Merry Stewed: An Equestrian Fallout

by TundraStanza

First published

Tells the tale of an alicorn rendered effectively powerless after losing her horn in the wastelands of Equestria. She'll pick up a gun, a blade, and a few companions. But really, what is the point of telling the tale of a Mary Sue?

A stormy and dark night would have completed the visual picture that was her current predicament. Despite being in complete symbiosis with the multiple minds of the Goddess, she had somehow been overtaken by a mere shotgun. Her horn was flung off and with it any magic that she could cast. Inadvertently, this also severed her connection with the greater mind that did all the thinking for her.

Her tale begins in a somewhat humble town called Fondsprings.
Fallout: Equestria was originally thought up by Kkat.
Fallout and all subsequent games are owned by Bethesda Game Studios.
I gain no profit for writing this and it is solely meant for entertainment purposes.
Comedy tag not included due to my inability to keep the story amusing as a whole.

Ch. 1: My Name Is

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A/N: Anyone remember when I said I wasn't going to do this? I change my mind often.

My Name Is

"Wow, I remember my occupation but not my name. Talk about being dedicated to your work."
~Phase Courier #101


We have achieved a state of power above all mere mortals. We cannot be killed by removing just one of our physical bodies. We are complete. We are invincible. We are the Go-


We... wait... what? Colors become more distinct. Pain reaches the forehead of this vessel. Why can we not wield our power? Our shield does not respond to our command. What is happening to us?

Let me go!

Who speaks out? Why does this voice seem to be... against us?

I'm not one of you freaks! Let me out! I have to live!

Insolence... will not... be... tolerated. The pain in our head is starting to act like an awfully heavy anchor. It beckons the ground closer to our vision. Several of our voices are suddenly silenced in favor of this new one.


Darkness becomes my blanket. A blurb leads to a stray phrase in my thoughts.

F...For... Pia...imo...


A fan. There is a fan in my vision. A fan with three revolving blades spins in my sight. But... my vision is doubled on itself, struggling to straighten out. I try to turn my head, but it responds very slowly as if unused to its own weight. I let out an audible groan.

"Woah, there. Take it easy, Miss."

Who said that? Oh. There's a pony in this place with me. But why is he sideways? No, wait a minute. My back feels like it's on some form of a bed(?). I'm the one that is sideways. I close my eyes. When I open them to this dimly lit room, I struggle to straighten out my line of sight. Where in the world am I?

“Need help sitting up?”

The slightly deep voice belongs to the other pony. Is he asking me a question? I struggle to keep the meaning of his words in order. There is an implicit ‘do you’ in that question, I think. He is asking if I require assistance in rising from my rest. At least, I think that’s what he is asking me. Numbly, I nod my head. My ears flinch in pain at the sound of something popping. Maybe it’s a neck joint that cracked. I’m not sure.

“All right,” I hear the other pony say, “Let’s take this nice and slowly.”

The tone he takes… is it one of gentle concern? That sounds like the right description. For now, it will do. I feel a slightly firm limb touching underneath where my head is. I assume it is the other pony’s hoof. Slowly as he says, I can feel my head fighting against gravity’s persuasion to lie back down.

I have to close my eyes again. There is some bodily pain in joints and muscles that I just now remember having. Most predominate is the migraine from before.

“Ahhh,” I sigh out through clenched teeth.

The rest of my back rises from the bed while the other pony attempts to hold me steadily. Soon, I can feel like the only thing in contact with the mattress consists of my lower limbs. I force my right eye to open in spite of the headache. My left eye soon follows suit.

“There we go,” says the other pony as his hooves slowly retreat from my sides, “I’d imagine you’re feeling a bit out of sorts right now. You sure didn’t look too good when you were brought in here.”

I finally get a better look at this pony. He has the basic square jaw structure that I know that stallions have. He looks relatively tan, both in mane and body color. There’s a wrinkle or two that show him a bit aged. Still, there’s a sign of youth when I look at his golden irises. There are no wings or horn that I can readily see. This stallion is an earth pony. He is wearing a light blue jacket and a red neckerchief.

“I’m afraid I had to do a bit of digging in your cranium to remove the small pieces of metal,” he continues in that gently concerned tone, “Sorry for intruding.”

Metal? Small pieces? What is he talking about? Was I shot or something?

“That’s… quite all right… um…” I blank out in the middle of my sentence.

“I’m Doctor Prickard.” He smiles in understanding. “You’re in the town of Fondsprings.”

Neither of the names he states sounds familiar. So I simply nod for him to continue.

“What would your name happen to be, ma’am?”

My name? For some reason, several names flash through my mind in that instant. Some seem to speak to me louder than others. Other names speak to me in scratchy whispers. However, one seems to resonate with more familiarity than the rest. It is this name that I decide to voice.

“Pianissimo,” I mutter slowly before saying with more confidence, “Forte Pianissimo.”

“Hmm,” Doctor Prickard hums, “Not the name I would’ve given you, but hey. Stranger things have happened.”

I open my left eye slightly wider than my right at that comment. That isn’t the name he would have given me. What is that supposed to mean? Though, I really don’t have anything to compare his choice of words to, so I don’t vocally ask. I have a strong urge to stay in the doctor’s good graces. Besides, he’s already talking again.

“I found it strange that an alicorn’s horn could look broken like that,” he says idly while pulling out a small mirror of sorts, “See for yourself.”

I look at the reflective glass blankly at first, not really sure what to expect. I see a faded blue pony. Her mane is long and white and seems to flap in some impossible wind. Her eyes are green with draconian slits for pupils. The only thing that really catches me off guard is the sharp stump where I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have a horn.

The stump looks like the mess of a tree by some pony inexperienced with a tooth saw. Instead of one long and sharp tip, it’s much shorter and filled with several small pointy parts. That’s not normal… is it?

“What happened to me, Doctor Prickard?” I ask before I’ve had time to think.

“My guess is some pony got really lucky with their aim,” he answers before pulling the mirror away, “There were bits of a shotgun shell embedded in your skull that I had to pull out.”

“Do you know who fired the shot?” I inquire.

“Sorry, ma’am, but I don’t have the slightest idea,” he replies, “The securitron that brought you to me commented about a scoundrel, but he didn’t have any details readily available.”

A securitron brought me to a doctor? I find that odd. Some vague notion tells my mind that securitrons mostly look after their leader Mr. Mansion. Why would he care about an alicorn’s safety? I’m pretty sure I don’t know him personally, just as I’m fairly certain that he doesn’t owe me any favors. My eyebrows furrow at the all too convenient situation.

“Well, now that you’re awake,” Doctor Prickard interrupts my thoughts, “Let’s see if we can’t get you walking again.”

Walk? Well, I suppose that’s a logical thing to try and do. The doctor takes a step back giving me room to place my front hooves on the floor next to the bed. Soon, my back legs follow suit and I’m standing on all fours. My stance is a little shaky at first, but Doctor Prickard stands right nearby and prevents me from falling over.

“Now, whenever you’re ready, head on over to that vigor tester machine at the end of the room,” he says with his gentle tone, “Just take it easy. It ain’t a race.”

He starts trotting away leaving me to follow whenever. I take a moment to get a better look at the room that I’m in. It’s mostly old and wooden. A small number of metal tables and chairs are haphazardly arranged along the walls. I also look behind at the rest of myself.

I have a pair of large wings on my sides. By a small instinct, I open them and give them a quick flap before folding them back to their resting position. Further back, I see what I guess to be my cutie mark. It looks like a black sixteenth note. I have no idea what it means.

It’s at this point that I realize that I might be keeping the doctor waiting. Shaking my head to clear it is a mistake as my headache comes back again. I hold up a fore hoof to stop the ringing. After a few more seconds, I slowly trot along with slightly less trouble.


I don’t really understand the “vigor” part of the vigor tester machine. All it actually does is give a few estimated numbers next to seven generic nouns that could be given to any pony. I find it ironic that they spell out “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” I have higher ratings in the “S” and the “E” stats. Everything else is average.

“I guess that strong build of yours helped you survive that bullet,” says Doctor Prickard.

I presume that he is trying to be funny. His sense of humor, however, is lost on me. I do not comment. He coughs into his hoof, though the sound is forced.

“By the way, your stuff is over there.”

I look in the direction that he points. A small dresser is against the wall. On its surface are various items. I can identify two leather saddlebags, a bottle cap pouch, and a straight dagger. Is this all really mine? For the second time since I woke up, I raise my eyebrow at the doctor’s statement.

“It was all you had when you were brought in here,” he insists.

I shrug my wings, deciding that he doesn’t know if the stuff is all mine either. In any case, I trot over to the dresser and start gathering the items. The bottle cap pouch goes into the left saddlebag. The dagger fits into a small sheath attached to the other saddlebag’s binding. Finally, I settle the ties of both saddlebags just behind my wing joints. The snugness is unfamiliar but not unwelcome.

“One last thing before I turn you loose.”

I wonder what Doctor Prickard means. Before I have time to voice my confusion, he is already loosening his neckerchief. He grabs it in his teeth before walking over to me. A quiet voice in my head wonders if I should just glue my left eyebrow in the upward position that it likes so much. By the time I make the thought perish, the doctor is already finished tying the neckerchief around my neck.

“What’s this for?” I ask.

“I know alicorns aren’t really into fashion, but I think you’ll find the locals a bit friendlier with the ones who wear those,” he replies, “You should speak to Daisy Doe. She’s usually in the saloon right next door. She can teach you a thing or two about staying alive out in the wasteland.”

I find Doctor Prickard’s words compelling. It makes sense to want to learn how to survive.

“Maybe I’ll do that,” I say quietly. The doctor opens the door for me.

“Good day, Ms. Forte,” he fares me well, “I hope we can meet again under different circumstances.”

I assume he means without shotgun pellets in my head. I agree with his hope.


For a sky that’s supposed to be closed up, the light that comes through still leaves an uncomfortable glare in my eyes. Perhaps this is just the aftereffect of being inside for so long. It takes about a minute before I can look about the immediate area without squinting. Then I take a panned look around.

Fondsprings looks like a small town. All of the buildings are one-story high. Most of them are made from what looks like wood and metal fused together. The streets are cracked in haphazard zigzag lines. Occasionally, a pale green cactus breaks the monotonous brown view.

I remember Doctor Prickard said that the saloon is next door to his office and that I should meet up with Daisy Doe. Surviving in the wilderness is preferable to losing my life out there. I have already come pretty close to death, what with the shot to my horn and all. I lightly rub the jagged stump that’s still there.

With a sigh of resignation, I start the slow trot over to the saloon. I have mixed feelings about these first steps after waking up. Part of me feels anxious, afraid of the unknown. Another part is excited, like I want to actively search for a trail of blood so that I can add another victim to the puddle. I try to ignore both of the feelings in favor of silent indifference. The anxious part has a greater foothold in my mind, however.

I focus my eyes on the saloon itself. The exterior is only slightly less bland than the rest of the town. Brush strokes of forest green and cyan are visible along a wall, though it looks like some pony too short was in charge of that project. The colors barely reach the height of the front doorway. Above that is the familiar metal-wood, fusion color of the rest of the buildings.

All right, Forte, I think to myself, Go in proudly like you own the place.

The double-swinging door puts up no resistance to my entrance. A few ponies are in the vicinity. It looks like they are mostly drinking and/or sleeping. Though, the eyes of them are all on me after the doors swing back and forth behind me. A gray-maned stallion in a black bullet-proof vest shakes his head before turning back to the mare behind the counter.

“We’ll talk later,” he harshly whispers.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” mutters the mare while rolling her eyes.

The stallion power trots over where his face is just a few inches from my own. My current thoughts carry the feelings of unnerved and insulted at the same time. There is also a really quiet feeling of arousal that I can neither place nor care to place.

“Who the f*** do you think you are, alicorn?” He practically spits his words. Strike that, he does spit his words. I feel the drops of disgusting moisture hitting me.

“I beg your pardon?” My left eyebrow raises in confusion.

“I don’t care which religious bull**** cult you’re from,” he continues to spit, “Fondsprings is Powder Ganger turf. So why don’t you just fly on back to your precious goddess and stay out of our way?”

If I didn’t take that moment to wipe my face with a hoof, I would probably be covered in an entire layer of saliva. It is such a shame that Doctor Prickard’s gift is the recipient of that layer.

Say it! Don’t spray it! I direct my thought at the Powder Ganger(?), though he clearly can’t hear that.

“I don’t like your attitude,” I state flatly.

“Would you like it any better if I told you to f*** off?” There is a click of a pistol’s safety being turned off.

Before I can wonder how he’s holding that thing in just one hoof, my hooves act on their own accord. My right hoof is colliding underneath the guy’s chin. During his hang time, I quickly run forward a couple paces. As he’s falling, my back hooves deliver a buck right into his spine. I hear the entrance doors swinging open and the grunt of a rolling stallion. As quickly as the event starts, it ends.

I turn around to look at the door, as do the rest of the saloon’s patrons. I swear I can feel my pupils getting narrower in width. My lips part several times without uttering a sound. With the view only slightly interrupted by the doors swinging inside and out, I watch the stallion slowly rise to his hooves. Then, he barely passes a glance behind him before limping away.

“What just happened?” I ask to myself more than any pony else.

The slow clapping of hooves snaps me out of my stupor as I look to see the source. She’s a faded yellow mare with a red mane tied up in a pony-tail. She doesn’t have much on her aside from some light leather barding.

“About time some pony shut him up,” she smirks, “That Kettle has a set of chops louder than his pistol.”

“Kettle?” I echo.

The young mare nods, “He’s been coming in constantly threatening to blow this joint. But he’s all bark with a small bite.”

She trots on over within a reasonable space of me. I briefly glance at the horseshoe with wings she has for a cutie mark. One of my mind’s feelings tells me I’m a pervert, so I quickly stare at one of the room’s floor boards.

“Let me guess,” she carries on, “You’re the one Doctor P. patched up, right?”

“That is correct,” I say with the most professional tone I can muster. I don’t think the aftershock of the earlier adrenaline rush is helping me remain steady.

“Are you by chance Daisy Doe?” I manage to ask in spite of my slight daze.

“Got it in one!” she cheers, “Oh, hey…”

I wonder what she has her attention on. She trots over behind to my right. I turn my head to see that she’s got her sights on a particular pistol.

“Looks like Kettle dropped this,” Daisy chuckles as she clicks the safety on, “Why don’t you keep it? Think of it like a trophy for your first victory in Fondsprings.”

I can’t find any way to argue with her reasoning. I shrug my wings before taking the small gun and placing it in my right saddlebag. At this time, I realize that most of the other ponies in the saloon are going back to their drinking and/or sleeping.

“Seems like you’ve got bar fights down, no problem,” Daisy smirks, “But I’m guessing you’d like to learn some other things for desert survival. Am I right?”

“Yes,” I nod, “I believe that was the reason Doctor Prickard referred me to you.”

“I can show you a thing or two,” she affirmed, “Follow me out back.”


Six shots later and three of the bottles along the fence are nothing more than raining pieces of glass. I reload the loaned weapon by hoof and by tooth. I have to spit off to the side to get the taste of pellets out. I prepare to give the rest of the targets my blessing.

“Try crouching while looking down the sight. It’ll help steady your aim.”

Sure enough, Daisy Doe is right. I find the "Varmint Rifle" to be much less wobbly and easier to aim when my knees are bent. This time, it only takes three shots to defeat three bottles. Automatically, I find myself reloading the gun in spite of the awful taste.

“Not bad,” Daisy remarks, “But a lot of the varmints you’ll be shooting in the desert won’t be standing still. Are you ready to move on to some moving targets? I’ll throw in some caps if you’re interested.”

Isn’t the student supposed to pay for the lessons? I silently wonder.

“Okay, let’s do it,” I answer.

“Great! There are some geckos over the hills that need to be put down.” Daisy Doe quickly trots away. “Follow me.”


Forte Pianissimo

Gender: Female
Race: Alicorn

Default Statistics
Level: 2
Strength: 7
Perception: 5
Endurance: 8
Charisma: 5
Intelligence: 5
Agility: 5
Luck: 5
Tagged skills: Melee, Unarmed, Survival

“Now I’m Free”: You are no longer bound to the whim of the Goddess. You can now learn from your passing experiences. The catch is that your mind is much more aged than most other ponies who wander the wasteland. You start with an extra level, but a -25% penalty is applied to all XP gains before they are added.

“Hornless”: What a nasty shot you’ve taken to your pride… and your forehead, but mostly your pride. Due to the loss of your horn, the basic spells of most unicorns are beyond your capabilities. However, your physical stamina and average flight speed are slightly improved to make up for it. Add +5 to unarmed and melee weapon damage dealt to enemies.

Ch. 2: Faults

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“Guilty until proven innocent. An ancient concept for this modern age.” ~Yami


At first, I’m shooting lizards as easily as the bottles on the fence. However, my gun runs out of ammunition as three rush my position. I hear hissing and see soulless eyes that stare at their prey. My hoof wraps around the dagger on my saddle bag. Before I know it, I’m spinning around in place and slicing the geckos open. I feel a few claws scratch my sides before the hissing stops. Daisy Doe uses the pause in the action to reload her weapon. I can’t blink.

“Holy spit!” I manage to gasp after breathing so heavily, “I forgot how big those geckos can grow.”

“You should see the radioactive ones out to the far east,” chuckles Daisy.

Even though I’m breathing hard, I still manage to give her an “are you serious” look. She retorts with a nod. So, I guess she isn’t kidding. How is any pony supposed to fight off a monster lizard and radiation poisoning simultaneously?

“Anyway…” She reaches a hoof off to the side. (Since when did leather barding have room for pockets?) “As promised, here’s a modest sum of caps to get you off the ground.”

The pouch she presents looks big enough to hold about thirty of those things. The clinking noise inside sounds like that amount as well. I reach over and put the pouch in my other bag, figuring that I’ll count it later. I place my dagger back in its sleeve. Out of the corner of my eye, a mid-aged colt comes galloping toward us.

“Please! You’ve got to help me!” he jogs in place frantically.

“What happened?” Daisy asks.

“What’s wrong?” I inquire at the same time.

“My girlfriend went up to that cliff behind the rusted radio tower,” he explains, “I’m ill-prepared to fight off so many of those geckos. I need someone else to help.”

Something is… off about his insistence. I can’t really pinpoint it, but the sound of his voice is fluctuating between panicking and insincerity. I don’t understand why it sounds like that or how I can even hear emotional adjectives. The voices in my head start to quietly argue while one of them decides that she wants to control my mouth.

“If she’s your companion, then why don’t you at least try to save her yourself?”

He stops jogging in place abruptly and leans back a little. I don’t think either of us was expecting my sudden question. I’m not even sure that it really is my question.

“Because I need help,” he repeats.

“Now that I think about it,” says Daisy out loud, “isn’t that a 9mm at your side? Even a first-time shooter can get in some decent kills before having to retreat and call for backup.”

“And I haven’t heard any shots out here recently besides our own,” I add.

He’s quiet.

Too quiet.

“Well I’ll be darned,” he smirks, “You’re not as dumb as you look.”

The next three seconds happen so quickly. A glow of magic lifts his gun from its holster. A shot connects and I see a trail of blood following a disarmed Daisy. A dagger handle is fit into my mouth as I gallop forward. I spin around and see another trail of blood as the colt’s head rolls away from his falling body.

The minute that follows all of that drags on like a dream. My hooves start rummaging around his corpse. I gather his gun, the respective ammunition, a lead pipe, and twelve bottle caps. My eyes are half-lidded as I lean down to look at the headless neck. My tongue tastes the wet iron briefly. I slowly turn back around after hearing a pained breathing noise.

When I see my shooting instructor, the dream-like state ends and I gasp in horror.

“Daisy Doe!” I exclaim.


“This might sting a little,” warns Doctor Prickard.

I just don’t understand it. I barely felt those gecko claw scratches earlier. Why does a little, wet cotton ball cause me to tear up? A couple of the voices in my head urge the rest of me to keep the liquid pride within eyelid distance. One voice decides that it hates rubbing alcohol more than scratches. All of the voices ignore my insistence to shut up.

“How is she doing?” I squeak in reference to Daisy Doe.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much,” the doctor answers, “Daisy’s a trooper. I’ve seen her take at least five other serious hits over the years. After each time, she’s managed to get back out in the field, thinning the gecko population. Hay, I bet she could take out the whole mess of Powder Gangers if she had the right motivation.”

“Doc, I told you,” calls Daisy from the mattress on the other side of the room, “I don’t like to brag.”

“Of course.” He smiles. “That’s what the rest of the folks in Fondsprings are for.”

She doesn’t argue and settles on letting out a tired sigh.

So Daisy Doe has a bit of a reputation around this town, I think. I cannot tell if my own thought voice is admiring or teasing the idea. My own thoughts sound so foreign to me.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Daisy pipes up, “In all the excitement, I didn’t get to tell you. Next time you’re in the saloon, you should introduce yourself to Rupee Carbuncle, the owner. She likes to get to know every pony new in town.”

“All right, then.” I nod as I get up to leave. “See you soon, Doctor Prickard.”

“Hopefully not too soon,” he chuckles.


The doors swing back and forth behind me. I get a few stares, though not nearly as long and scared as this morning. I trot on over to the counter. A pegasus is using her feather to wipe a glass in boredom more so than out of a need for a clean cup. Then in just as much boredom, she sets the glass aside before turning her attention to me.

“Well if it isn’t the one who gave Kettle a much-needed bit-slap,” she comments, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Rupee.”

“Forte,” I say while nodding once, “The pleasure is mine.”

“You seem a little different from the alicorns I’ve heard stories about,” Rupee notes, “What’s your story, Forte?”

“Apparently, I got shot right in the horn,” I start while pointing a hoof to the stump on my forehead, “But before waking up in Doctor Prickard’s office, I hardly remember anything aside from some basic terms and general historical tidbits.”

“Another amnesia case?” she asks while raising an eyebrow in disbelief. She shakes her head before continuing, “Is it really that time of the year again?”

“Huh?” I wonder. What does she mean by ‘another’?

“Meh.” She shrugs with her wing. “It’s not that important. I’m kind of more interested in your cutie mark.”

I glance back at the sixteenth note symbol before turning back to Rupee Carbuncle.

“I never heard of an alicorn with a cutie mark before,” she says, “I figured that they were all supposed to be blank flanks that all served some large, divine something or other. What’s your special talent?”

“I, uh… don’t know,” I admit.

“For real?” She chuckles. “That’s the most selective case of amnesia I’ve ever heard.”

“I suppose it is,” I smile awkwardly while rubbing my neck sheepishly. This is quickly returned to a neutral standing position as a certain mental voice tells me to take pride. “So, Rupee, what’s been going on around here?”

“Well, until you showed up, not much,” she answers, “Aside from the Powder Gangers and their threats to storm the town.”

Two simultaneous feelings try to take over at once. A slightly neutral feeling tells me that this is an everyday occurrence out here in the wasteland. The dominant feeling that makes me open my eyes, however, is shocked at how nonchalant Rupee sounds. The feeling overtakes my mouth and its next words.

“Storm the town?” I echo, “Shouldn’t you take threats like that seriously?”

“Nah,” she dismisses, “That ‘gang’ is more broken up than ever these days. Kettle’s boys hardly make up a fraction of the crooks over at the correctional facility north of here.”

Her answer just leaves even more questions running through my thoughts.

“What exactly are Kettle’s boys after?” I inquire.

“About a week ago, a guy named Pot from a caravan trader said he needed a place to lay low for a while. We thought he was just shaken up a bit, so we let him borrow a place. Two days later, Kettle came by demanding that the towns’ ponies hoof him over. Still, he never came with more than a pistol to back up his threats. Now that you have it, I don’t think we really have to worry about him anymore.”

I wouldn’t be too sure of that, I think as I look to the side, Ponies that are insistent on getting their way usually don’t give up after just one mishap.

I don’t want to say that out loud, so I press for more information that I can.

“You said something about a correctional facility,” I remind Rupee.

“The New Canterlot Republic had set up a prison in which the convicts broke their backs working on the railroads. A lot of rocks out there were too tough to break with a pickaxe or shovel. So, dynamite was sent over to make the work more efficient. It turned out that it wasn’t such a good idea to put explosive sticks into the hooves of stallions that wanted nothing more than to kill the warden and the rest of the guards.”

That explains the term ‘Powder’ Gangers, I suppose. But now there’s another name that I find myself unfamiliar with.

“What is the New Canterlot Republic?”

“Wow, you really do have amnesia,” she mutters before explaining, “The N.C.R. is a group of military ponies trying to restore a peace similar to the original Canterlot of way back before the war. They’re mostly decent folks, but even I can tell that they’re spread way too thin trying to cover so much land. It leaves them vulnerable to savage killers like the Empire.”

I’m about to ask another question when Rupee plows on like she is expecting that topic.

“The Empire is full of a bunch of ancient world imitators. Ponies in that group are called Imperials. They seek to bring Equestria into a state of anarchy and rip apart any freedoms from the ponies that have a different opinion. They tend to avoid technology like the plague and only a few of them carry guns. The rest tend to stick to swords and spears.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical in this day and age,” I comment.

“You and every pony else would agree.” Rupee nods. “But what the Empire lacks in innovation, it makes up for in sheer numbers. I guess some ancestral urge finally caught up with them to fight against cloaks of a storm.”

“Wait, fight against what?” I raise an eyebrow.

“That’s just a joke that’s been passed by some of the travelers that have seen Imperials before,” she says, “I don’t really get it either.”

I finally sit down on one of the round chairs. Powder Gangers, N.C.R. troops, and Imperial soldiers are basically at odds with each other and every pony else is caught in the middle. Add to that my little understanding of why Mr. Mansion would send a securitron to save me and I have a mind full of chattering voices trying to make sense of it all.

“This is a lot to take in.” I exhale.

“Tell you what, Forte,” Rupee offers, “Since you gave Kettle the kick in the guts that I’ve been meaning to give him for a while, why don’t I give you the first Sparkle Cola free of charge?”

I hear the sound of a cap popping off and a bottle of some fizzling liquid gets pushed to the counter space in front of me. It takes a couple of seconds for my thoughts to gather coherently.

“Oh, um, thank you,” I tell her.

“Don’t mention it,” she smiles before leaning in close and whispering, “Seriously, don’t. The last thing I need is a group of fancy checker-suited ponies coming in here expecting a round on the house.”

“Uh, got it,” I whisper back.

She leans back and resumes her small smile.

She’s smaller than me, my mind points out, So why do I feel afraid of her?


“Scavenge-lick”: You have this strange urge to loot and take one lick of ponies that you decapitate. What the hell is wrong with you? This “perk” doesn’t apply to bodies that you didn’t personally kill, nor does it apply to enemies of any species other than ponies. In fact for most deceased enemies, unless the items are separated from them, you can’t bring yourself to loot. You have a rather strange morality. That or maybe you’re partially insane. Who knows?

Ch. 3: Helping Pot Call the Kettle

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Helping Pot Call the Kettle

“No good deed goes unpunished.” ~Nauthilax


I flap my wings a couple of times. It gives me enough airspace to glide uphill. I don’t know why I’m so interested in visiting this “Pot” pony. I just know that a voice is bothering me, telling me that I have nothing better to do. This is true, but that doesn't mean I like what I’m doing.

This is the place Rupee Carbuncle described. Out of courtesy, I knock on the door that has one board attached to the front. I then slowly push it in. It takes some effort for me to squeeze through the narrow door way especially since the door is pushing to close itself. Finally, I manage to get all the way in before the door shuts. A click of a rifle’s safety catches my ear in the barely lit room.

“Come any closer and you’ll be missing a few body parts,” warns a stallion’s voice, “Who are you and what do you want with me?”

I take a quick look over the pony holding the gun in a magical hold. He’s wearing a plaid shirt under some overalls’ straps. His mane and coat are a simple brown and tan respectively.

“What I ‘want’ is for you to calm down and point that gun elsewhere,” I answer as calmly as I can, “I just want to talk to you about something.”

“Nothing personal, ma’am,” he replies as the safety clicks a second time, “You just caught me off guard. Seems we’re off to a rough start. Why don’t we start over?”

I nod in agreement. “You’re the one known as Pot, correct? My name is Forte Pianissimo.”

“Really?” Pot smirks. “So is your specialty being very quiet?”

The joke is lost on me, but I chuckle anyway. “If only I actually knew.”

“I have to say, you’re one of the tallest pegasi I’ve ever seen out here,” he idly comments.

I swear that a cross-breeze is passing through the walls of this building. It is during this awkward silence that Pot takes a closer look at me. Specifically, he looks at the jagged, little stump on my head. I can tell that I’m not the only one in here feeling their muscles tense up.

“You’re an alicorn?” he asks the million-cap question.

“Y-yes,” I stammer before inhaling sharply.

The gun that he was floating up before radiates in his magic aura again.

“Wait! Wait!” I yell while holding my hooves up in front of me, “I want to help get Kettle off your back!”

The aura dissipates as the gun is pointed away.

“Why should I believe you?” Pot asks carefully, “What would the alicorns gain from helping one stallion fight off some Powder Gangers?”

I take a slow breath before answering.

“I’m not helping for the sake of the alicorns. Stars above, I don’t even remember what their goals are. I think losing my horn had something to do with that.”

I'm impressed that his voice is still even when he asks, “Then what made you decide that you’d help me?”

“Honestly?" Though my head is turned to my left, my eye still looks partially in the stallion's direction. "It’s because I had nothing better to do. Plus, Kettle’s breath stinks.”

Another breeze meets my ears. Silence absorbs any other sound. A snicker escapes Pot’s lips. This is followed by another. A chuckle is added. Finally, he just lets out a full round of laughter. He raises his head while closing his eyes. Still, he laughs. I just look at him and blink every so often.

What does he find so funny? I ask myself. For once, the other voices in my head have no answer.

“Oh, man,” he manages to calm down enough to say, “Here I thought you were going to try and bulls*** me with some line of ‘justice’ or ‘the greater good’. An honest, non-moral answer like that is… refreshing.”

I don’t get it.


It won’t take long for Kettle to round up his buddies and come back. At least, that is the impression that Pot has. He tells me that we are going to need help fighting them off. Two ponies versus a gang isn’t exactly a favorable situation. He suggests talking to the townsfolk to see if they’ll offer a hoof. Idly, he mentions that Daisy Doe is friendlier with him than most.

Knowing that Daisy Doe is probably still at Doctor Prickard’s, I half-gallop, half-fly toward his humble abode. The door is unlocked and I enter. Daisy Doe looks to be in fairly good condition in spite of her recent injuries. She’s already stretching her legs.

“Speak of the diablo,” chuckles Doctor Prickard, “We were just talking about you. Let me guess, bloatsprite stingers this time.”

I shake my head. “I’m not here on behalf of my own needs this time Doctor.” I turn to the room’s other occupant. “You know Pot, right? Well, he’s kind of looking for help in his disagreement with Kettle and he suggested you.”

“Say no more,” Daisy Doe perks up, “I’m in.”

“Wait, really?” I nearly trip at her initiative. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” she echoes, “I have a feeling I’m going to have to deal with Kettle one way or the other. He claims that he’ll leave Fondsprings alone once he gets Pot, but I know his type. There will be a reason he comes back and forces a fight onto us. I say that the sooner we take care of Kettle, the better.”

Such determination, comments one of my mind’s voices, I am glad she is an ally.

“However between you, me, and Pot, we’re not exactly a force to be reckoned with,” Daisy points out, “If we could get some other folks in town to help out, that would at least give us extra numbers to work with. Talk to Rupee. She’s pretty good at swaying ponies’ opinions toward a town-worthy cause. Meanwhile, I’ll scout around south to see if Kettle’s posse starts heading this way.”

With that, she’s trotting out the door without another word. There is still one thing that bothers me, though. With all of the potential allies, there are just as many potential casualties. I look back at the remaining occupant of the doctor’s office.

“Fondsprings may need their doctor more than ever today,” I comment.

Doctor Prickard sighs, “Well, I don’t have a lot of medical supplies left, but I’ll lend you what I can.”

“Much appreciated,” I bow my head. He offers a few stimpaks and healing potions that I carefully place in the saddlebag opposite to the one that holds my ammunition. With that said and done, I head on out toward the saloon.


I want to avoid getting on Rupee Carbuncle’s bad side. It isn’t a matter of whether I could kick her flank in a fight if I needed to. What is the matter is that I need some persuasion to convince her to help me. If the Doctor’s vigor tester is anything to go by, then my silver tongue is mediocre at best. That’s not exactly the right kind to recruit town ponies into a battle. A friendly chat is different from asking for a large favor.

I walk in through the swinging doors. I try to hold as neutral an expression as possible. However, my hooves decide to take very mechanical steps instead of walking normally over to the counter. Rupee is busy tapping the radio that sounds busted. I make a noise similar to clearing my throat.

“What can I do you for?” she asks after she looks up.

“I had a little chat with Pot,” I begin.

“Quite a mess he’s in, huh?” she chuckles without amusement, “To be honest, I was hoping we’d be able to stay out of their little squabble.”

We’re going to have a problem then, aren’t we? I ask in thought, not looking forward to what I must say next.

“The thing is I came here to ask you to help us deal with Kettle,” I tell her, “You could convince some of Fondsprings’ locals to stand up and defend their home.”

“Look, Piani.” She crosses her hooves while leaning against the counter. “I like you and all, but unless you’ve got a solid game plan for dealing with a bunch of convicts, I am not going to drag any pony out to their quick death.”

Maybe they won’t have to die, I say while placing the wrist of my hoof under my chin.

“Hypothetically, could the townsfolk get enough lucky hits on Kettle if he and his posse were distracted by a much larger target?”

Rupee perks her head up. Apparently, that isn’t the question she is expecting.

“Well, I suppose that’s possible. But where are you going to find a target like that?”

That is my cue to aim my head up with my eyes closed. I open my wings wide and flap once for emphasis. I only wish there was a sunbeam and a chorus of angels to complete the image.

“You don’t mean you, do you?” With the way her hoof is positioned over her chest, it almost gives the impression of some pony having a heart attack.

“I can take quite a beating,” I state confidently, “Besides, in the worst-case scenario, what would you rather sacrifice? The life of a strange alicorn that you’ll probably never meet again now? Or the lives of your neighbors when Kettle decides to do a full sweep of the town later?”

We stand there looking at each other in silence. Finally, Rupee lets out a sigh.

“Alright,” She nods once. “We’ll give this mane-crazed plan of yours a try. I’ll round up a few of the locals and you’ll have our support when the time comes.”

I smile a little at her agreement.

“Still, we could probably be better equipped.” She scratches her head before slapping one hoof on top of the other. “Merchant got a new shipment of leather armor in just yesterday. He’d be at the general store just down the road.”

“Merchant,” I echo, “Something about that name doesn’t exactly say ‘charity’ to me.”

Rupee nods to my doubt and says, “No matter what the situation, he’ll always make you barter for his supplies. Good luck with him.”

I sigh as I fold my wings. As I prepare to head out of the saloon, I turn back to Rupee.

“Piani?” I wonder.

“Your name is Pianissimo, right?” she points out, “I think shortening it to Piani makes it sound cuter.”

“Um, thanks?” I slowly and awkwardly trot out the door.


The earth pony called Merchant is aptly named. Even though Fondsprings is practically preparing for a war against Powder Gangers, he is still trying to force barter. He claims that lending his shipment of leather armor to the towns’ ponies is a 1000 cap investment. This is rather disheartening. Just because I’m a pony of a more powerful race does not automatically mean that I am a millionaire.

Fortunately, my mind has a side that can properly handle the ‘difficult’ negotiations. I make sure that my slit irises stare straight at him without blinking. I need him to know that what I say now is important.

“Have you taken a good look around lately? I mean a really good look around you. What part of this store of yours is actually worth one thousand bottle caps? Do you really think the Powder Gangers will care which side you took? When a bunch of escaped convicts come in here and blow this place to Kingdom Come…”

I stomp my hoof once for emphasis. The result is a satisfyingly loud echo.

“… then and only then can you tell me that you’re worth that much of any pony’s personal wealth.”

I see no sense of a softened heart, but I do see that Merchant is shaken up. He sighs.

“All right, you’ve made your point, lady,” he relents, “I’ll make sure the folks get what they need. The only condition is that I’ll be defending from inside my store. My stock is my first priority. You understand, right?”

“Good, I’m glad we understand each other,” I say as I turn around and walk out the door. Only after it closes does my façade sizzle and my eyes resume their gentle blinking pattern.

By Celestia’s mane, I mentally swear, I scared myself with that performance.

He should know better than to demand charity from us.

Stop that! I demand to the monarchial voice. Thankfully, it obliges.


Unlike my previous two associates, Merchant does not point me to any pony else from whom I can get help. I fly on over to Pot’s hideout. The place doesn’t look any worse for wear. A glare from the roof flashes light into my eyes for a second. I adjust my wings to a pace in which I can hover just above the obtrusive thing.

When I can get a closer look without blinding myself, I see what looks like a potion bottle. However, the side of the bottle has a strange marking on it: a thorn-covered heart with an arrow pointing down.

What in the world is this? I wonder. How did it get up here?

I tap the bottle with a hoof. There is no response aside from the small ting noise of glass. Well, as long as it doesn’t explode, I decide to add it to my bag dedicated to holding medicine. It’s a little difficult to angle myself to where I can budge the mystery bottle. But once I manage that, it slides into the opened bag with ease.

Aren’t you forgetting something? one of my thinking voices asks.

With a light gasp, I quickly head back to the ground. The landing is a little louder than I would have liked, but I’m still on all fours. I shove the door open and head inside.

“You’re back,” Pot noted, “Did Daisy Doe agree to help?”

“Agree?” I echo, “She did more than agree. In fact the instant I mentioned Kettle, she was all over it. She essentially laid the foundation for our entire plan for us.”

“I knew we could count on her. You don’t need to bother with the details. I’ll fight Kettle even when it’s the last thing you do.”

If it’s the last thing you do.”

“Right. If. I forgot that my death isn’t imminent when there’s help.”

The door bangs open and interrupts our discussion.

“Look alive, sugar cubes!” Daisy Doe orders, “Kettle and his goons are heading in fast!”

“Already?” I can’t help opening my eyes in surprise.

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting,” Pot sighs. He already has his gun out and floating.

It takes me a couple seconds while I shove some of the loose ammunition around in my saddlebag. When I finally grab hold, I have Daisy’s spare varmint rifle in my grasp, ready for shooting gangers.

Let’s go make some noise, I think as the three of us gallop out the door.


My theory is correct. As the largest target in the street, the six Powder Gangers focus their gunfire in my direction. My return fire from an aerial position is mostly for distraction as some wild shots of the local ponies manage to neutralize two of the enemies. The good news is my plan is working. The bad news is that it’s working.

In retrospect, going into a gunfight without some kind of protection is a really bad idea, my thoughts criticize me.

None of the bullets hit to the point where they can sink into my skin. Hay, I’m surprised that my neckerchief doesn’t take a single rip. However, there are enough close scrapes that I can see trails of blood coming out of vessels that I’m not even sure exist. I try my utmost to ignore the burning pain in the various places. I think I see a few feathers float away too. Circling around, I see that there is only one enemy in uniform left.


I let go of my rifle which has been out of ammunition for at least two seconds. I can’t easily reload from my saddlebags right now. Quickly, I reach to my side and grab the handle of my dagger in my teeth. I then perform one of the stupidest stunts a flying pony can do. I dive.

Unlike his posse, Kettle’s too busy firing at Pot to notice the large, blue blur coming in to say hello. He doesn’t even realize after my dagger is buried into his windpipe that he’s lost. His eyes roll back as I tumble head over hoof along the ground.

In all the pain, I can’t even bring myself to properly sheathe my knife. It falls to the ground right next to me. I reach into my medicine-filled saddlebag. I snap the top off a potion bottle and desperately drink the liquid contents. Feeling slightly better, I set the empty bottle down as I let the healing water do its work.

It takes a few seconds of staring for me to realize that I’m looking at the bottle with the strange heart-and-arrow symbol. It only takes a second more for me to start worrying. My breathing quickens as I hear the acceleration of my heartbeat. Threads of light start flooding my vision.

Wait, threads? I think.

Indeed, there are threads made of light racing around me. At this moment, I wonder why I am not panicking so much. My open mouth spreads across my face in a smile. Confidence quickly replaces my anxiety. The lights slowly fade out of my view and I take a long deep breath.

Deeper voices than the ones I am used to speak to my mind. I can identify three of them half-growling, half-speaking. Yet for the life of me, I cannot understand their meaning. It is like trying to listen through a harsh sandstorm and the growling speech is muffled.

I take a look at one of the bullet scrapes that I had. I can’t help but compare the healing potion’s effects to flesh burning but in reverse. Within a few seconds, the bleeding is stopped and the skin is without blemish. All that remains are some small spots of scar tissue.

I look around and find my dagger. Oddly enough, the blood that once blemished its surface is no longer there. I pick the dagger up and sheathe it. After that, I spit out the layer of dust on my tongue.

A sound of hooves trotting gets closer.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” says Rupee Carbuncle shaking her head, “You actually did it.”

“I think we all did it,” I redirect credit where credit is due.

“Sure, but you managed to finish off one of the biggest jerks this side of Equestria,” she insists, “Fondsprings owes you a favor. How about a discount on anything you’d like from the saloon?”

I almost motion to object. But then a smarter voice in my head questions why I would turn down an offer like that. I just saved a town from a good pounding. Reduced prices against me are the least they can do.

“I would like that very much, Rupee.”


Thankfully, there is only one casualty that didn’t have an immediately fatal wound. I didn’t get her name, but I decide to help her walk over to the medical hut so that Doctor Prickard can have a look at her. I ask if any pony else saw those threads of light that poured into me. However, no one seems to know what I’m talking about. The topic is dropped immediately.

As the evening sky gives way to a slightly darker night, Pot offers to allow me to spend the night in his current residence. This somehow leads to the subject of standard Poker. Before I know it, we are hoof deep in the game’s rounds.

“So, he was mad at you simply for defending your caravan?” I paraphrase in question.

“Yeah, well, there are ponies like that,” comments Pot nonchalantly, “If you think I have it bad, you should see the number of ponies that want the New Canterlot soldiers dead just for being on duty.”

“Sheesh,” I mutter before telling him, “I call.”

“All right, lay ‘em down.” He flips his cards over and I do the same.

Why they call these groups of cards ‘hands’, I’ll never know. In any case, Pot’s is pretty impressive. He holds three aces and two fives. My ‘hand’ contains the fourth ace, a king, a queen, a jack, and a ten. All of my cards are spades.

“Royal Flush.” Pot whistles. “Are you sure you’ve never played this game before?”

“Not to my knowledge.” I shake my head as I rake in the pot (the caps, not the stallion).

“Well, that was the last of my caps,” he reports, “I guess that’s game over.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize you were out.”

“Nah, I’ve still got a few days’ worth of rations. If I get really desperate, I could probably find a few raiders just outside town that I could loot. Sure it’s dangerous out there, but what isn’t dangerous these days?”

His point is fair and I drop the subject.

Tip: In hardcore mode, sleeping in a bed does not heal you unless it is owned by you.

I don’t know if having five Sparkle Colas is a good breakfast choice, but they sure help me feel better this morning. I can’t really explain why. There’s just a really faint sense of empowerment I get whenever I finish one. In any case, Rupee Carbuncle is more than happy to accept my business.

“So, any idea what you’ll do next, Piani?” she inquires.

I set down my fifth bottle and let out a slow, quiet belch.

“What will I do next?” I echo.

“Yeah,” Rupee nods, “Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy your company. But even I’ll admit that Fondsprings doesn’t have much to offer in the way of things to do.”

“That tussle with Kettle’s herd seemed pretty exciting,” I point out.

“Sure, but we’re not going to trade bullets with him anytime soon, considering his sudden case of death.” She chuckles.

Well, there is one other thing that comes to mind.

“I suppose I would like to eventually find out who shot my horn off,” I admit.

“Ah.” Rupee nods in acknowledgement. "A quest for vengeance then?"

“That,” I consider, “or maybe I’ll try to get in his good graces and get some pointers on how to depower an enemy with that precisely aimed headshot.”

Rupee stands there and blinks. I seem to have developed a habit of saying things that catch her off guard.

“Well, good luck with that,” she finally responds.

I suppose her dismissal does have a point. A lot of ponies have a policy of shooting first and asking questions never. If the mystery pony was any different, then I wouldn’t have a crooked stump somewhere between my mane and my forehead.

“Any ideas where he or she would have gone?” I ask.

“If they’re anything like the other travelers in this part of the country, I’d wager a guess that they went to New Pegasus to blow whatever caps they had left in their saddlebags.”

“New Pegasus?” I query, “What happened to the Old Pegasus?”

Rupee shrugs. “No pony knows. Some say it got blasted by balefire or megaspells, but those weren’t used except on the other side of Equestria all those ages ago.”

New Pegasus, huh? I think, I suppose I could try making my way there at some point.

“In any case,” continues Rupee, “I wouldn’t recommend such a long trot so soon. The closest town to here would be Proper, though there’s nothing really proper about it right now. You’d have to ask the locals there for more details.”

“I see,” I respond even though I don’t completely see.


Not every local is happy about the recent victory against Kettle. Merchant takes at least a couple minutes to gripe about how his loan of leather armor is returned with holes in some of the sets. I offer to purchase a set at full price regardless of its condition. Begrudgingly, he agrees. In buying more ammunition for my rifle and Kettle’s revolver, I use up at least seventy-five percent of my winnings from my games with Pot.

Merchant is no longer complaining. Instead, he acts uninterested in any small talk. After I adjust the beat-up leather armor into a tight fit against my upper body, I leave the store without another word.


*Pow* *Pow* *Splat*

What is wrong with me today? I charge in galloping while firing Kettle’s Revolver. Since when is a headstrong approach to insects a good idea without a giant flyswatter somewhere nearby? Even though I manage to shoot down a couple bloatsprites, another insect that I can’t identify hits me with a projectile stinger. My vision blurs slightly as I reach for my knife.

I flap my wings to take the high air. The land and sky spin around me as I deliver the killing strike. I manage to land standing up, but my breaths are too heavy to be a good sign. The dead insects’ appendages stop moving. I’m still having trouble seeing, but I manage to feel around my saddlebags for a potion. I pop the top off and drink the contents.

The healing effect helps, but I still don’t feel completely well. I’m still seeing a bit of a blur at the corners of my eyes. It’s difficult to keep my head up, but I think I know what is happening. That insect stinger that hit me has venom in it. No amount of healing potions will get rid of that.

Dang it, I think while I’m still shaking a little, I don’t know if I can just wait this off. I’m also probably too far away from town to get help from Doctor Prickard.

My only hope is that Proper is that much closer than Fondsprings at this point in time. As I trot along, however, I quickly find that my eyes aren’t the only parts of my body not at one hundred percent. There’s this unusual feeling of crawling through mud with giant weights tied behind me. I even look around to make sure nothing is holding me down. There is nothing there.

A burst of dirt and little red pieces pops to my right. I stand corrected about nothing being there. Two ponies in outfits similar to Kettle charge in and start firing pistols.

Powder Gangers, I think, Are they trying to avenge Kettle or are they just shooting for kicks and giggles?

In my haste to grab a weapon, I hear some of my ammo spill out of the bags. The loose bullets jingle on the ground. Still hearing pistol rounds, I take aim with my rifle. But with my vision blurring every so often, my effort amounts to firing blind.

*Bang* *Bang*

I can vaguely make out the one pony rotating his chamber to reload.


His pistol falls to the ground and he lets out a yell in what I can only assume is pain.

“Don’t kill me, please!” he hollers.

I find his request to be out of place considering he was just fine with shooting me a second ago.


My left wing gets hit. Why am I letting the other pony take advantage of my confusion? I fly right in front of him. My rifle is practically gagged into his muzzle.


One point-blank shot later and I’m watching a beautiful, red geyser. I turn to the injured stallion. He’s reaching a hoof for his pistol. His look of terror only worsens as I stomp that gun into pieces. This guy is a shaking mess. I can’t make sense of his complete one-eighty in personality. My monarchial thought voice finds it pathetic.

“Get lost,” I command.

The whimpering mess of a pony turns around and limps away from me. One of my mind’s voices comments that sparing this one life will come back to bite me later. The voice is left ignored as I trot over to the headless corpse nearby. I lean my head down. The taste of iron enters my mouth. I also shuffle through and find some caps and ammunition.

Oddly, the weighty effects of the venom from earlier vanish. I can see clearly and I can move my limbs without hesitation. But the pain in my left wing is still there. As I turn to look, it appears that some red liquid is dripping from the edge of the feathers. I carefully shuffle through my saddlebags before chugging down a health potion. I’m probably going to need to find more of those soon.

In this moment’s reprieve, I reload both of my ranged weapons. I also gather as much of the dropped ammo as I can manage. Briefly, I consider reloading the pistol I got from the dead Powder Ganger, but it’s not exactly a good replacement for Kettle’s Revolver. I guess I’ll just have to find a buyer for it.

I stretch my wings and continue following the road to Proper.


-You have gained fame among the ponies of Fondsprings. You are welcome and liked in the town. Rupee Carbuncle now offers you a discount on her food and beverages.

-You have gained infamy among the Powder Gangers. This means that random members of this faction will be more likely to attack you on sight. Persuasion attempts used on these "gentlecolts" will be met with much smaller success rates.

-You can hear three new voices in your head, but you can’t identify the language in which they speak. Maybe drinking random potions that you find on rooftops isn't a good idea, despite the fact that they heal you like normal.

-Fun Fact: Alicorns regenerate health faster when exposed to radiation. Additionally, you are much more resistant to radiation poisoning than other ponies. This effect, however, offers no special resistance against venom.

Ch. 4: Tired of These Mother Powder Gangers

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Tired of These Mother Powder Gangers

"Going to make you sweat! Going to make you wet!"

~Park Jae-sang


The horseless, motorized carriage is a great invention. With a set range of functions, it transforms magical energy into electrical energy and finally into kinetic energy. Supposedly, the engine itself can produce as much power as one hundred ponies galloping at once. But there is one drawback that prevents it from being used today.

The carriage’s secondary function is that of a bomb.

After making the mistake of ducking behind one of these carriages, I quickly learn that even dormant engines are capable of blowing up when the enemy’s dynamite explodes nearby. It is only thanks to my mediocre luck that I roll head over heels behind a nearby building’s wall. I hear more bullets fired, but none find their way to my limbs. The shock from the exploding engine, however, gives both of my left hooves a sensation of burning.

I use the reprieve from gunfire to shove my right hoof around my bags. After watching a few loose bottle caps fall into the dirt, I manage to fish out two stimpaks. Without Doctor Prickard to guide my next steps, I haphazardly guess where to stab my hurting limbs.

Flipping Tartarus! my mental voice screams. Meanwhile, I fight to prevent my mouth that’s holding the stimpak from joining that scream. If I were more sentimental, I might cry at the unsettling sensation of my hooves burning in reverse. But the situation calls for less vocal sound effects and more weapon noises.

My currently numb legs have at least the strength to let me stand back up. I grab Kettle’s revolver without a second thought. Reaching around the building’s corner, I fire six shots blindly.

*Bang* *Bang* *Bang* *Bang* *Ow!* *AAAARG!*

The enemy’s second exclamation is followed by what sounds like something splashing. I wonder if I should look around and check for more enemies. However, a red hissing stick decides to check on me first.

“Ah, flip,” I whisper as I hastily kick the lit dynamite away from my cover.

The stick decides to explode while it’s somewhat airborne. Luckily, it’s far away from where I’m standing.

“Had enough?” a mare’s voice hollers.

I take hold of my dagger as I lower my eyebrows. Actually yes, I have.

After I take a galloping start, my wings take me into the sky. I circle around the building wall’s other corner. The opposing mare tosses a dynamite stick toward my original cover. I guess my wings didn’t tip her off. I dive in behind her while performing an aileron roll.

The enemy’s head hangs by a small flap of skin before rolling all the way to the ground. Just like that, the fight is over.

I wonder what Powder Gangers are doing out this far away from Fondsprings. I doubt that they’re here for what looks like the rotting remains of a roller coaster across the broken street. In this town called Proper, there aren’t any more than five buildings that look in at least relatively standing condition.

All of this reflection goes on as my tongue passes the corpse’s trickling blood. My hooves shuffle around and empty her pockets of their contents. Though, I wonder if one stick of dynamite and a spark lighter is really worth the trouble.

Pain returns to my back, left hoof. The stimpak lasts long enough to get through a battle. I guess I should count myself lucky. The worst thing that I have to deal with now is walking with a limp for a few hours.

A creaking door causes my ears to perk up. As my eyes follow their direction to the source, the door in question slams shut. I am sure that I saw some pony for a second.

Before I go anywhere, I take the moment’s reprieve to reload Kettle’s revolver. One of my mind’s voices suggests that I rename the weapon. I ignore the voice, thinking that the idea sounds stupid. Who gives new names to their weapons? However, the mental begging is insistent.

Fine, I resign, I’ll call it “K.R.” Happy?

I take the silenced begging as a yes. With that business taken care of, I limp over to the slammed door.


“Don’t bring your colts any closer!” exclaims some stallion in a plaid shirt.

“I’m sorry. What?” My left eyebrow rises.

“Wait.” The defending rifle is lowered a couple inches. “You’re not a Powder Ganger.”

“Whew, I’m relieved to hear that.” I give him a deadpan stare.

“No offense, miss, but you kind of came at a time where they were practically holding the entire town for ransom.” The gun floats so that its barrel faces the ceiling instead of me.

“Trust me. You’re not the first stallion that’s nearly shot me based on a misunderstanding.” I shake my head and give a small smile.

The stallion seems to have a few years of wrinkles along his maroon face. Although he can use magic just fine, a cane holds up his front, right hoof. That’s about as much detail as I can take in before I realize that he’s staring awfully hard at me.

“That neckerchief…” He rubs his chin. “Are you from Fondsprings?”

It isn’t my place of origin, but it does hold my oldest memory of waking up for the first time. I touch the cloth around my neck instinctively.

“Yeah, you could say that.” My hoof slowly returns to the floor.

“That’s incredible. How did you survive against all of the varmints and gangsters between towns?”

“I sure feel sorry for whoever is in charge of highway maintenance.”

The old pony tilts his head away from his cane.

“The enemies I faced either died or ran away pissing their tails.”

“Oh.” He straightens up and then lets out a chuckle. His gaze moves up to my forehead. “Though, it looks like some pony sawed off your horn along the way.”

“More like they blasted it with a shotgun,” I say, correcting him, “and that’s a longer story. My name is Pianissimo by the way.”

“Eggs ‘N’ Hash,” he says.

“So what’s been going on around here?”

Hash sighs. “Thankfully, the Empire hasn’t happened around here. Other than that, every pony else has. Those gangsters have been holding ponies at gunpoint except for the ones that stay indoors. Meanwhile, the N.C.R. troops have been trying to offer help, but it hasn’t amounted to much as I’m sure you saw on your way in.”

“I was under the impression that they were called ‘Gangers’.”

“Gangers, gangsters, it doesn’t really matter.” He taps his cane against the floor. “They all cause trouble in the end.”

“Fair enough.” I shrug with one wing.

The maroon pony’s face looks rather pale. “Since when were you an alicorn?”

“Uh…” I pause to think. “Since always?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” The magical glow around his rifle glows more intensely. “We don’t need the zebra’s Nightmare Moons here. We’ve got enough trouble from the Powder Gangsters!”

“Wait, the Nightmare what of whom?” My left eyebrow migrates to its favorite spot.


Both of my eyes open wide. I slowly turn and look at the new hole in the wall to my right. My eye turns back to look at the shooter.

“Get out!” he demands, “And you can tell your sisters that they aren’t welcome here either.”

I lift my front hooves in a guarding position. “I, uh, um… Look!”

I shuffle around my saddlebags and drop my bottle cap pouch in front of me.

“I’m not here to cause trouble. See?” I point at the pouch. “I’m… just here to trade.”

The old man’s look of anger simmers to a look of erring caution. His rifle slowly floats over to the side with the safety clicking back on.

“All right, fine.” His voice is quieter, yet it still carries weight behind it.


“Whew.” I sigh in relief after the door closes behind me. “I’m glad some ponies have greed that is stronger than their hatred.”

After that trade, I can count the number of caps I have left on my hooves and wings. In exchange for what I gave up, I received enough ammunition for six more reloads for K.R. I also got my varmint rifle repaired. Eggs ‘N’ Hash even cleaned and polished my dagger. He’s a really nice guy that just wants to protect his property, albeit a little quick to the trigger.

You should have been quicker to the trigger, thinks my inner monarch.

Nobody asked you, I retort.

Oh, my, adds a third mental voice, Do you two want a room?

Shut up! the monarch and I think to it.

“It’s getting late,” I make a vocal note, “I’ll try spending the night over at that worn-out hotel across the street.”

I flap my wings to avoid limping with my bad hoof too much. At least I can find a place to rest.


Fan-flipping-tastic. I lean my head against the cupboard below the counter. How was I supposed to know what buildings had night watch convicts in them?

A couple wild shots zoom over my ears.

"Had enough?"

Wait, what the hay? In spite of the tension I feel from the gunfire, my left eyebrow rises. That sounds a lot like the convict I beheaded less than an hour ago. I close my eyes and shake my head. No time for distractions! Plan now!

My eyes race around my immediate surroundings. There is a broken bottle here. Some ripped up pieces of burned paper are over there. A white circle with a red dot sits to my left. A couple cigarettes on my right are still smoking.

White circle? I perform a double-take.

Perhaps 'circle' is a poor description. It looks more like a metal disc that some pony uses for weightlifting. Upon closer inspection, there appears to be a tiny protrusion right next to the red dot. Is this a button on a mechanical device? The purpose of the disc baffles me, but it at least gives me an idea for a diversion plan.

One hoof taps the 'button'. My teeth quickly grab the disc. My neck follows up by practicing its frisbee-tossing skills. While the disc is still in the air, I grab and aim K.R. They'll be too busy firing at a flying circle while I take a free shot.


Before I can take even one shot, the disc explodes. The combustion somehow removes two of the convict's hooves and launches her against the wall behind her. She paints the wood with all the colors of her blood before sliding into to the garbage pail below.

I... guess that works too, I think with wide-open eyes.

If she isn't dead due to shock, then that heavy blood loss will certainly finish the job. I must be seeing everything that there is to see. Barring that, I must be pretty darn close. I am a witness to a lethal geometrical figure for crying out loud!

Idly, I scratch my chest with my left hoof. This leather armor is getting itchy. How long have I been wearing it? I shake my head again. I'd better sweep the area for any more hostiles.

There is an opening to my right. I peek around before slowly trotting into the hallway. I crouch in an attempt to sneak around. However, my hoof steps are way too loud for my liking. Apparently, the next stallion doesn't like the volume either as he walks out of an opening that is a bit of the way down the hall. What baffles me is that he holds up a hoof and yawns while carelessly holding a rather large weapon.

K.R. delivers five of its presents to the stallion's cranium. The sixth is given freely to the larger weapon. Said large weapon expresses its excitement by releasing several silver-colored dots into the immediate area. The stallion is so overwhelmed with joy that his head flies off and the rest of his body lies down for a permanent nap.

My legs straighten out, no longer interested in crouching. I find myself marching toward the most recent body. One voice in my head tells the rest to hush. The open neck of the corpse speaks to me. I listen and obey its command. Lick the blood. Scavenge the corpse. Obtain a few caps and a bottle of water.

I raise my head and blink a couple of times. I can't seem to recall what I am immediately doing. One look down at the surroundings, however, reveals a rather disturbing discovery. The contents of the large, broken weapon surround the area where I am standing.

What kind of ammunition is composed of dust-like silver spheres? My eyes widen again. Titanium powder! That was a flamethrower? Indoors? I am surprised at how quickly I can run backwards. Nope, nope, nope!

I lean against another doorway and breathe heavily for a while.

Fool, criticizes the internal monarch, we show no fear towards fire.

What's all this 'we' stuff? I retort. I'm doing all the hard work.

For the time being, my argument is won. After a deep sigh, I take about five seconds to properly fill K.R.'s chambers. While shuffling through my saddle bags, I find a surprisingly clean bottle of water.

How'd that get there? I wonder. Ah, well. I could probably use some of this.

With but a flick of a feather, I pop the top off and gulp down the bottle's contents. It is lukewarm, but at least it is wet. Besides, I have high doubts that healing potions actually offer adequate rehydration compared to more natural moisture. The water works just fine since I don't have any open wounds at the moment.

I toss the empty bottle at the 'sleeping' stallion. "Could you take care of this? Thanks."

I follow the length of the hallway. A large opening is at the left side. I peek around the corner to find two more ponies in Powder Ganger outfits. They seem to be huddling near a burning barrel. I gasp at the sight.

"Did you hear something?" asks one of the stallions.

I whip back around my side of the wall and try to lower the volume of my breath.

What I wouldn't give for another exploding disc right about now, I think. Maybe the dynamite I have... No. I can't possibly handle opening the lighter, flicking it, lighting the fuse, and tossing the dynamite all at once. I recall the burning barrel. Maybe I don't have to.

In spite of a small part of my mind telling me that this is stupid, I quickly fish out the stick of dynamite from my inventory. I curl my wing back and toss it around the corner. Risking a glance, I watch the red stick as it miraculously stays on target... and hits the non-fiery side of the barrel.

Yep, that was stupid.

I hold up K.R. once more. One of the stallions comes around the opening with a shotgun. I feel the kickback of at least two of my own shots. An impact from the enemy's scatter-damage doesn't help much. Two more shots from the revolver in my possession leaves the convict paralyzed from the knees down. He lets out a yell just as his buddy gallops into view.

"Want some?" the new challenger hollers.

*Bang* *Pow* *Bang* *Pow*

In desperate need of a reload, K.R. says that it needs to rest and hides itself in my bags. On the other hand, my dagger decides that it's time to wake up. Two more shots from the enemy make contact that I can feel. I also hear the tearing of leather, but I fight against the pain and gallop forward.

With a spinning jump, I stab as deeply into his forehead as I can muster. He loses grasp of his pistol and keels over to the floor. Meanwhile, the other stallion is still wailing.

"Won't some pony make it stop hurting?"

Tears, notes my inner monarch, How pitiful.

"If you insist," I answer the stallion's question as I trot over and stand above him. I lower the blade into a vertebra in his neck. His incessant crying comes to an abrupt end.

I shake the dagger to get as much of the warm liquid off of it as possible. It is still dripping slightly as I slide it into its sheath. I hear a voice of somebody beyond the next room. Fearing that there won't be enough time between a stop to reload and the approach of a new enemy, I grab the fallen shotgun and ready its sights. Slowly but surely, I trot across the large barrel-lit room. The only signs of recent life in here are some old cigarettes and long-since empty bottles of who knows what.

I trot over and press an ear against the double door.

"I heard one of the guys shooting out there," says a voice.

"Keep an eye on the hostage," says another, "I'll go take a look."

I shuffle away from the door and press myself against the wall next to it. I hold the shotgun pointed at about mouth-level. One forest green unicorn in a convict's vest steps into view.


In a strange twist of fate, I recreate the factors that led to the removal of my horn. Only this time, it's this poor son of a gun that loses his magic. He takes one look at me before running back into the room he just came out of.

"Don't shoot! I'm unarmed," he whimpers.

None of us have arms, I think while rolling my eyes. We're quadrupeds.

Another convict places himself into view. I pull the trigger pointed at his head.


Dang it! The last owner shot it almost dry before I picked it up. Frustrated, I toss the empty shotgun with a slight growl. This seems to cause a reaction of the enemy lowering his eyebrows followed by about three pistol shots. The feeling of metallic fire indicates that one of my wings is hit.

Some kind of instinct kicks in and I find myself galloping forth. My right hoof punches the guy right under his chin before I do a one-eighty and buck the guy in the neck. His back leg hits the doorway while the rest of him flies into the opposite wall.

The whimpering green fool from earlier is huddling in a corner.

Watch out for the cornered rats.

The advice sounds like it's echoing nowhere and everywhere at once. After shuffling through and jangling some of my remaining ammunition, I fish out my varmint rifle. I see no sense in making this colt suffer. I crouch down and line up my sight.


The shot hits just above his withers. He topples over onto his back. Thankfully, he is no longer whimpering.

I wildly scan the rest of the room for any pony else. When nothing stirs for a full minute, I sigh deeply. Instinctively, I reload the rifle even though it's just one bullet that I place into the chamber. Something starts sticking when I try to close it back up. I hope it isn't jamming, but considering that I have no idea how old this gun is, it just might be jamming.

"Hey! Is some pony friendly out there?"

I whip the rifle up instantly. Here I am thinking that there isn't anything in this room except for the square island table in the center. From the sound of things, I am mistaken.

"I don't reckon that a convict went crazy and shot up his buddies since they haven't done anything of the sort for the past week."

The voice carries a warm deepness. I don't know why my mind chooses that as a vocal description, but there it is. I slowly make my way around to the opposing corner of the island table. There is a blue earth pony wearing shoulder pads and he's been strapped to this side of the table with duct tape.

I don't know what I expected. My rifle follows my sense of 'what' by pointing to the floor.

"So... uh, Miss?" he asks, "Did Eggs 'N' Hash send you to rescue me?"

"Hash? Well, no." I tilt my head. "He didn't even mention that there was any pony in need of rescuing."

"Nuts and shoots," he mutters with a sigh. "Any chance you could do me a solid and get me out of here anyway? I am Proper's deputy after all."

"You're a deputy?" I inquire. "No offense, but you've been doing a very poor job if you are one of the law enforcements of this town."

"Yeah, well, that'll change as soon as we can find us some pony willing to step up as sheriff," he comments.

"Why has the position been empty?" My left eyebrow rises.

"That's... a might embarrassing." 'Deputy' turns his head away in shame. "See, the convicts around this area recently proclaimed freedom from the correctional facility up in the northeast. They shot the old sheriff and foal-napped, er, I mean overwhelmed me."

"Physical power notwithstanding," I interrupt, "is there any reason why you can't take the top rung?"

"Me? A sheriff?" He looks amused. "No, no, no. I couldn't do that. I'm just a deputy. Some pony else needs to be the one to take the harder jobs."

I suppose laziness is a good reason why you shouldn't be the sheriff, I think while looking briefly to the top of the table.

"Could we talk about this later?" 'Deputy' wonders, "Like after you've removed my bindings?"

"I have yet to hear a reason why I should release you from your current state," I point out. "What's in it for me?"

"Well," he replies, "if you do, I'll make sure to fill out an official report about how I broke myself out of the convicts' hold while aided by a beautiful mare."


Against my better judgment, I agree with my inner monarch as she straightens my face into a deadpan stare. My rifle's barrel stops staring at the floor.

"That's a pretty breezy tale," I say, "Here's another. Once upon a time, there was a deputy that got captured by convicts. Forte Pianissimo tried to fight them off, but by the time she got to where he was being held, it was too late. The convicts had already killed their hostage. The end."

'Deputy' nervously chuckles. "Heh heh, okay. You've made your point, ma'am. How about this? You get me out of here to safety and I'll give you all the bottle caps that are back in my desk. I'll even get you a round of Sparkle Colas from the casino on me."

My rifle hibernates in my saddlebags. I smile gently. "There, now was that so hard?" I pull out my knife. With a couple quick swings, the duct tape can no longer hold back the deputy pony.

"Oh, sweet Celestia." He stands up and cracks a few of his joints. "That was uncomfortable."

I point to a door that's broken enough that one can see outside. "After you, Deputy."

"Right," he declares as he trots forth. "Time to remind Proper about my heroic status."

I clear my throat before licking the flat side of my dagger.

"Oh, and your compensation for helping me, of course." A sweat drop forms from a gland that I'm not even sure exists on his head. "I haven't forgotten that."

"Just checking," I comment before placing my dagger back into its sheath.

-You have nicknamed Kettle's Revolver "K.R." This doesn't offer any ability bonuses. It's just a useless nifty side note.

Ch. 5: Gentlecolts, I Give You

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Gentlecolts, I Give You

"Corn on the cob."

~Municipal Band


The sweet, river of life flows across my tongue. Gas is exchanged with this liquid to exit in a loud exclamation of the soul.

"I've never seen any pony drink so many Sparkle Colas," says Deputy.

I turn to look at him slowly. My eyes move to look at my other side. Six empty glass bottles stand on the counter. The half-empty bottle sitting in front of me is my seventh. I look back at Deputy again.

"It's not that many," I comment.

"Miss Pianissimo," he interjects, "if I let you have any more on my tab, I'm going to be dug into a half-buried hole in the ground."

"That's a better grave marker than a random convict's base," I fire back.

Silence crosses his mouth as I finish my late night drink.


For the last time, there's no such thing as curses! Real magic comes from within.

You believe that you can destroy me, but your hatred... only makes me stronger.

Silence, you cur!

We cannot be surpassed by the mortals. They can never understand our perfection.

Can peace properly be established between feral beasts and sentient creatures? I can only hope.

It's taken years of practice, but I think I've finally gotten a hang of these verbal projections.

No, this isn't right. This was never meant to be a weapon!


"Shouting only makes it worse!" I exclaim against the images. "Wait... huh?"

I reach my hoof out and flail it around. It bangs a couple times against some wall. The surface sounds about as hollow and fragile as wood, but it isn't breaking. Finally, I manage to slap a light switch. I attempt to slow my heavy breathing in this unfamiliar room.

There appears to be a standing counter in front of some old system of mail slots. Cobwebs make up the bulk of those cubby holes' contents. There also seems to be a space to the right of the wall that can be walked around. Is this Proper's delivery service building?

How did I get here? I wonder. I push against the floor until I'm in a standing position. Let me think. I vanquished several convicts, continued to clear a whole building complex of their presence, rescued an ungrateful whelp that somehow acts as this town's deputy, drank a few colas, and... went for an evening stroll.

I give the place another quick once-over. Huh, it's strange that I'd choose this place to crash. I even closed the door behind me. Well, it beats wasting caps on a night at Cloud Inn 3... wait. What's that?

There appears to be a collection of metal, wires, and microchips on the left end of the counter. Off to the side, I see a dusty copy of a manual. My curiosity gets the better of me as I flip through the small book's pages.


With the parts that I can see, I follow the assembly instructions inside the manual to the letter. I'm not sure why I'm putting this machine together. I must be really bored. Anyway, my efforts result in what appears to be a slightly rusted sprite-bot. I can't immediately identify the model number, but I can make out some letters engraved into its side.

F... R... E... D... hyphen... cursive E, I think as I read. FRED-E? That sounds like some comedian's idea for a monster that uses its claws to rip up monsters named Jay-Sun. I shake my head. What happens if I hit this green button?

After I poke it, the button lights up a little and the entire robot lifts into the air. I still can't fathom how an object can float without a unicorn using a levitation spell nearby. Nevertheless, seeing FRED-E function makes me smile ever so slightly. Is that a tear running down my cheek? I quickly wipe it with my wingtip before the robot can see it.

FRED-E releases a few beeps and whirring noises. There are some other indescribable noises originating from its center as well. Is this what's known as 'updating'?

"FRED-E?" I ask.

The sprite-bot responds with three mechanical chirps and turns its speaker in my direction. I suppose this means it can hear me. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Well, it's too late to go back now.

"Um... follow me, please," I say as I turn around.

I start trotting around aimlessly in this small building. As I'm observing, FRED-E floats around a few inches above and behind my tail. Basic voice commands seem to work on this thing.

"Okay, good," I say, "I need to do a quick inventory check."


"Right then," I say, more to myself than to the sprite-bot. "My firearms are reloaded. My knife has been wiped about as clean as I can get it. I've probably got enough healing supplies from Dr. Prickard to last for a little longer." I look at Mr. Hash's place across the street and sigh. "I guess my next plan should involve helping Proper Town look for a good sheriff."


I jerk my head to look at the orange overcast outside the window. But the noise is already over.

"The hell was that?" I wonder.

FRED-E makes some noises that almost make it sound excited or enthusiastic.

"Really?" I ask, "You think so?"

It chirps twice as if affirming its earlier noises.

"But that defies basic physics of a sound spreading out until it can no longer be heard."

The sprite-bot makes a bunch of wild beeps.

"Okay, sorry!" I back up. "But I can't believe absolutely everything you say. I just met you."

FRED-E makes three syllables of neutral chirping.

I have no idea what it's saying. What the Tartarus am I even doing?

I sigh. "I'm going to go have a word with the N.C.R. ponies to the east of here. Maybe they can spare some justice enforcement in this town."


"You're certainly one of the tallest pegasi I've ever seen," comments the commanding officer.

"Yeah, I get that a lot." I scratch my neck just above my neckerchief. "So anyway, some of the ponies at Proper are wondering when they can expect some protection."

She holds an unreadable face. "As much as I'd love to march right in and offer our support, we are currently short on horsepower and ill-equipped to provide a proper means of defense."

That gains a raised reaction from my eyebrow. Why bother setting up a base of operations here if you can't even do anything with it?

"But, I just took out a whole building full of escaped convicts and rescued the town's deputy," I admit, "Technically, I was ill-equipped and short in number."

"While that's certainly impressive, that only establishes invasive power." She readjusts her cap ever so slightly. "To properly patrol the streets, we'll need a lot more willing bodies that can defend themselves from the low lives that try to rebel against our authority."

"What's wrong with these troops?" I ask while pointing to various uniformed ponies that wander the base.

"Like I said before, they're ill-equipped." Her poker face remains impressive yet irritating.

Flipping Tartarus, I think with a frustrated sigh. "Is there any way that the N.C.R. can properly arm itself?"

"Well, there is that correctional facility to the northwest of here," says the commander, "but that's suicide. It's filled from the ground up with convicts that know how to use their dynamite. Are you prepared to face that much brute force?"

"I'm pretty sure the Powder Gangers are already pissed at me," I say, "What are a few explosions on top of the usual greeting of gunfire?"

She mulls it over for a few seconds. "Normally, I wouldn't even consider this, but you did save us some trouble by getting rid of the convicts in that other building." She nods. "All right. I'll radio ahead to Lt. Roofs. He'll be waiting for you on the hilltops outside of the correctional facility."

Why do they have troops ready to take back a correctional facility, but not enough to take a town?

"Come along, FRED-E," I call my sprite-bot, "We've got janitorial engineering to do at the prison."

FRED-E beeps excitedly.


It lets out some strained beeps. Is it imitating a pony short of breath?

"Oh, come on," I say while turning my head back to look. "If I can fly this far without losing my breath, you should be able to float even farther without... uh, losing power." I land with a gallop leading into a stop. "Wait, what do you run on anyway?"

The sprite-bot chirps hesitantly.

"You don't know either, huh?"

I swear I hear shame in its beeps.

"Well, if worst comes to worst, I can use that manual and toss spare metal and batteries at you until you start working again."

FRED-E lets out some quick, stunted noises.

"I was kidding! ... mostly." I shake my head as I trot along. "Where is that Lt Roofs?"

An armored stallion quickly marches over a hillside toward me.

"Commander radioed ahead and said that somepony from Fondsprings offered to come with us," he says. "You sure look-"

"-like the tallest pegasus pony you've ever seen?" I finish for him.

"Er... no." He blinks in surprise. "Like one of the luckiest unicorns I've ever met." He examines my stump more thoroughly. "Crap, that's practically gone. Most ponies with that severe a handicap can't even stand firm, let alone walk around."

I shrug. "Necessity has a way of teaching new tricks." I pull out my dagger and twirl it around my hoof before resheathing it. "I've got to hold all my weapons somehow."

He nods. "Fair enough. We could definitely use some resourcefulness today." He briefly points a hoof behind himself. "The other boys are itching to take back the facility. Hope you're ready."

"The Powder Gangers and I have a bit of recent history," I admit. "The ones that aren't dead probably saw my handiwork against their claim in Fondsprings."

"We're moving out." He turns and starts trotting lively. "Stay sharp!"

"Fan-tipping-flastic!" I yell before pulling out K.R.


I don't think the recovery operation takes any longer than two minutes. 'Commander' has no idea what she's talking about. These troops are sufficiently equipped. Sure, the Powder Gangers have dynamite and some kind of plasma shooters, but they lack the armor and coordination of group tactics. I only remember firing five shots throughout the entire military invasion.

I can't help but lick two of the corpses' necks before salvaging their plasma pistols. One of the soldiers shivers when he sees me doing that, but I merely shrug at his disgust. My concern is currently at my leather armor or lack thereof. The number of holes in it is immeasurable and the stitching is about to come loose.

It falls to the ground like the oversized rag that it is. I sigh.

"You helped a lot today," says Lt Roofs.

"If you say so," I reply with less certainty.

He shuffled around his duffle a bit before presenting some folded material. "Here. This'll replace whatever it was that you were wearing just now. Consider it a 'thank you' gift."

It appears to be a private's set of N.C.R. armor. I'm surprised that they'd give up even the sweat-stained pieces for a small effort like this. But I digress. I accept the gift with open legs.

"It'll take a while, but we'll be sure to have this place up and running again soon," the lieutenant mentions.

"Mm-hm." My mouth is too occupied as I dress myself.

"Sir!" One of the soldiers gallops up to us.

"What is it?" asks Lt Roofs.

"We've captured a live one. He wasn't armed and he didn't even resist."

I lift my head in interest. FRED-E beeps questioningly.

"May I speak to this colt?"

Everypony - and robot - looks at me in surprise. Even I can't believe those words came out of my mouth.

"Well, I don't know," says the soldier hesitantly. "Civilians aren't exactly allowed to interfere with N.C.R. interrogation."

"I see," I mutter as I trot away.

"Let her talk to him."

I turn around.

"Sir?" asks the private colt.

"Protocol's been a bit sketchy over the years," says Lt Roofs, "That rule discourages civilian interference. It doesn't strictly forbid it. Besides, she's clearly involved with this operation now. It's the least we can do in return."

The other colt sighs. "All right, follow me... What was your name again?"

"Call me Forte," I respond.

"Right," he says, "This way."

I am impressed with the walls that are still standing. Surely four or five explosions from dynamite would take out any support. But no, the worst damage that I can see are some termite holes and yellow mold buildups. Although, I do sidestep to avoid stepping in a small mound of green goop that I can't identify. One of the troops' helmets is on top of it. Truly, things are becoming surreal to my mind.

"He's in here," says my escort, "If it seems like there's a tussle, I'm going to have to shoot somepony. Nothing personal."

"I understand," I reply with a nod. The gate closes behind me as I turn to face the willing prisoner. He seems well-kept, all things considered. He wears a black stetson and he's even got a blue button-down shirt. I always figured that orange was the color of inmates, but that might just be the amnesia talking.

"So, what are you in for?" I ask.

"I took justice into my own hooves one too many times," answers the colt.

"Oh?" I prompt.

"Yeah." He nods. "I used to be a sheriff of another town. Having books to work with is good and all, but I needed to give crime swifter punishment at times. It turned out that the higher-ups didn't appreciate that kind of speedy practice."

His even tone makes me curious. It isn't so much wrong. It feels weird more than anything.

"You don't seem too bummed about being in jail," I comment.

He shrugs. "I broke a law. I'm willing to do hard time. Frankly, I'm just happy to see that the N.C.R. finally got off their lazy flanks and did something around here. Those Powder Gangers had no idea how to run this place. Though, that doesn't say much about their lucky pot shots. How did they manage get your horn like that?"

"Eh-heh." I smile nervously as I scratch my neck. "I'm still working on figuring that out myself."

FRED-E chirps up.

"That... well, maybe," I mutter before turning back to the colt. "Say, I don't think we were properly introduced. I'm Forte Pianissimo."

"Sayer Star," he says.

"This may seem like a weird question, but would you be interested in taking up sheriff duties again?"

Sayer blinks in surprise. "I might. What did you have in mind?"

"Proper Town's sheriff was recently killed and they need a new one as soon as possible," I explain, "and their current Deputy is a bit of a tail-pisser. Plus, I don't think the N.C.R. are going to do much about protecting a town right next to their camp if it takes a stray alicorn's word just to recover their own correctional facility. What do you say?"

"Hmm, you make a strong argument," he admits, "however, I can only take the job after a few conditions are met."

My sprite-bot beeps questioningly.

"What would those be?" I ask.

"I need to know that I'm not going to be thrown back into jail as soon as I start working," Sayer explains, "If you can convince the N.C.R. to officially pardon me, I'll gladly step up as Proper's sheriff."

"That's... reasonable enough, I guess." I tap my chin lightly before turning back toward the cell gate. "I guess I'll come back and tell you when I've gotten that pardon."

"It's been a pleasure, Forte," he says.

The gate opens up as I step out. It gets shut behind me automatically.

"Do you know where I can apply for a prisoner's pardon?" I ask the private.

"Well, the closest place I can think of for something like that would be the Outpost south of here. It's marked by a giant statue. You can't miss it."

"Another road trip, huh?" I ask more to myself than anything else. "Pack your cyber-bags, FRED-E. We're going for a long flight."

FRED-E beeps sporadically and what sounds like an electronic temper.

"Flipping Tartarus, why didn't they invent you with a humor module or something?"


Ch. 6: The Empire Approaches

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The Empire Approaches

"No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself."



I give my wings a bit of a workout and fly along the road. It saves me the effort of wasting ammunition on the colony of ants that I can see below. Though for some reason, FRED-E keeps playing a short tune that sounds like the background for a battle cry. Every once in a while, he fires a large red laser at an ant or two. This results in the ants catching fire and burning to death.

What a useful servant, I think with a smirk before returning my line of sight forward.

That's when an odd object takes my notice. I fly in close before trotting out my landing. The object in question is rather large, dry, and pale all over. Sure, that describes a lot of things in this land, but this one is more so.

My sole servant, no.... My ally beeps with confused pitches.

"I'm not entirely sure," I say as I slowly step around the object's side. "But it looks like... a dragon skeleton."

FRED-E beeps a different pattern.

I shake my head. "I don't know why or how. I'm not an archaeologist."

A slower, somewhat forced chirping emits from the sprite-bot.

"Probably." I tap one of the dangling wing bones just to be sure. "Yeah, it's safe."

A crackling noise starts emitting from the skeleton. There is a raging inferno that engulfs the entire skeletal structure. I'm wondering how bones can catch on fire at a completely random time. As I'm wondering, I'm left stupefied as a stream of curled light funnels straight out of the bones into... me. The growling voices in my head return, but with more clarity.

Life is a resource that this one must seek if this one is to survive the hunt.

The light and flames fade as the pile of bones return to their unmoving state. This barely registers to me, however, as I inhale deeply and close my eyes. A firm, yet quiet whisper escapes my lips.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

I open my eyes and scan my surroundings. A strange, red splotch shines around FRED-E. Back up the road, I see a few other red splotches. They kind of look like the outlines of giant ants, but they're very far away. I blink a couple of times and the red splotches fade.

FRED-E asks something in his code.

"Y-Yeah," I stammer, "I'm okay. Actually, I feel somewhat better if that's possible." I unfurl my wings. "Come on. We've wasted enough time playing with bones."

I hear indignation in the sprite-bot's tone.

"Okay, I wasted enough time playing with bones." I take to the sky. "What are a few details?"

It beeps exactly three emphasized syllables.

"What do you mean 'everything'?"


That private wasn't kidding when he said that you can't miss it, I think, Those are some huge statues.

I can't exactly determine of what material these things are made, but the intended shapes are apparent enough. Standing atop the mountain on the side of the road are three giants. An earth pony holds her left hoof in. A pegasus has her right wing extended. A unicorn bows her head so that her horn touches both of the others' extended limbs. I land several feet away simply because I'm scared that these giants may decide to move. So imagine my surprise when that isn't what makes me jump up a yard.

"Coming from the north?"

I pat my chest a little while I wait for my stiff wings to calm down. I let out a breath before looking at the speaker directly. It's a mare with a few wrinkles on her head. Though, I can't tell if those are from age or from stress. Maybe they are both. Either way, her outfit matches the standard style of a New Canterlot soldier. She eyes me a bit more closely and warily.

"Alicorn, huh?" Her left eye keys in above my head for an extended moment. "Well, I doubt you'll be able to cause much trouble without that fancy, long horn you NMMs are supposed to have."

My wings finally calm down enough to fold to the sides. Now my only physically obvious emotion is confusion.

"Excuse you?" I tilt my head at her statement.

She shakes her head before switching to a sad smile. "Sorry, dear. I guess the freshly fangled speech has changed again since my youth. Did you get lost from your Unity thing?"

I still have no idea what she's talking about. I stare at FRED-E for a moment before turning back to this old mare.

"Er... I'm actually trying to reach Outpost on business regarding Proper Town," I say.

"Is that right?" she asks. "Well, I can't say for sure what kind of help Command can send." She points over to one of the buildings behind a chain-link fence. "You'd have to talk to Major or Jack-As-Son. Just mind your manners and you should be fine."

"Yeah, I probably will," I say, "By the way, what's up with those giant pony statues?"

"What, them?" She glances over at the statues in question. "A while back, they were built as a reminder of what the E.U.P. Guard stood for." She slowly shakes her head.

"What did the E.U.P. Guard stand for?" I ask.

"The bond between earth, unicorn, and pegasus ponies." She sighs. "But those girls aren't doing much except their paperweight routine these days."

"Right," I agree half-heartedly. I slowly step away. "Well, I won't interrupt whatever you were doing any longer. I need to speak with Major."

"Stay out of trouble, youngin." With that, she resumes an almost mechanical trot in what seems to be a circular path.

"'Enemems'... 'Unity'... What in the world are those things?" I mutter.

FRED-E makes a few quiet beeps.

"I don't know. Why am I asking you all of this?"

I trot past a couple of burning barrels. They smell like garbage. Another soldier on his rounds performs a double-take in my direction before resuming his trotting pattern. I assume the building with a few sandbags piled about three feet away from its entrance is the one I need to find.

A high Strength stat enables you to carry more weight without being encumbered.

More armored ponies are scattered around the place. A few are pacing around, but they hardly bat an eye at my entrance. Maybe I look like I belong with this basic N.C.R. barding. I suppose this makes my task easier though. I trot right on up to the front desk.

"Excuse me," I address the colt standing on the other side. "Is there any chance I could speak to a guy named Major?"

"I'm Major," says the colt. "Do you need something repaired? I can sign the work order if you've got the caps."

I shake my head. "Maybe later. Right now, I'm here on behalf of Proper Town. They're in need of a new sheriff and I found a suitable replacement. I just need the N.C.R. to give an official pardon for a Mr. Sayer Star from the correctional facility."

"A convict?" Major gives a quick succession of surprised and angry faces. "Why the hell would we want to let one of those guys anywhere near a position of authority?"

FRED-E chirps wildly.

I harshly whisper to it, "Put that thing away."

I sheepishly scan around at the soldiers that have gained a sudden interest in our conversation. I chuckle nervously before forcing out a cough. I turn back to look at Major as calmly as I can.

"Look buddy, you want the N.C.R. to look good, right?" I suggest. "Well, what would look better than an ex-sheriff that has successfully been corrected by an operating correctional facility? It sure would look a lot better for you lot than for word to spread that you lost that facility to convicts for several days on end. Wouldn't it? Give him a chance at least."

Major begrudgingly grunts. "All right. If his sentence was closing up anyway, I can appeal to getting him pardoned. Proper is an important trading point to us anyway. Having somepony there that owes us a favor wouldn't hurt."

Sweet Amore Cadenza, I'm glad that worked, I think. "Good, I'll let him know the next time I can speak with him." I hum lightly. "So, what's there to do around here?"

"Outpost mostly acts as a checkpoint for caravans," explains Major, "It'll also act as one more line of defense if the Empire gets antsy enough to march this far west. If you need a rest and a hard drink, there's a bar outside, second entrance on your right. Like I said before, I take care of the work orders when troops need weapons repaired. Jack-As-Son is in the back if you need him, but make sure to keep it brief. He's got a lot on his mind and very little time to lay it all out."

A busybody, I think, I probably won't even try to bother him right this second. If Commander was any type of gauge, he'll probably just give that whole 'lack of proper supplies' line a couple of uses.

"Very well," I say with a nod. "Good day, Major."

"Watch yourself out there," he says before returning to the writing and administration work.

I turn around and trot for the door.

Party-Time Mint-Als give a tremendous boost in charisma and intelligence when consumed. But they carry a high risk of addiction and leave the consumer with decreased perception and a foggier mental awareness when they wear off.

"All right, little floating man," I say, "What the flipping Tartarus was that all about?"

FRED-E beeps a sporadic pattern.

"Yeah, well the worst thing he could've done was announce an arrest. You need to learn the difference between self-defense and force that's uncalled for!"

The sprite-bot chirps very quietly.

I press a hoof against my face. What the hell am I doing?

I take a breath and set my hoof down. "Look, I'm sorry for yelling. I do appreciate you helping out this far. Really, I do."

It beeps in a bit more uplifting way.

"Right, I guess we need to head back to Proper and let them know about their change in management."

Before I can take a step, FRED-E pipes in another round of little sounds.

"You have a better idea?" I look at it with skepticism.

It almost sounds like it laughs inside of its own beeping.

"A record function?" I ask. "Hm... yeah. That does sound better. Divide and conquer to cover more ground."

FRED-E chirps slightly before a crackling noise emits from its speaker.

"Is it on now?" I ask before clearing my throat. "Sayer Star? This is Forte Pianissimo. I met with the guy in charge of Outpost and he agreed to pardon you. You're free to take up sheriff duties at Proper. Be nice to the law-abiding locals, okay? I may visit you later when I feel like it. Moderately well wishes to you! End recording."

Another crackle leaves FRED-E's speaker before he chirps a couple syllables.

"Well, I'm not going to give him my best wishes. I've got to save something for me. Head out to Proper and deliver that message. After that, meet me back here. Intuition tells me that I'm going to get involved in recovering some pony's medicine or something equally as tedious that keeps me around this area."

The sprite-bot lets out an affirmative beep before floating on its way back north. Meanwhile, I trot on toward another building in this location.

Hmm, I wonder who is even in the bar at this hour, I think while closing my eyes.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

I open my lids to see about four red blobs blinking from behind the walls of the alleged bar. Only one of them seems to emit a shape that resembles four standing legs.

Three customers and the bartender? I guess. Well, it is the time after a typical lunch break.

My hoof pauses in front of the door. How do I know that? I thought I had amnesia. I sigh. Great, it's selective. Eh, maybe a loose tongue can help me figure out more about myself.

Warning: Alcoholic beverages do not improve a 'dehydrated' condition.

"What'll it be?" asks the bartender as she leans against the counter. Her eyes aren't even looking in my direction. Is that a layer of crust along the sockets? I shake my head to distract myself from the slightly grotesque image.

"That depends on what you have," I answer.

She sighs as she levitates a small clipboard in front of me. "Take a look."

A few scribbled items cover the one sheet of paper attached to this board. It seems that this bar is strapped for caps if this is all they can spare for a legible menu. I figure it is time to help them out a little.

"One ale, please," I decide.

The bartender still doesn't look at me as the menu gets snatched away. That light orange aura lifts a glass bottle and carries it around her head. Another glow of the same aura lifts a small tool next to the bottle's top. The cap pops off into the bartender's pocket as the bottle is set down in front of me. I shuffle my bags a bit before hoofing over the price to pay for the drink. If it weren't for the glow surrounding her horn, I would've thought she was a talking statue.

I gently hold the bottle and tip a couple of sips into my gullet. It tastes like wet bread. Again, I question the specifics of my amnesia-plagued mind. Though, I doubt this mare who seems more emotionless than a rock can give me any answers. So I say nothing, opting to exhale instead.

"Does it offend you?"

It takes me a few seconds to realize that the monotone voice is addressing me again.

"Does what offend me?"

"Me using magic in front of you," she clarifies. "You've got some working in your head, but your horn is in no condition to be channeling any of it freely."

My eyes go wide. I feel a sudden urge to start rubbing a hoof against my stub. Though, I quickly set my hoof down against the counter.

"What makes you say that?" I ask carefully.

"'How do you know that?' That's what you meant to ask. Isn't it?" She shrugs on her non-leaning side. "You're stupefied right now as to how I can know something that I haven't even seen yet."

The drink sits against my hoof, forgotten in the moment.

"Before you get too worried, know that I can't read your mind," she further explains. "I can sense magical potential in any unicorn pony that gets close to me. It felt like the space that should have been occupied by recent magical use was completely gone. I find it highly unlikely that you're a protester against your own creation. Therefore, the reasonable conclusion is that your horn is actually missing from your head due to circumstances outside of your control."

I blink. "That's... That's... Wow."

"Not really," she drones. "Try living with it for ten or more years and it loses its novelty."

"What is that ability called?" I inquire further. "ESP for magic?"

"Do I look like a kid? I don't go naming my feelings some over-the-top name. It's the same reason you don't give a name to every individual breath of air you inhale."

Well, I guess I wasn't going to leave a tip anyway, I think while gulping down more wet bread.

"If you want to talk to somepony else, go have a word with Host," the bartender says, "That rooftop sniper can talk until your head rolls so far around the world that it'll come back to your neck before she's done."

"A sniper," I echo. "Are you sure that a head rolling won't happen in the old-fashioned way?"

"Unlikely," she says, "Even out of hatred, she won't shoot anypony in a New Canterlot Republic's outfit."

I lean back slightly. "How did you know I was wearing an N.C.R. garment?"

"Because you just told me," she answers without looking at me.

I sigh. Flipping Tartarus! I flew right into that one.

Aside from a moderately exciting game of what looks like Caravan by the other customers, the rest of my moment of drinking continues in silence.

Your "three tips per chapter" limit has expired. This inconvenience is a necessary boundary. Thank you for your understanding.

"FRED-E isn't back yet," I mutter while spreading my wings. "I guess I wasn't in there for very long."

With about three flaps, I'm high enough to reach the rooftop without trouble. I touch down and trot on over to the one pony sitting next to a propped rifle with scope. I am grateful that it is pointing far into the distance as opposed to my direction. But it looks like her Stetson is preventing her from noticing anything behind her.

"You are Host, correct?" I ask.

The alleged sniper turns around to reveal a face with sunglasses.

"That's right," she admits openly. "And who might you be?"

"Forte," I reply with a nod.

"Nice to befriend you," she says.

"Huh?" I can't help but blurt. "Don't you mean 'make your acquaintance'?"

She waves a hoof dismissively. "Ah, why go through that formal crap? Heck, if you want, we could go straight for the 'I do's."

"W-What?" I stammer, suddenly uncomfortable with this conversation. "I'm not... interested..."

But Host is busy chuckling to herself. "Sorry, just a little joke of mine. But I tell you, the reactions I get are hilarious."

Are Pot and Host related somehow? I silently wonder. They both have a sense of humor that I don't get.

I shake my head. "Anything exciting happening up here?"

Host's mouth suddenly scrunches up in contemplation. "I don't know if 'exciting' is the right word. It's more of an... uneasy turn of events."

"Oh?" I prod for her to continue.

She turns around to face the direction of her rifle. She holds up a hoof and points it straight in front of herself.

"You see that there column of smoke in the distance?"

I look in her signaled direction. I can distinctly see a gray cloud sort of just hanging there, very far away.

"That wasn't there until about two days ago," Host continues. "I want to go check it out." She turns to face me again. "Problem is that Jack-As-Son would get on my case if I left my station. The way he runs things, he'd find grounds to discharge me even if I came back with Taller-Than-Us's head."

"Taller-Than-Who?" I ask.

"The big stallion of the Imperials?" she asks in a way that makes it seem like it's obvious.

"Oh, right, them," I say, though not completely clear.

"Anyway," she continues, "I don't really have a lot to offer. But if you could take a look around that town and figure out the cause of that smoke, I'd be willing to put in a good word for you with the N.C.R."

"No offense," I say, "but nice words aren't exactly motivating me to go firefighting."

She coughs and covers her mouth. "I might also accidentally drop some of my sniper rounds for a finder-keeper."

"Hmm." The potential to 'find' tangible goods is a little more enticing. "Suddenly, I feel like I could use a good word with these ponies."

"Great," she says, "As soon as you can find some clues, get back to me on that. Although, if it's being caused by a dragon or something, don't go killing yourself on my behalf."

I roll my eyes. "Trust me when I say that the last thing I want to hear from ponies is that I died because I was possessed by the strong feelings of a Host."

A slight breeze blows a tumbleweed down along the ground two stories below.

"I don't get it," says Host.


I fly lower as I head back down the mountain. Following the trail of smoke is pretty simple. I put a couple big geckos out of their misery via knife slits. Other than that, I keep on moving briskly. As the smoke gets even closer, I decide to land and keep a relative trotting speed. If there are ponies making campfires or a bonfire out here, I feel the need to keep as low a profile as I possibly can. The road is a strange shade of blue as I approach the town. I struggle to stash my armor into a folded state to keep it in my saddlebag. Whoever thinks patches of gold and bronze are stealthy does not know how to keep protection hidden.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

My whisper fills my eyes with a couple random patches of red. One of these patches appears to be getting larger or getting closer to me.

Strap! They already saw me! I frantically reach around and pull out the first weapon I can. I focus my aim at the incoming redness.

*Blat!* *Blat!* *Blat!*

I blink a couple times at the peculiar greenness in my shots. I quickly realize that I just fired one of the plasma pistols. Idly, I pull the trigger again but nothing emerges. It's empty and I don't even have the right magazines to reload the thing. I sigh and toss the now useless thing aside. Cautiously, I approach the... Something isn't right here.

"Where's the body?" I quietly ask to smoky air.

The only thing at the place of the enemy's corpse is a mound of green... goop. I slowly lift my hoof out of it.

"Oh..." I purse my lips. "I wish I hadn't touched that." I watch the stretching material form an artificial channel between my hoof and the road. "Oh gosh, it's like somepony mixed gum with molasses and then let it rot in a puddle of their snot." I hastily rub my hoof against the nearby cracks in the asphalt. "Ew. Ew. Ew."

Of all the bloody, gory messes you've seen this week, this is what you're grossed out by.

Shut up! This is a different kind of disgusting.

... Of course it is.

I don't particularly like how sarcastic my own mind can be toward me sometimes. I shiver involuntarily as I head for a random building's door. I need a moment to regain my nerves. I really hope no one is in here.


There's some colt in here. Worse still, I recognize his basic uniform as a group that an army and I slaughtered.

“Are you flipping spitting me?” His eyes widen before lowering to a livid glare. “First, those mother feathers smash three of my legs and then the freaking Grim Reaper of Powder Gangers comes waltzing right in! If you want me to die so badly, just give me fifteen shots of Med-X and I’ll O.D. for you. Tsuaf!”

I'm really not in the mood for having an argument over right and wrong. Unfortunately, I probably need to talk to somepony about what started the fire. Would I rather face a pony that can't get up or face an unknown number of enemies of unknown strength? The choice is obvious as Monarch takes the lead of my voice.

"Tell me what happened."

Wow, that is surprisingly calm for you.

Shut up and listen.

"Hmph," the colt grunts. "The Empire happened. That's what."

"Can you be more specific and detailed?" I ask.

"If you wouldn't interrupt, I could," he remarks.

I nearly bite my tongue just to keep the inner monarch quiet.

"We had a whole great plan going," the colt continues. "We held some of Catnip's townsfolk and even their mayor hostage. There was new territory and everything. Well, out of nowhere, Imperials started marching in and outnumbered us. Before we knew it, karma had turned around and clumped us together with the townsfolk as hostages."

He waves his one good hoof (the front left one) around while he talks.

"Then they lined everypony up and called out a lottery. They started with the lucky losers. I say 'lucky' because their executions were quick and painless. Then, they moved onto crucifixions, but they dragged those out for hours and hours."

Crucifixions? I wonder, You mean like hammering nails into a pony's legs, horns, and wings just to make them suffer until death?

How... inefficient, Monarch silently critiques.

"Second place let me live but at the cost of them whacking a giant mallet against my legs. That bastard that stole first place got to walk away free."

"So... the Imperials annexed Catnip," I say slowly. "Can anything beat them?"

"You wouldn't be doing me any favors," comments the cripple.

I stare deadpanned. "That isn't what I asked." I sigh. "I suppose I have a Med-X that I can offer to help stave off the pain."

"Well then, you're a f***ing miracle worker," he states sardonically. "Cough it up."

"Hey, I'm doing things nicely here," I say as I attach the needle to the bag. "I could still end your pain via metal, but I'm choosing to conserve ammunition. Cost-benefit and whatnot."

The medicine enters his system and some of his stress reduces to a disappointed state of calmness. He closes his eyes. His chest rises and falls in a series of deep breaths.

"I think I'm done here," I say more to myself than to this colt.


After slowly trotting the streets, I find the largest source of smoke. It seems that broken pony skeletons are arranged in a giant circumference around a bonfire. I grow bored and head in the direction of what seems to be the largest building.

Really? Nothing?

Nothing more can be done for the dead.

My own reassurance does nothing to quell my unease at what I see next. Several ponies are hung against what look like telephone poles. Some of them are even twitching slightly. If there is life here, then it is in pain. Perhaps I can fly up and at least try to pry out the nails.

As soon as the thought crosses my mind, however, I see a small group composed of ponies and feral wolves. Their armor has a lot of shades of brown and red. Is it leather? While my thoughts wonder what to do, one of the stallions wanders close. His hide is rather pale and large goggles block his eyes from my sight.

"So good that a traveler happened to come by," he says smoothly, "You can bear witness to the aftermath of our demonstration."

"I take it you're the ones that did all of this." I slowly wave a hoof across to indicate the crucified ponies and the bonfire.

"Why yes, yes we are." His small smile, I don't like it. "This town was one filled with many sinners. They needed to be shown through example what was wrong with their lives. It was almost unpleasant at how few were foolish enough to fight us."

"What about the innocent civilians and children?" I ask.

"Innocent?" he echoes. "Hardly. Ponies were advancing and taking advantage of their own. It was time to deliver a proper punishment. We announced a lottery to divide the appropriate sentences. Each held their ticket for dear life, hoping it would set them free. None advanced to oppose, not even for loved ones. Then, we took the rest as slaves."

They probably couldn't oppose because of the wing-chains and magic dampeners I saw on some of those ponies. I hide my fuming anger behind a cold, indifferent facade. Rupee Carbuncle said that these guys don't use modern weapons. I casually slide one hoof through my right saddlebag. I should be able to blast at least a couple of them before they have the chance to rush me with machetes.

I swiftly swing out K.R. At that point, I'll be able to just fly-


In the instant that I think of all that, something rushes past the left of my head. My eyes go wide as I turn slightly. In the corner of my vision, I see a spear that wasn't there before and it's embedded in a cross. Something red trickles down underneath my left ear and around that side of my head. I turn back to see one of the Imperials holding out his hoof as if finishing a shot put throw.

"Would you be so kind as to tell everyone what you saw here?" asks the leading stallion. "It would be a shame if no pony learned from our little lesson."

These are fast bastards, I think while lowering my eyebrows back to Monarch's comfort level.

"Yeah," I say through clenched teeth, "I'll do that."

"Good, good," he coos, "Then I bid you adieu."

He joins the rest of his men and dogs in a line as they trot off to somewhere else. For several minutes, I just let Monarch stare at them to ensure that none of them are going to pull any fast ones. Thankfully, they leave no trace. A quick whisper of red lets me see that the only ones alive are a few of the hanging ponies along the street.

I quickly fly up to the first live one on my right. I'm not worried about the health of my jaws while pulling out nails. I already have a number of tastes that would give a dentist nightmares. The first stallion limps away from his cross. He doesn't even moan from his pain. The second one is less willing to exercise his right of silence. There is a giant hole in his horn, yet he seems more focused on his tail.

When I pull out the nails of what I think is the last one here among the living, he falls to the ground on his belly and face. He doesn't move and I can't hear his breath.

Flipping Tartarus, he died right this second.

"Man, Host is not going to believe this."

Aura Whisper: Three words of power enable you to see targets that are alive and within about five hundred feet of you for about thirty seconds. It is up to you to decide who is ally or enemy. The auras can be removed from your sight early if you blink them out twice.

"It is but a scratch": What? No, this isn't a new perk. You have a little scratch underneath your ear. You might want to get that cleaned up at your earliest convenience.

Ch. 7: The Bane of My Existence

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The Bane of My Existence

"Are the people you meet to play a part in your destiny, or do you exist just to play in theirs?"



"The Empire's already at Catnip?" asks Host. "I don't believe it."

I'm back in my basic N.C.R. armor and carrying the news regarding Catnip in my mind. I don't really know what to feel right now. Host's tail flicks while she tries to think of what she's going to say next. Meanwhile, I find a bottle of water that looks like a cloud of dust is swimming in it. I'm not really in the mood for parchment, but I do take the time to rub some of the dusty liquid against the left side of my face. For some reason, I recall being informed that dirt is supposed to be good for small wounds. Honestly, why can't I control the type of information I remember?

"Well, thanks for going over and taking a look," says Host as she idly runs a hoof against the rim of her hat. "I wish I could say that my mind was more at ease, but I guess knowing the new situation is important too."

She turns around toward her scoped rifle and slides open the small hatch for a reload. She deliberately grabs at least ten of the rounds meant for such a gun even though only one can fit in at any given time. All of them go over the side of the roof.

"Oops, I seem to have accidentally dropped some of my ammo." She glances in my direction every time she elongates a word. "I hope no pony tries to pick them up, because those are definitely not a reward for a request."

I can't help but chuckle a bit. "If any Imperials come this way, knock 'em dead."

"Like I needed you to tell me that?" Host holds a steady gaze in parallel to the north where her gun is facing.

Meanwhile, I flutter my wings so I can gently descend to the ground. For the next minute or so, I stuff the scattered sniper rounds into my pocket for miscellaneous ammunition. The bleeding against the left side of my head has long ago stopped and all that's physically detectable is a thin scab. I hear some familiar beeping and look up.

"Hey, FRED-E!" I call out. "How was Proper? Did you find Sayer Star okay? What did he say?"

The sprite-bot tweets in affirmation. There's a bit of a clicking noise coming in stereo as a stallion's voice comes through FRED-E's audio.

"Much obliged for the pardon, Forte," says the voice of Sayer Star, "The boys and I are all ready to keep Proper safe and secure. If you ever get the chance, drop by for a visit. I'll put some extra drinks on Deputy's tab for you. End record."

The recording stops with another round of clicks.

"Wait, what did he mean by 'the boys'?" I tilt my head in confusion. "There wasn't any pony else involved with the deal." I shake my head. "You know what? I really don't care. I did my part and got Proper Town a sheriff. If he wants to crumble the fan-tipping buildings, then let him demolish whatever he wants."

FRED-E spouts a strained pattern of chirps and beeps.

I trot around him. "Tartarus if I know, but maybe I'm just too jaded by what I saw while you were gone. Crucified ponies and crippled Powder Gangers were not on my Hearth's Warming Eve list."

The floating robot lets out two off-pitch chirps.

My trotting slows down considerably. "I... don't know what holiday that is." I growl quietly and knock a hoof against the right side of my head a couple of times. "Amnesia's such a shady pit to crawl out of." I briskly trot toward the bar doors. "I'm going to try drinking ale again. See if I say anything else that can piece together what I know deep down."

FRED-E slowly beeps as he floats off to the side of me.

"No, but I wasn't sure while I put you together either," I reply, "Look at how well you're still functioning."

He lets out a high beep followed quickly by a low beep.


I sit down with my head on top of the counter. The wooden stools just don't seem that appealing right now. While the bartender doesn't look like she notices me, she does levitate the menu in my direction.

"What'll it be?" she asks, still bored as ever.

"Huh..." I simultaneously mutter and sigh. "Let me try the 'Mossy Mind Mulch' this time."

"Your funeral." She magically pulls the menu away. Various cups and cylinders float through the air behind her. Some ice and liquids of a couple unidentifiable colors pour through. They make the noise of ice shaking as the two halves are held together just underneath the ceiling's height.

Idly, I turn and see somepony that's not in the N.C.R. outfit. It looks more like a brown leather jacket, actually. Her expression seems relatively neutral, about how I feel right now.

"Come here often?" I ask rhetorically.

"Looking to start a fight?" she asks sharply.

I react by raising my head off the counter. "What? No! I just thought I'd try to converse."

"Well, I'm not here to talk," she says, "I'm here to forget." She sighs. "But right now, the whiskey's making my temper boil instead."

I hold off about one second before I ask, "Did you get your horn blown off by shotgun pellets too?"

"F*** no, I'm an earth pony," she says curtly. "Always have been, always will be. I'm not letting any of you magic types change that core of my life."

I tactfully remain silent for the next few seconds. FRED-E floats closer, but I wave him off. The sound of ice stops shaking and the cup of 'mulch' is slid in front of me. While the bartender remains completely emotionless, the other mare sighs.

"Simmer down, Cast," Ms. Leather Jacket mutters just barely loud enough to make my ear flick. "No pony's asked you to do nothing today."

"Is there... anything I can do to help?" my mouth asks before I realize what I'm saying. "Uh... Cast?"

"Not unless you can convince Jack-As-Sun to let me go anywhere," Cast replies, albeit more gently than before. "My caravan's gone, but the stupid papers are keeping me here. Jack-As-Sun says the road isn't safe. No s***, *ssh*t. The swarms of raiders and giant bugs weren't exactly fine-teeth details."

"And here I thought I was having a rough day," I comment, "Sure, I got to knock a few convicts' heads in a prison raid, but then I had to stroll through Catnip and watch Imperials use crosses as some form of modern art."

"Really?" She half-smiled. "Drinks on me, then."

"Wait, seriously?" I quickly blink twice.

"Yeah," she says while lifting her shot glass. "To having life throw s*** at our faces and living to tell about it!"

"All right!" I holler back as I lift my own drink. The cups let out a clink briefly before Cast downs her contents. Feeling slightly better at this new acquaintanceship, I pour the somewhat tangy 'mulch' down in my lower jaw.
Note: Stimpaks and healing potions alone will not properly restore the condition of a broken limb. Use a medical bag or seek a doctor for full treatment.


It's rather dark. Why can't I feel my everything?

A loud battle theme blasts through the darkness.

"Sweet Amore Cadenza! I'm awake! I'm up!" I yell as I trip over my own hooves. "Ow."

I look around and see my sprite-bot. He's chirping a lot more than usual. He stops briefly as I wobbly stand up on all fours.

"FRED-E, what's going o-?" There's a sudden pounding hitting from within my head. "Gah! Fan-flipping Tartarus! Why does my head hurt so much?"

Something sparks around inside of FRED-E's audio box.

"This is a hangover?" I echo his statement. "Ergh... why did I think drinking more alcohol was a good idea?"

Blearily, I look around myself as much as possible. Despite all the odds, I'm inside what looks like an abandoned workshop. There are a few uneven shelves with tools scattered everywhere. Behind me, there's a makeshift flatbed. It has an ugly brown stain as well as what appears to be a slightly more recent yellow one.

All the while, FRED-E is still chirping and beeping at a rapid-fire pace.

"Wait, I said what while I was drunk?"

He repeats the last bit of the beeped pattern.

I tilt my head. "'Carve the horn to a knife.' I... don't get it." I rub the painful part of my head idly. "Did I say anything else?"

The tweeting pattern is interspersed with a few audible sparks, but I don't see any light jumping out of him. I think he's fine.

"Something about 'integrity' and... a kind something else?" None of this is making any sense. "What in the world happened to me before that shotgun-filled day?"

A certain leather jacket flashes in my mind's eye.

"Hold on. What happened to Cast?" I ask. "Th-That drunkard that was with me at the bar?"

A slower pattern of clicks and chirps passes from FRED-E's speaker.

"I left the bar spouting gibberish after she passed her caps to the bartender?"

He chirps the affirmative.

"Well, spit," I mutter, "That probably gave off the impression that I was ungrateful."

The sprite-bot beeps another pattern, almost sounding concerned.

I sigh. "Yeah, I guess we might as well get going. I've probably already wasted enough minutes on that unconscious gallop out of the bar." I trot over to the door on the far side of the workshop room. "Where are we anyway?"


"Oh, hell no," I mutter as the door swings shut behind me.

This is one burned street that I would rather forget. The bonfire is still alight across the bones and flesh of locals and convicts alike. I cough against a few clouds of smoke that blow past me.

"Why'd it have to be Catnip?" I ask.

I hear FRED-E letting out a few beeps from somewhere, but he isn't obvious. My ear twitches slightly, almost pointing back to the door. I trot over and open it a tad. The sprite-bot pushes his way out to float next to me. There seems to be a hint of irritation in his next squeaks.

"Well, most doors don't automatically close behind me without some kind of device," I insist. "Anyway, we're at a landmark in the easterly direction. Might as well see where it leads."

FRED-E's set of noises starts with a chirp and ends with several beeps.

"No, I'm going by hoof for now," I say as I start trotting around the giant fireplace. "I don't want to saturate myself with more hot smoke than I need to."



"Well, I certainly didn't need this!"

Some unseen enemies are throwing sticks of dynamite over this path of rocks. I can't waste time bucking them all away from me, so I settle for galloping. FRED-E seems to take the hint and speeds up his forward floating to keep up. The Powder Gangers' main hangout is wiped clean. Why are there still explosion-happy reminders of them chasing me? Briefly, I close my eyes mid-gallop.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

Well, there's at least ten on each side, I observe, and they're all scattered. So even if I do manage to hover over and take out two or three, the rest can gang up on my blind spots. I blink the red auras out of my eyes. It's best if I keep running.

*Beep! Beep! Beep!*

That's not FRED-E, I think with eyes wide.

I jump as hard as I can. I feel the explosion lick my back right leg. The blast's tongue feels like it is made of duct tape even though I know that it's a land mine.

"Augh!" I exclaim, "Amore Plucking Cadenza!"

Is there any proper way to describe leg pain? I think I once tried to back in Proper Town, but I'm blanking out on an accurate description because my leg is hurting like crazy! As a sort of compensation, I extend my wings out to hold my shaky three-legged balance. I turn my head to see FRED-E shooting some laser blasts as we withdraw from whoever has claim on this rocky area.

I'm not sure how much further we actually travel. By the time we stop hearing dynamite and land mines, the high rocks are about hoof-sized specks in the distance. I breathe heavily as I stop and shuffle through my saddlebags. There's a stimpak available and I jam it into the leg. I wince at the intrusive metal, but I think the bleeding should hold off for a while. I just hope the next available stop we make has a doctor or at least a how-to guide for proper limb treatment.

FRED-E comments in a slow pattern.

"Yes, I know my leg looks terrible," I respond, "Don't state the obvious."

FRED-E adds a few more pitches.

"Unless you've got the right doctor's equipment hidden in your mechanical slots, I'm not interested in your kind of help. Now come along."

Thankfully, the metal sprite stops beeping.


Standing in front of a giant, fake animal makes me almost forget about my leg trauma. Its head is too large to be that of a dragon's, but its limbs look a tad too large for a common lizard's. I really don't know what to make of it. There's really only one thing I can say.

"That is the second biggest unmoving monster I have ever seen."

FRED-E chirps an agreement.

There is a smaller building a few feet away. It kind of resembles a cheap bed-without-breakfast place. With wings still extended, I hobble on over toward the door. Maybe someone here can tell me where a medical amateur is. Asking for a medical expert is probably too high of an expectation anywhere. Even Doctor Prickard has his faults in the field. Why should anypony around here be any different?
Note: Damaging an enemy's crippled body part enough times will immediately drain the rest of his/her body's health even if it makes no sense.

"Well hello, dearie," greets a mare with a mane that's going gray. "You're new here, aren't you?"

"How'd you guess?" I ask.

"Vacuum is a small village," she replies, "Almost everypony knows everypony else around here and I'm not familiar with your face."

"I guess we're even," I say, "because I don't know you either."

"Oh goodness, where are my manners?" She laughs sheepishly. "I'm Bay Crawdad."

"Forte Pianissimo." I nod before my leg reminds me how much pain it is in. I swear the pain somehow sends a shock that runs up my whole spine. "Sorry to pry, but you wouldn't happen to know where a doctor is, would you?"

"That would probably be Add-A-Stress," says Bay, "If you go out the door and head to the first building on your right, you can usually find her standing next to the mailbox with her two bodyguards. Don't worry about their intimidating looks. They're actually quite nice gentlecolts when you get to know them."

"Okay, soft-sided bodyguards, got it," I say my mental note out loud.

"Although, I'd be more careful around Add-A," she says in a suddenly less gentle tone. "You didn't hear it from me, but she sometimes mixes up her professions."

I blink in confusion. "What are her other professions?"

"Oh, they're nothing too severe in this day and age," comments Bay, "Butcher, merchant, chem-dealer..." She coughs. "Sorry, must have gotten dust in my throat."

"Uh... okay..." I answer with no clue how to feel. "Thanks for the fair warning."

"Anytime, Ms. Piani." Her gentle tone returns.

Is the cure worse than the problem? I think as I take my leave.


Seeing some armored colts surprisingly makes me feel relieved. Maybe the N.C.R. doesn't have to be the sole protector of this wasteland we call home. I ask FRED-E to let me do the talking. I think he chirps that he will comply, but I might be bad at paraphrasing. I trot somewhat wobbly over to the mare in a bloody straw hat. I can see what Bay meant by "butcher".

"Are you Add-A-Stress?" I ask.

She looks up. "Yeah, that's me. What seems to be the problem?"

"I was hoping you could figure that out and fix it for me." I turn to show my back leg in its messed up glory.

"Sure, I could do that," says Add-A, "I mean, what are the odds of me botching up a routine procedure twice in one day?"

Alarm bells go off in my head. "Uh... How many have you done today?"

"None so far," she says while smiling.

There is a long, awkward pause aside from the cough I hear from one of the bodyguards.

"Half upfront, half upon completion," Add-A speaks up.

"Huh?" My daze is broken. "Oh, right... here." I hoof over the first half of the caps that she is charging.

"You may want to close your eyes for this part."

I look at her strangely. "Why?"

"It seems to help the rest of my patients feel better for whatever reason," she answers.

Feeling no better about her choice of cryptic words, I reluctantly comply as I hold my head up high and close my eyes. I hear a few drops of liquid, a saw, and a few other indistinguishable noises. FRED-E isn't freaking out, so I guess that I'm not in immediate danger from this shaky physician. Still, what is she doing this whole time that I'm not allowed to look at?

"And... done."

I open my eyes and turn toward the leg that doesn't feel any different. However, I do notice a bit of bandaging and a lack of explosion marks along the rest of the leg. I slowly set it down on the ground. It doesn't feel numb or in pain. It feels about the same as the rest of my legs. I shuffle around my bags.

"Here," I present the rest of the caps for the fee.

"Thanks, I hope to see you again soon," Add-A says gladly.

Is she trying to woo me or is she wishing more pain to fall upon me? I worry in silence. I clear my throat. "I was told that you're also a merchant and I'm in need of some medical supplies."

"And I need sterile equipment, but let's see what I've got anyway."

As she heads inside to presumably search for wares, I lean toward one of the armored colts and whisper, "Has she always been this strange?"

"Pretty much, yeah," admits the colt to whom I spoke directly.

"It's been over a month and I still haven't gotten paid yet," says the other colt, "Should I be worried?"

Tartarus if I know, I think while shrugging.


My ability to apply quick healing fixes in the middle of nowhere is now back to par with what I had the day I left Fondsprings. Translation: I have healing potions and stimpaks again. I do kind of worry when that doctor/merchant slips a small, metal tin along with my actual purchase. I give the tin back, of course, insisting that I did not ask for such a thing. She looks almost disappointed. But I digress.

I trot back to the hotel, much more comfortably on all fours. FRED-E is oddly quiet after these last few minutes. I briefly wonder if I need to give the order for him to talk again. Then I decide against it, telling myself that an intelligent artificial intelligence can figure it out by himself. I rent a room from Crawdad and ask about Vacuum.

"So what's there to do around here?"

"Well, there's always the gift shop in the big statue of Wingless over there," Bay answers, "It's good for attracting tourists. Other than a few ghouls coming from outside the edge of town, it's a pretty quiet village."

"Wait, ghouls?" I ask with an eyebrow raised in skepticism.

"Oh, but don't worry about that," says the innkeeper, "Our sniper up in Wingless' mouth keeps a good eye on any trouble that might come from that direction."

My eyes widen. "There's a sniper between those jaws?"

"Oh, yes," she answers, "Just be careful if you decide to talk to him. He's in a bit of a grumpy mood."

"Not sure why grumpiness deserves any more caution than ghouls," I comment.

"Well, I probably shouldn't talk," Bay says, "but poor Mr. Baane lost his wife about a month back. It's become a button that ponies in Vacuum try to avoid pushing."

"All... right then," I say slowly, "Thanks again."

"No, thank you, Ms. Piani," she says, "Talking with a new passerby is a lovely break from the norm."

Why does she call me that? I wonder as I step out of the lobby. Rupee Carbuncle called me that too. If they need a shorter name, they can just call me Forte. I shake my head. Whatever, I can't think about this stuff when I'm sleepy.


"There's a five percent chance that you'll blow up."

"Yes, the horn shall become the weapon that slays their false messiah."

"Do you really think I'd ever let you go?"

"Take this as a learning opportunity."

"Sweetie, come back!"


"Don't go!" I sit up in an instant. My breathing is rapid and vocal for a few seconds. It is about this time that I remember coming into the rented room and literally fell asleep.

I think FRED-E asks me what the matter is in his own language.

"I... think it was dream," I say while holding a hoof against my head just above my eyes. I sigh. "I don't even know what was happening."

The light from outside the window looks discolored, as the light of a street lamp. I guess the night isn't over. I grab my dagger in sheathe and wrap the belt around myself. I also grab K.R. in its holster while I'm at it. To these actions, FRED-E beeps wildly.

"Basic protection. You never know when a stray giant moth or gecko will try and get a free midnight snack."

The sprite-bot beeps again with a slightly different pattern.

"Because the armor would probably wake up the locals. An alicorn is suspicious enough as is. I don't need 'potentially armed robber' added to their reasons to distrust me especially after I just traded with a shady drug dealer and/or quack doctor."

He chirps one more question.

"Yes, it does sound ridiculous. I'm going to go see that sniper up close. Feel free to come along with me if you want."

With that, I step out the door and head for the foot of Wingless.
Note: You lack a trusty canteen. Perhaps this is for the best. This personal container somehow forces its way to the owner's mouth, especially when it is most inappropriate to take a drink.

The gift shop door is a bit of a tight squeeze on my way in. FRED-E kindly shoves me three times to get through. I wince at the wing pain, though it doesn't feel desperate enough to need Dr. Stress. I am half-expecting some kind of security to come into this little shop and throw me out, but there isn't even a tripwire alarm.

Not that it really matters, I think to myself, I don't want a hundred little toys that look like really tiny and less rusty copies of the not-dragon statue. My eyes find an upward staircase. Let's see what's in the attic.

The walls on either side of this staircase threaten to crush my wings, even though I folded them. Not to mention, every single one of my hoof steps makes the stairs creak. When I finally get to the door, somepony else on the other side yanks it open. He appears to be a red unicorn. His attire consists of a blue beret and sunglasses.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asks.

"I'm... uh..." I struggle to figure out an answer. "I'm... exploring the nooks and crannies of Vacuum? Heh."

"Uh-huh," he says flatly. Even without seeing his eyes, I can tell that he's skeptical. "I think you'd better leave."

I sigh. "Okay." I tentatively lower my back leg to the next step down.

"Wait," the stallion interrupts, "maybe not. Maybe you should stay."

I'm surprised I don't trip with how suddenly I stop my backward crawl. "Huh?"

"You're that new pony that walked in earlier, aren't you?" he asks. "That means you're a stranger. It would be a start at least."

"A start of what exactly?" I ask while my wing involuntarily scratches the wall to my left.

"Where'd you get that armor that you were wearing earlier tonight?" he questions further.

Hmph, rude much? Monarch thinks.

"It was a gift for helping the N.C.R. clear out a correctional facility of the base of Powder Gangers," I reply.

He turns his head to the side for a moment. He mutters, "So, they're actually doing some s*** now?" He turns back to face me. "If you can convince New Canterlot soldiers to move, maybe you could help me."

"With what?" I dare to ask.

"My wife was supposedly captured by Empire Imperials," he says, "but I know better. Somepony in this very town sold her out under the table."

"Prostitution?" I hazard a guess.

"Probably that too, but most likely as a slave," he corrects me.

"So, you want me to find that Imperial, kill him, and bring back your wife?" I propose.

"Charcola is dead," he says without hesitation.

I blink in surprise. "How can you be so sure?"

"I know, all right?" Eyebrows scrunch just barely above his sunglasses. "I want you to find the bastard that sold her out and bring them to me."

My expression turns deadpan. "Do I look like a detective to you?"

"Like I said, you're a stranger," he restates, "That's a start. Every pony that's a local is suspicious. I'm willing to take a slightly higher chance on someone unfamiliar with the incident. Figure things out from a neutral perspective."

"How can I be neutral?" I ask. "As far as I can tell, I've been anything but neutral with over half the crud I dealt with during this week alone."

He takes a long pause. FRED-E chirps something from downstairs, but I can't make it out.

The stallion finally says, "I'll give you five hundred caps if you take this job."

This time, I take a long pause. Has this guy been spying on my money pouch too?

"Do you want him stabbed or decapitated?" Monarch decides to speak for me.

He shakes his head. "Bring him out in front of this wingless dragon so that I can deal with him. Also, take my beret. Put it on and that will be our signal to show that you're standing next to the right guy."

A tan magical aura surrounds his horn and cap as he levitates the fancy headgear in my direction. Slowly, I take the blue hat by hoof and stow it in my non-ammunition saddlebag.

"I doubt they're going to just admit to doing it," I mention to him. "What should I look for in particular?"

"Dig for details in any way that you can," he says, "Small scraps of physical evidence might be inside ponies' typical hangouts."

I nod once. "I'm Forte Pianissimo by the way."

"Ragic Baane," he responds. "It's probably best if we don't speak again until after this task is done."

"Understood," I say.

As I start climbing down the stairs, Baane turns around to the not-dragon's mouth. I catch a glimpse of the green cross-hair target on his flank. FRED-E's sparking about something, but I have to get going. I have a slave trader to bust.

-You have gained a positive reputation with certain members of the New Canterlot Republic. They are more likely to trust you with specific tasks.

Ch. 8: Pull Out of Retirement

View Online

Pull Out of Retirement

"It's always too soon to quit." ~Norman


I'm about twelve steps away from Wingless before I realize that I have no idea where to start looking for the bastard that sold out Mrs. Baane. I guess I could try to ask ponies around town. But would anyone be willing to say anything beyond grunting and turning over in their bed at this hour? I'm not so sure. While I'm wondering how to go about this impromptu investigation, I find myself trotting aimlessly left and right around tents and really worn houses.

FRED-E chatters his audio quickly and quietly.

"Huh?" I look up to where his speaker is facing. "Oh, well look at that."

It appears to be a herd of cattle. All of the double-headed cows seem to be napping while standing. There isn't anything unusual here. Er, scratch that. I find something out of the ordinary and trot toward it.

"Hello," I mutter, "What happened to you?"

This particular cow is down on its side. One spot of its hide looks like it was tenderized by something spiky. Though, the marks look uneven and crudely applied as if the pony responsible didn't know what she was doing. There's a slight pool of blood that looks like it's had time to dry.

FRED-E lets out a few strained beeps of concern.

"Movement?" I perk up and look around. Though, I don't see anything other than cows. "Hmm." I close my eyes.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

I take a quick look around. I still see nothing other than the red auras of the dairy animals, FRED-E, and that huge red blob coming closer at an alarming rate.

"Flipping Tartarus! What's that?!" I can't help but shout as I flap my wings and back away as quickly as possible.

In less than a second, K.R. is in my grasp and popping half a round into this giant.

*Pow* *Pow* *Pow*

Whatever was keeping this entity invisible disperses just before my aura vision fades. It's some kind of giant blue monster with a makeshift sledgehammer. FRED-E plays some clip of battle horns while firing laser shots at the newly revealed enemy. The giant either isn't phased or flat out doesn't care about the burning energy because he keeps charging in my direction. I fly about ten feet higher just before he swings across where I was standing.

*Pow* *Pow* *Pow* *Click* *Click*

K.R. is empty, but at least the giant can't hit me up here. He somehow places his sledgehammer in a way that it can rest on his back. He then proceeds to pull out a larger weapon in both front hooves.

My left eye involuntarily twitches. "How does one pony carry a mini-gun?"

I quickly fly around in an unplanned pattern of loops. All the while, it sounds like a jackhammer in bullet form is ringing in my ears. I want to just get in and knife him, but if I let even a little of that bullet swarm hit my sides, it's going to take more than Doctor Prickard and Add-A-Stress combined to put me back together. His aiming is slower than his running speed, but just barely.

I hear a few more laser shots eat the air. The giant lifts his hoof to his face in pain. It looks like FRED-E hit his eyes. I dive in with my dagger in grasp. The first pass draws blood, but it feels like my knife was repelled by his skin. I spin around and slice his neck again. There's still some bouncing off. He wildly flails his front hoof around and I spin around his reach for two more passes. On the fourth strike, it feels less like bouncing and more like penetration.

The giant falls forward, blood spilling out like a small fountain. FRED-E fires another laser shot at the open neck for good measure. Somehow, this sets the giant's head on fire.

"I think we got him," I say between breaths.

FRED-E rambles a bunch of beeps very rapidly.

"I have no flipping clue what that was," I admit. "I mean it kind of looks like Saddle Rager if she took blue potion steroids, but I really don't know."

FRED-E clicks his speaker three times.

"Spotty memory really sucks," I say in resignation and sigh.

I trot around this monster's corpse and examine his weapons of choice, specifically the sledgehammer.

A cinder block with three long metal rods stuck into it? I think while blinking in confusion. Well, now I can see what made those uneven marks on that cow from earlier. I reach out toward the mini-gun with one hoof. As soon as contact is made, however, the pieces of metal fall apart into an unusable pile of parts. Sweet Cadenza, this thing has seen a lot of use in such a short time. I wonder how old it is? I take a look around and see a shack in the distance with a light still on. I should probably let somepony know about the giant blue thing that attacked.

Without another word, I'm off and galloping.
Note: Big guns fall apart faster in the hooves of an alicorn, so no rocket launchers for you.

The door slides shut behind me. I find myself a bit preoccupied by the mannequin holding up a rifle fairly close to eye level in my direction. Slowly, I wander to the side and around the makeshift wall of sandbags on the floor. There's an old, twitching stallion in the back. It looks like he's wearing a sack with holes in it for a shirt. Sweat and dirt marks are layered all over the thing.

In the firefly lit night, he slowly cranes his neck up to see me. At least, I think he sees me. His pupils seem to be growing and shrinking more rapidly than should be possible for any pony. I open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off with a rapid hoof wave.

"Don't need to tell me," he says all quietly, "I can see it in your eyes. You've seen that chupacabra too."

"Chipper-what?" I ask.

"They didn't believe me." He shivers as he talks. "No pony believed All-Bite when he told them, but it's true. It's all true."

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," I say while patting my neckerchief slightly. "Not until I know what 'all' you're talking about." I try to contemplate parts of what he just said. "Is All-Bite your name? Why is that?"

"Because everything I ever say has bite to it," he explains, "even if there's no bark in the words."

"Uh-huh," I say while FRED-E floats up beside me. "Well, as long as I'm here, mind if I ask you a few questions regarding Baane's wife?"

"I saw rat-ponies," he whispers, "They were going through the safe behind the motel's lobby desk... or maybe they were just going in to use the toilet. Mighty interesting either way."

I slowly say, "Rrrright."

"Stay out of that rocket factory outside of town if you know what's good for you," he says, "Ghouls and goblins will take you down into their green pits of purgatory, unless you blink them out of existence."

I turn around and trot toward the door. I half-heartedly say, "I'll get right on that."

"If anyone asks, we never spoke!" he hollers.


FRED-E finally decides to beep up.

"Not much," I admit, "Though, considering how nasty some of the wildlife gets, rat-ponies sound pretty tame." I trot back up the street. "That All-Bite fellow did mention somepony going to a safe behind the lobby desk. It's oddly specific enough to be worth looking into."

My sprite-bot buddy chirps and twitters.

"Legal?" I echo. "Hell if I know. I vaguely recall some parchment that once outlined how killing jerks was illegal, but that hasn't stopped the Powder Gangers, the N.C.R., the Empire, or me. Why would looking through private savings come back to bite me? It's not like there's some Equestrian deity taking away karma points every time I screw up."

FRED-E clicks a few times.

"I'm more concerned with how I'm going to sneak past Bay Crawdad. Something about her strikes me as a twenty-four/seven hawk-owl."


I look around the motionless lobby, save for the old two-bladed fan hanging from the ceiling.

"Or not." I trot around the desk without any interruption. "Isn't there supposed to be someone on active duty at all hours in case of potential travelers? Granted, she said that tourists hardly ever came by, but that's no reason to be lax on basic motel procedure." I step on a slightly higher section of floor than I am expecting. I look down to see a black door with a combination lock. "Ah, here it is." I stare at it for about five seconds. "How am I going to get into this? I don't know the combination or have a key."

FRED-E beeps a suggestion.

"Bobby pins?" I raise my eyebrow at him. "Do I look like the kind of girl that cares about keeping her mane out of her face?"

Another series of different beeps is produced.

"Force the lock?" I squint at him. "At least that last one made sense for a certain group of ponies. That doesn't even begin to make sense. Are you saying I could just take the lock against my hoof...?" I hover my hoof just to the right of the lock's protrusion. "... smack it hard enough, and just watch the door open by itself? That's-"

The black piece of protection flies to the side. Tumblers click into place. The safe opens to reveal a few cap pouches and a rolled up scroll.

I blink at my unintentional handiwork. I look up at the sprite-bot. "You are the smartest orb of bolts I've ever met."

FRED-E chirps abashedly.

"All right, let's see," I pull out the scroll and hold it open against the floor. "The Empire Imperial Captain Re-Gate hereby accepts the... yada yada... in doing so... yada yada... for the price of seven hundred bottle caps, completes the purchase of the slave..." My eyes widen. "Charcola Baane?... and an additional one hundred for the unborn foal..." I blink several times, but comprehension eludes me. "Understand that you have accepted these non-refundable terms, Ms. Bay Crawdad."

I lift my hoof to back away slightly. Doing so allows the scroll to roll back up to its original state.

"Well, that's all sorts of flipped up," I say.

Sighing, I reach down and place the scroll into my inventory for future reference. Meanwhile, FRED-E beeps in an upper pitch.

"I need to go have a word with the manager," I say darkly.
Note: Depending on your allegiances, lower karma can actually affect your Luck. Though, death seems to be an absolute consequence for any pony that decides to wander the wasteland.

"Do house doors not have locks or something?" I ask as I enter the home of Bay Crawdad. The lack of decor compared to All-Bite's place does little to comfort me as I wander through some empty doorways. Eventually, I find the mare spread out on a sheeted mattress. I'm a little surprised that she waits until just now to get off the bed and look at me.

"Awful late, ain't it?" she asks, "What seems to be the problem?"

Monarch, don't let me down, I think before clearing my throat. "Yeah, I was taking a look around the area when I noticed a really bad spot on the front of Wingless. I'm not entirely sure that it's structurally safe anymore. Could I get a second opinion on it?"

She tilts her head but then nods. "Okay, if you're sure. Let's go take a look."

She grabs her coat and trots out the front door.

Oh, Cadenza, she actually bought that, I marvel a little before following after her. FRED-E isn't too far behind.

"And I already told that Baane fellow to get down to avoid falling with the weight under him," I say as I try to match Crawdad's pace. "I actually managed to have a disgruntled conversation with him. Any idea what's wrong with him?"

"Well, probably everything that would be wrong with a colt that lost his wife," she says, not missing a step.

"Really?" I ask in half-interest. "Tell me more."

"Well, how should I put this?" she keeps talking, "She was... kind of like a cactus flower: real pretty to look at but not in the best position to be properly picked and eaten. You could sort of tell that she was looking forward to leaving Vacuum as soon as she arrived."

"Is that right?" I ask.

FRED-E chirps several things in my ear.

I harshly whisper, "Shut up, I'm doing a thing."

I turn my head back toward Bay and raise my voice. "Why do you think she wanted to leave?" We are almost in front of the non-dragon.

"I don't mean to judge," insists Bay, "but she was a city-pony. She really wanted Ragic to go with her back to a private room in New Pegasus. It was hard for most of the locals to get along with her due to how she wasn't willing to connect with any pony."

"Uh-huh." I wander over to her right. I wonder if this spot is good enough. "Well, I don't know if you can see it from here." On the side of my body that she can't currently see, I slowly pull out a blue beret. "But I wouldn't really want to put off finding a good mechanic before the end of two more days." Nonchalantly, I raise the hat above my head. "Also, I just have to know. Why the name Wingless anyw-?"


A sudden splash of warm liquid against my cheek causes me to open my eyes wide. I turn my head just in time to see a headless mare fall forward onto her knees and then into a bodily heap. A few squeaks escape my throat as FRED-E beeps wildly.

"I wasn't ready," I mutter helplessly. "I still hadn't put it on fully." The beret is now resting loosely on my head. "Baane... that was way too close. You could have taken my head off if that had been an inch wrong."

Bay's blood that splattered on my face trickles down. It squeezes between my lips. I feel my slit irises dilate. I open my mouth with sudden elation. I lean down to the open neck. My tongue greedily laps up some of the liquid iron. My eyes flutter as I grin like an evil idiot. She's delicious.

FRED-E's beeping cuts through the ignorant bliss.

"Huh? What? Who?" I lift my head and start turning rapidly this way and that.

FRED-E gives a few questioning tweets.

"I... don't know." I rub my neckerchief against my cheek. "We should probably go up and talk to Baane now."


Once again, I stand awkwardly in this staircase that feels too narrow for me. FRED-E courteously waits downstairs.

"So, it's done then," Baane says monotonously. "How did you figure out the one?"

I shuffle out the scroll from my saddlebag. "When somepony leaves their signature on a receipt of purchase, it tends to make the trail easier to follow."

Baane grabs both the scroll and his beret in magical fields. As he sets his hat on, he takes a look through the scroll. "Figures that they'd keep paper records of that kind of thing. That's just how sick those bastards are." He stows the scroll away and his magic surrounds another nearby item. "Here, this is all I can give you. I'd say our business is concluded."

I accept the caps, but I am far from 'concluded' with this guy. "How exactly am I supposed to cover something like this up? We just killed a well-known mare. Some pony is going to ask difficult questions."

Baane shrugs. "Ponies die from time to time. Most would rather just forget about it than try to waste resources mourning." I think I see him smile, but the moment is very brief. "Besides, I was on break when it happened."

"Smug bastard," I mutter before clearing my throat. "So, what will you do now that you've gotten your revenge?"

"I'm not entirely sure," he admits. "Maybe I'll wander... like you."

"Like me?" I echo. "I'm not sure that's such a good idea. I tend to have to fix my own leg with less than adequate medical bag supplies." I mull over the gravity of his suggestion. "Besides, snipers don't usually last a long while without orders to cover him." I almost hate to ask. "Would you like to come along with me?"

"That's probably a bad idea," says Baane.

"Oh, okay," I hang my dead down dejectedly.

"Though, the more I think on it... maybe I could use a little company," decides Baane. "But this isn't going to end well." He levitates a suit of heavy leather barding to his worn attire. "Fine, let's go."

"Okay, cool, but where can we go to hide low for a bit?"

FRED-E suddenly sparks dramatically before a loud beep.

"What in Tartarus is a Helium Two?"

-Your "Scavenge-lick" has been promoted to "Collar Bone Blood-gasm". While you still won't loot bodies that you did not personally kill, you will now feel an overwhelming desire to lick the blood of any pony who has lost their head. It'll be harder to resist if their blood splashes right into your mouth. This does not, however, alter your refusal to drink non-pony blood.

Ch. 9: With Electricity and Turrets for All

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With Electricity and Turrets for All

"And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected."



"Okay, that should be everything," I say after reloading K.R. and spinning its chamber.

I manage to wash some of the blood off my face via the sink. I take about a minute to put on my N.C.R. armor. After that, I shuffle together the remainder of my stuff from the motel room. I wish I had a Sparkle Cola right about now. Oh well. Escaping from a town before they figure out who killed the innkeeper takes precedence over pleasure. All set to go, I open the door.

"Thanks for waiting," I say sincerely.

"Yeah," says Baane with a nod.

I turn to the sprite-bot. "Where exactly is this place you suggested?"

FRED-E turns around and beeps an affirmative before floating along at a leisurely pace.


"So Baane," I say as I trot alongside the unicorn. "What did you do before settling in Vacuum?"

"I was in First Recon of the N.C.R.," he replies flatly. "Fanny and I took turns spotting as each other's marksman."

"Fanny?" The name catches me off guard. "Who's that?"

"What, didn't any pony tell you?" he asks. "The daytime sniper in Vacuum was my partner."

My pace slows tremendously. "This is the first time I'm hearing that information."

"Well, you know now," he says.

Up ahead, FRED-E beeps a rapid pattern.

"Y-Yeah! I'm coming!" I holler at him as I quicken my steps.

Baane turns his head toward me. "You actually understand that electronic gibberish?"

"Bits and pieces," I admit, "Though, he might be using a lot more curses than I can mentally translate."

He turns back to the front. "So, what's your story?"

"My horn got shot clean off," I tell him. "According the doctor that patched me up, a securitron actually dragged me into town to save me."

"Hrm." Baane frowns. "Mr. Mansion doesn't usually show interest in fallen alicorns."

"I thought that was weird too," I say in agreement. "So after that, I got some training taking out the feral wildlife, took part in a town defense to help out a caravaneer, rescued Proper Town's Deputy, helped the N.C.R. take back a correctional facility, got them to pardon Proper's new sheriff, witnessed the worst imitation of an olden time torture chamber, and... yeah. That's about it. Oh, and then I fought a blue monster that the local nutcase called a chipper-cobweb or something."

I turn to see Baane slowing down this time. "What was that about a torture chamber?"

"The Empire nailed a bunch of townsfolk and convicts to five-pointed crosses." I spit to the other side. "So yeah, that was 'fun'."

"D**n it," he says as he resumes trotting. "They're even bolder than when I left."

"Yeah, that's the impression the sniper Host had too," I comment.

The only sound that fills the air is hoof steps for the next few seconds.



It's difficult to read his expression. The sun hasn't even begun to rise, yet he still wears those sunglasses. They fit his respectable appearance, but they do little to help an outsider see his eyes, a key part to figuring out a pony's emotion.

"After we're done with whatever that metal ball wants you to do, would you mind doing me a favor?"

I examine Baane carefully, but all I can read is an air of seriousness. "That would depend on the favor in question."

"I know of a few Imperial camps that I never got the time or orders to tackle," he mentions. "I'm not a soldier anymore, so my free time is actually available. I'd appreciate cooperation with tearing them down a few ranks."

My left ear suddenly stings a bit.

That spear passed by my ear so quickly. I didn't even see the guy pulling it out. A faint trickle of blood runs down the side of my face.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd spread the word about what we've done here."

I nearly bite my tongue keeping Monarch from blurting out something I'll regret. These guys may have primitive weaponry, but their reflexes are ludicrously fast. One false move could lead to my death twenty seconds before I feel any pain.

"I'll... think about it," I answer noncommittally. I quickly tap my left ear to make sure it's still there.

"I see," Baane says flatly. He's probably disappointed, but I'm not that eager to tango with bonfire dancers. In any case, I see my little sprite-bot is hovering in place. I consider that fairly strange since he seemed so eager to surge ahead. When I catch up to him, I see the sight. This is certainly a notable landmark in the middle of the wasteland. The front of the building is quite large.

"Excuse me!" hollers a new voice. I return my gaze to eye level to see a mare in N.C.R. armor. Actually, that's not all. A few others in the same outfit are standing around as well. But this one stands forward a step. "This area's not authorized for civ-" Her eyes widen after just a couple steps. "S***. It's an alicorn!" She levitates out a rifle in front of herself. The rest shakily hold up weapons in their hooves and/or mouths.

Oh, great. My frown deepens. It looks like Host's word hasn't gotten this far east yet. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Mr. Sunglasses.

"Play along and let me do the talking," Baane murmurs before stepping in front of me.

This seems to pique the interest of the mare in charge. "Identify yourself!"

"I'm Commander Fanny-Mae," he states, "I'm here for a routine inspection that will now be taking place once every few months. I was told that the lieutenant in charge would brief me on the facility's situation."

Huh? I raise an eyebrow at the same time that FRED-E lets out a questioning bleep.

"Sir, I'm Lt. Fogarty," says the mare as she stows her weapon. The rest of her allies willingly follow suit. "Before I tell you, mind if I ask what you're doing in the company of one of the Unity?"

That's the word that the old mare at Outpost said. I blink in recognition. Though, I scrunch my mouth in thought. What exactly is 'Unity'?

"I've managed to break this one," says Baane, "She'll listen to what I have to say. Won't you, Pianissimo?"

Excuse me, mortal? Monarch boils inside. You will not put me into some box for your slaves.

I mentally, but not physically, slap her. Shut up, he's saving our flank.

"Of course, Master," I gently say with a bow of my head for good display.

Fogarty hums uncertainly, but finally concedes. "Fine. We've managed to procure this facility from the Steel Rangers in hopes of getting some extra power on the grid. If you want to check the progress on that, talk to the idiot with the glasses in the back room."

Baane nods. "Will do. As you were then."

"Sir." Fogarty salutes before trotting to the side.

"Come along, Pianissimo," Baane says as he trots for the door. I give him a nod and follow after him. No pony seems to mind the sprite-bot that happens to be floating in our company.
Note: Fast-traveling may provoke a high-level, random encounter. ... Oh, wait. This is a literary version of New Pegasus. Please disregard that last tip.

The door rises back up and the oversized mechanical knobs spin back into place. There's a little more breathing room without potential friendly fire. I let out a breath I wasn't even aware I was holding.

"You didn't have to call me that," says Baane.

I lift my head up. "What do you mean? I was just following your act to the best of my ability."

"Well, next time... don't lay it on so thick," he says after a pause. "I'm not comfortable hearing that word... especially since Charcola..."

"Didn't quite catch that," I tell him.

"Doesn't your robot have something it wants to find?" Baane asks.

"Oh, right!" I turn to FRED-E. "Which way do we need to go, little guy?"

He beeps a few tones before leaning forward toward a hallway that curves to the right of the entrance. The trotting of eight hooves echoes through the hall that we traverse. Some sandbags appear to be scattered against less than strategic corners of the walls. A couple staircases are crumbled, forcing us to take first-floor paths.

Eventually, we happen across an area that has more room than the corridors. Some rusty shelves line one wall. A couple of old beds are propped against the wall to the left. A few unidentifiable and rusted pieces of furniture are placed haphazardly in here. I take notice of a colt in a lab coat. He is twitching wildly while fiddling with a couple knobs on a machine of sorts at the back end near an empty doorway.

"Stand back, boys," I tell my allies. "I'll handle this." I take a few steps forward and clear my throat. "Excuse me. I'm looking for a guy with 'glasses in the back'. Have you seen him anywhere?"

"Wait, what?!" The colt turns on a dime and looks at me. His front hooves spread out and lay against his console. "They can't do this. Are you here to take my job?"

Briefly, I glance back at Baane and it looks like his beret slides slightly of its own free will. I look back at the colt in white and blink twice. "Uh, maybe? I guess that would depend on what your job is."

"Aw, f***ing s***," he says with spit. "I need this gig. I'm addicted to so many chems and I can't get them with any other occupation."

I'm having trouble processing what I'm hearing from this colt. Is he trying to give ponies free blackmail material to use against him? Huh, I guess that's part of the reason why the lieutenant out front called this guy an idiot.

"Here, take these and you forget all about replacing me," he says while practically shoving a bottle cap pouch into my mouth. "Comprende?"

Uh, okay, I'll take your money, I think as I put the caps away for counting later. "So, what exactly is your job around here?"

His attitude suddenly changes. One minute, he's shaking like a cornered pack of bunnies. The next, he has his chest puffed up and he is smirking like a lion about to eat. Where is this bravado coming from?

"Are you kidding?" he asks, "I'm where the magic happens. I don't need a stinkin' horn to do it. It's all in the t***s that the N.C.R. is sucking while I stand here and enjoy every last second of it."

"You sick bastard," says Baane.

I turn briefly to Baane and wave my hoof near my neck. This isn't the time for a showdown.

"They need power from this place," says the lab-coat colt. "I'm the Charlie horse to get it to them and they know it. The name's Dr. Magnificent because I'm just magnificent enough to cure the AIDS of the blackouts here at Helium Two."

"Fascinating," I say in what I can only assume is obviously fake interest. "How exactly did you get this position?"

"One of them came by my door last month," says Magnificent, "They were looking for someone with a degree in theoretical physics. I told them I had a theoretical degree in physics. They asked how much I knew about electrical power. I said, 'As much as anypony else does'. Now here I am, large and in charge."

None of what he's saying makes any logical sense. Though, Baane was able to trick the soldiers with a fake name. Why wouldn't somepony else be able to pull the wool over with a fake Ph.D.? But I digress.

"Oh, so you're in charge?" I echo. "Then I guess it's safe to say that it's your fault that the power hasn't been working here recently."

The confident smile turns into an annoyed frown. "Hey, don't go putting words in my mouth. You know who's really at fault here? The N.C.R. was stupid enough to trip the alarm on an old security system in the high tower. Now we can't get to the big computer to properly channel power to the New Pegasus Strip and Freewall. I can't make an omelet if the N.C.R. go and lose their eggs."

Baane audibly growls, though I hear FRED-E trying to calm him down with his usual beeping tactic he uses when I'm upset. As of right now, though, I'm only slightly miffed at the idea of Magnificent getting paid to do absolutely nothing productive.

"If we're over easy puns, can you provide any information about getting to the top?" I ask.

Magnificent blinks in surprise. "You're actually thinking about going up there?"

"I suppose I'll have to if no pony else is willing to do it," I say deliberately and loudly. I look around. As I suspect, no one volunteers.

"Well, you're going to have to get the two smaller computers outside to talk to the main computer in the high tower before you throw any switches." Magnificent grabs a slip of paper from his coat pocket. "Here's a password to one of them. I found it written on the bathroom stall. Can you believe that?" He laughs crazily.

"Sadly, yes," I say with a simple nod. "I guess I'll go do that now." I turn for another empty doorway.

"When you turn the power on, be sure to send it to the Strip!" hollers Magnificent, "It's the place it needs to go if I can get the most money for the kilowatt-hours!"

I purposefully don't respond to that. Instead, I motion for Baane and FRED-E to follow me.

"I couldn't help overhearing your little chat in there."

Woah, I think as I involuntarily back up. Where did this stallion in a lab coat come from? I didn't even see him before I came through the doorway.

"Who are you?" he asks.

"I thought it was common courtesy to introduce yourself before asking for a stranger's name," I comment.

"Ah, of course," he nods, "Forgive my discourtesy. I am River Ignitus, a stallion of science. Now it's your turn."

"Forte Pianissimo," I say, "I don't really have devotion for any particular field of study."

"Not just anyone is allowed back here," comments Ignitus. "Are you a soldier or a scientist?"

"I just said I'm not big in any field."

"I only meant leaning interest, not necessarily where you are most experienced."

"Oh." I mull over the thought for a bit. "I guess I could throw my interest at science."

"I'm glad we have at least something in common." Ignitus gently smiles. "I ask because I'm part of the Followers of the Apocalypse. We seek peace and the spread of knowledge that the world needs to maintain."

"Interesting," comments Baane.

"Word of advice," Ignitus continues as if he didn't hear. "Take care with what you do around here. Some things are best left forgotten with the old world."

I raise my eyebrow. "I thought this was a power plant."

"It is in part, but there is evidence of slightly more sinister plans underneath the surface of this facility. Specifically, some of the files that I've uncovered contain plans for weapons that could rival the balefire bombs, to the point of surpassing the destructive power of the Pink Cloud incident."

"You've got to be kidding me," says Baane.

"Most troubling is the name 'Anthemius' that has repeated mentions," says Ignitus, "Whatever it is, I don't wish to see that kind of destructive force fall into the wrong hooves."

"Does anypony else know about this thing?" I ask in concern.

"At the moment, no, they don't." Ignitus shakes his head slowly. "Miraculously, they've hired a complete idiot that will essentially hinder their progress into looking further into the archives. He insisted that the largest machine must be the most important. What he doesn't know is that all his fiddling on that console only affects the intercom. As long as the N.C.R. is preoccupied with getting power, they won't get the time to look for Anthemius."

I hate getting myself involved further in this complicated situation, but tinkering with machinery suddenly sounds like a lot of fun, I think before asking, "Is there any way I can help?"

"You're going up into the tower to adjust the panels for power output, correct?" He grabs a slip of paper from his pocket. "This is one of the passwords you'll need to log on to the two external computers before activating the main computer."

I wince as I hold the paper against my hoof. "Please tell me you didn't find this on the bathroom stall."

He strategically ignores the comment and says, "I'd advise sending the power evenly throughout the local areas. If you only give it to the thriving areas such as the Strip, it won't go where it is really needed and will further separate the classes. I realize that I can't control where you ultimately decide to send the power, but I implore you not to send the power to the weapon Anthemius."

"I'll keep that in mind," I say as I turn around. "Goodbye!"

"Farewell, Pianissimo." Ignitus goes back and observes some items that look disinteresting to me.

"By the way, Baane," I say, "You used to be tight with the N.C.R. You're not going to blab about me not doing exactly what they wanted Magnificent to do, right?"

Baane looks at me flatly. "What do you mean? They just want more power for the Strip. They didn't specify how much more they wanted."

I chuckle. "Smart*ss."

"Yeah." A slight grin appears and vanishes within the same second.


There are more soldiers out this way. Just as a precaution, Baane takes the lead again. I almost hear Monarch screaming on the inside against such a humiliating position. Regardless of her discomfort, Baane, FRED-E and I make our way over to one of the gated-off terminals. I hear some dogs barking up a storm.

"Eat this!" Baane shouts as he takes a couple of potshots. I pull out my varmint rifle, but FRED-E's laser sets the third dog on fire before I can get a shot in otherwise.

"Are you sure we won't get in trouble for killing N.C.R. guard dogs?" I ask.

"No," answers Baane.

I sigh. "Figures. Let's see if this password works."

I trot over to the computer, stepping around the dogs' corpses. I run into a most awkward problem with the computer. Each time I try to tap a single key, three or four stars appear in the password box on the screen. The only thing I can successfully tap on its own is "Backspace".

I smile sheepishly and turn to my companions. "A little help, guys?"

Baane sighs, shakes his head, and trots over next to me. As I state each letter and number, his horn glows and his aura pushes the corresponding key. Eventually, the system's menu shows up. The command reads, "Interact With Panel Mainframe". I ask Baane to go ahead and press "Enter". The bottom of the screen now reads, "Awaiting secondary interface..."

"Time for the other one," I say.

"This isn't my field of expertise," comments Baane, "I'm a sniper, not a d**n secretary."

"After this, I'll help you find and shoot as many Empire Imperials as your heart is content with," I offer, "It'll be that favor you wanted."

"Hmph," Baane grunts. "Fine."

We head across the way from some beds out in the open. The second monitor is guarded not by gates and dogs, but by what appear to be bear traps and a land mine. I wonder if I should be worried that all of these bizarre circumstances seem normal to me. Right now, it all seems uncomfortably surreal. I get a little air via wing flaps and bypass the less than subtle traps.

Oh, good. This is one of those two-button pads, I think, Let's see... entering the password in Morse should look like... this. After several short taps on the right and long taps on the left, the monitor shows a fairly similar menu to the first terminal. The interaction option is already highlighted, so I tap the button on the right. The screen reads, "External interface confirmed. Awaiting primary command..."

"All right, to the tower!" I exclaim.

FRED-E beeps excitedly as we make our way to the backside of the facility.
Note: As a pony, you cannot breathe fire with your dragon powers. Don't be ridiculous, Forte.

"What's around corner number one?" I ask rhetorically as I take a peek. The answer comes in a strange whirring noise before several bullets whizz past my head. I pull back against the first wall. "Who the hay was firing? I didn't see anyone."

FRED-E answers with a string of beeps.

I blink. "What's an automatic turret?"

"Basically a machine gun that can fire itself," says Baane, "Have you seriously never dealt with one?"

"I can safely say I haven't until today," I reply. "Any ideas on how to deal with them, 'Commander Fanny-Mae'?"

"You're never going to drop that, are you?" He sighs and hums a bit. "Take 'em out as quickly as possible. Then, take a bunch of healing potions."

This time, I sigh. Is there really no way to go about this without getting hurt? I pull out K.R. and lean tightly against the wall. I hop out of cover and fire in the direction from where that turret's bullets originated. The continuous bullet swarm rhythm is interrupted several times by this revolver's kickback. I see an explosion while I keel over at the pain in my back legs. I think the little firefight clipped some feathers off my left side too.

"Agah... ah..." I moan as I try to breathe and pull out my little red bottles. Three get drained quickly of their contents before getting tossed to the side. "Flipping Tartarus."

"You sure you didn't want to pull out some of those bullets from your legs first?" asks Baane.

"You're the only one here with magical force powers, Baane," I say in disgruntlement. "Instead of telling me, try acting upon your instincts."

His head snaps toward the open hall ahead. He levitates out a knife and gallops forth. "You're mine!"

"Wait, no!" I holler as I stand up. The potions close the immediate damage in my legs. "I didn't mean charge ahead alone!"

"I need a bigger caliber," he remarks as he backs away from a rolling metal thing.

"That's because you're using a knife!" I shout the obvious. Suddenly, reddish plumes fill the stairwell. "Oh snap!" I yank out a random weapon, accidentally displacing some sniper rounds that I forgot about. "FRED-E, a little help would be nice!"

The sprite-bot thankfully fires three laser shots at the approaching flamethrower. I pull the trigger on my own weapon. A sudden re-run of Catnip plays in my mind as I watch a couple green shots launch at the enemy. The inferno stops as a few sparks fly from the red-zone robot. It falls over in an unmoving heap. I stow the plasma pistol away.

With the fire and bullets halted for the time being, I pull out K.R. again and reload its chamber. "What kind of sniper charges in blindly at the enemy without an appropriate cover for retreating?"

"I'm not a soldier anymore," says Baane as he puts his knife away.

"Yeah, but you still have eyes and a brain, don't you?" I sigh. "Never mind. We should keep moving."

The advance is silent save for the clanging of steps against the metal catwalk.


This trio finds itself on an elevator going up. I look around the dust and metal that surround us.

"Have you found what you're looking for yet?" I ask FRED-E.

The sprite-bot beeps a negative.

"Darn it, what in the world does a self-powered robot want that could be in a power plant?"

He beeps a long passage of short and long noises.

"Can you believe this guy?" I turn and ask Baane. He seems lost in his own world. I wave a hoof in front of his face. "Hello? You in there?"

"Huh? Yeah, huh... I guess not," he mutters.

"What is going on with you?" I look at him incredulously. "As soon as we came into this tower, you've been asking the impossible..."

"Throw a grenade!" Baane shouts.

"I don't have one of those!" I shout as three robots close on our position.

"... doing your impression of a suicide bomber..."

"Laas... Yah Nir." Through the walls, I can see two more robots ahead.

Baane hops around the corner and gallops. "Oh my!"

"Baane, what are you doing? Get back here!"

"... and zoning out when I ask simple questions."

"Huh," I marvel at one of the downed bots. "Have you ever seen a literal brain in a jar before?" I don't get a response. "Baane?"

"Oh, right. That's nasty," he says randomly.

I crane my neck down so that I can look up at the guy. "What's the matter, Ragic?"

He sighs. "Every minute we waste in here leaves another minute for the Empire to lay siege on the ponies of New Canterlot. The sooner we can get back to dealing with Imperials, the sooner we can come to an understanding."

I lean back and lift my head back up. "O...kay, I suppose that's one way to have post-traumatic stress disorder."

The elevator door chooses this moment to open up. This room is large and has a staircase bending a few ways up. Further ahead appears to be a large, flashing box with another computer monitor sticking out of it. To the right of this box, there's a long wire coil that leads to a generator of sorts. There is smoke coming out of the coil.

"I'm no computer scientist, but I'm pretty sure a burned wire isn't good," I say. I trot over and try pressing the monitor's power button. Nothing happens. "Crap, it doesn't have an internal battery. I don't suppose either of you have a spare power cord, do you?"

"No," Baane answers immediately.

FRED-E chirps a suggestion.

"A repair bot upstairs?" I echo. I look up. "I guess it's worth a shot." I spread my wings and fly up to the top floor. "Let's see..." I look around and see a bunch of busted robotics equipment. There's also a cracked mug next to a ruined desk. In one corner, a certain robot hangs by its center core. I'm surprised that this one doesn't have any rust on it. "Now, how am I going to get this working?" I look around the flexible limbs, but I don't see any buttons that can be pressed. So, I politely and firmly tap the thing. "Wake up!"

The service bot jumps upon touch and starts floating about half and inch off the floor. I hear a slight whirring noise as it quickly glides around me and follows the staircase. I thought these things were supposed to be clunky and slow, but this one is as fast as a galloping pony.

"Hey, wait up!" I call as I flutter down the open space.

As I land on the floor, I see the awoken bot wiggling its appendages around the smoky wire and the generator. This barely covers two seconds worth of time before it promptly curls up into its sleeping sphere position. There isn't any smoke coming from the wire anymore. When I trot closer to see why, I notice a lot of gray adhesive.

"Duct tape?" I observe out loud.

Baane shrugs one shoulder. I quickly shake my head before trying the monitor again. This time, it powers on and reveals a keyboard. The monitor has a few options on its menu. One of them reads, "Output Configuration". Unconventionally, I pull out my dagger and gently tap the small keys. I kind of want to avoid bothering Mr. PTSD currently standing to the side. I select the "Full Region" option. Doing so brings up a warning that reads, "Warning: Brownouts likely." I shrug as I step back from the monitor. FRED-E suddenly floats very close to the computer.

"Oh, you find something?" I ask.

He chirps a few times.

"Fine, just don't mess with the configured settings," I request before turning to the quiet unicorn. "Let's head on up, Baane."

"All right," he agrees, trotting up the stairwell as I opt to fly up again.
Note: You can trade items with your companions, but pack mules will come to resent you.

The sun is on its way into the sky. I whistle. "I didn't realize we had been in there so long."

After trotting along the single railed catwalk along the very outside of Helium Two, I find myself in front of a small lever console. I push the lever before stepping back. I vaguely remember hearing that solar panels can get very bright during the readjustment. So, I briefly slide my neckerchief over my eyes. I hear a deep ringing noise and the red cloth brightens up considerably over my eyes. It takes about a minute before the shining light dims and the buzzing noise lowers to a bearable tone. By that point, I lower my neckerchief to see the solar panels down on the ground are at different angles than where they started.

"Ever think that a red cloth acts like a big target for enemies to aim?" asks Baane.

"Funny," I say as I trot back toward the door. "I was going to ask the same thing about your bright blue hat."

To that, Baane simply grunts.
-It appears that your companion Ragic Baane has issues that will interrupt his cognitive thought processes when fighting non-Imperials or non-animals.
-No new perks are granted at this time.

Ch. 10: Holdbeck Faith

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Holdbeck Faith

"Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe."



"Hey, I'm back," I say, "I got the power running."

"Ah, yes," Ignitus replies, "and you sent it to the full region. Very commendable." He grabs a couple of printed magazines and a small bag. "While I'm not obligated, I'd still like to give you physical evidence that your effort is appreciated."

"Oh, uh, thank you," I say, hoofing the items into my bags. "I wasn't expecting compensation. Although, now I'm wondering, what will you do now?"

"I must remain here and keep the Anthemius out of N.C.R.'s reach," he explains, "However, if you'd like to continue to support the Followers of the Apocalypse, there are peacekeepers in various locations such as the medical clinic just outside of Camp McCarry-On as well as our base of operations just inside Freewall."

"That may or may not actually happen," I say with a half-frown. "I'd rather not commit to any strange religio- er, I mean any particular faction until I know exactly what kind of enemies I'm going to make by doing so."

"Fair enough." Ignitus nods sagely. "Goodbye."

I turn to Baane before we get to the vertical sliding door. "It's your lead again, Master."

He growls quietly. "I told you not to call me that."

"Sorry." I rub my neckerchief sheepishly. "Oh, before I forget, you could probably use these more than me." I shuffle around my ammunition and pull out eight rounds for a sniper rifle. I swear Host gave me more than that, but I shrug when I can't find anymore.

He shows his acceptance of the bullets via levitation. "All right."

"Anyway, earlier you said you knew a couple of Empire camps you wanted to wipe out."

His smile gives an appearing and vanishing act within the same second. "Yeah, there are a couple of places I've got in mind."
Note: Companions will automatically fire against certain enemies. Choose the ponies that follow you carefully.

Flying while above the top of a hill, I can see some reddish-brown tents and a flag or two waving with the symbol of a flying serpent. According to the information I vaguely recall from Rupee Carbuncle and what Baane said, this is an Empire Raid camp. If I understand what Baane said correctly, these Imperials are expecting Stormcloaks to rain in after the N.C.R. is driven away from the dam. He says he doesn't give much stock into the myth of cloaks and storms. I'm inclined to agree since there isn't a substantial cloud in the sky today and the closest thing to a cloak on anybody is heavy leather armor.

I fly back down to my allies at the bottom of the hill. "I see at least five Imperials standing around. There's also a couple other ponies that look tied up."

"All right, here's the plan," says Baane, "You and the cyber-parasprite go in and draw their attention. I'll head to the top of the hill and take 'em out one by one."

FRED-E takes exception to Baane's nickname for him.

"Simmer down, Frederick," I say while waving a hoof near him. "Let the colt have his moment."

The sprite-bot sparks and beeps with a lighter, but still offended tone. Meanwhile, Baane trots as quietly as he can to the hill's top. His rifle is floating and ready. Without another word, I take to the sky. FRED-E follows at a lower altitude. When my shadow hits a flag, he lets out his traditional war tune. While he's busy wildly firing lasers and Baane fires an audible shot, K.R. rises into my grasp.

*Bzzrt* *Bzzrt* *Bam* *Pow* *Pow* *Pow*

Three of the Imperial-armored ponies fall unmoving. Another one grabs a spear. In an instant, it vanishes from his hoof. I feel a stinging pain in my left wing. I turn to see what the matter is. It's being weighed down by the spear point driven through it.

"Well, that's not gooooood!" I land hard on my side. I grit my teeth as I hold up K.R.

*Pow* *Bzzrt* *Bam* *Pow* *Bzzrt*

The last two Imperials collapse. I holster K.R. before reaching a hoof to my wing.

"Don't pull that out!" warns Baane as he gallops down toward me. His warning falls on ignorant ears as I yank out the spear. I see blood carry several feathers away. "What did I just tell you?"

"Flipping Tartarus." I exhale harshly. "I used up all of my potions at Helium Two."

"Well, a bit of concentrated radiation should fix you up right quick," suggests a new voice.

I whirl my head around to one of the tied hostages. "What? Concentrated radiation is toxic and lethal to ponies."

He shakes his head. "Not your kind, alicorn. I've seen wounds heal up faster than magically possible on an ugly green one. Sure, one of the other guys took that thing down by shoving a stick of dynamite up its *sshole, but that's beside the point."

I scoff in spite of the trickling blood to my left. "Okay first of all, that's completely ludicrous. Second, there's nothing highly radiated anywhere near here. Even if what you're saying is true, it's completely useless info in this situation."

FRED-E beeps a pattern.

I blink and turn toward him. "Well, yeah, I have a plasma pistol with a shot in it. But... I'm not going to shoot my own wing on the slim chance that it would actually have a healing effect. I'm more apt to shoot the wing off with the sheer force of impact."

"Hmm," Baane hums. "Let me see that plasma pistol."

"Don't you go shooting my wing!" I take a step back.

"No, I have a different idea," he says. "Let me see it."

I sigh. "All right, but I still have doubts about this train of thought." I pull out the weird gun that creates piles of goo. Baane holds it in his magic and aims it downward.


The dirt that he shot looks like a big, shiny circle releasing a lot of fumes. "Stand on that spot for a bit. If you feel sick, you can get off and we'll try... I don't know, a piece of Imperial tarp as a temporary bandage or something."

"Fine," I say while taking steps forward. "But I don't think this w-... Whoa..."

What is this feeling surging through my leg? Whatever it is, it's already crawling along my torso now. I can feel it climbing my neck, my wings, and even a little bit of it tickling my tail. At this very moment, I feel no urge to move, let alone vomit. This is actually quite exhilarating. Our eyes focus forward as our lips curl up into a smirk. I shake my head and quickly step back. I blink twice and purse my lips.

"W...What was that?" I mutter. I hear FRED-E chirping something. "Huh?" I turn to see that my wing is in fact better. There's no sign of a blood wound anywhere. It even looks like it has healthier feathers than the ones that I lost. "Well, I'll be darned. It actually worked."

"Told you," remarks the hostage. "Now, how about thanking me by freeing me from my bindings?"

"Hmm," I hum, pretending to think it over deeply. I reach up and rub my head, specifically the missing horn. "I don't know. Your idea didn't exactly heal me up to one hundred percent."

FRED-E beeps a patronizing comment.

"Okay, okay, it's a deal." I pull out my dagger and lightly saw the straps until the stallion can pull his hooves apart. He gallops away from the camp without another word. I trot around and cut the bindings off the other hostage. He looks like he's just waking up from a nap. But his sleepiness leaves no trace when his eyes lock onto me.

"Oh, hell no! Not you again!" he cries out as he attempts a rather pitiful crab-walk. He doesn't get more than five inches away before falling flat on his back.

'Not you again'? I mentally echo in confusion. "Do I know you?"

Some squeaks and murmurs escape his lips. I mull it over for a while. I gasp. I know that whimpering.

Before he can reach, my hoof stomps down. The impact smashes the pistol into unsalvageable pieces. The stallion mutters incoherently while shivering in place. I should kill him, but the sight before me is just way too pitiful.

“Get lost,” I command.

"You're that Powder Ganger that attacked me on my way to Proper!" I exclaim in realization. In the corner of my vision, FRED-E seems to float back a foot or two. Baane’s reaction to the situation is a more subtle hoof gently pressing against his sunglasses. What catches me off guard is the scared pony in front of me throwing his entire body into a groveling bow.

“Your supreme alicorniness, I am your humble servant! I’ll do whatever it is you want. Please, don't kill me!”


It feels like forever while my brain tries to process what is happening.

"Come again?" I ask.

"What the hell was that?" asks Baane.

FRED-E adds his own chirps of confusion.

"I... I just want to live," says the poor colt. "The Powder Gang is gone. My head is at risk from Empire and New Canterlot punks. What else can I do?"

Baane floats his rifle around. "You could hold still and make it less painful."

I hold up a hoof in front of him. "Hold on, Baane."

"Hmm?" His questioning grunt sounds like it would complement a raised eyebrow expression quite well.

I turn back toward the young Powder Ganger. "What's your name, pal?"

"T-Tilaso," he stutters. Far from miraculously, remembering his name doesn't strike me as a hard task.

"Very well then," I say with a nod. In a mockery of knighthood marking, I hold down my stump of a horn and point it toward either side of the colt's head. "In the name of Forte Pianissimo, I dub thee 'Servant Tilaso'. You may rise."

"Th-Thank you," he says. He stands up and bows his head deeply.

"With your new status, you may carry these." I hoof over two sticks of dynamite that I found during my travels. "Don't use them unless it's absolutely necessary."

"R-Right, Your Majesty," he hastily shuffles the sticks into his pockets.

Baane taps my shoulder and whispers, "What are you doing? You don't have any reason to take him with you, much less arm him."

"Actually, I do," I whisper back. "Keep your sharp-shooters close and your potential back-stabbers closer. I figure you and FRED-E are trigger happy. What would this colt gain from killing me when you're around?"

Baane's next grunt is about the closest thing to a chuckle I've ever heard from him. "I'm starting to respect you, Pianissimo."

"Likewise." I then raise my voice so that the new guy can hear. "So, what's that other place you had in mind with Imperial heads to boot?"

He clears his throat. "Yeah, it's some ways out there."


While I follow close behind Baane, he insists that someone stick behind Tilaso to make sure he doesn't try anything funny. The colt insists he won't cause any trouble, but Baane gives him a flat stare. Shrugging, I tell FRED-E to cover our rear as we travel. The sprite-bots chirps in willing agreement.

A mare in a familiar uniform gallops up to us. "Hold up! The road's closed to Milton until we can get the immediate situation with the Imperials taken care of."

Baane grunts. "That's why we're here."

The mare that appears in charge lifts an eyebrow. "We don't normally let citizens take care of our problems. Who exactly are you?"

Here's where Baane does something I never anticipate. He levitates his sunglasses off. It is a bit of a shame that I can't see his eyes from this angle.

"Y-You?" stammers the mare. "You're back in the field?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes." Baane puts his shades back in place.

"Well, that's the first bit of good news I've received in a long while," says the mare, half-smiling. "I wish we didn't have to meet under the circumstances of a hostage situation."

"Hostage situation?" I echo.

The mare whips her head in surprise and pulls out a combat knife. "Oh my sod! Baane, get back! It's an alicorn!"

Baane's magic aura interferes with hers around the knife. "It's all right, Grant. She's tame."

She slowly puts the knife away, but still looks tense. "If you say so."

I take a tentative step forward and bow my head. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

Grant lets out a low whistle. "Wow, how did you get such a clean cut through her horn?"

"Long story," answers Baane, "and I can't claim all the credit."

Besides, I'd hardly call the jagged stump 'clean', I think as I lift my head back up.

Grant turns her head a little more. "And who's that?"

Baane shrugs. "Some colt that's decided he wants to serve his pale-haired princess." Conveniently, Tilaso chooses that moment to hide behind my leg. I never realized how small he was until just now.

"That's... neat." Grant blinks in uncertainty.

"You said something about hostages?" I ask her again.

"Uh, right." Grant snaps back to the initial topic. "We tried to set up camp in Milton, but it turns out the Empire had sent a mass of their own soldiers and overran us. Most of our troops got out, but three rookies were captured and they've been strung up on crosses. The demands of the Imperials here are to back off from this settlement or they'll kill the hostages." She sighs. "With the current firepower of our remaining recruits, there's little chance of us getting those men out alive. The bigger problem is how the higher-ups want to deal with the situation here. They want the Empire dead, period. If it comes at the cost of a few friendly casualties, they're willing to take the risk." She looks thoughtful. "About twenty-one doses of Dash ought to be enough to put them out of their misery and it'll leave the Imperials nothing to bargain with."

"To hell with mercy killing," Baane spits, "we're getting those soldiers out of there."

"You're kidding right?" I ask Grant. "Why would you turn your back on ponies that willingly served? Sure, maybe they weren't selfless, but that's no excuse to intentionally introduce them to death earlier than necessary."

She looks at me with a skeptical frown. "You have no idea what it's like, alicorn. Just who do you think you are to ask me about immorality? Your kind slaughtered ponies indiscriminately for years! But as soon as armed forces decide to join the practice, it's suddenly not okay?"

I lean back with eyes wide. "W...What?"

"Yeah, that's right," Grant spits. "I know my history. It's your fault that there was ever a war in Equestria in the first place! If you lot hadn't screwed with the zebras, they wouldn't have attacked ponykind back then and we wouldn't be dealing with this kind of screwed up mess we have now."

Monarch stomps my left hoof forward and matches the anger-filled glare with her own. "The crimes of the many cannot be pinned on the one."

"Tell that to the parents and grandparents you stole from me!"

"Molasses, enough!" shouts Baane.

I force Monarch to take shelter in the back of my mind. Grant, still very hurt, looks at Baane.

"Ragic?" she asks in a lack of understanding.

"Hold off on your higher-ups' order, Ranger Grant," he says. "We'll return with backup soon."

There is a collective "huh?" from the rest of us. In FRED-E's case, it's a confused beep.

Baane simply turns around. "We should keep walking, Pianissimo." He trots loudly against the pavement.

"Um, right," I say with a nod. I turn briefly to my followers. "Let's move."

"Yes, Your Highness," answers Tilaso. FRED-E adds his own confirmation chirp.

"Where exactly are we going to get this 'backup'?" I ask after we get a few feet out of Grant's hearing range.

"There's a N.C.R. camp near here," he says, "With any luck, we'll be able to exchange favors."

We trot for several yards. Many hills skew my perception of elevation as we travel up and down. I hear the voice of Tilaso interchanging with FRED-E's beeping every once in a while. I have no idea when they became such close friends. I shake my head lightly. My subjects are allowed to mingle, right? It's hardly unusual to hear idle chatter. Speaking of which, the unicorn in front seems to be rather quiet right now. I shouldn't find this unnatural, but I can't help but feel a tad worried about him.

"Were you ever forced to perform 'mercy killings'?" I ask out of nowhere.

Baane sighs. "The Republic was losing a lot of allies that fell prey to hostage situations or slavery. They didn't like feeling tied up just because a few friends were in danger. Mercy killing was meant as a gesture of kindness, to end their friends' suffering sooner so that there'd be no hesitation in following an attack order." He tips his blue beret forward ever so slightly. "It makes you wonder if it wasn't the Imperials that got them killed, but you following d**ned orders. I guess that was one of the main reasons why I left the military in the first place."

Although I'm still trotting, I briefly scratch my head. "Yet, you're still helping them out... right now."

"It'll be a hell of a lot better if the Mojave gets under N.C.R. protection than letting the Empire march freely across the land."

"I suppose there is some truth to that," I admit.

New Location Discovered: Holdbeck Faith

+7.5 EXP

This camp that Baane mentioned looks much larger than the Imperial Raid camp. But it also looks worn down. Dust and tatters mark the tents. Rust is overrunning whatever metal cabins there are. Some of the sandbags that surround the guard post look like they're marked with urine. I give the place a four out of Fondsprings.

"I almost wish a nuclear winter would overtake this side of the wasteland," comments the pony taking a guard position.

Baane pays her no heed and trots right on through the area. I trot at about my normal pace. FRED-E floats the same, but Tilaso has to scamper just to keep up. It appears that Baane is interested in the largest metal building. Though, I may be insulting the scattered wooden support that holds up the metal building's outside. In any case, Baane pulls the door open and we all head inside.

There are a number of ponies in the New Canterlot outfits. Most appear to be standing around, waiting for something to happen. There's a mare off to the left, fiddling with a radio dial. The stallion on my right stands out simply because he's the only one sleeping in a posture I would consider uncomfortable. Baane trots straight to the center of this tented facility where one stallion is looking over a map and some loose papers.

"I'm looking for the commander in charge," says Baane directly.

The other guy turns his head slightly. "I'm kind of busy right now for social calls. If you're not here to help, stay out of the way."

"Lucky you, we're here to help."

That catches the stallion's attention. He turns his whole body to get a better look at the party. "Oh, well, I wasn't actually expecting... never mind." He shakes his head.

"You weren't expecting what?" asks Baane.

"When I got radioed by Grant about receiving help from a team with an alicorn, I thought she had finally snapped." The 'commander' scratches his neck in embarrassment. "I'm Major Yosephony. Based on that beret, I'm guessing that you were in First Recon at some point. I'm afraid you'll have to talk with the higher-ups currently stationed in New Pegasus if you're looking to get your old position back."

"Duly noted," states Baane without committing. "How are circumstances around here?"

Yosephony assumes a more serious expression. "I've got the Empire breathing down my neck at Milton and not enough stallions or equipment to properly stage a counter attack. I'm going to need someone to talk to the officers and see what needs to be done to get this camp back on its hooves. Once enough of the problems around here are taking care of, I can focus my efforts on taking back Milton." He grabs a mug and sips from it. "The more that gets done around here, the more resources I can place directly into assaulting Milton."

"I didn't follow any of that," comments Tilaso. "Why are all you soldier types so vague?"

A combined effort of my shushing and FRED-E's quiet chirping work to shut the colt up.

"We'll do what we can," replies Baane as if the peanut gallery behind him hadn't said anything.

"Good." Yosephony nods while setting his mug down on the table. "Our main focus should be on resupplying our reserves. Talk to Quartermaster Daze and see what you can do for him." He turns back to his map.

"Got it." Baane says before turning around. "We should get moving."

"If they're short on their own supplies, how are they going to be any help with those hostages in Milton?" asks Tilaso.

"And how will increased supplies be any help without the body support to carry those items?" I add.

"One thing at a time," says Baane while walking out the door, "One thing at a time."

Tilaso half-frowns before turning his worried face to me. "Princess Forte?"

"Let's just keep an eye on him and do what he asks for now," I suggest, "Maybe a little constructive work will do him some good."

"Yes, Your Majesty," says the colt with a bow. While Monarch beams in the back of my mind, I simply roll my eyes at the colt's cheesy performance. I swear I hear FRED-E chuckling, but there's no way to prove that he is.
Note: While the Aura Whisper can identify life forms, it is up to the user to discern friend from foe.

"If you're here for supplies, I'll make this quick and easy for you. There aren't any."

"I fully intend to fix that problem." That's Baane's voice coming from that open tent.

"Oh," responds the other voice, "So you're the new guy that the Major is sending around striking through items on his errand list. Well, beggars can't make choices. Any help we can get is better than nothing."

"Which item on the Major's list is next to your name, Daze?" asks Baane.

"I sent some stallions out to Helium Two to see if they had any supplies they could spare," explains Daze, "Most likely they're somewhere between there and here. Though with how dangerous the way has become on hoof, it's very likely that they were ambushed by an Imperial raiding party. Check the roads or ask the ponies at Helium Two if they know anything."

"Very likely ambushed?" I echo. "Is that how low morale is around here?"

"Yeah, it's certainly lacking," admits Daze. "At this rate, we'll have to rely on chucking rocks for weapons and eating dirt for food."

There isn't enough hard drink or Sparkle Cola in the world to make dirt appetizing, I think in half-amusement.

"Hey," interrupts Daze, "You think you could do me a favor?"

"That depends on the favor." I shrug one wing.

"When soldiers die, it's up to me to re-allocate supplies as necessary," he says, "I want you to bring me any of the troops' dog tags that you can find. In return, I'll give you a little something worthwhile."

"Dog tags, huh?" I idly scratch my neckerchief. "Very well, then. Shall I personally add a cremation ceremony for each fallen pony?"

"That... won't be necessary," says Daze. "Just pick up their dog tags and turn them in here."

"I can do that." I nod. I happen to turn toward Tilaso before looking back at the quartermaster. "Know anypony around here that could use a little helper?"

Daze leans over and briefly stares at the colt. "Is he any good with medicine? I heard from the Major that Dr. Itch Yard has his hooves full with patients coming in a little faster than they can be sent back to the front lines."

I turn my head toward the colt. "Think you'd be up for playing 'Doctor'?"

He suddenly puffs up his chest. "I was the assistant for the doctor back at the correctional facility. I bet I know more about putting bodies back together than all of you combined."

Where did this confidence come from? I wonder. "All right, Servant Tilaso, go see what you can do at the medical center." I turn toward the sprite-bot floating in the vicinity. "Stay around and keep an eye on him, please."

FRED-E beeps an affirmative. The two of them head to another half-metal building with a red cross sign on it.

"You sure you can handle a potential ambush without your pet robot?" asks Baane.

"We'll just have to see, won't we?" I retort.

"Fine," Baane says nonchalantly. "We should head out."

"Watch yourself out there," warns Daze.

-Your status among the Followers of the Apocalypse is currently "Accepted".
-You have gained infamy among members of the Empire. There is a slightly greater chance that squads of Imperials will randomly attack you.

Ch. 11: A Gap in the Clouds Closes

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A Gap In the Clouds Closes

"Friends show their love in times of trouble, not happiness."



"Wait up here," requests Baane. "It shouldn't take more than a minute for me to have a chat with them."

"Sounds fine," I say as he trots toward the power plant. When I see that Lieutenant pony exchanging words with him, I turn around and stand on this hill. I'll just do a small bit of reconnaissance.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

I see some faint red dots through the hills in the distance. Unfortunately, I can't identify exactly what I'm looking at. Oh, well. We'll deal with them when we get to them. Just as I'm thinking that, two distinctly gecko-shaped red blobs grow very large. Pluck! Quickly, my varmint rifle is out and firing. Four shots take out the red-covered gecko on the right. It clicks when I try to do the same to its nearby buddy.

Grunting, I drop the rifle and swing out my dagger. The tip goes through the lizard's tongue and out the back of its head. As I pull back out, however, I get a few scratches from its teeth. Oh, lovely. More scars. The red aura vanishes as the carcass falls and slides down the hill.

I sigh and sheathe my dagger. I find my rifle right where I dropped it, blow a bit of sand off its side, and go about reloading it. I kind of wish I had something to treat the stinging pain on my right hoof, but I really need to save the Med-X for something more serious than a scratch. After I click my rifle's safety back on and properly stow it, I hold up my hoof to my chest. I inhale deeply. Then, while straightening my front leg out in front of me, I exhale.

"Having trouble?"

I set my hoof down and turn around. "No, it's nothing." I clear my throat. "What info did you gather, Sir Fanny-Mae?"

Baane keeps his tone even. "Ha ha. The ponies here gave Daze's squad a few supplies before they saw them leave. We should keep our eyes open around the bottom of the hills near the road."

"On the ground it is," I agree as we tread dirt.

"By the way, what were you planning on doing before you met me?"

I look at the unicorn and try to figure out where he's coming from. Needless to say, the sunglasses make it difficult to discern his emotional intent. I see no harm in answering him. "I was thinking of working my way over to New Pegasus."

Baane hums. "Not a good idea. You're going to get yourself in some serious s***."

"As opposed to the less serious variety in being an enemy of the Empire?" I ask rhetorically. "What is worse in New Pegasus?"

"A lot of ponies in the strip work independently from the organizations out in the world," Baane tells, "With the Empire, you can at least see their attacks coming from a mile away. But you'd be walking into a death trap if you set foot in the city that can vaporize alicorns on sight."

To this, I raise my eyebrow. "Vaporize?"

"Normally, I wouldn't worry about some pony that could defend herself from every direction simultaneously," he admits. "But I've noticed a lack of shield spells on your part. You're not exactly energy-proof even at your best."

"What about you?" I wonder. "Are you any safer from their 'shoot on sight' mentality?"

"New Pegasus knows better than to shoot N.C.R. troops within the walls," he says, "They've even got a safe house for the head rangers and commanders-in-chief. They'd risk a second Pink Cloud incident if the N.C.R. is severely threatened."

"So... unicorns are under defined protection, then?"

"If that's what you think," he says.

Why is he dodging the question? I wonder.

He's a turncoat. Strike him where he stands.

I shake my head at Monarch's suggestion. If he really wanted me dead, he could have shot me when I brought him Crawdad back in Vacuum. No, his ulterior motive requires me to be alive for some reason. But, I don't know what that secret is.

Maybe he's infatuated with you, oh-ho-ho!

Shut up, Monarch and I tell the third thinker. I don't know what to call it yet. Maybe "Nuisance" will suffice as a placeholder.

A slight glare of light catches my attention from the bottom of a hill we approach. "Hey, what's that?"

I step lively over to the object in question. It appears to be a large, metal bin. I backstep a bit as I realize that there are bodies on either side of the bin. These are N.C.R. soldiers! Are they from the squad sent by Daze? I sigh as I tread closer to them. As per the "favor", I yank the dog tags off their collars.

Baane's rifle clicks. "Company!"

I whirl around in place. Out in front and in the corners of my peripheral vision, I see several Imperials.

Flipping Tartarus.



Though I'm standing on a new irradiated spot, I worry that it isn't enough to fully remove all of my new potholes. Sure, all of my bleeding from the cuts and piercings stop. However, I can still see bruises from all of the major impacts. We can't help but pant as the last of the radiation just... vanishes. I look around a little to make sure no more Imperials are showing up. All I can see of the enemies now are their corpses on top of each other.

"Baane, are you still with me?" I ask.

"Ergh," he grunts. "I'm going to need better armor."

"Armor's no good without a body to wear it," I point out.

"Hm... yeah."

At least his legs and magic still work. But it seems he's straining to carry the supply bin. There's a lot of sweat on his face while his aura is thinner than it usually is around objects. I decide to rest the box on my neck and head so that he isn't forced to work as hard. A quick whisper of red shows me no signs of life any closer than Helium Two and Holdbeck Faith.

Nevertheless, the trip back to the camp feels very long. The sun looks rather bright right now. It's either high noon or very close to it. My concern goes out to Baane again and I can't help but sneak a glance at him. His usual shift back in Vacuum is every night. The time now is probably his usual sleeping hour. I hope he can make it to that supplies' tent before he collapses.

And before you start, I admonish my other thoughts, I'll worry about whomever I darn well please. If he stabs me in the back later, that's his decision and problem. Even if it did come to that, you could handle him easily.

I think I hear Monarch spit even though that shouldn't be possible inside my mind.


The crate drops unceremoniously near the empty metal shelves inside the tent. Quartermaster Daze takes a look at the contents. He gives a nod of satisfaction.

"Thanks for bringing these," he says.

"Just getting a job done," says Baane nonchalantly, even though I can still see the trails of dried sweat along the side of his face.

I shuffle around my bags and grab a couple thin pieces of metal. "Here, I found these."

Daze sighs. "I know it must be hard to see this, but it's doing good to let us know where supplies can be redistributed." He accepts the dog tags and procures a pouch. "Here's for your trouble. If you find any more, make sure to bring them to me."

I hoof the caps away. "Be careful who you tell that. If it were anypony else, they might feel motivated to hunt down dead soldiers or 'make' dead soldiers."

"I'll keep that in mind," he says. "You should check in with Major Yosephony. He'll want to know about the temporary re-supply."

"Sir," Baane says resolutely, motioning for me to follow him out.

As we approach the center of command for the camp, Tilaso comes scampering up to me. "Princess Forte!" FRED-E isn't floating far behind.

I really wish he'd stop calling me that. I give him an attentive look. "What is it?"

"I managed to help their doc fix up some of their injured, but that's not the problem right now," he answers. "There's suspicion of a Hydra smuggler and I was wondering if you could help me out."

Hydra? I raise my eyebrow and look around. Where in the world would any pony hide a four-headed lizard? ... Oh, wait. There is that accelerative potion that's called... okay. That makes more sense. "How can I help?"

"See, I've got a pretty good idea of who took it, but I'm not exactly the best at talking down to any of these military plot-hats. I was wondering if you could maybe... help him see my point."

I blink and feel uncertain. I quickly turn to Baane. "You go on ahead and tell the Major about the supplies. We'll take care of this."

"All right," he agrees before heading inside the big center.

I turn back to the colt. "If I intimidate anyone around here, they're more apt to shoot me than tell you what you need to know."

"I swear on my life that Your Majesty will not get shot by a sniper rifle if we talk to this stallion," promises Tilaso.

Oddly specific. "Very well, I shall accompany you on your interrogation."

"Great, he's most likely this way!" The little colt scampers along a curved path through the camp.

I trot lively with FRED-E floating by my side. I don't know what we're going to find, but the colt seems eager to solve a mystery. Get with the times, kid. No case that grandiose can be solved and shut with such simplicity that is simultaneously drama.

"Hold it!" Tilaso exclaims. When I look up to see what he's yelling about, I notice some young stallion walking on the tips of his hooves. That makes little sense to me. How can any pony actually expect to sneak around in the middle of the day along the center of a heavily trodden path? Calmly, I trot over to my servant's side.

"You again?" asks the soldier as he's looking down. "Beat it! This is no place for a colt." He slowly looks up at the sound of my hoof steps. His eyes and mouth open wide as soon as he takes a good look at me. "What the...? What is that First Recon's pet alicorn doing here?" His pupils slowly climb up his eyes. The shaking suddenly stops as he smirks. A rifle pops out at his side. "Well, your owner isn't around to protect you. I'm sure the higher-ups won't mind if Private Sandpaper shot out of 'self-defense'."

The warming up of a laser next to me seems to catch his attention. He returns to his wide-eyed panic.

"Don't mind the sprite-bot," I say. I briefly glance toward FRED-E on my right before returning my indifferent gaze to the soldier pony. "He's simply been programmed to completely destroy anything that attempts to take my life, regardless of the circumstances. Besides..." I tap my dagger so that it slides less than an inch out of its sheathe. "You're not exactly in a position to gain from attacking any one of us right now."

He slowly stuffs his own weapon away. "W-What do you want from me?"

I glance down and to the left. "I believe this one has unfinished business with you."

"I recognize the signs of overdose anywhere." Tilaso nodded firmly. "You've been smuggling the doc's supply of Hydra. Here's how it's going to work: You're going to march right up to your bosses and admit your theft of medical supplies. Do that, and I won't have to sick this fraction of the Unity all over your plot."

Suddenly, I miss hearing 'Princess' and 'Majesty', I think, wishing for a subtle sweatdrop to make my point of embarrassment.

"H-Hey now," the stallion stammers, "L-Let's not get hasty. I... I could cut you a deal. I'd share some of the stuff I took. What do you say?"

"Desperation is unbecoming of a Private," I say without a care, "It'll be less damaging for your dignity to just turn yourself in now."

An angry look crosses his face as he stands upright. "Fine! Be that way!" With those parting words, he marches away huffily toward some other tent that I have yet to enter in Holdbeck Faith.

Meanwhile, Tilaso rushes over and... kisses my hoof repeatedly. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Oh, thank you. That was better than I could have hoped for. Thank you, Princess Forte."

Okay, I'll accept your nickname title for me, I think, but the hoof-kissing is pushing it. I clear my throat. "Please rise, Servant Tilaso. You're making too much of a scene."

He stands upright and scratches his neck sheepishly. "Oh, uh... heh heh. I'm going to go ahead and let the doc know about this." He quickly scampers away.

FRED-E beeps a question.

"Nah, you don't need to anymore," I say, "It's probably best to keep him away from the next battle. Besides, I feel like I'm going to need your help again pretty soon."

The sprite-bot chirps in affirmation.


I nudge the metal door open to the command center. Inside, I can see Baane looking over the shoulders of that sitting soldier. It feels a bit emptier in here than before, though I can't figure out why. I head over to the Major, who is standing idly by.

"There you are," Yosephony says in acknowledgement. "Dr. Itch Yard radioed me a while ago and told me about your help. Additionally, your leader just informed me about helping recover supplies. That'll help buy some time here and we should be able to get a few soldiers ready to take back Milton."

"And not a moment too soon," I comment, "With hostages stuck on crosses for who knows how long, they're probably going to need a rescue right now."

"All right," the Major says with a nod. "There will be a small squad ready for orders just outside of camp, unless you can offer some more help around camp and make way for a few more soldiers to join the take-back operation."

"No." I shake my head. "Under these circumstances, a small quick strike will be more effective than waiting until it's too late."

"Suit yourself," he says while picking up a mug. "Keep your eyes and ears open out there."

"Right." I turn my head in Baane's direction. "Master! We're leaving!"

"Don't call me that," he says through gritted teeth. The address is effective, though, as it gets him to march quickly out the door.
Note: Alicorns require little to no sleep and rarely get hungry. However, the same does not apply to your allies. Regularly checking on their health is a must.

A pony wearing N.C.R. armor, a broad hat, and sunglasses gallops up almost immediately after I exit the door. She levitates up a small device and says, "Word's gotten out that you've been helping the N.C.R. a lot. Here, take this two-way radio. If you ever need us, we'll come sprinting. You're not alone out there." After the radio magically gets stuffed into my bag, the mare leaves as quickly as he arrived.

"Um... okay," I say more to myself than anyone else within hearing range. Did I just get drafted?

"Your Majesty!" calls out a scampering Tilaso. "Are you heading out?"

"Yes," I say. "I'd like you to wait around here until we come back."

His frown indicates that he is miffed. But he nods all the same. "Would you like a quick patch up before you go?"

"Are you offering?" I ask in return.

He shuffles nervously. "Well, I might have... appropriated a few health potions."

I should be mad at him for committing a crime. But for some reason, I can't help but smile wryly at him. Besides, I still have a few bruises left over from that Imperial ambush earlier today.

"One should suffice," I say while holding out my hoof. I quickly drain the small bottle's contents. I breathe a little more easily.

"Pianissimo, what's the holdup?" asks Baane from a few yards away.

"I'll be right there!" I call back. FRED-E floats quickly as I flap my wings and take to the sky.


"Major Yosephony told us to wait here for you," says one of the stallions in grunt uniform. "Where should we hit 'em from?"

You can't be serious. I look at the 'squad' and how small it is. Does that pony in charge really think that these three privates, Baane, my robot, and I will be enough to recover an entire settlement? I rub a hoof against my head and sigh. I wonder if someone dared him to make an unintelligent call like this.

I shake my head briefly and gently pull on my neckerchief. "We don't exactly have strength in numbers here. All we're going to get is a brief advantage of surprise before the entire gathering of Imperials comes rushing in to wipe us out. Instead of playing smart and biding our time, we'll have to do something to catch them off guard." I turn to Baane. "What do you say to that?"

"Fine," he says indifferently. "We attack from the north side."

"North it is," reiterates the private. "Let's move!"

"FRED-E, cover Baane," I order. I pull out K.R. before spreading my wings. "I'll give the enemy an extra attack angle to worry about."

Thus, the recovery operation of Milton begins. As I take flight, I watch the three Privates step lively toward their suicide. Baane... is going to come out of this with a new scab. I can just tell. As for FRED-E, most everyone I've ever come across ignores him. I don't know how that works when a levitating robot isn't exactly stealthy.

Now isn't the time to worry about my sprite-bot. This is a battlefield. Within the first ten seconds, I spy with my little eye something that begins with Imperial watch tower guard. K.R. is anxious in my grip.


I see the guard lose a front hoof and a back hoof. They go flying with blood before the rest of his body falls over the ramp's side. I'm not expecting accuracy from up here. However, I'm somewhat pleased that gravity decides to play on my side for dishing out the pain. I clearly see three dots of New Canterlot colors running around and a small blue dot trekking along. I can hear the gunfire popping and see some Imperial colors actually flinching every once in a while. I decide to add to this cluster of confusion.

*Pow* *Pow*

A spear-carrying pony loses his wielding hoof to my shots. The rest of him takes a peppering from the soldiers. The guy behind him suffers a live roast-session courtesy of FRED-E's laser shots. I see a few more Imperials galloping from the west gate. I'm about to shout a heads up, but I get interrupted by another troubling sight. There are three familiar looking crosses with the same number of ponies in uncomfortable positions.

The hostages! I realize just as I feel a nick against my back, right leg. I see a spear falling away to the ground. Luckily, I don't see any severe bleeding from that new cut, but it still stings. I return the favor to the Imperial currently holding his hoof up.

*Pow* *Pow* *Pow*

After that one is down and out, I hear one of Baane's rifle shots. Immediately, I see its handiwork on another Imperial's head flying off the bloody neck. My eyes go wide. I... know we're in the middle of a large-scale fight, but... I have to get down there. I dive to the ground for a galloping landing. I stand shakily over the corpse's open neck. I... can't help myself. I lower my head and my tongue laps up this Imperial's red, iron-rich liquid. Nothing else matters but this wonderful taste.

A zap of laser over my head wakes me up. I gasp as I scramble back a few paces and frantically look around. FRED-E's to my left and a burning Imperial is collapsing a few feet to my right. I quickly shake my head. Focus! That's what I need to do. I have to focus on the fight. I use this brief pause away from the action to feed K.R. some new bullets. I give the chamber a good spin before rushing back into the sky.


Our pitiful-sized squad meets up near the center with the crosses. Surprisingly, we only have one casualty within our group. Despite the Empire's insistence that they avoid modern weapons, one of the Imperial's had appropriated disk land-mines over a large area. One of the Privates had galloped straight into the middle of it. Despite our loss of a life, I feel quite happy with the results.

"We really did it!" remarks the Head Private. "Milton is back under N.C.R. control. Head on back to the Major. We'll stick around and secure the perimeter."

I'm not entirely convinced that we got them all. While FRED-E goes about burning through the hostages' bindings, I do a little extra scouting of a nearby building.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

There are some red blobs in the shapes of sitting ponies. Another one appears to be trotting back and forth. With this sight, I know for sure that our group's victory cheer is premature. I take out my dagger as I slowly trot toward the door. It makes a creaky noise as I pull it open. After that, I kind of lose myself in a multitude of spinning slashes I make against the Imperials charging at me inside. Before I know it, they've all turned into decapitated... red... bloody...

"Please, I need your help! My girlfriend went up there a while ago and the path is swarming with geckos!"

Wait, what? Why are these words leaving my mouth? And why am I facing Daisy Doe and... an oddly familiar faded blue alicorn?

"Shouldn't you try to save her yourself?" asks the alicorn.

"Also, I don't remember hearing any gunfire aside from our own just now," adds Daisy Doe. "What's the point of that 9mm pistol if you're not using it?"

I pull out a small gun and take out Daisy just as the other me comes rushing with my knife.

When I come to, I realize that I am licking a body that is comically in the fetal position while on a bed. I tap my head with my wrist a couple times. Why do I like the taste of blood now of all times? Sometimes, I don't even understand myself. I decide to scour the area for other stuff. There's a footlocker that's been knocked over, but its door opens rather easily. I pull out the only content. It looks like one of those weird computer chip things.

"Huh," I comment as I stuff it right next to Ignitus' gift in my saddlebags.
Note: There's very little chance that the Empire's leader Taller-Than-Us will want to speak peacefully with his sworn enemies. Even then, he's probably only interested in placing a slave collar on the poor sucker.

"It's a standard procedure to perform a mercy killing," reminds Baane on our trek back. "I'm glad you saw that there was another option."

"You really ought to thank FRED-E," I comment, "He did most of the loosening work. I just happened to pass under them to avoid letting them get crippled by the fall."

"Hmm." He hums before turning toward FRED-E. "Thanks, metal ball."

The sprite-bot's annoyed chirping is hilarious to listen to. But his retort falls on deaf ears as we arrive back at Holdbeck Faith's command center. Baane trots in and coughs to gain Yosephony's attention.

"The Milton settlement has been cleared of Imperial presence," Baane reports.

"Good to hear, soldier," says the Major. "At least that's one less thing to worry about. We'll need that extra morale when we eventually send our aid to the dam."

"I was actually thinking of heading out that way to offer assistance," comments Baane.

"Good idea," agrees Yosephony, "They're going to need every pony they can get. Just don't get yourself killed before then."

"Sir." With that, Baane turns around. As he approaches, I notice his mouth is open. Either he's impersonating a dog, or his fatigue is having an effect on his respiratory system. I side-step into his way.

"What do you want?" inquires Baane.

"You need to stop and rest for a bit, Mr. First Recon," I state bluntly.

"I'm fine, all right?" he snaps back.

"Surely you understand that a worn out target is ripped apart easier than one that is fresh and has tensile strength." I try to use this example. "You think that the Empire is going to do any less damage if you run yourself ragged trying to stop them all? It would be better for you to recover and have a more likely shot of eliminating the problem when you're at the best possible health that you can be."

He sighs. "Maybe you're right." His sunglasses make him look like he is staring long and hard at me. "I just have one request."

"Name it and I might grant it," I reply.

"Stay close to me."

One minute, I'm talking with a red unicorn practically ready to return to the call of duty. The next, I'm looking at a sprawled, snoring mass on the floor. It takes me a few seconds to fully comprehend what is happening here. Baane is asleep. I blink a few times before grasping that concept.

I smile wryly. "I guess I can at least do that much."

With a lot of effort and awkward hoof-holding, I drag Baane across the floor to a bench inside of this command center. I fold my legs underneath myself to lie down next to him. I close my eyes and sigh without thinking. I turn my head around and start leaning it forward and back while clicking my teeth. Without paying attention, I find myself very deep in the process of preening my wings. Well, I guess I should have expected this at some point. Healing potions heal cell damage, but they don't always clean the dirt away. I spit away from Baane.

My neck cranes down just as my eyes close completely.

"Boss, what do we do?" Tilaso asks. "The facility's overrun by soldiers again."

"I know that, idiot." I grunt as I continue walking. My eyes catch sight of another me. "Well, look at what we have here."

"Ain't that the Unity alicorn that's destroyed countless other Powder Gangers?" the colt whimpers. "W-We should get out of here."

"Don't be ridiculous," I insist, "See how her horn's all busted like that?"

"Y-Y-Yeah?" he stutters.

"It'll be no problem to double-team her and take those bags off of her." I give my pistol's chamber a good spin. "Fire your shots."

I can see Tilaso following the order very reluctantly.

My eyes snap awake. My neck shoots straight up. It takes a couple of seconds before I realize that I'm still in the command center. The outside seems darker through the small windows. I scratch my head and sigh. I hear a yawn to my left. I'm not sure what it is that I see in him, but Baane looks more lively than a few hours ago.

"There, doesn't that feel better?" I ask.

"Hmm, yeah," he replies nonchalantly. He climbs off the bench and adjusts his beret. "We should get moving. New Pegasus is a long way out."

FRED-E lets out a string of beeps.

"Yes, I'll get Tilaso," I assure him, "Don't worry."

He chirps a little more with a stutter in the middle.

"Yeah, you and me both," comments Baane.

"Wait, you understand him now?" I raise my eyebrow.

Baane shrugs. "Kind of. It's more like I get the gist of which sounds relate to which emotions. I'm still not sure about the exact words, though."

I nod. "Fair enough." That's how I learned FRED-E as well.


After we gather the group's colt, medic, and explosives' expert (All of which are Tilaso.), we trot along the large, cracked road. A couple of shots from FRED-E set fire to two cockroaches along the way. My knife finds its way to impale a gecko's spinal cord. In other words, it's basically a quiet journey. At least, it is until some random mare comes flying over us, breathing heavily like she just flew the Equestrian 500, and no I don't know what that is.

"Did you see her?" she asks while looking at me. Her eyes dart to the left every five seconds or so. "She looked like she was about to kill me!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down." I wave my hoof at a downward angle in front of me. "What are you talking about?"

"Sorry," she scratches her neck as she flutters down closer to the ground. "I just thought I knew Cirrus better, but she showed me what she was really made of and what she was after." She exhales loudly. "I'm Stratus, by the way."

"Forte," is my introduction. "Why don't you start from the beginning?"

Stratus lands on her hooves and folds her wings. "Cirrus and I were travelling together for weeks. I thought it was a good team considering we were fliers in a land that was populated by very few pegasi. Anyway, we were clearing out a raider camp like usual. As soon as I started examining the place for something worthwhile, she pulled her gun on me." She wiggles her front leg around for emphasis. "She told me to hand over my caps. Though come to think of it, she laughed when I tossed all my money to her. I think she was actually after my necklace."

"Necklace?" I tilt my head and examine the pegasus more carefully. Sure enough, there's a string around her neck. It is piercing through several caps that look like they have a unique star pattern painted onto them.

Stratus holds it up slightly with a hoof. "About a couple months ago, I found a few caps that had stars on them instead of the usual pattern. I thought they were lucky, so I made a necklace out of them."

I half-frown. "Hmph. They can't be that lucky if somepony decides to threaten you just to get them. You should probably get rid of them if you don't want that kind of trouble." I motion toward her with one hoof. "Tartarus, I'd be willing to take them for you and give you some proper spending money for compensation."

"Ho, no," she says with a chuckle. "This necklace and I have been through a lot together. It wouldn't feel right to sell it or give it away."

I shrug. "All right, do what you want. Try to avoid making shady partnerships in the future. Otherwise, you might find yourself in that very same, life-threatening situation."

"Heard that loud and clear," she nods. Her wings open. "I'm out of here." With that, Stratus takes to the sky to the far right.

Something taps my leg. "Your Majesty, wouldn't it have been more advantageous to try to gain her trust as an ally?"

I look down and back at Tilaso. I shake my head. "Now isn't the best time for her. From the sound of things, she just lost her best friend to something as petty as a few caps that look prettier than normal. If some external force decides to play around and bring her back to us later, maybe I'll consider the idea. Right now, she needs to figure out for herself who she can trust."

He tilts his head at my explanation. "But... didn't you put your trust in me even though you work with the N.C.R.?"

For a moment, I am stunned with silence. Is solitude the best place for Stratus to be in, or does she need somepony that she can turn to during her loss? I exhale in frustration before spreading my wings wide. I quickly close the distance between myself and the pegasus.

"Stratus, wait!" I yell.

-You have gained fame among members of the N.C.R. One call on their two-way radio will bring in an entire squadron to assist you, provided your position is one that can be galloped to. There aren't exactly a lot of pegasi in this military faction.
-"Wild, Bloody Memories": You're not entirely sure, but you think you experienced a distant memory of some pony that died at your hooves. You gain 0.01 EXP each time you see one of these alternate perspective 'dreams'. However, your sanity has a slight chance of fluctuating. Try to ignore any flying pigs. *wink*

Ch. 12: Twenty-One

View Online


"I don't know how to feel about this."



"This is FRED-E." I point a hoof to the sprite-bot. "I got him up and running by following some vague instructions in an unrelated technical magazine."

Thankfully, FRED-E ignores any implicated insult and simply beeps a greeting.

"Over here we have Baane." I point a feather tip in his direction. "He's an ex-soldier from Vacuum. Anytime we pass by or work with the New Canterlot Republic, he's in charge."

"Hmph." He barely twitches his mouth as he slowly looks up and down at the newbie.

You could at least try to be polite. I trot a little bit and point down to the colt. "That is Tilaso my unexpected, faithful servant. He's in charge of medicine and explosives."

"Yo!" he says in a chipper tone.

I turn around. "And I'm Forte Pianissimo. I'm looking for the shotgun-happy fellow that successfully blew an alicorn's horn off and lived to tell about it. I enjoy long flights, bathing in the sunlight, and slitting the throats of my enemies."

The silver hide, blue-streaked in white mane, and lavender-eyed pegasus pony's attention is squarely on Tilaso. "You seriously let that kid near bombs?"

"Of all that I've said, that is what you find strange?" I tilt my head as I look at Stratus. I shake my head a bit. "So far, we haven't needed that part of his skillset, but I can tell you from first-hoof experience that Powder Gangers know how their dynamite works."

"I... see." Stratus scratches her neck. "Are you sure you want me to join you? You seem armed to the teeth as is. Any additional ponies might just encumber this group."

I cough. "Well, I feel a little bad that Tilaso is doing so much for me already. He wants you to be an ally." I turn to the colt. "Right?"

"Yes," Tilaso states without a second of hesitation.

"But like I told you during the short flight," I say, "it's up to you."

"Aw, what the hell?" Stratus smiles. "I'll give the group ethic a whirl."

I swear I hear something squee when Tilaso grins.


This is the most random stop I have ever made. When Stratus comments that she hasn't eaten in forever, two other stomachs join hers in a growling contest. Tilaso's gut definitely wins in volume. But, Baane's stomach gives it a run for its money in terms of low pitch. After shuffling through a run-down gas station that has literally nothing but ancient bubble gum, we continue down the road and find a rusty food shack in the middle of nowhere. There is quite literally somepony managing a shack in the middle of the desert.

While Baane, Tilaso, and Stratus take turns showing disgust at the menu of tumbleweed rings and rat kebabs, FRED-E and I stand on guard. A couple of my whispers of the red aura reveal very few blobs and they're not even approaching us. I slowly spin K.R.'s chamber in boredom.

"Are you sure you don't want anything, Your Majesty?"

I glance over at Tilaso. I guess that he broke away from the 'adult' counter. He holds two tumbleweed rings on top of his hoof. The gesture is flattering, however, I don't really feel empty and in need of food. I shake my head as I holster K.R.

"It just doesn't feel right when I eat if you're going to starve yourself," says the colt.

I look at him in disbelief. You're not going to leave me alone until I chew and swallow something, huh? I take the fried plant and go about the pointless task of 'eating'. It tastes like bland grass, only less flavorful. I swear, if he starts petting me...

He turns around. "Huh? Who's that?"

As I swallow, I look up and see somepony else walking up to Stratus. I know I've never seen him before, but his outfit kind of reminds me of Merchant. Stratus looks up as the stallion says something to her. He doesn't seem like he's about to pull out a weapon, so that's a good sign. I trot over casually with Tilaso and FRED-E in tow.

"Aw... screw it," says the stranger. "Lying just isn't in my nature. Truth is I've been following you for a while."

"Really?" Stratus crosses her front legs on the counter. "Why's that?"

"A while back, you picked up a few star bottle caps. Aside from treating them as a special jewelry piece, I wasn't sure if you really knew what you had gotten your hooves on."

"Are you implying that you actually do know what they are?"

The false merchant nods once. "Rumor has it that there's a secret treasure in the wastes and the star caps are the key to obtaining it, a rite of passage if you will."

Stratus leans in. "What kind of treasure is it?"

"Nobody really knows," he admits, "It was probably something valuable at the time that the star caps were being manufactured. Gold, food, medicine, a water talisman... hell, it could even be a case of pre-war bits for all I know. But the mystery is just enough motivation that some ponies would kill someone else on nothing more than a suspicion of having the caps."

She rubs her necklace idly and chuckles. "Well, I guess this is lucky for me after all."

"Hmm?" Baane tilts his head.

"If these suckers are going to come to me to try and take away my necklace, that'll just give me more looting opportunities after I knock them out." As she punches her hooves against each other, her gauntlets appear to glimmer briefly.

How did I miss those earlier? I wonder as I look at that pair of ballistic hooves.

"Just thought I'd give you fair warning before I never saw you again," says the 'merchant'. On that note, he trots off to who knows where.

"So who was that guy?" I ask.

Stratus shrugs her wings. "I have no idea, but now I feel even better about having this lucky necklace."

I hum indifferently. "Is everyone ready to go?"

"Yeah, let's roll." Baane hops out of his seat.

"Ready, Princess Forte!" Tilaso salutes a hoof across his chest.

"Sure am." Stratus immediately flaps her wings and hovers in place.
Note: Stratus is a melee fighter and an aerial support. She inspires you and your team to have 2% more agility just by being around.

"The time has come to pay for your sins!"

"Huh?" I turn around at the unfamiliar voice. It's an Imperial. I recognize the reddish tint on their armor anywhere. A crowd of similar armor tramples the ground behind him.

"You're a fallen demon," states the masked stallion. "Prepare for your exorcism!"

"Tilaso, unleash the big bang!" I command.

"Yes, Princess," he acknowledges with a lighter and one red cylindrical stick. He bucks the dynamite and it goes flying amidst the approaching enemies. One of the stallions in the back loses all of their legs. The rest seem to grunt against the explosion.

"You're mine!" shouts Baane as he takes a couple pot shots at an Imperial with spiked shoulder pads.

Stratus loops over. Her left ballistic hoof collides with the head of the rightmost Imperial. "S*** bricks!"

I aim K.R. at the alleged leader that called me out.

*Pow* *Pow* *Pow*

What the hell? I'm baffled at his lack of reaction. I have to flap my wings backward just to get a bit more distance between myself and his quick trotting speed. What is this guy's head made out of?

*Pow* *Bzzrt*

His legs catch on fire from FRED-E's assist, but he's still coming. Something slides out from the Imperial's side and hits me in the wing with a red, burning beam. Since when do ancient ponies shoot laser rifles?

Baane's gun fires a round against this Imperial. Tilaso comically slides under and trips the guy just as Stratus comes in with a brutal hoof uppercut. It's about time that this Imperial's head flies off. The rest of his body falls. It looks a little too clean for a decapitation, though. It doesn't even look remotely worth a lick.

"Well, that was fun," comments Stratus. "I should've tagged along with a couple of N.C.R. ponies sooner. It's been a while since I worked out that hard."

"Lucky you," says Baane as he clicks his rifle's safety back on.

"Princess Forte, here." Tilaso scampers up and pats a bandage against my sore wing. I feel a wave of gentle heat and ice all at once. The soreness soon fades and dulls out. When it does, the small bandage peels off like an old sticker.

"Did you 'appropriate' this as well?" I ask with a slight smile.

"Maybe." The colt shuffles his hoof abashedly.

Stratus gathers a few caps from one of the Imperials' pockets. I wonder what they were planning on buying out here. My self-inquiry is interrupted by a sudden weight tossed against my shoulder. I have to play a quick game of juggle the plasma pistol in my two front hooves. After it's relatively still in my grasp, I turn to Baane in annoyance.

"Mind reloading that?" asks the unicorn. "I'm terrible with exotic ammunition."

"Says Mr. Sniper," I mutter as I shuffle out an energy cell from my saddlebags. "Is the concept of a battery really that foreign to you?"

Baane harumphs. "I've lost some respect for you."

"Was that too touchy of a subject?" I ask rhetorically while stuffing the pistol away.

He remains silent.


Along a road filled with the ruins of what was once a village, there's a hastily boarded building with a large white 'X' painted over one of the windows. Considering the number of places I've come across with structures that should be collapsing but aren't, this isn't surprising to me.

"I think I'm going to stay out here," insists Stratus. "It's too confining indoors."

"I could use some air," says Baane flatly.

I look at the two of them incredulously. Finally, I shrug indifferently as I walk to the door.

"FRED-E, keep them straight," I order.

The sprite-bot complies with an affirmative chitter. With that, I gently push my way inside with Tilaso trailing by inches. Contrary to how dark it is outside, the light in here is rather bright. It makes the dark rust on some of the tiled floor more prominent. There's one stallion resting on the couch to the left. On the right, a lone mare in a white coat paces behind the counter. A well-kept plaque that reads, "Dr. Iso-Nami," is displayed.

"I'm guessing you're the doctor around here," I say up front.

She looks up from her pacing and turns to face me. "Welcome to the New Pegasus Medical Clinic. I'm a fully qualified physician and can fix whatever is wrong with you for a reasonable fee."

"You're not also a part-time butcher, are you?" I ask in remembrance of Vacuum's doctor.

Dr. Iso-Nami blinks in surprise. "Excuse me?"

"Never mind, it's not important." I wave a hoof dismissively. "So, what kind of services do you provide around here?"

She smiles gently. "I have plenty of experience in repairing broken limbs and some medical supplies for sale. I also sell a number of implants that can enhance the body's physical attributes."

"Implants?" pipes in Tilaso. "What are those?"

"I'm glad you asked," she says, "After a small attachment operation, each of the implants can apply an effect that is beneficial to the patient depending on its properties. For example..." She levitates up a small pile of flashcards with illustrations on them. The top one looks like a picture of a bullet bouncing off a picture of a generic pony. "There's the subdermal implant that will make you more resistant to damage." She slides that card back and reveals the next card. This picture looks like the before and after images of a reptile's scales. "Another implant induces a mild regenerative effect. Your wounds will practically heal up before your eyes without needing to consume any healing potions."

... or radiation in my case, I think to the side.

"What do they look like?" asks Tilaso.

"Hmm, they kind of look like microchips to the untrained eye," answers Dr. Iso-Nami, "but they have a unique underside that allows them to properly integrate with the nervous system."

Something occurs to me and I dig through the saddlebag on my left side. After a couple of seconds, that strange little object from Milton is on top of my hoof as I pull it out.

"You mean like this?" I ask as I hold it to about her eye level.

She takes it in her magical hold. She flips it over in midair a couple of times. She then pulls out a microscope and looks through it. All the while, she hums and haws.

"This is... huh. I thought the rumors were made jokingly back at the university. But I'm looking at it right now, right here." She chuckles lightly.

"What is it?" I lean in closer.

She looks at me in wonder. "Where in the world did you find this? No, wait... it's probably better if you don't answer that."

"What?" Tilaso adds to the line of confused questions.

She pulls the chip out of the microscope and sets it on the counter. "This is the prototype of the transmogrification implant. According to N.C.R. University, it's the only one of its kind."

"That's... impressive?" I am unsure of what to say to that. "What does it do?"

"The idea was this implant could allow a pony to understand the perspective of the changelings." She glances to the side. "Of course... that was while they were still around."

Tilaso tilts his head. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, history states that their race went extinct several years ago," she says. Her voice is still gentle, but there's less of a smile. "It's a shame really. I would of liked to have studied them a bit more in depth."

I cough while adjusting my neckerchief. "I'm more interested in that first part. What did you mean by 'understanding their perspective'?"

"Changelings had the power to alter their appearance and mimic the voices of other ponies," says Dr. Iso-Nami. "The implant was said to give any pony a small dose of that power. I heard the project was scrapped when they couldn't get past the obstacle of the one form per chip limitation."

Tilaso scratches his mane. "So, that implant right there lets a pony become a changeling?"

The doctor shakes her head. "Not quite. The theory is that it allows the user to transform into another pony for a limited duration. But since ponies have no way of feeding off of love energy, it doesn't exactly turn them into changelings. Plus, this particular chip already has one unicorn form written into it. Transformation into anything other than what it was programmed for would result in nothing happening."

"How did you get all of that just by looking at it?" I ask.

"I've had plenty of time to study the ins and outs of all of the implants." She waves her hoof around for emphasis. "That includes the unfinished prototypes... or formerly assumed to be unfinished prototypes in this case."

Tilaso hums. "Whose form is written into that implant?"

"That, I don't know for sure." The doctor shakes her head. "We'd have to find someone willing to take the implant and actually try transforming with it to find out."

"You'd be walking into a death trap if you set foot in the city that can vaporize alicorns on sight."

"So... unicorns are under defined protection, then?"

"If that's what you think."

After reviewing mental notes, I step forward proudly. "I'll do it."

There's a small gasp from a colt. "Your Highness, you can't seriously be considering this. Putting in that implant gives grounds for some pony else to mess around inside your body."

"The implant operation is perfectly safe," interrupts Dr. Iso-Nami.

"That's not the only thing I'm worried about," mutters Tilaso.

"Hey, look at it this way, Servant," I say with a wry smile. "Worst-case scenario, you're free to go and the wasteland has at least one less monster walking around."

"You're not a monster," he insists. "You've shown me mercy twice."

"Besides, the alicorns that actually roam these days are hardly a threat," adds the doctor, "After all, the Unity disbanded years ago."

I pause. "Okay, I have heard that term several times now and I still don't fully comprehend it. What is the 'Unity'?"

"Basically, all the alicorns were acting under the conscience of one super-alicorn that called herself the 'Goddess', quote, unquote." Tilaso waggles his hooves for emphasis. "There was a mess with some dipstick called Red Eye and a whole bunch of details that every pony is a bit fuzzy on. Point is, he and the Goddess are out of the picture and the alicorns are mostly wandering lost somewhere in the wastes. My old boss joked about some of the more civilized ones hanging out in the District of Celestia. But I wouldn't know. I've never been that far east."

I hear Monarch growling in the back of my mind, specifically when the phrase 'Red Eye' is mentioned. Surprisingly, Nuisance shares her sentiments. I'm just getting a headache from listening to all of this.

"So, how does this operation work?" I ask in order to change the subject.

"Follow me, please," says Dr. Iso-Nami as she walks around a wall corner.


Why do I need this heavy cloth in my mouth? I think as I try to ask the same thing aloud. My question is muffled, however. For that matter, why did I agree to let you clamp down all of my limbs?

"Hold still," insists the doctor's gentle voice. "This will only hurt for a few seconds."

Wait, what?

The edge of my skull suddenly feels like it's being peeled open and exposed to the fires of Tartarus.

Amore Plucking Cadenzaaaaaaa!

The apocalyptic pain fades to a blanket of darkness. For whatever reason, I can't help but imagine some pony out there laughing at my situation. But I digress.

I'm back in Proper Town. I see the faded outline of another me escape through the smoke.

"Had enough?" I yell out in the convict's voice. I toss another stick of dynamite down the street and it sails over the exploded car. I feel confident that this will kill the enemy.

I suddenly lose feeling to my everything as my world is literally turned upside down. The other me slashes through what little remains to connect my neck to my head.


My eyes crack open. I vaguely hear the sound of ventilation shafts slamming against the window frame. I grunt as I slowly straighten my legs out underneath me. It seems my restraints have been opened for a while. I take a deep breath and exhale before hopping off the table.

Dr. Iso-Nami trots in. "Oh, you're awake. How are you feeling?"

I shrug. "I've been better and I've been worse. I guess that's about normal." It's about right here that I notice that our eye levels are about equal. "Did you get taller while I was asleep?"

She chuckles. "Not exactly."

"Come to think of it..." I mutter as my ear flicks at something else weird. I try coughing the weirdness out to no avail. "What happened to my voice?" I pat my chest a bit. "And I was sure that my armor felt a little too tight before. Now, it feels relatively comfortable." This is making even less sense. What the hell is going on?

"I was pretty surprised at how quickly the implant reacted," admits the doctor. She points her hoof. "There's a mirror right behind you if you want to see your disguise's face."

That's right! The implant... what did it do? I swivel around quickly and stare at... some pony I've never seen before. Slowly, I trot towards the glass. The unfamiliar pony trots closer as well. Off to the side of her, I can see the doctor's reflection fairly accurately. So then... this unfamiliar pony is... me?

Her confused expression certainly looks like my current emotional state. She squints when I squint. She sticks out her tongue when I stick out mine. She even taps the glass at the exact same place that my hoof does without any time discrepancy. I tilt my head as I examine her features more closely.

Her mane is composed of red and black stripes. Her hide is white, almost as ghostly as my normal mane is. Her teeth are definitely flatter than mine, no fangs anywhere. Her eyes are piercing red, contrasting my usual green. But what stands out as the biggest opposites are the extra features on a pony. I have wings and no workable horn. She, however, has no wings. Her horn is intact.

I try giving my wings a stretching flap only to realize that I don't feel anything down there. I almost feel naked in spite of my armor and neckerchief. But then, another thought occurs to me. Instead of reaching to the side for my dagger like I usually do, I just... feel in that direction. I know it sounds the same, but it isn't. My feeling is rewarded with a dagger floating up in front of me in a golden glow.

"Fascinating," mutters the doctor.

I barely heed her any mind. I play around with the glow by willing my dagger up, down, left, right, and twirling. I giggle like a little school filly playing with her new toy. Though, I soon decide to flow the dagger back into its tiny sheathe.

Wait, if this form can't fly, maybe I should double-check everything else.

"Laas Yah Nir," I mutter. I kind of expected a red aura, but nothing happens.

"Did you say something to me?" asks Dr. Iso-Nami.

I shake my head. "No, it's nothing." I pause. "How do I... change back?"

"If I remember my studies of their old nerval cords correctly, changelings could take on the forms that they briefly imagine. Try picturing yourself."

I close my eyes and picture the details. Faded blue hide, wings, white mane, green eyes, sixteenth note cutie mark... I hear something ignite. My eyes snap open. When I look at the mirror again, I'm staring at the same face I did in Doctor Prickard's mirror in Fondsprings. I sigh as I tap the familiar stump of a horn. That disappointment doesn't count the snug feeling that's increased against my armor.

"Can't have everything," I say out loud. "Laas... Yah Nir."

Ah, there it is. I look at the red blobs within myself and the doctor before blinking the auras out of my vision. I turn around and look at her directly, which requires a slightly angled look down.

I brace myself for bad news. "So... what do I owe you?"

She clears her throat. "Normally, this kind of operation has a price of 2,000 bottle caps."

My feathers tense up as my eyes open wide. Two thousand?! I don't think even our whole group combined has that kind of money!

She lifts up a hoof. "However, you brought in your own implant from outside and I got some pretty unique data recorded from this experience. I'd be willing to cut it down to 450."

I let out a huge breath and let my wings reach down. "That sounds more within my budget." It eats up more than two thirds of my savings, but I am so glad that she accepts this smaller dose of jingling.

"If there's anything else I can do for you, feel free to come back," she says merrily.

"Hopefully, that won't be too soon," I say, "but thank you."
Note: The Hives are technically extinct. However, there may very well be a few changelings remaining across this land, hiding in plain sight.

"Your Majesty, you're alive!" cries Tilaso in relief.

"That I am," I say with a nod. "Come on. I've got something to show everyone."

The doors open and I immediately feel like I'm missing some context.

"I wonder what that would even taste like if it was castrated," says Stratus while flapping in place.

"You sick bastard." Baane shakes his head.

FRED-E chirps up and interrupts their conversation. All of them turn to look at me.

"What took you so long?" asks Stratus.

"I decided to allow the operation of one implant," I say bluntly.

"Wow, really? What did you get?" asks Stratus. "Are you stronger now?" She flexes her front legs. "Can you run quicker?" She air gallops. "Can you see faster?" Her hooves move just above her eyes.

"D*** it, seeing faster is not a real thing," says Baane in irritation.

"Not exactly," I say. I picture that young unicorn. "Now you see me..." I watch the green flame rush around me for that split second. "... and now you see some pony else."

I expected a stunned silence. However, the scared pointing from the silver pegasus and the red unicorn is a bit much.

"The Accursed One returns!" They both fall to the ground with all hooves pointing straight up to the sky. FRED-E turns and looks to either side at the fainted ponies. Tilaso looks at them as well and scratches his head.

"The what?" my disguised voice asks.
-One-Size Fits "Changeling" Implant: You now have the ability to alter your form to that of a unicorn. Level one spells are available. However, you don't gain any experience and you lose access to your alicorn capabilities in this form. There also seems to be an uncanny similarity between this disguise and some pony that two of your allies know. Better find out what's going on.

Ch. 13: From Sea to Shining Sapphire

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From Sea to Shining Sapphire

"They say, 'Imitation is the highest form of flattery.' But sometimes, it's nothing more than a slap in the face." ~W.


Baane trots on ahead. He says something about a personal recon mission and that he'll meet us up at the New Canterlot safe zone inside the strip. I've never seen him move his hooves so fast, not even at Milton when he was practically charging at half the Imperials he shot. In any case, I turn to the rest of my team with new questions to ask.

"Baane said that this pony caused a lot of problems for military factions in various areas." I try to cross my wings, but then sheepishly remember that I currently don't have them. I settle for tapping my right hoof lightly against the ground. "I get that he'd get intel regarding threats to his objectives, but how do you know this mare?"

Stratus turns her head in embarrassment. "Well, rumors go a lot farther when you've seen pictures to go with them. For a while, I saw posters of her everywhere I flew. Every town I flew to had some kind of poster with her mug. Some marked her as 'Wanted'. Others said stay away from her. Hell, I even found an editorial about her that explained all the crazy-**s-s*** she went through."

That just leaves me more confused and I raise an eyebrow. "If she's so infamous, why haven't I seen any clues of her existence in the towns I've been to?"

"That's the weirdest part." Stratus holds her hoof to the side as her tail flicks. "One day, all of her pictures just up and vanished."

My hoof stops tapping as my eyes open wide. "Vanished? What's that supposed to mean?" I squint at her.

"I was in the Baltimare Crater area when it happened. The pictures with her face looked like they were being erased by some unseen force. Coincidentally, I happened to take a look at the editorial in the magazine I had snagged. Her photos and all mentions of her name were completely stripped... like they were never there to begin with."

I lean back in surprise. My eyes widen again. "How? Why?"

"Beats the hell out of me." Stratus shrugs. "Maybe she changed her continuity like how Stroke Of Red did with Strike 'Em Dead."

I tilt my head. "Like who of what did what to who?"

Stratus deadpans. "Really? You remember the Power Ponies, but you don't remember the Mare-acle and LR hero comics?"

I sigh. "I told you before. I have selective amnesia. I have no say in what my brain selects for memories."

She crosses her front limbs and hums. "By the way, do you have any memories of that pony that you're wearing?"

"Huh? You mean this unicorn's memories?" I shake my head. "No, my mind is still my own."

"No, no, just..." Stratus reaches out her arms, hooves facing up. "Think hard for a sec."

I don't really understand where she's going with this. Still, I see no harm in doing what she's asking right this minute. I close my eyes and try to clear out the rest of my thoughts. I take slow, deep breaths.

Do you remember anything, little pony? I think to the emptiness, not really expecting anything.

This is a waste of time, scoffs Monarch.

I can't get off to this, pouts Nuisance.

Shut up, Monarch and I tell her.

I open my eyes. "No. Nothing of hers specifically is coming to me, unless you count waking up this morning in her form."

Stratus shrugs. "All right, I was just curious."

"I think we've given Baane a good head start," pipes in Tilaso. "Shouldn't we get going, Your Majesty?"

I turn to the colt. "I'm going to have to ask you to stop calling me that, especially once we get to middle of New Pegasus. It might seem suspicious."

"So, what do you want for an alias, Forte?" asks Stratus while fluttering in place. "I think that pony's name was Old Maid or something."

"It's probably best if I don't use anything close to that then," I say while mulling it over. Idly, I look at this form's cutie mark. It kind of looks like two playing cards: a black Queen and a black Ace. I smile as a brilliant idea pops into my head. "Call me Spades."

"Meh, I was thinking Equus Hold'Em, but that works too." Stratus nods.

I hum. "I feel like I'm forgetting something." Something beeps and I snap to attention. "Oh, right. FRED-E, will you still follow me?"

A few gibberish beeps flow out of his speaker. These are followed by a slow, yet deliberate sequence of chirps. A few more mix of beeps later and I think I get it.

I relay his phrase to my other allies as best as I can. "User... pupil data... Forte Pianissimo... Fully Responsive Electromagic Device Epsilon... ready to provide assistance... secondary user... Spades... certain information withheld... primary orders still operational." I nod. "All right, we're good to go."
Note: Certain A.I.s will recognize you if you change form in front of their sensors. Be mindful of where you activate the changeling implant.

"This gate seems a little overboard," I comment, "not to mention too colorful for the middle of a desert."

"I've seen places more inappropriate than this," retorts Stratus.

"Really?" asks Tilaso, "Were they worse than an astral designed tent with a flaming carriage decal?"

"Oh, most definitely." She smirks.

"I wonder why the outermost section is called Freewall," I say as I trot up to the gate. "It can't possibly be free to live on the wall."

There is an awkward silence.

"Booooo," mutters Stratus.

I sigh. "Help me open this gate, would you?"

The vibrant metal sheet creaks and groans as the three of us ponies push and shove. No offense to FRED-E, but I don't have much confidence in his physical strength aside from keeping himself afloat. Once there is sufficient space, we squeeze on through. Tilaso sits down to catch his breath. Three darkly dressed and armored ponies trot over near us.

"You could do worse than us, wanderers," addresses the mare in the center. "A hundred caps sees you safely to the strip's front entrance."

I chance a couple of glances to my sides. My dagger and gun are still in their proper places. I look back at the rude mare. "No thanks. I think we're just fine."

"Your funeral," she says as the gun behind her back clicks.

*Pow* *Pow*

Within my golden magic aura, K.R.'s barrel smokes slightly as the leader's head falls backward. FRED-E fries the stallion on the left while Stratus introduces the one on the right to her ballistic hoof jab.

"I'm sorry. Whose funeral is it?" I ask as I holster my gun. "I didn't catch that over the sound of you dying."

"Now what do we have here?" Stratus flutters over and picks up the leader's weapon. It seems about the same size as my varmint rifle. However, something in the ammunition chamber causes Stratus to open her eyes wide. "Holy s***, this is a grenade launcher!" She clicks it back shut and tosses it to Tilaso. "Hey, kid! Merry early Hearth's Warming."

I look at her in confusion. "Weren't you the one that questioned my decision to put Tilaso in charge of explosive weapons?"

"I never said I was against it," Stratus points out. "I was just surprised when you first said it." She continues digging around pockets. "Huh, I guess it's a slow day in the escort business. She's only got fifty on her."

"Trying to double up from us, huh?" I ask rhetorically. I shake my head.

FRED-E hovers over next to me, chirping and puttering.

"He's right," I admit, "We should get moving before some pony starts staring at this mess."

"Understood, Pri-... er, Spades," stammers Tilaso after stowing his new toy.


"If it can be bought, it can be found at Mac 'n' Tosh's! We've even got stuff that's illegal in most city-states!" hollers a young colt.

"Come to the Platinum Rush for all your energy weapon needs!" calls out a stallion wearing a hoodie.

"For a good time, head on down to the Sparking Buckler where the booze is fine, the babes are hotter, and the slot machines are just like the booze!" This slogan comes from a questionably dressed filly.

This is some city, I think as we trot down the stretch of road. Here's to hoping I don't have to spend more time here than what's absolutely necessary.

FRED-E's quick beeps snap me out of my hurried power trotting away from the advertisements.

"Bogey at twelve o'clock?" I echo as I look up.

I involuntarily gasp at the sight. It's a green alicorn flying at full speed. She's heading for the strip's second gate. A few securitrons turn around near that gate and start firing swift and large rounds. A large orb of light vibrates around that alicorn. That must be her magical shield. But even though she doesn't appear to be getting hit directly, her wings seem to wince in pain at every other shot. The flinching seems to be in time with every large distortion along her shield.

Just as she looks like she's going to clear the strip's wall, her wings hang low in fatigue. Her protective orb vanishes as a robot's bright, white beam blasts through her tired head. The rest of her corpse flops onto the top of the wall. A splat of bloody chunks starts to dribble down the side. After seeing that, I can't help but shiver slightly.

"Friend of yours?" whispers Stratus.

I shake my head. "Can't say I knew her at all. I just couldn't help but picture that being me."

"Just act natural and that won't have to be you," she says encouragingly.

"Remember," adds Tilaso, "You are a unicorn now. You look down on the lesser pony races, use your magic to push others around, and take very little consideration of the needs of the many."

"But I've been doing that already, except for the magic part," I point out. "Can't I just try not to be a crude girl while still cutting up the bigger dicks?"

"Sounds good to me." Stratus nods.

Tilaso mutters to the side, "Well, sure, if you want to take the easy way..."

After that little pep talk, we resume the trot toward the guarded gate. There are a few randomly placed barrels on fire along the streets. Even more haphazard are the stink eyes I get from a pony or two that happen to wander by. A young colt and filly scamper by in their pursuit of what appears to be a giant rat. However, what really catches my attention is a well-kept stallion walking toward us in a suit and tie.

"You look new around these parts," he says, "Word of advice: don't go past that gate without talking to the greeter first."

"Are you talking about that securitron that just obliterated that alicorn trying to fly in?" I ask dryly.

"Well, those bots are apparently under orders to vaporize anyone that tries to bypass the greeter. As for alicorns, they're pretty much shot upon entry no matter what."

"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind." I give a quick nod.

"I'm Bowtie by the way."


"You seem awfully dressed up for a rundown place like Freewall," comments Tilaso. "What are you doing around here?"

"Oh, I've had a number of different jobs over the years," says Bowtie, "Courier, escort, and crier. It's been pretty rough."

"What were those jobs like?" asks Tilaso.

"Being a courier was all right at first, until I realized how crazy some ponies could get just to try and acquire certain packages that I was carrying. No amount of money was worth my life."

I hum. "How is escort work different in terms of risk then? Isn't that just taking ponies to other places instead of packages?"

Bowtie scratches his neck. "Well, when I say 'escort', I mean like the kind of pony that knows how to show others a good time in the bedroom. After a while, I felt too much like a flimsy slab and got out of that gig."

Stratus recoils and almost loses her place in the air. I agree with eyes wide. This line of conversation ought to stop here.

"I don't get-"

"And the crier job?" I quickly ask, interrupting Tilaso in the process.

"Now that was a good workout for the vocal chords." Bowtie smiles. "I was the man out in front of one of the casinos getting ponies' attention and convincing them that their gambling needs were right inside. I really liked the work and some of the mares recognized my smooth chats. Unfortunately, the manager's son caught wind that his girlfriend, among all the other ladies, really liked me. He found a way to frame me for stealing a large sum of the casino's money. Sure enough, when they checked their safe, those caps were missing and I got booted out into Freewall."

"Sheesh, and I thought Cirrus was bad," mutters Stratus while looking to the side.

"So what do you do now, Bowtie?" asks Tilaso. "Do you just wander around and give the occasional warning to the ponies that slowly make their way toward the main gate?"

"Well, I had just enough to get through the month, but it's getting pretty close to the end of the third week after the crier job went south. I was starting to think that maybe I should just find out what the starving community's point of view is."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," says Tilaso.

Bowtie chuckles. "You're all right, young colt." He looks to me again. "Keep his innocence strong. It's difficult to find a son like that in this world today."

"Huh?" By the time his comment registers to me, he's already trotting away.

"What do you suppose he meant by that?" wonders Stratus.

"Tartarus if I know," I say with a shrug. "Let's go have a chat with the 'greeter'."

I carefully trot up behind the securitron who still seems to be pointing its visualizer at the alicorn's corpse. I lightly tap its back to get its attention. It turns around with a barely audible whir.

"Please pay the credit check or present your passport before entering the strip," says the mechanical audio. "Trespassers will be shot."

'Shot' seems like a mild word, I think. "What's the credit check for? Are you looking for bombs in the money or something?"

"Confirmation must be made that all visitors are carrying sufficient caps so that a safe and enjoyable time will be had by all," it replies.

Hmph, somepony sure loved their propaganda programming when making these robots, thinks Monarch.

This shouldn't be too hard. I pull out the large pouch of caps that I happen to have. "Here's 300."

"Please return when you have sufficient credit." The securitron abruptly turns away from me.

"Wait, what? That's not enough?" I stuff my caps away and turn around. "How much is the minimum I need?"

FRED-E chirps a comment after I get about ten feet away from the greeter.

"Fifteen hundred?!" I nearly choke. "That's almost as ludicrous as one of that doctor's implants."

"Your Hi- er, Spades!" Tilaso's voice calls. "Over here!"

I step lively over in direction that the call is coming from. I see Tilaso's head sticking up through a hole in the ground. There is a mostly flat metal disk right next to this hole.

"It looks like this sewer tunnel goes right under in the direction of the strip," he says, "We can get in this way."

Stratus stares at that hole uncertainly. "It looks like you barely fit through that opening, kid. We're going to need oils that we don't have on hoof if we wanted to even try squeezing through there."

"Oh." His ears flop down.

I sigh. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe you should go on ahead that way."

"Prin- Spades?" The colt's eyes open wide in surprise.

"Get a mental map of that underground maze," I advise. "There might be a chance that you'll need a quick escape route if we ever have to split up again. I value your safety as a top priority." I pat a hoof against the road. "You're on recon duty for now, Servant Tilaso. Once you've got a good understanding of the tunnel layout, make your way near the safe site that Baane is waiting. Is that clear?"

"Understood!" he yelps out excitedly. He pulls the cover over as he climbs down out of sight.

"You really have that much faith in him," says Stratus skeptically.

"He works better when he's given a clear motive," I respond. "That just leaves figuring out how to get a couple of passports for us. I'm sure FRED-E can just hack his way in or bribe the robots with his mechanical personality."

The sprite-bot's speaker sputters.

"No, that is not racist," I counter, "That is an observation of your ability to hack into their CPUs and find out the exact credit amount for their greeter's check."

"What's the plan, leader?" asks Stratus.

I deadpan. "I'm not your leader. You can do whatever the hell you want. I'm going to head to the various small stops in Freewall and see if they've got any openings."

"Sounds fun," she comments. "I'm going to hit up that Sparking Buckler place and try to crack regi- I mean grab a cold drink."

"All right, see ya." I watch her fly off.

FRED-E beeps a pattern at me.

"Oh, please." I wave my hoof dismissively. "I'm technically committing identity theft. I'm in no position to reprimand her if she wants to steal a few caps and beers."

His speaker sounds like it is blowing a fuse or two.

I shake my head and smile. "You're way too easy to rile up. Do you know that?" I trot over to one side of the road as I read the giant letters on one corner's building face. "The Shores' School of Idol Imitation. Well, that sounds interesting. I'm imitating a changeling imitating a unicorn. Maybe they could use a tutor."

My remaining ally chirps his uncertainty.

"Oh, you're always saying that."
Note: The biggest contenders for the Mojave wasteland are the New Canterlot Republic, the Empire, and the Mansion household. However, you can still join some of the other groups in the desert if you play your cards right. Among these lower-tier gangs are the Powder Gangers, the Great Khans, and the Shores. Wild beasts will attack you regardless of your faction.

This is... not at all what I was expecting. I figure that schools have hallways that lead to classrooms and lockers that don't open even when you know you entered the combination exactly as it was given to you. If the hour is right, there should be students galloping and tripping over each other to get where they need to go. Somepony is supposed to be shaking down another for their lunch money.

What I see is a secretary's desk and one door in the corner that leads to another room. There are some ponies walking around, but they all look like they're wearing too much makeup and manes that look like they popped out of a wig store. None of them are actually sitting at the secretary's desk. So, I trot over to the corner door. I figure whoever is in charge is probably through there.

"Well, looky what we've got here," says the shiny mare loitering by the door. "Another wanderer looking to meet the Queen."

"Huh? I thought this was an educational facility," I say in confusion. "Who's the queen?"

"You sure you haven't been living under a rock or something, girl?" She tsk-tsks. "Here in Freewall, the Queen is the only pony whose good side you need to be on. Riddle me this, Red. How much do you think it's worth to see the queen?"

Is this a toll? I wonder quietly before I scoff. "Tell you what; I'll give whatever tribute is required directly to this queen of yours."

She half-smiles. "You know what? I get a good feeling about you. Go ahead and meet the Queen. Don't get on her bad side, or I'll be the first one you answer to."

I shrug. "Say whatever helps you sleep at night."

My tail whips back behind me for emphasis as I trot through the door. The room is filled with a lot of low-sitting, round tables. From a brief glance, I guess that the amount of chairs outnumbers the occupants by about three-to-one. Over on the far wall is a sizeable stage. Four ponies atop shake their rumps to some pumping sound playing over the speakers.

Every outfit I see in here is very garish. I feel out of place in my NCR armor, but I really don't want to take this off right now. Despite the crazy outfits, one of the seated ponies stands out more with a headdress that holds several golden feathers that look more solid than fluffy.

The stage performers draw to a brief closing as the music comes to a halt. "Five, six, seven, eight, ba-bam!"

I walk up to the pony with the headdress. She turns and looks at me. She looks briefly surprised, but smiles politely.

"Why hello there," she greets. "It's been a while since I've seen a new face in here. Folks around here call me the Queen. What can I do for you, Honeybun?"

"Is that where your toll collector's money goes?" I ask while glancing up from her eyes to her headgear. "To that hat of yours?"

"Toll?" Queen looks surprised before realization dawns on her. "Oh, it looks like Quartz is up to her thing again. Sorry about that, Hon. What did she take you for?"

"Nothing, actually." I shake my head. "I pretty much bull-crapped her with a line about direct tribute and she let me through."

"Is that a fact?" Queen chuckles. "Quartz must be losing her touch."

"You'd know that better than me," I say with a shrug. "Why is this place called Shores?"

"Hon, the High Queen of Pop's spirit is still alive and it's the job of us, the Shores, to act as her temple so that she can keep on being--" She gets up from her chair and abruptly struts. "~Sensational!~ Ow!" She goes back to sitting in her chair so fast that I wonder if I was imagining the entire movement.

After blinking and shaking my head, I ask, "Okay, this may sound pretentious, but do you have any job openings?"

"Perhaps, Hon, perhaps." Her head feathers rattle a little as she bobs her head. "Tell you what, if you can do a small favor for me, come back and I'll let you handle a more important task. What do you say?"

"I'll defer to your cautious approach," I say with a nod. "What would you like me to do?"

-What are you looking for? A new perk? We aren't just giving those away. You have to earn them!
... Oh, fine.
Lv. 1 Levitation: You can lift and maneuver light objects without any negative consequences. (This ability is exclusive to your unicorn form.)

Ch. 14: Freewall Has Problems

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Freewall Has Problems

"Lady, you're trouble." ~Dodge Junction drivers


"So I'm supposed to find this bodyguard who literally calls himself 'Hire' and see if I can find anything suspicious about why ponies are choosing him over any of the others." I trot back up the street toward the outer gate. "Did I miss anything?"

FRED-E beeps a negative.

"At least Queen gave me compensation ahead of time to cover this guy's price," I admit. "But really, is it too much to consider the possibility that maybe he's just that good at his job?"

The sprite-bot sends a different pattern of beeps.

"Okay, those three bodyguards from earlier were kind of terrible, but that's because they made the mistake of aiming at us."

"If it can be bought, it can be found at Mac 'n' Tosh's!"

"This kid is still going at it," I mutter as FRED-E and I pass him. "He must have a really good set of lungs."

My robot gives a few chortling chitters.

I chuckle. "Yeah, maybe an espresso was shoved down his throat." I shake my head. "But back to the point, you can't gauge a pony's work ethic with how they fight you and Stratus. You're basically comparing Sparkle Cola to ale; both are good, but for very different reasons."

He concedes with a few quiet chirps.

I look up ahead. It looks like there's a mare in one of the Shores' outfits and a stallion with a huge spike on his right shoulder. I'm giving one guess to say which one of them is Hire.

"You won't find anypony else in Freewall who can keep you safer than me," brags the guy with a spiked shoulder pad. "How about it, little lady?"

He wouldn't be talking so big if he saw my actual size, Monarch's thoughts echo.

I ignore her and pretend to hum and haw at Hire's proposal. "I don't know. How much would you go for to keep sweet little me safe?" I follow up the sound effects with an eye flutter.

"Just for you, two hundred caps," he says with a confident smile.

"Okay," I agree sweetly while levitating Queen's compensation out of my pocket. "Here you go."

"Good." He stuffs the caps away quickly. "Now here are some ground rules: One, make sure you can keep up with my brisk pace. Two, this is the direct route. If you fall behind or go off sightseeing, I find a new customer."

Well, that mood didn't last long, pouts Nuisance.

"That's fine," I say with a calm nod.

"Let's get going." With that, he briskly trots forth.

I find it odd that he isn't charging extra for showing the way for my robot, but I'm not complaining. Instead, I move my legs to keep his mane and tail within sight.

He turns his head slightly. "Over to your left is Old Kyn's Fort. If you ever need patching up, the ponies there can help you out in no time."

"Really?" I mutter as I look at the large wooden doors in the middle of a brick wall.

My 'bodyguard' keeps trotting along past the loud colt still advertising that suspicious general goods store. Eventually, the hollering and crying of the two older ponies adds to the mixed signals in the air.

Hire turns his head again. "If you need a hard drink, the Sparking Buckler has something to quench just about anyone's thirst. There's also the Platinum Rush for high-tech weapons, not that I ever need those."

"Sure, whatever," I reply nonchalantly while still power trotting.

The Platinum Rush crier calls out, "You want something dead? The Platinum Rush has the best weapon for the job!"

"Hold up!" Hire stops suddenly and holds up his hoof. I nearly run into his leg and I have to backpedal a little. "There's something fishy about those ponies up ahead." He looks to both sides of the street before trotting to the left. "Let's take a different path."

Despite me trotting after him, I raise my eyebrow at his statement. "Wait, what happened to taking the direct route? And... isn't it part of your job to keep suspicious individuals off of your customer in the first place? We could probably take them."

"I'll scout ahead!" he hollers as he goes into a gallop.

And now he's trying to abandon me. I scoff before galloping as well. Maybe Queen was onto something. This 'Hire' guy is making some very suspicious decisions.

As he turns around a corner, he pulls out a gun and aims the direction of down that path. "Hah! Thought you could ambush us, huh?"

*Pop* *Pop* *Pop*

By the time I catch up, I see the bodies of ponies lying down in uncomfortable positions. I see pants on a couple of them. The concept just baffles me. What purpose does it serve a pony to wear pants?

Hire turns around to look at me. Confidence brims through his smile. "See that? If you had chosen anypony else, you would have been jumped by those guys for sure."

I pull off my best imitation of Baane's vanishing smile trick. Somehow, I successfully suppress the urge to laugh at Hire's assumption about my ability to defend myself.

"What exactly tipped you off about where they'd be?" I ask.

"When you've been around Freewall as long as I have, you tend to learn how to read the signs," answers Hire. "I've practically gained a sixth sense for these kinds of troublemakers."

"Mm-hm." I look over at the corpses briefly.

Confused, I do a double-take.

"Uh... you only shot your gun three times." I raise my eyebrow. "How come there are four bodies?"

His front leg slides back slightly. "Er, you noticed that, did you? It was... a precision shot. I shot through the vitals of the first thug at just the right angle to hit the guy behind him."

I deadpan directly at him. "Right."

"We should get moving! The gate's just a little further." He turns and slowly trots through the alley.

Who is this guy kidding? I wonder rhetorically. Quickly, I look to the left, to the right, above me, and behind me. I don't see any securitrons. I lay myself back around the corner of the building and focus on my original form. As the green flame flashes past my vision, I close my eyes.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

My whisper reveals four red auras in the shapes of the 'corpses' lying down. Yep, I thought so. The alley is empty enough, save for Hire. I grasp my dagger in a stance I haven't held since yesterday. I leap out from behind my corner, spinning myself over the bodies. I hear two pained yelps as my blade cuts through their respective necks.

The other two 'corpses' roll to their bellies to stand up. I stab in deep to the third thug's throat before bucking the fourth in the stomach. At this point, I catch sight of Hire turning around. While FRED-E busies himself with blasting laser fire at the non-stabbed thug, the 'bodyguard' shakily raises his weapon with his eyes wide.


Smiling, I switch back to 'Spades'. Hire's next shot whizzes over my head as I swing out K.R.

*Pow* *Pow*

He has a couple of potholes where his eyes used to be as he collapses to the ground. I can now undoubtedly refer to these bodies as corpses. I stow my weapons as I trot over to the dead Hire. The pouch that I gave him earlier is off to the side intact. I levitate it back into my possession.

"I guess your sixth sense wasn't working today, Hire," I say, "Feel free to complain to Tartarus's management about that."


As I enter the Shores' hangout, I hear the ending part of a performance. "Five, six, seven, eight, ba-bam!"

Do these girls know any other songs? I shake my head and sigh as I trot over next to Her Royal Headdress... I mean Queen.

"You're back," she notices. "What did you find out about Hire?"

"Turns out he had a deal with some thugs in Freewall's alleyways," I explain, "The reason so many ponies felt safe around him was because the troublemakers he 'dealt' with knew not to kill his customers and played dead whenever he shot empty air just out of sight."

"Is that so?" Queen's taps her chin and hums. "How'd you figure that out, Hon?"

I don't bother holding back my smug grin. "Because the bodies stood back up when I inflicted real pain in them. I treated them like zombies and put them back in their graves. Long story short, Hire and his posse won't be stealing any of your girls' bodyguard business again."

Queen lowers her hoof and chuckles. "So it went down like that, huh? Not very subtle, but you got the job done. It seems you're ready to take on a more important task."
Note: The Followers of the Apocalypse seek peace, the spread of knowledge, and equality of resources. Beware of the quiet ones.

This new task requires me to check on some friends of Queen that are currently getting patched up at Old Kyn's Fort. Apparently, they were attacked by something or some pony. Sadly, there is no way to narrow down the potential targets without investigating. So to keep up with my attempt at being the smallest of pricks around, 'Spades' accepts the job and heads to this location that Hire pointed out earlier.

As I stand in front of the giant wooden gate, I briefly wonder if I should have grabbed Stratus from her cap-stealing -- I mean binge drinking to help me out. Sure, I try magically pulling and pushing the gate. However, the thing hardly creaks, let alone shows any sign of opening. That's when FRED-E floats forward and attaches a hook that's on his underside to the gate's handle.

"Wait, how long have you had that?" I ask while pointing an accusatory hoof.

FRED-E chitters honestly.

"Since always?" I echo skeptically. "So, why haven't you been using that for anything until now?"

FRED-E beeps and sputters insistently.

"It wasn't the appropriate time," I bemusedly restate his excuse. "You have got some weird programming to think that a grappling hook can't be used for anything other than opening this wooden gate. What about that outer wall's big metal gate?"

His next patterns of noises are a bit blunt.

"Because I didn't ask?" I exhale in disbelief before I facehoof.

The sprite-bot chirps a questioning tone.

"I'm only repeating what you're saying to myself because I'm finding you unbelievable." I set my hoof down and shake my head. "Just get that gate open."

He beeps an affirmative and goes about completing his directive.

As I trot through the opening, I take a visual note of the tents set up around the moderate space. A few ponies are up and walking around. A couple of them even chance a quick greeting as they pass by me. If the Queen's friends were really attacked, I suspect that they are in one of these tents under care or something. I chance a glance inside the first tent on my right and see a rather torn up body lying on a flatbed with two other ponies kneeling next to it. I slowly trot in and clear my throat.

The older stallion turns his head up grumpily. "What is it? Can't you see that I'm trying to mourn over my friend here in peace?"

"Oh, never mind," I say with a forced tone, "I guess the Queen doesn't have any friends around here. Let's go, FRED-E."

The elder's eyes immediately widen. "Wait, the Queen sent you? That's different. What can I do for you?"

First Hire and now this guy? All of these attitude one-eighties are confusing me, grumbles Nuisance.

"I was told that you were attacked recently and I was hoping you could give me more details," I explain.

"Well, we were heading back home to get some return on our scavenged scrap," he tells, "But we must have made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the squadders' side of town. They pointed guns at us asking if we were locals." He points a hoof to the unmoving body. "The kid is about as proud as a local gets and started yelling back at them. He got the worst of it."

"Did you see what the gunners looked like?" I ask.

"No, I didn't," says the old stallion regretfully, "I was too busy getting my face kicked into the dirt to get a good look at them. I know the one kicking me couldn't have been more than half my age. He was really strong, too."

So that narrows it down to what? Approximately forty-five percent of the world's population? Maybe forty-three percent if you count out all of the ponies weaker than this grandfather? I let out a sigh.

"Trowel might be able to tell you more," he adds before turning to the other pony. "Trowel, it's okay. The Queen sent her. She's here to help."

'Help' is a strong word right now, remarks Monarch in the back of my mind.

"Is that true? You were sent by the Queen?" This colt looks at least a few years older than Tilaso, but he's still not up to 'Spades' height.

"Why else would I be talking to you concerning your health?" I retort.

"I don't know!" Trowel takes a step back. His front right hoof covers the left in a flinch. "Maybe you're with the attackers trying to ID us." He sighs before straightening his leg back down. "No, that can't be it."

"So what can you tell me about the attack?" I ask. I try to tap my wing impatiently, but realize that it currently isn't there. I feel my eyebrow twitching instead.

"Not much more than you already know," Trowel admits. "I did catch one of the other guys calling his name. They said, 'We've got to go, Lu.' I'm... pretty sure he said Lu. Actually, I heard his last name too." He taps his chin before his head perks up. "Tenant! That was it. His name was Lu Tenant."

"He probably said Lieutenant," comments the elder. "The colt means well, but he sometimes imitates the brains of wheatgrass."

A lieutenant, huh? So... one percent of the world's population? I guess that's a narrower field to comb.

"Thank you for your time," I say before turning around and trotting out.

"Just come back when you find out who that son-of-a-birch was," requests the elder.

"Sure," I reply half-heartedly.

I still have yet to explore Old Kyn's Fort entirely. As much as I'd love to head out and beat my current military allies until one of them confesses, I decide to trot around the circle of tents. The next one looks a bit empty, aside from a few boxes and a lamp. Resting next to the lamp is a rather odd sight. It looks... familiar. I trot into the tent to get a closer look.

"An alicorn... statuette?" I mutter out loud.

I levitate it up for a closer look. The figure appears to be an extremely dark gray pony in a suit of segmented armor. It doesn't hide her folded wings or horn, nor her turquoise cat eyes that look behind her. It's as if she's reflecting on something that happened. Underneath her, there are some bold words written on a silver plate nailed to the brown stand.


"Can I help you?"

I yelp as I whirl around. A pegasus mare in a lab coat trots in, holding the tent flap against her hoof. I know this outfit. That stallion back in Helium Two wears the same exact button layout.

"Sorry, I was just... looking around," I admit. I glance down and notice the statuette is on the ground after that yelp. I smile sheepishly as I pick it up and gently place it back next to the lamp.

"She's quite a sight, isn't she?" remarks the Follower as she trots further inside.

"Y-Yeah," I stammer. "Who is she?"

"No idea." She shakes her head. "The only thing that was on her that might have resembled a name was a carving in the bottom that's too worn to make out." She presses a button on the lamp and it turns on. She takes the statuette in her hoof and angles it so that I can see the bottom of the brown stand. "If you look carefully you can make out the letters en-eye-tee-ee. Maybe 'Nite' was meant to make her sound cuter than she looks."

"I guess," I say with a shrug.

She hums. "Want to take her with you?"

I wave my hoof in reservation. "Oh, no. I couldn't."

"It's perfectly fine," she insists. I briefly see a twinkle in her eye. "Besides, I get the feeling she somehow resonates with you."

I tense up and stare. Does she... know?

Kill the witness, orders Monarch.

Screw the witness, demands Nuisance.

No, no, I... Let me handle this, I think to them.

I slowly nod before accepting the little figurine. I suppose I know of weirder good luck charms, a bottle cap necklace for instance. Once 'Nite' is safely stored and out of my immediate sight, I take a breath. Everything just seems... calmer.

"I'm Spades, by the way," I introduce my alias.

"Misty Fly," says the girl with a nod.

"Really?" I ask. "You don't look like a 'Misty'."

Misty shrugs her wings. "I was told it was my great-grandmother's name."

"Ah." I nod.

"Say, would you mind doing a favor for me?"

I suppose I do owe you for the statuette. "What needs to be done?"
Question: What is Fallout: Equestria's equivalent to Fixer?

"Oh hey, Spades!"

As I trot along the streets of Freewall, I look up to see the source of a familiar voice. I can't help but smile at Stratus as she comes down to flutter closer. I get the urge to sniff a bit, but I don't smell any heavy alcohol coming from her breath. Although, I guess the fact that she is holding a solid posture while hovering is enough of a sober sight.

"Hey," I reply, "Did you find everything you wanted at that Buckler place?"

"Well, just about," Stratus admits, "It turns out they were willing to hire a brand new face to collect some debts from old tab holders."

"Really?" I look at her carefully. "They trust you to be a debt collector?"

"Hey! They never specified how they wanted me to get the caps. They just want somepony to get the deadbeats to pay up." She places both of her front legs against her hips. "Can't a woman just do something out of the goodness of their heart?"

"All right, fine," I say with a shrug. "I believe you."

"So what are you up to right now?" she asks.

"I'm doing a little favor for the Followers at Old Kyn's Fort," I explain, "I'm supposed to find a couple of their ponies with high-level skills and convince them to get help for their addictions."

"And they think you can cure two addicts?" Stratus crosses her front legs over her chest.

I shake my head. "I just have to convince them to get the help. The doctors at the Fort should be able to handle the purging process."

She uncrosses her limbs. "Well, good luck with that."

"To you as well," I bid in kind as we part ways again.


I check various corners around the broken debris. I'm half-tempted to pull out my true form to get at least some idea of where anypony is around here. But, I can't do that right now. There's a securitron rolling his wheel up and down this way every minute. As I check around one more ancient doorway, I see some stallion in rags. He looks all mopey, and his hoof keeps tapping an empty syringe over and over. I guess this is one of Misty's associates.

"You look like you've seen better days," I comment.

"Hey, pretty filly." He looks at me, but his eyes keep darting back toward his syringe. "You got any drugs for me?"

I'm not a chem charity, I think indignantly. "No, I'm actually here to tell you to quit."

"Wha...? No, lady. I can't quit now." He shudders in place while stepping on the syringe and cracking it. "I need that Buck and Dash just to keep from getting sick. I'd make my own Fixer, but my darn hooves won't hold still."

Skin deep addictions are rather disgusting, thinks Nuisance.

Huh? Since when do you have standards? I wonder before I shake my head.

"That supplier's going to come back soon," comments the druggie. "I wish he'd get here right now. I need those drugs."

"Uh-huh," I say half-heartedly. "This would be a lot easier if Misty Fly didn't need your services." I turn around before glancing back at him. "I'll be back either with a bucket of water or a new test for my robot's grappling hook."

FRED-E's speaker sounds like it is sparking indignantly.

"Relax, Frederick. I'm kidding," I tell him once we're out of that pony's hearing range. "The best way to solve this problem would be to remove his excuses. Cut off the source, and he has no easy reason to avoid the necessary help."

My sprite-bot's chittering almost sounds like he is referring to a snake's head.

"Same thing," I tell him off. "How much do you want to bet that smug guy over there is the head?" I trot while I talk. "Seriously, he's got shady, ripped hoof gloves and a vest with loose strings hanging out. That is the look of an under-the-table business dealer."

As I get closer to the pony of discussion, he reaches a hoof back and scratches his flank.

"Enjoying yourself, sir?" I ask to crush the metaphorical ice.

He looks over and wipes his hoof on his vest. "Well, well, an attitude attached to a lovely young mare. Can I get you hooked up on something?"

"Wow, not even trying to hide it," I comment, "I guess you'd know all about the local addictions, particularly two individuals from Old Kyn's Fort."

"You mean Antibiotic and Pure Wrenchy?" He chuckles. "Yeah, I've got them set up for life. Repeat customers are great, but it's even greater when I can get those NCR douchebags rigged on my products. They certainly won't be able to cause s*** for the rest of us. Am I right or is Seltzer Jalapeño right?"

Is this guy seriously blind to the type of armor that we're wearing? wonders Monarch.

All geniuses have crucial flaws in specific thought processes, I think observantly.

"Very well, Mr. Jalapeño," I say while turning to face parallel to the supplier. I hold out my front leg, levitate my dagger out, and pretend to file my hoof. "I'll just tell as many of the locals as possible that Seltzer has decided to keep his cheaper and better quality items to sell only to NCR troopers."

That manages to break his cheery mood. "What the hell? Why would you do that?" He runs his hooves one after the other through his mane and sighs. "Fine, I hear you. What do you want from me?"

I smirk as I sheathe my small blade. "Here's the deal: You stop supplying Antibiotic and Pure with your 'products' and I pretend that I never made such an outlandish statement. Is that clear?"

"All right, I yield," he concedes. "I'll never sell to those two ponies ever again."

I mockingly bow my head ever so slightly. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you, sir."

I trot lively back to the stallion in rags. I see him trying to poke himself with the empty needle, but all it does is create a red pin-point on his leg.

"Hello, Antibiotic," I greet sweetly.

"The pretty filly again," he notes, "Did you get my supplier's fix for me?"

I hold my smile. "Nope, and you're never going to get a dose of them again. Seltzer Jalapeño is no longer providing you. What's your excuse for avoiding help this time?"

"What?!" Antibiotic's eyes widen in shock. "Why the heck would you do something like that? I need those drugs, filly!"

I drop my smile. "What you need is to let the withdrawal symptoms run their course and to let the doctors at Old Kyn's Fort to help stabilize you until you're ready to function like a normal pony again."

"Sweet plucking Cadenza..." He looks like he's about to sob on the floor. But he opts for a ragged exhale instead. "All right, look. Before I can go back to the Fort, I need a little something from you. Can you get me... like... ten shots of Fixer? That should hold me together long enough to trot to the Fort and get help."

"Fixer?" I echo incredulously. "What is this, Musical Addictions? The Fort is right down that road. Get off your sorry flank and trot to your salvation!"

"Not until I get that Fixer," he says surprisingly resolutely.

I sigh. "Well, I guess I'll have to make due on half of my earlier vow." I turn to my companion. "FRED-E, get your grappling hook out."

The sprite-bot complies by showing its curved metal attached to a bit of internal cable.

Antibiotic yelps and wobbles onto his hooves. "Okay, okay! I'm... going. No need for that." With that, he trots around the debris and gallops toward the Fort like he's on fire.

"See? You can move just fine without those chems," I mutter.

FRED-E beeps a little before stowing his hook.

"I know you wouldn't," I acknowledge. "But he didn't know that, now did he? Now, let's find Pure Wrenchy."


According to Misty Fly, Pure Wrenchy is supposed to keep tabs on the water talisman in Freewall and is one of the few that knows how to keep its performance regular. She says his problem right now is that he's drinking too much of a different kind of water. It's a very hard water that includes side effects of drunkenness, dizziness, skewed depth perception, and dampening of good judgment. I suppose the best place to look for a drunk stallion is somewhere near the Sparking Buckler, so my legs take me in that direction.

"You want the beer that keeps telling you to give up for it? Only at the Sparking Buckler, it's in here!"

Funny, I got an alcoholic mind bomb just fine at the NCR's Outpost, I think as I trot past the mare crier.

"So, how'd it go?"

When I jump at the voice, I briefly wonder if this unicorn form is making me more nervous. I look up at Stratus and sigh.

"One of these times, I might throw my dagger without knowing that it's you," I remark.

"Yeah, you probably will," agrees Stratus while calmly flapping above me. "I just turned in the debts I collected and got my cut." She leans in her face a bit closer. "So, are you done curing the addicted yet?"

"I'm not 'curing' anypony," I correct her. "I'm directing them toward professional help, and I'm on my way to find the second guy."

"What's he look like?" Stratus plops down for a gentle landing.

I lift my hoof and start waving it around. "Well, he's going to be a stallion in work overalls and if his condition is to be believed, he'll most likely be surrounded by beer bottles."

Stratus leans her head to my left. "You mean that sorry fellow over there?"

I whirl around to see what she means. There appears to be a dark green unicorn stallion sitting against the back of a short alley. He has one empty bottle against one hoof, and he seems to be playing 'catch' with a barely dripping bottle in his magic. As I slowly trot toward him, the foul stench of alcohol breath wafts in the air. I fight the urge to cough, and fail to stop the first choked exhale.

He looks up with bloodshot eyes. "What does a... pony have to do... get drink... 'und here?" His slurring wasn't exactly straightforward.

"I don't suppose you're Pure Wrenchy, are you?" I ask rhetorically. "Misty Fly was concerned about you."

A faint smile scribbles onto his face. "Misty? Oh, wow... such a great mare... I... I was working on the talisman... and she... came up and... told me I... 's doing a great jo..." His head lulled slightly as the rest of his word faded into an incomprehensible mutter.

"Yeah, well, you kind of need help for your alcohol addiction if you ever want that kind of approval again." I keep a straight focus while looking at him. "And I'll just tell you right now what I told Antibiotic earlier. Seltzer Jalapeño isn't coming back to supply you with the goods anymore. I told him to stop."

"What?!" His pinkish eyes are suddenly big enough to cover the top half of his head. "Why the heck would you do that? I need the alcohol or I'm going to die!"

I stamp my left hoof in front of my right. "Look, I can't tell your age, but I can assure you that you lived just fine without alcohol for at least seventy-three percent of your life. You can live the rest of it, but you need to get help. That help is at Old Kyn's Fort. Go to it, for yourself and for Misty Fly."

The way he lowers his stare almost makes it look like he's contemplating my suggestion. But then, one of his eyes looks a bit redder. It's as if an internal tap from Tartarus turned on and filled his eye with a demon's blood. Whatever it is, his brow furrows and his mouth clenches like a wild animal.

"No beer makes me... something or other..." He glances to the side, hopefully forgetting whatever he was about to do.

"Blow your stack?"

D**n it, Stratus! I wince in annoyance.

"Don't mind if I do!" he yells as he charges forth. His steps are wobbly, and his random flailing at thin air makes it difficult to take him seriously, but his speed and power still make him a threat.

"All right! Punching time!" cheers Stratus as she flies in.

"Stratus, wait!" I yell.

She quickly lands a one-two upon the drunkard. His head collides with the wall. He falls to the ground in silence while something trickles near his horn. Words cannot even describe how much harder I want to facehoof myself right now. FRED-E points something out.

"I know," I mutter with a sigh.

-Obtained 'Nite' Statuette. Effects unknown, but they can only be positive.
-You have gained 'Unknown Variable' status with the Followers of the Apocalypse. Their services are still available, but agitating them further is not recommended.

Ch. 15: Pop, Pop, Watching Idols Drop

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Pop, Pop, Watching Idols Drop

"I don't have any idols... any heroes... nothing... no." ~Rafael Nadal


"I asked you to bring Pure Wrenchy back, not... that to him!"

Misty Fly's body looks like it can't decide between sputtering, releasing a hiss of rage, or just shaking her head in disbelief at us. The combination of which leaves her making a noise between a huff and a groan. Meanwhile, I lower my head in shame. Stratus flutters in place while looking like she doesn't know what is going on. She is the one that punched the alcoholic addict in the first place.

"How's Antibiotic doing?" I try to interrupt the stressful freakout by bringing up the first patient, the drug addict.

Misty sighs and rubs her temple with an index feather. "He's getting his addiction purged right now. I guess I should thank you for getting back our anti-venom expert. So... here." She shuffles through a pocket and procures a couple of tiny boxes. "Some Fixer for the road. Don't spend it all in one place."

I accept the emergency anti-addiction drugs and hoof them into my saddlebags.

"But I can't exactly say 'thank you' for the state that you've put Pure Wrenchy in." Her frown is accentuated by her crossing her wings in front of her. I'm not sure that's possible given their size, yet she's doing it right in front of me. "Do you know how hard it is to find appropriate materials for stitching and blood transfusion?"

"Next to impossible?" Stratus hazards a guess.

"It may as well be." Misty sighs again.

"Hey, tell you what," says Stratus with a slight grin, "The first raw medical materials that we find, we'll bring 'em right here so you can get that magic engineer back up in no time. How's that sound?"

Misty's wings uncross and she opens her eyes in surprise. "You'd do that?"

"Absolutely!" Stratus insists.

"Okay," says Misty with a nod. She shuffles something else out. She passes a piece of paper to the new volunteer. "This is what we need at the very least to patch Pure up."

Stratus holds the paper up, and her eyes skim back and forth. Meanwhile, I adjust my neckerchief and cough.

"So, before I spoke with you before, I was actually trying to find out what happened to those injured locals in that other tent." I wave my hoof around for emphasis. "You wouldn't happen to know about any lieutenants in the area, would you?"

"Hmm," Misty hums. "Most of the New Canterlot soldiers around Freewall are following Freya Jewel. You probably want to start with her. If she doesn't want to talk, tell her Misty Fly sent you. She'll be more likely to open up."

"Freya Jewel, huh?" I nod. "Okay, I'll remember that."

"Like you remember your earlier life?" asks Stratus while nudging my shoulder.

"Oh, shut up," I mutter.

"Yeah, yeah," she waves a hoof dismissively while stowing the paper away. "I'm going to go check that 'general goods' place and see if they have any of this stuff."

"All right, meet me back at the Shores' place when you're done," I request.

"Sure thing, Spades," she says, already flying off to do her thing.

Note: Some ponies will forever keep their darkest secrets to themselves regardless of how high your speech skill is.

FRED-E chirps a question at me as I trot along.

"Well, I haven't checked this side of Freewall yet," I explain, "It would make sense for them to be around here." I look up and see a couple of stallions. "And that set of armor looks familiar. It's a bit more heavy on the dark blue, but it still has the N.C.R. aesthetics to it." I practically beeline for the door that they're guarding.

"Hold it right there," insists the stallion on my left. "This area's restricted. What's the password?"

"No time, Private," I respond with a straight face. "I have urgent matters to discuss with Major Jewel directly."

"Oh, well that's different." He straightens back up and nods. "If you have business with the Major, you should head on through."

It's that easy to bypass your security? I think as I trot by him. If anypony else were to use that line, they might very well have intended to demonstrate the Major's imminent death.

I catch a harsh glare from the stallion on my right. So, I ask him, "What are you looking at?" I don't give him time to answer as I open the door.


It's a bit dark in here.

I take note of the windowless room. There seems to be a line of ponies that barely spread themselves apart. Most of them have rags over their bodies. A couple of them even wear thin masks over their muzzles. This is a less than flourishing part of town. That much I can ascertain. I nudge through the small space toward the one mare in here wearing N.C.R. armor and a leather jacket.

"I don't suppose you're the one in charge," I comment sarcastically.

She looks up as if just noticing my presence. "Welcome. There's food and water here for any citizen of the N.C.R. Please, have some."

While she is saying this, she levitates a small box and a clear water bottle in front of me. I'm not sure, but a faint memory of somepony else's parents is telling me not to turn down a free meal. I nod and accept it via Spades' own magic. Even if I don't eat it myself, I'm sure one of my allies will appreciate this.

As I tuck the rations away, I ask, "So you're Freya Jewel, huh?"

"Yes," she affirms, "I'm a Major in the Supply Corps., which is where all of this food comes from."

"As great as that sounds, you can't possibly have enough to give to just anypony who walks in," I speculate.

"No, I'm afraid we don't." Her mood deflates a little. "Don't you have a friend you'd like to bring in?"

I guess it wouldn't be a good idea to point out that I'm not a registered citizen, I think before shaking my head. "What exactly makes somepony eligible or ineligible for this kind of service?"

Jewel's brow furrows. "That's not a really pleasant topic of conversation. Let's just say we have our reasons."

I shrug nonchalantly. "I'm no stranger to unpleasant subjects. After all, I got an earful of one from Misty Fly."

Her eyes widen. "You know Misty?" She briefly rubs her chin. "Not everyone in the N.C.R. sees eye-to-eye with the Followers. She's one of the few that are okay in my book." She lowers her hoof and sighs. "If you really want to know, we sent an envoy to the Queen, offering to coordinate this relief effort." Her brow furrows again as she closes her eyes and reminisces. "The envoy came back covered in bruises and had a twisted hoof. He was barely able to stand." She opens her eyes and stares at me fiercely. "My superiors ordered the entire effort to be scrapped. I managed to convince them to let me carry out the mission anyway, but with extremely reduced support." She sighs. "Now, there's not enough supplies to go around even if I wanted to support the rest of Freewall, which I don't."

Well, aren't you high and mighty, Empress Grudge? mocks Monarch.

You're one to talk, I retort sarcastically.

"I should get back to work," says Jewel. "Say hi to Misty for me."

"Sure thing," I reply with a nod before turning around. But first, I've got a little tidbit to pick with the Queen.
Note: Fixer can remove addiction, but continued abuse of previous substances will render its effects useless. A doctor can provide a more permanent removal of the addiction, but at a much higher cost. Don't do drugs, children.

Upon entering the Shores' building, I find a certain mare tapping her hoof and looking at me like she's pissed off.

"What do you want, Quartz?" I ask bluntly.

"I caught wind that you were talking to that Freya mare," Quartz answers. "She probably told you that she sent a messenger of peace." The way she positions her lips, it almost looks like she's trying really hard to not spit. "That's bull****. What the N.C.R. was sending was a spy to mess around with Shores' business. We've got it handled, and it's nothing you need to concern the Queen about."

I hum slightly. "Is that so? How much is my silence worth to you?"

She huffs with pride. "You're the kind of bastard I could kiss if I actually swung that way. Here, this should be more than enough."

She tosses me a small pouch of caps. It sounds full and all, possibly a good hundred fifty. I half-smirk at her.

"Well, I was about to suggest a minimum price bar," I state, "and guess what? This right here is about two hundred too short."

Her eyebrows lower slightly. I think that I'm striking a nerve.

"Fine, here," she says begrudgingly while fishing out a slightly smaller pouch. "But you'd better not say anything that the Queen doesn't need to hear. You're lucky I'm in a hurry."

"Yes, yes, goodbye," I wave dismissively as she gallops out the door.

Does she really think I won't tell the Queen everything? I shake my head and chuckle. Forget losing her touch. I'm starting to doubt that she ever had a touch to begin with.

I hear the door opening again. I turn around to see a more welcome face.

"Hey, Spades," greets Stratus cheerfully.

"You find all the supplies already?" I ask her.

"Huh?" She looks confused before something dawns on her. "Oh, no. I got told that the Sparking Buckler would be a better bet, but..." She motions for me to lean in closer. She whispers, "Tosh is offering to forge some passports that'll get us past the Strip's greeter."

My ear springs up at those words.

She flutters back a little and says, "I just need about a couple hundred more caps to meet his offer."

"Consider yourself lucky, then," I say as I levitate the second part of Quartz's bribe out. "You can use these."

"Sweet," she says as she takes the money bag. "I'll be right back."

I turn around to this building's large classroom. "Now to have a little chat with the Queen."

The headdress is still in the same spot, as is its wearer. I trot on up to her.

"Your Majesty," I address.

"Find something, honey, or did you just want to make small talk?" she asks.

"How often have I come in here just to make light conversation?" I ask rhetorically. "Anyway, the N.C.R. in the area are working on supplying their less fortunate with food and supplies-"

"Just plain old support?" wonders Queen. "That's nothing to get worked up about. Did you have more?"

I deadpan. "Yeah, thanks for interrupting me, by the way." I blink a couple of times to loosen the tension in my eyes. "That mission of relief is only going to registered Republic citizens. Anypony else in Freewall gets turned away."

Queen hums. "Picking and choosing who gets anything, huh? I can't take lightly to such discrimination."

I clear my throat while tugging lightly on my neckerchief. "Well, I hate to say it, but it's kind of your fault. The Major said that the envoy she sent to you was practically torn apart and-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait!" Her chair lets out a groan as she turns ninety degrees to look at me completely. "She said what?"

Can I just get the whole story out without an interruption? I sigh. "And she and her superiors are a little pissed off at such poor treatment."

Queen takes a loud breath. "I see. That would explain the hostility. It seems we've let tempers rise over a big misunderstand- What the hell?"

Whoa! Where did that green-haired pony come from? I open my eyes wide at a Shore that appears out of nowhere. I didn't even hear her hoofsteps. Was she standing there this whole time? Maybe I should ask her for some tips about sneaking.

"Queen, we've got a problem," she says.

"What's the four-one-one, Emerald?" asks Queen as her chair turns and groans again.

"There's a shoot-out going on near the train station," informs the aptly named Emerald. "It's Quartz and some strangers. It might be the N.C.R."

"What is that loose-minded mare doing?" Queen asks to herself more than to anyone else in the room. She sighs and turns to look back to me. "Honey, head down to the train station and defuse the situation. Tell them I'm willing to cooperate."

"Great," I say sarcastically as I gallop for the door. "I should have cut off her spinal nerve before she could leave. Why am I getting involved with so many N.C.R.-related problems? I can't even blame Baane for dragging me along this time. It was my own curiosity and my potential need for three grand. Plucking Cadenza."
Note: You can please some of the factions some of the time, but you can't please every faction every time.

"You want something dead?"

"Don't bother me with your sales pitch!" I holler as I gallop past the advertising stallion.

I chance a glance over my shoulder to see FRED-E barely keeping up with me. He isn't huffing and puffing in exhaustion. Actually, scratch that. He doesn't do that kind of thing anyway. I focus my attention in front of me as I round a few corners and aim for the place just beyond that support room. I hear rapid shots being fired as I get closer.

"I wonder who's winning this little scuffle," I mutter as I hang around a large concrete wall.

FRED-E chirps a question to me.

"No, hold your fire for now," I command. "There's no benefit to shoot up our would-be allies, at least not presently."

FRED-E beeps an affirmative.

I gallop between broken walls, a burning trash can, and an old bus stop cover. The rifle shots are getting louder. I chance a glance over my cover and see them aiming toward the next wall. I see a familiar mare in the Shores' outfit. Several others are lying down around her unmoving. The distant trooper pauses and I chance a gallop over to the wall.

"What the hell are you doing here?" asks Quartz forcefully. "I've got this under control."

"Yeah, I can see that," I reply sardonically, "just like all of these dead Shores can see that."

Quartz snorts as she continues hugging the wall. The shooter from before lets another round go into the structure in question.

Hope they can recognize my armor from this distance, I think as I take a deep breath. Hey, hold on.

I shuffle around my saddlebags for a bit. One of the Fixer tins collapses on the ground, but that's not what I'm looking for. I finally grab hold of something and smile at the successful find. I pull out my two-way radio and switch the dial from "long-distance" to "local". I hold the larger button down.

"This is Private Spades. I request a ceasefire as I approach your position. Over." I let go of the button.

After a few seconds, I hear a swift beep on the radio. "Copy that, Private. We will hold fire for five seconds. Over."

The radio clicks to silence. I stuff it away before I gallop toward the tower housing at least six N.C.R. ponies. As I come around, I notice Freya Jewel holding at the bottom of the ramp. As soon as I arrive, the stallion up top starts shooting at that wall again.

"This really isn't a good time," remarks Jewel.

"Actually, now would be the perfect time to have a chat," I retort, "I had a word with the Queen and she's willing to go along with your support effort, one hundred percent."

"Like she helped our envoy?" she asks while chuckling humorlessly. "No thanks."

"Oh, don't you start getting sarcastic," I say with groan, "I get enough of that from Stratus. Besides, you might want to learn that the Queen had no idea that you had even sent a messenger until I brought it up."

Jewel points a hoof in accusation. "Then she should watch her back. We know for a fact that our guy made it to the Shores' headquarters." She lowers her hoof and sighs. "Still, if she says she's willing to negotiate, maybe we should be the bigger mares and at least try to hear her out."

"Yeah, how about you start by not killing that last Shore over there?" I ask. "Otherwise, discussion might be a bit difficult."

"Fine." She turns her head to look up. "Put your guns away, boys. We're done for today."

The shots stop. I notice a few confused looks on the troopers being passed around. But I think my work here is done. I gallop back toward that rusty bus stop. Quartz is slowly moseying away from the scene.

"And just where do you think you're going, Missy?" I ask loudly.

"The Queen just sent a messenger over saying that these guys are off limits," she says, "Looks like you get to play the hero for another day. Enjoy it while you can."

Against Quartz, Monarch growls in the back of my mind. If I didn't need you alive as a witness for the Queen's negotiations, I'd already have my teeth down your throat and drinking you dry.

You're finally speaking my language. I briefly smile before my mouth neutrals out. I mean... kind of.

See? We're all such good friends, comments Nuisance mockingly.

Oh, shut up! Monarch and I metaphorically glare at the third voice.
-You have gained fame among the Shores. The Queen is offering to give you one unconditional favor, provided it is within her morals and capabilities.
-While 'your' (Forte Pianissimo) status among members of the New Canterlot Republic remains unchanged, 'you' (Spades) have gained "Accepted" status.

Ch. 16: Take Back Your Wings

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Take Back Your Wings

"The time comes when we cannot remove [the masks] without removing some of our own skin." ~Andre Berthiaume


"Let me get this straight," I say while tapping my hoof against the table for emphasis. "You took on the name 'Queen' without having any idea who she truly was in the first place?"

Her Royal Headdress hums a bit. "Have you ever heard that a primrose still tastes pleasant regardless if you call it something else?" She lifts her hoof up slightly. "The 'Queen' is more than just a word. It's an identity in and of itself. It's expressed through the way she talks, the way she acts, the songs she sings."

While she talks with that gentle smile, I pull out the bottle of water from Freya Jewel. I have no idea why I'm parched right now. Maybe I'm not, and I'm actually just trying to distract my face from looking at Queen funny while she keeps yapping.

"We used to listen to some records with her voice on it, but they kind of wore out." She sighs fondly. "I would have played a bit for you if they weren't. She felt like the kind of girl that didn't give a feather what other ponies said, yet also gave everypony the time of day."

I set the bottle back on the table so I don't have to use up too much magic today. It's bad enough that I took out some bodyguards and a group of back alley thugs. I feel really ashamed about trying to pour so much magic into opening the Old Kyn's Fort gate before actually asking FRED-E if he could do anything. I think this smaller form I'm wearing is feeling a bit cramped.

"What about the 'Shores' School of Impersonation'?" I ask, "Where did that come from?"

"Oh, that was up before we found the place," she says with a shrug. "But it stuck with us fast, those that wanted to take on the Queen's message of striding to the top, preserving the pop, and couldn't be stopped." She sighs. "Do you believe the taboo of queens, the idea that anypony who proclaims themselves with that title is doomed to be evil?"

I don't remember back far enough for these sayings she comes up with, I think before shaking my head. "Not particularly, no."

She chuckles. "Some of the elderly think so. I hope one day, I can slowly change their minds about such trivial white noise."

It'd sure save some trouble earning respect, think-comments Monarch.

I nod. "I wish you good luck."

Queen smiles. "Thanks, Hon. That means a lot, especially after you've helped us out so much."

I hear flapping followed by a muffled thud. I turn to see my ever so stealthy pegasus companion.

"I'm back, britches!" Stratus announces.

I nod in acknowledgement before standing up. "Well, I guess we're heading out. I'll come back when I think of that favor I want."

"It's been a pleasure, Hon," says Queen.


"So, did you get the 'things'?" I ask.

"Sure did," answers Stratus proudly. She hoofs over what looks like a metal plate. "Here's yours."

I hum as I examine this so-called 'passport'.

"Something wrong?" pondered Stratus.

"Nah, it's probably nothing," I shake my head as I start trotting. "Some part of me was expecting a booklet or something with a unique picture for identification."

She tilts her head as she flutters beside me. "How the hell would a leather-bound stack of papers be effective as a passport?"

"Yeah, you're right," I conceded. "Just forget I said anything."

The trot toward the inner gate is made in relative silence. Maybe I'm just used to my hooves clicking, Stratus's wings flapping, and FRED-E's hovering. Heck, I barely even hear that crier for the Platinum Rush spouting his ads. I take a breath before strolling up to the greeter securitron.

"Present your passport, or a sufficient credit check," states the robot on wheels, "Trespassers will be shot."

"Here you go, sir," I say while levitating out the metal plate. Stratus holds up the second one in front of her.

A few beeps are heard from the securitron's speakers. "Passports recognized. Welcome to the New Pegasus Strip. Please enjoy your time."

Well, I'm glad that's settled, I think as the gate opens up. I wonder what's so great about this place.
Note: Mr. Mansion actually holds large stakes in three of the casinos. He accomplished this through wealthy family ties. His primary one, the Heat 33, is only occupied by securitrons. Watch your step if you plan on going in there.

Huh, there are certainly more bright lights than what I'm used to seeing, I think as I pan around.

Stratus holds back a spit. "This is a fine example of the overhyped system of capitalism. Flaunting how much you can waste without worrying about your next caviar dinner."

FRED-E beeps a concerned question.

"No, I am not jealous!" retorts Stratus.

"Uh, that's not what he said," I point out, "He asked if you were okay."

"Oh." She coughed. "Right, I knew that. Yeah, of course I'm okay." She scratched the back of her neck. "So, any idea what to do now that we're in here?"

I look over and see an N.C.R. soldier hanging around a chain-link fence. Giant metal boxes that look like the bare bones of old houses are lined up within that area.

I point in that direction with my hoof. "We should probably meet up with Baane. I have a feeling his old buddies found something for him to do."

"What, no sightseeing, gambling, or drinking?" asks Stratus with a teasing jab.

"Maybe later." I shrug her off. "Right now, we should work on regrouping. I've already told Tilaso to do the same."

"Fine." She shakes her head slowly with her eyes close. "Whatever you say, Sargeant Spades."


Before I can correct her, I feel something tapping me on the back leg. I turn around and see someone in a dirtied outfit. It seems a bit odd for a part of the city where dressed-up ponies are wandering the streets. It's a little difficult to tell the gender as they hold their hat in a way that covers their whole face.

"Miss Spades," they say in a low tone, "I have a message to deliver. The sender wishes for you to meet him in the Heat 33 casino. Come alone." They turn around and gallop without another word.

"What was that all about?" Stratus asks the question on my mind.

"I don't know," I admit, "but it sounds like I've got something that needs attending." I look at her directly. "Head on into the N.C.R. protection camp and find Baane. Tell him I'll be in later."

"Wait, you're not seriously thinking of going into that place alone, are you?" Stratus looks at me skeptically. "What if it's a trap?"

"I won't be completely alone," I say. I point a hoof at FRED-E. "For whatever reason, the robots around here don't seem bothered by this little guy's presence. Worst-case scenario: he incinerates anything that tries to kill me."

He gives a few clicks of confirmation.

"Well, all right," says Stratus reluctantly. "You'd better not come out of there as the Cyborginator or something equally stupid."

"Unlikely, since I've never heard of that either," I say.

"Your past must have been no fun," says Stratus as she flies toward the camp.

"You may be right," I mutter as I trot in the opposite direction.

FRED-E floats by and beeps in worry.

"I'll be honest with you, Frederick. I'm scared too."


This interior seems like an abandoned facility. There are a few roulette tables and slot machines. But aside from the few robots idly standing around, there is no one here. One of the bots rolls over with its screen facing toward me.

"If you have business with Mr. Mansion, I suggest you take the elevator straight to his office floor. For your own safety, please do not arm yourself within these walls."

I find it highly unlikely that he'd waste so many resources to keep me alive just to waste more energy to kill me himself. With this line of reasoning, I nod and trot toward the elevator at the back of the open room. I hear some of the joints of some of the securitrons rotating their heads as I pass them by. FRED-E hovers close and follows me in.


You'd think he'd have the courtesy to put in some elevator music, thinks Nuisance.

What, so that he can give us a headache? No thanks, responds Monarch.

After what is probably no more than a minute, the elevator doors open to a different floor. There are a few more securitrons that seem to form a line leading to a small, downward staircase. I make a guess that that's where I'm supposed to go. The floor makes some metallic echoes as I trot along. As the staircase ends, I find myself looking at a rather large monitor. The portrait of a stallion with a thin moustache flickers a bit.

A male's voice says, "It's about time we met each other."

"You're Mansion, I presume," I state.

"That is correct. I've been keeping tabs on you ever since that incident at Fondsprings."

Wait, something's not right, I think with a frown. 'Spades' was never in Fondsprings. How would this guy know that I was there?

A slight jolt hits me from behind. When I manage to turn my head, I catch sight of an oversized pen sticking out of a hidden slot. A flash of green fire crosses my vision. I gasp as I realize the feeling in my horn has been exchanged with the feeling in my wings. I look down and see my faded blue hide before looking back up at the screen.

"I had a suspicion that you'd have the idea to disguise yourself," says Mr. Mansion, "but I never expected you'd actually go through with the changeling implant that my men had hidden in Milton. Of course, I'd never let them do that without taking measures to force the default settings myself."

I move into a defensive stance. "So is that it, then? Was your plan to lure me in here, deactivate my implant, and then let your robot dogs have their way with my destruction?"

"Ms. Pianissimo, please calm yourself." His image flickers again. "I've already sent an instant message to all of my men. They'll let you have free reign anywhere that they are stationed. You have nothing to worry about, so long as you cooperate."

I straighten out and try to breathe slowly. It's a bit difficult, though, because my armor once again feels tight against my large body.

"What do you want?" I ask while staring angrily at this computer.

"I'd like you to retrieve a piece of property that was stolen from me," he says, "It resembles a regular 100 cap poker chip, but it is actually composed of pure cobalt. It is currently in possession of Penny, the current owner of the Jacks Casino. A few weeks ago, I tried to send a delivery pony in for the retrieval. Curiously, he was found dead on that casino's floor. Penny claims no responsibility, but I know him better than he realizes. The only ponies allowed to carry visible weapons in any of the Strip's casinos are the security guards. It was under his orders that the courier was shot."

"How exactly does this involve me?" I ask while motioning with my hoof. "If they're willing to waste a bullet or two on a random courier, what would stop them from shooting up an alicorn that just waltzes in there?"

"You'd better be good at figuring that out," he responds, "or else I may randomly choose to retract the message to my men."

So it's die to him or die to you, Monarch says while curling my lip in a snarl. Someday, I'll find the real you, and I will kill you.

"Oh, and by the way," Mr. Mansion continues.

"What is it now?" I grumble.

"I've come to the conclusion that alicorns that are ex-members of the Unity tend to develop various degrees of split personalities."

!!!! Monarch and Nuisance seem to flinch in the back of my mind.

"Would you mind letting me speak with one or more of the ones you have?"

"What's wrong with this one?" I ask with an eyebrow raised.

"Yes, I suppose you're right." That almost sounds like Stratus's let-down tone. "After all, they must be much weaker than you."

My neck suddenly makes a clicking noise. I feel... pulled back somehow. My vision clouds ever so slightly. Then, she grins wickedly and chuckles.

"Weaker? Oh, Mansion, you are so funny. Actually... no." Monarch frowns. "What's the opposite of that? How would you like it if I broke your screens right now?" She stomps the floor once and I actually feel the room shake. "Mezzo Fortissimo is no weakling! You would be wise to avoid making such a ludicrous presumption again." She huffs. "Be grateful that I am not in the mood to demonstrate what I am fully capable of."


I think I peed a little, whimpers Nuisance.

You can't do that. You're in my head, I think in response. But Amore Plucking Cadenza, I had no idea she actually had a preferred name.

"How very interesting," comments Mr. Mansion. "I wonder if the day will come when you can prove the iron behind your words."

Mona- er, Mezzo blows a strand of mane out of her eye. "Screw this. I'm done here."

My neck clicks again, and I feel launched forward. My front legs bend into a slight bow before I regain my quadruped stance. I hold a hoof against my head, recovering my sense of self.

"That was not the first time she's had that much control, is it?" asks Mr. Mansion.

I sigh. "I plead the fifth."

"Very well," he says, almost in satisfaction. "I'll give you until the end of the week to complete the task I have assigned to you. Until we meet again." The stallion's picture vanishes, leaving the words 'Connection lost' on the screen.

I slowly trot back up the stairs. "Well, this ought to be a story for the gang."

FRED-E chitters frantically.

"If you have any better ideas, FRED-E, I'm all ears," I say with a humorless chuckle.
Note: Gambling at the Jacks Casino is restricted to a maximum number of wins. The guards will graciously toss you outside on your flank if you try to play any more than this maximum.
-You have gained 'Accepted' status by the New Pegasus strip securitrons. Regardless of which form you assume, they will no longer attack you on sight. Please note that aggravating them is still not recommended if you wish to avoid being vaporized.
-New Quest: Obtain the Cobalt Chip.

-Optional: Sneak into the Jacks Casino as 'Spades'.

-Optional: Kill Penny.

Ch. 17: Blast it All

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Blast it All

"Stick with things that will be easy for them to understand like explosions, running, explosions, punching, explosions, guns, and explosions... pretty much just a bunch of explosions." ~Bobby Burns

"Greetings, Ms. Forte Pianissimo. Please enjoy your time at the New Pegasus strip, and be sure to complete Mr. Mansion's task at your earliest convenience."

The rolling robot turns around and scoots away. So, this is what one pony in charge of a casino is capable of commanding. I roll my wings around against their sockets. I step lively in the direction of the N.C.R. safe zone.

"Your Majesty!"

My ear flicks and I turn my head left. I recognize that colt's voice anywhere. He scampers up quite frantically.

"Why aren't you in disguise?" asks Tilaso in worry.

"Because the big guy himself saw through my cover," I reply. "He's also taken the liberty of telling his robots not to kill me."

His expression softens. "Oh." He scratches his lower lip. "Isn't that a little too convenient?"

"Well, the catch is that I've got to go kill a specific target for him." I turn to the right and cough. "The others are waiting. We should go check in with them."

"Of course, Princess," he says with a quick nod.


New Canterlot Republic's little space in New Pegasus is about in the same condition as Holdbeck Faith. At least, that is how it appears physically. Honestly, I'm not sure how many ponies and other resources they have. After a few turns in the hallways that I have to squeeze through, I find myself in an unusually large office room.

"So you've never known the satisfaction of punching some jerk upside the head with your bare hooves?" asks Stratus. She's flapping her wings to allow herself to hold her front limbs against her sides.

"Oh... yeah... I guess not." Baane pulls his beret down slightly before turning my direction.

"You two having fun here?" I ask with a wry smile. I trot further into the office room.

"Yeah," says Baane in a non-committing manner.

"Costume party over already, 'Spades'?" Stratus crosses her front legs while giving me a smug grin.

I roll my eyes just as I stand within two feet of her. "Yeah, well... it may resume later when I have a chat with Penny at the Jacks Casino."

"The hell is that supposed to mean?" Baane might be raising his eyebrow, but I can't tell through his sunglasses.

"The funny thing about Mr. Mansion," I reply, "is that he's really fascinated in a certain item that's currently in Penny's possession. He wants it, and he was even willing to let me bypass his securitrons just to get the job done."

FRED-E chirps in with a hectic pattern.

"I like it better the way I say it," I retort to the sprite-bot.

"In other words, you're being held at a taser's point just to do as he says." Baane sighs.

"Sounds like fun," says Stratus with a smile. "It almost makes me envious compared to what I've got to do."

I tilt my head in confusion as I look at her. "What do you have to do?"

"Looks like I'm going to have a little chat with a small family called the Blasters," she explains. "Baane was given the orders from his higher-ups directly, but we both figured I'd have a better time dodging defensive strikes while making my way to the front gate."

"At best, the N.C.R. will have another ally in taking back some territory," adds Baane. "At worst, there will at least be one less obstacle in the way of proper military occupation."


I'm not following any of what they're talking about. However, I act like I do by nodding sincerely after they're done speaking.

"See you when I see you," I wave a hoof. "I'm off to make a very specific gamble."

"Watch yourself out there," warns Baane.


Currently, I'm standing in front of the Jacks Casino as a white, clueless unicorn. Tilaso found a stylish dress that fits 'Spades' pretty darn well. I didn't ask where he found it. By the time I even consider asking, he is already working on navigating the Casino's ventilation system. I admire his initiative, but am rather ticked off at him for some other reason that I can't identify. In any case, I left a large amount of my weapons-related stuff with Baane after hearing that these places pat down customers anyway.

He isn't wrong. A stallion in a white tux demands that I hand over all my weapons before I take part in the casino's various facilities. To save face, I do still have a couple plasma pistols that I levitate out of their holsters at my sides. The doorkeeper thanks me for my time. He tells me to enjoy myself and that my weapons will be returned upon my exit. Little does he realize that my dagger is snugly under my dress.

If I were a guessing mare, thinks Nuisance, then Penny will most likely be a better-dressed prick than anyone else standing around, and he'll have the money necessary to hire three or more identical goons as bodyguards.

Mezzo Fortissimo mentally blinks in surprise. I copy her action physically.

What? Just because I'm the dirty mind, that automatically means I can't have an intelligent thought every once in a while?

I opt to whistle a tuneless melody. Mezzo mentally coughs and says nothing.

Well, pluck you two!

I trot on over to the counter and purchase a hundred caps worth of casino chips. I spend a few minutes whittling fifty of those chips away at a Twenty-One card table. On my last 'hand', the dealer actually gets a queen and ace of spades. Go figure. By that time, I spy my target: a checkered suit draped on a stallion with three stallions in white tuxedos standing to the wayside.

Not bad, Nuisance, I compliment. You actually called it right.

My name is Anew Sense, she insists.

Isn't that what I said?

She mentally scoffs. Shut up.

I wonder how I'm going to approach this situation. 'Spades' may be smaller than I like, but she's still large enough to be noticed by onlookers. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I brush past this Penny guy and slip out the chip I'm after, I'd get shot multiple times before I can say, "Dagger."

Before I know it, my legs are taking me toward him without my consent.

What the hell? cries Mezzo.

Let me handle this, insists Anew.

Wait, since when can you control the body? I think in surprise.

Hush now, quiet now, my mental fillies. Mommy's got work to do.

If I could move anything freely right now, I would be shivering at how she somehow whispered that seductively all inside my head. Alas, the only feeling I am currently receiving is the way Anew is swinging my hips and tail as she trots. W-What is she doing? I feel really uncomfortable inside my own skin right now. She's got my eyelids halfway open, staring intently at Penny.

He turns his head to look at me right then. "Well, hello there. Come to Jacks' Casino to find something you couldn't anywhere else?"

"Oh, I suppose you could say that," Anew says with a giggle. She whips my tail against the dress a couple of times. "What I want to know is... do you have that certain something?"

"Babe, I don't know," says Penny. His expression is unreadable. "We're... talking about a little fun here, right?"

"You may be talking about fun, little colt." Anew flutters my eyes. "But I'm talking about a load of fun."

Wait a minute... I try to decipher her meaning.

"Uh, so like... a certain 'talk' in a setting that's closed off to the public sort of load?" Penny's eyes open wide.

"Why yes," answers Anew with a nod and a disarming smile. "That would certainly be the start of what I'm talking about."

Oh my Cadenza... Mezzo catches on with a hint of horror in her mental tone.

Penny's expression seems to reflect how I'm currently feeling about Anew's advances. He swiftly frowns with his brow raised. Then, he looks up while scratching his chin. After looking at my fluttering eyes again, he suddenly looks much more open to this... 'certain talk'. He grins and glances over at his goons.

"Boys, hold this floor steady for me," he tells them. "I'm going to be a while."

The three tuxes say nothing more than a grunt and a nod apiece.

"Let's head to my room," says Penny while caressing my chin.

Anew purrs. "After you, Sweetheart."


As we ride the elevator up, Mezzo and I take turns making retching noises within the corridors of my head. We fail to make an actual mess in there. Thank Cadenza. But that doesn't change the appearance of what is going to be the beginning of an... um... one-night stand. That still gives me uncomfortable, hypothetical shivers.

Penny's bedroom kind of reminds me of the room I had back in Vacuum. Though, I suppose there is slightly less rust on the facilities than that place. There is even a rose-red quilt neatly folded on the bed. How often does he even use this space?

"All right, Babe," says Penny. The stallion pulls himself onto the bed and starts pulling his jacket open. "Are you ready for the load?"

"It's too late to back out of this, you gorgeous stud," says Anew with a malicious chuckle. She crawls onto the bed herself, slowly dragging my hind legs over Penny's. "Let us see who the lion is and who the prey is."

I can't believe you're actually doing this! I scream at her as loudly as my non-existent voice can.

Mercy! Spare me! An exclamation of some relative's title! cries Mezzo.

"That's a fine comparison, Babe," says Penny. "Though, I might have the edge. After all, I once took out an alicorn."

"Oooo, such a powerful lie," coos Anew. She lights up my horn and I feel the dress slowly roll up against my sides. "But do continue. You almost impress me."

"I'm serious." Penny smiles, showing his teeth. "All it took was an ordinary shotgun while the largest part of her head was in the way."

"Really?" Anew keeps staring him down from on top. She still holds my eyelids half-closed and a smile so evil. "That is so amazing." Aside from the dress, I feel something else slide up in my magic's hold.

"But you're more interested in another gun of mine, right?" prompts Penny expectantly.

"Nope, that's all I needed to hear."

"Yeah... wait, wha- GLUK!"


Wow... I have no idea how a stallion's tongue can get so brown. Maybe it's the cigarettes that he always has in his pockets. I'm pretty sure blood is supposed to turn red when it exits the throat. Either way, my dagger is doing enough damage through his neck to prevent his brain from sending signals to the rest of his body. Suddenly, I can feel the weight of my head again.

All right, I'm done, thinks Anew dismissively.

"Wha-huh?" I blink a few times to regain my bearings.

Wait, was this your plan this whole time? asks Mezzo in accusation.

Nah, but it was convenient that he brought up how he tried to kill us back in Fondsprings, admits Anew. I may be interested in a good and dirty time, but even I have standards. There's an awkward pause. Aren't you supposed to be getting something?

"Oh, right!" I quickly go about searching Penny's pockets. There are several bottle caps, a rusty key of unknown purpose, and the aforementioned cigarette cartons. But most importantly is the out of place Cobalt Chip. After that, I hop off the bed and hide my dagger away. Normally, this is the part where I would lick his bleeding neck dry. But, even I have standards.

"Psst, Spades."

I look around the room and notice an opening in the upper wall, large enough to be the ventilation. I can't help but think Tilaso looks kind of cute when he pokes his head through.

"You mind holding this with you until we get outside?" I ask him. I float the chip up to him.

"Sure thing, Princess Forte," he says as he stuffs the chip away. He also pulls out something that I thought I had left at the front desk. He tosses it down to me. "You probably ought to burn the evidence of the kill."

I chuckle. "What would I do without you, Tilaso?" I turn and aim the plasma pistol at Penny's head. "Well, it's not a shotgun. But considering I've taken a ridiculously overpriced poker chip, I'd say this is a fair exchange."

*Blat* *Blat*

Penny's corpse is replaced with a puddle of goo on the bed. I float my weapon back up to Tilaso. As he crawls backwards, I levitate the quilt and turn it over. After that, I calmly make my exit. I swear I hear some garbled "Yeah!" to my accomplishment, but I shake my head. There is no pony to cheer for me.

Somewhere far away...

The red unicorn and ex-First Recon gallops along the road. Just a little above and in front of him, the silver pegasus slows her typical flying speed to make sure he can keep up. The clouds are gathered in the sky in a pattern that makes the sky look like a pattern of blue diamonds. Dust occasionally blows by on the wind. A few geckos pop their heads into view before they're sent flying by a few loud bangs of varying degrees.

*Blam!* *Clunk!* *Blam!* *Tang!*

"All clear," says Baane, floating his rifle over is back.

"Taken care of," agrees Stratus. She rubs her ballistic hooves against each other once before continuing her flight.

This duo of sniper and boxer continue along their path unhindered. Well, that is the case until Baane is interrupted by some loner. That loner insists that he's warning every pony that comes along that road to stay out of the field. What is his reason? The Blasters have a tendency to fire rockets all over at trespassers.

To this warning, Stratus insists that she'll be careful when she flies over to have a chat with the nice, bazooka-wielding ponies. At first, the loner is flabbergasted at her can-do attitude. However, he eventually shakes his head and reluctantly lets her go. He even says he's willing to give up a fairly large bottle cap collection if she comes back alive. Baane's mouth curls into a blink-and-you'll-miss-it smile.

Rockets pepper the ground around Stratus's path, one after the other. A lot of dust and smoke goes flying, but her own flight path is left unhindered. Pretty soon, she's flying above their fenced off borders. They dare not attack their own fences. She lands softly on all fours in front of the standing guard. She giggles at his ridiculously positioned bazooka on his shoulder.

"Hiya! How's it going?" Stratus asks with a quick wave.

"Wha...?" The poor stallion is completely stunned. "How did you survive all of that? I was sure I was locked onto you with every shot!"

The pegasus shrugs. "Your aim was always where I was at the time. Did you ever consider aiming where I was going?"

The guard tries to utter a retort, but fails and sighs. "Since you're here anyway, you might as well go speak with Clam Pearl. Try anything funny, though, and I can't be held responsible for what I do to you."

"Wouldn't dream of it." Stratus rolls her eyes while holding her wings behind her back. "By the way, do you mind if I pick up a friend of mine and come back?"

The guard grumbles. "Very well, but use the same route both ways so that we know it's you."


"That's the second easiest six hundred caps I've ever earned." Stratus chuckles as she stuffs the loner's promised caps into her pocket.

"Yeah." Baane nods in affirmation.

"Hey Recon, I've been meaning to ask you something." Stratus flies low and slow so that the unicorn can keep up.

"What's that?" Baane tilts his head ever so slightly.

"Why did you decide to follow her around?"

"Because... the way she asked made sense to me. Alone, you're a lot less effective, can't get as much done." He canters around a blackened crater in the ground. "There was a familiar glint in her eyes, the look of some pony that wants to do something but doesn't yet know what. I guess... I saw myself."

"So... did you and she find the time to... nudge-nudge?" Stratus makes a motion with her elbow.

"Don't be the idiot that makes everything awkward." Baane looks ahead. "I had a wife. Now, she's dead. I'm in no hurry to repeat that process."

"No, no... I get ya." Stratus continues flying alongside the fence.

"What about you?" Baane looks over. "After seeing this rag-tag group, what made you decide to join?"

"It's... complicated." Stratus looks down as she flies.

"Does it have to do with your old partner?"

"Somewhat," admits Stratus. "I... I guess I was lonely. But more than that, I was... trying to move on. It's like you said before. Effectiveness doesn't fly solo. I need some pony to take the distant shots. But... I also need some assurance that I can come back to something. Having a leader that goes through everything I do and more... it just feels amazing."

"In other words, you need self-esteem," concludes Baane.

Stratus gives him a confused look. "I can't tell if you're joking or trying to be insulting."

"If that's what you think." Baane shrugs as the pair approaches the Blasters' main gate.

-Your third personality "Nuisance" has evolved into "Anew Sense". This ego's unique perk discovered: "Black Widow".
-Objective checklist update: Cobalt Chip obtained!

-Ragic Baane and Stratus Cloud have taken the first step down "Character Development". Tread lightly.

Ch. 18: Courtesy of the Pike

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"Compassion comes first. Mercy is the second part." ~Pa Grape


"You know what this joint could use?" asks a guy in a vest. "More hookers."

"You go right ahead and tell yourself that, buddy," I say, trotting away from that stallion as quickly as possible.

Believe it or not, I have my fill of uncomfortably suggestive content covered already. It's all thanks to Nuisance- I mean Anew Sense. How did I not know that she was that vulgar before today? It's a mystery. I can't even get feedback from Mezzo's thoughts due to how disturbed she is, and that mare can intimidate an emotionless robot.

I retrieve what little I handed over at the front desk and open the door out. Some pony in a lab coat turns her head before strolling right up to me. "Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that Mr. Mansion actually let you in the Heat 33. You might be just the kind of pony we could use."

'Spades' raises an eyebrow. "Should I know you?"

"Right, right, sorry." She slightly adjusts her glasses. "You can call me Dins Fiyah. I'm one of the Follower's doctors."

"Oh, them." I nod and motion with a hoof. "How's Misty Fly doing?"

"Last I checked, she was in good health." She grabs one side of her glasses again. "Though, she's still miffed about some idiot that punched up our best bet for a water talisman maintenance pony."

"I... see." I guess Stratus's apologies and supply efforts aren't enough to wash away that first impression. "So, what did you mean when you said you could use me?"

"Well, records show that Mr. Mansion has been in charge of his casino and the main investor in the other big family-owned casinos for over three hundred years. Yet if the static image is to be believed, he's no alicorn princess. Something else is in place, keeping him alive."

"You think he's hiding a curse or a personal fountain of youth?" I ask, half-joking.

"Maybe, but we won't know without getting a little bit closer." She pulls out something from her pocket that looks like a dusty, refrigerator magnet. "But you've already gotten close to him and walked out without incident. If you could find a suitable terminal inside the Heat 33, you could attach this tracer bug, and soon we'll be encrypting all the data we need."

"What exactly do you need it for?" I cross my front hooves while raising a brow.

Dins' eyes seem to grow in excitement. "What if we found the key to extended life through a strand of DNA... Mansion's DNA? If that kind of perk could be isolated, replicated, and distributed to those that are on Death's doorstep... it could create such a huge change in the world."

I shrug as I take hold of the 'tracer bug'. "Meh, I didn't have anything better to do, not to mention a lack of loyalty to Mansion beyond mutual interest in what we can get out of each other."

"Great!" Her smile looks a bit less professional and more genuine. "Come talk to me as soon as you're done." With that, she trots away while making some scribbles against a clipboard.

I look to the left. "Got the goods?"

Tilaso procures the cobalt chip. "Yes, Your Majesty."

I look to the right. "Are you up for scanning for probable terminals?"

FRED-E emits his typical pattern of chirps.

"Alright, colts. Let's move."

They both seem to understand as they follow me. Along the road, I hear some random bits of rumor and information. One of which involves a blind mare somehow infiltrating the White Sock Society and freeing a cowboy's son from the storage closet using nothing more than an old sword. I'm half-inclined to believe that since it sounds impossible to make up. But I've got things of my own to worry about, like cracking computer codes with my robotic expert.


"What do you mean you don't know how to hack an old terminal?" I look at the sprite-bot like he's crazy.

He chitters a bit before producing what sounds like a sparking outburst.

"So you know how to scan an immediate thought process from a securitron, but can't do the same for a stationary computer?"

FRED-E beeps a short affirmative.

I sigh. "Whoever designed you in the first place must have been really, really bored to pick such precise programs."

I shake my head as I log out, turn it back on, and attempt to hack the correct password three more times. Eventually, it shows a small menu of topics on screen. At this point, I shake my head and slip on the tracer bug against the underside. Hopefully, this is sufficient for Fiyah's needs.

"Alright, I'm heading up to the big stallion's office." I glance back at Tilaso. "Don't drink all the apple juice on tap while I'm gone."

On the elevator, I feel some prideful indignation bubbling to the surface. Against my better judgement, I allow Mezzo to use the body and transform back into my default size and colors. She needs a way to blow off steam. I'm sure getting mad at the guy that doesn't give a crud will be productive for all of us. I'm also getting progressively worse at stating sarcastic remarks in a properly sardonic fashion.

As the doors open, she marches along the path that leads down the stairs and to the giant screen. She plucks out the ridiculously over-hyped chip and holds it up.

"Here! Happy now, you fossil?"

"Temper, temper, Ms. Fortissimo," the voice box calmly responds. "That's how I can tell it's you. Might I speak with the one who is actually in charge? It's a bit more of a... delicate matter."

"She can hear you just fine no matter which of us is dominant," Mezzo points out, still foul. "You might as well say it now, because I'm about to walk out of here without so much as a goodbye."

"Very well." The image flickers ever so slightly. "For starters, place the chip onto this particular scanner." A small, slot-like sleeve is released from one spot on his 'desk'. Mezzo grunts, but complies with the request. The chip slides in as a few noises are emitted from the system.

"Now then," Mansion continues talking, "I'm under the impression that regardless of species, all ponies seem to understand financial incentive for accomplishing menial tasks. Therefore, this should keep you mildly happy: A generous donation worth five times the amount of money that was spent in my original order for the chip."

A mechanical claw sets down a bag that looks ready to burst. It makes a collective clinking noise, making me wonder how Mezzo manages to put it all away without displacing everything else in my saddlebags.

"I guess it's a start," grumbles the monarch personality.

"The next thing that will have to take place is a few additional updates. However, the other terminal which will grant me that kind of power control is currently resting under lands besieged by the savages that are a mockery of an empire. You'll need to find a way to get to that terminal and survive long enough to access its controls. I'll give you the chip once more so that the process can be completed."

"It's kind of sad that you need our help to infiltrate the Imperials' base of operations." Mezzo idly pats my mane.

"I can't be everywhere at once yet," says Mansion nonchalantly. "But, I will be able to soon enough."

"You go right ahead and tell yourself that, cyber-dick." Mezzo rolls her eyes before taking the cobalt chip back.


It doesn't take 'Spades' any time at all to find the lab coat after exiting Mansion's nearly empty casino.

"I put the thing on the thing," I tell Fiyah. "Did you get anything?"

"Only about thirty seconds' worth of data before the bug got fried," she answers. "What we've gathered and reverse-encrypted isn't exactly what we were looking for. It's mostly raw mind to data translations, nothing about youthful DNA." She sighs as she taps a few buttons on some device on her upper limb area. "So much for helping anypony reach extended life. None of this technology that's in the description can be duplicated easily." She pulls out a few things from her pockets, despite there being no feasible way for so many potion bottles to fit in there. "Still, you did what I asked. Here, take these medical supplies for the contribution. Disappointments are sometimes better than wasting time, wondering what could have been. Know what I mean?"

"I... guess?" I shrug my shoulder, not sure what I'm supposed to make of that question.

She walks away, headed for the big gate. I presume that she's heading back to the Followers' main fort in Freewall. Meanwhile, a rich stallion in a top hot is doing a terrible job pretending to sneak up in front of me.

"It seems you've been garnering a bit of a reputation here in the Strip." His voice sounds simultaneously amused and bored. "It might be in your best interest to learn that such attention has also caught the eye of Emperor Taller-Than-Us. To you and your associates, he offers one acquittal from all past sins committed specifically in the Imperials' wake. As well, he offers the invitation to meet with him personally. Very few ponies are so privileged, and fewer still are of such fragile-appearing demureness."

I, however, am not so amused. "Somebody's being a high horse today... not to mention stupid for allowing somepony who has killed so many Imperials to even receive an illusion of being free from blame."

"I am but a humble messenger of the Empire," he insists nonchalantly. "What you make of his offer matters very little. Just don't keep him waiting too long." He then turns around, not interested in a response.


"He should've just worn a sign around him that said, 'This is a trap,' " says Tilaso. "It would have been less conspicuous."

I finish a bottle of dirt-flavored water in about three gulps. "Considering they sent an entire squad on the open road the last time we met, I don't think 'subtlety' is part of their regime."

It sounds like FRED-E electronically chuckles at that.

"Well, I'm bored of throwing caps into the garbage." I flip the edge of my mane. "I'm going to go make sure they didn't scuff up my armor at the N.C.R. ranger station."

"But, Spades," perks up Tilaso, "we've hardly spent any caps except for some rations ever since we set hoof beyond the gate."

I look down at him. "Is that so? Hmm... If you could have anything in the whole world right now, what would it be?"

"Uh... are there any weapons' masters that sell plasma grenades?"

I blink a couple times. "Wow, that's... oddly specific. Considering most of these places are about the food and vacuum cleaners, I mean 'card tables', the best starting point for something like that is probably going to be the Platinum Rush."

I trot a couple of feet away and toss my empty bottle into a burning waste bucket. Two ponies that are standing near it for heat glance at me. The first one turns back to the flames unperturbed. The other, however, turns a tint paler and gallops away in fright. Seriously, who is this pony whose visage I've taken, and how come the few that recognize her all cower in fear?

I'll figure it out later. Maybe by then, Baane and Stratus will come back.


"And this is the ultimate war machine depicted in our future," says the Blaster colt. "Once we make it rise out of the lake, we'll be able to wipe out all of the mindless savages by dropping explosives from the sky."

"Oh, wow..." Stratus mumbles with no amount of enthusiasm whatsoever. "I've never seen anything like that before."

The colt smiles. "I'm glad I was able to impress this story upon you. Maybe now, our greatness can be properly displayed to the outside world."

Baane leans over slightly toward Stratus. "Evidently, this kid doesn't get sarcasm."

"I noticed," Stratus whispers back. She barely holds back an exasperated sigh.

The littlest pony in the room keeps going like he doesn't have a clue. "So, I'm sure you have a lot of questions about our tribe after that. Whatever you want to know, go ahead and ask."

Baane adjusts his sunglasses. "So, if that's your future, then what do you need from us to get there?"

"I hear that Nickel's been having problems with the power supply," mentions the colt. "Oh, and Dime's been working on plans for how to make that war machine rise, but could use a few extra parts. You should talk to them if you want details."

-Your infamy among the Empire's Imperials has been removed this one time. Their tolerance will not extend so far again.
-Your companions have gained a small bit of fame from the Blasters. They will no longer be attacked on sight... at least not by this particular village.

Ch. 19: We Remember

View Online

"Well, stop remembering stuff!" ~Axel


'Spades' politely asks FRED-E to utilize his grappling hook to aid in opening the Strip's inner gate. He chirps a short pattern before doing just that. It's amazing what can happen when I simply ask, though that doesn't make the concept any less tedious. I lightly scratch at my armor just thinking about the absurdity. But I digress.

After walking back into the Freewall area, FRED-E ponders something aloud.

"Maybe, but the ponies of Freewall wouldn't recognize Forte." I use this form's magic to adjust my neckerchief. "I figure I might as well keep consistency in the attention that I'm getting."

The sprite-bot beeps twice.

"Yeah? You're weirder."

I set out trotting down the street. Tilaso catches up after crawling out of his secret hole in the ground. I pass by the stallion calling out his shop's "top-of-the-line" inventory and follow his vague directions around the corner. Sure enough, there's a building with the giant words "Platinum Rush". For some reason, there is also a lit up outline of some silver mare wearing an impractically huge crown.

What a mockery of royalty, thinks Mezzo.

The place seems barren for some reason. It isn't unheard of to have a plain door. After all, that's all the Sparkling Buckler has to greet visitors. But for something that supposedly carries energy weapons, I would've assumed that they'd want at least one or two tough stallions to make sure no pony made off with the hard-to-replace goods. Hell, the Shores have a door pony and all they've got to protect is several Pop Idol impersonators.

"Your Majesty?"

I guess I'm standing still for too long. That little questioning address from Tilaso catches me off guard and I blink a couple times. I shake my head, but the uneasiness doesn't leave completely.

"Tilaso," I say, "there's a slight chance we won't find what you want in here."

"Oh, I know that," he insists. "After all, this is just a starting point with the highest likelihood in this area."

"Right." I chuckle. "Of course you knew that."

The door opens abruptly. Some pony is backing out of the place with a crate on his back. He is wearing some kind of armor with metal shoulder pads, but it doesn't look like any standard uniform of this kind of specialty store. I catch the tail-end of something he says to some other ponies inside.

"... and whatever you do, don't sniff the plasma!"

He turns around and halts his motion right as he sees us. I blink in bewilderment at the bizarre sight before me. Tilaso grabs my back left leg and shivers. FRED-E floats a bit closer to my head than with what I am comfortable.

"What's up?"

This voice comes from a pony exiting with her own box on her back. It's difficult to identify her features what with the baggy hood covering her eyes. Although, I think she's looking at my group due to the direction her muzzle is facing.

The stallion in front clears his throat. "Uh, nothing to see here, folks. We're legitimately relocating this facility's inventory, or some other crap that sounds just as convincing."

I raise my brow at that. "Are you... new to the whole concept of robbery? Because you're supposed to make it seem as inconspicuous as possible, or at the very least make a distraction that's bigger than the activity you're partaking in."

His eyes open wide. "Wait, you actually listened to everything I said? Most ponies I've come across didn't give two bucks about what I said and assumed I was around for their benefit."

I give a slight chuckle. "Sounds like what I've been going through the past few weeks." I clear my throat. "So what happened here? Did the guys in charge of this place decide to shoot you on good looks alone? And then you ended up clearing them out in self-defense?"

"Sure, we'll go with that," he agrees with only slight hesitation. "The fact that we brought evidence to the N.C.R. that proved that they were involved in a caravan's destruction had absolutely nothing to do with it. What gave you that idea?"

"Wow, I'm surprised the N.C.R. would care about something beyond 'Republic good; Empire bad'." I smirk.

"Tell me about it." He shakes his head. "The guy I was talking to was convinced that it was Imperial work until I showed him the truth. Although, I think the word 'care' might be a little too strong for the bureaucrats up top to write in their dictionaries."

"Are we done here?"

Yet another voice emerges followed by a mare walking out of the Platinum Rush. This one has a crate in hoof and the outfit of a cowgirl, complete with a Stetson. Hold on... I think I've seen this one before.

"Cast?" I say after giving her a double-take.

"Who's asking?" She raises her brow, and looks ready to kill something.

"You're the one that bought me an extra drink back in Outpost," I say while raising my hoof slightly in emphasis.

She narrows her eyes. "I don't make a habit of paying for other ponies' drinks. Well, except for that one mare that claimed that she had somehow been shot point-blank and survi-" Her eyes go wide as she gives me a double-take. "That was you? Huh, I must have had harder whiskey than I thought. I could've sworn that you were a really tall pegasus when we first spoke to each other."

"Eh heh, yeah..." I scratch the back of my neck.

Wow, her memory is pretty good for a drunkard, comments Anew.

"So, what are you doing around this neighborhood, Piani?" asks Cast.

"Well, I was looking to see what the market had in energy weapons." I glance back at the nervous colt by my leg before looking back at the robbers. "But, it looks like some pony has already gotten to their clearance sale."

"There was quite a bit that we couldn't fit into our packs," says the hooded mare. "I'm sure there's plenty you can scavenge that's still inside."

"Harmonica!" exclaims the stallion. "I'm the only one who can say what loot we leave behind."

"But who out here could possibly afford everything the Platinum Rush has to offer?" asks the alleged Harmonica. "Mac 'n' Tosh? They weren't exactly giving out discounts on their stuff. There's no way they'd be loose enough with their caps to take in our junk at full price."

This gives the stallion pause. "Er... good point. Oh, fine." He turns back to my group. "Go ahead and look for stuff that we haven't already taken. But if there are malfunctions with the merchandise, take it up with the store's management. Though, you'll probably find that they're currently heavy sleepers."

I roll my eyes. "You're the textbook definition of 'classy'."

"Hey, I've already got two hitting on me," he retorts. "I don't need another."

"Uh... dream on, bucko," mutters Harmonica the hood.

"Not in a million years," adds Cast.

"You see?" The stallion shrugs.

I wave at them as they walk on their way. "Good luck out there. Thanks for not shooting me on sight. I appreciate it."

"Yeah, yeah. Have fun picking up scraps." That's the last time I hear him speak before they leave.

So, a large bulk of the Platinum Rush's merchandise is currently on the backsides of three trigger-happy thieves that have a strange appreciation for the justice system. I'm cool with that. At least I don't have to worry about being stingy under these circumstances.


It's about what I expect in here. Walls are charred from various energy blasts. Bodies in unique uniform armor are tucked in some less than comfortable postures along spots on the floor. Hay, I even see a puddle composed of green goop and a couple piles of freshly charred ashes next to a toppled mannequin. The air could do with a bit less suffocating, though. I cough a couple times to try and make that last point.

I decide to store 'Spades' away briefly, so I can breathe in here without trouble. As I watch my footing around the freshly burned ashes, we feel a little tingly. We can almost taste the radiation that we step across. But as quickly as the pleasurable feeling arrives, it fades.

"Did... anypony else notice the air just loosen a bit in here?" wonders Tilaso.

"Yeah, I'm a little disappointed." I want that feeling from before to last a little longer.

"What was that, Your Majesty?"

I shake my head. "Never mind. Let's see what we can find."

As it turns out, there are a few plasma pistols and charges left on the shelves. I reload the ones that are currently in my holsters before bagging the rest. The colt picks open a few grenade canisters. His eyes shake in delight at his little discoveries.

"Hey, FRED-E, would you mind floating down here?" he asks.

It sounds like some things are getting shoved into the sprite-bot's slots. FRED-E takes exception to that by bleeping out as many complaints as he can. But I'm already trotting toward the back of the store. I try the door, but it rattles and stubbornly resists.

Hmm... well, I'm not going to waste time picking through every corpse's pockets for one key. I turn around and balance on my front legs. Fortunately, the wooden door is much more cooperative than its metal lock. I hear some quick complaint via FRED-E's chirping.

"I'm not bucking the door. I just kicked it in."

His next couple of beeps sound ticked off.

"Tell you what: Grow a few legs and then you can be The High Horse of Semantics."

Though he keeps floating, he goes silent. With that argument taken care of, I head on through to the store's backroom. In the far corner, there are a couple loose wires with electrical sparks occasionally racing between them. Aside from some broken lockers, there isn't much to see here. I pick up a few stray caps on the ground as I slowly look around. There is a safe that's already open.

How did that happen if the door was locked? Looking around a bit further, I see a small opening that goes back to the front room. There seem to be some loose hairs against both the top and the bottom of the opening. Did that stallion from earlier really squeeze through this tiny hole? Cadenza... but that isn't even close to the lengths I've seen some ponies go to get supplies.

I look back at the safe again. It's mostly empty, save for a small round object on the bottom. I trot over and lift the back of the safe. It's a bit heavy, but my lift is enough to give gravity a chance to roll the object out. I set the safe down and grab hold of the sphere. Balanced on top of my hoof, it seems like a marble paperweight. And yet...

"Are you okay, Princess Forte?" Tilaso wanders in. "You've been standing back here for a while. Did you find something interesting?"

"I suppose," I say while slowly turning around. "I'm not sure what it is."

Tilaso trots a little closer and his head rises in fascination. "Oh, wait, I think I've heard about those. What you've got there is one of several magically powered storage units. They call it a 'memory orb'."

" 'Memory orb'?" I echo. "What is that?"

"Just before the war, ponies started looking into storing their personal experiences for future reference," explains Tilaso. "But instead of just writing down something or speaking into a recorder, they magically attached pieces of their actual memories into them. If they ever wanted to go back and remember something, they just needed to focus a little magic into it and they'd see the entire memory."

"Magic, huh?" Something bothers me, though. "How did you know about this?"

"There were a few locked away in the correctional facility," he admits. "I think they were using it to verify details about certain cases a long time ago. But most of them were busted and unusable by the time I ended up there."

"I see." I set the orb down on a slightly uneven board that can prevent it from rolling anywhere. After that, I take on Spade's form.

"What are you doing?" wonders Tilaso.

"I'm going to test this one." I say while reaching out slightly with my levitation magic. "Cover me, please."

"Y-Yes, Your Highness." Tilaso gives a nod and faces the open door. FRED-E agrees with two quick beeps.

After that, the room seems to melt away.


Darkness surrounds the stones that in turn surround me. It feels like there is tight metal clamped on all of my legs. I try to open my eyes, say something, and move anything. Nothing responds the way I want. Instead, my eyes slowly blink of their own accord. Whose memory is this?

"It's dinner time, Mrs. Wind Shield."

What? Who's there? I try to say that, but my mouth still doesn't respond. Actually, it barely holds back a little bile. Now that I think about it, that voice sounds vaguely familiar.

A door opens several feet in front of me. But the face of the pony entering... no. That can't be right. It's...

"Mansion," my mouth mutters with a tone of disgust. But I wasn't even trying to say it like that.

"Good evening, Madam," says the pony with a face that looks exactly like the photo face on the Heat 33's boss screen. "I trust you are enjoying your time here as ever."

"Eat a brick, Mansion." My mouth continues to talk without my consent. I finally notice that it doesn't sound like either of my voices.

"Oh, I've tried that, believe me," says Retro Mansion sarcastically. "But that is neither here nor there." He turns his head toward the distant opening. "Come along! We haven't got all night."

I hear somepony else grunting, while dragging something. After a few more seconds, I see a filly struggling to pull in a cart with cinderblocks where its wheels should be. She's sweating like crazy. But, I'm a bit more distracted by her exact coloration.

"Is there no depth you won't sink to?!" my 'host' exclaims.

"On the contrary, Mrs. Shield." Mansion takes out a cloth and rubs his glasses. "I have heights that I have yet to reach."

"Leave my daughter out of your twisted dreams, you sicko!" I feel this body pull harder against her bindings, yet even the powers coursing through her adrenaline aren't budging her from this spot on the wall.

"Surely you haven't already forgotten." Mansion gently places his glasses back. "Those chains are equipped with several ice and fire resistant enchantments. Your struggling is a futile waste of your energy. Best to just conserve it." He picks up a couple items from the cart and pours a glass. "Pinot Noir?"

My 'host' simply squints and growls.

"Suit yourself." Mansion shrugs as he swishes his glass around and barely sips it. He reaches down and shoves the pony's alleged daughter down against the floor. "You mustn't let yourself feel so entitled, Mrs. Shield. Otherwise, you'll lose the insignificant assets that you place so much blind faith in."

The muscles in all of this pony's legs tense up. "If you don't let Songbird go right now, I swear I'll-"

"Kill me?" interrupts Mansion. "Buck me? Torture me in recompense? This is why I called you a savage when we first met. Now, your true self is coming to the surface, and look how it's getting you absolutely nowhere."

I hear whimpering coming from the child. But... I'm pretty sure I've heard that voice before... and it sounds like one of my voices.

Before I can ponder about that further, part of the ceiling crashes down in front of me. I see a broad sword spin around and cleave Mansion right out the door. A vertical cleave severs the chains on the filly. Next thing I know, I'm feeling a strong current of... an amazing emotion coming from this intruder. It's enough for my host to pull herself away from the wall and break her bindings.

"Sorry I'm late, Wind," apologizes the figure.

"It's okay, Frost Quote," my host insists. "Let's just get out of here."

Mansion hobbles back into the doorway. "N-N-Neither of you are going to be l-leaving."

Next thing I see is a small blur. The alleged Songbird grabs the knife from the mockery platter. She scampers over, stabs Mansion in the neck, and kicks him back out the door.

"Come on, Mama! Papa! Let's go."

My host rapidly shakes her head to relieve her stupor. "Uh, right. Let's do that."

The three of us gallop out of that crazy stone room without another word. There are a few robot prototypes marching around that try to charge at us. But my host concentrates enough of her frost magic to stall one, Frost swings his sword to crush another, and Songbird comically trips the third to slam into the frozen one, breaking them both. Eventually, however, we run across the hall to a slight problem.

"Crap, elevator's jammed, and my wings are too busted up to go back and try flying up to Frost's grand entrance."

"I've got this." Songbird trots over to the keypad and taps it eight times in specific places. The elevator door opens up almost immediately.

"How'd you know that would work?" asks Frost for both of us.

The filly turns her head to us and looks serious. "That stallion was so fixated on me that my name became the key."


The scene changes to something else. It feels more like I am in a bed this time. Though for whatever reason, I don't feel comfortable at all. In fact, it hurts to breathe. The annoying, steady beeping noise isn't helping.

"No, Wind!" cries the changeling from before. He grabs my host's hoof. "You promised you'd stay with me forever!"

"I'll..." I feel painful coughs escaping my throat. "I'll find a way... to fight out of Tartarus... to come back to you..." More coughs. "But I need you to do something in the meantime."


"Take the gem from... my horn... and keep it somewhere safe..." Another cough erupts. "It has a few of... the heavy memories intact. You... and other ponies of your choice... need to be able to see... what I saw... back there."

Frost Quote's hooves are shaking against this pony's. It feels like he's shaking mine. Yet, he nods anyway.

"Please, take care of Songbird... for both of us." Beep. Beep. "I love you... Frosty..."

Everything fades from sight as the annoying beeping dims to an unrecognizable, distant sound.


I gasp for a breath as my hooves double-back along the floor. I drop my guise, allowing myself to regain a hold of myself. My motor functions have returned in full. Suddenly, more images flash through my mind at once. I grab my head under both my front hooves, but the migraine isn't leaving.

Uh... Forte? whimpers Anew. I'm scared.

What is... happening? Mezzo asks with hesitation.

Forte. That is... my name... and yet... it only feels partially right. Pages of yet another life flip through my mind's eye before I can comprehend what I'm thinking... what I'm remembering. In that orb, only a few things were revealed, yet the floodgates to what I know deep down are only just now opening in full.

I pick up the orb by hoof and shove it into a bag. Before anything else happens, I must take care of one thing: Eliminate Mr. Mansion from the picture.


Tilaso and FRED-E say a few words, probably warning me about my appearance. They are right, of course. But I don't care. I have something I have to do... and it's sitting in the heart of the New Pegasus Strip.

"Hey, we're back from..." Stratus's voice stops short just behind me. "What's gotten into her?"

"I don't know," answers Tilaso. "We were exploring the remains of the Platinum Rush. She found a memory orb and told me and the bot to cover the entrance. Next thing I know, she's taking a brisk stroll up the streets."

"Hmph," grumbles Baane. "Why do I get the feeling that she's about to get us into some real *ess*?"

Their words are convincing. But my hoofsteps do not falter. I open the door to Mansion's casino and march for the doors.

I don't like where this is going, comments Mezzo.

Me either, adds Anew. Wait, weren't you the one that didn't give a feather about what happened to that Mansion fellow?

Yes, which is why I'm even more anxious that Forte is the one following through with my idea.

You think she saw something that we didn't in that memory?

Just... close your mind's eye, you stupid slut. Even you aren't dirty enough to witness this and not get scarred.

Monarch... you're starting to scare me... and I mean more than usual.

Me too, Nuisance. Me too.

There's a keypad that prevents standard gamblers and drunkards from going to a floor other than the top floor. But it feels like I just saw those numbers less than an hour ago. It may have been Wind Shield's memory as she was watching a filly perform the action, but I knew... it was me. I punch that code in for the second time in my life.

7 6 6 4 2 4 7 3

A small "Approved" blinks in the tiny display before the elevator opens. I march onward.

"What the hell is going on, Pianissimo?" asks Baane.

I slowly curl my lip upward slightly, borrowing Baane's split-second smile. "You once wished that Mr. Mansion would give up the struggle and give the N.C.R. an easier time taking over the Strip. Well, I'm going to fulfill it."

They all look confused. Stratus is the only one to voice it as, "What's that supposed to me-"

The elevator door closes before she can finish. I feel the elevator going down instead of up. Perhaps I am sinking to the depths of Tartarus. It's fitting, considering how far I am from being a saint.

I'm interrupted from my contemplation by chirping. Somehow, FRED-E managed to sneak aboard next to me.

"What?" I look at him. "Are you going to waste both of our times to tell me this is a bad idea?"

He lets out a few low beeps, followed immediately by some string of high and low chirps.

"Oh... Well... 'Okay' isn't exactly the word for it. It's more like... aggressively relieved, maybe?"

He beeps a different pattern.

I chuckle lightly. "No, I don't suppose you could compute that."

The elevator door opens to Mansion's allegedly impenetrable fortress. I took a look around before stepping out. I inhale deeply.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

One life's aura appears to be lying down like a corpse inside the metal pod at the far end of this basement. I exhale, pull out my dagger, and prepare to turn that pod into a coffin.

"Hello, Mr. Mansion. Would you like to hear me sing?"


~A unicorn sniper and a rogue pegasus

An earth pony outlaw and a robotic fuss

Who'd have thought all it took to unite

Was a little birdie taking flight?~

With Mr. Mansion's voice completely disconnected from the networks, all of his mighty securitrons were left without orders. This left the gist of the Strip unguarded. New Pegasus had a couple weeks of anarchy, until the New Canterlot Republic managed to swoop in and set up a sense of order, with heavy tariffs on those that they considered hindrances.

~Sixteenth notes play way too fast

They're over before they last

Can you hear the whisper of life

Or are your ears bleeding from the strife?~

The standstill over at the hydroelectric dam eventually pooled over. Rumors were passed around that the battle was won by just one courier that had been building a name for himself along with a few feisty mares by his side. But those rumors were quickly discredited by the officials. Who would believe something as ridiculous as that?

~All the merriment is boiled in stew

The sadness is a faded blue

The darkness is a lack of sight

But fool yourself, thinking friendship is a light~

After the N.C.R.'s success at the dam and the Strip, ex-First Recon Ragic Baane wandered around to find and kill some more Imperials that were still trying to hold anything this side of the wasteland. Something about the alicorn's straightforward approach made him think twice about staying in just one town for the rest of his life.

Tilaso wandered off to look into a rumor about some mad scientist's crater. Just before they could capture him and rip out his brain, he used his newly acquired plasma grenades to send them all to Kingdom Come. Miraculously, none of them broke into more than three pieces each. As for the ex-Powder Ganger, he eventually found some work apprenticing under the Followers. Though, he would sometimes sneak off and waste one explosive a night on incoming Raiders.

Stratus Cloud zoomed around, picking up random jobs that allowed her to punch a few heads. Mercenary bounties were surprisingly plentiful, despite the structure that the N.C.R. claimed to have put into place. But that was alright. It just meant more loot for her to find. Some say that the Shores picked up a new dance move based on her punching.

FRED-E would follow the alicorn with the broken horn for the rest of his floating days. Where exactly that would lead him, nobody really knew.

~Hello, my name is another memory

It's just a piece deep inside of me

It's like living in the start of September

Don't fall out of touch; just remember~

As for the hornless alicorn called Forte Pianissimo, she was asked on multiple occasions to act as an ally to New Canterlot. Though, she only accepted half of their tasks. It was sometimes pleasing and other times discouraging. They would have to work around her schedule, not the other way around.

After all, Songbird only sings when she is ready.


Game Finished

Strength: 7 + 0.25
Perception: 5 + 0.25
Endurance: 8 + 0.25
Charisma: 6 + 0.25
Intelligence: 5 + 0.25
Agility: 5 + 0.25
Luck: 5 + 0.25
*Bonuses applied thanks to the Hero statue: "Nite".
*Extra point of Charisma while Baane remains a companion.

Most used weapons: Songbird's Dagger, "K.R." Kettle's Revolver, Plasma Pistol (2), Varmint Rifle

Most used shout: Aura Whisper

Functional implant: The Changeling Chip (only form available: unicorn)

Achievement unlocked: "What the Forte did I just read?"

Ch. Extra: Divided Stand

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Chapter Extra: Divided Stand

"I... don't know what I expected." ~Michael Bluth


A few questions run through my mind as I fly across a patch of the Wasteland. What is, or rather was, the Unity? What happened to the alleged "Goddess"? Aside from the alicorn currently decorating the gate into the Strip, where are they all? Am I really going to find anything over the other side of the canyon just because one of the Freewall-ers brought me some properly contained radioactive tubes?

The last question is partly the reason why I'm even on this trip in the first place. Tilaso is playing one of his games with his sewer friends. Baane is on home watch today. FRED-E makes some beeping noises indicating he has another objective to complete on his own. Considering he doesn't need a lot to live like the rest of my companions, I'm inclined to believe him. The only companion I have for this impromptu mission is Stratus.

Don't get me wrong; she is not a bad ally to have in a fight. She pulls off the helpless, unarmed mare look very well. It makes her less of a priority target while she's busy bashing raiders' faces in. I just don't know if she can keep herself contained when it comes to the more... look-and-see kind of trips. She once beat up a drunk worker when I was trying to peacefully take him to the Followers. But I digress.

"Laas... Yah Nir."

Every few minutes or so, I chant the aura whisper to check for life forms. There are many red dots along the ground, but they are too far away to make a difference and/or pose a threat. I suppose centuries without any full-scale dragon invasions will make any area skim over its anti-air defenses. I'm not sure how I imagine that specific scenario, but it pops into my mind all the same.

"Want to stop by the Great Divide and take in the sight?" asks Stratus.

I fake a spit. "If you see one rock with layers of red, you've seen them all. Besides, whatever river carved that out is long dried up. The only water out this way is whatever you brought with you."

She chuckles. "Or in your case, any irradiated ditches you find."

"What's so funny about me bathing in that?" I look at her incredulously. "My body was specifically designed to rejuvenate from high radioactivity. I should take advantage of it."

"So... is the blood that you drink radioactive too?" She returns the expression to me.

"No, I'm an erythrocyte connoisseur. Leave me alone." I turn my gaze forward and down again.

"Whatever you say, reverse-Buffy." She shakes her head.


Upon crossing the canyon to the other flat land, I vaguely see the red outfits of some Empire Imperials marching away. I suppose these are what's left after that battle over the great dam finally blew over. I'm not surprised that they run away. The spear that one of the retreating colts throws that lands at least twenty hoof steps away seems more like a courtesy than any threat. I shrug and bend the parts into a neat little pile to stuff in my saddlebags. I'm sure some pony can use the spare parts.

Our current destination is a few clicks off the beaten path. According to the mystery radioactive-juice supplier, there is supposed to be a rag-tag gathering of alicorns living there. I can't fully imagine what we'll find there. From personal experience, I have conclusions that artificial alicorns don't need food, sleep, or water. If they do actually need any of those, they are significantly smaller amounts than most other ponies require. Radioactivity makes them stronger, and invokes a state of euphoria. They're also supposed to have an insane level of magic. Sadly, I can't confirm or disprove that last one... what with my magic being permanently handicapped.

Perhaps I am spoiled, as the town looks very small and unassuming. A few buildings of a lost world are shaking at the slightest of winds. A couple alicorns stand by what I can only guess to be a front gateway. One is black, while the other is white. It seems a little on-the-muzzle. That's more than can be said for the two metal poles standing tall behind each of them.

"I half-expected a castle," says Stratus.

"Where would they find the time and the proper binding agent for bricks of a castle?" I retort.

She shrugs her wings. "Magic?"

"I meant that as a rhetorical question." I sigh.

We hover down to ground level several feet away. I take a quick look through the scope of my appropriated pistol-cannon. Judging from how the 'guards' appear to be looking through the scope back at me, I think they know we're here. I stow the small weapon away, take a deep breath, and exhale. I glance at Stratus. She nods, ready to face this.

As we trot within twenty steps of the makeshift gate, the white alicorn's horn lights up. A brightly glowing bubble covers the entirety of the entrance.

The black alicorn advances with a loud stomp. "State your business!"

I feel Mezzo Fortissimo force her way to the forefront of my conscience. "I'm here to look around. Will that be a problem?"

She gives me that poker face of a glare. "To what end? Not one minute ago, you were waving a toy in our general direction."

I mentally yank Mezzo back and cross my front hooves. "I don't have proper binoculars, so I had to improvise."

We size each other up for several seconds. The white alicorn seems to have her attention on Stratus. Meanwhile, Stratus looks between the two of them. Finally, the black alicorn turns to her partner and motions with her head. The glow fades along with the shield spell.

"You may enter, Anew Sense. But keep the actions of yourself and your mate in check during your visit." The black alicorn returns to her original position in front of the metal post.

What the feather? Anew's voice in my head sounds very airy right then and there.

"Mate?" Stratus tilts her head.

I look at her. "Let's go in before they change their minds."

"Uh, sure." Stratus briskly shakes her head and follows my lead.

Zeddovia. That is the black alicorn's name. At least, that is the identity she passed into my head as she had read my mind's third personality. There is a brief moment where I feel a headache. But as soon as it arrives, it is gone. I look into the eyes of the white alicorn. I just... know... she sees Mezzo's identity. In return, I find out this one's name: Rook Joan.

After learning that alicorns can exchange a few thoughts simply by looking at each other for too long, Stratus and I trot into the town proper. As far as the feel for the buildings' era is concerned, it seems like a cross between the N.C.R. correctional facility and Freewall. The exterior walls look rustic and almost ready to fall apart, but there don't appear to be any huge burn marks, like those from a dynamite explosion.

I glance at Stratus. She shrugs her wings and defers to my choice. Wondering why I bothered, I push open one door and trot inside. A strong scent of mold permeates the interior's atmosphere. Stratus coughs and groans as if in pain. This isn't helped when I spot several stacks of yellow-ish white wheels with green and blue spots rotting through them. I see a red-and-yellow alicorn occasionally bump a couple of the wheels together with a creepy grin on her face. The occupant looks at me.

All I see for this alicorn's identity is a bundle of question marks. "Cheese!"

Stratus and I bail the room and slam the door behind us. Crazy, I might be able to handle to some degree. After all, I have three forms of that living in my own mind. The "cheese" room is not the kind of crazy I want to deal with today. The two of us sigh and we continue our self-guided reconnaissance.

Inside the next building, I actually relax my feathers a little. Some long benches are lined up in rows. Near the end of each row, there's a little shrine. Each shrine has decorations that seem to be themed around a specific alicorn pony. Somehow, I can just tell that the depicted alicorns are not artificial, like I am. These are the princesses that were around before the war and mega-spells: Celestia, Luna, and Cadance. I genuinely hope they're happier... wherever they go after death.

"Are you religious, Forte?" The voice of Stratus interrupts the calm.

"Not at all." I turn my head toward her. "Why do you ask?"

"You seem happier here than anywhere else."

"How do you figure?"

She holds up a hoof. "I don't know. Your wings are kind of loose and your smile looks genuinely serene rather than the usual forced or menacing grin." She shakes her head. "If a temple is making you feel this way, it just seems like something the extremely devout understand."

I blink. "Since when do you have such a wide vocabulary?"

"Hey!" She half-smiles. "Just because I like hitting things, that doesn't mean I don't know how to talk good."

I roll my eyes. "Smart-flank." I turn to exit the building.

"Oh, hush. You know you love it." She chuckles.


The next building has a feel that reminds me of waking up in Fondsprings. Inside, the furnishings are that of an old house. Some of the extra decor includes an alchemy table for making health potions, a medical bag, and a dusty calendar for a date that is at least fifty years prior to the current age. I say at least, but the date is so smudged with ink that it's difficult to tell exactly.

A magenta alicorn watches us enter. Her red irises are slit like the rest of the inhabitants. Her mane is a slightly faded version of her hide, though shorter in length than most manes I see out here. She wears a folded piece of paper atop her head with a crudely drawn plus sign on the front of it.

"Are you injured?" She levitates a Stimpak in view, inching the sharp end in front of herself.

"No, I'm good." I wave a hoof dismissively. "Thanks."

When she points the needle at my companion, Stratus quickly hovers up and back via flapping her wings. "No thanks, ma'am."

The doctor{?} alicorn pouts as she gently sets her Stimpak down behind herself. She returns to a mindless task of fiddling with random items on an old counter. These items include a scalpel, a sewing needle, a pair of safety scissors, shears, and an empty chem bottle. I cannot easily identify what that bottle originally contained.

Her name is Openheart, at least as far as our alicorn staring power tells me.


I seem to be learning a lot of uninteresting trivia about this alicorn community. It has its crazy ones, a building for prayers and confessions to deities that have long since abandoned this world, and a medical facility. I have some names acquired by looking at the alicorns with whom we cross paths. I doubt I'll actually use these names for any reason once we leave. They keep eyeing Stratus and I with some level of distrust.

My path is suddenly obstructed by two pools of golden sight. I flinch backwards and end up sitting down. It takes a couple blinks for me to figure out what is going on. The eyes tell me her name is Slide Whistle. Her coat and mane are the same in tone and shade of dark blue. She is hovering in place, upside-down, and she has a wide grin with her fangs showing.

"Greetings, newcomers!" she shouts with elation. "How are you on this cloudy day?"

Oh sweet Cadenza... Mezzo mentally swears.

"Nope! Just Slide Whistle!" The upside-down alicorn giggles.

Stratus leans her head back slightly. "What?"

I fake a clearing of my throat. "We're doing fine. We were just passing through."

"Super!" Slide Whistle's sudden hug around my neck convinces me to flinch. "How'd you like to become a part of the community?"

I use my wings to push her away. "No thanks. We're just visiting."

"Aww, that's a bummer." Slide Whistle turns over and stands upright. "Well, at least try one of my random samples before you go!"

"Your wha-hrmph?!"

Before I can process what she's doing, a slightly dampened substance is inside my mouth. I end up standing up and backing away. Without time to think, I end up swallowing the item. We cough a bit before we recognize the flavors on our tongue: hints of vanilla, sarsaparilla, and a much larger amount of radioactive specks. For a brief moment, we cannot help but find the taste to be pleasant.

"What the hell is wrong with you?!" shouts Stratus, looking at Slide Whistle. "Don't just shove random things into ponies' mouths!"

"But they like it." Whistle insists. "Don't you three?"

" 'Three'?" Stratus looks at her with incredulity.

We are uncertain as to give this alicorn the dignity of a response. After all, she invaded our personal space without consent. Her demeanor and actions so far do not separate her very much from the raiders we have occasionally encountered. We decide to hold our silence and look to the side in disappointment.

"Yep, denial confirms it for me!" Whistle suddenly blows into a growing, yellow balloon. She rapidly folds it into the shape of a broken down cart. "Well, it was fun meeting you guys. See ya!" She somehow gets on that balloon cart and rapidly rides out of sight.

"Uh... ah... uh..." Stratus struggles for words before shaking her head. "I'm not sure what combination of drugs she's on, and I really don't want to know." She looks over and flies at about an alicorn's eye-level. "Are you alright, Forte?"

We take a deep breath and exhale. "Fine. Just fine."

"Are you sure?" She tilts her head. "Your eyes and voice are doing those weird things like when you step on plasma shots."

"That doesn't seems likely." We fold our wings. "There was a bit of radioactivity in that 'sample', but we don't... we don't... wait... Why are we still thinking 'we'?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Stratus looked around and flew a little higher. "Darn. No sign of that crazy mare anywhere."

"This isn't such a terrible thing." We try to reassure her. "We've had worse conditions than prolonged unity of personalities."

She comes back down to ground level and stands. "So you actually have... what... three ponies living inside your head? How does that work?"

We make three hoof prints along an invisible arc in the dirt. "Yes, we have been three ever since we woke up without a functioning horn. Over time, we gave ourselves identities to own: Forte Pianissimo, Mezzo Fortissimo, and Anew Sense. Normally, Forte dominates our minds and actions. Mezzo steps in when we require a little more intimidation. Anew has our... well... our supply of natural hormones."

"Huh." Stratus scratches her head. "I guess that one gets the least mileage. But then, who's the one that talks all echo-y?"

"We are not certain." Our tail flicks. "We speculate that it is simultaneously all of us and none of us. For in this state, we cannot communicate separately with each other, yet none of us are the sole owners of our mind. Perhaps it is instinct, searching for the Goddess where there is none."

"Hmm... I wonder..." Stratus tapped a hoof under her muzzle.

"What is it?" We look at her directly.

"Do you think you could trigger one of your minds out when given the right motivation... Boss?" She smiles.

"How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?!" I grit my fangs... before loosening my expression. "Oh..."

Stratus sighs. "Glad you're back to normal... I mean, normal-ish."

I pull out a bottle of water and drink about half of its contents. "Ugh. Sweet pluck, what the hell was in that weird cake?"

"Maybe we should leave this town." Stratus takes the bottle and drinks a little. "Wouldn't want to run into some weird Hellhound blood-drinking ritual next."

"Can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree completely." I open my wings an get some air. "Let's go home."

~Feel free to come back anytime!~


"Did you say something, Stratus?" I turn to look at her.

"No, why?" she keeps flying beside me.

Mezzo? Anew?

That was not me, thinks Mezzo.

Me either, comments Anew.

"Weird..." I mutter while continuing to leave this town. All I learn for sure is that what are left of the alicorns are several rungs of crazy.


~Hee, hee, hee...~

Special event perks:
"Binding Agent: Imitation Unity" - Your three minds combine together for a little longer than expected after exposure to radioactivity. Gain +1 INT for 30 seconds starting at the time of activation.
"A Party's Favor" - You could swear that you sometimes hear a fourth voice that doesn't belong to any of you. But don't listen to it.