Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter 43: Chapter Forty-One: Towards Hope

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Chapter Forty-One: Towards Hope

“For many of us, the road is a difficult one, but the path is always there for us to follow, no matter how many times we may fall.”


I stood there, the streamlet flowing behind Absolutely Everything washing over my hooves, and stared at Calamity, my jaw unhinged. There was simply no other word. Calamity’s plan was insane.

Hell, it wasn’t even a plan. Plans have… plan stuff. Calamity had a bunch of ideas and vague hopes tied together by multiple points of “and then something happens”. We didn’t have who or what we needed to even try it. I doubted we could get them.

“Well?” he asked, earnestly seeking my approval.

“I’m beginning to agree with Velvet Remedy,” I told him, recalling her reaction to his actions in the Zebratown Police Headquarters.

“So… yer willin’ t’ give it a try?” Gawddammit. Calamity was staring at me with the eyes of a foal, hoping for my acceptance, my support of this… madness. This plan… it was something he needed to try. Needed like a starving pony needs food.

I manufactured a smile. “I don’t have a better plan,” I admitted. “Sure.” We were all going to die.

Watcher’s sprite-bot bobbed in the rain beside us, silently listening.

Finally, the mechanical voice that disguised Spike plaintively asked, “Is there anything I can do, guys? I’m really sorry.”

I thumped my rainsoaked forehead with an even wetter hoof. Think. Think, you silly mare.

“Yes,” I asserted, looking sidelong at the spritebot, “Yes, there is.”

“What?” Spike asked.

I waved a hoof. “Just wait there for a moment. First, I need to talk to Gawd.”

*** *** ***

“What I don’t understand,” I told Calamity as we started to walk back towards the front of Absolutely Everything, “Is why the Wonderbolts haven’t already hit us? The Wonderbolts are fast, right?”

Calamity looked askance. “Fast. You could say that, yes.”

Lightning flashed across the sky. “Shouldn’t they have gotten to Ironshod already,” I reckoned, talking above the rumbling thunder. “It wouldn’t take long to get my tag…” Not if Lensflare was as skilled as it sounded. And New Appleloosa was an awfully short flight from Ironshod Firearms.

“They’re probably caught up in committee,” Calamity snurked wryly.

I halted, my hooves growing muddy, and gave Calamity a confused look. Surely he wasn’t saying they had to, what, file a hunting plan? Were all the ponies in the sky crazy?

Calamity turned the corner, almost knocking over Railright. I heard the two stallions mumble apologies as I caught up. Railright was standing under the eve of Ditzy Doo’s store, apparently waiting for somepony. At the sight of me, he nodded, then cast a furtive glance towards the lights along the city wall.

Last I had seen Railright, he was escorting away several ponies who had dared to come below the Enclave’s cloud cover. “Where are the new pegasi?” I asked the sheriff/mayor, wondering just how much I’d slept through.

Railright glanced at Calamity before answering. “Ah’ve put them t’ work assistin’ the community. In return, they ‘ave a place in the common house till they c’n better situate themselves.”

I looked to Calamity questioningly. My pegasus friend frowned, his tone sour as he informed me, “Enclave Radio broadcast an offer o’ aid to ‘misplaced citizens’. Tracker accepted the offer at face value an’ flew off, promisin’ t’ contact Frost by her PipBuck soon as he was skyside. That was over six hours ago.”

“Calamity here was wormin’ some sense into the two mares when that broadcast came on,” Railright added. “That mare with the PipBuck is some kinda ex-military, Ah think. Somethin’ ‘bout that broadcast spooked her proper.”

I found myself feeling distinctly worried for Tracker.

“An what brings ya t’ Ditzy’s porch, sheriff?” Calamity asked, trying to sound casual.

Railright shook his head at the pegasus’ suspicion. I tried to remember that Railright and Calamity had known each other for years. Their relationship had always been cordial, if not downright friendly, before balefire bombs and rogue pegasi got thrown into the mix.

“Getting a weather report from the Grimfeathers,” Railright told him. “Thunderstorm spreads from the shores o’ Bucklyn all the way t’ the edge of Hope. Storm’s cleansin’ the air o’ the smoke from Everfree, and there’s nasty rainout all over Splendid Valley.”

“Cuz that place needs t’ be more toxic,” Calamity nickered.

“Just our luck that the broken weather over Everfree is keepin’ the storm out,” Railright added. “It’s almost like that place wants t’ be on fire.“

“Hope?” I asked Calamity.

“Ayep,” Calamity agreed. Then, seeing my confusion, “Ya been there b’fore, Li’lpip. The rubble that used t’ be Hope is only ‘bout a few hours down the tracks.”

“The town with that old weapons factory,” Railright clarified. Ironshod Firearms. I remembered walking through the playground of Hope. I’d seen my first Ministry of Morale poster there. I just hadn’t known the town’s name. “An’ ya got the Array few miles back from it, towards Everfree.”

“The what now?” I asked, confused. “Array?”

“Hope Solar Array,” Calamity told me, sounding a little bored. “Big bunch o’ dishes pointed up at the clouds. Best Ah c’n gather, the ponies o’ the old world tried all sorts o’ crazy ways t’ get power when the coal supply got strangled.”

Now that I didn’t see. Granted, the only time I’d been up high enough to have glimpsed it out of a factory window, I was a bit busy outrunning collapsing catwalks. I paused to process this. Technology for turning sunlight into energy? Made sense considering Twilight Sparkle’s ministry had even been working on weaponizing sunlight.

And this Celestia One, or Celestia Prime, or whatever they’re calling it can’t even be cast unless it’s sunny. I can’t tell the Princess that the only defense we have against those missiles can be defeated by a cloudy day. What if the zebras decide to attack us at night?

Clearly, there were still bugs to be worked out. But even the hope of power for the wasteland was just one more reason Equestria deserved and needed to see the sun. Old generators and spark batteries weren’t going to last forever.

Calamity was reaching his hoof towards the door when it swung open, Regina Grimfeathers framed in the doorway. My friend backed up as the griffin pushed her way out, nodding to all of us. The gun-toting adolescent griffin leaned against the wall where Ditzy’s sign had been and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Absolutely Everything’s porch was getting crowded.

“Any of you see where that little unicorn ran off to?” Reggie asked casually as she lit up a cigarette. Since I was standing right there, I assumed the little unicorn she was talking about was Silver Bell.

Calamity had come to the same conclusion. “Silver Bell’s missing?” She’d been inside just minutes ago.

Railright bit his lower lip. “Ah think Ah saw her headed up t’ the toilets.”

Oh. “Um… let’s not form a search party then.” I was mentally glaring daggers at Watcher as I added, “Give her some privacy.” Coming swiftly on the hooves of that thought, the realization that New Appleloosa had public bathrooms struck me across the forehead like a nailboard. Ow. Dammit. Of course they did. What had I been thinking?

“Now whatcha blushin’ ‘bout, Li’lpip?” Oh thank you, Calamity. Couldn’t let that go unasked, could you? Nope.

“Y-you were… um… saying something about… committees?”

Calamity mercifully took the hint, jumping back onto the former topic like he had never left it. “Remember Ah told ya that the Enclave keeps pegasi who c’n do the sonic rainboom real close? Well, now ya c’n see why. With all the cloud-tech the Enclave relies on, not t’ mention the cloud curtain, they view the sonic rainboom as a weapon of mass destruction.”

I looked towards where one of the Raptors had come down on the town. Worklights had been set up, illuminating it through the pouring rain. The silhouettes of ponies moved about it in the downpour, scavenging.

“Ya gotta realize, Li’lpip, that when the pegasi closed the sky, we’d lost one city. Just one. Granted, Cloudsdayle was the biggest, but that still left several more that survived pretty much untouched by the war. All that pre-war technology and magic… they’ve been repurposing and recycling all that stuff fer centuries.”

Lightning split the sky. Thunder pounded down on us like it was trying to drive us into the mud.

“But they can’t make more,” Calamity shouted. “Pegasi can’t make magic items like unicorns or zebras. And there ain’t nothing up there t’ build with ‘cept what was left from the past. An’ clouds. Clouds make fer good pegasi homes, they ain’t so useful fer makin’ armor an’ bullets.”

I remembered how my hoof passed right through the Enclave terminal interface.

“The few mountains that rise above the clouds have either been stripped of their resources or are homes fer nasty things that the Enclave would rather not piss off.” Like Spike. “The Enclave invaded the griffin skies a few generations ago jus’ t’ get at their mountains.”

Calamity nodded to Reggie, who took a long drag on her cigarette and spat a curse at the sky.

“When the war ended,” Calamity added, “The pegasi had ‘bout fifty Raptors, only four Thunderheads, and no ability t’ make more. Includin’ the four Raptors that ya took out with the balefire bomb an’ the one downed near Stalliongrad, the Enclave ‘as lost a dozen o’ their warships in under a week. More than they’ve lost in two hundred years. An’ four o’ ‘em were taken out by Ditzy Doo’s toxic rainboom.”

Calamity gave me a meaningful stare. “The Enclave must be ‘bout pissin’ themselves right now.”

I wished he hadn’t used that particular phrase. “Good,” I said firmly. Then asked, “What does that have to do with the Wonderbolts?”

Calamity rolled his eyes. “Ain’t it obvious, Li’lpip? Ah told ya: the Enclave keeps all pegasi who c’n do the Sonic Rainboom real close.”

Oh. Now I got it. The Wonderbolts. Any pegasus who proved capable of performing a Sonic Rainboom was drafted into the Enclave’s celebrity hit squad.

That meant that the ponies hunting us were all that good. I liked Calamity’s plan even less.

“And when the Enclave saw what Ditzy did…” I guessed, putting the pieces together, “…they pulled the Wonderbolts into…” I searched for an appropriate phrase, “…emergency tactical meetings, calling on their expertise to try to get a handle on this new threat?”

Calamity nodded. “Somethin’ like that. They have no idea how many ghoul pegasi live down here,” he stated, causing me to think back to the flock of zombie pegasi we had run from in the Cloudsdayle outskirts. “And if Ditzy Doo could do it, theoretically just ‘bout any sufficiently-radiated ghoul pegasi should be capable of pulling off a toxic rainboom.”

Yes. The Enclave really must be pissing themselves.

“Upshot is, Ah reckon we got a few days before the Wonderbolts are hot on our tails.”

*** *** ***

Gawd was talking to Ditzy Doo when I entered the store. Kage and the bodyguard were next to them, huddled around a spool table, playing a game involving rectangles of hardened paper. My curiosity urged me to divert long enough to peek in on the game. Each griffin held a number of the colorfully marked papers in their talons, and there were six more piles of papers face up on the table as well as two face down that they seemed to be drawing new papers from as they played. I would have watched longer, trying to understand the rules, but I didn’t want to leave Watcher waiting. (And besides, the game was clearly not for ponies. A unicorn might be able to hold those little papers fanned like that, but why learn a game you couldn’t play with your pegasi or earth pony friends?)

Trotting up to Gawd (who was nodding at something Ditzy Doo had written on her chalkboard), I interrupted as politely as I could. Ditzy Doo stepped back, nodding with a smile.

“Gawd, there’s something I need from you.” I wanted to ask this as a favor, but the little pony in my head reminded me that favors weren’t how Gawd worked. Gawd respected the contract.

The gruff female griffin looked down at me with her one good eye, her expression unreadable. “Sorry, kid. But you ain’t my type.”

Bwah? Arrguh! She thought I was…? But then, what else would she think after her daughter (!) caught me looking at her. “It-it’s nothing like th-that!” I stomped, recovering.

Part of me wanted to bury myself and hide until I drowned in my own embarrassment. But this was too important. And besides, I wasn’t interested in her like that. I mean, sure… but I had Homage. And it was very likely I wasn’t going to be around much longer. The last damn thing I was going to do in my remaining days here was cheat on Homage.

The little mare in my head whimpered, I’m not? Not helping.

Gawdyna raised an eyebrow.

Well of course not, I mentally hissed at my little pony. She’s a griffin. With children. Which highly suggested that she was interested in other griffins. Male ones. And why was I even having this discussion with myself?

Trying to get this back on track, I asserted, “You have a contract to protect this town, right?”

“Yes,” the griffin said slowly, her face shifting into the stern expression of negotiation.

“But you didn’t protect it. Ditzy Doo here did.”

“Yes,” she said again, even more slowly.

“And now, there’s a really good chance that the Enclave will come after her. And they’ll probably wipe out the town to get at her if she’s here.” I could see Ditzy Doo’s eyes widen. Gawd hadn’t been in Friendship City. But Ditzy Doo had seen the horrible lengths the Enclave would go to.

Gawd was looking at Ditzy Doo and frowning. “She’s hired Gilgamesh as her personal bodyguard. But I take it you think I need to do more.” I detailed what I wanted Gawd to do. About halfway through my explanation, her good eye widened and she turned to me in shock.

“Are you insane?” Apparently, all the ponies in this town were crazy. Including me. “I was with you until the dragon cave. But I think asking me and my griffins to fly Ditzy here above the clouds and int’ the home o’ a dragon is stretchin’ the contract I have with this town a mite bit too far.”

“The dragon won’t be hostile. Not to you. I promise.”

“You do, do you?” She fixed me with an appraising look. “Your relationship with dragons seems to have changed since last I saw.”

“This dragon doesn’t eat ponies,” I asserted. “Or griffins.” At least, I was pretty sure Spike didn’t eat griffins. What did Spike eat, anyway? Just gems?

“Well, if you want me t’ liberally interpret the contract t’ include dragon visitin’,” Gawd suggested, “Then maybe you can see yer way t’ liberally interpretin’ what we’re getting’ paid.”

I was going to be broke after this. But it was worth it to keep Ditzy Doo safe. And Silver Bell. “Okay. But you’ll have to take both of them, Ditzy and her daughter, as soon as… where is Silver Bell anyway? Shouldn’t she be back by now?” I looked to Ditzy Doo.

Somepony should be watching that filly. The thought struck me swiftly, “Where’s Xenith?”

Worry became panic when Stiletto burst in, looking nastily smug. “Hey, Derpy. That ditzy filly o’ yours is up at Railright’s station. Needs you somethin’ bad.”

The bodyguard, Gilgamesh, was fast. Ditzy Doo was faster. She’d flown out the door, leaving paper rectangles swirling through the air from her backwash, even before my mind could process what the Shattered Hoof Raider had said.

Shooting Stiletto a nasty look (and a “Then why aren’t you helping?”), I raced into the night’s storm after her. Gilgamesh was in front of me, Calamity behind. I heard Gawdyna ordering Kage to watch the store just before the door banged closed behind me.

Yep, this was what wet felt like. I thought I was wet a few minutes ago. Wow, was I wrong. The rain was heavier now, falling in sheets that drenched me to the bone before I’d gotten into the street. But I didn’t care. All I cared about was Silver Bell. The pony in my head was biting her hooves, insisting that I should have gotten the two of them to safety sooner. Why did I have to fall asleep?

My hooves splashed in the river beneath me. Calamity and Gilgamesh were faster, reaching the station house that had been claimed by New Appleloosa’s mayor/sheriff. Ditzy Doo was already at the front door.

The lights were out. Not good.

I floated out Little Macintosh, kicking on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. I tried to call out to Ditzy Doo, to urge caution, but I was too late. The ghoul pegasus spun in the air and bucked the door open, revealing blackness inside.

My E.F.S. compass lit up with dozens of lights just as Ditzy Doo pivoted back and flew into the dark maw of the doorway. It was a trap!

I lifted Little Macintosh in front of me, galloping as fast as I could to catch up.

Wait. None of the lights on my E.F.S. compass were a hostile red.

A flash-flood of light poured out of Railright’s station as dozens of colorful New Appleloosians shouted in unison.


I nearly shot a balloon.

*** *** ***

A cake floated into view, surrounded by a caramel-colored field of magic, followed by a familiar yellow unicorn pony with an orange-and-beige striped mane. The cake was baked in the shape of a giant muffin, echoing the many muffins on the nearby table beneath a glittering banner.


Ditzy Doo stood in the middle of the room, wide-eyed, stunned. “Do you like it?” Silver Bell asked anxiously. “It’s a party!” The filly seemed nervous. “For you!” she added. I could tell from her wide, glistening eyes (and by many of the decorations) that the little lavender filly had done must of the work on this surprise thank-you party. Probably planned it. There was still a touch of Pinkie Bell in her, and at some level this must be triggering odd emotions in the young girl.

Ditzy Doo made those fears evaporate as she flew to Silver Bell, scooping the filly up against her breast and lavishing her with kisses until the girl was crying with happiness.

Soon, everypony was enjoying the party.

“Hello, Crane,” I said, turning to the yellow unicorn. “I thought I saw your telekinesis out there yesterday morning.” Crane grinned. “Thanks for the catch.”

“Thank you,” he insisted. “Couldn’t ‘ave done it without yer help! An’ that li’l filly’s,” he added, looking over at Silver Bell who was trying to regain her ability to stand after a dizzying round of hugging. “That was the first magic that li’l gal managed since getting’ her horn back. Ah honestly think seein’ mommy there do that radboom is what did it.”

Somehow (Be smart), I was certain he was right.

We spent the next hour catching up, which mostly involved me regaling him with all the telekinetic tricks I’d managed in the past two months. To my delight, Crane was duly impressed with my creativity. But it wasn’t until I told him about telekinetically flying that I managed to surprise him with my telekinetic prowess.

“Dayumn, girl,” he said, wide-eyed. “That took me years o’ work t’ pull off.” I felt a little crestfallen that I hadn’t managed something unique. But Crane wasn’t considered the best telekinetic in the Equestrian Wasteland for nothing. And at least my learning curve was faster. “How far c’n ya get? Ah can manage one lap o’ New Appleloosa b’fore muh juice runs out.”

“I… don’t really know,” I admitted. I’d made it from the ground to Calamity’s shack. But I’d never tested to see how much farther I could push it. “I’m afraid that I’ll burn out again if I push too hard trying to find out.”

“Ya been burning out?” he asked. I nodded. “Way ya been pushin’ yerself, Ah’m not surprised.”

We both jumped as something in the room exploded in confetti.

“Good news is, there’s a remedy fer that,” Crane told me as he floated all the bits of confetti off the two of us, depositing them in a wastebin. A cure for burnout? He had my full attention. “Sadly, the wasteland might not have it fer much longer. Requires a few plants that only grew in the Everfree Forest. Reckon they’re all burnt up now.”

Oh. Well, crap.

“Might be willin’ t’ part with one o’ my bottles o’ it though,” Crane said slyly. “Fer a favor.”

Right. Should have seen that coming. Plus, Crane’s last favor involved a Stable full of chimeras.

“I’m a little busy being hunted right now,” I admitted. “If I live through this, I’ll keep your offer in mind.” Maybe the first time ever that I had turned down a distracting quest. But I really couldn’t spare the time. Unless… “This favor -- is anypony in danger?”

“Nope,” said Crane. I felt a wash of relief. “Least, not that Ah know of.” Well, that was something, at least. “There’s a farm out on the edge o’ the Everfree Forest near the Hope Solar Array. Close ‘nuff t’ Everfree fer the ground t’ be farmable.”

A farm near Everfree? Maybe it was something in the air. Maybe the crazy was contagious.

“Sprung up outta nowhere last spring. No idea who built it. Seems like some ponies went through a lot of effort, then abandoned the place. Or, more likely, got ‘emselves slaughtered by somethin’ wanderin’ outta the forest.” Crane shrugged. In the background, I spotted Ditzy Doo enjoying a muffin. She had one ear cocked, and I suspected she was listening in.

“We could sorely use the crops, ‘specially now,” Crane stated. “But local folks have weird rumors ‘bout the farm. First pony who tried t’ move out that way came back t’ town a few times sayin’ it’s haunted. Then he stopped comin’ t’ town at all. That was a while ago. Could use a pair of eyes scopin’ the place out, lettin’ us know if it’s safe to move inta.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Assumin’ ya ain’t afraid o’ the headless horse.”

I mulled it over. “Tell you what. If I’m out that way, I’ll poke around, see what I can find, and let you know,” I told him, adding, “For the remedy. But my plate’s pretty full right now.”

Ditzy Doo trotted over. She had scribbled a new message on one of the chalkboards hanging around her neck:

Don’t worry because they say the farm is haunted.
No reason to avoid the place.
Ghosts don’t exist.
Just landmines.

I blinked. “Landmines?”

“Ditzy Doo’s pet theory,” Crane explained. “Given the bloody body parts and the places where the ground looked like it had exploded.”

Meanwhile, Ditzy Doo was wiping off her chalkboard. A moment later, she offered:

Bring me any mines you find, please. I’ll trade for caps and grenades.

Yep. Definitely contagious.

Silver Bell galloped up excitedly. “C’mon mommy! Xenith has started Pin the Tail on the Pony! Wanna play?” The blonde-maned filly started tugging Ditzy Doo away before the ghoul could answer.

Wait. Xenith started a game? Then, on second thought, regaining orientation and maintaining accuracy while blinded did sound like an exercise the zebra would be familiar with.

I perked my ears, taking a moment to look and listen to the party around me. There was music playing from an old record player similar to the one Homage had, only in far worse condition. The songs were happy and carefree. All the furniture in Railright’s living room had been pushed back, and there were ponies dancing with each other. It felt like a touch of the sun’s light had been captured and was alive in this room.

Pyrelight was perched on Railright’s hat rack. She was bobbing her head, letting out musical whistles as she stared at her colored and distorted reflections in a cluster of balloons. I suspected she’d gotten into the spiked punch.

Spike! Crap. I still needed to tell him about Gawd and Ditzy Doo.

“Excuse me, Crane,” I said hastily. “I’ll be right back.”

“Take yer time,” the yellow pony claimed. “Ah got somethin’ that needs doin’.”

As I galloped out the door, I passed Gawdyna. She was standing outside, listening to the party. I stopped, skidding a bit in the mud. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “You’ve got a deal. Five hundred bottle caps, and I’ll have those two snug away in a dragon’s cave by tomorrow evening.” She shook her head. “Hope you know what you’re doing. Those two… they deserve a good life.”

I had entertained a fleeting worry that the party had upset her. It would have been easy to be angry over the flash of panic those ponies had caused. (How could I have ever doubted you? a little voice in my head asked. It could have happened to any of us, another answered. The little pony in my head started looking around for the source of the other voices.)

I shook my head to clear it of the strange thoughts. No, the truth was that seeing Ditzy Doo and Silver Bell together had touched the gruff griffin commander, and she’d stepped outside to think.

“Thank you,” I told her. I started to turn back towards where Watcher was waiting, but halted again. “What is your type?” I found myself forced to ask.

“Unattached,” Gawdyna Grimfeathers told me bluntly.

The answer brought a smile to my face. From a certain perspective, I supposed that having a marefriend was like a contract. Gawd respected the contract. And couldn’t respect somepony who didn’t.

*** *** ***

“Come on,” Silver Bell coaxed with big, bright eyes, trying to pull me away from my conversation with Candi. “Come an’ dance with me!”

I looked at the adorable little filly being so earnest and… adorable. How could I say no? I glanced up towards her mother, wondering how she managed; the wall-eyed ghoul was watching her daughter lovingly and gave me a sympathetic smile.

Waving goodbye to Candi (who notably had been responsible for bringing the “adult punch”), I followed the little lavender unicorn out onto the dance floor.

The party went late into the night.

Exhausted from dancing, I found an empty table and plopped my tail down next to it, floating over a glass of “adult punch”. It had a peculiar and delicious berry flavor and shed just enough radiation to make my PipBuck click. I’d made the mistake of asking about it. Mutfruit punch tasted better when I didn’t know what it was.

Xenith joined me. “The little one has fallen asleep,” she stated. “We have put her to bed upstairs in the mayor’s room.” Better that than taking her home in the rain. Plus, it kept her and Ditzy Doo close. “The guard griffin is watching her.”

I wondered if Gilgamesh ever slept. From something I had overheard, I knew I wasn’t the only pony in town to ask that.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“I am not a mother,” Xenith said. “I can be a guard. A protector. But not more. I envy them.”

“Maybe you can’t be a mother,” I said as I recalled how Xenith stayed to help the zebras of Glyphmark learn the arts of stealth. How she instructed them in making Dash. “But you can be more than just a guard; you can be a teacher.”

Xenith didn’t know what to say to that. So she drank her mutfruit punch, and I drank mine.

At the table nearby, a familiar trio of younger ponies were spending the party discussing what they should name their group. The olive pony was suggesting the Wasteland Rangers.

“No, no,” the amber mare said. “That would sound like we were trying to copy the Applejack’s Rangers. We need something more original.”

“I know,” the olive-coated buck said, raising a hoof. “How about the Ouroboros?”

“The what now?” the amber mare asked, confused.

“It’s a snake eating its own tail,” the buck explained.

“Ew. Why would we want to call ourselves that?”

“No, no,” the buck clarified. “It’s an old symbol about renewal. And we’re trying to help Equestria renew itself, right?”

“You sure about that?” the khaki-coated buck asked.

“No,” the amber mare insisted, shaking her head. “No snakes of any kind. There’s nothing heroic about snakes.” I thought she had a point. What kind of group of friends would name themselves after snakes?

Leaning over, I offered, “If you want something heroic, how about Crusaders?” I watched the young heroes’ eyes light up. “I happen to know the name has a pretty illustrious history.” Not to mention, they seemed to come in threes.

“oh, oh yeah!” the amber mare exclaimed. “The Wasteland Crusaders!”

I was smiling as I turned back to my drink, the conversation at the other table having become more excited as the young heroes plotted how they were going to change Equestria. I still didn’t know their names. Although now I sorta did.

Calamity joined me at my table, followed by Reggie, both smiling and chatting. Struck by a suspicion, I asked, “You two have met before, haven’t you.”

“Ayep,” Calamity told me as a pale blue unicorn mare trotted by, offering cake and muffins. I took a plate of cake and nibbled at it. Yep. Muffin-flavored.

“Calamity here built my guns,” Reggie smirked proudly.

“Ayep. Met her a couple years ago. She an’ her brother were flyin’ protection fer caravans ‘tween New Appleloosa an’ the Republic,” Calamity said again. Then assured me with a grin, “Didn’t know she was related t’ yer feathered fantasy though.”

I moaned, my ears flattening and my cheeks turning red as Reggie didn’t hold back her snickering. I was never going to hear the end of this, was I? “You’re worse than Velvet!” I immediately regretted the reference, seeing the pain it brought.

It was contagious. I found myself thinking of Velvet Remedy. And of SteelHooves. And how much I wish they were here, able to enjoy this party with us. Without them, the party seemed…

Reggie yanked our thoughts away from friends no longer with us by pulling out one of her pistols and setting it on the table. I’d never seen a design quite like it before. “Calamity here took two .223 rifles, cut ‘em down and modified ‘em inta the most boss pair o’ pistols in the Equestrian Wasteland.”

I gave an appreciative whistle, wondering how they stacked up against Little Macintosh.

“I’m hoping Calamity here can fix me up with some more quick loaders,” Reggie added, pulling out a cigarette only for Calamity to hoofwave her to put it away. “Lost a few when the Enclave attacked Shattered Hoof.”

“What happened?” I asked, remembering DJ Pon3’s mention of the attack on the radio.

“Lame-ass party if you can’t even smoke,” Reggie grumbled. Then shrugged. “They attacked. We fought back. We kicked their metal tails t’ the moon. What’s t’ know?”

Seeing we weren’t satisfied, she sighed. “Fine. Apparently, somepony high up in the Enclave has got some brains,” she admitted. “Cottoned onta the idea of sendin’ their soldiers on strikes against raiders first. Set the right first impression, paint the right picture o’ what the wasteland is all about, an’ those bucks an’ mares won’t hesitate when they tell ‘em t’ wipe a town.”

Not like previous encampments, the attacking pegasus had said. There are foals here. Families!

Calamity was staring despondently at his cake. “Makes sense.”

“Yeah,” Reggie claimed, “And at the rate they’re goin’, they’re gonna wipe the wasteland clean o’ raiders by the end o’ the month.” She grimaced. “Problem is, nopony told ‘em that Shattered Hoof wasn’t a raider stronghold anymore. Well, problem fer them…”

The young griffin grinned broadly. “They didn’t send in any o’ those warbirds, but they sent in a whole flock o’ troops. At least three dozen. And we wrecked ‘em. All that fancy armor and firepower ain’t worth a shit in the sky if you don’t have the experience t’ back ‘em up.”

I blinked. That was certainly a new take on the threat of the Enclave. But then, the Talons were professional mercenaries, heavily armed and with years of wasteland experience.

Reggie pushed herself away from the table. “Anyway, scene’s gettin’ stale, an’ I promised Kage I’d bring him some cake, so I’m bailin’.”

The griffin had walked about two yards away from us when she spun around, moved back, and jabbed a sharp talon into our table. “Oh, an’ just so you know, wherever you’re goin’ next, Kage an’ I are goin’ with you.”


“No argument. I don’t know what you all are up to now, but all of Equestria tends t’ benefit from your victories.” Reggie looked us over, dropping her voice. “Mom ain’t never gonna admit it, but she’s damn thankful fer what you all did out at Splendid Valley. The Goddess? Her plans for griffins weren’t exactly pretty.” No Unity for griffins. “Once all the ponies were her children, anything that could challenge them was on the chopping block. Half the reason Red Eye’s got so many of our kind working for him, why some o’ us like Stern are so loyal t’ him…” Xenith was drinking punch from a bowl cup which clattered to the floor. “…is because they knew he was plottin’ against the Goddess.”

Calamity, Xenith and I looked at each other.

Reggie continued, “Way my bro and I see it, you’re the best hope this wasteland’s got going fer it. And you’re two soldiers down, includin’ your heavy gunner, just as things are gettin’ their most dangerous. You need us.”

This was… surprising to say the least. And not how Talons operated. Or, at least, not how Gawd did. “But, we haven’t hired you.” The thought was immediately followed by, “What does your mother think?”

“Y’all might change yer minds when ya hear what we’re headin’ into.”

“Don’t much care,” Reggie insisted. “We’re hirin’ ourselves t’ do this. Less you lot think you can outrun us.”

“We will gladly take all the help we can get,” Xenith stated. Then looked to me, “Am I not right, little one?”

I looked at Calamity again. Maybe, just maybe, we’d be able to survive his plan after all.

*** *** ***

In the cold drizzle of dawn, I saw the four dozen forms of black carapace armor rise up over the city gates and fly into town.

For a moment, I felt panic and rage. The Enclave was attacking again! But that notion fled as I noticed the shimmer of caramel-colored magic surrounding the suits of Enclave armor and realized there were no ponies inside.

The heavy gate rumbled open and Crane entered New Appleloosa. He was not alone. Walking just behind him was a haggard-looking charcoal unicorn , streaks of scarlet and gold in her white mane. She was wearing Rarity’s battle dress and yellow medical boxes for saddle bags.


Velvet Remedy halted, eyes widening as she saw me. We stared at each other through the haze of rain between us, a muddy river of a street stretching between us.

She flinched back as I broke into a gallop. There was pain between us. But the emotional hurting was eclipsed by the hope I felt seeing her again. She tried to backpedal, but I had her in a hug before she could escape.

“You’re here?” she asked meekly. “Of course you’re here.”

“Goddesses, we’ve missed you!” I told her, not letting her go. “Please tell me you’re back.”

“I… I came to help,” she said hesitantly. “I was… visiting SteelHooves and… I saw the explosion.”

“She got here late last night,” Crane told me. “Been helping tend t’ the pegasi too wounded t’ fly back home.”

Of course she was.

Velvet Remedy didn’t ask if they were the good guys and who were the bad guys. She stopped to help the first hurting ponies she came across, didn’t matter who they were. I hoped her kindness to the enemy left a lasting impression on them.

“Ah been collectin’ their armor,” Crane said, motioning upwards with his horn. “Reckon it’s a fit gift fer Ditzy Doo. Help repay what the town owes her.” I found myself loving Crane just a little bit right then. “She’s the one who took ‘em down, after all.”

Sensing an opportunity to change the subject, Velvet Remedy pointed a hoof at Crane. “This one’s been claiming he’s the best telekinetic in the wasteland,” she said indignantly. “Obviously, he hasn’t met you.”

Crane and I exchanged looks. He chuckled. I gave him a respectful little bow, which he returned.

“Or I was wrong, as usual,” Velvet sighed, watching us.

“Crane was my teacher,” I explained. “Taught me how to… unlock my… telekinetic potential?” Goddesses, that sounded lame. I blamed it on reading too many Sword Mares comics. Too much being one.

Xenith whispered (where did she come from?) into my ear, “You must say: and now the student has become the master.”

I blinked, still processing Xenith’s stealth appearance. “What? Why?”

“It is expected,” she whispered earnestly.

I shook my mane. “By who?” The zebra didn’t seem to have an answer.

Crane walked on, floating the several dozen suits of scavenged armor towards Absolutely Everything. Xenith stepped back, seeming to fade into the weather. Silver Bell was right -- the zebra was kinda creepy.

Velvet Remedy and I were alone in the rain.


“No, you go first…”
“Go ahead…”

We stopped trying to talk. The silence stretched awkwardly, scored by the metallic hiss of rain against railway cars.

“Littlepip, the things I said…” Velvet began again. “They were so horrible.”

I took a deep breath. Her words still felt fresh, the pain cut deep. But, “You weren’t wrong,” I told her. “And you tried to protect me. You were hurting so much and you still warned me away, tried to get me to go,” I said, realizing it was true. “It’s my fault. I wouldn’t leave. A mare who keeps poking a hornet’s nest deserves to get stung.”

I wondered briefly if hornets still existed in Equestria. I had only seen them in books.

Velvet Remedy shook her head, her striped mane flapping wetly. “No. They were cruel. And… hypocritical.” She shrugged off her medical boxes. The yellow boxes with their pink butterflies sank into the brown water. “I’m not worthy to follow Fluttershy. Or to be your friend.”

I saw she was trembling. Fatigue and cold were certainly part of it. She must have galloped all the way from Fetlock. It was not a short journey. I put a hoof under her chin, looking into her eyes. It wasn’t just the rain. She was crying.

“But I want to,” she continued. “I let the wasteland poison me. I know that. And I was right, most ponies don’t deserve to be helped. But that’s not the reason to do it.”

I understood. I knew what it was like to have your faith in the goodness of ponies shaken. I felt it back in the Pitt -- all those slaves I was trying to save cheering for my death. But unlike Velvet, that had never been the primary foundation of my urge to help.

“I know it’s up to me. I want to be stronger than the wasteland. Not let it poison me anymore…” She faltered. “But I’m not sure how.”

Homage was right: the Equestrian Wasteland is hard on heroes. No… it’s brutal to them. It beats them down. It tears them apart. Eventually, every hero falls. Inevitably, every hero fails. The true mark of a hero is not that they never fail, never fall down… No, you know a true hero by what they do after they fall. By the way they pick themselves back up again, shake themselves off, and throw themselves back into that good fight.

“Velvet, Fluttershy would be proud of you,” I started. I was unsure if I was saying the right thing, but it came from my heart -- that had to count for something, right? “She would want you by her side. It doesn’t matter if you’ve stumbled. We’ve all done things we regret. You know I have. No pony is perfect. No pony is strong all the time.

“Do you think Applejack never lied? That Rarity was never greedy? Or that Pinkie Pie was never sad? Even Fluttershy had her Gardens of Canterlot.” I gave her a tender and hopefully uplifting smile. “What matters is that you don’t let your failures stop you.”

Velvet Remedy stared at me a long time, tears streaming down her eyes. There seemed to be a battle raging inside her.

“Thank you. I don’t deserve friends like you,” she said finally. Pulling her head away, she stared at the muddy water concealing her hooves. After a pregnant pause, she let out a trembling whinny. “It’s my fault SteelHooves is dead.”


She looked up. “I’m sorry. I… when you didn’t come back, SteelHooves wanted to move. But I knew that clearing was where you would expect us to be. The others thought you were dead, but I refused to believe it.” Her voice was slowly rising, touching on hysteria. “I insisted that we stay close, believing that if you did survive the balefire bomb, you were fighting to get to us. And we had to be there for you when you finally made it.”

Trembling, she wailed, “I’m the reason it was so easy for the Hellhounds to find us. I made us keep camping so close to the same spot every day!”

Velvet Remedy broke down, sobbing. I wrapped my hooves around her, holding her tight, understanding her pain. Forgiving it and thanking her for what she had done because of why she had done it.

“Please tell me you’ll come with us again,” I whispered finally. “We love you. We need you. Being without you is like walking with an open wound.” I hugged her tightly. “We miss you so much.”

“I…” Velvet began. She pushed back, breaking out of the hug, and stood staring at me, only falling raindrops between us. “Littlepip…”


A rust and orange streak plowed into Velvet Remedy, knocking her out of sight as she was driven into the mud with Calamity on top of her.

“Velvet!” Calamity cheered, nuzzling the exceptionally muddy mare.

“Good to see you too,” she said weakly. Calamity stepped back, looking at his mud-covered love.

“Oops,” he said, blushing. “Let me help ya.” Before Velvet or I could say anything, Calamity had flown across the street, grabbing a rain barrel from in front of Railright’s station.

SPLASH! Calamity dumped the barrel over Velvet Remedy.

Velvet sighed. “Well, at least I was already wet.” And she wasn’t muddy anymore.

“It’s good to have you back!” Calamity told her, never questioning that she was.

Velvet Remedy splashed a hoof timidly. “If… you’ll have me.”

“Who’s being a silly pony,” Calamity chided.

Velvet looked up at him. “I want to be back. I want to help.” Her voice was shy of pleading.

Calamity lowered his muzzle into the muddy water and pulled out her medical boxes, putting them back over her. I watched as she thanked him and he teasingly threatened to kiss her with his muddy muzzle.

“It is like things are finally going right again, is it not?” Xenith asked, having ninjaed up beside me.

I nodded. The rain was beginning to stop.

Suddenly, looking at Velvet Remedy and Calamity, I knew. The very last of the pieces fell into place. Kindness and Loyalty.

Was there ever any doubt?

*** *** ***

The heavy black thunderclouds had shifted to a lighter grey but were still heavy with rain as the Sky Bandit approached the shattered ruins of Manehattan.

Calamity was pulling the passenger wagon. Our two griffin escorts flanked us.

“Ever consider mounting a magical energy turret on the top o’ that thing?” Reggie called up to Calamity, eyeing the Sky Bandit’s rack where SteelHooves had stood in past battles.

Calamity wasn’t quick to answer. Like me, I think he felt that mounting a weapon would be too much like we were replacing SteelHooves. It was a silly and impractical response, the sort that Calamity had always dismissed in the past, being the first to scavenge Stables and the corpses of Steel Rangers. But this was different. This was SteelHooves.

“Ayep,” he finally said. “Ah think SteelHooves would want it that way. Want us t’ protect ourselves.” He kept flying straight. “Jus’ ain’t had the time.”

Kage flew close on the other side, talking to Velvet Remedy. “So, you follow the pony who all the medical supply boxes are made to look like?”

“Yes,” Velvet Remedy stated, beginning to get her hooves back under her. “Her name is Fluttershy, and she was the best pony.”

Kage considered that. “But… you said she was the one who created the megaspells?” Velvet Remedy had been surprisingly forthcoming with that bit of information. A reaction, I suspected, to our attempts to keep it a secret. “Which caused the apocalypse,” Kage added. “So… you’re a follower of the apocalypse?”

Velvet Remedy needed only a heartbeat to answer. “If that is the name ponies want to use for anyone who aspires to the kindness of Fluttershy, then I will own that title. Without reservation.”

Suddenly, Calamity dipped low, flying just above the rubble of the city streets. Our griffin shadows took a moment to change direction, swooping in towards us as Calamity brought the Sky Bandit to a rapid halt, pulling us into the cover of a hollowed-out Radio Prince store.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, leaping out of the passenger wagon as Calamity kicked the quick release on his harness.

“Did you not see it?” Xenith asked, her exotic voice seeming incredulous.

I didn’t have to wait long to know what she meant. About ten minutes later, as we crouched in the cover of a broken sales bench, the pale grey light from the clouds was blotted out by the massive form of a black, anvil-shaped Enclave mobile fortress. Four great thunderclouds spanned out from it, two on each side. The ruined Manehattan street was rendered in stark black and white as massive bolts of lightning arced between them. Attached to each storm cloud was a Raptor. On each Raptor, one of the clouds holding it aloft had merged into one of the flying fortress’s broiling thunderclouds. The undercarriage of the massive ship bristled with weapon turrets. I could make out several large doors capable of dropping war chariots or bombers or troops by the scores.

“What. The. Hell…!?” Couldn’t we, just once, get a break?

We got a sonic rad-boom, the little pony in my head reminded me. What more do you want?

Even Pyrelight let out a low whistle.

“That’s the Glorious Dawn,” Calamity said in soft awe as the huge ship passed over the Manehattan Ruins.

Noticing that we were all staring at him, Calamity coughed. “Thunderhead-class mobile siege platform,” he explained.

“You said the Enclave only had four of those,” I pointed out, hoping I didn’t sound accusatory.

“Ayep. An’ two o’ ‘em are permanently assigned. One’s at Neighvarro an’ the other is the home o’ the High Council.”

I did the math. Both Calamity and Pride had referred to an Enclave “regiment” as four Raptors and accompanying troops -- the amount that could be carried and deployed by a Thunderhead. A full regiment had descended on Maripony just before the bomb went off, bringing a member of the High Council with them. Probably the regiment attached to the High Council’s own personal Thunderhead. Hundreds of ponies, Commander Winter had said.

I felt a little sick.

“If they’re committin’ Thunderheads t’ Operation: Cauterize, that means they’re gettin’ ready for their big offensive,” Calamity warned. “They’ve lost too much, too quickly. They need big victories fast or their whole invasion falls apart, an’ a whole lot o’ Enclave leaders will be losin’ their positions in the next election. They can’t play around with the little targets anymore.”

“Explains why they haven’t amassed another assault on New Appleloosa,” Kage reckoned. “Or Shattered Hoof.”

“Where do you think they are headed?” Xenith asked as the shadow finally passed, allowing daylight (such as it was) back into the streets.

“By the vector, I’d say they’re aimin’ fer Fillydelphia,” Reggie suggested. “Assumin’ they don’t plan t’ park that thing over Tenpony Tower.”

Fuck. Dammit, dammit, dammit!

“Calamity,” I blurted anxiously, “Remember, I told you that we can make this all mean something. Make all the loss count; make this the start of something better?”

Calamity stared at me with an expression that told me he was still holding me to that promise. The others just stared.

“Well, I’ve got a plan. I know how to do it…” I began.

The griffins looked anxious and doubtful, Xenith looked reserved and Velvet Remedy’s face bore an expression of concern. But Calamity’s eyes lit up with hope, a smile on his face. Then the smile faltered as he tentatively asked, “What ‘bout muh plan?”

“Your plan comes first,” I reassured him. My friend looked immediately relieved. “But this new offensive throws a major wrench in mine. I need to know what the Enclave’s timetable is.”

Calamity nodded. He clopped his hoof against his forehead, thinking. “Okay, we haven’t seen the Thunderheads before, so until now they must have been using someplace groundside as a communications center. Someplace to correlate data from all the scattered forces and relay commands.”

I clopped my forehooves together. “Brilliant. We’ll hit the communications center and get ahold of their timeline.”

“Jus’ what Ah was thinkin’.” Calamity pondered the matter a moment longer. “Have t’ be someplace pretty high up. Ah reckon that’s what they were usin’ Tenpony Tower fer b’fore they got kicked out. They’d have a fallback position…”

I remembered how far Blackwing’s little broadcaster had been able to reach. The Talons had been trapped in the best possible place for broadcasting. “Horseshoe Tower.” I was sure of it.

*** *** ***

“You. Have a plan.” Velvet Remedy leaned out the front window of the Sky Bandit, talking to Calamity. “You.”

Calamity nickered as he guided the Sky Bandit in for a landing on the rooftop of Tenpony Tower. I let out a heavy sigh as his hooves touched down. “I keep coming back,” I muttered to myself. “But Homage is never here.”

“Now don’tcha say it like that!” Calamity shot back at Velvet as he checked his landing and detached himself from the passenger wagon. “Ya make it sound like doom on a stick.”

“And your plan is why we’re here?” Velvet inquired.

“Ayep. Need yer friend Life Bloom’s help,” Calamity admitted freely. I could see Velvet Remedy cringe as she jumped to the obvious and sadly correct conclusion.

“You’re doing something with your memories, aren’t you?”

Calamity didn’t even look sheepish as he nodded. Hell, he looked proud of the idea. “Ayep.”

“You’re…. not going to forget me, are you?”

That struck him. Calamity stumbled a bit. “Aw hell no!” he insisted. “Li’lpip says that Life Bloom c’n take memories without, y’know, takin’ them away.” He looked to me worriedly. “Th-that’s right, ain’t it, Li’lpip?”

“Yes. Life Bloom can record memories as well as remove them.”

Velvet Remedy looked slightly relieved, but not much. “And collecting your memories is going to help us defeat the fastest, deadliest hunters the Enclave has… how?”

Here it comes. The first horseshoe.

“No, no, no,” Calamity puffed up, flapping his wings. “We ain’t gonna defeat the Wonderbolts, Velvet. We’re going to save them!”

*** *** ***

The mottled brown gentlestallion who met us was not either of the unicorns I had been hoping to see, but he was familiar. He had been the one to inform me of the legal details surrounding Monterey Jack’s execution. And he was a member of the Twilight Society.

“…A sonic rainboom!” he was saying as he floated his glasses in front of him, polishing them with a pocket cloth. “Or, more precisely, a toxic rainboom. I believe that is what Resistance Radio is calling it, is it not?”

“Resistance Radio?”

“Oh.” He raised an eyebrow as he slipped his glasses back onto his muzzle. “Yes. That is what the local gentry have taken to calling DJ Pon3’s little broadcast interruptions.”

Resistance Radio. I liked it. Go Homage!

“So, the Twilight Society will help us?” I asked, not for the first time.

“Indeed,” the gentlestallion lawyer asserted. “You and your motley band have more than proven both your intentions and your capacity for success. We would be honored to lend our hooves to the fight.” Wistfully, he added, “A sonic rainboom. In my lifetime…”

Calamity and I exchanged looks.

“Well, fer now, what we need is Life Bloom. His expertise in memory magic, t’ be precise-like.”

The mottled brown unicorn nodded, not even looking at Calamity. “Absolutely. I will send for him right away. In the meantime, your usual suite is ready.”

“And,” I added, “There’s something else I needed to discuss with you at your earliest convenience. A… legal matter.”

He turned, looking at me over the rim of his spectacles. “Indeed?”

His earliest convenience turned out to be in less than an hour. I was a bit surprised at the Twilight Society’s sudden eagerness to lend their aid. I was probably being paranoid, but when things started working out in our favor, it tended to make me nervous.

Meanwhile, we gathered in the quarters provided and waited for Life Bloom.

“Swanky,” Reggie whistled, looking over the fine sheets and marble floor tiles. She poked a talon at one of the posh pillows

Kage moved to check out the window, his eyes darting around like he was looking out for snipers. “No kiddin’. If we had access t’ a place like this, I’d find it real hard t’ go back out inta the wasteland an’ start mixin’ it up.” He drew the curtains closed and nodded to his sister who had taken up a strategic spot near the door.

“Uh… Ah don’t think we’re gonna get attacked here,” Calamity suggested. Our griffin guards looked at each other as if Calamity was adorably naive.

“Sparkling water?” Velvet Remedy offered to them, pulling from the complimentary stores in the bathroom. I winced, beginning to feel a little self-conscious.

Velvet floated a chalice to each of them, then sipped from one of her own. “Well, hardly sparkling,” she said, looking at it critically. “But it will do.” This was Tenpony Tower. When Velvet was here, she wanted to be pampered. “If Calamity’s going to be a while having his brain molested, would you like to join me for a trip to the spa, Littlepip?”

“Yeah, you ponies have it hard,” Kage mocked, rolling his eyes.

I pondered that as I stripped out of my armor, heading for the bath. After all the bad, a trip to the spa would be heaven. But right now, I just wanted to feel clean again. I’d forgotten what it felt like. As I dropped my reinforced barding to the floor, Velvet Remedy waved her horn at it, cleaning off the blood and grime. “Maybe, if we have time. But I wanted to make use of that time by sneaking into Horseshoe Tower.”

I had been right about the Enclave’s choice. We had spotted the Enclave antenna array on the roof. The Raptor circling overhead was kinda obvious too.

I looked over my companions, new and familiar. “A stealth mission. In and out.”

“Yeah, cuz yer stealth missions ‘ave a history o’ workin’ out like that,” Calamity snarked.

Ignoring him, I continued. “I’ll take Xenith and one of the griffins to fly us there. And,” I admitted, “to use cloud systems.”

“I’ll go,” Kage offered. “All this fancy makes my feathers itch.”

Velvet trotted up to Calamity. “So, this plan…”

Calamity smiled, gazing into her eyes.

“You want to turn the Wonderbolts? Help them see they’re on the wrong side? Give them a chance to become heroes?”

“Ayep,” he said, his muzzle inches from hers.

“You know, part of me says that’s… awesome.” She gave him a simpering look, leaning so close they had to be feeling each other’s breathing.

“You have never been sexier…”

“That’s it!” I jumped to my hooves, floating my armor to me. “Time to go do the thing in the place!”

I was out the door, my armor floating behind me, Kage and Xenith trailing my gallop, before they started kissing.

*** *** ***

I stepped up to the ragged edge where sometime in the last two hundred years the ceiling two floors above had given way, crashing down into the floor beneath, which collapsed, smashing through the floor beneath it. Rings of half-rooms honeycombed the internal abscess. Motes of dust floated lazily in the gaping, empty space.

It was just as I remembered it. As I looked down into the pit of rubble, the little pony in my head reminded me that somewhere down there was Pinkie Pie’s last party, lost forever in an orb.

Getting this far had been… um, damn. Why was my mind searching for a metaphor for “easy” that involved muffins? Ditzy Doo was rubbing off on me. (No, not in an icky, flesh-rotting way.)

After a moment’s internal debate, I went with “easy”. Xenith had her zebra stealth cloak, and I’d been using my MG StealthBuck II. Kage was admittedly not as stealthy, but the two of us had been scouting ahead. When things were clear, Xenith would toss back the hood of her cloak and let him know it was safe to move forward. Despite being an adolescent, Kage never appeared bored. He had the sort of level head to not be looking for a fight.

Besides his razor-sharp claws, the griffin was armed with hellhound-claw knives and wing blades. The first griffin I had seen, the one who helped attack the train, had been armed with those. I’d seen them slice the head off a pony. But I worried that they would be ineffective against pegasi in magically-powered armor.

Multi-colored light sprayed across the void, striking parts of the broken ceiling as well as a desk that had been hanging precariously over the drop. The desk melted into goo as it dripped down into the rubble below.

Okay, that was new.

Diving for cover, I kicked up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. We were in almost the same spot that three alicorns had stood the last time I was here. And across from us, almost in the same place I had been, an Enclave trooper was firing across at us with a multi-gem heavy infantry battle saddle.

I pulled out Little Macintosh, locking onto the attacking pony with S.A.T.S., but had to dive away as the spray of his weapon melted my cover.

Two more pegasi launched themselves across the gap from another floor. The trooper was laying suppressive fire while they flanked us.

The first Enclave guard came up behind us through an office to our right. Kage moved to block his path, sweeping at the armored pony with his wingblades. The attack proved my fears both valid and unnecessary. The wingblades had sparked harmlessly off the pegasus’ armor just before Kage sent his hellhound-claw knives plunging into the pony’s throat.

Even as the first guard fell, several beams of light struck Kage in the back. His Talon armor took the brunt of it, but one shot speared his right wing. The young griffin collapsed with a grunt, his eyes closed tight against tears.

The second guard had landed on the floor above us. I heard the clank-clank-clank as she dropped grenades down a fissure in our ceiling.

I’d had plenty of experience dealing with grenades. Back up they went.

Maybe not my brightest idea, I realized as the explosion not only killed the pegasus above us, but sent the ceiling crashing down on our heads. My magic imploded as the room above fell on me. Something heavy and searingly hot shoved me to the floor. Pain sprouted from my hindlegs.

I was pinned underneath jagged floorboards and the melted remains of a filing cabinet.

Kage had taken cover in the doorway. I had lost track of Xenith. Fortunately, I was still invisible as the trooper across from us started filling our room with magical energy. The debris was ablative cover at best.

I whipped my head around, desperately looking for where Little Macintosh had fallen.

The spray of rainbow light stopped as the trooper reloaded. My revolver dropped to the floor next to me, a gift from an invisible zebra. I magically snatched it up and locked my targeting spell onto the pegasus again.


*** *** ***

“Section Twelve clear!” the pegasus barked through my earbloom. “Cauterizing in ten minutes.”

With the Thunderheads in play, this place had become redundant. The Enclave had already been clearing out when we arrived. The Raptor above hadn’t been here for protection.

We had seven minutes before the Raptor opened fire, eradicating Horseshoe Tower.

“Section Thirteen clear!” another voice replied.

My StealthBuck was drained. But we were almost at the end.

The last room before the roof was a two-level executive bar and lounge. That was where they had their equipment set up. The good news was that our infiltration sped up their evacuation. They were no longer trying to pull out all their equipment, just their personnel. They would let the Raptor’s massive guns take care of the rest.

“Section Fourteen clear!” the first voice responded. “Cauterizing in nine minutes.”

The bad news was that the room would be a killing zone. All the soldiers left in the building were either on the roof or inside that lounge.

I made sure Little Macintosh was loaded with armor-piercing bullets. Calamity had bought up all the ammo for Litte Macintosh that Ditzy Doo had, but already I was almost out of armor piercing rounds again. Part of me hated the Enclave for using magical energy weapons; their ammo crates never had anything I could use.

I nodded to my two companions. “Here. We. Go!”

I telekinetically threw the doors open, my targeting spell locking on to each soldier as I saw them. An Enclave maneframe dominated the room. Cables snaked off of it, crawling into the backsides of cloud-interface terminals that sat glowing on surrounding cocktail tables. The room was cold. A row of windows lined the right wall opposite the bar on the left. A couple were still intact, but most had been boarded up. Poorly. Enclave infantry were standing guard, both on this floor and along the balcony above. Grey-clad officers and technician ponies in yellow dresses darted about, rarely landing. Most were headed for the stairs.

Two Enclave soldiers stood ready just inside the door. They were the first to react. I was faster.

BLAM! BLAM! The first went down. BLAM! BLAM! The third shot killed the other door guard, the fourth bullet burying itself into a corpse.

Two shots to the head of each opponent. Two, in case one missed or just failed to kill. Two shots and move on to the next. Leave anypony still standing for Kage and Xenith.


One of the Enclave infantry on the balcony fired a missile at us. I dove for cover behind the bar. Kage flopped over the bar next to me, half-jumping, half propelled by the explosion.

Xenith, goopy-hooved, charged across the ceiling. The explosion had blown her hood back, and she was bleeding from small shrapnel wounds. Several Enclave soldiers opened fire, blasting apart the ceiling with a prismatic lightshow. Ancient crystal chandeliers came crashing to the floor with an almost melodic tinkling. Xenith managed to dodge them all, leaping from the ceiling to the balcony railing. Her forehooves planted on the railing as she spun, driving bucking hooves into the throat of the infantry pony as he reloaded and tried to aim. I could hear his armor crush into his windpipe. The infantry pegasus pulled the trigger as he collapsed, the missile firing wild, striking the faded painting of a mare in a sultry position which hung above the far side of the lounge. The explosion blew out what was left of the windows.

A damp, early-evening wind blew in from outside, clearing the smoke.

BLAM! BLAM! Reload. My targeting spell dropped only for me to bring it back up immediately, squeezing just a little more out of it.

Another pony with a multi-gem weapon sent a rainbow of light spraying over the bar and tearing into the liquor bottles racked behind us. Most of the bottles were empty, but the racks behind us hissed and exploded as the magical light passed through several still-full ones, boiling the liquid inside. I let out a scream as I was bathed in alcoholic steam. Kage yelled, leaping the bar and trying to charge the attacker before he could reload, his injured wing keeping him from flying.

I tried to give him cover, targeting another infantry pegasus who was aiming for Kage with the twin magical-energy rifles of his armor. BLAM! BLAM! One of those shots missed. The other struck home, but failed to penetrate enough to kill the enemy.

The Enclave soldier Kage was charging was just a little too fast; she had finished reloading, and opened fire point blank into the griffin’s chest. It didn’t save her. Kage’s blades slashed deeply through her chest, cutting her heart, even as his Talon armor dissolved. The griffin fell back, smoke rising from a gaping wound in his breast. I stared in horror as the light went out of his eyes.

No! Dammit, no!

With a loud crack, a black-armored body toppled over the balcony, bucked through the railing by Xenith. I looked up for her, but she was invisible again.

“Cauterizing in eight minutes.”

The pegasus I had wounded had taken refuge behind the maneframe. I could see his shadow as he downed a healing potion. At the same time, another soldier flew across the room, landing behind one of the columns that supported the balcony along the near wall. A third knocked over a table and hid behind it, shoving it forward through the room, trying to get closer to me. She yelped as the table caught on one of the cables and flipped, exposing her.

BLAM! BLAM! The battle raged on.

*** *** ***

The last pegasus, a grey stallion with a flowing black mane and tail, held up a hoof in surrender. He was neither a technician nor a soldier; he wore a light grey officer’s uniform that went smartly with his coat. The only officer to stay behind, making sure other officers and the technician ponies got out safely while the Enclave’s troops tried to kill us.

Did kill one of us, I thought heavily. I’d led Gawd’s son to his death. I didn’t know how I was going to break the news to his sister. I’d never be able to face Gawdyna again. But right now I didn’t blame myself. I blamed the Enclave.

“Give me one reason not to shoot you,” I growled. “Make it good, because I really want to.”

“Way Ah see it,” the pegasus said, smiling annoyingly, “Y’all c’n kill me, or y’all c’n win.”

“Evac complete. Moving off,” The voice in my earbloom claimed. “Cauterizing in five minutes.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, leveling Little Macintosh at the Enclave officer’s face. I floated both of Kage’s blades near his neck. I had my targeting spell locked on for good measure.

“Sir, we’ve still got one officer inside,” another pegasus said over the military channel.

“Cauterizing in five minutes!” was the cold response.

“Well, Ah reckon y’all didn’t come all this way jus’ cuz ya like bein’ shot at,” the officer reasoned. “I’m guessin’ what ya came fer is in that maneframe. But now, ya only got ‘bout four minutes left t’ get yer tails outta this building, an’ yer down the only person ya had who coulda accessed it.”

Fuck! Celestias fiery hemorrhoids of solar-flarin’ death! Kage died for nothing!

“So Ah’ll make ya a deal,” the officer said. “Y’all let me go, an’ I’ll download what ya need inta that Pip-what-the-fuck ya got there.”

“And why would you betray the Enclave?” Xenith asked. “Why would you help us?”

“Well, two reasons,” the pegasus said, still smiling but with an earnest tone in his voice. “One, cuz y’folk are Calamity’s friends. Ah love muh li’l brother, an’ Ah ain’t happy t’ see his name onna kill list. Two, cuz Ah reckon without any fliers with ya, chances are, three minutes won’t be ‘nuff fer ya t’ get out anyway.”

I would have stopped to think about that, to process what he said, but the voice in my earbloom announced, “Cauterizing in four minutes!”

“Okay!” I agreed, motioning for the pegasus to get to work. I chose to believe him. Not because of what he said about Calamity, but because he hadn’t lied about how much time we had.

“You’re Windsheer, right?” I asked as the stallion moved to the nearest terminal. Calamity had said his oldest brother was a master of communications technologies. “You were the chief communications officer here?” I guessed.

“Ayep t’ both,” he said and he worked. I caught the password: Restricted.

“Now what ‘xactly d’y’all want? Cuz Ah could give ya everythin’, but that would take longer than ya got.”

“I need to know what the Enclave is doing next, and when,” I answered, the gears in my head spinning. “What’s the chance that two of Calamity’s brother’s would be down here?” I pondered as he started the download.

“Cauterizing in three minutes!” We were cutting it insanely close!

“Ah’d say one-hundred percent,” Windsheer said with a smile, backing away from the terminal. “They put Autumn Leaf in charge o’ Operation: Cauterize, an’ he made sure both his other brothers were part o’ the show.” The grey pegasus chuckled. “Hell, that was the only way Pride was ever gonna see anything outside Neighverro.”

I groaned, hanging my head in pain. One of Calamity’s brothers was commanding this entire damn massacre.

“Ah’ll be goin’ now,” Windsheer said. “But ya pass muh love on t’ Calamity, won’tcha?”

“Your love?” Xenith asked. “Did you not all treat him horribly?”

Windsheer shrugged. “We were kids.”

Xenith stomped. “Not an excuse.”

“Look, Pride did it ‘cause he was a bastard. An’ worse, an incompetent bastard. Unlike Calamity, he was nothin’ but a disappointment t’ dad. He did it’ cuz Autumn Leaf did it an’ he hoped copyin’ Autumn Leaf would get him some respect from us.” Windsheer added, “It didn’t.”

The voice in my earbloom spoke again. “Cauterizing in two minutes!”

“As fer Autumn Leaf an’ muhself? We remembered what dad was like b’fore mom died,” he said only half-apologetically. “He was better before that, not always the drill sergeant. We’d lost our mom, we’d lost the best part o’ our dad… we were hurtin’. An’ Calamity was there.”

Windsheer shrugged again. Then flew off towards one of the open windows.

The download completed.

I turned to Xenith, wrapping her first with my magic, then myself. I galloped for the window.

“Cauterizing in one minute!” my earbloom informed me as I leapt out the shattered window and into the cold open air.

The Raptor had backed off far enough that I doubted they could see us. The barrels of their huge magical energy cannons were glowing like miniature suns as they charged up to fire.

The sky split, the air tearing apart as multiple beams of orange-white plasma tore into Horseshoe Tower. Every remaining window exploded outward, shards of glass followed by gouts of flame.

I turned away from the sight, focusing completely on moving us away from doomed skyscraper. Sweat was already pouring down my forehead. I was going to see just how far I could fly after all.

*** *** ***

When we arrived back at Tenpony Tower, it was by way of the Celestia Line, and Xenith was carrying me on her back. I was feeling rather proud of myself. I’d gotten us a little over a mile before strain and exhaustion forced me to put us down in one of the Four Stars stations.

Proud and oh so very, very tired. I was ready to take Velvet Remedy up on that trip to the spa now. Only it was very late, the spa would be closed, and I had to face Regina Grimfeathers.

I poured over the data Windsheer had given us. The stallion had been true to his word. We got what I had asked for and no more.

The Enclave was focusing now on what it considered the two biggest threats. First and foremost was Red Eye. They had tracked him to the Cathedral. They had a regiment patrolling the borders of the Everfree Forest, trying to make sure he didn’t escape. In two days time, the Overcast -- Colonel Autumn Leaf’s command Thunderhead -- was going to move in with a second full regiment and wipe the Cathedral off the face of Equestria.

The Glorious Dawn was being dispatched to a rendezvous with the bulk of the Enclave’s forces, amassing for an attack on Fillydelphia. And by attack, they meant cleansing. Slavers, slaves, Rangers, scavengers… they were going to kill them all, and reduce the factories that Red Eye had rebuilt to rubble for good measure.

And they could. I’d just seen them turn Horseshoe Tower into a mound of rubble and slag.

I couldn’t let that happen.

My blood ran cold as I saw the Enclave’s second target. Homage. Somehow, my marefriend had rated as the second biggest threat to the Enclave. Attached to that assessment was a video file. I was trembling as I pulled it open, but I don’t know if it was from fear or rage.

The video was from the security camera of a Raptor. I watched as Homage brought down the Shattered Hoof Ridge Tower. The explosion from the star blaster had disintegrated everything it touched; it had eaten the tower’s base.

They didn’t know she could only do that once. They only knew that she did it. And that made her even more terrifying than Ditzy Doo. Almost as much as Red Eye and all his armies.

I realized that, strangely, I wasn’t frightened or mad anymore. I was proud. Proud of my wonderful, dangerous Homage.

And they had no idea what to do about it. Sending more forces after her risked, in their minds, further retaliation. And that could mean the destruction of another tower. Maybe more. So instead, they were sitting on their hooves.

Well, not exactly. They had given lethal sanction to the one group they thought could actually hunt down and kill Homage without her being able to strike back. The Wonderbolts.

Calamity had been right; the Wonderbolts had been drawn into meetings. But those were due to end in about six hours. After that, our hunters had been given thirty-two hours to complete their current assignment. Then they were ordered to focus their efforts on murdering my marefriend.

Thirty-two hours.

I prayed they would do what I so desperately wanted to: sleep. After over twenty hours of meetings, what pony wouldn’t want to catch some sleep, making sure they were fresh and revived before they went hunting other ponies down and killing them?

Xenith nudged open the door to our suite and deposited me on the floor with an undignified thump. I yelped as I landed on my scalded back.

Calamity trotted over, looking down at me. “How’d it go?” I was surprised that he was still in the room. Or was it back in the room?

Life Bloom walked up next to him as Velvet gave the gasp we were all expecting and dashed to tend to our wounds, starting with the bloody zebra.

“Windsheer sends his love,” I answered.

I winced as a female voice called out from the corner. “Where’s Kage?”

*** *** ***

Regina Grimfeathers stared down at her twin brother’s knives. Then carefully slid them into her belt. “Thank you for bringing these back.”

“Regina, I’m so sorry.”

“There is no body,” Xenith informed her. “The Enclave…”

“Shut it about the bloody Enclave!” the griffin roared.

The room was shocked quiet.

Calamity finally broke the silence. “What now?”

Regina Grimfeathers scowled at him. “What do you mean, ‘what now’?” she asked gruffly. “The job ain’t over yet, is it?”

“You’re… staying…?” Velvet gaped.

“Grimfeathers don’t turn tail an’ run when it gets nasty,” she spat.

The young griffin woman laid down. Her eyes were moist, but she had yet to shed a tear. Almost under her breath, she added, “An’ I sure as hell ain’t goin’ back t’ tell Gawd that I quit the job that killed Kage.”

Velvet floated a healing potion to me as she magically stripped off my armor and began inspecting me for wounds. It was as if she had never left.

“So,” Reggie said finally, “What now?”

Life Bloom spoke up, “Now, I gather together what I need for a trip.”

“Say what now?”

The unicorn with the red and scarlet mane looked at us. “Storing a copy of so many of Calamity’s memories was actually the easy part. But the other request…” He turned to Calamity. “I’m sorry, but the Twilight Society simply doesn’t have five recollectors to give you.”

I had been afraid of that.

Calamity’s plan was to divide up the Wonderbolts, incapacitate them through Xenith’s paralyzing hoof and Velvet’s anesthetic magic, and slap recollectors on them, feeding them his memories. Memories of how and why he left the Enclave. Memories of the good ponies down here. Of his time with me, and the good things we had done.

And to trust in the better nature of ponies.

The problem was, it takes as long to experience the memories in a black opal as it took for the person to live them. And Calamity wanted to feed several days’ worth of memories into the Wonderbolts. Keeping them safe and hydrated was a big enough concern, but if we didn’t have enough recollectors to trap them all at the same time…

“Fortunately, I have a better way,” Life Bloom claimed. “There’s a memory spell, one created by Twilight Sparkle herself, which will allow me to cram all those memories into their heads in minutes. It won’t be pleasant…” The white unicorn shook his head. “But it will work.”

“Uh… no offense, but ‘ave ya ever been outside o’ Tenpony Tower b’fore?” Calamity asked. “It’s rough out there.”

Life Bloom tossed his mane. “Yes. I’m a little familiar with the outdoors.”

This was a much bigger commitment for the Twilight Society than just some recollectors. “Are you sure? The last person who went on a mission with me didn’t come back.”

Regina shot a dark glower at nopony in particular.

“You called on us to help. And you were right.” Life Bloom gazed at me. “This is us helping.”

Reggie stood up. “Okay, then. What are we waitin’ fer?”

“Well,” Velvet Remedy said softly. “Some of us need to sleep.” She did her best not to glance my way. I hadn’t moved from where Xenith had dropped me.

“Not long though,” I insisted, still not moving. Floor was good. Just give me a pillow. “We need to be moving before the Wonderbolts are.”

Reggie looked at the ponies (and zebra) around her. Pyrelight gave a tired little hoot, even though she had spent most of the trip napping against Velvet Remedy’s flank.

“Fine,” she groused.

My eyelids were getting heavy. But I forced them to stay open. There was one more horseshoe hanging above us, waiting to drop.

“So,” Life Bloom asked, “Where are we headed?”

“We will need a place where the Wonderbolts won’t be able t’ totally own us with their aerial superiority,” Reggie pointed out.

Velvet flicked back her styled mane. She’d obviously been to the spa while I was out. She looked perfect. “Well, Manehattan had to have more Stables than just number Twenty-Nine. Do you know of any that are vacant and just laying around?”

“No Stables,” Calamity interjected. “Those things are deathtraps, in case y’all ain’t noticed. An’ even if the Stable itself don’t try t’ kill us, all the Wonderbolt would ‘ave t’ do is close the door an’ collapse the tunnel. Or do what Li’lpip did with Stable Twenty-Four an’ divert a river inta it.”

Velvet Remedy cringed, looking at me in surprise.

“They don’t even need a river,” Reggie added. “These are pegasi. They’re really good at making it rain.” She shook her head, looking at my pegasus friend. “Best rule out underground entirely.”

And here it drops, I thought.

“So, we need someplace that the Wonderbolts can’t use their aerial skills against us,” Life Bloom said slowly, “And where we can get them split up. But that’s outside?”

“Ayep,” Calamity said with conviction. “An’ Ah got the perfect place...”

Wheee. Look at it fall.

“…Everfree Forest.”

*** *** ***

The first golden rays of dawn were pouring across the horizon as the Sky Bandit leveled out, flying towards Hope.

“Remind me why you let Calamity make the plans?” Xenith said. She had taken off her zebra stealth cloak and given it to Life Bloom. The buck would definitely have more need of it. And we couldn’t risk the Wonderbolts taking out the one pony who could cast the memory spell. Or risk the forest taking him out. Or the fire. Or any of Red Eye’s troops who were controlling the fires. Or the Enclave patrols. The consensus was that we were indeed all going to die. But at least it would be an exciting death.

“Well, I’m proud of him,” Velvet proclaimed.

“If we are going into the Everfree Forest,” Xenith said, pulling an ancient and tattered book from her saddle bags, “then there is something I must tell you.”

I looked at the book. The cover was very old leather, warped and cracked. On the front was a large zebra glyph and several smaller ones beneath. The last time I had seen glyphs like that, I was trying to read the Black Book.

“Where did you get this?” I asked, both cautious and curious.

“From my… from Xephyr,” our zebra friend said. “Once, this belonged to my grandparents. They rescued it from the Hut of Zecora deep in the Everfree Forest.”

Xenith opened the book, pointing at strange glyphs. “You wonder what has caused the Everfree Forest to grow so strange and dangerous, do you not?”

I nodded, remembering Calamity’s assertion. The Everfree Forest had never been hit. There was no radiation. No taint. That’s why Red Eye sought to turn it into farmland.

“Through this book, I have come to learn the reason,” Xenith said cryptically. “And it is not a new one, but a very old one.”

“And you’re just telling us this now?”

“I received this book while you were playing in the Canterlot Ruins. And it took me some time to read it.” Time, I suspected, that babysitting Silver Bell had given her. “And… it was not easy to read. There were things I did not wish to understand.”

We all listened intently. Even Calamity’s ears were swiveled so he could catch the conversation as best he could.

Something flashed in the distance ahead. On the horizon was the Everfree Forest -- still green, still pouring smoke.

“I… believe we may have been wrong about Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon,” Xenith admitted, looking down at the book. The zebra was unwilling to meet the gaze of any of the ponies around her. “They were not one and the same.”

Velvet cocked her head quizzically. Pyrelight let out a questioning coo.

“Before the war, long before the wasteland… over a thousand years ago, a star fell to our world. And it fell in the Everfree Forest, close to where the Princesses lived.”

I knew this story. It had been told to me by Midnight Shower.

“The fallen star’s influence warped and twisted everything around it,” Xenith claimed. “According to Zecora’s writings, even a little exposure was enough to help Luna’s inner darkness to take hold and manifest. Only the power of the Elements of Harmony were able to nullify what it had done to her.”

The zebra finally looked up. “Forgive me for speaking what may seem ill of your Goddess, but Celestia was never as strong as her sister. When things hurt too much, she would run away.”

I glared at Xenith. This had better be going somewhere. I wasn’t happy with this sudden and unflattering analysis of the Goddess Celestia.

“She stepped down from the throne in the middle of a war,” Xenith reminded us. “And this was not the first time Celestia abandoned something. When forced to banish her little sister to the moon, she fled their castle, leaving their home behind to rot in the Everfree Forest.”

Okay, I could see that. And really, who could blame her? The memories that castle must have held… it would be too painful for anypony.

“And she left the Elements of Harmony behind in the castle,” Xenith said. “Just… laying there.” Xenith stared down at the book, seeming to read from the glyphs. “The Elements of Harmony, the most powerful of all known magics, were left on their pedestal, save one which was hidden, waiting for the spark to reveal it. And in the centuries that passed, the castle crumbled and fell. Moss and vines grew up around the pedestal of the Elements. And they were forgotten, faded into legends and old mare’s tales.”

“What in tarnation does all that have t’ do with the Everfree Forest being all crazy?” Calamity called back impatiently. “Place didn’t get so bad until after the war.”

Xenith shook her head. “No, winged one. It was getting bad before then. The badness just took time to grow.”

“And what caused the badness to grow?” Velvet Remedy asked. “What caused it to get so much worse, if not the war?” It sounded like she was buying this. To me, it was all insane zebra logic.

“From reading this book,” Xenith said, “I have come to believe that the infection of the stars was being held at bay for a thousand years. Even during that time, the forest was bad, but it was not as bad as it could be because something in the heart of the forest was hindering it. The Elements of Harmony, even abandoned and dormant, were holding back the bad.

“And then they were removed.”

*** *** ***

Again, my eyes caught something glinting in the early rays of dawn. It was ahead of us, out near Everfree Forest. “What is that?”

“That?” Calamity repeated. “The glow, y’mean?”

I nodded. Then, realizing he couldn’t see me, called out a yes.

“That there’s the Hope Solar Array. Only time o’ day when those dishes pick up enough sunlight t’ shine is the crack o’ dawn.” He chuckled. “We’ll be passin’ right over it b’fore we head inta Everfree, so y’all c’n get a good look.”

I nodded again, this time to myself. I was thinking about something Calamity has said about the Enclave. “Okay, everyone. Listen up. We’re planning to try to separate the Wonderbolts, but there’s a good chance we could get split up ourselves. We need a fallback position.”

“Ya thinkin’ ‘bout the Array?” Calamity asked. “It’s close, but it’s still quite a few miles from the forest’s edge. Long way t’ go out in the open, ‘specially if yer wounded.”

Drat. Think. Think. Okay, backup idea. “I’ve got it. There’s a farm right at the edge of the Everfree Forest. It’s supposedly got landmines or ghosts or something, so be careful.” Possibly a bad idea. But at least it was a landmark. “Go near, not in.” It was either that or Fluttershy’s Cottage. And I really didn’t want to take Velvet Remedy back there.

The others quickly agreed.

We continued to fly, making small talk as the Everfree Forest drew ominously closer.

I had stopped staring out the window. I didn’t really want to see the distance between us and the forest being eaten away. Looking in my companion’s eyes, I could see everyone was feeling the same thing I was. A sense of wrongness and inexplicable dread, like our skin was too tight. I’d started feeling it the minute I started to smell the smoke.

This was a bad plan.

But the Wonderbolts were on a clock now. They had to come get us. And my PipLeg was drawing them right to me. With any luck, we shouldn’t have to camp out in the forest for more than a few hours.

I watched Life Bloom. He looked out-of-place amongst us. Yet our whole plan rested on his memory spell.

Something clicked in my head. I smacked my forehead with a hoof.

“Let me guess,” I said, catching the white unicorn’s attention. “You watched my memory orbs first, then memory spelled them into the other ponies in the Twilight Society, didn’t you?” And here I’d been so smug thinking I would be able to keep them effectively incapacitated for days.

Life Bloom gave me a pompous smile. “Oh absolutely.” Then he frowned. “Except for that last one.” Memory Orb Eight. “I was quite convincing that it held nothing any of them would want to see.” I started to thank him, but he added, “And I swiftly gouged it from my own memory to mitigate the trauma.”

Velvet Remedy snickered. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended.

“Oh?” Reggie perked up, flying closer. “An’ why is that?” It was the first thing she’d said all morning. Yay for it being about my sex life.

“None of your business,” Life Bloom replied sharply.

The unicorn buck moved across the passenger wagon and sat next to me. In a soft whisper, he confessed, “I meant no offense. Homage and I have been friends for a long time. And that’s not the way I want to think of her.”

“Attention, passengers,” Calamity called back. “If y’all look out yer windows, ya c’n see the Hope Solar Array on yer right. An’ if you look out the front, ya c’n get a real good look at the Everfree Forest. We’ll be descendin’ t’ twenty yards above tree level fer the next part o’ our trip…”

I jumped up, shifting to the window. Below and to the right, half a dozen concrete towers rose out of the ground, five of them topped by giant bowls tiled inside with battered and weathered mirrors. A strange fixture rose up in the center of each dish, making them seem a little like flowers, and the array like a giant, artificial garden. One of the dishes had broken off of its tower and toppled face down on the ground next to it, a large crack running up from where it first struck the ground. I floated out my binoculars for a closer look. A wasteland merchant had set up home and shop beneath the overturned dish.

“…Ah suggest coverin’ yer muzzles. Air quality is likely t’ go downhill pretty dang quick.”

*** *** ***

The air grew thick, acrid and hazy. Velvet Remedy passed me a scarf to wrap around my muzzle for protection. She had been thoughtful enough to purchase enough for everyone. The one she gave Xenith was striped with red and gold, and simply looked ridiculous.

We almost made it to the treeline when we heard the cracks of thunder behind us. Turning around, I saw five columns of black smoke, crackling with lightning, shooting up out of the Hope Solar Array.

The Wonderbolts.

Calamity yelled and began to flap his wings as hard as he could, pouring on the speed. I enveloped the Sky Bandit in my magic, lightening his load as much as possible.

“They are bad hunters,” Xenith complained. “They have no stealth. It is as if they want to be seen.”

“They do,” Reggie called, catching back up. “If they wanted, they coulda attacked us the moment we flew over that place. Or before.”

“They’re enjoying the chase,” I suggested dourly.

“Or they’re drivin’ us inta the Everfree Forest on purpose!” Reggie called back.

The haunted farm with all its exploded bits of dirt was passing below us now. Only they didn’t look like the disruptions caused by detonated landmines to me. They looked like the work of hellhounds.

I ran to the back window, staring down at the farm as we passed over. In the yard, partially hidden under a tarp, was an Enclave antenna array. It looked just like the one on the rooftop in Old Olneigh. “Oh fuck!”

I looked back up. The streaks of electrified black smoke had taken a sharp turn and were headed straight for us, catching up fast.

Trees rushed beneath us, obscuring the farm. We were over the forest now. Heat rippled up at us, the world becoming an oven. We were in Everfree.

The unnatural sense of dread grew. It was like bugs walking along my bones.

The miles between us and the Wonderbolts closed rapidly as more of the forest shot past beneath us. I could see the orange of flames burning across the ground between the trees and along the shores of a river turned grey with ash.

What the hell? Something was seriously wrong with this picture.

Calamity gave a shout as a cliff side suddenly rose up in front of us. He turned sharply upward, the passenger wagon tilting steeply. We tumbled towards the back, falling towards the glass-less back window and the forest below.

Xenith splayed out her hooves, catching the edges of the rear window as Life Bloom and I toppled against her. The jolt of panic caused my magic to implode. The sudden weight almost pulled Calamity out of the sky.


One of the Wonderbolts fired a shot. A single shot from what sounded like an anti-machine rifle. A hole opened up in the roof of the Sky Bandit, a matching one in the floor.

I heard a strange pop.

Calamity heard it too. With a scream of panic, he pulled us over the edge of the cliff, grassy ground appearing closely beneath us, before kicking the quick release on his harness with a shout of, “Abandon wagon!”

Xenith pulled her legs in and dropped out the back window, followed by Life Bloom and myself. Pyrelight shot out a side window as Velvet Remedy hurled herself out the door.

Xenith hit the grass rolling. I slammed into the forest floor with a graceless thud, small rocks and stiff plants lashing abrasions across my legs and under my chin as I skidded to a halt. If we hadn’t been going mostly upward…

Velvet Remedy hadn’t even hit the ground when the Sky Bandit exploded in a pyrotechnic eruption of wild magic.

*** *** ***

I stumbled to my hooves, looking around for my friends. My mouth tasted like wet copper. My legs spasmed. I had bruised all along my stomach and left side, making it hard to breathe. The world canted, throwing me off balance. I fell back to the ground again.

Scattered around us were burning hunks of twisted metal -- the remains of the Sky Bandit. Seeing them drove a pang through my heart. Like we had lost a dear pet or treasured heirloom.

Xenith had landed nearby. She had lost her scarf, but looked otherwise none the worse for having fallen out of a passenger wagon just before the flying bomb lived up to its moniker. The zebra was on her hooves and looking much more steady than I thought I would ever be again. Xenith strode over and helped pull me back to my hooves.

A moment later, Calamity swooped overhead.

“Where are the others?” I called up to him.

“Clearing, just ahead,” he shouted down to me before zipping ahead.

I stumbled forward, my legs threatening to give out. My side protesting my every step. Just my luck that we had two healers with us now, and neither of them was with me. I just couldn’t win.

Xenith helped guide me forward, pushing through the foliage. The heat was oppressive. The smoke choked my lungs. But the fire hadn’t made it to this height yet. I was again struck by the sense that something was seriously amiss.

I paused, looking around, trying to put a hoof on what I was feeling. Nothing.

“Ouch,” I whined as a leafy branch Xenith pushed aside came snapping back across my face.

Pushing through the last of the underbrush, I ran into Velvet Remedy’s backside. The impact send me falling back onto my flanks, then all the way down as my forelegs gave out.

I stared in front of me between Velvet Remedy’s hooves.

A fiercely determined bunny rabbit stared back at me.

The bunny was made of stone.

Beyond the stone bunny, the grassy knoll rose up to where a massive weeping willow, twisted and ancient, rose above us. The rough bark of the tree was a strange, buttery yellow. Blue vines wrapped about its gnarled roots. Its drooping pink leaves swayed in a wind I couldn’t feel.

The tree was framed by the angry brown sky, choked with smoke. Beyond the tree, the hillside dropped back downward into the fires of Everfree Forest, those flames pushed forward by the dark silhouettes of Red Eye’s griffins, their weapons pouring liquid fire across the ground.

Footnote: Maximum Level

Next Chapter: Chapter Forty-Two: Into Fire and Darkness Estimated time remaining: 6 Hours, 8 Minutes
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