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Fallout: Equestria

Murky Number Seven

Central Story Hub (All Chapters on Page 2, Additional Information on Page 3)


Cover Art By: Olafski/High Res Cover Art Link!     Logo By: Calistotash/Tumblr

The Story...


To become a slave is bad.  To be born a slave is forever damaging.

For young Murky, the life of the labourer and servant is all he has ever known, raised without knowledge of freedom or the concept of choice.  But when the brutality of his newest masters in Fillydelphia becomes all too much and the heroic escape of a certain little mare takes place before his eyes, Murky finally discovers a life worth fighting for.  His own.

Broken from the indoctrination, Murky sets out to reclaim the freedom that has been denied to him throughout his entire life.  Against abusive slavers, a fatal illness wracking his body and the attentions of ponies that often cannot be trusted, Murky sets out to achieve the impossible.  

To escape Fillydelphia.

But when your cutie mark is a set of shackles...are you really supposed to be free at all?


Chapter Listings

I highly encourage feedback, critique and speculative comments for this story, it helps me improve, keeps me motivated and lets me know what everyone is thinking along the way.  You can be as quick or detailed as you want, I don’t mind.  Even if it’s just to let me know you read the story, I’d love to hear from you!  For all comments, the Fallout Equestria Reddit tends to have a thread up, as does Cloudsville.  The FiMFic page also takes comments.

Hope to see you there!  I dearly hope you all enjoy the story.

Act 1: The Virtue of Freedom

Emboldened by the inspiring escape before his eyes, a young slave takes his first tentative steps toward a hopeful freedom.  Learning how to think for himself and discovering that not everypony need be a master or peer...Murky begins a journey to truly live for the first time in his life.

Act 2: Master and Slave


Cover Art by MisterMech

Under a darkening sky and the cruel aftermath of betrayal, any hope of freedom begins to falter beneath an ever increasing wave of hardship from a new Master.  Even while the chains hold on tighter than ever, an ongoing power struggle at the centre of Fillydelphia begins to rear its head.  One that could make or break their dreams of escape forever.

(Act 3 on next page)

Act 3: Dare to Dream


Cover art by OmegaRidley

Fillydelphia is preparing for war.  A time of change in the wasteland is approaching as a new faction descends from the clouds.  Yet within the city, the Master is returning to power.  All must decide who their loyalties lie with for the battle approaching on the horizon.  Beneath this, one little slave begins to see the end of his great journey in sight.  Under the fires of war, he and his friends must, at last, make their bid for freedom.


Murky Number Seven is now on FiMFic!  Please find it here.  

Also now in PDF format! Find that one here.

If you would prefer an ePub reading, please find the file for download here.

Additionally there is now a MOBI variant for your Kindle, find it here.


Murky Number Seven Artwork Page

The amount got a little big, so I’ve sent the artwork to its own dedicated page now!  This lets you browse by artist as well, so it’s a whole lot neater! Maybe I’ll still relink a few of my favourites here though.

Murky Number Seven Inspirational Music Playlist Page

The songs and themes I often listen to to get into the mood for various scenes, along with why they each fit for me. Also with space to add the ones YOU all feel about the story, I’d love to hear them!

Ask the Slaves

A Tumblr AskBlog to communicate with the slaves in the story, written by myself and drawn by the amazing MisterMech!

Murky Number Seven page on TVTropes

Thanks to ‘Unknownlight’ for creating this!

Author Contacts

Email: [email protected]

Murky Number Seven Tumblr Page - News, updates and author ruminations. Just send a message here to contact the author or ask any questions.

The Crew

Production Team

Author:  Fuzzy

Story Editor/Prereader: Calisto

Draft Editors/Prereaders: Narrator, InLucidReveie, Snipehamster

Prereaders: Sanctus, Blackdutchie, Priorknight

Past Prereaders: Ateykwa, Sparta92, Elitejack, Irvine, Doctor Whooves, Darcy, Purestorm

Online Team

ePub Conversion: Volrathxp (Author of Fallout Equestria: Starlight)

PDF Conversion and Uploads: Hunterz263 (FimFic Account)


The Equestrian Wasteland.

It takes everything, but gives only two things.  Freedom and Dreams.

Freedom, to choose your path for yourself.  Whether you will revel in the lawless expanse of the wastes and strike out for yourself at the expense of others.  Whether you will remain an unknown survivor, to exist and accept the harsh reality to ensure your continued existence.  Or whether you will attempt to rise up; to be a hero and attempt to fight the wasteland itself.

Dreams, to believe in the world that you wish to accept or deny.  The darkened past, the cold present or the future that only you can see for yourself, be it an unchanging mire or a land filled with the boundless hope buried deep in those few good souls left in the wastes.

Everypony in the wasteland is given those two elements, to choose what to make of them for themselves.  Everypony, that is, except for the forgotten masses.

The slaves.

Born into a life with no choice; taken from them not by the wastes but by other ponies.  They toil, destined for nothing more than to be a cold statistic to the future.

They have no freedom.  They hold no dreams.

This is the story of the slave who dared to dream.

* * *

Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven

Chapter 1:

Flying Without Wings

* * *

Slaving in Filly almost makes you wish for a Winter Rad Up...”

        “What was it like to be born a slave?”

        I suppose I should explain something about the nature of being born into slavery, for it is somewhat different from the more common way of simply being captured and forced into labour.  You never even know the concept of choice.  Your life is little but instruction following order following demand.  Many would like to believe the myth of growing up in a harsh environment to become a big and tough pony with the willpower to someday overthrow his masters.  But unfortunately, that was never going to be possible.

        The truth is that it more often stunts your growth, resulting in a sub-generation of physically small and weak ponies with no education and little true aspiration.  How can a pony who has never known the freedom of the outside world ever know what to want from it?  Sure, there might be some strong earth pony, powerful unicorn or rare and agile pegasus some place that once did as the stories say....

        But let's just say that isn't possible for me and leave it at that for now.  Instead, let me tell you about how I came to be where I am now.

        I grew up a runt.  The smallest of the bunch born to a weary mother sick with taint poisoning in a camp near Shattered Hoof to an unknown father.  Suffice to say, given the way mares were treated in the slave camps, my father was likely one of the harsh figures giving us instructions and beating the ones who fell behind their quota.  At first it was cart hauling, but as the years passed and it became clear I wasn't going to get any bigger or stronger to meet my master's expectations, I was instead sold off.  My mother had begged and pleaded with them.  She had offered anything, including herself, to make them reconsider and keep me there with her.  Although the memory is now far gone, I still remember the slavers laughing her off.  They told her that they could already have anything they wanted from her.  We were slaves.  We had no bargaining chips.

        I was sold for a measly hundred caps to a rock farmer off the eastern edge of Whitetail Woods.  Torn from the hold of my mother, I was immediately dragged into service upon the blank and lifeless duty of shifting rocks in some inane quest for gemstones.  With a change in scenery came a change in hardship.  While hauling carts and performing physical labour had broken me physically in the past and hurt my body's development, I now was a lone runt in a slave labour farm full of other delinquents just waiting for a new body at the bottom of the pecking order.  They hurt me, bullied me and stole my food and minuscule amounts of possessions.  I had to learn to sneak out and try to steal some back at nights...and I wasn't always successful.  These days I still bear the scars of the lash upon my back.

        Truly, I wish I could say that this foalhood had taught me to be an independent, brave and determined pony like the ones in the legends.  But the truth is...I'm not.  Being born a slave has one other problem, as I mentioned before.  You do not know choice.  You don't know how to think for yourself unless pushed to the absolute boundaries of physical needs like food or water.  If a slaver asks you to jump...you ask into which radioactive crater.

        The thought of escape and a life outside slavery does not occur to a mind who has only ever known the life of the servant to some overbearing master's wishes.  I have no free will, no courage to make my own choices and few dreams of anything more than perhaps a painless death at the end of it all.

        If any more proof is needed, all I need to do is look at my flank to see the contract that seals the deal.  For my cutie mark bears a looped set of chained manacles, their metal bands open and ready to slam shut about my legs below them should I ever fall out of line.  Attained the day in which I was controlled more than any other...it is a continual reminder of my subservience to any master.

        

        I apologise if I cannot tell the rest of my life up till this point in great detail.  From the day I received the most hated cutie mark a pony could have, I was locked into the bad hand I'd been dealt.  I suffered the work set in front of me from a half dozen other masters as they passed the unlucky runt around for paltry sums of caps each time.  I was bullied, beaten, starved and ignored to the point in which I even began to forget myself.  Each year everything became a little more blurry as my life became nothing but an unceasing cycle of work, toil and deprivation.  I didn't even need to go into the wastes to find the worst it had to offer.

        Or so I thought.  For one day my master in Manehattan received an offer he couldn't refuse.  A deal, from another master far across the wastes who was seeking any slave he could get his hooves on for large sums of caps.  And so once more I was taken into a convoy of other hopeless ponies like myself and marched to the next place of labour.  But this place was unlike the others...for my next destination was Fillydelphia.  Serving under Master Red Eye.

        Upon my arrival I discovered a hellcity of nightmare brutality made real.  A living, breathing maze of harsh metal, red hot heat and a thick choking smog surrounding a crater filled with deathly magical radiation.  The scale was beyond anything I had expected, the workloads beyond what any pony could ever hope to live up to and an authority commanding us that seemed devoted to a fanatical call for 'Unity.'  Master Red Eye often spoke at length to us across the megaphone systems of how we were aiding in the unity that would save Equestria.  To slaves like me, all unity truly held was the threat of being dragged away to partake in it.  Those poor ponies never did return, nor did any stories on what 'Unity' truly meant.

        To make matters worse for the slaves on a more personal level, that same authority had no hesitations to weed out the weak and use them as examples.  To better encourage others to work hard.

        Unfortunately, as I said...I am particularly weak...

        I snapped.  It was too much for me on my own.  The workload broke me and drove me to a mad, cowardly dash for a hiding space where I might shun the forces trying to control me and just forget it all.  I don't remember much about what happened upon that haunting night when I broke from my designated area and galloped into the smokey darkness towards the ruined buildings to hide away.  All I remember is...they found me.  I was punished with a sentence so severe that I scarcely even remember what they did.  They hurt me and told me that I was to die soon as an example to others when hey next held an ‘event.’  I was thrown back in my pen and put back on rotation until this occurred...an event I quickly realised was going to be the arena of death.  The Pit.

        The Pit was to happen tomorrow morning.

        And so that is my story, leaving me sitting scared in my pen in Fillydelphia, alone and battered, waiting to die in the morning.

        Short story, huh?

* * *

        “Yo, runt!  Looking forward to the show?”

        Voices.  They rang through my mind even as I fruitlessly attempted to sleep in my pen.  I couldn't avoid them no matter where I hid.  The disadvantage of being born to a mother sick with taint poisoning was the threat of minor mutation upon birth.  In my case, that meant slightly differently sized ears that were a little too sensitive.  Sure...it's a great advantage to eavesdrop, but try having a slave master screaming in your face.  It's like shoving a gun barrel in your ear and pulling the trigger.  Not content with a stunted growth, no education and eternal servitude until the day I die, the Goddesses saw fit to give me a damn mutation too.  It's part of the reason I always tried to hide from other slaves.

        The Fillydelphia FunFarm's petting zoo performed much the same task it once had two hundred years ago...keeping living things inside for the betterment of others.  I pulled my meagre clothing closer to my torso and curled even tighter into the corner of the pigsty.  The red haze of Fillydelphia drafted in through the one small entrance designed, presumably, for young pigs.

        'What were young pigs even called?' I wondered, one more unknown fact tossed onto the pile that had, over life, accumulated in my mind.

        “You scared?  Frightened to die?  Gonna scream?  We want to hear you scream tomorrow!  Or squeal like a piglet!  Yeah, do that!”

        Well, that answers that.  There were three of them just outside, long term slaves of Fillydelphia.  Each had been dragged in through those gates kicking and screaming as they were welcomed to the pitiful existence that would become the rest of their lives.  I regarded them as lucky, they hadn't been born into it...they had known freedom for a time.  They celebrated their small advantage by immediately treating me as some sort of lower class the moment I had been hurled roughly into the same caged area as the unruly trio.  I had been at the bottom of the pecking order many times, but this time it was a true threat.  They stole my food, taunted everything I did and when angry at the slavers...often used me as a convenient toy to let off some steam by beating someone they knew couldn't return the favour.  Before long, I had taken to hiding in the pigsty of the enclosure, the small entrance too low and narrow to be accessible by anypony bigger than my own small size.

        It was cowardice, but I didn't care.  I hadn't been taught to have any pride or bravery.  All I had to do was stay alive until my masters next needed my presence to do work...even if that work was to walk to the arena to...to...

        “You're gonna die, runt!  Beaten!  Stabbed!  Shot!  Melted!  Bleeding out!  Choked!”

        ...to that...yeah.  I hugged myself tighter, half wishing that if I clenched tightly enough I could simply disappear into the corner.  The sty was stifling hot in the warm air of the city, making it impossible to tuck my head into my own hooves without getting wafts of uncomfortable warm breath every time I exhaled.  Sleep was not going to happen, not tonight.  Between the taunts, the heat and my own crippling fear...dreams were the last place I wanted to be.

        So instead, I remained still and cowered, clutching my few possessions to my underside and softly crying to myself again.  It is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I cried a lot in life, one of the only two ways I could find to let out emotion properly to cope at all.  To weep and allow it all to flow out so often that it had become something of an involuntary reaction to hardship.  As anyone could imagine, it had not done any favours for my position as the resident victim for every slave with even half a mind of wanting false authority.  How many times I had simply toiled away pulling carts while sobbing openly or running back to my enclosure so I could hide and let it all out.

        The other way was my one permitted vice in life...the item I clutched to myself as though it would somehow save my life.

        My journal.

        Under the crimson nightmare and heavy industry of Fillydelphia that had become my home and place of work under Master Red Eye it had taken on a greater meaning than ever before.  I could not read or write; slaves didn't get taught such things in the wastes and my mother hadn't had the time or knowledge to teach me herself.  No, instead I sketched.

        It was the only way I could express myself...to put charcoal or graphite sticks to yellowed paper and let my emotions and feelings dictate what I drew.  An outpouring of my own personal thoughts on what was troubling me or what things I secretly wanted.  But after entering Fillydelphia it also held a second purpose...it was my one little anchor against the madness that threatened to drive me to something...something stupid.  A manner in which I might drive back the closing walls of insanity around me of abusive slaves, painful workloads and terrifying masters.  When I drew...it let me focus on something else for that brief amount of time.  I never looked at my own drawings that much, preferring to instead do more.

        The voices continued...beginning to expand, to go into detail of exactly how some badass stallion or vicious mare would end my life tomorrow.  Part of me wanted to shout at them, beg them to go away and leave me alone.  But it hadn't worked the first time I had pleaded them to let me be.  In fact, it had only made things worse.

        Instead, I sat up, shaking off the stray rotten straw from my malnourished body with a weakened stagger, and pulled out my journal.  Biting the charcoal stick I had stolen from the small stocks we often pulled for work, I began to let myself fall into the trance.  Trying to ignore the dirty taste of the stick I spread out the paper from my journal in front of me.  Charcoal met paper...a long sweeping arc that grew into multiple lines in the vague shape of something...somepony...

        “Hey, runt!  You crying in there?  Come out and let us cheer you up!  We'll give you something to eat...after we're done digesting it!”

        Raucous laughter followed.  Ignore it.  Ignore it all.  Concentrate on the lines...the shapes and the curves.  Half the time I didn't even know what I was drawing...

        “Live life to the full, runt!  Cause it isn't like you'll have it for long!  Oh wait...you don't have any life anyway!”

        Ignore it...ignore it...I tried to let my mind focus entirely on drawing.  The sound of charcoal on paper and the meditative bliss the process brought...let my subconscious do the work...

        “How does it feel knowing you're going to DIE!?”

        I was weeping still, even as I tossed the charcoal into the corner with a pitiful whine and clutched the drawing close...I blanked out the laughter and the voices.  Their taunts washed over me as slowly I held up my art to look at the finished piece...

        It held a small pony with different sized ears lying dead in a pit...bleeding from horrendous wounds, the leering face of his killer glaring down from above.

        Trembling...sobbing gave way to fully fledged crying as I shut the journal sharply with a hoof and cowered once more in the corner as the voices came back all too strongly once again.

* * *

        I woke to a sharp rapping on the outer casing of the pigsty, sending jolts of shock through me, the sound echoing all the louder through my ears and the confined space.  Instinct rushed in my veins as I quickly scattered to my feet, grabbed my journal and squeezed out of the hole into the harsh outside world.  I hadn't slept well.  Gunfire from some place nearby had disturbed my sleep multiple times...some stupid pony losing it and making a run for it probably.  It wasn't the first time either, on my first night I witnessed a father blown in half by a huge rifle carried by one of Master Red Eye's griffins for trying to stop them taking his foal away.  A bright red glare forced my eyes shut as I stumbled wearily to my feet and gazed about me as the world came back into view.

        My world.

        Fillydelphia.  The ever reliable industrial heart of Old Equestria, now the reluctant industrial machine of the wasteland.  Around that lethal balefire crater, its factories, forges and mills rose like shredded, but intact, beacons of potential.  Under Master Red Eye's reign, the slaves here had reactivated many of them or carried out repairs with scavenged scrap brought from the many Stables that pocketed the nearby landscape.  After years of renovation, the effect was less of a repaired ruin in some areas and more of a very unmaintained build if you didn't look too closely to see the weathering from two hundred years in the wasteland's weather.  Despite the revulsion of my presence here...I found it all genuinely quite impressive.

        I knew those factories well.  They were where I had my slave work broken in tugging overborne carts of twisted scrap and newly manufactured ammunition.  Where I had been driven through horrific work environments and made to labour in poisonous fumes that made me gag and choke for days afterwards.  I dreaded for the condition my lungs must be in after my short few weeks in this living nightmare.

        “Murky Number Seven!  Explain to me right fucking now why you are not already on your way to your place of work!”

        I blinked as my eyes adjusted, turning and immediately lowering my head to the ground in subservience to the unicorn slaver before me just as I had always been conditioned to do.  The stallion didn't care for it...a fell blow with his front hoof to my face savagely laid me out on the ground two feet away, nursing a loose tooth and an aching jawline.  I felt the unconscious instinct to cry as I cradled my head...but in the dry warm smog of Fillydelphia, my eyes were spent and could not muster the effort after last night.  But a place of work?  What place of work?  Didn't this slaver know I was scheduled to die in a few hours?

        “I...” My voice was weak and hoarse, owing to a rough throat from little water and plenty of heat from the forges, “I am to attend the Pit later on this...this morning, Master...I'm sorry...I thought you'd kno-”

        His hoof connected with my skull a second time, putting me right back on my rump again.  Pain flared through my face as I felt my weakened body giving to the hulking slaver's strikes.  Terror shot through me at the threat of further beating, I glanced up at him with one eye from beneath my hoof as I felt blood trickling from the edge of my lip...I must have bitten my own tongue...

        “I don't give Celestia's right flank if you're heading off to die in that Pit, what makes you think that it gets you off work until the time comes?” he stated bluntly, leaning his face down to me, “Red Eye brought you here to work, now get your tiny rump in gear and get to fucking work!

        The unwashed stench of his breath nearly made me gag.  Damn...but he was right, what choice did I have to not obey a command?  Even if...even if I was trying to fight the unbridled terror wrenching my gut at the thought that I was about to be sent to my death.  He was my Master, I was the slave.  Without a word, I nodded profusely and got to my hooves as I glanced upwards at him.

        My current Master (other than Master Red Eye, of course) was a dull blue stallion with a filthy cyan mane.  He had introduced himself at first as having the name Whiplash.  Well...it certainly fitted him, owing to the long coil by his side.  He had one hell of a talent with it using telekinesis, something many slaves in the FunFarm petting zoo pens would attest to...myself included.

        Looking into those yellowed eyes gave me all the incentive I needed to quickly turn and gallop off across the petting zoo.  Slaves often were not kept under shackle and chain in Fillydelphia, nor in locked pens for the simple reason of...well...where could we run to?  Master Red Eye's part of Fillydelphia was surrounded by a colossal wall to keep us in more than anyone out.  As such, slaves were often trusted to run to where they needed to be.  If they were not spotted in the right places at the right time...wham.  Besides, the real chains holding me were upon my flank anyway.

        As I crossed away from my pigsty home I got a glance at that wall in the distance and reflected on its defences pointing outwards.  Who in their right mind would be so stupid as to attack Fillydelphia?  If the wall wasn't bad enough, there was the chemical moat that had made me sick on my way in, the energised fences powered by some magical spark generator hidden behind the wall and towering guard posts lined with members of Master Red Eye's army.  Oh...and the not-so-ignorable hideous pony head shaped hot air balloons that eternally gazed down upon us from on high with a pink pony's freakishly large eyes.  The same pony who was strewn on every FunFarm sign, ride entrance, building and advertisement.  That same ridiculous grin and poofy curled pink hair that was out of place with everything else in Fillydelphia.

        After just a few weeks in the FunFarm...I really...really hated that pony...

        I exited the FunFarm, glad only that my peers had been sent to their own places of labour before I had been woken.  After last night, I last thing I wanted to face them again before I was sent to the Pit.  Inwardly...I hoped their workplace was some place dangerous that I might never see them again even if I were allowed to live for more than a few more hours.  Perhaps the Parasprite Pits...or off to investigate a Stable death trap.  I had never volunteered for such things, the big griffon who greeted my shipment coming in had told us you could earn your freedom through them.  However, I was too afraid to risk death seeking something I wasn't supposed to have anyway.

        Passing the entrance to the FunFarm I paused briefly...as I always did.  Contained next to a sign (featuring that damned pony again) was a large mirror pointed at anypony who would be standing in queue to enter the amusement park.  I couldn't imagine what it could possibly be used for other than making queues seem longer.

        I moved in front of it.  My form was thinner than normal.  It was a shaped mirror...how novel.  I reached out to wipe dust from the surface for a clearer look.

        My hoof felt no curve.  The mirror was not shaped...it was perfectly normal.

        That scrawny, wasted figure...was myself after almost a month in Fillydelphia.  Great Celestia, I had never been anything but smaller than normal and possessing thinner limbs, but this was horrifying, I could see my ribs if I lifted up my clothing!

        I quickly tightened my patched jerkin about me again...

        Giving myself a once over revealed nothing more than the ruin that was my body now.  Dirty and dark blonde lanky mane?  Check.  Filthy dull green coat with patches of hair beginning to fall out?  Check.  Rad-sores on my back left and muzzle?  Check.  Slightly oversized right ear and slightly undersized left ear?  Thin haired tail?  Cutie mark bearing those gnashing manacles?  Check, check and...I sighed...check.  Just your humble and pitifully weak earth pony here...minus the things earth ponies are often known for.  Not shown?  The painful wrenching of my stomach crying out for sustenance and the fuzzy headed fevers that spoke of building radiation poisoning in my blood from the foul air and workplaces.

        Even without the Pit...I began to rate my chances at survival for another month very low anyway.

        I raised a hoof to my face, dabbing my damp eyes at the soul crushing sight of my own body being so irreparably hurt.  Apparently my tears ducts weren't quite done yet then.  I wanted nothing more than to collapse off my weary hooves and curl up on the ground...but long conditioned instincts propelled me to continue.  I had work to do, even if I didn't want to do it any more.

        Turning from the mirror, I set a pace toward the armour manufacturing facilities.  Road signs were useless to me, my inability to read rendering them defunct.  Briefly, I wondered if they even meant the right things anyway these days as I stared at the tall, rectangular sheet of metal on stands just outside the FunFarm.  It was bent away from the crater, clearly having been jostled by the missile as it struck Fillydelphia and never truly fixed.  The words on it were undecipherable to me...a mixture of dots and lines that held secrets I would never understand.  Words were not my thing...shape and form was more my area of understanding to sketch and shade in those quiet moments between shifts.  However there were three words that I knew...three words that I often wondered about.

        Murky Number Seven.

        My name.  Like some sort of sick joke to poke fun at somepony when he's already down.  The not so lucky one.  Ha.  Ha.  Laugh it up everypony at the slave with the silly name.  That said, the exact circumstances were a little unknown to me, although you could logically piece together some of it.  I was not an only child.  My mother had been the possession of a few Masters in her time and had the attentions of various slavers too.  I had been the seventh foal she gave birth to.  I had no confirmation that this was the exact reasoning...nor did I like to think it as the true one, for it pointed at my caring mother as someone devoid of imagination and life to the point she would number her own children.  As for 'Murky'...well...you only needed to look at the colour of my mane and coat for that one.  A particularly loathsome slave I had once worked alongside in Manehattan had once told me that it was because my mother hadn't truly cared for me at birth...because I wasn't an intentional child, hence the sick joke of a name.

        I knew her better.  Even if that were true, she changed as I grew around her.

        Briefly, I paused in the road...it struck me suddenly that tomorrow, my own mother wouldn't even know I was dead...

        ...I galloped the rest of the way to the factory in tears, my eyes finally proving they could find enough effort to cry any time, as I sought only the familiar lonely toil of a slave's life to help me forget my own stupid wishes.

* * *

        The armour factory loomed over the motionless and ruined hovels surrounding it, the places where I presumed workers had once stayed close to their site of work.  The run to the site had long exhausted the emotional hurt I had brought on myself.  Instinct and conditioning forced it unwillingly to the back of my mind as I stepped past the thick metal gates, feeling my lungs already burning from the exertion of arriving at all.

        As I galloped past workers quarters, I briefly wondered what it was like back then, to have choice of what you do in life and no-pony telling you what your day is to include.  I pictured a young mare, turning away from her cutie mark's proclamation of being a seamstress to instead do it only as a hobby while working as a baker.  How did anyone choose what they truly wanted?  When given everything, how do you know which route to take?  What crusade would any pony undertake to find the thing that they truly wanted?

        Sometimes I wondered if being instructed was not perhaps so bad compared to that insurmountable choice.  Looking into the red hot forge ahead of me, the warmth mixing with the dry air to blast my wet eyes into dryness once more, I wondered who would choose to work in a place like this.

        The factory office had been converted into the resident slave master's hub of activity.  As I approached, surrounded by scalded and dire faced ponies slaving away on the metal presses and molten vats I could see her up above.  Wicked Slit...a unicorn mare bearing just as wicked a blade that hovered alongside her.  When not around her, some of the slaves made occasional jokes as to whether her name meant the knife or...well...something else.  The one slave who rebelled and told it to her face had lasted three unthinkable days regretting why that had been a bad idea.  Right now, her hooves rested on the railing, her horn magically enhancing the volume of her voice to be heard over the din as the blade floated casually to and fro beside her.

        “You lot!  No!  You lot!  Get up off the damned floor!  You wanting dumped in the vats?  Because it's all you're good for if you just lie around!”

        I turned, seeing three ponies collapsed on the floor, two male earth ponies and a female unicorn.  The earth ponies had scorch marks around their face from grabbing scalding hot metal by accident in what I knew to be from work in the refuse yard.  Some of that stuff stayed hot for days without showing it, I'd once stepped on one myself.  All were clearly suffering from a lack of water and too much heat inside.  Even as I watched, under the factory master's barked orders, a couple of slavers began hauling them off...too weak to even fight back.  For their sake I hoped the master was not intending to hold up to her sick promise.  Only then did I notice her eyes watching me, foalishly standing alone with no work to do.

        “You!  Get up here now!  You're late!”

        Bobbing my head to show understanding, I quickly headed for the skeletal metal stairs rising above the shop floor of the armour facilities.  As I climbed, the view let me fully grasp the weight of Master Red Eye's intentions.  There were hundreds of ponies in this place alone...and this was only one factory.  Sparks flew from heated metal as it was machined into place and cut upon conveyors.  The sound of whirring cogs and the scream of tortured metal as it was warped and forced into new angles assaulted my eardrums.  I had once asked for ear plugs.  Wicked Slit had asked if I'd prefer them cut off instead.

        Steam rose and enveloped the walkways that were thick with guards bearing long rifles and gas masks.  Oh how I envied those masks...any relief from the poisonous air...

        A few even wore battle saddles...I envied them too.  Call it a silly wish, but I'd always wanted one of those things; even if I had no use for it.  Something about the mechanisms and artful measure of weights and machinery lit a wishful appreciation to the artistic side of my mind.  Perhaps one of those lighter ones that I could wear and hang things on would fit best.  Briefly, as I trotted through the master's open doorway, I wondered if I might be able to get one in my last few seconds of life inside the Pit.  That'd be nice.

        The darker (and larger) part of my brain immediately reminded me that it isn't so nice when it means you are getting beaten to death, the bully’s words came flooding back into my mind.

        “How does it feel knowing you're doing to DIE!?”

        Choking back a reaction, I clattered over the lethally haphazard catwalks toward Wicked Slit's door.

        Inside, the office was marred with old furniture around a rotted wooden desk bearing one of the indecipherable terminals.  I hated those things...whirring away with hidden secrets that I couldn't read, like something put on Equestria just to spite my illiteracy.  Wicked Slit sat behind it, holding a cigarette magically in front of her mouth as she typed up, presumably, a report on the three slaves she needed replacing.  Around her sat various scraps of her life, cigarette stubs and packs, a couple of half empty bottles of Sparkle Cola and her prized possession, a wickedly curved knife that permanently stood upright with the blade embedded in the wood.  Her desk was covered in the pockmarks of the tip from each day, but not as many as were left on her slaves.  Once, she had slit my back just enough to make the wagon harness rub it all day.  Wicked Slit had a fiendish imagination with that blade.

        Right now she didn't even look at me as she spoke in a surprisingly polite voice, belying her ruthless attitude,

        “Do you know, Murky Number Seven, how many slaves we lose on a daily basis?”

        I shook my head, frankly it wasn't something I cared to think about.  All I knew was it was no small number.  ('About to be one less', my mind oh so joyfully reminded me) Every few days a slave in my enclosure just...wouldn't wake up.  Toxic air was a major killer, smog in the lungs and infections forming within every small wound you received were lethal too.  She didn't look up.

        “I didn't hear you,” she intoned.  The words carried underlying threat.  Of course...she wasn't looking at me to see my shake of the head.

        “I...I don't know, Master,” I replied, stammering.  My voice sounded so small beside hers.

        “I'm a mare, Murk.” She still didn't even turn from her work on the terminal.

        “I...I mean, I don't know...um...Ma'am?” I tried instead.  Funny, most female slavers preferred master as well.  I presumed she had some trouble with her stallion peers to gain the same level of respect in an environment given to masculine ego and shows of strength.  If anything, it made her seem all the more lethal as I risked a glance and saw the puckered scars across her face...even a crack running up her horn.  Casting magic must have been agonising for her...it spoke volumes of her willpower, as loud as...well...as loud as her voice, I guessed.  She sat up, looking directly at me.  I had forgotten something...to say it at the end too, perhaps?

        “I mean...I don't know, is it Ma'am, Ma'am?” I muttered, trying not to look her in the eye.  Or perhaps she was one of those more militant types from Master Red Eye's army?  They liked it at the beginning as well...

        “Ma'am...Ma'am, Ma'am?”

        Her left eye twitched dangerously as she shoved the heavy terminal away with her magic and leaned over at desk at me.  Suddenly, I had some very nasty imaginative thoughts about that knife and varying parts of my body...

        “Do you think you're being funny, Murk?  Or clever?” she intoned dangerously, the knife pulling itself out of the wood without a sound.  Damn that thing was sharp...

        I shook my head.  I didn't want to risk anything else.  Why had I gotten so chatty anyway?  Perhaps the knowledge that I was about to have my throat torn out and left to painfully bleed to death had made me careless.  My imagination became a very imminent reality as the knife flew over and rested against my throat.  My squeak of terror stifled itself as I dared not move my throat in the slightest, but I felt the sweat of fear running down the back of my neck as its oddly cold surface rested...ready to pull to the side if she decided to just get rid of me for back talking her...

        “The truth is, Murk.” she began again, “Too many, and do you know why?” She didn't give me a chance to reply.  “Lack of effort.  Red Eye expects every one of you to do their utmost best...you have listened to his broadcasts?”

        I could hardly avoid them.  Every night they echoed around my pen, blasting speeches of a greater future...of our sacrifice being for the good of our descendants and the survival of Equestria into better days.  I had often heard slaves arguing, some claiming that perhaps he was right and if they just put their backs into it they might somehow save themselves too.  Others...well, others defied him, quietly of course, but would happily curse his name into the ground all while grovelling for forgiveness if any of those fanatical griffins heard them.  Me?  I didn't really think either way.  One way or another my purpose was to serve, if it were Master Red Eye that commanded me to do this, I'd do it.  What else was there for me to do?

        “Red Eye expects much of you slaves and of us slavers, Murk.  And examples like those three down there are not good enough.  It's enough to make me want to just start shooting every slave I see for insulting our great leader.”

        Great.  She was a fanatic too.  Oh my wonderful life...

        “Which brings me, of course, to you, Murk...”

        Shit.

        “Given you were ten minutes late, do you know how much you have delayed Red Eye's plans?  Care to take a guess?” She grinned sweetly, finally looking at me.  Sweet Celestia...she was actually so angry she was grinning.  Shouting I could deal with...I'd been shouted at all my life, painful on the ears as it was...at least you knew someone who shouted wasn't about to do something...I gulped internally...unpredictable.  Well...it wasn't my place to argue back, time to take a guess.

        “Ten minutes, Ma'am?” I hazarded.  After all, why wouldn't it be?

        Apparently, that wasn't what she wanted to hear.  Her hoof slammed on the desk, sending splinters of the rotten wood spraying to each side and leaned over it toward me, her knife moving away from me.  Instinct kicked in...I bowed my head down and knelt my front legs.

        “Ten minutes?!” Her voice echoed with magical power.  I squeaked in pain as the noise assaulted my ears.  “Try an hour, Murk!”

        Huh?  As I lay there, hooves covering my ears, I struggled to grasp just where this magical number had come from.

        “One hour!  You being late by ten minutes cost one trip with the scrap wagons to the ammunition factory where the smaller scrap would be needed!  Now because they lack that extra cart, they will have to run an additional cycle of the pressing machine.  This...as you can imagine, takes additional resources that they will now need to order in from the resource silos.  I have, in front of me, a particularly poorly spelled message of swearing, sent from the slave master in the old Ironshod factories wondering just what I am doing wrong here.  Tell me, Murk, if you are beginning to grasp the weight of you not pulling yours around here,” she bellowed, teeth clenching between each sentence, “Well?

        “I...yes,” I began, my words feeling like a whisper against a wasteland storm, “I understand my mistake.  I am sorry for-”

        “Don't be sorry,” she speared right into my sentence, “be better!  That cart needs taken now, along with a dozen others.  Everything has to act like a well lubricated machine in this city if we are to achieve our great leader's dream!  I want to see at least seven more deliveries by the end of the next hour.  Or so help me...I will personally ensure you will not want to return here tomorrow.”

        “I won't be anyway, Ma'am,” I spoke up, finding at least some solace in that I would be escaping her after the next few hours.  Her eyebrows rose with disdainful fury at the interruption, “I'm to attend the Pit later this morning.”

        I couldn't resist it.  She'd made my life a nightmare for the past week working under her supervision.  I still bore a burn on my neck where she had put out her cigarette on me as her method of trying to show me that the molten metal sparks wouldn't hurt as much as defying her.  The bullying last night had worn on my mind.  The knowledge of death being so close anyway drew a certain carelessness to my words.  Instinct led me to merely mutter them under my breath rather than blurt them out loudly.

        “So...so I presume you will have to find a fourth slave as well after I'm gone, Ma'am.”

        “Ex-CUSE me, Murk?” Her voice drew enough of a picture of what would happen if I had said that any louder, “Care to repeat that?”

        I prayed to the Goddesses that she had only thought I had just not spoken loud enough.  She must have seen my lips moving, of course.  Instinct was currently bucking my brain hard for saying that to the mare whom had been threatening my windpipe with a blade a few seconds ago.  Well, there goes my attempt to be snarky for the day.

        “I said...um...Ma'am,” my voice was shakier than before, the imminent threat of that wicked curved knife all too clear as it slowly and methodically began to stab the desk in perfect beats, “that...I should probably...um...”

        She had advanced towards me, trotting right up to glare me in the face.  Oh Goddesses, not the face again, it still hurt from Whiplash.

        “Go on...” she intoned, dangerously.

        “That I should...hop to it?” I tried to smile, to grin my way past it.

        She did not seem impressed, backing me up right against the doorway before turning away from me.  “Then why are you still here, Murk?”

        That was my cue, any slave would recognise a lifeline when they were thrown one.  However as I got up to my hooves and made to turn to the door, warning bells rang in my mind.  'Wicked Slit doesn't throw lifelines...she severs them.' I tried to dive for the door as I caught her movement from the corner of my eye.  Too slow.  Her full buck catapulted me through the doorway with a cry of shock and pain as my ribs, half bruised already, screamed in agony.  I lay against the catwalk's dangerously open edge (seriously, who designed these things?) clutching my chest as I looked up to see the door telekinetically slam in my face.

        With a sigh, I let my head hit the metal plating once more in relief as I tried to convince my aching body to get up.

        All potential outcomes considered...I thought that had gone pretty well.

* * *

        Perhaps it says something about slavery that in my last day upon Equestria, I used the time being whipped while pulling a cart laden down with sets of heavily armoured barding between a factory floor and the Ironshod Firearms depot on the far side of Fillydelphia.

        Either that or I had some really weird tastes.

        It was approaching late in the day by the time that the slaver finally, mercifully, detached me from the rusted and chaffing harness (I could swear it was going to leave a stain...) and sent me on my way 'home' to the FunFarm...happily reminding me that I was going to make his bets very easy later on.

        The moment the harness was released my legs gave out.  What little strength I had to carry half the trips of most ponies had worn me out completely to the point that if I had ever entertained thoughts of actually fighting I might have wanted to complain about how this was unfair.

        Unfair?  Heh, welcome to Fillydelphia, Murky.

        I staggered from the colossal factory through one of the delivery doors.  Along the edge of the storage flats were rows of non-functional and long rusted pegasus sky-wagons for hauling cargo from Filly all the way to...well...wherever in Equestria it were needed.  I pictured strong, free pegasi swooping to and fro with huge weights upon their wagons...carrying them as though they weighed nothing more than a feather.  To be met happily as they made deliveries of, well, absolutely everything.  It was hard to imagine, for it required pegasi to be anything other than universally loathed by the wasteland I had seen.  “Scummy sky dwellers” was the popular name to my last Master as he drunkenly ranted about how they keep it all for themselves and how he couldn't wait for them to come down to the wastes so he could give them a piece of his mind.

        Yes...the wastes hated pegasi.  I certainly hadn't heard of any living down here myself yet in my lifetime.  Probably for the best, given how they might be treated.

        Pulling my jerkin a little tighter, I cast a glance about me.  Various slaves were trudging their way back towards the FunFarm...clearly seeking a chance to rest their hooves before the slavers worked out where to send them next.  A typical day in Filly...perhaps an hour of sleep, a little slop or oatmeal watered down (only usually with water) and almost every other hour dedicated to the work or travel between said work.  I couldn't honestly say I knew a slave who had survived more than a few months at most.  They looked a sorry sight, even by my standards, the 'veterans' of Fillydelphia.  Boils and scabs of infected and savage wounds from Master Red Eye's workers, machines and even other slaves coated them.  Most had tried to tie off wounds with scraps of fabric while others simply still just bled openly as they limped and shuffled across the broken landscape of the city.

        Even to a born slave, the sight was horrifying.

        My eyes traversed further, meeting the wary glances of various guards on tall catwalks running between the ruins that acted as their barracks throughout the city.  One of them re-angled to point his battle saddle at me and made a jerking motion with his head.  'Move along.' I didn't dare hesitate for him to ask again.

        I fell in step with the rest of the trotting slaves, just another little cog in the machine, albeit one about to be cast out.  The crush became tighter as they filled through the manufacture sites gates, leading to me bumping flanks with other ponies on both sides.  The smell was enough to cause me to almost dry heave on the spot as I witnessed their dirt and blood rub off on my own jerkin and flanks, smearing over my cutie mark.  I shuddered, trying to block it out by closing my eyes and trotting on...it's not like I could get any dirtier anyway...right?

        It was a mistake.  My hoof caught a rock as I felt my balance stolen from me and I fell headlong under the mass of slaves whom were beginning to pick up speed.  A gunshot sounded as they were given inventive to hurry and let the next group through...panic shot through me as I felt myself dragged down under their hooves (along with a few other unfortunates) and trapped underneath a stampeding rush of filthy slaves.  I screamed, I begged them to stop, to let me up.  None heard me as hooves cracked against my sides and face.  Pain threatened to overwhelm me from the ceaseless crush...it was hard to breathe from all the dust kicked up.  Claustrophobia fought with pain for my attention as both swarmed through my mind.  I tried to pull myself through it all and away before anypony-

        A hoof landed on my leg.

        With a fierce intensity, pain flared from the joint as it was wrenched far past the limits of its movements.  I am sure that my cry of pain was audible above the entire crowd as I felt hooves grasp around me and pull me out from under the mass of slaves...dragging my dead limb with me.

        Dumped on the rocky piles either side of the road...I lay back and took a deep breath, feeling the air rush to my lungs away from the dust...before coughing heavily as my lungs rebelled from their infections.  A movement beside me perked up my ears and caused me to half pull back in fear.

        “Whoa there...you alright?” A mare's voice, I spun to look, yelping in pain as my leg reminded me that it still wanted my attention too.

        A young unicorn was half crouched beside me, hoof extended as though about to have touched me.  A gentle creamy yellow coat with a long, two tone mane of light orange with incredibly thin hazy red streaks.  Her mane was, like every slave, filthy and bedraggled.  I got the sense she might have had her tail as long as her mane...but the end looked like it had been torn off.  Hell...her entire look would have been vibrant and flowing had she not been dulled and battered as a slave like myself.  She wore an alien look, one I didn't properly understand until memory began to kick in and remind me that it was a face of concern...the last time I'd seen that was on my mother.

        Internally, I forced myself to not break down again right in front of my temporary saviour and forced myself to speak.

        “I...I guess so...” I hesitantly stammered, voice low.  Social skills were not among my chief abilities.  Wait...I guess so?  While I'm sitting here with a possibly broken front right leg, a loose tooth from two blows to the face earlier, bruised ribs from Wicked Slit, lash scars on my back, sick, infected, probably dying of radiation and about to assuredly die in under an hour?  Yeah...really 'ok', Murky.

        She didn't seem to believe me either, leaning forward to gently help me to my hooves before some guards spotted us.  Closing my eyes, I gritted my teeth as I tried to move the injured leg.  With a grunt of pain I bent the joint as normal...it wasn't broken.  Badly sprained...but the joint was still intact.  I let out a sigh of relief before staggering and promptly fell over once again with a soft 'whud!' Perhaps I'll lie down just a little bit longer...

        “You're lucky you weren't killed under there,” the mare continued to speak, nursing my leg briefly before sitting back, her gaze passing over me.  From the look on her face it was clear that, even though she was trapped in here too, she considered me a particularly weakened looking pony, “Now come on, we need to get going, I can't be late or-”

        “Yeah...I know the feeling.” I muttered with my eyes averted, talking too much wasn't my place.  I half expected a slaver to come around any second and beat me for talking at all.  Testing my weight on a limb, I stood.  As I did, my saddlebags revealed themselves to have been torn in the stampede, my sketchbook journal tumbling out on to the ground before the mare.  Blinking, she looked down, nosing it open with her...well...nose.  She was probably too tired to use magic right now.  I made a move to retrieve it, only pausing as I noticed she was actually looking...not laughing or trying to steal it.  Instead I just waited, feeling oddly full of apprehension as she flicked a couple of pages while I trotted to and fro, trying to work the movement back into my foreleg joint.

        I didn't even yelp in pain to not disturb her oddly peaceful looking investigation...well...not more than twice anyway.  Certainly no more than four.  Perhaps six if squeaks counted.

        “This is...pretty interesting stuff,” she commented, eyes not leaving a picture I'd drawn of the Fillydelphia gates.  My first night here.  She flicked some more, before smirking and stifling a laugh, “seems you have a liking of mares, though.”

        She looked up to me and grinned...I blushed and fell back a little, rubbing my head with a hoof as I tried to think of an excuse.  Truth is...well...perhaps I did sometimes find my subconscious drawing out a particularly nice looking mare I might have seen or worked beside.  I'd always intended to add the clothes...honest.

        I stepped in, albeit painfully, closing the journal with a hoof.  That stuff was still private, no matter what strange spell of peace she seemed to exude to make me not have grabbed it from her the moment it fell.  I just blushed as she giggled slightly at the act, seemingly not offended before standing to her own hooves herself.

        “I...I'm sorry,” I began, trying to keep my voice steady above embarrassment, “I should go...”

        She just nodded, apparently understanding before knocking a tangled knot of hair behind her ear with a hoof,

        “Alright then, off you go before we get caught,” the mare bit her lip and her eyes fell on the sketchbook again resting at my side, “I really do envy that...the ability to draw whatever you want...whenever you want.  It's like an escape, isn't it?”

        What?  An escape?  What on Equestria was she talking about?  Drawing was just...automatic.  I couldn't choose what to draw...

        ...could I?

        The mare was turning to go.  She trotted away toward the opposite entrance of the FunFarm, clearly a resident of another enclosure, possibly the Bumper Plow-Pit.  I wanted to say something...to try and make up some excuse for some of the pictures...to ask what she meant by drawing what I wanted.  But she was already too far away and I dreaded shouting with slavers around us with ever watchful eyes for dissent and rule breaking.

        A little voice began to ask me in my mind why I hadn't been afraid of her.

        And why I had a sudden urge to draw her, not like the pictures she had seen but as...well...what I saw.  A strangely at ease slave.

        The thought struck my mind...just one last sketch before I headed off to the Pit...what were they gonna do?  Sentence me to death?  Justification in mind I quickly (figuratively speaking...) made for the petting zoo and my hidey hole in the pigsty.  I looked back once or twice at the mare heading off.

        I could swear she was doing the same.

* * *

        That was better.

        Lines became curves...

        Curves became shapes...

        Shapes came to life...

        Across the floor of the pigsty I had scattered picture after picture.  From the moment I pulled myself through the small gap, hounded by the taunts and pursuits of my 'fellow' slaves, I had retrieved the charcoal (the taste of the floors corner reminded me to not throw it away again) and set to work.

        I didn't think...I didn't consider.  I just drew.  As ever, allowing my subconscious to take over...to draw what came to my mind first.  Soon my journal had a good few new entries.  I had struck past last nights picture as fast as I could to add more and see what they would bring.

        One page...ten minutes work...Wicked Slit's knife with her eyes gazing from behind.

        Another page...five minutes work...myself and the cart with darkened lines to add the weight.

        Another page...three minutes work...the Pit.  Sketchy and terrible.

        Page after page...filled with imagery of my time here.  Even in my drawings I couldn't escape it.  I had...wanted...a picture of her, before I forgot her face.  But it just wouldn't come out, like a machine in Filly's foundries working to the same pattern I found my sketching fell into patterns I could not control.  Once, a rare slave that actually conversed with me had asked why I never chose what I drew.  How could I?  Choice was not mine to have by birth.

        But now I wondered, at the end now with nothing else to live for...no work to be done any more, what if I...chose...to draw something nice?

        That mare's wondrous hope in her voice as she said that drawing could be an escape of itself rung in my mind.

        I took another page, leafed the parchment over and gripped the dirty charcoal in my mouth loosely.  Perhaps if I drew some random lines...then made what I wanted from it?  Maybe that would work?  Trembling, each sweep of the charcoal didn't seem to add anything...how could this ever work?  I didn't have the mindset or the belief to ever think for myself...all I was doing was a...a...

        I saw potential.

        With gusto, my charcoal flew on to the paper.  Instinct not restricted to my life kicked in.  Artistic form.  The things I look at.  Specific memories flared in my head.  Curling up next to my mother, stealing from my master back on the rock farm, running away to hide in Fillydelphia, mouthing off under my breath at Slit and sitting with another pony glancing at my journal without any hint of derision.  For the first time in as long as I could remember...I drew for myself.

        I jolted back from the paper, breathing hard, as I dared to let my eyes descend upon what I beheld before me.

        It was me.

        Just me.  Just that small pony staring back at me from the bottom left of the page, not even filling the space I could have, like it was waiting on somepony else to fill the gaps beside him with something else.  It...it was smiling.  My hoof went to my mouth, when had I last smiled?  I honestly couldn't remember.  But here it was, my sketch's lips curled upwards in a joyful, playful laugh that I wish I could have heard for real.

        “Hey!  Runt!  You ready?  They're calling for you!  Time to diiiie!”

        I ignored it...this was more important.  I threw the page over and grabbed the charcoal again.  Lines into curves...curves into shapes...shapes into-

        “Life is over, runt!  We can see them coming to chain you all up and drag you theeeere!”

        Charcoal flew, I drew faster than I ever had before.  I was in control of this!  Not them!  I could control what I drew!  The form came to be...the mare!  She was looking curious, staring off the page at me as though trying to work out why I had drawn her.

        I could choose!  I could create anything!

        “Murky Number Seven you are ordered to the Pit!  Come out, be chained and lets get going so we can all win some caps on you!”

        The voice of the enclosure master...oh Goddesses no...I had just learned how to do this, yet I could feel my legs trying to pull myself on conditioned instinct to obey.  I tried to reach the paper once again...one more...I can go one more and just be late out.  The charcoal snapped at the tip from how hard I was pressing...the drawing went messy...it didn't matter.  Stains of tears were appearing on it, I choked down the embarrassment at crying over something as silly as all this as I felt a rap on the pigsty.

        “You there!  Slave!  Is Murky Number Seven in here?”

        “You bet!  He's cowering like a-”

        There was a crunching sound followed by the sound of somepony hitting the ground hard.

        “I didn't ask you for your opinion!  Guards, tear this damn thing apart and get him out here!”

        Oh, Luna help me...I felt the sty shake and buckle under their savage hoof blows on either side.  The drawing was only just taking shape, I knew what it was!  It was...it was...

        The roof snapped off, smog and dust seethed in from the outside world as a silhouetted gas mask glared in and spotted me frantically scribbling.  I squealed as I felt a second slaver grab my jerkin in his teeth and effortlessly lift me, whining in pain as my bruised ribs protested at the sharp movement.  I pulled down with all my meagre weight...one...more...line...

        The pulling intensified as a second guard joined,

        “No!  Please...” I begged them as I felt the charcoal fall into my mouth, “I have to see her!  Once more!”

        With a great tug, I was yanked through the splintered wall of the pigsty and thrown on the ground, weeping in a heap.  I spat out the foul charcoal and reached out for my journal as two guards magically hog tied me with chains before dragging me away.  The journal had fallen open on its side, visible to me as I was pulled off, writhing and screaming through tears to be reunited with it.  The picture I had so desperately tried to finish stared directly back at at me, tugging at my heart and stirring emotions long dead.

        My mother...once again being forced to watch me being taken from her.

* * *

        I was going to die.

        I lay against the wall of the Pit's slave confinement area, feeling the cold concrete seeping its chilly touch through my torn jerkin.  It was dark, the only light being that coming in from the Pit itself.  A thick gate sat at the front of the area...the only thing that separated me from death now.  Not that I could think too much about the gate...I was much too busy screwing my wet eyes closed and cowering in the back corner with my hooves trying to cover my suffering ears.

        The crowd were like a sonic blast of pain.  Their screams and bloodthirsty bellows echoed down into the enclosed Black Gate side of the arena with me.  Their hoof stomps in freaky unison felt like a slap around the head each time.

        I was going to die.

        I...I didn't want to die...

        

        The massive noise subsided down from an assault on my senses to being 'merely' uncomfortable as I heard the announcer start talking up the crowd, that big griffin...whatever her name was.  Her words whipped them up into a frenzy.  I could picture them salivating, eagerly sharing the stories of the little buck whom they will all get to watch being horribly torn apart.  Opening my eyes I looked around, shivering.

        At the front stood Numbers One and Two.  Fillydelphia Pit matches apparently involved two teams of six ponies...you fought one on one.  The winner remained to fight in the next battle.  Black Gate was my 'team.' Numbers One and Two seemed to know one another, red mare and dull yellow stallion respectively.  They looked tough...but then, everypony looked tough compared to me.  Even that little unicorn mare who was Number Three looked like she could buck me senseless with that metal...thing...on her foreleg.  Number Four was nothing special...some blue buck.

        I was Number Five.  The one to die after those four got killed off.  It would happen, I had seen Pit fighter ponies before in Fillydelphia.  They were hard as nails with a bad attitude that would revel in the howling of the crowd as they took apart their opponents with as much-

        I gulped.

        -as much pain as possible.

        I was going to die...painfully.

        Once again I found the corner, squeezing myself into it as tightly as I could and prayed that the other ponies in this team wouldn't hear me crying.  Unfortunately, luck never quite was on my side as I sensed a hulking movement from beside me...Number Six.

        “Put on a braver face there.  Don't let them have the pleasure.” A significantly deep, low and mature stallion's voice that almost trembled with the threat of painful volume if he really got going.

        Okay, that I didn't expect.  Through terrified and tear filled eyes I looked up at the source to see Number Six.

        Looming in the darkness at the back of the Black Gate pen, Number Six filled the entire portion he took residence in.  He was kneeling down on all fours...and was still taller than me.  A huge muscular earth pony with a dark red coat and crimson mane looked down at me.  He was...without a doubt...the biggest and scariest pony I had ever seen in my life, I could barely even tell where the thick muscle-ridden back separated from his neck!   Wicked Slit was a little filly foal compared to this stallion.  An ugly scar coated face stared back at me, one eye completely bloodshot and one ear missing entirely.  Dyed tribal markings coated his body in black swirls designed to look like...well anything painful.  I saw barbed wire rings on his forelegs, angular designs around his bloodshot eye and gang symbols upon his sides.  Almost a third of his body was covered in them.  Puckered scars intertwined with the markings.  When he moved even slightly...the huge mass of muscle contained in his body became all the more obvious.  But those eyes...wild and filled with the promise of absolute violence, they scared me to the point of backing away from him.

        He was absolutely terrifying.

        His face followed me as I crossed the darkened area, trying to get away from him.  I glanced behind me, One and Two were staring out at the expanse of the Pit, Four seemed to be explaining something to Three...no-pony was paying us any attention.  I squeaked in terror...I didn't like being left alone with this massive, half feral earth pony.  He just sat there, staring at me trotting away from him.  With a deep sigh, he looked toward the gate.

        “I'm sorry.”

        Okaaay...officially confused now.  I tilted my head towards him even while backing my rump right up against the wall.

        “What?” I didn't dare raise my voice above that of a hushed whisper.  Who knew what those other ponies were like up at the front of the Black Gate slave area?

        “I'm sorry you need to end up here with me.” he continued, shifting to his hooves.  By the sweet Goddesses he was huge!  Add to that, none of it seemed to be anything but corded muscle.

        Suddenly I felt pretty glad he wasn't in the other team.

        “You're...sorry?”

        “Aye...I'm sorry, that I cannot protect you,” his voice hit a low note...an odd ring of sadness surrounding the bestial imagery he evoked in his accent and appearance, “you don't deserve this.  Not like some of the rest of us do.”

        I...I didn't know what to make of that.

        

        I wasn't given the opportunity to make anything of it.

        “Round one!” came the booming voice of the griffon announcer.

        I turned and looked out of the gate as it began to rise...

        “May the games begin...” I heard the huge stallion mutter as he trotted up beside me, eyes narrowed.  Suddenly, although I knew I wouldn't be around to see it...I felt pity for whatever poor mare or buck ended up going hoof to hoof with him.

        I still felt more pity for myself.

        I was going to die.

* * *

        My composure was not improving.

        I stood behind Three and Four as I watched whom I now knew to be called 'Blood' go out first into the arena and swiftly be torn down.  I had to physically stuff a hoof in my mouth to stop myself from howling in fear as I shrank back, knelt down and tried to blot out the cries of the crowd as they spotted death in their sights.  Part of my mind liked to pretend I could hear the bullies braying for my blood to be next.  Beside me, Number Six stared down at me with those wasteland worn eyes before looking up, as though judging the opposition.  I could hear him whispering something to himself...but with so much ambient noise, even I couldn't figure it out.

        Oh Goddesses...that would be me in there...

        Number Two stepped forward as the gate opened.  The announcer cried his name as I saw him clearly go looking for revenge.  Daffodil.  Closer to the gate now I got a better look outside.  The Pit itself was an old ice rink drained till only the concrete remained and sheathed in a giant cage, filled with pressure plates and old blood stains mixing with the new stains draining away from Blood herself.  Some of it was splattered across her opponent, Sin...Sin something, I had missed his name from covering my ears against the painful noise of the crowd.

        Once again, I witnessed death.  Daffodil's opponent stood no chance.  He even tried standing on a pressure plate to activate a bucketload of mines from above, trying to rain them on Daffodil.  The big buck swiftly dodged the deafening shockwave...before delivering the most....the most horrifying death I had ever witnessed.  One after another I heard, all too clearly, the snaps.

        He broke his opponents bones.

        All of them.

        While he was still alive.

        I felt my legs go weak...great heaves in my throat become choking sobs as my eyes flooded with tears and terror overtook me.  I ran to the back of the slave area were the door was, where we had been brought in.  I had to get out!  I didn't want to die!  As I approached it, the two guards assigned to supervise us, along with the third slaver whom had slapped these numbers on our flanks were waiting.  With a laughing shove, the trio hurled me right back into the Black Gate area once again.

        I curled up...more sickeningly wet cracks came from the arena...each in turn with a roar from the crowd.

        I don't want to die...

        I don't want to die...

* * *

        “Round three!  From the Black Gate, we still have Daffodil-”

        I tried to tune that griffon out...each round brought this one step closer to me.  Blood was down...Daffodil wouldn't last five more fights and the two ponies in front of me were...well...they weren't Number Six.

        That behemoth of a pony still stood as silently as ever, just staring into the arena from beside me.  Briefly, I tried to repress my terrified thoughts...to concentrate on the artistic side of his dyed coat and its designs.  Let's see...barbed wire...sharp edges...

        Not helping.

        Shivering and trying to fight my imagination showing such thoughts of a drawn out end to me...I instead took a look at the other two ponies.

        Number Four wasn't anything special...just another slave from Fillydelphia.  I wondered what he had done to deserve this.  Probably something a little less cowardly than my own.

        Number Three...it wasn't often I saw ponies whom I could look eye to eye without requiring to tilt my head upwards to do so.  Well...I would, if she wasn't facing away from me into the arena herself as Daffodil finished pounding the corpse of his opponent.  Briefly my eyes glanced to that thing on her right foreleg.  Some sort of...device.  Recognition flickered in my mind, hadn't Master Red Eye worn one of them?

        Momentarily, curiosity overcame fear as I gazed all the more...I couldn't see her cutie mark, that number sticker covered one side.  Shifting quietly to the other, I noticed what it is.

        Another of those devices...right there on her flank.  Just...what?  What did that signify?  Skill with them?  Given I had no idea what they were...I realised any guessing was a bit pointless.  Whatever it was, it couldn't be deadly.  The slavers wouldn't have left it on her otherwise, so I couldn't even imagine her bringing down every one of the fighters to protect my worthless hide either...

        A momentary realisation hit me as I realised I was craning my head to stare at her flank to see said cutie mark...and Number Six was glancing down at me with a raised eyebrow.  With a start, I shrank back, averting my eyes...damn it...why did everypony assume that about me?  I wasn't looking there.  I didn't stare at mares like that...

        I just...drew them...that was different.

        Number Six just seemed to chuckle quietly, a sound like rocks scraping together.  He fell into indomitable silence as he stared back into the arena...and narrowed his eyes.  I followed his gaze into the concrete pit and witnessed my killer.

        A zebra.

        The zebra.

        Even I had heard of her, the most terrifying pit fighter in Fillydelphia; exotic, lethal and utterly without mercy they said.  No-pony could hope to bring her down.  A veteran of four events and a current crowd favourite to coldly murder any pony that dared stand in her way.  Truth be told I hadn't seen her before myself.  I didn't know anything about her fighting style or capabilities...I didn't need to.  Any zebra to gain that reputation must have one hell of an ability to back it up...

        I couldn't help it, I cowered, using Number Three to block my view of her as I crouched down closer to the floor and shivered.  This just wasn't fair...

        Even on the floor, I could still see past Three's legs through the grill of the gate.  The zebra...what was her name?  Ze...Zen?  I couldn't hear anything over the ambience of the crowd shrieking with excitement at the sick games they were witnessing.

        The Goddesses seemed to want to please those vicious mares and bucks that took out all their frustrations on us poor arena victims...the sun baked down from above the cloud curtain.  The effect was less of a direct heat and more of a stifling ambient raising of the temperature in the still air...uncomfortable and hellish to suit the carnage currently being wrecked in the Pit.

        This was wrong...

        I saw the combatants fight.  I screwed my eyes shut as I saw Daffodil send the zebra to the ground...I winced as she returned the favour.  Even above the crowd I could hear the savage hoof strikes on one another...

        I couldn't do this...I wasn't built for this!

        Daffodil was brutal and resourceful...the zebra lithe and deadly.  I saw a mine kicked into the air and whinnied to myself as the savage detonation assaulted my senses.

        This wasn't fair...

        It certainly wasn't for Daffodil...even as I watched the zebra continually began to gain the upper hand...speed beat power...lethality triumphed over savagery.  With one hideous crunch I heard his neck break.

        My mind raced...one more of 'ours' down and one more towards my own presence in there.  I hadn't lived a good life.  Just a slave, a dirty and downtrodden slave with no freedom and no dreams of his own.  As I watched Number Three bravely walk forward to her own death...I finally and completely broke down the moment the gate slammed shut.  Emotion welled up, fear mixed with bitterness that I had never even been given a chance!  Life seemed fit to just screw me over at every opportunity!  All shame was thrown away as I did what I did best...cried.  I cried more than I ever had...even more than the day my mother was taken from me, because now everything was about to be taken from me.

        I didn't want that...I didn't want to go through the pain!  I...I was afraid of what they would do to me.

        I had thought that a thousand times today...but now it finally rammed home with the full intensity as the zebra launched at her newest prey.

        I was going to be beaten to death.

        The weight of that simple realisation was impossible to grasp, I emotionally spilled over, pathetically reacting with no hint of dignity or poise.

        Number's Four and Six stared at me as I pressed against the gate whimpering, quaking violently and trying not to look as I heard Number Three being brutalised and beaten to death even worse than Daff was.

        Why was it my life that had to go this way?

        Why me?!

        I didn't want to die!

        ...

        ...I didn't.

        A spark, like a bright flare erupted from the Pit, catching my half closed eyes like a beacon and blowing up dust from the Pit's concrete through the gate into my face.  A sound of magic being ignited came from the middle.  Hyperventilating still, I shifted and fell backwards, covering my eyes with my hooves before slowly glancing through them, struggling to see directly into the light...

        An aura of unicorn power streamed from the centre, enveloping the zebra entirely as every barrel that hung above the pressure plates clanged open in unison.  The green chemical flew from them, barely even touching the ground before being caught up in a swirling net of immense telekinetic magic.  My jaw hit the floor, eyes unblinking as I witnessed the foul liquid spray beautifully in all directions, coating the cage and blocking all vision into it, I had seen unicorn magic plenty of times...but never like this!  Only my position near the floor let me see under the green goo smeared across the gate.

        I hadn't even blinked as it landed either side of me...luck, it seemed, allowed me to sit undisturbed before this miracle.

        Number Three...she was...she...she...

        Flying without wings.

        I saw the scene that would be seared on to my memory until the day I died.        

        Amongst the drifting dust of the telekinesis spell, her horn bursting with overglow, Number Three ascended to the air above, taking with her the zebra that had so badly hurt her.  A nimbus of magic surrounded them both as she flew directly upwards and away from all the blood...all the death and pain...away from slavery and to her glorious escape.  Such courage in the sight of Red Eye himself!  I could hear the bloodthirsty crowd bellowing in protest and shock; the griffins opened fire in vain, their bullets missing her at every turn like fate and destiny themselves guided that little mare to be unharmed.  An angel blessed by the Goddesses, a lightbringer who's ray of hope speared through the darkness to ignite a fire in my heart.

        I felt myself fall back and sit dumbly, my mouth hanging open as I witnessed the spectacle before me, feeling the light across my face.  I must have been silhouetted against the gate, a small figure in the presence of a legend before my very eyes.

        Defying gravity so boldly...she disappeared into the searing dust and out of my vision but for a steadily fading glow.  To cast off the shackles of slavery and escape.  The thought struck my mind as ridiculous, but here it was!  The myths were true!  A great unicorn of powerful magic escaping from her masters to live a free life...

        As I watched that wondrous and beautiful sight flow away in the dust cloud through the rapidly fading chemical goo barrier...I felt myself smile.  I had never felt joy like that before...it felt so good.

        I just wanted to keep smiling forever.

        I wanted to go with her.

        My mind struggled to grasp the concept...to identify it and take hold of the urge.  Even as I heard the slavers rush into the Black Gate area to secure us and the bellowing of the griffins to trap the breakout before it left the FunFarm, I had the first true inkling of something...a wish of my own.

        I dared to dream.

        I wanted...to escape.

* * *

        “You!  Slave!  On the ground now!”

        

        The slavers burst in from behind us, two guards and the third who slapped that sticker on my flank moving to keep us down.  I barely heard them, I simply sat with my eyes trained on the roof of the cage within the arena.  The goo had run its course and the dust began to settle.  All that remained above was a small opening, a previously padlocked swing door in the ceiling of the cage hung open; swaying in the aftermath of such magical fortitude.

        Something about that door struck a chord with me, just idly swinging...the last evidence of the defiance against Fillydelphia's aim to keep us inside.  I could still hear gunfire, explosions and all sorts of noises as the crowd stampeded out of the arena.  A slaver's hoof dragging me by the jerkin away from the gate was the first thing to waken me from my reverie.

        “I said, on the damn ground, slave,” the slaver's voice betrayed a nervousness turned to anger.  I didn't blame him, my own voice would probably be squeaky and incapable at the moment.  I was still trembling after all.

        With a twist, I was hurled on to the ground as I heard shackles being drawn by the slaver's unicorn companion (Hah, call that magic?  Look at Number Three, buddy) as they moved toward me.  Only as they began trying to pull my hooves up did I begin to finally shake my head clear and get a grasp on why they were being as deliberate.

        The slaves were not taking this idly.

        Behind the door leading to Black Gate I heard the sounds of rebellion.  Slaves were crying out, rioting in the aftermath of one mare showing them there was more to hope for and that Red Eye could be defied.  One slaver was watching the door...telling me that perhaps the slaves outside were not being beaten down as easily as the slavers would like.

        It seemed Number Six thought the same way.

        The biggest pony I had laid eyes on in my life seemed to me to be a slow and deliberate stallion.  I had imagined that an attack from him would be like a boulder rolling slowly.  Deliberate and implacable.  Oh how wrong I as.

        He moved like a boulder alright...but one tumbling madly down a cliffside.  The slaver didn't even stand a chance as the colossal weight of Number Six barrelled into him, one giant hoof ploughing the slaver's head into the concrete wall with enough force to make a sickening crunching sound.  Suddenly I was very glad I couldn't see it all too well...

        The slaver currently straddling me with the shackles looked up, eyes wide as he witnessed his brethren murdered in an instant before him.  The third slaver turned from finishing his shackles on Number Four as well, both matching the cold stare of Number Six.

        “You...” the slaver's voice quivered, “...you stay right there!  S-Stay...”

        “Funny.  I was going to say the same thing,” muttered Number Six, dangerously, before launching himself at the two.  I curled up as I felt his size run over me to reach them, a series of panicking screams and dull thumps as the pair were set upon by the terrifying pony.  I risked opening my eyes...

        I saw Number Six moving like a blur, thick limbs lashing out wildly.  He bucked one slaver against the wall hard enough to whiplash the targets head back into it, spinning himself around to dive and grapple his second opponent even as the slaver attempted to draw a baton with his mouth.  With a grunt and a heave, the second slaver was roughly hurled across the Black Gate, clean over my head to land in a heap with his colleague, the pair groaning in pain.  Even as they attempted to stand, the first nursing his rapidly bleeding head, Number Six was on them.  His forehead collided with the first target, the sound like a rock hitting a wall.  The slaver dropped, unconscious in an instant even as Number Six began beating the last slaver's head off the wall repeatedly.  Eventually...a sharp pop signalled his end too as his agonised screams suddenly ceased.

        Almost as an afterthought, wiping the sweat from his brow, Number Six raised a hoof and stamped it sharply on the unconscious buck's neck with enough force to...to...

        I felt sick.

        I had seen ponies beaten all their lives...but this was different.  Slavers beat to intimidate...this pony had simply been killing them.  Cold and calculated, the stallion had taken three slavers apart in less than a minute with nothing other than sheer power and ferocity.  Brute force at its most simple level.

        No...that wasn't right.  Even as I watched him now, his eyes flickered to and fro...he was thinking, watching for other elements.  Suddenly, why he had been paying such close attention to the arena earlier made sense to me.  He wasn't about mindless brute force at all...that violence had been driven by a cold and pragmatic mindset that simply went for the kill, using unreal strength and viciousness to reach it however was most practical.

        Part of me wondered how he would have fared against that zebra, agility and precision against deliberate fury and power...until I remembered I would have been dead before I knew the outcome.  I wasn't sure which scared me more, although looking at those mismatched and bloodshot eyes turning to glare at me...I reached a decision pretty quickly.

        “D-Don't kill me too!” I shrieked at him, backing away toward the gate, eventually pressing my back against it to stay away from the huge earth pony, “I'll stay quiet!  Please...”

        I barely even noticed as I had pressed my back against the gate that the green goo was burning the back of my neck.  Fear of Number Six overrode any such feeling.  He simply trod over to me, staring down.  By the Goddesses...his face was streaked with the blood of the slavers he had killed, the lines dripping off his muzzle oddly following the contours of his dyed coat markings.  His face lowered to look me in the eyes...I found I couldn't even blink as I met his glare.  That one bloodshot eye seemed to twitch a little on habit before he drew himself back a little, grabbed my jerkin in his mouth and swung me to my hooves.

        “C'mon, pipsqueak,” he intoned, heading for the door, “Tag along and you'll maybe get out of this alive too.”

        Surprise rang in my mind.

        I...guess I didn't really have a choice.

* * *

        The underside of the Pit was in absolute chaos.  Even just outside the door to the Black Gate I witnessed slavers lashing and threatening their slaves with whips, guns and battle saddles.  They were not going down quietly; for even as I crept out of the door in Number Six's shadow I saw one slaver pulled down by four weakened labourers after being beaten over the head with a magically hurled sledgehammer.  Gunshots rang out every few seconds (I really needed earplugs...) sending scattered screams and waves of fleeing slaves down the hallways.

        Number Six didn't appear fazed, he glanced around before picking a direction and galloping off.  I struggled to keep up with his long and determined stride.  Diving to one side or the other; my gallop was nervous and unbalanced.  What was I doing?!  The slaver told me to stay put!  The little slave in my head screamed at me to cease and stop, that my masters would not appreciate this.

        Weapons were strewn on the ground where they had fallen from now unlocked guard storage.  Slaves unable to grab one in time were arming themselves with tools and the occasional bit of furniture.  I saw them trying to break into what I knew was the armoury where all the Pit's more lethal weapons like firearms and magical auto axes were kept to be put in the barrels.  Screams sounded in the air as the smell of gunpowder reeked around me.  I almost slipped in a few puddles that I was sure were not water as I tried to not think about the wetness on my hooves.

        Ahead, a slave and an overseer of the Pit came tumbling out of a doorway that held behind it a small fire.  Even as they savagely wrestled on the ground, I saw scraps of paper rolling out behind them from the blazing room with no evidence how the fire had even started, misfired magic maybe?  I ran through the smoke, holding my breath before tripping over a corpse on the other side so suddenly that I still felt my legs trying to run even as the world rotated by ninety degrees.

        My lower jaw slapped on the ground with a painful rattle, jamming my teeth together.  That loose tooth from this morning took its time now to remind me of its presence with an uncomfortable little shimmy in its socket.  Wincing and bringing a hoof to my mouth, I glanced around quickly before immediately feeling the urge to just stop.

        I saw slavers regaining control here...'normality' was being restored as more and more slaves waiting for the next rounds in the back were beaten, shackled or simply shot to quell their reactions.  Before my eyes I saw many of them murdered when they had already surrendered...perhaps I should just lie down...let them shackle me, don't take any chances...

        Flying...without...wings...

        No!  The feeling in my heart was still too strong, the bonds were heavy on my conditioned mind, but I had now been shown the light to 'dare to defy'.  I turned and galloped after Number Six once again, seeing that he had ploughed ahead without waiting at all.  Several slavers had tried to get in his way; their mangled forms lay in his wake.  As I dodged around them I tried to not think about the fact that some of them were still wailing in pain.

        He was up ahead, diving down a side corridor.  For a second I wondered why, before I heard the clatter of griffin talons on the floor around the next bend.  Silently thanking my ears for once in my life I dove into the double doors of the corridor after Number Six.  To my great surprise he was right beside them, slamming them shut the moment I was through.  I fell against the wall, my sides aching and...well...everything else aching too.  A radiation sick and multiple times beaten little pony like me doesn't run too well.

        Behind us, the griffins ran past, their talons making an all too obvious pattering noise.  Given a chance to breathe, I looked up (and up some more...) at Number Six.

        “Why...why are you helping me?” my voice was weak, panting and hoarse.

        “Why not?” A deadpan reply.  “You're not one of them, y'don't have the killer instinct in your eyes.  I know a place where you'll be safe...er, than you probably are in whatever pit they have you.  Tag along if you want, kid.”

        He narrowed his eyes, leaning down closer, “But I won't slow down...if you fall behind, you're getting left.  I have to...”

        He stopped, his eyes glancing away down the hall, before returning to me.  Somehow, I got the impression he was only covering for having said more than he wanted.  All the same, I nodded.  Perhaps what he had was a little rebel outpost in the train tunnels of Fillydelphia!  A way to get in and find other ponies to escape with, all of us together!

        Only to go with him meant...defying my master.  Escaping to where-ever this stallion wanted me to go.

        Thoughts clashed in my head as I watched the stallion creep forward, warily glancing around him with that same pragmatic look as before...

        I was a slave...what was I doing with all these thoughts in my head of escape, freedom and dreams?  Even my damned cutie mark was a set of manacles, I wasn't supposed to be away from this!

        But try as I might, that imagery of the little unicorn mare showing such defiance and escaping to the sky in front of me just would not go away.  The freedom she had in the air like that!  To be able to fly...

        Taking a deep breath, I turned, pulling my jerkin a little tighter around me before trotting after Number Six.  If I wanted out (do I really?) then I guess I would have to follow him, show that I am willing.  Show myself that I can break these chains.

        Briefly, I wondered if a cutie mark could change.  That would be nice, perhaps a sketchbook on my flank...or a bird flying free...

        We began moving again, passing staff offices of the ice rink and pausing only to check doorways.  In truth, the back area wasn't particularly big, however ruined walls and collapsed ceilings made much of it more like a dilapidated labyrinth.  Truth be told, I was not feeling particularly safe.  Even if I managed to get rid of the terror that my companion struck in me every time I saw him...well...at all, it was the fear of Whiplash, my master, appearing from no-where to drag me back for punishment at this defiance.

        “This is the way.”

        I blinked on reflex at his voice and didn't reply, somehow I had an imaginative sight of Number Six turning and breaking me in two for making any noise to disrupt his own escape.  Whatever drove him...it was intense.  I wondered what his name was...only now thinking to even bother checking his cutie mark.

        Whatever it meant...it wasn't “cute.”

        His massive body bore the mark of a battle-scarred and rusted shield splattered with blood on either side.  It made sense, I thought.  He certainly was battle-scarred himself.  His dyed coat bearing those sharp tribal symbols were matched only by the lines of wounds he carried.  My mind wondered on the shields significance...before settling on the obvious.  He was certainly as tough as one to survive all that.

        I saw some blood from light wounds in the chaotic hallway run down across the cutie mark itself, mixing with the blood permanently showing on the icon itself.  Something about it was...darkly fitting.  I found myself wanting to draw that...his mark.  With a sudden realisation, I felt a pang of loss at my journal being left behind at the FunFarm, probably used as bedding by now by some other slave.

        Even with that unicorn saving my life...I doubted I would see that picture of my mother ever again now.

        Once again, I felt little tears forming in my eyes...sometimes I really wished I didn't cry so much in front of others...but it was like an unstoppable instinctive reaction.

        I almost walked directly into Number Six's rump without thinking.  He had stopped, staring at the doors in front of us.

        One was a standard office door, the other a fire escape to the outside.  A temporary leap of hope came to my mind as I imagined us sneaking out under cover of the madness I could still hear outside and escaping to where-ever this stallion had in mind.  Reality came crashing home right back down to the wastes by seeing the clunky form of one of those damned terminals beside it.

        The colourful swearing of my companion under his breath as he checked didn't seem to imply he knew what to do with them either.

        “Locked...why are they always locked?  Ridiculous pieces of intellectual-”

        While reeling off a few words I had never even heard, he vented his frustration by bucking the wall with one leg beside him, the strike offering up a sharp crack as the plaster broke under his hoof.

        I heard a squeak at the sudden sound...damn it, why do I always have to-

        That hadn't been me.

        My poor hurting ears had heard something from behind the office door.  Motioning to Number Six (I really needed to ask his name...) I pointed with a hoof toward the office.  With a narrowing of his brow he turned and bucked the door open.

        Or rather...clean off its hinges.

        “Out!  Now!” he roared, diving into the room as I heard a scream of surprise and shock from within.  Dragged by the tail in Number Six's teeth, a worker for Red Eye was pulled into the corridor.  The big stallion dumped him in front of the terminal, but held the buck's head looking down the corridor away from it.

        “Right.  I'm betting you know the way out, aye?” he said, voice heavy but low and full of savage intent.  He clearly just wanted this over with, I got the sense he didn't enjoy waiting around in the middle of what was fast to become almost a war zone if the riots escalated.

        “No!  No, I don't know any damn password to the terminal!” he screamed in the stallion's face.  I had to hand it to him, that was bravery...or stupidity.  I couldn't quite tell.

        “So, you know the password then,” continued Number Six, speaking factually in a low tone with a lethal looking grimace.

        “I...what?”

        “I didn't tell you I wanted through a terminal.”

        “Oh...” the buck looked around at the terminal...and back to the big slave holding him, “...shit.”

        “Got that right.”

        Number Six immediately turned him around and bodily dragged the worker over to the terminal.  I stood in just as much surprise as him...I hadn't spotted Number Six's simple ploy either.  Clearly he wasn't stupid.  All the same though...I began to fear him again, he had that look in his eyes that I had seen before, when he pounced the slavers back in Black Gate.

        This wasn't a slaver he was holding though...for all I knew he might be just a promoted slave.

        “I ain't giving you the password!” he bewailed, “Stern would gut me!”

        I'll gut you if you don't do it now,” countered Six, “or perhaps I'll just start skelping your head off the wall until you do.  Trust me, I know how to keep you conscious.”

        He lowered his eyes,

        “And even if you do pass out...I am very patient.”

        “Screw you!  Stern would kill me!”

        There was a loud CLANG as the buck's head impacted on the metallic wall near the terminal, leaving a painful looking indent.

        “The password!” roared Six into his ear, I winced, holding my own ears and backing off as far as I could...I didn't like how this was going.

        “Fuck you, slave!”

        CLANG

        A second indent.  Blood sprayed from his nose and he wailed in pain, before spitting some in Six's face,

        “Red Eye has things he could do to me you never could!  I'm too...too scared of him to worry about you!”

        CLANG

        A third indent...deeper this time.

        “Shit....shit...” he seemed to pass out until Six batted him across the face with a hoof.  I didn't like this at all, this wasn't persuasion or defence...this was simple outright torture.

        Despite what he said to me...I did not feel reassured by this stallion one little bit...there was something just...unrestricted about him.  Like he chose to ignore all barriers of morality.  If it hadn't been for his words earlier...I would probably just have ran.

        However he was making progress...the worker's survival instinct had seemed to kick in, now begging for his life.  I tried not to listen...to shut it out and perhaps just hum to myself.  Anything to avoid being a part of this.  Annoyingly, only one of that ridiculous pink pony's songs came to mind from the FunFarm speakers.

        Right now...giggling was the last thing I wanted to do.

        KRICK!

        “YEEEEARRGGHHH!”

        I had to duck into the office to be sick, feeling my shrunken stomach doing its best to evacuate the little it had.

        “DARING!” I heard the worker wail, “It's Daring!

        “Now, wasn't that so simple,” uttered Six, his gravelly deep voice not even showing a hint of emotion before turning and unlocking both the terminal and then the door.  It clicked as the bolt unlocked.  With a satisfied snort he turned to the worker.  I saw murder in his eyes...he didn't want anypony left alive to spill the beans.

        “No!  No, I told you!”

        The worker clambered, crying in pain as he tried to drag himself on one snapped leg (oh Goddesses...it wasn't snapped at a joint...) as Number Six snarled and dove for him.

        I managed to close my eyes in time as I saw his hooves reach for the worker's neck.  But even holding my ears didn't cut out the begs for mercy being cut short by an agonised squeal.

* * *

        Inside had been chaos.

        Outside...was war.

        Slaves poured from the ice rinks stadium doors still in huge and snaking surges of desperation.  I saw slaves being crushed under the writhing mass of dirty ponies heading in all directions when two different currents of crowds collided, they fell screaming before being trampled to death.  My own bruises from earlier seemed to throb in sympathy, no helpful mares were around to pull those poor souls out.  Throughout it all, slavers galloped to and fro, pointing guns and screaming to round workers up.  Many slaves made a break for it before being shot down, their cries standing out above the overall ambience of panic and disorder.  Even here, a few feet from the side entrance I was almost bowled over by terrified ponies trying to escape the lashes or to attempt to head for their own enclosures.

        How could anypony move through this?  It was simply madness.

        But above the crowds, in the FunFarm still, even more was happening.  The FunFarm rollercoaster had somehow become active, the carts hurling around the tracks at breakneck speed.  I witnessed guards opening fire on it...who would end up in that thing?  And why were they firing at it with a-

        “GET DOWN!”

        I felt the stallion grab me roughly by the jerkin in his teeth and hurl me behind the garbage bins kept at the back of the ice rink stadium before diving in himself.  The rocket intended to detonate on the rollercoaster had missed, before arcing on an unclear trajectory to slam into the ground nearby amidst a crowd.  The concussive wave blasted my eardrums into a ringing deafness even as I felt earth and wet mud splattering down around me while holding my head to the ground.  Shaking so badly I felt I might just fall over...I stood up and opened my eyes, before closing them all right away.

        That hadn't been wet mud...

        I felt the stallion move, he was heading away already, forcing my eyes open I began to limp after him, my sprained joint aching on every step.  With a start I noticed my jerkin had been half pulled from my body by the stallion's rough throw, I staggered as I reset it around me properly before following as best I could.  I couldn't avoid looking to the side, seeing the horrific aftermath of the missile strike on the crowd, a small crater surrounded by mutilated bodies and shrapnel torn slaves.  No doubt they would simply be left to die...no-pony else helped them, they all just continued to run in panic, fearing another missile any second.

        Guilty feelings reminded me that I was hardly stopping either...terror clenched my gut like a vice as I struggled to see the stallion up ahead.  He stood a head above anypony else in the area, but with my size, fighting through a crowd was next to impossible.  I had to keep moving; any second another missile might land or a slaver might open fire indiscriminately on the crowd.  I had seen a couple doing just that earlier.

        Above, a wing of griffins soared over toward the rollercoaster as I heard an immense crash from the building that housed Red Eye's operations in Fillydelphia, the FunFarm Barn...had the coaster's cars crashed into it?!  Smoke billowed from one side as I saw Red Eye's forces moving to congregate on it.

        My attentions were brought back to the ground as a group of ponies rushed across the crowds line.  I saw three of them fall, taking out a dozen more with flailing hooves as they all collapsed to the ground amidst the panic.  There wasn't any order now, ponies all ran in differing directions, even some back to the stadium.  I dived, ducked and weaved my way as best I could through the insane obstacle course of flailing hooves and bodies...all it would take is one stray hoof and I'd be helpless on the floor.

        “Slaves!  Halt or you will be fired upon!  Halt where you are now!”

        My instinct kicked in...I faltered, hooves trying to stop, but the crowd swept me on.  The air was filled with screams, shrieks and angry cries of bitter ponies trying to push their own way through.  A young mare nearby clutched a lifeless buck, wailing as she cried over him, trampled to death.  I saw two slaves begin fighting over who bumped who on purpose, hooves flying as they collapsed to the ground together.  All around me looks of terror ignored the commands across the PA system.  I wondered if that had even heard it, perhaps only I could.

        “Guards!  Open fire!”

        Battle saddles unleashed a torrent of firepower from the walkways above.  Miniguns roared, huge anti-material rifles boomed and magical weapons lent their own unique and disturbing zaps to the volley.  Griffin handheld weapons joined the cacophony of weapon sounds as they picked out individual targets from above the crowd.

        Only now did I realise what had been happening...the slave crowd I had ended up in was heading for the main gate.  It may have been accidental, I would bet most didn't know where they were going in the mad rush out of the gunfire going on around the stadium and rollercoaster...but I saw what Red Eye's forces had to do.  To their eyes, the slaves were making a break for it and they intended to punish it with enough blood to quell any rebellion amongst the shapeless masses.

        Briefly, it occurred to me that the majority of these slaves were not the ones whom had actually rebelled beneath the ice rink...

        The front ranks were torn asunder.  Ponies fell in droves as the fusillade of gunfire ripped into them.  I could not see it, being too far back, but I heard the horrible sound of bullets impacting on flesh alongside the unsettling flares of ponies atomised or melted by magical energy weapons.  The crowd swung to a halt and tried to double back, meeting the rest all coming behind them in a collision that broke bones and bloodied muzzles that met another unexpectedly.  The sound was shocking, bodies slamming into one another making far more crunches than they had any right to do.  Trapped between gunfire, ploughing collisions and panic I...I didn't know what to do...my instincts said 'Go to your enclosure', my heart said 'Keep going!  Escape!' but I didn't know which to follow.

        Instead I did the only other thing I know how to react like...

        I cried.

        Fear, surging emotion and adrenaline were surging through me.  I had never felt like this before.  Emotion was not something I often knew outside of my crying, so now with so much of it at once...

        I fell in the crowd and was thrown to and fro by it, unable to choose or know what to do.  I felt my eyes water on sheer reaction at my inability to comprehend what I was actually doing even as I felt myself knocked to the side by a large mare trying to fight her way back through the masses of ponies.

        “Squirt!”

        My eyes blinked open, wiping my tears before shrieking and diving to the side to avoid a pony crashing to the floor near me, stone dead from a bullet to the forehead.  Ahead, off to the side of the crowd was Number Six, the stallion.  He wasn't waiting, but he had shouted to me as he ran off down a side street deeper into Fillydelphia.  Many other ponies were all trying to escape that way off the main road.  I could see gunshots trying to stop them, clearly Red Eye wanted to herd us together.  There were two choices...one followed the stallion into whatever place he was heading for.  But to get to him...I would have to charge through an area pock marked with bullets and sizzling with magical energy.  A few ponies were making it through without harm toward that side street fine...but not all...

        The other was to stay here...already I could feel the crowd quietening and beginning to falter under the brutal tactics of the slavers to restore order...I would perhaps be safe enough until led back to my enclosure.

        To dare...or to falter...

        I looked out over the gunshots raking the area...

        I took a breath...

        Master Red Eye's voice boomed from the speakers.

        “Great workers of Fillydelphia!  Cease this pointless violence!”

        I faltered...

        “You have made such great strides with each passing day.  Did I not reward such effort with the promise of a day of rest by the break of dawn today?  Yes...and hear me, know that I am not given to breaking my promises to your generous efforts.  This day shall remain yours.  But this trivial panic will serve none.  Not you.  Not me.  Not the Unity that we all dream of attaining.  But most of all, not the children that we strive to take to a better place with the great effort that we...together...have made.  I ask of you all...would the future ascension of a safe and secure Equestria be the result of panic and disorder?  Was chaos itself not the hell that we, long ago, escaped from?  Remember your potential, fellow Equestrians, remember your sacrifices and remember the generosity that we all must show.”

        I couldn't move...his voice...my Master...the one who paid for me...

        “And it is thus that I must ask you to return, to go peacefully to your places of rest for now.  My attendants will inform everypony of when we may return to the day of rest and joy that has been promised.  We have all given so much, together.  I swear to you, it will not be long.  Now go, return with order befitting a better Equestria and let no more blood be shed this day.”

        The decision was made.

        My Master had asked.

        Even as I felt my heart screaming at me to remember what the Pit had shown me...I obeyed.

        His words were backed up by reinforcements of slavers sending groups of slaves in directed funnels towards enclosures.  I presumed that they would be sorted later on...for now, Master Red Eye only wanted them safe and docile.  Well...far be it from me to disagree.

        My mind screamed at me that this was wrong...

        I ignored it.  I had to return to my enclosure...my shift would be starting soon.

        I saw Number Six disappear down the street...he survived.  Well good for him.  I stood still as slavers ran down the lines, directing us one way and another.  I don't know how long I stood there, looking at my hooves, tears still dripping from my ever flowing eyes as I simply awaited my turn.

        “You there!  Get to the damned FunFarm!”

        “Mare!  No not you!  That one!  Get back to your normal enclosure!”

        “Head down to the other side of Filly, follow the griffins!”

        “You!”

        The last was me.  The slaver loomed over me (who didn't?) with a whip magically floating beside him.  I couldn't help but keep my eyes trained on the serrated and bloodied edge of the whip itself.  With obedience, I lowered my head.

        “You go back to the FunFarm, slave!” he shouted over the din around us, of a mass of slaves simply standing and feeling sorry for themselves.  Corpses still littered the ground around us from the execution of them earlier.  I began to see the reason...a simply practical solution to kill a few to stop them all instead of an ongoing riot killing so many more.

        Just like Number Six killed that worker to remove evidence...it was just being practical.  It wasn't my place to question, I was only ever the cog in the machine.  In my thoughts, I didn't realise how much of a rush the slaver was in until I saw the whip raise.

        “I said, back to the FunFarm you little dirty cu-”

        The FunFarm Barn exploded.

        The building which I had seen the rollercoaster crash into shook as its roof blew out with a gradual cracking and shattering of structure.  Something colossal rose from it, sending shards of wood and brick flying in all directions around a glowing sphere of magical power.  It rose slowly, gradually gaining height with swirling smoke cascading around the sphere, driven by the magical energies being unleashed.  Unlike in the Pit, this didn't give me a feeling of hope and inspiration...it terrified me to the core.

        I didn't wait to see what it exactly was...clearly something happening due to the mare's escape.  Whatever she had done, her presence had woken some seriously big powers in Fillydelphia that were struggling to keep hold of her.  Silently, inside, I imagined (hoped?) that none of it would be enough.  Shutting out the sounds, I darted to the side as the slaver was distracted, staring wide eyed at the massive monstrosity on top of the FunFarm.  Dodging through freshly startled ponies I made for the petting zoo, perhaps I could just hide in a corner until all this blew over.

        Debris rained down from above as the conflict went on above us all.  Ponies began running again, slavers among them.  Only this time to panic was in all directions as they sought not to flee Fillydelphia or to get back to their areas...but simply to evade the scrap piling down from above.  I saw a few ponies crushed under light wood, recovering in dazed confusion.  A few took shrapnel hits to the side, crying out in pain.  From the stadium to here, my mind was only beginning to catch up with the consistent onrush of activity all around me.  I dived into an old decrepit stall by the side of the FunFarm roads to take shelter.

        Once inside I simply shut my eyes, held my ears...and waited.  Whatever powers were being unleashed out there, it was far too big for me.  Better to just wait it out...then go back to being who I was.

        Even as I heard a second and even greater detonation above me that set off a minor earthquake across the FunFarm, I simply hid and prayed that none of it would affect me; even as the dust cloud washed over the stall and blew the roof clean off.

        All the while, my mind fought with itself between the slave and the newly found hope.

        But old habits die hard.

        Hope lost.  I had faltered back there...when given the choice between the free stallion and obeying my master, I had chosen to obey.

* * *

        Silence.

        Finally...there was silence.

        I didn't know how long I had hid.  Perhaps it had been a few minutes...maybe an hour.  The stuffy sky and the red haze of Fillydelphia do not offer much perspective on the time of day.  But when I finally crawled out, choking on dust and bones aching with exertion...it was quiet.  The crowds had dispersed for the most part.  I still saw some slaves clustering in ditches beside the roads or under what shelter they could, nursing wounds or huddled together for support.  Occasional corpses still littered the FunFarm's pathways and the street outside.  About a hundred metres away, I saw Master Red Eye's guards beginning to clear the mass of bodies from the road where the slavers had opened fire on the crowds.

        No slavers were nearby.  The majority were no doubt busy with the recovery efforts to bother with a few stragglers who would be rounded up soon enough.  Plus, Master Red Eye himself had said this was still a day of rest for us.

        Some rest that turned out to be.

        But even as I turned in a full circle...I saw no sign of Whiplash.  I saw no griffins shooting at me.  No stallion urging me to break the rules and follow.  No...no unicorn mare inspiring me to shake off the chains at last...

        As I stood in the aftermath, I felt incalculably lonely.

* * *

        The peace wasn't to last long.  My day had one last horror to inflict.  One final challenge to overcome.

        As I made my way back to the petting zoo, intent on searching for my journal...I saw them.

        “Oh look who it is!  Little runt didn't die after all!”

        I did as I always did.  I put my head down, tried to ignore them and head for the pigsty.

        ...the pigsty was no longer there.

        I heard them trot up behind me, before turning to face the music.  I could sense this wasn't going to end well at all.  I had no place to hide any more and there were no overseers around to stop them.  I felt my sprained leg ache prematurely at the no doubt large amount of running to be involved soon.

        The trio were filthy.  Covered in grime, wounds and dust from the massive crush earlier...I could only guess they wanted to take their anger out on somepony and I had just wandered right in on time.  They were all earth ponies, not exactly burly but giants in comparison to me, two bucks and a mare.  I could swear they were related or something, for each of them had the same dirt brown coat with only their manes to tell them apart.  Black, dirty yellow and crude green for the mare.  Each wore the ruined scraps of rags they called clothing.  I was sure that they were simply for the intimidation factor of ripped fabric about their bodies.

        Their cutie marks were, in turn, a plank of wood with a nail through it (what?!), three small rocks (he threw similar sizes at me...a lot) and the mare's was a lasso.  She had once proven that talent by binding me in rope and hanging me from the fence until Whiplash found me after her apparent brothers-in-harm had used me as a piñata.

        ...apparently that had been my fault, somehow.

        They were despicable ponies...but they had never been truly deadly, just an aggravation and at worst a torturous presence that brought pain and suffering to an already miserable life.

        That seemed to be changing.

        “So...we was thinkin',” spat the mare, “You was meant to die in that Pit, right?”

        “And you didn't, somehow,” the black maned buck added while circling around me slowly.  They had lethal looks in their eyes.  I began to feel the fear creep down my back...their voices were different, rebellious and full of menace, not the whiny posturing of before.  I backed away, trying to keep all three in my sight.

        “I...I was let out...because of what happened,” I muttered, my head low.  I didn't want to look them in the face, “and...and told to return here.  I just want to go to sleep, I won't disturb y-ARGH!”

        While I had been speaking, the first buck rushed me from behind and barrelled me over into the mud in front of where the pigsty used to be.  I hit the ground hard, letting out a little whine as my injuries flared all the more from the fresh impact.  Behind me the three gathered together, grinning wickedly.

        “So we was then thinkin',” she continued, apparently the de facto leader for today, “if you died now...to entertain us...no-pony would ever notice nor care right?  Could just blame it on the riots earlier before that big sphere pony thing blew up atop the FunFarm!”

        Oh Goddesses...they weren't wanting to just beat me.

        They wanted blood.

        I swivelled on the ground, twisting to look at them as I felt that damn tooth had come loose again, why couldn't I just be left in peace to slave away?  The fear from before returned...only now this wasn't the arena of my nightmares.  This was reality.  Three ponies wanted to kill me and were going to do so.

        This just wasn't fair!  I had chosen to avoid dying to stay with Master Red Eye and now they wanted to kill me!  This just...wasn't...

        “FAIR!” I screamed, my thoughts exploding into reality.  The surprise on their faces made them cease in their steps.  Any other pony, that stallion maybe, might have seen an opportunity to attack...to hit them first.  But I wasn't like that.  I ran.

        They didn't take long to recover at all, for even as I slipped and staggered out of the mud to gallop toward the exit of the petting zoo, I heard the clatter of their hooves behind me.  In my mind, something clicked, the instincts of a runt who grew up having to avoid the “big brothers” of the world wanting to find and hurt me.  I recalled the time the slaves at the rock farm had chased me through the field because my lack of work had earned them all punishment.  I couldn't outrun other ponies with their longer strides...

        Instead I tried weaving, diving over bits of fence and ducking under stall doors to stay ahead of them as the chase broke out into the FunFarm.  Other slaves and the occasional busy slaver glanced at it...seeing three larger ponies chasing after a little runt scampering about with tears in his eyes ahead of them.  My size let me dive into areas they couldn't.  I saw an area between a Funhouse (“Where you can keep smiling forever!”) and a merchandise stand ahead of me...a thin alleyway.  If I could get through, perhaps I could escape!  I could go find that stallion again, take up his offer and escape these ponies forever!

        “Can't run forever, runt!  Gonna breeeak yooou!”

        The buck's voice rang out shockingly close behind, turning my head I saw him approach, running low and catching up horrifyingly fast.  Whinnying in fear, I ran into the space of the alley...and got stuck.

        Even my malnourished body was just a little too thick.  I got jammed in the first six inches, my head and front legs held in the air as the back half of my body scrambled fiercely on the ground to try and push myself through.  I could sense them galloping closer, hear their screams of triumph and cried out as I felt myself not budge...

        “Got you now, little runt!”

        “All jammed up for us!”

        I panicked, my hooves could barely reach the ground...I felt myself pushed an inch forward...I had a few seconds at most.  I couldn't even look back to see them...the gap was so thin.  Claustrophobic feelings rang in my head as I shook and felt myself jam all the more tightly in place.

        “Got you!”

        No!

        I felt hooves grab my rump, strength more than my own beginning to pull me back out of the gap.  Incoherent shouting came from me, I didn't even know what I was saying as I lashed out in fear at the unknown assailant from behind.  With a sharp crack, I felt my back right hoof connect with something, the impact shoving me forward into the gap far enough to pop past the thinner areas into the alleyway.

        Twisting at last, I saw the black haired buck lying on the ground nursing a bleeding muzzle before looking up at me with wild fury in his eyes.  His companions had split off...running around.

        I couldn't waste any time.

        Beyond the alleyway there was a small fence, the few seconds it took me to find a box (Celestia send my small height to the damned moon!) gave them an opportunity to catch up, only just missing me as I dived out of the FunFarm into...

        ...actually...I didn't even know where I was going.

        As it turned out, it wasn't a particularly easy fall on the other side.

        It wasn't a particularly short one either.

        I screamed as I fell the ten feet to the sloped back areas of the FunFarm, rolling and scraping down a rocky embankment into a muddy refuse pit filled with piles of old scrap from the rides of the park.

        Crashing into the ground at a high speed, I felt my entire ribcage buckle from the impact as I lay still, struggling to breathe and feeling the burns on my body from the mudslide down the ditch wall.

        Annoyingly, that pink pony's mantra to “look before you make that hop, skip and jump!” from the auto-recorded FunFarm play parks speakers seemed like all too good advice right now.  Oh how I detested that happy-go-lucky voice reminding me of making mistakes...

        I staggered to my hooves, glancing around before falling again in the same spot.  The ground here was without any grip, even to a pony with perfectly fit muscles and good balance...of which I had neither.  Perhaps if I had enough time...

        “Gotcha!  Ya little slippery bugger!”

        The second buck's distinctive accent shouted to me as I turned to witness them sliding down the same embankment with greater care than my haphazard fall.  Oh come on Goddesses...cut me a break...

        I didn't even have time to move before he charged directly into me, sending me sliding back cross the mud into a pile of scrap.  The unbalanced pile came roaring down around me, distracting the bullies as they slid their way across the mud, dodging random appliances and hunks of metal from rollercoasters that had rolled off the main pile with a sound like an ironmongers being demolished.  I felt a slab of metal slap me across the back of the head, knocking me face down in front of them.

        “Well...well...well...” the mare was out of breath as she reached down and plucked a broken and sharp looking pipe from the scrap with her mouth, “geff we get to haf fun nao.”

        I just lifted my weary hooves in front of me...I could run or fight no more.  The days exertion and mental exhaustion was taking its toll.  My body simply could not bring itself to move with any urgency.

        “Please...please, don't...I'll...I'll be your slave too...whatever you want...”

        “All we want is a chance to let off some steam...do the things we got to do before we were brought in here,” commented the black haired buck, stamping his hoof with intent on using just them, “and after that little buck you gave me...I've half a mind to return the favour tenfold...”

        The things they did outside...these ponies weren't bullies...they were gangers.  Stripped of their freedom to do as they wished, their claws had been neutered, so to speak.  Today’s riots had reminded them of who they were...and I was their celebration.

        

        “Time to die, runt...it's been a fun few months.”

        I closed my eyes, not even crying any more...perhaps life just knew that my time was up after all.

        FWHOOOSH!

        The raiders screamed, but not in anger...in fear.

        I dared to open my eyes before shutting them quickly again.  The entire environment was...was green!  Above us, roaring through the sky, was something flying with wings, glowing so brightly with its massive size that it was like a miniature radioactive sun in the air!

        I had seen one of these things before...

        A Balefire Phoenix.

        Only this one was massive; it soared above us, the sight terrifying the gangers as it flew close to the ground, the heat emanating from it making me squeal in discomfort as I saw the raiders simply flee to escape the heat.  Only the mud caking me acted like a coolant to allow me to bear the conflagration that now soared toward a building top in Filly surrounded by multiple pink pony face balloons.

        Something else was going on...        

        At that moment...I began to get a sense of how small in the world I truly was.  If powers like this were at work, then truly I was meant for nothing as I witnessed the passing of a greater story.  Even as I lay there and watched along with every other slave and slaver in Fillydelphia...we were in awe as the massive beast stood atop the building.  We couldn't see what it was facing, but somehow my heart just...knew.

        It was her.

        We were onlookers...the crowd gazing at the passing of history as we saw the phoenix curve from balloon to balloon, igniting them with scorching green radflame.  I couldn't help a little satisfied grin as I saw at least a few of that damn pony's leering faces go down in flames...never to immortally stare at me every day again.

        It had come from no-where.  Not for me.  I was just the witness, just as I had been to the mare's escape and the colossal beast atop the FunFarm.  I could not know the context or connection between them...all I knew was that it was all a signal.

        A signal to make a choice.  The Goddesses...or that mare and her allies, had granted me a second chance.

        To dare...or to falter.

* * *

        I lay down there for hours.

        The phoenix had long gone...the commotion on the building, whatever it was, now finished.  I knew in my heart that the mare had escaped, with allies like that...that huge radioactive beast...how could she not?

        But now...I just sat in the mud.  What else could I do?  I couldn't go back to the petting zoo until I knew I would be protected by slavers from those gang ponies.  I couldn't strike out alone, the guards were ready to shoot on sight.

        So instead I just wandered the refuse slowly, limping and trying to make sense of the day.  My mind was at war once again.  Part of me wanted to avoid all this...go back to what my cutie mark and my life told me I should do.  Be a slave...that was what I am.

        But the other half could not forget that mysterious mare who had defied Red Eye before my eyes in such iconic fashion.  To escape to lead your own life...how could I not want that too?

        But what would I even do with freedom?

        I couldn't make sense of the emotion.  From the mare in the Pit...to the mare who had looked at my sketchbook.  From the gang trying to kill me to the stallion murdering and torturing ponies to help me escape with him.  I realised I didn't even know any of their names.  I thought back to drawing my own pictures.  To wailing as I saw my mother in my own charcoals rendition.  A whole day of coincidence, luck, discovery, pain and miracles...more than in the rest of my life combined.  How could I, a slave whom never had to think for himself until today, make sense of all this?

        I bucked a scrapheap in frustration, before screaming as the resulting toppling revealed not more scrap...but the skeleton of a pony.  The blackened bones clattered out, knocking against my legs even as I back-pedalled furiously and fell on my rump again.  Staring with wide eyes, I saw it was covered in rags and metal plates like makeshift armour.  It was buckled and burned...probably from the megaspells.

        It wasn't the first time I had seen a skeleton...hell...I had lived in the wastes most of my life.  But something struck me.

        Around its foreleg lay what at first appeared scrap metal, but memory pipped into my head.

        That mare's cutie mark...

        Before me lay a devastated and wrecked version of one of those devices.  With shaking hooves I tugged it off the skeleton's leg and began to turn it over a few times, studying it through wet eyes.  The lock that kept it attached to a leg was broken...in fact it wasn't even there at all.  The screen was cracked and some buttons were missing entirely.  On the inside...I saw exposed electronics and magic crystals that had shattered inside.

        And yet...I saw a small light flickering on it...the device was still active!

        Curiosity overcame fear.  I started prodding at the machine, hoofing the buttons and turning dials.  I even started fiddling with the wires...but to no avail.  The most I could get from it was a sort of white noise when I hit one button that lasted until I hit it again.  With a great cry of frustration I threw down the device, the button clacking on again to fill the air with white noise as I let out every wound up emotion I had on the offending device!

        I had been changed by one day!  I didn't even know what I was thinking, let alone what to do!  How was I meant to make sense of all of this?!  Mysterious mares and stallions?  Huge balefire phoenixes and random monsters popping out of buildings?  A chance to escape and my damned instincts forcing me to stay and act out the slave life I was meant for?  Learning to draw for my own?  Being within death's reach twice in one day?  Or more, who knows how many bullets missed me!  I was beaten, bruised, scared, bleeding, sick and probably dying within a month and now this damned device refused to tell me anything I needed to make sense of it all when I thought I had found a fucking link!

        With one hoof I screamed and hurled the device away from me with a great cry of rage.

        “HOW AM I MEANT TO MAKE SENSE OF ALL THIS?!”

        I galloped over, weary and sore, shouting at the device as though it were the cause of all this.

        “I'm just a little slave!  I don't have any freedom!  I don't have any dreams!  What am I meant to do?!”

        I collapsed...my head resting against it, nudging a dial to twist it.

        “I...I need someone to help me...anyone...just someone to show me the way...”

        The dial twisted one bit more...the white noise stopped.

        “-ello Wastelanders!  This is, of course, your friendly little light in the good ol' horrible Equestrian Wastelands day in and out, DJ-Pon3!  I'm here with...you guessed it...that thing that used to gives us all the blues.  Yup!  It's the news!  And let me tell you, little ponies...do I have some good stuff for you today following the activities of everypony's favourite Stable Dweller out in the blasted pit of Fillydelphia...”

* * *

        Footnote: Perk Attained!

        Lucky Break!  - Whatever has changed for you, it has been for the better.  Perhaps you have been working on a sixth sense or maybe you found a lucky charm.  

You gain +1 to your LUCK statistic.


Thank you sincerely for reading, I genuinely hope you enjoyed the opening story to “Murky Number Seven.”  You will notice I said “story” and not “Chapter.” The “Chapters” are only called as such to fit in with FimFic and FOE Resource’s infrastructure, but it’s better to think of these as related stories that follow on from one another.

As such, these stories are decently sized, more than you might expect a “Chapter” to be. But I have written a system into each one that whenever you find a “***” after a scene end, you can rest assured that’s a place that it’s okay to take a break at or come back later to! Think of them as 'Chapters ends.'

Just remember, every "Chapter" is a story unto itself! Enjoy it as such!

I recommend only one story per day or couple of days personally, that’s been known to be the best “pace” for this story!

 - Fuzzy


Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven

Chapter 2:

Every Pair of Wings

* * *

Item 1: Create checklist of the things I need to accomplish by the end of the day.”

        “What did it feel like to be alone?”

        For the longest time I had never known.  To be alone, you must have had a presence to lose.  For me, that had been my mother.  To witness her slowly getting smaller as I was dragged away over the wet mud into the barn of the rock farm was the first time in my life I had felt the painful sting of loneliness.

        But they say time heals all gaps in the soul whether you want them to or not, for the life of the slave took over.  I missed her, but I no longer felt the loss of her presence so keenly as I once did.  After all, my time around her had always been preordained to end, a small bone thrown to me early in life that eventually was to be lost.  A childhood safety blanket that, after growing up, was thrown away once I had come of age.  No, I had never truly felt alone...because I had always known I was going to be so one day.  I had been prepared for it, however subconsciously by the conditioning that had become my forced instincts.

        Yesterday in Fillydelphia changed all that.

        A mother is a requirement.  Everypony has one.  It is the people you meet who you do not expect that defines your feelings around others.  From birth till death sentence I had never known a single pony to come under that label.  But approaching my darkest hour I had been shown not one...but four.

        Number Six.  The fearsome pony that had attempted to set me free and fought with terrifying brutality to escape.  I had been nothing but an acceptable tag-along to him, yet such an act was unique in my life, for no-pony had ever lifted a hoof in my defence.  He had shown me the will to fight; to pursue and attain something.  But as my mental instincts kicked in...I lost him to the Fillydelphia ruins, presumably forever.

        The unknown mare.  A pony whom had shown me kindness and concern when I had been injured.  Who had seen my somewhat more...risqué...  pictures and only grinned rather than judged.  For the brief few minutes I had seen her, she had given me hope that perhaps not all ponies were so quick to leap to assumptions.  However, she too was now lost to the masses of slaves, never for me to know if she was still alive or even in Fillydelphia any more.  Despite that...I could not remove her from my mind.

        The Stable Dweller.  The pony who defied a Master.  Who alone had fought and escaped from his clutches by ascending to the heavens above, taking with her the zebra whom had tried to kill her.  A merciful act from a better soul that had lit an inspiration in my heart and soul forever.  The sight of her rising in the Pit; bright, fearless and wreathed in magic would never leave me.  I would have drawn it...had I still a journal to draw in.  Amongst Red Eye's best efforts...she had escaped and proven that leaving Fillydelphia was possible.  That if somepony were to show that same courage...they too could take for themselves the freedom they desired and dare to dream of better times.

But even as she brought us hope, that fleeting time in which I had 'known' the so called Stable Dweller ended.  Fillydelphia once again took control with no real visible change.  For her impact was not in our environment.  It was in our hearts.

        One by one, I had lost the three ponies who had shown me what it felt like to have another pony there for me.  To protect me.  To aid me.  To inspire me.

        Now they were gone.  And now, for the first time, I had felt true loneliness.

        It had consumed me.  Down in the muddy refuse pit I had lost my composure, my temper and all understanding of what to do.  Personal emotion was not something I was tailored to feel or deal with, despite my regular tears.  But in my lowest moment, filled with rage at the solitude I could not comprehend, I was handed by fate the fourth, a voice that could not leave me.  Who I could see as a guiding light through the darkness of the wasteland.

        So long as the airwaves were open...I would never be alone again.

* * *

        “So you see, my little ponies, today we bring you the first of a new wave of goodwill to all the unfortunates out there in Fillydelphia.  Yeah, that's right, all you slaves in that foul end of the wasteland can have a little cheer once more.  Until recently you've been denied the privilege of my oh-so-wonderful tips and tunes.  But no longer!  DJ-Pon3 is in the airwaves!  Ol' Red Eye can't stop this signal!  Thanks to the efforts of the one and only Stable Dweller, these broadcasts can now reach you all down in Fillydelphia to bring that little glimmer of hope to your lives.  Warms the heart it does, that finally...I can let you understand that no, you haven't been forgotten out there.”

        My pig sty hiding spot was gone.  But I'd always had something of a talent for finding the little nooks and crannies in which to wriggle away and hide.  In this case, an old feed cupboard within the petting zoos that stank of rot and damp with a collapsed roof.  The fallen timber created a hidey hole that I could slink off into.

        And listen.

        “Now information is still creeping in to us from out that direction, but from what I know thus far, it seems our Stable Dweller got right into Fillydelphia itself.  Not only that, but she made one heck of a show in front of that egomaniac himself, messed up his operations something fierce and got the hay right back outta there with another slave by her side!  Tell you what, folks.  I've seen some amazing stuff in my time, but even just hearing about this...she really is something special, that little mare.”

        Isn't she just?

        I felt that smile creep back into my face again.  I had stuffed the device inside my jerkin to hide it as I had crept back to the petting zoo a few hours later.  Whiplash had returned, a nasty deterrent for the gangers to not attempt murder again.  Not that it had stopped their more 'normal' activities however.  My rump still stung from the half buck as I had wriggled my way into the feed shed.  I could hear them nearby, discussing things about mares I felt best to avoid my imagination thinking too deeply on.

        “So take heart, little slaves.  I'm with you all now, DJ-Pon3 as a lovely alternative to all that nonsense Mr Eye loves to spout all damn day long.  Better music too, much as Pinkie can bring a smile that stuff does get a little grating after a while.  But that's not all we offer here at Tenpony Tower.  We've got wasteland tips, tricks and lessons to help give you all an edge to stay alive in there as best your little souls can, my little unfortunate ponies.  But above all...you can come to this signal for respite.  For an escape.  Just be careful, I can't imagine Red Eye appreciates superior radio.  So find your hiding spots, relax and get ready to experience some real sound.  To let that hard and death defying work shift slip from your mind for a few hours and relax with a little Sweetie Belle, Sapphire Shores or our wondrous new Velvet Remedy!  Speaking of that hot singing and hot looking mare...hey come on, credit where credit is due...here's some of her right now.”

        I clutched the device tight, the volume down so low that only my strange hearing could detect the noise.  The absolute last thing I needed was for the gangers to know about this device...this precious device.  I would never leave it elsewhere, better to remain strapped around my torso under my clothing.  My jerkin was pretty good at keeping things hidden after all; it had done it for a very long time and now would do so for even longer with this device.  Its volume could be low enough that only I would hear...and remain hidden from everypony else.  Only here, safe in a small place could I take it out and hold it close, almost nuzzling the thing as I sought comfort from the hellish life that I could at last recognise as my own.  Since yesterday, I had spotted a few slaves clutching similar such radios, hiding them from slavers to tune in to the new broadcast.  DJ-Pon3 had brought a silent, almost undetectable revolution of hope to them.  I had witnessed some being caught...the guards had standing orders to stamp it out where-ever they could, both the radio and slave apparently.

        As the music began, a wonderful uplifting beat and beautifully struck first note caught my attention immediately.  I heard this 'Velvet' sing of hope and better times, lighting the colour in my imagination to follow what she sung of.  I curled up, eyes clenched tightly shut as I held the device close, its small speaker against my ear.  Music and voice in such perfect harmony blessed with a stirring tempo and words that seemed to reach my very soul.  The song rose to a triumphant and motivating crescendo before the quiet and oh so gentle end.  Almost before the dead silence between tracks became unbearable...another began.  DJ-Pon3 was showcasing her to us, the wasteland's own born talent.

        I felt wetness on my hooves from holding the device to the side of my face.  Even as I imagined the same beauty that she sung of, my body shuddered with emotion at the first real songs that felt like they were meant to help me continued through the night.  I wanted to hear more...I wanted to see her...I wanted to try drawing her, even though I didn't know anything about her.  I just wanted to lose myself in that tune and stay imagining forever.

        Filled with the emotion by the music and voice of Velvet...I cried myself to sleep at the impossibility of ever managing to find the beauty she sung of, hearing her voice in my head gently hushing me to not worry through the medium of her music, even as I heard a growing wind building in force outside.

* * *

        I had fallen asleep with Velvet Remedy.  My dreams of colour, light and optimism afforded me the first real sleep that did not contain the recurring night terrors of my masters deciding they did not need me any more.

        I only wish it could have lasted longer.

        With the comfort of DJ Pon3 and the music in my ears, I wanted to just sleep forever.

        To just not wake up and have to face the day once more.

* * *

        Fillydelphia is rarely that kind.

        Yesterday I had been woken by Whiplash beating on the pig sty.  Today differed only in that the pig sty was a feed cupboard.  A sharp rapping jerked me awake all the same.  Murmuring and groaning quietly I hastily hid the device under my jerkin, not daring to leave it behind where it might be stolen.  Outside, I could still hear the wind whistling between the FunFarm's stalls like an ongoing howl in the air.

        “Murky Number Seven!  Slaves tell me you're hiding in here now, get your little rump out here!”

        Whiplash.

        Normality had returned to Fillydelphia.  The day was about to begin again.

        Hazy eyed, I rolled my neck and crawled slowly out...each hoof that left the hiding spot hesitating with the wish to just dive right back into my cosy hole and go back to sleep.  Judging from the light in the air...it was still the same night as I had returned to the FunFarm from the refuse pit.  All the same, some air away from the rank stench of two hundred year old rotting feed cupboard was easier to breathe.  Well, until you remembered it was radioactive and poisoned anyway.  My throat felt dry and tight while my stomach ached with neglect.  It occurred to me that I hadn't been given any food or drink for over a day now and the lack of nourishment was beginning to tell.  Once in Fillydelphia I had been reduced to drinking from a sink in a workplace just to survive until the next rations appeared.  It hadn't helped my radiation sickness.  Already I could feel my rad-fevers creeping back in as a stinging sweat all over, why couldn't they just let me die in peace or something?

        I pushed myself more fully out from the wooden door that had collapsed inwardly and immediately felt every muscle in my body stiffen in shock.  Sweet Celestia, it was freezing out here!  Where had that stuffy heat gone?  What was with this wind?  The gusts hurtling through the petting zoo felt like they went right through me, chilling to the bone never mind the body as a whole.  Looking off to the side, I could see what looked like a growing storm over the nearby hills outside the Wall.  The clouded sky had become dark, rumbling menacingly in the far off distance.  Thunder, probably a storm coming this way too.  I shuddered...no-pony had told me about the rain in Fillydelphia on my first night.  Coming through the poisoned cloud of radiation and industry...it burned.

        Fillydelphia was known for its blistering and stifling heat, but the wasteland, ever powerful in Equestria, could do as it willed anywhere.  Including making my personal hell freeze over, apparently.

        Any feelings of cold or long off sounds were quickly driven from my head by the clip around the ear I received for not immediately turning to attention for Whiplash.  Caught off balance and still physically exhausted from yesterday (well, more exhausted than usual...) I stumbled and fell from the stinging strike, only barely catching myself before my head rattled off a rock.

        “Get it together you filthy little wretch, get the hell up!” Whiplash's voice was like his signature item, sharp and cracking for emphasis as I felt him wander forward kicking me in the ribs every second I delayed as I attempt to get my sore hooves under me and rise.

        Wincing in pain already, I reflected this probably wasn't going to be a very good day.  Well...another one to add to the pile since I was bought by Master Red Eye.  Turning, I bowed my head before looking up at Whiplash.  Clearly I had been just in time, for that length of leather was already drawn, his whip ready to strike me if I had delayed any further.  He must have seen the twitch of fear in my eyes, for the whip moved forward to lightly bat my face to either side on each word major punctuation of his speech.

        “You will come when I tell you!  No delays, Murk!  I'm getting tired of this dragging you out of holes.  Do you think I have the fucking time to waste on you?”

        I shook my head.  A reply, I had learned, more often bred twisting of words and a fierce lashing.

        “Good!  The only reason I'm not having you strung up and whipped till your back is raw flesh is because your shift changed,” he sternly announced, walking back to the main zoo area, “your number came up.  Lucky number seven, right?”

        He sneered at me as I tried to fight the urge to roll my eyes...if I had a morsel of food for every time I'd heard that 'joke' I'd only be slightly malnourished instead of ghoul-like.  I back-pedalled into the wooden side of the petting zoo feed hut as he approached, reaching into his saddlebag.  My imagination went wild, Whiplash not using his whip?  What was it then?  Pliers?  A mallet!?

        It was a piece of old yellowed parchment and a quill.  He threw them at my feet.

        “Take a note, Murk.  I need you to remember this precisely.”

        I simply stared at the parchment and quill like it was an indecipherable puzzle.

        “Um...master?” I started, “I...uh...I can't write...”

        Whiplash turned his head to me, eyes narrowing as his magic picked up both the quill and whip, a look of “You're kidding...you're kidding, right?” on his face before grunting in annoyance and drawing the parchment up before him as well.

        “Well, I'll write it then-”

        “I can't read either...” I muttered, closing my eyes and whinnying as I lowered my head.

        CRACK!

        I screamed, leaping backwards on instinct, half falling into the feeding hut hole again as the line of agony tore across my head and face.  My hooves came up to protect it against further strikes from that whip, feeling a small trickle of blood dripping from my forehead onto them.  I hesitantly opened my eyes to see the whip raised ready to strike again.

        “I swear to Luna's almighty royal arse, Murk!  You are the most useless slave I have ever had the misfortune to own!  Now you listen up, boy, you listen good!  I'm going to tell you this message once and if you fuck it up then I promise you'll be working the Parasprite Pits from tomorrow onwards!”

        I opened my mouth to plead or beg.  The Parasprite Pits were a death sentence!  Those little flying critters had been twisted by the radiation, taint or something into carnivorous little demons.  We had all heard the story of the pony who got one in her mouth and been eaten from the inside out by an ever growing swarm.  I didn't know if that nightmare inducing situation were true, but I had seen a pony who fell in the Pit without a hazard suit devoured by a loose swarm in mere seconds.  Make no mistake, working in the pits to incinerate them was tantamount to danger beyond any other appointed shift, even more than exploring the crater or a Stable.  However, I was not given the chance to voice my begging against being sent there.

        “I need somepony to run a message for me,” he continued, throwing the parchment and quill back at me anyway, “I've got a request for four new slaves from Wicked Slit after yesterdays work shift.  Apparently three of them fell into a vat of molten metal or something.  The fourth was sent to the Pit.”

        He narrowed his eyes for a second, before shrugging.

        “I guess that means she'll only need three, given the last one is probably you.  But that psychobitch could probably do with another one to keep her mollified anyway.  You go straight to the manufacturing foundry, Murk.  She'll not be on the shop floor this time of night, so you'll need to go find her in the overseer huts near the factory.”

        I groaned out loud, my own sleepiness had been warning me but here was the confirmation.  This was out of hours shift work and in this case it involved potentially having to wake up a slaver who I doubted would be too pleased to see me, let alone have me interrupt her sleep.  If Whiplash cared for my obvious discomfort, he didn't show it, simply letting his instruction sink in before continuing.

        “Tell her that the slaves will be delayed today, she won't have them.  The groups are still too messed up from all that...pandemonium...yesterday.”

        Oh great.  It's bad news.  This just got better and better...

        “However, on account of you surviving, somehow, you are to mention that she will have you back again to continue work in her foundry.”

        I wanted to just start beating my head off of the feed hut's wall.  Back to that routine again for another few months until my inevitable poison aired death?  Is that what I'd been through all this for?

        “Now she won't be too happy, so that's why I'm sending you.”

        Oh come on!  What was this?  I had to speak up, but mentally I was already preparing how to best tell Wicked Slit to not shoot the messenger.  A neon sign from three miles away seemed the best option at this point.  Accompanied by a very fast train to get on.

        “Master...I...I don't think that's a good idea.  She isn't too fond of me as a worker,” I squeaked out, eyes warily watching that whip of his, “in fact, I think she outright doesn't want me.”

        “Then that makes two of us,” Whiplash retorted, snorting and turning away, “as far as I'm concerned now, Murk, you're expendable.  If I have to lose a slave to Slit being in a sick mood waking up to get a message on time, I'd rather it be you than any slaves that the overseers actually want from my stock.  Now, leave in ten minutes time, I've cleared the guards for you to leave at that point, understand?”

        “Yes master...” I lowered my head, sighing to the ground.  Luck, it seemed, may have helped me yesterday but was turning its head from me today.

* * *

        Whiplash wandered off soon after.  I lightly stomped the ground in frustration at the new role as “messenger to be shot.”

        

        On the other hoof...at least I had ten more minutes to hide away.  I wriggled on the ground to fit under the locked door.  I had spotted the rotten wood around the bottom when I arrived back at the FunFarm from the refuse.  A swift half buck had given me some room to squeeze under.

        Inside, I didn't own much.  Well, I didn't have anything at all actually other than my jerkin, sticks of charcoal, a parchment and quill now and finally, of course, the device.  Or radio...or hoofmachine...whatever the thing was called by ponies who had an education or experience of the wasteland.  I set it to the side on what used to be a feed box, turning up the volume just slightly, half hoping to hear the DJ's sweet soothing words to help me feel safe.  No such luck, although the unknown singer's voice (not Velvet...I'd recognise that voice anywhere now) brought a smile to my face as I sniffed and lay down again.

        What now?  Was I just meant to go back to daily life in Fillydelphia?  I doubted it could ever be the unthinking toil to inevitable death it used to be now.  Several ponies and the music of the wastes had shown me there was more to life.  I had shown myself there was more to life when I started drawing for myself yesterday.  How could I just turn my head away from all that?  How could I go through the agony, sickness and deprivation until death with anything more than a constant fear for losing the small things that I had gained?

        A hacking cough sent a flare of pain into my lungs.  Radiation sickness reminding me that it too was still present, its fever hidden by the chill wind outside.  I covered my mouth with a hoof.  The last thing I needed was the gangers knowing how bad it was getting.

        The hoof came away bloody.

        Ooooh, not good...

        Only now it occurred to me that my saviour yesterday, the balefire phoenix, had perhaps been a double edged sword.  The same green fire that had driven the gangers off had given me a severe dose of magical radiation on top of what Fillydelphia's smog had already done to me.

        I shook my head, driving the thought from my mind.  I was dying anyway.  This didn't change anything.  If anything it was more important I did this right now.  I needed to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing before I was too sick to do anything.  Tossing the quill to the side, I drew my charcoal stick instead and pulled the parchment across.

        This would be different.  I had ten minutes with no interruptions.  The gangers were asleep.  Whiplash wasn't coming back for now and I had control of my own drawing.  Yesterday before the Pit had been...it had been something special.  I had ignored a command to want to draw something.  I had to use what time I had left to feel that again...and again.  Lacking my journal, it fell to the parchment.

        Here we go...

        There was only one thing I truly could bring myself to draw.

        The parchment was large, I wanted to make use of it.  I drew rough lines, like before I was simply throwing things at the page and seeing what stuck.  Eventually the way shone through to me and I set to work.

        Down at the bottom of the parchment, I drew a small figure.  Glaring upward with wonder of its face, eyes open and full of realisation.  He held limply in his hooves a small device.  I dearly wanted to draw what was above him...but it had to wait.  Some things needed finishing before it.

        To the right, bigger...no, much bigger!  Dark and brooding, sharp designs and a look of absolute cold determination.  I even felt fear just by looking at him on paper from my own charcoal's rendition.  On the right of the drawing space, he stood ready, head low and ready to unleash imminent violence.  As my charcoal darkened the tribal designs, I began to notice that I had unwittingly drawn him to be looking away from the small pony in the centre, as though protecting him.

        To the left, I began to draw a second pony.  Quickly, I changed, instead doing just her face.  A mare with a flowing mane looking off to the left of the parchment with concern and kindness.  I remembered that face.  Gently, I brushed away some of the blackened markings nearer to the centre, giving it the illusion of light.

        I paused...I knew what I wanted above those three.  But I was afraid that my skills would not do it justice...

        Slowly, I touched it to the parchment.

        Gently, I began moving it to form shapes and curves as always.  I could feel sweat stinging my brow from concentration.  I could not mess this up.  A pony took shape, weightless and heroic, floating in the air itself.  Growing in confidence I drew heavier lines, magical wisps and beams of light from her horn that would have lit all of those below watching her ascend.  The centre pony below was staring directly up at her with wonder on his face.

        I sat back from the parchment and took in what I had done.  I felt a smile creep on to my face, allowing me to almost forget my predicament or sickness as I touched the parchment with a hoof.  As though I could somehow let that image become my life before my eyes once again.

        I could see mistakes.  There always were, but they didn't matter.  What I drew was what I felt.  My journal was full of such things, most drawings telling my emotional state or hidden wishes, however large or small.

        I knew I had to retrieve it.  But I also knew that I had no help.

        I wasn't alone.  DJ-Pon3 had seen to that.

        But I had to do this by myself.  Through all sickness, fear, slave duties and unclear dreams I could see the one thing I knew I had to retrieve.

        That journal would be mine again before I died.  I would find it, take it back and then...and...

        I looked down at the ponies before me, each surrounding the one in the centre who looked so afraid and lost behind his wonder.  I saw the Stable Dweller flying free.

        I was going to...

        No.  One thing at a time, Murk.

        Flipping the parchment, I quickly sketched my journal on the back corner.  I would track my things to do in the day to avoid as much harm as I could.  The journal was the signal to find and retrieve it.  I placed a curved knife beside it, to go and find Wicked Slit and deal with that job.  The last thing I needed was to be thrown in isolation for failing to complete a task.

        Two tasks added to the parchment, I rolled it up and stuffed it inside my jerkin along with the device.  Pulling the frayed cord tighter about my body, I ensured as best I could they wouldn't slip.  If I lost my jerkin...

        Shaking my head, I sat and for the remaining minutes tried to figure out why, despite an objective to go for and something to accomplish...I still didn't feel brave or heroic at all.

        I was willing to bet the Stable Dweller never felt this way.

* * *

        The ten minutes had passed.  My resolve to begin acting for myself and seek what I wanted had not wavered.  But as I crawled out into the reality of Fillydelphia, the safety of my drawings and wishes fell away to the cold and harsh weather through the normally stiflingly warm city.  No, I was not brave, no doubt there would be tears, whining and pain to go yet...but I held tightly in my mind the hope that it was all leading to an end soon.

        I shook, trying to work some feeling into my quickly numbing limbs from the biting wind before moving out.  I could see the other slaves clustered together in corners, sharing body heat against the wind.  A few, woken by my yelp of pain earlier glared with hateful eyes at me, apparently jealous of my ability to fit into small places for warmth.  The gangers in particular seemed to be looking at me with grim intentions.  They had taken shelter in the ruins of the pig sty, the only remaining wall dragged around as a primitive wind break.  Seeing it sparked a memory in my mind of being dragged along this very ground, chains around my legs as I watched the sketch of my mother disappear from view.

        Whiplash wasn't nearby any more, I couldn't linger much longer.  But as I harboured the quest to reclaim what was mine a thought struck me.  Those gangers had come back here after chasing me down last night and I knew for a fact that no other slave would touch the spoils of their 'conquest' over me, lest they become the new target.  So it stood to reason that those gangers knew what happened to the small sketchbook.

        After a second it occurred to me that perhaps standing and staring at them wasn't the greatest plan of mine thus far.  The black haired buck in particular was eyeing me up with murderous intent.  His muzzle still looked swollen from where I had given it a good kick.  Perhaps I could get a few clues...

        “What do you think you're looking at, runt?”

        “Nothing!” I whinnied as I turned my head away from them, “I...I just wanted to find my journal...”

        “What?” The second buck looked around, before grinning.  “That thing of yours?  Oh don't worry, it went to a better cause, got some gooood swag for it on the slave market.”

        The what?  I had never heard of such a thing in Fillydelphia, although it didn't sound impossible.  Everywhere I'd been, slaves had traded things behind slaver backs or sometimes even in direct view if the material was innocent enough.  But a market?  I didn't suppose it was impossible, after all, Master Red Eye wasn't stupid.  Allowing the slaves a small area to trade their meagre belongings would go a long way towards keeping them in line.

        “You wanting trouble?  What you doing just standing there, runt?  Looking for your head bucked in?”

        I drew breath quickly, backing away and shaking my head.  Oh please let them think I was just frozen in fear...please please please...

        “Yeah, you better back off.  Just wait, runt.  Just wait till you've got no-place to hide in at nights,” the mare threatened menacingly, spitting into the dirt, “after all, you're 'expendable' now, remember?”

        I heard her sick laughter even as I turned and galloped off out of the FunFarm, struggling to not show any more terror on my face until they were out of sight.

* * *

        It took me a good ten minutes to build up the courage to go back again.  I wasn't done in the FunFarm, not at all.  For as much as they terrified me, I wanted that journal.  I needed that journal.  The one thing that I had shown to myself that I could break the chains on my own mind was lost to me.

        I had to reclaim it.

        I had to see her again.

        The pig sty had been located near the edge of the low scrap wall surrounding the petting zoo that marked our enclosure.  My idea was to sneak back around and hide just opposite the gangers on the other side.  If I kept low and crept, I could lie unnoticed and do something I hadn't done for years.  To eavesdrop and sneak around using my size to remain hidden behind small objects.  I had once used it to steal food from my master in the rock farm.

        Part of my mind, the one trying to push me to ignore this and go and do my slave duty before I was noticed seemed to take sick pleasure in reminding me that 'Yeah, I did sneak out then.  I got caught.' This was going to stretch my time thin.  Being late to bring a message to Wicked Slit often meant being late getting back to your enclosure on account of having to limp the entire way.

        Circling around the petting zoo while trying to calm my beating heart from their threat, I hid behind a small stall.  What it once sold was indecipherable, or perhaps I just couldn't understand the letters.  Possibly both.  My entire body was sweating with the effort it was taking to overcome my fear and do this...but only they held any clue to where my journal had gone.  I needed to listen for any clues they might stumble out.  Names, places, shifts or anything that might give me a lead.

        The petting zoo wall was about twenty feet away across the blasted remains of what I guessed was a field where larger animals were kept in the FunFarm's heyday.  No noise came from the other side and I could only occasionally see the top of one of their manes popping above the top of the wall.  Made of scrap metal and rotting wood, it functioned only as a border.  If they were to spot me, it would prove no obstacle and there was no humongous balefire phoenix to save me this time.  (Not to mention I doubted I could survive another rad-burst like that) Gulping down fear, I put one shaking hoof in front of the other and began creeping forwards.

        Every small step lit another part of my brain instructing me to just turn around.  The still bleeding wound on my forehead from Whiplash's strike throbbed to remind me of what would happen if I weren't done on time.  I blinked the dripping blood from my eyes, lowering my torso to the ground as I slid forward.  Great Goddesses...if they only turned around they would see me, I would have to hide right up against the wall itself.  Less than a foot from them through it.

        It took every effort I could pitifully muster to not squeak in terror as I dragged my tired body forward inch by painstaking inch, scooting carefully toward them.  The harsh gravel pulled at my jerkin, leading me to take a few heart stopping moments to pull it back into place and ensure the device was still held snugly inside.  I couldn't lose my jerkin, not for anything.

        Just a few feet to go.  I could hear their voices just fine with my hearing, discussing me and their sick pleasure at scaring me off.  I trembled as I realised their threats were not idle should they ever get me alone.  However, I couldn't stop here, I had to be closer or they could simply turn around and see-

        The mare turned.

        I didn't have time to think.  With a quick shuffle, I flung myself forward the last few feet and rolled on my side in behind the wall.

        “The hell was that?”

        Crap!

        I could hear her getting up and turning towards the wall.  Panicking, I started trying to sneak as quietly as I could along the edge, keeping my mouth clamped shut that my instinctual whinnying wouldn't give me away.  Every small movement felt deafening to me, my heartbeat alone would be loud enough to hear, surely!

        The mare's head peered over the wall behind me...please don't look to the left...don't look to the left...

        “Anything?”

        “Nah, radroach or some shit.”

        She moved away from the wall as I took the first breath in over a minute.  Resting my head on the ground, I tried to ensure my staggered breathing wasn't too loud as I closed my eyes and shivered on the spot.  I was in position.  I could still hear them just over the wall.

        “Swear, the moment I know I'm dying, I'm bringing that bastard overseer down with me.”

        It was the black haired buck, I recognised the slight muffling on his words.

        

        “Fuck that noise, only pony he's getting throttled by is me, Lemon.”

        That was the mare.  But the brown and black buck was called Lemon?  I...that didn't make any sense at all!  Perhaps he dyed his mane.  I'd occasionally wondered if I'd like that done, get rid of this murky (yeah yeah...) colour and get something brighter.  I listened to them complaining about who I guessed was a shift overseer from where-ever they got sent each day.  Apparently, this stallion was a pretty mean apple who delighted in giving gangs a hard time.

        Briefly, I sent a little thanks in my thoughts to the overseer and wished him the best of luck in his future for the act.

        “Eh, no matter,” continued the mare, “you can get rid of your frustrations on the runt when he comes back.  'Ere, Lemon, after the food comes round?  Get those hooves of yours into smashing that feed shed.  Doubt Whiplash will complain and it'll lose his only place to hide.  I'd like to see how his raggedy little coat takes this wind chill when he 'aint got no-pony to bed up with.  Even the other slaves avoid him, 'fraid we'll take em on!”

        I had to bite my lip to stop myself from whimpering out loud as I felt tears well up in my eyes in abject terror.  One way or another, I was going to be badly hurt by the end of the day now.  Either from Whiplash, Wicked Slit or the gang.  Holding my head in my hooves, I wracked my brain to think of a way out of this...how could I avoid the beating?  Thoughts were slow in coming, like some cogs in the machine of my brain just weren't there at all, never mind being slow.  I wasn't brought up to make decisions or be decisive!  I just...followed.

        The Stable Dweller would know what to do here.  I didn't...

        That fact hurt.  It hurt bad, because I knew that my day was taking an inevitable turn.  No matter what, it would end in me returning here for punishment of some sort or another.  The most I could do was steel myself against it.

        Yeah.  Me.  Steeling myself.  What a joke, I'd probably just cry and beg, like I always did.

        “Hey, you got that Wingboner magazine there, Noose?”

        “Yeah!” the mare I now knew as Noose lashed back, her voice savage and filled with possessiveness, “I'm not done with it yet!”

        “You've had it since we got back from the damn market!” Lemon threw back, “C'mon!  I've never seen them pegasi like that before!”

        “Then you'll wait your turn to read it,” Noose spat, “fucking pegasi don't deserve anythin' after what they did.  All they're good fer these days is sitting on clouds and being pictures in old magazines for our benefit, so I'm gonna enjoy it as long as I damn well want!”

        “Like you could ever enjoy anything like that for 'long', Noose.”

        I heard a curse screamed incoherently before what seemed to be a small pony on pony brawl broke out between them.  The sound of them scuffling on the ground, swearing colourfully and beating one another around the ground reminded me all too much of the sounds I had heard in the Pit.  Well...at least at first.  I sighed about the hatred of the pegasi, no pegasi could ever walk the wastes without being hunted now.  The slave in me understood all too well.

        Slowly, the sounds dulled, being replaced by a somewhat more...telling series of sounds that implied their brawl had become another type of activity altogether.

        Oh Celestia...I didn't need to hear this, what vile ponies.

        I heard the remaining, yet unknown by name buck reach forward and pick up what sounded like a magazine, muttering something to himself about 'those two weirdos...' before shuffling around.

        “While you two mess about, I'll take this.”

        I heard him pick up the magazine.

        “Little runt's pictures of mares were just shit anyway.”

        I slumped a little.  I'd always thought they were pretty nice looking...

        Deciding to trust the mare from yesterday's judgement more than this ganger's, I kept listening, trying not to listen too hard to the other pair.  Oh Celestia, what I would give for selective hearing right about now.

        “Least Sooty Morass was willing to give us this in exchange for it and a couple caps...heh,” he muttered, before leaving a silence, “ah, not like you two fuckers are even listening...”

        That was it!  Elation flew through my mind, I had a name to who now owned my journal!  The slave in my head came to the surface once again, mentally waving a clock at me and trying to drag me away from the wall.  Finally, I could obey and get back to normal.  It was time to leave, to go and find Wic-

        The pair tumbled against the wall just beside me in their exertions.

        I didn't expect it.  I squeaked loudly.

        “Hey!  Noise again!”

        “What?  I thought that was you.”

        “Screw you!  I don't make sissy runt noises!”

        I heard the three of them scrambling to their hooves.  There was nothing else for it.  I upped and galloped around the wall, hugging it closely.  Behind me, shouts and more foul mouthed curses as they heard me take off.  The wall shook as they climbed it.  I didn't even look back as I turned the corner of the wall, going for all I was worth to find a hiding place before they got over the wall and came after me.  I could only pray they hadn't identified me...

        Ahead, I saw nothing but road.  I tried not to curse out loud (after the gangers, I almost didn't want to swear again) as it gave me nothing but flat ground.  Hooves on gravel sounded behind me as the gangers began to come around the wall.  For one of the few times I thanked my height.  If I had been a normal sized pony the wall wouldn't have hid me at all while running.  I made for the road anyway, what else could I do?  The hard surface and my hooves while galloping were hardly quiet, but little choice remained.  So long as I could reach the other side...

        My sprained front leg clearly thought otherwise.

        A clenching pain burst through it, the hoof stomp from the crushing under the slaves yesterday made its presence known again through the mass of bruises and pains I had as it felt my hooves landing on solid asphalt repeatedly.  I fell with a cry of pain, going head over hooves to collapse off the side of the road and down the embankment, the pain in my leg throbbing wildly.  I could run no more...yesterdays exertions had caught up to me through my wounds.

        “I heard them fall off over there!  They're over the road!”

        Noose's vile tongue echoed between the ruined buildings as I lay in the blackened gravel at the side of the road.  A foul stench was in my nostrils, making me gag as I lay, awaiting them to appear over the top and do whatever it was they were wanting to do.  No phoenix to come to my aid now and I highly doubted Number Six was going to stop doing his own things to come out and rescue me.  Sweet Celestia, that smell was horri-

        It was a sewer drain under the road.

        I blinked and stared at the small entrance, dripping with mould and slimy substances.  Immediately, I knew how I was meant to survive this.

        I didn't like it one bit.

        The sound of Noose's hooves coming closer reminded me that I disliked dying even more.

        Crawling with three hooves, I pulled myself along the ground, smearing over the exuded gel-like liquid coming out of the drain.  There was no way this wasn't going to be highly radioactive or filled with disease.  But at this point, I doubted my life expectancy would really be worth worrying about.  Trying not to breathe, I pulled myself into the small tubular drain and curled up inside it, feeling wet mushy material squelch beneath me.

        The gangers ran over the road, their hooves sending echoes down into the drain as they leapt above the entrance.  I stared upon them from behind as they stopped and looked around.  I had never noticed this drain until I had been lying down randomly from falling.  Surely they'd never notice-

        “What's that smell?”

        Oh, come on!

        They paused, looking around and wandering past the drain a few times, muttering about the smell it was making.  They couldn't miss the entrance, but if they thought to look inside...

        “Eh...forget it.  Whoever that little perv was, he's long gone.”

        “Unless they hid in the drain?”

        I froze, every muscle tensing up, my foreleg aching from the injury all the more.  I could feel my sickness building, the stench and tension in my stomach wanting to make me cough again.

        “The hell?  Only that filthy little runt would do that and he's way too scared of us to eavesdrop.  Just come on...I don't want that bastard Whiplash giving me another doing.”

        I heard them wander off, the buck who had offered to check the drain reluctantly trotting after them.  With relief I pulled myself from the drain, a hideous sucking noise as I pulled my rump from the smelly slime that composed of the bottom of the pipe and waded through the damp muck surrounding the entrance.  I fought the urge to vomit as I let out the rasping cough that I had somehow held in.  Checking myself over once again, I felt the radsores on my back left leg stinging and burning from the rubbing on the ground.  I was coated in the drainage gunk...my jerkin was damp and well...I didn't even want to identify what was clinging over my cutie mark.

        I just wanted to stop.  To go into the building to throw up and just lie down...to let myself just...expire for the day.  Or forever.  But instinct, for all the Stable Dweller's inspiration, still existed in my mind.  I pulled my jerkin tighter, made sure the radio was still intact and set about being a slave.

        What a pathetic little sight I was.  A small pony limping slowly down the roads in the howling cold wind with a yelp of pain on every step of his front left.  Covered in the stinking slew of a drain...crying openly to himself as he always did, stopping only to let a hacking cough out from his radiation sickness.  All while walking to his eternal place of work to no doubt be hurt more.  With nothing more than a promise of pain on his shifts end.

        I couldn't take this...

        Not any more...

        I needed something to give me hope, more than just the scrawls on a piece of parchment.  That journal had to be mine again, to see my mother once more.

        I silently pleaded to the Goddesses, praying that I was right.  That by doing something for myself I might finally break the chains and have the courage to do something more.

        Something greater.

        To follow her.

* * *

        Waking up Wicked Slit went much as expected.

        Even a pained, exhausted and dizzy pony like me can muster enough strength to high tail it out of her scrap-built hut at high speed.  Especially when I see a huge knife like that being magically lifted with great purpose from the dresser beside her bed.

        Lacking any support from her guards to wake the overseer, I had been reduced to simply prodding her with a hoof.  From as far away as I could.  While getting ready to run.

        I think I'd had time to blurt out “Slaves late, one extra, I'm back” before I saw the fury in her eyes and immediately scampered for the door.  My mind caught up with me, only now realising that there had been another lump under the dirty covers beside her.  Oh this wasn't going to be good at all...not only had I woken Slit, I had woken her up while sleeping off-

        Actually, I didn't want to quite think on that one too hard.

        Diving out her doorway, I stumbled down the metal stairs leading to the second floor workers quarters she inhabited, falling onto the broken concrete road outside.  I saw Wicked Slit scramble to the door, teeth bared and a bed-mane sitting messily about her head.

        “Murky Number Seven!  I am going to make you wish you'd never been born!”

        I fought the temptation to shout back “Agreed!” as I got to my hooves and galloped for the gateway out of the factory.  All around me, ponies working with the magical auto axes were tearing hunks of metal into fragments for the melting pots.  They glanced up in curiosity at the sight of me diving madly from their overseers hut.

        “I am going to fuck you up so badly, Murk!  You get back in here right now!  Close the gate!”

        To my horror, the guards outside reacted with enough speed to slam the door shut in my face.  I hit the thick metal just hard enough to come off of all fours and fall to the floor with a groan.  As I turned to look behind me...I could swear some of the slaves were trying not to giggle at the misheard context of her last sentence.  Wicked Slit advanced, devoid of clothing (not that we normally wore clothes other than to protect against the elements anyway) but still carrying that knife magically in the air beside her.  I closed my eyes, half expecting the knife to descend.  Instead I just heard the sound of magic as she dragged me by the tail back toward her hut with her own telekinesis.

        “I swear, I'm going to strap you down to stop you running away some day you spineless wretch.”

        I saw some slaves snort in laughter...and some of the guards.  I facehoofed, even through my fear.  I could almost hear the rumours already.

        “Now get in here, I'm not done with you.”

        She telekinetically hurled me inside, shooed the buck from the bed out and slammed the door as I heard the entire work yard roar with laughter.

* * *

        I sat meekly in the middle of the floor as Wicked Slit paced across to her small desk.  Sitting on a cushion behind it, she glared at me before slamming the knife point down into the floor a few inches from me.  Wrinkling her nose, Slit made sure to keep me some distance from her desk.

        “I'm not even going to ask why you're covered in shit, Murk.  Alright, you've got five seconds to explain why you woke me...and why you had to do it with a hoof that's been in some latrine somewhere.”

        I wasn't going to waste them.

        “Uh...uh...Whiplash!  He says the slaves will be late because they're all messed up and stuff but...um...you get an extra one!” I tried to smile, “and it's me, M-Ma'am!”

        Some day I was going to learn that smiling was not something that would help with Wicked Slit.  Why oh why couldn't I learn to just nod and shake my head again?  Breaking the instinct that had kept me chained all these years was not without its consequences...

        If Wicked Slit was 'mollified' in the slightest by the news that she had me back, she didn't show it.

        “So...” she said, her knife plucking out of the ground and lightly stabbing the wooden floor in a circle around me, tapping incessantly, “basically...you're saying I'm screwed for work efficiency?”

        Tap.  Tap.  Tap.

        “Well, maybe not screwed, Ma'am...”

        “So you have an idea on how to cover for three lost slaves and my replacement being the most pathetic slave in Filly?  Or do you have any talents other than becoming the worst smelling slave in Fillydelphia?”

        If I had any real pride about my life as a slave, that would hurt.  Born to be a slave and given the cutie mark to lock me into it forever...and I was even bad at that.  Ouch.

        “Well...”

        Tap.  Tap.  Tap.

        “...perhaps there's another way?”

        Oh why was I even trying this...

        “Do tell, Murk.”

        

        Her voice held no promise of her actually listening.  Judging by how the knife missed my tail by a scant inch...she clearly was just drawing this out in anger.

        “Perhaps...perhaps...” I searched and searched my mind for anything, “...perhaps one of the machines could be fixed to do the work of three?  Like...get the parts and put it all together so you work better than ever?  I mean...um...Ma'am.”

        I was proud.  The machines in Fillydelphia were still in the process of repair, many didn't work at all, hence the need for such huge numbers of slaves to often manually operate them on giant treadmills or turnwheels.  The war had not been kind to the more complex machinery the ponies of Old Equestria had cooked up.

        Wicked Slit's expression changed only from fury filled rage to abject annoyance.

        “And what makes you think, Murk, that we haven't done all of that already?  Do you think we are idiots, Murk?  Do you think Great Red Eye is a fool who doesn't know when a machine cannot be fixed?”

         I saw the traps waiting for me...years under slavers had taught me that much.  Don't argue back, go with the flow and make your point.

        “No!” I cried out.  “Master Red Eye is very wise...but I think I may know...know...”

        Crap...what did I know?  The knife was even closer to me.

        Tap.  Tap.  Tap.

        Think Murk...think...

        Tap.  Tap.  Tap.

        I had nothing, I lowered my head as the knife rose up...

        “Thought so,” she muttered, lowering her head, that horrid cracked horn sparkling wildly as she moved the knife in front of me, “now you have disturbed me...for bad news, waking me up and bringing nothing but crap to my desk again.  In this case, literally.”

        I fought to not wail in fear as she spoke, her knife floating out in front of me, point down.

        “Hold out your hoof, Murk.”

        I had bitten off more than I could chew here.  I should have just kept my mouth shut, accepted the beating and moved on to get my second beating on returning to the FunFarm too.  I shivered, my hoof not moving as I locked up, whimpering.

        “Hold out your hoof!”

        I yelped, fear escaping as I felt my eyes cry, as always.  I literally couldn't help it, like my body was hard wired to cry at anything I didn't like.  Wicked Slit only looked at me crying, swore to herself and stomped out, screaming into my ear with enough volume to cause me to scream in aural pain.

        “HOLD OUT YOUR HOOF, SLAVE!”

        Instinct kicked in, my master demanded...I obeyed.  My hoof shot out, holding shakily under the knife as I saw it rise up.  I shut my eyes...

        ...I heard the voice...so quietly from under my jerkin only I would notice...

        “Welcome back, wastelanders!  DJ-Pon3 here with your daily tip of the day!  Now remember what I said about scavenging?  No?  It's the same thing I always say.  It's safer to trade than it is to search, ponies.  Yes yes I know, you'll be paying something-

        Eyes clenched shut, I heard her magic begin to spark to move the knife down.

        “-but it's better than paying with your life!  Remember, kiddies, trade is what helps everyone in the end.  Just be prepared for a haggle, y'here?.  So visit those markets, you never know what others have dug up!”

        “The slave market!” I screamed!  “THE SLAVE MARKET!”

        The knife stopped.  I drew a breath, my eyes opening as I saw the knife midway to my hoof.  I didn't dare move it...

        “What, Murk?”

        “The...the slave market, Ma'am!  Perhaps they've got something...something they found and hid!”

        Wicked Slit paused, the knife spinning on the spot (seriously, did she ever stop moving it?) as she clearly thought this over, before glaring back at me, the tip of her knife lifting my chin up.

        “Listen here, Murky Number Seven.”

        Listening!  Very much listening!

        “You know where the market is?”

        I couldn't shake my head, “Um...no?”

        Wicked Slit sighed, letting the knife go from my throat and embedding it in the desk a few times instead.  It glinted from the small magically powered gem light on the roof each time it came down.

        “The old terminal building at the pegasi chariot airport.  It's another slave enclosure in the baggage handling and waiting rooms for the slaves that deserve a roof.  They think they're subtle, but we know all about them, Murk.  Red Eye isn't blind.  We just let them do it because it's just all pictures of mares, rotten food we don't want and ragged clothing.  Sometimes they get something valuable, but really...the advantage of them keeping the slaves down there in line is worth it.  But perhaps you can be of some use...”

        I didn't like where this was going.

        “Go there, Murk.  Now.  You come back with parts to fix either a machine press control panel or a conveyor belt engine and I'll let you keep your hoof intact.  Use however you want to get them.  Beg, trade or steal...but don't you show your face around here again until you have them, understand?”

        Not entirely.  How I was going to convince anypony to give up valuable parts was beyond me...but it was better than an eighteen inch knife in my hoof.  I nodded, taking the slim cue to get the hell out of here.  I got to my hooves, limping away toward the door.

        “Oh, and Murk?”

        Oh here we go again...I turned to look back at her, trembling.

        “Y-yes, Ma'am?”

        “You interrupted my sleep for some very shitty news, don't you have anything good to say before you go?”

        She was fishing for an excuse to hurt me.  I could see it.  I looked around for inspiration, nothing.  Even DJ-Pon3 (Oh thank you for earlier!) was talking more about something I didn't understand.  My eyes fell back to Wicked Slit, standing there near her bed, mane hair fluffed out madly from being woken suddenly.

        “I...really like your...mane?” I squeaked.

        I only barely managed to dive out the door and tumble down the steps as the knife embedded itself in the door frame with enough force to puncture out to the other side of the hut.

* * *

        Entering another slave master's enclosure was not particularly difficult for a slave.  After all, if you were indeed a runaway you'd be missed at roll call each morning anyway, so they had no real objection to a slave without a shift wandering into their territory.  The fact that most of Fillydelphia was still confused and recovering from the slave riots only harried Red Eye's force's efforts to control the exact location of each individual within the Wall.

        Besides, I had Wicked Slit's approval to be here now, if no way to really show it.  If confronted, I had to hope that her name carried enough weight to permit me access or avoid the guards simply throwing me out the door again.  If that happened, suddenly this would have to become a lot more covert than before.  There was no way in Equestria I was returning to Wicked Slit empty hoofed.  I liked having four functional legs.

        As I trotted over the concrete expanse of the airfield, I winced in pain as my injured front leg caught one of the many cracks and small fissures.  I fell back onto my rump, rubbing the fetlock gingerly.

        Okay, three and a half functional legs.

        Ahead of me was the expanse of the pegasus chariot airbase.  Pegasi didn't need a runway, of course, but some of the larger sky wagons of the past had clearly needed a little space for them to reach some momentum.  Strewn across the field were the mangled and blackened wrecks of every type of chariot imaginable from small personal transports to huge antique flying skytanks as well as everything in between.  Many were jumbled into one colossal pile of twisted scrap on the eastern edge of the airfield, the opposite side from the crater.  Their light materials had simply been blasted away by the force of the Zebra megaspell to become a small mountain of metal against the walls of the hangers that lined the eastern border.  Briefly, I imagined what it might be like to fly with one of them tied behind you.  I kept an eye on the vehicles, tightening my jerkin.  Even as I watched, slaves picked over them.  They sought small components, magic spark matrix gems or cut the fuselages apart with those ever whining auto axes.  No matter where I went in Fillydelphia I could spot or at least hear them in the background.

        If I ever got out of here, a silent night would be the first thing I would desire.

        Red Eye had not let the airfield go disused.  Much of the forces stationed in Fillydelphia used it as a makeshift arrangement ground.  In between the wrecks, teams of his army checked weapons or stood ready for instructions on their next task.  I suspected they mostly lived in the masses of buildings (ruined, of course) nearby that used to belong to the residents of Fillydelphia.  I always wondered how they dealt with that...sleeping in rotten beds that had once contained somepony's entire life and sense of safety before the megaspells.  How could anypony stay sane invading such a sacred place of memories?  The FunFarm had been bad enough, but a pony's own home?

        A memory sparked, I remembered the first time one of my Masters had sent me scavenging in an abandoned farmhouse.  Inside there had been bones...two sets of them, huddled together on their bed with limbs curled around one another for reassurance.  The wall had been facing a balefire crater.  I imagined them lying there, trembling and saying their last assurances of love as sirens blared and the world ended around them, before the terrible force of the megaspell surged through their home...

        In the next room I had found another skeleton, even smaller than I, alone in a cot surrounded by foal's toys.

        I cried a lot in life.  But that day I had done so more than most.  To be standing there, alive and lost in a far flung ruined future, seeing the preserved horror of the moment that Equestria had died simply broke me.  It had taken my master himself to come in and find me huddled up in the corner.  I had been clutching a little woollen doll that had somehow survived, as though it would somehow help relieve the pain.

        I kinda missed that doll...aside from my mother, it had been the only thing I'd ever hugged.

        Shaking my head, I let my eyes traverse toward the airfields terminal and away from the homes of Fillydelphia.  One farm had been bad enough, to linger on the hundreds of households holding all sorts of memories would probably drive me insane if I stopped to think about it.  Getting to my hooves, I began the journey to the entrance from the runways.

        The terminal was a strange building.  Most huge public buildings I had witnessed tended to try and be somewhat fancy or stand out.  I had once glimpsed Tenpony Tower whilst being dragged through Manehattan toward my next master.  The colossal building had struck me as rather pretty, as though some of its elegance had survived the bombs.  The terminal however was...bare.

        Concrete pillars supported a flat topped dome in a slight throwback to the architecture the pegasi of old used to have in their cloud cities.  A book my mother had once called an ensico...ensiclo...

        Ah, forget it, I couldn't remember.  Some big book with lots of pictures about the old world.  She had pointed out the cloud cities to me, wishing I could be up there and safe instead of down here in the muddy ruin like all wasteland born ponies.

        But this terminal had none of the light and gentle flair of the cloud buildings.  It was built from the same dull material as the rest of Fillydelphia to clearly be functional and affordable in the face of a city that had become the centre of materials industry in Equestria.  Only the barest roots of pegasi architecture were present, save for a single mural above the main entrance from the airstrips bearing a motif of six ponies.

        Including that damned pink pony.

        Some day...I was going to escape her gaze.  She was even glaring right at me off the mural!

        The size was deceptive, what I took for a small mural above a door simply kept growing as I crossed the wreck filled fields toward it.  By the time I neared the terminal, the reason it had stood from the balefire was obvious.  Whoever built this...built it to last.  The pillars were a good six feet thick and the entire building made of huge concrete blocks now coated in sprays of graffiti from two hundred years of abuse.  No wonder it showed little real exterior damage.

        As I moved inside the entrance, noting the guards who watched me warily growing in number from the mostly empty airfield...I had a sense that it would also make getting out a hell of a lot tougher then getting in should I need to leave in a hurry.  Concrete wasn't well known for little gaps I could squeeze through to escape this time...

* * *

        “Oi!  What're you doing here?”

        Twenty feet from the main door, the buck's voice rung out just as I had approached the gateway into the slave enclosure.  It encompassed an entire wing of the terminal building, barricaded off by a huge wall of piled up scrap and metal sheets.  I could only presume the slave market was beyond it, somewhere Red Eye would be happy for it to function where they could keep an eye on it.

        Even as I approached, timidly trotting, the voice had made me stop dead.  I looked to the right and left, but saw no pony at all.

        “Oh you...up here!”

        I backed off, my head looking upwards to view atop the interior scrap barricade to see a slave with broken shackles stuck on each hoof glancing down at me.  Tall and lanky, he attempted an indignant look as he stomped a hoof on the scrap in annoyance.

        “I know every slave around here, I do!” he shouted.  I could only presume the act was to try and make him seem intimidating.  Well, I had seen a pony beat almost half a dozen to death with his bare hooves yesterday and had a crazed mare try to impale my hoof earlier.  This slave hardly ranked too highly on the 'Murky Scale of Run the Hell Away'.

        “So if you ain't a slave from here, then you's here for the market, ain't you?”

        Well, not exactly arcane science.

        The buck's face twisted at my general look of confusion and wonderment, lacking the reaction he presumably wanted.  At this point, there were greater things in my life threatening my health than this weedy looking slave.  All the same, I allowed him a brief glance of worry...he clearly had a modicum of authority to be up there.  Best to play it safe as per usual.

        He stomped a hoof even harder, seeking a reaction as he snarled...and promptly screamed.  His hoof dislodged the scrap beneath him.  With a horrid creaking sound...the entire top layer of the barricade came crashing down, the buck tumbling over it all.  Squeaking in shock at the sharp metal barrelling toward me I dived to the side before feeling the buck collapse on to me from above.  The impact led to my crying out in agony as my still damaged ribs and masses of bruises were struck.  The pair of us rolled to the side as I felt a horrid tug on my jerkin before collapsing to the ground with a solid thud.

        Vision hazy from pain, I tried to wrench my pained body up.  Exhaustion was kicking in from yesterday once again from sickness, malnourishment and the lack of any decent sleep.  Perhaps I should just stay down for a few minutes...at least until the spiking lance of pain on my side went away.  I could pick up my radio device from over there later...

        Wait!

        With a shout of effort that ended in a spluttering and bloody cough, I dragged my body inch by inch toward the device.  I needed to hide it!  I felt panic rising as the buck began to rise on the other side, shaking his head from the fall.  I just...couldn't...move...

        My hoof limply flopped down just short of the device by the time he picked it up.  I lay flat, feeling my body beginning to fail.  A month had been optimistic...I doubted I could last...well...long at all really.  I could barely stand until the pain died down.

        “Tho wuth thith hen?” the buck spoke as he held the device in his mouth, leering down at me.  An earth pony, he was almost as dirty looking as myself with a dull orange mane and a coat that could only be described as the colour of vomit.  Including the specks and lumps made instead of boils and scabs from the sickness that pervaded Fillydelphia.

        “N-Nothing!” I shouted as best I could, reaching a hoof up, “It's nothing!  Just a bit of old scrap I...I wanted to trade with!”

        The buck spat out the device to the side before stepping on it with a hoof to keep it still.

        “So you want into the slave market, huh?” he said slyly, inclining his head toward me.

        “Yes...please?”

        He rolled his eyes and gave me a nudge with his hoof to get up.  With a grunt of exertion I obeyed, before almost collapsing again as I spluttered and choked on a dry cough.  The buck backed off quickly as he saw the light splatters of blood on the ground.

        “Aaah...so you're after medicine, I see,” he muttered, before laughing and kicking the device just behind him, “well I guess you'll have to submit to a search when you go in and come back out.”

        “Oh and of course...” he added, “pay the fee to get in.  This isn't your enclosure.”

        Wiping my mouth with a hoof (urgh...forgot about the sewage pipe...) to clear the blood I shook my head.

        “I don't have anything to give...”

        The buck tapped the device with his back hoof lightly.

        “Not any more.”

        Oh no...no way!  That device was the only thing that kept me going!  I was living on borrowed time with a sickness and untreated wounds that were eating away at me.  The blood dried on my scalp from the whip still stung as much as my near broken hoof from yesterday ached while my lungs felt ready to pop out my mouth on my next cough...without that device constantly broadcasting I...I don't think I could have made it without the hope it gave me.

        The hope that I could do something before I succumbed in here...

        “No!”

        I shouted, stumbling forward to try and grab the device, only for the buck to simply knock it out of the way again with a hoof.  Damn it!  This was like a child trying to get something away from a grown parent.  If I'd been healthier...I knew I could have been more agile.  But in this state I was just a little weakling pawing at him, as small as he was too.

        “Oh no, no, noooo...” he cooed, “you gotta pay the fee to get in, or you's doesn't get any trading!”

        “I...I need it!” I screamed as I tried to duck around him, slipping and falling each time.  I fought to not cry...not in front of this pony.  I had been shot at, put in the Pit (well...kinda) and survived a riot.  I was not going to cry in front of this little slave!  I wasn't!  I...I...

        I couldn't get it back...

        I stepped back after my last desperate grab for the device, strength leaving me as my stamina failed.  I had to cover my eyes with a hoof that he wouldn't see me.

        “There we go, accept that this is mine, and you can go in,” he sneered, “and get me something on the way out to for you to pass this border again.  Red Eye doesn't care what we do, so long as we don't have any items he wants in our enclosure or get in the way of our work shifts.  So this is our job and right to claim!”

        I stomped a hoof and shook my head in frustration.  The buck was right.  I'd been so damn close.  Not only was I having to risk everything for Slit, now I was losing my radio device hoofmachine thingy in the process.  As I dejectedly turned, another buck's voice rang out.  This one less nasal as the first buck, but filled with a curious tone that implied the owner of the voice preferred things explained to him.

        “Hey...what's goin' on with that midget out there?” said the second buck as he trotted out.  This one was almost as short as I was, but a lot more thickly set.

        Figures, I thought, that the tall skinny and the short and stubby one would be together.  There seemed to be one in every slave farm I'd been to in my entire life.  Perhaps every generation had their own ones in Equestria.  Only briefly, it occurred to me that myself and Number Six had been almost the same thing for a short time.

        “Little slave here wanted into the market, I was just taking this as the payment.”

        They continued to talk, boast and snigger between themselves.  But even as I cowered slightly further away, trying to tear my eyes from the radio device...a thought entered my head.  I had one ace left up my jerkins sleeve.  I began pulling out the parchment and quill, before taking the quill and pretending to write something.  The obnoxious slave pair finally noticed me.

        “Hey!  What're you doing?”

        I looked up, spitting out the quill briefly.

        “Oh, me?” I began.  “I...I'm just taking your names down.  Wicked Slit will want to know who stopped her messenger getting in.”

        To their credit, they hid the look of stark terror well after the first three seconds.  The skinny one grinned.

        “Hah!  You don't know our names!”

        “Yeah,” interjected the smaller buck, “you ain't got nuthin' on us!  We're not gonna tell you our names...are we?”

        The smaller glanced up at his colleague before receiving a clip around the ear with a hoof.  Damn, they were slow...but they weren't completely hopeless.  However for once in my life I felt like I had an advantage here.  I could do this without resorting to violence from Wicked Slit to get in or to having to break rules.  Call me crazy, but hearing the device playing Velvet's music seemed to clear my terrified and conflicted thoughts just enough to know just what to say for a little to get by them.

        

        “I'm afraid you have to,” I continued, nudging the quill and motioning with me eyes toward the skinny one, “what is your name, so Wicked Slit can find you and gut you?”

        The stubby one looked a little panicky at the mentioning of gutting, he stepped from hoof to hoof with nerves as I spoke before blurting out to his comrade.

        “D-Don't tell him, Pike!  I don't want to be gutted!”

        Aha!  Success!

        “You idiot,” screamed the taller one, batting the shorter around the head with his hoof, “what did you tell him that for?!”

        “I...” the buck stopped as his comrade's hoof belted him across the face a few times, “I didn't mean to, Pike-”

        “Stop it!”

        “Sorry, Pike.”

        “STOP IT, COSH YOU BLABBERING IDIOT!”

        I couldn't resist it.

        “Pike and Cosh...” I muttered, “right, I'll report that you barred me entry...”

        The pair turned from screaming at one another to glare at me.  For a second I was afraid they'd simply try and attack me...but it seems they figured that Slit would want to know where her 'agent' had gone.  They simply shoved the device back to me and stood aside without another word to allow me through.  I'd done it.  Okay, they weren't particularly intelligent foes...but I had managed to pass without any beatings or injury!

        As I retrieved the radio, a happy little note of Velvet's struck a high pitch in my ear from the small speaker, making me smile as I trotted into the enclosure, too low volume for any but I to detect.  With a silent thank you I tucked it back under my jerkin, pulling it back over quickly.

        That little device had been meant to guide me.  I knew it.

* * *

        I had envisioned a bustling market of slaves in an enclosure under the watchful eye of guards and slave masters.  What I saw was entirely different.

        Set among the waiting room that passengers in the past would have sat to await their pegasi transports, the slave enclosure had few boundaries and a lot of slaves simply lying on the floor.  What envy I had for them having four walls and a solid roof quickly evaporated as I witnessed the bare stone they had to sleep on in here.  At least the FunFarm Petting Zoo had dirt...

        The ponies were all sore looking, usually on one side from lying on the hard surface for so long each night.  The old areas where seating cushions might have sat were long gone, leaving only sharp metal fixtures in their place from the ravages of time.  Around the edge of the walls were blown in shop fronts.  In these lurked what I was searching for.  Three were on this side of the waiting room.  Through some arches I could see a few more, one boarded up and the other two bearing another couple of 'merchants.' At the back of the room was another large corridor like the one I had come in by showing a sky deck over-viewing the runways and presumably leading further into the facility.  All was just as blighted and bare as the concrete exterior.  Any carpets I presumed had been removed long ago and only the shattered hunk of a massive departures (or arrivals...I couldn't read) board remained where it had collapsed and shattered a portion of the floor.

        The slave market was definitely not how I had imagined it.  There was a stillness.  It occurred to me that the crowded rush theory was born only of my brief time hearing about Tenpony Tower in the past.  Here, slaves simply had nothing to trade except in rare cases.  I could see the 'traders' lying down like any other slave next to their wares.  I wondered how they didn't have it all stolen when they were called to a work shift.  Perhaps they were all pretty lethal and beat anyone who dared take goods...

        There was about six of them.  None seemed to specialise, simply having whatever they could scavenge instead.  I didn't imagine any valuable goods would be on display where the slavers could see and confiscate them.  Five of them followed this pattern, rough looking slaves with more rags than the others, patched into warmer and tougher clothing to protect themselves.  They seemed better fed too.  Three mares and two bucks made up their numbers and there seemed to be at least one 'guard' nearby to each shop as well, also a slave.  Red Eye's guards were beside me at the entrance, clearly more for a presence inside than any real purpose.  A sixth merchant caught my eye though...a unicorn with an old saddlebag bearing the imagery of three butterflies in a yellow and pink pattern.  I knew that design, I'd seen it before in the home I'd been forced to search years back in the bathroom as a kind of medicine cabinet.

        Medicine!

        I could get something to perhaps save my life!

        Well, time to start looking.  Even my journal could wait to see if the unicorn could get me something.  Or better yet, heal me!

        I trotted as fast as I dared on my now wobbly leg through the arches into the second half of the waiting room.  Dejected ponies lay on the ground around me, watching me with hazy and hopeless eyes as I moved toward the healer.  Many moved away from me.  At first I presumed due to my sick appearance but after a quick sniff...it was probably the fact I was still reeking of drainage.  Well...bartering was going to be such fun while smelling like a latrine.

        All the same...the slaves backing away from me only served to remind me I was in dangerous territory here.  Slaves were opportunistic.  If any of them thought of a reason to bring me down they would.  I was alone.  Truly alone.  No-pony was waiting in the wings to save me now.  Fear bit at my mind and gnawed at my determination to achieve my aims and get my journal back.  Was it worth risking dying for a few scraps of paper I never even really looked at?

        The unicorn healer seemed to regard me with some distaste as I approached, his eyes following my clearly sick self right up to looking down his own nose at me past the small set of glasses.  His cutie mark didn't fill me with great confidence...a bonesaw.

        “I...uh...heard you can get healing here,” I hardly even knew what to ask for, “could I be healed?”

        Fairly basic, but what else could I ask for?  I certainly didn't know exactly what was wrong with me and if I started listing everything we'd be here till the end of time.  The healer snorted, spitting to the side (and this is a doctor?) and moving around me as his horn flared into being.

        “Check up is free, shrimp,” he began muttering as his glowing horn flickered to and fro across my body, “but the healing costs.  What you got to trade?”

        I sighed, my head drooping.  Just typical...healing equipment would be rare and valuable to slaves, but healing magic was hardly a finite resource to a unicorn.  Yet he still charged?  Oh come on, this just isn't fair.  As he trotted around to look me in the eye and cock his head, awaiting the offer, I could only lower my head again and shake it.

        “So, just another sick little slave who thinks I give out everything for free just because I'm medically trained.  What did you honestly expect?  It's a buyers market among slaves these days, only reason I'm not drafted to heal his army is because I've not got any stamina for this at all.  I can only do one pony a day with magic perhaps and still have enough left in me to work my shift.”

        He eyed me up, eyebrows narrowing.

        “And here you think I'm going to waste that on you?”

        “Please...isn't there anything?” I couldn't hide the shaking fear in my voice as I was forced to admit the truth.  “I...I think I'm dying, sir...please...”

        “You certainly are.”

        Shit!  I'd had theories, but to hear it straight from the horse's mouth (in more ways than one...) was chilling.  I felt my eyes beginning to well up as I stared at the healer.  He just tossed his mane and sighed, turning away to his inventory in a bag.  I could see little orange packs and small bottles of sloshing liquid alongside a few syringes.  Why did the slavers allow this?  For a second my heart leapt, until he simply sat on them instead of fetching anything, crossed his hooves and fixed me with a stare through his glasses.

        “You have an irradiated lung infection on top of some pretty severe radiation poisoning, kid.  Throw on top of that a minor taint mutation...that'd explain the ears...and a high level of toxin in your general respiratory systems from Filly's oh-so-lovely smog.  Not so uncommon around here, I get about a dozen or so a week who want healing without anything to trade.  For you?  Well, the taint isn't curable, that's a given.  But the radiation poisoning and the rest?  It'd take about five Radaways and a few healing potions with a charge of magic to save your life.  As you might imagine, I'm not about to give them away from free.  You can wander off and die in your sleep like all the rest who want handouts.”

        I felt my hooves going weak, I had to lie down to avoid collapsing.

        “A pony in good health might survive a week or so with all this.  But you've got multiple barely healed lacerations, bruises everywhere, acute radsores on your leg and face, a partially dislocated front leg and bruised ribs.  Couldn't see how many, that jerkin got in the way of checking.  With all that?  I'd say you're for the off within perhaps a few days time out there in the smog.  Hell, you might drop off any night at this rate.”

        I was trembling, wet dots appearing on the ground in front of me.  My rasping breathing led to a few coughs as I attempted to keep my emotions in check.  I...I was dying.  There it was, right there.  The confirmation that my time was up.

        I could barely believe it.  Yesterday morning I was ready to accept this happening any day...but now after being shown what was truly possible with life I didn't want it to happen any more at all.  In its own way, this was worse than the Pit.  At least there I could have run away or tried hitting back!  It wouldn't have saved me...but that feeling of resistance was a small, if important, comfort.

        But sickness...I couldn't get around that.

        “Please!” I was whining, but I could barely help it.  “You must want something!  I...I'll do anything!”

        I reached my hooves forward to his, only for him to pull them back in disgust and scowl.

        “Get off, you irradiated little shit!” he screamed, moving away from me and zipping that bag of his closed.  He made to turn away, before stopping and looking back, a different glow in his eyes as he looked up.

        “Actually...anything, you say?”

        I didn't like his tone.  Not one bit.  But I still nodded.

        “Well, how'd you like to earn your healing?”

        I hardly had a choice.  I nodded again.

* * *

        I walked away from his booth with a fearful mindset.

        I had stolen before, but I wasn't sure if I could do this.  I had stolen to survive before, but this was taking someone else's property for another pony's gain.

        But really...wasn't this stealing to survive too?

        He had asked me to knock out his competitor across the hall.  An earth pony buck (why did it always have to be bucks and their egos I dealt with?) who sold a couple of illegally hidden medical items to some slaves for lower prices...thus taking business away from the healer himself.  The healer (I really had to learn to get names of ponies I dealt with...) had said he'd give me a piece of medical supply for every two items I stole from his competitor.  I had no idea how that would be possible.  The earth pony looked hard as hell, tall and strong with an equally big guard of his materials sitting watchfully nearby.  Clearly he was confident...I could see the items all laid out on his table.  Bits of rags, bandages, small bottles of dirty water and oatmeal stored in plastic tubs from past dinners.  He even had a thick brown sketchbook that looked a lot like my...

        ...oh sweet Celestia!

        I ignored the pains of my protesting body as I full out galloped to his stall so fast that his bodyguard raised in defiance to block my way.  I didn't care, I ducked around him and grabbed the journal in my hooves, hugging it tight.  It was mine!  I recognised the feel, the size and even the smell.  As fast as I had it in my hooves, it left me as the bodyguard's magic yanked it from my grasp roughly and held it above me.  The merchant, seemingly not having been ruffled at all, rounded with a sly grin and approached.  Tossing his braided grey mane before leaning on the counter to look down at me.  He spoke with a high voice, his accent similar to Number Six, if a little more flighty.

        “Well well well...eager for that little bit of merchandise there, aren't ya laddie?”

        “It's mine!  It was stolen from me!  I just want it back, please...”

        Somehow I doubted my bargaining was going to work, but what was the harm in asking?

        One look at the bodyguard reminded me to never ask myself that question again.

        The merchant took the journal from his bodyguard, balancing it in one front arm as he leaned on the counter and flipped the pages with a hoof.  He glanced, but his eyes never left mine.  Immediately, I realised just how shrewd this pony was to have carved out such an inventory as a slave in Fillydelphia and somehow managed to bribe enough guards to look the other way.  Despite that, the scars and scabs across his body indicated even it didn't help him avoid the punishing work details.

        

        “So y'say this is yours, little lad,” he murmured, before chuckling to himself and continuing, “well I'm afraid I don't see yer name on it, my boy.  I got this from some fine ponies who took some quality merchandise off me in exchange for the fine item I hold here and a few caps for my oh-so-loyal guards at the entrance there.”

        Fine ponies.  Yeah, right.

        I let my eyes glance to Red Eye's guards.  Almost to my amazement they were looking over questioningly until the merchant shook his head.  They relaxed.  Great Goddesses...how many pockets was this slave in?  The guards didn't just overlook him, they actively helped him flourish.  I wondered what their cut was...

        “Now you want this...hmm...piece returned, do you, laddie?”

        I was really beginning to hate that accent, like every word he spoke was pronounced simply to condescend me and pretend I had nothing at all on him.  Okay, that was absolutely true, but still!

        “Yes, yes please!” There was no sense in hiding it, he clearly had me judged before I even spoke a word.

        “Then let us do business, lad.  Me name's Sooty Morass, what about yourself?  Shackles?”

        He managed to sneer and laugh at once as he patted my brow with a hoof.  Urgh...even slaves looked down on me now.  Sometimes I really wished I could hide that damned cutie mark.  But this was the pony the gang had mentioned!  So this was definitely the right place, my journal hadn't gone to anypony else first.  His bodyguard snorted with him, but maintained a watch on the merchandise while Sooty Morass dealt with me.

        “Murky Number Seven...” I muttered, looking to the side.

        “Well, lil' Murky,” he began, flicking my journal from hoof to hoof almost hypnotically, “for a lovely bound book with thick good quality paper pages filled with all sorts of...interesting pictures of mares for a good buck's enjoyment...”

        Oh come the hell on!  Those weren't for others!

        “...I'd have to say we'd be looking at requiring something to produce more enjoyment.  Any chems or even certain medical supplies like Med-X.  Normally I'd say about three doses or so.  But for you laddie?  Ten.”

        What?!

        “Ten?!” I almost screamed it, before choking on my own words.  Almost degradingly, I felt him slapping my back to help me with my coughing.  Felt like I was about to cough out my own ragged and bloody windpipe soon...

        “Well you see, son,” he began, lowering himself down to my level, “I'll give you one bit of information about this world.  Nothing is free.  Not us, we're slaves, laddie.  Not trade, it's a ruthless market and we're all out for ourselves.  Last of all...not information.  I'm being all nice and telling you this because I know you ain't gonna be around much longer, are you?”

        He grinned wickedly as he saw the shocked look on my face.  His voice lowered again, becoming airy and dry.

        “Yeeees...you think I didn't spot you over by ol' Artery over there?  I don't need to be a medical trained unicorn to spot an irradiated little pony on his last legs.  So I know you need them there medical supplies more than anypony.  As such...I can afford to raise my price because I know no matter what happens...you're going to try and do it for me, ain't you laddie?”

        I gulped.  He was right.  Anypony who knew the position I was in would realise they had me over a figurative barrel when it came to haggling a price.

        “Oh and also...” he continued as he rose up and turned away, picking up a few bits of what looked like arcane gem circuitry, “I also know you aren't here just for your own little book, eh lad?”

        Oh crap.  He knew about Wicked Slit?  How?

        Then it occurred to me.  Those two idiots on the enclosure gate were in his pay to find out in advance for him...oh that sneaky bastard...

        “Fifteen, Murky,” he finished, “fifteen for the parts and the book together.  Put that unicorn out of his supply and you'll find me a very able trader.  Then we can negotiate your next job for me...perhaps you might like to earn your survival day to day, eh?”

        Oh no, no, NO!  If I took his offer, I wouldn't just be solving one thing, I'd be putting myself in for a whole new level of control from other ponies above even Master Red Eye!  He'd hold my very life in his hooves by controlling the substances I needed to survive in small doses.

        “I...I'll think on it...”

        “Don't think too long,” he sneered, “wouldn't want you to...expire...would we?”

        I heard his chuckling even as I wandered away from his booth in defeat.

* * *

        I lay between two slaves in the terminal enclosure.  They were asleep, twitching as nightmares no doubt interrupted their brief rest.  Both had come back from their work shift, backs raw from whips and choking on what I could only guess with either smog or dust from the mines.  They had been too tired to notice my smell or sickness before collapsing beside me.

        Me?  I was deep in thought.

        I sat with the parchment, my charcoal sketching on my makeshift checklist.

        My journal sat at the top.  My main goal to reattain it.  To have it sitting mere feet away beside Morass was loathsome to think about.  It was not directly attainable right now.  I needed to think around the box.

        I crossed out Wicked Slit's knife.  I had already spoken to her and relayed the message.  Instead, I added a small magic gem to represent the parts I needed to get for her.  Without them, I was due for nothing other than a bloody demonstration to the other slaves.

        I added a syringe.  That was for Sooty Morass and his will for me to acquire chems from the unicorn healer.  Briefly I wondered why he couldn't deal with it himself.  It wasn't like the guards were going to stop him.  Hell, they protected him.  Must be some sort of slave market unofficial ruleset from Red Eye on how it could run without becoming a nuisance to him.

        A small magic potion was drawn below it...to steal Morass' smaller medical supply for the unicorn, to monopolise the market in his favour for healing.  Contrary to what the unicorn said, I doubted it would put Sooty Morass out of business, but it would assure the unicorn's rise within the slave ranks and pecking orders.

        I added the head of a ganger.  Whatever happened, I still needed to figure out how to evade their attentions tonight.  Perhaps if I could find another slave master or get transferred to this terminal building?

        Finally...I added the symbol I knew was that of magical radiation.  My own poisoning that was slowly taking my life.  I needed to survive.

        ...as I looked at the growing list of jobs and tasks before me...I had a sense of impossibility.  Some of them countermanded the others.  Without Morass, I would get killed by Slit.  But without Artery I would die anyway!

        I wanted to run away.  I wanted to hide.  But it wouldn't help any more.  No-pony would be wanting to help me and I had nothing of my own to exchange other than a broken radio that wouldn't cover the costs.

        

        I...I didn't know what to do.  I clutched the radio under my jerkin, holding it tightly down...but only the thick and full voice of Sapphire Shores greeted me.  Almost on cue I felt my eyes watering.  I closed them, tucking into a small ball as best I could to just try and escape it all.  Perhaps I could find something painless...just take the easy way-

        “Haha!  Who'd have thought they'd miss our shift, eh, Noose?”

        “They didn't 'miss' our shift, Lemon you idiot,” I heard the mare reply, “we got rotated into a different master for tomorrow who doesn't need us right now, you think Filly ever gives a proper break?  We'll be worked to the bone anyway.”

        “Same difference,” he snapped back, “means we get to come back here and see about some more trading for a few hours.”

        I looked up to see the final nail in the coffin.  The gang marched into the enclosure loudly and proudly.  Behind them I could see Pike and Cosh cowering away.

        Well...that was it then.  All I needed was Wicked Slit to appear and then it'd be a full house against little Murky Number Seven.  Hell, these slaves didn't even like each other, never mind lonely little...

        Wait...

        An onrush of sudden hope blossomed in my mind as the pieces fell together.  It wasn't perfect but...but it was something!

        I got to my hooves, tucking the parchment carefully beneath my jerkin.

* * *

        “Oooh look who it is, everypony!”

        The gang stopped in their tracks after intimidating a smaller slave merchant into giving up some month old oatmeal for a few bits of scrap metal to look at my mangy and weakened self trotting up.  Briefly I realised that if they dared smell the sewage stink about me they'd be informed very readily about who was spying on them earlier.

        Well, best not give them a chance to get their bullying started.

        “I've got a deal for you.”

        The silence that followed seemed to last about a year.  I wasn't sure what shocked them more, the fact that anypony had approached to ask them about it...or that it was me.  My wondering was answered promptly, as the trio collapsed to the ground in laughter loud and raucous enough to wake every slave in the terminal waiting area.

        “I'm serious!”

        “Oh, boys, he's serious!”

        “What does he want?  He want to bargain for his little hidey hole?  Too late!”

        This wasn't getting anywhere, I decided to play my trump card.

        “I can get you chems.”

        Their demeanour changed almost immediately, the two bucks perked their ears as the word triggered an instinctual reaction.  Mentally, I leapt with joy that my wild shot in the dark that these gangers had experimented with chems in the past seemed to be right on the money.  Okay Murky...hurdle one crossed.  Time for the meat of the issue.

        “I know where to get them...help me and I'll tell you.”

        That didn't go down well.  The mare particularly stayed right where she was without so much as a twitch in her eye.  I guessed she perhaps hadn't partaken, not good if she was the de-facto leader at the moment of their little gang.

        “You're playing a dangerous game, runt...”

        Her voice was low, ignoring the glances of the two bucks...if I could just get them talking.

        Hell...if I could keep myself talking...I felt like I was about to go rigid and just fall over.  These were the gangers who promised to kill me after all!  Noose was right, I was playing with fire by even coming this close to talk to them.  She seemed intent on reinforcing the fact, advancing close enough that I had to lower my hind quarters to give my head enough range to look up at her.  I was trembling, I knew it...but that wasn't different from normal for them...right?

        “So what do you want, runt?”

        Right...here we go.  I couldn't give out my entire plan or it'd all fall apart.  If the gang knew then they'd be able to pick out every problem with it immediately to benefit themselves.

        “G-get me some t-too...I can't get them myself.”

        “And what's to stop us just taking the lot for ourselves?”

        I wasn't wanting them to spot that little fact, guess it was too much to hope for.  I really didn't want them figuring out the entire story...especially because it sort of swung in my favour a little instead of them in the end.

        “Because I'm...uh...I'm on a job for somepony,” I said, stammering over my words enough to make me mentally kick myself for being an awful liar, “if I get some of it back I can...I can get better deals with Sooty for you!”

        Okay...technically true, maybe.  Perhaps once he had no real competition he'd lower his trade prices?

        Also, Princess Celestia might descend from on high and whisk me off to my marriage with the Stable Dweller in Canterlot Castle.

        Noose narrowed her eyes, shook out her mane and looked back at her two comrades.  Their eyes betrayed a fervent wish for chems, to add some spice to their hellish life in Fillydelphia.  Eventually Noose sighed and sank her head.

        “Fine,” she said, deadpan delivery very much intact, “but this isn't a 'deal', runt.  We see something we want or prefer...your loss.”

        My heart leapt...perhaps this had a chance after all!

        “Oh and runt?”

        I froze on the spot.

        “Don't think you're off the hook.”

        Her face came right down level to me.  I bit my lip, trembling so hard I feared I might shake a tooth loose.

        “Your little hidey hole is gone, runt.  Y'see...we got tired of you being all cosy in there.  Why?  Cos' we're just nasty ponies like that.  We still remember that you bucked one of us in the face...we don't let that shit go easily.  You listening?”

        I nodded a little.

        Her hoof struck me across the face hard enough to cause the bad tooth from yesterday to come loose again.  I yelped loudly enough from the pain that everypony in the area stared for a second.

        “I said...you listening?!”

        “YES!”

        “Who's in charge of this little thing then?”

        “Y-you...”

        The hoof struck again, the other side.  I felt the tooth wrench slightly further as I fell to the ground.

        “Don't forget it.  Love taps, is all they were.  When we're done with you...you'll wish that we just taunted you like before.  Fuckin' runt...”

        She wandered off to join the bucks.  Teary eyed, I got to my hooves unsteadily, trying to avoid coughing up more blood as I held a hoof to the loose tooth.  Of course I couldn't lead this...I was the slave at the bottom.  They would lead...I would follow.

        Just like always.

* * *

        I explained my plan to them.  They were not attentive listeners and I had an uneasy sense of them just watching to look for loopholes in it.  We sat in the baggage exchange of the terminal, a good thirty feet from the slave market.  I knew Sooty had ears everywhere, I couldn't take any chances.

        I nursed my head as I sat with my back to the way out.  If they made a hint of a move...I was gone.  I didn't like being so close and alone with these three, but right now they were my only hope.

        That thought alone scared me to the core.  Being forced to deal not just with one devil, Sooty...but three demons too.

        “The medical unicorn, Artery, has the drugs.”

        The two bucks seemed agitated at the mere mention.  I sincerely hoped they wouldn't just go for them instantly.  Lemon in particular seemed to have a nervous twitch...I wondered if he was fighting addiction to something.

        “I...I need to get the drugs out from him to trade with Sooty.  If you three distract him...cause some disturbance?  I think I can sneak his pack away from him and take what we need.”

        Noose stared hard at me.  She didn't like the plan, that was obvious.  I could tell what she was thinking.  'Why not just take it?'

        “We can't just take it openly,” oh Celestia please don't hurt me, “because Sooty Morass is watching and he wants it done quietly...I think.  The guards are there anyway.”

        Noose didn't relax at all.  Her stare was beginning to make me uneasy.

        “So...um...if we were spotted then we'd all be thrown in the Parasprite Pits or...something.”

        “Runt, I assure you that if you mess this up for us I will ensure that a parasprite swarm would be the least of your worries.”

        Her voice was cold.  For the first time I began to grasp the weight of this situation...this wasn't just them bullying me or seeing me as a target any more.  This was a gang member making a promise.

        “I won't!” My voice was higher pitched as fear ate at my confidence to speak.

        I couldn't falter...I needed that journal and medicine!

        “So when I have it, we'll take what he wants and then sneak it over to him in a bag.  Then he'll...he'll give us stuff.”

        “What stuff?”

        Oh come on!  Enough with the questions!  I really didn't want them to know so much...given the last part of my plan.

        The one that relied on me betraying them.

        It had been inspired really...by my standards.  I would take all that Sooty wanted...but also take 5 Radaways and as many magical healing potions as I could manage.  Artery had claimed that I would need magic to repair myself, but I figured that if I took enough healing it'd restore me to a point where I'd at least live...right?

        That was how it worked right?  More healing was good...it had to be...I didn't want to think about the alternative.  Perhaps I could sell some of his stuff back to him in exchange for magic?

        But for the gang, that was the next part.  After Sooty got me everything I wanted from him, I would also given some of the stolen syringes to them as their payment in chems and immediately get back to the FunFarm after delivering the parts to Wicked Slit.  Once there...simply tip off Whiplash about the gang having contraband chems and they'd no longer be around the FunFarm to hurt me!

        Sooty got what he wanted.  I got my journal and life.  Wicked Slit got her parts.

        Of course this meant I was going to be effectively killing three ponies by turning them in.  The thought lingered in my mind...no doubt ready to crop up in guilt later.  But at this point, surrounded by self admitted to-be murderers I realised it was them or me.  Artery would lose his business...but perhaps it would make him rethink how he used his magic?

        “What.  Stuff.  Runt?”

        My thoughts snapped back to the present.

        “Chems!” I screamed.  “I said I'd get chems for you and I will!”

        The panic in my voice was evident.  There were so many ways this could go badly wrong for me.  Most especially the rogue element of these three gangers.  I couldn't tell them how to distract Artery.  I couldn't guess what they'd do when they saw the prizes.  To them, gaining that entire sack might be worth more than anything Sooty could do for them.  My weak assurances wouldn't hold long.  It dawned on me how quickly I'd have to get that sack to Sooty and get my own share before the gang finished and moved to claim their prize.

        I could see it in her eyes...she had no intent of me getting anything at the end of this.

        They were using me.  Just like Whiplash was...just like Wicked Slit was...like Artery and Sooty Morass.

        But then, I was a born slave, wasn't that my role in life?  Did my cutie mark mean everypony got to use me how they wanted?  Even other slaves?

        I'd once heard stories of pegasi having their cutie marks removed for coming down here.  Right now...I had the feeling I'd pay to have that done.

        Noose turned without a word and moved off...negotiations were done then I guess.

        “Just be ready, runt.  We do this our way.  This fails, you're coming down with us.”

* * *

        'Their way' turned out to be pretty much what I expected.

        I watched Noose wander up to a group of rough looking slaves.  Given their ruined clothing, I presumed they had used to be caravan guards.  She had no subtle notion to her approach in the slightest as she saw the guards glance up at her.  Gangs and caravan groups did not get on very well in the wastelands.  In fact, they were mortal enemies.  More than once a slave transfer caravan including me had been attacked by gangs.

        “Hey boys, lose any good caravans recently?” Her voice was jovial, taunting and just as despicable as ever when she spoke to me.  I could see Lemon and his buddy wandering around the long way to sneak up behind the guards.

        “Are you wanting your head cracked on this concrete, mare?”

        The lead caravanner stood.  He was over a head taller than Noose with a shotgun for a cutie mark.  Boy...didn't that bode well.

        If Noose cared, she didn't show it.  Pretending to back off by turning away, she launched a full buck without any warning aimed for the caravanner's throat.  Her legs moved fast enough to blur as she made the cheap shot and the foe collapsed while gasping for breath from his crushed windpipe.

        Very quickly I became significantly more afraid of Noose than ever before.  I watched as the two bucks ambushed the caravan guards who were still getting to their hooves.  In a flurry of hooves, screaming, cursing and splattered blood on the concrete floor I witnessed the three on three brawl break out as more gangers and caravan guards from across the room rushed to join in.  I saw Lemon floored by a unicorn hurling a fragment of concrete while another stallion choked out a gang member with his front hooves.  The ganger didn't seem to be alive.  Sheer brutality and senseless beating between both parties descended into a frenzy of pent up aggression and simple minded violence.

        After Number Six I thought I'd get used to seeing this sort of thing...but as I witnessed wooden fragments stabbed for the eyes and the sickening sight of Noose stomping a hoof onto the back of a badly hurt mare's head forced me to turn away in disgust.

        She had still been grinning.

        I was hidden at the side of the room, taking shelter in a small space of the boarded up shop.  I could fit between the boards to hide among the entrance, mere feet from Artery's shop.  But until he looked away or moved I couldn't do anything...

        He was indeed looking at the brawl, but hadn't moved away from his supplies yet.  Damn, he was made of sterner stuff than I...all I wanted to do was creep into the shop and hide away from the violence now raging around.  Even not looking, I could still pick out screams, thuds and sickening crunches every so often.  The entire centre of the waiting area was one giant brawl now.  Slaves rushed away in all directions, fearful of more riots.  I could hear guards screaming for order to be restored, gunfire sounded in the air as warning shots were fired.  I didn't have much time.  I had to go now and just hope Artery moved.

        Creeping out of the shop door, I hugged the wall edge of the waiting area as I cautiously approached his shop from the side.  The front desk was passable at both sides, while Artery himself stood on the far side.  I could get in and out...but if he did anything to turn I could be seen immediately.

        I froze as I approached it...I wasn't guilty in this spot, just a little buck hiding away from the fighting.  But if I moved further it would be obvious.  I fought with my fear to allow me to try...to allow me to try and save my own life!

        Dare or falter, Murk...dare or falter...

         I saw Artery move forward.  He was going for an injured pony who was screaming for his help and offering his stock of caps!

        Dare!

        I rushed forward, my little hooves almost silent on the ground as I ducked in behind the front stand of his makeshift shop.  The big saddlebag was sitting there.  Tugging it open with my mouth, the Radaways and potions spilled out alongside boxes of chems.  Most of them I didn't even recognise or want to try.  I couldn't read their labels to check.

        But I could count.

        Oh...that...bastard.

        There were only fifteen medical elements in the entire saddlebag.  Five Radaways, five potions and five boxes containing a few doses of chems each.

        He'd known.  He'd damn well known the entire time.  He never intended to save me at all.

        A scuffing sound came to my ears over the screaming and shouts of the guards striking and controlling slaves, Artery returning with his patient in tow!

        I no longer had time to think.  I grabbed the entire saddlebag, stuffing everything back inside it before simply charging back out of the shop the way I had come in.  For once, my luck held as Artery was focussed on his patient to pull them telekinetically to his shop.  I ran back toward the boarded up shop before using the cover of de-cushioned seats to crawl my way out of the area.

        Behind me, I heard the screaming of Artery.  I had gotten away clean.  For once, no overly close calls.  No chases.  No being spotted.  An elation passed me.  I had just stolen a whole ton of medical supplies!  Go...me?

        Moving out of the waiting room, I bucked open a shaky cupboard door and hid inside.

        Radaway and healing potions!  The two things that would save my life, right here in my hooves!  No more sickness...no more rad fevers and aching hooves.

        But yet...I couldn't.  If I didn't get those parts, then Wicked Slit would make sure my new found health was very short indeed.  Not to mention my journal.  After yesterday, it meant more to me than my entire life!  The first thing I had ever been truly creative with, the first thing I had shown faith and resistance to defy my masters to achieve!

        I couldn't abandon it.  Or the parts.

        I needed a plan.  But suddenly resources were so much more limited and I had to go now before the gang returned from their brawl to seek chems and no doubt their own healing from the violence too.

        Wrapping the saddlebag in an old cloth from the cupboard to help Artery to miss that it was his, I moved out again.  My limp returned...the fast rush having aggravated the joint.  Biting back the pain, I took solace in knowing that if all worked out...it wouldn't bother me for much longer.

        With the adrenaline lowering...the sickness returned as well, like a crushing wave.  I had to hang back for a minute as my vision swam and my centre of balance lost its way entirely as I fell against a wall of the side corridor in the terminal.  Breathing heavily, my breath thin and airy...I stumbled on, sweating and shivering.

        Not far now...not far now till I would be better...

        My lungs burned.

        This was cutting it close...it really was.

* * *

        By the time I reached Sooty Morass, I could barely carry the saddlebag.  I could feel it tugging at my jerkin the whole way.  Trotting slow enough to avoid attention had been one of the longest walks of my life and I had to keep stopping to pull my jerkin tighter around me.  Fears played in my head...if I was this sick, what if I never even woke up tomorrow to enjoy the journal that I had reclaimed?  Was it too late to heal it?  Could the Radaway get rid of the magical radiation that infected my body so much for so long?

        Dumping the saddlebag down before the sly merchant, I knelt down to merely catch my breath, before tipping the saddlebag out behind his counter, hidden from Artery.  The medical unicorn was arguing with the guards...but I could only presume Sooty had paid them off.

        “So, little laddie,” he began, “seems you held up your end of the bargain.  Now I may be a ruthless and sly old devil...but I always honour a deal.  You don't stay a merchant long if ye don't.”

        I looked up at him pleadingly, while using a hoof to push my jerkin back into position carefully...dumping that saddlebag had almost made it ride up.

        “Please...I need this medicine now,” my voice was barely a whisper as my throat fought to move without pain, “I...I can feel it getting worse.”

        “Well of course it would, exertion won't help your sickness,” he sneered, counting the materials, “and I can only presume that you have exerted yourself a fair amount while worrying a lot.  Now...”

        He nodded in approval at my efforts, before tapping a hoof on the counter.

        “What say you and I discuss your employment, lad?”

        That grin could have launched a dozen balefire missiles with the sheer hate it brought up.  Here he was...looking at a dying pony and all he could think of was how he could exploit him further for his own ends.  I had met horrible ponies and seem the work of tyrants like Master Red Eye...but this was a whole new and personal level of evil.

        “I...if I agree, can I have some medicine now?  Please, I don't think I'll live past tonight.”

        It was begging, but I had nothing else to bargain with.  A ruined hoofmachine thingymajig wouldn't be worth anything, right?

        “Oh now, Murky lad.  Don't go getting eager now, we've yet to find out what you can do for me before I give you something.  Far as I see it, you've got to earn your medicine...not to just take it then not come back, see?”

        He had me trapped.

        I agreed.

        He explained his job.  It was quite simple really, but deceptively important.  I would have to carry bribes to various individuals both slaver and labourer.  Scrap workers to pocket goods, guards to look the other way for said goods and of course, deliver merchandise.  He would pay one medicine per job...just enough to keep me alive from day to day.  That was my only payment to work as his little courier.

        My life was entirely in Sooty Morass' hooves now.  A slave to a slave.

        “Now in accordance with our deal...I'll present to you the things you did earn from putting me competition out of business, lad.”

        He had continued talking even as I sat in the back of his shop, listening to the guards restoring order.  The trio would be along any moment I could guess.  I hadn't cared.  I simply sat on my rump, a good little slave awaiting Morass' command or my time to return to the FunFarm for a shift.  I wondered if Morass could get me to stay here with him rather than at the FunFarm with the gang...

        Wait...the things I earned!

        Even as I looked up from my hooves, he let both my journal and the arcane component drop from his mouth in front of me.  I didn't hold back, taking the journal in both front hooves and hugging it tightly.  I felt my eyes water.

        Sooty left me alone to return to his merchant front...no doubt preparing to argue with Artery when the unicorn noticed Sooty's sudden increase in merchandise.  He said I was to be sent out at night to take a bribe to a guard near the gate who might be able to hook him up with a small supply of Apple Sugar Bombs from the slaver kitchens.  Until then I was just to stay quiet and hidden in the back of his shop unit.  To remain nestled next to an old broken cooking unit (home cooking in an airport shop?  Old Equestria must have been a lovely place...) and be as invisible as I could be to his operations until called.

        Right now at least, I didn't mind that...I had something to look at.

        I sat the arcane circuit board to the side.

        I tuned out the slaves crying out in pain as Artery helped them with his magic...he hadn't ever learned anaesthetic spells.

        I laid the journal before me and slowly...oh...so...slowly...opened it to the page I knew.

        ...

        “...hi, Mom.”

        Reaching over for just a second, I crossed off the checklist image of my journal.  I didn't have a real home, but looking now at her before me, drawn by my imagination and memory...I felt like I had come home to something.  Even as tears dropped on the page, I managed to smile a little as I saw her comforting gaze.

        I paused.

        She was just a drawing...but seeing this, I remembered.

        I remembered the feeling.  To have shaken off my Master, to ignore Red Eye's demands and try to stay inside and draw this when they were demanding me to leave.

        I had taken my own path.

        Looking from the beautifully comforting face of my mother to the back of Sooty Morass...I knew that there was no way he was going to keep me under his hoof like this.

        I was getting out of here.  I was going to live.

        “Thanks...Mom.  Glad you're back.”

* * *

        My plan was not entirely advanced.  There was little I could really do here but simply attempt to steal the medical supplies from behind Morass' back and then hoof it for the exit before finding a way to blend in outside.  Morass wouldn't come chasing me all the way to the FunFarm across Fillydelphia...even he didn't have that influence.

        Nope.  It wasn't too fancy a plan but it was surrounded in dangers.  From Morass and his bodyguard to the guards at the exit.  If ponies tried to grab me they could stop me.  Or worse, they might even tear off my jerkin...the device and everything else would be lost among other things too.  I pulled it as tight as the frayed cord around my torso would go, feeling the radio, parchment, journal and circuit board stuffed inside.  I was going to use the saddlebag I'd brought in to leave with the surplus items Morass had left behind his counter but even so...the amount stuffed in my jerkin felt unsteady and cumbersome.  I was not going to risk it being anywhere else, however, they were all too important.

        Even as I readied up quietly...I felt another wave of nausea wash across me.  Coughing loudly, I stuffed my mouth with a hoof as I attempted to stop myself from drawing too much attention.  Stomach retching from the harsh coughing, vision hazy from the pain and exhaustion...I lay back for a good time simply trying to get my strength back.  I couldn't do this...not physically.  My limbs were too weak and my injured one only getting worse.  I couldn't run on a hoof that was mildly disjointed!  If only I could dull the pain...

        My eyes fell to the syringes around the bag left by Morass.

        I didn't know which one was...what were they called?  Med-X?  There were a few styles.  One with two little pipes to send extra drugs in with it, one thin and simple, one constructed out of a bottle with a greyish liquid in it.

        In my condition...to take the wrong one would probably kill me through system overload.

        The one with two feeds looked tempting...it was fancy.  Pain removal was fancy wasn't it?  The simple one would be just some chem drug, right?  I rolled the third one, the bottle over.  It had a picture of a broken hoof...then a cured one.  Aha!  That was just what I needed, right?

        I glanced around before gently putting the bottle up against my injured hoof, the needle pointing at it.

        Wait a minute...

        I remembered last night, listening to DJ-Pon3.  He had been warning about a drug made from the grey blood of a hydra beast.  I glanced down at the bottle before almost kicking it away in shock and disgust.  My face clenched as the thought of what I had almost done slammed home.

        No chances.

        I took the simple one.  The simpler the better...simpler couldn't kill as easily, right?  Maybe it was the right one.  With a little whine, I plunged the needle in and hoofed the plunger.

        ...okay, not very much change going on.  I didn't feel any-wooooooah booooy...theeeeere we go...

        My vision swam as I wobbled and then fell to the side, my everything utterly numb.  A bliss of relief as my hoof stopped aching and my lungs dulled off entirely.  Sleep felt tempting as the waves of pain receding from my body.  Slowly, I began to feel a return of control to my limbs after a minute or so...but in my mind I felt so different.  I felt...nice.  Like all the pain of the world had just disappeared.  If only I had more of this stuff to take...

        As I awaited my limbs to regain enough feeling (and to be frank, my mind to stop thinking “pretty lights, wheeee...”) I began to think about my plan a little.  Perhaps I was thinking about all of this wrong...trying to take a ton of medical supplies with me.  If I was going to be waiting to regain the ability to move...perhaps I could sneak a Radaway and a healing potion to get ahead of the game...in case anything went wrong?

        Couldn't hurt.  Not that I'd feel it right now anyway!  Hah!

        I realised that I had a smile plastered on my face when I saw my reflection in a metal oven door opposite me.  Wow...it even made me smile!  Med-X!  Best.  Drug.  Ever!

        Whilst enjoying the high of a painkiller, I lay back, hiding around the back of the oven from Morass...sipping a Radaway while glancing at my mother's picture.  It made me smile for real...even through the haze of medically induced relief from life.

        That was a feeling I'd always-

        “URGH!”

        I almost sprayed the Radaway right over my journal as I sickeningly swallowed the horrid liquid.  It tasted like orange paint!  The cover featured a little foal enjoying it with a straw, smiling like a little puppy.  I seriously questioned the taste and sanity of any pony who enjoyed this stuff.  It'd take clinical craziness to see this as anything but just disgusting.

        Sighing, I kept drinking.  All things considered...I had no right to complain.  I watched Morass from behind.  Clearly he believed me to be a broken in worker given that he was paying me little heed.

        I'd show him.  I'd show them all.  Soon as I could gallop again I was going to get out!

* * *

        I didn't hesitate.

        For once, I didn't falter.  I didn't hold back or restrict myself.  I couldn't feel the pain any more.  I didn't feel as sick after a Radaway and a healing potion.  They'd taken the edge off things, I knew I'd need more to actually combat the sickness.  But I had to go suddenly, Morass was coming back from the front to inspect...so I had gone for it.

        I barrelled past him, ducking to one side and grabbing the saddlebag I had stuffed in my mouth as I darted out into the waiting area.  Slaves looked up at the commotion as I saw the guards look ready to repel another riot.  The entire place was already on high alert, even as ponies lay on the ground injured still from earlier.  I felt my jerkin bounce about a little from all the items stuffed in it, including one healing potion for quicker access.

        “Get back here you little thief!  Chisel Hoof!  Get 'em!”

        Morass bellowed behind me, sending his bodyguard to chase me down.  Finally able to gallop properly, I put my head down and pushed harder, ducking under chair platforms to avoid the huge bodyguard with his longer strides.  I felt his mouth try to grab my tail even as I wriggled between two rows of seating, the ensuing tug pulling a few strands of hair out with a horrid snap.  I felt the tug, but still under the Med-X induced relief, I felt no pain other than a slight mourning for my already lacklustre and patchy tail losing even more...

        Up ahead there were two rows of chairs on either side of the pillars that went all the way to the exit.  I could see the two guards already galloping towards me from ahead.  Crap!  I hadn't anticipated them openly helping Morass like this.

        Hurdling the chairs with a quick hop, skip and jump apiece I kept ahead of the bodyguard.  There was only one hope to make it by them as I witnessed a huge pile of mangled chairs thrown together in the waiting area near a barred window.  Presumably the megaspell shockwave had blasted them away from the large open area near it.  Two choices...jump the window or hide in the chairs...

        As much as the Med-X dulled pain.  I knew leaping from two stories up with a damaged hoof would be asking way too much of it.  I dove into the pile of chairs, wriggling in among the twisted metal and sharp edges as only a small pony like me can.  The bodyguard and two slavers arrived and just stared at it, before starting to hurl wrecks off of the pile.  I could hear the other slaves milling about in fear or confusion while Morass was arguing with Artery over what I had really stole.  Somehow, I doubted I would have many friends after this around here.

        I crept through the wreckage of the chairs, invisible to the guards tugging on them frantically.  I could hear them screaming for me to come out and be punished.  As terrified as I was...I had to agree to the snarky part of my mind that they were not using the most persuasive argument to convince me.  Fighting down the overwhelming urge to curl up and shiver...I kept creeping.  I had to get out, I had to get my Mom out too, even if it were just my drawing!  Sneaking through the chairs, I noticed an error on their part.  They were all on one side of the pile, assuming I was just hiding.

        Quietly, I pulled myself from the opposite side, silently praying no watching slave would give me away.  Cautiously, I trotted off...the guards were still pulling at the pile!  They hadn't even looked up as I began to canter and then gallop again, looking behind me.  Hah!  Hahaha!  I felt an elation as I saw them get smaller and smaller, not noticing me.  What idiot wouldn't watch everything around them?

        I promptly felt myself run into something with a dull thud.

        Well...that answered that question.

        It hadn't hurt, but the impact had knocked me over...spraying the chems across the floor.  In a panic I reached out to reclaim them before seeing what I had hit.  My mood dropped like a stone from the top of the Terminal control tower.

        “Hi,” sneered Noose, as her two buck companions spread out around me, “come to give us your prize?  Or just to report for the flank kicking your going to get for trying to betray us?”

        My blood ran cold.  No no NO this wasn't supposed to happen!  I was so close to being out!

        It began.  She didn't hesitate.  She had taken a heavy blow to the head during the brawl and blood still matted her mane.  She wanted payment...and she wanted revenge.  Her front hoof slammed into the side of my head hard enough to whip my small frame clean around and launch me a good three feet to the side.  Even through the Med-X, I felt that hard as pain lanced through my mouth and jawline.  Whimpering and trying to get up, I saw her shadow.  Noose raised up on two legs and slammed her front ones home upon my chest.  I couldn't hold it in.  I screamed at the top of my voice as I felt ribs buckle and a spray of blood come from my mouth.  High pitched and raspy, I howled as she beat down on me.  Hoof after hoof after hoof.  I went blind in one eye as it blackened and began to swell up.  She picked me to my hooves and bucked me into the wall.  The hard concrete re-awoke my sickness as I felt the wind knocked out of me through a rough throat and lungs, only to wail as she kicked out my injured leg.

        “Don't, please Noose!” I pleaded, trying to stand back up, but it was to no avail, “Don't k-kill me!  Don't!”

        I collapsed against the wall, sliding down.  I had been beaten before...but this was different.  She wasn't aiming to knock me around...this was true combat with the intent to take out your opponent.  I...I wasn't built for this!

        “Please...Noose, I'll do-”

        With a sudden removal of gravity, I was hurled back toward the centre of the entranceway.  Landing on my front, I cried out as my ribs crunched on the floor directly.  My legs didn't even bother to stop me.  Without the Med-X...I'd probably have passed out.

        I tried to stand...if I could just reach another healing potion...gulp it quick.  Or another Med-X!  Anything!  Just enough to give me a boost to run!  If...if I could just get away!  My efforts led me to stumble and collapse as every joint shivering and failed me.  Gritting my teeth I sought to crawl, whinnying as my eye pounded with the pain of quick swelling around it.  The feeling of not seeing...oh Goddesses was it permanent?!

        They weren't willing to allow me to move.  Her hoof descended on my injured leg...putting pressure on it enough to make me howl in pain as she grinned wickedly.  I could see Morass and the guards approaching.  He had that look of justification on his face as he looked on me...beaten and bloodied.  I shivered constantly...my body retching from coughing and feeling pain from my legs, ribs and face.  I could feel blood running from...from somewhere on my face.  Oh Celestia it hurt so much...please...please just make it stop...

        The bucks were approaching, clearly wanting some of the game too.  Noose only glared at them as she looked down at me, her prize to beat on.  As I stared upwards, my tears mixing with blood from stinging wounds flowing around the already swollen parts of my face...I saw the lack of mercy and the cold sadism that drove her.  My chest moved sporadically, my breathing irregular as I struggled to regain breath.

        “Hey!  Noose!  He didn't drop many chems, where's the rest?” Lemon seemed intent.

        “Fuck if I know, just wait, we'll get em later.”

        The third buck wandered up to me, looking down.

        “Maybe not...” he grinned, his eyes looking at my jerkin, “He's hiding something, there's lumps.”

        No!  I struggled, pulling my hoof with a wrenching pain from under hers and trying to flail to me feet.  I received only a half buck for my troubles sending me staggering even as I forced myself to my hooves.  They would get my journal again!  And...and...

        “C'mere!  You're hiding my chems!”

        They advanced, I felt them on every side, grabbing, pulling and trying to get at the things I had hidden beneath my jerkin for so long!

        “GIVE!”

        “No!” I screamed forcibly, lashing out to little avail as my little hooves were batted aside.

        “GET HIM!”

        I felt teeth grab my jerkin and pull, I tried to pull away but the pressure only increased!

        A horrible ripping sound met my ears as I fell forward, the pressure released.  I hit the ground without my jerkin, feeling the concrete across my whole body.  Adrenaline overcame the searing pain enough to turn and hobble backwards.  My journal...my radio...the parchment checklist and the arcane circuit all fell on the floor beside the medical equipment and the torn remnants of my jerkin...

        But none of them were looking at them.  Everypony in the entire terminal simply stood and stared at the battered little pony before them who could barely stand up, who was crying with pain as blood from small cuts dripped to the floor.  They didn't even look at his swollen and blinded eye or the bleeding lips.

        They all looked at one thing.  And one thing only.

        “What?”

        “Is...are...”

        Lemon broke the ice proper.

        “What?!  He...he's a fucking pegasus!

* * *

        I...may not have been honest with you.

        No, I'm not an earth pony.  I am...indeed...a pegasus.

        I...

        I'm...sorry.

        I owe you an explanation, I know.

        But believe me when I say...how could I just admit it?  The Wasteland hates pegasi with a degree that I would likely have been killed long ago in Fillydelphia.  Hell, I've been lucky my past masters were content to have any slaves, regardless of what type of pony they were.

        I do not know how it happened.  Perhaps genetically, my mother was related to a pegasus lost in the wastes.  Perhaps my father was one and my mother never told me.  Maybe it's just blind chance of long lost genes from two hundred years ago.  One way or another...it happened.  I was born with these two stupid wings on my sides.  More than my size and timidness, they have been the reason that every place I was sent to work as a slave immediately treated me like dirt.  I would be blamed for mistakes that pegasi made before the balefire bombs or for the continued rumours of them surviving up there happily and ignoring us all.  I would receive less food, have my wings prodded or struck by other slaves.  They used to call me “flightless.” Many of them used to make up stories that I had come down from the clouds because my real parents didn't want me any more.  But I swear, this is the honest truth...I am a born wastelander...a born slave.

        My mother told me while I was young a little saying.

        “There's a story behind every pair of wings in the wasteland, Little Murky.”

        Pegasi were so rare that every one of them had a story to tell about the places they had flown to, such as what the world was like above the clouds.  About how they had survived in a world that generally hated them or the things they had done thanks to their unique abilities.  Pegasi were incredible, unique and every single one of them had some sort of tale behind them.

        But...I am not truly a pegasus.  They can fly...I cannot.  My story is nothing but one gradually worsening situation.

        When I was at the rock farm, I was still very young.  I hadn't yet grown up enough to fly, but once I was developed enough, my wings began flapping.  They had moved and twitched about however they wanted and I kept imagining that if I could flap them hard enough, then my mother and I could have gone some place safer.  My master had spied them beginning to move and...and he took steps...to ensure his slaves did not leave.

        A blunt mallet in his mouth, he had ordered two other slaves to drag me into his storehouse where an anvil had waited.  He...he didn't want me to fly.  Ever.

        ...he broke me...

        I had never recovered.  Damaged while too young...unable to develop properly, I had never grown the required muscles while my wings were fragmented and poorly healed to not have enough strength to withstand the forces required.  I can't even move them from my side any more to open or spread them!  They just sit there and hurt...

        I've tried, believe me I've tried.  But I cannot even get them to raise never mind even think of flapping.  Even then I doubted I would ever understand the mechanics of flight.  No, I will never fly.  Not like the Stable Dweller.  She didn't even need wings at all.  She would see the sky I could never hope to witness...to see the sun rise and set.  To see Luna's glorious moon or to view the wastes from the safety above.  I had no place up there.

        So now, I have these two useless and painful ill-developed things on my sides that had no place with me.  They are hated by everypony, myself more than any.  So you see why I had to hide it?  Why I had to wear that jerkin and try and prevent anypony from knowing.  No...I'm not a pegasus.  I am like the earth ponies, only without the things they are known for.  I have all of the disadvantages of both types with nothing to consider a helpful trait at all.

        As far as I am considered...I'm not a pegasus.  I'm just a weak pony.

        If anypony in Fillydelphia were to know...I could only look forward to a very short life.  The slaves would seek to probably kill me immediately.  I've tried to hide it every place I've been...Fillydelphia longer than the others.  But somepony always finds out somehow and all the hate and bigotry begins again...

        Now they know too...

* * *

        I didn't have long.  Their confused stares and disbelieving mutterings as the crowd gathered would only distract Noose and Sooty for a short time.  Even as I heard some voices begin to raise, hatred and bile spilled forth with shouts demanding I be brought in to take revenge on.  I knew not everypony in Equestria hated us pegasi...but the slaves, often prone to emotional simplicity and seeking to vent anger would see me as a common foe.

        I reached down, grabbing a healing potion in my mouth and simply letting the liquid fall down my throat without even swallowing.  The act almost made me choke and vomit it right back out...but the refreshing feeling of my new wounds beginning to close gave me enough strength as I scrambled to pack my things into the fallen saddlebag.  The entire crowd began to move as one...a surge of screaming faces still hopped up on violence wanting to express their anger on one of the race who had abandoned them.

        I could see Noose trying to force her way through.  Sooty Morass' bodyguard was behind her...I only had seconds to get away.  Lemon was still standing beside me, with a scowl he attempted to grab me with his front hooves.  Panicking as I heard the stomping of the fanatical slaves gunning for my blood I lashed out.  My back right hoof flicked out just like before, connecting with a...much softer area.  I felt Lemon squeal and fall right off of me.

        

        Throwing the saddlebags over my torso I immediately galloped for as much as I was worth.  Ahead of me, whistles blew and warning shots blasted into the air as a line of guards galloped into the terminal building past the scrap wall.  Pike and Cosh dove for cover as the large ponies thundered through.  Stuck between the two, I opted to keep going, trusting to my small size compared to the huge crowd behind me.

        Praying silently for safely, I dodged as best I could around them, even diving beneath a guard, shouting out in pain as his battle saddle opened fire right next to my ears.  I scrambled out the back of their line just as the slaves collided behind me into the guards.

        One guard looked at me for just a second before being pulled back into the terminal by the rush of slaves.  Assuming they were rioting, the guards paid me little heed, presumably, as the saddlebags hid my wings.  I stopped for just a second as I glanced back, seeing the rush being barely held in by the guards from charging onto the airfield after me.  All of their eyes were on me...or rather on my torso.  I heard shouts, like 'Tear his wings off!' or 'Revenge for the wastes!' A hundred ponies crying for my death...

        I was alone these days when not able to sit and listen to the radio.

        Now more than ever.

        I galloped off, trying to not cry so much I couldn't see where I was running as I hunted for someplace to hide...anywhere.

* * *

        I didn't have to travel far.  With adrenaline dropping off quickly, I couldn't go too far.  On instinct, I sought out a place no-pony else would ever go normally.

        The Fillydelphia Pegasus Airport's control tower.

        Old scaffolding had been torn around it from the blast, but to a pony with nothing to lose right now it was an acceptable risk to climb.  I sat on the top, the roof above the control centre watching the expanse of industry and red haze of Fillydelphia around me in all directions.  On the horizon I could see the sunset, blurred and impossible to properly view given it was behind the cloud layers above.  Just a deeper smudge of orange, but something in me, maybe driven by my status as a pegasus just...knew.  That sunset escaped the darkness of the night each day...what lay beyond it?  Could I ever follow it into the unknown?

        Funny.  If I were a real pegasus I could have just flown away from here...I was higher than the wall after all.  That sunset would be a beacon to call me to freedom.  But now...it played only to my deepest and most impossible wishes.

        I sat under a small tarpaulin that had once been used for observation to hide from the griffin patrols.  I doubted they'd be looking for me, their jobs were more specific and never involved hunting on top of control towers or other high places.  Indeed, most of them flew below the height I was sitting at.

        I was crying.  Of course, why wouldn't I of all ponies be?  My eye had slowly regained sight a little, but everything on that side of my face was still hazy from swelling.

        My journal sat open next to me.  The parchment sketch of the Stable Dweller, Number Six and the unknown mare was beside it.  The radio was playing DJ-Pon3 as he spoke of the efforts of heroes all around Equestria.  But none of it seemed to make a difference any more.

        Word would spread.  A pegasus was in Filly.  Then the witch hunt would begin.

        Not that it mattered.  I may have the parts for Wicked Slit, but even now I realised a stupid point I had overlooked.  Like Morass, she had tricked me.  The machine would count for three ponies...she never really intended to let me off the hook at all, given I was her fourth allotted replacement.  Everypony could take advantage of me, it seemed.  Even when I thought I had been solving things myself.

        I lay down, covering my head with my hooves as I sought to somehow make it all go away.  No more merchants tricking me and withholding medicine until I worked for them.  No more sickness eating at my lungs and blood.  No more gangs trying to kill me.  No more slavers abusing my life to suit their needs.  No more everyone judging me because of some idiots centuries ago!

        I had perhaps bought myself a few days...but my sickness hadn't gone away, only alleviated a little from the small amounts I'd taken before leaving.  Even then the healing potions had mostly gone to use on what Noose did to me...

        Still didn't fix my tooth though.  I wondered what would if pony healing potions couldn't.  Perhaps zebra mixes?

        My blood was rising just like in the refuge pit.  Scrambling my hooves over my head in frustration I stood up, pacing back and forth as I tried to think.  Come on...think....think think think!  I beat my hoof against my head as I stared out over the city.  I could see the Funfarm, its rollercoaster ruins widely recognisable as were the giant pink pony balloons above it.  I could swear each one of the massive laughing faces was looking at me.  Damned freaky laughing pink mare...I really hoped I could never see her again!  That I'd never see anything again!  Just to leave and go some place it could just be me and my drawings and no-pony else ever again!  Who needed others anyway?!  All they ever brought was more pain!

        I sighed, not even finding the energy to stay properly mad.  I was exhausted.  Two days of running, being beaten and aggravating my radiation sickness.  I couldn't move properly.  I couldn't even think properly to come up with a swear colourful enough to describe this life.  But as I turned from the FunFarm...an idea sprung to mind.  A little thought that I realised had always been in my mind.  An inkling that had remained with me all throughout my life but until today had never quite surfaced on how to protect myself from all the pain.

        There...there was a way.

        I trotted forward to the edge, not quite feeling my conscious thoughts in control of my body.  I looked down at the ground thirty feet below.

        ...just one way I could avoid anypony else ever hurting me again...

        Shaking frantically, I climbed up on to the parapet.  I could feel my breathing getting faster.  I...I...this was the best way, right?  To not give them the pleasure...right?  One hoof raised as I felt my balance waver in the wind.

        ...was this high enough?  Would it hurt?

        I felt my centre of balance adjust, drifting out a little.  The ambience went silent as though waiting for me, other than the rush of wind by my ears.  I fought down the sense of vertigo.  Just one little bit of pain more and that'd be it...

        The wind caught my mane and wings, as though trying to remind me of what kind of pony I was.  I ignored it.  The wind and the sky had no place for me.

        I leaned out.

        Beep!

        I stumbled, my hooves skittering about as I fell back from the ledge to land solidly on the concrete of the balcony again.  Hot pain lanced through my body as I impacted on my side, before coughing twice in response.  But I didn't notice that...what had beeped?

        Beep!

        My radio...the music had stopped.

        I scrambled over, picking it up.  Wonderment at this little device was over-ruling my mind.  I couldn't well jump without figuring this out could I?

        I almost dropped it.

        ...I had been about to jump.  Oh...oh Goddesses...

        Shivering, I clutched the radio tightly...what in all of Equestria had I been doing?  I had been about to leap from the control tower!  I screwed my eyes shut, shivers turning into furious shaking as only now the reality of how events were affecting my mind became clear.  Emotional discovery could go both ways...

        My stomach churned at the thought of what I had almost done.  In fact, it did more than churn.

        Dragging my belongings further from that location, gasping for breath after my stomach had been done emptying its pitiful contents, I sat down with the radio.  Concentrate on it...it saved you before...it'll do it again!  It'll...it'll be the Stable Dweller or something right?  I honestly didn't care, I needed something, anything, to stop me thinking about what I'd just come so close to doing.

        On cue...the speaker started up.

        ...ffzzzssshh...

        

        “...uhm...hello?  Oh wait, why am I saying that?  This is a diary thing, isn't it?”

        I blinked, the voice was that of a young sounding buck.  Hell, he even sounded a little like me.  Our ages were perhaps similar.

        “Well, what can I say for a first entry?  My dad told me I should keep this up to date, for the record, he says.  Well, I don't quite get what he means by that, but there's no reason I shouldn't, right?  What's the harm it could do?  Plus I kinda owe him...he bought me the Stable ticket after all.  If things do go bad at least I'll be safe underground while dad should get evacuated with the pegasi.  We'll be safe...”

        It was from before the war...I found myself captivated, holding the device gently between my hooves as the little speaker played out the apparently voiced diary.

        “So I got sent this thing, right?  Came with the ticket, they said.  My PipBuck.  Crazy little device really, pretty cool.  I get my radio, audio recording, a little light to brighten up the darkness of the night and it even interfaces with the terminal dad bought me for my birthday!  Some places don't get them early, but many of them are manufactured right here in Fillydelphia, so I guess they just send them direct because there isn't any shipping.  Well, I can say I'm glad for it, this thing saved my life already!”

        You aren't the only one...

        “I was coming back from picking it up, right?  Well...Equestria's not how it used to be.  Happiness, joy and understanding, right?  Things are just, well, different these days.  Some earth ponies tried to take my ticket on my way home.  Came right out of the alleyway down Old Woodtree Road!  I...I mean this thing, it saved my life.  S.A.T.S.  saved my life tonight, I mean.  Oh dear, I'm all shaky again.  Ponies aren't meant to fight, so why do we have to?”

        There was a pause, as though he was considering something.  I could swear I heard a sniff.

        “I just...I want this to stop.  I don't want to go into a Stable knowing that everything out here is going to die.  But it won't happen.  My dad tells me it's just all posturing and no-pony would ever be so stupid as to do something that would endanger us all.  All the same, why would he spend almost his entire life savings to get me this ticket?  I don't want to know what it feels like to be the last of a generation...if the worst does happen, what will we be left with?  What poor ponies in the future will have to live not seeing the things I have here in the lovely city of Filly?  Grass, trees, pure water?”

        I looked around at Fillydelphia and saw the slave driven hell industry and radioactive poison filling the air.

        There were no words to describe the weight of that thought.

        “I...I guess I should wrap this up.  I need to go find a job since I moved here to get the ticket.  Well, bye I guess, to whoever listens to this.  Probably me.  I can look back and realise how silly I'm being to believe that any of this will actually happen.  Well, my name is Sundial.  I'm a unicorn, I guess it's worth saying.  Maybe I'll tell this thing how I got my cutie mark or something next time.  Till then...I guess.  Bye?”

        “Bye...” I muttered, before wondering exactly why.  I heard the speaker cut, before it switched right back to a song by Sweetie Belle.  A PipBuck then...that was the devices name.  Sundial's PipBuck.

        With a sudden and horrifying realisation, it all slammed home.

        That skeleton...that...that had been...

        ...oh Goddesses...

        I collapsed, hugging the PipBuck and crying my little weakening heart out.

* * *

        My return to the FunFarm was as ignominious as it was inevitable.

        I had returned the parts to Wicked Slit.  Her 'reward' was a week of shifts working on the molten vats.

        My saddlebag had a couple of chems left over.  That might be able to mollify the gang enough to not kill...ah who was I kidding...they would kill me as soon as look at me.

        With a little biting, I had torn up the cloth I'd put over the pink and yellow medical saddlebag to make a rough vest for myself to hide my wings.  Only the gang knew at the FunFarm, provided the word didn't get out from other slaves across Fillydelphia.  It'd only be a matter of time till Whiplash knew.  If he found out...I was screwed.

        Wandering past the mirror, I only merely glanced at it...seeing myself dying all over again since the medicine had delayed things.  I didn't want to look at myself.  Yet my eyes were drawn to it, that big silly image of the pink laughing pony sweeping her arm towards the mirror as though encouraging me to look at it again.

        Nothing.  Just a sick little pegasus who couldn't fly with a group of slaves moving by behind him reflected in the mirror.

        “If it weren't Wicked Slit I'd sent you to, I'd probably have you up for delaying coming back.  Thankfully for you I know she's crazy.”

        I squeaked, jumping as I spun and fell into the cold glass of the mirror.  Whiplash had moved with uncharacteristic silence up behind me from out of the mirrors line of sight.  From the grin on his face, I could imagine he had meant to scare me.

        “Y-yes...master,” I whispered, “she...kinda held me back...”

        “Whatever.  Get back in the enclosure, I have a meeting with a liaison from Protégé.”

        “Um...master?” I had to at least ask.  “Are...are the gang members back in?  I think they want to kill me...”

        “Murk, shift your arse.”

        “Yes master...”

        Worth a try I guess.  I slumped and wandered past Whiplash as we both headed into the Petting Zoo to his slave groups.  Waiting beside the old staff office that Whiplash used as his quarters, I saw one of Stern's griffins waiting for him.  Much bigger than a pony and bearing sharpened talons, the mercenary nodded curtly to Whiplash as he wandered over.  She was clad in tough looking body armour over her almost jet black feathers.  Even the areas most griffins had lighter colours were still only a thick grey.  Across her back was slung two long looking firearms, one a magical weapon and the other looked like some sort of scoped rifle, I had no idea of any specifics...I was no gun master after all.

        Her eyes watched me carefully as I moved past her, trying not to let my eyes stare as I sought out the gang.  I needed to avoid them and find some place safe, though every instinct told me that there were none left.  Behind me I heard Whiplash begin talking to the griffin.  It quickly escalated into a near on argument...apparently she was wanting slaves for this 'Protégé' from his stock.  Whiplash didn't seem too happy.

        Neither did the gang.  They stood in the middle of the enclosure.

        Waiting for me.

        Noose had a look of murder.  Her back showed signs of lashing from the guards.

        Lemon stomped impatiently.  I didn't imagine a hoof to the loins was going to give him much mercy toward me.

        The third buck (did I ever hear his name?) simply snorted.

        Well...here it comes...

        “Stuff your wishes, Whiplash!  I'm taking the ones I want and there is no way I'm going to let your little worries stop me, understand?!

        Even the gang perked up, their gaze turning to look at the situation with Whiplash and the griffin.  Where they had been talking previously, now a third presence had entered.  What a presence as well...yesterday I had been sure I had seen the biggest pony in Equestria from Number Six.  This earth pony stallion seemed to be even bigger...if only through girth.  He had simply barged in, the griffin clearly aggravated at her own organisation meeting being interrupted by this new arrival.

        Number Six had been the single most terrifying pony I had ever met.  This one was perhaps the more disgusting.  Mangy dark brown made up his coat while his mane (and several patches of his coat) had a filthy grey to them.  His huge girth came atop powerful looking legs and while he wasn't as tall and muscular as Six had been...he looked astonishingly strong from such a massive centre of force.  He was not obese...rather just largely built with a lot of weight and power, even if a lot of it was fat.  Across his hide were strapped high quality leather barding and metal plates that hung with trinkets and small bags.  Whips, clubs and what looked like a magical energy stun rod hung within mouths reach.  I tried not to look at his mouth, filled with rotting and often missing teeth, I could almost smell him from here...even over my own drainage musk.  I had to fight to not gasp as I saw his cutie mark and almost checked my own flank to be sure.  It was a single unbroken loop of chain!  The pattern was almost identical to my own shackles.

        He dwarfed Whiplash and even put the normally larger than a pony sized griffin to shame somewhat.  By how he was standing and addressing them both...he was clearly higher in the pecking order of Red Eye's slavers.  In fact...to my astonishment, Whiplash, the hard faced terror of my life, looked ready to whimper before him.  Who was this pony?

        “That little coltcuddler Protégé won't let me anywhere near the slaves in his stock, so I gots to come to you, understand?  Now I asked you, which ones do you not mind...missing work for a few days?  I got some games I wanna play, can't seem to keep them alive...hehe...”

        That rasping and filthy mouth grinned at Whiplash, before glancing at the griffin.

        “Unless you wanna start anything, Ragini.  You still loyal to the code, eh?”

        The griffin nodded sternly without a word.  I could see her talon resting tightly on the strap of her weapon.  Whiplash looked between the two with nervous eyes...this was clearly an animosity well above his level.

        “Look...I'll give you one slave right?  Go ask the lads at the terminal, I hear they want rid of some troublemakers after today, alright?”

        Oh boy...couldn't I just guess where this was going.  I stood rooted to the ground, wishing I could somehow make myself invisible in plain sight.

        “One, eh?  Who?”

        “...Murk!  Get over here!”

        I didn't move.  I didn't want to get any closer to that horrid beast of a pony.

        “Murk!  Move yourself over here right now!” Whiplash's voice was a mix of anger and fear as he glanced to the intruder again.  I was getting the feeling this wasn't entirely official business for Red Eye, judging by how the griffin was lurking to the side.

        I still didn't move.  I couldn't have.  My hooves were locked firmly in the ground.  With horror I saw the new slaver instead simply follow Whiplash's glare before advancing toward me.  Standing barely two feet in front of me, I almost retched on the stink of him alone.  I trembled, clearly shivering and hyperventilating as he stared at me, looking me over.

        “Interesting...not often you see a small pony like this these days.  Pity I couldn't get a hold of that other one while she was here.”

        He seemed to lick his lips.  I had to close my eyes to not dry heave on the spot.  The thought of this disgusting slaver anywhere near the perfect Stable Dweller offended me to the core.  The thought of him anywhere near me just felt like it was violating my sanity by his mere proximity.  I felt his hoof reach out, lifting my chin and roughly shaking my head from side to side, examining me from angles.  Bruises and sprained muscles screamed in pain, as did I.  He didn't relent, judging my size and shape.  My saddlebag was pulled from my back as he reached for my makeshift vest...

        No!

        Almost on instinct my back right hoof shot out again as he spun me around, aiming for the one spot I knew I could hurt him.  He was too big, his back half too far away!  I missed!  No...no!  I tried again...

        A bellow of rage blasted my sensitive ears as he slapped me across the side with a hoof hard enough to catapult me over into the fence.  Crunching against it hard enough to set the entire fence wobbling, I fell to the ground beneath it and curled up.  The slaver had murderous eyes as he shook on the spot at my impertinence to try and strike him.

        “You...little...runt...”

        He slowly started stomping towards me, one hoof at a time.

        “You think...you can just try bucking me in the loins...and get away with it?

        I squealed in terror as I saw Whiplash not moving to interject.  The griffin had disappeared.

        “You wanna know who I am?  I am going to be your new owner!  How do you you like that?  You might have been dragged in here and given tough times, but I'll tell you now you haven't seen the real depths of Fillydelphia yet!  My name is Chainlink Shackle, worm!  But you will only call me by one thing.  To you, I am nothing but The Master, understood?!

        His hoof slammed on the ground, driven by his weight to leave an actual indent on the hard surface itself.  Every instinct I had kicked in, this was not just any slaver.  I had been born a slave, named as a slave and gained my cutie mark as one.  The Master had clearly been born a slaver.  He was the opposite side of the coin, born to command me.  I could not disobey.  In seconds, he had asserted himself over my subconscious greater than anypony before.

        “Yes!” I screamed, “Yes, Master!”

        He didn't stop advancing.  Everything about him seemed designed to be the antithesis of myself, large where I was small, strong where I was weak.  Number Six had terrified me.  The Master had an effect more profound...like I knew he had been destined to be the one to own me.

        “Now get back over here, I want to see what I'm getting, so get that vest off!”

        No...I couldn't allow that!  But I felt every muscle rushing to obey...DJ-Pon3 had broken me free, but the everlasting chain of The Master I could feel locking me back into place.

        “Hah!  I'll tell you why he doesn't want it off!”

        I looked up, the third buck was running up to The Master.  The gang member skidded to a halt before him, pointing a back hoof at me.  The Master merely glared down at him with stern eyes and a scowl.  I was terrified, if my place as a pegasus was revealed here I would be nothing but dead!  Or paraded in front of Master Red Eye by...by The Master and probably hung or gutted to show solidarity against pegasi!  My imagination outran my horror and revulsion so far that I almost didn't notice for a second as The Master's hoof slammed the buck to the ground mercilessly.

        “I didn't!”

        A hoof shattered the buck's mouth.

        “Ask!”

        His mouth drew a knife so big it almost looked like a sword.

        “YOU!”

        The knife descended with enough force to puncture clean through the buck's neck and embed itself into the ground beneath.  Twitching and gurgling, the buck died within seconds as lifeblood pumped out over the dead grass and dirt.  His hooves continued to spasm for a few seconds before everything went still.  The blood ran around my hooves...but I was too frozen in fear to move them as I felt the dull warm creepy over each hoof.  Whiplash looked too terrified to react.  The gang simply fled into the Petting Zoo.

        “Enough!”

        The griffin landed beside The Master.  Mouth splattered with blood, he rounded on her.  The rifle was drawn as she looked him in the eyes and stood firm...if cautiously.

        “Slaves aren't transferable until tomorrow night anyway, Shackle,” she barked, “you know that.  You'll get to see him then, you'll get your prize.  I'll have Protégé look elsewhere tonight for a replacement to fill the gaps.”

        She was trying to mollify him by giving him precisely what he wanted without any more bloodshed or brutality tonight.  I had seen Master Red Eye's griffins display such behaviour before, their loyalty to him absolute.  They would often protect slaves against overly eager slavers to keep Master Red Eye's stock intact for work shifts if they felt the production was threatened.  “Shackles” narrowed his eyes before bellowing in laughter and angling his head toward me.

        “You're just what I need, Murk!” He shouted, voice rasping on the air, just like mine.  “I'll be back promptly tomorrow to take you to my...hmm...special stock.  We'll have fun for sure little Murky...find you some real work in Fillydelphia that you slaves should be doing, none of this pulling carts rubbish!”

        That decaying grin made me break down on the spot.  I had heard the rumours...slavers who kept “special” stocks of unofficial slaves for extreme work environments that they hoped would gain them more influence with Master Red Eye.  Some rumours even said they were little more than sick death games with slavers gambling on the survivors...or the ones who didn't live through them.

        To go with him was a death sentence.  The second one in two days.  The Master was something bigger in Fillydelphia, part of the layers that led to such a heavy cost of lives.  Inwardly, I cursed my life...everything I did just seemed to end in further slavery.  Was that really all my talent was?  To simply put myself into the service of others all the time?  Today alone I had run almost a half dozen errands for various ponies both slaver and slaves and I had not one thing to show for my efforts other than a couple of extra days till my sickness consumed me or The Master throwing me into some brutal “game.”

        Even as The Master left and Whiplash hurled me into his storage cupboard I just felt numb.

        “Now you're staying in here for the night.  If you get brutalised in the night by them, Shackles will not be pleased.  You're still working tomorrow though, so sleep.”

        Of course I was.  Why wouldn't a good little slave be?

* * *

        I didn't sleep all night.

        My imagination kept me awake filled with pain and bitter ends.  Perhaps I had been right in my belief...a slave's life only ends in one of two ways.  A slow lingering fade from sickness or a painful and violent killing.

        I kept pawing at the PipBuck, willing it to say the right thing again.  It had broken me free before...it had stopped me taking that last step...why couldn't it do something now?  All I was getting was music from Sapphire Shores.  I didn't even like her, why couldn't it be Velvet Remedy?  Hell, at this point I'd even like to hear more from Sundial.  But with no way to understand how to control the PipBuck's diary settings, I could only presume it had glitched out before or something.

        I really was without any help.

        Alone.

        I couldn't see too well in the dark to spot any of my pictures I had before me.  I had tried drawing, but with no light to see by it had failed immediately ever since Whiplash had locked the door.  All I could do was wait until my shift, work myself to death and then be handed over...over...

        I gulped, breathing ragged.

        ...to The Master.  He had haunted my thoughts since the moment he had left.  A giant pony who had been born to keep me in line.  It was his destiny to find me, just as it would be mine to be under him.  But I didn't want that!  I didn't want to die!  Hadn't I just spent two days trying to prove that to myself?

        I thumped the wall with a hoof, trotting around before settling, my head in my journal with a hoof over the PipBuck.

        Click

        There was light.

        I jumped, startled as the sudden brightness seared my eyes that had adjusted to the darkness.  Covering them with a hoof, I glanced carefully out to see the source of the light.  The PipBuck sat across from me, the smashed screen emitting a glow that flickered and occasionally died for a second or two from the faulty arcane technology inside.  Sundial's words echoed in my mind.

        “...a little light to brighten up the darkness of the night...”

        Thank you, Sundial.  With the light that his little legacy brought, things changed.  Slowly my mind found the solace I had fought so hard for.  To push back the slave in my thoughts.

        I could see.  If I could see, it meant I was not alone.

        Before me lay my drawings.  Myself in the corner of an empty piece of paper, smiling so joyfully with no injuries or sores at all, my wings spread out.  My mother, forever beautiful and comforting who looked at me off the page...so proud and hopeful for her lost little foal.  Number Six, strong and relentless, his stoic manner defending me from fear.  The mysterious mare, aloof and filled with intrigue yet an undying kindness radiating from her eyes.  Above them all...the Stable Dweller, bringing light not to one hurt buck but to everypony that laid eyes on her.

        I grabbed my charcoal.  I began to draw again.  I needed more, if this were to be my last night on Equestria then I would die surrounded by those who meant something to me.  I scrambled to the parchment, filling it with images of myself standing with the others.  Of the mare helping me up and giggling as she looked at my more...uh...personal, pictures.  Of Number Six diving with a scowl in my defence.

        The parchment filled, I grabbed my journal and by the flickering light of the PipBuck I could not stop.  My eyes strained, but page after page filled with images of anything and everything I had seen from Pipbucks to Tenpony Tower.  My mother cuddled into me in one, hushing away a little foal's fears.  I imagined what my six other siblings looked like...I drew them too.  Velvet Remedy, DJ-Pon3 and so many more.  Charcoal raced and scratched, covering page after page...

        It wasn't enough!

        The journal was ditched, the walls themselves would be my canvas.  With each flicker of light from the PipBuck, more was added.  A frame by frame patchwork gradually coming together each time it was visible, a stop motion wonder before my eyes as I swivelled my head from side to side with the charcoal in my mouth.  My eyes dried, my movements grew confident and my heart, while weak and sick, began to beat with the adrenaline of purpose.

        I moved from wall to wall, my movements hidden by the darkness between each spark of light as shape after shape appeared.  Eventually...exhaustedly...I lay back, holding the PipBuck in my hooves.  As though driven by destiny, its light finally became a constant to witness my work.

        Around me, on all sides...was the outside world.  A gigantic montage of the things that held hope from the Wasteland still.  I saw Tenpony Tower and the little settlements I had passed by like New Appleloosa.  I saw ponies moving as friends helping one another.  The Stable Dweller was running to the horizon into the glorious sunset, floating in the air as ponies gathered around her in awe, she knew what lay beyond the horizon.  My own minds vision of DJ-Pon3 was imprinted behind his tower in Manehattan with a microphone.  Velvet Remedy, the most beautiful design I could imagine chosen for her, was singing her heart out, notes drifting around her from where she stood in the images.

        I saw the world I had left behind when I had been locked in here.  The world with ponies who wouldn't hate me or simply want to abuse me.  Yes, there were bad ponies out there too and even worse on top of that...but there was good!  Ponies who might call me a friend...or heal me to save my life...

        I sat up taller.

        ...who might save my life...

        ...there was a way.  If only I could...could...

        With a fervent rush, I pulled my journal over and grabbed a new piece of charcoal.  I had plans to make.  I needed supplies, weapons, armour, routes and above all...a method with which to make the terrifyingly real concept in my head come to life that would make my montage into a reality.  To allow me to travel into that sunset and find out just where it went to escape the darkness.

        I would escape it.  My life depended on it now.

        Tomorrow, I had one day to prepare and execute my plan.  To escape Fillydelphia.  To go beyond the walls and run from this slavery that had held my life for so long to seek a pony who could heal the radiation and diseases that were killing me.  I caught my breath, holding a hoof over my frantically beating heart.  After so long of not seeing it, not knowing what I wanted...it was finally to happen.

        It was time to stop crying.

        They say there's a story behind every pair of wings in the wasteland.

        Tomorrow, I was going to start mine.

* * *

        Footnote: Perk Attained!

        Low Hoof!  (Rank 1) - You have something of a habit to let your attacks go for those somewhat sensitive areas.  In other words, you fight dirty!  Your first unarmed attack of any given engagement has a small chance to stun your opponent immediately!


Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven

Chapter 3:

Forlorn Hope

* * *

Stitch by stitch, stitching it together...deadline looms....”

        “What is it like to desire freedom?”

        If I were asked what it was like to be free, the answer would be simple.

        I don't know.

        But a desire...a driving instinct to seek to take for myself the freedom denied to me my entire life, what would that feel like?  I...I'm not sure.  Even as I drew my dreams upon the walls of Whiplash's storage cupboard there was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind.  That part of me still chained to the ground and held to the whims of Master Red Eye would let doubt trickle into my thoughts even as I made my decision.  I didn't know what it was that gave me the will to fight it off.  Perhaps something in my pegasus blood about wanting freedom?  I couldn't imagine it, how could I want what I could never truly achieve in the sky?

        But there was going to be no turning back.  I had beaten the slave in my mind, I knew what I wanted now.  I was going to escape.  I had thought that might make my mind shut up, to let my subconscious finally die off and give me a break from the torturous duality that had become my own thoughts these past two days.  But no, it didn't slink away and cower as I smiled, drew and wished for a better life at last.  It just lurked in my mind...feeding doubt and questions to try and unsettle the new parts of me that wanted out.  But it would not win.  I wouldn't let it.

        After all, I had another reason now.  A very basic and utterly driving one.  I needed to escape to live.  Before the Pit, I had been perfectly willing to slave away until I eventually keeled over and simply expired.  To be nothing more than a statistic of caps for Red Eye to replace in short order.  But I had been shown the value of life and to what extent it should be fought for.  My sickness claws at my lungs and blood.  Irradiated, mutating and aggressive, the disease is accelerating at a rate that, had I not taken action in the Slave Market, would have probably killed me in my sleep within hours.  Even as I lay in the dark, surrounded by visions of a happier future and the drawings of those that mattered...I could feel it in my lungs.  Burning, strained and only growing.  My coughing was under control for now, but my mouth still had the sharp metallic taste of blood at the back of my throat.

        Instead of trying to make me stay...the born slave in my mind merely sought to make me question.  Did I really desire freedom as I thought I did?  Or did I just want out to continue living out of fear?  The fear that I would die soon?  Look, I am not a brave pony.  I cry, whine, squeak and when threatened...more often beg for mercy than resist.  Was this the right thing for such a weak pony as me?  What if I got out and found a world I could not survive?  I'm a pegasus, what would happen when I no longer have slavers to protect me from others?  Is my desire for freedom truly wishing for me to become threatened by a world that required decisiveness and strength?  Could I even think for myself after...Goddesses...I didn't even know how old I was to know how long I had simply been taking orders.  Even when I set out to do something for myself yesterday I was still just following orders the entire time.

        I just...didn't know.  I didn't know how to be free.

        There were other things though.  I had always known a certain range of permitted boundaries.  Whether it be the walls of an enclosure, the length of the chain that held me or an assurance that if I moved over a line I would be shot immediately...something had always stood that told me where my world ended.  What would I even do in a world with no limits but my own choice?

        But that world was now calling to me.  I could not deny it any more than I had obeyed the beck and call of every master from here to Shattered Hoof and Manehattan.  I didn't care if it was a desire for freedom or a desire to simply live.  That voice in my head would shut up.  I would overcome it, I had to!  To escape was to live.  Perhaps I just wanted both.

        I won't say I wasn't afraid.  Indeed I was terrified.  Perhaps that fear was what propelled me to actually take these steps?  To wish for a better tomorrow where I might live for longer than a few days...

        ...a few days...

        The same time it took me to realise why I needed to live is what I now have left.

        I can't fail, it's do or die.

        No time to falter.  I had to dare.

        Dare to dream.

* * *

        The colossal length of piping crashed down behind me.  Scrambling back to my hooves I began coughing as the dust and dirt flew up in my face from the shockwave.  My dive to dodge it had only just carried me out of its path, but the weight striking the ground had still shaken me to the core.

        Spluttering and fighting the urge to continue coughing (I would not let it win, not now) I began untangling my harness from the pipe I had pulled free.  Slaves began to move in with auto axes, whirring ready to cut the pipe into smaller chunks for transport to the steel mills.  Whiplash had come to fetch me in the early morning, thankfully not noticing my drawings on his wall, to bring me out for the first of my multiple daily shifts.  In this case...helping dismantle a section of rollercoaster wrecked by the Stable Dweller's escape.  Surrounding me in the cordoned off section of the FunFarm was a whole bustle of activities.  Ponies pulled the rollercoaster's struts apart with ropes tied to harnesses while others clambered over the coaster itself to tear down the metal from all the damaged sections.  Old dust and dirt beneath the coaster was kicked up from so many hooves galloping back and forth or small craters from the explosives used trying to catch that elusive mare two days ago.  It was dangerous work, requiring ponies to pull free huge lengths of the scaffolding after they had been bent out of position and then pray it didn't land on them.  Somehow I had been allotted to that job, despite my weak physicality.

        The irony of being in danger from the aftermath of her escape was not lost on me.

        Like every other role I had gone through in my time in Fillydelphia, it was back breaking, lethal and exhausting.  Already I had witnessed half a dozen slaves carted off to...someplace...for failing to meet quotas.  Three others had been crushed by the pipes, one's scream wouldn't leave me any time soon.  They hadn't died immediately...

        More than ever I was taking care, however.  My makeshift vest had nothing near the same reliability as my now sadly lost jerkin for keeping my wings hidden.  Many times I'd had to risk being lashed by pausing to ensure it stayed in place.  I guess I was just lucky that no slaves from the Terminal enclosure had been sent here.  Already rumours had spread.  I heard them as I worked.

        “Did you hear?  Red Eye got himself a pegasus slave!”

        “I heard we're getting an execution of a pegasus soldier in a week...”

        “They say some pegasus killed three slaves already, pushed them into a vat of molten metal!”

        Just like every encampment before.  Hearsay and gossip travelled like wildfire among slaves who had little news or input from any source other than rumour and stories from other slaves.

        Even as I picked myself up and trotted to find the next pipe on weary legs I could hear the buzz word around me.  But let them.  I wouldn't be around here much longer to be affected by what they had to say about pegasi.  Perhaps they were all evil and killed foals up on their cloud fortresses...I just didn't care.  I had never been a pegasus in any sense of the word.  I had more in common with my 'fellow' slaves than I would to any so called “Pegasus Enclave.”

        Indeed, none of it mattered.  Not even the work.  For the first time in years I didn't mind the dreary toil I was expected to do, for I now knew these were the last shifts I would ever work.  I think I even let a smile creep across my face in the down times between tasks...just imagining everything that was waiting for me.  In my wildest dreams I imagined escaping past the Wall, finding a small settlement and encountering a lovely doctor.  A...a mare, that's right.  A lovely mare doctor who would heal my wounds, cure my disease and maybe have some directions to Shattered Hoof.  There I would find my mother and we'd both escape and go off to live in Tenpony Tower...somehow.  Safe forever.  Maybe I'd even meet the Stable Dweller there, DJ-Pon3 talked of her enough to imply she occasionally visited.  I'd get to say thank you, shake her hoof...maybe even give her a hug.  I could offer her a home with me and my mother, good ponies all.  And there was so much the two of us could do!  Save the slaves in Filly...explore the wastes.  We could travel together, get to know one another more, get closer and...and...

        ...and my imagination was getting a little too carried away.

        I lightly thumped my hoof to my face and shook my head.  Crazy dreams were great and all, but now was the time for planning.  I had less than twenty four hours to sort everything out, find my route and go for it.

        “Hey!  That damn pipes still attached up there!”

        My reverie broken, I turned my head to look at the slaves behind me.  They were trying to attach the ropes from my harness on to the next scaffolding pipe of the rollercoaster's broken track section.  The filthy slaves were using grapple harnesses to pull themselves up to separate the pipe from the track.  I was a bit envious...a grapple harness was a bit like a battle saddle really...I kinda wanted one still.  But none of the ones they had would fit me, so I was left grounded (as always...) while even earth ponies got to fire hooks and tow themselves off the ground.

        Pegasi got to fly...unicorns powerful enough could self levitate...earth ponies got gadgets.

        ...when would it be my turn?

        But no, no helpful things for a little pony with no unique features at all bar hearing that made it hard to sleep at nights and a mental conditioning to obey whatever he was told.

        I sighed...lowering my head to stop looking at them as they started sawing into the pipe with mouth held hacksaws.  At least I'd get a brief break while they took care of it.  Immediately, two ideas came to mind.  I could look around the rollercoaster area for anything handy to escape with...or I could use the time to work in my journal.  The former was perhaps the most practical one, but looking around me at the dusty work area filled with teams of ponies tugging on larger scaffolding, slavers barking orders and whipping the slow ones or the danger of consistently tumbling scrap from the auto axe wielders up high made me reconsider.  Sure I might find something...but I was still trying to plan my work, randomly searching would only lead to a beasting from a slaver if I was late back here.  No...I'd need to take risks to get supplies soon enough.  Don't gamble it all on an area with little worthwhile loot.

        Besides...I was in a quieter section nearer the FunFarm Barn...and I got the pleasure of watching a gigantic pink pony statue being torn apart.  One more face to not always seem to be staring at me.  That was worth something, right?

        When I got out of here, I'd never need to see her laughing face ever again.

        I lay down as the slaves behind me got to work setting up to pull the next pipe down.  They wouldn't disturb me.  No-one disturbed me today, word had gotten around that I was property of The Master now.  Apparently, you did not disturb his prize if you planned on living another day in Fillydelphia.  The mere thought gave way to trembling as I pulled the journal from my acquired saddlebag.  Dropping it, I curled up around it as I tried to fight the terror that he gave to my mind.  By some distance...the most vile...horrifying...intimidating pony I had ever met.  His cutie mark seemed burned into my mind almost as much as the imagery of watching the Stable Dweller rising into the air.  The eternal chain...a symbol of slavery.  I feared that he would show up right at the last moment to prevent my escape by destiny itself...observing his right to own me.  Born slaver to born slave.

        No...no I couldn't let the fear overtake me.  He was just a pony.  A big scary one, but a pony all the same.  I'd met a stronger pony, I was sure Number Six could have flattened The Master...

        But he wasn't around...

        The fear wouldn't go away.  I could reduce it, but in the few minutes I had met him, The Master had left a mark.  I wondered if ten years down the line, in my dream castle of living in Tenpony Tower, I would still be afraid of him turning up to reclaim me.  The nightmare of waking up in the middle of the night to find his rotten grimace smiling at me as the chains locked home...of him dragging me away with no-pony, not even the Stable Dweller, hearing my cries.

        I...I couldn't even bring myself to open the journal...I was afraid I'd just end up drawing him and being stuck with his image forever...I felt my eyes beginning to water.  I knew I was going to try...nothing was changing that now, but I was so afraid...

        “Heads up!”

        My eyes sprung open to look upwards before screaming as I saw a shard of scrap falling from above, a panicked looking mare with an auto axe glancing down in horror.  Slaves scattered, I tried to follow, but my harness was still tied to the rollercoaster pipe!  I screamed for somepony to help, trying to unfasten it as the massive object hurtled vertically towards me.  I was pretty dexterous with my mouth and hooves, I had to be, really.  But the buckle was jamming on rusting parts and frayed cloth.

        A weight crashed into me.  But not from above...from the side.  Pulling me sharply to the side hard enough to cause me to squeal in pain.  I felt my body stretch against the harness, before the deafening sound of the scrap hitting the ground knocked out my senses entirely amidst a miniature storm of dust kicked up by the impact.  A sudden pressure was released as I catapulted backwards away from the scrap, barrelling into somepony else to land in a heap on the floor.

        Gradually, the noise of metal fragments landing and screaming slaves died down...my own voice probably last of all.  I could feel somepony holding on to me before quickly releasing, the pair of us scrambling up.

        “I really hope pulling you out from under things isn't going to become a habit...”

        My heart almost skipped a beat as I whirled, ignoring the bodily pains as I saw...saw...saw...

        Creamy yellow coat...light orange mane tinged with red...

        It was her!  The mare from outside Slit's factory two days ago!  She stood up, shivering with adrenaline from the death defying dive she had used to save my life.  I just stood gaping.  Never had I ever expected to see her again, such a random happen-stance before becoming a second chance.  I had been too nervous, shy and brutalised last time to really respond to her or show proper gratitude.  I had to make up for that.

        “...y-you...”

        Smooth, Murky.  Smooth.

        She tilted her head, as though confused, but grinned anyway, reaching out to steady me on my hooves with a front leg.  Without a word, she simply led me to the side, encouraging me to lie on my side upon a dust mound.  Feeling the adrenaline pass...the shock overcame me enough to half lie and half collapse down.  Only now I noticed my harness had been cut by the shard that fell, the razor edge severing me from the pipe as easily as it would have cut me in two.

        “Woah...careful there,” she whispered, catching my head in her hooves, “just take it easy, okay?  Geez...you look even worse than when I last saw you.  You sure you're alright?”

        No.  I'm dying of an irradiated lung infection and ever-growing rad-poisoning thanks to Fillydelphia.

        “Yeah...” I muttered, rasping a little on the dust thrown up from the impact, “I just...just need to get my breath.  Thank you...I mean, really, thank you.  For both times.”

        “Well, I couldn't stand by and just let you get crushed.”

        She sat down beside me, a couple feet away.

        “Seriously, you look terrible.  Those rad-sores...you've not had a very good time, most of those cuts look barely healed.  Say...what's your name?  Sorry, I never asked last time.”

        I was about to simply say it...but part of me stopped short of saying my full name.  I really didn't want to explain it to her.  Mostly because I tended to cry whenever I thought of it.

        “Murky...”

        “Well, Murk,” she said, oddly brightly, “glad to see you again.  It's a rare day in Filly you meet someone who isn't out to abuse you somehow.  Pity we don't seem to share shifts more.”

        She glanced out at the other slaves, most of them being directed to harness up to the shard and drag it away to continue work on the scaffolding around the rollercoaster.  Apparently, the whip happy guards were too busy and occupied to notice us on the other side of our dust mound.  Nearby to us, one of the odd little 'Spritebots' buzzed around.  This close to the FunFarm's big barn, they were fairly common.  Honestly, I hadn't a clue what they were other than sources of irritating music.  This one was a little different, showing an old cracked video screen as it glanced at us for a second, before buzzing away silently.

        “That said,” she continued, “I wouldn't wish anyone to be around the FunFarm...this place has some nasty ponies, even by Filly's standards.”

        “I...I'm from the FunFarm,” I said quickly, coughing for a few seconds, “I'm held up in the petting zoo near the entrance, Whiplash's stock.”

        “Oh no, no, Murk.  Don't say that...”

        “Say what?”

        “Stock.  You aren't just some stock, Murk.  You're a pony.  A thinking being.  You aren't just some number.”

        If only...I even knew which number I was.

        “But you're from the petting zoo?  I'm from the Bumper-Plow pit.  Huh, if only we'd known we were so close, y'know?  I could have done with somepony to talk to...”

        What?!  This entire time, she'd been less than two hundred metres away?  Hearing her say that...and talking to me as a person, not just a slave.  I...I wasn't entirely sure what to respond with.  Social interaction wasn't really a skill of mine, I was conditioned to be led.  Well...I guess I could let her lead the conversation, right?

        “So, drawn anything else lately?  I have to admit...I couldn't stop thinking about that.  I even tried my own, y'know?  But I'm no artist.  Can I see again, please?”

        That I could do.  My silence in the conversation felt awkward, but I couldn't imagine she'd be too interested in anything I had to say anyway.  I was just that kind of pony.  Handing over my journal, I realised it was still clutched under one hoof from the escape.  Taking it with her magic, the mare began looking through more of it again.  I blushed as I saw her grin going past...well...those pictures, again.  She looked at ones of Number Six, whistling at the sheer size of him beside a to scale version of myself.  I sat in silence, trying to calm my rampant hoarse coughing every few seconds.  Something about somepony else looking at my drawings just helped them feel...justified.  Is this what ponies who draw are supposed to do?  Show others?

        “Wait...”

        She pointed a hoof down as she looked at one of my more recent drawings.

        “This is you, right?”

        I nodded, slowly.

        “...why do you have wings in this?”

        My heart skipped a beat.  Gasping, I glanced from side to side fearfully, no other slaves were paying us any heed.  The slavers were still sorting them out...

        “I...I...”

        I didn't need to speak.

        “Shh...” she whispered, her eyes trained on my vest, “I...I think I get it.  Not a word more, okay?”

        I couldn't believe it, that was it?  A pony who didn't care what I was?  Did she just see the pony in front of her?  The poor slave?  No bias?  No bigotry?  I knew I should have felt happy or liberated, but frankly, the concept was so alien that I couldn't even bring up the courage to speak about it.  But as she continued to turn pages and came to my ones of the Stable Dweller, I couldn't keep quiet.  I was so proud of them, so happy to know I could draw for myself.

        “That...that one's the Stable Dweller...”

        “The...who?  Oh, that mare from the Pit?  Oh, wasn't she incredible, Murk?  Wow...it's really nice to see her again in this...”

        “She...I mean...yes, she is something.  I wouldn't be alive without her...”

        “Why is that?” She looked up, suddenly serious.

        “I...I was number five...”

        The mare just seemed to take a breath, before moving forward quickly.  I recoiled, startled.  Could you blame me?  Everypony who moved toward me yesterday had wanted to hurt me.  Sensing she had scared me, the mare sat back, waving a hoof.

        “Sorry...I just...” she seemed to search for words, flicking her long mane behind an ear with a hoof, “it's horrible...to be sent there.  I'm glad you got out.”

        “Me too...”

        “Think she'll come back for the rest of us?”

        “Huh?”

        “The Stable Dweller.”

        “I...I don't know.  I can't wait anyway...”

        Wait.  Oh boy...I'd let something slip.  I mentally bucked myself hard in the head, I couldn't afford to mess up like this.  But...it was her.  How could I lie?

        “I'm going to try and escape, like her.  I need to.”

        She was silent.  Her eyes stared as though trying to discern if I was serious.

        “I wish I could too...”

        My head sprang upwards, eyes wide.  She wanted out too?  I wasn't alone?!

        “I need out of here.  I can't live forever in some slave pit...hell, I can't live a year in here.  I'm sure you feel the same, Murk.  But I just don't know how.”

        My heart felt aflame...a kindred spirit to escape.  I dragged myself up, looking around.

        “Come with me...”

        What was I saying?

        “We can go together, two ponies are better than one, right?  I'm going tonight, I have a plan and everything...kinda.”

        I...I barely knew her, but she was nice!  She was being nice to me and a friendly face could be useful out there.

        “No...I'm sorry, Murk.  I can't.”

        My rising hope fell like the scrap from the rollercoaster, I felt my legs buckle under me.

        “Oh...”

        “Sorry, Murk.  But, please, it's not you.  I...I have to wait for someone.  My...”

        She paused.

        “My buck...my lover.  We were brought in at the same time and well...just found comfort in one another.  Such a strong spirit...he always wanted to plan to escape, you know?  I think you'd like him.  But he was taken to the Pit...the same one as you.  I convinced my slave master to allow him to come back to me if he survived, you see, instead of going to the place he originally worked at.  I did a job for my master, stole something from Wicked Slit's factory the day I met you.  But he hasn't come back yet.  I didn't see him in the Pit, so I can only guess it's all been held up by the confusion after the Stable Dweller and the riots.  So...I'm sorry, Murk.  But I need to wait for him.  We promised one another we'd escape.  Together...or not at all.”

        She was crying.  Not much...but I could see the sparkles around the edges of her eyes.  I felt the urge to do something...but I didn't know quite what.  As though I just didn't understand how to react or help her...

        “I won't abandon him, Murk.  Even if it means having to turn down your offer...if you could wait for us...”

        “I can't,” I interjected softly, struggling to not cry myself at her tragic tale of two lovers separated by slavery, “it...well it needs to be tonight for me.  The Master...”

        Something about the way I said those words led her to know exactly who I meant.  Fear crossed her eyes before she nodded slowly, wiping tears with a muddy hoof.

        “I understand.  Then good luck, Murk.  Don't tell me your plan, keep it secret.  Go with the Goddesses and if you do get out...draw a little picture of me, will you?  We often will meet people only briefly...know so little about them and never know the truth.  Fleeting glimpses and random luck to bring two ponies together...never to meet again.  Some things are never explained, like why I saw you dragged under those ponies and knew it would be good to rescue you.  Perhaps good attracts good in the horrible wasteland we have to live in during these dark days.  I don't doubt I'll never see you again after tonight, Murk.  Just remember the mare you met, to show that even in the darkest of places, ponies can be nice to one another...okay?  That is all we need take away to know that Equestria isn't dead yet...”

        I presumed she had missed that I had already drawn her...multiple times, or was that on the parchment?  I couldn't remember.  My eyes were wet...her words were just...beautiful.  The idea that you might any time meet wonderful people even if only for a few moments of bliss and relief from pain.  Her eyes were dripping tears still, leading the mare to wipe them again and go back to looking at the images, smiling sadly as she saw pictures of ponies, myself and the mares I had once drawn in rather...interesting...ways.

        “I'll do that,” I whispered, completely failing to keep my own tears away, “I'll remember you.”

        “Thank you, Murk.”

        “Hey, you two slackers!”

        The foul voice rang out, making both of us jump in shock.  I turned and looked over at the workplace, seeing a thin but muscular earth pony mare stomping over.

        “Slaves don't get breaks!  Get back to work!”

        The mare hopped up,

        “He's hurt, Nightfall, I was just-”

        “SHUT UP!  Back to work!”

        “Please!  He-”

        CRACK!

        The mare recoiled as the whip lashed across her side, yelping.

        “I said!”

        CRACK!

        “Back!  To!  Work!”

        Two other slaver cronies galloped forward as the mare fell back, aiming to drag her forward.  I don't know what drove me.  I knew I should have snuck off and gotten back to work.  But before I even knew what I was doing, I felt myself charging forward in front of her, taking the third lash to my own brow to protect her.  The two thugs backed off in surprise.

        “Leave her alone!”

        I could see the stunned look on the slaver's faces...probably not as much as mine as I realised where I was standing and what I'd just done.  The pain from my head stung badly.

        “Get out the way, Murk.  The Master has plans for you, I wouldn't want to affect his “prize.”

        “I...I...”

        I didn't know what else to do...I didn't know why I'd run forward.  The slavers grabbed me with their magic.  I felt the telekinesis working together to yank me away from the mare, my legs pulling from under me as they began roughly yanking me to the dirt, dragging me toward another work area to separate us.  I struggled, kicking and writhing, my hoof trying to land any sort of blow.

        “Don't fight them, Murk!”

        I glanced up, seeing her standing there, crying as she waved a hoof softly before turning away.

        

        “Don't fight them, please...I'll be fine.  You go do what you need to...”

        Noting my lack of resistance, I was pulled at a frightening speed away, feeling the ground rub against me enough to sting as I fought to hold my vest around me.  I tried to find my voice, to fight the dryness of my throat...I hadn't even...I needed to...

        “What's your name!?” I screamed, as loud as I could.

        But over the screaming auto axes and crashes of falling scrap...I couldn't hear if she replied, even with my tainted hearing.  The last I saw her, she was being shoved towards her workplace again...the slavery would not end even for one so nice.  I cried openly as the dust swirled around us again, making me choke up.

        I would remember.

* * *

        I hadn't been left in a good mood.

        The slaves had dragged me back to Whiplash's enclosure in the petting zoo.  He was not happy to see me being rejected from a workplace for causing trouble, but the normal punishment and reallocation was held off.  I could only guess being at threat from The Master had its short term advantages for my workload.  However Whiplash was not deterred, as though seeking to regain some face, he arranged for me an additional two shifts.

        No matter.  I would take whatever they threw at me now.  They were too late.  Meeting the mare should have made me sad.  Any other day I might have curled up and cried my little heart out until I fell into a restless sleep.  I might have let the weight of sadness crush me.

        But not today.  I couldn't cry.  Okay...maybe I had at the moment, but after being thrown in the petting zoo again I had felt something change within me.  A determination I hadn't felt before speaking to her again.  Yes, her separation for a second time saddened me, but for her I would dry my tears and continue on.

        I crept across the petting zoo.  The gang probably wouldn't cause a problem any more since their encounter with The Master.  I could see Noose and Lemon resting nearby, waiting for the food run for the day.  The pair had been on a night shift among the factories, apparently.  I didn't pay them heed, instead watching Whiplash resting just outside his office, the old petting zoo staff room.  He wasn't asleep, I didn't think he ever slept, but he was certainly less watchful right now.  I used the opportunity to creep around the back of the petting zoo stables and find a more secluded spot.

        Nestled between the low scrap wall and the burned out stable, I gently pulled my belongings from the saddlebag.  My journal, parchment drawing, old quill and of course...the Pipbuck.  Since hearing Sundial's message it had taken on a meaning to me.  This was no lucky piece of scrap.  It belonged to somepony, a pony who had died wearing it when the world ended hundreds of years ago.  I couldn't help but feeling that it was better in my hooves than somepony who might abuse or harm it.  Besides...I couldn't help but feel a certain curiosity to find other messages.  I had spent some of last night while sleepless toying with the controls to try and find more messages, but all I'd ended up doing was tuning into the “Ministry of Morale Perk Up Twenty Four Hour Party Line.”

        “You gotta share!  You gotta care!”

        Sorry, Sundial.  But if I hadn't figured out how to turn that off I might have just smashed your Pipbuck in an effort to preserve my sanity.  Hearing her damn voice coming from the speakers inside the pink pony's statue's mouths was enough...but to have it on my Pipbuck now?  Not a chance.

        I thought I had an idea on how to activate another message, I'd made the first one play again, but time was short.  I had more pressing concerns right now than listening to another diary entry.  No...I had another message to listen to.  I'd heard the announcement yesterday, DJ-Pon3 was going to hand out survival tips for a large chunk of today.  I'd need everything I could if I were to survive outside.

        Switching to his station through memory, I turned the dial until I heard the cute voice of Sweetie Belle.  It hadn't started yet.

        I sat it to the side, dialling the volume down to the level of only my hearing before drawing my journal across.  Before opening, I had a thought...the mare had looked at my drawings from about when I had started drawing for myself today.  Two days before she had looked from when I had been drawing from my subconscious.  She hadn't looked at my own drawings from longer back, from when I first got my journal.

        It was for the best.  Before the day of the Pit, I did not want to look at my own sketches.  I still remembered drawing my own death.  I still remembered a few that I'd done just prior to that, since I'd been sent to the FunFarm.  A few of the slavers, some...uh...more personal pictures of mares and not much else.

        But anything before perhaps a month ago...I didn't even remember.

        It wasn't a small amount either.  I'd been drawing my entire life, but the more I had drawn the more it began to blur together and just become something I did to let out the pain or seek solace in.  Thus, before me sat a journal in which I didn't even know the contents of more than half of it.  Pages filled with mystery, drawings I hadn't remembered doing.

        Some days I felt tempted to look at them.  But not any more.  That part of my life was done.  Perhaps one day, when I had escaped...I might look back when I felt safe.  But not now.  What resided in the earlier pages of my journal would remain a mystery to the blurry past when I didn't care to remember or really think about anything.  I just worked, suffered and drew pictures of whatever was causing me grief.  The here and now was too important to risk the emotional turmoil if I found a picture of an anvil and hammer...or of my mother being dragged away...

        “Come on, Murky...keep it together...”

        I muttered if only to remind myself of my place right now, concentrating on the pages leading further ahead in my journal.  Occasionally I stopped to glance at a recent one.  I even took a minute to sit and stare at a picture of a mare I'd done just after arriving in Fillydelphia.  A gorgeous mare with flowing mane and a long bushy tail lying on her side with the angle of posing tailored toward...

        Um...perhaps I should move on...now wasn't the best time to admire my perception of beauty in mares...

        Picking an empty page, I sat quietly, my mouth tracing shapes idly without any real idea.  Part of me wanted to draw the mare (No, not like that) but somehow...I felt that I shouldn't.  She had asked me to do so once I had escaped.

        Escape...

        I knelt down, instead drawing several thick lines in an arc across the page.  Smaller wisps of charcoal began curving around the middle.  I had no procedure, not patterns to always follow, I simply drew what I felt like and let the eventual picture come to be.  Others may have mixed opinions...but to me they were simply my own little rebellion against the chains on my life, quality wasn't so important as the process of just...drawing.

        The thick lines became a structure...

        The curves became somepony...

        With every shape I drew, I could feel the theme emerging, more and more.

        The structure became long and strong...a Wall.

        The pony became a pegasus, above the Wall.

        Delving deep down into my wishes, the things I wanted for myself.

        The Wall had slavers on it, light wisps of charcoal showing gunshots missing the pony.

        The pegasus was flying free, heading for the open wasteland.

        I sat back, smiling.  It no longer shocked me or gave massive rises of emotion.  I could draw for myself any time I wanted now.  I would fulfil my-

        A wheezing cough hurtled through my system, causing me to collapse to the side, eyes screwed shut.  My stomach ached.  The lack of sustenance hadn't been helping.  I'd grabbed a quick drink from a rain barrel meant to gather water for primitive purification near the rollercoaster just stay alive away from dehydration.  But I could still feel the brutal effects of no real food for...oh Goddesses, how long was it now?  I couldn't remember...

        Ok...I'd fulfil my promise to the mare.  My picture proved my will to escape for my own life.  My cough only reinforced it.  To stay was to die.

        Briefly, I tried not to think that I'd been prepared to throw that life away to end the pain...

        “Hello out there, wasteland!”

        My mind snapped back on track, that hated subject falling immediately as DJ-Pon3 came on the airwaves through the Pipbuck.  This was it.

        “Now I bet many of you are wondering, 'Hey Pon3!  Why are you callin' out all these basics to everypony in the wastes?  We all know this stuff!' Well, my little veterans out there, sure you might...but recently I've been thinking.  Since about, what, a month and a bit ago, we've had a big rise in ponies going out into the wastes themselves.  I swear, it's like every settlement and Stable from Filly to the Hoof is waking up and finding its own little hero to go out there to save Equestria in one way or another.  Not all of these ponies are getting on too well, so I figured...why not revise some of the stuff I've been teaching you all these years?  Besides...judgin' by the news, I figure some of you 'vets' could use a tip or two remembered...remember children, the wasteland is the real enemy and it doesn't like pride or ego.”

        I had a new page in my journal out, it stung to lose my imagery of escape so suddenly, but this was important.

        I couldn't read or write.  I couldn't write a plan.

        I was going to draw it.  Little images to remind myself, step by step of what I would need.  Of my routes and timings.  Of any handy little tip I could remember from the education to come.  I would be a good little student and listen closely...

        “So...without messing you folks around any further, allow me to cut to the chase, wastelanders.  Here's survival one-oh-one for the Equestrian Wasteland...”

        So it began.  I prepared myself, this was to marathon itself all day, I'd have to listen on and between shifts, collect everything I needed...and be ready.

        ...here we go.

* * *

        “Now, for all those of you who want to fight the good fight, all power to ya, if only more would do that.  But first things first, know that the world may be dangerous and a Hellhound would tear you in half...there is something much more basic.  Food.  That's right, children, you gotta eat and drink!  Store all you can, you cannot rely on the wasteland to provide for you.  Last thing any would-be hero wants is to die of hunger.  While we're on it, make sure you got everything tied safely to your body where you can reach it quickly.  Nothin' worse than finding you lost your water can half a mile back in the wastes to a faulty knot, right?”

        I drew lines...

* * *

        The gang were arguing.  Or rather, Noose and Lemon were arguing.  I didn't know if they really counted as a “gang” any more.  One way or another, their bickering distracted them from their food.  I'd thought about it, and simply could not bring myself to take the food from anypony other than them.  While I was sure the other ponies would not hesitate to beat me just as bad if they knew my winged secret...this gang I had a particular loathing for.

        “So what, Noose?  You want us to just cower away because some fat pony killed Nails?”

        “That 'fat' pony would tear you in two for smelling the wrong way, Lemon, know when you're beat!  We lie low...our time will come...”

        I was using the wreckage of the old pigsty to creep around behind them.  They'd taken to storing the bowls of oatmeal inside it to prevent them from falling away in the wind.  Most slaves devoured the oatmeal immediately, hell, my half portion (thanks, Whiplash...) was long gone to sate my days long hunger.

        Wow...it really said something about slave life that such a meagre amount was enough to almost make me feel full...

        I could only presume they had left the food to, as some slaves claimed, 'settle.' To be less 'fresh' and become a thicker and more substantial feeling meal instead of the watery goo that we were normally given.  I hadn't ever tried it on the few occasions I'd ever been given a meal, but for the sake of supplies...I was willing to try.

        “Yeah, when?  Both of us are sick, we're being put on the foundries soon and that bastard is back again to shove us around at the workplace.”

        I leaned forward, my mouth closing around the first wooden bowl, gently pushing a small tin can forward...please don't make noise...please don't make noise...

        “Can't even take out my frustration on the runt either...if he hadn't bucked me in the danglies I might have felt so-...ah hell what am I saying, bastard pegasus can get raped to death by The Master for all I care...”

        I tried to not let my imagination take over as I felt my entire body shiver in fear, not just from being nearby to the mare who had almost beaten me to death yesterday, but the sensation of even remembering him.  The oatmeal slopped and gurgled in a way that food really shouldn't into the tin can.  Taking a second to catch my breath and calm my nerves...I reached for the second, trying not to let the realist side of my mind catch up to what I was doing.

        “Just shut up, Lemon.  Go eat your oatmeal you stupid buck...”

        “Are you crazy?!  I'm not touching that stuff till I know it'll stay down this time.  Shit tastes even worse coming up!”

        Okay...ew.  All the same, I remained thankful for their continued distraction of conversation to not turn around as I poured the second bowl into the tins.  Ducking back, I began wrapping them tightly in a wad of cloth with some mouth and hoof work to keep as much of it inside as I could.  It wasn't much...but it was all I'd reasonably get that wasn't already being eaten or liable to poison me.  It'd have to last till I could scavenge something outside the walls.

        I began sneaking away, scooting as quickly as I dared along the wall, hiding behind other slaves as best I could.  Most were sleeping, any that did see me wouldn't say a word, no-pony particularly liked the gang.  As I began to re-approach my hiding place, an unusual sound made me dive for cover.

        A sound like a screeching saw through rotten wood had startled me.  Poking my head out from behind the old pig trough, I glanced in the direction of the horrid noise before sighing in relief.

        Whiplash had finally fallen asleep, head lolling sideways on the fence from his resting point to drool over the metal.  The noise matched his breathing...he was snoring loudly and proudly.  I could hardly suppress a small giggle at the sight of such a fearful pony in my life completely left without any poise.  If The Master had done one good thing...it was make Whiplash seem not so bad any more.

        I was about to turn and go back to my hidey hole, DJ-Pon3 was going to continue with which towns to avoid soon after Sapphire Shores was done singing.  But something clicked in my mind...

        “...  make sure you got everything tied safely to your body...”

        I had no real rope or twine, but a long piece of leather might work...

        Every part of my mind that remained sane was telling me this was a bad idea.  All the same, I felt my hooves carry my as stealthily as I could towards Whiplash and his little office.

        I had just stolen food from the gang.  What in the Goddesses' great eyes was I doing thinking about stealing from a slave master?  I moved one step per snore, fearfully struggling to keep my breathing as regular as I could.  I found it was matching Whiplash's snoring patterns out of sheer habit.

        Ten feet...

        Whiplash snorted, shifting.  I froze on the spot.  After a second...he rested.  I let my hooves carry me forward.  Three slaves were watching me, rolling their eyes at this stupid runt about to get himself killed.  The gang were around the corner of the building, oh so thankfully.  I could still hear them arguing about who else they should pick on after I got lifted.

        Five feet...

        The door was right there.  Inside I could see a short bed stuffed into the corner, surrounded by old bottles of alcoholic drink.  Whiplash had often taken to sneaking shots whenever he thought a griffin hadn't been looking.  Stern, the fanatical leader of the griffins, was legendary for coming down hard on slavers who drank on the job, but the allure of taste I guessed was too much for many.  A schedule was drawn on the wall in Lash's crude handwriting...or at least I guessed it was.  Either that or he was into abstract art beyond what I could fathom.

        Sitting near the door in the tiny room (how did he even fit?) there were four whips of varying sizes.  He even numbered them.  The number one whip he always carried, whips two through five were of ever changing sizes.  I immediately regretted the fact that I could probably recognise them specifically by the feeling of being whipped after only a month in Filly...

        I went for the number three whip, the thinnest and made of strong brahmin leather.  It was the one that left the stinging lines longer than the others, often allowing a slight breakage of the skin and making a sound akin to a gunshot with...

        Stopping on the spot, I shook my head fiercely.  Geez...my perception of life was really messed up.

        I realised that I'd have some real explaining to do to anypony outside the Wall why I knew so much about whips and chains to avoid them getting weird ideas about my tastes in life.

        The whip was hard, very hard, but flexible and if pulled tight, incredibly durable.  Perfect for the idea I had in mind.  I quickly stuck my head in the door and plucked it up into my mouth.

        Whiplash stopped snoring.

        I collapsed backwards, trying to run around the hut, but his eyes opened long before I got the command to my frozen joints from the fear.

        “..mm...hmm?  Murky Number Seven?”

        It took him a second to see.  His eyes lowered in fury as he snarled and twisted to look at me, the number one whip levitating up.

        “You have precisely three seconds to explain why Betsy is in your mouth, Murk.”

        I gulped, too scared to even drop the whip.

        “Because...because...”

        “One, two and three.”

        His whip cracked around my hooves, leading me to stumble backwards, dropping the leather.

        “Wicked Slit wanted it!”

        I shouted it at the top of my lungs, not very much given all illnesses considered.

        “She wanted to borrow one to do her shift!  She wants to...um...broaden her horizons!”

        Whiplash didn't look very convinced, but his eyes were still full of sleep, to the point where he waved a hoof.

        “Whatever, but if it isn't back by tonight, I'm holding you responsible, Shackles be damned.  Least it'll maybe stop Slit bitching about slave efficiencies again to me...”

        He turned, aiming to go back to sleep as I made to run...I could rest up somewhere else before moving on to my shift anyway.  But as I turned, breathing a sigh of relief, I heard Whiplash speak up.

        “Oh, and Murk?”

        I didn't even dare look around.  I wish I had, for the next thing I knew a burning line of pain whipped its way across my flanks and rump, leaving me to squeal loudly and hop away rather pathetically to fall on my side, rubbing a hoof on one flank.  The lash had went right across my cutie mark...

        “That's for waking me up.  Now bugger off to your shift.”

        I said I wouldn't cry...but I couldn't avoid tears of pain from that blow as I felt it throb and sting.  I could hear the other slaves laughing at my lashing across the backside.

        How I wasn't going to miss this after tonight...

* * *

        “Now I can't say I enjoy this bit of advice any more than you will...well...some of you anyways.  See, as much as the good ol' Equestrian spirit should run free and solve everything through just talking out your problems, there's a whole lot out there that begs to differ.  Gangs, ghouls and if you're real unlucky...raiders.  Hell there's even worse on top of that.  So as much as it pains me to say this, children, if you're going to go out into the wastes, make sure you go out there packing.  Get some weapons and armour, whatever you can.  Better to live, folks...better to live.”

        Lines became curves...

* * *

         The cart's harness was already giving me a nasty burn on my back where I bore the brunt of the weight when I pulled.  Wicked Slit had set me right to my oh-so-favourite activity in her factory...cart delivery.  Weighing what felt like half a ton per cart, the exhaustion factor didn't so much creep in as slam home.  Five deliveries throughout the day, one to each of the ammo mills in Fillydelphia carrying various types of metal for even more varied types of rounds manufactured to feed Red Eye's army.  Copper to the Ironshod Foundry.  Steel to the Saddlesore Manufacturing Facility.  The others I didn't even know the names of.  I just put down my head and got on with pulling weights far too large for my somewhat less than stellar levels of strength.

        It still didn't matter.  These were the last five carts ever to be pulled by Murky Number Seven, I'd see to that.

        Plus, I had a little plan.  Wicked Slit believed me broken in and too cowardly to try anything.  It was why she sometimes left me unsupervised or without a handler to better serve her “efficiency ratios” elsewhere.  As such, I'd been able to dump my saddlebag at the side of the factory by the road and use it as a dead drop location.  Each trip I made I had stopped my cart, slipped free of my harness (the builders clearly didn't factor in ponies of my size when they designed it) and shoved a slab of flat metal into it.  Five trips, five sheets of differing types of metal.  I knew nothing of the composition of metal, so I hoped they would each do the job.

        I tugged the empty cart into Slit's factory, limp hoofed and gasping for air in the sweltering air of machinery and industry.  The drop off zone was heavily guarded by slavers who directed me into a port to store the cart for some poor pony on the next shift.  It had become almost a tradition, actually, for them to take bets on how long it took me to back a heavy cart into a bay with my pathetic levels of strength.  The current longest time, I believed, was six minutes after a day I'd been overloaded.  My record was two minutes.

        Rather embarrassing really...but that is what I'm like after a full shift of pulling those damn carts and having jelly legs by the end of it or a back sore enough to cause me pain by just turning.

        I heard, rather than saw, the guards bickering over amounts.  It was never much, none of them liked betting more than a few caps or a couple cigarettes on me.  Sighing, I once again played their game.  In theory I would just dump the cart, but I had to judge every time which slaver was most likely to beat me up for not having him win...then try and aim for their timing.  They hadn't yet worked out that I could hear their whispering rather clearly.  I let my ears do the thinking, hearing a couple bet high, citing my time in the Pit and sickness to slow me down.  A third voice, a buck, commented on his bet he'd made in advance...as well as the annoyance levels if I didn't do it in under three minutes.

        Well...crap.

        I tried my best, I really did.  But my aching muscles, barely healed injuries and low energy levels just wouldn't make the cart move at all.  With a slip and a surprised shout, I fell to the floor while straining to push the cart on its rusty wheels.

        “Oh for the love of...get a move on you whelp!”

        “Thirty seconds or you're getting it, Murk!  I got a full pack on you!”

        “Get it in less than thirty seconds and I'll get you for it!”

        My muscles just wouldn't give...I couldn't risk forcing them further, I had to retain enough energy for tonight...what little I'd have left.  I sighed, falling over and tilting my head against the cart.  Some days you just couldn't win...

        “Oh are you kidding me?  He's giving up!  C'mere!”

        I looked up, breathing deeply and simply hoping to myself that the beating wouldn't be too bad.

        “Hey!  What did I tell you bastards about interrupting slaves?”

        The trio stopped dead in their tracks, two of them even made to leave immediately.  The third who had advanced on me turned, immediately sweating.  Wicked Slit was stomping her way towards us all across the delivery room floor out of the manufacturing areas.  She had old pegasus flight goggles on to protect from foundry sparks, her knife floating obediently beside her.  I felt envious of her stamina to keep magic up like that all day...

        “You beat them, they work less!  Beat them when they aren't in work hours.  You think I can afford you to lose me ten minutes of labour every damn time you feel like smacking something?  Go hit up a slave in their pen after your shift is done!”

        Of course...even slavers had shifts, albeit shorter and less laborious than the slaves.  I couldn't imagine Slit would be any happier about losing her slavers than her slaves from their workplace...

        “Yes, Ma'am!”

        “Right away, Ma'am!  Sorry Ma'am!”

        They scurried away, leaving me to get back on my hooves and with great effort, shove the creaking cart back into the bay.  An eighteen inch curved knife on a sadistic slaver mistress has that sort of incentive effect on even weak ponies like me.  I collapsed against it, breathing hard as I felt the five or six miles of pulling take a toll on my stamina.  My front right hoof was aching, a dull pulsating pain making itself known every couple of seconds while every muscle in my torso hurt to move.  A familiar pain...I had endured it after every shift under Slit for the past month.  I tried to take a few breaths, get to my hooves, but my lungs reminded me they were yet uncared for by medicine, causing me to hack and cough for a good few seconds, even as I heard the rough tread of Slit nearing me.  Clearly the medical potions from yesterday were beginning to lose the temporary effect they had granted me.  Judging by the pain in my throat and the swimming of my vision...I figured I had till tomorrow morning before the sickness kicked in again.

        “Guess it's up to me to unharness you, stupid morons...”

        Slit was muttering to herself as she reached out with her magic, unlatching the harness from my body.  Clearly she hadn't clocked that I could simply slip out myself.  Dragging my tired body across the floor with slow, deliberate and laboured movements, I collapsed just beside her.  I couldn't help it...the tiredness went to my brain, a night lacking any sleep and only a small portion of foul oatmeal to power me just drained my energy reserves completely.  With a snort, Slit roughly knocked me with her front hoof a few times.

        “Get up, Murk.  You've still got four minutes of shift time left.  Make yourself useful and carry that bag of scrap into the factory before you go, I'll show you where.”

        “Urggghh...” was my well thought out and dictated reply.

        “Shut up, get up and hurry up!”

        Her half buck gave me enough reason to find some strength deep down to dodge the flying hoof and clamber to my own four legs to nod quickly.  My eyes were hazy, I just wanted to lie down somewhere and sleep...maybe a massage to my aching muscles...would a bit of food go amiss?  Proper food?

        With a sigh, I stretched out and trotted over to the sack Slit was motioning to with her knife.  Biting the neck of the bag, I didn't even bother throwing it over my back but rather just began dragging it.  Rolling her eyes, Slit merely turned and cantered into the factory.

        “Celestia help me from hopeless slaves,” she muttered, “or banish them all to the fucking moon where they can't bother me any more.”

        I had to bite my tongue...the urge to quip something off at her as a last action before I never saw her again was so strong.  Thankfully, I allowed the slave in my mind to take control for a few seconds to remain alive.

        I followed her, dragging the sack a foot at a time, the heavy leather tasting disgusting in my mouth from old dust and grime across it.  Pull...step back a few feet...pull...step back...

        Inside the factory, the heat hit me like running into a wall.  The massive metal vats radiated warmth so strongly that mere proximity was enough to dull the sense and cause me to whine from the added exertion it took to keep up in such a harsh area.  Already I could feel my loose tooth wobbling around as I yanked the sack with my teeth.  Metal shards stuck out of the bag where they had pierced the lining, their scraping sound was not helping on top of the mass of noise within the factory.  My ears ached, almost missing Slit's command to stop before walking right into her rump.  With a sigh of relief, I dumped the sack were her knife tapped the ground before kneeling down again.  One of the shards fell out.  While Slit was still glancing at the industrial presses to observe the slaves, I quickly shoved one down my vest...I had an idea for it, courtesy of DJ-Pon3-born inspiration.

        “Shift's over, Murk.  Get out of here, I hear Whiplash has some more work for you over at the threshing mills.  They need a small pony over there.  Go straight there.”

        “But...”

        “No buts, Murk,” she spat, “so get yours over to the damned mill before I ensure you can't sit down again for a long time!”

        She removed her goggles, sitting them on the bottom of the stairs that led to her office so she could pull my face up to her eyes.

        “I don't think I need to explain to you how much I do not like you, Murk.”

        The knife gently seemed to caress my forehead, the tip dragging my lanky mane from my eyes for her to see clearly.

        “So I'm going to tell you this,” she continued, her voice so low I began to worry she knew about my hearing, “I don't want you back.  I know that Chainlink Shackles is coming for you.  'The Master' will not be so forgiving as I have.  He isn't like me, Murk.  He won't threaten you.  He won't scare you with imagination or promise implausible things.”

        She had my attention, not from the knife that rested between my eyes from above, nor the hard hoof holding my chin up to her face.  It was her tone.  She spoke almost with reverence, as though she wished she never had to meet him.  The Master even made her terrified of his reputation among the slavers.  My eyes were wide, if the burning heat of the forge wasn't present to dry them out...I might have cried on the spot.

        “He breaks slaves, Murk.  As far as I'm concerned, I'm glad you're going there.  Perhaps you'll learn something about why you should have tried harder in life.  My little slave...so woefully pathetic.  You never tried, Murk.  You think I can't see your destiny?  Look at that tiny flank of yours, a set of shackles?  I sometimes wish I could just close them around your hooves and leave you out to die because you are so fucking useless to me.  Born into slavery and you still can't hack it.”

        Her hoof roughly shoved me away.  I fell on my side, shivering as I pulled my hooves in.

        “Get out of here, the Pit was too good for you.”

        I shakily got up, nodding my head.  No...she was...was wrong.  I wasn't going to go to The Master.  I was...was going to...to escape.  I stared at Slit, looking her right in the eyes.  I wanted to tell her, so she would know by tomorrow that she was wrong.  If Slit saw my defiance she didn't make a sign, instead turning to scream at some slaves for stopping as they fought for breath from the heat.  I wanted to whisper something...to shout something!  Just one last word that proved I wasn't going to be beaten by her cruelty any more!

        I couldn't think of anything.  I never was good with words.  She scared the slave in me too much to dare speak out against my masters...

        So I stole her goggles instead.

        I took great pleasure in her scream of frustration as I high tailed it from the factory at top speed toward the threshing mills, collecting my saddlebag as I went to add my new acquirements into it.

* * *

        “Now there's one unfortunate truth about the wasteland, children.  I always tell you, I bring you the truth, no matter how bad it hurts and that is exactly my point.  If you go into the wasteland, it will hurt you.  Physically, mentally, hell, even spiritually for those of you who believe.  So make sure you have those potions handy, as much Radaway and Rad-X as you can get your hooves on too.  Keep some bandages if you can, they're light and you never know, you can't rely on just potions.  Now a gun or a nailboard may be an obvious way to experience the pain of the wasteland, but let me remind you that we are all dirty.  Yes, children, it's true.  We scrounge around in the dirt scavenging all day or go out in weather no pony has business being in...so remember.  Disease and illness is the greatest killer.  Wrap up.  Keep yourself as warm as you can and dress appropriately.  Take the advice from Daddy Pon-3, children, you do not want to get sick in the wasteland if you can help it.”

        Curves became shapes...

* * *

        The threshing blades missed me by a scant inch as I dived to the side and rolled over to land out from under the machine.  Hissing and clicking, the blades skittered across the ground, improperly calibrated to score the floor as they moved.  The huge machine stretched fifty feet down the mill hall, threading string into greater shapes as it worked ceaselessly.  Like a piano's strings it held thousands of strands beside one another down its whole length, the whirling machinery racking up and down the material to slowly and gradually bring it together into something useful.  Beneath the machine lay the refuse, an empty space filled with the fallen threads and lint of severed lines that usually was only used to give the machinery's mechanics space to move.  An automated scrap collector was installed, but was far beyond repair.

        As such, the smaller ponies got the glorious job of rushing under it once the blades retracted, grabbing as much thread as they could and then diving back out before the blades caught up with them.  It was lethal work, hours of death defying movements against a time space of only perhaps ten seconds.  Slavers waited with canes for the slaves who didn't bring back enough on each trip, leading to gradually more daring runs every time.  The thread was more important than our safety, apparently.

        Oh, and that's the kicker, the space is only two feet high, so you can't gallop or even stand up.  You crawl, on all four hooves.  Many slaves rolled sideways, but aside from emergencies, I found that hurt my wings far too much.  I couldn't afford to be yelping in pain, drawing attention to my sides.  Even now I was still nervous, the rumours were spreading still about a pegasus in Fillydelphia ever since the accident at the Terminal.  I really wished I could just fly away from all this...

        More than most, to me, that wish was cruelly denied.  Just one mallet and anvil to...

        I shook my head as I dumped the threads I had collected down, I couldn't go back to thinking about it.  I still woke up screaming sometimes as I imagined seeing it descending again and again, finding myself huddled up with my hooves trying to cradle my inert wings as best they could.  If only they didn't still hurt so much when touched...

        “Ready up!  Cycle's coming back again!”

        I pulled myself to my hooves.  They ached from the cart pulling earlier, but the immediate exhaustion had worn off.  Thresher grabbing may be dangerous and in the short term tiring, but the rests every few seconds to dump the light material and wait were the closest thing to a rest in Fillydelphia sometimes.  Of course...that presumed you didn't get caught even briefly.  I'd lost at least a few pints of blood to this machine over the weeks.

        The blades spun, I watched them twine the thread, twisting it into thicker lines approaching string.  Alongside me, another thirty smaller ponies waited ready for the mad dash.  Many of them bore scars or even open cuts from the blades if they had missed getting out.  I myself had almost come close before I got used to the rhythm again.  Annoyingly, even among this bunch of small ponies...I was still the smallest.

        The blades stopped, before detaching and spun back along the threads.

        “Go!”

        As one we dove under, sliding as far as we could on our bellies.  I saw some of the others 'scooting' with their back legs, grabbing with their front.  I didn't like that, too easy to get stuck or be unable to turn around.  I used all four hooves, crawling to the back of the machine, as far as I dared.  The trick other slaves missed was to go as far as you could, turn and then push as much as you could back.  It saved time.  On my first day I'd tried scooting and gotten my side sliced open as though with a scalpel.  Only the timely intervention of a new slaver not wanting to lose slaves on his first day had saved my life...and given me pain for the next week for almost screwing it up for him.  The next time back I'd watched the ones who seemed to stay alive better.

        The space was claustrophobic, my throat and nose felt clogged from thread fibres in the air kicked up by scrambling slaves.  My legs scraped and burned on the ground as I madly dashed forward toward the spinning blades that moved back ahead of me.  As far as I dared...

        I heard a scream from further up the line, somepony had caught their front left and cut themselves.

        The noise shook me, I bottled and turned, shoving as much as I could back.  Even as I moved I heard the noise of the blades whirring toward me from behind.  Closing my eyes I pushed as fast as I could, whimpering as I dived out from under the machine.  Behind me, the blades met the end, a second or two behind me.

        Five seconds spent under there...it had felt like five minutes.

        “Ready up!”

        We didn't have a chance to rest.  I saw the slave with the cut being beaten with canes for crawling back out with nothing but an injury, he was being told to run back in next time.  My own pile was small.  I hadn't been taking risks, but that wasn't right...I needed to be able to stare death in the face.

        “Cycle's coming back!”

        I bottled at a scream...how could I face the Wall and its guards if I did that?  I needed to prove it to myself, here and now...there wasn't another chance.  Go as far as I could...come as close as I can...

        “Go!”

        I dived in, scrambling as fast as I could.  I felt my head brush against the threads above and ducked down again.  The blades spun away less than a foot from my face as I crawled after them, waiting for them to stop.  The noise of the machine assaulted my ears as I went deeper and deeper into it's workings.  Around me, other slaves turned.

        The machine changed noises, I faltered, wondering for a quarter second if it were coming back...before back-pedalling and pushing another line of wool out.  I dove again, feeling the machine roll up a second behind me.  I beat my hoof against my head, I was still too cowardly, why couldn't I be brave like Number Six or the Stable Dweller?  Why couldn't I just be brave?

        “Ready up!”

        I stared the blades in the face.  I had to learn to dare.  I'd...kinda...done it, when stealing.  When sneaking.  But that was against injury...this was death.

        “Cycle's coming back!”

        I took a deep breath.  I willed myself, please...be brave.  Dare, Murky...dare.

        “Go!”

        I kicked off the wall rolling on my side to hurl myself right at the blades, stopping just short before crawling in after it.  Inches from my face, I followed them, feeling my entire body trembling in adrenaline and terror as I stared unblinking at them.  I swore I could see bloodstains...

        Deeper...deeper...three seconds...four seconds...five...seven...

        Wait...shit!

        I had missed the turning point.  It flew back in my face.

        I screamed.  My hooves scrambled, rolling on my side, diving, crawling, crying out in pain as I felt it nick past a hoof or when my wings hit the ground.  I couldn't properly move, the place was too small, the whirling blades pressed closer...closer...if I could just dive...maybe...

        I dived as hard as I could, it was too far, I wasn't going to make it.  I tried to pull all my hooves back from it, maybe I could-

        The blades sheared down and I felt my vest tear.  A hideous, screeching and disgustingly crunching sound filled my ears.  I screamed out loud, closing my eyes as I tried to drag myself out.  I fell at the side, curled up and whimpering before finally opening my eyes.

        ...I was unharmed.  The machine had jarred and jammed.

        A second scream split my ears, ongoing, agonised and wailing for far longer than a scream should.  Begging, squealing and crying as I stood up and looked down the line before almost being sick.

        Red.

        A pony had become caught in the machine, one I had seen trying to take too many risks.  His...his back leg...it wasn't there...red blood coated the thread and the blades.

        I wanted to be sick, I didn't deal with that sort of thing well.

        He was thrashing on his three remaining legs, screaming without stopping as slaves and slavers tried to pull him free.  Yanking him out to the side, I saw the slavers discussing amongst themselves.  I could only just pick out their voices.

        “We've got some potions in the back, want me to get 'em?”

        “No.”

        “But-”

        “He's just a slave, useless to us now.”

        I didn't even have time to process that before I saw the revolver magically float from its holster and fire a single shot.  Everypony in the entire line screamed, flattening to the ground as the shot rang out.  The screaming stopped immediately even as the echo of the shot rang in my ears painfully for a good ten seconds.  Feeling a light draft waft against my right wing, I looked around to fix my-

        My wing was showing through the tear.

        Stifling a shout and a curse, I backed against the wall as fast as I could, frantically trying to twist my vest around and hold the tattered fabric in place.

        The slavers stood up, most of them bloodied from the wound of the slave.  One of them looked disgusted, another merely annoyed.

        “Get a slave to drag it in the back, we'll take it out back to the pit for the incinerator tonight.”

        It.  They had called him 'it'.  The mare's words came back to me...we weren't stock, we were ponies.  But to these slaves, we were just a statistic.  Wicked Slit's efficiency, The Master's games and tasks, Red Eye's industry thrived on statistics...no matter his smooth words.

        Even as I heard the inevitable call for it to be me to drag the body out, I found myself with a sensation of absolute worthlessness to anypony's eyes.  Just a little cog to the machine.  To run inside the machine to clean its workings in a mill.  Fighting with my vest, I nervously approached.  I needed out of here now.  Now.  Right now.

        I put my shaking hooves around the body of the dead slave, trying to avoid his blood.  I wasn't strong enough to pull or push him with any dignity, but I'd be damned to the moon if I was going to simply treat him like a piece of meat.

        “Hey, you got cut on your side?”

        I drew breath sharply, shaking my head madly.

        “No!  I...uh...just a tear!”

        My hooves were the only thing covering my wing.  The slaver glanced down at it, as though looking for blood.  An achingly slow moment of him examining.

        “...carry on.”

        I hoped my sigh of relief wasn't too obvious as I moved to the body.

        Gently, I closed his eyes once I was sure the slavers weren't watching me any more.  As I pulled the body away towards the back of the mill, I heard the whirr of the machine starting again as though nothing had even happened.

        “Ready up!”

        Like good little cogs, the slaves stood ready again, even through a mask of tired tears.  I didn't see them as the work was restarted.  Moving through double swing doors, I moved the dead slave to the back door and tried to arrange him as best I could.  He wouldn't be treated well, dumped in a mass grave and then left until incineration rounds reached the mill.  But at least I could give him something approaching peace for now.  Perhaps his soul would be gone by the time they came to make him into ash.

        I sat back.

        Then it hit me.

        I began shuddering, unstoppable heaves of my chest as suddenly it all landed at once.

        This...this poor pony...had saved my life.  This would have been me, if he hadn't gotten stuck.  Without him making a mistake, my back hooves would have been torn off and shredded...I would be the one with the magnum round to the forehead.

        I felt my eyes watering badly as I fell to the side, trying to stem it and failing completely.  It wasn't sadness, I saw slaves die every day in some way or another.  But this was so close...so random...so without reason or purpose!  What kind of world was this for ponies!

        I looked up, trying to find something to help me, anything!  I'd left everything in my saddlebag in a safe location, hidden in an old pipe, so I didn't even have my journal or Pipbuck to help me.  The walls were coated in slime and rust, cracked paint gave way to bare concrete so popular in Fillydephia.  Some posters ran the walls, one had an all too familiar and hated face watching me, apparently forever.  A couple had military advertisements, huge metal ponies and swift blue and gold pegasi.

        The last had a gentle yellow and pink mare sitting amongst a peaceful field watching a sunset.  A tranquil scene.  The colours were that of my saddlebag...was this a medical poster?  I didn't care, all that mattered was the peaceful scene.

        Was that old Equestria?  A place where you could sit upon hills and gaze with no worries?

        I looked to the slave again, I looked to my own grimy and scarred hooves and felt the trembling return.

        What was this world I had been born into?  I had never even known a hint of the past, but still...the feeling of dislocation from what I was supposed to be living like was so strong.  It led me to not even care that it made no sense to feel that way as I let tears stream from my eyes and hugged myself tightly.  Ponies shouldn't have to go through this...

        I couldn't stay here...my mind was too fragile, too newly open to things other than the work and my masters for this sort of...of...horror.  I sniffed, got to my feet and stuffed as much material as I could along with a needle and thread into a bag before leaving the mill via the back door, stopping only to grab the one healing potion I could find left by the slavers.

* * *

        “Aaaaand we're back again with the continued wasteland survival one-oh-one today!  Now this next part is pretty vague, so I'll try to be clear.  Exploration.  It's a big world out there and if we want to help it, to fight the good fight we'll need to get out and see it.  Now, first up, stay away from Stables.  Death traps, every one of them from what I've heard.  But other things?  The more we find out and know, the more we understand, the better we'll be to handle the future, children.  Make maps, chart where you're going, get to know your own area well.  It'll always pay off in the end when you get lost or need something specific to help you.  Speaking of finding things, here's the fun bit...loot!  If you can find it, think about taking it!  It may be scrap to you, but somepony might need it.  Just like I said before, folks, trade will help us all.  So don't just throw away that wonderglue or scrap electronics, y'hear?”

        Shapes came to life...

* * *

        The wind roared about my head as I squinted my eyes into the harsh and now warmer gusts that blew around Fillydelphia.  My mind was whirling just as much, trying to locate the best positions, the safest routes and the cosiest hiding places I could think of.  My small talent to find hideaways being strained as best I could at this distance.  In all, I was trying my best to not think about a dead slave in a threshing mill...

        I sat atop the pink and...uh...more pink helter skelter of the FunFarm with a rag tied around my mouth against the smog up this high.  Okay, perhaps I was coming back to the FunFarm just once, but not to the petting zoo, that counted as never coming back, right?

        Towering above everything other than the huge Barn and the rollercoaster, it afforded the best view of Fillydelphia I could manage within my limited accessibility.  Within the small cage meant to contain, presumably, a staff member for setting small foals on their way I cast my eyes across every street, building and scrap pile that made up the horrifying vista that was the slave city.  The burning pits dug into the concrete and covered with wire mesh forever spewed smog into the air from parasprite incineration.  Armed guards cantered to and fro around them, occasionally glancing off to the axe pits.  In there, slaves were cutting up old scrap and passing it on to carts to be sent to places like Slit's factory.  In fact, I could even see her giant concrete block of a workplace nearby, the furnaces adding to the dirty cloud that permeated the air.  Further out I saw the slaver camps surrounding the entire work areas, just short of the Wall.

        The Wall...

        That gigantic obstacle to my escape lurked not an impossible distance from the FunFarm.  Piled high, crammed with guard towers, magically charged fences and beyond it a tainted moat.  What lurked beneath the sick slime there I could only hazard at, but if regular gunshots from the guards were any indication, the threat of what remained in there was better suited to those outside it than the occupants of Fillydelphia.  I had to cross it somehow...and simply pray I didn't meet the rumoured...things...that existed in there.  Even being exposed to a slightly tainted mother had given me a mutation on birth, not to mention whatever effect it had on my development and organs.

        All my planning failed the moment I reached the Wall, but I'd find something.  There had to be other ways than the main gate.  I had a knack for finding small spots, maybe a drain or a hidden escape route to flank attackers...

        It was too horrifying to think on for long, I let my eyes drift closer in between scrapes of my charcoal to draw up my map.

        I could see the entire FunFarm, still filled with toiling slaves as they worked in shifts to drag off all the unneeded scrap metal and scavenged items.  I'd be doing some of that later myself, according to DJ-Pon3, who knew what I could get for some oddities?  I needed trade items for the wasteland, especially as I owned no bottlecaps myself.  Hell, Pon3 had even said that someplaces would trade three hundred caps for certain drugs or types of healing item that I had almost come close to getting away with yesterday.

        I was painfully aware of the fact that those items were worth three times more than my own price on the slave markets.

        I wondered what my listing would look like now.  Tiny and weak young buck, slight taint mutations, non-functional wings, twelve previous owners, answers to the number seven, has no talent for anything other than failing, apparently.

        I lightly tapped my head with a hoof to clear my mind, I couldn't let that kind of thinking get a hold of me again...I didn't want to go back to the grind, I didn't want to be a slave any more.

        Flicking my loose tooth with my tongue, I began to wonder if my slave instincts were somehow tied to it.  Like I was close to casting it off and getting rid of its pain but just not quite yet gathering the courage to actually go through the effort.  Sighing, I went back to work, comparing a mental defect to a loose tooth...what idiocy...

        My map was almost done, as was my perceived route.  I had drawn thick lines for buildings and roads, dotted lines for patrol routes I could spot from up here and small crosses on where I knew there were hiding spots.  Dumpsters, drain ditches, piles of metal crates...

        Who made those damn metal crates?  No matter where I had been sent to work in the wasteland there were always the same shaped and coloured metal crates.  They ranked just below the pink menace on the creepy scale of always seeming to follow me around!  Who made them?  Whatever pony came up with the design must have been rolling in...in...what did they use...bits!  They'd have been rolling in bits!

        I looked to my left at the life size pink pony cut out on the wall, a hoof and a smile showing all the foals the way to the helter skelter's slide exit.  Her eyes were fixed on me.

        “Don't suppose you know?  You were around back then, weren't you?”

        It beeped at me.

        After I had pulled myself to my hooves from behind the nearest corner and breathed into a bag to calm my hyperventilating down, I realised the beep had instead come from my Pipbuck.  I was fairly sure that no-pony had heard me yelp in terror.

        Okay, it was more of a scream.  I was a pathetic little slave, what can be expected of me when I get scared by a freaky pink pony thing?

        I looked down at my Pipbuck.

        Beep!

        The same noise as last night on the control tower...

        Beep!

        With a small click, the speaker cut the music that had been playing (how dare it interrupt Velvet Remedy!) and replaced it with the somewhat faded and slightly distorted ambience I'd heard from the last diary entry.  Holding it close, I left my plans to listen...

        “Oh, gee, I hit go already...um...ok.  Hello!”

        “Hey...”

        I don't know why I did it...it just felt wrong to not answer Sundial.

        “Day two of my continued Pipbuck recordings to tell of my pretty boring life amongst a not so boring period of history.  They said on the radio that somepony took a shot at the Princess out near the front today, no reports back but they have said she is still alive.  I dunno...rumours get everywhere these days.  I swear, Pinkie's Ministry seems to be everywhere to catch the bad ones, those posters creep me out.”

        I glanced back up at the cut out, staring right at me.  'Pinkie', huh?  I considered the colour of the helter skelter and rolled my eyes.  Of course it would be...

        “Well, I guess I'll tell you..whoever you are, about my day at work.  See, I work at the Ministry of Wartime Technology in Filly now since I last spoke to this thing.  I figured it only makes sense, they're always looking for ponies for the expansion efforts in Fillydelphia.  Only catch is it's in weapons.  Yeah...Dad didn't like that.  He's a healer, of course, so I guess his buck son making guns really isn't too good for his mind.  We argued...but frankly I don't care.  I need the money.  I'm sorry, Dad, I know you paid for my Stable insurance and the Pipbuck, but I need to live day to day and taxes are so high right now with the war effort.  See, if I work in a war factory, I get exempted from them.”

        This didn't sound like the picture perfect Equestria I'd seen in the posters and heard Sundial talk about last time.  I wondered just how much changed so rapidly back then on the lead up to, well, Doomsday.  The close of Equestria and the dawn of my dreary world.

        “Now, anyway, I don't like to ramble so I'll cut to the chase, okay?  I met a mare today.  See, I was trying to get a letter through to the Equestrian Mail Service in time, but my supervisor was having none of it.  It was to my Dad!  I couldn't see him any other time so I was trying not to lose my job as I explained the importance.  But then...she...came along.  Oh what...I mean...heh...yeah I think you can hear where I'm going with this, eh?  She's a pegasus, offered to carry the letter there for me during her time off.  I won't lie, she's quite pretty, lovely blonde hair, some nice flanks if you don't mind me saying...heh...oh why did I say that...”

        I could imagine him blushing.  Yet another similarity between Sundial and myself, a mare who helped us both.  This co-worker for Sundial and the Stable Dweller for me.  Both willing to help others, both flying and both had pretty nice-

        I sat up straight, blinking.  Oh my...I think I was blushing too...

        “Well, no matter, maybe I'll just look back on this and laugh at myself.  Wait...I said that last time too, didn't I?  It has been a few days since...oh well.  Look, I've got to get to work, alright?  The Ministry doesn't like workers not turning up on time.  Pinkie is always watching for stuff like that...”

        Again, I glanced at the cut out.  I wondered what it thought of me about to not turn up for any shift ever again.

        “I'm hoping to see her again anyway, her name is Skydancer.  Maybe next time I'll actually work up the courage to ask her out, say I'm just thankful for her help?  Anyway, gotta go.  Oh yeah!  I said I'd talk about how I got my cutie mark...well, maybe next time, okay?  G'bye!”

        “Bye.”

        I set the Pipbuck back down beside my crude maps and plans.  Sundial's journal was so different from my own.  Detailed, full of opinion, emotion and a connecting voice.  Suddenly my own scrawls on paper felt utterly worthless beside this fancy machine.  Maybe I could work out how to make it operate some day myself, but all I knew were the volume button and the light.  Any other buttons or flips were far beyond my ability to understand, especially with a broken display.  Not that it would have helped, I didn't imagine they catered to illiterate slaves.  No, I was stuck with my scratches on paper, understandable only to me, interpretable only to the creator.  What kind of journal was that?

        Briefly, I remembered the mare looking over them, remembered her smile as she looked at what I had done.  Did she really understand what I was trying to say in my drawings?  Or did she just like the pictures?  Did every...what were they called...drawer?  Art pony?  Did they all feel this way, that only they truly understood their own creations?

        I reached out to grab my journal as a foul smelling wind blew in over the factories into the helter skelter's top cage and flapped its pages away from my map.  Muttering a half curse, I stomped a hoof on the page to stop it before leaning back against the rusted cage wall that once was used to stop foals from falling.  Only then did I look down at my journal.

        I saw a broken wall, sunlight shining through from behind it, sketched clearly in my own style.  A small pony stared at it, his wings spread as he seemed to be waiting for something...

        The page was from years ago...far back in the areas of my journal I never went back to, never remembered and never ever touched.  I wanted to slam it shut, I didn't want to know these things, I didn't want the temptation.  But this picture seemed to stand out to me...what had I been thinking back then?

        Suddenly I began to regret a lifetime of slavery indoctrination to not pay attention and simply put your head down and not think at all.

        With a sigh, I closed the journal and set it back in my saddlebag.  The sun was going down.  I needed to get to the ground, pick up whatever I could find in the helter skelter's bottom areas and then get ready.  The Master would arrive within the hour and they would soon realise I was gone.  No time to think about old pictures, time to act, to move.

        But first...how to get down.  Those stairs were pretty steep for four legs...

        My eye caught an old rectangular cord mat sitting in the corner.  I couldn't help a small grin coming across my face.

        Tucking everything in the saddlebag safely, I reached out and dragged across the foul old fibred rug to rest on the helter skelter slide before sitting on it, holding myself in place with my front hooves.  Well...perhaps some things related to this Pinkie could be good!

        I let go, quickly sitting back on the rug as I felt the lack of friction take hold.  With a slow acceleration, the rug began to slide down the helter skelter.  The wind caught on my mane and face as I felt the momentum picking up.  I couldn't resist a big grin as the rug began to twist around the tower and hurtle at great speed down the tower, spiralling and throwing me from side to side as my entire body felt the bumps in the notched wood beneath me.  Two hundred years hadn't made helter skelters any less fun!  Whee!

        I closed my eyes, feeling the sensation of movement, of free speed and momentum carrying me without any effort through the air...well...kinda.  My mane whipped backward hard as I felt my eye sockets and lips blown wider by the rush of air before me.  I could feel the g-forces trying to push me outwards from the tower by the speed, if I opened my eyes I could see nothing but a blur.  Finally...a chance to not see Fillydelphia as I spun and spun down the tower...

        With little effort, I imagined it as it was in Old Equestria, beautiful and wondrous.  I was out for a day at the Filly FunFarm with my friends.  At the bottom I'd find that mare, the Stable Dweller and...and my mom!  We'd been having fun, no worries in the world.  No work and no slavers at all!  Balloons, foals squealing in happiness came to my ears from the whistling wind on my descent.  Everything was so bright...so colourful...

        I laughed, I had thought of a fun joke to tell them when I got to the bottom.  Then we'd go get some ice cream and go watch the ice skaters, ice and ice right?  That made me laugh more.

        The slide tossed me from side to side, making me instead just start giggling, I lifted my front two hooves, holding them up as the wind brushed them.  Cool air from the warm sunny day.  I could see the crowds around me, all smiling and laughing.  A peaceful Equestria.

        Suddenly, the feeling of the rug sliding disappeared entirely as I felt my entire axis of balance invert.

        “Woo-yargh!”

        Before I could even react, I felt my rump strike a harder surface and flip me forward into a soft lump on the ground that seemed to envelop me completely as the soft sponge pit at the bottom absorbed me into its safe embrace.  I couldn't stop laughing as I reached upwards, waving my forelegs to and fro.

        As I pulled myself out and stared upward at the helter skelter, I felt dampness in my eyes as I woke to the reality once more around me.  Harsh, unforgiving and ruined, nothing like my dreams.  But even as the bittersweet ending to my fun settled in, I did not feel upset.  These tears were...different.

        Collecting my saddlebag from where it fell, I made to walk to the nearby scrap yard, even grinning widely at a confused looking spritebot as it slowly rotated, following my path before buzzing away erratically.  I still enjoyed the ability to close my eyes, smile...and just imagine.  To remember that feeling...those blissful seconds of fun and happiness.

        I drew pictures to express myself.  But my imagination was the greatest canvas I could ever imagine.  I couldn't wait to go out and make it a reality.

* * *

        “Before I go any further, I'm going to pause for a second and just consolidate the things I've been teaching you all for so long.  We have the world we do today because of mistakes.  Yes, children, no-pony would deliberately want this severely screwed up living in the wasteland, so listen closely.  It was a mistake.  But the reason we survived and continue to survive is down to those ponies who can dig in, find something to believe in and get stuff done.  Be it a faith, a virtue to hold on to or perhaps even somepony else, the good fight only began because of those who would dare.  So I ask of you all, think carefully before committing, many of them have paid the highest of prices in the fight to save Equestria from mire and ruin.  But if you do decide, 'Yes!' then you have to pursue it as best you can.  We've all seen that, we've all heard of the Stable Dweller.  Hell, she even took a side in this developing civil war between the Rangers.  So trust me, wastelanders, it is possible to make progress, but only if we're willing to dare...”

        Life...sat before me.

        My plan.  The method by which I would take my life back was finally ready.  All day, bit by bit, lesson by lesson I had adjusted it, gathered what I needed and gradually come a step closer to this moment each time.  Now...the life that was to be mine was right there.  The word kept running over and over in my head...life...life...life...

        I ran the plan over and over in my mind as I set about preparing my equipment, hidden inside an old Hall of Mirrors in the FunFarm near the bumper-plow pit.  The temptation to go there, to visit the mare once more, was so strong.  However, I knew that she wouldn't appreciate it, for me to hurt my chances by taking an unessential risk.  I was in a bad enough state as it was.  My lungs ached and breathing induced a burning sensation within my throat.  Bruises, knocks and small cuts covered my body from the slave work as small burns from the harnesses and carts irritated me from clothing touching them.  Despite the healing potions, my eye still felt swollen from Noose's beating, affecting my peripheral vision to that side.

        I had one potion, that'd help me though.  Time to get ready.

        Step one...escape the FunFarm across to the roads I had run to while evading the gang yesterday, I knew at least one hiding spot to use, the old drain.

        I pulled across the dark fabric I had acquired from the threshing mill.  Tearing it with the sharpened shard of metal from Slit's factory clenched in my teeth I set about creating something better than this rough vest.  I dumped it from my back, feeling the pressure ease from my wings for once.  I wreathed myself in the material, taking rough measurements and cutting appropriately.  Double layered for warmth, DJ-Pon3 had told me that.  I also added small areas for pockets, two on each front leg, multiple within mouths reach.  I had come to accept that I was, by and large, a thief.  I may be forced to steal again, as such, I decided to prepare for it.

        Frankly, I'd always been one anyway...today had only proven it.  A little cowardly thief, but it had felt good, taking the items from those who had tormented me...

        I stitched the material, roughly and heavily with little real skill, but it worked.  Clambering about on the floor, I pulled my new fleece over me.  Darker to hide, warmer for the weather, pockets to store things in and some slits in it for the next stage...

        Step two...Creep from the road into the old ruined houses there, overcome my fear of old living spaces and continue toward the industrial sector, using them as cover against griffins watching from above.

        Pulling the fleece off quickly, I drew the metal plates from my bag.  With some tapping on the ground and a bit of chipping with the shard, I assessed which ones were the strongest and began to slip them into my fleece.  Hidden armour within my clothing to be more inconspicuous.  Slaves didn't wear armour outside of dangerous work and I'd rather be able to move fast and duck around small spots without huge layers holding me back.  I was escaping, not going to war.

        I placed one over my back and two on my right, side and flank.  One more went over my left flank while the last went over my chest, the smallest piece.  My front left was exposed, but that would be covered by the saddlebag which would, hopefully, absorb most impacts.  My thick journal would hopefully help in that, as painful as the idea of it taking a bullet would be.

        Step three...make a dash from the ruins towards the threshing mill, plenty of hiding spots and minimal guard cover after viewing from the helter skelter.  A low risk environment.

        I rubbed the shard against a rock I had dragged in from outside, smoothing off the serrated edge to make it cleaner and sharper.  It took time, but tapering to a rough point as best I could I fabricated a somewhat rudimentary knife point.  As I scraped it off, I glanced around me at the old mirrors...it was almost darkly funny to see the mirrors meant to make a pony look fat made me look like a normal pony.  I didn't even glance at the thin ones...no-pony needed to see that.  Turning back to my knife, I grabbed a little spare fabric and some wonderglue I had found in the helter skelter for repair work to make a grip for my mouth.

        I stared at it...could I use it to kill somepony?  I had been around death every day.  Could I take another's life to attain my own?  Not an issue...no...I couldn't think on it, I'd defend myself, but it was more a utility tool now.

        Measuring it against my left foreleg, I made a little sheath for it with some fabric, giving me easy access to it should I ever need it...hopefully not.

        Step four...move from the mill toward the slave camps.  Stay hidden, stay stealthy.  Use what I had learned about moving quietly to sneak by them under the cover of dark and in the shadow of their huts.  Most slavers stayed around fires, ruining night vision, use that advantage!

        I ripped up the remaining fabric, rolling it into tight bundles and pouring a small section of the healing potion onto each one.  DJ-Pon3 had mentioned the trick to create healing bandages to help close wounds faster.  I figured that one healing potion wouldn't help me for serious injuries anyway...if I got wounded, these would have to do until I could locate better supplies.  I made a small bag for them, keeping them separate and safe, they would go near the top.

        Beside them, I placed my two spare Med-X's.  I still had them from yesterday, Whiplash hadn't even bothered to check me over while in fear of The Master.  They were my insurance to keep moving.  Find a place to hide, stab one of them in me and ride the high time express to movement again.  The DJ had talked of the dangers of addiction...I didn't want to risk it, but I was prepared to take both if I had to...

        Step five...the camps are near the Wall.  Wait until the guard changes each half hour and then move in the blind spots up to the wall itself, a huge shadow from the sunset makes it very dark behind it, use that space.

        I dragged my saddlebag outside.  The bright yellow and pink was lovely, yes, but it stood out.  Reluctantly I placed it face down in the mud and smothered the entire thing to ruin the colour.  I rubbed dirt into the metal links to prevent them shining, used differing types and colours of dirt, mud and grime to camouflage it better and finally tore off the small plastic glittering dots on the butterfly antennas.

        Back inside, I began to fill it.  First the scrap.  Wonderglue, some old tins, a small box with some old wires poking out of it, a small tin of cleaning fluid, old duct tape and a few old bits of magical circuitry.  Then came my food, old tins wrapped in cloth and filled with rapidly solidifying oatmeal.  I still smirked at taking them from the gang.  On top of them I placed my journal to slide along one side closest to me, the quill and parchment and my medical supplies.  Snapping the saddlebag shut, it weighed more than I'd like but...needs must.  With a quick flick of my mouth, I downed the remainder of the healing potion, feeling the whip scar on my backside along with various other cuts and bruises fade.  My stamina returned somewhat as the disease was beaten back by the healing magic briefly.  It'd be enough to get by.

        Step six...find a way through the wall.  Ideally a drainage pipe or something.  I'd seen a ditch running the length from my perch earlier...that had to lead somewhere.  A wall could never have only one entrance, that'd be suicide if it were taken by an enemy, there would be something, I just had to find it.

        Time to gear up.  I struggled into my armoured fleece, pulling it tight about me and shaking out my neck.  With a slight heave I lifted the saddlebag across my back, shifting till it was comfortable.  A few adjustments to make sure it didn't make noise when I moved and it was ready.  With some mouth work I strapped on my sheath for the knife to my left foreleg, ensuring I could reach it at a moments notice.  I dropped a healing bandage into my front leg pocket as well, setting a syringe into my front right for emergencies.  With a little smirk, I snapped Wicked Slit's flight goggles onto my head as well.

        Just one more thing left...

        I turned to it.  I'd left it sitting in front of a mirror deliberately until last.  The Pipbuck.

        She had shown me the way.  I couldn't not show my respect by carrying it like she did.  I used Whiplash's leather 'number three' to weave between the metal joints that used to hold the mechanism onto a pony's leg.  The entire holding mechanism was gone, leaving only the top section, but with some tying, pulling and a good few knots, I pulled the Pipbuck proudly onto my right foreleg...just like hers.  It flickered its light once or twice, as though recognising it was now being worn properly...if held in place by old leather cord.

        Step Number Seven...this was pretty unsure.  What would I find?  I knew the one thing I had to do...hide and run.  Keep moving.  Don't stop until you are miles from Fillydelphia.  Use Med-X if you have to, just keep galloping until you cannot gallop any more...find a healer.

        Have a life.

        I turned, dressed ready, all my equipment and supplies borne on my back or body.  I felt proud, ready to fight the good fight.  Ready to show Equestria that the slaves need not sit idle in the dark.

        I saw myself in the mirror.  The third time in three days I had looked at myself.

        The first time I had seen a dejected slave, too broken to even complain about his imminent death.

        The second I had seen a dying buck with little hope for anything but trying to stay alive however he could.

        But now...I saw me.  I saw Murky Number Seven, tooled up and ready to go.  Stuffed fleece covering his malnourished body and eyes that showed a hope I had never before imagined that they could own.  The Stable Dweller...the mare...Number Six...the Pipbuck...Velvet Remedy...Sundial...DJ-Pon3...they had all helped me, prepared me and given me things to hold on to.  Now it was time to act on my own.

        I hoped they would be proud.

        I didn't look strong, indeed I looked pathetically weak still.  I didn't feel confident, only that my hoof had been forced to ensure my survival.  Biting my lip, I touched a hoof to the mirror, like two days ago, just...just to prove that I was what I was seeing, that I was actually standing up and about to do this.

        A wave of cold shot through me at the touch.  I gasped in shock, recoiling as I looked at my hoof.  As fast as the sensation had come...it left.  I looked up, trembling from the sudden effect of the glass.

        Before me in the mirror...I saw myself.

        But not me here...it was me as a colt, standing with innocent little wide eyes filled with tears, my two stubby little wings flapping pathetically as I stared at...well...me.  Sweet Celestia...I was tiny as a kid!  I felt locked in place...looking down at this little colt slave's mouth gasp open, like he was as shocked to see me as I was to see him...I mean me...it...

        I felt frozen for a second...unable to process what I was seeing, before shaking my head roughly and frantically, waving myself away from the mirror.

        Stunned, shocked and confused...I looked at the now empty mirror with an open mouth, just like the image had borne.  Taking a deep breath I tried to control my thoughts.  No time to think on it...no time to think on old drawings either...I had to get going.  I'd work it all out later, definitely.  But not now.  I galloped to the back door.

        For now...I had a life to claim.

        My own.

        

* * *

        Step one would be easy.  I'd left the FunFarm so many times in my life within Filly that I knew every route and little object by heart.  The slaver walkways and towers only covered the areas approaching the Pit and the Wall, considered important.  No slave would attempt to escape into the rest of Fillydelphia, it was presumed.  Or at least, I hoped that was the case.  Whatever the reason, they was why my route had such a roundabout manner through the ruins and the threshing mill rather than directly for the wall.

        I stuck to the back staff areas, small alleyways between rides and stalls that employees would, by my guessing anyway, have used to travel between places of work without being held up by the cheering crowds.  Briefly, I wondered what they might think of their place of work now, before dismissing the thought.  This was no time for an idle imagination.

        Moving at a light canter, I stopped only occasionally to adjust my bag and pockets to not rattle or shake during movement.  Everything I had learned across my life about staying silent and hidden to avoid harm had to come together here.  If I were caught, I didn't want to think about what they would do to a little thief like me.

        I stopped in the shadow of an old games stall.  Within it stood milk bottles stacked in perfect towers, challenging players to knock them over.  Apparently even a Balefire Megaspell hadn't been enough to make those rigged things budge.  Gently easing open the creaky door, I stepped inside and used a fractured hole in the back to observe the side exit to the FunFarm.  No guard towers, this was a route only for those going to shifts with no requirement to stop them before they got to the Wall.  Beyond it I could see the road I had escaped to yesterday, the drain waiting on the other side as a reluctant hiding place should I be spotted.

        Tensing my legs, I prepared to go into full gallop across open ground, but something gave me pause.

        A sound...a flutter...

        I craned my neck upwards, glancing left to right and checking every perch I could imagine.  Nothing disturbed the FunFarm at this level.  Higher up I could see teams of griffins soaring on the warm currents of Fillydelphia, but they were much too high to have caused that sound.  Minutes passed as I hid, awaiting another occurrence.  Slavers wandered past me on the road, trotting and laughing on their way to the Roamer Bar.  I waited for a gap, the flutter was just another ghost noise from my freaky hearing.  I often picked up sounds that I didn't want to hear or were too far away to matter.

        The moment any slavers seemed to be absent from the area I made my move, galloping immediately, keeping low to the ground and moving as fast as I dared for the opposite side of the road.  A shiver passed down my spine as I felt open ground lose all sense of cover or concealment from my escape, but I pressed on.

        “Eh, shite!  I forgot something, mate.  Gimme a second!”

        I heard the clatter of hooves running back down the road from around the corner of the FunFarm and increased my step to dive off the over edge of the road.  Skittering down the ditch side, I frantically looked for the drain, sweat dripping from my face already.  Panic set in, I couldn't be spotted this early!

        “Hey, hear that?  Somepony trying to hide away?”

        “Ain't no shift to come out this time, one goin' AWOL for the market?”

        Rotating all the most colourful curses I knew (which wasn't saying much) I ran to and fro, searching for the drain before the couple would appear up the road and look down at the ditch.  Was I in the wrong place?  No!  There it was!  Staying as quiet as I could while moving fast as I dared, I quickly (and rather sloppily) stuffed myself into the drain once more.  Strangely enough, it didn't feel quite so bad this time...although perhaps the threat of imminent selection for the Pit again may have had something to do with preference.  The fit was harder with my thicker clothing and saddlebag, but with some curling up (and a rather unpleasant form of lubrication) I squeezed myself in, turning to face out of the drain itself.

        Right...safe.

        The pitter patter of hooves sounded almost directly above me as the slaver pair wandered on the road above the drain.

        “You sure?  Get all sorts of things running about in the ruins, why, ol' Sticky Crescent said he saw a baby hellhound in here once!  Dug its way right in!”

        “What?  Stop talking shite, you wally!”

        “No, I swear!”

        “This the same buck who told you he once saw Princess Luna herself flying alongside Red Eye's chariot?”

        “Yeah...”

        “Absolute bollocks, mate.”

        Good...banter and argument meant no serious searching.  I was still undetected.

        Skritch skritch...

        I sighed, more random noise to become distracted b-

        A sudden pinching pain shot through my back right leg, I screamed loud in shock, bucking it backward and feeling it connect with something unpleasant...segmented, chitinous and slippery.  In a blind panic, my back to an unknown threat and unable to turn to face it, I scrambled, pushed and crawled as best I could.  Feeling small bites on my back hooves between half bucks before I dove from the drain and twisted to look back.  Staring me in the face was a gigantic insect, a radroach, crawling out of the drainage pipe with smooth movements from its filthy hide and clacking legs.  Behind it, I could see at least three more following it.  I felt frozen in fear...I...I had been in there yesterday and not known at all...

        My fear broke like a wave as I saw them advance.  I turned to gallop off into the ruins, I could out-distance them without a worry.  Setting off, I glanced quickly back at my legs.  They bled from several small bites, nothing serious, but I'd have to get the bandages on them soon before infection set in.  Yeah...like there were any infections left for me to get.

        I came to the nearest ruined home, two stories and missing its roof entirely.  Built from brick and concrete, it spoke of an old workers home, rustic and practical.  A quick buck hoofed the door open before heading inside.

        “I swear, you forget anything again and I'm not waiting...”

        My eyes flickered wide open, how could I have forgotten, they were just picking something up, of course they'd be back!  Okay, I didn't expect it to be less than a minute, but still!

        I looked back, seeing two neutrally coloured slavers coming back down the road.  The radroaches seemed content to have left me as they milled around in the spilled sewage, but they were hardly hidden to the slavers.

        “Hey, check this mate.  Roaches, what got them stirred up?”

        “Could be our little runaway.  What do you think?  Coming or going?”

        “Shackles is at the FunFarm tonight, definitely going, whoever it is if he's in the area.  You ain't seriously saying we take a look are you?”

        “Look, if we're being watched and Stern hears we didn't it'll be us getting devoured by parasprites before the morning.”

        “Urgh...fine...”

        The pair moved off the road toward the ruins.  I was hidden behind the door, keeping it open only by a tiny fraction to observe them, trusting in my shaded clothes, coat, mane and my small size to hide me.  One of them, a brown buck, stomped on each radroach in turn with a satisfying and somewhat disgusting crunch.  The other, an almost jet black unicorn, however, was glancing around before bending down...and suddenly looking directly at the house I was in.  In shock, I backed away from the door.

        “Tracks...”

        Shit!  Of course!  I'd been in such a rush and panic to escape the radroaches I'd forgotten to watch what was coming off my hooves from the drainage.  I'd led them right to me!  One brave little glance confirmed he was heading this way, I didn't have time to get out quietly.

        I looked down, finding a dirtied pink matt sitting just inside the door with some writing on it (what would you write on that?) and wiped my dirty hooves on it frantically before tu...before turn..turning...oh sweet Luna...oh sweet Celestia...

        ...oh...Goddesses...no...

        Before me were the entire family of the home, a collection of skeletons spread around the full front room and open plan kitchen.  Pony shaped sets of bones, stripped bare by balefire and weathered by time yet still roughly posed enough to indicate they had been taking shelter as best they could when the warnings had sounded in the city two hundred years ago.  Some were smaller than the others...

        A memory was unpleasantly reminding me of a certain farmhouse.  I was intruding upon their memory.  My hooves were locked to the floor at the visual imagery of everything wrong with Equestria now-a-days.  I could hear the slavers moving to the house, their hooves slopping around in the mud, but still I couldn't move a muscle in my body.  I almost felt like I wanted to just tip over, my hooves stuck in the air.

        I shouldn't be here...

        Empty eye sockets stared in random directions, concussive force had spread some bones out.  I could see a faded family photo on the wall, earth ponies all.  Lovely warm coloured coats between the entire group.  Pots and pans sat scattered on the kitchen top where they had been making dinner.  An old work bag rested near me from being dropped after a shift.

        I should have known, I couldn't handle scenes like this, I'd never been able to!  I'd just been hoping everything would be ash and gone, but the horror froze me in place as the weight of memory landed squarely on my newly opened mind.

        The slavers were just outside, I could hear their breathing.  If they found me, I'd perhaps join the skeletons, would I be sent to them?  Would they be unhappy with me?

        The terror of the thought finally gave me purpose.  I darted forward, almost prancing in circles as I searched for a hiding spot.

        “Sorry...sorry...I'm so sorry...”

        Muttering under my breath, I pulled open a kitchen cupboard and hid inside it after levering open a back window ever so slightly, just to unlock it.

        The slavers burst in.  Their hooves knocked over the work bag, I heard the tools clatter out.  Pots and pans rung as they moved around, knocking things over in their blundering check.  The simplicity of my hiding spot suddenly felt all too vulnerable, if they decided to do more than just glance, I was caught.  Unable to see, I could only hear them moving through the sitting room adjacent as I shook terribly.  Around me were cleaning agents...at least I thought they were.  Even if I could read it was too dark to tell inside the cramped cupboard.

        “Hey, back window.”

        “What?”

        “Whoever it was, they're long gone, left through the window.  See?  It's unlocked.”

        A clatter of something lighter...was that bones?!

        “Perhaps this lot just left it open.”

        “During a balefire drop?”

        “Clearly a pane of glass would make all the difference, mate”, came the reply, sarcasm dripping on every word, “Look, let's just get moving, alright?  No-one saw it but us and if we're late to the Roamer it'll be our round.”

        The pair seemed to delay for a brief glance before moving out.  I heard a horrible popping crack, a muttered curse and finally the door slamming shut.  I waited for a few minutes, just in case they doubled back, before opening the cupboard and almost bursting into tears immediately.

        The slavers had, in their simple visit, destroyed what was left.  The kitchen utensils were scattered all the more.  The undisturbed work bag had been kicked over the floor.  Worst of all...the largest skeleton's ribs had been snapped from a careless hoof.

        I couldn't stand this any more, I'd bandage myself up someplace else.  I had to get out of here.  Moving to the back door with a resolution to stick to the outdoors until the threshing mill...I paused only to check the surroundings before creeping out into the dead gardens between the rows of houses.  Sticking to the fences, ducking below lifeless branches of long dead bushes and moving only when I could see no griffins, I pressed on.

        It'd been close, I was behind schedule, but I could still do this.

        I...I knew I could...

* * *

        I'd had it easy thus far, despite what it may have felt like.

        I sat atop an old rickety garden shed, hidden behind a dead tree beside it as I glanced over at the threshing mill past the small wall.  In days gone by, the low and long building must have been a local business to be so close to these houses.  Build mostly from wood, it had been repaired by hastily bolted on beams and sheets of rusty metal by the slaves over the past few years.  As such, it gave a very patchwork appearance, oddly traditional next to the industrial nightmare surrounding it from Fillydelphia.  I imagined this must be a pre-war building in the sense of existing long before the first shot of the first skirmish was fired at all.

        Thick lines of slaves were being led in and out.  Good, I had to go through it to reach my destination.  From the helter skelter I had seen masses of guard walkways between larger factories and warehouses around the entire area.  Comparatively, going through the threshing mill would be safer, if only in a sense of having cover should I be spotted as opposed to a large open area watched by scoped rifles.  I sat on my haunches, tapping a hoof on the shed as I contemplated my next move.

        All that time I was still trying to fight off the slave in my mind.  It taunted me, chided me, screamed that this was wrong and urged me to turn around.  Go back to my master, go back to the predictable life where I knew my place.  Sacred Goddesses, what was I doing here, trying to escape?  I was about to run under their guns in some suicidal urge to try and save my own life, that wasn't for me to decide!

        I fought the tears, my head lowering.  However as I did so, my eyes found the Pipbuck, strung to my right foreleg tightly still.  I'd wanted it visible.  I needed it visible.  The Stable Dweller's inspiration was all that was keeping me going.  She had escaped this place to evade death, so I could do the same.  This reminder of her strapped to my leg was the symbol.  She had one as a cutie mark, now I knew why.

        Mentally bucking myself back to reality to be careful, I placed myself closer to the roof, hunkering down on all four legs as I crept to the edge.  I almost squeaked as I looked over and saw a row of slaves passing by the street not twelve feet from me that I'd almost missed.  Trudging and weary they, like before, were of a smaller stature like myself.  As I watched their despondent faces, dragging hooves like iron weights and scarred sides from the thresher machine I began to think.  I didn't have long, any plan would have to do to get inside when not on my own shift.  Perhaps I could sneak among them, hide in plain sight?

        Time was short.  Drawing my saddlebag off, I began to wind some spare cloth around my Pipbuck.  It was a dead give away if unhidden.  The rest could pass around the dirty slaves I hoped, but I swung my knife around to the inside of my leg instead to keep it better hidden.  Checking the bandages on my legs were tight, I dropped with a soft whud from the garden shed (I never was one for landings, it was perhaps a good thing I couldn't fly) and waited for the slavers guarding the procession to look away.  With practised depressive steps, I silently trotted into line, fighting down the chains binding my mind from tempting me to fall back into actually being a slave.  A filthy green mare looked sideways at me as I gently shoved my way to the middle of the slave march.  I tried to smile back, receiving only a scowl in return.  I put my head down, glancing only briefly as I heard a little flutter from nearby, probably an old piece of cloth in the wind.

        Every muscle twinged.  Guards were looking at me, scanning the crowd from above and beside.  Whips cracked, urging the smaller slaves into the mill's cavernous doorway after passing through the fence gates.  Feeling myself being bumped from side to side by the thinning space for so many ponies to squeeze through, my concentration was entirely on staying on my feet, to keep moving like your average slave and don't draw any attention.

        'Like your average slave', I thought.  Looking around me, I saw ponies shuddering, crying and fearfully looking around.  I hated my fellow slaves, they would kill me as soon as look at me if they knew about my wings.  But seeing them on the night of my hopeful flight from Fillydelphia I began to feel a sadness for them that was entirely new.  I'd get out of here, but these ponies were to be left to work, hurt and die with no change brought by my leaving.  There was to be no escape for them.  Normality would drive them to their deaths, whether sharp and painful or slow and lingering.

        With practised and weary steps, they made their way to the threshing machine.  It still ran full tilt, the last shift only having just vacated.  Even from the crowd I could see the stains on the floor, red marks of long past and the recently dried ones of the pony who had unexpectedly saved my life.

        I had to stop, the trembling of a close shave with death still passing through me whenever I thought on it giving me pause to lean against a wall for a moment.  Death from Fillydelphia was without favouritism...what if it had picked me for a random and messy end?  What if it picked the mare?  What if I returned with a team to liberate them all and I found that she had been killed by some drunken slaver for no reason at all?

        “Drop the saddlebag, slave.”

        I blinked my eyes open, gasping in shock as I turned me head slowly, painful inevitability reared its ugly head as I gradually focused on the sight of a dark red and black clad unicorn mare staring down at me.  A cane hovered in her telekinesis magic field as her eyes inclined towards a storage locker.

        “You won't be able to move without getting caught with that thing on, dump it in the room.  You can pick it up later once you're done.”

        Her colleague, an earth pony buck with an entirely shaved mane, moved up beside me.

        “We'll keep it safe for you, honest.  We only take ten percent of your caps, other slavers go for higher amounts.  Best deal.”

        Oh you had to be kidding me.  Really?

        “Come on, get ready, take your place.  Dump those clothes and those ridiculous goggles too, far too bulky to work under the thresher.  Well come on!”

        Not good, not good, not good at all!  I had hoped that I could slip right into the threshing line and make a dash for the back door the corpse had been taken to earlier.  Since when did slavers start to care about safety?  I glanced back and forth at the pair, searching for the words.

        “I can't, um...see, this is stuff for Wicked Slit...”

        “Good!  That bitch killed two of the slaves we lent her last week.  Do you know how hard it is to find unicorns who can pick locks in this damn wasteland?  C'mon, give us the stuff, you can just tell her you got mugged.”

        Somehow I doubted that would work even if I wasn't lying through my teeth.  Dammit, this plan wasn't working!  I had pictured me perhaps having to run under gunfire, overcoming fear to charge out into a free life, but this was just stupid!

        “Come on!  Hurry up and drop the goods, slave!”

        “Please!  I'll be fine,” I practically begged them, lowering my head, “I...I'll take the risk with it on.”

        If I could just get past them then I could slip out.  Other slaves were beginning to pay attention to this, some slavers casting eyes from outside the doorway into the threshing room as well.

        “Oh for Luna's sake, Barehoof, just take it from him, slaves shouldn't have bags anyway.”

        I felt the earth pony grab a-hold of my saddlebag strap with his teeth from the side.  Struggling, he smacked me with a hoof a couple of times as I tried to shake him off in a blind panic.  Terror struck me, what if he pulled my vest off?!  I'd gotten lucky earlier...

        “Shtay shtill!”

        The buck shouted through clenched teeth, I kept moving from side to side, grabbing on to my saddlebag however I could, a fight to keep it on me quickly becoming a small scuffle that almost ended the moment that I felt his hoof attempt to beat me on my side to keep me still.  A metallic clang rung through the room as he pulled back, more surprised than genuinely hurt as his hoof impacted on the metal plate I had hidden there.

        “What the hell?  Grab him!”

        If I'd moved faster, that would have been my chance, but a momentary pause to check my fleece hadn't shifted gave Barehoof an opportunity to grab me again.  I felt his front hooves wrap around my torso as he launched at me, his weight pulled me to the floor with a crash from both out belongings impacting in their bags.  I could smell his rotten breath just above my head, feel every bit of his weight pressing down across my back and rump.  The pressure on my wings gave way to a pathetic squeal of pain, the continued rubbing as he shifted, trying to pin me down with his weight was like being rubbed against a grindstone to my wings.  The unicorn wandered over, she would cut off my only route in a second...the slaves had parted to stay away from the confrontation.  No slave wanted to be near an angry slaver like I'd just done.

        “Good!  Now just stay still like an obedient little slave while we get all this off you...”

        Thankfully, through my pain and fear, I remembered one way to get a buck off me.  I struggled up just far enough to lift my back right hoof and fire it backwards as hard as I could.  My hooves were tiny, small enough to fit right into that gap with all the force focussed into one little point...

        “Aaiieee!”

        On the crunch of contact, Barehoof's weight entirely disappeared as his strangled cry pierced the air, hurting my ears from the proximity.  I couldn't hesitate, I needed every bit of my supplies and any delay would give time for the alarm to be raised once The Master realised I'd made a run for it.  Even as Barehoof fell sideways, clutching his loins with both front hooves and crying in pain, the unicorn and other slavers looked almost too stunned (one was laughing!) to react to their comrade's plight.  Using the space, I turned and galloped as fast as I could into the mass of slaves around the machine.  Behind me the shouts quickly went out, calls to stop and threats of punishment.  I didn't stop, panic and fear wouldn't let me.  I'd already gone past the point of no return now, I'd attacked a slaver and went on the run...I had no illusions about what would happen if I were caught now.

        I needed to get out of here...lie low and then move on!

        Slaves dove to either side of the thin corridor between the wall and the threshing machine edge as I weaved between them.  The slavers were in hot pursuit, shoving slaves brutally away as they levitated batons, knives and whips.  They were faster than me and, unfortunately, I only had a straight corridor for the huge machine to run down.  Beside me the whirling blades of the thresher continued their work even as everypony stood watching the chase.

        Wait...

        I felt a slaver right behind me, the swish of a cane.  In a moment, I ducked, rolling sideways to be under the machine once again.  Ten seconds time to use.

        I crawled forward, trying to get beyond a big mass of slaves nearby before the blades came back.  Leftover refuse and thread built up around me as I moved in the confined space, rubbing the string above me from the saddlebag.  The strands got in my mouth, eyes and nose.  I could see the other side of the crowd standing, that would slow them down!  It would take them some time to force their way through the slaves in the thin gap between machine and wall.

        But I could circumvent it under the machine.  Ha!  Who said being small was-YARGH!

        Two hooves stretched out, grabbing my back leg.  A slaver had crawled under the machine itself to get me.  Too big to properly fit, a maniacal grin covered his face as I tried to kick at him.

        Up at the top, the blades reversed, hurtling back towards us.  The slavers didn't know how short a time it was under here...

        “Let go!” I screamed madly, sweating and whinnying in panic as I saw the blades coming.  He didn't even see them!  Just holding on to my hoof like grim death until his comrades arrived.

        I bucked, kicked and thrashed wildly as I felt myself being pulled back further into the machine!  It looked so close!  My own dive and the slaver grabbing me must have only been a few seconds, how long did I have!?

        The battle to free my hoof caused him to try and pull me harder.  His head, hooves and my back leg were becoming tangled in the thread from above.  Rule one of the thresher, don't get caught in the thread!  I squealed, trying to free myself even as the slaver began to realise his predicament.  Even if I got free, there wasn't enough time to...to...

        

        No!  Don't think about it!

        I leaned in, swinging my Pipbuck as hard as I could at his head.  The connection shook the bandages free as the slaver reeled from the hard metal impact.  Mentally, I apologised to Sundial even as I felt my hoof freed from his grasp.

        Not that it helped, the pair of us were still stuck in the thread like a spider's web...

        The machine was being slowed by the tangled thread, but the blades kept advancing slowly, sorting the thread back properly.  If they reached us then we'd be 'sorted' with it!  The slaver was starting to panic himself, thrashing all around and making his predicament even worse while I struggled to pulled my hoof free from the winding thread.  I felt tears on my face, my limbs shaking as the thum thum thum thum sound of the blades came ever nearer.  Forget how handy it was, I would have given a lot to not have hearing that picked up sounds in so much detail right now!

        I didn't know what the other slavers were doing, watching, probably.  Would they be trying to stop the machine?  Would they leap in to try and cut their fellow slaver free?

        Wait, cut free!  My knife!

        Twisting, I dragged the hidden blade from the inside of me leg free with my mouth.  Not wasting any time I tried to saw through the toughly strung thread, the bouncing and movement making it exceptionally difficult.

        Thum!  Thum!  Thum!  Thum!

        Come on...come on!  A few bits of string popped free, but it was wound tight around my hoof, almost cutting off the blood!

        Thum!  Thum!  THUM!  THUM!

        Nothing else for it!  I dug the knife under the string on my hoof, screaming in pain as I felt the edge cut into my flesh too.  It was all I could do to not drop the knife from shouting as I saw a trickle of blood before I fell backwards with a sudden jolt.  Free!  Not soon enough!

        I turned, scrambling harder than ever before to escape, rolling was impossible from the size of my saddlebag for anything more than a dive.

        I needn't have bothered, something slowed it down.

        I would try long and hard for some time to attempt to forget the sound the slaver made as he was 'sorted' by the machine.  Both his voice and the sickening sounds of a pony being caught up fully in the industrial scale machinery assaulted every inch of innocence I liked to think I still had.  I didn't look back for fear of freezing in horror, only taking the advantage of the sickened slaves and slavers who could see to get a few seconds head start.  I saw one slave throw up on the spot, another had gone pale while one was actually smiling.  I wondered what that slaver had done to her...

        I paused only for a second to check my hoof.  The cut wasn't so bad, just a shallow nick to get under the thread...nothing to worry about.  I threw my weight into the slaves as I fought to get away before the slavers regained their senses from the horror show and chased me ag-

        “He's getting away!  Get that little murderer!”

        Alright, maybe not much of a head start then!

        I ran down the linear pathway, the double doors to the back rooms before me promising hiding places and safety.

        They burst open.

        Two slavers came running through them, hearing the commotion.  One of them had a pistol.

        I screeched to the halt right in front of them.  Somewhere else!  I needed to move!  Move!  I turned and ran along the side of the machine, up the stairs on to the walkway the slavers used above it.  Behind me the two new slavers finally gathered what was happening and gave pursuit.  My hooves clattered on the metal as I passed above the thresher.  At the far end was another stairway leading to the roof, below me I could see slavers running for the stairs at the entrance again to cut me off.

        BRRRACK!

        Around me sparks flew from the catwalk as the slaver unloaded his mouth borne automatic pistol after me.  The sound made me scream alone as I kept running, seeing holes ripped around the metal.  He had missed, the slavers often didn't get a chance to try out their weapons in this place, I presumed.  Even I could see the recoil had caught him be surprise.  I heard him swearing as he reloaded.  Slaves were screaming, diving to the ground as the gunfire rang out while the slavers ran on to the cat walk after me.  Pushing my little stride to its limit, I galloped for all I was worth, trying to outrun the ponies below before they got to the other side.

        I realised I was still whimpering, more scared of being caught than determined to actually escape.  The entire catwalk shook with the four or five slavers rushing after me, the imagery of it collapsing into the whirling machinery below scared me enough to increase my rate as much as I could.  Funny, I hadn't ever even seen the entire machine was mirrored on the other side of the hall too, another row of slaves had stopped to gaze upward at the scene.

        The slavers pulled ahead on the ground...I wasn't going to make it!

        BRRRACK!

        I hit the ground hard, rounds spraying over my head.  The deadly whizz past my ears almost led me to think I'd been hit before I saw the burst had struck a supporting girder on the roof.  Along with the mass of weight and thumping hooves, I felt the entire structure tremble.

        Ooooh not good...

        The slavers down below stopped, unwilling to run on to the slowly twisting and shuddering walkway after witnessing what had happened to their friend before.  Galloping at an angle I ran to the second stairs, diving for them just as I felt the entire walkway collapse beneath me.  A shriek of tortured metal bit through the air as the entire construction bent and tore from the roof, the long walkway bending to the side and landing atop the sensitive machinery.  Screams and swearing sounded behind me as the slavers tumbled down it, landing amongst the threads as the blades shattered and shuddered to a stop.  Slaves ran in every direction as blades of metal flew from the ancient machine as the edges bit into the walkway and then themselves flew off.  The noise was absolute, crashing mixing with screams, the thunk of metal embedding in walls crossed with the twanging of thousands of pieces of string at once being severed.

        I heard the slavers cry to get outside and surround the building, another shouted to go and fetch griffins to bring me down.  One bellowed to watch for me leaping off the building.

        Emerging on to the roof, slanted and covered in disjointed slates, I ran away from the hole as fast as I could before-

        BRRRACK!

        Bullet holes punched through the roof, one tearing close enough to glance off my side, the heavy steel plate receiving only a small touch from it, but the impact alone knocked me from my hooves.  Tumbling toward the edge I cried out as I slammed my hooves on the roof, only stopping as they caught a downed power cord rested over the building.

        “Come on...come on Murky...”

        Panting to myself, I fought to keep myself balanced across the roof.  I could hear slavers rushing out into the yard surrounding it, shouting to the guard towers behind me at the entrance.  I ducked behind a set of chimneys, hidden among them from any snipers.

        I needed a hiding spot, but they knew I was up here!  How long till griffins arrived?

        I couldn't stop shaking, I was scared.  Oh, so scared...no, terrified!  They were hunting for me, all alone with no-pony to help me.  I wished Number Six were here, or the Stable Dweller, they could tell me where to go, what to do.  They'd find some daring thing to jump into!

        Enlightened by the idea, I stuck my head out.  Slavers hadn't come to this side yet over the diagonal roof.  At the same time, sickened horror and a life-saving idea came to mind as I looked down.

        Below me was the mass grave.  Hundreds of ponies, dumped in death into the old waste pit.  I could even see the slave from earlier splayed across the top, the most recent corpse.

        Surely...surely the slavers wouldn't spot one more 'addition' to the pile...right?

        My mind rebelled, of all things I'd hidden in, this was too far!  I'd taken refuge in pigstys, rotten food cupboards, spider infested holes, drainage ducts and musky cellars...but this was too much...I couldn't...

        “Got word from Stern!  She's sending a wing over to locate him!”

        ...I had to.  This had gone too wrong already.  I'd been spotted and called out as an escaping slave.  I didn't have time to hang around and try for a different way, I needed to move my plan along before word got to the Wall.  If they found out...

        I steadied myself on my hooves and clenched my teeth.  This wasn't going to be pleasant at all.  Oh how I longed for my pigsty again...

        With a short canter, I dove from the roof.  It was only a single storey high, but to a small pony like me it felt so much higher as I tumbled, hooves first, towards the mass grave.  With a hard thud, I landed heavily, the air knocked right out of me as all four hooves protested at the jarring impact.  My cuts stung badly at the exertion as I tried to get up.  All the time...I tried to not think about what I had landed on.

        It was impossible.

        They squelched under me.  A rotten stink threatened to make me vomit.  Flies buzzed around my head.  I had...I had stains on me.  Suddenly I was very glad for my stolen pair of goggles.  Their eyes stared with lidless purpose, their poses un-natural and I could swear I recognised a couple.

        “He must have leapt off where we couldn't see, come on!”

        My ears twitched as I heard the shout over the screams of slavers keeping control of the terrified slaves.  Looking down, I immediately regretted this idea, the mare below me had been burned to death somehow.  I could see her teeth had been removed...why would they even need them?!

        But she was to be my temporary saviour.

        Muttering apologies through a mouth I dared not open very far, I knelt down, fighting the churning of my stomach as I pulled myself under a couple of the bodies and fought the urge to move as something dripped on my goggles.  I needed to stop shaking!

        Around the corner they came.  Five slavers, including the one with the auto-pistol.  They galloped over.  I could see them looking up at the roof, turned away from me.  Could I just have slipped out in that time?

        “He must have jumped.”

        “Are you kidding?  Kid was terrified, he'd never get that far!”

        “Well he's not here now!”

        “Shut up, both of you!  He's gone alright, so where?”

        They turned, spreading out.  Some wandered to the broken fence posts, I had considered running through them, but I'd never get away from the slavers in a straight race.  I needed to misdirect them first.  The buck with the auto-pistol in his mouth wandered closer, his hooves coming near the mass grave's edge.  He glanced over it, before turning to his comrades, spitting the pistol out.  I could see it hung from his neck on a cord.

        “Hey, didn't that stallion try and hide in the grave a few weeks back?”

        Every effort it took to not move was strenuous, to not throw up my hooves and beg them not to shoot.  By Luna...they'd shot at me!  At me!  The weight of that was just sinking in.  I'd been beaten and attacked brutally before, but a gun was a whole new level.  If I'd been a few more inches to the right when that bullet struck I would have been down.

        “Yeah, just give it a spray and come on.  The griffins will find him.  Damn, Red Eye isn't going to be happy about that machine.”

        The buck turned, taking the pistol back in his mouth and pointing it seemingly right at my face.  I closed my eyes, before praying that he didn't see that slight movement.  I was only one of hundreds...he might miss me...he might miss me...

        BRRRACK!

        I felt corpses move, kick up, shudder and jerk under the barrage.  For a second or two, it felt like they had all come to life again...clammering...grabbing...pulling me deeper into them.  I began to slip downwards as the bullets disturbed the awkward balance of the grave's contents.

        I squeaked.  I couldn't help it.  But as I opened my eyes and saw the buck wandering off, I felt every muscle release from the self induced rigor mortis I'd been in out of sheer terror.  The echo of the weapon still rung in my ears as I mentally checked everything.

        The moment he was gone, I pulled myself free and galloped without a care for noise.  It wasn't until I was past the fence and running into the outer edges of the slaver camps that I finally stopped behind a ruined sky wagon and began to clean my goggles and fleece with some spare rags.

        I stopped only as my stomach twisted, reality caught up to me and I realised what I had done.  I spent the next ten minutes getting rid of everything I had eaten lately at all before collapsing in a shuddering heap inside the sky wagon.

* * *

        Ahead of me lay the end run.

        Behind me I could hear slavers and griffins searching for me.

        I'd thought being shot at was the point of no return.  I was wrong.  This was it.  If I moved past here, I ceased to be a slave attempting to get away from a guard trying to harm them and became a slave trying to escape entirely.  There would be no warnings, no punishments, no Pit and no hope if caught.  Punishment for going into the slaver camps around the edge of the Wall were immediate death or painful death, depending on the mood of the guard who caught you.

        I was stuck.  Fear had taken me at every joint and muscle against moving further.  The slave in my mind was begging with me, bringing thoughts of other ways to survive.  Perhaps I could find enough things to convince Artery to heal me instead to live!  What if I stole things to survive and just hide?

        I fought them down, I knew they weren't possible.  Not truly.  Besides, I needed to get out to draw the picture for the mare as well.  It was a tiny reason, more an excuse to tell myself to go, but it did the job.

        I took the step.  One hoof over the border before galloping toward the most dense concentration of tents and shacks I could see.  Any cover would be needed, guard posts and rings of Red Eye's soldiers sat around camp fires were situated everywhere.  It was a true shanty town of tight spaces and thin alleyways between encampments.

        I'd told myself to dare a lot.  But this...this felt like a truly daring endeavour.

        I just hoped it would end with the same victory the Stable Dweller had...

* * *

        One thing I quickly realised was lots of cover also meant lots of places to run into guards without meaning to.  I quickly trotted backwards before slipping inside the shack, listening carefully as a battle saddle laden huge earth pony clomped past.  Breathing a sigh of relief, I quickly turned to check the shack, only to very quickly begin making my way back out as I spotted four soldiers sleeping on makeshift bunk beds clearly taken from an old barracks somewhere in the city.

        I was sweating profusely.  Not just from exertion, not just from fear, but the heat reflected inwards off the massive Wall nearby noticeably made things worse under my heavy fleece.  Trotting the way the guard had come, I stuck close to walls, trying to convince myself everything was fine.  The Stable Dweller had done this from the Pit, right?  She'd been spotted right away!  I'd gotten to the camps without a single pony following me!  Did that mean I was doing better?

        Remembering the iconic waves of magic swirling about her as she had ascended, I quickly put my ego back in its place.  She hadn't needed to sneak.

        Ducking low, I stuck behind a shack's corrugated metal fence.  I could hear guards muttering to one another on the other side as I moved hoof by hoof past them.  Asphalt and hard rock made silence difficult as my hooves touched ground, dropping my speed to a painful crawl.  Briefly, I realised that I should have made pads for my hooves from the rags too.  Above me, a guard tower watched the area, although I couldn't see the sniper within it from this angle.  Those towers were making life hell.  I stuck to the edge of the fence, carefully watching it for any mo-

        A barrel appeared.

        As fast as I dared, I skipped to the other side of the narrow lane, hiding against the back of a tent to stay out of the line of sight.  My breath was sharp and quick as I tried to not fall into the tent from my quick movement.

        Moving on, shack to shack, fencepost to tent, I gradually moved my way through the thick camps.  Racks of weapons attracted my attention, but all were exposed and honestly, I had no idea how to use them with my mouth properly anyway.  Ducking behind a flaming barrel, I watched a soldier wander past wearing a midrange battle saddle that bore double shotguns.  I fought down the sting of jealousy.  I really wanted one of those things.  The way the mechanics worked, the angle of the springs and tiny gears into such a tiny package, the precision weights and guidance of the saddle itself to allow it all to sit properly when recoiling.  If only for the amazing content, I wanted to steal it from his back.

        

        The fact that it looked like it could turn me into a fine mist was all that stopped me from wanting to somehow find a way, that battle saddle was gorgeous.  I knew nothing of how to actually repair or understand the mathematics behind it, I just appreciated them and their artistic beauty of design.

        Behind me, I heard the stomping of somepony as they got up from their fire, I was about to be spotted!

        As quietly as I could, I was forced to follow the soldier with the battle saddle.  Creeping right behind him, I simply hoped that he would pass a turning before the one behind me turned the corner.  Mere seconds before he did, I found the space to hop between two tents and crawl behind them.  They had their backs to a fence, but with a little light hoofing the ground, I dug a hole just deep enough to allow my small size to squeeze under, pushing my saddlebag before me.

        I emerged inside a tent I hadn't even known was so close to the other side.

        With no flooring, I clambered up without obstacle, taking it inch by painstaking inch as I saw two bucks were sleeping at the side with their weapons leaning nearby.

        “Mm...mmfph!”

        I froze as one shifted, hooves rubbing his eye.  Carefully, I tried to move before he woke up.

        With a stretch, he dumped himself right back down, still fully asleep.

        “Eeh...oh Luna you naughty Princess...”

        I wasn't sure whether I wanted to laugh, roll my eyes or wrench in disgust.  Many ponies of the wasteland didn't believe in the Goddesses any more, even if they still swore by them.  But I'd been brought up by a mother who knew better.  To think such things of the great Goddesses, what a sick buck.

        Edging around the tent flap, I noticed it opened into a large communal area with a roaring fire at the centre.  Guards surrounded it, passing plates of unidentifiable meat between one another from a grill plate over the flames.  Sitting on logs, they all stared into the fire or at one another as they conversed loudly, at least four or five conversations going on all at once.  I could sneak by this, I'd done harder things before in quieter areas...

        It may have been loud.  But it was about to get much louder.

        It started slow, but with the inevitable volume carried within its wailing drone, the Fillydelphia Balefire Warning Siren began its deathly eerie klaxon scream.  Growing in volume second by second, it roared into the Fillydelphia sky, raising hairs on everypony's backs for miles.  Even now, two hundred years on, the sound struck absolute terror in many, me especially.  Louder and louder, my ears began to hurt as every guard in the area shot to their feet, the clattering of weapons, rush of hooves and screams for what was going on filled the air.  I felt rooted to the spot as the sound seemed to penetrate my entire body, images of skeletons in dead homes, of balefire wreathing through cities, of a world ending and the goodness of Equestria being burned out from an unstoppable and indiscriminate wave.

        Back then it had signalled the end of the world.  Today, it was the call to arms against attack...or for escaping slaves.

        The Master had alerted them.  The thresher slaves would have confirmed the direction.

        My head start was over, they were coming for me.

        I took off, stealth was pointless now.  Guards would be searching everything with enough determination born of the screaming siren's incentive.  Above me, waves of griffins took to the sky and every guard tower lit their magical energy bulbs to shine red glares upon the area near the wall.  Galloping at top speed, I sped past the guards, not caring if I was spotted.  I no longer had the time to worry for that, if I didn't get through the Wall before the guards atop it were settled, I'd never get a hundred feet from the borders of Fillydelphia.

        “He's right here!”

        “OPEN FIRE!”

        Booming retorts of rifles followed by the staccato clattering of automatic weaponry sounded in my wake, stopped only by the mass of cover in the shanty town the guards lived in.  Diving around a corner, I rolled as best I could to come to my feet sideways and rushed for any small hole I could find.  Sneaking was gone, but I could still evade!  The wailing in the air and the screaming of guards was too much commotion for me to even think about fear as I wriggled between shacks and jumped tie-lines from tents.  I spilled a crate of rifles as I crashed into it, before screaming and running inside a tent as soldiers piled into the clearing.  Drawing my knife, I cut through the back of it as fast as I could, a hole so small only I could fit through.  Behind me, a heavily sleeping mare was cut down by incoming rounds as they attempted to hit me through the tent's canvas.

        How many times I ran from gunfire.  How many sniper shots rang out as they caught a tiny glimpse of me between buildings.  How many times I was screamed at to stop.

        I kept going.  To stop was immediate death.  To keep going was survival!  Escape!

        I burst from the edge of the camp, collapsing and staggering to my feet.  Gunfire pocketed the mud around me as I weaved, dodged and ran for all my worth.

        “Fucking hit him!”

        “You seen how small he is?!”

        Guards were pouring from the camp, sweet Celestia, how many were there?!

        The ground was open in front of me all the way to the wall.  My memory flashed back as a booming speaker of Red Eye's voice opened up, demanding the rogue slave to halt immediately.  Standing in the road...Number Six bellowing for me to follow...stopping scared in the wake of gunfire and the demands of my Master...

        No...

        He was not my Master.

        Not.

        Any.

        More!

        I screamed an incoherent cry, charging forward, I could see a drain at the bottom of the wall, just like I had imagined!  Gunshots fell around me, pinging from rocks and churning up mud.  If I could just reach that drain, I'd be safe until the other side.  I didn't stop once, running side to side and galloping until my hooves were in agony from striking rocks.  The sunset passed behind the wall as I chased it, determined to view it on the other side, find out where the Stable Dweller had gone over the horizon!

        I mounted the rocks, diving off them even as a rocket propelled grenade blasted them into shrapnel.  My rump stung as pieces flew into me, but I was too determined to stop now!  To either side I saw guards running for me, but even I could tell they were too far away to catch me in time.  A smile crossed my face, I dodged left and right confidently, knowing all along I had been meant to do this!

        Their gunfire missed me completely, their attempts to hit a fast moving and small target camouflaged against a night's darkness were met with failure so long as I didn't run in a straight line.  Tracer fire struck the wall, shouts for bringing me down went out.

        Above me I heard a flutter in the sky.  Like a glass pane shattering, realisation struck me.

        Hearing it once was random.

        Time seemed to slow.

        Hearing it twice was coincidence.

        Terror began to clench my stomach as I began to turn my head to look upwards.

        Three times was a definite sign I had been followed the entire time...

        I saw the jet black griffin with the long barrelled rifle hovering in the air in slow motion.  I tried to bend my legs, to dive out of the way, into the drain.

        Ka-POW!

        It struck me mid leap.  The force of a sledgehammer slapping into my side, I felt the hot pain of the bullet crash through my torso and rip its way out of the other side, my armour plating completely failing to even so much as delay it.

        I fell, tumbling in the air in a slow arc before landing in a heap.

        All the gunfire ceased as I went down and briefly blacked out from the overwhelming force of immediate agony.  Immediately, consciousness flowed back and brought with it a world of pain I had never once imagined could exist.

        I screamed.

        Loud, rasping and full of hurt, I clasped my hooves to my side.  I couldn't even remember if that was the entry or exit, my entire body was wracked with agony.  I forgot my escape, I forgot the sunset and my freedom.  All that was in my mind was panic, pain and fear of dying ever so suddenly as reality shattered my imaginative fantasy.  Thrashing in the dirt, my eyes clenched shut, I wailed for anypony, somepony, to come and help me.  To save me.  I cried for Number Six, I cried for the Stable Dweller and hell, even Celestia herself to help me.  My legs had gone numb.  Forcing my eyes open, I almost fainted on the spot as I witnessed the pool of blood spreading from beneath me.  Beside me...tauntingly...the drainage ditch sat, its Murky Number Seven sized hole forever to tease me with untouched potential.

        Oblivious to my pain and crying, the griffin landed beside me as the guards moved in, weapons pointed.  Ragini!  That was her name!  The griffin from yesterday!  Whimpering and moaning loudly, I looked up at her, my tears mixing with the mud and blood on the ground as I raised a single hoof toward her, begging for help, to not be killed on the spot.

        She batted it away with her muzzle, before reaching down, her talons pulling my fleece up to examine the wound.  I screamed as the wound was aggravated...and as she began to yank my clothing away.

        “NO-ARRGH!  PLEASE!  D-don't...you'll kill me!”

        My word went unheard as she pulled it up.  I cried out anew as I saw the injury myself...the exit wound.  I had imagined bullets made small holes, but it had blown a chunk free of me.  Whimpering, I looked away and shuddered.  My limbs shook...I...I was going into shock...

        The guards broke their calm as they, and Ragini, saw what lurked beneath my fleece.

        

        “A pegasus,” she said, quietly and full of immediate hate, “well well...the rumours are true, then.”

        I couldn't respond, I just tried to keep my blood in, trying to hold down on my wound.  The pain of even my own hooves touching it gave way to more pain and shouting from the feeling.

        “R-Ragini!  Please!  I....I'm sorry!  Let me live...please!”

        It was not dignified.  I held no pride.  I held no shame.  The slave who dared to dream was realising his limitations.  Ragini shook her head and drew the rifle, the barrel aiming directly to my head.

        “Pegasi, only deserve one thing.”

        Her eyebrow twitched, before removing the weapon.

        “But in your case, I think it's better to let these pathetic wretches do it.  Given I watched them fail to catch you, spot you or alert the proper people all night from the FunFarm to here...I have a feeling they are going to be angry with you once they hear that they will be receiving only half rations this week for their failure.”

        The guards shocked reaction came in the form of a large degree of hate and bile, spitting and insults of both pegasi and griffins.  Ragini merely smiled at me, a devilish smile that promised without a single word that my death was not going to be pleasant.

        “I just hope you don't bleed out too quickly...”

        She took off, her huge wings spreading and showing that a true flier has no limitations as she flew to the top of the wall to perch.  Angry guards looked back down at the one who had earned them their failed test.  As one they began to advance, dozens of them.  I tried to move, but every time I did I simply cried out in pain.  My pitiful screaming, begging and whining as I looked from them to the fatal wound did nothing to dissuade them as they converged from every direction, weapons raised to simply beat me to death.  Gasping, shivering and filled with the shock and light headedness of blood loss, I quickly felt consciousness fading as the weapons descended with brutal efficiency and means with which to kill me.

        Even as my head was snapped back by the stock of an assault rifle and I screamed from a hoof being pounded on my wound the darkness began to creep into my vision.  I didn't even move, I couldn't!  Blow after blow descended.  But as quickly as it started...it stopped, as I witnessed the guards cease and part.  My hazy vision gave way to a horrible croaking from my throat as I struggled to open my one functioning eye from the swelling that had blinded the other one again.

        The last thing I saw was a figure advancing through the crowd.  Red and black.  A single, baleful, glowing crimson light emerged from one eye socket.  Before I could even utter the word 'Master' to beg for forgiveness, I fell into the black void that awaited me...and I felt no more.

* * *

        “Now listen, children.

        DJ-Pon3's gonna have to get serious for a moment.  No, really!  Yeah, I know it ain't something that we like to do all too often.  But I've been telling you all about this stuff for the entire day.  But I've been thinking and it feels only truthful that I mention something.

        You will fail.

        Now, don't treat that how it sounds!  What I truly mean is, no-pony can expect to go out there and make it all happen on their first try.  The wasteland didn't last two hundred years just because a few ponies were lazy, oooh no.  To fight the good fight, we need to learn not only to stand up and try...but to know when we're beaten.  To know when we've failed.  To learn from it, get stronger and try again.  I'm sure all those legends we know of thought the same, hell, a certain mare knows that more than most.  So I implore you all, my little wastelanders.  If you go out to fight the good fight I keep telling you to...there will be times when it will hurt more than you can imagine.  But don't give up.  Don't ever give up.  The moment we do...that's when Equestria dies.

        Bit of a downer note to end on, I know.  But I care for you all out there, I wouldn't want to finish this tutorial day without letting you know the harsh reality you'd be in for.

        Now back to something happier, this is Sweetie Belle with a song to send us all to sleep tonight peacefully.  Hush Now, wasteland, one more painful day is over.

        This is DJ-Pon3, bringing you the truth...no matter how bad it hurts.”

* * *

        …

        …

        …

        ...death wasn't the end of my story, it seemed.

        Even amongst the black abyss of pain and defeat, I could hear voices.  Some I knew, Velvet Remedy or DJ-Pon3.  Some I did not recognise.  They rang in my head, my ears picking them up from time to time.

        The pain flared...became worse.  It threatened to overwhelm me.  A sensation of drowning, of fighting to stay afloat.

        I felt somepony grab me.  Hooves around my body, lifting me up desperately.  Lying on my back, I opened my eyes to see nothing but darkness and one mare staring down at me.  Light orange hair, streaked with red...

        I tried to speak, to reach out, but I just lay silent, unable to function in my own body.  Every sound began murky and muddled, as though hearing from underwater.

        She spoke five words...I couldn't understand any of them...it looked like she was pleading.

        What did she say?!

        She glowed with light, the brightness expanding before it contained my entire vision.

        And I woke...

* * *

        Hard metal and red haze greeted me as I awoke.

        I was lying on my side, distinctly not dead but possessing a weariness that was hard to quantify to myself.  Red smoke flowed from grills on the floor, searing my lungs and half choking me.  Whoever put me in here to recover clearly had little care about my ongoing health.

        Wait...

        I twisted, checking my side.  Scar tissue remained, hairs growing back already.  It hurt badly, feeling weak and somehow I knew I'd never properly feel the same ever again...but it had healed.  My lungs felt clearer, despite the smoke in the small, cramped metal cell.  Whatever they had used to heal me had affected my disease as well.  It still felt present, but toned down.

        In many ways...I felt healthier than I had in years, recovering wounds non-withstanding.  What...the...hell...?

        I gave myself a once over.  I was chained to the floor, all four hooves shackled to colossal iron rings welded to the sheet metal.  All of my clothing had been stripped.  Fleece, saddlebag and even my goggles.  With pain, I realised that along with everything else I had lost my Pipbuck and journal.  All I had left was my own skin and a cutie mark that all too harshly reminded me of where I had gone wrong...

        ...no.

        I hadn't gone wrong.  It had been a wake up call.  I had failed, but somehow, I had realised that it didn't matter.  It didn't matter what they said, or what my cutie mark said.  Even if I had to wait longer...I was going to get out, somehow.  From the moment I had sallied forth under the scream of the siren something had changed within me.  I was a different pony now.  Not a slave...well...kinda.  I was still a slave, but the crucial difference, I no longer wanted to be one!  I may be scared and liable to being terrified back into line, but the crucial choice had been made.

        I was no longer controlled by my slave instinct...regardless of what had happened.

        I heard the sound of hooves in the hallway outside the thick cell door.

        An authoritative, well spoken voice.

        “Open it, please.”

        Without a word or hesitation, the door hissed open, spraying steam from the complex mechanics and spraying the smoke in a whirling cloud.  From within it, strode a pony.

        Red and black...

        Glowing crimson eye...

        I shrieked, trying to run backward before the chains caught and I collapsed on the ground.  Once again, I cried out as my wounds slapped the ground hard, before curling up and just shivering in the wake of...of him.

        Red Eye.

        “Do you know why you are still alive?”

        His voice was startlingly young, incredibly well spoken and fluid.  I shook my head.  He was not my master...but this pony had the authority and ability to control a superpower in the wastes.

        “Then perhaps I should regale you of the manner in which you were spared, Murky Number Seven.”

        He knew my name.

        He stroke forward, clearing the smoke.  He...he..

        ...was not Red Eye.

        Standing before me was not an earth pony, but now properly revealed was a unicorn.  Younger than Red Eye, yet older than myself by a few years.  A charcoal black coat with a two tone red mane, he bore a well kept uniform that seemed to be half practical and half scholar coloured in a grey and dark red.

        His left eye housed an intricate looking eyepiece.  Not cybernetics...but a monocle of sorts of highly tuned technology that hung from one ear.  It glowed much in the same way as Red Eye's bionic replacement in his right socket.

        I had missed the differences in my terror and the cloying smoke.  He stood with the grace and poise of an educated pony as he looked down at me.  Yet somehow...he didn't look down at me.  His eyes (well...eye) stared as though viewing an equal.  Over the years, I more than anypony had learned the difference.

        “I saved your life, Murky Number Seven,” he began, taking a breath and lowering his head slightly towards me, “I had heard there was a rumour of a pegasus in Fillydelphia and when the escape siren sounded, well...who else would be most likely to try than a 'hated' pegasus?  Naturally I was interested and you are indeed a very interesting pony.”

        I glanced down at my sides, those pitiful useless wings sat without comment.

        “Now, it may have cost me many favours and I had to pull some strings to avoid you being shot on the spot for attempting to escape, so I do hope my...investment...shall prove worthwhile.  You are something of an anomaly among the higher ranked overseers, you know?”

        I shook my head again, but forced myself to lie against the wall, supporting my still healing wounds.  The unicorn's horn lit with red magic, drawing a bowl of stew in from behind him to sit before me.  It was...warm.

        “They don't often encounter pegasi, hence my interest in acquiring you to here.  Now.  Come, eat.  You are severely malnourished, Murk.”

        I sniffed it...proper apple stew.  I didn't wait, digging in before it was retracted.  The unicorn patiently waited as I slurped it down, the first proper meal I'd had in over two months.  The taste...the freshness and oh...the warmth.  I wasn't very dignified as I gulped every piece down.  I even licked the bowl before sighing in relief as my stomach, for once, properly filled.  He smiled, before calmly resuming.

        “Now, Murky Number Seven, I am sure you have questions.”

        I felt given to talk, thus far, any threat was being disarmed...but I could not prevent a wariness.  Regardless of heart-warming food, he was still one of Red Eye's ponies...

        “Who...who are you?”

        My voice sounded rough and weak next to his strong tone.  He spoke politely, intelligently...yet there was no hint of the “scholarly poshness” that I had once heard in Manehattan when a librarian from Tenpony Tower had come seeking a slave for keeping his library clean.  I'm sure anypony could guess why I didn't last long in that job...

        The buck smiled, a thin and deceptively friendly looking one.  I kept my wits ready, that kind of smile often was not to be trusted.  I knew.  I had seen Red Eye once use it.  In fact...this buck was reminding me a lot of him in more than just image.

        “My name is Protégé, a fourth tier ranking work leader within Master Red Eye's endeavours in Unity, Fillydelphia and beyond.  I was trained, educated and eventually handed responsibility by his teachings and ideologies.  Although too old to have had the same upbringing as he affords foals, I have integrated myself to his plans rather fully in my time under his advice and guidance.”

        “So,” I decided to dare speaking, this buck at least seemed willing to answer questions, “basically...you're his..um...next in line?  His hair?”

        “I believe you mean, 'heir', Murk,” he smiled almost too smoothly as he spoke, “and no, as much as I would appreciate the offer, I am not.  Stern is his second-in-command.  However I have had the benefit of much contact with Master Red Eye himself, including opportunities to be taught directly, one to one.  Such times when I have sat with him and listened to his wisdom and teachings.  To hear of the great Unity he intends in his own words to my ears alone.  As such, some might regard me as his student, as he charts my progress week to week, via reports if not in person.”

        Protégé looked to the side, leaving me with only the slightly unsettling view of his eyepiece.

        “Indeed, I consider myself lucky.”

        “Lucky to be trained to kill ponies like me?”

        I couldn't conceal the question.  Every ounce of me hated what he stood for.  I had lived my life in slavery and now this clearly intelligent buck considered himself lucky to be taught to make more of it?!

        “To kill you, Murk?”

        “Ponies like me!” I shouted, still riding the high of knowing I had broken the slave in my mind for now, “We're out there dying every day for this place!”

        “Murk, I assure you, I make no attempt to hide the casualty rates among the workers,” he spoke with incredible diction, almost rehearsed, “but you must understand that this is necessary.  In a hundred years, could Equestria survive when stored food runs out?  When we have expended every piece of technology?  No, we could not.  Fillydelphia, Master Red Eye's great dream, is to build a new world for us, Murk.”

        His eye seemed to light with fire, he was passionate about this!

        “Have you seen the foals?  The fillies and colts?”

        I shook my head...I hadn't seen any since I came to Fillydelphia, a slight irony in itself...

        “Exactly, Murk.  Master Red Eye keeps them safe from all this.  All this work...this toil that we all sacrifice to, even me, is in their safety.  He protects them, heals them, educates them and trains them for when we, those fighting to save Equestria, eventually manage to build enough industry that the world may operate once again.”

        He closed his eyes and sighed.

        “I...realise this is a tough world, Murk.  Some workers may not be entirely willing.  But for the good of Equestria, it is the only way.  For what it is worth, I am sorry that yours, that ours, is the generation that must go through this.  But for every mill, factory and piece of technology we create, we bring us one step closer to our goal.  To give our children a better world at the price of our own lives.  Is that so evil?”

        I listened, I heard and yes...I was even slightly moved by his words.  But...a life of slavery...I couldn't let go of what it had done to me.  To hear that Fillydelphia served a purpose other than simple greed and power was...mind boggling.  Red Eye had often spoke through the loudspeakers about such things, but I had never believed it...until now.

        “I...” I couldn't quite grasp what to say for a few seconds, “I don't know...”

        Any reply fell away from me, I was not in a condition for an ideological debate.

        “Well then,” continued Protégé, “perhaps I should move on to the next obvious topic...yourself.”

        I perked up, but remained silent.

        “You tried to escape, Murk.”

        He wandered from side to side, pacing as he spoke.

        “However it was, to be frank, a rather unthoughtful attempt, for all your efforts.  My subordinate, Ragini, had you tagged the moment you left the FunFarm, as I'm sure you know.  However I must point out that she actually saved your life...”

        “She shot me!

        “And you,” he continued, without so much as a breath, “were about to crawl into a drainage tunnel filled with tainted chemicals that would have killed you in moments in a rather...distasteful...way.  Did you not read the sign?”

        His voice dropped at the last sentence as I sighed and shook my head.

        “I can't read...”

        “A pity, lucky for you that your choice in armour was fairly uninformed.”

        “She shot me with an anti-machine rifle, what good would any armour do?”

        Protégé almost seemed to grin.

        “An anti-machine rifle, Murk?  She shot you with a low calibre sniper rifle she keeps to fire from flight.  If she had used an anti-machine rifle...I assure you, I would have been using a mop to bring you here rather than my magic.”

        Somehow, I didn't find the joke funny.  This entire conversation was weird, I had thought myself free...then dead...now once again in Red Eye's stocks in a prison cell.  This was...this was too much to take in at once really.  Only Protégé's strange calmness and polite nature seemed to be holding even me together.  Even so...I could not help but feel threatened, I had seen Red Eye's cruelty through his silver tongue...

        “Now, I shan't even go into your choice to take oatmeal which goes off in a day or the scrap not worth more than fifty caps or so that weighed you down so much.  Instead I would rather denote that you owned some things of great interest that showed you were serious about escaping.”

        “I was.”

        “So I see.  However, you want freedom badly, Murk.  I can see it in your eyes, but I am going to tell you the reason why you failed, more than any.”

        That caught me by surprise.  I lowered my eyebrows, trying to stand up.

        “You failed, Murk...because you do not know what it is you want.”

        What?

        “I...but I did!  I was...am...dying!  I have an-”

        “An irradiated and marginally tainted infection, Murk.  I know.  My personal physician detected it when he was healing you.  He did not remove it, I only have so many resources to expend and while he is capable, he is not a surgeon level doctor.  But that is precisely the point.  You tried to escape because you wanted to live.  I will tell you, Murk.  Escape from Fillydelphia is not impossible.  But you must be willing to die for it.  To try so hard that it goes beyond what we can possibly predict.  To push so hard that nothing could ever hold you back.  But you cannot harness that, not yet anyway.  You sought to live, a basic function.  But what you say you want is freedom.”

        He lowered his eyebrows, looking almost saddened by the fact himself.

        “How can you truly want freedom hard enough to escape, when you have no idea what freedom is?”

        ...he was right.

        I had no idea what freedom entailed.  I had never had it, no matter how much I said I had no master...I did.  No real choice or will to do as I pleased.  It seemed blindingly obvious now in retrospect.

        “Yes, Murk.  If you want to desire freedom enough to escape, then you will have to first taste freedom.”

        I lowered my head, feeling a wave of depression seeping in.  How would I ever know that?

        “But thankfully for you, Murk.  I am going to offer you your freedom.”

        My eyes almost flew off my head in how wide they became.  Joy catapulted in my mind, held back only be a wariness born of a life of disappointment.

        “H-how?  What?  I mean...”

        “What I mean, is that Master Red Eye offers ways to earn your freedom.  In this case, two years service on special operations such as exploring Stables and other similar buildings.  Now Murk, I am a work leader who specialises in the workers who wish to attempt to find their freedom that way.  Some seek only the violence it provides while others truly seek to become free through service to the cause.  I have signed you to it.”

        Wait, what?  I had known about it, any slave could do it, but I didn't want that!  It was dangerous!  You had to kill Stable dwellers if you found them!  I...I couldn't do that!

        “In greater service to Master Red Eye, you are now under me.  I am your new master, Murk.  I hope you will show great enthusiasm.  You are an interesting pony, not just for your pegasus wings either.  I do hope you attain your freedom, truly.”

        He looked honest.  But the thought of the dangers I would have to face...for two years only echoed in my head as I felt tears drift into my eyes.  I had sought to escape.  All I had found for myself was years of work in a harsher environment, no matter how polite or...or...strangely nice this Protégé seemed!

        “Now, Murk.  I shall leave you to my personal overseer who will take you to the Mall.  Four walls, a roof and better meals than you have had.  I am not a brutal leader, Murk.  I seek only ponies who wish to serve Master Red Eye and help us to create something beautiful for the children of Equestria.  Please, take comfort in knowing I will only permit you on tasks that truly will help us.  I am not given to wasting special resources in the ponies that I locate to work for me.”

        I didn't know what to feel.  I just stood as he turned and walked back outside.  I heard a heavy pony approaching.  From Protégé's look, it was his overseer.  Heavy clumps of hooves and a large shadow mixed with a low, deep and almost uninterested voice.

        “Take him to the Mall.  Get him cleaned up and something to eat then put him with the workers.  Try to keep him away from the raiders.”

        “Mhm...whatever.”

        Protégé left...and in his place walked...

        ...him...

        “Hey there, cutie pie...”

        The Master grinned wickedly as he passed his bulk through the thin doorway, backing me into the cell as he drew the key to my shackles.  A deep, rumbling and taunting laughter set my eyes to water once again as I huddled in the corner.

        “You and I are going to get along so well, little Murky...”

* * *

        Footnote: Perk Attained!

        Runt of the Litter – You were never the largest, subject to a series of beatings and bullying through your life.  You gain a small damage resistance bonus against non-critical unarmed attacks.  Doesn't hurt any less, mind you...

        Footnote: Quest Perk Attained!

        Shadow Canter (Rank 1) - Whether for crime or survival, you have began to show your ability to stick to the shadows whilst objects strangely go missing in your passing from both pockets and homes.  You gain + 10 to sneak and any thefts you make are twice as likely to succeed.


Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven

Chapter 4:

The Sinner

* * *

Nervous?  Don’t be ridiculous.  You’re only facing a large crowd of ponies who will be watching your every move and silently judging you.”

        “What is it like to be trapped?”

        Like being alone, this is something I guess I didn't properly realise until I was shown directly.  In this case, my unsuccessful attempt to escape Fillydelphia.

        I'm sorry...whoever you are, Stable Dweller.  I failed you.  Looking back I made every mistake in the book by not preparing properly or knowing what to really do when I got to the Wall itself.  I guess I'm not like you, not as strong or heroic as you are.  Maybe someday I'll know the sweet taste of freedom that Protégé spoke of.  At least, I imagined it would be sweet.  It's not something that I had any knowledge of...

        And that...is pretty much the entire point.

        I was trapped.  Stuck in the one place that you need to know how important freedom really is to ever hope to have the sheer determination required to escape.  A harsh lesson learned in pain and blood that I would never forget.  However, my mind began to wander to the discussion with Protégé and his promises of freedom.  Whether he was telling the truth or not was unknown to me.  So far as I've known no pony has ever survived the two years of hell to earn their freedom from Red Eye.  Who could?  Two years of Ministry Hub exploration, Stable recovery and brutal underground skirmishes in, around and away from a highly radioactive balefire crater?  Not including, of course, any random tasks slaves might be assigned.

        Not only was I trapped behind walls, I was trapped to the whims of a new master.  A master who had further bound me into a schedule likely to kill me with no choice otherwise, all the while talking of my service to Equestria.

        I may have been further from the Wall now...but I could feel the walls of my life closing around me ever harder with every step that I took.  From the Pit to the time limit of harsh sickness and now to even greater odds than ever before.  Indeed, I began to wonder what would kill me first.  Would I die from some rogue security system in a bunker?  Shot down by Stable residents defending their homes?  The radiation sickness growing to harm me once again?

        Or would it be The Master to break me?

        Chainlink Shackles, although I could never bring myself to call him that, now had a hold on my life.  Granted permission to oversee my day to day pursuits, I could not imagine a worse figure to be around.  For all of Protégé's apparent calm of mind and kindness to his 'workers,' I sensed that all the wickedness he could have shown was instead communicated through The Master.

        I had sought to escape the trap of The Master's everlasting chains around my throat and hooves, pulling me down and setting in concrete the rest of my life.  I had overcome my fears to charge the Wall simply to escape the pain he would bring.  Despite my newfound emotion and...and hell, even courage, it was not enough to allow me to exist near him.  He was my foil, my true Master.  A living symbol of slavery.

        All my efforts had been, subconscious or not, to escape either him or what he represented in Equestria.  That was why I had tried.

        That is why that now, in the aftermath of my failure, I felt trapped.  Broken...

        That is why...I'm afraid.  So very afraid of what he might do to me, the slave he had always wanted.  One born to be under his control.

        I...I'm so sorry...I don't mean to repeat myself over and over...I just...

        I'm so scared of him...he said he had raiders at his stock hall, they kill pegasi!

        I...

        …

        I need somepony...the Stable Dweller or...or...anypony who can help me...

        ...please...

* * *

        The water hit me like a buck to the face.

        They used a seemingly unending jet stream of liquid from a hosepipe to 'clean' me.  Due to the unclean and dirty water, a high pressure hose was hooked up to blast the dirt right off me quickly and efficiently.  At least that was the theory.

        Instead, it was borderline torture.

        Blasted back against the old shower room wall, I struggled to breathe.  If I opened my mouth it was filled with water, if I wailed they only laughed as I staggered and fell repeatedly as the liquid stream washed over my body, legs and face.  I was beginning to go numb, both from the ice cold temperature and the feeling of an unending blow to my body where-ever they sprayed me.  Flailing my hooves, I tried to signal to them.  I couldn't...I couldn't breathe!

        The water stopped, gurgling away through the grimy shower block into the drain that led to the basement.  I presumed they had a recycling machine set up to use this much water on just a slave...

        “Get up, Number Seven.”

        The voice rumbled from the unlit areas near the door.

        I trembled, unable to even speak.  Only tepid gasps left my sore throat from the feeling of every limb beginning to freeze up in unfeeling numbness.  Turning my head, I tried to plead with them through sight alone.  My watchers were invisible in the darkness, my vision further hampered by hazy vision from a dizzy head.

        “Get up, Number Seven!”

        Spraying water even as I coughed and attempted to even breathe normally, my body awakened with brief spasms of activity, attempting to get even one leg under me.  I had not been given my clothing back or any of my possessions.  My wings drooped lifelessly at my side, painfully blown by the force of the hose from where they were normally locked in place by dead muscles.  I was soaked through, dripping water even as I shook almost violently.

        Sweet...sweet Goddesses I couldn't even cry out in pain...the c-cold...

        “Too slow.  Again.”

        The clack of the hose's nozzle sounded in the darkness outside of the pale blue light of the showers before the water struck my face once more.  With my tooth loosening again and feeling like I had just taken a gun stock to the head, I was whipped around before they swept me from my feet with the stream.  My side and inverted wing crashed to the mossy tiles where I lay.

        I had thought I could shout “I'm clean!” or demand that it stop...

        But he was in the darkness there, shouting commands.  He would decide when...

        Shaking furiously from the cold, I kept my eyes screwed shut, trying to block it all out as the water washed over my prone body.  I couldn't...my knees stung from striking the hard ground so often, my teeth were chattering so much they hurt and The Master was no idiot.  The breaks to force me to stand were not for my benefit, no, they were just to ensure I didn't pass out and miss all he had planned in his sick interpretation of Protégé's instructions.

        The Master knew exactly what he was doing.

        The water ceased, the painful pressure on my upturned back relented, leaving behind what felt like lines of bruises and seized up muscles thick with cramps.  Through clenched teeth, I lowly moaned...the most I could possibly muster to express that I couldn't handle this.  I wasn't even being cleaned...

        “Get up, Number Seven.”

        Number Seven.  His new pet name for me.  How overjoyed he had been to hear I had a designation to use.  To demean me with and make me nothing but a statistic.

        I dragged my hooves across the tiles, whimpering softly as I tried to get them beneath me...maybe if I was just fast enough I could please The Master.  Maybe he might stop-

        “Too slow.  Again.”

        I didn't even get up before I was knocked head over hooves to the wall.  Only a tiny degree of forethought led me to not concuss myself against it by keeping my head forward.  The pressure of the water jet blasting from the darkness increased, searing across my face, filling my mouth, choking my throat, stopping my airflow...

        I panicked, trying to move, but unable to breathe, unable to see and losing all balance from the roar of the water in my ears I could do little but flounder.  I...I couldn't feel my hooves any more...

        “Get up, Number Seven.”

        “...pl...please...”

        “Get up, Number Seven!”

        “C-cold...can't feel...”

        “Too slow.  Again.”

* * *

        I was left to drip dry, standing amidst a darkened room across from the cells I had first woken in.  The slavers had told me if I moved or sat down, I would be put back in the showers for another 'cleaning.'

        Clean was the last thing I felt.  My body ached all over...yet no visible marks came through for anyone to know of The Master's treatment of his new favoured slave.  I could almost feel the sickness about to set in, for my own fatal disease to flare up any second.  On top of that, I was alone.

        Once I had believed I would never be alone again.  DJ-Pon3 would never leave me so long as I had my PipBuck.  Now that machine was long gone, taking with it the sweet voice of hope and truth.  I couldn't even see the walls thanks to a single dim orange light above me ruining my night vision.  My hooves trembled from both the cold and the exertion of standing upright in one place for...for how long?  Hours?  A few agonising minutes?

        Time held little meaning in Fillydelphia.  What felt like three days could turn out to be a few hours thanks to the red haze, interior workings never ceasing and the irregular shifts.  I had no perspective of time even while outside.  For all I knew it had only been one day since the Pit...not three.  In here, however, was like a void.

        Worse...the room was soundproof.  After living my life with hypersensitive hearing...dead silence other than the drip of water from my body was like being cast adrift on to the moon for a thousand years.

        But at least it gave me time to think.

        I wanted out.  That would never change now.  The Master could hurt me, break me...he could make me his obedient servant, but I would never lose track of my own fantasies.  Of my wishes to someday taste the freedom Protégé had so teased me with and of my hopes to leave this whole hellhole behind.  I didn't want it in two years of destroying myself to do it...I wanted it now.

        Or...well...in a bit.  That sounded good...too weak right now...

        ...too scared...

        I was still trembling.  I may have wanted out...but all the courage and determination I'd had scant hours ago was just...gone.  My failure had broken something.  Was it my confidence?  My spirit?  I honestly couldn't tell...all I knew was that if I could do it all again...I'd probably falter.  The tearing pain in my scarred gut from Ragini's bullet led me to quiver and shake every time I even imagined being brave again.  I tried to tell myself it was only the dripping cold water making me shiver, but I knew it was terror incarnate.  Both for my life...and of him.  What was he going to do next?  Brand me?  Cut off my wings?

        My eyes began to water.  I dared not even blink lest I be accused of moving, what might he do if I shifted an inch?!

        The door opened.

        “You are learning, Number Seven.  Good...good...”

        The Master strode through, turning his body to fit through the narrow doorway.  Even then, the segmented leather and steel plate armour he wore scraped and ground against the sides of the door as his huge frame entered the small room.  I met his eyes, before lowering mine.  I had seen crazed slavers...but in one brief glance I had witnessed nothing but pure, unadulterated hate.

        “Now we're going to play a little game, y'see, Number Seven?”

        His voice was indeed playful, almost whimsical in his rough throat.  I got a brief glance of those rotted teeth grinning at me.  That grin...like it promised he would enact all of his life's most sadistic desires should I try to disobey.  I tried to not look at that cutie mark, the everlasting chain...I didn't want to ever think about the idea of spending all my life under him.

        “It's where I try to guess things about you,” he continued, circling me, “see how much I can guess just from looking at you, eh?  Nod if I'm right and just answer me if I'm wrong.”

        I couldn't see behind me and I dared not move my head.  But I could feel him...his mere presence behind me, he could be drawing anything.  He had knives, a magical shock rod, whips...

        “First off, your name...Number Seven, was it?”

        “Murky Num-”

        CRACK!

        “AARGGHH!”

        Whiplash's blows were nothing compared to this, I screamed as loud as I possibly could as every leg collapsed beneath me from the force of the blow.  I immediately wept openly as it felt like my back had been torn open entirely.

        “No it's not, you stupid foal!  Your name is Number Seven!

        I felt his head lean down to me, bellowing in my ear.  He turned away, replacing the whip and lowering his voice...immediately regaining the heedless playful rough tone from before, as though nothing had happened.  I stood up again, crying and quivering on all fours.

        “So your name is Number Seven, then...”

        The Master advanced, bending down to hold his lips inches from my own, gazing into my eyes.  The stench made me want to heave on the spot as he spoke.

        “So, you got family?”

        I nodded.

        “Enclave?”

        “N-no...”

        His hoof slapped me across the face hard enough to make me stagger to the side a good four feet.  Great Luna...his hoof was almost the size of my head!

        “No, what?

        “No, Master!”

        “Better, so let me take a guess...”

        He wandered again, before stopping.  I had to fight to not cry out in violation as I felt a hoof of his run across the cutie mark of my left flank...I felt it follow the chains.  I couldn't see him!  Feeling his cracked and ragged hoof drifting across my own flesh made my skin crawl.  It...it was wrong, I wanted to pull away but...but I couldn't...

        “Cutie mark of shackles, I like it.  Ready to catch you if you'll ever run.  Born slave, eh?”

        After three seconds of trying to muster the courage, I nodded, a quick and nervous shivering nod.  A whimper escaped my mouth as I felt him tap the ends of the shackles permanently etched upon me as a reminder of my lifelong contract to slavery.

        “So what happened, slave?  Parents from the bastards on the clouds?”

        I couldn't move, I just screwed my eyes shut, trembling.  I wanted him to go away...just go away...

        “No?  Well then...” he drifted off, before coming back around to face me, “what do we have here then?  You an accident, Number Seven?  The seventh one?  Your mommy get beasted by raiders, eh?  How'd you like to think about that, eh?  The son of a fuckin' cannibal?

        I whined out loud, shaking my head, only to squeal as I was flattened to the floor by another agonising blow to the side of my face.  I tried to curl up, but his hoof pressed flat on my face, making me squirm in panic that he might drop his weight on it.

        “I said to tell me if I'm wrong, slave!”

        His voice was as loud as Slit's magically enhanced shouts!  The small space amplified the volume that even this earth pony was causing me physical pain by merely talking.  Gasping, I screamed out,

        “I think...I think my father was a slaver!”

        “Oh yeah?  Where was it, near Shattered Hoof?  I went out there for Red Eye once long ago, you know?  Got a few slaves in my room to pass the time...how'd you like it if it was me, eh?”

        My blood froze.  Even as his hoof lifted off, I just lay there, eyes wide open.

        “One way or another, you're just a dejected little worm, you are, Number Seven.  Your mother wouldn't even have wanted you if she hadn't been done up by some slaver with a mind to get some tail that night!  Born to slavery, living in slavery and going to die in slavery!  But I like you, Number Seven...you know why?”

        I didn't move, just glancing up at him, before his hoof slid down my body (Sweet Goddesses save me...) to prod my wing not too gently.

        “Pegasus.  A real Goddesses damned pegasus right in front of me where I can do whatever I want to him.”

        I tried to shift back and hide my wings, as though it would actually make a difference.  I couldn't even think straight, he was in complete control here.

        “You lot, you winged bastards, you've killed a lot of my partners over the years.  Fancy Enclave soldiers scouting around or lone Dashites all thinking they're some hot shot in the Wastes.  Never been able to get my hooves on one...until now.  I was born to do this, you see, kid?  Old Equestria would never have let someone like me run free, but here...I thrive.  All my life, never had a pegasi slave, let alone one who looks like he was born just for me.”

        I couldn't contain my voice.

        “I don't know any of them!  I can't even fly!  I...I didn't do anyth-”

        “QUIET, SLAVE!”

        His hoof slammed down on my torso, knocking all the wind from my lungs, crushing my wing and causing racking pain through my ribs around the swollen healed flesh of the bullet wound.  Concentrating on merely breathing again, I couldn't do much but listen.

        “Pegasi should have been exterminated back when the world ended!  I've waited years for somepony like you, Number Seven.  Oh how I love all the slaves, even the ones that resist...that try to beat me.  They all fail, you know?  But you, oh perfect you...”

        He stopped pacing, his grin spreading as his whole bulk leaned down.  His voice took on a predatory and sadistic tone.

        “How I wish this could continue.  I wanted you for myself, but Protégé got to you first.  See...we're going to The Mall now, as per his orders.  Pity I don't have time to deal with you one to one before you're under that little upstart's 'protection.' Don't think you're safe though, I'm still your overseer.  Consider this a little taster of life with me had he not gotten you instead, slave.  I may not have free reign, but...

        He paused as he raised up, cackling to himself.

        “...who's to say we can't have a little...accident...en-route to have some more fun before it ends?  After all, I am sure I heard Protégé say to put you in with the raiders...”

        I screamed.  I begged, throwing my hooves forward, reaching for his hooves.

        “NO!” I wailed, shaking my head furiously.  “They...they don't just kill pegasi!  I heard it before!  They hate...they hate pegasi!  Think they're all to blame...”

        His eyes betrayed that hate again, directed at the fact I was born with wings...

        “Because you all are, you feathered wretch.  Shackle him!  Same kind as your little cutie mark there, eh?  Don't you like that?  It's what you're meant for after all.”

        With a motion, two unicorns moved in, shackling me up by all four hooves in a complex chain that made all leg movement difficult.  They also fitted a heavy rusted collar around my neck.  The Master tied the chain to his armoured barding.

        “Come on, little Murky,” he cooed, “time to go meet the sick fucks your kind helped create.  I don't suppose you'll survive them, but even if they do decide not to kill you, don't worry.  I'm sure they'll make it interesting enough for me to watch.”

        “But...I didn't...I'm not...”

        He didn't care, instead simply dragging me from the cell.  Only as I emerged into greater light did I realise I hadn't a single mark or bruise on me.  Despite all the agony of my preparations for Protégé's stock under The Master, there was no evidence and no proof of his abuse.  The Master was, in his own sick way, a genius.

        In just ten minutes he had nearly broken me.  Already I could hear that familiar voice, the slave in my mind, demanding that I simply obey him and hope that he would treat me as any other slave.  I knew that wouldn't happen.

        But above all, one thing terrified me more.

        The dreaded thought of what would have happened had I not attempted my escape and simply went with The Master to be entirely owned by him alone echoed in my mind.  This had been nothing but a small slice of what would happen.  What if Protégé wasn't there?  What if he had the freedom to keep me in there and...and do whatever he wanted to me?  The feeling of his hoof tracing my cutie mark made me want to throw up on the spot even through memory.  I couldn't stop repeating it in my head, like the thought itself disgusted me enough to take control of my imagination.  I fought back, trying to think of my conviction.  Escape...escape to the world.  In some way...in some small way, it was a tiny and quickly forgettable comfort to consider the outcome.  To know that my failed attempt had some purpose in my life still, to have avoided his full and complete attention and be picked up by Protégé instead.

        However, as I plodded along behind The Master...My Master...it helped little as I was marched outside and toward his 'accident.'

        Raiders.

        I felt myself simply wanting to cry as I walked...but I could not muster even the courage to do so in front of The Master for fear of being told not to.

* * *

        It's true that there is a story behind every pair of wings in the wasteland.

        Unfortunately, it's doubly so.  For every unique story a pegasi owns there is a single, defined and accusing one held by many of the ground's residents that pegasi are inherently to blame for the state of Equestria.  My mother once told me the story.  When Equestria looked set to die, Cloudsdale, the capital of the pegasi, was struck first and wiped off the map entirely.  Knowing of many more Balefire spells, missiles and bombs approaching, the pegasi shut up the sky and hid themselves from the destruction.  They left a wasteland below, abandoning it to the flames and the scouring destruction while they kept their eyes pointed ever upwards.  In two hundred years, they have not returned to help anypony.  If it weren't for the odd tale of rare pegasi in the wastes, no-pony would even know they existed at all, it seemed.

        But for those of us down here, unlucky enough to be born with the genes of the pegasi long dormant in family lines, we still bore the responsibility and bigotry of leaving earth ponies and unicorns to die alone.  Whether we wanted it or not, in our wings, they saw the lack of the sun and moon to guide them.  They saw dead fields bereft of weather designed to grow fresh food.  They still felt the anger of those lost while the pegasi flew away from the flames into the sky.

        I couldn't help but feel this was something of a metaphor for my life in reverse.  I had watched the Stable Dweller leave this hellish place for somewhere better without taking me in much the same way.  But I didn't hate her...much the opposite.  Every time I saw her in my mind I loved everything she stood for more and more.  Why couldn't the others do the same?  Had the pegasi really been so selfish?  Surely it was all a big twisted mistake through uncharted history...

        As I was dragged outside, everypony else begged to differ.

        It was a long trot to 'the Mall' and I am sure The Master made it longer.  Refusing to permit me any clothing, my wings were on show for all to see.  Slaves ceased their work, unattended by guards who stood and stared.  Confusion gave way to disbelief which in turn became a slow building anger.  Before long I was attempting to dodge tin cans and hurled rocks.  Guards held slaves back, hell, they held their comrades back!

        I cantered as best I could.  At first I tried to blank it out, to just close my eyes and follow the pull of The Master's leash around my neck as I was paraded like a prize for all to see.

        “Fucking pegasus!”

        “Why don't you just fly away, eh?”

        A tin can hit my side, making me jump in shock more than pain.  But my eyes opened to see groups of slaves rushing to the side of the road, screaming insults.  Not every slave did...many remained and some even looked sadly at me as the bigots of the world made their opinions known.

        But it was enough...with shouts, screams and pathetic reminders of a long gone past they now numbered enough to force The Master to acquire an escort of griffins with a hoof signal to the sky.

        “You see, Murk?”

        I was shivering again, this time definitely from terror, as I watched a unicorn buck trying to get close enough to hurl a brick at me.  The griffins warded him away with a flash of claws and the aiming of numerous high powered rifles.  I saw faces I recognised.  Noose and Lemon were jeering, hurling whatever they could at me.  I saw a blue earth pony with a red mane hurling something from a length of rope to build it's momentum.  The half brick impacted against my side as I screamed out loud.  I tried to run, but The Master pulled the chain, keeping me on my slow parade.  I heard him announce to the crowds that here was the pegasus who tried to escape and leave them all behind like all pegasi did long ago.

        “You have no place in the outside world.  They don't want your kind.”

        A griffin had to dodge as some telekinesis fired a length of rebar at me.  Alerted by the movement, I only barely dodged as I became tangled in all the chains tugging me along.  My face felt damp again, only this time from my own eyes, not the hosepipe's water.

        The noise was becoming intolerable.  I heard a mare screaming of some lone 'Dashite' that murdered her family and sold her to here.

        I saw Whiplash.  He fixed me with a stare, that cold stare of anger he often did before striking.

        Others demanded I go back above the clouds and stop taunting them.  Some begged me to fly them out of here to atone for what my kind had done in the past.  I could only drag my hooves and keep walking.

        “I...I'm sorry, I can't...”

        “I bet you're in league with the slavers to sell us all out!  That's what pegasi do!”

        “But...I don't...”

        “Take him to the Pit, I want to see a pegasus get clobbered!”

        “I...I...”

        “KILL HIM!”

        “Hey look, he's crying!  Bet Shackles is gonna kill him now, serves you right you traitor!”

        “Betrayer!”

        “Selfish bastards!”

        It was everypony.  Every age, every gender, every type that wasn't a pegasus (of which there were none) and from every accent.  I backed from side to side, always and forever being dragged by the chain around my collar, trying to stay away from them as the small crowds jeered and screamed.  I broke down before them all.  I screamed back at them, trying to convince them.  I wanted to take out my journal and show them the picture of my mother, show them that I was one of them!  I screamed about my cutie mark, didn't it prove I was just a slave?  I...I told them my wings didn't work.

        They didn't even listen.  They didn't want to listen.

        A passing cart held Sooty Morass.  His dry cackle as he witnessed me set even my emotions to anger at the arrogance and condescending tone as he reached off the cart to pat my head.  From the looks of things...he was even running a few slaves ragged to pull his stocks around on a work wagon.

        He took me through the streets, through the pens and through the industrial zones.  We passed the threshing mill on the way from the old prison.  We crossed the fractured main wagon roads to pass by the factories.  Slaves I knew laughed at it being me, calling they “always knew” I was weird.  I saw Wicked Slit chasing down a slave earth pony buck, throwing him to the ground and magic and resting that curved knife on his throat.  She was screaming at him for not performing as well as he could.

        My passing drew her attention as she even forgot about the buck to wander over next to her guards.  Her eyes fell to my wings and to my chains before settling on The Master.  I tried to hurry up, but The Master half bucked me back again with savage blow to my chest.  Lying on the ground, being lightly dragged, I saw Slit looking down as The Master continued to pull his prize away.

        I expected her to say something.  I expected her to scream.

        She just grinned...as her knife pointed at me a few times before drawing itself lightly in front of her own throat.  I gulped, shivering as I gathered the meaning of her gesture as she began to cackle before eventually roaring with laughter.  An evil shrieking as I was pulled away from her factory toward the care of one even she respected and admired the teachings of.  Even as she turned away and began bucking slaves and guards to get back to work she continued laughing, only stopping as she noticed the buck high tailing it away.  Her all too familiar outcry of fury and the sound of her galloping hooves was the last thing I heard before she fell out of sight.

        Amidst the humiliation of being displayed to the populace of Fillydelphia as the failed escapee and being revealed as a pegasus...I guess I took some comfort in that she still didn't know who took her goggles...

        Everypony who had demanded me to do work seemed to have seen me.  My heart was tight with the hate flowing freely from everypony, slaves and guards alike.  The Master had planned this...he must have known it would affect me...

        But as he dragged me past a forge filled with slaves, even he couldn't have planned the heartbreak he was about to cause me.

        Amongst the slaves rushing to the sides to view this rare pegasus I caught a glimpse of somepony running and pushing their way forward.  Ponies made way...as she came to the front of the crowd.  Her back hoof held by a chain to a post to keep them working, she pulled her bedraggled yet forever beautiful light orange mane away from her eyes as she saw me being pulled in chains as a demonstration of futility.

        Never could The Master have done anything to me that hurt more than seeing all the bright hope and optimistic wishes come crashing down from her face.  I gazed back, trying to not cry even as I saw her own eyes well up.  She followed me, trying to keep up as best she could through the crowd.  They started chanting, 'Death to pegasi!' I saw her pleading look and her mouth move just enough to allow me to lip read her words.

        “I'm so sorry, Murky...”

        I could feel dampness in my eyes.  No!  I...I wouldn't cry...not now!  Not when she could see me.  I had to be strong, for me...for her...I didn't want the last sight she had of me to be one of a pathetic wretch begging.  I could almost hear DJ-Pon3 telling me to stay strong, stand up and keep fighting.  I stood taller, prompting an interested glance from The Master and an increase in our pace.  The mare cantered to keep up, moving up until her chain locked and firmly stopped her from following any more.

        Scarcely believing myself...I only knew I couldn't let her spirit break, even if I had failed.  I tried to think of what to shout...

        “Come on, slave!”

        I felt the tug, tripping me over the heavy chains to force me to stagger onwards.

        “He has a name!”

        The Master stopped.

        He turned.

        She stood as tall as she could.  Ponies split from near her, retreating quickly as The Master lowered his head and began to stomp slowly toward her.  My heart skipped a beat as I saw him ready up his knife like before with a nudge of his jaw.  I shook my head to the mare, wanting to scream at her to back down.

        “Care to repeat that, slave?”

        The Master's voice was dry, his mouth still grinning through horrid teeth as he pulled me with a tug of his hoof up beside him and forced me to the ground, one hoof resting on my back to keep me there.  His little pet underneath him.

        “He has a name.”

        The entire yard was suddenly silent.  I wished I could move, to dive in front of the knife.  I was no doubt being killed off anyway, better to die saving her.  But no, his hoof held me solid on the ground, making me whimper as he placed some weight on my spine.  The mare looked from me to The Master, right in the eyes.  He cackled.

        “Tell me, little mare, what is his name?”

        “Murky.”

        

        “Ah, so you do know him, eh?”

        Oh no...no no no...

        “Enough to know he isn't just some cog in your machine!  He deserves freedom more than any of us after how he's been treated!  Look, you know he's worn out as a slave and you must know he's badly ill!  He isn't any good to Red Eye like this.  Why can't you just let him go?”

        “Good...good...”

        The Master turned away from her, letting me up.  I felt her lean forward, offering her neck and shoulders to help me stand.  I wished I could just stay here with her...forget Protégé's offer.  Her voice whispered in my ear,

        

        “I'm so sorry it didn't work, Murk,” a soothing tone, “please, just hang on.  My buck and I...we'll try to help you if we can when we're together again.  Shackles...he won't make it fast, I'm so...so sorry...but please, don't give up, there is a bright future.  You will find your courage, Murky.”

        Those words...like last time, filled with promise, hope and ever comforting assurance.  I wanted to reply, but I dared not raise my voice, she couldn't hear like I could.  Softly resting her head against mine for just a second, I took comfort in feeling another pony so close and caring.  A blissful moment, frozen in time for the half second it lasted, before the mare then turned back to The Master.  He was grinning maliciously, his head held high.

        “Hah, isn't that cute, then?  Two little pathetic slaves, deluding themselves that anypony actually cares...”

        “He's been in slavery all his life.  Does he really deserve this?”

        The massive earth pony turned away from the smaller unicorn once again, as though having to decide.  Without warning he spun back, faster than I ever believed he could move.

        Yes!

        His hoof fired out, striking her so hard that she hurtled over six feet away.  With a crash, she hit three other slaves, knocking them all clean over a pile of wooden stands ready for tools.  Clutching her side with a gasp of pain, she still managed to look up from the wreckage as he reattached his knife to the belt, apparently deciding not to use it.

        “But I'm going to let your insolence go, little mare,” he casually intoned, “because he clearly means something to you.  It'll be all the better for you to know he's got a date with the raiders.  You can lie around, nursing those broken ribs and just imagine the things they'll be doing to him...far away where you can't ask them politely to stop, eh?”

        I tried to run to her side, but my own chains caught as The Master stomped on them before I could reach her.  The mare looked breathless, unable to talk.  I saw a couple of other mares rush over to her, helping her onto her side.  At least she had some allies.

        “Perhaps once I'm done with him, I'll come looking for you too.  I don't imagine he'll last too long after all...hehehe...”

        The look in her eyes as The Master dragged me away gave rise to a new hatred...one of my captor and my overseer.  Chainlink Shackles would...I don't know...pay?  What could I do?

        The most I could for now was try to assure her to not worry as best I could through trying to not cry as I once again left her behind.  I tried to walk as tall as I could even as the jeering resumed, only looking back to try and mouth that it'd be ok...

        Only once we had turned the corner did I let it all hit me as yet another street of pegasi hating slaves remained...

* * *        

        The Mall.

        Finally and mercifully the crowds ended.  My ears ached from the hateful words and screams that had been directed at me, simply because I had two extra appendages on my torso.  But here we were.  The Mall, Protégé's 'worker camp' rose from a clearing like a giant that had fallen on its front.  A massive shopping centre of old Fillydelphia that hadn't fallen due to the massive size.  Multiple storeys tall, its roof was too low to be seen over the factories and their towering areas but was well over fifty feet in height still.  Angular, strange geometry covered most of it in diagonal triangles or designed scaffolding to hold it all together like some giant metal and very angular flower facing to the sun.  The large glass dome in the middle of the roof acting as the centre with metal plates and angles floating out in all directions to form petals.  Despite the horrid makeshift walkways leading from upper floors to nearby manufacturing factories and scrap watchtowers, it must have looked incredible from the sky.  I tried to remember the flowers my mother had showed me in books...

        The main entrance loomed before me, covered in razor wire and barricades, it sealed access with multiple guards under the looming triangle of skeletal metal designs.  I couldn't read the name, but I could see all of the letters of the middle word had fallen off so I could easily presumed the two remaining ones left spelt out what I had heard.

The Mall”

        I felt his front leg descend around me, as though hugging me with one arm.  He stank of vile sweat, grime and...and things I didn't want to think about.  His other hoof nudged the bottom of my chin up to keep me fixated on the building.

        “Beautiful isn't it?”

        I agreed, it was a marvel of construction and tragic to see lying blasted and weathered from two hundred years of improvised repair.  But as much as the artistic appreciation in me wanted to linger on the details, I could barely think about the building.  I could feel his barding leaning against me...sweet Goddesses I could feel the warmth of his body.  This was too close, I didn't like my personal space being invaded.  It took every ounce of restraint and fear to not flick a hoof backwards like before.

        It got worse as I felt his head move down, inches from my ear.  I could feel that hot sticky breath of his crawl over my sensitive ear lobe...

        I could feel tears dripping from my eyes...even through I was too scared to blink.

        “Home to the slaves who don't know any better and just want to kill things.  Now, it's home to you as well.  Protégé may say it's all for the cause but I know the truth, slave...I know ponies only come here who are too afraid to survive the lifestyle and want out.  Them and the ones who don't know anything but violence.  Four walls and multiple levels of slaves too desperate, violent or deluded to go anywhere else.  Think you'll survive it?  Think you'll be able to resist taking a plunge to the bitter end from the rooftops?”

        I shook my head by less than an inch, closing my eyes.  I didn't want to risk my ear coming any closer to that mouth.  For a moment, my mind panicked that he knew, somehow, about my...my...insanity on the control tower.  What had I been thinking?  But then...was it really so bad compared to what staying alive had brought me?

        With relief, I felt him move away and reattach the chain to his barding before striding forward.

        “Good...because you won't.  Oh and by the way...”

        His face became deadly serious, the hilt of the huge knife tapping me across each cheek as he spoke.

        “If you so much as hint to Protégé about our little time together, I promise you...that mare will be getting a 'visit' earlier than you might think.  Slaves disappear so often in Fillydelpia...hehe.”

        The chain pulled me before I could even stand back up.  I pulled back, prompting a sharp look from the big earth pony.  He had just threatened the one mare I knew I wanted to protect.  The surprise made him cease pulling as I stood up on my own accord.  I was a coward...yes...no doubt I would beg once we were inside.

        But as I trotted on my own without him pulling, I wanted him to see that of all the things he had broken in me...of my lost confidence and lack of drive to dare do anything brave anymore, I still had one thing.  He hadn't broken my link with her to take comfort and strength in her example to stand up to him.

* * *

        Raiders.

        The scourge of the wasteland.

        Gangs were bad.  They took over areas, attacked other ponies, killed merchants, stole goods and generally made life a misery.  Keen to be better and bigger, they made examples of those who crossed them and attempted to wrest control of areas from civilised ponies.

        But raiders...

        There were beyond sanity.  Savage, ruthless and powered by a drive to simply ruin the lives of everypony they met, they sought nothing more than just enough to see them through to the next day.  They had no mercy, little wish for simply embarrassing somepony and did not hesitate to take what they wanted...preferably if they got to murder, torture or rape along the way.  I had once been in a caravan attacked by a small band of them between slave camps.  The guards had fought them off, but only at terrible cost.  Raiders had slaughtered my master's mistress, not even waiting till the firefight was done to desecrate her body.  I remember wishing that she was already dead with the...the things they did.

        They were living symbols of freedom taken in the wrong direction.  Their sick dreams realised by the lawlessness of the wastes to act out mentalities that had no place in pony society.

        Now I was meeting them.

        The Master dragged me through the Mall's corridors before emerging into the main hall.  I had seen factories before and their cavern-like interiors, but something about the high glass skylight (how had it survived?) and curved surfaces designed to please struck me.  They had been ruined, worn away and replaced by crude imitations and flakboard surrounded by bars of metal and wire to hold together guard posts overlooking the shopping area, but they still held a timeless strength.

        The layout was, simply, impressive.  A giant balcony with no railings (why?!) lay before The Master and fell away twenty feet below into an area closed off by heavy scrap walls.  Two levels of shops made up the outer edges, reachable by stairwells at either side near the back.  Along each wall were re-purposed small shops, each custom designed to one feature a cage wall and door across the front for containment of slaves in smaller groups.  Right now they all lay open, allowing slaves to wander amongst a common area around an old fountain still filled, somehow, with water, tepid and murky as it was.

        I tried to discern the old style, but the smooth rock design was so worn that I gave up at “creamish if you screwed up your eyes and pretended really hard.” Rotten banners hung on all sides, six mares of various colours, two of each type of pony.  I recognised the yellow and pink pegasus from the poster and my lost saddlebag as she smiled an impossibly peaceful and honestly quite relaxing message of love to all looking upon here.  There was also...

        ...oh no...oh please no...

        She was here too.  'Pinkie.' Even now, her banner fluttered in a draft to turn and look at me briefly.  I had to cut my own temptation to mutter under my breath for her to leave me alone just for once.  The pony was as maddeningly whimsical as ever, hanging upside down on her own banner.  Slogans embellished on the fabric were a mystery to me.  Probably advertisements for the damn FunFarm...

        I felt a weight release as magic gripped my shackles, unlocking and pulling them from me along with the collar.  I shook, groaning as sore muscles gave their offended verdict at the unwanted movement.  The Master's cronies trotted away from him and I into the irregular ranks of slavers who looked if anything like smaller and less imposing versions of The Master.  His personal group, no doubt.

        The Master chatted to his slavers briefly, informing them of some “fun” that had to remain a “surprise.” No doubt code to not let this slip to Protégé.  Briefly I wondered what Pinkie would think of this type of surprise fun...her broadcasts in the FunFarm mentioned it often enough.

        Blowing about in the draft (where was it even coming from?) the banner of her briefly fluttered out of sight.

        “Raiders of the Mall!”

        The Master's voice bellowed around the huge area of the Mall.  It must have housed almost a hundred slaves with the amount of shops in the market area the cages were set into...

        “Get out here!  Get out where I can see your filthy hides!”

        There was a commotion down below.  I heard swearing and muttering before...they emerged.

        They came slowly at first.  Emerging from the ground floor in ones and twos.  Groups followed, before the upper floor began to fill too.

        There were dozens of them!  I counted at least thirty raiders as my heart began to beat far faster than it had any right to do.  But I didn't properly sweat with terror until I actually looked at them.

        Terrifying...foul...wretched.  Mangy hides covered in scars and disgusting piercings.  Some had scrap shoved through their flesh, others had bones.  I prayed they were not from ponies, but they looked all too likely to be just that.  Dyed and braided manes fell in greasy clumps around faces filled with the hate of the wasteland.  Some looked so savage they barely seemed sane, snarling and howling up at even my small head poking over the edge.  I saw two bump into each other before launching immediately into a snapping and brutal fight.

        Even the saner ones seemed to lick their lips with some sickened mentality as they angrily saw what had disturbed them from their rest or...or whatever else they were doing.  Blood streaked the floors in places to give indications of past involvements and brawls.  I saw non-raiders cowering at the back, presumably only alive due to the presence of the guards.  There were far more of them than the raiders, however they clearly lived in terror of them.  Despite that...they seemed unharmed.  But then...none of them were pegasi...

        Many wore ruined pieces of torn cloth and barding.  Some had face masks or wrapped scarves around their head.  As they clumped together, their noise increased, as though in a greater mass they fed off of one another’s energy to act up and cause commotion.

        

        “Raiders!”

        The Master shouted down to them, prompting them to scream back a mass of insults that he only smiled at.

        “You have shown great fury in your work in the last Stable!  The dwellers stood no chance against your frenzied assault!”

        A huge chorus of screaming and bellowing emerged from the raiders.  Some brandished trophies...I saw one with a thread of ears around his neck.  Suddenly my own mismatched and tainted ears felt a lot less repulsive and more like a prize...

        “As such!”

        They began to quieten down.

        “I have brought you a gift for your entertainment!”

        Their stomping and howling returned, even louder than before as they saw my scared face.  Thirty or more raiders all glared at me with enough lust and dire sick wanting to make me shrink back from their horrid laughter.  I could hear them begin to call for me to be sent down, for 'another toy.'

        It dawned that I was not the first...

        The Master held up a hoof.  He clearly controlled them like this, offering sick rewards in return for owning a powerful workforce of brutal raiders adept at slaughtering anything in their path.

        “...and it's a pegasus!”

        A deafening explosion of screams, cheering, howls and curses swarmed up and around the entire area.  Even as I winced, I felt The Master's unicorns telekinetically shove me forward on to the balcony before The Master, my whole body on show to the raiders.  Suddenly I felt very exposed...

        Like an announcer, one hoof holding me in place, The Master crowed to them as though teasing a new item for sale.

        “You want him?”

        “YES!”

        “You want him?!”

        “YES!”

        “Have him!”

        I quickly turned to face The Master, kneeling, placing my head to his hooves.  I hadn't even noticed my instinctual tears any more.  I...I couldn't go down there.  The thought of all the things they might do to me...

        “Please, Master...please!  I'll...I'll do anything!”

        He looked down at me, wearing that malicious grin only he could could pull off.

        “Really, Number Seven?”

        “YES!” I screamed, “ANYTHING!”

        “Well...there's just one problem with that.”

        I trotted back from him, shaking my head,

        “No...please...”

        “I already promised them their prize, Seven.  Hah!  ENJOY!”

        He twisted, turning and full on bucked me hard enough to catapult me off the balcony.  A horrible explosion of pain along my side gave way to an oddly calm and pregnant moment of terror as I felt weightless...

        Briefly, I wished that I could only open my wings and fly away from all this.  I tried...but they just didn't move.  Instead, I hugged myself as tightly as I could, praying the fall would kill me.  In that oddly long moment while tumbling, I wished to the Goddesses...please...make it quick.

        They did not smile upon me.  The Master was a good shot, as I landed in the fountain.  I didn't even have time to scream after I felt my front right shoulder strike the marble wall as I ploughed into the surprisingly deep water.  All sound deadened as the harsh slap of the surface knocked me senseless.  My shoulder was wracked with pain, I wanted to cry out, but my mouth only filled with disgusting and filthy water.  Alone in the brief quiet of the dark water I didn't even know which way was up!

        I...I realised I couldn't swim...

        Not that I needed to.  Masses of hooves reached in, I felt mouths biting, hooves wrapping around me and a huge strength pulling me out.  The muffled silence of the water ended as my head broke the surface, gasping for air and trying to cry out at the same time as I saw dozens of frantic and frenzied raiders grabbing hold of every part of me they could to pull me out.

        I pleaded with them, they only laughed.

        I begged them, one of them mocked me as the rest took delight in my lack of pride.

        Hurling me over the side, I wailed like a foal as my now obviously dislocated shoulder rattled off the ground and they began clustering around.  They were fighting each other over me, I saw snarling bites and bucks as scarred and pierced ponies of foul appearance and savage looks clawed at me with their hooves.  Despite my protests, I was pulled to my hooves and shoved around between them, much to their amusement.  Efforts to keep my shoulder protected felt pointless as it impacted again and again, the loose joint sickeningly moving around the socket.  One bit my larger ear until he fell away from the crowd pushing him.  I felt hooves bash my wings, knocking me too and fro.  Unicorn magic lifted me up, the raiders leaping after me as the unicorn tried to bring me to him.

        My senses span...the crush of bodies, the stench of blood and filth, the sound of them braying for how they should deal with me only reminded that their argument was my only reason to be alive.

        It wouldn't last long.  A larger earth pony dived up, grabbing one of my wings in his teeth to drag me back down.  Bucking another raider unconscious, he dragged me to a clearer area beside the founctain as the raiders prowled in a circle, ready to try and get the prize back.

        “I got him!  I got him!  It's my choice!  Back off you fucks!”

        His hooves pinned me to the ground.  I heard the others cease their argument to instead shout at him, what they each wanted.  I heard many things.  Some called to bash my head off the marble until it broke.  Others wanted my teeth.  One screamed to break my legs (one quarter there already...) and was shouted down as 'boring.'

        But I whimpered and whinnied as I heard the overwhelmingly popular choice...

        “Rip his wings off!”

        The earth pony brayed into the air, stomping with a hoof on my head to hold me down.  Without hesitation or anything like Noose or Lemon's posturing or taunts, he simply reached down and grabbed my right wing in his teeth before pulling sharply upward with all his might.

        I screamed.

        Before my eyes instinctively clenched shut, I saw The Master far above, standing with that grin...

        My wing stretched, underdeveloped muscle and broken bone structure bending and being yanked out of place as it extended for the first time since I was a colt.  A sudden release of tension slapped it back to my side as I felt something pull free before a tingling pain began to creep along my wing.  Daring to open my eyes...I saw a few feathers in his mouth.  Spitting them out, the crowd fought over them.  A sickening sense of loss prompted a muffled and strangled cry from me as I witnessed a piece of me taken.  He reached down again, grabbing the stem itself tightly in his teeth, determined to get the full thing this time.  With an almighty yank, it began.  The pain was unbearable.  My head thrashed, my hooves kicked but they held me down, chanting.

        “Pull it off!  Pull it off!  Pull it off!”

        I felt the muscles stretching...they...they weren't listening to me!

        “Pull it off!  Pull it off!  Pull it off!”

        My entire torso side felt ready to rip off with it...oh Goddesses...please!

        “Pull it off!  Pull it off!  Pull it off!  Pull it o-

        KREUNCH!

        Every bit of tension disappeared at once with a snap as I felt my torso fall to the ground again.  Everything felt like time was crawling as I opened my eyes during the sound...I saw blood...

        I turned...

        My wing...

        ...was intact.

        The sound had come from above me, in the quarter second of realisation since the noise, I saw my tormentor's face deformed around a colossal hoof driven by immeasurable force.

        The flow of time returned.

        As did Number Six.

        Driven by a gallop and dive over the fountain, his momentum carried him into the raiders like a dark crimson cannonball and the bone crunching sound of harsh impact.  The raider above me collapsed atop me, utterly lifeless as the massive stallion thundered into their ranks.  Six raiders alone were crushed under his sheer size and huge bony hooves as he powered on through the crowd, they rolled on the ground holding wrecked limbs and battered ribs.  But the rest were not cowardly Pit guards, they swarmed, pressing their sheer numbers in a frenzied counter charge.  The stallion whirled on the spot, teeth clenched as he bucked, swung and bodily charged through them.  Raiders fell, receiving sickening stamps as he passed to their chests.  I saw him grab one by their leather jerkin with his teeth and spin so hard he actually threw them with his mouth across the room into another two struggling to catch him from behind.

        Their great mass broken, Number Six went to work on the individuals.  A dull thud sounded as his forehead collided with a unicorn, horn or not, putting him unconscious on the spot.  A full buck sent another flying into the cage door used to access this area via normal means.

        It bent.

        Three raiders galloped and leapt, landing on his back or dragging his sides.  I saw him snarl as one bit into the back of his neck before he reared up and allowed himself to fall backward.  The screaming raider, unable to let go, found himself crushed under the entirety of Six's considerable weight.  The other two ran across, hurling rocks with magic, making him back off to cover his face before charging them.  Shocked by the speed of such a huge pony, they were caught and brutally disabled as he reared up and lashed his front hooves out to slam their heads together.  The sound was like two rocks colliding in mid air.

        The remainder of the group, well over half of the raiders, swarmed.

        Number Six growled, turning to face them, standing between them and myself...

        KAPOW!

        The gunshot rang out from above.  Groaning as the adrenaline faded and the pain began to return from my reverie watching the massive stallion at work ending, I saw The Master spit a rifle back to a subordinate.

        “Enough!  I give you lot a prize and all you do is fight over it like foals!  Get back in your damn cages before you put us out of work for a month you wretches!”

        The raiders hesitated, they glared at Number Six, pounding the ground with their hooves and snarling.  He matched them, his own hoof pound drowning the rest of them out.

        “I said ENOUGH!”

        The raiders began to disperse, one by one, like they had arrived only now with furious disappointment in their bloodshot and yellowed eyes.  On the floor lay half a dozen raiders that needed dragging off with broken limbs.  Some just were not conscious at all.  I had a nasty feeling the one on top of me had been killed instantly...

        Gradually, they cleared the floor, other than the pony over me.  Number Six simply watched them, snorting at any that got too close to us.

        “Keep him for yourself then!”

        “What you trying to do, get a little family, eh?”

        “Can't hide our prizes from us forever, traitor!”

        “Just you wait, betraying bastard!”

        Number Six did not even reply.  After they had gone, he cast a glance upward.

        I saw the two largest, strongest and most terrifying ponies I knew in all of Equestria lock eyes.  Even from here, not knowing much about either of them...I could see every ounce of wishful violence between them.  With a snort, The Master departed, moving out of sight, his fun spoiled.

        Without a word, I saw Number Six turn and stare directly at me.  In the odd silence, despite The Master leaving...I did not feel particularly safe.  Not with a colossal pony I had witnessed take on an entire gang of raiders and win moving toward me.  Immobile and lying down, my perspective on him was all the worse to look at.  Frightening tribal dyed hair on his coat mixed with lavish scars of gunshots, blade wounds and everything else across his almost grotesquely powerful body.  I couldn't help but look at the flapping bit of skin remaining on his left ear.  Those mismatching, one half bloodshot eyes stared down at me as though contemplating something.

        He pulled the dead raider from me, dumping him at the side before leaning down.  I closed my eyes, squeaking loudly in fear as he came closer...

        ...and lifted me on to his back.  Groaning in pain from my shoulder even through my fear and abject disbelief, I felt myself slung over him (higher than I had ever stood...) as he turned and began to trot back the way he had come towards an open shop's cell cage door.

* * *

        I was naked...bereft of everything I had ever made for myself.  I wanted my journal so badly...to look upon the comforting images.  Crushing desires to once again hear DJ-Pon3's voice clenched my heart.  A guilt that I had lost Sundial's only message to the future began to creep in even as my drifting thoughts wandered from hardship to hardship while in the thrall of near unconsciousness from pain and adrenaline downtime.

        Once again, luck had thrown me a small bone to just barely keep me alive.  But they had never lasted in the past.  Why would this earth pony be any different?  He had abandoned me before, why come back now?  Why was he in here?

        Somehow, I couldn't quite feel the elation I wanted to be able to.  I just wanted my things and a cosy pigsty until I could figure out another escape plan...one that would work this time, taking the mare and her buck with me.

        The huge stallion lowered me down onto a rough bed made of multiple layers of damp cardboard inside the shop.  The movement gave me enough of a shock to open my eyes once again before squeaking in terror, pressing back against the wall.  The squeak only heightened as the movement dislodged my right shoulder again.  Staring with wide eyes, I dared not shift as I gazed upward at the colossal earth pony who's immense shape blocked all light coming into the shop through the door.  He had yet to lean back, his gruff and ugly face staring directly at me for a few more seconds before standing tall (and taller) once more.

        “D-don't hurt me...I'm sorry, really...”

        “Why?”

        I curled up, trying to protect my head for all the good it would do.  Why should he not hurt me?  I had ignored his help before and now I was his prize as much as anypony's.

        “I'm a born slave...I could help you.  You can have my food!  I'll watch your stuff!  Just please, I don't want any more pain.”

        I felt myself choking up.

        “Everypony already hates me and wants me dead because of these two stupid things on my body.  Please, Number Six, please...”

        His head tilted to the side, the bloodshot eye narrowing in minor confusion.  In the back light from outside, he was little more than an imposing sentinel of imminent violence.  Even I could tell eyes that had seen too much blood and death.  Only now I could get a better look and see that he was a good bit older than I'd thought.  Maybe double my age?  I tried to remember him from before, when he had apologised, saying I didn't deserve death.  I hoped that still held true...or did he want a 'prize' just as much?

        “Number Six?” His voice rumbled, repeating my words carefully.

        Of course...I had gotten so used to thinking him by that name I had just blurted it out.

        “My name,” he continued, a slow drawl, “is not Number Six.  Nor do I want to harm you, pegasus.”

        I simply stared upward in near shock, elation and hope began to spring in my heart until it was beaten down by the reminder that nothing that I ever did quite ever turned out right...why should this be any different?

        “Then, what is your name?” I inquired quietly, desperately not trying to step on any thin ice.

        He didn't reply immediately, glancing to the side before closing his eyes.  Was that an element of sadness I saw briefly?

        “Brim.”

        I blinked, watching his mouth slowly roll the single syllable out.  He paused, before continuing.

        “Brimstone Blitz.”

        “Murky Number Seven.  Pleased to...uh...meet you.  Thank you, for saving me, I mean.  I...I just...”

        I tried to stand so I could kneel to show my thanks.  It was how I had treated every master when they had fed me, it was the only way I knew how to show a reverent gratitude.  But the moment I moved, harsh pain wracked my shoulder, making me stumble and fall again.  Breathing hard, hissing through clenched teeth, I whined into my other leg while cradling it.

        “Lie back.”

        Brimstone Blitz sat down beside me.  It did nothing to reduce the impact of his height at all.  His massive hooves reached out, taking my injured leg with an odd care.

        “Where does it hurt?”

        I was shivering, but the threat of his terrifying presence and size was enough to prevent me from resisting.

        “M-my shoulder, please...don't...”

        I felt his hoof brush around the area.  I could hear raiders wandering the common area snickering at my rather pathetic little yelps and whines as he rolled a hoof over the joint.

        “Aye, it's merely dislocated.”

        “Merely?”

        “Hold still, Murky Number Seven, I can reset it.”

        “I...I'm not sure...please, I need a doctor...Protégé has-”

        “Shut up and bite the cardboard below you.  On three.”

        “I...no, I...”

        “One.”

        “Can I-”

        Pop!

        “Yeearrghh!” I yelled out loud, pulling my hoof back from his grip.

        Brimstone seemed to grin with only one side of his mouth.  I could hear shrieks of laughter about the “filly whine” I had made from outside.

        “You said on three!”

        “Stopped your whining, didn't it?”

        I tested my leg, it moved again, if incredibly painful and stiff to do so.  I didn't want to imagine if I had left it longer.  My head fell, resting on the cardboard as sweat dripped off me.

        “I wasn't whining...I was just complaining...”

        “Sure.”

        Brimstone moved away, sitting against an old counter and watching the door.  Only now did I get a good look around at the area he had clearly made his home.  Most merchandise had gone, but a few old posters showed images of various forms of clothing.  I saw dresses on pretty unicorn mares, tall and strong bucks wearing suits and other, more casual, attire.  I imagined the empty stands crammed in the corner had once held the stock.

        A great many posters in one corner, though faded and wrinkled, showed nice looking mares wearing socks.  I had to fight down the urge to want to try drawing one of them to refocus back on the important matters at hand.  Besides, my journal was gone...oh Goddesses...

        There wasn't a huge amount else behind the cage door that still stood open into the common area.  The counter covered the front quarter to the side of the doorway, bereft of any cash machine.  Behind it, I saw a door leading, presumably, to a stock room.  Despite the fuzzy-headedness, I could swear Brimstone was sat as though he was guarding the doorway...

        He looked back at me.  I shrank back out of sheer habit.

        “You didn't deserve what they would have done to you, Murk.”

        “That's not what everypony else thinks...why do you not hate pegasi?”

        Brimstone blinked, sitting back before giving out a long sigh that ended in a snort.

        “I do hate the pegasi.  Those feathered bastards sit up there on their clouds, taunting us all by refusing anything to make things right.  You wonder why so many of us turn to stuff like that?  If you'd been a Dashite I'd have just left you, probably.  But you're wasteland born, clearly.”

        He inclined his head toward the raiders mostly clustered on the opposite side of the Mall.

        “Besides, I'm not in a position to judge anypony else so...I couldn't sit by and watch them do what they were about to.”

        I shivered, curling up a little more tightly with one hoof rested over my wing.  The sight of lost feathers...of the pain that still burned in my side...they had been about to...to...

        The pulling...feeling it begin to tear away.  I hated my wings, but they were my wings.  The shock of the entire traumatic day began to land home.  Hundreds of slaves and guards all knew what I was now.  All my things were taken.  The Master had...oh Luna...he had hurt me so much.

        I couldn't...I...

        Regardless of the embarrassment, I simply began to cry in front of him.  Shuddering and sniffing, I tried to look away.  Brimstone followed my gaze before simply shaking his head.

        “Too weak...I don't know how you survived this long if all you do is start greetin' at everything.”

        Through wet eyes, I turned to him.

        “I don't know how to be strong.  I tried to escape...it made things worse.”

        “This isn't worse.”

        That genuinely surprised me.  Brimstone Blitz furrowed his brow, snorting loudly.

        “The guilt of being a pegasus.  To bear the hatred of most for the sins of the past.  You can ignore it, avoid it.  Some things, you will learn, you cannot simply turn a blind eye to.”

        Trying to calm my breath, I sat up, wiping my eyes with a filthy hoof and wincing as the rad-sores on my muzzle stung from the contact.

        “What did you do, Brimstone?”

        His front hoof stomped the hard ground loud enough to make me squeal in shock, holding my ears.  Opening my eyes a little, I saw his teeth clenched as he swept away from me, each step of a hoof coming down far harder than it needed to.

        “You make it sound like it was one thing, one little thing that was wrong, Murk.  Try a life.  Believe it or not, you are sheltered.  Protected.  Abused, perhaps.  But kept safe all your life from what's really out there.  There are gangs, ghouls and taint...then there are ponies like me.”

        Something clicked into my mind.  The raiders...they had called him 'traitor.'

        “You...you were one of them...you're an ex-raider!”

        One of those giant hooves reached forward, closing the cage door over far harder than was needed.  The loud clang made me almost jump from the floor.  With a shake.  he hung his head, before turning and marching toward me with what amounted to fury in his eyes.  The dyed hair tattoos rippled.  The scars shifted.  I began to back away before discovering the wall disappointingly close behind.

        “No.  I am not an ex-raider.”

        Before I even knew what was happening, the massive pony had swept me from my feet with his hooves around my body, holding me in the air against the wall with one foreleg pressed against my neck.  I tried to scream, instead spluttering out a choked gasp from the pressure.  My struggles were pointless as I felt my hind legs dangle helplessly a good two feet from the floor.  My eyes locked on his as I heard the growl of unhinged madness and anger.  Staring into his gaze, I could see the years of borderline insanity still in there, furious that I had suggested anything other than the harsh truth.

        “I am a raider,” he intoned with barely suppressed anger, “a life, longer than many in the wasteland, dedicated to the pursuit of free madness.  You sat in your guarded little pens while I stormed the wastes.  Had I met you, Murk, I would have used you as a toy like those eejits just tried to.  Aye, I would have plucked those wee wings myself.  I have killed, tortured, raped and broken anypony that wasn't in my clan for longer than you've been alive.  Once, I burned a little buck like you alive on our camp fire for not giving me his young mare friend to have in my tent that night.  I took her anyway.”

        Fear clenched my gut as I stared toward the massive raider.  Those eyes...he was telling the truth.  He was angry, whether at me or himself I couldn't tell.  I felt him draw a long breath before lowering me to the floor and looking the other way from me.

        “You don't simply turn your back on so much agony caused to others, so much fucked up stuff like that and say 'that's it, I'm an ex-raider now.' It doesn't work like that!”

        I was almost hyperventilating.  My mind kept imagining myself as that poor buck.  This was..a raider.  Even bigger than the psychopaths outside.  Despite the Pit...despite him saving me, I was in the thrall of a raider.  I prayed that I was right in my assumption that he was implying he sought to avoid falling to the madness any more.

        “So...so why did you stop?”

        His eyes closed as he took a breath, seeking to calm himself, apparently.  I could see the thin line between now and the fury of the raider fought back down.  Did he have that voice in his head?  The raider in his mind?  Just like I had a slave?

        “...the Goddesses are forever watching us, Murk.  Do you believe in them?”

        His voice had dropped, was he embarrassed at his outburst?  I nodded shakily, thankful to see his face slightly relax from the rage that had overcome it.

        “You might say that Fillydelphia gave me some...perspective.  To see what it was like from the other side.  It's a good place for ponies like me, out of the way, forced to work to do something greater in the place of ponies more innocent.  Like you.  But I don't labour just to rebuild Equestria...no.”

        He fixed me with a stare.  He was deadly serious.

        “I accept my slavery.  Only through this place could I ever hope to even begin to atone for the sins I've done in the eyes of the two Goddesses.  That was half the way to making me see past the insane rage...the other half...”

        Brimstone lowered his head, looking outside at the other raiders milling around.  I could see them still snapping at one another with pent up and yet to be vented aggression from earlier.  Eventually, he turned sharply.

        “Perhaps you should see for yourself.  Can you stand?”

        “I...I think so...”

        I was wobbly, but the motion back in my leg felt better than locking solid in pain.  Brimstone nodded to the door, but immediately stopped me with a hoof.  It was like walking into a brick wall.

        “I will warn you.  If you try anything...I will kill you where you stand.  Understood?”

        I nodded briefly, trying not to shake my head and back away.  I'd faced the Wall...I could obey this command.  Lowering the hoof, he led me into the back of the shop.  I tried not to think too hard as I saw that it was very dark...

* * *

        The sound of the raiders quietened through the walls.  Free from their sick taunts and shouts at one another, I found a measure of peace in the surprisingly warm and still back room of the shop.  I couldn't see further in for Brimstone Blitz's massive bulk in front of me, but a small light shone past him from the far end of the room.

        He stopped.  I only discovered this by walking right into the back of his leg before staggering backwards with a sore muzzle and limping on my front right leg.  Brimstone merely turned, almost seeming to smirk at my staggering about.

        “Would you have run into the Wall that blindly?”

        “I'm just tired,” I muttered, “Being unconscious through a medical procedure from a gunshot was the closest thing to proper sleep I've had in a long time.”

        “You can rest in a moment, then.  We won't be needed for another little while for any jobs.”

        He moved to the side, lifting a hoof.  I saw the look in his eyes, watching me very carefully.

        “Now...the other reason why I put away the life of the raider?”

        I followed where his hoof pointed in the dark.  I could see stock shelves and an old sofa near the one magically enchanted gemstone light that flickered with a dull orange.  On the sofa, however...

        ...a mare...

        I don't know what I expected, it to be the mare?  But no, that mare I had met before was the same age as me.  Although this one was a unicorn too, she looked older than myself by perhaps six or seven years.  Despite lying covered in a cloth blanket stitched together from every colour imaginable, I could tell she was lithe.

        She was asleep.  I found myself trotting forward out of curiosity, what about her was special?  But a look from Brimstone made me immediately stop in my tracks.  Ok, ok!  Not trying anything!  Really!  Look at me here not doing anything!  Not even moving, not even breath-

        The mare coughed, shivering...

        She was sick.  Her pearl white coat seemed slick with sweat while her shorter than normal (albeit still relatively thick) light and dark pink mane fell tangled around her head across the sofa.  Around her lay, presumably, her and Brimstone's possessions.  Not much, but a small case filled with little twinkling and sparkling orbs drew my eyes for just a second.  The mare shifted, groaning, as my eyes flickered back to her, I saw her awaken rather lethargically.

        “B-Brim...?”

        The voice was weak and stammering with fever.  I recognised these symptoms all too well as acute radiation poisoning.  Brimstone advanced slightly before kneeling down beside her with shocking gentleness.

        “I'm here, Glimmer,” his voice was softer than I'd ever heard it, “just keep resting.”

        She didn't.  Instead I saw her eyes casting about in the darkness, apparently missing me for a second before they refocused and settled upon my presence in the gloom.

        “Who...”

        Her eyes blinked, showing a surprisingly bright azure sparkle to them.  Even while sick, I could see a spark of energy and life to this mare.

        “Come here...don't be...scared...”

        Her hoof inclined me to move closer.  I looked to Brimstone, who stood and trotted backward with a small nod.  Even now, I could see the look, 'One wrong move and you won't leave this cell alive.'

        Limping, I trotted over as quietly as I could, head low, into the light.

        “Oh...a little earth pony, aren't you...cute...”

        She exhaled with great effort, before trying to smile through the clearly harsh fever affecting her.  I presumed she didn't see my wings camouflaged by my dark green coat and feathers against my body in this gloom.

        “I'm, uh...Murky.  Sorry...Murky Number Seven.”

        “Gli-”

        She shivered so hard that her words failed amidst a harsh gasping shudder.

        “Glimmerlight, pleased..to...oh my...”

        The unicorn seemed to sag, the conversation alone exhausting her.  But even so, she extended one hoof, gently moving my head to the side with great care.  I closed my eyes, figuring it was the wings...

        “What a beautiful cutie mark...”

        Her voice was but a whisper, smiling before murmuring with dizziness and lying down again.  I heard Brimstone trot up behind me with his slow, heavy steps.

        “Rest, Glimmer.  Save your strength.  Murk?  Back outside.”

        I found it hard to move.  What had she meant by beautiful cutie mark?!  This gnashing and savage shackle on either flank was an insult to my wishes to be free!  I wanted to reach forward, wake her up to ask...but somehow I couldn't quite bring up the courage to do so.  I guessed it was the fever, she had probably seen something else, hell, she hadn't even spotted my wings.  Besides, why would I want to hear any comments on my damned mark anyway?  I knew what it meant and I was going to prove it wrong some day.

        Of course, having a colossal raider behind you who promised to liquefy your head should you make a wrong move was a pretty big deal breaker in not inquiring further as well...

* * *

        Back in the front of the shop, I turned to Brimstone Blitz the moment he followed me.  This Glimmerlight intrigued me, just what did she mean to him?  I stood up straight as I could on three functioning legs (why always the legs?!) and followed Brimstone with my head as he moved to plant himself down at the counter again.

        “So...you and her...I mean...are you two...uh...”

        “Are we what?”

        “You know...together?  Is that why you stopped raiding?”

        He laughed.  A deep, rumbling and somewhat disturbing noise before shaking his head.

        “Kid, I'm a good twenty years older than her, where'd you get your relationship theories?”

        I felt my face flush.  Okay...that was a good point.  But the level of care he showed her...

        Brimstone coughed into his hoof, continuing even as he leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling.  I could swear his voice changed, becoming less rough and more of a melancholy tone.  I hadn't given the big brute enough credit as I once again saw that little light of civilised intelligence form from his words.  That tone that gave me hope that the pony I was looking at was more than the brutes outside.

        “When I was brought to Fillydelphia, I got thrown on the hard work.  Huge load carrying, powering gears and servos, that kind of stuff.  I got properly into it, from being brought down a peg or two myself, the idea of somewhere I could work off my sins in the eyes of the Goddesses was...appealing.  But I bullied others, harassed them and when guards attempted to prod me around too much...killed them.”

        The way he said that, so simple.  Like it was just any other action...

        “Eventually I met Glimmer after my second Pit victory as punishment for murder.  Three of the raiders just outside were trying to drag her off between shifts.  I intervened, crushing them all.  But even as I held one down, my hoof ready to split his pathetic skull...she begged me to not do it.  I found Glimmer pleading with her saviour to spare those who would have violated her with no remorse or regret.  After they had left, I knew I had to protect her.”

        I could see him glancing back at the door, as though hurting over her sickness, something he couldn't stop.

        “Glimmerlight is something unique in the wasteland, Murk, at least as far as I have witnessed.  She can forgive.  Her home was destroyed by raiders, those she regarded close enough to be family raped and murdered before her eyes.  Glimmer herself was taken by them, abused and eventually sold into slavery with Fillydelphia.  She had her whole life ruined forever, every ounce of innocence stripped from her.”

        I whinnied softly, lying down as I felt a couple of slow tears trickle on to my face.  But she looked so full of life in those bright, if sickly looking, eyes...

        Brimstone sighed, before doing something I did not expect.

        He smiled.

        “But she doesn't hate any of them.  I don't think she is capable of it.  After the pain had passed all she wanted to do was make the best of things and forget the bad times as quickly as possible.  Somehow she still thinks that the world can be better, that some day she will get out of here and go back to a good life like nothing had ever happened.  That's why I have to take care of her.  Glimmer is a better pony than I ever could be any more, she deserves my protection until she either completes her plan to escape or passes the two year work mark.  It's like a quest sent to me by the Goddesses.  As though she was sent to be moral compass to salvation.  There are nice things in the world, Murk, yes.  But...”

        Was...was that a dampness in his eye?  He turned away too quickly, walking to the cage door, placing a hoof on it even as he gazed upwards at the glass dome far above in the Mall.  I looked up myself from the cardboard bed, glancing across at the big earth pony standing with a mixture of sadness and happiness etched on his big worn face, lit by the dull yellowed streams of light from the skylight.  Slowly, he turned back to me with that same sad smile.

        “The wasteland took everything from Glimmer, Murk.  It destroyed her...and she forgave it for what it had done.  Can you honestly think of anything more beautiful than that?”

* * *

        I had been without my journal before.  I had been without my...I mean, Sundial's PipBuck before.

        This was the first time I didn't have either while waiting for the world to move on and for something to happen.  However I was not without things to consider during the long times that Brimstone spent checking in on Glimmerlight, most especially the peculiar tale and somewhat tragic reality of this strange pairing of ponies.  Brimstone was not what I had expected in either direction of thought.  A raider by trade and filled with a thirst for violence held back only by the curious search for redemption and a sick mare that had touched even his heart.

        Try as I might, the thought of somepony like that sort of touched mine as well.

        However despite the obvious wonderment of their incredibly rare companionship...all I could keep repeating to myself in my head was one thing.

        Glimmerlight had a plan to escape Fillydelphia that she fell too sick before completing.

        Since I had been shot at the Wall...my entire mindset had been turned on its head.  Broken by The Master and condemned to servitude for two years...it seemed as though my efforts had only rewarded me with a greater burden of slavery.  I had been ready to collapse into the routine and accept the horror.  But out of no-where...one last little hope.  That mare in the back, Glimmerlight.  Brimstone had said she had a plan.

        It wasn't much.  I knew nothing about her or this plan.  Perhaps she wouldn't want me along.  No matter!  I had to try!  There was nothing else left...no directions or obvious ways to try and only broken confidence driving me to stay alive.  I couldn't get out alone now...so Glimmerlight was hopefully going to be what I needed to get back on my hooves properly.  I had to help her somehow...to help Brimstone save her life.  Whatever it took, like it or not, an unknown sick mare was the only path I saw open to me in discovering another way out of Fillydelphia.

        Brimstone had left me in the front of the shop, citing that I was a distraction encouraging Glimmer to exert herself to speak to me instead of resting.  I had thought to ask what was precisely wrong with her, but frankly, that was just to be able to say something.  Since his admission...Brimstone had been oddly morose, as though shamed that he had spoken so openly to me at all in the first place.  The truth was, however, I knew what was wrong with her and what she needed.  After all, I had the exact same thing, right?  Radiation sickness.  Sure mine was a little unique in that it stemmed from an irradiated lung infection but the theory was the same.  Rad-sickness needed Radaway.  Not exactly a common substance to slaves in Fillydelphia...as I had found out the hard way.

        I shivered, curling up on Brimstone's cardboard bed and rubbing my shoulder.  Things hadn't settled in yet about my relocation.  Too much all at once...too many emotions.  I was afraid, an understatement, yes...but what else was there for it?  Fillydelphia detested me before as the runt, the weakling who made mistakes and got everypony else in trouble.  But now I was hated.  The pegasus prize of Fillydelphia, a beacon to which they could all come together in unity and despise.  I had tried to make my life better...but I had only made it worse.  Everypony who saw me would call me out or turn me over if I tried anything.  Perhaps I should just give up.  How could somepony like me escape anyway?  Not when everypony in the city wanted me dead.

        Why me?  Why did it have to be me they hated?  I didn't want to be hated...

        That thought hurt.  It hurt bad.  To look outside and realise that all it took was a few choice words to an uneducated mass to swing them to call for the death of one little buck like me who had never done anything to anypony in his life.

        What if Glimmerlight was the same?  What if Brimstone was subjective or exaggerating because he didn't know anypony better?  What if...if she saw my wings and refused to help me?

        Try all I might...the fear of rejection was in my mind.  I needed to fight it down.  It was surprisingly easy...for one other terror was all too ready to fill the space.

        “Oi!  You lot!  Get your flanks back down to the storage rooms for the meeting!  Move!”

        That voice rang around the Mall's main shopping level as I heard some slavers jump to their hooves and gallop off.

        The Master.

        Even now I was still struggling to grasp his threat.  The horrible way in that his influence wasn't over me by the fear of pain or punishment...but by the fear of realising that he was the pony who deserved me as a slave by stint of destiny.  The unsettling way he knew just how to get into my head and hurt me, often without needing to lift a hoof in anger was if anything, proof that he was born to command me and understand what made me tick.  Try as I might, I couldn't shake the harsh fact that he had brought the slave back to me.  I had tried to escape him and when under the presence of the mare I had even stood up to show I wasn't afraid.  But leave me alone with him and...and...

         ...your name is Number Seven...

        ...cutie mark of shackles, I like it.  Ready to catch you if you'll ever run...

        ...you an accident, Number Seven?  The seventh one?  Your mommy get beasted by raiders, eh?

        ...how'd you like it if it was me, eh?

        Born to slavery, living in slavery and going to die in slavery!

        I tried not to whimper too loudly, the raiders outside seemed afraid to come near Brimstone's cage but there was no sense in advertising.  All the same, I couldn't help but bury my head in my hooves.  Where did I go now?  What would happen?

        A familiar fluttering sound made the hairs on the back of my neck crawl.  Instinctively, I jumped on the spot, squeaking and clutching my scarred side.  With a clatter of talons on hard concrete, the griffin, Ragini, landed heavily outside Brimstone's cage, magical rifle drawn and glancing warily at the raiders wandering back and forth.  With a snap, her beaked head swivelled towards me.  I had an uncomfortable feeling like I was being targeted again.

        “Murky Number Seven?”

        I nodded, hoping for Brimstone to re-emerge at any point right now...

        “The Master requests your presence in his office.  Alone.”

        Every muscle tightened.  I wanted to run.  But where could I go?  She had flown in and the cage door to the upper slaver and guard levels was locked, barred and guarded (and bent).  The only other way was Brimstone and I didn't imagine he would protect me from this if I endangered Glimmer by running in with an angry griffin at my back.

        “Don't make me have to carry you, flightless.  Don't think I won't if you're going to mess around and whine like a little baby again.”

        I caught her smirk and the look in her eye.  This was the griffin who had shot me...then laughed and left me to the mercy of ponies who would tear me apart.  She had heard me screaming in agony as I begged for help and could only smile now.  I guess hatred of pegasi extended to griffins too...

        “I'll...I'll come...”

        I felt a part of me yelling that I should be trying to delay her until Brimstone got back out.  If Whiplash or Slit had been demanding me, perhaps I might have.  But The Master was different...

        “Today, Murk!”

        The taloned foot stamped into the shop, her voice of authority springing dormant instincts I thought I'd beaten into action.  The Master had beaten me in more ways than physically...I was beginning to feel like I had before the pit.

        “I'm sorry, right away.”

        Meekly, I got up and limped out toward the cage door.  Ragini kept her magical energy rifle held ready, the low power sniper rifle that had almost taken my life slung across her back.  Looking up at the griffin standing on her hind legs, a new wave of sheer envy crossed me in terms of size.  Why did everything have to be bigger than me?  Oh Stable Dweller, where are you to be someone who understands what it's like to be a midget?

        “Follow me, flightless.  Make a move and I'll not miss your face next time.”

        'Flightless?' Oh come on, that's just mean...

        As I followed the black griffin, I saw one of the raiders waving to me.  Stopping only partially, he held up three of my feathers tauntingly before laughing hysterically.  Shuddering and trying to control my emotions, I kept close to the griffin.  Only as I saw the cage door swing open did it really hit me that I was due for more treatment from The Master.  The thin hallways gave way to a guard area made out of the old mall security rooms and eventually stairs to the management and storage rooms on the upper floors.  With every step I found myself becoming slower and more reluctant as we passed from the staircase into an old staff canteen, enough that Ragini clipped me across the head with her rifle barrel a few times.  The stinging pain gave me a reason to move...but when we finally arrived down the dismal corridors at the thick oaken door that clearly was an old manager's office...realisation struck.  We were here.  My legs jammed up, every instinct not wanting to go near him again.  Oh please...not again...not again...

        “Ragini-”

        “Don't use my name.”

        “Sorry,” I whispered, not quite sure what to use, “you...you don't have to do this, please?”

        Ragini whipped around, talons extended before grabbing me by the throat.  The sudden change of mood caught me before I could even shout.  My throat condensed.

        “Get in, he is expecting you.”

        “Please!” I pleaded, finding myself dropped only to try persuading her with tears in my eyes and terror on my face, “I can't take any more...”

        “Get in!

        Ragini threw open the door, virtually hurling me inside before slamming it shut.  I curled up on the floor as I heard hoofsteps nearby turn to face me before advancing steadily.  Eyes shut, I wondered if I could just blank it all...ignore everything and use my imagination...like the helter skelter...right?  Imagination canvas, ignore the pain...ignore the pain...

        “Murky, I must question why you cower.  I assure you, I will not harm you.”

        That voice...

        I opened my eyes, rubbing tears away (and rubbing the transferred dirt away afterwards) to look up and see the master Ragini had meant.

        Protégé stood before me, holding a couple of books in his telekinesis with a genuinely curious look.  That curiosity turned to slight confusion as I almost passed out on the spot with relief.

* * *

        “I wanted another chance to speak with you, Murky.  I regret that we did not have much of an opportunity last time.  Although I had hoped that after being cleaned up and fed your condition may have improved...”

        I sat on the floor before his desk atop an old red carpet that perhaps once was thick, but was now dull and thin.  Protégé's office was, simply put, something clearly different from anywhere else I had ever seen in Fillydelphia.  The old office had been renovated with either high condition or even newly remade objects including a thick and ornate pre-war study table, large wooden bookcases crammed with a mixture of old frayed tomes and freshly printed thin books of Red Eye's industry.  High quality gem lighting gave an amber radiance to the entire area, while the large window had been reinforced and replaced to overlook the corrupted majesty of Fillydelphia's industry.  Between a couple of bookcases, a thick safe was embedded in the wall.  I could see attached rooms, their flapping doors open, that led to an attached bathroom and two bedrooms.  I couldn't see much, but one was clearly his own and a much smaller one converted from a big cupboard.  As polite as he was, even I could tell that big chart on the wall was the schedule for sending us all to our deaths in Stables and irradiated bunkers.

        Also, it was all a bit of a mess.

        Books lay strewn everywhere, over his desk, on chairs near the door and even on the windowsill.  Hell, I could see some even sitting on his bed through the doorway.  The bulky terminal on his desk (another book resting on top of it, naturally) also seemed to be peppered with small sticky notes to remind him of things.

        “Yes, this is indeed my home, Murk.” He spoke with a thin smile, watching my head pan around.  “Ragini is a top rate associate and bodyguard...but she isn't tasked to keeping many things in line.  I do apologise for the mess.”

        This nice talk wasn't sitting well with me.  The black unicorn had passed back to the desk, sitting and leafing something in front of him, the pages were completely hidden behind a stack of papers near the front.  Between sentences, I could see his visible eye scanning each page for a few seconds before turning to the next.

        “What did you want me for?” I spoke with deliberate wish to break through the nicety.

        Protégé raised an eyebrow, looking up from the book of interest.

        “No 'master', for me?  How unusual amongst slaves, usually they would be afraid of being punished for ignorance.  But then...you are unusual to begin with, Murk, in more than one way as well.  The pegasus who tried to get over the Wall to win the freedom he was denied by birth...there is a certain romanticism to it, don't you agree?”

        Technically I planned to go under the Wall, but I didn't figure pointing this out would win me many points here.  Try as I might, though, all I could remember was fear, pain and blood.  Nothing 'romantic' came out of lying in your own gore screaming for mercy from a griffin who had shot you.

        “I failed, you know this...”

        “Yes, Murk.  But clearly I am not alone in how I feel, despite what you think.”

        His horn sparkled red, lifting what he had been looking at.  I almost rushed his desk on the spot.  My journal!  I could see the last image I had drawn, that of a pegasus flying free above the Wall.  Witnessing my clamouring excitement to get it back, Protégé held up a hoof.

        “Worry not, I intend to return it to you before you leave today.  However, I have spent the last hour or so going through it.  Images...drawings...it's such an interesting and alternative way of interpreting life compared to the words that I love so much.  You seem to sketch from the heart, judging by the emotional nature of some of these...”

        The pages flickered, revealing the last picture I drew from my subconscious before the Pit, lying before my killer.  Lowering the journal, he continued to flip and glance as he went backward through my life as told by pictures.  I was somewhat glad he had hidden it...I didn't want to see what I'd drawn while under the influence of slave indoctrination.

        “You also seem to have a certain appreciation of shape and form as well, particularly with regards to mares...you seem to be rather observant of all angles on them.  Well, some angles more than others.”

        Wait...he'd been flicking through all my pictures?

        Protégé looked up.  Was that a smirk or just normal for him?  “Murk?  Why are you blushing?”

        “Um...I'm not!  No reason...” Shit.  “Just, um...nervous, new place...and stuff...”

        “I see...”

        Not letting the smirk die, he sat the journal down before crossing his hooves on the desk.  I tried not to headbutt the floor in an attempt to feel less embarrassed.

        “Well, judging by your environmental pieces, you've been around.  A slave all your life...it's not fun is it?”

        I shot him a look, shaking away the blush (I really needed a second sketchbook just for myself...) and gave him my best 'What could you possibly know?' look that I could.  If he cared, he didn't show it.

        Instead he smiled, returning to his own books.  They were picked up in his magic, before settling down, changing subject with little warning, he beckoned me closer to his desk.  I sat before it like I did with Wicked Slit.

        “I must admit, I was rather disappointed to hear that you had been denied the opportunity to learn reading or writing skills.  Almost tragic really.”

        He held up an old red tome.  I did my best not to look annoyed at my illiteracy being pointed out once more.

        “The history of Equestria prior to the war, a very old volume.  The ability to sit down, read and study what things were like before it all happened.  If only more ponies would take the time then perhaps most of this unfortunate business need not happen.  I do feel sorry for ponies like you, forced into such lives.”

        He must have caught my disbelieving look.

        “Truly, I do.  That is partly why I expended so many favours to track you down and get Stern to let you live.  You interest me, Murk.  In a way, we are not so different.  I know how you feel through all this, you know?  If I may say, bringing you here, I do perhaps have higher aims for you than simple freedom.”

        What did he mean by that?  Nerves began to fray as I heard that last sentence...higher aims?  My heart was still beating faster than normal, better than The Master or not, he was still my more 'official' master.  Still a slave driver, no matter how often he said 'worker' instead and still liable to use me as a resource rather than another pony.  I looked to the side, unsure, biting my lip.

        “Murk?”

        Protégé stood, moving toward me.  Something clicked in my head, that red eye advancing on me...I recalled lying dying under the Wall...or The Master advancing on me in that cell to...to...

        I shrank back, hooves skittering as I backed away from Protégé.  Hearing a slight whimper from me, he stopped, mouth half open in surprise.  To his credit, he backed up and gave me a little personal space.

        “Are you alright?”

        Alright?  Alright?!

        “N-no!”

        I managed to get back to my hooves, favouring my injured shoulder.

        “Of course I'm not!  I'm...I'm a slave!  How could I be alright?  You're just...just another one of them, no matter what you say!  I want out, now!  But no, ponies like you stand in my way!  How can I be...” I shuddered, losing my momentum from a slight tremble and a sob, “...al..alright?”

        “Murk, I am trying to assure you that you are safer now.  I had you healed, cleaned and fed before being brought here.  I offer you the return of your artbook.  Does that not say something?”

        I just lay down against the wall, sniffing and trying to catch myself before I entered another crying fit.  This was horrible...all these 'nice' things were nothing more than a façade to placate me into slavery!  I knew it!  I wanted out...but I just didn't have the confidence in myself after failing so badly any more.  I couldn't control it, sniffing and wiping my eyes as I tried to avoid him noticing my reaction.

        Instead, I heard Protégé sigh, before a slight click sounded in my ears.  Looking up, I saw his magic remove the eyepiece and set it upon the desk before glancing back across to me with both eyes.  Despite his youth...I could immediately see a slight pain to his expression now.  Somehow, despite not understanding why, it defused how I saw him.  As though I was no longer looking at a slaver...

        “Murk...” he spoke quietly, trotting around the other side of the desk and taking a stuffed bag from a clothes hanger nearby.  I could see battle barding bearing Red Eye's mark upon the stand beside a holster containing what looked like a scoped revolver.  They shook as Protégé removed the bag.  “Are you afraid of something?”

        Despite myself, I nodded.

        “Please...answer me.  Did Chainlink Shackles harm you?”

        Protégé would have had to be an idiot to not spot the sudden widening of my eyes.  I had to almost shove a hoof in my mouth.  I wanted to spill it all, to cry and beg Protégé to help me.  Surely he had some sort of way to stop The Master?  But what if the cronies were to carry out the threat on the mare in his absence?  What if her slave master was in on it?  What if he slipped a word to the raiders to kill me for talking?

        “Murk?”

        Protégé actually lay down on all fours near me.  He genuinely did look concerned, had he suspected The Master for some time now?  I wanted so badly to just grab his hooves, tell him everything...

        “No...I just...sorry.  The raiders...”

        Well...it wasn't a lie.  Protégé nodded slowly,

        

        “Yes...I did hear about that 'accident' on your allotment.” He lowered his head.  “I am truly sorry, Murk, for what happened.  Perhaps I should have accompanied you myself.  However I hear our resident warlord has taken you under his protection.”

        Wait, what?

        “W-warlord?”

        “Yes...if I'm not mistaken, Brimstone Blitz was the pony who saved you?”

        I shuffled up, sitting properly.  My eyes were wet, but this genuinely intrigued me, what did he mean by 'warlord?'

        “I suppose being a slave all your life, you wouldn't have had opportunity to know, but our Brimstone is not your average raider.”

        Given the way he took an entire swarm of them apart, I had that sussed already, but I didn't imagine Protégé was talking about just his combat skills.

        “Brimstone wasn't just a tough raider, Murk.  He actually led one of the largest raider clans in the entire Equestrian Wasteland.  The Great Raider Warlord, Brimstone Blitz.  For the last ten years he and his group laid waste to a significant portion of settlements and were something of a thorn in the side of even the larger factions, Master Red Eye included as well as other raiders.  He would discover them and often challenge their leader to one on one combat for leadership of the tribe.  He never lost once and believe me, Murk, his ferocity was near legendary amongst those savages.  But, at least to me, his most heinous act was the destruction of Ponyville.”

        He turned to a large and frayed map on the wall near the window.  His magic levitated a feather to point to a small town near a large forest.

        “Settlers had finally began to make that place into a little repaired haven when his clan descended.  Such a pity...it has such historical significance, that little town.  The megaspells and poison were bad enough, but if you go there now all you'll find is devastation and whatever raiders are left over from his clan's passing.”

        I wasn't really listening too closely.  All I could think of was that massive earth pony and seeing him at the head of frothing and screaming raiders as they descended on a settlement.  How could such a beast become what I had just witnessed?

        “How he changed is rather interesting, albeit unknown to me.  After Master Red Eye captured him as an example to the wasteland, he seemed to be rehabilitated by the work here.  Possibly the only pony I've seen that happen to, actually.  It's a great pity he refuses to tell me of why or how.  Not that I am complaining of course,” Protégé let out a small laugh, “I am rather glad of his presence to help keep those raiders with him under control if only by fear.  He is an exemplary worker, probably my best.”

        I glanced back at Protégé's bright red eyes (how fitting...) sadly, that word, 'worker' still stung badly.  Was that what I was now?  An enforced worker?  All the same, I felt calmer for the discussion.  Protégé was speaking to me as though we were equal...despite myself I couldn't help taking at least a little comfort in it.  He got up, trotting backward.

        “I should stick close to him if I were you, his protection even in passing will aid you on your quest significantly.”

        “My what?

        Seemingly pleased whenever I actually engaged in conversation, Protégé nodded.

        “Your journey, Murk.  Two years stand before you filled with tasks to overcome in service to Master Red Eye.  You can earn your freedom, improve yourself as a pony and help Equestria all at the same time.”

        His eyes narrowed, the smirk turned to a proper smile.

        “Isn't that what you want to do, Murk?  Isn't that what she would want of you?”

        She.  Okay...that was it.  He could act all intelligent in front of the dumb uneducated slave, but that was where I drew the line.  I proudly brought myself up to be standing as high as I could and stared him sternly in the...neck.

        One little sigh of exasperation later I stepped back with a muttered curse about my height ruining moments when I was trying to be confident and looked him in the eyes.  My voice wasn't designed to sound big and imposing, but Luna damn it I was going to try!  He wanted me to talk as an equal about what inspired me to run at the Wall?  Well fine, he'd get it!

        “The Stable Dweller would not want me working for you or Red Eye!  You saw it, didn't you?  How she broke free right in front of him and saved herself and another zebra too!  She showed everypony there that there is something better to fight for than helping some mad pony!”

        To his credit, Protégé did not reel or act offended with my little outburst, his reply was calm, but held a certain passion.

        “The Stable Dweller, hmm?  So...you were inspired by her?  I suppose I should have guessed, you wore that PipBuck on your right forehoof, just like her.  Only Master Red Eye does the same and I doubt you were taking his example.  The numerous images in your sketchbook were also hints to this end, I suppose.  But Murk, can you not see?  Master Red Eye is saving Equestria, I mentioned this to you before.  If I were permitted, I would show you the children, safe and in a state of education just waiting for a better world to inhabit..  They are well fed, fit, healthy and have never been forced to kill anypony or consume meat just to survive.  They truly are innocent, Murk and we only have our Master to thank.  Can you not see the need for ponies like you and I to give all we can?  Was generosity not one of the sacred elements of old Equestria?”

“She has another way!  I...I heard it on the PipBuck!  She's out there, saving ponies and helping places to survive.  If we all just helped each other rather than fought all the time then we wouldn't need to use slaves and...and...take children away!”

        “Murk...you say that if we didn't fight, but you use her as an example?  She has killed more ponies in less than two months out of her Stable than I have in my entire life in the wasteland.  How can this truly be the way to help Equestria?  To keep shooting the bad ponies until none are left?  Isn't that how we got in this mess in the first place?  By starting shooting?  Here in Fillydelphia we take the raiders away from those they could hurt and set them to tasks that help everypony.”

        “But...but you have thousands of ponies who just wanted to be nice and live their lives.  There are good ponies in here!  There are good ponies dying in here!  I've seen the executions, I've been beaten, whipped, fed almost nothing for months and the work is killing everypony slowly and painfully.  You know about my sickness!  I've seen ponies taken and tortured or raped by slavers just for their fun!”

        Protégé sighed, for a second I saw him have to think.  In that moment I found a sense of triumph in my side of the argument.

        “There are...not as many good ponies as there used to be, Murk.  To have this work, we need the skills of anypony who can manage it.  I don't particularly like having Shackles around, but he is a necessary evil to keep the raiders in line.  We must sacrifice things if we are to save Equestria.  Better us than the next generation of foals.”

        “What if the Stable Dweller is right?”

        “Then she is right.”

        That caught me off guard, I had thought Red Eye and his little student Protégé would be insistent on their viewpoint.  Weren't they evil?

        “Master Red Eye possesses, and has taught me to have, humility.  If she is right and we are wrong...we will gladly aid her cause.  Interestingly, LittlePip and Master Red Eye do share one common goal as of the moment, you know.”

        Wait...wait...who was this Little-

        I remembered her size, she had been about the same height as me, if slightly better fed.  She had a PipBuck as a cutie mark.  Even my uneducated brain could piece that one together.

        “LittlePip?  Her name is LittlePip?”

        “Indeed so, Murk.  I felt that, given your obvious inspiration from her, you would appreciate knowing her name.”

        His smile caught me unawares, hadn't we just been arguing?

        “I do want to help you, Murk.  That is why I have brought you here.  You may not agree, but I promise you...I do genuinely wish to see you attain that freedom you want so badly.”

        Bittersweet care...I shook my head sadly, probably looking a little dejected, but he was my master, it sort of came with the expectation.  I couldn't keep the saddened plead from my voice.

        “Then why can't you just...let me go?  I'm useless to you...”

        “Useless?” He laughed.  “Please, Murk, you do injustice to yourself.  I am sure that you have it in you to overcome the odds when given a little encouragement.  I have confidence that you will be a good worker for me.  Do not feel I am unapproachable should you have any problems, I wish the same for all those under my roster.  To be able to help Master Red Eye save Equestria...and then be on their way, hopefully a better pony than when they came in.”

        Despite myself, I couldn't help but be swayed a little by his words...what if Red Eye was truly wanting to just help?  What if this student of his and his more progressive attitude was a better system?  Would more ponies succeeding convince Red Eye to abandon the brutal slave routine?

        No!  I batted my head with a hoof (no doubt Protégé was becoming slightly perplexed by my expressions evolved from a lonely life...) and tried to remember LittlePip.  DJ-Pon3 had spoken highly of her, about helping everyone!  About fighting the good fight!  Just believe in the goodness of others and try to do so yourself while staying free!  Regardless of how Protégé talked it up, this was still slavery, ponies like The Master were still abusing and torturing others like me and the conditions of living were lower than anywhere I had ever been a slave before!

        Protégé could see I wasn't in agreement with him.  With a sigh he turned and trotted backward, lifting that bag from before.

        “I can see we share differing values, Murk.  I respect your wish, but I must deny it.  However, I must say I have enjoyed an opportunity to talk to you properly.  You are an interesting pony, Murk, I hope we can talk again in the future.  If you are not required for work, feel free to come to me.  For now, however...”

        The eyepiece floated back to his face, clipping around his ear once again.  The student of Red Eye was back.  I lowered my head.

        “You are assigned under me.  You will begin work on the next available assignment for those who have selected or been chosen for two years of high value target clearance and retrieval.  I wish you luck, it is not easy and indeed can be very lethal.  However...”

        The bag floated over to me, before opening and gently tipping the contents out.  I gasped as I looked down.

        “...perhaps these may help your mood for now to overcome the shock and help protect you from those who would judge you for your wings.”

        My customised fleece, Slit's goggles, saddlebag and PipBuck.

        Regardless of Protégé standing watching, I immediately began throwing on my jerkin, almost rolling on the floor in an effort to pull it over and cover those blasted feathers as fast as I could.  Protégé seemed to let his eyes linger on my wings before they disappeared from view.

        “Interesting, really.  A pegasus...simple family genes and random chance or is there something more to you, I wonder?”

        Feeling warmer and safe within my fleece, I reattached the PipBuck to my right foreleg with the leather cord before snapping the goggles onto my head and finally throwing on the saddlebag.  It had been emptied...but in it I found three Radaways.  Surprised, I turned back to Protégé with an open mouth ready to ask.  He simply held a hoof to his mouth.

        “Consider it my apology for the way Ragini treated you, Murk.  Good day.”

        He turned to his desk and picked up his quill and parchment again, clearly that was my signal to leave.

        As I closed the door to his office, I couldn't help wondering about him.  Was he really as nice as he seemed?  Everypony else seemed out to get me or use me for something.  Not to mention he was Red Eye's personal student.

        As I trotted off down the corridor, following the waiting Ragini, I heard him speaking quietly to himself after he thought I was out of earshot.

        “To my Master Red Eye...I feel I have an interesting report of what I have learned for you this week regarding the feelings of those who we rely on to rebuild Equestria...”

* * *

        The moment I was past the cage door I galloped for Brimstone's cell.  It hurt my shoulder terribly, but I knew exactly what was going to happen.

        “Heeeey pegasuuuus!”

        I heard clattering hooves from behind me as the raiders cantered out into the light from the shops near the entrance.  I didn't even look back.

        “Come on out and play, don't you even want those feathers back?”

        They lightly chased me close to Brimstone's area, only after I had ducked in did I look back.  The ragged leader was wearing my feathers around a band on his head!  The small group of them clamoured around near the fountain, wearing clothing I could only hope looked like skin rather than...

        Ergh...not a nice thought.

        Brimstone was waiting inside.  With a few stomps he made his way to the entrance, glaring back at the raiders through the cage.

        “You can't keep our prize away from us forever, traitor!  Not both of them!”

        With a shake of his mane, Brimstone gave little heed to them, merely ushering me further inside while he watched the raiders back off.  Not for the first time, I began to hate my sensitive hearing as I picked up the remainder of the raiders laughing in their own spots.  Alongside them I could hear the groans of those slaves not lucky enough to enjoy Brim's protection...

        “Try not to entice them, Murk,” Brim's voice was as rough as ever, like gravel, “the guards, Shackles and I keep them in line as best we can.  But they are just waiting to let all that aggression out on somepony.  You can't pen raiders up...”

        “But I didn't-”

        “You appeared.  For them, that's good enough reason.”

        “I...”

        Really, I didn't know what to say, but I got the hint.  Stay hidden, stay low.  I'd heard too many tales of what raiders would do.  Torture, rape, cannibalism and everything in between.  Hell...I'd almost been their toy earlier.

        “Look, Brimstone...I got something for her.”

        I tapped my saddlebag, attracting Brimstone's attention more properly.  Without a word more, he encouraged me into the back of the shop.

* * *

        “Useless.”

        I slumped down on my haunches with a sigh as Brimstone gently nudged the Radaway.  There had never been any question that I would give it to her instead of using it to fight off my own disease.  Already I could feel my lungs beginning to clam up a little more after the healing from Protégé's doctor some hours ago.

        Why?  I...I couldn't put words on it.  But seeing her lying there, sick and dying...after being there myself and going through hell to get just enough to survive for one last desperate run for freedom and life, I realised how it would look to deny somepony else what I had sought.  But useless?

        “It's simple really,” Brimstone turned back to her, resting silently for now, “I could have got some from the slave markets...but Glimmer can't take Radaway.  Something in it sets off an allergic reaction.”

        “Oh...I'm sorry...”

        “No matter, just means the first plan still has to go ahead, find the alternative.”

        Brimstone clearly went into deep thought as he began piecing together his plan.  Hesitantly, I sat and watched Glimmerlight.  Her chest was moving so little when she breathed while sweating and quivering under her blanket.  A bucket for rad-induced vomiting sat nearby.  I could have sworn it had been red when I'd trotted by it.

        But I didn't simply see a mare who was sick.  Past my natural distrust of all ponies I hadn't met, I saw in her one last chance.  Alone, I didn't have a hope in hell.  I was weak, scared, uneducated and utterly naïve of the world around me that wasn't a slaver demanding I work.  (And I wasn't even very good at that work either) By all my heart...I wanted out.  The sketches of apparent freedom I had left in my journal and on Whiplash's walls proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.  But since my failure...the thought of running at that Wall again felt like madness.  Once again I arrived at the same horrid feeling.

        I was exactly what I had been like before the Pit again...too afraid of repercussions and punishment to have the courage to do it.  Whatever had driven me before was beginning to fade fast.  Waiting was unacceptable...but I couldn't do it alone!

        But that was where Glimmerlight came in.

        By Brimstone's story of her life...she sounded like my best chance to find somepony who wanted the same thing as me.  Who wouldn't judge me (please...don't...) and would be willing to maybe...just maybe...help me.  The mare had shown me that ponies could be nice...now I had to trust in her belief about there being other good ponies in Fillydelphia besides her.

        If I ever wanted out of here...I'd need them.  Right now I had no direction, no drive pushing me to do something before an event happened like before.  My life had been thrown into the grind of slavery once again.  If I were to just let it happen...I knew I would be lost forever to the slave in my mind.

        Glimmerlight might be my last hope.  She could very well be the first step to...to doing something to build toward an escape attempt again!  No matter what...I couldn't let her die, or I might see all my chances go with her.        

        “So what do we do?”

        Brimstone looked sideways at me with a severe expression.

        “We?”

        Truth be told, I hadn't properly thought this through, but I knew I wanted to.

        “Look...you say she wants out.  So do I, right?  But I tried to escape and failed badly, Brimstone.  I...I'm scared of doing anything, even if it helps me in the end.  Really scared!  Protégé seems okay but...but The Master...”

        I lost my train of thought, the feeling of him beating me to the ground...the harsh sensation of his cracked hoof playing along my cutie mark.  Shifting back into the dark of the gloomy back room, I heard Brimstone glower a little at my natural habit to seek a dark hidden place to hide in.  Even the big raider could see the pain in my eyes.

        “He hurt you.”

        “...yes...” Little more than a tiny whimper.  “Water...and hitting me...I...I thought he was going to break me...”

        Brimstone's expression didn't change much, but I know he'd seen The Master buck me to the raiders.  I tried to dry my eyes, moving out and standing up before Brimstone to attempt an appeal to his respect of bravery.

        “But if Glimmer's who you say she is...then I need to save her, Brimstone, just as much as you need to.  That and...I've been where Glimmerlight is now.  That's why I wanted to give my Radaway to you, I knew I'd want someone to do it for me.”

        Still that stone faced expression didn't move.  For a good half minute he simply stared at me, before shaking his head.

        “I must be getting too much of a softie these days...alright.  You could come in handy anyway.  If you could get to the Wall you can clearly stick to the shadows.  But know this, like before, if I feel you are ever threatening the success of this then you can trot home and explain to Protégé yourself.  Understood?”

        I gulped, wondering just what I'd gotten into...

        “Okay...so...what are we doing?”

* * *

        His plan was remarkably simple, yet fraught with intense levels of danger.

        There was a renovated hospital nearby to the Fillydelphia crater edge, just outside of the exclusion zone of the most intense radiation.  Due to the ambient radiation however, it was often more used for important slave workers rather than any of Red Eye's group.  As such, it was a lot less defended or guarded and held overall less medical supplies than those closer to the hub of the city.  Brimstone explained the name to recognise it as the “Hearts and Hooves Hospital.” Of course, I'd never be able to identify it by words alone.  He had said he'd simply point it out instead.  I had asked why Protégé hadn't gotten any for her, but the answer was simple, “none available.” Even with his influence.  As such, Brimstone was aiming to find whatever stock they kept that he was sure any slave physician would keep for themselves out of sight.

        How we got there was most interesting.  The cell had a back door that was jammed shut.  It led to the outside, an old delivery door apparently.  Protégé and the slavers believed it unusable because of the thickly rusted hinges, but Brimstone had a theory that it was simply blocked on the other side.  With a little clearing and his strength to push it...the door might open.  The problem was doing so, he was heavily guarded whenever taken for work detail due to killing guards in the past.  As such, my part of his plan was to crawl through the airducts and drop off outside, then clear the doorway.  As a pair, we would make our way to the hospital around the edge of the crater away from attention, Brimstone would get me past whatever guard existed at the supply door and I would sneak in to find the medicine.  Hopefully, I might be able to steal some RadAway too to help with my disease.

        I didn't particularly like my roles, if I was honest.  Sneaking through cramped air ducts in pitch blackness, skirting a balefire crater and sneaking into a place I didn't know to find something I probably couldn't read the name of didn't feel too reliable.

        Of course there was another problem.  Me.

        Today had not been easy.  I was still partially a nervous wreck, held together only by a mission to achieve and the fact that I possessed my journal and PipBuck again.  But even with my fleece again, I had a horrible feeling that everypony would still recognise me...know I had wings.  To be judged...it was horrible.  Even as I sat flicking through my journal, waiting for Brimstone to give the go, I gazed almost longingly at the sketches I'd done of myself without wings...

        I was tired...oh so tired...if I closed my eyes I began to sweat in a fear that The Master would be the one waking me up.  Sometimes if I saw Brimstone in the darkness of the store's back rooms I would yelp in fear and turn to run before I remembered it wasn't the horrifying form of The Master.  The closest I took to solace was glancing at Glimmerlight.  Even while sick, she looked somewhat peaceful, her white coat would have shone had it not been coated in the dust and dirt of slavery.  But her two tone pink and shortened mane still held so much colour.  Briefly, I regretted only having charcoal and not coloured chalk to draw with.

        

        Who was I kidding...I was only seeking distractions from the real problems...

        How could I do this?  What had I agreed to?  Brimstone had let it known that if I wasn't up to it I was getting left behind.  My shoulder ached, I was sure I'd caught something from the freezing water of the hose and my mind was a mess trying to stop the indoctrination of the slave from controlling everything I did again...

        Only my drawing was keeping me ready to do this at the minute.  I sat in a corner of the back room, using the flickering light from my PipBuck to lighten up my journal.  Muttering my mantra in my head (Lines became curves...) I sketched out the first thing that came to mind.  Imposing and terrifying, Brimstone Blitz stood over the weakened form of Glimmerlight, steadfastly protecting her against anything and everything that dared come his way.  Even as I drew it, an envy crept in.  I found myself wishing I had somepony so determined to help me as that.  Somepony to watch over me.

        Well, there was the mare, but destiny seemed forced to separate our paths at every turn.

        I flipped away from the image, going back a few pages.  Quite by accident, I landed on the one of just myself in the bottom left of the page, the rest left completely empty.  Looking at my smiling face, I tapped a hoof against the paper...almost pathetically really.  I just wished I could be that pony...the one who seemed to be laughing through that big grinning smile, his wings spread proudly either side of his body, worn openly.

        Who was I kidding?  Dreams and fantasies...that's all I drew.  I was no free pony...just a pegasus too scared to show his wings for the judgemental hate he would receive.  I was even afraid of ponies on my side...

        “Murk.”

        The rough voice was spoken just loud enough not to wake Glimmerlight.  I saw Brimstone looming in the darkness.

        “It's time.”

* * *

        I'd been in the Mall less than a couple hours and already I was about ready to sneak back out of it.  Despite my fear, some part of me congratulated myself for not having lost all of my momentum...even if I still wasn't mentally ready to start preparing another full escape attempt.

        But if this all worked out...perhaps I wouldn't be alone in that endeavour.

        Brimstone settled down low enough that I could clamber on to his back (those muscles felt like bands of iron!) and reach the ventilation shaft.  A little dexterous hoof and mouth work with a steel bar and I had prised the mesh cover free just enough to slip in.  The ventilation was located near the back of the slave area in the Mall, just off one of the staircases leading to the upper level of slave cells.  Tall and wide enough to permit me to at least turn and moderately sit up, it was almost a perfect fit for me...even if I knew it would cause a stooping pain by the end of the run.  Even so...compared to the filthy drain pipe I'd inhabited before, it was wondrously dry and surprisingly cool against the humid heat of Fillydelphia.

        I turned back to Brimstone to pull the mesh shut, seeing his beady and mismatching eyes from bloodshot injury staring up at me.

        “You alright finding your way, Murk?”

        “I think so...just keep heading toward the walls until I find somewhere I can prise though, right?”

        Brimstone nodded.  I'd hoped for a smile at least, but he just remained grim.  “Aye, that's right.  Knock four times on the shop's back door when it's clear and I'll buck it open...just make sure you stand back.  Remember, four times, or I won't open.  Got everything you need?”

        I checked myself over.  My now unarmoured fleece (Protégé must have been against armour on slaves...that said it was mostly useless anyway) and PipBuck stayed with me in addition to a length of rope Brimstone had within his own possessions in the cell.  While waiting, I had cut my fleece down a little.  Fillydelphia's atmosphere and temperature was far too high for a fully covering tight thermal fleece like I had designed for the wastes outside.  Now, it only went down to just before my cutie mark.  It left my hind legs uncovered to fight the heat while still having enough leeway to hide my wings rather reliably.  A noticeable absence of my inventory was my butterfly yellow saddlebag and journal however...

        “Don't you worry your head about that book, it's safer with Glimmer right now than clogging you up in the tunnels.”

        Was my face really that transparent of what I was thinking about?  Celestia help me if I ever got a marefriend in my life...

        I pulled the mesh back over with my mouth, pausing only for a second more.

        “B-Brimstone?”

        “Aye?”

        I bit my lip...talking to this 'warlord' had always been somewhat awkward, even when he opened up a little...

        “Thank you...I mean, really...for helping me.  I hope I don't let you down...I'm not too reliable at succeeding at anything in life.  Even...even aside from that Glimmer is the only hope I've got to find somepony to help me right now, I just don't want to fail you.”

        Brimstone looked almost confused why I'd even spoken, hell, I was confused about what I'd said.  But the big raider just tapped the mesh lightly before, to my surprise, smiling slightly.

        “Do this for me, Murk,” he almost whispered, “and you'll have at least a modicum of my trust.  She means everything to me, Murk...everything.  Not many ponies would even try to help the way you're doing.”

        “I...I'll try...”

        “Good.  I'll wait in the shop.  Try not to get bucked off another balcony without me around to raise some hell for you, okay?”

        I could swear he was grinning as he turned and trotted away from me.  Taking a deep breath I turned and crawled away into the vent systems.  The thick darkness ahead of me made my skin crawl...but I couldn't help but feel I wasn't quite out of the saddle yet for finding a way out of this nightmare.

        Time to go save a life...a life who could possibly end up saving mine in return.

* * *

        There were many ponies I had to thank in my life.  The Stable Dweller.  Brimstone.  The mare.  My mother.  DJ-Pon3.  Hell, even Glimmerlight already for being a goal to me in these times when I feared I might lack a direction to work towards an escape.

        But right now, Sundial was the one directing light into my life...quite literally.

        His PipBuck's flickering and half broken torchlight was about the only thing keeping me away from a panicked state of claustrophobia.  Wait...did I have a phobia?  I hoped not, how were you meant to tell?  How would I ever tell?  I was scared of my own-

        “ARRRGGGHH!”

        I dived away, rolling and curling up as I saw the shadow of somepony else crawli...oh.

        Well, didn't I feel an idiot.

        What could I do?  I was nervous, trotting along a hoof at a time in almost pitch black.  Of course I was jumpy!  I honestly didn't have a clue where I was.  The creaking and often haphazardly bending airducts seemed to threaten a collapse any time and worst of all...I heard things.  Skittering noises and clicking from down other tunnels.  After the drainpipe before, I didn't dare imagine what little horrors lurked around in the darkness waiting for an almost blind pony to stumble across their lairs.  Often I'd had to turn back from a route after the duct had gotten so thin I could barely crawl under it.  Why were some bits pony sized and some not?  Didn't they think of tiny escaping pegasi when they designed it?  (Why think of a glass roof to resist a Balefire Megaspell and nothing to let somepony get back out again?  What kind of builder made this place?) On rare occasions I had passed a vent going downwards, sometimes with faded light drifting in from the room below.

        Every tunnel felt like an inaccessible wall of black...I wasn't making any progress in a quiet and terrifying environment like this.  Reluctantly, I reached to my PipBuck and flipped the radio on a low volume.  Technically a bad idea...but I wasn't getting anywhere without some moral encouragement.

        Now...what was DJ-Pon3's station position on the dial again?

        Click.

        kkkzzzzzzzhhzzz...

        Click.

        ...remind every worker of Fillydelphia, you have given again and again for our great cause.  Fear not for the future, for you are ensuring i-

        Click.

        ...fffzzzzzaaaaaffff...

        Click.

        You gotta shaaa-

        CLICK!        

        -many times do I need to tell you, wastelanders?  Ghouls are ponies too!”

        With a relieved sigh, I relaxed as that soothing voice came to my ears for the first time since my escape attempt.  Something about that familiarity, that informal intimacy of just me and his messages helped give me a better feeling that I wasn't alone in this dark and dreary place.

        “Hasn't our resident muffin lovin' trader shown you all something?  Well let me set the record straight once and for all.  A ghoul is just a pony without the hair and skin with the added ability of being more or less immortal so far as we know.

        Making better progress with the comfort of sound to only my ears from a friendly voice, I felt happier about this mission.  I could see a small bit of light up ahead...perhaps some place to get my bearings.

        “They feel, they care and they hurt just like any of us.  So next time you see one, do ol'Pon3 a favour, will ya?  Give em a little brohoof, just to remind them that not everypony out there is a judgemental old relic of the past, eh?”

        Stopping for just a second, I sighed.  Ghouls I was alright with, one of my masters had been one and I hadn't ever judged him for his skin...or lack of it.  Okay, I did once call him “rotten corpse” in my head once...but only because he hit me first!  But I wasn't hearing any big calls for an ease up on pegasi any time soon...

        “Of course, zombie ponies?  Yeah, give them the fast track to a little peace at last, everyone.  Just learn to tell the difference.  It's no fun living in a world where everypony else wants to shoot you for just looking a little more varied than your average pony we see every day.”

        Lying down on all fours, I gradually scooted up to the vent the light was peering from.  I could hear voices...

        “Now, in further news...how about those events over near the old Sweet Apple Ac-

        “Master, why didn't you let us finish off the basta-”

        “Silence.  You know why.”

        Click!

        I felt a chill pass through me.  That voice...even just the one word, silence, made me freeze on the spot and not dare make a sound lest I be punished for speaking out of turn.  I tried to remind myself...I was only staying quiet for remaining undetected...

        ...I wish that were the only reason.  Peeping down, I saw a filthy room with an old metal table, racks of slaver tools like whips, knives and magical shock rods and a single bed more filthy than most ones I'd seen exposed to the outside.  I couldn't see much more although it seemed relatively cluttered with random bits and bobs...but I had a single chilling thought as I looked in from the vent above the bed...

        This was his room.

        I could see The Master standing behind the metal desk, the raider he was talking to was out of sight.  I was shaking so much I could feel my loose tooth rattling.  Part of me began to worry it'd fall out and give me away.

        “That pegasi bastard can offer much more than just one quick event to me, raider.  I'm a slaver, I don't make my life by killing those I have control over.”

        “Not how we do things.”

        “Well you better get used to it.  I got plans for him, the moment Protégé isn't around to do his whole “best little student” act that little green buck is mine.  You just keep me informed, that is all...your prize will come.”

        I was shaking.  Part of me wanted to drop down...give myself up.  The slave spying on his Master was wrong!  Disgusted that my mind even still responded to him, I cursed my indoctrination and tried to fight the urge.  Thoughts of a dying unicorn on a sofa were enough to solidify my thoughts for now.  Concentrate on the goal...not on the slavery.  Instead, I reached out, stretching over the vent to try and get a look at who the informant was...

        “When we were out there with Brimstone Blitz we-”

        “Frankly, raider, I don't care.”

        The Master's voice had dropped...I still couldn't see the raider.  I stretched out just a little more...pushing my hoof forward to balance myself on the other side.

        “You are not 'out there' any more!  I keep you from the worst of things because you are useful to me in keeping the various packs of your kind in line down there with their old leader now under some fucking stupid 'repentance' crusade.  Now get out of here and return to your cell...I'm not in the mood for you.”

        “Just one thing...”

        He must have been right at the doorway, trotting away just as I thought I was about to find out.  Dammit!  Sweating, I brought my whole body weight forward over the vent to try and glance right down through the grill from the opposite side.  I could feel my aching shoulder beginning to shake.

        “What?

        His voice slapped into every instinct of mine to perk up.  I faltered, jerking and struggling to stay upright...oh this was a bad idea...a very bad idea.  I could feel my hoof slipping.

        “What do you want with him, anyway?  If it's pain you want...we could arrange that.”

        Oh Goddesses help me and give me the strength to not slip...

        The Master chuckled lowly, a sick sound promising all of his sadistic nature.

        “I'm a born slaver, raider.  I simply want him to be commanded.  To be my plaything.  To do everything I tell him.  He is a born slave you know?  Everything I could want, a hated pegasus and a weak little slave all in one.  I don't want to kill him...oh no...not unless I could make a spectacle of it.  No...I would rather he be worn down...day by day.  I'm not a simplistic sadist brute like yourself, raider.  I don't want his death.  I want his life.  He dropped into Fillydelphia so perfectly.  It could only have been better if he had dropped right into my room.”

        My hoof slipped.

        I felt my entire body weight collapse downwards toward the vent cover before jamming to a halt just as quickly with a painfully loud squeal.  My PipBuck!  The edge and the tough leather had caught on the gap between vent and mesh!  Praying for it not to break I pulled my weight back up.  With a leap as silent as I could, I dove over the vent with a dull thud and turned off the light as quickly as I could.

        “The fuck was that?!”

        I curled up in a ball...afraid to move.  The raider's voice had shouted that, but The Master's hoof must have come crashing down, for I heard a painful smack of hoof to skull.

        “Don't you step toward me in my room!”

        Okay...that was pretty hair triggered...I might have thought more on why he had been so suddenly angry, but I was too concentrated on trying to make no noise as I sobbed from the sudden fear of what had almost happened.

        “Okay, okay!”

        Another harsh cracking sound and a dull cry of pain.

        “I don't like your tone one bit, raider!  You are the slave!  I am The Master!”

        “Yes, Master!”

        Despite the beating, I could still hear resistance in the voice.  I imagined raiders used to independence were more resilient to The Master's beatings and overbearing nature than I was.  Really, was I that pathetic?  The imagery of the everlasting chain in my mind begged to differ.  The Master was right, I was meant to be his.

        But he wasn't going to get me...not forever.  I couldn't bear the nightmare, to have him control my entire life.  I had to escape him...

        I had to...

        Even as I heard The Master throw the raider out and return to sit upon his bed, muttering about radroaches in the ducts, I lay right above him...silently crying myself out of a frozen state of terror.  Even without seeing me...he could still hurt me.

        I had to escape him.  I had to...before he dug his chains in any deeper to my life.

* * *

        Remaining still until The Master had left, my continuation through the ducts was hesitant and without the illumination of my PipBuck light.  After one near miss, I didn't dare turn it on again.  At first the cloying darkness had led to near disaster by almost falling down a thinner shaft.  My heart still raced as I imagined the implications.  To be stuck, unable to move and wedged in a thin shaft, vertically...with no-pony ever able to respond to my screams...

        But since, my eyesight had began to adjust a little as I got used to it.  There was actually some light, staying only on natural sight allowed me to better follow it to my destination at last.

        Bucking the vent off the wall, I dropped into the darkened room.  Dust swirled around my hooves, making me choke and cough as I found it to be untouched completely since, presumably, before the war...

        Pre-war...I didn't want to spend much time here.  I didn't do pre-war investigation...

        Coughing into my hoof every few steps and rolling my sore shoulder out from the scamper through the air ducts, I made my way through the preserved space.  It looked like an old janitorial station, thick with centuries of dirt and dust and occupied by creepy thick webs covering the roof, furniture and corners that caught on my hooves and dragged behind my everywhere.  I could see two doors barred and locked from the inside with thick metal bars while masses of empty food, drink packagings and a ton of used Radaway sachets littered the space.  Most was situated around a central desk that held various terminal monitors that flickered and fizzed eternally from some error.  One of them was flashing a message on screen, on and off, a large red word seemed like a warning while scrolling text ran over and over beneath it.

        Somepony had barred themselves in here to survive.  But if there was barred doors...then where were they?

        A little hunting for a way to unlock the doors later, I found him.

        An old buck, preserved, even in death, in this still place lying on a small makeshift bed in the cleaning cupboard.  Around the bed's side lay dozens upon dozens of inhalers.  The smell was not fresh, but a sweet, musty and sickly defilement that had lain here for generations.  My heart began to tighten as I felt my imagination begin to take off...

        Imagery and visualisation...it was doing it again, piecing it all together...working out the last moments, the reasons why and the visual memory of what had happened here when the spells detonated across Fillydelphia.  Had I missed photos?  Did he have family?  What did he hear?  What was that little glint coming from his saddlebag?  What was it like living alone in one room until you slowly died...

        “No!”

        I literally slapped myself across the face with a hoof.  (Before shivering as it flung icky web in my face) I couldn't afford another breakdown of sadness about the past, Brimstone and Glimmerlight were relying on me now!  I turned and ran from the cupboard, leaning against the monitors to catch my now rasping breath.  Taking a few seconds to compose myself, I moved to the door that clearly led to the outside and shoved the crates out of the way to reveal the lock.

        I knew where I'd seen the key.  Of course it would be on him...

        I knew I had to hurry...but I had to take a few moments to rest.  My shoulder ached and throbbed while the stiffness from The Master's treatments and raider beating were coming back to haunt me.

        “Okay...okay...just a corpse...just a fresh looking corpse...you've been in sewage...”

        I continued my mantra until I was back in the cupboard.  Shaking, I lowered my head to the saddlebag and bit the thin loop of string that held the key.  There...nothing...nothing to it...

        My imagination was hard to turn off.  This felt wrong.  I was disturbing the gentle sleep of the long dead.  This poor stallion had died alone in his probably workplace...desperately trying to stave off sickness and radiation and now I was stealing from him?  Was I really that kind of thief already?

        The key came loose as the saddlebag dropped to the floor, the long worn canvas loops simply falling apart at a mere touch.  The body shifted as it lost the extra weight, gurgling from expelled air.  I fought the urge not to be sick even as I tried desperately not to breathe through my nose.  Carefully, so as not to disturb his long rest further, I stepped back with my eyes closed in respect (not to mention disliking a sight of internal organs...) as I shoved the key for now around my neck on the string.

        “Please forgive me, it's for a good cause...I promise.  Goddesses let you rest...”

        I opened my eyes.

        And found his face staring back at mine less than an inch away...eyes open.

        It howled.  A dry intake of air before gurgling and growing into an unholy screech and wail of corrupt and petrified vocal chords that filled the room, echoed in my ears and froze every muscle in my body through a terror I had never known in my life.  The corpse's mouth distended, opening far more than a pony's mouth had any right to be.  Lacking control, I felt myself collapse before it, mouth open, unable to scream at all as my eyes watered and then felt a rush of tears from eyes I dared not blink.

        The corpse began to thrash with spasms, old muscles long underused coming back to life in necromantic horror.  I began to scream as it began to claw its way on broken and limp legs across the bed toward me.  Survival instinct kicked in as I began pulling myself from the room.  I begged my body to work well enough to stand!  I...I couldn't...petrifying fear filled me, freezing every moment I wanted to make but the very basic ones!  Behind me, it screamed again, yanking itself across the covers furiously.

        Falling against the desk, monitors fell from the table, smashing and fizzing as I used the table's edge to get to my hooves.  Shifting and flopping, it fell from the bed, a ruined body animated even after all this time!  Finding my hooves, I galloped for the door.  Fumbling, I tried to get the key in my mouth...

        The thing howled, wailed and screamed as it pulled itself on one good front hoof after me across the janitor's office.  Its mouth waggled loosely as it began to claw and tug for me with a frenzy that seemed beyond anything I had seen any raider do...

        “Come on...come on, please please please!”

        I almost dropped the key before working it in to the lock and turning it.  The door refused to move.  Was this the wrong key?  I could hear it just a few feet away behind me, but I couldn't look!  The sound came closer...closer!  Nothing for it, I bashed and pushed against the door, begging at the top of my voice for it to open, praying to the Goddesses while trapped in this tiny space with...with whatever that was!

        Ramming my whole weight into the door, it finally began to budge...by an inch.

        “Come on!  Help!  Somepony!”

        Ramming myself against it again and again, I didn't even notice that it was my injured shoulder bashing on the hard metal outer door, such was the terror that propelled me as I turned and saw the...the...ghoul?  Was it a zombie ghoul?  It was flopping over the monitors, hooves outstretched to drag me in.  On my fourth strike it was close enough to rub my back hooves with its front ones as I felt cold dead flesh drift over me.

        Screaming, I pushed myself through the gap, kicking backward and struggling on the other side to shove the door shut.  With a final wail, I slammed the door shut...hearing it screaming after me from the inside, dulled by the doorway.  Slight thumps impacted against the door as the beast rattled itself against it in an effort to get at me.  Sitting with my back to it until the thumping stopped, I listened to the groaning shifts as the ghoul pulled itself away inside to...to do whatever it did alone for now.  Before me sat the open nightmare of Fillydelphia and a vista of the Balefire crater glowing an unearthly red in the haze of the smog covering this city.  That scar on the world that had caused such abominations behind the fire exit.

        I might have thought that despite this, the open world was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, to be out of the claustrophobic ducts and deadly abandoned halls.

        But I was too busy laying down on the catwalk fire escape and crying to even care...

* * *

        “Hey, buddy?”

        I sniffed and kept trotting slowly around the Mall.

        “Hey!  Hey buck!  Buddy!  You alright?”

        Raising my head, I wiped my eyes to look at the speaker.  Another slave, a bright young earth pony buck of cold blue and a fiery red mane.  I could see radsores like mine on his flank, actually damaging his cutie mark of a bouncing ball.  He was cantering across from a small group that were passing by toward the industrial lines.  The rest didn't stop.

        “What's wrong?  I've seen upset slaves...then there's you.”

        He seemed to have been on his way to some workplace judging by the slip tucked into his clothing.  Some slavers gave them to slaves to deliver to new work masters with instructions.  He kept trying to walk in front of me as I plodded along looking for the doorway to release Brimstone.

        “...I'm fine...”

        “Forgive me, buddy.  You don't look it.”

        I cast him a stronger look.  Not that it said much for me.  I was becoming a little tired of meeting just bucks.  When was I going to meet a nice caring mare who wasn't either a wasteland legend, sick or constantly taken away from me?

        “Hey, sorry...just asking...”

        Stopping and sitting down, I rubbed my eyes and sighed.  Perhaps I'd been too harsh on him, how often did a slave ask to help anyway?

        “Hard day, more than most.”

        “I hear ya.  What's your name?”

        “Murk.”

        “Flippy Bit, glad to meet you.  Could swear we've been near each other on shifts, y'know.  I'd remember a pony as small as you...”

        Gee, thanks.  He was right though, I didn't tend to remember faces.  Before I'd been woken up by the Stable Dweller I had simply existed as an ongoing bad dream not paying much attention to anything.  That said, the bright blue face of this pony did ring a bell...

        “Us slaves, y'know?  We need to stick together, buddy.  Support one another to get through this as best we can.”

        After the horrid encounter minutes ago, the sound of somepony saying things I could agree with was an unimaginably thankful thing to hear.  Almost surprised at myself, I allowed my head to turn to him with a smile.

        “Yeah...slavery isn't great.  I've only gotten this far because of the help others gave me, Flippy.  Gonna get out one day though, I gotta...”

        “Hah!  High order for yourself, Murk.  Gonna take all us with you?”

        “If I could!”

        We laughed.  There was something simple here...a genuine little acknowledgement of a shared hardship I hadn't ever had before.  The mare was so...so different and determined for her place in life to change.  Brimstone was...well...Brimstone.  But this 'Flippy Bit?' He was just...just normal and friendly.

        “You know Murk, I know I recognise you from somewhere.  You ever work the Parasprites?”

        “Nope, thankfully...”

        “Hm...on reinforcing the south wall?”

        “Sorry, no.”

        “Then where in the hell do I recognise you from, buddy?”

        “The riots?  I was caught up in it...”

        “Maybe...maybe...”

        He turned and looked at me up and down.  I looked back.

        “What's up, Flippy?”

        “Just admiring your fleece...what's it?  Cotton?”

        I sighed into a smile...really, I was too paranoid.  Here I could be proud of it!

        “Yeah, kinda...acquired it...from the thresher.  Got this too!”

        Waggling my PipBuck, he initially seemed to wonder why I had scrap metal tied to my hood with a whip, but after a few seconds he recognised it, before letting his mouth widen.

        “Woah...how in the hell do the slavers allow that?”

        “Eh...Protégé's ok like that...guess I'm lucky, all things considered...”

        “Lucky Murky?  Not so murky luck!”

        Again, we laughed.

        “Seriously nice fleece though...”

        He reached out, stroking it with a hoof.  With a sudden movement, he pulled it up even against my offended shout.  A second later, he was on his hooves...the friendly smirk was gone.

        “I knew it!  I knew I recognised you!”

        “No...I...please it's...”

        “You're that fucking pegasus!”

        My mouth hung open...I wanted to just plead.  Please just forget about them, we'd been getting on!  We could have been friends!

        “Flippy...I-”

        “Don't say my name, betrayer!”

        The scowl came back to his face.  I recognised him at last.  He had flung the half brick at me in the parade off of the lasso.  Why?  He knew I was friendly now!

        “You don't have to hate me...”

        “You?  It's not you, it's all of you!  What do you think you're doing being down here taunting us all with your wings and not helping!  I bet that's what the PipBuck is!  It's for spying, isn't it!  I can't fucking believe I was being nice to you!  In fact...no...fuck it I can't stand you being here!”

        He reached into a small pouch, to my horror he drew a slave's craft knife...the only thing we were allowed to carry sometimes for certain work.

        “C'mere!  I can't let it be known I talked to you!”

        “FLIPPY!  PLEASE!  I...I can't fly!”

        “You're just lying!  Stop it!  If I know one thing from growing up it's that pegasi are all the same!  I knew if I ever met one that my momma and papa would be right!”

        Taking the knife more fully in his mouth he flew at me.  Squeaking, I fell backward and rolled, narrowly missing the slash from his mouth held weapon.  I had just faced a zombie, I wasn't going to freeze here!  With a scrambling of hooves I upped and galloped off, hearing him chasing me with the knife swinging around his neck on a small leather line.  Diving over a heap of scrap, I used it as a barrier.

        “We're not all the same!  It's just...it's just how I was born, I didn't ask for them!”

        “The Goddesses don't care for your choice!  I try to be nice for them!  But I just...I draw the line at pegasi!  I'd rather know a ghoul!  At least with them you know where they stand!”

        “You've never even met a pegasi?!  How can you....how can you hate us?”

        I was almost pleading.  How did this make sense?  The Goddesses were against pegasi to him?  That didn't make any sense!  The Goddesses loved us all!

        “Thus in the wake of their betrayal did the Goddesses turn their favour from the winged ones!  To forever cast them from the guiding light of Harmony!  My folks taught me well to know the truth that so many ignore!”

        “The Goddesses love us all!  We...we shouldn't hate anyon-”

        “STOP LYING!”

        He galloped and dove over the scrap.  I screamed over my back while I galloped myself as fast as I could.  But I was limping every few steps, losing ground.  I tried to convince him, but it fell on deaf ears.  Had he been indoctrinated?  But clearly a life of being told who to hate was driving even this...this nice pony to murder simply for the difference of pony race.  What was wrong with this world?!  When ponies were being born and cast as slaves...raiders and now in sheer hatred!

        The chase continued around the back of the Mall.  Only one thing came to my mind...find the door and get back inside with Brimstone, he would frighten Flippy off!  Spotting the door (the logo was the same, how helpful!) I began to gallop for it...until my injured limb gave out with a sharp jabbing pain.

        I was really getting tired of injured legs.

        Rolling on to my back, I saw the knife descend and even while shouting in panic got my PipBuck in the way of the blade itself.  The jarring impact knocked both of us flat to the ground where hooves began flailing.  Hoof to hoof combat was never a particularly clean affair, given more to throwing yourself in with luck and guts.  I apparently had neither...but it was enough to find one of my hooves connect with his mouth and knock the knife out.  In return I felt him pound on my chest, driving the wind from me.

        Scrambling, we separated even as I dived back at him again.  I couldn't give him time to retrieve that knife in his mouth that hung around his neck.  Rearing up, I tried to emulate what I had seen Brimstone do and use my front hooves to slash and strike.  Flippy was faster, diving forward into my midsection and taking us both down again.  Rolling, I swung him off to one side by tucking my side in to stop him getting a grip.  Hearing him curse about my lack of size to get a hold of, I took the opportunity to limp as fast as I could for the door.

        My heart leapt as I saw it was only kept in place by a few metal pipes that had fallen from the overhang above.  Although enough to stop it opening, they shouldn't prove much of an obstacle to shift.  Simply barging into one and yelping at the shocking impact down my back it fell to the side.  The second fell away with it!  Putting my back to the third I began to push even as Flippy caught up with a stinging blow to the shoulder.  Crying out, I went down.

        “Dammit...why couldn't you just stay away from us all?  Your kind chose to save yourselves at the cost of betraying all of us.  Do you think I like having to do this?  But I will...for the Goddesses do not abide the pegasi to hurt her subjects any longer.  You brought this on yourselves!”

        “Flippy...why do you have to do this?  I...argh...I don't want to even know you never mind harm you!  I'm not a cloudborn peg-”

        

        “All I know is my old folks were never wrong when they told me to be nice to everypony but fear and do justice unto the pegasi!  You all gave us this waste!”

        “BUT I DIDN'T!”

        “I DON'T CARE!  YOU'RE ONE OF THEM!”

        I...I didn't understand...how did a couple of wings make such a difference?  It didn't change who you were...

        I saw him raising the knife even as I pushed the third pipe away with my front hooves and desperately rolled to the side as the knife clattered off the ground and away from his mouth.  I leapt for the door, hammering...how many times was it?  Three?  Yes, it was three!  One, two, three!

        The moment I was done I felt Flippy dive for me a second time, his front hooves grabbing me to try and bring my neck up to slit.  A horrid moment passed as I felt the cold metal slide lightly against my neck.  Why wasn't the door opening?!

        We struggled, thumping into the door one more time before I finally was thrown to the ground painfully, mewling in pain as he stamped a hoof on my shoulder to keep me there.

        Lying at the side of the doorway on my back, I felt Flippy round off and take the knife in his mouth.  He walked in front of the door towards me.

        “Hate to do it...least I'll know I did my pa and the Goddesses proud...”

        Brimstone bucked the door open with a force that defied belief.

        Trotting out, the massive earth pony looked around before settling on me.

        “Murk?  What happene-”

        “BRIM!  BEHIND YOU!”

        My warning seemed to fall on deaf ears (well one was effectively missing in Brimstone's case...) as the raider warlord turned nonchalantly.  Nothing happened.  With an annoyed glance that told me to stop shouting he closed the door again.

        Only then did the dead body of Flippy Bit fall to the ground, his neck broken from being struck by the door.

* * *

        Hate.

        He hadn't just hated me.  Or my wings.  He had shown a real...underlying and educated hate against anything I stood for, minuscule or otherwise.  So many ponies had done the same this morning while they pelted me on my parade from The Master.  He hated pegasi too, to the point he wanted to ruin my life.  The raiders had wanted to pull my wings off.  Ragini had called me “flightless.” Even Brimstone admitted he hated the pegasi...

        I'd been running ever since the Pit.  From my slave life, from death, from The Master and from the opinion everypony had that just because I had feathers I deserved nothing.  But the truth was, I had been running all my life time and again from master to master, fellow slave to fellow slave.  Even while covered I knew I couldn't get too close to most ponies.  I hadn't been exiled from the clouds.  I was no Dashite, but I was an outcast all the same from the entire pony race.  No-pony wanted me.  Even those who accepted it like the mare...I'd be bringing them into danger if others knew.  The guilt would forever be with me, even if it wasn't my own.  Weighing me down and hurting for the rest of my life, no matter how long.

        No longer could I handle it...

        These wings had been useless to me.  They had hurt me, taunted me with their inability to even move or spread out and now brought danger upon me for the last time.  I trotted toward Flippy's corpse and closed his eyes.  They had still stared with abject shock as I gently pulled them shut with a hoof before searching around for what I knew he'd dropped.  What I knew I needed, a ticket to end the hate once and for all.  A feeling like that from the control tower had returned...but I realised I didn't need to kill myself to make the pain go away this time.

        No...I'd save that choice and last resort for when there truly was nothing left.  It sickened me to think that I even considered these...these responses to the pain.  But they always felt so easy and tempting...

        As I retrieved what I wanted from Flippy's corpse, I stopped Brimstone and, nervously, trotted over to a suitable looking flat rock.

        The big pony simply looked passive as he watched me move over and dump the knife before him.  He looked deadly serious even as he looked into my blubbering eyes, red with soreness and rubbing.  As I pulled my fleece off, the raider grumbled lightly.  I ignored him, trying to keep my mind focussed.  I couldn't believe I was doing this, but the blissful thought of a life where I could have been Flippy's friend kept running over and over in my head.  I didn't want to be a pegasus any more.

        “I'm sorry mom...I'm not going to be among the clouds like you wanted and to be honest...”

        I sniffed, whimpering as I forced myself to mumble it to myself.

        “...I don't think I would have wanted to go either...”

        Settling down beside the rock, I looked at Brimstone.  Part of me, some new emotion, was begging with me to not do this.

        “You hate pegasi too...h-here's...y-your chance...to...to hurt one...”

        He simply looked at me as I painfully used my mouth to pull a wing off my side over the rock.  My entire body was shuddering, the feeling like I was atop the control tower only grew.  Of being on the edge.  But this time I wasn't ending my life...I was just removing the things that made it harder!  Maybe...maybe they would all leave me alone!  Yes!  They'd leave me alone and I'd be like any other pony at last!

        Brimstone looked at the knife.  Then at me, sitting with my wings revealed, waiting for the brief pain that would end the cycle of hate.

        “Do it yourself.”

        His hoof shifted the knife towards me.

        “I don't help cowards.”

        “Coward?!”

        How could I be called that!  Well...I could...but not for this!  Well I'd show him...

        Picking up the knife in my teeth, I laid it back across the stem of my wing.  Just...just some pain, I wasn't losing anything...nothing important...nothing I'd ever need!  The judgement they all gave me, just ending that...just...ending...that...

        I pressed down with the knife and closed my eyes, whinnying around the handle.  A horrible second between applying pressure, feeling the cold metal and actually doing this.  A whimper turned to a whine before I cried out and with a single swift motion swept the knife sideways...away from my wing, throwing it across the ground before collapsing and letting the wing flop back on to my side.  What...what had I been doing?  Why did I think like this?  Every part of my mind was fighting itself over what was best for me or not.  I was terrified of the hatred those wings brought me, but I was scared of the pain it would take to remove it.  There wouldn't be any turning back...why didn't I just have the willpower to go through with it?  What was wrong with me?!

        As I lay shuddering, trying to make sense of what my screwed up mental state was thinking, I heard Brimstone advance on me.  With a sigh and a glance at the direction we should have headed in, he stared down at me.

        “You helped get that door open.  So I'll give you a little respect, Murk, and offer what I can say.  Look at you, not able to do it.  What does that tell you?”

        I sniffed, trying to hide soft sobs as I glanced at the knife.

        “...that I'm just a coward, afraid to do what I need to in order to fit in...”

        “Wrong.  Well...you are a coward, but only from standing up to what they think.  You're a pegasus, wings don't change that, Murk.  You'll always be one.  Something inside you, your soul, magic centre or whatever.  It's always going to be a pegasus.  Born for the clouds, bound to the open sky and all that other airy nonsense.  It's who you are.”

        He leaned closer.  I could have sworn I saw a knowing rise of an eyebrow.

        “You don't just turn your back on stuff like that.  It doesn't work that way.”

        I stared back, before daring to rise to my hooves and lowering my head.

        “I'm just afraid...that buck wanted to be my friend until he saw them.”

        “Not all ponies are like that.  You met many, but not all are.  Glimmerlight wouldn't care if you were a winged zebra.  What do you think I go through?  I'm the raider who many ponies can say killed someone they knew through commands to my clan.  You learn to live with it.  Besides, by not doing it, I think you're proving to yourself that you don't truly want to lose them.  Hate them or not, they're a part of you just as much as those chains on your flank.”

        He glanced away again.

        “Now come on, I'm no good with this youthful cheering up crap.  Once we're moving you'll have more things to consider than depressive escapism.  Not like I could cut off my clan markings.”

        My mind was still reeling.  My wings...my wings.  But surely if I didn't have them it would be better!  Or was Brimstone right?  Would they hate me even without them?  Would I have put myself through agony for nothing?  Did I really still want to own them?

        I glanced back at the unmoving things on my side.  Often I tried to forget about them.  Could I ever learn to truly love them as a part of me just like my eyes or ears?  I needed time to think...to delve right into my own thoughts about myself.  Other things to, I still hadn't quite come to terms with the thought that not a day ago I had been close to hurling myself from a tower.  I...I needed time to let it all out and truly realise what I was thinking.  Maybe Protégé would listen...

        But later...right now I didn't have time to sit and think at all.  Of how The Master was slowly eroding every facet of free will I had gained since The Pit.  Of how I desperately needed to find my confidence and a source of strength now that LittlePip was gone.  But later...yes, later.  We didn't have too long to make this journey happen.  As I saw Brimstone start to trot off, I cantered after him, limping badly and pushing everything I could to the back of my mind.  I didn't quite manage it, but the action of starting this small dangerous journey galvanised my mind to think more actively on the moment.

        “Wait, wait, Brimstone!  What about Glimmerlight?”

        “She'll be safe, aye, safer than us.  The raiders think I'm sleeping in there guarding her, they won't come nearby to her or your little mare book.”

        I was a mess...it'd take me time to think this through and come to terms with what I had been wanting...what I perhaps still wanted...to do.  But that caught me off guard enough to splutter and blush.  Why did this always happen to me?

        “Y-you looked at my journal?”

        Brimstone actually grinned as he looked back and down at me.

        “I told you before, patience isn't my strong point.  I got bored.  Seems you have some interesting tastes...”

        My mouth just hung open as I stumbled on limp legs and fell, covering my face with my hooves in embarrassment.

        “Oh come on, Murk.  It's not like I'm going to judge you...”

        Looking up, I saw his dry grin.  True to his word at least, he seemed to have at least a small degree of tolerance for me after helping him to get out of the Mall.

        He terrified me.  He had often spoken of how he would leave me behind or kill me if I caused him problems.  That in Fillydelphia ones own needs came above temporary companions.

        But right now he was my ally and I had attained a certain level of trust to follow him in a quest to save his friend.  To save the mare that promised him salvation...and promised me a step towards escaping one more time.

        As the pair of us prepared to canter into the red haze of Fillydelphia, I flipped down my goggles, shuffled to get comfortable in my escape fleece and tightened the strap on my scrappy damaged PipBuck before standing as tall as I could.  I had faltered...failed and been hurt by the ramifications of my decisions, but so long as I had a direction...some goal and something to hope will help me...I was not about to stop yet.

        What is it liked to be trapped?  It's hell.  The Master was a symbol of all my life, the fear and authority that sought to keep me in line.

        

        But the Stable Dweller was the symbol of freedom...and as I cantered after Brimstone and turned my radio on to hear of her latest exploits...I knew I hadn't abandoned her ideals just yet.

        I'll follow you out of here yet, LittlePip.  Just you wait and see.

* * *

Footnote: Perk Attained!

        Luna's Moonlight – After some time to get used to the dark surrounding you, things have began to seem much clearer now.  Your eyes now adapt well to low light conditions, who says the night need last forever?


Fallout Equestria: Murky Number Seven

Chapter 5:

Blessing of the Stripes

* * *

Is it...zombies?!”

        “What is it like to have a goal in life?”

        It's all too easy to say that I have something to shoot for.  Something to aim at and hope beyond all wishes that I can sometime attain it.  But the more I thought about it...the more I began to realise that I was wrong.

        Did I want my freedom?  I wasn't sure anymore, not after speaking with Protégé about what I truly understood or not.  That great outside world could hurt me more than even a life of slavery for all I knew.

        Did I just want to escape the pain?  My mindset had led me to consider this route in the wrong way one too many times before and would continue to do so.  When no exit is given, I found myself more and more beginning to turn to options that would make it all stop no matter the cost.

        Was it to discover somepony who would love me and care for me as much as I could in return?  But then, who truly would?  Pegasi were hated and I certainly wasn't the most charismatic and confident pony who ever lived.  If asked my name by someone I didn't know, chances are I'd just squeak and avoid eye contact.

        The more I thought about it, the more I realised I had only one real goal; to survive anything that came my way.  But is that really a “goal?” Isn't that just what everypony seeks to do?  It didn't particularly feel something I was convicted to enough in order to make the death defying attempt I'd have to in order to finally escape Fillydelphia.  I didn't know what I really wanted, but the thought of going beyond the wall was the sole remaining thing that kept me from going mad with grief at the hand I had been dealt in life.

        But after meeting Brimstone, Glimmerlight and Protégé, that had been changed.  Now, I had been given two paths to trot down.  One a lifeline, tenuous and vague but a desperate hope all the same.  To save Glimmerlight and pray that she agreed to help me in the escape.  Her brief words gave me reason to believe this was worth trying for at the very least.  I couldn't have done it alone and my confidence in myself had been shattered.  To attain the aid of somepony else would go a long way towards a successful attempt.

        On the other hoof...there was Protégé's offer.  Two years service and danger in exchange for my eventual freedom.  The callousness he showed to even smile as he signed me on to this “operation” spoke volumes of the reasons behind my shaky trust of that pony.  Good intentions and a supposedly caring mindset mattered little when he was still the pony holding me against my will and forcing me into dangerous situations.  All the same...somehow, I couldn't shake the feeling that he understood me better than anypony else.  If Brimstone and Glimmerlight cast me out, he might be my only vague ally in the nightmare that was Fillydelphia with a road left.

        I let all these paths, thoughts and opinions flow through my mind.  But still I felt held back, like I had no real drive to shoot for the stars anymore.  The Stable Dweller's influence was beginning to falter over time without seeing her.  I desperately needed a figurehead, somepony to give me a reason.  Perhaps that's why I was following a raider, who had once abused ponies like me for fun, in an effort to just be doing something, anything at all to give me purpose.  Or was it just because he had the authority that I couldn't say no to?  My duality of personality was still a tough obstacle in my head from the authority of The Master.  What kind of life was this?  Moving from slave work to pathetic tag along?  Sure, it was saving a life...but I doubted it would matter much after.  She would heal and then I'd be back on my own again after Brimstone cast me out to keep them safer.

        I really wished I had something better to hang on to.  I had only had to take care of myself in the past.  To survive.  To get my journal back.  To attempt escape.  I'd had a certain confidence that The Master had broken once more.

        I needed it back, I needed something to prove to myself that I could still do this sort of thing and not go back to being the mindless slave I once was.

        I needed to save Glimmerlight, not just for her life, not just for the vague wish that she would become an ally, but also to give me something to cling to, something that I could use to remind myself that I was not beaten yet.

        It wasn't much of a goal...

        But for now, it was enough.

* * *

        Hearts and Hooves Hospital had clearly seen better days.

        The building was old, sandstone and brickwork mismatched from different generations of renovation and surrounded by a ripped and wrecked barbed fence of the war era.  On top of it all, wasteland style scrap and rough repair jobs had further broken the balance of visual appeal.  It offended every artistic sense I had to merely even look at the sprawling complex's low buildings that seemed to expand outward rather than upwards around the higher central wards.  Old wagons lay on their side, their pink and yellow design marred and dust covered.  I could see at least a dozen of them, prompting me to wonder why they hadn't been renovated for use by Red Eye.  A closer look explained all...they were sky wagons.  Without pegasi, they were useless to him.  But even they had been stripped of anything useful, owing to Red Eye's insistence to use anything and everything.

        That same ruthless mindset had created Fillydelphia and repaired much of what it could do.  Before me sat another element of proof to that claim.  The hospital was not exactly bustling, but I could see lights inside, slaves on watch duty outside (I presumed a medical area dedicated to more important slaves didn't warrant a full guard routine) and even hear the hum of arcane science from healers doing their work within due to my rather freakish ears.  Why did people concentrate on my wings when I had these mutated things on my head anyway?

        Brimstone and I had been holed up within a warehouse across from the hospital for an uncomfortably long time now already.  I had taken to looking around with observation to try and stop my mind from settling on the uncomfortable conclusions about how to stop all the bigotry towards my wings.  Unfortunately...there was only so much to look at in Fillydelphia.  Ruined home.  Big crater.  Ruined home.  Ruined hospital.  Big raider pony.  Ruined home.  Factory.  Brick wall.  Back to a ruined home again...

        Dropping from the ledge with a sigh, I had found my companion not faring any better.  He had said patience wasn't his strong point and this was only proving it.  As such, I'd decided to try conversation and found myself met with a surprisingly amiable response on various topics.  For example, now I knew the best way to break a pony's leg was to buck it just above the kneecap and that apparently swearing was a subject that I was most uneducated in...

        “So what you're telling me,” rumbled Brimstone, “is that you've never said 'fuck' in your life?  Never?”

        He seemed almost shocked to meet somepony who just didn't swear.  Brimstone scared the life out of me with almost every movement he made and social interaction on a conversational level was clearly about as new to him as it was to me in many ways.  Throughout speaking, I had always seen that glint in his eye whenever I'd began saying anything that offended his “survival of the fittest” mindset.

        “Well, I've thought it a few times...”

        “But never just shouted it?  What plane of innocence are you from that you've never given out a right good swear?  Aye, we're going to change that.  Go on.”

        I sat up, what was he asking me?  Huh?  I blurted out an answer without too much thought.

        “Go on?  I...what?  I don't get you.”

        Brimstone sighed and shifted his weight to lie on the other side in our secluded little hiding spot I'd found.  I'd felt so proud when he'd nodded in appreciation at it.

        “Say it!  Can't have a midget like you unable to swear properly when the world decides to fuck him up.”

        “I'm...not sure I really want to...”

        “Try.”

        “Please I...”

        “Just give it a go.  We're bored here anyway.  Amuse me.”

        My jaw was hanging open.  I'd always felt nervous when I'd even thought the word!  Or any swear word for that matter!  My mother had always taught me not to, that to swear or curse in the Goddesses' name was bad.  Over time I'd broken the second one a few times (sorry, sorry, please don't send me to the moon!), but always kept control of my voice.  But then...perhaps I'd fit in better if I talked like them?

        “Um...ok...I'll try?”

        “Aye.”

        “Alright...what about?”

        Brimstone rolled his eyes, muttered something about 'bloody sunlickers' and shrugged.

        “Anything, something you hate.  Who do you really, really not feel safe around?”

        My first thought was 'You!' but I doubted it would help my present situation of being on the better side of this massive and potentially dangerous pony.  I still remembered him choking me against a wall for daring suggest the wrong thing about him...

        But who did I hate?  Wicked Slit was a particularly loathsome presence in Fillydelphia, as was Sooty Morass and of course Noose.  I hated Protégé for his insistence to not let me go.  I hated Red Eye for buying me in the first place and putting me into this nightmare...

        But really, there was always going to be one answer.

        “I...really...hate The Master.”

        “Shackles?  Pisspot of nasty that bastard is.  See?  Now you try.  Say you fucking hate him or something.”

        I sat up and took a deep breath, closing my eyes.  I was actually shivering.  What if he heard me?  What if word got back to him?  What if Celestia and Luna heard me?  What if Brimstone laughed at how bad I was at proper swearing?

        Really they paled in comparison to the real worry.

        What if somepony told my mother?

        “I...”

        Right, I can do this, rebel a little!  Show The Master he can't take your freedom of voice!

        “I...really...really...f-”

        I felt my face screw up and the word fall flat suddenly.  Brimstone just shook his head.

        “What is wrong with you?  It's just a wee word, nothing to get worried over.  Try again.”

        “I...I really f...”

        No!  I wasn't gonna give up, I'm doing it now!

        “I really fudging hate him!”

        There was a dull 'thunk' as Brimstone facehoofed.  Hard.

        “This could take some time...couldn't it?”

        I just nodded meekly, muttering small apologies under my breath.  However my ears pricked up as I heard a sound from outside.  The sound we'd been waiting for.  Noticing me perk up, Brimstone peered above the ruined windowsill.

        “Looks like a bit of waiting paid off.  Guard change.  New ones won't be as keen to do the night shift so getting past them shouldn't be too hard.  You distract one and I'll take him out.”

        “Wait, you're going to kill a slave?!”

        “Yes.  And?”

        His eyes glanced over at little me, the buck so pathetic he couldn't even swear, as though asking wordlessly whether I really was as useless to him as I was seeming.  But it slammed home again, he might act nicer sometimes...but when it came to saving the one he cared about...he would become the raider all over again to make it happen.  Eventually, as I stared with a horrified look, he seemed to deflate slightly and shake his head.

        “You look like her when you stare like that y'know?  Fine...I'll try not to do it.”

        As we climbed down, I heard him muttering to himself about going far too soft around mares and little bucks.  I clambered down as best I could on my injured shoulder before we began to creep toward the hospital itself.

        I wanted to help save a life with this...not end others.  The slaves hated me for my wings, but I would be damned if I was going to hate them back for the same stupid reason.

        “Damn it...I hadn't counted on them nailing the guards to the wall...”

        Brimstone had spotted something I had overlooked.  The slaves were chained to the wall beside the door.  Any knocked out or dead body would be out in the open and easily spotted while they could never leave their posts no matter what happened.  I wondered if The Master had come up with that one for Red Eye, it had his horrific practicality all over the concept.  As such the plan to use me to distract one before knocking them out had been thrown completely out the window now that the guards could not leave their highly visible locations where a body would be noticed within minutes.  As we advanced and crouched behind the outer wall, we both looked around the corner (Brimstone normally, me crouched beneath him) and hunted for ways in.  Brimstone Blitz nodded suddenly and lowered his voice.

        “Got a way in.”

        “Where?”

        “First floor.  Pull across a wagon, I'll stand on it, then you stand on my back.  You'll have to do it alone, now.  But it's better than leaving an unconscious guard where they'll find it immediately.  Just don't get stepped on.”

        My heart skipped a beat as the meaning of his words drove home.  I'd have to sneak through a slave hospital run by...well...the slavers, and steal medicine with no back up inside?  Also, what was with all the shortness quips?  I wasn't that small.  No-pony messed with LittlePip, I had heard so on the radio and she was about the same height as me!

        “I don't know if I can do this Brim...how will I even know the medicine?”

        “It's called RadPurge, some rare knockoff brand but it's safe for Glimmer to use to avoid RadAway's ingredients that she's allergic to.  Just look for that.”

        “But I...”

        I backed off, looking off to the side with a sigh...I really hated admitting this.

        “...I can't read.”

        “Are you kidding me?  Seriously, Murk, are you kidding me?  You're how old?”

        I didn't quite know actually, only a rough estimate.  I didn't even know my birthday, not that anypony truly knew dates outside of fancier settlements.  Even then they differed.  I just hung my head in embarrassment as Brimstone groaned and shook his head.

        “Damn it all...look, it's like RadAway, you know what that looks like?”

        I nodded.

        “Right, good.  It's like that but a much darker orange.  Almost a brown.  Alright?”

        Okay, that I could do.  I nodded before glancing back round again.  The sky wagon he intended to push up was nicely out of sight, but my nerves were still shot.  Alone in vents was one thing...creeping past slavers?  That hadn't ended well last time...

        “Come along, Murk.  Just get started and you'll figure it out.”

        “But I-”

        “Wheesht.”

      &nbs