

Lord Baal. The cloak-o’s. The daisies. Their whole way of life. It was all just an elaborate front for a jewel mine.

“How?” I said to myself.

How could nopony not notice what was going on? Nopony even questioned the Priestess’ lies.

And the cloaky nurse! He’d spent his whole life regretting that he was too big to get sacrificed. That he had to join the thug corps. Truth was, he was just too damn bulky to fit in those tiny tunnels.

Not a single pony seemed to have a clue. The whole damn town! They sent their own children to be beaten and broken and worked to death. Then when they ran out of kids, they stole other fillies and colts. In the name of goodness! In the name of preventing the war that had already happened.

And in all that, not one of them had stopped to think that maybe what they were doing was wrong. That maybe Baal was a jerk. Nopony had stopped to say “Hey, guess what! I’m on to you! And I have a problem with this.”

It didn’t seem possible. Even in a wasteland – even in a world where folks like Twinkle’s parents sold their own kids into slavery – the village of Trottica didn’t make any sense. The Baal lie. The invisible war against innocence itself. It was all too fucking stupid.

“How?” I said again.

The rocky walls kept rising and rising as our platform sank and sank further into the pit.

“Survival first.” Said the Priestess.

I turned to face her.

“Morals follow on.” She flashed me a smug little grin.

Enough cowering. I stomped my hoof down. Yelled till my voice cracked and broke and squeaked under the strain of my anger.

“You made them kill their own children!”

“It’s always black and white with you kids.” She quipped with a cough. “The big mean eeeeeevil villain swooped in and forced a village full of decent hard-working ponies to kill their kids, all so she could be fabulous and cover herself in jewels.”

“Well, aren’t you?” I said.

“I am fabulous, I admit, and I do look good in rubies.” She said. “But no.”

Now I was really confused. Was she actually going to try to convince me that they weren’t killing these kids?!

“I didn’t force anypony to do anything.” Said the Priestess.

She struggled hard to lift her head, but didn’t quite have the strength to crane her neck, (at least not for more than a few seconds).

“They were feeding their sons and daughters to the mines before I even got here. The only thing I made anypony do was feel good about it.”

We passed another tunnel. In the middle of the hustle and bustle of the mine was a filly lying on the floor. She was barely breathing. One of the “drivers” tried beating her to her hooves. When it didn’t work, off she went. Dragged off and hucked onto a mining car like an old sack of potatoes.

Everypony else in that mine was staring at us. Like they’d heard us coming and knew the score.

“Ponies do what they have to.” She continued. “Trottica is way up in the mountains. Easily defended from raiders. Wealthy in jewels, but too far South to be of any interest to the Hellhounds. We’ve always enjoyed a certain prosperity here that other townships don’t share.”

If those prettied up shanties and leaky floors were what passed for prosperity in this dump of a future, I would hate to see what poverty looked like.

“It’s the only way.” The Priestess’ shoulders gave out a faint spasm. The closest thing to a shrug she could muster.

“Abandon the mines, and everypony is as good as dead. Not just the precious children. Everypony. Do you have any idea how many of these ponies are refugees? Trottica did what it had to. But before I came along, the townsponies had a bad habit of killing themselves afterwards.” The Priestess rolled her eyes. “So tacky.”

I looked back at her blankly. I was not amused.

“So I made up a story,” She continued. “And told them that it wasn’t their fault. That we had no choice, (which just so happened to be the truth). And, well, the cameras have always loved me, so really, the rest is all just razzle-dazzle.”




I was still trying to make sense of what I’d seen. The colt choking on dirt. That poor girl flung carelessly into the mining car to die. Like so many others.

How many others?! I wondered.

Did anypony ever even stop to ask their names?

I was struck with the urge to leap up like a Pegasus, fly into that tunnel and take that kid in my hooves. Hold her. Ask her name. Just so somepony would know it.

Beside me was the Priestess – monologue-y, but motionless – possibly even dying herself. She didn’t unlock her cold yellow eyes from mine. Not even to blink. She just stared me down, beaming with pride. The Priestess. The hero.

She’d come along and hid the worst kind of Hell right there in plain sight, and given fake comfort and phony-ass solace to ponies who damn well deserved to feel ashamed.

And there she was now, spending what could be her last moments on Equestria blah blah blah’ing to me – like she expected me to thank her or something.

“Why are you telling me this?” I growled.

“Cause I fucking hate children!” The Priestess snapped. “And I want to watch you discover.”

She said that like it was a bad thing. Like the only stuff there was to discover in the whole wide world was her sick, messed up version of the truth, and discovery itself could only be synonymous with pain.

“So that’s your plan?” I said. “That’s your big finale. You wanna spend your last moments convincing some totally random filly that ponies everywhere are all a bunch of jerks.”

She grinned a sarcastic grin. Under the faint glow of her braceletty thing, I could just barely make out a row of clean white teeth.

Nopony else in the entire Wasteland had teeth like that.

“You’re a stable girl. Aren’t you?” I said totally out of the blue.

Long deadpan silence.

Finally, she rolled her eyes and gestured to her glowy bracelet thing.

“What was your first clue, Sherclop?”

So that must have been one of those Pip Ducks the other kids were on about.




Ok, so I’m not good at thinking like a Wasteland kid. But I know an outsider when I see one. I know exactly what it feels like to be thrust into this apocalyptic junk like a catapult into a brick wall.

Then it dawned on me. Just like that.

I know why the Priestess is such a bitch!

“You loved your childhood.” I said calmly.

“Childhood is ignorance.” She said. “Ignorance is sin.”

I snorted. She thought I could by parried off by citing a little bit of scripture from the belief system that she had made up her own damn self.

“You laughed.” I said. “And played.”

She blinked in surprise. Clearly the last thing she expected me to say.

“You had friends. You were so bucking happy.”

I stood up and stretched my legs and inched on closer to her. “Then you came here. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Your life didn’t turn out like you wanted, so you built a…”

I stuttered a bit. There wasn’t a single word I knew of that could describe what she’d done here. “A…a…I don’t know even what to call what you’ve built…And then you murdered a buncha children. Why? Cause you couldn’t take a little disappointment?!”

She didn’t have a smart answer for that one. All she could do was babble. She knew I was on to her. Not just her scam, which she freely confessed, but her. I saw the Priestess for who she really was.

“The-the-the truth is always disappointing!” She said with feigned confidence.

“You killed hundreds of kids. Because you. Didn’t. Get. Your. Way.”

All her suave villain talk went right out the window. The Priestess was fuming. Bright red all over. Even in the pale green Pip Duck light.

I just shook my head at her. “Grow up!”




Her horn flickered faintly, but she was too weak to magic at me. She just grunted and howled in frustration.

She couldn’t bear the thought of anypony being on to her.

It got me wondering. What else was the Priestess hiding? I’d had enough nonsense. She was a Filly-Come-Lately to all this. What the hell was her actual destiny? I had to know.

I reached over and grabbed the cloak right off of her. The battered old thing looked like it had seen better days.

“Hey!” She said.

“What’s your cutie mark anyway?” I said. “A jerk skull?”

“Fuck off.” She said.

I yanked up her frock. It was all entangled in jewels and stuff, but eventually, I got to her flank. All I had to do is ignore her curses and insults long enough to dig around and excavate a good solid view of it.

After about seventy-million ropes and dangly-bits of cloth, I finally caught a glimpse of her cutie mark.

Two masks. One laughing. One crying.

The crazy lady was an actress.

“Give that back!” She said.

An actress!

There was real panic in her voice. I cocked an eyebrow. Give what back. The only thing I’d actually taken off of her was that run down old cloak. I shook it around. There weren’t even any keys or money or anything hidden in it.

“Give it back.” She growled, more out of desperation than anger.

“Huh?” I said to myself.

The Priestess was practically crying for the thing.

Weird. I thought.

I didn’t have a use for it. And I may have hated the Priestess guts, but withholding it just seemed stupid and petty. So I folded that raggedy piece of cloth up nice and neat, with every intention of giving it back to her. But then she snapped at me, all nasty-like.

“You’ve made your point, now gimme my fucking cloak you motherless cunt!” She snapped

Motherless.

I stopped. Looked into her cold, hateful yellow eyes.

Motherless.

I grinned at her defiantly. I put that fucking thing on myself. Even did a little dance. That’s right, all that compassion and preachy crap flew right out the window, and I danced a cloaky dance right in the Priestess’ face. 'Cause fuck her, that’s why. Fuck her, fuck her, fuck her, fuck her, fuck her. She brought my Mom into it.

Funny thing is, big as she was, the cloak still fit pretty good. It was even surprisingly warm.




I stopped dancing when I noticed the light rising up from underneath us. More than just a beam or a patch from one of those tunnels like before. There was a warmer, brighter glow spilling our way. We were nearing bottom.

“You’re very sharp.” The Priestess said coolly.

She glanced toward the floor and smirked at me. What she actually meant to say didn’t need saying. Once that platform stopped sinking, it would all be over. In just under a minute, I would be at the mercy of the very same drivers I’d seen beat young fillies half to death without a second thought.

The Priestess looked me over with hard sunken eyes. Mean eyes. The kind of eyes that stare at you and dream about how awesome your insides would look splattered on the outside.

“Do you have any friends?” I asked her at last.

“What?” She blinked.

“I mean, you’ve got all these townsponies who worship you cause you tricked ‘em.” I said. “And all these cloak-o meanies who are really just in it cause you give ‘em a chance to be mean. But does anypony actually like you? Without all the razzle-dazzle?”

They don’t, do they? They just want comfort or protection or a chance to be a great big jerk.”

Her silence answered for her.

“That’s sad.” I said shielding my eyes from the light below. Too damn bright.

We were so close that I could actually see a bunch of figures waiting for us at the bottom. Guard ponies. Drivers. About half of them were looking up. The others huddled around one of those console thingies that Strawberry Lemonade was so obsessed with.

“You underestimate me.” Said the Priestess dryly. “I’ll manage.”

“No, you won’t!” I said. “Cause you’re the underestimater of things. And you won’t manage, cause you’re a great big stupid jerkface!”

Not the most badass of things to say to somepony before you put your cards on the table, but hay, I’m being honest. It’s what came to mind. Think it’s lame? You do better the next time you’re a mile underground and telling off a priestess who sacrifices kids in the High Holy Name of a Bunch of Stuff That She Made Up Off The Top Of Her Head.




One of the walls of metal grating swung upwards like a giant doggie door when we landed. And there was the Priestess. Her big stupid head all over the massive screen of the great big old super-console.

Everything she’d said about the townsponies. About the cloak-o’s. About Baal. Put on screen all over town.

I could see the Priestess chomping at the bit. She clenched her teeth, straining to look upward. The stringy bits in her neck were all tense and bulgey-like. Then suddenly her pupils shrank into two sharp terrified little dots, and all the color ran from her face. She’d finally caught a glimpse of what lurked above.

A pair of sprite bots trained to follow her and film her every motion floated down. Cheerful. Eager. Ready to please.

You’re right, Priestess. I thought to myself. The cameras have always loved you.

You always come up with the best one-liners when it’s too late to say them out loud.




* * *




First thing I did was scramble right into the pile of children and tuck that ceremonial sheet back over us. Whatever was gonna happen, the last thing I wanted was to be noticed while it was all going down.

Cachung. We’d reached the bottom.

At first there was only the sound of the metal gates being flung open. Then the whole tray of drugged up kids got jerked around, wheeled out, jostled along, and hitched on to some kinda automated carriage device. The weight of the Priestess was smooshing us all the way, tugging on that stupid ceremonial sheet as we bounced around. I wasn’t sure what was happening out there, but it wasn’t long before the weight of the Priestess was gone. Poof.

She’d fallen off the pile. Or got dragged off, judging by the begging and pleading that followed, (not to mention the clumsy attempts at commanding their loyalty).

“In the name of Baal, I command you t--;"

Then there came a bang-ka-pow sound. Brief, matter-of-fact, and just like that, the Priestess spoke no more.




The carriage-a-majig didn’t make it very far. Neither did the guy driving it. In fact, the whole area erupted into a giant clusterbuck of banging, screaming, and sulfur smoke.

I buried myself under that thin cloth as best I possibly could. It was impossible to tell what was going down: who was winning, who was losing, or even who was fighting. But the hell that rained down out there – it was nopony’s friend. That stupid sheet was the only thing standing between me and the fire, (even if it only helped in my imagination). So I huddled under it and waited.





I have no bucking clue how long the battle lasted. Each ka-pow felt like a great big eternity of worry. Would it hit me? Would I die? And yet, at the same time, the whole thing zoomed by so fast that the details got blurry even as they were happening.

But the worst part, hooves down, was when the smoke started to actually clear, and I thought, “Hay, maybe this fight might finally be over.” Sure, I thanked my lucky stars that I’d survived, but after that, I was just left there, huddled in the dark. There was absolutely no way to be sure that I was actually in the clear.

I lied in that pile forever, afraid to even breathe. It wasn’t even safe for the cloak-o’s, let alone a kid. One overconfident thug got up, brushed himself off, and actually started yammering. He thought all was clear, and it didn’t work out too well for him.

“The heretic has been slain.” Said the voice on the other end of the sheet, presumably addressing the Priestess’ cameras. “Remain calm and return to your homes. As your new High Priest-;’

Bang. Splat. Thud.

Shortest reign ever.

No, sir, I wouldn’t be repeating his mistake.




A few bangs and screams later there was total silence again, except of course for the hum of the machinery and that obnoxious ringing in my ears. I huddled there stuffed all up into a pile of my peers, and waited. Then waited. And then, when I was done waiting, I waited some more.

The problem was this: if I took too long, the cloak-o’s would come for us; if I jumped out too soon, I’d be dead on the spot. So I listened hard. Desperate for a clue. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t tell for sure if there was anypony still out there. The kids under the sheet breathed deep. Some even snored. The whole pile got all knobbed and undulate-y and loud. So I sitting there for Luna-only-knows how long, all I could do was guess at what might be going on.

Eventually I poked myself to go out there and check.

“Come on, Rose Petal. Come on.” I said, but no matter what, I just couldn’t work up the nerve.

It was like standing over a cold lake, swearing to Celestia that you’ll jump in on the count of three. You want to. You mean to, but when the time comes, your body just plain refuses to budge. It was a lot like that, only about a billion times worse.

Come on, Rose. You can do it. Come on! I hit myself in the head, frustrated with my own cowardice. But the rest of my body still wouldn’t move.

“Rose Petal,” Came a voice that, at first, I didn’t recognize as being anything other than my own.

“Come on, come on, come on.” It sounded like a newspaper crumbling inside of a tin can.

I perked my head up – another lump under the sheet.

“Rose Petal, come in. Rose Petal, are you there?” The tin can said at last, loud and clear.

I flung the sheet up and scrambled off of the kid-pile, (careful not to knee anypony in the process).

“Strawberry Lemonade?!” I whispered frantically.

What the Hell was The One I’m Meant to Save doing down there?

“She’s alive!” Said Twinkle Eye’s voice, all crackly and distorted.

It was coming from that great big old console. The one with the giant movie screen displaying the Priestess’ big ugly head. The one sprite bot that survived the fight just floated there gleefully, fulfilling its purpose.

Suddenly a whole choir of kids were laughing and calling my name from inside of the box. I was able to surmise by their numbers that they weren’t hiding in the console. Nor were they physically down there with me at all. It had to be some of Strawberry Lemonade’s weird machine magic.

I bolted for the glowy box, scrambling over dead cloak-o after dead cloak-o as I went. The damn idiots had annihilated themselves.

“Rose, are you alright?” Asked Strawberry Lemonade.

“What are you doing?!” I said. “Get outta here!”

They may not have been down there with me in the Great Below, but they weren’t exactly safe either. And neither was I! Those beautiful friends of mine were gonna get us all killed. Couldn’t they see that I was stuck there? That I couldn’t wake up till Strawberry Lemonade was good and saved?

No, of course not.

Twinkle’s voice squeaked from inside the can.

Uh-oh. I thought.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She was laughing and sobbing at the same time.

“Saving your flank.” I said.

“I’m so sorry.” She wept. “I’m so sorry.”

She was referring to our fight earlier. We’d already good and made up, but those words still ripped right into me like a spear. I’m so sorry. It seemed like everypony I ever cared about was destined to worry like crazy over me. It made me feel like the Worst Friend Ever.

I’m the one who’s sorry. I said to myself. The same words I’d repeated again and again as I cried myself to sleep my first night in Trottica prison.

“You guys have to get outta here.” I repeated firmly. “I’ll be fine, I swear.”

I was deep in a Hell Mine. No time for weepy piratetry.

“Fuck you, Rose Petal. Don’t you do this to me.” She blubbered unexpectedly. “We’re not leaving without you.”

Misty Mountain jumped right on in there. “I try, Rose Petal. I try! Dee feelies are crazy. I tell dem you be safer if we leave you down there to die. Do they listen to reason? No.”

The bucking bastard was on to my plan. That could only mean that he was a dreamer too. Displaced in time. I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!

“What does Meesty know?” He added. “Dey just hit me.”

“Shut up,” Grumbled Strawberry Lemonade.

“Meesty only done dees sort of thing fifty times before in Old Country.”

“He’s right,” I pleaded. “Get outta there. Go! Please!”

“No!” Shouted Twinkle Eyes with the kind of spunk and fire that simply couldn’t be reasoned with.

Strawberry Lemonade took control of whatever it was that they had that allowed them to talk to me through that console.

“Rose, listen.” She said. “You can’t come back the way you came. There’s too much fighting up there on the stage.”

The adults are revolting. I thought with a smile. Was the whole town collapsing on itself? I hoped so.

“I can get you outta there.” She added. “Pull up the map on the central console.”

I looked at the big metal box. Blinks and bleeps and dials and a screen. “Um…um...”

Strawberry let out a heavy sigh. I could hear it, even through the tin can effect that the console seemed to have on ponies’ voices.

“Fine. Hit Horseshoe, Apple, 6 on the keyboard.” She said in the bubbly condescending tone of a kindergarten teacher talking to a kid who doesn’t even speak Equestrian. “Hold it down for the count of three.”

“Great idea!” I said and nervously poked my way around the machine.

Hoping I could scam my way through it enough to pass for a Wastelander.

“Wait, Strawberry?”

“Horseshoe, Apple, 6.” She growled. “Come on, Rose! We don’t have time.”

“Yeah, I got that part.” I said.

“Great.” Staring blankly at the console for another moment, I just had to ask. “What’s a keyboard?”

“Arrrrgg!”

On the other end, I could make out a harsh banging sound. It was not the sort that came from those cloak-o weapons that spit fire and death.

No. Strawberry Lemonade was whacking her own head against the console in frustration.




* * *




Misty gave me directions I could actually understand, but they only took me as far as the next console. The mines were too much of a maze to explain all at once. Besides, the cloak-o’s were listening.

So there I stood. Shaking. Fidgeting. Picking the pebbles out from under my hooves.

We still had one big problem. A giant hole in our plan.

“Rose? Come in. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” I said, rustling my ratty old mane as I tried to think on what the hell it was that I was gonna do.

“Why haven’t you left?” Screamed Twinkle Eyes. “Get the fuck. Out. Of there!”

But I just stood there some more. Thinkiness.

“No.” I said at long last.

“What now?!” They all said in unison.

“Strawberry, can you make it so the whole mine can see and hear me? All the consoles. You know, the cameras on the sprite bots?”

“Yeaaaah,” She said hesitantly. “But the cloak-o’s--;”

“Do it.” I said. “Do it now.”

I galloped over to the Priestess’ corpse, and peeked my face in front of the sprite bots. My dork head popped up on the big screen all upside down like. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen! I bobbed my head either way, and watched backwards-me do it on the screen! I waved at the cameras.

I look terrible. I thought.

Come on, this is serious! Another part of my brain thought.

It was starting to get crowded up in my brain, what with all the arguing, so I figured I’d best say what I came to say.

“Hi. Children of Trottica, um…I know you’re tired. I know you’re afraid, but look.”

I stepped aside. “That stupid priestessy lady is dead. Dead!”

A lot of them had probably seen the whole thing live, but you never knew which consoles would be tuning in for the first time thanks to Strawberry Lemonade’s doo-hickey magic.

I grabbed the sprite bot and put my face right up to the camera. “We did it! The mines are ours!”

A bald lie.

“Um…I know you’re tired. I know you’re afraid.”

“You said that already, dipshit.” Said Twinkle Eyes from inside the console.

“Shut up!” I whispered and snapped at her at the same time.

Then I turned back to face my intended audience with a nervous laugh. I didn’t know what to say next – how to give them hope. Or even how to share our plan with them! The cloak-o’s would be listening too. Not that it mattered. We didn’t even have a plan anymore!

So I thought of their faces – the kids I’d seen on the way down. I remembered what it was like to stand behind that yellow line, waiting my turn to die. Hoping. Praying for the tiniest sliver of a chance to break free.

Their hope was even fainter than mine. They’d been living in this hole for Luna only knows how long. And big mean cloak-o’s were standing over every last one of them, itching for an excuse to whip out the whomping stick. I couldn’t afford to babble.

“Now’s our chance!” I shouted suddenly. “The cloak-o’s don’t have a leader. You can take ‘em! I know they’re big and mean and evil and it doesn’t seem possible, but it is, it is! It is! I swear it is. Because there are more of us than there are of them. Because they’re a bunch of jerkfaces, and we don’t deserve this shit!”

“Do it for every time they ever kicked you cause they wanted you to dig for jewels and stuff! For every one of us they ever fucking killed! Do it for, for--;”

I needed to think! What else would make me pick myself up off the floor if I was in their horseshoes? I needed to make them see that they could do this! It would work if everypony acted at once! If they didn’t cringe or hesitate. They could all have their freedom if they just took it. But as I stood there, strategizing, I started to stammer. I didn’t have time to stammer.

Oh, Luna, I’m losing them. I thought.

It was then that I realized what I feared the most. I thought of Roseluck, and Twinkle. They deserved to see me again. Alive.

“Do it for your friends!” I said at long last.

I was crying now. “Do it for each other.”

I’m coming, Roseluck. I’m coming.

“It’s now or never, Trottica. Now or fucking never!” I squeaked and growled. “Cause living in a mine totally sucks, and we’re. Not. Gonna. Take it. Anymore!”

I panted. A lot to say in one breath. But it wasn’t enough. They needed direction. Coordination. Or they would just rise up, only to be smacked back down a gazillion times worse than before.

“All you gotta do is get to a console. Any console. There are a whole bunch of helpful console-mine-labyrinth-expert ponies waiting to guide you out.” I added.

Strawberry Lemonade snapped. “What?!”

She thought she was gonna have to steer a rescue team out, not a whole mine full of kids answering her from Luna only knew how many different places.

I turned to face the console and shrugged, as though she were right there looking at me.

“Oh, and you can find a map by Horseshoe-Apple-6…ing on the um…the…Keyboard right?” I whispered to the console.

“Yeah, that’s it.” I confirmed

Then there was this weird silence. I wasn’t sure if there was anything else I should say. A few moments later, Strawberry Lemonade chimed in.

“Rose, um, Sub-Mine W just checked in.”

“Already?”

I couldn’t believe it. The kids had actually made it to the console! If they could do it, so could I! That meant that, in all this craziness, I might actually have just saved a hooffull of lives. My heart lifted. It was an incredible feeling.

“Uh…yeah. They haven’t um…got everything quite under control yet, but you might want to listen to this.”

That crumbly paper noise came up on the console again and suddenly I could hear what Strawberry was hearing.

Too many voices to count. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed a hundred thousand billion. All chanting in unison. “Trottica! Trottica! Trottica!”

Shivers ran all down my spine. There was fire in those cries. Not just for freedom. For vengeance.

“Guys?”

They all responded with some variation of “yes?” or “what’s up?”

“Um…” I stuttered in disbelief. “Did I just, like, you know…Start a war?”

“Yeah.” Said Twinkle Eyes. This is so fucking boss!”

Alone in the Dark

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CHAPTER EIGHT – ALONE IN THE DARK

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.” – Albert Camus



I don’t know what it’s like to be a grown-up, but I do know that it’s probably stupid. As far as I can tell, half of them spend their entire lives chasing their childhoods. The other half spend it running away. The Priestess was the living embodiment of the worst of both worlds.

But all that talk about innocence had gotten me thinking that maybe that was what I’d been sent into the Wasteland to protect. The innocence of children.

But you can’t fight to protect innocence. Once you know what innocence really is, and understand that it’s something you may have lost, it’s too late. It’s gone. You’re not innocent anymore. But those mine-o slave kids and me – we may have been miles from innocence, but there was still something magic – something child-like left in us.

I guess you’d call it purity, if you had to pick a word for it. One that neither the Wasteland, nor the Priestess had corrupted. We weren’t fighting for virtues. Nopony really does. We were ready to fight for each other, though. And sometimes that’s virtue enough.

Those kids who’d been living deep within the mine for Luna only knows how long? They had something more. They were ready to kill. They had slave’s anger – a rage more pure and righteous than any other anger on earth. And just hearing it over the console had scared me. Way more than some two-bit cloak-o goon ever could.




* * *




Time to split.

Strawberry Lemonade was busy yammering at me from the other end of the machine, but time was sorta of the essence so I don’t think she held it against me when I just plain took off.

“Okay, now what you want to do is open up the roll call directory and the shift log.” She told the pony on the other end of a conversation I wasn’t a part of. “That’s it…Got it okay? Hold on.”

Even as I made for the automatic carriagey-thing, I could hear her fiddling with buttons and talking to ponies on the other end.

“Mine N. So glad to have you with us.” She laughed nervously. “No, I don’t know…Show me…I can’t see if the camera function is activated on your end, can you…yes.”

Strawberry Lemonade’s elation at having helped out with all that freedom and stuff dissolved almost immediately when she realized the sorts of colts she would be dealing with on the other end.

“Yes,” She grumbled.

A long pause.

“Yes,” She said again. “With the on button.”

The last thing I heard before I hopped on to the drivers’ seat of that big old convey-a-majig was Strawberry cursing my name, swearing to kill me herself if ever we made it out of Trottica alive.

“See you later, Jerkmine!” I hollered from the driver’s seat, and was off.

At least that’s how I imagined it would go.

The problem was, the damn auto-carriage wouldn’t move.

“So long, suckers!” I cried out again.

Nothing.

I galloped back to the console.

“Um, Strawberry?” I

“What?” She snapped.

“How do you drive this thing?”

“Ugh!”

Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.




* * *




A little while later, I was on my way, weaving and swerving down the long dark path to the next console. According to Misty’s directions, it would be about ten minutes away.

Perched on a crate, the Priestess’ old cloak was wrapped around me as I drove. I was hoping that maybe I could pass for a grown-up if the cloak-o’s saw me from far off, or out of the corners of their eyes, or I dunno, in the middle of a drunken stupor or something. In the meantime, I hooked one hoof into the horseshoe-shaped steering thingy and focused on not swerving.

All the hallways and burrowing spots I passed by were abandoned. At least at first. As I got deeper, I started to see more signs of what had once been life. Shovels discarded in a hurry. Drag marks where kids had been pulled away in a hurry before they even had the chance to fight. I wasn’t a detective, but anypony who’d ever pitched a fit in a sandbox could tell you what those marks in the dirt were.

I’d failed them.

Those poor miner kids had been dragged off to some dungeon somewhere. Even Strawberry Lemonade wouldn’t be able to find them.

They’d listened to me, trusted me. They tried to escape because I lied to them and said that we knew how to set them free.

Now they were gone. Off somewhere suffering even worse than ever before. I almost crashed when I realized the seriousness of the sort of war I’d started.

The real kind. The kind with casualties.




The next few tunnels were all cloak-o skirmishes. Their big cloaky bodies strewn around like toys in a foal’s bedroom. I got to wondering if there were any survivors at all, or if they had just blasted one another to smithereens like a bunch of morons.

It was sort of heartening. Even as I fretted over those poor kids who’d been dragged away, I thought about the cloak-o population. By now, it’s got to have taken a big hit. All that in-fighting over stupid Priestess drama. That idiotic scramble for power that started the very second she was gone. I closed my eyes and hoped that the cloak-o rumbles, and the distractions had helped get some kid to safety. Any kid.

Then I opened my eyes again, cause, you know, I was driving. I drove on and on and on as fast as I could, carrying the platform o’ drugged-up kids with me in the back. Clinging to that one thought. Somewhere up there, there had to be some kid who got out cause of me. A kid who didn’t get dragged off and tortured.

Strawberry Lemonade had pulled up the sound of some pretty angry kids. A lot of them, actually. But had they succeeded? I mean, all those furious screams and howls, surely somepony made it out alive, right?




The next area was labeled Sub-Mine F. I glanced down the hallway that lead to the tunnels, like I had all the other sectors, but I was not prepared for what I saw. Dead kids. Everywhere. A whole pile of them. The aftermath of a failed revolt. I swear they couldn’t have been older than Kindergarteners.

I froze in place, and stared. My heart plunged into my stomach like a bowling ball. I swear, I didn’t even have the breath to scream.

What have I done?

I scanned all the dark tunnels as I drove by them, desperate to see any motion – any signs of life at all. But they were dead. All of them. Dead.

Finally, I passed that section of mine altogether. There were no words for the hatred I felt. For the cloak-o’s. For myself. For every pat on the back I’d accepted from my peers since the whole thing started. Rose Petal the fucking hero.

I gritted my teeth, and turned to face forward. I had to get those sleeping kids to safety! I couldn’t afford to cry or mourn or wail like my bowling-ball heart was screaming at me to do. I couldn’t even blink, cause every time I shut my eyes, those poor kids were all I saw.

I pried my eyes open. I gripped the steering levers and throttle so hard it hurt my hooves. And I pushed forward. It’s not that I had a great big old strong will, or that I let logic and pragmatism be my lifeline. No. Steering that stupid thing – saving the sleepy ones in the back – it was all I had left.

Every other thought I turned to for strength: of friends; of Ponyville; even of Roseluck – it all felt like it was miles away. So I bit my lip, and I focused, and I kept on driving.

I stopped at the second console, got my reports from Strawberry Lemonade, and said as little as possible. That suited her just fine. Then on I went.

I zig-zagged all over the mine. Left, right, up, down. Strawberry kept on changing my course again and again and again to avoid the cloak-o’s. Always helpful. Always cranky. Always grumbling.




When I reached the console by Sub-Mine K, it was a different story. Strawberry was literally cheering, and not actually answering my calls.

“Yeah, they’re all huggy and stuff right now.” Said Twinkle Eyes on the other end.

I had never heard so many ponies in one place at one time. Even through that crackly tin can effect, it sounded massive. More than the chants of those angry rioters I’d heard when the whole revolt thing first started an hour before.

“Who are they?” I said.

“The ponies we saved, dumbass.”

“All of them?” I couldn’t believe that so many kids had fit in that one mine.

Twinkle misunderstood me completely.

“Didn’t lose a soul.” She said. “You’re a fucking hero.”

“Shut up!” I said.

This is crazy. I thought. Didn’t lose a soul? Was she joking? Hadn’t anypony heard about Sub-Mine F?

Twinkle laughed on the other end. Apparently not. Twink still believed that we could make it through this - all of us in tact. It was a side of her I’d never seen. Twink the Optimist.

I couldn’t bear to tell her.

“Um…I need to keep moving.” I said. “Which way next?”

I forced myself to sound as normal as possible. To fight the quiver in my throat. My friends were up there worrying to pieces about me cause I’d gotten the bright idea to run on ahead. They were in danger of a cloak-o attack just like I was. They needed as much hope as they could get.

I shook with frustration. With self-hatred. Choking back the truth actually felt like a jagged lump of coal living right up in my throat. But it didn’t matter. I made up my mind then and there not to tell anypony about the massacre, no matter what. No matter how much it hurt.




I drove on, blinded by tears till my eyes were bone dry. Then, after that, still blinded just from the strain of having cried so much. My throat hurt from having to choke back the sounds of my sobs for so long. I was afraid they’d give me away.

Needless to say, I wasn’t at my best. By the time I saw them, it was too late – a huge cluster of cloaks up ahead. This wasn’t just some straggler, or harried cloak-o patrol pony. I was fast approaching a whole squad of cloak-o’s standing sturdy and patient-like. With purpose. That’s a whole other ball game.

There was no way to turn around without looking suspicious. It was too late! So I flung the cloak over as much of my face as I could (without blocking my view), and I hoped for the best.

That’s it, Rose. Be cool. I said to myself as I drew nearer.

You’re bringing the drugged up kids straight to them! The Panicked Little Pony In My Head retorted. Why are you bringing the kids straight to them?!

“Shut up, pony!” I whispered at the paranoid voice inside my head.

For the first time since any of the craziness had started, I wished that the other voice in my head would come back. The one that always seemed to want to force some kind of urgent mission on me. The One I’m Meant to Save. The One I’m Not Meant to Save. The Way It’s Supposed to Happen. The Way It’s Not Supposed to Happen.

But there was nothing up there. No guidance. No direction. Just the same-old warnings about Strawberry Lemonade.

I cursed my stubborn friends. If they had just split like they were supposed to, I’d be awake by now, and none of this would still be happening!

The squad of cloak-o’s was getting closer. They were gonna see me. I could feel it!

I pushed the throttle all the way down, hoping I could zoom by the cloak-o’s fast enough that they wouldn’t notice I was a kid. The tray full of children bounced around in the back. I cringed when we hit our first bump. What if somepony fell off?!

Slamming on the breaks would only make matters worse, so I buckled down, gripped tight, and tried desperately to keep from swerving. So far, so good.

“I’m just another cloak-o.” I whispered to myself. “Just another cloak-o.”

Maybe if I actually believed it, then they would too. As I got close enough to actually see them, though, I knew that something had to be wrong. They watched me without watching me. Corners of their eyes. Shadows under their cloaks.

They know! I thought. They know and they’re getting ready to make their move!

I looked around. I didn’t even have anything to defend myself with. Not so much as a stick I could use to whack at them. Maybe my “cargo” is valuable to them. I laughed nervously to myself. That at least might slow them down a little, right?

Finally one of them shouted, and then suddenly, just like that, they all leapt on to the carriage with me - blades and whips in their teeth. There was fresh blood all over them.

Before I could so much as scream, one of the bastards had knocked me from the driver's seat, and another was already on top of me, murder in his orange eyes.

“Eeeeek!” I eeked.

I was powerless. Taken completely off guard, even though I’d seen it coming a mile away. This is the end. I thought.

But then I lucked out. He blinked. Hesitated.

So I headbutted him right in the schnoz.

Duuujjj!

“Ow!” He fell backward on to the hood of the automatic carriage I was driving.

Both our cloaks fell away from our faces. He was a colt! Just a little colt! Why was this kid a cloak-o?

“Hay!” I said, waving my hoof, pointing at him in shock.

He pointed at me right back.

The filly who’d taken over the driver’s seat had one of those L-Shaped death thingies pointed in my face, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the road.

“What? What? What? Do I shoot him?” She asked the colt with the orange eyes, who was still rubbing his sore face where I’d nailed him.

She turned to face me just long enough to catch a gander. I was not, in fact, a bad-guy. Check. She sighed in relief and lowered her weapon.

“You scared me, you jerk!” She said.

As though it were my fault.

She turned to her partner. “You alright?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He said back to her.

Then all the attention was back on me. They tried asking me a bunch of questions, but I couldn’t focus on them. Instead I just locked up and got all thinky inside. There were so many kids around me. I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where did all those cloaks come from?

I scratched my chin and caught a glimpse of my own hoof. It was covered in blood. So was his cloak. I pointed and stuttered.

“Ah, don’t worry.” He said with a warm smile. “The blood ain’t mine.”




“Guys, guys, guys!” Came another voice. “It’s the girl who killed the Priestess!”

Oh, boy, here it comes. I thought.

The leader shoved a hoof in my face and pointed. I cringed. A whole mass of kids in cloaks waved as we passed by. I threw on a frail little grin.

“They think I’m a hero,” I said to myself through my smiley teeth. “Of course they bucking do.”

I wondered how they’d all feel if they’d seen the massacre at Sub Mine F.

“Peach Cobbler!” Said the orange colt.

He extended his hoof cheerily.

“Rose Petal.” I bumped it.

“Morning Flower.” Said the driver, all snippity-like.

“Um…Howdy.” I replied.

Cobbler clapped his hooves together and burst into a smile so bright, it could blind you.

“So!” He said. “What do we do next?”





* * *




“Shit!” Said Strawberry Lemonade.

Peach Cobbler and I exchanged glances. Not exactly what you want to hear from your one and only lifeline.

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck fuck!” Strawberry elaborated on her initial point.

On her end of the tin can, I could hear bangs and pops all over the place – the kinda sounds those death weapons made.

“Is everypony okay?” I shouted.

“Yeah, we’re holding ‘em back!” Her voice warbled. We could barely make it out over the kapows in the background.

“Fuck you too, buddy!” Shouted Twinkle.

Ratatatatatatata-tat.

Whereever the buck they all were, Twink was having the time of her life.

“We raided the Priestess’ stash.” Shouted Strawberry Lemonade. “We may be out numbered but they are sure as Hell outgunned.”

“Can you still get us out?”

Silence on the other end.

“Strawberry?”

The mine kids and I held our breaths as we awaited her answer. I swear, you could have heard a single blade of hay hit the ground if somepony had dropped one.

“I-I think so.” Said Strawberry Lemonade at long last.

“You think so?” Said Morning Flower and I in unison.

“You think so?” Echoed one of the drugged up kids as he staggered by and fell. “Ha!”

One by one, they were starting to come awake and stumble off the carriage thingy. Meanwhile, the rest of us just cringed.

Morning Flower gave me the nastiest of looks. Like the kink in our plan was somehow my fault.

“Ok, I got it. The refuge chute in Sector B. Just gimme a sec.”

Suddenly, ratatatat-tats and screams again. Only they weren’t coming from the console this time. The cloak-o’s were right here in the mine, and they were firing at us.

A pair of kids in stolen cloaks came galloping up from around the corner. They were carrying their kid brother on their backs. His leg was gushing blood and he was crying up a storm.

“They’re coming.” The big sister said just before skidding to a halt.

We were at a crossroads of several different hallways and tunnels. She looked frantically left, and right, and pretzeled her neck all over the place trying to make sense of where the buck we were.

“Which way’s out?!” She said

“Put pressure on it, put pressure on it.” She told her kid brother.

“Gimme a minute.” Shouted Strawberry Lemonade from the other side of the console.

Meanwhile, the war sounds were growing louder and closer by the second.

“We don’t have a minute!” I shouted. “Which fucking way?”

A herd of kids stormed toward us, panicked and afraid. They were fleeing the carnage. Meanwhile, two members of Cobbler’s gang bravely rushed into the action, waving a birthday candle of all things.

Soldiers of Cake. I thought.

“Which fucking way?” I repeated.

“Go straight, make a left, then a right. Then you’re gonna wanna get into one of the wormhole side-tunnel…things.” She said.

“Side-tunnel?! Are you nuts?” Squeaked Peach Cobbler.

So far, the hallways we’d chosen could fit all of us easily. Heading single file into a dark little unknown would not only take forever, but leave us totally vulnerable if we couldn’t get out in time or if we hit a dead end.

“You’re lucky I found it at all, the way I was gonna send you is swarming with cloaks.” Said Strawberry.

“I am not going back in one of those.” Stomped Morning Flower.

“Hurry. It’s the se--;” But Strawberry didn’t get to finish her sentence

Or if she did, we sure as buck couldn’t hear it. You see, those Cake Soldier kids came rushing back to us in an awful hurry, minus a birthday candle.

Then suddenly fire. A terrible thunder rumbled from behind them, and a gust of pebbles and hot air hit us like a hurricane. Rocks tumbled down from the ceiling and spilled out over the hallway, blocking the cloak-os’ path. Everywhere, everything was smoke and burning dust.

The two kids who’d lead the charge picked one another up and laughed. Even as they wiped their eyes and coughed their lungs out like the rest of us, shared a hoof bump of victory.

“You fucking idiots!” Said Cobbler, covering his head. “You’re gonna get us all killed.”

“Hay!” One of them protested.

“I know what I’m doing.” Whined the other.

Doom! A giant bolder fell from the ceiling right next to him.

Cobbler ran over and snatched up one of their saddlebags.

“What was that?!” Said Twinkle, or at least that’s what a crackly, distorted version of her said. “What the fuck was--;”

“We’re fine, we’re fine, we’re fine!” I coughed into the console.

Only we weren’t fine.

I could hear the voices of cloak-o’s echoing through the crazy confusing hallways. The explosion had only bought us time, and probably not very much of it.

Ka-pow!

That one was close. I ducked instinctively (for whatever good it might have done).

Six or seven of them came stumbling up to us all disoriented-like. They were covered in rubble, and firing wildly like a pack of morons. Apparently, the cave-in hadn’t sealed us off in time to stop the entire horde-o-cloak. We still had a hoofful of stragglers to deal with.

“Which….tunnel?….Strawberry?” I hacked and wheezed and rubbed the explosion dust from my eyes. “Go straight and make a left and then a right…and then what?”

The voice on the other end of the tin can had always been crackly, but now it was worse than ever.

“Se--…-unnel on the right.” It said.

“Was that second or seventh?” I shouted

The cloak-o morons were getting so loud I could barely hear Strawberry.

“Strawberry!” I kicked the console when she didn’t respond. “Second or seventh?”

Gripping the wall for support, I threw the Priestess’ cloak over my face like I was some kinda daisy print vampire. I sucked in careful breaths through the cloth. It didn’t help. The dust was fucking everywhere.

“Strawberry.” I called out in a hoarse whisper.

When she didn’t respond I turned around and bucked the console.

“Second or seventh?!!!”

“Take the se-“ The console said.

Then it exploded. Glass. Metal. Everywhere. Dead console.

I stumbled backward and fell on my flank.

“Go, go, go, go, go!” Said Peach Cobbler, but all I could do was stare at the busted machine.

We were lost. Cut off completely from the outside. From my friends. From hope. From the only filly in all of Trottica who could throw us a lifeline.

It was just me, Cobbler’s rebels, and the drugged up kids from the ceremony. All alone in the dark.

Twinkle must be freaking out.

Cobbler grabbed me and we ran. We made for the tunnel like Lemonade had said. Some kids were already galloping way ahead of us. The rest leapt on to the carriage thing.




"Ow! Get off!" Said one of the drowsy lumps still not quite with-it enough to leap up and run around.

Others just scooted over.

Morning Flower pushed the lever down as far as it would go, and we zoomed our way up the hall, finally putting some distance between us and the cloaks.

As I sat in the back, bouncing along, I played back the sound of Strawberry Lemonade's voice again and again and again in my head. There had to be a way to figure out which tunnel she'd been talking about. There just had to!

"Second, seventh, second, seventh, second, seventh." I whispered.

But every time I cycled through it in my head, it got less and less like the actual sound of her voice, and more and more imaginationy.

“Second, seventh. Seventh, second. Second, seventh. Seventh, second.”

The hornets in my head were starting to really have a field day too. It was open season. Worst part is, they didn't even smack me with pictures or voices or answers or anything. They just buzzed around and stung at my brain indiscriminate-like.

"Second. Seventh." I panted and wheezed, lungs full of mine dust.

We are gonna die. The little pony in my head told me. We. Are going. To die.

"Shut up, pony!" I finally shouted, clutching my head.

Suddenly, everypony on the back of the carriage-a-majig was looking at me.

"Hehehe." I said. "Um..."

But I could think of no smart explanations. Not even a dumb excuse. Instead, I just sort of sighed. I didn't even have time to worry about what they all thought. They probably didn't have time to pay much attention to me either.

They were busy dreaming about life on the outside, and I was busy thinking how the hell I was gonna break it to them that I actually had no clue where we were going, and we were even fucked-er than ever.

“You okay?” Asked Cobbler at last, hoof on my shoulder.

Morning Flower looked back at me and glowered at Cobbler’s gesture of affection.

What the Hell did I do? I wanted to yell, but I ignored her and turned to Peach Cobbler instead.

“I’m fine,” I said. I put my hoof on his to reassure him.

We screeched to a halt. TWONG! I thwacked my head into cobbler's head, who in turn, thwacked his head into a metal bar.

"Owww!" We said in unison.

“We’re he-ere!” Morning snapped, cranky as all get-out.

Then the reality of the situation punched me right in the gut again. It was almost time for the big coin toss.

Second. Seventh.



The kids all leapt off. I rose to follow, but a hoof up-and-grabbed me by the tail.

"Help," Moaned the colt next to me. He was in a serious drug haze.

"Sweet Luna," I whispered to myself. "Gimme your hoof."

He slung his foreleg over my shoulder.

A lot of the kids bolted for the tunnels, leaving only a hoof full of us behind to help the stumblers.

“Hold up, hold up, hold up!” I coughed.

The air was still dense with explosion dust.

The children all skidded to halts. I’d like to say it was cause they cares do very much about their fellow pony, and about what I had to say, but truth be told, they all just sort of trickled in one-by-one when they realized that they had no idea where they were going.

“Everypony grab a druggo!” I said.

There came a hesitant silence. Cobbler stepped up.

“Druggos!” He commanded.

He threw me a sideways glance. “Druggos? Really?”

I need to start coming up with better names for things.

"If you are sick or injured, or a um...druggo." Cobbler coughed. "And you need help, raise a hoof."

A few trembling hooves raised themselves into the air. Other druggos stumbled off the carriage altogether.

"If you think you can make it, stay close to somepony who can catch you. Just in case!"

The healthy ponies leant helping hooves, but they looked jittery. Anxious to get going. It was nerve wracking for all of us - the tiny delays under the shadow of a doom so impend-y you could taste it. But some kids - the ones who had bolted off blindly just a few moments before - looked more nervous than others.

"I know the way." I said.

The lie that always seemed to do the truck.

Morale was on the upswing again.




We made our way down the final hallway as fast as our druggos would allow. Then, tunnel time.

"Second or seventh?" Said Peach as we dragged ourselves down the hallway.

Clop clop cloppity clop clop clop. I struggled not to stumble over under the weight of my druggo.

"Seventh!" I said, panting out mine dust.

Luck had been on my side so far, so why not?

"You sure?" Hollered Peach Cobbler.

"Positive!" I said.

Then, more trotting in silence.

"You are a terrible liar!" Said Cobbler at last.

"I know." I panted back.




Smoke from the explosion was still hanging all stagnant-like, even all the way down by the tunnels. I looked down the one I’d chosen. Number Seven. Dark. Cramped. It seemed to stare right back at me in defiance – to dare me to come inside.

I took a deep breath full of dust and stepped in. Right or wrong, all we could do is commit to a course, charge our way through, and hope for the best. It wasn’t long before my druggo and I were in the tunnel past the point where we could see. Stuffed all together with a bunch of other kids.

My lucky streak had gotten us pretty far. The entire escape had been one great big bumbling slapstick cascade toward freedom. So my guess would probably be the best shot we had, right?

At least that’s what I told myself, but honesty, I wasn’t sure anymore. Something didn’t feel quite right, but what could I do? We were heading in there blind. Literally.

“What’s your name?” I said to my druggo, trying to keep him focused.

“Flughjjn.” He mumbled.

“What?” I said.

“Flubhjdf.”

“I didn’t quite catch that.”

“Flutterstrings,” He said at last.

That would explain the guitar cutie mark.

He and I pushed on down tunnel seven. Idle conversation kept him alert and me distracted. Still, inside my own head, I just kept chanting “right tunnel, right tunnel, right tunnel,” as if thinking it would make it so.

“Out, out! Everypony out!” Came a voice from behind.

We all stumbled over ourselves trying to stop.

“Get out, get out, get out. Hurry.”

“What’s wrong?” I called back.

“Wrong tunnel.” He somehow managed to shout and whisper at the same time.

Burrowing through a path of hooves and tails undulating around, my druggo and I burst out.

“How do you know?”

“Look.” He pointed to the smoke from the explosion.

It was wafting all over the place. The dust. The soot. But there was a small current in it. All that air was trying just as hard as we were to get the buck out of the mountain. It seemed to just hang there, but if you stopped and really looked carefully, the dust was drifting down tunnel number two. Slowly but surely.

I’d picked the wrong one.




* * *




We dragged ourselves through the right tunnel for what seemed like an eternity. Ahead there was nothing but darkness. Behind us, more of the same.

Those of us lucky enough to have horns made them glow and lit our paths, but we were mostly an earth pony crowd. Unless you were standing right next to a unicorn, all you could see were eerie rows of glowing flanks and dance-itty shadows.

Flutterstrings was gasping for air most of the time we were in there. He was pushing himself hard. We had nothing to breathe but dust, and after we’d all sucked out the freshest of the tunnel air, there wasn’t anything left to breathe but each others’ stale breath. I was the newbie. The healthiest of the lot. When even I had trouble breathing, I started to really worry about Flutterstrings.

“How much further?” I whispered to the flank in front of me.

No answer.

“Pssst.” I said. “How much further.”

After all the times her tail had whipped me in the face, I felt that, at the very least, she owed me a response.

“I don’t fucking know.”

“Well Flutterstrings,” I coughed. “Can’t breathe.”

“Neither can I.” Hacked the pony in front of me.

“I’m fine.” Said Flutterstrings in a coarse whisper.

“Shhhh!” Said voices both from behind and from the front.

Nopony likes the “are we there yet” kid.

I did my best not to complain. These ponies had it so much worse than I did. To be honest, I was afraid to so much as grunt.

But Flutterstrings was doing real bad. And he got weaker and weaker, he also got heavier and heavier. I really wasn’t up to carrying anypony’s weight all by myself, even if he was skin and bones like the rest of them.

I dragged his stumbly drugged-up self ‘till I was good and stumbly myself. We were packed in so tight that, even as I faltered, the other kids’ steady push forward actually kept me from falling behind. It wasn’t even that they leant a helping hoof and caught my druggo and me. We were more like a slow oozing river. We followed the path and swept each other along.




* * *




I thought about the seventh tunnel. How much worse it would have been if we had gone through all of this, gotten to the end and found nothing but stone. These burrows didn't even have enough room to turn ourselves around.

In my head I saw the cloak-o's storming the hallway, reaching tunnel seven and pulling us out one-by-one, whooping us back into slavery, or worse, just plain sealing us in - leaving us to suffocate in that dark and crowded place.

I looked at what little I could see of the ponies around me - flanks and heads. Peach Cobbler was in here with us, and I couldn’t help but like him. (I mean, we had met because we each mistook the other for enemy slavers - how serendipity-ish is that?) Flutterstrings too. He wasn’t just some druggo. He was my druggo! If I dropped him he’d lie there. If I left him, he’d die. In a short, short time, I had developed a real sense of responsibility for that kid. Like being a big sister almost. I looked all around (as best as I could in the dark). Ponies I knew, ponies I didn't. And I saw sub mine F all over again.




I closed my eyes and trotted on.

What was I thinking?! How could I presume to lead anyone here? How’d I get so full of myself?

I’d forgotten something so basic – so important. 99% of the time what the world really needs is a good background pony.

Like Roseluck had said.

I gasped in a mouth full of mountain gunk. Roseluck!

What would she do if I just went and died in my sleep?!




The thought of ever having to make a dumb luck guess ever again scared the pants off me, (or would have had I been wearing pants). I bit back screams of rage – turned them into grunts as I dragged Flutterstrings.

Damn brain hornets. I thought. That stupid stingy sensation in my head had no problem attacking me with everything it had when Strawberry Lemonade's life was at stake. Mine? A hundred or so Trottica mine kids? Roseluck - the most amazing sister any filly could ever ask for - left all alone in the world? Not a peep.

Fuck you, hornets. Fuck you.

I closed my eyes and kept going, Flutterstrings leaning practically limp all over me. I almost thought I wouldn’t be able to make it, but then the air started to thin out just a little. The subtle current pushing the dust out of the tunnel actually felt kinda cool for a change. I thanked my lucky stars. We were not only nearing the end of the tunnel, but from the taste of the air, slightly closer to the outside of the whole mountain.

Suddenly there was hope.

A minute later, Flutterstrings took a deep breath - started lifting his own hooves rather than dragging them over the ground. The drugs were wearing off, and a little bit of semi-fresh air went a long way.

But just as things were looking up, out of nowhere, the herd just randomly erupted Panic. Shoving from behind.

"Hey watch it!"

"They're coming they're coming! They're coming!"

Like the rumors had washed over the crowd earlier, panic spread across the tunnel from back to front. It started with a push. Then a shove. Then somepony hurled themselves at me, and I, in turn, rammed full speed into the pony in front of me. It’s not even that I wanted to. I did it just to keep myself from falling.

So it all just sort of degenerated into this horrible little panicked shove match. Within seconds, it was total anarchy.

Fear.

Even when our only hope for survival rested on our unity - our friendship – fear still made idiots out of all of us.

So we stampeded.

Some of us clung to our druggos. Others dropped them like bags of turnips.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. In such a short time, so many so-called good ponies turned into total jerk faces. We were supposed to be the good guys here! It’s not like an evil deed somehow gets less evil if nopony can see you do it. Just cause you won’t get called out on it later.

Fucking fear.

As I stopped to grab an extra druggo, I cursed the bastard who'd dropped her. I hated him more than I hated the cloak-o's. I hoped he galloped out of the tunnel straight over the edge of a cliff. I hoped the bottom of the cliff was full of lava. I hoped the lava was full of lava-proof alligators that chomped on him extra-slow-like.

"Run run run run run!" Came a panicked voice behind me.

But there was noplace to run to. Just a bunch of flanks and stomping hooves. After struggling for a while, I finally got hit with one shove too many.

I went down. Flutter went with me. By some miracle, one colt scooped up my second druggo just before getting swept away herself. Off into the flailing madness. Everyone else just sorta kept on going, stumbling ahead, tripping over Flutterstrings and me.




A lot of the hooves that crushed us belonged to kids who just plain couldn't see, and couldn't fight the stampede in time to help. They weren't even being jerks. They just wanted not to be stomped. And yet, the result was still exactly the same. I never thought I'd be kicked in the face twenty times over the course of a single minute, and get fifteen Sorry's for it just as quickly.

My eyes watered. My nose ran like a waterfall. I threw my body over Flutterstrings, and my hooves over my head. We huddled into a nook in the jaggedy stonewall to deflect the worst it, but it really didn’t do any good. The hooves still fell like anvils. It still hurt like fuck.

I cried. I moaned. It was worse than a shot at the doctor. Worse than a crack on the skull from a cloak-o. It hurt more than anything I'd ever felt before. And it just kept on happening.

Pow! Thwack! Oof!

Agony.

It got to the point where I almost hoped that the cloak-o's would come and catch us already just so I could be spared the hooves of my comrades.

I screamed and wailed for it to stop. I actually wanted to die.

Then I suddenly felt cold. Right down to my stomach. At first I thought I was just getting numb from the pain, but then I recognized the feeling from before. That shivering that seemed to go down deeper than my bones. The shadow thing.

I looked up.

No shape. No color. Just vague movement in the inky blackness. Like the spooky stuff you sometimes see in the corner of your eyes. Except that it didn't go away when I blinked. It looked at me head on. Living darkness, as stupid as that may sound.

The shadow thing stood over me. Calm. Unaffected. I knew right away that it wasn't like being back in the basement of the Town Hall – an hour’s worth of paralyzing terror in a single flicker of bad lighting. No. It had all the time in the world, and I was stuck there, cringing under the hammers of a hundred stampeding hooves.

There was no way to fight the cold, no flash of light to scare it off, no friends to pull me away. It was just me and this thing, alone together in the deep, dark black.

It grabbed me by the hoof. I couldn't see it at all anymore, but my whole leg still burned with cold and frost. Then, even as I squeezed my eyes shut, I was smacked in the face with a thousand images.

Children. Screaming. Hiding. Shivering. Great turbines turning. Smoke rising from a chimney - cold smoke. Black as the shadow I'd gotten stuck in.

I could see vials and tubes getting all bubbly like in science class. There was a great big castle perched on a dirty old cloud. Around it everything was as dark and endless as the night sky, but without the stars. The kind of night that would make Luna sad.

Instead there were just shards of ice that seemed to rain down and up and left and right and forward.

From that castle came a sound so piercing – so shrill – that even I could hear it, far away as I was. Screams. Coming from the inside. Worse even than the ones that had scratched at my brain when I first saw the bomb. It was like some kind of pained choir making a sound so terrible that it could curdle milk.

I shut my eyes, but I could still see it, plain as day. I covered my ears, but it did nothing. The sound just made me shiver instead as it trickled up my spine.




* * *




And suddenly, Ponyville. Just like that. Not Jerkland

Ponyville either. The real deal.

Home.

I trembled and looked around. I was back in my old bedroom. I sat there, on the floor, gripping the shaggy red rug, wading through sensations. Impulses. Fears I’d had when I was small.

Greeblies in my closet. Monsters under my bed. They were there. I was sure of it.

Roseluck had always chased those fears away. Or my Mother. She'd kiss me goodnight and banish them all out into the cold. Back into the shadows where they belonged.

But Mom was gone now, and the darkness, whatever it was, could see right through me. It was everywhere I turned. It saw everything I did. It knew how badly I missed my Mom, even though I could barely remember her. It knew how lost I felt. How helpless I was.

The cold ran up my hoof from its totally nasty touch, and it coursed through my leg. Like my veins were full of ice. I could feel its thoughts. It was sniffing around, savoring everything - grabbing a hold of the scent. It was touching my memories. Tasting my feelings.

In a single pang of fear, this shadow thing knew me. It fucking knew me. And now that it had poked around my head a bit, it knew Ponyville too. My Ponyville. The only place in the world I had ever really loved, (even though it could be a little fucked up sometimes).

This entity – this thing - it knew where I lived. And it could follow.

"Stay the fuck away!" I yelled.

But I only got colder. Its lips twisted upward into a smile. It felt like razorblades grinding over a chalkboard.

"You hear me?" I started to cry again. “I said stay the fuck away!”

But I was still on that red shaggedy rug I used to have when I was small – sitting there, screaming at an empty bedroom, wincing at the pain in my hoof. I couldn’t even see the tunnel anymore, or taste the dust that surely had to still be in the air. It was just me and my old bedroom, and the big red door with the rose on it.

“Fuck off!” I sobbed.

There was only silence.




I crept up to the door.

“Roseluck?” I sniffed. My voice felt so squeaky and small.

No answer.

“Hello?”

I couldn’t quite figure out why I expected to see Roseluck there, but when I darted out the door, and suddenly, I was a little kid again, I started to get the idea.

“Rose?” I said, wandering a dark and empty house.

I felt so helpless. So bare.

That was when I remembered. Roseluck had been out in the garden while I was napping, but I was barely older than a foal. I didn't know jack. I thought she had left me forever! Like Dad.

So I paced the house in circles, sniffling and afraid. For what must have been over an hour. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

And this shadowy asshole was chomping on primordial popcorn, watching it happen to me all over again.

“Stop.” I whimpered.

Chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp.

"Stay away!" I screamed, tears running down my cheeks. “Stay the fuck away!”

But its freezing cold claw just dug deeper into me.

I sobbed. The cold was rising up passed my hoof, but I couldn’t pull away. My whole leg burned with it. Soon it was all I could think of. It washed over me. I was so desperate and so afraid.

“Mom, help!” I called out, not even thinking. I just wanted it to stop.




Then, totally out of the blue, the pain was distant again, and I wasn’t alone in the house anymore. It was dark. I could hear machinery, rhythmically bleep’ing away. I knew that sound. The Intensive Care Unit.

"No." I whispered. "Leave her out of this."

But I opened my eyes, and there she was. Mom. Bald. Maneless. Tailless. There was a scratch on her face from falling out of bed the night before. Holding me as a tiny foal, she cried softly.

"I'm so sorry," she said again and again as she clung to me. "I'm so sorry."

I remembered this. The last time I ever saw her alive. Normally I tried not to think about it. And now this shadowy fuck was not only watching, but relishing it.

“I said leave her out of this!” I shouted, but my lips wouldn’t even move.

Instead, I just focused on Mom. I saw her weeping, trying to hide the tears from me. Always worrying. Just like Roseluck. And Cliff Diver. Even Twinkle Eyes had lit into me earlier that day.

"Fuck you, Rose Petal. Don’t you do this to me." I could still hear her little voice tearing me a new one from the other side of the console.




"I'm so sorry." Said my Mother as she stroked my mane and kissed my head. "I'm so sorry."

Mom was afraid of leaving me alone in the world. A fear so powerful I could smell it on her even then. It terrified me so bad I cried. Moms weren’t supposed to be afraid.

But when I sobbed, she sucked it up and used what strength she had to wipe my face clean, even while tears flowed freely from her own sunken eyes. From that moment on, she didn’t make a sound.

She was terrified. The last feeling that my mother ever knew in the whole wide world was fear. Sadness. Anxiety. And it was all cause of me.

"Don't cry." I tried to scream. "I'm the one who's sorry, Mom! I'm the one who's sorry!"

But I couldn't say shit. It was a memory.

And that icy bastard was watching it. Nom'ing on fucking soul popcorn. This was my mother here. My. Mother.

As I lied there on top of her, even in that terrible moment, I would have done anything in the world just to feel her chest rise one more time. But this son of bitch was watching. Getting his jollies tugging on my guilt. Tasting her fear.

My teeth ground together as I growled “No,” raising a trembling hoof.

I shut my eyes and stomped. And then there was only black.

"Fuck off!" I yelled.

The thing stared me down - that stupid abyss - and the whole world felt cold. I could barely hold my eyes open without them burning, but I still wouldn’t look away. This was about Mom.

“You hear me?” I shrieked, teeth chattering, limbs shaking. “Fuck. Off!”

Then I turned back to my mother.




But she was gone. Even with nothing there in front of me, (no medicine smell; no face to try and touch) all I could do was call out for her and hope that somehow, somewhere, she was still out there and could hear me.

“Mommy!" I sobbed. "Don't cry! Please don't cry."

Finally I got kicked in the face one last time by a stampeding pony, and fell back pretty hard.

“I’m sorry.” I whimpered at my memory, still fresh in my mind, but when I opened my eyes, I just saw that Flutterstrings underneath me - moaning and babbling.

I threw myself over him before I could even figure out which way was up and which way was down. I'd failed everypony else. Everypony I tried to help. Everypony who’d ever tried to love me. Even as I heard the rummaging sounds and saw the pale light of distant cloak-o unicorn horns at the tunnel’s entrance, I shielded Flutterstrings. Hunched right over him. It was literally all I could do. Even if it only bought him a couple of seconds.

"Leave him alone!" I shouted.




Then a gentle hoof hooked under my waist and picked me up.

“Whoa, you’re cold.”

I recognized that voice.

“Morning Flower?”

“Rose Petal?”

I smiled at her faintly.

“Come on, come on, come on! We gotta go.”

She hoisted me up and tried to drag me forward, but I winced and dug my hooves into the ground.

“Flutterstrings first.” I groaned.

“I’m fine!” The druggo babbled and rose to his feet.

“He says he’s fine.” Morning Flower looked at me and shrugged.

“And I’m not Flutterstrings, by the way.” The druggo added. “My name is Mushrooooooom.”

He sucked in a ragged breath and coughed it out again.

“I got him.” She rolled her eyes and slung a foreleg around Flutterstrings’ shoulder. “You good?”

She turned to me, and honestly, I wasn’t sure. I looked back down that tunnel. It was gone. It’d carried a piece of me with it. My fears. My memories. My town. It knew me. And one day, it would follow. But it had bailed Tunnel #2.

“Come on!” Said Morning Flower.

And we were off.




I didn’t think I had the strength to walk, let alone run, but I didn’t really have a choice. The cloak-o light from behind us was already closing in. All they had to do was spot us, and they could nab us with their stupid unicorn levitation. When I saw that light, I bolted. Not out of fear.

It was anger.

I’d survived the Priestess, the coup, Stompy’s monstrous lover, a stage performance for the whole town, surrounded by the elite-est of the elite cloak-o guards. I’d looked into the soul of the shadows themselves and found a terror waiting for me there I couldn’t have imagined, and damnit, I survived that jerk too.

I threw my weight on my hooves, busted one and all, cause I refused to get captured there of all places. So near to the end. By some greasy thug who probably smelt like moldy potatoes. (They all do).

No. Just no.

I limped and Morning Flower grabbed Flutterstrings/Mushroooooom, who was already stumbling sturdier than before. The cloak-o’s behind us was gaining, but ahead, I could only make out a tiny pinhole of light – like a star all alone in the sky.

I thought we might even make it to the light, but that hope shattered when we ran into another fallen colt.

Morning Flower and I looked at one another and nodded. It was understood. Better to get caught than to leave somepony on the floor to die. We struggled, we grunted, we lifted him up and draped his weight over our backs.

Morning took the bulk of it, but I could barely stand, so every little pound of weight on my busted hoof made a difference.

They were marching behind us. Stomping in unison like big kettle drums.

DOOM! DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!

It was a sound that went straight into your stomach.

I looked ahead. The light was bigger than a pinhole now - more than a star. I could hear the clamoring sound of ponies on the other end. I closed my eyes and hoped it was our friends, and not a whole other troupe of stupid cloak-o’s waiting for us.

“Run!” I tried to call out to the kids I hoped were on the other side, but my throat felt like it was full of ashes.

I tried not to focus on it. I just pushed myself toward the end.

“There they are!” Came a voice from the outside.

It was so echoy that I could hardly make it out.

“Go, go, go, go, go!” Shouted Morning.

She was yelling more at the opening than at me. If there were kids on the other end, and we hadn’t gotten captured, they needed to get the buck out of there! The cloak-o’s were on our tail.

I threw myself into a proper trot. Broken hoof be damned. Sharp daggers of pain shot up my leg, and I screamed like a baby. It felt like an icicle was stabbing me with every step. I cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried. But I didn’t dare to stop. I was surging with raw energy.

“There they are!” Came a gravelly voice from behind.

“Ow, fuck! Ow, fuck! Ow, fuck! Ow, fuck! Ow, fuck!” The battle cry of the wounded.

We hit the end of the tunnel and just sort of stumbled and flopped forward on to the ground. It was so bright I couldn’t see a thing.




I felt a violent tugging at my tail. Levitation magic. They’d spotted me. I started to get dragged back.

“No, no, no!” I dug my hooves into the dirt.

Before I could even make sense of what was happening, though, somepony else threw themselves on top of me, crammed my head onto a jaggedy rock on the ground, and pinned me to the ground.

Even with my eyes shut and thrust into the dirt, I could tell that that bright room chose that exact moment to get even brighter. Above me, came a hundred thousand loud noises all at once.

I threw my hooves over my head and sobbed. “Leave us alone!”

But it just kept going, and going, and going. I screamed the whole time. I couldn’t take it anymore.




Finally after a long and terrifying while, it was silent. The air stank of smoke. Sulfur. And I was huddled there, pinned to the ground. A hoof grabbed me firmly by the shoulder.

I squirmed, and cringed, and shielded my face with clumsy hooves. It was all I had the energy to do.

“Happy to see you too, you fucking mook.”

“Twinkle?”

I flopped over to my side, and tried to look up at her and make sense of what had happened, but she already had me in a crippling death hug.

She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and somewhere in all that, broke into heaving sobs.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You worried the fuck outta me, you cockgoblin!”

She hit me lightly and started laughing again.

I couldn’t look her in the eye though. I was so ashamed.

“I wasn’t trying to worry you.” I said.

Great, now I’m crying again too.

Above us, out of nowhere, I heard some more of those rapid banging noises.

Ratatatatatatatatatat!

“Yipe!” I said.

“Do you fucking mind?” Said Twinkle, sitting up. “Fucking friendship going on over here.”

Misty Mountain stood over us, draped head to hoof in the priestess’ jewels, and rigged with a giant metal ratatatatat-a-majig. It was some kinda battle saddle, (yeah, I know, I really gotta work on coming up with better nicknames for things). It was way too big for Misty, but he levitated it over himself pretty steady. I don’t know how he could stand it, though. The damn thing was burning hot just to be near.

Twinkle looked up at him.

“You got shells in my mane, you kielbasa-eating douchebag.”

She reached into her magenta hair and hucked a hoof full of metal at him.

“Geef to me pony!” Misty laughed.

I could feel myself suddenly yanked off the ground by an odd tingly floating sensation. Twinkle too. Then crunch. Giant bear hug.

I yelped loud enough for the whole mountain to hear me. My poor ribs.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” Said Misty.
He put me down easy, but the whole standing thing just wasn’t working out for me. My legs weren’t ready for it.

Twinkle caught me as I fell.

“I’m fine! I’m fine!” I said, brushing myself off, forcing myself up on shake-itty knees.

I was sobbing though, and therefore, not doing a very good job of convincing anypony that I was, in fact, fine. I didn’t exactly want to be sobbing, but what could I do? It fucking hurt.

“Yuh-huh.” Said Flutterstrings/Mushroom sarcastically as he stumbled passed us, wandering aimlessly around.

Twinkle looked me up and down. I was in pretty bad shape. I clutched my chest and moaned. I wasn’t sure which hurt more. My ribs or the hoof I rubbed them with. It throbbed like a bad tooth.

Twink shook with anger at the sight of me. She was so mad she actually found herself at a loss for curse words and colorful metaphors. “Those mother….mother…mother”

“Actually. It wasn’t the cloak-o’s.” I coughed. “These--;”
I meant to point at the crowd, but ended up just gawking at the herd of kids around us. I had to stop and blink just to make sure I saw what I thought I saw.

“What the?”

Children everywhere. Not just Cobbler and his gang, not just my friends from the cage room, not just a carriage’s worth of stumbling druggos. Hundreds of us. Everywhere! Fillies and colts who’d escaped from nooks and crannies of that mountain that we didn’t even know were there. All of them crowded with us in this great big old cavern.

There were too many. It was impossible. There were just too many!

I finally managed to raise my busted hoof and point slack-jawed at the crowd. When they saw it though, my friends fell silent.

“How deed dat happen?” Misty said.

The color ran from his face.

“How did wha-?” I got a good look at my hoof and shrieked.

It wasn’t broken. It was black. I held the throbbing thing up to my face. The entire tip was dark as night, but little inky ashy tendril-y bits were reaching upward. Like the discoloration had been trying to work its way up my leg, but got stuck where it was.

Twinkle reached out to touch my hoof.

“It’s freezing!” She said.

Misty’s eyes slowly widened.

He grabbed me by the shoulder, his stare drilling holes into my eyeballs. “Where you get dees?”

I shrugged. I wanted to tell him. This, after all, was the pony who’d been dream-pocalypse traveling presumably longer than I had. The pony who didn’t want to talk about it. The guy who made lame excuses every time I tried to get an answer out of him. Now he was pressing me for information. It was unnerving. What did the black hoof mean? What did he know? I had a thousand questions, but couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“My hoof is black.” I muttered at last.

“What happened?” Said Misty.

“What the fuck?” Added Twinkle.

I thought back to the encounter with the shadow thing. Even if I had wanted to tell them everything – even if I thought that it wouldn’t freak them out – that this was the sort of thing that happened all the time - even if they’d had a magical antidote for blackhoof that they could have given me - thinking back on my meeting with that bucking thing, I couldn’t come up with any words to describe what had happened. I just remembered how awful it had felt to be so afraid - to feel so helpless in the face of my mother’s suffering. To feel so guilty.

I couldn’t say it out loud. Just thinking about it - even a little bit - made me feel all that shame and fear all over again.

“I-I-stepped in some ink.” I said.

“You fucking liar.” Said Twinkle. She turned to Misty. “What’s going on? You know something, you asshole.”

She hit him.

“Cold is bad.” Was all he said.

“I’m fine!” I shouted, but it didn’t matter.

The two of them started bickering like a married couple. As I watched them, I smiled. We may not have been safe. We may have been stuck in that stupid mountain. We may have had terrible ponies waiting ahead of us, or tracking us from behind. But when I saw Misty and Twinkle Eyes come together to argue, I cried with a smile on my cheeks twenty miles wide.

I wasn’t alone anymore.

What Goes Around...

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CHAPTER NINE - WHAT GOES AROUND...
"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a dew drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." - Gandhi



Bit by bit, Peach Cobbler rounded the kids up onto this great big old platform. It was like a cave-within-a-cave, only high up. The metal staircase leading up to it was rickety as all get out, so we could only go up the stupid thing a few ponies at a time. It looked like a Manehattan fire escape dangling from the wall of the cave by a thread.

"Twenty minutes!" Shouted Strawberry Lemonade.

"We don't even have ten minutes." Shouted Misty.

Not this again. I thought.

I couldn't tell if Strawberry was counting down how long we had before the cloak-o's got to us, or how long she had left to do…whatever the heck it was that she wanted to do. Hesitant to interrupt, I approached her slowly from behind.

"Does Strawberry still want to kill me?" I whispered to Twink.

"Naww." Laughed the little pink unicorn. "After the first couple of kids came hollering for tech support, she was ready to fucking skin you."

"I'm right he-ere," said Strawbery Lemonade in a sing-songitty voice.

She hunched over the console. A familiar sight.

"Are no-ot," sang Twinkle Eyes right back.

Twink wasn't being unfair either. Strawberry wasn’t exactly being very present. She just sorta punched buttons and ignored us.

I found that to be a relief actually, not just cause it meant that she didn’t want to fucking skin me anymore, but cause I was starting to feel more than a little off. The stampede, the shadow. The lack of food and water.

Running for your life as fast as you possibly can, stomping on an injured hoof – it comes with a certain heart-pounding rush, but that was wearing off. Underneath, I pretty much had nothing left.

Click a click a click clickitty click.

"Am too,” answered Strawberry at long last.

I cringed. It felt weird being caught in the middle of this stupid argument.

"Oh yeah? If you’re paying so much attention,” said Twinkle. “What color is Rose's hoof?"

Great. Bringing that up really didn't help.

Strawberry spun around. I think it’d finally dawned on her that I'd made it. That I was standing right behind her safe and sound.

"Whoa, you're alive!" She said.

Before I knew it, I found myself in another painful embrace. My poor ribs. Strawberry laughed and squeezed me as tight as she could. Then, out of nowhere she just sort of stopped, tried to bite down her own smile to feign seriousness, and held me at hoof's distance.

"I'm still gonna kill you." Strawberry said sternly.

She was bad at hiding her smirk. "Some of these kids couldn't even find the ON button."

I looked at her blankly. "Um, yeah,” I said. “That's pretty stupid."

"Ooh!" Said Strawberry Lemonade just before she whipped back around and threw herself into her work yet again.

The sound of her voice echoed in my brain. “Ooh. Oooh. Oooooh.” It wasn’t that what she had said was all that important. It was just a stupid vowel sound. Something wasn’t quite right upstairs. I was starting to getting seriously dizzy.

"Pfft. Don't worry about Strawberry." Twink reassured me. "You shoulda seen her when the first mine-o's came down that tunnel."

Mine-o's. Twinkle had stolen my nick-naming-of-things method.




Meanwhile, Strawberry occupied herself scanning through images and symbols and words and numbers, looking at pictures of console after console, digging for signs of life. Anypony who might still be stuck down there. When Strawberry found that the screen was black, she even pressed her ear against the machine, hoping for a rustle or a peep to reveal itself from the other end.

Helping other ponies is like zap apple jam, I thought, as my hooves wobbled beneath me. Addictive.

Watching her go, it was clear that Strawberry wasn't just scared and reaching out for a lifeline of hope anymore. She was on fire.

The way she's meant to be. That little voice in my head again. The one that sounded like me but said stupid garbage about the way things were and were not supposed to be.

Stupid voice.

"Sure, now you speak up, you fuck."




And that’s the last thing I remember just before my legs gave out beneath me. I reached out, flailing like a flailitty flailing flaily thing, but there was nothing to grab a hold of. Nothing to catch myself with. In desperation, I chomped down on Misty’s nasty unwashed tail, but it still wasn’t enough. Down I went. Into a pale pass-out-ish sort of sleep-but-not-sleep land, with the taste of Misty’s ass on my teeth.

All I could hear was the distant barking of dogs. It was a sound I recognized. In my first dream - my first night in the Wasteland, I heard them just before I woke up screaming. Now they were back, and they were coming for us. Things were finally starting to happen the way they’re meant to.



* * *




After a blackness washed over me (that could have lasted a few seconds or a few thousand years for all I know), I opened up my eyes. Cobbler, Morning Flower, Misty and Twink were all standing over me in a great big old circle o’ friend.

“Did it work?” Said Twinkle Eyes.

Damnit, she’s worrying about me again.

“Ain’t’cha never had a potion before?” Said Cobbler. “Of course it’s working.”

She smacked him. The sound of hoof on skull, at just the right velocity and angle, sounds an awful lot like two 2x4 blocks of wood knocking together.

Clonk.

“Ow!” Said Peach Cobbler.

"Ten minutes, guys!" Said Strawberry Lemonade, predictable as ever.

“No mind dee Twinkle.” Said Misty. “She ees slave whole life. Of course she has not had rejuvenative eleexir.”

He wagged his hoof at Peach. “You should learn to be more sensitive, Meester Cobbler.”

The enemy may have been several minutes away, separated from us by several thousand tons of rock, but I was pretty sure that even they could feel the smugness of Misty Mountain’s smirk. It was finally his turn to dish out condescending sensitivity lessons.

“Well, gee, I’m really sorry—“ Cobbler yammered, but I cut him off and went straight to the point.

“Potion?” I rubbed my head. “How does that even work?”

We didn’t have a whole lot by way of healing potions back home. I knew there were such things as magic drinks, but to be honest, they were kind of mysterious. The sort of thing you would expect to see in a Starswirl the Bearded museum, or a zebra hut.

“How do you feel?” Said Twinkle.

I thought about it. Tired. My bones and bruises still ached from the stampede. My entire right hoof felt cold as a windigo’s dick. Thanks, Twinkle, for your wonderful influence on the Equestrian Language. But I was well enough to pick myself up off the floor and stand on my three good hooves.

I wondered if such medical magic could have helped Mom.

“Where did you get this?” I said.

“Plucked it off a slave driver back in the mines.” Said Cobbler. “Given the condition we left him in, I reckoned he wouldn’t be needing it anymore.”

He meant dead.

I looked around. Druggos. Wounded mine-o’s. Tired, meek slave children. The applications of this were mind-boggling. I squee'd.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Pass it around, and let’s get out of here!” I giggled.

They all looked at one another all awkward-like. I didn’t like where this was going.

“How much did you give me?” I snapped.

“Just a few drops,” said Cobbler.

I sighed relief, but the looks on their faces told me I was sighing too soon.

“How much do we have left?”

“Um...none?” Cobbler replied.

“What?!”

Wounded, wounded everywhere, and not a drop to drink. I looked around at the stumblers, and the hobblers and those being carried. It was my turn to smack Cobbler.

Clonk! 2x4.

“Fucking assholes!”

I stormed off.




I was off in a corner crying my eyes out when Twinkle came up behind me. I wasn’t in the mood to be consoled. As luck would have it, she had no intention of doing so.

“You mind telling me what all that bullshit was about?” Twinkle scolded me.

I didn’t face her. I wasn’t sure what I’d end up saying if I did.

“Other kids need it more,” I whimpered. “You know it.”

“Fuck them.” Said Twinkle. “If I picked some kid at random, for all I know, he’d be a douchebag like Misty.”

I couldn’t help but snort a little laugh.

“What if somepony dies?”

I was shaking. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was acting out of fear or just plain pissed off. Probably both.

“What if you fucking died? Do you even care anymore?”

I turned around to look her in the eye.

“Cause I do,” Twinkle added. “Call me crazy but I care about shit like that.”

Go ahead, Twink. Twist the guilt knife. I don’t have enough of that right now.

“I—I—“

“You what?” She snapped.

And that was all I could take. I threw myself at her sobbing. Whatever she’d been trying to do, it had worked better than she’d expected. She ran her hoof through my mane.

“It’s all I have.” I moaned. “It’s all I have.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“The idea that I helped some of these kids. It’s all I have.”

“You helped all of us, you dumb fuck.”

I froze. I’d said too much.

“Who in this mountain didn’t you help? Huh?”

I lowered my eyes in shame.

“Seriously who? Name one! Was it that guy?” She pointed. “The one heading out of the cave all ‘look at me I’m breathing fresh air for the first time in months’?”

Twinkle Eyes pointed at another pair of faces in the crowd. “Oh, look, those poor twins over there. Life sure does suck for them. Bet they wish they were getting their asses kicked by cloak-o’s right about now.”

“You’re right.” I said softly.

Anything to keep from spilling the beans about the massacre at Sub Mine F. She didn’t need that.

“Damn skippy I’m right.”

She saw me slouching, retreating into my head, and smacked me.

Clonk! 2x4.

I looked up at her, aghast. “What the hell was that for?”

“Nopony picks on my friends.”

“I didn’t!”

I wasn’t sure whether to be scared of her, indignant, or just plain confused.

“Yes you did.” She said. “You’re my friend. And you’re picking on yourself. And if I ever catch you doing it again, I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“But that doesn’t even--;”

“Nopony picks on my friends,” Twinkle growled. “Nopony.”

I couldn’t help but smile. She was doing it again. Being so kind and so harsh at the same time.

“Seven minutes.” Shouted Strawberry Lemonade.

Everypony was really starting to get a move on. There were more kids up on the top platform now than on the stairs or the clearing below.

Meep! Twink and I had been whiny pirating so long, that we were practically alone.

“What are you even counting down for?!” I snapped at long last.

Strawberry Lemonade actually heard that one – probably cause it had something to do with one of her stupid countdowns.

“The cloaks are coming!” She snapped. “Now quit bickering and get up there with the rest.”

You get up there.” I barked right back.

Twink and I broke into a gallop.

“Can’t.” Said Strawberry. “I’m staying.”

Type typitty type type type. Click, clickitty click click click.

I skidded to a halt. Strawberry Lemonade was staying behind?!

"Fine!” I said the last thing she expected. “Why are we running at all? There are, like…a billion of us. We have, like…a trillion of those…"

I waved my hooves around, pointing at the arsenal my friends had pilfered from the Priestess' super special clubhouse.

"…Blam blam kapow…things."

Twink raised an eyebrow.

"Can't we just..."

"Shoot our way out?" Said Cobbler who was still busy herding refugees up those rusty old stairs above us.

"Um...Yeah?"

I had just casually suggested we massacre our enemies. Luna help me, the mines had scrambled my brain.

"Half of these kids are half dead." Pleaded Cobbler. “They won't last a giant showdown.”

I wondered how many of them could have benefited from my potion. Then I caught Twinkle eyeballing me. She knew I was on the verge of beating myself up again. I threw my hooves up.

“Don’t hit me!”

“Do you have any idea how many of these kids we had to drag straight out of the brig?" Said Cobbler.

"Brig?" I said. "Like the kids that got captured outta Mine B?" .

I bit my lip and tried to choke back the feeling of hope. It couldn't be true. Those drag marks in the dirt! The kids who'd been snatched away kicking and screaming before they'd had a chance to revolt. Had they actually gotten free?

"Yeah those kids, and from Sub-Mine M, and R."

"They're all from the brig?" I laughed with excitement.

Everypony was starting to look at me funny.

"They are from the brig!" I cheered. "They're from the brig! They’re from the brig!"

I must have looked like the world’s biggest asshole, cheering about their capture and torture, but really, I was just amazed that they’d made it out alive.

"Well, like, ah reckon we ain't no good to these folks if we’s daid." Said one nearby pony in a slow and inscrutable drawl.

I could tell just by his grim tone that he was one of the Brig Kids. Victims of a failed rebellion.

"After a while,” he continued. “The cloak-o’s got to shooting, seeing as how things was getting’ outside-a their ordinary comfortin' zone.”

The stranger smiled.

“They was quite rightfully spooked too. All you fellers with your guns and yer dyn-o-mite. But that wasn’t for a while. Us lucky ones just got all brigged up good and tight.”

They’d only shot when they’d realized we were a bucking army. It made sense. They wanted first and foremost, to keep us enslaved.

"But you're alive?" I said.

The stranger looked himself over, and carefully considered the question. "Last tahme ah checked."

I leapt up - actually literally leapt for joy, as weak as I was. (The landing wasn't so good though. I stumbled forward and hugged the colt who'd told me so. Hugged him so hard he fell down.)

"We seen better days though." He coughed.

As I lied there, propping myself up on my messed up legs, trying not to crush him, I got an up-close look of just how far the poor kid was from seeing “better days.” A mass of small burns were speckled all up and down his face like the chicken pox; his eye was bleeding. He had a wound on his leg that was all gross and oozing. It disarmed me to see anypony in that kind of condition.

"We gotta get outta here." I said grimly.

“Reckon, you’re right, Miss um…”

“Rose Petal.”

“Ah. Name’s Turnip Truck, the 14th.” Said the stranger. “After me pappy, Turnip Truck the 13th.”

"Five minutes," called Strawberry Lemonade.

The last of the kids were almost done making their way up the stairs. It was a small miracle that Cobbler and Misty had gotten them up in time.

"Yo Straw Lems. Got to go."

"I haven't found them yet." She'd gone from focused and excited to just plain afraid again.

I knew that look. The I Left Them Behind Last Time, But Dammit, Not This Time look.

“There’s more down there, aren’t there?”

Straw turned to me and nodded in blind panic.

I was ready to stay, but honestly, I couldn’t help. I couldn't even find the keyboard on those stupid console things. Plus, Twinkle gripped my shoulder and looked at me sternly. The message was clear: Stick with the group or I’ll kill you.

Strawberry Lemonade turned back to face the console.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she pleaded.

“Who’s still down there?”

“Sub Mine F!” She said.

I felt my throat drop into my stomach like a bowling ball.

"Sub Mine F?"

“I haven’t gotten a signal at all.”

“Twink’s right. We need to go.” I said in a whisper.

“Really?” Said Twink.

“They’re um...empty.” I said. “Sub Mine F. I passed by. There is nothing there.”

“Oh, come on!” Misty shouted from up above. He had just finished herding the relatively healthy kids out of the opening up there that passed for a door. By the time Turnip Truck the 14th moseyed by, laden head to hoof with weapons, the cave was pretty bare.

"The fuck is this?" Asked Twinkle.

"Reckon once we head off ‘dem daisy cape fellers, they'll come a-chargin' from this here tunnel, and run after us down yonder mountain pass." Turnip pointed outside. "You know, all downhill and advantageous like. Can't have that. Ah’ll hold ‘em back as they charge up yonder stairs."

He patted his weapon lovingly.

"Yeah whatever, Turnip," said Twink. "What the fuck is this? Everypony be a hero day? Get back upstairs you hillbilly fuck."

“No can do, ma’am.” He said. “Not with this here leg all infetcified.”

He shook his gooey leg at us.

“Ewwwwwww!” I said.

“Don’t stand a chance out there anyway, so I may as well blow those summabitches straight back to their precious Lord Baal.”

I tried not to think of the potion, and the good it could have done this kid and his leg, but that was damn near impossible with the taste of the damn thing still lingering on my throat, all coppery and nasty.

“This is crazy." I said.

Mine-o’s, druggo’s. The last of the kids' flanks made it out the big bright hole in the cave we called a door.

“Come on,” I said, putting my hoof on Strawberry Lemonade’s shoulder, trying to physically pry her away. “There’s nothing down there in Sub Mine F. I saw it myself.”

Strawberry swatted my hoof away and stared me down with eyes that could melt coal. “We didn’t find those kids in the brig. The system’s logs show that they were in Section F last anypony checked, and now you’re telling me there’s nothing there? Those kids are down in those mines and I’m gonna find them. Touch me again and I’ll fuck you up so bad you’ll wish the cloak-o’s had gotten to you instead.”

I stumbled back in shock, as much from the harsh words as from the fact that the hornets in my brain got all fired up and pissed off again. Strawberry Lemonade was, after all, The One I’m Meant to Save, and she was refusing to leave.

Twink stepped in. “What the fuck did you just say?”

Uh-oh.

“Guys, stop.” I said urgently. “Twink, I’m fine. Seriously.”

“What’d you say to Rose?” Twink snapped. “Go ahead. Say it to me.”

She was a whole foot shorter than Strawberry, but she went right to her, looked straight up, and stared her down.

“Say what you said to Rose. I didn’t quite hear you the first fucking time. Say it the fuck again!”

Misty came charging back in. "Guys! Dee cloakos are out there with trucks. Doink fishy thinks!"

“Go.” Said Strawberry. “I’m staying.”

She turned to face the console again.

Hornets, hornets, hornets. Why the Hell wouldn’t this bitch leave?!

I suddenly felt a tiny glimpse of what Twinkle Eyes must have been going through every time I’d thrown myself face first into danger.




I looked up at Misty, who was up on the platform,clutching his own head in pain. He had a bad case of brain hornets too.

Twink on the other hoof, wasn’t done making her point. She grabbed Strawberry, who turned around and smacked her right in the face.

“Don’t touch me!” She roared.

I saw Twink rubbing her cheek. I thought for sure she was gonna whip out a knife or something - carve Strawberry Lemonade up and drink her blood like it was actually lemonade. But something about the rage in Strawberry’s eyes caught Twink off guard. It kinda shocked all of us.

“I—“ Strawberry was shaking as much with fear as with anger.

“I don’t like it when ponies touch me.”

I suddenly remembered how much Strawberry Lemonade had cringed when I’d gripped her by the shoulder back in the cage room. Twink looked up at her with silent understanding. She nodded. Something was happening that I didn’t quite understand.

“Look, just leave Rose Petal the fuck alone, alright?” Said Twink. “Or I am gonna find a fucking brick and introduce it to your teeth. Capice?”

“Agreed,” said Strawberry Lemonade as she turned back to her console and buried herself in her work.

"We need to poosh through while we can!" Misty called down at us.

“Then go,” growled Strawberry.

Then there came this long tense silence. Strawberry seriously wasn’t going anywhere. The One I’m Meant to Save. The One I’m Meant to Save. The One I’m Meant to Save. The voices in my head were shouting at me all at once.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it!

“They’re dead, alright?” I said at long last.

Suddenly all eyes were on me.

“Sub Mine F.”

More silence.

“What?” said Strawberry

“You’re not going to find them,” I said. “Cause they’re dead.”

“But you said--;”

“You all seemed so happy and I didn’t wanna bring you down, and--;”

I looked around at all of their shocked and mournful faces.

“They were just so fucking small,” I blubbered.

The one thing I couldn’t get over about Sub Mine F. All those kids lying dead in that mountain. They were all so small. Kindergarteners. They never stood a chance.

I completely came apart right there in front of everypony.

“I’m sorry.” I said with a sniff.

They all just sort of stared at me awkwardly. Even Twinkle didn’t have anything clever to say. She was busy pounding the walls with her hoofs in frustration and grief.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Strawberry sighed, and pulled a metal cover over the console she’d been working on. When the hook hit the knob and the thing was good and shut, I got smacked in the face with a sudden quiet. The hornets in my head were only whispering now.

I looked up at Misty. He nodded at me in silence. He felt it too. Strawberry was coming with us, and things were starting to fall into place.

Misty closed his eyes, and lit up his horn. Then, just like that, the entire bucking staircase wrenched itself from the masonry - all aglow with unicorn magic. All it took was a little loosening and the whole damn thing crumbled under its own weight.

Before any of us really knew what was going on - before the dust could even settle, Misty had lifted Twink, Strawberry and me up on to the platform. The very last of us. We were ready to go.

Those bucking dogs were barking again in the distance. We were finally getting close. I could practically taste it. In the vision, Strawberry Lemonade had been underground - in the dim. So once we left the mine, she would be safe - at least from what I’d seen in my head. That meant that whatever else may have been going down - whatever strange wheels may have been turning – things were finally starting to happen the way they're meant to happen.

Turnip trotted up to us and looked down at the wreckage of the staircase, which would delay the cloak-o’s better than he ever could.

“Well, how do you like that?”

He turned and whistled right on out the cave.




* * *




We galloped as best we could down the mountain pass. Me? I hobbled. Misty was busy leading, and Twink was too damn small to help me. So, like so many other kids, I just stumbled along and tried to keep up. Those few drops of potion, after all, could only do so much.

It started with a fall. Then I fell again on Twinkle. Then, finally, my bad leg just plain stopped working altogether, and forward we both tumbled. But I didn’t hit the ground. Instead, I found myself draped over a colt’s back.

“Whu?” I was already starting to doze.

I faded. I bounced around a little on his back, and though my focus was shifting and blurring, the one thing I could make out was the cutie mark on my ride’s flank. A guitar.

“Druggo?” I said.

“Hang in there,” was all Flutterstrings said. “Hang in there.”

“I’m fine.”

“You fainted again,” said Twink.

“Did not,” I replied.

“Did too.”

“Did not!” I snapped.

She smirked at me. For once, I was actually alright-er than I appeared.

“Did too!”

She reveled in it a bit too much.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

“Did bucking too!”

Everypony we knew stopped and just looked at her - even Flutterstrings. Twinkle had softened a curse word.

“What?”

“Bucking?” I said.

“Blow me.” She replied.

I bit back a smirk.

“What? Maybe I feel like daintying it the fuck up every now and again.” She was blushing. “You got a problem with that?”




Up ahead were five great big old boxes on wheels, each with ratatat-tat-amjigs mounted on top. My friends corrected me when I babbled, and told me they were called trucks and guns respectively, but I liked my names better.

“Those the cloak-o’s that Misty was on about?” I asked.

“Not sure,” grunted Flutterstrings.

Carrying me couldn’t have been any easier for him than carrying him had been for me.

“I dunno!” Said a nervous filly. “They haven’t been doing much, just wheeling those trucks out one at a time. Do you think it’s a trap?”

I pretzeled my neck backwards. If I really strained, I could make out the way we came – just barely.

“Why don’t we just go the other way?” I moaned.

I kept pushing my neck muscles as far as they would let me to try to get a better view, until I couldn't hold it anymore. Then I just sorta collapsed backwards - bones like wet pasta. I could see Twink staring at me all upside-down-like.

“The villagers are that way.” She said.

“The ones who rebelled against the cloak-o’s?”

She nodded.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” I smiled, but Twink didn’t return my enthusiasm.

“We barely held them back the last time,” said Upside Down Twinkle Eyes. “Who do you think was doing all that shooting while you were off dicking around down there in the mines?”

“What?” I squirmed so bad that I fell and took Flutterstrings with me. “Why?!”

Twink stood over me and extended a helping hoof. Once I was up again, and hoisted back on top of Flutterstings, Twinkle said, “Not getting any help from those cockmuffins.”




So it’s like this: it turns out that the villagers had, in fact, revolted just like I thought – only they weren’t fighting for our freedom. They were fighting for the freedom to be the ones profiting from our slavery. At least that's how it was explained to me, and it made a certain kind of sense. If there was any truth in what the Priestess had said at all, without us kids to work the mines, the town was as good as dead.

Food first. Morals follow on (if at all).

This was bad news. Real bad. It wasn’t just about surviving the cloak-o blitz anymore. Even if we fended off every last goon – blew them all to bits – the mine-o slave kids weren’t exactly gonna find loving homes here in Trottica. What were they supposed to do?

Even if we managed to “poosh” past the “fishy” cloak-o activity in that giant docking bay down there at the bottom of the hill, we couldn’t exactly charge inside and demand to be treated well. That was the service entrance to the Town Hall, from whence my friends had escaped. There was still a great big old Civil War going on in there, and the only thing that any of the factions could agree upon was that we kids should keep on slaving.

I knew there had to be good grown-ups in that town somewhere. That it wasn't all kids: good; adults: bad like Twinkle Eyes seemed to think. It couldn't be! But if there were any friendlies around, where ever they were, they weren't doing us a whole lot of good as we tried to make our way down that mountain pass.

Further down the road, there was a naked gauntlet. If we tried to walk down it, we would be wide open to attack from the walls and buildings above, and left completely exposed – unable, even with all our numbers and badass weaponry, to defend ourselves. The townsfolk would be way too high-groundsy­.

We were about three hundred kids trying to hoof it. Almost half of us were fucked up, drugged, or infirm in some way. Past “the gauntlet” were the great outdoors – the road to freedom. One-hundred-and-fifty straight miles of nothing.

To make a long story short, we were completely and totally fucked.




* * *



“I need to talk to Misty,” I said, but Flutterstrings just sort of grunted in reply.

I was the druggo now. Nopony ever takes what the luggage has to say seriously.

A chill breeze swept over our little company. You could hear shivering amongst the crowd of children. Chattering of teeth even. I wrapped that old cloak of the Priestess' around me and just sort of lied there, bouncing along on Flutterstrings’ back like a sack of flour. A piece of Misty Mountain's nasty old tail hair was still stuck in my teeth. Blech.

I tried not to think about what lied ahead. Instead I focused on that stupid hair. I was picking at it with my tongue, and picking at it, and picking at it, when out of the blue, came that old familiar cry.

“They’re coming!”

Just once, I’d like to go one measly hour without having to hear anypony shout those words. Was that too much to ask?

I braced myself for a stampede, but this time, we were all pretty weak, and none of us were terribly anxious to rush forward into the cloak-o trucks. There was also a great big old cliff to our right, so for once we didn’t run around like maniacs. Apparently, mass panic isn’t blind. It’s opportunistic. Even in chaos and hysteria, fear’s still holding the reigns, like it’s got a mind of its own. This time, the beat up old cloak-o army (that had scrambled out of the mountain without help of a staircase) was actually a lot less scary than the eerie silence below - the wheely-box-y-things just sitting there. Waiting for us. We couldn’t even see the cloak-o’s anymore. It felt wrong –ambushy even, but what choice did we have?




The cloak-o’s were still a while behind us, and they weren’t worth wasting ratatatatat’s on, but they were closing in fast. They didn’t fire on us either. It looked like they were making to round us straight into the backs of those trucks. And there we were - obliging them!

We moved forward nervously. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t defend ourselves standing in the middle the way we were – no cover – no nothing. Our only hope was to dig ourselves into the clutter down there and hope we could fend them off.

Flutterstrings broke into a gallop. I was a little uneasy, but kinda detatched. I mean, all this danger, and still no hornets. Misty and I were meant to save Strawberry Lemonade, so there had to be a way out of this. Right? Or were the voices just a bunch of dicks who liked to show up, say a bunch of ominous confusing crap, and then ditch you?

Damn voices.

One of those boxes down there revved up, and started charging up the hill at us. It was smaller than the other boxes, but it had a giant barrel on top - almost like a canon, except that I was willing to bet that it didn’t shoot confetti. We knocked into one another left and right. We couldn’t figure out whether we should grind our hooves into the dust and stop, keep charging and try to go around the thing, or just plain run backwards.

“I can’t go back there!” Said a blue unicorn filly nearby. “I can’t go back there!”

The thought of another moment driven back into the mines was too much for her to bear. She made for the giant cliff on the shoulder of the road, and jumped! Just fucking jumped! My jaw dropped at the sight of it.

Fwoosh. Twinkle caught her with her horn magic. This was getting crazier by the second.

“We’re still in this, you stupid cunt.” Said Twinkle reassuringly. “We’re still in this.”

“We are?” Laughed Flutterstrings nervously.

Since when had Twink become the town optimist?

Finally the truck stopped. It was close enough to be damn menacing, but just far enough away that we couldn’t make it down there in time to go around the stupid thing. The barrel of the canon lowered itself and took aim.

The cloak-o’s weren’t even out to preserve us anymore. That giant box was gonna blow us all away.

The entire herd skidded to a halt. There was just no room to gallop anymore.

Twink was beside me now, but she was no longer optimistic. She was as horrified and in shock as I was. The barrel on the moving weapon lowered.

Several other kids tried to make a run for it – to jump off the cliff, but those on the edge gathered their wits enough to lock hooves. To throw themselves in the way - to keep them from passing. We weren’t going to go out like that. We just weren’t.

The truck stared us down. It stood there - ominously still, even as we panicked. I reached out and grabbed Twinkle’s hair. It was the only part of her I could reach from way up on Flutterstrings’ back.

Louder than thunder, the Big One fired.

BLAM!




Hundreds of hooves shielded hundreds of faces.

Boom! Hundreds of girlish screams.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! It fired again and again and again and again and again till my brain felt like ear-explosion-pudding. Echoes of the death booms swept over the hills below, and then the rest of the sound just sort of faded away. We were left with nothing but the ringing in our ears.

One by one, we all lowered our hooves and looked around to survey the damage. The mine-o’s, the druggo’s, my rebel friends. We were all still there. Every last one of us! Still standing on that mountain pass - the opposite of dead.

Behind us, were scorch marks and scattered pieces of about sixty cloak-o’s. It had blown them to smithereens. The big death box stared us down. Inscrutable.

Nopony said a word.

Finally, the front door opened, and a pair of hooves held themselves out, waving a bloody white cloth. A sign of surrender.

Before any of us could respond, or even try to figure out what the hell was going on, a grown-up fell out and landed flat on his face. He was a cloak-o, and he looked even worse than I felt. For a while, he just sorta lied there wheezing. With a groan, he rose to his hooves, straightened out his daisy cloak with pride, and limped toward us with grim determination.

Crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch, thump. He hobbled over the gravel.

When he got closer by, I actually recognized him. It was the nurse who’d drugged all of those kids back in the cage room. I gasped and fell off of Flutterstrings’ back. My friends helped me back to my hooves, and I found that he was looking in my direction.

“Um, hello?” I said awkwardly.

I turned around to get a look at the crowd behind me. Twinkle had already disappeared.

The nurse just kept on limping. “Hi,” he coughed.

The herd parted silently for him.

Crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch.

We all stared at him, but he didn’t look any one us in particular in the eye. He just sort of hobbled and marched as though we weren’t there at all. At least until he found Twinkle, who’d been hiding under some of the taller Trottica kids, who, frankly, weren’t very big. Twink looked up, and found Nursey’s battered face staring at her – a busted lip and broken nose that she had put there.

She rose to meet his gaze, and mustered up her best defiant glower. She’d done nothing wrong, after all. He’d had the beating coming. How was she supposed to know that this guy was gonna come along and save us all for no apparent reason!

“Twinkle.” I whispered to myself – hoping she wouldn’t do anything stupid.

I hoped even harder that the nurse wasn’t gonna try anything either.

They stared at one another long and hard before Nursey finally held out a hoof. Twinkle stared at it. He stared right back at her.

They both knew why she’d beaten the snot out of him. But things had changed, and blame no longer mattered.

She sighed. Her defiant pose cracked and sunk into a slouch. Hesitantly, she lifted her own hoof to meet his, and just like that – hoof bump.

I wanted to cheer, but it was too quiet.

Nursey nodded, and kept limping right past her. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. It was just plain painful to watch him grind and limp and drag himself up that path, but none of use were sure whether or not we should lend a helping hoof. In fact, Nursey shook his head whenever somepony even looked at him like they might offer.

So he just hobbled on up there, and the crowd continued to part for him, though the question on all of our minds was the same. Why?

“Hey, Nurse.” Twinkle said at last.

Leave it to her to call out the elephant in the room. Nursey, with some effort, stopped and turned around.

“What the fuck?” She said.

The nurse sighed. “’Ignorance, trust, the gullibility of good ponies – these are the weapons of the tyrants of war. Such innocence is sin.’”

By the look on his face, he did not expect to be received well, but still he quoted his scripture without shame.

“’…Blessed is he who strikes down the tyrants – who comes in the name of Hard Truth. Blessed is he who abhors ignorance.’ So sayeth Baal.”

Silence.

We all looked at one another, not sure what to make of the wacko who’d just saved all our hides. He, in return, just sorta looked at us all blankly.

“But Baal is a lie,” came a small voice from the crowd.

It was a frail little earth pony colt - even younger than Twink.

“Not to me.” Said the Nurse.

He turned and hobbled further down the road.

“Come with us.” I said.

I just made a great big decision without asking anypony. I looked around. Thankfully, they all nodded silently in stunned agreement.

At me, Nursey actually smiled. Me - the girl who’d grabbed him and shook him as hard as I could in anger and frustration. Apparently not letting the others beat him to death distinguished me as some kind of super pony.

“Nah,” he grinned a wide grin – bloody, and almost toothless. “There are more tyrants in there that could use a blessing or two.”

He winked at me and patted a saddlebag packed to the brim with explosive birthday candles. I wasn’t sure precisely what he was gonna try, but I was pretty sure that it would be shitfuck crazy.

“Those trucks are for you.” Said the nurse. “You’ll find everything you need.”

He started hobbling back toward me. I trotted in his direction, just to make the trip easier on him.

“Good luck. And thank you,” He kissed my forehead. “But I’m going to meet with Baal. Become one with the Great Below.”

He looked out over the mountain range – possibly his last view of the vast and cloudy skies of the Wasteland.

“I hear it’s bliss.” He smiled, and limped the rest of the way up the road in silence.

The Way It's Supposed to Happen

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CHAPTER TEN - THE WAY IT'S SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN
"To change the fate of one individual is to change the world." - Terry Pratchett




The trucks were loaded with food, water, weapons, ammunition, gems for trading safe passage, medical supplies, and potions. After a few gulps of one o’ dem potions, I started to actually feel healthy - energetic. At least on the inside. My hoof, however, was still black, and weak, and creepy.

More importantly, Turnip Truck the 14th had access to real medical care – real hope. No more oozy leg. No more desperate measures. Not only would Turnip be able to survive the giant exodus that lied ahead, he would be able to do so from the relative comfort of the back of a truck. That meant that the other kids could too. The mine-o’s, the druggo’s. The sick. The injured. All of us were looking at freedom. Real freedom. Not the kind that lies at the other end of a one-hundred-fifty-mile trot. The kind that was ours for the taking.

It was time to get the fuck out of Trottica.




The five trucks vroooomed as hard as they could down that bounce-itty road. One was full of supplies. The other four were packed full of kids. Morning Flower drove the small one with the big cannon. She’d squee’d like a filly on Hearth’s Warming morning when she first climbed into that driver’s seat. Her job was to annihilate anything that stood in our path. The rest of us simply followed and blasted away any remaining signs of trouble.

I rode in front seat of the big yellow truck. Don’t ask me why it was yellow. It just was. Misty Mountain sat at the wheel because he actually knew how, and was big enough to reach the pedals. Strawberry sat next to him and navigated using some doo hickey she’d plucked off of a piece of dead cloak-o that had been lying on the ground. Twinkle Eyes “rode shotgun.” That meant that she got to use the truck's cannon-majig to blow away obstacles and random structures she thought would look cooler on fire. It wasn't as big as the one mounted on Morning Flower's truck, but it was still a force to be reckoned with.

She hooted and hollered all the way down the road. I thought about saying something, but I'd never seen her like this. Giggling. Happy.

I wasn't about to be a stick in the mud over a bunch of sheds and empty towers and stuff. Twinkle was okay. I was okay. The kids in the back were actually okay too. There was this incredible magic in the air - this contagious feeling that we were right, and that anything we did in the name of freedom must also be right.

Most of all, I thought. They’re just sheds, not ponies or anything. And they do look cool on fire.

Fuck sheds.

"Your turn!" Said Twink, as she passed me the controls of the giant cannon mounted on top of the truck.

"What?"

"Come ooooon."

She grabbed my hooves and placed them over a series of levers.

"Come on!" She said. "It'll be fun."

"Oh, no, no, no." I blushed. "No thanks."

I couldn't even fathom myself blowing something up.

"Do it," said Twink.

"She doesn't want to do it," said Strawberry.

"She's gotta!"

Twinkle turned to me. "What if I'm not around? What if you're surrounded by bad guys, and you need to splatter one of their brains all over the place?"

I winced.

"Twinkle!" Protested Misty.

"What? She may need to someday." She snorted. "To survive."

"Dee brains are safer on dee outside, ees true," he conceded.

"Like she's ever going to be surrounded by bad guys with nothing but a giant tank to defend her." Strawberry Lemonade snorted.

"Yet here we are," said Misty dryly.

I turned to Twinkle. She was just sorta looking at me with her big bright cerulean eyes.

"Do you trust me?" She said.

I stared at her silently. She guided my hooves over the levers. With every little motion, the barrel on top of the truck made a great big motion. I seized up every time. I couldn't help it, it was a panicked reaction. I'd actually made something 40 times my weight move. It was freaky.

Finally, Twink got fed up and tugged on my mane.

"Ow!"

"Have some fun with it, fuckhead."

Fun. I let that stew in my brain for a little bit. This was a game to her. Violence. Destruction. It was the best way to blow off steam in the Wasteland. Those craters behind us. Those flaming hunks o' shed. They were the aftermath of Twinkle Eyes at play.

"Keep an eye on your target."

She pointed us toward a big empty that we were rapidly approaching ahead. At least I hoped it was empty.

"When you're moving like we are, you gotta lead it a little bit." She guided me gently, easing my shoulder, rather than grabbing my hooves. "Then you just got to focus, and wait for the moment, listen to that little giggle in your head, cause there's like this weird little whisper that comes afterwards that says now."

She'd been a slave her whole life, and probably wasn't allowed to touch a nail, let alone a gun, but Twink understood how this worked. She was a natural. To hear her talk about it, the explodification of random structures by the side of the road - it sounded a lot like my attempts to brain Skull Stomper with a rock back in the cage room. Only she didn't have any mystical forces guiding her toward destiny. Just a lot of anger and a sharp eye. I watched that giant shed carefully. I was hesitant to attack it, but Twinkle, out of nowhere, shouted "Now!" and yanked on my leg.

Boom! A streak of something-or-other whistled through the air, and a few moments later, that empty guard tower was a burning pile of sticks. I couldn't believe it. I climbed over her like a jittery-tea-crazed monkey just to get a better view as we zoomed by. That rubble. That destruction. I'd done that.

"Hahaha!" She smiled at me. "Cool, huh?"

I nodded in awe.

"It's all in the timing, Shedkiller."

It was a longer time than expected, and Twink took the time to explain a few technical details about small arms, and the big ratatatatat-ers too, but we all agreed that a live demo inside a moving truck was a bad idea. And by that, I mean that Strawberry Lemonade threw stuff at Twink until she put the damn thing away.

Then we saw somepony scurrying for cover as we came. The first sign that we were approaching what, in the Wasteland, passed for civilization. We all snapped nervously back to our posts - Twink the gunner, Misty the driver, Strawberry the navigator, and Rose Petal - the kid who just sort of hung around the front seat being useless.





Twink waited a bit more patiently once we saw houses up ahead.

"Don't fire till you're sure this time." Said Strawberry.

"Hey, Misty was the one who shot up all those villagers." Snapped Twink.

"Dey were coming at us with guns!"

"We were coming at them with guns." Strawberry yelled. "They were scared. They didn't know we weren't charging up there to kill them."

"We weren't charging up there to kill them?" Said Misty, genuinely confused by the notion of not shooting first and asking questions later.

"Shut up, both of you cunts." Said Twinkle Eyes.

She narrowed her eyes, took aim. As though not talking would somehow help us sneak up on them in a small fleet of the world's loudest trucks.

Then we came across our first jerkface. He was shooting at our truck from the window of his tin-roofed shack-cottage.

“That the best you can do?” Laughed Twinkle. “Take that, dickmuffin!”

Kaboom! The cottage was no more.

I shut my eyes. It wasn't a random shed. There'd been a pony in there.

Next Twink took aim at a bunch of confused villagers who were literally just standing around.

I just winced. I had made a promise to myself never to turn my back on injustice and stuff, but we were all in the heat of a passionate escape. And the final push was terrifying. It was happening so fast! This wasn't just about a small circle of friends anymore. There were 300 kids in the back counting on us to do everything we could to get them out of this. We couldn't exactly pull over and ask every villager we saw whether or not they planned on enslaving us, now could we? Besides, nopony in the whole damn town had done anything to indicate that they might be anything other than selfish enslave-itty douchebags.

Except for Nursey.

What choice did we have?




We approached the cluster of villagers that I could only presume were unarmed. I closed my eyes - waited for that ratatatatat sound.

But we just drove by. It never came. Finally, I peeked a little, and a hoof landed on my shoulder.

Twinkle looked me right in the eye and sighed. She knew I hated violence and stuff, so she held back.

Nopony could really judge her for having a bad case of slave rage. Twinkle had come from an entire lifetime of slavery and abuse. All I'd had was one hell of a bad day. Still, she put me first, and spared them.

I smiled at her.

Not one of the good ones, my ass. Twinkle was probably the best pony I had ever met.

BAM!

Villagers on a rooftop pointed ratatatatatat-ers at us. Rooftop no more.

"Choke on that, chum lickers!"

Twink still had a job to do of course.

The tower burned, and folks leapt right the fuck out of it. They were so desperate to bail out of that fiery mess, that they didn't even care where they landed.

"Ugh!" I yelled at them. "You wouldn't die so much if you'd all just stop being jerks for half a second!"

Stupid Wasteland. Stupid tower ponies.




* * *




So we charged down that mountain pass - all five trucks. And it was pretty smooth sailing at first, even as we started to see a little more life around us. But "the gauntlet" was looming up ahead. They could attack us from above over there, and there wouldn't be nothing we could do about it. Cause of the way the road dipped into this weird little chasm, and the way all the town's structures loomed over it from above. The space was so narrow and the trucks so wide that we wouldn't even be able to aim our party cannons of destruction.

"I see it," said Misty.

Strawberry Lemonade, of all ponies, grabbed me by the shoulder. "Don't try anything stupid," she said.

The real reason that they had all wedged me up front in the "bitch seat" of that stupid truck was that nopony trusted me not to run off and do something reckless.

"What do you think I'm gonna do, leap out the window and take on all the villagers one-by-one?"

"Yes!" Said everypony at once.

"Humph!" I pouted.




Nearing up on the final stretch, I could tell that it wasn't quite the death trap it would have been had we ended up walking, but it was still nerve-wracking. All they would have to do is block the road.

We’re gonna make it anyway. I thought. I just knew we were. We'd come so far! As my aching stomach started to churn with unease, I reached out for Twinkle’s hoof. To my shock, she jerked back from me - recoiled at my touch.

"That's fucking cold!" She said.

The other half of the reason I was riding up front: my friends were worried out of their fucking minds. The healing potions hadn't worked. The medical supplies hadn't worked. None of it. The hoof just seemed to be getting colder and colder and colder, and my friends just got worried-er and worried-er and worried-er and worried-er.

I looked down at my hooves, feeling ashamed. The bad one was even blacker than before.

"I'm sorry," I said, wrapping it in the Priestess' old daisy cloak.

The original daisy cloak.

"It's nothing," said Twinkle Eyes. "Really."

She made a point to put her hooves on mine. Just to show that she wasn't afraid to. It was oddly reassuring. Then totally out of the blue, she started babbling nonsense.

"The Cutastically Fantastics."

"What?"

She held up the embroidery on the inside of the cloak. "Property of Happy-Sad, Questor of the Ancient Secret Order of the Cutastically Fantastics."

"Who dee fok are the Cutastically what you call dem?"

I turned the cloak over in my hooves. It looked like it must have been a million years old.

"The Priestess and her BFFs apparently." I said.

I thought of how desperately she had howled for that cloak. Give that back! Gimme me fucking cloak you motherless cunt.

This stupid cape thing was all that remained of the friendships she’d once had. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the rest of the Cutastically Fantastics.

"Weird." Said Twink.

We rode on in silence toward the gauntlet. It was awkward thinking of what the Priestess must have been like when she was a kid. I wondered if, now that she was gone, part of her was with the rest of the Cutastically Fantastics again. If they had waited for her on the other side, or at least, for the filly they used to know.

Or did they turn her away instead for what she had become. Strawberry Lemonade, Twinkle Eyes, and I all looked at one another. Without saying a word, our hooves came together and interlocked. We were thinking the same thing.

Never ever ever grow up to be like Priestess Happy-Sad.



* * *




"Faster, faster, faster!" I shouted

"Dees cannot go any faster!" Misty shouted right back.

"Twink, gunners at 2 o'clock," Strawberry yelled.

"I can't tell time!" Replied Twinkle Eyes.

"That way, that way, that way!" I shouted.

But it was too late. I could see the pony with the massive ratatatat-tat-a-majig. He had already taken aim, and Twink hadn't even swung her big cannon around to find him yet. I clutched Strawberry Lemonade cause Twink was aiming and Misty was driving, and there wasn't nopony else to hold on to. But the gunshot never came. Some random mare from the town kicked the gunner right into the chasm. She turned to us, still just a figure in the distance, but I could make out her body language. She was waving her hoof around as if to say "Go! Go! Go!" I honestly don't know what happened to her after that. Whether the other villagers got her or not. But the gunner was slurry under our wheels, and she still holds a special place in my memory.

"Did you see that?" I said.

"See what?" Said Twink.




The Gauntlet lived up to its reputation. This truck was already jumping around, swerving, and skimming the walls cause of the park benches that it had run down, and the sheet of chicken wire that it somehow ended up dragging all over the place.

The remaining villagers that the cloak-o's hadn't killed were all running back and forth, cloak-o weapons in their hooves. Luckily they weren't all organized and trained and drilled and stuff like the goons were. They didn't even set up a wall or a barricade or anything to try and stop us. Just a bunch of villagers. They had been expecting to meet us down at the bottom and just kind of swoop us up into some sort of great big old net of weepy whiny cowering slave-o’s. They hadn't expected for us to plow through them like cardboard cut-outs.

With all the junk the ponies left behind as they scattered, the terrain started getting real rocky. We bounced around against each other like rubber balls, but Misty and the other drivers still managed to charge through at a steady pace.

If we were bouncing around all over the place, I could only imagine what the kids in the back were going through.

Bang.

Suddenly there was a hole in our window. The head cushion above me had a hole in it too, and it was raining down stuffing. Somepony had shot into our truck. Had I been a grown-up, that stuffing would've been my brains.

Twinkle pushed my head down with one hoof, and grabbed a lever with the other, even though she couldn't aim too well that way.

"Die, die, die, die, die!" Twink didn't take powerlessness well.

Misty floored it and Strawberry ducked down with me.

"What's going on?" I shouted.

"We're doing fine!" Said Twink.

But we weren't fine. Suddenly, we were in darkness.




* * *




Next thing I knew, Strawberry Lemonade was on top of me, pinning me to the seat. I'd apparently been flailing wildly.

"What the fuck, Rose?" Said Twinkle.

I found Misty's spare hoof on my head.

"There are no shadows!” He said. “No shadows!"

He'd known exactly what I'd been thinking.

"Ees just tunnel. Stop with yelling and dee kicking."

I was kicking, wasn't I? I closed my eyes with a sigh and stopped squirming. Strawberry eased off me. Everypony stared. I laughed nervously.

"Hi," I said.

"You okaaaay?" Said Twinkle Eyes.

"Yeah."

It was so fucking humiliating. It's bad enough my friends had to worry about me when I ran off into danger alone. Now I couldn't even blink without wigging out over stupid darkness.

I poked my head up to get a peek, and got eyeballs full of freezing cold wind, but we were coming out into the open again - into the light.

I held my bad hoof up to my face, and stared at the daisy cloak wrapped around it. Under there, was a bunch of inky black stuff that that stupid thing had left on me. The fact that I couldn’t just wash it off was starting to drive me nuts. My own hoof wasn’t even mine anymore. Fucking shadows.

"Sorry, I'm fine."





Strawberry Lemonade fussed with the dials and screens of her doo-hickey. She’d lost her place in all the commotion and was trying to figure out where in the hoof we all were.

Bang!

Something hit the side of our truck.

"We got one more tunnel guys then we're outta here." Said Strawberry at last.

"Good!" Shouted Misty. "I'm tired of dem shooting my truck."

I could see it up ahead. The only road out of town. According to Straw Lem's surveillance, they hadn't bothered to defend it, which is good cause that tunnel would totally be yet another easy way to ambush us. But these were angry villagers, not soldiers. They rushed in toward what they wanted all angry-like. It was all they knew how to do.

You can't really tell a raging mob, "one third of you stay here and wait, just in case a bunch of armed orphans get a hold of the cloak-o trucks for some reason, and break through our defenses."

I could see the mouth of the tunnel. It was so close. I gripped on to Twinkle Eyes tight, determined not to freak out again.

"Come on, come on, come on." I whispered.

We hadn’t even gotten there yet, and already it felt like drowning.

“Hey, Rose.” She said.

“Yeah?” I did my best not to whimper.

“Fucking swim.” She knew exactly what I was thinking.

I looked right at her, and found her staring me down with hard eyes. She’d used my own words against me. When you feel like you’re drowning, fucking swim. I nodded.

Bang.

Strawberry Lemonade ducked and pulled me down with her. I buried my head in my hooves.

Bang! Again. Another hole in the window.

Misty hit the pedal as hard as it would go, and then just like that, we passed into darkness.

"Yeehaa!" I cheered, determined not to let the dark get the best of me.

Misty shouted something in foreign that I couldn't understand. Straw huddled on the floor and paid fierce attention to the doo-hickey. And Twinkle Eyes fell on top of me covered in blood.




My heart plunged into my stomach. I wanted to scream her name, but I couldn’t even find the breath. Twink clenched on to my shoulder as hard as she could and looked up at me with wide, terrified eyes.

“Help me,” She whispered.

It snapped me out of my shock.

“I will, I will, I will!” I said.

I frantically wiped the mine dust from her mane and the blood from her face. I pressed the old priestess cloak down on her wound. It was the cleanest thing I had.

“She needs a potion!” I shouted.

The artificial light in the tunnel flickered, and for a moment, I caught a glimpse of Twinkle Eyes there in the dim. That look. That hole in her chest. Those pebbles. That exact bad lighting. I’d seen it all before. It was the vision. The one I’d seen in the Town Hall basement - the one Misty had seen. Strawberry Lemonade, covered in mine dust, lying in the dark. Only Twinkle Eyes was in her place.

I whipped around and stared at Straw, who was rummaging frantically through her bags. Safe and sound, right on the floor beside me.

The way it’s supposed to happen. Whispers in my head

“Shut up! No it isn’t!” I said out loud.

The truck burst out from under the mountain, into the bright light.

“Ahh, fuck. Fuck! Fuck!” Twink was howling in pain.

Misty made a bit of distance from Trottica's borders, and then skidded to a halt the second he could to stabilize her. The moment we stopped, Twink quit flailing. Just for a moment. I could tell it took all her strength just to hold still and look at me.

“Don’t go anywhere.” She clutched on to me tightly.

I pressed down on her wound as best as I could, but I couldn’t stop the bleeding.

“I’m not.” I said.

She was turning white now.

"Don't leave me. Stick a cupcake in your eye, don't run off. Don't do nothing stupid. Please, please, please just stay."

"I won't. I won't. I won't!” I said, tears running down my face. “Stick a cupcake in my eye."

Strawberry Lemonade whipped out a vial. “Found it!”

I yanked the potion from her hooves, and nudged Twinkle’s mouth open.

“You’re gonna be okay.”

I tipped it back. She sipped on it slowly.

“You’re gonna be okay.” I ran my good hoof over her face. Her head was getting cold.

She nodded and focused her efforts on breathing.

I turned to Misty. The guy who’d been avoiding me ever since we’d shared a vision about this very thing.

“Did you know?” I growled at him.

He started at me in shock.

“Did you. Fucking. Know?!”

Misty broke into tears. Heaving sobs. He reached over me and touched one of her hooves.

He didn't know either.

“Hey, Misty.” Said Twink.

She barely had any voice left at all. He looked at her.

“Made ya cry.”

She winced in pain.

Misty just wailed and caterwauled.

“Pussy,” she whispered.




Then suddenly, out of the blue, there came a great big old kaboom!

“What the fuck?” Said Strawberry who dropped her doo-hickey full of useless medical files and scrambled to look out the driver’s window.

Twinkle’s face wrinkled. She had the same concerns I did. What the fuck now?

Misty swung the door open, and wandered out of the truck, flabbergasted.

“Looks like Nurse-o blew up mountain.” He said.

Twink smiled for a moment.

And then, everything was as it’s supposed to be. We were finally safe. No hornets. No voices. Just this tension leaving the air - leaving my brain.

Everything was at peace - everything but Twinkle.

“Rose,” she said.

“Yeah,” I sobbed at her. “I’m here.”

She struggled to speak, so I leaned in closer.

“Don’t worry, Rose.” She whispered. “I’ll see you later.”

At that, Twinkle closed her eyes. She was still breathing. She was still alive. Barely. But that was all she had to say. I’ll see you later. Those words echoed through my head as I held poor Twink in my hooves. She was fading. Her heart. Her breath. I turned to Strawberry Lemonade, who just stared on in silent horror. She’d stopped fiddling with her doo-hickey. There was nothing more to do.

I clutched on to Twinkle’s hoof.

“Come on.” I said. “Come on. Please.”

I asked whatever was out there. Whatever had sent me on this stupid fucking mission in the first place. Please. Anything else. Not like this. Not like this. But the hornets were silent.

And so was Twinkle. She lied there, her chest struggling to rise just a little harder each time.

“Please.”

I stroked her pink little head.

“Twinkle?” I whimpered, but she didn’t answer.




* * *




And then just like that, I was back in Ponyvlle. Back in my room. Clutching my pillow.

"Twinkle," I sobbed, still a little dazed and confused. Then I realized what had happened. "Twinkle!"

Blankets. Warm pillows. A cozy bed. A poster of Sapphire Shores staring down on me. No Twinkle Eyes.

“No,” I said. “No, no, no, no, no!”

I turned my sheets and pillows upside down - as though she were a lost ribbon that might turn up if only I panicked hard enough. Roseluck rushed in and leapt up on my bed.

“It’s ok. You’re ok. You’re ok.” She said.

“Not without Twinkle!” I shouted and threw myself under the blanket.

I squeezed my eyes shut - tried to go back to sleep. I'd promised to stay with her. Promised not to leave. Sweet holy Celestia, I'd stuck a cupcake in my eye!!

What had Strawberry Lemonade seen? Had I disappeared? What about Misty? He had wandered off. Did he know it was coming? Why didn't he warn them?

Why didn’t that kielbasa-eating douche warn me?

And Twinkle. What if she’d opened her eyes just one last time, and found me gone. Just totally gone! No. It wasn't going to end like that. I wouldn't let it.

"I'm coming Twinkle!" I reassured my pillow. "Hold on, hold on, hold on!"

I pulled the whole blanket over my head, but nothing worked. I was too revved up to sleep.

Roseluck ran a hoof over my back and another through my mane. That sorta thing had always worked on me before. But Roseluck being there wasn't going to bring Twinkle Eyes back from the dead.

"She's gone." I said, pulling the blanket off.

Roseluck's stunned expression told me she understood. Maybe not the details. But that this was more than just a shock to the system - more than just bolting awake from a bad dream or bad traveling. This was loss.

"Oh, Rose. I'm so sorry." She said as she drew me closer.

I completely came apart. "I did everything I was supposed to. Everything!"

All the way downstairs I could hear the door slam shut. A moment later hooves pounded up the stairs and there was Cliff Diver standing in my doorway, staring in shock and awe. I must’ve looked a mess.

“Is she gonna be okay?”

“How long were you waiting down there?” Roseluck asked.

Apparently, he had no better place to be at six in the morning.

I looked at him through blurry salty eyes. The portrait of innocence – actual innocence. The way a kid is supposed to be. Everything we'd been fighting for.

“No.” I yelled. “It’s not over!”

This wasn’t right. We were the fucking good guys.

“I don’t care what the hornets say!” I shouted. “This is not over.”

The Universe had sent Misty and me thru time and space to right a wrong. To make a difference. And all that time, no matter what else was going on, we felt electrified. We were starting a revolution - a rescue of hundreds of children - and for a while, it felt like some deep secret force was on our side. Turned out it that the whole time we weren't righting a moral wrong, just fixing a clerical error. Working to make sure the right pony lived and the right pony died.

Well fuck that. It's not over till I say it's over.

"I'm going back." I said.

"I don't think you c--;"

"I'm. Going. Back."

I'd never spoken that way to Roseluck before. Defiant. Assertive. For the first time in my life, I didn't care what she thought. What she said. I didn't care about anything. I was gonna go back there. I was gonna fix it. I was gonna save Twinkle, or so help me, see to it that the last feeling she ever knew was comfort and the magic of fucking friendship.

I leapt out of bed. Past Roseluck. I darted for the door, but my legs wouldn't listen to me. I fell on my face, scrambled to my hooves and scurried past Cliff.

"Celestia!" He exclaimed. "What's wrong with your hoof?!"

Picking myself off the floor I saw that my condition in this world wasn't terribly different from my condition in Trottica.

"It's black." I said all matter-of-fact-like.

I scrambled down the stairs, or rather, tumbled. I came up trotting, swerving around three-legged, knocking over lamps and things. Finally, I got to the kitchen, flung open the cupboards, ransacked the shelves, tossed this and that on the floor.

"Where are you? Where are you?"

Finally I found it - a tin of sleepy tea. Without even pausing to catch my breath, I popped the lid, tilted the whole thing back, and started eating it raw.

"Hang in there, Twinkle." I coughed. "Hang in there."

My mouth was full of bitter leaves. What can I say? Fear makes you stupid.

I hobbled to the foot of the stairs and found Cliff and Roseluck perched on top looking down on me.

"I'm coming," I said to Twinkle, already too drowsy to climb the stairs good and proper.

Roseluck and Cliff rushed down.

"Rose!" My sister cried. Literally cried.

"Don't worry about me." Was just about the last thing I remember saying before I passed into a long dark dreamless sleep. "I'm fine."

Bad Pudding

View Online

* * *


BOOK TWO
NO MARE'S LAND


* * *

CHAPTER ELEVEN - BAD PUDDING
"We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.” - J.R.R. Tolkien


I never dreamt of Trottica again. I didn’t dream of the Wasteland at all. Not for a little while anyway. You’d think that would be a relief, but it wasn’t. Not after the way I was yanked away from my friends – away from Twinkle Eyes.

When I got back from the Wasteland the first time, a little piece of me had been left behind. I could kinda sorta catch glimpses of what was going on, (and doodle on construction paper to figure out the rest). But now the mission was over with. Done. There were no hints. No clues. No pictures in my head. Nothing.

Strawberry Lemonade was safe at last, and that was all that fucking mattered apparently.

I opened my eyes. Just barely. It was like staring straight up into the Sun.

“Twinkle.” I moaned, and shut them again.

My voice sounded like it was a million miles away. My throat felt real up close, like it was full of broken glass.

There were other voices all around me. Panicked voices. Excited voices. I couldn’t quite place them. It sounded like echoes on the other end of a long hallway. I forced my eyes open and grunted. Somepony must have noticed, because they clutched my hoof in reply.

“Rose Petal,” she said. It sounded sweet – laughing and crying at the same time.

The sound split my head open like a great big old hammer made out of all-that-is-loud-in-this-world, but it was still a voice that was good to hear.

“Roseluck?” My voice creaked.

“Get over here, get over here, get over here!” Yapped a voice that sounded like Cliff Diver’s.

The sound of urgent hoof-clopping that followed shook me so much that I forced my eyes open again, as much as I hated it.

“Whu?” I said.

The walls were bare. No Sapphire Shores poster, no toys, no construction paper doodles. Nada. In a moment of stupid panic, I thought my room had been packed away – that Roseluck had fretted over me one too many times, and decided that she was sick of it. Sick of me. But her joyous relief and giddy hug told me that that was a stupid thing to think.




That annoying hoof-clopping sound gathered closer around me, and with it, a smug murmur followed. The kinda sound that only a gaggle of doctors could ever make. I was in a hospital.
Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

I hate hospitals.

“Rose Petal, can you hear me?” A condescending voice.

It was a doctor. I hate doctors.

“How many hooves am I holding up?” He shoved a single hoof in my face.

“Shut up,” I groaned.

Cliff Diver snickered. When I squinted, I could finally see him.

“What are you doing here?” I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was just confused.

Cliff frowned and hid behind his mane.

“Sweetie, I need you to tell me how many hooves I’m holding up,” the doctor sang.

“Too many,” I said.

I looked past the army of lab coats, “Thanks for coming, Cliff.”

“Mumble mumble mumble,” I added for good measure.

“Anytime,” he chuckled and chewed on his blue hair.

“Rose, you’re in the hospital,” said my sister as she squeezed my good hoof again.

“I know.”

“Do me a favor and answer the geese, okay?”

My brain snapped wide awake. Just for a moment. I’d completely forgotten! When I was very young, Mom used to call doctors that. Geese. It was all the white coats. The way they followed the Mama Doctor around, taking notes. The tight little clusters they made as they wandered the hospital doing their rounds. Sometimes she dubbed them silly geese if she thought they were being particularly annoying.

Answer the geese. I had to hoof it to Roseluck. She always knew just what to say. I looked to her and nodded.

“One hoof,” I told the doctor.

He smiled. All his little doctor goslings scribbled in their notepads.

“But you already knew that, didn’t you?” It hurt like crazy to talk, but I just couldn’t resist mouthing off. “You seem like a smart guy.”

One of the goslings brought a hoof to his mouth to cover up his smirk. The rest of them just scribbled sternly.

“Hehehe.” Mama Goose forced a joyless chuckle and looked to my sister. “You’ve got a spunky one on your hooves. That’s good.”

I hated him. Hated his guts. I didn’t go to Hell and back, destroy a town full of filly-slavers, and watch my own best friend die in my hooves to have some dope talk down to me when I got back, just because he was a grown-up with a big fat fancy degree.

“So Rose Stem,” Mama Goose continued.

“Rose Petal,”

He lit up his horn, levitated his clipboard and murmured to himself.

“Can you tell me what happened to your hoof?”

“It’s Evil.” I said dryly.

A long uncomfortable silence followed. Nothing but the whirring of some unseen machinery on the other side of the room, and the shrill chirps of my own medical bleep-a-majig.

“I see,” said the doctor.

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“Ms. Roseluck,” said Mama Goose. “I’d like to talk with you in private please.”

He paced all the way around to the other side of my bed, and went right up to Roseluck.

Cliff and I looked at one another in confusion. How exactly was standing right next to me supposed to be “in private”? It seemed to make perfect sense to Mama Goose, though. He just pretended like I wasn’t there.

The flock of goslings migrated around the bed to be with him. One tall blue mare in a white coat tripped on the wheel of my hospital bed mid-yawn.

“Ms. Roseluck, your sister is going to be fine. The results came back from last week’s tests…”

“Last week?!”

No. That couldn’t be right. It was just tea!

The doctor grunted. Roseluck looked over his shoulder and nodded at me with a shrug. It really had been a whole week. She held up an apologetic hoof. She knew I was freaking out, but she was also trying to get answers out of the goose.

I glanced at Cliff Diver who just kinda shrugged and tip-hooved over to me till he was standing right by my side, where the goslings had perched just a few moments before.

“How do you feel?”

“Fantastic,” I said dryly.

Cliff snorted and ran his hoof through his ratty tangled-up mane. Either he’d had a terrible accident involving an egg-beater and a drum of paste, or the poor bastard hadn’t slept.

“Have you been here all week?” I groaned.

“Well, sorta.” He said. “Not all week, I mean, mostly…”

“Thanks.” I said.

He smiled. After a long silence, he tapped my shoulder to get my attention even though I was already right next to him and already looking in his direction.

“Yes?”

“Did you save the kid you saw?” He whispered.

“I-I don’t know.” I thought about it. “I think I might have. I can’t be sure.”

“Oh.” He scratched his head.

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“What about the girl in the drawing?”

“She’s fantastic.” I said, venom on my tongue.

The whole damn Universe would just shrivel up and die if Strawberry Fucking Lemonade wasn’t safe.

“Oh,” said Cliff. “Well, that’s good I guess.”

I looked down. He was touching the Bad Hoof. The moment I realized he was doing it, I yanked my whole leg away. Covered it with a blanket. I moved so suddenly that Cliff jumped back. It left me huddling there. Like a huddley huddling thing. Cliff made a point of putting his hoof on mine. Unwrapping it from the blanket, and just holding it to show he wasn't afraid.

Like Twinkle had.

“Thanks,” I whispered meekly.

I was not about to get caught crying in front of all these other ponies, so I just shut my eyes - drifted for a while.




* * *




Twink was gone. Actually gone. Every time I tried to rest, that fact just came creeping out of my chest to kick me in the brain. Twinkle Eyes was dead.

I’m not sure how long I lay there with my eyes shut. Wading through hazy memories, kicking myself for every single one.

I hated myself for judging Twink when she’d kicked the Nurse’s ass. I hated myself for throwing that stupid tantrum over the last potion - getting her all worked up and worried. How many times had I allowed Twinkle to stop everything and comfort me? She had even held my hoof right before she got shot. Told me to fucking swim when she should have been paying attention.

I was afraid of the dark like a pathetic little foal. Twink didn’t even see the pony who shot her because of me. She should've been blowing every last one of those cockmuffins away. Why couldn’t she have just smacked me and told me to quit being such a wuss? Why the fuck did Twink have to be so kind? I ran it over in my head a thousand times. She died cause she took her eye off the ball. There was no way around it. It all lead to one terrible conclusion.

“I killed her,” I whispered faintly.

The Most Horrible Friend Ever To Walk Equestria. Even Priestess Happy Sad was better. She at least had stood by her cloak. Loyal to the very end.

Clonk! As I swam through random memories of Twinkle, I hit one that physically hurt. Like a 2x4 to the head.

“Nopony picks on my friends.” Twinkle had said.

What?

“You’re my friend. And you’re picking on yourself. And if I ever catch you doing it again, I’m gonna kick your ass.”

I stared at the Twink in my head as she boiled with rage. Even through veils of memory, that little girl was still scarier than fire.

Nopony picks on my friends. Nopony.”





Twink had a point. I hadn't killed her. I’d done everything right. It was Fate.

I mean that not in the serene “it was meant to be,” kinda way, but in the, “if I could condense all that mystical mumbo-jumbo tossing me through space and time, stick it into one pony - something with a body and a face - I would have shot the fucker with one of those giant battle saddles, and set the body on fire” kinda way. And I’d have had the right.

I’d been used.

The more I let that realization ferment, the more I finally started to understand Twinkle’s slave rage. I was not my own pony. I was a puppet. I didn't even know who or what was standing above the strings, but it was fucking heartless. The Way It’s Supposed to Happen was nothing more than a twisted joke. The idea of doing any more dream favors for It made me sick to my empty little stomach. But the shadows were coming for me, and all that Fate Junk was gonna end up getting involved all over again. I didn’t have any choice at all. It pissed me the fuck off.




* * *




With a sigh, I pulled my eyes open. There was Cliff, sitting right by my side. Watching. Fretting over what he could do to help. The answer of course, was nothing, but there he was just the same. That was worth, at the very least, a smile.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said.

He nodded and made a faint smile back at me.

“How long have you been here?” I asked him.

“A while,” he replied sheepishly.

I licked my lips. Dry as dust.

“Don’t your parents mind?”

“Naw,” he boasted. “They’re cool about this sorta thing.”

“This happen to your friends a lot?” I snorted meekly.

“All the time,” he rolled his eyes.

“What about Miss Cheerilee?”

Cliff Diver froze in place like a deer in the woods. He said one word. “Oooh!” And was off. Bolted right out the door. I was left lying there just sort of drowsy and confused. He couldn’t possibly have forgotten about school for an entire week!

I turned my head and groaned. On the other side of me, the doctor was still yammering science at my sister.

“Science, science, science, science, science, science, science,” said Mama Goose.

“But what about science, science, science, science, science, science, science?” Snapped Roseluck.

Mama Goose grimaced. Roseluck had science’d right back at him. She was always just that kinda smart. I was not. I couldn't even figure out how to keep my gums from itching. Out of the whole great big giant buffet o' pain that was my body, that stupid itch was the one thing that my brain really decided to go hog wild and feast upon. It was that fucking annoying. I tongued at it while the grown-ups blah blah blah'd their science crap.

One of the goslings turned to face me. A green colt with a pink mane. RX notepad for a cutie mark.

“How you holding up, champ?”

I groaned in confusion and smacked my crusty old lips. He can’t possibly be talking to me. If I could have, I would’ve looked over my shoulder to see what was going on. Instead I just sorta shifted my eyes.

“Um…okay,” I said at long last.

“Science, science, science, science,” said Mama Goose.

“Oh!” Said the kind young doctor.

“Hang in there,” he whispered back at me in a hurry and went back to scribbling notes.

Then more silence. So much for that.





I wasn’t really aware of much of anything going on around me till I caught a couple of words that I actually understood.

“The pain in her hoof was caused by cellular damage,” said the doctor. “Oddly enough, it resembled the opening stages of frost bite.”

My heart skipped a beat. That shadowy cockface gave me frost bite.

“What?!” Said Roseluck.

“Oh, no, no, no. Calm down, Miss. We can save the leg.”

Save the leg?! It had never even occurred to me that I was in any danger of losing it.

Roseluck snapped. She had an entire anxiety attack in the span of a few seconds. I could see it. And when it was up, she lunged up at the doctor and stared him down – eyeball-to-eyeball.

“What.” She backed him into a literal corner until he had no place to go but down. “Is wrong. With my sister’s. Leg?!”

“Nothing. Nothing. Medically, she’s fine!” He pleaded desperately, a thousand breaths a minute. “She’ll make a full recovery.”

“Geez!” Roseluck sighed relief, her old self again.

When Rose got mad, it was terrifying. But she couldn’t hold on it too long.

“Then why didn’t you say so?”

“Well,” the doctor laughed nervously. “It’s a funny thing…”

He looked over and suddenly noticed all the little goslings snickering at him, and snapped back to attention like a member of the Royal Guard.

“Ahem.” He cleared his throat with authority - Big Mama Goose once again. “While her hoof is not necrotic…”

I could tell just by looking that Roseluck was on edge again.

“And there’s absolutely medially nothing wrong with it,” the doctor added in a hurry.

“It’s still black, and shows no signs of regaining coloration even though tests confirm that it’s almost completely healed.”

“I don’t understand.” Said my sister.

“Ms. Roseluck, I’m afraid that leg is just plain Evil.”

Hospital silence. Even the sound of pencil scribbling stopped. The whole room was nothing but a pool of dull whirring sounds, and that old familiar bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep. One-by-one, the goslings’ heads turned to my direction. Two-by-two, all eyes were on me. I waved at them with my Hoof O' Evil.

I told them so.

“Heh-heh.” I laughed nervously.

I hated being belle of the ball.

“Guess what?!” Cliff darted back into the room with a smile and a crash.

He was waving a giant piece of oak tag that left a cloud of glitter behind it wherever it went.

“The whole class made you a card!”

He flashed the sort of grin that squeaked, but the room was still somber and quiet.

“What?” He asked innocently.




* * *




By the time the geese finally left us all alone, I felt like my brain had been pounded down flat like some kinda brain-dough. I wanted to crawl in a hole somewhere and simply cease to exist, but I didn’t have that luxury. The hospital was fresh out of holes.

I opened my eyes and turned to Roseluck. “There are no do-overs, are there?”

She shook her head “no.”

I nodded solemnly and stared off into space for Luna-only-knows how long.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Asked Cliff.

I shook my head “no.” How could I possibly explain what had happened? Where would I even begin?

No way. I said to myself firmly. The shadow thing was coming - at least I thought it would be. I had to cut straight to business. Any other train of thought just sent me careening down Memory Lane anyway. Face first into a 2x4 of Guilt from Dream Twinkle. Nopony talks that way about my friends.

“Cliff,” I groaned. “Is the library open yet?”

“Yeah. The dragon wouldn’t send the letter.”

“Figures. What about books on zebras?”

“A couple of rare plant books by zebras, nothing about them.”

“Ooh, I should check those out,” said Roseluck, always the plant enthusiast.

“But I got the next best thing!”

Cliff rummaged through a saddlebag full of candy wrappers and crumpled up old assignments. Finally he produced a notebook.

“Miss Cheerilee said we could do our Hearth’s Warming Eve assignment together so you don’t fall behind.”

He flipped the book to a sketch of the Equestrian flag and shoved it in front of me.

“What do you see there?”

“The flag.”

“A Sun Alicorn and a Moon Alicorn.”

“Like I said. The flag.”

I messed with that sore spot in my gums some more.

Cliff stared at me. “This flag was made hundreds of years before Princess Celestia and Luna!”

He beamed a bright enthusiastic smile. I turned to Roseluck as he passed his notebook over to her. She examined it closely.

“I never thought about it before,” she said. "You're right."

“Maybe the flag we use is just wrong.” I said. “Like all our pageants are just bad history or something.”

“No!” He snatched the book out of Roseluck’s hooves.

“Excuse me?” She said with polite indignance.

“Ssh, he’s on a roll.” I whispered.

“I checked it out! I did my research,” said Cliff. “Twilight Sparkle even dug up some bound copies of old records and stuff. The flag is older.”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep, Bleep-bleep. Hospital silence.

“You think somepony like Rose Petal might have seen it in their dreams?” She leaned forward with interest.

“And leaked a spoiler.” I added.

The smile fell from Cliff Diver's face. He scratched at his chin.

“I suppose that would explain it too.”

He rummaged a pencil out of his bag, frantically whipped some pages around, scribbling notes here and there and everywhere.

“Nope.” said Cliff at last, snapping his notebook closed. “My explanation is way better.”

He went back to rummaging, spilling trinkets and peanut shells and homework assignments from last year everywhere. Roseluck visibly tensed up – always the neat freak.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“Yes,” he said, sticking his tongue out as he dug. “See I’ve been reading up – the kind of books you don’t see in the library.”

Roseluck and I glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.

“They’re afraid of the truth,” He continued.

“Out with it.” I said.

“A ha!” Cliff Diver dug out the book he had apparently been looking for.

He shoved it in my face. Literally.

Other Worlds and You: Applications of Interdimensional Theoretical Physics in the Everyday World,” I read the cover out loud. “By Professor Science? What is this?”

“Let me see that,” said Roseluck.

As I passed it to her, Cliff yanked more books out of the bottom of his bag. Papers spilled over onto the hospital floor. They were like cedar chips in a hamster cage, or balls in one of those ball pits that little foals go to. Only those ball pits are fucking cool.

Piercing the Veil

Searching for Otherworld

Lower the Moon – Fluctuations in the Celestio-Lunar Balance Field – A Dialectic Analysis of How

Nightmare Moon Tore a Hole in the Fabric of Existence.

All by “Professor Science.”

“Careful with that last one.” Said Cliff. “It’s rare. The Professor’s first published book. A bit more academic than the rest.”

He beamed.

“Ummm okay.” I said. “What are you getting at?”

“Alright, here’s what I figure. You ready?”

“I’m all ears,” said Roseluck, genuinely curious, even if not exactly a believer.

I have to admit, I was curious too. Cliff Diver’s enthusiasm was adorable and, in its own way, kinda contagious.

“The flag was the symbol of the union of the pony races. A symbol of friendship and unity and stuff. You follow?”

“Yes.”

“When Discord reigned, millions and millions and millions of ponies were in misery, right? They looked to that symbol for hope. Thought about unity and stuff. And all those thoughts rolled together and blasted across Universes all the way to some other world like one of those comic book superhero symbols shining in the sky.

'And, um...in those dimensions, the rules are maybe different – like all sorts of things are real there that can’t be real here. And the two alicorns came when they were needed the most, from the distant magical land of Awesome cause of all that hope energy and stuff.

Another one of those show-stopping tooth grins.

He was met with stunned silence. Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

It’s no wonder he believed my story about dreaming my way into the future. Cliff was out of his bucking mind.

“This is what Professor, um…Science says?” Roseluck hooved through one of the books.

“No! This is my discovery!” He squeaked. “Applying the principles Professor Science wrote about in Chapter 17 of the book you’re holding.”

“Of course,” said Roseluck.

“Cliff?” I asked nervously. “Is this what our Hearth’s Warming Eve report is going to be about?”

“No, no, no, no, no.” He said. “They’re not ready for the truth.”

Cliff winked at me.

“Ok, Cliff.” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

Time to get down to business. I didn’t know how much longer I would have the energy to talk.

“Anything.” He replied.

“Can you go back to the library and find a way to look up the address of a colt named Misty Mountain.”

“Who’s that?”

“A friend. He lives in Fillydelphia. We’ve got a lot of figuring-out-of-things to do and I think he might be able to, you know, get us some answers.”

That pierogie-eating douche knew something about the shadows. I could smell it on him. He seemed to know his way around the Wasteland pretty damn good too. I didn’t really have a plan, or even an idea of what exactly I hoped to find out from him, but Misty was still my best and only lead.

I was gonna track that son of a bitch down if it killed me.

“Ummm…okay.” Cliff lowered his eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well,” he laughed nervously. “It’s kinda awkward.”

“What?”

“I was so excited about my discovery that I kinda shared it with Twilight Sparkle before I could prove it, and she kinda...well, she didn’t mean to be discouraging, but she shoved a bunch of ‘real science’ books at me.”

Cliff put his hooves up in the air and made quotation marks of contempt.

“You’re a kid,” said Roseluck. “You can get away with it. I’m sure you’re welcome back there anytime.”

“Besides,” I said. “What’s the point of being a weirdo if you’ve got to be ashamed of it all the time?”

“I’m a weirdo?”

Sad eyes of doom.

“Don’t worry.” I shrugged, though my shoulders felt like rocks. “You get used to it.”




* * *



Hospital hours are long. I needed real rest. Exhausted as I was, it just wasn’t gonna happen. It felt a lot like that cage room in the Trottica Town Hall basement. You spend so much time drifting out of bad sleep, that night and day start to blur together into a sort of terrible pudding, and before you know it, you can’t even tell the difference between a couple of hours and a couple of weeks anymore.

But Cliff and Rose were there a real long time. Whenever I opened my eyes, boom - there they were. Haggard. Tired. Cheerily supportive.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Roseluck filling out paperwork, chewing on her mane as she wrote. I knew that face. She was worried about making ends meet. You know, boring grown-up stuff.

“Hey there.” I groaned.

Like a kid caught red-handed doodling during class, her hooves casually drifted over her lap to cover up the papers.

“When’s the last time you sold any flowers?” I cut to the chase.

“The flowers are fine.” She held my hoof. “We’re fine.”

“I’m not stupid.”

I let that sink in. “That a big order?” I glanced at her lap.

“Don’t worry, I’ll--;”

“Looks big,” It sounded like there was some kind of frog jamboree in my throat.

“It is.” Roseluck sighed. “It’s a wedding. I wish I--;”

I held up my hoof, all dangly with wires and tubes and stuff.

“Do it.” I said.

“What?”

“Go home. Get your flower on. Come back. I’ll be fine.” I lied through my itchy teeth.

I would rather rot there alone and afraid than be responsible for the family downfall.

“Zzznnnnngggggg...” Cliff Diver was on the floor to my right, snoring up a storm.

“No, really,” said Roseluck. “It’s not that bad. Besides, what would you have me do? Just leave you here?”

“Do the wedding. You’ll be able to afford to take off later,” I said with a perky smile.

“Who cares about taking off later? You need me now.”

“But I’m gonna need you more later.” I said.

My connection to the Wasteland might have been gone, but there was more apocalypse drama on the horizon. I could feel it in my bones.

“You know,” I added with a smirk. “In case something serious happens with all this Wasteland stuff.”

“Something serious?!” She snapped.

Grown-ups have no sense of humor.

“You almost died!”

“Oh, yeah. That.” The old guilt-knife was twisting in my sides.

Roseluck shook her head at me. “Do you even care?”

Suddenly Twink’s words in my head all over again. Do I even care? It was a low blow, and my sister didn’t even know it.

“Sorry.” I whimpered.

“Cause I do. I care.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. The whole dam broke and I was left lying there sobbing. Heaving. Wheezing. Wailing inarticulately. You can only push your whiny piratetry aside for so long before it sneaks up on you and explodes. Then explodes again. It can do that.

Rose didn’t say a word. She just sat there, let me get it all out of my system, and pumped out tissues when I reached for them. Then, when it was over, she said, “Need more?”

I shook my head.

A calm silence followed. Then my sister looked down at me with great big eyes and pleaded. “I have your back, Rose Petal. You know that.”

I nodded.

“So does that lump over there.”

Cliff Diver was still asleep on the floor. “Zzzzzzzzznnnggg!”

“Thanks,” I sniffed.

“But enough is enough. You have to meet me halfway.”

I frowned. I was kinda hoping that, if nothing else, breaking down into a great big blubbering mess would have a silver lining, and I’d get a little space.

“You know you’re not protecting us with this ‘everything’s fine’ stuff.” She gripped my hoof in desperation. “Come on. What the buck is going on?”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

Roseluck never cursed. In Ponyville, “buck” was the closest thing we had. It made me stop for a second just to make sure I’d heard her right. Then I thought on what she'd said. Twink had hated it when I acted all secretive like this – when I tried to be a one-mare army. Roseluck hated it too apparently. I couldn’t stand the stress of talking about Trottica - not so soon anyway - but no matter how I tossed it around in my brain, it’s what Twinkle Eyes would have wanted me to do.

“Alright,” I said at last. “But you gotta do your flowers.”

Roseluck considered it. I could see the gears turning in her brain.

“I can handle it,” I said firmly and calmly.

I survived Trottica. I survived the Priestess. I survived the fucking shadow. I could be left alone in the hospital for a day or two.

Roseluck took a deep breath. Shut her eyes.

“I swear, sometimes..." She grumbled. “...Alright. Deal.”

“Cupcake?” I said.

“You drive a hard bargain.”

“In the eye, or the deal’s off.”

We both brought our hooves to our faces and made the appropriate gesture. When I lowered my hoof, she was staring at me. Waiting.

Oh, yeah. Time to fulfill my end of the bargain. I gulped. It hurt.

“I think—“ I started to tell her, but didn’t have the courage to finish my thought.

Instead I just sort of drifted off and stared into space.

“Whatever’s happening,” I said at last. “Whatever’s going on – it’s gonna get worse.”

I examined my Evil Hoof. It was inky. Still a little bit cold even. It was wrong. Just plain wrong. The damn thing terrified me.

“When you dreamt your way through time, you know, all that Pona Lisa stuff, did you ever meet anything not-entirely-pony­? Like, made out of shadows and stuff?"

I finally looked Roseluck in the eye. She just sort of shook her head slowly. She was as confused as ever.

“I’m sorry.” I said softly. “I think I might have bought something back with me.”

A not-entirely-pony?”

I nodded.

“Made out of shadows?”

I nodded again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

“But how?”

“It was, um…”

I thought back to my experience in the tunnel. The fear. The helplessness. The guilt.

“…Inside my head.” I said with a whimper.

Roseluck, like me, is a cream-colored pony. When she realized what I meant, she turned marshmallow white.

“Do you still feel it?” Tremors in her voice.

I thought about it. Felt around inside. If that makes any sense.

“Hmmm. No, not a trace,” I said at last.

If anything, it was too quiet. The shadow was nowhere near us. But it was still watching somehow. Just hanging back, waiting. It had to be. I’d seen its thoughts back in the tunnel when we were connected. One way or another, it was coming to Ponyville.





“Something’s wrong.” I said. “I can’t figure it out, it’s just...wrong. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“You’re not really making a compelling argument for why I should leave you here.”

“You promised!” I whined.

Roseluck stared me down. She couldn’t go back on a cupcake promise. Not no way. Not nohow. Didn’t mean it wasn’t eating her up inside, though.

“Think of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So.” I smiled. “Could you really deprive them of the best floral arrangement Ponyville has to offer?”

“Lyra and Bon-Bon.”

“Really?”

Roseluck nodded.

“About time.”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“Yup!” I smiled.

She rolled her eyes.

“Look, I’ll be fine, I just--;” I couldn’t explain it.

I had a feeling. Not quite like the brain hornets from my dream, but still, something I couldn’t put my hoof on. This one came straight from my chest. I suddenly understood the expression 'gut feeling'.

“It’s important I do this.” I said. “That you do this.”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“I’ll miss you.” She said.

“Me too.” I sighed. “But I’m in a giant building full of grown-ups, and I can’t even get out of bed to get into any trouble. I’ll be fine.”

She nodded.

I didn’t tell her that I no longer trusted grown-ups. Fact is, I could barely bring myself to tolerate being around anypony taller than me. But that was besides the point.

For a long long while we just sat there. She held my good hoof. The one with all the tubes and wires sticking out of it.

Finally, she asked, “You wanna tell me about this Twinkle?”

I sighed. “She was the most amazing filly I ever met.”

Roseluck nodded.

For a long time, we just sort of hung there, side by side, my hoof in hers. I didn’t really have anything more to say, and she was done pressing me.

“It’s wrong.” She said at last. “Leaving you here like this.”

“I know,” I said, patting her as she finally let go of my hoof. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”




* * *



I sent Cliff on his way too. I appreciated the support, and liked having them both around, but really, it could only help so much.

“ZZZZzzzznnnnng!” Cliff snored.

Rose actually had to trot back in and kick on him ‘til he rolled over.

“Whu, wuh, wuuhh?” Said Cliff.

"Time to go."

"I really, really, really need you to get that address for Misty Mountain before the library closes again for another stupid wedding or something."

"It was a royal wedding " said Roseluck.

"Pfft!” I said. “I flunked my science project ‘cause of it. They locked up that darn treebrary for a week without warning anypony."

"We did have a whole month to do it." Said Cliff. "You should have-;"

"Humph". I said.

"So uh..." Cliff diver yawned. "Misty Mountain."

"Yes."

He hugged me. "Leaving you here doesn't feel right."

"Would you guys stop with that? Please just get going before the library closes. I'll be fine. Promise."

Not a moment to lose! At least that was the official story. I tried not to think about it or even admit it, but the more time he spent away from me, the safer Cliff Diver was gonna be. I could just picture his adorkable face covered in mine dust and blood, wincing and gasping like Twinkle had.

No. Not Cliff.

“Are you sure it’ll be okay?” He said to me.

“What?” I froze. "Did I just say my brain-thoughts out loud?"

“I’m worried what Twilight Sparkle will say. She seemed to think I was stupid.”

“You’ll be fine,” I replied. “You’re just looking up an address. Geez! What did she even say to you, anyway?”

“Well, you know how in Chapter 32 of Piercing the Veil, Professor Science writes about how some of these worlds might be so similar to our own, that they might be home to only slightly different-ish versions of ourselves?”

Roseluck and I looked at one another.

“Um...yeah?” I said.

“Well, I was trying to explain how close these Universes are together, right? Because you know, that might make a visit from pan-dimensional alicorns more plausible, right? I mean, that’s totally obvious.”

“Um...yeah.” Said Roseluck.

"...Totally obvious." I added.

“Well, you know what Twilight did when I told her about all this alternate world stuff? That there was alternate everything. Me, you, her.”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep. Hospital silence.

“No.”

“She laughed at me! She laughed and she said at me all sarcastical, ‘Alicorns. Mirror Worlds.’"

Cliff did his best Twilight Sparkle impression, which wasn't very good, "’...What next? A world where I grow wings and fly?’”

Cliff was mad. I could see him shaking. "She patted me on the head with her hoof and laughed at me. Can you believe that?”

“You'll be fine." I said. "Pleeeease? Misty has answers."

He nodded. Kissed my black hoof which, I'll be honest, came as a surprise.

"Go on, get outta here," I laughed. "Fly on over to the library before it's too late."

Cliff cringed, and scuttled away shyly before I could figure out what the hell was going on.




* * *




Rose left right after him. Hugs, kisses, promises to check on me, promises to come back in the morning.

It was the right thing to do - sending them away - the fair thing to do. The moment they actually set their hooves out the door, though, I regretted it. I was alone. At my worst.

I lay there for who knows how long. It was horribly quiet. Well, hospital quiet.

Finally I got bored enough to reach for the giant glittery get well card from my classmates. There was literally nothing else to do.

Get healthier. It’s what you want to do.

From, Scootaloo

They all rhymed. Every last one.

No better friends than you and me,

Your personal idol, Diamond T.

Diamond Tiara was piggybacking on the class’ sympathy for me to boost her own popularity. A couple of days before, that might have gotten under my skin, but honestly, at that point, I couldn’t be paid to care. I looked over the signatures, and the bright colors, and the hearts, and scribbles, and the little cut-outs that got pasted on. I couldn’t even tell what half of them were supposed to be.

It didn’t cheer me up any. If anything, I felt like all those happy children - all those well-wishes - were ten-hundred-million-thousand miles away. It was just so sweet. So innocent. They had everything that the Wasteland had stolen from Twinkle Eyes.

“You know, I wasn’t going to say anything,” came a squeaky little voice off somewhere to my left. “But I’d kill to have friends like yours.

The owner of the voice let that sink in for a minute. “Why you wanna shove them away?”

A judgemental judgehead from the Land of Sunshine. Great. I craned my neck as best I could, but saw only curtain.

“I’m not shoving them away,” I said. “I wish they were here, but there’s, well, all this stuff that needs to happen.”

I don’t even know why I bothered to answer.

“Oh.” The filly on the other side of the curtain fell silent.

I kicked myself for blah-blah-blah’ing so openly. I hadn’t even asked if we were alone in the room! Cliff’s crazy theories, my mourning Twink, my argument with Rose. I must have looked like a real jerk. I brought my bad hoof to my face. The other one was still covered with tubes and wires.

As I looked at its inky inky blackness, I suddenly realized the sorts of conversations I’d been having. Evil hooves. Dead friends Not-quite-ponies. What else had she heard?

“Uh...uh. I don’t wanna bother you,” the voice said, quaking. “But is there a shadow monster after you?”

She spoke in whispers. The poor thing had trouble even drawing breath.

Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! I smacked myself in the head with my bad hoof.

“No,” I said with a sigh. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”

I was so stupid. I’d been so careless!

“Oh. Ok.” Said the filly behind the curtain, not terribly reassured.

For a long, long while, the voice was quiet, and I was left again with nothing but my own thinkiness. Bored out of my mind.

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

I took a deep breath and sighed again. Curtain Girl was right. I shouldn’t have sent my family away. I turned to the giant get-well card. I had this image in my head of glitter getting in all of the medical machinery. Sparks flying out. Explosions. The whole nine yards. I almost wished it would happen. Anything would be better than just lying around.

I read all the other passages.

Hope you heal up real, real soon.

Yours in Apples,

Apple Bloom

Underneath it was Cliff Diver’s entry. Dark black writing. The only friend who had actually come to see me. The only message not written in pastel.

You haven’t died, you’re a survivor.

By Your Side,

Cliff Diver

By your side. That part stuck with me. I stared a long while at his scribbley hoofwriting. I didn’t deserve a friend like him.

The giganto page was covered with a whole bunch more notes that barely even rhymed, and a couple of random doodles of Power Ponies drawn by Luna-only-knows-who. Last was Blueberry Milkshake's.

“I’m so sorry,” was all she wrote.

That and her name. No rhyme.

It hit me pretty hard. My almost dying had probably hit her pretty hard. She wasn’t my rock like Cliff and Rose were, but that didn’t mean she was heartless. We’d known each other our whole lives. We’d been through a lot together.

I could see her in my head, standing outside the hospital, itching to go inside. She’s always been terrifiededly afraid of hospitals. Who could blame her? I hated them too.

She meant well.

I ran my hoof absent-mindedly over the inside of the card as I thought about her. Blueberry might not have had all that crazy psychotic loyalty that Cliff did, but that’s an unfair comparison. Cliff was unusual. He thought the princesses were aliens. I still cared about Blue, and if my tea poisoning had affected her so bad, I was willing to bet I'd underestimated how hard it had been on everypony else.

I stared at that card. Put my hoof against it, for what good it could possibly do. I knew I couldn't reach through the oaktag and stroke Blueberry Milkshake's mane or anything, but still.

Eventually, I noticed the rough patch. The paper by her message that felt weird to the touch.

I brought it in for a closer look. Underneath Blueberry Milkshake’s message was something else that she had apparently gone to a lot of effort to cross out. Under some glitter marker paste-ish crusty stuff was something that had been scribbled down frantically. I could just barely make out the words. “PS WE NEED TO TALK.”

It was unsettling.

Why had she written that? Why cross it out?

“Are you sure there aren’t any monsters?” The voice from behind the curtain interrupted.

“Yes,” I snapped.

“Ok. Sorry.”

After another long, awful silence, I gave up.

“I’m sorry too,” I said. “I’m lousy company right now.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“Maybe I can help.”

“No offense,” I said. “But I doubt it.”

“Ok.”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.





So much time to kill. I actually started reading Professor Science’s nonsensical ramblings just to have something to do. Two chapters into Lower the Moon – Fluctuations in the Celestio-Lunar Balance Field – A Dialectic Analysis of How Nightmare Moon Tore a Hole in the Fabric of Existence, I heard the voice again.

“Rose? That is your name, right?”

“Yeah.” I sighed.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” She said.

I closed the book.

I was being a jerk. There was no way around it.

“Thanks,” I replied.

It was good to hear. This girl was sweet. Kind. One of the good ones.

“Listen,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m going through a lot right now. Can we start again? My name is Rose Petal.”

“Bananas Foster,” she replied.

“I’d shake your hoof right now, but I’m kinda hooked up to a bunch of wires and tubes and stuff like that. I owe you a hoof bump once we’re well enough to get outta bed.”

“No thanks.”

“What? Why not?” I said.

The curtain parted, and I saw a yellow filly. She was actually older than me. A teenager. I’d expected something different from the smallness of her voice, and all that “no such thing as monsters” stuff, but this girl had to be at least two years older than me. She wasn’t normal.

Her entire corner of the room was surrounded by this weird dome of magic. Almost like a bubble.

The girl lived in a bubble. And she was fragile. Afraid.

“If you touch me, I’ll die.” She said.



* * *




Well, damn.

My jaw hung off my face by about a mile.

Pain makes you forget. You say things you wouldn’t ordinarily say. You do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Even us “good ones,” as Twinkle would say. You just plain forget that there are other things out there besides your pain, and it makes you kind of a dick.

I had just been insanely rude to some kid who was living her entire life in a bubble. The Wasteland had slammed me repeatedly with the harsh reality that what it means to be “good,” is sometimes actually kinda flexible depending on the situation. Slave revolts, violence, all that stuff. Extenuating circumstances. However, I’m pretty sure that, in all the craziness the world has to offer - past, present, or future - the one universal constant in any of it is: don’t be a cockmuffin to the bubble girl.

“Oh, geez! I’m--I’m…” I stammered. “I’m so sorry!”

Bananas Foster closed her eyes, took a deep breath and said, “Stop it.”

“What?”

“I don’t need your pity. I get plenty of that from the ponies who work here.”

“Sorry,” I repeated. “I’m not normally like this, I--;”

I struggled to find the words. Not even to excuse my behavior. Just to explain that this jerkface she was talking to - this cuntwaffle - wasn’t really what I was about.

She just went back to her business. Arranging notes. She didn’t have much to herself, but inside the weird glowing dome were stacks of books, notebooks, papers, pencils. It was almost like she’d built herself a fortress. An immaculate fortress o’ knowledge.

“...I don’t feel like myself lately,” I told her.

It sounded like a weak excuse. But if I rambled all the crazy stuff I actually thinking, she would just think I was throwing her more sympathy she didn’t want. The truth is, I was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really sorry.

“Who are you?”

“What?”

She just laughed at me. Giggled even. I marveled at how this girl could be stuck in a bubble with nothing but a bunch of books and stuff, and still find the energy to laugh. Still have enough light and hope left to, you know - shine like that.

“If you’re not yourself, then who are you?” The damn girl smirked at me.

Bigger than me she may have been, but Bananas Foster knew exactly how cute she was. It was like a little tiny needle stab straight to the heart.

“Somepony I’m not sure I like anymore.” I said.

“Oh.” She frowned.

Neither of us said much after that. I don’t think either one of us knew what to say.





In the silence that followed, I just lied there like a fool instead, staring at the white, white ceiling. Keeping busy, fighting to stay alive, even just taking the time to talk with friends - it keeps the thinkiness at bay. There’s nothing like a long staring contest with the ceiling to humble you. Who was I kidding? I fucking hated being alone.

I thought about Roseluck toiling away over her flowers. Without me. She was worried sick. I bet she fucking hated that too.

“Not for nothing,” said the Girl in the Bubble. “But maybe you’d like yourself again if you didn’t push your friends away so much.”

“What business is it of yours?” I said.

“Hey,” said the girl. “You’re the one whining to me.”

“Am not!”

“Yeah, but you were.”

“I was being totally quiet”

“Yeah, ‘I hate who I've become, by the way, I'm gonna be totally quiet now for six whole minutes. I'm not whining I'm just sitting here and brooding about why I tried to kill myself.’”

Bubble Girl bobbed her head.

“I did not try to kill myself!”

“You ate a half a pound of sedative tea!”

“I was trying to get to sleep in a hurry cause I needed to see Twinkle!”

"The girl who died." She said dryly.

"Yes!" I squeaked.

Bleep-bleep.

I suddenly realized how crazy that sounded. How suicidal.

"Whatever." Said the bubble girl. "Some of us are here ‘cause we have to be."

That girl had eyes that burned. She looked right at me and made me feel two inches tall.

“Look, I’m sorry to bring you into my problems. I don’t want to. It’s just complicated, okay?” I yammered. “Quit looking at me like that.”

Burn burn burnitty eyeballs of doom.

“Seriously, stop that.” I averted my eyes.

"You just shouldn't push your friends away like that. You don't like what I gotta say? Fine."

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

I faced that cold white ceiling again.

“Roseluck’s business is important, you know? And sometimes, well...you gotta do what you gotta do.”

“That’s a grown-up excuse.” Said Foster

I felt backed into a corner. I mean, she was totally right, but still. It wasn’t that simple. It just wasn’t.

“Stop!" I squeaked.

I finally turned to look at her. She was no longer burning.

“That's not fair. Sometimes food-and-stuff-like-that really does have to come first.”

“Morals follow on?” She said.

Suddenly, the bottom of everything I thought I knew dropped out from underneath me like some kind of sick carnival ride.

“W-what did you say?” I asked with shallow breaths.

Bananas Foster whipped out some old tome covered with protective materials. “The Rise and Fall of the Discordian Empire. You were quoting Dusty Parchment, weren’t you? What he wrote about all those failed rebellions? ‘Food first, morals follow on?’”

Had Priestess Happy Sad read ancient history? Philosophy? Had such knowledge even survived the explosions?

“‘If ye unite without embracing the spirit of friendship, ye have not united at all.’” Bananas read straight out of her book, then started hoofing through it idly for her own pleasure. “They tried for years to take him down, but they just kept fighting each other instead. You should read it sometime.”

It’s easy to condemn somepony like the Priestess - somepony so horrible - someone capable of persuading others to do such horrible things. But it was pain that had made her that way. Anger. Resentment.

It’s just as easy to condemn the villagers for buying it hook, line, and sinker. A Way of Life - a whole gift-basket of lies to go with it. Just so they wouldn’t have to face the fact that they were jerkfaces.

But when I hurt bad, I forgot about everypony else too. Had to shut it all out just to keep from hurting some more. Twink's gone, I thought. Nothing else matters.

Clonk. 2x4 of Friendship.

She wouldn’t want me thinking like that. I didn’t want me thinking like that.

I bit my lip and squeezed my eyes shut. I refused to cry. I didn’t want anypony’s sympathy. Certainly not from some girl in a bubble who had it way worse than I did. The air passed my throat like sandpaper as I tried to choke back my tears in silence.

Food first. Morals follow on? Fuck that. I decided. I’d rather starve. I never felt so disgusted with myself.

“I think I’m gonna be sick.” I whispered.

Bananas started ringing a little bell, calling, “Nurse, nurse, nurse!”

“What? No!” I held up my hoof. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Not that kinda sick.

Moments later, there were three nurses in the room - two mares and a colt - ready to rescue Bananas Foster. She just pointed the second she saw them and sent them over my way instead.

“No, really. Really. I’m fine.” I said.

The male nurse came up on one side and started checking the machines and tubes and wires and all that junk. A tall blue mare was next to him, grumbling with a clipboard in her mouth. Nurse Redheart flanked me on the other side.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” She said.

“I’m fine. Really.”

She looked me over, then back at the nurse on the other side.

“Everything seems alright.” He shrugged.

The tall blue mare just sort of mumbled at me.

"Hay, I know you! You're a gosling!"

“A what?” She said.

“A doctor. I mean, you’re nursing, and doctor...ing.”

“I’ve been a nurse for a few years now, and decided that I wanted to train to --;”

Her voice trailed off into murmurs.

“You what?”

The male nurse nudged her.

“Oh, what? What?” She looked at me. “I’ve been a nurse for a few years now, and decided that I wanted to train to be a doctor.”

She started to sway a little.

“Oh.”

The male nurse leaned over me.

“Don’t mind Prescription Pad, she hasn’t slept in a couple of days.”

“Oh,” I whispered.

I liked him. As a rule I like nurses better than doctors. I guess it’s because they actually care for you. Geese don’t do that. They tend to just kinda care at you. I could remember Nurse Redheart staying up all night to help me when I was little - to talk to me - to help my Mom. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she didn’t have to do that at all. She could have gone home and gotten some sleep.

“You feeling okay?” Said the male nurse.

I lifted up my hoof - all dangling tubes and wires.

“When can I get rid of all this stuff?” I said.

“You haven’t even touched your pudding, honey.” Said Redheart.

The tray they’d brought was sitting by my side next to Nursedoctor. Where Roseluck had watched over me a few hours before. The pudding looked like it sucked.

“If I eat, will you unhook me?”

Nursedoctor said, “No, but it’ll be the first step.”

Once she realized I was fine, Nurse Redheart looked past me straight at Bananas Foster. “What’s all this about?”

“She said she was feeling sick,” Foster answered meekly. “Honest.”

Nurse Redheart turned to her colleague. “Can you take it from here?”

I was already eating the pudding. Yup. Terrible.

The male nurse just nodded while she went over to Bananas Foster. Redheart slowly raised her hoof against the bubble.

“You hang in there, child.” She said.

“I will,” Foster replied, bright as sunshine.

The nurse stood there for a short while, watching poor Foster, then perked her ears up and suddenly trotted on out the door in response to some noise from outside.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know?” I said to the girl.

“You said you were sick.” She just shrugged.

What's up with her? I never knew a kid to holler for grown-ups so fast. I guess when you’re stuck in a bubble, you get used to calling for every little thing. Or maybe the little things actually were big things to her. I mean, if anypony touched her, apparently she would die. As I lied there all grouchy-like, the reality of that just sort of smacked me in the face. Had Bananas Foster ever even been hugged?

“Hospitals are no fun,” said the male nurse. “Are they?”

He was sitting beside me in Roseluck’s seat.

“Oh, hi.” I said.

I watched him for a minute as he watched over me.

“It seems like an eternity now,” he said at last. “But you’ll be out of here in no time. Just you wait and see.”

“And Bananas Foster?” I was really worried about her.

He ran his hoof through his mane. “Yeah, um, well…”

Right away, I was sorry I’d asked.

“We’re not allowed to discuss other patients.”

“Oh.” I said.

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“Hay, Nurse?” Said Bananas Foster at long last.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wednesday,” she sang.

“Yes it is. Wait. Oh, gee…” the male nurse just sorta trailed off. “I’m not sure I’ll have time today.”

“But storytime!” She may have been older than me, but Foster pouted like a foal.

It was a whole other side to her. Fucking weird.

“I’ll try, I’ll really try.” He swore.

The girl in the bubble looked like she was about to cry.

“I--; I--;”

“Paging Nurse Stethoscope. Paging Nurse Stethoscope.”

He brought his hoof to his face.

“I’m so sorry. I’ll try to be back here tonight. I really will. It’s just so--;”

“Nurse Stethoscope to ICU,” said the tinny voice in the megaphone. “Stethoscope to ICU.”

“It’s not usually quite so crazy around here.”

“I”ll come up with something.” I said.

“What?”

Time to quit hiding in the folds of my own brain. I couldn’t do much for Foster from where I lay, but I could find a way to occupy her. Keep her spirits up.

“We’ll find something to do - Bananas Foster and me.”

I gave him a hoof’s up.

Nurse Stethoscope nodded and darted off.




* * *




So apart from a a few nosy doctors poking their heads in, stabbing my big black evil hoof with needles, and jotting notes down when I screamed "ow", and of course, the occasional nurse, it was pretty much just Bananas Foster and me all day and all night.

“He's not coming back,” she pouted.

She was still upset about Nurse Stethoscope.

“You don't know that.”

"’I'll try.’" She mimicked him. “That's grown-up for 'no.'"

I couldn't argue with her there.

“Do you really care that much about something called storytime?”

“It's boring here!” She snapped.

“See this?” She held up one of her books. “I read this one twenty-seven times.”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“I don't even like this book!”

She threw it against the wall of her bubble. To my surprise, it went straight through. Whacked right into a railing on my bed and wedged itself against my mattress.

"Okay then, um...well...once upon a time there was a sandwich named Ryelight Sparkle who came to Sandwichville to oversee the Summer Sandwich Celebration."

Foster looked at me. Just looked at me.

"Ok so not a sandwich fan."

“It's alright,” she said. “You tried.”

Then came more of that awful hospital silence. I was getting sick of that stuff. Fucking bleeps. Foster went back to writing in her notebook. I went back to digging at my itchy gums with my tongue. So fucking annoying.

Finally, I gave up and reached for the book she'd thrown. “Your bubble isn't book-proof?”

“It stops living things.” She said “Germs. Ponies.”

“Ah. Neat.” I replied.

She rolled her eyes.

“I mean…“What about you?” I said.

“I'm not book-proof.”

“I mean, when's the last time anypony asked you to tell them a story?”

“You want me to tell you a story?”

“No.” I scratched at my mane. Fidgeted with that damn itch in my gums. “Just, you know, wanna know about you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.”

She looked at the ceiling. Ran her hoof through her mane. “Uh…”

“I mean. No pressure or anything. I don't mean to.”

“Well it's just that I'm not supposed to say.” Foster’s voice trailed off.

“It's ok, just...wait, what?! Why?”

“The doctors said it would scare everypony.”

“Who cares what those stupid geese say? What about your family?”

She shrugged and hid behind her mane. Fidgeted with her blanket.

In that moment, I knew.

“Oh.” I said.

Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep.

“I'm sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” she replied.

All her masks. All her crazy. It all just sorta crumbled away.

Bananas Foster bit down on her hoof. Tried not to sob, but there were still tears all over her cheeks. She bit down even harder. Her hoof was starting to turn bright red. Finally, she caught her breath.

"I miss my brothers." She said at last.

"Jeez."

Her brothers? Somepony so young?

"I miss my Mom too," she coughed.

My heart skipped a beat.

"I know how you feel." I said.

She turned to me and stared me down with the fear, anger, and desperation of a wounded animal. Everything about her screamed "you don't know how I feel."

"My Mom!” I said. “She died when I was two...."

Yeah, I know. I put myself out there and opened up to a total stranger. Again. I needed practice keeping my fucking mouth shut.

"Your brothers." I added. "I don't...I can't even imagine."

She looked at me with so much hatred, I would have stumbled backwards had I been standing.

And then the moment was over. She took a deep breath, spat the words, “It’s okay,” grouchily, and that was that.

We both just sorta lay there. Alone in our separate bubbles.

She couldn't talk about it. I couldn't talk about it. At least not in the way I really needed to. And she was fucking pissed at me. I wasn’t even sure if I could’ve said anything differently. It totally sucked.

I wished with all my heart that I could just rip my tubes out, go over there and stroke her mane. But of course that was impossible.

"Bananas?" I said.

She didn’t reply.

As she sat on the corner of her bed, waiting for me to ask what I wanted to ask anyway, I suddenly heard another one of those whispers in my brain. A simple phrase. I honestly can’t say where the hell it came from, because it wasn't like all that other stupid hornet stuff. It came from me. Somehow, if that makes any sense. But it was a message just the same. And it just sorta spilled right out of my mouth.

"There's always the bomb." I whispered.

“What's that?” Said Foster.

She was caught so off guard that her anger melted away. I was caught so off guard, my anxiety just sort of melted away. I found myself laying there, on the cusp of talking about the fucking apocalypse to a stranger who was totally batshit insane.
Still, I knew that I had to. Not just to get through an awkward night alone with a stranger. Not just to get my own baggage off my chest. But to get through to Bananas. To help her.

I couldn’t have explained the feeling even if I’d tried, but there was still some of my heart left intact - even after Trottica, and it suddenly woke up on me, right then and there. I followed.

“Hey, um...Bananas? Do you want to hear a different kind of story?”




* * *




I remember back when Twilight Sparkle’s brother I’d never heard of got married to a princess I’d never heard of, and I flunked my science project because the library shut down for a week. I was mad. Real mad. Till I read all those eyewitness accounts of what had actually happened at the Royal Wedding.

I remember feeling so alone, because everypony else was so thrilled that True Love had won the day, that they forgot all about the one thing that should have been haunting their nightmares. I dropped the newspaper all over the floor when I realized it.

Princess Celestia was weak.

The most powerful pony in all of Equestria - a fucking immortal alicorn - and she was taken down like a chump by some bug lady, all because she had eaten recently. The love of one guy.

For a while, I’d felt like the world had ended. I slept with a lamp burning in my room, hid as I stepped around corners. I kept waiting for civilization to collapse upon itself or something. But it didn’t. It was just business as usual everywhere I went. Folks buying fruit at the market. Kids going to school. Shopkeepers selling stuff.

It wasn’t till I saw what life was like for ponies after civilization actually did go kaboom that I finally understood.

The world is a fragile thing. You have to believe in it. Celestia’s power didn’t come from being the most magical pony in all of Equestria. The place we know and love stays true to itself, not because she is invincible, but because we all believe in her. Because when we all pitch in for the greater good, we believe in ourselves. All because of a simple bedtime story. The beautiful myth that Celestia has everything under control.

The Wasteland was dead. The war had poisoned everything, but in two whole centuries, they could have fixed it if they’d put their minds to it. The real problem was that nopony believed in themselves anymore. Nopony believed in each other. The Wasteland was a place where stupid actresses could just waltz right into some horror show down-on-their-luck town, tell a halfway-engaging story, and bam!! Something to believe in. Something to work for. Something to kill for.

A story is a powerful thing. Bigger than princesses. Bigger than bombs.

I trusted Bananas Foster with my story because she needed a friend, and I needed to follow my heart a little. What I didn’t know is that it would end up saving my life.




* * *




I rambled a bit. Told her about my cutie mark quest, and the explosion, and the screaming of millions of ponies coming from inside my brain. I got as far as the billboard before she snapped. The zebra with the cauldron.

Foster dropped all her papers on the floor and brought her hooves up to her mouth.

“No.” She whispered.

It's hard to take news of the apocalypse well. Unless you're Cliff, of course.

“Zebras fighting ponies. You’re sure that’s what made the uh…”

“Big kaboom?”

Bananas nodded frantically.

“Yeah.”

I started to tell her more, but she just sort of stared off into space. I wasn’t even sure she was still listening.

“Bananas?” I said. “You okay?”

She just nodded.

“What is it?”

Just then, Nursedoctor poked her head in the door. “Night time, girls."

"Ah!" I yelped.

"The rest of the ward’s sleeping.” She let out a great big yawn herself as she closed the curtain between Bananas Foster and me.

Not that it mattered, the bubble girl had a lever.

Disappearing as quickly and drowsily as she had shown up, Nursedoctor left a horrible silence between us kids.

“Foster?”

She didn’t answer.

“Hello?”

Bleep-bleep. Bleep-bleep.

“I think I’m gonna get some sleep,” she whimpered at last.





I would have pushed the subject a little further. Something was clearly wrong with the bubble girl. But at that exact moment, I got a little distracted. The source of all that damn itching finally came loose.

It was a hair. A purple hair.

Misty Mountain’s tail hair. There in my hoof.

It wasn't till I held it up to the light that I realized what I had there in my hoof. It was a strand of Misty Mountain's tail, brought back with me through the centuries.

Ordinarily, I'm a real graceful-like pony. Not the slightest bit accident prone. But I was weak. Focusing my eyes was an effort. Gripping it between my hooves for an effort.

What if I drop it? I thought. They'll sweep it away!

I needed that hair. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but fuck, I needed the damn thing.

If only I hadn't sent my family away, I thought. So stupid.

In desperation, I reached for the one thing I could think of to hide the hair in. To keep it safe before I smuggled it home. My giant glittery get well card. I flossed it right into that rough spot where Blueberry Milkshake had crossed out her note with paste and paint.

And hoped that I could keep it safe until morning.



Then I just lay there. Terrified. For a long, long time.

I needed that hair. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but fuck, I needed the damn thing.

If only I hadn't sent my family away, I thought. So stupid.

Clonk. Yeah thanks, Twink.

My world was spinning out of control. I felt like I was gonna vomit. My heart was pounding like a bass drum. The future of Equestria was tucked loosely into an arts-and-crafts project. And the memory of my best friend kept whacking me in the head, telling me to feel good about myself. I was so freaked out, I literally couldn’t even tell which way was up and which was down. But then, I heard a terrible sound, and everything sort of snapped right back into place. That old familiar warning. The barking of dogs.

Oh, no. I thought. Not again. Not here.

Dogs!

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CHAPTER TWELVE - DOGS
"The present has no rhythm." -Daft Punk


Dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs. They were are always right there. In my dreams. In the Wasteland. Barking whenever I stood at the threshold of something really big.

But it was just noise. Weird sounds off in the distant hills or something. Never, you know, actual dogs.





Lemme back up a bit. I was laying there in the hospital bed, clutching the get well card that I'd hidden Misty Mountain's nasty old tail hair in. It was an actual for-real relic from the Wasteland. Something I could hold. Something I could touch. Proof that all that crazy shit had actually happened. More importantly, it was a reminder of my Trottica friends.

I clutched that card like it was one of those life saver donuts they huck at ponies who fall out of boats.

Bananas Foster was still behind her curtain. A major relief. I didn’t want anypony to see me freaking out and panicking.

Where did it come from? Why just the hair? What else could I take with me?

I whipped the get well card open to make sure it was still safe. Then slammed it shut just as fast. Then I realized I probably should handle the thing a bit more gingerly. So I freaked out all over again cause I thought I might have screwed it up. A gentle peek confirmed that the hair was fine.

Still, there was a giant question mark made out of fire and nails and acid and snakes bouncing around the inside of my head. Why? Not to mention its twin sister, The-Fuck-How?






I could hear crying behind the curtain. Foster was coming apart back there. She wasn’t whining at nurses. She wasn’t criticizing my friendship skills. She wasn’t making a plea for storytime or any stupid shit like that. Just sobbing to herself in little whispers. For once trying not to be heard.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she coughed.

"Are you sure?"

But she didn't answer after that, so I left her alone. Maybe she was as off-the-wall crazy as Cliff Diver, and she actually believed me. News of the apocalypse might have been a bit too much to take in before bedtime. Or maybe she was just plain crazy in some totally different way I wasn’t prepared to deal with. She was a teenager who acted like she was six-years-old. Who could even tell with her?

The point is that between her whimpers, the chirps of the medical bleep-a-majigs, and the sound of my own panicky heart climbing up into my head and thumping away like a hammer against the inside of my skull, I couldn't hear very much else.
But eventually I grew aware of it. The barking sound.

When I realized what it was, I gripped that get well card so hard I crumpled a corner of it in my hoof.

"Oh, no." I thought. "Not here.”

Why did I send my family away?! What if I dreamt again while in the fucking hospital? Woke up with bizarre injuries? Thrashed in my sleep and said things nopony ought to hear? Sweet Celestia, what if I died that night, and Roseluck and Cliff spent their rest of their lives going "If only, if only, if only!"?

I looked around me. Not a sign or a clue that I might be in a dream. Nothing. Just a boring empty old room with a bunch of useless medical junk in it.

Then I heard a great baying howl. It was getting closer, louder. More articulate. That’s not supposed to happen!
Whatever was making that noise, it was fucking there. In the hospital with me. This Wasteland dogthing. It had actually found my scent somehow, and it was coming.

That or my mind had taken a giant high dive out the window into a swimming pool full of cottage cheese, mane conditioner, and spatulas, and I’d just lost all ability to tell the fucking difference between present and future.

"Bananas!" I whispered.

No reply.

"Hey, Foster, you hear that?"

Again, she said nothing. Just sniffled to herself and ignored me.

"Foster!!” I finally snapped; I couldn’t take her silence anymore.

But still, she gave no reply. Then I heard the barking again. It was close.

“Luna, help me. Luna, help me. Luna, help me.” I chanted to myself.

In my condition, I was pretty sure at that point that nopony else could.

I folded the card up in a hurry, shimmied and wedged the thing safely under my back. Then pasted my eyes to that bucking door. No dog, or shadow, or monster, or pony was going to pry Misty Mountain's nasty old tail hair from me. I gripped the sheets and shook with anger at the mere thought of it.

"No way. I whispered to myself. "No fucking way."





Bang! Crash! Yelling. Screaming just outside my door.

The nurses! They were out there with that thing. The thought of them getting all killed and mutilated and eaten up on my watch was so horrifying that I forget to breathe. I needed to get up. To get help. To get them help. Those nurses never did anything to hurt anypony!

“Argg!” I grunted in frustration.

Why couldn't the fucking dog have come when more goose doctors were on duty? It could eat as many of those jerkface fucks as it wanted to.

I tugged gently on one of the tubes, to see if I could get it out of my hoof. No way.

It's not like in the books you read. You can’t just yank them out and then go trotting along on your merry way, fighting zombies.

Scramble, scramble, scramble, scramble, scramble.

Something zipped down the hallway right past my door. I didn't even hear it coming.

“Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck!” I tried tugging on the wires again, but there was just no way.

That thing hurt like crazy. There's a needle in there!

"Somepony get some rope!" Nurse Stethoscope shouted from just outside my door.

Rope?

“I got it, I got it!” Called another.

No one shouts for a rope to tie down The Living Embodiment of Their Own Most-Awfulest-of-Fears.
I held up my evil hoof. Tapped it as though it were broken. The damn thing wasn’t even cold.






The barking in my dreams had showed up just before the end, right? Just before I woke up. Each and every time. I mean, the dogs show up right before something big happens. That's what they do.

But that didn’t make them Evil. Not necessarily.

I took a deep breath and silenced the orchestra of rambling voices in my head. I couldn't run or fight. I couldn't even sit up properly, but this was still my problem - my apocalypse to deal with, and this monster dog-a-majig was bothering my fucking nurses. I had only one option, as much as I hated to admit it. And it scared the buck out of me.

I swallowed hard and told the cowardly pirate inside my head to get stuffed.

“Come here boy, come here!” I said in my sweetest voice - raspy and fucked up though it may have been. “Who's a good dog?"

"Are you nuts?" Foster finally spoke up. "Sssshhh!"

"Sure, now you hear me!" I snapped. "You alright?"

"Ssssh!" She replied.

I took that as a yes.

“Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” I continued.

As I paused to catch my breath, I found that the barking had actually stopped. The clamoring too. It had noticed me.
Either I was a total genius, or I had about fifteen seconds before I got turned into rosemeat.

Before I could think on it any further, the thing bounded right on in - fast as lightning in a hurry - and before I could even flinch, it was already on top of me.

"Eek!"

Yes, I literally said eek. It slobbered on my face and pinned me down with its crushing weight. Definitely friendly. But it licked my eye of all places and I still couldn’t see a damn thing. It was actually hurting me.

"Ow stop that!" I squirmed.

The thing had the worst breath I had ever smelt. Like really, really, really, really, really old oatmeal. But it listened.
It stopped licking me the moment I told it to, and when I rubbed my face with my only free hoof, it didn’t give any resistance.
Just looked me square in the eyes. And that's when I finally got a look at hers.

"What the--;"

The damn bark-y thing was a pony! A fucking pony. A crazy blue lady with hair like a birds nest.

"Uh, hi." I said.

She lunged her face at me again, and tried to lick at me some more, but I wouldn’t have it.

"No!" I snapped. “Stop it. Sit!”

Again, she actually listened to me. And sat. Right there on top of my leg.

"Rose, Rose, are you okay?" said Bananas Foster in a panic.

The crazy dogmare turned to face the curtain and growled.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." I grunted, trying not to let it show that the weight of a full grown pony on my leg actually hurt quite a lot.





Next thing I know the room is full of nurses and orderlies.

The Dog Lady hopped off me in a rush and scurried under my hospital bed.

“Oof!” I oofed as she stepped on my stomach.

Once I caught my breath, I found that the room was totally still. All the grown-ups were staring at me. Frozen in place.

“I’m fine!” I yelled as best as I could through all the coughing. “Don’t hurt her, she’s harmless.”

But Nurse Redheart was stepping closer and closer to me, inching up slowly. The fear in her eyes told me something was terribly wrong. Something I couldn’t see.

“She’s harmless.” I whispered.

With a grunt, I turned myself over on my side, and reached my evil hoof over the edge of the bed. I was just feeling my way around for the dogmare. But one tiny motion, and the whole room gasped at once. It sounded like steam escaping.

“Don’t move.” Said Redheart. “Please, just hold still.”

I did as I was told. It was no easy position to hold, leaning over my own IV, dangling my other hoof over the edge, but I didn’t dare move. I wasn't stupid.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Before the nurse could answer, my hoof brushed up against the mane of the crazy dog lady. She licked my hoof in reply.

“Its gonna be okay, girl.” I patted her head. “Shh.”

Then I felt something else down there and realized why everypony was so tense.

"Listen," said Nurse Redheart. "Were not gonna hurt her. You're right.”

She tip-hooved closer. “She's harmless. But she’s very close to a lot of machinery and important stuff running into your hoof."

I knew that. I could feel it. I glanced over at the tubes and wires that I'd tried to get free from just a minute ago.

“If she knocks into them, you could get hurt," said Redheart both calm and cautious-like. "Do you understand?"
I nodded.

The dog lady looked up at me from underneath the bed. She knew damn well that playtime was over. But she didn't run. She just sat there looking at me with these fragile lunatic eyes. They screamed at me for help. Threw a trust at my hooves so complete - so unconditional - that it actually frightened me a little.

My own eyes started to water in reply.

Nurse Stethoscope and the Nursedoctor inched closer, but the dogmare tensed and growled at them.

“Shh!” I said quickly. “I’m gonna call you Queenie. Do you like that name?”
It was literally the first thing to pop into my head.

She looked up at me from under the bed with such elation and joy that I almost forgot to breathe.

“Actually.” Nursedoctor said. “Her name is Screw Loose.”

"Do you mind?" I snapped. "I'm trying to--;"

Queenie thrust her head all the way out from under my bed to growl at him. It tugged on the tube so hard I could actually feel it.

“Ow,” I winced meekly.

Stethoscope smacked Nursedoctor in the shoulder.

Nursedoctor smacked him right back. “You got some nerve. You’re the one who started this whole stupid thing. I told you to quit teasing the dog.”

“Oh come on, it was just--;”
“Out, everypony out.” Said Redheart.

“What?”

“Too many chefs.” She snapped. “Out. Now.”

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

They did as they were told and tiphooved out the door.

“It’s gonna be okay, Queenie.” I said.

I pet her till she stopped growling.

“Why do you even keep that crazy dog around?” Whined Bananas Foster.

That got Queenie all revved up and barking again.

“Ow,” I winced. My eyes watered up some more, this time just because of the pain in my hoof.

“Bananas, quiet!” Said Nurse Redheart, never taking her eye off of me. “Stethoscope!”

He came galloping back.

“Keep the kid occupied until Rose is safe.”

Nurse Stethescope nodded.

“Hey, but--;” Bananas’ started to protest being dismissed, but her whining kinda trailed off when Stethoscope pulled up a stool beside her. After that point, all I could make out over there was a bunch of murmuring. I guess Bananas Foster got her storytime after all.

Meanwhile, I pet the dog lady’s head frantically. My good hoof - the one with the tubes in it - was starting to hurt.

“Please, calm down.” I whimpered at her. “Please.”

Queenie watched me carefully with great big soulful eyes. She saw the pain I was in. But all she could do was look at me sadly. Then, out of nowhere, this little flicker ran across her face. I could see it. It was a weird moment, where she just sorta looked around. At me. At the nurses. At the tubes.

And that was when the poor thing went pale with horror. Queenie realized that she was the cause of my pain.

“It’s okay,” I whispered, petting her as best I could, but damnit, my hoof really fucking hurt. “It’s okay.”

I was short of breath. It was getting harder to talk.

Nurse Redheart spoke up again. “Listen, I need you both to stay calm, and--;”

Her voice trailed off, not out of fear, but amazement.

Screw Loose was calmly disentangling herself from my tubes and wires. Her movements seemed less dog-like - just for an instant. And then, just like that, she was out from under the bed. She looked over her shoulder at me. She wanted so bad to say she was sorry. I could tell. But she couldn’t even muster a whine.

Instead, Queenie slunk away, tail between her legs, toward Nurse Redheart, who sorta stood there speechless. The poor thing didn’t even flinch or try to run when Nurse Stethoscope reached for his rope. Just sat meekly at Redheart’s heel, crying.

“No ropes.” Said the head nurse.

“But--;”

“No ropes.”

Redheart patted Queenie on the head. Queenie was sobbing now. Heaving. It was one of the most unnerving things I’d ever seen. A grown mare. Coming apart like that.

“Check the injection site.” Redheart said to the other nurse.

Next thing I knew, he was all over my hoof, checking the machines. Prodding at the tubes. Tapping gauges.

“She’s okay.” Stehtescope gave the hooves up.

“Keep an eye on her.” Said Redheart. “I’ll be right back.”

She turned to the dog lady, and said. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Queenie followed without protest, head hung low. Too ashamed to even look my way. She knew what had almost happened.

It was truly tragic. Just pony enough to understand. Still too much of a dog to really cope. Screw Loose whined with each dragging hoofstep. Just listening to it tore my soul into pieces.

“Queenie,” I called to her with effort.

Nurse Redheart stopped and stood in the doorway. The dog turned vaguely in my direction to face me, but still averted her eyes in shame.

“You’re a very, very good dog.” I said.

Bam! A thousand pounds lifted from the crevices in her face. All at once. She literally leapt with joy and bounced up and down, looking up to Nurse Redheart as if to say, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that? Didya? Didya? Didya?

They trotted out the door together. Queenie with held her head up high. She was a good dog. I’d told her so!

“Be right back,” Redheart called to us, already in the hallway.




I was left alone with Nurse Stethoscope. At first he didn’t say anything. Didn’t make eye contact. Nothing. The bleep-a-majig just chirp-chirp-chirp-ed away, and that was that.

It was so quiet, I heard every little hook and ring on Bananas Foster’s curtain as it dragged across the rack. She was watching. Kinda timid. Kinda hopeful. That girl was strangely obsessed with Nurse Stethoscope and his stupid story time. It was sad in its own way.

I just ignored them both and waited for Redheart to get back. I needed to hear that Queenie had made it back okay. That she wasn’t scraping away at the door of whatever room they kept her in. That she wasn’t howling to be let out and see me again.
She was a fragile dog.

“You're very lucky there,” said Good Old Stethoscope with a smile as he tapped the machine.

I just stared him down in reply. That bastard had messed with my friend. And I wanted him dead.

Luckily, he backed off. Stumbled backwards in a hurry like I was some kind of poisonous snake.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Stethoscope and I were alone together for a little while. And he looked at everything in the whole damn room, so long as it wasn’t me. The ceiling. The floor. The meters on the machines. Any excuse to avoid eye contact.

Somehow he reminded me of tunnel number two back in the Trottica mines. The stampede. Kids who were all about unity, and togetherness, and fighting the good fight until the lights went off and nopony was watching. Then they dropped their druggos like sacks of moldy pears. Just 'cause they could. 'Cause nopony would ever know.

Nurse Stethoscope was like that. He was all "Hey, kids," one second, and, “Let me tell you a story,” and acted super friendly and nice. ‘Till you got him alone with somepony who couldn't tattle on him. Then he was a druggo-dropper. Which makes him worse than a fucking shadow thing if you ask me, cause at least with them, you know exactly what kind of evil you’re dealing with.

I watched him closely. He was way more tired than he had been just a few minutes before. What did that druggo-dropping fuck do to Queenie? I thought.

I would’ve asked, but if this guy’d babbled some dumb excuse about how all he’d done is tease her a little bit. How it was just some good fun. How he didn't mean any harm by it. Or any of that shit, I would have ripped that stupid needle out of my hoof, lunged across the room and stabbed him in the eye with it.

The only thing keeping me from doing it that very second was the knowledge that, at the very least, Queenie seemed to be physically alright.

In any case, Nurse Stethoscope was smart enough to shut the hell up, and quit trying to win me over, but the second that Redheart came back, he was out of there. That swell guy persona is hard to keep up when there's a broken-hearted, furious little kid staring you down, and he couldn't wait to get away. Didn't even stop to say goodbye to Bananas Foster who actually kinda needed him in a weird messed-up way that I couldn't quite put my hoof on.




* * *




Nurse Redheart trotted up to me and asked to examine my leg. I nodded.

“You alright?" She said, trying to be all reassuring.

“I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine!” I said. “Is Queenie okay?”

Redheart bit back a smile. “Screw Loose has had a long night, but yes, she's doing just fine now.”

I sighed relief.

“Really?”

“She’s sleeping.” Redheart chuckled. “I’ve never seen her so content.”

“Content?”

She nodded with a smile.

Content. What kinda dog is content after getting her escape thwarted? After getting locked up all over again? What kinda pony even?

Nurse Redheart put her hoof on my shoulder and whispered, “Can I let you in on a little secret?”

“Um...Sure.”

“I think you're the best thing that ever happened to that mare.”

Holy Celestia, way to stab me right in the heart with a fork made out of sunshine and happiness. I smiled so hard it squeaked.

“I need you to do me a favor, though.” She leaned in and whispered even more quiet-like.

Not even Bananas Foster could hear us.

“What is it?”

“I need you to be totally quiet about this.”

Before I could even ask why, Nurse Redheart explained that she was going to have to write up a whole bunch of stupid paperwork about what had happened that night, and while she didn't know what she was going to say, she was damn sure it wasn't going to be the truth.

I zipped my lip and mimed putting the zipper in my pocket, even tho I didn't actually have any pockets. Then we got some more of that hospital silence. Not the awkward kind. Just a quiet understanding.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Queenie was off sleeping tight somewhere. Content. Thinking about me. I was so happy to hear that - you have no idea - but at the same time I had to wonder. What the buck? Had the evening actually turned out better for her than she’d planned? The more I thought about it - the sadder it all seemed. She never expected to get away at all.

Queenie wasn’t a dog. She knew exactly how fucked she was. Her mind was way too smart - way too pony for carefree romps through the hallways at the end of a broken leash, or mad dashes for escape. But she still couldn’t hatch a real plan. The way she’d allowed herself to be lead away at the end? She never really dreamed of what it might be like to ever get the buck out of there. She was just stealing a moment.

Maybe I’m putting words in her mouth that she wouldn’t actually say, and thoughts in her head that had never actually crossed her mind. But to me, it seemed that Queenie was stuck where she was. And all she could ever hope for was a moment of power - a tiny little protest - a song of freedom. Like I had back in Trottica.

It broke my heart and confused the hell out of me just to think about it.

“Nurse?” I said at last, disrupting our little silence.

“Yeah?”

“Why is she like that?”

Redheart just sighed. “Some ponies. Sometimes their brains just don't play by the rules.”

“Was she always like that?” I pressed the issue tenaciously the way only a child can. “I mean did she just wake up one day, and snap, and decide she was sick of being a pony or something?”

I wouldn’t blame her if she had. After mistaking the howls of a pony for an interdimensional monster traveling from the future to try and kill me, I had to wonder if before all this bomb drama was up, I might just end up barking mad myself.

“That, I can't say.” Redheart replied. “Somepony found her wandering the Everfree Forest lost and confused a couple of years ago.”

Poor thing.

“Ooh!” I exclaimed. “When can I see her again?”

Nurse Redheart took her hat off and ran her hoof through her hair. Looked away from my eyes. Not good.

“But you can't!” I squeaked.

She shoved her hoof against my mouth and shushed me. She didn’t remove it till I stopped squeaking, which was an admittedly long time.

“Mm hmmm eeeeeeeem! Ennnggggm mm mmmm mmm mnnngggh! Unnn mmmm meeemmuuu mummmm!”

“Rose,” she said at last. “You can’t just check her out of here, take her home with you, drop a water dish on the floor, and expect everything to be okay. You do understand that, sweetie, don’t you?”

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

“Well, when you put it like that…”

I closed my eyes. It sounded so stupid when you said it out loud. But it was also what I was kinda hoping might happen. I knew Screw Loose wasn't exactly a real dog, but I also knew that getting to live like one is what she would want most. Look at how instantly she fell in love with me. All for a kind voice and a couple of pets.

“She is a very sick pony,” said Redheart. “And there is no doctor in Equestria who’s gonna let a kid leap head first into the life of somepony who is sick like that, especially if you start telling her that she actually is a dog.”

“But--;”

Plunk. She shushed me again. Hoof in mouth and all.

When I was quiet, she leaned in real close and whispered in my ear, “But no doctor in Equestria saw what I just saw either.”

I had to jerk my head away just to get a look at her face to make sure she wasn’t teasing me. What was she getting at? Could I actually see Queenie again?!

“That mare made more progress tonight than in all the years she’s been here combined. I can’t ignore that.” Redheart shut her eyes and took a deep breath. “Just give me some time to figure this out, okay? Can you do that for me please?”

I nodded sadly.

She didn’t say anything else on the subject, but she didn’t really have to. Hospitals aren't these places that you just wander into whenever you're sick, or hurt, or something, and they whistle a little tune and take care of you, and it’s all just hunky dory. Everything is paperwork, and forms, and big fat goose-ministrators telling everypony else what to do. It’s a bunch of stupid crap that everypony hates cause it makes everypony's life more difficult - doctors, nurses, patients - everypony. But for some stupid grown-up reason, they all just keep on doing it that way anyhow.

Redheart went back to messing with my tubes and wires. Acting all casual, like we hadn’t just had a great big secret conversation about Screw Loose. It was only when she finally got out of the chair that I realized that she had actually been holding my hoof the whole time. I suddenly wished she hadn’t let go.

“It was the tape coming loose,” said Redheart all of a sudden - a bit too loud, a bit too clear.

She’d have made a lousy spy.

“You're very lucky.”

“Tape?” I said.

“That's what hurt you so much.”

“Oh,” I rubbed my hoof.

It didn’t feel like luck.

“That stuff’ll rip your flesh off,” she said, surprisingly blunt.

“You got some rest now, child. The sooner you get better, the sooner you can get out of here.”

I sighed.

“And the sooner,” Redheart brushed my mane from my face and lifted my chin, “That you and your sister can start filling out visitors forms.”

When she whispered those last two words, they hit me like a shovel to the face. I could see my dog again! Getting out of bed - getting better - suddenly became the most important thing that I could ever hope to do.

I vowed then and there never to fail Screw Loose. And if I was gonna live up to that vow, I had a lot of work to do.




* * *




Roseluck. Cliff Diver. The ponies closest to me in the whole wide world. They couldn’t get me to stop moping. Even the memory of Twinkle Eyes, armed though she was, could only smack me when I was being a jerk to myself. None of them could light a proper fire under my flank.

But I had a goal to work towards now - one that wasn’t tainted by death, or slavery, or whiny piratetry. And this grown mare. This dog. She was counting on me.

Nurse Redheart straightened out her hat, gave a final glance at the bleep-a-majig, and kissed my forehead. Totally the last thing in the world I was expecting her to do, but I needed that. I mean really needed it. I didn’t even realize how badly I'd needed a forehead kiss until she went and did it. And when it was over I looked up at her and smiled, wondering how in the world she knew.

After a long and tranquil moment of smiling right back at me, she finally turned to leave.

Please…” I called out, holding back the tears in my eyes.

She stopped. Cocked her head in concern.

"What's wrong?" She asked.

“Please, um…” I took a deep breath, and a deep sigh. “Tell her I love her, okay?”
I felt kinda stupid for saying it, but Redheart didn't seem to think so.

“You have a good heart,” she said to me. “Just like your mother.”




* * *




I lay there for a long, long, long, long while. Just like your mother.

Nurse Redheart had taken care of Mom in her dying days. It was Redheart who’d come running when the bleep-a-majig stopped and I was left crying in my mother’s bed - Redheart who’d held me whenever Mom couldn’t.

They may not have known each other for very long, but you can get awfully close to someone in an awfully short time when they are dying. So I wondered what it was that Nurse Redheart saw in me that was worthy of my mother.

I couldn’t begin to imagine.

All my life, I thought of Mom as this perfect being. This vague memory of warmth and solace and comfort. But who was she really? What did she do all day? What did she like to talk about? What would it be like to just sit down and talk to her?

No matter how many stories Roseluck told, I would never really know. Never really understand. Because to me, Mom was a feeling. An abstract. Something as awe-inspiring and earth-shatteringly amazing as a great big starry sky. In my mind, she was a deep and perfect mystery.

The idea that I might in some way be like her?

Wow.

Everypony is Broken

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN - EVERYPONY IS BROKEN
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." - Harper Lee




One of the good ones. Just like your mother. Ponies kept telling me I was good folk. But it was still kinda hard to believe, you know? Cause what do they know? Other ponies can only see the stuff that you do. Not the crazy stuff running through your head as you're doing it.

The Sub Mine F's. The cloak-o nurses you rough up. The kids you abandon cause trying to save them just doesn't add up when you weigh the pro's and con's of it.

But maybe Nurse Redheart was on to something. “You have a good heart.” She’d told me. Maybe that's the part that counts. The part that tries in the first place - the part that cares.

I was only just starting to understand what a rarity that was. In ponies past, present, and future.

If you think about it, all the kids of Trottica really needed was to believe in themselves. Stirring Nurse Redheart's words around in my brain like thinky cake batter, I wondered if maybe that belief that I had - that hope - was the good heart that my Mom would have approved of.

The good one that Twink had seen in me.

Ordinarily questions like this just rattle around my head until they wear me out or smack me with an idea, but as I lay there in my hospital bed, tuning out the bleep-a-majig, I felt a warm glow all over.

Screw Loose loved me. Needed me. And Mom. Wherever she was, she might actually even be proud of me. The idea was cloud nine.







“Rose?” Said Bananas Foster from out of nowhere.

“Huh?”

I blinked. Remembered I was in the fucking hospital. It was not a pleasant transition.

“What?” I snapped at her.

Real good-hearted of me, right?

I turned to her. Expected her to say something nasty about Screw Loose. To try to get more story time. To complain about how Nurse Stethoscope was gone. Anything. But Foster just sat there twittering her hooves. When I looked closer, I saw that she was actually really shaking. The poor girl was terrified.

Before I could even ask what was wrong, she hit me with the big question. “How does all the zebra hate start?”

I had no answer but stunned silence.

“How does it start?!” Bananas Foster yipped at me in panic and desperation.

“I...don’t know.”

She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.

“Then can you tell me some more of your story please?” She was pressing her hoof against the magic bubble now. “I have to know.”

“About zebra hate?”

“About everything.”

Bananas Foster left me in awe. Eyes wide open. All that time, my thoughts had been about the war. The actual bomb. The princesses. But you can’t stop a war with a letter to the princess. War is like this tidal wave that sucks everything and everypony up into a giant frenzy, tosses them around, and spatters them against the rocks till there’s nothing left of them but mist. Even the winners end up in tears when all’s said and done. Trottica taught me that.

But Foster was on to something. She had come along - this kid who’d known nothing but the inside of a bubble - and just cut it all straight to the core.

Forget the bomb. Forget the war. If we played our cards right, there was a slim chance that maybe. Just fucking maybe, we could stop the hate.

The problem was, first we had to figure out where we ponies went wrong.





For the second time in a single night, I had been way too hard on Bananas Foster. I felt like a big stupid jerkface from Jerkland. So she acts a bit immature. I thought. So she feeds a little on the attention and pity of others. So what?

Bananas Foster couldn’t help being needy any more than I could help pushing my own inner pirate deep, deep, deep way down inside to yarrrr at me in silent tears. We’re both messed up. Both broken.

But she cared. She had a good heart. That did count for something.

Besides, last I checked, Bananas Foster hadn’t had a great big stupid freak out because she thought a barking pony was actually an otherworldly shadow-thing from the future coming to get her. I wasn’t in a position to judge.




* * *





So once again, I found myself opening up to her, even though I didn’t appreciate her attitude toward Queenie. She was in it now as deep as me. And maybe, I thought. Between her ability to quote ancient texts, and her perspective on pony nature, she might even have a part to play in what’s to come.

I didn’t tell her everything, though. That Leonardo DaWhinny story was shared with me in confidence. And I didn’t have the right to go shooting my mouth about Cliff Diver either. There was the bit about Blueberry Milkshake too. To blabber the story of what’d happened between us on the playground would make her seem like a lousy pony.

But Blue had left me a note. “We need to talk.” How could I go blah-blah-blah’ing about what she’d done, and what she’d failed to do before we'd even settled our differences and had that talk?

No. Bananas Foster ended up with a bit of an edited version of what happened where my friends were concerned, but I didn’t pull any punches on the me stuff.

That meant she got all the details that made me look crazy. She heard all about the visions. The dreams. The scribbly drawing of The-One-I-Saved-Because-I-Was-Fucking-Supposed-To. But unlike Cliff and Roseluck, Foster just plain hated it all. Scowled every time I so much as mentioned a voice in my head.






When I got up to the part in the library, and I saw The Book I’m Meant To Have, I finally just stopped and said, “Alright, I have to know. What do you have against all this...Rosie Sense stuff?”

‘Cause I knew she believed it.

Bananas just looked back at me and shook with anger. Gritted her teeth. Clenched her hooves.

“They never gave you a choice.” She said with a growl. “They’re using you.”

“They?” I said.

She threw me an accusatory glower. “You know. Fate.” Like it was my fault for playing along, or something.

She pounded her bubble in anger. Then turned around and bucked that magic shield as hard as she could. Then she whipped right back around again and threw herself at it - chest first. Flailing. Punching.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down. It’s fine. I’m fine. Really! Fate sucks, sure. But I’m still fine! That’s just...life, I guess...Or something.” So strange to hear such optimistic words spilling out of my mouth. It happened without warning.

But Foster was down on her knees now, pressed against her bubble. Unimpressed.

“You think I don’t know that?” She said dryly.

Suddenly, I understood. It felt like being punched in the gut. Bananas Foster was even more fucked by her fate than I was by mine. A horror crept over my heart as I watched her come apart right there on the floor. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even reach out to touch her. And it wouldn’t have worked to tell her that she was a good dog.

I felt so bad for her! I didn’t know what to do. So I lay there just sort of watching like a jackass.

“How can you be so cool about it?” Bananas said to me at last.

“What?”

She lifted her head up, mane all disheveled, and threw a fiery stare at me. Every bit as righteous and intense as that Trottica slave rage. Only pointed at me.

“How could you?” She growled, more an accusation than a question.

Had gravity and my own frailty not already been pinning me to that hospital bed, her stare would have nailed me to it like a butterfly under glass. Bananas Foster fucking hated me. I mean really hated me.

“What? What did I do?”

I could feel myself shrinking as she stared me down. There was a darkness about her I can’t describe. All of that anger. That resentment. That awful loneliness she must have felt being cooped up in that bubble for a fucking lifetime. All pointed at me.

“I didn’t have a choice, okay?” I whimpered. “Please, it’s not my fault.”

The words felt thin even as they escaped my mouth. As that haunted face of hers stared me down, I was suddenly reminded of every bad deed of my own - every failure - every shortcoming. That girl looked at me with so much disdain, I felt somehow certain that she knew it all. From punking out on that poor kid in the open wastes, The One I’m Not Meant to Save, to the massacre at Sub Mine F, to Twinkle Eyes.

Then from somewhere deep inside my brain, the memory of Twink clonked me on the head again with that 2x4 o’ friendship.

No. Fucking no.

All the little reprimands and doubts I’d been knocking around my own head since Trottica were suddenly being hurled at me by somepony else. I found myself arguing with Foster, defending myself - telling her all the things I’d failed to make myself believe the first time around.

“I did the best I could.” I told her. “And yeah, I rolled with this weird fate stuff. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a choice. None of us do.”

That smacked the anger right out of her. None of us do. It hurt her to be so powerless. She fell backwards. Closed her eyes. Brought her hooves to her face, but it didn’t stop the tears.

“How could you?” She said again, and this time punctuated the point by clobbering herself in the face with her hoof.

“How could you?” She said, this time in a whisper.

“It’s not your fault either,” I said.

I didn’t know exactly what she was beating herself up about, but I thought I might have a pretty good idea.

“You wanna talk about it?”

She shook her head ‘no,' and sobbed there in that awful, bleepity hospital silence.

Finally, she sucked in a mouthful of air. It sounded like sandpaper.

“I’m sorry.” She said. “This has nothing to do with you.”

I could tell she only half-believed that. But she was trying. She really was.

“What I said…” Bananas trailed off for a moment or two. “...That wasn’t right.”

“It’s okay.” I said.

“No, it’s not.” She added. “But that’s inconsequential. You have every right to hate me now.”

“I don’t.”

She held a hoof up, “And I got no right to ask this after what I did, but could you please finish your story?”

It was the most grown-up I’d ever heard her sound. And though the apology was definitely real, I was pretty exhausted.

“Tomorrow,” I said. “You should get some sleep.”

“No!” She said firmly.

After a brief moment she composed herself and said to me in a quivering voice, “Please. I need clues. About the zebra hate.”

She looked at me as though my next words would either be an execution or a pardon. That dark intensity I’d seen in her eyes a few moments prior had turned into more helplessness and terror. It was like watching one of the mine kids getting beaten.

“My brothers…” She tried to finish her thought, but just ended up biting down on her own hoof and wailing into it.

The war, the bomb, the zebra hate, as she called it - it was personal to her in ways I couldn’t begin to guess or understand. My heart went out to her again. It was getting exhausted from all the strain, but I reached over to my tray of leftover bad pudding, swigged a cup of water, dropped the paper cup on the floor, and said, “Okay, I’ll tell you more.”

She sighed relief.

“Just, please. Understand that I play along because, well...maybe with all this stuff going on, all the stupid fate stuff, maybe there’s a reason, you know? I’m really, really hoping there’s some kinda reason for what’s going on.”

Saying it out loud made me sort of believe it. For the first time since Twink died. That old pony platitude was a strange comfort to me - everything happens for a reason.

“I’m sure there is,” said Bananas Foster dryly. “But do you really think it’s a good one?”

I didn’t have a smart answer to that. I really didn’t. But I was sick of the debate.

“Do you want me to tell you the story or not?”

Bananas Foster nodded, and I continued. As draining as it was to relive, I actually did want to catch her up on what had happened. Whatever problems she may have had with her own fate, she was onboard with mine now, like I said. For better or for worse.






Foster listened with anxious enthusiasm. Not the “exciting campfire story” enthusiasm that folks like Cliff tend to display. She was tearing her mane out over it. The thing is, she kept waiting for the good news - the clue about zebra hate that never came. From a problem-solving angle, my story just didn’t give us much to work with. How the hell were a couple of kids supposed to fight the future knowing only that the future's gonna suck, and absolutely nothing about how it’s gonna get that way?

Sadly, I did not finish my story that night. I wanted to catch her up. Really, I did, but I barely got past the part with Misty and Twink and me in the cages, I just plain started crying. Again.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.” I said.

“Wait, please.”

But I turned myself over then and there as best as I could with the tubes still in my hoof. Faced the opposite side of the room. I didn’t say another word to Foster. The girl pleaded with me, but I shut her out, and cried like a foal.

“Sorry Twink,” I whispered into my pillow. I said it about a thousand-million times until eventually, I drifted off to sleep.




* * *





That night I dreamt I was back in school again. It was recess time, and we were all knocking around this big red kickball - Misty Mountain, Twinkle, Cliff Diver, Blueberry Milkshake, and me. We were playing some game that didn't really have any rules, though the one thing we could all agree on was that Misty was a big fat cheater.

Twink tackled him and everything. Bit him in the ear.

"Ow!" He said. "Ees not my fault I am better at things than who ees not me!"

The rest of us just laughed. You know, because biting is funny.

Even Screw Loose joined in the fun. She came to us as the dog she imagined herself to be. Paws, not hooves. Long carnivore teeth digging casually into a tennis ball. A tail that could really wag. It matched her bird's nest head of hair. Her dog body was the same greyish blue color as her pony body, which is just kinda weird, cause who’s ever heard of a blue dog? Queenie pounced on Misty the cheater as he rolled on the floor, shielding himself from Twink. Laughing.

This was the Way It's Actually Supposed to Be. Not cause some fool voice in my head tricked me, and spit a bunch of hornets at my brain. It’s just that it all felt so perfect. Like the way we were all meant to live.

Twink was giggling. The birthright of every child. A joy she seldom knew in the Wasteland, except that time when she was blowing villagers away. But she was doing it there on the grass.

The whistle blew. Five minutes left. I looked across the field toward the schoolhouse. The sun was going down behind it, as if to double-warn us that we didn't have very much time. The sun doesn't usually set during our lunch hour. But it was a dream, and strange as it may have seemed, I couldn't quite put my hoof on why it was strange. So I forgot all about it.

We just kept on playing. We were together. All of us free. It was one of those moments where time seems to stand still, just for a little bit, and you think "wouldn't it be great if this never had to end?"

But it did. Twink eventually stopped wailing on Misty.

The Sun got redder, and redder, and redder behind her, and that wholesome little schoolhouse stretched out a long shadow across the entire field. A crooked shadow that sorta crept along the floor in jagged little motions. Like it was reaching for something.

But I was the only one who seemed to notice. Everypony else ignored it.

“Guys? Do you see this?”

The door to the schoolhouse opened, and it was totally black inside. Not dark. Black. So black that it looked like light simply couldn’t escape.

A figure stepped out of the ink and stood by the doorway. It wasn't like the creature from before. This one was shaped like a pony. But it wasn't a pony. It was wrong. It flickered like the shadow of a tree cast by a campfire. Bending. Contorting. Twitching every instant.

It made my stomach sink like an anvil, but still I found myself wandering toward it. Both afraid of it, and terrified to look away. What the fuck was that thing? It had something for me. I couldn't tell. A message? I couldn't make out its whispers.

A hoof fell on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Roseluck.

"Don't go there." She said.

"Rose!" I threw myself at her chest and hugged her. "Help, the shadows are back."

"No they're not." She said.

"Huh?"

"Check your hoof."

I looked down. My black hoof. It wasn't cold. Not even a little.

"I don't understand."

"This is how they find you." She tapped my head.

"That is how they get you."

She pointed to the door. Now a normal schoolhouse once again, but I knew what she meant. I was really worried now. I'd almost wandered in there on purpose!

"And when they come back?"

Roseluck put a hoof against my heart. "This is how you beat them." She smiled.

I rolled my eyes. Roseluck always was a sap.

Ring-ring.

Ring-ring.
The recess bell rang again, calling all the children back to class. The Flickery Guy was gone. Miss Cheerilee was standing there instead, right next to the door that, mere moments ago, had been a portal into The Dark.

Twink came up behind me and clapped me on the back before running off.

“You’re It!” She called over her shoulder as she galloped off.

Misty Mountain was walking away from the schoolhouse too, rather than toward it with the rest of the kids. But he slipped off quietly.

I couldn’t figure out which way to go.

Ring-ring.

Ring-ring.

The bell chimed for us again. Cheerilee was getting impatient. She didn’t notice the two stragglers, because they had never been in her class in the first place, but looking around, Cliff, Blueberry and me all decided that we had better go.

I gazed out across the field and found Twinkle Eyes hollering at me all the way from the hill.

“Ha! Ha!" She said. "You’ll never catch me.”

I’d never seen her so happy.





I awoke to the sound of my own bleeping. It blended into the background at first and I didn't quite realize where I was, or that the whole schoolyard thing had been a dream. But when I opened my eyes, I saw white. Hospital white, and like a kick to the face, it dawned on me. Twinkle Eyes hadn't merely wandered off. She was dead. I swear I nearly screamed when I first saw that empty chair to the right of my hospital bed.

It was like losing her all over again.

"How are you feeling?" Said a familiar voice next to me.

I couldn't quite place it. When I groaned, and turned myself over, I found Miss Cheerilee beside me, just to my left, sitting in Roseluck’s chair.

"Ahhh!" I said.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm sorry." I looked around me in confusion. "You scared me. I thought you were my sister."

My teacher’s face tightened upon hearing that. A grim look.

"Where is she?" Asked Miss Cheerilee.

"She's home,"

"Oh," she said, looking away as she spoke. "I see."

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

"Oh no, Miss Cheerilee!" I exclaimed in horror. "Don't get the wrong idea. She didn't just leave me here. I sent her home."

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

That didn't sound good either.

"Why wouldn't you want your sister here with you?"

Dammit, I wasn't awake enough for this. Cheerilee was getting the worst possible impression. A wave of anxiety hit me so hard, I lost my breath.

I don't need this. I don’t need this. I really don't need this.

"It's okay, it's okay," she said. "You don't have to talk about it."

"But you don't understand," I insisted.

"Rose Petal," she said gently, but firmly. "I am here to visit you - to comfort you. You've been through a lot. Why don't you just relax, okay?"

I nodded.

She let me be for a long while. Just sorta sat there. It gave me time to gather my thoughts. Get my bearings.

I looked around. I was back in Ponyville, no shadow things had found me yet, I was very firmly planted in the present for the time being, Twinkle Eyes wasn't even going to be born for another couple of centuries, but she was still dead, and the dogmare was somewhere in this hospital waiting to see me again. Checklist complete. Oh, yeah, and Miss Cheerilee was sitting next to me as I tossed these thoughts around, waiting to make polite conversation.

"I'm glad you're alright," she said at last.

"Me too." I opened my eyes and groaned.

"Did you get the card?"

"Oh, yeah. It was beautiful." I perked up.

The thing really had cheered me up, you know. Once I stopped and thought about it a little. So sweet. So innocent. Everything we'd fought to preserve. Twink may never have skipped through a field and bathed in sunshine, but she probably would have appreciated a bunch of doodles from fillies who actually had. I felt bad for having been so negative, and detached, and piratey when I'd first gotten the thing.

"Where is it now?" Said Miss Cheerilee.

I stopped. The project that my entire class had gone through great effort to make for me was now crumpled up and stuffed underneath my back.

I laughed awkwardly.

"It's safe." I said.

"Are you looking forward to Hearth's Warming Eve?" Said Cheerilee with a bounce.

Before I could even respond, a nurse in colorful scrubs trotted by my door in a hurry. Whoosh. For a moment - just a blink of the eye - I could swear it was a cloak-o. I chomped my teeth down and hugged my bedsheets, convinced that I was going to die. Checklist or no, I suddenly had no idea where I was. When I was. I just felt this surge of blind terror. It seized me and annihilated all other thoughts from my brain like a bolt of brain lightning.

And then it subsided just as quickly as it had come, and I felt so stupid. I’d just freaked out over a rosey pair of nurse’s scrubs. You know you've officially lost your mind when you develop a phobia of floral prints.

"Rose Petal?" Said Cheerilee.

"Huh? What?"

I looked around me. Teacher. Bleep-a-majig. Curtain that Bananas Foster was hiding behind. I was safe again in the present.

"Are you looking forward to Hearth's Warming Eve?" She repeated.

I shrugged. "Oh, yeah sure."

"Hmm." She said all puzzled and concerned-like all of a sudden.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing," she replied.

But that’s not what she meant.

Miss Cheerilee was starting to get on my nerves. I had just gotten out of a coma. I could barely move, and I felt like garbage. Why was she acting like I was some kind of freak for not being chock full o' holiday spirit? Was I supposed to rip the tubes outta my hoof and start dancing with joy?

It made me want to scream.

"What is it, Miss Cheerilee?"

"Nothing, Rose." She asserted. "Really."

I sighed.

How could I assure her that I wasn't some disturbed wackadoo, or that Roseluck was, in fact, the best fucking big sister ever, when Cheerilee didn't even say what she was actually thinking?

I bit back a great big old scream. Then I saw the worry lines on her face. It occurred to me that I didn't even know what she thought had happened. Or what the rest of the town had presumed. I mean, did they think I ate a bunch of tea for no reason? Did they even know about the tea? Did they think I was dying?

"Hey, Miss Cheerilee," I asked. "How is everypony back at school taking the news?

"We’re all pulling for you. You read the card."

"Yeah, but I'm not sure how they're gonna react when I come back."

"You know," I raised my big black evil hoof.

She gasped.

So they don't know about the hoof. Check.

"It's fine," I said. "It doesn't hurt. See?"

I thwacked my hoof against the railing of my bed to show off how totally fine it was. Of course, the thwacking itself hurt, but I tried not to let that show.

Miss Cheerilee pulled back so hard the chair skidded across the floor a little. She was actually scared of it. What Cliff Diver and Twinkle Eyes had done - holding my hoof, comforting me - suddenly became all the more special. They didn't have to do that. Most ponies - even good ones - would probably be too freaked out by a black hoof o' evil.

Not my friends.

"Really, Miss Cheerilee." I rolled my eyes. "It doesn't bite."

Out of pity, Cheerilee forced herself to lean forward and pretend not to be scared. But she still wouldn't touch it.

"Is it really...evil?"

Oh, boy. So the town did know. Maybe even a little too much. I honestly didn't know what to say. 'Cause, yeah, sure, the hoof was evil, but it wasn't anypony else's problem but mine.

Like I said, the damn thing doesn't bite.

"I'm fine. Really." I grumbled. "Look, it says 'Hi.'"

I waved to her. You know, to lighten the mood.

She just waved back and whispered, "Does it always talk?"

"Huh?"

"Did the hoof tell you to drink too much tea?" Said Cheerilee in a hushed tone. "Does it tell you to do other things?"

Grown ups suck at joke-getting.

"It's a hoof," I replied. "It can't talk."

"Oh."

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

"Well, that's nice." She added.

"How's Cliff been doing?" I was pretty desperate to change the subject.

"Oh, just great." She said. "Your's Hearth Warming presentation was wonderful, and, um...interesting."

Sweet Luna, what did he say?

"Don't worry," said Miss Cheerilee when she saw the look on my face. "You got an A. The presentation was unorthodox, but your research is very, well...thorough."

Cliff told her about his theories. I knew it. He’d told the whole class! I wasn't even sure I believed in that alternate dimension stuff, and he’d gone and told everypony about it. In a project that was supposed to have come from both of us!

I facehoofed.

"Don't worry, it's fine." She said, putting a hoof on my shoulder.

Everypony kept putting their damn hooves on my shoulder.

"The other kids enjoyed it. Your grades are better than ever. You're still a good student. Ooh..."

She slid a fancy type-written letter on to my lap.

"And a great artist."

"What's this?"

"The school newspaper published pictures of our open house art exhibit."

"Who's Stuffed Shirt?" I said, turning the letter over in confusion.

Whoever he was, his big fat fancy signature took up half the page.

"A very famous and influential art critic. He saw your picture and wants to take it on tour."

Picture? I just cocked my head like a dumb dog and looked at her. I was honestly confused.

"The one that you drew..."

I just stared at her blankly some more.

"...The day before you...you know."

I thought about it long and hard. She was talking about Strawberry Lemonade. My frantic doodle.

"Oh. That." I said.

I could do without ever looking at that helpless eye, or that crack in the wall again.

"He can keep it." I said.

"What?" Said Cheerilee, taken aback that I didn't seem to care. "Oh. Well, um, I'll just talk to Roseluck next time I see her. This could be a big opportunity for you, you know."

"Art isn't really my thing." I said honestly. "I'm more into books."

"Your piece could be seen all across Equestria! Canterlot. Los Pegasus. Fillydelphia. Manehattan."

"Did you say Fillydelphia?"

"Mmhmm." She nodded.

I was suddenly real glad that I had sent Roseluck away. After a great big wedding gig, she could afford to take some time off to help me with all of this bomb stuff. And it looked like I might actually have an excuse to go looking for answers in the City of Sisterly Love, before too long.

"I always wanted to visit Filly," I told Cheerilee.

"More than Manehattan? Or Canterlot?" She said all cheerful-like.

She must have been relieved that I was actually showing enthusiasm about something.

"Yeah. Uh. I like cracked bells. They're uh...my favorite kind of bell."

Just then Cliff Diver burst in, eyes buried in paper.

"Got good news and bad news," he said. "Bad news is, I can't find an address of anypony named Misty Mountain anywhere in Fillydelphia. There's a Mountain Family, but no--;"

"Hi, Cliff." Cheerilee waved.

"Ahh! " He shouted when he realized he wasn't alone with me. "Miss Cheerilee."

"Misty Mountain?" She asked.

"He's Rose's--:"

"Pen pal!" I blurted out a smooth lie before Cliff had the chance to spit out a clumsy one.

"You have a penpal, and you don't know his address?"

So much for smooth lies.

"Uh...He moved," I said. "...And I...um...lost his new address. Cliff looked it up at the library for me."

"You're a very devoted friend," she said. "It's something I've admired in you since Rose had her accident."

"Thanks, Miss Cheerilee." He said all sheepish-like.

The fact that Cheerilee referred to it as an "accident" without any of that awkward pretense was kind of a relief to me.

"And you gave us all so much to think about with your report!" She beamed.

Cliff blushed.

"Can you do us both a favor though, and go get Rose's orderly? She's awake now, and could use some food that it isn't cold."

He looked at us both. I threw him an "it's okay" nod.

When he was gone, Cheerilee pulled the chair up close to me again and hit me with the big question, "How is everything with your sister Roseluck?"

"Um...fine, I guess? Why?"

"So you're doing okay at home?" She pressed.

"Well, we've both seen better days, you know? I'd like to get out of the hospital, and she would too, so it's not um...great. Why do you ask?"

"If you could live anywhere," she asked. "With anypony in the whole wide world, who would it be?"

I give that some serious thought. It didn't take a whole lot of time. Sure a lot of kids would say “in Sapphire Shores’ mansion,” or something, and the idea sounds fun, but when I was stuck in that cage in Trottica, I knew who I missed the most. Who I feared for the most if anything happened to me.

And when Misty had mentioned Fillydelphia, and everyone else squirmed, it was the idea of a post-apocalyptic Ponyville that somehow hit home the hardest - the one piece of the Wasteland my brain just plain refused to wrap around. Cause Ponyville was home.

"With my sister." I said suspiciously. "Here in Ponyville."

"Oh good," she said." That's wonderful. So you...uh, like living with Roseluck, yes?"

"She loves me, and our cottage is my home." I said crossly.

"That's wonderful news." She put her hoof on top of mine.

I yanked it away. Tubes and all.

"Relax," said Miss Cheerilee. "I'm here to help."

"This wasn't Roseluck's fault." I said.

"No, of course not," said my rapidly more-irritating-getting teacher. "I know that. Even the doctors say it was that hoof that made you do it."

"It was a stupid mistake!" My voice cracked. "Nopony makes me do anything."

I'd been toyed with, locked up, pushed around by cloak-o's, ordered around by voices that had intruded on me from the inside of my own fucking brain. And after all that crazy crap, I finally, finally, finally do something bone-stupid all on my own - actually create my own misery for once, and overdose on herbal tea like a great big dumb-dumb - and all of a sudden Roseluck is a bad sister?

All of a sudden my hoof is to blame, like I was its slave or something?!

"Agggh!" I grunted.

"Rose, calm down."

"Please go, Miss Cheerilee." Damnit, I was crying again. "I'm not feeling well."

"Ok. Do you need me to get a nurse?"

I shook my head, and swallowed yet another scream.

"Well, okay." She said as she rose to her hooves, and inched toward the door. "Just please remember that I'm trying to help. l feel awful. The other day, I wish I could have...."

She trailed off. Cheerilee blamed herself for what had happened. I hate ponies who do that. I shouldn't have to spend my hospital time reassuring everypony.

"Just let me know if there's anything I can do for you or your family." She said.

That did it. I snapped. First she acted like this was Roseluck-the-Terrible-Sister's fault, then all of a sudden she wants to help our family? She had some nerve.

I didn't cry. I didn't scream. I just told her the truth.

"The day that I drew that picture, and you pulled me aside to have that little talk with me, you asked if there was something else bothering me. I was really, really upset and you knew it, but it wasn't about my cutie mark."

She perked up a bit, anxious to hear all the juicy details that she could be oh-so-helpful to repair.

"Diamond Tiara made Cliff Diver cry, and it was so terrible to watch, that it made me cry, so I yelled at her, and I screamed at her so hard that I bet she cried too after she got home. The whole school saw it. Every single kid had gathered around. Why didn't you come?"

She looked at me as though I had just told her the princesses were aliens. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Diamond Tiara has made every single kid in class miserable since kindergarten."

I tried to rack my brain for a list of names of her victims to rattle off, but really, it was all just a blur.

"She's mean to us. She makes us all feel like garbage and you never, ever, ever stop her."

"I can't be everywhere," said Cheerilee. "And I can't address an issue if nopony comes to me. If you two are having a --;"

"It's not me. I have bigger problems." I said frankly, lifting up the hoof that I knew would scare her.

And, to be honest, I didn't even care about Diamond Tiara anymore. But it really irked me that Cheerilee had come to me all "let me help your family" like there was something wrong with us.

She was like a single-minded diggity little badger for detail when it came to excavating "problems at home," but still totally blind and stupid when it came to the one thing she could actually fix!

Unfortunately, I didn't articulate those ideas as smoothly as I would have liked.

"You made her head of the school newspaper?" I said. "Why? That was dumb."

"Now hold it right there."

"That made us all miserable for weeks." I squeaked.

"Rose, this is getting inappropriate,"

I could see the wheels in her brain turning. Defiant kid. Clearly disturbed. Problems at home.

I didn't want to say anything else after that, so I just grunted in frustration and shut up.

"Ugh! Forget it."

She shut up too. We looked one another up-and-down.

"Well, thank you for bringing that to my attention." She said at last.

""I'll think about it over the break, I promise."

"Thanks." I said dryly.

I wasn't sure if I had gotten through to her at all, or if she was just dismissing me.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I whispered.

She waited by the doorway until Cliff Diver trotted in with the tray balanced on his back.

"Here we are!" He exclaimed with pomp and pride.

"You kids have a Merry Hearth's Warming." She said. "I'll be on my way."

Even after she trotted on her merry way, I was still steaming mad.

How was Equestria ever going to stand a chance at turning itself around? How could we pull together to overcome something as powerful as hate? Something as universal as fear? When one of the pillars of our community didn’t even have the guts to stand up to a spoiled little girl. We didn’t stand a chance.

I thought she was one of the good ones. But she wasn't. I couldn’t even be mad at Cheerilee. I was just plain disappointed.

Roseluck and Nurse Redheart were the only grown-ups left in the whole wide world that I felt I could trust. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.





* * *





At first it was really weird trying to eat. My stomach was so totally not used to solid food. It couldn't decide what to do with those first couple of bites - up or down - but it in the end, it all settled in. Well enough, anyway.

"How you doing?" I asked, mouth full of cardboard-tasting moosh.

"Fine," said Cliff. "How are you?"

I just shrugged. Wasn't it obvious?

Bananas Foster sat in her bubble reading silently as usual, or scribbling almost silently in some kinda journal. I'd gotten so used to her long periods of quiet from her, that at times, I kinda forgot she was there.

"Oh, Cliff, this is Bananas Foster by the way. Foster, this is Cliff Diver."

He turned to shake her hoof but when he got his first good look at the bubble, and realized that that wouldn't be possible, he just sort of waved instead.

"Hiya!"

It’s weird. You'd expect it to be awkward for him, especially with his track record for stepping on words, but somehow, the bubble didn't seem to phase him at all.

"Whatcha readin?"

She held up The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide. Not exactly a Daring Do novel.

"Catching up on history," she said.

"There's a lot of it." Cliff joked.

That one won a smile, but not for long. Bananas got derailed.

"Hey, wait a minute. Isn't Misty Mountain supposed to be from the future?"

Cliff turned to me in shock.

"Yeah, she's on board." I groaned.

That didn't seem to put him at ease.

"It's okay," I said. "She's a friend."

Now Bananas was the one looking at me funny. I had never really thought about it, but I suppose it was true. I considered her my friend. I had opened up to her. She knew Equestria’s Biggest Secret, and all she wanted to do in the whole wide world was to stop the zebra hate. That was enough for me.

"Misty Mountain is from the future?!" Cliff blurted out so loud that Nursedoctor poked her head in for a second just to shush us.

I was getting flak from both ends now.

"No, not exactly either." I said softly. "He kind of dreamed his way there. Like me.”

"Misty Mountain's from now?!" Said Bananas Foster

"I didn't get to that part yet!" I said.

"How come she knows more than me?" Said Cliff.

"Because we were up all night."

I was starting to get really fucking annoyed with both of them.

"And because we are friends," Foster said with pride.

She nodded at Cliff with false confidence.

"Hey! She was my friend first!" Said Cliff.

"Would you stop it? You're both my friends!"

Then suddenly Bananas Foster out of nowhere started coughing - I mean really going at it. "I'm sorry. I have to sit down," she said.

"Holy Celestia! Are you okay?"

"Oh, quit faking." Cliff rolled his eyes at her. "You're just feeling sorry for yourself."

I looked at him in shock. So did she.

This is Cliff Diver I'm talking about. The guy who shrugged in fear when I so much as asked him a mildly confrontational question. The kid who stumbled for words and never, ever, ever found them.

"You can't say that!" I whispered in awe.

"Why not?"

"Cause she's...well..."

I shouldn’t have had to explain it. He knew. He had to know.

"Because she's what? In a bubble?"

"Yes." I whispered urgently.

I looked to Bananas for back up, but she was just watching me silently. Studying my discomfort.

"Rose, seriously, stop." Cliff rolled his eyes at me.

"Me?"

What had come over him? Bananas Foster had hurled herself at her bubbly prison last night. Crying and kicking and all that. And Cliff just came along and acted like a giant dick about it.

"Me?!" My voice cracked. "Me stop?"

He folded his hooves at me.

"What?" I said. "It's...it's...it's... You who is uh... Uh...you know, uh..."

I gestured in Bananas' direction.

"Shhhh." I said.

I don't know why I shushed him. We all knew about the elephant in the room. I guess I thought I was being slick and stealthy.

"For Luna' sake, it doesn't bite!" Cliff finally snapped.

It doesn't bite.

My own words to Cheerilee about my black evil hoof. Bouncing right back to me to smack me in the face.

"What?" I asked.

"It. Doesn't. Bite. It's totally fine. See?"

Cliff tapped the bubble and little magic sparks flew off.

"And she's fine." He turned to her, pointing an accusatory hoof.

"Am not!" She snapped.

"You're not even coughing anymore. Geez!" Cliff growled at me in genuine frustration. "Can you believe this?"

"Am too," Bananas Foster shook herself out of her daze, and rose to her hooves with a fake ass wheeze.

She was shaking. Twitching with anger. Like a wild animal backed into a corner.

"Liar." Said Cliff, now genuinely pissed off.

"It doesn't bite." I whispered to myself.

Was this what I had to look forward to? A lifetime of kids whispering behind my back? Is that who I was now? The Be Glad It's Not You Girl? All cause of the color of my hoof?

I’d been a condescending idiot to Bananas Foster - and the worst part was that I’d done it with the best of intentions.

"I'm...so sorry, Bananas."

"What?!" Said Cliff.

Nursedoctor poked her head in the door yet again. "Shhhhh!"

She stared us down, and we all fell silent. Once we had shut the buck up to her satisfaction, Nursedoctor lingered just long enough to keep us all good and intimidated. After she was gone, we were left with this strange tense quiet between the three of us.

I'd looked down on that girl. Cause she was in a bubble. I'd made her a full-fledged, card-carrying member of The Apocalypse Club, but I still coddled her cause I thought she was weak.

And I was trying to be one of the good ones.

After all my thinkiness, and carrying on, and charging through mountains - all that one of the good ones stuff - I was just as dumb, and crooked, and weak as everypony else. So much for the heart's intentions.

"I'm so sorry, Foster." I whispered.

"Since when are you so sensitive?!" Said Cliff Diver, tears in his eyes, rambling at me in hushed tones.

"Huh?" I said. "What's wrong?"

"You're all, 'Oh, no we can't call her on this, she's too helpless.' But you're not making her any better."

"I-I know," I stammered.

Bananas Foster fainted at the stress of what was going on, or at least she pretended to.

"But you have no problem rubbing my problems in my face. Why? Am I not a good enough friend?" He said.

"What are you talking about?"

ThIs was getting really fucking confusing.

"Oh, come on, you know. 'Fly on out of here? Go home?'" He did his best to impersonate my voice. "How was I supposed to feel?"

Bananas Foster cracked her eye open. She was still lying on the floor, pretending to have fainted, but she broke character and spoke up anyway. Loud and clear.

"You said that?"

"Yes!" Cliff turned to her. "And I don't even know why!"

"That seriously wasn't cool." Bananas Foster rolled over and threw me the evil eye.

So now she was on Cliff's side all of a sudden.

"Yeah," he said. "Not cool."

"What's going on?"

Cliff Diver extended his wings for me the first time since I'd known him. They were all fucked up and mangled. Bent in ways no wing should ever bend. I could tell by his wincing that it must have hurt like crazy just to open them. But he did it anyway to make a point.

"As if you didn't know." He growled.

"Holy...Sweet Luna!" I shouted. "What happened?!"

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

Nursedoctor poked her head in again, ready to yell at us, but she found instead a couple of kids staring at one another in stunned silence.

So she slinked away. Put upon.

Cliff and Bananas exchanged glances, then turned to me.

"I noticed it yesterday just from a casual glance," said Foster.

It's almost as though she was enjoying making me squirm.

"You seriously didn't know?" Cliff whimpered. "Everypony knows! Why do you think I go to school in Ponyville instead of Cloudsdale?"

It was my turn to shrug awkwardly.

"I don't know. Scootaloo's a pegasus. She goes to our school."

"Scootaloo can't fly either." Cliff Diver said.

I puzzled on that for a long while. How could I have missed this?

“Featherweight?”

“Parents are unicorns.” He said dryly.

“How do you know all this?”

“Um...We’ve been going to the same school for years.”

"What?" I said. "He just showed up a few months ago."

He did. He really really did, I swear. But Cliff just looked at me like I was the craziest, stupidest, obliviousest filly in the Universe, so I let it go. After all I'd failed to notice, I was starting to feel pretty stupid myself.

“Arg!” Cliff clonked himself in the head with his forehoof out of frustration.





I was a single-minded diggity little badger for detail when I wanted to be. I'd deducted Priestess Happy Sad's entire personal history from her Pip Duck alone. I'd noticed Cheerilee's Diamond-Tiara-shaped blind spot and called her out on it. I'd made sharp guesses about Trottica, and its ponies just from cobbling together little tiny shreds of observations.

And yet, I was still so damn blind and stupid.

Every single time I had dealt with Cliff Diver at all, I was off in Rose Petal Land, swimming in thinkiness. Wrapped up in my own problems.

The only pony capable of missing such an obviously important and sensitive detail, would, by definition, have to be either a great big idiot, or a great big jerk.

I was both.

That fact was slowly dawning on Cliff Diver too. The disappointment was written all over his face.

He stopped ranting in anger - stopped fuming over what he'd thought was cruel jab at him, and just sort of grew silent instead.

"Cliff," I said. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," he whispered. "It's not your fault. I know that I can be pretty invisible when I'm at school."

"Cliff, come on."

"No. Really." He said "It's true. I don't blame you for not noticing it these last few days either, cause you've had...more important things to worry about."

The fact that he wasn’t even mad just twisted the knife further. I was hurting him more and more as we spoke and he had already fucking forgiven me.

"Darn it!" I said out loud. "Friendship is so much easier when there's somepony shooting at you!"






I felt awful. Cliff felt awful. And none of us knew quite what to say.

"So...uh...how was your day?" I said at last.

Cliff looked at me like I'd just kicked him in the gut.

"I'm sorry, okay? I'm trying. Please."

He bit his lip. I could tell he really wanted to stay mad. But his heart just wouldn't let him.

"Look," I said. "You and Roseluck. You're all I have. When I was imprisoned - when I was lost in the mines - you helped me stay sane."

"You were imprisoned?!" Said Cliff.

"Wait a minute," said Bananas Foster. "Mines?!"

"Ugh." I facehoofed.

With my big black evil hoof in my eyes, I couldn't see them, but five seconds after I buried my face in it, I heard what sounded like poor Cliff Diver sobbing.

Sweet Celestia! I thought. Can't I do anything right?!

When I opened my eyes, I found him slapping his knee with his front hoof, laughing his flank off. Bananas Foster too.

"What?" I said.

That just made them crack up all the more.

"Guys!"

Cliff was on the floor now, face drenched in tears. Nursedoctor had to come in and shush us. I guess we all just kind of snapped because, when I saw her tired face looking disapprovingly at those other two buffoons, I broke out into laughter too. It's contagious.

Cliff summoned the breath to wheeze at her, "I'm sorry. We'll keep it do--;"

But then he broke. Started giggling all over again.

Nursedoctor was about to snarl at us, but then she glanced at Foster, and found her laughing too. Not just laughing but guffawing. By the expression on Nursedoctor’s face, I reckoned that that must have been a rare sight. With a long suffering sigh, she left us alone and shut the door behind her. I guess she just didn't have the heart.

"Do you really want to hear about my day?" Said Cliff with a wicked smile. "Lemme tell you about our Hearth's Warming Eve report!"

"Now this I gotta hear," said Bananas Foster.

She flashed me an almost sadistic smile.

Oh, no.





* * *





It turns out that Cliff had started his report out like normal. Like he’d planned. It was my report too after all.

"This is the flag of Equestria. It has two Alicorns on it. It symbolizes the union of the three pony tribes. The three pony tribes were the unicorn tribe, the earth pony tribe, and the pegasus tribe. It got drawn up on the first Hearth's Warming Eve." Typical report, reading from an index card sort of stuff.

Then, to hear him tell it, Cliff looked out over all the bored faces, and fixated on the open house art display in the back of the class. Apparently, he was entranced by that eyeball of Strawberry Lemonade's. That filly hopelessly dreaming of being free.





"And then I thought of you, Rose."

"Me?"

"What's the point of being a little crazy if you don't get to have fun with it?"

He quoted my own advice to him from the day before.

“Oh, no, what did you do?” I interrupted his story.

“Yeah,” Bananas Foster said with a wicked smile. “What did you do?”

“Shut up.”

“I told them the truth.”

Oh, Luna, no.
“The alicorns, the flag, the way that the hopes and dreams of all those ponies in trouble had sent out a light for our princesses to find. I told them about it. And I could see tell that I was reaching some of them! Because they went from yawning and talking amongst themselves to hanging on my every word!”

“They didn't laugh at you?” I asked, utterly shocked.

“No, no, no, no, no.” He said all matter-of-fact-like. “That didn't happen till much later.”

He flashed me a smile that was meant to be reassuring.

“So I'm telling them, right? And they're eating it up.”

Facehoof.

“Then Silver Spoon says to me, ‘What does any of this even mean?’"

“Oh Celestia.” Double-Facehoof.

"So I turn to them, and I have them all eating out of my hoof, right? And I'm all like ‘Celestia and Luna are powers beyond our comprehension.’”

He was giving the speech like normal now, telling it to Bananas Foster and me as though we were the class. The only difference is that, had we actually been in the class, I would have stopped him.

"Now I don't want to say it's aliens…” Said Cliff Diver, grinning ear-to-ear just from the retelling of it. "...But it's aliens."

The Mother of all Facehoofs. I'd created a monster.

“Dude, you're awesome.” Said Bananas Foster.

I swear she encouraged him just as a way of fucking with me.





“Don’t worry,” he said. “I kept the part that has to do with us a secret.”

“It’s our report! It all has to do with us.”

“I meant the part about the F-U-T-U-R-E.” He spelled it out loud. You know, in case a three-year-old might be eavesdropping, and think that we were out of our fucking minds.

“Oh,” he added. “And this!”

His saddlebag was sort of just lying around on the floor somewhere. He disappeared from my range of vision to fetch it, and fuss around in its compartments. Finally, he popped up from under my bed, crumpled up piece of paper in his mouth. He dropped it on me, and watched me with eagerly.

When I unfolded it, I read the headline out loud. “Crystal Empire Reappears?”

“It's the good news I was talking about. Read it.” He said with wide, bright eyes.

I read it with him watching. It told the whole story of the saving of Crystal Empire, which I’m sure you know by now, O Book of Magical Things That Have Happened. My favorite part was when Shining Armor hucked his Princess Wife off the balcony, but I couldn't figure out what any of it had to do with anything. Anyway, when I was done, I looked up at him and shrugged.

"That's just weird."

This coming from the filly who battles actresses from the future.

“That!” He snatched the page from my hoof, and brought it over to the bubble so that Bananas could read it. “Is why the library has been closed for days.”

The page fell right through the bubble, his hoof still leaning against the outside. Cliff looked at Bananas in disbelief.

"It's not alive." She said casually and bent down to pick up the article.

Cliff looked at me, clearly expecting some kind of reaction. I just shrugged. Paper's not alive.

"Don't you get it?" Cliff's voice cracked. "An entire empire, guys! Where's it been this whole time?"

"How am I supposed to know?"

"Another world! They exist. No one can deny that now."

Bananas and I exchanged glances. She seemed unfazed. But it shook me up quite a bit. Cliff was starting to make an alarming amount of sense. All that crystal had to come from somewhere.

“You’re right.” I said

“I’m glad we agree.” He ducked down, disappearing into his saddlebag again.

A moment later, he popped back up, crudely drawn diagram in his mouth.

“So,” he said, letting the doodle fall into my lap.

I picked it up. It was a drawing of the Crystal Palace. There were arrows drawn and notes written all over it.

“How do we steal the Crystal Heart?”

“What?!”

“Relax, it’s not really stealing. We’re just gonna borrow it to stop the apocalypse for a little while. They’ll never know it’s gone.”

“What? Huh? How? What?”

“Um...Why do we need to steal the Crystal Heart?” Said Bananas.

“Duh! It's not like they're just gonna give it to us if we ask.”

Facehoof.

“What makes you think it can stop the apocalypse?” I asked, face still buried firmly in hoof.

“Cause this can’t be a coincidence!” Cliff was back to not making sense. “Rose, can’t you close your eyes and, I don’t know, ask around or something? Maybe that's your next mission!”

“If I had a mission to go steal some royal mantlepiece, I’d know, Cliff.”

“How?”

“Cause I would be full of brain hornets right now.”

“Huh?” Said Cliff.

It was Bananas Foster’s turn to facehoof. The whole thing was one giant confusing mess. I put an end to it.

“We’re not stealing the Crystal Heart.” I snapped.

Cliff drooped a little. Let his doodle fall straight to the floor. “Oh,” he sighed.

I hated bursting his bubble, but his bubble was stupid.

“But if it’s not about the heart." He picked his chin up and looked at me again. "Then what are we supposed to do? Why the connection?”

“What connection? It proves there are other worlds. That’s it. It doesn’t have anything to do with us."

"Arg." Cliff's turn to facehoof. “The Crystal Empire has been gone over a thousand years.”

“Yeah, I read the article.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s weird that it just sorta pops up - out of the blue - on the same day you find the Wasteland - the exact same day you get your cutie mark? After over a thousand years? That. Same. Day. What 's that about?”

“I...don’t know.”

“Tell me everything,” he said. "Maybe there's a clue."

It was getting to be the mantra of all my friends.

Cliff pulled up Roseluck's chair.

“No.” I said.

“But--;”

“It hurts too much,”

“But--;”

“I'm gonna do it, okay? Cause I gotta.” I grumbled. “’But not till Roseluck gets here. I’m not re-telling that story twice.”





* * *





Cliff couldn’t stay much longer. Maybe an hour. Maybe two. And Roseluck still didn’t show. But we spent our time well. Just Cliff, Foster, and me. Talking. We even forgot about the big boom for a little while.

As the time went by, Cliff got more and more apologetic that he had to split.

"If it were any other day, my parents wouldn't care." He said. "Any. Other. Day."

He banged his head against the rail of my hospital bed.

"What's so special about today?"

The sound of party favors exploded in the hallway.

"Happy Hearth's Warming Eve, everypony!" Came a cheerful voice.

It was Pinkie Pie. The mare who'd thrown all of my birthday parties since the day I was actually born. She bounced through the doorway, accordion around her neck, and velvet sack slung over her back. From the way it sagged all empty-like, it looked like we were one of her last stops.

"It's Hearth's Warming Eve?!" I said. "Now?"

"No, not really." She replied.

I sighed in relief. A dumb thought. It couldn't be Hearth's Warming Eve. Roseluck hadn't gotten back yet.

"It's more like Hearth's Warming Early Afternoon." Pinkie added. "But that doesn't have the same ring to it. I know cause I practiced yelling 'Happy Hearth's Warming Early-Afternoon' in the mirror this morning."

She looked at us seriously for a moment, and said. "It didn't work out."

"That can't be." I whimpered.

“No, really.” Said Pinkie. “I tried it. It doesn’t work.”

I looked over to Cliff, standing beside me at my right. He nodded. It looked like he was going to cry. I wasn't gonna see him for at least two days. And he knew how badly I needed him. And worse yet, there was a chance - however slim - that Roseluck wouldn’t be back in time. Judging by the look on his face, Cliff knew that too.



I mean, what if she thought I knew what day it was? And thought I didn’t care about Hearth’s Warming Eve? Hell, even I'd thought that I didn’t care about Hearth’s Warming Eve just a short while ago. I told Cheerilee as much. But the idea of actually spending it without Roseluck was unfathomable. Terrifying even.

"Wow, thanks." Bananas Foster giggled, flipping the pages of an old book Pinkie had gotten for her.

"You're welcome." Pinkie was leaning against the bubble, smiling faintly.

Then it was time to move on to the next infirm-o.

"Hoo!" Pinkie said as she stumbled over to me. "You mind if I sit down for a second?"

She lowered her accordion to the floor and plopped down next to me in Roseluck's chair.

"Singing to every mare, stallion, and colt in this hospital is exhausting."

"I imagine." I said softly, not really attentive, not really there.

I was still fretting over my sister. What if she didn't come?

"I heard about you, Rose Petal." She put her hoof on top of mine - the "good hoof" - the one with all the tubes and wires in it. "Are you okay?"

"I guess." I said.

I slowly slid my other eviler hoof under the sheets, hoping she wouldn't notice it. I had Roseluck on my mind, and I just didn't have the energy for any more hoof drama.

"I know you're probably sad," she said.

I looked up into her eyes.

"But here." She placed a small present on my chest. "Maybe this will cheer you up, just a little."

A small red box. The problem was if I opened it, she would see my bad hoof, and get freaked out. Just like Miss Cheerilee had.

"Thanks." I said nervously, and just sort of stared at it, unsure what to do.

"Oh," she said.

There was just a little bit of heartbreak in her voice.

She'd clearly expected me to be excited - to smile. That was her thing. We had even all sung about it. The whole town. But I didn't have it in me right then and there. Not with Roseluck gone on Hearth's Warming Early Afternoon.

Cliff reached for the present. "Um...Let me help you open that."

"I'm sorry." I said to Pinkie.

I felt like such a downer.

"Don't be sorry. Not many ponies in here feel like smiling." She rubbed her head. "I understand."

I nodded solemnly at Pinkie, as Cliff knocked my gift around and tugged clumsily at the ribbon with his teeth.

"I smiled!" Bananas Foster called out, waving one of the books that Pinkie had just gotten her. "Why don't you just give it all to me?" She added, half–jokingly.

Pinkie just kept on looking at me, and shrugged. "It's always worth a try."

That earned a smile from me. A genuine smile. I couldn't even articulate how, but her drive, and her mission just made me smile. One of those smiles you feel all the way on the inside.

It's always worth a try.

I smiled so hard that I started to cry.

"Thank you." I said.

She threw a smile right back at me, a little bit of her old self again.

"Here! Here!" Cliff shouted. "I got it open."

He plopped the box back down on my chest, lid wide open. I was so stunned by what I saw, that I reached for it with my evil hoof without even thinking.

"I made that just for you." Said Pinkie.

A watch on a chain.

"In case you ever need to figure out when you are." She giggled. "Get it? When you are?"

"How did you know I would need that?" I was stunned.

"No, wait!" She thrust her hoof on mine as I fiddled with the button on the top.

"Don't. Open it." She said gravely. "Not yet."

"Why not?"

"Duh! You'll ruin the surprise, silly." She said, the usual smile returning to her face.

"Um..."

"That is no ordinary pocket watch," she said. "That is the most accurate, most super-duper-mega special watch ever invented, because it was invented by me!"

Cliff Diver and I just looked at one another suspiciously.

"No matter where you find yourself, if you're lost, or confused, that watch will tell you everything you need to know about when you are."

I looked down at the watch. Her pink hoof rested on my black hoof as I clutched it. She didn't care about the evil. At all.

Just don't spoil the surprise.

"Open it only when you really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, need to."

"Okay."

"Pinkie promise?"

"Pinkie promise." I said back to her, still totally stunned.

"Do you like it?"

I slipped the chain over my neck like a necklace, and wore it with pride. Smiling. Pinkie beamed when she saw my reaction.

"Awesome!" She leapt to her hooves.

Grabbed her accordion.

"Happy Hearth's Warming!" She said. "See you next Thursday, same time as always."

Foster looked to me and mouthed behind her back, "she's always late."

"Off to catch my train!"

Pinkie Pie bounced off - instruments, present sack and all. It made a little boingy sound all the way out the door.

"Wait, Pinkie!" I said.

She elongated her neck to unnatural proportions to stick it back in the doorway.

"What's up?"

"How...How did you know I needed this?"

"Oh! I don't know. I just figured it would cheer up that whiny old pirate in your brain!"

"What?" I said

"La la la la la!"

And just as suddenly as she came, Pinkie Pie was gone.

"The pirate in your brain?" Said Foster.

"The pirate in my brain." I whispered to myself as I examined that watch further.

It was physically unremarkable in every conceivable way except that it was pink.

"Wow." Said Cliff. "That mare is so random."

The Price of Failure

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN - THE PRICE OF FAILURE

The best way out is always through." - Robert Frost


There's magic in Hearth’s Warming. Grown-ups don't always see it. I know I didn't see it. Not while I was laying there in that cold hospital bed. But it's still there. It sneaks up on you. It comes out at night after the candles have been snuffed, or allowed to droop down into a droopity, waxy mess.

That night in Ponyville Hospital was the worst, and the best Hearth's Warming I ever knew. Certainly the weirdest. It was the night that the shadows made their move.

We should have stood together - given them what for. But we were scattered. Disheartened. Each of us hurting. Each of us alone. And like Nightmare Moon showing up on the most Sun-Happy day of the year, those shadowy cunts couldn't resist the opportunity to trample on a day of hope - to shit all over the one night of the year that was rightfully ours.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.





* * *





The mid-afternoon started out okay. At least as okay it could get under the circumstances. First, there was a bunch of boring medical stuff.

"Hey, Happy Hearth’s Warming, kids!" Said Stethoscope bursting through the door.

I didn't respond. He'd been mean to Queenie. Fuck him. Bananas on the other hoof, turned her frown upside-down on a dime-bit.

"Nurse Stethoscope!" She called out clapping her hooves together.

It was really weird seeing her slide back into "Yay, storytime" mode after I'd gotten to know this whole other side of her. That girl was smart - genius even - so much better than any of this storytime stuff. I was certain that if she showed more of the real Bananas Foster to everypony else, they would still like her plenty. Hell, they might even respect her. But for some reason, she thought she needed to cute herself up. Cough for sympathy.

Now that I had seen her pain - her intelligence; now that I considered her my friend, rather than something to be pitied, it was actually painful to watch her act like that. But luckily, I didn't have to see too much of it, cause some other nurse came along and started unhooking me from all the doo-dads. Before I knew it, I was being wheeled to the other end of the hospital in a chair.





In a way, it was kind of exciting at first. They'd squeezed me in to see the physical therapist before he went home for the holiday, so I finally got treatment that didn't involve lying around. My enthusiasm didn't last very long, though. Physical therapy may sound like a great big fancy massage, but what it really involves is hours spent doing exercises that make you feel like your muscles are full of lava and bees. They had to strengthen me up, they said. I'd be getting out of the hospital pretty soon.

When we got back to the room, Bananas was more content than I had ever seen her. She'd finally gotten her storytime, and was reclining in bed. She yawned just a bit.

Once the grown-ups left us alone, I turned to her. "Why?" I said.

"Why what?" She replied.

"You read at, like a billionth grade level. Why storytime?"

Foster took a deep breath. Still relaxed. Still calm.

"There’s so much I don't get to do around here, you know?” She said, staring at the doorway. “Sometimes you just sort of have to tell yourself, ‘If I can only get this one thing. If just this one thing goes right, I’ll be able to hang on.’"

I thought about it a while. It made a certain kind of sense.

"Why storytime, though?" I asked, and in the long silence that followed, I stammered. "That is, if you don't mind my asking."

"Mother used to tell us stories."

From there she just sort of stared into space. Thinking.

"I hear you." I said.

And then I lay there too. Thinking right alongside her. For a moment, I almost asked what had happened. But she’d tell me when she was ready. And I didn’t want to push it. I knew how awful it felt when ponies pushed it.

"What story did Nurse Stethoscope tell you today?" I asked instead.

"I'm not sure." She rolled over on that bed to face me. There was a smile on her face. "You know, I wasn't even really paying attention."




* * *




The rest of my eve wasn't very Hearth's Warmings-y. It was just Bananas and me. Alone in there. Whittling away the hours like a bunch of time-whittlers. Meanwhile, not a creature was stirring at Ponyville Hospital. The staff was bare bones, and hoofsteps in the hallway got fewer and farther between, as those visiting loved ones had either moved on, and had skipped along home to the real party, or settled in quietly with the sick in their hospital rooms.

For a while, I lay there, just listening for signs of life. Anything at all. But all I heard was that irritating bleep, and the scribble of Bananas Foster's pencil in her journal. After what must have been at least an hour, I finally picked up a noise beyond our door. A laugh. A shuffle. Some hoofsteps approaching. I perked up in my bed.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clop.

But it wasn't Roseluck. Just some nurse all decked out in winter gear, laden with presents. She strolled right by our door without paying us infirm-o's no never mind.

She was humming a Hearth's Warming carol.

I closed my eyes and banged the back of my head against my pillow. Roseluck wasn't coming. I could feel it in my bones. The thing is, that wasn't like her. Something was wrong. Really, really, really, really wrong.

Damnit, Roseluck, what the hell is taking you so long?




“Hey, Rose Petal!” Foster called for my attention with a bit of a laugh.

“What?!” I grumbled.

“A skeleton pony walks into a cider tavern.”

“Huh?” The randomness of it caught my attention.

“A skeleton. Pony. Walks. Into. A. Cider tavern.” Said Foster. “Let me know when I’ve lost you.”

“Um...okay.”

“He says to the salespony, ‘I’ll have an apple cider...and a mop.’”

Bleep-bleep.

Bleep-bleep.

I got the joke. It took me a minute, but I got it. Then, against my better judgment, I actually started laughing. It was so stupid, but for some reason, I couldn’t help but just laugh.

“Where did that even come from?” I said, now wheezing with oh-my-Celestia-this-is-so-dumb-but-damnit-I’m-chuckling-anyway laughter.

Bananas shrugged and held up a slip of paper that had been tucked into her new book. Of course.




I caught my breath.

"Is it always so dreary around here on the holidays?" I said, the echo of a smile still lingering on my face.

"I wouldn't know." Said Bananas Foster. "I haven't been in Ponyville long enough."

She reclined in her bed, forehooves behind her head, and stared up at the ceiling, looking relaxed. Self-satisfied.

"Well, at least you seem to be having a good holiday."

"Pinkie's present." She said. "I haven't gotten new books in forever. And, of course, the joke."

She waved that piece of paper with the skeleton joke around before tucking it back in, and using it as a bookmark.

I held the watch that Pinkie Pie had given me. Turned it over in my hoof. It was a very simple design. Just a pink watch on a chain. No fancy designs. No fancy inscriptions. But somehow that just made it more magical.

I listened to it tick. The Most Accurate, Most Super Duper Mega Special Watch ever, as designed by the mare who was late to visit the hospital every Thursday. I fiddled with the button a bit, tempted as hell, but I didn't dare press it. I'd made a promise. Still, it was driving me nuts. How did it work?

How did an earth pony know how to use magic? How did Pinkie Pie know I was having issues with time? How the hell did she know about the pirate in my head?

There were a million mysteries surrounding Pinkie, and a million more surrounding that watch, but the thing that hit me the hardest was that she had thought of me in the first place. It sounds so stupid, I know, but look at it this way: if a giant purple monster with a billion eyeballs passed you a cup of water after you had just crawled through the desert, you'd drink first and ask questions later. So it was with smiles in that dreary desert of a hospital bed.

I turned the watch over and over as it hung from the chain around my neck. Left and right, and right and left. It felt good. Knowing that other ponies cared. Ponies I didn't even know all that well. It made me think of that get well card from my classmates.

That was when I got the idea.

I reached underneath me for the card. Unfolded it carefully. Plucked out Misty's old tail hair. It came loose no problem. Flakes of that old school-paste fell off. That stuff never was any good.

I took the watch around my neck and held it really still. If I could tie the hair to the bale, it wouldn't get lost. Cause nopony was going to just come along and take the watch off of my neck for no reason. So I fiddled with my hoof, and the hair, and my mouth. A little awkward, but still, just like threading a needle. I suck at threading needles, by the way. But I could manage this one so long as I worked at it long enough.

I fiddled, and fiddled, and fussed, and fussed, and when I was done with that, I fiddled some more. I challenge any unicorn to go just one day using only your mouth and your hooves for basic everyday tasks. Go ahead. I dare you.

Anyway, I was grunting, and growling, and mumbling, and squeaking when Bananas interrupted.

"Hey, Rose."

"What?!" I snapped.

By some miracle I got the hair through.

"Got it!" I exclaimed, and went about the business of tying it tight. The easy part. Then I looked over and found Foster staring at me.

"Oh. I'm sorry about that. I just sort of um...Hehehe." I laughed to myself. "This is hard."

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. Just sort of looked at me for a long, long time.

"It's ok." She said. "I just wanted to tell you how glad I am that you're here to spend Hearth's Warming with."

Well, damn.




* * *





It was good to have a friend. Scratch that. Bananas Foster was a life saver. I don't think I could have made it through Hearth's Warming Eve all alone.

Because Roseluck didn't come. She actually stood me up.

It was just Bananas Foster and me.



* * *




We weren’t completely alone, of course. But we might as well have been. There was this big cluster of folks down the hall somewhere. They'd come to visit somepony. I don't know who he or she was, but their whole family had gathered a few doors down to be with ‘em on Hearth's Warming.

At one point, a little kid about six or seven wandered up the hallway and stopped right in front of my door. She was holding a brand new button-eyed plush. Clearly a present. You know, that one present you get on the night before Hearth's Warming Morning.

She looked at me. Gawked at my bleep-a-majig. At my empty room. At my get well card half-crumpled on the end table beside me. Just stared at all of it - not sure what to say - like I'd caught her doing something wrong or something. So I waved. Gave a weak little reassuring smile.

"Hey." I said.

But one glance at my hoof, and she gasped. Panicked. Galloped off. It wasn't even my evil hoof that she saw. The tubes were enough to scare her.

Fucking Hearth's Warming. Fucking health-o's.

"Buck her," said Foster. "She'll learn soon enough it's all a sham."

"Yeah!" I said,

"That Hearth's Warming sucks."

"Yeah," I repeated, but my heart wasn't in it.

I didn't want Hearth's Warming Eve to be a sham. I didn't want it to suck for anypony. I just wanted it to be a day I shared with my sister. I wanted to sit in the garden with all of those roses - preserved out of season by my sister's magic touch - and smile at all the shinies we'd put on the tree. I wanted to warm up by the fireplace afterward with a mug of hot cider. I wanted presents. I wanted Roseluck to take the mass of yarn that I had tied together, and the googly eyes I'd pasted on to it in an attempt to make her a present, and to cherish the silly thing like it was made out of gold.

But even if I hadn't gotten stood up - even if I wasn't stuck in that crummy hospital - I didn't think Hearth’s Warming could ever be the same for me. That holiday magic? Somehow, it didn't feel real anymore. I just wasn't that stupid, sweet little filly anymore.

I suppose I could have taken it worse. I could have started sacrificing children to The De-Innocentizer of Souls. But the holiday was still getting off to an awful start, and thinking about it still hurt.



* * *




So, of course I thought about it plenty. I was off in my own little world - being my usual mopey old self – the mess I'd let myself become - when I suddenly got hit in the stomach with something.

"Oof!" I oofed.

"I'm so sorry!" Laughed Bananas Foster. "Why didn't you catch it?"

"Why didn't you warn me?" I moaned.

"I did!"

"Well, I wasn't paying attention!" I snapped.

"Maybe you should."

"Maybe I don't wanna." I said, rubbing my stomach.

"Just read the book." Bananas Foster rolled her eyes.

I picked it up. It had settled just a little to my side. The book was pretty big, and was tied all good and tight with a ribbon so that she could huck it at me without breaking it.

"The Ponies' History of Equestria?" I read the title out loud.

"You hate authority. You'll love it."

Did I hate authority? I’d never really thought about it.

"Um ok. But why?" I mumbled as I pulled the ribbon off with my teeth.

I mean, I read plenty of nonfiction. And I don't mind a little history. But i couldn't help but feel like she was giving me homework.

"You can't stop Equestria from crumbling if you don't learn how it got the way it is in the first place."

"Fair enough." I said. "I did get an A in history, you know?"

Bananas just raised an eyebrow.

"Which executive order gave Chancellor Puddinghat the authority to round up earth pony political protesters, and shove them into brainwashing 'happy camps' during the War of the Three Races?"

"I'm not all that good at remembering numbers...Hold on a second. What?"

"What was the death count on The Blockade, ordered by Commander Hurricane?"

"The pegasi didn't make the blizzard." I whipped through the pages.

"They sealed off the clouds though, when the earth ponies refused to pay the tithe. The result wasn't pretty. Read the book."



* * *




I flipped through it with fervor. Devoured it.

War. War. War. It had almost destroyed us once before. More than anypony likes to admit.

"But...We've gotten better than this." I said out loud, turning the pages bitterly. "The flag. The princesses answering our call, like Cliff said."

At some point, I’d just sort of casually accepted Cliff Diver's crazy theory. In my state, is that really a surprise?

"They all say that." Said Foster. "Do you have any idea how many civilizations came before us that thought the same thing?" Foster asked totally out of nowhere.

"Um...two?"

"Any idea how many were forgotten ‘cause they didn't leave any written records behind at all?"

She was on a roll now.

"Um...four?"

Foster just stopped. Looked at me. Waited for me to realize what a spazz I was being, which, of course, I already knew. After a long awkward silence, I finally just caved and asked, "Alright, how many?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "They’re forgotten. They didn't write anything down."

Foster gave me a smug little grin. "That's why we read."

This coming from the girl who debased herself to get attention from nurses and orderlies.

"Yeah, thanks, Professor."

I turned the pages of the chapter on the War of the Three Races, and found a whole other kind of history I had never known about before. Diaries. Snippets of records. The words of Clover the Clever herself.




* * *




"It was upon mine honor that I did take my vows as servant of the crowne, and it was with honor that I have executed those duties for all these longe years. But lately, bearing the yoke of those charges and duties has taken a grave toll upon my conscience. In the end, I feare I am disgraced regardless of my course. Betray myself, or betray my oath, which, in a matter of speaking, is another betrayal of self - a lesson you taught me so very longe ago.

We are at odds not only with the enemy, but with one another, and all the while, the tortures of winter have chilled our hearts, and blunted our wits. The Summit begins tomorrow. With any luck, the three tribes will come to a peacefull agreement. I longe for your enlightened counsel, Master Starswirl, for I feare this task that you have set me upone may prove to be one test that I cannot pass.

I was not prepared for this.

I await news from the homefront.

I hope it is not as bleake as the rumors have lead me to believe?

Your faithfulle student,

Clover the Clever"





I stopped reading for a moment.

"Chilled our hearts." I whispered to myself out loud, running my black evil hoof over the page.

I turned the words over in my head. Even got excited for a moment. This was a clue. A connection! The shadows were cold. The windigo were cold. That had to mean something - the way they both fed on strife and discord!

Then I thought about it a little longer and realized that I had just come up with a whole lot of nothing. All I'd really found out was that cold is fucking evil. And I already knew that.





I devoured the section on Pre-Discordian history. I can't even guess how much time it took, but when I looked up, I found Bananas Foster unconscious. Twitching in her bed. Squirming. She turned herself over a bit here, and a bit there, but she was definitely asleep. It occurred to me that in all the time I'd been there, I'd never actually seen that girl sleep. So I let her be.

I'm not going to trouble you or bore you with every detail of my whiny piratery. But I was alone with my thoughts for quite a long time. I tried hiding from them in that history book, but eventually, I had to put it aside. So I closed my eyes. Did my best to go to sleep.

It was no use. Luna knows how tired I was. But all these stupid fucking thoughts just kept on coming at me. They tossed my feelings around the inside of my heart like one of those baskets full of BINGO balls that old folks play with. G-17. Disappointment. B-4. Loneliness. I-7. Abandonment.

Did Screw Loose know it was Hearth’s Warming? Did they have Hearth 's Warming Eve in the Wasteland? Had Twink ever experienced one? What the fuck was Roseluck doing?

How could she do this to me?

Fuck Roseluck.

I hope she's okay. If she's not okay, I've got to do something to save her! If she is okay then I'll kill her for leaving me alone. What the hell is she thinking?! What if she's not coming back cause she finally realized Dad was right, and I'm not worth the trouble?

CLONK! Twinkle Eyes' 2x4. "Nopony talks that way about my friends."

You get the idea.





At some point in all that madness, I looked up and I was in that field again. The one outside the schoolhouse. The pink light of sunset was already kissing the hills on the edge of the grounds. It was the same thing as before: Twink attacking Misty for cheating in a game with no actual rules; Misty protesting "ees not my fault I'm good at dee things." Laughter.

The big red kickball rolled away from the chaos and stopped at my bad hoof.

"Hey, guys!" I turned to them. "I got the ball."

But they didn't answer. They just kept on doing their thing, rolling around. Having fun.

"Guys?" I said, trotting up to them with a forced smile, but they just completely ignored me. Like I was invisible.

It occurred to me then and there that this perfect little moment that I'd seen before - it wasn't mine to enjoy. I wasn’t that stupid sweet little filly anymore. And they were all happier without me.

I squeaked out a little whimper, and plopped my flank down on that kickball. I hung my head down low, just listening to everypony else as they had their fun without me. Eventually it all faded. The game. The laughter. The waggitty-tailed Screw Loose dog. When I finally looked up, they were gone altogether.
Probably for the best. I thought.

BINGO. I was finally completely and totally alone. That was when that damn bell chimed again. The schoolbell calling me back from recess.

A breeze picked up, and a whisper scratched at me all the way from inside my ear drums. It was loud and insistent. It burned the inside of my ears like scratchy grains of sand stuck all up in there, but I couldn't make out any words. All I knew was that recess was officially over, and that it wanted me to come back inside. The voice behind all that noise. I thought back to how messed up that schoolhouse had looked the last time. Remembered Roseluck’s warning about it too.

But still, part of me started to wonder. Part of me got to thinking that maybe that place was where I really belonged after all. My friends were better off without me, and Roseluck was off somewhere, having a good time. I knew it. I could see it! Like looking into the window of a bakery when you don't have any money. I could literally see Roseluck. Laughing by the fireside. With her own friends. Having the holiday she deserved.

In that moment, I was confirmed in what I had quietly suspected my entire life. Roseluck didn’t need some bratty little sister dragging her down all the time. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to think, but dreams are pretty much just feelings with pictures, so that asshole pirate was in control for once. And he was having a field day. Tossing more Desolation Bingo balls right at my heart.

“Come home,” said the whisper in my head, totally out of nowhere. “Come home.”

The kickball under my flank started to wobble and slide out from under me. There was a current underneath my hooves too. An undertow. I didn’t fight it, and it didn’t matter, cause I was standing in darkness. And it clung to me like tar.

That long schoolhouse shadow had come up behind me. Stretched its way all the way toward the hills.

And I got lost in it.

Maybe that creepy voice was right. Maybe the schoolhouse was home.





Then the voice grew bolder.

When I was just a foal, we had gone to help clear out Great Aunt Roseroot’s old cottage. My sister and me.

The inside was full of junk, and cobwebs, and strange unpleasant smells. When Roseluck lit the first candle, four hundred thousand bugs startled all of a sudden, and noticed us too, and scurried like crazy to get away from the light. A million little scratches. On tile. On wood. On metal. In every direction. Left, right, forward, back, ceiling, floor. Awful, awful scratches everywhere.

There was no place to run to, so I just froze in place - screamed and cried. But the sound just got louder, and louder, and louder. I didn't stop freaking out till I looked up and realized that Roseluck had already taken me outside.

In that field, surrounded by tar and shadow gunk, I heard that sound again for the first time since I was small. Scratches. Millions of them. All somehow assembling themselves into one voice.

“Come home." It said. "Come home.”

I shivered. Shot up to my hooves. And there in the distance, I finally got a good look at that weird schoolhouse. I realized just how terrible a place it actually was. That I didn’t belong there - really, really, really, really didn't fucking belong there.

I turned. Tried to run. Tried to pull away from the tarry floor. But it just tugged at me, and tugged at me, and tugged at me harder.

"Twink?" I said. "Misty? Cliff!"

But they didn’t answer. They were nowhere at all to be found.

"Twink is gone." Said that voice, scratching at the inside of my ear drum again.

"No," I whispered to myself.

I kept looking for her, but I couldn't even see the hill anymore. Let alone Twinkle Eyes.

Meanwhile the shade I stood in was moving. Rustling. It didn’t sound like bugs anymore. These things, whatever they were, were much bigger now. My size. There had to be dozens of them from the sound of it, and they were creeping up on me from behind. Dragging themselves through the dirt.

I didn’t want to look at that schoolhouse again, and risk getting sucked towards it, so I didn’t dare turn around. But I checked my hoof like Roseluck had said. It was warm.

“What?!” I said out loud. “So this is all in my fucking imagination then?”

I was safe. I had to be. I assured myself quietly. The shadows couldn’t trick me with my own piratery. They couldn’t suck me in with their stupid tar either. The shadows sucked. And I told them so.

"Fuck you, shadows!" I yelled. "You suck!"

But still, I felt that old familiar terror.

If only I can lay eyes on my friends again, I thought. Just for a minute! Then I knew I would be out of their grasp for good. You had to beat them with a strong heart. Or some shit. Dream Roseluck had told me so the night before.

"Twink! Rose? Cliff?” I called out. “Anypony?"

But the creatures just got closer. Dragging. Crunching on leaves.

Then one of the rustlers called to me from behind.

"Rose Petal," she pleaded. "Help."

It stunned me so much that I actually turned around, and found myself face-to-face with them. Forty-some-odd children. Dressed in rags. Covered in dirt. And they looked to me with blank expressions.

Those poor kids couldn't have been older than kindergartners.

"Why?" Said the one closest to me.

Just why.

"I believed in you," said another.

They stepped closer. One-by-one. The mass of them seemed to emerge from the black like an army marching out of the ocean. When I saw them up close, it became really obvious that they were fucked up and mangled in someway. All of them. Obviously broken limbs. Holes in the head that had stopped bleeding long ago.

"We need you," said one of the littler ones. "Come home."

I looked her in the eyes. Eyes that did not blink. Eyes that looked back at me so coldly I felt like my bones were naked.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

But she didn't answer.

None of them did. They just stared me down scornfully.

I looked out over their shoulders. Beyond them, still in the distance, was a vague and distorted outline of the schoolhouse. That's where the inky black stuff was coming from. Bad news.

"Come on!" I said. "We gotta get away from here."

I turned, but the field was gone. Then I turned around some more, and around, and around again, but it was all just black. I couldn't find the hills. I couldn't find the playground. I could barely tell up from down, let alone figure out which way to go.

"I'll um...I'll get you out." I did my best to wing it. "Please just, uh...Follow me."

I kept looking desperately for an exit. A drop of light. Anything. But it was all just black. Everywhere.

The little girl at my side looked up at me. "That's what you said before." She said dryly.

The wind blew her ratty old cape off. It disappeared clean into the darkness around us. Her poor chest was riddled with holes. The kind you can only get in the Wasteland.

"It should have been you." She said.

I clapped my hoof against my mouth. "You poor thing," I started crying.

I reached out to touch her face with my other forehoof, but she just looked at me with purest hate.

"It should have been you." She said again, and spat on me.

"It should have been you," said another voice from behind.

Then another. And another. And another. It should have been you.

I dropped to my knees there on the playground.

"No," I whispered.

I was looking at the kids of Sub Mine F.

I wanted to call out to them. Tell them I was sorry. Tell them that I had tried. Really, really tried. But I couldn't summon up even a syllable. I didn't have enough breath for words.

Then the recess bell rang, and one-by-one, they turned their backs on me and filed away back towards the schoolhouse.

"Wait!" I cried at last, and got up to gallop after them. "Don't go in there!"

I caught up with the crowd, and tried to pull the fillies and colts back. But they just kept marching - filing their way back into this horrible, jagged version of the little red schoolhouse I'd once known.

A cloud of pungent smoke rose out of the chimney.

"Wait!" I said. "Wait!"

Finally one of them turned around. A colt. The one I saw on the back of those cloak-o's the night I first stumbled through the Wasteland. The One I'm Not Meant to Save.

It was him! It was him! I was sure of it.

"You," I said in awe.

He stared me down. Dead judgmental eyes.

"You." He replied coldly.

We just stood there, alone together in the field as the other kids marched right on into "class." He didn't blink. Didn't breathe. Didn't do anything. It was unnatural.

Finally, after a long staring contest, he turned his back on me without saying another word, and followed the rest.

"No!" I said, grabbing him. "Don't go in there! It's evil!"

But he didn't listen. So I followed. Threw myself at him. I couldn't let that kid go. Not this time.

With my hooves wrapped around his torso, the One I'd Failed to Save merged seamlessly into the crowd.

My hooves dragged through the tar. No matter how deeply I dug in, or pressed, or tugged, there was no stopping him. No slowing him down. He moved like I wasn't there at all. It wasn't long before we were closed in, and surrounded by the crowd of all the other slaughtered mine kids.

"Stop!" I said. "Please!"

As we drew closer, my hoof started tingling again. Getting chills. I looked back at that doorway, and the impenetrable ink that seemed to spill from inside. That stuff was made of evil shadow. The real thing. The kind that Dream Roseluck had warned me would attack if I lingered on my heartache for too long. The kind that freezes you solid, and plunges into your worst memories, and dyes your hoof, and turns you into a quivering mess.

The kind of shadow you can't escape from.

I shrieked wildly. "Ahh! Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahh! Ahhh!"

Then I did it some more. "Ahhhhhhhh!"

But they all just marched. Coldly.

It hurt to abandon those poor mine-o's a second time, but I didn't want to run into another shadow thing. I couldn't. I couldn't even think about it without degenerating into a rampaging mindless panic. So I pushed and charged through the crowd. Screaming like a foal. There were so many kids, that I couldn't even tell what was what anymore. It was all just black and gray. Black and gray. Black and gray.

"No." I howled. "Stop."

But it was too late to turn back. The crowd kept marching on toward its doom, and sweeping me with them.

"It should have been you," was all any of them said to me. "It should have been you."

"I'm sorry." I cried.

"It should have been you."

"I'm so sorry."





At some point I stopped pleading with them, and just plain begged to be spared for my own sake. "Please,” I said. “Just leave me alone."

But they did not.

We were damn close to the door now, and they knew it. I still couldn't see anything on the inside. Just black. But the echoes of a whole bunch of voices reverberated from the inside.

“It should have been you, Rose.” They said. “It should have been you.”

I tried to run. To push. To climb away from all of them. But they were grabbing me now. And those kids were burning-fucking-cold to the touch. Almost like they were shadows themselves.

I tossed, and I writhed and swung out at anypony who touched me with their icy hooves, but it was no use. Because deep down inside, I knew that they were right. It should have been me.

My struggles got random. Desperate. I started lashing out wildly, without even having any targets. There was nothing more that I could do. The mine-o's were everywhere, they were fixed on taking me inside, and I couldn’t stop them.

I looked up. The schoolhouse wasn't even lying anymore. It showed itself for what it was - the castle tower from my vision in the Trottica tunnels. The place with all the screams that you could hear for miles, and miles, and miles. The home of the shadows.

A gust of wind chilled my back. My evil hoof felt like it was on cold fire now. I clutched it and screamed, it hurt so bad.

The doorway was looming right over us - a great stone arch. It was so dark where I was, that the gray outline of that doorway became all that I could see. In just a moment, I would be inside, and there would be no use in fighting at all anymore. A claw almost grazed my back as it whipped around behind me. Hungry.

I could feel it.

“Help!” I called out one last time, more a whimper than a yell. "Please?"

And to my surprise, help came.






“Enough!"

A bold and terrifying voice. Booming over everything. Suddenly, it all ground to a halt, and the cursed souls of Sub Mine F carried me no more. Instead, I found myself on the floor. Heaving. Sobbing. Practically a puddle. Apologizing. Pleading for mercy. Shielding myself instinctively, as if that could do any good.

Then a hoof set down before me, and a light started shining down from above. A real light.

"Dry your tears, child. " Said the voice.

The hoof lifted my chin. And then I saw her through salty, teary eyes.

"Princess Luna!"

A spark of moonlight lit up her face. The very air around her seemed to hum like some strange and mysterious choir. Without thinking, I threw myself around her leg. I had never met a real live princess before, or even come close. Maybe I should have bowed or something, but I was so relieved I just couldn't help myself.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!" I cried. "You saved me."

Her hoof stroked my mane as the rest of the field around us warmed up slowly, and became its old self under the light of the Moon.

"You saved me." I sobbed for a long while.

"I'm afraid that I did not." She said at last.

I looked up at her. Shocked and confused.

"The real danger is yet to come." Princess Luna pointed at a scene beside us.

It was me. Frozen in time. Like a photograph, or something out of a wax museum. It was all exactly as it had been right before she had come. I could see myself just outside the doorway to that hellish castle. Like a statue trying to claw its way out of a sea of black syrup.

"I cannot fight the shadows for you," said the princess. "Because I did not invite them here."

"Who did?"

She looked down her muzzle at me. "You, child. This is your dream."

I couldn't tell if she was chiding me, or just being frank.

"No, I...I--;”

I tried to think of an excuse, but then I remembered what Dream Roseluck had said the night before. How they find you. How they get you. How you fight them. There was no way around it. Luna was right.

"Loneliness. Fear. Despair." She said. "This is what the shad--;"

"What about Sub Mine F?!” I interrupted her without shame or tact. “The kid from the Wasteland! The shadow things have them."

I pointed back at the scene: The statue of me getting sucked into that castle, still frozen in time. But no mine-o’s were anywhere to be seen. Just me and a whole lot of tar.

"I don't know what it is that you speak of,” said Princess Luna. “But anything that you've seen here is a trick."

"So what now, this isn't real?" I waved my evil hoof around, gesticulating wildly at Statue Rose Petal and the shadow waters. "All this over a silly dream!"

I reached out to touch the statue, but Luna snatched my hoof away.

"Rose Petal." She looked at me sternly. "You of all ponies should know that there is nothing silly about dreams."

I seized up, as still as a wax statue myself. Luna knew! She knew! The Princess actually knew.

"Uh...umm." I couldn’t figure out what to say.

She held back and watched me fumble a bit. Measured me with her eyes. And I just kept on acting like a dufus. I mean, really, what do you do when a princess casually happens to know your biggest secret? I wanted to crawl into a hole and shrink into nothing. But I didn't dare to look away. She just held on to me with her bright blue eyes. They almost glowed.

It made me wonder. Could Princess Luna help me in the wasteland? Had she seen everything? Had she been watching this whole time?

"Every dream has a door," she said, as if to answer the questions in my head. "Where yours lead..."

She lifted an eyebrow at me. "...I cannot follow."

I nodded. But the answer wasn't reassuring. Every dream has a door.

I turned to look at Statue Rose Petal again. Struggling. Screaming. The black was dragging her through the doorway of the castle with all its might.

"What's that door?"

I said, trembling just a little.

Luna looked at me gravely.

"The Point of No Return."

Statue Me was inches from it. And surrounded in all directions. Roseluck had said that my heart was how I could beat them, but it was my heart that sunk as I watched. There was no way I could get free from that.

Statue Rose Petal was totally fucked. Which meant that I was totally fucked.

“Wait, wait, wait!” I pleaded. “There’s gotta be...maybe some--;”

“I built it myself,” said Luna. “Once upon a time.”

I was about to make a great big loud obnoxious exclamation. “You what?!” But I saw the worry on her face. The pain. The regret.

That castle, however it had come to be, was her Sub Mine F.

“I built it to keep the children safe." She said at last. "To keep the nightmares away. But in my long absence, it fell.” Her voice trailed off into a whisper.

We were left with the dreaded silence of night. Not even a cricket. Just the sound of waves on distant shores. Luna took a deep breath at last. “Not with all the magic in Equestria could I liberate this place.” She said, summoning her composure once again. “And if you set hoof inside, there is no power in this world that could set you free.”

"What about the Elements of Harmony?" I whimpered, as though they would come to the aid of a background pony anyway.

"The Elements belong to Equestria. This place - these dreams - they belong to a vast ocean between worlds. If there is a way to bring the Elements here, I do not know it. It is up to each and everypony to stand alone against their fear."

“And you can’t get me out of...this?” I gestured to the chaos. The wax museum sculpture. The ink. The shadows.

“No,” she said from behind me. “I can only show you how.”

I kept on staring. It's impossible to describe what it’s like to see your own self struggling right there before your eyes. Fucking screaming. Getting dragged into someplace truly unspeakable.

"So, um…” I ran my hoof nervously through my mane. “I'll actually have to...You know...All by myself?"

I turned back to face the princess, but she was already gone. Trotting amongst the stars.

"No! Wait!" I yelled. "Come back! How do I..."

I looked back at my own screaming statue self, and whimpered. "How do I fight the impossible?"




* * *




She was out of sight now. The choir was silent. The hum was gone. And I was left alone in the field, looking up at a gigantic yellow moon that took up nearly half the sky.

"Please,” I shouted at the great black sky. "I didn't get to tell you about the future. The war!"

No answer. Not even crickets.

"You die, Princess! You fucking die!"

A whisper hit me from the inside of my ear. It was the Princess' voice one last time.

"I know, child." She said, frighteningly calm. "I know."

I looked up at that moon. It was silent. Tranquil. Patient.

Luna knew. There was a Way It Was Supposed to Happen. And she was following it. Just like I had. Following it straight to her own doom.




* * *





I looked around. It was just that big yellow moon and me. And, of course, Screaming Quite Reasonably In Terror Statue Rose Petal. I scuttled my hooves through the dust to get as far away from that thing as possible, but even when I closed my eyes, I could see every detail of my own statue face. That horrifying desperation.

I shuffled away, and kept my eyes on the stars, and listened. But there were no voices. Not even a brain hornet. Just hoof-shuffling and silence. When I got far enough away, I stopped and looked up at that big old moon. With Luna gone, it was all I had.

"What am I supposed to do?" I cried. "Tell me!”

No answer.

“Tell me!"

Still no answer.

At least until I noticed a strange object all the way on the other end of the field. I couldn't figure out what it was at first, but it was bigger than a pony. And it didn't belong there. I walked over, staring. Hoping.





It was a door. A metal door like the kind that leads to an apple cellar, but standing straight up. In the middle of the field. As far as I could tell, it lead to absolutely nothing. After a bit of a walk, I soon found myself standing right in front of it. It towered over me. I touched it. It was chilly but not that Evil kind of cold. Just regular cold. The door was splashed in sloppy white paint. "No Mare's Land." It said in uninviting letters.

I looked back at the sky. But the Moon just hovered there. Watching. Waiting.

I circled the door, inspecting it carefully. When I came around to the other side, there was nothing there at all. No door. Just air. It had dis-a-fucking-ppeared. I could look right through the spot where the door was supposed to be, and see my own hoofprints right there where I had just been standing. But when I came back around, there it was again.

The door. Like magic. The writing as stark and un-reassuring as ever: No Mare's Land.

The fucking thing stared at me. Daring me to open it. At least that's what it felt like.

Stupid door.

It was hard to look away from. There was some strange kind of magnetic pull about it or something. But with effort, I looked back up at the Moon again anyway.

"I'm supposed to learn how to beat the shadow things in a place called ‘No Mare's Land’?"

Silence.

"Isn't that, you know, just a little creepy?!"

Silence.

Moon.

The sound of distant waves.

"Well," I took a deep breath. "Um. Okay, then. Here goes nothing."

I wedged my hoof under the metal handle and tugged it open gently. Immediately, I fell forward right through it.

Right into No Mare's Land.

Fucking Moon.

No Mare's Land

View Online

CHAPTER FIFTEEN - NO MARE'S LAND
"I got soul but I'm not a soldier." - The Killers


There's no getting used to the Big Kaboom. That great big explosion you have to pass through on your way to the future. But when I fell through that door to No Mare's Land, those million screams, that smack across the face - it was a blink-of-the-eye pit-stop this time. All that stuff flew over me, past me, around me, through me, and afterwards, I found myself face-to-face with something else entirely.

It was this moment. Like every cloud in Equestria suddenly crumbled away and parted at once. The big bright blue showed itself in a gigantic flash – a cataclysm just as big as the bomb had been, except it was a good thing.

I was moving past the Wasteland. And as I careened through this new vision, three words were left on the tip of my tongue.

Sunshine and rainbows.

Then, all of a sudden, the weightlessness of it all sort of fell away, and I found myself tumbling face first down a flight of rickety wooden stairs. I hit the ground with a thud. I'd arrived.

"Sunshine and rainbows," I said to myself, spitting dirt out of my mouth.

Eighty years after "Sunshine and Rainbows," to be precise. Whatever the hell that meant.

I sprung to my hooves, and tried to get my bearings. In case I was in danger. I felt like one of those squirrels who jerks his head every which way as he clutches his acorn - the kind that, if given the power of speech, would just waste it on screaming "oh, no, oh, no, oh, no," all the time. "Everything wants to eat me!!!"

But there was no one around. Just dirt, and wood, and crates, and stuff. From the looks of things, No Mare's Land was some kinda cellar. I poked around all over. There was a piece of paper taped to one of the crates. An inventory. I looked it over, but the contents were all fucking boring. So I moved on.

There didn't seem to be a single thing down there that could help me fight shadows at all.

So instead, I grabbed a bandage out of a giant metal first aid box. Wrapped it around my evil hoof, so I could blend in a little better if I needed to, but that was about all the cellar had to offer.

I was alone in a tiny space. Just me, a bunch of crates, some burlap sacks, and a crummy old pile of brown blankets in the corner. Up above, I heard banging. Like cannon fire, but distant. Muffled. The rumbles were few and far between. There was no way to know for certain whether or not it was the sound of fighting. I suspected it might be, and after a moment of steeping the idea like a tea bag bobbing around a head full of think-juice, I reckoned it was probably best to act as though there was actual fighting going on. Just in case.

I made my way up the stairs to get a better look. At the top of it was a big metal flap that lifted upward. The door. The same door that had catapulted me into No Mare's Land in the first place.

I swallowed hard.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense, but I couldn't help but wonder: Would it spit me back out again into an evil castle full of shadow tar if I tried to go through it?

I didn't have too much time to think on the issue, cause out of nowhere, the door opened.

* * *

I leapt off of the stairs. Totally blind. In fear. Not knowing who was coming down there to join me.

Thwack! I hit the ground awkwardly and stumbled face first into a crate. I only fell a couple of feet, but it sure didn't feel like it.

A figure stood at the top of the stairs, all bundled up in a scarf. A gust of freezing wind followed him. He was busy fussing with the door, so he didn't see me.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! I thought.

There was wooden framework under the stairs. It was my only shot. I scurried over, and hid underneath. It was like this web of supporting scaffolding and stuff. I managed to fit. Just barely. I forced my frantic breaths down and tried to be as quiet as possible. There was nothing to do but watch and wait. And try to stay calm over the deafening sound of my own thundery heart.

A colt came down. All bundled up in a long brown coat that was just a little bit too big for him. His scarf levitated off of his face and hung loosely from his neck. The kid was a unicorn, light blue, with a scruffy red mane - not that you could tell with all the dirt on him. He was sneaking around too. Suspicious-like. He backed his way toward one of the stacks of crates on the far end of the room, never taking his eyes off the door.

He could have seen me had he been looking. Easily. But he was more worried about getting caught than about catching somepony else. He turned his attention toward one of the burlap sacks, eager to accomplish his task, which, judging by his demeanor, was really, really important. I didn't dare move for most of his rummage-fest, but when he telekinetically opened that bag, I leaned forward just a little bit.

What did he want? What was he after? Was that my mission? The bag? Was there something in this cellar I needed after all? Was he snatching it right there in front of me?

The colt’s eyes lit up as he hovered over it.

He took one last paranoid look toward the door. Then closed his eyes and concentrated. Flashed his horn till the bag itself glowed blue. And then out it came.

An onion. He grabbed it and devoured it like it was cake. Cleaned himself up in a frenzied hurry, and grabbed all the dry onion skins that had shed. Shoved it all back in the corner.

Onion Boy darted for the staircase, but he didn't make it in time. The door flung open again, and, thinking fast, he dove under the scaffolding to hide.

Fuck!

I cringed further into the corner to make space, but there just wasn't anywhere for me to go. The guy landed right next to me, and when I got a good look at him, I could tell he was only a little bit older than me. A teen like Foster. Onion Boy cringed at the sound of hoofsteps creaking on down the stairs.

That’s when his eyes finally met mine.

He stumbled backward in shock, and nearly smacked right into a pile of noisy wood. He whipped around to face me, and threw his hooves up in defense like I was gonna hit him or something. I put my hoof to my mouth and mimed a shush gesture. I hoped, and hoped, and hoped that he had the sense not to scream, or flail, or do something stupid.

"Sterry, you down here?" An older teenager's voice.

Sterry didn't answer. He just kept looking at me the whole time.

"Hey, Short Stack, Colonel Wormwood is looking for you."

Colonel. Whatever I was mixed up in was some kind of military operation.

The owner of the voice creaked his way down those stairs, and on to the dirt floor. It was another colt - an older one. Dressed in brown. A grown up, but only barely.

The kid beside me, Sterry, jerked his head back and forth. His turn for the frightened squirrel routine. He didn't want to keep this Colonel Wormwood waiting. But also didn't want to get caught. So he looked at me. Looked at the other guy. Looked back at me like he wanted to kill me. Looked at the other guy like he was about to get killed.

"Sterry!" The guy finally spotted him. Spotted us both.

"Uhh..." The kid backed up against the dirt wall.

Put as much distance between me and him as he could. Sterry had gone from scared-of-getting-caught to terrified-of-being-seen-with-me.

"It's not what you think, sir." His voice was trembling.

The older one - a brown earth pony - turned to me. Lowered his gigantic bushy eyebrows and measured me carefully. So I waved back at him.

"How..." The older one's jaw dropped. "How did that kid get down here?" He sounded terrified too.

Uh-oh. I thought. Did I just stumble into another Trottica? Some fucked up future where being under a certain age was illegal?
Or maybe it's because I'm a girl. The place was called No Mare's Land after all.

The older one turned to Sterry. He wanted to beat the crap out of the poor kid. Like it was his fault I was there.

"Uhh, uhh, uh..." Sterry was all slick, and quick on his hooves and stuff. "Uh...Hey kid, are you okay?"

Suddenly all eyes were on me.

Well played, Sterry.

"Um, umm..." I fared no better than he did.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I said to myself. He just asked if you were okay. Thats not even a hard question!

But I couldn't come up with the words. Finally, I just nodded my head "yes."

"How did you get here?" The older one approached.

All the stupid things I could possibly say ran rampant through my head all at once, but I bit down on my lip real hard, and didn't say any of them. I just answered by pointing at the door.

The older one rolled his eyes while Sterry just sort of sighed in relief that the attention was off him for a while - that he wasn't in trouble. The kid whipped a flask out from under his coat and took a swig from it - to hide the smell of onions most likely. Instead he just ended up smelling like that stuff they put on your cuts before giving you a bandage.

"Where is your mother?" Asked the older one.

"She passed." I could hear the quiver in my own voice. I didn't put it there on purpose. I was just telling the truth.

"Father?"

"Meh." I shrugged.

That got a laugh.

I didn't tell them about Roseluck. They would just wanna know where she was. So I observed some more instead and let them think that I was an all-around orphan. It was kind of amazing. The less I spoke, the more I learned about these ponies. I made a little checklist in my head.

-They weren't used to seeing kids.

-But they weren't out to get us either.

-This wasn't a safe place like back home in Ponyville.

-But for once I wasn't plopped down in the middle of a crowd of murderous bastards.

The older one - I called him Oldy in my head - wasn't surprised to learn that I had no parents.

-So such a thing must be at least somewhat common.

Orphaned kids. Death. War. Good intentions. On a scale from Ponyville to the Wasteland, this Sunshine and Rainbows world got about a 5. Not quite enough to live up to its nickname.

"Hey, kid, speak up, what's your name?" Sterry was short on patience. "Where'd you come from?"

"Rose Petal," I snapped. "And I don't know."

Clonk! Oldy smacked him upside the head.

"Leave her alone and go sterilize...blankets or something." He pointed at the first thing he saw – the pile of blankets.

"I already did."

"Then just back off and let me handle this kid, okay?"

Sterry grumbled.

"That's an order."

I never thought it would be possible to salute somepony with petulance, but in that moment, Sterry managed. A salute of purest contempt. Oldy just ignored him, and focused on me.

"Hey, so...um..." He stuttered, straightened his coat collar with his mouth. The way he fidgeted as he talked, he looked like a little kid chewing on his clothes. “Um...um...um…”

Sterry stood behind him, mocking his nervous, uncertain mannerisms with surgical accuracy. I had to cover my face just to hide the smirk. That kid was good at impressions. Damn good.

"How are you today?" Oldy said at last.

"I'm...well, to be honest..."

Boom! A rumble from the outside broke the bizarre comedic tension. The ground shook so hard, that it rained dirt from the ceiling. And suddenly, the situation wasn't funny anymore. I squealed and pressed myself against the wall. For a moment I could even swear I was back in the tunnels of Trottica again. But the other two just acted like it was nothing.

I blinked. Found myself clinging to a wooden beam in anticipation of a cellar collapse, or an army of enemies storming down, or I don't fucking know, something.

Sterry and Oldy were both looking at me - pitying me. Like I was a little baby. So I cleared my throat, brushed myself off, and kicked the wall with my hind legs to show it to who was boss.

"That's for startling me!"

Oldy smiled. Sterry visibly loosened up a bit too. For some reason, it was a relief to him knowing I wasn't some fragile pathetic thing. At least when it came to menacing dirt. I felt pathetic though - freaking out like that - and it made me mad as hell at those fucking cloak-o’s all the way back in Trottica for turning me into such a basket case in the first place.

"Yeah, that's the spirit." Said the older one. "Kick it like it's corn."

There was shouting up above, just beyond the door at the top of the stairs. Sterry and Oldy looked at one another, then looked back at me. I couldn't make out what was being yelled up there, but they sure understood.

"Listen, I have to go for a bit." Oldy sat on his hindquarters, put his forehooves on my shoulders. "Can you stay right here?" He asked. "Just for a little while?"

I nodded. A fucking lie. I wasn't gonna stay nowhere.

The teenage soldiers drew their guns from under their coats. The younger one levitated it as he messed around with his scarf. Oldy, being an earth pony, just gripped his gun in his teeth.

I didn't want to give away how totally clueless I was. That would be suspicious. But I needed answers, and I did seem to be amongst ponies who actually wanted to protect me. For a change.

So I took a page out of Bananas Foster's playbook. It was a terrible idea, but something in me had to at least try it.

"Sterry!" I called.

He stopped at the top of the stairs just before the door. Oldy bumped into him from behind.

"Is Equestria at war?" I did my best to sound helpless and unimposing.

I was bad at it. I hated the words even as they came out of my mouth. It showed.

Sterry sighed an impatient "yes," whilst Oldy spat out his gun to answer "no." He caught the gun in one hoof, and clopped Sterry in the head with the other.

"We are not at war." He snapped. "This is an armed conflict."

"War." Sterry pretended to cough.

"And it's not all of Equestria." The older one turned to me.

"...Yet," coughed Sterry.

Oldy wrapped a leg around Sterry's neck and got him into a headlock.

"Don't worry about it," he said to me. "Equestria would never go to war again."

Boom!

Dirt rained down from the ceiling.

"But," he laughed nervously. "Our outpost here is well...just sort of in a little bit of a skirmish right now. Don't you worry about a thing, little girl."

Oldy looked daggers at Sterry, who was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Then he let him go. Sterry coughed, and coughed, and coughed, and caught his breath. But even after all that, it was still me that he was worried about. I could see it in his eyes, as he looked down at me nervously from the top of those stairs.

"Just stay here." They both said at once.

The Helpless Kid Routine had worked all too well. Yuck.





A gust of freezing air came down into the cellar as they flung the door open. Along with the smell of smoke, and the sounds of ratatatatatat guns, explosions, and a whole lot of shouting.

You know, war.

Then wham! The door slammed shut and I was alone again.

"Don't worry about a thing, little girl." I said in a mocking tone once they were gone.
So stupid. Why did I do that? Play the pity card. Why did it actually work? What the fuck, world? Ew, ew, ew, ew!

I couldn't even begin to guess how Bananas Foster could stand any of it. Because Eww. Seriously. Fucking Ewwwwwwww.

* * *

But there were more pressing concerns: a world at war that wasn't really a war; an outpost that got sucked into the center of it; an Equestria that hated war so bad, it wouldn't even admit when it was spiraling face-first into one.

Is this whatI was sent there to learn? That the Wasteland wouldn't last forever. That even when ponies do go to war in the far, far distant future, things are gonna be far, far better because they'd learn their lesson - because they wouldn't go around torturing kids in mines anymore, and worshiping de-innocentizers, and actresses and stuff?

I got to work rummaging around that cellar. Grabbed myself a coat that was ridiculously too big. Brown with white lining like the others. Hideous. Grabbed myself an onion. I might actually be desperate enough to eat it before the day was done. Kicked and pried at other boxes in search of weapons, maps, clues - anything at all that I could use. Another door maybe, to get the fuck out of there, and by the way, skip all that shadow castle stuff and move straight on into the sort of dreams that involved brownies and caramel.

As if it would be that easy.

There was nothing. The hornets weren't helping either. Even the me-voices in my head were useless. I had no idea how this day was supposed to go down, because the inside of my head was completely fucking silent. It was like being dumped into the middle of a high-stakes game of marbles, with a whole bunch of stupid house rules that made no fucking sense, and nopony bothering to explain them.

Before long, I found myself sitting on the floor. Staring up at the door I had just come through. The big metal door that had sucked me into No Mare's Land in the first place.

Yes, I was contemplating running out there into a war zone. Unarmed.

The cellar was a dead end. I couldn't hide there forever, and couldn't just wait for Sterry and his friend to come back either. Or to talk with Colonel Wormwood. She sounded like a real pleasure to deal with.

No. I was there in No Mare's Land for a reason.

I didn't even believe I was there for a good reason. Like Bananas had said. But I hadn't come hundreds of years into the future just to hang around some cellar. So up the stairs I went. I kept my eyes fixed on the door as I climbed step-by-creaking-step. All six of them. It wasn't a very deep cellar.

I perched at the top of the steps, and put my hoof on the cold metal door. Stood there for a long, long time. Working up the nerve.

"Ok, on the count of three." I said.

"1..."

I pressed firmly against the door.

"2..." I rocked back-and-forth like a battering ram in anticipation.

"Two-and-a-half..." I kept rocking myself back-and-forth like a battering ram in further anticipation.

I got as high as two-and-three-quarters before I said, "Fuck it," and just opened the damned door already. Charged out there into the bitter cold. Ready to gallop through fire, and kabooms, and flee from bad guys in easy-to-identify floral print uniforms. Or something.

But what I found wasn't that kind of war at all.

The door opened up along the bottom of some kind of a ditch. And there were long, long, long, long rows of soldier ponies bunched up in their coats, sitting in the dirt, huddling in the same ditch as me. They looked like a patch of lumpy brown potatoes.

Some ponies were running up and down the trench. All of them were huddling against the fall of raining dirt. There was shooting and shouting, but the strangest thing of all was the soldiers who just sat there. Ignoring it. Being potatoes.

I couldn't put my hoof on it, but there was something horrifically wrong out there. Something the opposite of good.

I could feel it in the air. In the dirt. See it written on all of their faces.

A gust of wind whipped through the lot of us, and a shivering unicorn turned around to huddle. She almost looked right at me!

I yelped and scurried back down the stairs so fast, I hit the dirt before the door even fell shut behind me.

Maybe Sterry and Oldy are right, I thought to myself .

I mean, sure, the answers I was looking for weren't going to be down in some cellar, but maybe I needed to be patient and hang around. You know, someplace relatively warm. That doomyness out there might even go away on its own. Resolve itself if we were lucky. Maybe I could just kick back, and figure out what to do later once Sterry returned.

"Yeah," I said, pacing back-and-forth. "That's what I'll do."

I walked around in tiny circles. It warmed me up pretty quick. Without the chill of the wind, the cellar itself was almost comfortable.

"Just hang out here," I said to myself. "Eeyup."

I circled a while longer, and sang a little song about buckets of oats on the wall. But I'd only counted down to 95 before I went and saw something that made me stop dead in my tracks.

Blankets. I was face-to-face with that pile of blankets. Blankets those ponies out there could really, really, really use.

"Fuck."

* * *

I stepped outside for real. Stood there in the trench staring down a nauseatingly long row of hideous brown trench coats. There were dozens of soldiers down in that trench - probably more around the corner. And lots of very, very big guns.

They are going to shoot me. They're going to shoot me. They are going to shoot me. An annoying voice in my head kept on saying.

"They are going to fucking shoot me." I whispered out loud to myself out loud.

But it was too late for me to turn back.

Besides, they all looked so damn cold and miserable, that I just plain had no choice but to blanket them up. Or at least try.

I straightened my coat. Held my head high. After a long, deep breath, I readied the first blanket - yanked it from under the straps on my back, and approached the first soldier.

"Blanket Brigade," I mumbled, mouth full of wool.

The green unicorn potato mare looked at me. Blinked in surprise. Blinked so hard it made a bloinky bloink sound.

"Holy shit, it's a fucking kid!" She shouted.

"Ahhh!" I spun around in shock. Stumbled backwards. Her voice was that fucking loud.

I knocked into somepony or other, bounced against him so hard, I fell forward again.

"Ow!" I said, as my knees banged against the wooden planks that stretched across the floor of the trench.

Then Boom! Distant cannon fire.

From that moment on, everything was chaos, not just me.

Shouting. Shouting. Shouting. Ponies grabbing their guns. The unicorn mare turned away from me, and aimed a big long gun through a crevice in a couple of sandbags. "You shit-licking corns! We got a kid in here!"

Blam. Blam. Blam.

"You fucking monsters."

Blam. Blam. Blam.

"Have you no..."

Blam.

"Fucking."

Blam.

"Decency?!"

The second soldier, a white gryphon, just stared at me totally fucking mesmerized. He dropped his weird-looking made-for-gryphons backpack and everything.

I stared right back. What was a gryphon even doing there?

He reached out a big yellow talon. Like he was gonna touch me just to see if I was real.

"Kid!" Mr. Gryphon exclaimed in horror. A big, dark, booming voice. "What are you doing here, you're going to get hu--"

I reached around and yanked a blanket off my back with my teeth. Shoved the ugly brown bundle of cloth into his outstretched talon.

He looked at it, not sure what to do or say. This clearly wasn't part of the script.

"Blanket Brigade!" I said, and shot him a clumsy salute. "Um...Colonel Wormwood's orders?"

"She sent a kid down here?!" Snapped the unicorn sniper as she reloaded. "I told you. Wormwood's losing her mind. First Sterry,"

The sniper flipped a frantic, inarticulate gesture in my direction.

"Now this poor thing."

"Hey!" I snapped. "I'm not a poor nothin'!"

My voice cracked.

Mr. Gryphon pressed his blanket over the sniper's mouth. "Would you shut the fuck up?" He whispered. "That's treason."

The sniper froze. I had only given out two blankets so far, and already everything was spinning out of control.

"No!" I said, not wanting to cause any trouble for anypony. "Colonel Wormwood isn't losing her mind. She, um...it's just, well, uh...something for me to do until I can get home. To...you know...safety."

The wind whistled down the trenches. When they hunched under their blankets, I bolted. Leapt up high over Mr. Gryphon's big ugly bag, and just ran. But Mr. Gryphon was fast. He grabbed me by the back of my hoof with his free talon, and Wham! Down on the floor I went, chin first.

"Ow, fuck!"

“Stay low." Said Mr. Gryphon. His booming voice cracked and trembled. "For the love of the Sun, stay low."

I looked into his fear-struck eyes, and nodded silently. If that guy was afraid of something, I would be pretty fucking dumb not to be afraid of it too.

Finally, he let go, and I hurried on. Staying low.

* * *

I ran, and ran, and ducked into a corner. The trenches were sort of maze-like that way.

"Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving." I muttered to myself as I broke into a trot.

At least the best trot I could with a tight belt cinching blankets to my back. Then, just as I kinda sorta started to get my bearings, Ka-pow! A big old cannon thing went off not too far away.

I shrieked. Stumbled. Knocked my leg into something or other - fell on my knees. Again.

Arg. The ground was jaggedy. I looked down at my hoof. I was actually bleeding a little down my leg.

"For fuck's sake, come on!" I yelled.

Punched the dirt wall of the trench with my forehooves.

"Stupid..."

Punch.

"Land..."

Punch.

"Of sunshine..."

Punch.

"And rainbows!"

I whipped around and gave the wall a solid buck with my hind hooves. Then dropped to the ground and caught my breath.

A whole war where ponies hated corn? A place where gryphons and ponies fought side-by-side for no apparent reason?

What did any of this have to do with anything?

I peeked down the perpendicular-like trench - the one leading away from the enemy line. A zebra was back there loading a cannon. Getting ready to fire again. Beside her was a big metal pony with devices sticking out his body. Guns. And something that looked like fireworks - all part of some wacko suit of armor.

"What the fuck?" I ogled them both.

Was that what I was sent to discover? That Equestria had finally learned its lesson? That we could blow each other to bits, but hey, at least we weren't racist anymore? Is that what counts for Sunshine and Fucking Rainbows in the future?




I brushed myself off, and looked up at the sky. Started to ask it a question, but never got to finish. 'Cause up there in the great big blue was the Moon. Hanging still for all to see. In broad daylight.

I shrieked like a foal. Scrambled backwards, pressed myself up against the dirt wall as far as I could go.

"No." I whimpered. "No."

The Moon looked back down at me - wild as the Everfree. And my blood ran cold.

Princess Luna really was gone.

* * *

I blacked out. I don't know for how long, but my guess was not very, since the sky looked exactly the same when I woke up. But for all I knew, the future sky always looked exactly the same.

It might sound stupid, but all my life the princesses were like gravity – a constant force that was always there, always holding us ponies together, even when we weren't paying attention. Especially the Moon. The Moon you could always count on.

But now, we were on our own.

Even if the Wastelanders manage to fix their world, no matter how many slaves they liberate; no matter how many wars they fight, no matter how many mountains we blow up, Equestria will never, ever be the same again.

Looking up at that crazy moon, pale as a ghost with a bright blue sky as its backdrop, I felt, for the first time in all my travels, lost. Truly and thoroughly lost. Like I wasn't even in Equestria anymore.

I whimpered at the sky. Stared at the crescent as it hung there. Cold. Distant. Princessless.

I watched it long and hard, till something in me snapped.

"No." I growled.

I waved my legs in the air and pointed an accusatory hoof at the Moon.

"Fuck you," I said. "Fuck you!"

I had hugged her ankles such a short while ago. The Princess wasn't really dead. She couldn't be.

"Listen here." I said. "I know Luna's still up there. So don't you give me that look."

Silence.

Moon.

I screamed. Curses. Squeaks. All drowned out by more cannon fire that got my ears ringing all over again. Probably that zebra asshole and his armor pony friend. Backing up in rage and disbelief, I tripped on something - spun and and fell to my scrape-itty knees. Winced and made the kind of howl that sounds like steam escaping a teapot. And when I looked up, tears were blurring my eyes.

"I know you're up there." I said to her. "I know you can hear me."

But the wind just whipped through the trenches. The smell of smoke, and grease, and ash carried with it. The Moon gave no answer.

* * *

I bundled up for warmth. All instinctive-like. Hid from the wind. Like one of the potato guys.

In its own way, it was a blessing, ‘cause it made me shut my stupid mouth. Actually look down for a minute instead of up. And there it was. A wagon. Right in front of me. The thing I'd tripped on in the first place. I gave it a good hard look. Found that the damn thing was actually small enough for me to pull. Me! I guess that made sense. It was, a crowded, crazy, cramped-up trench after all. But still, it was almost too perfect. I poked it. Prodded it. Marveled at it.

I could get a lot of freezing ponies a lot of warm blankets with that wagon. Right quick, too. I wouldn't even have to go back-and-forth much to rebuild my pile.

It may not have been a slave rebellion, or a rescue mission, or a quest to stop the bomb, but still, it needed doing, and I needed whatever hope I could get.

I unbuckled my strap, shrugged the load of drooping dragging, coming-unfolded-as-I-walked blankets off my back into the wagon. And hitched up in a hurry.

That's when I found the thing that really blew my mind. Proof positive that there was something more to this whole Blanket Brigade thing.

The harness pinched my chest. Under my big ugly brown army trenchcoat, was a lump. I wrestled with the buttons till I found what was jabbing me underneath.

Pinkie Pie’s magic watch. Misty's nasty tail hair tied tight around the bale. I had taken it all with me. That whole time in the schoolyard, I hadn't even noticed it. In the cellar. In the trenches. I'd been so distracted.

But there it was. Around my neck.

"How?" I muttered to myself.

I held it up and examined it again, even though I knew damn well what it looked like.

Should I open it? I thought, but Pinkie had been very specific.

Whatever else my confusing-ass problems may have been, I knew exactly when I was.

I turned to face that rogue moon again, watch still clutched against my chest.

"How?" I repeated.

But there came no answer. And, for once, it didn't matter. Because my little timepiece reminded me of what Pinkie Pie had done for us infirm-o's. Of what she had said to me in that moment when she herself was feeling down. It's always worth a try.

* * *

I trotted back around the corner. Focused. Determined.

The Blanket Brigade had a mission.

I approached the next potato soldier with a grin. A purple pegasus mare. I was gonna brighten her fucking day if it killed me. And I wasn't going to let her go all concernitty on me neither.

“Here, you go.” I said trying really, really hard to keep my spirits high and Pinkie-like. That's how you beat the shadows, isn't it? With your heart?

I held my head up like I belonged there. But the mare didn’t reply. In the awkward silence that followed, I watched her. Her wings were tucked away in her coat. Like the army we belonged to had no intention of letting her fly. Mr. Gryphon's had been too, once I thought about it. Fucking strange.

"Um...Blanket Brigade." I said at last when the potato mare still didn't respond.

I struck my noblest pose.

Silence. The Pegasus was inscrutable.

"Look, I'm supposed to be here, I promise, and I will be safe, and out of your hair really, really soon." I yammered. "It's just till I get home, ok? So please, please, please don't freak out at me."

She looked at me cautiously. "You sure you're ok?"

"No, uh...yes! I mean, Blanket Brigade at your service." I saluted badly.

"Ok. Thanks." She saluted back with a smile.

I trotted off.

"Happy Hearth’s Warming, Private!” She called out after me.

And I froze right there on the spot. Blinked. Looked back at the mare, already wrapping herself up in the blanket. Warm-and-cozy-like.

It was Hearth's Warming here too. Centuries later, they still celebrated the awesomest holiday ever. The Wasteland hadn't killed it after all.

"...Uh, to you too." I replied. "And a Happy New Year."

* * *

I kept passing out blankets, only now with “Happy Hearth’s Warming” wishes to go with them.

I couldn't be sure what any of it was supposed to mean exactly, or what I was supposed to take from the experience, but whatever it was, it put me in a damn good mood.

Yeah, every couple of minutes, I had somepony or other grabbing me, shielding me, whispering at me in hushed, urgent tones, “Stay low. Stay low!" Which I did. But I also kept moving. Didn’t let it stop me. Reloaded the wagon from the cellar. Went back out. Gave away more blankets.

A single phrase rattled around inside my head. It came from I Don't Even Know Wheresburgh. But it was stuck up there like a bad song.

"Pony pulls the wagon." I said to myself, and it kept me going.

* * *

I blanketed like crazy. I sang carols.

Only after a while, my carols ended up with lyrics of my own design. ‘Cause I was bored, and cause I could. It was great. Folks even started getting used to me, and the holiday spirit loosened up our little tensions.

"Happy Hearth's Warming!" I would say.

"And a Happy New Year!" They'd say right back at me.

It was all going pretty fucking amazingly awesomely. At least, until I met Golden Delicious.

"Shit, the boys weren't lying." Said the orange mare as she took the blanket from my mouth. “Ah'm Golden Delicious.”

"No, ma'am. They weren't." I said. I had no idea what she was talking about.

"Thanks, Blanket Girl." She replied. "Hey, everypony, Blanket Girl is here!"

"Blanket Girl?" I said dryly.

Rumor of me had apparently travelled faster than I could. I guess it was better than shock, and the concern-itty horror I'd seen from the first couple of soldiers. But still, Blanket Girl?! Was that the best nickname those potato soldiers could come up with? Seriously?!

I shook off my ire. "Happy Hearth's Warming," I said.

She bundled up in the scratchy brown blanket. Rubbed herself with her hooves. Grinned right at me.

"Shucks," she said. "Happy Hearth's Warming to you too, B.G."

B.G. Blanket Girl. I tried not to roll my eyes too obviously.

"Um...Well, there you go." I said with an awkward little chuckle. "Now you can be the warmest pony in No Mare’s Land.”

The smile fell from her face.

“Why would you say that?”

“Huh?”

She tossed the blanket in my face.

“What the fuck, kid, do you think you’re funny?”

“Um...kinda?” I winced.

Before I knew it, Golden was grabbing me by the shoulders. Shook me so hard, my wagon tipped. I flailed and squirmed, but I was still stuck in the harness, and all entangled in the blankets. All I could see was the clouds above and this crazy bitch right there in my face. All I could do was throw my hooves up, and try to shield my face from blows that never came.

“Take it back,” said Golden.

Her eyes were wild.

“Take what back?” I peeked at her from behind my hoof.

Mr. Gryphon rushed up to us. “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”

The crazy bitch on top of me just threw poison at me with her glare. “Tell him what you said.”

Suddenly, both pony and gryphon were staring at me. Waiting for me to answer. Then up trotted a third. And a fourth. I was surrounded. And still stuck to the stupid wagon.

“Um..." I laughed nervously. "Now you can be the, uh...warmest pony in No Mare’s Land?”

Next thing I know, I’m getting yelled at by everyone. They're all grabbing me. Not an attack kind of grabbing me, but forcing me to my hooves and shooing me along, all, ‘don't come back,’ and such.

I shouted, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it," in reply, trying not to cry as I hurried along, but the stupid wheel of my stupid wagon got stuck on a stupid plank, and and my whole plan-like-thing just plain crashed and burned.

"I'm jinxed," rambled Golden Delicious. "We's all jinxed now."

Then one nervous voice spoke up. “She doesn’t know.” He said.

The others fell silent.

I could see him there - the guy who'd spoken up - still huddled on the floor. He was sad and afraid. Even more than the other potatoes, but when he spoke, they backed off. It all happened so fast, I just couldn't make sense of it. It wasn't seniority. He was every bit as young as the other soldiers. It wasn't that he was tougher, or even a leader. In fact, he looked more rundown than anypony else in the whole damn ditch, and he shook like a neurotic little dog. Flinched like a terrified chipmunk when he talked. But still, when he spoke, the others listened.

"Sh-sh-she doesn't know." He repeated.

They all turned and faced me. These ponies who had hated me just a few moments before. Now ashamed all of a sudden. More than a hooffull of them averted their eyes.

"What the fuck is going on?" I shouted.

The big eagley gryphon dude kicked my wheel loose. He patted the wagon so I'd know it was free again.

"Um..." He stammered with his deep, deep voice. "Just do yourself a favor and don't tell anybody they're going to No Mares Land."

And that's when my throat dropped like a boulder into my stomach. The door had lied.

"You mean this isn't No Mares Land?"

The soldiers exchanged awkward glances. My turn to flinch like a chipmunk. I had to get to No Mares Land! That's what I was supposed to do. And the clock was ticking! I could feel it.

"No kid." Said the gryphon. "This ain't No Mares Land."

"Well please," I grabbed his shoulder. "You gotta help me get there."

He stumbled back in shock. "What?"

"I gotta get to No Mare’s Land. Quick!"

"Don't talk like that."

His head feathers stuck up straight in self defense. I didn't even know they could do that.

I looked to Golden Delicious, but she just threw up her forehooves and scurried backward along the ground like I was holding an explosive birthday candle or something.

"Jinx jinx jinx jinx." She muttered to herself.

"Please, it's important." I looked all around, but saw only panicked faces. Felt only bitter cold.

"You don't have to come with me," I begged. " Please just--;"

"Kid,” said Jinxy aka Golden, “it's called No Mare's Land for a reason." .

"Yeah, I get it, okay?." I snarled at them all. "There are dragons, and a cliff over some lava, and it's full of lava-breathing eels. And I have to cross a bridge to get there, and by the way, the bridge is made out of a sword for some reason. I get it. I get it. I get it. The journey is perilous. Whatever. Can somepony please just show me the way?"

Mr. Gryphon, still with his stressed out mohawk headfeathers, turned to Golden Delicious. She, in turn, turned to some unicorn girl nearby, all bundled up in a coat and scarf like a mummy with a yellow horn sticking out. But Mummy just shrugged.

"I'll show you the way." Said the guy lying on the floor - the one everypony respected.

Next thing I know, the others were gone. Zoom. Out of there. And I'm alone with this stranger. Just like that. The gryphon was the only one who bothered to shake my hoof goodbye, then it was Splitsville for him too.

The stranger sat up with a groan and a sigh of defeat.

"You wanna know about No Mare's Land?" He patted the ground beside him and waved me over.





Now, if No Mare's Land were a pirate book, this would be the part where the young cabin girl meets the grizzled old sea captain who's wrestled with the sea monsters and lived. And he is this giant badass, with a great big old aura of salty charisma and all that kind of stuff. The mysterious stranger. But this potato guy here was anything but. He was rattled and nervous. Barely aware of his surroundings. Just a few dog biscuits shy of being another Screw Loose.

"I'll tell you about it," he said with resignation. "C-Come here...Please?"

I nodded.

I couldn't get to him right away. I was stuck in that stupid wagon. So I had to listen to all that stupid wind whistleyness while I unhitched. It creeped me out. The random gunshots in the distance didn’t help either.

I snuck over there slowly, ducking my head down, remembering my trench safety tips. Stay low, kid. Stay low.

Finally, I came up right beside the guy. "Look, I'm sorry if I--;"

"Just... just...just have a seat." He said.

He brought a paper stick to his mouth. His hoof was trembling as he held it, but not from the cold. He struck a match and set it on fire. Next thing I know, the guy’s breathing foul-smelling smoke.

“No Mare’s Land?” He asked.

I nodded.

"It's that way." He said, pointing behind him at the lip of the trench.

Of course it was. The one direction that everypony was terrified to so much as look at.

"How far?" I gulped.

"A couple of feet." He said

"That's it?"

He looked at me, totally deadpan. I couldn't read him at all.

"Those guys over there. They all respect me." He twitched. "Because I'm the only one to have gone over there and survived."

He sucked in that paper smoke, and let out a long sigh. Then a piece of wood somewhere creaked and snapped in the cold, and he whipped his head left and right as though there were cloak-o's coming for him. Like a shadow might come and whisk him away at any moment. This guy was jumpier than I was.

When the coast was clear, he closed his eyes and sucked in some more fire.

"What's out there?" I said.

"Not too far away is another trench. Filled with corn." He grabbed the blanket I had given him, grabbed a stick.

"Corn?"

"You know. The fucking enemy. Greycoats. Corns! Anyway, we got guys aiming at them, and they got guys aiming at us."

"...And No Mare's Land is in between." I whispered to myself.

He nodded. Put the blanket on the stick, lifted it up above the lip of the trench, out into the open air, where all of No Mare's Land could see, and finally, passed it to me. No sooner did the stick touch my hoof, than a bunch of shots were fired all at once. Somewhere from the other side. The whole thing flew out of my grip.

"Damn!" My hoof really hurt.

When I was done rubbing that hoof in pain and disbelief, I picked the blanket up off the ground. It was riddled with holes.

"But I have to get to No Mare’s Land," I stared at it in horror.

I looked back up at the stranger. He was pale.

"No, you don't."

The way he shook, I wasn't sure who was going to burst into tears first - me or him.

"You survived." I said. "That means there has to be a way. There has to!" I squeaked.

All I heard in reply was a long stretch of that wind-in-trench whistle.

The mysterious stranger just shook his head. Shoved his sleeve in his mouth and chewed on it nervously. Like a kid might. The fire stick dangled from the other cheek.

"Tell me." I said.

He gave no reply. Just more coat-chewing.

"Because I'm going over there one way or another." I tried to sound strong, but I had my doubts. Cause seriously, how could I?

The stranger panicked. Grabbed me.

"No." He whispered.

"But you--;"

He sighed. The paper stick fell out of his mouth and he ignored it.

"I joined the Rangers with my best friend, Tulip. He was always the brave one. Not me. A bully got in my face, he was there. If we had to make a jump with our scooters, he did it first to make sure it was safe. We even used to have little games we played on the playground called Who's Crazier. He would jump from a height, I would jump from something higher. Then he would outdo me, and I would outdo him.

“I always tried. W-w-Wanted to be brave like him. He won every time. Whenever he got to the point where I couldn't match him, he'd call out to me. 'Tag,' he'd say. 'You're it.' Like, he thought I could be just a little bit braver, but I never actually was."

The stranger fumbled around in the dirt for his lost paper smoke stick.

"Damn it, where is it?" He was crying.

About the stick of all things.

I looked around and spotted it under one of the wooden planks pretty quickly. He dug it out with a knife in his teeth because a hoof wouldn't fit under there.

Only when he was breathing fire again did he resume the story.

"Tulip was the best friend a pony could ever hope for. I joined because of him. 'We'll be back home in time to sing Rest Ye Merry Gentlecolts,' he said. That's his favorite carol. He loved Hearth's Warming so much."

He leaned his head back against the dirt wall and looked straight up into the sky. Passed the fire stick over to me. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I stuck the thing in my mouth. It just sort of hung there on my lips, smelling nasty.

"What happened?" I mumbled.

He threw me a wounded look. As if it should have been obvious. I looked right back at him, as confused as ever.

"Oh, jeez."

Yes, I thought. I honestly don't know.

He took the fire stick from my mouth and put it in his own. Took in a deep puff and got a grip.

"Every couple of weeks, we get word from on high." He said. "Over-the-top they call it."

I pointed upwards at the wall of the trench. Toward No Mare’s Land. He nodded.

"But they'll..."

He nodded.

"Why?" I demanded.

"The brass figures if enough of us go over at once, maybe we can gain some ground and take the enemy trench.

"Hundred feet gained here, hundred feet lost there. Either way, hundreds of us die. If not from the gunshots, the explosions. The razor wire."

I tried to imagine what razor wire might look like.

"F-For hours after a battle," he said. "They just hang there all tangled up. Screaming. Crying."

He went silent.

Sitting there beside that fucked up bastard, I wanted to cry so bad. For him. For all of them. But I held back. If I'd burst into tears then and there, I might never have heard the end of the story.

Finally, he took a deep breath, and continued.

"Our snipers have to pick them off just for mercy's fucking sake. Colonel Wormwood's own son was caught up in there." He sucked on his fire stick some more. Puffed on it for dear life. "Rumor has it she pulled the trigger herself."

"That's crazy." I whispered.

"I'd want them to do the same for me."

"But, but, but..." I tried to wrap my brain around it. "Why go? Who would do that knowing what was gonna happen?"

I looked up and down the trenches. All the other ponies were keeping their distance from the stranger and me. I suddenly understood the gloom that had choked us all. These soldiers weren't just scared, weren't just cold, weren't just bored. They were in Death's waiting room. Just sitting there, awaiting the order.

Over-the-top.

"Why!" I cried - literally cried now. "If it's so pointless. Why don't you just say no?"

"Soldier's duty." He replied, suddenly wooden, as if reading from a script. "The chain of command. Calls for sacrifice. If it falls apart, we are all as good as dead."

"So that's it? They tell you the plan and you go with it? Just like that? You just up and die?"

"Of course not." He let out a chuckle so bitter it could ferment cider. "They don't tell us the plan. I have no idea what the fucking plan is."

"You just hope that the reason is a good one." I whispered to myself, echoes of Bananas Foster.

He wept into his coat. I put the blanket over him but he shrugged it away. Even when that bitter wind hit us again.

"You didn't go, did you?" I asked.

He shook his head 'no.'

"I th-th-threw up when the order came through. We gathered our shit. I made it as far as to ready my weapon. Then they gave us to the count of 3. I dropped my rifle, I was shaking so hard.

"When I looked up, we hadn't even counted up to two yet, but Tulip was right there over me. I thought he was going to help me up the way he always had when we were kids. Our whole fucking lives."

The jittery stranger shook his head.

"You know what Tulip said?"

I shook my head.

"'Tag'. 'You're it. '"

He took a deep breath from his fire stick and let it out with a sigh. "Kicked me unconscious."

I reached a trembling hoof to put on his shoulder, but he turned away from me. I fought my lungs for enough air to breathe, but even when I got it, I couldn't summon a single word to say.

The stranger flicked away the last of his fire stick.

"They found me in a pile of bodies." He concluded. "All folks who got shot right away, and fell right back into the trenches. The lucky ones."




After that, he ignored me, having issued his warning about No Mare's Land. And went back to doing his usual business. Lying down and rambling to himself.

"I-I'm sorry." I told him.

He didn't answer. Just waved me off.

So I backed away. Hitched up. Looked over my shoulder to check on him.

I hated just walking away, but I couldn't come up with anything at all to tell him. Nothing could make it better. Finally, I just turned and moved on. Last thing I heard him say before the wind brushed his voice away was five simple words that sent chills down my spine.

"It should have been me." He said.
It should have been me.

Legacies of the Dead

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN - LEGACIES OF THE DEAD

"They're sharing a drink they call loneliness. Well, it's better than drinking alone." - Billy Joel



The thought of the stranger's fallen friend stuck with me.

I stumbled awestruck through the trenches, passing out blankets, forcing myself to be practical. To be helpful. But still, I couldn't stop thinking about him. I got hung up on the little things - the kinds of details you don't stop to ask the storyteller about when they're sitting there, on the verge of coming apart before your eyes.
What happened to him? Was he one of the guys who got tangled in the razor wire? Was he one of the lucky ones who just got shot? Was it some combination of both? Neither?

Every single time the Over the Top order came down from on high, hundreds died. Hundreds like Tulip. When something awful like that happens in a book, or a story, or even in real life, if it's on a totally grandiose scale, it's easy to just picture it as an elaborate dramatic painting, or worse, see the ponies as a bunch of numbers. But Tulip haunted me. Because he had a friend. And a name. And there were so many more just like him.

They weren't numbers.

For every one of those ponies who died, there was a family broken, a potato soldier left behind in the trenches, trembling and stuttering, and weeping over their memory.

* * *

If fate decided that I was only supposed to save one little pony - if I was just there to readjust some itty bitty nit-pickitty detail of future history, and let hundreds get blown to smithereens in the meantime - then I just plain wasn't gonna.

I had my own plan. A solid plan. I mulled it over in my head as I stomped down that trench, back the way I came.

-Phase One: Blanket the living shit out of every last pony I could find.

-Phase Two: Find out what the fuck was going on without giving away the fact that I didn't actually belong there.

-Phase Three: Save everypony somehow.

The beauty of my plan was its simplicity.

* * *

I made my way to the cellar, staring up at the pale moon as I lugged that wagon. Waiting for a whisper. A clue. Instead I just got distracted walking the gauntlet of concernitty ponies. They crowded me all over again.

Rumor had spread that "Blanket Girl" had gotten Rainbow Glimmer to talk - to open up. Apparently that poor bastard back there was named Rainbow Glimmer, and he hardly ever said a word to anyone but himself. Either as he lied around, or roamed the trenches, pretending to patrol them.

The point is, the potato soldiers crowded me - those same concernitty pricks as before, happy to see me all of a sudden. Mr. Gryphon tried to stammer his way through a flank-kissing apology, but he only made it worse. 'Cause I was standing in a graveyard. And every last one of those ponies was someone else's Sub Mine F waiting to happen.

I stared down the trench – those long rows of soldiers. I got dizzy.

"Here," I said as I tossed a blanket to somepony or other, and stumbled on.

My whiny pirate was on the verge of coming out, but this wasn't the time or place.

* * *

Eventually, I made it out of the gauntlet. All jittery and messed up. I reached one of the lonelier corners of the trench maze, and when I finally got a moment to myself, I used it to turn to the Moon for guidance. Yet again.

It was still up there. Haunting the sky in broad daylight. Watching me.

"Come on, show me the way, already," I snapped. "Show me the fucking way."

But the Moon, as always, was silent.




When I looked down, there she was. Princess Luna herself. Right there in the trenches with us. Just like that.

She was dressed as a soldier.

I stopped and stared. The Princess was alive. There on earth, beneath her own weird daytime

moon. Alive!

"You need to get to the door," whispered Princess Luna.

"The door." I muttered to myself.

Her voice was like magic. It resounded not only in the open air, but on the inside of my skull, almost like one of the brain hornets.

My flank plopped onto the cold, hard ground.

So that was it. Another door. The way out. The way to get the answers I needed. To get the strength I needed. To beat the shadow things.

I sat there mystified. It all made perfect sense somehow. I needed to get to the door.

“Princess,” I said with what little breath I'd had left after the shock of seeing her.

This time I remembered to bow. Though it was tough to contain my awe and my glee.

Luna cleared her throat. "Hay!" She said in a thick Bucklyn accent. "Ya need to get to the door, kid?"

"Huh? What?"

Luna shuffled over a little bit. She was big and tall, and had to hunch down further than the average pony. But she shimmied and was able to make a little room for me. Behind her was that metal door that led back into the storage cellar.

"Helloooo?" She said impatiently, Thoroughly un-princess-like. "Anypony ho-oome?"

I gawked up at her eyes. They were the wrong color. Looked at her coat and her horn up close. The wrong blue.

"Luna?" Was all I could bring myself to say.

But It wasn't the princess. It wasn’t her at all!

"What?"

I poked my head over to the left, then the right. I could see for sure that under her ill-fitting coat was a pair of wings. I even double checked the front and did a little forehead inventory. Yup. She had a horn, alright.

"You're an alicorn." I said.

"Yeah I know. And?"

"Um, well, um um..."

"Take a pitcha, " she said. "It'll last longer."

"I'm sorry, I. I. I...just.."
Don't cry, Rose. Don't cry.

I looked up at the Moon again, then just hung my head.

"I thought you were somepony else."

"Hey.” Said Not-Luna, extending a hoof. “My friends call me Big Blue."

“I can’t." I bumped her hoof shyly. "I already know a Blue back home.”

She just nodded.

"Betcha don't know a Big Blue." A great big hearty guffaw ripped out of her throat. “So you want in or what?”

Big Blue scrunched and shimmied and swerved. Contorted herself into a ball.

“Um, thank you." I replied. "Yes, please.”

She took up more than half the trench, but somehow, she managed to make room. And in I went. Back into the cellar to restock.

That lady may not have been Luna, and she may not have done it on purpose, but her words burrowed deep into my brain and staked their territory.

“You need to get to the door.” The alicorn had said.

You need to get to the door.

* * *

I took a moment to freak out when I was sure I was alone. Did race matter so little to us in the future, that alicorns were right there in the trenches with the rest of us? From the look of her plain brown trenchcoat, Big Blue wasn't even an officer, let alone a princess! It seemed so enlightened, and yet, so stupid.

* * *

When I got out, I loaded the wagon full of blankets, buckled my pile down one last time. And looked out over a whole other row of potato ponies I hadn't gotten to yet.

There was so much to do. What with the door, and the blankets, and the impending doom, and stuff. But there was also an alicorn sitting there right by the cellar door. And a fucked up crescent moon running around unsupervised across the reddening sky. I'd kick myself forever if I didn't stop for a second and at least try to get some answers. Even if it was a longshot.

"Hey, Blue?" I said.

"Yeah?"

"This may sound stupid, but uh, do you mind if I ask you a question," I looked away, all nervous and bashful-like. "An alicorn question."

"Shoot."

"Well, how do I put this? Everyone knows that mortality isn't exactly the same with you."

"Uh-huh..."

"Do you think maybe it's possible that somehow Princess Luna is still alive?"

I looked up at her, eager for any sign of hope. Anything at all. But Blue just turned away from me, and scratched her head.

"Gee, kid. Nothin's more dead than a skeleton, know what I'm saying?"

I felt a little whimper escape my throat. They'd found a skeleton.

Big Blue watched me and cringed. Made a face like someone had just rubbed lemons all up and down a paper cut of hers.

"But hey, you know, anything is possible." She said, quick to apologize. "Luna could still be around. In spirit, you know? There's uh...the Moon right there."

The alicorn pointed at the sky.

"Yeah." I said. "I guess so."

I wandered off. My heart was breaking all over again.

"Hey kid," Big Blue followed me. "C'mon. What's really eating atcha?"

I shrugged. Tried to ignore her, but she kept on following me.

"We all need a princess every now and again." She pleaded. "We all wish that some great magical pony could come along and fix everything."

I didn't have much to say in response.

"Hey," she snapped. "Luna is a hero of mine too, you know?"

"I just spoke to her." I said to myself.

"What?"

"Princess Luna." I looked up into Big Blue's big blue eyes. "She hugged me. In my dreams."

I could almost see the gears turning in her brain. She was thinking real hard.

"Well," she said at last. "Anything's possible in your dreams."

It sounds like the kind of thing you write in crayon for a homemade motivational poster, but I could tell Big Blue actually believed it. With all of her heart. Somehow, that made a difference.

She put a hoof on my shoulder, and I threw myself at her. She may not have been a Princess, but Big Blue gave good hug.

* * *

I met an awful lot of ponies before the Sun went down. Gave out an awful lot of blankets. Asked a fuck ton of questions.

"So uh, some war, huh?" I asked one stallion.

"How about those jerkface corns?" I said to another.

“See any doors around here?”

None of it worked. Sherclop Pones, I am not.

But still, I had to try to find out. It was only a matter of time before every last one of us was sent over the top. And besides, these guys Knew. The fucking. Future.

After so many desperate, desperate attempts to coax, and pry, and squeeze answers out of folks using surgical subtlety, I took a look at that sky again. Got the same impression I'd had during my school yard dream. That my time would be up once the lights went out.

Finally, I just went right up to the next pony I saw, and said, "You wouldn't happen to know how the zebra war started, would you?"

She lifted her head. It was Golden Delicious.

Her eyes locked with mine. She stiffened. Like she was afraid of me.

“Um...uh...about before, Ah'm awful sorry. I didn't know.”

"Neither did I," I said as I scuffed my hooves idly against the dirt.

I kinda hoped a stray kaboom would come along and blow us all to smithereens. It would punctuate that cringey, bury-your-face-in-your-overcoat silence.

"What are you, uh, aren't you usually over there?" I spun around.

Had I lost my way already?

"Naw, just movin' fer to keep warm. Plus they cycle us 'round a bit."

I looked around. Spotted a familiar face or two. And a couple of blankets I had already given away.

The once outgoing Golden Delicious hid half behind her blanket. Like it could shield her from the great big awkward mess she and I had made.

"So...uh, you don't know the zebrer war history, huh?" She said, reaching for that life preserver.

"Nope,"

"Well, uh." She said. "I could instruct ya some if'n ya want, B.G.?"

She was really, really, really trying to make amends.

"Ok." I smirked. "But it's Rose Petal, not Blanket Girl."

I still fucking hated that name.

"Sure thing, RP." Golden leaned in to tell the story. Looking like she was ready to burst confetti.

"On the one hoof, that's the zebrers. A meteor destroyed 'em. Whole damn homeland - snuffed right out thousands a years ago. So they moved. And they hated the stars ever since. Hated 'em something fierce. I mean woooooo-eee, did they ever--"

She reigned in her enthusiasm, cleared her throat and moved on.

"Anywho, stars is Evil. And the Stripes thought Nightmare Moon hadn't never changed. And that we was all evil too just for following Her."

"Why does everypony have to blame Luna for everything?!"

I couldn't shake the thought of her haunted expression. The way she looked out over the shadow castle in my dreams. Her grim resolution, even about her own death. "I know."

And now it turned out that Luna was the whole reason the zebras hated us in the first place.

Why couldn't everypony leave her alone? And what was up with those stripey fucking assholes? Seriously, guys?

I had long been looking for the root of ponies' hatred for zebras. It never even occurred to me that the zebras themselves might be as big a pack of jerks as us.

I shook with anger.

"You alright, kid?"

"What happened on the pony end?"

I drew myself so close I almost stabbed myself in the eye with her chin.

"Where did we go wrong?"

"On the pony end?” She stumbled back a bit. “Whelp, thar's all sorts a things what happened."

"Gimme the cheat sheet."

"Quick answer? It was our innocence what got us into this."

"Our what?"

"Innocence. Ever-pony knows we had it too good for too long.” Golden Delicious, shook her head. “We just wasn't ready when the other horseshoe dropped. You hear?."

"Innocence." I whispered, and nodded to myself. “Thank you.”

I staggered away in shock.

“Anytime, kiddo. You okay?” She called after me.

I nodded. Told her thanks. Made some lame excuse or other, and moved on.

* * *

No matter where I went, no matter what future, I couldn't escape the notion that innocence was sin. That the love and peace and harmony we all shared - the wonders we all took for granted back home - would be paid for in blood by future generations.

I pulled the wagon. Passed out blankets, dazed as I felt. At the end of the day, it didn't matter how fucked up the news was, stewing in it wasn't going to make these ponies any warmer.

I found a colt shivering. About 19 years old. He was hunched over an old photograph. I sighed. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and I could feel the pressure building up. To get answers. To get to the door. But I didn't have the heart to interrogate this guy. He looked kind of sad. Kinda lonely.

So instead of doing the practical thing, I draped a blanket over him all gentle-like.

"Family?" I asked.

He nodded.

The bitter wind whistled down the trenches.

"It's my first Hearth's Warming away from home too," I said.

The photo was a goofy group shot of him, a younger brother, a younger sister, plus a mom and a dad.

"Who's the one with the spiky green mane?" I asked.

"My brother." He said. "Kiwi. He's almost nine now."

He didn't take his eyes off the picture in his hooves. "Mom says he's trying to learn the drums - making all kinds of noise, and she's ready to kill him."

The cracks in his chapped lips broke as he smiled.

"He's really good, though!" He rolled up his floppity sleeve with his teeth.

Showed off the Pip Buck on his wrist. It was my first good look at one up close. As worn by someone not trying to kill me.

He pressed some buttons, and a bunch of crazy crap flashed on the screen. The sort of stuff that Strawberry Lemonade had been good at. The next thing I knew, the sound of a drum set was coming from inside the thing.

"Whoa," I said.

"He's good, right?"

"That's...so useful.” I marveled at the tech.

Sure I’d seen a little bit of future machine stuff here and there in Trottica, but I’d been running for my life at the time, and mostly didn't have a clue what I was looking at. This was like having a home phonograph recorder and player right there on your leg.

I blinked. The guy was looking at me like I was some kinda moron.

“I mean, yeah.” I added quickly. “He's got a, um...future in…drumming?"

But it didn’t work. I was doing a shit job of blending in. Why did I have to open up my big fat mouth?

The guy cocked his eyebrow at me. I threw him a smile. Skimmed every bit of information I’d ever picked up in my entire brain, looking, searching, digging for something useful to help me blend in.

"Did you um...get that fitted in your stable?"

Pip Bucks come from stables. Clever, Rose Petal. Clever.

The guy just snorted.

"Very funny."

Or not.

"This is model 6.1." He bragged. "Standard issue. Well, they say standard issue, but what they really mean is you get bumped up the waiting list if your family can afford to front the expedition some cash. They don't issue you shit."

"Ah," I said, all disconnected and uncertain-like.

He must have thought I had some kind of rich kid jealousy or something, cause he was lightning fast to back pedal.

"We’re not rich or anything. But, you see, Kiwi sold his piano. The old family piano. I told'm not to, but one day, this package just sort of showed up. An early Hearth’s Warming present. The officers in the big metal suits helped me get fitted."

“That's awesome.”

“The drums are homemade,” the guy added. “He's a fucking regular Bee-hoof-en, that kid.”

“I miss my sister too,” I told him.

I didn't give away anything specific - didn't really have to. He understood pretty much right away. He draped his foreleg around me, and didn't say a word.

It was nice. I actually got kind of choked up. To the point where I was on the verge of spilling my guts. But I was a stranger in a strange land. I had to focus on the chattering of my teeth just to keep from spilling the beans. I might ramble something that would give me away. It might fuck up my plan to save the potatoes.

Hold it together, Rose Petal. Hold it together.

“This isn't how it's supposed to be,” was all I had the nerve to say.

He nodded.

"You know, Kiwi sent me a message. The whole family did. When I got the Pip Buck."

I craned my neck upwards to look him in the eye.

"They called me their little Lightbringer." He laughed to himself.

I smiled back.

"We used to play Saviors of the Wasteland together," he whispered. "Kiwi was always Calamity. I was the Lightbringer, that little squirt right there- she was Velvet or Steelhooves depending."

He let out a joyless laugh. Stared at the photo some more.

"You know what the message said?"

I shook my head “no.”

"'Be better.' You know, like the book said. ‘We're all so proud.’"

The guy was snarling. Angry now.

"Isn't that a good thing?" I asked.

He just shook his head.

"I signed up to make a difference. Came all the way out here cause I figured, 'Hey, look, the Crystal Fucking Empire showed up out of the blue. For the first time in centuries. Here's my chance to explore. Save the world! Just like in the stories.'"

"The Crystal Fucking Empire?!" I exclaimed.

I swear, that thing is following me. What the hell?

"What do we do when we get here?" He said.

I shrugged.

"Fight over it." The guy ranted. "Over a door we can't even open! You've got the world's best magicians on one side, and the world's most advanced techies on the other. Standing on the fucking threshold of the worlds biggest treasure trove of ancient wisdom. And what do we do? Kill each other.”

He sucked in a deep breath. "Fuck. The only reason I'm still alive is cause I've spent most of the war trying to hack that stupid door."

"From here?"

"The ruined town on the hill. It's about a mile from here. You have to have seen it on your way in.”

"Oh, yeah. That."
Note to self: Get to that town.

"The Colonel sent me down here." There was acid on his tongue now. "I was no longer necessary."

"Colonel Wormwood?"

"Yeah," He spat. "Kicked me outta the town. Sent me down here when I started asking questions. Section 14. Skill No longer Relevant."

He grumbled bitterly and shrugged.

"Is it true what they say about the Colonel?" I used my hoof to make the universal gesture for cuckoo.

"Who can even tell? If you ask me, you'd have to be out of your fucking mind to stay sane during a war like this."

* * *

He went back to gazing at that photograph. Watched it a long, long time. His hooves trembled. It wasn't just from the cold. At last, he sucked in a great big deep breath. Turned to me, and he said, "So what's your name, kid? "

"Rose Petal." I answered.

I never was good at rants and raves. Never knew what to say. So I just asked him his name in return.

"Dazzle Shine," he replied.

He didn't seem very shiny to me, but who was I to judge?

"Can I ask you something, Rose Petal?"

"Sure."

"What do you think Little Pip would make of all this?" Dazzle gestured at the trenches, threw an obscene gesture at No Mare's Land.

"Is she the other one?" I pointed at the photo with my hoof. "The one in the yellow hat?"

“Huh?”

I could only presume that this Littlepip he was talking about was the other kid in the picture.

And I had no clue what she might think. This was unlike any kind of war I had ever heard of before. Wars of necessity. Wars of passion. That's what I'd read about. That's what I'd seen in Trottica.

Nopony actually wanted to be there. Which honestly made me wonder why any of them were still there at all.

I looked past Dazzle - out over the rows and rows of soldiers. Spending their Hearth’s Warming in a trench. Shivering. Cold. Homesick. I had no way of knowing for sure what this Littlepip might think. But I knew what I saw in Dazzle Shine. It was the same thing that Twinkle Eyes had seen in me. That Nurse Redheart had seen.

"Honestly," I told him. “I don't know what she would think, but if I had to guess, Littlepip would probably just tell you that you have a good heart."

He took his hoof off of my shoulder. Looked at me from a leg's distance away. Like he wanted to hug me. Like he was on the verge of real tears.

But he sucked it up. Laughed a little laugh. And smiled a little smile.

Honestly, I didn't understand why what I’d said had meant anything to him at all. But it did.

"Thanks for the blanket, kid." He said.

* * *

I suppose I should've been concerned or puzzled by the way the Crystal Empire seemed to keep following me. And wonder about the war. Try to piece together all that crazy stuff. But instead, I thought of Pinkie Pie’s words. It's always worth a try.

When I turned to part ways with Dazzle Shine and get to passing out more blankets, I found that the way was blocked. We were surrounded by other potato folks. At some point they had gravitated toward us, and were eager to join in.

"Hey, I played Heroes of the Wasteland too!"

"I heard you say something about LittlePip?" Said the mummy unicorn from before all swaddled in scarves.

"Yeah, bro." Said Dazzle Shine.

"Tell it," said Big Blue, also popping up from out of nowhere.

"You tell it. I suck at storytelling."

"But it's on your wrist."

They all bickered back and forth for quite a bit over who should read from this Littlepip book, and which part they should listen to today. It turned into an odd sort of story in and of itself - these grown ponies geeking out over random chapters of a future book I'd never heard of. I listened very carefully, and as disjointed as it was, I was able to figure out a few things.

Littlepip was apparently an actual historical figure. A hero who'd saved the Wasteland from itself. She'd crossed that hard yellow line time and time again, and one day, found the whole world was watching. It gave me hope, just hearing about it. The Wasteland was actually overcome. Just cause a bunch of regular folks - background ponies - woke up and realized that they could. Because one mare gave them something to believe in.

I got to figuring: if a lowly toaster repair pony had managed to change the world, then maybe I could too.

* * *

They talked, and talked, and talked till the Sun was damn near setting. It made me nervous, 'cause it reminded me of my dream. And whatever it was that I was supposed to accomplish in the trenches, I was running out of time to do it. Still, there wasn't much to do but just sit there. And listen.

So I did.

I'm not going to relate to every Littlepip story I heard, especially since I picked them up out of order – out of context. But the big blue alicorn nudged me when it was her turn, and her take on it was especially important.

"Blanket Girl here got me thinkin'." She said. "About my favorite story."

She pulled herself closer to me. It snapped me out of my thinkiness. Right back into the moment.

"Canterlot." Big Blue looked at the rest of the gang. All expectantly and such. They just blink-bloinked at her. None of them knew what the fuck she meant.

"Which part?" Mummy rolled her eyes. "That chapter is like 200 pages long."

Everypony laughed.

"190, and what part do ya think, dumb shit? Princess Luna."

I perked up. Leaned forward. These guys knew more about their own history than I thought. They didn't just find a skeleton, they actually knew what happened!

"Yuk it up." Said Big Blue. "'Dis is alicoyn bidness. You's guys has years a-history. My mom? She was made in a friggin' lab."

That shut most of them up pretty good. You'd have to be a special kind of stupid to insult an alicorn's mother.

"The way I sees it, its the very best and very woist of what an alicoyn can be. You've got this monster, right? A fuckin' disgrace. Struttin' around toxic Canterlot like she's the bee's fuckin' knees. Wearin' the Moon Princess' bones like a fuckin' necklace."

What?! I ground my hoof into the ground so fucking hard I thought the ditch itself might break. No. No. No. No. No. No. No!

"Now Littlepip's as fucked as she's ever been. None of her usual tricks gonna work 'gainst a alicoyn. Not mono-a-mono like dat. But Luna..." She pointed at the Moon. "Luna was so friggin' awesome, that Littlepip worshipped her even after she knew damn well the Princess was dead. So when Littlepip saw dat skeleton, she wasn't tinkin' bout strategies or fightin' or nuttin'. Just rage."

I kept watching the Moon.

"What did she do?" I asked urgently.

"Whattaya mean 'what'd she do?' She telekenetically stabbed that bitch with Luna's own horn. BAM!"

Big Blue stabbed the air with her head and laughed.

"Yes!" I cheered.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

The Gryphon raised a bushy feathery eyebrow at me.

"So?" Mumbled the unicorn scarf Mummy.

"So how does Littlepip's act of self-preservation make Luna the very best of what an alicorn can be?" Asked Dazzle. "She was dead at the time. Besides, Celestia-;."

"Celestia skipped town. Luna stayed. Don't ever forget that. Secondly, Littlepip didn't do it for self-preservation."

"Of course she did," Mr. Gryphon quit eyeballing me long enough to get in on the action. "Don't be stupid."

"Shaddup! Ya don't know whatcha talkin' about."

"Well, why else then, genius?"

"Littlepip killed that bitch 'cause her love for Princess Luna - who was Pip's fucking goddess, you mook, so show a little respect - was so friggin' strong - so friggin' pure - that Littlepip forgot about everything else. Just went nuts and wasted the bitch."

I could see the wonder in Big Blue's big blue eyes. She wanted to be Luna so bad. Like Dazzle wanted to be Littlepip. And it made its own kind of sense, really. What other role model could an alicorn hope to have?

We all had heroes growing up. Pirates and wizards and sports superstars, but for someone like big blue, there was only Luna and of course The Big C.

"I think that's a very good pick for a favorite story." I said.

"Thanks, kid."

She rustled my mane. I hate it when ponies do that, but I appreciated the sentiment.

"You're gonna be just like Luna someday," I said, trying to be reassuring.

"Nah." She sighed. "That's a lost cause. But still, the story's a reminder."

"Of what?" Said Mummy, who had gone all concernitty for once.

Blue clutched at her own neck, as though she was afraid that a necklace of bones might magically appear there all by themselves.

"Not to take home too many war trophies."

* * *

I went back to watching the Moon.

Poor Blue. I thought to myself. Growing up in the shadow of so much evil. And unable to live up to the legacy of such phenomenal good.
It made me stop and wonder. If Princess Luna was...

"Hey, Rosie, how aboutchoo?" Big Blue broke my train of thought.

All of a sudden, all the potatoes were looking at me expectantly.

"You're the guest," Blue continued. "You pick the next story."

"Umm...ummm."

Not good. Not good. Not good. Not good.

"Actually, um..."

Think, Rose Petal, think!

"I was getting...contemplatey...uhhh, and contemplating...if Littlepip were right here in the trenches with us right now, what would she say?"

"Happy Hearth's Warming." Dazzle laughed. So did all the others.

"No, I mean how would you explain this war?"

Dazzle scratched his head. Big Blue averted her eyes. Mr. Gryphon held up a talon, and opened his mouth as though he had something to say, but it was obvious he had nothing.

Meanwhile, more of those random gunshots rang out over the air. A bitter wind whipped through the trenches. And nopony said a word.

"...You know," I said. "Because she's uh...from the past and wouldn't get it?"

"Mmmph." Said the mummy unicorn, all bundled up all over again. "Mmm mmm mfffurrrmmm. Mmmph mmmurf."

Finally, she got frustrated and tore the scarf from her face. Again.

"The corns are fucking evil."

"And who are the corns?" I pressed eagerly. "Um...Littlepip would probably ask."

"Those evil pricks." Mummy gestured in the direction of the enemy line.

That earned a laugh.

"I know that. Duh! But what's a corn?" I leaned in, desperate to find out. "What makes them so evil in the first place?"

"You-nuh-corns," said Big Blue.

“But you're a unicorn," I said to the Mummy dryly.

"Not all unicorns," she replied. "Just those corns."

She made a rude gesture at the air. “You know, them Twilight Sparkle Society snobs."

"Twilight Sparkle, the librarian?!"

They all looked at me like I was nutso. I couldn't help but give myself away on that one. Yeah, back home she was tight with the Royals. Elements of Harmony and all that. But to me, she was still the spazzy lady who leant out books. The idea that 300 years later, she'd have followers. Murderous douchebag followers. It was too much.

"But why?" I sounded like a whiny little kid. "What do they want? What's with the door?"

"Kid, relax." Dazzle put a hoof on my shoulder.

"I'm...I'm...Just asking what, you know, Littlepip would ask...Being from the past and all.... Which, by the way, I'm not....In case you were wondering."

Smiles and laughter.

"I got this one." Big Blue scooted next to me.

"We was doing good. All of us getting along, you see? 'Cause we had a goal. Cleaning up the Wasteland, like you said, Pip. But once they was clean, we didn't have quite so much in common. Ya get me?"

I nodded.

"So we all gots these armies lying around, you see? When we rebuilt our civilization, we had to liberate every single compound in Equestria by force. And after the fight was done, we used 'em to explore. New lands. New resources. New jobs. You see?

"And all the nations of Equestria got along just fine, Littlepip. We really did. Till BAM! Crystal Empire. Shows up outta nowhere's after a hundred years. Just, ya know, reappears!"

"It's got ancient secrets in there. Missing pieces of our history. Tech. Magic. Paintings. All that fancy stuff. You name it.

“But we can't get the door open. Some security spell that some pretty pink princess we ain't never heard of put up towards the end of the war. A whole bubble to protect it.

"Somethin' bout a heart.

“And then when we was finally close to hacking into it, those corns came along. Said it was theirs. Their secrets to keep. Or some bullshit.

"And you wanted for yourselves.” I said.

"No." Said the Mummy, genuinely horrified. "For all pony kind. But those fucking corns..."




"I would tell Littlepip I'm sorry." Dazzle interrupted all of a sudden like, his eyes fixed on his own hooves.

The other soldiers looked at him like he'd lost his mind.

"We didn't mean to." Dazzle hung his head in silence. "We didn't want any of this."

Mr. Gryphon smacked it.

"Ow."

"Sure we did. Those maniacs killed Root Beer Float."

"And Lily Leaf!" Said Mummy.

"And Dew Drop," Big Blue said softly.

All lost friends and comrades.

"Twinkle." I said to myself.

Silence again. I probably shouldn't have said anything. But I couldn't help it.

"Who's that?" Said Dazzle.

"The best friend a filly could ever ask for." I told them.

"'Corns got her?" The gryphon asked.

I shook my head. "Not exactly. But war still did."

A gust of wind whipped thru the trench. Whistley, whistley wind. Like an idiot, I'd given away my last blanket.

"I'm sorry." Dazzle stammered.

"War? What war if not this one?" Said Mummy.

"We were slaves." I told the truth. "Twinkle and me. It was an uprising kinda war."

I didn't dare to look any of them in the concernitty eyes. "I made it. She didn't."

The Mummy laughed for a minute. No one else did. I didn't take it personal. The moment I glanced in her direction, and she saw just how serious I was, the color ran from her face.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks," she said. "I'm sorry."

"It's ok," I said.

"But-but...How?"

I found myself surrounded by concerned ponies again. But it wasn't that condescending concernitty kinda worry. They looked at me the way they looked at Rainbow Glimmer. With awe. These guys had it way rougher if you asked me. But the idea of slavery was just so shocking to them.

They treated me like a relic.

"I met Twink in a cage." I told them. "Hers was right next to mine. She had been a slave her whole life. I'd just been captured that day. She stroked my hair through the bars. Told me I was one of the good ones. Gave me hope and stuff.

"Eventually, we escaped. Took the whole compound with us. Ponies looked to me like I was some kinda Littlepip 'cause I sorta started the whole thing," I blushed.

Especially when I realized how eagerly the soldiers were hanging on my words.

"It was an accident!" I threw in there. "Twink deserves all the credit. It was her friendship that got me through it in the first place."

I told them about the hard yellow line. The lightning puddle. The mines. The rest of the story. I left out all the stupid psychic stuff about Strawberry Lemonade, of course, and played down the priestess.

But the point is, I told them all about Twink. And how wonderful she was. And what we had gone through together.

It was a story that needed to be told. Not just for me, but for her memory's sake. When I was done, and I had said every thing that needed to be said, they understood.

Actually understood. They didn't need to imagine how I might feel. Everyone of them had lost a friend, or two, or seven.





I stared at the ground for a long, long time. 'Till I found a talon resting on my shoulder. Mr. Gryphon was looking down on me.

"Can I give you something?" He said.

"Um, ok?" I sniffled a little.

Mr. Gryphon held up a stick. I took it from him with my teeth, and wedged it between my knees.

I looked down at the stick. Then back up at him. Then down at the thing again. Then back at him.

"It's a stick." I said.

"Twinkle's not really dead, you know?"

"Sooo...She's a stick." I said dryly.

"When I was eight, my dog died. Calamity."

The others smirked at the mention of the name.

"Fucked me up, you know? For weeks, and weeks, and weeks. Well, one weekend we visited my Bobbi. She sat me down and said, 'Hey Sam, guess what? Calamity ain't really dead, you know?'

"And I'm all like 'What? Do you think I'm stupid?'

"And she's all like, 'No, I'm just stating facts,'

"And I'm like, 'Facts? Whattaya mean, facts?'

"What kinda fact says a dead dog isn't dead?'

"Well normally that sort of talk woulda got me into big trouble with her, but she just waited for me to shut the Hell up, and it didn't help that Ma was yelling at me, 'Sam! Have you finished your homework yet?!'

"And I'm all, "No, cause Bobbi thinks my dog's a zombie or something, I dunno!'

"And Ma was all.."

Clonk! Big Blue smacked him in the head.

"Yeah, anyway," Sam Gryphon rubbed his eagley head and continued. "She said Life, love, friendship, it all starts with a spark. And it becomes like this flame we pass on. And Calamity wasn't really dead. Not if I kept a candle lit for him. And she passed me a candle."

Sam broke off another root jutting out from the trench dirt. Sprinkled a little flask juice on the tip.

"She said Calamity was gone, but the only way he could really die was if I let my heart burn out. Turn into smoke."

He stared at his makeshift candle. Flicked a little button on a pocket doo hickey and lit it on fire. Watched it burn, thoughtfully.

"Don't let Twinkle's death destroy you, kid."

He got all stern for a second, and turned away from his candle to look me square in the eyes.

"I don't know much about your friend Twinkle Eyes," he said. "But she wouldn't want that."




* * *




The wind died down. And we were left with a moment of real quiet. I stared at my stick.

Sam Gryphon held up his "candle" again – lost himself in the flame.

"To Root Beer Float." He said.

Then he whispered something under his breath. Some language I had never heard before.

"This ones for you, buddy." He held up his flask, and took a swig.

Silence again. None of us were sure of what to say. I just stared at my stick.

It was Mummy who broke the silence. She snapped a root out of the wall o' dirt for herself. Soaked it, lit it, and levitated it before her.

"Lily Leaf." She said.

Another swig.

"Dew drop." Said Big Blue, lighting her own "candle" with magic.

I stared at my stick. And up at the reddening sky. The pale moon.

"Twinkle Eyes," I said at last.

And the alicorn lit me up.

I stared at the flame. Watched it dance blue around the tip of the stick.

"Twink." I whispered.

* * *

As it burned, I watched. I mean really looked deep into it. And slowly, I started to feel warm again. The kind of warm that comes from the inside. I lost myself in the fire. Watched it burn and burn till everything else around me just sort of dropped away. And I was left with this feeling. It was a lot like that moment of joy that Twink and I had shared when I'd first burst out of the tunnels and found her standing over me. Only it kept building. The sensation just kept getting closer. 'Till finally, I heard an actual whisper.

"Kick those shadowy clitweasels." It said.

And I was left in silent awe.

"I will," I whispered back. "I promise."




Out of nowhere, Big Blue started singing a carol. A deep rich voice. "Deck This Barn."

I was so startled, I almost dropped the candle. I looked up at her in disbelief.

After all that had been forgotten, "Deck This Barn," of all things, had survived. Totally intact. Every note. Every lyric. Exactly as I remembered it. Exactly as Great Aunt Roseroot had sung it. As ponies everywhere had sung it on Hearth's Warming Eve's since long before Celestia, or Luna, or even Discord.

Sam the Gryphon closed his eyes, and listened to the alicorn's robust voice. He puffed smoke from one of those fire sticks. A little bit leaked out the weird little nostril holes in his beak. It dispersed over the air. In that moment, I realized precisely what we were missing.

What I had to do.

"Wait!" I shouted.

They all stopped and looked at me.

"Something's not right," I tried to stand up with my candle still between my legs, but it jerked and jostled, and threatened to burn out. So, I wedged it good and firm between some planks of wood on the ground.

"Twink," I knelt. Stared into the flickering light. "Wait right here."

I rose to my hooves, and turned to Sam.

"Keep Twink burning. I'll be back in a sec. Promise."

Before any of them could protest, or stop me, I snatched a spare stick and galloped off.




* * *




I had to find him. Rainbow Glimmer was around somewhere, either lying around feeling sorry for himself, or patrolling, like some of the other ponies had reported. I dashed down that catacomb of ditches. But he wasn't where I'd left him.

I doubled back and found him not too far from where I started, actually. Huddled up on the floor again, alone.

"Maimbow Glimmer?" I mumbled.

He turned to face me. I offered him the stick in my mouth, but he wouldn’t take it.

"We are lighting them," I mumbled some more. "To um...Honor the dead."

He flinched like I was going to hit him.

I spit it out into my hoof.

“A bunch of us are doing it.” I said. “An old Gryphon tradition, sorta, and, I thought, well, you might wanna, you know...light a candle for Tulip."

The wind whipped through the trenches yet again. I shivered. The frosty breeze thing was getting real fucking old. Rainbow Glimmer stared at the stick I offered him, but didn’t take it.

"It should have been me." He said all over again.

That old familiar song. The sound of it made my stomach turn.

"But it wasn't." I told him.

He looked up at me.

"It wasn't you." I repeated. "Tulip bought you a second chance!"

Rainbow looked worried. "B-but, a second chance at what?"

I thought about the kind of life Twink wanted for herself. The kind of life she'd want for me. The kind of stuff she herself believed in - what she stood for. What she fought for.

“I dunno." I said.

His eyes flittered left, and right, and all the fuck over the place. In his head, Rainbow Glimmer was playing his own game of desolation BINGO. A tug of war between desperation, and hope - sorrow, and fear splashed all over his face like a flickering film strip.

"It's up to you." I said.

He stopped, and looked up at me fearfully. Took the stick. Examined it carefully.

“How does it work?” He asked with a shaky voice.

* * *

I brought him back to the rest of the gang. Explained along the way. They all fell silent the moment we rounded the corner, and they could see us coming.

Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop.

As we drew nearer, Rainbow grew visibly twitchy. More than usual.

“It’s fine.” I said. “They won’t hurt you.”

“It’s not them I’m worried about.” He started rambling. “The corns. The corns are gonna see the fire.”

“Not while the Sun’s still up.” I thought quickly. Hoped I was right.

Rainbow Glimmer watched the darkening sky as anxiously as I had.

“But the wall up there in No Mare’s Land. It’s g-guarding the door! That’s fire they have there."

Rainbow pointed a trembling hoof.

"Blue fire. Magic fire. The alicorn used her magic, d-didn't she? The defense systems don’t like magic. The turrets. The canons. They’ll fire if...”

"It will be fine." I said as I chomped on his coat.

Grabbed it, and tugged him along. All the way back to the rest of the gang. A little filly dragging this grown stallion with all her might. The sight must have been absurd.

"Hey, maybe you should--;" One of them shouted.

"Mmph. Mmph." I mumbled.

That shut them up.


It was a little awkward at first, but eventually they all started singing again. Circle of Pony Friends. It seemed to loosen Rainbow up. At least loose enough that I felt comfortable he wasn't going to freak out and gallop away. He plopped himself down and sat just a teeny tiny little bit on the outskirts of our little herd. And minded his business.

"Hold up your stick," I told him.

I yanked my twink "candle" out from between the floor planks with my teeth. Brought it to his. I caught Big Blue lighting up her horn - helping the fire catch. Rainbow Glimmer didn't notice. He just gazed into the flame like it was a crystal ball.

"For Tulip," I said.

"For Tulip," he muttered to himself.

* * *

The gang erupted into another hearth's warming Carol. They all knew the words. It was totally spontaneous-like. When it was done, they sang another carol. Then Another. And another. Glim didn't have much to say, but his eyes lit up with traces of wonder as he watched Tulip in the flame, and I could even see the lyrics to the carols moving along his lips, as he sang them softly to himself.

When they finished The Twelve Days of Hearth's Warming, I couldn't hold back anymore. I had to fucking ask.

"Isn't it amazing how all these ancient songs survived?"

I tried to be slick about it.

"Oh yeah," said Dazzle Shine. "I've got the whole album right here."

He fiddled with his Pip Buck till music started coming out of it. It was a little tinny and thin, but the song was clear. We Wish You a Merry Hearth's Warming. Sung by the most amazing voice I had ever heard. Even after it crackled to a finish, the soldiers just sort of sat in silence and drifted.

* * *

"I'm so glad these old recordings survived the war." Said Dazzle Shine at last.

"Me too," whispered Mr. Griffin.

I scooted over a little closer to get a good look at the device that'd granted us access to such beautiful music. And saw the album's original cover art on display.

A white unicorn. Pink and purple mane. Her cutie Mark was an old-fashioned microphone adorned with flowers. She sat by a fireplace and a piano. Above her, were big red and green letters: "It's a Sweetie Belle Hearth's Warming: Vol. 4."

My brain exploded. I babbled gibberish. Pointed at the screen of Dazzle Shine's Pip Buck.

The girl in my class. The crusader. The squeaky one. A grownup. A legend. One of the only windows to our past. Centuries in the future.

I started to gather my thoughts on it, but my brain just went and exploded all over again.

"Wha? How? Huh?"

"These oldies are great." Said Dazzle. "Even if the lyrics of the Hearth's Warming ones are, you know, a little different."

They all just sort of nodded along. As though it were a mystery. The sight of them all scratching at their heads and staring at their hooves, snapped me out of my brain explodey fugue state. 'Cause none of them brought up the obvious argument. That the lyrics were antiquated. Even in our time, they'd come off Old Fashioned.

That was when it really hit me. They didn't know. They didn't know the history behind any of the pre-war stuff. They weren’t like the Priestess, who’d had access to ancient texts for some reason. These ponies were piecing together a past, just like I was piecing together a future.

“I have a favorite story.” I said with a wicked smile. “But it’s not about Littlepip.”

The potatoes all looked at one another and shrugged.

“Shoot, Blanket Girl,” said Big Blue.

“The first ever Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

* * *

None of them had ever heard it before. None of them had known that there was an Equestria before the princesses. That there had been an exodus. A war. That unicorns and pegasi and earth ponies once hated each other as strongly as they all later hated zebras. As we Rangers now hated 'corns. Nopony had ever told them that our very nation was founded not by our royalty – not by our leaders, not by our generals, but by ourselves.

In telling that story out loud as though it were brand-new, I realized what it was that had led ponykind to the bomb. What we ponies had lost.

It wasn't innocence. No matter how many priestesses or wasteland saviors claimed otherwise. Everyone loses their innocence eventually. What matters is what you do afterwards – that you keep that special spark - that little bit of magic and wonder that makes you somehow able to not turn into a total fucking asshole once your innocence is gone.

Back in Trottica I'd called it purity. For the ancient settlers, it boiled down to one thing. The ability to say "no," to something when they knew it was fucking wrong.

* * *

When the story was over, the gang was totally awestruck, Rainbow Glimmer most of all. A smile crept across his face. He had actually survived an order to go over the fucking top, and saw first hoof what happens to those who go willingly.

The fact that the founders of All That We Hold Dear defeated evil not with obedience, but with the rebellion – with singing and celebration - with friendship? I could only imagine what that revelation might mean to him.

Rainbow Glimmer clutched his candle between his hooves and huddled over it. Full of holiday cheer.

Tulip loved Hearth's Warming so much.

"How do you even know this?" Asked Dazzle Shine, fiddling with his Pip Buck as though the answer would be inside of it.

"An old book," I said.

"Great story, kid." Mr. Griffin slapped my back.

I let out one of those laughs of pride, where you blush a little and try not to let on that you're proud, but everyone can still tell, and that just makes it all the more embarrassing.

Sam struck up another carol to cover for me. We sang. And sang. And sang. And sang. And sang. And crazy as it sounds, after a while, it didn't feel so cold out anymore. When we were done with round twenty-seven-or-so, Mr. Gryphon pointed a talon at Rainbow Glimmer.

"What about you?" He said. "What's your favorite story?"

He panicked. Shook his head.

"C'mon," said Big Blue. "You don't even gotta tell it. Dazzle gots the whole book, just pick a story."

"He doesn't have to," said Mr. Gryphon. He turned to Rainbow and apologized for Blue. "Sorry, brother."

"It's okay." Said Rainbow Glimmer, slightly terrified of the request.

"C'mon," said Big Blue, who just wouldn't let it go. "We all told ours. Tag. You're it."

In the moment that followed, everything else fell silent. Even the gunshots. Even the wind.

Rainbow Glimmer looked like his heart had been smashed. And only I knew why.

Then, out of the blue, something truly incredible happened. As he sat, mulling over those last words coming back to haunt him all over again, there came the sound of music. Rest Ye Merry Gentlecolts. Tulip's favorite carol.

Coming from the enemy trench.

* * *

Rainbow Glimmer lowered his candle and wedged it firmly between tree roots. It continued to burn thanks to Blue's magic.
And then he was off. Stripping off his coat like a mad horse.

I ran after him. The others followed not too far behind.

I found him tearing the lining out from under his coat. Back pressed against the wall.

"Rainbow," I said. "What are you doing?"

"Tag," he smiled. "You're it."

And laughed. Time to do something totally fucking stupid.

He stood up tall, way above the lip of the trench, and waved the lining in the air. A big white flag.

And sang.

"Rest ye Merry gentlecolts let none of you dismay. "

"Rainbow, no!"

But it was too late. He was already climbing over my abandoned wagon, and had gotten halfway over the top all by himself.

For a moment they all fell quiet over there on the enemy trench. But Rainbow kept on singing.

It was the most terrifying silence ever. But they didn't shoot him. Even as he stood up, on the surface ground, right there for the world to see - right out in the open. Right there in No Mare's Land.

Mr. Gryphon clutched at his ankle but Rainbow would have none of it. He kicked the talon away.

"Remember the friendships that were forged upon this day

And saved us all from icy power

When we'd gone astray."

He paraded full on, dragging the white flag behind him. Singing Rest Ye Merry Gentlecolts for Tulip. Out into the unknown. Bringing tidings of comfort and joy.

We all freaked out in silent horror. Waited the gunshot. Some of us even scrambled to peek thru the little chinks between the sandbags, Big Blue chief among them.

"Holy fuck." She said.

"What? What? What is it?!" I said, the only one too short to see.

The alicorn craned her neck down and squatted - let me climb onto her back. When we popped back up, I could finally make out Rainbow Glimmer marching across those horrifying wastes. Still Singing.

And out there way on the other end, was a corn. All decked out in a gray uniform.

She had to be as crazy as Rainbow. Because she was doing the same.

* * *

One by one, we all made our way over the top in stunned silence, as only the two lunatics had held it together enough to keep singing. We got to the center, amazed and confused. But Rainbow got there first. He stood by the razor wire. Waited for the corn to come. The one who was as crazy as him.

Then the song ended, and they were face-to-face. A tangled nest of wire between them. A crowd on either side.

Rainbow waved. The enemy waved right back.

I couldn't tell what else went on between them; they were too far ahead of us.

But eventually, the enemy mare lit her horn up. Encased the posts of the razor wire fence in magic and grunted as she concentrated. It shook but did not move. Rainbow rammed into the post of the fence. A giant wooden X. He bucked it again, and again. Threw his back into it.

Horns from both sides started lighting up. We earth ponies rushed forward to help, but by the time we got there, the fence was already down. Dragged and dumped to the side like used wrapping paper on Hearth's Warming morning.

The corns were every bit as confused and astounded as we were. Except their coats gray instead of brown.

The shortest of the bunch came straight up to me. A teen like Sterry.

I smiled because It reminded me of every other holiday party in history. No matter what, the first thing you do is gravitate toward the kids your age.

"Happy Hearth's Warming," said the corn girl.

"To you too," I replied, still sort of stunned.

"Sprinkles." She extended a hoof bump.

"Rose Petal." I obliged.

For a moment, we both just stood there in each other's company, and soaked in the scene. The grownups were giving each other stuff. Fire sticks. Contraband snacks. Swigs from each other's flasks. Any gift that they could find or think of.

And on the far, far, far end of No Mare's Land was a great and terrible wall, built-in cannons - the kind that didn't need ponies to staff them - and a force field coming out of the top, arcing into a giant dome. I could see the tip of the Crystal Spire over that wall, rising high above the rest of the city.

And a giant door under the wall o' cannons. Sealed shut.

Me and the corn kid sat on a burnt tree stump, and just sorta marveled at it.

"I need to get that door open," I said at last, shivering in the open air.

The sun was almost down.

The other girl fiddled with her saddle bag. I could see it out of the corner of my eye. And as good as it was to have the company, I was pretty fixated on the door.

Next thing I know her hoof is around me. And I felt that last little bit of coldness leave for good.

I huddled up. Toasty and warm.

"It isn't much," she said. "But Happy Hearth's Warming."

I looked down. The girl had wrapped me in a nice warm blanket.

Gray instead of brown.

A Fragile Peace

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - A FRAGILE PEACE

"The ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame, and on each end of the rifle, we are the same." - John McCutcheon



Grown-ups spend their whole lives either running away from, or running toward their childhoods. Well, Hearth’s Warming is one of those things, you know. There's a certain magic about it. It may feel like it’s lost its specialness as you get older, but everyone's still carrying around a million holiday memories in their brains. And if just one of them had a drop of Hearth’s Warming magic, there's hope.

I was standing right smack in the middle of a beat up, charred, rancid old field where thousands had died. And we'd turned it into a paradise. 'Cause we'd all just stopped, looked around, and said "enough." All of us at the same time.

Hearth's Warming - our faith in it - our longing for those wonderful feelings again - it was bigger than war. Bigger than death. Bigger than all of us.

* * *

The soldiers found a beat up pine tree from somewhere or other, and cut it down. Dragged it to No Mare's Land. We decked the hell out of the thing with whatever we could find. And those candles of the dead – they made their way right near the top. Even stayed lit thanks to a little bit of magic. But we hardly needed it. By the time we'd put the tree up, the wind had stopped altogether.

There was this fire burning in all of us, and not a pony was left untouched or unchanged. That lime green mare who had shot at the corns yelling, "Fucking monsters, have you no decency?" She was drunk now. Singing. Forelegs intertwined with one of the ponies in gray. Mummy too. And Mummy had called them fucking evil just an hour before. Rainbow Glimmer was puffing smoke again. Thanks to a gift of fire sticks from that crazy corn lady who'd met him in the middle of the field.

Me? I kept busy draping pine branches all over those razor wire fences to make them more festive. Sprinkles and me both. We decked the living fuck out of them. Having the kinds of conversations that really teach you something about the other pony. You know, deep thoughts and stuff.

"Ok my turn!" Said Sprinkles. "Who would win in a fight? Steelhooves or Littlepip."

Having never read the Book of Littlepip, I took the safe answer. "Littlepip."

"I think so too! What's your reason?"

"Uh..."

I paused to tie that gray blanket around my neck like a cape. I had to use my teeth, which sucked, because their blankets tasted nastier than ours. But at least it gave me an extra minute to think of a reply.

"Uh, she is cleverer, and better at, um...repairing toasters."

Sprinkles snorted out a laugh.

"My turn!" I said. "Do you think there was any way the war could have been avoided?"

Good one, Rose Petal. Crafty. At least I thought so, but Sprinkles just looked at me like I was nuts for asking.

"You think too much." She said.

"What's wrong with--;"

"Ooh! I got one!" Sprinkles interrupted me.

"Hey! You didn't answer mine."

"Yes. Okay? Coulda been avoided." She said. "If you--;"

"But how?" I insisted, my mission ever on my mind.

"Don't care. Now listen, if you could go back in time..."

"What?" I stopped.

"If you could go back in time, meet any princess, and say one thing to her, what would it be?"

I had to think on it. So I thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it.

Out of the blue, the sound of laughter suddenly carried across No Mare's Land. They were playing soccer. Rangers versus Corns. Hundreds of grown stallions and mares laughing again - playing again. It reminded me of the playground back home. Where everypony battles, nopony dies, and you all go out for milkshakes afterward.

“Hey, you cheated!" Somepony shouted.

I don't know who made the accusation, who had supposedly cheated, or how, but at the end of it all, a ranger and a corn broke out into a friendly wrestle. Just like Misty Mountain and Twinkle Eyes. Squabbling over the imaginary game in my dream.

Everypony laughed, cheered, rooted for their favorite of the two wrestlers - you know, generally acting like idiots - 'til finally, the fighters got up off the ground and hugged. Stumbled around like a couple of Berry Punches.

What we were doing - the corns and us - it was a miracle.

"Princess Luna." I turned to Sprinkles and said. "I'd tell her 'Thank you.'"

* * *

Sprinkles and I took a step back and looked at our work. The pine. The long strings of jinglies that I later learned were called bullet shells.

You could hardly tell that it had once been a flesh-ripping agony fence. It even had a nice glow to it. Our flares were on the ground, burning red and orange. The Wall itself, with its gigantic panels, its long, veiny iron cables, its lumpy, techy guns and stuff - it cast neat-o shadows like a Hearth's Warming tree at night when all the other lamplights are out. And the Crystal Empire dome, even from half-a-mile away, cast a pale purple glow on all of us. Our decorations shone like tinsel.

It was perfection.

Then Oldie, the guy I'd met in the cellar, wandered by and killed the mood.

"Hey, Oldie," I said.

He looked over his shoulder to see who I was talking to.

"Um, I mean, hey, uh..."

"Pumpkin Scone." He formally introduced himself for the first time.

"Yeah, that's what I meant to say. Pumpkin, meet Sprinkles. Sprinkles, Pumpkin."

"Hey," he said dryly and gave an unenthusiastic hoof bump to the corn.

"What's wrong?" I said. "Come on. It's Hearth's Warming! It's a party!"

He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. The moment after the words left my mouth, I realized exactly what was wrong. Oldie was all by himself.

"Um, say, uh...where is Sterry?"

He lifted his eyes to meet mine. Sad eyes. Scaredy eyes.

Fuck.

"What happened?" I rushed him so hard my head almost knocked into his chin.

He looked to Sprinkles, "A moment alone, please?"

Sprinkles backed off without having to be told twice. Oldie leaned in real close. Right up to my ear.

"That's just it." He whispered. "I don't know. No one knows. Nopony's seen him since he reported in with the colonel six hours ago."

I looked out over the trenches where we'd come from. Way over them. Past them.

There was a ruined little crap town on a hill wedged right against the wall of the Crystal Empire. They had fires burning there, and strange unnatural lights in the windows. I could see them all the way from No Mare’s Land. It was like the whole town was watching us. Lurking. Waiting.

"Not on Hearth's Warming." I growled.




* * *




After I said my polite goodbyes to Sprinkles, I climbed back into the trenches, and made for the town, if you could even call it a town. Pumpkin Scone tailed me. Nagging.

"What are you going to do?"

I ignored him.

"Hey, kid, come on, this isn't safe."

I grumbled and trotted faster. When I hit a wall in the trenches, I made a left. Then I hit another wall, and made a right.

Left, right. Left right. Pumpkin following me all the way like an annoying little puppy. Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag. Finally, when I hit my twenty-seventh dirt wall, my patience wore down to a nub.

I whipped around, and yelled at him. "What?!"

I had to pant just to catch my breath.

"Um...Uh..." He took a deep breath and rolled his eyes. "This way." He said with a sigh.

* * *

We made our way through a long and tedious maze of dirt. It drove me crazy. I was itching to charge right the fuck up there and grab Sterry - to take down Colonel Wormwood for being such a jerk. I wanted to yell at somepony - anypony - and say, "Hey! It's fucking Hearth's Warming! What the hell is wrong with you?!"

But there was no opportunity for any of that. Just dirt. What seemed like miles, and miles, and miles of dirt.

When we got close to the “town,” we started seeing more of those iron-clad ponies. Officers. Then I just wished for more dirt. We had to creep along at a snail's pace. Ducking, and bobbing, and hiding to avoid being seen. At the end of it all, our trench turned into a road, and we were out in the open.

"Fuck," I said. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck."

I scanned the landscape for cover. Found only a building that had been destroyed long ago. Nothing was left but the foundation and a single wall. But it was better than nothing.

I ran. Darted for it so eagerly that I tripped on my sleeve. Fell flat on my face and tumbled forward.

It was only then, as I lay there with my back against the ground, eyes facing the stars in the calm night sky, that I realized what should have been obvious from the start.

I was a moron. A total fucking moron.

We had no reason to run. No reason to hide. Pumpkin Scone was a fucking soldier, who had every reason to be there. And I was safe with him, so long as we both played it cool.

"Ok," I said, brushing myself off, rising to my knees. "I’m thinking that maybe you can show me th--;"

I turned to Pumpkin, but he was just fucking standing there. Staring. Wide-eyed. Like a dumbass.

"What?" I whisper-shouted. "What is it?"

“I can't,” he said. “I-I took an oath. This…”

He pointed in the direction of the town.

"This is treason."

“This isn't fucking treason!” I snapped. “You're walking into a town you have been in before, not assassinating a princess. Do you care what happens to Sterry or not?”

He swallowed hard. That wind was creeping back up on us, and it was whistley. Pumpkin rubbed his bright brown eyes, licked his chapped scabby lips, and nodded at me.

“Okay,” he said, and inched over toward me. “What's the plan?”

“Um…”

Before we could get into the inevitable argument about how bad an idea it was to go busting into a compound without an actual plan, we spotted two of those steel ponies coming up the road.

"Okay, you go over there," I said.

But Pumpkin was already gone. He darted into that burnt up old building and hid behind it's only wall. Crouched good and tight against a pile of bricks.

Fuck. I ran after him.

“What are you doing?” I whispered.

“Hiding,” he said.

“You're a soldier,” I said. “You belong here. Go out there and...I dunno, salute them or something.”

“I can't,” he whispered.

He was trembling. And not from the cold.

There was so much to say, but the officers were getting close. So close, we could hear the metal on their hooves crunching against the gravel and frozen dirt. It was too late for pep talks.

“So I was like, 'Dude, give me back my bowling ball,' and the other guy was like, 'Dude, make me.'”

“What’d you do?”

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

“Uh...Nothing. He dropped it on his own hoof. Had to go to the fucking hospital. Douche.”

“Oh.”

Crunch. Crunchitty, crunch-crunch, crunch.

“That’s the dumbest story I’ve ever heard.”

They crunchitty-crunched all the way up to the battered wall we were huddling against, and flipped open what sounded like a small metal hatch. They were so close, I could hear every raggedy detail of their breaths. I had to clutch my hoof against my mouth just to muffle my own. Pumpkin did the same.

“I think the antenna is fine,” said one iron pony to the other.

He sounded like he was coming down with a cold.

“It doesn't make any damn sense at all.” Said the second one.

“Well, if Wormwood says she never received the orders, she never received them.”

I turned to Pumpkin. He just shrugged. Terrified and confused.

“Really? I'm not so sure.”

The not sick one lowered his voice to a whisper. It made the two of them harder to tell apart. “What do you mean you're not so sure.”

“I don't know, bro. She hasn't been right in the head since…well...”

“Dude, her fucking son died. Of course she's not right. Doesn't mean that she...”

They both fell silent again. Let the wind do the talking.

“Look, I never said that she did." The sick one said at last.

“Just drop it, ok?”





They quit talking for a bit while their hooves fiddled with whatever was on the other side of that wall. It made little creaky sounds. Scratchy sounds.

I wished the whole time that they would talk again. I could swear my heart was beating louder than the work they were doing - that it would give us away.

But they just kept on fiddling with whatever it was they were fiddling with, content to ignore the thunderous pounding sound coming from inside my chest.

"She's not a traitor.” Said the sick one, stern as the grave. “But I'm telling you she's not herself either. She arrested that poor kid. Sterile Field.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

The other pony was silent. Even he didn't know.

"I guess that kid finally swiped one too many onions." Said the not sick one with a sigh.

Then the little metal lid flicked shut.

"Aaaand the transmitter is working. Like I said."

I couldn't see what was going on on the other side of the wall, but somehow I could feel them looking at each other. Their worry. Their apprehension. Their suspicion.

What the fuck was going on?

There was a painfully awkward silence. Pierced only by the sound of gravel grinding underneath their nervous hooves.

"Let's go check the other transmitter.” Not Sick said at last. “You know, just in case."

"Yeah," Sick Pony coughed in reply.

A couple of hesitant hoofsteps later, they marched past us and headed on down the road.

* * *

Pumpkin and I didn't dare move 'til they drifted out of earshot. It took a long while, cause those two had marched away real slow-like. Finally, when they were gone, I turned to him.

“You okay?” I asked.

He shook his head no. He was shaking with anger.

"You ready?" He said to me dryly.

"Yeah," I said, peering down the road. "Let's go."

* * *

Breaking into the "town" was easy. There were no fences. No walls. The big brick buildings on the perimeter had been left completely unponied - their three-century old ratatatatatat-er's reduced to nasty old lumps of rust.

There was not much left of the old defenses. Just a scar of singed earth around the town's borders. Probably from a protection dome that had burnt out long ago.

The important thing is that Pumpkin Scone was a soldier who actually belonged there. So nervous as we were, there was no need to hide or sneak around at all. I, on the other hoof, got scowls and dirty looks from every iron pony we passed everywhere we went. It made me wish they'd put the helmet parts of their suits back on so I wouldn't have to look at their big ugly glowery heads.

But no one stopped us. And that's all that mattered.

Pumpkin was there to "escort" me to Wormwood, after finding me wandering around. That was the official story, and he was quick to trip over his tongue with it at any officer who so much as looked at us funny. But no one cared. They all let us pass.





As we got deeper into "town," the broken brick buildings faded away, in favor of a small row of cottages. Quaint little thatched roofs, long collapsed. Crumbling wooden beams. Uneven foundations visibly sloping. There was barely anything left of the fragile little houses at all, but what I saw reminded me of Ponyville. One cottage was even a dead ringer for Miss Cheerilee's. Except that the Rangers had draped tarps where the roof had been, and turned it into some kind of tent.

The sight of it sent shivers across my spine.

"What is this place?" I whispered to Pumpkin.

"Nopony knows for sure,” he whispered back. "We think it used to be a village that sprung up just before the empire disappeared. Maintenance workers fixing glitches in The Wall.

"We’ve had our hackers up there trying to get into the maneframe pretty much around-the-clock since we got here. If you ask me, the whole thing is stupid. If you could hack the door from that building..."

He pointed at the giant hideous central structure.

"They would never have built it on the outside of the fucking wall."

* * *

And so we'd arrived.

The headquarters looked like a Fillydelphia apartment building with massive squiggle-majigs coming out, plugging into The Wall like swirly straws. Between the giant tubes and the lit up windows, the whole thing looked like one of those spiders with the billion eyes.

I called it the Town Hall for lack of a better term, but the cluster of rubble we'd trudged across was hardly a town. I doubt it ever had been, even in it's hay day. The reason they'd mimicked Ponyville architecture was probably 'cause it's simple, cheap, and disposable. It doesn't matter if bugs eat your plumbing, and rabbits stampede through your living room - it never takes more than a week or two to repair.

* * *

That seven story headquarters was, bigger and weirder than anything I'd ever seen in real life. And still, compared to The Wall, it was just a pebble at the foot of a mountain.

A mountain made out of guns and stuff.

We clip-clopped slowly to the steps that lead to the front door. Took our deep breaths, composed ourselves, and approached.

Two iron ponies stood at the bottom. And unlike the others, their heads were covered with armor too. They were in full on I'm so cool as I stand here, all-still-and-scary-like-a-statue mode. They were inscrutable. I couldn't tell if they were sizing me up, or ignorifying me. It didn't matter. I was distracted by the big red apples painted on their shiny steel flanks.

Had they all had those?

"You got papers for that prisoner?" One of the iron ponies said to my escort.

"Prisoner? No, I--;"

Pumpkin turned to me. Stared at me. The orange ran from his face. Something was wrong. Wrong enough to make Pumpkin Scone go all white on me.

"Umm..."

I had no idea what the fuck was going on, but I didn't like it.

"The prisoner...yeah." Pumpkin stammered. "The prisoner."

"Wait, hold on a second!"

I looked to Pumpkin for reassurance, but found only apologies in his eyes. And fear.

"Zip it, corn." Snapped one of the iron ponies.

"But I'm not--;"

"Ease off, she's just a kid." Said the other officer.

"Corn?" I said, still utterly confused.

But that just earned me scornful looks. Even through his helmet, I could tell that the dude on the left hated me for being a corn. It was only when I stopped and had a good, hard look at myself that I realized why.

There was a blanket still tied around my neck like a cape. A gray blanket.

The mother of all facehoofs. How could I be so fucking stupid?

And Pumpkin? With his O-Dear-Celestia-What-Have-I-Done face. How could he be so fucking stupid?

"I'm, I'm, I'm...Not a corn, it's just a blanket!" I said. "Check it out! Underneath, I'm a brown coat. Like you."

The iron ponies turned to Pumpkin. He looked like he was about to cry.

"Um...uh..."

He's gonna sell me out. Fuck! He's gonna sell me out. That cockgoblin is gonna sell me out.

"She's--;"

I am losing him.

"Pumpkin," I said.

He looked down at me, utterly mortified.

Please. The word was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't say it. Couldn't give us away.

But he knew damn well what I was asking.

"She's...a filly, sir." He said at last, suddenly all military-like. "I found her wandering the trenches."

"A corn spy it would seem." Iron Douche was smirking underneath that helmet. I could tell.

The other metal pony officer guy just brought his hoof to his face.

"Sir! Private Pumpkin Scone intends to deliver the prisoner to Colonel Wormwood," Pumpkin spoke of himself in the third person. "And let the Colonel reach her own conclusions once I have given her my testimony, and full report, sir!"

The douchey iron pony didn't move. Or speak. His part in this was officially over. He was fucking pissed about it too. Cause there was nothing left to do but to let us pass. We hiked up the front steps solemnly. Step-by-terrifying-step. The sympathetic one followed us, and stopped Pumpkin before we could reach the door. Grabbed him. Whispered something in his ear. Pumpkin listened, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and nodded.

Whatever that guy had said, it was not good.

* * *

"What the fuck was that?" I barked at Pumpkin in an angry whisper once we got inside.

"I don't know." He whispered back.

"Why didn't you tell them I wasn't a corn?!"

I stomped on his hoof.

"Ow. What the hell?"

I smiled. Started walking ahead of him out of spite, but he grabbed me.

"Hey!" I growled at him. "Don't you dare--;"

"This way, dumbass," he whispered.

Pumpkin led me through a doorway, and up the stairs. Our clopping hooves echoed in the stairwell.

For the first flight or two, we didn't say a word. Then I got tired from the hike, ran out of breath, and took it out on him.

"Why didn't you tell them," I huffed. "I wasn't...a corn?!"

Wheeze. Wheeze. Wheeze.

"I couldn't. I..."

I could tell he wanted to say more, but in the end, he ran out of words and just sighed

Desolation Bingo. N-14. Betrayal.

"Come on, don't look at me like that." He said.

"Druggo-dropper;" I snarled.

"What? Huh? Listen--;"

He started murmuring some excuse or other, but at that precise moment, I just so happened to see something that made me completely stop giving a fuck what Pumpkin had to say. His voice just sorta trailed off.

There was a great big hole in the wall of the stairwell. One of those giant metal veins stuck right out of the building just one floor below us, and ran out into the open.

"Whoa."

I poked my head out of the gap. The cable was so close, I could make out the thousands of tiny runes written all the fuck over it. They seemed to pulse, and vibrate color ever so faintly under the steel. The glowy vibratey appendage-a-majig ran crooked, but not squiggly, into a crevice in the wall's machinery. Tucked in to this long, long stretch of wall stuff that seemed to go on, and on, and on forever, and ever, and ever.

But as I looked out over the vast expanse of the Crystal Empire wall - the miles of magic and machine that powered it - the stuff that still worked after three centuries of abuse - all I could think about was the fact that we ponies actually built that.

And it would happen in my lifetime. Start to finish.

"Come on." Pumpkin yanked me away.

For once, he was right. We had to keep moving. I scurried back inside. Started up the stairs after him.

* * *

We carried on in silence after that. At least 'til we reached the top. Then we just stood in front of the door together and panted. The door with the big number seven painted on it. It took a long, long while, but we both eventually stopped wheezing, and when we did, Pumpkin cracked his neck, and turned to me.

"Okay," He said. "On the other side of this door is a hallway. Wormwood's office is at the end of it."

After that, he just stood there like a jackass. Silently. I kept waiting for him to finish his thought, but he didn't say a word.

"And..."

"And what?" He said.

"And...What's the fucking plan." I asked.

"I thought you had one."

"Me? You're the one who works here. What do I know?"

Pumpkin shrugged.

I had to fight the urge to kick him.

"Okay," I said through gritted teeth. "Where do you think they are keeping Sterry most likely?"

"The basement," he replied.

"The basement?! What are we doing up here?"

"I thought we were turning you over to Colonel Wormwood."

Arg.

I banged my head against the wall.

"Why"

Thud.

"Would..."

Thud.

"We..."

Thud.

"Fucking..."

Thud.

"Do that?!"

Thud.

Pumpkin grabbed me. Shoved a hoof in my face and shushed me. There were other ponies in the stairwell. Six flights below us, it seemed when I poked my head out over the rail.

Shit.

"Okay, you're a corn." Pumpkin whispered.

"Pumpkin, fucking no!"

"Listen, listen, listen, listen." He said. "We go in there, and I turn you in. Then I escort you. To the basement because they will want to lock you up, you see?"

I nodded.

"I get the key, unlock Sterry, and we all gallop the fuck out of there."

I ran the whole thing through my panicky brain as fast as I could.

Echoey clip-clop's resonated all the way up the stairwell. We didn't have a whole lot of privacy time left.

"That's...Not a bad idea at all." I said.

"Great!" He motioned to open the door, but I threw myself in front of him and wrapped my legs around his hoof.

"Wait!"

"What?" He snapped.

"What about Wormwood? She's up to something."

"Sterry will know, I'm sure. Why else would he be locked up?"

I nodded again. He motioned to go inside, more urgent-like than before.

"Wait!" I blocked the door. "What if they don't give you the key? What if they think I'm a corn? And do something else to me? Like they take me out back and--;"

"They won't kill you. You're a prisoner of war."

"Armed conflict," I said.

"Whatever! If another guard takes custody of you..." Pumpkin scratched his head. "Uh, I don't fucking know, I'll pick the lock or something while you distract them."

"But--;"

"I aced breaking and entering in basic training!"

He winked, clearly a point of pride for him.

"We'll be fine either way. Now let's go!"

I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.

We had a plan.





Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop.

The hoof steps were getting closer. Third floor probably.

Both of us flung open the door and ran through together. We didn't even have to confer. Pumpkin closed it gently behind us.

I gawked at the long hallway. There was a big door at the end of it. Neither of us were in a terrible hurry to get there. So we crept up on it. Past another not-so-important door or two.

"One more thing," I said to him, never peeling my eyes from that door. "Before we go through with this, I gotta know. What did that guy whisper to you back there?"

"Uh...You really don't want to know."

"I'm putting my life in your hooves, you cuntmuffin. No secrets."

Twink had left me with only a small fragment of her verbal arsenal, but I could make it count.

"Fine," he said. "The sentry told me to be careful, cause, um...Wormwood is in a real bad mood today."

Wonderful.

* * *

The very last thing we did before making our grand entrance was to spy a little. I lay on the broken tile floor and peeked under the crack in the door. There was a uniformed figure at the end of the spacious room. I could make her out. Just barely. She was green and brown, as you might guess from her namesake, and she was sitting at her desk, looking over some papers in a compact version of one of those folders that look like an accordion. There were stacks of paper everywhere.

I don't know what exactly I'd expected to see. A helpless pony tied up against the wall as a figure in a black hood tickled her hooves with feathers? A gang of shadow-things holding a conference? A weather-control machine?

Colonel Wormwood was just doing a bunch of grown-up desk stuff, and like all grown-ups doing grown-up desk stuff, she looked really, really stressed out.

I rose to my hooves. Slowly. Carefully. We couldn't let her hear us stalking her door.

Pumpkin looked to me expectantly. I shook my head. There was nothing to report.

He brought a trembling hoof up, and let it hover by the door. He was doing exactly what I had done back in the cellar. Counting in his head.

Buying time. One, two, two-and-a-half, two-and-three-quarters...

"Oh, for Celestia's sake."

I got fed up and just knocked on the fucking door.

Pumpkin looked at me like I had thrown rotten eggs at his mother, but I didn't care. We had bigger problems.

"Um, uh...ma'am." He addressed the door. "Private Pumpkin Scone here, escorting a prisoner with news from the front, ma'am!"

He physically stiffened. Held his head high, even though she obviously couldn't see him through the door.

"Come in, Private." Came a cold, dry voice from the other side.

Pumpkin pushed down on the knob. The door creaked open.

Colonel Wormwood glanced at us briefly as we entered, and resumed her grown-up desk business - examining loose papers. The accordion thingy was, for some suspicious reason, nowhere to be seen.

"Have a seat," she said, without lifting her eyes from her work.

There was a cushy chair about ten feet from her desk. It was all beat up and worn, but like everything else in the room, it was the nicest of luxuries that the post-post-apocalyptic village had to offer. When we finally reached it, Pumpkin made to sit down.

"Not you," said Wormwood, still focused on her paperwork. "Dismissed, Private."

"What?" I couldn't help but exclaim.

We were supposed to stick together!

"Ma'am," Oldy's voice shook. "Private Pumpkin believes that--;"

"Yes, yes, yes. I will hear your full report after the filly has been processed."

"But, ma'am she's a corn, aren't we supposed to--;"

Wormwood removed her reading glasses. Set them down gingerly on the desk. And finally looked Pumpkin Scone in the eye.

"That," She pointed at me. "Most certainly is not a Twilight Society spy, nor soldier. Your objections have been noted, Private. I'll take it from here. Dismissed."

He stood there. Trying not to quake or quiver. Afraid to stay. Afraid to go. Terrified for me most of all.

"That's an order." The Colonel's voice was gentle and relaxed; her intent: hostile.

Pumpkin looked to me, desperate for some sort of visual clue about what he should do next. But I was as lost as he was. Lost-er, considering that I was the one in the hot seat.

He smacked the dryness from his lips. He looked like he was gonna cry. But he kept it together. Saluted the Colonel. Held the pose as long as he reasonably could without coming off all weird. He was trying to buy just a few more seconds of time.

Finally, with all other options totally exhausted, he lowered his forehoof, straightened his coat, and made his way to the door.

Neither of us dared make any other gestures toward one another. When the door closed behind him, it sounded like two mountains slamming into each other.

"Uh..." I had to clear my throat a little. "Colonel, ma'am."

"Just a moment."

She signed some documents. Stamped some others. Never looking at me once.

I struggled to swallow. Fought the urge to scream while Wormwood casually made more paper rustley sounds.

Once she tucked away her first stack of documents, and straightened out the next, Wormwood lowered her reading glasses.

"You don't think very highly of me, do you, Rose Petal?"

"Um..."

She hit me with the kind of eye contact that bores holes into your brain. Didn't even blink once. Just cordially and hospitably made me feel three-inches-tall.

"No," I said shyly. "I don't."

I tried to hold my own. Really, I did. But eventually I just plain had to look the fuck away.

"And why is that?"

She turned her attention toward her paperwork once more.

"You called me Rose Petal. How do you--;"

"An officer who doesn't know her own trenches is no officer at all," she spat out rapidly as if by reflex. "Now Blanket Girl, Rose Petal, whichever forehooves down on the desk, and leaned forward at me. Got all stareitty.

"You have a low opinion of me." She said curtly. "And I should very much like to know why."

What was I supposed to say? I don't trust you? Everypony keeps telling me you’re a whack job meanie?

She was crazy. Drunk with power. No doubt about it. But I couldn't tell her what I thought of her without revealing who’d been sowing discontent behind her back. She was trying to trick me.

"Uh...For starters," I said. "You're really creeping me out right now."

Stick to the observable facts.

Colonel Wormwood raised an eyebrow. Gestured. Waited for me to finish.

"And, uh...I've been told I have problems with authority."

She sat motionless and watched me. Examined me. Calculated me 'til she exposed whatever truth it was she was trying to discover, took a mental note of it, and resumed her desk work. Assembling loose pages, stacking them neatly.

"Fair enough." She said.

Her papers scrape-scrape-scrape-scrape-scraped against the splintery wood 'till the sound got intolerable. I gritted my teeth. Everything inside my head was screaming at me to leap up on the desk, kick over those ledgers and papers, and yell at her. Demand that she fucking look at me. That she fucking say something.

Luckily, she broke the silence.

"You caused me quite a headache with that little Hearth’s Warming stunt you pulled down there."

I swallowed my heart. It exploded in my chest - an acid volcano. She knew. Wormwood fucking knew.

I trembled. As much with anger as with fear. The idea of anyone coming along and fucking up something so beautiful - it was too much to bear.

"Relax," she said. "No one is going to steal the presents out from under your tree."

“Well, uh...good!” I laid down the law.

"So what now?" Colonel Wormwood ignored my defiance.

Busied herself with the stack of papers on her desk. Got them all tidy-like, and slid the first pile into a manila envelope.

Pant. Pant. Pant. "What?"

"Hearth’s Warming Eve is almost over." She said briskly. "We’ve got corns and rangers down there right now. Singing, drinking non-regulation spirits. What do you propose we do next?"

Wormwood put her hooves down and looked at me directly. It was her go on, the class is waiting face.

"Uh...Call off the war?"

She looked at me. Got all stareitty again. It made me feel stupid. Even though I knew in my heart I was right.

"Um...please?"

She tapped her hoof on the desk. Looked away from me for the first time that didn't directly involve papers and desk stuff.

"And when we get the Crystal Empire doors open?" She continued.

"We, uh...Share?"

The Colonel sighed, ran a hoof through her mane.

"Please," I said. "The corns - they're not evil. They love Hearth’s Warming as much as we do."

"Of course they do." Wormwood rose from her desk. "Everypony loves Hearth’s Warming, don't be ridiculous."

She tugged at the tails of her coat with her mouth. Straightened it over the waistline of her iron pony suit.

"Oh."

Being sufficiently tidy, Colonel Wormwood turned and approached the cluster of little rectangular windows behind her desk. A few moments later she glanced over her shoulder at me, and threw me a well, what are you waiting for look.

I hopped off of the chair and approached. You could see the whole damn Crap Town from up there. Even the trenches. They looked like deep violent gashes in the earth. And of course, there was The Wall. It was as much of a breathtaking mindfuck to look at as before.

"When this conflict first began," she said. "We had a choice. We all agreed that trench warfare was better than the alternative."

I turned to the colonel in disbelief. But she wasn't looking out the window at all. That stareitty bitch had never stopped sizing me up. Never stopped measuring.

"Um, Colonel Wormwood...Ma'am?"

She looked down her muzzle at me with what I could only guess was suspicion. The last thing she expected was to be addressed with respect.

"The trenches kinda suck." I said honestly.

The colonel turned away from me. Looked out the window for real.

"We have the bomb." She said all matter-of-fact-like.

"What?!"

"The bomb. The megaspells. The materials. The know how. We're a push of a button away."

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks," I whispered to myself.

"And the corns have megaspells of their own. Devices." Wormwood watched the crap town below in silence.

It was a terrifying thought. Going down that road all over again. No toaster repair pony to catch you when you fall. No princesses.

It was stupid. So fucking stupid.

* * *

A long, heavy silence later, I asked the obvious question.

"Are you fucking nuts?!"

"The modern world is about balance." She said after a long, long breath. "They have the bomb. We have the bomb. They have the science. We have the engineering."

She looked down. Locked eyes with me.

“The Twilight Sparkle Society has always hoarded their little secrets, held themselves above the rest, believed themselves to be the ones worthy of carrying the torch. But the Crystal Empire is a horse of a different color. It was the epicenter of both arcane research and technological development during the war."

She let that sink in for a minute.

"Knowledge like that," She concluded. "Power like that - it's too dangerous for one nation to hold."

There was sadness in her voice. Fear. I got the strange impression that when she'd asked me “what now,” at least part of her had actually hoped for some kind of answer.

I had none.

* * *

No matter how many different directions I tossed it in my head, Wormwood was right. About the bombs. About the megaspells. About the world teetering on the edge of armegelding. But she also hadn't seen the truce. The Songs. Our tree!

All that stuff had seemed impossible, but we did it. Cause there was a strange magic on our side. A faith that we could do better. That we could be better. Our ancestors had believed it. Littlepip had believed in it. And hundreds of hardened soldiers had come to believe it too, all at once.

I just had to get that magic to touch Colonel Wormwood. There had to be a way to make her see.

"Things can be different now," I pleaded. "Go down there. Look around. Please. It can change. We just have to try."

Like Pinkie Pie had said.

The colonel turned to faced me once again. Surprisingly enough, she conceded my point.

"That might very well be so."

"What?"

"I believe you, Rose Petal." She spoke with brisk military formality.

"You do?"

"I would be a fool not to believe that we are capable - that we can overcome our worst natures. And if I were you, I would very much like to, as you say, try.

“But what of the millions back home?" She continued. "They have no idea how bad it's gotten down here. How much worse it could get in the blink of an eye. They are busy stuffing stockings. Baking pies. As well they should. Would you gamble their whole world on try?"

She didn't give me a chance to answer.

“There are 2,742 soldiers down there right now under my direct command." She said. "Thousands more in reserves. They place their lives in our hooves in good faith every day. They trust our orders. I wouldn't gamble even one of their lives. Not on try."

I could suddenly see myself in the truck again. Escaping Trottica, blowing away targets without ever stopping to be sure they were enemies. But what were we supposed to do? One wrong move, and it would have meant the end for us all.

We'd had no way of knowing for sure if any of the villagers we'd shot at had been good guys after all. And even if they did turn out to be all bad, how many families had we destroyed?

How many friends had we left behind, babbling to themselves, crying, "It should have been me. It should have been me. "

How many new priestesses did we create? Embittered by loss?

It was awful. Truly awful. But no matter how I ran it through my head, it had still been the only possible way.

"What do we do?" I echoed back the question that Wormwood had asked me a minute earlier.

She sat back down in her big chair. Rolled it forward. I could see the accordion folder under her desk. Thrust hastily there, most likely when she'd heard the knock at the door.

I rushed to follow Wormwood's example. Took my seat again before she could notice me noticing the folder.





She straightened her things, and lifted her reading glasses. Affixed them haughtily on the tip of her muzzle.

"Insubordination, fraternization with the enemy - these are crimes. If I were to simply overlook them, then I myself would be in dereliction of duty." She rounded up another stack of pages. "I am, unfortunately, obligated by law to investigate and punish such infractions."

She was so casual. So matter-of-fact about it.

Not me. I'd reached my breaking point. That jerk was gonna punish every pony! For trucing without her permission. I didn't care how scary she was, or how skilled at making me feel stupid. I didn't care what horrors she had the power to unleash on me. That fucking cuntwaffle was a hypocrite. And it made me see red.

"You bitch!" I shouted. "Your soldiers mean sooooooo much to you that you're gonna lock them up? For having a Merry Hearth's Warming?!"

She didn't bat an eye. But I kept going. I was on a roll.

"You hide behind that chain of commandy stuff when it's fun for you, but everyone knows you're up to something. No one fucking trusts you. You're not protecting those potatoes by sending them to die. You're…You're…You're…Sending them to die!"

There were tears streaming down my face again. I hate it when that happens. I wanted to fucking kill her for that reason alone. But she didn't wince. Not so much as an eye twitch. All she did was sit back behind her desk, and watch me freak out. If anything, the bitch was amused.

I panted, totally out of breath from all the shouting. She just cleared her throat. Slid the manila envelopes to the front of her desk.

"Is that all?" She said.

I looked at her defiantly, head held high. But I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Good," she nodded. "I'm glad that's finally out of the way. I do appreciate your honesty."

She let that one hang there in the air. A long silence trailing behind it, broken only by the sound of pencil scratches.

Then, like a brick to the face, it suddenly hit me. The first question she had asked - why I had "such a low opinion of her?"

I'd just given her her answer. After all that crazy stuff we'd talked about? It had all came back to that. And I had given her exactly what she wanted.

"You...you..." I stammered in disbelief.

"Moving on." She said, having made her point. "If you would be so kind as to run these over to the clerk's office at the end of the hall on your way out, I would be much obliged."

She plopped her last envelope on the pile. Straightened it out some more. Gestured at me. I was apparently supposed to take it.

"What?"

"It's two doors down. You can't miss it."

Silence. Stareitty, unblinking eyes.

"So you're...letting me go?" I panted, still a little winded from my rant.

"You're not a prisoner. You've sworn no oaths to Applejack’s Ranger Corps, and committed no civilian crimes that would obligate or permit me to detain you."

Applejack? I thought. The farmer?!

I filed that little piece of what-the-fuck away in my brain for later.

"The trenches are not, at this exact time, an active war zone, either," She said. "So technically, I can't keep you from it - at least until the fighting resumes. But I would still strongly advise you to stay away."

"Strongly advise" was polite colonel talk. What she meant to say was that if I set one hoof in those trenches, she would personally set fire to all of my internal organs, toss them in the air, and have a Flaming Organ Jamboree.

"Um..."

I grabbed the envelopes. Dropped them down on the floor. Gave them a good hard look.

"Why are you trusting me with your papers?" I said.

"Because they are Hearth's Warming pardons, and you care deeply about the potatoes down there in the trenches, or so you called them."

"But you said--;"

"There's a loophole in the regulations." Wormwood whipped out a whole new stack of forms. "It took me four-and-a-half hours to find, thus the aforementioned headache."

"Oh." I said.

I hung my head in confusion and embarrassment, and even though her face was hard as granite, I could tell it amused Colonel Wormwood to see me humbled like that.

"So what now?" I asked.

It seemed to be the eternal questIon.

"Come dawn," she said. "My little ponies and I will make a trip to the trenches, and offer all the insubordinates their pardons. The best present should, of course, always be saved for Hearths Warming morning."

Her real intentions were clear.

"And they all go back to the trenches," I said to myself in disgust. "And carry on like nothing had ever happened."

"Clever." She said.

It was that hard yellow line. With something to lose, they'd all go back. They'd have to.

The truce would be remembered as a glorious moment that had passed, and Colonel Wormwood praised for her holiday spirit. When the time came, we would get back in those trenches, relieved to have dodged an insubordination charge.

And we'd all live to kill each other another day.

Wormwood watched me again. Not measuring or calculating. Just waiting. Because she already knew what I was going to do.

I looked down at those envelopes. It made me sick to my stomach.

If Colonel Wormwood still wanted me to, I would do exactly as I was told, and take those pardons over to the office. See that they got filed. She knew it.

Because I wanted those potatoes to be free.

"Please," I threw myself at the front of her desk and clutched the surface of it.

Her empty tea cup banged after the impact.

"Just come down there. Have a look." I pleaded.

If I couldn't get through to her, then maybe the magic of Hearth's Warming could. There was a chance, however small, that the beauty of our truce - the joy of our celebration - would make her see.

And if, after the holiday spirit had had a crack at her, she was still intent on being a bitch, the potatoes and I could stand against her. With that Hearth's Warming magic fresh on our side, we could force a lasting truce.

'Cause that place - that moment in time. There was power in it. Just standing in the paradise that had once been No Mare's Land, you could feel this energy in the air. The war, the moment – the whole fucking world was up for grabs.

If ever there was a time and a place where the brown coats and the gray coats could rise up against the fucking cockgoblins who said they had to wear different colored coats in the first place, it was that night. Down there in No Mare's Land.

It was just plain pivoty.

"Please, Colonel" I said, staring into her hard eyes. Right up close and personal.

"Come down. Do it for your troops. Do it just to see."

But the colonel did not respond. Only watched me some more.

"Do it for your son," I pleaded at last.

Those cold, emotionless eyes flickered instantly to life. Like coals on fire.

"Don't." She roared.

A sound so loud I had scramble backward just to escape it.

"You speak."

I cringed when I reached the foot of the chair.

"Of my son."

She didn't have to come at me to make her intent clear. She just rose to her hooves. Slowly.

I had looked into the eyes of slavers, murderers - wrestled with shadow monsters from in-between-the-fucking-dimensions - but none of it compared to the hate I saw in Colonel Wormwood at that moment. It radiated off her like a furnace.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I said a thousand times over.

But she didn't say anything in response. Just burned.

I lunged for the papers and bolted for the door.

"Let me just go and file these for you." I said, sobbing.

As I ran, I got the feeling that a giant flaming net would be cast, or that great big spikes would pop out of an iron door, and the shadows themselves would suddenly swoop in and steal away everything I saw, and leave me in blackness. Or worse yet, I would be left alone, and forced to talk with Colonel Wormwood some more.

But when I reached the door, they were no tricks or traps. Just a handle. When I put a hoof on it, she growled to me from behind gritted teeth.

"Rose," she said.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, halfway to freedom, mouth full of envelopes.

"When you get back, there is one more thing we need to discuss."

"When I get back?" I whimpered.

"Your friend, Private Sterile Field."

I froze, faced with the grim realization that I couldn't just cut and run after I was done with the clerk and the pardons. Even at her most hot-headed and impulsive, Wormwood still had me right where she wanted me.

She had The One I’d Come to Save.

It was a haunting realization - the position she had me in - that she had poor Sterry in - and one that didn't need to be expressed in words.

"Do hurry back, child." She said, back to her brisk, practical, cordial office persona once more.

Calm as could possibly be.

But her words may as well have been acid. Do hurry back.

* * *

Once on the other end of the door, I had a proper freak out. Closed my eyes. Sobbed silently, clutched the papers to my chest while I pressed my back against the door.

I opened my eyes, and there were two iron ponies standing over me. I clutched the envelopes harder, afraid they might try to take them from me.

"Kid," One of them said, raspy and coughitty - oblivious to my panic. "Is it a…bad time to go in there?"

I nodded.

The two iron ponies looked at one another and gulped.

As I started past them, and headed for the clerks office, the two of them got to bickering over who would knock first. Pulled the old one, two, two-and-a-half routine. That was when it dawned on me where I had heard those voices before.

"Did you ever get the transmissionizer working?" I stopped.

Spat out the envelope.

They both got these totally freaked out looks on their faces. If some little girl was onto them, who could even guess how many steps ahead of them Colonel Wormwood was?

"How? How did you--;"

They didn't answer me, of course. Couldn't give me details. Confidentiality and all that stupid crap. But the way they looked at that big old door in total abject fucking terror told me everything.

Those transmission thingies worked perfectly. They'd even said it themselves when they'd thought they were alone.

And now they had to go deliver the news to the colonel.

* * *

Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. And I was losing valuable time.

Papers still in my teeth, I crept down that hallway and knocked on the door.

I was met with a gentle reply, "Come in."

I went inside.

The clerk’s office was a wonderland of boring grown-up desk stuff. Computater consoles. Stacks of paper, neat and orderly. A meek gentlecolt, about four hundred billion years old, was filing folders away.

"What's a little girl like you doing around here?" He said when he saw me.

Ordinarily, I hate that kind of talk, but coming from a guy who had probably been there at the first Hearth’s Warming, it was hard to take offense.

"I'm fine," I mumbled. "I got these for you."

I dropped the envelope on a nearby table and nudged it with my nose.

He snatched it up. "Well, let's just have a look."

He slid the papers out onto the desk, and leaned in real close, like he was gonna sniff them, or kiss them, or something. He was actually just straining to see.

"Excited to finally get access to paper again." He said to me, ignoring the pardons. "Never thought I'd see the day. Wave of the future - paper."

He winked at me.

"You can't hack a folder. Can’t destroy evidence - not without getting your hooves dirty. The Age of Accountability. That's what I call it."

The old stallion looked at me blankly for a moment. Then suddenly realized what he was supposed to be doing. He dipped down and squinted at the paperwork once again. When he finally saw what they were, his face widened into a great big wrinkly smile.

"They're here." He laughed. "They're ready!"

He snatched them up, and whisked them behind another table. He moved way faster than I would have thought possible, and got right to typing on one of those computaters.

Typitty. Typitty. Type. Type-type.

"She chewed you out, didn't she?" He said, multitasking harder than an octopus DJ.

"Well, not really." I fidgeted. "I'm fine. Really, I'm just, uh...Really, really...Fine."

When I was done making a total ass of myself, I spoke my mind.

"Is Colonel Wormwood actually pardoning everypony?" I asked.

"I should hope so," he said hastily, running over to one of those computaters. "Took us long enough to find the clause."

"She's been acting kinda weird though, right?"

He stopped punching buttons for a moment and craned his neck to look right at me. "That's not for me to say, young lady."

"Oh."

Type-type, typitty-type.

"Well," I pressed. "What do you think of her?"

"Also not for me to say."

He plopped a folder down off a shelf and kept computating.

"But you just said--;"

"Whoa, there. I made an observation about the behavior of other officers in her presence. Not the same as an opinion. A pony don't get to be head clerk of the 107th for thirty years and running by gossiping about commanding officers."

"Ok, um..."

I had to struggle to figure out what to say.

"What about the potatoes? I mean soldiers? I, um...call the soldiers potatoes sometimes. It's a long story."

I realized that I still didn't know a damn thing about how Wormwood actually felt about her troops. Just a bunch of bullshit about the chain of command and her duty to protect them. How could I tell the truth from her manipulations? I got to wondering if she even cared about them at all? Or had all of that just been talk?

The clerk grabbed some new papers and stamped them.

"The colonel would never ever brag about this sort of thing, and I would never ever offer a prejudicial opinion.” He said. “But in her two decades of service as an officer, Colonel Wormwood has buried over nine-hundred soldiers. That's a matter of public record, you see. And of the condolence letters that have crossed my office, there was not one that came from her that she had not written by hoof, and personalized."

I struggled to reconcile this with the cold manipulative bitch I had just met.

"That is also a matter of public record." The clerk threw in for good measure. "Not the content of the letters, of course, but the fact that she declined the templates."

"Thank you," I nodded to myself.

I couldn't help but smile at the clerk's helpfulness - the kind that insisted upon avoiding being helpful in any official capacity.

"You know, the soldiers are just going to go right back to fighting tomorrow."

I had to be honest with him.

"Reckon so." He said sadly.

He pounded at the computer like a regular Strawberry Lemonade. 'Til it hummed and spat out a piece of paper. He stuck it in a small envelope, wet it, and sealed it.

Once that was taken care of, the old stallion took a moment. Stopped.

With a sigh of resignation, he said, "I know this all must sound silly to a filly like you. Rules. Regulations. Orders."

"No." I protested to be polite.

"It's alright." He said. "Everyone wants to be Littlepip. As well they should. But you get to be a certain age, and you realize you're just not cut out for it. Made too many mistakes. Too many Arbu's."

I shook my head, not having a clue what he was talking about.

"Littlepip is what you call a moral compass. Great to look to. But the real reason we need her is that, if everyone was their own compass, they'd all spin off in different directions. It wouldn't be five minutes before the whole wide world couldn't tell North from South."

I tried to absorb what he was saying. Tried to soak it in. And it was a reasonable, logical argument for the importance of conformity. To a degree.

But I didn't care. Because conformity is fucking dumb.

I smiled sweetly and did my best to disagree with courtesy and respect for the old stallion.

"And if your commanding officer is wrong?" I said.

“It happens less than 50% of the time."

"I don't like those numbers."

"A whole lot better than a platoon full of folks all thinking they’re lightbringers. That spells trouble every time.”

I stared into space. Thought about it long and hard.

"99% of the time, what the world really needs is a good background pony." I whispered to myself.

"Come again?"

"Oh um, I was just....I don't know. I can’t. I really hate it when..."

"I’m sorry." He backed off when he saw me getting all worked up. "You’re a good kid. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Don’t you worry about it.” He said. “You fight your fight. That's your job. Just promise me one thing.”

He smiled at me sweetly.

“What?”

“Try not to be so hard on the rest of us." He winked.

A strange buzzing sound came from behind the desk. The clerk whipped around, disappeared to the drawer where the buzzing was coming from, grabbed a sticker that only a printing press could have made back home, slapped it on the envelope, and slid it to me.

"Hurry up and get this to her, please. We don't want anypony's pardon status slipping between the cracks when they call this war off."

"When they what?"

"Oh," the clerk laughed a shrill high-pitched nervous little laugh. "Forgive an old stallion. It's not official--;"

"Wormwood? She's calling off the war?"

That couldn't be. I may not have trusted the colonel, but she still seemed really genuine about the whole not-letting-the-corns-get-another-bomb thing.

And if the war was almost over, what would have been the fucking point of interrogating me?

"No," said the clerk. "The colonel doesn't have the authority to do that. But rumor has it the folks back home are talking it out. Also a matter of public record, I might add, though not something most folks down in the trenches have heard about, and nothing official as of yet."

"So there is hope?" I said, more confused than relieved.

"Just waiting on word from above. The transmission should be here any day now."

“The what?” I said.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

“The transmission from High Command.” The clerk repeated.

The one that Wormwood refused to admit she'd already received.

“I see.” I backed away toward the door, scarcely able to breathe.

“Thank you,” I added.

My throat felt like it was full of quicksand.

"What is it?" Said the old stallion.

Wormwood was going to do something crazy to stop the peace. But I couldn't tell him that. Not without proof. I looked up at his kind face. Wanting to trust him. Hell, my heart already trusted him. But my brain couldn't muster the words. Or the nerve.

My only advantage against Wormwood was that she didn't know I was on to her. I couldn't blow it.

"The transmission," I croaked at last through my chokeitty throat. "Who gets to see it?"

“Don’t you worry. It’s secure. Goes straight to the colonel. She decrypts it manually. On paper.” He winked. “Wave of the future.”

“Oh.”

We were fucked.

“Here!” The old stallion rushed toward me, waving the envelope with a smile. “Don’t forget this.”

He plopped it on my back. Stroked some loose strands of hair from my face when he saw my worry.

“Don’t fret, child.” Said the Clerk. “You’ll do fine. But please hurry. The potatoes are counting on you.”

He nudged me out the door. Closed it behind me. Next thing I knew, I was looking down that long hallway again.

I should go back and tell the clerk she’s hiding something. Said one voice in my head.

What good could he do? Everything’s by the books with that guy. Said another.

It’s better than nothing, said Rose Petal Number One.

Yeah, but we need that accordion folder first!

Then there was a brain silence. Mind Voice #2 was right. Hearth’s Warming Eve. Sterry. The War. It all hinged on exposing Colonel Wormwood. I couldn't risk it.

* * *

I moved on ahead. Got into another one of my staring contests with the door at the end of the hallway. The colonel was more dangerous than I’d thought, and I had been terrified of her from the get-go. What the fuck was I supposed to do?

“Psst.” Came a voice from behind. “Little girl.”

It was the clerk, poking his head out from behind his door.

“What is it?”

The old stallion looked around to make sure he couldn’t be heard. “I said that you would be fine with Colonel Wormwood. And that is true, but only 97% true.”

“What do you mean?” My damn heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear him.

“Whatever you do,” he said. “Do not mention her son.”

The colonel's door at the end of the hall flung itself open. Out came those transmissionizer-repair ponies, fleeing like there was a dragon on their tails.

They ran right past me.

“Mr. Clerk, Mr. Clerk, what do I do if--;”

I turned, and he was gone. Hiding behind his own door again.

Meanwhile, Wormwood’s door was slightly open. It seemed to be waiting for me now. I couldn’t turn back. Couldn’t even hide on the other end of it, and count to three. I was pretty sure she could see my every move.

“Rose, we haven’t got all day.” Came a voice from the inside.

I took a deep breath, and crept nervously back into the colonel's office. The sound of my hoofsteps echoed through the hallway.

A Last Resort

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - A LAST RESORT
"Surrender. Surrender. But don't give yourself away." - Cheap Trick








When you lose somepony close to you, theres a terror that sneaks up on you - a need. All their suffering. All your loss.
You get hungry for answers. Desperate for them.

You have to know there was a reason.

The bullet that killed Twinkle Eyes had kept on going and ripped a hole in my heart a mile wide. But, at the very least, I knew that it had happened for some kind of reason. I had no idea if I would ever find out what that reason was, or if it was even a good one, but that One I'm Supposed to Save stuff? It was just too fucking weird to be senseless.

Wormwood had recently buried her son. I'm not going to pretend to know how that feels. But that poor guy had gotten torn up in a razor wire deathbed. 'Cause of a bone fucking stupid war. A war that she was in charge of. A war that was about to get called off anyway.

* * *

I watched the colonel, typitting away at her desk. Glaring at me here and there as she worked. There was pain behind that mask. Rage. Hatred.

Wormwood was prepared to drag that war on 'til every last corn and potato was dead, just to prove it had happened for a reason.

And I just sat there. No idea how to stop her. Waltzing up to that desk, stealing her secret incriminating documents, moseying down to No Mare's Land, and convincing everypony to rise up against her was the best plan I could think of, and I just couldn't envision it working out.

"You're awfully quiet." The colonel said coolly.

I suddenly realized how suspicious my thinkiness had made me.

"I just don't wanna distract you." I said. "From your important...desk stuff. I wanna make sure everypony gets their pardons."

"They will." She looked down her muzzle at me as she typed.

Fuck! She was on to me. Think, Brain! Think! You're acting strange. Knock it off, knock it off, knock it off!.

Rant about the war. One voice in my head suggested.

Demand to know what she did to Sterry! Screamed another.

Give her something she expects to hear. Anything! Pleaded a third, not terribly helpful voice. And do it quick!

I fidgeted all over my seat. I had to sit on my hooves just to keep them still. Even though it made me all the more obvious. My brain rattled panicky thoughts around the inside of my head like popcorn until I felt like my skull was going to explode. My mouth, sick of my brain and all its bullshit, finally spat out words at random without bothering to consult me.

"I'm sorry." I said.

Colonel Wormwood stopped typing. Stopped messing with her papers even. She pointed her attention directly at me and me alone. I would rather she have pointed a gun in my face.

"Sorry for what?" She asked.

"Well, you know..."

The clerk had warned me not to bring up Wormwood's son. And there I was. Bringing him up. Again.

I turned away from her death glare. Hid behind my mane.

"No," she said. "I don't."

"Nevermind." I muttered.

"You aren't sorry, then?"

"No! I didn't say that."

"Either you have something to apologize for or you don't."

"I'm sorry about your son." I blurted out. "I was way out of line. I--;"

The words escaped me. I turned away and cringed. And not just because the colonel made for terrifying company. Because I was wrong.

If some stranger came into my room in my home, and tried to sway my course of action - my beliefs - by invoking my mother's name, or Twink's, I might just kick their teeth right in.

"I...had no right."

I fought to keep my voice from trembling. Tears were backing up behind my eyeballs, running through my skull, and pouring straight down my throat. But I sucked in a raspy breath and looked her straight in the eye.

"I had no right." I said again firmly.

"Apology accepted." She replied.

I braced myself for the coming storm. Squeezed my eyes shut as tight as they would go. Swallowed an entire bucket's worth of skull tears. Then I realized what she'd actually said. How matter-of-fact she'd been.

"Come again?" I looked up in confusion.

"It takes a mare of integrity to admit when they're wrong."

"Thanks." I said shyly.

Then, just like that, the colonel was quiet again. She'd said all she had to say on the matter.

* * *

It was a long, long, long, long quiet. But at least the elephant in the room was finally spoken of. One small load off my mind. I fucking hate conversation elephants.

Focus, Rose Petal. Focus! I told myself.

I had to find proof. I had to get that folder. I had to stop the fucking war. I had to find out where she was keeping Sterry!

"Your friend is being held in the basement," said Wormwood totally out of the blue.

"Really?"

Pumpkin had guessed right!

"Yes." She said dryly.

My twitchitty mouth fought back a smirk.

"Why are you holding him?" I asked.

"He's under arrest. I had hoped better for the boy, but...."

She shrugged. Left her statement hanging. Waited for me to ask the obvious question.

"Under arrest for what?"

"A series of minor infractions. Don't worry, he's not facing the gallows."

"What infractions?"

"That information is classified." She replied. "For his own privacy of course."

Bullshit. I thought.

I had only known Sterry a short while, but one thing was damn certain: that kid committed minor infractions all the time. He comes to her office on the same night that she conveniently misplaces an important transmission. And next thing he knows, he is getting arrested?

Something didn't add up. And it pissed me the fuck off.




I ground my teeth together in anger.

What had that fucking cockgoblin done with Sterry?

I fumed, threw her my nastiest glower, but Wormwood just looked at me like I was one of those gross squiggle-majigs you peep at under a microscope in science class. Her little experiment. Behaving predictably.

I would rather she have gloated.

* * *

A voice came at me from inside my head. Not the kind of voice that gives hints about the future. A crueller voice. A feeling. An urge.

"Leap across the room." It said. "Scale the desk. Grab the colonel and beat the secrets out of her with your bare hooves."

And I could see it playing out in my mind's eye, too. Very clearly. I could feel every satisfying punch like an itch in my hooves being soothed.

"You can do it." The voice said to me.

A reassuring whisper.

But I shut my eyes and sat on those itchy hooves. Swallowed my rage till it turned my stomach into a chamber of blurbley horrors.
Stewed there. Shaking. It took everything I had to keep from attacking Colonel Wormwood. But I managed. I was no Commander Hurricane. I was the girl who panicked during tackle hoofball games and got tripped over.



"Please." I whispered to myself out of the blue.

I didn't even know who I was asking, or what l I was even asking for. It's just one of things my mouth said without consulting me.

"Please," I said again through gritted teeth, and hoped Wormwood didn't hear me. "Please."

Then I stopped. Thought about what I should be wishing for. And remembered what was really important. In that moment, I hoped, and prayed, and begged every last brain hornet in the universe that Sterry was ok. That he actually did know something. That he really could prove something.

I pictured Pumpkin Scone in my mind and sent my hopes out into the wind.

If he was as good at picking locks as he'd said he was - if he was a good enough friend not to druggo-drop Sterry - we might maybe kinda possibly be able to pull this thing off.




Okay, Rose. I said to myself. There's no way to get to those papers under her desk. You've got to quit your stupid fantasies. Do something doable. Something useful.

You've got to distractify her.

“I don't believe you." I said smugly.

If I goaded her on just right, maybe I could buy them just a little more time. I had to pick a fight. Start an argument. Keep her eye off the ball.

"I know you don't believe me." The colonel replied with disinterest.

And was content to go on multitasking.

"Oh...um..."

Fuck.

I apparently wasn't very good at subtlety. The last time I had created a diversion, I'd run onto a fucking auditorium stage and waved hello to a town full of child-fearing ponies. But it didn't matter, cause Wormwood, out of the blue, just sorta stopped. Quit her scribbling. Quit her typing. For just a moment, focused her attention on her Pip Buck. As though it had poked her by surprise.

There was a strange flicker in her eye. She tapped a button on her wrist and threw me a checkmate glance. My second ever glimpse at the real pony behind the poker face. I didn't like it.

"Have I been secretive?" Said Wormwood, dryly playful.

"What?"

"Have I answered all of your questions? Do you feel that I have been straightforward?"

I shrugged. How do you even answer a question like that? But I did think about it, and Wormwood was right. She had been straight with me so far, giving out all the answers that I had asked for. Technically speaking anyway.

"Can you do me a favor then, and answer a question of mine?" She said. "Something that's been irking me?"

"Uh...depends on the question."

"Why did Private Pumpkin Scone refer to you as a corn?"

"Oh. This stupid blanket." I replied, somewhat taken aback.

"He detained you for wearing an enemy blanket during a truce?"

"Um..."

Every feuding voice inside my head screamed at once.

"Uh...I wasn't in No Mare's Land like the others." I thought quickly. "I was in the Ranger trenches! Like Pumpkin said."

"Mmmhmm." Wormwood glanced at her Pip Buck.

"Hey!" I snapped.

Trying to distractify her. Draw her attention away from that stupid thing. 'Cause whatever she was doing on her Pip Buck was bad. Really, really, really, really bad.

"You're Queen Straightforwardpants," I snarled at her. "With your if-you-have-something-to-apologize-for-then-do-it talk. Are you accusing us of stuff or what?"

"Us?"

She lowered her forehooves off the desk. Ignored her Pip Buck like I'd wanted. But with a new found interest in me that I didn't. Fucking. Want. A thousand screaming alarms went off in my head.

"Uh. You know, that jerk who captured me, and...uh, you know...me. One plus one equals two? Get it? Us."

I wished with all of my heart that she would go back to looking at her stupid Pip Buck.

"In the Academy," Wormwood explained. "Private Scone excelled in one area, and one area only. Lock picking."

Uh-oh.

"That's nice." I said.

"He mastered every technique in the field manual."

"Good for him."

"A few minutes ago, he attempted to use those techniques to break Private Sterile Field out of the brig."

I leapt to my hooves. Charged with a sudden urgency.

It was all on me now. Pumpkin had fucked up his end. Sterry was still stuck in the basement brig.

The evidence under Wormwood's desk was all we had left. Pumpkin and Sterry's only shot at freedom. The potatoes' and corns' last chance for peace.

I needed that fucking folder.

"Rose, " said the colonel out of the blue. "I'm placing you into protective custody."

"What?" My hooves started shaking again .

"It means you stay here."

"No!"

"Yes."

"But you said I was free to go?"

Half of my brain screamed at me to run up to her, push her aside, grab the folder, jump out the window, and hope for the best. The smart half nailed my hooves straight to the floor. I'm no Commander Hurricane.

"You have given me reason to believe that you have been cavorting with Private Scone, a known traitor."

"What?!" I shouted. "He's just a spaz!"

"Your testimony may be required at his court-martial, and being a minor in the eyes of the law, I cannot in good conscience let you go until a doctor has examined you, signed off, and confirmed your well-being, to assure that Private Scone has inflicted no lasting harm."

The biggest load of bullshit in the history of ever. But Colonel Wormwood had me right where she wanted me - locked up like a Trottica mine-o.

That checkmate glance she had thrown me earlier suddenly made sense.

I ran up to the side of her desk, shouting, "Please, please, please."

Pleading. Groveling. Trying to sneak a peek under that desk.

"No hysterics." Was Wormwood's only reply.

She braced herself for a megaspell of a tantrum. Took a step back into a defensive hai-ya stance.

That's when I saw it. The folder. Right there under the desk. Exactly where it had been before.

My heart quickened. My breath shortened. The sight of it was a jolt to my system. Like a gust of cool, tingly, refreshing air straight into my forehead.

Get it to No Mare’s Land. The cool air whispered once safe inside my skull. Get it to The Door.




I looked back up. There was the Colonel, strong and tall, and ready.

But she didn't suspect that I knew.

"No hysterics on my office," she repeated. Gentle. Sincere. As though informing me the rules of her office would be some kind of a comfort to me.

I looked her in the eye. Nodded. Focused on the colonel's face. Anything to keep from letting my wandering eyes give me away. And now that I'd finally forced myself to confront her intimidating stare, I noticed something.

She didn't hate me. There was no cackling. No gloating going on underneath that mask of hers. Colonel Wormwood had simply gotten the job done. Plain and simple.

* * *

Thud. Thud. Thud.

A knock at the door cut our staring contest short.

Wormwood raised a patient eyebrow at me. It made me all self-conscious-like about my outburst. Even though I knew I'd been in the right.

"Mmm." She cleared her throat. Gestured at the door with her eyes. Hint number two.

She was giving me a moment to get up off my knees with dignity.

"Oh!"

I laughed an awkward little laugh and stood the fuck up. The colonel nodded her approval and ignored me from there. Rose to her hooves, ready to receive her latest prisoner.

Every inch she backed up was an extra inch of wiggle room I might get if I decided to go for it and rush on in there. But it still wasn't enough. I counted her steps and kept my eyes peeled for a fragment of a chance.




"Rose! Rose!" Came Pumpkin’s voice from the other end of the door. "It's a trap!"

"I know, Pumpkin." Facehoof.

Wormwood closed her eyes and let out a long, heavy sigh

"Come in," she said.

The door swung open. Pumpkin stumbled in, and behind him, were two iron ponies.

Their presence instantly whittled my chances for dashing out the door down to nil.

Panic ridden, Pumpkin looked left and right and all around, like a equiolithic cavepony who had never seen an office before.

"Where's Sterry?" I asked.

I had assumed all this time that they would, at the very least, be together.

"I, I..." Pumpkin stammered.

"Is he okay?!"

"I don't know." Pumpkin Scone rambled. "I never got inside."

"Yes." Colonel Wormwood said dryly. "That's what happens when you try to pick a lock designed by the same ponies who wrote the field manual on lock picking."

Pumpkin hung his head, not just in regular old shame, but the kind of defeat that cuts you straight to your very soul. I got the impression that in his entire life, he had only ever been good at one thing. And even that he'd managed to fuck up.

"Is Sterry okay?" I repeated.

Wormwood looked down at Pumpkin, pointedly not offering any information about Sterry. I couldn't tell if it was because he was actually not, in fact, okay, or if Colonel Wormwood simply refused to respond to "hysterics".

"The Court-martial hearing is set for next Thursday. The charge is felony Breaking and Entering, Obstruction of Justice, Corruption of Youth, and Treason."

"Treason?" He whimpered.

The room fell silent. The guards even hung their heads.

Pumpkin was left standing there, babbling like a foal. "Treason?"

It was all he could muster the wits to say.

He looked to me. Desperate. Terrified.

I had gotten him into this. Now he was the one who was more fucked than me.

Please. He seemed to say. Help me.



I couldn't bear to look. I shut my eyes instead and tried to think. Dug around my mind for something - anything at all I could do to give him some hope. But I came up empty hooved. When I opened my eyes back up again, poor Pumpkin's head was hung low. He wasn't looking me in the eye either.

It was my first night in the Wastelands all over again.

"No." I whispered to myself.

I had to do something.

"Treason," Pumpkin babbled.

You're not fucked yet. I yearned to tell him, but I didn't know how.

I gritted my teeth again and reassured myself. We still stood a chance. Pumpkin still stood a chance. Sterry still stood a chance. The corns and the potatoes might even come together for good.

If I could get my hooves on that folder. Get it in No Mare's Land. To The Door. Like the brain-wind had said.

I took deep breaths and tried as best I could stop stay calm, reminding myself again and again and again that we hadn't lost yet. There was still one tiny shred of hope left.

Because Wormwood didn't know we were on to her.

"We're onto you!" Shouted Pumpkin Scone.

Oh, sweet Celestia. No.

"You're the one committing treason."

Fucking scream at him to shut up! Said a voice inside my head.

If I scream at him to shut up, it'll just prove that what he's saying has merit! Said another.

I don't care! Said a third Rose Petal voice in my brain, even more hysterical than the others. Do something!

Shut up, shut up, shut up! I told my brain, but it didn't listen.

"It's you!" Growled Pumpkin Scone. "It's you! I heard all about the transmi--."

But before he could even finish, before he could say the word transmission - I interrupted with a great big scream.

"AaaAAaAaaaAaAaahhh!" I said, and threw myself at Colonel Wormwood flailing.

She slid backward into a defensive stance, ready to strike me down, or subdue me, or whatever it is that Colonels are trained to do in situations like that. It gave me about eighteen more inches of maneuvering room to get to the folder. But it wasn't enough. So I freaked the fuck out. And freaked the fuck out. And freaked the fuck out some more. Cause freaking the fuck out was the entirety of my plan.

"Aaaahhh!" I flung myself at Colonel Wormwood, but my hoof snagged on the blanket-cape tied around my neck. The next thing I know, the world is spinning, and I've got a floor smacking me in the face.

I look up, and there she is – Colonel Wormwood jumping backwards. Actual shock - panic written all over her face.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks!" she exclaimed in horror.

I followed her eyes. She was staring intently at my hoof. My inky black evil-looking hoof. The bandage had come undone.

"Oh no!" I shouted. "It's um...It's...spreading again."

"Medic! My office! Stat!" Wormwood hollered into her Pip Buck.

Then she turned to me. "Let me see it."

Shit!

Wormwood came at me.

With nothing clever to say, I just freaked out some more. Scurried under that desk and belly-flopped onto the accordion folder, scrambling around, and around, and around, rambling, "My hoof, my hoof, my hoof, my hoof, my hoof! My evil fucking hoof!"

"Stop fussing and let me see it." Wormwood crouched to my level.

Fuck! She could see my every move.

"Don't hurt me!"

I spun around, and wiggled backwards, sweeping the folder with me.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she snapped. "Now let me see it!"

Wormwood proffered a genuine helping hoof.

I didn't dare take it. My back was pressed up against the corner. The folder in between the two.

I was fucking stuck there and out of options. A dead end only two feet wide. I had to come out.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!

The folder was still hidden - wedged against my back - but that didn't help all that much. One wrong move, and it would slide right out from behind me.

I looked to Wormwood, who was still holding her hoof out to me. Patiently. I nodded at her and shimmied a little. Then I shimmied some more. There was no fucking way to position myself to swipe the thing without arousing suspicion.

I looked into those stern sharp eyes of hers, and what little hope I'd had drained from me like water. Everything I needed was right there in my grasp, just inches away. Pressed up against my back! But she was watching me like a hawk. And I just couldn't.

"Are you sure it won't hurt?" I asked with a trembly voice.

Wormwood nodded.

I took a deep breath and sighed, stroking the folder behind me with the tip of my hoof. Praying silently that I would get another shot at this before the day was done.

Then the door swung open, and heavy hooves galloped in.

Wormwood stood up and barked, "She's under the desk and won't come out."

I didn't waste an instant! I tore my cape blanket off with my teeth, swept the folder up in it, and hugged it against my chest. I limped out, holding it at my side. Just another bundled up blanket.

And there was Wormwood, waiting. Beside her, a great big iron clad, but helmetless zebra with a red cross patch on his coat. He knelt down to me.

"Does it hurt?" He asked. There was kindness in his voice.

I shrugged at both of them, too terrified to speak.

The colonel eyeballed me pretty heavily, but kept her suspicions to herself.

"It doesn't hurt?" The zebra pressed.

"Yes, I mean no, I mean..." I looked back to Wormwood again, but couldn't bear the eye contact. "I mean...it did."

"But it doesn't anymore?"

I slowly put the black evil hoof on the ground to test it out. I knew it was fine, but I had to put on a show.

"I think it's okay." My voice cracked.

They seemed to be buying it. Not because I'm any good at faking, but because my terror was quite real.

"May I see it?" Asked the zebra medic.

I looked to Wormwood, then back at him. I nodded slowly and held out my bad hoof.

"Is that frostbite?" asked Colonel Wormwood.

"What?! Is she okay?" Pumpkin Scone shouted from somewhere out of sight. The iron ponies restrained him. I could tell 'cause the struggle sounded like a drawer full of silverware getting knocked around.

"It's covering most of her leg. How can she walk?" Wormwood was disturbed and perplexed.

I was willing to bet she'd seen a lot of actual frostbite in the field, but my hoof defied description.

I closed my eyes. Begged the universe that the zebra wouldn't wig out and take my coat off. I wasn't sure how long I could keep the blanket full of evidence looking casual.

"No," he said at last.

He looked down on me, joyless. Rummaged through his saddlebag, and produced a small bundle of leaves tied up with twine.

"I am going to crush some herbs against your hoof. It will not hurt. Do you trust me?"

I nodded again. It sure beat actually saying stuff.

The medic did exactly what he said he would do, and like he promised, it didn't hurt a bit. It felt just like plants rubbing against my hoof for no reason.

"Your saucer, please."

Wormwood passed the medic a tea saucer from off her desk. The zebra nabbed it quickly, placed it on the floor and produced a blade. He cut the tips of the herb into the saucer. Splashed a few drops from a flask over it, whipped out one of those flicky-firemajigs, and up it went.

Burning gray.

Me fidgeting all the while to keep the folder balanced.

"What is it?" Wormwood asked.

The zebra stopped, and gave me a weird look. He was on to me. He knew that the inky blackness on my hoof didn't just start hurting and spreading right there out of the blue. He knew.

"No way to be sure." He lied his stripey balls off and never took his know-itty eyes off of me, even as he addressed the colonel. "Permission to take her to sick bay, ma'am. I need to run some tests."

"Permission granted." Said Wormwood without hesitation.

But the second the medic moved toward me, she threw a leg in front of him.

"Rose Petal is a witness, and a flight risk." She added.

She could have said a whole hell of a lot more, but she didn't have to. She just stabbed the zebra with her eyeballs instead. Stabbed him right in the soul. He nodded back at her, and swallowed hard. The message was unspoken, but clear as crystal: If I made a break for it, it was his ass.

"Can you walk?" The zebra asked me.

I looked to Colonel Wormwood for approval. But she didn't so much as blink. Just watched me with that stone hard face of hers. Somewhere behind that mask was a bunch of feelings. Like an ice cream swirl of different flavors: Actual concern for my well being. Anger. Desperation. Ambition. All topped with colorful rainbow sprinkles of distrust for me.

But she hadn't figured out what I was up to. So she watched, and grudgingly allowed the medic to continue.

“I can walk," I said, more than ready to get the fuck out of there.

Grabbing the blanket with my teeth, I inched nervously over to the medic and hid behind his hindquarters so Wormwood could see less of me. Played the frightened child. It didn't matter that she knew I was up to something, so long as she didn't figure out what I was up to.

Zebro, as I decided to name him, guided me with a gentle hoof. I stumbled and limped a little bit just for good measure. Plus it helped me balance the folder. Mostly I focused on keeping my cool. It took every ounce pf strength I had not to panic and holler and gallop straight the fuck for the door.

Come on, come on, come on! Said The little Rose Petal in my head.

But we just strolled out of there. Calmly. Every hoof step felt like a year.

Clip.

Clop.

Clip.

Clop.

Clip.

Clop.

I swear, we could have built a whole new civilization, decline-ified it and blown it up all over again in the time it took to get to that fucking door.

And I could feel her watching our every move too. I was so nervous, I had to remind myself to breathe.

"It's ok," Zebro said.

He looked down, waited for me to meet his eyes and repeated himself. "It's. Okay."

Somehow, that made me feel calm again. He opened the door for me.

Almost free.

Wormwood didn't stop us. But she sucked the joy out of my escape, cause just as we left, she turned her attention to Pumpkin Scone.

"Have a seat, Private."

When Zebro spun to close the door behind him, I got a teeny tiny peek inside. Pumpkin lowered himself into that chair. He was looking right at me, tears running down his cheeks. There was nothing at all that I could do for him, and he knew it. But that just made the whole thing so much worse.

It was the last I ever laid eyes on him.

* * *

Zebro didn't say a word at first. Neither did I. We were deep in the stairwell before he finally broke the silence.

"How long has your hoof been like this?"

I shrugged the world's tiniest shrug, afraid I would drop the folder.

"Ponies have no words with which to mark this," he said, reverting to a thick zebra accent. "Tu'kamba, is what we'd call your hoof. Touched by Darkness."

"You have seen it before?!" I reeled a bit. Stumbled at the shock of what he'd just said. Then stared at him when I got my hoofing.

Zebro just shook his head. "Only in texts that survived the war."

He gestured for us to keep walking. I stuffed the blanket and the folder firmly under my coat. Buttoned it up good and tight.

"You can cure it though, right?"

"No."

And down the stairs we went.

"What about the zebras before the war?" I pressed.

"I don't know. I never met one. "

"But they could, right?! They wrote the book."

There was hope. Because I had access to Zebras before the war! Sort of. One at least. Maybe.

"What makes you so sure that curing it would be the best thing for you?"

I couldn't believe my ears.

"Because it's fucking evil. Duh."

Zebro shook his head. "Then you don't understand zebra magic. Even if they could have cured it, it is doubtful that they would have."

"Why the hell not?"

"Darkness cannot be destroyed or killed or blown apart." He said, talking funny yet again. "The path begins and ends in your own heart."

I paused to think about what he was trying to say, but Zebro spoke again before I could make any sense of it.

"Look at my face," he said. "Am I black or am I white?"

"What?"

He didn't say anything else. Just awaited a reply.

"Uh...You're kinda, I dunno... both-ish. White mostly, maybe black."

"And ponies? Would you say that they are good?"

I looked around at the stairwell of the big beat up old building. Ruins of a stupid fucking war. I remembered the cold surgical gaze of Colonel Wormwood - her dedication to perpetuating a war perhaps even more stupid – even more senseless. Then there were the potatoes. Frustrated. Afraid. Hateful when they weren't thinking. And prone to acts of kindness. They had a faith in the hearts of their fellow pony so profound, that I would not have even thought itpossible.

Are ponies good? I had asked Blueberry Milkshake the same question only a week ago - a week that felt like years. But after all I’d seen and learned - in Trottica, in the trenches, in the hospital - the answer still hadn't changed one bit.

When we want to be, I whispered myself.

But Zebro hit me with an out of nowhere proclamation before I even had the chance to formulate a reply out loud.

"You are not a good pony, Rose Petal."

"What?! How can you say that?" What a jerk! How did he know? What I'd seen? Where I'd been? What I'd done? I wanted to set his stripey ass on fire. "I. I--;"

"You are not a bad pony either."

"Great." I glowered at him. "That just makes it all okay. The Zebras can fucking cure me, but they won't because I'm what?! Too mediocre for them?"

"No. The soul of every pony is as black as it is white. You cannot defeat your fears - your darkness - by hiding it from the world. No more than I can defeat my stripes with paint."

"But your stripes are cool."

He laughed. "Thank you."

I looked down at my hoof. Shook my head in anger and disappointment. Zebro didn't get it. That stain was more than just a metaphor to me. Moral failings I wanted to hide out of vanity. What the shadows had done - what they were trying to do – it was personal.

"I fucking hate it," I said.

The medic cracked a smile. "Shame." He said. "It is the best weapon you have against them."

* * *

Before I could ask any of the five million questions running through my head: Why? How? What the fuck? My evil hoof helping me fight shadows?! Wuh??? Zebro's Pip Buck went off.

"Bring the girl back here." It said.

Colonel. Wormwood’s voice.

"Ma'am, but--;"

"Now!" Her panic and rage poured out of the medic's Pip Buck.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

And while he was busy fidgeting with his wrist-a-majig, I leapt down the stairs. Tumbled onto the landing and thwack! Slammed into the wall.

"Hey!"

"Sorry!" I called out behind me, and really, honestly, I was.

I didn't want him to get in trouble. But I darted down the next batch of stairs anyways, around in circles. Floor after floor. I had been found out.

I ran, and ran, and leapt, and ran, and ran some more, but it wasn't enough. Zebro was bigger than me, and faster, and I could only get so far for so long before he caught up.

"Rose!" He shouted just inches behind me.

He chomped at my tail. That's how fucking close he was. One wrong move - one wrong tail swish, and he would have me.

So I made for the hole in the stairwell. That big gaping hole in the wall with the freezing wind and the fifty foot drop. I leapt for it just as he caught up with me.

"No!" He shouted from behind.

But it was too late. I was out in the open. Soaring. Falling.

WHAM!

I landed on that giant vein thing that ran from the building into The Wall. I landed so fucking hard I tumbled forward, and almost fell off.





I found myself on my belly. Squirming. Two of my knees dangled over the side. I couldn't bring them back up again. Warm tingly magic pulsed through that cable, and it made me jittery and disoriented.

"Get back in here!" Zebro cried.

He was stood at the edge of the hole in the wall, watching in horror.

"I promise I won't hurt you, just please get back in here."

Three more guards came up from behind him. Iron ponies. They looked at each other, then at me.

Above was Wormwood’s window. She'd spotted me too. I don't know why it made a difference one way or another. She had already sent her guards after me, and there was nothing she could do from up there anyway. But when our eyes locked I felt like I was going to vomit.

Something about her.

I rose to my hooves. Backed away from the building. Toward that big weird Crystal Empire Wall. I was careful to keep my eyes on the cable I stood on. It was wide as a Manehattan sidewalk, but tell that to my poundy heart, freaking out at the idea of being fifty feet in the air with no guardrails or safety net.

I patted myself down. The blanket and folder were still tucked snuggly under my coat.

"Rose Petal," said Zebro calmly, “Please?"

And I really, really wanted to. But I didn't trust the guards standing next to him. And what I had concealed in my coat was way too important. Wormwood's tangible rage and fear only confirmed that.

I shook my head at him, mouthed the words, “I'm sorry,” turned, and ran up the cable.

* * *

The giganto cable was squiggly and weird, but not hard to make it to the wall. I had no idea what was waiting for me when I got there.

At first, it was a maintenance scaffold. "Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!" I said as I rushed up the cable.

And when I finally reached the thing - the bars – the safety rail – I hugged it like crazy and caught my breath. I was so happy to be away from the drop, that I would've slapped a bow tie on that beam, called it my special somepony, and made it my husband.

But I didn't have very long. Two iron ponies were tip-hoofing up the cable, and not far behind.

I broke into a gallop. Enjoying the safety of the scaffolding while I could. I was in that slot where the cable ran in between the giant panels of the wall, like a piece of yarn snugged in the space between bathroom tiles.

I ran, and I ran, and I ran, and I ran, and I ran, but the space between the cable and the wall just kept getting smaller. Eventually I just plain ran out of scaffolding. I whipped around. The iron ponies were catching up fast.

There were only three ways out of there. One involved a plummet to my death. Another: getting scooped up by those assholes. And then there was the last option - the worst of all: a tunnel.

The crease between the cable and the wall had shrunk down to a crawl space. A spot so tight, those iron ponies wouldn't be able to reach me. It seemed to keep going too.

I poked my head in but saw only pitch black. Maybe the tunnel lead to freedom, maybe death. All I knew for sure is that it was fucking dark in there, and I wanted to cry.

The iron ponies made it to the scaffold. They were at full gallop now. It sounded like a roller coaster the way their hooves rumbled over the metal floor.

I poked my head into the crawlspace. Still pure black.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks!" My voice squeaked.

I kicked the wall. "Damn stupid wall. Damn stupid darkness."

I was sobbing - damn near ready to give up even - to go with them and take my chances with Wormwood. But then I actually saw her up there. Just a figure in the distance, sticking her head out of that office window. She radiated this wild fear - this hate - an anger so palpable I could feel it even from where I stood.

The iron ponies closed in on me. I had only seconds to spare. But seeing Colonel Wormwood clearly fuming, flailing, freaking out - for once as vulnerable and desperate as she had made me feel - as she had made Pumpkin feel - it made everything all of a sudden become so clear.

I took one last moment to raise my hoof to my lips and shout, "Fuck you!"

I knew that bitch could hear me, even over the mechanical hum, so I sucked in another breath and let 'er rip one more time.

"Fuck! You!"

And disappeared into the unknown.




* * *



It was dark in there. Real fucking dark. I hated it. And I had no idea how deep the hole went, where it lead, or even if it stopped. There could be pitfalls. Gears. Pointy bits! Dangerous machinery.

There could be shadow things.

I was confronted with the very real possibility that I might end up stuck in there, crawling through miles, and miles, and miles of living nightmare sauce.

Come on, Rose, you can do this.

I tried to turn around. Just a little. To get my bearings. But there was no room. WHAM! I whacked my face simply from trying to crane my neck. It made me see spots. Little purple splotches dancing around my vision, ebbing and flowing through the dark.

"Ow."

I couldn't get my blanket out of my coat, stuff it in there and come back for it later. I couldn't even get up off my knees. Nothing. It was forward or back. And either way I couldn't see a thing.

"Hello?" I hollered into the void, though I don't know why.

There was no reply of course. I heard only the hum of the walls' machinery coming at me from all directions.

"It's okay, Rose." I said out loud. "It's just a tight space. A pain in the flank. Nothing more. You'll go, you’ll follow the tube, it'll suck, and it'll let you out…somewhere. Well, eventually. "

Thunk.

I whacked my head against the wall, this time on purpose. Out of sheer frustration. I sucked in a deep breath of surprisingly warm air.

"You can do this." I told myself one more time,

But my legs didn't even fucking move. My muscles had seized up. All of them. Useless as rocks. I had been standing there like an idiot, barely fifteen feet past the entrance to the tunnel. It wasn't 'till the iron ponies shined a beam of light at me from behind that I realized just how little ground I’d covered.

"Hey, kid!" A voice shouted at me from the mouth of the crawl space .

"Ah!" I startled, banged my head yet again, and my legs finally just took off, moving all on their own.

One of the iron ponies tried to reach inside. He couldn't get to me but they were still way too close for comfort.

I scurried further inward out of reflex. They were right the fuck behind me, and I was just barely out of hoof's reach.

"What are you doing, kid?! Are you nuts? Get the fuck back here."

But I didn't stop. Those cowardly muscles had sprung to life again. And I didn't dare re-lock-them-up on purpose.

The iron ponies kept yelling, and banging, and clanking around behind me, trying to reach in. Trying to see. Shining bright ass lights down my tunnel, even though the space was too twisty.

But I squirmed along, and got the fuck away, dragging my knees over the itchy tweed of my trench coat as I went. I squirmed, and squirmed, and squirmed 'till every last trace of those assholes was gone. The light. The shouting. The banging.

Just gone.

I was alone. In the dark. Again.

I fucking hate the dark.

The Pit of Infinite Duckies

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CHAPTER NINETEEN - THE PIT OF INFINITE DUCKIES

"There are other worlds than these." -Stephen King



Excerpt from The Ponies' History of Equestria:

The Discordian era was a Dark Age. We call it that not because of the suffering that was inflicted upon Discord's subjects, but rather, the joy that was deprived from them.

We have little to go on, save for a saddlebag full of accounts recorded by the first generation of survivors after The Great Petrification, but one point seems quite consistent from testimony to testimony. The ponies of that era were systematically, or rather, chaotically, robbed of their identity and culture. This was, by all first hoof accounts, far worse a crime than any of the admittedly comical physical violations perpetrated by the tyrant Discord.

'It wasn't all bad.' Reported Ivory Keys, an old mare by the time the royal archivists had started the P.R.E.S.E.R.V.E. oral history project. 'My husband was born blind, you see? 'Till he went and stepped on de empr'ers tail.

'From way I hear it told, Ol' Empr'er Discord, had whipped around, and said, "What are you blind?"

'Then he saw the whites in my poor hubby's eyes. And just bust out laughin', that Discord did.

'Ol' Empr'er touched my special somepony on the head, and made him see for the first time in ever. Even threw a couple-a extra eyeballs onto his face for good measure.

'Freaked 'im out something fierce at firss, but once he got used to it, it really did seem like a miracle. We were both so happy.

'That's one thing that folks who didn't actually live through such times don't never seem to get. Y'all think Discord's reign was a matter-a hardship n' physical torments, every hour, every day.

'Nope.

'Ol' Empr'er Discord was kind as often as cruel. So long as it was funny to 'im. That's the key.

'What really gets ya is something my folks used to call the not-knowin's.

'You couldn't count on sun nor moon to rise and set proper-like. Not like these newfangled innovations our sov-rin princesses worked up. You didn't never know what was gonna happen, or even how long a day was gonna last.

'You couldn't even count on your fellow pony the way you can today. If you went and met somepony you got along with, ya just didn't know if they were gonna to be blind from one day to the next, or if'n they might alla sudden start meowin' like a alley cat.

'So yeah, we all had our bad days and our good.

'But when our highnesses came along, (and I'm proud to call 'em that), dey not only told us stories about kindness, loyalty, laughter, and other et cet'ra's. Dey gave us somethin' to trust."


Ivory Keys' recording is just one of several dozen records to express that sentiment. The surviving testimonies unanimously confirm that Discord, as Emperor, had kept positively everyone intentionally disoriented - in the dark about their own history.

So we refer to this era as The Dark Age, for the ponies of the time were in the dark regarding so very many things. We also refer to it as "dark" because of how little we, in the modern era, know about it.

'There is no darkness as great as the unknown, for in every uncertainty, lies the potential for our greatest fears and insecurities to take root, and bring out the very worst in all of us.' So sayeth Cloprates.

In this vein, it is worthy of note, that Ivory Keys, upon finishing her final recording, left us all with a rather chilling reminder. When the interviewer inevitably inquired whether she or her husband had ever mourned the gift of his vision, she told the story of how her husband lost his sight again after the princesses took reign of the kingdom.

'He wept, of course. For days. Weeks. 'Till suddenly he just plain didn't.

'I didn't question it, being the type to let sleeping dogs lie.

'Whelp, after he had been blind again for quite a while, and the princesses had brought some order back to Equestria, old Ebony Mixolydian told me how lucky he was. For the friends he'd made, the family me and him'd built - for the miracles that happened around us every single day. I know they don't seem like miracles to you youngsters, but to hear kind words at the marketplace, to meet up with old buddies and have 'em remember ya, to be able to put some trust in your sisters, and to know that you got a bunch of someone's to catch you if'n you fall?

'That's a kinda magic I wouldn't never guess possible back in the day.

'Well, anyway, one night, when we knew the worst of it was long behind us – when we were both good and wrinkled, and our kids good and grown, I just up and woke all those sleeping dogs. I asked the old colt outright if he ever missed that short time when he could see – what with all them extra eyes and all.'

[The archivists of the day recorded a long, silence as Ivory rocked back and forth and looked up at the sky.]

'You know what he said to me?

'He put his withered ol' hoof right up against my face and he said, "Honey, I see more clearly now, than I ever done seen before.'"

-The Ponies' History of Equestria

* * *

I sobbed when I crawled through that tunnel. Wailed. Freaked out so blindly that I can barely even remember it now. I carried on and on and on and on and on, 'till eventually the terrors tired out.

After that, I just felt spent. Frayed.

I dragged myself forward, out-of-it as I was. Jittery as I was. And lurched like some kind of zombie. It was fucking awful. The not-knowin's.

That lady from the history books was right. When you don't know what's around the bend, every birthday candle is a potential red hot poker to the eye; every dark scary 300-year-old tunnel, a death trap of whirring spikey bits and flames; and every curve in your path has shadowy clitmuffins on the other end of it, waiting to pop out of nowhere and nom on your fucking soul.


I don't know how long I crawled through the darkness, but it sucked. The sound of my own breath was the only thing that might pass for company. One of the many reasons that I fucking hate tunnels.

Yank! I snagged my sleeve on some kind of ridge - an imperfection in the floor - and fell forward.

"Ahhh!" I cried, certain that I was going to drop away into some hole - some grindy spikey flaming octopus-filled abyss, never to be seen or heard from again.

Then, wham. The floor hit me. And nothing happened.

I'd fallen all of 18 inches.

I got up, rubbed the sore spot on my chin. It didn't even hurt all that much. I looked around, for what good it did. The outsides of my eyelids were as black as the insides.

"Fuck!" I cried out in frustration.

Cringed when the sound inevitably came echoing back at me. If so much as a whimper gets out in a place like that, it reverberatizes strangely - bounces back sounding like some kind of awful whale song.

When you get fed up and actually shout?

It's deafening.

I threw my hooves over my ears.

"Fuck fuck fuck fuck." I whispered, growling under my breath, pressing my head against the floor.

I wished I could wake up. Like a normal pony. Like a normal dream.

"Stupid brain wind!" I slammed my head against the floor, whale echoes or no.

I cried. Sobbed. I broke down all over again. Hated myself for it. All over again.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Then I stopped. Just stopped. Picked myself up, and stared angrily at the darkness ahead of me.

“What if I stay here, instead, huh? Ruin your plans!” I raved under my breath. "How do I know you're not just gonna pull some One-I'm-Supposed-to-Save-and-fuck-everypony-else bullshit like last time? Huh? Huh?!"

There was, of course, no answer. So I blew a raspberry at the darkness.

"Pbbbbt."

Still no answer.

It made me so mad that, I forgot about how echoy the tunnel could get. Broke that growly whisper and raised my voice.

"Answer me, already. Answer me!" I commanded.

But once again, there was no answer. Except for my own voice, coming back at me to stab me in the ears. Like that whale song, only it hurt. Hurt so bad I had to stuff my entire mane in my ears just to shut it up.

And when it passed, there was that same old silence. And the hum coming from the wall.

MmmmmMMMMmmMMmm...

With a sigh, I picked myself up, and got to crawling again. Cause what would dying forgotten and alone in a tunnel prove?

* * *

"Stupid voices." I grumbled under my breath.

The fates had a bridle on me. No matter how much I chomped at the bit, I had no choice but to move forward. But it boiled up that slave rage all over again.

I was roasting in there. Sweating. Squirming for half a fucking mile through an ancient spooky Tunnel O' Suck, all 'cause of the whims of a bunch of voices, and images, and super-special/mystical-forcey-heads who took some kind of sick pleasure in shoving me every which way. Watching me like another squiggle majig under their microscope.

Those ineffable pricks never even bothered to give themselves a name - to say hello. To do me the basic common courtesy of saying, "Hay, we're sorry, but we really need ya, Rose, and here's why. Could you do us a solid and help us out?"

Nothing.

I stewed in my anger. Fermented bitter thoughts about The Powers That Be. About the Priestess. About Wormwood. Wondered how I even ended up in such a crawly, shadowy, not-knowin's-y mess anyway? I grumbled my way down the tunnel. Replaying the night's events in my head again, and again. Like a beat up old instructional film they show you in class. 'Till, finally, it struck me.

This wasn't about the folder. Or the war. I wasn't crawling through that forsaken tunnel 'cause of The Powers That Be.

I had done it to myself.

I'd done it to imagine the look on Wormwood's face when she flipped out and blew a gasket.

Fuck you, Colonel wormwood. Fuck you.

That's what drove me in here. Not voices. Not a sense of duty to the potatoes and the corns down in No Mare's Land – not any kind of hifalutin concern for all the lives at stake.

Just a simple, petty fuck you.

One of the good ones, my flank.

There were thousands out there counting on me to fight for them. And all I cared about was spite.

"I'm sorry, Twink." I cried.

l wasn't one of the good ones. Wasn't special. I'd let her down. Whatever it was that poor Twinkle Eyes had thought she'd seen in me was a lie.

I was just like everypony fucking else. Good when I want to be.

Then there was Colonel Wormwood. All that stuff about the Crystal Empire secrets falling into the wrong hooves? She believed it. Sure, she was a boiling kettle of grief-rage. Sure, she was doing a horrifically wrong thing. But she wasn't doing it blind. Wormwood had a reason, and she, at least, believed in it.

Fuck, I thought. If she’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, is my doing the right thing for the wrong reasons really any better?

* * *

I ran that fuck you through my head over and over. I had plenty of time to do it, too. In a place like that, your thoughts echo in your skull louder than your hoofsteps do.

Wormwood hadn't simply blown a gasket. She had panicked. The question that ate at me was: Why?

Think about it, Rose. If this tube's a dead end, she can just post a sentry at the entrance to the tunnel. Wait me out. If it's a death trap, she wouldn't have to worry about the folder coming to light.

Yeah, she might care about my well-being just enough not to want me to go inside - she wasn't a monster - but the way she'd acted?

That was no concernitty flail. She was angry. Afraid.

Wormwood knew - actually fucking knew that if I went in there, I would come out again eventually. She knew that I had everything I needed to expose her. Her team may not have cracked The Wall's ancient mojo, but Colonel Wormwood had figured out enough of it to get all flailitty on me. And that meant that if I kept crawling forward, I might actually stand a chance.




So I kept crawling. And crawling and crawling and crawling and crawling.

Left, right, left right.

Slip, slide, slip slide.

My trenchcoat dragging under my knees all the way.

Swish swishitty-swish, swish, swish.

With a little taste of hope, and the not-knowin’s tucked far away, at least for a while, I lost myself. I crawled 'till I forgot I was doing it.

Until my body forgot too. Until I was left with just the rhythm of my breathing, the rhythm of my motion, and the hum of the great big crystal whale wall I was inside of.

It made me forget that my body was even a thing. After my thoughts had finished chasing themselves around in circles, I forgot them too. And was left in a strange hypnotic silence.

Eventually, the rhythm of the crawling faded too.

Then there was the desert.

* * *

Red sands. Everywhere. Purple skies.

"What the fuck?"

I spun around, and saw only horizon. Miles and miles and miles of nothing stretching out as far as the eye can see.

I was somewhere else now. Somewhere alien.

"What the--?" I whispered again.

I closed my eyes. Looked deep down inside. Desperate for a brain hornet. A clue. Anything! Think, think, think, think, think.

But It was quiet in there. For the first time since I’d gotten my cutie mark, the inside of my brain was dead. Fucking. Quiet.

I checked my black evil hoof next. Felt it. Rubbed those red grains of sand against it.

Nothing.

I don't know what I'd expected. The stupid thing wasn't exactly made out of centipedes or anything - no evil mojo teeming around down there. No giant pools of black tar or smoke. But my hoof still felt quieter than usual somehow.

I can't explain it. The shadows' connection to me had been so faint, that I hadn't even noticed it myself. Until it was cut.

The brain hornets were gone. The shadows were gone. Wherever I was, it was outside of their reach.



I looked down. Saw only cracked zig zaggity sands. Looked up. Saw only sickly purple skies. Purple!

Think, Rose. Think! What do you actually know?

The time. Yeah, that's it. The time.

It was 280 years after the big bomb. Same as it was back in the tunnel.

The place? Somewhere un-Equestria.

But how did I know that? More importantly, if I wasn't in Equestria anymore, where was I?

I looked around again: at the sickly skies; at the cracked and broken ground. Scanned the landscape for some kind of clue - some kind of way out. As though there'd be a zipper just casually floating there in the air, that I could grip with my teeth, open up, hop on in, and just go right home. But there wasn't.

I had to calm down. I had to get logicky. It had worked in the tunnel when I'd picked apart Wormwood's motives, and figured out that there had to be an exit. So why not here?

Ok, Rose. I said to myself, yet again. Think!



I was in another place . A world outside of Equestria. That I'd gotten to all by myself. The powers that tugged on me - the hornets, the shadows - for whatever reason, they couldn't follow me here. The only voice I had helping me was totally my own. And all it knew was the time relative to the apocalypse. And it seemed to have an extremely vague concept about the place.

"Sweet Celestia," I whispered to myself.

That internal clock of mine? It wasn't a message from beyond like those other whispers.

It was something I perceived. All by my lonesome[. A fucking superpower. That I had control of.

I thought it over and smiled.

It made me wonder what else I could do.




I approached the nearest object. A rock. Well, not really a rock. More like a dried up clunk of sand. I bent down to look at it real close. Focused on it. Concentrated.

If I could clear my mind again like I had when I'd tranced out back in the tunnel, I stood a chance of maybe doing something, I don't know...else. Something cool!

So I examined every crevice of that rock. And cleared the everliving shit out of my mind. Just gritted my teeth, grunted, and cleared that fucker.

That's what you're supposed to do, right? Clear your mind? I think I read that somewhere.

Anyway, when it was good and clear, I focused. And I waited. 'Till I happened upon this moment - just a teeny tiny moment - where it was just me and the rock, you know? Nothing in the world else.

So I let 'er rip. Threw all my attention forward like a great big attention cannon. Ready to do something amazing. Ready to tap into my inner potential. Ready to get fucking magical. Ready to set fire to that damn rock...with my mind!

* * *

...

* * *

...

* * *

...




Nothing happened. Nothing at all.

"Arrrg!"

I kicked the stupid rock.

“Stupid rock!" I shouted.

When it landed, I had nothing better to do, so I tracked it down. Trudged on over to it, and kicked it again. Just to show it who was boss.

"Fucking desert! Fucking rock!"

I sighed. Plopped my flank down on the ground. And sighed again.

I had no water. No compass. There wasn't even a Sun in that freaky purple sky.

Only I could take something as simple as getting as lost in a tunnel, and turn it into something as complicated as getting lost in a desert.

I missed No Mare's Land. At least there I understood what I needed to do. I missed Ponyville. Dorky old Cliff Diver, and Bananas Foster, and Screw Loose. I worried about Roseluck. Where had she gone? Would she make it in time for Hearth's Warming Morning? I wondered what condition she 'd find my body in if I couldn't figure out how to escape from that stupid desert.

Somewhere in all that, I caught sight of a mountain range way off in the distance. One I hadn't noticed before. So I headed in that direction. Because why the hell not?

I picked myself up with a bit of a grunt, and got moving. The sands were hot under my hooves. The walk took me fucking nowhere. But I made for the mountains anyway cause it seemed like the thing to do.

I'm not sure how far I got. And it doesn't really matter. Because the desert up and disappeared on me.

Poof! Gone. The whole world. The whole universe. Pulled out from under me.


Like the plug in a bathtub. The next thing I know, I'm getting sucked down the drain. In this giant whirlpool of what the hell.

That little meter in my head that told me when and where I was? It went crazy. 300 years after the bomb. 200 years after the bomb. 100. 50. 20. 10.

Worlds flickered in front of me too. Ones not even Equestria. Ones I can't explain. Worlds that took the simple, beautiful primary colors of life, and ground them up into a gritty hideous mess, with not a drop of pastel in sight.

I saw a sock puppet and screamed.

"Fuck!"

I flailed, tried to grab a hold of something - to find a world I could land safely in - to find that rubber ducky that I had taken for granted back when this whole mess had still been a regular old bath. But I just kept swirling on down the drain.

"Ahhh!" I screamed.

'Till finally, I got sucked through the hole, and I fell. Zoom! I hurtled directionless through Luna probably wouldn't even know what, and I suddenly found myself totally surrounded by millions. Billions of these things - bubbles that looked like they were made out of chunks of the night sky - universes. They warped into these weird curvy shapes. Like little rubber duckies careening down the drain with me. But none of them was my ducky. None of them were home.

I concentrated – stretched out with all my might. Focused. The first "ducky" to come within my reach, I grabbed a hold of. Latched on for dear life. It made a squeaky sound. An actual squeaky sound.

"No way," I said.

Then, whoosh.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

Crack-a-doom. Lightning strike. All of a sudden I was in the universe I'd been holding.

That big evil shadow castle from my dreams was right in front of me, big and tall, floating on some kind of sky island.

Time: 1050 years before the bomb. Place: Some kinda space between worlds.

I screamed for dear life. "Aaaah! Ahh! Ahh! Ahhhhhh!"

The thought of setting hoof in that place made me want to grab my own mane, stuff it in my mouth, and swallow it just to avoid breathing the air inside. But I had no hooves to set. No mane to eat. No lungs. No body at all. I shot straight through the castle walls, all the way to the inside.

From there, I just sorta floated with my consciousness. And when I looked around, there were no shadowy clitweasels at all.

* * *

I was in some kind of great big reception hall. It was quiet. Cavernous. Cold. Until the colts came running.

They darted around, trying desperately to escape something. Their hoofsteps echoed all over the place.

"Quick! Hide in there!" One of them whisper-shouted at the other.

A pegasus. Green. About my age. He flew straight up the wall, careful not to be seen.

"Hide there." He said.

"Where?" The other one snapped from down below.

A yellow earth pony kid. The pegasus perched atop a ledge and shuffled his way behind a massive tapestry.

"Where?!" The smaller one repeated, spinning around like a dog chasing his tail.

The pegasus poked his head out from behind his ceiling tapestry just long enough to point at a floor level tapestry.

"Right yonder! Hurry!" His little voice trembled.

The earth pony kid ran for it as fast and as hard as he could. Dove behind the wall rug. Straightened it out. But he was winded, and bad at hiding. He breathed louder than donkey's snore.

The pegasus held dead still behind his ceiling tapestry. Closed his eyes.

"Run," I whispered, though I had no mouth.

A tense silence hung over the hall as the echoes of their hoofsteps faded. The boy at ground level struggled to quiet his breath. When the door thundered open, he gasped, and held it.

My brain wasn't flying around anymore. I was following the kid now. All I could see was the top of his head. All I could hear was the pounding of his heart.

A storm started brewing right there in the castle. The tapestries shook. The winds blew. The temperature of the whole room dropped so fast, the air seemed weird and unnatural. The ground even started to rumble. It was coming for them.

"Oh no, oh no, oh no." The earth pony kid whispered. His heart did a massive drum solo inside his chest.

Then whoosh. The tapestry blew away - folded itself all the way upward, straight to the ceiling, and the child was exposed.

He huddled. Helpless. And an unearthly jingling crept up on him. Like the sound of a Hearth's Warming ghost and his chains dragging over the floor. When the sound stopped, the kid looked up and saw a pony. Beard as long as the ages. Flowing robes adorned with bells and stars and moons.

"What is this?" Said the withered old stallion.

He plopped a poorly made plush toy on the floor.

"Coolface! You found him!"

The kid grabbed the toy with teeth, and hugged it tight.

"That I did." The old guy stared down his nose at the boy. "And how, pray tell, did Coolface find his way into my chambers?"

The beardo's robe jingled with anger.

"I, I, I..." The kid stuttered.

When he couldn't come up with a reply, he just up and burst into tears.

"Cloud Raiser? Would you care to answer?" The beardo turned to face the ceiling - the exact tapestry that the pegasus had hidden behind.

"We...um..."

The pegasus poked his head out from behind the tapestry. He wasn't as stealthy or as clever as he'd thought

"It was me." Said the little one. "Only me."

The beardo cocked an eyebrow. He wasn't buying it.

"A wizard's chambers is no place for child's play. You could've been hurt."

"I know." The little one sobbed.

"Then why were you in there?" Beardo roared, unmoved by the tears.

He knelt down, grabbed the kid by his shoulders.

"Why?" He pleaded angrily.

I got so mad at the old bastard. He seemed like such a jerk. But when I looked closer, I saw terror in his eyes. There was something going on here I didn't quite understand.

"Why?" The beardo bit his lip. Like he was about to cry himself.

"Because I was helping him." Said the pegasus from up above. "To...to...look for a weapon."

Beardo spun around, speechless.

"For the next time that they come back." Said Cloud Raiser.

The wizard's jaw dropped.

"I'm sorry." Said Cloud Raiser.

He leapt off the ledge and flapped his way down onto the ground. "Please don't...we only wanted to...It's just that..Cake Frosting has been afraid to sleep. It's been days."

The old stallion spun to face the little one, Cake Frosting. The earth pony just turned away in shame.

"Why?" Said the wizard. "The princess will protect you. Always. You know that, don't you, child?"

The little guy sniffed, nodded in agreement. After a long hard silence, he finally worked up the nerve to say what was really on his mind.

"But, Master Starswirl," Cake Frosting asked. "What if she can't?"

It hurt him to say it. It hurt the wizard even more to hear it. But it was one of those conversation elephants. A real fear on both of their minds. What if she can't?

"No, " I whispered, though I had no tongue.

Princesses protect you. It's what they fucking do.

What if she can't? What if she can't?! What's wrong with these ponies? I thought. How dare they? Luna can do anything.

It was bad enough that the potato soldiers in the future had to go princessless, but a child? In Luna's own castle?

The thought of it made me feel alone.

I got so mad I couldnt concentrate. My sight went all hazy on me. The whole world started crumbling away. It was like looking through cracked glass.

No. Not again! I struggled to get it together - to hold on - but It was like trying to grip a hoof full of rain.

I could still make out the old beardo. Just barely. He didn't say a word to the kids. Didn't offer any comfort. No hugs, or “it’ll-be-alright’s.” The three of them just sorta stood there, not sure what to do with one another. 'Till their mournful silence was finally broken by the sound of music. Beautiful music.

It's one of the last things I caught before the world flickered away and got all scrambley on me. A voice, dark and soulful. It seemed to whisper in my ear a message of love and acceptance meant for me and me alone. But Cake Frosting's face lit up at the sound of it too. And Cloud Raiser. The only one frowning was the beardo. Something weighed heavily on his mind.

The voice was Princess Luna's. The song, a melody I'll never forget.

"Come little children, I’ll take you away into a land of enchantment.

Come little children, the time’s come to play

Here in my garden of shadows."

The sound of laughing fillies carried in with it. I wished so hard that I could be one of them. I desperately tried to hold on - to focus - for just a moment longer. I had to see what was coming next. But I couldn't! The world was going down the drain way too fast. The absolute last thing I could make out was the ancient beardo.

“It would seem the new freshman class has arrived,” he said in a voice that warbled and flickered away into mush.

"You know what to do." Master Starswirl turned to Cloud Raiser.

Then everything went black.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

Patooey!

That universe spat me out, back into the pit of infinite duckies. It was just as disorienting as it had been the first time, but I was left in awe of what I had seen - of what I had heard.

That feeling I got when Princess Luna had sung to us - I wondered if that's what it felt like to have a mother sing you to sleep.

* * *

Bam!

"Ouch!"

I was going down the stupid hole so fast, I ended up knocking into duckies left and right.

Squeak-a, squeak-a, squeak-a! That same rubber ducky sound that had catapulted me into the castle's past.

"Not again," I said.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

Equestria. 1500 years before the bomb. A giant rock came crashing in from the sky burning with magic flame.

Yikes!

Whooom!

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I bounced out of there, just as quickly as I'd bounced in.

Wrong ducky.

I didn't even get to tumble around the ether this time. Squeak-a-squeak-a-squeak. I slammed into another one, and in I went.

"Stupid duck!" I shouted at the universe.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

The shadow castle again. 29 years after what I'd just seen. Beakers were scattered everywhere. Bunsen burners. A pony was strapped into some kind of freaky looking chair, trying to scream, but she couldn't. She turned black with shadow and mist. Disintegrated into smoke just a few feet in front of me. The sight was so terrible, I would have screamed with her if I could.

I don't know why, but I felt like, somehow, I knew her. In the moment just before her eyes fogged over, she reminded me of Twilight Sparkle. The librarian.

Swish.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I came out again, back in to the pit. The area around me looked like the night sky. Speckled with blue and purple, and a hundred gazillion stars. Flower petals floated around absoltuely everywhere for reasons I can't even begin to explain. I would have stopped to marvel at the beauty of it all, if I could only stop smacking into those stupid rubber duckies every five seconds.

Squeeeak! I hit bottom. The worst ducky of them all.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I found myself suddenly standing in a fancy hallway, only it was decrepit. Ruined. The air was not only dusty, but pink for some reason. It burned my tongue and throat

I can't believe it! I thought.

I have a tongue! And a throat!

I was in an actual body!

There was a catch though. It wasn't mine. I tried to move it. Couldn’t. Tried to steer it. Couldn't. I didn't know what was going on. All I knew for sure was that my host was taller than me, and wearing heavy clothes more uncomfortable than anything I would ever have dreamed possible.

“And you die,” said a booming voice from behind. She sounded almost casual about it, whoever it was.

We spun around, my body and me. Right in front of us was an alicorn. Big and mean. Not like Luna. Not like Blue. This one burned with a malice as bitter as ash, and floated some kind of black leather book over me.

Oh, dear.

My legs gave out. I dropped to my knees; they splashed into a thin pool of blood - my own blood - blood that was becoming saturated with...pink.

My lungs burned. My head throbbed. It had to be that pink stuff in the air.

Great! I hopped into a dying body. Can't I just catch a break for just one fucking minute?!

But a voice answered me from inside my head. Be Unwavering! It said.

Only it didn't sound like me. Or a brain hornet. It was my host. The Mare.

* * *

I could feel the physical effects of anger. Tension. Hatred. Rage. All focused on the alicorn who stood over us, ready to telekinetically thrust a thousand knives at our already failing body.

The Mare didn't care. She just watched the alicorn's adornments with the purest of all possible anger. It was bones around the Evil Alicorn's neck. A skeleton. With wings. And a horn.

My Rosie Sense kicked in.

Canterlot. 200 years after the bomb.

I knew this story. Big Blue had told it back in the trenches.

We were facing down the bitch who had killed Luna.

Suddenly The Mare's anger became my own.

"You fuck!" I sobbed though no one could hear. "You fucking, fucking fuck!"

The Mare held it together better than I. She focused coldly on Luna's skeleton, especially its long, slender horn.

A host of magical knives darted through the air at us, but The Mare didn't even care. She just focused. I could sense her horn coming to life as though it were my own.

The Evil Luna-Killing Bitch glanced downward as her necklace shifted. And we struck.

With a telekinetic thrust, Luna’s horn drove through the soft tissue under the Evil Bitch's muzzle, right up into her brain. Just fucking impaled it.

She twitched once, the spark of life remaining in her just long enough for her knives to strike home.

Most of those magic blades evaporated against my armor - Littlepip's armor - but several sunk in deep before vanishing as the alicorn crumpled to the ground.

"Aaaahhh!" I screamed.

And fell again into blackness.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I tumbled forward. Dropped off of that world into one where the air was bitter cold. No stars. No space. Just a frosty smack to the lungs. And wham. Landed face first on the ground.

* * *

It hurt. It hurt like Hell. But the fall hadn't killed me.

"Ugh."

My face burned with the ache of the impact. My cheek was left with a sharp sting - my head, a dull throb. Then I realized that it was my cheek! And my head!

I lay there a while. Coughing up what tasted like blood, staring off into nothing, working up the nerve to get on my hooves again.

There was a faint glow up ahead. The rest was black. I was getting really, really tired of black.

I groaned.

It sure felt great to be back in my own body again. Except that I was apparently bleeding. The pounding in my head gradually slowed down nice and easy. I was in no rush to get up. There didn't seem to be anything there that was actively trying to kill me.

Not bad as far as duckies go. I thought.

Then I heard it. The humming.

I was back inside the Crystal Wall. No Mare's Land. 280 years after the bomb.

I sighed in relief. I never thought that I would actually be happy to be back inside of the Crystal-fucking Wall. With a moan, I rolled over on my back, and looked up at the opening I'd fallen from.

Even though it was dark up there, it was no longer completely and totally pitch black. The long long tunnel I had trudged through for Luna only knows how long? All that fear? All that discomfort? All of those not knowin's? It amounted to a tiny hole in the wall. About seven feet up. Completely unremarkable. There wasn't even a ladder or a guard rail. No one was ever meant to go inside.

A cool breeze tickled the top of my head ever so softly. I rolled over to face it.

The darkness softened just a little bit. A faint purple glow was creeping in from somewhere outside The Wall.

The Way Out.

With a long slow groan, I picked myself up and headed for it. I hoped that I wasn't too late.

As I dragged myself forward, the black gradually got paler and paler. I even started tasting real air again. As my escape into the wide, wide world of No Mare's Land seemed more and more imminent, I made myself a vow.

No more tunnels. Tunnels are just too damn weird for me.

The Truth

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CHAPTER TWENTY - THE TRUTH

"Everything you tried to hide will be revealed on the other side." - Squirrel Nut Zippers









The night before I first fell into the Wasteland, Roseluck had told me the tale of Ryelight Sparkle and the Summer Sandwich Celebration. I never did find out how it ended, but if the bedtime story was anything at all like the real life events that’d inspired it, a bunch of sandwiches probably would’ve become friends, discovered the Elements of Mayonnaise or something, and defeated some kinda nightmare two-decker club sandwich princess, and blasted her to crumbs using the magic of their newfound friendship.

But here's the thing. The story doesn't make any sense.

* * *

I trudged down that corridor turning it over in my mind again, and again, and again. The Elements. The brain hornets. The time travel. Everything. I had plenty of time to think about it cause that corridor was really long.

I had seen and been through a lot in that weird vortex of duckies, but I was the one who’d done it. Me. By myself.

The time. The location. I'd sensed it without any help from brain hornets, or chilly wind, or voices or any stupid crap like that.

The swirling maelstrom of Universes? I had used it to jump in and out of other worlds. Other times. Other duckies Because I could make it happen. Me!

I may have totally sucked at what I was doing, but I was still the one doing it.

It made me wonder if I was really that big of a puppet - that much of a squiggle-majig. Maybe there was more to this whole time travel thing than just getting dropped in a box against your will and being told to find your way out of it. How much of it was really me? How much could I pin on some highfalutin universe-thing?

What if all The Powers That Be ever, ever, ever did was give me a little push?

* * *

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that brain hornets, mystical crap, magic relics like the Elements of Mayonnaise really aren't anything without us ponies.

They aren’t anything at all.

Without sandwiches to live in, mayonnaise tastes awful. And without hearts to live in, the Elements of Harmony are just a bunch of rocks on an empty pedestal.

* * *

My stomach growled. I wanted mayonnaise. I wanted sandwiches. I stopped. Looked around. The inside of the wall was getting lighter. I even saw a blinking light far ahead in what passed for the horizon. I was getting closer to the end.

It looked like a cupcake - that blinky light - a cupcake that flipped in and out of existence. Or a sandwich.

Fuck, I was hungry.




I did the math. It had been over a day since I’d eaten. And then I remembered the onion. The one in my pocket. I had looked down on Sterry for ravaging one back there in that cellar, but now, it seemed like a pretty damn good idea.

I dug my face into my pocket, and fumbled with the onion in the dark. Bit into it.

"Eck."

The damn thing burned. All the way down.

My stomach could only take a little of it at a time after being empty for so long, so I had to pace myself, hungry as I was.

I put the onion away and moved on. Made for the blinky cupcake light. My Northstar.

* * *

It took forever. I walked so long, I could feel the air gradually growing thinner. Colder. Fresher. When I finally got there, it was cold enough to make me shiver. Turns out that blinking light wasn't a cupcake. It was just a tiny yellow, inedible dot.

It didn't light anything up either. Didn't show the way. All I could make out was that it was part of one of those console things that Strawberry Lemonade used to sit and fiddle with. As far as I could tell, there was nothing else remarkable there. The corridor just kept going in both directions. Darkness on either side.

I stopped. Stood in front of the yellow cupcake light. Stared. Wished it was an actual cupcake. And wondered what the hell I was supposed to do next.

A strange breeze seemed to be coming from behind the console. So I reached out with my black evil hoof and opened one of the hatches.

Bang! Crash! The whole panel came down. Just a big sheet of metal.

I leapt back. It tipped over all the way, and Boom! Echoed like crazy against the walls of the metal corridor.

When I looked up, I saw that the light was blinking brighter. And inside of the console was a great big empty space. Little metal strings dangled loosely. In the back of the great big gaping hole was a sliding metal hatch.

I stuck my head in. The cupcake light dangled over me by some kind of metal thread.

I reached out slowly and touched the sliding hatch door. It was freezing. That meant that all this time, the cold air I had felt had been coming, not from some great big "Exit This Way, Rose, and Watch Your Step on the Way Out" sort of doorway, but from a hole I might not even be able to find.

With some effort I was able to slide it open. On the other side of the hatch was another hallway. Dimly lit with purple light leaking in from somewhere. Stacks of those sheet metal panels were leaning against the wall. Next to a tool box.

"Shit," I muttered to myself. "They never finished it."

That's what was wrong. This hallway wasn't coming apart because of hundreds of years of decay. It was never finished in the first place!

I thought about it. It explained so much. Why a small town had sprung up outside of the wall rather than on the inside, where it could be protected. Why Wormwood had been able to access it. Why there even seemed to be a way out if I followed the breeze. (Because really, what is the point of a giant wall around your city to keep out enemies, if all a zebra has to do is walk right in through some hatch or another, and start messing with your fancy machinery?)

This great big structure – this marvel of technology and magic that had been mythologized by the soldiers down below - it wasn't some gift from some unknown force that had fallen from the sky. It was the work of ponies like you and me. It was imperfect.

* * *

I crawled through. Went down the second hallway until I came to a rickety staircase that looked like a Manehattan fire escape. The breeze was coming from down there. The purple glow, faint as it was, was also coming from down there.

I put one hoof on the railing. The other three hooves crept down those stairs slowly, carefully. Feeling their way around.

I felt it tremble and shake under my weight. Whispered a little prayer to Luna as I went, and made my way down seven terrifying flights of metal staircase.

‘Till suddenly - finally - my hooves were touching ground. Not just stone or metal floors. Actual ground.

When the dirt crunched under my hoof I stopped. Marveled. I had almost forgotten that that's what walking was supposed to sound like.

I lifted up my hoof and squinted - stared at that dirt under what little light I could get.

In front of me was a door. A hatch made out of the same strange onyxy material that the outside of the walls were made of. I slid it. And felt a gust of truly, remarkably, unbelievably fresh air.

* * *

And just like that, I was out. In the open. At last.

That cold air that had been creeping toward me in the hallway was way colder on the outside. That purple light that had been bleeding through the cracks - blinding.

I staggered around. Reveled the gritty feeling of more real dirt under my forehoof. Squeezed my aching eyes shut, and sucked in the coolest, most refreshingly awesome gust of air my mouth had ever tasted.

Then another one. Again. And again and again.

I was out. Out! Out! Out! Finally done with tunnels and not-knowin’sy darkness!

* * *

"Okay, Rose." I said out loud. "Get to it."

I forced my eyelids open, little by little. Then moved forward. Step by quivering step. Everything was a chore.

A gust of wind whipped through my drippity, sweatorious mane, and I got all shivery. It reminded me of the time back in kindergarten when I had gone out to play without a hat and got a bad case of icicle mane. My head got so spiky I looked like one of those punk colts from the Ra-manes, or the Buck Pistols, and when it was over, I was stuck inside for a week with the flu. I had to live off of soup, which sucked because soup is dumb.

I looked out over the hazy purple air. Listened for Hearth's Warming carols. Hoped I wasn't too late.

"Go get the folder, Rose." A voice came at me from somewhere off to the side.

"Ahh!" I shouted.

It was Wormwood. She'd been waiting. I spun around. Tried to run. Tripped. Fell. The colonel stood still, and watched from the shadows just outside of the purple spotlight.

I scurried backward. Instinctively shielding my belly with my evil hoof.

"You have it with you!" She exclaimed.

“Damnit.”

I’d given my hiding spot away.

I dug my hooves into the dirt - tried to scramble back some more, but the colonel was coming at me now. Harried. Wild eyed.

"Give it to me." She said, and stepped into the light.

"Help!" I yelled.

But we were totally alone, and that hummy wall sound drowned everything else out.

“Help!” I called out again.

No answer came so I shrieked and yelled as high and as loud as I could.

"Aiiieeee!" I screeched, in the vain hope that somepony might hear it.




Wormwood's ear twitched. She glanced to her left - the direction she worried "help" might maybe kinda possibly be coming from.

It was only a fragment of a gesture, but it told me which way to run.

I spun around again and leapt to my hooves, stumbling, screeching like a second grader on fire.

"Help! Help!" I cried, and bolted away from the wall. Away from the purple spotlight. Off toward wherever the fuck I was going.

* * *

I didn’t have much of a head start, and I was still all discombobulated from the tunnel.

I had to whip my head around all frantic-like just to figure out where I was - what exactly I was running toward.

I could barely see. I was lost as fuck.

Until I heard it. Singing. The Twelve Days of Hearth's Warming.

The soldiers. The celebration. The pivoty-ness! I hadn't missed it! And it was close. I was standing in No Mare's Land!

“Aha!” I exclaimed.

I ran! Ran across No Mare's Land till that purple light started to fade. I leapt over abandoned rubble and craters and stuff, and made for a ridge up ahead in the distance - a little piece of earth higher than the rest - an abandoned attempt at a trench wall that had tried and failed to cut across No Mare’s Land perpendicular-ish.

There was a soft white glow coming from the other side of that ridge. And singing.

I galloped toward it with everything I had.

Crampy muscles be damned! I pushed myself harder and harder and harder! ‘Till a chomp at my tail yanked me back so hard my hooves came up off the ground. I spun like a tetherball that had come loose, and got slingshotted straight into the ground.

Thud! I hit the dirt. Wormwood fell too. We tumbled in separate directions.

I somersaulted a hundred million times like a circus clown 'till I banged my head on a rock, and that damned chilly brain wind hit me again. The one that drives messages into your head with a gust of fresh air.

"Get it to the door." A voice whispered at me from inside my skull.

I looked up. Head spinning. Overcoat open.

Wormwood’s folder was on the ground some twenty feet away. And way past it was the door. The giant fucking door to the giant fucking wall of the giant fucking Crystal fucking Empire. Back the way I had come. I hadn't even realized I'd been so close!

Behind me, Wormwood was grunting. Digging her steel-coated hooves into the frozen ground. I could hear it all.

I forced myself to get up.


“Head for the singing. Head for the potatoes. The corns. The truce!" All the screaming Rose Voices in my head cried out in unison.

And there was a good chance I could make it too. But when I picked myself up, the brain wind hit me again.

"Get it to the door." It said firmly.

No explanation. No how. No why. Not even a clue about what the hell I was supposed to do with the damn thing once I got there. Just get it to the door.

Stupid brain wind.

I dashed for the folder, no clue what the hell I was going to do. Wormwood made for it too.

I could make it. I could beat her to it. I knew I could! She may have been close, but I was closer, dammit.

But once I got the folder, what then? We were on a collision course, and Wormwood was just gonna nab me half a second later anyway.

I looked her way, saw her readying herself for the lunge as she ran. Fuck. There was no way around it! I may not have been any good at hoofball back home, but I knew damn well when someone was fixing to make a tackle.

I sprinted. Leapt. And threw myself over the folder like a blanket.

Whoosh. Wormwood slipped sideways. She'd expected me to scoop it up and keep going. Her metal hooves skidded, stumbled, and whacked right into me.

"Ahhhh!" I cried. "Ahhh! Ahhh! Ahh Owww, Celestiafuck!"

It was agony.

But Wormwood took it worse. She tumbled over, and fell hard. Bitch went down like a tossed anvil, digging a crater in the dirt.

"Ow!" I came up limping, but still came up fast.

I dashed over to her, kicked some of the frozen dirt she'd knocked loose. Right into her face. Just shrieked and stomped and blasted it into her eyes. Crying like a foal the whole time.

The fallen colonel grunted and cursed.

And then I was off. Up on a tree stump. Ready to leap, run up the hill, and make for the soldiers on the other side of that ridge. I could still hear them singing!

But something wouldn’t let me. Something more than just brain wind. When I looked over my shoulder to gauge how far behind Wormwood was, I saw it: the giant wall of the giant Crystal Empire with a gigantomoon hanging over it, getting ready to set.

"Fuck."

I hated those brain hornets. Didn't trust them. Didn't trust their reasons. But Luna did. She trusted on 'em so hard, she was ready to follow their hints and riddles straight to the grave.

I don't think I have it in me for that kind of dedication, but still, I owed Luna. If not for her, the shadows would have made rosemeat out of me before I even got here.

I only saw that massive moon for the span of a single breath, but it was enough. I knew what to do.

Like a big rubber bouncy ball pinging off of the tree stump, I sprung off. And made for the Crystal Door.

* * *

Wormwood leapt up. She was fast to recover, but she got a stumbley start in the wrong direction.

Because what idiot would go back to the wall?!

I ran. Brain wind tingling. Took my head start and galloped for the door like my tail was on fire.

"This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy." I panted out loud.

I looked up for more guidance, but that big old moon had disappeared behind the wall and the dome. All it'd left behind was a couple of glowy clouds, alive with moonlight.

“Fucking...clouds” I panted.

And hoped that, once I got to the wall, the Universe had some kinda plan that involved me not getting murdered.

The colonel gained on me fast, screaming and cursing. All of that polite cool as a cucumber social chess shit had gone straight out the window.

But it didn't matter. I was getting close. I was gonna make it. I was running so hard, my veins pumped lava, but dammit, I was gonna make it.

All I had to do was not fuck up. I plastered my eyes to the ground, which was rocky. Uneven. Poorly lit.

Don't trip. I told myself. Don't trip. Don't trip. Don't trip. For once in your life, don't fucking trip.

Then I bounded over the last crater, and the ground got level. I was bathed in that purple light again! I was close. The door was dead ahead.

I pushed myself harder and harder and harder. It made me get tingly all over. Maybe from the running. Maybe from the cold. Maybe because the brain wind was giving me one last burst of energy from sources unexpected.

But whatever it was, I felt alive. Un-fucking-stoppable. I was finally gonna find out what the big fucking deal was. The folder. The door. All that crap the brain wind had been riding me about.

I didn't even care if Wormwood killed me once I got there if my last breath could be a giant fuck you to the not-knowin's.

I was gonna find out. I was unfuckingstoppable. That's right. Unfuckingstoppable. I felt like I could take on the whole damn world.

'Till Wham! I hit the door.

Literally hit it. Face first.

* * *

I reeled around. Wormwood was charging toward me, fire in her eyes.

I pressed my back against the door. Knocked. Banged. Smacked it with the folder. Like that was somehow gonna make an ancient door that the future's leading experts couldn't even crack suddenly come the fuck open just for me.

"Help!" I shouted my lungs out. "Help me, you stupid door. Help!!"

Nothing. Useless. I huddled down and shielded myself. Protected the folder. For what good it would do.

Hunched over the damn thing, and screeched at the top of my lungs like a kindergartener with snails in her hair, and braced myself for Wormwood's wrath.

And then, just when I thought she was gonna whip out a giant gun that spat fire and cannonballs and nails and splinters and stuff, It happened. A terrible sound. Like thunder had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that morning.

There was a rumbling coming from deep within the mechanisms of the wall. It felt like an earthquake. Gears that had slept for three centuries screeched suddenly and violently to life. With a great big old whoosh, and a click, the canons above me whirred into action.

"Ahh! Ahh! Aahh! Aahhh!" I shrieked.




But the wall wasn't concerned with me.

Those guns took aim and fixed their sights on Colonel Wormwood, who had been charging towards me (and incidentally, charging toward the door), aggressive-like.

All hundred-million-billion-infinity-thousand cannons.

Colonel Wormwood skidded to a halt, fell flat on her flank. Even from where I stood, I could see the green color run from her complexion.

Her eyes opened up wide. I thought they were trying to swallow the rest of her face they got so damn big. She scrambled backwards - tried to get the fuck away, but the wall just moaned and creaked in reply. No matter where she went, the guns followed her.

Wormwood scurried to the edge of the purple light. Gasped for breath. Stared down the barrels of more ancient weaponry than an army of walking, talking abacuses could count in a lifetime.

And a silence followed.

Even the caroling had stopped.

It was just Wormwood and the wall. Facing off. Locked in a showdown so tense that it seemed to freeze time.

I wouldn't've been surprised if a tumbleweed had blown between them.




I was left huddling there in shock. The listening to the voices and running toward the wall for no apparent reason trick had actually worked.

Wormwood watched the guns intently. Took long hesitant breaths. Determined not to make any sudden movements, or do anything that could be interpreted as aggressive.

Then she turned to me. Straightened her lapels and rose to her hooves. Slowly.

She stared at the folder at my side.

"Rose Petal," she said with as much dignity as she could muster. "The folder, please."

She showed neither fear nor rage.

I hugged it closer. Looked around. Let my brain catch up with everything that had happened. The colonel. The guns. The light on the other end of the ridge.

That whistling wind whipped around all the little trenches and pockets of earth. It made unearthly sounds. And I stood there, too stunned even to breathe

Slowly, I rose up. Stood tall. Took the folder in my mouth. And mumbled at her.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me."

Now she was the one shaking in place with anger. Just like I had done back in her office, when she'd played her colonel-y power games, and I had been powerless to stop her.

"Rose!" She snapped at me in bitter rage.

But one look at the wall's arsenal, and she clapped her hooves to her mouth. Afraid of pissing it off, she held back - growled at me through gritted teeth. It didn't matter. I could still feel her hatred from all the way over there like a whipcrack.

"Fuck you," I mumbled back at her, mouth still full of folder.

It felt good to finally say It out loud.

She shook her head and fixed her eyes on the guns above me. And took a step into the purple light. Risking it. Moving slowly. Cautiously. Eyes on me. Then another step. And another. The wall creaked and grinded, and followed her attentively, but did not fire.

"Oh for fucks sake, come on!" I cried.




A figure fluttered in the shadows beyond the purple light. It was big. It was dark. It flew in real low, landed just outside the wall's spotlight, and emerged on hoof from the darkness.

"Luna?" I said to myself.

Before I knew it, she was blocking the colonel's path, standing over her.

"Leave Blanket Girl alone." Said the alicorn in a thick Bucklyn accent.

I spat the folder into my hooves.

"Big Blue!" I called out.

"You okay, kid?" Blue shouted over her shoulder without turning to face me proper.

"I guess so." I wasn't sure what else to say. "Um...How are you?"

"Stand down, soldier." Wormwood shouted, ignoring me completely.

Blue didn't budge.

"That's an order."

The alicorn stood at attention. Saluted respectfully - formally - but refused to let Wormwood pass.

"Ma'am, you can send me to the gates-a-Tartarus naked and unarmed. Order me ta charge, and I'd folla ya, and fight fa ya wit my dyin' breat'. But dat is a child, ma'am, and I ain't gonna letcha hurt her. Ma'am."

Wormwood pressed up to Big Blue - stared her down eyeball-to-eyeball.

The sound of murmuring and commotion and hoofsteps carried from somewhere beyond the purple spotlight. The other soldiers were coming.




The colonel looked Blue over very carefully. Weighed her - measured her in that special way that only Wormwood could.

The commotion grew louder. The crowd was drawing near. I could make out a couple of silhouettes on that ridge I had run toward, backlit by some weird soft-white glow coming from the other side.

It wouldn't be long before a whole bunch of potatoes and corns made it down, and saw Wormwood and the alicorn standing off.

That sounds great and all on the surface, but there was no way the Colonel was gonna let her authority get questioned in front of everypony. She would have to act. And Blue would have to act back. It was gonna get ugly.

And they both knew it.

But Big Blue didn't back down. Her tail fought a nervous twitch that only I was close enough to see. Wormwood didn't either. She didn't so much as blink.

The two of them just locked in this tense bout of eyeball wrestling

"Very well." Wormwood said at last.

Held her head high.

"At ease, soldier." She added through gritted teeth.

Blue lowered her saluting hoof and slouched in relief. Wormwood sucked in a deep breath, and swallowed her rage. By the time the frosty air left her mouth, she appeared calm and relaxed again. Her frustration hidden behind a mask that may as well have been made of actual stone.

The whistling wind blew some more. The colonel peeked around Big Blue's gigantic sides. She glowered at me coldly, awaiting my next move.

Blue called to me over her shoulder without taking her eyes off of Wormwood. "What's goin' on back 'dere, Rosie? You sure, you's alright?"

I examined the folder in my hooves. There was nothing left to do but open it.

"Yeah." I said.

I bit down, and untied the ribbon that had held it shut through all of my leaps and bounds and tumbles.

Wormwood gasped as my teeth lifted the flap. Sucked in a ragged breath. I glanced up. Saw in her face the first ever traces of real defeat. Sadness. The kind of despair I had seen in Pumpkin Scone's eyes when he'd realized how fucked he was.

Good. I thought.

Finally, I flipped it open. Inside was a small wooden box, and bundles of crumbling old construction paper. Colorful ribbons too. I took one of the sheets out and held it up to the light. Glitter shed all the fuck over me just from touching the stuff..

"Happy Mother's Day," it said in crayon. The card was faded. It was older than me. But it was stained with moisture that was still brand-new. Teardrops.

I tucked it back into the folder.

This can't be right.

I dug out another piece. "Happy Birtday Mommy," it read. Spelt wrong. It came complete with a crayon drawing of a green military pony, a small colt, a happy cross-eyed sun, some flowers, and for some reason, an aardvark playing the ukulele.

I hoofed through them all. Page after page. Sentimental mementos. Every last one. I even opened the box. It was empty. The imprint of a medal was there against the felt.

My heart skipped a beat. That was a service medal. Her son's service medal! What if I had lost it? I dug through the folder with my face. Shook it around. Felt for anything heavy.

It couldn't have gone anywhere! I couldn't have lost it! That stupid folder had been tied shut in my jacket the whole time!

I closed my eyes. Hoped that she had it with her or something. Tried to remember the clutter on her desk. Searched my memory for a shadow of a clue.

Nothing.

I tucked the construction paper back in neatly, along with the box. There, at the very end of the pile, was one actual document. Not a kid's drawing. It was a fresh white slip with a bunch of gibberish printed on it. It looked like it had come out of one of those automatic printing presses the clerk had had back in his office.

The transmission.

Wormwood had decoded it in pencil and written the message from high command in the margins. Paper documents. The Wave of the Future.

"Initiate Attack Plan R." It read.

"Time: 1600

Date: Hearth's Warming Day

Enlisted Infantry Dispatched to Frontline (excluding officers): 2,000

Infantry Held in Reserves: 0

Security Level: Red

3,000 Reinforcements to be Dispatched. ETA: 120 hours.

Confirm."

There was no treaty getting signed back in Rangertown. No peace agreement. No plans to draw the war to a close. Wormwood's bosses were pushing for total annihilation. And all day she had been hiding it, "acting strange" as her fellow iron ponies had put it, pretending she hadn't seen the order.

"What does it say?" Big Blue asked.

I slammed the folder shut. Looked up. A cluster of potato soldiers was coming all the way down from the ridge. Some corns trickled in too. Then still more potatoes. They gathered and they watched. From a safe distance, of course. Blue had been the only one fool enough to rush toward the wall.

"Nothing." I said as loud as I could.

"Nuttin'?"

"Nothing!" I hollered nervously.

Blue lowered his voice. She was getting real cross.

"I am riskin' court-mah-shall for...Nothin'?"

"Uh..."

The crowd had already doubled in size, but they were still far enough away that we could talk normal-like and not be heard.

I looked to Wormwood.

And my Desolation Bingo basket exploded.

N-14. Embarrassment.

I-61. Terror.

B-16. Confusion.

G-11. Regret.

O-27. A whole lot of leftover distrust.

Bitch had tried to kill me, after all.

"A word in private?" I laughed nervously.

Wormwood just tapped her hoof, rolled her eyes and gestured at the giant guns above me.

"Oh yeah." I had to go to her.

I took the folder in my mouth, and hurried across the purple-lit patch of land that surrounded the door.

I was desperate for answers so I stole a glance at those moony, glowy clouds. But there was no brain wind anymore. No hornets. No voices. This truce - this gathering - it was pivoty. So pivoty that there actually was no Way It's Supposed to Happen.

I'd gotten the folder-thing to the door like I was told. Gotten my flank saved. Made a jackass of myself by opening it (no offense to any jackasses who might be reading).

I had done exactly what I was supposed to. Whatever went down next was out of the claws of the shadows and The Powers That Be. I don't know how to explain it. I sorta knew somehow. The same way that I'd known that the shadows and the hornets hadn’t been watching me in that weird desert I’d found myself in.

This one was just us ponies.




The purple light faded and I found myself standing between Wormwood and Big Blue.

I opened my mouth, set the folder down at the colonel's hooves. She looked down her nose at me and took it without saying a word.

"I'm sorry." I whispered.

Wormwood ignored me. Rummaged through the folder. She didn't care what I had to say. Didn't even care about the crowd anymore. Just dug through those papers with the delicacy of an archivist handling ancient documents, and the urgency of a little kid tearing her room apart looking for a lost toy.

When, at last, she was satisfied, Wormwood sighed a gentle breath of relief.

I couldn't rest quite so easy. She had never opened the box. Merely ascertained that it was still there. I fought the urge to panic. All those Rose Voices in my head were ranting and screaming and bumping into one another.

But we didn't have time for that. I focused on the transmission. The war. Figuring out Colonel Wormwood. I couldn’t even pin down exactly where she stood.

"What the hell are we going to do?" I whispered to her through my teeth.

"Keep our mouths shut and save who we can." She said under her breath.

The colonel closed the folder gently. Tied it shut with her teeth, bringing her right at eye level with me.

"Not a word." She picked up the folder and clutched it to her chest like it was a foal.

She was referring to the crayon art. Dead fucking seriously too. Like she would kill me harder if I told anyone about the drawings than if I shot my mouth about Attack Plan R.

"Geez, alright," I said,

And shrunk back from her stareitty eyes. I swear those things were as as deadly as the wall cannons.

"There's nothing to be ashamed--;"

"He died a soldier." She said briskly. Coldly. "He will. Be. Remembered. As one."

I looked to the crowd. The ridge in the distance was lined with soldiers. Silhouettes against that strange glow. They had gotten brave enough to trickle over a little and start oozing their way towards us.

"What about the war?" I said through smiling teeth. "The transmission?"

She looked away. Just held her head high and pretended I wasn't there.

"You're gonna go through with it aren't you?"

The colonel slipped the folder into her saddle bag. Sucked in a great big deep breath, knocked her hooves together. And click! Snapped to attention like a toy soldier.

"No Mare’s Land is no place for a child. Even during a truce.” She changed the subject. “I'd order you back to the camp, but I know you won't listen."

I shook my head at her. She was damn right about that.

"So, what are you gonna do...arrest...me?"

My words faded to a whisper before I could even finish saying them.

Sterry.

Wormwood wasn't out to get him. He hadn't stumbled on any secrets. Wormwood was trying to save him. From having to go over the top. From the coming storm. From the horrors of No Mare's Land. I looked up at Wormwood, totally fucking speechless. But she was inscrutable again. It was that damn look of hers.

She turned away from me and approached the crowd. Walking casually toward the ridge.

I was dismissed as far as she was concerned.

"Sterry?" I darted after her.

No reply.

"Pumpkin Scone?" I said softly, trotting at her side.

"Private Scone needed a good scare. The treason charge will get pled down to insubordination. He'll be so grateful to only end up scrubbing latrines, he won't step out of line ever again."

"And the war?"

She trotted on. Again with the silent treatment.

"The war?"

No reply.

She was going to proceed as planned. Give out pardons by night, and annihilate everyone come morning.

But she hated it. I could tell. That confidence of hers was shaken. She couldn't bear to look me in the eye.

Wormwood hadn't spent the day simply sifting through paperwork looking for loopholes. She'd stared at those drawings. Cried on them. Wondered how many other mothers’ sons were going to die at her command in less than 24 hours time. Wormwood wanted another way. Desperately.

* * *

We came up to the crowd at long last. Potatoes and corns. Mingling all informal-like. My empty stomach turned and blurbled. I was feeling pretty weak, but it was not the time for complaining. Sam the Gryphon was the first to come down.

"What's going on?” He called to us. “Are you okay?"

Some of the others snapped to attention, but Wormwood waved her hoof at them.

"It's Hearth's Warming. Nopony's in trouble." She said dryly.

But they all kept staring. Confused. Concernitty.

"Everypony here gets a pardon." She waved her hoof at them again.

The potatoes broke out into cheers. Jubilation. The corns hollered right along with them. The pardons didn’t affect them, but cheering clearly seemed like the thing to do.

They erupted into songs too - chaotic revelry - like when the bell rings at school, and everyone rushes out to the playground at the same time, laughing and screaming.

None of them knowing they were all gonna fucking die tomorrow.



My heart sank. I couldn't breathe. I felt like the whole world was one of those film strips at school that's stuck in slow motion with warbly sound. But before I could even gather a moment to stew in my own piratetry, Whomp! I got tackled to the ground.

"Ahhh!" I threw up my forehooves and shielded my face.

Dug my hindquarters into the ground, ready to spring back.

"Wha?!" I squirmed.

"Hey!" Said the pony on top of me.

I looked up. It was Sprinkles.

"There you are!" She laughed. "Are you okay? I thought you were gonna miss the rest of the party."

"I'm a little, uh." I laughed nervously. "Out of it."

"Here, have some chocolate. I stole it from the supply shed." She giggled.

Shoved a piece of chocolate bar in my mouth. It was amazing. Better than sandwiches. My whole mouth snapped back to life. My head quit its swimming. My stomach finally chilled the fuck out.

The corn girl helped me up. Then there we were. The two of us. Standing right in front of Wormwood. She looked like she'd seen a ghost. Her eyes were fixed on Sprinkles.

For the first time in ever, she seemed at a loss for words.

"I...I..." The colonel stuttered.

Sprinkles stiffened in response. She may have been a bit bubbly, but even she knew an officer when she saw one. She hopped up off of me in a hurry, digging her knee into my gut on the way.

"Oof." I oofed.

The girl looked to Wormwood. Held her chin way up in the air. She didn't salute, of course. That wouldn't have been proper. But still, she showed her version of respect.




Wormwood stared. Celestia only knows how long it was before she actually remembered to inhale. For a moment, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but then it hit me.

Sprinkles wasn't a potato.

Wormwood couldn't arrest her – couldn't whisk her way. There were no loopholes or forms or letters the colonel could sign to save her.

"No Mare’s Land is no place for a child," she'd said just a few moments ago. But if the battle plan moved forward, Sprinkles was as good as dead.

Sam the Gryphon, not the type to stand around doing nothing, saluted, and broke the silence.

"Ma'am, welcome to the front, ma'am. We sort of Hearth's Warming'd it up, you see, and well..."

Wormwood muttered to herself and furrowed her brow. Sam stopped mid-babble. Leaned in to make sure she was all right.

"Oh, uh, at ease," said the colonel when at last she realized that he was there.

Big Blue came up next to me. What the fuck, he mouthed. It was not like the colonel to be so uncolonel-y.

I just shrugged. I wasn't about to try explaining it.

Then, in the middle of all that confusion, this corn stumbled up to us out of nowhere. Tripped all over himself. A regular Berry Punch.

"Heyyyyy!" He glarbled.

He sounded like he had a clothespin on his tongue.

Sam stepped up in a hurry and tried to lead him away.

"No!" The corn shouted. "Everypony gets a candle. And she don't have no candle!"

The stumbler pointed an accusatory hoof at Wormwood.

"Here!" He spat, and waved his hoof all around 'till some sticks fell out of his sleeve.

"Thanks," Big Blue said nervously, hurrying to levitate them all up. "Why don't you go uh...Over there now.”

There was shuffling. And stumbling. Everypony involved tried to wrangle this guy away from the colonel as undramatically as possible. But it got awkwarder and awkwarder. A big chunk of the crowd was starting to trickle in.

Wormwood stood there all inscrutableish as usual. To everyone else, she must've looked like a statue, but I could feel her shock.

"Here ya go," Sprinkles mumbled, mouth totally full.

She pressed her face into Wormwood's chest. And tucked a stick in the colonel's pocket.

Wormwood examined it. Pulled it out with her teeth.

Sam and Blue just watched on, horrified.

"It's a stick." Wormwood raised an eyebrow.

"It's a candle," said Sprinkles somberly. "To honor the fallen."

Silence swept over the potatoes in the crowd. Like a great big tidal wave that plowed over everyone in No Mare's Land.

Even the corns froze.

"What?" Said Sprinkles.

She looked back over her shoulder at the crowd of stunned onlookers - both potatoes and corns.

"I'm sorry, I--;"

Wormwood spat the stick out into her hoof. Sprinkles zipped her lip.

The colonel examined it for a good long while. Gave it the old what the fuck it's just a stick look-over. Then shifted those hard stareitty eyes of hers to Sprinkles.

"How does it work?" She asked at last.

Sprinkles was good and terrified now. She wasn't quite sure what she had done wrong, and had no idea how to proceed

"Um..."

Sprinkles looked to me. But I didn't know what to say either.

“It’s a gryphon tradition, actually,” Sam butted in. “You see--;”

“I asked the girl.” Colonel Wormwood snorted.

She turned to Sprinkles.

"It's okay," said Wormwood gently. “Tell me. How does it work?”

"Well, um , you light it. Like a candle, you know? And you look at the fire and sort of talk to...your friend. You know, someone who..."

"Fell."

Sprinkles bit her lip and nodded.

"But it's a stick." Colonel Wormwood replied.

Sprinkles facehoofed.

"Can I show you something?"

* * *

We headed back across No Mare’s Land away from the wall, back towards that ridge. That's where the rest of the holiday party was. The place where the truce had started.

Sprinkles lead the colonel. Sam, Big Blue, Dazzle Shine and I followed close behind, whispering to one another.

"She's not explaining it right," said Blue.

"Shut up!" Said Dazzle Shine, the guy with the Pip Buck and little drummer brother back home. “Shh.”

We listened for clues to help us figure out how the talk was going. We were all sorta amazed that Sprinkles had made it this far without setting Wormwood off.

"...And I lit mine for Butterscotch. She was the only Twilight Sparkle Society infantrymare who was close to my age. We kiiiiiiinda snuck on a train to get out here together and join the effort."

The effort. Wormwood's tail swished around in agitation. I could hear it thwacking and scraping against the inside of her armor.

"I'll introduce you if you want. If that's okay? I mean," Sprinkles suddenly noticed the crowd that was parting for her and the colonel. Remembered her military discipline.

She straightened up, dipped her voice down low, and said firmly, "We are not very far."




They walked together like that for a while. Sprinkles blah-blah-blah'ing all over the place while Wormwood kept quiet and got all thinky. It was out of nowhere when Wormwood finally said what was on her mind.

"I'm sorry about Butterscotch," she looked straight at Sprinkles. Waited for her to notice.

At first Sprinkles didn't notice, just rambled a bunch as they made their way up the slope, but Wormwood waited her out. When Sprinkles realized she was being looked at, she stopped and turned to face the colonel.

"I'm sorry." Wormwood repeated solemnly.

Sprinkles closed her eyes and nodded.

* * *

I looked back at the big wall. I mean, What the fuck, Wall?! I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do next. We were running out of time. Out of pivotyness. I had to think of something to say. To help me to warn everyone about the coming battle. To help Sprinkles not set off the colonel. To...I don't know, save Hearth's Warming. Again.

But I was as speechless as the others.

"So you talk to the candle. And you look really hard at the fire till you feel like your friend is next to you, right? And then you just ...tell her what's on your mind. And sometimes it feels like she's talking right back at you."

"Really?" Wormwood was amused.

"Yeah. You know what Butterscotch said to me?"

"No."

"Make friends." Sprinkles snorted a nervous little laugh.

"You should have no trouble." Wormwood said dryly.

Sprinkles smiled so brightly it made a squeaky noise.

"Yeah." She rambled. "Butterscotch tells me to make friends, and what's the very next thing I do? Make friends with a Applejackoff...I mean uh...Applejack officer. A Ranger officer. A, um...a steel pony."

Wormwood looked away.

"What?”

The colonel stiffened. Hid herself behind military formality. Didn't say a word.

“I'm sorry. Please don't be mad."

But Wormwood didn’t reply. She didn't even look Sprinkles in the eye anymore.

The corn girl sighed. Hung her head low, thinking she had fucked up. She'd called the colonel an Applejackoff, and the very next thing she knew, there was sulking.

But that wasn't the problem.

Sprinkles was going to die tomorrow. Because of Attack Plan R. And that sweet doomed girl had just called Colonel Wormwood friend.

* * *

They headed up the hill in silence, at least for a while. The rest of us whispered. Questions and rumors. The usual.

"This friend of yours, Butterscotch, she's over that ledge?" Said Wormwood at last, breaking the ice. "Her candle, I mean."

"Yeah," said Sprinkles with a raised eyebrow.

They neared the top of the ledge. And we came up not far behind.

“Butterscotch is there." Sprinkles continued. "They all are."

Wormwood nodded. Even from fifteen feet behind, I could tell that she was confused. Until they made it to the top.

Wormwood stopped dead in her tracks the second she looked over that ledge. Dug her hooves into the ground so fast, she almost skidded forward. Her knees were wobbling inside that steel exoskeleton of hers. I ran up the hill. Straight to Wormwood right as she dropped to her flank. I put my hoof on her shoulder. But she just looked at me, jaw trembling. Her face had gone white. Bleach fucking white. She was shaking so hard her medals jingled. When the colonel turned to Sprinkles, I finally got a look at the valley down below. No Mare's Land as the trucing soldiers had left it.

There were Hearth's Warming trees. Everywhere. As far as the eye could see. Each decorated for the season with "candles." Little magic fires. There must have been thousands of lights down there scattering their glow across the trenches.

The sight of them was breathtaking. The knowledge that each of those flames was a friend lost? A family broken? That every little flicker belonged to somebody else's Twinkle Eyes? Somebody's Tulip? It was so overwhelming, I could hardly breathe.

Wormwood grabbed the folder she'd tucked in to her saddlebag. Whipped it out, and hugged it close.

I stepped back and gave her some space, but Sprinkles pressed in closer.

"Are you okay?"

The colonel reached for Sprinkles’ lapels with trembling hooves. Looked back at the broken, uneven valley that glowed from the bottom up with candle light.

She had this stunned expression on her face that I'll never forget. Her irises shrunk to little tiny pin-sized dots as the full weight of what she saw came crashing down on her. Tears ran down her cheeks, but the rest of her face didn’t twitch. For us, the candles were a chance to reconnect with the departed. For Colonel Wormwood, it was Sub Mine F




She tried to grab a hold of that stick that Sprinkles had given her. To wrangle it with her teeth, but she was shaking like crazy and it fell.

"I'm sorry," said Sprinkles.

She looked straight at Wormwood. Waited for the colonel to turn and notice. It took a good long while. Eventually, Wormwood stopped. Snapped out of it, and looked the girl in the eye.

"I'm sorry." Sprinkles repeated.

Wormwood threw open her forelegs, drew Sprinkles closer, and hugged her tight.

I thought the kid was gonna get crushed.

But she just rolled with it. Craned her neck to rest against Wormwood's chest as the colonel hugged her tighter and tighter and tighter and stared out over that ocean of glow.

* * *

Then, suddenly, thwip-a-crumple whoosh-a-whoosh. The colonel's folder hit the floor. Construction paper spilled out everywhere.

Wormwood snapped out of it, bent down hurriedly to gather her "papers" before they got away, or were seen by another living soul. But Sprinkles was right there. And she saw.

She stooped down to help. And got all hurry-ish about it just like Wormwood. 'Till she actually held one of those pages. She lingered on it. I couldn't make out the drawing from where I stood, but like so many others, it was on construction paper.

"Oh my Celestia," Sprinkles figured it out.

She levitated the page and passed it to the colonel discretely. The two of them locked eyes. Wormwood was stiff as a statue again. Sprinkles just looked like she was gonna cry.

"I'm so sorry." She whispered meekly.

"Not a word." Wormwood replied sternly.

The girl nodded in reply.

* * *

A ruckus suddenly arose from down below. Out of nowhere. It startled us all. Then came another holiday carol.

Wormwood rose to her hooves and looked down into the valley. Stared real hard.

It was tough to tell through all that candle light, but most of the potatoes and corns were actually still down there.

There were thousands of them. The loud cheer had been for another one of those soccer games.

Wormwood stuck her neck out and leaned forward as far as she could.

"No." She said after a long and careful examination.

It was under her breath. Had I not been so close, I would never have heard it.

She turned to Sprinkles. Held her at legs' distance.

"I need you to do something very important for me. As a friend. Okay?"

Sprinkles nodded.

"Go find us a good spot in that valley. A nice tree. I'll be down in twenty minutes or so. Take this." She pressed the folder against Sprinkle's chest, and used her stareitty eyes to drive the message home. "Don't. Let. Anything. Happen to it." Sprinkles nodded solemnly.

"See ya, Rose!" She smiled at me, waved, and was off.

I waved back nervously. Thought of the missing medal. The wooden box. Sprinkles had the folder now. Whatever else happened, I couldn't let her take the heat for losing it.

I scanned Wormwood's insanely decorated jacket for any medals that looked like the right shape and size, but came up with zilch. I just couldn't tell.

* * *

That was when Wormwood turned to me. She knew I was wigging out. Knew I was confused. But she held up a hoof as if to say I'll get to you in a minute.

I nodded.

The colonel spun away from me and faced the crowd that had gathered behind us. It was a sea of faces - all of them almost as confused as I was. These were the guys who'd heard the Crystal Empire canons take aim and had rushed toward it. That, or they had just happened to be on the other side of the hill.

They were officers, infantry mares. Potatoes. Corns.

They looked to the colonel with desperate hopeful terrified eyes, waiting to find out what was going to happen next.

"Twilight Society soldiers!" Wormwood called out. "I need you to find me your highest ranking officer."

The corns in the crowd looked at one another, timid-like. The corn nearest me tilted his hat down over his face, as if to try to hide. Nopony budged.

I guess there's something inherently unappealing about the prospect of running back to your boss, admitting that you had been cavorting with the enemy behind her back, and dragging her into what's supposed to be a danger zone, all cause the leader of the Applejackoffs told you to.

Wormwood looked out patiently over the crowd as they whispered amongst themselves. Just stood there and waited for them all to get it out of their systems.

"I'm looking to call a truce." She said at last. "A lasting truce."

Sam turned to me, "Did she say--;"

"Shh!" Snapped Dazzle Shin as he started to punch a bunch of buttons on his Pip Buck.

There were murmurs. Whispers. Everywhere. In an instant, the whole hill was talking.

The excitement was so palpable, I could almost taste it in the air. But the second Wormwood cleared her throat, the crowd got

quiet. Only a few Pip Bucks scattered throughout the masses were left making any noise at all. It sounded like crumpling wrapping paper.

The colonel looked down across those faces, her old inscrutable self once again. She stood like a fancy society pony in one of those fancy society portraits.

Every last one of those soldiers - potatoes, corns - they were eating right out of her hoof. And she knew it.

"Send word to General Sun Sparkle. I'll be waiting down in the valley in one hour." The colonel pointed to the candle lit trees below. "Happy Hearth's Warming, everypony."

At last, she dismissed us all with a firm salute.

The potatoes snapped to attention and saluted back. The corns stood respectfully quiet. Then there were the Berry Punches - too messed up in the horse brain to remember that they had ever belonged to either side. The Punches erupted into jubilant chaos. Laughing and hugging and singing that put our former celebrations to shame. The whole thing was a clusterfuck - a mishmash of unbridled joy and solemn reverence.

Underneath it all was this feeling of urgency. An unspoken truth. Whatever else happened, that place – that moment in time – it was pivoty.

It was up to all of us to make it count.




The folks lucky enough to have Pip Bucks fidgeted with them frantically. Those with business to attend to carried it out. Hustled back-and-forth. Everyone else just kept their spirits up, and occupied their time celebrating. There was a lot to be hopeful for.

Wormwood stood there watching it all. Observing it all. 'Till finally, she put her hoof down, and turned to me.

"A moment alone," she said.

The colonel stared down her muzzle at me, eyes like granite.

"Uh..."

"Come on."

She put a hoof on my shoulder and escorted me down the hill.

I wasn't sure what she wanted from me exactly, but I was pretty sure it'd have something to do with the whole stolen folder, lying-to-everypony-about-the-Rangers'-attack-plan thing.

We made our way down a little path. Together in awkward silence.

It was a small strip of earth that ran along the side of the hill, devoid of pointy wire, and steep declines, and all that stuff.

* * *

"This'll do." Said Wormwood at last.

She led me to the charred remains of an old tree stump. A little oasis of relative privacy.

I nodded.

Everything about her - the tightness in her lips, the tension in her gait - radiated cold disapproval. It hit me so hard my knees wobbled. Literally wobbled.

"Listen, um...I'm sorry, I uh..." Before I could get a proper ramble going, Wormwood cut me off.

"Not a word about the transmission." She said without deigning to look at me.

She was studying the valley.

"Oh, uh. I wasn't going to say anything, I swear. Really. I wasn't! But, uh...I don't get it. How are you going to --;"

"Rose Petal, do you know why I arranged to have you put in protective custody rather than simply throwing you in the brig with Private Sterile Field?"

"What?"

Wormwood just looked at me. Waited for my reply.

I thought about it. I had originally presumed she had done it because I wasn't a potato, or maybe just because she felt like being a bitch. Then, after I'd found out about the transmission and her plan, I'd just sort of presumed that Wormwood had been "saving who she could," like she said.

I had a lot of theories, but looking up at that stareitty stare, they all turned to dust in my throat. My courage failed me. "Uh...um..."

"Because you're a pain in the fucking ass," said the colonel.

I held my hoof up and opened my mouth to protest, but no words came out. There really was no refuting it. I was, in fact, a colossal pain in the ass.

"I need you to do something." She said. "They need you to do something."

She gestured at the thousands of ponies singing below. At the trees they hovered around. At the candles.

"Okay."

"I need you to trust me."

The request took me by surprise. My heart quickened. My throat dried up some more. It was a lot like finding out you have a pop quiz, only deadly.

I didn't know if I could trust her. I didn't know how I felt about anything. The past half hour or so had thrown all of my feelings into a great big sloppy old egg beater, and where Wormwood was concerned, I couldn't even tell up from down anymore.

"What's the plan?" I said.

"I can't tell you, which is why I need you to trust me."

"Oh."

I watched the lights below. Thought about it long and hard. Looked up at the night sky, as though it would have an answer.

I wanted to promise her. Tried to promise her.

But I couldn't.

It wasn't that I thought she was up to no good – wasn't that I distrusted her. But the need to know was stronger.

I turned away in shame. I couldn't promise anything. I just didn't have that soldiers' blood in my veins. That part of you that can follow orders and not be a giant pain in everypony's ass.

The thing is: I really, really, really, really, really did believe that her heart was in the right place, but something in me couldn't just follow her blindly.

"Well, what's the basic outline of the plan?" I laughed nervously. "Can you at least tell me that?"

Wormwood sighed. Sat down, leaned against that tree stump, and started messing with her Pip Buck.

"Hold that thought." She said.

"Um...okay."

"Paper Pusher, this is Colonel Wormwood, do you read me? Over."

There was no response at first. We both sorta hung around waiting.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Do you remember when I had you courier those papers to the clerks' office down the hall from my office? Well, by now, he's gotten word of our truce down here. Several of my officers were in that crowd." Wormwood gestured at the top of the hill. "Some of them I'm sure have paged headquarters by now, either for a sit rep, or to rat me out to the brass, and lay down the groundwork for staging a coup."

"Cockwaffles!"

I hadn't even thought of that.

"This is a conversation I'd prefer you stick around for." The colonel added unexpectedly.

I raised an eyebrow at her. Why would she want me around? I thought. It didn't make any sense. Wormwood didn't even like me. Is this some kind of stunt to try to get me to trust her? Show off her best side? What? Why? What the hell is going on?

"It's not a stunt." Wormwood rolled her eyes. "I was going to make this call anyway. If I tried to do it in private, you would have only assumed the worst, and become an even bigger pain in my ass."

Wow. I thought to myself. Am I really that predictable?

"Yes, Rose." Wormwood said dryly. "You really are that predictable."

A few crackles later, a tinny voice came out of her Pip Buck. "Sergeant Paper Pusher here. I read you, colonel. This channel is secure. Over."

It was the old stallion, alright. The clerk.

"No doubt you've heard by now about my truce." Said Wormwood. "Over."

The wrist-a-majig fizzed into silence for a few moments, as we awaited the old guy's reply.

"Oh, yeah. I got a whole slew of messages from some of the steelfolks down there. Over."

Wormwood waited a moment before replying. She gazed at the Hearth's Warming trees below.

"You know what I plan to do then. Over."

"Reckon you'll be evoking the Steelhooves Clause of Conscience. Been decades since anypony has needed to. Over."

"Yes." Wormwood replied. "I reckon you'll be siding with high command. Over."

"It's been my pleasure and honor to serve you, ma'am, but, yes, I reckon I will. Over."

I recalled the old stallion's speech about the ways of the world. About everyone wanting to be their own Littlepip. About the disaster of the notion.

"I have a favor to ask regarding the prisoners." Said Wormwood. "Private Sterile Field and Private Pumpkin Scone. Have their charges been filed? With the Rangers splitting down the middle, as I imagine they might, and the headquarters being of strategic value to both factions, their fates remain somewhat precarious, and I would like my last order as your commanding officer to be their release. Over."

I would like. Wormwood was a commander of thousands - Paper Pusher's boss - and still she addressed the old stallion with humility and respect.




For a good long while, the colonel's Pip Buck was silent. I reckoned Paper Pusher was thinking out his reply. Wormwood breathed deeply and waited, but didn't let so much as an eyelash twitch 'till her Pip Buck crackled to life once again.

"I am deeply sorry, ma'am, but you know that, under the current circumstances, to recognize your authority would be an act of treason, and a betrayal of my duty. I hope you understand. Over."

Wormwood hung her head. Squeezed her eyes shut. Hard. It was not for show.

"However," the clerk continued. "It just so happens that before you called, their arrest records were misplaced."

Wormwood picked her head up.

"Private Pumpkin Scone and Private Sterile Field were released a short while ago on a technicality. They should be on their way to the trenches right now. Over."

Wormwood squinted at the Pip Buck in disbelief. As though she could somehow stare the device down until it told her the truth.

"How?"

"It's these paper records, ma'am. Haven't quite gotten the hang of them yet. Just one doc' ends up in the wrong folder. And they could take weeks to find...Months even."

Wormwood clasped a hoof over her mouth to hide a smile.

"You're a good pony." She said.

"Me? Nah. I'm just getting too old to remember where I put things. Over."

"Happy Hearth's Warming." Said Wormwood. "It is been a privilege and an honor. Over and out."

She grinned wide. A real smile. Closed her eyes and sighed in relief.

I noticed her folder was clutched against her chest again. She hugged it tight without even realizing she was doing it.

And then, just like that, the moment was gone and it was back to business again.

"It's going to get ugly, Rose." She said. "Every mare and stallion in the corps is going to have to choose. And they deserve to know, but not tonight. Let them have tonight."

I nodded. “So you need me to keep my mouth shut 'till tomorrow.”

“I’ve got a plan. And you, regrettably, have a part to play in it. But they have to find out at just the right moment. In just the right way.” She pointed down at the revelry of the revelers. “Or it all falls apart, you understand? You have to trust me, and follow my lead. Or it all falls apart.”

“I do trust you.” I said. “It’s just--;”

“No,” Wormwood said sternly. “You’re a terrible liar, and you’ll fuck it up if you try.”

“Hay!” I snapped at her even though I knew she was right. “You gotta lotta nerve!"

“That may be so, Rose,” said Wormwood, cool as a cucumber. “But take a look down there. Take a good hard look.”

She pointed to a couple of corns roughhousing with the potatoes. And a bunch of Berry Punches next to them, caterwauling all up and down the valley.

“You’ve done a beautiful thing here. But do you really think you have the know-how to turn that into a lasting peace?”

I had no smart answers.

* * *

Her Pip Buck made another buzz sound. Totally out of nowhere. The colonel hit a button on it.

"Wormwood here. Secure channel. Over."

"Me again, colonel. Over but not out," said Paper Pusher. "One more thing needs discussing. Over."

"Yes, sergeant, what is it? Over."

"While I would never dream of interfering with the prerogative of the high command, and of course, no longer recognize you as my commanding officer, there are certain initiatives I fulfilled before I was made officially aware of your insubordination, and those actions are technically a matter of public record for any member of the corps, which, treason or no, you still happen to be. Over."

Wormwood wrinkled her nose and cocked an eyebrow.

"Go on."

"Well, colonel, I recalled you were having difficulties with the transmitters. Getting messages to or from high command. And when I got wind that you were having trouble down there in No Mare's Land, I took it upon myself to rush a work order down to maintenance. Ordered all the transmitters taken apart, and reassembled with whatever spare parts we had over down in supply."

Wormwood's face lit up like a child on Hearth's Warming morning. With the transmitters down, whatever loyalists remained behind in the Applejack Ranger Corps would be unable to reach high command.

"I apologize sincerely, ma'am. In my youthful haste to communicate our predicament, I ordered them all taken down at once. Damn foolish of me. It'll be 72 hours at least before we can establish communication. Last they heard from us was a confirmation of receipt of their transmission that I sent on your behalf this morning."

A wicked smile stretched across Wormwood's face. I almost thought she was going to start hopping up and down like a foal at a Sapphire Shores concert.

"Thank you." She squeed. "It's been an honor, old friend."

"Only doing my duty, ma'am. Over and out."

The colonel's Pip Buck fizzled for a second longer before going totally silent.

* * *

Wormwood leapt to her hooves. Examined the valley of decorated trees. The top of the hill. Looked up at the sky. Punched something or other into her Pip Buck by mashing buttons with her face.

"Colonel," I said.

She stopped. That actually caught her attention. I had never called her that before.

"It'd be an honor."

I stood upright. Tried to give her the respect I felt she deserved. But it came out weird. I wasn't used to that sort of thing.

I lifted my front hoof halfway off the ground. I kind of wanted to salute, but didn't because It made me feel like a dork.

"You know, to...trust you. Um, ma'am."

"Don't be shy." She said. "I knew you'd come around once you saw the truth."

"Hmmph!" I stomped. "What the hell truth is that?"

I may have trusted her, but I still didn't like being condescended to.

"That I am an even bigger pain in the ass than you are." She said, totally deadpan. "Come on."

She led the way down that path. Down into the valley with all the trees and candles. The pivoty-est place in all of Equestria.

Where We Went Wrong

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - WHERE WE WENT WRONG

“You can beat us with wires, you can beat us with chains, you can run out your rules.

But you know you can't outrun the history train.” -Paul Simon




Since I got to No Mare's Land, all those crazy voices and stuff had only given me three messages: get to the door; get it - the folder - to No Mare's Land; and once there, get it to the door.

That's all.

The truce wasn't destined. It wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't even something we tried to make happen. It just sorta, you know, happened.

And Wormwood. What if I had told everyone about Attack Plan R back there when the wall drew its guns on Colonel Wormwood? The voices had never told me to keep that to myself. But I'd choked. And look what happened!

There we were - the colonel and I, going downhill - down into the candlelit valley - down to try to carve out a peace for all of Equestria.

Because we had made friends.

* * *

"How are we gonna find Sprinkles?" I asked.

There were an awful lot of ponies down below in the clearings - thousands of them. Even as we made our down that tiny secluded little pass, I could see at least a hundred more pouring down the hill. The valley bustled with hopeful ponies, eager for a truce. And the candlelit forest was already too damn big to find Sprinkles in.

Wormwood blinked. Ignored my question. Like she was trying to drive me crazy on purpose.

"What?" I said.

The colonel turned to me, mischief in her eyes. Smugness blasting off of her like pollen from a dandelion being dangled out the window of a moving train.

"Fucking what?" I snapped.

She held up her wrist and showed off her Pip Buck. "I dropped a tracking device in the folder."

Sweet Celestia! The folder.

That missing medal of honor wasn't inside – still wasn't accounted for.

I got dizzy. Terrified. Nauseous.

What if I had fucked everything up? Lost her son's irreplaceable medal of honor?

Fuck! I had spent so much time and energy trying to figure out if I could trust Colonel Wormwood. What if I was the one unworthy of her trust?

I gulped.

"So you have a pretty good idea what's in there, then?" My throat was so dry, my tongue tasted like ash.

"Yup." The colonel kept her eyes on the valley. Studied it. Interrogated it in her mind.

"What about me?" I asked. "The, uh...tracking device - is that how you found me when I came out of –;"

"No. You caught me by surprise," said Wormwood. "Did I mention you're a real pain in the ass?"

I smiled faintly. I knew I was. But the knowledge didn't give me any joy.

Not anymore.




The colonel stopped. Quit scanning the landscape altogether, and turned to me studiously. She wasn't stupid. She knew I was keeping something from her. Knew that I wished I didn't have to.

"We should go down there soon to meet up with Sprinkles," She said suspiciously, never prying those stareitty eyes from me.

I nodded silently.

* * *

On the way down, I actually learned a little bit of Wormwood's plan. Not the part of it that I wasn't supposed to know. A peek into the Colonel's mind - what she was actually up to when she went about keeping the rest of us in the dark.

"Colonel! Colonel!"

Sam the Gryphon landed in front of us, obstructing our path.

"Colonel, a moment please?"

Wormwood looked him up and down, and raised an eyebrow.

Snap. A look of terror stretched over the gryphon's face. He suddenly remembered himself. Stood upright, saluted, and stepped aside.

Wormwood kept walking. I followed.

"At ease." She called out over her shoulder.

"Permission to speak freely, ma'am."

"Granted."

Sam took to hovering, treading air beside us.

"I have concerns about your choice of meeting spot for the negotiations." He said.

"Do you?"

"If the corns decide to attack, they'll have the high ground. If we gather in the valley, they can sweep in and take that hill, and we'll all be sitting ducks."

Wormwood didn't react. Didn't respond. Left Sam in a sort of awkward silence where he was forced to finish what he had to say.

"Uh...You see, Colonel Candyheart Is a hard mare. And General Sun Sparkle won't get the message until it's too late. They won't want to negotiate a truce in front of their troops. Puts them on the spot, since the soldiers want peace, and they want war. I think Candyheart might just be willing to take a few losses and fire artillery into the crowd. She's just that kind of bloodthirsty, you know what I'm saying?" Sam laughed nervously. "With your permission, ma'am, I would like to discreetly position a few well armed steel ponies up top, just in case."

"Denied."

"But--;"

"Your objections have been noted, and permission denied. This is a peace negotiation. I will not have my troops visibly readying for battle"

"We can be discreet."

"I picked the valley for a reason, corporal. And we are all to be in it. You. Me. The well-armed steel ponies, the infantry. Everyone. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal, ma'am."

"Good." She said. "I'm placing you personally in charge. See to it that they all make it down there."

Sam frowned. His top beak and bottom beak scraped against one another. But he nodded. Perched on the ledge. Stood at attention. Saluted.

Wormwood stopped. Looked him up and down.

"One more thing," she said.

"Yes, ma'am."

She reached out and placed a steel hoof on his shoulder

"Make some friends out there, soldier."

The gryphon cocked his head like some kind of confused parrot.

"That's an order."

* * *

After Sam was gone, I meditated on it a bit. Got worried.

"Colonel?"

"Yes?" She answered dryly.

"Is what he said true?"

"Corporal Sam is a brilliant battlefield tactician. Yes, it's true."

She waited for me to ask the obvious question: Why didn't you listen to him, then?

But I waited longer. 'Till she was forced to finish that thought on her own.

"Sam doesn't know ponies," said Wormwood. "Colonel Candyheart has a reputation for being cold, calculating, and brutal. But I have studied her career carefully, and her tactics are always heartless in their pragmatism.

"Firing into the crowd would not further her bottom line. She would view the peace as a stepping stone. A means to getting inside the Crystal Empire. Her second in command is who we have to worry about. Colonel Candyheart is sick, if my intel is accurate, and Major Pickle Barrel is young and anxious to prove himself. He is the sort who would, in fact, fire into the crowd, simply because it's what he believes Colonel Candyheart would want him to do."

"So...why?”

"Why not follow Corporal Sam's advice?"

I nodded.

Wormwood gave me inscrutable-face.

"If the corns do go that route, and I'm not saying that they necessarily will, everyone is going to scatter when they fire. Rush for safety. If anyone is left up on top of that hill, the Twilight Society soldiers will make for their own trenches in the chaos."

She walked three-legged for a moment to extend a hoof and point at the landscape below.

"Down in the valley, those trees will block the way, leaving only one path of retreat: our trenches. Having been betrayed by their own leadership, the disenfranchised corns will turn to us. I just called openly for a truce. They will view me as a leader in the fight for peace, which is what they want. Our numbers will double. We will gain the advantage without having to take a single shot."

"So your plan is to turn the potatoes, uh...into corns?"

"Oh, dear Celestia, no." She said. "But If we make enough friends, we might just win a few rogue officers. Which is all we'll need."

I looked down into the valley. Looked hard. Tried to picture it in my mind. I was no tactician, but her plan seemed like it would work. I could picture the masse