Mason sat still on the side of the cobblestone road. The gray unicorn’s gaze lay affixed on the other side, specifically on a small wooden cart of food with a few other ponies gathered around it. None of them were particularly wealthy, as evidenced by their thin physique, a few wearing rags as clothes, and simply the slums around them, but they were sparing what little bits they could to get a meal for the day. Mason sadly, thin as the rest of them, had none to spare himself.
The unicorn licked his chops. He hadn’t eaten in a good three days. All he could think about was the food on the cart. His stomach rumbled too loud for him to ignore. Mason let out a sigh of frustration. He wished he just had a small bit of money to spend on a loaf of bread or some edible minerals, but he didn’t have even a single coin to his name. Still he obsessed over the cart and its contents, so close yet they may as well be a million miles away. There was only one way he would ever get anything from the cart.
I don’t want to steal, Mason thought to himself, but I’m so hungry. This wouldn’t have been the first time the unicorn stole, but it would have been a first if he was ok with it. He never liked stealing. All he could ever think about was how much the other pony needed whatever he took. Like right now. All he could think of, other than how hungry he was, was how the cart-owner could use the bits generated from whatever he stole to buy a meal of his own, or how he may be stealing a potential meal from somepony who needed it. Unable to choose, he sighed and looked up at the stone ceiling hanging above the city, as though the giant slab of rock held all the answers to his conundrum.
Mason’s stomach rumbled again. He couldn’t take it anymore; the unicorn had to have something to eat or he was going to go insane. If he didn’t steal now, he was certainly going to steal later. Better he sate his hunger now than starve for another day. Mason got to his hooves and clopped as casually as he could across the road. Thankfully the crowd had thickened, so there was a good chance that he could get away with something without notice.
Just one loaf of bread, Mason told himself. Just one loaf. Nopony will notice if I just take one. Despite his self-appointed words of encouragement and the obvious emptiness of his stomach, the feeling of what he was about to do weighed down like a rock in his belly. As he strolled uneasily up to the cart and through the crowd he began to have second thoughts. No, I have to do this, he told himself. He eyed over the food, picking his target. He was about to go for a dull-green nutricrystal, but a little filly began to nose it as she got her mother’s attention. That small action was like a slap in the face to the starving unicorn. Still he continued to scan, eventually just deciding to take a loaf of bread like he initially wanted. He leaned over and picked up the coarse, almost black loaf in his mouth. It took all of his self control to not just gobble down the bread right there. Slowly he backed away from the cart, remaining seemly incognito and innocent to the crowd around him. It looked as though he would make it away safely, until he heard a loud cry of surprise behind him.
“Hey, you didn’t pay!” He heard somepony, obviously the cart-owner, shout at him. Mason didn’t even look back, rather setting off in a gallop instantaneously.
“I’m sorry!” Mason cried, his words muffled by the bread in his mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he continued to shout, not looking back. He just galloped forward, fearful and remorseful, until after a few minutes of that he ran into an alleyway. Even then he didn’t stop running, dodging and weaving throughout the brick corridors the buildings formed until he ended up in the dark courtyard of some kind of inn or something. The only light that permeated into the small rockcrete clearing came from lamplight that managed to miraculously creep over the buildings or through the alleyways. It was so little that he could barely see the outline of his outstretched hoof in front of his face. Mason laid down and spit out the loaf of bread in front of him.
“I’m sorry…” the regretful pony whimpered. He wasn’t sure how far the cart-owner had followed him, or if the pony had even followed him at all, but he felt terrible about it anyway. He may have said he wasn’t hungry anymore if his stomach didn’t know any better. So, sad but starving, he bit into the loaf in front of him. It was uncomfortably chewy, grainy, and the flavor was almost non-existent, but it may as well have been edible gold to the ravenous unicorn. He quickly devoured the bread, lowering his head to the ground as soon as he did so. He let his greasy, unkempt mane fall in front of his eyes. While the bread did well to fill his belly, it did little to fill the hole left in his conscious.
“I hate stealing,” Mason mumbled to no one in particular. The unicorn just lay there, head on the ground and hooves crossed in front of him, unable to get over what he had done. He needed to do it if he had wanted to eat, but he wished he could have done it some other way. Alas, he went through this conundrum every time he was forced into thievery. He would get over it eventually, but he didn’t want to have to.
Mason was felling dreary. He wondered if it was the food he just ate, the run he had just been on, the remorse he felt for stealing, or some combination thereof, but he suddenly began to feel quite tired. He wasn’t sure how many hours it had been since he had last slept, but he assumed that the hunger pangs must have kept him up for a day at the least. So, tired and simply not wanting to pursue his current problem any further, the unicorn shoved his head into his hooves and curled up, falling asleep right in the cold rockrete courtyard.
A small pattering noise awoke Mason. He slowly let his eyes open, not having gotten too well of a rest. He would be stiff from his rockrete bedding, he could already feel it. He groggily looked up at the aperture above him formed by the buildings, seeing the ever-present city ceiling. The glow that pierced through was no more or less intense. Then again, the light level never really seemed to shift in the city, not for as long as he had lived here.
Suddenly he caught glimpse of something else. There, on the lip of one of the looming buildings, something was peeking over it and watching him. Upon looking at it, “it” obviously being a pegasus, it leapt off of the building and took flight. He would have been curious, but he heard the patter again. His head darted to the left, the supposed origin of the sound. It sounded like light hoofsteps to Mason.
“Hello?” Mason called out, getting to his hooves. “Anypony there?” He was responded to by a slightly louder patter. The unicorn was beginning to get nervous. “Who’s there?” he yelled again, this time the confidence in his voice audibly wavering.
Mason had enough of this. He slowly backed into another alley, before his he felt his rump collide with something organic but built like a brick wall. He yelped in surprise, leaping back into the courtyard. Turning back toward the alley, he saw a large, menacing, shadowy form step out of it. Mason backed away from the beast in front of him, only to run into yet another, this one tangibly smaller. Still it made him jump again. He wondered how many more he would run into, before a lantern was illuminated by some unseen means and revealed the answer to him.
A half dozen ponies surrounded Mason, all of them earth ponies, save one unicorn. Each one had a dark colored coat, each with red paint splattered ornamentally onto them. Each of them also had some kind of harmful-looking implement on their bodies. The unicorn had a rusty metal shank over his horn, one of them had metal claws strapped to his front hooves. Another still had some kind cylindrical spear-like things strapped to his flanks, which Mason could only assume was meant for ramming. Something else they shared was the sinister grin plastered on each of their faces.
Mason’s voice quivered when he spoke next. “W-w-who are you?” The menacing appearance they cast was certainly getting through to him.
“Where’s that bread you came in here with?” the unicorn said in a low, raspy voice. He leaned toward Mason as he spoke.
Mason assessed the unicorn. Red paint, makeshift weapons and a savage appearance; he knew that this sounded familiar somehow. Even if it didn’t he could probably guess that this was some kind of slum gang. There were all different sorts of gangs in this place, but most of them wouldn’t cause any lasting harm to anyone. This group, however, looked like they meant business. This wasn’t the first time he had been in such a situation with a potentially dangerous group, and he knew that he would have to choose his words wisely.
“I… I ate it…” the unicorn admitted timidly. Better he tell them the truth then incur their wrath by lying to them.
“That’s too bad,” the large earth pony that he had first collided with said in a deeper, albeit similarly raspy voice. “Dealio really wanted that back.”
“D-Dealio?” Mason had the sinking feeling that he knew who that was.
“The stall-owner that you ripped off!” the unicorn said again, this time getting right up in Mason’s face. He backed down under the menacing unicorn’s gaze.
“I-I’m sorry!” Mason said, slowly breaking down. “I-I didn’t want to, but I was starving!” His eyes were wide with fear, and his whole body was quivering slightly. The situation was rapidly going downhill. The fact that these ponies were under employment made them liable to do something dramatic.
“I’m sure some paying customer would have been hungry too,” the unicorn continued, relentless. “Some poor, hungry customer would have been perfectly willing to spare a bit or two for that bread.”
“I’m sorry…” Mason squeaked once more in vain. There seemed nigh a way to escape this without some kind of harm to his physical being.
“We were gonna bring it back for him. But now, since you ate it…”
Mason’s eyes, already the size of plates, widened even further. “W-what are you gonna do to me?” He tensed his body, ready for the unicorn to order his gang to give him a good beating or something. The poor unicorn could have collapsed at what he replied with.
“Well, I guess we can still get it back.” The unicorn’s eyes were wild. Mason could see the crazed bloodlust in them now.
“W-w-what?!” Mason almost did collapse. The gravity of the ordeal hit him like a pile of bricks. “You can’t do this!”
“Wanna bet?” The unicorn smirked and cocked his head to his left. “Hold him down!” Obliging, a few other ponies dashed forward and tackled their fear-stunned hostage. Two of them held him down, while the unicorn and the pony holding the lamp stood over him.
“Get off me!” Mason shouted to no avail. As much as he attempted to sound so, the unicorn’s cries and shouts were barely threatening. He was on the verge of tears, and it was plainly audible. He then tried to switch tactics and reason with them. “Why would you do this?! Who kills somepony over a loaf of bread?!”
“The kind of pony that wants to make a point!” The unicorn shouted, his eyes wilder and his grin more intense than ever. “Dealio hired us to keep you from stealing again. Well, we don’t leave a job halfway done!” The pony holding the lamp held it close over Mason’s belly, where the insane unicorn’s gaze was focused. He leaned coolly over Mason’s face and whispered very quietly, “We’re gonna make sure that you never steal from Dealio again.”
Mason didn’t even try to reply with anything comprehensible. He just screamed and shouted wildly. He wanted to lash out, to try to fight back, but his captors wouldn’t let him. He was biting back tears of fear, anger and remorse. It was pitiful to watch, though the only ones to hold spectacle saw it as entertaining. Mason truly believed that this was the end of him. He couldn’t move, and his cries for help were going unheard. He could see the unicorn getting ready to plunge the armored horn into his gut. The most he could hope for was that his demise would be quick. He closed his eyes and prepared for the inevitable.
Mason opened his eyes again. A chill was running down his back. He saw the ponies holding him down, the one holding the lamp and the unicorn, all momentarily still. He eyed the lantern for a second, an idea suddenly blossoming in his mind. Swallowing his fear, he jabbed upward with his horn into the pony’s chest and whipped his head to the side. As he had hoped, the lamp-holder not only barreled into one of the ponies holding him down but he dropped the lamp as well. Mason, his brain steaming with adrenaline, jabbed out with his free front hoof and sent it careening into the other pony holding him down. The lantern burst, engulfing the pony’s upper body in flame. It sent him spiraling to the pavement, screaming like a madmare. Mason didn’t waste a second of this distraction, bolting to his hooves and charging down the first alley that made way for him.
Mason ran. He ran and ran and ran. He didn’t know where he was running, and in the darkness collided with a few walls, but he wouldn’t let up for a second. All he knew was that he had to get away from the ponies pursuing him. His legs were moving on pure instinct. Even when they became achy and weak he didn’t let up his gallop. He was trying to find his way out, trying to find a passage back into the streets where he would be safe. No matter which way he went though, no matter how many corners he turned, he was met only by more and more dark, winding corridors. Before long he had run headfirst into a wall again. He tried to look for a corner that he was supposed to turn at, but there were none. It was a dead end. He looked back and was about to run back the way he came, but he could hear the voices of his pursuers gradually approaching.
Mason was trapped. He had his back against the wall with no way out. The unicorn suddenly began to feel very ill, like he would loose the meal that he was now in such danger for acquiring. His breaths came in gasps. The feeling of being held down by the gang was coming back to him, a feeling that would soon enough become a reality. Before he knew it he had inadvertently backed himself into the corner of the alley. He scrunched down even further, until he was sitting on his haunches, back locked firmly into the corner. He trembled with fear, keeping his wide, fearful eyes trained on the head of the alley, just waiting for the inevitable moment at which his pursuers would barrel down it and gut him with smiles on their faces.
Suddenly, two things happened. One, the gang appeared at the end of the corridor as dreaded, their wild, murderous grins almost tangible even in the darkness. Second, as though Terra himself was watching over the unicorn then, a door across the alley from him swung open. It had been previously hidden in the darkness but now a glowing gateway to his salvation. A pony stood in the doorway, holding a bright lantern between his teeth.
“Hey kid,” he said in a deep, scraggly voice laced with concern. “You ok?”
Mason didn’t wait a second gawking. He bolted to his hooves and charged through the door, almost knocking over the pony who stood in it. “Thank you!” the unicorn cried back. “Thank you so much!” Mason dashed down the corridor, not even sure what sort of building he was in, but not very much caring either. He imagined that this hall would look quite similar to the alleys outside, provided the alleys outside had electrolamps hung every twenty or so feet. The observation was forced to the back of his mind though. Currently the only thing that mattered to him was staying away from that gang. He could hear them charge one by one through the door. He hoped they wouldn’t hurt the pony who had saved him.
Mason crashed through the rusty iron door at the end of the hall with his shoulder. That turned out to be quite the terrible decision, as a lance of pain beamed down his leg. He cried in pain as he tumbled through the door into a similarly bare brick and rockrete lobby, a few ponies looking on in surprise. Ignoring their gazes, his eyes instantly darted to the staircase ascending the wall across from them. As he sat off to gallop up them, though, his leg recoiled with pain as he tried to put weight on it. He winced and bit back another cry. He realized that he must have sprained the appendage when he slammed through the door.
First you steal and nearly get yourself cut up, and then you hurt your leg charging through a door that you could have just opened. You’re a genius, Mason. Mason tried to chuckle at his own ill-appointed humor, but it wasn’t doing anything to ease the situation. Setting off on three legs, slowed down substantially by the lack of a fourth, he stumbled up the stairs. Even the jerking of his suspended leg was painful, but he wasn’t willing to expend any more mobility to soothe it than he already had. He kept climbing and climbing, the only thing on his mind being to keep away from the gang hunting him. He climbed up, and up, and up, until finally he hit another iron door, this time just opening it with his hoof and charging through as fast as he could, only to be confronted by something that made his heart sink.
Mason had hit the roof. It hadn’t even occurred to the gray unicorn, in his adrenaline-fueled escape, that the building had to stop somewhere and that he was going to hit it eventually. Now that he had, it seemed almost impossible to believe, but he was right back where he started; trapped in a corner with nowhere to go.
Mason’s initial instinct was to collapse, to just give up hope, but that instinct was crushed under the weight of a newfound rage. The unicorn reeled back and screamed, “WHY ARE YOU SO STUPID?!” When he trapped himself before it wasn’t his fault, but this time it was completely avoidable if he just would have thought. So many times before had he been able to escape from ponies pursuing him, and every time prior he had always been able to think far enough ahead to get away, but this time he was so rushed and so stressed that the only thing he had been able to do was wallow in despair while gradually cornering himself. He had never been in a situation that came so close to his demise before, and because he couldn’t just get over himself and think ahead he might never be in another one.
“For Terra’s sake, Mason!” he continued to shout, as though he was addressing a tangible version of himself. “You’re a genius! How did you let this happen?! Why couldn’t you just stop and think?!” He would have beat at his temples with his hoof if it wouldn’t cause him to fall flat on his face. “You’d rather just curl up and quiver like a foal than actually stop and think about what in Terra’s name you were doing!”
Mason calmed himself slowly. He had to stop. Panicking and freaking out were what had gotten him in this rotten situation in the first place. He had to keep focused, had to think and get creative, or he was sure to be killed. That was what got him away from the gang the first time; it would get him away from them again. Maybe there was a full trash bin at the bottom of the building. If he was lucky enough, that may have been enough to cushion his drop. Maybe there was a pipe that he could slide down, or maybe there were some rags or something he could fashion into a rope. If he simply lowered himself through a window a single floor down, chances were they would assume he went all the way to the city floor and completely run him by.
Alas, it seemed that he could think fast enough. A series of snickers confirmed the arrival of the subject of his misfortune. He turned to see the red-painted ponies, minus one, profiling from the door and onto the rooftop. The unicorn stood at the head of the delta, and was the first to speak. “That was one of the most pitiful chases I’ve ever been on!” he shouted angrily. Oddly, his smile remained. Mason couldn’t help but wonder if these ponies were made of plastic or something.
Mason’s mind began to freeze up again. He slowly began to back towards the edge of the roof. His eyes once more widened fearfully.
“I think he’s gonna cry!” another one said. “What a filly!”
“He wouldn’t be the first to do so,” the unicorn snarled. The ringleader stepped forward towards Mason, causing him to back up further. The unicorn kept pushing the other one back, until Mason felt his rear hoof slip off the edge. He screamed as he righted himself, earning a cackle from the other unicorn. The unicorn placed his grinning, wide-eyed face right against Mason’s. “I’m gonna gut you nice and slow for the guy you burned.”
Mason’s eyes were wide, almost on the verge of tears indeed. His lower lip began to quiver. He wasn’t going to cry though. There was no point to start now. He was dead. Finished. He was going to die a slow, painful death, and there was nothing to do about it. No amount of pleading or fancy moves would get him out of this. He had no time to fashion some doohickey, and he was too battered to weave around the obstacle in front of him. He looked back over the lip of the building. Chances were that if he jumped off he would die much more mercifully, but he knew he would never be brave enough to throw himself over the edge.
“Can’t even jump, huh?” the unicorn mocked him. “I’m gonna enjoy listening to this little filly scream.”
Mason shifted his eyes away from the unicorn’s menacing gaze and to the ground. Aside from his own hooves, he saw the other unicorn’s step had fallen awfully close to the ledge, and he didn’t even seem to be aware of it. He looked back up, the unicorn now bringing his head back to ram him. Mason tried to solidify his stance as one final, desperate plan sparked in his head.
The unicorn thrust his horn in Mason’s direction, but he managed to dodge it by an inch. Trying his hardest to ignore the pain in his leg, he gripped both around the unicorn’s outstretched neck and yanked on it hard. The unicorn reacted by trying to fight back, yelling and screaming curses at him and feebly attempting to lash out. Mason’s leg practically exploded with pain, as though somepony had replaced his muscles with plasbugs and enraged every one of them. Still he painstakingly held the struggling unicorn, whose hooves began to slip off of the building’s lip. With one final, burning wrench he tossed the unicorn over the edge of the building, hearing his screams of rage gradually drift farther and farther away. He didn’t peek over the lip to examine his handiwork, but rather turned his attention to his tortured leg.
Mason’s leg was worse than sprained now. His struggle with the unicorn had twisted it sideways at some sickening angle, and though he wasn’t moving it pain still throbbed in it with every heartbeat. Even though he had managed to defend himself from one more threat, there was no possible way he could defend himself from the rest of the gang. Maybe if he was able to find a way to get around them he might manage an escape, but as it was things were looking very grim for the gray unicorn.
The next few seconds were a blur for Mason. All he was aware of was that he was that he was on the ground, on the edge of the building, with a dull throb in his head that seemed to be bouncing around the inside of his skull. He looked up and saw one of the gang members, the one with the claws on his hooves, standing tall above him and looking down at him murderously. The sinister grin that he had, though, was replaced by a wide-eyed sneer, his giant tombstone teeth clearly visible. Mason drowsily tried dragging himself up, but the pony above him wouldn’t allow it. He kicked out with his clawed hooves, getting Mason in the chest. Mason cried out in pain, his eyes drifting to the wound. Blood poured from his chest and began to pool on the roof below him. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been harmed so severely. He looked back to the pony above him, his eyes themselves almost asking “Why?” The pony, not having finished with him, reached a claw and dug it into his back, making Mason cry out again. He then dug his other set of claws into Mason’s chest and got up on his back hooves before lifting the battered unicorn up. Mason could then see that the rest of the gang was surrounding him, but he couldn’t hear their wild cheers over the sound of his pained breaths. The unicorn could feel his skin flaying around the claws, and his leg was practically numb. He had never been in so much pain.
His body must have decided to take mercy on the suffering creature, because the next moment, as the claws were pried from his flesh and he began to fall to the earth below, his eyes rolled back in his head and he blacked out, the last thing he managed to capture with his blurry eyes an orange streak heading straight at him.
Mason felt like he was floating. His hooves weren’t touching the ground, and his entire body felt suspended. He felt the wind rushing by him, stinging at the wounds he had sustained. He moaned softly at that. He almost wanted to open his eyes, but he was so tired and weary that he just decided to leave them closed.
Suddenly his drift turned into a descent. He was falling. He was falling slowly, but he was falling nonetheless. He could feel in the pit of his belly that he was slowly beginning to drift closer to the ground. Left without the real desire to resist, he just went along with it until, gently, he was lowered to the ground. Whatever invisible force was levitating Mason apparently wasn’t courteous enough to put him down correctly though; it put him down right onto his hurt leg. The battered unicorn cried out in pain, the light impact also jarring him awake slightly.
“Ouch, I’m sorry,” he heard a soft female voice say. “That must’ve hurt.”
The manifestation of another voice, one that didn’t seem to want to kill him, shook Mason further awake, enough so to make the unicorn struggle to his hooves. In his current state, it wasn’t easy.
“Oh no, don’t do that!” he heard the voice repeat with a sharp inflection of concern. “You’re too badly hurt!”
Mason didn’t listen to the voice, wearily opening his eyes and dragging himself up. Though he wasn’t using it, pain lanced through his leg. He quivered as he worked his way up, still shaking when he was in a full sitting position. His eyes bleary, he could just barely make out the rooftops of the factory complexes outside of the city. When he looked up, besides realizing his neck was as stiff as a log, his suspicion was confirmed by what he made out to be towering smokestacks, pluming black smoke which hung below the city roof before dissipating into Terra-knows-where. He wondered how he had ever gotten there.
Something touched Mason on the back, and while the resulting flinch could be attributed to pain it was mostly due to shock. He craned his head to the side and recoiled in surprise.
Standing right next to the gray unicorn, hoof outstretched, was a brownish-orange pegasus, specifically the one that he had seen on the rooftops earlier. Her mane was a caramel color, one which her eyes matched perfectly in the dim light of the distant city skyline. She had a frown on her face and her eyes were laced with concern, obviously for Mason. He realized that she must have been the force keeping him afloat, and she must have been the one to bring him here. Even then, he still had to ask…
“Did you bring me here?” The question came with much rasping, his ribs still sore from when the pony had kicked him earlier.
The pegasus looked shocked to hear him ask that, something that was reflected in her voice. “W-why yes, of course I did!”
Mason’s eyes narrowed and his mind buzzed with irritation at her response. “Why?”
“Because,” she said, her voice loosing its audible confidence, “you were getting beat to death! If I didn’t save you that gang would have killed you!”
Mason had heard enough. He jerked away from the pegasus’s touch and turned away from her, lowering his head. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he replied angrily through gritted teeth.
“What?” she replied, confused.
“Now they’ll think you’re an accomplice,” he explained, glancing back at her, irritated. “They’ll hunt you down now, too.” He let his head hang once more. “You should have just let me die.”
The pegasus gasped, appalled. “Don’t say that!” she said, obviously disturbed. “I wasn’t just gonna let them maim you like that! It’s not right!” He heard her trot right up next to him. “How could you say something like that?”
“Because,” he started, shifting away from her slightly, “it’s true. You risked your life to save a dead pony.”
“Well, you aren’t dead, so I guess it was worth it.” She poked him in the ribs playfully, realizing too late that the action would hurt him. “Oh my, I’m sorry…”
Mason gritted his teeth to resist the slight pain. He was getting fed up with the pegasus. “Can you leave me alone?” he said starkly, meaning each word.
She recoiled a bit at that, but she tried to remain as solid as she could. “Absolutely not,” she replied. “You’re hurt, bleeding, and it looks like your leg is dislocated. You need help.”
“What I need is to be left alone,” the agitated unicorn insisted. “I’m tired, hungry, and beaten half to death. All I want right now is sleep.”
“You can sleep,” she continued to press, “after I throw some bandages on you.” She began to trot off. “And I’m not taking ‘No’ for an answer,” she added as gruffly as her soft voice would allow.
Mason cocked his head to watch her trail off. She was walking briskly towards a hastily-build sheet-metal shack, nestled near the center of the roof they were situated on. It was easy enough to guess that this was her home. He turned his attention then back to the massive factory complex before him, lying down slowly as he did so. He could see why she chose this place; lots of space to fly, nopony to bother you, and far enough outside of the city to escape and stay safe for a while. He just couldn’t believe she managed to carry the unicorn this far. Even if he was as thin as a pole, the effort she put into carrying him must have been tremendous.
What the hell is wrong with this pegasus? Mason asked himself. She stalks me, risks her life to save me, probably half-kills herself flying me here, tries to stitch me up, and for what? What is she ever going to get out of all this? The unicorn could not fathom why anypony would put themselves through so much trouble. He could understand if it was a sibling or child, but him and the pegasus were complete strangers to each other. Either she thought she was some kind of superhero, or she was just plain stupid. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Mason was beginning to get tired again. Despite the fact that he had just woken up but five minutes ago, a wave of fatigue had washed over him, making his eyelids droopy. He didn’t know how long the pegasus would be gone. Maybe he could just close his eyes for a few minutes…
“Just fall asleep on me, will you?” Mason groaned as he heard her soft voice again, teasing him. “C’mon, I gotta throw these on you.” He felt her nudge at his side with her hoof, which sent a small sliver of pain down to the base of his tail.
Well it was nice while it lasted, he thought. He craned his head up to see the pegasus, a slight smile on her face and a caring look in her eyes. She had some kind of box in her grip, the handle clenched between her teeth. She set it down gently in front of him and flipped the top off, revealing a series of bandages, vials and other medical implements.
“Here, can you sit up a little bit?” she asked, offering him a hoof.
“Why?” Mason asked brusquely, glaring at her irritably.
“Because I need to get these bandages on you!” The pegasus’s patience was beginning to wear, and it could be heard clearly. She lowered her head and nudged his side with her snout in an effort to get him to sit up. “Can you please just let me help you?”
The unicorn let out a grunt. There seemed to be no way to deter this pegasus. She would just pester him until he let her have her way. So, reluctantly, he worked his way into a sitting position, the pegasus carefully easing him up with her snout. He was just worried that her medical talents may not exactly be up to snuff. When she pulled her head back she could see him trembling terribly.
“Aw, poor guy,” she said in a motherly fashion. “C’mon, I’ll get you bandaged up and then you can go lay down.”
The pegasus’s compassion was completely alien to Mason. His face virtually screamed “Are you serious?” at the pegasus, who had just pulled a roll of bandages and gauss pads out of the case. She seemed to not notice his expression; either that or she just ignored it as she unraveled the bandages with her teeth and hooves.
As she worked, Mason got a slightly better look at the pegasus. Her caramel mane was quite fluffy, yet it seemed to lay perfectly on top of her head. Her tail was similarly poofy, and was a bit more unkempt, but still was quite clean. Her coat, albeit somewhat sweaty from her recent excursion, was surprisingly clean considering the surroundings. She had quite a nice, healthy figure, a proportionate mixture of body fat and muscle lacing her bones. He tried to get a look at her cutie mark, but he couldn’t pivot his body enough without hurting himself to grab sight of it. Mason compared them in his mind’s eye; the two were exact opposites. A bright, healthy, clean pegasus, and then a filthy, dreary-colored, sickly-looking unicorn. She also had a much more positive aura to her, something that Mason had a severe lack of. She looked almost as though she didn’t belong in the city at all.
“So,” she asked, snapping Mason out of his thoughts. “What’s your name?”
The fact that she even had to ask that made Mason sigh irritably. “It’s Mason,” he said. “Just Mason.”
“Neat.” She had gotten the bandages unraveled and had laid the gauss pads out. “Why do they call you that?”
“I don’t know,” the unicorn replied, rolling his eyes. “Maybe because of the color of my coat.” He paused, before gruffly adding, “I never really asked.”
“Mhm.” Now the pegasus had removed some sort of vial and was pouring little drops of liquid onto the gauss pads. “My name’s Angel, by the way.” She placed the vial back into the box and lifted the pad with her mouth. “Now, this is gonna sting.”
Mason smirked. “Heh, your name fi-AUGH!” The unicorn cried out involuntarily as she placed the liquid-soaked pad gently on his back, making the perforations sting as she said they would. It only lasted for a second though, before the wounds went blissfully numb. He moaned softly. “What’s on that?” he asked.
“It’s a rehealing balm,” Angel explained, getting ready to repeat the process with another pad. “It stitches skin back together much faster than it would naturally.”
Mason had never heard of such a thing in his life. “That’s crazy. I didn’t even know they had something like that.”
“This is nothing; you should see what actual doctors get.” She held out another gauss pad to him. “Here, could you hold this to your chest?”
Mason took the pad in his hoof, sat back on his haunches and pressed it to the wounds on his chest. Even though he braced for it this time he still winced at the stinging that followed. He felt something else touch his skin and looked over to see Angel taking the bandages and wrapping them around his torso. He let his hoof fall and allowed the pegasus to set to work bandaging him.
“So,” Angel said, trying to make conversation and lighten the mood, “what do you think of the place?”
“I can see why you picked it,” he said, gradually beginning to warm up to her. “Even if it is pretty run-down. I guess you have a place, at least.” He smirked and added, “You know, I’ve never even been this far out of the city before.”
She looked directly at Mason when he said that. “What? Are you serious?”
He nodded smugly. “Yup. I’ve never even been outside of the city limits. I have yet to see a single cave or catacomb that hasn’t been taken over by a roadway or building of some sort.”
“Never?” she blurted, amused but still shocked. “Like, never? Not once in your life?” When responded to by yet another nod she just went back to applying the bandages. “I think I would have gone crazy if I were you.”
Mason actually chuckled. “You would have? You risked you life to save me. Me of all ponies! That’s crazy enough.” Then he added, on a grimmer note, “You don’t even know me; you may as well have saved the other two that I killed.”
Angel’s bandaging slowed as her mood depressed with what Mason had said. “It’s sad that you had to kill them,” she said quietly, “but I understand why you had to.” Finished with the bandages, she attached a small barb to keep the ends in place. “Alright, that should do it for the wounds. Now for the leg…” she reached out with her two front hooves, tenderly placing them upon the unicorn’s injured appendage.
“Wait,” he said, his eyes wide and his teeth barred, “don’t touch that, you’re gonna-AAAUGH!” Mason was barely able to keep himself from screaming in pain as Angel wrenched his leg from side to side. “What… are you… doing?!” he growled through clenched teeth. He was about to pull the leg away when he heard his joint pop and suddenly almost all of the pain flushed from the limb. “What… what did you do?”
“I knocked it back into place,” she replied with a smile. “I’m sorry about how much that must’ve hurt.”
“No, it’s perfectly fine,” he said, testing the limb on the ground. While the pain was enough to make him wince and he certainly wouldn’t be walking on it, the pain was substantially less than while it was still ruined.
“I don’t have any plasteel to make a cast,” she explained apologetically, “so you’ll just have to try to not move it until it recovers.”
He tested the limb further by pivoting it a bit. Finally he just curled it up by his side and nosed it slightly. “You know, you’re really good at this,” he said to Angel.
“Thanks,” she said, bowing her head and blushing. “Well, I guess it is my talent, after all.” She pivoted her hip, revealing her beautifully ornate cutie mark; it was a light-pink heart, twin feathered wings folded behind it. Around it, two sparkling motes of light circled the symbol. If he didn’t know any better he would have sworn that they actually glowed. “I’m good at helping people,” she explained. “You’re not the first person I’ve saved from harm.”
“I figured,” he said with a light chuckle.
“Heh, yeah…” she said. “So,” she asked innocently as she raised her head, “what’s your talent?”
Now it was Mason’s turn to blush. He tuned to the side and looked down at the roof. “Oh, you know,” he muttered. “Magic stuff… you know, me being a unicorn and all.”
“What kind of magic?” the pegasus asked, now intrigued. “Lemme see your cutie mark!” she added as she hopped up and skittered over to the unicorns flank.
“Oh no, no need to do that!” he insisted with a nervous chuckle.
“Aw c’mon, don’t be shy,” she said playfully. “I’m sure that… it’s…” She trailed off and her jaw dropped as she looked down at the gray unicorn’s flank.
There was nothing there.
She looked back up at Mason, jaw still slack, and just looked at him blankly. She had never seen anything like this before. A fully-grown unicorn with no cutie mark? It was unheard of. He avoided her gaze by looking down, his blush only intensifying.
“You… you don’t have a cutie mark?” Angel asked quietly. The utterly embarrassed unicorn replied by shaking his head slightly. Angel just looked back down at his flank once more, as though she expected it to appear. But alas, still only dirty, dark-gray fur occupied the otherwise blank area.
Angel’s jaw tightened into a smile. She began to giggle slightly, and before she knew it she was howling with laughter. Mason’s cheeks were so red they could light streetlamps. He sneered a bit at her, but he didn’t lift his head much. He expected as much from the pegasus; she wasn’t the first to laugh at the fact that he was a blank-flank.
“Yeah, I know it’s funny,” he said quietly. He turned away from the hysteric pegasus a bit and turned his head to the other side of his body to look at the ground again.
Angel, realizing her mistake, began to calm down some, though she couldn’t help but still giggle a little. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should be more courteous.” She paused for a little, before simply blurting out, “But really, how the hell are you still a blank-flank?!”
“Because,” Mason replied, raising his head, his blood pressure rising at this point, “I never learned my talent. I just never did, alright?”
“I don’t see how… I mean, you think that you’d have learnt some kind of spell or something like that by now.”
“Yeah,” he said, turning further away from her. “You’d think.”
Angel could feel that there was something that Mason wasn’t telling her; she could hear the reluctance in his voice. She thought back to earlier, when she had watched him defend himself from the gang. She had watched him run away and trap himself in alleys which he couldn’t have possibly seen in, and then strand himself on a rooftop and do nothing to try to get off of it. Throughout it all, she had noticed one constant, one single thing that kept recurring; or rather, one thing that didn’t.
Then it hit her like a ploughtrain.
“Oh my gosh…” Angel mumbled, drifting forward remorsefully. “You… you don’t even know magic, do you?”
Mason didn’t even move. His adamant posture was enough to grant her an answer.
“But… but how?”
The unicorn took a deep breath. “Because,” he said with a shaky voice, “my parents never taught me how.” He paused once more. “They never got the chance.”
Angel stopped. Her face clearly shone the sadness and remorse she felt. “I’m… I’m so sorry… I never should have-”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Mason replied simply and gruffly. All of the ground built between them while she was healing him earlier had been washed away.
Mason and Angel sat there for a while in silence. All that could be heard was the clatter of machines below and the gust of a slight wind through the complex. Angel wanted to apologize again, but she knew that Mason would just snap at her once more. She felt immensely sorry for what she had said moments before and she wanted to voice it, but she had no idea how to do it gently.
Surprisingly, it was Mason who spoke up first. “I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. You didn’t know.”
Angel, relieved, got to her hooves and trotted closer to him. “No, I’m sorry… I promise that it’ll never happen again.”
“At least you didn’t…” Mason trailed off as he realized what the pegasus had last said. “Wait, what?” He cocked his head back and looked in her direction.
“I said that I’ll never laugh about it again.” Even as she said that she couldn’t help but glance down at the unicorn’s bare flank.
“I know what you said… but what do you mean by that? What do you mean by ‘never again’?”
“What? I’m saying that as long as we’re together, I’ll never-”
“Hold it right there!” he shouted, his temper returning to him. “I never said I wanted to “be together” with you!”
Angel realized her mistake with a blush. “Oh, I didn’t mean like that. I just mean as friends.”
“No,” Mason replied. “We’re not friends either, and we’re not going to be. I’m leaving here as soon as I can, and that’s all there is to it.”
“But… but you…”
“Look, I’m really thankful for you saving me. Really, I am. But I don’t want to be friends with you. Hell, I don’t even want to be acquaintances. I’m a loner, and that’s how I’m going to keep it.”
Angel paused for a second before she spoke next. She needed to think. Finally, going out on an all-too-thin limb, she blurted, “You can’t go. I won’t let you.”
Mason stared at her, surprised. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not letting you leave. You’re hurt bad. Even with the help I gave you, there’s no way that you’ll survive back there,” she gestured with a hoof toward the city, “for more than a week, especially if that gang comes after you again.”
Mason pondered this. What she said was true. He wouldn’t last too long with a lame leg and multiple lacerations, especially with a gang, two of which’s members he had murdered chasing after him. He did need to recuperate, and then he also needed protection.
“You’re right,” Mason replied, Angel visibly perking up. “You’re absolutely right.”
“I always am,” she replied cheerfully, overjoyed that the unicorn was going to be staying with him.
“But listen,” he continued. “I’m not staying with you forever. I’m going to stay with you until my leg is healed. And until then,” he leaned in very close to Angel’s face, nodding his dirty mane from his eyes, “we are not friends. We are partners and only partners, understand? I don’t want to be friends with you.”
“Sounds good!” Angel replied, still as happy as the minute before. “I’m just glad you’re letting me help you.”
Mason simply shook his head and turned back to the skyline of the factory complex. He knew that she wanted to be his friend, but he wouldn’t allow it. As soon as he could walk on all fours again he was leaving, and he didn’t care how much she begged or pleaded with him, he wasn’t going to change his mind.
Suddenly he heard something rumble. With a little embarrassment he realized that that was his stomach. He hadn’t eaten since that loaf of bread, and that was long gone. He turned back to the pegasus, who was still smiling brightly, and asked timidly, “I don’t suppose you have anything to eat, do you?”
“I might have a little something laying around,” she said teasingly. “What, hungry?” He simply nodded in reply. “I hope you’re not too hungry, there can’t be much left. It doesn’t look like you could eat too much anyway.” She poked him in the ribs, emphasizing his thin figure.
Mason wrenched himself to his hooves, grunting with the effort. “Well come on then, I’m starving.” He began his odd three-legged hobble in the direction of the shack, Angel trailing slowly by his side, grinning widely and happily. Somehow she knew that she would be enjoying the company of this “partner” for quite a while.
“You’ve never cried?”
That was all Angel could find herself to ask after Mason had announced it. They had been rummaging through garbage in the rear of an alley, trying to make small talk to pass the time, when suddenly it had just come up in a conversation. Mason had said it as easily and lazily as he would have announced anything else, but to Angel it was like he had uttered it in some alien language.
“You mean… never?” she continued, prying for an answer which the unicorn had already provided.
“No,” he answered simply, brushing aside a container and looking behind it. He didn’t have any inflection of emotion in his voice, just as he usually didn’t when he spoke.
“Not even when you were just a colt?”
“Not when you’ve had your heart broken?”
“You have to have had something for your heart to break over to cry about it.”
Angel made a face halfway between a grimace and a sneer, returning to her side of the alley and knocking the lid off of a can with her snout. “I can’t really tell,” she continued while searching through the can, “if you’re serious or if you’re just trying to act tough.”
“I’m completely serious. I have never cried once in my entire life.” Mason began to peek into a few plastic bags, running out of things to look through. “I’ll admit that I have come close a few times, but not once have I actually, legitimately cried.”
Mason tried to remember the last time he had been on the verge of tears. It would have had to have been his recent near-death experience, the one that had landed him with the prying pegasus scrounging around in the alley behind him in the first place. He could vividly remember the fear he felt when they had pinned him down, ready to slice him open, as well as the pain of having his flesh ripped and torn by their weapons on the rooftop. That may have actually been the closest he had ever come to crying, yet even through crippling fear and excruciating pain he still couldn’t shed a single tear.
Mason glanced back at Angel, still nosing around in the same can, and cracked a small smirk. It had been a little more than a week since that day, when she had caught the falling comatose unicorn and saved his life. The injuries he had sustained were long gone, only minor scars under his coat where one of the gang ponies’ claws had sunk into his skin, all thanks to the brownish-orange pegasus. He still couldn’t fathom why anypony would ever risk their life for him; such generosity was uncommon in the Underworld. Thus, despite his solemn pledge to just walk away once his injuries had healed, he found himself unwilling to do so. He had stayed with her this far, and saw no reason to just walk away from his first true friend yet.
“I don’t think I believe you,” Angel said as she pulled her head out of the can. “I mean, it’s just not healthy… and I can’t see you not having cried at least once.”
Mason raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Oh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve had a rough life, Mason,” Angel explained, beginning to drift towards him. “I don’t see you as an emotional sort of pony, but everypony cries at least once, and you in particular have had a lot of tear-worthy events in your life. I don’t see how you can go through every bit of trauma you’ve endured with this expression on your face.” Angel proceeded to mock Mason’s permanently blank expression, slitting her eyes and tightening her lips as she looked blankly at the wall behind the gray unicorn.
Mason chuckled a little. “I don’t make that face.”
“Yes you do,” she said with a giggle.
The unicorn turned back to rifling through cans and bags. “Maybe I haven’t had the most exceptional life in the Underworld,” he said, “but it’s the only one I know. There’s no point in crying about my life when I don’t even know what it’s like to have a better one.”
Angel’s expression softened into a gentle frown. She trotted over to Mason’s side. “Why do you always do that?”
“Do what?” he said, looking up from yet another empty bag.
“Kill the fun by being all serious.”
“Somehow I don’t see ‘You’ve never cried once in your whole life because your life is terrible’ as a laughable topic.” Mason kicked the bag. “And anyway, if that didn’t bum you out, then the fact that there’s absolutely nothing edible in this alley will.”
The brownish-orange pegasus sighed. “I told you there wouldn’t be,” she said matter-of-factly. “Now, can we please just go out and steal something?”
Mason’s face projected a cross between a grimace and a sneer. His opinions on stealing had only grown in strength since his encounter with the gang. What was more, he couldn’t understand why someone like her – happy, cheerful, and above all, peaceful – was so willing to resort to thievery.
“Aren’t you a pacifist?” he asked.
“Stealing isn’t fighting,” she answered, her smile returning. Mason found it creepy how something like that would trigger happiness in her.
“I guess you’re right…” he said reluctantly, turning away from her. The two were running out of options. Their food had run out the day before, and both of them were terribly hungry. Chances were that even if they did find any food in the trash that it wouldn’t be enough to sustain them for a very long time, given it was even edible at all. It seemed that their only option was to steal in spite of Mason’s feelings against it.
Finally having made up his mind, Mason turned to face Angel, only to find that she had turned towards the streets and was already walking towards them. “Are you coming?” she said, looking back with a small grin on her face.
Mason sighed and followed briskly behind her, speeding up to keep pace with her. “Yeah, yeah,” he called after, turning the corner into the dim lamplight of the cobblestone streets.
“So, pick a flavor,” Angel said as she walked down the street. Mason trailed behind her, his head hung low and his posture demeaning in complete contrast to Angel’s spry step. They walked past a few ponies of all sorts, and they passed by a few shops and street vendors of varying inventories.
“You pick,” he said gruffly. “I’d rather not choose.”
“Fine.” Angel turned her head and looked down the street, spying a mineral vendor. “Feel like rocks?” she asked.
Mason spotted the cart that she had been eying and a small shiver ran down his spine. “I’m not really feeling street food this time.”
“Alright, I understand.” They passed another few buildings before Angel pointed out a bakery. “How about that?”
“I don’t think so.”
This time it was Angel who sighed. “Are you ever going to give me a positive answer?”
“Well fine then, I’ll just pick.” It was another few steps before they passed a mother pony trailing a few fillies and colts behind her. Mason could hear them giggling and looked back to find them staring at him; specifically at his hindquarters.
“Looks like you’re popular with the kiddies, Mason,” Angel giggled, looking back at the baby ponies with a cheerful smile on her face.
“Shut up,” he said angrily, brushing past her and blushing vividly. This only made Angel giggle more, and in turn tightened Mason’s expression further. Mason hated going out for this very reason; he always felt naked. There was always at least one pony who couldn’t resist laughing at an adult blank-flank, and then there were the others still who he was sure that gossiped about it behind his back.
“Whatever you say,” she said, stifling back more laughing. Angel sped ahead of Mason and began to scout out more potential stores that they could plunder. It wasn’t long before they passed in front of a chapel. Mason had passed by this one in particular a thousand times in his life, and was one of the few buildings that he actually went inside of. It was easily the most luxurious place he had ever seen in his entire life, and was probably one of the most posh buildings in the whole city. The stained glass window at the top, which represented something he would probably never understand, glowed brightly, dimly projecting its image on the drab, poorly lit buildings across the street. His temper mellowed slightly at the sight of such a pristine building, only to flare again when Angel next opened her mouth.
“You know, I hear cardinals get some pretty good food,” she said, staring at the wide iron doors of the building.
Mason stopped and turned to look at her, his eyes wide with a mixture of confusion and rage. “What?” he spat angrily.
“What?” she asked confusedly. “I’m just saying that maybe we could-”
“No,” Mason growled. He began stepping forward at a rigorous pace. “No, no, no, no, NO!” he shouted at her. “We are not stealing from a chapel!”
“Mason, calm down,” she said, backing down under his gaze. Other ponies were beginning to stare. Angel had seen Mason get a little angry, but she had never seen him shout like this. “I wasn’t serious, I know we could never-”
“I don’t care! That’s not something you joke about! It’s not funny!” Mason was standing right over Angel now, his angry eyes matching her fearful ones. His shouting had degraded into enraged screaming. “That’s not something you fuck around about, Angel! You never steal from Terra! NEVER!”
“Mason… I… I’m sorry…”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” he said, snorting once and turning away from her. Her head hung low like his did as she sat on the rockrete sidewalk, watching Mason walk away from her. A few ponies had actually exited their shops and buildings to see who had been screaming so loud.
“I… I didn’t know you were religious…” she half-said, half-whimpered.
“Well now you do,” he growled, not even looking back at her. “Now come on, let’s get some food before I lose my appetite…” He paused to look back and sneer at the pegasus. “Again.”
Hesitantly, Angel got to her hooves and trailed behind the gray unicorn, no remaining trace of the smile once on her face or the spring that had been in her step mere moments before.
Unless you were deaf, you could probably hear Gladstone’s snoring from the streets outside of the hung-over pony’s shop. Inside, you probably would go deaf. It was a wonder that the dark green, gray-maned earth pony didn’t wake himself up. He rested his head on the front counter next to the register, a thick cigar parked tightly between his lips and his front legs splayed out on the shelf under him. Another round of drinks to the absence of clientele his store had been facing left him drunk and restless, and halfway through another business day absent of customers he had simply collapsed on the counter. This wasn’t the first time he had been happy to have no business; it left him all the more time to sleep.
That all came to a creaking halt, though, when the door at the front of the shop swung quickly and noisily open. Gladstone cringed before slowly opening his eyes to see a pony standing in the doorway; specifically a tall, thin unicorn with a dark coat and a shaggy black mane. The green pony behind the counter blinked and slowly raised his head as he placed his two front hooves on the ground and stood up. He cringed once more as the door swung shut with a creak. In an attempt to calm his nerves Gladstone pulled deeply on the cigar, before realizing that he hadn’t even lit it before he passed out.
“You’re here to buy?” he asked as he receded back behind the counter to search for a lighter. His tone towards the arrival was less than enthusiastic for having his first customer in more than a week.
“Ponies usually walk into stores when they want to buy something, don’t they?” the unicorn replied, matching Gladstone’s voice, albeit less gravelly.
“Ponies don’t usually walk into my store anymore, is the thing.” The green pony, having found a lighter, placed it on the counter, flipped it open and lit the cigar, proceeding to take a large puff. “What’re you looking for? Food, weapons, I’ve got pretty much whatever you’re looking for.”
“Just browsing,” he said, turning towards a rack with some sort of equipment on it. “I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
This made Gladstone suspicious. Not many ponies around these parts lived a lifestyle that permitted “just browsing.” This particular pony’s appearance reinforced that. He kept a close eye on the unicorn as he shifted his gaze from the rack to a cabinet full of assorted alcohols, and then to a shelf of multiple mean-looking blades.
“So business is down, huh?” the unicorn asked as he moved over to the other side of the shop.
“Yeah,” Gladstone replied simply. “Haven’t seen eye or ear of a paying customer in a week.”
This bit of information caused the unicorn to frown. “That’s… that’s pretty bad.”
“Business’ll pick up.” Gladstone puffed on the cigar again. “It always does.”
“I hope so, for your sake.”
It was another few minutes before Gladstone noticed something else odd about the unicorn’s presence in his shop; he was completely naked. It wasn’t unusual for a pony to wear no clothes by any means, but the unicorn had nothing to carry any bits or payment of any sort on him. He also couldn’t help but notice the strange lack of a cutie mark on his flank, but he didn’t care about that. The fact that he had no way of buying anything yet he was looking through Gladstone’s inventory was what really didn’t settle well with the short-maned pony, and he wanted the unicorn out of his store as soon as possible.
“You might want to hurry up,” Gladstone proffered. “I’m going to be closing up soon.”
The unicorn simply nodded his head in acknowledgment and continued to search through the store’s wares, now scrutinizing a set of electro-lamps, before Gladstone heard something clattering from the door behind him. He ignored it at first, thinking that it was just some perilously-placed inventory shifting, but then a large crash from the same door managed to grab his attention. He glared back at the unicorn for a second, who was also looking at the door.
“What?” the unicorn asked, shrugging.
“Nothing,” Gladstone replied, reaching under the counter again. “Stay here, I’ll be right back,” he continued. Gladstone, having found what he was looking for, strapped a large switchblade to his foreleg and approached the door. He shoved it open with his forehead and flipped on some ceiling-mounted electro-lamps to reveal yet another pony, this one an orange-brown pegasus, standing beneath a tall shelf with several food-bearing crates surrounding her. The door that lead out into the alley was wide open, quiet sounds from the outside world spilling in.
“What the hell?” Gladstone said, raising the hoof with the blade on it. “What are you doing in here?”
The pegasus didn’t answer, but rather backed away from Gladstone slowly and fearfully. His expression hardened as he realized that the pegasus was trying to steal food from him.
“You little…” he choked out angrily, flicking his hoof and causing the blade to spring from its sheath. “Come here! I’ll show you to steal from me!”
Gladstone trotted slowly and menacingly towards her, holding the switchblade close to his face to appear threatening. It must have worked, because she began to back away faster, until she stopped upon colliding with another shelf. She pressed her back up tightly against the wall, scrambling to get farther away even though there was no way that she could retreat any further. Her gaze stayed firmly locked on Gladstone’s eyes, until they slowly shifted slowly to his right. She began to shake her head, before shouting “Mason, no!”
The last thing that Gladstone caught sight of before he blacked out was the dark gray unicorn to his right, his back turned to him and his two rear hooves raised and flying at the shopkeeper’s head.
Angel watched in silent horror as Mason bucked at the pony with his two rear hooves. They smashed into his skull like two gray lightning bolts, knocking him back a good five feet into a shelf, crates falling onto his unconscious form. His thick, pungent cigar, as well as a good amount of blood, flew from his lips and landed a few feet from him. Mason grunted victoriously as his rear hooves hit the ground, turning his attention to Angel and expecting her to thank him. He was quickly disappointed.
“Mason!” she screamed finally. “What the hell?!”
Mason gave her a confused sneer. “I just saved you. That’s what the hell.”
“But you didn’t have to do that, did you?” She nodded in the direction of the unconscious shopkeeper, breathing shallowly at the base of the shelves.
“Well what would you have done?”
Mason half-grunted, half-sighed. Angel was one of the most stubborn ponies that he had ever encountered. Arguing with her in matters like these was next to worthless. All he could do was give her a hard look as she slowly lowered herself back onto all fours.
“Whatever,” she said finally. “I guess that now it’s easy enough for us to take what we want, at any rate.”
“Yeah,” Mason grumbled sarcastically, walking past her. “Terrific.”
Angel looked back at him harshly. “What’s your problem?”
Mason didn’t respond, instead lightly kicking one of the crates with his front hoof. He then looked at one of the electro-lamps at the ceiling and sighed. “You know that this pony hasn’t had a customer in a week?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” she asked, turning to him and trotting up next to him.
“I just knocked out a financially struggling earth pony, and now I’m stealing from him,” Mason explained. “It would be no different if I just went out and mugged a homeless pony or something.”
Angel’s expression softened, and she now looked at the ground with a saddened frown. “Oh,” she said quietly. “I… I never thought of it like that.”
“Obviously,” Mason replied.
It was a minute or two before Angel spoke again. “Look,” she said quietly, still looking at the floor. “I’m hungry. You’re hungry. We need to eat. We were already going to steal from him before you knocked him out and before you knew he was struggling.”
“And I already felt terrible about it,” Mason said, not looking at her either. “Now I feel even worse.”
Angel didn’t reply, but instead leaned down and snapped the string holding the lid on one of the crates with her teeth. She nosed the lid off, revealing a few rows of brownish-green nutricrystals on a set of padding, more lying underneath.
“You want one?” she asked gingerly. “They taste like crap and they might cut your mouth, but it’s better than starving.”
“You eat,” Mason said. He stood and walked over to the unconscious pony, before glancing back in Angel’s direction. “I’ll bring some with for later. I… I’m not feeling that hungry anymore.”
Gladstone groaned as his eyes slowly opened. The side of his head throbbed painfully, his senses swam with numbness, and he could taste iron in his mouth. He shook his head to get his bearings, getting groggily and shakily to his hooves. It took him a few seconds to actually realize why he was peeling himself off of the cold rockrete.
“Those bastards…” he grumbled. The pony snorted deeply to clear his nose of blood and simply spat onto the floor a few feet away. He gazed around the room through bleary eyes, and the only thing that he really noticed was the fact that the door into the alley was now closed and that both of the ponies formerly occupying the room with him were gone.
“Where’s my fucking cigar?” Gladstone wondered allowed. He spotted it a few feet away, half burnt off and laying in some of his dried blood. “Beautiful…” he grumbled, trotting over and scooping it up with his lips. He quickly inhaled a puff, though it did little to help his mood.
Gladstone looked over to the shelf that he had backed the pegasus into to inspect the damage. He saw that there were now a few less crates on the floor than there were before, and one of them was open. He slowly sauntered over to the open crate and looked in. Most of the crate’s inventory was still there, though there was a single nutricrystal missing that had probably been eaten by one of them. They must have been truly starving if they had decided to take the time to eat while in the middle of a robbery.
“I don’t care how hungry they were,” Gladstone mumbled to himself. “Bastards still stole from me.” He prodded his lip experimentally with his tongue to find that it was swollen and broken on the right side.
“I need a drink,” the pony announced to the room in general. He trotted through the door back into the front of his shop, unstrapped the switchblade from his foreleg and tossed it underneath the counter unceremoniously before rifling through the shelves underneath it and procuring a bottle of dark maroon liquid and a small glass. He placed the glass on the countertop and uncorked the bottle, about to pour a dash into it, before stopping and looking hard at the bottle. He simply shrugged and placed it too his lips, draining a large portion of the alcohol within in a few seconds. It tasted like battery acid, and the drink burned his throat as though he had swallowed a cup of broken glass, but the calming effects of the drink had already snaked their way into his head. After a few deep gulps Gladstone slammed the bottle back onto the counter loudly and panted deeply to clear the wretched sensation from his mouth.
“Terra below,” he swore, lowering his head down onto the counter. He puffed once more on the cigar, but after the mouth-numbing drink it had lost its appeal. He placed it carefully into an ashtray, dousing the glowing end in ash and setting it on the side for later.
Suddenly the door at the head of the store creaked open once more, slamming hard on the wall. Gladstone simply squinted and looked at the new arrival, a tall unicorn with a sharp-looking horn and a dark coat. He initially thought it was the one he had seen last time, but this one looked slightly different.
“You’re not here to kick me in the face too, are you?” Gladstone asked only half-sarcastically. He tried to get a good look at the unicorns face, but the room wasn’t bright enough for him to make out his features.
“No, no,” the unicorn replied, trotting forward slowly. “Quite the contrary, really. Me and my… colleagues were just passing through when we had heard that you had a little problem.”
Gladstone snorted once. “Oh, you did now?”
“Yes, we did.” The unicorn stepped into the glow of a lamp, revealing a wide, menacing grin on his face and red paint splattered on him. “And we were thinking that we might be able to… help out.”
“Mason… I… I don’t want to be here,” Angel admitted timidly. She kicked a rusty can with her front hoof, sending it tumbling down a short incline and into a pit of more trash. She heard something glass break as the pile of metallic garbage she sat atop shifted slightly, causing her to cringe and forcing her to rebalance herself.
“Don’t worry,” Mason replied in his usual stark tone. “We shouldn’t be here for too much longer.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she explained. “I don’t want to be here so that you can look for… for weapons.” She emphasized the last word with a horrific-sounding inclination, reflecting perfectly how she felt about the situation.
It had been two days since their encounter with the shopkeeper. While Angel had stopped caring a few hours after they arrived back at the shack, the whole ordeal had stuck with Mason as though it had been welded into his mind. The part that Mason had really been unable to shake was the fact that he had been forced to attack an armed pony with his bare hooves, an action that had a million possible negative outcomes. He didn’t want to relive the experience without some way to defend himself, so with much hesitation from Angel he had managed to get her to come with him to the endless expanse of junkyards surrounding the city – appropriately dubbed “The Wasteland” – in an effort to search for a weapon of some sort. The pacifistic pegasus was beginning to regret the decision.
“Angel, we need some,” Mason griped. He was in the process of digging through yet another pile of trash, looking for a blade of some sort. “Or at least I do. We have a gang after us, for one, and if we get into another situation like I did with them or the shopkeeper we can’t always depend on a lamp or a kick to the face to get either of us out of it.”
Angel just grunted and crossed her two front legs. She spitefully watched Mason go about digging around for a while, before he finally found some kind of rusty knife on the end of a corroded steel rod.
“This looks pretty good,” he said, gripping the thing awkwardly with his front hooves as he got up onto his back pair. “…but it’s too unwieldy.”
“Yeah, terrific,” Angel mumbled, looking away from the gray unicorn. She heard a clatter as Mason tossed the weapon to the ground and kept rifling through the never-ending supply of garbage in search of another lethal implement. It wasn’t long before a curious thought popped into the pegasus’s head, a thought that had occurred to her more than once since she had met the unicorn.
“There’s something I don’t get about you, Mason,” she began, still looking away from him and over a small hill of trash.
“I’m sure there’s a lot you don’t get about me,” he muttered.
“You hate stealing, right?” she continued, ignoring him.
“More than almost anything else in the Underworld,” he replied casually, continuing to search through a new pile of trash.
“Then why don’t you feel the same way about killing?”
That was enough to jar Mason from his task. He looked at the ground to his side, his eyes shooting over to Angel for a split second until she looked back at him. He thought for a minute before speaking, but when he finally opened his mouth he still wasn’t sure he was saying what he wanted to.
“When you steal something from somepony,” he began, “it’s not the same as when you hurt or kill them.”
“No,” Angel agreed. “It’s worse.”
“To you, maybe.”
“To me?” Angel’s voice was beginning to get aggressive. “How would killing ever be more justified than theft?!”
“I didn’t say it was more justified.” Mason paused as he searched for the words. “When you steal from somepony it’s like you’re stealing their fair chance at life. It’s like you’re cheating them out of it.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Think back to the shop. That pony was already having trouble with business. Stealing some of his inventory didn’t help that. Maybe because we stole, that got him further in the hole than he could afford to be. Maybe he goes out of business, and us stealing only helped that happen. It’s not entirely our fault, but in a year he could be starving to death on the side of a street and all we did was help him get there.”
Angel was visibly shocked by this revelation. Her posture softened and her face depressed into a regretful frown. But Mason wasn’t done yet.
“Then there’s the possibility that maybe he would have gotten a customer later that day. Let’s say that the customer barely had a bit to his name and he was looking for some food, and because the shopkeeper was already struggling he would have been willing to give some up for less than other places would have. But because we stole from him, he couldn’t do that because he had to make up a profit for what we stole. The pony goes elsewhere to buy food, but he can’t find any for what little money he has. He ends up the same way. Or maybe his children do, provided he has any.”
“Stop!” Angel shouted. She had heard enough. “Yes, maybe we did help them get to that point, but if we hadn’t stolen and wouldn’t have stolen further on we would be ending up like that too.”
“So better us than someone else?” Mason replied, looking back at her directly.
Angel opened her mouth to speak, but she realized that Mason was right about that. She simply looked down at the ground again to escape his gaze, at which point he went back to digging.
“That still doesn’t change how I feel about it,” she said finally, raising her head again.
“Good for you,” Mason said sarcastically.
“And you still haven’t answered my question.”
“I thought I answered it perfectly well.”
“No you haven’t. I asked you why you thought that killing was above stealing.”
Mason took another minute to think, but this time he didn’t stop digging to ponder upon it, but rather to move to another area. He spoke as he walked.
“When you kill somepony, it’s better because they’ve already been given their chance at life,” he explained. “You didn’t cheat them out of it. They just wasted it.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense!” the pegasus cried. “Your logic is completely full of holes, and you know it! And it completely contradicts what you said about-”
“It’s not the most perfect way of looking at it,” Mason admitted calmly, cutting her off. “But that’s the best way I can portray what I feel…” The gray unicorn looked directly at her, his dark red eyes gazing right through her. “…and that’s one thing that’s not going to change.”
Angel bit her tongue, refusing to reply to him. She knew that the unicorn was wrong, he just had to be, but she didn’t know how to prove it. It wasn’t until Mason was in the middle of hefting a large spear-like object that a counterargument came to her.
“What if you killed somepony with children?” she asked, feeling victorious yet sickened by the subject matter. “That’s like you’re stealing their father or mother from them, and they’ll most certainly-”
Suddenly Mason dropped the spear with an audible clang and turned to look directly at her. “STOP THAT!” he roared at the top of his lungs.
Angel recoiled a bit and her face depressed into a deep frown. “Stop what?” she asked almost shyly.
“Stop trying to make me seem like a murderer!” He began to pace towards her, stepping easily over the shifting ground. “Do you know how many times I’ve killed in my lifetime, Angel?”
“Twice! Two times! And you were there to witness both of them! I hadn’t killed before, and I wouldn’t care if I never killed again!” Mason stopped a few feet from her and began to breathe deeply to calm himself. “I don’t like killing,” he explained, his voice wavering as he tried to contain the temper in it. “I don’t like taking the life of another any more than the next pony. But I don’t think it’s as bad as stealing. And sometimes it’s just necessary.” He turned away from her and began to climb a large hill of trash. “And besides,” he called back when he realized she wasn’t following him, “if you did kill a colt or a filly’s parents, that doesn’t guarantee their death.” He glanced back at her, his eyes dreary and less intensely angry. “I would know.”
It was then that the reality of her error hit Angel like an iron door to the face. She slowly got up, her head low to the ground but still looking up at Mason and walked up the trash hill towards his side. “I… I’m sorry, Mason…” she apologized timorously. “I didn’t think… I’m sorry…” She sat down by him, looking at the ground again.
“I know you are,” he said quietly. Both of them settled there in silence for what seemed to be the longest time. Neither of them knew what to say to the other. It was a good twenty minutes before Mason finally broke the silence. “Let’s just forget this. The whole conversation. Just let it go.”
“I’d like nothing better,” she said, raising her head with a relieved smirk on her face. “Now can we please go?” she asked bashfully, confidence still not having fully returned to her voice.
“No,” he said sternly, trotting forward further up the hill. “I came here for a weapon and I’m going to leave with one.” He got to the top as Angel quietly sighed in frustration below him and looked out over the city. They must have gone farther into the Wasteland than he had thought, because the skyline was quite distant, even farther away than when he looked out on it from atop the factory where the shack was. He looked up at the ceiling, but it was so dark and smoke-laced this far from the city that he couldn’t even see the infinitely-spanning stone barrier. This far away from the city it was quite dark, but there was still enough light to see, spanning for miles and miles in every direction, the rusted wastes spanning the horizon, never seeming to end.. “Maybe we should start working our way back, though,” he admitted. “It won’t be too long before… wait…” Mason squinted as he focused on something on the next large hill of trash ahead of him. “Is that… no way…” Mason began to descend the hill, brush briskly past Angel on his way down.
“What is it?” the pegasus asked as he passed.
Mason didn’t answer, but rather just kept walking and rambling on. “No way, no way, no way!” he muttered to himself, speeding up until he was sprinting up the hill, knocking scrap metal down the incline with each rough hooffall.
“Mason!” Angel called up after him. She took flight, beating her wings and lifting off of the ground to catch up to him. She had never seen Mason like this before. “What did you see?” she asked as she floated above the unicorn.
“I only caught a glimpse of it, sticking the smallest bit out of the ground,” he replied. He was panting lightly, and Angel could see the desperation on his face. “It might just be the way the trash was arranged, but I swear that it looked just like…”
“Like what?” she asked loudly when Mason trailed off and didn’t answer.
“Like… like…” Mason still didn’t clearly reply as the peak of the hill drew closer to him. He practically clambered the last few steps up the hill, breathing sporadically from the strain he had put on his thin frame. He lowered his head to the ground and began to search through trash, knocking cans and scrap metal away with his nose. Angel landed gently beside the obsessive unicorn, watching in amazement as he dug through the hill.
“You know, it would be a lot easier for us to find what you were looking for I knew what it was that you were looking for,” she said starkly, gradually becoming less and less interested in Mason’s sudden insanity.
The gray unicorn didn’t pay attention, still digging through the scrap. It was only a few more seconds, though, before his head recoiled and a wide smile suddenly cut across his face. Angel watched him, and he seemed to just be looking down at more and more garbage. Apparently Mason saw something different though, because before she knew it he was digging through the trash with a vigor that she had never seen in the unicorn before. Angel watched curiously as rusted metal flew in every direction, some almost hitting the pegasus. It was almost impossible for her to believe that the childishly happy, overly-obsessive unicorn was the same pony that had snapped at her almost thirty minutes ago.
“Mason, what is this all about?” she asked as his digging began to slow.
“I’ll show you what this is about,” he said, pulling his head out of the small crater he had dug. He reached his two front hooves in and gripped onto something to yank on it roughly. With a few pulls the unseen object gave way, Mason gingerly raising it from the hole and cradling it in his front legs as he sat on his haunches. It was big, bulky and heavy-looking, whatever it was. It looked almost as long as either of them could stand tall, but the hunk of metal must have weighed a ton more. Mason certainly didn’t seem to have trouble holding it though, his eyes wide with excitement and his smile even bigger. Angel hadn’t seen Mason this happy. This must have been something incredibly important for him to be so ecstatic.
“Mason… what is that?” she asked, still starring at it. It looked familiar to her, but she couldn’t place where she had seen anything like it before. She squinted as she scanned her mind for the answer, her eyelids depressing again as she realized what Mason held. “Mason… is that…”
“Yes,” he said briskly. “This… this is a gun!” Mason put a hugely pleased emphasis on the last word. His face certainly reflected it. “Do you know what this is?!” he asked, looking directly at her.
“Yes, Mason!” Angel said, now very much alarmed. “It’s a gun! It’s the deadliest thing ever invented!”
“Not that,” Mason said as he looked back at it. “This is… this is a holy weapon!”
Angel sneered at him, confused. “What?” she asked, not knowing in the slightest what he was going on about.
“Terra’s forces used these long ago,” Mason explained, “during the Terran Renaissance and the Underworld Exodus. When those ended and there was no further war they were worthless, and they were just left to rust in any amount of places.” He hefted the gun slightly, looking up at Angel once more. “This thing was once used by Terra’s warriors… thousands of years ago! It’s incredible!”
Mason had only seen a gun once in his life, hanging in the halls of the chapel in the city. He had been curious, and after a while had worked up the courage to ask one of the cardinals about the weapon. It looked little like the one he held now, but the cardinal had explained that guns came in all different shapes and sizes, and he had learned enough about them from the cardinal to know that this was one.
“It doesn’t really look thousands of years old…” Angel observed. While the weapon did look worn, it didn’t look like it had been through a millennium of wear. “How do you know so much about this thing?” she asked, leaning towards the hunk of metal that Mason still grappled onto as though it were a child.
“Because, I go to church to listen,” he said snidely. “Not to steal.”
Angel frowned irritably. She wasn’t sure if he would ever let that go. “Still, what are you planning on doing with it?”
“I’m gonna keep it, obviously!” he said matter-of-factly. He proceeded – quite childishly, Angel noted – to change the topic by saying, “Here, let me show you how it works.”
Over the next five minutes Mason proceeded to set the weapon on the ground and point to different parts with his hoof, telling Angel what each part was and what it did. She failed to sympathize with his interest in the gun though, and rather associated what he labeled as a “magazine” and a “hammer” as “the box that holds the bullets that kill ponies” and “that thing that loads and fires the bullets that kill ponies.” She couldn’t shake the slight look of disgust on her face through the whole demonstration, a look which only intensified when Mason finished.
“Now,” he said, leaning over the gun and looking at Angel almost expectantly, “let’s test it out.”
“I don’t know about that, Mason,” she said cautiously. “If you’re right and that thing is really as old as you say it is, are you really sure that it’s safe to shoot? And… how are you going to shoot it?”
“Easy,” Mason said simply. He reached out with his two front hooves to grip the weapon, once around the front and once around the gun’s large trigger, and stood up tall and unsteadily on his two back hooves. He looked ridiculous, holding such a large weapon so unwieldy and barely able to stand with it. He raised the gun to eye-level, magazine jutting out of the bottom as Mason said it was supposed to, making it clatter madly with how much he was shaking it.
“Mason, please,” Angel said, beginning to get concerned. She stood up and drifted over to his side. “Just put the thing down, it isn’t-”
Angel was cut off as a trio of deafening booms and the glow of a flame lit the air simultaneously, throwing Mason onto his back and making him drop the weapon. There was a deep metallic clang as the three cast-iron bullet shells that the gun had ejected slammed heavily into the mound of garbage a few feet away from both of them. Angel held her ears and ground her teeth as Mason cried in pain and wrapped a leg across his right shoulder.
“Damn it, Mason!” Angel cried, barely able to hear herself over how much her ears were ringing.
“Oh shut up!” he shouted back, rolling over onto his side to examine his shoulder. It hurt badly as though it had been hit hard with a club, but he could still move it freely without much resistance.
“Please tell me you didn’t dislocate your leg again,” Angel said as she watched him, getting slowly to her hooves.
“No…” the unicorn replied somberly. “No, I’m fine… but I’ll be surprised if my shoulder isn’t black and blue for the next week.” Mason quickly stood up and trotted to the weapon laying a few feet away, leaning down to examine it.
“Why did it fire three times?” she asked as she came up next to Mason.
“Because, I held down the trigger long enough for it to,” Mason explained. “I think the only reason it didn’t fire a few more is because…” The unicorn scrutinized closely what he had earlier described as the “slide”, drawing his head back after a second and nodding contently. “Yeah, it’s jammed.”
Angel just looked at Mason quizzically. “Mason, how do you even know so much about guns? I’ve only ever seen them in pictures.”
“I don’t know that much,” Mason replied. “I only learned basics about them from a cardinal back at the chapel. Besides, it’s not too hard to see that it’s jammed if you look closely at it.”
Angel nodded in compliance with the information. She watched as Mason struggled to heft the weapon once more, sliding a hoof towards the hammer and trying to pull it back. He wasn’t having much luck.
“Can’t… work… the bolt,” he choked out, pulling his hardest to get the dull metal slide to pull back. The hammer barely budged though, refusing to eject the jammed shell.
As the orange-brown pegasus watched him struggle, something odd about the weapon occurred to her. “There’s something I don’t understand,” she began, looking directly at the gun. “If you can barely hold this thing and you aren’t even strong enough to shoot it or fix it when it breaks, then how would anypony ever use it as a weapon?”
“First of all, it’s not broken,” he replied, taking a break from trying to work the hammer to make eye contact with her. “It’s just jammed. There is a difference. Second, ponies didn’t use these, Terra’s warriors did.”
“You mean that something other than ponies fought for Terra?” Angel pressed, confused.
“Yeah. They were called ‘Warhorses,’ and they were made by Terra to do just that; fight his wars.”
“What did they look like?” she asked.
“Oh, they were huge!” he explained excitedly, turning his head back to the gun. Mason reveled in the chance to flex his religious knowledge; it was one of the few things that made him feel smart in any way. “They towered over even the biggest pony. And they were strong! They could work these guns like they were nothing at all. They even-” Mason looked away from the gun and back up at Angel, curious when she hadn’t asked him any questions like he had expected her to. He saw why; her face was flushed, and she sat still and erect as a statue. She gazed at the ground behind Mason as though there was some sort of ghost sitting there, but Mason didn’t turn to see what she was looking at.
“Angel, what is it?” he quickly asked as he noticed her.
“M-M-Mason,” she stuttered. “”L-l-look!”
Mason turned his head, looking at the spot that Angel’s gaze held, making his jaw drop and his eyes widen in astonishment. There, peeking over the steep edge of the mountain of trash, a hand – not a hoof – gripped the unsteady ground. The hand was quickly joined by another, clambering at scrap metal as it tried to get a good hold. Both furred appendages managed quickly to grapple onto something steady, and soon over the edge followed two huge, bare, grotesquely muscled arms. Then came a head, its eyes wide and its mouth snarling at the pair terrifically. Then came its torso and stomach, then its legs that rappelled the monstrosity up the hill. In a few quick seconds that seemed to pass in hours for the two terrified ponies, the beast stood atop the hill, looking down on both of them.
One could easily describe the beast as half-pony, half-something else. It was certainly huge, that much was plain to see. It stood on its two back hooves, and even if Mason or Angel were to do the same the monster would still be a time and a half taller than either of them. It had a head that somewhat resembled an earth pony’s, but much larger and more fierce-looking. Its vivid, almost glowing yellow eyes scrutinized them fiercely, and its mouth curled back in an enraged snarl, revealing rows of thick yellow tombstone teeth. Its coat was a stark black, and its chest was protected and concealed by thick metal armor that concealed its shoulders and thighs as well. Its forearms were thick with muscle; it looked like the beast could snap either of them in half without a second thought, and the look on its face told them that was just what the beast wanted to do.
Mason sat there in shock, the gun rattling in his grasp. He looked up at the beast fearfully, his eyes wide and his mouth agape, as it did something he would have never expected it to; the monster reached down past Mason’s face and grabbed onto the weapon he held, wrenching it out of the terrified pony’s grasp. It raised the weapon high above the unicorn’s head, and with one swift movement gripped the hammer that Mason had struggled so much with, pulled it back without a bit of resistance and let it slam back into place. Mason watched the live bullet fly out of the gun, landing a few feet away and embedding itself in a small crater of trash.
“Mason!” he heard Angel scream. He looked over at her just in time to see a brownish-orange blur run straight into him, knocking him head over hooves as a deafening boom and a flash lit the air around them. The monster was firing the gun at them, but Angel had managed to save Mason by flinging herself into him and knocking them both down the hill. The unicorn recovered from the fall just in time to see the monster readjust its aim and open fire once more, trash and metal exploding around him where bullets hit.
“Mason, run!” Angel screamed. He turned to see her in the air, hovering and looking horrified at Mason. He didn’t waste a second gawking, charging as fast as his legs would carry him further down the hill. All around him he heard bullets crash into the ground through the gun’s boom, sending shrapnel flying in every direction. Angel blew ahead of him, shooting directly up the next hill and over the peak. Mason was only a few seconds behind, and though his legs burned with fatigue the adrenaline in his veins and the fear in his head wouldn’t let him rest. The distant feeling of running for his life through dark alleys had aggressively broken back into his mind, propelling him ever faster down the incline of one hill and up the next.
It wasn’t until Mason had rocketed navigated a few more hills and crevices before the unicorn simply collapsed in a heap on top of some exposed dirt. He laid his head on the ground and panted deeply, trying to refill his strained lungs and resting his overtaxed body. He didn’t hear any more shots ring out or any hoofsteps, so he assumed that he must have lost the monster. He looked over and saw Angel land a few feet away. As soon as her hooves touched the ground she instantly bolted to his side and wrapped her forelegs around him in a hug. If he wasn’t so tired Mason would have shaken her away.
“Thank Terra you’re alright!” she cried, relieved. “I thought you were dead!”
“I’m… fine…” he wheezed, slowly edging out of her grasp. “Just… wiped out…”
“I’ll say,” she said, letting him go and sitting down next to him. “You were running faster than I’ve ever seen anypony run before.” She lowered her head to look at him from underneath. “Are you sure you’re ok?” she asked as gently as she could.
“Yeah… I’ll live.” Mason wiped his hooves through his mane and inhaled deeply through his nose. The adrenaline was beginning to drain from his system slowly.
“Alright,” she said in a motherly tone, a small smile flashing on her face. It dissipated though when she asked “What was that thing?”
“That, Angel,” he said, resting back onto his two front hooves, “was a Warhorse.”
Angel had half-suspected that was what the monster had been, but nonetheless the information shocked her visibly. “But… but how is that even possible?”
“Not all of the Warhorses died off,” Mason explained, citing what he had learned from the chapel. “They still live to this day, though without any wars going on they lack much purpose.”
Angel was having trouble swallowing this information. “But how? How does something like that live so close to the city without anypony knowing about it?”
“The Wastelands are huge, Angel. It’s easy to hide in them for years on end.”
“But how does it live out here? Even something like that needs to eat and drink!”
“I don’t know, Angel!” Mason yelled, signaling for her to stop. “I really don’t know… but I’d rather not stick around and ask it when it finds us.” He gave Angel a stiff look before getting up and turning from her. “Come on, we should go. I don’t much feel like finding a weapon anymore right now.”
Angel got slowly to her hooves and trailed behind Mason down an artificial canyon, marking the utterly silent end of the happy, curious unicorn she had been with just minutes before.
“Mason!” Angel called, trotting slowly down a lowly-populated cobblestone road. “Mason,” she shouted again, “where are you?” She lowered her voice before asking herself “Where is that pony?”
Angel had been searching for the gray unicorn for the past two hours. She had woken up earlier expecting to find him where he usually slept, but when she looked over at his bed he wasn’t there. She set about looking for him, searching all over the factory complex first and foremost, but when she had no luck there she migrated into the city, an endeavor which was next to hopeless considering the size of it and the number of ponies that lived within its limits. She had done a quick sweep of the area she was walking through now by flying over it, but when that turned up nothing she decided that she’d get a better look from the ground. At this rate she could end up searching for a whole day.
Angel proceeded down the street, occasionally calling Mason’s name as she went along until a very large building gradually came into view. She instantly recognized it as the city’s chapel, the one that Mason had screamed at her in front of the week before when she proposed stealing from it. She waived the memory aside as she approached it, slowing down as she passed by the heavy iron doors separating the interior from the city outside.
Maybe he’s in there, she thought to herself. It made sense; Mason was religious, that much was self evident. It seemed that nothing that didn’t have to do with Terra made him happy, or at least that’s what made him happiest. Perhaps he was listening to some sermon or reading some kind of religious work. Angel wouldn’t know what he could be doing in there; she had never been inside herself, and she had never had any desire to go inside until now.
Reluctantly she climbed the limestone staircase that lead up to the doors. She pressed them open with her forehead surprisingly easily for how much they must have weighed, and was washed over with warm air. It was slightly shocking in contrast to the cool, dank atmosphere that the catacombs the city was built in held. The pegasus slowly sauntered into the main foyer of the chapel, her interest in the building slowly growing as she saw what lied within.
The chapel’s main chamber was absolutely huge. The maroon carpet on the floor spread hundreds of feet around the circular room, the walls of which were lined with various works of art and other relics. She could hear the muffled voice of somepony speaking far off leaking through another set of iron doors at the head of the room. The chamber right now was completely vacant save her, so if Mason was here he would probably be in the next room. Rather than storming right in, though, she felt the desire to take a look around the large room and observe some of the things displayed.
She first stepped up to a large glass case hanging on the wall, and was slightly surprised to see a large gun inside of it. Mason had told her that other than the one that he had found in the Wastelands a few days ago he had only seen a single gun in his life, and this must have been that one. It looked similar to the other one, but with many distinct differences, the main one being that this one actually looked as old as Mason had said they were. The surfaces were heavily matted with rust and corrosion, so much so that it appeared that parts had been completely eaten away or broken off. It wasn’t much too look at though, so she moved onto a tapestry on the wall. On the tapestry were depicted two different characters; a black and a white pony on a drab backdrop, curled and circling around each other. She noticed, peculiarly, that they both had not only the horn of a unicorn but a set of wings as well. Their eyes seemed to stare at her menacingly, and uneasily she shifted away from it and onto the next work, and then the next after that. It wasn’t too long before she had come to the head of the chamber, staring right at the iron door. She looked up to find another work, a very large painting, hanging right above the door. Curious, she backed up and sat down to get a good look at it, an action which sent a small shiver down her spine when she fully laid eyes on it.
The painting depicted a large, dusty, utterly barren wasteland, the frighteningly familiar form of a half-dozen Warhorses spread across it in combative stances, all varieties of different weapons clutched tight in their hands. They fired their guns and swung their swords at some unseen enemy that had, for some reason, not been painted or shown. In the far back a tall, shadowy figure stood towering over the wastes, pointing into the distance as though it was commanding them. Perhaps it was.
That wasn’t what really grabbed her attention though.
What Angel was truly focused on was what appeared to be a large, very vividly-depicted ball of white light suspended high in the dusty air. Even though it was only composed of old, worn paint, she could almost feel the glowing heat that resonated from it. She wondered where this scene had been taken from, as she had never seen any such thing in her life. There was an odd beauty to it, some unseen quality that made it impossible to pry her eyes from it. It made the back of her mind race with questions, yet at the same time calmed her, making her feel oddly safe and tranquil.
Suddenly, somepony to Angel’s left spoke. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said in a calm voice, tearing her from her thoughts. She looked over and saw a deep blue earth pony garbed in black robes sitting next to her, looking up at the painting as well. He shifted his gaze over to her, smiling cheerfully and looking at her expectantly.
“It’s nice,” she said, slowly glancing back up at the painted light before prying her eyes away and looking back at the pony. “Anyway, I came in here to look for a friend of mine. I thought he may have come here; this is one of his favorite places, I think.”
“Can you describe him?” the pony asked, still smiling.
“He’s a unicorn, kind of tall, skinny, gray, filthy coat, greasy sort of mane…” she proceeded to explain, citing as much as she could visually remember about him.
“That sounds like a lot of ponies,” the pony said, his smile diminishing as he thought. “Can you remember something more specific? His cutie mark, perhaps?”
“Oh, he… uh… he doesn’t have one.” Angel was reluctant to give out that information, considering Mason hated talking about it. She could almost feel him giving her an angry look despite the fact that he wasn’t actually there.
The pony smiled once again as he realized who the pegasus spoke of. “Ah, yes, Mason,” he said, nodding his head.
“Oh, you know him?”
“Not particularly well, no. But I’ve overheard him speaking with Cardinal Franx a number of times. He’s quite the curious one when it comes to matters such as Terra.”
“That describes him pretty well,” she said with a short giggle.
“I would say so. Anyway, I saw him walk in earlier. He’s likely in there now,” the pony nodded at the iron door, “listening to the Cardinal’s sermon.” He smiled at Angel again. “Perhaps I could implore you to listen to what’s left as well?”
Angel smiled back uneasily. “I suppose. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a sermon.” Like my entire life, she added mentally.
“Wonderful!” he said, standing up. “Anyway, I have other matters to be attending to.” The pony turned away from her and began to trot off, cheerily adding “Enjoy the sermon!” as he walked off.
“Thanks,” she said, wiping the fake smile from her face. With a final glance up at the captivating painting, she stood and walked slowly through the iron doors and into the following chamber.
The room was even bigger than the one she had just walked from, though this one was rectangular rather than circular. Even rows of pews spread across the floor, seating a large number of ponies at sporadic intervals. They concluded at the head of the chamber, where a nearly pitch black unicorn in similarly colored robes sat behind a pedestal, reading from a book. His booming voice carried across the entire chamber. The room chilled Angel to her core, but she shook it off and began to visually sweep the room for Mason. She quickly spotted him, sitting forlorn and solemn-looking on a pew in the back, alone. She quickly and quietly trotted over to him, and was quite surprised to see a small smile on his face.
“Mason!” she whispered. The sound of his name surprised him, turning the smile into a frown as he looked over at the pegasus.
“Angel?” he said quietly yet harshly. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to find you!” she whispered back.
“Well you found me,” he said sarcastically. “Now be quiet, I’m trying to listen.”
Mason turned his attention back to the Cardinal, though his smile remained absent. Angel, left without much else to do, climbed up on the pew next to him and reluctantly listened to what the Cardinal was saying. Most of the words he spoke weren’t words that Angel was particularly pleased to hear.
“What’s he reading from?” she asked Mason.
“The Septology of the Renaissance,” he answered plainly, devoting only a second of thought to her. “The seventh book, I think.”
Angel turned her attention back to the sermon. It was but a second after she began to listen again before the Cardinal boomed in his deep voice, “…as the sulfur from the powder of a million guns fired and the iron of a million’s blood shed filled the air…” Her face visibly twisted into one of both horror and disgust.
“Mason, this is awful,” she said, turning to look at him again.
“Shut up,” he whispered, once again barely giving her any mind.
Angel grunted and continued to sit there next to him, listening unhappily and cringing whenever the Cardinal mentioned something about bloodshed or death, which was quite frequently. It was but a few minutes before she asked Mason another question, one triggered by the Cardinal’s mention of a certain word.
“What does ‘Celestia’ mean?” she asked.
That shook Mason enough to make him look straight at her, a look of sheer disbelief on his face. “How do you not know that?” he whispered loudly. Angel just looked at him confusedly and expectantly. “I’ll tell you when we leave. Now please, let me listen.”
Angel simply obliged, trying to block out as much of the remainder of the sermon as she could. Before long the unicorn at the head of the chamber closed the book, stood, and walked off, leaving the gathering of ponies sitting in the chamber to stand themselves and migrate gradually to the door. Mason stayed seated, which Angel assumed was to allow the impressively-sized crowd to pass.
“How can you listen to that?” she asked, keeping her voice hushed to avoid attracting the attention of a potential fanatical gathering.
“What do you mean?” Mason asked back, looking down at her.
“I mean, how can you listen to that? It’s terrible, Mason! Why does something about a god have to be so full of bloodshed and death?”
Mason gave her a look that could slice through bedrock like a lascutter. Angel was afraid he might start shouting again. Thankfully, he kept his voice low. “That’s the history of our people, Angel,” he explained, audibly struggling to maintain his composure. “It’s the history of the ones responsible for our very existence, Terra included. It’s the most important gathering of information ever written, and everypony should listen to it, no matter how much they hate the violence it depicts. Even you.” He paused, leaning down to meet her eye-to-eye. “Especially you,” he concluded in a particularly threatening voice.
The act that Mason put up hadn’t really fazed her. Angel knew that Mason would never do anything worse than shout at her, and right now she was safe from even that. She simply hopped off of the pew, seeing that the crowd had thinned, and walked into the central pathway, Mason trailing behind her. She edged her way out of the chamber, through the door and into the next, before stopping and turning to look at the painting that had captivated her so easily before. Mason brushed past her, but when he noticed that she hadn’t followed behind him he turned to see her standing frozen before the set of doors, looking back on the picture hanging above it.
“Angel, come on,” Mason called softly.
“Huh?” Angel turned away from the picture, before slowly looking back at it. “Alright… Mason?”
“Is there… is there something about that painting, to you?”
Mason was confused. “What do you mean?”
“N… nothing…” Angel simply turned away from the painting and walked up to Mason’s side. “Nothing. Come on, let’s go.”
Mason trotted slowly through a vacant transport corridor, not a single pony in sight for the whole length of the giant alley. The space had been carved out of the factory complex to allow mass transit of materials, machinery, or whatever else the factories needed transporting, but right now the only bit of activity occurring from Mason’s point of view was a flickering electro-lamp a good five hundred feet down from him. It was likely that it was the middle of a work day within the massive industrial units; he had learned, in his extended time living here, that transport usually only occurred earlier or later in a work day.
The tranquility of the corridor did well to ease Mason. The distant clank and whir of industrial machines had a comforting familiarity to them, making the unicorn feel oddly at home. He inhaled deeply, the smoke in the air tingling his throat as it entered his lungs. This far from the city the pollution was even more intense, but it bothered him not. He had been breathing the city’s air for his entire life, and had long gotten used to the acrid twinge the atmosphere held. The uneasiness the unicorn instinctively felt for the majority of his waking hours had slipped gradually away; it were places like these that made Mason feel that he was in his element.
A shrill cry quickly broke the silence of the corridor, and thus Mason’s tranquil mood. “Mason!” it called, and the gray unicorn instantly knew who it was. He looked up and behind himself to see the silhouette of Angel drifting lazily towards him and sighed. It seemed that Mason just couldn’t have even a second of solitude to himself.
Oh well, he thought to himself. It was nice while it lasted.
Angel swiftly dropped down to his side, landing clumsily and yawning boisterously upon impact. It appeared that she was quite tired. Her voice reinforced the notion as she spoke.
“You need to stop that,” she drawled wearily. She looked at Mason drowsily.
“Stop what?” he asked cautiously.
“Disappearing,” she answered plainly. She took her usual spot at the skinny unicorn’s side. “Can you at least leave a note or something before you go out? Or better yet; stay in bed.”
“I wasn’t tired.” Mason looked down the corridor in the direction that Angel had come from. Perched atop the roof of the factory at the end of the alley was the small shack in which they dwelled. Mason had to use the factory’s roof access in order to get down from it. The factory workers apparently didn’t care; they had seen him use it dozens of times by now. “You know I sleep on a different cycle than you do.”
“Whatever,” she said, raising a hoof to scratch behind her ear. “What’re you doing down here?”
“I just came down here to, y’know, be alone.” Mason glanced at the pegasus expectantly.
“Mhm,” she mumbled, obviously not picking up on the hint. “That’s nice.”
Mason rolled his eyes and proceeded forward, Angel quick to follow. He glanced back and asked her more harshly than he meant to “Why are you following me?”
Angel was obviously taken aback by the question. “Oh,” she responded, surprised. “Sorry, I just thought that… do you want me to go?”
Mason glanced at the ground in momentary thought, before answering with “Nah, it’s fine.” He looked forward and continued his lazy saunter down the corridor, but Angel kept looking at him sadly and anxiously. She hadn’t known she was intruding on him; if anything, she thought that he would have liked her being there. It made her wonder how many times before she had done the same thing.
Mason looked back and saw the look on Angel’s face as she followed behind him. “Something wrong?” he asked.
“Well, it’s just… I mean…” Angel stuttered as she searched for the words to say. “What do you think of me?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Like… how do you see me?” Mason still looked at her quizzically. “What do I mean to you?”
That got through to Mason. His pace slowed visibly, and he averted his gaze from the brownish-orange pegasus. He next spoke slowly and with an edge of sorrow to his voice. “Do you want an honest answer?”
“Yes,” she answered, her voice adamant with confidence.
Mason swallowed. “Truthfully, Angel… I like you. I like you a lot. You’re the only real friend I’ve ever had. It’s been very nice getting to know you, and even though we’ve had some… rocky moments, I can honestly say I’m glad to have you as an acquaintance.”
Angel smiled warmly at him. “Thank you, Mason,” she said softly. “That means-”
“But,” Mason interjected, cutting her off before she could finish, “I can honestly say that if something were to happen to you tomorrow… if you were to go missing or die or something…” Mason looked at the ground, feeling remorseful for the words he was about to say. “I wouldn’t think twice of it.”
The words hit Angel like a slap to the face. The smile drained from her expression and her eyes reverted from pleasant to sad once more. “R… really?” she asked in heartrending disbelief.
“I’d feel no worse than I do now, telling you this.” He looked back at her, the cheerlessness on his face nearly tangible. “If it’s any consolation, that feels pretty bad in on itself.” It didn’t appear to have any effect on the pegasus’s poignant face. “I’m sorry you had to hear that.”
Angel’s expression softened slightly, though it was still full of sadness. She moseyed over to Mason’s side and sat down, looking at the ground that he averted his gaze to. “I can’t say I blame you,” she said finally, getting a slightly surprised look from the unicorn.
“Angel, it’s not your fault at all,” he said.
“I know. I understand why you feel that way.” She glanced at him. “Well, I guess I can never truly understand, really… but I grasp the concept.”
“It’s just… I don’t connect with other ponies, really,” he explained. “I can feel bad for them, sure, you’ve seen that… but all my life, I’ve been looking out for myself. To me, I’m the only one that really matters, and that really hasn’t changed since I met you. I care about you, Angel… but I don’t really… I just… I don’t even know.”
“You like having me as a friend and you care about my wellbeing, but it doesn’t deeply matter to you if something were to happen to me,” she said, trying to make sense of his words.
“Yeah,” he mumbled gruffly. “I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel. And there’s really nothing that’s going to change that.”
“It’s not something that anypony really wants to hear, but it’s alright,” she said. “I still understand.” She smiled uneasily at him. “And I still thought the first part was nice.”
That made Mason smirk. “I’m glad you understand,” he said.
“Now, do you want to be alone?” she asked tenderly, leaning towards his face. “I won’t mind if you do.”
Mason opened his mouth to reply to her, but something caught his eye before he could speak. About fifty feet down he saw a pony of some variety duck into a runoff corridor. He couldn’t really make it out, but it looked a bit like another unicorn to him.
“That’s weird…” he drawled curiously.
“What’s weird?” Angel asked, leaning away from him.
“I think I just saw a unicorn duck into an alley over there.”
Angel looked back to see, despite the unicorn Mason had seen having already run off. “He’s probably just on break and getting back to work.”
“I guess,” Mason agreed with a shrug.
Angel looked back at Mason, then glanced right past him into another alley. “Huh, there’s somepony else.”
“What?” Mason said, whipping his head around to look into the alley. Sure enough he was able to catch a quick glimpse of another pony running back into another runoff corridor, still too far off to make out any distinct details of.
“I guess that now is break time for a lot of ponies,” Angel said with a shrug.
“No,” Mason throttled out. “That’s not right.” If they had simply walked back into the alley Mason would have understood, but they ran into it, like they were trying to get away or out of sight. “Something’s wrong here.”
“What do you mean?” Angel looked at him very curiously, wondering what was going through his head.
Mason paused as he looked back down the corridor, waiting for something else to move. When nothing did he said “Come on, let’s get back to the shack.”
“Why?” she asked. Mason didn’t respond, rather beginning to walk down the corridor at a brisk pace. “Mason!” she called, still desiring an answer from the gray unicorn.
“Angel, come on!” he shouted back. His voice had an urgent sharpness to it.
“Mason, what is- MASON!”
Angel screamed in horror as, to Mason’s left, a large metal door exploded violently from its hinges and landed with a heavy resonating clang. Out of it flew a huge, hulking figure, running at some impossible speed and ramming straight into Mason. The unicorn, only having barely begun to react by the time the figure hit him, flew back a good ten feet, landing in a heap at the base of the opposing wall. Angel screamed again when she was able to make out what had hit him.
Standing hunched over in the middle of the alley was the Warhorse, the same exact one that they had encountered in the Wasteland a week ago. Angel could tell from the stark black of its coat, the murderous yellow eyes, the shoddy armor shackled to its body, but most apparently from the grotesquely familiar, oversized gun it held in its hands. It had used the weapon to club Mason and send him sprawling across the alley. At first the thing must have assumed that he was unconscious or dead, but when Mason groggily raised his head to get a look at the thing its nostrils flared and it roared at him with a bloodlust that Angel had never witnessed in any being before. It reared back into a full stand and raised the gun to eye level, aiming it directly at the dazed unicorn.
Angel didn’t need to think twice. In a split second she was in the air and sailing towards Mason with reckless abandon, gripping her forelegs around the unicorn’s torso and carrying him into the air at an impossible speed. She couldn’t keep it up for too long though; she may have been hardy enough to carry him a mile or so before she had to put him down, but carrying such a heavy load severely impacted her flying performance and made her an even bigger target. One of them would probably get shot before they could get out of the alley if she had to keep carrying Mason. She looked down at him as a series of explosive bangs rang out behind them.
“Hit the ground running!” she shouted as he looked up at her. He nodded, and she began to dive toward the rockrete ground, letting go of Mason as she descended. He stumbled a bit at first, but quickly he was running down the corridor as fast as the unicorn’s legs would carry him. Angel matched his pace, flying right above him in case something happened. More shots rang out behind them, and Mason could hear bullets whiz past him.
“That thing really doesn’t like you!” Angel shouted, hearing the rounds fly by.
“I don’t know why!” Mason yelled back. “What could I have possibly done to make it come all the way out- AUGH!”
Mason cried out in violent pain and stumbled. Angel stopped and turned, but she didn’t have to think twice to know what had happened. She felt sick to her stomach as she watched him keel over and kneel on the ground. Quickly, though, he got back to his hooves, raising her heart out of her stomach.
“GO!” he roared. “KEEP GOING!” He set off in a dash once more, and though he limped she could tell that the extent of the injury must not have been as bad as she had thought. Still, that didn’t stop her from taking the initiative; she swooped down and once again clutched his torso, lifting him up with a great strain. She barreled down the alley as fast as the added weight would allow her, now hearing bullets fly past her as well. She looked to her left and ducked into another service corridor, recklessly dropping Mason to the ground and landing next to him.
“Are you alright?” she asked urgently. She leaned down next to his side to inspect what damage had been done.
“No,” Mason answered plainly. “But I’ll live.”
Down Mason’s right side was a deep gash where a bullet had grazed him. It spread from the base of his chest all the way up to his shoulder, ending in flayed skin where the slug had finally passed. Blood oozed from it, seeping into and staining his coat, but she could tell it was a mostly superficial wound. Other than the chance of infection there wasn’t much harm the injury would bring him, and it was an easy fix when Angel could get her hooves on her medical supplies once more.
“It’s not that bad,” she said quietly. With a swallow she added “Not as bad as it could be, anyway.”
“I’d say it looks just fine.”
The arrival of another voice to the alley came as a clear surprise to both of them. They both jumped as it resounded through the corridor, looking quickly back at the epicenter of the voice. Mason grappled roughly to his feet, glaring with wide eyes at the other end of the alley. The light hadn’t permeated there for some reason, leaving the figure that had spoken shrouded in darkness.
“That is,” the raspy voice said again, “in comparison to what I’m gonna do to him…”
Mason reared back slightly. Angel found this peculiar, as thus far he didn’t seem to scare easily. Now he seemed downright terrified.
“What’s wrong?” Angel asked cautiously, looking back at him.
“Yeah, Mason, what’s wrong?” The voice was marked by a shallow metallic collision with the rockrete surface.
The mention of his name made Mason tense further. “H-how do you know my name?” he asked, his voice laced heavily with fear.
“I hear things,” the voice replied, followed by another sharp clang.
“Mason…?” Angel asked again, beginning to grow more and more frightened.
With another clang an armored hoof popped from the shadow into the dim light. Mason recoiled further, and Angel was powerless to do anything other than follow suit. She didn’t know who this was, but if it scared Mason this much it must have been bad. She watched whoever was speaking take another step into the light, this time with an unarmored hoof and exposing his face; a unicorn with a dark coat and an armored horn. He had a wicked grin and his eyes were wild, affixed firmly on Mason. Angel’s posture hadn’t changed, but Mason had frozen solid. It wasn’t until he progressed further forward that she saw why the unicorn had Mason so spooked.
All along his body, even on the rusty armor he wore, was splattered some kind of deep red paint; the same scheme that the gang that had attacked Mason more than two weeks before had born. With a swallow she realized that they had finally tracked the pair down. How that was, Angel didn’t know. Neither of them had seen head or tail of the gang since Mason’s encounter, so how they just showed up now was beyond her. The fact that they had decided to show up at the exact time the only Warhorse in probably a hundred miles had come to attack Mason was an unbelievable coincidence as well.
The unicorn gazed at Angel evilly and chuckled as though he was mocking her, getting a shiver from her before averting his gaze back to Mason and striding fluidly towards him. As the unicorn passed Angel noticed that the majority of his armor only covered the right side of his body, leaving his left flank and both hooves on his left side unarmored. His cutie mark, a twisted black lighting bolt with maroon tendrils of electricity around it, was clearly visible. He must have had a lot of experience with the armor, because it seemed to move with his body quite easily. Angel looked over at Mason, standing still as the other unicorn approached him. He had his mouth open like he wanted to speak, but the words had gotten choked up in his throat.
“You’re dead,” Mason uttered finally, backing steadily away from the unicorn. Angel was unable to keep herself from gasping.
“And you,” the unicorn said in some theatrically-stressed accent, “are still a thief!” When Mason didn’t reply he cackled cruelly and spoke up once more. “Twice! Two times I’ve been contracted to teach you a lesson, by two different ponies! That’s never happened to me before!”
“Mason,” Angel muttered, still looking at the other unicorn. “When you said… did you mean…”
“I threw you off a fucking building!” Mason screamed, answering Angel’s unfinished question. “How are you here?! You’re dead!”
“Obviously not,” the unicorn mumbled to himself, purposefully loud enough for Mason to hear. “I’m made of tougher stuff than you thought, apparently. I’ve walked away from worse than that.” He shifted his gaze back towards his armor and chuckled eerily. “Well… I’d be lying if I said I had walked away from it.”
Mason backed further away, trying his hardest to bite back his fear. It seemed that he could do no such thing though, because he yelped and leapt into the air when he reared into something cold and hard. Angel shifted her gaze from the unicorn as Mason turned around to face what he had hit. They both expected another pony to be standing there, blocking his path. The reality was far worse.
Towering over him, looking straight down at the gray unicorn, stood the Warhorse once more. Its eyes had lost their distinct homicidal flare, but that made them no less threatening. The Warhorse raised its gun high into the air, a good three feet above Mason’s head, and slammed on the side of it, causing the magazine to fall out of the gun and drop with a heavy clatter next to him. As Mason jumped in surprise the beast had already grabbed another one from one of the straps on its armor and replaced it, and when he looked back up it was pulling back on the hammer. Mason didn’t see it, but Angel was able to look away from the Warhorse to see two pairs of other gang members, all earth ponies, stride easily from behind the monster, the grins on their faces and the murder in their eyes reflective of the other unicorn’s. Angel felt a rush of cold surge through her veins.
“You honestly couldn’t put it all together?” the unicorn said, grabbing her attention. She looked at him with wide, fearful eyes. “You seriously thought that that thing being here along with us was a coincidence?”
Angel looked back to the Warhorse. She knew there had to be some reason it and the gang were both showing up at the same time. Only now did she notice the worn splashes of dark red paint spotting its armor sporadically.
“And you,” the unicorn continued, beginning to stride ever closer to her with his usual clattering step. “You… you could have been safe from all of this! But you had to go and save him! You had to be a real-life Angel, and for what reason? And then, not only did you save him… you actually helped him steal again!”
“B… but…” Angel stuttered, utterly lost for words. She turned back to where the unicorn once stood, but in the time that she had spent looking at the Warhorse he had dashed right up to her face. His gaze was locked onto hers only a few inches from her face. She screamed and reared back, getting Mason’s attention.
“What are you going to do?!” Angel cried, backing into the opposing wall.
“Hazard’s gonna kill ya!” one of the other ponies called from the Warhorse’s side, obviously referring to the unicorn’s name.
“Nah,” the now-named unicorn said, strolling towards Angel, looking her directly in the eye. “I’m not gonna kill her… I think…”
Angel was forced to curl back to get as far away as she could from Hazard. The unicorn kept coming at her, until she was scrunched up into a ball, her muzzle tucked into her chest and her wide eyes gazing directly at Hazard. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t look away. Something about that gaze was keeping her dreadfully entranced. In all her life she had never wanted to escape something so much as she did now. She felt like she wanted to close her eyes, cover her head and weep, as though that would make him leave. It wasn’t until Hazard’s muzzle was touching hers and their eyes almost touched that he finally spoke, at which point she almost did begin to cry.
“…I’m gonna cut her wings off.”
Angel shut her eyes and turned her head as far away from the unicorn’s face as her scrunched pose would allow. Still she felt his burning gaze, as though somepony was boring into her skull with a lascutter. She could hear him cackle cruelly; feel him breathing on her neck. She had never felt so hopeless in her entire life. When Mason was his target it was different, but now that she had seen that murderous look she couldn’t escape it. Her lips began to quiver and she could feel the pit of her stomach begin to burn. Angel knew simply from the look in his eyes and the adamant, terrifying edge to his voice that Hazard would do exactly what he said, and when he decided to she would be absolutely powerless to resist. She truthfully felt like she would rather be dead.
“Let’s see little Angel fly then!” Hazard was practically screaming at Angel. His homicidal grin had evolved into a full blown smile, and his eyes were brighter with cruelty than ever.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Angel screamed desperately, unable to contain herself. Hazard reared back and chortled evilly, not affected by the outburst in the slightest.
“Leave her alone, Hazard!” Mason shouted, trying his best to sound dangerous. Even as he said it, though, the other unicorn could see his legs tremble with terror. He knew that the situation was hopeless, and Hazard picked up on that perfectly.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Mason,” Hazard said, his grin depressing slightly. “I’ve saved the best for you.” When he saw Mason glance nervously back at the Warhorse he cackled again. “No, you don’t get off that easy. I’m gonna have some fun with you…” Hazard looked to the side in thought, slowly uttering the grim ballad of Mason’s demise. “First, I’m gonna have you strung up! Then… I’m gonna gut you with my horn, nice and slow like… oh! Then, if you’re still alive, or I haven’t already ripped out your eyes out, or both…” Hazard leaned in close to Mason’s face as he whispered the last part to him, casting the same look that he had used on Angel on the terrified gray unicorn. “…I’m gonna rip open your ribs and make you watch your own heart stop beating.”
Mason’s mind raced. Even though he felt trapped and simply horrified, he was still very much capable of thinking, even if it was muddled at best. He frantically searched for a way out of the corridor from the corner of his eye, trying his best to convince Hazard that he was fully focused on the fact that he was probably going to die then and there. It was difficult to keep his mind from wondering to such places. Quickly he spotted something; an iron door with an open latch about ten feet from him. It was a long shot, and he wasn’t entirely sure if Angel, still curled up in the corner, would be able to make it, but it was the best shot either of them had to get out of the corridor with their lives. Before he could doubt himself, he launched as fast as he could towards Hazard, slamming into his left side and using the unicorn’s armor’s weight against him. He blew past Hazard as fast as he could and screamed at the top of his lungs as he passed Angel.
“ANGEL!” he yelled, not sparing her a second glance. “RUN! HURRY!”
Angel pried her head out of her hooves to see Mason fly past her towards the door. Despite the crushing fear she felt she bolted up as fast as she could and ran after him. Mason crashed through it as the Warhorse opened fire behind them, blowing brick chunks out of the frame. Angel cried out in fear but she didn’t stop, dashing in after Mason and flying down the floor behind him.
The interior of the factory was hot, that much was obvious. The air wobbled with heat, and the pair had already begun to sweat profusely. They bolted as fast as their legs would carry them down a stone corridor lined with heavy lead pipes and electro-lamps, working their hardest to escape the menace that pursued them. Mason slowed to work the lock on another door, quickly opening and dashing through it. Neither of them looked back to see if the gang was pursuing them; they both knew that they were. They ran out onto the main factory floor, clanking machinery and whirring cargo belts littering the floor and hanging high above their heads. A few workers stopped and stared at the pair quizzically, wondering what they were doing there and why they had practically exploded through the door. Neither of them paid any mind to their glances though. Angel and Mason started up in another gallop, dashing through crowds of other ponies, getting a few curses thrown their way in the process. Suddenly a lick of gunfire opened up behind them, turning disgruntled shouts into horrified screams. Mason thought quickly, leading the way up a suspended staircase to a hanging catwalk overlooking the main foyer. Bullets exploded through the thin metal, pressing them to run faster. Why Angel hadn’t taken flight was beyond Mason, but he didn’t care enough to question it; right now escape was the one thing on his mind.
The catwalk came to a sudden end at another iron door, which Mason promptly blew threw. He allowed Angel to pass by him, then turned back and re-engaged the bolt on the door. He wished he could have broken it, that would stop them for good, but he had no means to do so. He simply turned and went to run after Angel, but was surprised to see her leaned up against a wall, looking down at the ground. Mason was quick to hurry to her side, though his words were less than encouraging.
“Angel, we have to go!” he yelled at her unsympathetically. “They’re gonna be coming through that door any minute! We have to run!”
It wasn’t until then that Mason noticed the severity of her condition. She leaned heavily on the wall, trembling greatly as though she couldn’t stand on her own accord. Her breath came in short, choked-up gasps that sounded more like sobs. She slowly raised her head to look at him, and heartrendingly he registered two wet trails flowing down her face.
“Mason…” she mumbled quietly, her voice devoid of all character. “Hazard… h… he said… he said he was going to…” As much as she struggled with the words, there was no way she could bring herself to say them. She looked back at the ground and leaned her head against the wall, beginning to sob softly.
Mason couldn’t deny that he wasn’t moved by this display, but right now survival was what mattered to him. He needed to get her moving.
“Angel, did you hear what he said to me?” he said, trying to reason with her. “It’s just a scare tactic! But I guarantee you that if we don’t get moving that it’ll be much more than that. We have to go now!”
“I know,” she choked out, nodding slightly. “But those eyes, Mason… the way he looked at me…” She paused, before completely breaking down and weeping quietly. Her chest beat spasmodically with the force of her moaning sobs, and her entire body quivering as she tried to regain control of herself. “Please don’t let those eyes see me again, Mason!” she managed to quietly cry out. “Please!”
Mason was beyond words. Hazard had really gotten through to her. Angel was next to broken; she was so afraid that she couldn’t even move. Mason had no idea what kind of monster he was dealing with, but it was clear to him that Hazard was no normal pony. To be able to break someone with a look and a threat was something he had never witnessed before. There was something about him that just wasn’t right, besides the obvious insanity.
That was when Mason put it all together with a heart-wrenching realization.
“Angel!” he throttled out urgently. “Hazard; he’s screwing with your mind! He’s a psyker!”
Angel looked up slightly, though she kept her eyes glued firmly to the cold steel floor. A few small drips were collecting on its surface. “W… what?” she asked with a short sob.
“He’s a psyker!” Mason repeated. “It means that he can terrify you on a level that not even you can understand! He’s messing with your head! You have to shake it off!”
Angel didn’t shake it off. She couldn’t, and now Mason understood why, making it even more urgent that they escape. The fact that the gang hadn’t already broken through the door was a miracle, one that he knew he couldn’t expect to last. Either he would get her moving, or he would have to leave her here, which wasn’t something he wanted to do. He had to play at her base instincts to raise her morale. Suddenly a throb in his side attracted his attention, giving him a highly unorthodox idea on how to calm her down. Going out on a final, desperate limb, he calmly sauntered over to the hysterical pegasus’s side and spoke gently.
“Angel, I know this isn’t the time,” he said as courteously as he could, “but my side is giving me trouble… the longer we wait, the more likely it is that it’s going to evolve into something serious. I know you’re scared Angel, but I need your help, and for that I need you to come with me.”
This stirred Angel slightly. She looked up at Mason slowly, blinking to clear her eyes. Slowly she eased herself off of the wall, her breathing slowly regulating. “No, it’s fine,” she muttered, a frightened edge lingering in her voice. Mason let out a relieved sigh. “I… I’m sorry about that, Mason.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said once again, this time more sternly. “I know all too well what ponies like him can do to others.”
Angel shut her eyes and shuddered once more. At first Mason feared that she might be relapsing, but thankfully she then stood and inhaled deeply. “It’s alright. I’ll be fine from here on out… I hope…” She stepped forward and nuzzled his cheek slightly. “Thanks for not just leaving me.”
Mason’s initial urge was to edge away from her uncomfortably, but he knew how much she needed the simple comfort, so he let her. When she eased away from him he could still see tears in her eyes, and they showed no sign of stopping soon. “You’re really beat up, aren’t you?” he asked, keeping his tone low.
“I’ve never been so terrified in my life,” she admitted with a shaky voice. The pegasus shifted her gaze away from Mason slightly. “I really screwed up, didn’t I?”
“It’s not your fault. I don’t think I would have reacted any differently.”
Mason’s words made her smile slightly, despite the fact that tears still flowed steadily from her eyes. She quickly glanced back at the door, causing the smile to slip away. “Come on,” she said as adamantly as she could muster, turning fully forwards. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
“I have a question,” Angel said as she rooted around in a white medical cabinet bolted to the wall. She didn’t so much as look at Mason as she asked, heavily affixed on her current task.
“And what’s that?” Mason asked, standing nervously by the solid metal door. He looked around anxiously; he was all too alert at the moment.
Mason and Angel didn’t know how long they had been running around for, but it must have been a good thirty minutes. They had transferred trough multiple different industrial units, thankfully not having met up with the gang again. Still, Mason had wholly convinced Angel that they were still pursuing them, and that was more than enough to keep her moving. They didn’t know where they were in relative distance from the shack, but that didn’t matter; they weren’t trying to get there anyway. It wasn’t until they were in the upper levels of another factory building that Angel had felt safe enough to get Mason into a small room which she had seen a medical cabinet in. Mason had at first refused, but eventually she managed to convince him to come in if she could hurry.
“You said that Hazard was a psyker…” Angel said, cringing ever so slightly as she mentioned the unicorn’s name. “What does that mean?”
When Mason didn’t answer, Angel reared out of the cabinet and looked back at him, expecting an answer. “Are you sure you’re ok?” Mason asked finally. He didn’t want to reveal anything unless he was positive that she would be alright. She wasn’t acting like herself as it was already; her usually happy, cheerful demeanor had taken a back seat to a much grimmer and less enthusiastic tone.
“You’ve been asking me that every five minutes,” she said sarcastically, the impatience plain on her face. Mason’s face remained resolute and grim. “I’m still a little shaky…” she reluctantly admitted, resuming the task of searching through the case. “But I’ll be fine. I promise.”
Mason sighed, unsure of himself. Finally, he slowly began to speak, uncertain of whether or not he should actually be telling her such information. “A psyker… is a unicorn whose magical ability has somehow been replaced by psychic abilities.”
When Angel turned to look at him she looked more interested than terrified. “Really?” she asked curiously. “How is that possible? Is it genetic?”
“I don’t know how it works,” he continued, relieved at her reaction. “But the books I’ve heard read describe them quite vividly. They played a large part in many of Terra’s campaigns.”
“Of course,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “It does make sense, really. It explains why he knew our names and figured out where we live.” With a shudder she added, “He even answered a question I didn’t even ask.”
Mason picked up on the minute action and quickly asked, “Are you ok?”
“Mason, I’m fine!” she said, irritated.
The unicorn sighed and went on. “Anyway, it’s a lot more serious than that. If he’s close enough, he can read everything you think. He can hear everything you say. He can see, hear, feel, even taste and smell everything that you can if he wants to.”
“Ooooh, he can taste what I’m eating,” she said sarcastically, mocking Mason’s dire accent. “I don’t see why he would need to, everything tastes exactly the same; terrible.”
Mason’s face twisted into an angry sneer, his temper flaring at her reaction. “This isn’t funny, Angel!” he shouted. “You have no idea what this unicorn is capable of!”
Angel turned to face him, now more frustrated than she already was. “How can you say that?” she asked angrily. “You saw what he did to me! I know perfectly well-”
“No you don’t! You have no idea what he can do!” Mason took up a threatening stance in front of her, using his height advantage to get his point clearly across to her. “These unicorns aren’t ponies, they’re monsters! You’re lucky that you got away as easily as you did!” He lowered his voice and leaned down slightly to her eye level. “Do you know what he could have done to you if he hadn’t been screwing with your head like that? I have no doubt in my mind that he’s learned everything about you, Angel. Every single thing that you know, he knows now too. Hell, he probably knows more about you than even you do! Every single moment that you’ve lived he’s documented and can access at any time he wants.” He rose back up again and began to shout once more. “And that’s not even the worst of it! He can make you see things, Angel! He can make you hear things and think things that you have no control over! He might know exactly where you are right now, and you could never tell! Hell, if he’s good enough with his powers, he can literally fry your brain! He can kill you, Angel, and he doesn’t even have to be able to look at you!”
Mason’s face softened as he noticed Angel for the first time since he had begun ranting. Her eyes were no longer angry, but fearful. She hunched over and looked up at him, remorseful that she had said anything. The unicorn was afraid that he may have gone too far.
“I… I had no idea…” she muttered, frozen in place.
Mason grunted. “I’m sorry, Angel. I didn’t want to scare you, but you had to know. This is no laughing matter.”
“I guess I know that now.” She looked to the side and shuddered slightly. Before Mason could open his mouth she spoke up again. “I’m sorry, I’m just on edge. I guess I’m not ok… not entirely. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what he did to me.”
“I’d be surprised if you ever did.” Mason looked up towards the cabinet. “C’mon, you need to hurry, or we need to leave.”
“Hmm? Oh, right.” Angel quickly rose and went back to the cabinet, grabbing a pack of bandaging with her mouth. “They don’t have anything special like rehealing balm here, so the wound isn’t going to heal as quickly as before.” She sat down next to Mason and grabbed one end of the bandages with her hooves to unravel them, eying the wound, which was already beginning to form a scab. “There’s one thing I don’t get though.”
“What’s that?” Mason asked. “How he’s alive? And walking?”
“No, that’s easy to explain.” She gestured for Mason to hold the bandages to his side. “What I don’t get is how he can’t use his powers on you.”
“How do you figure?” He winced as the old bandages touched the wound.
“Think back to the alley. How come he couldn’t read your mind and keep you from throwing him off of that building?”
Mason raised an eyebrow as he thought. “That’s a good point…” he mumbled. “Scripture does mention some that were immune to their effects. I guess I’m one of the lucky few with that trait.” Suddenly the unicorn’s confused expression turned to a warm smile. “Can’t be many ponies alive that have that talent.”
Angel noticed this, but under the circumstances she wasn’t able to share the sentiment. “What’s got you so smiley all of a sudden?” she asked. Her gaze then shifted back down to Mason’s bare flank, and she gathered perfectly well why he looked so happy.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, the smile disappearing from his face. “Anyway, what do you mean when you say it’s easy to explain how he’s alive?”
“Well, it’s not really easy to explain that,” she began. “That was a huge fall. He’s just lucky, I suppose. But the reason that he’s walking around is because of that armor he’s wearing.”
“Wouldn’t that make it harder to walk around?”
“Yes, if it were armor. I think it’s actually a powered suit.” When she noticed Mason’s quizzical face she continued. “I’ve only seen one twice before, but never in action. They’re built to help ponies with serious injuries retain full mobility. And they’re extremely expensive. I don’t think you could expect to see anypony in the city with one.”
“So… how does he get one?”
“That’s what I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s not really something I want to focus on, though.” She had just finished administering the last of the bandages, tying the end in a knot. “Alright, that should hold for long enough. Sorry I can’t do any better, but there’s not much in the ways of supplies.”
“It’s more than enough,” he said, looking at his injured side. “Come on, we should go.”
“I agree,” she said, getting briskly to her hooves and striding to the door. “Where are we off to next?”
“I don’t know,” Mason confessed. “We’re going to keep moving until they lose our trail, which could take days. Weeks, even.”
“Fun,” she said gruffly. She reached a hoof up to work the latch on the door. “I just hope that-” Angel froze as she cracked the door, before rearing back and screaming at the top of her lungs. Mason’s head bolted to the door, and she saw why she did.
“Hiya, Angel!” Hazard cackled cruelly, shoving his head through the door and staring directly at her. She stood frozen, cowering as she looked right back at him.
“Angel!” Mason screamed, jarring her as he jumped to his hooves. She quickly rammed her side into the door, closing it hard on Hazard, who had all the way up to his armored shoulder through. He grunted and pushed back, and it was obvious that he would win if Mason didn’t intervene. The unicorn thought quick, dashing over, turning around and hitting Hazard straight in the face with his rear hooves in a single movement. He sprawled as he was hit, nicking Mason’s left leg with his horn as he retreated through the door. It shut with a loud clang, and Mason was quick to hit the deadbolt, locking it from the inside. He then quickly turned to Angel, who was backing slowly away from the door, crouched and trembling.
“Angel…” he uttered quietly, trying to keep his voice calm. If she had a relapse now, she would be done for. “Angel, are you alright?”
“I… I…” she stuttered, slowly standing up more and more. Her eyes looked glassy and watery, but she shed no tears, instead standing straight up, shutting her eyes and shaking a bit to ease her tension. “I’ll be alright.”
“No you won’t!” Hazard screamed from the other side of the door. He saw Angel wince and frown as though the words had physically hit her.
“Ignore him,” Mason entreated her, thankful that the message hadn’t been sent to her mentally. Left without the option of walking right out the door, Mason was forced to look quickly for another way out of the room. It wasn’t a few seconds before a deafening roar exploded behind him, which seemed to surprise Angel more despite the fact that she was the one looking at it.
“They’re cutting the door, Mason!” Angel cried, pointing at the door with her muzzle.
Mason flipped around and saw that she was right; the telltale lick of flame from a lascutter was piercing the bottom of the steel door, crawling slowly upwards. Mason knew that it would have had to have been the Warhorse cutting it, as a lascutter was too large for any pony to wield efficiently on their own. That only made Mason more urgent to find a way out.
“Are you still ok, Angel?” he called as he looked.
“No!” she cried back, her voice stricken with worry. “Hurry up and get us out of here!”
“I’m looking!” Mason swept to the side, gazing over at the medical cabinet. Underneath was a grate blocking a vent. He was about to disregard it, when he noticed that by some miracle there were no bolts in it to anchor it to the wall. Perhaps it had been under maintenance recently, but right now he only saw it as their way out.
“Angel, over here!” he called to her. She shook her head, entranced by the flame halfway up the doorframe, and looked over to where he was gesturing. Mason didn’t waste any time gripping the grate and ripping it off with his teeth, quickly hitting the floor and scrambling inside. Angel was right behind him, scrambling as fast as her legs would allow over to the vent and practically diving inside. It was a tight fit for Mason, but he had enough mobility to be able to glance back at her.
“You still alright?” he asked grittily, grappling steadily forward. “Can you still move ok?”
“You can’t get me away from there fast enough,” she choked out, an unusual edge to her voice. Mason couldn’t tell if it was desperation, rage or some combination thereof.
“That’s good, because now he knows we’re in the vents.” Mason tried to look back past her, but between him and Angel there was no way he could get a good look out of the vent. Still, that didn’t stop him from registering the fact that the roar of the lascutter was suddenly absent from the atmosphere. With a grunt he looked back forward and sped up as much as the confines of the vent would allow. “Come on, we have to get out of here quick. Let’s keep moving.”
“Where are we going?” Angel asked. She looked to her left, out of another grate and into a dimly lit room. She thought that they must have passed a hundred by now. They had certainly made their way across a few buildings.
“I can’t tell you,” Mason replied, not letting up his steady crawl for a second to look back to talk to her directly. “If you know, he knows too. You’re just going to have to wait until we get there.”
Angel squinted as she looked up at Mason. “You have no idea where we’re headed, do you?”
The unicorn grunted in response and muttered something that could have been “No.” Angel just rolled her eyes and puffed unenthusiastically.
Mason wasn’t particularly pleased to be the target of Angel’s flak, but in the back of his mind he knew it was a good thing. The fact that she still possessed some kind of sense of humor, be it shallow and sarcastic as it was, after two encounters with Hazard was only good, and it raised his morale slightly as well; it made him believe that in spite of the odds they faced that they would get away with their lives. Still, he couldn’t let his sense of reality slip. They were in serious danger, more so than probably either of them had ever been in their entire lives, and it seemed that Mason was the one most likely to get them out of it. Though it may seem like Angel was doing alright given the circumstances Mason knew that she could slip back and relapse at any moment, and that wasn’t something that either of them could afford right now.
“Where are you hoping to get?” she asked again.
“Away from them,” he said. “I want to get somewhere where we have a good chance of being able to escape Hazard’s psychic threshold.”
“Like where?” she continued to question. It was then that Mason looked back at her and gave her a harsh look. “Oh, right.” The unicorn then simply looked forward again and started up in his stymied clamber once more.
It was another minute or so before Angel asked yet another question. “I wonder,” she began, “if he’s as powerful as you say, then why hasn’t he…” She paused to swallow as the grim thoughts entered her head. She spoke the last part of the sentence much more quietly. “Why hasn’t he used those powers on me?”
Mason thought briefly to himself. “There are two possibilities,” he said. “One, he doesn’t have the mastery over his powers that I anticipated.” Before the pegasus could go on about what a relief that would have been though, he ominously finished his dismal theory. “The other, much more likely possibility is because he can’t use the same powers on me and find me as easily as he can you. If he were to… uh… render you unusable… then he couldn’t use you to track me down. So you should be safe.”
Somehow the revelation less than relieved her. “That’s… good…” she muttered doubtfully to herself.
“Just try not to think about him, Angel,” Mason said finally.
After that they were both content to not speak for a long while. They crawled on in silence for the next fifteen minutes or so, neither wanting to speak a word to the other. Angel tried her hardest to keep her mind from wandering to Hazard, but at the back of her mind the memory of the horrible unicorn’s eyes and the thought of what else he was capable of smoldered like hot coal. Still she focused on just pressing forward, trying to do simple things like counting the vents that they passed to take her mind off of the situation, until the caustic scent of smoke began to fill her lungs for the first time since they had stepped foot outside one of the factory complexes. She noticed that there were no more grates lining the side of the vent either, and that there was now a much more hollow metallic pang whenever either of them moved.
“Where are we?” Angel asked, tapping the floor of the vent experimentally.
“I’m not sure,” Mason admitted. “But I think we’re nearing the end of the vent.”
Angel simply nodded and continued to follow Mason, until he inexplicably stopped in what seemed to her to be the middle of the vent. The smell of the complex’s smoke was most pungent here, even more so than the atmosphere of the rest of the catacombs.
“Why did you stop?” Angel choked out, trying to look past Mason.
“I was right,” he said, glancing back. “This is the end of the vent.”
Mason gazed down through a grate embedded into the floor of the vent at the dirty rockrete ground below. He couldn’t hear anypony outside, and since neither he nor Angel knew where they were he could only assume that Hazard wasn’t hiding in wait for them. Besides, they really had no choice but to proceed forward. They couldn’t go back; Hazard and his gang would be waiting wherever they decided to pop out of the vent, and they would have a hard time going backwards anyway. So, left without any other real option, he lifted his hooves and began to pound on the grate heavily.
“What are you doing?” Angel asked, still trying to get a look around the unicorn.
“Getting… us… out of… GAH!” Mason was cut off as the grate gave way, falling to the ground with a heavy clatter, and he wasn’t too far behind it. He was unable to shift his center of gravity it time and thus fell out of the vent, hitting the ground with an audible “Oomph!” He raised his head groggily to see Angel drifting down, her chest beating spasmodically. At first Mason panicked, thinking that something had happened and she was relapsing, but he quickly saw that she was laughing. She was laughing so hard that she almost crashed when she landed. Mason got up to see her eyes shut, her head bobbing up and down as she howled with laughter.
“I didn’t know you could fly, Mason!” she managed to gasp out. Mason wondered how she was even able to breathe, she was laughing so hard.
“Yeah, yeah,” the unicorn muttered, brushing himself off. He couldn’t stop himself from cracking a small smirk; not even he could remain somber when someone like Angel was this hysterically happy, especially when he had seen her state in the minutes before.
The pegasus was quick to control herself, her beating laughter gently depressing. Even still, she continued to smile after the giggling stopped. She looked up at Mason and said cheerily “Thanks, Mason. I needed that.”
Mason beamed back at her slightly and said “Anytime you need me to nearly kill myself, just ask.” The unicorn shook his head slightly as she let out a short giggle and began to look around, getting a bearing on his surroundings.
The first thing he noticed was the large amount of crates lining the steel wall before him. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of them lining the whole length. He stood and trotted over to them, inspecting them closely. They all looked similar, and he couldn’t tell what was inside of them unless he broke the rope binding it together.
“Water,” Angel blurted, having drifted over to his side.
“What?” He said, not picking up on what she was saying.
“There’s water in these crates. It says right there.” Angel pointed to the top of one of the crates with her nose, and sure enough the word was emblazoned there in dull blue paint.
“Oh,” Mason uttered stupidly, blushing ever so slightly. Angel picked up on it instantly, though, and looked closely at his face. Mason noticed this and gave her a small grimace. “What?”
Angel thought back to some previous instances she had with the unicorn, including a simple, suggestive, easily missed thing he had said just earlier when he was telling her about psykers that she hadn’t even paid any mind to at the time. Finally coming to a conclusion, she gingerly spoke up. “You can’t read… can you?” she asked, looking him in the eye.
Mason turned away from her face and back to the crates. “Now really isn’t the time, Angel,” he said, blushing more vividly now.
“You can’t read!” she said in a victorious tone. “I can’t believe it! And you waited all this time to tell me?”
“I wouldn’t have told you at all if I didn’t have to!” he said, his voice rising and his omnipresent temper retuning. “And really, this isn’t the time! We have to get moving!”
Angel grunted once, but she knew he was right. “Alright, you’re right.” With a roll of her eyes she added “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you!” he choked out, looking behind himself. There was nopony there, but it didn’t ease the unicorn any. While Angel seemed to be distracted enough by her current revelation, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing, Mason was still dead-set on escaping Hazard. He looked back towards Angel, grinning like a fool, and then with a roll of his eyes looked past her down the hall. At the far end, a good fifty feet down, sat a huge shipping container with a heavy iron door that sat wide open. Within it sat a few large crates – bigger than either of them, Mason equated – with a couple of earth ponies loading smaller crates into it.
“This is a train depot,” Mason said, slightly surprised.
“Really?” Angel asked, looking behind herself. She quickly spotted the shipping container at the end of the hallway. “Huh, how about that? I didn’t even know there was one near the factory.”
“It’s probably under the factory,” he explained. “It must be used for transport of materials and goods and stuff like that.”
Mason watched the two ponies loading the smaller crate finish their job and saunter slowly off, talking to each other as they disappeared behind the wall. He looked back over to the crates, then back down the hall once more. His face contorted faintly as he thought, a plan slowly formulating in his mind. Finally he leaned to the left and scooped up one of the crate’s ropes in his mouth and stood up.
“Mason, what are you doing?” Angel asked, standing up as well. There was a look of confusion on her face.
“Grab one of those,” he said through clenched teeth. “We’ll probably be needing more than just this one.”
“Mason…” she muttered, looking slowly back at the train car. She looked forward again, her face adamant, and said simply “No.”
“What do you mean ‘no’?” he replied, setting down the crate.
“I’m not getting on that train, Mason.” She looked hard at him. Any trace of the cheery Angel that Mason had seen moments before had completely faded away, replaced by the new gloomy one he had seen minutes before that.
“Yes you are!” he shouted at her. “You have no choice, Angel! There’s absolutely nowhere else you can go!”
“What do you mean?”
“Think, Angel. Hazard knows everything about you. He knows where you live. He knows where you would go. He’s seen every part of the city you’ve seen, including every part that everypony else he’s been within a mile of has seen. He probably knows exactly where you are right now, and he’s coming for you and me! There’s absolutely nowhere in this city that you can hide from him, so we have to get out of it!”
Angel opened her mouth as though she wanted to speak, but only a frustrated stutter loosed her lips. Mason was right, and she knew it all too well.
“Look,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning to meet her eye-to-eye. “I know that you don’t want to leave. This is where you live, I get that. But we have to do this. We’ll never escape him otherwise.” He paused, getting a good look at her sulking face. “How do you think I feel? At least you’ve been outside of the city before. But I’ve never even gone beyond the Wastelands before. This has been my home for my entire life. I eat here, I sleep here, I worship and pray here. And now, because I was careless and did something I never should have done, I’m being forced out of it.” He looked away from her and ruefully uttered one final sentence. “And so are you.”
Angel’s face slowly solidified as she came to the resolute conclusion that he was correct. She raised a hoof and gently touched Mason’s cheek with it, forcing him to look back at her. “Alright,” she said tenderly and acceptingly. “I’ll go with you.”
A small smile began to form on Mason’s lips as some of the crates next to him exploded, showering them both with water and splintered wood. Both he and Angel shot into a standing position, turning to stare at the source of the explosion. A hundred feet behind them stood the Warhorse, its gun raised and pointing at them. Behind it stood the five gang members, Hazard among them, all glaring dauntingly in their direction.
“You’re a terrible shot!” they heard Hazard shout at the Warhorse. Angel recoiled slightly at the sound of his harsh voice. Mason looked back at her, his eyes desperate and angry. Angel looked back at him, trying to solidify her face as well she could.
“I’m fine,” she assured him, though her voice betrayed her.
“Quick, grab one and let’s go!” he shouted. He didn’t want to allow Hazard a single second to work his abilities on her. He quickly turned and grabbed the crate and shot off toward the train, Angel quickly following suit. She grabbed a crate’s rope in her teeth and took flight, blowing ahead of Mason and slowing when she passed him as they turned the corner of the hallway onto the boarding platform.
Mason was taken aback by the sheer size of the platform at first. It extended ahead of the pair for thousands of feet, the right side lined up with cars for the entirety of its length. To the left was nothing but more and more rockrete, which Mason assumed was where they held the crates that they were loading. There were absolutely none, and Mason was able to determine from the way that a good amount of doors on the containers were shut that the train was almost ready to take off.
“Perfect,” the unicorn muttered to himself. He swallowed those words, though, as the rockrete around him was suddenly pocked with bullet holes. Every perforation shot chips of the stuff into the air, but it didn’t stymie his progress in the slightest. He searched desperately for an open car, and mercifully saw one a short distance from them. Suddenly though, a loud siren began to blare in his ears, and the train began to crawl slowly forward. The workers must have been scared off of the platform by the sudden commotion, prompting the train to take off without the engineers knowing that the doors weren’t closed. Mason was forced to pick up the pace, desperately grappling to get to a target that was gradually pulling ahead of him.
I’m not gonna make it, Mason thought hauntingly to himself. The train was beginning to speed ahead at a pace that he could never hope to match, even if he did drop the crate. Though adrenaline surged through his veins he couldn’t overcome the burning in his lungs and the knotting of his muscles, and he was beginning to slow. Just as he feared he would never make it, he felt something grip hard around his stomach and pull him slowly upward. He instantly registered it as Angel as he drifted into the air and began to match the speed of the train car that he pursued. She slowly began to pull up to the target car, and Mason could see the enormous crates stacked within. There was but a single open space big enough for Angel to make a landing, and with a quick, forceful thrust she whipped to her right and dove into the car, landing square in the middle of the opening with a heavy crash. Mason tumbled from her grasp, hitting the cold iron floor and dropping the crate of water. It tumbled, but mercifully stayed in tact as it slammed into the wall. Angel had fallen not too far from it, her wings outstretched across her and the floor, lying on her side. She was breathing heavily; carrying Mason and a full crate of water at such a velocity under that kind of stress was quite a feat. Mason let out a pained groan and got shakily to his hooves, sitting up in a lame slouch. He panted deeply, forcing air into his blazing lungs, letting sweat drip from his brow onto the floor. He glanced back at the pegasus and quickly noticed that her crate was nowhere near her.
“Where’s… your crate?” he gasped, searching lazily around her for it.
“Dropped it…” she sputtered back. “Couldn’t carry… both of you…”
Mason grunted, hoping that they wouldn’t need the other crate too desperately. He looked back at the door, watching the boarding platform flash by as the car flew into a tunnel. He let out a hugely relieved sigh and hunched over accordingly. They were safe. They were finally away from Hazard, the Warhorse and the gang. They were going to live.
Mason just wished he knew where they were going.
The unicorn slowly looked around. The interior of the car was very dark, a single steadily rocking electro-lamp hanging from the ceiling above a stack of crates. There were a good dozen of the giant crates, towering high over Mason. The small area that Angel and Mason now occupied was the only place devoid of any such crates, which he assumed was to allow the easy removal and placement of them. He had no idea what was in them; it could be any amount of things that the factories produced. He certainly had no inkling to figure out now, though.
Mason breathed in deeply, sucking up the fatigue he felt and standing straight up. He shambled to the heavy iron door on the car, grunting heftily as he leaned on it and guided it shut. The scream of air blowing into the car came to a sudden, crashing end as the door locked into place, replaced by the steady beat of the wheels on tracks.
“Alright Angel,” he said. “I think we’re in the clear.” He awaited a response from her, but none came. “Angel?” He looked groggily back at her, seeing why she was silent.
Angel had passed out on her side, her wings splayed and opened next to her, covering her unceremoniously. Mason slowly walked over to her, looking down on the slumbering pegasus. He was slightly surprised that she could sleep with everything going on that had been going on, but at the same time he couldn’t believe that she hadn’t passed out sooner. She had been through a lot in just the past few hours, both mentally and physically; more horror than some ponies would go through in most of their lives. He silently hoped that she would be alright as his gaze shifted down to her flank. The heart-and-wings that composed Angel’s cutie mark slowly shifted as her chest rose and fell with each strained breath.
“Great idea,” he muttered to himself, collapsing next to her on one of her outstretched wings, somehow not rousing her at all. The wing felt feathery and fluffy, which he was quite thankful for in his state. He rolled slightly, feeling the bandaging around his chest brush up against Angel’s sweat-matted fur. He curled up as densely as he could, shimmying close to the pegasus as he did so. His eyes drifted over to the crate he had dropped. Though his throat burned for water, it seemed a million miles away from atop the fluffy wing in his current condition. He disregarded it for the moment; he would have a draught when he awoke. Now all that he could focus on was how tired he was and how much his limbs and muscles ached.
“Well,” he mumbled, his eyes growing weary. “Goodnight…” Slowly his eyes shut, his breathing swallowed, and in seconds, despite the threat of a gruesome death only having been evaded a few minutes before, he found himself powerless to do anything but drift brusquely off into a fatigued, battered sleep.
Angel’s eyes shot open as a cold chill ran down her back, though she couldn’t tell immediately that she had. All around her the train car was pitch black, not a single trace of light coming from the electro-lamp on the ceiling or any cracks in the car’s framework. Her wings were splayed out on either side of the floor she laid upon. The muggy atmosphere the car had held before had given way to a chillier one, nipping at her coat a bit. She looked to the left and right, though it was no use in such darkness.
“Mason,” she began as she stood up, “did you turn off the light?” There was no answer, so she could only assume that the unicorn was still fast asleep. She wasn’t going to wake Mason up, but she did want to be able to see. Calling upon her limited, adrenaline-addled memory of the car’s interior she unsteadily began to step forward. It might have been easier to take flight, but she didn’t know how tall the car was and didn’t want to risk running into the ceiling. She simply moseyed slowly forward, keeping her nose out to feel for any obstacle that might be in her way. When none presented themselves she began to speed up slightly.
“This car’s kind of big,” she mumbled to herself. Still there was no reply from Mason. “I don’t know how you can sleep through all this,” she continued, directing her voice directly at where she believed the unicorn was. “I could hear the racket this train is making in my sleep.”
Angel slowed slightly as she said that. She focused on listening to the steady beat of the train on the tracks, but she just now noticed that it was now absent from the atmosphere. The car around her was completely silent, and now that she noticed it, it was still as well. The train must have stopped, as the car wasn’t rocking as it was when she had fallen asleep. She turned to her right and walked in the direction of the door, now curious about where they had stopped. She slowed as she began to approach what she believed was the edge of the car, but when she reached a hoof out to test if there was a wall ahead of her it simply passed through the air. She took a few more steps forward and prodded at the air again, still met by no resistance.
“This car is really big,” she muttered in surprise. She decided that now was a good time to wake up the unicorn; perhaps Mason would better be able to navigate the utter darkness. “Mason!” she called loudly. There was no answer. “Mason!” Still nothing. He must have been incredibly tired if that wouldn’t wake him up. Taking a deep breath she screamed his name once more so hard that it hurt her throat to do so. To her disappointment the unicorn still didn’t speak up. She grunted in frustration, turning back to the direction of the door and stepping forth again. She stopped though when she noticed something peculiar. Raising a hoof and looking back at where she believed Mason to lie she opened her mouth and called his name once more, though this time her voice was laced heavily with confusion.
“Mason…?” she cooed unsurely. As she expected, there was no echo to be heard, just as there hadn’t been when she had called Mason’s name the last few times. She shouted his name again, her voice once again carrying off into the distance without bouncing off of anything. She wasn’t sure, but she would have expected the metal interior of the car to echo her voice.
If I’m still in the car…
Angel called to Mason again, her hair beginning to stand on end as her eyes widened. The very thought made her blood chill, but as she gawked at the palpable darkness around her she began to realize that there was no way that she would have been able to walk this far from the cramped space where she had laid if she were in the car. Not wanting to believe that this was the case, she called out again. “Mason, where are you?” she cried, urgency edging its way into her voice. Once again there was no answer, from neither the unicorn nor her echo. Her breathing began to grow shallow and rapid. It was all beginning to add up in her head; the lack of sound or movement, absolutely zero visibility and the ominous absence of an echo when she spoke all pointed to the daunting conclusion of her no longer being in the train car. She realized in horror that the reason Mason had not answered was because he simply wasn’t there.
“Mason!” she cried in vain. She flipped around as though she expected to greet something through the enveloping darkness, though nothing was there. The pegasus was now hyperventilating and whipping her head from side to side, looking desperately for so much as a glimpse of the unicorn. Slowly Angel began to sweat and shake as fear enraptured her body. She unsteadily started off in an unstable trot that quickly progressed into a full-on, fear-induced gallop. She had no idea where she was running, but all she could focus on was trying to escape wherever she was. Despite the apparent vastness of where she was she couldn’t break away from a feeling of near-crippling claustrophobia. “M-Mason!” she persisted, her voice cracking and wobbling. A sense of utter loneliness was overpowering that of being confined. She slowed and stood still, her legs tiring as she positioned them as though to brace for something, before throwing her head back and screaming “Is anypony there?!” as loudly as she could muster with her terror-ridden voice.
As suddenly as the darkness had greeted her when she awoke, Angel was inexplicably blinded by a powerful white light the moment that the words slipped from her lips. The light had appeared so abruptly and so painfully bright that she couldn’t stifle a pained cry. It was so bright that even when she reactively shut her eyes it glowed right through her eyelids, forcing her to the ground to bury her head in her hooves to protect her eyes. She was now shaking more out of shock now than outright fear. All around her the cool air warmed drastically, beating torturously down on her fur right through to her skin. Slowly she slid her front legs away from her face and opened her eyes, the cracked, dusty ground before her gradually easing into her view as they adjusted. Her eyes edged up, revealing more barren earth bathed in the impossibly brilliant light. As her gaze veered up to the horizon she began to see some irregularities in the landscape; giant hills, larger than she had ever seen before in her life dotted the edge of the plane she laid upon. Upward they towered, like obelisks to the subject of some arcane, demented form of worship. She resisted the urge to gasp, rather shuddering and looking further above the hills to the ceiling of the impossibly large catacomb she was trapped in. She lost her composure entirely though when she saw what lied above.
Suspended high in the dusty air laid an impossibly radiant point of light, waves of luminescence beating down painfully on Angel’s wide eyes. She instantly knew that it was the same light she had seen represented in the painting at the chapel days before. This one, however, was all too real. She could feel the heat radiating from its surface lapping against her skin; see the blinding brilliance that it cast across the austere landscape. Never before had she ever laid eyes on something so horrifically beautiful. The light stung at her eyes as she looked at it, but she simply couldn’t look away. The light was so alien and disturbing but so calm and serene. She knew she had never seen anything like it in her entire life, yet a distant feeling of familiarity lingered at the back of her head, the same as when she had laid eyes on the painting for the first time.
Angel had been so engrossed in the light above that she couldn’t possibly have seen the creeping shadow crawling across the tortured earth she lied upon. At first the darkness was only a small sliver and could be easily missed by the unobservant eye, but slowly and malevolently the shadow began to inch closer and closer to her, growing in width with every fraction of ground it progressed. Before long the shadow almost completely blanketed the ground before the absorbed pegasus, but still she remained ignorant to the inexplicable darkness looming before her.
Then the shadow began to do something that shadows cannot do; it began to climb towards the sky.
She may have been unable to see it before, but the rising darkness certainly pried Angel’s eyes from the light now. Slowly she lowered her head to meet it, though her eyes stayed affixed to the globe above until they too were forced to dart down to greet it as well. Her expression had not changed much, but the fear reflected in her eyes instantly became more flagrant. Her head shifted back and she sat gingerly up, watching the darkness climb into the sky. She cringed as she felt a distant pang of sadness once the shadow began to blot out the light. Her heart sunk miserably as it disappeared completely, the only trace that it hung behind the darkness the beams of dying light that managed to slip about the entity. It began to solidify and become more tangible as it rose, taking a distinct menacing form among the diminishing light.
Before long the once meager shadow had taken up a horrifying, malicious stance before her, towering over the petrified pegasus for what could be a hundred feet or more. Angel felt completely powerless; she couldn’t run, she couldn’t hide, but worst of all she didn’t know if she had to. The figure before her was foreign in nature and made her veins freeze over, but it had shown no hostility towards her other than obstructing her view of the light. The thing she feared most about it was that she had no idea what its intentions were, just that they had something to do with her. She tried to tell herself that the spire ensnaring her in its cold shadow was nothing more than just that, but she couldn’t honestly believe it; despite lacking any actual eyes the thing actually seemed to be glaring coldly down upon her. Her eyes grew no less wide as she gaped fearfully at the foreboding entity.
Angel grew ever-more suspicious as the shape began to widen again, as though the entity was casting aside the edges of a dark cloak concealing its true form. If it truly was there was nothing more than the same empty darkness beneath. The pegasus’s fear remained, though a persistent curiosity was beginning pique it. She shifted minutely forward in discomfort, wondering awfully what the figure would do next.
Angel closed her eyes and screamed in horror as the shadow collapsed upon her, engulfing her body in abysmal darkness and pitching her helplessly into the void.
Angel had gasped in shock before her eyes had shot fully open. The pegasus had apparently been holding her breath subconsciously, as she awoke with her lungs burning painfully for oxygen. She laid on her side, sweating despite the distinct chill lingering in the air. Her head rose and her wide eyes darted hastily around, taking account of everything in front of her; crates, iron walls, the electro-lamp on the ceiling, it was all there. The pounding of the train’s wheels thumped in her ears, and the slight sway and jump of the car bobbed in her empty stomach. She was lying in the same spot that she had collapsed in hours before, but most importantly to her she was lying in the train car once more.
“It was a dream…” she mumbled quietly to herself. Her voice was uncomfortably raspy. Angel laid her head back upon the cold steel floor, registering the greedy thirst biting at her throat but not paying much mind to it. Her mind was reeling enough with the daunting fantasy she had just awoken from as it was.
Ever since the first time she had laid eyes on the painting at the chapel she had experienced a similar recurring dream. It wasn’t always the same; it almost always took place in a different landscape, and never before had she seen the darkness that had enraptured her, but ever since that fateful day she had always dreamt of the same piercing light in the air, brightening and heating the world around her relentlessly. No matter how many times she had the dream it was still just as alien and frightening (Or more so, in this case) as the one before. She dwelled little upon it while she was awake, but something in the back of her mind wouldn’t let the sight of the simple spot of light painted onto the ancient work of art fade from her memory, and now it was beginning to surface ferociously.
She put the thought to the back of her head. The pegasus could no longer ignore how parched she was. She hadn’t had a drink since yesterday, and that was before being chased through half the factory complex. If she hadn’t passed out so abruptly she would have doused her whole head in the crate of water the day before. Angel clapped her hooves hard on the metal ground and began to slowly pull herself up but was quickly halted by something weighing heavily on her wings and back. Still jumpy from the dream she looked back quickly, only to see Mason curled up and laying on her right wing, his back snug against hers.
“Aw…” she giggled, a small smile appearing on her face. The tired unicorn must have collapsed right next to her after she did and huddled up to her in his sleep. Angel wasn’t ashamed to admit that the sight of the ever-gruff, aggressive, reclusive unicorn looking so innocent warmed her heart. The anxiousness she felt moments before had completely slipped away. She hadn’t even been able to imagine Mason doing something so intimate, but here he was not only lying right next to her, but actually on her. Still, as much as Angel was cherishing the moment it made the pegasus no less thirsty, and the only thing keeping her from a long draught was the slumbering unicorn on her wing. “Mason,” she said, speaking softly right into one of his ears. She was forced to look awkwardly across her shoulder to do so. “Come on, you gotta get up.”
Mason’s ears flicked twice as they registered the pegasus’s gentle words. He drew his nose away from his stomach to stretch his neck and limbs, letting fly a loud yawn which quickly turned into a boisterous dry cough. The unicorn was no less thirsty than Angel and immediately his eyes shot to the roped crate lying a few feet away from the pair of them. He blinked twice and shook his head slightly to wake himself up.
Suddenly the unicorn felt something shift under him, jarring him and giving him a slight start. He looked down and instantly surprise flared on his face. He had almost completely forgotten that he had fallen asleep right on Angel’s wing. His mind, now aware of this, quickly registered the sensation of her feathers and fur touching his. Mason couldn’t suppress a blush, which only grew more intense when he looked back and saw Angel’s smiling face gazing warmly at him barely inches from his own. She giggled a little at the unicorn’s obvious embarrassment.
“Morning, Mason,” she said cheerily, almost uncomfortably loud considering the proximity of Mason’s face. She looked down at her wing, Mason still lying atop it and keeping it held firmly to the ground. She wiggled it again as she said “I think you’ve got me pinned.”
Mason quickly rolled off of the pegasus’s wing, scrambling into a sitting position with uncomfortable urgency. Angel stood up and began to balance on her rear legs, flapping her wings a few times to shake away the sensation of having a fully-grown unicorn laying on one of them for a number of hours. From Mason’s point of view she appeared very large with her wings spread in such a way, only serving to fuel Mason’s embarrassment further as she splashed him with cool air. As she settled back down onto all fours she continued to smile at him while all Mason could do is look back at her with wide eyes and straight lips.
“What?” she asked with a chuckle. It was obvious that she was enjoying Mason’s humiliation.
“Uh… nothing,” Mason said, standing himself. His voice was somewhat scraggly from thirst. “Sorry about that…”
“It’s no problem,” she replied. She began to smile even wider as she said “I thought it was kind of cute.”
Mason frowned and his eyes grew hard when she said that. “Oh shut up,” he grunted, turning around and walking towards the water crate. His embarrassment mingled with a newfound annoyance for her words.
Angel’s smile faded as well as she watched the unicorn drift away gruffly. She hadn’t expected Mason to react so harshly to that. “What’s the matter?” she asked innocently.
“Don’t call me ‘cute’,” he muttered cleanly, kneeling to tilt the crate right side up. “I don’t like being called that.”
Angel began to smile again, followed by a short fit of giggling. Mason pretended not to pay attention, but she could see him tense and the tendons in his neck tighten. “Oh come on,” she taunted. “Don’t tell me you’re too much of a guy to be called cute.”
“I just don’t like being called that,” Mason repeated, snapping the bindings on the crate with his teeth.
“Whatever you say…” she said, trailing off. She smirked at the unicorn and added just barely loud enough for him to hear “I still think it was cute.”
Mason flipped around to face her directly. A familiar expression of utter enragement was plastered tight to his face, squelching Angel’s happy demeanor yet again. “Stop that!” he shouted, the gravelly inflection in his voice adding dramatically to the effect. “I know what you’re doing, Angel!”
“Wh… what am I doing?” the pegasus asked in slight disbelief. She had no clue what Mason was getting at, but she was positive that it would be followed by more shouting.
Mason looked at her as acutely as he could muster, opened his mouth and loudly said in one of the angriest, most grave-sounding tones that Angel had ever heard the unicorn use, “You’re flirting with me!”
The pegasus couldn’t hold it in. Angel’s lips tightened in embarrassment, but they quickly twisted into a huge smile. She wasn’t sure if it was the fact that Mason actually believed she was flirting with him or the absolutely ridiculous tone with which he had shouted the words, but Angel lost it the second she had registered what he had said. She started laughing vigorously, even harder than she was laughing when Mason had fallen out of the air vents the day before. In a few seconds she had fallen to the ground, rolling onto her side and trying desperately to get back up, though she couldn’t manage it through her hysterical fit. All the while Mason was looking on in horrified rage, his mouth agape with humiliation while his eyes were wide and seething with anger. He would have shouted at her more if he knew at all what to say, but he had no idea how to react to this.
“Sh-shut up!” Mason finally blurted, struggling with his words. He was sure that he sounded like a complete idiot. “It’s not funny!”
“Yes it is!” Angel howled in reply, pounding a hoof on the ground. “I can’t even breathe!”
Resisting the urge to say something about Angel choking he simply waited for her to finish, nearly trembling with anger as he did so. Slowly her fit began to subside, allowing her to sit up without running the risk of collapsing. Still she was unable to stop giggling when Mason finally decided to open his mouth again.
“Done yet?!” Mason almost shouted, gritting his teeth so hard that they were in danger of chipping. Despite how angry he looked it didn’t seem to affect Angel in the slightest. In fact it looked like she was enjoying the reaction.
“Yeah…” she said, stifling more giggles. “Yeah, I’m good.” She paused, looking away from Mason to hide her smile.
Mason sighed and turned away from her. “Whatever,” he mumbled, going back to the crate to pry the lid off. Angel got up and circled around in front of him, her smile turning into a frown as she saw his face. While the unicorn still appeared irritated and angry he looked less intensely so, no trace of the burning rage he had exhibited moments before. Now he looked more disheartened, an underlying morbid sense dabbling the resentment he displayed.
“Mason, what’s the problem?” she asked, her usual concerned, motherly edge leaking into her voice. She had no idea why Mason was acting like this.
The unicorn sighed, pausing from the task of wedging the lid off of the crate. His face loosened up slightly as he started back up on it moments later. Without so much as glancing at Angel he quietly said “I told you when we met that I didn’t want to be with you like that.”
“I wasn’t flirting with you, Mason!” she explained desperately. She calmed her voice before she spoke next. “I was just saying that something you did was cute. I didn’t want you to think I was hitting on you. I like you, Mason, but not like… that.”
The unicorn grunted as the lid finally gave way, flipping the wooden slab onto the floor with a clatter. Inside the crate was filled nearly to the brim with water, shaking and rippling with each vibration reverberating through the train car. Angel looked down at it thirstily, watching Mason’s reflection distort for a few seconds before she spoke up again.
“Are you really that afraid of a romantic relationship?” Angel asked. When Mason looked up at her sternly, she felt the need to add “I’m asking because I want to know, not because I want one.”
Mason looked at her for a few more seconds before nodding. “Yeah,” he almost spat. “Yeah, I am.”
“But why?” she continued. “Why would it be so awful?”
“Because I just can’t deal with one,” he explained with audible hesitancy. “I may like you as a friend, but that’s the most I’ll ever see you or anypony else as. The moment I see them as anything more than a simple friend is the moment that I value their life more than my own. I don’t want to end up dead because I did something stupid for somepony else. Love is something I don’t want to feel for anypony, you especially.”
Angel was sorry that she had ever asked. When Mason had referred to her the way that he did she instantly lowered her head in shame. Hearing somepony say that they only truly valued themselves was nothing that anypony wanted to hear, and though this was the second time she was hearing it from the same unicorn it hit her no less hard. She was on the verge of simply turning away and lying solitarily in the corner when Mason spoke up once again.
“Besides,” he said enticingly, “you know me. I’m not exactly a lovey-dovey kind of pony.”
Angel looked back up to see his head facing forward, but he was flashing an apologetic smile at her with his eyes locked coolly on hers. She couldn’t help but beam a small smirk at his hollow attempt at repentance.
“Is that supposed to mean sorry?” she asked theatrically.
Mason just gazed forward again and nodded. “I didn’t mean for that to come out sounding so harsh.”
“I know.” Angel turned her head and shrugged slightly. “I guess I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to get you all worked up.” She then swung her head over and lowered her lips into the pool of water to lap at it with her tongue.
“Think nothing of it,” he offered consolingly. “I’m just a crazy, pissed-off street urchin.”
Angel sputtered some of the water back into the crate. “Don’t make me choke,” she said with a short chuckle. “You’re not that crazy, anyway. You’re just… you’ve got a warped sense of reality.” She tried to put on a smile as she spoke the words, but it looked cheap and forced.
“Because that’s so much better,” Mason said with a roll of his eyes. He lowered his head into the crate and noisily slurped up some of the water rather than lapping it up like Angel had. He draught for nearly a full minute before bringing his head back up. Left without much to say he simply watched the water in the crate bob from side to side as the car rocked, ripples blossoming on its surface whenever water dripped from his lips or chin. It was Angel, then, who spoke up next.
“I wonder where we are,” she said quizzically, glaring over at the door.
Mason followed her gaze and waited a few seconds before responding. “Well, let’s see,” he said, getting onto all fours and drifting around the crate.
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Angel asked cautiously, following behind him.
“It can’t be that dangerous,” he said. “We’re probably just in another tunnel or a cave or something.”
“I mean what if you mess up and fall out or something?”
“I got it closed alright, didn’t I?” When Angel didn’t answer the unicorn reared back onto his back hooves and grasped the lock wheel with his front legs. It was shut tight, but after some struggling and grunting the lock gave way. It spun and opened the door a crack, air spilling noisily in and blowing back Mason’s mane. He pressed on the door with his side and slid it back, locking it into place with a loud clack. When he backed away to observe his handiwork he found himself unable but to gasp in awe as his eyes widened and his hair stood on end.
Beyond the threshold of the opened car door, wind whipping in and buffeting the pair of them was lain the most massive catacomb either pony had ever seen, blanketed in limitless layers of foggy clouds. It looked as though it went on forever in every direction. The edges of the catacomb were marked by hazy horizons, an eerie blue glow seeping through and dauntingly bathing the landscape with a disturbing muddled clarity. Giant monolithic natural pillars, each miles wide themselves at their bases, dotted the catacomb sporadically. Mason peeked his head out and looked down to see that they were on a very narrow bridge suspended miles above a weakly lambent blanket of fog, the floor nowhere in sight. He shifted his gaze upward and saw much of the same. A bolt of white electricity flared silently through the fog overhead, stretching for miles into the distance. It looked as though the train rode between the two giant layers of clouds, and there was no definite destination anywhere in sight. Nausea washed over the unicorn as he reared back into the car; he had never been in the presence of anything so immensely vast.
“Dear Terra…” Mason uttered, backing a foot away from the edge. He involuntarily swallowed, his stomach uneasy. “It’s so… so…”
“Beautiful…” Angel finished for him. She was looking over the edge now too, one of the liveliest smiles that Mason had ever seen stretched across her face. Her eyes looked on at the infinite catacomb, wide and awestruck. “It’s beautiful, Mason!” she nearly shouted ecstatically.
Mason gulped again, the queasiness in his belly slipping away. “Yeah,” he said, taking a step forward to her side. The unicorn sat down and peered out over the edge, watching the ambient pillars slowly creep across his field of vision. “It really is… have you ever seen anything like this?”
“Never,” she replied, sitting down next to him. “I’ve never traveled through anything this breathtaking before. It’s just so big… you could fit a thousand cities in here.”
“Forget that, you could fit a million!” Mason was slowly beginning to warm up to the sight laid out before him. “I can’t believe that Terra made something like this so close to the city and I’ve never even heard about it!”
“You and me both…” Angel leaned her head outside the door and inhaled deeply, closing her eyes blissfully. Mason simply watched her curiously. Her mane and coat had captured a fine mist from the fog, and she seemed to be cherishing every last drop of it. Her front hooves slid ever closer to the edge of the car, beginning to peek over the lip of the door.
“Angel… what are you doing…?” the unicorn asked cautiously. Her demeanor was beginning to more than slightly concern Mason. If he knew no better he would assume from firsthand experience that she was under the influence of some kind of euphoric drug. She opened her eyes slowly, her pupils wide and alive. “Are you alright?”
“There’s just so much…” she jubilantly blurted. “It just keeps going and going…” The pegasus inhaled deeply once more and looked straight up. Slowly her head craned down, and with one final close of her eyes her front hooves slipped over the threshold to the outside world, sending her careening into the fog before them.
“ANGEL!” Mason screamed, bolting into a full stand. He looked over the edge where she had fallen just in time to see her body whip under the tracks and out of view. He called her name again, but there was no answer other than a booming echo. The unicorn’s face was a contortion of hysteric confusion. He was so shocked that his mind could barely register what had just happened. He did a double take to his side, but sure enough the pegasus had taken a dive off of the edge.
“What the hell just happened?” he whispered daftly to himself. “ANGEL!” His shoulders lost their acuteness, slumping as he let out a flabbergasted cross between a wheeze and a shout.
Suddenly an orange-colored blur blew upwards past Mason’s face so fast that he was forced to flinch. When he opened his eyes he saw Angel curling around in the air and diving back down, before twisting and flying parallel to the train. She let out an overjoyed cry as she did a set of barrel rolls, flying closer to the car. Then, with a loud whoop she dove into a corkscrew, folding her wings behind her back to let herself fall. After that Mason realized that he could breathe safely again.
The unicorn sat slowly and watched her rise above the car once more, crying out ecstatically as she did so. He cracked a small smile at the show she was putting on, gazing in stupefied wonder. As she laughed happily Mason found himself powerless but to follow with a low chuckle. At first it was because he was more relieved to see that she was alright, but he then began to laugh quietly to himself just because he was happy to see her having so much fun with herself. He knew that he couldn’t even begin to imagine how much she was enjoying the experience. It almost made the unicorn jealous; as though he wished he could sprout wings and fly with her just to experience it from her point of view. But left with only the hooves on his legs and the useless horn on his head, he was content to simply sit and watch Angel put on her show.
Finally, with one last barreling whirl, the euphoric pegasus twisted her body impossibly and dove directly towards the door, blowing straight past Mason as another bolt cracked noiselessly outside and landing perfectly on all fours a few feet behind him. She was slouched over, tired from the acrobatic performance she had just put on. Her coat was misted with a fine film of moisture, her fluffy mane sparkling with the stuff. Mason looked over his shoulder and smirked at her, and slowly Angel looked back, her eyes wide and blurry and her smile wide. She slowly pivoted and sauntered over to Mason, sitting down and looking out at the catacomb at a downward angle. She sat in silence for a few minutes, a tear occasionally running down her cheek, before she just broke into joyful laughter.
“That was incredible, Mason,” she laughed, her voice cracking joyously. “I’ve never flown like that before… I’ve never felt so free!” She paused before adding “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. You could never fly like that in the city!”
“I can’t imagine you could,” Mason said, his eyes affixed on a pillar piercing the fog several miles out. “There’s just so much open space, no obstacles in your way.”
“I didn’t even know which way was up,” she continued. “If I just stopped flying I could have just as easily fallen to the ceiling as the floor. Hell, it looked like I was flying straight into the ground right next to the train… it was just so amazing…” She looked up at Mason, her eyes now clear but full of wonder and questioning. “How could just one pony make something so beautiful?”
“Terra’s no pony,” Mason explained. “He’s a god. He can carve out something a million times as magnificent with nothing more than the bat of an eye.” He glanced briefly over at her before finishing with “If you can single-handedly take on both Luna and Celestia and win, there isn’t much you can’t do.”
Angel squinted slightly in question and shifted her gaze back out to the catacomb, resting her eyes on the same pillar that Mason was focused on. After another minute of though she said, “You still haven’t told me what that means.”
The unicorn gazed down at her quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“Remember, back at the chapel? When the Cardinal mentioned Celestia during his sermon I asked you what it meant, and you said you’d tell me after we got out. You never did.”
Mason didn’t particularly remember the instance, but it sounded like something that could have occurred. Besides, he didn’t need an excuse to tell Angel about such a thing. “I can’t believe you don’t know that,” he said disapprovingly. When Angel did nothing but shrug he continued. “Celestia is… was... a god.”
“I thought that Terra was the only god?” she said confusedly.
“He is now,” he drawled on. The pillar was beginning to edge out of Mason’s view, so he locked his eyes on a captivating whorl of fog. “He wasn’t always, though.”
“What happened to the other one?”
Mason’s lips tightened in thought as he contemplated the words he wanted to say. After a minute he started with “I’m guessing that you’ve never heard of Equestria?”
“Should I have?”
“Yes,” he answered with a roll of his eyes, “you should have. Anypony who’s ever gone to school should know all of this.”
“Yet you haven’t and you still know all of it,” she said sarcastically.
Mason grunted and continued. “Equestria was another realm a long time ago. Two gods used to rule over it; Celestia and-”
“Terra?” Angel offered, a proud smile on her face.
“Luna,” Mason corrected her, wiping the smile off of her face. “They ruled over the realm and the ponies that subsisted there. Every so often they would have conflictions, but for the most part they-”
“Wait, ponies lived there?” The pegasus was visibly surprised by this revelation.
“It’s where everypony used to live. Celestia and Luna both created each and every one of our ancestors that lived in that world back then, and thus they created everypony that lives today.”
Angel simply looked out into the catacomb, watching a spire of electricity flash somewhere out in the distance as she took in what Mason was telling her. “That’s… that’s insane, Mason.” She thought for another second before asking “So how did we get here, then?”
“We’re here because Terra brought our ancestors here in the Underworld Exodus.” Before Angel could ask why, he said “Celestia and Luna were evil. Every hell that you could imagine they unleashed on Equestria; famine, plague, war, drought, anything. They willingly tortured the subjects of their world to the brink of their existence. They almost eliminated an entire species, one that they created.”
“But… but why?!” Angel grimaced at Mason in disgust, almost not wanting to hear what more the unicorn had to say.
“I don’t know. Nopony truly does, not even the most intelligent of priests. All I know is that they were evil and that Terra saved us.” He breathed deeply before continuing. “Terra was a third god, one that appeared in the beginning of the Terran Renaissance. You can probably assume where he came from.”
“Exactly. When he did he did his best to fix the world that the other two had terrorized. Ponies immediately began to follow him as his intentions spread across Equestria, but Celestia and Luna wouldn’t have it. When they learned what a threat he was to them they tried to kill him.”
“How do you kill a god?” Angel asked.
“Apparently you don’t. Not only did they fail in that, but Terra was almost able to kill them as well.” He checked to make sure she was still listening, and she seemed firmly glued on the story he was telling her. “Unfortunately,” he continued theatrically, “they began to gain traction with their own people as well. Quickly there were two sides pressing against each other, turning the Renaissance in to the bloodiest war ever fought. Celestia and Luna’s forces proved to be too much to beat though, even for Terra. So, left with nothing to do but retreat, he returned to his realm, but not before bringing with him as many ponies as he could. That’s why it’s called the Underworld Exodus.”
“What happened then?” Angel pried.
“Then… this,” Mason said with a shrug. “We spread out, reproduced, built cities and transit systems between them like this one in the many tens of thousands of years since. We founded ministries in his name, which in turn built chapels to spread his word, factories for what his people needed and a military to keep them safe.”
“I thought you said that there were no more wars though? And wouldn’t the Warhorses make up that military?”
“No, the main forces of the Departmendo Preservica-” Mason paused to glance over at Angel to see the confused expression on her face. Sure enough, she looked like she had no idea what he meant. “…which means the Ministry of Defense, are composed of ponies just like you and me. They’re actually more of a police force, really. They keep the peace in every place that they can be expended to. The reason you never see them in the city is because it’s not declared important enough to be protected.” He looked down at Angel once again, and the pegasus was just staring at him jovially. “What?”
“It’s just…” she began. “You know so much about so many things…”
“Meh,” the unicorn replied, shifting his gaze back to the catacomb. “I don’t know too much more than most-”
“Yes you do!” she chimed. “You’ve taught me more about religion and history and technology in the short time that I’ve known you than I’ve ever learned from every other pony I’ve ever met!” She looked back out at a plume of fog peaking up from the concealed floor. “I just don’t get how you can know so much about all of those things…” she began to giggle slightly, getting a curious glare from Mason. “And yet, somehow, you can’t even read.”
Mason frowned and let his ears droop. The unicorn wished that she had never found out about that. When it came to his positive attributes he could never wait to stretch or talk about them around her, but when it came to his weaknesses he never wanted anypony, much less her, discover it. Illiteracy easily fell under the latter category.
“I mean, I just heard you speak in another language!” she continued, relentless. “How do you not know how to read in just one?”
“I can’t speak that language,” Mason explained. “I just know a few of the words because they’re the formal titles of Terra’s ministries.” He sighed and waited a few minutes before explaining himself further. “It was like you said; I never went to school. Learning your letters and numbers isn’t really on the top of an orphaned colt’s to-do list. My ‘studies’ consisted of learning how to feed myself and keep myself from getting cut up by people like… well, you know.”
“But I don’t understand,” Angel questioned. “How did you get to learn so much about Terra if you never went to school?”
“I never said I didn’t learn. I learned almost everything I know from the priests and cardinals in the city. They were always more than happy to tell me anything I wanted to know about Terra, history or technology. If I ever came across something in the techshrine or museum that needed reading I would ask them and they would always read it for me, so learning to read just never seemed necessary.” He chuckled before adding “Good thing I stayed away from the library. I would have drove them fuckin’ nuts.”
Angel giggled and smiled at him warmly. “I just wonder, how did you get so interested in Terra to begin with?”
Mason pondered upon the question for a few seconds, his slight smile slowly diminishing as he did so. He spoke grimly when he finally came to a conclusion. “Without my parents I had nopony to protect me or look up to. I had no family, no friends and absolutely nothing of value for myself. For the first few years of my life I was completely miserable. I felt like I was alone, like I mattered to nopony but myself, and even then I barely cared about myself as it was. I could have died and nopony would have cared in the slightest, and I was painfully aware of that. It really made me wonder whether or not living in this place was even worth anything.” He paused and began to smirk. “But when I found Terra… the first day I went into that chapel and heard about him from Franx… it was probably the happiest day I had ever lived. The way the Cardinal had painted him in my head made me so happy; it made me feel important and loved for the first time in my life. From that day on I wanted to learn as much as I could about Terra, and Franx and the rest of his priests and cardinals were always happy to teach.” Mason looked down at Angel with the same smirk on his face, who was looking back with saddened eyes. “Do you know what it’s like to learn something like that?” he asked quietly, his voice shaky. “To learn that there’s just one pony who cares about you? To learn that in spite of all your faults there’s just one pony who wants you to be happy? That no matter how worthless you truly are that there’s one pony who loves you that much?”
“Mason, you’re not worthless,” Angel said in her usual motherly tone. “Why would you think something like that?”
In a blink the unicorn’s growing smile was gone. His head gradually returned to its usual forward position as he spoke. “Angel, I don’t do anything for society. I’m an illiterate that has absolutely no purpose. I don’t offer anything to the god I pray to other than just that; prayer. I’ve never done anything to help any other pony or went to work a day in my life. Hell, I don’t need to mention that I don’t even have a cutie mark or that I’ve never been able to do any kind of magic. I have no talent, nothing that I’m truly good at. All I can do is steal and nearly get ponies killed, apparently. I can barely even do anything right for myself. I’m worthless, Angel, plain and simple.”
“No you’re not!” the pegasus cried at him. “Stop saying that!”
“Then tell me, Angel!” He shouted back, his underlying rage breaking through once more. His voice was echoing outside. “Tell me one thing that I’ve ever done that’s ever been of any value to anypony! All I’ve managed to do with you around was steal, knock out one pony and kill another! Who knows how many died with those goons chasing us around the factory? I’ve gotten you shot at, nearly mutilated… I even exposed you to a psyker for Terra’s sake! All I do for you is chastise you and yell at you; hell, I’m doing it now! And now I’ve torn you from the place you’ve been calling your home for years, because of something careless that I did! So please, for the love of all that is holy, tell me one good thing that I’ve ever done!”
“You saved my life!” she yelled, her anger finally having leaked through.
“What are you-”
“In the factory you could have let me die!” she continued. “I was a broken mess and those freaks were coming to kill both of us, but you stayed and helped me. You knew that at any moment they could have busted through that door and killed us both, but you kept trying to comfort me and get me going. Then you kept making sure I was fine all the way through. I know it went through your head more than once to just abandon me, but you didn’t! You stayed by me all the way, and then you decided to save my life again by giving up the only home you ever knew!”
“But… I…” Mason struggled with his words, trying to find any way to argue back. He didn’t want to accept what Angel was trying to tell him, but before he got the chance to offer a rebuttal she boomed at him again.
“So stop saying that you’re worthless!” she shouted, gazing angrily out at the catacomb again. “Because you’re not; you matter to me.”
Mason simply shut his mouth then and there. Those words had taken out every last bit of defiance out of the unicorn; he no longer felt that there was any point worth arguing. His angry sneer disappeared, morphing into a saddened glower. His heart sank into his stomach while his lungs began to burn slightly. He focused on the abysmal catacomb before them, deep in thought over the four simple words she had finished her tirade with. For the longest time they both sat there still, looking out past the door with no more than a ruffle of Angel’s wings in the way of movement between them. Finally, after what felt like an hour of silence to the pair, Mason jadedly replied to her.
“Do… do you actually mean that?” he asked quietly. Angel nodded. Mason glanced down at the floor around her hooves. “Th… there’s never been another pony that’s said that to me… nopony ever meant it.”
“Well I do,” she said gently. “I know I don’t mean much to you… I don’t know if I mean anything to you… but you mean plenty to me.”
Mason blinked slowly and grimaced. His words seemed labored as he said “Don’t you ever let me make you think that you don’t mean anything to me.” The pegasus looked up at him hopefully. “You mean a lot to me; more than anypony else ever has. You’re the best… the only friend I’ve ever had…”
“Really?” she asked quietly.
Mason nodded tentatively. “I may not want a romance with you… I may not want to share everything about myself with you… but don’t you dare let yourself think that you don’t matter to me.” He turned and looked directly at her, his maroon eyes cool and sincere. “You don’t deserve that. Not from me.”
Mason continued to sit, shifting only slightly as he looked out into the captivating fog. His frown glimmered away, replaced by an almost-confused face as he sat in quiet thought. Waves of emotion surged gently through his body, waves which he could almost physically feel. His brain felt as though it was alight, and he became almost painfully aware of the emptiness of his stomach as a certain uneasiness buffeted his organs. He felt queasy being near the pegasus, and though it wasn’t exactly unpleasant he wasn’t sure that it was something he wanted to feel. He lowered his head slightly and was ready to turn and lie down in the back of the car when he felt something warm brush against his side.
Mason looked down to see Angel right next to him, leaning on him and resting her head on his shoulder. Her eyes were calm and serene, gazing upon the magnificence of the catacomb outside carelessly. She twisted her body slightly to bury herself further into his side, ruffling her wings and rubbing one on Mason’s back slightly. He could feel the comforting warmth of her skin on his and the thin moisture that still misted her coat. She gazed up at him, a motherly look locked firmly in her eyes. It pierced his dreary ones, warming the pit of his belly slowly and dousing the poignant waves that pulsed through him. He quickly found himself blushing again, and though he felt an immediate urge to edge away from her he didn’t pursue it.
“I’m sorry if that’s too... friendly,” Angel said tenderly. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
Mason felt his lips soften into a gentle smile. He knew that she was doing nothing more than trying to comfort him. “You don’t have to,” he said quietly.
“Good.” She shifted her gaze calmly back out into the catacomb, though her smile and caring eyes wouldn’t fade.
Mason blinked and followed her eyes back to the outside world, sitting contentedly on the edge of the train with Angel nestled comfortably into his side.
If there was ever one thing you could say about the pony who lived in dwelling 77b of Waystation 17, it was the amount of profanity that would lace his words every time he opened his mouth. He was a very dull character otherwise; a simple unicorn with a watered-down personality, a lousy work ethic and even a dull color scheme to match. It mattered not whether he was happy, sad, angry, bored or whether he was talking to friend or foe alike. Any simple declaration that the unicorn had to make was always fortified with an unhealthy amount of vulgarity. Perhaps then it was the unicorn’s salty dialect that had earned him such a namesake.
Salty lay uncomfortably in his bed, his thin blanket tossed unceremoniously onto the floor. The small room was too hot for it to be useful. His snoring that had been reverberating lowly off of the iron interiors of his dwelling cut off sharply as the dirty-white unicorn awoke suddenly. He looked from side to side confusedly, wiping his leg across his sweaty brow as he yawned brashly. He looked to his right at the chronometer and saw that it read 03:26. The tired unicorn then twisted back into his bed, flopping onto his back and letting out a long sigh.
“What the fuck…” he breathed irately. He wasn’t supposed to wake up for another four minutes, and every minute of sleep that he managed to grasp was one that he would never take for granted. So why Salty had woken up four minutes before he was being forced to was far beyond him, until his ears registered two ponies yelling and shouting at each other in the dwelling a floor above him. It was muffled by the iron floor separating the rooms, but their screams were easily loud enough to wake anypony trying to sleep in any of the adjoining dwellings. At first the unicorn thought they were fighting, as that was one of the more likely things to occur in this dwelling complex, but he quickly realized that their shouting was too high-pitched and ecstasy-laced to be anger or violence. It wasn’t until he also comprehended the sound of a low rhythmic thumping that he realized what was actually going on. His mouth twisted in disgust while his eyes flared in anger, and he found himself unable to resist doing a double-take at the chronometer again.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” he mumbled to himself. “HEY!” the disgruntled unicorn shouted at the ceiling. “Knock it the hell off; it’s too early for that shit! I’m trying to get some fucking sleep down here!” Against Salty’s hopes – but not his expectations – his words hadn’t seemed to have any effect on the pair of ponies going at it above him, their shouts only seeming to increase in vitality. He could easily understand why, but that didn’t mean it made the tired unicorn any less angry. To be awoken early was bad enough, but to be awoken to this was both infuriating and sickening. He dropped heavily back into his shoddy bedding and buried his face in his pillow, thinking that maybe he would be able to get just a minute or two’s more sleep before he had to get up.
*BEEP* *BEEP* *BEEP*
“FUCK!” Salty screamed, flinging himself upward awkwardly. With a loud puff he flipped out of his bed, now all too awake. The room was alight with an ear-splitting mechanical buzz from a wall-mounted klaxon, signaling that it was time for his shift to begin. His hooves hit the ground with a loud clap as he stretched his neck. He shook his head to wake himself up as the buzzing cut off, taking ungainly steps towards a shining piece of steel bolted to the wall that served as a mirror. The unicorn opened his eyes to be greeted by an addled reflection of himself, his already-dull strained-brown crew-cut mane losing even more color in the aging piece of metal. His gray-blue eyes slowly wandered over to a small blackwood case resting on the shelf underneath the mirror, which he leaned down to and hit the latch of with his nose. The case flipped open, revealing several rows of small dark-violet crystals. He locked his eyes on a random one, carved in the same diamond-shape as the rest, and flicked it into his mouth using his tongue. He bit down hard as he locked it in between his back teeth. As the crystal shattered a surge of adrenaline beamed through his mouth and down into his muscles. He couldn’t suppress the following gasp.
“Damn it, I’ll never get used to that,” Salty mumbled quietly. The crystal’s effect was instantaneous and callous, rousing the weary unicorn and sharpening his senses acutely. His pupils contracted and his ears wiggled as the last traces of energy evened themselves out in his system. With that and a roll of his shoulders he was unwilling but ready to begin another arduous work day. He slammed the case closed with his hoof and turned abruptly, heading for the rusting iron door to the hall outside. He stopped short of it though when he noticed that the only sounds permeating the dwelling anymore was his breathing and the distant machine hum of Waystation’s plasma generators.
“Oh, so now you fuckers sleep,” he grumbled, glancing at the ceiling. The unicorn simply rolled his eyes and hit the hatch release on the door. It swung open with a hydraulic hiss, whistling wind blowing in from the outside. With a resilient shudder he stepped out and across the bronze-colored walkway, looking over the edge opposite his door into the blackness of the gigantic chasm that lined it. The light from the wall-mounted electro-lamps was bright enough to light the natural wall across from the walkway, but he still couldn’t see far beyond the single floor below him. He looked up, another two floors lining the wall before stopping at the cave’s ceiling. No matter how many times he walked down the hall the chasm bordering it never ceased to grasp his attention. It also made him question quite often why the architects of the Waystation had decided that it was a good idea to build a four-story dwelling complex right next to a bottomless chasm and then leave an entire hallway open to it.
“Hi Salty!” The unicorn jumped slightly as a shrill childlike voice pierced the air next to him. He looked down quickly to see a velvet-colored filly standing next to him, looking up at him with big blue eyes. Salty smiled as she looked over the edge and began to bounce up and down slightly. “Watcha doin’?” she asked innocently.
“Heya Merry,” Salty jovial replied, ruffling her wiry peach-colored mane with his left hoof. “Just getting up to go to work. And hey, what’re you doing up so early?”
“I wanted to get up to see you,” she said, rubbing the side of his leg with her head. She stopped and added “Besides, mommy woke me up when she got up too. She went to go play with one of her friends.”
“Oh?” Salty inquired curiously, raising an eyebrow in confusion. “And who would that be?”
“Um…” the little filly mumbled, trying to remember what her mother had said earlier. Her face lit up as she said “Barley!”
Salty frowned. He knew Barley; he was a rather melancholy pony who owned the bar in the lower levels of the Waystation. He had walked by Barley’s dwelling once right as the pony was leaving for work, so Salty knew that he lived in dwelling 77c; or, more specifically, the dwelling directly above his. He should have expected something like this, considering that this was the only kind of “playing” that Cherry Drop would be doing at any given time of the day, but he still couldn’t help but feel saddened, embarrassed and revolted by what Merry had just told him.
“Oh,” the unicorn mumbled, projecting only ever-so-slightly his mix of emotions. He turned and trotted slowly away from the edge, Merry trailing briskly behind him with a cheery smile on her face. She quickly picked up on Salty’s uneasiness and began to hop around him as he walked.
“What’s wrong, Salty?” she asked, her voice still high and happy.
“Oh nothing,” he replied bluntly, gazing amusedly down at her as she skipped in and out of his field of view.
“C’mon, tell me!” Merry hopped around to his front and bounced in place there to block his path.
“Um…” Salty leaned down so that he was eye-to-eye with the playful little filly. “No,” he said with a mischievous grin.
“Tell me tell me tell me!” she cried, her small jumps becoming more rapid.
“Maybe I’ll just drop you off the edge instead!” he replied playfully, scooping her up in his forelegs and mockingly swinging her back and forth towards the chasm across from them. “I’m gonna do it!” he called teasingly above her laughter. “I’m really gonna!”
“Tell me!” she managed to giggle out. She kicked her legs in an effort to get the unicorn to drop her, which he eventually did. He leaned down and placed Merry carefully on all fours, rustling her mane again. She looked up and saw Salty looking back at her with a tender sort of inflection.
“I’ll tell you some other time, alright?” he said, leaning down slightly.
Merry frowned and looked down at the ground, defeated. “Ok…” she grumbled, kicking a hoof at the metal ground. She looked up in time to see Salty walking slowly away from her, so she naturally began to skip after him. She hopped around to his front so that he could plainly see her and blurted out “Can I sleep over with you tonight?”
“And why do you want to do that?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Because,” she whined, “I haven’t slept over in a really long time!”
Salty stopped in front of the lift built into the iron wall and hit the call button, generating a small buzz. He looked down at Merry and said “I’ll tell you what, if you ask your mommy and she says it’s ok, I’d love to have you sleep over.”
The filly let out a small cheer and clapped her hooves together in the air. “Ok!” she called happily as she landed, earning her another ruffle of her mane from Salty. He stopped as the lift let out another buzz, the metal gate sliding open.
“Alright, I gotta go to work now,” he said, stepping into the lift and turning to face her. Merry hopped up and wrapped her front legs around the unicorn’s neck in a hug, which Salty quickly returned. She let go and backed out of the lift just as the gate was closing. “I’ll see you tonight, Merry. You be good until I get back, ok?”
“Ok!” she chirped, turning and hopping off to the left. “Bye Salty!” He chuckled and shook his head as he hit a button on the lift’s control panel, spurring it to begin its descent.
Salty loved Merry as though she was his own daughter. He had never liked kids before, and told himself that he would never like the little foal that had begun to scuttle up and down the hall in the several months prior, but he sort of had to when she absolutely refused to leave him alone. More than once had he come home to find her sitting on his bed or playing around with his things, or woken up to find that she had crept into his dwelling and curled up next to him while he slept. He supposed that she more or less chose to befriend him than he did her, but nevertheless Salty quickly gained an unconditional love for the small filly; she was one of the few things that didn’t harm him in some way that made life in the Waystation bearable. He loved Merry so much that he had miraculously never swore around her, a feat which the unicorn had so far been unable to perform for anypony else. He only felt sorry for Merry because of her mother. He wasn’t sure whether Cherry Drop did what she did for money or if she simply did it for fun, but it was a shame in Salty’s eyes that Merry had to be raised under somepony like that. Whichever reason it was he supposed he couldn’t blame her, but it sickened and saddened him no less. If there was one thing that he could find redeeming in her it was that at least the mare had the decency to not expose her daughter to her true nature. That simple fact alone put him in no place to question her role as a parent, but he still couldn’t help but feel sorry for the little filly.
The lift buzzed again and the gate before Salty opened, prompting the unicorn to step out. No sooner did he step out than did a large zebra turn the corner of the hall ahead, provoking a strong frown on the unicorn’s face.
“Hey Salty,” the burly zebra said with his thick accent as he strode heavily towards him. “What’s up?”
“Yeah, hey Rivet,” Salty replied less-than-enthusiastically. He didn’t particularly care for the zebra. He could never understand why he had considered Salty a friend when the unicorn had made it so blatantly obvious that he didn’t like Rivet. “Just hauling my ass over to the control tower; I’m probably fuckin’ late already.”
“Probably.” Rivet strolled past him, but quickly turned as the unicorn walked by and called “Oh, you might not want to cut across the boarding deck today.”
“And why the hell not?” he called back monotonously.
“Because one of the AI cores got busted up in Sterling’s little ‘episode’ yesterday. The autolasers on deck can’t tell who they’re supposed to shoot at.”
Salty remembered hearing about Sterling yesterday. Apparently the pegasus, presumably out of sheer mind-numbing boredom, had decided to take a sledgehammer to the AI control center that she had spent the majority of her natural life tending to the day before. A morbid part of Salty’s mind wished he had been there just so he could have seen her get tackled by security. If nothing else it was simply a testament to how low the quality of the average life was down here. This kind of thing happened on a daily basis; this was just one of the rare instances in which the damages could be greater than a few bits worth of spare parts.
“Holy shit,” Salty muttered, looking back at the zebra finally. “Have they shot at anypony yet?”
“Thankfully, no,” Rivet said as he turned a corner. “But still, I wouldn’t take my chances!”
Salty was in no mood to test his luck in such a fashion either. Rather than proceeding straight through the door at the end of the hall and out onto the massive boarding deck he ducked through a door into a maintenance shaft to cut under it. It would take a little longer, but he was already late anyway and didn’t feel like potentially taking a laser bolt just so he could look slightly less bad when he got there. He walked briskly through the rockrete corridor, dodging and weaving around tangles of rusted pipes and electrical cables as he went along until finally he came to another door. He had used the maintenance shaft more than once to get to the control tower and knew that this was the one that opened right into it. He swung it open and stumbled out, only to be confronted by the same spiraling flight of stairs that he had been forced to climb up nearly every day for the last uncountable number of years. Quickly the unicorn began a steady climb up, looking back down when he was about halfway. He couldn’t help but notice how the floor a hundred feet below him seemed so close and humble in comparison to the chasm right outside the door of his dwelling. He waived the thought aside, the same one having recurred to him numerous times, and continued briskly up the staircase. He barged noisily through the door at the head of it, a tranquil-looking navy blue earth pony garbed in dark black robes standing before him. The pony stood in front of an enormous glass viewport, several electrical components floating around his head as he scrutinized them closely. The telekinetic generators that hung on either of his flanks hummed softly as the clang from the swinging door petered out. Salty instantly recognized the pony as Waystation 17’s commissarial mechani priest; no ordinary mechani priest would have to wear telekinetic generators to work. This one was the only one that wasn’t a unicorn.
“You’re late,” the pony said plainly, his gaze not shifting in the slightest. There was a click as a floating piece of plastic locked firmly into a circuit board.
“Morning to you too, Ironside,” Salty said sarcastically, referring to the priest by his actual name. It wasn’t really proper to refer to anypony of religious status by their actual name, but Salty had been working with Ironside for a long time and no longer felt the need to refer to him as Father like everypony else did. “You have that thing done yet? I’ve got shit to do.”
“Just about,” he said, ignoring the last sentence. “What had you held up this morning?”
Salty chuckled. “Merry had. She wanted to see me before I headed out.”
“The filly?” Ironside asked, glancing back at Salty quizzically. He nodded. “She’s up quite early.”
“That’s what I thought.” Salty strolled over to the viewport, gazing out across the massive boarding deck. Train tracks lined either side of the giant iron platform. He was slightly amused to see the sets of turrets mounted to steel pylons, swiveling from side to side as though looking for a target. “Turns out her mother woke her up when she left.”
“Ah,” he said simply, content to let the conversation rest there. The priest knew all too well of Cherry Drop’s reputation and why she would be up at this time.
“Yeah. It’s fuckin’ disgusting.”
“I suppose it’s just a vice.”
“Still, it’s something that I wish Merry didn’t have to live with,” the unicorn carried on. “I mean I like Cherry, and I’m sure that she’s been doing a fine job of raising Merry so far, but forgive me if I don’t think a filly should be living with somepony whose cutie mark may as well be a dumpster.”
“We all have vices, Salty,” Ironside mumbled, trying to navigate away from the topic. With another click the contraption that the priest was levitating began to look more complete. “Alright, that should do it,” he said, letting the other components drop to the deck with a clatter. The device floated down to the control panel before the two ponies, aligned with a slot in its surface and slid noiselessly in. No sooner did the hum of the generators die than did a speaker in front of the priest crackle to life. “Just in time as well.”
“Waystation 17?” a deep stallion’s voice boomed. “This is Railway 9, respond Waystation 17?”
“I’ve got it from here Ironside,” Salty said, brushing the pony aside and standing before the speaker. He hit a button and responded with “This is Waystation 17, go ahead Railway 9.” He turned away from the speaker and looked back at the priest, who was in the process of removing something from his black robes and walking towards the door. “Where the hell are you going?”
Before Ironside could respond the radio crackled again. “Waystation 17?”
“Hmm?” Salty turned back to the speaker, hit the button again and said “Oh yeah, go ahead. You’re clear.” Salty had no idea what the pony on the other end had asked for or said to him, but that was his standard response for anytime that he found himself not listening. It had worked well for him thus far. He turned back to Ironside again to see him with a cigarette in his lips, a lighter floating before it to light it. “I thought you were trying to quit those?”
“I was,” the priest replied monotonously. “But it’s like I said, Salty; we all have vices. I recently came to the realization that this one’s mine.” He lit the cigarette and stuffed the lighter back into his robes with a puff. “And anyway, I’m going to go and fix the AI core downstairs.” The priest turned and opened the door. He turned his head and with a smirk said finally “I had better hurry too, considering that you just told that train it could board safely.”
Salty’s eyes widened more with embarrassment than the blunt realization of what he had just done as the door slammed shut. He quickly flipped around and hit the talk key again to simply say “Uh, Railway 9? Yeah, you might want to hold off on that boarding procedure, actually.”
Mason’s chest rose and fell gently as the unicorn slept. His quiet snores bounced off of the walls of the car, quickly drowned out by the ambient clatter of metal wheels on track. The rocking of the train didn’t disturb Mason in the slightest, merely swaying his unconscious form softly from side to side. The usually aggressive-looking unicorn looked oddly tranquil now, curled up in the center of the floor fast asleep. It was almost abnormal to see him so at peace. Next to the gentle expansion and contractions of his sides, Mason was perfectly still, his muzzle buried in his front legs.
That all came to a crashing halt as a loud splintery crack burst through the chilly air of the car, piercing the omnipresent rumble of the train. His ears twitched and his eyes fluttered as he stirred at the sharp sound. Mason rolled his shoulders and reeled his neck back to stretch, getting groggily to his hooves to relieve the tension in his legs as well. His side cramped stiffly as he stretched, and he looked back to be met by a scabbed-over wound in his side. He had removed the bandage dressing the wound before he had fallen asleep the day prior, exposing a long scar where a bullet had grazed him days before. He swept across it with a hoof, laying down some of his dirty coat across the wound concealing it. Content with the appearance he shut his eyes and craned his head to yawn loudly at the car’s ceiling.
He had almost entirely forgotten about the crack that had awoken him before it sounded out again, this time much louder. The splintering made him cringe, and he spun around to face the direction from which the sound came. He was slightly surprised to see Angel standing atop one of the larger crates in the car, one that towered over either of them by a good three feet. The pegasus stood on her two rear hooves, propped up by a large crowbar rammed solidly into the framework of the crate. She leaned on it and panted heavily, though that didn’t keep her from noticing Mason’s awakening.
“Oh… morning, Mason,” she said with a sigh. “Sorry if I woke you up.”
“It’s fine,” he replied, rolling his shoulders again. He looked up at her just in time for her to grunt as she pulled the crowbar awkwardly from the crate with her frontal legs, stumbled back and clumsily rammed it back into the crate with another wooden crack. This spurred the question “What are you doing?” from the unicorn as he began to draw closer.
“Trying to get this crate opened up,” she replied simply, beginning to wrench the crowbar out again.
Mason waited until she swung it again before speaking. “Why? What’s in there?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m hoping that it’s food.”
“Why would you be looking for food in there?”
“Because I’m starving, Mason. Aren’t you?”
As if on cue the unicorn’s stomach rumbled loudly, prompting him to raise one of his front legs to it. “Well, yes…” Mason admitted. “But that’s not what I meant. What makes you think you’ll find food in there?”
“What makes you think I won’t find food in here?” she asked stubbornly with another clumsy swing.
“Because,” he began to explain, “this train didn’t leave from a garden or a nutricrystal culture; it left from a factory. You’re more likely to find a three thousand year old plasma lathe in there than a few boxes of bread.”
Angel grunted and swung the crowbar again. “Well then I’ll find a three thousand year old plasma lathe in here.”
Mason looked at her confusedly. “What?”
“Maybe it’s like you said and there’s nothing of value in here. But then again maybe there’s a huge stock of food inside, and if I quit now we would just go hungry.” She swung the crowbar again and looked straight down at Mason. “Nothing ever got done by just laying around.”
“Angel,” he said, more firmly this time. “There’s no food in there.”
“Mason,” she replied mockingly, a devious smile on her face. “I don’t care.”
Now it was Mason’s turn to grunt in frustration. “If you really want something to eat, don’t you think that you should try going up to the living quarters and getting some from there?” Though he carefully avoided using the word “stealing”, the unicorn found the notion no less detestable.
“I already thought about that,” Angel replied. “While we slept the train must have crossed the catacomb and entered another tunnel. It’s too dark out there. I’d have to be able to get on top of the train, and without any light it’s too dangerous for me to make a maneuver like that inside of a tunnel.”
Mason wanted to offer a rebuttal, but he realized that he really had nothing more to say. She was right about that, but Mason knew that she wouldn’t find anything edible inside of the crate. Still she seemed adamant about continuing, and he was well aware that there was little he could say that would get Angel down. Finally he unwillingly conceded and said “Fine. Just waste your time then.”
“I will,” she replied starkly.
Mason sat and asked “Where did you get that crowbar, anyway?”
“It was in a toolbox over there.” Angel quickly cocked her head slightly to the side, gesturing to Mason’s right side. He stood and looked around the corner of the crate, and sure enough a rusty iron toolbox sat forlorn next to it. Several different tools had been dug out and sat cluttered around it. The unicorn strolled over and saw what all had been rifled through to get the crowbar; wrenches, a nail gun, an impactor with several cartridges and even a pulse hammer. With a fleeting thought he couldn’t help but notice how much easier the latter two would have made opening the crate. He felt no need to mention it to Angel. He was about to return to where he was previously sitting, but a label on the side of the crate quickly caught his eye. It was worn and spackled with dust, and though he wasn’t able to read the words on it he could very clearly make out a conspicuous symbol printed on it; a blue orb cradled in two hands like those of a Warhorse. The symbol made his coat stand on end. He had seen it before, and he was sure he knew what it meant. Still, he wanted to make sure that the label meant what he though it did.
“Angel,” he said quietly, sitting down in front of the label. “Can you come down here? I… I need you to read something for me.”
“Never had anypony ask me that one before,” she muttered to herself. She jammed the crowbar into the crate one last time and leapt down, spreading her wings to drift gently to the iron floor. “What do you need me to read?”
“These words right here,” he muttered, raising a hoof and sliding it across three words underneath the symbol.
Angel leaned in and mouthed the words quietly to herself before saying them out loud. “Possessica… Departmendo Terrum…” She leaned back and shook her head at Mason confusedly. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Well I do,” Mason said with a frown. “It means you’re done.”
Angel was almost offended. Her confused expression began to mingle with a distraught one. “What do you mean?”
“‘Departmendo Terrum’ means ‘Ministry of Terra’. The first word is easy enough to figure out.” He looked back at her, forced to cock his head down slightly to meet her eye-to-eye. “Whatever’s in this crate either belongs to Terra himself or his Ministry. Either way, we can’t tamper with something like this.”
Angel’s smile returned, accompanied by a curious spark in her eye. “Well what are we waiting for? Let’s open this thing up!”
Somewhere in Mason’s brain a vessel was ready to burst. “Did you not just hear me?” he asked, trying to keep himself from getting physically infuriated. “We cannot mess with this! Whatever’s in this crate is holy work, and I don’t want to be responsible for screwing up something that Terra himself might one day hold in his hooves.”
“But what if it’s nothing important?” she countered. “This stuff came for the city, Mason. You know, the one that you yourself said isn’t even worth sparing a few troops from the Ministry of Defense for?”
“The fact that it belongs to the Ministry of Terra itself makes this important! You can't steal from a god, Angel!”
“Who said anything about stealing?” Angel spread her wings, and with one powerful flap propelled herself to the top of the crate once more. Mason had to lean into the gust to keep himself from being knocked over by the powerful rush of air. “I just want to see what's inside. Terra-forbid I steal anything from here; you might literally explode.”
“No! You shouldn't even be touching this thing!”
“Oh come on, what could possibly happen? Besides, I know you're curious to see what's in here too.”
Mason couldn't deny that he did indeed want to know what was inside. He had only ever seen religious artifacts that may have once held importance to Terra but were now just museum pieces. Within the crate was something of actual functional importance to the god he had been worshiping for the majority of his life. Still, the thought of tampering with the crate and whatever was inside felt downright sinful to him, and though he would have given anything to see what was inside on any other day he knew that he shouldn't look inside.
“Angel, no,” he said as calmly as he could. “We can't mess with it. On top of that almost definitely being a sin, the consequences of what could happen provided we damage or tamper with whatever's inside could be monumental. I don't know what a god wants or what his ministry needs to function properly, but it's quite obviously extremely important.”
“But...” Angel argued. “But... I mean, what if we just-”
“I SAID NO!” Mason roared, his momentarily calm demeanor shattered by Angel's persistence. “It is not ours, we are not going to touch it, we are not going to open it up to see what's inside, and you are going to get off of that fucking crate before I come up there and get you down myself!” Angel was ready to comply, stooping her head and opening her wings as though she was about to fly down, but Mason hadn't said his fill yet. “I am tired of your bullshit, Angel! Every time I tell you to do something you always think you know better, you always try to argue! Well you don't! I've saved your ass, what, five times now? You'd think it would have gotten through your thick skull that I know what I'm doing by now better than you do!”
“Excuse me?!” she yelled back, flapping her wings and floating down to the floor. She landed in front of him and stuck her enraged face in front of his wide-eyed snarling one. “Don't you dare tell me that I can't take care of myself! I took care of myself for my entire life before you showed up, and I can take care of myself now too!”
“You took care of yourself for your entire life?” Mason scoffed. “No, you didn't! I took care of myself for my entire life! For the first few years of your life you had a family that cared for you, but me? I didn't have shit! I've been feeding myself and getting myself out of scraps like the one at the factory since I was a colt! I know a million times more than you do about survival, and I wish you would stop being so damn hardheaded and just accept that!”
“Oh, so the illiterate suddenly knows more than me!” Angel screamed at him, her teeth barred.
Mason's mouth shut tight, though his eyes remained wide. “Don't even go there, Angel,” he said quietly. More than anything did he hate his weaknesses being played at, and that was exactly what she was doing here.
“Oh what are you going to do, Mason? Yell at me some more? Where the hell do you get off on telling me that you're sick of my bullshit when all you do is scream at me for everything?!”
“BECAUSE YOU DON'T FUCKING LISTEN!”
“Because you're not always right, Mason! Sometimes I-”
“No! Ok, no! Just stop talking right there!” Mason bolted onto all fours and loomed over her menacingly. He began to snarl again. “You haven't been right once! Not one single time have you shown me that you know better than me in any situation! All you've shown me is that you can find any number of ways to get yourself killed when I'm not there! For the last month the only thing that's kept you alive this long is me, why can't you just appreciate that?!”
Mason didn't notice Angel's voice crack. She had never fought back against Mason so rigorously, but she was beginning to wear against the unicorn's onslaught. She felt her heart dip into her stomach slightly. “Why should I appreciate the help of somepony who would sooner choose the invisible pony they worship over somepony who actually cares about him!”
“SHUT UP!” Mason screamed at her. The tendons in his neck were so taut with stress that they felt as though they could break in two. Something in the unicorn's brain was poised to snap, and it was plain on his face. Angel had never exactly spoken highly of Terra, but never had she insinuated something so unbelievable before. Had he been talking to anypony else he may have already lashed out and struck them, but he could confront Angel with nothing more than enraged astonishment. His teeth barred visibly, his pupils contracted and his eyes were lively with an utterly murderous sheen. In the odd light of the car Angel could swear that they had actually begun to glow red. “I don't care if you insult me! I don't care if you make a mockery of the miserable life I've had! But don't you ever insult Terra like that again!” The unicorn turned from the pegasus and began to march slowly away from her.
Angel hadn't even realized what she had truly said until Mason spat it back in her face. “I...” she muttered, a slight wobble in her voice. “I didn't mean to... that's not what I meant!”
“I don't care!” Mason was completely relentless as he turned around and shouted back at her. “I don't care if you meant it or not, it's still blasphemy, and I won't stand for it!” He turned back. “This is what I'm talking about when I say I'm getting sick of your bullshit, Angel! I wish for one shinning moment you would just... just...”
Mason looked directly down into her eyes, and for the first time since he began his tirade he saw the effects of what he was doing to the pegasus. To the passive eye it would look like she was handing herself quite capably, her eyes wide in anger and her lips pulled back in a sneer, but only now did he notice more subtle things about her condition; how she quivered in place, the raspy way she drew breath, the way she was practically cowering before him. Mason had gone too far this time, and he knew it. He wasn't just berating Angel this time. From his point of view he was legitimately, deeply hurting her. His angry sneer slackened into a gentle frown, and his eyes went soft with remorse. Near-instantly his heart had jumped from burning in his chest to dropping into the pit of his stomach.
“Just...” he continued, softly now. He couldn't think of a thing to say. He hung his head slightly and squinted at the floor. “Just shut up, Angel.” The unicorn turned from her and began to drift away towards the back wall of the car, only glancing back once before seating himself and staring at the wall.
Angel simply stood there, lost for words. She bit her lip to choke back a confused stutter and looked at Mason with wide eyes. She feared to approach or even speak to the suddenly hauntingly docile unicorn. She had never seen him – or anypony, come to think of it – experience such an exuberant mood swing before. She finally decided that perhaps it was best to simply let the unicorn sit for a while, but to her surprise it was he who spoke up first.
“You're right, Angel,” he said simply. He paused for a few seconds, and when Angel offered no response he continued. “You're absolutely right.” He glanced back slightly. “I'm terrible to you. I yell at you... I scream at you... you don't deserve that from me.” He looked back at the wall. “You don't deserve that from anypony.”
Angel stood still and stared blankly at the back of the unicorn's head. It was several minutes before she next spoke, and even then the words she wanted to speak hadn't quite come to her. “Mason... I... it's... I know that-”
“Angel, please don't,” he said. “Please... don't try to justify this. It's not something that should be justified... it's not something that can...” Mason slowly stood and turned, facing the wide-eyed pegasus, though he made no attempt to approach her. He refused to meet her gaze, rather staring at the floor beneath her hooves. “I tell you you matter to me, and then all I do is berate you and make you feel terrible?” Finally he made eye contact with her, and though his eyes had a distinct hardness to them they remained cool and remorseful. Angel could see him struggle to keep his eyes affixed to her. “I know that it probably means nothing... hell, I almost hope it means nothing... but I'm... I'm sorry, Angel... I'm really, truly sorry... I don't mean what I say... I've never meant what I've said to you... but... I just... I can't...” Mason finally gave in, turning his head and looking at the floor. “I'm sorry, Angel...”
Angel's once more found herself at a loss for words. This sudden display of emotions had surprised her, to say the least. She could do nothing more than stare blankly at the unicorn and delve into the depths of her mind to try to find anything to say.
“Mason...” she finally began. The unicorn seemed not to stir, letting his head hang in sadness. “Mason, I know you don't mean what you say,” she continued, beginning to trot towards him.
“Really?” he asked, his voice devoid of all hope or belief in her statement. “Do you honestly mean that?”
Mason felt something warm touch the side of his cheek; her hoof. It began to push against his cheek, leading his head up to her soft, motherly eyes. It seemed that he must have stared at those emotion-filled pools a million times by now. It only made the unicorn's heart sink further into his belly.
“No,” she said. “Not anymore... maybe I used to. But after yesterday, I know you don't mean it... not anymore.” She leaned close to him, and though he tried to wrench his head away Mason was powerless to resist the gentle hold Angel had on his cheek. “I know that you care about me... and I know that you know I care about you. I know that you didn't mean a thing you just said back there.”
“That doesn't give me an excuse to do it,” he muttered, averting his eyes to the floor beneath her hooves. He sighed deeply, and with a slightly shaky voice said “I don't want to say those things to you, Angel... please believe me when I say that... I don't mean a word of it...”
The atmosphere of the car was tense as he waited for her to speak, but the feeling immediately drained as she took one short step forward and wrapped her forelegs around Mason's neck in a hug. Instantly the unicorn found himself blushing and looking at her in astonishment, but more than anything he found himself unable to say anything.
“I forgive you,” she said simply. Mason still didn't reply, though his surprised look subsided. She backed away and looked at him softly, a smile creeping up her lips. The unicorn could feel his heart begin to rise once more, yet Angel's actions confused him.
“Wh... what?” he stuttered.
“I said I forgive you.”
Mason had heard her the first time, yet her words still staggered him.”But... I don't understand.”
“Mason, the fact that you regret it so much tells me that you don't mean it. It tells me that your sorry.” Her smile had gotten wider and more lively, and her eyes began to spark with happiness. Still Mason's face remained a contortion of remorse and confusion though. “And for that, I forgive you.”
Mason could feel a small grin tugging at his lips. The tension he felt slipped away slowly as she noticed it and giggled. The blush from the hug still hadn't subsided, and he felt the need to look down at the ground once more.
“I don't get you, Angel,” he said with a short chuckle.
“What's not to get?” she asked.
He looked back up at her. “You're just so happy and upbeat all the time... you're so caring and kind... I just don't understand how, especially after all that...”
She took a step forward and eyed him closely. “I was never the hateful type. I was brought up to be happy and caring. With a cutie mark like this...” Angel gestured to her flank, the pink heart and angel wings on it still as vibrant as ever. “...I don't think you can really be brought up to be anything else.”
Mason chuckled again. He glanced back at his own flank as though he expected a cutie mark of his own to spark into existence, but still only plain gray fur covered the area. He looked back forward, but before his eyes could latch onto Angel's warm face once more they fell onto the pulse hammer lying next to the toolbox. He stared at it quizzically for a few seconds before looking back up to the pegasus, brushing past her slowly and leaning down to pick it up in his teeth.
“What are you doing?” Angel asked as Mason approached him.
Before replying he set the hammer down at her hooves. “You know how to use one of these?” he asked her.
Angel was confused. “Well, no... but why?”
“Because, it's gonna make getting that crate open a whole hell of a lot easier.”
This really surprised Angel. Her eyes widened, and she let out a small chuckle. “What are you talking about, Mason?”
He looked at her, a smirk on his lips. “Look, I know you really want to see what's in that crate... and just to show you how sorry I am for what I've done, I'm willing to look the other way on treason just once.” He paused before adding “Besides, I kind of want to see what's in there too.”
Angel broke into a lively slack jawed smile. “Am I hearing you right,” she half-giggled. “You, willing to break a religious commandment?”
“Hey, I'm not the one doing anything here,” he said. “I'm just a bystander. If Terra comes down here and decides to smite anyone, it's gonna be you.”
Angel rolled her eyes and looked down at the pulse hammer at her hooves. “So...” she asked, “how does this thing work?”
“Here, it's simple,” he explained. “All you gotta do is put your muzzle in that opening, but be careful not to tongue that little tab right there.”
Angel complied, leaning down and shoving her face into the aperture-grip of the pulse hammer. She bit down on the uncomfortable holding clamps and rose back up, surprised by the weight of it. It covered her entire mouth and most of her face save her eyes. She looked at Mason, who involuntarily flinched.
“Woah, be careful there,” he said cautiously, staring at the barrel. “That thing is built for breaking stuff; be careful of what you point it at.”
“Sowwy,” she said, trying to talk around the piece of hardware in her mouth without hitting the mechanism Mason had told her to be mindful of. “So, wah 'ow?”
“Now,” he explained, “you fly up there, carefully, and position the barrel over one of the corners. Then you tongue the mechanism. Be careful, though; the thing's got one hell of a kick.”
Angel nodded, spread her wings and flew into the air. (Rather carelessly from Mason's perspective, he noted) She landed atop the crate and sauntered past the jutting crowbar, stopping at the corner nearest to Mason. She leaned down, placed the barrel directly on the corner, and braced herself.
“Now, be careful,” Mason said. He was beginning to regret this decision. “We don't want to hurt whatever's inside, we just want to open the crate and take a look.”
Angel mumbled something that could have been “Whatever” and rolled her eyes again. With a deep breath she tongued the small tab meant to fire the tool. The whine of the pulse hammer's fission batteries was instantly drowned out by a deafening bang, one even louder than that of the Warhorse's gun. Angel was in the air instantly, blown onto her back by the sheer force of the hammer. Below, Mason watched as the side of the crate disintegrated into millions of tiny wooden splinters and a mass of hundreds of metal implements came pouring and clattering onto the iron floor. Angel simply rolled onto her side, put a hoof up against he back of her neck to support the aching appendage and spat out the pulse hammer. It landed with a clatter next to her.
“That's the last time I ever use power tools!” she said, squinting as the pain subsided. To her surprise, Mason didn't have much anything to say about all that had just occurred. She got to her hooves and stretched her back. “Is it that bad?” she asked carelessly, tiptoeing slowly to the edge of the crate. She was afraid it may collapse on her. “I gotta say, you're handling this a lot better than I... than I... oh Terra...” Angel approached the edge and looked over, and instantly all of the color flushed from her face as she laid eyes on what lie below. Mason was having quite the same reaction.
Below her, lying in a giant pile on the floor, were cluttered hundreds, perhaps thousands of guns. There were multiple types; big ones, bigger ones, and giant ones. There also sat many large boxes of bullets and rockets, and Angel even saw what looked like batteries mingled in with the pile as well. Mason had already sauntered over and was sifting through the pile, looking through the large pieces of machinery with much the same expression on his face as was on hers.
“Handguns...” he was muttering. “Machine guns, assault rifles, laser pistols...” He reeled back finally and asked himself “what the hell is all this?”
“Why are they stockpiling guns, Mason?” Angel asked, drifting down next to them. She flinched at the pile of munitions as though it was toxic. In her mind it may as well have been. “What purpose could the Ministry of Terra possibly have for all of this?”
The pair continued to stare in shock at the pile. Millions of possibilities went through Mason's mind as to why Terra would need any sort of firearm or energy weapon, much less an entire crate of them and however many other shipments of weapons had gone through before. Angel's stomach churned at the sight of so many deadly implements sitting in one place. Her mind felt as though somepony had lit a match inside of her skull. She was too absorbed in the very fact that these even existed to put any real thought into them.
“These are new,” Mason muttered.
Angel looked over at him. His eyes were wide, not exactly with fear like hers were though. “W-what do you meant?” she asked.
“These guns are brand new,” he explained. “They're not thousands of years old; these weapons got off of the production line mere days ago.”
Angel looked once more and saw what he meant. All of the weapons in the pile had a brand new black enamel finish on them, stark in contrast to the iron-and-wood build of the Warhorse's gun. The bullets in one of the boxes, she saw, weren't made out of cast iron; the shells were a jet black plastic. In another the pointed slugs themselves were made of some sort of dark glossy material, most likely a tensile metal or ceramic of some sort.
“I... I don't understand, Mason,” she muttered, unable to look away from the heap of guns. “Why is this here?”
“I don't know,” he replied plainly.
“What use could anypony have for all of this?”
“I don't know.”
“But you know all about this kind of thing!” she blurted. “If anypony would know why all of these are here, it would be you, Mason!”
“I really don't know what to tell you,” the unicorn replied. “I can't think of any realistic reason for these being here... hell, they shouldn't even exist.”
Angel let the questions rest there as Mason began to trot forward again. She watched in what was almost disgust as he picked up one of the smaller weapons with one of his forelegs and slid his other hoof along its slide. Angel sighed shakily and turned, walking towards the door. She undid the latch on it and slid the door open slightly, poking her muzzle out a few inches and taking a deep breath.
“What are you doing?” Mason asked confusedly.
Angel brought her head back inside and looked at Mason, struggling her hardest to not look past the unicorn and at the vast array of weapons on the other side of him. “I... I just need some fresh air...”
Mason shrugged and turned back to the pile. Angel similarly turned back and stuck her head out of the train car, wishing for more reason than one that she had never been so persistent on opening the crate.
Salty laid his head on the control console before him, his eyes dreary as he looked out into the loading bay beyond the glass viewport. The room was almost dead silent, save the occasional snort from acrid unicorn. The day thus far had been rather uneventful; save the one boarding procedure that had occurred earlier in the day, the last ten hours had been incredibly uneventful. He hadn't heard a word from Ironside all day, which was unusual, considering he was usually up here with Salty for most of the time. He supposed that the techpreist must have been having a rough time with the AI core. At least the turrets below had stopped going crazy, so he must have been making progress.
A loud rumble broke the adamant silence hanging in the air. It didn't take long for Salty to deduce that it had been his stomach that made the terrible sound; rather than choosing to get something to eat, the unicorn had slept through his break earlier. He moaned uncomfortably and looked up to his right at the chronometer. He still had thirty minutes left in his shift, according to it. He simply snorted loudly once more and looked straight back ahead, caught momentarily on whether he would hit the cafetorium or Barley's bar first once his shift was over.
Suddenly the link next to him clicked softly, indicating that somepony was trying to get through to him. Though it was the only thing that had occurred to the unicorn all day, Salty couldn't help but feel annoyed at the sudden disturbance. He wrenched his head off of the console and hit the key with his hoof.
“Yeah?” he said in a gravelly voice, disregarding established communications protocol. Oddly, nothing but static greeted him. He adjusted the tuning dial slightly and hit the button again. “Hello?” Still nothing but a wash of static. “Hey, dickhead,” he said, beginning to get perturbed. “Take the damn mic out of your throat and talk.” At this point even the static had stopped, leaving nothing but the sound of a dead signal hanging in the air. He slid his hoof off of the key and slumped back over the console, burying his head in his forelegs.
“I can't fuckin' wait until I can just get out of here...” Salty muttered. It wasn't a second before there was a metallic crash behind the unicorn, giving him a heavy start. The unicorn bolted off of the console and turned around to see Ironside, accompanied by Rivet of all ponies, speeding through the door towards him. Ironside bore his usual nonchalant expression, but the zebra trailing him looked rather disturbed. His eyes were wide and his lips curled in a sickened frown. Salty raised an eyebrow quizzically at Rivet, then turned his attention to Ironside. He was carrying a thick slab of something silicon in his teeth.
“What's up?” Salty asked, shaking his head to wake himself up.
“We've got a problem,” Ironside replied.
“What is it now?” the unicorn groaned. “Did Monotony break the fucking geotracer or something?”
“No,” Rivet boomed in his deep voice. He stared at Salty as though the unicorn had just murdered someone before his eyes.
“Okay...” he said, turning back to Ironside. “What the hell is his problem?”
“Do you have a dataslab operator in here?” the priest asked, seemingly ignoring Salty's question.
Now Salty was beginning to get slightly concerned. “Yeah... you should know this, Ironside.”
Indeed Ironside did, as he brushed right past Salty and immediately inserted the dataslab clenched between his teeth into a slot in the console. Salty sauntered over to his side and looked at the priest, confused.
“Ironside, what's this all about?” Salty asked.
“About fifteen minutes ago we got a transmission Railway 4.” The response came from Rivet. Salty gazed over at him, but Ironside's eyes stayed fixed on the console. “It was classified as a distress beacon.”
“That's impossible,” Salty said, glaring at the console. “I would have heard that on the emergency channel.”
“It was only picked up by the AI core,” Ironside said. “We had to decrypt it before we could make out the message.”
“It's not a distress beacon,” Rivet added with a swallow.
Salty stared at the zebra; it wasn't like him to act this way. He was sure that Rivet knew that he wasn't Salty's favorite pony, yet it never stopped him from being relatively upbeat around the generally depressing unicorn. Now it seemed like he had just witnessed some unspeakable tragedy.
“It's a cry for help,” he continued.
Salty was about to open his mouth, but Ironside beat him to it. “Brace yourself, Salty,” he said, tapping a key on the console. “The contents of the transmission are... disconcerting, to say the least.”
Suddenly the speakers were awash with static. Rivet's coat began to stand on end.
“I...” he stuttered. “I... I don't think I can listen to this again, Father...”
“I understand,” Ironside said quietly. “Perhaps it would be best if you simply went back to your dwelling.”
Rivet nodded, and like lightning the zebra bolted for the door. “Thank you, Father!” he called on his way out.
“What’s on this tape, Ironside?” Salty asked, confused.
The priest hadn't answered, as the playback from the data slab had begun. Immediately it disturbed the unicorn; the playback had started with panicked breathing, gunfire resonating in the far background.
“Come here, girly!” he heard somepony in the background call. Their voice was distant, but the sheer insanity echoing from it was enough to send a chill down to the tip of Salty's stubby tail. “I just wanna have a little FUN!”
At this point the panicked breathing had devolved into hopeless sobs, crying out with each hoofstep. The gunfire started up again, and the pony on the other end began to scream. It turned into horrified crying as something wooden was smashed nearby. Her hoofsteps increased in rapidity. Something metal clanged loudly, he assumed a door. A series of clicks constituted the locking of said door. There was more breathing, upset by only the occasional sob, and an organic thump as she collapsed to the floor.
“H-hello?” she whispered, the fear in her voice nearly tangible. “Please... i-is somepony there... oh Terra, please help me...” There was silence for a few seconds, before she began to simply wail. Salty stared hard at the slot the dataslab had been inserted into, as though he could actually see the pony on the other end. “Please help me!” she cried. “PLEASE! Th-they've killed everypony! EVERYPONY! Then they... oh Terra, please don't let them get me, please, please, PLEA-EASE!”
Something exploded in the background. The pony on the other end stopped her hollow pleads before crying out with a vigor that Salty had never before heard from a creature.
“There you are!” the other pony cried ecstatically. “Ya can't hide from me, girly!”
“NO!” she cried. “P-please, don't kill me-e! I-I-I'll do anything!”
“Oh no, I'm not gonna kill you...” the pony said quietly, almost seductively. “Oh no no no no... I've got something much better in mind for you...”
The female pony must have gotten the message, because she began to cry out wildly once more. “NO, PLEASE, DON'T!” There was a scrambling of hooves on as she tried to get away, though Salty couldn't help but assume that did absolutely nothing.
“Don't worry, girly,” the male pony said. A distinct metallic clack, one of the slide of a firearm being released, resonated through the speakers. “I won't be too mean...”
The screaming started up one last time before an enormous bang sounded in the air, silencing the feed once and for all. Salty stared at the dataslab, dumbfounded. Even Ironside had closed his eyes and hung his head.
After what seemed like an eternity, Salty spoke up. “Ironside...” he breathed with barely a whisper. “Do you wanna tell me... WHAT IN THE FUCK WAS THAT?!”
“It was as Rivet said,” Ironside conveyed. “It was a cry for help. One that I'm afraid we had not received in time.”
“Oh Terra... that poor mare...” Salty whispered. “I think I'm gonna throw up...”
“Before you do,” Ironside said, “you may want to retreat to your dwelling as well.”
“What are you talking about, Father?” It was the first time that Salty had formally referred to the priest in years.
“I've requested the overseer place the entire Waystation on lockdown,” the pony said. “Whoever they were, they're dangerous. I estimate that they’re going to be here in but a few short minutes, and I want ever noncombatant locked up tight in their dwellings. You included.”
“Who's gonna be here?” Salty asked frantically. “Do we even know who the hell 'they' are? Pirates? Mercenaries?”
“Mercenaries, no. Pirates... perhaps, but unlikely. Pirates don't usually possess the ability to acquire firearms. No, I think this is something much... different.” Ironside brushed past him, heading for the door. “Just go home, Salty. This should be over soon enough.”
Salty was about to offer a rebuttal, but just as soon decided against it. The priest was right; whoever this was meant business. The best place for him to be right now was in his quarters, praying to Terra that nothing more than a few bullet holes on the surface of the deck would come of this. He simply nodded in agreement and brushed past Ironside, briskly making his way down the winding staircase and to the floor. Rather than taking the maintenance shaft like he did earlier, he decided on cutting across the deck. It was a faster and much more comfortable path than that of the shaft, and there was a much lower chance of him accidentally being targeted by the security lasers. No sooner did he turn the corner into the exit hall, though, than did he nearly run headfirst into another pony; Cherry Drop. Even now Salty couldn't help but notice her beautiful figure with a mixture of satisfaction and mild disgust. With her, of course, trailed Merry, skipping along right behind the earth pony.
“Salty!” the filly called, bouncing ahead of her mother and instantly latching around the unicorn's neck. Salty let out a small chuckle, but he had to force a smile, the recording still resounding in his mind.
“Little bugger just couldn't wait to see you,” Cherry giggled. She nodded her maroon mane out of her face and looked up at Salty, smiling.
“Mommy said I could sleep over tonight!” Merry chirped, nuzzling Salty's cheek.
“Really?” Salty asked. “That's great, honey! But uh, could you let me go? I have to talk to your mommy real quick.”
Merry obliged, dropping off of the unicorn's neck and skittering down the hallway to peek around the corner that Salty had turned moments before.
“I knew that you'd have no objections,” Cherry said, grabbing the unicorn's attention. “So I decided that you could have her for the night.” She paused for a second, then asked quizzically “Hey, do you know what's going on out there of the deck? A lot of the security ponies are lined up out there... is there a drill or something going on?”
“No,” Salty answered quickly in a hushed tone. “Listen, you've gotta take Merry and get back to your dwelling right now.”
The black pony frowned. “Why? What's going on?”
“Look, I don't have time to explain,” he said. “All I know is that Ironside just requested the entire Waystation be put on lockdown, and for a good reason.”
Now Cherry looked frightened. Before Salty could question it though, he noticed that her gaze lay not on him, but behind him. The unicorn turned and saw why; Ironside had just turned the corner, stark as ever and a cigarette once again parked tight between his lips. The only difference now was that the mechani priest had abandoned his usual set of telekinetic generators in favor of a twin pair of side-mounted heavy cellguns. Merry seemed unperturbed, skipping next to the heavily-armed pony as though they were anypony else. To her, he may as well have been.
“Ah, Cherry Drop,” he said, nodding toward the earth pony. “Very nice to see you.” He glanced over at the unicorn next. “Salty, don't you have somewhere to be?”
Salty gulped. “Yes, of course.” He glanced back at the filly, who was now scrutinizing the powerful energy weapons shackled to the mechani priest's flanks. “Come on, Merry. Let's go back home.”
“Okie dokie!” she said, dashing to her mother's side. “Bye bye, Mr. Pony!”
Ironside let out a low chuckle as they sped away from him and through the far door. Instantly Salty saw what Cherry Drop had earlier referred to; a line of ponies, all clad in heavy body armor, stood poised on the far side of the deck not far from one of the tracks. On the tracks laid the hulking form of an armored cargo car, connected to more similar ahead of and behind it. Wielded by each individual pony was a weapon; some had neuro-linked battlemounts like Ironside had, some of them clutched dual-barreled jawguns in their teeth. Above floated a few pegasi, hoofguns tight in their forelegs.
“They're here sooner than I thought...” Salty heard somepony mutter. The scent of tobacco lingering in the air told the unicorn it was Ironside. He must have trailed quick behind them. “Salty, get you and the other two back to your quarters. I want no civilians up here when things get ug-”
The piercing grind of metal on metal cut off the priest. The epicenter of the noise was the cargo car; the door was being slowly and painstakingly slid open. The dim lights of the bay permeated not the interior though, leaving the contents shrouded in darkness.
“Get them out of here now, Salty!” Ironside growled, and for the first time Salty could remember he heard concern in the pony's voice. He sped ahead of the three of them, rushing quickly to the fringe where the security ponies lied waiting anxiously.
“Mommy, what's going on?” Merry asked, tugging at her mother's side. Salty could instantly tell that she was frightned.
“We have contact!” one of the security ponies shouted. Salty saw what he meant; a blood red unicorn had stepped into the visible light on deck, her face just barely visible.
He needed not put more than a second of thought into it to realize that this could have only been the pony Salty had heard on the dataslab. A hot flash buffeted the unicorns head.
She took one more step, and the unicorn observed that she was bald, her mane cut clean off. He was immediately sure this wasn't how she stepped onto the train. Another step revealed more; she had long gashes along her sides, presumably bullet grazes, though only Terra knew what else had been done to her. Another step; her hindquarters were all but soaked in blood. One of the security ponies stepped cautiously forward, causing the unicorn to cry out and flinch. The security pony backed off slowly, but she began to step towards him then too. The security pony decided to cautiously continue towards her, and it was but a few more steps before her legs began to buckle. The pony, quick to act, extended his forelegs and caught her. Even from where Salty stood he could clearly see her shiver in his arms.
“Mommy!” Merry cried, huddling behind her mother. She obviously didn't like what she was seeing.
“Salty, we have to go,” Cherry said urgently, looking upon the unicorn with desperation.
“Stand down,” the security pony holding the female unicorn said. He drew a few deep breaths before he turned to the blockade of security ponies, mainly Ironside at the front. “It's alright, she's just a civilian. Merit, I want you to take her and-”
All hell broke loose as a screaming bullet turned the pony's head into a gory mist.
“RETURN FIRE!” somepony screamed as the unicorn fell from the dead pony's grasp. Salty was surprised to see that it was Ironside who had barked the command; never before had Salty head him take up such a commanding tone. The order was quickly followed, bullets and lasers flying into the darkness of the car. It seemed that this endeavor was pointless though; more bullets came pouring from the dark aperture, cutting down another few ponies in an instant.
“GET HER THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Salty screamed vigorously to Cherry Drop. Merry crouched behind her, screaming and crying at the jarring turn of events. Instantly Cherry turned and picked up Merry in her mouth, charging from the platform as fast as her legs would carry the both of them. When Salty turned back to the carnage he found himself powerless but to slack his jaw in utter astounding.
Slowly stomping out of the giant car, great rifle held tight in its monstrous hands, a gigantic bipedal creature the likes of which Salty had never before seen laid before his eyes. The creature leased a spirit-crushing roar and raised the heavy weapon above its head, before turning it downward and fired another staccato of rounds at the ponies below, gruesomely stripping more of the security ponies of their souls. Sprays of red splashed into the air, and there was a sickening crunch as the creature took a great step forward and instantly crushed the skull of the tortured female unicorn. Ironside was nowhere in sight; either he had fled from view like many of the other ponies were now doing, or he had already been cut down. One of the ponies turned and attempted to fire his jawgun, but to Salty's surprise he missed enough times only to be mowed to bits in a hail of lead. That was the moment when the unicorn realized that not only had that unfortunate pony missed; all of them had been. No matter how many rounds were leased upon the hulking monstrosity, none seemed to so much as graze it.
How the hell are they ALL missing? Salty wondered, backing away from the scene now himself. They can't all miss! One of them has to hit that thing!
Alas, though, nopony seemed to be able to land a single bullet or laser bolt on the hulking creature. A pegasus with something round in his jaws flew overhead, but stopped when he saw Salty standing frozen below.
“What the hell are you doing!?” the pegasus called down, talking around the item in his mouth. “You have some kind of death wish or something!? Get the fuck out of he-”
Salty felt something moist spatter across his face. The pegasus fell to the ground with a bloody scream, his right foreleg nowhere in sight. Before he had time to properly react in disgust though, he heard something metal clatter to the deck behind him. He craned his head slightly to see what it was.
The pegasus had been holding a grenade.
Salty acted on pure instinct; he ran away from the grenade in a straight line toward the carnage that awaited on the deck before them. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to get him away from the resulting blast. The grenade went up with a bang louder than that of the monster's gun. It blew the already-dying pegasus to charred bits and sent Salty flying into the air. A steady stream of curses escaped the unicorn's lips until he slammed hard into deck. A lance of pain and an audible crack signaled the snapping of a few ribs. The unicorn tumbled, but quickly came to a painful stop.
Silence hung in the air, materializing as quickly as the chaotic howls and rumble of gunfire had vanished. Salty slowly opened his eyes slowly, peering onto the deck. The iron floor was splashed widely with red, bits of gore littering the ground with an almost appropriate gruesomeness. Mutilated corpses lay cold, fluids still draining from some of them. Salty was simply grateful not to be one of them. He was about to get to his hooves in an attempt to escape, when he heard an all-too-familiar voice fill the air.
“Well, that's that then!” the raspy voice called. It instantly registered as that of the only other pony he had heard on the recording. The unicorn froze; he feared to move. Perhaps if he laid still they would assume he was dead and pass him by.
“What should we do with the bodies?” a deep voice boomed. “Leave 'em?”
“Nah...” the raspy one said. “Let's clear 'em off the deck. We don't want 'em to know what's coming right as they get here.”
What the hell are they talking about? Salty wondered.
“Besides...” he continued to drawl. “Not all of these bodies are exactly... bodies.”
The horrible sound of a blade being unsheathed rang out inches before Salty.
“Not yet, anyway.”
It wasn't hardly a second before his left shoulder flared with the greatest pain the unicorn had ever felt. He shrieked in sheer agony as his shoulder locked up, muscles and bones being destroyed by the blade of the raspy pony. Salty's eyes jarred uncontrollably open, instantly filled with another set of indefinitely horrifying yellow ones. They beat down on his psyche relentlessly, torturing him almost more than the blade in his shoulder was.
“Here's the deal,” the raspy pony, now revealed to be a unicorn, muttered slowly. A wicked smile was splayed wide across his face. “I'm giving you five minutes, Salty. Five minutes. After that, I never want to see you again.”
How the fuck does he know my name?! Salty wanted to cry. He found himself unable to form the words though, his jaw slack in pain and unadulterated terror. He was unable to shift him from the horrible gaze of the unicorn, but from the corner of his eye he could see the monster stomp into place behind him, loading a magazine into the weapon it held in it's hands.
“And remember...” the unicorn continued, somehow widening his eyes further. They seemed to flare with the essence of cruelty itself as he horrifyingly concluded, painfully sliding the blade from Salty's shoulder with a simply sickening slurp. “I see everything.”
Author’s Note: Hey guys, Scoopicus here. Sorry this chapter took so long, I know it’s been a while sinse the last update. Life kind of got in the way. I’ll try my damnedest to get the next one up in a believable amount of time. Also, thanks to all my fans thus far, few as you guys are. I wouldn’t have even uploaded chapter 2 unless I knew you guys liked it, probably.
Angel stirred a bit as a slight bump in the train's path shook the sleeping pegasus. She tensed reflexively, but quickly relaxed and let herself slump back into the lazy position in which she had slept. She slid a foreleg across her face to spur herself further, dissatisfied to see the same sight that she had fallen asleep to as she did so; the massive pile of firearms and energy weapons from the crate, strewn haphazardly about eight feet in front of her. Their presence seemed inescapable now that she knew they existed, but they failed to rouse the same sense of horror in her that they did when she had initially seen them. Still she stared at the weapons with no less toxicity. No matter how used to seeing them she was by now, they were still deadly weapons, and she still hated them with every fiber of her being. Her mood softened instantly though as she shifted her gaze to her right, a warm smile creeping across her face.
Mason lied fast asleep a few feet from Angel, his muzzle tucked snugly into his forelegs. His shaggy mane fell lazily across his face, covering all but one of his closed eyes and the corners of his lips. His bony chest rose and fell with every ragged breath that bounced off of the car’s interior. After a few seconds of her watching him he let out a small mumble and kicked his back leg slightly, but for the most part the unicorn was completely still.
He looks so… defenseless, Angel thought. Just so calm and content. The pegasus got halfway to her hooves, shimmying herself closer to Mason. She raised a hoof and lightly brushed his hoof out of his face, careful not to wake him. His mane pulled back to reveal a small smile on his face; he was apparently having a good dream. She giggled lightly, let his mane fall back into place and embedded herself gently in his side as she lay next to the unicorn. The gentle warmth of his skin flowed seamlessly into her conscience, reinforcing the smile already plastered tight on her face.
I like him better this way, she thought with a pang of emotion, laying her head on the floor. It’s better than when he’s on a tangent or yelling at me… as he usually is…
Angel let out a discontent sigh at the thought. She hated it when Mason was angry with her, almost more so than she hated the heaps of weapons ten feet away from the pair of them. When he was mad at her she couldn’t help but feel an unconditional sorrow towards him; when it escalated to him shouting at her, it was an unshakable sense of shame. Mason’s last outburst had almost brought her to tears. Most other ponies would have simply walked away from Mason by now, and admittedly she might have walked away from him too provided he wasn’t the pony he was.
There’s just something about him…
Angel couldn’t pinpoint what it was about the despondent unicorn that made her stay by his side all this time. Perhaps it was the reality of his life and she felt an underlying pity for him that made her stay. Perhaps she felt obligated after having saved him. Maybe it was even something as trivial as the severity of the situation at hoof and she simply hadn’t been able to yet. She didn’t know what it was, but she knew there had to be something. She simply had this distinct feeling around him; a feeling that kept her shackled to Mason’s side. A feeling that made it impossible but to forgive him after every outburst in which he apologized. She had always chalked it up as her understanding of the way he was; or rather, the inability to understand. She would never know what it felt like to lose her parents and being forced to survive on the streets on her own. She would never know the shame of never learning to fly or never earning her cutie mark. She would never know the loneliness of never having a friend by her side, only ever being hunted and hated by others. But Mason clearly had, and in the most abstract way possible she could sympathize with him in that sense. It was always what she had told herself before; that she stayed by him because she knew that deep down he never truly meant it. She had felt deep down before that he needed her to stay by him more than she needed to leave him. That he needed the comfort of just having another pony by his side.
But now… I’m just not so sure anymore…
“Angel…?” she heard Mason croak wearily. Her head quickly bolted up and over to meet the now-awake unicorn eye-to-weary-eye. He gazed at her coolly, head still in his forelegs, the smile on his face faded. “What’re you doing?”
“Oh,” Angel replied bluntly. It somehow hadn’t occurred to her that Mason would actually wake up and see her next to him. She quickly got the sinking feeling that the object of her fears was about to manifest once more. “Just… laying here…” She felt the need to add “Sorry if I’m getting a bit too, uh… close.”
Mason seemed to consider this for a second or two, but simply shrugged and got to his hooves within a short time. The motion forced Angel away from him a bit, but she still remained lying down, staring in surprise at the unicorn as he strode to the water crate in the opposite corner of the car. He was about to lower his head into it to take a drink when he glanced back and saw the way she looked at him.
“What?” he asked simply, raising an eyebrow.
Angel spoke cautiously yet sarcastically. “You’re not going to say anything about that?” she asked. “No telling me that I am getting too close or that I need to stop hitting on you?”
Mason seemed to ignore the question initially, proceeding to dip his head into the crate and take a short, noisy draught. When he raised his head once more, water dripping from his chin, was when he offered his rebuttal. “I know you’re not hitting on me,” he said. “You’re just… being close; like you were in the catacombs. Sure it irks me somewhat, but I won't yell at you for something like that.” With a smirk he added “Not anymore, at least.”
Angel smiled, slowly getting to her hooves as well. She strode next to the unicorn and gazed down into the water crate; the container was nearly empty, only a shallow pool swirling around at the bottom. She looked over at Mason, seeing the slight smile still on his face. The sight of that alone was enough to alleviate the feeling she had in her stomach moments before.
Maybe that’s why, she thought. Maybe I just enjoy moments like this.
“Hmm?” Mason hummed, gazing at her quizzically.
Angel realized with embarrassment that she had actually mouthed the words that she had just thought of. Quick to correct herself, she blurted “Oh, just thinking out loud.”
Mason nodded dismissively, shifting his gaze past her and at the door. Angel looked back as well, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“I don’t suppose it occurred to you,” the unicorn started, “that the train has stopped, had it?”
“It did?” she asked. Almost instantly Angel registered the lack of noise coming from the tracks. She looked up at the electro-lamp on the ceiling; it had stopped swaying, now hanging perfectly still from it’s chain. “It did!” She was surprised she hadn’t noticed this before. She turned and sped towards the door, but Mason quickly was fast ahead of her.
“Not so fast,” he said, reading her thoughts and placing himself between Angel and the door. “You don’t want to just bolt out there. There might be guards or something.” Mason turned to the door and slowly cranked the latch, sliding it open a crack and looking outside.
“Well hurry up and see,” she said impatiently. She glanced back at the broken crate. “I want to get out of here as soon as I can.”
“You and me both.” Mason swiveled his head from side to side, scanning the exterior of the car. “Weird… there’s nopony out here.”
“Let me see,” Angel said, approaching the door. She pushed it open slightly further and poked her head out below Mason’s. He was right; the exterior of the car was completely desolate. The train had pulled into an enormous iron chamber, stretching out several thousand feet ahead of them. On the opposite end was another train, one that looked like it was headed in the same direction as theirs was. In the distance to the right rose a giant iron tower, glass viewports at the top. To the left there was nothing more than a deep chasm. Dotting the chamber were towering pillars, strange gun-looking devices bolted onto some of them.
“This is a Waystation,” Angel said, sliding the door all the way open and brushing past Mason.
“A what?” he asked, following behind her. He gazed around, but still there was nopony on the deck.
“A Waystation,” she explained. “It’s a place for trains and travelers to stop and rest on long journeys between city centers. We’re on a boarding deck for trains. Or one of them, provided this place is big enough.” She looked over at Mason to see him staring at her, surprised amusement on his face. “What? I can know stuff too,” she said.
“How do you know this is a Waystation?” he asked.
“I passed through one on my way into the city a few years ago. This one has pretty close to the same layout, but this one’s pretty small in comparison to the other.”
Mason swept his view across the massive chamber. “This is small?”
“You should have seen the other one,” she said. “It must have spread out miles in every direction. Like, literal miles! The corridors inside the facility probably stretched for thousands.” She paused. “It’s weird, though… the deck should be alive. There should be ponies everywhere. Or at least that’s the way it was in the last Waystation. There were thousands there.”
“So where are they?” he asked. “This place should be able to hold thousands of ponies if it’s as big as you say. They must be somewhere.”
“Hey!” A coarse shout broke the silence lacing the deck. “You two, over there!” it continued. Mason and Angel looked to the source; from the direction of the train’s engine marched two ponies side by side. One bore a blue cap, a horn jutting out through a hole in the top, while the other, a plain earth pony, had saddlebags hung by his sides. Mason shifted uncomfortably at the sight, but Angel stayed adamant.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “They don’t look like guards to me.”
“No,” he agreed. “But they are the conductors of the train. Or at least one of them is. Somehow I don’t believe they’ll be happy to see the stowaways that got their train shot up on take off.”
Angel hadn’t considered that. “Should we try to make a run for it?”
“No,” he replied after a moment of thought. “Let’s just try to play it cool for as long as we can. If we need to later we can run.” Mason stepped forward before next speaking, this time to the two other ponies. “Hey, do either of you know what’s going on here?” he said, feigning obliviousness.
“We were hoping you could tell us that,” the white unicorn said, stopping a few feet from him. Mason couldn’t help but notice how abnormally muscular he appeared, comical in contrast to the other pony, who was rather squat and somewhat fat. “We’ve been waiting here for damn-near fifteen minutes and haven’t gotten refueling clearance yet. We can’t take off again until we have some fresh diesel in this thing.”
“Does it usually take this long to get clearance?” Angel asked.
“Never. Usually there’s a team with a hopper on the deck waiting for us when we pull in. We couldn’t even get a solid reply when we commed in an hour ago. We’re not even allowed to be here, but there’s no way we can press on to the next Waystation or city without fueling up here first.”
Mason let his attention shift away from Angel and the conductor’s conversation, gazing over at the brown earth pony. The pony was looking back at him, scrutiny plain in his expression. Mason was powerless but to imitate; this pony looked familiar to him.
“Do I know you?” the pony asked, trying to get a glance at Mason’s nonexistent cutie mark. “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
Weird, Mason thought. He even sounds familiar. “The feeling is mutual,” he said cautiously. Shaking the feeling, he turned to look at the other train on the opposite side of the chamber, then at the conductor. “What about that train?” he asked, nodding towards it. “What’s the deal with it?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” the conductor replied, looking over to it. “It was just here when we got here. I don’t know what it was carrying or where it was going.” He turned back and asked either of them “You two were the stowaways on car 23, right?”
“Who wants to know?” Mason snapped in defense.
“Hey, calm down,” the conductor said. “I personally don’t care, and I’m pretty sure Dealio here doesn’t give half a damn neither. I’d be surprised anymore if we didn’t have a stowaway or two on-”
“Wait a minute,” Mason interrupted, something ticking in his brain. “Did you just say ‘Dealio’?” He turned to the pony and asked him directly; “Your name is ‘Dealio’?”
“Uh… yeah?” the pony said, raising an eyebrow. “I know it’s not really the greatest name, but my parents were never really the brightest when it came to that sort of thing.”
Mason was silent, drifting closer to the brown earth pony. “You’re Dealio…” he mouthed almost silently. “You have no idea who I am, do you? You don’t remember me at all?”
“Like I said, you look familiar, but nothing’s tickin’.”
The pony, apparently Dealio, may not have remembered Mason, but Mason knew this pony all too well. “Here, maybe this will jog your memory.” He twisted his flank to the side slightly, finally allowing Dealio a good look at it. The moment he saw the unicorn’s blank hindquarters was when Mason’s other features finally fell into place in his head.
“You…” Dealio started, a sneer creeping across his face. “Now I remember you! You’re the asshole that stole from my stand a couple weeks ago!”
“Bingo,” Mason growled.
“Wait,” Angel said, moving to Mason’s side. “You mean that… you mean he’s…” She looked at Dealio in utter disbelief, her eyes wide with heartrending accusation. “You’re the one that sent that…” She swallowed dryly. “…that monster after us?”
Dealio looked confused. “What?” he blurted, looking back and forth between them.
“Yes,” Mason said vindictively. “He is. And he should know perfectly well why I’m about to do this.”
“Listen, I don’t know what you’re-”
A gray forehoof across Dealio’s face prevented him from finishing his plea. Mason had whipped up and, screaming in rage, brought down his right hoof across the earth pony’s face. The impact sent Dealio sprawling for a few feet, but he just barely managed to retain his footing. Mason stepped forward, intent on changing that.
“Mason!” Angel cried, quick behind him.
Dealio looked up quickly enough to see Mason spin and buck the pony in the face, a geyser of blood spraying from his mouth. This time he was powerless but to fall onto his side, but Mason wouldn’t let him rest yet. The unicorn took up a position above him, striking him in the chest with his forehooves. He spat curses in between blows. “You! Son! Of! A! BITCH!”
Mason felt something hit him hard in the ribs. The breath was knocked out of him as he landed hard on his side, coughing and sputtering in shock. The scab along his side where the bullet had grazed him ruptured, blood now pouring down his side and staining his coat. He looked up to see the conductor standing next to Dealio, who was being helped off of the floor by Angel.
“Simmer down, son,” the conductor said. “If there’s anything I don’t need, it’s to witness a murder before taking off again.”
“Are you okay?” Angel asked Dealio, doing her best to help the pony to his hooves.
“Get off…” he sputtered. “Get off of me!” He slapped her foreleg with his hoof, standing and grappling his way shakily towards the unicorn. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?!” Mason screamed, bolting to his own hooves and making Dealio flinch. “What’s wrong with you?!” The conductor took a step forward, ready to act again if he had to. “Do you even realize what you’ve done to us?! Do you know what kind of hell you’ve put us through!? And if you answer ‘yes’ I swear to Terra I’ll-”
“I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about!” Dealio cried desperately. “You’re the one who stole from me! What did I ever do to you!?”
“You sent him after us! Hazard! You sent that hollow shell of a being and his little gang to kill me, just because I stole a loaf of bread from you!” Mason, unable to look past Dealio’s hopelessly confused face, continued relentlessly. “You nearly killed both of us, you nearly turned her into a hopeless wreck, and you forced her and me both out of the only home I’ve ever known my entire life! THAT’S WHAT YOU FUCKING DID TO ME!”
The conductor was obviously surprised by this. “Holy shit,” he said. “You two have had it rough, haven’t you?” He looked back at Dealio accusingly. “Is all that true?”
“No it’s not fucking true!” Dealio screamed. “I get stolen from every other week! Why would I hire some gang-banging rube just to take care of another lowlife thieving scumbag?!”
“At least I’m not a fucking liar!” Mason replied.
“I’m not lying! I’ve never heard of this Hazard dickhead, whoever he is! I tried chasing you for a few seconds, but I’d never spend any of my hard-earned bits just to hire some murderer to catch you! Whatever shit you got into with any gang is your own fault, not mine!”
“Yes you did! You hired that psychopath; don’t even try to lie to me about it!”
“I think he’s telling the truth, Mason,” Angel said defensively.
“Thank you!” Dealio shouted.
“What?!” Mason replied. “You’re taking his side?!”
“Yes,” she said, stepping past the pony. “I am.”
“Why?! You've been with me this entire time! On what grounds do you think I’m making this shit up?! How do you think I'm making this shit up?!”
“I’m not saying you’re making this up, but I don’t think you’re right. I don’t believe that this pony ever hired Hazard.”
“Well then why was he chasing us?!”
“I don’t know!” she snapped, getting frustrated. “But it wasn’t because you stole a loaf of bread! Who kills over a loaf of bread?”
“Fucking psychopaths kill over a loaf of bread! You know what Hazard is and you know how crazy he is! It’s well within the confines of his illness to do such a thing!”
The last sentence had not been uttered by any of the four ponies on the deck. The deep machine staccato of synthesized words had seemed to emanate from nowhere, bouncing heavily off of the metal walls of the chamber. The ponies looked around quizzically, trying to weed out the source of the mysterious voice, when a metallic whirring grabbed the attention of all of them. Their eyes shot to one of the gun-like objects bolted to the pillars, which was now swiveling to point directly at the four of them. They looked around, and the rest had followed suit.
“Mason, what are these things?” Angel asked quietly, her eyes peering from one gun-thing to the next.
“Laser autoguns,” the conductor announced. “And these two idiots just pissed off whoever’s controlling them.”
“Guns?” Angel said. “Did you just say guns? That’s impossible, though! I thought guns were just for Warhorses!”
“No,” Mason explained, not daring to move. “Guns were originally for Warhorses. Firearm and energy weapons technology has been adapted to a number of things, like impactors or lascutters, and even that pulse hammer you used in the car. I’m not surprised that they’ve been fashioned into more varieties of weapons.”
“A pulse hammer?” the conductor asked. “What the hell did you two do in that car?” After a second of reconsideration he said “Actually, nevermind, I don’t want to know. I’ve asked that enough times to know that the answer is never something I want to hear.”
“We’re not fighting anymore, you retard!” Dealio shouted at the autoguns. The insult must have had some effect on the pony on the other end, because instantly every one of the weapons on the deck shifted its aim to the brown pony. “Hey, don’t shoot me! Shoot him! He’s the one who beat me up!”
“Oh thanks!” Mason shouted sarcastically.
“Well you did!”
“Both of you, knock it off,” the conductor said. “Just try to be cool. If we don’t provoke him he can’t shoot us. He isn’t allowed to unless we’re being a legitimate threat to anypony.”
“I don’t really trust him to make that decision intelligibly,” Mason said. “We have to get off of this deck.”
*MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO FLEE OR LIVE FIRE WILL BECOME AUTHORIZED*
“What the hell does this thing want?” Dealio asked.
“It wants to put a laser bolt through your skull!” Mason cracked.
“We’re not fighting!” Mason cried.
“Listen to him, you stupid asshole!” Dealio shouted. “We aren’t fighting!”
“Stop it, both of you!” Angel cried, garnering a look from all of them. “You’re going to get us all killed!”
“What do you want us to do about it?” Mason asked.
“No matter what we do this thing is going to keep saying that!” Dealio added.
“Just make up or something! I don’t care if you mean it or not, just try something!”
“Fine!” Mason looked back at Dealio. “Dealio, I’m sorry I attacked you!”
“And I’m sorry that you’re a dumbass enough to think that I actually hired somepony to kill you!”
“You fucking moron!”
“Both of you stop it!” Angel cried desperately, fear thick in her voice. “Just stop it!”
The ringing of Angel’s plea bouncing off the metal accented the sudden silence that filled the chamber with an almost perfect eeriness. Nopony moved, fearful of what the controller of the autoguns would decide. As the reverberations of the pegasus’s voice flooded from the chamber, though, a deep metallic boom filled the air. It took them a few seconds to realize that it was the autogun operator laughing; a blunt yet horribly penetrating noise, filling the chamber with its terrible forcefulness. The unusual noise sent a shiver through Mason’s spine. Dealio interpreted it in a completely different manner.
“Is he…” the pony said, stuttering. “Is this some kind of joke?” He turned his head and spoke directly to one of the autoguns. “Are you just fucking with us?”
The laughing stopped.
“This isn’t funny! You had us scared shitless, you-”
Dealio screamed as the autogun he shouted at fired a blast at him, the vibrant red bolt striking the floor right next to his hoof. Angel screamed and leapt into the air, spreading her wings. Mason and the conductor simply gazed dumbfoundedly at the molten crater the laser bolt had created, until more of the guns chimed in with blasts of their own.
“Don’t just stand there!” the conductor cried, already having taken off in a hearty gallop. “Get running!”
Mason and Dealio quickly followed behind the speeding unicorn, dodging the beams of light as they cracked through the air. Angel was having and easier time of it, dodging and weaving through the air. The conductor seemed to plow through seamlessly, the bolts just flat out avoiding him. Dealio, obviously not built for running, was dodging and weaving through the blasts like mad with little efficiency.
“He can’t be doing this!” the conductor called to nopony in particular. “He can’t just open fire on us like that! Something’s completely wrong here!”
“We can talk about it later!” Mason replied. “Right now we need to get the hell off of this platform!”
The conductor simply grunted in acknowledgement, shifting his movement sharply to the left. The rest of them did the same, now heading for a large steel door about five hundred feet away. The hail of lasers hadn’t let up in the slightest, but they still were incapable of hitting any of the fleeing ponies. Mason found this peculiar as the conductor sped past him and into his field of vision; the shots were coming very close, but none of them had hit. He failed to see how the initial bolt that had struck near Dealio had actually missed the portly pony.
His mood changed immediately as the conductor screamed, tumbling wildly into a barrel roll and falling out of the corner of his eye. Braving the chance of being hit, Mason skidded to a halt and turned. The conductor lied still in a heap on the floor. He could see the wound where a laser blast had punched a hole in the unicorn’s side. Mason thought him dead, but suddenly his leg twitched. He acted on a whim, bolting to the conductor’s side and twisting his forelegs around the other unicorn’s. He began to drag him awkwardly backwards across the deck, his goal in mind being the door. He looked over his shoulder and saw the door had been opened, Angel standing inside and Dealio speeding in behind her. Both gazed upon the horrifying spectacle of laser blasts flying around the two unicorns, one struggling to drag the other to safety.
Miraculously, through adrenaline-rushed seconds that seemed to drudge on for an eternity, Mason was able to drag the conductor the remaining hundred feet through darting lasers into the sanctuary of the doorway. Dealio was quick to slam the power key, shutting the hydraulic door with a resounding clang. Still could be heard the sound of bolts impacting on the other side of the iron door, threatening to burn right through. After a few seconds though, they ceased, casting once more a haunting silence across the large hallway. It was only to be broken by a pained, raspy cry from the conductor.
“Let me look at him!” Angel said desperately, pushing Mason to the side. She looked to the conductor’s side to inspect the wound; the laser bolt had struck below his ribs and punched all the way through to his right shoulder. Both the entry and exit wound had completely cauterized themselves, and Angel could see that a bit of the conductor’s rib bone had been carbonized and charred black. He coughed wetly, an action which must have came at the tax of unbelievable pain, and a trail of blood began to trickle from the corner of his mouth. His eyes, already loosing their luster, darted aimlessly around the room. Angel wondered if the poor pony was even aware of what had happened to him.
“He's... he's in really bad shape,” Angel muttered, looking back up to Mason. “We have to help him.”
“Whatever you need,” Mason said compliantly. He glanced over at Dealio, who was leaning on a wall, gazing down at the injured pony. “We'll do whatever we can to help.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” Dealio asked, drifting off of the wall and over to the other two. “I mean, look at him! There isn't a damn thing we can do about this; what we need is an actual doctor!”
“He's right,” Angel said with a swallow.
“What are you talking about?” Mason said, surprised. “You can help him, can't you? I mean, you're good with this kind of thing!”
“No, Mason, I'm not!” Angel was beginning to slowly break down. “I'm good with broken bones and surface wounds, not million-degree laser blasts! I've never had to deal with anything like this before; I don't even know if I can! We have to get him proper medical attention right now, or he's... he's going to...” Angel simply glared back down into the conductor's eyes dismally, unable to bring herself to mutter the final few words.
Mason let everything settle, save for the sound of the conductor's raspy breathing. “Alright, enough standing around then,” he said assertively, walking to Angel and nudging her away from the conductor. “We need to find a medical bay. There has to be one.” He leaned down and wrapped a foreleg around the conductor's neck and back, causing the other unicorn to cry out.
“Mason, what are you doing?” Angel cried. “You're hurting him!”
“He's... gotta get there... somehow,” Mason choked out, lifting the unicorn up and slinging him over his own back. It looked almost ridiculous, the lanky unicorn carrying the large muscle-bound pony on his back. Angel would have normally laughed, but given the circumstances she was unable to muster even the thought of a smile.
“C'mon,” Mason grunted, proceeding shakily forward. “Let's go. There can't be a medical bay too far away from here!”
“And what makes you think that?” Dealio asked, following quickly behind him. “This place is probably massive. How the hell are we ever going to find a medical wing?”
“Why don't you shut up,” Mason growled, speeding up to a hearty gallop, “and let me find out!”
Dealio, still able to taste blood in his mouth, simply galloped behind Mason in silence, Angel following quickly behind. Both of them tried to drown out the sounds of the conductor's agonized cries and sobs of pain, but the halls amplified the sounds, devoid of any other life to drown it out. Angel ran up next to the conductor and did her best to soothe the dying pony.
“Please, just try to hold on!” she said, nudging his snout slightly. “We're going to get you help; you're going to be alright!” With a dry sob she was powerless but to add “Please don't die!” The conductor glanced back at her through weary eyes, but was unable to offer any sort of audible reply.
“Angel...” Mason said, grabbing her attention. He simply shook his head dismissively as he ran. Angel picked up the message, backing away slightly. She closed her eyes and barred her teeth as she continued to struggle to hold back tears.
“Please don't die...” she whispered to herself, struggling with the words. “Please...”
As luck would have it, Dealio spoke up after a long minute of bobbing and weaving through the corridors. “There!” he said, gesturing to a peeling label on the wall. “Infirmary! That's our best bet if we want to help him!”
Mason turned at the corner sloppily, skidding into the next hall. He was promptly met face-to-face by a heavy iron door, which Angel quickly slammed on the opening key for. The hydraulically-locked door flew open to reveal a large room with white-washed steel walls and a plain iron floor. Medical stations and cabinets dotted the chamber, along with stretchers and other such implements.
There were no doctors inside.
“There's... nopony here...” Angel muttered. “No doctors, apothecaries... nothing...” She turned to Mason. “What are we going to do?” she blurted.
Mason sighed and shook his head. “I don't know... There's nothing really that either of us can do.” He turned to her, visibly distraught. “I hate to say this, Angel, but... you're going to have to be the one to help him.”
“What?!” she cried, stepping back. “B-but I can't! I can't fix something like this! I've never worked on anypony this badly hurt before!”
“I know, Angel, but you have to. Neither of us have any medical training, but you do. I know that you aren't a surgeon, but you're the only one who would even begin to know what to do here.”
“I... Mason I... I can't...” she muttered, looking at the ground. “I just... can't...”
She looked back up then, the conductor slung across Mason's back catching her eye. There was more blood around his lips now, dribbling down his chin. He looked back at her, his eyes ghostlike. The unicorn, so musclebound and healthy-looking just minutes ago, now looked utterly and heartbreakingly helpless. He shivered and shook, breathing hoarsely and gagging in pain. She couldn't just let him die, not when there may be a chance that she could do something about it.
Angel turned and trotted cautiously inside, trying her best to remain calm in spite of what she was being asked to perform. “Just put him somewhere that I can work on him...” she said, gasping as she spoke. “Gently.”
Mason trotted inside as well, Dealio behind him. “You mean you're still going to try to do something?” the latter said. “Do you even know how you would start?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly, shutting her eyes. “I mean, no,” she corrected herself. Then, with a sob, “I don't know! But I have to do something!”
Angel turned from Dealio as she heard the conductor cry out in pain. Mason had placed him as gently as he could near a medical stand. Angel trotted over to him and leaned down to once more inspect the wound.
“I'll help you however I can, Angel,” Mason said. “I'm here for you and him both.” Then, glancing toward Dealio, “We're here for you and him both.”
Angel ignored the sentiment, turning and rushing past Mason. She dashed across the room, obviously looking for something. The grief and stress were plain on her face as she scrambled frantically about the immediate chamber, drawing her panicked breaths in gasps. She knocked aside a large wheeled crate with wide swipe, revealing the steel doors to a medical station. She whipped them open to reveal a single silver box, dull and corroded. On the front was emblazoned a dull red cross, the paint chipped over years of wear. She clenched the handle atop it, pulled it out and charged back to the spot where the two other ponies stood around the conductor. The unicorn was ventilating so rigorously now that with each breath he exhaled a few flecks of blood would spatter onto his lips. The sight made her stomach churn and her heart sink. She dropped the box with a clatter next to the conductor and flipped the lid open; inside lied rows of bandages, phials and various canisters, all very aged by the looks of them.
“Here, help me sit him up,” Angel said shakily, grabbing one of the canisters of compressed rehealing balm and pulling the safety pin off of the top. Mason moved around to the conductor's back as Angel knelt down by his side and positioned the canister near the cauterized entry wound. Despite the edges of his flesh having been almost melted by the blast it still bled profusely, a red trail staining his dirty white coat. She pressed down on the trigger and sprayed a vibrant blue gel into the wound. Angel had to hold down on his chest as he lurched and cried out in torment.
“I'm sorry!” she said, trying to look him in the eye. “I know this hurts, but you just have to hold on!” She removed the canister and tossed it to the side, sweeping another one out of the box as she spun around to the conductor's front side and brushed Mason out of the way. She propped his head up, sliding his cap off and onto the floor, and repeated the process of spraying the gel into the exit wound. The conductor screamed in pain once more, this time right at her. She shut her eyes as drips of blood spattered her face, resisting the urge to gag or vomit. Slowly she looked down at the conductor's own face, twisted in agony, tears of pain mixing with blood. With a horrified sob she found herself tearing up as well. Seeing the poor pony in this much pain was next to unbearable. She was barely able to refrain from fleeing the room in her fit, anchored only by the possibility that she might still be able to save him.
“Give me that box!” Angel shouted, directed at either one of them. Mason was the one to answer, sliding the silver case over to her. She instantly dove in, still cradling the conductor's head in her arms, and retrieved a red phial – a coagulator of some variety – with her teeth. She gently tried to hold the conductor's head still, and when she was able to meet his tear-filled gaze with one of her own, weakly said “You have to drink this. Can you do that for me?” The conductor simply stared back at her, unable to speak. The only reaction he offered was the clenching of his teeth and the tightening of his eyes as he seemed to choke back another wail. She was about to simply give up there, but to her surprise the pony opened his mouth, jaw quivering. Angel didn't waste any time removing the stopper from the phial and pouring it's contents into the conductor's mouth. She was almost relieved as the unicorn appeared to have taken it, but quickly relapsed as he sputtered it back out. She wasn't entirely confident that the red liquid he had coughed up was composed solely of what she had given him.
Nothing's working, she thought with yet another sob. He's dying, and nothing I'm doing is working. He's going to die, and all because nothing I'm doing is working! She turned her head back to the box, this time digging up something else entirely. She held a large injector, pulsing violet liquid in the hopper; an anti-caustic/trauma stim, by the looks of it. This was the only thing in the box that she hadn't exhausted, and as such was the only thing left that she could do for the conductor. She looked at the device and then back at the unicorn, before placing the tip near the lowest wound, uttering a silent prayer to her own abilities and plunging the needle into the conductor's flesh. The resulting cry was severe enough to cause her to weep painfully to herself as she removed the needle and jabbed it into his shoulder blade, dispersing the remainder of the liquid into his bloodstream. His eyes remained shut and his teeth clenched as he sobbed quietly into her chest, the pain too much for him to bear. Still, it seemed that the mixture she had given him had done something for the unicorn, as his sobs slowly began to become less sporadic and quieter. Angel sighed frightfully but with relief, reaching over to retrieve some bandages.
“See?” Angel said as jovially as she could muster, unraveling the bandages with the assistance of her teeth. “You're going to be fine! Everything's going to be alright!” She began to wrap the bandages around his torso, starting at the upper wound and circling around the lower one. “I knew you'd be okay!”
“Angel...” Mason said softly, slowly walking toward her. Angel looked up, the beginnings of a smile on her face turned upside down by the expression on his. He looked at her softly and dismally. Something was obviously wrong. Even Dealio, standing about ten feet behind him, looked at her with a small hint of sadness in his eyes. It wasn't until Mason shifted his gaze down to the other unicorn that she finally realized what was wrong.
The conductor had stopped sobbing.
Angel could feel tears begin to flow once more and her breathing begin to quiver even before she craned her head to look down upon the conductor. Her eyes fell upon his, shut and tucked firmly into her chest. Indeed he had stopped sobbing. She realized also, slowly becoming more and more ill, that he had also stopped quivering from the pain. Looking down upon his chest she saw that it no longer rose and fell with each breath that he took; he was no longer taking them. It hit her then how painfully limp he was in her forelegs. Shakily she raised a hoof and lifted on of the conductor's at her side; sure enough, it fell powerlessly back to the cold, blood spattered metal floor.
“But...” Angel breathed, bothering not to hold back her tears any further. “But he... he was... just...”
Angel had felt it building up inside of her since she entered the room burdened with the task of preserving the pony's life, and now that she had failed she could hold it in no longer. She let the dead stallion fall from her grasp, hitting the floor with a sickening smack and made a beeline for the door, charging out into the hallway. Mason looked back as he heard her vomit onto the floor outside, then as she simply and finally broke down and began to sob.
“You stay here,” Mason muttered to Dealio, not meeting the gaze that the earth pony was giving him. “I'm gonna go talk to her.”
Mason stepped past Dealio and solemnly across the room, her weeping becoming more and more audibly loud as he approached the door. He stepped out and saw her; on the wall she leaned, crying so hard it looked as though she was having trouble standing. He stepped over the place where she had thrown up, spattered unceremoniously on the floor, and walked over to her side.
“Angel...” he said as softly and comfortingly as he could. “Are you... are you alright?”
Angel simply held in her sobbing for a minute to look back at the unicorn, her vision blurred. Mason was quite shocked when she spun and lurched for him, grabbing him in a tight hug and knocking him back onto his haunches. He was even more surprised when she buried her face in shoulder and continued to cry. Mason, left without much else to do for her, simply hugged her back, trying his best to comfort her.
“...I couldn't save him, Mason,” she finally breathed. “He was dying, and I couldn't save him...” She choked out another sob and then shouted. “I just let him die! He just died, right there in my hooves and I did nothing to save him!” She quieted down a bit, sobbing softly into his mane as she said “I just... I just let him die...”
“Angel, you did all you could,” Mason said, looking down at the floor. “There was nothing you could have done beyond what you already did.”
“But it wasn't enough!” she cried. “He still died, right there in my arms! He died for no reason, no reason at all, and nothing I did was good enough to save him!”
“There was nothing more you could have done. You did more than any of us would have been able to do.” He paused to give her a chance to speak. When she didn't, he continued. “You didn't just let him die. You gave everything you had to keep him alive. In the end, that's all anypony could have asked for.”
Angel was silent for a few seconds, before pulling back away from him and looking down at his chest. She wiped the tears out of her eyes with a sniff, and quietly asked “...why did he have to die? What did he ever do to deserve this?”
“He didn't deserve it,” Mason said, looking up at her now. “Nopony deserves to die like that. He did nothing wrong.”
“Why not one of us... we were the ones responsible, not him... why not me?”
“Don't say that, Angel,” Mason said urgently, leaning forward. “Don't ever say that. You deserved to die no more than he did. Neither of you did anything to warrant that. It wasn't some divine judgment. It was just somepony with a gun.”
She was silent for a few more seconds. “...he just died... right there in my arms... and I was trying to save him.” She looked up at him. “I just... feel... so sick...”
“I know...” Mason sighed gently, reaching out and touching her shoulder. “I know it's hard... seeing somepony just die like that. But these things... as terrible as they are... they just happen...”
She gazed into his cool maroon eyes for a few more seconds, watching them gaze back at her teary ones. Normally she would have found comfort in them, looking at her so tenderly like that, but all she felt was a white-hot iron picking upon her conscience. She blinked away more tears as the feeling of bearing the conductor's limp figure in her hooves, the horrible chill she felt when his mortality had finally hit her, rushed back.
He's dead, and all because I wasn't strong enough to save him. Because I wasn't good enough to save him...
She fell forward, burying her head in his chest and sobbing softly. “Why did he have to die?” she asked quietly.
“He didn't,” Mason replied, stroking her mane gingerly in an effort to comfort her. “It was just a freak mistake. He didn't deserve it.”
She was quiet for a moment more, hugging tightly to his torso, then asked, “Why couldn't I save him?”
“Because it was beyond your ability. You tried, Angel. You tried so hard... I'm sorry you had to go through this.” Then he gulped once, drearily added “I know it's not a good feel, watching somepony die and being helpless but to watch...”
Angel looked up, still lying her head on his chest. He looked back down at her softly, honest remorse twinkling in his eyes. She felt the warmth of his body on hers, the gentle hold he had on her, the way he stroked her mane comfortingly. His gaze soothed her, quieting her gentle sobs and calming her nerves. She laid her head back down, listening gingerly to his heartbeat. The simple rhythm did well to further the effect. She felt safe in his grasp, almost as though there was nothing wrong and that the whole ordeal had never happened. But it had happened, she knew, and as comforting as Mason's embrace was it simply could not erase that single stark reality.
Angel slowly closed her eyes and hugged his chest tightly, clawing at what small bit of consolation she could for the time being.
“Oh thank Terra,” Mason breathed heavily as he whipped open a cabinet door, revealing several rows of tin cans with simple paper labels taped to them. He grabbed one with his mouth and set it on the counter next to Angel, who was standing right next to him, before grabbing one for himself.
“Um...” Dealio began, looking at Mason in disbelief. “Are we really stopping to eat now? Couldn't we pick a better time to be doing this?”
Mason ignored the question, tearing the lid off of the can and looking at its contents. Inside was some kind of dried meat, which he promptly bit into a piece of. It was salty and had a certain pungency to it, but it mattered not to the starving unicorn. After a short moment of savoring his first taste of food in three days he glanced over at Dealio, still staring at him, dumbfounded.
“Neither of us have eaten in days,” he explained, procuring another piece of meat. “You'd take a minute to stop and eat if you were us, too.”
Dealio pondered this for a minute. “I suppose,” he said finally. He looked past Mason at Angel and said “Doesn't really look like she's too hungry, though.”
Mason turned and saw what the pony meant. Angel was simply standing there, gazing lazily at the can of food placed in front of her. Blankly her eyes slid across the label, though Mason couldn't tell if she was actually reading it or just going through the motions.
“Are you alright, Angel?” Mason asked, refraining from going for another strip of meat before she could answer. It was taking all the starving unicorn had not to just down the can in a few mouthfuls. He didn't know how Angel was resisting the urge for so long.
“Yeah,” she answered quietly. “I'm fine.” She picked up the can and turned to head out the doorway into the main mess hall. “I'm just gonna go eat out here,” she said, talking around the can held in her teeth. Her head was hung low as she walked through the open door, disappearing from view as she turned the corner.
Mason followed her with his eyes as she left and sighed. It had been a few hours since the conductor had died, and Angel was obviously still taking it quite hard. She had been very quiet and despondent since then, only speaking when either of them asked a question or spoke directly to her, and even then she had barely spoken a word to either of them. She had obviously taken the death of the conductor very hard, despite not even really knowing him. Mason honestly couldn't sympathize with her, and had done really nothing to help her beyond comforting her during her initial breakdown. Deciding that it was time to change that, he picked up the can by its lip and strode out into the mess hall, leaving Dealio in the kitchen alone. It was quite large, built to contain hundreds of ponies at a time originally. None of those that would typically be eating in the hall were here now though, whisked away along with every other pony in the facility. They hadn't seen a single one on their way here, so they could only assume that the one in control of the turrets back on the main deck was the only one here. Thinking about it once again sent a shiver down his spine; the concept was just too daunting. Mason didn't know why that psycho alone was here, but he didn't intend to stick around long enough to figure it out.
Mason's attention darted to the left as he heard Angel sniff and found her lying on the floor near a table. She was curled up, muzzle tucked tightly into her chest, the can resting a few inches in front of her. Her eyes were closed, but he could tell she wasn't sleeping, or even trying to get to sleep. Mason thought she looked rather pitiful like that. She looked helpless, weak almost. If there were ever a time to try to console her, it would be now. He strode over to her, and as he approached she opened her eyes to glare up at him. He set his can down and softly smiled at her, laying down himself. She uncurled a bit, smiling herself, and shimmied over to lay against his side. The notion did little more than stir him slightly, and he simply let her slump next to him. They lied together in silence for a few minutes, in which Mason had finished off the can of meat voraciously and greedily, and Angel just continued to stare at hers.
“What're you thinking about?” he asked finally after swallowing the final morsel at the bottom of his can.
“Oh, nothing,” she answered, barely shifting. “Just... you know.”
Mason nodded, laying his head on the ground. He glanced over at Angel's can of food, and though he would be more than willing to down another can he didn't want to ask Angel if she was going to eat hers. He just huffed and continued to gaze at it. He could get another from the kitchen later.
“Are you gonna be alright?” he asked her again.
Angel thought for a second, before slowly shaking her head with a sad sigh. “I'll be fine, Mason... but I don't think I'll ever really get over it. You don't get over something like that.”
“You don't have to tell that to me.” Mason raised his head and looked down at her. “You don't still blame yourself, do you?” She simply shook her head some more. “Good. It's not your fault he died, and there's no reason for you to think so.”
“He...” she breathed. “He. The conductor.” She paused. “We never even got his real name, did we?”
Mason blinked, surprised. He had never thought of it before, but she was right. The conductor had never told him nor Angel his true name. They never even made an attempt to ask. The realization weighed heavily in the pit of his stomach, not unlike that of a feeling of strong guilt.
“He just died nameless,” she continued. “It's a shame, really.”
“It is,” he agreed. He looked over to the left as he heard the patter of hooves on the ground and saw Dealio walking from the door to the kitchen, a can in his mouth. He watched as the pony moseyed slowly across the floor, sitting down by himself next to another table. He removed the saddlebags from his back, still hooked on ever since he had emerged from the train, and set them next to himself before peeling the lid off of the can. He quickly set to work rapidly and sloppily emptying it emptying it.
Angel looked up and over at him lazily, watching him eat for a few seconds before finally asking “You knew his name, didn't you?” The conductor looked up from the can, eying her suspiciously. “I mean, you were in the car with him for as long as we were. You two would have had to have talked at some point, right?”
Dealio swallowed a chunk of meat from his can before answering. “That we did. Not much else to do on a train, really.” He paused, sighed. “His name was Venture. He never told either of you that?” Both of them shook their heads. Dealio simply shrugged. “I can't honestly say that I'll miss him,” he said, returning to his food, “but it's no less a shame that he died.”
Angel laid her head back on the floor, and Mason continued to glare at the eating pony. The unicorn virtually seethed at him. He despised the portly pony with every fiber of his being. His disposition, his history, even his appearance put Mason on edge, and he would delight in nothing more than strangling the breath right out of the stunty little creature, but he knew that Angel wouldn't want or even allow it. So, swallowing his pride, he pursued a small conversation.
“Why are you even here?” the unicorn asked harshly.
“I could ask you the same thing,” the pony replied without looking up from the can.
“I asked first.”
“Fair enough.” Dealio swallowed another piece and looked at Mason. “I couldn't fuckin' stand that city anymore. It's a hellhole, and you of all ponies should know that.” Mason nodded idly. “I couldn't take it anymore, seeing and experiencing all of that every day. So, I decided I'd pack up and hit the road.”
“Where were you planning on going?” Angel asked, garnering a look from Mason. She had raised her head and was looking straight at the other pony, now curious of the tale he was telling.
“I don't honestly know,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of there and see what else I could do with my life. I'd probably be peddling something no matter where I go, but I wanted to do it somewhere other than the city. My initial plan was to head to the city next closest, but as long as I wasn't still in that one I could have cared less. I'd even have been fine for setting up here if I had to.” After a second of though he added “Well, I wouldn't anymore, but you know.”
“How'd you actually get them to let you on the train?” Mason asked.
“I just had to pay the conductor a good bit or two and he was more than happy to have me along. There were no more trains leaving any time soon and I didn't want to book a spot just so I could wait another month, so it was well worth the expense. Of course, if I'd known it was so easy I would have just stowed away like the pair of you had.”
“Yeah,” Mason scoffed, “and all we had to do to get an express ticket to hell was get chased through that industrial clusterfuck for a couple hours and take a bullet or two.” Mason twisted to the side to reveal the spot where the Warhorse's bullet had grazed him, which had freshly scabbed over since Venture had kicked him off of Dealio back on the deck.
Dealio raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “That's certainly something. What the hell were you two doing back there, anyway?”
“We were trying to escape from Hazard,” he explained. “You know, the asshole that you hired to come and kill us.”
“For the last time,” Dealio shouted, rage flowing through him as Mason once again falsely accused him, “I didn't hire anypony to kill you! You stole a loaf of bread, why would I hire anypony to do anything to you? It's completely moronic!”
“Well then explain to me why he told me specifically that you hired him, and why him and his gang was intent on murdering me and her both.”
“I don't know! I honestly, truly don't know, but what I do know is that I never hired anypony to do any sort of dirty work like that in my life, and I never plan to!”
Mason frowned. The pony's voice didn't betray him; either he was telling the truth, or he was a very good liar. Mason was willing to believe the former for now, but he would keep a very close eye on the pony from now on. If he was in fact lying, he would slip up at some point.
“Alright,” he muttered, settling back. “I suppose it doesn't matter anymore, anyway. We've lost him, and I highly doubt he'd be willing or even able to chase us both all the way here.”
“Good,” Dealio grunted. He returned the attention to his can, and seeing that it had been drained of it's contents, knocked it to the side. “Now, perhaps we should deal more with the situation at hand.”
“Agreed,” Angel said. “I think it's best if we just try to get out of here as fast as we can.”
“If only it were that easy,” Dealio said. He waited until he had the attention of both of them to continue. “This Waystation is built on a ravine. On one side of us is a solid stone wall. On the other is a bottomless pit. There's no way we're walking out of here.”
Angel sighed. “Well, what are our other options? Could we walk along the tracks?”
“It's thousands of miles to the next city or Waystation. Even if we didn't manage to slip and fall into a ravine or just get hit by another train before we got there, we'd almost certainly starve. We couldn't bring along enough supplies to keep us going for that long, not the three of us.”
“We do have two trains,” Angel offered.
“Both of which need refueling. Besides, I'm not going out there again with that psycho controlling the autolasers on deck. He'd kill us in an instant if he saw us going for one of the trains, much less stopping and trying to refuel the things ourselves.”
“Good point,” Mason said. “I don't want to risk going out there again either. We got lucky enough the first time.”
Dealio grunted. “Luck? You think it was luck that got us here?” Both of them stared back at the pony, confused. “What, you really think that he missed us on accident?”
“Why would he not hit us on purpose?” Angel asked, uneasy.
“Because, he didn't want to kill us. Just scare us.”
“That's crazy,” Mason said dismissively. “You heard the psycho. It sounded pretty obvious to me that he wanted us all dead.”
“And you think he was just a bad shot?” Mason nodded and Dealio chuckled ironically. “You dumbass. Think for a minute; I was the first one he shot at. I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not exactly the hardest target to miss, and I was standing still. A filly could have made that shot and killed me, and he pumped a round straight into the ground. Do you still think that he just can't aim?”
Mason opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, but nothing would come to him. Dealio was right; the evidence was staring him right in the face. There's no way the pony controlling the turrets could have hit his target with only one shot out of the hundreds he had let loose unless he deliberately meant to do so.
“But why?” Angel asked. “What's the purpose of him leaving us all alive?” She paused and added, “Well, almost all of us...”
“Isn't it obvious? He's playing with us. The reason he's not killing us now is because he likes watching us squirm, and he's going to keep it up for as long as he can before he's finally forced to just up and kill us like he did Venture and everypony else that used to live here.”
Angel shifted next to Mason. He glanced back and saw her curl up slightly once more, defensive. The conversation at hand was obviously disturbing her, as it was Mason as well.
“Alright,” he said, eager to change the topic, “we get it. It's not important. We're off the deck, and we're not going back on until we can make absolutely sure that he won't be able to attack us. Until then let's just try to find another way to get out of here.”
Dealio simply nodded, content to let the conversation rest there. He grabbed hold of the saddlebags at his side, pulled them around and flipped one of them open to begin investigating the contents. Mason looked back around to his side. Angel still laid there, half curled up and now glaring almost spitefully at the can of food before her.
“Angel, c'mon,” he muttered softly to her, sliding the can closer. “You haven't had anything in days, you need to eat.”
Angel looked up slightly and turned the can to face her, staring at the label. After a second she curled back up and said “I can't eat that.”
“Well you have to eat something. Aren't you hungry?”
“I'm starving, Mason,” she replied. “But I can't eat that.”
“What's wrong with it?”
Angel sighed, reluctant to answer. “It's... it's meat. I can't eat meat.”
Across the room Dealio rolled his eyes. Mason had to keep himself from doing so as well, but even then he couldn’t help but to ask, more inconsiderately than he intended, “Are you serious?” Angel didn’t respond, just glanced back at him. “Who the hell doesn’t eat meat?”
“I don’t,” she replied. “It’s not right, killing something just for food. Do you even know what animal that came from?”
“Does it matter?” Mason sighed in frustration. “It’s food, Angel. It’s not easy to come by; you take what you can get. You can’t be picky about things like that.”
“It’s not being picky!” she argued. “It’s an ideal! A moral!”
“It’s stupid and a good way to end up dead.”
Angel didn’t bother with a reply. She simply grunted angrily and laid her head back on the ground, purposefully diverting her eyes from the can seated before her. Mason glared at her confusedly. The only ponies he had ever heard of refusing to eat meat – or any kind of food, really – were priests or clerics or cardinals, and that was simply because they had the luxury to choose what they ate. Neither he nor Angel had such a luxury, and he couldn’t imagine that Dealio really did either. Her behavior and demeanor had always been strange to him before, but this was something else. Refusal to eat any less than you were given just seemed downright destructive to the unicorn, and any other time he might have gone off on a lengthier tangent than he already had.
Yet, Mason felt a frown slowly cross his face. With a sigh he had realized that, once again, he had ended up degrading her. Perhaps he hadn’t lowered himself to yelling at her like before, but he knew that his words still did more harm than good. It mattered not of her ideals in this instance. It hurt nopony now, and with a kitchen full of food a room away there was no reason for him to be addressing her like this, especially considering everything else she had been through today and in the last two before. Calmly he rose to his hooves and turned towards the doorway, trying to repress any outward display of regret. The action garnered Angel’s attention, who picked up on it instantly in spite of his efforts.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“You need to eat,” Mason said, “and even if you won’t eat meat you’ll have to eat something.” The unicorn glanced back at her, still frowning. “You stay here, I’ll go get you some vegetables or something.”
“I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself, Mason,” she argued, standing. She trotted next to Mason and looked him straight in the eye. He gazed back at her sternly, though he failed to hide any trace of compunction behind it.
“Fine,” he said after a moment of thought. He took his gaze off of her and walked forward, not bothering to apologize. He knew that she could see easily enough that he felt bad about what he had done. He simply walked on into the kitchen, Angel in tow. He glanced from side to side, giving the room a quick scan. From what he could gather, everything was exactly as he had left it. Angel turned and began to trot to an iron cabinet in the far corner of the room, prompting Mason to follow.
“What makes you so sure that there are even vegetables in here?” he asked.
“I don’t see why there wouldn’t be,” she said lazily. “I mean, it is a ki-”
Angel’s ears perked as she heard a skittering noise in the far corner of the room. Mason heard it too, and spun to face it.
“What was that?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” Mason said. “It sounded like a small animal. Probably a rodent or a large insect.”
Angel mumbled something to herself and turned her head back towards the cabinet, undoing the latch and swinging the doors open to reveal rows of cans stacked on the shelves. Mason approached next to her and closely scrutinized one of the cans, trying to make sense of the label.
“Um…” he mumbled. “Veh… vegeh… hmm… is this a can of vegetables?”
“Sure,” Angel said sarcastically, grinning. “…if that’s another word for ‘Baradye Fungus’.”
Mason frowned. “Close enough,” he said. He picked up the can and set it on the counter. Angel did the same, setting up a can next to him and peeling the lid off. Inside was some kind of black lumpy substance in thick, syrupy-looking discolored water. It looked particularly appetizing to neither of them.
“I’ll bet that salted meat looks pretty good right about now,” he said matter-of-factly. Angel rolled her eyes and reluctantly dipped her head to take a bite.
“Hmm,” she mumbled, still chewing. She swallowed and said “It’s not terrible,” before going for another piece. Mason peeled the lid off of his and was about to try it for himself, but was interrupted once more by another pitter-patter coming from behind them. It was closer this time, he noticed, skittering around an island behind them.
“What is that?” Angel asked cautiously.
“I told you, it’s probably just a rat or a bug or something. I mean what else could it be?”
“Could you check?” Mason glared at her. “Just to make sure, I mean.”
Mason rolled his eyes and turned around, striding towards the island. “Fine,” he called back lazily. “But I guarantee you, there is absolutely nothing behind this island that’s… that’s… oh…”
Mason trailed off as he turned the corner of the island and was met face-to-face with the last thing that he would ever expect to meet in this place; a small velvet-red colored filly, cowering on the floor before him. Her blue eyes were wide with fear as she stared back up at him. Her peach-colored mane was a mess, having been ruffled and messed around with as though she had been in some sort of struggle. She shivered, not out of the cold but out of fear he could tell. Mason didn’t want to move; if he did he might scare her off, and who knew what would happen to her then?
“Angel,” he breathed loudly enough for her to hear. He cocked his head but kept his eyes firmly affixed to the filly. “Angel, come over here.”
The pegasus obliged, turning away from her meal and drifting over where Mason was. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Is it really that bad-” She stopped talking instantly and her eyes widened as her eyes fell on the little pony on the floor. She looked at Angel now, and backed away a step.
“No, don’t!” Mason said quietly but urgently. The filly stopped. “We’re not gonna hurt you,” he said calmly. “Just don’t run away.” He glanced over to Angel and whispered “What the hell is she doing here?”
“I don't know,” Angel whispered back. “What do we do with her?”
“I don't know, but we can't let her run away. Who knows what could happen to her?”
Angel nodded, her eyes still affixed firmly to the filly. “We just want to help you,” she said, talking directly to the little pony. For a second it looked like the filly was about to comply, but that quickly changed as she turned and bolted past them, letting out a small squeak as she ran. Mason and Angel whirled around just in time to see her run out into the mess hall.
“Son of a bitch!” Mason said, dashing quickly after her. Angel did the same, leaping to her wings and flying through the door. The filly was scurrying as fast as her legs would carry her across the deck, crying and gasping out as she ran. She looked back to get a look at her pursuers, who were both fast approaching. That proved to be a mistake, however, as she rammed right into something and was sent tumbling back onto her haunches. She looked up to see Dealio standing in her way. She had run straight into his leg. She turned and scrambled to run the other way, hoping maybe to find another way out, but it was too late. Mason and Angel were already upon her, functionally boxing her in. They surrounded her; she had no way out. She was trapped, scared. Their eyes beat down on her relentlessly. She feared what they might do to her. Out of any other options, she did the only thing she could think to do; she fell to the deck, put her hooves over her head, curled up and began to cry.
“I want my mommy!” she wailed, her tiny voice broken by her sobs. “I just want my mommy back!”
“Her mother?” Mason asked, glancing over at Angel. She looked pitifully down at the terrified filly, her face seeming to grow sadder and sadder with every tiny sob the baby pony managed to choke out. She knelt down next to the filly and spoke softly to her.
“Baby, it’s okay,” she said gently. The filly opened an eye and looked at her, still shivering. “We’re not going to hurt you. We just didn’t want you to run away.” She leaned over and nuzzled the filly’s side to show her intentions. “See? We just want to help.”
The filly had stopped sobbing, but tears still fell from her eyes. She sniffed and gingerly said “D-did you see my mommy anywhere?” When Angel shook her head she started to sob again. “I just want my mommy back…” she mumbled.
“What happened to your mother?” Mason asked as softly as he could.
“I don’t know!” she cried. “She just left me here, told me to stay put. She ran off when the bad ponies came!”
“Bad ponies?” Angel asked. “What can you tell us about the bad ponies?”
“They came on the train,” she explained shakily. “The big security ponies shot at them, but they didn’t stop. They got off the train and came after us.” She shivered and curled up further as she explained more. “They came after other ponies and hurt them. They poked them and punched them. They made the other ponies scream and cry.” She took a deep breath and wailed “I don’t want them to do that to my mommy! Please don’t let them hurt her!”
Angel put a hoof over her back to console her. “It’s okay baby, we won’t let them hurt her. We’ll go find her, okay?”
“Wait, woah,” Dealio said, suddenly paying attention. “You’re not serious are you?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Angel said, almost growling.
“We can’t just go screwing around in here looking for somepony! Not with a psychopath in control of the weapons systems and a band of raiders or some shit just fuckin’ around in the halls of the place! We’d get ourselves killed long before we found ‘mommy’, and even then we’d still have wasted a shitload of time that we could have spent trying to find a way out of here.” Dealio grunted. “It’s just not worth it.”
“How dare you?!” Angel raged, standing over the pony. The filly scurried away, nestling next to one of Mason’s legs. “How could you say such a thing? And in front of her, no less! Do you have no consideration, is that it? What would you do if you were her, if your mother was lost somewhere in here?”
“My mother’s long dead,” Dealio said dismissively. “And anyway, it’s not me, it’s her. It’d be senseless to kill four ponies just to appease one of them. We can take her with, I have no qualms about that, but we aren’t spending a second screwing around and trying to look for somepony who very well might already be dead!”
The filly let out another sob and hugged tight to Mason’s leg, burying her face in the appendage. Angel, furious and appalled, turned from him to Mason. “Well it’s not your decision anyway!” she called back. “C’mon, Mason. Tell him.”
Mason was silent.
“Mason…?” she said, stunned in disbelief. “Tell him.”
Mason simply continued to stare at the tiny filly cuddling his leg. After a few seconds he looked up, though he dared not meet Angel in the eyes.
“It does make sense,” he mumbled. “If we don’t search we have a much higher chance of escaping. It’s virtually senseless to try.”
Angel was speechless. She had nothing to say. She looked back and forth between Dealio and Mason, her face a play of defeat, shock and sheer disappointment. “So that’s it then?” she asked quietly. “We’re just going to let this poor filly become an orphan then? We’re just going to abandon any hope of finding her mother just so we can try to get out of here a little faster?” Mason and Dealio were both silent. The filly was now looking up at Angel. “I can expect this from you,” she said, turning to Dealio. “But you… Mason, you know better than this.”
“I just want to live, Angel,” the unicorn said.
“And I don’t?” She sighed and got closer to him. “Mason, I want to live too. But we can’t just leave her mother here if she’s still alive. She shouldn’t have to go her whole life without a mother.” She placed a hoof on his chin to raise his eyes to hers. “You of all ponies should know what that feels like.”
The leaden feeling in Mason’s stomach was returning. He looked back down at the filly, who had taken to snuggling up to Mason’s stomach as he sat. She had curled herself up and closed her eyes. He could suddenly sympathize with what she felt all too painfully. He knew the fear and hopelessness that she felt, the terror at the thought of her mother never returning. He didn’t want her to have to know the feel of finally realizing that her mother never would return. Even if the chance was small that her mother would ever be found alive, she at least deserved one. So, against Mason's better judgment, he looked up into Angel's eyes and spoke.
“You're right,” he said, sighing. “She deserves a chance at finding her, at least. We'll look for a little bit, and if we can't find her then we'll just try to look for a way out.”
“You can't be serious!” Dealio said, getting an angry look from both of them. “You!” he said, gesturing to Mason. “You've been a survivor your whole life, you should know how pointless and dangerous this is!”
“You're right,” Mason said, standing. “I have been a survivor my whole life. It's a hellish world when you have to take care of yourself since you're nothing but a colt.”
“Exactly! So you should know that-”
“Which is exactly why we're going to look for her mother.” Mason looked down to his side to see the filly standing next to him, beaming hopefully up at him.
“I... I don't understand,” Dealio said.
“No, you don't. Losing your parents when you're this young is something you've never had to go through. I have, and I know that she doesn't deserve that. Nopony does.”
“But if we look for her we're all going to get killed!” he argued. “Those raiders are still here, I know it, and every minute we stay here longer than we have to-”
“We're going to look for her mother!” Mason said sternly, shutting the earth pony up. “Now, please, if you don't want to come with us feel free to go cruising around here by yourself, because I've had just about enough of you anyway!”
Dealio's ears depressed, defeated. As much as he didn't want to spend time searching for somepony who was almost positive was dead, searching the halls of the Waystation for a way out on his own with raiders in the place was completely out of the question. He'd have no choice but to go with them.
Mason picked up on his decision before he had voiced it. “That's what I thought,” Mason said. “Now, we can all take a few minutes to get ready, but I want to start looking as soon as we can. The quicker we get to finding her, the better.” He turned to Angel. “You should finish eating. I don't know when we'll next be seeing food.”
Angel nodded in compliance, smiling in relief as she turned back towards the doorway to the kitchen. Mason followed behind her, and the filly next to him. She hopped next to him, looking like she was trying to leap over him. Mason looked down at her curiously and asked “What are you doing?”
Angel turned to see the filly hopping next to Mason. She giggled and turned towards him. “Here,” she said, leaning down. “I think this is what she wants.” Angel nosed under the filly's belly, picking her up with her muzzle and placing her onto Mason's back. Instantly she scrambled to his neck and hugged it tightly, burying her face in his mane.
“Aw...” Angel mumbled. “That's cute.” Even Mason was unable to resist a small smirk. “She really likes you for some reason.” Mason looked back at her, prompting her to pull her face out of his mane.
“What's your name?” Mason asked softly.
“M... Merry,” she said after a few seconds, before burying her face in Mason's mane again.
“She's shy,” Angel giggled.
“Well, Merry, are you hungry?” Mason asked. Without pulling back she nodded slightly. “Well come on them, let's get you something to eat.” The only response she offered was pulling tighter on the unicorn's neck.
Mason and Angel walked steadily back into the kitchen, leaving Dealio alone in the mess hall to sift through his saddlebags and mumble something obscene to himself.
Author’s Note: Alright, so that whole “Getting the next chapter up in a believable amount of time” thing didn’t go exactly as planned. As it turns out, I’m really terrible with that kind of thing. I would have had it out a week earlier, but I rushed the ending, and I’ll be damned if I give my few readers any less than the best of my abilities. So, here I am a good 40 days after chapter five, offering what meager sacrifice I can. I’ll honestly try to have the next one out in less than a month, and hopefully most after that.
Angel gasped for breath as she was flung to the iron decking. She hit the ground hard, landing in a slump on the floor. She hacked and sputtered, trying to get the air she had knocked out of her back into her lungs. Instantly the pegasus scrambled to get back to her hooves. Apprehension burned intensely in her mind.
What just happened? Angel thought as she clamored to her hooves. She held a hoof to her head where she had hit the ground hard and gazed wearily at her surroundings. She was in a hallway, illuminated dully by torch crystals mounted to the walls. They did little to ward off the darkness; she could barely see a thing, and what little definition she could muster was clouded as her head swam from the force of the impact.
Where am I? Angel asked, leaning up against a wall. Gradually her weariness was beginning to give way to a looming sense of horror. She looked around some more. Where is Mason? Where's Merry and Dealio? How did I even get here?
The pegasus tried to calm herself and think. She tried to recollect on what had happened to her, but everything before crashing into the floor like that was blurred by uncertainty and growing panic. The last thing she remembered was a storage closet with the four inside of it. After that she was sent sprawling to the floor a few feet from here.
“Mason!” she cried fearfully. She tried to focus her eyes to the low light, but she could hardly see to the wall across from her. The darkness confined her; made her feel as though she were trapped. “Dealio!” she continued. “Merry!” She pushed off of the wall and trotted down the hall a few steps, shouting “Is anypony there?!”
Angel froze solid as stone as a creak behind her broke the ambient silence of the hallway. Her base instincts begged her to flee, but she resisted the overwhelming urge to do so. She stood her ground, quivering visibly, and slowly looked back to the rear of the hallway. She was relived only barely to see that there was nopony there, but rather a towering wooden doorway. She craned her head up and saw that she had drastically miscalculated the corridor’s height; the double-doors towered a good twenty feet into the air, almost farther than the glow of the torch crystals would reach. Ornate bronze fittings snaked down the stained wooden surface, ending in a heavy lock mechanism near the bottom. The lock had been opened, and one of the doors had been pushed slightly open. A dreary glow burned within, overpowering that of the torches lining the corridor. The door was cracked open just barely though, and she could not see inside.
“Hello?” she asked quietly, frightened to raise her voice. Nopony responded as her voice carried down the hall. She stood away from the wall she was leaning on and turned to the door, calling out again. “Who’s there?” she called, louder this time, as she began to slowly inch closer and closer to the open door. “Anypony?”
As Angel drew closer she began to hear noises coming from within. Faintly she could hear the grind of chalk on something solid. Something wet splattered across the floors or walls. A piece of metal ground against another with piercing scrape that made the pegasus wince frightfully.
That's when she registered the crying.
On the other side of the door somepony sobbed quietly. Whoever it was sounded male. They were trying to hold it back; the sobs came quietly and as though they had been choked out. They sounded terrified, like they were trying to hide from something. Their sobs were laden heavily with grief and remorse, almost like they were crying out silently for help.
Angel took a reinforced stance in the hall. Whoever was on the other side of the door needed somepony's help. They could be of no harm to her, otherwise they wouldn't be crying as they were. Still she was afraid, or at the very least skeptical; she had been inexplicably tossed into this hall but minutes before without any explanation. The fact that there was somepony in such a condition just on the other side of a nearby door seemed too coincidental.
Her suspicions quickly took a back seat to instinct as another sob broke Angel from her thoughts. It mattered not the conditions, this pony needed help. If anypony was in the position to provide it, it was her. Swallowing her misgivings the pegasus trotted reluctantly forward, pushing the door open with her snout. She froze in the doorway as it swung open, utterly paralyzed at what was concealed behind it. Her eyes widened and her heart fluttered as her mind struggled to fully register what played out before her.
The room within was utterly massive. It must have been two hundred feet long at least, and it looked as though it could possibly be half as tall. At the far end of the chamber stood the reason for its size, foreboding and humbling; an utterly gargantuan granite statue stood erect at the end of the chamber. It felt as though it glared down at her with almost crushing scrutiny. The monument appeared to be of a Warhorse, as it stood on two hind legs and possessed hands rather than forehooves. Its head was covered and concealed by a sculpted cowl, as were its legs by a thick robe. Its arms were outstretched in what was likely intended to be perceived as warm and welcoming. The longsword in one hand and the massive revolver in the other, though, made the monolith appear rather hostile. Every tiny detail on it was carved and polished to visible perfection. Lower down there stood a great blackwood podium before the statue. Before it pews lined the floor of the spacious chamber. Red torch crystals were placed almost everywhere, all lit and burning dimly. Waves of light splashed across the monument's surface, granting it an almost demonic emanation. The room was almost certainly a place of worship.
And at the base of it all, sitting just fifty feet ahead between a set of displaced pews sat Hazard.
Every ounce of courage Angel had worked up to wander in here drained away the second she saw him. She knew instantly it was the psyker; the metal suit he wore, the splashes of red paint, and the overall aura of demented mania that hung with him were unmistakable. Even from this distance she felt helpless at his presence. Every muscle in her body quivered, begging her to turn and run, but she remained hopelessly anchored to the ground.
The pegasus tensed as Hazard began to shift. His head, hung low, slowly began to rise toward the ceiling. The unicorn’s eyes were shut tight, his teeth clenched and lips tight. With a start she gazed at his face; tears trailed in rivulets from his eyes. His jaw quivered as he choked out a weak cry.
He’s the one crying? Angel asked herself. She watched, wholly perturbed as he raised a hoof slightly. A long blade, glowing white hot, jutted from an aperture in his leg plating. It sparked as it grazed the metal flooring, leaving a molten trail in its wake. The pegasus stifled a gasp as it rose; He knows I’m here, she thought. He has to know... and he’s... he’s going to...
Angel gulped and blinked, feeling her teeth clench fearfully. He had done something to her, she realized. She hadn’t just randomly crashed in the middle of the hall. He had somehow brought her here.
How is he here, though? She had finally been able to muster enough control to take a single meager step backwards. He can’t be here! He couldn’t have followed us, much less beat us here! There’s no way! It’s just... he can’t...
The sound of Hazard’s voice made her blood freeze over. He spoke directly to the head of the statue, looking almost straight up. His voice was quiet and hushed to the point that Angel couldn’t make out his words definitively. All she could do was helplessly watch as blade rose. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it; she knew it was meant for her. There was no other reason for her to be here.
Jerkily she managed another step back. Thoughts whisked through her head faster than she could interpret them. She tried to find a way out, but she couldn’t think straight. All she could focus on was the burning blade, slowly rising higher and higher.
Abruptly the blade stopped. The glow of near-molten metal lapped against Hazard’s dark coat. The tip rested directly below his ear, not even an inch from his skin. He held it steady at his neck. Angel could see the tendons in his neck tighten. She cringed and stooped down, praying that she would be able to run if he charged her... once he charged her.
Angel’s ears perked as Hazard whispered something else completely incoherent, before doing the last thing she would have ever expected; he didn’t turn and sprint down the aisle. He didn’t look at her or even give any implication that he knew she was there. The psyker simply began to crack a grim smile, his jagged white teeth showing unnervingly, and without another word turned the blade on himself. He jammed the weapon into the flesh below his ear, the superheated tip sliding between his skin without the slightest bit of resistance.
The pegasus couldn’t stifle a gasp anymore. Hazard hadn’t taken notice of her though, the weapon slicing down along his neck now. He didn’t cry out or even flinch as it worked its way down. He simply sat and held his wicked sneer as the blade worked through what must have been crippling pain. It singed his coat, blood seeping out and staining the burnt fur around the gash as he proceeded with what must have been a masochistic fervor.
After a warped few seconds the blade had finally run its course. Hazard slid the weapon from his flesh at the base of his shoulder blade and began to lower it, blood dripping from its surface as it cooled from white to red and then back to steel gray. He lowered his head to the side, eyes still shut, and brought the blade down to the floor once more. Angel’s horror reinforced itself as it touched the cold iron surface; the blood on the tip of the weapon slowly began to glow inexplicably, progressing from a dull red to a pure white glow in a matter of seconds. She gave a slight start as like lightning the glow spread from the blood and across the floor, encompassing Hazard in a lambent magical rune. Trails of white light crisscrossed around the unicorn as little by little the rune began to glow ever-brighter.
Her eyes were drawn back to the wound as it too began to glow a sickly white. His seared flesh began to mend back together; the blood soaking his burnt coat began to blend into the fur. It stained itself a permanent red, indistinguishable from the splashes of paint upon the rest of his body. The stain spread as the glow of the rune gradually shone brighter, stirring up an artificial breeze as its light began to overtake Hazard’s form. She was forced to squint and rear back involuntarily as the rune became too bright to look directly at. Her mane blew in her face as the force of the wind rose with the brightness of the rune. Still the psyker sat adamant within it as Angel was forced to block her eyes with a foreleg, the glow becoming blinding in brightness.
Then, suddenly and abruptly, her fears were realized.
Angel could no longer contain her horror as Hazard finally opened his horrid yellow eyes, staring directly at her with his wicked smile set like stone in his face. She screamed and fell onto her back, kicking at the ground with her legs, trying frantically to escape his demonic gaze. His eyes, like vibrant, hellish pits were even more grotesquely terrifying than the last time they had been laid upon her. Every plan that she had formulated to escape from the unicorn was forgotten as those terrible eyes bored straight through into her mind. All she could do was kick and scramble on the floor like an animal as the psyker’s will easily overpowered her helpless constitution.
The rune had finally reached its zenith. With a final powerful gust the light overtook the rest of the chamber, burning brighter than anything she had ever seen. Angel looked away and down at the floor as finally and violently the light of the rune dispersed before her, the force of the gale it generated almost powerful enough to blow her into the air. It knocked over pews that had been long lost in the rune’s light. The pegasus curled on the floor, terrified and completely defenseless. It was all she could do to escape from what played out before her.
She finally raised her head once more as the gust died abruptly with the powerful glow of the rune. She gazed up at it frightfully; it still burned in the middle of the chamber, just barely bright enough to make out the lines on the iron floor. Around it the torch crystals still stood, somehow unaffected by the gale that had knocked over the pews around them. In the center of the rune where Hazard once sat though hung only empty space. The unicorn had disappeared completely, leaving only the rune itself as evidence of his presence.
He’s… gone? Angel thought, confused. She stared blankly at the rune, absent of the unicorn that had held her in his unholy gaze only seconds before. Tiny flecks of light fell all around it, winking in and out of existence as they drifted to the floor. Beyond the rune towered the statue, obdurate and unmoving as it gazed down upon her. She looked around and behind her, but still she could not find the psyker. He couldn’t have just disappeared, she continued, her muscles tense. He has to be somewhere.
Yet, it seemed that Hazard really had disappeared. She trotted cautiously forward to get a better look at the rune. Within the lambent geometric shapes scrawled on the floor she expected to find the unicorn’s blood where it had been spilled by the blade; instead she only found the discolored steel floor. Still unsure she let her eyes wander the room again, yet the psyker refused to present himself.
I guess he really is gone… she thought, breathing a short sigh of relief. She let herself sit, fatigue suddenly flushing over her as alarm and terror rushed away. Her heart raced in her chest and her breathing was sporadic. She composed herself, reaching a hoof up to wipe her eyes. She recoiling a bit as her foreleg found wetness on her muzzle. The unicorn had frightened her to the point of tears, she realized with a sigh. She looked at her hoof wearily, moist with her tears now, and cracked a small grin. She chuckled quietly, relief overtaking her.
He didn’t hurt me, she mused, eyes affixed to her hoof. He didn’t even touch me… and I’m still crying. She lowered her hoof to the floor once more. He’s really messed me up, hasn’t he?
“Oh, don’t beat yourself up…”
Angel froze solid as Hazard’s gravelly voice ground out behind her. Her head stooped, her eyes shut and her teeth clenched as she heard an armored hoof clank on the floor. The pegasus dared not look back to look; she didn’t want to see the unicorn standing there, drawing slowly closer with that terrible smile on his face as she knew he was. The feeling of his burning gaze came crashing violently back to her.
“True, you don’t hold nearly as well as most other ponies would…” he muttered, closer now. “But you’re much better than last time…”
He highlighted his taunt with a dark cackle, his breath beating against her shoulder. It jarred her enough to open her eyes and look over to her right; Hazard’s head hung inches away from hers, over her shoulder. His eyes were lazily shut, and his smile was more slight than before. Angel held her breath frightfully, glaring stiffly at the unicorn. Her jaw was locked open, a shrill cry caught in her throat as her heart dropped like a rock into her stomach. She begged her legs to move or her wings to carry her away, but they too were rigid with trepidation.
“You know, it’s funny,” he began, his eyes cracking slowly open. Angel diverted her gaze to the floor, but even then she couldn’t keep from wandering back to his horrid glare. He looked at her trivially, smirking amusedly. She allowed herself no reprieve when he pulled away and drifted ahead, glancing back at the quivering pegasus.
“Ironic, really,” the unicorn continued. “You’re the first pony to witness this ritual in tens of thousands of years…” He paused and pivoted to look back at her amusedly. “And you don’t even know what you just saw, do you?”
Angel didn’t answer, her head hung low and her eyes glued on the floor. He knew that she had no idea what was happening. The unicorn was toying with her for the time being; stalling. Why, she didn’t know. She didn’t want to think about what he would do to her, but the unicorn’s last threat hung in the back of her mind unshakably now.
Seeing that she wouldn’t speak, Hazard continued with his tirade. “It goes back to the days of the Underworld Exodus,” he said, turning and trotting slowly towards the monument at the head of the chamber. “Just coming out of a religious renaissance and all, heresy and blasphemous zeal were both rampant. Equestrians following Terra to the Underworld didn’t change that. They were still damned, and no measure of repentance or repeal would change that. Those who were shunned by Terra would remain so… and if they died shunned, their souls would drift eternally in nothingness rather than with Terra, such as all equine souls belong.”
Where is he going with this? Angel wondered, trying a glance at her terrible captor. The second she looked up at Hazard he looked back, though, drawing her eyes back to the ground with a slight whimper. The psyker grinned evilly, satisfied with the spell he had cast over her.
“So,” Hazard boomed, facing her and proceeding forward, “Terra gifted us with a test… the test you just saw.” He paused, ten feet before her and still drawing closer. “You would draw your own blood, pray the Terrum Malochus, Terra’s Prayer, and await divine judgment. If you passed, your wound was healed and your blood would form a Holy Eye Rune like you just saw… you were forgiven of your past life and allowed to start one with Terra anew.” He stopped in front Angel, barely three feet from her, and sat down. He still held his lazy gaze, and she still refused to look up at him. “But if it didn’t work… if Terra didn’t forgive you for your heresy and whatever else… nothing.”
Finally Angel managed to look up at Hazard as she processed what he was telling her. The unicorn looked down at her smugly, devoting every fiber of his being to intimidating her. It was certainly working.
“Some ponies couldn’t handle rejection,” he continued, stooping down to meet her eye-to-eye. “Not of this magnitude. Stricken with grief, they’d do it again. Then they’d do it again…” Garnering the look of horror from Angel he had wanted, he continued. “Some extremists would do it until they either were either forgiven or they died from the sheer trauma of abusing themselves so rapaciously.”
Angel looked the unicorn up and down, eying everywhere his coat wasn’t concealed by his armor. What she used to think were splashes of red paint she now realized as remnants of past rituals. She wouldn’t devote time to thinking about how many times it had happened; she simply looked up into Hazard’s eyes and began to blather.
“But… but you… you’ve… why?” she choked out, fighting back terror. Her fright at her situation was overridden by shock at the thought of such violent abuse of one’s self not once, but dozens of times.
Hazard rose back up and turned from Angel. His smile disappeared with the question. “I’m not like other ponies, Angel,” he said drearily. “I wasn’t born into Terra’s love like the countless souls that dwell in the Underworld today. I was born a freak… a monster and a heretic. My soul hadn’t earned its place with Terra, and I didn’t deserve it. I did the ritual to earn my right and Terra’s forgiveness… and I succeeded.”
“But…” Angel stuttered, glaring at him in disbelief. “But… why would you do it so many times?! You only had to do it once!”
Hazard turned, annoyance plain on his face. “Yes,” he said. “I only had to do it once. Yes, I passed Terra’s test. And yes, my everlasting soul has been saved from limbo…” He paused, biting his lip and looking hard at Angel. She thought that Hazard might actually start crying again. Suddenly he spat “But that doesn’t mean I deserve it!”
Angel was confused. “But… what?” she asked quietly.
Hazard scoffed dismally. “What I’m guilty of shouldn’t be overridden by a simple prayer and a slice on my skin! It matters not how many times I do this ritual, it will never make me any more deserving of forgiveness than I am now! I do this not because I wish to save myself, but because it’s what I deserve! I don’t deserve Terra’s forgiveness, and until I do all I’ll ever deserve is this pain!”
The pegasus looked away from Hazard as he began to circle her. She knew that Hazard’s mind was damaged, but not the extent. He challenged even Mason’s religious ardor. At least he had never harmed himself to this extent for such a purpose.
Hazard’s grin slowly returned. “Ironic that you, of all ponies, would meet my sole chance at deliverance.”
Angel was again confused, something that Hazard picked up instantly. “Do you honestly think,” the psyker continued, “that I would follow anypony for hundreds of miles and kill hundreds of others just to take out one pony with a stick so far up his ass that he’s coughing up sawdust if he wasn’t of some importance to me?” He rolled his eyes for emphasis. “I suppose you must if you and him both thought that you’d brought this upon yourselves by stealing a loaf of bread for this long!”
The pegasus followed him as he circled her, prying at him for answers. Everything the unicorn said only sent her spiraling further and further into perplexity. “What… what are you saying?” she asked.
Hazard sighed, frustrated with her ignorance. “You really don’t get it, do you?” Angel just stared back in response. He turned from her once more. “Mason is special… different. There’s a reason I can’t perceive his mind like I can yours and everypony else’s; you just haven’t figured out that reason yet. I can’t imagine he has either.”
“Mason’s… special?” Angel’s own curiosity began to overpower Hazard’s intimidation. “What do you mean he’s ‘special’?!” the pegasus demanded, leaning forward.
Angel’s sudden burst of confidence amused Hazard. He smiled and slid abruptly towards her, making her involuntarily recoil and squeak in surprise. He chuckled victoriously at her hasty reaction, which died slowly as the pegasus gave him a look of frustration. His sinister smile remained.
“Part of me wants to feel bad for you, Angel,” Hazard drawled smugly, sitting down in front of her. “At first glance you’re just a victim of circumstance, drawn into something deeper than anypony like you could ever imagine. You’re just the accessory of some idiot who made the mistake of getting himself caught and should have died in a cold alleyway in a nameless city. You seem like you have no business being involved in this, same as the hundreds I’ve killed effortlessly in this place, and for that I am truly sorry for all the harm that has and will befall you.”
“But at the same time,” the unicorn continued, stooping down to meet the pegasus eye-to-eye, “I know this can’t be chance. Mason, the single most important unicorn to me in the entire Underworld, and you… you, of all ponies! You and him, both miraculously crossing paths and falling right into my lap; that’s supposed to be a coincidence?”
The unicorn rose back up into a full stand. “That can’t be chance. Terra put you both together and delivered you to me for a reason. He has a task for me… a purpose.” Hazard pivoted on his haunches and lifted a hoof to walk away, but stopped to glance back at the cowering pegasus, a grimace on his face. “And when that purpose is realized, I’ll finally earn a just place next to Him.”
Hazard looked away from her and began to drift slowly down the aisle of pews, leaving Angel quivering where she sat before the rune. She caught herself breathing heavily, mouthing words of confusion under her breath. She raised her head and called out to the unicorn; “Why do you have to kill Mason?” she cried. “What makes him so important?” She got no answer as he continued, her questions ricocheting off of him like bullets off of metal. She tried again; “Why are you telling me all of this? What did you bring me here for at all?” Once again the psyker ignored her, paying her no more than a twitch of his ear in response. Anger mixed with fear within the desperate pegasus; she had already taxed her confidence enough with the last few questions she had asked, but she had to know. She couldn’t just leave the room without knowing what was going on. So, braving a final question she opened her mouth and desperately cried; “Why am I so important?!”
The question froze Hazard dead in his tracks.
“You talk about me like I’m some kind of religious icon or some prophecy or something!” she continued, against her deepest instincts. Her body tried to tell her to stop; her eyes watered, her legs shook and her stomach grew sick with anxiety, but still she carried on. “Like I matter to you or to Terra somehow! Tell me, how?! How do I matter to you or to Terra at all?! How do I affect anything that will ever happen anymore than anypony else will?!” She paused, giving herself a second to draw an unsteady breath before finishing with “And why does it matter at all that me and Mason met up like we did?! What does any of this have to do with anything?!”
Angel gulped anxiously. She immediately regretted speaking to Hazard in such a way. She knew the unicorn wouldn’t just let her walk away, but now she didn’t know what he would do. He simply stood there, looking up at the statue and meeting its imaginary gaze. A long distant sense of entrapment came rushing back to her as her heart fluttered with worry.
“You want to know why you’re so important, Angel?” the psyker asked calmly. “Why you matter so much to me?” He glanced back slightly, awaiting the pegasus’s answer. “Well? Do you?”
Angel stared blankly, her jaw hanging open. Finally she managed nod and weakly croak “Y-yes… I do.”
The unicorn remained quiet for a few seconds, before starting up in a low chuckle that quickly turned into an unsettling laugh. His armored chest heaved visibly, and he was forced to lower his head. Angel looked on fearfully, queasily awaiting his answer, until Hazard reared his head and looked back at her directly. Her spine went rigid as his yellow eyes drilled into hers; his toothy smile was disheartening to the point that she had to bite back an involuntary whimper. It wasn’t until the unicorn turned fully to face her that she averted her gaze with gritted teeth.
“Angel,” he muttered. “You matter to me because, in essence, you are me.”
Angel’s eyes bolted open, her head swinging around to face Hazard. “What do you mean, ‘I am you’?” she asked, her voice wavering.
The unicorn let out a short cackle and began to trot towards her. “You and me, Angel?” he said. “We’re one in the same. We share a stronger bond than any other two ponies in the entirety of the Underworld.”
“I’m nothing like you!” she cried, more terrified than enraged at what he insinuated. “You’re a murderer and a rapist! A psychopath! You and I are nothing alike!”
“Don’t play at such trivial things to separate us,” he spat. He stood before her, looking almost straight down into her deep caramel eyes. “On the surface we’re polar opposites, true. But deep down, at base value… I mean, look at us. We both hunger. We think. We pride. We wonder. We hold value.” He smirked a bit, a motion that Angel swallowed at. Hazard leaned slowly down next to her, his lips by her ear, and whispered “We lust…”
The words would have made Angel retch had they not frozen her like stone. The unicorn pulled back, the amused smirk still wide on his face. She wanted to object to what he was telling her, but the words wouldn’t come. All that filled her head were the last two words he had uttered, bouncing violently around in her mind.
“But that means nothing,” he said dismissively. “Those are traits we all share; you, me, Mason, everypony. They’re base and completely meaningless.” He paused, backing up a bit. “But do you know the one thing that makes us unique? It’s the one thing that you and I both share. The single, lone thing you and I both have in common that binds us closer than any other two ponies in the entire Underworld.”
Hazard stopped rearing back, standing just far enough away from Angel for his head to block out the statue’s. She looked up at him in a mixture of disgust and fear; he looked back with pride and intimidation. The pegasus held her breath as she awaited his words, her stomach churning and threatening to empty itself from worry.
Hazard stood full and tall and squared his shoulders. He softened his eyes, grinned villainously and began to speak softly one final time. “It’s not instinct. It’s not spiritual, historical. It’s not genetic, or even magical…”
“It’s the sin that we share.”
Angel was blinded as high above the monument’s head, bright as it was in every dream she had lived through since seeing it, the implacably familiar orb of light that she had seen in the chapel’s painting so very long ago burned to spontaneous life.
“Here, you take her!”
Angel blinked and shook her head, confused and disoriented. To her left stood Dealio, an eyebrow raised as he stared half-amusedly, half-disbelieving at something in front of her. She followed his gaze to find that he stared at a disgruntled Mason, holding Merry by the scruff of her neck in his mouth. The little filly frowned and stared at Angel, expectant and clueless.
Did I just zone out? Angel asked herself, sweeping around with her eyes. She must have; she didn’t remember walking here very vividly. They stood in a small cavern, one of the multiple naturally-formed Waystation corridors, with glowing crystals burning overhead. She must’ve lost track of her thoughts not too long ago; the cave was familiar, but she couldn’t remember how long they’d been walking through it. It also seemed that Mason had just spontaneously appeared before her as well, carrying Merry in his teeth. Everything else was addled by inattentiveness.
“What?” she said obtusely, looking back at Merry. She looked back at the pegasus guiltily, like she had done something wrong.
“You carry her,” Mason muttered, his voice muffled by the filly in his mouth. He opened his mouth and let her fall to the floor, landing on her rump with a squeak. She shook her head and looked up at Angel, her lips quivering. “I don’t want to deal with her right now.”
“W… what did she do?” Angel asked, leaning down to nuzzle Merry’s cheek. She must have done something serious to get Mason this angry with her.
Mason grunted and turned. “She was annoying,” was all he spat in return before stomping on.
Angel frowned and glowered at the unicorn before turning her attention back to Merry. The filly hugged her muzzle, her eyes closed and nosing the bridge of the pegasus’s nose. She smiled and nuzzled into the filly’s belly. “C’mon, up you go,” she said, raising her head and bringing Merry up with her. The filly climbed onto her back and hugged Angel’s neck, burying her head in the pegasus’s mane and letting out a tiny sigh.
“Cute,” Dealio said, walking up next to her. Angel glanced over at him and rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, she is,” she agreed unenthusiastically. The pegasus looked back ahead and followed after Mason, giving ten feet of space between them. After a few seconds she looked back to Dealio and quietly asked “What did she do?”
“She was just bugging him,” he answered plainly. “He put up with it for a while, but then she mentioned something about his cutie mark and he just kind of flipped.”
“I’m sorry,” Merry chirped, her voice muffled by Angel’s mane.
Angel looked back and rubbed her cheek on the filly’s head. “It’s not your fault,” she said. She spoke to Dealio again; “Yeah… he really doesn’t like it when ponies talk about that. I’m not really surprised he got mad at her.”
Dealio snorted. “What the hell is his problem anyway?” he asked brusquely.
“Well how would you feel if you got to be his age and you were still a blank flank?” Her eyes wandered the Dealio’s own cutie mark; three stacks of gold coins. “And on top of that, completely unable to use magic too?”
“I’ve dealt without magic just fine,” the earth pony replied, gesturing to his hornless head. “And besides, that’s not what I meant. Before he was perfectly willing to tell me to shut my whore mouth about leaving her mother somewhere; now he’s the one telling her to fuck off? I mean what gives? Is he bipolar or something?”
Angel frowned at the pony. His disregard of Merry’s presence while using such vulgarity was less than impressive to the pegasus. She just sighed and continued on. “I don’t think Mason’s bipolar, he’s just… confused.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mason’s really never had social contact like this before. He’s never had friends or personal attachments like this at all. It’s all by his own accord. He doesn’t really know how to act around ponies, I don’t think. He’s told me multiple times that I’m really the only friend he’s ever had, and even still he manages to lose his temper on me like that pretty often as well.”
“You’re his only friend,” Dealio scoffed. “Gee, I wonder why?”
“It’s not like he had much of a choice!” Angel snapped. “Mason’s parents died when he was a colt. They were the only two ponies he’s ever gotten attached to in any way, and I don’t really think he ever got over their deaths. Can you imagine how devastating it would be to lose everything you have when you’re that young? It’s no wonder he’s so cynical; I mean would you really want personal attachment after that?” She paused and sighed a bit, looking back to Merry. “I don’t even know for sure if he’d care if something happened to me. He says he would… but I know him better than that. I don’t really think he would.”
Next to her Dealio gritted his teeth. “What is wrong with you?” he barked. “Are you like his marefriend or something?”
Angel grunted in frustration, sliding away from the portly pony. “Why do I even bother talking to you?” she asked. “You don’t care about me, her or Mason at all, do you?”
“No,” he admitted. “No, I don’t. But I wasn’t making fun of you.”
Angel glared over at him and found him staring back. He looked at the pegasus gently, a slight smirk on his face. His eyes were cold but sincere.
“I’m not a completely heartless bastard,” he said, looking back ahead. “No matter how much I might sound like it.”
“You wanted to abandon her mother,” Angel muttered derisively. The pony shrugged idly and trotted on. She sighed and continued. “No, I’m not romantically involved with him.”
“Do you want to be?” he asked.
“No,” she replied instantly. “He’s made it perfectly clear that that’s nothing he wants.”
“I didn’t ask if that was what he wanted.”
Angel looked over again, legitimately curious now with Dealio’s path. “What are you getting at?”
She continued to stare at the pony as they trotted down the hall. Angel knew the answer to his question, and she knew that she should have answered it plainly and simply the moment he asked. Still, there was some pull at the back of her mind, something that made her hesitate. The words caught in her throat, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to say them.
“No,” she blurted. “I could never see myself with him.”
She shook her head, clearing it of the two words that sprang haphazardly through her conscience. What the hell was that? she asked herself. Where did that even come from?
“Then why do you care?” Dealio asked, completely ignorant to Angel’s internal conflict. “If he’s really such an asshole then why do you even bother staying around with him? If what you say is true then it sounds like you’d both be better off without each other. Hell, one of you probably wouldn’t even be here now if it wasn’t for the other dragging you here, so why don’t you just walk away? Have you ever thought of that?”
Angel snapped herself out of her thoughts to answer the pony. “Of course I have,” she said.
“So why haven’t you?”
The pegasus thought long and deep about the question, earning a compliant gaze from Dealio as they walked. After a distant few seconds of thought she said “I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m sure you and every other pony would have given up on him long ago by now.” Dealio nodded in agreement. “I just… I guess I feel sorry for him. He doesn’t deserve to be lonely like that.” She stopped for a second to look back at Merry again. The filly had pulled her head out of the pegasus’s mane and looked at her with her wide blue eyes. “He should have at least one friend.”
“I suppose everypony should,” he only half-agreed.
There was a hydraulic hiss and a metallic clank as Mason keyed a blast door at the end of the cavern. Artificial light from the electro-lamps outside flooded out the blue hue of the naturally-growing crystals in the cavern around them. The pair squinted, and Merry curled up to shield her own eyes. Mason glanced back at the three, shrugged, and preceded left into the hallway. Dealio and Angel thoughtlessly followed suit.
“So,” Dealio chimed after a bit. “Enough about him. What about you? What exactly is your story?”
Angel raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘my story’?” she asked.
“You know; where you’re from, how you got here… your story. Just your life in general.”
“Ah.” She paused to think of a suitable way to begin explaining such a thing. “There’s not much to tell,” she said finally. “I’m not really ‘from’ anywhere. I had a family and friends. We moved around a lot, traveling to cities and Waystations. We were drifters, basically. You could call us nomads if you wanted. Never really had homes or places to settle down. When I was young they taught me pretty much everything you’d learn in school. I never really learned anything about religion, though. My family never followed Terra that closely.”
“I see,” Dealio muttered. “So why did you finally decide to settle down in the city? And why that city out of all the hundreds of others?”
“I suppose I just got tired of the lifestyle. Always moving around, never stopping and settling down. I wanted to try to make a life for myself, and I guess that was just where I was when I decided to set one up.”
“Hell of a place to try and live a fulfilling life.”
Angel looked over at him. “And what about you? How exactly did you get here?”
Dealio thought. “I suppose it’s kind of like your story; not much to tell. I was born far away from here, in a city with a name. Aethis, they called it.”
“Never heard of it. What was that like?”
“It was an agricultural city. Thing I remember most about the place was the giant Solstone that hung on the ceiling above it. It was what supplied energy to the crops, or something. Never really looked too deeply into that.”
“So… you were a farmer?”
“Oh hell no, I could never do that. I’ve always been a salespony. While I lived there I had my own business in one of the housing areas; a little convenience store. I sold just about everything. Food, furniture, books, guns… at any rate, it was a bit more than a dumpy little cart of the side of-”
“Wait, guns?” Angel queried uneasily. “There were guns there too?”
“Um… yes?” he answered.
“I don’t get that,” she drawled. “I’ve seen guns here, there are guns wherever you’re from, but there are no guns in the city or anywhere else I’ve ever been… before we ran into Hazard’s crew the only time I ever saw a gun was if it was in a diagram or painting. I don’t understand it.”
Dealio sighed. “It’s not that guns are a very rare thing. They just are in this part of the Underworld.”
“What do you mean?”
“The city exists on the very outer edges of the Known Underworld. The only ones that produce weapons like that are the Departmendo Fabractum. Everything out this far, the city included, has been all but abandoned by the Ministries, and as such they get no shipments or income at all from them. The reason you’ve never seen a gun before is because you’ve never seen a place with the means to acquire one. Aethis had guns because we had those means. This Waystation is closer to the inner Underworld, and it’s probably under the control of the Departmendo Unium, and is likely a Fabractum transport hub as well. Therefore, this place can access weapons like that.”
The pegasus was confused by this. “Then what about the factories back in the city?”
“The city isn’t self-sufficient. It needs some source of income, and that’s what the factories are for. It makes the machinery for it and the cities around it; others produce food, some are transport hubs. They each-”
“That’s not what I meant,” Angel interrupted. “Inside of the car we stowed away in there were crates labeled for the Ministry of Terra. Inside one of them there were hundreds of guns.”
Dealio glared at her in disbelief. “You’re lying. The factories make machinery and tools and other junk like that, not weapons. They certainly have nothing to do with any of the Ministries, much less the Departmendo Terrum.”
“That’s not true; that train had come straight from the factory complex, and every crate in it had that insignia on it; the blue orb in the Warhorse’s hands. We cracked one open and found all sorts of weapons in them.”
The pony continued to glare over at Angel. “That…” he drawled slowly. “That’s impossible. If that were true… if the factories actually made weapons for Terra’s Ministry then the city should be made of gold! There wouldn’t be poverty like that; the entire city would be rolling in bits! It’d at least have a name! Hell, the thought of an operation that important existing in the outer reaches of the Known Underworld is just completely ridiculous in itself! I suppose it’s not completely impossible for an outer Underworld factory to build weapons, but if those factories in specific did then there’d be guns littering the city! At any rate, there’s no way that those factories could be Fabractum operations, and producing for the Departmendo Terrum no less!”
Angel paid a wary glance to Mason ahead of them, but the unicorn seemed not to notice their conversation. Merry had uncurled and looked ahead at him, grappling onto the pegasus’s neck for support.
“I don’t know,” she muttered finally. “I honest to Terra have no idea. I know next to nothing about religion and even less about government, so I’m just as clueless as you are.”
The pony let out a frustrated sigh. “Either you’re lying, or something’s up. This just shouldn’t be-”
Dealio cut himself off and stopped dead in the middle of the hallway to sniff the air. After a few seconds Merry joined in, both of them grimacing. Angel found herself doing the same.
“Something stinks,” Merry chimed, covering her nose with a hoof.
“It’s something alright…” Dealio muttered. He looked up to Mason, who had stopped in front of a door along the edge of the corridor. “Terra below, Mason,” he teased, trotting over to the pony, “when was the last time you bathed?”
Mason growled something angrily at the pony and lifted a hoof to hit the key for the door. Nothing happened. He hit it again; still nothing. After a few more tries he leaned down and bit down on the metal cover, snapping it off of its removable hinges with his teeth.
“What are you doing?” Angel asked, trotting up to Mason as he leaned down again. As she approached the door the smell got more intense and putrid. Merry buried her head in the pegasus’s neck to escape it.
“Trying to get the door open,” he answered simply. “The mechanism’s been locked or deactivated or something.”
She looked over at the door, intrigued. “What do you think is in there?”
“I’m not sure. Could be anything.”
“So wait, we’re going into the room from which the stench of five year old meat and burnt sulfur is emanating?” Dealio asked sardonically. “And you don’t even know what’s in there?”
“Yes we are,” the unicorn replied. He grabbed a clump of wires from the opened control block in his teeth. “And no, I don’t.”
“So that I can throw you in and lock the door behind you.” Mason spat out some of the wires, leaving one in his mouth. “If it’s locked, there’s got to be something important behind it.” He bit down on it with an audible snap and cried out as the wire shocked him. Merry jumped a little bit and looked over at the unicorn, who was now rubbing his lips with a hoof.
“What are you doing?” Angel giggled, smirking at him.
“I’ve got to get this door open somehow,” he said, picking another wire. “This is the only way I know how.” He bit down on the next wire with much the same result. Merry simply stared as Angel snickered at him again.
“Well that’s certainly the smart way to go about it,” Dealio muttered.
Mason yelled something offensive at the pony about his weight, but Angel didn’t catch it. She glanced over at the door, losing herself in wondering what lay behind it. All she could come up with for such a smell was some kind of sewage dump, but it seemed a particularly odd place to put such a thing; that, and it seemed pointless to break the mechanism for the door into a garbage store of any sort.
You seem like you have no business being involved in this, same as the hundreds I’ve killed effortlessly in this place…
“Are you sure we should be going in there?” Angel asked abruptly. Mason stopped as he was about to bite down on another wire and glanced back at her. “I mean,” she blurted, trying to give reason to her outburst, “what if it was locked for a reason?”
“That’s why I want to get it open,” the unicorn explained. “Whoever’s responsible for the vacancy of this place must have locked up something they don’t want us to find in here. Behind this door might be a way to escape the Waystation, or it might be where the creep that was operating the autolasers is hiding. I highly doubt that they would lock up something that in here that was dangerous to us.”
The pegasus rolled it over in her mind for a few seconds before frowning and nodding her head in agreement. Mason grunted, turned back to the door and bit down on the wire, only to shock himself again and involuntarily blurt some obscenity.
Angel rolled her eyes and looked back at the door. Gradually a perturbed scowl grew more and more dense on her face as she thought of what laid behind it. She couldn’t come up with anything other than what she had already thought of, which disturbed her greatly. She felt an inexplicable pull of dread at the back of her mind as she gazed at the door, the source of which she couldn’t determine. There was nothing to make her suspicious of the room that laid beyond, so why was she?
…and for that I am truly sorry for all the harm that has and will befall you.
“Angel?” Merry peeped, hanging off the side of the pegasus’s neck. She glanced back at the small filly. “Is something wrong?”
Angel didn’t respond immediately. She shook her head, distracted by something yet again and dumbly chimed “Huh?”
“It’s just…” the filly muttered, trailing off. “You don’t look so good…”
The pegasus sighed and leaned against the wall of the hallway. “That’s alright,” she said. “Because I don’t feel so good either.”
“What’s the matter?” Merry asked, hopping off of her back and standing in front of her. Angel smiled and laid down in front of the filly to meet her eye-to-eye.
“I guess I’m just…” she admitted slowly, pausing to search for the right words. Finally she sighed and modestly said “Scared.”
“Scared?” The filly sat down inches from Angel’s nose. “You can’t be scared.”
Angel smiled and reached out to put her forelegs around her. “Why can’t I be scared?” she asked.
“Because you’re a big pony. Big ponies don’t get scared.”
The pegasus giggled. “I’m not that big.”
“You’re bigger than me. I’m just a little pony.”
“I’m not bigger than either of them.” Angel nodded over at the two other ponies, both bickering with each other.
Merry glanced over at the pair of them. “Dealio’s not bigger than you,” she said, humorously spiteful for how small she was. “He’s just fat.”
Angel had to stifle a piercing laugh. She garnered a funny look from Dealio, but his attention was diverted as Mason failed to open the door yet again.
“True,” she said finally, turning her attention back to Merry. “But what about Mason? He’s bigger than me and he’s not fat.”
The filly took her time to ponder this, ultimately just shrugging and nosing under Angel’s chin. “I guess,” she said. She sighed and added “Mason doesn’t like me, does he?”
“Now why would you say that?” Angel asked, frowning.
She slumped down and rested her head on Angel’s leg. “Because he yelled at me… does he think I’m annoying?”
“No, of course not.” The filly glared up at her dolefully. “Mason’s just… grumpy. I’m sure that he likes you just fine.”
“Alright,” she murmured. After a few more seconds she added “Angel?” When the pegasus looked softly down at her she admitted “I’m scared too.”
Angel smirked and hugged Merry to her chest. “You’re scared about your mom, aren’t you?” she asked gingerly. She felt the filly nod against her shoulder. “Don’t you worry,” the pegasus continued, whispering to her. “I know we’ll find her. You don’t have to be afraid. Everything will be okay, I promise.”
Merry pulled back from Angel’s chest and looked up at her again. “You promise?”
“Yes,” she said. She beamed at the filly, leaning down and giving her a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I promise.”
Angel giggled as Merry wiped a hoof across her forehead, her ears folded down at her side. The filly looked up at her, smiling, and hugged onto the pegasus’s neck. “Thanks,” she mumbled. “I like you Angel. You’re a nice pony.”
Angel would have replied, but she was cut off as the door blasted violently open with a hydraulic crack. She tried to get to her hooves, but was knocked back down by the painful wall of odor that washed over her. It was so powerful that it made her eyes water.
“Mother of Terra!” she cried, blinking away tears. “What is that?” Ahead of her Dealio reared back and began to cough. Mason remained adamantly positioned in front of the opened control block.
“I don’t know,” the unicorn said, spitting out the wire in his mouth. “But I finally got the door open.”
“Great!” Dealio wheezed, squinting. “Now close the damn thing!”
Mason ignored him, waiting a few seconds until the intensity of the odor died down. He blinked a few times and stood back, stooping his head to see if he could get a good view of the room. Angel stood up, Merry along with her, and drifted over to the unicorn’s side.
“So,” the pegasus chimed, “who’s going in first?”
“I volunteer our master hacker here,” Dealio choked, stumbling up next to Mason. He too tried peek inside the room, but the contrast in light between it and the hallway made it impossible. Merry had abandoned Angel for Mason, taking shelter behind one of his legs and glaring apprehensively into the room.
“Shut up,” the unicorn snapped at him. He glared back into the room. “We’ll go in together. It’s safer that way.”
“Agreed,” Angel said. She raised a hoof to step forward but quickly stopped herself. She looked over at Mason nervously and added “You go first.”
Mason rolled his eyes and trotted forward effortlessly, Merry trailing behind him. He paid the filly no mind as they walked through the doorway together.
“What’s the matter?” Dealio snickered mockingly. “Scared?”
Angel sighed irritably. She slowly followed Mason’s path through the door and asked the pony “Why are you always such an ass?”
He strode ahead of her proudly and turned in place, beginning to trot backwards to meet her gaze. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Angel ignored him, brushing past the pony roughly and looking around the room. Even in the same light as her surroundings it was impossible to make anything out of the darkness. All she could see was Dealio standing in the light of the doorway, scanning the room himself.
“Anypony see anything?” Mason asked from somewhere up ahead. From the way that his voice echoed around the room she could tell that it was quite spacious and likely vacant of any large objects.
“I can’t see shit,” Dealio called back.
“Me neither,” the pegasus said. “It’s too dark; we need light.”
As if on cue, the door behind Dealio slammed shut with an ear-splitting clang. Merry yelped as the room was plunged entirely into darkness, not even the light of the hallway shining to guide them back out.
“We didn’t say ‘close the door,’ dumbass!” Mason barked.
“I didn’t close it!” the pony responded, now trotting off into the darkness.
“Well if you didn’t then who the hell did?”
Angel waived their conversation aside, newly intent on stumbling back to the now-closed door. The scent of the room, while less intense now that she had become accustomed to it, was still putrid and disgusting. She didn’t want to spend a second more around it than she had to. She trotted cautiously along, vigilantly watching her footing in case she ran into anything.
Her back went rigid as her hoof brushed against something soppy and wet, laying in a lump on the floor. The pegasus placed her hoof delicately back on the deck, warding it away from whatever it was she had brushed it against and in a puddle of cool liquid. The place where her foreleg had collided with the material had been smattered with some kind of residue. She inhaled deeply, cringing as she realized the smell was much more pungent here for some reason.
“Mason…?” she asked bleakly, raising her hoof back out of the substance. “Do you see anything yet?”
“No,” he called back, unaware of Angel’s discovery. “Why, do you?”
“No… but I think I found something.”
“Wait, what?” She heard the clop of Mason’s hooves and the tiny beat of Merry’s as they shifted their course towards her. “What did you find?”
“I… I don’t know,” she said, the alarm in her voice growing. “It feels wet and… cold…”
“Uh… guys?” Dealio called from across the room. Angel’s head bolted over in the direction from which the pony’s voice emanated. “I feel something too… and it’s not wet or cold…”
Mason was quiet for a few seconds before aversely asking “Well what does it feel like…?”
“It’s, uh… it’s got a coat.”
Angel covered her eyes and yelled painfully as a glaring light illuminated the dark room, burning her darkness-acclimated eyes. She reared away from the object she had collided with and knocked against Mason, standing a few feet away.
“Alright,” she said, wiping her eyes. “Who hit the light-”
Angel screamed as she lowered her hoof, the abysmal darkness raised by the unsettling red glow of torch crystals hanging on the walls. The pegasus couldn’t keep her eyes from wandering around the room, her jaw slack at the gruesome scene that laid before her. She looked over at Mason; he stood still as stone, an adamant display of emotionless hardness plastered onto his face. Merry stared blankly at the rest of the room, horrified. Not for the first time in the last few days Angel found herself near tears.
“I…” Dealio muttered queasily from behind them, speechless. “I think… we know what happened to the rest of the Waystation.”
Before the group, littered in all directions, were strewn hundreds of long-dead pony corpses, mutilated and destroyed in countless ways. The bodies had been scattered at irregular intervals, spreading from near the closed door to far wall. They all had either been shot, sliced, dismembered, disemboweled or disfigured in some other horrific fashion, gore and other bodily fluids spattered across the iron deck.
By far the most gruesome display was the pony suspended upon the far wall of the chamber. Tortured bits of a navy blue coat miraculously clung to his burnt form. Angel forced herself to draw closer, more and more of his features defining themselves; the agonized expression, utterly dead eyes and flesh drained of blood all appalled her wordlessly. At first she thought that he was secured to the wall by nails or spikes, but as she stumbled up to him she saw that his flesh had actually been melted and bound with the metal in the wall. The means lay at the base of the wall; two large energy weapons, which Mason and Dealio would later identify as cellguns, a black priest’s robe draped over the barrels. Never before had the pegasus even heard of such a horrifying display of violence. The sight cooled her to her very core.
Mason took notice of her ill condition. “Angel,” he said quietly, unable to divert his gaze from the bodies strewn throughout the chamber. “Are… are you gonna be alright?”
Angel forced herself to bite back bile as she looked down at her own hooves. She saw now that the one that had stepped in the unknown substance was soaked in blood, and the appendage suddenly felt incredibly numb. She glared back at where she had been standing. A headless green pegasus lay splayed carelessly on the floor, bone fragments and gray matter splattered around it. She couldn’t even identify the body as female or male. Her breaths became short and hot as she strained to keep herself from vomiting, succeeding only because she felt as though she had been frozen solid.
“No,” she managed to choke finally. “No, I won’t.”
“Heathen Queens…” Dealio swore, trotting up behind them. “They must have herded them all in here and just… slaughtered them…”
“Why?” Angel throttled out, now shaking from anger and remorse combined. “Why would they do this? Why would anypony do this?” She looked back up to the pony fused to the wall, and with an angry sob added “What’s the point?!”
“There isn’t one,” Mason said. Gradually exasperation began to edge its way into his voice. “There is no point to this. Nopony could ever justify this.”
“This just doesn’t make sense,” Dealio mused aloud. “No band of raiders or pirates could ever accomplish this by themselves; not with a full security force here. It just can’t happen!”
“‘Accomplish’!?” Angel raged, turning and glowering at him. “You call this an accomplishment!? This is murder! This is heinous!”
“Alright!” Mason shouted, turning to Angel. “Angel, calm down. I know this is painful, but please calm down.”
“How can I calm down?!” the pegasus screamed, glaring around at the dead bodies. “Look around you! This isn’t just murder, this is an atrocity! They just squeezed them all in here and killed them all; they never stood a chance! You tell me how I’m supposed to calm down!”
Angel had crossed the threshold between grievance and unbridled fury. Every body and dismembered organ or limb that she took note of only fueled her rage as she swept the chamber. Her teeth ground together so hard that they might have chipped; her poisonous gaze could have burned through the iron decking. Every breath she drew burned through her throat and hit the pit of her stomach like a rock. She wanted to lash out, scream and cry all at the same time, but she was too petrified by her own rage to do anything but stare and stutter incoherently.
Angel’s temper dulled only slightly as she heard Merry peep something quietly from across the room. She gazed over in the direction of her tiny voice when Mason and Dealio caught her eye. Both looked off into a dark corner of the chamber, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, the pegasus’s anger long forgotten.
“What did she just say?” Dealio asked to Mason, his voice low.
Angel followed their eyes to the corner, finding Merry standing forlorn amongst the mangled remains of other ponies. She gazed down at one in particular; a black mare with a maroon mane. The filly shivered slightly as she gazed down at the body.
“What is she doing?” Angel asked, nodding to Merry. They didn’t answer, only continued to watch her stand in front of the body. Frustrated with the lack of response she raised her voice and asked again. “Why is she over there?”
Mason spared the pegasus only a slight glance, quickly shifting his gaze back to Merry. “She…” he started, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. “She wandered over there and saw this mare… and she…” He paused and swallowed uneasily. “She just started circling around her, mumbling something… and just now it… it sounded like she said…” The unicorn trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
Angel found her eyes drawn to Merry, now leaning down at the mare’s neck. The pegasus’s eyes flipped from hard and vindictive to glossy and upset. What remained of her sneer softened into a gentle frown. She turned to the filly and began to stride painfully toward her as she began to prod at the mare’s neck, mumbling quietly to her.
“Merry…” the pegasus breathed, standing before the mare. She scanned the mare up and down, her pulse quickening with every feature she noticed; her cutie mark, two red drops and a shot glass, stained by blood. Her black coat, perforated and spilled at her chest cavity. Her eyes were shut, her lips straight and loose. Her mane matched the blood that she had come to rest in almost exactly. Merry looked down at her, hugging to the dead mare’s side with tears in her eyes. The pegasus found her jaw quivering and her breath coming short. She could tell now that this mare was the filly’s mother, just by looking. The last trace of anger she had felt mere minutes before had been cooled and drowned by sorrow at the spectacle laid out before her.
“Mommy…” she mumbled, running a hoof down the side of her neck. “Get up mommy… please get up…”
Angel bit her lip as she felt her eyes go mist over. “Merry…” she whined, sliding behind the filly and placing a foreleg around her. She looked up at the pegasus, her lips wobbling and her chest beating as she sobbed to herself.
“Why won’t she get up?!” she cried, letting go of her mother and hugging onto Angel. She buried her head in the pegasus’s stomach and began to wail uncontrollably. “Why won’t she get up, Angel?! Why?!”
Angel was speechless. She looked down at the filly clinging to her and then to her mother less than a foot away. All she could do was hug her gently and try to comfort her with soft words. “Baby…” she murmured to her, rubbing her back tenderly. She couldn’t still the wobble in her voice as she spoke. “Please don’t cry, Merry… please… everything’s going to be alright honey…”
“Why did they have to do this?!” Merry wailed, looking up at her. “Why did they have to hurt her?! Why did they have to hurt anypony?!” She looked back at the mare, letting out a tiny whimper. “Why did they come here, Angel?! Why did they do this?!”
“I don’t know, baby,” the pegasus choked. She closed her eyes and leaned further down, putting her chin against the filly’s head. She sniffed, a few tears falling from her eyes and said “I don’t know… just please… please don’t cry… everything will be alright…”
“Don’t tell her that.”
Angel flinched and looked back, not bothering with the menial task of wiping her eyes clean. Merry kept her head planted in the pegasus’s stomach, shaking as she sulked. Mason stood behind them, glaring calmly down at the filly’s mother. Angel wondered how long he had been standing in that spot.
“Don’t tell her not to cry,” he said, trotting steadily forward. He refused to meet the pegasus’s gaze, instead shifting his eyes to Merry. The tiny pony reared back a bit and looked gingerly up at him, blinking away tears. He sat next to Angel and reached over, putting a hoof on the filly’s shoulder. She flinched, but otherwise remained wide-eyed and staring at the unicorn.
“It’s alright, Merry,” he said to her, speaking softly. Slowly the filly let go of Angel and began to edge closer to Mason. “Everything’s going to be alright,” he continued. “Just... let it all out...”
Merry shut her eyes again, falling into Mason’s grasp and hugging onto his arms. He lifted the filly up, clutching her to his chest and putting his cheek around her neck. He looked past her and down at the dead mare, patting Merry’s back gently and whispering calmly into her ear as she cried into his shoulder. Angel watched through teary eyes, unable to comprehend this sudden display of emotion. Suddenly, though, he looked away from the mare and up at the filly. The pegasus saw the sincerity and understanding in his cool maroon gaze, and in turn the reason for the unicorn’s compassion towards her.
“Angel,” he whispered, not taking his eyes off of Merry. “Go and get the door open… I’ll be right behind you in a few minutes.”
Angel opened her mouth to respond, but only managed to stutter a bit. She nodded and stood, turning toward the door. Dealio stood next to it, watching gloomily with a dismal expression on his face. Slowly she began to trot towards him, her head hung low to the ground. She tried to ignore the bodies as she walked, but it was impossible. All she wanted now was to leave the horrid room, and everything that had conspired in it, behind.
Do you know the one thing that makes us unique?
Angel stopped in her tracks, a chill running down her spine. Slowly her gaze shifted from the floor to Dealio. While she still frowned sadly and tears still filled her eyes, her expression was utterly blank; dead.
“Are… are you alright?” Dealio quietly chimed, stepping forward. Angel stared back at the pony, before gazing past him and across the room, taking final note of the carnage that had once ensued.
It’s the one thing that you and I both share.
The pegasus pivoted on her rear hooves to face the pony fused to the wall above the guns. She wiped away the tears in her eyes finally as her blank gaze rose to met the agonized one of the tortured creature. She scrutinized him closely, taking note of every burn and tuft of fur left on his charred skin. With disgust she observed where his flesh ended and the iron of the wall began, mingling in some grotesque compound.
It’s the single, lone thing that you and I both have in common.
“Angel?” Dealio said, louder now. “What’s wrong?”
As Angel looked up at the dead pony she noticed something. Very faintly, scrawled in the wall in blood that was nearly invisible in the dim red light, were drawn four symbols around him. Each was crafted to near geometric perfection, only the running and dripping of the blood to mess up the design of each.
The one thing that binds us closer than any other two ponies in the entire Underworld.
Above him was the Ministry of Terra’s crest; the orb in the Warhorse’s hands. She blinked as she looked at it, feeling that it bore some importance to something. The answer refused to come to her though.
It’s not instinct…
The next symbol was one she had never seen before; a crescent, the shapes of four and five-pointed stars hanging in its curve. The shape was simple and uninteresting, but it nonetheless held her gaze as she slid her eyes along each individual curve in the shapes, burning it into her memory.
The third shape was one new to her as well; a circle, waves of what she assumed were supposed to be energy flowing off of it. It took her a few seconds to place it, but she was able to relate it finally to the memory of the painting she had seen at the chapel, specifically the glowing orb that had hung suspended behind the dark figure.
It’s not genetic…
Finally her eyes fell on the fourth shape, one scrawled around the form of the pony himself. This one she knew she had seen before, but she didn’t know where. It was a mix of solid lines and twisting curves, bending and twirling ornately around each other. The edges of the drawing touched those of the other three symbols, as though unifying the three of them. Her eyes flew across the lines and curves, taking careful note of every minute feature. Where she had seen the shape she couldn’t remember, but she remembered every single feature and even the detailed shape’s name from what seemed as distant as a past life to her.
…or even magical.
The symbol encircling the pony was a Holy Eye Rune.
It’s the sin that we share.
The sound of Merry’s crying, along with an implacable uneasiness, came rushing back to her reality-detached consciousness as she turned and stormed towards Dealio.
No amount of repentance will ever allow me to make up for how long this chapter took to release. I am so so so so so so SOOOOOOOO sorry.