Fallout: Equestria - False Dawn

by Requiem Mori

First published

Equestria has fallen, and the pieces are still being recovered. A mare wanders alone, cold and embittered. Perhaps she'll find friendship, even in these dark times... if such a thing is even possible.

Set in the world created by Kkat and expanded upon by other authors, this story takes place in Fallout: Equestria, following the journey of Nevermore. Unforgiven, she atones for her sins through aimless wandering, enduring the suffering around her. Her life is a cold and lifeless thing, and she has grown to accept her fate, as much as she rails against it. But perhaps even one such as she can find a glimmer of hope in the blasted wasteland, or will the world break her further, as she races against time.

All rights to their original owners. No claims made or implied by this work.

Thanks so much to Nessy from http://tehfizzle.tumblr.com/ for the wonderful artwork!

Prologue: Broken Memories

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Fallout: Equestria - False Dawn

Prologue: Broken Memories

“I will save you, Captain. Even from yourself.” The wind lashed around me as I face him in battle. Rain poured from the heavens in a weeping curtain. A fitting deluge for what I had done. For what I had yet to do. I faced him across the top of a barren cliff, jagged rocks jutting from the earth like daggers far below us. A simple fall, and it would all end.

“Nevermore! How could you?” The pain in his eyes shocked me, the anger in his voice frightened me. I was no match for him. I knew this. I had seen the fury, the anger, the hurt in the way he had fought. Like a demon, a primal force of nature. Others had fallen to him, countless others. I may be a decent combatant, but this would be like spitting in Celestia’s eye... valiant, perhaps, but ultimately futile and fatal.

Still I stood before him, blades drawn in preparation. My voice remained low and level, as it always did, hiding the emotions in my heart. “I do what I must, Captain. As I have always done.” I still did not know if I hid them from him, or from myself. Nevermore... a name hated, cursed, reviled, feared. Even on a crew of outcasts and misfits, I was alone. Always alone. An outcast amongst outcasts, yet I was satisfied with my lot.... or at least I was accepting of it. Now I could realize that it was me who broke the bonds, who refused their company, who drove away everypony close to me. I had built a wall of isolation around myself, sealing myself in with the pain that was tearing me apart even now. Steeling my heart, I did what I always did. My duty. I closed on my Captain, blades whirling. I closed on my death.

I looked up at him, my body broken, but not my will. I cannot apologize, not even now. To apologize would be to say I was wrong... and despite how everything had turned out, I could not do that. That would cheapen everything that mattered. My Captain, his crew... everything that was now precious to me. Give me your hatred, Captain. Give me your scorn. End my life. I have failed to stop you. I have failed to save you. It was inevitable... I could not win our fight, but what was done to you... it was unforgivable. He stood over me, rage boiling within him. “Do it... Captain. Spend your rage on me.”

I fully expected to die that day... but it was not to be. He spared my life. I could see the rage, the pain, the betrayal. I understood the enormity of my crime, and that only my life would be seen as penance. Yet... he spared me. His kindness was the ultimate cruelty... now I dwell with this pain on a life that is not my own to take any more. It is his. And until he claims it, I cannot end it by my acts or omissions.

Amidst the bodies, the blood, the pain, the sun rises as it always done. Its unforgiving light revealing my sins with its harsh gaze. Stark, revealing, unforgiving, consume me, brutal dawn. He looks down at me, offering a hoof. “Let’s go home.” My injuries mean nothing next to the pain in my soul at those words. Home.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m trapped. I can’t move at all, surrounded by a dark and terrifying void. Hello? Can anyone hear me? Even my voice is lost to the silence... was this my penance? Was this eternity. Had I finally paid enough? My ears strain as I start to hear something... a voice. I come to recognize it... it was my voice, not as it was now, but rather how it was then. “Nevermore... Nevermore... have you not learned your lesson yet? Your pain is not over, it never ends. You learned that lesson, once, that all the world is pain. That there is nothing good in it any more, and that there never was.”

No... you are wrong, there was good. A single, flickering light against the darkness... “But it was snuffed out, was it not, Nevermore? All your pain, all your sorrow... to destroy the one thing that you tried to protect.” Shut up, shut up, shut up! I do not want to talk to you. Go away! “How petulant, you child. Perhaps if you were not so foalish, you would not be here now.”

An image appears before me in the gloom, and I recognize her. Nevermore. Her long and flowing mane drifted past her face, the dark red color stark against her dark coat. A familiar hat rested on her head, the elegant top hat set at a jaunty angle. She peered at me with familiar eyes, their red hue cold and sinister. “You have fallen far, Nevermore... you try to escape your pain again... embrace it.” Escape it? How would I escape it? It has been a part of me for so long already, that I cannot imagine being without it now. She gave me a smile, one devoid of any warmth or feeling. I know that smile well, as it is my own. “Yet you fight, you struggle... a losing battle... you feel it, do you not?” She looks up, and my gaze follows along. “A sword, hung by a thread... your release, and your doom.”

I watch that sword for what feels like an eternity... what would happen once it fell? Would it free me from my torment, or merely add another chapter to it? “You know the answer, Nevermore. You will never be free.” I will be free... one day... but until that day, I will suffer, and through suffering, atone. I smile at myself, the same smile she had given me earlier. You may want to look down. A gaping wound opens in her chest, blood pouring freely. I feel a sympathetic pain in mine. Her countenance doesn’t falter, doesn’t move at all. “As I am, so shall you be...”

The burning in my chest is almost overwhelming, but I grit my teeth defiantly. This pain is nothing... nothing at all. I cough, a wad of sticky black blood and phlegm splats on the floor as my breath comes in a wheezing, sucking noise. Well... that’s unfortunate... I close my eyes again, wishing everything to go away. I am... so... tired...

~~~~~~~~~~

The gloomy murk surrounds me, the shroud on the Equestria that I had once known. I cough again, actually feeling it this time, looking around the blasted wasteland. Laying amidst a pile of broken and forlorn skeletons, I try to pull myself up to my hooves. It’s a slow and painful journey, complicated by... Looking down, I see the gaping hole in my chest where a raider’s round had punched through my chest with a lucky pot shot. Bloody raiders... My wings twitch, protesting the strain they suffered getting me here... and the crash after they finally gave out. I just want to... rest... Maybe I’ll just... lie down for a bit... The world fades to darkness as my legs buckle again... only barely feeling the thump as my body hits the ground.

Chapter 1: Mares and Monsters

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Chapter 1: Mares and Monsters

What’s the difference between life and death? Motivation.

Life has a sense of humor, but not a very good one. That was one of the last lessons I learned. Ironically, it was also one of the first major lessons I learned. Twice. Everypony always held a memory that they would keep until the end of their lives. For some, it was blissful matrimony. For others, like myself, it was the pain of betrayal. Sometimes, however, some events overcome these memories. The first event that overcame being betrayed was, ironically, betraying one who was close to me. That particular memory, I was sure, would haunt me until I died. This is where's life humor comes in, apparently, and not in a good way. It did haunt me until the day I died, and it continues to haunt me even now.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

“Wow, lookit all them bodies ‘round here!” The stallion’s voice draws me back to the painful light, the wound in my chest still throbbing with pain. Fetlocks. A slight tugging on my cloak draws my attention, though I am still too pained to do much about it right now.

“Fritter, what are you doing? Don’t touch that!” A mare’s voice this time... great, more than one of them. Opening my eyes, I see two young ponies standing nearby, talking amongst themselves. The glare hurts my eyes for a second as I try to focus on the pair. Did he just... try to loot my body? I look them over... they both looked different somehow, not what I was used to seeing out here in the Celestia forsaken Wasteland, but I couldn’t put my hoof on it. The mare was a pale blue unicorn, her mane cropped back and tied tight into a ponytail. I catch a glimpse of something on her forehoof, but can’t quite place it, my eyes partially blinded, my mind unfocused from pain.

“But she’s fresh... well, fresher, Zone. She might have something fer us to use! I mean, look’it ‘er! She’s dressed all fancy, with that nice hat and all.” Yeah... he was definitely trying to loot my body. They didn’t seem to notice that my eyes were open now as they continued to bicker with each other. Really... did no other pony have common decency to at least check if I was dead first? The stallion was a rather ugly earth pony... he didn’t seem as well kept as his companion, but the automatic pistol on his side was enough to draw my attention. Might as well get this over with...

“That is just really gross, Fritter... I can’t believe you’re trying to take stuff off that poor dead mare!” At least the mare seemed to care... though out here, such sentiment tended to die off quickly.

Despite the gaping wound in my chest, I manage to pull myself up to my hooves quietly, only a hiss of pain to betray the effort. The two continue to bicker, too loud, far too loud. What sort of idiot was this loud in the Wasteland... don’t they realize there are creatures, raiders, or even slavers out here? Coughing slightly, I try to interrupt them, my voice low and dry as I fight my vocal cords to work properly. I don’t really use them much, so I can’t really blame them for protesting. “Stop-”

Two things cut me off, the scream of “Zombie!” from the stallion, and the glow that suddenly surrounds their forehooves as they both draw weapons. That’s what I couldn’t place, their Pipbucks... they were Stable ponies, which meant...

“Yellow, yellow you foalish idiots!” The mare raises her shotgun, realizing that I wasn’t showing threat but the stallion... time seems to speed up around him as the Pipbuck works its magic with S.A.T.S. Of all the things I hate in this Celestia forsaken wasteland, trigger-happy Stable ponies with magical assistance doesn’t top the list, but it’s up there. Definitely up there. “Eyes Forwar-” The pistol rounds tear into my already battered chest as he empties the magazine into me. I fell back down amid a spray of blood and gore.

“Sweet Celestia, did you just kill somepony?!” The mare’s voice is near hysterical as she leans down to see if I’m dead... the pain makes me wish I was, but I stoically try to clamber back to my feet. The look on their faces was almost worth the searing pain. Almost.

“How’s she not dead, Zone? You see her, she sure looks dead! She’s a zombie!” He seems to be in a panic almost. I’d almost sympathize with him. He’s not the one who just got shot though, which severely limits my empathy.

I snarl at him in pain and anger. “You foalish moron... all that fancy tech, and you cannot even be bothered to check the colors.” I feel my knees buckling, the blood loss making me weak. A pasty black ichor oozes its way from my chest, plopping to the ground with a sickening splatter. They’re looking at me... I can feel their eyes, judging what they see. My breath hisses from behind my partially broken gasmask as I stagger back away from them. While the smell of death may have been attributed to the corpses around me, my decaying hide and dripping gore gave it away that I was not quite a normal pony. That, and the gleam of my glowing eyes, or at least the one still visible behind the mask. “Leave me... alone...” I can’t focus, my vision swimming. Dear Celestia... let me die and end it all... just let it be over... I stagger up next to a sky chariot, leaning against it for support. The two are staring dumbly at me... I can sense it without looking at them. Perhaps if I were more focused on what was around me instead of my injuries, I might have noticed what was about to happen.

The feel of a rifle barrel against the side of my head informs me that I’m not likely to die from blood loss. I barely get a glimpse of the raider before there’s a loud noise and a bright flash, and I feel myself flying back across the empty street before crumbling into a pathetic pile. Please... let it be over... My vision starts to grow dim as I watch the raider advance on the two young, foalish ponies... Gak.[

I want to scream, I want to retch, I want to beg, I want to cry. I can’t do any of that, however, from my position on the street. He’s dangerous... can you not see that? You bloody idiots... The raider leaves his hiding place, next to the chariot even as the two Stable ponies face him. “Now, I just saved the two of you from that there ghoulie, so why don’t ya give me all yer gear and caps, and we call it even.”

The mare looks at him, incredulous. “She wasn’t doing anything! And you just killed her!” At least somepony realized that I wasn’t threatening them...

The stallion snorts back at the raider. “Besides, we need these, and what are these ‘caps’ anyways?” Right... Stable ponies... they probably still use bits, or something like it. The raider, however, doesn’t seem amused. The two still have their weapons holstered, as if they’re unsure about whether to shoot him or not. Then again, with his assault rifle and spiked armor, they look outclassed anyways.

“Well, if ya dun got no bits, then there are... other ways ta pay me for my kindness...” The lewd way he stared at the unicorn left no doubt in my mind what he intended... Come on Nevermore... die already, die die die! I will my heart to stop, I will myself to expire. I want to die right now, I need to die... Not again... not like this. Moving quicker than either of them anticipated, he sweeps Zone’s shotgun aside as she starts to draw it, the buckshot ripping into the pavement next to me. Fritter’s pistol clicks on its empty magazine... he never reloaded after emptying the pistol into me, apparently. The raider kicks Fritter down, and holds them both at gunpoint, keeping a hoof on the mare’s shotgun so she can’t levitate it, though I can see her trying. “Now... that’s gunna cost ya extra...” I can hear the sinister tone in his voice, the threat he represents to them. Finally, I close my eyes and bleed out... Thank Luna...

There’s a hissing in the air, a dark swelling of energy. The very air itself feels evil and tainted as I stand back up, my wounds sealing shut. There’s the faint plink of metal as the rounds are forced out of my chest onto the road as the regenerating flesh forces them out. I convulse slightly, detesting the feeling of the cursed magic infusing my body. So... that was not my time either, it seems... The two Stable ponies look at me in abject horror... the raider doesn’t know I’m standing, that it’s me they’re looking at, and that I’m behind him. With a sinister snick, I slip a knife from inside my cloak onto a forehoof. He never saw me coming.

I carefully wipe the blade clean on a less dirty spot on the raider’s barding. No reason to let it rust or stick. It was a simple maneuver, really. With his back to me, a swift jab under the ear was enough to put him down. Granted, the second and third jabs were out of spite, but he did shoot me after all. “What?” The stare those two were giving me was starting to annoy me. Did they expect me to eat him or something? I may be a ghoul, but I still have standards, or was it...

“You killed him... I can’t believe you killed him!” The unicorn mare seems to be on the verge of tears. Really? After he just threatened to kill them, or do other things to them, this is what she’s worried about?

“Yes. I killed him. Good riddance to another raider. In case you missed it, he tried to kill me, and he was going to kill you. Or worse.” I let that linger in the air for a bit, turning my head from them to start rummaging through his stuff. “Junk... junk... junk... ew... junk...” A stream of items leave his saddle bag as I strew them across the road, slipping what looked useful into my own bags.

I can still feel her staring at me. Celestia, this mare was annoying. “Well um... thank you, Miss... I’m Zone Control, and that over there is Frisky Fritter, and well um...” She hesitates, trying to decide if she can ask me without offending me.

The stallion solves that for her quite easily. “What the hay are ya, freak?! Ya took a buncha rounds to the chest, then he put one in ya head!” Zone Control tries to hush him, apparently worried that I’d turn my apparent penchant for knifing ponies onto the two of them.

Sighing, I turn to face them, and I see them flinch. Of course. “I am a ghoul, as you may have noticed.” I can’t really help the bitter sarcasm, even though I knew they don’t really know about ghouls. “Since it is so hard to notice the rotting, you may be excused for not being aware of that little fact...” Snorting in derision, I resume my looting, pocketing a few more things from the body. “You can come out now, Watcher.” I turn to face the floating sprite-bot that was hiding off to the side. “I know it is you, since you are quiet.” Celestia... the only time I hated the sprite-bots more than when they were playing that obnoxious, upbeat music was when they weren’t.

“Nevermore... you look the same as always.” The voice comes out of the bot. “And your eyes are still just as keen.”

I snort, spitting a wad of blood and ichor at the bot. “Do not flatter me, Watcher. I still do not care for, or appreciate, it. But you knew that.” I eye the sprite-bot with distrust. Nopony I know of knows who Watcher is, but it seems to know things, especially... “You are looking for these Stable dwellers, are you not. You know what this Wasteland will do to them. You cannot honestly expect them to not falter.”

“Yet I must try... you too could-” The bot is interrupted by a well aimed piece of trash thrown at it.

“I am not that sort of pony, Watcher. You have seen it before. I am not the pony that you want... I am not the pony that anypony needs. I cannot be trusted. You know this, Watcher, yet you insist on pestering me.” I snarl at the bot for making me remember...

Zone Control trots over, tilting her head curiously. “You know this machine, Miss Nevermore?” Blast... what is with these nosy ponies? Listening in on our conversation... Did Stables not teach manners these days? She looks Watcher over, with a critical eye. Somepony looks like they know their way around machines.

“Zone Control, Watcher. Watcher, Zone Control.” I snort and turn to leave. “Be careful what you listen to, Zone Control. The Wasteland tends to leave more corpses than heroes.” I start heading out, my hooves clicking slightly along the road. “Not that there are any heroes left these days.”

There’s an awkward silence after my tirade, and it’s Watcher that breaks it. “You don’t believe that... you never admit defeat.” I could hear the pity in his voice... and I hated it. “You’re better than that. You believed in things, once... just please... at least make sure they don’t make the same mistakes that so many do.” He sees me about to tear into him again, so he interrupts me with one more pleading. “Please?”

I look over at the two Stable ponies... Zone Control keeping Frisky Fritter’s mouth shut. Did I want to help them? Could I help them? Or would I just leave their broken corpses in the Wasteland. “I am sorry Watcher... perhaps that pony would have helped, when she believed in something... but... she died Watcher. She died a long time ago.” I turn my back and start heading off.

“Good riddance. We don’t need that zombie anyways.” Fritter’s parting shot helps to steel my heart, quickening my pace.

“Come now, Nevermore... you know how it is. Those bright eyed, enthusiastic ponies can’t even look at the sky... they won’t last a week without help.” I sigh and turn to face the bot. “They need you... you’re experienced, you know the dangers. They won’t live without your help!”

“So what?” That stunned it into silence, so I press my advantage. “So what if they die? What are two more corpses in this wasteland? Two more bodies under the broken sky. Those fools know nothing, and you expect me to watch them for you, to care for them. That will not happen, Watcher. I am done.” I look to the side, not wanting to look the bot in the eye any more as I fight back my own tears. “You know I am a time bomb... and when it is my time...” I look over at the two. “I do not wish to betray more ponies again, Watcher. Look for somepony else... somepony who has not already fallen to the Wasteland.”

“You have a good heart, Nevermore... I wish you would let it open.” I flatten my ears and keep walking. It floats back to the waiting ponies to talk to them... probably give them a speech on friendship, and a bit later, I hear the music coming from the infernal device. Good riddance... I have seen too much now, Watcher. I am too tired for this anymore. Heroes die, or are broken. There are not any exceptions to this... not in these days, or even in the better times.

My only company is the sound of hooves clattering on the hard trail as I leave them behind. The rest is the stillness of death. Eventually, I come to a stop and curl up under a dead tree, resting myself against it. Time passes, but what is time to the dead? Seconds... minutes... hours... I stare blankly at the landscape, etching the suffering world into my mind. I run the Stable ponies’ faces through my mind... faces I expect to never see again. I add them to the list of ponies, gryphons, and other creatures that I would never see again. It’s a long list, and I mentally recite their name next to their face... time may have marched on, leaving them in the dust, but I would not forget. I could not forget. Zone Control and Frisky Fritter... two more names for my list. Patting the book hidden in my cloak, I give a faint smile. I will not forget, not while I- “Nevermore. Nevermore!” The voice breaks my solitude, though it seems to be slightly panicked... or worried, which meant...

Growling, I turn to face the sprite-bot. “No, Watcher. I said no. Go. Away.” Petulantly, I turn away from it. Maybe it’ll finally get the hint.

“Slavers got them, Nevermore... and... they’re close to you. You can help. You can make a difference.” Blast... I knew those fools would get themselves caught. They did not have the knowledge or care necessary to survive. They were too young, too innocent, not nearly jaded enough.

“No. I cannot make a difference. What can one pony do against the Wasteland? I am tired of this, Watcher. Too tired. Leave me alone.” I close my eyes and try to ignore him... try to ignore myself. Surely there was nothing to gain... ponies everywhere were being taken by slavers even now... nothing I can do... Zone Control and Frisky Fritter... their names and faces flashing through my mind despite my best efforts.

“But you can make a difference to those two. You know the old farm... the Kumquat Plot? They’re being held there.” A robotic sigh. “Look... I know you’ve gone through a lot, but don’t take it out on those two kids...”

“Get banished, Watcher... and get burned by Celestia’s flaming sun.” I open my eyes and stare hard at him. “Just. This. One. Time.” Standing up, I start heading towards the farm, quiet as a shadow. The heavy weight of my dress beneath the cloak is oddly comforting. Time to dance again... perhaps... no... hope leads to despair. Perhaps I can find a friend.

The sun had set by the time I reach the farm, the last couple hours burning off during my solitary trek. I gaze over the small, dilapidated farmhouse with its sagging roof and burned husks of trees. The sad sign marked with an orange fruit and “Kumquat Plot” written in bright letters lay broken to the side. A few of the raiders are standing guard, though they seem to be disorganized and lazy, with the guards seeming more interested in milling about aimlessly and stomping around the fire than actually watching anything. Then again, most ponies tried to go away from a known slaver nest rather than towards it. Like a shadow, I flit across the wasted field, eyeing my first target. The mare didn’t even have time to scream as my blade punched its way through her neck, severing her spine with a well placed blow. Lowering her to the ground, I continue to work my bloody craft towards the farmhouse, one guard pony at a time, each falling before they realize what hit them. Aim for the throat or the gap beneath the skull... keep it silent, avoid an alarm where possible... My old skills hadn’t deserted me, it seems. That, or these slavers were really bad at making sure that nopony like me was doing this. Quite possibly both.

I dispose of the last guard I can see, and start to examine the door. Locked. Things were going so well too. Of course, as things go well, they have to turn sour quickly it seems. A shrill cry from a mare, Zone Control, lets me know that I’m now on a time limit... and its not a very long one. I work the lock on the door as quick as I can, fearing what I’ll find inside. My haste costs me a couple bobby pins, but more importantly, it costs me time. Gak this moon-cursed door! Caution thrown to the wind, I spin around and buck the door, hard. The wooden frame splinters from the impact, even as I dive low into the doorway. A wise choice, it seems, as the remainder of the door above me is shredded by a shotgun blast.

I see the Stable ponies chained on the floor, both of them looking terrified. My eyes glow softly in the darkness, picking out the details of the room despite the gloom. Zone Control appears to be fine, just in shock... though I see why she screamed. The unicorn stallion in front of me was heavily armored, and armed, his shotgun floating in front of him, held in his telekinetic grip. Everything was armored... well, everything except... What he was about to do to her... unforgivable.

I can be rather apathetic... rather cold. But when a stallion is going to force himself onto a helpless mare... “Get out... both of you. Now.” My voice leaves no room for complaint as I launch myself at the stallion. The two Stable ponies start to hobble towards the door, the slaver focused on the berserk ghoul trying to stab him to death. His shotgun roars, and I feel the pellets slamming into my chest. Not nearly enough to stop me... never enough. There’s a harsh ping as some of the shot ricochets off my armored dress beneath my cloak. A clang as my blade glances off his armor... I wasn’t strong enough to punch through his armor, though I was fast enough to throw his targeting off. We fought for a while, my blade slipping off his armor, occasionally managing to find a weak joint, eliciting a grunt of pain, while his shotgun roared, the blasted weapon blessed with a large capacity, tearing holes in the wall, with not a small amount clipping me in the process, though it was only pain. Eventually though, this dance would end, as he was getting closer to landing a full blast with his shotgun... there was only so much room to dodge. One blast that could possibly cripple or kill me outright.

Hoping that the Stable ponies had gotten out, I reach up for my mask, even as he hits me full in the chest with a slug. I tumble back, leaning against the wall behind me, looking up at him, wheezing as my armor barely held against that, preventing a crippling blow. “Let’s see your fancy moves now.” He starts cursing at me, vile, foul things, disparaging my family, my background, and comparing me to certain parts of my anatomy.

“Come closer... and I will show you something...” It feels like my chest is on fire, though I still watch him impassively... My hoof reaches my gasmask, and I manage to tug it off, the heavy rubber hitting the floor with a thud and a sloshing noise.

“Yeah, I’ll show you something too, you-” Again, curses me out... such crude language... hardly befitting a lady like myself, and vile in nature too. Though given his intent towards his helpless prisoners, I was not surprised. His taunting tirade is cut off as I take a deep breath then exhale. No longer absorbed by the water stored in my mask, the Pink Cloud leaves my lungs in a stream directed at the slaver. Not knowing the danger, he inadvertently inhales a large lungful of the stuff. Immediately, he screams in pain, flailing in a blind and terrified panic. He struggles, trying to leave the building, but is betrayed by his body as the necromantic gas starts to rot and liquify him from the inside. I could stop now... he may live, or if not, I could use my blades for a quick and merciful death. Inhaling again, I blow another stream of Pink Cloud directly onto him, and keep it there until nothing recognizable as a pony is left. Recovering my mask, I set it back into place, the cloud already dissipating.

I look at the two Stable ponies, and start working on their locks silently. They don’t say anything to me. I don’t blame them. The slaver had shot enough holes in the building that they could watch the fight. The entire fight. They saw everything. They cheered when I got good hits in, they cried out when it looked like I fell. They saw me kill him. They saw me render him into a liquified organic heap with my cursed breath. I recognized the look in their eyes. Not thanks, not gratefulness. Terror. I recognized it, because I felt it myself. I was not a pony. I was a monster. I was a Canterlot Ghoul.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 1!

New Trait: Canterlot Ghoul - You’re incredibly resilient to damage, able to stand up even after most crippling wounds! Additionally, death is just a mild inconvenience to you, as long as you don’t lose your head or get disintegrated, that is.

New Trait: Pink Cloud - You can exhale the deadly Pink Cloud! But be careful, it’s dangerous to friends and foes alike!

Chapter 2: Tattered Covers

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Chapter 2: Tattered Covers

Read, for a better Equestria.

Of everypony I saw in Canterlot the day the bombs fell, I was probably the only one... relieved. My penance was done, I could finally rest. Even as that horrible pink cloud caused my organs to fail, my life to end, I was finally satisfied. Yet, I welcomed the cold embrace of death, even as the world seemed to end around me. Then I stood up again. I am now willing to admit that perhaps I was not the most pleasant mare to be around... but this was... cruel, even for a heartless world.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

The fire crackled merrily in its pit, a complete opposite of the mood of the other two. They looked around, at each other, looking at anything but the pegasus that had brutally killed the slaver. Me? I was content enough, I suppose. I killed a slaver, a murderer, and a rapist, making it not a bad day. Of course, getting killed earlier did put a damper on the whole thing. Even if I regenerate, it still hurt, and picking shot out of oneself was never a good time. “Hold still... you are squirming too much.” Zone Control didn’t seem that happy as I wound her leg with bandages. Just the normal cloth strips, her injuries not requiring magically enhanced bandages. Besides, I was low on medical supplies, and a few scars would not kill her.

Slipping the roll back into my pack, I’m stopped as she looks up to me. “N-Nevermore? Um... are you going to leave us?” Her voice is fearful and lost, shaken by recent events.

I’m surprised. I thought they’d want nothing to do with me after they knew what I was. Very few ponies tolerated a ghoul, let alone a Canterlot one. Sighing, I turn to look her in they eyes. “Yes, I will.” Her ears wilt... apparently facing this without me was worse than being in my company. “Unless you agree to my conditions.” That caught their interest for sure. “First, always listen to me. I will not argue with you. You listen to me, you may live another day. You do not, and it’s on your head. Second, be careful. I cannot always watch out for you, so assume whatever you are looking at will try to kill you. There is nothing safe out here, even things that seem innocuous or friendly. Especially things that seem friendly. Watch your foes, but more importantly, watch your friends.” I leave that in the air for a little bit, a sober thought from a sober mare. “Finally, know how to kill me properly. Decapitation or disintegration should do it.”

Zone Control stares at me for a few awkward seconds. “Kill you? Why but... I...” Her eyes betray her confusion. Was I not the one who was going to be looking after them? Why would they need to kill me if I’m their helper?

Frisky Fritter looks over, rubbing his fetlocks where he was chained up earlier. “Yeah, you’re a creepy ghoulie, but you’re supposed ta be watching out for us, not dyin’ on us or somethin’ stupid like that.” I really want to kill that stallion sometimes... no respect at all in that one.

Sighing, I debate telling them the entire truth... and decide to start by hedging. “You need to know how to kill things... ghouls included.” I snort at the depressed look on their faces. “If you will not kill, then there is no point in me trying to help you. They will simply eat your face, and I will not care one whit. You must kill to survive out here, it is the only law.” I move closer to the fire, more out of habit than necessity, until I’m just shy of igniting my mane. Even this close, I can barely feel the warmth. My entire body feels numb and cold, but it is something I am used to.

“So there are other ghouls... ones not like you?” Zone’s voice is soft, as if worried I’ll get upset at her, or stab her or something. I wasn’t that mean... most of the time right? “Ones that aren’t um... the helpful sort?”

Sighing, I try to answer her, deciding that they deserve to know the truth about me, and others like me. “There are, generally, two types of ghouls. Those like me, who are quite like most others, just... not, due to differing levels of decay, and the fact that we are mostly dead. Then there are the ones that will try to eat you, called feral ghouls.” I stare at them hard, even as they cower slightly. “All ghouls eventually succumb to that, so when it happens to me, you need to know how to finish me off. I will not have my first experience as a feral ghoul be that of eating my charges...” I growl at them, low and menacing. “Got that?” They quickly murmur assent. “And do not worry... there are not that many that are quite like me... they are easier to kill, and do not... exhale Pink Cloud.” Their faces fall at the mention of the necromantic death cloud that had consumed the slaver. Good job, Nevermore. I watch the fire for a few minutes, the fuel starting to die off. “You two sleep. I will wake you when it is your turn to watch.”

The hours pass uneventfully, the moon slowly crossing the cloud filled sky. Watching can be boring, but there is nothing else to do at this time. I watch the Wasteland, I observe the decaying city in the distance... Detrot, a terrible place. I feel tired, but I wish to give the two some more sleep, keeping myself awake through force of will. Eventually, I need to sleep, so I walk over and give Zone a swift kick to her side. “Your watch now. Get your friend up when it is his turn.” She grumbles something as she pulls herself to her hooves, trying to blink the sleep out of her eyes. Disinterested in what she’s complaining about, I close my eyes to rest... and sleep. After all this time, I know that my sleep is not the sleep of the just. I await the nightmares, just as they await me.

~~~~~~~~~~

I stand in a field of bones. They’re all dry, dusty, bleached. Mares, Stallions, Foals, Griffons... skeletons of all shape and sizes surround me. I walk amidst them, stopping by each one in turn. I watch them... and I know that they are each watching me. “Hello again... Golden Dawn...” Another skull. “Hello again... Steel Flank.” And another. “Hello again... Shining Soul.” I walk through the field of bones, calling names out, one by one. I cannot forget them. I will not forget them. It takes hours... day... months... years. My past is littered with bodies, those I left, those I watched, those that fell. They are all unified in death. Betrayers, betrayed, friends, foes. It doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters now. Bodies are bodies, and I do not discriminate now in death. With a pained sigh, I finish my task in front of the final corpse in my journey... and also the first one. “Hello again... Nevermore.”

"Aren't you ever the morbid one?" I hear the dry, broken voice, the rattle of dusty bones. The call of my personal court jester, the one that played the fool most of my life. I remembered him as I knew him, oh so long ago. Times change, ponies change, but memories, those last forever. "It's not like it's the end of the world." That saying, he had used it against me plenty of times, he always said it and I would mock him for his optimism. Yet, his words did help, once. I look around the blasted landscape... a recreation of the Wasteland out there. If only he was actually here he'd know the irony of that statement. His was the one body I avoided on my journey. I knew where it was, I always know where it is. My heart breaks in my chest, a broken heart for a broken mare.

"Just leave me alone." I rasped, my voice dry and cracking under the merciless sun. I still cannot look at him, still cannot face him. I cannot bear the thought of seeing him reduced to nothing, like the bodies around me. Between him and the other bodies, nothing else was here, other than lingering pain and regret. He was the only source of noise in this barren void, save the howling winds whipping over the stale, cracked bones of this graveyard. "You are the only one that speaks. I would prefer if you did not, Captain." He only smiled, I could feel his smile, a wide, catty grin that had brightened many rooms in his lifetime.

"Do you really think your hooves will ever be clean?" He asked. I shuddered, a sickness welling up in my throat. "That you'll ever be able to escape?" I felt the shadows drawing in, creeping along the ground like weeds. My hooves will never be clean. The blood on them would never come out. "You're just talking to yourself, Nevermore. I'm not really here. I talk because you want me to." That catty grin, that jester’s smile. “I’m not here, Nevermore, because you killed me.”

"I want to be left alone." I muttered, lying again. I always lied to him. Even when he was alive I lied. To be fair though... I believe I lied to myself most of all. I found solace in my deceptions, shielding myself from the pain I had caused. There was no time for that here though, my aching soul confronted with a punishment of my own devising.

"Then why are you here, Nevermore? Why are you dreaming?" His voice came from everywhere. Every body littering the ground shifted, pointing at me accusingly. "Traitor. Traitor. Traitor." Their dry bones rattled and splintered as they had that smile only present in death. Each locked forever in a mocking grin.

"Stop..." My voice is low, shaking, and weak. "Stop..." I began to frantically scream that one word over and over. I look up, eyes wide. "Stop..." I fall to the ground and curl up as best I can, my voice a bare whisper. “Please... stop this...”

"Never... stop... moving." I knew this was my penance... I must keep going, denied the grave. Perhaps, when my time finally came, they would forgive me. Perhaps at that time, I would forgive myself.

~~~~~~~~~~

Dawn... my eyes crack open as the pale light fights to break through the clouds. It was the same dream again... or a variation of it at least. And that is why I hate sleeping. Looking about, I spot Zone curled up by the fire, her blanket draped over her against the cold. Fritter was... Sighing, I look at his sleeping body leaned up against a tree. So much for a reliable watch. Well, we were not murdered, enslaved, or otherwise inconvenienced, so I would let it slide for now, though we would have having words later. Reflecting on the past day, I pull out my most prized possession. Trash to most ponies these days, but without measure to myself.

With careful motions and thought, I open my journal and begin to write with my neat and flowing script. This book was almost done, I would have to go get another one soon to replace it. I record the names of my new companions in my book, placing them into my memories now. Even if they were to fall, I would remember them, at least as long as I stood. The dull scratch of my quill against the paper doesn’t disturb either of them. They were deep in sleep, apparently. The sleep of the just, or at least those not neck deep in blood.

A slight click of hooves against the ground draws my attention. At least one of my companions was up. “Sleep well?” I look up at Zone Control as she addresses me. She looked terrible. I suppose a soft Stable pony like her sleeping out in the Wasteland was not conducive to a good night.

My sleep was terrible, and I still felt exhausted, though that was common enough these days. “Well enough.” Lying smoothly, I close my journal. Old habit, perhaps foolish now, but others did not read my journal unless I let them. Dry bones on a dusty plain... Shaking the thought off, I slip the book into my saddlebags. “Get him up. We are leaving.” Zone wakes the other pony up, not nearly as harshly as I would have. Much less kicking, for starters. Regardless, they’re both up, and mostly ready to go.

Fritter gives me a glare and a snort as he comes closer, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “So what’s the plan then, ya rotter?” Ah yes, still the paragon of tact and politeness, aren’t you, Fritter?

I smile at him, a cold smile that probably scares him more than if I actually yelled at him. Yelling is not really my style, and with my voice the way it is, I can’t get a proper scream up anyways. My voice rasps out, low and harsh through years of dust and insufficient use. “The plan is for you to keep your watch, next time, so that nopony gets murdered in their sleep.” He bristles slightly at my tone, but shrinks away from my hard gaze. “Then we go and secure more supplies. We are going to need a lot more supplies. Water, food, ammunition. I do not eat or drink much, and only carry enough for myself normally” I eye Fritter’s pistol warily, that stallion was far too trigger happy. “Definitely a lot more ammunition as well.”

Zone and Fritter look at each other nervously. “Secure more... supplies?” Zone Control tilts her head curiously. “We don’t have many bits...” They start nosing into their bags, looking for the pre-war money they used.

“Bits?” I snort. “Bits have not been used in over a hundred years, cupcake.” I pull out a shiny bottle cap from my bag. “These are the currency now. Caps.” They’re looking at it, apparently confused that trash is now money. To be fair, I still found the idea to be odd, but if that’s what others took, that’s what I used. “And when I say secure, I do not mean go and buy it.” Looking off to the side, I point with a hoof. “There is a raider camp only a few hours in that direction. We will liberate their supplies.” More important than the supplies was this lesson. You had to be willing to do almost anything to survive out here.

“You mean... ya want us to go off and kill somepony ta take their stuff? Not thinkin’ this is tha sort of thing we should be doin’ now...” Frisky Fritter seems aghast that I would even suggest such a thing. Hardly unexpected, but still a touch disappointing. It seems that the lessons of yesterday had not quite sunk in.

“No, I want us to go remove another Wasteland threat, and collect our just reward afterward for doing so.” Shaking my head at their naivete, I start heading off. Did they already forget what raiders just tried to do to them? Regardless, they fall in behind me, starting to grumble to each other about the sky, the Wasteland, me. “And stop whining. That is an order.” They shut up quickly at least... much better than the last group.

“So um... Nevermore?” I turn to look at Zone Control as she speaks up. “I saw you had a book earlier... do you um... mind telling me about it? We had a library at the stable, but the books there weren’t very interesting, so I was wondering if you had any good stories...” Her ears fall as she catches a look in my eye, apparently. “S-sorry...”

Sighing, I turn from her and keep walking, feeling their eyes burning into the back of my head. Fine... not like it was some horrible secret. “It is my journal. I do not wish to forget anything.” A few more steps, the click of hooves on the hard floor. “Ghouls that turn feral, lose all sense of themselves. Who they are. What they know. What they believe. It is my hope that by keeping my memories, by never letting myself forget anything, no matter how painful it may be, I can always remind myself who I am... though some times I would prefer to forget.” I nod my head slightly. “Perhaps, one day, I will permit you to read it.” My secret hope, my plan to keep that sort from dropping as my mind snaps, making me a flesh hungry feral ghoul. To be such a creature would to suffer a fate truly worse than even this undeath.

Frisky Fritter snorts his derision at my offer. “Oh, yippee... some dusty old book from some dusty old mare.” Yep... I’m going to kill Fritter some day... and I won’t feel bad about it. Not at all.

“That journal, you foalish idiot, is more knowledge on more things than you could possibly fit into your sad excuse for a brain. Now, be quiet. We are getting close to the encampment.” Blissful silence, even if only for a few minutes. I look over my charges. They look nervous, but at least they know which end of the gun goes boom and which end does not. I do hope their aim is decent, as I hate getting shot by my friends even more than getting shot by my foes. While it’s unlikely to kill me, it still really hurts.

Motioning them to get down, I creep forward slowly, a dark shadow, swift and silent. Using a scope from my pack, I look over my target. There appear to be four raiders at this camp, several rusty crates, and other miscellaneous things lying about. As expected, their gear was poorly maintained... did no other pony bother to maintain their equipment? I slip my hoof into my cloak, feeling the familiar knife grip that fits over my hoof. The wicked blade sticks out at an angle, so as to be used as a weapon without impairing my run. Now I’m ready. Gesturing to my companions, I slip in towards the first raider.

The stallion isn’t looking for me, isn’t looking at me. Lunging forwards, I bury my blade into the side of his neck with a vicious swipe, eliciting a gasp of pain and a wheezing death cry. A savage twist before ripping the blade out ensures that he won’t make the mistake of not paying closer attention again. Now the game is ahoof. The other three turn to face me, guns coming up despite their surprise. Grasping another knife handle from under my cloak with my mouth, I whip my head around, hurling the blade at another raider. She screams as the blade bites into her shoulder, though her glowing gun tells me that I’m about to pay for that little trick.

The shotgun roars as it blasts into my side, throwing me to the side. My armored dress absorbs most of the shot, but it still hurts, the pellets stinging badly from the thunderous impact. Staggered, I lose track of her as the other barrel of her shotgun unloads into me again, bringing me to the ground. “That hurts, you bloody raider scum...” I hear the exchange of gunfire as my companions engage the other raiders. Looking up, I see that she’s telekinetically shoving shells into her gun again. Barreling onto her, I shove her shotgun to the side as it discharges, thankfully avoiding another blast. She brings her hooves up to hit me, and while I do not enjoy hoof-to-hoof fighting, I’ve seen it many times before, and by fighters far more skilled than her. Slipping under her jab, I ram my blade up and under her leg, feeling the thunk as the blade glances off a rib. She falls to the ground screaming in pain, her magic forgotten for now.

Taking a glance, I see that my companions had taken care of the others, though based on the injuries, it seems they were removed by a shotgun and not a pistol. Zone Control was apparently the better shot. The raider at my hooves whimpers pathetically, trying to clutch the weeping wound in her chest. Nodding slightly, I raise my hoof to deliver the final blow. She was a raider, and severely wounded. “Wait! Nevermore!” Zone Control interrupts me, and I know what she’s about to say... they always say that... “She stopped, Nevermore, you don’t have to kill her!”

I keep my gaze on the raider, even as I address Zone Control. Taking my eyes off the raider is not something I was inclined to do, even one bleeding from a hole in her chest. “No... I do not have to.” I look down at the raider, my gaze cold and merciless. “But neither did she, when she chose this life.” My mind was awash with memories. Friends and comrades fallen to the raiders, or succumbing to their madness, forcing me to put them down with my own hooves.

“Please... I have a foal, and...” She starts blubbering at me, my hoof still held up for a killing blow. True? Possible. Though how many begged her for the same mercy she asks from me now?

I prepare to end it, a single blow to the throat and this is over. She deserves nothing from me. I’ve ended plenty of ponies in my time, young, old... “Nevermore... if you do that, you are just like they are.” That voice was... no... it couldn’t be. “Fine... you live for now, raider. Do better. If I ever hear of you attacking another pony, you will wish I ended your life here.” I slip my knife back into my cloak after wiping the blood off on the raider’s coat. Her eyes are wide as I leave a swath of blood on her. Her blood, and those of her companion. Reaching into my bag, I pull out a weak healing potion. It would be enough to at least save her life for now. After she drank it and her wound started to seal up, I pull her up to her hooves, looking her straight in the eyes. “Now leave my sight, before I change my mind.” I ignore her as she scrambles off, shedding her poorly maintained barding as she fled. She did remember her shotgun though.

Zone Control looks confused that I let her keep a weapon, but sending a pony unarmed into the Wasteland was the same as killing them myself, just making their death more prolonged and painful. Same for sending them out badly wounded. If I was going to spare a pony, I was not going to only do a halfway job on it.

The two are still watching her flee as I get to work on the locked boxes, slipping a bobby pin into their locks to pop them open. “Damn, that was some fine flank though...” Great, Frisky Fritter was looking at the raider like that. If he tried anything like that with me, so help me I would knife him. Well, maybe. Fine, probably not. But I would be definitely disgruntled and wishing I could knife him.

With a slight twist of my bobby pin, I manage to open the locks, though they weren’t of very good quality. My efforts reward me with a small pile of caps, various shells, and miscellaneous bullets. A magazine or two as well... Bash ‘n Stab Catalogue... that should be an interesting read... A few bottles of dirty water and some old canned food complete my spoils. I leave the jerky where it was. There was no way that I would eat meat. Not back then, and definitely not now, given my condition. Slipping the items into my saddlebags, I turn my attention to the other raiders.

Fritter seems to be alright looting the bodies, though... he seems to be spending a lot of time looting that mare. With a sigh, I turn to the raider I knifed earlier, even as Zone tries to go through another raider’s stuff while keeping herself as far away from the body as she can. Somehow, her delicate sensibilities bring a smile to my otherwise grim demeanor. Our efforts of looting net us a few grenades, caps, and enough parts to make half a working pistol. The barding they have is worse than what we’re wearing, smells terrible, and might get us mistaken as raiders.

Zone Control is still fussing over the body, so I snap at her. “Get used to it. This is the Wasteland, not some pampered Stable.” I snort derisively, wiping the blood on my hooves off with the help of the raider’s barding. Not that you can ever remove the blood from your hooves, Nevermore. How many died because of you? I mentally tell myself to shut up, turning to my companions. “Once you are done there is a place nearby that I will show you. We can rest there for the night.” They mutter to each other, but I do not care what they are probably saying about me. Actually, perhaps I do care, just a little. It had been so long since I had any company.

Plodding along in silence, we enter the decaying city, falling apart at its seams. The stench of rot and decay hangs over it like a cloud, or maybe I just imagine it. Regardless, it was where I called home. Detrot. A city of the dead, ripped into territories by ferocious warlords. They’re more trouble than they’re worth, and I do my best to stay out of their way. No reason to antagonize a hornet’s nest. Only a hero or a fool would do that, and most often those end up being the same. We stand in front of a tall building, most of the lower floors blown away, what’s left remains as a death trap for any foolish enough to enter the maze of metal, stone, and jagged edges. Oh, and the mines as well. A dilapidated sign hangs off the front, proclaiming that this building used to be called the “Stableton”. I still don’t know who came up with that name, nor do I care. Looking at Frisky Fritter, I growl at him slightly. “Wait here.” Grabbing Zone Control, she gives a frightened squeak as I take off into the air, bypassing the ruins below us. Dropping her off in an open room high up on the building, I return for Fritter, even as he’s still yelling at me.

“Where are ya taking her, ya damn dirty harpy?!” He continues a stream of venom, directed at me, my lineage, and my nature.

“Be quiet...” I grab him as well and pull him up as well, depositing him next to a shivering Zone Control. Right... Stable ponies. Probably not used to being twenty stories in the air. I give them what I hope is a reassuring smile, but based on the fact that Zone looks like she’s about to throw up, and Fritter is still muttering angrily, I doubt it worked. “Welcome to ‘The Loft’.” It was a nickname I’d stuck to the place myself, and the name was still written on the wall in my flowing script. They follow me, probably more to get away from the edge than any desire to be near me right now.

Our hooves disturb the dust on the ground, it had been a while since I had been here last. With a grin, I push the doors open for my... home. A sad mattress on the floor, a couple bottles that I hadn’t bothered throwing off the edge, but more importantly... the room was surrounded by bookshelves that I had either built or salvaged over the years. Each one had books in them, books of different shapes, sizes, colors, but the books were all the same. Or at least substantially so. Upon each of their spines was written in my script, “The Journal of Nevermore”. They all had their volume number on them, and many repeated, but this was how I kept my memories in order, how I tried to maintain myself without losing my mind. Endless copies of my memories, written and rewritten to keep me sane. Until the sword drops, and you betray everypony around you again, Traitor... Shaking the morbid thought, I return my journal to its place on the shelf, then pull one of my remaining blank journals out and place it in my bags. If I was to go adventuring again, I would need a fresh journal.

Frisky Fritter seems more interested in my bed than anything else, though Zone Control is looking at my journals. “How... old are you, Nevermore?” She seems to be in awe at all of journals. I am personally proud of my collection.

“I was there when the megaspells destroyed Equestria, Zone Control... I died when the bombs fell upon Canterlot.” They’re too new, too fresh. They do not know the horrors of that place now, and I hoped that they never would. “Yet, as you can see, I did not have the fortune of staying dead.”

Fritter snorts. “Bah, how could ya have been there, that was-”

“Over a hundred years ago. I know.” I sigh slightly, looking at all of my stored memories. “Years of pain, death, and suffering.” Shaking my head, I pull out a book, looking at the worn and tattered cover. “So much death...” I can feel myself drowning in bones, drowning in the memories of the fallen. As I looked at my new companions, I already added them to the growing pile of the dead that haunted me. It was inevitable that they would join their ranks. Hello again... Zone Control. Hello again... Frisky Fritter.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 2!

New Trait: Veteran of the Long War - You’ve fought Zebras and their nasty Hoof-to-Hoof styles before. Others just don’t seem to give you that much problem any more. Your DT is raised by 2 against unarmed attacks, and your attackers are 50% less likely to score a critical hit on you.

New Perk: Black Widow - You know how to get close to a stallion with a smile, then how to make them pay for letting you close. You deal 10% more damage to those of the opposite sex, along with having some unique dialogue opportunities.

Skill Points: You’re quite the smart one, aren’t you? Here’s a pile of skill points for you to use.

Chapter 3: Fallen Stars

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Chapter 3: Fallen Stars

See that one there? Make a wish. Count to three.

What does it mean to be a pegasus? That is not something easily told. We have wings, obviously, we fly, maintain the weather, and do many other things. But we are more than that. All of that is merely integral to what we are, to what we do. The most important part of a pegasus is our mindset. We are traditionally a loyal flock. We follow our friends, our family, our leaders, to the Gates of Tartarus and back if required, but we are also leaders, commanders, heroes. Unicorns have their magic, earth ponies have their strength, but we are fast and quick, both of body and mind. Of course, I am speaking in generalities, as there are as many types of us as there are cupcakes. Of course... she was the best of us. The one that we all admired... worshiped. I do not know what happened to her when the world ended. I do not know why they closed the clouds. All I know is this. I miss the sky.
~From the Journal of Nevermore

I watch my charges as they sleep, their peaceful demeanor at odds with this blasted room. The years had not been kind to it, run down, dilapidated, a shadow of its former pre-war glory. Scratching with my pen, I continue to write, my flowing script covering the pages with my thoughts on the day, and other topics that interest me at the time. Questions I ask myself, questions other ask me... and of course, ‘that’. Regardless of the environment, we are relatively safe here, for there are no pegasi that I am aware of, and I have nothing of value for other flying raiders to want. For all I know, I am the last of my kind on the surface. That is a lonely thought. I have heard of the Enclave in my travels, but have never met them, though I suppose it is a cold comfort that there are others who can show the ideals of the pegasi better than a rotting corpse. Ones who have survived everything this cruel world had to throw at them. I do not blame them for their actions, for withdrawing from the war. The loss of Cloudsdale was hard, very hard. Though I suppose I was unlucky, visiting Canterlot’s War Memorial, else I would have died in Cloudsdale like so many others, my bones scattered across the Wasteland with my sins. Instead I died in Canterlot, and continue this cursed existence.

My eyes are drawn to the far corner of the small room. There’s a spot on the wall devoid of bookcases, devoted instead to a poster of each Ministry Mare that I had saved from the city. I had actually met them... well, from a distance, and I doubt any of them would have known me, but it was a link to my past that I didn’t want to give up. Collecting them all had been a chore, as I desired ones not marred by graffiti or other things, but the prized one was still that of Rainbow Dash, her cocky face and demeanor telling us to ‘Be Awesome’. Sighing, I return to my journal, filling its pages with my words, thoughts morbidly remembering the old times. The better times.

Like all good things, my quiet time to write, free from fear of raiders, slavers and other ponies, comes to an end. Normally, its because of the constraints of time or necessity. This time, it is gunfire and explosions. A common occurrence in this town, surrounded as it is with trouble and death, it’s not enough to get my attention until I realize... the fighting is in the air. A group of figures are fighting several Griffons, the agile combatants striking with gleaming beams of energy. Valiant, heroic, but like all else, ultimately doomed. There were simply too many griffons for so few to fight. The armored warriors realize this too, as they take for the sky, though one dives for the city to draw the rest of the griffons off, paired weapons blazing death at their pursuers. Their plan works, but also dooms them in the process. The low flying one is bathed in explosions and shells as I watch from the window, falling towards the ground, trailing smoke. I scream at my companions, waking them from their slumber as I rush out of my home. “Stay here!” In my panic, I fail to remember that they have to stay here, as there’s no way down other than flying, and they can’t fly. Well, there is one way down without flying, but gravity is not kind.

I take to the sky as soon as I clear the room, heading to where the armored figure fell. My heart beats in my chest. Powerful emotions breaking through my apathy, my self loathing. I recognized their forms despite the armor. Pegasi. I have not wanted something... needed something... as badly as I needed to save that pegasus right now. The raiders were familiar to me. Whirlybirds. Fearsome combatants with enough skill and weaponry to turn me into paste. Fighting them was suicide for me. Capture would be even an even worse fate. I avoided them. I hid from them. I didn’t let them know I was around. I dove on their target with all the power I could muster.

The armored pegasus is lying still in the street, and I see several rents in their armor, though the steady rhythm of their chest tells me that they’re at least alive. There was no way that I could fight off the Whirlybirds, especially by myself. With strength born of desperation, I grab their armored tail and start hoofing them to a nearby store, the long barrels of their magical energy weapons dragging on the floor. While I’m not particularly strong, I manage to eke them into the shop, straining heavily... a bookstore. Looking about for a hiding spot, I don’t see anything that could hold both of us, at least not with the time I have available to me. Shoving the pegasus under the shop counter, I flop to the floor and play dead. Fortunately, as a result of my condition, I will myself to stop breathing, to stop moving, and I am able to do so. Advantage of being a moving corpse is that it’s much easier to act like a corpse.

Watching with unblinking eyes, I see several Whirlybirds land in the street, looking for their quarry. “That bitch hit hard, there’s no way she’d go far. Spread out and look for her, and when you, rape that sky stealing bitch with your talon.”

“Boss? What if it’s a male pony?” One of the griffons seems to be a bit slower than the rest of them, tilting his head at the rather impressive one that he called ‘Boss’. I take careful note of their weaponry, a mix of shotguns and pistols, easily used for aerial combat. The ‘boss’ has a pair of heavily modified assault rifles. I do not want to be anywhere near when those go off.

“Then use your talons and rip his wings off, you stupid piece of trash, now get to looking!” His group starts to spread out, searching the street. Fortunately, there’s a lot of city to explore, and only so much time before... “Alright, you two stay here and keep looking. The rest of you? With me. We’ll teach those flying pieces of shit who’s sky this is.” With hoots and screams, they take off after the fleeing pegasi. I hope they’ll make it.

The griffon makes his way through the street, looking about. I frantically try to come up with a way to get us out of this, but come up blank. I can’t outfight him, I can’t outrun him. Most likely, I only bought us a few minutes of life. The griffon makes his way to my bookstore, starting to look around. He notices me on the floor and walks over. Bracing myself mentally, I wait for the inevitable as he looms over my prone form. “Huh... the one we shot was armored... I don’t think you’re the one... and you look dead anyways... guess I should make sure though...” He puts a talon on my outstretched leg, and starts to push. Hard. Slow-witted he may be, but he is still powerful, and my foreleg starts to creak, then something pops painfully. The pain is immense. Though I’m dead, I can still feel, though it is thankfully somewhat deadened. I twitch as the agony races through me, forcing myself as still as I can with sheer will. I am going to kill him, and I am going to make it hurt. A lot.

He apparently didn’t see my agony, or figured the reaction is something that even a corpse would do with a dislocated limb. Rooting around the store, he leaves another corpse behind, one of many, as other bodies still litter the streets. He starts heading towards the counter, which forces my hoof. Slipping my uninjured hoof into my cloak, I slip my blade on. If I was quick enough, and lucky enough, maybe I could take him down then get us out. Moving silently, I take up to the air, not wanting to try this on only three hooves. Either he heard me, felt me, or some sixth sense warned him, but he turned right as I lunged, my blade scraping off his beak and flinging off to the side. With a cry of anger, he shoves me back into a bookcase by the throat. I feel his talons digging into my neck, even as his claw starts to squeeze. “Stupid pony...” I pull at his claw, I kick, I struggle, but to no avail. The griffon is simply too strong. This was it. He was about to take my head, my journey was to end in this bookstore. I had failed. My vision starts to waver, a dull grinding noise coming from my neck as he starts to crush it with his claw. I’m sorry... Captain... my journey ends...

There’s a flash of brilliant light, a wave of heat, and then I’m hit with a faceful of ash. The pegasus drops to her knees, the barrels of her magical energy lances smoking. “Gotcha...” She looks at me, her voice feminine. In turn, I nervously avoid looking directly at her, staring off to the side. Truth was, I did not like what I was, and the idea that another pegasus would see me like this was... painful. Her weapons fire again, a pair of brilliant beams arcing over me, the griffon behind me blowing away into the wind like his companion. “Don’t stand there gawking, we need to move!” She limps out from behind the counter, the rents in her armor starting to repair slowly. That was some fancy technology.

I nod to her, not entirely sure how to respond. “I um... have a place nearby... let us go there... it should be safe...” By Luna’s frigid moon, I sound like an awkward filly. But the searing pain in my leg had me not want to stick around for too long. While it probably wouldn’t kill me, gak it hurt something fierce.

We slip back towards ‘my’ tower, and I spot Zone Control and Frisky Fritter waiting for us in the open hallway. Of course they were still there, since they couldn’t get down, though Fritter looked pretty cross at me for leaving them. “What woulda happened if ya didn’t come back! Ya would’ve left us up here ta die, ya blasted zombie! I have half a mind to... oh...” They both notice the pegasus that had landed with me, her armored tail twitching back and forth menacingly at the same time they notice that I’m hobbling with a wounded leg.

“Friends of yours, I presume?” The pegasus sniffs slightly, as in disgust even as her energy weapons train on them. “I suppose they are better than those... griffons, however.”

Fritter’s ears perk up as soon as he hears her voice, modulated though it was. “Why hello thar, I’m Frisky Fritter, and I’m gonna be yur new best friend, missy...” This stallion... was hitting on a mare that he only just met and never seen... just by her voice? He’s going to die from that some day. The wrong mare at the wrong time...

Zone Control’s eyes go wide, and Fritter doesn’t see the hoof until it hits him in the back of the head. “Fritter! What do you think you’re doing! I can’t believe you! I know you’re... you, but this is... unbelieveable!” Zone comes over and awkwardly tries to wrap my leg with a bandage as I sit down to avoid having to stand on three legs. It’s like she learned the basics years ago, but never actually knew what she was doing with it.

“What do ya mean Zone? Ah’m just tryin’ ta be friendly...” His grin is... disconcerting at best. The pegasus mare seems to stare at him for a few seconds, her armored tail twitching back and forth menacingly.

“Do not take this wrong, dirt pounder... but there is no way under the sky that I would ever consider copulating with one such as yourself, so do us both a favor and never attempt to be friendly with me.” She snorts again. Shutting him down and using big words? I like her already.

I look at her, nodding slightly. “I am surprised that you have not tried to shoot me yet... most ponies down here would, just based on what I am, and I presume you have not seen one like myself in the clouds.” Zone finishes working on my leg... I think, it’s hard to tell if she did anything other than wrap it.

The pegasus mare shrugs. “While your appearance is disconcerting, you are a pegasus, and you saved my life. Regardless of what happened to you, that is enough for me.” Her helmeted head turns to face me. “Unless you are a Dashite, that is...” Her voice leaves no illusion that I don’t want to be a Dashite... whatever that was. She eyes my long dress for some reason, as if trying to see past it.

“No... I am not a... ‘Dashite’.” I cough slightly, though the term ‘Dashite’ seems like it may be related to Rainbow Dash... but why would it be a negative term then? Regardless, I don’t want to find out if I’m right or not. “I am Nevermore, and these are my companions, Zone Control and Frisky Fritter.” Nodding politely, I gesture to the rest of my place. “And this is my home, ‘The Loft’. I must confess, I had almost given up on seeing another pegasus. It had been so long.”

She reaches up to pull off her helmet, revealing a smiling, pleasant face with a white coat and dark green mane. “Lieutenant Star Racer of the Enclave’s Forward Ground Recon Force. I have to thank you for rescuing me there.” She shudders slightly. “I would hate to see what they would have done if you had not.” Offering me an armored hoof she shakes it, though her gaze... is she looking at Zone Control? Is it because she’s a unicorn, or... blinking slightly, I turn away as I realize she’s checking out her flank appreciatively. Is everypony crazy?!

With a slight huff, I turn away from them. “The Whirlybirds have not found this place yet, because I doubt they have looked. Thus, there is no reason for them to suspect we are here. That said, I do not want them to figure out that we are here, so we should lie low for a bit.” I look at Star. “Especially since they know you are a pegasus, they will probably check the skies.”

She looks at me oddly, tilting her head to the side. “Your accent is strange... where are you from, Miss Nevermore? I have never heard a pony that speaks quite like you.”

Snorting, I catch Fritter trying to woo the pegasus with his eyes... or maybe he had gas. It was hard to tell sometimes, with his ugly mug. “Trottingham... a long time ago. Most do not know, nor do they care particularly about where a pony was before...” I chuckle slightly, a dry rasping sound. “Though I suppose it is curiosity on your part... I have my own question though... perhaps you can tell me... is the sky still... I mean why...” My head falls down as my wings flutter slightly. Losing the sky was one of the hardest things for me... while I could still fly, I couldn’t see the stars, the sun, the moon. I could catch glimpses through a break in the clouds, but it was not the same... and it probably would never be the same.

Star Racer looks down. “It is... complicated, and I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to tell you any more than that...” She shuffles her hoof uncomfortably, but I wasn’t going to press the issue. I understood secrecy, and hiding things from those around me.

A clinking sound brings me back to the present, away from saddening daydreams of the open sky, as Zone Control is hovering over a broken Maneframe tinkering with it. “That is broken, Zone. Or at least it has not worked since I took up residence here.” Of course, I could barely work one of those before decades of decay took their toll on it, so my opinion on the matter wasn't very helpful. Technology and I did not get along well, even before the world ended. As we’ve established already, the world hates me. As such, as soon I finish speaking, the blasted thing crackled to life.

“Ah, Miss Nevermore. I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for a whi-... Oh, my apologies, ma’am... can you put Nevermore on?” A stallion’s voice calls out from the Maneframe. His voice crackles a bit, but is clear enough, considering I didn’t think the blasted thing worked anyways.

“Who the hay are you, and why are you trying to get ahold of me?” My voice is a bit sharper than normal, though I feel that can be excused due to a damaged leg and my general depression brought about by remembering better days. I need to get a healing potion, or some Med-X, as it’s hurting pretty bad. Thankfully, I was still able to fly here. Definitely advantages to having wings, though the strength of an earth pony or the magic of a unicorn would also come in handy sometimes. That said, I wouldn’t give up my wings for anything.

“Miss Nevermore, caustic as always, I see.” He coughs slightly, or it sounds like he does at least. “I’ll dispense the pleasantries, as I know how much you despise them. You may have heard of me, I’m Head Case, and I have a job for you, if you-”

“Not interested.” I cut him off rudely. Many ponies hadn’t heard of me, which is fine by me. The ones that had, those are the ones that worried me. I had tried to sever my past as cleanly as I could, too many bodies there, too much suffering, but somehow ponies always managed to drag it back up. Managed to remind me of what I’ve done before.

“Now, no need to be like that Miss Nevermore, I’m offering plenty of caps-”

“I am a ghoul, ‘Head Case’. Take your caps and shove them-”

“-you’ll be doing all of Equestria a favor-”

“-what do I care for all these others, who-”

“You may be able to save your Captain.” That final statement left me speechless, numb.

“My Captain... what do... how did...” My mind is racing. Save my Captain? Perhaps this was my act of atonement, if I did this, maybe I could finally rest, and... before the thought fully formed, my mind ruthlessly clamped down on it. “He is dead, and there is nothing you can do about that. I watched him die after I killed him. If you know about me, you should know that already, Head Case.” The others are staring at me by this point, but I don’t care. Why should I care if they know my deepest shame? It’s not like it could become any worse. Taking a deep breath, I prepare to launch into another tirade, when he cuts me off again.

“Nevermore, mare up. I know you’ve suffered a lot of neurological distress over the years, but this is most unbecoming of one such as yourself. I strongly suggest you seek some sort of assistance, so that you don’t fall apart instantly as soon as anypony mentions him at all!” I can hear the sadness in his voice, and that snaps me back. Anger? Rage? I can handle those. What I will not accept is pity. “If you need counseling, I can try to help you, but you have to try to help yourself first!”

“Very well, Head Case. Let me hear this... job. Though I have a few conditions. First, even if I fail, you provide at least some of the payment to my companions. They are fresh out of the stable, and will need some caps. Second, only I am agreeing to this. I will not have these others accompany me if it is too dangerous. Finally, if what you say about him is false, if you use me... I will hunt you down, and you will not like the results.” My voice drips with venom at the end. The only thing that gets me more irate than slavers is rapists, and insulting the memory of my Captain is a close second.

“Very well, Miss Nevermore. I accept your terms. The mission is to take place near Tomb Town... there are a few other things that you need to know, but this line isn’t secure. I’ll find a way to contact you again, now that I know I have your help. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed, Nevermore. I’ll be keeping in touch, now that I know for certain that you are still operational.” A dull click sounds from the line as I’m stunned speechless from what he just said.

I start to snarl a response when I recover. Tomb Town? Nopony went there if they could avoid it. That place was a death trap at best. At worst? Well, it would make dying seem a pleasant alternative. Zone interrupts me, however, as she noticed something I didn’t. “Um... Nevermore? He cut the line... he can’t hear you.” That mare had interrupted the middle of a very good tirade... pity that. She looks at me, then at Fritter, then back at me. “Did you... mean that, Nevermore? What you said?”

My mind starts racing. Gak... did I insult them again or something? I usually don’t care if I do or not, but this time I didn’t want to have to deal with their whining and hurt feelings. “Mean what?” I grumble at her, not sure where this is going, but deciding this was the best way to get it out of the way.

“That... you don’t want us to go with you if its too dangerous?” Does this mare want to come with me on a probably suicidal mission? Then again, if it meant getting away from Fritter, I’d consider it too.

“Yes... you would probably die if you came with me to Tomb Town, and that would defeat the purpose of securing the caps for you.” The look in her eye told me that this was going to be a fight, one that I didn’t want to deal with right now. I look at the others. “Even if you want to come with me, Zone, what about Fritter? Star? What about them? Surely you would not want to have them come to a death trap as well.”

Fritter looks at me. “Ey, Ah’m gonna stick with Zone here, even if she goes with a deader like ya... gotta protect her, right?” He puffs up slightly... surely the pegasus would have more sense than these two...

She shakes her head at me. “You saved my life, Miss Nevermore. That means I owe you now. I will not turn and run on an ally, just because it get dangerous. So I shall remain with you, Miss Nevermore, until I repay my debt.” She shrugs, the plates of her armor clinking slightly. “Besides, you could use my firepower.” Blast. I knew all about debts and the stubborness of pegasi. Convincing her to leave would be as easy as convincing me to stop seeking atonement. That is to say, it’s not likely to happen.

“Very well... you are all foalish and crazy but...” I want to thank them for providing companionship, for accepting me despite who I am, for spitting at the danger in the name of friendship and camraderie. “... perhaps you will not all die immediately and be useful for once.” I can’t say what I want to... I can’t leave myself vulnerable to others again. Perhaps I just haven’t talked to others in so long, but I find it hard to be honest with them. I find it hard to be honest with myself. How long, Nevermore, until you betray these ponies? How long until their bones litter your past? I look out the window as the dawn breaks over the broken city.

Why comes the hope, at the break of day?

Why comes the hope, never here to stay?

We shall fall, in dark despair.

We shall fall, not knowing where.

Though we fight, and struggle true,

Know we die soon, this we do.

Struggle on, fight and claw,

Hope for now, then we fall.

My words hang in the air as the others look at me in surprise, as my rasping voice etches out my dark verse in a sing song tone. “What... what is the problem now?” Between the pain in my leg and the conversation with Head Case, I’m feeling irritated, snapping at them when I’d usually ignore it.

Zone Control responds to me slowly and cautiously. “I... didn’t know that you did poetry Nevermore... though that was a bit... dark...”

I shrug and lay down, closing my eyes to rest. “There are many things you do not know about me. Many things you should hope to never find out. Regardless, we should rest while we have the chance. Fritter, you take the first watch.” I ignore his protests as I settle in, thinking about myself, though I am loathe to do so. My Cutie Mark stays hidden under my dress, the raven against a full moon, telling me what my special something is, my destiny, my purpose in life. Foals whine and complain about wanting their cutie mark, they desperately want something to show them what they should be in their life. Sometimes, like me, they get one, and its not a very good one. I suppose it could have been worse, but optimism and the ‘bright side’ of things isn’t how I look at the world. There was a time, once, when I wasn’t like this, but that was a long time ago, beyond most memory. Even my own memory of it is faded. But I never forget to write. Of course I compose depressing poetry. After all, depressing poetry is my special talent.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to level 3!

New Companion: Star Racer
This armored pegasus is as strong and a subtle as a tank. However, she is well versed in aerial tactics, and has a working EFS. While hard nosed and stubborn as a mule, she’s also fiercely loyal and proud. While she’s in the party, your other companions gain a bonus to their DT due to her knowledge. You follow your own way though, so gain no benefit from her advice.

But who is this Head Case, how does he know about you, and what does he know of the Captain?

Chapter 4: Getting to Know You

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Chapter 4: Getting to Know You

Hard to forget something not known.

How do you get to know a pony? I suppose the best way is to simply talk to them. All too often, ponies make it too complicated. They send signals, they dance about, they moan and fawn and do anything they can to get to know a pony without actually talking to them. I had a few ponies who tried to get to know me better, who tried to court me. Some said they loved me for my personality. Those ones I knew were lying, which made it a lot easier for me to throw them out. After all, I was the caustic Nevermore, the dark mare that hated everything good in the world. Of course, most ponies never understood this, never tried to talk to me. Of the companions I had, most rarely spoke to me. Fewer still I would consider a friend. There were some that I tolerated, but they were few and far in between. Getting to know a pony means you understand them, realize what they want, what they do. You bring them into your life, into your heart. Which means that when you lose them, a piece is ripped out. My heart cannot take any more losses. It is too painful still, even now. Time does not heal, it only accentuates the wounds, leaving them to fester and rot. And my heart has already been torn to ribbons.
~From the Journal of Nevermore

My dreams are unpleasant as always. But this time, there is a new element to them. Its something I’m not used to, something that I had nearly forgotten. Hope. Things seemed different. The bodies of the fallen mocked me from their macabre poses, their haunting voices tearing at my mind... but this time, others were with me. Zone Control, Star Racer... and even Frisky Fritter. I had companions again, friends perhaps... and they were helping to ward off the cries of the fallen. There was another presence behind me in my dream... one that I knew would be there but still could not face. My captain watched my back again, as he did so long ago... not judging me this time, but patiently waiting for my redemption. It was... nice, for a change.

Opening my eyes, night reigned now... apparently I had slept far longer than I intended. Star Racer is sleeping on the lone mattress, her armor carefully stacked up next to her. Zone Control was curled up with one of my magazines, dozing in the corner. The mare was apparently an avid reader. I would need to keep her away from my journals. It wasn’t that I desired to hide my past from her, but rather that my journals were a journey through my history, my past. It was very personal to me and very precious. I had kept a journal since I was a young filly, and I mostly kept it up even as I grew older. Memories of the war, of fighting, with me taking the time to carefully write in my precious journal flooded back to me. The journals weren’t just a record of a mare named Nevermore... they were also a eulogy. Fritter... Fritter was... cooking? He was frying something in my small kitchen, apparently scrounging enough stuff together to make something to eat.

Rousing myself, I gingerly step on my injured hoof. Pain shoots through the limb... but it’ll support my weight. It seems to be doing better, and I notice that somepony had rewrapped it with some magical bandages. Based on the level of competence, it was not Zone. The mare had a kind heart, but not the heart of a medic. Stepping into my kitchen, I see Fritter working with a pan of hot oil and... are those donuts? “Fritter... what are you doing to my kitchen...?” I’m trying to make conversation, but it sounds like the voice of death trying to steal his soul. Based on his reaction, that of dropping the pan and splashing oil up, he had a similar thought.

“By Luna, ya gave me a heart attack ya stinkin’ corpse! Don’t ya know not ta sneak up on somepony?” I diplomatically don’t point out that my best knife work comes from sneaking up on ponies. As I don’t think it’d help the situation now, I keep my peace. “And Ah’m makin’ some donuts fer us ta eat... dun know if ya eat nothin’, but Ah made enough fer all of us.” Indeed, there is a decent pile of fried donuts sitting on a chipped plate I had found a while back. They were crude and poorly formed, but based on the very poor materials he had to work with... I will admit I am surprised.

“Where did you find all the things?” I had a meagerly stocked kitchen, but I doubted he could have made all this with my poor supplies. Dried apple chips and other rations were what I usually subsisted on when I decided to eat.

He gestures to his saddlebags against the wall. “Ya didn’t have much ‘ere, so Ah had ta use some of tha’ stuff Ah brought or we ‘found’ earlier.” He seems quite proud of himself, and considering how hard it was to cook properly in the Wastelands, his pride was well justified. Partially fresh food was extremely rare, from what I’ve seen on my travels.

“There are probably ponies who would pay good caps for ‘fresh’ food, Fritter.” It was my attempt to make conversation... I hadn’t done so since... well, since the last group that I failed. “You seem more of a baker than a fighter, considering your accuracy with your gun.”

He does bristle at that one. Oops, I guess he’s sensitive about his aim. “Ey, Zone’s tha one with tha fancy trainin’ an’ stuff... Ah’m just tha one who cooks and... well...” He coughs slightly. “Let’s just say Ah like lookin’ at some of them marefolk...” Looking at me, he coughs awkwardly again. “Well, ‘least tha livin’ ones...”

Thanks Fritter. Way to make a mare feel special. “Oh. Well, at least you appear to cook fine. At least you have that going for you, if little else.” Ha. Take that, Fritter. “So you were a cook at your Stable?”

Sighing, he turns back to his confections, sprinkling some crumbled Sugar Bombs on them as topping. “Well... cook seems ta be a bit strong fer what I did... Ah loved makin’ mah donuts, but there were machines and stuff that would help with tha makin’ of tha food.” He shudders. “Tasteless things... they sure had nothin’ on a fresh donut.” He scratches behind an ear as he pushes a fresh donut towards me. He sighs and looks around the small, dingy kitched. "But believe me, deader, down there was some of tha best time of mah life... it was a lot safer down there... and didn't have all ya strange ones that ya got up here, like you." Ouch. "But here, try one of mah donuts... sure even a corpse like ya would like it."

I stare at him blankly for a second, but nod politely from behind my mask. “Thank you, Fritter, but I believe that I shall partake later.” While I can stop breathing, and therefore avoid gassing the stallion to death, I don’t really want to take the risk of forgetting. Breathe for your entire natural life, and it seems to become second nature. A ring of metal and cursing draws my attention, and from the blush on Fritter’s face, he had a very clear idea of what our other pegasus was referring to as she unleashed her vitriol.

Star Racer seems to be working on her armor, and based on the amount of cursing she’s not having much luck. “... with the left fetlock!” Though the armor had repaired itself somewhat, it wasn’t perfect due to the damage it had taken. The whining metallic screech as she tried to pry a panel off was accompanied by another stream of curses. “By Luna’s Moon-kissed Mane... work you piece of junk!” She doesn’t notice me approaching and jumps as I suddenly speak up, dropping her screwdriver that plinked off the side.

“No luck fixing it? What is wrong with it?” Her armor is a technological marvel, and its clean lines and intricate work showed clear skill in its design and manufacturer. Though such a thing would hinder me more than its worth, I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy. Not being pelted by small arms would be nice.

After she calms down slightly, she gives her armor a swift kick. “She took too much damage earlier, and the self-repair mechanism is not operational right now.” The armor creaks as it tilts over, crashing to the ground, eliciting another stream of verbal abuse directed at the malfunctioning armor. Star Racer looks over at me with a dejected scowl. “Something I can do for you Nevermore?”

I shrug slightly. “No, was just seeing how you all were doing...” Maybe she could hear something in my voice, or in my demeanor, but she gives me a knowing look.

“Well, I cannot really talk too much about it, but I guess I can talk a bit about myself. I’m Star Racer, Lieutenant of the Enclave’s Forward Ground Recon Force. My father was part of an Expeditionary force, but he never came back one day. I was just a little filly then and mom took it pretty hard.” She shakes her head slightly, the mare looking saddened. I feel for her, but any discussion about what the remaining pegasi were doing were of keen interest to me. “Of course, since she was a councilpony, she had to keep a brave face on. At home, however, was a different story. She was strong and proud, but the loss of her mate drove her to drink and wallow in misery. She shut herself away from me and my brother, eventually just... wasting away. By that point, however, I had already enlisted in the Enclave’s forces.” She kicks at the ground slightly. “I don’t really see my brother much, but I suppose he’ll think he’s the last one left now.” She gives a mirthless chuckle. “Since this is the torn and terrible Wasteland.” She looks me in the eye. “We are not going to survive this, are we Nevermore?”

She was more battle tested than the other two, she could gauge how dangerous things were down here. She could read my hesitation and my desire to go alone. “Well... maybe... actually, probably not. I will do my best to see you all safe, but... this is a dangerous place...”

Star Racer looks at me, nodding her head slightly. “Thank you, Nevermore for being honest. Don’t worry, you know that we pegasi are a tough bunch, and I won’t let those kids down while I still stand.” She chuckles. “But enough about me... you look like you have a story attached to you as well, one more interesting than endless drills and lonely homes.”

My voice rasps out, low and harsh as I look around the room at the journals filling the shelves. “It is a long story.” I cut her off as I see her about to protest. “I will tell you some of it some day, but... not today. Not right now.”

“I can respect that, Miss Nevermore, but I will also hold you to that.” She looks at me, no compromise in her eyes.

“Very well, Miss Star Racer... I will be certain to remember that.” I look at her armor as it gives off a pathetic whine. “I could fetch Zone Control for you... she appears to have a bit of a knack with technology.”

The mare grumbles as she’s reminded of her broken armor, spitting another stream of curses. “Well, I doubt she can break it any further.” She picks up her screwdriver with her mouth and starts working on it again, growling around the tool.

I didn’t ask where Zone Control was, though it wasn’t too hard to figure out. She had apparently woken up and wandered off, but with how torn up the building was, there was only a couple rooms she could be in without either growing wings or having an unfortunate encounter with gravity. I find the unicorn in one of the mostly empty rooms, an intricate series of lines drawn in the dust. Staying in the doorway, I just watch her for a bit as she doesn’t seem to realize that I’m there yet. She earns her name, that much is definitely true. She raises and lowers magical barriers in quick succession and in intricate patterns. I can see why she’s named Zone Control, as trying to cross an area she’s blocking would be a nightmare of shifting walls. The mare is sweating, the rapid-fire barriers obviously taking a toll on her, but she’s focused on her work, keeping her skills sharp. The last barrier dissipates into nothingness, and she addresses me without turning around. Obviously the mare was pretty aware of her surroundings.

“Can I help you, Nevermore?”

“That was pretty impressive, Zone. Where did you learn to do things like that?” It’s not flattery if it’s true, and the mare was definitely skilled when it came to her magic.

“Stable 22, boredom, and a lot of practice, Nevermore. Lots of practice.” She shakes her head, flinging small droplets of sweat off onto the floor. “I was part of security at the Stable, and while I’m decent at different magic, my talent lies with shield and barrier spells.” Pointing up to her horn, she gives me a small smile. “Can run a bit hot, but when I’m in the zone nothing can get past me.” I tactfully ignore her boast, as I’ve seen some creatures that would tear through her spell like paper, and I’ve met a few monsters who would definitely show her what a real barrier was. That dark green figure staring at her attackers, even as explosions and bullets washed over the shimmering field with no effect... Despite being dead, I shiver slightly at the memory.

“I talked to Fritter and he spoke rather fondly of the Stable. I’ve never really been to one before.” My mind flashes with thoughts of halls empty of all but danger and death. “Well, an operational one, at least.”

“It’s louder, and not as... well, big.” She sighs and looks at me. “You know, when I look up at the sky, I feel like I’m just going to... fall through into the emptiness, into the nothingness.” She shudders slightly. “It’s all so big out here... so different from the confines of the Stable.” The light on the ceiling flickers, and she looks at me. “I hated the constant thrum of the generators, the constant whine of the lights, the constant hoofsteps on the floor, but now... now it’s too quiet.”

I enjoy the silence, looking at the empty walls, but I can see how she would be used to it. “I suppose that is where you got your knack with technology, in the Stab-...” I facehoof, my hoof glancing off my mask. “Right, Star Racer needs help with her armor, and I was hoping that you would be able to help her.”

“Oh, sure Nevermore, I’ll go see what she needs.” The mare leaves the room, leaving me to my silence.

Nopony these days know me, save for myself and the ghosts of my past. My name is Nevermore... I am a pirate, a patriot, a hero and a villain. Friend and traitor, the blood on my hooves will never be washed off. The earlier thoughts of the day, the thought of redemption and friendship, die within me, withering into dust and crumbling away. I am leading these ponies to their death, I am leading them to their doom. I am Nevermore. I am a murderer.

~~~~~~~~~~

Come now, Nevermore. Surely you don’t expect any experience for this. And you? Friends? Be serious. You are alone, and you will die alone. Actually, I guess you already did. Well, good luck with that then. Well, I guess we’ll see how this goes for you then. Good luck!

Chapter 5: Green is Unfortunately Your Color

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Chapter 5: Green is Unfortunately Your Color

Illusions are no replacement for reality.

The goddesses? Well, it’s hard to pretend that they didn’t exist, since they walked amongst us. Some questioned their divinity though, figuring they were merely ponies. Powerful ponies, granted, but still just like any other pony. They were fools. There was a certain aura about them, a divine majesty. I have seen many powerful creatures in my life. I have helped kill several of them. Power alone does not create divinity. No, there is more to them, a certain way that they just are. They are divine, just as an apple is a fruit. Take that away, and you strip them of nothing, they simply just... are not any more. The Princesses were this way. You could tell that they were divine just by their very presence, the way they filled a room with their demeanor. These new ones? These impostors? Monsters, yes. Powerful, yes. Goddesses? No. Just another danger in a dangerous world. Nothing more.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

“Why do ya always wear that buckin’ ugly hat?” Fritter is complaining again. Hardly unexpected, as he’s done nothing but complain since we headed out early that morning. “Not that Ah mind, with that veil at least kinda hidin’ yer ugly mug and all.” Ugly? Coming from him, that didn’t have much sting to it at all. I continue on, flat out ignoring him and his complaints. “Though it seems like ya even sleep with that silly thin’ on... ya marry it or somethin’?”

Zone Control decides to step in, as it were, physically getting between us as we travel through the city, our hooves clipping off the road. We’re not far from my tower, forced to move carefully. We had killed a pair of Whirlybirds, then escaped their vengeance. They would be hunting for us. “What he means to ask, Miss Nevermore, is why do you always wear that hat? It looks... well, it looks somber.” She quickly tries to take the edge off, though I don’t know why she bothers. “Though it is an interesting hat.”

Sighing behind my mask, I’m glad I’m in front so they can’t see me roll my eyes. Every group always asked about the hat. It’s a nice hat, but its not exactly something that is good for everyday use. “I cannot remove it.” I keep trotting along, waiting for the inevitable.

“W-what? What do you mean you can’t remove it?” A babble of voices, both Fritter and Zone call out in confusion. Star Racer shoots them a harsh glance, then looks up at the sky, her magical weapons following her gaze. Her armor appears to be mostly functional, though there are still several rents that the armor hasn’t repaired. Her gaze darts warily from building to building, watching for an ambush, her E.F.S. scanning for threats nearby. Based on her calm demeanor, I figure its not showing red. I had nearly forgotten what it was like to travel with a pony that didn’t need me to foalsit them.

“Silence. We’re in enemy territory. Do not betray our position with your constant yammering.” Star Racer gets them in line, the authoritative mare quickly getting them to settle down, though Fritter keeps griping anyways. Her voice is modulated by her helmet, an electronic rasp that makes my ear twitch slightly.

I have to answer their question sooner or later, so... why not now I guess. “I cannot take the hat off. The Pink Cloud has the ability to fuse things together. The hat is now a part of me, and I cannot remove it, just as you cannot remove your brain.” I shoot a hard glare at Fritter. “At least, those of you that have one.” I can almost hear their minds churning over that information, so I head off their questions by continuing to talk. My throat feels dry already, causing my already raspy tone to be somehow worse. “As for the design, I was attending a memorial service that day.” I scoff, the bitter series of unfortunate events making the memory of that day even more painful. “A tribute to those who had fallen in the war... including...” My mouth clamps shut. Even now, I can’t talk about my Captain. My dear Captain. This of course causes them to ask more questions, but I won’t be roused to explain myself to them this time. The memories hurt too much, even after all this time.

Star Racer suddenly comes to a stop, holding a hoof up. “Quiet... something approaches... get into cover, now!” As the ponies scatter according to her directions, I look around desperately wishing that I had the advantage of magical assistance! It was so unfair that I had to look around to spot anything while Star Racer would know automatically what’s around, how many, and if they’re hostile. But, I’ve survived this long without it, and griping about spilled oats does nothing to help anyways. Tense moments stretch into seconds, into minutes. Star Racer had planned out an ambush, so obviously whatever was coming was showing red for her. I wonder if Star Racer’s E.F.S. had malfunctioned, falsely telling her something was nearby when suddenly a shadow crosses the ground. Looking up from my hiding place under a fallen sign, I see what appears to be a pair of griffons above us. The fearsome fliers don’t look like they’ve seen us, or at least they give no indication that they have, yet... my heart sinks as they start to land, even more so as more shadows are appearing, signaling yet more foes...

Eight griffons are now visible in the street, chattering to each other as they land in quick succession. I can only catch snippets of their conversation, but it appears that they’re discussing... us. Well, at least Star Racer, and the terrible things they plan to do once they catch her. Apparently, they still don’t know I’m around. We’re not here... just keep going, just keep going... I mentally will them to leave, which of course does nothing. Their clawed feet get closer to Zone’s hiding spot behind a sky chariot. The mare seems to be rather calm, considering the circumstances, and I can spot the faint glow of her horn as she starts to raise her shotgun up. Star Racer prepares to lean out from a broken store window, the wicked barrels of her magical energy weapons starting to gleam. I draw a knife, knowing that if it came to a fight, this would not be a good one for us. They’re well armed and fierce in combat, and they outnumber us. We have the advantage of surprise, but I doubt we’d win, even with luck. I glance over at Fritter under a pile of rubble, his pistol in his mouth, aimed at the griffons heading towards Zone’s hiding place. No... he wasn’t planning to...

“Over here ya ugly dirty harpies!” His pistol rings out as it throws a net of small caliber bullets out towards the surprised griffons. He was trying to draw them away from Zone. A noble idea, one I could almost admire, if it wasn’t so stupid. Star Racer curses fluently, she was supposed to start the ambush with her energy weapons, the powerful beams hopefully causing confusion. And on a practical note, she was the only one encased in hardy power armor, so getting shot would hurt a lot less for her. Fritter lives up to his reputation, majority of his shots missing, kicking up little clouds of dust where they hit the street and walls. One griffon is struck by a pair of brilliant beams, sending him crashing to the ground, smoking. Zone’s shotgun roars out, the weapon slamming buckshot into the closest griffon, crashing him into a wall. A good opening volley, but not nearly enough.

A veritable storm of bullets chase us back into hiding. Even Star Racer is forced back. Her armor is sturdy, but the griffons had proven that they could breach her protection through sheer quantity, finding weak points in her armor. A hiss of pain from the mare reinforces that fact. Zone Control is still the closest pony to them, her armored barding thankfully not put to the test yet, as she hadn’t been shot since leaving the Stable. While she appears to be calm, it’s clear that she’s hard pressed, unable to stick her head out lest it get shot off. Bullets are ricocheting off her cover, sparking and pinging. Something catches the corner of my eye, a griffon circling around her cover, opening up a clean shot on the mare. Before I can react or call out a warning, he’s wrapped in swirling green magic then tossed through the brick wall with bone crushing force.

Wait... Zone’s magic was blue, and the rest of us weren’t unicorns. That thought barely crosses my mind when I finally realize what I’m seeing. Dropping from the sky amidst the attacking griffons is a monstrously large pony, or it looks like a pony. She lands in the middle of them, her hooves kicking up a storm of dust from the impart. Her wings are held out regally, even as her horn glows with a brilliant green sheathe of magic. My brain kicks in again... wings... horn... by Celestia... an alicorn. The Unity alicorn’s barrier proves to be inviolate against the small arms, not even flickering as they ricochet off. Her horn glows brighter, and a brilliant lance of magical energy impales the closest griffon, burning a hole clean through him. I feel something I hadn’t felt for years... decades. I feel afraid. The remaining griffons start to flee, the alicorn too much for their small arms. She turns her head silently, staring directly at my hiding place, directly at me. Wordlessly, she turns and chases after the fleeing griffons, her business with them not yet done. We use the opportunity to make ourselves scarce, fleeing the scene as fast as we can.

We lose ourselves in the city, finding an abandoned warehouse to hide in closing the door behind us, light streaming in through the broken roof. The thoughts of that dark green creature chasing us filling our minds. Alicorns... perversions of ponykind. I had lost friends to them before, both through combat and despair. I don’t know what was worse, watching my companions get torn to shreds by the overwhelmingly powerful creatures, or watching them get carried away to join them. They preyed upon the despairing, offering them release from their suffering. Well, as long as you fit into their ideal, anyways. Suddenly, I realize why my companions seem to be so shaken, but not nearly as frightened as I am. They had never seen an alicorn before. The only ones they knew of were the stories passed down of the Alicorn sisters. She must seem like a goddess to them, in her terrifying power.

She was intimidating indeed, and I can see how some would mistake her for a goddess. But I knew the truth, I had seen both of the Princesses while they were yet living, and this... thing was but a cheap imitation of what they were. “They are not what you may think they are. They are not divinity. They are evil monsters, vile abominations.” I snap their attention back to myself. “They will say otherwise, but do not listen to them. They have nothing to do with the true goddesses.” The thought of Canterlot on that fateful day fills my mind. The Princesses were powerful indeed, but could anything survive that hell that was Canterlot? I don’t know, nor do I have any way of knowing. That was one place that I would not go back to willingly. That and... my thoughts drift back to home, to Trottingham.

Admittedly, I hadn’t been back there in a long time, even before I died. I never seemed to have the time before the war, and afterward, I could never bring myself to go back. I suppose that somewhere in my dark and scarred soul, I didn’t want to know what happened there. What happened to my home. It would live in my mind, a rich and vibrant place, untouched by the horrors of war.

A quick tap on the shoulder brings me back to reality, amidst the shattered ruins of civilization. “Nevermore, there are more enemies around. We should lay low again, lest they find us.” Star shivers a bit. “I’m no coward, but I don’t want to go back out there right now... especially with...” Her voice trails off, but I have no trouble imagining what she means. Her. The abomination.

“We shall stay here for now. Make the area secure, in case we are unlucky and they find us.” A broken warehouse in a ruined city. Not too likely that we’d be found, but it never hurts to be careful. We carefully check out the ruins, searching for good firing positions and defensive places. Star Racers is a gift from the Princesses for this, the mare easily pointing out the best places and how to fortify them to be even better. The work is tiring, but it’s welcome, a chance to do something without thinking too much.

More time passes, and we rest. Well, Star Racer and I do at least. Zone and Fritter seem to be nervous, pacing endlessly, fiddling with their weapons. “Settle down... you should conserve your energy while you can.” My voice rasps at them, causing them to look at me. “There is no reason to be wasting your effort for now... just settle down.” Zone nods, then sits down while Fritter ignores me, going around looking at different things. Zone tries to stay where she is, but apparently she’s just too antsy as well, eventually standing up and going over to where Fritter was. I look over, and see the mare is fiddling with something. Curious, and more than a little worried, I head over. That blasted mare is working on another Maneframe.

“Do you not know that you should not be fiddling with things you do not know about? It could be a trap, or explode, or-”

I’m cut off mid rant by another crackle of static. “Is that actual caring coming from you Miss Nevermore? I’m surprised.” The stallion’s voice bursts from the machine, but I have no problem recognizing it.

“Head Case. I would say it was a pleasure, but we both know that would be a falsehood.”

“Well, let’s get straight to business, Nevermore. This line is far more secure than the other one. I have sought you out for a single purpose, Nevermore, a sole purpose, one of utmost importance. As I am certain you are aware of, the Warlords are draining Detrot of ponies, resources, and hope. Pandora’s box has been opened, as it were. There is still hope, but that hope died with him, with Penance. We need to bring him back, to prepare him for what he needs to do. You will pave the way for him, Nevermore. You are the reason he died, so it is only fitting that you will be the reason that he lives again.”

I scoff at the Maneframe, my rasping voice giving a short bark of laughter. “Penance? You and your petty codenames. Your words are meaningless and empty... there is no hope here. As you said, hope died that day. Look around this place. It is a tomb, a grave. Any hope here is beaten then crushed.” My voice growls out. “Though I am still not sure how you would know my tale... not many these days do.”

He completely ignores my question, much to my growing irritation. “Hope only dies when good ponies stand by idly and wait. We cannot afford to dwell on matters any longer. The eclipse will arrive in a few short years, Nevermore. The warlords must die and he must be ready! You know I cannot promise your safety, your final death may very well be assured if you do this. In fact, it is almost guaranteed. This city, however, needs a hero. The wasteland demands sacrifices, Nevermore. Are you willing to do what needs to be done? Regardless of the cost?”

Turning my head away, I give a dry chuckle. “You forget, ‘Head Case’, that I am not a good pony.” I look at the Maneframe hard, my gaze cold and unforgiving. “I have paid for my sins since my death, what is a little more cost? I am not so easily dissuaded from my path, Head Case. You should know this about me already. I told you I would assist in this endeavor, and I do that which I promise.”

“If you fall, Nevermore, Equestria falls with you. You will be remembered for your actions.” He’s trying to show how important this is, he’s trying to honor me. All he's doing is getting me upset.

“I am no hero, I am no beacon of virtue. I am a traitor, a coward, a murderer. I betrayed the one that mattered to me the most, I left the ones that needed me in their pain. I killed them all through my actions and inactions. Neigh, it would be far better if I were forgotten, my body left to rot and decay, the final embrace of my final death.”

“You do have a flair for the dramatic.” He coughs slightly. “Tell me... were you so theatrical when you betrayed your Captain? When you betrayed all of Equestria?” His voice continues to rumble through the speaker. “This is the price of freedom, of hope. For others to be free, some must be shackled to destiny. That is our lot in life. The first thing I need you to do is collect your story. Remember it as vividly as possible. The more you remember, the better the chance of getting this to work. Then, take your time and head to the old Shadowbolt Memorial. There you will find the belongings that he’ll need. Hold those for him, and tell those that live there that he is coming, that they should expect their captain... do try to be careful though.”

I glare at the speaker, trying to murder the hidden stallion with my eyes alone. How dare he speak to me like this? Yet... sacrifices have to be made. The Equestria that I knew is gone. All that’s left is this terrible Wasteland. Perhaps we few poor lost souls can make a difference. And if we would not try, what right do we have to ask others to do so? “Very well. I understand. We will be heading to the memorial when we get the chance.” I remember the memorial, or at least where it was. It was quite the trek from the Loft, but with skill and some luck, we should be able to make it. Thankfully, the first part of his demand was easy. The weight of my journal in my saddlebag comforting.

“Very well, Nevermore. I shall contact you when you get there. Good luck.” With a click, he cuts the line again, leaving me to brood on my thoughts. I see Zone coming over to say something, but apparently the look on my face backs her off. Fritter, on the other hoof, either is oblivious to my mood, or he doesn’t care.

“He kept callin’ ya a traitor, and ya keep callin’ yerself one too... what did ya do?” He sounds slightly confrontational, but he usually does. I swear that stallion has the social grace of a moldy potato.

I ponder telling him to be quiet, I ponder ignoring him. My actual course of action surprises me probably as much as it surprises him. I answer him. “It was a long time ago... far before your parents were even a twinkle in the eyes of your grandparents... as you should know, there was a war in Equestria at the time... I will not bore you with the details, but it was both long and bitter. I am omitting some details, for I do not wish to go too far into this, but there was a stallion, one strong and noble. A fool, a hero, a martyr. The war was destroying him.” I will save you, Captain. Even from yourself. “I sought to free him from the conflict in any way possible. To save him, I betrayed him.” Nevermore! How could you! The memories of that day were burned into my mind. The dusty plateau, hard and beaten that no life lingered upon it. The sheer cliffs, jagged rocks awaiting a careless step. The wind lashing against us, the sky crying. Two comrades, facing across from each other. Anger, fear, remorse. “I should have died that day. I wish I died that day.” Our gazes lock on each other, that day forever haunting my memories.

And save yourself from all your torment? But you deserve no less, Nevermore. Villainess. Murderer. Traitor. Betrayer. This time, the voice in my head is not my own, and from the looks on my companions faces, they could hear it as well.

Star Racer looks around frantically, her armor whining slightly as she casts her gaze about. “I don’t see anyone. If they’re here, then they’re either blocking my E.F.S., or they’re not hostile...” I hear the grim tone in her voice. “Yet.”

Come now, Nevermore... we would not hurt you. We are disappointed... after all we have been through, you do not recognize us? That voice... that way of speaking... I grimace, grabbing a knife from my dress though I recognize the futility of the action.

“Stop these games, monster. Show yourself.” Am I being a bit rude to her? A bit angry? Possibly, but I have reason to despise these creatures.

Very well, Nevermore... very well. There she is, suddenly right in the middle of us. How I hated teleporters. The dark green alicorn towers over us, even over the tall Star Racer in her armor. Armor which is giving off warning ticks for radiation. Star Races slowly, carefully, backs away, while the others look at her, then slowly start backing away as well. I don’t notice the radiation, but I don’t particularly care. Actually, it can tend to make me feel a bit better at times. We have shown ourselves... do you still not recognize us?

I look her over, looking up at her. Honestly, one alicorn looks pretty much like every other except for the coloration. “No... I do not recognize you. You appear to be just like every other monster that I have faced. Every monster that has torn ponies away from others.” I hiss at her from behind my mask. “And you still look just like a monster to me.”

We are disappointed, Nevermore... for you are the one that made us so. My ear’s drop suddenly. No, it couldn’t be. You showed us the Wasteland... you showed us despair. The mare looms over me, her voice echoing in my head, a touch of anger in her voice. But we found solace. We found Unity. We found the goddess. I start to back away, my horrified expression thankfully hidden from my new comrades.

“We could not get to you... we would not have left you if we had any choice... I am... sorry...” My mind is racing with memories of a small, kind, medical mare. The pale rose unicorn who refused to fight, but did everything she could to help any pony she could. I remember watching her fall as the roof behind us collapsed while we fled. I recall her closest friend desperately holding his hoof out for her, refusing to keep running even though it was too late. I see him get torn to pieces by overwhelming magic as a trio of monsters descend from the sky. A sad end, for a pair of kind ponies.

Save your apologies... we do not need them. We have Unity now. We have not come for you. Her gaze turns and locks on to Zone Control. We come for another.

“No... you cannot have her. I will not let you take her!” I prepare to fling myself at her, a hopeless and futile gesture. A crushing force drives me to the ground, my bones creaking as the monster’s telekinesis pins me to the floor. “Just... leave her... alone...”

We will not be taking her at this time. She is not ready. We do not wish her voice to join ours at this time. She turns and looks down at be, the force increasing ever so slightly, nearly bringing my body to the breaking point. But we will be back, and she will be ours, once you break her, as you destroy everything good, Nevermore. The pressure suddenly disappears, and I can start breathing again, though I feel like I was run over by a radscorpion. Though you should prepare... you have company coming. Looking up, I don’t see anything, though her voice echoes through our minds one last time. We will be watching you. Watch you suffer. Watch you fail. A mocking laugh echoes through our heads, then silence.

I stagger to my feet, shaking my head, trying to recover from the physical and emotional trauma. One of my old companions, come back to haunt me from the grave. An odd experience for the dead. Coughing, my body screams in pain, even as Star Racer looks around nervously. “Get ready... we have multiple hostiles coming in. Get to your positions!” The rest of them scatter to where Star Racer told them to be while I stay in the middle. I don’t really feel like moving, my body protesting, and I already told the others to not worry about me in a fight. “They’re either above us or below... lots of them! This could get messy.” My companion lost, becoming a nightmare of the wastes... now she’s coming for another. Chaos erupts around me as decaying flesh breaks out of the sewers beneath the building, a pack of ghouls descending on the group.

Zone Control looks at me, then at the ghouls. Perhaps she’s wondering if they’re like me, if they can be talked to, reasoned with. Star Racer is under no such delusion, her magical energy beams lashing out, cutting a swathe through their ranks. This snaps Zone out of her confusion, her shotgun barking hot lead at her attackers. Several fall, but do not get back up. Thankfully, they are not like me at all. For starters, I am much better dressed. The pack rushes past me, towards the living ponies. What interest do they have in the dead? I’m a living corpse, just like them. They’re more interested in my companions. Zone screams as she’s bowled over, frantically trying to keep gnashing teeth away from her face. The scream snaps me out of my stupor. Enough time for recrimination later. My companions need my help now. The ghoul doesn’t get a mouthful of mare, but rather gets a dagger down his throat. A fine throw, if I do say so myself, as he falls to the ground, choking and writhing in pain. Leaping up into the air, I drop on another ghoul from behind, the knife on my forehoof biting deep into its neck. A vicious twist takes its head off dropping the body to the ground. Perhaps one day, I would be so lucky myself.

No time for thanks, no time for thought. Fritter’s pistol blazes out a stream of bullets, tearing into several ghouls. At this range, with these numbers, even he can hit them. Star Racer barrels into them like a tank, bowling them over with her armored body. Lashing out with hooves and barbed tail, she brings down several, crushing one beneath her hooves viciously. Apparently, she was no slouch in hoof-to-hoof combat and would rather save her ammunition for another threat, pummeling the feral ghouls that get too close to the rampaging mare. Zone fires several blasts, the shot blasting into the group, dropping several of them easily before she’s forced to reload. I’m in the middle of them, slashing, lashing out. I feel several of them hit me, bite me, slam into me. The pain is nothing. The fighting lets me forget. Lets me forget everything that has happened until now. My betrayal. My death. The loss of so many in my past. The gentle smile of a kind mare. The silent gaze of an affectionate ghoul for her. Panting heavily, I stand amidst a pile of bodies, dripping blood and gore, some of which my own. The blood clears from my eyes, the rush of battle fading. These poor lost souls were frail, half-starved things. Yet... most of us had cuts, bites, and other bruises. Star Racer seems fine, though that armor could probably hold off anything they could do to her. Would explain why she stopped firing and just started hitting them instead.

“Are you alright? Where will you go from here, Miss Nevermore? We can go back if you want... we don’t have to do this.” Zone trots over to me, one of her eyes blackening where she took a nasty hoof to the face. Yet she’s more concerned for me. I would hope that the Wasteland will not break her, but it will. Everypony ends up either a villain or a corpse.

“Onward. Ever onward.” I shake my head, flinging off some of the gore that covered me, ignoring the weeping wounds on my body. My armored dress had done its job, preventing some of the worst of it, but it wasn’t enough to stop everything. “Let us recover, bind our wounds. Use a healing potion if you need it.” I shoot a hard glare at my companion. “Only if you need it. We have a long road ahead, and we will need to conserve supplies as best we can. We will scavenge when we can, but there are no promises to what we may find.” We can’t stay here too long. We still have a long ways to go, and this firefight might have drawn attention. My soul is weary. I am not certain how much more of this I can take. My nightmares have returned, and this time, they’re present when I’m awake, haunting my steps. Staining my soul. Darkening my mind. How long must I continue until I can finally rest.

Binding wounds... if only there were a way to mend a soul.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 4!

New Trait: Unlucky - You just can’t seem to catch a break! If its not one thing, it seems to be another. Of course, your entire existence right now seems to be a string of rather bad luck. No obvious effect for now... but watch out for ladders and black cats.

New Perk: Educated - You have one of those fancy diplomas hidden away somewhere! Every time you level, you gain an additional 2 skill points. Spend them wisely.

Well well, you just seem to draw all of the wrong attention there Nevermore. It seems you are getting more and more questions, and answers are in short supply. Hope that brain in your skull can keep up.

Chapter 6: We All Fall Down

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Chapter 6: We All Fall Down

Why fight against the end? We all die the same.

Ever watch your world crash down around you? The end of all things? Yet the morning still rises the next day. It is the thought that at some point, no matter how things seem, we are but a small part of it. The world cares not for our pain, our sorrow. The world continues to spin, sun continues to shine, and the land continues to absorb the blood spilt upon it. Some think they will change the world, make a difference, make themselves known. For a while, it may seem that they succeeded. But eventually, all things fall, crumble, turn to dust. What then is purpose? Why continue to fight and struggle if everything ends for naught? That’s simple, really, if you think about it. We fight for those around us. Every fighter, no matter who they are, fight for something, for someone. Even if that pony is just themselves. Yet... though a pony is strong, is mighty, their tale is always one of caution and death. How many of these ponies of lore are mighty and earn a happy ending? How many more are an object lesson. Therein lies the truth. For happiness, despair. Love, hate. Friendship, loneliness. I have travelled alone for a long time. I had nearly forgotten what it was to have companions, to have friends. Yet now I realize that I never did truly forget. And once my current companions are consumed by the Wasteland, I shall know that empty void in my soul yet again. No rest for the wicked, even in death.
~From the journal of Nevermore

Endless darkness, an eternal void. I’m falling, or at least I feel like I am. My wings beat futilely, straining to stop my plummeting body. I fall forever, or perhaps seconds. Miles, or perhaps I am still. It is impossible to tell, the darkness absolute. The voices stay with me though, mocking, taunting. Speaking the truth. “Traitor, betrayer, murderer.” An endless refrain, voices calling from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I hear a voice that I recognize as my own address me over the echoing chorus. “Our soul is damned, but we deserve no less. How many more will you lead on your jury to your demise, Nevermore? How many will you drag with you into the screaming abyss?” None. I will not let any more fall... any more be lost. “Stop lying. You know as well as I do the falsity of your words.” I will do what I can to keep them alive, to keep them from being consumed by the Wasteland. “And you will fail, as you have failed countless times before. How you failed everypony who ever relied on you. You died alone, Nevermore. We remember the others, dying in each other’s arms, clinging to each other. But we died alone, forgotten, screaming in pain and anguish. None to mourn, none to remember. Our name but dust blown into the wind, scattered and forgotten.” Others still remember. Others still know. “Yes, they know your shame, your betrayal. They know the sting of your actions, the horrors you bring. They curse your name, and condemn you with their words. Your hooves are not clean, your actions not just. You are, and forever will be... Nevermore. Alone, forgotten, damned.”

My mouth opens into a wordless scream as my voice leaves me, abandoning me to the darkness and the accusations. Leaving me alone with all my victims. Those who relied on me, those who trusted me. Those who died because of me. I fall forever, yet my sins keep on mounting, burying me beneath a crushing wave of despair. Why did I believe that I could find new companions, that I would be accepted by others? A foalish illusion. An idle dream. I am Nevermore, reviled, cursed... forgotten.

~~~~~~~~~~

I open my eyes, the first crack of dawn peering in through the ruined window. My companions are asleep, except for Star Racer, her watchful gaze scanning for threats as she completes the last watch of the night. It was unlikely that we would run into anything dangerous up here, but Star Racer insisted that we keep watch. While the others protested, I could see the benefit of this. That, and I didn’t sleep much normally, so watching didn’t bother me much. Standing up, the dull whine of Star Racer’s armor sounds out as she turns to face me, her mane brushing past her face. Shaking my head, I let her know that I think the others should keep sleeping. It was a rough day, and they could use the rest. Silently, I fly up to the rafters of the building we’re in, nosing out my diary and pen. It had been a while since I collected my thoughts, the scratching of parchment filling the air. Soon enough, the others roused themselves, causing me to drop back to the floor.

“So where to now, Nevermore?” Star Racer’s voice calls out, her helmet tucked to the side of her armor. “It was quiet last night, and based on our... visitor, I don’t know if those griffons will be too eager to come back here.” Her nose wrinkles in distaste at the thought of the monster from before. Truth be told, I didn’t want to be anywhere near when she came back.

“To the Shadowbolt Memorial.” I turn to the side, spitting out a wad of sticky black phlegm. My insides hadn’t quite recovered from the crushing they received earlier. I’m pretty sure that my companions had their own injuries they were nursing. If we’re continuing on this, we’re going to need some sort of trained medical practitioner. Star Racer and I had basic knowledge, enough to give minor care, but Zone and Fritter were nearly hopeless. We tried to give them some lessons, but there wasn’t much time to practice, and Fritter’s idea of breaking me so they could try to put me together again was quickly quashed. By now, I think he talks just to antagonize me.

I continue speaking to them, wiping the rotting blood off my mouth. “Unfortunately, the Whirlybirds are only one of the very dangerous factions present, and we’re going to have to get through others to get to the Memorial. There are a few safe havens, but not many.” I eye Star Racer. “And I do not know how friendly some are to the Enclave...” Or ghouls, for that matter. Plenty of places had greeted me with a rifle round or a load of buckshot. “That said... we may have to stop there anyways, for supplies and shelter if nothing else.” I roll my eyes at Fritter behind his back as he rouses himself to full wakefulness. “And definitely need to secure more ammo.”

We start traveling again, Star Racer keeping a worried eye on her E.F.S. Unless we’re extremely unlucky, I doubt that the Whirlybirds are still looking for us, especially since that Alicorn hunted down that wing with extreme prejudice. Of course, life as we’ve established, hates me, and fate does not like to be taunted. A moment of inattention, a second of believing that perhaps nothing would go wrong was all it took. A shot rings out even as Star Racer calls out her warning as her E.F.S. starts to light up. Of course, I get the first indication that something’s wrong as burning pain tears through my hind leg, dropping me to the ground hard. Dark blood gushes from the gaping wound, my body responding even in death. Star Racer pulls the other two down behind cover as I struggle to rise. A loud crack and a painful snapping noise as my front leg gives out from another sniper round puts an end to that attempt. My body lies in the street, a growing pool of blood spreading out. Star looks at me then looks at the buildings, trying to spot the sniper. There is too much debris, too much cover. Her E.F.S. gives her the direction, but nothing about height or distance. It would be suicide to step out, so I shake my head. “Come back... for me later. It is alright. Either they will get bored, or they will run out of bullets.” My voice is wet and raspy, and I feel weak, tired. I cough, silently watching my companions fade back. Knowing Star, she’s going to try to loop around the sniper. I hope she makes it painful. My vision swims and fades to black, leaving me with a single thought. I do hope that they will come back for me...

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m surrounded by ice, the frozen wastes stretching out as far as I can see. I struggle to walk forward. I feel an urgent whisper at the back of my mind. There’s something I need to do, something vital. Something that can’t be accomplished here. My hooves are trapped in the ice, ice slowly crawling up my legs, encasing me, freezing my movements. I feel cold, so very cold. My unblemished hooves don’t betray any hit of rot, of decay. I’m alive in a frozen hell. The chill of the grave is wrapping itself around me, slowing my body, slowing my thoughts. I barely notice the shallow tombs around me. Frozen monuments to my sins. A pony in each one, trapped like an insect in amber. I recognize them all, I know them all, frozen in their moments of death. My breathing slows further and further, until it stops, crystallizing around me. This lasts a second, an hour, an eternity. I can’t move, can’t breath, can barely think as the world passes me by. Then something changes. A brilliant flash of light, and a burning pain sears through my chest, burrowing through the ice, staining it with dark splotches of my blood. Another one, this time through a leg. I still can’t move, can’t scream in pain from the searing pain. My body wants to shudder, to wail, but nothing disturbs the stillness, the silence. A voice cracks through, one unfamiliar to me. Odd. I can’t place the words, just senseless noise as I feel myself jolting slightly. I should know the voice. I know all the voices. I can never forget them... then I finally manage to pick out the words as my chest explodes in fire again. “Do it again! She’s a tough one.” My heart dropping into rage and anguish, I force my eyes open to the light.

~~~~~~~~~~

I curse as I watch from behind my helmet, my E.F.S. flickering with hostiles swarming around the fallen Nevermore. It seemed like there were thirteen raiders, a baker’s dozen. That sniper had to be nearby, and I was looking for them as Nevermore passed out, presumably from her wounds. I didn’t know much about her, but the mare seems to be rather hardy, I hope she’d make it. We had climbed onto the shattered remains of a building, half of it collapsed into a pile of rubble. My gaze lingers over the raiders, settling on their apparel. They were garbed curiously, with what appeared to be some sort of... boxes with muffins on them worked into their armor. Odd. More importantly, they seemed to be rather well armed, even if their protection was lackluster. A dizzying array of weapons, many melee, that I have no idea what they do. The glowing field surrounding some of them make me really not want to find out. One of them raised a strange device, aiming it at the prone Nevermore. Seeing this, I start rising to my hooves to break cover. Seeing Nevermore get executed on the ground... I couldn’t let this happen! Zone Control and Fritter try to hold me down, quietly pleading with me to stay hidden.

I want to scream at them, to protest. This was their leader, their friend! How could they abandon her to these... these raiders! Even as the protest rose to my throat, I suppress it. As much as I hate to admit it, they’re right. Recklessly rushing in would only get us killed off. If I could rely on the other two, we might have a chance, but weren’t trained in fighting. Going in now would result in four dead ponies instead of one. Granted, I would probably make a good showing of myself, but... “No use to her if you’re dead, Star... maybe they won’t kill her, and we can save what’s left...” My voice is brittle behind my helmet, a whisper to myself, careful to not activate my speakers. Never abandon a companion. That’s what I believe. Seeing the rivet gun fire a searing bolt into Nevermore’s torso, pinning the poor mare to the ground like a twisted butterfly nearly brings me to my hooves again... but that weapon would punch through my armor like paper. No... I had to wait and watch for a chance to save her, suffering even as my friend suffered. Another bolt driving through her leg, pinning her onto the concrete again. Though I would never admit it, I begin to cry, silent tears rocking my frame even as Zone and Fritter look away. I force myself to watch. If Nevermore had to endure this... then I had no right to avert my tear stained eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~

The gakking raiders are stapling me to the road. Now, that is not something that I thought would happen to me, but with a pair of bolts boiled through my chest and more nailing my hooves to the road, that’s the only thing I can think of. The one with the rivet gun gives off an insane laugh as he lines another shot into my leg. My body is ablaze with pain, my mind unable to focus. Maybe... maybe they’ll just leave me to die. Then they won’t see me get back up... I cling to that desperate hope. If they saw me rise, this entire hell would restart again. My companions aren’t coming. Shouldn’t come. It would be suicide and I would berate them for risking their lives for me. Another searing bolt tears into my leg as the raiders jeer, nailing it to the underlying concrete. Of course... it would be nice to have someone who would come rescue me... Just like before, on the deck of a burning airship, trapped beneath a fallen beam, surrounded by fire. It would be nice to not be alone. My mind swims, unable to focus. The pain is overwhelming, my mind refusing to work properly, shapes dancing before my eyes as my body starts to fail, slowly shutting down from pain and shock.

~~~~~~~~~~

My gaze flickers down to my E.F.S. Little smudges of green present on the bottom. Friendlies? No... there were more, but wink out in the blink of an eye, until only one is left. What could cause that to... my armor tics worryingly as radiation suddenly spikes in the area. “Brace yourselves!” A shockwave washes over us, flattening the raiders and bowling Zone and Fritter back. I was leaning into the blast, though it still nearly took me off my hooves. Oddly, my focus fell on Nevermore. Pinned to the road, her eyes flash open as the radiation washes over her. She seems more alert, no longer lolling in and out of consciousness. What is she? The pain she’s endured, her bizarre appearance. Any other pony would have died, which leads to the awkward conclusion that she is probably... nope, not going there. I tried to not really think about my companion. Honestly, she scared me a bit. But I spy my opportunity. The raiders were down and disoriented. More importantly, they weren’t looking up at me.

I toggle my energy weapons. These weren’t griffons, weren’t that winged horror. These were just ponies. Lightly armored ponies. I didn’t need the full devastation that my beam cannons could project. It was overkill. I cycled them over to lower power but with a higher rate of fire. Unfortunately, it also made it harder on the barrels, but it was a small price to pay. Snarling, I begin stitching shimmering beams of light down at the prone raiders, noting with grim satisfaction that several red lights were disappearing. But not enough, not nearly enough. I feel my leg buckle, pain flaring, as the rivet gun finds purchase on my armor, burning through the protection. Grinding my teeth, I force myself to remain steady, pouring fire down. Enough waiting around. No running, no hiding. Either I save my companion, die, or end her misery.

~~~~~~~~~~

My eyes snap open, the radiation being absorbed by my body. It helps focus me a bit, but its not enough. My injuries are too severe, though the cauterizing effect of the burning bolts had stopped me from bleeding out. I struggle weakly, feeling something tear, rivulets of dark blood running down my hoof from around the bolt. I can do nothing but watch my companions begin firing. There are many things I despise in this wasteland. Many things I hate. Probably near the top of this list is the feeling of helplessness.

The travellers form a strong team. Star Racer’s devastating magical blasts ripping down raiders from range, punishing any that dared to stand out for too long. Zone Control’s magic providing a small amount of shelter, even as her shotgun rips apart the raiders that get too close. Inaccurate though it may be, Frisky Fritter’s wild fire keeps some of the raiders pinned down. Yet there are too many of them, and they are too well armed. Star Racer’s cannons grow silent as the mare stumbles back, dropping to her knees. A pair of steaming holes drilled through the tough armor on her chest, the mare spitting up blood into her helmet. Zone’s magic begins to falter and fade, the strain beginning to overwhelm her. Fritter’s pistol clicks upon a dry clip, even as he starts rummaging to find another. I can do nothing but watch, my mutilated body refusing to act, refusing to fight past the bolts holding me to the road. I watch one of the raiders turn, a vile smile on his face. “We’re gonna gut ya and bake yer friends into a treat!” I can do nothing as he shoves a glowing blade into my throat, the blood sizzling around the burning blade impaling my neck, tears of pain squeezing from my eyes.

I manage to keep my eyes open, my entire body numb with shock and pain. At some point, my overwhelmed nerves simply stopped trying to tell my brain what the rest of my body knew. But, I was still alive. Another bullet crashes into the road next to me as Fritter finally reloads. His aim isn’t getting any better it seems. At this rate, they would be overrun, but pinned down as I am, there’s nothing I can do. I see the barrier fall as Zone finally loses control of it, forcing them to hide behind the rubble again. Her shotgun peeks over the top... and it’s aiming at me. If I could summon the strength to shake my head, I would. If she intended to put me out of my suffering, it wouldn’t help. Her gun did not have the power at this range to kill me cleanly with the shot that she favors. Her gun roars, the solid slug rocketing from the barrel. Apparently, she carried more than buckshot on her. That thought crosses my mind right as the slug punches through my mask, shattering my jaw. A thin wisp of pink smoke drifts past my face, and somewhere in my pain addled mind, a thought forms. She did that on purpose. Clever mare. I could kiss her and kill her right now.

The travellers make a strong team. Star Racer, though crippled and many of her systems malfunctioning, still lances out with brilliant beams of energy from her prone position, catching raiders and blasting them back down the slope. Zone Control, magic exhausted, barely holds her shotgun up, managing to catch some of the raiders that Star Racer is missing. Frisky Fritter turns and bucks hard, smashing a raider off of Star Racer even as the raider’s magical cleaver lodges deeply into her side, staggering the strong mare, the cleaver carves through her armor like butter, eliciting a garbled cry of pain. Driven to the brink of death, I turn my head to the largest concentration of raiders left, and with my remaining strength exhale as hard as I can, a small stream of Pink Cloud pouring from my shattered mouth. I can’t manage to keep it up, my throat transfixed with a blade, but the effect is immediate and obvious, the necromatic gas doing its best to kill the raiders, several convulsing with pain. Despite how diluted it is, and how little I manage to sustain it, Pink Cloud is a horrific weapon. Several of the raiders collapse, never knowing where the deadly gas is coming from as it tries to liquify their innards. The rest are gasping as they stumble, leaving themselves easy targets. I’ve done all I can. Eventually, the sound of fighting goes silent, the raiders having fought to the last. Coughing, another wad of black phlegm hits the pavement in front of me as my vision wavers again, the last of my strength giving out as the world fades into darkness.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Help me... up.” My armor is frantically trying to repair itself, the raiders weapons proving that they were comfortable cleaving through heavy armor. Their ferocity was unbelieveable, fighting through the losses. We had to kill them all. I had never fought anything with that sort of mindless aggression. I cough weakly, unable to stand, a splotch of blood obscuring most of my visor. Something had caused them to stop firing, giving Zone and Fritter the time to finish off the few remaining raiders. That was good, as I was unable to fight any more. These two may not be that good at fighting, but they did have heart. I’ll give them that at least.

“That’s probably not a good idea, Star.” Zone is rummaging in my saddlebag, presumably looking for a healing potion. “You’re really not looking that good...”

“No... I’m fine.” My body twists with pain, as I struggle to rise, feeling something tear from the deep wounds in my body. Blasted rivet guns and their ability to violate Enclave power armor. I cough again. This is bad. I don’t think I’ve been this badly wounded since... I pause for a second. Actually, I don’t think I’ve been this badly wounded ever. A hiss of air as Zone pulls my helmet off, the stench of burnt flesh filling my nostrils. Why does it hurt so much? A small bottle finds its way to my mouth, the potion pouring down my throat. I feel the magical energy flowing through my body, my organs and body trying to heal the massive damage. Not enough. Another bottle quickly follows as I finally manage to bring myself to my hooves, albeit with a burst of pain, but it was manageable now...

My thoughts turn to our fallen companion as I rush down the slope as best I can to Nevermore, my heart pounding. She was probably lost, the abuse she had taken would surely kill any normal pony, and I can see her dark blood staining the ground, pooling out from her broken form. Her twisted body looks like a corpse, even more than normal. I stare at her incredulously as the slow rise and fall of her chest told me that she was still alive. Small wisps of some pink smoke curled out from her mouth past the shattered remains of her mask. Odd, that. I had never actually seen her without her mask on, and despite the injuries, she looked... oddly normal. Almost as if she were sleeping. If you ignored the flesh falling off in ragged tatters, that is. Her mouth moves as she talks, seemingly to herself.

“I am sorry... I am sorry, I had no choice... you must believe me...” She struggles slightly, her wounds bleeding more as she struggles against the nightmares plaguing her soul. “It was for the best... I did what I had to... do not turn from me as the others did. Please... Nessy...” She whimpers, a heart wrenching sound from such a proud mare. “Do not leave... me... alone again...” Her voice is a bare whisper, rife with old anguish. I look her over, the wounds deep that pin her to the concrete. Healing potions... we don’t have many left, and her injuries look severe. That, and would healing her just seal the wounds around the rivets? Too many questions, not enough time. We have to get her healing now. If not, she would probably die on us. I consider how to get her free, how to try to heal her, but I don’t know how...

Suddenly, a cry rings out, a sharp and piercing noise of a foal in distress. But how... where? I carefully place my helmet back on, the E.F.S. automatically activating. There, a green mark in... the direction of the blast. The same mark from before. Nevemore coughs slightly, blinking as she tries to focus unsuccessfully. I suppose she could wait a little longer, and the radiation I was getting from that area forced my hoof. No foal could survive for long in that irradiated hell. Zone Control and Fritter could take care of Nevermore for now. Helmet sealed back on, I hope my armor’s integrity can at least block most of the radiation. With any luck, I’d be in and out before serious damage.

The first thing I notice is the devastation. How could anypony survive this? The area fairly glowed with radiation, the damage almost absolute, save for a few shattered walls that somehow remained standing. It appeared to be a dwelling of sorts... what could have caused this sort of destruction? My mind races, coming up with all sorts of things. Did the raiders have some sort of weapon that could do this? Was it an accident? Regardless, I didn’t have much time. The second thing I noticed was my radiation detector was going off wildly, fairly screaming at the overwhelming amount of radiation in the area. I homed in on my target, finding a small, sobbing bundle, wrapped in cloth. “Hush... it’s alright... I’m here.” My voice grates out, sounding metallic and harsh from my helmet. Predictably, the foal starts to cry even more. “Confound it, I’m not good with foals.” Fine, let him cry, we need to leave now. My E.F.S. is starting to complain at me, ghouls closing in on me and the foal, roused to attention by my landing. Their slavering mouths and empty eyes devoid of any semblance of equinity. They try to strike me, bite me, their teeth glancing off my tough metal plating. I'm not here to fight, and I don't know how long I can stand here. Grabbing the foal with my forehooves, I take off back towards my group, my armor starting to complain less as I leave the area.

The radiation ticker starts to settle down as I try to make it back to the group, but my vision starts to fade as the radiation takes its toll. I feel my body starting to give out, both from radiation and from my still not fully healed wounds. Just a little further, just need to make it a little... fur- The ground rushes up to meet me as I fall like a meteor. A falling star, streaking down to earth. With my remaining strength, I turn and cradle the crying bundle, shielding him with my body. My vision blacks out when I hit, and the world turns to darkness.

A taste of stale orange in my mouth. Is this the afterlife? I turn and vomit, voiding the contents of my stomach. If it was, it’s nauseous and nasty tasting. Fortunately, I wasn’t wearing my helmet. Throwing up in a helmet is not a recipe for a good time. “Dun ya go tossin’ that up, ya flyin’ lump a metal. We dun have much of that there stuff.” Fritter. If I’m dead, and he’s here, then I’m wherever bad ponies go. I force my eyes open, the light burning into my skull. The Rad-Away cleansing the radiation from my system.

“No... save him... save the foal.” My voice is hoarse and pained, raw with vomiting and bile, though I seem to be feeling a bit better. “I’ll be fine... save him.” Goodness, with my voice destroyed right now, I sound like I’d been gargling razor blades... or that I was Nevermore. Nevermore! I raise my head slightly, my head spinning, but I force my way through it. Her pitiful form is still pinned to the floor, though Zone seems to be trying to remove the bolts to no avail, her horn glowing as she tries to tug on them.

“Well... um... there’s somethin’ ya should probably know ‘bout that there... um... foal ya brought with ya... that...” My heart plummets as Fritter starts talking. Did he not make it? Was it the radiation or did I fall on him? I feel my ears droop. “... so... he’s um... a bit dead, but not dead, dead, kinda like her.” Fritter tilts his head to the fallen Nevermore. Wait... what? The foal is alive? Relief floods through my system. He lives.

“His name’s ‘Rolly’. Nice name for him.” Zone Control looks over from her work, sweat beading her brow. “Little guy has quite the appetite, ate everything Fritter gave him.”

“An’ some things that Ah didn’t want ta give him! How tha hay does tha little rotter eat so much? He’s dead... ish.” Fritter keeps complaining, though what I could gather, the little guy was like Nevermore, a ghoul. Hopefully, he was more like her. The slavering ghouls that had attacked us earlier were mindless beasts, just like the ones in the shattered remains of that home. I didn’t want that fate for him, but that was a worry for another day. Perhaps he would become more, perhaps not, but only the future knows what will befall him. With a grunt of pain, I pull myself to my hooves. I was functional, for now, though I felt like I wanted to curl up on a cloud and sleep for a week. Fritter is caring for the foal, giving him more of our painfully short rations. By Luna, he could eat. Eat and cry seems to be the things that he’s good at. I wonder what a cutie mark like that would look like. My heart falls as I think about that. Chances are, with his condition, he’d never find out.

Zone Control gives a triumphant cry as she pulls the last rivet out of the fallen Nevermore. Yet she doesn’t move, she doesn’t stir. She doesn’t appear to be breathing at all. I grab my helmet, and put it back on, frantically searching through the data. No... no... no... I know it’s here somewhere... no... YES! There it is. Greenvale Heights. The data for the town scrolls past my visor, it was close. Well, close as a pegasus flies. With a nervous glance, I look at my two earthbound companions. “I’m going to go get these to help. There’s a settlement nearby that should be able to take care of them.” I gruffly override their protests, no time to argue. Pointing towards Greenvale Heights, I calmly order them. “Stay careful, stay hidden. Do not engage unless you absolutely have to. Meet us there as soon as you can, I’ll try to come back for you as soon as I can. Now help me with Nevermore.”

The foal I pick up with my forehoof, not trusting him to not fall off my back. Rolly seems to be sucking on a hard biscuit, nibbling on it as I scoop him up. Zone and Fritter hoist the fallen mare onto my back, and by Fritter’s reaction, the stench of death and blood was heavy on her. Without looking back, I fly as fast as I can towards Greenvale Heights. They weigh me down, my body already battered and tired. Yet I am a pegasus. I am loyal to my friends, no matter the cost. I’m ignoring the last line on the Enclave report on the town. Considered potentially hostile. Avoid. Loyalty above all else.

I land in a cloud of dust, turrets whining as they focus on me. I’m tired and straining, the flight was not kind to my battered form, but I made it. A voice booms out over the speakers. “State your name and business.” The voice doesn’t sound friendly, but they haven’t shot me. That’s a start, I suppose.

“Lieutenant Star Racer, Enclave Forward Ground Expeditionary Force requesting admittance. I have some wounded ponies in need of attention.” I stare up at the speaker, willing them to open the door for me. Surely they wouldn’t be so heartless as to deny entrance to sick and wounded ponies, yes?

“We have enough problems of our own, take your wounded elsewhere.” They seem to be a mixture of hostile and disinterested. “We have no business with the Enclave.” Apparently, they could be that heartless.

I snarl at the speaker, not knowing why these ponies always thought so poorly of the Enclave, but more importantly needing to get Nevermore and Rolly help. “These aren’t Enclave, they’re Wastelanders and they need your help. Look we have caps, just let us in.” Silence greets my words, a minute or two perhaps. Blasting my way in would be foolish, and I don’t know of any other way, so I just wait, seconds dragging by painfully. Finally, the doors crack open cautiously, just wide enough to let me in. Praising Luna, I rush into the town, hoping my luck holds out.

A host of weapons greet me as I pass the doors, machines, turrets and security ponies all aiming their weapons at me. Well, all except for a pink spritebot which suddenly starts talking. “Oh, you’re new here! Oh goodie!” Several of the guards cringe as its speakers start to blare obnoxiously loud music, heavy with drums and trumpets.

‘’Welcome welcome welcome,

A fine welcome to you!

Welcome welcome welcome,

I say how do you do?

Welcome welcome welcome,

I say hip hip hurray!

Welcome welcome welcome,

To [Greenvale Heights] today!’’

By Luna’s frozen moon, what the hay is that thing? “PNK-3! Now is not the time for that! Get back!” One of the guards yells at the pink abomination, and a couple look like they’d rather shoot her than me. Rolly starts crying again, whatever else Fritter had given him to eat apparently gone. Setting him down, I gently slide Nevermore off, reaching up slowly to take my helmet off even as their guns track me.

“I don’t mean you any harm, I just need to get my companions treated. They’re sick and dying.” My cannons aren’t armed, the metal lifeless and dull. No reason to antagonize them, and I doubted I could fight my way free regardless. Besides, I knew the risk coming in, no reason to get nervous about it now.

One of the guards comes forwards, looking at the two. “Ghouls, huh? Fine, get them down to Undertaker, he’ll know what to do with the rotters.” The rest of them keeps their eye on me as they cart Nevermore and Rolly off. “You, however, are under arrest until we can figure out what to do with you.”

I shake my head, my mane plastered to my face with sweat. “I will go with you, but I want to make sure they are being treated first.” I look down at the smaller stallion, my armor making me seem even bigger.

He sneers at me, the rifle on his battle saddle trained at my exposed head. “Very well, Enclave. But don’t try anything funny, or we’ll take your head off.” He spits out some disparaging curses at the Enclave and my parentage. I ignore him as we head deeper into the settlement, following a thin trail of sticky blood.

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Welcome to Level 5!

What’s this? Down for the count already, Nevermore? Thought you were made of sterner stuff. Who knew that being bolted to the floor would keep you down? You didn’t do much other than black out this time but... I suppose your companions helped. I’ll bump it up for you. Just this once.

Chapter 7: Out of the Frying Pan...

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Chapter 7: Out of the Frying Pan...

Not fair? I am a pirate dear, what makes you think I fight fair?

What does it mean to be a Skyrate? Easy to ask, hard to answer. You see, we were a band of misfits for the most part. Each of us had a reason to be there, and I’m not sure how many of us actually had the same reason. Some were there for the Captain, some out of a sense of duty. Some, like myself, were there because nopony else would have us. We were outcasts, scum, loved, hated, feared, mocked. We were many things, a veritable mishmash of ponies. Some were good at fixing, some flying... some fighting. The war changed us though. We were no longer the same crew that we were. Especially after... that incident... I... I don’t think I can keep writing now. I shall finish this later...
~From the Journal of Nevermore

The faint beep of machinery, the flickering of wavering lights. So I am not dead. I wish I were right now though, my body is wracked with pain, crippled and broken. I hear a voice, a rather cheery tone, thus, rather annoying to me. A stallion, but oddly muffled. “Oh... hmm... an injured ghoul... troublesome, worrisome, hard to keep track of all the pieces, make sure they stay attached... severe injuries... lacerations... punctures... some sort of ichor, to be expected though... Oh, pink... I know this hue, good, good... don’t move an inch and stay back from her!” The sound of a pistol chambering a round, and a voice crying out. Star Racer.

“No, what are you doing? Help her!” She seems shocked... where was I? Where were the others? Why did everything hurt so much? Slowly my mind starts to remember... snipers... raiders... searing pain.

“Do not worry, this is standard procedure! Auto-regenesis of all structures must be wholly stimulated by the complete termination of the central node of the cortex. All thoughts must be blank and activity nulled so that the state of necrotic magic may thus activate its unholy symbiosis with the host. I shall render the necessary circumstances with the proper stimuli, as such.” The feel of cold metal against the side of my head as the gun is pressed up.

“I... who, what?” Star Racer is confused by his statements... I found it easy enough to follow, even if he rambled a bit verbose at times, but I suppose that is a fault that I would not hold too hard against him at this time. “You can’t just shoot her, can you? You’re supposed to be helping her!”

“Trust me my dear, I am a doctor! I assure you that I am fully trained, recovery is assured!” With no more delay, there’s the click of the pistol, then oblivion.

~~~~~~~~~~

“You don’t have to go back, you know. You can stay here with me.” I recognize that voice... my Captain, or what my mind decided to torment me with. My long dress sways behind me as I turn from the light, turn from the voice. I had always been rather fastidious about my appearance, my coat pristine and hooves neatly trimmed. While I was not the sort to spend countless hours fussing about it, I did like to be well maintained. I look down at my hooves, no trace of decay or rot visible now, just as I was then all those years ago. A sneer of disgust crosses my face... I did so despise what I had become. A sad, twisted abomination of life, form matches appearance, I suppose.

“No... you know I cannot. I would not then, I cannot now. You are beyond us.” I turn my head slightly, not enough to see... not yet. A brief glimpse of red and white before I look away again. “And you are not real, not anymore. Just the tormented dreams of a broken mare.”

“That may be, Nevermore, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay here. It would be fitting, just don’t go back. All you need to do is give in, stay here... just let the rest of Equestria be, you’ve done enough.”

“I have done enough? You are correct, I have done enough. I have destroyed everything that I cared about. We have done this dance before, Captain, and I know we were on the same music... now as then, my Captain, I shall be leaving you again.” I turn and start to walk away, heading towards the darkness. I feel my body begin to rot, my clothing more suited to a life in the wasteland... “Leaving you to walk alone...” Then I open my eyes again.

~~~~~~~~~~

“You shot her! In the head! You killed her! What sort of doctor are you?!” Star Racer’s yelling draws my attention, as I begin to stir.

“Yes, that was the point. Now that she is dead, the healing can begin. It saves on supplies.” The doctor sighs dejectedly. “If only I could do this with all my patients.” The doctor is a strange one, his entire body covered with what appears to be thick black banding, held in place by buckles and straps. Not a single inch of his body was visible, his face obscured by a plague doctor’s mask. Grim, but fitting in these times, though the rubber stopper on his horn was an odd touch.

“Healing? Healing?! She’s dead! There’s no healing from dead!” Star Racer sounds like she’s about to strangle the doctor... did I not tell her what I was? Apparently not... whoops. Well, no time like the present to let her know. The faint tingle of metal draws the doctor’s attention to me as the regenerating flesh starts to shove bullets, shot, and other foreign debris out of my wounds. Even after all this time, it is still a rather unpleasant sensation.

“Settle down, Star... it takes more than that to kill me...” I pull myself to my hooves as everyone in the room looks aghast other than the doctor. An immediate babble of voices breaks out in fear and confusion. Great... they’re the ones getting upset. It’s not like they’re the ones who just got bolted to a road then shot...

“See? I told you I am a doctor! You should trust me more in these things, now shoo, shoo. I need to talk to the patient privately...” He looks at the thin wisps of pink smoke starting to curl from my muzzle. “And it is probably going to be most beneficial to your health to avoid being in the immediate vicinity at this time, lest you suffer a fate that will quickly cause your functional organs to cease doing so.” Despite the protests of the guards and Star, he quickly bustles them out of the room before turning back to me. He levitates what appears to be a jar over. “Ah, here, breathe into this for me right now, do not want you to fumigate my lab. It will slow the diffusion of your breath, though you should probably look into getting a more permanent solution that you do not inadvertently harm those around you. Now, my dear, could I get some information from you... name, are you functioning properly, year, date, age...” He brings a light over and shines it in my eye as I snarl slightly. That was rather sudden, and far too bright.

“Nevermore, I am doing fine, other than being bolted to the floor then shot... and why do you need to know the other ones? I am not a calendar.” A derisive snort blows another puff of pink into the glass. I look around for my mask, seeing its rather sad state since Zone shot me in the face. “And you do not ask a mare her age.”

“Ah, Nevermore, an interesting name, dark, just like your coat. As you may have heard, I am Undertaker, the doctor for those such as ourselves even those not quite like us, but mostly. Those who are not like us but are like the others go to Murdoc, so you can say that I am a bit of a specialist.” He hardly takes a breath before he keeps going in that insufferably cheery tone. “Mostly I was asking to check your level of sanity, which leads to my additional question, that being how your more personal relationships are going. You see, it is my belief that a ghoul who is intimate with a partner is less likely to turn feral. Even a gentle hug or occasional cuddle can reduce rage fits or eliminate them entirely from at-risk undead. It stems from the creation of personal bonds and ties that make it less likely for a ghoul to lose themselves to the insanity that-”

While I tried to wait for him to finish, due to him... ‘helping’ me, I suppose at some point I need to interrupt him, lest he keep talking. Intimate partner? Was he saying... who was I kidding, he definitely was. If he wanted to reduce the possibility of a ‘rage fit’, this was not the way to do so, especially with me. Turning to look squarely at him, I’m sure my glare was somewhat less intimidating with a jar held up to my muzzle though my voice takes on a sinister and biting tone. “I have never had an intimate partner, nor do I intend to.” I growl slightly. “And if that was an offer, no. Try anything, and I will knife you and I will make it hurt.”

Undertaker looks as surprised as a pony can when buried under layers and wearing a full mask. "Oh, worry not! I have no intention of becoming sullied, no offense to you of course my dear. I have to work with patients, too many risks to do contact. No, no touching. Not ever. I'm not a risk. Not even in the slightest! Your threats are both redundant and unnecessary." He floats my mask up, looking it over. “I see that you have understood that the presence of water serves to greatly prevent the inadvertent spread of your breath that others may find offensive, but your design seems to be rather insufficient at this time, a bit porous, perhaps. You see, the best way to diffuse the radiant noxia of the Pink Cloud is to use a particular method involving a wet sponge, a charcoal filter, and-”

“The reason the mask is as it is is because I was shot in the face. If you have a stick of Wonderglue, I will be able to fix it up myself.” I shake my head. “Preferably soon, for I would not want to get a glass fused to my face, as it is doing a poor job of actually absorbing anything.” I glare at him again, yanking my mask back down to myself.

“Oh, right, yes, of course! I have one right over there, though I must say that your design is interesting, facilitating more use of water itself as the agent rather than a sponge... tell me, does it leak much? It seems like it could do so, which would be rather unfortunate, especially seeing as-” I tune him out mostly as he rummages for the glue, just giving short grunts of assent as required as I wasn’t really paying attention any more. The constant barrage of words, coupled with the topic, has done nothing to improve my mood. Pink Cloud. My curse, both in death and in survival. Finally he brings me the glue, and I get to work. I would have to find a replacement later, but it would work for now. I think.

I look over at him, before reaching into my saddlebags, pulling out some shiny caps. “Thank you for your assistance.” I strap my mask back on, breathing more normally now. “And here is your jar back as well.”

He looks at the caps, the pockets them. “Thank you, my dear, that will go well with helping to get additional supplies which are desperately needed at this time for most are not so easily cared for as you yourself were, but if you need anything else, or any advice, feel free to come back, hopefully with less holes next time. As for the jar, feel free to leave it on the table, I will check it for contamination later and dispose of it as required.” He seems think for a second. “Oh yes, that foal that was with you earlier, he is doing fine, though he is rather voracious... but do not worry! He is being taken care of. A mare named Marble is looking after him. You should go see her I believe you may have some things in common of which you could engage in discourse or even form a friendship or two for it does seem like both of you could use the social contact that could spring up.” Foal? Who? I didn’t have a foal, and I was terrible with them anyways. This ‘Marble’ can keep him. Wasn’t mine anyways.

After a long and rather winded farewell, I finally make my way from Doctor Wind Bag, and look around... a rather depressing place, all be told. There were ghouls everywhere, but that was not was drew my irritation. It was the state of the place. Trash was everywhere, beggars rattling cups with a few caps in them. Signs were plastered about, warning about possible diseases contracted from contact with the dead. I give a derisive snort. This rat infested hellhole was a disaster waiting to happen. Even in this blasted wasteland, ponies should try to do better, at least take care of themselves if nothing else. “Um... hello, Miss?”

I look over at the mare talking, her nature instantly obvious, with her pelt a mess of flesh and bone. It also looked like something nasty had taken a bite of her ear. What drew my attention though, was her wings tattered and falling apart as they were. A pegasus ghoul. The poor dear and her wings. I don’t know what I would do if I had to endure decay that bad. “Yes, what is it?”

She looks at me. “Well, I’m Marble, and I was told that the mare with the foal was at the morgue, so I came by and-”

This was Marble? Must say, I was not expecting a ghoul when the doctor said that somepony was looking over the foal. However, I was not in the mood for a long conversation. “Foal? I do not have a foal. I am certain that you are mistaken.” I move to brush past as she looks surprised.

She looks at me, stammering. “But... you’re um... one of the only pegasus ghouls here, and they did mention that you were injured, so would be at Undertaker’s... can you at least look?” She has a small foal on her back, wrapped in a small bundle. I’m not really interested, but I don’t want to cause a scene either.

I shake my head, giving only the bare minimum of a cursory glance. “I have never had a foal. Therefore, no, he is not mine, but you can take him.”

“Take him? But isn’t he, I mean, don’t you...” She seems confused by my statement. Or maybe the fact that I’m willing to give away a foal that wasn’t mine.

“No, he is not, and I do not know where he came from. Nor would I care to, for I do not desire to be saddled with excessive baggage at this time.” I can see her staring at me, or more accurately, staring at my wings and my relatively fresh decay. “What is it? Is there a problem?”

She shakes her head. “Oh no, of course not... I was just looking at your wings... I mean... they look so... well...” She looks at her rotting wings, giving a mournful sigh. “They’re not like these... they’re very well... preserved... was this... a recent thing for you?”

I snort, shaking my head. “No, I am not a young ghoul. Trust me, it is not much better being like I am.” Truth be told, I decay as they do, but when killed, I regenerate again. A small price to pay, I suppose. She still looks so sad, so I try to push her back to her original topic. “But yes, I do not have a foal, have never had one... I do not know why you believe that I would, Miss Marble.”

“Oh, well... somepony mentioned that a pegasus ghoul came in with a foal... they were horribly vague on the details, unlike what we’d do for the Pegasus Press...” She sighs again.

“Pegasus Press... you were from Cloudsdale then?” A pre-war pony? Here? I look at her again, trying to see past the ravages of time, see if I could recognize her, a link to my past? No... I can’t place her face over any pony that I knew, though I did read the Pegasus Press... it was a long time ago.

Her face brightens as she nods. “Oh yes, I used to write for them and...” She looks again at me. “How did you... you still seem to be rather fresh, so you can’t be that old...”

My gaze turns cold as I look at her. “I was in Canterlot.” I keep my voice low, no reason to allow the others to hear that. Who knew what sort of stupidity they would engage in if they heard. Her eyes widen, both in realization, and what I had grown to recognize and hate in others. Fear. “Now if there is no other business?” I hated what I had become, and being constantly reminded of it requires desperate measures to prevent me from exploding in rage. I see a flashing sign announcing the presence of a bar... the ‘Winking Mare’... by Celestia, it would have to do, though who named these places?

“Well, if you have a moment, I’d like to talk a bit... if you don’t mind...” There’s a gentle mewling from the bundle on her back, a happy noise. The foal, apparently, chewing on a bar of hard chocolate. Seeing him confirms what I thought. I had never seen him before in my life. Well life or unlife. “It’s just been a while since I’ve seen another pony from before... let alone talked to one.

Sighing, I turn to the bar. “Very well, I suppose it would not kill me to engage in conversation at this time.” I sigh, shaking my head. “Well, kill me again, I suppose.”

The throbbing music and flashing lights do nothing to lighten my dour mood, and based on the looks of a few ponies I’m passing, they think I’m about to knife them as I settle myself behind a table. Goodness knows I’m tempted. Drugs, alcohol, and various bodily fluids fill the air in a disgusting stench that seems to even get through into my mask. I would have to bathe for a week to get the smell out. With a disinterested sigh, one of the waitresses comes over to take my order, talking around the pencil held in her mouth as she looks at me. “Whatcha want there honey, what’s your poison?”

Urge to scream rising, I keep my voice as low as I can, which is near yelling due to the noise. “Tea. Black and hot.” She looks at me and opens her mouth, but I am in no mood to argue. “Now.” Having to pay caps to get in was irritating enough, though at least I didn’t have to tip the bouncer. Something about a ‘Mare’s Discount’. Of course, my condition was rather handy when trying to save caps. No need for food or shelter normally. What use are creature comforts to a corpse?

The mare looks at me, then shrugs. “Your funeral. Three caps, sugar.” I drop the caps to the table as she sweeps them up. That was ominous, but I wanted my tea. I wait impatiently as Marble orders a drink and some food, looking around while pressing my ears down. Is this what these ponies called music these days? Disgusting racket... nothing like the sweet tones of the Royal Canterlot Orchestra...

“Well well, lookit tha fancy pony wantin’ her tea.” A large stallion slams a hoof down on the table as the waitress leaves. Well, he didn’t look like a ghoul, though he looked rather obnoxious, and his breath stank of alcohol, and I get the feeling that he didn’t brush his teeth in decades. Apparently, he was in the mood for a fight though.

“Leave me be. You are drunk, and you do not wish to do this at this time.” My voice has a razor’s edge to it as I glare at him. He needs to be careful, my temper is rising, and it usually goes very poorly for others when it does. Usually ending with them forming a temporary sheathe for my daggers.

“Yeah, and why’s that? Whatcha gonna do, you little filly? You lookin’ fer a fight?” He sneers at me, leaning closer. Just a little closer and... perfect.

He doesn’t see my hoof from under the table, catching him right where it counts. Granted, I am not exactly an Earth Pony, and even for a Pegasus, I’m not particularly strong... but a solid buck to the right place... His voice jumps an octave as he falls to the ground, mewling in pain. One of his friends stands up to help him as I get closer, but stops as a knife appears on my hoof. “Try that again, moron, and I geld you, got it?” He whimpers something that I assume is assent. I aim another swift kick to his gut as I turn back to my seat, something to remember me by. Marble looks at me with what appears to be a mixture of shock and admiration as his friends drag him away.

My waitress comes back with a steaming cup, carefully stepping over the fallen stallion while carrying a tray with Marble’s order. “Surprised ya did that sugar, that there’s one of Sleazy Slick’s goons, Muscle Head. No pony likes ta mess with ‘im... least if they like livin’. Ya might want ta finish yer tea fast.” I look down at my ‘tea’. As suspected, it looks like dirty water, and I think I see something crawling in it.

I nod to the waitress. “Thank you for the advice. I do not intend to linger for too long anyways.” She shrugs and moves back to some of her other customers. Place did seem lively despite how many ghouls there were. Of course, there were others here, ponies, gryphons... come for the music, alcohol, and drugs, I suppose.

With a disgruntled sigh, I turn back to Marble, pushing the ‘tea’ back. I would kill for proper tea. Probably literally, since any decent pony would just let me buy it, and I wouldn’t mind killing the other type of pony, not really. Marble speaks up, over the music, drawing my attention to her. "I covered the war, you know. I was just an observer snapping photos though, not a fighter. We'd see really heart breaking things. But we were just covering it. It didn't help anyone to just watch or talk about it. I think I know why... Why we went wrong. It's not because of bad ponies or the zebra, but it's ponies like me that did nothing but watch. We watched hearts break and we just talked about it, wrote about it. This time I'll do something though. It won't make anything right, but maybe I can give Rolly a happy headline or two before the end." She nuzzles the foal on her back who looks up at her from around his bar of chocolate. “At least one of us deserves some happiness.

Interesting... some pony who was actually willing to not place the blame at the hooves at others. One who sees that at a minimum, we all had some blame in this disaster. "Do not blame yourself... there is plenty to go around. You watched, but I acted. I killed zebras with my own hooves. Stallions, mares..." My voice drops to a harsh whisper. "Foals. And I felt no regret then... I still feel none now. It was not just war for me by that point, it was extermination." She looks surprised by my words, the harshness of my tones. Even now, I’m still bitter from the war, a deep seated hatred for zebras lodged in my heart after all this time. I know its foalish, the zebra that caused all that pain long dead and gone by now, yet... there was blood on my hooves, and blood on theirs. Time doesn’t always wash things clean.

She looks thoughtful as she chews on some sort of biscuit that she had ordered, occasionally slipping some to the foal. The little guy could eat. "You're sounding a lot like that one stallion I interviewed once... What did they call him...?" She pondered, biting her sour, split lip. Pulling Rolly close, she strokes his sparse mane as he continues to consume anything he can get his hooves on. "They called him Captain... Captain... oh confound it. He had a name, but I can't remember it for some reason.” My face takes on a hard look. No... it couldn’t be. Just a coincidence. There were plenty of captains during the war. “He explained the war just like that. That it was an extermination. That edition sold a lot, I remember..." She lifted a wig and pulled out a small folder, among them were numerous clippings from the war. Of particular note was a rather worn and faded scrap of paper, a clipping from a newspaper. It detailed a rather grisly campaign against the zebra, spearheaded by an older model airship and its plucky determinist crew. "It was my favorite to write, mostly because of how likeable he was in the interview...Even if he was terrifying." Gak... why does the Wasteland hate me so much? One of the few ponies I met that knew life before the end... and it comes to him again. He already haunts my sleep... does he need to be in my waking moments as well?

"Terrifying? You have no idea... He was an idiot, but he was also... different. The war changed him, changed us all. I did not know you were the interviewer for that article... That was a... better time." I sigh, thinking of the past, of the Captain, of the crew. Of my failings. “But you do not need me to tell you that, you knew... you knew about those times just as well as I did.”

Rolly finishes off the remnant of the food, and starts to look around hungrily, but finding nothing. "I... wait, you knew him? This guy?" She tapped a hoof on the picture a few times, oblivious to the ghoul child's rapidly approaching waterworks. She was a focused beam of light, only reflecting on one thing in front of her at a time. Her ears flickered and she looked over the file again, looking at the aged and worn pictures she had taken, flipping through the small stack of old war pictures. Why she kept them with her, I do not know... too many memories in those. Finally, after a long bit of searching she found it. "I... covered this too." She pushed the article forward. I take a look at it, covering my surprise. It was a picture of a dark pegasus with a hat set on her head, a veil partially obscuring her face. Several members of the crew were there as well. I was wearing white that day, one of the few times that I ever had. I remembered that day very well, a day I would never forget. It was from when the captain had died. "Is that... that's you isn't it? The pretty mare in the white? Why white? A sea of black and... you. You stood out..." She looks at me. “You know? I never actually got your name either...”

"Nevermore... and as for the dress..." I sigh, the memories of that day flooding back. "It was something he made me promise to do... something he asked... that I did not look so somber at his funeral. I do not wear white. I despise standing out in a crowd. But that time, that one time... he asked me to not be so somber, just once... at the very end."

"...You loved him." She states definitively. The old ghoul mare wore a knowing smile, somber and sad. "He must have been a great captain to be so loved... I remember his funeral. It wasn't happy... It was my last article. I quit the tabloid shortly after. They spun the article into propaganda.” Her voice takes a mocking tone. “'It is for our fallen we must win, or they died in vain.'" She scoffed softly, "I wonder if that was even what he wanted. What happened to the crew after? I've always wondered..."

“It... it broke us. What was left of us, anyways. It was a brutal time. Without him to lead us, we just, drifted away, left to follow our own paths without a unifying force to drive us. I do not know what happened to the rest of the crew, I never took the time to find out... before the end.” I shoot her a hard glare. “And do not be ridiculous, I did not love him. I did not have room in my heart for love, and he had others to fill his. There was no chance for us to...” I stop, shaking my head. “Regardless, that was in the past, a long time ago, and he is dead. They used him, abused his name, creating him as an icon for a war.” I snort angrily. “They at least deserved what happened to them, though I do not think they should have brought the rest of Equestria down with them.”

I’m about to say more, when I feel a pony behind me. Thinking that it might be that thug or one of his friends, I whirl, a dagger flashing onto my hoof, stopping inches from the face of a violet mare. She looks at me impassively from behind her small reading glasses. Her well groomed mane, gentle makeup and suit made her seem massively out of place in this tawdry bar. “Miss Nevermore, I presume?” Despite the knife inches from her eyes, she doesn’t flinch at all, her gaze cool.

I look at her, sneering. “Who wants to know? If you are here for that Sleazy or whatever, I am not interested.” I really didn’t want to get embroiled with some city politics. Civilization always made things more complicated, though it did have its perks... like decent tea. Sometimes.

“I am Pane, and I was informed by PNK-3 that you would be here. She always seems to know where everypony is... always watching, that one.” She lifts up a small clipboard and makes a mark on it. “Of course, I figured you might be interested that you friend who brought you here was arrested on suspicion of potential espionage.” Her tone is just cheery and conversational enough to force a double take of what she just said. How is she so casual?

“Star Racer... is under suspicion of...” I shoot her a hard gaze. “And why, pray tell, are you telling me this?” Since she doesn’t seem to be threatening, I return the knife back into my dress, though within easy access if I need it. I don’t trust her, but then again, I don’t trust many ponies... she seemed to be decent enough, but I knew how easily that could be a facade.

“Just thought you might like to know that the Council has already decided that she is to be subject to public execution, send a message to the Enclave, perhaps.” She coughs politely into a hoof. “Of course, there are certain interested parties that feel that this might not be the... wisest course, as it could serve to antagonize the Enclave.” She holds up a hoof as I start to stand. “The execution is not set to be announced for a few days yet, so if somepony were to... remove her from the prison, then there would be no need for an announcement, and she would not get executed. Win-win, overall really.” She looks at me, then down at where I hid my knife. “Of course, it would be terrible if there were any casualties, and we would have to respond very strongly to any deaths or serious injuries to ponies doing their legal and appointed jobs.” Right. I was getting informal permission to stage a jailbreak, but told to not hurt or kill anypony that’s doing their duty... why did things always have to get so complicated? She moves over to the table, looking at my cooled off tea. “And I wouldn’t drink that, even one in your condition. Who knows what sort of nasty parasites might be in there.” Nodding her head politely, she turns to leave. “Have a good rest of the day, Ms. Nevermore.” Well, that was certainly something to think about, but... why the tea? Looking down, I notice what seems to be a piece of paper folded by the cup. That devious mare. Scooping it up, I take a look over it quickly, keeping it shielded from prying eyes. A map of the prison and the guard schedule. Very useful.

“Is your friend going to be... are you going to...?” Oh right. Marble was still here. She seems concerned, but I can’t get her involved in this.

“She will be fine, Marble. I am certain that some pony will take care of it.” Or so help me, whatever idiot threatening to execute one of MY companions would become a writhing, pus-filled blob of corrupted flesh... or take a knife in the neck. Either works for me, really. I look at her, then pull out one of my journals, carefully tearing out one of the pages. “This is... a letter to him. To the Captain. Or it was written as such. You can either read it or throw it away. It is up to you. After all, it is not like he will get a chance to read it...” I stand and turn to leave, looking at her over my shoulder. ‘It is probably best if you forget me. You have a life here, but it may be at risk if you are known to associate with me.” She starts to protest as I drop my journal back into my saddlebags. “Goodbye, Marble.”

I will not lose a companion if I can avoid it. I will play within their rules. For now. But if required, I will shatter their order, their law, their structure. I am loyal, but I am not a good pony. Good ponies do not survive the Wasteland.

~~~~~~~~~~

Oh dear Nevermore, you might want to get on saving Star Racer. Wouldn’t do to get her executed now, would it?

Chapter 8: ... and Into the... Sewer?

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Chapter 8: ...and Into the... Sewer?

What defines you?

Perhaps I should write this down, for anyone who finds this later... though I doubt any of the illiterate savages that populate Equestria these days would use this for anything save toiletry... though based on some of them, it would be a noble cause for this journal to give its life. When you want to die, being a Canterlot ghoul is quite possibly one of the worst things to end up in this Celestia forsaken wasteland. Of course, there are ways to kill myself off... I think, but I cannot do that. Not because I fear to die, nay, rather quite the contrary. You see, at this point, I figure this is some great cosmic punishment for my sins... and one I will continue to live out until I finally meet my end. Gun of a raider, slashed by a Hellhound... any of those will work for me. At this point, I do not care what they do with the body, as long as they manage to actually finish me off properly. I digress again. That seems to happen more these days, wandering off topic. I seem to be missing parts of my memory, based on my previous journals, so I'm writing things down yet again... though I've probably written that before... but I'm digressing, again...
~From the Journal of Nevermore

A map is useful, of course. A guard schedule even better. That said, it still wouldn’t be easy. I sigh and look at maps again. Sewage treatment. Why did they always have to be near the sewage treatment? I’m not particularly fussy about my appearance these days. I’m dead now, so of course I don’t exactly smell as if I just came from a rose water bath. That said, I still have standards. Star Racer better appreciate the sacrifice that I or my poor cloak might be forced to make on her behalf. The simplest way in, of course, would to get arrested. That led to the problem of incarceration, along with the awkward explanations of who I am. Or more accurately, what I am. Everything that I’ve seen from this place has not given me the sense that they are exactly accepting. The doctor was... acceptable, but the looks the others give me indicate that they would rather not look at me, let alone talk to me. It seems instead that I will have to be breaking in.

I’m standing in front of a dirty orange unicorn, a grinding wheel in front of him. “Sharp Stuff” was the name of this dingy little store, which is what drew me in initially. My temper is barely in check, though I keep my tone as level as possible. Which means my grinding and raspy voice sounds like I’m three steps from knifing him in the throat. Strangely enough, that’s how I feel as well. “It is not that hard for you to understand. I need to get some of my knives sharpened.”

“Yeah, and I told you how much it would cost ya rotter.” He looks over me, eyes glancing at my saddlebags.

“Yes, and that is not your listed price. Unlike many others, I can read, and choose to do so on a regular basis.” I’ve heard a lot of slang towards ghouls, derogating statements towards our condition. Its not like we chose to be like this... I swallow my irritation. If this were in the Wasteland... but no, we are in ‘civilization’ now. As such, we must act civilized. It was nice to pretend for a bit that things were normal. But then ponies like this break the illusion, crashing reality back down upon me like a weight, a cruel reminder of the whims and vagrancies of Fate. Life can be rather cruel at times.

“Dead Tax.” He grins. “Another 40% on listed prices.”

Of course, I am not going to bother telling him that his math was wrong. He was only upcharging me 15%... and there was no reason for me to tell him otherwise. “Fine... here are your caps then.” I grudgingly hoof them over. Fortunately I save a lot of caps on food or shelter, though with my new companions, I might have to start saving more again. I hated scrounging... or ‘scavenging’ as some others called it. I preferred ‘liberating’ supplies from the scum of the Wasteland. Selling their gear to a merchant could bring in a decent supply of caps.

“Good, now where’s this knife, I have a busy schedule.”

Biting my tongue, I cut off a retort about how empty his store looked. “Knives. The agreement was for the knives that were on me right now.”

“Yeah yeah, get to it, then I can get you out of my store.” His face was scrunched up in disgust, as if willing me out of his shop.

I grin, my little display of amusement hidden by my heavy mask. I reach into my cloak, drawing a knife out, dropping it in front of him. The one next to it... the other... eventually a small pile of blades are in front of him. “When will they be finished?”

His jaw drops, and he looks at me aghast. “This is gonna take me all afternoon!”

I snort. “Then you better get started then.” He looks like he wants to tell me to leave... but it did seem like he needed the caps. Grumbling, he mutters something about not getting in his way as the grindstone starts to spin up, the rasp of the stone against the metal of the blades, sharpening the blades, removing some of the rust and use until they shined. I wait for several hours as he goes through the pile, my weapons returning to a sharp and almost gleaming appearance. During this time, I notice a small pair of eyes watching me from the back room. A small filly, hugging a blanket as her father worked. Her light purple mane complimenting her soft pink coat. Something in my mind focuses on her. She seems familiar, somehow. I feel music in the air, a soft and gentle voice. My anger melts away slightly, though I shake the memory from my mind. That was from a different time, a better time. Finally he finishes, wiping the sweat from his brow. I look them over. His work is fine indeed, wasted on the kitchen knives that he probably worked on normally.

“Ya happy? Then leave.” His attitude is not particularly pleasant though.

I reach into my bag and draw out another bag of caps, a larger one. His eyes grow larger as he sees them. “I will leave if you desire... but I also have another... business proposition for you. You see... I had a device before... long since broken. Perhaps you can replicate it with your skill...” I grin behind my mask. “Of course, I will pay for it... with a bonus if it is done quickly.”

He looks at the caps, then looks at me. “Alright, let’s hear it.” I lean in and start to whisper to him as he nods his head... Leaving the store, I head out into the rest of Greenvale Heights, back to the ghoul quarter. I needed to wait, but Star Racer should be fine for now. Not picky about where I stay, I take flight, heading up to the rafters, looking down at the mess below me, the rot and decay of a decrepit society. I survey the pain, the suffering, the loss, and I close my eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~

The rain lashes at me, the feathers in my hat trying to wilt under the downpour. I look at a somber monument, an obsidian wall. Names are etched into it, some that I know, many that I do not. Flecks of gold and silver are woven into the stone. Lightning flashes around me, a concrete wasteland. “They’re not all yours, Nevermore. You didn’t kill us all.”

I don’t look up. I know that voice, one of my few friends... or at least somepony that I was closer than normal to. “Not all, Nessy, but enough. I killed enough of you. By being there... and by not being there.” I look at her name on the wall. “I killed you just as I killed him.”

“You should stop beating yourself up about it, Nevermore. It doesn’t matter to us now. We’re gone. Tormenting yourself will not bring us back. All it will do is make you suffer.”

“And do I deserve any less? You know what I have done... what I did. What I will do yet. This suffering is not enough for me to atone. It is not even enough to pay the interest. It is a debt that I shall never escape.” I stare at her name on the wall... lost to us now. Lost to me now. She was always a better pony than I was.

“And yet you left her to die, just as you left me.” The Captain’s voice. Again, I cannot look at him, my ears wilting slightly. “It should have been you who died then, you know. You should have been there on the final run.”

“You know why I could not do that. You know why I left. You know better than anypony, except myself.” I snarl angrily. “I kept it even from her, never telling her my reasons, my motivations. Never telling her why I betrayed you, betrayed the Krew.” My voice drops to a whisper. “Why I abandoned everypony in their time of need.”

“And yet here you are, Nevermore. Here we are.” Faces form in the wall, ponies lost, their skeletal grimace staring at me as they surround my reflection. “And here shall we stay, until the last of us falls.”

~~~~~~~~~~

I waken, looking down from my perch in the rafters. Thankfully, nopony had bothered me as I blink the sleep from my eyes. Definitely one of the advantages of being a flier. Pulling my battered and ancient pocket watch out, I check the time. Good, only a few hours. Plenty of time. I needed to get a few more supplies before my raid on the prison... and unfortunately most of it was rather... ‘questionable’ in nature. Which left me with one option. Opening my wings, I drop to the ground, startling a few rats that were chewing on some garbage in the corner. Time to find Sleazy Slick. My blades clink ominously as I move quickly... but first, to Sharp Stuff to collect my new toy.

The crossbow slips easily over my front hoof, secured by a series of straps. He had done an admirable job in recreating it. The cunning device was a pain to reload, but provides a nasty punch in an emergency, along with something I’d been lacking for a while. Range. The old saying is quite correct, and it can be quite painful to always have a knife in a gunfight. Or knives, as the case may be. Now I’m ready.

~~~~~~~~~~

I look around the cell, pacing slowly, trying to get my thoughts in order. The doctor had shot her, shot Nevermore. Then she stood up again. Not that hard of a concept, right? She died, then got back up... No, I’m wrong, that was a rather hard concept after all. I never really knew much about my odd companion, never really asked her... but she saved my life, and she’s a pegasus. She seems honorable, in her own way, though also cold and uncompromising. I remember Fritter’s warnings about her, how she’s not ‘natural’, and something about her melting ponies. I thought it was just fear of her condition, though perhaps... I never asked her because she doesn’t seem like the sort to want to talk about it, though now I wish that I did. Shaking my head, I continue to pace, ignoring the other prisoners. I feel naked without my armor on, and hope these savages don’t damage it. They would be lucky to know which end of my weapons where which end.

My gaze drifts over to the warden, Gaoler, stroking his handlebar mustache with a hoof. There were a few bottles surrounding him, but despite indulging in a drink or two, he seemed to be reasonably competent, and he took decent care of the inmates. The unicorn stallion was currently going over some paperwork, glancing up at the prisoners occasionally. He stops, reads a bit, looks at me, looks at his paper, then looks back at me. Something crosses his face, a touch of emotion as he stands up and heads over to my cell.

Closer now, I can smell a bit of alcohol on him as he shakes his head. “Got some bad news for ya. Seems that the Council has reached a verdict for you.” He looks somewhat saddened. “Seems that you’re to be publicly executed, a warning to the Enclave not ta mess with us.” He seems genuinely sad by this, which is touching, considering the hammer blow of the words he just delivered. “That’s a fine flank ya got there... should’ve sold ya instead.” Ok, significantly less touching. Honestly, of my choices, I’d rather be executed then sold into slavery. At least I can expect a clean death, rather than a short and brutal life.

I turn from him, settling myself on the blanket thrown on the floor. “So be it.” Closing my eyes, I turn my ears down, ignoring him now. While I hoped that they would just let me leave, I wasn’t entirely surprised by their actions. I had gotten help for Nevermore, my duty was done. Shaking my head slowly, I imagine the Enclave already scratching my name off the list. Lieutenant Star Racer, Enclave Forward Ground Expeditionary Force. Lost in action. My brother would be saddened... I think. It’s not like I had anypony left anyways. Maybe these idiots would hit the wrong button and blow themselves up.

~~~~~~~~~~

The Winking Mare... here again, looking for a particular pony, looking for trouble. The smell of drugs, smoke, and alcohol fill the air, threatening to choke with with their acrid odor. I spot him with the same lackeys... Muscle Head. The idiot stallion who tried to pick a fight with me earlier. He recognizes me as well, as he stands up, towering over me. “Whatchu doing back here, you want to die, ghoulie?” Several of his friends stand up next to him as well, though they keep an eye on my hooves.

“I am looking for the one called Sleazy Slick. I have business with him.” Muscle Head seems to be confused. “Perhaps I should speak slower? Use smaller words? I seek pony. Sleazy Slick. You see pony?” Ok, maybe it’s a bit much, but I can’t really help the mocking sometimes. Ponies these days were so uneducated. Its my belief that this will be the true death of Equestria. Not the Wasteland or the monsters. No, those are a symptom, not the cause. The cause was ignorance, the slow death of civilization and culture. Ponies lived their lives, but they didn’t live. They merely existed. While the ponies may live on, Equestria was dead. The knowledge, hopes, fears... friendship that made it so was lost. All that remains is a broken and desiccated corpse that doesn’t realize that its dead.

Muscle Head growls at me. “Yeah? And what if I turn you into paste instead, dead head?” He flexes, trying to intimidate me. He’s definitely stronger than I am, though he seems to be a bit slow. They tense as I reach my hoof into my cloak, the rasp of steel deliberately audible.

“Then you lose the hoof. I just desire to talk with him, save your posturing for a pony that cares.” I glare at him. Could I take them all in a fight? Unless they were incredibly incompetent or I was willing to gas the entire bar, not without significant surprise. However, none of them want to be the first one to test my speed with a knife, none of them wanted to make the first move.

He hesitates a bit, his eyes flicking to a curtained room off to the side. Bingo. I move towards the curtain as he calls out to me. “Hey, you can’t go there!” Shooting him a venomous look, I proceed to ignore him as I push the curtain aside to be greeted by a shotgun aimed at my chest.

“Got yourself some courage, or some stupidity, don’t you?” The speaker is a unicorn stallion, his yellow mane slicked back. Though I doubt that most of his goons notice, it’s obvious that his suit is cheap and poorly fit. Two other ponies are with him, a large pony with the shotgun aimed at me, and a slender mare draping herself on his back. Ugh... her outfit made her look like a... actually, based on this pony, she quite possibly was a prostitute. He grins at me, a greasy smile. “Heard you got some business with me. What could a pony like you want with one like me?”

Here we go... diplomacy was definitely not one of my strong suits, so I use what I’m more familiar with. “Need some supplies... specifically some chemicals and similar things. They are not exactly ‘common’, if you know what I mean.” I look at him. “I assume that one with your contacts would be able to acquire these goods in an expeditious fashion, yes?”

He chews on the end of a cigarette, the rest of it having long since burned out. “Yeah, I got goods... you got caps?” He grins. “Just let me know what you need, and I’ll let you know what it’s gonna cost ya.”

“Caps? Yes, I have caps.” I briefly sketch out what I need for him. Nothing inherently dangerous on their own, but not many ponies these days know how some of them react with each other these days.

“Whoo-wee. All that lil’ missy? Can do that for you, but you want it fast, right? Can get it for you tonight, but... ten thousand caps. Payment up front.” He smiles greedily, knowing that is well above the actual cost even with speed.

“What nonsense. Three thousand, half up front, rest upon delivery.” Bit of a low ball, but... it seemed he wished to barter. I much prefer an upfront price that we can both agree on, but I suppose it is a bit of an art, just one I do not like to engage in.

“Seeking to beggar me? Eight thousand.” He looks a bit more serious now, as if he realizes that I’m not nearly fool enough to take any offer.

“Five thousand.” I have a rough estimate how much it should cost, though I truly hate negotiating with a slime ball like him.

“Six thousand. Half now, half upon receipt. Final offer, deader.” He doesn’t look like he’s going to change any more, and while it was a bit steep, it was understandable given the time restraint. Mostly.

“Acceptable.” I nose into my saddlebag, pulling out smaller bags of caps as I go. Such inefficient means of currency, these caps... Fortunately, I keep my caps sorted, making larger sums easier to count out. Slick eyes my bags greedily as I finish pulling out the three thousand caps. “I will be here later to collect my supplies and to bring the rest of the caps for you.” I save caps, but this was putting a serious dent into my savings. Giving them to one such as him left a sour taste in my mouth as well. “Do not disappoint me.” Perhaps we can renegotiate our arrangement later... a pleasant thought to ponder.

Sleazy Slick grins, running a hoof through his greased mane. “Pleasure doing business with ya. See ya back here in... oh... let’s say six hours or so, got it?”

“Understood.” The guard pony lowers his shotgun and goes back to his meal as I turn from them. Six hours. Wait for me Star Racer.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’m left to my thoughts again, Gaoler having stopped attempting to taunt me and stopped trying to get me to ‘lift my tail’ for him as well. Apparently he thought that my impending demise might make me open to his advances. I was about as interested in him as I was in Fritter, which is not at all. While I admire a mare’s flank as much as the next, that’s not to say that I don’t look at stallions either. Of course, I wouldn’t want one of these dirt pounders. For one, I’m sure they’re ridden with filth and disease. Second, and more importantly, I wouldn’t subject any of my offspring to the risk of not being a pegasus. I’d seen how some of my comrades treat earth ponies or unicorns, a mixture of pity and scorn. There’s no life for them above the clouds, and though I am here for now with Nevermore, I do plan to return some day. I do hope that they will let me back up there.

Gaoler is back in his chair, having left to use the restroom. He’s working on his paperwork again industriously, his gun placed on the table next to him. Sighing, I stare at the wall again. There’s a bit of moss growing on it, the sole object to break the monotony of the cell. I watch it, imagining that it’s growing... or something. Anything really. I’m not in the mood to talk to the other inmates, and I definitely don’t want to talk to Gaoler. My ears perk up slightly as I hear a faint, low rumble. Looking over at Gaoler, he doesn’t seem to have noticed, though another couple bottles line his desk now. At this rate, he’s going to become inebriated. The only other thing to look at is the bounty board. Ponies I don’t know for amounts that don’t mean much to me. Yet I look over their faces. Criminals and outlaws wanted by the ponies of this settlement. Then again, they imprisoned me as well. How many of the ponies on that wall were innocent of any real crime? How many had the misfortune of enduring these cells, only to be executed or sold? Slavery... such a vile practice. And these ponies dared claim to be civilized. I feel my temper rising. No Star... keep cool. No need to vent your frustration. Taking a deep breath, I will myself to calm down.

There’s a sudden hissing noise, the far wall crumbling from an explosive charge set against it. The charge was small, just enough to carve a small entry into the jail. The smell of sewage fills the jail as Gaoler leaps to his hooves, scrambling for his revolver. A low twang, and a small metal bolt knocks the gun away, sending it spinning across the floor. Acrid smoke hangs in the air, obscuring vision and rendering shapes to wavering shadows. Smoke that doesn’t come from the explosion, but rather from some sort of chemical reaction.

A familiar hat bobs in the smoke, set above a gleaming crimson eye. Nevermore. Her irradiated eye looking for all the world like it belongs to an avenging spirit from Tartarus. Gaoler starts to call for help, scrambling after his revolver. I had seen her fight before, but just now I realize one thing about my dead companion. She’s fast. Very fast. The ghoul is on Gaoler in an instant, slamming him into the wall, cutting off his cry with a savage chop at his neck with a hoof.

Blood leaking from his nose and wheezing, he whirls to grapple her, to force her to stand and fight. She melts back into the smoke and shadows, evading his grasp before lashing out again. It seems her blows aren’t too strong, but he’s growing increasingly frustrated, boxing with shadows. The flurry of blows and taunts from the dead mare making him sloppy. The other inmates aren’t helping him at all as they jeer at him, taunting him as the quick pegasus keeps flitting in and out, boxing him with her wings or slamming him with her hooves. With a roar, he charges after her, diving into the smoke, paying no heed to his surroundings anymore.

With a graceful spin, Nevermore ducks under his flailing hoof, lining up a perfect kick. Bucking with both of her back legs, she propels Gaoler head first into the wall, a spurt of blood and a tooth chip flying out. Groaning and dazed, Gaoler staggers back into her waiting embrace. Another quick jab to his throat sends him down gagging. Grabbing a bottle from his desk, she brings it cracking down on his head, showering him with glass and cheap alcohol as he finally lays still from the abuse. Nevermore shakes her head, grabbing the keys from his belt.

“Star Racer, fancy meeting you here.” Her voice is calm and level, as if she were just coming from a stroll in a park. I can hear the smile in her voice. She enjoyed that much more than was probably healthy.

“W-what are you doing here? Why are you...?” Granted, I am very glad to see her, though I wish it were under better circumstances. “How did you know where I was?”

She shakes her head slightly. “A little bird whispered in my ear... and who am I to disagree with them.” As she gets closer, I notice she’s caked with dirt and sewage on legs and cloak... that’s rather nasty, and the smell is not improved at all by her. That’s not enough to mask the blood coating her. Based on her relatively untouched appearance, little, if any, of the blood was hers. She shoves Gaoler’s desk against the door, blocking it as other ponies start to respond, knocking at the door, raising questions in the confusion. Breaking the lock, she jams the door shut, buying us some time.

“You... did you kill ponies to get here?” Please tell me she didn’t murder any of the guards... while this was a forsaken little hell hole, they still had their order, their civilization... she wouldn’t just callously murder others just to get me out, would she?

Nevermore looks at me, scoffing slightly. “What are you talking about? The only pony who was hurt here was that one.” She tilts her head toward Gaoler as she unlocks my cell. “I had a... disagreement with a pony earlier. It has since been resolved.” Again, her voice holds a tint of self satisfied contentment, as if killing the pony made her feel... happy.

I push my way out of the door as the other ponies clamor for her to open their cell, to let them out as well. She ignores them as she starts to tie up Gaoler using his own belt. “Who? Who did you kill?”

She gives an exasperated sigh, as if she doesn’t understand why I’m asking. “A pony decided that he wished to get more caps than he deserved.” Her tone leaves no illusion that whoever this pony was, he didn’t deserve any caps at all. “As such, I renegotiated our little deal with a few friends of mine. Besides, he was some petty gangster anyways, hardly worth shedding a tear for.” Her callous disregard for life was almost shocking, combined with the apparent effort she went through to save me.

“Then why come for me?” The words leave my lips before I think about them, knowing the answer before I finish talking. The same answer I would have given. That I already gave.

“Because you are one of my companions, and I never leave a comrade behind if I can help it. Truly, I expected that you would have known that already.” She’s at the lockers now, opening them, looking for my gear I presume... that, and based on the amount of stuff she’s pulling into her saddlebags, looting at the same time. Ignoring the protests of other prisoners as she takes their stuff, she opens another door, revealing the heavier equipment they had locked away. “How fast can you get armored?”

She tilts her head towards my power armor neatly stacked in the corner. Apparently they hadn’t begun to dismantle it yet. “Ten seconds flat.” Ok, so it’d take me a bit longer than that, but it was an old saying, and it wouldn’t take that long.

With a hiss, my helmet seals against my armor, blocking the stench of the jail and Nevermore. Gaoler is looking at us, alternating between threatening and begging. The door starts to buckle as they bring something... or someone... strong enough to break through the reinforced steel. I feel better though, encased in the comfort of my armor as I glare down at Gaoler.

Part of me wants to pay him back for his insults and taunts. And the innuendo of what he would do if he could buy me. Based on the puddle of waste that he’s sitting in, he’s imagining what I’d do to him as well. I am better than this though. I wouldn’t hurt a prisoner, even one that I did not like, as much as I may have wanted to. I turn abruptly as they finally break through part of the door, yelling at us to stop.

Following Nevermore, we head into the sewers, ignoring the cries of the other prisoners. She had left them all in there. Stallions, mares, foals. It is hard to understand her sometimes. There’s a dull plop as she tosses Gaoler’s keys into the sewage. She’s very quiet in general, at times apathetic. She doesn’t seem like she cares for much, and definitely doesn’t seem like she cares for herself.

Yet here she is, trudging through the sewers to help me out. Yet she didn’t kill Gaoler, just beat him, probably humiliating him in the process. She beat him without serious injury, yet seemed to take a certain amount of enjoyment from defeating him, going so far as to throw in the occasional taunt to rile him up, insults hissing from her mask. She didn’t help any of the other ponies, yet she didn’t harm them either, though she did take things from the evidence lockers. Her callous disregard for life of those that she deems to be beneath her though... the mare had a vicious streak in her.

“It will not take them long to alert the rest of the security that there was a jailbreak.” She shakes her head. “I promised a pony that we would leave as soon as I got you out, and in return, the turrets will have a temporary mechanical failure... starting now.” She slips her watch into her dress, then breaks into a trot, then a gallop, heading through the sewers.

Bursting out of the hole she had blown in the wall earlier, we sprint past a pair of security ponies before opening our wings and taking flight, heading for the gate. Ponies are trying to bring their turrets online while others try to close the gate. Without any mechanical assistance, both are proving to be quite difficult or impossible. A pattering of small arms fly up at us as some of the quicker ponies draw their sidearms, attempting to take us down.

My armor deflects the few that manage to connect with me, and Nevermore twists and turns, making herself a difficult target. Despite her efforts, she’s caught by a few stinging pellets, but she seems to ignore them. Straining to eke out just a little more speed, a harsh mechanical sound announces the gate’s mechanisms working again just as we clear the door, slamming shut behind us with the finality of a judge’s gavel, the shattered remains of a desiccated city greeting us as we continue to flee.

That same pink bot was there as we passed, it’s chipper voice calling out. “Make sure you come back soon! Then I’ll throw you a real party!” Will wonders never cease.

~~~~~~~~~~

Sleazy Slick lay in a pool of his own blood, surrounded by three of his best fighters. The look on their face spoke of surprise and horror. The mare looked down at the bloody ruin where a crossbow bolt had taken Sleazy in the eye, a knife punching through his throat soon thereafter. Another of the ponies looked like they were cut to pieces as they thrashed themselves to death on the floor. Knife wounds covered the rest of them, frenzied and savage blows defacing their bodies. The soft glow of her horn lit the Winking Mare, the sole occupant of the once bustling establishment. Things would return to normal, they always did. What was a murder or two in the Wasteland? She runs a hoof down to the blood, staining her pristine white coat red. “You don’t even know why she went off, do you? We will find her, brother... and we will make her pay back a thousandfold.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 6!

New Perk: Toughness - Even with your physique, you’re rather stoic when it comes to pain and injury, aren’t you? Gain +3 DT permanently.

Well, well Nevermore. A new foe, and one out for vengeance, no less. You know all about that, don’t you, vengeance seeking. Hope this doesn’t turn out badly for the rest of your comrades. You really need to watch your temper dear.

Intermission: Sins of Our Fathers

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Intermission: Sins of Our Fathers

Fanaticism is a great motivational tool.

Relatively quiet today, not a lot to report. This journal has entries like that it seems... quiet ruminations. Things have changed a lot since... that day. He has changed, we have changed, Equestria has changed. Who would have thought that our particular skills would be useful now? Wanted now? Certainly not I. Especially myself. Odd, that. What was once reviled is now required. How the others in their ivory towers and extravagant dresses demand our presence now. If it were not for the sake of Equestria, I would let them burn... sweep the chaff away, return it to a pure system... but the alarms are sounding. We are almost there.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

“Incoming, incoming! Get down, get down!” Private Lighthoof dives for the relative safety of the shallow trench as zebra artillery starts to rain down on their hill and the lines behind them, the shells erupting in alchemical fires as they detonate, enveloping the area with flickering green fire. It was not a good way to go, screaming and burning until naught but brittle bones and dust are left. Several of the rounds are intercepted on shimmering bubbles of various colors, unicorns doing their best to protect the vital areas of the camp. The command center, the ammunition... the hospital. He pulls his helmet down tighter, praying to Celestia, to Luna, to anypony that’s listening to him. The small outpost he’s deployed on, overlooking a ravine, had been calling for reinforcements for a bit, desperate in the face of the expected assault. They had scratched their position into the hard soil, erecting small walls as they could, hoping it’s enough. Praying it’s enough. “Stand to repel, stand to repel!” The radio crackles unattended, faint and broken static pouring from it as every pony is needed to defend the line.

The zebra skirmishers closed on the entrenched ponies under the cover of their artillery and sniper rounds. Ponies go down into crumbled heaps as they turn to address the attackers, several falling, but more raising their rifles. A series of rounds ripple out, tearing into the charging zebras, raising cries of pain and fear. Yet it’s not enough. The zebras continue past the volley, bringing themselves onto the outpost, engaging the few defenders in vicious hoof to hoof combat.

Private Lighthoof is fighting for his life, the Zebra attackers ferocious and deadly. His immediate opponent doesn’t seem like it should be a fair fight, but she is quick, and by the blood on her hooves, apparently quite deadly. He had heard about the Zebrican fighting, and how even their bare hooves were lethal. Hopefully, he wouldn't have to find out firsthoof how deadly they actually are. Lunging with his rifle, he screams with frustration and rage. He didn’t want this... didn’t want to be here, fighting, dying on this barren soil. Youth and innocence were burned out quickly, but only the love of Equestria kept him on the line.

The two begin a deadly dance, bayonet versus hooves. They are both young, painfully young. His rifle slips past the twisting zebra, scoring a slight scratch on her striped hide. Not enough, not nearly enough. Their lives are full ahead of them, or would be, if not for this war, this blight, this ending. They don't realize it here, but they are playing the prelude to the end of Equestria. Her hoof seems to be moving in slow motion, coming in for a killing blow that evades his guard. He can’t dodge it, can’t move, only watch his demise close on his exposed throat. Time snaps back to normal as a pair of daggers dig into her shoulder, causing the zebra to cry out in pain, recoiling back. Shoving her back with his rifle, he finally notices that the battle is changing, the tide turning. Reinforcements had finally arrived.

The young stallion’s savior drops from the sky, a beautiful mare with a charcoal coat. A tall hat was perched jauntily on her red mane, out of place amidst the carnage, out of place amid the blood. Yet... there was something in her eyes that made him stop, something that froze him in terror. There was no equinity in this mare's, this beautiful yet terrible pegasus. There is only hate and violence. This was no mare... this was a monster.

~~~~~~~~~~

I look into the scared eyes of the tan earth pony, my nose wrinkling with disgust. Reinforce the front, engage the raiders. Simple enough, I suppose. I look towards the zebra at my hooves. She struggles weakly, trying to pull the knives out from her shoulder. She’s young, oh so young. Her eyes don’t hold the hatred I’m used to seeing... just fear. Fear and sorrow. The earth pony I saved speaks up, even as the young zebra quivers on the floor. She knows what to expect... and his words only make her apprehension grow. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? One of the Skyrates?”

I don’t look back, keeping my attention on the zebra. “Yes. We heard your call... the Captain ordered us to eliminate the attackers.” I see her eyes go wider as she catches my tone. Maybe before, I would have hesitated, maybe before I would have stopped. That time is long gone... dead like some of my fellow crewmates, left to rot on a dozen battlefields. I drive the knife on my hoof into her throat, ending her feeble struggles. Wiping the blade on her coat, I watch as the survivors begin to flee from the aerial assault, their attack broken by the sudden winged onslaught. Even now, I feel like I am dead inside... things had changed so much. The Captain is not as he was... all that is left is a broken shell and hatred. So much hatred. The crew itself was changed. No longer boisterous and proud... just ruthless efficiency now. The war had changed a lot of us, the war had broken some, reforged others. My anger had been honed to an edge, focused on the zebras. Any aspirations I had for a normal life had withered and died... I had nearly accepted others into my life, let down my hatred and defenses... but this happened, this entire war. Now I rush to fortify it, making myself cold and hard. Allowing me to do what is necessary. Anything that is necessary, even if I were to consign my own soul to Tartarus in the process. I did worry for my Captain when able to brood with my thoughts, worried that we have lost him. Perhaps... perhaps he needs somepony to save him... to save him from himself.

The soldier looks at me horrified, my callous killing clearly shocking him. “You... you killed her? She wasn’t fighting any more... did you have to kill her?” The fires from the shells light the air around us, ash and smoke drifting. Flames dying just like the life I had just snuffed out, coldly, callously.

“What does it matter, one zebra?” My voice is rich, yet full of hate, anger. They had taken so much from them, and I will take it back. With interest. “Blood is the down payment for their crimes.” I look at the corpse at my hooves, a pool of crimson spreading out, an offering to the parched soil. “Crimes that they can never hope to atone for.”

~~~~~~~~~~

This mare... in a different time, in a different setting... she was beautiful. Well dressed, well maintained... but there is something wrong with her, something broken. There’s no mercy in her eyes, no joy, no forgiveness. There is only terrifying rage and coldness. Her civility a thin veneer containing the monster inside. The Skyrates were famous... or rather infamous, for different things. Some were noble, brave rescues and daring raids. A band of misfits, they bonded well, ever chosen for more and more dangerous assignments. Yet there was a darker tone... especially now. Especially after the incident... at the school. Villages disappearing, all zebras slain. Stallions, mares, foals... none spared from thirsty vengeance. The jokesters, the misfits, the charismatic champions... the terrors, the killers, the murderous pirates. And here was one in front of him, dressed in black, an avatar of death.

It was then that I realized what I was looking at... a living corpse, a vengeful spirit. Anything that had made her a pony before was lost and consumed in her anger. Love, joy, hope, friendship... all of that was sacrificed. Her face spoke of blood and death, her actions cold and mechanical. I shudder at the thought, praying to the Princesses to let the rest of us avoid such a fate. I watch as she raises her hoof to an ear, a voice crackling from her earpiece. “We need you back here, we have a new assignment.”

She nods slightly. “Just finishing up. No prisoners taken.”

The radio crackles slightly, as if hesitating before responding. “Of course... prepare for extraction. We have new targets, Nevermore.”

~~~~~~~~~~

War. War never changes.

What's this Nevermore? A dream or a memory? And you are quite the vicious one, aren't you.

Chapter 9: Ghosts of the Past

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Chapter 9: Ghosts of the Past

All in, all in, outs in free.

My life before was full of apathy and hate. It is rather difficult to hang onto rage for a hundred years, especially without a target for your rage. It dies into an ember, flickering and dying slowly. Or does it die, or merely lie dormant, waiting patiently for something to ignite it? When anger burns hot, it quickly flares out, a burst of flame that disappears as soon as it bursts forth... but a fury forged through the years... decades... centuries? Can such a thing truly ever die? Perhaps, perhaps not... I suppose I shall have the misfortune to discover the truth of the matter soon enough.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

We made it out... back into the Wasteland. I probably did no favors to the ghoul community of Greenvale Heights, but I suppose that I need to do what I must. Besides, most of them should be able to fend for themselves. Those unable to? Well... then they have no business surviving these days anyways. Ghouls were already not favored regardless, with most ponies treating us with a mix of disdain to outright hostility. Perhaps this would encourage some of them to start standing up for themselves. That mare, Marble, at least she seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders. Something springs to mind suddenly at this talk of fending for oneself... there were more of us before. “Star... where are the others?”

She looks over at me as we slow down to a hover. “I told them to be safe, to meet us at...” Though her face is hidden by her helmet, I assume she blanches. “... Greenvale Heights. I was worried for you Nevermore, thought you needed treatment quickly.”

I have never wanted to smack her upside the head as much as I did right then. “You left... those idiots... to wander alone, to head towards that place...” I shake my head. I can tell from her tone that she understood her mistake. There was no reason to berate her further on it so I decide to let the matter drop and move on to more important matters... mostly that of finding them now. “Well... can you see them with your E.F.S.?” Night was starting to fall, and even though my eyes did glow slightly in the failing light, it still hampered my vision. Thus, I trusted her mechanical and magical assistance more, hoping she could pick out their green marks.

Star Racer nods, remembering herself somewhat. “I see... three groups of green... one seems to be a caravan, I am uncertain about the other...” She looks at me, confused. “The last one is moving towards us... but there are three of them... not two.”

Rubbing the side of my head with a hoof, I give a deep sigh. “If those morons picked up another straggler...” Her sudden shift brings my attention. “What is it?”

She starts to bolt towards where she saw the marks, the pegasus a rather fast flier. Chasing after her, I hear her as she calls over her shoulder as I struggle to keep up. “Red marks.”

~~~~~~~~~~

“So what ya say yer name is again there?” Fritter looks at the cloaked figure travelling with them. He didn’t trust him, especially around Zone Control. After all, he had to look out for her, it was a stallion’s job to do that sort of thing, right? Then again, Zone wasn’t exactly the sort to bat her eyelashes and wait for rescue... no, she’s more likely to heft her shotgun and make anything dumb enough to trouble her regret it in the form of a smoking hole in its torso. He never really talked to her... well, he talked to her about now, but they seemed to avoid talking about then... the Stable, why they left... why they had to leave. He watches her passing her gaze back and forth, scanning for trouble. She’s adjusted well to life on the outside it seems, the mare taking on a bit of hardness while still keeping herself the same Zone that he had come to know. Though he was loathe to admit it, even to himself, she was a much better shot than he was... but she was a security mare, he was just a baker... right? Still, he couldn’t help but watch her in her armored barding.

“I didn’t, stranger. Though that’s an interesting question you raise, names. They’re so much, a label, a title. Besides, I haven’t gotten yours yet, and its only fair that way then, right?” The figure’s voice is low yet cheery. Still, he hadn’t even shown his face yet, and he barely spoke about anything of import. Granted, he talked a lot, almost impossible to make quiet, but only about small things, minor things. Like the color of a rock, or the shape of a rusted piece of metal. Just observations and curious musings. Frisky shook his head. It was enough to drive a stallion mad! Zone was polite as always, also giving nothing away. Nevermore’s lesson on not being that trusting seems to have stuck with her. Of course, she was a lot nicer about it than the ghoul. Rather than telling this stranger to sod off, she was smiles and politeness. When asked why she was nice, she just said something about trying to make Equestria a little better place. Of course, she also had the strap holding her shotgun down loose, just in case, and also gave him evasive answers when possible. Though it was only a few weeks ago, the raider that had gotten the drop on her stuck with her. That was something she was very good at. She learned, quickly and forgot slowly.

Zone tenses slightly, her shotgun flying out of its holster in her magical grip. “We have red... quite a bit of it too.” She checks quickly to make sure the safety is off. “Get ready...” Fritter draws his pistol, but the stranger doesn’t move, doesn’t draw a weapon.

“What’s wrong with ya? Draw yer weapon ya looney!” Fritter hisses at the stranger. If he had to defend some helpless stranger from another too stupid to defend themselves properly... The thought that this put him in the position of Nevermore that day was not lost on him, but he just refused to pay it much mind.

“I already did, weren’t you paying attention?” A low and infuriating chuckle, though the statement seems to be in jest as the cloaked figure stretches his neck back and forth. The bags on his back rattle slightly, jars and glasses clinking.

“Cut the chatter... here they come!” Zone’s shotgun bucks, the scorpion burrowing out of the ground turning into a pile of goo as her round shatters it. Fritter’s about to snap a retort before he realizes how many there are. His pistol rattles off, the bullets mostly missing, but a few striking home. “They’re not very tough though!”

The stranger looks over as he steps on one, squishing it underhoof. “I noticed, though they do leave a bit of a mess.” He squishes another one, wiping the remains off onto the asphalt. “I do think they could be a bit more considerate when they die. Quite rude, really.”

“Ha, well lookit this!” Fritter blasts another pair of the small scorpions. “And Nevermore thought that we wern’t able ta take care of ourselves!” Barely had he said that, when the ground begins to shake and the asphalt begins to buckle.

“There you go, tempting fate, stranger... not wise to do that. Fate has a bit of a temper on her, don’t you know?” The stranger seems to be unfazed by the shaking, even as Zone moves her shotgun over to cover.

A massive claw scythes out of the ground, barely missing the stranger as a scorpion bursts from below, easily the size of a sky chariot. Fritter is struck speechless by the size of it, even as Zone’s shotgun roars. The creature looks over as the shotgun picks at its massive shell, the shot glancing off impotently. While the shot was good against unarmored targets, the thick chitin proved to be more than its match. Zone starts to load her shotgun again, pulling out some of the slugs, hoping they’d prove to be enough. The stranger again is missed by a claw, and the tail strikes just to the side. Was it missing? Or was he dodging? His movements were slight, but seemed to be just enough to avoid being hit. He lashes out suddenly with a hoof as the claw retracts, faster than Fritter can see. The scorpion recoils, a crack showing near the claw’s joint from the strike. The scorpion keeps trying to lash at the stranger, each strike missing... or at least not hitting cleanly. Now that he’s looking, he sees that the stranger is taking hits, just not major ones as he manages to avoid the worst of it.

“Well, this is a rather nasty critter, care to join in instead of just observing?” Fritter’s about to retort before he realizes that the stranger was not talking to him. The answer comes in the form of a pair of scintillating beams lancing down from the sky. Star Racer lands in a cloud of dust, her rifles hissing as they start to recharge. Never before was Fritter so happy to see the armored mare despite her constant rebuffs to his charm.

She turns to look at the newcomer, bowing her head slightly. “Thank you for watching my charges...” She shoots Fritter a hard look through her helmet. “Better than they watch themselves.”

There’s a hint of a smile in his voice as he slips past another claw strike. “Oh, my pleasure indeed. Always good to help another.”

“If you are done jabbering, we still have work to do.” Nevermore raises her forehoof as she arrives after Star, the contraption on it firing a bolt at the scorpion, bursting one of its eyes in a shower of gore and ichor. Though she seems to be focused on the monster, her hooded gaze turns to slash at the stranger... apparently she doesn’t like him for some reason. Then again, Frisky figured there’s not much that Nevermore *does* like, even herself, and she doesn’t seem to need reasons either. At least reasons that other good and proper ponies can fathom.

Finally, their combined firepower drives the monster back, shielding itself from further harm with a giant claw. Zone Control moves to pursue, but Nevermore shakes her head, even as Star starts to cycle her rifles down. “No need for that, Zone. She might be going back to her nest, and I do not wish to engage her in such a location.”

“But what if it threatens another pony? What if it attacks them?” Zone is brought up short, not nearly willing to go on by herself, but also not wanting another to get attacked.

“Then they will have to fight themselves, or die.” Nevermore’s voice is cold and harsh. “Besides, we have more pressing matters right now.” She turns, her hoof mounted crossbow pointed at the stranger. “Like what are you doing with one of *them*.” Frisky had thought that he had heard Nevermore be upset before, that he had heard her rage. That is nothing compared to the venom in her voice right now. It is pure, seething, unbridled hatred, carefully nurtured over more than a hundred years.

The stranger shakes his head, sliding his hood back. The striped mohawk and muzzle reveal his origins. “Well, looks like one of you can spot a zebra.” He smiles up at Nevermore. “Interesting greeting you have there, especially from a flying corpse.”

Nevermore’s voice drops lower, her voice akin to a razor’s edge. “Your fighting style... Fallen Ceasar. It is recognizable.” She keeps her hoof leveled at him as she drops to the ground. “Celestia burn your soul, you craven villain.”

Zone tries to put her hoof on Nevermore. “Easy there... he just helped save us... and he hasn’t done anything to-”

“Has not done anything?!” Nevermore glares at Zone. “Look around you, foal. See what they have done.” Her voice is immensely bitter, even beyond the hatred that many reserved for the zebras.

“But that was over a hundred years ago, Nevermore. Surely he didn’t have any part of that...”

“But his kind did, and they committed crimes, crimes that cannot be forgiven. Crimes that pass through blood and are only expunged in blood.” She narrows her hard gaze onto him. “A school...” Over a century of pain flooded her voice.

The massacre at Littlehorn had affected all of Equestria. It had driven a goddess to abdicate, and another to harden her resolve. It had inexorably driven Equestria into its final hours... and it had damaged a Captain. The damages wrought that day had further effects, culminating with a bitter mare performing her duty, taking the scorn of others, doing what had to be done, though others were afraid to do so. Ultimately, it reached through time, with that same mare pointing a bow at a stranger, her heart bitter and broken. The aftermath of that event would not see resolution for a long time, if at all. The pain and loss of that day echoing through the haunted survivors.

“... you killed them all... teachers... visitors.” Her voice is even colder now, a blade of ice held to his throat. “Foals.”

Zone looks at the mare, placing her hoof up on hers. “And what will this do? Did you lose somepony that day? Killing him won’t bring anypony back, it’ll just add to the pain.” Apparently, even stables learned about the Littlehorn Massacre. Memories flood back... ponies I lost... the beginning of the end.

~~~~~~~~~~

I sit on my balcony, the wind teasing my long hair. Gently, almost daintily, I raise the steaming cup of tea up, taking a small sip. I should visit the Captain again... or at least the crew. Truth be told, I can’t bear seeing the Captain like that, ragged, lost, drunk. I shake my head ruefully. Drink is not something that I usually partake of myself, though I can understand what drives a pony to the bottle. But the Captain... I can be mean to him, almost cruel... berating and scolding him over anything. The last time we saw each other still rings through my mind, a bitter and frustrating memory.

Cold fury and a mountain of disdain. He looked terrible, and smelled worse. I honestly doubt that he’s bathed in at least a month, and I think those are alcohol and vomit stains on his shirt. “You are a disgrace, Captain. Time was, we could look up to you before. Though a fool, you represented something that the rest of us could not. You were something that we could not be.” Derision fills my voice, all the pain and sorrow that I’d been storing turning into a rush of venom and hatred. “Look at you now, how you have fallen. There was a time that I could see something in you, that there was more to you than a drunken loser, a failure, a piece of living trash.” I use my wing to hurl one of the half filled bottles at him, the liquor sliding down the wall behind him, the shatter of glass punctuating my diatribe. “If you want to be like this, then do us all a favor and just go away. There is nothing that we want from you now, nothing that you can give us.” My rage fuels my words, toxins that once spoken cannot be held back. “I cannot believe that there was once a time when I thought you might be somepony more than the idiot that you have proven yourself to be.” He opens his mouth to speak, that white coat dirty and dingy with neglect. “If the next words out of your mouth are not that you will buck up, accept responsibility, and be a stallion about all this, Celestia is my witness, ‘Captain’, I *will* wound you.” He stares at me through a drunken haze, either trying to understand my words or to work out if I meant it. “I thought so.” Turning my back on him, I start to leave. “Rowdy lost a parent that day. Do try to not make it two, ‘Captain’.” I understood though... we missed her too. We all missed her.

Truth be told though... before he fell to pieces, there was something in him, something that had him lead the crew, a spark. That spark was dying now, perhaps dead. The loss of his wife had hit him hard, driving him to the bottle. I shake my head. No... I won’t visit him. Not this time. Not until I hear that he has managed to pull himself together... if ever. Being alone was something I was good at. Though today was a special day. I look at the small box on the table next to me, a package wrapped in silvered paper and tied with black lace. A gift, for Rowdy. Not much, just a small toy, a gift from the dour Nevermore. I wouldn’t stay long, just long enough to drop it off, pretend to socialize a bit, then disappear. I hate going to events, but I could do this for Rowdy. It was his birthday, after all. And the crew was the only family he had left. I narrow my eyes. Especially since the Captain has self destructed. No... I won’t visit him, but I’ll drop this off to Rowdy. To my surprise, I get a call... speak of the devil, it is the Captain... and he is hosting a party for Rowdy. Well, at least it sounded like he’s starting to stallion up a bit perhaps, though my voice holds no promise, my mind entertaining no hope.

My tone is cold, yet accepting. Yes, I would be there, no, I would not make a scene. He had some trivial item for me to bring, which I promptly ignored. Rowdy did not need me to bring some party favors. What he needed was his father. The time passed, and I got ready to head to a party, the party of a young foal who had lost much. My dress was somber, the veil covering part of my face. Odd attire to a birthday party for a foal perhaps, but I was not one who concerned herself with fitting in regardless. But... this party, this should be a decent party, something that Rowdy could enjoy in these dark times. Yes... it was time to go to a party for one of the few innocent souls left in Equestria, a celebration.

Which... which was never to be. My heart drops as I hear the sirens go off, standing up to look towards the direction of the commotion, seeing ponies racing to the scene. Luna’s School for Gifted Unicorns. It was a school day today... perhaps... perhaps my somber attire will be appropriate for Rowdy... perhaps I will visit the Captain today after all.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Surely you can forgive after so long... especially since it’s not his fault!” Zone snaps me out of my memories, the lingering hatred still burning in my soul.

“Forgive... no. I cannot forgive. The mare that could have forgiven is long dead.” I lower my hoof, taking the bow off of him. To his credit, he hadn’t flinched, but had just kept a sardonic grin on his face. “But I am not a murderer either.” I glare at him. “But believe me that I will be looking for any excuse to exact my blood price.” Turning from him, I pretend to survey the wasteland. In reality, I’m trying to bring my rage under control. This isn’t like you, Nevermore. Control yourself, harness yourself. Do not allow him to control you. Sins of the fathers, unto the tenth generation...

“She always like that?” His voice, though quite normal, grates on my ears, just knowing who’s speaking. “I mean... she seems to be just a wee bit high strung.”

Zone speaks up, though they’re trying to not let me hear. “Well... sometimes... she does seem a bit more... put off by you though. I’m sorry.” What does she know of my reasons, of my hatred, of the pain and sorrow?

“Eh... that’s alright... I’m used to it. Lots of ponies don’t like me for me... can’t help it, can’t fight it. Though it does make a great ice breaker normally.” There’s a brief pause. “My name’s Vusi, by the way.” I ignore them as they introduce themselves, ending with Zone naming me for him.

“She doesn’t really talk much, but don’t take it too personally. She’s always a bit... distant.” I feel them looking at my back.

Enough of that. “Well, feel free to go on your way then, zebra. We have work to do.” I look at my companions, giving a short sigh.

“Well, I was just travelling, and most of you seem the decent sort. Was thinking I’d just tag along for a bit. I’m no stranger to fighting, and it looks like you could use some poultices and potions.” He looks at Fritter. “Though I’m not sure I have anything for that... well...” He gestures towards Fritter’s face as Star Racer gives a snorting chuckle. Fritter sputters his indignation, but is ignored by the pair.

I look at my companions, my eyes searching them... apparently none of them felt the way I did, all of them willing to give him a chance despite his stripes. The poor, trusting, accepting fools. Then again, I suppose that also is what allowed them to accept me the way I was. Zebras... my heart burns with hatred at the very thought. I blame them for much, possibly unfairly, but that is something that I choose to not admit to myself. They had done so much... to Equestria, to the Captain... to me. No... I could not forgive, not now... not ever. Perhaps in a better time with a better mare.

“Our next objective is to head to the Shadowbolt Memorial. To do this, we have to travel north...” I look at each of them. “Through Ranger lands.” I look at Star Racer. “You... will have to be especially careful, and you two,” I motion towards Zone and Fritter, “keep your eyes on your pipbucks. They are known to desire them.”

Vusi cracks a grin. “What about me? What do I have to watch out for?”

“Do I look like I care if something happens to you?” Snorting, I turn from them and start trotting off through the ruins of the city. “We will be bypassing Tomb Town, there is no reason to be looking for trouble, and that place is nothing but trouble.”

Our hooves clip off the ground, their steady rhythm a constant reminder that we’re moving onwards, ever onwards. Yet it is the past that drives us, that defines us. Star Racer suddenly stops, looking towards a tower in the distance. “I’m... getting a signal... a broadcast. I don’t recognize it.” She looks at me, her armored gaze hiding any thoughts she had. “I’ll put it on speaker, Nevermore... you might want to hear this.”

Words start to crackle from her helmet... was this an old news broadcast? A mare’s voice is clearly heard. "... me is the Captain of Delta Squad 424 flight brigade for the Shadowbolts, a mobile platform unit used specifically for heavy front line support. His crew are as equally crazy as they are diverse. This ragtag bunch are all taken from the lower rungs of civilian and military life. They're the troublemakers, the has-beens, the misfits, and the dumping grounds for the mediocre. Captain, what do you have to say about that? The reputation that your crew has earned?"

My heart stops in my chest as a familiar voice comes from the speakers. A voice that haunts my dreams, a voice that I can never forget. A ghost from the past. "If you underestimate somepony who has nothing to lose and everything to prove, you're always bound to be surprised."

"I suppose so, but is it your leadership that makes your lackluster crew perform so well? How do you get that polish we've been seeing?" Her voice is full of doubt... after all this was a bunch of rejects and misfits, somehow pulling off the impossible.

"There is no polish. My leadership? It's a joke, my own crew will tell you I'm an idiot. It's them, it's all them. Everyday we all work to get better at something, because we deserve the best for each other. That's all them. I don't do anything but rely on them, and knowing they rely on me pushes me to be better."

"So you're taking no credit for your victories?"

"They're not victories."

"What do you mean, sir?"

"I said they're not victories."

"Then what would you call them?"

"Payback."

There’s a moment of silence as his awkward answer hangs in the air before the newsmare moves on to another topic. "Now, how do you respond to the allegations of substance abuse?"

"I don't deny them."

"You don't deny them? So you're admitting that your crew, some of them, use enhancement? Isn't that a bit dangerous? Do you feel bad for setting a bad example for the youth of Equestria by advocating and promoting that stance?"

"Do you know what I do for a living, lady? I get on an old airship with a bunch of other animals. I go to a location, and we kill a bunch of other animals. I kill things. In war. For money. I'm a mercenary. This is my job. I love my job." There’s a dangerous tone to his voice despite the cheery words, a touch of madness perhaps.

"Well, I'm sure the folks at home watching this all agree we're glad you're on our side. One final question, Captain, how do you feel the war is going to end?"

"War? This isn't a war. It's an extermination." Again the silence at his response before a crackle of static cuts off the transmission.

Star Racer looks at me. “That is on repeat, Nevermore... and... it only started playing when we entered the area.” She looks around warily. “On a signal that I was receiving... it’s a bit too much of a coincidence...” Her rifles start to whine as she begins charging them. “I think that was meant for us... someone knew we were coming.”

I shake my head. “Possibly...” The voice of my Captain still ringing in my ears... how long ago had I heard that for the first time? How many decades had past? “But... I need to know... how and where.” I lock eyes with her. “And I intend to find out despite the risk.”

“You know this is probably a trap... but I will defer to you regardless.” She nods. “It is that tower there... we will have to be careful on the approach.”

Vusi and Fritter break in at that point. “Hey, as charming as Nevermore there is, are you sure we should all be going there? Especially if you said its a trap? I mean, far be it from me to stop her from committing suicide, but...”

“Yeah, ya hard ta kill rotter, but what about tha rest of us?”

Zone enters the conversation, her voice calm. “I think we should go. This is important to Nevermore, and she’s been there for us before.” She looks at Fritter. “This is the least that we can manage to do for her.” She looks at me... her disappointment at my earlier outbursts warring with her pity for me. To live so long with so much hate... small wonder I was a burnt out shell of a pony. She looks over at Vusi. “I know you’ve only recently been acquainted with us, so nopony would look down on you if you decided to not join us.

“Nah... it’s not like I have much else to do. Besides, who knows what sorts of things we’ll find, maybe some evil ghosts, or zombie ponies bent on revenge. Or even a ripe mare who holds a chip on her shoulder the size of a tree.”

Ignoring him, I turn to Zone, bowing my head slightly at her kind words. “Very well, I will not try to stop you... and... thank you.” I look towards the tower, my heart full of dread and excitement. A part of my past, a ghostly echo. History repeats itself, and I head back into the jaws of a trap, bringing those who trust me along... Perhaps these ones will leave friendly ghosts.

~~~~~~~~~~

New Companion: Vusi

This Zebra is crafty and quiet when he wants to be, though he’s more at home with a wise crack and a joke. Despite your hostility, he’s oddly understanding, and his medical knowledge will surely come in handy. As long as Vusi is in the party, all members (except you!) gain slight natural healing from his poultices, and the effects of any medical treatment are improved by 10%.

Who could have that broadcast? And how did they know that you were coming?

Chapter 10: Rusted Dreams

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Chapter 10: Rusted Dreams

To dust, to dust, it crumbles to dust.

It is odd, thinking about the future. Especially now. What future can rise from this dust and ruin? What future can rise from the skeletons of industry that have been picked clean by raiders and rangers? What future is there for us few cursed souls that wander the corpse of Equestria? There was a time that ponies lived for more, looked for more, hoped for more. They created, they innovated, they made things that defied imagination. But now? Now it is nothing but a struggle for survival. Ponies fight and scrape and kill, ekeing out something that cannot truly be called survival. No... the future is dead, buried in the same grave that we buried the rest of Equestria, the same grave that the heroes went to. The same grave that has been denied me all these years, the grave that I still yearn for.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

The building towered above us, the touch of decay showing on its face... or at least neglect and disuse. Despite the worn and dirty appearance, the rest of the building was still almost entirely intact. Strong spells were protecting it, apparently, based on the scorch marks that failed to break through the walls, with the explosions doing only superficial damage. Actually, it seems that more than spells were protecting it, based on the corpses littered in front of the door. Of course, the bodies appeared to be rather old, relics from the war. Odd, that. I would’ve presumed that there might have been some fresher bodies, but apparently not. The sign above the door declared the building to belong to a group called... ‘A.C.E. Inc.’, though I had never heard of it before. It was hardly to be expected that I would know of all the companies, especially in other cities. After all, there were many new companies formed during the war. Some were attempting to take advantage of the climate to make a quick bit, others were fronts and names for war purposes or the ministries. I wonder which of those, if either, this particular company was. Perhaps the acronym had meaning, but there were a thousand such possibilities and it didn’t matter to me now, if it ever mattered to me at all.

My hooves crunch down, shattering ancient bones as I look to Star Racer. She shakes her head... nothing showing up red. Good. Zone and Fritter looks like they’re about to throw up and panic respectively, the warped and twisted skeletons on the ground looking pitiful, even as they were ground underhoof. They had died in fear, not cleanly or painlessly, their contorted forms advertising their distress. Slowly, carefully, I lean into the door, prepared to have to try to pick it if needed. To my surprise, and near fall, the door simply slides open at my touch, sending me off balance. Recovering quickly, I glance around the foyer, the opulent surroundings at complete odds with the desolate wasteland. The air smells different, odd. It takes me a moment to realize what the smell was. Poison? Decay? No, none of those, it was something far more rare in these times. The air was clean.

<Welcome, guests. To what do we owe this honor?> A female voice crackles over the speakers, obviously mechanical and false. There’s no trace of a soul in it, just a programmed, synthesized response.

The mechanical voice sets us all on edge, the voice as unnatural as the surroundings, and I hear Star’s cannons starting to cycle up again as she gets ready for anything. Zone looks around, diplomatically keeping her shotgun holstered. “Um... we’re looking for a broadcast that originated from this tower? We don’t mean any harm or anything.” Personally, I wasn’t a fan of machines that could talk. I prefer them to simply do their job and be ignored. Did one require a conversation with a knife, a rifle, a potato peeler? No. So why the need to make machines that talked? Silence is preferred in most cases, though at least they did not bleed all over me when I knifed one.

<Standby... searching... broadcast originated from -kzzzrt- exactly two hours, nineteen minutes, and 42 seconds ago. Please state the reason for your inquiry.> That, and it was nearly impossible to tell anything from their tone, their lack of emotion in their programming. Unlike dealing with a pony, where a wealth of information in their inflection, tone, behavior... no... machines were predictable, but only if you knew what to expect.

“Where was it from? Our companion here has a personal interest in the broadcast... it’s from her past.”

<Information appears to have been corrupted. Recommended course of action is to speak with Engineering with regards to repairs. Processing... Short Circuit is not responding to request... processing... unable to locate any other authorized repair ponies on site. Warning. Systems are currently functioning at 23% optimal capacity.>

Zone looks towards the speakers. “Perhaps you can tell us something else then... where was the largest consumption of power at the time of the broadcast? Or at least the greatest fluctuation?”

The computer thinks for a bit, faint crackling coming in from over the speakers. <Power spike detected in the president’s office on the 42nd floor.>

Zone smiles for anypony or camera watching, though I find it to be a fruitless gesture. “Thank you... is there any way for us to get up there?”

<Only authorized ponies are permitted to use the lift. Please present proof of authorization.>

She chews on this for a bit. Authorization? That just made this more complicated, especially considering that whoever was authorized is probably long dead and gone by this point. “Who’s authorized?”

<The president, executive staff, and designated maintenance ponies.>

Zone looks at us, then back towards the elevator. We only had one lead, and there was no other choice than to take it. “You said that Short Circuit wasn’t responding... can you direct us to their location?”

<Affirmative. She is located in Maintenance Bay 3. Please follow the light strips to your destination. Your color is green.>

A series of green lights light up along the floor, blinking their way down a hallway. Warily, we trot down the hallway, following the lights deeper into the building. Literally, since they curled down the stairwell, going down several levels. Our hooves press into the soft carpet with barely a whisper. Odd, that. The silence. We had been so used to hearing our hooves on the pavement, that the sudden silence was eerie. The only sounds was the occasional whine from Star’s armor or the clinking of a pony’s equipment. That, and the occasional banal chatter that one of the ponies inevitably tried to bring up to break the silence. Thankfully, their attempts died as quickly as a raider charging a manticore. About as pathetically as well. One other thing bothered me though... and that was how well maintained this place still was. It didn’t make sense. There were no obvious defenses, and if nothing else, raiders should have taken up residence, or at least despoiled the building, leaving their desecrating marks and crude drawings everywhere. But no... there was no blood, no bodies, no bullet holes, no scorch marks... not even dust. Something or somepony seemed to be taking care of this building... There weren’t even stray animal nests or bodies. Not even the buzz of insects.

My fear that this is a trap deepens... perhaps we should turn back. The past is dead, after all, and there’s no reason to lead my companions into death pursuing it. Well, except for the zebra. I wouldn’t mind if he got killed. But before I can decide a course of action, the light goes up to a partially ajar door... and stops. The lights flicker slightly, the sign above the door announcing its location. Maintenance Bay 3. Having guided us to our destination, the light winks out. We had made it this far in, no reason to turn back now, I suppose.

The entry room is a mess of clutter, unlike the rest of the building. Parts and machinery litter the floor, and what appears to be a half-eaten dried oat bar is at the desk. Amazing how long those can last, really... Odd to find one still here, and only half eaten. Two things draw the most attention though. The first is a sleek metal form suspended above the table by a mess of wires and cables snaking out of its back. Quite advanced, really, more than I’ve normally seen in these wastes. At least, it looked advanced to my untrained eyes. Advanced technology and I had a sordid past, and the less I had to deal with it, the happier I was. The metal was dull gray, not yet colored, the lower half missing from the mare-shaped object... was it a prototype armor, or something else entirely? I wasn’t entirely sure, to be honest. Parts were clearly missing, holes in the frame and armor, along with the fact that wires and other things were hanging out.

The next object that drew attention was the body at the desk. The unicorn’s skeleton was pathetically slumped next to the oat bar, her last meal apparently not finished, and in my own opinion, not very tasty. Personally, I had found the things to be dry and tasteless when I was forced to eat them. Some ponies liked them well enough, and they did make for convenient rations as well. A small earpiece lay by her head, faintly blinking with a dying light, pinging slightly in a vain attempt to get her attention. I ignore it, looking over her body to see if there was anything to be salvaged. Ominously, the top of her skull is missing. Not some crude shatter, jagged edges and blunt force trauma, but rather a clean, precise cut, as if it were surgically removed. As if something had deliberately sawn the top of her skull off. Hopefully after she was dead. On the desk next to her oat bar was a badge, a picture of a pale rose unicorn with a tired smile on it. “Short Circuit - Research Lead and Repairs” was printed on the face of the card, along with other information regarding the long deceased mare.

My voice rasps out. “I think we found Short Circuit... but this raises yet more questions.” I look over the ancient body, a touch of emotion filling me. “Like what she was doing... and how this happened to her.” Carefully, I move around her body, doing my best to not disturb her body. “And why she was left here like this.”

<Please do not disturb her. She is resting right now.> The synthetic male voice crackles from nearby, even as we turn, weapons snapping up. Something else was in here...

A flash of red light from its eyes as the speaker finally reveals himself... itself. A small foal-sized robot was hiding in the corner of the room, watching us. He sounded young, though that’s how it was programmed probably. Its metallic ‘coat’ was dull and grimy from years, perhaps decades of neglect. It was a wonder it was functional, let alone communicating. Apparently it was well built to withstand the years.

<It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I am called Johneigh 9. I have heard much about you... much. I will inform the master of your arrival when she wakes up. She hasn’t had a guest in so long.> Heard about us? But how and from whom? While I was well traveled, I normally kept a low profile, and I know that the rest of my companions were relatively unknown. Well, I didn’t know much about Vusi, but to be honest, I didn’t really care either.

An old robot and a dead body. And the robot doesn’t seem to realize that Short Circuit wasn’t waking up anytime soon, and had probably been ‘sleeping’ for over a hundred years. Mysterious dead mares, crazed robots, and random strangers just now stepping into the scene. This sounds like some sort of horrible movie in the making. I decided that it would be easier to just ask him directly what he meant, how he knew. “What do you mean you have heard about us? Who told you anything?”

If a robot could sound smug, it would sound like Johneigh now. <I can inform you of this... but first I require the assistance of the one designated as Zone Control. I am told that she possesses skill with regards to electronic systems.>

Zone steps up, looking at him curiously, her technologically inclined eye checking out his design. “Well, I’m Zone Control... what do you need me to do?” She looks at the machine, obviously intrigued. Considering it didn’t seem to have any lasers or buzzsaws attached to it, I suppose that her curiosity shouldn’t prove to immediately dangerous. Well, at least there weren’t any immediately obvious. Whether or not it had something hidden away was anypony’s guess.

<I require the activation of this unit here. I lack the ability to achieve this by myself. Please use the terminal located next to the unit. I have unlocked it as best I could, but without Short Circuit’s codes, it is not fully unlocked.> The small robot motions to the Maneframe sitting next to the partially assembled machine, throbbing with some life, channeling some of the building’s remaining energy. <I require you to finish breaking into the system.>

Zone nods her head. “Well, I suppose that I can take a look at it for you...” She looks at the body then back at Johneigh. “It’s not... dangerous, is it?” Trust is a rare commodity in the Wasteland, and given the current environment, was justifiably lacking right now.

<There should be no inherent danger in this activity at this time.> Her face obviously not pleased by that statement, Zone gets to work with the terminal, the green light flickering across her face as she works. I turn to look at the zebra as my companions make themselves busy. Fritter looks like he wants to take the oat bar, whereas Star is more concerned with the apparent technology in the room. Vusi, on the other hoof, is watching warily despite his apparently laid back demeanor. The others don’t seem to notice, but despite his fluid movements and cavalier attitude, I can tell that he’s tense, and wary. He’s oddly quiet right now, the hours spent heading here were full of useless and banal chat, deepening my already deep, instinctive loathing for him. I had fought zebras for too long, done too many vicious acts, seen too many heinous deeds to ever accept one. That is one name that would not be in my journal.

<Systems online... powering up... initializing link.> A new feminine voice breaks the silence as the machine that Zone was working on begins to power up, coming to life slowly and painfully as lights flicker across its frame. <Link established, contact established, systems are operational... bringing cognitive systems online.> There’s a high pitched screech, almost sounding like a howl or a mechanical scream before stopping abruptly. <Hello? Hello? Who’s there? It’s dark... so dark... why am I cold? Where am I? Is anypony there?>

I turn my gaze away from the activating... well, I’m not sure what it is anymore and focus on Johneigh. “What is the meaning of this... what is this... thing. What is your reason for having us bring it online?”

The little brat ignores me, instead heading straight towards the suspended machine, looking up at her almost desperately. <Mom... are you alright? We have guests... and I have news to report... your files were broken into.> The little robot moves closer to the half-finished machine in the middle, raising a hoof up towards it.

<Johneigh? Johneigh? Is that you? Where are you? It’s so dark... I can’t see... and cold, so cold...> Her voice is broken and confused, the mechanical tones not deadening the words enough to strip all emotion from them.

Realization dawns on Zone’s face, even as I get that feeling of dread again. The unicorn goes past the console she was working on, peering up at the machine. “Short Circuit?”

<Who’s there?> The machine’s head swivels slightly as it looks around blindly, the orbs for its eyes dead and lifeless. <What happened?> The voice sounds like its on the verge of panic, despite the harsh and grating quality of the mechanical rasp.

“What happened to you? How are...” She stumbles over her words, horrified yet intrigued. This was amazing and terrifying all at once. Though... she didn’t seem to know... how long has she been asleep? How long was she dormant? There’s a whine of motors and servos as the machine tries to look down at Zone Control.

<It is... hard to remember... I was working at my desk... when... I can’t remember... it’s so hard to remember...> She stops moving for a moment, and her synthesized voice appears to stabilize as she begins to speak again. <I’m sorry… I’m just very confused right now… tell me… how goes the war? We had a breakthrough recently that could change the war effort… save lives.> Short Circuit stops… hesitating. <Something is not right… where am I? Where am I?>

I look at the poor creation, still mostly disassembled, lacking even limbs to move about. A body, a head, a partial shell. The mare was obviously still confused and justifiably so. “You are in your lab, Short Circuit. Tell us what you were working on.” I try to coax some information out of her. The last thing we need is for her to suffer a complete breakdown. Knowing our luck, she’d turn into some sort of homicidal maniac bent on killing us all or something.

She swivels her head to face me, blind eyes focusing on the direction of the sound. <We are doing work on advanced cybernetics, the ability to create soldiers for the army. Unlike ponies, these ones do not breath, do not eat, are not lives to be lost. They’re machines, mindless automatons… though that isn’t quite true. We did a lot of work, lots of promise, but they weren’t right, weren’t perfect. They needed something, a spark, to make them more alive. Simple programming can only go so far, and programming to handle the concerns of a battlefield quickly proved to spiral out of control. We needed organic thinking, the ability to adapt and change. The ability to react outside of preset conditions. That was my field, attempting to create an artificial intelligence. We succeeded mostly, but not completely. The programs we created could emulate life, to an extent, but it was still a broken facsimile. We had almost given up… until he came… he gave us the answer to our problem, or so it seemed. The ability to cyberize a pony’s brain… though it ended up destroying the original. I can’t believe how many of my colleagues want to try it… While the science itself is quite fascinating, the moral implications are too much. I intend to put a stop to that nonsense. We can’t kill a pony to create a soldier, no matter how much we may need it. If need be, I will let the Princess know what’s going on… I already told them that I would not accept this at our last staff meeting.> She keeps her head pointed at me. <I have told you much. Probably too much. I wouldn’t be surprised if they fired me for this… but somepony has to know, this is going too far. Now tell me… why is it so dark in here?>

Now, kindness and gentleness is not exactly something that I am renowned for, but even my heart breaks for her. The poor thing apparently has no idea what happened to her, or even how long it has been. Furthermore, she’s in a crippled robotic frame, shut out from seeing or even more than base movement. Johneigh is trying to wave me off, prevent me from answering her. “The lights are off, Short Circuit... you have been sleeping for a while... but do not worry. We won the war.” My voice is low and harsh, though softened with pity. I look at Johneigh, who looks almost relieved... well, as relieved as a mechanical device can be. “Though there is something that you should know... there was an incident.” Johneigh moves to stop me, but my hoof on his head keeps him at a convenient distance, his forelegs flailing as they try to grab me. Her mechanical ears perk up, I have her full attention.

<What sort of incident? What happened?> I push my hoof down, slamming Johneigh to the ground as he starts to speak. No matter what he wants, what he thinks should happen, she has to at least know something.

“There was a...” I try to think about something to tell her when my eyes fall on Vusi. Close enough. “There was a zebra assassin, trying to stop your research here. You were badly wounded, and the only way to save you...”

She swivels her head away, leaving herself quiet for a hooful of seconds. <I see... that would... that would explain much... am I to assume... am I in... in the prototype then? Is that why I can’t see?> Her voice breaks slightly, the reality and horror of her situation wearing at her.

“Do not worry, we will get you up and running... just one thing first. We require access to the lift, do you know how we may do that?”

<M-my badge... use the badge... the password is ‘Rosebud’... did you tell my family? Is... is Hot Wire alright? I hope she’ll understand... b-but... let her know that I love her... she’s still young, but she’s a smart filly... she’s understand...>

“Of course, Short Circuit... I will make sure she knows that you will be coming home soon as well. But you should rest for now. We need to get started on the repairs.” I nod to Zone, who looks at me, eyes wide. But she knew my intention, my meaning. Slowly, with a heavy heart, she returns to the terminal.

<Shutdown initialized... power levels normalized... shutting down.> With a hiss, the partially assembled machine powers down, even as Johneigh gives a plaintive cry. While shutting her down may have been cruel, leaving her active would have been more so. Shaking my head, I let Johneigh up as I move towards the badge on the desk.

<I hate you... I hope you die.> Johneigh is pouting in the corner, turned away from us. <I miss her... why could you not leave her with me?> He doesn’t understand... how could he? <I don’t want to be alone again... I can’t... why did you take her from me?>

Sometimes to be kind, I must be cruel. I knew about loneliness, I knew the pain and the sorrow associated with it. Some moved past the pain, some clung to the past. Some were unable to do either. My hoof strikes hard and fast, dislodging his exposed power supply. Not enough to damage it, I think, but enough to knock it loose. He slumps down powering off. Perhaps forever. My companions look at me, a mix of shock and horror. I shrug it off, used to the looks, though it still hurt. What made it worse was the only one who seemed to understand was Vusi. I feel his eyes on me, that Zebra understanding the pain of loneliness and isolation. I detest it. I detest him. He may have been a kindred spirit, but I cannot accept him. My hatred runs deep and strong, seeing his face only reminds me of the sins of his ancestors, though I understand that he had nothing to do with this. Sins of the fathers... shall pass through the generations. The pain and loss and blood... they shall haunt those who are innocent of such.

“We should get going now.” I look at the others before heading towards the door, gently scooping the badge up, being careful to not disturb the remains. “It is for the best.” So much pain in this room, so much suffering... so many things that are wrong with this world. When will it end? Perhaps it won’t ever end. Perhaps this is our fate, to scavenge the broken corpse, finding the sad remains of a different time. Haunted by echoes of the past, followed by memories of hate and death.

We head back up towards the lobby, towards the lift. My companions are silent, presumably the events are playing through their minds, a small twisted horror that had survived all this time. Vusi comes up to my side as I studiously ignore him, but that’s apparently no deterrence for him. “For what’s it’s worth, you did the right thing. Nothin’ should have to be like that, especially if we can’t help ‘em.”

“What does it matter to you, zebra?” My voice hisses harshly. “What does your kind know about what is right or what needs to be done?”

“More than you’re willing to give us, I reckon.” There’s a tinge of anger in his voice though he hides it well. “You have a lot of hate in you, don’t you? Probably not very healthy, you should keep an eye on that, like your blood pressure. Well, at least you should if you weren’t dead and all.”

If he was trying to improve relations with me, he was doing it the completely wrong way. Hissing, I try to ignore him, as knifing him right now wouldn’t help. Wouldn’t help at all. Well, it’d help me feel better, but... Regardless, I don’t have time to indulge in my own desires to stab him. There is still something wrong with this building, and I can’t help but shake the fear that we were lured here. Who would do such a thing though... my mind runs through ponies I know of who would have the motive and the technological prowess to do so. A few names come to mind... but nothing definitive. Most of them were either dead, had no reason to jerk me around, or were too far away... mulling the issue in my head, I tune out Vusi as we look at the lift, looking for the entrance. I have my suspicions though, mostly... mostly... from what I could gather, this seems like something that Head Case would do, pulling my strings like a puppeteer. He needs to be careful though, for this marionette has a knife and a short temper.

I’ve said before how life hates me, and how sins come back to haunt me. Lucky me, I guess. Star Racer yells out a warning just in time, allowing us to dive for cover as a storm of bullets rip through the front doors. Taking shelter behind a column, I note how despite my shelter looking like wood, the bullets are bouncing off of it. Peeking out, I catch a bullet with my ear, the round punching through with a flash of pain. Ignoring the blood and ichor leaking from the new hole, I spot several ponies, all with heavy weapons, blazing away at us. A white unicorn mare stands slightly behind the others, a smile on her face. What seemed to be dried blood marred her otherwise pristine coat, staining her hooves and face. Great, another crazy pony, though it seemed that there were others out there as well. Abruptly, the bullets stop as she calls out to us. “Hello in there! Are you Nevermore? You are Nevermore, aren’t you?” I look at her again. Nope, I had never seen her before. What is with all these ponies knowing who I am now? “I’m here to renegotiate a deal you made with my brother! You have no idea how hard it was to track you down!”

Deal... brother... you have got to be kidding me. While I knew that Sleazy Slick was some sort of gangster, I must admit that I didn’t expect this sort of firepower. I thought that he was just some local punk... guess I probably should have found out more before killing him. The only choice now was to retreat, but there is only one way in that we know of. The entrance that was currently heavily guarded. Gak... that left... “Star, suppressing fire, then into the lift, go go go!” In response to my command, Star lets out a burst of energy beams while Zone and Frisky added their rounds as well. As they open fire, I dash towards the lift, slamming the card into the slot. “Rosebud! Rosebud!” The doors creak open, slowly and painfully. I had wondered what kept this place clean, what had made it so well maintained. I think I had my answer now, and how I truly wished that I didn’t.

A figure steps out of the doors, tall and sleek. Taller than Star Racer even. Her form was mechanical genius, intricate in its design. The floor seems to shake as her mechanical form stepped off the elevator. The armor plating was a rich and deep red, trimmed with gold. Her mechanical eyes scan the gathered ponies, all firing having stopped at her entrance, a mixture of terror and shock. Her eyes were cold and hard, a light burning within. It was like looking down the barrel of a rifle, cold, lifeless, and incredibly deadly. Thick armor plating came up, protecting the neck and chest, while the vulnerable joints seemed to all have segmented armor protecting them. What sort of monstrosity was this? Several barrels are clearly seen mounted on the armor, heavy energy weapons seemingly integrated into the body itself. Something clicks in my mind... this was similar to the body that Short Circuit inhabited, but more complete... finished. There’s a clearly audible whine as the energy lance on her other side begins to power up, gleaming with magical energies. And clearly armed and very deadly. She turns her head down to me, huddled to the side, the gears and servos in her neck whining slightly. I see what looks like an armored apparition of death looking at me, the powerful mechanical mare towering over me. This day just got a lot worse.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 7!

Wait... who’s this? And why did they come off the elevator? And why is this chapter ending like that on a cliffhanger?

Chapter 11: Shadows and Memories

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Chapter 11: Shadows and Memories

Where we were describes us. Where we go defines us.

I have traveled far, seen many things. It is odd then, that a series of events over a century ago has led me to where I am now. One thing different... one little change, and would I still be the same mare that I am today? Perhaps, perhaps not. Chances are that I would be dead, one of the nameless, countless ponies that died that day. But I did not die, am not dead. I survived all that until now due to a mix of tenacity and ill fortune. I suppose that is what made us so different than others. The crew, I mean. I have a hard time imagining us giving up, giving in. Controversy and opposition just made us fight harder, defying order and the judgment of others. Perhaps that is what got me here. Defiance. Not chance or fate, but rather the propensity to stare death in the eye... then smile.

~From the Journal of Nevermore

I’ve resigned myself to my fate by this point. That doesn’t mean that I’ll go quietly, however. While I doubt my knives would do much to this armored monstrosity, rolling over and dying was not exactly my style for as long as I could remember. After all, I was still up and about. Lashing out, I dig my dagger into a joint in its leg. It’s like stabbing a rock. A rock coated in steel armor. Barely has the tip of the knife punched in, before she moves, snapping the top of the blade off. Either she didn’t notice, or she doesn’t care, for she strides past me, hooves sinking into the thick carpet. <You are trespassing. Leave at once.> Her voice is oddly soft despite the mechanical qualities... and her intimidating frame. <Failure to do so shall be met with necessary force.> The ponies outside turn their weapons on the mare, heavy slugs impacting against her armor, sending bits of shrapnel to pepper me as I was caught in the fire zone. Apparently, that was a bad move. There’s a whine of energy weapons powering up, then a fusillade of brilliant lances of light stab out, completely obliterating the first pony caught in the stream of destruction. The weapons mounted on her side fire at such a rate, that it appears to be a single beam, vaporizing anything foolish enough to reveal itself. As suddenly as it happened, she stops firing, bits of pony ash drifting through the light of the dying day. <Remove yourselves from these premises at once.>

That had apparently proven too much for most of them, the white unicorn mare barely keeping most of her goons from breaking at that display. “Very well... fall back for now. We’ll wait for her to come back out if needed.” They start to pull back, and the armored mare seems content to let them go. That solves one problem, albeit temporarily, but it leaves the overarching question of why?

Turning that hard gaze onto me, she looks me over slowly, as if scanning me. Truth be told, its a rather discomforting look, and I feel myself bristling under her attention. <I am Red Bishop C-1. You are to come with me at this time.> She looks over at my companions as I prepare to reject whatever she’s telling me to do... <Along with the blue unicorn. The others will stay here. Compliance will ensure their safety.>

My eyes drift over to Zone Control as she swallows hard. I’m not exactly pleased by these conditions, but... we did seem to be outmatched. At least for now. I’ll settle for her not turning those cannons onto us for now at least.“Very well... Bishop. But you better not be giving us false assurances...” My threat sounds hollow, even to myself. Maybe if Star could get a clean bead before the mare responded, but that was a long shot regardless.

She chooses to ignore the threat, stepping aside as we enter the elevator. Maneuvering her frame, it’s quite clear that the lift wasn’t quite designed with her in mind, the poor thing whining and protesting with the strain of lifting her. The ride up the elevator is long and awkward. Our host is clearly not interested in talking to us, and Zone doesn’t seem sure if she should break the silence. For my part, I am curious about several things, the foremost being, why did she protect us? Why were we brought here, and what was going to happen? I look at Zone from the corner of my eye. If only one of us were to make it out, I would make sure it wasn’t me.

We pass other machines, these ones much smaller, more pony sized compared to the monster leading us through the corridors. Additionally, they’re not as advanced, their armor and weapons clearly inferior. They also seem to be lacking something... a spark of sentience, blank and mindless bodies following some unheard orders. If this... ‘Red Bishop’ wasn’t the one giving the orders, she at least held more authority and personality than the smaller ones. After a short while, we end up in front of a large machine, towering over me. <This machine... perhaps you recognize it... but most likely not. It is a prototype for a recollector... though not quite as advanced.> She turns her head down to look at me, the faint whine of servos heard over the thrum of the recollector. <This will extract memories from you, Nevermore, to place into a special memory orb.>

My memories? “What do you want with my memories... they are nothing good... nothing right.” Besides, I didn’t want some... machine violating the recesses of my mind. There are secrets in there that I would prefer buried. Buried and forgotten.

“Perhaps I can help explain the request then, Nevermore.” That voice... now it became clear. The puppetmaster, pulling my strings, making me dance to his tune.

“Head Case. You better start talking now, or our deal is off.” Of course, the voice doesn’t belong to a body. I had never seen the elusive Head Case, but he’s already getting on my nerves. His information and machinations made it clear that he knew more than he let on... though there were things I was certain that even he didn’t know. Only a few ponies knew the details, and all of them save one were dead.

“I did mention that I would contact you again, Nevermore, regarding the relics of the lost ages. You have knowledge in that head of yours, dear Nevermore, knowledge that is necessary for our endeavor. You have probably forgotten most of it, lost in the mists of time, yet here we are now, with one of the lost relics of that time.” He’s rambling again, his tone rather dry and monotone.

I snarl my irritation at him. “Relics? What does relics have to do with-”

“No need to be coy, dear... your... new companion there already knows that we are looking for a weapon from a past age... the most dangerous weapon of them all, isn’t that right my dear Bishop?” His voice is rather deadpan, but it seems that he is talking around something...

The machine looks at the terminal that is spewing forth Head Case’s verbal garbage. <Affirmative. The White Queen will be pleased if I find some lost technology for her... as long as it is as powerful as you claim it is, Head Case. She has expressed much interest in expanding her research facilities.>

“Of course it is! I can personally guarantee that it is the single most destructive tool that Equestria has ever seen.” The way he stressed tool made me think that he was referring to something... he was trying to speak around the mare it seems. “In fact, only a fool would not desire such an opportunity... deserving a swift kick to the head.” Now he’s just showing off... Very well, Head Case, we play this your way. If this tool is the Captain... but remember, Head Case, use him or his memory, and I will hunt you to the ends of Equestria and beyond. You will wish that you had never heard the name ‘Nevermore’ if I find that you have played me for a fool.

“You know how my memory is... Head Case.” Games within games... looking up at the machine, I scoff slightly. “Very well, let us get this over with...” I look at the terminal, scowling at it. I didn’t trust old technology, and trusted Head Case even less. “I trust that there will not be anything... permanently lost?” Some days it felt like my memory was a sieve already, little bits of me being lost and scattered across the Wasteland.

<The machine is not set for removal, only recording.> She nods her head slightly. <There is a small chance, less than 5% that the machine will malfunction however.>

Five percent? Well... what is the worse that can happen, right? Kill me? I’ve taken worse odds flying. “Make sure that you do not go digging through whatever this machine spits up. I do prefer my privacy.” I step up to the machine, laying on the indicated spot as the head piece begins to descend. There’s a click as it settles down, a flash of light, and-

~~~~~~~~~~

I watch Nevermore tense up as the machine begins to activate. She twitches slightly, her teeth gritting hard as one of her legs spasm out. “What’s going on? Is it supposed to be doing that?” Something seems to be going wrong as she starts to writhe in the machine, her hooves scraping against the floor.

The large machine looks at the memory machine, then at Nevermore. <She has... a lot of memories. It is overloading the system. It was not designed to operate with one as old as she is. Malfunction rate readjusted to 95% chance without external assistance.> The machine looks at the terminal. <You did not inform us that she was so old.>

Head Case’s voice crackles over the speakers. “I assumed that you would know, since your information is supposed to be quite complete, yes? Especially since I gave you that broadcast to bring her here. But there is quite a simple solution, really, the reason I suggested that you bring the unicorn with you.” Me? He wanted me to be here? “You see, the machine is trying to pick parts of her memories, but the sheer volume is overwhelming it. It requires the assistance of a unicorn to go in and help guide it by activating the orb while it is being recorded. Else, I fear that Nevermore’s memories will be quite tattered, both in the orb and in the mare.”

“You... you knew this, didn’t you? You knew this would happen!” My voice explodes in rage... how could he do something like this purposefully? Wasn’t she trying to help him, and vice-versa? What pony risked damage to a mare’s mind just to get something he wanted done?

“Maybe, maybe not... but I suggest you don’t take too long debating the issue while she’s in the machine... a little alacrity would be advised, that is, if you want to try and help.” That smug, stuck up... whatever he was! “If you choose to help, I suggest focusing magic at the orb, any type of spell will do, though the more common is simple telekinesis, which is...” He seems to have no indication of stopping... I have no idea what this machine does, what the smoky orb is, or what will happen to me... my horn lights up as I focus on the orb to form a barrier on it... and the world fades to black.

~~~~~~~~~~

Something feels odd... wrong. I’m in a body, but it doesn’t feel right. Smaller for one, but... my host ruffles her wings slightly. The sensation is strange... wings... wings?! Easy Zone... they did say something about memories... right? Or was that... what’s going on? My host is apparently having tea, a charcoal hoof lifting up a cup, taking a sip as the slightly bitter tea slides down my throat. Blech... ponies choose to drink this stuff? “Yes father... I understand...” A voice, young and rich, full of sorrow. There’s tones of familiarity, but... wait. Charcoal coat, tea, wings... Nevermore? The voice seems to make sense now as I start to take in the rest of the surroundings. Quite fancy, really. The tea set is quite nice, and the tablecloth looks like it’d be expensive.

A low, gruff voice breaks out, though still filled with pride. “You are the Lady of the Loft now, dear... I know that you were close to your mother... but you cannot mourn forever. I miss her too dear.” A leg drapes over my shoulder, pulling me into a hug as a wing forms a blanket and a shield. I can smell him, the scent of cologne hanging in the air. The dark blue stallion lets me go. “So cheer up dear... go into town, buy something nice. It will be good for you.”

“Will you... will you accompany me there father?” A small, hopeful tone in the voice, quickly dashed at his response, ears wilting ever so slightly.

The stallion shakes his head slightly, a rather handsome stallion, if I do say so. “No... I have meetings this afternoon with some of the others.” He seems to be wearing some sort of uniform, looking quite regal, really. “Perhaps you can take your siblings with you. You know how they look up to you.”

“Perhaps... though I may just go alone today.” She runs a hoof through her mane, pushing loose strands back behind her ear. Reaching over, she grabs a tall hat, bright feathers sticking out of the band of the otherwise somber raiment, perching it jauntily on her head.

The town is small, more like a village really. And its quite clear that it had built up around her home. The houses were built near the walls of the castle, the market bustling with life. The vastness of the sea is clearly visible, the scent of the ocean filling the air. My host didn’t look at it though, apparently not as captivated by the sight as I was. I had only read about the ocean before... so much water! She browsed slowly, her heart apparently not in it very much. The young pony nearly takes a spill as another pony backs into her. “Oh, excuse me there Miss, I... I mean my Lady...”

I straighten my hat, brushing some dust off my dress. “It is no matter...” The speaker is a young colt, a nervous smile on his face. “And please... do not use my title. You may call me Written Verse.” Wait... Written Verse? Who’s memories are these?

“Oh... I mean... of course, of course... um... Written Verse... I’m... my name is... that is... I’m Granite Heart...”

I hold my hoof out. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Heart.” The blush on his face is quite visible, though I can feel some blood rushing to my own cheeks. The grey colt not quite able to hide his emotions, though my host seemed to be mostly collected by her posture. “But... I should be going. I will see you again, I suppose.” My heart racing, I turn from him, walking back towards the castle. She apparently didn’t need to buy something nice after all...

Time seems to jerk unsteadily, speeding up, flowing... faster and faster before suddenly resolving back into normality..

~~~~~~~~~~

“I forbid it! You know that I can’t allow you to marry a pony like that!” Her father towers over her, but her stance is defiant, proud. Streaks of grey are visible in his mane, and he looks older, more tired.

The mare looks up to him, my host apparently older now though still young. “But we love each other, father... I know that his family is not as established as ours, but he works hard, and he loves me. Is that not enough?” Frustration bleeds through her voice, as if she had had this conversation a thousand times, each time receiving the same answers.

“Enough? ENOUGH? Of course it is not enough! You are the Lady of this house! It is not proper for you to associate with one so... low born! Especially since he’s not even involved in the family business!” His voice booms his anger at the mere thought. “It is enough that you are seen in his presence! But this is too far, Verse! We have a reputation to maintain.” My host turns away, hot tears running down her cheeks. “Where are you going? Get back here now!”

“Mother would not have minded. Mother was not as concerned with lineage as you are. She understood the truth about us... she knew about...” Her voice is pained, her tone biting, working to score some points off of him even in defeat.

“Your mother is dead, Verse, my wife is dead! And you are the scion of the house now. You have a duty, a responsibility! You can’t shirk it just because you feel like you can!” His voice lowers slightly, though he’s still apparently angry. “You must do your duty, Verse... you must. It’ll be up to you to lead this house one day.”

My host whirls, strands of her red mane brushing past her face. “Duty... I will do what I need to, father. I do not expect you to understand...” Tears are still running down my face, even as they both seem to work at keeping their emotions under control. This seems like more than just marriage... what duty is he talking about? “But... I will do my duty...”

He walks over, pulling me close to his chest. “That’s my good girl.”

~~~~~~~~~~

The spray of ocean water washes over me as I stand at the front of the boat. Boat, ocean... water everywhere... I feel sick, though my host is fine. So much water everywhere, stretching endlessly. What pony first saw that vast expanse of water and decided to put some wood on it and sail around? “Your first journey out Lady?” My host looks at him, a grizzled earth pony, poorly dressed, but clearly used to being in charge. “Quite an honor, having the Lady of the Loft entrusted to my vessel. Suppose the old stallion wanted you to get familiar with the other side of the family business?”

My host looks at him only barely, feeling the dagger in her dress with a hoof. “Yes... I suppose so.” Shaking her head she turns back to looking over the ocean, off across the horizon.

“Well, it’s your lucky day I guess. A merchant vessel of another House has been sighted. You know how to take care of yourself? The crew will try to look out for you, but it can get a bit messy.” His voice is tinged with concern for his young charge, and presumably, what might happen to him if something were to befall her.

“I can handle myself.” Despite her tone and words, I can feel the nervousness welling up in her... The taste of bile rides in the back of her throat along with the stomach acid fighting its way up. Swallowing hard, she focuses out on the sea again.

He looks at me, nodding his head. “Course you can, you’re your father’s daughter after all. Who knows, maybe we’ll even find something nice for that colt back home. Hear he’s rarin’ to take over the quarries himself soon.” My host murmurs something that’s lost even to her hearing, holding on to the railing as the ship plows through the waves.

Things happen quickly, the ship closing quickly on the merchant’s vessel, cannons booming as they approach. The merchants return fire desperately, but their vessel is slow compared to the sleek pirate ship. Pegasi take to the air, splitting the defender’s attention. My host joins them, but is kept back slightly by the others, apparently trying to shelter her. The pirate ship is brought alongside the hapless merchant ship, and the fighting begins in earnest. Dropping to the deck behind her crew mates, I can feel the nervous energy in her body as she darts her gaze back and forth. Ponies are fighting and falling, though it seems that the pirates have the upperhoof. I slip into an open door as the rest of the boarding party is occupied, heading deeper into the ship alone. Carried along by my host, I slip from door to door, heading towards... something with a purpose. Finally, I reach up, hoof on a door, muscles tensing to push it in. The label on the door betrays its purpose. The Bridge. Before my host can open the door, I hear something to the side, hoofsteps rattling on the wooden floor. Casting my gaze back and forth... there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. My hoof slips in towards the dagger hidden in my dress.

“Halt, who goes there?” A pony comes down the hallway, spotting me instantly. A sword is held in his telekinetic grip, and he seems alert, but not hostile, yet. He looks young, a fine golden mane complimenting his white coat. He’s well dressed, apparently a pony of some standing.

“What is going on? What is all the commotion?” What is going on? That is a fine question, Verse, or whoever you are. My host asks the question, but her voice is jittery, broken up by nerves.

“Just some pirates, ma’am. You should go back to your quarters as soon as possible, it’ll be safer there.” He looks away from me, his glance off for just a second. No, don’t do it! Please don’t do it! But my host can’t hear me, whoever she was and whenever this happened. In a flash, she leaps forwards, dagger aiming for his exposed throat. She’s fast, but he must have caught a glimpse of her, or perhaps some other sense warned him, because he starts to turn towards her, surprise written on his face as his sword comes up. There’s a burning pain and the tearing of flesh as the sword slices along the side of my torso, causing me to wince in pain. My host, however, continues to drive her knife forwards, slashing into his throat, crimson blood pouring across his white coat.

Desperately, his faltering magical field tries to bring the sword up again, slashing at my host, putting a burning line across her jaw. But my host starts to stab, over, and over, and over again, panting heavily with frenzied motions born from panic. Tears streak down my face, mixing with his blood as it falls, my host finally done, the mess underneath her not moving at all, barely recognizable under all the blood.

“First kill, kid. You did good.” A pony pats her on the shoulder, even as she shudders violently, vainly trying to wipe the blood off her hooves. “First one’s always hard, but you did good kid... you did good. Just let it out, let it all out...” My host retches, finally throwing up on an empty stomach over and over again...

Again the world seems to blur as time loses meaning as I sob uncontrollably..

~~~~~~~~~~

I turn, my mouth forming words. “We are approaching Trottingham. We should change the flag back before we are in sight.” My stance is more confident now, and based on the weight and the jingling, I was armed with more than one knife now. I look over to see the pony from before, the grizzled earth pony. He looks different now, for one thing, he’s missing an eye. But he also seems older.

“As you say, Lady Verse. Can’t wait to see your coltfriend, eh lass?” He winks as my host gives a short, barking laugh.

“Perhaps. It has been a long voyage this time too. Father should be pleased by the bounty we acquired and the damage inflicted.” I shake my head, squinting against the sun. “Though... reports from home were...”

“Aye lass... not sure what to make of that... though your Father’s a strong one, not likely to find anypony or anything that can take the likes of him down.” Though his words are tough, I catch a slight twinge of emotion in them... and apparently so does my host.

“Hrmph... well, we can hope at least... but if the crown has begun to move against him...” I shake my head again. “It will be good to see father... and Granite again...” She smiles impishly at the other pony. “Though I need to come up with another excuse of why I was gone again... since he doesn’t know the family business.” I tap my hoof against my chin. “Perhaps a story about trading tea...”

The pony gives a gruff laugh. “Ha, you know he won’t care much, as long as yer back. Though you should probably stop by to see yer father first. Story like that makes sense, bein’ from a mercantile house and all.” My host nods her head, but says nothing. “Almost home...” My gaze turns back over the sea, heart pounding with excitement...

The ship pulls up to the dock, but it is quiet, very quiet. My host finds this odd as I feel her glance flicking around, watching.... waiting, her nervousness betrayed by the tapping of her hoof on the deck. “Where is everypony...” Her voice is a soft whisper, worry filling her tone. The rest of the crew is silent as well, and when I turn around... there’s nopony else there... anywhere. “Hello? This is not funny...”

“No, it is not.” I whip my head around, seeing a group of cloaked ponies, lead by a mare wearing a prominent badge, declaring her authority. The mare’s voice is cold and hard. “And this is the end of the line for you, pirate.” My host freezes at those words. “Do not bother denying it... we have received credible intelligence that it was you and your band of misfits who has been raiding ships. And do not think that your lineage will save you. The Lord of the Loft has already disowned you, his wayward daughter... haven’t you Lord Verse?” Her father drops his hood back, shaking his head silently, face cold and hard, not a trace of remorse or pity showing in his eyes.

My stomach churns as my heart plummets with dread... how could this be happening? “There... must be some sort of mistake...” Her gaze flicks around for her companions, her crew mates. None of them showed at all, nopony was there to help her, leaving her all alone. “Very well... I have nothing to hide...” She glances past the mare, her eyes catching a glint of steel from one of the ponies behind the mare.

The lawmare approaches a pair of hoofcuffs dangling at her belt as she reaches to seize my host. I feel muscles tense slightly, nervous as she approaches. The pony behind the mare lunges forward, his steel sword plunging itself through her chest before she can give more than a surprised gurgle as she falls to the dock bleeding. “The Lady killed the Magistrate! Get her before she escapes!” She turns and dashes towards the skies, wings beating furiously even as she heard hooves hitting the stones behind her. A glance back confirms her fears, she was being pursued. What’s worse is that she recognized the voices. Her fellow crew mates that can fly have taken up after her, wings beating as they take to the sky.

My host reaches into her dress, mouth biting down onto a length of chain. Pulling it out, she wraps the end around her hoof, turning to face her attackers. “Watch the net, watch the net!” She starts to whirl the chain, a heavy metal net falling off my back, opening up as she expertly controls the odd device. Is this a weapon, or...? With a flick of her hoof, she sends the net flying at the closest pegasus, the razor net catching him despite his attempt to dodge. He falls from the air screaming as he’s sliced deeply even as the net envelops him. What a cruel weapon... especially against a pegasus... Attempting to fly would only deepen the wounds, though gravity was a cruel mistress as well. I don’t get to see his fate as my host turns to her other attacker, knives drawn. “Blasted fool... just come along quietly, make it easier on yourself and your family. On all of us.”

She spars with him for a bit, daggers flashing against a sword and buckler, each trying each other, each scoring only minor hits. My host hisses as his blade scores under her eye. Any higher, and she might have lost it. Swinging her body around, I twist my lower body for a kick, even as I feel a dagger between my teeth. My hoof hits his shield, even as I whip my neck across. The throw is true, just missing my own leg, clearing it to catch my attacker in the eye, sending him down towards the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Flight turns to desperation as my host dives down toward the ground. She couldn’t out fly them forever... Ducking into a bush, the sound of hooves can be heard, voices and ponies searching for her. My heart is racing as I try to hide, moving carefully to avoid stepping on any twigs keeping to the shadows when possible. Her hoof raps on a door, a mix of desperation and panic. “Please open up... please open up... please open up...” The window built into the door opens up. “Oh praise Celestia, open up Granite! It is me, Written!”

There’s a moment of silence, an awkward moment suspended forever... then the window slams shut again. “She’s here! She’s here! The fugitive is here!” She backs away slightly, her heart pounding as the love of her life calls for the others. Blindly she turns, running off into the night. Bolts and shot fly past me as I head towards the ocean, wings outstretched. She couldn’t mean to... I don’t know how long she was flying, time seems to blur as pain burns in my wings, pain I didn’t understand. Finally, her body can’t handle any more abuse, pain wracking her system. Not all of the shots had missed. Like a rock, she falls into the endless ocean...

~~~~~~~~~~

Yet... she didn’t die. What would happen if the host died while I was in their memories? I apparently wouldn’t find out yet. I feel hooves pulling me up, pressing my chest as water is forced from my lungs. “Is she dead?” A mare’s voice...

“No, not yet, and I’m not going to let her die... don’t give up on me yet!” The stallion sounds oddly cheerful despite everything. “I know, mouth to mouth!” My host stirs at this, lashing out despite the pain and the weakness. Her eyes crack open as she spits more water out. I see what appears to be a white unicorn reeling away, nose bleeding from where she kicked him.

A rose colored mare looks at her, pushing the goggles up to the top of her head. “Can’t say he didn’t deserve it... but that’s the Captain of the Flickerjack. I’m Nessy.” She offers a hoof out to help me up.

My voice is raw and hoarse from the sea water, from dehydration, from nearly dying. Now I recognize the voice, even as she gives her name... “Nevermore.” I take the hoof, being pulled up by the mare, still weak from hunger and thirst. “My name is... Nevermore.”

More images flash through my mind, faces and names from long ago. Images of a ship, a crew, a war... of death. It’s fast though, faster than I can comprehend, then I can understand. Only glimpses of her long existence slow down enough for me to realize what’s going on, pain, death, suffering... but there’s still more. The world filling with pink, ponies screaming, dying. My host shaking her head even as her body failed her, driving her to her knees... My mind is overwhelmed, unable to process any more... and the world fades to darkness.

~~~~~~~~~~

The connection suddenly breaks, my senses slowly returning to normal. I’m lying on the floor, looking up at Nevermore, the mare looming over me. How long was I out? “What... what did you see Zone. What did you see?!” She sounds dangerous... more dangerous than I had heard in a while, especially towards me.

“J-just... part of... well... your name-” She cuts me off harshly, with a hoof slashing through the air.

“Is Nevermore. Whatever you saw or think you saw, that mare is dead. Long dead and forgotten, lost to time as assuredly if she had drowned in that ocean.” Her voice is cold and bitter. “Perhaps it would have been better if she had.” But... more than anything, she sounds tired. I had only gotten a glimpse of her life, her long and painful life, but what I feel for her now is pity. Pity and respect. Pity for the pain and horror that she’s had to endure. Respect for the fact that she isn’t completely broken. I understand her more now, the harshness, the coldness, the cruelty. Underneath all that lies the remains of mare desperately holding on. She was buried all those years ago purposefully. Holding herself together by sheer force of will, destined to one day die, lost and forgotten.

“Of course, Nevermore... it was just overwhelming. Everything, that is.” I smile to her, even as I see her reign her temper in. “But... I didn’t really see much...”

Her ears go down as she takes a deep breath. “But... I suppose I should thank you.” She takes a sharp look at the terminal. “It seems that the machine was not meant to handle that amount of data... but we have the orb now... which is what we needed... right?”

“Yes, yes, and our mutual friend here has already voiced her displeasure at the damage done to the machine... but I assure you that it will be worth it in the end... eye on the prize and all that.” There’s a cough from the speakers as Head Case clears his throat. “Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering where the... cache is, and thankfully we have the location after I analyzed the data... if you’ll let me upload a map?”

The mechanical monstrosity doesn’t move for a second before she looks at Nevermore. <Very well... though it better be worth it, Head Case...> She seems to be... unsure now? <I do not know what your game here is, Head Case... but you better not be playing me for a fool.>

“Of course not dear... I just want what we agreed upon earlier... and here’s the map, uploading now.” I look over to where the map materializes over the terminal. “Now, it is a bit of a hike, as is to be expected, but I can predict with 93.57% accuracy that this should be the location of the pre-war weapons cache... as for you Nevermore, I need you to go to the end where everything began, got that? And take the orb with you, you’ll need it to get there.”

<The memory orb was not part of the deal. I do not see why I should give it to you... unless this is the ‘one item’ that you were referring to. What is your game, Head Case?> Her mechanical tone is laced with suspicion.

“Just a promise for an old friend. I’m sure that part of you still remembers that sort of thing... so Nevermore, I suggest you act with alacrity and head there now... though I’m sure there are a few other surprises and stops that you will have to attend to before the end.” The terminal crackles slightly, then falls silent as Head Case cuts the connection.

The mechanical mare turns to look at us. <Very well... I shall honor my deal with Head Case. You are free to take the orb and leave. Do not leave a mess in the foyer. But if I find out that you have deceived me...> Her voice cuts off, leaving her threat unspoken. The weapons bristling off of her serve as a fine point to her comments, however.

We have some time in the elevator as it descends, allowing me to try to talk to Nevermore. “Do you want to talk-”

“No, I do not. It does not concern you, it should not concern you. I do not know what exactly happened there, or why. All I know is that there are some things that many do not know about me. You have joined a very small club. I will trust you to keep this hidden from anypony, living or dead. There are things in my past that I do not wish to constantly relive.” She’s holding the orb with her wing, peering at its murky depths. “Though... perhaps it is a relief... somewhat, to know that what I was will live for at least a little bit longer. My journals... do not go that far back. I started writing them during the war, and I never saw need to write before then... but I have grown old since then.” She looks to the side as she drops the orb into her saddlebags. “So... thank you... I suppose...” She murmurs to herself again. “I did not think that this sort of data was transferable though... so how did Head Case get a copy... or did he?”

Any feelings of goodwill were lost as soon as the elevator doors opened. The smell of burnt flesh and blood filled the air, but most ominously was an armored pegasus lying on the floor, not moving, a pool of blood spreading out from her fallen form where part of her helmet was damaged. Star Racer.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 8!

New Perk: Terrifying Presence - Between your unpleasant demeanor and your ghoulish personality, some ponies would rather flee than talk to you, especially after you threaten them. You have the option to skip dialogue and just threaten ponies instead... since you pretty much did that anyways.

What good is the past to you anyways, Nevermore? Why not look to the future instead? A future of pain, death, suffering... for you and those around you. You know that you don’t deserve anything else.

Chapter 12: Jagged Haze

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Chapter 12: Jagged Haze

Knocking is more polite than explosives.

Like attracts like... opposites attract. I have heard both before, repeated often. The truth of the matter is that I am not certain that either of them apply for most circumstances. Opposites attract, the darkness and the light. A shallow dance, a cold belief that perhaps there is more out there... a hope, an allure. Something that you desire but can never reach. A shadow longing for the comfort of the sun. Like attracts like... a carnival, a madhouse. We are a group of ponies, all broken and shattered in some way. Some more than others. Tragic pasts, forsaken beliefs... lost dreams. Souls longing for a second chance, a new breath of life, coupled with madness. Joy in the joyless, life in the lifeless... we are naught but shadows dancing to the music of the flames. And yet in our dance, we show our similarities and differences more than I care to admit, even to myself. Loose Leaf... a zebra, a blight upon our crew, though he was at least good at making tea. He was kind... I was not. He was accepted... I am not. He cared for others. I do not. Yet... we share a past... a betrayal, a hidden pain. Only for our lives to be saved, directly or indirectly by the crew of the Flickerjack. I cannot tell them this... but in some ways I envy them... envy their friendship. I feel the need to look out for them though... silent, aloof. The outsider willing to do what most of them cannot. Sometimes sacrifices must be made. And if anypony is going to sacrifice... it might as well be the one that is despised by the rest. I will not be missed... and perhaps that is for the best.
~From the Journal of Nevermore

A short time earlier...

I look at the ponies that are under my charge, at least for now. Vusi and Fritter look nervous, Zone and Nevermore having gone with that... whatever it was, leaving us alone in the lobby. “Keep ready. We don’t know what all is going on, but we can’t be too lax about it. It isn’t safe here.” My weapons are on standby, ready to spring to life while conserving power. That is something I didn’t want to think about too much. While I came down with a good quantity of cells, I was burning through them. Soon, I’d have to start rationing... or skies forbid, use one of the guns from down here.

Vusi nods his head slightly. “Of course, ‘Captain’, being the Wasteland and all. I do think that with all of this... scenery and lack of bodies, I clean forgot about the smell of pony ash in the air.” His tone is playful, and not snippy, so I let it pass, not even bothering to correct him on my ranking. He did have a good effect on morale, bringing some joy in his own way. As long as he wasn’t anywhere near Nevermore. The sheer hate that radiated off of her when she saw him...

“Eh, we finally get a break. Them others just ran off, so we can just cool our ‘ooves ‘ere fer now.” Fritter looks over, and up, at me. “Zone and tha rotter ain’t here anyways, so ain’t like we goin’ nowhere.” By the moon, he could irritate me. His lax attitude coupled with blatant disrespect would get him court martialed in a hurry, if he were Enclave. But, he’s not, so there’s no use complaining about it... though he could definitely use more manners.

“It would behoove you speak with some more respect regarding the leader of our group.” I tower over the smaller pony, my powered armor making me more imposing. “After all, she is the one helping to keep you all alive.” I hope that some sort of logic will help him. He does owe her quite a bit from what Zone told me about their travels.

“Eh, she tha one that gets us in all sorts of trouble anyways! Not fer her, and we wouldn’t have all these things happenin’ ta us.” He snorts, spitting off to the side. “Probably better off without that deadhead bein’ around.”

I feel my temper rising, turning from him, shaking my head. Some ponies were stubborn in their own way, refusing to- My thoughts are interrupted as I realize my E.F.S. had a red mark on it. I had been distracted by my argument with Fritter, failing to notice in time. “Watch ou-” Vusi was already moving for cover, Fritter caught in the open... but so was I. There’s a dull clang as something hits my armor. Turning, I see what appears to be... wires? A pair of metallic discs were attached to my armor, wires trailing off to some sort of device. I had barely begun to wonder what the device was, before electricity began coursing through my armor.

~~~~~~~~~~

I see the tall one... ‘Star Racer’ begin to jerk as she’s attacked. That is unfortunate, she seemed to be rather kind if stern. There’s the smell of burnt flesh, smoke rising from the joints in her armor as she falls to the ground with a resounding crash. Arcs of electricity dance across the surface of her armor, leaping between the plates that were supposed to protect her. Other than an occasional spasm, she doesn’t seem to be moving... I don’t think she’s dead, but I wasn’t about to go find out. The rude one, Fritter, looks around wild-eyed, trying to scramble behind one of the columns. I slip further back. Engaging them now would be foolish. Hopefully Fritter would come to the same conclusion.

“Yer never gonna take me alive!” Well... so much for that idea. Oh well... his type didn’t last long in the wastes anyways. His pistol roars, stitching the ground and walls but failing to find pony. Peeking around the corner, I see the same mare and her goons from before. This should be good. Rather than perforating him with bullets, as I expected, one of her thugs tackled him as he tried to reload. Looks like they were trying to capture him? I suppose that it would be good to keep an eye on him, to at least let the others know what happened to him. With a quiet sigh, I begin to pick my way closer, mindful of keeping quiet and hidden. The best way to not get shot is to not let them know you were there.

~~~~~~~~~~

I had passed out, apparently, my body not wanting to respond properly. Pain... pain was everywhere. I could feel the burns on my coat, my breathing weak and shallow. My armor’s insulation prevented my death, but couldn’t prevent the massive amount of damage from the attack. “Well well, it looks like you survived that.” The unicorn mare standing above me was familiar... the one from before. She tilts my head up with a blood-stained hoof until I’m looking her in the eyes. “I have a message for your companion, dear Nevermore.” She smiles at me, the glow of her horn visible as she pulls a large, ornate pistol out. “And you, dear, will be my messenger.”

Staring down the barrel, my voice rasps out. “She will kill you... and it will hurt.”

“Maybe... maybe... but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Keep an eye out for her, will you?” She gives a short laugh... there’s a bright flash, then... oblivion.

~~~~~~~~~~

Back to the present...

I look down at my fallen companion, having rushed to her side. “Zone, hurry, get her helmet off.” I start to rummage in my bags, looking for something... there. I pull out some healing potions, ones that I acquired from the jail in Greenvale. Star is a mess. Quite frankly I was surprised she was alive. Blood was flowing freely from the wound in her head, and burns covered her coat. Zone looked like she wanted to throw up from the smell of burnt fur and cooked pony, even as I started dumping the potions down the pegasus’ throat. “Stop lazing around, Star, we have work to do.” Honestly, I was worried about her, trying to make her feel better with a bit more of a cavalier take on the matter. Potions could only do so much, and without Hydra...

“Help me... get the armor... off...” She coughs, even as the burns start to heal, the wounds knitting up. “I can’t... move.” Zone begins to unfasten the powerless armor, pulling parts of it off Star Racer. Finally, she frees enough that Star is able to try to force herself to her hooves. Despite her valiant effort, her attempt is unsuccessful, leaving her lying in the remains of her broken armor, panting heavily. Her white coat is still marred with scorch marks, though the burns seems to have mostly healed at least. Her dark green mane falls across her face, slick with sweat as she slowly shakes her head.

Zone looks at her timidly. “Star... your eye...” Her voice is small and scared, her heart breaking for her fellow pony.

The pegasus gives a slight snort. “I know... I can feel it.” She reaches a hoof up, feeling the socket where her left eye had been. With her teeth, she tears a strip of cloth from the lining of her armor, fumbling with it clumsily, the mare still not recovered from her injuries... if she ever will be. A glow of magic, and Zone gently ties it for her, creating an impromptu patch for the wounded mare. Even though she was alive, she still looked terrible. The potions were enough to keep her alive, but she’s still not back up to one hundred percent. “That witch came back... they took Fritter. I don’t know what happened to Vusi.”

My eyes narrow as I hear her words. “Zone. Stay here with Star, I will go get Fritter back.” Zone opens her mouth to argue with me, but a harsh glare cuts her off. “No. Tend to Star. I will be back when I can.” I feel my heart burning with hatred, with wrath. Being jerked around by Head Case, having to leave the hapless Short Circuit behind... having one of my companions maimed and almost killed while another was captured... Star’s eye is lost for now, because we don’t have any Hydra on us. I know this, because I don’t like those sorts of drugs, along with Dash, Rampage, and all those things. They were dangerous, both to the users and ones around them. I simmer with barely controlled rage, needing to lash out at at least one group of assailants. Zone can sense it, can feel the coldness in my voice, and she meekly assents with a nod as I step out of the lobby, heading into the Wasteland.

There’s a trail to follow, clearly obvious. So many ponies did not move quietly, especially when they weren’t trying to hide. I stalk them, pulling my cloak around me tighter. There were many of them, but what is fear to the dead? Pain... suffering? I will take it all. I will take it so that others will not need to. Does this make me good? I do not believe so. A good pony would sacrifice for a purpose, a cause, a reason. Me? I do it from spite and hatred, for others and for myself. My purpose, my reason, is atonement and regret. I care not for a brighter Equestria, not now. I care not for the future, not any more. What future can there be now? How can there be any brightness to shatter this gloom? No... there is nothing to redeem this place. All that was good here had already passed. The wind tears at my cloak, grit whipping around me. Desolate and barren, the result of selfishness and greed. Ponies don’t change... they never do. Given a chance, they fall on each other, preying on each other. The raiders were proof of that on their own. Scum and villains, taking what they want, consequences not considered at all. What did they care if they helped to undermine the remains of the corpse called Equestria as long as they got a few caps or shells in the process?

There is something that happens to ghouls, sometimes, something that I do my best to avoid thinking about. Some of us will turn feral, a pathetic fate, a mindless sack of flesh who’s only goal is to kill and feed. But... sometimes, when a ghoul is stressed or overcome with emotion, they will act feral. Perhaps the ones who went feral are the ones who couldn’t bring themselves back from the brink, the edge. Maybe they were the ones who gave up on living. Regardless, it is something that I do my best to avoid, the emotions and desires overwhelming my normally more calculating mind. But... my mind keeps focusing on everything that’s gone wrong, everything bad that’s happening... and I can’t help but feel that it is my fault. If I didn’t feel the need to investigate, then we would not have been brought deeper into Head-Case’s plot. If I didn’t kill Sleazy Slick, his sister wouldn’t be out to kill us. Perhaps the Wasteland was better off without me...

I spy my targets... or at least some of the stragglers, perhaps a rear guard. A quartet of ponies, dressed like that mare’s henchponies. At that moment, my rage erupts, the carefully bottled emotions breaking free. Like a falcon, I descend on them, bolting down the street like a thunderbolt hurled by a vengeful deity. The first one doesn’t even get a chance to cry out, my body slamming him to the ground. As we tumble across the road, I recover first, driving a savage hoof down into his throat. Rewarded with a sickening crunch, I leave him lying there, knowing that my kick had crushed his throat, broken his neck. I don’t see the others, not really. Not now. Not as ponies. All I see is a red haze, regret and hate fueling me into a killing frenzy. Knives drawn, I swoop on the next pony, his pistol taking a piece of my leg out, blood and ichor flying from the hole. Ignoring the pain, the wounds, I scissor my knives in, the keen edges taking him in the throat. Savagely, I twist my knives then rip them out, nearly removing his head in the process. The next pony is a mare, a young one, something lost to my bloodlust. I charge, ignoring everything else in my desire to kill...

~~~~~~~~~~

This was no pony, not anything resembling one! Broken Bottle watched in disbelief as the terror slaughtered two members of her squad. She barely has time to see her decapitate one before the nightmare turns on her. In a panic, she raises her only weapon... a crude spear. Her youth and inexperience didn’t warrant a heavier weapon, so she was stuck with a twisted metal pole sharpened on one end and strapped to her barding. At least it was better than a pool cue. The dark monster doesn’t seem to notice her weapon, flying at her with blinding speed. Broken Bottle didn’t notice, but she had braced the butt of her pole against the building behind her accidentally. The vengeful pegasus slams into the sharpened end, coming to an abrupt stop as she impales herself. Did... did she do it? Nopony could survive getting stabbed through... or into? The pole seemed to be lodged in her chest. Broken Bottle gives it an experimental tug... it does seem to be rather stuck. With a grunt, she tries to pull back, the building blocking her retreat, the mare hanging off the end like dead weight. She gives a sigh of relief as she tries to loosen her barding, trying to get the mare off. She’s not as intimidating now... the ghoul looking almost peaceful in her death.

Then the unthinkable happened. The mare lifts her head up, her mask falling to the ground. Her eyes gleamed a deadly red, as she looks Broken Bottle in the eyes. She gives a howl, one of rage, hate, and unrestrained emotion. The mare shoves herself closer, the end of the pole forcing its way out of her back as impales herself further, blood and ichor pouring out both sides of the injury. Inch by painful inch, she closes on Broken Bottle like a specter of death, forcing herself down the spear toward her waiting target. The poor mare is frantically trying to backpedal from the abomination closing in on her, rotting blood splattering on the ground beneath, trapped by the building behind her. Nevermore’s eyes hold no trace of warmth, of acknowledgment. No, there is only hate and death. Broken Bottle can barely choke out a scream as the ghoul rips into her throat with her teeth.

~~~~~~~~~~

Oddly enough, it is the taste of blood that breaks me out of my rage induced frenzy. For a while there, all I could think of was killing and death. I wanted to kill them all. I needed to kill them all. The poor thing in front of me was proof of that, gurgling out her last breaths through the gaping hole ripped into her neck. I spit, feeling nauseous as the chunk of pony I had bitten off splatters across the ground. Blood is coating my mouth, and I spit again, trying to clear the taste. Now is not the time, Nevermore. The sword has not fallen. You have not met your doom... just remain in control... I take a deep breath, then another, steadying my roiling stomach. The threat of becoming feral always haunted the back of my mind. Of course I have other concerns on my mind right now as well, as I am also currently impaled on a crude metal stick. With a sigh made from irritation and disgust, I cut the rest of the barding free, letting the dead mare slide to the ground, her weapon and part of the barding still sticking out of me like some macabre outfit. Look at this ghoul with her cunning costume. The foals will love it for Nightmare Night. Just like those silly hats with the arrows sticking through them.

I look to the last pony, as he holds his pistol in his mouth, knees shaking uncontrollably. Closing on him, his legs fail him. Instead of running, he just... sits down, pistol falling impotently to the ground next to him with a dull clang. Blabbering incoherently, he doesn’t move as I swing my knife at the side of his head. The flat of the blade slams his head around, drawing his attention. “I shall only inquire this once. Where did you take the prisoner.” The look in my eyes is pure murder, and he obviously takes my threatening tone at face value.

Blubbering, he points down the street. “T-to our base in th-the Green Apple...” The building he’s pointing at seems to be rather run down, the remains of a bar from the older days. “P-please d-don’t eat me... or... or...” He breaks down, crying again, his will to fight clearly extinguished. Now, I am not exactly known for mercy, even on good days. And today was definitely not a good day. My dagger drives into the side of his head again, this time point first. One less pony to deal with later, if nothing else. I did so hate inconveniences. Wiping it off on his coat, I drop to my knees, gritting my teeth against the pain from the spear as my rage induced adrenaline rush leaves my body. Closing my eyes, I grab it with my teeth and begin to pull, forcing it back out slowly, painfully. To my surprise, it suddenly slips out, clanging against the hard floor. But... how? Why?

Opening my eyes, I see a dirty tan mare, the glow on her horn dying as she drops the spear with a disdainful flick of her magic. “I thought I was crazy? But you? You take the cake for that one. Watched you a bit, that was something else!” Her mane is a wild splash of competing colors and spiked up in a crazy manestyle. It looked like she dunked her head into a vat of mane dye and let whatever stick stay. More importantly, I notice a long rifle on her back, and grenades. Lots of grenades. She spits to the side before holding her hoof out to me. “Call me Tik.”

I look her over, the strange mare seemingly cheerful and oblivious at the same time as I slip a healing potion out of my bag. “Tick? Like the insect, or the ‘tick-tick-boom’ sort?” I supposed I owed her some conversation for the help with the spear, though I started walking towards the bar, idly hoping that she would leave me alone. No reason to leave Fritter waiting too long, and I wasn’t in the mood for company. I knew that Vusi was missing too, but frankly, I didn’t really care.

“No... no, Tik. That’s T-I-K, Tik!” How she could remain in such a good mood while covered in dirt, blood, and explosives was a mystery for the ages, though based on the needles I see sticking out of her bags, I have my own suspicions. “I saw you take out those four, it was pretty sweet. And I like that outfit you got going there, you’re like some sort of... fancy pony reaper or something! All knives and stab, stab! Stabbity! Woo!”

My ear twitches, betraying some of my annoyance. Her attitude, combined with the strange feeling of the potion trying to heal me along with my natural, or rather quite unnatural, ghoulish regeneration is doing nothing to improve my dour mood. I’m about to open my mouth to tell her to go away, when I’m interrupted by another voice. “She’s Nevermore, I’m Vusi. Pleasure to meet you, Miss Tik.” I instinctively whirl, knives coming up defensively. I am not used to having a pony being able to sneak up on me, even during the War. Vusi obviously knew a thing or two about moving quietly, on par with me, possibly even better.

“And where were you when they took Fritter?” While I imagine several accusations to level at him, they’re false and pointless, and would not be of any benefit for now. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from imagining. Or from my tone being cold and biting.

“Following them, trying to not get shot or impaled. Looks like you got the first part of that, but you might want to work on the second part.” His cavalier attitude annoys me, even as Tik looks up at him with a giggle at his remark. Ha ha. I bet he thinks he’s funny, doesn’t he?

“Hey there handsome, you two doing something together, or can a third pony join in?” Just like that, her voice drops from hyper-death squirrel to... sultry? What is wrong with her? She brushes up next to him, her wildly colored tail flicking up past his nose as she walks past.

Well, this quickly devolved past the point that I could even pretend to care any more, even as Vusi starts to stammer. With an abrupt turn, I head towards the bar, biting back my irritation as I hear them following me. “Neither of you have an attachment here. There is no need for you to get involved in the matter.” The crunch of their hooves against the loose gravel doesn’t abate. Expected, but disappointing nevertheless. “If you are going to insist upon burdening me with your presence, make sure that you are at least useful, and do not yet yourselves killed. I do not wish to feel obligated to bury anypony today.” I had left my share of ponies to rot under the uncaring sky, but I did try to observe decency for the ones that deserved it.

“Yeah, got it boss! I’m gonna light them up for ya!” I see a violet glow as her rifle raises up. Its actually a rather impressive piece of machinery, and very well maintained, despite being a weapon in the wastes. Impeccably clean, the matte black rifle seemed to absorb the light around it, a dark, efficient killer. “I’ll knock for you!”

“You will... no wait!” My protest is far too late, her rifle booming, slamming a slug through a window. A cry of pain and panic shows that she didn’t miss, though what she hit...

“Come and get me ya stupid meat heads!” She starts laughing maniacally, Vusi and I making ourselves scarce as ponies come pouring out of the building towards her. “That’s all? That’s all ya got?” Her rifle booms again, taking a unicorn mare in the face, removing it. Turning to us, she gives a crazed grin as she re-aims her rifle. “Go get yer little buddy or whatever you’re looking for, these aren’t even worth the effort!”

Well, if she says she wants to handle them, then who am I to object? Flitting past the charging ponies, I see that Tik is falling back, still yelling and taunting the ponies even as bullets fly past her. She is insane. That’s the only explanation for it. But... it’s effective. I take a look back, even as I see her telekinetically hurl several small, metal objects in a staggered line. “Boom! Boom! BOOM!” The grenades go off in rapid succession, even as I slip into the door, leaving the psychotic mare with her explosives outside. Hopefully she doesn’t try to blow up the building as well.

Vusi is waiting for me in the entryway, a pony lying at his hooves, neck in an entirely unnatural angle. Not bother to acknowledge his kill, I step over the body, looking around. Tik’s distraction was... quite distracting, and a majority of the ponies had already left to go after her. There were probably still some remaining, but they seemed more concerned with what’s out there than what might be in here.

The first pair of ponies we come across are standing guard, but their attention is lacking, distracted by the commotion from outside. They don’t see us approach until it’s too late, their cries cut off by a knife and a savage chop to the throat. Lowering their bodies to the ground, I’m struck again by how far Equestria has fallen as I look around.

This place looked like it was rather nice, at one time. The wooden bar was a beautiful thing, and protected from the ravages of time with some sort of enchantment. That didn’t stop ponies from scratching into it, leaving crude marks and rude words. The racks were, quite understandably, devoid of alcohol, but the broken bottles told the tale that not all of it was drunk, but rather wantonly destroyed. Several ancient corpses were carelessly piled in the corner, their clothing and bones used as fuel for the fire warming the room. Desecrated in their finery, their mortal shells being used for naught but kindling now. Why this irritates me more than other things I’ve seen recently, I don’t know. Perhaps I’m getting more temperamental in my age.

Slipping further into the bar, we reach the backroom... where we find our quarry. Apparently, she had sent almost all of her guards out to pursue Tik. The mare is standing over Fritter, a knife held in her telekinetic grasp. The blood was not promising, but he appeared to be alive, for now at least. “You came! You really came! I didn’t think you would! You got my message then? Did you enjoy it? I know I did... that winged can didn’t... ‘see’ it coming!” Apparently, I am a magnet for crazy, and her callous disregard for shooting out Star Racer’s eye is infuriating me further. With a snarl of anger, I lunge for her quickly, daggers out and ready... I barely hear Vusi call out a warning, when something slams into my side. Well... a lot of somethings. The automated turret installed in the side of the room let loose a storm of rounds, blasting me into the wall, sending me head over hooves. Though they were rather small caliber, they stung, my armored dress only partially holding against the barrage. The mare telekinetically flings her knife at me, even as she draws her large pistol. Dazed by the sudden assault and disoriented, I can’t dodge in time, the knife burying itself in my throat. Dark blood pours from the wound, and my mouth, as I spit blood up.

There’s a dull wheeze coming from my throat... that didn’t seem good... the turret slams more rounds into my side before clicking empty... a small relief at least. The mare fires her heavy pistol, the slug ripping into my chest, another fountain of blood erupting. At this rate, she’s going to kill me... then probably Fritter. Howling, I force myself back to my hooves, even as another round crashes into my chest. “Why don’t you go down? Just die you abomination, you murderer, die! Die! DIE!” Another slug tears into my body, though her aim seems to be suffering. Painfully, I open my wings and dash at her, knives extended. Injuries have slowed me down, but she doesn’t move, doesn’t dodge. She lifts her pistol up, aiming it right at my face. I see a flash, a loud bang, and a burning pain searing through my head as something... tears. I barely notice something fly past my head as I hiss in pain and anger, wisps of pink coming past my eyes, finally closing on her, knives flashing. I bury the blade in her chest, before dropping to my knees... then falling over.

~~~~~~~~~~

That ghoul was tough... she may not have liked me, but I can acknowledge her strength. Even as she took the rounds, the last one tearing off her jaw and mask, she forced her way to the mare, taking her down, even in death. There were few like her... the drive behind her... but her body lies still now, blood and ichor pooling around her. Her opponent lay wheezing, slowly dying. I could finish her off... but she belongs to Nevermore, and it is her knife that will end her. “Rest well, Nevermore... may you know the earth’s embrace.” Normally I would try to bury her, do something for the fallen... yet Fritter is still in bad shape. I carefully sling him over my back, making sure to minimize how much I have to jostle him. “Rest easy there, Fritter... I’ll get you back to Zone and Star soon enough. Can’t go off and die on me before you see them again, can you?”

Ignoring his weak response, I make my way towards the door as carefully as I can. Once I dropped him off, then I would come back for her. Yes, that would be fitting. She deserved at least that much, despite her hatred. It was easy to see her scarred soul, this ancient relic battered and beaten by the cruel hoof of fate. Yet she died how she lived. Proud and defiant. Yes. She deserved to be buried at least.

~~~~~~~~~~

Jeers of derision, of scorn, of hate. I stand there, proud and indifferent, though their words cut at my heart beneath my stern facade. What else did they want? What else could we do for them? “Murderers! Foal-killers!” This is part of the war that I truly hated the most. Not the combat, not the fighting, not the death. No... I hated returning home. There were always some of those ponies, objecting to the war, venting their fury and impotence on those of us daring to fight. What right did they have to judge us? What right did they have to pour their ire upon us? I feel my hatred pouring out, a subtle shift as my knives clink gently... it would be fast... very fast... “Don’t do it, Nevermore. They’re not worth it. Just remember that there are other ponies out there not like them.” The rose colored mare pushes her goggles up to the top of her head, her false leg whining slightly as she leans up on the railing of the Flickerjack.

“I know that, Nessy. I can imagine though. They do not know the horror that we see. The war is changing us. Changing the crew...” I look to her for a response, but only see a long memorial to the fallen, a veil hanging from my hat as the memory changes, the world changes. A familiar weight is on my back, my old armored dress, taken out of storage for the occasion. I had not worn it since I had... left.

“We are gathered here to remember the fallen... let their sacrifices not be in vain...” No... no, no, no... not this day, not this day! I’m trapped in a nightmare, one that I have lived for a long time. I see the ghosts of ponies surrounding me, keeping me from fleeing the scene. Ponies that I’ve killed, that I’ve abandoned, that I’ve betrayed. Bodies rotting and decayed, skeletal grins taunting me with what’s to come. They know. They always know, just as I do. A sudden shield forms over the city, the mighty barrier created by the most powerful ponies to ever live. Missiles begin detonating against it, venting their fury against the barrier. I feel a scoff in my throat... was this the zebra’s best? This was their attempt to slay the leaders of Equestria? They would have to do much better than that to threaten Canterlot. It is like the Grand Galloping Gala had come early... the threat seemingly impotent, like fireworks detonating in the sky... but this... I know what is coming, even if I did not then. The bombardment continued unabated, the shield flaring as it held strong... then it happened. My ears flick back as I hear cries... cries of pain and terror. Whirling to look, I see an ominous cloud of... pink? What sort of of weapon is... pink? If I die, it better not be to pink.

Lungs burning, organs failing, I drop back down to a roof, landing heavily, my wings providing no escape from the barrier trapping us with the cloud. The necromantic magic killing me as I fall to my knees. I supposed this is the end, a fitting end... pain and death... now I could join the others... wherever they were. Perhaps they would even be willing to see me again...

~~~~~~~~~~

A hiss of necromantic magic, a feeling of wrongness in the air... I stand up yet again, my wounds sealing up, metal being forced out of my wounds. My jaw starts to regrow, bone wrapped with flesh and fur. It is not a very pleasant sensation... but I was not dead again... Looking around, I spy my mask, slipping it into my pack after removing the remains from my last jaw. It was damaged again, and rather pointless to wear at this time. More importantly, I don’t see Fritter. And based on the fact that I don’t see Vusi either, it seems logical to presume that he took Fritter to the others. And left me behind. Shaking my head, I give an irritated snort, wisps of pink curling up. At least I killed her... the body of the mare was in front of me, one of my knives jutting out of her chest. I nearly trip as I see something out of place. The top of her skull is missing. Some sort of device had sawn it off... leaving an empty cavity where the brain should be. Just like the body of Short Circuit. Something else had come through here.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 9!

New Companion?: Tik

Tik is borderline insane, a wizard with explosives, and a fine shot as well... but something is not quite right with her! She’s a bit of a loose cannon, and will sometimes not really listen to you when you’re telling her what to do. Furthermore, she has a veritable cornucopia of drugs and other performance enhancing stimulants stashed around herself. As long as Tik is in the party, you get +10 to explosives and intimidation checks. Apparently a crazed, grenade-toting mare can be a bit imposing. However, she penalizes any social interactions in any ‘civilized’ setting by -20. Finally, she can identify any sort of normal stimulant or drug that you encounter.

Chapter 13: Carnival of the Lost...

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Chapter 13: Carnival of the Lost...

Come little ponies, come and dance with me.

We lost Pale Rose and Lemon Twist today... I do not know where the monsters came from, they descended from the skies... they were on us in a heartbeat. It was my fault, I was careless... I forgot something in my long years. I forgot to look up. The others say that it is not my fault... that they cannot blame me... yet why should they not? I am the one who was supposed to look out for them. They were my charges. They are too young to remember aerial combat... I am not. The memory still haunts me, haunts all of us. Pale Rose falling, the roof collapsing under the magical barrage. Twist tried to save her, but he knew that it was too late. He had to have known. They tore him to pieces. The magic they put out was overwhelming. We did not stand a chance against them, we just had to flee... and flee... The loss of those two is devastating, both for morale and personally. Pale Rose was our healer, our medic... we lost more than the supplies she was carrying, we lost her kindness. She was the intermediator, the one that would defuse problems. Twist was a rock... a silent ghoul. We all knew that he cared for Rose... I think she did too. But he refused to acknowledge it, refused to voice his affection, content to follow her at a distance. He was solid, reliable, carrying more than his fair share without complaint. And just like that, they are gone.

The others may not blame me, or they at least say that they do not. But Rose falling to her death... Twist being ripped to pieces by magic. They know the truth, they know who is to blame. The truth is that I killed them, as if I used my knives on them myself. I am Nevermore. I am a murderess.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

I look down at the fallen Star Racer with concern. Though she’s not willing to admit it, probably even to herself, she’s in a lot of pain. The potions weren’t nearly enough to heal her, just enough to keep her alive. “Hang in there Star... you’ll be fine...” I try to see if there’s anything that I can do to help her, but I have almost no talent with medical ability... and I didn’t want to make things worse.

“It’s alright Zone... I’m just tired right now. I’ll be fine in a bit. Just need to rest...” Her voice is weak, completely at odds with the normally authoritative tone that she usually assumed. Out of her armor, she seems to have lost her edge, not as much Lieutenant Star Racer, but rather just a pony. A wounded pony. Using my magic, I gently straighten the bandage over her eye, eliciting a grunt of irritation from the pegasus. “Guess that’ll be a souvenir from down here.”

Sometimes I forgot... she’s not like us, she’s from the Enclave. The mare’s white coat is covered with marks and burns, though her cutie mark emerged mostly intact, though I’m not sure what the marking is. It appears to be... a trio of flaming cirlces set against a large crescent. Now that I think about it, I’ve not really seen her not wearing something before, from her armor to a simple robe. “Star? What’s your mark? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She gives me an incredulous look, then barks a laugh. “Right... Stable pony...” I blush slightly, not wanting her to think less of me, though her tone was a bit more biting than I would’ve appreciated. She looks out the doors of the lobby, where the clouds blanket the skies. “That... and...” Shaking her head slightly, she looks up at me. “It’s shooting stars, Zone, set against the moon.” Chuckling, she flexes her wing slightly. “You should see it some time... the night sky. It’s beautiful up there, like a dark ocean scattered with light...” She winces again, settling her wing against her body. “You know... since I’ve come down here, I’ve been shot, clawed at, stabbed, electrocuted...” She gives me a slight smile. “At least I’ll have some interesting stories when I get home again.” There’s something in her eyes as she says that... and I think I know what it is. She’s lying to me.

“Do... do you miss it? Your home? What’s it like?” The conversation seems to be distracting her from her injuries, and I’m definitely curious about where she’s from. Besides, I’d rather not think about the end of this journey. When we left the Stable, I was full of confidence and courage... certain that we could handle anything out here. Now? Now I’m not so sure... in fact, perhaps the best we can do is find a place to survive and try to live as best we can.

“Of course I do Zone... though.” There’s a bitter edge to her voice. “I’m not sure how many there miss me.” She snorts as she sees the look on my face. “My father never returned from the Wastes. Captain Sky Fire, presumed killed in action.” Her face takes on a darker look. “And my mother never recovered from losing him. My brother... I haven’t seen him in years... it’s just me and my little apartment. My squad probably reported me dead by now... probably that moron Midnight Sun took over as lead. That stallion wouldn’t know a good idea if it walked up and bucked his teeth in.” She looks at me, her gaze flicking down to my own mark. “What about you? You miss your little hole in the ground?”

I flick my tail subconsciously, ears drooping slightly. “Well... yes, especially when we’re getting shot at. But... well... we didn’t exactly leave... well...” I hated thinking about that day...

~~~~~~~~~~

“Zone? ZONE. Let him go. He’s useless anyways, you know this.” The stallion’s voice is mocking as I see Fritter bravely holding his head up... marching towards an uncertain fate.

“It’s not fair! There’s no way that he’d survive out there!” My security barding weighs down on me... heavier than I remember. There’s no honor in this... Fritter didn’t deserve this.

“I’m sorry Zone, but you know the rules, you know the consequences. He did too.” There is no remorse in his voice, no regret. In fact, he seems almost pleased that Fritter was being banished.

“He’s useless, he can’t protect himself...” Slamming a barrier in front of the stallion, I turn and dash towards the Stable door, even as it begins to close. “I can’t let that happen!”

“Zone? What do you th- you’ll never get back in here! You’re throwing everything away for him! Don’t do it!” His voice has a tinge of desperation now, and I can sense him trying to break through my barrier, even as I see the door about to close on me. Lowering my ears, I press forward as fast as I can. “But Zone, I lo-” With a resounding clang, the Stable door cuts off what he was going to say, and I leave it behind me... my home, my family... my fiancé. The door seals with the finality of a judge’s gavel, locking me and Fritter out here... to face the Wastes by ourselves...

~~~~~~~~~~

We were so naive about the wastes, not understanding anything really. If not for Nevermore... I shiver slightly, thinking about what might have happened without her. I’m saved from further memories by the sound of complaining. Vusi and Fritter! They’re trading taunts as Vusi carries Fritter back to us, though I can’t hear any malice in their voices.

Vusi dumps Fritter off next to Star, and though he’s covered in cuts and blood, they seem to be shallow and not life threatening. Breathing a sigh of relief, I rush over to check on them, though Vusi seems to be mostly intact. “Where’s Nevermore?” I don’t see the dour mare, and its unlikely that she’d just leave the two alone. “What happened to her?”

Vusi shakes his head sadly. “She fell in battle... bravely against her foe.” He looks at me. “She was truly a warrior... I need to go get her body now... she deserves a burial.” Turning around, he nearly runs into her, deftly avoiding a collision with a nimble dodge. I never understood how she could move so quietly, especially armed as she normally was. “W-what the... I saw you die!”

She gives a derisive snort, wisps of pink curling around her muzzle, her mask partially hanging from her saddlebags. “I got better.” Another pony is dropped off next to Star and Fritter, one I hadn’t seen before. Her wildly dyed mane and tail seemed to be at odds with her shivering and cowering form. “Tik here has Med-X. A lot of Med-X. Get them up, we are leaving. It is not safe here.”

~~~~~~~~~~

The thought of the mare with the top of her skull sawn off lingered in the back of my mind. It was too much of a coincidence that the same thing happened to Short Circuit all those years ago. I didn’t trust it. I couldn’t trust it. Trust got ponies killed, then and now... I look at my companions. Did I trust them? To an extent... I also assumed that they would betray me if needed. Survival did things to ponies, rending bonds of trust and loyalty. I wouldn’t blame them. After all, betrayal is what haunts me to this day. Would I betray them? Could I bring myself to do that again? For the right price... yes. Yes I could. Not bits or caps, or any other sort of currency... no, I do not need such things. But an idea, a concept? I did know about sacrifice... and though it would pain me, I do what is needed as I always have. Narrowing my eyes, I think to Head Case and Bishop. Both had their own objectives... both would use us. Suddenly the well kept surroundings took on a far more ominous tone. “Hurry it up. Get them up, it is not safe here.”

Stifling my distaste, I take some of the syringes off of Tik, tossing them to my compatriots, letting Zone grab them telekinetically. I had found the mare shivering against a wall, the bodies of the fallen around her. Despite the blood on her, her injuries seemed to be rather superficial, though her mane seemed almost wilted. She was mostly unmoving, not struggling as I lifted her up onto my back. I’d rather not leave her to some creature while she’s like this, and the scores of needle marks on her raise my suspicion to what’s wrong. Tik gives a weak whimper, reaching for the Med-X caught in Zone’s telekinetic grip. Snorting, I take another syringe from her pack, jabbing her in the back of the neck with it. The mare gives a pleased sigh as the painkillers flood into her system, her mane and tail recovering as well. “Oh yeah, that’s good!” Her voice isn’t quite as active, but it’s quickly recovering. With a vicious snarl, I toss the empty syringe aside... assuming she had a Med-X addiction and confirming it were two separate things.

Star Racer pulls herself up, the mare moving a bit slowly, but helped by the double dose of painkillers coursing through her system. Quietly, she starts gathering the pieces of her armor, tying them into a bundle to carry with us. I catch a glimpse of her bandaged eye, and wonder if she’s going to be alright... sometimes a serious injury can change a pony. We had barely made it out of Greenvale Heights, and we already needed time to rest and recover, needed a place to hide. I debate bringing us back to the Loft, but that would backtrack us, and send us through Whirlybird territory again. Greenvale was obviously closed to us... which left pressing on, towards Tomb Town. Tomb Town... a dark place with a dark reputation. Not only was it infested with feral ghouls and the like, but rumor abounded of darker things in there, unseen and merciless terrors. My plan was to skirt around it, avoiding entered the cursed place. I want to move immediately, trying to make it to the Shadowbolt Memorial... but I can’t... not now. Not with the others wounded. With a snort, I turn towards the doors, leading back out into the Wasteland... back into a decaying city.

Leaving Zone and Vusi to watch over the others, I scout ahead, looking for some sort of shelter, somewhere to hide and recover. The building we were just in seemed like a good choice, hiding down with Short Circuit even... but I didn’t trust those machines. There was something wrong with them... and the skulls. That’s not a normal injury... no crushing, so shattering, just a very clean cut. I feel my mood slip darker, brooding, reminiscing the pain and injuries inflicted upon my companions... I can’t shake the feeling that this is my fault, that I was dragging them into a conflict that was not their own. Yet they stayed with me. I should tell them to leave... I should go alone. Yes, that’s what I’ll do... it’s better for me to be alone. That way... that way I don’t have to see them fall. That way I won’t lose anypony again. They’ll be lost, but it’ll be clean, and I won’t have to remember their fall... I won’t need to add them to my journal.

There are too many there already. Despite my memories, I still search for shelter, finding an abandoned warehouse. Not perfect, but it would have to do for now. I bring the others over, most of them looking forward for the chance to rest. Settling in, Vusi takes the first watch as I fly up to the rafters, taking the time to rest, to think... the day had been long and exhausting, more than I realised. So I also take the time to sleep... and to dream.

~~~~~~~~~~

Drip... drip... drip... The sound echoes throughout the darkness, the stillness. I’m alone again... alone in the dark and the cold. Drip... drip... “Hello? Is anypony there?” Silence greets me, even the dripping fading to nothingness. My voice echoes back to me empty and hollow, mocking me. Silent laughter rings from the stillness, not mirthful, but mocking... taunting me for what I am, what I was, what I will be. Do you see this, Nevermore? Do you see around yourself? “I see nothing... emptiness... just... emptiness.” Fitting, is it not, Nevermore? A figure is rising from the liquid spread beneath my hooves. My eyes now confirm what my nose was telling me. Blood... endless blood spreading out from my hooves, staining my coat. I look up at the figure, look up at myself, drenched in blood. You have killed them all... all of them Nevermore. Everypony that was close to you is dead by your hooves, everypony that you cared for was driven to the grave by your actions and inactions. This is your reward... solitude, the curse of the forsaken. I nod my head... who am I to argue with that?

“You nearly killed me... you took my eye.” Star Racer glares at me with her remaining eye, the other socket staining her coat with a river of blood and gore, turning her face into a mask of blood.

“You brought me into your past, you subjected me to your pain.” Zone Control doesn’t look at me, tears of blood mixing with the gore spread between us.

“You nearly killed us all, in your quest.” Frisky Fritter spits, blood matting his coat from where he was cut.

“You abandon me to your hate, letting your past rule you.” Vusi lies on the floor, my knife buried in his chest.

“You bring pain and suffering... reminding us of what we’ve lost.” Tik slumps nearby, covered in needles.

They all turn to me, voices chanting in unison. “Killed us... you’ve killed us all. You’ve broken everything and everyone close to you.” Closing my eyes, I hear other voices join in, knowing what was happening, wishing that it didn’t. “Killed us... killed us all. Even with my eyes closed, I can see the others, all the others. The ones that have fallen in my path. Friends, foes... strangers. All of them, drowning me in blood as I choke and sputter, blood filling my lungs. Yet I don’t die, I never die, I keep coming back, again, and again. And again.

~~~~~~~~~~

I open my eyes, blinking away the sleep, the light having faded into a heavy night. Looking down, I see the others are still awake, lamps lit as they huddle around each other. A few are sleeping, like Fritter and Tik. Others are talking, like Zone and Vusi. Dropping down off the rafters, I land next to Star, who looks up at me from where she’s working on her armor. “Nevermore.” Her tone is tired, as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders. She doesn’t look like she’s slept at all, her one good eye turning back to the armor strewn across the ground. Bits and pieces were torn off, melted lumps of technology. She was stripping the armor down, removing a lot of the internal mechanisms, turning it into a fancy, yet inert, suit of armor.

“Star... are you feeling alright?” The mare gives the barest nod of her head in answer, focused on her helmet. “I was thinking... perhaps...” I hesitate, not wanting to say what I was going to say, not wanting them to leave me... but knowing that they should, that they must. “Perhaps I sh-”

“No, none of that Nevermore.” She looks down at me with her single eye, setting the helmet down. “I don’t blame you for this. If anypony is to blame, it’s the one that pulled the trigger. It’s the ones who caused this whole mess, all the way back to those ponies that destroyed Equestria.” She snorts, picking up her helmet again. “Besides, do I look like a Dashite? I promised to stay with you, and so I will.” She taps her chest. “Loyalty.” Setting down the helmet again, she gives a sigh. “Well... there’s not much left to salvage. The armor plating itself is mostly intact, though the helmet is a lost cause. I tried to save some of the functions, like E.F.S. and S.A.T.S., but... well...” She looks at me, shaking her head. “I know I don’t blame you, neither does Zone. Fritter though... I’d keep an eye on him. He seems... almost unstable. Zone’s the only one that can keep him in control it seems. He listens to her, above the rest of us. If we are to fall, I pray that he goes before she does.” She narrows her eye. “We are going to fall, aren’t we. You know this.”

I nod my head slowly. “Yes... I do. The question is not if, but when. If you left me, you could probably eke out a few more years, even a decade or two... but the Wasteland... the Wasteland consumes all. “I do not know where the others can go, what they can do... but... thank you... Lieutenant...” Not wanting to embarrass myself any further, I give Star some general farewell, intending to head back to the rafters, when I’m stopped again.

“Keep it down... it hurts... it hurts so much.” I turn, looking at Tik, her voice surprisingly quiet... and pained. The mare is curled up, as if holding some inner pain in check. “I need... I need more... where is it?”

Pity holds down my scorn as I look at her. “Just hang in there... Tik...” There’s her bags nearby, syringes sticking out of it like a Med-X dispensary. “What is wrong? Where does it hurt?”

Star trots over, the tall mare shaking her head. “I’ve seen this before... Med-X addiction. It’s not as common... but...” Her tail flicks as she looks at me. “Nothing against you, Tik, but can we trust her Nevermore? We don’t know anything about her... and there’s the issue of the Med-X.”

Shaking my head, I head towards her bags even as Tik gives off a weak whimper. “She helped me, Star, though she did not need to. I do not know what her objectives are, but... it would not have been right to leave her there. When she recovers, she can go off on her own.”

“No... don’t leave me here... all alone again.” I stop, looking back at Tik. “Please... don’t leave me alone...” Her voice is weak, the mare clutching her head. “I... I can s-stop I can... really... just... just don’t leave me.” My initial reaction is to declare her a liability, leaving her behind... but she did help.

With a heavy sigh, I look at the others. Star watches me, and even Zone and Vusi are looking over. Fritter gives a heavy snore as he keeps sleeping. Other than him, the rest are looking to me, waiting for my decision. I’m not a leader, I never want to be one. Yet here they are, looking at me, waiting for me. “Fine... you can do what you will. I cannot stop you.” Tik gives a slight smile, a small thing, before curling back into a small ball. “Rest while we can, I shall take the watch now. We continue on soon.”

~~~~~~~~~~

We’ve traveled for a few days, a few days of rare peace and quiet. I would have preferred to move at night, but it was too treacherous. Some places were mined, ambushes were laid. I felt the loss of Star Racer’s E.F.S. more than ever during those times, cautiously looking around, moving slower than we normally did. This was an inadvertent boon for Tik, the poor mare still in apparent pain... but she did as she promised for now, though I keep catching longing glances at the Med-X that Zone was carrying now. Though it was Tik’s, and she could have it back if she decided to leave us, I didn’t trust her to stay off it unsupervised, though Zone would administer small doses as required. We couldn’t cut her off completely, though I hoped to start reducing her obvious over use. I freeze suddenly, looking around, my companions coming to a stop behind me.

“Nevermore, what’s wrong?” Zone looks around nervously as I grimace.

Something is just... wrong... I can feel it. Perhaps it was because we were near the Dead Zone, but... no. Something else feels wrong. “I do not know... but...” I dive to the side as something catches my eye, tackling Star Racer to the ground as a burst of magic burns through the area she was just standing in. Looking up, I see the alicorn, her shadow having betrayed her presence this time, the barest movement alerting me in time.

Yes, run Nevermore, flee. Your time has come. You shall join all those that you betrayed. You shall suffer at their hooves for all of eternity. Even though she has no distinguishing features, I just know that it’s the same one from before. I know that it’s Pale Rose, somewhere in there. Growling, I hurl a knife at the monster, even as my companions open fire. The shells wash off her shield like a gentle rain, and even Star’s cannons aren’t enough to make the barrier so much as flicker. Amusing... you think that you can stop us like that? We expected more from you, Nevermore.



“Run! Run!” Though I hate to turn tail, sometimes there is no chance to win. Just like now, just like then. We barrel through the streets, taking shots as they open for us... yes something is wrong again. She’s attacking, but she’s projecting her deadly assaults. Also, they lack the full force and fury that I’d come to expect from a member of Unity. No... she had something else in mind.



Another furious blast shatters the wall next to us, sending shards of brick and stone scything through the air. There’s a sharp stinging on my cheek as rotting blood flies back, mixed with ichor. “We cannot keep trying to fight her, but she is driving us forward!” I peek around the corner, awarded another near miss of roiling magic for my efforts. But her stance confirms my suspicions. Rather than bearing down on us, she’s perched on a nearby roof, using the vantage point to barrage us with spells. While effective at making it hard for us to get away, it was also harder for her to land a killing blow.

Hiding again, Nevermore? You are quite good at that... hiding. From yourself, from others. You’re still not willing to face up to others, to accept things. Her voice in my head is beginning to irritate me, though I had to focus on other things, like surviving. While I’d be tempted to make a break for it, away from wherever she was trying to force us, my brief glance caught sight of two more dropping down next to her. A full wing. Indecisive, my hoof is forced as a sky chariot is hurled down the street at us, dust and bricks raining down as it barrels through a building. Wordlessly, I turn and run, seeing my companions do the same. Bracketed by the threat of magical annihilation, we’re driven towards the place I didn’t want to go. Tomb Town is right in front of us, and any attempt to deviate away was met with a furious response. Tomb Town’s grim welcoming committee is something I had seen before, but the terrors behind us let my companions not even blanch as we run past.



Ghouls of various levels of decay and death are affixed to the wall or hung in gibbets, a macabre, partially living, warning of the threats inside. The ghouls were bad enough, feral packs roaming and devouring anything they could, but there were darker rumors of creatures, of death. The infamous Deadmares. I’ve never seen one myself, but I had heard about them. Ferocious monsters that feed on death. Killers without peer. As such, I usually did my absolute best to avoid them. Oddly enough, they provided me some sort of boon. Some ponies may have heard of Canterlot Ghouls, and how dangerous we are, but here in Detrot, they have their own monsters, making the tales of us less intimidating.



As soon as Fritter makes it into Tomb Town, finishing our group, the barrage stops. Looking back, I see the trio of alicorns waiting patiently on the roofs, not making any motion to get closer. Still not liking this, I lead my companions behind a building, out of sight. There’s no reason to risk them not deciding to fire another blast at us. No sooner have we turned the corner, when it seems that reality starts to shift, the edges of my vision blurring as I try to look around. Something is terribly wrong, I feel the world seem to twist and fold on itself. Tomb Town is suddenly gone, leaving nothing but darkness around us. “What foul trickery is this?” I’d never seen something like this before, and its worrisome... but... where are we? Where am I? My thoughts feel slow, slower than normal, as if clogged by whatever is affecting us.



Forcing myself to stay on my hooves, I see something start to resolve itself in the gloom, a spark of light, the crimson hue of a unicorn’s magic. The light expands, revealing a beautiful white unicorn, her scarlet and black mane framing her face perfectly. Strangely, she’s dressed well, a dark tuxedo and matching high socks. Something is wrong... is off. I can’t put my hoof on it, but... my head still feel foggy. She takes a graceful step forward, her demeanor poised, her every action refined. Even her voice is pitched perfectly, a siren call on its own. “Welcome to ze carnival. It is our greatest pleasure to welcome you. I am Madame Meneuse De Ryvolte, and zis is ze Cirque du Destin.” She give a smile, even as something flashes behind her eyes. Carnival? What carnival? There was nothing around us, except... no sooner had that thought filled my mind then the world starts to fill in again, slowly, hazily, as if a dark fog were dissipating. There’s a bonfire in front of us, revealing the inside of a circus tent.



The very air feels wrong... it feels like what happens when I revive, the taint of necromancy, the stench of the forbidden... That thought sticks in my head as I suddenly realize something else. My pristine veil drifts past my eyes, no longer ravaged by time and death. My coat is groomed, no signs of decay lingering. Everything is as it were a century ago. I look back towards my companions as they lie on the floor, their injuries and damage also seemingly healed. Even Star Racer has her eye back. “Be c-” I stop, hesitating. My voice is rich and full, no longer the raspy, grating sound that I had been so accustomed to. No, it’s as it were, and for a brief moment, I feel my heart break, desperately wanting this, needing this, but knowing that it can never be. Shaking my head, I sigh. “Be careful. There is something wrong here.” They stir slightly at my words, but don’t waken, my mind worried, though focused on the mare in front of me.



“Wrong? Non... zere is nothing wrong... zis is ze carnival, anything can happen... it is magic, oui?” The strange mare is still smiling, oozing the charisma of an experienced showmare. Her accent is odd, one that I recognize, but hadn’t heard for a long time. My own accent is starting to assert itself, that of my long lost and beloved Trottingham. I had almost forgotten my homeland, considering how long ago it was. Now I’m homesick as well... the green fields and beautiful countryside of my old home calling to me again. I had never gone back, even when I heard that my father had died. Not since the day I left. Thinking back on it, it was... it would have been too painful to return, even if nopony remembered who I was. No, it was a ghost that I had buried in the past, one better left forgotten. I dare not imagine what it looks like now, after the world ended.



“Yes. Wrong. This is not Detrot, nor is this the Celestia forsaken Wasteland. And... this is just...” As much as I know that something is not right, a part of me wants it to be like this, though my senses are screaming at me, warning me of hidden danger. My companions still have yet to rise, lying on the floor.



“But is zis not what you want?” The mare bats her long lashes at me, knowing, coy. “I can give you anything zat you want, is zat not why you came to ze carnival?”



“What I want is to finish what I started, to finish my time, to pay my penance.” My temper rising, I pull a knife from my dress. Though I am no longer festooned with blades, I always had at least one, even back then. “I do not know what your game is, charlatan, but it ends here.”



“Game? Game? Oui... I do like games, zat is for sure, non?” She smiles, even as the bonfire flares up. “Zen let us play a game... winner takes all.” She starts to fade away even as I lunge at her, my blade hitting nothing but air. “Let us see who is ze winner of zis... game is...” Her laughter echoes around me, coming from every direction at once. Gritting my teeth, I glance around, prepared to get my companions up, no matter what, to force them out of this magical stupor. But they’re gone, they’re all gone. “Ze game is afoot... try to be a good sport about it.” Her infuriating laughter cuts through the air again, but something freezes me in my tracks, my blood running cold in an instant. A cry of pure pain and terror rips through the air, even as I spin to face that direction. I know that voice. Zone Control.

~~~~~~~~~~

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Chapter 14: ... in a Sea of Souls

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Chapter 14: ... in a Sea of Souls

What is reality but the dreams of the lucid?

How will it all end? In smoke, in fire? Perhaps in silence and dearth? A bang or a whimper, it seems that is the way things end these days. The war has been raging for a while, no peaceful deaths. It seems that there are only two ways to face your fate. Proudly, spitting into Thanatos’ eye, daring him to take you while you are still standing. Or to whimper and cower, letting him reap his bloody harvest.

Nice Spice has the meal prepared, possibly the last for some of the crew. Always a special meal, before the eve of battle, knowing that it may be the last. Yet the crew’s morale is high, boisterous dares and proud boasts. Fools... yet brave fools. I take my meal in my quarters, not out of a sense of entitlement, but rather from a desire to be alone. Loneliness... such a thing. It is odd how I can be alone in the midst of a crowd, though the knowledge that there are others there is somehow comforting to me even as I scorn their presence.

Yet these are the ones who stand with me, fight with me, die with me. Doing something that I had forsaken from my past, trusting others. Yet I worry for them, I worry for him. He leads us, but by that stroke, some are affected by him as well. The feel his rage, his bloodlust, his need for vengeance. And it feeds back to him as well. I shall take the trust that they have given me, and shatter it, breaking it that I may forge it into a weapon to save those closest to me, even at the cost of others.

My Captain... I feel the need to apologize, so I shall. But I shall keep it unspoken, written only in my journal. Then I shall do what I need to. I shall take my stand to stare death in the eye, one last time... and do what I can to take him with me.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

I find myself running through the carnival grounds, hooves pounding on the hard earth. Piercing screams still cut through the air, though I’m getting closer, ever closer. My heart pounds in my chest, sweat falling off my brow. It’s an odd feeling, really, the feeling of being alive. Everything just felt... different somehow. I’d take a moment to revel in it, to enjoy more than the dulled sensations that had consumed the past century, but there’s no time. Even now, the screams tear at me. Even now, I fear I’m too late.

The tent looms in front of me, mirrors lining the sides. I do detest carnivals. They were always frivolous, pointless... and when I’m honest with myself, creepy. The mirrors distort my appearance, the dark mare in the reflection twisted by the mirror’s surface. The screams stop, leaving me to wonder if I’m too late, even as the sound of my own heart fills my ears. No longer distracted by the screams, I come to a sharp realization. The reflections in the mirror aren’t me. While it is true that they look like me... they don’t move like I do. Superficially they do, but they lack the fluid grace of a veteran combatant. No... it looks like they’re merely pantomiming my actions, jerked along like marionettes on strings. Even as I realize this, a knife comes flying out of the mirror, hurled by the reflection. Slipping to the side, I catch the handle with my teeth, even as a dozen hooves step out from mirrors. Snarling my anger, I take a deep breath, biting down on my temper, falling back to long training. Calm... precise... poised. This is how I fought. Not for me the frenzied berserker, crushing anything in its path. No... I am an assassin, a duelist. While some ponies may throw a couch at another during combat, I lack the strength and ineptitude to resort to such tactics. No... my path lies in cold precision.

My first clone slashes with her knife, an arching blow, too easily telegraphed. It makes me realize that while they look like me, they are definitely not me at all. With barely hidden disdain, I lean to the side, feeling the blade whistle past. Giving me the opportunity that I was seeking. My stolen blade finds flesh, biting deep into her neck. A savage twist tears out most of her throat, even as blinding pain flares in my neck. Gasping, I reach up, expecting to feel a bloody mess even as the other falls to the ground, shattering into a shards. Nothing... no blood, just pain. Biting down harder on the knife, I ignore the screams from the shards of glass on the floor, fighting against the pain. I feel a knife slipping into my gut even as I disembowel another of them, but again, no blood, just pain. “You think this will stop me... you think I cannot endure this?” Howling, I lash at the others, feeling blades nicking at my hide even as I dodge and weave. Their strikes expose them, their actions those of amateurs. They lack the conviction, they lack my murderous intent. Pain blinds me, slows me, cripples my movements. But I fight on, I struggle on. I refuse to submit, refuse to acknowledge defeat. I drop to my knees, panting heavily, amidst the shards of glass, even as the last one falls. Blood flows freely from a multitude of cuts, dripping into my eyes, staining my coat. “I will not... fall. I cannot... fall.” I stagger my way into the tent mouth, my body begging me to rest, to collapse and lie still for a moment, a minute, an hour, an year. Duty drives me on, ever further. I can endure, I must endure. Others need me. Zone needs me. Once I have finally finished atoning, then I will have earned my rest. Then and only then.

Darkness envelops me, not a shred of light anywhere to be seen. “Zone? Where are you? Are you in here?” I’m pretty sure that this was where her voice was coming from, though I can’t see anything around me. The bonfire in the center of the tent flares to life, revealing the mare from before, the beautiful one... yet now she is surrounded by dolls. Ignoring them, I close on her, until I realize something... the doll closest to me moved. A wordless hiss comes from it, a silent moan. A wave of horror and disgust fills me as I realize that its alive. Eyes replaced by buttons, flesh stitched back together, the poor mare can only squirm, loose and limp, bones torn from her body, now used to fuel the fire in the room. The white mare, Ryvolte, holds a needle in her crimson magic, thread trailing off the end as she sews a pony’s mouth shut. Blood splatters her coat, staining her outfit. Calm and poised, she finishes her grisly work even as she watches me.

“What is ze matter? Are zey not beautiful?” She smiles seductively, her voice pitched perfectly, offering everything, promising nothing. “I told you zat ze carnival is magic, non? Why are you so surprised?” She drops the stallion she was working on, letting him collapse into a limp pile, even as his eyes are wide and begging. Begging for mercy, for salvation. For death. “I must say, mon cher, zat you have a beautiful coat. It is not often zat I see a pony with a darkness like yours... non... most are more colorful... but not so with you.” She gracefully steps closer to me, even as I tense, wiping the blood from my eyes. “You shall be... très magnifique in my collection.”

There’s a stinging pain in my forehoof, even as my leg gives out. Cursing myself, I realize that I had lost track of her needle, distracted by her voice. I see the thread leading out of my leg, her magic crippling the limb, though the pain was more than I’d expect from such a small wound. My knife flashes down, catching itself on the thread. Despite its frail appearance, the thread refuses to break, biting into my dagger instead as it pulls taut. The enchanted thread pulls at my leg, drawing me closer to her. A fly caught in a spider’s web. She smiles, seeing me caught, seeing me snared in her embrace. Biting down hard on the handle of the knife, I brace myself mentally, even as my knife takes a shining arch. Blood flies through the air, splattering my dress, adding to the blood on her coat. My leg goes flying through the air, severed by my blade, wings keeping me upright as I hover above the ground. “Not... that... easily...” The pain is immense, the blood flowing freely from the severed limb, still caught in her thread. “Do not presume... that I will fall here... witch.”

She casually tosses my discarded limb away, raising an eyebrow curiously. “Zat was unfortunate... it would have been a lot easier if you just accepted your fate, non?” She licks her lips cleaning the flecks of blood on her face. “But if you won’t come quietly, zen I just have to force ze issue, oui?” Her magical thread dances out, even as the puppets start to rise, animated by her magic. Their moans and cries fill the air, even as they amble towards me, puppets dancing on her strings. My blade flashes, again and again, but the wounds are superficial, the threads and my weakness preventing any serious harm. The loss of blood is getting to me, staggering me, weakening me. My vision swims dully, even as I fight to stay conscious, my body screaming again to rest, to give in, to lie down and die. This kindles my anger even more, the thought that any part of me wanted to surrender. I don’t give in, I don’t surrender. I fight until I have nothing left to give. This ferocity served me well in the war, serves me well now. With a fury born of desperation, I lunge with the knife, aiming for her eyes with the strike. A moment of triumph as she doesn’t move in time... then the blade merely passes through her.

The unicorn laughs as I pass through her frame, mocking my attempt to injure her. Twisting around, I’m forced on the defensive again as more needles slide through the air, weaving a deadly pattern. Desperately, I dive for the ground, even as her magic follows me. Throwing my wings in front of me, I use them as a barrier, rolling across the ground, nearly tipping over from the loss of my limb. Panting heavily, I’m painfully aware of more areas of stinging pain. Her needles had caught me, their magical threads beginning to reel me in... Gnashing and thrashing, I can’t manage to snap the threads, being drawn inexorably closer, painfully closer. Loss of blood and injuries finally catch up, my body not as sturdy as it used to be, as it should be. That thought crosses my mind, even as the world begins to fade to black...

~~~~~~~~~~

“Tell me, Nevermore, who are you?” The voice echoes from around me, strange yet hauntingly familiar.

I scoff, my dress sweeping back behind me, looking around my cabin. My cabin, aboard the Flickerjack, airship of the Skyrates. I see my journal on the desk, locked with magic and bound with chains. I did not like to have others going through my thoughts. The journal has a simple leather shell, the pages lovingly cared for, the black leather trimmed with silver. It was a gift, actually, one that I did not mind accepting. Of course, I would never let him know that I was secretly pleased by it. The fool of a Captain required us to gift others on the crew, and to keep our identity secret. For my part, I don’t even remember who I was giving something to, just that I had found socks... and I think some broccoli. Minor G. Symphony, the ship’s musician, tried to be subtle, but was not successful. I had known of his interest in me for a while, and chose to scorn it. Truth be told, I did not particularly like him, finding his attentions to be irritating. Some might fear scorning a pony for so long, but he knew that if he tried anything, he would be lucky if I only knifed him.

Why I caught his fancy, I don’t believe I’ll ever know. Perhaps my demeanor, or my dress. Possibly the knowledge that I was never to be his, out of reach. Truth be told, I did not suffer the attentions of others easily, my heart hardened by hatred and betrayal. That did not stop him from trying though, to woo the unreachable Nevermore. Now that I think about it, perhaps he did not have the courage to approach me directly, taking my rejections in stride, treating it as a game...

I step over to my journal, slipping the silvered key from the front of my dress, undoing the lock. Next, the magical lock. The spell was relatively complicated, requiring both a match to my voice and a particular phrase, depending on the day. “Sundered Oath.” The cover opens, leading to the last entry. My heart stops as I read the words on the page... no... I didn’t want to remember this.

~~~~~~~~~~

“I do not know what he was trying to do there. To show forgiveness? To taunt me further? If the former, I do not deserve it. I am the reason he has suffered so, so I must suffer my penance in return. There are others out there, more deserving of happiness than I. I am the one who betrayed him. I am the one who cost him. I do not deserve forgiveness. If the latter, it reveals a cruelness that I do not believe exists in him. An idiot? Yes. Cruel? I do not believe so. Cruelty is for ponies like me.”

It was soon after my betrayal, a long flight back, one borne in awkward silence. He didn’t say anything to the rest of the crew. He didn’t have it. I could feel it in their eyes, their silent stares, weighing me, judging me, finding me lacking. Nessy was the only one to approach me, my dress spattered in blood, both mine... and his. The quiet mare just took me down to my cabin, saying not a word, leaving me on the bed. Time passed... how much I’m not sure. They took care of me, tended my wounds, but there was a tension in the air, even more than I was used to.

Then he showed up. The fool, the idiot... the Captain. He acted as if nothing happened, acted as if everything is as it were. Talking to me, even as I looked away in silence. Smiling at me, as if nothing were wrong. He kissed me, a gentle thing on my cheek even as I turned away. Why was he here? Why was he tormenting me. An idiot, but one that I had admired. There was something about him, something that drew me... yet it was something that I could never act on. I could never replace his wife, would never wish to try. No, I was Nevermore, the pariah, the outcast... the hated. He leaves my cabin, leaving more questions, more pain than when he had arrived. Why had he come? No... it was not for me to know, I could not know, I did not want to know then, and I do not want to know now. It’s too painful still.

Yes... it is time for me to leave, no use in staying on this ship, the broken Nevermore, betrayer of all, killer of all. Preparations are swift, gathering my meager possessions, making sure to tuck my journal away safely. It was not for them to read, especially the Captain... The deck is mostly empty, the moon clear and bright. This was the best way, to disappear, fall out of their lives as abruptly as I had fallen into it. It pains me, in some ways, to not say goodbye to Nessy... though I’m not certain that she would even want to see me now, not after everything I’ve done. I stand on the railing, looking down on Equestria sailing past. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath... before I hear a voice.

“What are you doing, Nevermore?” Minor’s voice breaks the magic, the silence. Ending my attempt to leave unnoticed.

“What does it matter to you.” My heart is still in turmoil, my mood dark. I lash at him with my tone, a barbed whip to tear into him.

He backs up slightly from my harsh tone. “I... I just saw... you and I was thinking...” He screws his eyes shut, blurting out his next words. “You don’t need to go, you can stay here with me! Um... us!”

Though I find no humor in his statement, and I do not mean to be cruel, my voice barks out a harsh laugh. “Stay here with you? Do not be a fool.” I see him crushed by my words, his heart bleeding by the verbal daggers I had thrown. I could tell him that’s not what I meant, that I could not bear to be here with my sins, my guilt... but no, I lash out more, pouring my pain on one who is undeserving of my wrath. “There is nothing here for me, nothing that I would want. Go away and leave me alone, you foul the air with your company.”

He opens his mouth to say something, reaching a hoof out to me, even as I fall off the railing, the wind stealing his parting words to me. I care not. My wings open, arresting my fall, settling me gently onto the ground, even as the Flickerjack continues on without me. I watch the ship fly, I watch it fade... and I cry. In the darkness of the night, in the silence of my guilt, I finally break down, and I finally cry.

~~~~~~~~~~

My eyes open again, the pages of my journal spread out before me on my desk. My gaze flicks up to the mirror on the back, my form wavering between my dark beauty from before and the decay of now, as if deciding what to wear.

“I am Nevermore... betrayer and betrayed. Murderer and murdered. I am death, even as I am dead.” I lean up against the mirror, seeing the decaying ghoul in front of me, her mask keeping her curse contained. “That is what I am... that is who I am. I am Nevermore, and I survive.”

The mirror shatters, shards of glass flying past me... and I smile.

~~~~~~~~~~

I wake up, blinking in the light of a bonfire. The mare is above me, Ryvolte, beauty, terror, monster. There’s a burning pain in my leg as she uses a knife, my knife, to carve the flesh, cutting past muscle, exposing the bone, the pain is immense, but yet I smile. I found the key, the lock. “Why do you smile like zat? Have you accepted your fate?” Her voice sounds confused, even as she draws my knife back for another cut.

I respond by lifting my hoof up to my face, tugging where I know that my mask will be, even though I can’t feel it. Her eyes widen, confirming my suspicions, even as she drives the dagger deep into my chest. “Your... mistake.” Exhaling harshly, I see nothing at first, but then the pink begins to spread washing away the illusion with it, even as she screams from the toxic cloud. I keep my breath on her, washing her with Pink Cloud until the illusion fades away completely, leaving me suspended from the ceiling with steel wires digging into my flesh. I’m surrounded by macabre examples of her craft, poor souls stitched together and rotting, hanging like marionettes. I pull on the rusting wires, finally feeling one give, then another, each snapping with torturous slowness. The object of my hatred lies below me, the Illusionist, the mare. I fall heavily to the ground next to her, even as she wheezes from the cloud that I had spewed at her.

She’s as beautiful as she was in the illusion, though dirtier, dustier, covered with the grime of the wasteland. “How did... how did you know? None of ze others knew...” She pulls herself to her hooves, even as I force myself up as well.

“You should... have left me... alone.” My voice is harsh and grating, ruined by time, death, and years without use. “That was your... mistake.” Restoring me to as I was... it was the little bit that reminded me that none of this was real, that all of it was her twisted game. Using the last of my strength, I lunge for her again, my knife going for her throat. To my surprise and irritation, it passes through, the mare fading from sight.

“I see... I shall keep zat in mind, though I doubt that we shall meet again, oui?” Her laughter haunts me even as I collapse back down to my knees. I need to look for the others, I need to make sure they’re fine. My injuries are severe, my body wracked with pain... perhaps I will rest, just for... just for a moment.

~~~~~~~~~~

A camera nearby blinks to like, panning around, ancient systems coming back to life, albeit temporarily, recording the surroundings for its distant viewer. “Are you sure that we should allow her to continue? Is she not a threat to us?”

“Yes, she is a threat, but also the answer. Feed her on despair, crush her hopes. Let her nature taint him, dark and evil... for he must be woken, but she will stain his soul.”

~~~~~~~~~~

I groggily pull myself up to my hooves, using a little bit of magic as a boost. “What just happened? Where are we?” I look around, seeing bodies on the ground. Just a few short weeks before, such a sight would have been horrifying, causing me to void the contents of my stomach. Now though? I’m almost used to it. The smell was still stomach churningly bad, but the sight itself was almost normal. I see Star pulling herself to her hooves as well, the tall mare shaking her head as if to clear it. It felt like there were cobwebs in my head as well, even as I try to blink them away.

“We were running... then...” Star looks around. “Zone, I don’t see Nevermore.” She doesn’t sound worried, at least not yet. I think we’ve all accepted that she’s quite tough... probably going to outlast the rest of us. A sobering thought, really, how old she is, how much she must have seen. What are we to her really? How does a pony open up to those that she knows will die and leave her alone for uncounted years ahead? I shudder at the thought. The rest of us seem to be recovered, even Tik, the mare still complaining quietly about many things, mostly her head.

“There was... some sort of magic. I can still feel it lingering. But...” Bodies are strung from the ceiling, and I avoid taking too close of a look at them... was this some sort of raider den, or...? Regardless, I wouldn’t want to stay here too long. Find Nevermore and get out, assuming that she was still in the area, of course.

“I think this is her... or what’s left at least...” Vusi’s voice calls out, standing over a crumpled pile of cloth and pony. Rusted wires are run through her flesh, stained with blood and time. He pulls a jar from his bags, the metal container clinking against its companions.

“No. I will not... permit it.” Apparently, she wasn’t quite as down as we all thought she was, though she looked absolutely terrible. She hisses at Vusi as he gets closer, even taking a snap with her jaws. I don’t think she’s trying to eat him... just... scare him off or something.

“None of that, you sit there and take your medicine like a good girl. It’s not going to hurt you, so don’t worry.” Vusi unscrews the cap, revealing some sort of goopy paste.

“No... I will not permit you... to use that on me...” She uses her wings to force herself back slightly, and to shield herself from him. “Keep your vile... zebra concoctions to yourself... I do not need them...” There’s a venom in her voice that even her pain can’t hide.

Star steps between the two, even as Vusi prepares to retort. “She doesn’t want it, no reason to force her.” She doesn’t say anything, lifting the wounded Nevermore onto her back like a sack of rotting potatoes. “But we still need to get out of here.” Nevermore looks like she’s about to say something, but a harsh glare from Star stops the words before they begin. “And you’re in no condition like that. We’re leaving.” Nevermore slumps back down across her back, her eyes closing, even as she dreams... and remembers.

~~~~~~~~~~

Sergeant Lighthoof looks at the pegasus warily. He remembers her, from before. The vicious mare that had killed that zebra, her cold heart making me very grateful that she was on their side. The sight of her still caused him to shiver, her gaze filling him with dread. His commanding officer, Captain Wine Vine didn’t seem particularly impressed with her though. Then again, the captain was a political appointee, and this was to be his first taste of combat... he hadn’t seen death before, and thus did not recognize her. “Listen Missy, this is a place for soldiers. I don’t know what sort of game you’re playing with all your dress up, but why don’t you turn your little tail around and scamper off back home. This is a job for the real fighters, not you glory hounds.” The mare called Nevermore seems to ignore him, staring off into the distance. A pot of tea is next to her, even as she sips from a cup. “Did you hear me you floozy? Get your behind out of my camp! We don’t need you.”

She settles the cup down with a click, even as she turns to slash at him with her eyes, though her tone remains calm, and enchanting in its rich tones. “I do hope, for your sake, that you did not just insult me.” Her eyes narrow, her demeanor that of dignified disgust. “After all, the vast majority of your little band here has yet to see any combat, including yourself, I might add.”

“Listen here, missy, I have a rank, and you better start using it!” His tone is angry now, his ego hurt by her defiance and disregard for his station.

“Or what? You will complain to your betters? I only have one captain, and you are not him.” She snorts. “Or did you think that we have nothing else to do than to foalsit some moron who cannot even draw up a proper battle line.” She stands abruptly, the cushion she was on getting kicked back and out of the way. She rudely cuts him off as he opens his mouth. “I suggest you get your things in order. Time is of the essence.”

“Why are we out here anyways? We rushed out here just to wait around in this forsaken desert.” He starts to complain, even as she turns from him, her veil blowing in the wind.

“Because there was nopony else.” She opens her wings, taking to the sky even as the sound of drums begin to fill the air. “Because we are expendable.”

The battle was fierce and bloody, the ponies holding bravely despite their inexperience. Fighting was sporadic at first, but quickly grew in intensity, becoming a raging firestorm of combat and death. Lighthoof stood in the middle of it, fighting as best he can. His radio was switched off, no longer receiving orders from Captain Vine. Most of the line had done that now, at least those who were still alive. The zebras had launched a surprise thrust into the heart of the pony lines, aiming for a decapitation strike on the leadership. Part of Lighthoof’s heart hoped that they had succeeded. Captain Vine had panicked at the assault, bellowing for any unit, for all units, to come back and defend the camp, and him, no matter the cost. Several units had done just that, breaking the lines in a mad dash back. They had paid dearly for the attempt. Not just them, but those that they left behind as well. Confusion reigned as his orders started to make less and less sense, screaming, cursing, crying in sheer panic. Unit commanders started just doing their own thing, fighting as best they can. Eventually, the sound of fighting began to die off. How many were dead? How many were alive? Was it worth the cost? His own squad was nearly wiped out. Only he and Private Daisy were left, though the mare was missing a large part of her face from a nearly fatal shot. He still didn’t quite know how she wasn’t dead yet.

The two of them stagger into the camp, bodies lying everywhere. “Ninety percent casualties... you sustained ninety percent casualties.” Nevermore’s voice is low and dangerous. Not for her angry yelling, as her voice is utterly devoid of emotion, but rather calm ruthlessness.

“But we won, that’s what matters... the package is safe, and is being delivered.” Captain Vine seems to be almost smug now, since the battle had ended. His uniform was still neatly pressed, and though there was some blood on him, it looked like he had stepped in it, rather than actually fought. Lighthoof’s stomach roils in disgust, looking at where Private Daisy was getting her head wrapped up, the Ministry of Peace nurses trying desperately to patch her up though it is probably far too late. He’s about to say something to the captain, even if it’s foolish, but he’s stopped by the sinister snick of a blade.

“It would have been a lot lower... if you actually kept command. If you did not panic. If you did not order ponies to abandon the line.” Her voice drips venom as she stands there, a hoof tucked into her dress. “Your soldiers won despite you... not because of you.” She has a dour expression on her face, one slowly turning into a smile. “I do believe... that the assassins may have been successful after all.”

“What are you talking about? They were all stopped!” His eyes widen as he finally realizes what she means. “You wouldn’t... you couldn’t! Do you know who I am? Do you know who my mother is?” He backs up slightly, nearly falling over in his panic. Even as he turns to run, its too late, a dagger lodged into the side of his neck.

“You are dead... and your mother needs to bury a fool.” She twists the knife, eliciting a tortured gasp. “You are a shame to the officers of the Equestrian Army.” She yanks the blade out savagely, taking a large chunk of flesh with the blade as he slips to the ground, gurgling his last breath.

Lighthoof looks at the mare aghast, even as she beings to clean her blade on the fallen captain’s coat. “You... you killed him... is it because he insulted you earlier?”

“I killed him for incompetence. His insults only meant that I could enjoy it more.” She slips the blade back into her dress. “He got too many ponies killed, for too little gain. I despise waste.”

“You wanted... to save lives?” He looks at her, surprised... she didn’t seem like the sort, to be honest.

“No. You are all expendable. We all are.” She looks off into the dying sun, expressionless. “Lives to be spent for temporary gains... until we are naught but dust and ashes, corpses strewn beneath an unforgiving sky."

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to level 10!

New Perk: Finesse - You’re skilled and fast, able to land a blow where it hurts. You gain +5% chance to score a critical hit on a foe.

New Trait: Pragmatic - You’re willing to do what’s needed, no matter the cost to yourself or others. You don’t dwell much on what might have been or what will be, but rather on what is.

Chapter 15: Line Up the Pieces...

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Chapter 15: Line Up the Pieces...

Grab a new partner, here we go!

What sort of nonsense did these idiots come up with? A formal dance? A ball? Do they not know that there is a war going on? Bah... if they realized the horrors that are out there, would they truly be celebrating now? Perhaps... perhaps they do... and this is their way to escape it. Foolishness. Ponies do what they can to escape reality, escape the truths. They cower and hide from it, even as they hide behind their masks and their finery... No, these nobles, these ‘leaders’ of Equestria. Do they know war? Do they know fear? Do they know terror? Actually... there is one that I believe does... the one called ‘Goldenblood’. There is something about him that sets me on edge. Something about him that I... dare I say... fear? He will bear watching, especially since he seems to be getting closer to the Captain. It is just my suspicions for now. I will not tell anypony. They all already know my general distaste for others. I will watch, and listen. And if he does anything, I will break him.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

Stand up. Stand up. Stand up, stand up, stand up! No... it was too late for that now. I was finally beaten, finally tired. The decades of conflict and war have finally driven me to my knees. What did it matter anyways? Who cared if I feel here, if we all fell here. I was just so tired. Tired of it all. The years have worn at me, dragged at me, torn at me. My body was broken, my mind weary. I drop down again, not willing to stand again, destroyed by my stubborn pride and foolishness. My path had finally ended, and it ends forgotten, amidst the ruins and destruction of the wasteland. Tomb Town would be where my story ends.

But perhaps I should go back to where this started...

~~~~~~~~~~

I came to, greeted by a familiar rhythm. The familiar rhythm of a pony’s step. In this case, however, it wasn’t mine. “Star... put me down. I can walk.” My voice is hoarser than normal, and my body screams with pain from my earlier travails in the illusionist’s web. Yet my stubborn pride refuses to be let me be carried about, a burden for those around me. Despite her protests, I drop to the ground, my legs nearly buckling from the pain. There’s a sudden sharp pain in my neck that’s quickly deadened by the drugs, though my ghoulish body resists the effects of the Med-X as best it can. Zone shoves two more needles into me in response, under the direction of Tik.

“Ya see? Ghoulies tend to be rather resistant to drugs and other similar things.” The mare shakes her dyed mane, a smile on her voice as she seems rather chipper now. A few discarded syringes of Med-X show me why. “Learned that one from an old fellow. They need a lot, the sort that would flat out kill a normal pony.”

My voice grates out, even as I shoot her an irritated look. “Thanks for sharing your knowledge of illicit substances.” As much as I hate to admit it though, I do feel better now, at least a little bit as the painkillers flood through my body.

“Sure, always glad to help! Now... I think he said it was triple dosage, or something like that, though I’m not entirely sure about that. After all, I haven’t had the chance to...” She starts to chatter at us, and Zone seems to be paying rapt attention. Me? I’ve heard almost all of it before, and the theories of some of the ponies really wasn’t that fascinating to me. Especially since a lot of them were wrong. Especially that group. Eternites? Eternals? Something like that. Some believers in something called an eternal herd.

Personally, I found them to be rather annoying, as their acolytes seemed to be fascinated by me, rather than terrified. While not a bad thing in and of itself, they also possess the infernal desire to talk to me at the same time. Perhaps that would be a place to recover, at their temple. They’ve always welcomed me, and I would be willing to endure their friendliness for shelter, especially for my companions. My plans are cut short as my ears hear a faint rumbling.

“Watch out... seek cover, now!” My companions scramble to obey, even as the wall starts to crumble in front of us. Despite us being in Tomb Town, I can’t bring myself to order fire upon the spot. While I have no compunction against killing, I am also not a wanton murderer. I must have a reason to slay, even if others do not find it valid. Of course, that doesn’t stop the wall from collapsing finally, revealing a massive pony, her red armor shimmering with built up heat as the rotating barrels of her energy cannons spin down. “Bishop.”

The mechanical mare turns to look at me, her gaze as lifeless and piercing as it was from before. <Nevermore. It seems that you did not understand my demands.>

Narrowing my eyes, I look at her. “What do you mean? We have no more business together.” I feel my senses sharpen, screaming danger at me. Apparently, something was very wrong here, and I was planning to blame Head Case for this one.

There’s a dull rasping noise that comes from her, and I realize that she’s laughing at me. <Come now... I am not a fool. You planned with Head Case to deceive us. Do you think you would get away with it?> Her metallic voice drowns out my protests and my curses. Why did things never seem to work out properly for me? Banish my luck to Luna’s frozen moon. <I know now that you were looking for this.> She holds up a black box, a simple thing, yet there was something... wrong about it. It was a small thing, yet I could feel its import. <Head Case failed to hide it from us.>

This is what Head Case wanted from here. I grind my teeth in irritation, knowing that even now he’s playing the puppeteer, forcing us to dance to his tune. He would pay, but not now. But definitely later. I look at my companions, seeing them react in different ways. Star with quiet resolution. Zone with nervous courage. Fritter with loss of bladder control. I tense slightly, looking at the mare standing there. We need that box.

~~~~~~~~~~

Nevermore tenses slightly, and I see what she’s about to do. The ghoul dives at the box, even as I drop a barrier in front of us, trying to buy some time to find cover. Star Racer starts shouting orders, directing us to cover even as Bishop’s weapons glow. Her rapid fire weapon hammers into my shield, bursting against it in flaming shards. I grunt and strain, screwing my eyes shut against the ferocious assault. Barriers and shields were my talent, even my name. Zone Control. This was more than I could handle. My barrier only holds for a second, maybe two, before they are shattered, breaking my magical defenses, battering them aside. The searing energy brushes past me, bits of my tail evaporating into ash as I dive behind some rubble. I bring my shotgun up, knowing how painfully short on ammunition we’re getting. We haven’t had a chance to fully rearm, relying on what salvage and scraps we can scavenge from the Wasteland, but it wasn’t enough. Never enough. All our supplies were low. I pray to the Princesses that Nevermore knows where we can find more before its too late.

My shotgun booms, the poor weapon clacking, desperately in need of an overhaul as well. I maintain our weapons and barding as best I can, but without parts, its a losing effort. Except Nevermore’s gear. She doesn’t let me touch her knives, and I’ve never seen her without her dress on. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, I know its armored, but it can’t be comfortable, and is marred with time and blood. The pellets hit into Bishop, but she doesn’t even move, the shot glancing off her armored plate. Chances are, I probably hit Nevermore with more ricochet than hurt the monster. Fritter’s pistol chatters away, bouncing more rounds off of her. It was like hitting a Stable door with a sack of flowers, and about as effective. Loading solid slugs into my shotgun, I keep firing, even as Nevermore rolls across the ground, praying that we could stop Bishop. Or at least slow her down.

~~~~~~~~~~

Bishop’s hoof slices past my head, even as I weave to the side. There’s a burst of pain as the steel hoof nicks my ear, sending a spurt of blood and ichor spurting out. I see my target, wrapping the box with my hooves, tucking it against my chest as I roll across the floor. Pellets and bullets cut into me, some caught by my armored dress, more finding purchase on my decaying flesh. I know its not likely to kill me, but it still hurts. Stifling my irritation at my companion’s wayward aim, I quickly try to gauge the situation. All of the small rounds seem to be glancing off Bishop’s armor plating, and her ferocious rate of fire is keeping Star’s heavier weapons out of the fight. Tik’s rifle booms, the heavier slug staggering Bishop slightly, causing her to miss lashing out at me as I roll to my hooves, the black box clenched in my teeth. There’s a moment of silence, stillness as Bishop pulls herself back up to her full height. The wind whistles through the Dead Zone, stirring the dust and debris of a dead civilization as my eyes meet her. Cold, dead eyes against her mechanical stare, locked in a frozen moment in time..

That moment is shattered as we begin to scatter and flee. Bishop lets out a piercing sound, a brief burst of noise. As she does so, more figures are visible, the pony-sized ones from before, moving to cut us off. Not blessed with the same level of gear that Bishop has, the others, the Pawns, begin to fire on us, though they lack the coordination or aim of the much larger Bishop. To my gratification, Zone’s shot hammers one of them to the ground, the pawn smoking and sparking as it falls, and more importantly, not getting back up. There’s the smell of burnt ozone filling the air, even as we start getting pushed back. While not very tough, there were a lot of them, threatening to overwhelm us with sheer numbers. I may not be Star Racer, but I know a bad situation when I see it. The Pawns are pinning us down, even as Bishop repositions to bring her heavier weaponry to bear. This is unwinnable. I slip the box into my dress as I mutter. “Cannot stay on the ground...” I spare a glance at my companions, most of them bound to the earth. “Cannot take to the skies...” Grimacing, I turn to yell at Tik. “Grenades, grenades! Right there!” I point my hoof at a crack on the ground, seeing what I was looking for.

“Ya got it! INCOMING!” She cackles maniacally, a spread of explosives flying from the mare, clutched in her telekinetic field. I always appreciated somepony who knows what they’re doing. It’s almost an art at times. Fire blossoms from the metal apples, sowing shrapnel and death, cutting down several of the pawns too close to the blast, though they weren’t the target. The grenades themselves weren’t enough to damage the floor really, but I directed her barrage at what I had seen in the cracks. The grenades finish shattering the fuel lines running through the floor, even as I yell for my companions to brace themselves. Most of the fuel was drained and emptied, but enough remained, a fireball erupting from the floor, even as the ground collapses beneath us. Smoke and fire fill the air, ash choking us as we fall into darkness.

~~~~~~~~~~

“You will fail, Nevermore. You will fail, and they will all die.” That voice. I know that voice. I paw at the darkness surrounding me struggling in its smothering embrace. My eyes crack open, stung by the sudden light, as I am surrounded by a hellish landscape. Bodies are piled up in front of me, a throne standing upon it, a dark and somber thing, dully reflecting the light from the fires burning around me. Upon the throne rests the owner of the voice, indolently leaning against the back. A top hat was set upon its skull, the shattered end of a horn sticking out with jagged edges between the ragged remains of a bright red mane. The rest of the nightmarish figure is garbed in a tattered jacket, the shattered remnants of powered gauntlets covering his front hooves, clasping a bloodied sword in its mechanical grip, the tip digging into the body below.. This time, I don’t look away, this time I don’t avert my eyes from my sins.

“Captain.” My voice almost catches, but I force it to remain calm, carefully stepping past a stream of blood flowing from the macabre monument even as trepidation gnaws at my heart.

“Well well... it seems that you’ve either given in, or you’ve come to accept things as they are. Which is it, dear Nevermore.” His voice is biting and cruel, a knife slicing into my heart.

I smother the pain with force of will, biting back my own retort. “I do what I need to. I survive, as I always have.” My eyes look up, cold and hard. “And while you are him... you are not as well. I recognize you though.”

“You would, Nevermore. I am his rage, his viciousness, his hate. And you know who he hated more than anypony? More than the zebras that took his family from him? You. You Nevermore. You who betrayed him. You who broke him. You who stole his vengeance with your own hooves.” His ghastly voice echoes in hollow laughter, his hollow skull gnashing the words out from a broken jaw. “Know that he died, cursing your name.”

I shake my head slowly, my own voice rasping out against the mad laughter surrounding me. “No... you are the corruption that was eating him, that was eating the heart of the crew. I am not so foolish to have not noticed it before. You know I saw it. You know others did too. He changed... and you are what he would have been, if I had not sinned against him. If I did not betray the Captain. Betray Nessy. Betray the crew.” I start to approach him, my hooves pressing against the bodies as I climb. Zebras... so many zebras. Young, old... didn’t matter. We had fought, we had killed. We had slaughtered. “You do not have his nobility, his naivety... his idiocy.” I shake my head. “War changed us, all of us. But you could not be allowed to live.”

He starts to crumble to dust, his voice still haunting the back of my mind. “Know this Nevermore. You’ll kill them. All of them. There is no place for a pony as tainted as yourself in this world.” His voice starts to fade, even as his body disintegrates. “Murderer. Killer. Traitor.”

“I know this... and I accept it. I am Nevermore, despised, hated, loathed. And that is how I shall die as well.” I look around the blasted area, surrounded by the bodies of the slain, my heart broken by looking at my sins, my sorrow, my pain. “Alone.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Groggily, I pull myself back up to my hooves, dust filling the air, my older injuries flaring with pain, coupled with new injuries from the fall. A pegasus hurting herself falling? How ridiculous. Collapsing the floor was probably not my best plan, but hopefully we managed to escape for now. My mind echoed with with the haunting pain of my memories. Captain. I wasn’t about to believe that this was enough to kill Bishop, but perhaps it would slow her down. If I was really lucky, she might think we were dead. I feel the box in my dress, such a small thing, to have caused so much trouble. I cough, peering through the air as best I can. “Everypony alive?” I hear several coughs, a couple voices, though... there’s one that I didn’t hear. “Zone? Where are you Zone?” I’m answered by a sound, a dull plopping noise coupled with a low wheeze. My eyes follow the drops of blood up, dread welling in me even as Fritter gives off a heart tearing scream. Zone hangs above us, transfixed upon some of the steel rods that were reinforcing the concrete flooring. Flooring that I had just destroyed. Blood leaks from several wounds, her breath slow and shallow, obviously pained.

“How are we supposed to get her down?”

“Well, we can’t just *leave* her there...”

“I don’t think I have the magic to lift her off...”

“Z-Zone! N-no! Don’t leave me! Ya can’t leave me!”

The voice was right. It always was. I’ll kill them all, one at a time, they’ll just disappear again. Markers on the trail to destruction. They chatter to each other a bit, several trying frantically to lift her off, others just panicking or crying. I can’t do this. Not any more. It would be better for everyone if I just gave in, just died. Left my corpse to rot and decay in this forsaken hell hole. How many would need to die for my vanity? For my pride? Atonement... redemption? What was I thinking. Star Racer starts to bark at the others, trying to settle them down, but to no effect. I feel myself collapsing, the weight of the Wasteland finally defeating me. There was too much death, too much suffering. All of it caused by my actions and inactions. A small part of my mind starts to scream at me, the voice severely subdued from its normal rage and defiance, almost begging me now.

What did it matter anyways? Who cared if I fell here, if we all fell here. The wasteland chewed up ponies and spit them out. Ponies who were better than me. I was just so tired. Tired of it all. The years have worn at me, dragged at me, torn at me. My body was broken, my mind weary. I drop down to my knees, not willing to stand again, destroyed by my stubborn pride and foolishness. The voice whimpers at me again, trying to spark my defiance. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up, stand up, stand up! No... it was too late for that now. I was finally beaten, finally tired. The decades of conflict and war have finally driven me to my knees. My path had finally ended, and it ends forgotten, amidst the ruins and destruction of the wasteland. Tomb Town would be where my story ends. My eyes swim as something hard and heavy hits me in the back of the head, taking me to the ground.

Star Racer towers over me, her armored hoof lowering to the floor, looking up towards Zone. “We need to get her down, and you’re going to help me.” She strikes me across the face this time, as I show no motion to rise. “Get up, Nevermore, unless you want to throw away everything that brought you here.” Her voice is full of scorn. “Are you so easily cowed, or are you a fighter. Get up, Nevermore.”

~~~~~~~~~~

I look at the charcoal pegasus sadly. She seemed to have lost something, something that had driven her to fight for so long. Slowly, lethargically, the mare rises, like a zombie from a shallow grave. She doesn’t even chastise me for hitting her, doesn’t bother dusting her hat or dress off. No, she just opens her wings and flies up towards Zone, even as I do so. We try to pull Zone off as gently as we can. Her wounds look bad though, bloody and deep. Lowering her to the ground, I start looking for medicine, potions, or bandages. Anything to help. Digging through Nevermore’s bags, I brush past some books there, along with some things she seems to have accumulated, finding only a few non-magical bandages to wrap Zone’s torso with. It would have to do. Add this to the list of things we’re running out of, along with ammunition, power cells... my eyes flick to the despondent Nevermore... and apparently hope.

Tying the bandage off with my teeth, I start pulling Zone onto my back, when a dark hoof stops me. “No... let me. It is... the least I can do.” Nevermore kneels down, trying to get Zone onto her back. “There is... a settlement nearby. South. Small place, not pleasant. But it should have supplies.” Her voice is even more lifeless than it was before, lacking the cold hatred or disdain that usually filled her tone. But... she had to move on, we all did.

“Make sure you keep up. Can’t have both of you falling behind.” I push Zone onto the smaller mare’s back, though she takes it stoically, lifelessly. I had never seen Nevermore look so dead, so lifeless, even for a corpse. But, she said there’s shelter to the south, and we needed time to rest, to recover, to resupply. Med-X was the only thing keeping me up right now, and I’m sure that some of the others feel the same as well. Looking up, I dare not take them back up through the hole, in case Bishop was waiting for us, which left... We were apparently in the sewers, or at least a waterway, a rather large one it seemed. We all looked shocked, devastated, even Vusi had fallen silent. I don’t know what would happen if one of us actually fell. Zone’s weak breathing tells me that we have to start moving if I didn’t want to find out. Barking at the others, I start us moving south. I only hoped that Nevermore was correct, and that would would be able to find this place.

My eyes scan about as I steel myself against despair and panic. With Nevermore the way she is, I had to lead them out of this. She had seemed so strong, so unflappable, like a thunderhead cloud, brooding and dark. Yet we could always rely on her if needed. Now... now I didn’t know, and the others didn’t either. I didn’t know what we’d do if she didn’t recover. I’d want to go back to the Enclave, to my home, but could I leave the others down here? And more importantly, could I even return? After all, I’ve been down here a while, and I had no idea if my armor would still let them know not to shoot me down if I broke the cloud barrier. My ears perk up as I hear... something. How I missed my E.F.S. right now. Of course, I’m pretty sure that I missed my eye even more than that. Maybe I’d have to get a patch or something, then I could look like a gangly pegasus pirate. I scoff to myself. That’d be ridiculous. Almost as silly as a flight-impaired three legged griffon. Just imagine something like that trying to prance about. The thought made me giggle-snort, drawing a look from the others. Quickly composing myself again, I clear my throat, turning it into a strangled call of warning for the others.

Several figures were moving towards us, slowly, carefully. They were oddly shaped, but it was hard to tell in the gloom. “Get some lights up somepony!” I flick my helmet’s lights on, one of the few things still working on it. Behind me, there’s a brighter light as Tik’s horn flares up. Right, unicorn. The forms resolve into curious shapes, canines merged with a reptile. Nightstalkers. A young brood, but still potentially dangerous. They move as a pack, trying to spread out around us. My weapons, Sunseeker Energy Rifles with a variable power selection, are starting to run low on energy cells. I dial them down as far as I dare, not willing to waste any energy, trying to squeeze a few more shots out before they’re completely dry. A narrow beam lances out from my rifles, striking the lead one. It recoils from the hit, though the weakened beam fails to drop it. Leaping at me, it avoids the next beam, twisting over as it lunges for my throat. Leaning back, I drive forward with my armored head, slamming hard against the foul creature. Blood splashes across my visor as I mash its face in.

Tik’s rifle roars, smashing one of the unfortunate creatures into a crumpled heap, though Fritter’s gun clicks on empty. “Star? I’m almost out of rounds here...” She sounds nervous, even as she sidesteps another of the Nightstalkers.

“Then use the butt of that rifle and club them!” We’re holding our own, for now, and they pack should start to retreat soon, the thunder and fire of our weapons proving too much for them, even in our depleted state. I see another one lunging for the one member hanging in the back, not fighting. The Nightstalker’s teeth sink into Nevermore’s shoulder, the mare not moving to defend herself at all. It hangs off of her for a few moments before my rifles lance it off of her, blood, ichor, and venom dripping down her leg. She looks down at the wound, then starts walking again, heading south still, towards this shelter she claims we’ll find. With a whine and a hiss, my rifles finish off the wounded Nightstalker, and my last power pack along with it. For the first time since coming down here, my weapons fall completely inert, the fighting draining them of life. The rest of the pack finally scatters, our steel and fire driving them away.

There’s not much to rummage off the bodies, so we continue on, wading through the gloom, the muck, and the oppressive atmosphere. I have to keep checking to make sure that Nevermore is still with us, as she has fallen completely silent, not saying anything, and moving almost completely silently. She’s limping badly, though her face is still cold, impassive, and dead. Ichor and blood is still oozing down her leg, the wound not closing up yet, not scabbing. As much as it worries me, I don’t know much about her... or if I even need to be worried about it. Eventually, we see a light, illuminating the end of the concrete tunnel, the water flowing out of the pipe into the Wasteland before us in a sickly trickle. In the distance, I can see a cluster of buildings in the distance, what appears to be a high-rise mall. Nevermore’s voice catches me by surprise, as she had been silent for quite a while. “That’s the Blok. Hive of scum, filth, and idiots... but it will do for now.” She looks back at Zone on her back, before starting to head towards the mall slowly and painfully.

At this point, it seems we didn’t just lose Zone, but we lost Nevermore as well. Hopefully this ‘Blok’ would provide us with shelter, food, ammunition... but more importantly, maybe it’ll provide us with drive again. I look at the collection of ponies with me. Battered, broken, worn down, then I look at Nevermore. We need our leader with us again... but she’s not with us, even though she’s present. I watch the defeated mare limp through the ruins of the civilization around her, wondering if she’ll ever recover.

~~~~~~~~~~

Stand up. Stand up, Nevermore and do your duty.

Chapter 16: Rest for the Wicked

View Online

Chapter 16: Rest for the Wicked

Nothing in this world is free.

Why do we fight? That question has been lingering in my mind for a while now, my already sharp temper honed to a perfect edge. Why do we fight? It was just a normal question, one to be expected from a reporter during a war. But one that stayed with me. The pegasus mare looked kind, looked curious, an honest question without the malice that another may have asked. But why do we fight? That is something I asked myself many times, during a restless night, brooding the future by the light of a dying candle. The Captain had given a flippant response, as was to be expected. “So we don’t have to fight, of course. I fight for a future free of fighting.” Noble words, even from a fool. If only the rest could share a sentiment like that. Others wax about the glory and triumph we would receive upon defeating the zebras. To win. Victory. Such an aetherial goal. Of course we do not wish to lose, but in this war, can we truly win? I do not think so. Even as the zebras destroy our bodies, we destroy our souls, one death at a time. Why do we fight? To preserve our way of life? We are destroying that every day, sacrificed on the altar of victory. I cannot sleep again, staring out into the darkened sky. Why do we fight?

~From the Journal of Nevermore

Our hooves clip off the pavement, closing towards the mall at a slow pace, the buildings still at a distance even as the afternoon sun beats down on us. Our endurance is flagging, it would be good to rest for a bit. We’ve been needing it. The Wasteland has been wearing at us, tearing at us. Even now we strain at our limits, battered, but not yet broken. I turn my head to look back at Nevermore and Zone, the pair causing me the most worry for now. Well, most of us not broken yet at least, though perhaps we can put the pieces back together again. Fritter keeps shooting daggers at Nevermore, muttering things, cursing her, abusing her, even as she stoically plods along, taking his venom with nary a word. The fire in her had died, the ghoul letting his words fall off her like rain water. I look around us again, painfully aware of how exposed we are, how vulnerable. Low on supplies, ammunition... motivation, we were an easy target. My tail twitches in its armored sleeve as I feel like the other horseshoe is about to drop on us...

~~~~~~~~~~

"Lookee Gangrene, fresh spawns!" The massive stallion elbows his partner playfully, excitedly. After all this waiting, they were finally getting the payoff for watching this road. Ambushing travelers could pay off well, but could also be dangerous if they were prepared well. The green stallion licking his jagged teeth excitedly, anxiously. Either way, he would have his fun today.

"Those ain't fresh-outs, moron..." Gangrene wrinkles her nose as she peers through a set of binoculars, the pale yellow unicorn watching the group moving below. "Injured... means no healing supplies. Close together... Protecting the injured it looks like. Look, that one in the front. That is..." She paused, seeing a larger, armored mare turn back to looks at her wounded companions. "Enclave. Ex by the look of it. Armor's all busted up. You take her..." Her gaze lingers on Star Racer, pausing for a moment before turning to her companion. “Let’s make this nice and clean.”

"How bad you want ‘em hurtin'?" He seems pleased by the idea of cracking some skulls, or blasting them with the shotgun hitched to his battle saddle, a vicious smile creasing his face. His viciousness could be an asset, as much as a liability at times.

"...Just rough em' up, Curbstomp. No killin'. We want their money, not their lives." Gangrene answers much to Curbstomp's disappointment.

He looks at her almost petulantly, the massive stallion pouting as he turns back to the small convoy. "And if they's resist?"

Gangrene pulls the slide on her varmint rifle, grinning, "Blood money..."

~~~~~~~~~~

The first warning I get that something is awry is a veritable mountain of pony barreling out from cover, his shotgun taking me in my armored chest, staggering me. The pellets ring off the powered armor, but the blast prevents me from trying to evade, giving him the opportunity to slam into me, bowling me over. It feels like I just got whacked by a sledgehammer, but what was worse was the horrid stench that seemed to cling to my attacker, which slammed into my senses like a tidal wave of disgusting. Fighting the urge to vomit in my helmet, which is never a fun prospect, I slide across the ground, metal and paint scraping off onto the pavement below. Before I manage to pull myself up, my attacker is already on me. He slams down on my prone form again and again, his hooves starting to dent the armor as he keeps stomping. Luna’s Mercy, what did they feed them down here?

“‘ey ‘ey! Don’tcha forget about the rest of us here!” I don’t have time to look at Tik, trying to fend off his blows, but I hope she’s not about to do anything stupid. “INCOMING!” Of all the... A metal apple comes flying through the air at us, the pin playfully held in Tik’s telekinetic grip. “Ka-boom!”

Time seems to move in slow motion. I see the grenade hit the ground in front of us and bounce up, hanging there for a brief moment, even as the stallion grabs my rear legs. Time snaps back into normal flow as he swings my body over his head. With a sick crunch, he slams my armored body into the pavement, pounding more cracks into it. More importantly, for him at least, he had slammed my stomach right on top of Tik’s grenade. A live grenade. Muffled by my body, the blast flips me over again, my armor marred by shrapnel and explosions. If we get out of this, Tik and I are going to be having some words about friendly fire.

A rifle shot rings over the fight, coupled with a sharp whistle. "Caps 'n gear! Drop ‘em before I drop you!" I look towards the owner of the voice, a small, yellow mare, covered with junkyard armor with stop signs protecting her flanks standing on a ledge above us. The piercings and slicked up greasy mohawk told us who we were dealing with already, raiders. Zone was in no condition to fight, Nevermore wasn’t moving. Fritter was unarmed, his pistol clicking on empty, and Tik was more dangerous to me than them, apparently. The only one I couldn’t see was Vusi. My armor injects me with some Med-X, one of the few things we have a relative abundance of, the auto-med functions kicking it, giving me back some strength. Lashing out, I catch the lumbering giant between his stump-like legs with an armored hoof as he looks at the ring leader, wishing that my rifles had any power left in them at all. The barrel of my body feels like its on fire, but there was no way that we could surrender to raiders... die or die fighting wasn’t really a choice.

His voice jumps up as my hoof connects, though the shotgun shoved at my throat beneath the helmet’s chin tells me that I’m about to pay for that shot. The brutal weapon roars and the pavement next to my head erupts from the blow, showering the road with more rubble. Vusi holds his pose for a second, his hoof having shoved the gun out of the way just in time. “Sorry for interrupting, but I don’t think she wants to dance right now.” The wall of muscle and brutality swings for the zebra, but Vusi was well justified in comparing it to a dance, his body slipping past the blows by the slimmest of margins, his hooves deflecting the strikes just enough. He’s not entirely passive though, his hooves lashing out in return, dealing heavy hits to the slab of pony bearing down on him. While I was trained in hoof-to-hoof, Vusi was far my superior, weaving and bobbing around the strikes like an acrobat, letting the stallion’s rage build, waiting for an opening for a crippling strike. At least Tik wasn’t lobbing grenades at us this time.

With a roar, Vusi’s dodging finally pays off, the infuriated stallion no longer thinking clearly, though... He stamps towards me instead of the evasive zebra, with Vusi trying to draw his attention again, but is knocked aside by sheer bulk. His hoof falls towards my throat with crushing force, the sound of bone and gristle snapping clearly audible in the sudden silence. Opening my eyes, I see Nevermore standing above me, her legs shaking, even as a dollop of ichor oozes down, splattering on my armor. I’m shocked as I see the edges of her eyes glistening, tears joining the rivulets of blood. “Stop... just please... stop...” Her voice is frail and hollow as she wavers, then starts to tip over, the Med-X having long since stopped dulling her pain, his hoof crushing several of her ribs as she blocked the blow meant for me. “Just... stop.” His hoof snaps her head around in response, her mask flying off her face, thin wisps of pink curling out of her muzzle.

The mountain of muscle is interrupted from further punishing the ghoul as a loud crack sounds out. The pale yellow raider pulls her rifle back, the butt of it delivering a stunning blow to the back of his skull. "I said no killin'!" She roars as her lackey falls to the ground dazed, clutching his bleeding head. She plants a solid kick into his side, then smacks him across the head with her rifle again. “Next time, listen to what I tell you! And I said no killin’!” Crack, crack, crack! He finally succumbs to unconsciousness, even as she delivers another kick for good measure.

During this time, my chest hurts too much for me stand, the grenade coupled with the pounding blows making every breath hurt. I probably broke something, one more item to add to the reasons I hate the Wasteland. Vusi watches the raider warily, cautious of her rifle, even as Tik starts to raise her own rifle. To our surprise, the raider drops her rifle, dashing over to my side. Without any direction, she deftly starts to undo the clasps holding my chest piece in place “Shhhh... it’s going to be alright, just let me take a look at you.” Removing powered armor was a difficult task, unless you were trained in it, or took care of those who were. It was so completely at odds with what the mare looked like, that I stare agape at her for a couple seconds. “Now, tell me where it hurts.”

Gangrene ignores my protests, quickly hitting the emergency releases designed for field medics to get at the occupant. She tsks irritatedly to herself, as it looks like the armor held for the most part, the protection provided better than most of the cobbled together pieces found in the Wasteland, but not enough to prevent some serious hurt. Several of my ribs seemed to be broken, though at least I was alive. “Ya gonna live, or should. Stupid meathead, told ‘im to not go for killin’.”

“If that’s the case, madame, then we need to get there.” Vusi points his hoof towards the settlement. “One of our companions... has had a very bad day so far, and she needs medical attention. Quickly.” He looks over to the crumpled form of Zone Control, lying where Nevermore left her, causing Gangrene to rush over to look at the unicorn.

“This damage is pretty severe... are these cloth bandages? Quick, get me some potions and some magical bandages... some Med-X too if you have it.” She barks orders at Vusi, clearly expecting him to hop to it.

“Ain’t got none...” Fritter looks at Gangrene, suspicion filling his eyes. “That’s why we headin’ ta the place the rotter said ta go, try ta fix her up... make sure she’s fine.” His gaze drops to the fallen mare, her breathing weak and shallow. “She gonna make it... she’s strong, never die ta somethin’ like this...”

“Die? Damn straight she’s gonna die unless we get her some help.” The raider pushes him out of the way as she picks up her rifle again. “Alright, come with me, I’ll get ya into the Blok, but you’re gonna owe me for saving your sorry hides.” She starts to mutter to herself, spitting curses and venom as we gather our wounded. Trust her? No. But we don’t have much choice right now, battered as we are. Nevermore pulls Zone back onto her back, vile blood dripping from her torn face, even as Vusi and Tik work to carry me as carefully as they can, having stored my weapons and armor away at Gangrene’s advice. Apparently, ponies were not very keen on the Enclave, even in these parts. Though still wary of her, Gangrene does seem to be trying to help, and Vusi makes sure to keep an eye on her. Fritter hovers near Nevermore, trying to do a mix of getting close to Zone and avoiding Nevermore at the same time.

Left behind them is the forgotten, if still rancid, form of Curbstomp, slowly leaking blood onto the pavement.

~~~~~~~~~~

The gate of the settlement is closed against us, the walls surrounding it seemingly built from the armor of a fallen airship. A brown stallion’s head pops over the wall, looking down at us. “Well well, what have we here? Travelers, at this hour?” He drops out of sight, suddenly reappearing on the other side of the gate. “Hey, ya ain’t going to get in without payment!” He disappears again, reappearing on the other side. “Yeah, payment!”

The pale yellow mare with us looks up at him, shaking her head with exaggerated dismay. “Knock it off Lock, Key, and just let us in.”

The twins both pop up this time, looking down with identical stares. “Hey there Gangly Gal! Didn’t see you down there. You told them the rules, right? No payment, no entrance!” The other one echoes his brother, the identical ponies clearly used to playing this game. “Yeah, no entrance!”

She looks at us, then up at them. “They ponies don’t really have anything you’d want, and their caps are for supplies. Can’t take too much of a cut off ‘em.” She walks up to me, giving me a swat on the flank. “This here is a ghoulie though, know you’re interested Key.” The numbness in my spirit fades, ever so slightly, fueled by the embers of my rage, the fire having died out. But still, there’s a spark, and this mare’s attitude was starting to kindle it again. I instinctively don’t like her, and her attitude now is doing nothing to improve my opinion. It’s hard to explain my feelings for her, just a natural aversion to her. Perhaps due to how many times I’ve cut down a pony with her manestyle, or perhaps there was just something that felt wrong with her.

“Oooooh, a ghoul? More dead than alive, you know how much I like that...” The one on the left’s voice positively coos, running a shiver down my spine. “And she looks so fancy. But you haven’t even introduced us yet.”

“But that’s only one of us, Gangrene, what do you have for me then?” The other one smiles at Gangrene, even as she holds up a hoof, forestalling their bargaining.

“Hey now, none of that yet... you don’t get her just for entrance, what sort of fool do you take me for? She’s worth a lot more than that.” That ember begins to glow, the traces of life starting to fill my limbs again, my emotions starting to recover from the dead zone that they were in before. “After all, just one night is worth more than ya charge for normal entrance.” She looks to Vusi to introduce us, as she never got all our names. As he does so, Key and Gangrene are already haggling for prices.

“Two hundred caps as well as entrance.” He steals a glance at me, my eyes narrowing in response.

“Eight hundred, and you buy Lock something for me.” Was this mare doing what I thought she was? I’m about to protest, when she sees it, cutting me off. “Look, ain’t no way around it. You need medicine, and for that, ya need caps. Unless you have a stash hidden away, you need ta play nice, got it?” In silent response, I drop a bag of caps on the floor, a small one, each cap and the bag itself coated with my rotting blood and ichor. Not because they got dirty normally, no, but because I deliberately coated them out of spite earlier. “Well, looks like you bought yourself entrance, right boys?”

Lock eyes the bag, even as Key starts to sniff it, a smile on his face. “Oh yes, go right on in. Though I do hope you reconsider seeing me sometime...” Biting back my bile, I ignore them, trudging along, Zone heavy on my back, just like my sins. I think I hate this Gangrene.

“Just so you boys know, Curbstomp will be comin’ back later, he’s just a bit indisposed of right now.” She turns back towards me, a smile creasing her face. “Dang girl, you got more of that in there?” She flicks her gaze to my saddlebags, even as I turn to mechanically slash her with my gaze. Greedy harridan, preying upon others for some supplies and caps... Yes, definitely starting to hate her.

“For supplies only. Not for raiders.” My voice is lifeless, not having the same bite that it used to, though starting to recover a slight edge as I mull on the past and the future, existing in the present for now. The mare shrugs at my response, drawing us further into the mall. The place is disgusting, covered in filth, trash, and graffiti, crude statements and sayings. “Welcome to the Blok”. A fine greeting indeed, from a trashed directory. This place reminds me of the mare herself. Outwardly disgusting and filthy, but also possessing a vibrancy and life. Winding through the area, dodging the crowds and the merchants hawking their wares, we find ourselves in front of the Colt & Filly Community center, the doors propped open. To my silent horror, a small tide of young ponies swarm from it, specifically towards the raider with us. Several other older ponies close in, clad in similar garb to Gangrene.

The young ponies pile on to Gangrene, asking her about what she’s brought them, what’s going on, who we are. Their curiosity boundless and enthusiasm endless. Most seem to instinctively shy from me, as if they knew that something was terribly wrong, though Vusi and Tik seem to enjoy their presence. “Well, here we are, home sweet home. Welcome to the ‘Wreck Center’, ain’t got cots for everypony, so some of ya have ta take the floor. Now get the wounded up so I can take a look at ‘em.” She has to back the foals off, clearing a space to begin working, gently pushing them aside as required.

An odd view here, the raider mare tending the wounded. Her vicious demeanor at odds with the gentle ministrations for the wounded. A stream of curses and invective echos her distaste for the damage done to Zone, coupled with a stream of medical supplies and bandages floating in her magical grip. Doing what she can for the fallen mare, she wipes sweat from her brow, her mohawk drooping sadly. Leaving Zone’s side to tend to Star Racer, a pair of potions and some bandages accompany her in the endeavor. “Alright, fortunately that lunk head didn’t do anythin’ too bad ta ya, just a couple ribs. Yer armor is gonna need some definite attention though.”

One of the foals looks up at Star, a sharpened riot shield strapped to his back. He was eggshell blue, with a red and black mohawk, similar to Gangrene in appearance. He had Star’s helmet held between his forehooves, pulling it off the pile where it was sitting. "Whoa! Where'd you get this gear? The owner die? It ain't working worth sh-" He lets out a stream of curses that would make a Talon blush. Surprising for such a small pony. “Really messed this up, didn’t ya?” He rotates the helmet a bit. “I’ll give you this shiny bottlecap and uh... this comic for it!” He whips out a well worn copy of the Mysterious Mare-Do-Well, expectantly. “Please? It’s just like Gangrene’s armor, and I wanna be just like her.” That comment elicits a snort from me. Wanting to grow up to be a raider? What happened to the nobler professions? Or at least not the criminal ones.

Star grunts slightly as Gangrene tightens the bandages, narrowing her eyes slightly from the pain. Her voice sounds strained as she growls at him. “Kid, that’s Enclave power armor. It’s not really for your type.”

The small foal lets out another stream of invective at that point. “Type? You sayin’ it’s too good for me? It’s nothin’ but scrap metal at this point. I could patch it up... it is a bit big for me.” He huffs slightly, looking up as the much taller Star Racer is helped up to her hooves. “Fifty caps for a patch job. It’s a steal!”

Star grunts slightly as she settles her wings down, the other ponies watching her carefully, though the older ones seem to have their eyes flicking to her flanks. “There’s not much to repair any more, most of the systems were shot earlier.” He gives her a deadpan look as he looks from the hole in the helmet to Star’s missing eye. “But maybe you can rig it to work as normal barding.”

Gangrene goes back to cursing as she keeps working on Zone Control, the mare still unconscious from earlier. “Bruise, we need more supplies. Go check with Bitch Fit and see if we can get any more, especially potions or bandages.” She’s not looking at us, though the chocolate colored stallion starts to move towards the door. Star takes a look at me, where I lay against the wall, quietly watching the gathering, before following the stallion out the door, leaving me alone again, even in the middle of the crowd.

Time seems to pass slowly for me, even as Gangrene frantically works on Zone, blood splattering her mane and coat. Several of the foals approach me curiously, stealing glances when they think that I’m not looking. One gets a little closer, the cream colored unicorn filly looking at me for a minute. “I um... I like your hat miss.”

Well, fancy that. I pat the ground next to me, even as she scampers closer, nearly tipping over in the process. She reminds me of another foal, from oh so long ago. Fearless, even when they should be terrified. Full of life, completely at odds with myself. I’m tempted to give her something, perhaps some small sweet that I had saved. But... I do not wish to be swarmed, and offering candy to a room full of foals is one of the best ways to be overwhelmed in a tide of youngsters, so she can wait. Besides, I have never been good with foals, though they seem to be drawn to me for some reason.

Further thoughts are interrupted as the door flings open, a tan mule kicking it clear open, surrounded by a few others. “What do you want, Lunk Head, can’t you see I’m busy here?” Gangrene snarls at him, barely looking up from where she was working on Zone still.

“Don’t be like that lil’ lady! The Boss just wants to say hi!” He has a cruel grin on his face, even as he looks around the ‘Wreck Center’. “Real nice place ya got going here. Should’ve kept it like that, bein’ the Boss’ main squeeze, thought you’d be smarter about this, instead of finding yourself some unicorn tramp.”

“What are you talking about, you idiot? I’m trying to save her life here! So if you ain’t gonna help, then get the buck out! I paid my rent.” The raider snarls at him, looking back down as she keeps working.

“Can’t let ya do that, Gangrene. The Boss was very specific on what she wanted, and I’m sure not gonna disappoint her.” He looks at his goons. “Trash the place.” Instinctively, my wing opens, covering the filly cowering next to me. There were several of them, and in my state, I wasn’t sure I could manage to fight them off. I owed her though, the raider, and I absolutely hate owing ponies. Breathing was right out, due to the proximity of the innocents, though I wouldn’t mind too horribly if Gangrene just caught a whiff, which left it to knives.

A wave of stench rolls over us before I can grab my knife, causing even me to recoil slightly as a massive shadow blots out the lights behind Lunk Head, the sound of a pony cracking their neck clearly audible as everything else falls silent. “Now can I crack some heads, Gangrene?” Curbstomp looks down, even as Lunk Head fouls himself. Hopefully Star Racer wasn’t running into any trouble...

~~~~~~~~~~

A reddish-orange pegasus mare leans over the counter of the concession stand, almost seductively. This was apparently the leader of the Blok, Bitch Fit, her headquarters set up in this dilapidated old theatre. I can admit that she’s a bit of a looker, though there’s a cruel streak in her eyes that repulses me. "Wow, you're a tall glass of scotch on the rocks! What brings a breezy lil number like you to my roost? Got lost looking for Rainbow Sanctuary? Freshly branded? They weren't too rough when they kicked yah out were they, dollface?" Her tone is a mix of taunting and hostility, mostly at my expense.

I glare at Bitch Fit. "Who- what... that is..." I shake my head, my gaze turning cold as the implications begin to sink in. "Branded? BRANDED? You think I'm a Dashite?" I snort my derision. "I'm Lieutenant Star Racer, Enclave Expeditionary Force, and I'm not a *traitor*." My eyes flick to her flanks, confirming my suspicions, her cutie mark obliterated by a brand.

Bitch Fit stares at me for a long second, her cronies coming in from the sides, but she waves them off flippantly. "You ain't nopony down here, dollface," the elder pegasus says crisply. "You know what you are?" She slams down a box of supplies, the contents rattling slightly. "You’re in desperate need of help." She tips it over to spilling its contents over the counter. Potions, bandages, ammo, power cells, everything we needed. Somepony was very well informed. Bitch Fit presses a single hoof over the supplies possessively. "Your injured friend? I could toss her out at night. Or I could sell you these supplies, your choice." She licks her lips, grinning ear to ear. "So, let's try this from the top. I'm Bitch Fit, Gangrene's my girl, and if you want supplies or a warm meal you gotta kiss this hoof." Her attitude is pure cockiness, knowing that she has what we need, and that there’s not much we can do to fight her.

I press my ears down, a low growl in my voice even as I feel ponies looking at the shooting stars on my flanks, waiting to see if I’d bend. "Are you so craven that you would use the wounded for a point of pride?" I look at Bitch Fit, my words cold and biting. "For. Shame. No wonder you abandoned your people. Or maybe you were kicked out?" Bruise desperately tries to silence me, but I ignore him, my stubborn pegasus pride refusing to back down from this confrontation, offended by how low this mare seems to have fallen.

The mare puts her forehooves on the counter, leaning over threateningly. "You're about to get kicked out in a moment you li-"

"They're with me!" Barked a very irate voice. "And I paid my damn rent on time, you harlot!" Gangrene was seethingly pissed off for some reason, trotting up to the concession stand with murder in her eyes, Zone’s blood marring her face and hooves.

"Oh, hey babe, something wrong? I'm in the middle of a transaction here..." Bitch Fit purrs, her demeanor changing instantly as the raider mare shows up, from confrontational to seductive. It was quite a sight, to be honest, how about face the mare could be when something new comes up.

Gangrene strikes her lover in the face with full force, causing the aged mare to tip over, blood running from one of her nostrils. "Don’t play coy with me! I've got good reason to be pissed at you! Fiddling around with other girls, hitting on this one... and then you... YOU send Lunk Head to my place and trash it cuz you think I am going to be sleeping with that injured unicorn? Screw you!"

Bitch Fit wipes her nose, laughing lightly, "Oh come on, it ain't no big thing. It's not like I hurt any of your brats. Calm down babe. I'll just give you the supplies tah bury this particular hatchet and then I'll have your face ‘tween my thighs come movie time."

The light yellow unicorn bristles, her eyes cold. She bites her lower lip hard before relaxing her tense muscles, nodding. "Yeah, sure. See you at nine." She snatched=s up the supplies and lays them over Bruise, nudging him toward the exit. Just as we are about to leave, Bitch Fit springs, snatching Gangrene from behind, pressing a bladed wing to her throat.

"I love you babe. But if you ever hit me again. I'll slit that pretty little throat." The rough mare bit down on her ear hard before shoving her towards the doorway, leaving a thin line of blood leaking down her face. "And don't let me catch you even eyeing this Enclave tramp you done let in! I'll kill her if she even looks at you!"

The visibly shaken Gangrene can only nod, feeling the faint cut on her neck as we leave the shattered remains of the theatre. "Move. Before Curbstomp kills Lunkhead. I don't need Bitch Fit mad at me. She's in a good mood today..."

“Good mood? That’s a good mood?” I seethe inside a bit. "Oh for a clear line and a charged power pack..." I look down at the unicorn, though she seems smaller than average, letting me tower over her. "But thank you for that." I wrinkle my nose, imagining that I can smell that foul pegasus on her, not unfamiliar with the terms she used. But, it wasn't really my place to judge this strange mare's taste after all. We had just met, and barely knew each other. I shake my head, my green mane flipping back and forth since I left it unbound. "Maybe I'll talk to Tik about donating a few apples to her cause..."

The feisty mare looks at me, then at Bruise who’s further ahead, seemingly eager to get back to the ‘Wreck Center’. "Yeah you’re welcome, but my help came at great cost. My rent rate’s going up with you sods sleeping on the floor! You're lucky the runts like you or..." She sighs softly, shaking her head, eyeing me contemplatively. She turns away from me as I’m about to say something to her, her moment of sudden vulnerability hidden from view. "I don't need nothing from ya!" The rough bandit slicks up her mane and masks her trepidation with a forced smile before brazenly stealing a kiss from my cheek. "Sorry." She speaks as she increased the pace of her trot, even as I can feel the warmth of her on my cheek. "Forbidden fruit tastes sweet."

I’m shocked by her action, looking after her as she keeps going. I blink, then blink again, looking at Gangrene. "Wha-that is... what?" I look at the mare again, seeing past the raider, past the wear and grime. "You know... ain't half bad under all that dirt... and grease." Still, it wouldn’t kill the mare to take a bath or something, caked with dirt as she is. Snorting, I shake my head. "As for rent, you'll have to talk to Nevermore about that when she wakes up... if she wakes up." My ears droop as I think about the depressed pegasus mare. The one who seems like she lost her spark, her movements slow and mechanical. I wasn’t talking about resting, and I think we both knew that, even though Gangrene never knew her from before. My gaze flicks down to Gangrene again. Pissing off Bitch Fit might be worth it, but I’m not as... casual as some either... especially as some of the ponies down here apparently. Something curious, perhaps, and may explain how they managed to survive and spread so much.

"Ain't half bad? Half bad?!" Gangrene seems taken aback, feigning a pained expression on her face. "I'm the finest flank in this freak show we call a home." She rolls her eyes, adding under her breath that it 'did not amount to much'. Still, she was a thoroughbred by the looks of her, leaner and more petite than most ponies. She was, however, more of a firecracker personality-wise. "Like I said," She about faces in a near militaristic manner, prodding a hoof into my bandaged chest with every word she spoke thereafter. "I. Don't. Need. Nothin'." Each word brings her closer to my face, until our noses touch. Gangrene holds there for a moment, her horn lightly grazing against my forehead. She lets out a sigh laced with peppermint alcohol and turns about just as abruptly as before, swatting the me with her greasy, grimy tail, leaving a dark mark splattered on my otherwise clean white coat.

I act impulsively, doing something that I could never have imagined doing before coming down from the clouds. Maybe the madness that seems to infect the ponies down here was affecting me as well. Hesitantly, almost shyly, I lean my head down to the smaller mare, giving her a gentle nudge on her neck with my nose before turning away. There was something about her, a fire inside her contained by a fierce yet gentle shell that intrigued me. She was pretty, but more than that, her drive was like a flame drawing me in, coupled with her ruthlessness and her compassion. Truly, she was a study in contrasts. This action, however innocent, sets off a chain reaction in Gangrene. She giggles, softly, returning the nudge with a smile. And a small nip. A playful war of affection? Was that a challenge? "Careful, I get excited easy." Gangrene purrs in my ear as she gives it a tender lipping, having to stretch up to reach. "We're a ways from home. Don't wanna give anypony a show, do we?" She raises her eyebrows suggestively, grinning at me.

I smile, feeling like an idiot, my wings stretching up before gently thwapping Gangrene on the flank with my pony feathers. "Oh, no show... but they can imagine." Being around her is making me not think very clearly, coupled with the stress and despair from earlier. Here was a little slice of normality that I think we all desperately needed, a little touch of rest, safety... love? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe it was love, maybe it was just pent up lust and sadness. Whatever it was, I could feel it tugging on me, drawing me to her.

The yellow mare hiccups at the whack to her hind end, choking on some spit as she huffs. Tucking her tail between her legs, she turns her head down to hide the deepest blush anypony had ever worn in the history of blushing. "Hey, n-no foolin'. Yah'll break my poor widdle heart!" She chuckles, her smile fades as she looks at me, slowly dying as she flicks a glance back at Bitch Fit’s theatre. Once again, the rowdy mare falls to solemn silence before tearing her expression up into a cocky grin. "Yah couldn't handle me anyway!" She snorts, stopping in front of her home. "Hey, wait a minute." She says to me, keeping me from entering the ‘Wreck Center’. "Say, uh, we don't gotta go straight home. We got this lil alley out back with a futon..." She shuffles her forehoof against the ground, scraping at the pavement nervously.

I look down at Gangrene the hint of a smile creasing my face. A futon? I’d never done that not on a cloud... I cough slightly, rubbing my hoof against the floor. "An alley, huh? Sure that Bitch's cronies aren't lurking around?" I chuckle slightly as I watch the feisty mare. "Or do ya like chasing tail regardless?" I tuck my wings back, tilting my head as I mutter to myself. "Can't be disciplined for 'fraternizing with the indigs' now anyways..." I leave my answer vague enough, seeing where she’d go with it. I still wasn’t completely comfortable with all of this, but... perhaps I’d give it a chance, a chance to see where all of this would go.

Gangrene is considering it heavily, her hoof resting on the door of the center. She hadn't entered yet, imagining the kids were busy inside. Bruise had probably brought the supplies back by now, and the others would be taking care of the foals. She might have enough time for a little fun perhaps... She leads me around to the alley with a furtive wave and a deep blush. It was a modest dump, but there lay the mentioned futon between two dumpsters, apparently well worn and a little stained. Gangrene turns her nose up at it, glancing at me suddenly. "This ain't a good place," She decided, pulling a complete one-eighty. "Nope. No good for what I really want." She flicks her tail once. Cold hooves? No. She needs atmosphere. She wants more than a fling. Still, she settles onto the futon, plopping down onto her side. "The back door's open. I'll be a minute."

I chuckle slightly as I flick my tail, even as the mare... ‘gets to work’. “I’ll see you inside then.” I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved by this, my heart drawn to her but my mind focused on what was to come ahead. With a heavy heart, I slip into the door, my thoughts swarming with conflicting emotions, leaving the mare behind, even as I look ahead..

~~~~~~~~~~

Gangrene slips into the door a bit later, looking around her little home. She sees many of the ponies are already asleep, including Curbstomp, his fetid bulk stenching up the floor. Lunk Head and his goons were long gone, not wishing to get into a fight with Curbstomp, especially with the rest of the Vipers nearby to assist if it came down to that. She looks towards Star, who’s settling near the wall, tucking her wings in tight against her body. She feels a shiver run down her spine as she catches the gleam of Nevermore’s eye, the radiation in her causing it to glow slightly as the mare watches over their gear. Watching Gangrene quietly. Nudging Star with a hoof, Gangrene tilts her head towards the hallway. “There's eight rooms in this dump. Zone's taken Bruise's n' you... well..." Gangrene leads Star Racer to one of the doors near the back. “You gots mine. If any of the brats wander in durin' the night n' curl up on yah don't worry, they jus' had nightmares. Sleep tight..." She moves to slam the door, frustration and regret warring in her as she thinks about her life, and her regrets.

.

Star shakes her head slowly, giving her a knowing smile. That mare... something else entirely. "Do you get nightmares as well?" The voice is sympathetic, rather than coy, as if realizing something about the hard-bitten raider. Before Gangrene can respond, she uses her wing to close the door, whispering to the raider. “Good night, Gangrene.” Exhaling hard, she leans forward, resting her head against the door with a quiet thump. "What was that, Star?"

Gangrene sighs, lowering her ears, even as the door clicks shut. She feels the cut along the side of her neck and checks the time. It was nearing quarter to nine at night. Curfew was coming. "Yes..." She whimpers softly as she turns from the closed door, quietly answering Star Racer’s question. "Every night..." She slips out of her home to go meet Bitch Fit for their appointment. Maybe if she did a good job she could get some candy bars for the kids...

~~~~~~~~~~

After yet another harrowing date with Bitch Fit, Gangrene finally returns home in the dead of the night... but only after the sociopathic pegasus had drunk herself stupid and beat her again. She slips into the rec center's rear entrance, closest to her room where she kept her healing supplies, completely forgetting about their ‘guests’ for now. The foals never knew, they never saw, were never meant to see. Well, Rebel Riot saw once... only once. The stream of curses from him would have woken up the center, saved by a well timed bar of chocolate. She shudders, collapsing against her door, wondering why it was shut, wondering when the throbbing in her head would stop. She wondered why Bitch Fit would break a bottle over her head. Or slap her... or... tears fill the proud mare's eyes as she eases the door open gently, collapsing in the threshold. "...D-damnit..." She wheezes quietly. "Jus' a lil further ol' girl... D-don't wake anypony..."

There's a presence in front of her suddenly, accompanied by the faint rustling of wings. "Nightmares indeed." Star Racer looks down at the battered raider, rage warring with sadness at her appearance. This confirmed what she had believed, what she had feared.

"Jus' go back ta sleep..." Gangrene grunts softly, sprawled out over the floor. "I got t-this..." She weakly tries to pull herself up, but is clearly suffering, blood leaking down her face.

"Perhaps, but I'm sure this rug is a pain to clean if you keep bleeding on it." The lanky pegasus shakes her head, though her joke at least draws a faint smile from the mare, before she succumbs to the pain again. "You keep the floor clean, I'll get your things for you. Unless you want it to heal like that."

"Whatever..." Gangrene wheezes. "Cabinet's over there." She points with a hoof to the equipment cabinet. The cabinet was mostly empty, save for the depleted remains of what we had brought back earlier. She had used most, if not all, of her supplies tending to Zone and Star Racer... and this is how she got repaid. The pegasus mare’s heart burns with fury at the treatment Gangrene had received from that disgrace of a pegasus.

Star Racer takes the bandages over towards Gangrene, using her field training to wrap her up as best she can. "That bad, huh?" She smiles kindly at Gangrene, her mind already working on a plan to help this mare. "Maybe we can help repay ya after all."

Gangrene mumbles and mutters softly as I treat her. "Yeah, yeah, don't do me any fa- Ow..." She winces, tears welling in her eyes. Her horn flickers weakly. She smells of sex, booze, blood, and looks twice as bad as she smells. "Looks worse than it is... nothin’ ta worry about."

Star Racer snorts at her stubborn pride, even as she understands it. The pegasus was quite familiar with pride, and its potential costs. "Course it does... course it does." She hugs the raider with her wing, pulling her into a gentle embrace. Gangrene needs the comfort, the companionship, the mare breaking down as she leans against Star Racer. She tells her about the need for cheap rent for the kids, the need for food and money... how much Bitch Fit abused her needs to take advantage of her. And she cried... finally drifting to a disturbed sleep next to the pegasus. Looking up, Star Racer sees a gleaming red eye, a look of hate and rage filling it with a fire that hadn’t been seen since Zone’s fall. The dark shadow had slipped into the room unseen, unannounced.

“Zone Control will be fine, because of that mare. I hate owing any pony, for good or for ill.” Nevermore’s voice has an edge to it, cold and sinister, like that of a drawn blade. Her gaze flicks to the sleeping Gangrene before looking at Star Racer again. “Tell me more. Tell me everything.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Bitch Fit stumbles towards her quarters drunkenly, stopping to scream at or hit anypony foolish enough to get in her way. She’d kept drinking, even after Gangrene had left, the thought of that Enclave tramp fueling her drunken fury. Enclave... Gangrene... she drank to forget all of that, all of what brought her to where she is now. Even now, she can still feel the searing heat of the brand as it obliterated her cutie mark. A stream of curses flows from her lips as she forces the door open, cursing the Enclave, Gangrene, and anything that came to mind deserving of her vitriol. The older mare takes another swig from her bottle before dashing it against the wall, splashing the dregs against the filth. “Fet.” In her drunken haze, she fails to notice a pair of glowing eyes, a shadow unfurling from the ceiling. It’s not until the stench of death hits her that she looks around. “What the-” Nevermore growls as she falls upon the mare, Bitch Fit’s bladed wing parried with the clang of a dagger. “Who tha buck are you?”

No reply, just the hiss of breath and the mare vanishing into the darkness, reappearing with a sudden flash of knives. Again, they clang off each other, sparks flying as they cross weapons. It’s like fighting a shadow, Nevermore fading back after each strike, her eyes glowing balefully before disappearing. Silently taunting the mare. Silently toying with her. “Who sent you? What do you want?” Bitch Fit starts to look around, trying to find a pattern in the strikes, trying to find the mare at all... she thinks that she found the pattern, found the key, striking forward with her bladed wings. She’s fast, but age and alcohol have robbed her of her speed, the blades striking the wall, sticking fast. Tugging at it, she suddenly feels a presence next to her.

A voice from the grave rattles in her ear, even as she tries to free herself. “So this is the famous Bitch Fit... I was expecting more.” She can feel the mare’s presence, smell the death on her, even as a knife rests against her throat, the blade not pressing hard enough to draw blood, but close. “Now, you are going to listen to me, and you are going to listen well.” Bitch Fit looks back, about to unload obscenities on the intruder when her blood runs cold, the mare fouling herself in fear. The ghoul stands behind her, eyes glowing, even as wisps of pink cloud curl from her mouth. “Good... you know what I am.” The knife presses in a little more, a droplet of blood running down the length of the blade even as Bitch Fit is frozen in terror. “If I so much as hear of the Vipers being treated poorly... one whisper of their leader being abused... a hint that the foals are mistreated, I will come back... and I will not be so kind next time.” She exhales slightly, Bitch Fit accidentally taking in a small amount of the deadly gas. She immediately retches, her insides aflame as the necromantic magic burning through her. Not enough to kill, but enough to punish, to cause suffering. “And I will hold you personally responsible.”

As she wheezes her assent, Nevermore turns from her, sheathing her knives. She looks back at the distressed mare. It would have been so easy to kill her. But she provided stability for the region, for these ponies. Her sins and crimes did not deserve the ultimate sanction. Yet. Perhaps in due course, but I will let her live for now.

Turning off into the night she opens her wings settling on top of the Recreation Center, keeping silent vigil. The hatch on top of the Wreck Center opens with a dull creak, a cream unicorn foal popping her head out cautiously. “Could not sleep, little one?” A silent nod, her eyes wet from the terrors that the night brings. Nevermore taps the ground next to her, signaling for her to get closer. “Come here if you wish. I will protect you.” The foal, Taffy, slips over, nestling against the bitter ghoul. Again she opens her wing, covering her from the night air. Nothing would happen to them while she watched. Watched, and remembered.

~~~~~~~~~~

“Are you sure that this is a good idea?” The mare looks at her husband, then back at me. I was inclined to agree with her. This was an absolutely horrible idea. In a long history of terrible plans, this was quite possibly one of the worst that ever spewed from that stallion’s lips.

“Nonsense dear! It’s a great idea! After all, it’s Nevermore! She’s reliable, responsible, and she won’t let Rowdy get out of control.” My Captain flashes his wife a cocky grin, adjusting his hat slightly. “Besides, it’s high time we had some quality time together! You were just saying how much time work took from us, so I volunteered Nevermore here to help us out!”

“I must concur, Captain.” I look between the Captain and his pretty wife. There’s the faintest twinge of jealousy within me, knowledge of what I can never have. But for the most part I am pleased at their joy, even knowing that it was denied me. “Is there not somepony else? When you said that you required my special talents, I did not imagine that it would be... this.” That, and it was fairly ridiculous that I came in full battle garb for foalsitting, my dress heavy with armor and knives.

“Yes... after all this is Nevermore dear...” She looks at me. “No offense, of course.”

“None taken.” Of the ponies in my life, she was one of the least disliked. I daresay we might have been friends if I wasn’t so caustic. “But, do not fear. I will watch over him if required...” I shoot him a venom filled gaze. He will owe me for this. Oh yes, he will owe me dearly.

“Then it’s settled! Nevermore will watch Rowdy, and we can go get dinner and a movie!” We both deadpan at him, but I was already here, recalled from the war. I look down at my hooves, imagining the blood staining his carpet. Lives already taken, lives already lost. My Captain was staying out of the war, not something that I begrudged him. He had a wife, a child. He had more to lose than somepony like me. If I fell, would anypony even notice? And if they did, would they care? My morbid thoughts haunt me as I turn from him, even as he and his pretty wife have a muted argument about my presence.

I step into the other room, my dress trailing behind me, the faintest rattle of metal as my weapons shift. Rowdy knew me by sight, but I could hardly be called familiar to him. He was so young... Gently, I doff my hat, placing it on his small head.

It’s a curious sight, the dark and bitter Nevermore, the small and innocent foal. My hat hangs on his head loosely, oversized by a fair amount. My face is withdrawn and dour, his curious and frightened. My eyes are tired, having seen too much pain, suffering and death. His are young and innocent. Oh so innocent. I give him a tentative pat on the head before standing up. “I shall prepare us tea...”

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 11!

New Trait: Morose - Things don’t always get you down, but when they do, you stay pretty down, don’t you?

Chapter 17: Broken Records

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Chapter 17: Broken Records

A little nonsense now and then...

Ponies... ponies never change. They are selfish, greedy, narcissistic, and generally not worth spending time to actually listen to. The vast majority of the teeming masses taking what they can, doing what they can to survive. A fickle bunch. One day venerating their heroes, the next tearing them down. How simple it is for them to change their minds, their whims, and their beliefs. The same headstrong ponies that launched us into the war are the ones now watching the destruction they caused. But the war will end, as it eventually must. The only question is what will be left to pick up.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

Dawn breaks, the faded light filtering over the desolated city of Detrot. The overcast skies look heavy, as if preparing to weep for the death below it, mourning the fate of what lies below. As if on cue, the skies break open, torrents of rain washing down on us, running down my face as the world cries with us. A small bundle huddles next to me, Taffy, warm and dry under my wing, sheltered against the storm. She snores lightly, her terror from earlier forgotten. Silent, brooding, I stay where I am, contemplating what I have done, what I will do. I can feel things rushing up, the pressure building as something is going to happen. But still, there’s a slice of peace and serenity, a moment of rest. My wing twitches, even as I look down again, Taffy softly chewing on one of my feathers. She was so young, painfully young to be in a place like this. Not the Wreck Center, though I have my feelings about it, but rather the Wasteland. She should have been in the Equestria that I knew and loved. She should have been more concerned with her cutie mark than survival, more worried about colts than drugs and violence. How far have we fallen? How long until we recover? Is such a thing even possible?

Ponies begin to stir below, shaking the sleep from their eyes. Yet more slumber, sleeping past the dawn. It is something that I have watched through countless days, through sleepless nights. Even back then, I rarely slept much, silent and vigilant even in youth. My youth, my past. The halls of my ancestral home quiet and gloomy. It wasn’t always like that... not when mother was still alive. She tried to bring some light and joy into the oppressive structure, but her death... Pointless now. Any pony that I had known from then is probably long dead, rendered unto bone and dust. My home is probably destroyed as well, or rather what was my home. I am Nevermore, the outcast, the forsaken. Betrayer and betrayed. Abandoned by those I held dear, killer of those who trusted me. I look over the weeping city. I watch life struggle below. I remember the past... and I weep.

~~~~~~~~~~

I could not return to Trottingham, I could not stay with the crew any more. By my own actions and the actions of others, I had severed those bonds. So I lived alone, my apartment in Canterlot carefully cared for, even in my sorrow. Yet something was happening even as I drowned in misery, something affecting all of us. He died... slain by treachery. Yet that was not even the end of it. Even in my isolation, I heard as the others began to disappear... began to die. Executed for crimes, or just never seen again. My crew falling, even after he had fallen. Doubts and regret warred in my heart.

There’s a knock on my door, a gentle rapping shaking me from my thoughts. Who could it be at this hour? I was hardly expecting a package, and visitors? Perhaps in different times, in better times. The others had tried to draw me out, to socialize... but that was a long time ago, before everything that had happened. Warily, I undo the locks, sliding the bolt off the door before finally cracking it open. A pony is standing there, dressed like a mail pony, a smile on her face.

“Hey there... Nevermore is it? Sorry about the late delivery, but the mail got lost on the way, so we’re trying to make it up. We have a package for you, but we need your signature.” Her voice is cheery and friendly, though there is an undertone to it that I don’t like, a hidden edge behind the velvet words.

“I am Nevermore.” I consider for a brief second of just letting her succeed, of paying my penance now and getting the entire ordeal over with. Would that not be fitting? Just disappearing, dying in obscurity. Yet... there were two things yet to be resolved. Vengeance, upon the one who had betrayed me, and my promise to the Captain. I never told him this while he lived, and I barely whispered it after he died. He spared my life, and thereby claimed his right to end it. I could not take the easy way out. I could not let my story end here. Moving faster than she anticipated, I duck the pistol shot, the weapon veiled by letters, disguising the magical field. With a vicious lunge, I go for her throat with my hooves, trying to end the fight cleanly. My hooves slam onto a shimmering barrier, even as she smiles.

“Just be a good girl and die. You know too much, Nevermore.” She presses in, her pistol roaring at me. Yet she was expecting a soft target, a pony broken by despair and sorrow. Her aim is careless, letting me evade them, if only barely. One of the bullets graze my cheek, a ribbon of bright red blood shooting from the wound. I hated fighting unicorns. I’d call their magic cheating, but goodness knows that I can hardly be accused of fighting fair. I kick a potted fern at her as I dive into the bedroom. “Hiding? Really? I expected more from you.” Her attitude is cocky and confident as she steps through the doorway.

She barely has time to see me, as I strike from above, my blade slashing down. Her shield parts like paper beneath my dark blade, surprise the last thing she felt in this world. Hissing with irritation, I return Aer Arcanum to her sheath, the obsidian blade seeming to absorb the light around it, even now not marred by scratch, by blood, by wear. The shimmering silver runes etched on the blade start to dim, their hunger sated for now with the unicorn’s magic. Aer Arcanum... the last time I had drawn her in battle... was that day against the Captain.

Ironic, is it not? My best chance to defeat him had been a weapon given to me by him. Blood pools around my hooves as I shake my head, thinking about when he gave me that keen blade. It was rumored to be a cursed weapon, bringing misfortune to those that wielded it. All I knew is that I could somehow understand her. A viciousness, a ruthlessness, a thirst. A dark whisper in the back of my mind. She had slain many, their blood never staying on the blade, her only defeat coming at the hooves of my Captain... perhaps I had not wanted to win that day... perhaps I was not meant to win. I reverently put Aer Arcanum back into her hiding place, even as I start to gather my things. No, she was a relic of the past, one that I had no right to use any more, the trust it was given to me destroyed and broken. No... I would survive, and I would hunt, avenging my comrades... but I would do it alone.

~~~~~~~~~~

Life begins to bustle below as more ponies stir, few rising as early as I do. The hatch behind me pops open as one of the Vipers looks out. He starts at seeing me, but seems to relax a little when he sees Taffy. “Seems like she took a likin’ to ya.” He eases himself out of the hatch, closing it gently so as to not wake the sleeping filly.

I recognize him from the other night, his pale orange coat and shock of red mane framing a scarred face. Gracing him with a bare nod, I ignore the wetness of my cheeks, knowing that others would mistake it for the rain. “Purse Snatch. That is your name, is it not?”

He cracks a grin. “Surprised you remember, miss...?”

“Nevermore. My name is Nevermore.” I look back down to the street even as he stands next to me. I can smell him, even from here, the unwashed masses filling my nose with their smell. “What are you doing up here?” I did not appreciate intrusions on my solitude, my voice having a slight edge to it, already in turmoil from my earlier ruminations.

“Makin’ sure we didn’t lose any of the little ones.” He gives a slight nod down towards where Taffy is sleeping, curled up next to me. “That, and Bruise is cookin’ breakfast, and gatherin’ everyone to come on down.”

I’m about to tell him to go down without me, that I did not wish to partake of this meal with them. The Vipers as a whole seem to be only slightly better than raiders in my book, not lending me to a particular like of them in general. Taffy begins to stir however, curbing my rejection before it’s born. “Very well.” Moving with grace despite the long weight of years, I see Rebel Riot and Star Racer talking as I descend to the main area.

“No kid, I don’t care if you’re supposed to be the best down here. You’re not touching them.” The mare has a screwdriver on the table next to her as she hovers over her rifles, gently trying to shoo the foal with her wings.

“Aw, come on!” He spews as stream of curses and invective, the small foal trying to make himself sound older with vile language.

“First of all kid, enough with the obscenities. It’s just not right from a pint-size like you.” She shoves her hoof into his mouth to silence him as he prepares to launch into a tirade. “Second, these rifles are a little... finicky sometimes.”

“How finicky are ya talkin’ there?” Gangrene looks over from where she was fussing over one of the foals.

“Explosively finicky.” She pulls the rifles back from Rebel Riot with a hoof. “Very explosively.” They bicker for a bit longer, though I no longer pay attention to their conversation. It was something that seemed to happen in groups, when ponies gather, they were inevitably noisy, whether through conflict or mirth.

Gangrene brushes past Star Racer, her greased tail leaving a smudge on the pegasi’s white coat. “So how long are y’all planning to stick around then?” She is positively purring as she coyly presses herself against the taller mare. “Could try ta find some more beds so that Curbstomp doesn’t have to sleep on the floor again.

I look at her, shaking my head slightly. “We will not be staying too long. Just enough to gather some supplies, repair, and heal up.” The mood turns somber as my companions think about heading out into the Wasteland again, having finally felt safe, at least somewhat, here in the Blok.

Star Racer gives Gangrene a gentle thwack with her wing, smacking her flank with her pony feathers. “Of course, we’ll still be here a bit. After all, it’ll take a while to get everything repaired...” She looks down at her rifles. “If there is even anypony I’d trust to repair it right.” Ignoring a stifled protest from the young Rebel Riot, she starts to peel the shell off the rifle to get at its inner workings.

Gangrene smiles at Star, even as she peers at the rifles. “Well, you’re gonna have to get somepony to take care of ‘em, else you’re going to work yourself to the bone. Wouldn’t want that to happen now, would we?”

I can notice them playing with each other, the subtle posturing, the coy looks. Usually nothing too overt, but rather more subtle, easily missed if one was not used to seeing it. The rest of them start to chatter again over breakfast, even as I watch, remembering the older times, the better times.

~~~~~~~~~~

Nevermore... some ponies knew of me, fewer knew me. And to my hopes, only one knew my inner secrets. I see him standing there, dressed in a formal outfit, talking to a unicorn that I recognized, though I do not approach them. The music swirls around us, ponies dressed up in their formal best, small and dainty tidbits offered by formal servers. A ball, hardly where I expected to be, admitted amongst the Canterlot elite. Only some of the crew was here, and as normal, I was off to the side, a forgotten, half-eaten plate lying in front of me. A young stallion starts to approach me, apparently fueled by either drink or peer pressure to bolster his wavering courage. Even before he opens his mouth, my molten glare sends him scurrying back to the titter of laughter from the others with him.

My gaze turns back to the one I was watching, now dancing with a pretty young mare. There’s a hardness to her that cannot be hidden by her silken dress, but also a kindness in her eyes that I would never possess as she looks at him. I do not know when disdain faded, becoming something else. As long as I can remember, I had never particularly liked him, finding him to be a fool, an idiot, a general pain. Yet... somehow some of that faded. It never went beyond that, a personal acknowledgment that in a different time, with different ponies, things may have been. Yet I am too scarred, my soul too bitter. Even as others move closer I pull away. Nevermore, a mare others can be attracted to by appearance alone, then driven away by the barrenness of my soul.

I stay by the side, ignoring attempts at conversation even as I watch them, the mare looking back at me with a touch of curiosity. With the barest tilt of my head, I nod my acceptance to her. Of her. While we may never be friends, I cannot consider her my foe any more. Bad blood was buried between us, our old grudge lost upon her offer to him. Her plans to make him better than he was, something I could never offer to him. Slipping out to the balcony, I leave her to her happiness, and embrace my solitude. No, I do not make ponies better, I only drag them further down into despair.

~~~~~~~~~~

A voice snaps me out of my reverie, bringing me back to the present. It’s something that seems to happen when I’m around others, their words and actions reminding me of past events. Memories that lay hidden and buried until unearthed, better forgotten for the pain they bring me. “Can we Nevermore?” Tik is looking at me with bright eyes, her nose nearly touching mine as she blatantly invades my personal space.

“Can we what?” My rasp fails to hide my touch of irritation, both at her and myself. Her for sticking her mug right into my face, myself for zoning out and not paying attention to my surroundings again. I find myself doing that more often as time passes, definitely more than I used to, during the early years of my cursed existence. I wonder if the years and the deaths are the cause for my unforgivable lapses of concentration.

“Gangrene said there was an arcade nearby, one that we can use! It’d be super nice to be able to go there and rest and have some fun! I’ve never even seen an arcade, but it seems to be super amazing!” Her bubbly excitement is enough to drive a mare mad. Mad I say.

Gangrene chips in. “Yeah, the roads are patrolled by the can heads, so its pretty safe generally.” She grins, looking at Star Racer. “Besides, I’m all the protection you’d ever need. Nothing’s deadlier than a viper after all.”

“Except grenades! And bullets! And bullet grenades!” Tik chips in, her brightly dyed mane was spiked up again, even as I choose to ignore the empty syringes of Med-X that she had. That would explain why she’s all chipper again, though I’m loathe to see her continued drug use.

I give a long sigh, their apparent and immediate hopes tied to attending this arcade. I hadn’t been to one in ages, in times past when I would help chaperone Rowdy. They were too noisy and busy for me, especially since I disdained large crowds and close proximity... but... “Very well... I suppose that it is not a terrible idea to do so.” Ignoring the cheers of the others, I start to gather up all of my supplies, knives finding their homes in my dress’ hidden sheathes. Gangrene’s boasts aside, I’m not going to go walking about unarmed, especially in these times.

Star Racer starts to close up her rifles again, storing them with her armor in Gangrene’s room, hopefully away from prying eyes. I can tell that she feels vulnerable as she is, but with Rangers patrolling the roads, it wouldn’t do for her to keep her Enclave technology on her. She looks back at Rebel Riot. “Remember, don’t touch those. You don’t know what might happen.” She looks up at Purse Snatch. “Keep an eye on them for me?”

“The kids or the rifles?” He grins. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure nothing bad happens to either.” We all fall silent as there’s a series of hoofsteps getting closer, sounding unsteady. Fritter gets up and dashes towards the sound before being bowled over by myself, sending him spinning to the ground.

Zone Control smiles at me as she leans against me weakly, supporting herself, though her steps are getting a bit stronger. “Sorry to make you all worry...” Relief floods through me as she lives, battered, injured, nearly killed, but not broken. I wouldn’t have to write her into my book yet, the care and medicine provided by Gangrene keeping her with us, at least for a bit longer.

“Shhh... I am sorry you had to endure all that... but I am glad you are with us again.” My voice is soft and full of emotion. We had nearly lost her, we were so close to losing her. I rest my head on the back of her neck, tears falling down my face, washing past the mask on my muzzle.

“‘ey, back off ya rotter, tha rest of us are comin’ through!” Fritter finally manages to shoulder past me to embrace the mare, even as I back away slightly, feeling as if a weight were lifted off my shoulders.

Tik breaks the moment as she jumps into us, tackling the injured Zone Control with a hug, bringing Fritter down again as well. “Yaaaaay! Zoney’s better and we’re going to the arcade!” Some ponies never change.

On our way out, we have to pass through the gates again, the two disgusting ponies still keeping an eye on it, especially the one that tried to... ‘buy’ me for the price of entry. My temper simmers, even as they open the gate for us. Looking over to Star, I nod to her slightly. “Go on ahead, I have something to take care of first...” She looks at me dubiously, but I shush any protest. It’s hard for me to tell the difference between the two, but one was staring at me with a gaze that makes shivers run down my spine, while the other watched the gate, giving me a guess at least.

“Hey, you... yeah... Key was it?” My voice drops to a sultry tone, or at least the best I can manage with my damaged vocal cords and dry rasp. “I do always repay debts, for good or ill...” A smile creases my lips. “And I have been looking forward to... having some fun... for a while now.”

He looks at me lewdly, completely unaware of the danger he was in. “Yeah, been expecting you.” He licks his lips, looking me over as he gets closer to me. “Knew you looked like a little tramp in that dress.” He laughs, a braying and obnoxious noise to my ears. “I’ll take good care of you, at least for right now.”

Finally, he’s right on me, I can feel his breath on my face, a wholly unpleasant feeling. The memories of what these two did, offered, and threatened keep my rage burning. However, they did let us in to this place, something that I owed them for. He doesn’t see me move in time, my knife lashing out, splashing my mask with blood and gore. Howling in pain, he recoils as I claim my prize, leaving him writhing on the floor, his eye stuck to the tip of my blade. “I told you that it would be fun.” Dropping the organ to the ground, I wipe my blade on his coat before making it disappear back into my cloak. Turning from him, I look back, a sneer crossing my face. “Disgusting.” My hoof falls on the broken eye, grinding it into the dirt with an unpleasant sound. As expected, Lock pops out over the side, his face looking aghast even as I sprint out the gate, slipping through before it can be shut. He could either take a pot shot at me or tend to his brother. I would have won a bet, if there was one, as no shots come in my direction, even as I start to catch up with my companions.

“What was that all about?” Gangrene shoots me a worried glance even as we keep walking.

“Do not ask me, then you do not have to lie when you say that you do not know.” I brush past her and Star Racer, making sure we’re putting distance between myself and the Blok. I doubt those two would let me in again, but if all goes according to plan, it wouldn’t matter.

“That’s what I was afraid of.” The raider keeps complaining, muttering at me as we start heading towards our destination.

The journey towards the arcade took us through the streets of Detrot, the building located off the Blok, a short, potentially dangerous journey there. Several of my companions are chatting as we go along, even as I keep a wary eye on the buildings. I hold up my hoof as we come across a choke point, the street cluttered with fallen buildings and debris. This was far too convenient, far too easy to ambush unwary ponies. With a curt order, I reassign Fritter’s pistol to Star Racer, trusting the pegasi’s aim a lot more, and not wanting to leave her unprotected. Fritter can manage on his own, ideally, if worse comes to worse.

“Yeah, this is a popular ambush spot for raiders.” She flashes me a grin. There was only room for one pony at a time, easy prey for lurking threats.

“I do not trust this, there may be an ambush as we are filtering through, we need to make sure it is clear.” I start to head towards the gap, even as Gangrene drops a hoof on my shoulder.

“Yeah? And how are you plannin’ to do that without filin’ through yourself?”

I rudely push off her hoof, not wanting the raider to touch me. “With these.” I glance at Star Racer who nods in assent as we both gallop at the rubble, leaping up, wings opening to carry us over it. As we’re running, I hear more hoofsteps with us, even as Gangrene takes the gap at a sprint, even as a rifle cracks out, hitting the ground under me. They hadn’t expected an aerial assault, it seems. Gangrene takes shelter behind a broken sky chariot, her rifle coming up as she started cracking shots at any raider that dared show their face. She was admittedly a very good shot, though I wouldn’t tell her that to her face.

I descend on a group of raiders trying to flank Gangrene, even as a storm of bullets tear past me, some glancing off my armored dress, the rest missing through agile twists. It seems these raiders were not used to fighting fliers, their aim not compensating for dealing in three dimensions now. Falling on them, I’m in their midst, a whirling dervish of blood and death. This close, they have more risk of hitting their comrades than my quick and agile form. That doesn’t stop them from trying though. Bullets still fly, smacking into ponies even as my daggers lash out. A lucky shot slews my head around, the impact staggering me even as more bullets fly. A burst of pistol fire cuts down one of my attackers, Star Racer being a bit more cautious than I was, especially now that she was unarmored and without her powerful rifles for the time being. Gangrene’s rifle cracks again, even as I bear the last one to the ground, even as she drops her machete, crying out in pain as she hits the ground.

There’s a moment of silence as I straddle the helpless mare, her eyes pleading for mercy. The corner of my eye catches Gangrene swinging her rifle around, even as my knives flash down, nearly taking her head off. “Well ain’t you a cold-hearted one. Thought you might have been tempted to show her mercy or somethin’.”

I growl as I start to wipe my blades off, not wanting the blood to cause them to stick. “I do not like raiders.” I shoot her a glare. “Of any stripe.”

She flashes me a cocky grin and starts to rummage through the bodies, even as I do the same, securing some supplies and discarding some of the junk. Eight raiders, and nary a scratch on us. Poorly equipped and even poorer trained. “You get anything good there?” She noses towards my bag. “Can trade ya fer something if you did.”

With a sigh, I pull out one of the bags I had looted, tossing it to Gangrene. “Give that to Taffy. Well, at least some of it.” The small bag held some mints, perhaps something to foal would like. “Otherwise we should keep going.” We leave the bodies behind us, to rot under the forsaken sky.

The Highscore Arcade was set on the corner of 5th Avenue and Trotsworthy Street, a large neon sign flashing above it, declaring it to be the ‘H-gh-cor- Arc-de’. Well, at least it still had power. The building was a veritable fortress, protected by a heavily reinforced storefront and a pair of automated turrets that tracked us as we approached. Not surprising, really. Any place that brought this much attention to itself had to have some very solid defenses, otherwise raiders or other unsavory ponies would have torn the place to the ground.

Upon entry, we see a series of lockers and a small sign. Printed in bold letters, it read, ‘No weapons in the Arcade. No bad attitude in the arcade. No whining. Make use of communal cubby lockers. Have fun.’ Now my breath could be considered a weapon, and my attitude was always bad, but I had no intention of waiting out here. Gangrene started to strip, shoving her weapons and armor into a pair of lockers, even as she motioned for my companions to do the same. With a sigh, I start to pull my knives out again, laying them neatly into the locker, the growing pile earning a wide-eyed look from a passing pony, and an appreciative whistle from Gangrene. "Nice bite, girl," Gangrene practically purrs. "You into bloodlettin'?"

If looks could kill, I would have struck her down for that comment, though I refuse to dignify the question with a response. The reduced weight is nice, however, letting me move more freely. Unlike her, I don’t remove my armor, though not from choice, but necessity. All those years ago, my armored dress had fused to my body. I couldn’t take them off, even if I wanted to.

Lights and games lined the interior, luring ponies to spend their caps with the siren call of entertainment in this desolate place. Caps for a few hours of blissful forgetfulness, leaving the Wasteland outside. While many of them were in disrepair, some of them were still alive, being used by the ponies around us.

“Aw yeah! It’s working again!” Gangrene bursts past us, heading towards one of the arcade games, the sign declaring it to be Dance Dance Pony: V-Beat Syndrome. The dance pad flashed in enticing patterns, and the mare clearly took pride in this machine, and her name on the scrolling scoreboards. Most of the machines had their first place taken by somepony named Record Wrecker, appropriate, I suppose, so her name on this one was probably justifiable pride. She flashes a wicked grin at me. “Hey, Nevermore, why don’t ya put on a show? Just try ta not embarrass yourself too much.”

Just who did she think I was? While I did not normally partake in arcade games, I did have my pride. Bringing four caps out, I slip them into the machine, scrolling through the songs to find one I wanted, two criteria that must be met. Finally, I settle on one. Perfect.

A silence, a stillness as I step up onto the lit platform. I feel eyes watching me, and I shut them out. Eternity hangs by a thread as I stand on the platform, waiting for it to start. 3. 2. 1. It begins, the soft sound of an expertly played cello, quickly followed by heavy wubs. Octavia’s Lament, one of my favorite songs from the radio from way back then, one that I knew from heart. DJ Pon-3 had done a wonderful job on it, a tribute to my favorite musician. I move to the music, a tune that I had heard hundreds of times. My hooves flash on the panels to the rhythm, my mind focused on the song and the arrows even as the game starts to call out points and combos. Music, one of the few joys that had existed in my dark life. My old headphones are long gone, broken and shattered on some distant battlefield. Now... now I’ll claim a pair when I find them, but they will eventually break or run out of power, being discarded once more. I fly across the panel, moving with all the grace and fluidity that I was known for. The music cuts off as I realize with a start that the song has ended, a cheery voice announcing a new record was set. Ponies in the area stare at us, a small crowd having gathered to watch my performance. Most of them look at Gangrene, as if expecting an explosion.

My eyes flick to Gangrene after I look at the screen, the game waiting for me to input my name. Right above hers. I’m secretly pleased by the shattered look on her face, my score surpassing hers, the other criteria I wanted, to break her score. And even better? I don’t even feel winded. Most ponies would be exhausted after a performance like that, weary from the exertions. My dead body barely felt warm, my brow clean of sweat. Gangrene looked like somepony had kicked her in the throat. “But how did... but... my record!” My hoof taps as I respond to the machine’s request for a name. AAA. Insult to injury on Gangrene’s wounded pride perhaps, but I have no desire to have my name written high in glowing lights. “Hey! At least put your name up there, not something as lame as that.” She brushes past me in a huff, hoofing over the caps as the machine accepts her payment.

The sounds of Octavia’s Lament wubs fill the air behind me as Gangrene gets to work taking her record back. Personally, she was welcome to it if she wanted. It was just a break for me... and dare I say fun? Especially the look on her face at the end.

“That wasn’t very nice, Nevermore.” Star Racer chuckles as Gangrene curses fluently as she misses a section, prompting more caps to enter the machine.

“Perhaps not, but it was fun. Besides... I assume you do not mind watching now?” I’m toying with her, but the sudden start shows that I hit the mark.

“Well, that is, I-” She stutters, even as Gangrene flows across the pad, shaking her hips, her tail twirling in the air.

Barking a short laugh, I leave the sputtering Star Racer behind, the others having dispersed within the arcade. A claw grasps my shoulder, even as I try to draw a knife that was not there. “Excuse me miss, I’m sorry, please don’t be alarmed... I was hoping to talk to you, if you don’t mind.” The hippogryph is spared a knifing and a tongue lashing due to location, and how polite she sounds. She had a painted mare’s backside stuck to the front end of a griffon. A bit odd, but not entirely unexpected. Inter species relations did happen, their offspring usually dealing with unwarranted speciesism because of it. She clacks her beak nervously as she waits for me to respond.

“What do you want?” My tone is gruff as I had a sneaking suspicion about what she was. Few ponies would want to talk to a ghoul willingly, and there was only one group that I could think of that actively searched for us.

Her next words did nothing to allay my suspicions. “I hope that it doesn’t bother you if I ask, but I am very pleased to meet one like yourself. I’m sure you have lots of stories to share, and I was wondering if you would be willing to share?” She blushes suddenly. “Oh, I am so sorry. I’m Keena Keenshot, from the Church of Eternia, and well, I’m just so-”

I cut her off with a harsh wave of my hoof. “Right, Eternite. Few rules. One? No touching. Two? Maintain the personal space, got it? I have dealt with your kind before, and no, I am not going to one of your sermons, no I do not care to share stories, and no, touching me will not bless you or whatever you lot have concocted in your heads. Are we clear?”

Keena seems taken aback by my venom, the meek hippogryph bobbing her head apologetically. “I’m sorry you had a bad experience with some more zealous members of my congregation... I wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing you... I’m sorry miss.”

With a sigh, I look at her. I want to be upset, I really do. But she’s so polite. “Fine... I will give you one story... and only one. Make it good.” As soon as the words leave my lips, I realize my mistake. She was going to ask that question. The question that everypony always wants to ask a ghoul. One that may lead to mass panic in a few minutes.

She blushes, looking to the side, her question considered a touch rude by some, but the primary point of wonder for others. “How did you die?”

~~~~~~~~~~

“But I did not die then... no. As much as I may have wished, I stood back up... does that answer your question sufficiently?” My voice rasps out in irritation and I give her a brief overview of where I was when I died, and how it happened, suffocating in the pink cloud enveloping Canterlot.

The hippogryph chirps excitedly as I wind down my tale. “Oh my goodness, a real live Canterlot Ghoul! We don’t really see many of your kind... I’m sure you have so many stories, so many things we can learn from!”

I snort. “Well, keep it to yourself. I do not wish for others to know of my... condition. There is a certain belief that surrounds us, as you are probably well aware.” Still, the time for frivolity was over now, a long road lay ahead, one fraught with pain and sorrow. I had lingered here for a bit, but I need to leave before it becomes too long.

Even as she nods her head in agreement, I see Star Racer heading towards me, Gangrene next to her, the mare coated in sweat and still looking none too pleased. “So close... I’ll get it, just you watch, Nevermore.”

Sighing, I nod politely to Keena. “Miss Keenshot. I wish you well, though I doubt we will meet again.” I look towards the pair of ponies with us now. “A word, Star Racer?” I flick my gaze to Gangrene. “In private.”

Pulling her to the side, I open my mouth when Star cuts me off. “Just tell me where and when, Nevermore.” She sees the surprise in my eyes, giving a chuckle. “You grabbed all your supplies, and I can’t imagine you sitting around for long, especially with things getting more serious.” She narrows her eyes slightly. “You got that box, after all, and now we’re approaching the end game.” Her gaze flicks over to Gangrene, a wistful look crossing her eyes. “Most of us are too injured to fight much, and it’ll take a bit for us to recover. I’d say you should bring somepony with you, but you won’t listen. Besides, that cry as we left didn’t exactly say that you’d be welcome back there any time soon by those two.”

I nod my head as I look at her. “Three weeks, entrance to the Dead Zone. If I am not there at the time... assume that I am not coming back...” I hesitate. “If you do not show up, I will understand. You deserve your happiness.” I look away from her, even as I see her preparing to protest. “I know... stubborn pegasus pride.” My gaze locks onto hers. “We will meet again, Star Racer. Though perhaps we will wish we did not, afterwards.”

Silently, I slip out of the arcade after gathering all my things, heading out, alone again for the first time since meeting those two helpless stable ponies. It is an odd feeling. For some part of me, it is liberating, no longer responsible for their lives, no longer needing to endure their company or their questions, their incessant questions. On the other hoof though... No. I have to finish this. There is no time for regrets, not any more. One way or another, I will close this chapter of my life.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 12!

New Perk: Silent Running - You’re quite stealthy, and now how to move fast while still keeping quiet. Galloping no longer factors into determining if you can be detected.

Alone again for now... are you sure this is a good idea? While you may have grown used to it, perhaps you have grown soft...

April Fool's Chapter: Fire and Fury

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Chapter 18: Fire and Fury
Strike for the heavens, and let the world burn.

Expecting the unexpected. A statement that many ponies will blithely spew without considering the true import of it. It is more than mere acknowledgment that something unplanned for may happen, more than acknowledging that something may go wrong. No, it is meticulous planning resulting in a level of preparation that can handle unforeseen events. What good is it to merely know that a plan may fail? Then again, those who claim to be prepared for any event? Those are the true fools. Of course, one never can be too prepared for the unexpected.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

Ponies cower as a winged shadow flies past, a massive shape rarely seen in the Wastelands without a reason. The figure falls from the sky in a graceful dive, a practiced motion that is simple, yet now perfectly executed through long use. Weapons slowly start to lower as she lands, clearly not affiliated with the Unity, a spark in her eyes belying intelligence, her cutie mark prominently displayed on her flank, a kind smile gracing her lips, the mare dark as the night, her mane as bright as the moon.

It was unbelieveable, unknowable... something that I would never have expected in a thousand years. Here, in the Wasteland, in the desolation of the ruins of Detrot, words escape my lips in a reverent whisper, words that I never expected to utter. “M-mother?”

She looks down at me, towering over me, a kind smile on her face as she smiles at me. “Nevermore... it is good to see you again... it has been so long.” Her dark coat is as beautiful as ever, her mane shimmering as if filled with a thousand stars.

“I thought you were dead... back in Trottingham.” My words are near breaking, my heart filled with sorrow and joy in equal measure... the unspoken question hovering between us. Why?

“My dearest daughter... you know that I would never choose to leave you, but I had something I had to do, so I faked my own death so that you would learn to grow strong on your own, without relying on the prestige of your heritage...” Her wings open wide, even as a dark light erupts from her horn as my mother looks down at me. Eternal Dream, daughter of Nightmare Moon... my mother. She gently picks me up with her warm magic, her smile genuine, even as I feel centuries of hate and sorrow wash from me like a gentle rain. “Now daughter, there is something you need to know, Something that only you can deal with, but not as you are, no, you must have more, must become more.” She holds out her hoof. “Come with me daughter, and we shall change the world.”

I reach out, tentatively, almost scared that all this was merely a dream, an illusion that would soon burst, leaving me trapped in the nightmare I had known for so long. Yet her hoof is warm and solid, allaying my fears. “Of course... of course I will go with you.”

Grasping her hoof, we take off through the sky, a dark meteor flying through the heavens, shattering through the barrier of clouds blotting out the sky. The Enclave barely has time to notice, let alone react, before we’re gone, higher and higher, the moon looming ever closer... “Come daughter, come and claim your legacy!”

~~~~~~~~~~

The base sprawls before us, a hidden civilization on the dark side of the moon. Ponies mill around, looking up to cheer as we soar past. One of the bays starts to open as we drop down into it, the cavernous hangar dwarfing the ponies inside, my mind aflame with curiosity of what it would contain. “Welcome to Luna’s Lament, the last hope for Equestria, the last hope for civilization.” She gestures with her hoof at the gathered ponies, a smile on her face. “You’ve endured much, daughter, but don’t worry, we’ll take care of you now...”

It seems too good to be true... everything I wanted, needed. Desperately I bury my face in her coat, hot tears washing down my face as I weep, needing this mother that I was denied for so many years...

“It’s alright dear... it’s alright now...” She gently sets me down, the metallic floor hard against my hooves as she leads me through the facility. My dead and decaying body fills me with shame, especially against her beauty and perfection. Yet she smiles at me as if understanding everything perfectly. “We can rebuild you, we have the technology.” The door slides open, revealing a vast complex inside the moon’s core. “We’ll take care of you here, daughter, so rest for now, and it will be alright.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, gradually, sense returns to me. The world is dark, voices muffled as strain to see, strain to hear. A faint whirring and a click repeats, keeping time for me as I finally open my eyes, the harsh light forcing them shut just as suddenly. “Easy there Nevermore, you’ll be fine, though it may take a little getting used to.” The voice is warm and gentle, reassuring.

“Am I alright, doctor?” My voice surprises me, rich and full as it once was, no longer the dry and raspy scratch that I had endured for decades. It was just like it was, all those years ago.

“Well, your body was in very bad shape, some sort of necromatic spell was simultaneously destroying and rebuilding it at the same time. Very powerful, very complex. You’re lucky your mother was here, because she was the only one strong enough to unravel the darned thing.” My eyes crack open again, revealing a stout doctor, his glasses perched up above his horn. A mousey brown mane frames his tan muzzle, even as he finishes checking off a clipboard. “Alright dear, try to stand up, if you will. But be careful, it’ll take a little getting used to.”

Slowly, I try to pull myself out of the bed, immediately noticing what he meant when I try to stand. I’m taller than I’m used to being, my leg slender and graceful, perfectly formed. There’s a faint whine as I manage to pull myself up to my new, much greater, height.

He coughs slightly. “As you can see, we had to do some extensive modifications to your body to finish the purging of the necromatic taint. Due to your heritage, we decided that this was probably the best way to complete the attachment of the necessary robotics, though there were a few side effects.” He taps the clipboard slightly. “First of all, we couldn’t seem to find a way to completely eliminate that pink cloud you can exhale, though we did manage to isolate it. As such, you can only manage to exhale it when you desire to.” He floats his pen up, tapping my forehead. “Additionally, well... it seems that your heritage chose you after all.” His pen raps against the horn on my forehead, causing me to go crosseyed looking at it. “Congratulations, Nevermore. You’re a princess now. Though of what, I have absolutely no idea.”

This all hits me like a wall, my mind struggling to accept everything even as I can feel dormant power stirring. I look over towards the full length mirror, and am struck by the beauty before me. Tall, dark, elegant, my red mane flowing back as if kissed by the sun itself. It takes some looking, but I can tell that a lot of the work was done with very fine robotics, hardly noticeable in its cunning design. “Our technicians did a fine job on you, though we also had to use some improved IMP to stabilize the operation. Now you should get up on the deck, I know your mother has a present for you.”

~~~~~~~~~~

The sky is filled with stars, a sight I had not seen in over a century, glistening like jewels set against a velvet cloth, shrouding us in its embrace. My mother sees me, smiling as I trot over, my new hooves clipping smartly on the floor as I get closer. “Hello again dear, are you feeling alright?” She looks at me, love and concern written on her face.

“Of course mother, everything’s fine. I feel great now.” That was the truth, I felt more alive now than I had in over a century. Gone was the pain, the sorrow, the regret, replaced with a sense of purpose, of life, an inner fire driving me on to a radiant future.

She smiles at me, her horn lighting up as she presses a button. The floor begins to rumble, a crack appearing in the middle as the panels slide open slowly. A trio of great figures begin to appear from the depths of the lunar base, rising on the elevator. Three great equine shapes, glimmering with forged metal, their waspish lines and form beautiful in function as well. The sleek barrels of energy weapons are cleanly attached to the armored monsters, each standing at the height of a small building. “Behold, the Lunar Guardian Mk. II, Eclipse pattern battle armors.” She nods towards the closest one. “This one is yours, as only our bloodline can pilot them successfully.”

The machine towered above me, black as the night, but highlighted with a royal blue. Emblazoned down a leg are letters written in silver. Vindicta. A suitable name, I suppose. Stepping up to the platform, I place my hooves in the indicated spots, armored boots rising up to clamp against my legs, interfacing with the implanted cybernetics. There’s a tingling and a short jolt of pain as the neural interface links up, and the platform begins to rise, bringing me into the cockpit.

Screens surround me, each displaying things that I don’t know or understand, though I think I can piece together some of the information, some of the displays. A ring descends onto my new horn, a crimson magic lighting the area as it activates, the great machine beginning to stir to life, fueled by my magic. <Systems online. Initiating programs. Operator recognized. Welcome aboard, Nevermore.> The mechanical voice is positively purring as she talks to me. <I am the Neurological Observation Manager, but you can call me NOM.>

I look around slightly, the contraption hooked to my horn moving with my head. “Greetings then, Nom. Can you explain what this is?” I try to see the thing attached to my horn, going crosseyed in the process.

<Of course... that is the Magical and Ocular Movement System, or M.O.M.S. It uses the flow of magic from your horn, coupled with the nervous impulses in order to direct the movements of Vindicta’s head and body. The legs are operated by moving your own, as it proved to be a more stable platform, able to tap into the users own innate sense of balance.> Who knew, Nom was both friendly and instructive.

“Thank you Nom, now how do the weapons work in the event that I need them?” While I assumed we were safe, I still prefered knowing how to fight if required.

<Once activated, the weapons are linked to the optical array that is integrated into the M.O.M.S. system. The primary weapons are a pair of Eclipse Nova Pulse cannons. There is an array of supporting weapons and devices, including a laser based anti-missile system and tactical camouflage. Weapon discharge is accomplished by force of will, which also adjusts the power consumed as well.>

A klaxon begins to blare, the lights flashing red and yellow as ponies begin to evacuate the hanger. “Warning, Guardians preparing for launch. Please vacate the hanger now. Warning...” Once they’re clear, the great blast doors begin to open, revealing the stars behind them.

A voice whispers in my ear as NOM keeps talking to me. <The approaching vessels appear to be a Galaxy-class battleship from the Chrysalis Dominion... prepare yourself for combat.>

I flex my hooves, feeling the machine move along with me in response. “I was born ready.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level ??!

You’re now a Cybernetic Alicorn Mecha Pilot. I have absolutely no idea what level you’re supposed to be.

New Trait: Cyber Pony - You gain +2 to Strength, Endurance, Perception and Agility due to the electronics now composing your body. Unfortunately, sometimes your ears will pick up strange radio signals.

New Trait: Alicorn - You now know magic, and can cast any spell that you know or observe.

New Trait: Mecha Pilot - You have the ability to pilot a giant suit of armor! You can pilot any vehicle more than two stories tall.

New Trait: Newfound Hope - Equestria is kinda saved! On the moon! Life’s not so bad now, is it?

Chapter 18: Road to Eternity

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Chapter 18: Road to Eternity

Scatter them to the winds, let none find rest under this accursed sky.

What can be said about a friend? They are there for you, even when you do not deserve them. And they are there to tell you things, even when you do not wish to hear them. It seems that they can be more trouble than they are worth, maintaining a relationship, listening to those in need. Yet... the fact remains. While there may be a certain inconvenience with being attached to others, it is a simple fact that they provide a spark of life in an otherwise dreary world. I miss those I could call my friends dearly, though I would never tell them such a thing. It is a lonely road I walk, yet I cannot bring others with me. They must never know my secrets... my loneliness. My pain.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

Alone again. The silence of the road, unbroken by chatter and company. A familiar thing to me, yet now foreign. I had spent too much time in the company of the others. Ponies, it seems, were naturally drawn to others, even bitter and lonely ones like myself. Something inside of us craved company, though those like myself may deny it. My hooves clip off the road as I walk amidst the death and debris of the broken wasteland. Alone. For now, at least. My mind wanders as I walk... should I show up again? Perhaps it would be best if I just faded away, leaving my companions to their happiness, leaving them to what joy they can muster in this Wasteland. They have safety now, somewhat, and they have each other. The reason I had joined, to protect Zone Control and Frisky Fritter, has passed. They’re hardened now, no longer reliant on me to warn them of all the dangers. They’ve grown from being the naive Stable ponies that I had first encountered, to strong wasteland fighters, now fully capable of surviving without me. They don’t follow me to survive now. No... now they just follow me to death.

I mull the matter in my mind, keeping what I had learned hidden, even from the others. Head Case had told me that more was needed than to just merely play my role with the box. No, the Warlords of Detrot were still out there, and one had an iron grip on the Dead Zone. Memento Fallen, ruler of that forsaken hell. Striking him down would be a boon to my cause, providing a window for my Captain to be recovered. Yet, to strike down a Warlord was far beyond even my ability, and would assuredly mean the death of all those with me. It was doubtful we would even get close, and definitely fatal no matter the outcome. But... these thoughts are morose and idle. I need to move quickly, needing to stay within my self imposed time limit. There will be plenty time for recrimination later, or the release of sweet oblivion. Breaking into a gallop, my wings open as I take to the skies, flying low to avoid notice. Time... something I have had far too much of recently, the years stretching into decades. Yet now there is not enough, not nearly enough. My mind wanders as I fly, the rhythmic beat of my wings propelling me towards the uncertain future.

~~~~~~~~~~

“So, Nevermore was it? Are you doing alright?” The rose colored pegasus pokes her head into the doorway, even as I sit on the bed, my book snapping shut as she enters. They had provided the reading, but old habits die hard. The darkly bound book was filled with poetry and stories, something I was familiar with, that provided me comfort.

I hesitate slightly as she asks, the name Written Verse was still more familiar to me. My new one, Nevermore, was a name chosen spontaneously to hide my identity and show my remorse and sorrow. But it is how I will be known now. A new future, a new identity. “Yes, it is. And I am fine. Nessia... that is your name, correct?” I move slowly and painfully though several days had passed, my body still recovering from that day, the day my life ended. I hide the pain behind my eyes, forcing my face to an impassive mask. Never again would I allow somepony close enough to hurt me again. I put up walls to keep others away, even these who saw me weak and vulnerable. I silently swear to myself that nopony would ever see me like that again. Not my father, not these ponies... never again.

She nods as she pushes the door fully open, a small tray on her back, a steaming bowl of soup and a hunk of bread resting upon it. “Yeah, but you can call me Nessy if you want. Brought you something to eat, figured you needed to.” She smiles kindly at me, the smell of food causing my stomach to rumble slightly. “Brought something a little special too, to help you feel better.” From inside her voluminous sweater, she produces a bottle, the top corked and label worn, along with a pair of glasses. “Chilled hard cider!” It seemed the mare had endless pockets in that thing, able to pull out what she wanted at a whim.

I shake my head slightly, her smile fading a bit as she watches me. “I do not drink.” My mournful tone causes her face to fall further, even as I look up to her. “But... do not let me stop you.”

She puts the tray on the nightstand, and hops up onto the bed, looking at me. “Well, I’m not going to make you drink anything, but what’s wrong?” The concern in her eyes is touching, but my spirit rebels against it. I do not want pity... my pride will not permit it. I may be fallen, lost and alone, but I still have my dignity.

I look away from her, not wanting to meet her gaze, not wanting her to see my pain. Already I feel my face harden, shielding my thoughts, my feelings, myself. “Nothing... I am fine.” My voice is flat and cold, devoid of any warmth or emotion.

My head whips around as the mare snatches my hat off my head, letting my crimson locks flow freely. “Well, I’ll just hang onto this until you let me know what’s wrong, alright?” She plops my hat on her own head, smiling at me from beneath the wide brim. I was surprised by how fast she was. I had barely noticed she took it. While I could blame my injuries slowing me down, the truth was that I didn’t see it until she had already lifted it.

But still, I can’t help it. She looks ridiculous like that, my hat perched jauntily on her head, completely at odds with her dark red sweater. My mouth starts to curl up into a smirk, before the weight of the past and my sorrows come crashing down on me again. That hat was precious to me. It was given to me by my mother, just before her death. A proper lady... that’s what she called me the first time I wore it, my heart swelling with pride. Then she was taken from me. Forever. “Very well... do what you will.” I know she’s just trying to make me feel better, yet such was my despair that it swallowed everything else up.

“Hey, none of that now. You’re alive, and I did the cooking, so it’s good. Just try some, alright?” She gives me a pat on the shoulder, this stranger that I had just met. One of the ponies that had saved my life on the sea. Why did they do that? Why do they care for me? I was nopony to them. If anything, I was a burden. Wounded and riddled with pain. They didn’t need me around. I had nothing to offer and everything to cost them. A fugitive without a home, a pirate without a ship. A murderer without remorse. “And if you just want to talk... well, the Captain’s taking the helm, so I have time.”

I look at her, wanting to tell her everything. Wanting to reveal how my life had begun to crash down, beginning with the death of my mother, and winding its way through the years until culminating with the betrayal that left me nearly dead on this strange ship, the Flickerjack. Yet, I do not. I cannot. Though I have been forsaken and outcast, I will not besmirch my family’s name, even now. “Thank you. But that is not necessary right now.” I start to eat the soup, the warmth welcome and much needed, my body famished and weak. She’s a good cook at least, and as I eat, she drops my hat back on the bed next to me.

“Alright then, Nevermore. I don’t know what happened to you, but you’re welcome to the Flickerjack. If you need anything, just let me know, alright?” She slips out the door, closing it gently behind her. I watch the door for a little bit, then bury my face into the pillow to muffle my quiet sobs, staining it with bitter tears.

~~~~~~~~~~

A high pitched scream breaks me out of my memories, snapping me back into full attention even as I fly. Dropping from the sky, I start to move carefully, seeing what was happening, seeing if I could avoid it. This isn’t my fight, and I do so hate trying to intervene. Yet, it is good to know what’s going on, avoiding a casual blunder into crossfire. Alighting on a diner, apparently one named ‘Carrot Sticks’, I spy the confrontation unfolding before me. A caravan is under assault, raiders starting to swarm the beleaguered ponies. A chocolate colored mare hides behind cover, her shotgun peeking over the side of the overturned sky chariot. Her mane was a mix of dark and light... and she looked a bit familiar.

With a fierce roar, another storm of pellets erupts from her gun, sending another raider crashing to the ground. Despite the caravan’s defense, it was clear that they were going to be overrun soon as more ponies start to move around the defenses. My heart drops as I see a small shape scrambling through the ruins towards the shotgun wielding mare, a bag dragging behind the foal. Ponies lived and died as they would, cast to the cruel fate of the wastes. Yet the little ones, the foals, could not protect themselves, could not defend themselves. It fell on others to watch and ward them from the perils that would harm them. This one was charging into a war zone with a bag full of shells and ammunition. My gaze hardens as I start to analyze the fight. Looks like I need to get involved after all.

Dropping from the roof, I descend upon one of the flanking raiders. They never look up until it’s far too late. My knife buries into his neck ensuring that he won’t learn that particular lesson in this life. A vicious twist also ensures that he wouldn’t get up, even as I fall on the next one, my face and cloak splattered with the blood of the fallen. One after another, they fall, from the snick of a blade to the roar of a gun, even as they finally start to turn and find me. The raiders fight back, lashing out, biting, shooting small arms. But at this range, they’re more dangerous to themselves than to me. My skill and my armor lets me avoid most of the damage, a small caliber round skipping off my armored dress. Slipping to the side, my hoof shoves a rifle away even as it roars, even as I bury my knife up into another raider, feeling the thunk as the knife skips off her ribs. Ah, I remember now. That’s how I knew the chocolate mare.

The world falls silent as the rest of the raiders are either dead or fleeing. There would be no pursuit, the caravan busy licking its wounds and burying its dead. More importantly, there was no profit in vengeance. I could understand the feeling.

There’s the sound of a pistol chambering a round, loud over the sudden stillness. “Don’t make any sudden moves, and nopony gets hurt.” The gruff stallion holds his pistol at me. Large caliber. Could probably punch through my armor, though I doubt it would outright kill me. He’s welcome to try though, it would be short and brutally messy for him.

Still, no reason to get shot unnecessarily. I calmly start to wipe my knife on the coat of a fallen raider, cleaning the blade even as my voice rasps out. “Bit late for that, do you not think?” I look the tan stallion over quickly. Looks like a competent fighter, and the scars and blood on him declare his willingness to get into a fight if needed. He doesn’t seem amused by my deadpan retort, though at least he’s not trying to shoot me.

“It’s alright Steady, she’s solid.” The chocolate mare trots towards us, the foal staying near her side. Though she’s armored now, I can imagine the scar where my knife had taken her in the ribs. Looks like she survived after all.

“If ya say so Bitter.” He gives a short snort of derision, his pistol disappearing into his coat as he turns away. “Just make sure that none of the raiders get back up. Don’t want more trouble. This run has been costly already.” I get the feeling that he wasn’t just talking about blood... or was even particularly interested in that, but rather the cold hard caps.

I raise an eyebrow as I start to sheathe my knives, slipping them into my dress. “Bitter? That’s your name?” I make sure each of my knives are clean, as I don’t want to get blood in their sheaths or cause them to stick later in a fight.

“Bittersweet, actually.” She pulls the foal up closer to look at me. “And this is Gwenivera... she’s mine.” I watch the small foal, a bag full of medical supplies and shotgun shells draped over her shoulder. “Are the other two still with you, or...” She shakes her head slightly, looking back over her shoulder towards the rest of the caravan. “I never did thank you for... not killing me that day.” There’s a bit of a hard edge to her tone however. Justified, considering the last time we met I had intended to execute her. Still, I didn’t, and she is live. What more could a pony ask for?

I shake my head, somewhat satisfied that she seems to be doing well, glad that the mercy Zone asked me for was not for naught. “They are fine... and you seem to be doing better.” I look at her, trying to reconcile the pretty mare in front of me with the wild eyed raider that I had nearly killed. There’s the faint smell of chocolate in the air, even as I look down at Gwenivera. “So you did have a foal. I thought perhaps you had made it up, asking for mercy.”

She gives a short laugh. “You nearly killed me... but guess you saved me too.” She looks down at Gwenivera. “Now I can look back... and say it was a mistake. But times were tough... and I couldn’t just... well.” She ruffles the foal’s mane lovingly, even as she starts to load the shotgun again.

Nodding understanding, I keep my face impassive. She may not be a raider now, but she was then, so I felt no remorse at nearly ending her life. I would have too, if Zone didn’t stop me then. Still, some small part of me was glad that my act of mercy then was not betrayed by the cruelty of the Wastes. Well, at least not yet. Optimism is in short supply in general, and I find that for me it’s just not worth the pain to hope any more.

“So where are you up to then? By yourself this time it seems.” The mare holsters her shotgun, pulling a stream of shells from the foal’s bag into her own. Even as she talks, her gaze flicks around, looking for trouble, on guard even now.

“Going North. Past the barrier.” Her eyes grow a little wide as I say that. “Have something to do up there.” I understand her concern. The barrier was held by the Steel Rangers, and was notoriously hard to get through. Layers of defenses, turrets, and guards made it nearly impossible to approach unharmed, and they weren’t exactly the sort to just let a pony stroll through.

“The barrier? Doubt you can just walk through... what do you have to do with the can heads anyways? Some are alright, but some just... well, they just ain’t right.” She spits to the side, clearly having her own thoughts on the Rangers. Something it seemed that many ponies shared. For my part, I didn’t have much of an opinion of them. Better armed thugs, I never had the technology they craved, so they were more likely to leave me alone.

I hesitate for a second, weighing my response. I can’t reveal my full objective, my full purpose. Trust nopony, that is a lesson harshly learned but never forgotten. “Somepony needs me... and I cannot rest until this is done.”

She looks over me, as if analyzing what sort of pony I am. “A friend?”

“I do not have those any more.” There’s that awkward silence, one that I’m used to though it can still feel uncomfortable. I look around, bodies lying on the ground, raiders and guards alike. Death falls heavy on everypony, guilty and just alike. But which was I at this point? A hard question to be sure. Driven by guilt to fight for redemption. Driven by hate to perpetuate my sins. Sometimes I don’t know if I want to scream, cry, or just snap. A ticking time bomb, a guillotine hanging by a single thread... the doom of those around me. The weight of the death I have seen weighs on me again, smothering and stifling my drive, though not extinguishing it. Not again. “I should move on. I need to move on.”

Bittersweet slips up to me, dropping something into my bag. “Take this then... was going to sell it, but figure I owe you one... for me and her.” Her eyes flick down to Gwenivera as she says this. The heavy metal object settles in, even as I look over to her. “Will help with the barrier at least... Just don’t let Steady know.”

Normally, I would be adverse to taking her help, from taking any help, yet... yet I did not want to fail. Last time I had cleared the barrier, it was through a combination of luck, bravado, and sheer bloody-mindedness, coupled with my unnatural toughness. I had a suspicion of what it was, and if my thoughts were correct, it was a valuable gift indeed... for a time. Nodding my head politely, I prepare to take off, then hesitate. I reach into my bag, tossing her a bag of caps. “I hate owing others.” That is true, but I also have the feeling that my journey would soon end. Perhaps another could use the things I will leave behind more than some corpse searcher would. An idle hope, but at least better than imagining the alternative. Things were coming to a head, it seems, whispers of fear and darkness... My part of this finale was yet to come, but I felt drawn in, like a moth to a flame. No more words were spoken. None were needed. Opening my wings, I take to the skies again, leaving the caravan behind me, my heart heavy, my mind drifting.

That seemed to happen more, these days, losing track of the rest of the world. I suppose I was just old and tired, remembering what was, as opposed to what was around me. My memory was tattered at times, though with my journal I can usually replace the pieces. An old mare with a weary soul. Still, my mind looks towards the wall, the great barrier... and the future that lies behind it.

~~~~~~~~~~

Knight Initiate Sure Shot was bored. Not just bored, painfully bored. The Great Barrier Wall separated the top section of Detrot from the rest of the city, a bastion against the savages of the rest of the city. The Steel Rangers were loved or feared, though for Sure Shot, he didn’t really care about any of that. No, he was sitting in a room, surrounded by the whirr of electronics. Officially, he was supposed to be watching for anypony trying to breach the Barrier without authorization. Unofficially, he had nothing to do but sit there and drink hot caffeinated beverages in a losing battle to stay awake. Nothing ever happened that required his attention. The automated turrets would handle anypony unauthorized, and the rest had to pass through the great gates where other ponies would handle it. No, his job was here because nopony else was unlucky enough to draw it, and the rules dictated that there had to be a pony here to keep an eye on it.

He sighs, watching the screen blip at him again. There was a story told by ponies banished to this room, passed down for several decades, about how a Tartarus born daemon, tore through the wall. Tales varied from there, some claiming that it was a phantom that disappeared as soon as it showed up. Others claimed that it was a vengeful spirit with claws as sharp as daggers. He didn’t believe any of them, just an old mare’s tale to scare the ponies stuck here on guard duty. Still, it could be worse. At least he didn’t have to patrol the Wastes with the monsters and tribals out there.

Perhaps due to inattention, perhaps due to being tired, he doesn’t notice the console start beeping at him, not right away. The constant noise eventually drew his attention though, causing him to stare in confusion at the screen for a few seconds. A bright dot was rapidly approaching the Barrier, the contact seeming to go past the outlying checkpoints and patrols... or over them. “Uh... Command? This is Knight Initiate Sure Shot... we have a situation here... we have a contact approaching fast.”

A voice crackles over the radio. “Understood Initiate... keep an eye on it and report as required. The patrols should handle it.” The voice seems almost bored, a feeling he could understand, but the contact just went through the furthest lines of defense, and was closing quickly.

“Command? It seems to be... a flier? It’s bypassed the checkpoints, and appears to be on a direct course with the wall.” His voice is starting to get a little panicked. What is this? Shouldn’t they have shot them down yet? Was this the Wall Daemon?

“A flier? Are you sure? Stand by.” There’s a pause of a few seconds, and Sure Shot can imagine the Paladin barking orders, getting confirmation. “We have a visual, Initiate. Seems to be a pegasus. The turrets should handle her.”

“Understood Command.” Well, at least this was something, the stallion breathing a sigh of relief. Still, he almost felt bad for this pegasus. The turrets would certainly knock her out of the air. What were they thinking? Everypony in the area would know about the Barrier, would know better than to try and approach it. Was she trying to kill herself maybe? Seconds tick by with nothing happening. Shouldn’t the turrets have fired by now? He looks over at the screen, checking to see if they were malfunctioning. No, all green still... so what’s wrong? His eyes grow wide as he slams the button on the radio again. “Command? The turrets aren’t responding. I think they have an identifier! I repeat, the turrets are not engaging!”

“What? That’s impossible... only Rangers should...” There’s a break in the connection again before the Paladin’ voice comes back, cold and hard. “A patrol was reported lost earlier in an ambush. This pegasus might have taken their identifier. Switch to manual, take them down.”

“Y-yes sir!” Slaving the turrets to manual fire, Sure Shot waits for the link up to finish. By the Goddesses, this pegasus was fast. She was already nearly to the wall, only time for a few shots...

~~~~~~~~~~

Things were going as planned, something I’m not used to expecting. The transponder in my bag keeping the turrets from targeting me, though there’s a few pot shots from the ground. Just like last time, though this time no massive pulses of laser energy fling up at me. No sooner had I thought this, then my ears catch the thrum of something charging. Dropping to the side abruptly, a searing beam of light just misses me, lancing up from the previously quiet turrets. Looks like things just got more complicated. Dodging about, I twist and drop, making it harder for whoever’s manning the turrets to get a lock. More fire lances up at me, the smaller shells missing my quick form, though several bite and sting through my armor, singeing my coat. Fortunately, the ponderous cannons weren’t meant to engage such a small target this close, buying me just enough time to twist out of the way.

Blood and flesh falls behind me as the punishing fire tries to bring me down... just a little closer, just a little closer. Pouring as much as I can into my wings, I finally burst past the wall, the fire stopping abruptly as if a switch were suddenly thrown. I release a breath that I had been holding. This time was just as harrowing as last time... Still, I could see my objective in the distance. The Shadowbolt Memorial Museum. A standing tribute to a great mare and her daring heroics during the War. I remember her, the famous Rainbow Dash. I had seen her from time to time in Ponyville, never having liked the brash mare during those times. No, she and her friends were always a constant source of irritation for me. That all changed, during the war. She became a leader, a symbol. Representing the pride and daring of the pegasus race. Led by her example, pegasi became a terrifying force for the zebras to deal with. Fast, hard hitting, and highly mobile, which is why they sought the aid of dragons and griffons, contesting our aerial supremacy... still. That was then. Now we’re the shattered remnants of a proud group, ignorant of our true heritage, forsaking those that fought for our futures... but my past looms before me, even as the future drives me. Though to what degree, I didn’t realize yet.

~~~~~~~~~~

The museum stands before me, even as I stand drenched beneath the weeping skies. A torrential rain had begun to pour, washing the Wasteland, pouring down my face in tears that I can no longer shed. Regrets... it seems that was all I had left sometimes. Regrets and hatred. I feel old, tired. The weight of history burdening me as I look at the shattered remains of the museum. Time had not been kind to the structure, the walls broken in places, scorched in others. Yet it lingers on, much like myself, much like Equestria. Sighing deeply, I press my hoof up against the door, the hinge screeching as I open it, stepping inside. The storm continues to beat against the building, distracting my attention. I used to love the rain, listening to it rattle against my window. A beautiful piece of stained glass, a somber memorial to my family now lost to me. Sometimes, I still wonder what happened to them after I fled. My father, my siblings... I pray their end was quick when Equestria fell. Finally, I notice something that would have screamed danger if I wasn’t so preoccupied. The floor was clean, meticulously so. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a dull red gleam and the faint whine of servos and gears. Cursing silently, I start to turn, but too slowly, a metal shod hoof crashing into the side of my face, tearing off a chunk of flesh.

Sliding across the tile floor, I roll over, trying to find my hooves again, trying to get up before my assailant jumps me again. I feel a pair of hooves grab me from behind, and before I know it, I’m propelled through the air where I slam into the wall. Snarling my anger, I launch off the wall, my dagger flashing, to be intercepted by a metal hoof, the other pony shoving me back, even as her voice brings me up short, my dagger pressed against her leg. “Nevermore.”

I finally look at my attacker, my eyes tracing up to her face, even as I pull my dagger back, slipping it into my cloak again. “Nessy.”

~~~~~~~~~~

“Why do you let me stay here? You hardly know me.” I look over at the rose colored pegasus as she flies up to the crow’s nest, my hat blocking out the blazing sun overhead. The boat sways slightly, but I don’t mind. The sea was something I was familiar with, a second home. My mind focuses on the world around me, but my heart is still at my old home... How many of them knew? How many were complicit? Little Sonnet would be the Lady of the Loft now, I assume. Young, innocent... how long until her hooves were stained with blood? I never told her what I did, what the family did. I never told any of them. I was their big sister, and I had meant to keep all the cruelty of the world hidden from them. They probably assume I am dead, consigned to a watery grave. They wouldn’t search for me, of this at least I am certain. Even if I lived, they would prefer to bury the memory of me, forgetting that I actually exist. It was a measure of pragmatism and efficiency... even a daughter would be discarded in a heartbeat for the safety of the house. Loyalty above all else. I close my eyes, my mouth feeling like ash even as that engrained memory wars with my anger at betrayal. I flirt with the idea of vengeance, bringing those who caused my suffering under my hoof and crushing them. But I bury such feelings. It would destroy the family if I did that... so I will suffer in silence, live in exile.

Nessy looks at me as she perches on the side of the crow’s nest. “Because you needed help. Not like we’re going to throw you back.” She smiles at me. “Besides, you can help keep the Captain in line too. He’s a full time job sometimes.”

I roll my eyes as I listen to her, my mind wandering to thoughts of the idiot running this ship. “I can imagine... Forgive my... bluntness, but I do not see how he can function as a pony, let alone as the Captain of this vessel... if anything, I would think that you would be better suited for it.”

She shakes her head. “He’s just the Captain... and he’s really not that bad once you get used to him.” She looks out over the horizon, the mare smiling as she pulls her goggles down to shield her eyes.

“What... what are you doing out here? I am not familiar with your vessel, or you. Are you new to these waters?” I’m honestly surprised they haven’t been attacked or worse. These waters had as facade of control, but were very dangerous. I, of all ponies, should know about pirate attacks on unaffiliated vessels.

She smiles at she looks back over at me. “We’re exploring, sailing the seas...” She gently boops my nose, even as I wrinkle it in a mix of shock and dismay. “And we fish ponies out of the ocean too.”

I ignore her statement for now, though I will have to take affront to the booping later. I see something that I feared. “Sail... 11 o’ clock.” A feeling of dread fills me as I see the flag... one I had sailed under for years. “Pirates.”

Nessy nods her head and dives back down to the deck, taking over the helm immediately. Hopefully they don’t notice us... and if they do, hopefully we can outrun them.

~~~~~~~~~~

The other mare looks at me for a second before her hoof slams into my face, sending me sliding across the floor again. Rubbing at my jaw, I spit to the side, a wad of dark blood splattering the floor. She hit harder than I remembered, even with my unnaturally resilient form. “It is... good to see you again. Though I wish it were under better conditions.”

She looks at me, her cybernetic hoof clipping of the ground as she walks closer to me, a mechanical gleam behind one of her eyes. “You idiot.”

Pulling myself up again, I give a snort. “Indeed... that much has been known for a while.” I stand still, making no motion to defend myself. I couldn’t fight her. I couldn’t fight Nessy. “If you want to finish this... then feel free. You have more right than any else. I would say I am sorry for what I did, but I cannot... even though...” Remorse and guilt threaten to overwhelm me, my eyes threatening to tear up despite my hardened exterior. “I... I thought you were all dead... when the Flickerjack crashed... I was told you were all killed. It was because of me, you know...”

She shakes her head as she moves closer. “Not for that... for not telling me. And for leaving. You think you were the only one worried, Nevermore? If you had let me help you, maybe it would have been different. Maybe not.” The mare puts her hoof on me, the heavy weight of the cybernetically enhanced mare’s leg weighing on my shoulder. “I understood what you did then, just as I do now... wasn’t very bright of you... and you didn’t have to leave... but I did know.”

I shake my head. Nessy... she was always there, always knew. A pillar that I had but didn’t realize. I should have though. She was the pony closest to me on the Flickerjack, the closest that I could manage to almost call a friend. Leaning against her, I just start to cry. A hundred years of loneliness, a hundred years of sorrow and regret. Only to now realize that I would have had a pony to share my burden if I had only opened myself up to others. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that my betrayal still lead to all the death and suffering... no, it would have been a comfort, but it is one that I don’t deserve. Even now, I still cannot forgive myself for the actions I had taken.

She gently pats my shoulder, before her metallic hoof reaches out and boops my mask. “Come on Nevermore... I haven’t seen you in a while. I’ll start up some tea for us.”

We walk through the empty halls, the museum stricken by time and disuse. Yet even as we walk, there are other signs of habitation here and there. Nessy didn’t seem worried, so I figured it was something she expected. We talk as we walk, having decades to catch up. My condition, hers... things that had changed through time, reminiscing about the past. Our first encounter with pirates together, where a mix of her skill and my knowledge allowed us to evade our pursuers. Finally, we end up gathered around a broken table, laid on its side amidst the rubble. Our cups of tea are carefully perched on it, steaming softly. Finally, we turn to the matter at hoof. “So what brings you here? The memorial is the last place I thought I’d see you.”

This was the moment I dreaded. Now I know why Head Case didn’t tell me what was here. If I had known, I might have never come. Still, it was good to see Nessy, despite all the pain it was causing me. “I need his horn... and some of his personal effects. Head Case said they would be here. I now see that he meant you. It makes sense... you would be the one to keep his things.”

“His horn? What do you need it for?” She pulls a bottle out of her jacket, using it ‘enhance’ her tea. She doesn’t offer me any, knowing that I would refuse. It had been quite a while since I managed to find a decent cup, and Nessy did always seem to be prepared. “Not planning to do any of that weird dark magic stuff, do you?” She snorts as she sips her fortified tea.

“Nothing so... strange as that. Just a hope, and a dream of redemption.” I swirl my tea, smelling it as I focus my thoughts. “Just a dream...” I think to Head Case, and what he promised me... why have I agreed to this? Perhaps it was because I had nothing to lose now, nothing to tie me down. Still... he promised to explain it later... and I warned him that he better. He knew how long I could carry a grudge, after all.

“You can stay here, you know? You don’t have to go. I’ll let the others know why you did that... I’m sure they’ll realize... not all of us made it, but some did.” So some yet lived, at least some the result of something I had heard of before. Project Second Wind... a chance to allow soldiers to fight again, to live again. Nessy herself was here because of that project... along with some faces that I do not wish to show my face to. Faces that I had fought with then abandoned, leaving them to die. No. I dare not face them.

“No, I cannot stay. I have to keep moving. That is my path. I cannot settle down yet. I must keep moving, always moving.” I smoothly rise to my hooves, shaking my head as my veil swishes past my face. “No. There is no place for me, but you already knew that.”

Nessy doesn’t say anything, her eyes gauging me. Weighing and measuring. I look back flatly. Even if she wanted to pretend that the others would accept me, we both knew it was a lie. I am Nevermore, the forsaken, the cursed. The damned. No, there was no rest for me, no succor amongst those who knew me. In life I was feared, in death I am hated. The weight of my sins and the depth of my sorrow isolating me now even as it did then. No, I cannot stay. Wordlessly, she heads over to a small cabinet, pulling out a box and a bag. “You know, I never thought I’d actually need these... just kept them as a reminder, you know?” I take a look into the bag, a familiar pair of boots sitting in them, along with a familiar white horn amidst other things.. “Some of his effects... try to get them back if things don’t work out. Not much to remember him by now.” Nodding my head slightly, I look at the box curiously as Nessy pushes it towards me. The matte black box is trimmed with silver, a stylized N gracing its top in an elegant engraving.

My heart stops as I look at Nessy. “But how did...”

She shrugs, shaking her head. “When you disappeared, I decided to pick it up for you. Not really the thing to leave laying around, after all, with the rumors and stuff. Besides, she’s yours anyways, so I’m sure she’s glad to be back home.”

I can feel a whispering in the back of my mind, a familiar voice that I hadn’t heard for many long years. Carefully, I open the case, the object inside seeming to absorb the light into it’s obsidian blade. Aer Arcanum. The runes edging it thirsted for magic, something I was quite familiar with, my cursed weapon against a unicorn’s strength. We were similar to each other, really. Hated by foes, feared by friends, surrounded by dark rumors. “No... I cannot use her again, Nessia. Not after what she has done... what I made her do.”

“Nonsense.” I tip over as Nessy smacks me in the side of the head. By the moon, she hits hard, far harder than I remembered. “If this is as important as you say it is, you can’t just ignore her. You’re going to need anything to give you an edge, so swallow your pride and get it done, Nevermore.” I look at her as she stands over me. “I’m trusting you with these, so make sure you bring ‘em back, alright? In one piece.” She stares at me, the mare uncompromising and stubborn, as she was wont to be at times. “That includes you, Nevermore. You come back as well. I’m not done smacking you for being an idiot, so don’t you dare not make it back.”

I say nothing else. There is nothing else to say to her at this point. I take back Aer Arcanum, slipping her into the empty sheathe on my back, feeling her weight again, her thirst. It had been quite a while, since she had fed. The bag slips into my own, relics of a forgotten time. Setting my heart, quelling my doubts, I turn out of the memorial, the whispers of ponies following me. There are faces I recognize, voices remembered. A chemist, an acquaintance, an old foe, a multitude of ghosts from my past... but I don’t look at any of them. I dare not linger in the past any further, lest I never move on. No, my purpose is set now, my future uncertain, but my path laid out. One way or another, this chapter of my life will close.

~~~~~~~~~~

Well well, Nevermore, a blast from the past. At least you finally got your tea. Didn’t get enough experience for a level, but you knew that already... what you did get though, was:

Unique Inventory: Aer Arcanum - This cursed dagger has the ability to nullify magic to some degree. Eternally thirsting, this rune-etched obsidian blade provides a wicked advantage in close combat, though there’s something off about her... Ars Arcanum has two states. When uncharged, she functions as a normal, albeit unnaturally sharp and resilient, dagger. After engorging herself on magic, she will ignore the target’s DT and increase her own damage, proportional to how much magic she’s absorbed.

Chapter 19: Requiem for the Lost

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Chapter 19: Requiem for the Lost

Look now, how the bell tolls. Look now, how the proud shall fall.

Raise your head and sing... a song of sorrow, a song of lamentations. Gone and lost, gone and lost... everypony close to me fades to dust and ash, withered by the ravages of time or the cruelty of others. How do you describe a loss? How do you define pain? You cannot, really. You can describe it intellectually, but there are no words for the soul crushing pain that slams down on you like a black tide. You can only scream your defiance, a wordless cry against the sorrows of the world. Time must wait for grief. The world must wait for sorrow. There is nothing left now, but to move on. I will not forget you... any of you. But I must continue on. My final tribute to the fallen will be the completion of our task... this I swear, upon your shallow graves. I will never forget. But more importantly, for you my fallen, more importantly, I shall never forgive. I am become wrath. I am become fury. They have sown the seeds of death, now let them reap the harvest.
~ From the Journal of Nevermore

Going back through the Wall is much easier than the first time. Their defense are set against those trying to get in... they barely spare a thought for an old ghoul trying to leave. There’s no technology on me that the Steel Rangers would want, nothing about me that they would care for. I was just another old ghoul to them, a walking corpse that they had no interest in. All it took was a few caps for the toll, and I was back on my way to the Blok... back on my way to my companions. I exhale deeply, my deadly breath caught and contained by the water sloshing in my mask. The hissing wheeze draws the attention of a passing merchant, but he quickly hurries past. I toy with the thought of just heading into the Dead Zone myself, leaving my companions at the rendezvous, waiting for me. They’d give up eventually, if I never showed. But, they earned the right to see this through. It was just up to them whether they wanted to see it through. That thought had occurred to me as well... perhaps none of them would show up. Part of me hoped for that, so I could continue on with no regrets. I shake my head slightly. If only I would be so fortunate. No, this was the endgame... perhaps the end of my story as well. I open my wings and take to the skies, thoughts of where I came from driving me to where I was going.

~~~~~~~~~~

“No, I will not accept it.” My voice lashes out, hard and bitter, the fury and rage clearly audible behind my words. I slam a dagger into the soft soil, burying it to the hilt. “You cannot just let this stand.” Minor G. Symphony, the ship’s musician, takes a step towards me, but my molten gaze cuts him off, his support unwelcome and unneeded. My long mane was cut shorter, a gentle bob that made it easier to fight. I had resisted for a while, but the needs of the war must. I did so detest cutting my long mane shorter. What the new manestyle doesn’t do, however, is hide the anger and pain in my eyes. Eyes flaring with fury and hatred.

“It’s the right choice, Nevermore... we’d only lose more if we went back.” Nessy tries to calm me, but I scorn her comforting presence, my eyes locked on the white unicorn in front of me.

“Captain. They have her body. I will not let those... those Zebras defile her any further.” My hooves slam the ground, though the soft soil robs it of the impact. I snarl my wordless rage. “If you will not get her body, then I will.” I interrupt my captain as he tries to speak, my words hammering into him like a feral storm, a fury that he has to endure. “I do not care what you may think of this, I do not care what the cost may be. I am going back, and Tartarus take me if I leave her for them.”

We stare at each other for a few seconds, before he breaks his gaze finally. “The Flickerjack will wait here for no more than two hours, Nevermore.” He turns back to the ship, organizing the crew to prepare her for takeoff. “Try to make it back on time.” Most of the crew looks torn, before turning back to help the ship. I know that most feel as I do, but they also know the risk... and the cost, for naught but a corpse. Most will not meet my eyes, knowing what I was going to ask from them. I knew the cost too, but in my pride and my anger, I ignored it.

I ignored it, and we paid dearly. I barely made it out myself. Some of my comrades didn’t. Their blood was on my hooves, not for some great gain, but rather for a point of pride. Pride, the killer of legions. I refused to accept defeat, refused to accept my own mortality. And those close to me paid for it with their lives. I don’t know when the dreams started, not any more, but even now, they haunt my dreams, reminding me of my failures and their deaths. The dreams never fade, they just continue to add to each other, drowning me in blood.

~~~~~~~~~~

The Dead Zone. It had been nearly a month since I left my companions in the Blok. I would barely make it in the time restriction that I had imposed on myself. My heart begins to race as I get closer. How many would be waiting for me? How many intended to join me on this mission? Part of me prayed that none of them would, saving them from my fate. The rest of me hoped that they would not forsake me. The road can be long, when it is walked alone, but a dangerous road is prone to leave nothing but bodies behind, those of friends, companions, or those we know.

I exhale deeply, my mask hanging on my throat, the heavy device swaying gently as my cursed breath fills the air around me. I pause, for just a few moments, closing my eyes. A moment of silence in a broken wasteland. No, I need to steel my will, focus my mind. Until now, we have merely endured, merely survived. Now we strike. The time for doubts is long gone, blown into the wind. It was time to show our fortitude, to endure the hardships, to fight for survival. Not just for us now, no, but for a potential future. One I used to believe in. Hope. Such an odd memory now. Darkness clouds my eyes, hope but a distant feeling. Something I have abandoned on the long, hard road. Even if we succeeded... would it matter? Would anything change? Perhaps, perhaps not. I have a hard time imagining change, of imagining hope. The few times that I have felt hope have swiftly led to disaster. There is nothing left for me now in this world but sadness and regret, misery given form. I am Nevermore, the forsaken, the traitor. I think of my new companions, steeling myself against the truth. I don’t deserve them, I never did. Yet they will fade to dust, long before my own end. I was so tired of seeing ponies die... I am so tired.

Yet I must continue on, always continue on. It’s not enough to lay down and die. No, I am still driven, still fueled. Hate burns deep in my soul, smouldering fury that forces me forwards, ever forwards. Silently, I pull my mask back up to my face, smelling the stench of sweat and rubber. The buckles snap into place, locking it on for now, my breath hot and heavy in its smothering embrace. Yet one more thing for me to rail against. There’s the faintest click of a hoof against a stone, stirring the rubble almost imperceptibly. It would be fast, it would be easy. A sudden turn, a hurled knife. Leave another corpse in the Wastes. Yet I hold my hoof, feign ignorance. They haven’t attacked me yet, and I am not inclined to strike first when uncertain of the situation. Perhaps I have grown soft.

“Hooves up. Don’t make any funny movements, or I’ll take your head off.” I’m surprised by the voice, it’s young. Surprisingly so. But more interestingly, there’s the faintest trace of an accent in it, one I had heard before, one I was intimately familiar with.

“Do not do anything you will regret, young one... there are things that are not worth it in this world.” I feel my own accent thicken, one that I had taken pains to reduce but never managed to eliminate, the old timbre from Trottingham filling the air again despite my rasping rattle. I slowly turn to face her, my eyes focusing down on the filly. The pistol she has is held poorly, letting me know that there is no fear for my life, or unlife. The pale grey filly moves her wings nervously, a dirty hoof scratching at the ground. “What is your name, little one?”

“Lamentations.” She looks up at me. “B-but give me your caps, or I’ll shoot! I really will!” She puffs up slightly. “I’m the L-lady of the Loft so you should be afraid!”

Lady of the... I narrow my eyes slightly. No, it couldn’t be. I look her over, seeing traces, but only traces. “If you are the Lady of the Loft, then you should watch your speech, little one. Do not use contractions, speak formally, speak proper. Not doing this is the sign of a lazy mind, and a lady does not let others think ill of her.” I think I finally recognize the traces of somepony I used to know Long ago, so very long ago. “Do you know of a Sonnet, perhaps? She would have been a Lady of the Loft, many years ago... does this name seem familiar to you?”

Her ears press down slightly. “H-how’d... how did you know that name?” She seems to bristle slightly. “Who told you that?”

I shake my head slightly, my heart lodged in my throat. I should just leave now. I don’t have the time to get involved, but I feel that I must. “Written Verse... she knew Sonnet.” Memories of my younger sister flood my mind. Little Sonnet, so happy, so cheerful. So full of life. I hope she died well, though it seems she did have foals, stretching through the generations, until now.

“Written Verse? She was a hero, you know.” My gaze snaps back to the little filly. What did she say? “It’s in the big book, I want to be like her when I get bigger.” She puffs up again, even as I tip my head back. Laughter echoes across the broken wastes as my bitter mirth rises to the heavens. “What? What you laughing about?” She aims her pistol at me again. “Better not be laughin’ at my hero!”

“Hero? Do not be foalish... Written Verse was nothing of the sort. She was a villain, if anything. Betrayer and betrayed... lost to those who once knew her. Besides, she died, many years ago.”

The filly’s smug look catches me wrong-hooved. What is she thinking about? What makes her smile like that? “Dead? That’s just what the common story is! We know what really happened.” She puts the small pistol back down. “I’ll show you the book, since you know about her, but you’re going to have ta swear to never say anything about it ta anyone, got it?”

How curious, the young... even those hardened by life in the wastes still possess an element of curiosity and innocence. “The word of a lady is sufficient, Lady Lamentations... so I shall follow you, and no word of this shall escape my lips.

I follow her through the Wastes, through the ruins of civilization, bobbing and weaving through the wrecks dotting the land. This young pegasus intrigues me. It seems she was a descendant of Sonnet, and retained some knowledge of her, but how was this possible? And how did she know of me? These thoughts tumble through my mind until we finally reach a broken house, the windows barred over with wood and barbed wire. She leads me carefully through the maze of tripwires and landmines, before rapping on the door in a swift pattern, somepony inside opening the door in response.

There’s a commotion as she enters the door, but it falls to complete, dead silence as I enter the room. “Who is that, Lament?” The mare rises to her hooves, her wings opening as she points the saddle-mounted rifle at me, her eyes boring into me.

The filly looks at me, suddenly remembering she never asked my name before. Her mouth opens, then closes, then opens again as she tries to think about what to say. I save her from the discomfort as I politely nod to the mare. “I am Nevermore, a wanderer. The young lady Lamentations was gracious enough to show kindness to an old ghoul. If it is a problem, then I shall leave.”

The mare looks at me, her eyes narrowing. “Lamentations was shooting her mouth off again, huh? I don’t know why you’re claiming that name, but it won’t do you any good here.” She scoffs slightly as she shakes her head. “She doesn’t realize that heroes only die...” She looks over towards the filly.

“She knows about Sonnet, ma...” The filly’s voice squeaks from behind her mother as she peers past the mare’s leg.

“Is there trouble, Allegory?” A deep male voice sounds out as he comes from a back room.

The mare looks back at him. “No, our guest was just...” She shoots a glance down at the filly. “What did you say?”

“I said she knows about Sonnet... and I only told her about Written...” Lamentations looks at me again. “She sure looks like the picture...”

Allegory looks back at me, more carefully, seeming to scrutinize me with her eyes. “You don’t think that...” She clears her throat, seemingly hesitant. “Miss... Nevermore, was it? You know of Written Verse? Forgive me for asking, but can you describe her cutie mark?”

I scoff slightly, an abrupt sound erupting from my throat. “Her cutie mark? It was nothing worth mentioning.” I feel the filly’s eyes on me. Part of me just wants to not answer, to plead ignorance, but a greater part of me needs to find out. “A raven, perched on a branch. Set against a full moon... her talent was writing depressing poetry.” I cut off the sudden commotion as I keep talking. “Sonnet had a feather quill, set against three pieces of paper stacked on each other. Her talent was rhyming.”

“How do you know this... who told you?” Allegory stands up. “There’s no way you should know these things. You can’t know these things.” Slowly, carefully, I lift the back of my armored dress up. While part of it is fused to my spine, not allowing me to remove it any more, the lower parts are still flexible, letting me lift it up, revealing my cutie mark, still recognizable over the rot and decay that wracks my body. With a heavy sound, the dress falls back to its normal position, as I let it go. “... you don’t just know Written Verse, you are her, aren’t you?”

I shake my head. “No, Written Verse died years ago, I am just Nevermore.”

“Who served on the Flickerjack, a pirate turned hero when the war broke out... the media was not kind to you.” She nods to Lamentations who scampers off, coming back with a large tome, full of clippings and papers.

My heart stops as the filly opens it, revealing an old wanted poster, my youthful face giving a mischievous smile, daring anypony to try and claim my bounty. I still remember getting that bounty, and the series of events that had turned me into an outlaw. Old memories don’t die, they just seem to fade at times. I recognize the writing beneath it, the clean, strong, annotations detailing the articles. My father’s writing. I page through the journal, articles about my life, pictures taken, news written. The interview from the Pegasus Free Press, the warning notice in the Manehatten Times. Each of these are yellowed and weathered from age. Each of them has comments, speaking of a father’s pride, prayers for my safety, regrets of what happened. But I understood, I always did, even if I didn’t appreciate it. Everything for the family, after all. The writing changes halfway through, smaller, more elegant, feminine. Clearly, somepony else had taken over the writing as the war got underway in full. Sonnet’s, I assume. The articles abruptly end halfway through, even as I feel tears moistening my eyes. I look at the clipping, the last entry in the book... it was from when I disappeared, all those years ago, when I started hunting those who were killing my former crewmates. I had foalishly believed that nobody remembered me, that none would have known the name Nevermore from my old life.

My heart seems to die in my chest. I would never meet any of them again. I never had a chance to say goodbye. Still, here’s a fragment of my past, remnants of what I used to have, what I had lost. Their written words are knives, stabbing into my heart. I tilt my head back, and just begin to laugh. The cruelty of the world does not escape me. All these years, all this pain, all this sorrow. Fear for my family, sorrow for Trottingham. The world had ended, and I had believed my world had ended with it.

“Not kind indeed.” I look at the articles again, bits of my past. The hatred from the press for me and my kind was vitriolic. Pirates, raiders... murderers. What did they know, those who had never been in a fight? Who were they to judge us who shed blood for them? I could not stand them. Leeches and parasites, the whole lot of them. Gorging themselves on the blood of those of us who fought while decrying our actions that led to that point. Judging us for actions they forced us to do, even as they sat in their ivory towers. At least I had the solace that most of them were probably dead by now. Still, I had stayed too long. There was nothing here for me. What place would I have in a family long forgotten? What respite would I gain as one of the dead amidst the living? No, I had lingered too long already. I have a deadline, and I must keep it.

I don’t say goodbye. Why should I? No, empty words, well wishes, and long goodbyes are meaningless for me. Just a simple nod, a turn. A quiet ‘thank you’. And that’s it. I do not intend to come back. There is no point to that. While we may share the same blood, decades have passed. Generations have gone by. The link between us is faint, thin. Only old memories and older regrets tie us. I force the severance of these bonds. I refuse to be bound by yet more of my past. Lamentations watches me, not wanting me to go. I do not care. Her name befits her cries, yet I harden my heart. Allegory just nods her head though. She understands more than the young. She knows the dangers of having one like me around. Just like that, I turn my back on my past again, my step solid, even as hot tears run down my mask.

The light is fading, the world fading to dusk. A calm before the building storm. I can feel the pressure building in my bones, feeling the weight of the task ahead. Revive the Captain. That is the first step. Then we need to survive.

~~~~~~~~~~

Silence. Darkness. Oppressing eternity, stretching out forever. The weight of the world, the weight of my sins pressing down around me. Images flash, just a bare moment, a slight impression, then darkness again. History, memories, pain. So much pain. It gnaws at me, an ever present feeling fighting through the haze enshrouding my mind. “Killed us... killed us... killed us...” The ghastly words scratch through the air, clawing at the edges of my sanity, tearing at my mind with their revenant’s call. I can feel myself being pulled apart, torn to pieces by spectral claws. Oblivion calls, I can feel the lure of the darkness, pulling me in. Finally, rest.

Now, just as then, I feel the pull of magic, the draw of the curse I endure. Please no. Please not again. The magic infuses my body, drawing me back from the edge, pulling me from the end that I have desired for so long. Desperately I try to fight it again, mocking laughter filling my ears even as I struggle. I feel the dark energy pouring into my body again, suffusing me with its mockery of life. A wave of magic seems to fall upon me, smothering me in its cursed embrace. Fighting, struggling, drowning. With a gasp, I feel myself choke... and then I open my eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~

I awaken on my perch, the ruins of a building that lay broken and shattered, exposed to the elements. A sad reminder to the fate of Equestria, but a convenient shelter away from most trouble. Rain washes off my cloak, the grey sky weeping a shroud across the land I used to love. Even now, I feel the chill in my bones as I slowly pull myselves to my hooves. Almost there. And just in time. I would make my deadline, but only just. Opening my wings, I take to the sky, heading towards my destination. The question still remains if there would be anypony waiting for me. The Dead Zone lies in front of me, an ominous sight, a tribute to death and the curse that accompanies this new world we live in. With a gentle thump, my hooves clip onto the pavement, my wings folding back in as I land. My breath hisses behind my mask, a rasping sound muffled by the heavy device. I hear the faintest sound of something moving, my knife on my hoof even as I whirl. The familiar sight of power armor reassures me, even more with the cannons strapped to its sides, and the face of a companion. “Star Racer.”

She nods to me slightly, even as her rifles start to power back down. “Nevermore.” She smiles slightly. “Almost thought you weren’t going to make it. The others are growing impatient, but I knew you would.”

My heart catches in my chest. “Others?” Star Racer was one that I thought would be sure to stay, even though she now had things to live for. The others? Part of me wished they didn’t come. They still had so much to live for, so much that I could not offer them. No, they’re going to start walking this road with me, and I do not believe that we will make it back out.

“Yes, we all came. All of us.” A familiar blue unicorn catches my attention, her barding freshly repaired, her shotgun gleaming with deadly intent as she feeds shells into it. “Even Fritter, though he wouldn’t stop complaining.” She smiles kindly, Zone Control leaning up against a shack as she keeps working on her shotgun. The others start to gather, Frisky Fritter, the ugly stallion shifting impatiently on his hooves. Tik, juggling some grenades in her magic. Vusi, watching Tik before giving me a slight nod of acknowledgment. They were all here.

Gradually, they slow down and look at me quietly. Waiting for me to say something. I clear my throat slightly. I hate speeches. “This is it... the end. If you wish to leave, I will not look poorly on you. This is not your fight. I will not say this is a fight for Detrot. I will not say this is a grand and glorious task. No. It is just an old mare with an old wound. You have much to live for... much to lose here. I...” My voice cuts out as my heart wants them to leave, but also wants them to stay. I did not wish them to leave me, but I did not wish to lose them either.

Zone Control places her hoof on my shoulder. “It’s alright, Nevermore. We’ll see this through. Until the end.” We nod solemnly, knowing the task before us. Knowing our chances.

“Yes, until the end.” My voice is rasping and gravelly, worn through misuse and time, hiding the sorrow at those words, hiding the knowledge of how slim our chances are. “Until the end.”

~~~~~~~~~~

I follow behind Nevermore, my heavy armor clinking as I think about where we are. Where I am. Star Racer, Enclave Lieutenant. Now risking my life down here for a pony that saved mine. Drawn to a mare that just a few months ago I would have ignored or killed. Unconsciously, I reach up, feeling my throat where I had my tags on for so many years. Missing now. Left behind with her. What will I do? My heart is torn inside my chest. I yearn to return above the clouds, to feel the wind in my wings. To soar in the night air. Yet my heart is also bound to the ground now. A dilemma, to be certain, one that I have mulled in my mind during these long weeks. She had wanted to come along. Not for Nevermore or her quest. I’m not sure she even likes the dour pegasus. No, but she would have come for me.

We fought, before I left. Her tough exterior cracking ever so slightly as I prepared to leave her. Prepared to face a future filled with death, knowing that she might never find out what happened. I gave her my dogtags then, with an empty promise that I would return. Empty words that were meant to comfort, meaningless even as I said them, knowing she expected to hear it. “It’s alright, Gangrene... I’ll be back before you know it. Then we can discuss things... since... yeah.” The feisty raider just looked at me for a moment, before turning away, her greasy tail leaving a splotch on my coat, even as she starts to walk back. She’s right though. I better. If we are able, that is.

I can only excuse my terrible lack of focus on myself. I know better, or at least I should. Not for the first time do I curse the damage to my E.F.S. Not for the first time do I scream at my companions to take cover. Something flashes by, just a faint blur of movement, nearly invisible to the naked eye. I try to swing my rifles in line, but it’s fast, too fast. I can hear a click of blades as it closes like the wind, a faint distortion that is among us before I finish my warning. Tik screams as something slashes her chest, the mare not inured from the pain, despite how much Med-X she takes. Vusi rushes to her side, even as I try to direct us, barking orders. The mare I left behind rudely shoved to the back of my head as battle is upon us. At least Tik is still screaming, it means she’s alive. My rifles spit out a stitching web of energy, lancing out to try to catch our invisible assailant. A sixth sense warns me as I whirl, bringing a steel shod hoof up to cover my throat, a blade biting into the plating. A hot flare of pain wells up as the blade bites flesh, blood welling from the wound. Though the plate was breached, I whispered a prayer of thanks to Luna that I didn’t lose the leg.

Something close to me roars, my invisible assailant blown to the ground by a storm of fire and metal, the bucking shotgun held in Zone’s magical field. It’s invisibility compromised, we finally see our attacker. The mare was a crudely stitched monstrosity, her legs replaced by wicked blades, the cause of the noise from earlier. But that isn’t all. Dead flesh is stitched together crudely, an undead abomination. Blades are crudely attached to the creature, replacing its legs, its tail, a blade sticking out of its head. Blind eyes try to track us as the cybernetic ghoul twists unnaturally, scrabbling to rise up to fight us again. Zone’s shotgun roars again, tearing the figure to the ground, chunks of flesh falling to the ground as it tries to regain its legs. With a click, her shotgun snaps empty, the unicorn frantically trying to reload, the monster rising back up.

There’s a flash of a blade, and a scream of pain. Nevermore is swarming the creature, her wings batting at it as she slices at it fiercely, blades whirling as she presses her assault. For all her dour attitude and careful movement, she’s an absolute terror, a storm of wrath and fury. Blades parry blades as she matches the terror strike for strike. A wicked looking dagger slips through the creature’s guard, the weapon burying itself to its hilt. Like a puppet with its strings cut, the creature drops, hitting the ground with a sharp thud.

There’s a sneer of derision on her face as she looks down at the body, a savage slice taking it’s head off. The old ghoul was bleeding from a dozen wounds, though none of them seem to bother her. Viscous blood slowly leaks to the ground, the dark fluid rotting away as it stains the concrete and asphalt beneath her hooves. Her face is set in grim determination. No longer the apathetic acceptance of the world in her eyes. No longer the quiet resentment. No, the mare is driven now. Focused. I see her now as she was, not how she is now. Nevermore, Skyrate, pirate, killer.

~~~~~~~~~~

Congratulations, Nevermore! More useless info from your past. I’m sure knowing you have relatives is a great salve to your soul. Oh wait, you abandoned them. Just like you abandoned everypony else.

Chapter 20: On the Wings of the Goddess

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Chapter 20: On the Wings of the Goddess

Sometimes, the best option is also the worst.

You never think about it, really. Not until it is too late at least. The frail morality of ponies. When the war started, I felt young, I felt invincible. I had finally found a purpose, a use for my dire skills. But at what cost. War is a terrible thing. A long known adage, but one that is not appreciated until it is too late. I wonder what could have changed back then. One single event, to make this world a different place. Or were we damned as soon as we started down this path. It is odd to think now, back on my hatred. Back on my wrath. It was so clear back then, so righteous. But for what? Now here I lie, broken, bitter, and old. A shell of the pony I once was, who was already a broken remnant of what I could have been. Only now can I see that. Only now can I know what our blindness cost us. But even now, I feel nothing but hate. Hatred and regret.
~From the Journal of Nevermore

I feel more alive than I have in decades, a purpose finally driving me forwards once more. I wipe my blade off on the fallen creature, a sneer of disgust crossing my face as I look down on it. Poor thing. Still, it was unsettling. I had heard about these creatures before, but had not met one myself. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that there were not more of these things lingering about... or perhaps there were? With a rasp, I slip my daggers back into their sheaths, the weapons clicking as they find their home again. I feel blood trickle down my side, sticking to the hairs, staining my cloak once again. I barely feel the wounds though, even through the numbness of death. My heart is racing, even as we get closer to our goal, the precious box and my memories carried together, a slim hope for a future, a slight prayer for relief from this blasted hellhole. But even as I feel my heart sore, a voice in the back of my head whispers that this was merely the start of the end. My voice telling me that hope is futile, and that I’ve condemned us all to dying in futility. Hope versus pessimism. Even as I ignore the little voice, I know that its words most closely express the truth. Dust and ashes.

We make our way through the Dead Zone, occasional fights breaking out as stray ghouls wander into our paths. Feral souls, bereft of direction and purpose save for mindless slaughter. My own sanity lingers on my mind as we put the ghouls down. More of those bladed monsters show up, singles or in pairs. These are far harder to put down than the ghouls, but Star Racer’s cannons prove to be a boon against these creatures, the energy beams putting them down hard with their withering power. She steps through the ashes of the latest attacker, their assaults becoming more frequent as we push further into the heart of the town. I look over at Zone Control, the pretty unicorn looking up from her pipbuck as she sees me look at her. She nods slightly, letting me know we’re on the right path to our destination, her pipbuck having declared that the Stable Heart Hospital was our goal. She steps up next to me, her voice low. “You seem troubled, Nevermore... what’s wrong?”

I hesitate as I look at her. What am I to say? That I feel that that we are doomed, that we will all die? While at the same time I feel purpose in my strides? These ponies have been drawn into my past, something that I had denied to others for so long. I don’t know what drove me to let them in, why I let them through my bitter exterior. Perhaps I was lonely again. Perhaps I just wanted to hear a friendly voice again. Regardless, they are here now, a bright spot in my darkened soul. A flicker of light against the encroaching night, wavering and dying, but still shining. For now. All too soon their lives would be snuffed out, plunging me back into the nightmare of my cursed existence. The decades have not been kind to me, seeing those I cared for wither and fade. Or meet a brutal end. Too many bodies have been strewn in the path behind me for me to look to the future with much hope any more. I say the only thing I can. “I am fine, Zone Control... I am fine.” My rasping voice is low and harsh, the melodious tone from before lost to the sands of time and non-use. My breath hisses behind my mask as I shake my head. “I am... just thinking.”

She nods, understanding. Knowing that my words are more to dissuade further conversation than to provide a proper answer. “Well, what are you planning to do, once we finish here? Will you finally settle down? Or will you still just wander about?”

“Settle down? Where?” I scoff, our hooves clipping off the hard pavement as I look around for threats. “Who would want me around? Where would I seek shelter? You know my nature, Zone Control, you know what I am.” I fix her with a hard gaze. “I remember the terror that you had in your eyes that night when you found out that I am more a monster than a mare.” I shake my head. “No, it is the road for me, an isolated existence to watch others pass into, then leave my life, as they always have.”

She clears her throat. “Well, if you don’t mind, we could-”

“NO.” My harsh bark interrupts her, silencing the others in the process. “You will stay back in the town, you will survive. There is no point to follow me. There is naught but death in these lands.” I look at the others. “Live, all of you... do what you can to survive. That is the only rule of the wastes.”

My outburst silences them, my rage bringing them to stillness. Letting them fall around me was not something that I wished to endure yet again. We walk in silence, our hooves clipping on the ground. “We’re almost there.” The tall pegasus walks up next to me, Star Racer nodding as she looks about, alert and wary. “We should be careful, we don’t know what’s out there.” I can tell she misses her EFS, the magic providing some measure of protection for us. Zone Control and Frisky Fritter both have it as well, but theirs is not as reliable as the solid Star Racer’s. Her cannons whirr slightly as they try to maintain their charge, slight flickers of light visible as they pan back and forth. She seems anxious and excited, like a racing horse champing at the bit, waiting for the shot to start the race. She looks back at me, her green mane framing her serious face, even as she gives a slight nod and a smile. If not now, then never.

The edifice stands before us, intimidating and imposing. A hospital held by the damned in the heart of a dead city. I sigh slightly as I look at the doors. “Very well... this dance has gone on for quite long enough... let us see this through until the end.” No sooner had I said that, then I hear a faint click. Not that of a mine, or at least one I’m not familiar with. I’m about to voice my warnings, when suddenly a series of explosions hammer out around us, blanketing us with debris and dust. Figures start to surround up, weapons barking, tearing at flesh. A voice cries out in pain, even as I’m born to the ground amid the rubble. Hope fades to despair, optimism withering to ash. An ambush. But who would know we were coming, and why?

~~~~~~~~~~

The airship moves silently, a dark shape against the night sky. It’s as quiet as we can make it, our mission one of stealth and surprise. Not this time the bombastic displays favored by some. No, this time it will be the way I prefer. In, out, and only bodies to tell the tale. The target lay below us, a base in the distance. Even this far away, I can feel my heart burn with hatred, just imagining the Zebra insignias defiling Equestrian soil. I click my tongue, just barely. Enough to signal our assault. Like shadows, we fall off the ship, wings tucked in as we plummet towards the ground below. I only chose the best fliers for this, the quietest. My wings snap open, slowing my descent before I slam into the ground, setting me down with the softest click. Excellent. No sounds, at least not yet. By now they might have spotted the airship, so we’d proceed by hoof. My anger wells inside me as I steal one more look back at the camp. Soon. Soon.

We steal through the night, moving slowly, cautiously. There are patrols, but they are scattered and lazy. I feel my blades thirst for them, mirroring my own desires, but not now. If they were to disappear, then our targets would be made aware. Let the minnows free for now, we’re hunting a shark. Their reckoning would come in due time. We make our way to the pass, my heart pounding as we take our positions. Dawn would be coming soon, and it would be too dangerous to move without the shelter of the night. Thankfully, we did not have far to go. My team knew their jobs, knew what they needed to do. Reaching into my dress, I feel the small device. It should be enough. It’d have to be enough.

The train chugs towards the base, slowly puffing its way along. We’d been hiding for hours now, waiting for this moment, this opportunity. My heart begins to race as the moment gets closer. “Now.” Though it’s a whisper, the others don’t need to know my commands. There’s a string of explosions, lining the edges of the ravine, a scar blown into the soil of the land I loved. For a moment, everything is silent. I look at the train, seeing a young face in the window. It is not often that a general was open to a strike like this. I did not care that he had his family with him. What begins as a clatter quickly grows to a rumble. Rocks blown free with our charges starts a reaction, sending tons of earth down upon the hapless train. My heart is cold as I see it get flipped to its side, buried under tons of rock. A terrible way to go, buried alive. But this was war, and a blood price had to be paid. This supply route was severed, an officer slain. Any additional casualties were to me, merely a bonus. With a nod, we start to move again. No reason to linger, our deed already done. Like ghosts, we fade back into the wilderness, the dust already beginning to settle around the massed grave below us. Wordlessly, we move on, to another target, another killing. And we will continue this, as long as we need to. Until we win.

~~~~~~~~~~

I miss the loss of my E.F.S. now more than I ever did before. Some warning would have been appreciated, even as rounds start to ping off my armored chest. No, this was an ambush, pure and simple. Figures erupt from the ground, small but numerous. “Take cover!” I start to direct the battle, as I always do, seeking to guide the others to advantageous positions. They’re used to my bellowed orders by now, even Fritter responding. I suppose self preservation was a powerful motivator to encourage a pony to pay attention. Zone’s shotgun bucks and roars, even as I survey the battle. Something was wrong here. Their attack patterns were... wrong. I start moving, seeing the answer, barreling towards Nevermore.

As if on queue, the ground erupts around us, a monstrous figure pulling itself free from the ground’s embrace, sending the ghoul stumbling. The red metal, combined with the bulk tells me who it is, even before I finish registering the threat. Bishop. Even as Nevermore tries to regain her footing, I keep charging in, seeing the danger, even as I call out to her.

~~~~~~~~~~

The ground rocks below me, throwing me off balance. Cursing at this development, I look up, right into the face of death, only distantly hearing the cries of the others, the report of battle. I stare down the barrel of Bishop’s energy lance as it begins to spin up. So that's it. That's who was intending to ambush us. I had seen the weapon’s devastation before, and this was it, my journey ends here. I see a glow forming behind it, and I close my eyes. Not even I’m fast enough to weave out of the way of the oncoming assault. It had been a long run... but I can go no further. Even one like me cannot survive against that sort of power, as I resign myself, surrounded by a moment of blessed silence. Was this finally it? Had I finally paid enough? Come now, sweet death... I have waited for you for a long time. I cheated you before, all those years before, when I plunged into the ocean, broken and bleeding, just as I cheated you again in Canterlot. It seems that my borrowed time has finally run out. I’m broken from my trance as something hard and heavy slams into me. “Nevermore, move!” Star Racer’s form slams into mine, shoving me out of the way, even as the spinning lance fires a scintillating beam of death, going past where I now am, striking where I just was.

It was poetic, really. In a dark, and twisted way, I could see the beauty of it despite my horror. Her body glows, for just a second, face set in grim determination before contorting with pain. Another memory to be etched into my mind. Another face to haunt my dreams. Another body, to fill the wastes. Another name, to enter my book. Just like that, ash scatters across the ground, blowing in the wind. The mare so deadly with her energy lances felled by the same. Her empty armor clatters to the ground, flecks of ash spilling from the shattered plates, the armor wholly insufficient to stop the blow for more than the merest fraction of a second. The world falls silent for a few seconds, time slowing down to a painful crawl. I didn’t even have time to call her name. Star Racer... Star Racer. The stern yet kind pegasus, proud and fierce, yet completely loyal. Loyal unto death. Such a common refrain, yet how so many treat it as mere words. Just like that, she was gone, like a candle snuffed out. All her dreams, potential... lovers... gone, left to ash and dust. I look at the ash, stark against my charcoal coat, flecks of a friend now lost forever. I never got to tell her about myself... I never got to ask about her. Yet more regrets to stain my soul, to burden me down. Star Racer... I’ll remember you in my journal. I’ll remember you in my dreams. I will not let your memory die while I stand. Time snaps back to normal, compressing again in a flurry of activity as the energy lance starts to cool down again. My rage boils within me, condensing into a stab of pure, unadulterated hatred. She will pay. Bishop will pay dearly for this.

Red fills my vision. Regrets will have to come later. I fling myself at my opponent, using that brief moment that Star Racer had opened for me. My hoof lands in some ash, even as I lunge at her killer. Blades won’t do much to an armored target. Blades won’t bite deeply into a robotic foe. At least that is true for most blades. Aer Arcanum is not a normal blade. The cursed weapon bites deeply into her armored chest, Bishop letting off a metallic howl as I bury it in her. My own rage feeds its bloodlust, my fury driving me further than I could have imagined. Even as my companions watch in horror or fend off her pawns, I swarm over the much larger mare, tearing jagged gashes in her armor, rending the plate with the dagger’s touch. Pain washes over me, but I ignore it. Blood flies in tattered curtains, flesh falls to the ground, smoking and burnt. But all my focus is on the target before me. Almost instinctively I cut at my foe, finding weak joints, finding thinner plating, working my way in further and further. Finally, a sound reaches my ears, that of a roaring scream, a voice full of wrath and fury. Abruptly, painfully, I realize it’s my own, by damaged voice screaming my despair at the world. It’s a wonder I’m still standing, all the pain in the world seeming to fill my being from wounds torn into my body. None of which comparing with the wound torn into my heart.

With a savage twist, I yank my dagger out, oil flowing like blood, even as Bishop staggers back. She falls, slowly, painfully. Her massive form crashing to the ground.

Victory, such a bitter word for what we endured. We won, but the cost. Dear Celestia, the cost. My heart tears open again, the pain of loss destroying my soul. Every step I take is a legacy to the fallen, the ash and bones of those that relied on me filling my path, even as I dare not look behind any further. I am drowning in a river of blood. I raise my head and cry to the heavens. I raise my voice in a song of despair. Is this worth the cost to us? Is this worth my suffering? Have I not suffered enough by now? Have I not paid for my sins? Even if I have not, why must those who follow me pay the price? How many more will fall for my crimes? Too many have already. Too many are yet to fall. My body lies in tatters, a dozen mortal wounds covering my flesh. My breath is weak and ragged, even as I fall down as well, a pitiful pile of blood and bones. Eventually, the sound of combat fades from my ears, even as the darkness starts to settle in. Tears stain my cheeks. How much more can I lose? Has not the wastes taken enough from me... have I not suffered enough for a thousand lives. My tears fall to the ground, the dust of the Wasteland consumes it all. How many of us are even left now? How many will fade into dust and ash.

What is a name, a face, a memory. How long do we endure until we are dust and ashes, forgotten by all, forsaken by all. What do we have left, once the world ended? Only one thing remains once we are gone. The impact we did in our lives, our mark upon the others. Our legacy. But like everything else, it fades and dies. Who will remember us when we are gone? Who will care? The fury of the stars, the wrath of the goddess herself. Wherefore comes retribution? Wherefore comes divine right? Though the fury of my hatred may eclipse my grief, still we must endure. Still we must strive. Hatred is a small and bitter thing, but it festers like an open wound, tearing at my soul. Dust and ashes.

~~~~~~~~~~

The knife clatters to the hard tiles, even as I watch, my eyes wide with horror. What have I done. What have I become? The mare barely lets out a gasp as she slips to the ground, blood gurgling in her throat. I try to shield myself in my detachment. I tried to hide within myself again. What have I become. I thought she’d know who betrayed us. I thought she was a step on my path to revenge. Her eyes look at me, full of pain, confusion, betrayal. It had seemed so right at the time, so clear to me. Yet she slumps down, the light in her eyes extinguished by my actions. Reaching out, I close her eyes gently, her last word shaking me deeply. Not hatred, not bitter retorts... but just why? Why indeed. I inhale deeply. Was she a zebra sympathizer? Do I have the right to determine that? Or am I hunting shadows again? Am I being lead down a path that I do not desire to go? I think about what I’ve done, but I can see the path I’ve taken. My past is covered with blood. How much did I sacrifice of myself, getting myself to this point?

Vengeance? Justice? How easy it is for the lines between the two to be blurred and distorted. How easy for one to become another. How easy to fall off the narrow path of vigilantism, to descend into the madness that lead to this path. I exhale deeply. It had been so easy, almost automatic. Just a quick jab, a quick twist, and down she went. Her cries muffled, even as I lowered her to the ground. She was close to me, once. As close as one could have gotten to myself. She never expected it, not from me. That alone should have told me the truth.

But I was too consumed with revenge, with the feeling of being right, that I forgot to listen. I forgot to watch. And now others pay the price of my indiscretion.

I look at myself in the mirror, the dour Nevermore. I recognize her face, but I do not know her eyes. They’re harder, colder. A viciousness visible that was more than my quiet bitterness. Was this truly me now? Is this who I was to become? Perhaps a touch of madness. Despite my behavior, I believe that ponies are meant to be social creatures... those of companions and friends. Even me, in my self imposed fortress of isolation and hatred had those close to me. How had we fallen so far... to violence and to suspicion. Tearing each other down, even as we speak empty words about sticking together.

It was enough to make me bark a quiet, empty laugh, devoid of any mirth. How silly, and how sad. That we would have fallen to such a state. Claims of friendship masking knives in the shadow. Let the zebras wage war. We have destroyed ourselves already, more thoroughly than they could have imagined.

So long. It has been so long since I was willing to consider this. So long since I looked up towards the heavens, to weigh and judge my actions.

I look at the sky over Manehattan. I look at the moon overhead. Luna preserve me... have I become the monster that I have fought for so long? Is this regret I feel? My soul is pensive. What have I become? The questions hound me, tearing at me to a degree that nothing else could have. Ripping into my very soul. I exhale slowly, releasing a breath that I did not know I was holding. Who are you, Nevermore? Are you a mare or a monster? The answer comes to me, echoing in the back of my mind. Perhaps a bit of both. I watch the night sky, the silence enveloping me like a shroud, blood pooling around my hooves. Perhaps a bit of both.

~~~~~~~~~~

“What are we going to do, Nevermore?” Zone Control stands amid the dust and the ashes, amid the bodies of friend and foe, as I stand up again, bitter dust in my throat.

“What else?” My voice is harsh and cold, a legacy of my long years, and a mask to my heart. “What else can we do. We keep going.” Despite my words, I head towards the ashes and the armor, a sad monument to one that we called friend.

Frisky Fritter seems to sneer at me, his voice gruff and harsh. “Makes sense, tha rotter just wants ta get her stuff done... knew we should’ve stayed back...”

I ignore his barbs, my mood cold, even as I look over the remains, the scraps of bone scattered amid the ruins of a friend. Slowly, reverently, I scoop some of the ash and bone into a small jar, doing what I can to avoid the dirt in the process. I also start to bind the armor up, salvaging what I can, tying it together with strips of cloth. Wounds could be bound later. This was important now. “Goodbye, Star Racer. I will remember you, and visit you every night when I dream. You shall be remembered, as long as I shall stand... as long as my words endure. You will not be forgotten, for as long as I remain... goodbye.”

Fritter is about to lay into me again, I can feel it. His own outpouring of grief and anger at my expense. I can feel it, but I will not accept it. Not this time. My hoof lashes out, slamming into his neck, cutting off his words, forcing him to gasp. “Enough, Fritter. You may not like me, and I am loathe to touch you. But understand this. While you may have your grievances for me, keep it to yourself. I do not wish to hear your vile banter any further.” I let him feel the cold press of my blade against his throat, my eyes hard. “Do so again, and I will reclaim the life that I gave you, when you idiots wandered into this hellhole.” I wiggle the blade, just ever so slightly. Not enough to injure, yet, but the threat is clear. Even as he nods his assent, I feel the anger starting to leave me. I should not have done that. The pressure and stress was getting to me, but it is no excuse. These ponies relied on me. And though I failed one today, I could not abandon the others so callously. Star Racer... fly once more, just once more... You’re free now.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Level 13!

Companion Lost - Star Racer
The Wasteland consumes all before it. How many more will be claimed?

I’m sure you’re proud of your little outburst, Nevermore... too bad it’s meaningless. It couldn’t save her. And it won’t save you.

Chapter 21: River of Sorrows

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Chapter 21: River of Sorrows

Be careful what you wish for. You just may find it.

There are no more left. It is just me. The feeling there is, when you realize that you are the last one that is standing, the only one that remembers. The only one left alive. How do you even begin to describe it, how do you even begin to feel it. The pain, the sorrow, the loss. They’re dead, all of them. And once again, I am alone. So very alone. Why? Why am I so ill fated. Why am I so cursed. But I have run out of tears. I have run out of sorrow. I am dead, even while I am very much alive. A living corpse. Just one... just me. None shall remember my passing. None shall remember my fall. And even if they do, they will not remember my kindly. Murderer. Betrayer. Nevermore.
~From the Journal of Nevermore

Blood runs down my hooves in a steady stream, staining my dark coat yet again. It won’t wash out, it never will. Never does. The others aren’t here to see me now, not here to see the result. I’m alone again. Always and forever. Even when I was young, when I had a family, I was alone. It is my shield, and my shroud. It protects me and damns me at the same time. I rail at the fates, at the cruel world, but I do so in the safety of my own mind. “Why... why...” The only words to escape my mouth as I look at the devastation that surrounds me. “Why...” My hoof slides back down to the ground, stepping into a pool of blood, the faint sounds of machinery surrounding me, the darkness shrouding me. “Why.” I grab another of the long knives, shoving it through the flesh in front of me, my rage fueling my grief, adding it to the others. Why.

~~~~~~~~~~

Earlier...

The hospital is quiet, silent. Oddly so. The signs of fighting and bloodshed surround us, but nothing disturbs this sepulchure. This graveyard for the lost. Our hooves clip along the tiles, now lacking the heavy thump of armored legs. Star Racer. I feel myself drowning in sorrow, my tears threatening to overwhelm me. But I must be strong. I must continue. There will be time for recriminations later. Enough time indeed. Do I not know regrets and sorrows? I step past a body, the bones scattered in the corridors. Who was that? What was their story? Who would know it now? My hoof comes down onto a femur, crushing the old bones into dust. Nopony. That’s the answer. That is always the answer now. Faded into the dust of time.

Still, I was promised answers here. Redemption. Hope. The promise is almost in reach, but how true is it? Were we seeking an empty dream? A broken dream? Probably. Most likely. And if so, for what did we fight, bleed, and die for? Each step makes these words harder on me to think on. Each step brings back the fear that everything is for naught. But what is hope, anyways, but the foalish delusions of the optimist. My throat feels dry as we walk down broken corridors. The ponies behind me are whispering, muttering. Let them. It will make this easier, once we are done.

Yes... it would be far easier, if they grew to hate me further.

~~~~~~~~~~

I watch our leader, worried. Not just for us, but for her too. She seems driven, focused. As if she were heading towards the end. Seeking it. It’s hard to pin down, but I can see the signs. In her tone, in her stance. She doesn’t expect to survive this. She doesn’t want to survive this. I watch her again carefully. Worried.

~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, carefully, we move through the shattered remains of the hospital. Bodies lay where they fell, all that time ago. Hospital beds are overturned, ancient blood splattering the floor and the walls. Despite the carnage the smell of decay has left, faded with time. A hospital, forgotten and abandoned. I know where we need to go, but I do not wish to go there yet. Now, on the brink of the truth, my hooves seem to have turned to lead, my heart stopping in my chest. What will I find? The surroundings call out to me, worn and decrepit. Faded dreams of what once was. How many ponies used to come here in better times? How many died here, at the end of the world. I’m about to stop and look at my companions, when I hear... something. A faint click, just enough to catch my attention. Where had I... My hoof flashes up, slamming the blade into the wall, my eyes just barely catching the distortion of a cloaked foe. Again, I manage to push the blade past my head again, wishing I had time to draw a knife.

While I can fight unarmed, it reminded me too much of desperate battles against the zebras. How many had I seen fall to their hooves? How many have I seen die. Hissing my disgust, it’s all I can do to keep up, let alone go on the offensive. I know I can’t rely on the others to help me, the sounds of combat letting me know that they’re engaged as well. “Run.” I feel the blade slip into my chest, cutting into, and through, the armored dress, as I buy us an opening to run. The wound burns, the pain flaring past my numbness. With a vicious strike, I slam my hoof into my assailant, but the creature seems to not be affected much, though it’s invisibility flickers for a bit, giving me a glimpse of my foe. It’s another one of those bladed creatures, a mix of ghoul and machinery and blades. Why is it here? Growling my irritation, I keep it in place as my companions run past, Zone’s shotgun barking to keep them off our backs. I nod with grim satisfaction that at this range the shotgun is proving to be quite effective, buying us some time. Additionally, she’s kind enough to shoot the mare off of me, though the blade wrenches rather uncomfortably in the wound.

There’s a cry of pain as I disentangle myself from my foe, but not from me. Fritter’s gone down, and I see Zone turning back to try to get to him... but will she make it in time? I move to block for him, buying precious seconds at the cost of my own blood. But what does it matter... a knife lances through my shoulder, though I manage to pull my knife up to block another strike, steel ringing on steel. I hate these things. They’re tough, fast, and far too stabby for my liking. Kicking off the nearest foe, I launch myself backwards, grabbing Fritter as my wings propel me down the hall. Picking up the stallion... but leaving his leg on the ground.

With the door shut and barricaded, they seem to have lost interest in us, at least for now. Vusi stands over the howling Fritter, trying to bandage his leg. “Gonna go out on a limb here, pal, but you’re lucky that’s all you lost...” Ignoring Fritter’s returning complaints, I look at my companions, my eyes locking onto Zone Control. Her eyes greet mine, and I can see her understanding in them, my eyes flicking to Star Racer’s gear on her back. The mare would know what to do with those.

“You know what I am going to say...” She nods slightly. “Then I will make this easy.” I look towards the rest of them as well, including the rest in my speech. “The rest of this journey is not for you. Go... leave. Do whatever you wish. Live however you will. I have nothing else for you. Nothing else to tell you.” My voice is cold and harsh, intending to drive them away. “There is nothing for you here.” With that I turn and stalk off, hoping they’ll leave without me.

To my surprise and irritation, I notice I’m not alone. I turn my head to snap at whoever’s following me, my eyes settling on Zone’s familiar face. I bite back my retort as she starts to speak. “I won’t follow all the way. I know you don’t want that. But I want to at least see it through this far... I want to see the end of this at least.”

Grudgingly, I admit that it’s true. She’s earned the right to this. “Do not slow me down.” Those are my last words to her as I look towards the room, the chamber. Everything prepared for me, or it should be, if Head Case was leading me true... Swallowing hard, I press my hoof against the door, and open it.

It’s dark inside, a single light flickering on and off. We move into the room, and my fears are confirmed. This is what Head Case wanted. He wasn’t giving me what I wanted, he was taking what he thought he needed. And even to my disgust... I would still see it happen. I gently pull the memory orb out of my packs. The stories of me... and my history with him. The Captain. The machine accepts it readily, sorting out the parts he would need, saving the ones that relate to him. The rest of my past irrelevant to the grand design. I motion for Zone to leave, though I do not watch her. A mechanical voice sounds in my ears as I draw closer. “Resuscitation beginning. One thousand and ninety five days until recovery... stand by.”

I let the door close behind me as I enter the inner room, my eyes on the stallion before me. His red mane and tattered white coat are familiar, but it is not him. I can feel it. It is just not him. I take the Captain’s horn out of my bag, looking at it. Remembering when it was lost. Savagely, I lock it into place, tightening the bolt that seems designed to receive the gift from the past. This... thing was supposed to replace him. This thing was supposed to grant me absolution. What a laugh. Furiously, I lash out with one of the surgical knives on the table, jamming it deeply into dead flesh. Another, then another. “Why... why... why?!” How could I have been such a foal. I knew it was hopeless. I knew it... yet I persisted in this folly. And now she was dead because of me. And now the others were injured because of me. Save us? Please. This sad creature wouldn’t even wake for three years yet. I shove more tools into it’s chest, my frustration and hatred being vented on the dead flesh. “Why...” Blood runs down the wounds, red and black, so like my own. It covers my hooves, pooling on the floor. “Why...” I sink to the ground in despair. “Why.”

As I stare at the bloody corpse, words erupt from the speakers. “What is your name?” The message repeats in a dull and monotonous tone. “What is your name?” Indeed... what was its name, if it even had one.

~~~~~~~~~~

I look to where she’s gone, supporting Frisky Fritter as best I can, the bandages on his leg turning a deep red again as they’re stained darkly. I look back as I have, countless times now. Would we know if she made it? Would we know if she failed? She didn’t seem the same, when she came back from the room, the one that was supposed to hold her Captain. Like her spark had faded, a terrible truth revealed to her. It is impossible for me to know... to hope. She taught me that. A lesson I can never learn, but I can never forget. Her bitterness is a reminder and a warning, the words of her farewell sticking with me. But I remember my words to her, before I left. “Think what you will, Nevermore. But we’re here if you need us. You can come back, and we’ll welcome you. Take care.” She didn’t say anything after that, her demeanor cold and lifeless. She just turned off to head deeper into the Dead Zone, even as we started to head back to the Blok. I didn’t mention to her the orb in my bags. I don’t think she saw me take it. But her tale will not die so easily, not while there are those of us who can remember it.

Briefly, and only for a moment, a light erupts on the heart of the Dead Zone, in the heart of the realm of the Ghoul King. The massive explosion fills the night sky, banishing the shadows in that moment. A beautiful false dawn.

~~~~~~~~~~

Over a hundred years have passed...

There is nothing left to remember. There is nothing left to hope. There is nothing left to dream. Dust and ashes, dust and ashes. All that is left is dust and ashes. The color is gone, the life is gone, the future is gone. All is naught but despair and death. Here lies Nevermore, a broken remnant of the past best left forgotten.
~ Final Entry from the Journal of Nevermore

War. War never changes. An old adage that had echoed through the years. Yet even as that thought echoes in my mind, I can look back, my journals chronicling my travels. I had finished my journeys, the pain and injuries healing with time. I had left my friends to wither and die, succumbing to the sands of time and the cruel hoof of fate. I have watched empires rise and fall. I have seen death for centuries, and yet I continue on. Yes, things do change. Things have changed. The Savior of the Wastes, breaking Equestria free of its destructive cycle. An end, but also a beginning. New hope began to filter through the wastes, ponies turning now to help each other, protect each other from the dangers, finally creating a society again. The bonds of friendship and loyalty that I had believed forever sundered reborn now. The sound of laughter echoing off the landscape.

Yes, Equestria was being reborn, forging a new future for itself on the corpses of the fallen. Yet where does this leave us then? Raider nests were slowly being cleaned out, some too far gone to embrace a new future. Some still clung to their past, fighting for what scraps of power they had left. But Equestria moves on. The gears of progress were churning on, forging ahead to a new future full of new beliefs.

Once again, I stand over the ruins of Detrot, my travels having taken me far away from this desolate city yet back again. Bodies of friends and enemies dotting the landscape... alone yet again. Always alone. A curse of my existence, a past I cannot escape from. I slowly unhook my mask, letting the device to the floor gently to get some fresh air. Exhaling softly, thin wisps of pink curl past my muzzle as I breathe in the air. It was spring now, and I could smell the grass. Life was fighting to survive, fighting to thrive. A new hope, a new beginning. Another deep breathe, my mind lost in the past. Not the distant past, I had finally laid that to rest after decades of pain and strife... no. After over two centuries... I still could not fully let go it seems. I close my eyes and remember... remember the looks the townsfolk gave me. Not just here, but in every gathering I crossed. Not just then, but also now. I remember their fear, I remember their hate. Even as the world is reborn, some parts stay the same.

What was there for me here? An old warhorse, embittered and cursed. A blight, a killer, a remnant of a memory best left forgotten. I exhale again, feeling the sun again after many long decades of closed skies. I spread my wings after long years of forbidden heights. Yet I stay where I am, alone. Forgotten. Why did I come back here? Why did I return? A simple answer to a simple question. I came back here to die. Raising my head, I unleash a wordless scream, tearing across the forsaken city, a cry of anguish, of rage, of despair. The echoing remnant of a life now forsaken, broken tears running down my cheeks as I howl into the empty skies above.

My voice falls off, my face turning back to the ground. My mind focuses back on the present, on my plans. On my future. I remove my saddlebags, setting it next to my mask. My cloak follows, neatly folded on top of the pile. I wouldn’t need them any more. But I have one more gesture to complete, a final vanity on my part, a silent monument against the darkness. I set my journal down on the pile, my most complete, most finished copy remaining, chronicling my life. The last page now chronicling my end. ‘Here lies Nevermore, a remnant of a better time.’ With that, I curl up next to it, closing my eyes. It would have been nice to have seen everypony again, but even now, I cannot name all the corpses in my dreams before running out of time, a veritable mountain of bodies.

For countless years, it had seemed that things would never change, that we would always be locked in a cycle of hate and death. But things have changed. A mare had risen up and shaken the very heavens, a catalyst for change and death. Savior of the Wastes indeed. Still, sacrifices must be made to create a better future. And if anypony should accept the suffering, it should be me. A relic of the past, a blight on the others that is better forgotten. A slayer of countless lives. Perhaps I can finally let my bones bleach under the sun.

I had taken the worst that the Wasteland could throw at me for over two centuries, but I could not take this any more. She had finally done it. The Savior had done what over two hundred years in the Wasteland could not. She had broken me. Not through cruelty or death. No, she broke me by creating kindness, by creating hope. She broke me by creating a world that I had dreamed of, that I had longed for, but have no place being in. An Equestria that would be better off without me. Without my memories, without my pain. Without any of us who remembered what was, both before and during the darkest hours. Those of us who know war as nopony alive can, who truly understands the darkness lingering in the soul. A bitter pill to swallow, my despair finally unleashed, warring with the rage in my heart. I no longer try to contain either of them. I do not care any more. I cannot care. I feel the last strands of my sanity start to snap, the spectre that had haunted me for centuries finally rears its head. Finally, after my long service, I can receive my just reward.

~~~~~~~~~~

A sword hangs above me... my release, my doom. My gaze drops down to the apparition in front of me, my own reflection staring back from the gloom, the mare looking more decayed, more savage though. Dark streams of blood run down her jaws, staining the floor below her. An endless darkness surrounds me. Surrounds us. Stretching out into eternity. “This is it, I suppose. You have always been here, have you not? A part of me that I never wanted to accept.” Of course. Her voice echoes in my mind, her musical tones at odds with my rasping voice. I have always been here, waiting for you. Waiting for this moment. I bow my head slightly. “Waiting for the loss of hope, waiting for the final despair.” She looks up, and my gaze follows hers to the gently swaying sword. You know what that is, right? “Feraldom... the despair that drives a ghoul to lose themselves. Hanging but by a thread, always ready to strike.” I can feel her smile, knowing it doesn’t match mine.

Then why come back here, if you know? “Because I needed to see it again. I needed to see it again with my own eyes...” Is that why you return to Detrot as well, a memory you can never forget? I exhale slowly, shaking my head. “I need one of them to kill me finally. I will not wander the Wastes, preying on the lost and forsaken. No, I will be here, where they stand a chance to finish me at last.” She chuckles, a sinister note in it. So you endanger one of the places you called home for your own ego? Kill those who you once saved? “No... I leave my demise to those who can take me down. And if some fall... I cannot care any more. I just need an end. I am so tired now.” Then rest, Nevermore. There’s a smile on her face, coupled with a maniacal grin of one who has finally received what they have waited for.. Rest now, forever. Looking straight at it, I see the thread finally break, as the sword plummets down. It is finished...

~~~~~~~~~~

Hope blossoms across the Wastes, lives move and struggle as best they can, scraping out a new existence in their lives. A dawning of hope and dreams, a bright future. But, it is a false dawn, doomed even as it begins. A body lies on the ground, slowly staggering back up, a dry hiss escaping its mouth, hunger behind its eyes even as the sky turns dark and heavy with stormclouds. War. War never changes.

~~~~~~~~~~

Achievement Unlocked: No Goddesses, No Monsters - You’ve reached the end of your journey it seems. Nothing to look up to, nothing to look back on. Nothing left, but regrets.

The sun rises and falls, darkness looms on the horizon, even as a spark of light struggles to survive. Yet, there is hope, even amidst the gloom. But for now, for Nevermore, this is...

The End...

or is it?

Epilogue: What Then Came

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Epilogue: What Then Came

Sometimes, just sometimes things work out.

Well... we meet again. I thought I was done with you. Very well. Once more... for what I once believed in.
~From the New Journal of Nevermore

The wind lashes around me as I stand upon the edge of the cliff. Rain poured from the heavens in a weeping curtain. A fitting deluge for what I had done. I upon a barren cliff, jagged rocks jutting from the earth like daggers far below me. A simple fall, and it would all end.

But it does not end. It couldn’t. I raise my eyes, looking up at the darkened sky, feeling the rain fall upon a shattered world. A world that is rebuilding. “Nevermore, we should go.” I nod my head slowly. She’s right. She’s always right. It’s time to go. Time to go home.

~~~~~~~~~~

Losing oneself is a terrifying thing. If you do not know who you are, then who does? I remember the rage, the grief... nowhere to go. Nothing to do. I gave myself to death and madness, a broken shell after centuries of torment. I was alone and trapped, surrounded by darkness. I look at the small orb as we enter the house. A sphere containing my memories, captured all those years ago. I do not know what horrors they went through to capture me. I cannot remember what nightmares they endured in freeing my mind with it. But I know what kept me here, what still keeps me here. I look at the ponies, seeing ghosts of familiar faces in their offspring.

The touch of madness behind me is gone. I no longer fear the night, no longer fear myself. The sword of insanity no longer hangs above me. Regret no longer tears at my heart. I am finally at peace, finally able to dream. Finally able to say goodbye. Dour though I am, I am at least now content. The world is healing, but there are still dangers. But not here. Not while I watch.

Bandits and raiders had learned quickly, once I reawoke. I taught them fear again. I taught them the price for attacking the innocent. I remember now the lessons I had forgotten during the war. I fight not for hatred nor violence. No... I fight to protect and to preserve. If we had done that all those years ago... but old regrets have no place in this new world.

I look over, seeing a red mane bobbing past, a smile on my lips before I realize it, still concealed behind my heavy mask. The filly looks at me, painfully shy, her crimson eyes looking into my own. “Come now, Written Verse... let us make tea for the others.” My namesake, for a new generation... maybe her life will be better than mine. I will fight to make it so... but I will not let it consume her. No, I will protect them as best I can. Not just from others, but from the darkness itself. I look out towards the horizon, waiting for a brilliant dawn.

I am Nevermore. A mare, a pegasus... a guardian and a friend. I am Nevermore, and I am not alone.

~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to the true ending of False Dawn!

Looks like you finally reached a happy ending, Nevermore.

Remember your past, but do not let it rule you.

But for now, this truly is...

The End