Chapter 1 : A Little Adventure
Equestria is a big place. Vast horizons stretching from one coast to the next, dotted with settlements of pony, griffon, and half a dozen other species in climates of every kind. The map on my wall did its best to explain the majesty of the land, but nothing really ever compared to traveling it myself. Never has.
The map was old, the paper worn to a brown hue from age and trauma. I had carried it across Equestria and back again for years, each time adding notes and sketches to help it better serve me the next time around. I’ve stared at and labored over this map for much of my adult life. I could tell you the best way to get from any city to the next, including landmarks and tips, as well as directions to the many towns important to my trade. I made my bits buying low and selling high, taking advantage of any difference in supply and demand I could find.
The sunlight that was coming in the window suddenly moved from the map to my face in a manner that was very, very, bright and antagonizing. It sometimes surprised me how such a filthy glass was capable of letting through so much light when it was unwanted, but whenever I actually needed it, it was never there. I know I had been doing something before I lost myself in the map... but what was it?
“No! I’m telling you the problem isn’t the delivery system, it’s the electrolysis matrix!”
Nothing like the sound of mares arguing nearby to clear out the morning fog. Now I remembered what I was doing: checking over my finances and making sure that everything was still in order. Never hurts to be safe, after all.
“By Celestia’s sparkly mane, you’re gonna kill us all! Just let me look at - “ a loud slam cut through the ship.
“I don’t have time for your foalish ideas! Do you have any grasp of how difficult it is to maintain this rusty old engine!? Your idiotic meddling doesn’t help!”
“Maybe if we didn’t have you working on it it wouldn’t break down so friggin’ much!” A frustrated scream followed by a worrying groan emerged from the ship, and I prayed that nothing too expensive had been broken.
We were traveling to Manehattan with some of the seasonal harvest of Ponyville zapapples, which was regularly one of my most lucrative runs even with my admittedly small share of the market.
“What do you mean we? It’s my job to maintain the engine! I’m the cloud engineer! I’m the one who understands this machine! You get back to your plumbing or whatever it is you do!”
“I never should’ve left you alone in here so long! You break everything!”
“I break everything?! Go set something on fire and stick your head in it!”
The sound of a furious tussle leaked through the thin walls.
My stomach rumbled, and I decided to go eat breakfast. Pouring over charts does no good if I die of starvation, after all. I glanced at the map one last time before leaving my quarters, entering a combination of a hallway and antechamber. Here the three crew quarters, cargo bay, engine room, lounge, and stairway to the navigation floor above all came together. The sound of conflict continued to emit from the engine room, and the faint sound of dubstep drifted down from the navigation floor above. I strolled into the lounge, a wide open room lined with sofas, tables, and portholes. A bar separated it from the kitchen.
Behind the bar stood a noticeably muscular giant of a stallion, with a white coat and short-cropped blonde mane and tail.
“Morning, Cleaver,” I mumbled in a tired voice, trotting up to the cook. The screaming from the mares still hadn’t completely woken me up.
“Hrm? Ah, Kaptain! Good afternoon. Have been up for hours, listening to angry fillies argue. Why have you slept so late today?” he said in his heavily accented baritone voice. He turned on the stove to heat up a pot of what I presumed to be leftover breakfast from the morning.
“I was up late reading last night. Some real interesting stuff about Equestrian history, y’know?” I replied. I glanced out the window idly as I sat at the bar.
The sound of furious hooves announced the presence of one of the loud mares from the earlier argument. “By Celestia’s mane, that pegasus is impossible! She has no idea how to treat that machine!”
A white unicorn mare stomped her way into the lounge from the engine room and flopped down on a couch. Her short fiery mane and tail looked ruffled from the fight, and she gave off a noticeably angry aura.
“Cleaver, food!” she commanded.
Cleaver made a small grunt as he shuffled about his kitchen. “Little pony should calm head. Stormslider knows her job. She is best trained member of crew.”
“That machine is suffering because of her. You should just see how she treats it!” she shot back. She pulled a lighter out and lit it with a burst of magic from her horn, holding it close.
Ember was a bit of a quirky pony. She carried a lighter with her everywhere but never used the firestarter on it, and sometimes I’m not sure whether or not she thinks machines are more pony than ponies. She seemed upset, gazing at the small fire in front of her.
I turned to face her. “Calm down, Ember. She has only the best intentions for our engine. She’s hardly going to break anything that keeps us alive up here.”
“How can I be calm when she’s in there tormenting that machine?” Ember said heatedly.
Cleaver served me a bowl of tomato and bread soup from the heated pot, and brought Ember a fluffy omelet. “Eggs again? Really?” She sighed.
“Enjoy meal. Calm yourself. You are no good to ship so distressed,” Cleaver said, before returning to his kitchen and bottle of vodka. Ember continued to complain of the limited choice of food on the ship as we ate.
“Thanks, Cleaver. I’m going to go ask Silver about our course,” I said. Cleaver pushed a small plate of vegetables towards me, and I levitated it to my side before trotting back to the antechamber.
Remember how I said that the dubstep was faint, earlier? Well, once I got up to the same floor, it sounded dramatically louder. Despite being played from the other side of the door leading to the cockpit, the music seemed to fill the air on the navigation floor with an audible fog. My pilot liked to play dubstep when he flew, and play it loud. He was almost always flying, and so there was almost always very loud dubstep playing on the navigation floor. Unless I was holding a crew meeting or a negotiation, the music was as much a part of the room as the long table which occupies the middle of it.
But I couldn’t truly appreciate the volume until I opened the door.
Despite years of experience to temper my ears, entering the cockpit remained an exercise in willpower. The vibrations in the air were so intense that passing over the threshold was like physically penetrating a wall of bubble wrap.
The cockpit was a room that seemed designed to confuse anypony inside as quickly as possible. Various levers, chains, pulleys, and pedals were crammed into the small space at random. The walls and dashboard were decorated with switches and gauges so worn that any identifying colors on them had faded. Any labels that might have indicated what they actually did were similarly gone. In the center of the room, sitting before the bubble of glass at the front of the ship, Silver Feather bobbed his head to the beat. His tall silver mane, dark orange coat, and long tail bobbed and swayed in perfect tandem with the music as he eyed the instruments before him.
With some quick magic, I turned off the stereo in the corner that was busily dropping the bass. Silver jumped suddenly, his hooves losing their beat, and flicked his head towards me in such a way that the goggles he had been wearing flew up his forehead and lodged themselves comfortably in his mane.
“Oh, Dissy. Hey there,” he said. He glanced at the stereo to ensure it was still there.
I just want to establish here that Dissy is not my name, Dissero is. It’s just a familiar he likes to use. Normally I don't respond to it, but as a longtime childhood friend, I let him slide.
“Good morning, Silver. How are we doing?” I asked him. My ears were still ringing, but I was used to it by then.
“You mean afternoon, right? S’all good. Though we seem to be losing some engine output. I presume our mechanically minded fillies were debating on the best course of action, yeah?” The pegasus grinned, leaning to one side to eye an abstractly placed gauge.
“Yeah, Stormslider won, I think.”
“As she should. It’s her job, after all. She does it well, despite the trouble. Mind bringin’ me a snack? I haven’t eaten since Cleaver’s soup this morning and sitting here staring at the walls gets pretty tiring.”
“Beat you to it,” I said, floating the plate I had brought forwards. He grabbed it with a wing and tucked it neatly by his shoulder.
“Thank our fine chef for me,” he said as he stuck his snout into the plate. As I left, he flicked the stereo back on with his tail.
Ω Ω Ω
I’ve always disliked moments like this...
The vast majority of my crew’s time was spent lounging. This is because all we really had to do was fly. We have an engineer, Stormslider, but she only has to fix the engine. Once it’s in working condition, she’s not really needed unless a particular burst of speed is required. Bursts of speed aren’t really in high demand in the trading business, and I’m not trying to set a world record here. Ember works on other myriad machines and devices, but she also has just a maintenance role unless she’s tinkering with something in her free time. Cleaver’s only real job is to cook and save us the hassle of arguing over which of us is the worst chef. When he doesn’t feel like preparing a massive meal, he mostly relaxes and drinks his vodka. Me, I walk around and give people orders, but if nobody has any jobs to do I have no orders to give. Even Silver Feather has told me that ninety percent of his job as a pilot is staring at gauges. The only reason he’s never down in the lounge with the rest of us is that those gauges are up in the cockpit.
We were all in our usual positions. Ember was brooding over her lighter and a complex geometric puzzle in one corner, deep in thought. I lay on a couch next to a window, reading a book on ancient Equestria. Cleaver relaxed in the bar, lazily humming some Stalliongrad folk tune to himself and sipping from his bottle.
Stormslider was sitting in the opposite corner from Ember. She had her eyes closed, with music playing loudly enough through her headphones to serve as entertainment for the whole room. She had deep blue fur, with an unkempt mane made up of a mix of lighter blues and reds. The ruby pendant on her necklace swung back and forth as she bobbed her head. Luckily she didn’t listen to music that was too annoying for everypony else.
What we really needed, I decided, is some excitement.
I still fondly remembered the days of my venturesome foalhood. Me and Silver Feather used to have wild journeys together, only some of which were in our imagination. We fought pirates, explored strange new lands, and led the legions of the Princess into battle, when we weren’t busy hunting for our cutie marks.
We had become airstallions in the hope of living those adventures for real, but they had always just been pipe dreams. And our career hadn’t quite gone exactly as planned, either...
Now I was stuck behind a desk. Luckily, it was on an airship which traveled Equestria with all the most exotic goods from every province. It was wonderful seeing the land from above like this, but it still wasn’t quite the adventure I had hoped for as a colt.
Suddenly, an abnormal groan shook the ship, and the normal easy swaying motion of a well-piloted airship abruptly transformed into a rough vibration. Ember and Stormslider immediately perked up, putting away their respective forms of entertainment. I could see each of the rival mares racing to mentally figure out what had gone wrong, who could be blamed for it, and who was going to have the skill to fix it first and best.
“Oy, Dissy!” came the call from the top floor. I briskly rose off my seat, leaving the book where it had been lying between my hooves. I could finish reading later.
“What happened?” I asked, making my way into the cockpit, where a slightly annoyed Silver Feather was busily tapping at a gauge and holding onto a half-turned wheel.
“Well, I can’t say for certain, but my expert opinion says that that piece of manure we welded onto the hull in Canterlot is falling off. It’s bucking up the ship’s balance and aerodynamics. Get one of the fillies to fix it, yeah?” the pegasus said. “Maybe I’ll take a nap or something. We’ll have to stay hovering while it’s fixed or the hull’s gonna get all ripped up.”
“Ah, horseapples. I better go tell them before they kill each other over who’s to blame,” I said. I could already hear the beginnings of a fight brewing in the lounge. By the time I got downstairs, Ember was searching for the magnetic boots she used to traverse the hull, and both of the mares were sporting goggles. I gotta say, when it comes to competition, they sure do dress fast.
“Hey, Dissero, where are the mag-boots, I’m going out to check the hull,” Ember said, approaching me expectantly.
Stormslider stepped in. “She’s the one who put it on last time! I told her, ‘add extra reinforcement to the rear edge,’ but she wouldn’t do it. Let me handle it, I have wings anyways.” The pegasus slid her goggles over her eyes and made for the hatch in the main hallway of the ship, near the cargo bay.
Her fiery competitor jumped in the way. “Look, I told you the first time that extra reinforcement would’ve bucked with the ship’s balance and that it was gonna fall off no matter what, remember?” she explained. “Dissero, now would be a great time to show me the mag-boots.”
Silver Feather glided down the staircase. “Fillies, c’mon. Why don’t you both go?” he said, jabbing a hoof in Stormslider’s direction, “I’m sure that if you defer to our mechanic who we hired so she could fix the ship, your aid would be greatly appreciated.” The blue pegasus bristled but said no more. Satisfied that the matter was settled, he trotted past them.
“Try and be more assertive, yeah?” he whispered into my ear. He’s always telling me to be more assertive. Whenever I have trouble with the crew, he comes in and smooths it over with his calm reason and voice.
I let out a tired sigh. “Go on, then, you heard him.”
In the kitchen, Cleaver found where his vodka had rolled off to during the shaking and let out a small exclamation of joy.
Ω Ω Ω
I stood in the cockpit eyeing the Manehattan skyline, silhouetted by Celestia’s sun as it set on the horizon. The city was a major trade crossroad. It was situated on the Marissippi, which flowed all through Equestria, and was also home to one of the few bridges on the river suitable for trade caravans by land. Several smaller settlements that mostly traded by airship were also located nearby. It was an important stop on my routes, and not just because of the plentiful bits I could make off the zapapples.
We soon reached the Manehattan Skydock: a tall, thick tower with several aerial piers sticking out on all sides above the local buildings. It was situated on the riverfront, where the city’s market district has grown and flourished.
With night approaching, we hardly had to wait before one of the few remaining pegasus guides flew up and pointed us to an empty pier. Silver eased the airship into position, and more of the local pegasi flew close with ropes to moor us to the tower. He turned off his music, moved his goggles up into his mane with a smooth head motion, and nodded to me that we were ready to go.
We headed down into the lounge, where the rest of the crew were waiting. Stormslider and Ember both had on their personal saddlebags, and Cleaver waited by the door with his vodka in hoof. “We’re too late to do any trading, so Silver and I are going to go renew my license. We’ll be back and locking the door at midnight,” I announced.
“I think I’ll go do a bit of shopping, then find a club to hang out at for a few hours,” Stormslider said. She had mentioned something earlier about picking up some replacement parts for the engine. She trotted out the door.
“I will follow engineer. Perhaps will find trinket to buy too.” Cleaver took another swig of his vodka and stepped outside. No doubt he thought that a crate of vodka to keep him going another week would be a perfect trinket to buy. It amazes me that he never seems to actually get drunk.
Ember stood alone, hesitating momentarily as she debated over her choices. She could go with Stormslider, but I could tell she was still mad at her. Or she could do something alone, but that would probably be boring. In the end, she chose the lesser evil. “Guess I’ll go with you guys then,” she told us.
We made our way out of the airship and towards the central tower. A young and extremely bored clerk accepted my license, scribbled on some paper, and waved us on into one of the elevators that went down to the city.
The trade district of Manehattan initially smells distinctly like fish; the smell drifts off the many fishing boats that spend their days in the harbor, and overpowers any other scents. But as one makes their way deeper into the city, it opens up to the scents of a market, with exotic foods and spices from across Equestria competing to overpower the senses. Most of the buildings in this part of town are warehouses where goods are stored and then distributed across the city, and most of the ponies are either fisherponies, traders, or businessponies in search of a discount or transportation for their goods.
I led the way at a brisk pace, with Silver Feather close behind and Ember bringing up the rear, averting her eyes down whenever we passed by crowds. We soon put distance between us and the tower, and the traffic started to thin. The buildings started to become more decrepit, and the ponies started to take on the dull colors of hard-working stallions and mares.
As the sky darkened, we came to a shady staircase halfway down a dim alley way. At the bottom, an imposing metal door awaited us, spotlighted by the rusty little lamp hanging above it. I led the way down the stairs and knocked on the door once. The small peephole on the door slid open, revealing an annoyed pair of eyes. The eyes glanced over me for a few seconds, and then they were gone. A long and intricate series of clicks and bangs followed, suggestive of an extremely intricate lock system. The door slowly swung open in a way that seemed designed to convey just how heavy and imposing it really was.
An equally heavy and imposing stallion stood on the other side. He didn't seem too pleased by our presence, but waved us in anyways, as if leaving the impression we were lucky he had not decided to crush us. As Ember began to cross the threshold behind Silver Feather, the stallion stepped in the way.
“Who’s she?” he asked. His tone suggested that he didn’t like her at all, and her existence greatly bothered him.
“She’s with me,” I said. Ember stood her ground and glared at the stallion. I probably should’ve seen this coming. She was the most recent addition to the crew and had not accompanied me here before. The club was pretty tight on security.
The stallion eyed her suspiciously. He eventually stepped aside in a way that suggested he had done it in no way at all for her. Ember trotted inside defiantly, sticking her snout up as she passed the guard. The guard closed the door, turning his back on it to stare at the rest of the room as if everything in it was a blight upon Equestria.
“Thanks, Bite,” Silver said. The stallion ignored him.
The room was a hive of criminal activity. Ponies were gambling illegally in every corner, loudly exclaiming at each fall of the dice and turn of the cards. Others sat together at tables and acted friendly towards each other in very threatening ways as they negotiated underground black market deals. The far half of the room was filled with a thick crowd of ponies dancing to a heavy bass beat, and a bar in the center surrounded a series of raised platforms. Each held one or two pretty mares dancing suggestively as neon lights blinked and flashed across the floor.
At the sight of the crowds, Ember lost her usual defiant expression and shrunk back slightly against Silver, who placed a comforting wing on her shoulder.
Silver led the way through the crowd, using his wingspan to break the crowd and help us go through. Ember stayed close behind him and I brought up the rear. We approached a simple looking door on the far side of the room. A couple of rugged bouncers stared down at us reproachingly.
“We’re here to see Masque,” I said. Like their counterpart at the front door, they looked annoyed at my statement. Nonetheless, they still nodded and opened the door for us.
I took the lead as we crossed the threshold. We emerged into a simple and mostly empty hallway that made for a harsh contrast with the club. Ember relaxed noticeably as the door shut, shaking herself and standing up straight as if to make up for her previous display of nerves. I headed down the hall, past a door which radiated moans and gasps, and Silver and Ember fell in behind me.
My ears twitched at the sound of a scuffle. Suddenly, a rather distressed looking pony came flying through the drywall near a door down the hall, thrown through it by one of the club’s bouncers. Silver dodged the pony’s head with a quick wing flap as it slammed into the the floor. The imposing stallion that had most likely done the throwing lumbered through the doorway, and proceeded to drag the groaning pony away.
“And don’t come back!” shouted a mare as she made an appearance in the doorway. She spoke with a sophisticated accent reminiscent of the region of Prance, with her green mane expertly coiffed and yellow fur neatly combed. She had a silhouette of two contrasting masks for a cutie mark.
“Ah! Dissero, what a pleasure to see you!” she said, immediately switching from angry to happy. She reached out to sweep me into her room.
“Hello, Masque,” I said, surrendering to her pull. Masquerade was the best disguise master and identity falsifier in Manehattan. She had cared for my licensing during my attempt at a legal career, as I actually wasn’t qualified for an airship captain or merchant license, and we had developed a professional friendship over the years. She liked to bedazzle guests and customers with stories, and although she acted ditzy and simple-minded, I knew that she was much smarter and deadlier than she would have us believe.
Her apartment was colorful, to say the least. Costumes, hats, and clothing with enough variety to rival the crowd at a Summer Sun Celebration were strewn about. Not a single inch of the floor was visible through the mess, and the walls weren’t much better off. A shape somewhat reminiscent of a bed lay in one corner, buried under some bright yellow and red objects. The only part of the room even remotely neat was the desk against the far wall. The tools she used to create false licenses and IDs were spread out haphazardly upon it.
“So I presume you’re here for your new license, deary?” she inquired.
“Yes, but I won’t be staying long tonight,” I replied, looking around the room idly.
“Y’know it’s a good thing you never managed to get a real license, or I’d be missing my favorite customer! Yes, I’ve already got it done! It’s around here somewhere,” she sang, as if the thought of finding a small piece of plastic in an organizational apocalypse was one of her favorite pastimes. She began trotting around the room, sifting through the upper layer of the mess.
Ember slid up to my side to whisper into my ear. “She doesn’t seem like she’d be good at... something like this,” she said.
Masquerade’s ears twitched and she turned to Ember, smiling. “Is that so, deary? I suppose you wouldn’t know that I’m the best master of disguise around. One doesn’t get much recognition in my line of work!” she said. I could hear a dangerous undertone lying beneath her speech. She resumed her search through the mess. “Why, back when I was still into thievery I once stole a dragon’s whole hoard by disguising myself as a small wad of discarded tape! You can only imagine what—” she suddenly tripped over a stuffed snake and landed headfirst into a giant chicken costume. Ember stifled a giggle.
She bounced back to her hooves, resuming her speech as if nothing had interrupted her. “I think maybe I oughta cleanup this place sometime. I keep on tripping over the lemons. And then, I took the money from selling the hoard and used it to disguise my vacation home as a peacock! It was brilliant! Oh! No.... Maybe? Nope! Heehee!” She giggled to herself, tossing a couple of fake IDs aside to be lost to ponykind forever. Or at least until she had to find them again.
Ember looked up from examining a disturbing blue filly doll at her hooves. “Wait, you disguised a house as a peacock and yourself as a wad of tape? Is that even possible?”
“Of course it is, dear! You just have to start thinking as the box,” she said. “Ooh, I think I know where that license is!” She hopped over a fallen showcase and picked up an envelope on the bed, right next to an overturned cash register. “Here we go!”
I levitated the envelope to my side, and Silver took the liberty of retrieving his false pilot’s license from it. “Thanks again, Masque. I’m gonna head back to my ship for now, but after I make some sales tomorrow I’ll stop by and chat,” I said. Silver would probably come too. He loved gambling.
“Oh that’ll be fine, Dissero. I can’t wait to tell you about this time last year that I used a cup of tea as an improvised disguise during the -” she was interrupted by the sudden collapse of a pile of ridiculous hats on top of her.
Ω Ω Ω
After paying, we left, retracing our steps through the club area. None of the bouncers seemed to be able to make up their mind over whether they were more annoyed by our presence or our departure, but I could tell for sure that whichever it was annoyed them all a great deal.
Exiting the alley, we emerged into an open plaza of sorts, surrounded on all sides by run down buildings and occupied by what seemed to be an attempt at a park. At this time of night, everypony moved at a quick canter, and the ones who didn’t loitered in large and threatening groups. It was a dangerous time to be out in the Manehattan slums. We briskly headed off for the skyport where ship and safety awaited.
Unfortunately, we were intercepted.
As I was leading us down a relatively narrow shortcut, a burly stallion stepped out of a side alley and blocked our way. A couple of pegasi flew down from the roofs behind us and prevented any attempts at retreat. We were surrounded. Ember pulled her lighter out, flicking the flame on, while Silver Feather flared his wings and slid his goggles on. We formed ourselves into a compact triangle and prepared for a confrontation.
“Hold it right there!” one of the pegasi said, and we froze. We spent a few tense moments waiting for them to make a move.
A much smaller pony, a unicorn, emerged from the same alley which the large stallion had sprung from. He sported a dirty bowtie and an old fedora, and despite his small size, he seemed to command some respect from the other ponies. A greedy gleam shone in his eyes.
“Youse merchants?” he asked in a surprisingly deep voice. I nodded. Hopefully all he would want is whatever money we were carrying and we could leave without a fight.
“Mmm. I got some cargo I need shipped. Real quiet-like,” he said. I had a feeling I knew where this was going. No doubt he would ask me to smuggle something to a companion in another city, and I prepared myself to refuse. Silver was a fairly good fighter. He had always defended me and gotten into fights as a colt. And Ember wasn’t exactly helpless either. She had some dangerous fire spells she could use. Silver, no doubt thinking along the same lines as me, slid his goggles on with a quick nod of his head. Ember stopped fiddling with her lighter and left the flame burning.
“It’s good stuff. Need it brought to Harmony City. Why don’tcha be a lil’ neighborly and ship it for me, hrm?” the little unicorn sneered. He smiled mockingly.
“We don’t smuggle,” Ember growled. The unicorn frowned.
“Oh? Yeh don’t smuggle, just use false licenses? Strange. Wouldn’t want anypony gettin’ wind a’ that, would we now? Doubt they’d hold up to heavy... scrutinization,” he said. Of course, he was right. The only reason the licenses worked is that nopony ever bothered to really check them against anything. As long as I didn’t act suspicious or give anypony reason to doubt them, I could trade freely. An anonymous tip would make my career very difficult, at the very least.
I narrowed my eyes at him. We could probably take them. It was only four on three. I wasn’t much good in a fight though, and that big stallion looked tough. And Celestia knows if that unicorn had any dangerous spells. But still...
“What kind of cargo are we talking about here?” I asked. I had plenty of smuggling experience. One run wouldn’t hurt, especially with my new license. If it was a commodity I knew, I could easily handle it without much hassle and avoid a fight.
“That don’t matter to you, now. All youse gots to know is it’s light, small, and it pays well. And that there's a buyer at Harmony City who’ll pay nice, and da customs there won’t even stop you. All youse gots to do is sneak it outta here and not get caught on the way there,” he said.
Silver Feather came up to my side, bristling. “I dunno about this, Diss. It’s too good to be true. There’s gotta be some catch here,” he said. I could understand what he meant. Most of the time ponies didn’t blackmail somebody just to help them make a profit. Silver looked about ready to pounce on the big stallion. I prepared myself to refuse the unicorn and fight, but then I saw a shadow fly by out of the corner of my eye. With a furtive glance up, I saw more pegasi on the rooftops, watching, ready to jump down and join the fight if I refused. I didn’t really have a choice. There was no way we could escape.
“Okay, fine, we’ll do it,” I said. Silver flicked his goggles up and gave me an appalled sort of look, while Ember continued to glare. The unicorn smirked at me confidently. I figured we could get it over with quickly and cleanly. And besides, a little adventure never hurt anypony, right?
When we left Manehattan our hold was full of lightweight, locked, and supposedly volatile strongboxes. We had been warned not to open them for our own safety. If we didn’t deliver them to Harmony City in pristine condition, then our illegal trading practices would be revealed to the authorities.
None of us had been excited at the thought of becoming outlaws, so we agreed to get it done and over with quickly. Luckily, that wasn’t the first time that my crew had smuggled. We originally had been smugglers. Silver Feather, Stormslider, and I had started out smuggling with a dinky little airship, living off the black market, as I never qualified for a captain’s license, and Silver never qualified for a pilot’s license, technically speaking. One day a rival smuggler shot us out of the sky, and we decided to do something that didn’t involve so much tense hiding and quick flying. We became illegally honest merchants, trading on the open market with false licenses. With a decent ship and some experience, I didn’t think it would be too hard to carry out one last job.
The biggest mistake I thought I made on that visit to Manehattan, however, was letting Silver convince me to buy some extra rope for a little “project” of his. It seemed fairly harmless to me at the time. That same night, I let my crew rest and relax before we set out for Harmony City. But instead of the usual poker game Silver liked to start up, he summoned Ember up to the cockpit. They spent the whole night making loud banging noises up there. Next morning they came back downstairs looking rather frazzled, tired, and satisfied, and Ember informed me that the two of them had created something wondrous.
Which was of course an autopilot of sorts.
With Silver’s guidance, Ember had used the extra rope to create what looked to be a dizzyingly complicated series of connections between several buttons and chains, some of which took mind-boggling routes in, out, over, and between the walls to avoid clogging up walking space. So when we set out for Harmony City Silver spent only an hour plotting and flying a high-altitude beeline. Then he came downstairs and was able to share some quality time with us, instead of us having to go to him. Things went pretty well. The first day.
Then, he got the poker games started. Cleaver could never turn down any form of gambling Silver suggested, and Storm liked deal his cards without actually risking her bits. I’m pretty sure she developed her dealing skills during their time together in the Academy. Ember sat on a couch, watching as she toyed with her lighter quietly. I didn’t really have any choice but to get involved or take a nap. And Silver was my best friend, after all. A companionable game of poker can’t hurt, I thought to myself.
I never realized until then just how good at it he really was.
I sat across the table from Stormslider, glancing at the two stallions to my sides from behind my cards. I had a powerful hand, a king and ace of magic. Storm dealt out the river, a seven and five of magic and a jack of harmony. Confident that I would get a flush, I bid a few bits, hoping to get the others to call and beef up the pot. Cleaver frowned, but he called. Silver raised, and fixed me with a hard, emotionless stare.This won’t go well for you, it said. How he managed to put so much message and so little emotion in a stare, while wearing goggles, confounded me. I called him, and Cleaver folded.
Then came the flop. A five of destiny. Lot of good that did me. I checked, and Silver bet five bits. I hesitated, but called nonetheless. I felt like another card of magic would come out, and I’ve always trusted my intuition. Silver let a tiny little smile onto his visage, disturbing me thoroughly. But I wasn’t going to let him bluff me out again. That had been embarrassing. Earlier, I had lost with pocket aces to his seven and two unsuited.
Storm flipped the river off the deck, and it was a nine of magic. I tried to contain my emotions and look like I had lost hope. I bet ten bits. Silver stopped smiling and cocked his head at his cards, then raised me another ten bits. I called, determined to win, and broke out into a wide smile.
“Take that!” I exclaimed, slapping my hand onto the table face up. “A flush!” The huge pot I had just won would help me recover from the beating I had taken with those pocket aces. I sat back and grinned at Ember smugly, who raised her eyebrows at me and quietly nodded towards the table. I turned to see that Silver had silently slid his own hand forward and was reaching for the pot.
He had a six and eight of magic. He had gotten a straight flush on the river. He had beaten me. Again.
I looked down at the five measly bits which remained before me. They looked so tiny, so insignificant, compared to the hoard which prevented me from catching a glimpse of Silver’s body. Cleaver and Storm both chuckled at me and exchanged glances. Ember gave me a reassuring flick with her tail, and Silver just smiled at me.
“Nice try, Dissy,” he said, “But nopony beats me at poker when I want to win.” He got to his feet and flicked his goggles up. “How about we take a break, and when we come back we can start betting on coin tosses or something?”
Cleaver got up and made his way to the bar, where he started prepping his kitchen to make some snacks, and Silver and Ember followed, orders ready. Storm stayed behind with me at the poker table, where I sat, my mouth open, stunned yet again at how easily Silver took all my money. Thank Celestia we weren’t actually betting the bits themselves, and had just agreed to give ten bits each to whoever won. I suspect Silver had suggested that for my sake.
Storm gave me a knowing glance as she shuffled the cards. “Don’t worry, boss,” she said. “He did that to me too when I first played him. He’s got a great poker face. After thirty or so nights you should be able to hold your own.” I just sat there and shook my head.
The rest of the trip passed in much the same way. Storm eventually convinced me to let her play in my place. I tried my hooves at dealing. It made for remarkably slow games, but also increased conversation, and I even learned a few card tricks from her. She won back at least a third of my bits and started giving me some tips so that I wouldn’t lose as badly next time. I already decided that should the moment arise where I could play a game of poker again, I would either refuse or make sure that it was with play chips, and not real bits. I just couldn’t afford to lose that kind of money. I should’ve just taken the nap.
After about a week we made it to Harmony City. The first thing which I immediately noticed about the place was not the city itself, but its backdrop: a huge wall of swirling, flashing storm clouds, stretching along the coast and into the sky as far as anypony could see. The Cloudwall had encircled Equestria for as long as anypony could remember. Even Princess Celestia wasn’t entirely sure where it came from. Only from the written histories of our ancestors did we know that it had been constructed by ancient pegasi to protect Equestria from some great danger.
Nopony knew how to control it. Many historians believed that it actually couldn’t be controlled, and others said that it could, but we had simply forgotten how. Harmony City was situated near a peninsula which jutted out into the Grand Ocean surrounding Equestria, and as the Cloudwall ran over it, the water which it used to sustain itself became scarce. As a result, the storms start to break up and disperse. However, they’re still too thick for most airships to navigate. The storms are just too unpredictable and too numerous. I still remember the vivid tales we were told at the Academy about the brave ponies who first tried to navigate the Breaks, bringing the best weatherponies, pilots, and crews in Equestria only to make a minor mistake and be swarmed by dozens of storm clouds. The burnt out remains of their wreckages still littered the land under the Breaks, as it was too dangerous for anypony to try and recover them.
Although I wasn’t not exactly sure how, trade with the Outer World does make it through the Breaks. The money all flows into Harmony City, where exotic goods are traded for fine pony craftsmanship and unicorn magic. It made Harmony City an unparalleled mercantile center. Only the best businesses could afford the fees levied by the city, put on anypony that wanted to trade with the Outer World. Sometimes they even fought over it. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard a story of a couple trade ships trying to shoot each other down and be the first to get to an open slot.
I stood in the cockpit as Silver hovered the ship near one of the smaller skydocks to wait. After about half an hour, a pegasus flew out to us and knocked on the door. I went downstairs and opened it.
“Whatcha carryin’?” she asked.
“I’ve got some stuff, from Manehattan,” I told her. I hoped she would know what I meant.
“What kinda stuff?”
“Y'know... stuff,” I said. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I told this pegasus the whole truth. I looked over to Cleaver with a silent plea for help. He had been in the Stalliongrad Mob before flying with me, which I knew had close ties with the Harmony City Underground. I hoped he knew more about how the black market worked in Harmony City than I did.
The big stallion lumbered up to the door next to me, and very plainly stated in his thick accent, “We are here to deal in local black market.”
“Ah, well, lemme see whatcha got, then,” the pegasus said. She alighted inside our ship and looked to Cleaver expectantly.
“He is Kaptain,” the Cleaver said, with a nod in my direction. The pegasus gave me a doubtful look, but fell in behind me anyways as I led the way towards the cargo bay. I showed her the boxes, explained how I had gotten them, and told her that I had no idea what was in them.
She seemed particularly interested in the boxes, but didn’t really seem to be listening. “Well, alrighty then. You’re gonna wanna dock at the Central Domestic Tower. Just wait about half an hour so I can go ahead and tell ‘em you’re allowed to enter,” she told me. With another glance at the boxes, she flew away towards the center of the city.
Silver set the ship to hover, and we all waited together in the lounge. We each tried to give the others the impression that we weren’t nervous about our first black market trade in over two years. Except for Cleaver, who I didn’t think was actually nervous. I looked out a window to examine the city from above.
The city was huge. Enormous, even. Despite being thousands of feet up in the sky, it was still too big for me to see the whole thing. With a bird’s eye view I could see two distinct districts in the city, divided into concentric circles. The outer ring seemed to be where most of the ponies lived, with the kinds of buildings you would expect to see in a large and developed city. Numerous skydocks of varying size were scattered throughout the outer metropolis. There was plenty of room for trade with the rest of Equestria, so that Outer World goods could be sold for lucrative profits to the ponies of cities abroad. The inner circle was the most distinct, separated from the rest of the city by a large, imposing wall. In the very center of it was a huge palace, built around the largest skydock I had ever seen. Numerous extravagant airships were docked there, with the tower rising well above the clouds. Other skydocks, of a size which dwarfed any other I had seen before coming to Harmony City, but still not as large as the central one, were spread around the inner circle. Network of bridges travelled through the air between them, and the trade fleets floating nearby were thick and consistent. The city beneath them was largely sheathed in shadow. It was difficult to make out any detail on what was below them, behind the large inner wall.
After half an hour had passed, Silver guided the ship towards the indicated skydock, a smaller one in the inner circle, dwarfed by the behemoths towering above it both in size and traffic. I didn’t see any other airships docked on it at all, though I could see some other airships approaching now, coming in on all sides.
Stormslider tapped me with a wing to get my attention. “Silver wants to talk to you,” she said. I nodded and trotted to the cockpit.
“I don’t like this,” the pilot said once I had made my way up to the unusually quiet room. “Look, some other ships are drifting in around us. If we try to escape, they could easily cut us off.” It was true. Looking through the cockpit glass I saw several other ships, all displaying cannons ready to fire, hovering in a vague circle around us.
“Don’t worry, they’re probably just watching for cops,” I told him. I was trying to convince myself as much as him that we’d have a clean exchange. I heard a noise behind me, and saw that the rest of my crew had joined us in the navigation level.
As we neared the skydock and details emerged, it began to look noticeably dilapidated. There was visible rust covering much of its surface, and some of the piers looked ready to fall off. Some of them were completely gone.
“There’s no way those piers could hold an airship,” Storm said.
“Yeah,” Ember agreed, “that structure hasn’t had any maintenance for years.”
“I have bad feeling on this,” Cleaver rumbled. I glanced nervously out a nearby window and saw a group of pegasi flying towards us as we hovered around the ruined skydock. A chill ran down my spine as I realized that they had wingblades fastened to their feathers. Sunlight reflected off the sharp blades strapped to their wings
“Ah, horseapples,” I said. “This is no exchange. Get ready for a fight, everypony!”
Cleaver just shook his head and reached for his bottle. “Is no use,” he said quietly, “too many for us to fight, no way to escape.”
Silver turned and opened his mouth to say something, but he was cut off by a loud knocking on the hatch.
“Open up!” an imposing voice commanded. Cleaver took a long swig of vodka. Ember stopped fidgeting with her lighter. All eyes were on me as I walked downstairs and stood behind the hatch. My crew positioned themselves around me.
Ember’s horn glowed faintly and she flicked her tail back and forth aggressively.
I creaked the hatch open. “Yes?” I asked politely, like a complete idiot.
The stallion who had spoken fixed me with an evil grin, and I knew then that I had led my crew into a trap. “Welcome to Harmony City,” he said, and then his hoof slammed into my face and reality slipped away.
Ω Ω Ω
I woke up, lying in a bed and full of pain.
When ponies die, do they wake up in a bed? I honestly couldn’t think of any reason why or why not, which was fairly distressing.
It wasn’t a very comfortable bed, either, which I suppose is a good thing. If I was dead and woke up on a bed it would probably be like sleeping on a cloud, which all the pegasi tell me is wonderfully soft.
I opened my eyes and moaned. Above me was a neglected ceiling, with several holes and chips in it. I tried to move my neck, to get a better picture of my surroundings. A wave of nausea overcame me, and I decided to just relax. I let loose another moan.
“Oh, you’re awake!” the gentle voice of a mare said. “Your friends thought you’d be out longer. I did too. Tremor hits pretty hard, and you seem like a delicate pony.”
I tried to tell the mare that I was tougher than I looked, but all that came out was another pitiful moan. Great, now I seemed even more pathetic than before.
“Don’t worry. You’re in good hooves,” the voice said. An earth pony mare stepped into my limited line of sight. She gave me a tired, reassuring smile. She looked exhausted, with a worn magenta coat and an unkempt red mane. “My name is Phoenix Down.”
Ω Ω Ω
Phoenix Down prescribed me a whole day of bed rest, so I had plenty of time to talk.
“What happened?” .
“You’re in the central district of Harmony City. The Inner City. You’ve been tricked. Whoever sent you here just made some extra bits selling you into slavery,” she replied. She crouched to tend to a familiar body nearby.
“Who’s that?” I asked. A sinking feeling in my chest told me that I already knew who it was.
“Your pilot. He tried to fight those pegasi in the air outside the ship. They maimed his left wing, and he fell. I... I don’t think he’ll ever fly again.”
I had been right. Because of me, Silver Feather would never be able to fly again. My best friend. I let my head rest on my bed and tried to take my mind off of things with questions.
“Who are you?”
“You can call me Nix. I’ll take care of you. It’s my job. I take care of many of the ponies who get hurt in this place. When somepony needs healing, and I’m the closest healer around, their friends bring them here to get help. This is my home.”
“So how did we get here?”
“Your crew brought you two.”
Of course, my crew. “How are they?” I prayed that none of them were hurt like Silver had been.
“They’re fine. Physically at least. One of them seemed mad at you. They should be out working, I think. Their first day.”
I suddenly realized what a huge mistake I had made. Because of me, my crew had been turned into slaves, with nothing but hard labor to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
Silver would never again fly an airship, or even fly like a normal pegasus. Storm would probably never be given the privilege of working on the airship engines or cloud engineering she loved to tinker with. And although Ember and Cleaver might be lucky enough to find roles as mechanics or cooks, they would never be able to do it as anything but a slave.
I imagined what they would each do when I saw them next. Cleaver would probably just stare at me, give me the silent treatment. He had always had a way of making you feel guilty just with a look. Ember would be the loudest, shouting all her anger at me if she didn’t outright light me on fire or try to beat me up, and I doubted that she would ever forgive me. Stormslider would probably give me a whole speech, outlining the ways that I had ruined her life. I knew that my crew had never really respected me too much in the first place. I had always been a lousy captain. Silver had always been there for me, whispering suggestions when the others weren’t looking to help me save face. He had always looked out for me, ever since we were foals. And now I had failed him, let him down. Because of me he’d lost his piloting, his freedom, and even his ability to fly like a normal pegasus.
Facing Silver Feather would be the worst. My best friend, lying there with a mangled wing and bruises all over. He wouldn’t do it loudly like Ember, or factually like Storm. He would just give me a look, shake his head, say a few words that would bring my whole life crashing down. Had I really tried as hard as I should’ve that night in Manehattan? Silver had wanted to fight, Ember had wanted to fight. They could’ve both held their own, probably could’ve even gotten away, between his wings and her ferocious fire spells. I might not have made it, but they would’ve been free. I had been afraid, selfish, worried about my own hide. I should’ve given them the go ahead, just taken it and helped them get away, sacrifice myself, even. Why did I choose to take that route? I could’ve taken a major road, instead of trying to cut through the side paths. I should’ve just been patient, waited for daytime to go and meet Masquerade. Right about then, I would’ve given anything, everything, to go back in time and change one little thing so that none of this would’ve ever happened. I felt anger and shame welling up inside of me.
I raised a hoof and slammed it against the wall at my side.
“Buck!” I shouted. I put all of my emotion into the word, all of it into one punch. The wall shook from the blow.
“Hey! Stop that!” Phoenix Down ordered. She tossed a sharp stare my way.
I lowered my hoof. The wall had cracked and chipped where I hit it. “How long have I been here?” Now I just felt tired.
“Just one night.” She walked over to a nearby window and pulled the curtains aside. I looked up and caught a glimpse of the sun between two airships.
“And I’m some kind of slave now?”
“Any chance of rescue, or escape?”
“I don’t think so, Dissy. I’ve lived here my whole life, and many other ponies have been here longer. We live here, and we die here.”
“What? How is that possible? Surely the Princess, or the Royal Guard...” I trailed off.
“The Inner City is a well kept secret. The Outer City is the city that most of Equestria knows about. They handle most of the trade with Equestria, and are the middlestallions between Equestria and the Outer World,” she began.
I interrupted her. “Wait. How did you know my name?” I didn’t remember telling her. And if I had, I wouldn’t have given her my pet name.
“Your friend Silver Feather told me. He was delirious when he got here, but he was still awake.”
“Hmm. Okay. Continue?” I wanted to learn more about this place. I hadn’t lost hope. Maybe I could find some form of retribution by helping my crew to escape.
“The Inner City is ruled by Robber Baron. He took control of the city many years ago, and now he runs the Outer City under puppet governments to keep the rest of Equestria satisfied. Even the ponies in the Outer City think that the Inner City is some kind of great metropolis, where only the richest tradesponies go. His police force spreads the lies, and they can’t see anything but the skydocks and palace from outside the Inner Wall.”
“What, and nopony bothers to ask? Nopony ever found out about this?”
“The Baron is a cruel pony, Dissy. He kills anypony who tries to expose him, and his guards beat us if we disobey him. Nopony who enters here ever escapes.”
“How many ponies are enslaved here?”
“I don’t know, Too many. At least a thousand.”
“Where does he get them all?”
“Most of them come here like you did. His ‘recruiters’ send captains and their crews here with false cargo. The pegasi in the Outer City watch for it, and send any ships that carry them in here. The crews are taken, and the ships are added to the Baron’s fleet or scrapped.” Silver Feather had been right after all; It had been a trap.
“And what does he do with us?”
“He makes us work. We get assigned to a building to work in, and a building to live in. We work until we drop dead, or we’re taken to the skydocks and never come back.”
I lay back down and closed my eyes. A life of servitude? Great. This dark corner of Equestria, literally under the shadow of the world and the rich, was to be the future of my crew. They would probably all die here, worked to death or beaten by sadistic guards.
“You said you’ve been here your whole life?” I asked her.
“Yes, I was born here, in Building 19. My parents died here, and the building raised me together. Two other ponies moved to share a room so I could have this one to treat patients with. The Baron’s Ponies never processed me into a job or home, but they still manage to keep me busy.”
Ember entered the room. She looked tired and sad. Above all, she looked angry. I braced myself.
“Ember, could you please show Dissy his room? He should be fine,” Nix asked her.
“Yeah, sure. C’mon,” Ember said. She managed to put a great deal of anger and blame into the three words.
I rose from my bed and walked into the hallway outside, closing the door with my magic. “Ember, I- “
“Save it,” she snapped, “I’m itching to burn your room down as it is. Don’t tempt me.”
I decided it would be best not to push her. She must have been exhausted, to let me off with so little shouting and ranting. We passed up four staircases in tense silence. Ember led the way down the dark hallway, lined with doors, where I was to spend the rest of my life. She stopped at a nondescript door and bucked it hard, knocking it off its hinges. I was actually somewhat relieved, as I had a feeling that loudly angry Ember wasn’t quite as bad as quietly angry Ember.
“There you go, Captain,” she spat mockingly. She stomped further down the hallway to her own room, slamming the door behind her. I stared after her silently.
A wizened old pegasus chuckled at me from where he sat on an equally old chair in front of what I assumed to be his room. “Mare problems, eh?” he asked merrily.
I ignored him, crossed the threshold of my prison, and levitated the door into place behind me. I didn’t receive any visitors that night. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted my crew to come talk to me or not. I had nightmares as I slept. Nightmares of my crew, blaming me.
Ω Ω Ω
I was woken the next morning by a knocking at my door. The knocking stopped, quickly replaced by a loud bang. Lacking any real attachment to its frame, the door had promptly lost the precariously balanced position I had left it in and fell.
“Oops.” I heard somepony mutter. “C’mon, newbie! Foundry duty starts early!” they shouted.
Early was right. Although I could see the light of the sun through the dirty window near my bed, none of it was coming into my room. The sun hadn't even risen above the Inner Wall yet. A muscular indigo earth pony walked in gave me a swift kick. The blow knocked me both out of my bed and my thoughts at once.
“Up!” he shouted. “I won’t be late for you!”
I made sure he knew that I wasn’t going to jump to obey him. I got to my hooves slowly, glaring at him.
“Don’t give me that shit!” he said. “You’ve been assigned to foundry duty. Work starts at dawn and ends at sunset, six days a week. You report to Foundry Two every morning or I will personally drag you out of bed and beat your flank. I’m in charge, and you call me Boss. Now let’s go!” He finished the command with a threatening stomp.
Embarrassingly enough, his stomp actually scared me into moving. I tried to catch myself and save some face, but it just made me look more scared. I decided that it would probably be easier to comply. There was no way I could fight this pony anyways. He was bigger, stronger, and just more threatening than me in every way. I figured that disobedience would only make my life shorter.
Boss led the way out the room, down the hall, downstairs, and outside at a rapid trot. Several other ponies from Building 19 were waiting for us. I assumed that they also worked at Foundry Two. Boss signaled for me to join them with a wave of his head and trotted towards the front.
An inky black pegasus standing next to me looked up from the ground. “Hey,” he mumbled shyly, “I’m Moon Dream.”
“My name’s Dissero,” I told him. “Are you new too?”
“Yeah. I came to draw the airships... and I got a closer view than I had expected,” he said quietly. Like me, he was smaller and less sturdy than many of the other ponies around us. He was young, probably a few years younger than me. I guessed that he had just left his parent’s home. On his flank he had a cutie mark of a paintbrush surrounded by stars.
Boss continued to trot down the street. Most of the other ponies in the group followed him, while the rest split off into other groups. It was dark outside, as both the moon and the sun were too low to shine much light into the Inner City. Despite the cloudless sky, most of the starlight was blocked by the trade fleets, skydocks, and connecting bridges above. The buildings of the residential sector all looked the same, individualized only by different types of decay and occasionally by some kind of decoration or art put up by the ponies who lived inside. I saw some hoof-illustrated posters on the walls and a few flower pots on the windows, though none of the flowers had any petals. As we walked, more ponies joined us from the buildings we passed until we had a large crowd of at least a hundred ponies. With my relatively small height it was hard to really tell. Most of the ponies kept to small groups amongst themselves, talking only to their building mates. All of them looked tired.
We turned a corner, and I got my first sight of the infamously cruel guardsponies of the Inner City. They patrolled about in small groups of three or four, following us briefly as we passed. We couldn’t see their expressions, as they all wore helmets with tinted visors and gas masks that covered everything but their ears and neck. Their armor was strikingly similar to that of the Royal Guards, but warped, with dark foreboding colors instead of the shining gold, and sharp points on the shoulders and hooves. They seemed... cold. Like they weren’t even alive, like they were something other than pony. Their faceless, helmeted bodies, the body armor they wore that concealed their cutie mark, and tails trimmed short left little to individualize them. They weren’t ponies; they were just guards.
We eventually left the apartments behind and passed by more varied buildings. I didn’t know what all of them were, but I was able to recognize a manufacturing plant, a barracks, and several buildings devoted to some kind of unskilled labor from similarities with others I had seen before. We reached a compound consisting of four large buildings. I assumed they were foundries we would be working in. Boss led the way into one which had a large white “2” painted on it.
It was dark inside the foundries. The only windows were small, and high on the walls, so most of the light didn’t reach the floor. Huge iron buckets hung from rails fixed to the high roof. Two walls, across from eachother, were lined with furnaces that extended down into the basement level, and giant tables in the middle of the room held molds of various shapes. Along the far wall I could see some grinding and sanding machines, and a large door with metal next to it in tall stacks. The ponies arranged themselves into two lines and waited their turn to speak with Boss and another stallion, who held a clipboard.
And so started my first day of slave labor. Me and Moon Dream had the good luck of being placed together and the bad luck of being tasked with keeping a group of furnaces burning. It was hard work, with no room for emotion or thought. The day passed in a blur. The foundry seemed lost in time, as there were no windows in the basement, where we heated the furnaces, and the harsh glow of the melted metal made it impossible to distinguish daylight from moonlight, or any kind of light.
The furnaces required two things: fuel and oxygen. A pile of heavy coke was placed near each group of furnaces, and vents that allowed air to come in from outside were strategically placed around the basement. I levitated the coke into each furnace, and Moon Dream used his wings to direct air towards them. The huge buckets crawled along the rails and waited above our furnaces to be heated, and then were moved away once the metal inside was smelted. It was hard work without stop. The furnaces and coke pile were too far away for me to keep more than two in my magical range at once, and Moon Dream could only care for one at a time. The fires in the furnaces burned my face whenever I got within a few feet, and the giant buckets radiated heat. We were both covered in sweat within minutes.
I was practically dead on my hooves when Boss blew the whistle that signaled the end of the shift. Me and Moon Dream collapsed where we were and lay there panting. We heard ponies leaving the building, ponies made of tougher stuff than us.
Boss walked up to us and offered us each a helping hoof. “Hard work, eh newbies?” he chortled. We just stared at him and tried to breathe. He looked us over with what I might have recognized as a distant second cousin of concern.
“Take tomorrow off. You’ll be working every other day until you can manage two days without dying. You’ll get used to it,” he told us. “If there’s one good thing about foundry work, it’s that it makes you hard.”
The journey home was almost as difficult as the work itself. The sun had risen and set while we were inside, we had had no chance to see it, and our tired hooves stumbled over the path as we dragged ourselves back to our building. The stairs were even worse. Me and Moon Dream had rooms on the same floor, and we exchanged tired glances as farewells before we each opened (or in my case, crashed through) our respective doors and collapsed into our beds.
The next morning, aroused this time by the sun instead of Boss, my whole body ached. Even my horn ached. I tried to use magic to raise my blanket, and was rewarded with a massive migraine that was hard to distinguish from the punch to the face that I had received upon my arrival. I decided to leave magic for the afternoon.
I stumbled out of my room to find the building mostly deserted. Everypony was out working. I spied the old pegasus who had laughed at me when Ember bucked my door down, sitting in his chair and smoking a pipe. I walked up to him.
The old pegasus looked up at me and cracked a smile. “I see Sword Breaker was kind enough to give you a day off,” he laughed, “hard first day?”
I nodded. “Why aren’t you out working?”
“Hah! Work, an old pony like me!” he exclaimed. “I’d break my back out in that foundry. Sword Breaker may be tough, but he cares. He’s just as much a slave as the rest of us.” He winked at me as he said the last few words, taking a long pull at his pipe.
“Who’s Sword Breaker?” I asked.
“Oh, well he probably introduced himself to you as ‘Boss.’ He used to be a sergeant in the Royal Guard before he came here.”
“You’re the oldest pony I’ve seen so far,” I said.
“And probably the oldest you’ll ever see, until the day I die! I’ve been here my whole life.” he said.
“And nopony tries to get you to work? I didn’t think the Baron was the kind of pony to let us retire.”
“He’s not. The good Baron would never let us rest until we couldn't do anything for him anymore, and that only happens when we die. But everypony here respects me too much to say anything.”
“Now listen up, son. I hear everything, and I heard about how you and your crew ended up here. Don’t you worry, they’ll come around. Friends are hard to find here. Everypony is so concerned with their own hide or too tired to talk. What’s your name again?” he asked.
“Dissero.” I had always heard that older ponies knew best about things like this, and I figured he had probably seen plenty of captains in my situation before, but I still found it difficult to believe him when he said my crew would simply “come around.” Didn’t he understand what I had done to them?
“Ah, yes. Dissy. I remember now,” he chuckled. Remember? I thought to myself. I had never told him my name in the first place, let alone the nickname that only Silver and my parents used for me. The pony looked behind me and smiled. “Ah, Moon Dream, I see you’ve been graced with a day off as well.”
“Yes, sir,” Moon Dream said, coming up from behind me.
“It’s unfortunate, what happened to you,” the old pegasus said, “Always sad to see a young pony like yourself caught up in this hell.” He released a series of hacking coughs before taking another pull at his pipe.
“Y’know, that’s not very healthy, sir,” the younger pegasus said.
“Bah, don’t worry about me. I would’ve been dead years ago if it wasn’t for some lucky placement.” He winked at us, and shifted so we could see his cutie mark: a glowing hot ingot. “I have a talent for metal work, you see. Kept me alive longer than anypony else in the foundries. I’ve lived through generations here, seen many of these skydocks being built. A few years off my life won’t hurt. Oh! how rude of me, I haven’t introduced myself.” He took another pull at his pipe. “M’name’s Old Ironhide.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said. Moon Dream murmured agreement.
“Hey, where is Nix’s room?” I asked. Old Ironhide chuckled.
“It’s not too hard. You go down to the second floor, and her room is the second door on the right as you leave the stairwell,” he said.
I excused myself, leaving the two pegasi to talk amongst themselves. I followed Ironhide’s directions to a nondescript door on the second floor. I knocked lightly.
“Come in!” Nix called. I entered to find her tending to Silver Feather’s hurt wing. The pegasus was awake, and his face scrunched up in pain. He bit down on the towel in his mouth as Nix set the broken bone in his wing and tied it in place with bandages and tape.
Silver spat out the towel. “By Celestia, that hurts!” he hissed. “And itches!” he added, rolling his back.
“Stop that, and try not to scratch,” Nix ordered. “Actually, you’d better not move your left foreleg much at all,” she said after a moment’s thought, easing him back into a lying down position on his bed.
Nix looked up to see who her visitor was. “Oh, hello Dissy,” she said. “Silver Feather is well enough to talk now, as you can see. I’ll be right back.” She got up and walked into the kitchen, where I knew she kept most of her supplies, leaving me alone to face my best friend.
Silver fixed me with a hard look, similar to the kind he‘d used on me at the poker table. I approached him meekly, trying to figure out how to apologize, already anticipating his rejection.
“Silver,” I started, but he cut me off with a wave of his hoof. Here it comes. I was about to lose my best friend.
“Save it,” he said. I was doing a lot of apology saving recently, it seemed. He stared at me for a full minute, and then he said, “I already got my revenge.”
I cocked my head and looked at him quizzically. What did he mean by that? I wasn’t sure if I should be happy or depressed, but I knew for certain that I was confused. Had he arranged for me to be placed in the foundries, somehow?
Suddenly, he broke into an evil grin and winked at me. “I was conscious as I was being brought here...” he started, “and I made sure that everypony thought your name was Dissy.”
I was shocked. I had prepared myself for some confession of vengeance that might ruin my life, something that would make up for what I had done to him. But instead, he had given me a tale of literal foal’s play. I was too confused to remember to be mad at him for making everypony in Harmony City think I was a little filly pony. Instead, I smiled, glad to know that my best friend forgave me. It wasn’t as good as being able to go back and fix all this, but it was still an amazingly bright silver lining in the dark shadow of the Baron’s towers.
“Thanks,” I said. He understood.
I spent the rest of the day there, sitting my old bed, chatting with Silver and Nix. There was only one other patient there at the time, and Nix told me that she was too weak to save, and that she was only easing her passing. It gave the conversation a morbid atmosphere, and I tried to ignore the dying mare’s presence.
Halfway through the afternoon, there was a knock at Nix’s door, and Stormslider came in. Her coat was dirty and her wings were dripping water. After greeting Nix, she made a beeline straight for me.
“Save your apologies and listen,” she told me. At this rate I would have enough apologies saved to start a small business. I glanced at the clock, making a mental note of the time so I could later know just how long her debilitating speech would be.
“I’m a rational pony. I like to judge others by intentions. And I know that you had good intentions. You’re not evil, you didn’t want this,” she said. “As such, I will forgive you, and instead direct my anger towards the bastard who runs this city, and has me cleaning the only sewers in Equestria full of disgusting foreign shit.”
I blinked. I smiled. Perhaps Old Ironhide was right after all... Storm gave me a curt nod and asked Nix if she had a towel she could borrow.
“If you have sewer duty, you’ll need to do more than borrow it,” the healer said. “Here, just keep it. And Dissy, Old Ironhide told me that you work in the foundries. Here, you’ll need this.” As she spoke, she gave Storm a plain but clean towel, and gave me a bandanna. I held it up quizzically.
“To tie around your snout,” Nix added. “To keep out the smoke and protect you from the fire.”
“Ah, of course,” I said. “But, I don’t know how to tie these.”
“I’ll handle it,” Nix said, swiftly tying the bandanna around my neck, too fast for me to protest. It was a plain, yellowish-white color. It was reminiscent of the old map I had had in my cabin.
“Thanks.” Perhaps life in servitude would be bearable after all.
Chapter 3: Last Chance
Boss was right. Foundry work really does harden you. Over the course of a month, Moon Dream and I eventually got to the point where we could work the usual six days a week, from sunrise to sunset, and still be able to walk home ourselves with enough energy to socialize on Sundays.
I grew close to Moon Dream. We became a team in the foundry, working our furnaces with efficiency. At first we had worked in silence out of exhaustion and depression, but now we did it because we didn’t need words to work together. We each knew what the other was doing and what he needed. It got to the point where I even looked forward to a day’s work. I liked feeling of a job well done and muscles well worked. I found my rhythm, you could say.
Nix had been right when she said that I would need my bandanna. Although I hadn’t noticed it at first, many of the foundry ponies wore some kind of face mask as they worked. My bandanna became like a part of me, like Silver’s goggles and Storm’s necklace. I stopped taking it off. Dream saw that I had gotten attached to it, and as a birthday gift he used some charcoal to sketch a map of Equestria on it. Combined with the parchment-like color, it was almost like having a piece of my old map with me. It wasn’t entirely accurate, lacked detail, and was somewhat hard to make out through the soot stains. He actually had to draw it on a second time, using juice to stain the image in so it wouldn't come off after a day at the foundry. Woohoo. Happy birthday, Dissy. Enjoying your time as a slave?
As Old Ironhide predicted, my crew did come around. Once Silver was well enough to leave Nix’s room, he and Storm convinced Ember that I really did feel sorry, I hadn’t meant for this to happen, and that being angry at me was only going to make things worse and really, we all had to stick together in a tough time like this. I’m not sure if she completely accepted it. She did, however, fix my door as a token of friendship. It was nice to have a working door that didn’t fall and wake everypony on the floor at the slightest touch.
Cleaver was significantly easier. With the help of Old Ironhide, I was able to procure a bottle of what Cleaver would call “the good Stalliongrad vodka.” When I presented it to him, he swept me up into a huge bear hug that practically crushed my ribs.
“I have been through many things, and this is not my first life of servitude,” he had told me, “but vodka, I cannot do without. You have brought me happiness again.” And so I was forgiven.
Sundays were my favorite, of course. Although the Baron may be a cruel pony, he was also smart enough to recognize that constant hard labor isn’t nearly as efficient as separated bursts of it. Almost everypony got the day off. Stormslider and other ponies with important jobs didn’t, but they had slightly shorter hours. The schedules lined up so that for about two hours I could relax with Moon Dream, the rest of my crew, and sometimes Nix, though she was usually busy helping somepony. We liked to sit in the “courtyard” behind Building 19 and three other buildings, watching the airships and talking about our weeks. If it weren’t for the constant presence of the Baron’s guards and the Inner Wall, it would almost be like being free again.
“That one’s my favorite,” Moon Dream announced one Sunday. He pointed at a relatively small airship which I hadn’t seen before. It didn’t look quite the size for overseas trade, and wasn’t moving to dock or pass through the Breaks.
“It has such nice aesthetics,” he added. Moon Dream loved watching the airships more than anypony else. He drew them with charcoal from the foundry on smuggled paper he bought in exchange for his artwork.
“She certainly does look pretty slick,” Silver observed, eyeing the airship enviously. “Look, it has maneuvering thrusters and wings. Bet she can pull some sick tricks that our old ship never could.” His wing was completely healed now, or at least as healed as it would get. It didn’t quite close at the right angle, and he could only extend it stiffly for gliding. A pang of guilt still ran through me whenever I saw it. But I tried to put my mistake behind me now and look to the future.
“Our old ship was nice,” I said defensively. It had been my ship, after all. Even if we had pooled our bits to buy it, my name was the one on the false license. I was kind’ve attached to it.
“Our old ship was worth 19 bits,” Ember said factually. “Trust me, I was there when we took it apart for scrap.” Silver and Cleaver laughed at that.
“I wonder what kind of engine it has,” Stormslider murmured. She had found some magazines in the sewers, and was reading one as she relaxed. We spent a few minutes talking about the airship, and then lapsed into a series of reminiscences about our old airship. They insulted it and I defended it for the rest of our time together.
I liked to spend the remaining part of my Sundays with Nix. Moon Dream and I would go down to her room after the rest of my crew left. We talked about Harmony City, recent events, and possible ways to escape or expose the Baron. It was only theory though. None of us really thought we’d get out. I became an assistant of sorts for Nix when I was there, helping to care for resting ponies. She would go gather supplies, either on the streets or in the local black market. Smuggled goods of all kinds were traded there for whatever anypony could find of value. Sometimes you could find stuff that had fallen off a ship or skydock and trade it for something valuable.
I had been in Harmony City for a few months when I learned about a different side of the Inner City. I was kind of ashamed that I had never thought about it before. Nix and I were sitting in her room in companionable silence. Moon Dream was out buying paper and paints, so it was just the two of us. I had been dozing off, daydreaming, when I heard hooves running outside the door.
“Phoenix! Phoenix Down!” a distressed pony called, knocking on the door frantically.
“What? Come in!” Nix answered. She leapt to her hooves and grabbed the satchel she kept her first aid supplies in. We both rushed to the kitchen to wash our hooves.
Three ponies burst through the door, carrying the moaning body of a fourth between them. They were all wearing thick, dirty clothes and caps. One of them had a strange device slung around his neck, vaguely stick-shaped and covered with strange runes. “He’s been shot!” he exclaimed.
“Place him on the table. Gently!” Nix commanded. The three ponies lowered their friend onto the operating table. Two of them went to the windows to watch the street, while the other stayed near the table. He was carrying the strange device.
“What happened?” the healer demanded as she looked over the injured pony. I used my magic to cut away clothes around the wound. He was bleeding badly, and his fur was covered with dirt. Nix grabbed a towel and wet it, patting the wounded area with it to remove the filth.
“We were smuggling in supplies for a big operation coming up, and the Baron’s ponies ambushed us. We had a few deaths, and most of us were able to get away, but some of the wounded are too weak to take with us. We need you to care of him until he’s well enough to reach a safehouse,” the pony with the rune-covered device said. I gave the injured pony something to bite down upon as Nix poured some cheap alcohol over the wound, eliciting a muffled scream.
“I’ll care for him. You’d best go before they follow you here,” Nix said authoritatively. “We don’t want anypony else getting hurt.”
“We’ll send someone to check on him every Sunday and bring him home if he’s well,” one of the ponies said as they left. They left as suddenly as they had appeared.
“Dissy, hold him down,” Nix ordered as she reached for a pair of tongs. I placed my weight onto the injured pony’s chest. Nix carefully reached into the wound with the tongs, removing a bloodied stone sphere that was covered with small runes, and dropped it into a nearby tin. The pony moaned in agony, biting the towel in his mouth so hard I thought he might pop a vein, and then passed out.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a bullet, Dissero,” Nix said as she continued to remove shrapnel from the wound. “The Baron’s ponies shoot them out of guns. They’re kinda like hoof cannons. One of the ponies that was in here had one.”
“What propels them?”
“Ancient lunar magic, from the Nightmare Wars. We don’t know much about it, as the Baron keeps it a closely guarded secret. Unicorns can store their magic in runes written on moonstone, to be released with command words from other ponies. The Baron knows somepony real high up who gets him the moonstone.”
“Who were those ponies?”
“They were rebels. Surely you didn’t think that the Baron could be running Harmony City like this for so long without some kind of resistance?”
Of course. All this time I had been in Harmony City, I had never wondered who it was that actually did all the smuggling around here. I felt rather stupid, especially since I was a trader and former smuggler myself. “Are they recruiting?” I asked.
Nix shot me an alarmed look. “Surely you aren’t thinking of joining? You’re not exactly a fighting pony, and if you think life under the Baron is hard... just wait until you see life against him.”
“We can’t just sit by and let him do this...” I said defensively, shying under her glare.
“Nopony lives long as a rebel. They all die eventually! The reason you haven’t seen them here before is that so few of them live long enough to make it here for treatment. If you join them, you’ll just die!” she was practically shouting at me now. She caught herself, looking down at the injured pony under her hooves. “I don’t want you to die,” she whispered, averting her eyes.
I was appalled by the outburst. In the months I had known her, Nix had never raised her voice, never strayed from her usual quiet speaking. “Well, I guess you’re right.” I backed down. “But what if we could find a way to escape, to just leave this behind us?”
She looked out the window, at the sun struggling to shine some light through the net of huge airships and towering skydocks that kept the Inner City in constant shade. “I suppose... I suppose I would go. With you.”
Ω Ω Ω
Months passed. Moon Dream told me about some rumors he’d heard that the rebels were planning something big, but nopony knew what. They were keeping it real tight so that the Baron had no chance to prepare.
Dream had become a fairly popular artist around our local buildings. His paintings, done using simple colors made of crushed berries and other improvised paints, were now hung on the walls of various apartments. I had one in my room, myself. It was of that airship we had once spoke about, his favorite, flying away from the city into the sun.
Although he was quiet around strangers, once you got to know him he liked to brag about his heritage. “I’m a direct descendant of the famed mage Nyx herself,” he would say to anypony that would listen. “She’s my great great great great great grandmother. The dark fur runs in the family.”
Of course, there was no way he could prove it. But his inky black fur, a rarity among the pastel ponies of Equestria, made it plausible. And I don’t think he would lie to me. I was like a big brother to him. He looked up to me, asked me for advice all the time. He needed some kind of family, as young as he was. And I kinda liked it, too.
Cleaver hadn’t lost his impeccable ability to smell out alcohol when we were captured. Stormslider informed me that he had managed to gain access to an underground bar, a speakeasy of sorts. The Baron didn’t approve of alcohol, or really any kind of food he didn’t give us. We didn’t exactly have the free time to run entertainment hubs by ourselves, but the rebels set them up in a few scattered locations. Cleaver talked his way into figuring out where one was. Apparently he can be surprisingly charismatic when there’s vodka at stake. Or maybe it was his formidable size, muscular form, serious tone, and cleaver cutie mark. He started taking the rest of the crew there to hang out on Sundays, but I stayed at the courtyard with Nix and Dream. Nix didn’t really seem like much for drinking, and Moon Dream was just too young.
One day we were lying in the courtyard, watching the airships like always, when I overheard somepony mention the date. It disturbed me for some reason, but at first I couldn’t figure it out. I thought about it, tossed it about in my mind, trying to figure out what was so interesting about it. And then I realized, I had been here for a year.
A whole year.
And it occurred to me that I probably had many, many more years ahead of me. Old Ironhide had said that although the shock of the first month may be hard, it was the continued exhaustion of piled up years that really dulled the soul. Working and working, for nothing. Working from sunup to sundown almost every day of the week, too tired to do anything but sleep afterwards, started to wear a pony out after the first few years. I had actually been thinking, about a week or two earlier, that I was bored with my life. And after just one year.
I looked around, at the other ponies. These mares and stallions had been here for a decade or more. They all looked so tired, so uninterested in living. Did I look like that? I didn’t think so... but then it had only been a year for me. These ponies had labored much, much, longer. Looking into my future, I saw myself growing more and more tired as the years passed until, finally, I just gave up. I would die in the foundry from exhaustion, or in my bed from sickness, or from some kind of brutality of the Baron. Perhaps if I was lucky, I would find a special somepony, who would be interested in a failed airship captain whose favorite subject was the old worn out map he used to have? Old and worn out.
Ω Ω Ω
It was a Saturday. Seemed like a normal day in the Inner City. There was nothing particularly different that might have warned me of what was about to pass. Perhaps if I had paid more attention, I could have planned something.
I was given the privilege of leaving the foundry early that day. Boss liked to give us one early day off every month. We got to go home two hours early, to spend time with any friends we had who didn’t get Sundays off. Normally me and Moon Dream would use ours on the same day, but for some reason I decided to use mine that Saturday without telling him early. He was surprised when I told him about it, but since Boss only let us leave early if we told him the day in advance, there was nothing he could do about it. I think Nix had perhaps mentioned needing me for something, or maybe Cleaver had invited me to go drinking with him.
As I was leaving the foundry, a sudden explosion behind me knocked me to the ground. I rolled around in pain from the force of the fall, clutching my horn, which had stabbed itself right into an inconveniently placed stone. My ears rang, and for a few minutes I lost awareness of my surroundings. When I finally opened my eyes and shook my head, trying to fight off the nausea, I looked behind me to see Foundry 2 up in flames.
I just lay there staring at it for a few moments. Then I started to comprehend what had just happened, what it meant. I staggered to my hooves. “Moon Dream!” I yelled. I hoped my friend was somehow alive and would come staggering out of the flames, bruised but alive.
“Moon Dream!” I shouted his name as loud as I could, stumbling towards the shattered entrance. I tried to levitate some wreckage out of the way so I could enter, find him, and drag him out. The explosion had dazed me. I couldn’t focus. My efforts only brought me a stab of pain. I tripped and fell, tears running down my face. He had looked up to me. I had felt like I was supposed to protect him. He was like a little brother, still just a colt, always talking about the airships and the Cloudwall, drawing them with his charcoal and the few sheets of paper he could scrounge up at a time, pointing out his favorite ones as we sat together in the courtyard on Sundays.
I looked down at my hooves, and noticed that I still had my bandana wrapped around my snout. I pulled it off and stared at the map of Equestria he had drawn on it for me. Just like my old map. It wasn’t quite accurate, of course, and some important features were completely missing but...
“Dissero! Dissero!” a voice called behind me. I perked up, thinking that perhaps Moon Dream had gotten out after all, and he was thinking I was dead in the same way I thought he was. I looked behind me.
Nix ran up to me, pulling me into a shaky hug. She started looking all over me, searching for wounds. “I came as soon as I heard! I was so worried! Oh, I’m so glad you’re okay!” she babbled.
“Nix, what just happened!?” I demanded, grabbing the startled mare to get her attention.
“It’s the rebels! This is what they’ve been planning! They’re bombing important facilities around the Inner City, hoping to cripple the Baron or get the rest of Equestria to wonder what’s going on in here,” she told me. “Old Ironhide mentioned it as I passed him. He’s known this whole time and never told you foundry ponies or anypony else anything!”
Rage. Anger coursed through me as I realized what she said meant. That old pegasus could’ve told us. Me and Moon Dream could’ve just stayed home, and he would be alive. By keeping quiet, he had killed almost everypony in the foundry, and probably plenty of others too! “Let’s go,” I commanded, “we’re going back home. I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind.” Or my hoof, I thought.
Nix followed close behind as I led the way back to Building 19. As the sun set, I was able to see other fires that had broken out across the Inner City. The rebels had planted bombs everywhere, it seemed. In the distance, I heard the sound of battle, ponies screaming as they were shot, pegasi falling out of the sky in terror and pain, explosions from the rune grenades the Baron’s ponies used. The night sky turned red with the fire, and many of the ever-present airships started to head for the countryside. One of the huge, towering skydocks that so defined Harmony City let out an enormous groan and slowly toppled over, crushing at least a hundred ponies beneath it. The rebels had probably killed hundreds of innocents just with the first few bombs.
The walk was longer than usual. Having to avoid battles and take detours around streets blocked with rubble and collapsed towers, it took us over two hours to finally reach Building 19. It was eerily unchanged by the battle. If it wasn’t for the noises I could hear and my memories of today, I could’ve easily believed that nothing had ever happened. I bucked the door down, storming up the steps with Nix trailing behind. Despite there being no door separating the stairwell from the hallway on my floor, I still managed to burst into it.
I spied the silhouette of Old Ironhide, sitting in his chair, near a window at the end of the hallway. The fires outside stopped me from picking out any more detail, but I charged straight for him anyways, shouting my grief.
I wouldn’t be able to take it out on him. The old pegasus, perhaps weighed down by the guilt of his secret, had killed himself. He lay slumped over in his chair, a rusty old wingblade still attached to one of his feathers, blood running down his neck into a puddle on the floor where his pipe lay.
I went into a raging frenzy. With no object for me to take out my anger on, I started to tear the hallway apart. I ripped the decaying walls to pieces with my magic, bucked down doors with my hooves, and was about to start beating the dead body of Old Ironhide into a satisfying pulp when Nix jumped in front of me.
“Stop it!” she shrieked.
I caught myself, calmed myself, sat down, breathing heavily. This wouldn’t solve anything. I was more reasonable than this. I shouldn’t have lost control.
But Moon Dream...
“Nix!” I exclaimed, grabbing the healer and pulling her towards me, “Perhaps we can use this as a diversion! To escape!” I said excitedly. I had to distract myself, give myself some kind of task or goal until I could slow down and think about things.
“I... I don’t know...” she said shyly, looking at the limp body before us.
I was trying to think of a way to convince her when, suddenly, Stormslider flew up from downstairs. “Cap... Captain!” she stuttered, landing heavily and squinting at me. “C’mere... we’ve got shomthing for you!” she slurred.
That’s right. Cleaver had managed to arrange for the crew to meet together and drink with him today. I beckoned to Nix and followed Storm as she stumbled down the stairs, almost tripping as she reached the ground floor. “You... you are gonnna like thish!” she told me proudly, pointing towards the door.
I exited the building, and my jaw immediately went slack. In front of me, hovering quietly and somewhat leaning to one side, was the same magnificent airship which Moon Dream had expressed to be his favorite, that one Sunday in the courtyard. It was even more gorgeous from up close. And hanging out of a hatch near the bottom, looking down the street, was Cleaver.
I ran up to him, still trying to take in the airship before me. “What- ?” was all I managed to get out. The big white stallion chuckled heartily.
“Kaptain! We have found you a ride!” he exclaimed, sweeping me off of my hooves and pulling me in.
“Wait!” I shouted. He dropped me, and I ran back to the hatch and spotted Nix in the doorway of our building. “Phoenix! C’mon! We can escape!” I called.
She hesitated, looking back at the building that she had spent almost her whole life within, at the city she had come to call home despite its hardships, at the sky full of fire and airships full of armed ponies, shooting down at the rebels below.
Stormslider pushed her forward drunkenly from behind. “Lesh go, Mish!” she said. Nix seemed to wake up all of a sudden, and she ran up and jumped into the hatch where it floated a few feet off the ground. I smiled at her as Storm managed to tumble into the airship behind her, and Cleaver shut the hatch.
I found myself in a stairwell which ran up the rear and connected the bottom three floors. Cleaver led the way up, acting like he was the only pony around who actually knew what was happening and was sober enough to comprehend it. The floor we entered on seemed to be some kind of small cargo hold, and above it was what I recognized to be an engine room. At the top of the stairwell, after going up one more story, we came out onto what I assumed to be the main living floor of the ship.
Cleaver led us through a hallway into what looked like a building still under construction. Some thin walls, more for separation then structure, were placed about half-heartedly as if to outline rooms. We walked through the half-finished rooms into a large lounge area which was startlingly familiar to my old ship in arrangement. At the far side of the lounge, against the front of the ship and behind a bar, was a recognizable kitchen area.
We went up one more story, using a thinner and shorter staircase between the half-done rooms and the lounge, and came out onto what I assumed to be the navigation level. A long, wide table filled the middle of the room, and at the front was a recognizable cockpit, somewhat separated from the rest of the level with a short hallway. It was much larger than the one in my old ship, with enough room for my whole crew to stand in it, which was more or less what they were doing.
Silver was at the helm, of course, goggles on, trotting about in a distressingly drunk fashion as he piloted a ship which, as far as I knew, he had never before even been inside. Ember was slouched in a corner, squinting at her surroundings and mumbling to herself, trying to light her lighter but lacking the sober focus needed to cast her spell. Storm leaned against the wall in the hallway behind us, smiling lazily. Cleaver stood straight, like he always did, as if he had not just taken part in a series of drinking that had left the rest of my crew nigh incapacitated, and Nix just planted herself outside the cockpit, so out of her element that she could hardly move.
In the time that we had taken to climb the stairs up to this level, Silver had managed to guide the ship up to a flying altitude. The wide bubble-like glass of the cockpit gave me a view of the city below. The fighting seemed to be concentrated in a few small sectors of the Inner City, with the fires focused together in groups while the space in between was largely undisturbed.
Suddenly, it occurred to me to ask Cleaver, “How did you get this ship...?”
He gave me a knowing smile. “Kaptain, let it simply be said that the good Stalliongrad vodka gives a pony great heart and courage. But for record, it was Ember’s idea,” he said. Silver and Storm nodded and murmured drunken agreement.
“Did you steal this ship?” Nix asked incredulously.
“Well, yes. Did I not make this plain?” Cleaver replied. He sounded offended.
“Wait, shouldn't somepony be chasing us or something?” I inquired, dreading the answer.
“Yesh!” Silver exclaimed excitedly. “Look, there’sh a few airships closing in behind ush now!”
My heart dropped. “How can we escape? The rebels have got the whole place up in arms. There’s no way we’ll be able to get out into Equestria.”
“That’sh just it,” Silver said deviously, a wicked grin stretching across his face. “I’ll take ush through the Cloudwall! It’sh our last chance to get out of thish hellhole!”
I leapt in front of him, grabbing him to get his attention. “You can’t be serious!? You realize that hundreds of ponies have died trying to cross that, sober and extremely well-prepared?”
“Yesh, but they weren’t me,” he bragged confidently. I began to feel very much like a pony who, after the conductor of the train he was riding in fell asleep, was watching a very, very hard and fatal wall approaching at an alarmingly fast speed.
Nix poked her head into the room bravely. “He’s right, it’s our only way out.”
I turned on her. “Don’t you be supporting this, now! I thought you wanted me alive!” I was starting to panic here!
“Don’t worry,” she reassured me, “I’ve heard that pegasi inside the Breaks simply know what to do. Luckily, we have a pegasus pilot. But he should really wear a blindfold, or his eyes will get in the way.”
My heart was jumping out of my chest now. “You want a drunk pegasus to fly an airship he has no experience with through the most dangerous path in Equestria, with a blindfold on?”
“Pegasi are the only things that can navigate the Breaks, and Storm is too drunk to even stand up straight. The Baron’s ponies go through here all the time, we can too!” she argued.
Stormslider rose from her position to put in a comforting statement. “It’sh all good. Back at the Academy, boozsh hash only made him a more recklessh flyer.”
“That doesn’t make me feel anything close to better!” I exclaimed.
“But, you shee,” she added, “although he flied more recklesshy, he shtill didn’t crash, so he wash actually kind’ve a better pilot.”
“What is wrong with you, Stormslider!? You’re supposed to be the voice of reason!”
“Wait, guysh... I don’t have a blindfold,” Silver piped in.
Ember chose that moment to rejoin the world. Apparently aroused by an instinctive desire to bother me, she managed to muster the magic needed to untie my bandana and wrap it around Silver’s goggles. Satisfied, she smiled and promptly passed out.
A few cannon balls flew past us, shot from behind. I decided that, given the choice between certain death against an armada of hostile airships and near certain death in the Breaks, I would prefer the Breaks. The big, dangerous Breaks. Looking ahead, the maze of thunderstorms and tornados swirling around eachother in a seemingly random dance of death didn’t seem very navigable.
“And here we gooooo!” Silver shouted like a little foal going down the biggest hill on his favorite roller coaster. And then, we were in the Breaks.
The first thing that I noticed was the constant roar of thunder. The lightning struck out from the black clouds surrounding us so frequently that the normally looming sound of slowly repeating thunder turned into a constant, threatening, rolling boom. The second was the shaking. The entire ship shook so violently that I was worried it would fall apart without being hit by a storm. Stormslider was much too drunk to support herself amongst the vibrations, and me and Nix both staggered about trying to keep our balance. Cleaver was impeccably still, and Silver didn’t seem bothered at all by the extra movement as he danced about, pulling levers and eyeing gauges. The third thing I noticed was the massive storm cloud that seemed to suddenly appear right in front of us, ready to zap us and send us down to our doom amongst all the other failed travelers of the ages.
But Silver was already moving to avoid it, before it was even there. “Thish ish an excellent shhhip!” he shouted over the thunderous roar as he flew, informing us on the pros of the ship as if we were just walking through it as it sat in the dealership. “It’s as much a thought to fly as I dreamed it woul’ be!”
I was shaking. Not because of the wild vibrations, but because I was so scared shitless that we were all about to die in some fiery lightning explosion. That would be the worst. Of all the possible ways to die, fire was the one I most feared. I noticed Nix clinging to the ground for her life, and tried to reassure her.
“Don’t worry, he’s a very good pilot!” I told her, raising my voice to be heard over the local weather. I’m not sure if she noticed, so I turned back to face the front, closed my eyes, and repeated that sentence to myself over and over again like an incantation that would push the lightning away. I heard Silver let out a whoop and begin to hum a tune which I recognized as Flight of the Valkyries, and all of a sudden my stomach was falling behind. I peeked open an eye to find that we were literally falling, the storm clouds racing past us as we rapidly approached the ground and certain doom.
“Ach!” Silver exclaimed in a surprisingly good Germane accent. “Even her falling isht grasheful!”
I heard an explosion behind us that didn’t sound like thunder. “It seems one of our followers has hit a storm cloud!” Cleaver laughed in a way which to me seemed to be entirely unhealthy. Hay, this whole thing was unhealthy. Oh, Princess, by the Elements of Harmony help me! I prayed.
A large tornado suddenly descended to the ground, not in front of us, but actually around us. For a few brief moments, we hovered in the eye, moving along with the walls of the tornado as it tore across the landscape. How did I get into this? Have I written my will yet? I haven’t spoken to my parents in years! Why, why, why!? I just want all of this to be over! I thought. To the side, I saw another of the ships that was chasing us come crashing through into the eye as a big burning ball of flaming wreckage.
Silver let out an alarmingly happy shout that made my heart skip three beats, and the ship bolted for the wall of the tornado. I braced myself for impact, but as we were about to collide with the barrier of wind, the tornado dissipated around us.
“Look Dishy!” Silver cackled maniacally, “no eyesh!”
“Silver! Stop toying with my instinct for self-preservation!” I shrieked at the top of my lungs. If we got through this alive, I swore to myself that I would wring that pony’s neck and break his other wing!
Storm clouds closed in on each side, over and over again. But each time, Silver was already moving the ship to avoid them before they conjured themselves. Tornadoes and storms appeared and dissipated at incredibly distressing speeds, moving to intercept us and then simply blowing apart after they missed. And all the while, the thick walls of the Breaks were visible on each side, marking the point where the Cloudwall once again turned into the impenetrable net of thick electrical death. I yelled as loudly as I could.
I felt the ship suddenly lurch forwards as if struck. Silver let loose an evil laugh, reassuring me by saying, “Don’t worry! Mosht airshipsh can handle a shingle lightning shtrike!”
“Were we just hit by lightning!?” I shrieked like a little filly. At this point I noticed that Nix had already passed out from terror, and Stormslider was just lying on the ground, laughing her flank off like there was something terribly funny about imminent death. Cleaver was sitting in a corner, discreetly humming what sounded to me like a funeral dirge.
“It’sh okay! It wash jusht one!” Silver called. As if to disprove him, the nearby clouds unleashed another wave of lightning bolts, and I felt the ship shake violently as it was struck several more times.
“We’re loshing altitude!” He cheered as if that was just the best thing in the world, and was so unspeakably, delightfully happy to experience it that there was no way he could ever properly express it.
We’re going to die. I just know we’re going to die. We’re all, going to die. Die die die! All of us! Dead! Aaaaaaaaagh! We’re all gonna die! I thought.
Silver’s maneuvers were slowing down. Without a fully sealed balloon to sustain the ship, he had to divert the maneuvering thrusters to keep us up, and couldn’t turn, rise, or fall as fast. It seemed like everything was over when, suddenly, we broke out of the clouds and into clear, precious sunlight.
I looked up into the glorious sun of Princess Celestia, cherishing its rays. I hadn’t gotten a clear view of it for a whole year. Hadn’t been able to really feel its light. But I was free, now! Free at last! We were free! I was so elated, so relieved to be alive after that terrifying journey through the Breaks that I passed out right there. The last thing I felt was my joy at being free. Free!
Chapter 4: Cardinal Direction
“Okay, so now what?” Silver Feather asked.
We were all on the navigation floor. Nix was sitting by a window, and the rest of us were arranged around the large table placed in the middle. Spread upon it was a new but fairly standard map of Equestria which we had found on a wall. Now that we had escaped the most immediate danger, we were all thinking the exact same thing.
Stormslider cleared her throat. “I think it would be best if we summarized our situation first, and then decided upon our options, to help us make the most logical decision.” She looked around the room and received murmurs and nods of agreement from everypony.
“Well then, if I may...” she began, “we’re hovering above the Great Sea, in an unfamiliar airship stolen from the most powerful crime lord and well-connected merchant in Equestria, with no known stores of food or water, and almost all suffering from massive hangovers. Can we agree on this?” she asked.
She continued, “So, our top priority right now is survival. We need food, water, and shelter. Mostly food and water. To get it, we have two reliable sources. One of them is Equestria. None of us know what the other may be, or where we can find it.”
“To return to Equestria, we must pass through the Breaks. However, they are most likely heavily guarded by the Baron. To get elsewhere, we must cross the Great Sea, without any knowledge of other land masses or a reliable source of food. So. Which is it?” she asked.
A heavy silence descended upon the room. We all knew that we didn’t really have a choice, but none of us wanted to say it. Returning to Equestria meant death at the hooves of the Baron. Leaving meant a slow death from starvation in the middle of nowhere. But at least we would have some chance. Or a better chance, anyways.
“I say we leave Equestria,” I said. Everypony shied away from the words. I could tell that we all wished we could stay. That somehow a brilliant idea would pop up in our heads that would let us go back home, to our former lives.
“I agree,” Silver said. He gave me a reassuring look and I responded with a thankful dip of my head. He was backing me up again. The rest of the crew nodded assent.
“Okay, so the first thing we should do is explore the ship, and figure out what it can do,” I suggested.
Ember narrowed her eyes at me.
“And who made you captain?” she asked, flicking her tail and curling her lip aggressively.
To be honest, I had been worrying about that. Why should they let me lead them again, after what I had led them into before? That had just been a routine trade stop. Now we were embarking on a journey of unknown length and direction with no food. If I couldn’t handle one night in Manehattan, how could they trust me to lead them into the unknown?
“We have already forgiven Kaptain,” Cleaver said firmly. He raised himself to his full height. Ember wasn’t deterred.
“He led us to a year of slavery before. And you know who got us out? We did! He did nothing but lie in the corner and scream!” she asserted.
Stormslider came to my rescue. “We all have our jobs. His is to help us coordinate, and we’re going to need it in an unfamiliar ship. I have to figure out how the engine works, Silver Feather has to figure out how the controls work, and you need to make sure that it all holds together. It wasn’t even finished and it’s already taken several lightning bolts.”
“Let him try again.” Phoenix Down spoke up from where she had been sitting, looking out at the Cloudwall longingly.
Ember backed down grudgingly. “Fine,” she growled, “But this is his last chance. Next time, I’ll torch him.”
“Well then, now that we have that settled, I suppose we should pick a direction, yeah?” Silver suggested. “Personally, I’m thinking east. It’s never done me wrong, and I’ve got a nice feeling about it.”
“Any more rational reasons you may wish to grace us with?” I asked skeptically.
“No. Do you have a better idea? I’m the pilot, anyways. Trust my intuition?”
I looked around the room, but nopony looked like they had anything to say. “Fine, then. We go east and pray to Celestia that we hit land,” I said. “But before we make any more decisions, I say we all search the ship for any supplies or useful items.”
“And we need to name her, too,” Silver said.
“Name her?” Ember said.
“Well, yes, Can’t fly around in an unnamed ship. And I don’t see a name anywhere,” the pilot said.
Naming the ship would be a good idea. It would give us something a bit more like home. “Any suggestions?” I inquired.
Cleaver spoke up. “How about, The Pride of Stallions?”
We all looked at him incredulously. He glanced around hopefully, saw that he wouldn’t be receiving any backup on this one, and looked back down to his last remaining bottle of vodka.
“I think Omega would be a rather fitting name,” Stormslider said.
“Is that even a word?” Nix asked.
“It’s the last letter in the ancient pegasus alphabet,” I supplied. “It’s often used to represent the end, or the last of something.”
“Here we are at the end of our world, and this ship is our last chance. I can’t think of a better name,” Silver Feather said appreciatively. The rest of the crew agreed quietly.
“It’s settled, then. We’ll name it the Omega. Now, could everyone please get to searching it?” I asked.
We divided the ship up into sectors, with one pony to search each one. Silver Feather was given the cockpit and navigation floor. I thought he would be most familiar with, and it would let him pilot the ship at the same time. Ember and Phoenix Down split the cargo bay. It was the largest floor, only slightly wider than the other three, but longer, extending farther away from the central stairwell than the others, and had a higher ceiling. Stormslider was assigned to exploring the engine room, which was much smaller, and sat above the cargo bay. Cleaver and I split the main floor, situated above the large balloon that kept the ship afloat. It held the unfinished crew quarters and the kitchen and, I hoped, food.
We didn’t find anything particularly inspiring at first. The engine room was devoid of anything useful, except for the engine. It had been damaged from the lightning strikes and was beginning to slow down. The kitchen was devoid of any form of food or water, which I supposed made sense since the ship hadn’t even been finished yet, and the rest of the main floor was similarly empty. The cargo hold didn’t have much in it either, except for a few construction supplies and mechanical tools which Ember was happy to get a hold of, and some beds. We all picked one of the unfinished rooms on the main floor, and Ember started building and removing walls to make six larger rooms.
Surprisingly, the navigation floor contained the best find.
Silver called me up while I was half-heartedly sorting through some debris that had fallen during the chase. I was certain we’d all be dead in a week. I trotted upstairs and into the cockpit. He was standing before a small hallway which I hadn’t noticed before.
“What’s this?” I asked him.
“So here I was, looking for shortcuts, just tapping around, and bam! Secret passageway!” he exclaimed dramatically.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Shortcuts?”
“Well, yes. Airships are mostly mechanical creatures, all cogs and chains and stuff. They’re also fairly compactly designed, so there isn’t much room for the machinery. Which pretty much means that a tap in the right place can do the same thing that a lever on the other side of the room can, or even something else entirely. Our old airship had a few. I was just looking for some in here, and I found this!”
I nodded. It made a kind of sense. I peered into the narrow passageway and squeezed myself inside. It was only a couple meters long, and just big enough to walk through. I came out into a small room which I guessed was next to the navigation room. It was dark, so I lit it up with my horn. I found a lightbulb, pulled the string, and looked around.
It was a weapons stockpile. A couple shelves along the wall held several of the rune guns I had seen in Harmony City, and there was also a crate of rune grenades and a few boxes of ammunition. I grabbed one of the guns and squeezed myself back out into the cockpit, where Silver Feather was waiting.
“Look! It’s a stockpile of rune weaponry!” I said excitedly. I guessed the ship was important enough that there be weapons stored in it in case of attack, and nopony reached it in time. Amazing.
“Sweet!” the pilot said. “Let’s get the others and test it out on the deck.”
“Oh, yeah. There’s a ladder in here to the top deck, too,” he said, pointing towards a ladder at the rear of the cockpit. “It’s flat enough for walking, although the railings are kind of short.”
I gathered up the crew. We all got one gun each and a few bullets and met up on the deck. Now that I held one of the guns before me, I could examine it more closely. It had a bolt on the side that could be pulled to reload bullets individually, and a rudimentary sight on the top. It wasn’t a very large or long weapon, but was mostly barrel, and had a firm stock.
“So, does anypony know how to shoot one?” Ember asked sarcastically. We all searched for some kind of triggering mechanism. Silver tried hitting his gun on the side, and Cleaver pulled the bolt a few times. We stood around in silence for a minute or two.
“I think... I think it’s voice activated. You have to say the trigger word to turn on the magic in the runes,” Nix explained. “I’ve heard the rebels speak it when they practice. I think the word is... ignus.”
Suddenly, the gun in her hoof began to glow and emit a low humming noise. She let out a startled squeak and dropped it. It began to shake before discharging the heavy bullet inside off into the sky with a soft whooshing sound.
“By Celestia, are you trying to kill us all?” Ember asked, crouching instinctively.
I rose to defend her. “It’s alright. She didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Now we know how to shoot them. Why don’t we try some target practice?”
“On what?” Cleaver asked.
“The clouds, of course,” Silver Feather replied. He raised the gun to his eyes, balancing with stiffened wings as he held it with his front hooves, and muttered the trigger word under his breath. A glowing round shot out of the barrel and flew wide of a nearby cloud as Silver fell backwards.
Stormslider laughed. “Some shot you are.”
Ω Ω Ω
So we advanced eastwards. As we moved, we developed a routine of sorts.
Although initially I had thought that we had no food or water, the ingenuity of my crew proved otherwise. Storm and Silver told me that all clouds were made of fresh water and, therefore, could be squeezed or eaten for it. Ember found some paint buckets and emptied them into the sea from the deck, so Stormslider went and retrieved clouds, and Silver squeezed each one for a few cups of water. I know he would’ve preferred to be the one using his wings and getting clouds, and that Stormslider would probably have been better at getting the water out, but his bad wing limited the pair. Luckily, the Omega came with an autopilot, so Silver didn’t have to sit in the cockpit all the time like with our old ship, which was good since clouds didn’t carry much water and the two pegasi ended up working almost around the clock, stopping only to check the engine or correct the course.
We still needed food. That became Ember’s job. Silver flew the airship low to the sea, where he said the dense air would hold us up better. Ember hung suspended from the bottom with a pair of mag-boots she had found amongst the construction equipment, levitating and torching any fish she saw pass by. It was hard and boring work, as it wasn’t often that a fish would swim close enough to the surface for her to grab it, but she was able to catch at least one fish for each of us every day. She spent the rest of her time building our rooms or working on the balloon while Cleaver prepared the fish. None of us liked eating the meat, and I hated the taste, but it was our only choice.
Nix continued to check on Silver’s wing periodically, and also assisted in cleaning the place up. Our flight through the Breaks had knocked around everything that wasn’t tied down. She diligently trotted through the ship, tidying up.
While they worked, I felt useless. There wasn’t really much I could do. I wasn’t even good at cleaning. The crew didn’t really need me to coordinate them. They did fine on their own. Who needs a trader in an airship with an empty cargohold, with no sign of civilization around for miles? I spent my time trying to judge distance, so that a return journey would be easier, but the open sea didn’t give much for use as landmarks.
Some captain you are, Dissero, a part of me said. I tried to ignore it, but I knew it was true. It was my fault that we were out here.
I spent much of my days thinking about Moon Dream. Now that things had relaxed somewhat, I could calm down come to grips with his death. He had been a good colt. I would’ve wanted him to be here with me. He could help with the clouds, or the fishing, or anything, and even maybe draw something to give us some entertainment. I cried almost every day the first week.
One day, perhaps a week after leaving Equestria, I was idly looking out a window, lost in memories and the wave. The airship made a sharp pull upwards, and I heard the thrusters and propellers outside straining to lift us as quickly as possible.
The transition made me stumble. I hoped that everypony was inside; Ember’s boots wouldn’t be strong enough to keep her on through turbulence of this magnitude. I heard a loud, deep, whistling sound, and then a snap behind the ship, and hoped that nothing had broken.
I rushed up to the cockpit, where I was quickly joined by the rest of the crew, to find Silver Feather leveling us off a few thousand meters higher.
“What was that?” I demanded.
He pointed towards the front edge of the glass bubble in the cockpit. The navigation floor was swept forwards from the rest of the ship, so from up here one could look down and see below the airship. We all gathered along the edge and looked down.
Falling slowly back into the sea was a giant behemoth of a fish. I’m not even sure if it was a fish. A sea creature of some sort, at least. It looked like a whale, but bigger than any I had ever seen. Its skin was rough and covered in scars, and it had a line of long spikes running down its spine. Its eyes were looking right at us. It had hateful, intelligent eyes. It wasn’t the look of a predator stalking prey, it was the look of a killer, a murderer that had failed to entrap his target. A shiver ran down my spine as it splashed back into the water heavily, disappearing under the waves.
“We won’t be flying low anymore,” Silver said.
Ω Ω Ω
More time passed, more water passed, and more hope of land passed away. I knew continents are usually pretty far away, but airships move quickly, and we had been flying a long time now. We would have crossed Equestria over a dozen times and back again by now. Ember had finished building our quarters, and we had now had six large rooms on the main floor instead of many smaller ones. Now she spent her spare time on the balloon, trying to reinforce the structure and stop it from leaking, despite having no material to work with. We were traveling slower everyday, as Silver was forced to divert thrusters and propellers usually used for forward motion just to keep us hovering above the sea. We couldn’t fish anymore, because the sea was too dangerous, but Ember had stockpiled a few days worth of fish. I just hoped we found something before we ran out.
Then, a sign.
The sun was setting one day, and I was sitting on the deck, thinking about my life. Overall, I couldn’t say I was satisfied. I had had goals, but I never really met them. I was staring into the sun, when I saw a silhouette that was distinctly not shaped like a cloud. After all this time looking at nothing but clouds and water, my mind latched on to the shape. I stared closely, trying to figure out what it was.
“Birds!” I shouted. Birds! Birds needed land to live on. We’re close to land!
I leaped down the ladder into the cockpit, and ran out onto the main floor, where Silver was squeezing some water out of clouds into a bucket. I ran up to him, grinning wildly, and said, “Birds! I see birds!”
He stared at me for a few seconds, confused. Then the implications dawned on him. “Birds!” he shouted.
We ran through the ship like maniacs, repeating the one word that we knew meant salvation. Survival. We had beat the odds. We had crossed the Great Sea, with nothing but an unfinished airship and our ingenuity.
The crew gathered on the deck to look at the silhouettes. As we moved, a lone bird flew next to us to investigate the strange flying creature. And it suddenly burst into flames.
I jumped. A harsh red aura surrounded the scorched bird, and it floated over to where Ember was waiting, her horn glowing. She smiled softly. “Birds.”
Ω Ω Ω
We moved with a newfound spirit, instead of just going through the motions. The birds meant survival. We started to hope again, and started to really do things. Ember started torching birds routinely to feed us, and Cleaver was happy to work with something besides fish again.
Now that we knew land was close, we started to relax some. We stopped working to gather food and water for the first time in weeks. We started sitting in the lounge, which thankfully already had furniture in it, and eating some of the latest birds Ember had scorched. Then we went up to the deck, to try some potshots with the rune guns.
Sitting in the lounge, forcing myself to eat a freshly toasted bird, I looked over my crew. We were all visibly drained. Although life under the Baron had been dull and hard, we had at least been decently fed. In our time crossing the Great Sea, food and water had been scarce, and any extra energy it may have given us was used up finding it. Stormslider had been flying constantly, retrieving dozens of clouds just to fill a few buckets of water to last the day. Ember had also been hard at work almost all the time. Everypony looked tired and beaten. We hadn’t even had any time to care for how we looked. Our manes and coats were disheveled and dirty.
Stormslider was a pretty good shot. She hit her target cloud more than anypony else, and once even managed to hit a nearby bird, though Ember and I were both too slow to catch it when it fell. The bullets had some heavy punch to them, and the bird went flying away from the force of the impact. She kept looking at her gun as she fired, as if trying to figure out how it worked, and later went into her room with it and a clip of ammunition to tinker with it some.
I was, of course, a terrible shot. I couldn’t hit the long side of a cumulonimbus.
Half a day passed, and we came upon what I took to be the mainland. For the first time in what seemed like forever, we could see land that stretched across the horizon.
We came ashore above what appeared to be a large wasteland, stretching off along the coast as far as I could see. A mountain range followed the coastline some miles further inland. The silhouette of a city was visible in the distance.
“So what kind of things do you think live here?”
I jumped, looking behind me. It was Nix. “What do you mean?” I asked.
She stepped closer to look out the same window as I was. “Well, think about it,” she said, “Most ponies have never even been outside Equestria. Besides the Baron’s merchants, nopony knows anything about this place. Somebody has to be living here, and I doubt that they’re ponies.”
I cocked my head thoughtfully. “Yeah, that makes sense. I know that dragons and griffons come from outside Equestria, so maybe there’ll be some of those. All the plants and animals are probably different too.”
“Yeah,” Nix agreed, looking out the window. She turned to me and smiled. “But as long as we’re with you, I think we’ll be alright.”
I looked at her quizzically. How could she say that? I had never led my crew anywhere but slavery and exile. But I suppose from her point of view, I had only led her to freedom, even if I didn’t have much say in the escape. I returned to gazing at the wasteland below us. Sparse clumps of grass and lonely trees dotted the ground, and from up here I could see a few pools of water, but no animals.
I found my mind drifting. I thought about Moon Dream. I wondered what had happened to the rebels. Had the Baron managed to strike them down already? Had they overthrown him and alerted the Princesses? How were the other enslaved ponies of the Inner City? Were the Outer City ponies wondering where all the fire was coming from?
Suddenly, Silver Feather came running down the stairs. “Hey Dissy. Get everypony upstairs, we may have trouble.”
Ω Ω Ω
“What is it?” I asked. We were all assembled around Silver in the cockpit, and he pointed upwards, to another, smaller airship which was circling above us.
“Look, there’s another ship over there. They’ve positioned themselves above us. I don’t like it.”
Cleaver squinted up at the ship. “Those markings, what are they?” he asked.
Three distinct, distant booms sounded from the direction of the ship. A second passed. With a loud crunch, a massive bullet ricocheted off the cockpit glass and zoomed away.
“Buck! Evasive maneuvers!” I shouted. Ember shouted an expletive and Cleaver almost dropped his bottle in surprise. The rest of the crew crouched instinctively at the impact. I heard two more bullets whiz past us.
“Oh really, you think so, genius?” Silver replied. He leaped towards a group of four large wheels, turning them two at a time. “Hey Diss, turn that slider all the way up!” he said, pointing with his good wing.
I ran to obey, shoving the slider forwards with both hooves. The ship suddenly jumped forwards like it had been shot out of a cannon. It started falling like it had been shot out of a cannon, too. I heard our attackers fire another salvo.
Silver shoved me aside. “Okay, thanks. Out’ve the way now, please!” he said. He lunged for a chain hanging from the ceiling and pulled it hard. Our downwards motion stopped suddenly, and I saw three bullets fly by underneath us. He turned two of the large wheels slightly and we began to rise.
“I’m gonna put us into that mountain range.” he said, pointing towards the tall mountains that lined the coast.
“What kind of crime lord makes a ship and doesn’t put any guns on it?” Ember asked.
“Storm, the engines!” I said. The blue pegasus nodded and sprinted down the stairs into the lounge. We picked up speed, gliding smoothly between two mountains into a narrow valley. More bullets flew past us, bouncing off the mountaintops.
“Any ideas? Anypony?” Silver asked.
“I dunno, ram them or something.” Ember suggested. Silver found the time to turn and give her a quick glare. Our pursuers were getting closer now. Luckily, they weren’t very good shots. Another bullet flew wide, hitting a mountainside ahead of us. The impact caused a precariously balanced boulder to come bouncing down from the mountaintop.
Suddenly, a large bullet penetrated the walls of the navigation room. It ricocheted around, broke the table, and slid to a stop with a subtle hissing noise.
Ember’s eyes widened. “It’s a bomb!” she shouted. Nix slid under the broken table with her hooves over her head. Cleaver dashed towards the explosive and swiftly bucked it back out the hole it had made. A second passed, and we heard a loud boom. Our ship rocked towards one side slightly.
“They are shooting explosive bullets,” Cleaver said.
“Oh, hey, thanks for telling us, Sherlock,” Silver muttered.
“Get the rune guns and head for the deck,” I ordered.
“First good idea you’ve had in awhile,” Ember replied. She squeezed into the hidden room and started levitating guns and bullets out.
With our weapons in hoof, Cleaver, Ember, Nix, and I climbed up to the deck. Silver stayed in the cockpit to maintain the evasive maneuvers, but promised that he’d try not to throw us off.
Our attackers had a much smaller ship than ours. It looked like somepony had taken a boat, welded some engines on to the sides, and tied it to a balloon. The Omega was six stories tall and around 200 feet long. The ship firing at us could probably fit in our lounge, if you cut off the balloon on top and propeller on each side. Unlike the Omega, it had an open top. I could see several shapes moving around on it, and near the front I noticed a griffon with a grappling hook in his talons.
They fired another volley from their cannons. I felt our ship dip slightly, and the bullets soared past a few feet above our heads.
“Shoot the engines!” I commanded. We all raised our guns, aiming for one of the turbines on each side that powered the propellers. The soft hum of the rune guns and our trigger words filled the air. The wooden airship stood no chance against the heavy rune bullets, which ripped through the hull easily. Their left engine exploded, rocking their ship heavily to one side and sending it into a deadly spin. The propeller flew upwards, cutting their balloon in two. The ship plummeted to the ground, smashing into a mountain with another explosion. I felt the Omega come to stop.
“Perhaps we are lucky, and all ships here will be made of wood, yes?” Cleaver said hopefully.
I heard Silver trot up to us from behind. “Nice shooting, guys! Who needs ship-to-ship cannons when you have these babies, right?” he said.
“Don’t get too cocky. I think some of them survived the crash.” Ember pointed at five winged shapes flying towards us from where the ship had been.
“Oh great, they can fly. I’m gonna go get another gun,” Silver said, rushing back down the ladder.
As they approached I started to pick out details. Two of them I recognized immediately as griffons, but the other three were completely foreign to me. They looked like some kind of gargoyles, with large claws and a wide wingspan. As Silver returned with his own rune gun, they all flew upwards, into the sun, and then dove down at us.
The attackers slammed onto the deck, weapons ready. Nix and I were separated from the rest of the crew, who lined up on the opposite side of the ship. They had enough time to fire a volley, killing two, before two others were on them.
The remaining attacker, a griffon, turned towards us. He approached slowly, grinning sadistically. He flared his wings to show the deadly blades attached to them.
Nix dropped her gun and cowered upon the ground. I raised my weapon, but couldn’t remember how to shoot it. I desperately searched for a trigger mechanism as the griffon charged at me with a burst of speed.
The griffon was only a few feet away when I remembered. “Ignus!” I screamed. The gun began to charge, but the griffon knocked it aside with his beak before it fired, and the bullet whizzed away harmlessly while he continued to tackle me, driving me towards the edge of the deck.
“Stop! Please stop! I don’t want to fight you!” I yelled, beating on his back with my forehooves as I desperately tried to get a grip on the floor. He pinned me down at the edge of the deck.
“But I do,” he hissed. He raised a wingblade for the killing blow. I struggled to remove myself from the griffon’s claws.
A bullet suddenly exploded out of his neck and over my snout, splashing blood on my face. I saw the life leave his eyes as the force of the impact sent his body rolling through the railing.
As the griffon tumbled off the airship, the claw in my shoulder dragged me along with him. I screamed as the griffon’s weight pulled me over the edge. I slid down the surface of the airship, trying in vain to find something to grab onto, but there was nothing my uninjured hoof could get a hold of. My heart stopped as the ship went out of reach.
The griffon’s claw broke off, and his body rolled away. I thought I heard someone calling my name, but the wind rushing by my ears carried the sound off. I watched in terror as the ship rapidly dwindled above me. I saw Silver Feather’s head, peering over the side down at me, calling my name. He crouched as if getting ready to jump.
Don’t you jump, I thought. He couldn’t dive with his injured wing. I didn’t want him to die for me needlessly. He hesitated, but turned back towards the deck, shouting something. I couldn’t see him anymore.
There was nothing left but me and the wind. I fell past the clouds, feeling surprisingly calm, like I was ready to die...
Are you giving up already? I asked myself. Is that all you’ve got?
Well, I can hardly survive this, I shot back, I’m no pegasus. I twisted my neck and managed to turn my body to face the ground. I was surprised to find a lake beneath me. I felt my horn leaking magic as adrenaline ran through my veins. Time seemed to slow down as my mind raced.
You can survive this. Life has bigger plans for you, my other part said.
I focused all of my magic into my body, trying to slow myself down. But it was too hard. I couldn’t overcome the mental barrier that stopped unicorns from levitating themselves. I opted for an alternate technique.
I grabbed the air.
I grabbed all the air nearby and pushed it beneath me, hoping the thicker air would slow me down. It was hard, because the air kept escaping through my magic, and it pushed against the mental walls I tried to make to keep it in place, but I managed to slow myself down.
I was nearly at the lake now. I waited for what I hoped was the perfect time, and then put all the magic I had left into one huge upwards push, from the lake up. The surface of the lake right under me rose up and the water spread out, helping to slow my fall along with the thick wind coming at me, but it wasn’t enough to stop me completely.
And then I hit the hard surface of the water, and everything went dark.
Chapter 5: Perspective
My father looks up from his newspaper, smiling at me. “Yes, son?”
“When I grow up, I want to be an airship captain, just like you and grandpa!” I exclaim proudly.
“Hehe, is that so? Well maybe if you study hard and try your best, you’ll get into the Royal Aerial Academy. Then you’ll be well on your way...”
Ω Ω Ω
Consciousness returned to me much like a piano returning to the ground after being thrown out a ten story window. I became immediately aware of a pounding ache in my whole body. What happened? I thought. I felt a soft but scratchy surface beneath me which I took to be a bed.
My previous experience with waking up on beds after blacking out told me that I was probably alive.
I opened my eyes slowly, afraid of what I would see. Before I managed to get them all the way open, a flash of pain shot through my head. I moaned loudly.
“Oooohhhhh! He’s awake!” a high-pitched voice announced.
“Somebody go get Colonel. The pony is awake,” another, deeper voice added. I heard the sound of hooves trotting away.
All at once, I remembered. The Baron, Harmony, the flight through the Breaks and the journey over the Great Sea. The attack on our ship. The fall. It all came back to me. Buck. What happened to my crew? Are they alright? Are they looking for me? Where are they? A hundred questions raced through my mind. I couldn’t answer many of them, so I settled for a simpler one. Where am I?
Above me was a hard, rocky surface. I was in a cave somewhere. Okay. That’s one mystery solved. I decided that I wouldn’t try to move my head like I had the last time I received a hard punch to the face. I satisfied myself with the knowledge that since somepony, or somebody, had been watching to see that I was awake, I was probably safe.
Then again, I suppose it’s possible they only took me as a captive, or to save for some terrible sacrificial ritual later on. I would cross that bridge when I got there. Right then it was kind’ve hard for me to really think about anything through my pounding migraine.
I heard multiple sets of hooves approaching. I guessed that one of them belonged to ‘Colonel’, whoever that was. Hopefully he wasn’t some raging barbarian cannibal priest.
A dull brown mare with sharp red eyes stood over me. Thank Celestia, other ponies! I thought.
But she didn’t look like any other pony I’d ever seen. Her snout was somewhat wider and longer, and her ears had distinctive tufts at the tips. Her mane was long and wild, half of it a dark green and the other half black, and on the part of her neck that I could see she had spots of darker brown and green fur.
“Greetings,” she said. “My name is Colonel. We saw you fall, and recovered you from the lake. Your survival is somewhat... miraculous, Equestrian.”
Lacking the ability to really talk well, I moaned agreement.
“You’re injured, and in need of rest. Don’t worry, we will take care of you. At least until you get better. Then you’ll have to pull your own weight, or we’ll let Blood have you. You don’t want that. Her collection lacks a unicorn horn.”
Who are these ponies? I wasn’t sure whether I should feel safe or threatened. I decided a neutral croak would suffice.
“Good, so we have an understanding,” she said. The strange pony beckoned off to the side where I couldn’t see. The movement revealed a pair of wings on her back. She was a pegasus.
“This is Pyrestripe. She will care for you until you are able to do it yourself,” she explained. Feeling strong enough to move some, I twisted my neck to get a look at my caretaker and the rest of the cave.
Unfortunately, it was hard to get a good view of the cave. I could see that I was on one of a few bedrolls spaced on the floor, with some water buckets and tables spread around, so I figured I was in some kind of simple infirmary. Based on how the ceiling looked, I guessed that I was in a naturally made cavern. The rest of the cave was blocked by the throng of ponies who were all watching me with various shades of interest.
But none of them really looked like the kind of ponies you would find in Equestria. They were all winged like pegasi, but they had a different body shape. They had thinner, more lithe bodies, with skinny bellies and prominent chests. Their limbs were longer and more limber, and they had wider cheeks with larger snouts, smaller eyes, and tufts of fur on their ear tips. But what stood out most about them, above all, was their fur.
All of them had some kind of markings on their fur. Most of them had stripe patterns running up their legs and necks, while others had large scattered spots or long stripes going down their bodies.
Colonel was pointing at a brown-furred one near the front of the group. She had a deep red mane and a short tail, with bright scarlet eyes that glowed like fire. Her inky black stripes ran up the fronts of her legs, her neck, and her cheeks, tapering off to sharp points at each end.
Satisfied that everything was taken care of, Colonel trotted away, followed by most of the other ponies. Only Pyrestripe and one other remained.
“What are you doing all the way out here in the Outer World, Equestrian?” Pyrestripe asked curiously. I don’t even know, I answered to myself. She stared at me for a few silent moments as I lay there, too beaten to speak.
“Hmm. I’m sure you can tell me later. Once you’re fit to speak, at least. I’ll be taking care of you until then. I’ll bring you water and whatever you’re capable of eating, and make sure that Blood doesn’t get a hold of you,” she said.
“My name is Blood!” the other pony said excitedly. She was small, with white fur and a blood red mane, eyes, and tail. Instead of stripes, she had what looked more like patches of red on her knees. I couldn’t tell if her cutie mark was a simple red splash, or if she just happened to have a stain on her fur there.
Blood brought her eyes right up to mine, smiling from ear to ear and glancing at my horn. “You have a very nice... horn! I don’t have any. Horns, y’know. I’ve never met a unicorn before! Can I have it?” she asked hopefully. Her voice was quick and high, and she was shaking ecstatically.
Pyrestripe shoved her away from me. “Back off, Blood. He’s my charge for now, and you can’t have him. Maybe if he doesn’t survive, or he’s useless, I’ll let you take him,” she promised. Blood pouted dramatically, eyeing me wistfully.
She turned back to me. “Now, you may have figured this out already, but Blood wants your horn for her collection. And she never takes things from living creatures. So you’d better watch your step.” I nodded slowly.
These ponies are crazy, I thought. I tried thinking of ways to escape. I could feign weakness while I got better. Slip out when they had their guard down. But I had no idea what the rest of this place was like. This cave only had one exit that I could see, and there could be anything out there. I couldn’t risk getting caught. Even if I got out, I’d have no idea where to go or what to do.
I decided that I would let them care for me, and try to earn their trust. Then, once I knew more about the layout or the Outer World, I would have a better chance of escaping with my life.
Pyrestripe cocked her head thoughtfully. “Hrm. What do you have for a lifemark, Equestrian?” she asked. She walked around me to get a better look at my flank.
“A scroll? A closed scroll? Are you some kind of diplomat? Ha! Lot of good that’ll do you out here. Diplomacy doesn’t work too well in the Outer World,” she scoffed. “Hey Blood, I bet you’ll end up getting your unicorn horn after all.”
Blood nodded enthusiastically from where she sat. “Yes! Finally!” She rolled onto her back and giggled to herself.
Buck, I thought, I’m no fighter. Now what? Okay, calm down, Dissero. One step at a time. Just let them take care of you for now.
“Hey, let me fill you in on something,” Pyrestripe said. “You’re not in Equestria anymore, pony. You won’t find any love or tolerance out here. All we have is war and betrayal. Everyone in the Outer World is out for themselves first. If you’re no use to them alive, they’ll find a use for you dead. Unicorn horns sell pretty well. Better yet, the people out here aren’t much for Equestrians. You’re not very popular, for what you did.”
She came right up to my face, smiling. “So if you want us to keep you, you better help us out. Or we’ll kill you ourselves and sell your hide to some rich griffon.”
Ω Ω Ω
Time passed. It was hard to tell from my position in the infirmary cave, but I think it was one or two weeks. Pyrestripe was always around, mostly because whenever she left Blood would come in and fix me with a wistful stare. I didn’t like Blood.
I became well enough to walk and talk, but I tried to hide it. Despite my earlier plans to earn their trust, I was still anxious to disturb the peace. I just stayed where I was, pretending to be too weak to do anything.
But they didn’t fall for it. Colonel came into my room one day, followed by a stallion I hadn’t seen before. He had dark, smoky fur and harsh yellow eyes. Most of his small, jagged stripes ran up the fronts of his legs, except for one on the side of his face and another across his snout. His wingtips were blue, and his thick, bushy mane alternated between blue and white. His cutie mark was a sharp, blue lightning bolt.
“It’s been weeks, Equestrian,” Colonel said. “You show no sign of improvement. Pyrestripe tells us that you behave like a lame horse. Do you know what we do with lame horses?”
The stallion who I hadn’t seen before stepped forward. “We kill them. So get the fuck up before I crush your skull.”
I jumped to my hooves. I reserved no doubts that he wouldn’t carry out his threat. I had a feeling that my play for time may have gotten me off on the wrong hoof.
“We aren’t stupid. I could tell you were stalling,” Pyrestripe said.
“What’s your name?” the stallion demanded.
“Hmm. Dissero,” Colonel said thoughtfully. “Well, Dissero, we’ve saved your life. What can it do for us?”
“Answer wisely,” the stallion sneered.
“Hey, calm down, Blitz. Give him some time. Equestrians panic pretty easy, y'know,” Pyrestripe said. She trotted next to Blitz and put a calming hoof on his shoulder.
“Uhh...” I began. I wasn’t sure what to tell them. I had no idea what these ponies did, so I didn’t know if a trader would be any use to them. I decided that I’d be better off not telling them that I was a peaceful merchant. Instead, I went for something more open-ended. “I’m a quick learner.”
“A quick learner, hrm? Good answer, Dissero. We’ll see just how quick you really learn, then. Come with me,” Colonel ordered. She walked out of the room, and I fell in behind her without hesitation. Blitz and Pyrestripe followed.
I took advantage of the opportunity to observe my surroundings. We were in some kind of large, underground cave. The infirmary was just a smaller cave tucked into the side of the larger. I thought I could see several other entrances along the cave walls, and I spotted some of the strange ponies flying between them or chatting amongst themselves. In the roof of the cavern was a wide hole with sunlight filtering through, large enough to fit three ponies comfortably.
We came out to a wide, sandy pit directly underneath the hole. Along the outside edge of the pit I saw shelves and racks holding various types of weaponry.
Colonel walked confidently to a rack and picked out two spears, holding them with her wingtips. Instead of sharp steel points, they had heavy wooden balls on the ends. She trotted into the center of the pit and turned to face me.
“Choose your weapon,” she said.
“Wh- what? I don’t know how to fight,” I stuttered.
“You say you’re a fast learner? You’re in the Outer World now. You’ll have to learn how to fight if you want to be of any use to us. Now choose your weapon, or I’ll beat you to death.”
Buck. Buck buck buck. I looked over my choices. Practice weapons of all kinds were available. Swords, daggers, spears, forks, maces, hammers, even wooden flails and blunt arrows. I didn’t know anything about fighting, but I figured that a sword must be a good balanced weapon. All of the Royal Guard were trained in them. I levitated a simple wooden sword to my side.
Colonel looked surprised at first, but quickly recovered. “Ah yes, that’s right. Unicorns levitate things. A sword? Very well then. Come into the pit.” She spread her hooves and flared her wings.
I stepped out hesitantly. The sword hovered shakily between me and Colonel.
“Now. Defend yourself.”
She flapped her wings hard, raising her hooves off the ground and dashing towards me. As she landed, she thrust forwards with both spears. I stumbled backwards, slapping one of the spears away haphazardly and falling underneath the other one.
Within a second, she had both of the spears at my neck.
“Well. That was pitiful,” someone said behind me. I looked back to find that Blitz, Pyrestripe, and several others had come to watch. Blitz was shaking his head, and Pyrestripe was laughing. I felt a push on my neck, and turned back to face Colonel.
“Up. Let’s do this again.”
Ω Ω Ω
The rest of my day was just more of the same.
Colonel beat me senseless. Over and over. I’d take my sword and try to stop her, but there was nothing I could do. I was a terrible fighter, and she was a veteran. She managed to pin me a different way each time. She pinned me up on the wall, pinned me with my own sword, and even hung me from the ceiling. Then she cut me loose and let me fall to the sand.
“You have a month to learn. After that, we’ll stop holding Blood back, so if you can’t fight, you’re fucked,” Colonel said. She trotted away.
I was lying on the sand, covered in sweat and coughing from the exertion. Colonel hadn’t even been out of breath. Pyrestripe and I were the only ones left at the pit. The others had gotten bored of watching me flap around and went their separate ways earlier.
Pyrestripe walked up to me and raised her eyebrows. “Get up, Equestrian. I’ll show you where you can get some food, and where you’ll sleep.”
I rolled over and stumbled to my hooves. “Thanks, Pyrestripe,” I mumbled.
“Just call me Pyre,” she said.
I trudged to a rack and put the sword away with my hooves, too tired to do it magically. Pyre led me to a relatively flat area of the cave. A few other ponies were lounging about there, eating and chatting on groups of cushions and mats spread around the floor. In the middle of the cushions, a table was set up with food and plates. My mouth watered at the sight of food.
“Serve yourself. You get one meat, one drink, and some greens. Don’t be too greedy,” Pyre said. She began to get some food for herself.
Meat? Ponies didn’t eat meat. Eating meat was an atrocity, akin to cannibalism. I had eaten meat to survive while crossing the Great Sea, but had been looking forward to taking a bite out of something greener. To eat it voluntarily was something else entirely. These strange ponies were all eating it, tearing big chunks out with their sharp teeth.
Ponies don’t have sharp teeth, either.
I grabbed a plate, and stacked some recognizable fruits and vegetables onto it. Oranges, apples, carrots, potatoes. I surreptitiously avoided the meat and unfamiliar foods. I searched for some water, but I couldn’t find any.
“No water?” I asked.
Pyre laughed. “Water’s a lot harder to come by than booze out here, Equestrian. It does just as well.”
I settled for some thick brown liquid that looked like mud and tasted disgusting. “Isn’t there a river around here or something? Like the lake I fell in?” I asked.
“That water is fucking terrible. We were surprised you didn’t get sick from falling in it. Trust me, this shit is better.”
There were three distinct groups of cushions in the cavern. Most of the strange ponies there were eating in the one nearest the food table. The other two were further away. One was completely vacant, and a lone pony ate at the other.
Pyre and I sat at the vacant one. She began to eat quietly, glancing up to make sure I was still there every now and then. I was famished, but couldn’t really get into the eating mood. I nibbled at my food half-heartedly.
“So, what do you ponies do around here?” I asked, hoping to start a conversation.
Pyre stared at me, apparently amused at something. I cocked my head at her, and realized that the chatter had suddenly gone quiet. I slowly looked behind me, wondering what had happened.
I found myself nose to nose with Blitz. My eyes widened as his narrowed. This close, his strong scent was overpowering. “What did you just fucking call us?” he growled.
“Uhm...” I began. He grabbed me by my bandanna, managing to somehow pull me closer even though our snouts were already touching.
“Get this straight, pony,” he spat, “we’re not like you. We’re recusants. And don’t you fucking darecall us ponies again.” He glared at me harshly, and I did my best to look submissive and compliant. I wanted to ask what the big deal was about being called a pony. They looked like ponies, more or less. Meat-eating, razor-toothed, somewhat bent out of shape pegasus ponies. I decided that now was not the time for questions, and nodded enthusiastically.
Blitz let go of my bandanna, and I fell to my knees, eyes down, praying to Celestia that he wouldn’t change his mind and kill me right now. These ponies- no, these recusants, were crazy. “I’ll let you go this time, since you’re new around here. But next time, I won’t be so easy,” he said.
I noticed some of the other recusants giving me harsh looks. Trying to avoid their gaze, I turned to face Pyre. She was biting on some meat absentmindedly, smiling.
“You’re a real charmer,” she said.
I ignored the comment and crawled a little closer, lowering my voice. “So... what do you recusants do around here?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We’re bandits, more or less. The Outer World doesn’t take kindly to us. They think we’re thieving, merciless, immoral mercenaries. Which most of us are. But really, they don’t give us much choice.”
“Because of ponies like you, Equestrian. Because of your kind, mine is forced to suffer.” I decided not to push the issue further.
We ate in silence. I was happy to get my teeth on some vegetables again, but the sounds of the recusants tearing into their meat sickened me. I felt like if I looked up and saw one of them take another bite I would vomit. They were enthusiastically devouring the stuff.
It didn’t help that Blood came to sit next to me. I wasn’t sure if she was even eating anything. I tried not to look, but I felt like she was just staring at me the whole time. Staring right at my horn with that ridiculous, creepy smile of hers. Every few minutes she would creep closer, until I could feel her breathing on my ear. Then Pyre would give her a stern look and she would back off. The whole time I was worried I’d commit another social crime and everyone would come beat me up.
It was not the most comfortable dining environment.
After we ate, Pyre led me through the halls to another cave in the wall lined on both sides with bunk beds. “You sleep here. Pick a bunk that doesn’t look lived in,” she explained. She trotted away, leaving me alone.
There were four beds, two on each side. A lantern hanging from the ceiling struggled to spread some faint light around. I could see one recusant sleeping in one of them, and tiptoed past him to a bottom bunk that looked neatly made and unused. I crawled into it and lied down, exhausted.
I jumped. Another recusant was in the bunk on top of mine, bending over the side to look at me with a friendly smile. He had a long blonde mane and fur the color of dry hay.
“Uh, hello,” I replied.
He grinned at me under his sharp green eyes. “My name’s Hunter. You must be the Equestrian. Dissero, right?” he asked. I nodded.
“I saw you getting the shit kicked out of you by Colonel. Don’t worry, she’ll start giving you some hints if you fuck up too bad,” he said.
“Yeah, I don’t really know anything about fighting.”
“Well you’d better shape up fast! You’ll get killed by the first fucker who sees you, waving your sword around like that.”
I heard hoofsteps, and Hunter turned his head to greet a recusant mare approaching us. “Hey, baby,” he said playfully.
She had a deep red coat and an inky black mane. She was slender, with black stripes on the fronts of her legs, a black snout, and a splotch of black fur around her tail. I have to admit, the slender limbs and full flanks of recusant mares made a shiver run down my spine. She was beautiful.
“Hello, Hunter. And hello to you, Equestrian. My name is Navery,” she said. Her voice was silkier than a filly’s mane.
I grinned weakly, looking away from her soft amber eyes. “Hey. I’m Dissero.”
Hunter jumped down from the bunk above me, and I saw that he had brown stripes running up the fronts of his legs and another across his snout. He and Navery embraced briefly, rubbing snouts affectionately, before turning to face me.
“So, what’s your story? What’s Equestria like? How’d you end up in that lake?” Hunter asked. Navery sat by his side, seemingly bored.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” I said. I had had a hard day, to say the least. Leaving a bed for the first time in weeks only to be beaten to an aching numbness and threatened one way or another multiple times. Right now I needed time to think. I needed a plan. A way to learn more about the Outer World, enough that I could survive on my own until I could get back with my crew. I needed to learn to fight well enough to defend myself in what, from what I’d been told since arriving, was a hostile and dangerous land.
Could I even find my crew? I had no idea how big the Outer World was. It had been so long since I was taught about it as a colt, and the lesson so short. I remembered that it had two continents, but wasn’t sure how large each one was. As big as Equestria? Twice the size? Half? Horseapples. I’ll never find them.
“Okay, if you insist. We’ll leave you alone, then,” Hunter said. He nudged Navery, and the couple trotted out into the main cave and out of sight.
It felt like my whole world was coming down on top of me. Again. But it wasn’t like when I had been taken into Harmony City. I had still been in Equestria at least, in a vaguely familiar land. I had had my friends with me, and other ponies to share the burden with. I had had guidance, in the form of Nix and Old Ironhide, and when I woke up each morning I had at least known exactly what I would be doing.
Out here, everything was different in every way. My crew was gone, the Omega was gone. I was truly alone. There wasn’t even anyone of the same species around. I set my head down to rest, dreading what the next day would bring.
Ω Ω Ω
Fire. A building covered in fire. The flames lick out the windows and the smoke fills the air. Screams and sirens in the distance, the sounds of conflict and death. A young, inky black pegasus walks out of the flames, his eyes fixed to mine. His mouth is open in silent agony. The screams steadily grow louder. I rush to hold him, and the skin starts to melt away from his bones.
My heart was pounding. My fur was covered in sweat. I shook myself as I rose from the bed and put a hoof to my forehead, trying to push the image away. I could hear Hunter snoring above me, and the sounds of others sleeping nearby.
I also heard someone screaming, somewhere in the cave.
I slid out of the bed, warily trotting out of the sleeping area to follow the faint sound. It led me to another cave, halfway up the wall of the main one. I climbed up using a makeshift staircase of rocky protrusions and poked my head inside.
Colonel was sitting there, calmly watching a scrawny griffon crying. He was tied to a post jammed into the ground near the back of the cave. His ribs were visible through thin feathers, and prominent bruises covered most of his body.
I moved to back away, but one of my hooves hit a rock behind me. It fell down to the cavern floor, making an echoing crack that felt like it’d wake everyone around for miles.
Colonel turned to me. Her eyes were covered by shadows, and her face somber. “Oh, it’s you. I was just thinking of you. Come, I want you to watch this.”
I hesitated, but she beckoned me closer. Her voice held a quiet authority that was hard to resist. I walked to her side, eyeing the griffon nervously.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“I don’t like griffons,” Colonel said nonchalantly. She ignored my question. “I’ve lost many good mares and stallions to them. They’re cruel and heartless killers.” She glared at the sobbing figure in the darkness. “They hunt us down and present our severed wings and heads to those who would pay. They don’t even do it for the money. They enjoy it.”
The griffon looked up and saw me. He reached out with a bloody talon. “Please! Let me go!” he begged. I took a step back, unsure of how to react.
“Silence!” Colonel snapped. The griffon shrunk back as if struck, returning his gaze to the floor and sobbing quietly.
“Griffons have a very interesting idea of reputation, Dissero. When one of them is captured, they refuse to acknowledge that they failed to protect their own. They leave them behind. And yet, the captured griffon still feels loyalty to his flock. It takes considerable... encouragement... to get him to reveal any kind of information,” Colonel said.
Blood stepped out of the shadows, from another entrance I hadn’t noticed. She was smiling wickedly, pushing a bloodstained table before her. I saw scalpels, corkscrews, knives of all sizes, tongs, pliers, and a myriad of other devices. A cold chill ran down my spine.
“Please! Just let me go! I’ll never bother you again! I’ll pay you! Please!” the griffon shrieked. He staggered away from Blood, pulling at his chain faintly, trying to keep away from her.
“Come here, silly griffon! We’re going to have some fun!” Blood giggled. She ran a hoof along the surface of the table thoughtfully. “Lets see, what do you want to do first? I don’t think I have a beak quite like yours yet... it’s cute!” she squeaked. She grabbed a scalpel and approached the griffon merrily, smiling.
I averted my gaze. I didn’t want to see this. “Look at it,” Colonel commanded. I silently begged her to let me leave the place, let me go back to my bed and forget about this. “Look at it!” she repeated, more harshly this time. I obeyed.
The griffon was weakly trying to fend off Blood with his arms and wings. “Hey, stop that! That’s no fun!” Blood said playfully. She grabbed one of the griffon’s wings, pulling hard. He shrieked, flapping frantically to try and get away as she reached for a rusted bonesaw.
I leaned closer to Colonel. “You’re not gonna let her do this, are you?” I whispered frantically.
Colonel stared straight ahead. Her eyes were dull and her face blank. “I’ve killed many in my life. I’ve killed with my hooves, killed with my orders, and killed with my mistakes. It’s too late for me.”
Blood bought the saw down upon the griffon’s shoulder, humming to herself as she cut through his wing joint. The sound of the saw scratching across the bone made me sick. The griffon shrieked louder than ever before, his voice breaking as tears ran down his face. The severed wing fell to the floor with a soft thud, and blood squirted from the wound. I staggered to the side, caught myself on a wall, and retched.
“A long time ago, I was different. I had ideals. I believed that there was right and wrong. Those beliefs got others killed. Now I know that there is no right and wrong. There is only perspective,” Colonel continued.
Blood stepped back to admire her hoofwork and grinned briefly. “Wait a minute! You’re all uneven now!” she said, frowning. The griffon lay on the ground, feebly grabbing at his missing wing. “Don’t worry, I’ll fix you up real quick!” She grabbed a dull knife and pulled the griffon up to a sitting position with her mouth.
I tried to close my eyes, or turn my head away, but I couldn’t move. Colonel continued to watch, her expression unchanging. “I decided that, regardless of what it took, I would do anything to keep my recusants alive. I vowed to stop at nothing to protect them. Since then, I’ve come to realize exactly what that means. Exactly what I’ve had to sacrifice.”
Blood sunk the knife into the griffon’s wing joint. I heard a sickening crunch as she twisted the blade and pulled it out, stabbing the flesh around the wing over and over again. Blood squirted out of the wound and onto her face, dripping onto the rock below.
“I’ve done terrible things for my clan, Equestrian. Things that I wish more than anything I could forget. I wish I could go back and change them. I wish I could go back and kill myself before I turned into what I am now. Each night I go to sleep wishing I could change. Each morning I wake up knowing I must continue down the same path. For my clan.”
Blood grabbed the griffon’s wing, now hanging limply from his side, and pulled it loose with a quick turn of her head. The sound of the bones cracking was drowned out by the griffon’s blood-curdling scream. I could see his broken bones hanging out. The torturer licked the blood off her snout and smiled. “Now, how about that beak?” She grabbed a pair of pliers.
“No... please.... please let me go...” the griffon whimpered. He was beyond screaming now. Colonel calmly walked up to him and lowered her face to his.
“You know what I want,” she said softly.
The griffon shuddered. I stared into his eyes, transfixed, unable to look away despite wanting more than anything to run from the room. I saw his survival instincts struggle with his drive to protect the flock. He shook his head and closed his eyes. His feathers were stained with tears and blood.
“Very well, then. Have your fun, Blood.” Colonel turned her back on him and stepped past me slowly.
“I admit, I envy you, Equestrian. You come from a land where murder is nigh unheard of, and your only brush with death is at the funerals of the elderly. If I was you, I would do everything in my power to return to it, before you become something you’ll regret.”
I heard Colonel leave as I continued to watch the grisly scene before me. Blood had pulled the griffon’s beak off with the pliers. It lay on her table now, cracked and bloodstained. The griffon was lying in his bodily fluids, his tongue hanging out of the hole in his face, as Blood cut his belly open. With an enormous effort, I managed to wrench my gaze away, but I could still hear his guts fall to the floor as Blood sang merrily.
I ran from the room, but the screams followed me.
Chapter 6: First Time For Everything
“You sleep well?” Pyre asked me.
“Yeah,” I mumbled. I had not slept well. I had barely slept at all. Any semblance of sleep I might have gotten had been quickly shattered by gory, bloody, nightmares.
“Good. You’ll be busy today,” she said. She beckoned with her head, and led me towards the eating area for breakfast.
I didn’t feel like eating, but I managed to finish an apple.
“Colonel wants you to meet the others. I’ll be showing you around the place,” she said. I nodded. I wasn’t really in the mood for meeting people.
“Hey, something wrong, Equestrian?” Pyre asked.
“I’m just feeling kinda... out of place,” I said.
She smiled. “Nothing wrong with that. You are.” She winked at me and flicked her tail suggestively. I ignored the hint.
We trotted to another unfamiliar side cave. This one looked much more artificial than the others, with a clean-cut doorway and a relatively flat floor. “This is where the clan eggheads pass their time,” Pyre explained. She led me inside.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the long table filling up one side, festooned with alchemical tools and containers of every size and shape. Burners, flasks, tubes, and a furnace competed for space. Most of them were shoved up against the sides of the table, with a select few given the privilege of being neatly arranged in the middle. The place felt like a chemistry class. Two recusant stallions were debating about something, standing before an empty flask and waving chemicals around at each other.
“This is a lesson. Not an experiment. Right now we’re making poisons, put the octaazacubane down and pay attention,” the green-furred, gray-maned one said patiently, waving a bottle of something in the face of his student.
“But Blight, just imagine what we could get if we substituted some into this process instead of the lipopolysaccharides!” the student implored, holding another bottle up. He was the biggest recusant I had seen so far, with grey fur and an orange mane. He kind of reminded me of Cleaver.
“That is not a toy, Flintlock! One false move with a sample that size and the whole clan will come down with-”
“Hey, ladies, you meet the Equestrian yet?” Pyre interrupted casually. The two arguing stallions turned to face us, surprised. Flintlock accidentally knocked down a flask labeled with a dreadfully long name, spilling a bright yellow liquid on the floor. It hissed and steamed as it touched the ground. They both flinched as the glass broke and put down the chemicals they had been brandishing a few seconds ago.
“Oh, hello. Giving him the tour, Pyre?” Blight asked. He glared at Flintlock. “Clean that up right now before you kill us all.”
Flintlock smiled sheepishly and grabbed a broom leaning on the wall nearby. “Hey, Pyre. Hey, new guy,” he said.
“Hello. I’m Dissero,” I offered, glancing at the hissing liquid nervously. I wasn’t a scientist, but the stuff looked like it was about to explode.
Blight walked up and shook my hoof. “Greetings. My name is Blight. I’m the poisonmaker around here. Over there is Flintlock. He’s supposed to be my student, but he seems more interested in...explosives.” He shook his head disapprovingly.
I nodded. “So, uh, what does that... stuff, do?” I asked.
“Don’t you worry about it. It’s very stable,” Blight said. Part of it burst into fire. “Do you mind if I get a few shavings off your horn sometime? I haven’t really been able to procure any samples of unicorn dust and I’m curious to see what it can do.”
I blinked. Why is it everyone around here wants a piece of my horn? You’d think that they had never seen a unicorn before. “Uh... sure?”
“Oh, great! I’ll be right back,” he said. He trotted through a doorway on the other side of the room.
“Blight was Colonel’s best friend when they were younger. They built this clan together. He could boss us around if he wanted, but he’s more interested in his poisons,” Pyre said.
Flintlock finished cleaning the spill. “So, Dissero. Unicorns can cast spells, right?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yes, but we’re limited by our cutie marks.”
Pyre stepped between us. “Woah, woah, woah, slow down. What the fuck did you just say?” she asked, grinning.
“We’re limited by our... cutie marks?” I repeated. Do they get pissed off over cutie marks too?
“Cutie? Cutie?” She fell over laughing. “You call them fucking cutie marks! That is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard!”
I blushed and looked away. Flintlock was snickering too.
Pyre recovered and sat up, wiping a tear off her face. “Listen. Dissero. If you want to be taken seriously in the Outer World, don’t call that stamp a cutie mark. Out here, we call them lifemarks.”
Right. I guess it is a pretty silly name for something to base your whole life on. Flintlock pushed past Pyre.
“So, what spells can you do?” he asked. “Anything explosive?”
I scratched at the ground shyly. I didn’t really have any spells to speak of, besides a simple navigation spell to determine an airship’s heading. But I didn’t want to look like a pansy. “No, nothing explosive,” I said.
He frowned. “Oh, that’s too bad. Do you mind if I get some shavings off your horn? I’ve never worked with unicorn dust before and I’m curious about what it could do.”
Deja vu. So far, three of the six recusants I’d met wanted my horn. “Sure,” I said.
He smiled. “Great. I’ll be right back!” He trotted away towards where Blight had gone. I heard him talking to someone else in the hallway, and an elegant orange mare stepped out into the room.
“Hey, Pyre!” she said. The two mares embraced briefly. “What’s up?”
“Just showing the Equestrian around,” Pyre said. The orange mare looked at me and smiled widely.
“Hey! I’m Faerie!” she said. She trotted up to me and gave me a hug. She took me off guard, and I didn’t react fast enough to hug back before she pulled away. Great, now I look like an idiot, I thought. “What’s your name?”
“Dissero.” I really needed a name tag. I was getting tired of introducing myself over and over. At least the mares here are pretty.
“Oh, that’s a cute little name,” she said. “How are you liking the Outer World?”
I fell off an airship the first day I got here, got ‘rescued’ by a band of crazy warped ponies, am constantly being threatened with a gruesome death, shadowed by a creepy little sadistic mare, and beaten by wooden sticks. Oh, and I just saw a helpless griffon get torn to pieces for nothing.
“It’s... wonderful,” I said.
She giggled. “I could show you a few little cubbyholes I know sometime, if you want,” she purred. She walked past me, briefly rubbing her flank against mine, and flew out into the main cave. I found myself looking after her, my heart beating faster.
Pyre stepped into my vision. “You like what you see? I’m sure you’ll get your chance eventually. Just don’t die or piss us off first,” she said. “Anyways, knowing Flint and Blight, they’ve gotten distracted with something and it’ll be hours before they get out here. I dunno about you, but I’m not up for the wait. Let’s go meet Shatter.”
We left the room. Pyre led the way towards the sandy pit in the middle of the cave. “Shatter is our best martial artist. He usually spends all day practicing at the pit and sparring with whoever’s around. You didn’t see him yesterday, though. Colonel didn’t want him around, with you fumbling all over the place,” she said.
“I wasn’t fumbling,” I muttered half-heartedly. She laughed.
As we approached the pit, I began to hear the sound of metal striking metal. Ping, ping, ping, ping. It grew in volume as we got closer, never settling into any one pattern. I saw Blitz fly into the air, wearing a pair of wingblades, and then dive back down.
Coming to the edge of the pit, I found the source of the noise.
Blitz was flying, rolling, and running around his opponent furiously. He moved faster than any pegasus I had ever seen, striking, moving, and striking again. He ducked low, lashing out at his opponent’s legs.
The white recusant he was fighting moved even faster. He held a rapier in his feathers, expertly dancing away from Blitz’s attack and riposting, but Blitz was already out of the way, moving to attack from another angle.
“There he is. Looks like Blitz managed to coax him into a spar,” Pyre said.
Holy hay, I thought. I stared in awe as Shatter danced away from another attack. His hooves were a blur, each step precisely placed, measured, and purposed.
Blitz skidded to a halt in the sand, panting heavily. Shatter planted himself opposite, holding the rapier out in front of him confidently. They stared each other down.
Blitz flapped his wings, kicking up sand as he dashed forwards for another slash. Shatter dipped his head, slid underneath the wingblades, and lightly nicked his opponent on the neck with his blade.
Drops of blood stained the sand.
“Your loss, Blitz. Blood on the sand,” Shatter said. He slid his rapier into a scabbard on his back.
Blitz spat into the sand, ignoring the cut. “It’s no big deal. Let’s go again.” He flared his wings and slid into a fighting stance.
Shatter sighed patiently, but nonetheless reached to unsheath his sword.
“Hey! You two!” Pyre said, trotting between them. I followed slowly, getting a closer look at Shatter.
His ears twitched as he turned to face us. His slow, measured movements spoke of a calm composure and quiet confidence. His white fur contrasted with deep blue eyes and similarly colored patches on his legs and wingtips.
“Yes?” he asked politely. Blitz scratched at the ground impatiently.
“Cool off, Blitz. Go patch yourself up while I introduce Shatter to the Equestrian,” Pyre said. He snorted, looking to Shatter for backup.
“Go ahead, Blitz. We can do more later,” Shatter said. Blitz snorted and flicked his tail, flying away angrily.
“So, you met the Equestrian yet? His name is Dissero,” Pyre said. She waved a wing in my direction. I stepped forward, dipping my head politely.
“Hello,” I said.
“Greetings,” Shatter replied. He looked me over carefully, and I fidgeted nervously under his gaze. I got the impression that he was sizing me up for something.
“Want some advice?” he asked.
My eyes widened in surprise. “Uh... sure.”
He grabbed a practice sword and tossed it to me. I reflexively caught it with my magic and held it out in front of me.
“Colonel’s idea of teaching consists of swamping you with experience. She’ll beat you a thousand times and expect you to figure out what’s wrong by yourself. If you fuck up bad enough, she’ll give you a hint. I subscribe to more conventional methods,” Shatter said, taking a position opposite me in the sand pit. I braced myself.
“Loosen up,” he said. “The first key to surviving in combat is right frame of mind. You won’t fight well if you’re tense or worried.”
Makes sense. I tried to push away the terrifying image of being beaten by the best fighter amongst a clan of insane outlaw bandits.
“Second: stop thinking of your weapon as a weapon. Think of it as part of you, like your hooves. Think of it as just another feather on your wing. A feather you can use to protect yourself.”
I looked at the sword awkwardly, unsure of how to interpret the advice. Pyre spoke up from the sidelines. “Hey Shatter, in case you didn’t notice, he doesn’t have any wings.”
He cocked his head. “An extension of your... magic. Just another spell.” I nodded.
“Third: never allow your focus to slip. You must be aware of everything around you at all times. You must know the terrain under your hooves before you step on it. You must know where every immediate threat is and where your weapons are, always.”
I nodded again. This is getting complicated...
“Fourth: Practice. Fight imaginary opponents at whatever speed you require, until fighting becomes instinct.”
So is he gonna attack me or.... are we just gonna stand around and chat or what?
“Fifth. Stop thinking. Clear your mind and let your body think for you.”
What? “How am I supposed to focus, think of this sword as part of my magic, and be constantly aware of everything without thinking?” I asked.
“You’ll get it, eventually,” he said.
Okay then... “So, now what?” I asked.
“Now, you pay attention.”
Ω Ω Ω
Time passed. Over the course of a month I learned the lessons the recusants taught me. Shatter’s training session helped immensely in my bouts against Colonel. They became more than a desperate struggle to stay on my hooves. I even came close to winning once.
We began as we usually did, circling each other slowly from opposite sides of the pit. Only Shatter was watching at the time; the rest of the clan were off doing whatever it was they liked to do.
I levitated my practice sword in front of me confidently. I no longer feared her assault as before. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep her off forever, but I felt... prepared. Unlike before, now I was ready for it.
“Remember,” she said, “Don’t limit yourself.” She had been telling me that for the last few days now. She had been repeating the tip over and over, before each bout, and I knew she would keep repeating it until I learned the lesson she wanted.
Relax. I felt my muscles loosen up. My hooves slid through the sand. I waited for her to spring into motion.
Colonel flapped her wings. Sand rose into the air as she dashed towards me, hooves just inches above the ground. I held my sword out in front of me. Not a weapon. Just another spell.
A spear flashed for my neck. I sidestepped, and raised my sword to deflect the second spear. She flew past me, and we both whipped around to face each other.
I charged forward, swinging for her neck from the side. As expected, she blocked it easily, using her other spear for a rapid counter attack. I ducked underneath it, rising up inside of her range. She leaped back before my sword reached her, and it swept through empty space. I stumbled briefly, unbalanced.
She came running back the instant her hooves touched the ground. Her spears flashed in and out towards me with practiced expertise, and I stumbled backwards. I couldn’t find any opportunity to regain my balance amongst the fierce assault. My steps became uncertain and I found my sword lagging behind my thoughts. I could barely get it up to block each attack by the time I reacted.
Stop thinking so much.
I cleared my mind. My body took over, and my sword caught up to Colonel’s attacks. I gained confidence. We continued to exchange blows, blocking and countering as we traversed the sand.
Don’t let your opponent lull you into a pattern.
Fuck, I thought. I tried to break away, but I was too slow. She lashed out and tripped me. I fell onto my back and crawled away, frantically deflecting her spears. My sword was too slow. I couldn’t move out of the way when her spears slipped past my guard. I began to falter.
Don’t limit yourself.
Okay, how the fuck am I limiting myself? What assets did I have that I wasn’t using? Magic? I was already levitating a sword, and I lacked any other useful spells besides telekinesis. I didn’t even have a very strong telekinetic grasp or range. I just had a knack for levitating a few things at once.
I risked a glance towards the weapon rack where I knew the swords were kept. I noticed there were two more practice swords waiting before a spear grazed my cheek and slammed into the sand by my head.
I turned back, diverted a spear headed for my neck with my sword, rolled out of the way of her other spear, and directed my magic towards the sword rack. Unable to look for fear of getting a spear to the face, I groped around with my magic and managed to grab a second sword.
I brought the sword around just in time to block a spear slash to the head. Colonel jumped back, eyeing my new weapon. I climbed to my hooves, grinning at her.
Now I was on the attack. The second sword added a whole different dynamic to our fight. I was no longer forced to block two attacks at a time with a single weapon. I was pushing her back. It was fair now.
Why stop there? As we passed by the sword rack, I grabbed a third sword for my arsenal. It was hard to divide my magic three ways, and for a split second it faltered, but I recovered before Colonel could take advantage of the weakness.
She danced away from me, but I kept up the attack. Now she was scrambling to hold off my assault. I stopped aiming and started to just swing the three swords at her as fast as I could. It took all my focus just to stop them from hitting each other.
Then it happened. A sword broke through her defenses. She fell back, and within the second I had all three practice swords at her neck.
“My win!” I shouted. My heart was racing. Adrenaline filled my veins. My mind filled with images of my superiority.
She smiled at me. “Impressive, Dissero. But you seem to have forgotten the fundamentals again.”
I cocked my head. “What?” I asked. She gave me an evil little smile, and I saw her wing twitch. I looked down just in time to see one of the hard wooden tips of her spears hit me in an obscene place.
I yelped in pain and keeled over. She got up and dusted herself off, still smiling at me as I shuddered in the sand. “Be aware of your surroundings at all times.”
Ω Ω Ω
Despite the pain and embarrassment, the fight had still proven my worth to the recusants. Colonel declared that I was now capable of being useful to the clan, and then immediately put me to work.
It had been just a day since my martial breakthrough, and I was trekking through the mountains with most of the clan. We were all wearing barding or heavy clothes for protection. My barding was made of hardened leather, strapped around the legs and chest in separate pieces to maximize flexibility and movement, which recusants often relied on to survive. On my back I had three scabbards holding three arming swords. A pair of empty saddlebags bounced off my sides as I walked, ready to carry any loot back to the cave. My bandanna hung around my neck as always, with a backup knife strapped to my neck underneath.
At first I had cringed at the concept of wearing the skin of another creature, but Pyre convinced me that it was necessary.
“Why do I need this? How is this going to protect me?” I had asked. “I can cut right through this.”
“Trust me, Dissero. You can’t block or dodge everything. When you mess up, you’ll be thankful you had some extra padding to save your skin,” she had said. I tried not to think about it too much.
After a few hours of walking, we reached the bottom of the mountains. The wasteland I had first seen upon arriving in the Outer World stretched across the horizon before us. Navery looked up at the night sky briefly before taking the lead. The rest of us fell in behind her.
I walked between Pyre and Hunter, near the back of the group. Blight and Flintlock were in front of us, heads together as they argued over some chemical. Blitz and Colonel took up positions at our flanks, watching warily for any sign of life. Shatter followed quietly from behind. Blood had stayed to watch the cave, though I suspected that Colonel probably didn’t want her going out of control on the mission.
“So, where are we going?” I asked. Nobody had told me before we left. They had only said that we were going out on an “expedition,” and that I should be ready to fight.
“We have rivals, Dissero. There’s only room for one recusant clan around here, and we need to drive another one out. They came in a week ago and started fucking the place up, raiding every caravan that comes within ten miles. If they keep it up, the merchants will complain and before you know it there’ll be fucking mercs swarming all over the place,” Pyre explained.
“But don’t you guys raid caravans too?” I asked
“Yes, but not so much that we become a major nuisance. As long as only one caravan out of fifty goes missing, they won’t complain too much,” Pyre said.
I nodded, glancing up at the sky in the hopes of seeing the Omega. Nothing. “So why aren’t you flying?” I asked.
“Besides the fact that we have to take care of you? The sky is dangerous. You can be seen for miles around when you fly,” she said.
“So what’s the plan?”
“Colonel will tell you when we get there,” Hunter said.
We walked in silence for a few more hours, stopping only for a quick water break and a quick conference between Colonel and Navery. After climbing to the top of a nondescript hill, Colonel called us to a stop.
She beckoned us closer, and we gathered around to listen.
“You all know what we’re here for,” she began. “This other clan cannot be allowed to continue as it is... but I would prefer to avoid a fight.
“Me and Blight will try and talk to their leaders. If they do not agree to leave, then we will be forced to kill them. Pyre will wait on a nearby cloud for a signal from us. If they refuse, she’ll drop one of Flintlock’s flares. Then Hunter and Dissero are to kill the lookouts while we stall. They will have five minutes before I call for the rest of the clan to attack. Any questions?”
There were no questions. We piled up our saddlebags and anything else we didn’t need to fight on the hill. Hunter pulled two cloaks out of his bags, colored in a dark brown and green pattern and hoofed one to me. “You know how to be sneaky?” he asked.
“Don’t step on anything noisy and stay in dark corners, right?”
“Pretty much. Keep movement slow and minimal. Oh, and no magic. That horn of yours gets pretty bright,” he said.
“Then how am I supposed to... uh... deal with the lookouts?” I asked. I never really got a handle on the way earth ponies held things in their mouths. Or with their fetlocks. It was like... impossible.
He pulled a wire out of his bag. “Here,” he said, handing me the wire. “Sneak up behind them, and choke them with this. Once you start, don’t let up.”
I floated the wire over to me and dropped it on my upturned hooves. It suddenly occurred to me what the clan was asking me to do. I might have to kill someone.
An image of a bloody griffon flashed through my head, and I barely managed to hold back the bile rising up my throat. I had never killed another person before. If Old Ironhide had been alive... would I have killed him?
I wasn’t sure.
Colonel and Blight trotted down the slope. The foreign clan was camped in a sinkhole in the middle of a shallow depression. A path leading down into the camp was guarded by a pair of watchers, armed with simple rifles and swords.
Hunter beckoned to me. “C’mon, let’s get in position,” he said. He led the way towards a patch of bushes near the sinkhole, raising the hood of the cloak. I saw Pyre fly up towards a nearby cloud as we crept forwards. The guards caught sight of Colonel and Blight, and trained their rifles on them.
“We come to parley!” I heard Colonel shout. One of the guards yelled something down into the sinkhole, waited for a reply, and lowered his rifle. Another recusant trotted out to escort the diplomats inside.
Hunter and I reached the bushes, and we picked up the pace, making sure to keep our hooves on quiet surfaces. He beckoned me closer and pointed towards a small bush near one of the guards, and then to me. I nodded, pulling my bandanna up, and he disappeared into the darkness.
I crept forwards, placing my hooves with excruciating detail. I heard a twig snap behind me and froze. Nothing grabbed me, killed me, or shot at me, so I pressed onwards.
I positioned myself under the bush Hunter had pointed out. The guard closest to me was sighting down his scope at the stars as I settled into place less than three meters away. He looked bored.
The guard looked over to his buddy. “Hey, Pendulum. What time is it?” he asked.
Pendulum looked up at the stars and squinted momentarily. “1:43,” he said.
“Fuck, that’s it? Feels like it’s been hours.”
“Shut up and do your job. If you don’t pay attention we’ll both end up dead.”
“Hah! Yeah, right. What do you think of those recusants?”
“I’ve heard of ‘em. Stygian Clan. Leader is one of those ‘hide and survive’ fuckers. No balls, no gold, I like to say.”
“They’re just afraid we’ll cut into their trade routes. Greedy bastards.”
“Didn’t I just say to shut up?”
The guards lapsed back into silence. My snout itched, but I didn’t dare scratch it. A light drizzle began to fall, but the cloak kept me from getting too wet. I heard a loud exclamation from the sinkhole, but no flare fell from the clouds. Glancing upwards, I saw that the stars had moved halfway across the sky.What’s going on down there? It’s been hours, I thought. Did they manage to kill them before Blight could signal?
Then I saw it. A fizzling green light, falling from the clouds and shining briefly before sputtering out. The guards saw it, too.
“Hey, what was tha-” Pendulum’s voice suddenly cut off. Quiet scuffles and choking noises came from the shadows, and the other guard drew his sword, backing towards me cautiously.
Here we go. I steeled myself. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Don’t let them down. I rushed out of the bushes, the wire between my hooves. The other guard was peering towards the darkness where Pendulum had been just moments before when he heard me.
He tried to turn and raise the sword, but he was too late. I wrapped the wire around his neck and pulled hard. He gagged, reared up, and managed to shake me off. He fell to the floor, coughing.
I quickly recovered and leaped towards him. He rolled onto his back and tried to push me off, but he was still fighting to breathe. I straddled him, pinning him on his back, put all my weight onto my forehooves, and pushed the wire into his neck. The guard flapped his wings frantically, scratching at my face with his hooves.
His eyes stared into mine. I saw him realize that he was about to die. I saw him fill with regrets. Truths gone untold, dreams never accomplished, wrongs left unrighted, opportunities untaken. I saw him think back and realize hundreds of things he should’ve done better. I pushed down with the wire relentlessly as tears streamed down my face. I didn’t want to kill him. I wanted to let him live, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. He started to weaken. His hooves fell into the dust. One moment he was staring straight at me, and then suddenly he wasn’t. I heard the last breath leave his body.
The life left his eyes, and his body went slack.
I fell over next to the body. I just killed someone. Fuck. I felt sick. The griffon flashed before my eyes. He’s dead. I stumbled to my hooves and into the bushes, retching. I was shaking. My heart was pounding in my ears. I was having trouble breathing. I started to hyperventilate. Fuck. I just killed someone.I couldn’t get his eyes out of my head! Dead. I couldn’t see anything else. I closed my eyes and curled up on the ground, but the terrifying image wouldn’t leave. Fuck! I heard Colonel call out, as if far away, and the rest of the clan flying into battle.
I calmed down enough to notice Hunter standing over me, looking worried.
“First time?” he asked softly.
He nodded grimly. “We’ll handle the rest.”
I just killed someone.
I looked back at the guard’s body warily. His eyes stared back at me. Those eyes. His mouth was open, as if still struggling for breath.
I crept up to the body and tentatively reached out a hoof. I closed his eyes and mouth. Somehow he seemed less... I wasn’t sure. It felt right. I felt like I would shatter if I didn’t do it. I had to get out of their sight.
It didn’t help. Even closed, it felt like they were staring into my soul. Blaming me.
I knew that those lifeless, unwavering eyes would never close for me. They would be etched into my memory as long as I lived.
Ω Ω Ω
The festivities felt out of place.
The expedition had been a success. The clan leader had refused to move away, and we had managed to kill them all without a single casualty. I had sat out most of the battle, curled up in the dirt, too disturbed to take part in it.
Now we were back at the cave. Although Colonel had disapproved of the foreign clan raiding so frequently, she had set no limits on what loot we brought back. The sinkhole had been full of booze, food, gear, and valuables. We didn’t have enough room in our saddlebags to carry even a third of it back.
Upon our return, Colonel had announced a gathering in the training sands. With the rest of the clan sitting in the sand, Colonel called me up to the top of an outcropping in the cave wall.
“You have learned our lessons well since your arrival, Equestrian. Tonight, you killed for the clan. You are now one of us. If you are ever in need of aid, and are close by, the Stygian Clan will be there for you,” she had said.
Cheers and applause. A small, shameful feel of pride. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. If I could go back, I would’ve asked to stay in the cave with Blood.
Now I sat on one of the pillows in the eating area, sipping at some booze half-heartedly. The rest of the clan was celebrating the successful mission with booze and food. Blitz was engaged in a one-sided bragging contest with Shatter, Blight was explaining the intricacies of some poison or other to Blood and Faerie, and Hunter and Flintlock were in the midst of a drinking contest, with Navery watching silently.
Pyre trotted up to my side, holding a bottle in her feathers. “Having fun, sitting off to the side all alone?” she asked.
“I killed someone,” I said.
She frowned. “Oh. First time?”
A few silent moments passed. She smiled. “Hey, cheer up and have a drink. Those recusants had some of the good stuff,” she said, holding out her bottle.
I grabbed it half-heartedly. “What was your first like?” I asked. I suddenly realized how personal my question was and rushed to take it back. “No, don’t answer that.”
She hesitated with her smile. “It’s alright. I... you get used to it.”
“Right.” I nodded and took a drink from the bottle. It was surprisingly satisfying. “This stuff is pretty good.”
“Yeah, I think it’s some of that... what is it, Stalliongrad? From Equestria. Home sweet home, right?”
Despite myself, I managed to chuckle. “Yeah... sure.”
I was exhausted.
Where am I?
I was starting to get tired of this thing with the unknown beds and the waking up and the lack of memory. Where was I? What would I face when I opened my eyes?
A massive headache, that’s what. Sweet Celestia, that hurts.
Focus. I ran through what I could remember from last night. There was the raid, and then the party, and then the drinking, and then… Oh. Oh no.
Drinking was bad. I had never been the type to hold my booze in well and Silver Feather wasn’t around to play wingpony anymore. I prayed that I hadn’t done anything I might regret, let out a hoarse moan, and rolled over.
I came snout-to-snout with Pyrestripe.
“Why hello, Dissero,” she purred.
Well, that was unexpected. I felt my cheeks warming as my heart began to pound in my ears. My eyes darted side to side in search of escape. I was in one of the recusant’s rooms, probably one of the mares, but I wasn’t sure which and was in no way capable of reasoning it out right now. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind and yet at the same time I found it impossible to think. I desperately grasped for something to say, leaping for the first thing that came to mind.
“Uhm… good morning,” I croaked. I noticed her tail wrapped around one of my hind legs.
She smiled sweetly and slid out of the bed, offering an excellent view of her flanks as she stretched.
“You enjoy the party?” she asked.
“I’m… not… sure…” I managed to say. I was starting to have some trouble breathing. I didn’t know if I was pleased or ashamed, but I was certain that I wanted to remember what happened. I just felt so let down about it all, kind’ve like reading a great book, forgetting the whole plot, and missing out on all the juicy details.
“I know I did.” She licked her lips. “You Equestrian stallions are… so much more satisfying.”
“What happened, exactly?” I asked. A triumphant sense of satisfaction sparked within me as I stifled my stutters. I spotted an exit, but Pyre was standing in my way.
“Oh, you know. You got drunk. You really open up when you’re drunk, Dissy. A real party animal.” She giggled and looked away wistfully.
“Oh…” I rolled over again, too shy to look at her, and noticed Faerie sleeping next to me. I almost fell off the bed.
She raised her head groggily. “Wha… time for round six?” she asked.
Round six!? What the fuck! “Uhm… No, thanks I was... just…” I crawled out of the bed and stumbled for the doorway. Wow, the air was really thick in there. And dark. The ground started moving in a way I found to be disturbingly un-groundlike.
“I was… just leaving…” I said, having some difficulty figuring out which way was gravity.
Just then, Hunter appeared in the doorway. “Hey, Dissero, wanna go hunting?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. I almost fell on him, and I took some time to steady myself. “I love hunting! Favorite thing ever,” I added enthusiastically.
He cocked his head, raising a brow. “Okay… well, come on then.”
He turned, and with a breathless farewell to the mares I shuffled after him. My knees were shaking, and I kept falling to the side, having to catch myself on the walls.
“Uh, you okay, buddy?” my savior asked as we emerged into the main cave.
“Yeah,” I said with the voice of someone who was completely not okay and was trying desperately hard not to look like a total wimp who can’t even handle waking up with two mares he hardly knows.
He grinned. “So, guess you had an exciting night, huh?”
I shook my head, wide-eyed and confused. “I… I don’t even know. I think I’m gonna… I dunno.” I moved to walk away, but he blocked my passage.
“Whoa, now. You promised me we’d go hunting,” he said, pushing me back. “And hunting we will go.”
I just want to lie down, really, I protested silently.
“Grab your stuff and meet me at the sandpit in ten minutes.”
Ω Ω Ω
“What do you know about guns?”
Hunter and I crouched in the undergrowth, hiding under the shade of just one of the many trees that covered the Stygian clan’s home valley with green. We both wore our barding and weapons of choice, but Hunter had added a bow to his repertoire, as well as the gun which was lying before me now.
“Well, you point them at things, and shoot them, and it kills them. That’s about it,” I said. I had calmed considerably since my distressing morning, putting my mind into the intricate climb down the mountain. It felt good to be out in the woods. I hadn’t done anything like this for a long time.
He nodded. “More or less. Do you know how they work?”
“Not really. We have something like this back home. It uses a spell to propel the bullet.”
“Ah, magic. I hear you Equestrians are big on that, but you won’t find much of it over here. Anyways, our guns are somewhat different. When you pull the trigger, it lights a spark, creates an explosion in the barrel, and pushes the bullet out.”
I raised a brow skeptically. “That sounds dangerous. And dirty.”
“It is. You have to be careful you maintain good guns, and you shouldn’t try using any unfamiliar guns you happen to come across. They’ll blow up in your face.”
"Is the technology flawed?”
“Not exactly. It’s just… new, kinda. Most guns are just clobbered together wrecks made by amateurs. You’d be better off if you only took guns with this mark.” He pointed to the butt of the gun, and I picked out an emblem of a shining sun, with a single line through the middle.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Means its a good gun. One you can trust. Anyways, we best get going if we want to catch anything. Here.” He held the gun out, and I levitated it into a sheath strapped to my side.
With a flap of his wings, Hunter was in the trees. He leapt silently from branch to branch, using his wings to aid his travel, while I followed on the ground, body low and eyes scouring the forest.
After some time, Hunter landed next to me. “There’s a herd of deer in a clearing to the south. You creep up to the north edge, and I’ll fly around and drive them to you.”
I nodded, and soon I was trotting through the woods on my own. The walk to the clearing’s edge only took ten minutes, and I hid myself amongst the bushes. I pulled the gun out of its sheath, taking a moment to watch how the sunlight gleamed off the strange emblem, and set it down before me. I was ready to fire.
My ears twitched at the sound of thundering hooves. I squinted as a small herd of deer turned a corner, sprinting straight towards me.
With a glimmer of magic, I took aim.
I was so intent on the shot that at first I didn’t notice the hissing coming from the trees behind me. I turned around, curious, just in time to see something lunging at me.
I threw myself away, rolling into the clearing and holding the gun out before me. From the corner of my eye I noticed the herd of deer turning away. Shit. The hunt was ruined.
“Hunter?” I called, eyeing the creature nervously. Ten more just like it emerged from the trees, spreading out to surround me. I began to take cautious steps backwards.
“Hunnnteeerrrrrr?” A little louder this time.
I almost couldn’t hear him over the wind. “Raptors! Run away!”
Good enough for me.
I fired the gun, flinching as it kicked back and struck me hard on the shoulder. The raptor's scream barely reached my ringing ears as I sheathed my gun, turned tail, and ran through the smoke left by the shot.
It took all of ten seconds for one of them to catch up and pounce on me.
I screamed as the talons dug into my sides, reflexively trying to buck the creature off of me. It fell off, tearing away my flesh with it. I drew one of my swords and impaled its neck before it could get back up.
My sides burned, and I could barely walk with the pain. I turned around, drawing my other two swords, and tried to figure out how I was going to defend myself against nine of these ravenous Outer World beasts.
Hunter fell from the sky, cracking one’s spine with his landing and leaping onto another, knives bared. He rolled away from it, turning towards me for half a second.
“Go! I’ll distract them!”
I limped away as fast as I could, trying to ignore the searing sensation in my sides as I made for the trees. Upon reaching them I skidded to a stop and looked back, hoping Hunter could handle the beasts.
He was doing fine. But four of them had broken off and were heading straight for me. Time to run again!
I galloped through the forest, dodging trees and jumping over fallen logs, slowed by my attempts to keep weight off my injured leg. The soft sound of raptor claws tearing through the earth behind me spurred me on, but they were catching up. I couldn’t outrun them. My heart pounded as I searched frantically for a way out. I couldn’t climb trees, and none of these trees had any low branches anyways. I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t fight. They would just surround me and pounce all at once.
Unless I could find a way to funnel them to me, and take them on one at a time.
I angled my path towards the mountain closest to me. The raptors didn’t look like they were very good climbers; their claws may get grip, but their tiny forelegs wouldn’t be able to grab anything. I could climb up onto a ledge, and pick them off as they tried to follow..
Bursting out of the trees, I stopped before the mountain to briefly catch my breath. There was nothing to climb. The mountainside here was nothing but a sheer and steep cliff. I cursed under my breath.
I spied a cave, and made for that instead. They wouldn’t be able to surround me in there. It wasn’t what I had been hoping for, but it would do.
Stepping over a fallen sign and entering the cave, I turned around to face my attackers. I slid into a defensive crouch as I drew my blades, ready to fight to the death.
The raptors didn’t seem nearly as eager. The squawked in alarm and skidded to a stop at the treeline. They chattered to each other nervously, pacing side to side but refusing to come any closer.
I grinned. Smart little bastards. They were too afraid to attack me! Weren’t willing to take me on in a fair fight! I stepped forward, snarling.
“Well? Come at me, then!”
They quieted down, backing into the trees as they eyed me warily.
Wait… they’re not looking at me… Oh, fuck.
I glanced down at the sign. Beware of Baron. Slowly, I turned to face the inside of the cave, coming face to face with the largest and most terrifying mouth I had ever seen.
Rows upon rows of gleaming white teeth lined a massive wet hole at least twice my size. Saliva and disgusting green fluid dripped from the teeth on top, and formed into little puddles around the teeth on the bottom. The monster let out a breath, and the nauseous scent that emerged from the shaded depths made me gag. Then, it roared at me.
The sound alone was bad enough. To me, it was the sound of imminent death. Even without the mighty wind that accompanied it, it still would have pushed me back onto my rump from fear alone. It was like being in the Breaks all over again, like the roar of a thousand thunder clouds. It engulfed my entire being. I felt a warm liquid pooling around my rear.
Saliva flew out of its mouth with the roar, and when I came to my senses I was covered in the sticky slick stuff. I would’ve thrown up right there if some wiser part of my mind hadn’t decided that there were more important matters at hoof.
The mouth reared back, and my eyes widened.
“HUNTER!” I leaped to the side as its mouth slammed into the ground where I had just been standing. I shrieked, backing up against the cave wall. I looked out through the exit and saw the raptors waiting patiently for dinner to be served. My heart sank.
The cheeky bastards had known the whole time!
The monster rose for another strike, and I turned my focus to survival. It lunged, and once again I rolled away with just a few inches to spare. I could feel the thing’s mouth as it flew past, and the shockwave as it hit the cave wall pushed me off my hooves. This was not the time to be thinking about the raptors.
As the monster struggled to recover from the miss, I was able to get a clear look at it for the first time. Some of it was underground, with what I was fighting now rising from a burrow in the middle of the cave, but from what I saw it was some kind of giant worm. Jumping up, I sprinted to its side and stabbed a sword through its armored sides.
No, wait. The sword broke.
Luckily, it didn’t seem to notice my attack. I ran back to the cave wall, preparing myself to dodge another strike. Just like before, it lunged straight at me, and I was able to jump away. The monster may have been strong, but it was hardly an innovative beast.
I dashed to its side, gritting my teeth through the pain of each step. This time I stuck the sword under one its massive scales, working it back and forth to try and loosen it. But I took too long, and the monster rose up and tried to smash me with its heavy body.
I leaped forward, barely making it out. I pulled my tail out from under the great weight and moved away. If it lunged for me again, I could get back at the scale.
Predictably enough, it did. I was getting the hang of things. I managed to jump away at the right time to put plenty of space between me and its fearsome ring of teeth. I almost chuckled! I had this! As long as I didn’t let it tire me out or hit me, I could win.
I rushed back to the same scale, prying it up with the sword. The blade broke. I tossed the pieces aside and grabbed the scale with my hooves, pulling with both might and magic.
I felt something give, but I couldn’t pull it all the way off. Panting, I ran back to the cave wall to prepare for another strike.
Five ponies gathered in a simple room, far above the ground.
They all faced the far wall, gazing somberly at the array of candles. They would have put up pictures, too, but they didn’t have any. Any pictures they may have had had been lost over a year ago, when they were enslaved by Robber Baron. They didn’t have any keepsakes to use, either. After their escape, everypony had just carried everything with them; they didn’t have enough stuff to really need to put it anywhere. So when Dissero had fallen off the Omega, almost a month back, he had taken all of his life’s possessions with him.
Instead, a simple sheet of paper was propped up on top of the shrine. Stormslider had written his name on it in her best writing. It was horribly inadequate, but it was the best they could do.
Ember watched the ceremony with an almost detached attitude. What had the unicorn been to her? An employer. An escape. Yes, he had done much for her by taking her into his crew, and she had lived with him for years, but in the end he was just another boss. Not even a very good one at that. Although she did feel the loss, she wouldn’t exactly call it grief. He had always lacked backbone. With him gone, maybe the crew could now truly go somewhere.
One by one, they stepped up to say their last words. Silver Feather was first to approach the shrine. Tears flowed freely from his face, and his goggles hung limply around his neck instead of their usual spot in his mane. It seemed that even they were saddened by the loss. He bowed his head, whispering softly to the written name. His body shook, and it seemed to take all his strength to step away and rejoin the rest of the crew.
Stormslider didn’t cry. It wasn’t like her to show that much emotion. Nonetheless, her eyes reflected her sorrow. Phoenix Down could barely make the walk. She had bid everything on Dissero, following him out here into a strange and hostile world, abandoning all she knew, and now he was dead. Ember wasn’t sure if the gentle earth pony was troubled more by his death or by the prospect of having to live with four ponies she barely knew, in a world she had never seen.
It was Ember’s turn. She stepped somberly before the sad excuse for a shrine. No tears wet her eyes, but she still felt something for the dead. She had never really respected Dissero as a leader, but she had known that he always did his best. She bowed her head.
“Goodbye, Dissero,” she whispered. “Thanks for... everything.”
She took her place amongst the crew, and Cleaver stepped forward. He gave his last words, and then turned to face the rest of the crew. He filled the little room with his deep baritone as he sang a simple Stalliongrad funeral dirge. Nopony understood the words. None but him knew the thick language of Stalliongrad. Nonetheless, they felt them.
He finished, and the survivors dispersed quietly. Ember waited for the others to leave, silently listening to the words of the ship as it floated through the air. It sounded somewhat subdued. His ship, it would seem, mourned Dissero’s death.
Silver hung back, eyes fixed to the hard metal he stood upon. The floor was wet beneath his forehooves. He looked up and took a deep breath, glancing towards Ember.
“He can’t be dead,” he said.
Ember sighed patiently. She had been through this before. A part of her wanted to walk out on the pegasus, to go and talk with the engine, but she knew that he needed her right now. “We’ve searched for over a month, Silver, with no signs of him.”
“I know, but... I just feel like if he was dead I would... feel it.”
She cocked her head. Ponies never made any sense to her mind. “I think you’re definitely feeling something. Face reality, Silver. Dissero is dead, and we need to move on. You need to move on. If not for yourself, then for us. We need you to fly the ship.”
He stomped a hoof down, his good wing flapping angrily. “What about him?” he snapped. “We can’t give up on him! He could be out there, lost and afraid, and we’re going to just... move on?”
Ember stepped forward, coming nose to nose with the distraught pegasus. “What do you expect?” she shouted. “Do you think we can just, spend the rest of our lives searching for a body, to get some fucking peace of mind?”
“He would have done it for us!” Silver replied, raising his voice to match hers. She didn’t need this yelling, she hated yelling. How she longed for the calm reason of machinery!
“He was a fool! A goddamn fool that led us into slavery, and then to this! We’re better off without him!”
Silver leaped on Ember, pinning her down, teeth bared. “How dare you!” he snarled. “After all he’s done for you! You would be dead if it wasn’t for him, and now you want to abandon him!”
“Silver, get the fuck off of me,” she said calmly. Her cool voice made a stark contrast to the fury within her. Pounce on her, will he? Lucky for him that she wouldn’t hit a grieving ally! A tense moment passed between the two.
Trembling, he backed off. The tears had returned to his eyes. Ember climbed to her hooves, listening to the sound of Silver’s hooves as he walked out of the room. He closed the door behind him.
Ember shook her head. She would have to get these ponies under control. Their grief would be the death of them. Her ears twitched as the engine hummed a little louder, at the rear of the ship. It was worried about the crew.
“Yes. I know,” she said, patting the wall affectionately. She snuffed the candles on the way out.
So the fight went on. Over and over, the monster lunged for me, stupidly smashing its head into the rock behind me, and I would rush up and do whatever I could to loosen the scale. The wound on my shoulder wasn’t helping, and I felt myself slowing down. This is taking too long!
Again, the mouth smashed into the wall. Again, I ran up and tried to pull the scale off. I braced my hind legs against its body, pulling with all the power I could muster from both body and mind.
A crack echoed through the cave, and it finally broke away.
I fell back, landing hard on the rocky ground, and raised my last remaining sword. It plunged easily into the monster, slipping through the exposed skin like butter. The monster roared and reared up, seeming surprised that I had managed to hurt it.
The movement pulled the sword out of my reach, and I scrambled back for the cave wall. I waited for it to topple over. For it to bleed out, let a moan of agony and die.
It roared the roar of a beast that had been stabbed by a tiny little sword and was starting to get pissed at the little pony that simply refused to be eaten.
My heart sank. All that work for nothing. It reared up again, and I prepared myself for another dodge. My mind raced as I tried to figure out some kind of plan.
But it didn’t lunge this time. Instead, it spat. I was so surprised I almost forgot to dodge. Too slow. Some of the green spit landed on my flank as I jumped away. I yelped as it began to sizzle and burn. Now the thing is spitting acid!
It lunged again, and I just barely avoided getting chomped. The acid hurt one my good legs, and it wasn’t able to hold weight. I toppled over, trying to drag myself away, but something was holding my tail!
I screamed as I was lifted into the air. The monster hissed in delight, pleased that it had finally managed to capture the pesky little pony.
Suddenly I was falling. I shrieked and closed my eyes, waiting for thousands of teeth to sink into my flesh.
“Oof!” My face slammed into the cave floor, and I spent a few seconds just lying there, dazed from the impact.
I looked up to see Hunter flying above me, daggers bared, brow furrowed, flashing a confident smile. “I see you found our resident baron!”
“Just kill it, for the love of Luna!”
The monster roared in fury, expressing great disappointment towards the tiny recusant that dared to interrupt its meal time.
With a flap of his wings, Hunter dove into its mouth. My heart stopped. That stallion is insane!
A few scales exploded off the monster’s side, and Hunter popped out, covered in blood and gore but unharmed. He took a breath and dove back in. The beast roared in pain.
Suddenly, it went quiet, moaned softly, keeled over, and died.
Tentatively, I climbed to my hooves and looked into its gaping maw. I squinted, trying to pick out details through the darkness.
Hunter flew out lazily, daggers bloodied and body coated in all colors of the gore rainbow. He landed next to me and slapped me on the back. I cringed as all sorts of inside parts were rubbed into my coat.
“Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?” he asked cheerily.
I looked over to him, mouth wide open, and managed to get out a grunt of resigned agreement.
“You must be tougher than I thought, to survive that long against one of these babies.”
I poked one of the monster’s teeth with a hoof. I drew back, hissing. The tooth was razor sharp, and coated with the burning acid.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t touch that if I were you. Baron teeth still make acid, even after death,” he said.
I shook my head in disbelief. “What is this thing?”
He chuckled. “It’s a baron wurm! It’s what you get when you leave the local wurm population untended. One of them rises to dominance, and pretty quickly grows into something like this.”
I pointed to the exit, where the raptors were lying dead. “What are those things?”
“Raptors. Pretty common in the Outer World. You can find them almost anywhere you can find prey.”
I nodded sagely, taking a few seconds to work it all out in my head. “This place is fucking insane…”
“Yeah, you could call it that. Too bad we missed out on the deer. Bad luck, with the raptors. But hey, we still caught something!” He gave the dead wurm an appreciative kick.
I sat down and sighed. I took a big breath, and then another one. I lay down on my back and looked up at the rocks above me. I had thought I was dead back there.
“Yeah. Sure.” The Outer World was definitely not the place for a pony like me.
Chapter 8: Flight
“Blitz isn’t gonna believe this,” Hunter said, dragging the now-removed heart of the baron wurm behind him.
“Why not?” I asked. We jumped down a small drop, and I hissed as the impact made my shoulder flare up.
“He’s always kinda thought that you’re just some Equestrian wimp who’s gonna die his first day outside.” He stopped momentarily to look up and stretch.
“Well, I almost did.”
Hunter grinned. “Good thing, too. He and I had a bet over whether or not you’d survive the hunt. Thanks.”
“What?” I shook my head in disbelief. “I almost died back there!”
“Well, yeah,” he said. “But you didn’t, and I made some money. An even trade. Hey, we should go hunting more often!”
The recusant chuckled. “Don’t worry, buddy. I wouldn’t want to lose my bet!”
I sighed. This place is going to be the death of me. I took a second to reflect on the thought, and realized that I had never used that phrase before and actually meant it. Disturbing.
Somewhere in the distance, an eagle called. Hunter’s ears twitched, and he suddenly leaped off of the ground, flying up above the treetops and leaving the wurm heart on the leaves.
“What is it?” I asked, peering upwards.
“Never ignore an eagle’s call, Dissero.” He poked his head back under the leaves. “Griffons found us! Hurry up and get back to the cave. Try not to get killed!”
At that, he flew away, leaving me alone amongst the trees. I looked around nervously. So far everything I’d run into out here tried to kill me, and I was getting the creeping feeling that some new predator would leap out of the bushes, teeth bared.
I suddenly realized the full weight of Hunter's words. Griffons had found us!
I broke into a gallop, sides burning. My mind raced. I could stay away and avoid the battle, but then I’d probably get killed by some Outer World beast. I could join the battle and hope the Stygians would protect me, but then I’d have to fight the griffons. I wasn’t exactly the best fighter, and I only had one sword left!
By the time I clambered up over the edge of the small landing around the cave entrance, I had been running for an hour. My lungs burned and my body ached. I was, to summarize, not at all in fighting condition.
The scrape of swords and yells of the wounded rose up from the cave. I pulled a rope out of my saddlebags, tied it to the lone tree that grew nearby, grabbed hold, and peeked inside.
Most of the clan was gathered on one side of the cave, fending off the griffons as they dashed in and out in quick hit and run attacks. On a ledge halfway up the wall, Colonel was giving orders and brandishing a rifle, shooting at any griffons that exposed themselves as the clan fought around her. On the other side of the cave, Blitz and Shatter moved amongst the griffons, attacking any that broke from the group or dared to raise a gun.
One of the griffons passing through the sand pit saw my shadow and looked up. My eyes widened.
I scrambled backwards as the griffon flew out of the hole and landed before me. I rolled under his axe as he swung, coming up behind him and bucking him hard. He recovered so fast that I barely had time to grab the rope before he shoved me into the hole.
I screamed as I fell, coming to an abrupt stop a couple meters above the sand pit. I shook my head and looked up just in time to see the griffon cut the rope.
“Oof!” I plopped into the sand. Rolling over, I tried to regain my bearings or get up, but the world didn’t want to stay still, and my shoulder wound burned from the landing. I idly noted the griffon standing above me, blade raised for the kill.
A dark blue blur slammed into him, knocking him aside. I crawled to my hooves, bracing myself on a nearby rock and gritting my teeth at the pain. Blitz was shouting something at me. I turned to see him wrestling with the griffon. “Go, Equestrian! Get somewhere safe! We’ll handle these bastards!”
I wasted no time, stumbling out of the sand pit and drawing my last remaining sword. Pitiful. I was barely able to fight one person with three weapons. What could I do with one?
“Stygians! Charge!” Colonel’s command rang through the cave, and the clan let out a fierce warcry as they galloped forth. A griffon reared up before me, deadly sharp steel claws worn on his talons, and I leaped to the side. I brandished my sword, and the griffon easily knocked it aside with his beak, charging forwards and wrapping his tail around my neck. He snarled at me and flapped his wings. I gagged as the tail tightened around my neck and pulled up.
Luckily for me, the griffon wasn’t used to fighting unicorns. I levitated my sword above my head and swung wildly, cutting the tail away. I fell down to the hard rock, trying to both gasp for breath and call for aid at the same time.
“My tail!” The griffon hissed in fury. Faerie flew by, wingblades dripping red, and suddenly there was blood spilling on me as the griffon plummeted from the sky, lifeless.
I gagged. What the fuck is happening!? Noise everywhere. The stomp of hooves, the flap of wings.Fire burns as smoke pours out the windows. I squinted as the sunlight shone into my eyes and the shadows danced around me. The sky fills with airships and smoke. I crawled to my hooves, barely noticing as the griffon raising his sword before me was knocked away by Flintlock. A massive tower collapses, crushing hundreds beneath it. I managed to pull my gun out of its sheath and pointed it at something, stuttering as I tried to get out a trigger word. Nothing happened. Thunder, lightning, wind in every direction. The world was a roar.
I felt something pull on my neck, and suddenly I was looking into Colonel’s eyes. “Pull yourself together, Equestrian! Get the fuck up!” She disappeared as abruptly as she arrived.
I shook my head, eyes wide, and looked up. Another griffon stood before me, a bloodied axe hanging over my head. The axe fell to cleave open my skull as I lay there, paralyzed with fear.
Then some instinct took over. My horn glowed, and the axe veered off course, stinging my cheek with a glancing blow instead of spilling my brains. My attacker recovered quickly, stepping back to narrow his eyes and figure out what had just swayed his blade. I heard a bang! above me, and I choked on gunsmoke as the griffon keeled over. I scrambled to my hooves as Colonel landed next to me, hastily shoving another bullet into her rifle’s breech. I looked to her for guidance.
“Just try not to get killed, for fuck’s sake,” she said.
I nodded like the innocent little Equestrian I was.
With a quick glance I saw the griffons flying away, chased by Blitz and Pyre. We were winning the battle. I noticed my heart pounding and the wall holding my weight for the first time. I almost lost it back there.
Colonel had a hoof on my shoulder. “You okay?”
She nodded, turning to face the rest of the clan. “Pack light, Stygians! We’re bugging out!” she shouted.
They didn’t need to be told twice. Within seconds, every member the clan was in motion, flying through the caves, filling saddlebags, and throwing everything to be left behind into a big pile in the sand pit.
Colonel beckoned to me, and I fell in behind her. “Hunter! Blight!” she called. The two stallions were by our side in a blink.
“Blight, take Faerie, Flintlock, Pyrestripe, and Blood with you. I’ll lead the others. We’ll meet at the planned rendezvous. If I’m not there in two weeks, move on.”
The old recusant nodded curtly and broke off.
“What are we doing?” I asked tentatively. I wasn’t sure if I could take much more of this.
“We’re bugging out,” she replied. “The griffons found us, and our only hope of survival is to be somewhere else before they get back with something bigger than a scouting party.”
“You plan for this?” I had just assumed the clan was safe here. Still not used to the Outer World, I guess.
“Of course. The griffons are relentless, and frankly, I’m surprised it took them so long to find us. Usually, we can easily fly away on our wings and start over elsewhere. But as for you, Dissero...” She stopped to size me up briefly.
“Uhm,” I stammered, looking over my wingless sides self-consciously. An idle thought drifted through my head, and I dismissed it immediately for being stupid. That hadn’t been flying. That had been falling with extra grace!
She raised a hoof. “Do not worry, the clan leaves none behind. At least, we won’t completely abandon you. You won’t, unfortunately, be able to accompany us. You would slow us down too much, and I won’t endanger the rest of the clan for you.
“But Hunter here has volunteered his services. Come.”
We followed her to a high, table-like rock. She pulled a map out of a pocket in her barding and spread it out. After a cursory examination, she jabbed her hoof at the worn out image of a mountain range.
“We’re here,” she said. She traced a line west, towards the ocean, and stopped over a sketch of a city. “You’re going here.”
Scanning the map, I took the opportunity to learn more about the Outer World. The mountains seemed to form a circle around some region labeled as ‘The Bare Lands,’ where the map ended. We were in the westernmost mountains.
“After we leave, you and Hunter will wait here. When the griffons arrive, he will lead them away to the south, allowing you to travel safely,” she explained.
My eyes widened, and I looked over to Hunter. “Are you sure about that? What if they catch you?” I asked.
He shot a confident smile my way. “Don’t worry, I can handle myself. You can’t.”
I nodded quietly. “Thanks."
“We never abandon a clanmate,” Colonel said, pushing the map towards me. “You can keep the map. Any questions? Good. I must go lead my clan. In the meantime, I recommend you start packing. Hunter can help you with that.”
She trotted away, leaving Hunter and I alone together. Recusants were flying, galloping, and planning all over the cave, filling it with an atmosphere that was both calm and hurried. Hunter beckoned to me with a wing, and lead the way to the large pile of supplies that was being made in the middle of the sand pit. Faerie, Navery, and Flintlock were busily looting the cave and piling everything up, and Hunter and I began to sort through the pile and pick out everything I would need for the journey.
Within five minutes, the pile was complete and the clan was gathered around the sand pit. Hunter and Navery were clustered together off to the side.
“Be careful,” I heard her say.
“Only for you,” he replied. They embraced, and Hunter joined me at my side.
After a brief glance over her clan, Colonel looked down to us. “Fly safe, Hunter. Take care, Equestrian. If you manage to find us again, we’ll welcome you.”
Hunter nodded to his clanmates. “See you soon.”
“Thanks again,” I said.
The rest of the clan offered me brief farewells. As one, they flew up and out of sight.
Hunter stared after them a few seconds and then turned to me. “You got everything you need? Food, map, barding, swords, a bit of gold?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
He flew out of the hole, and I clambered up after him on a rope he let down. He cut the rope with a dagger, and motioned for me to step back. I backed up against a nearby rock, and he tossed a match into the hole. He stepped back and shielded his face as a wave of heat rose up. I heard a brief sizzling, and then a huge explosion. A few smoking items landed at my feet.
Hunter turned to me and grinned. “Flintlock’s work. No doubt he’s proud.”
We were on a wide, gently sloped ledge. Above us was a steep rise up the mountain and below a similarly steep drop down into a forested valley. The ground was rocky, with sparse soil that allowed a few mountain bushes to grow. A lone tree grew right on the edge of the cliff, hanging out, and a few large boulders rested together where they had fallen, hugging the mountainside.
I carefully walked to the edge of the cliff and scanned the horizon nervously. I had the feeling that the griffons would be here any moment now.
“Hey, get out of the open!” Hunter said. “They’ve got eagle eyes, for fucks sake. They can draw your lifemark before you even see their shadows.”
“Oh, right.” I stepped back and, after a short search for a decent hiding spot, tucked myself away in a small hole under the fallen boulders.
“Good. Now they’ll see me first, and I’ll be able to lead them away before they see you,” he said. “Oh, by the way, I’ve got a little something for you to help you with the walk.” He reached into his saddlebags with a wing, rummaged through it, and pulled out a small, metallic object. He held it out to me.
“A harmonica?” I asked. I grabbed the instrument with my magic and held it before my eyes, watching the way the sunlight reflected off its shiny surface.
“Those things are great. Whenever you’re out in the wilderness alone, at night time, with your imagination creeping up on you from every direction, a little bit of music does a lot to drive it away.”
“I can’t take this.” I held it back out for him. “You’ve already done too much for me.”
He pushed it away. “No worries, Navery got me eight of the things awhile back. Something about one for every key or whatever. I won’t miss it.”
Reluctantly, I levitated it into my own saddlebags. Honestly, I had hoped he wouldn’t take it back. I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights, alone out in the strange and hostile Outer World, without something to calm my mind.
“Thanks again, Hunter.”
He grinned. “Yeah, sure. Now I probably better stop talking to you before the griffons see me staring at these rocks and figure out you’re here.”
I nodded, and he turned away from me. He flew up and perched on the top branch of the tree, looking out into the distance.
Within a minute, an eagle’s call sounded from somewhere further down the valley. Hunter’s ears twitched, and he surreptitiously tilted his head towards my hiding spot.
“That’ll be them,” he hissed, barely moving his lips. “Once they get close enough to see, I’ll fly away. Wait until you can’t see them anymore, and then wait an hour more. Don’t worry about me. I’m confident I’ll live for our paths to cross again.”
I offered no response, and he expected none. He knew I could hear him. My heart was starting to beat faster. What if something went wrong? What if they caught him before he could get far, and came back to search the cave? What if they ignored him and came straight for me? What if I left too early, and all his effort was for naught?
Stop being so fucking selfish. His life is in danger too.
Hunter saw something outside of my view, and flared his wings. He leapt off the tree branch and flapped hard, rising up and circling lazily. I heard another eagle call, and he flew out of sight.
I heard wings beating the air, and tucked myself further into my hiding place, pushing my tail up against the rough stone. Ten minutes passed, and the first griffon came into view. My heart was pounding. More griffons followed, until there was a whole flock of at least forty flying past. I was sweating. Some of the griffons were scanning the mountainsides lazily, and I tried to push myself further back, but there was no more room. I felt something give, and heard some pebbles falling as my weight shifted the balance of the rocks.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
I froze. None of the griffons seemed to notice. I closed my eyes, thanking Celestia I had a brown coat that blended well with the shadows. I dared not to move, waiting for the sound of the wings to leave.
After what seemed like an eternity, the deadly sound drifted away. I strained my ears to ensure no noise escaped them. Nothing. I fought the instinct to run right away, to dart out of the rocks and break for the mountain path as fast as possible before the danger returned. The silence was more terrifying than the sound. Everything I heard made me jump. I was shaking. I watched the sun travel across the sky, counting the passage of time.
I heard a pair of wings.
Terrible things drifted through my mind.
The scratch of talons on rock.
I drew a knife. Slowly, quietly.
I saw something land in front of me, and lunged outwards, tackling it and fiercely stabbing it over and over, eyes shut tight from fear. Any moment now, greedy talons would reach out and grab me, competing for the right to tear me to pieces.
I opened my eyes, and saw the hawk bleeding out beneath my hooves.
I released a shaky breath of relief and looked around. No griffons. I rolled onto my back, dropped the knife, and began to chuckle. It grew into a hysterical laugh. It felt magnificent, but I knew that now was not the time to relax. I picked myself up, cleaned the knife, sheathed it, and started for the mountain path.
Ω Ω Ω
Panting, I stopped to rest in the shade of a scrawny tree. I put up a hoof to support myself on the cold stone beside me and looked up. The sun had almost set, and I was running out of energy. I had been climbing down the mountain for at least two hours now, and had lost count of how many times I’d wished for a pair of wings to carry me down on a gentle wind. No wonder the clan had hid up here. It was fucking impossible just to climb down, let alone climb up. I had managed to descend the mountain before, when I joined in on the raid of the other recusants, but I hadn’t been laden with long-distance traveling supplies, and had been allowed more frequent rests. Now, I couldn’t afford a stop. I had to get to the concealing safety of the trees at the foot of the mountain by sunset, in case the griffons returned.
I shook myself, and levitated a canteen to my lips. Thank Celestia the cave is only halfway up the mountain.
Pushing off the mountain, I continued the descent. I was at a relatively easy point right now: a series of switchbacks that led to the final stretch of the path. A small part of me smiled knowing that I was almost there, but the rest of me was too tired to join in. I took a moment to watch the snow fall. The hike went on.
For the first time, I allowed myself to think about what just happened. Big mistake.
What hopes did a pony like myself have out here? In this hellhole? To think, that I had been so confident after I almost beat Colonel in a spar! She had probably been going easy on me, anyways... I doubt I could really defeat her, even with three blades. Now I realize how weak I really am...
My time in the foundries had been easy. Had been nothing. A bit of manual labor! Levitating coal for the furnace! Technically not even manual... to think I’d felt tough from the experience. Toughened, maybe. But nothing compared to the Outer World. Everywhere I went, someone else had to save me. Fuck, my whole life, I needed someone to save me. Silver ever since I was colt. My crew back in Harmony City. The Stygians, ever since I arrived. Poor old Dissero can’t do shit for his life.
A pair of eyes.
Lost in my thoughts, I almost forgot to watch my hooves. I suddenly found my forehooves skidding down the cliff before me. Eyes wide, I scrambled back onto the path, shaking my head. I’m not giving up yet. Continuing down the mountainside, I searched for a more practical endeavor to occupy my mind. It didn’t take me long to find one.
It wasn’t a question I had really needed to answer until now. Back in Equestria, I had a routine I could follow. In Harmony City, the Baron dictated my daily activities. When I escaped, I knew that I always had to be pushing forward, running away from the Baron and searching for land. While I was with the clan, I set myself to learning how to defend myself and repaying them for saving my life. Although I did still have a concrete goal right now, getting to the city alive, I had no idea what I would do when I got there. Where I would go. What I would find.
I still had to find my crew. I wonder how they’re doing? I hope they’re okay. If there was anything I had learned since my arrival, it was that the Outer World was a dangerous place. It changed ponies. It had changed me.
I felt kind of bad that I hadn’t thought about them for so long. Have they given up on me already? It had been at least two months since my fall. How long could I honestly expect them to look for me? They had their lives they had to get on with. They had to survive too. Maybe they had given up, and found their own way back to Equestria. Or maybe they were hundreds of miles away by now. Or maybe they had found a new life in this place already.
Or maybe they were dead.
The wind picked up, and some of the falling snow blew into face. I pulled my bandanna up as the biting wind and damp seeped into my fur. My barding did nothing against the weather, which seemed just right for a lost and lonely unicorn. I shivered.
A slip, and I lost my balance, falling right on my face. I had to stop with the deep contemplation for now and focus on the task at hoof. It was too wet, cold, and slippery for me to be climbing down a mountain with half of my head somewhere else.
I came to the end of the last switchback. All that was left now was to climb down one last snowy descent, and I would be off the mountain and into the safety of the trees. Then I could find somewhere to spend the night and rest. The climb was physically exhausting, the wet and cold had sucked my stamina, and the constant threat of griffons was mentally draining. Even though I knew that Hunter had led them away and I was probably safe, my body didn’t seem to want to believe it. Every little noise made my heart skip a beat.
I tentatively placed a hoof on a loose looking rock and tested it. It seemed secure enough. I placed my full weight on it as I went to take another step, and it suddenly gave out beneath me. The rock tumbled away, and I fell face first into the snow. Again.
My momentum carried me forward against my will, and I began to roll. I picked up speed, hit a pile of snow, and felt myself launched into the air.
I curled up into a ball to protect myself, but I landed on more snow instead of the hard stone I had been expecting. I rolled all the way down the slope, hitting hundreds of little rocks and hard things on the way down, until I finally slammed into a tree.
I screamed in pain, clutching my side. For a few moments I lay there, holding myself. It felt like I had broken a rib. Or maybe two. Or three. At least I was alive. Hunter’s efforts wouldn’t be in vain. Or at least, they wouldn’t yet.
It felt like every inch of my body was covered in bruises, cuts, and scrapes. I had to get up, had to move on, find shelter! I knew my scream would attract predators. Raptors. You can find ‘em wherever there’s prey...
Fuck, that tumble hurt. I felt the sun beginning to set, the warm light drifting away from my coat. It was getting dark. Got to move.
Finally, the pain faded enough that I could open my eyes. I lifted my head, hissing in pain from the movement, and looked around blearily.
My head fell into the snow.
Ω Ω Ω
The sound of a basketball bouncing down the sidewalk. My tormentors arrive to bother me once more.
“Hey, Sissy, what’s up?” They laugh at me. Mocking.
I look away. Tired of the ridicule. Father won’t help. He’s out on his ship. I don’t even contemplate running to Mother. They already think I’m weak enough as it is.
“Oy, look at me when I talk to ya!” The larger one approaches. I close my eyes and send a prayer to Celestia. Why doesn’t she ever help? I hear them getting ready to throw the basketball at me, and brace myself. The impact never comes.
“Hey, leave him alone!”
A savior? A pegasus colt with a striking silver mane runs up and tackles one of the earth pony foals. With a fierce growl and hard kick, he sends them on their way.
I look up tentatively. “Why?”
“I don’t like seeing other ponies get picked on. Just isn’t right!” he offers a hoof and helps me up, flapping his tiny wings.
“What’s your name?”
Ω Ω Ω
I woke with a start. My eyes darted side to side. My heart slowed to a regular pace. My body felt like it had just rolled down a mountain.
I tentatively raised a hoof to block the bright light of the rising sun as it shone in my eyes, and was rewarded with a stab of pain.
I clutched my side. I’d have to be more careful.
Delicately, I climbed to my hooves. I needed shelter. Somewhere I could spend a night without fear of what hunts in the night. Or even what hunts in the day. I stumbled along, holding my chest with a hoof.
Following the mountain, I came across a shallow cave, half-buried in snow, and wormed my way inside. The dim glow of my horn didn’t reveal anything particularly murderous. Good enough for me. I sat back against the cave wall and levitated my saddlebags off, thankful that I didn’t actually have to move to grab them.
“Let’s see what we’ve got then,” I said. Opening the bags, I rummaged through them in search of medical supplies. Map... harmonica... canteen... rope... ah, there we go.
I pulled out a small flask, holding it closer to better read the label. ‘Healing Draught: Accelerates regeneration for a day.’ Just what I needed. Pulling out the cork, I briefly contemplated the wisdom of drinking a health potion made by a poisoner before downing it all in one gulp.
Hrm. Tastes like... like...
It occurred to me that I had no idea what the hell that tasted like. There was simply no taste I could relate it to. It was kinda like... yeah. Like that. Hard to put into words, really. I looked down to the empty flask and considered drinking another, to get another taste. Idiot. This isn’t Equestria Cooks. Survival is more important!
Good point, brain. You’re a fine companion.
“Urhk!” I grabbed my stomach and keeled over, dropping the flask to shatter on the cave floor. I was overcome with the sickening sensation of things moving around inside of me. Things that should stay still. It wasn’t a fast movement, either. It was a slow one. It was like all of my bones were getting into a race with each other, but were playing to lose. My bones are a bunch of jerks.
I wheezed and coughed, lying on the hard rock as my body rearranged itself. Time slipped away. There was nothing but the strange half-pain that occupied my mind. My thoughts drifted, and then altogether stopped. The world escaped my notice, and the seconds passed away.
Stormslider looked over her work, and allowed herself a slight smile. Silver will love this, she thought.
Of all the crew, Silver had taken Dissero’s death the hardest. An understandable notion, considering their friendship. The others had gotten some semblance of normalcy back in their lives. They were moving on. Silver, however, still sat idly in the cockpit, listening to whatever orders he was given, occasionally making an unenthusiastic joke while looking out into the distance sadly.
Storm knew that Ember had been trying to cheer him up, but she wasn’t going about it right. The fiery engineer had more or less assumed command, being both the loudest of the five and the only with any idea about what they should do. She ran the ship with an iron hoof, trotting up and down halls, pushing ponies with forceful suggestions. Ember saw Silver’s depression as an obstacle. A prime pilot running at half efficiency, as Storm would put it.
The cloudgineer picked up her most recent creation and slung it around her shoulder, making for her door. She knew Silver well. They had known eachother a long time, ever since playing against each other in a cloudball game, back at the Academy. He was a good pony.
She walked out into the main room, where Cleaver and Ember were busily sorting through some stack of papers or other. She wasn’t sure what they were up to, but she hazarded a guess that it was probably one of Ember’s plans to make themselves at home in this land. She seemed set on becoming a permanent resident of the Outer World.
Flying onto the navigation level and trotting into the cockpit, Storm was treated with the sight of Silver Feather, goggles around his neck, leaning on a wall coated with gauges as he stared out into the sky.
“Hey,” Storm said. “I want to show you something.”
Silver’s ears twitched. “I’m busy.”
“It’s cool.” She held her work out before her and shook it enticingly. If she could just get him to turn around...
He sighed and turned to face her. His eyes widened, and he almost broke out into one of his trademark grins. “What is that?” he asked.
“I made it for you. Come up to the deck and I’ll show you,” she said, pleased with his reaction.
Once they were on deck, Stormslider went into more detail. “It’s a lightning gun,” she said. “I’ve been fiddling with the rune guns since we escaped, and it turns out that the runes accept all kinds of magic, not just unicorn.”
Silver cocked his head, taking the gun up in his hooves. “How does it work?”
“It’s just like kicking a thundercloud. You pull this lever here, with a wing or a hoof, and the pressurized thunderclouds inside will zap whatever you’re aiming at. I designed the barrel to direct the thunder forwards. At close ranges it’ll even daze anything in front of you.”
He grinned, balancing the barrel on a nearby railing as he stood on his hind legs. With a magnificent flash and a thunderous rumble, lightning arced out of the gun, annihilating an unlucky cloud.
“Sweet!” he exclaimed. “Thanks, Storm.”
She smiled. “No problem.”
“Hey, you two!” Ember called from the cockpit ladder. “We’re having a meeting!”
Storm looked to Silver. The two pegasi shared a brief but warm embrace before walking down to the navigation room. The large table in the middle, previously broken by an intruding cannonball, had since been fixed with some glue and nails they’d bought from the locals. Cleaver and Nix were sitting beside it, with Ember standing confidently at the front of the room.
“Now, then,” she began. “If we’re going to be staying in the Outer World, we need to find a way to make gold.”
“Why?” Silver asked.
“Because, we don’t know the plants that grow out here. We have no supplies. I’m tired of eating meat and doing what we can to stay afloat with dried paint and scrapped drywall. We need a job of some kind, to support ourselves. The ship isn’t even repaired yet!”
She spread some papers out upon the table. “Normally, we would make money from trade, but this world is different from Equestria. We don’t know the routes, goods, customers, or land. Splitting up isn’t an option. Together, there’s not much we can for money.”
“What are you proposing?” Storm asked cautiously.
“I say we become mercenaries. You all saw when we went into that town. There were jobs everywhere. Jobs of every kind. We could capture criminals, escort caravans, anything we can get! What do you say?”
Suddenly, I was back.
Sunlight was filtering into the cave. Looking up, I was disturbed to find the sun was lower in the sky than it had been before. Did I just go back in time?
I pulled myself up and came to a more reasonable conclusion: I must have been out for at least a day. I stretched gingerly, feeling my body as I moved. The aches were still there, but the thousand sharp pains had faded into dull throbs. I felt along my sides. It hurt to touch them, but not nearly as bad as before. I could walk now. It seemed that the potion had at least put my bones back in place, though I didn’t think they were mended all the way yet. It would do.
I nosed through my saddlebags and pulled out a roll of bandages. Unbuckling my barding, I carefully wrapped the material around my chest, tying it tight with my magic. As much as I would’ve liked to stay another night, I had places to go, and ponies to find.
I climbed over the snow piled up at the cave entrance, sliding down the other side and back into the trees. I had a long journey ahead of me, and it was already getting kind of hard to breathe with layers of bandage and barding constricting my lungs. I had already lost a day. Every second I was out here was another second that my crew might give up. Or that I might die. In all honesty, the latter was more probable.
With a sigh, I took the first step of the day.
Ω Ω Ω
I hate hills.
Panting, I crested yet another of the seemingly endless series of hills. I paused to wipe the sweat off my brow and take a drink from my canteen. Empty.
What kind of world is this, where the rain is hard enough to bother, but not to fill a pony's canteen? I held the container up to the sky, vainly hoping that the gentle rain which had plagued me for the last ten hours might fill it up. It didn’t. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, because that’s exactly what happened the last nine times I tried it, too.
I scanned the horizon. To my left was the river which I had been following ever since I got out of the forest. It ran from somewhere up in the mountains, west to the coast, and according to my map the city I was looking for was right on it. I had been walking all day now, stopping only to curse the rain and check my map.
Putting the canteen away, I walked down the other side of the hill, letting gravity do most of the work while I contemplated finding water. Sure, there was a river right next to me, but the recusants had warned me about the cleanliness of said river. Full of shit, they had said. Might get you drunk, too, they had said. I needed to find a lake. Or some puddle that was deep enough that it wasn’t all mud.
Suddenly, I had an idea. It was the kind of idea that made me feel proud to have come up with it, and at the same time somewhat ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Taking out my canteen again, I held it up to the rain. But this time, I used my magic to direct the rain into it. Success! Now I just had to wait a bit and... there!
I took a drink before putting the canteen back. I was about to get back to walking when I heard a branch snap behind me. I whipped around, shaking my saddlebags off and drawing my three swords so fast that the pains in my chest flared up again.
An adorable little bunny stood before me, standing as high as he could in an effort to get his head above the tall grass.
I chuckled to myself, sliding my swords away. A bunny! How cute. Surely a loveable little bunny couldn’t be dangerous.
I levitated my bags back on and turned back, glancing towards the river to get my bearings, and started walking again. I smiled to myself at the concept of the bunny. Soft, light steps followed behind me.
I stopped, twisted my neck to look back. Two bunnies. Hrm.
On a whim, I looked back again a few minutes later. Ten bunnies. I cocked my head, narrowing my eyes. This was getting very suspicious. Deep inside me, my innate Equestrian innocence battled with the Outer World caution that had been slowly developing.
It’s just a bunny.
It’s ten bunnies. Suspicious bunnies.
But they’re bunnies! Adorable little bunnies! Who’s ever heard of dangerous bunnies?
This is the Outer World.
I drew my swords, sliding into a defensive stance as the ravenous bunnies bared their teeth, hissing. Twenty more bunnies rose from the grass behind them, showing sharp fangs and claws. My eyes widened. All at once, they pounced.
I waved my swords wildly, managing to kill a few in the air, but soon they were all on me. They crawled over my barding, gnawing and clawing at it in an attempt to get to the soft pony flesh underneath. It was like drowning. Drowning in adorable, ravenous, lovable, murderous bunnies.
Luckily I didn’t need my hooves to get them off. I closed my eyes and hunkered down, using my swords to swipe them off my sides in droves. When I got back up and looked around, tiny pieces of adorable bunny were scattered all around me. I let out an exasperated sigh and went to clean my blades when a little plume of earth suddenly shot up in front of me.
And out came a bunny.
Everywhere, bunnies were popping out of the ground, claws bared, hissing. There were dozens of the things. It was bunny hell! I took a cautious step back, realized that now was not the time for cautious steps, turned tail and ran away as fast as I could.
But I didn’t hear them giving chase. I looked behind me and realized that they weren’t even chasing me. No, they were quite content eating the diced bunny I had left behind. The whole scene would be a lot less disturbing and a lot cuter if they weren’t cannibals, really.
I shook my head and continued my journey, muttering to myself.
“This place is fucking insane...”
Robber Baron took another sip of wine. He closed his eyes, rolling the liquid around in his mouth, treating his senses to a drink that no other pony in Equestria could even afford to know about.
He turned to face the delegate sitting in his office and offered a calm smile. The deal was ready to be struck. The zebra shifted nervously in his seat, glancing down to the papers on the desk before him. Amongst his own people, no doubt he was the pinnacle of wealth. Here, he was just another rich zebra, in the office of a god.
“Is everything in order then?” the zebra asked.
Baron made a show of going through the papers, as if checking matters over one more time. He allowed his eyes to narrow ever so slightly, and laughed a little inside as he heard the zebra holding his breath.
Finally, he looked up and smiled again, reaching for a pen. “Yes, I believe it is, Mr. Laksmi. I’ll send out a few breakrunners to your fleet. As long as you honor your end of the agreement, I think we will both find great profit in our business.”
The zebra relaxed visibly as pen was put to paper. He rose, offering many bows and thanks, and was escorted out by one of Baron’s everpresent guards. Baron sat back, relishing the feel of negotiating a deal. He hadn’t had the opportunity to forge any new agreements in a long time, but the recent rebel uprising amongst his slaves had… opened up… a few slots for new trade partners. He frowned, briefly disheartened at the thought of the rebels, and leaned forwards. There will still more reports to be reviewed.
He disliked paperwork. It was boring stuff, and it always made him want to go do something. To go supervise workers, chat up mercantile giants, strike deals, plan expansion stratagems, and bribe officials. But an uprising was just one of those things where the utmost care had to be taken. Not a single mistake could be allowed, and as such he had temporarily shouldered the burden of sorting through every single boring report that had been written that night. It was taking forever.
He glanced over some notes. The rebels had focused most of their efforts on being noticed. The explosions of the foundries and factories had been their first move. They had then moved on to collapsing Tower 17. An expensive loss, to be sure, but the tower could be rebuilt better. In a way, they had saved him money. Normally he’d have to pay to demolish an old skydock. The smoke and fire had, admittedly, caused a disturbance in the Outer City, and even his best interference runners had had difficulty keeping troublesome officials away. Despite their efforts. though, the rebellion had been for naught. Facilities were rebuilt, slaves were replaced, and officials were re-bribed.
With another sip of wine, he grabbed a pile of reports and walked out onto his balcony. Up here, high up on the central tower of Harmony City, he was above the ponies of Equestria, the trading giants of the Outer World, and even the clouds themselves. He could see everything from atop his tower. As much as he would have liked to enjoy the view, though, there was work to be done. He looked down to the paper in his hooves.
He skimmed it to see if it was of great importance, taking another sip of the wine. Halfway down the page, his eyes widened. He read through it again. He closed his eyes, counted to ten, and read it another time.
He stormed back into his office and read the report a fourth time. Those damn rebels! Imbecile slaves! A dozen curses raged through his mind as he furiously pulled on a bell hanging nearby.
A flustered orderly stumbled into the room, scrambling to stand before the Baron.
“Get me Apricot Seed, now!” he roared.
Within ten minutes, the unicorn stood before him. He was shaking, eyes down as a soft whimper escaped him.
“Apricot…” The Baron began softly. He took a few seconds to organize his thoughts. He didn’t want to seem like he was out of control. He had to make sure that his message was conveyed with crystal clear clarity.
“What, the fuck, were you thinking!?” He rose out of his seat, slamming his forehooves down upon the desk. Thankfully, it didn’t break. That wood was priceless.
Apricot flinched away from the outburst, stammering out a quick apology. “I’m s-sorry, sir-“
“Sorry!?” Baron shouted. “Sorry!? You get my prototype stolen and cost me three frigates, and you say you’re sorry? Oh, well I guess that makes everything better then, you stupid shit!”
“The r-rebels, sir-“
“Rebels!” He tossed his hooves up in frustration. “Fucking rebels! I give you, one, task! Are you truly so incredibly incompetent that you can’t stop four drunk slaves from stealing an airship?”
“The g-guards were asking for r-reinforcements at Tower-“
“Then you should have said no! Idiot!” he screamed. “Do you have any idea how expensive it will be to replace that ship?”
“Shut up!” Baron cut him off with a raised hoof. He took a deep breath and looked down to his desk, shuffling papers about. “Someone is going to have to fix your mistake,” he muttered.
Apricot looked around nervously, shaking. He started to back away, eyes fixed on the ground, but Baron was not the type of pony to let failure of such magnitude go unpunished. A pair of guards stepped from the shadows, grabbing Apricot roughly.
“No!” he screamed.
Baron looked up casually. “Take him to the channel pits.”
“No! Please! I’m sorry! I’ll do anything! Please!”
With a signal from Baron, the guards delivered a harsh blow to Apricot’s head. He fell silent. Baron kept his eyes fixed on his papers as the unconscious unicorn was dragged from the room.
He let another sigh pass through his body, and lightly brushed the jewel hanging on his necklace. He looked over to the orderly standing silently by his desk. He’s one of the good ones. Always knows when I’ve things for him to do. Baron made a mental note to reward him for his service. Sometime later, though. Right now, there were more important matters at hoof.
“Get me Ash Fall,” he said. “Put Order 94 into action. It’s time to bring civilization back to the Outer World.”
“There’s just one.”
Stormslider lowered the rune gun, pulling her eye from the simple scope that she had yesterday attached to it. She looked to Ember, who was standing behind her.
“Take him,” she said. “We can’t let him warn the others.”
Storm nodded, and slowly brought the sights back up. The crew was gathered behind some rocks on the edge of a shallow plateau, looking down on a cave below them. Storm and Ember were outfitted in zebra armor, modified to fit their forms. Silver Feather sat nearby, wearing an unzipped tan flight jacket as he cradled his lightning gun. Cleaver stood tall near the rear, scanning the horizon and holding a heavy hammer in his teeth. Phoenix Down was shaking nervously as she sorted through a pack of primitive medical supplies.
Casually noting the long shadows cast by the sun setting behind them, Storm focused her scope upon the lone form guarding the outside of the cave. He was of some species she had never seen before. some strange, half-striped variety of pegasus. But he was a pony nonetheless. And here I am, to take his life.
“Is this really necessary?” she asked. She had never killed before, and even she was having trouble containing her nerves behind her usual calm.
“We’re stuck here, Stormslider. This isn’t Equestria; you have to fight to survive in the Outer World. We took this job, and you have to do your part,” Ember replied.
No, Storm thought, you took this job. She had felt that something like this might be asked of her ever since Ember walked in brandishing a wanted poster.
“We don’t have to kill anyone. The poster said alive.”
“Yes, but I doubt his friends will step aside and let us tie him up, and nobody cares if they die. We can’t do this without killing someone. It would be too risky.”
Stormslider took a deep, shaky breath. She didn’t like this. Every part of her being was telling her to put the gun away. Say no. Step back. But she could see the logic of Ember’s claim. This wasn’t Equestria. This was a matter of survival. They needed gold, and right now, the gold rested upon somepony’s head.
Resolved to take the shot, she focused back on the scope and adjusted the gun’s position on the rock. The strange pegasus was asleep, dozing against the cave entrance outside. She narrowed her eyes, body tensing, but couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. She whipped her tail in frustration.
“Storm, what are you waiting for?” Ember asked. “We’re losing daylight.”
Cleaver put a patient hoof on her shoulder. “Do not rush her. She is not used to this life.”
Don’t think about it. Stormslider took a deep breath and pushed her conscious thought away. She cleared her mind. All body and no mind, she whispered to her gun.
She immediately regretted it, but found that she couldn’t pull the gun away. The same force which had stopped her from firing before now held her in place. She watched in terror as the gun charged, and the telltale glow of rune magic seeped out of the barrel.
Silently, the heavy slug was ejected from the gun. The world seemed to slow down, and she found herself unable to tear her eyes away as her target’s head exploded.
She fell back, barely reserving the conscious thought needed to grab the gun and stop it from toppling down the cliff before it. The gun shot silently, but her ears rang. It had given no kick, but she felt as if someone had just bucked her hard in the chest. She shook her head, breathing strained.
“Storm, get back in position! We need you to cover us,” Ember ordered. She peered at the bloodied cave entrance cautiously.
Cleaver pushed her away. “Calm yourself, Ember! It was her first kill.” Storm nodded to him thankfully. She had never heard him raise his voice like that before.
Finally, her usual calm demeanor restored itself. Calm, cool, collected. She recited the words to herself like a mantra, fighting to control her emotions. Emotion is a flaw in the mind of an engineer. It clouded judgment. It had to be contained.
A shout rang out from the direction of the cave, and Ember’s ears twitched as she searched for the source. She let out a curse and flicked her lighter on. “Fuck! They saw the body. Storm, stay up here. Rest of you with me.”
Silver stayed behind as the rest of the crew cantered away. Storm gave him a small, reassuring smile and climbed to her hooves. He nodded, turning to gallop after the others.
She numbly returned to her firing position and set up the rune gun, putting her eye to the scope. She had killed once. She wouldn’t lose control again. She would do what had to be done.
Silver Feather skidded to a stop next to Ember, Cleaver, and Nix, all huddled together behind a large rock in front of the cave.
“Here’s the plan,” Ember said. “Silver will start off with a few rounds from the lightning gun, and then Cleaver and I will charge in, doing our best to flush them out into the open for Storm. Phoenix, you back us up with your rune gun. Try not to kill us. And Silver, keep the lighting soft. We don’t want to accidentally kill the target.”
Nix nodded shakily, holding the rune gun tight to her chest. Silver slid his goggles down. He had no qualms over killing things. Not anymore. He would kill everyone in that cave if it came to it.
Ember waved him forward with a hoof. He sprinted out from behind the rock, rushing up to the side of the cave’s entrance. With the lightning gun strapped to his chest under his good wing, he peeked around the corner and pulled the trigger with a feather.
His pent-up grief came out in a furious scream that matched the heat of the lighting before him. One, two, three, four times he pulled the trigger. Four times thunder roared down the cave, leaving all those inside with their ears ringing. Four times lightning illuminated the stunned shock on the faces of his victims as they were blinded and deafened all at once.
Ember and Cleaver wasted no time charging into the cave, and in his rage Silver almost forgot to stop shooting. Heart pounding, he watched as Ember pulled a mighty fireball from her lighter and cast it into the back of the cave. At the same time, Cleaver ran through everything before him, toppling those who opposed him with a single mighty swing from his hammer. The strange ponies broke easily, deafened and blinded, with a raging inferno behind them and the two Equestrians smashing through them. They screamed in panic and took wing, flying as fast as they could to get out of the restricting cave. A few stayed behind, determined to fight to the death, and were rewarded with a fiery holocaust from Ember’s horn.
Silver spotted the target as he rose out of the cave and prepared to take a shot at him. He knew that the lightning would probably kill him, but he was relishing the release of the battle.
He was too late. Stormslider’s rune slug punched through the target’s wing, and he spiraled into the dust.
Silver turned his attention to the others fleeing from the site, a sick smile spreading across his face as he imagined shooting them out of the sky. He would exact his vengeance on this world!
Suddenly, Nix slammed into him from the side, pinning him to the rock. “No!” she shouted. “Can’t you see that they’re running? Let them go!”
“Get off!” Silver struggled, surprised at her strength, but it didn’t take him long to realize the weight of what he had just done. Of what he had been about to do. Kill out of spite. In cold blood. He shook his goggles off and looked to the gentle earth pony.
“Thanks,” he said. He could barely believe himself. “I owe you one.”
Nix stared into his eyes, searching. She nodded, and gave him a weak little smile before backing off and returning to her rune gun, lying in the dust. She hadn’t fired a single shot.
Stormslider was the first to reach the target, and the rest of the crew was quick to follow. Nix held back shyly while the others circled the one-winged, half-striped pegasus lying in the dirt.
He coughed. “What’d I- What’d I ever do to you? Fucking Equestrians. You come to finish the j-job? Huh? Well get the fuck on with it!”
“What are you?” Stormslider asked. “Some kind of pegasus pony?’
He let out a strained chuckle. “Thank the- the hells I’m not. I’m a fucking recusant! And my kind are- are going to h-hunt you all down! I swear- I swear by my mother’s mark!” Blood was starting to pool in the dust below him, and Ember beckoned Nix forwards.
“Keep him alive. We don’t want to ruin the contract,” she ordered.
Nix approached slowly, her tail dragging through the dust. Dropping the medkit at her hooves, she rolled the recusant over to reveal the bloody stump on his side. The high caliber rune slug had torn right through the bone, shearing the wing off with a single strike.
Silver’s bad wing twitched sentimentally. He knew how it felt to be grounded.
“Here, bite down on this,” Nix said, holding a thick rag before the recusant. Confused, he eyed her nervously. Such kindness, in the aftermath of such ferocity? He spat on her hoof.
Nix frowned, but left the rag by his mouth. He cried out, glaring at the Equestrians around him furiously, as she poured cheap booze into the wound. Luckily, the bullet had passed through before the secondary shrapnel spell went off. Within a few minutes, Nix had cleaned, dressed, and bandaged the wound. Cleaver hogtied the recusant, and Ember levitated him behind the crew as they returned to where they had parked the Omega.
Ω Ω Ω
Silver fidgeted nervously as Ember released her magic, and the recusant fell to the ground with a deep thud.
Their employer, some kind of wingless, long-eared gargoyle, stepped forwards slowly and put a claw under the recusant’s chin.
“A pleassure to finally meet you, bandit,” the gargoyle hissed. He raised the recusant’s head to look him in the eyes, and a wicked smile spread across his face. The recusant glared at him and struggled vainly against his bonds.
Ember cleared her throat. “Our payment.”
The gargoyle looked up, seemingly displeased at the interruption to his gloating, but nodded appreciatively anyways. “Yess, of course,” he said. “Thiss pest and his clan have cost me greatly. Thank you for your help, Equesstrian. ‘Tis but a ssmall price to pay for ssuch a sservice.”
He pulled a bag of gold out from his cloak and tossed it to Ember, who caught it in her magic.
“A pleasure doing business with you,” she said. With a nod to the others, she turned to leave.
Nix hesitated, staying behind. “If I might ask, what will you do with him?”
The gargoyle grinned evilly. “Oh, I’ll think of something.”
I practically jumped for joy as I reached the bottom of what was, as far as I could tell, the last accursed hill I’d have to climb. The only thing that stopped me was the bleak path ahead.
Before me lay a wide, flat expanse that I could only describe as the definition of wasteland. The brown, dead earth was pockmarked with small, water-filled craters, and the river’s water turned dark and murky. The horizon was swallowed up by the thick fog hanging over the land. All I could see through it was the distant silhouettes of stunted, leafless trees.
I swallowed, trying not to imagine what creatures lived in this part of the Outer World.
I looked up. The sun was setting. I didn’t feel like trekking through that foggy wasteland at night, so I searched for a place to set up camp. There wasn’t really much to choose from. Amongst tall grass and a few small rocks, only one lonely tree dared to grow so close to the fog.
I dropped my saddlebags against the trunk and began to unpack, rolling a thick blanket onto the grass and constructing a simple firepit. Although I had trouble finding the wood needed for the fire, having only one tree to supply me, there were plenty of stones to keep what little flame I could muster from spreading.
The sun drifted below the horizon, leaving only my tiny fire to light the world. Pitiful. I doubted it would last through the night. I would have to try and sleep in the tree if I didn’t want to get eaten.
My stomach grumbled, and I returned to my bags for something to eat. Nothing left. I was all out.
I sighed. Left with no other choice, I got to grazing. I didn’t like Outer World grass very much. It was just as rough as the people that inhabited it, and it would cut me sometimes when I swallowed. Didn’t taste good, either. It was all dry, and lacked any real taste. It was a chore just to chew.
As I ripped a mouthful of grass out of the ground, I heard a noise coming out of the fog. I perked up, ears twitching, chewing quietly as I strained to place it. Nothing. Cautiously, I lowered my muzzle to take another bite.
I heard something running, somewhere in the dark. My head shot up. What in the name of love and tolerance…? I spent a good ten minutes listening to the soft crackle of the fire, searching the night.
With the sun now set, it was practically impossible to see anything. My fire did nothing but cast flighty, mysterious shadows over the ground. Everywhere I looked, the waving grass formed itself into deathly apparitions. The extra light I cast from my horn served only to amplify the effect. A gust of wind breezed past.
With a dismal little sputter, my fire went out.
A chill ran down my spine.
I trotted back to the tree, resisting the temptation to break into a gallop. Just noises, Dissero. Noises and wind. You’re not afraid of the dark anymore, remember?
I drew myself back against the tree, chewing quietly at what grass I could reach. My eyes darted side to side. My ears twitched. The unknown of the dark and silence was more terrifying than any Outer World beast that might actually inhabit it. My mind took every noise and imagined a demon of death and destruction.
Whenever you’re out in the wilderness alone, at night time, with your imagination creeping up on you from every direction, a little bit of music does a lot to drive it away.
I levitated the harmonica out of my bags, tentatively putting it to my lips. I trusted Hunter, but was having trouble convincing my body that playing music was a good idea right now. I sat there for at least thirty silent minutes, mouth upon the cool metal, working up the courage to do it.
Finally, I managed to push out a breath. A shaky note slid out. Nothing came to kill me.
Encouraged by my success, I played another note. Stronger this time. Then again. The noise cut through the night like a beacon of light. I paused. A little smile emerged.
I played the note as loud as I could, daring my nightmares to come for me. Suddenly, the night didn’t seem so scary. The harmonica filled the gloom like the talk of friends in a dark old house, and I felt my heart lifting.
I slid my mouth an inch and puffed experimentally. A higher note. I shimmied in the other direction. A lower note. I breathed in and discovered a whole new range of sound.
I took a deep breath and played freely. The music swelled out from within me, and my eyes widened as I noticed that I was playing a happy little jig. These things are easy to play! Pulling the harmonica away, I let loose a loud laugh. Scared of the night! Who had ever heard of such a thing?
A pack of wolves howled from somewhere within the fog. It took me all of a minute to levitate the bedroll up into the tree and climb up after it.
Still scared of wolves.
Ω Ω Ω
Holy shit, my back hurts.
I practically fell out of the tree, back aching from the awkward positioning and hard surface. My bedroll did it’s job decently when applied to the ground, but no matter how soft and comfy it might make a tree branch, soft and comfy still hurt when it was grinding up into your side.
I spent a few minutes just laying in the grass, eyes screwed up in agony at the pain in my back. It seemed I simply couldn’t touch a tree without spending the night next to it and waking up with extra pains.
My gaze drifted over the tree disdainfully, and I was presented with the disturbing sight of claw marks on the trunk.
Those hadn’t been there before...
Time to head out!
I packed my bedroll, made sure everything that belonged in my pack was there, and grabbed a mouthful of grass for the walk. I had a feeling that it might be hard finding something green in that wasteland.
With another glance at the river, I stepped into the omnipresent fog.
It didn’t take long for me to lose myself within it. After a minute of walking, the tree I had spent the night in was gone. The thick fog and lack of landmarks gave the impression of going nowhere. The world stood still here. The silent void surrounding me made it easy to believe that I had simply fallen into limbo, cursed to wander endlessly until my bones faded away. I tried to look up and steal a glance at the sun, but even it couldn’t break through the heavy mist. The way that the sunlight dissipated through it all evenly, I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to where it might be. I was, essentially, in the middle of nowhere. If it wasn’t for the river, I would’ve lost my way and probably never gotten back out.
For hours I walked, with nothing but the quiet passage of the water to assure me that anything still existed at all. In the distance, I could see the dark shadows of strange shapes as I passed them by. Some of them looked like uprooted trees. The rest brought forth images of impaled bodies, skeletons, and broken machinery. It was all I could do to keep my eyes forwards.
I heard the gentle roar of waves ahead of me, and sped into a trot. I must almost be there. I could hardly wait to get out of this creepy place and amongst the living once more.
I broke into an all-out gallop. I really couldn’t wait.
Suddenly, my hooves were sinking into sand, and then splashing through water. I looked down, perturbed, to find foamy waves swirling around me. Returning my gaze forwards, I realized that I had reached the ocean.
I backtracked, spreading my map out on the driest piece of land I could find. Even so, I could feel the paper starting to fall apart from the humidity.
According to the map, the city I was supposed to be heading to should be right here. On the mouth of this river. I looked closer, squinting to try and figure out the name of the city.
I couldn’t tell what came after that.
What was wrong? Had I found the wrong river? That made no sense! There was only one river immediately southwest of the Stygian’s old cave! Had I made a wrong turn? I didn’t remember the river forking anywhere. I traced my path across the map ten times. It should be here!
I felt myself beginning to panic. What was I going to do? I had nothing to do! I had no food. I had no home. I had no idea where I was. The old map in my hooves only included a small region around New Whatever, and it didn’t even seem to know where the city was!
Okay. Think, Dissero. Think. You have the river...
I could use the river! Settlements need water. They grow next to rivers. I would just follow the river, eating the grass that grew next to it, and hopefully I’d find some town or village that wouldn’t want to kill me.
Without warning, a bear roared from somewhere in the fog. I crouched down instinctively. I had to get to a hiding spot.
The wolves were howling again. I ran for one of the shapes, half-obscured through the fog, and hid behind the upturned chariot that coalesced before me. One of the wheels was shattered, but the remainder was outfitted with deadly sharp blades.
It sounded like the bear and wolves were fighting. And the fight was getting closer. Hoping for a better look, I peeked through a hole in the chariot’s broken carriage. I was rewarded with the sight of the beasts fighting each other, their shapes blurred by the haze.
The smaller, more lithe shapes I took to be the wolves ran circles around the lumbering bear, sweeping in to nip at his paws before ducking away. He roared his fury at them, and one of the wolves leaped onto his back. The bear reared up and reached back, picking the wolf off of him, pinning it to the ground, and slicing into it with his claws. The wolf whined and fell silent.
Then, the bear did something I had never seen a bear do before. Remaining on its hind legs, it unsheathed what looked like some sort of weapon, brandishing it in its forepaws. It was hard to tell through the fog, but it looked like a giant axe.
The wolves were surprisingly uncoordinated, too. I had never known of any wolf pack that didn’t know how to work as a team. They knew how to distract the bear, but they didn’t know how to take advantage of it. They leaped for him as individuals, and he easily swatted them aside before ending them with a single slice from his axe.
Soon, the whole pack was dead or dying. From my vantage point behind the wrecked chariot, I watched through the mist as his blurred shadow sorted through the bodies. Deciding I would wait for him to finish his business before doing anything else, I carefully moved away from my peephole.
I stepped back, but didn’t feel anything behind me. Surprised by the lack of ground, I stumbled, falling into a pony-sized crater full of water with a deadly loud splash.
I heard the bear stop. His heavy steps lumbered towards me.
I lay paralyzed with fear as his shadow fell upon the chariot.
Chapter 10: Dreams of Nightmares Past
“You, behind the wreck!” the bear called. “Get out here!”
Did that bear just talk? I was so shocked that I almost forgot to get back to my hooves.
“Now!” he roared.
My heart skipped a beat, and I almost fell down again. I shook my head, desperately trying to dislodge some idea from my subconscious.
Yes, I could bluff him. He’d probably never seen a unicorn before. What would he do when faced with one?
“I won’t ask you again! Come out, coward!”
I took a deep breath, steeling myself for what was to come. Confidence. Confidence is the key to bluffing. I had to look confident. I had to look tough. Pulling my bandanna up and standing tall, I stepped out into the open.
“Yes?” I asked. I leaned against the chariot nonchalantly, praying that my poor terrified heart wouldn’t betray me.
The bear narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing here, unicorn?”
Well, there goes that plan. It took all my will to keep myself from falling over. As such, there wasn’t any leftover to maintain the cocky facade I’d put up.
“I c-could ask- I could ask y-you the same thing, b-bear.” I mentally kicked myself. Stuttering idiot. Get a grip!
The bear sat back and released a mighty, heart-stopping laugh. “Are you really trying to be threatening, pony?”
Okay, this isn’t working. I levitated my swords out of their sheaths, hoping some magic would scare him off. I was having trouble keeping my bladder under control. Hopefully both it and my magical focus would last long enough to keep my bluff going.
“Oh, put those toys away.” He waved me aside with a paw. “I’m not here to fight ponies. It’s beneath me.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I challenged. How dare he condescend!
“It means that I could crush you in an instant. There would be no honor in it.”
I hesitated. He was probably right, but I didn’t want to look like I was taking orders from him. I had to at least make it look like we were negotiating something.
“How do I know you won’t kill me?” I asked.
“Other than the fact that you’re still alive?” He sighed. “Very well. I give you my word, as one amongst the Fallen.”
Okay. I figured that had to mean something, from the way he said it. It sounded like this bear put great emphasis on honor. Satisfied, I sheathed my swords.
“There’s a good little pony,” he said. “Now, what are you doing out here? This is hardly a safe place for you.”
“I’m, uh...” Tell him the truth? Risky. From what I knew, the Outer World wasn’t the sort of place where telling strangers about your business worked out well, and this bear could kill me in an instant. At the same time, he hardly sounded like he was looking out to get me. But then they almost never do, do they? I weighed my choices.
“I’m trying to find a city.” I couldn’t come up with an adequate lie anyways. Maybe he could help me out.
The bear cocked a brow. “And what city might you be searching for?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” I said. “The only name my map offers is ‘New’, but there’s nothing after that. Are there any cities around here with a ‘New’ in their names?”
He smiled, and I shifted uncomfortably. His fangs were really bothering me. “Yes, actually. I was just heading there now.” He glanced over to the wolves lying dead in the mist. “Though, I was forced to stop and deal with some unwelcome tails.”
I pulled my bandanna down. It was hard enough to breathe around here as it was, with all the thick air, and I was starting to suffocate a little under the material. “Where is it? My map said it was on the mouth of this river.”
He pointed his nose into the mist, in a direction that was distinctly not towards the mouth of the river, or even the river at all. “It’s north, a day or two’s walk. Your map is outdated.”
“What?” That didn’t make any sense. “Did the city, just, move?”
“No, pony. The city was burnt down.”
Oh. An awkward silence established itself over us as I looked around. In retrospect, it did seem pretty obvious. The dead land. The figures in the mist. The broken chariot. The noticeable lack of a city. Once again, I was reminded of the fact that I was no longer in Equestria. Over there, back across the Great Sea and on the inside of the Cloudwall, war was a word of history books and fiction. It was arrows and numbers on the surface of a board game. It was something of an age long past, before the Princesses had lead ponykind to peace and prosperity.
Out here, it was a broken chariot at your hooves, lifeless land for miles around, and a city completely wiped off the map. Suddenly, war became much, much more real.
“What happened?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Ask a historian. All I know is that there was a great battle here some time ago. The mist is even older. Some magic from centuries back that preserves the dead and stops things from growing.”
I found myself shrinking back towards the upturned chariot. This place was starting to scare me in ways much worse than simply ‘creepy’.
The bear pushed himself back to his paws heavily, sniffing the air. “Since we’re both going the same place, and you seem to lack a reliable map, would you like to travel with me, pony?” he suggested.
Thank Luna. Despite myself, I had been hoping he would let me join him. This fog was bad enough on its own; the history lesson didn’t do anything for the ambience. The bear turned to a nondescript direction and started walking with that slow, ponderous gait that bears have.
I had to trot to catch up with him. “So what’s your name?” I asked.
“They call me Exe.” He didn’t even spare me the courtesy of a sideways glance. I waited expectantly for him to ask what my name was, but it never came. I looked away awkwardly. Apparently bears aren’t big on names.
Another question came to my mind. I opened my mouth, but hesitated. I couldn’t really think of a polite way to ask it, and I didn’t want to offend this bear. Especially since he could stand on two legs and wield an axe. Luckily, he broached the subject for me.
“I suppose you’re wondering how I can talk?”
“Uhm- Well, no- Yes. I’ve never met a talking bear before,” I admitted. “How did you know I was thinking that?”
“Every Equestrian I’ve ever met gives me that same look. Apparently the bears in Equestria are just animals. In the Outer World, we’re above that.”
I nodded. So bears out here are sentient. Interesting. “What other races are there?”
“Goyles, griffons, zebra, recusants…” He growled. “Wolves.”
I had more questions, but he didn’t seem to want to talk anymore. I decided to focus on the path ahead of us instead.
The shapes in the fog were growing thicker. As we put distance between ourselves and the river, they almost became a solid wall of shadow, encircling us like a crowd of spectators as we walked. Strangely, we never seemed to actually reach them. Every time I thought one of them was getting close, it would just… dissipate. Occasionally, we passed some dilapidated war machine or an uprooted tree, but I never saw them in the mist as we approached. It was like the shadows were in another world. Some parallel universe. It was an eerie experience, and I perceived the mist to be pushing in on me. I felt as if I wasn’t supposed to be here. As if it didn’t want me to be here.
I felt something. An almost imperceptible tug on the tip of my horn. Then again, a second time. It pulled at me softly, yet consistently. Something was… calling to me. I turned my head, curious.
To my left, there was a break in the shadows. In the mist, surrounded by the mysterious remnants of a battle past, a single, perfectly round, pony-sized sphere rose from the ground. Suddenly, Exe’s voice rang through the silence.
“Pony!” he called. I jumped, startled, and looked back. I was surprised to find that I had started walking away from him, towards the shape. The tug on my horn grew stronger. I have to see what that shape is.
“There’s something over here,” I explained. “I’m going to see what it is.”
He narrowed his eyes and looked into the mist ahead of me. “There’s nothing there. Just the mist and its shadows.”
I looked back. The orb was closer. “Just give me a few minutes.”
I blinked, and suddenly I was standing right in front of the enigmatic orb, now half-buried in the ground. I ran a hoof over it. The surface was incredibly smooth. Some kind of… stone? I heard a noise behind me and started, glancing back. There was a bear there. What is a bear doing following me?
“Are you done yet? You’ve been staring at nothing for an hour,” it said.
I shook my head. Right. Exe. The tug on my horn was irresistible. It seemed to pull on the strings of my very soul. It cried out for me with the voice of great loss and sorrow. It needed me. I needed it. More than anything, I needed it.
I stepped closer and softly put my muzzle up to the cool stone, comforting it with my presence. I’m here, now. I felt my horn tingling. Suddenly, a spark of magic shot out of it, connecting with my horn and flowing into me with a stab of pain.
“Aagh!” I shrunk back, and the orb was gone. In its place was the form of a pony, carved from the same familiar mist that covered everything here. It was a pegasus. It was kneeling, head down, cradling something in its forehooves with its wings spread wide.
With a gust of wind, the mist blew away, and the spell was broken.
Exe was standing in front of me. “We’re leaving. Now.”
He bent down and grabbed my bandanna, dragging me behind him as he marched us away. I looked back to where the obelisk had been, mouth agape. Wait... obelisk? Where had that word come from? I got my hooves under me and pulled, breaking free from his grasp.
“Wait! What was that?” I asked.
The bear shot me a harsh glare. “I don’t know. I don’t care. Probably the curse on these mists. Now come on. The sun will be setting soon, and we must prepare a fire if we’re to spend the night here.”
Sitting in the lounge, looking out a window at the Outer World landscape as the gentle noise of the Omega’s engines played in the background, Phoenix Down let out a tired little sigh. She was beginning to regret leaving Harmony City.
No, she already did regret it.
She closed her eyes, lost in memory. The dull ache of another day’s dawn. The breathless reprieve at the sun’s setting. The terror of the first explosions. Her frenzied gallop to the foundry where Dissero worked. Relief that swelled within her when she realized he was alive. A cautious walk back to their rooms and her fear as Dissero broke into a violent rampage. The shock of his old friends showing up with an airship and a plan of escape. Her uncertainty when Dissero called her to join. The excitement of the chase and the heart-stopping terror of the Breaks.
That endless happiness that had overcome her when she saw the sky again, after a lifetime in the shadows.
The anxious search for land. Wondering at discovering a new world, at the idea of finally being free, long after even her dreams had given up on it.
And then the shock of watching, eyes wide, as Dissero fell off the ship.
She opened her eyes, feeling the tears starting to well up again, and fought to keep them inside. I won’t cry anymore. The others already thought she was weak and useless. She was always at the back, quivering in paralyzed horror as they did the real work. She would show them. I can be strong too. She would cry no more.
She raised a hoof and put it to the glass of the window. Was she really free, after all? For fear of her life, she couldn’t leave this ship or its crew any more than she could’ve left Harmony City. What had changed? Now she was in constant danger, lost in all the worst ways, and what had she gotten from it? A change of scenery, from the dark alleys of Harmony to the tight quarters of the Omega.
She didn’t even know these ponies. Sure, she had spoken with them some before, but it was always in passing, on the side. They were just acquaintances. Dissero was the only one she felt like she had actually known, and now he was dead.
No more tears.
She turned away from the window and looked back to the medkit at her hooves. She mustered up the energy to check its contents, organizing it, memorizing it. Bandages, dressings, disinfectant, airway adjunct, tweezers, butterfly strips... weird healing potion thing. She pulled the little vial out and held it before her eyes, swirling the dim red liquid about curiously. They didn’t have such a thing as a healing potion back in Equestria, and she still held some doubts about how helpful this drink could be for healing anything.
With a familiar dull thud and a gentle shake, the airship came to a stop. They had landed. The sound of hooves approached as the rest of the crew assembled in the lounge. With another sigh, she packed her medkit, slid it onto her back, tightened the straps, and turned to join the others.
“Okay, we’re just doing a simple find and retrieve job this time,” Ember said. “Think of it as a break. Some kind of parcel, lost in an airship crash. Shouldn’t be too hard, but everypony be ready for trouble anyways.”
Sounds of acknowledgement filled the room, followed by the sounds of last-minute preparations. Silver buckling his lightning gun to his chest, Storm checking her scope, Cleaver sliding his hammer’s hilt into his belt, Ember flicking her lighter experimentally.
Phoenix Down, flipping the soft leather cap of her medkit and trying to work up the courage to ask for a gun of her own.
“May I also have a rune gun?” she asked politely.
Ember cocked an eye at her. “You sure about that? So far you’ve never managed to shoot one towards the bad guys.”
Silver stepped forwards. “Hey, go ahead and give her the gun. She wants to help, and she needs to learn to fight anyways.”
Nix let out a sigh of relief as Ember shrugged and levitated a gun to her. She gave Silver a little smile, and he nodded in return.
“Is that all then?” Ember asked. “Let’s go.”
The five ponies trotted out of the lounge, down the central stairwell, and out the hatch in single file, emerging at the bottom of a hill. Cresting the top, they were treated to the remains of a crashed airship, lying in an open plain.
It looked like it had been smaller than the Omega, just a simple courier ship. It had largely shattered on impact, with the main body sliding forwards nose-down and various bits and pieces falling off as it went.
Without a word, Stormslider began to set up her rifle as the others approached the wreck. She would cover them if something went wrong. Entering the main body, the four Equestrians searched the site for the lost delivery they’d come for, overturning rubble and half-burnt furniture. It didn’t take them long.
“Found it!” Nix said. She held the little package up proudly. Not so useless after all!
Suddenly, a piece of wall near the front of the crashed ship was ripped away. All four ponies froze, eyes locked on the unwelcome intruders that stepped through. Nix’s eyes widened at the sight.
A wolf and a bear, each festooned with sharp objects and covered in armor, stood confidently at the helm of the wreck. The wolf was wearing multiple layers of hard leather pads, covering almost every part of his body that wasn’t a joint, and steel claws protruded from his gloves, glinting in what light shone through the shattered ship’s chassis. The bear was almost completely consumed by his own armor, made of precisely worked steel plating with the scars of many past battles carved into it. A varied array of sword sheaths lined his back, each one holding a quality instrument of death. Blood-red glyphs were painted on to their armor, with matching tattoos engraved onto what parts of their bodies were visible. Their muscles seemed unnaturally large, even under their heavy armor, and their eyes were actually glowing red.
A tense few moments passed. Nix took a nervous gulp. She looked to Ember expectantly.
“Who are you?” Ember asked, spreading her hooves aggressively. Silver and Cleaver followed suit, one sliding his goggles down while the other adjusted his posture to better reach his hammer.
The two warriors looked at each other. They looked at Ember. They looked at Nix. They focused in on the little box in her hooves, and their eyes narrowed.
“Give us the artifact!” the wolf commanded. He spoke with an incredibly deep baritone.
Cleaver stepped forward. “The object is ours. We were here first.”
They seemed somewhat taken aback at his denial, and exchanged glances. They looked back to the four ponies and seemed to simultaneously come to the same conclusion. They each took deep breaths.
All at once, the scene burst into violence.
The bear charged for Ember. She leapt back, drawing a stream of fire from her lighter and throwing up a line of flames before her. Silver stepped up to take her place, and when the bear burst through the blaze, he was met with the shock of lightning and roll of thunder. Amazingly, he kept on charging. Silver stumbled aside, just barely avoiding the attacker with a flap of his good wing. With only one target left, the bear angled himself for Cleaver.
With a mighty swing of his hammer and a loud clang!, Cleaver hit him right on his steel-plated forehead. The bear flinched back, but didn’t collapse lifeless to the ground as expected. Instead, he rose up on his powerful hind legs, letting loose a fierce roar, and drew two long swords with his front paws. Cleaver, Silver, and Ember simply stared in amazement, broken out of their shock only be the bear’s renewed, two-legged attack.
Meanwhile, the wolf headed straight for Nix. Dropping the parcel, Nix raised her rune gun to take aim. With the adrenaline coursing through her and the moment of truth upon her, she had no qualms with shooting the beast.
“Ignus!” Nix struggled to maintain her aim as the gun charged, fighting the urge to run and the shaking of her hooves at the same time. Finally, it fired, and the rune slug propelled itself forwards, going into one of the wolf’s forelegs and coming out the other side.
It didn’t even stop.
Despite a massive hole in its leg, it kept on charging. The wolf snarled, closing the distance to his prey even faster. His steel claws clicked and clacked against the floor menacingly.
Nix’s eyes widened, and she leapt to the side, scrambling over a charred couch to avoid the deadly armored canine. She fired off another shot, but to no more avail than the last; the wolf didn’t even seem to notice as the round punched into his chest and the fragmentation spell ignited.
“Fall back! Get outside!” Ember called. Silver pulled Cleaver back from where he wrestled with the towering bear, and by the shine of Ember’s horn a wall of fire erupted all the way across the airship’s interior. Nix rushed to her hooves, picking the parcel up from where it had conveniently landed next to her, and ran for the open air. She heard the thunder of the lightning gun behind her, but didn’t look back. She was too busy running for her life.
Skidding to a stop in the grass outside, she looked back to see the terrifying image of the wolf sprinting straight for her, claws ready and eyes glaring with fury. She squeaked, dropping the rune gun in fear and falling to the ground. She closed her eyes, ready for the final blow.
It never came.
Opening her eyes, she saw the wolf picking itself up off the ground, a still glowing rune slug half-drilled into its unarmored head. The wolf howled in fury, glaring past Nix to where Storm was perched. In response to his challenge, another bullet soared right into the first one, and they both detonated inside his brain. Amazingly, his skull managed to hold itself together, but it wasn’t enough to save his life. Blood and brain alike seeped out of his fractured skull, and he toppled over.
He let out a vengeful little snarl and reached out a paw to drag himself forwards, and then he died.
Nix shook her head, rising out of her stunned reverie and up to her hooves. Silver was calling out to her from where he stood next to Cleaver, who was lying in a patch of blood stained grass, screaming...
She gasped and sprinted for his side, dropping her medkit next to him. There was an angry gash running across his chest, and he was starting to bleed out. His eye’s locked to hers.
“I was too slow,” he hissed, tense with pain. “Veles calls to me.”
“Hush! You’ll be okay!” Nix pushed down on the wound with one hoof, and he cried out at the touch.
As she pulled dressings and gauze from her pack, Silver, Ember, and Storm fought to hold off the massive bear. His coat was on fire from Ember’s inferno, and the thunder from Silver’s lightning gun became a constant roar as he fired shot after shot. Lightning crackled over his steel armor and still he stepped forwards, roaring a mix of pain and anger. Bullets from Stormslider’s gun veered by periodically, ricocheting off the bear’s helmet.
Cleaver was starting to fade away. He was losing too much blood. Nix pulled out an epipen and jabbed it into his coat. His vision cleared, and he blinked in confusion.
“Hold this in!” she commanded. He showed no sign of having heard the order, but one of his heavy hooves tightened around the syringe, holding it in place. She pulled out another dressing and slapped it on, but there wasn’t enough time! He would bleed out before she could cover the long cut, and she couldn’t put a tourniquet on his chest! What do I do? What do I do!? She wasn’t used to gashes! She was good with bullet wounds!
Desperate, she pulled the so-called healing potion from her medkit. How do I use this thing? She searched for instructions, but they were nowhere to be found. No time! She emptied the vial right onto Cleaver’s chest, trying to get it into the wound itself.
And the bleeding began to slow.
Nix hesitated, appalled at how well that worked. She shook her head and returned to treating the big white stallion, covering the wound with dressings and securing it with several layers of gauze.
She let out a relieved sigh. She had saved him. He was unconscious, having blacked out from the bleeding, but she knew he would live. That red potion was miraculous, to speed up clotting like that so quickly. She would have to get more for her kit.
Her ears twitched. It was quiet again. She looked over to the others. The bear was lying dead in the grass, still smoking, with little zaps of leftover electricity arcing across his armor. Blood pooled underneath his head, smoke wafting out of a wide bullet hole in his helmet. Ember, Storm, and Silver were standing around her and Cleaver, looking down expectantly.
“He’ll be okay,” Nix said. She let out a nervous little laugh. Silver joined in, followed by Ember. Stormslider allowed a grin to show on her face. Nix smiled. She had earned their respect, and saved a life. They weren’t just protecting her because she was weak anymore. Now, they did it because she was useful. She was part of the team. One of them.
With his usual poetic elegance, Silver managed to sum up the teams thoughts. “Well, that was somewhat harder than expected, wasn’t it?”
Wind. Wind and mist is everywhere. Everywhere is wind. There is nothing but wind. I am wind. I am everything yet nothing.
Reality begins to piece itself together. The wind slows to a mist and begins to thicken, to coalesce, as if piling up on top of itself. It forms shapes and brings out detail.
I suddenly find myself inside a small stone hovel. The roof is a simple construction of thatch, the floor only packed dirt. A dozen earth ponies of every age huddle together on one side of the room, eyeing the only door fearfully. I follow their gaze. Something is on the other side of the door.
The edges of reality seem… blurred. It is as if it will all fall to pieces, burst back into the storm of wind and mist at the slightest push.
The door slams open, and the earth ponies scream in fear. A single pegasus runs through, clothed in the uniform of a Royal Guard, and shuts the door behind him.
“Quiet!” he hisses. The screams fade away as the ponies calm themselves. A couple of foals cry softly in a corner.
“Be silent, and they may yet pass us over. I shall protect you.” The pegasus turns to face the door, kneeling. He pulls a hoof-sized pendant from his armor and caresses it somberly before placing it on the ground before him.
The room is quiet once more, and I take the opportunity to look out the hole in the hovel wall that serves as a window.
Smoke, fire, and screams.
For the first time I become aware of the sound of war just outside. Metal strikes metal. The dying call for aid and the living call for battle. The smell of burnt flesh reaches my nose and the smoke stings my eyes.
Heavy steps come to a stop outside the door. I hear a harsh command, spoken in some foreign language. The foals try to stifle their tears. An old mare begins to whisper a prayer.
The door is ripped off its hinges, revealing four angry gargoyles. Each one wears bloodstained armor and a wicked grin. They carry jagged weapons dripping blood, and equine heads roll from a sack dropped in the dirt behind them.
A few tense moments pass. A filly squeals and pushes herself back into her mother.
“Gather close!” the pegasus says, glaring at the intruders.
With a vicious warcry, the beasts charge forth. The pegasus cries out and stomps hard upon the pendant. A flash of light erupts from his breast, and when I look back, the ponies are surrounded by a perfectly round glass dome.
The gargoyles grunt in annoyance. One smashes his hammer down upon the glass, to no avail. With a visible shockwave, the dome absorbs the blow. The pegasus kneels within, cradling his glowing pendant as he whispers quietly.
“I am the servant of the Empire, the wings that shelter it from the storm, the blade that strikes down those who would harm it, the wind that carries its wishes to the edge of the world, the light that shines its emblem through the darkest nights…”
The gargoyles hiss in fury, beating upon the glass relentlessly. From outside a cry of fear rings out.
“The fort is lost! Flee! Abandon your post, lest you lose your lives! The fort is lost!”
Out the window, I see more armor-clad pegasi flying away, a flock of griffons giving swift chase. The chanting pegasus’ ears twitch, but he does not falter.
With a mighty blow from the largest gargoyle, a crack appears in the glass. The pegasus grunts, flinching, and raises his voice.
“Through the blackest hour and deepest storm I shall fight to defend the honor of the Empire. Against the mightiest demons of hell, I shall hold my line!”
The dome heals itself, but three more cracks have already formed. As each seals itself closed, five more are made. The pegasus is panting hard now, his eyes shut tight. With his wings, he draws two swords and places them at his sides. A colt looks up to his mother and cries.
“Make them go away, Mommy! Make them go away!” He speaks with the demanding tone of a foal who still thinks his mother can do anything.
The mother pulls her foal closer, weeping. “It’s okay, my child. Oh, I love you so much!”
The pegasus shivers. His ear twitches, and suddenly he is looking right at me. He knows it is hopeless. He had known since the instant he rushed in here and closed the door behind him.
“Though the others may have fled, let it be known that Thunder Shield held his line. Do not falter at your own, wielder.” His soft whisper rings clear in my mind, though the earth ponies show no sign of hearing it. I open my mouth to reply. To offer aid.
The glass shatters.
The earth ponies shriek in fear as the gargoyles rush in, bloodthirsty eyes shining with sadistic glee.
Thunder Shield rises to his hooves, grabbing the swords with his wings as he rushes forwards to meet them. One of them deflects his first blow, and he barely manages to block their counter before leaping back with a flap of his wings. The walls of the hovel box him in. He slides under a hammer swing and comes up behind the gargoyles, shoving a sword into one’s back. The gargoyle collapses, and Thunder is forced to leave one sword behind as the others push the attack. He puts his back to the wall, his last remaining sword held out before him. He’s breathing hard now, his eyes daring the gargoyles to come closer. One of them slashes down at him with a sword, and as he raises his sword to block the other rushes forward, running him through with cold steel. Blood stains the wall of the hovel as the servant of the Empire falls to his knees, his eyes fixed to the ground with despair. He topples over, and with one last gasp, the life leaves his body.
The gargoyles turn to grin at the earth ponies, fresh blood dripping down their faces.
All at once, the world shatters, and I am the wind once more.
Ω Ω Ω
I rose up from my bedroll so fast that it hurt my neck. I found myself searching frantically for my swords, thinking to help the defenseless ponies, but there was nothing I could do. It was too late for them.
I heard Exe drawing his axe, and turned to see him scanning the horizon. “What is it?” he asked.
I run a hoof through my mane, embarrassed. Only foals are afraid of dreams. “Nothing,” I said. “Sorry.”
He snarled and put his axe away. “Well, since you insist on waking up early, we might as well get going.”
The mist was reaching the color that meant the sun was rising. I looked back, to where the obelisk had been. Somehow, without any frame of reference or landmarks to guide me, I knew exactly where it was. That place… that had been where Thunder Shield died. I felt it in my bones.
Luckily for me, bears eat more than just meat, so I was able to eat some bread from his pack. He, on the other hand, satisfied himself with large chunks of meat. I wondered what animal it came from. Despite over a month with the carnivorous recusants, I still felt awkward and nervous when others ate meat around me.
We packed our bags and doused the fire, making sure to save any wood that hadn’t been burnt overnight. There weren’t many trees in the mists, and we mostly used what firewood Exe had brought with him for the journey.
After a quick check of my saddlebags and one last glance to the site of the noble pegasus’ death, I followed Exe into the mist.
Chapter 11: New What?
“Wait, what is this city called again?”
I cocked a brow skeptically, following Exe down the packed dirt path before us. After emerging from the mists around midday, it had taken us only an hour to come across the simple road, and we had been on it ever since. We had passed a sign a few minutes ago, with one arrow pointing west labeled simply with ‘New,’ and I’d been questioning him about it for the past hour.
“That makes no sense,” I said. He’s gotta be pulling my hoof.
“It makes perfect sense,” he sighed. I got the feeling he was getting tired with me. Are bears much for jokes?
I repeated my previous reasoning. “But it has to be New Something! New is an adjective. Where’s the noun?” Are bears good with grammar?
“It’s just New, pony. For fuck’s sake.” He sounded a little exasperated, but I wasn’t about to give up anytime soon. I decided on a different approach.
“So then, why is it called New?” I asked. He twisted his neck to glare at me, but I refused to back down.
“Because nobody remembers the rest of the name,” he admitted.
“Hah!” I stomped a hoof in triumph. “So there is more to the name!”
“Not anymore!” he shot back. “The city is called New, and just New! There’s nothing else to the name, so shut up about it!”
He seemed somewhat… annoyed. Another question rose to my mind.
“Why does everyone speak Equestrian out here?” I asked. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder before, since I had always thought of the recusants as mostly pony. After meeting a bear that spoke it though, it had started to nag at me.
“Stop it with your fucking questions! By my blade! We all speak Equestrian, because everyone speaks Equestrian! There!”
I hushed myself. I might’ve crossed some kind of line there. I must be bothering him. Maybe bears didn’t like talking?
We passed another sign. A larger one, this time. Welcome to New! It exclaimed in the bright and friendly colors of worn out and chipped paint. There was something else written under the greeting, in smaller, sloppier letters. JUST NEW.
I guess it’s a pretty common question. I could see why someone would get annoyed over it.
Turning the corner around a thick wall of trees we’d been walking by, the city finally came into view. It was situated on a cliff on the coast, with an open plain leading up to it. To my left, which was south, the mists swirled around themselves in the distance. To the north, the cliff gradually sloped down to the beach.
New was a city unlike any I’d ever seen before. Most of it was made up of a ramshackle array of simple homes or large tents, interspersed with the occasional shop or inn. Five groups of skydocks rose up in distinctly separate parts of the city, each hoarding its own herd of airships. At the top of the tallest tower in each group a massive flag waved in the wind, proudly displaying its color of choice. Black, red, white, green, or brown. Around the base of each tower group, a smattering of extravagant palaces frowned down upon the little constructs around them.
Stretching around the city from one cliff edge to the other was a thick necklace of camps. Each one seemed to have at least thirty tents, going up to as many as a few hundred. In the middle of every camp, a larger tent rose above its brethren, flying distinctive flags and displaying brightly colored stripes.
As we climbed the gently sloping hill to the city perched on the cliff, the traffic began to thicken. Our simple dirt path grew into others, and soon we were walking on the only paved road I had ever seen since leaving Equestria. A few wagons passed by, pulled by chained up wolves and bears under the careful watch of their masters. Most of the passerby were on foot. All of them wore some kind of armor and displayed some kind of weapon.
We entered the ring of camps, and I treated myself to a closer look at them. The camps were full of almost exclusively griffons. Griffons eating, sparring, chatting, gambling, planning, and arguing. I shrunk back towards Exe, averting my eyes. Would they still be chasing me?
“Who are they?” I asked.
He snorted. “Merc flocks. Almost impossible to find a griffon that’s not part of one.”
I nodded. “What are they doing here?”
“Looking for a job. Plenty of gold flows through this city. And where there’s gold, there’s work.”
The griffons that attacked the clan have probably forgotten about me already, I reasoned. No need to hide anymore. I straightened up, feeling a little silly about my previous suspicions. What were the chances that every griffon in the Outer World was out to get me, anyways?
We reached the city proper. The buildings here were small, sparse, and run-down. Half of them looked abandoned. The road quickly split into five directions, each heading towards one of the skydock clusters that dominated the clouds above. At the entrance of each road, a couple of griffon guards stood, eyeing their counterparts suspiciously. There wasn’t much uniformity between them, with each one showing his own arms and armor, but each pair had some kind of identifying equipment in common. The pairs wore either green sashes, white armbands, brown bandannas, black capes, or red caps. Do they have five different guard companies here or something?
Exe went for the road occupied by the two with black capes, and I followed suit. After we passed them, he twisted his neck to look back at me.
“Why are you still following me, pony?” he asked.
I blinked. “Well, uh...” I guess we did only agree to go to the city together, didn’t we? “I’m not... sure?”
“What is your business in New?”
I cocked my head, mulling it over. “I’m looking for my friends. They’re somewhere in the Outer World, probably near this coast, and I thought I’d try this city first.”
He stared at me disapprovingly. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re right.”
We walked in silence for some minutes. I eyed the foreign cityscape around me. I really don’t have any idea what I’m doing. I didn’t know the Outer World. I didn’t know its people. What chance did I have finding my crew? I was grasping at straws here.
“I will help you,” Exe said.
“Wha- wha...?” Didn’t see that coming. “Why?”
“Just a whim.”
Well, uh... okay. I sped up, coming to heel with his head. “So where are we going?” I asked. Now I had a guide of sorts, I was starting to get excited. I have a chance!
“Inn. The Hub. We’ll rest there the night,” he stated.
I nodded, walking alongside him contentedly. It seemed that as we got closer to the nearest skydock, the city grew more packed and better maintained. The alleys between each building grew thinner, and the open space in the crowd became sparse. Despite the run-down atmosphere, the city was full of life. Merchants hawked their wares from simple stalls on the side of the street as black-caped griffons eyed the horizon from the rooftops. Wolves sat together in small groups, discussing recent news and watching passerby. Wingless gargoyles walked by, pulling carts filled with food. Zebra rushed past, saddlebags bouncing on their backs. I spotted a small group of bears lumbering down the street, displaying heavy armor and weaponry, given a wide and respectful berth by those who walked past them. I saw a few recusants, huddled together in an alleyway as they eyed the pockets of everyone closeby. Everyone, regardless of race or job, had a weapon.
We came to an intersection, and Exe turned down a street going away from the black-flagged skydock. The buildings began to spread out as we put distance between it and us, and I even saw a team of wolves and gargoyles building a new one. We eventually arrived at our destination, a relatively large construction just a few buildings down from a large courtyard. A wooden signpost advertised its name: The Hub. Pushing past a group of drunks laughing in the street, my bear companion led the way over its threshold and into chaos.
The defining feature of The Hub was the volume. It was loud. Half of the main room was dominated by griffon mercs, exchanging stories, drinking, eyeing any females they saw suggestively and the members of other merc flocks suspiciously. I saw a couple of recusant mares dancing on their tables, false smiles painted over their disgust as the mercs howled their approval. At one table in a dark corner, three bears drank together quietly, offering Exe a respectful nod when they noticed him. The rest of the place was a mixture of gargoyles, zebra, and wolves. They ate, they drank, and they were generally rowdy.
I stepped closer to Exe. This crowd was making me nervous. Sure, the inns in Equestria had a similar air of relaxation and wildness to them, but here I felt a tense undertone of violence that I’d never felt in any of the Equestrian inns I’d frequented. The sound of metal on wood was from the weapons of the patrons just as much as their mugs, and the three fires crackling in the hearths reminded me more of burning villages than a friendly respite.
We stopped at the bar, where a long-eared and wingless gargoyle was busily eyeing the room disdainfully. He brightened a little at the sight of Exe, and a sincere smile leaked onto his face.
“Exe! Long time no see, my friend. How was the South?” he asked.
“Dangerous, as usual,” Exe replied. “Though not enough to stop me.”
The gargoyle nodded, and his eyes fell upon me as if noticing me for the first time. “And who is this little snack, hrm? This is no place for a pony!”
I shifted nervously under his gaze. It seemed cold. Calculating. Not at all like the warmth they had held for Exe.
“Call it a charity case, Sinnel. Have you got a couple beds?” Exe asked.
Sinnel bent into a shallow bow, pulling a quill out from under the bar and making a mark on a sheet of paper on the wall beside him. “Certainly, certainly. Number ten. Anything else, my friend? A drink? Some food?”
The bear shook his head. “Maybe later. For now I want to get the pony settled in and relax.”
Sinnel nodded understandingly, sliding down the bar to greet a trio of wolves. Exe beckoned to me with his snout, and I fell in behind him. We made our way across the wide room to a sturdy staircase built into the wall, climbing up to the second floor. It was much quieter there, with the noise of the main room deadened by the thick wood. Passing a few silent doors and one that exuded some passionate thumping, we stopped before our room. There was no lock or handle on the door, the only decoration being an engraved number ten. I didn’t feel very secure when it closed behind us.
The room was simple, and the furnishings spartan at best. A couple of beds, a wardrobe, a small table and three chairs, and a window was all it had. Exe dropped his axe on one of the beds and pulled off a dark green hood before doing the same with it as well. I hadn’t even noticed the hood earlier. He didn’t wear anything else, and it was practically unnoticeable against his brown coat.
A few silent moments passed.
“So, now what?” I asked.
“I’m relaxing,” he said. “Leave me be.”
I looked around awkwardly. Well, okay then.
Lacking anything else to do, and curious about the first Outer World city I’d ever seen, I decided to try some exploring. I dumped my saddlebags on the empty bed, but kept my swords and barding. If everyone else here walked around armed and armored, I’d do the same.
I trotted out the door, down the stairs, through the drunken rabble, and out into the street. I looked left, and then right. Which way to go?
I decided to head left, towards the large courtyard. Although I hadn’t noticed so before, it was surprisingly empty for what seemed to be, as far as I could tell, the center of the city. The circle was dominated by griffon guards, each group wearing the same colored apparel I’d seen before, each standing at one of five streets, and each staring eachother down. There was a thick sense of challenge in the air, and what few citizens dared to cross the courtyard did so hurriedly and with eyes down.
I decided that perhaps right had not been the best direction to go.
I turned around, opting to explore along an alternate route, and began walking towards the cluster of skydocks flying the black flag. There was some kind of emblem on it, but I couldn’t make it out from here. I guessed that it was made to be visible from incoming airships, rather than those traveling by ground.
The sun was low in the sky now, and much of the street was cast in shadow by the buildings. The crowd was thinning, and stall merchants were packing up. I noticed more black-clad griffons arriving, landing on the roofs or patrolling the alleys with watchful eyes.
My ear twitched, and I looked to my side. There was a recusant there, being harassed by one of the griffons. He had a grey coat and brown eyes, with dull bronze stripes running down his legs and a short but styled brown mane. Still believing in the Equestrian notion that guards were there for the people, I didn’t think twice about approaching them.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” I inquired.
The griffon turned, a cocky sneer already painted on his face as he held the recusant with one claw. I suddenly remembered that I was in the Outer World, and that the guards here probably didn’t care about random passerby at all. Shit.
With his mouth already open and ready to offer some insulting challenge, he focused in on my horn. He faltered, his eyes widening. All at once, he wiped the contempt off his face and replaced it with respectful subservience. He straightened himself into attention and cleared his throat.
I blinked. What? I realized that he thought I was some kind of superior. “What’s going on here?” I demanded, trying to speak like the rough and derisive officer he clearly thought I was.
The griffon pulled the recusant forwards. “This recusant, sir. He was stealing, sir.”
“He most certainly is not!” I scoffed. I fought to contain the laughter building up within me. I couldn’t let myself smile! “This recusant is my personal aide. Release him this instant!”
The griffon nodded, bowing as he backed away. “Yes, sir.” The recusant wrenched himself from his captor’s grasp, stepping to my side with his nose in the air. Cowed, the griffon bowed one more time before taking to the skies.
I looked to my ‘personal aide.’ He looked to me. He grinned, offering an extravagant bow. “And who might you be, oh savior of mine?”
I cocked my head. He was nothing like the Stygians. “I’m Dissero. You?”
He waggled his eyebrows at me knowingly, scanning what remained of the daytime crowd. “Eh, I dunno if I can tell you that just yet. Why did you help me?”
“Some recusants have saved my life before. I thought I’d return the favor,” I explained.
He was staring right at me, right into my eyes. He squinted. I faltered, taking a step back. I waited for some kind of response. Nothing. We passed a few awkward minutes like that, and finally I looked down, scratching at the ground with a hoof. When I looked back up, he had a wide smile plastered on his face.
“Well, okay then!” he exclaimed. “I’m Slick. Thanks for helping out, but really, I had it handled. You’re not working for the Baron, are you?”
I felt my heart skip a beat. I was surprised that the Baron had an influence in this city. Then again, I suppose it makes sense. All the Equestrian trade flows through here after all. Luckily, I maintained enough composure to answer the question.
His eye’s brightened. “Hey, cool! C’mon buddy!”
Grabbing me in the surprisingly strong grip of a wing, he walked into a nearby alleyway. Still somewhat surprised by the sudden change in attitude, I completely forgot to ask where we were going as I was pulled behind him.
Soon I found myself following him through the alleys of New. They were an amazingly intricate and equally disgusting spider web of tiny little pathways, darkened by the constricting buildings that made them. We were near to a skydock, and the buildings were so close together that sometimes we could barely fit between them single file. Our hooves splashed through stagnant rainwater that, lacking anywhere to go, had no doubt been sitting in the alleys for weeks. Every now and then we broke out of the claustrophobic tunnels onto wider paths that might, in a Canterlot slum, have been worthy of calling a road, only to delve back into the alleys a few seconds later.
An obvious question that I should’ve asked earlier suddenly occurred to me. “Where are we going?” Stupid. Why would you just follow him like that? Too trusting of recusants... My head was starting to spin from the labyrinthine route.
Slick didn’t slow down as he called back an answer. “To our place! I think you can help us out!”
I skidded to a stop, splashing filth everywhere. “Help you? When did I agree to that?”
He slowed down, looking back to offer me an innocent smile. “I thought you wanted to help. Because I’m a recusant.”
“What? No!” I sputtered. “I already helped you with the guard.” I began to walk away, regretting the lost time and chastising myself for my idiocy. It took me all of two steps to realize that I had no idea where I was.
“You from around here, Dissero? It’s easy to get lost in all these twists and turns.”
Shit. Why did I let him pull me into this? Into here? I narrowed my eyes at him disapprovingly. He did this on purpose!
“Fine,” I said. “Lead the way.”
Ω Ω Ω
New, I learned, was much bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside.
It was full on night time now, and I was panting behind Slick as we trotted along. We had dodged griffons of every one of the five factions that seemed to control the city, and once even been caught by a patrol. Slick had stalled loudly, drawing another patrol from a different faction, and we had escaped while they fought over who got to apprehend us.
“What’s up with the guards in this city?” I asked.
“Well, New doesn’t really have, strictly speaking, any singular ruling power,” Slick explained. “As a matter of fact, it’s not, strictly speaking, a single city. I’m sure you’ve noticed the five skydock clusters, and the five flags?”
I nodded, then remembered that I was behind him and he couldn’t see me. “Yeah.”
“Those are all owned and maintained by five different companies, who’re all competing for the trade with Equestria, Harvest City, and the west. It just so happens that this is the closest point between the Outer World and wherever those Equestrian ships come from, and the only place west of the Bare Lands in reach of Harvest, so they all set up here. They all claim to be in charge, and they all hire their own mercs to act as guards. It’s really quite nice for those of my profession.”
“And what profession might that be?”
“Illegality. General unlawful behavior. Robbery, thievery, tomfoolery, smugglery, littering. It’s really nice. Got a guard hot on your tail? Draw him past a rival patrol! Works every time.” He looked back to wink at me.
Oh, great. Criminals. I cocked my head ponderously. “Are there any recusants that aren’t outlaws?”
“There’s a few of us, but it's tough living inside the law. Everyone is always expecting us to break it.”
Slick came to a stop, pulling a key out of his mane and slotting it into a nondescript door. We had finally arrived at our destination. I looked up at the stars, wondering if Exe was worried. No, that didn’t seem like him. Maybe aware would be a better term. Yeah. I wonder if he’s noticed my absence.
The door opened up to a ladder in a narrow shaft. I went down first, and Slick closed the door behind us.
A few rungs down, the ladder ended, and I found myself in a simple stone basement. Three bedrolls huddled together near a vent that radiated heat, and a couple of lamps on the wall provided some dim light. There was another recusant there, leaning over the wooden table that served as the room’s centerpiece. He had the same grey coat as Slick, with a single green stripe running down his spine
He looked up, somehow taking notice of me through the thick green mane that hung over his eyes. “Ey! Who’re you?” he demanded.
I heard Slick landing behind me, and felt him put a hoof around my shoulder. “Relax, brother. I got us the unicorn we needed!”
I stifled a groan. What have I gotten myself into...?
The other recusant’s eyes brightened, and he rushed up to shake my hoof. “Really? You’re gonna help us?”
I opened my mouth to respond, but Slick interrupted me. “Yeah!” he said. “Dissy, this is Pick. He’s my brother. Pick, this is Dissy. I picked him up off the street.”
I shot him an appalled look, debating between whether his usage of my foalhood pet name or his insistence that he had ‘picked me up off the street’ bothered me more. I shook my head and started to offer Pick a greeting.
He interrupted me. “Hey, cool! I’m gonna go upstairs and get Trick. Hopefully she’s not busy.”
That is really frustrating. How many times had I been interrupted today? Were they doing this on purpose? Would I be spending tonight in a jail cell? While Pick trotted up the stairs built into the far wall, I turned to Slick, hoping to find some answers.
He was standing over the table, beckoning to me. “Come over here. You can’t help if you don’t know the plan.”
Well, good enough. I stepped up to the table. A creased map of the city and its surroundings was spread out upon it, pinned down by a small box of colored pencils. The city was split into five sections, with each one being outlined in either red, green, brown, black, or white. A few other markings were on the map as well, all centered around a large building in the red district, built close to the cliff’s edge.
Slick circled the building with a red pencil. “Our goal, basically, is to get into this warehouse, open the safe, extricate the Equestrian gemstones within, and get them somewhere safe.”
I squinted at the map skeptically. It was hard to see in the dim light. “And what would you need me for? Aren’t you all experienced with this stuff?”
He shook his head. “No. Well, yes. But no. You see, this warehouse is special. The Jackal keeps most of his Equestrian gemstones there, waiting to be shipped out across the continent. We need you to help us with distracting the guards, and with getting the gems out.”
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “I don’t see how I could help you with that...”
He grinned. “Oh, don’t you worry. I do.”
With a dull thud, Pick returned from upstairs, leading a lithe recusant mare behind him. Her long, flowing red mane made a stark contrast against her light grey coat. Narrow pink stripes ran up her neck and cheeks, tapering off at her shoulders and under her gentle pink eyes. Carefully applied makeup accentuated her facial features, and a colorful but loosely buckled saddle bounced on her back. I swallowed nervously.
She was giving me a weird look. Suddenly, I realized that my mouth was open and I had stopped breathing. I shook myself, blushing as she approached me.
“So, you’re our unicorn?” she asked. Wow, that voice. I closed my mouth again, nodding mutely.
She extended a hoof. “I’m Trick. Nice to meet ya.”
We shook, and Trick unbuckled her saddle, letting it fall to the floor carelessly. Slick beckoned us all over to the table.
“Come on now. We’ve gotta review the plan with Dissy here if we’re gonna do this tonight,” he said.
“Wait, what? You want to do this tonight? Doesn’t this type of thing usually take months of planning and practice?” I asked. Everything was just going downhill. I should’ve stayed with Exe.
Pick stepped forwards to explain. “We’ve actually been planning this for awhile now. Slick’s already scouted the place and Trick’s already got the safe code. We’re all ready, and we kind’ve need to do it tonight.”
I stepped back, face screwed up with denial. “Wha- Why? Why can’t you just give me some time to think about this?”
“Because one of Robber Baron’s lieutenants is out of town tonight, and we can’t do it while he’s here. If we wait another day, we’ll have to wait until he cycles out to Equestria, which would be months more,” Trick said. “Besides, I’m tired of paying for this shithole.” She gestured to the cold stone walls of the room, disgusted.
I cocked my head. “What do you mean you’re tired of paying?” Don’t recusant clans usually stick together anyways?
“It’s been a slow couple of months,” Slick explained. He put on a strained smile. In the silence that followed, a brief burst of passionate male moaning leaked through the ceiling. I looked at Trick’s saddle where it lay on the ground, and noticed for the first time the unusually sensual cut. My eyes widened as I made the connection. Oh.
“Okay, fine. What’s the plan?” I couldn’t turn them down now. Not after realizing the truth behind their predicament. Despite myself, my heart was getting the better of me.
Slick and Pick both grinned widely. “So you’re in?” they asked.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and nodded. When I opened them, Trick was smiling at me. “Looks like you’re our unicorn after all,” she said.
Slick pulled me closer. “Okay, listen up. We don’t have much time.”
I paid rapt attention as he explained the plan to me, pointing and marking on the map with the colored pencils. I nodded, asking questions when necessary for clarification. If I was going to do this, I wanted to have a good idea of what was happening.
I hadn’t even been in New for a whole night, and it was the first Outer World city I’d ever entered. There wasn’t much law out here, and I was already ready to break what little could be found.
Chapter 12: General Illegality
I admit, I was beginning to harbor some serious regrets about this plan. Even after the hour spent reviewing it while Slick and Trick made final preparations, I found myself faltering.
No, I already do regret it. My nerves were getting the better of me. The rain and fog wasn’t helping, either.
I felt a little push on my flank, and twisted my neck back to glare at the offender. Slick was standing behind me, waving a hoof forwards with a reassuring smile. I narrowed my eyes at him. I was not reassured.
Nonetheless, there was a schedule I had to stick to. There was a job to be done. According to the recusants, who apparently could sense weather, the fog and rain would last only till a little bit after sunrise. All the more reason to strike now.
Pulling my bandanna up, I stepped out of the sheltering alley and into the rain. I tugged at my recently bought black cape nervously, making sure it was still there. It was an interesting fact that while black capes couldn’t be found anywhere within the Baron’s district, they were sold everywhere else in the city practically free.
I trotted across the empty street, stopping before a tall wooden building that advertised itself as The Baron’s Keep. Taking a deep breath to compose myself, I placed a hoof on the door and pushed.
Where The Hub was an inn, The Baron’s Keep was a full-on tavern. It was also the main hangout of the many black-clad griffons charged with defending The Baron’s hostile border with The Jackal. The patronage was almost exclusively griffon, all laughing and drinking loudly, with the only exception being a small band of vicious looking bears, sitting at a corner table and giving mean looks to any drunk griffons that tried to harass them.
I stood in front of the door a good minute, overtaken by a deadly relative of stage fright. Slick’s instructions ran through my mind.
“Some of them will be skipping night patrol because of the rain. Most of them will be drunk. All of them will be ready for a fight. You just have to give them a direction.”
I gulped. “Hey, guys,” I said weakly. The bandanna muffled my voice, and all that came out was a sort of dull mumble. Nobody noticed me.
“Ahem.” I cleared my throat. No results.
“These are gonna be mercs. They deliver and deal with death every day, and if you’re not of their flock, you’ve gotta be rough to gain their respect. Be loud. If you talk like you own them, then you’ll soon find that you do.”
I closed my eyes. Talk like you own them. I needed to speak like an officer of the Baron. Like I didn’t give a shit about what they thought. Like I had paid for them, and I wanted my money’s worth, and I felt like going out on raid. Yeah! These are your mercs! I pulled my bandanna down, opened my eyes, and took a deep breath.
Suddenly, I felt a strong hoof wrapped around my shoulder, pulling me into a tight embrace.
“Change of plans,” Trick whispered. Keeping her hoof around me, she gently pushed me forwards, walking us towards a curtained off area in the back.
“Old plan isn’t gonna work. We need to get hold of one of the real lieutenants.”
“Can’t we just bail?” A crowd of griffons in front of us parted respectfully. Wearing a black cloak had its perks when you were a unicorn.
“No. Slick’s working onnit. Just gimme some time,” she breathed. “Now be quiet!”
I was forced to withhold my protests as she walked us through the curtain. Five ponies and a griffon sat around an oval table, eyeing eachother over their cards. A cloud of smoke hung in the air, stinging my eyes, and a zebra mare was gently playing harp in a corner.
The ponies looked up from their cards. With the exception of a single pegasus, they were all unicorns. One of them, with a dull bronze coat, cocked an eyebrow as he smoked his cigar.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
I resisted the urge to look to Trick for help, instead going of what I remembered from the old plan. “Just sitting in for Gem Lights.” Please tell me I remembered the name right.
A green one with a brown mane choked out something that sounded vaguely like a laugh. “Heh. I told y’all she was jus’ outta town. Worryin’ over nothing!”
The pegasus twitched his ears thoughtfully. “Not like her to get somepony else to cover, though.”
Another unicorn, a mare, squinted at me through the smoke. “Hey, I don’t recognize you. Anybody know this colt?”
I felt myself starting to sweat nervously. “Oh, uhm, I’m new. Just came in last week.” I stretched my mouth into a smile.
“Last week? There weren’t any unicorns in last week’s replacements. Saw ‘em myself,” the last unicorn said. He had blue fur and a white mane.
“I was late!” I improvised. “Left something on the ship.”
The pegasus played with the poker chips before him idly. “What’dya leave?”
“Just…” I trailed off, thinking. “My bandanna! I left my bandanna. It’s very important to me.” I ran a hoof over the cloth, in case they hadn’t seen it yet.
The whole table shared a little chuckle at that. “Sentimental value? Hah! Welcome to the Outer World, newbie,” the unicorn mare said.
The bronze unicorn nodded to Trick, who was slumped over my shoulder. “Who’s the mare?”
I looked at her, unsure as to how to respond. Luckily, she spared me the task of having to make up an explanation.
“Just a lil’ present for you colts!” She smiled sweetly, tossing her mane. “Mind if we join you?”
The stallions wasted no time in accepting, quickly levitating a chair up to the table for me and clearing a space in the middle of the table. The unicorn mare, meanwhile, rolled her eyes with exasperation and fiddled with her cards.
I sat down in the offered chair as Trick climbed up onto the table, the thin dress she wore sliding over her curves as she moved. The pegasus stallion next to me jabbed me with an elbow.
“Buy-in’s ten bits.”
I opened my saddlebags and floated the required fee out onto the table. The griffon deftly snatched them up before pushing a pile of chips my way. “Enjoy your game, sir.”
I nodded, organizing the chips before me like Storm had taught me to. My heart clenched briefly as I thought of my crew, but I pushed it aside. Now was not the time.
Trick began to dance, much to the delight of the stallions at the table. Another hand was dealt, and I took a peek at my cards. A seven and a two, unsuited. Great.
Worse yet, I had the big blind. I pushed a solid tenth of my chips into the pot, grumbling to myself inwardly.
The unicorn mare cleared her throat. “So, what brings you to the Outer World, newbie?” She levitated a few chips forward.
I shrugged. Luckily, I had worked out my story ten minutes ago. “I like going where other ponies haven’t gone, and I don’t really have any ties in Equestria.”
She nodded as the griffon dealt the flop. Nothing good, of course. Though there wasn’t really much I could hope for with the hand I had. I tapped the table with a hoof. Check.
The pegasus nudged me again. “How’d you find the Baron?” He folded, leaning back and focusing on Trick’s barely veiled flank as he puffed on his pipe.
“I think it’d be better to say that he found me,” I said. Some nods of appreciation went around the room, accompanied by the restless clicking of chips.
“Former slave, then?” the blue-coated unicorn asked. The griffon slid the turn onto the table. No luck with that card either.
“Yeah, you could say that,” I said. I ran a hoof through my mane. I had nothing in this hand. Yet, I still felt confident that I could win. Bluff like Silver does. I leaned forwards as if I had seen something interesting, levitating a small pile of chips forwards.
By now, most of the table was more interested in Trick’s body than the cards. Three of them had simply folded, contenting themselves with the recusant dancing before them.
The green stallion folded, joining his companions in the ever-popular task of eyeing the swaying mare. Only the unicorn stayed in the game with me, looking at her fellow lieutenants disapprovingly as she called my bluff.
Out came the river. A two. My hand now summed up to a grand total of a pair of twos. I pushed half of my chips forward, struggling to keep a straight face. Silver always told me I was too easy to read.
“So, what’re your names?” I asked, hoping the small talk would keep my face from revealing any information about my cards.
The stallions at the table didn’t seem to hear me, too engrossed in Trick’s dance. One of them reached out a hoof to pull at her dress, and she kicked him away coyly. The unicorn mare, to my chagrin, called my bluff. My little pair of twos didn’t stand a chance against her full house.
She reached out to scoop the pot from under Trick’s legs. “Don’t worry about names just yet, newbie. We’ll introduce ourselves next week, if you’re still alive.”
I gulped. Well, okay then.
Another hand was dealt. I had a queen and jack suited. I failed to stifle a little smile. Better. Reluctantly, I paid the small blind and pushed some extra chips forward to stay in the game. I looked down at my pitiful little pile regrettably. How am I supposed to stall for Trick if I can’t even survive three rounds?
We continued to play in silence, with all but one of the stallions once again folding so they could focus on the dance. By the time the griffon dealt the river, I was feeling pretty confident with my hand. I had a flush. Unfortunately, the unicorn mare had used her winnings from her last win to outbid me. I would have to go all-in if I didn’t want to fold. Risk it? I narrowed my eyes at her.
Trick suddenly spoke up. “Hey, sweetums, you runnin’ outta chips?” she asked me. I looked up at her, surprised by the question.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
She stepped off the table, inspiring a slight moan of dissatisfaction from the watching stallions, and slid up to my ear. “Why don’t you bet me instead, then?” she whispered loudly.
My ears twitched. Thank Celestia I’m wearing something. I looked around the table. “Are you guys okay with that?”
The bronze stallion, who was also in the hand, nodded enthusiastically. “Yessir, Ah’ll take that deal!”
The unicorn rose out of her chair. “Hey, wait! That’s not fair, I’m not interested in her!”
The other stallions rose their voices, quickly talking over her as they expressed their approval of the new betting chip.
“Let ‘em do it!”
“I wanna see what she can do!”
The mare glared at her opponents before spitting on the floor in disgust. “Fine! Fine! Be that way. I’m out of this one.” She tossed her cards away spitefully.
That left me and the bronze stallion. He narrowed his eyes at me with such complete, savage bloodthirstiness that I found myself slowly sliding under the table. In the background, the zebra continued to play her harp. Trick probably wants me to lose this anyways, I reasoned. I valiantly folded.
My competitor broke out into a wide grin. “Hah!” He laughed. “The mare is mine!”
Trick walked around the table, her hooves clopping loudly in the stallion’s anticipating silence. She reached out with her neck and, ever so softly, bit the bronze stallion behind his ear. He visibly relaxed, snorting with pleasure.
“You’re comin’ with me then, big boy.” Wrapping a seductive wing around the stallion’s trunk, she gently led him towards a door in the far wall. She opened it, revealing a simple bedroom on the other side and, with one last flutter of her eyelashes, disappeared them both within it.
The unicorn mare stomped a hoof on the table angrily, snapping the remaining males out of their envious reverie. “Hey! Control yourselves, for fuck’s sake! I’m tryna play a game here!”
Ω Ω Ω
The moaning had been going on for half an hour straight now.
I was sitting on the floor in the curtained off section of The Baron’s Keep, leaning against the wooden wall as I divided my attentions between the ongoing card game and the constantly vibrating door. I looked down at the bottle of vodka in my hooves idly. The other lieutenants had decided to order a round of drinks, and I hadn’t wanted to look like some soft Equestrian and blow my cover, so I’d ordered the only drink I knew: Stalliongrad Swan Song. Cleaver’s vodka. Luckily, I’d been having trouble drinking it and, despite half the bottle being empty, I still wasn’t even slightly buzzed.
I raised it to my lips, hoping to take a sip, but was rudely interrupted by a loud banging from the other side of the wall. The bottle swayed uncontrollably, spilling more of its insides into the little puddle it had already made on my lap instead of my tongue.
Luckily, nopony else noticed. With the exception of the unicorn mare, who was still futilely trying to keep the game going, everyone was focused on the commotion inside the nearby bedroom. Except the griffon and zebra. Whether from a lack of interest or an excess of discipline, they stalwartly kept to their respective tasks.
Finally, the bedroom fell silent. All of the stallions hurriedly turned their attention back to the game. Some of them abandoned their eavesdropping positions and returned to their seats at the table. When Trick emerged from the bedroom, mane slightly ruffled and dress somewhat dirtied, it almost looked like they had actually been playing poker the whole time.
She walked by me without a word, running her tail over my muzzle as she passed. My ears twitched. Climbing to my hooves, I set the vodka down and turned to follow her, trying to ignore the jealous stares I felt boring into my back. Bunch of horn dogs, is what they are.
We soon found ourselves outside of the tavern and back into the rain. As soon as the door closed, she shook the dress off and pulled a brush out of her saddlebags, running it through her disheveled mane.
“What was all that about?” I asked.
She began to walk towards the nearest alley, and I followed. “Just needed to incapacitate somepony for ya to impersonate,” she explained.
I frowned. “Incapacitate? You had sex with him!”
She looked back, grinning. “Yeah. I call that one the Balmer Series. He won’t be getting up for at least six hours.”
“What? But what was the point?” She stopped walking, turned to face me, and sat down. We were in the alleys now, out of sight from the street.
“So he couldn’t interfere. Here, put these on.” She reached into her bags, pulling out a nametag, wallet, shoulder patch, and badge. She held them out to me one by one, and I grabbed them with my magic.
I looked at them awkwardly. “Uhm…” I began.
She rolled her eyes. “For blood’s sake.” She pulled me closer, picking a needle and thread out of her mane. I stood there silently, trying not to look at her disconcertingly close face as she worked with my barding. After a few minutes of fussing, she stepped back.
I looked down. The patch newly stitched onto my shoulder displayed the image of a crossed horn and wing. On my chest was a badge of a black pony on a red background, rearing up, and the nametag had the name “Apple Waffle” printed on it.
I looked up, mouth already open for questions, and found the wallet being held aggressively close to my face.
“Here,” Trick said. “This is you. Head towards the warehouse and pretend you own it.” She flared her wings, bending her knees in preparation for takeoff.
“Wai- wh- why!?” I raised a hoof to protect my eyes from the dust she kicked up as she flew away. I looked after her, lost and confused. What the fuck?
I sighed. Only one thing to do now. Not yet familiar with the alleys of New and not wanting to get lost, I retraced our path to the street. I closed my eyes briefly as I reviewed my mental map of the city. The Jackal’s district is… northeast.
Looking up to the nearest skydock, still swarming with airships even at this hour, I set off for my new destination. There were black-caped griffons everywhere, eyes peeled for trouble. There was a patrol on every street corner. This close to the border of the Baron’s district, there would be a curfew in place, but my patch and badge seemed to excuse me from it. Some of them even raised a talon into a casual salute, and I responded with a polite nod as I passed.
It’s too quiet in this city…
Turning a corner, the checkpoint between the Baron’s and Jackal’s districts came into view. There was a roadblock set up, stretching across the street and manned by both black-caped and red-capped griffons alike, each side leering at the other suspiciously. I slowed down, uncertain of what to do.
Suddenly, I felt a tug on my collar. I opened my mouth to shout, but the hoof over it only let strained mumbles through. The hooves turned me around, and I saw Slick’s dark brown eyes looking into mine.
“What are you doing!?” he hissed.
“I’m going to the warehouse!” I whispered defensively.
“Through the checkpoint?”
“Are you crazy?” He shook me for extra emphasis.
I pulled myself away from him. “Well, why not? Aren’t I some type of officer or something?” I gestured at my badge.
He sighed, putting a hoof to his forehead. “No, no, no. Well, yes. But you can’t go through the checkpoint.”
“But why not?”
“Because they’ll catch you! You’re not supposed to be here. Or over there, either.” He looked around suspiciously, checking to see if any of the guards that patrolled the alleys were nearby.
“I thought I was an-“
“Yes, but the Jackal and the Baron are not friends!” he interrupted. He narrowed his eyes as he looked off into the middle distance. “They are enemies.”
I took an incredulous step back, confused. “But then, why am I disguised as-“
“Because nobody is supposed to know about this whole thing,” he explained.
My brow furrowed with bewilderment. I shut my eyes tight, taking a few seconds to try and figure things out. “But isn’t that what the disguise is for?”
He sighed the sigh of a professional working with a foalish amateur that couldn’t even understand the plan. “No. No, that’s not right. You, like disguised you, are not supposed to be there either.”
My ears twitched as I worked it all out. I perked up. “Oh! So I still need to be sneaky!”
He smiled, nodding. “Yes, that’s it! Stick to the alleys.” He flared his wings, and I my eyes widened as I recognized a pegasus about to take off.
“Wait, stop!” I jumped on him, knocking us both into the mud.
He pushed me off and climbed to his hooves, looking over his mudstained outfit with disgust. “What do you want?” he demanded.
“I don’t know these alleys,” I hissed.
“Ugh,” he sighed. “Fine. Listen up.” He closed his eyes briefly, tracing out a mental path through the alleys with a hoof. “Go right, then left, left, right, right, up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, back, across, right, right, straight, up, across, down, left, right, straight, and corner. Got it?”
“Okay, great!” He flapped his wings, and he was gone.
I blinked again. Looking up to the night sky, I raised a muddied hoof to block the drizzle.
Ω Ω Ω
I breathed a sigh of relief as, cresting the angled roof of yet another building, the warehouse finally came into view.
Squinting, I scanned the area around the structure. A wide street surrounded it, making it the only building I’d seen in this city that wasn’t suffocating under the weight of its peers. Sizeable patrols of griffons led by winged gargoyles, or wahrgoyles as the recusants called them, guarded every entrance. A small tower in the center of the building lit up the dark streets with a collection of fiery spotlights, and a line of steel obstructions spread across the courtyard prevented any unwanted vehicles from approaching the main entrance.
I ran a nervous hoof through my mane. The warehouse wasn’t the sort of building to be trifled with.
I felt a hoof tapping on my shoulder and jumped, twisting around.
Pick was crouching behind me, black stripes painted on his face. “What took ye so long?”
“I got lost in the alleyways. A few times,” I explained.
He cocked his head. “I thought Slick gave ye directions?”
“He gives terrible directions!” I hissed.
He waved me away defensively. “Okay, okay. Ye know the plan?”
“No, I don’t know the plan! Nobody ever told me anything!”
“Ey, ey, calm down. Ye gotta get me in there ta meet our contact.”
“Contact? What contact? When did we get a contact?” I asked. I ran a hoof through my mane again, shaking my head incredulously.
He peeked over the roof again, scanning the warehouse and its surroundings. “Listen. Ye’re here on a secret deal. Ye’re gonna exchange me fer some of the Jackal’s gems.”
He put a hoof to my mouth, shushing me. “No time fer questions. We’re behind schedule already. Follow me.”
He trotted to the edge of the rooftop and jumped into the alley, bracing his hooves against the constricting walls to slow his descent. I followed, looking down after him reluctantly. Scraping my hooves against the walls like that looked like it would hurt.
I hopped off the rooftop, clumsily sticking my limbs out and sliding down in a sort of sideways half-tumble. Holy fuck, it does hurt! With a strangled yelp, I landed face-first in the mud.
“Yeegh, gross.” I climbed to my hooves, shaking some of the clingy mud off, but most of it stayed stuck to my coat. Pick beckoned to me from where he stood deeper in the alleys, his black clothing and body paint making it hard to pick him out amongst the shadows. I nodded, and together we made our way through the intricate network.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked.
“Cause I need a wey to get in,” he responded.
“What about Slick and Trick?”
“Trick will talk ‘er wey in. Slick is, well, slick. Don’t worry ‘bout ‘em.”
He suddenly stopped, blocking my path with his body as he stood at alert. Slowly, he raised a hoof to his mouth, signaling for silence. I strained my ears, and just barely picked out the sound of someone splashing through the muddy alleys ahead of us.
He carefully positioned his wing over the sheath strapped to his side and, taking care to not make a sound, drew a long and curved black dagger. He tiptoed forwards, turning the corner ahead of us and out of my sight.
A minute passed in relative silence. Only the occasional sound of griffon wings overhead and the quiet splash of a guard in the alleys broke the calm.
The sound of racing hooves sprang into being, shortly followed by a brief shout and a strangled groan. Pick poked his head out from around the corner and beckoned to me. I followed, and was treated to the sight of a red-capped griffon, bleeding out into the mud.
“You killed him!” I hissed.
Pick looked to me curiously, cleaning his blade on the griffon’s feathers. “Well, ye, I did.”
“Why did you kill him?”
“Was in our wey. Had ta be taken care of.”
“But you didn’t have to kill him. You could’ve, I don’t know, choked him out or led him away or something!” I protested.
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Ye, I guess I coulda. Jus didn’t occur ta me. This is quicker and easier enyways. Now c’mon.”
He trotted away, and I had no choice but to follow. Still, I was careful to walk around the griffon’s corpse. I didn’t want any blood on my hooves.
We soon reached our destination. Pick peeked around the corner briefly, squinting, before turning back to me.
“Now remember,” he said. “I’m yer prisoner. Yer here fer gems. Ye don’t care what they want wit’ me, and yer not supposed to be here. The guard in front of the door there is expectin’ ya, but thas it. Don’t let enyone else see ya, and stay in character!”
I nodded, preparing myself. Pick pulled a rope and a set of hoofcuffs out of nowhere, quickly tying a noose around his neck and slapping the cuffs onto himself. He bent down and rubbed his face in the mud before signaling for me to proceed.
Grabbing the noose’s lead in my magic, I stepped around the corner with feigned confidence. Before me was one of the streets that surrounded the warehouse, and on the other side was a simple door with a pair of griffon guards. One of them was sound asleep, and the other was eyeing the alleys nervously. He jumped when he saw me and, glancing up and down the street one more time, beckoned to me furiously.
I trotted forwards briskly, crossing the street in the span of a few seconds and stopping before the fidgety griffon. He examined my nametag, badge, and patch briefly before breaking into a wide smile.
“Hey. So you’re Apple Waffle? I imagined you being more… country,” he said.
“Heh, yeah. Ah get that a lot,” I said. I did my best to improvise a southern accent.
“What happened to you? You look like you got in a fight on the way here.” He poked at my cloak curiously, pointing out the mudstains that had accumulated over the past couple hours.
“Uh, nothing. Nothing. Ah just tripped, is all. Are yo- y’all gonna let me in?”
He jumped into action. “Oh, right. Right! Yeah. Go ahead and check out the gems. I’ve got ‘em laid out for you. Take ‘em and leave the recusant tied to one of the shelves.”
He nodded, more to himself than me, and opened the door with a bronze key. I stepped through, pulling Pick after me. The griffon kicked him as he passed, and he made a big show of stumbling over the threshold.
The traitorous guard closed the door behind us, and Pick quickly slid out of the noose and cuffs. They weren’t even small enough to stay on his hooves unless he spread his legs out. He scanned the dimly lit warehouse interior, squinting.
“They should be here. C’mon, follow me,” he said. He trotted away on sure hooves, and I took in my surroundings as I followed.
The warehouse had a very basic design to it, being nothing more than a large rectangle. Starlight shone through the skylights spaced across the ceiling, providing all of what little light there was. Row upon row of wide crates and barrels were stacked on top of eachother, splitting the room into a grid of pathways, all branching off of a larger one that stretched through the middle of the room.
Pick led the way to the main path and glanced down both sides. He quickly ducked back, and my ears twitched as they picked up the sound of hooves and talons approaching in tandem.
“Oooh, you’re so sweet, and just the cutest feathered friend I’ve ever seen. What kind of things do you keep in here?”
“Oh, hehe, y’know. All sorts of stuff. Hey, have you ever held an Equestrian gemstone? I can get you one.”
“Aww, that would be simply amazing. C’mon! I wanna see them!”
Trick skipped into view, leading a flustered griffon as they walked down the central path. She picked us out from where he hid in the shadows and winked at us, but the griffon was too caught up in his fantasies to notice.
“Hey, you wanna do me a favor, baby?” Trick asked.
He grinned. “Sure! Anything.”
She smiled at him coyly. “Then close your eyes. It’s a surprise.”
The griffon wasted no time, obediently closing his eyes in trembling anticipation. Trick didn’t waste any time either. With one smooth movement, she reached out and snapped his neck.
Gently, she lowered his lifeless body to the ground. “Good boy,” she whispered.
Pick smiled, walking up to his sister and pulling her into a quick embrace. “Ye’know how long till Slick arrives?”
She shook her head. “No. I think he’s arranging something else somewhere. An escape plan or something. Hey, what’s wrong with our unicorn?”
I’m stuck with a bunch of psycho murder-burglars, that’s what’s wrong! I was crouched in the dark, trying to keep myself from panicking. Two! That’s two now! Why do they keep pointlessly killing people? The Stygians weren’t like this; they only killed when they had to!
“You okay, partner?” Trick was standing over me, a distant cousin of concern in her eyes. She placed a kind hoof on my shoulder, and I twitched nervously.
I rose to my hooves, stepping out her reach. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
Picked walked over. “Ye still good fer the job?” he asked.
They’re just worried about the job. They don’t even care about me.
“Yeah, yeah I’m fine.” I waved a hoof reassuringly. “It’s just… I wasn’t expecting you to just kill the guard.”
Trick cocked her head at me. She looked back to where the griffon lay curiously. “Wait, do you think we’re gonna do that to you?”
I scuffed at the floor nervously.
Pick laughed. “Please! We’re partners. We’d never betray a partner.”
“What about him?” I nodded my head at the corpse aggressively.
Trick shrugged. “He was an entry point, nothing more. Not a partner. A liability, if anything. Don’t worry, you’re safe with us.”
They walked away without another word. Apparently the matter was settled. I followed, hesitating by the griffon’s body. I cringed. She didn’t have to do that.
My ears twitched at a small, barely audible squeak above me. I looked up to see a familiar recusant closing a skylight panel behind him as he hovered beneath it. With a quick few flaps of his wings, Slick landed before us.
“Are we good?” he asked.
“We were just waiting on you,” Trick said.
He nodded. “Alright, great. Trick, we need two more boyfriends. Dissy, go with Pick.”
“My name is n- ugh, fine.” It doesn’t really matter anways.
I followed Pick as he walked towards the back of the warehouse. There was another room there, a smaller area in the corner sectioned off by a couple thick walls and an intimidating steel vault door.
Pick crouched before the door, pulling a small sheet of paper out of his collar. He looked to me expectantly. “Hey, kin I get some light over here?” he asked.
I walked closer, lighting up my horn for him. He squinted over his paper, mumbling to himself as he carefully rotated the a dial on the door. His ears twitched at the soft click that came from the other side, and he proceeded to the next part of the lock.
Within a few minutes, he had it cracked. The heavy door swung open ponderously, revealing the shiniest, most expensive collection of jewelry I had ever seen.
Three shelves lined the walls, with two more built in the middle of the room. Each one was crammed full of glittering gems. Sapphires, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, all the colors of the rare stone rainbow were represented.
“What does he do with all these?” I asked. I stepped into the room and spun around in awe, trying to take it all in.
“I dunno. E’s an arms dealer. I think ‘e uses ‘em for barter or investment or… something,” Pick said. “Help me unload these.”
Reaching into a small pocket on his shirt, he pulled out a carefully folded sack and shook it open. He looked to me expectantly.
“Oh, right.” The light brown magic of my horn was reflected a thousand-fold as I grabbed the gems, levitating them into the bag in groups of twos and threes. “Are these very valuable?”
He shot an appalled look at me. “Are ye stupid? They’re gemstones!”
“Well, yes, but you can find these practically everywhere in Equestria…” I trailed off, feeling like I was saying something completely stupid.
“Ye well, this inn’t Equestria.” He shook his head, muttering to himself. “Damn Equestrians…”
The bag was by then full to the brim with sparkling gems. He tied the top off and pulled out another. Once again, he held it open while I levitated our loot. With the help of my magic, we were able to fill six bags within twenty minutes.
“Okey, time to bail.” He grabbed a pair of bags and tied them together, sliding into them like a saddle. With visible strain evident on his face, he rose to his hooves and began to walk away. At the same time, I grabbed the remaining four bags with my magic, trying my best to keep them in one easy-to-manage bunch. They were heavy, and I almost couldn’t handle the load, but my horn had been strengthened from a year of working the furnace under the Baron.
We made our way down the central path, stopping before the main entrance. Three large, wagon-sized doors waited in front of three similarly sized wagons. One of the wagons had a team of three wolves and a zebra strapped into its harness, with Trick slumped over the driver’s seat delicately.
Slick approached us, grinning. “Good! You got it. C’mon, load her up.” He grabbed one of Pick’s bags in his teeth, taking the weight off the tired recusant, and tossed it into the back of the wagon. Pick shoved his own bag in, and I levitated the remaining four in last.
I glanced over to the males strapped into the harness. “Who’re they?” I asked.
Trick looked back to grin at me. “Just my boyfriends,” she said. The wolves wagged their tails enthusiastically.
I bent my head closer to Slick. “Why are they helping us?” I whispered.
He grabbed me, pulling my eyes up to his. “You have no idea how good she is in bed.” He let go, leaving me off balance. I stumbled backwards, brow furrowed.
“How good could she be?” I asked.
“It’s my special talent, dearie,” the mare called back.
Slick tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, over here.” He led me to a stack of red barrels, labeled with yellow letters that spelled out CAUTION.
He pointed to them. “Get about ten or twenty of these. Put ‘em in the wagon. Then put five more in that garage over there.”
“Why do I have to do all the heavy lifting?”
“Because you’re not actually lifting anything.”
I followed his instructions, levitating some of the barrels into the back of the wagon and a few more into the garage area he had indicated, furthest from where our wagon was parked.
“Okay, you better get in the wagon,” Slick said. “This is where things get iffy.”
Pick held out a hoof to help me up, and I climbed into the back with him. It was a fairly large vehicle, designed for carrying trade goods across the Outer World. The deepest part of the wagon was dominated by the six brown sacks full of gems and the collection of red barrels. With the exception of a small space left for Trick to look back through, the entire back half of the wagon was full. My eyes widened as I noticed three crossbows piled together in one corner, next to a bucket full of bolts.
Pick grabbed one of the crossbows and loaded it, holding another out to me. “Here,” he said. “Ye’re gonna want one o’ these.”
I grabbed it in my magic, running a hoof through my mane. My heart was starting to speed up. What are we doing?
Slick hopped into the back of the wagon with us, pulling the tailgate closed. “Alright, everyone get ready,” he said. He grabbed the last crossbow and loaded it.
“Slick, what did you mean when you said things this is where things get iffy?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Well, I figured out how to get us in and how to get transportation, but this is about where I drew a blank.”
He leaned back, fidgeting with his crossbow. “Our escape plan goes something like this: drive this wagon out of the city. That’s it.”
“Oh, shit.” I sat down. My heart was pounding. Why couldn’t we stick to the first plan? The first plan was good! Sweet Celestia, save me!
Pick put a comforting hoof on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, e’s better with plans ‘e makes up on the spot. Less subject ta sudden changes, ye’know?”
Cleaver woke up.
He reached out a hoof, blindly searching his end table until it closed around a fresh bottle of vodka. He sat up, popping the cork on the bottle, and took a deep, long drink.
He sighed with satisfaction as the bottle left his lips, and grabbed the little clock that had been next to it. Marvelous things, those clocks. Didn’t have those in Equestria. Little gears everywhere instead of the magical devices he was used to.
He squinted down at it, struggling through his morning stupor to work out the time. His eyes widened. The sun doesn’t rise for another hour! Why am I awake?
He shrugged and put it back in its place. He would take advantage of the unexpected early morning by making a large breakfast. Something nice. He wasn’t sure about what to make yet, though. He needed some thinking time. Some drinking time.
Holding the bottle with one hoof, he walked out of his room with the three-legged gait he’d perfected many years before. He came out in the hallway that connected the six crew quarters Ember had carved out of the airship’s interior. Taking another sip, he walked into the lounge and up the stairs into the navigation room. It had been some noise that had woken him, he was sure of it. But what was it?
He climbed up the ladder to the roof. The roof was a good place to think. Quiet, and just him, his drink, and the stars. A good place to come up with a breakfast meal. He squinted slightly at the edge of the airship. He couldn’t see the city from here, as it was blocked from his view by the ship’s body, but the light rising up from the settlement seemed wrong. Off, somehow.
He walked up to the railing and looked down. He cocked a brow and took a ponderous swig of his vodka.
Why is that building on fire?
“Luna save me!”
I was having trouble breathing. I had to calm down. Calm down! Now! Why couldn’t I calm down? Because you’re about to die!
I almost fell as the racing wagon hit another bump. The rickety banging of the wheels was overpowering. I could barely think. I pulled myself up and looked back at the warehouse, rapidly shrinking in the distance as a team of griffons splashed the newborn fire with buckets of water.
The wagon turned, and I rolled sideways, powerless to resist the inertia. Pick was crouched behind the tailgate, loading his crossbow. He beckoned to me, and I desperately crawled to his side.
“What’s happening?” I had to shout to be heard over the wheels.
“Get ready! They’ll be sending some teams ta chase us!” he yelled back.
I was flipped over by a strong hoof, and found myself face-to-face with Slick. “You can lift those barrels, right?” he asked.
I nodded. In my current state, coherent speech was out of reach.
He grinned wildly, and I squeezed my eyes shut in terror. I recognized that grin. That was Silver’s grin. The grin he grinned when he was about to do something terribly, terribly stupid and he knew it.
I opened my eyes again as I was pulled violently to my hooves. Slick pointed to the back of the wagon, and I looked to see a pair of smaller, open-topped wagons behind us. One was pulled by a chained up bear, and the other by a team of zebra. Both of them were occupied by bloodthirsty griffons and wahrgoyles, weapons drawn as they howled for our blood.
“Throw one of the barrels at them!” he shouted.
Stricken with fear, I rushed to obey. I squinted, having some difficulty focusing amongst all the noise and movement, and levitated one of the red barrels to my side. With a heroic effort, I tossed it out the back of the wagon.
It hit the ground and bounced, spinning through the air as it flew for the chasing vehicles behind us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pick raise his crossbow, take aim, and fire.
The barrel exploded as the bolt hit it, engulfing one of the wagons in fire and sending the other veering off to the side as half of the zebra pulling it were killed. I stared in shock at the carnage. I didn’t mean to do that! I didn’t want to kill them!
Slick pat me on the back. “Good job!”
I transferred my stare to him, mouth open. “Good job? I just killed ten people!”
He nodded, smiling. “Yeah, good one!”
I felt Pick’s hoof poking at me. I turned to face him, and he nodded up to the sky. I followed his gaze. A flight of six griffons was flying above us, ready to dive down upon us.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
I looked down at the crossbow in my hooves. I had almost forgotten it was there. I looked up and shook my head furiously. “No, it’ll kill them!”
“Thas the idea!” Pick fired a bolt up into the air. With a loud squawk, one of the griffons fell out of the air.
Slick shot his crossbow, but his aim was thrown off as the wagon hit another bump. “You gotta shoot ‘em, Dissy! It’s them or us!”
I dropped the crossbow, curling into a panicky fetal position. This isn’t right! I can’t shoot them! Why is this happening to me!? I ran my hooves through my mane over and over, trying to calm myself.
I felt a hoof on my shoulder, and Slick bent down to talk to me. “I’m sorry, partner, but you have to take life if you want to make your own. That’s how it works in the Outer World!”
I peeked an eye out from under my hooves. He was right. I knew he was right, but I didn’t want to accept it. The Outer World was changing me, and it was changing me too fast and too much. I have no choice. I have to do it.
Climbing to my hooves, I shook myself. I can do it. I’m not some weak Equestrian. I can survive. I grabbed the crossbow in my magic and shakily rose the sights to my eye. There was three griffons left, and they were closing fast. Any moment now, they would land on the wagon and tear it apart.
I pulled the trigger.
The crossbow didn’t have much kick, but nonetheless, it felt like I was shooting myself more than I was the griffon. I watched as the griffon tumbled out of the sky. I had killed him. Another life lost. What is one amongst two dozen? Plenty others had died tonight anyways. What does one more matter? I’ll take my place in the chaos.
Pick cheered as he and Slick killed the last two. “Good shot, Dissy!”
I turned on him. “My name is not Dissy! It is Dissero, for fucks sake!”
He backed off, shaking his hooves defensively. “Alright, alright, gee.”
“Your name’s not Dissy?” Slick asked. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I did!” I shouted. “I told you my name was Dissero the first time we met!”
He shook his head. “I didn’t hear you, sorry!”
“Then where did you get ‘Dissy’ from? Where did you get ‘Dissy’ from if you never heard me say ‘Dissero’?”
“I just thought you said Dissy, I’m sorry!”
Trick’s voice floated back to us from the front of the wagon. “You three stop arguing and get to fighting or I swear on Mother I will turn this thing around right now and we’ll all end up dead!”
We quieted down, each of us focusing on reloading our crossbows. A few mumbles drifted around, but nobody dared to challenge her out loud.
A few minutes later another wagon came onto our tail. We dispatched it just like we did the first two, with an explosive barrel and a crossbow bolt. I tried to not think of it as me killing them. I wasn’t the one shooting the bolt, after all. Every now and then another flight of griffons would appear from the fog, and I would help shoot them out of the sky. I tried aiming at their wings or legs, so as not to kill them, but I didn’t feel any better for it.
I didn’t like how easily I was shooting them, either.
The sun began to rise as we reached the outer perimeter of the city. We raced past the merc camps, and a few griffons stepped out of their tents to watch curiously. Thankfully, they didn’t try to catch us. It wasn’t their job. It wasn’t their place.
Slick dropped his crossbow and let out a wild whoop as we escaped the city. “We’re almost there! Once we get to the treeline and hide it there’s no way they’ll catch us!”
He and his brother shared an ecstatic hoof bump while I grinned weakly, breathing hard. I hated myself. I hated this world. I hated everything.
The trees engulfed us, and after another ten minutes the wagon rolled to a gentle stop. Slick and Pick hopped out, and I followed suit as they trotted to the front of the wagon.
The three recusant siblings embraced in celebration of their success, laughing. Trick turned to me.
“Hey, Dissero, you better head back to town. We’ll finish up here with hiding the cart and uh… tying up loose ends.” She winked at me as she said the last bit, nodding at the panting wolves and zebra that had pulled us throughout the chase.
I stepped closer. “What’re you gonna do with them?” I hissed.
She frowned. “You know what I’m gonna do. Same thing I do to all my boyfriends.” She lowered her voice. “We can’t let them snitch, or be caught. All the mercs in New have seen their faces.”
“Ugh! So why can I go back to town, then? Won’t they have seen me too?”
She shook her head, smiling. “Nah, you were in the back of the wagon. You had a black cloak on and were wearing that bandanna of yours. It was a foggy night. Nobody knows you.”
I closed my eyes, straining to keep calm. I didn’t want to break right in front of them. I had to fight the urge to fall to my knees and cry. How could I have killed so many?
“Fine,” I said. I turned back towards the city and began to walk away, ears down. I would head back to The Hub and take a nap. Or cry. Or maybe try my hoof at getting drunk. Whatever. Maybe Exe knew something that could help.
“Meet us at our hideout in a couple days!” Slick called after me. “There’s still a little more to be done before we’re finished!”
I heard him, but I didn’t respond. I walked on in silence, lost in thought. Colonel’s warning was coming true.
Chapter 13: Reunion
As I trotted through the streets of New, heading for The Hub, my mind wrestled with the question of how to escape the Outer World. I definitely couldn’t stay in it. I didn’t belong in it. It was a land of murderers and despots and, despite my efforts to the contrary, I felt like I was turning into one of them, too.
I stopped in front of the tavern, still preserving the presence of mind to remember the disguise sewn into my cloak. Walking a few steps to a nearby alley, I pulled the black cloak off and tossed it into the ever-present mud. With a quick burst of magic, I ripped the badge and nametag away from my barding, dropping them with disgust.
Returning to the door, I raised a hoof and pushed my way through into the loud main room of the inn. This early, the usual din was somewhat subdued, but it was still far from quiet. As I walked, searching for an empty table, I overheard the patron’s gossip.
“You hear about that fire in Red?”
“Yeah, heard it was some kinda theft. Killed thirty guards!”
“No, that’s not it. The Baron’s mercs launched a raid. Whole forty griffons attacked that warehouse.”
“Either way, the Jackal’s furious. Heard he’s callin’ up a team to get revenge.”
Stopping at an unoccupied table against the wall, I pulled up a chair and sat down heavily. I ran a shaky hoof through my mane and untied my bandanna. Spreading it out on the table, I looked over the makeshift map of my homeland. I want to go home.
A zebra waitress walked by. I waved her down.
“Get me a drink. Triple-S.”
“Sure thing, hun.”
She returned a few minutes later, a tray carefully balanced on her back. With practiced ease, she grabbed one of the bottles she was carrying and placed it on the table. Stalliongrad Swan Song. Cleaver’s drink. She walked away without another word.
I eyed the bottle. Cleaver drank the stuff every day, and he always seemed fine. He always seemed happy. I levitated the bottle up for a closer look. I’m going to drink you for real this time.
“Finding yourself at a loss, Equestrian?”
I turned, glaring at the uninvited newcomer to my table. “What do you want, gargoyle?”
He drew back, eyes wide with mock shock. “Me? Gargoyle? Please!” he scoffed. “I am no such rabble!”
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you, then?”
He stroked one of his long, pointed ears with a clawed hand. “I am a tsergoyle. The most noble and intelligent of the goyle castes.”
I grunted noncommittally. I returned to my bottle, raising it to drink, but the tsergoyle swiftly reached out a hand and held it down. I fixed him with a menacing stare, furious at the interference.
He smiled, displaying an array of sharp, carnivorous teeth. “I ask again. What’s wrong, Equestrian?”
I wrenched the bottle from his grasp. “What do you care?”
Putting the bottle down, I sat back in the chair resignedly. “I’m just... not sure what to do with myself. I don’t belong here. I want to get home, but I’m not sure how to... and I don’t know if I’ll still be me when I do.”
The goyle nodded sagely, stroking his chin with one claw. “I think I may know what you need, pony. Advice. But not just any.”
With a flick of his wrist, a folded piece of parchment appeared in his hand. “I have in my possession a map. On the map is directions to find the hideout of a certain well-reputed seer. Though she doesn’t usually take requests, I think that, considering your... position, she might make an exception.”
I considered his offer suspiciously. From what I knew, the Outer World wasn’t the type of place where one was simply approached with free opportunities like this.
“What’s in it for you?” I asked.
“Nothing, for now. I ask only that, should you be satisfied with what the seer tells you, you agree to aid me later, should I have need of your services.” He waved the map about tantalizingly.
“That seems too easy.”
He chuckled. “Ah, starting to lose the old Equestrian trust? Well, don’t you worry, pony. A tsergoyle such as myself would never lie over a matter of business, and I see this agreement to be as binding as a written contract. If you’re not satisfied, you’ll never have to talk to me again. If you are, and you just happen to be around when I need help, then I ask only that you return the favor.”
He stood up, leaving the map on the table. “I can see you suspect I am playing you. Don’t worry, pony, there is no deception at play here. I am merely expanding my assets. Tell me, what’s your name?”
I kept my eyes fixed on the folded up map. “Dissero.”
“Ahh, interesting. Dissero. Well, Dissero, my name is Drizlyn.” He bent down into a quick bow. “I think I’ll leave my map with you. If we cross paths again, I do hope you’ll be willing to help me out.”
He turned on his heel and walked away, giving me no opportunity to respond. I watched in silence as he pushed his way through the crowd and out of the building, disconcerted by his strange bipedal gait.
It didn’t take me long to grab the map and pull it over to my side of the table. I unfolded it, scanning its contents with the trained eye of a pony who, several years ago, was the best student in his cartography class at the Academy.
Unfortunately, the map didn’t cover a very large region. Worse yet, I couldn’t find any sort of compass on it. It was centered on a large city, built just to the side of a mountain range and a large lake. In the mountains there was a thick black X, which I figured marked the location of this supposed seer.
“Harvest City.” I mumbled the name under my breath as I read. If I got to Harvest City, I could find the seer and ask her what to do. If she was as good as that tsergoyle had said, then I might actually have a chance at finding my crew and getting back to Equestria. I didn’t like the idea of striking out on an adventure to some unknown city so I could pin all my hopes on some mysterious seer, especially in a world where everyone has some ulterior motive, but it was all I had. It was better than nothing. I couldn’t just mope around and drink vodka.
I glanced at the bottle before me. The map had spurred the explorer within me, and the sense of being so absolutely lost was starting to fade now that I had a more concrete goal.
Still, I didn’t feel any better about all the killing I had done last night.
Grabbing the bottle in my magic, I took a shallow sip as I rose from my chair. It burned as it went down, but the gentle warmth it brought on did wonders for my anxiety. I felt myself relax as my worries started to slip away, and I raised it to my lips for another, longer drink. I smiled. Yeah, that feels good.
I tucked the map into the collar on my barding and headed for the stairs, resolved to enjoy the drink in the relative solitude of my room. I would feel better after a good nap.
Ω Ω Ω
“Ah, Dissero. Welcome. Please, take a seat.”
I take a few steps forwards, nervously sitting in the expensive wooden chair before me. Through the wall I hear the quiet ambience of the administrative building. I squint briefly as bright sunlight leaks through the tall window on the far side of the room, eyeing the banner above it that dominates the room.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
He leans forwards, pushing a few papers around with his hooves. “Yes. Now, Dissero, I’m sure you know that the Royal Aerial Academy is the most prestigious aerial college in Equestria, yes?”
I gulp. I know where this conversation is going, but I don’t want to admit it to myself. “Yes, sir.”
“And you know that we keep that reputation by enforcing only the most stringent of performance requirements amongst our students, yes?”
I feel myself starting to tremble. My life is falling down around me. “Yes, sir.”
“And you’re aware of the current... state... of your grades? Of your academic probation which started last semester?”
I hang my head and try to hold back the tears. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, Dissero... how can I say this? You simply aren’t holding up to the standards which the Academy sets for its students. I’ve been looking over your scores, and you just don’t seem to be up to it. I’m sorry, son, but... it’s just not working out.”
A choked sob escapes my mouth, and I struggle to keep it all in. “I can do it, sir. I swear. I know I can. If you’ll just give me another chance, I can-”
He shakes his head somberly. “I’m sorry, son. I’ve given you all the chances I can. This school has rules, and I have to enforce them.”
My vision blurs as my dreams begin to shrivel up. The future before me fades away. “But sir, you don’t understand, you have to let me stay! M-my father, and my grandfather, t-they both- they both-”
“There’s nothing I can do for you anymore, Dissero. Every lineage has to end somewhere. You just aren’t cut out for this school.”
He takes his stamp and pushes it onto one of the papers before him. He hoofs it to me, and I force myself to take it. I hold the letter that spells my failure and fight the urge to crumple it up. To tear it apart. To shout and scream and cry until I get my way. I had known it was coming. I had known, I just hadn’t wanted to admit it.
I stumble out of the chair and run out of the office, leaving the administration building at a half-gallop, half-trot pace. The double doors of the Royal Aerial Academy close behind me, and I break out into a full gallop, racing across the green surface of the floating island. Wide shadows cross my path as the Academy’s airships fly above me. The tears flow freely now.
I come to a stop under a lonely tree, falling to my knees and curling up into a little ball. All those years of hard work. An entire foalhood dreaming of getting into the Academy. The pride in my father’s eyes when I brought my acceptance letter into our home. A lifetime planning out my future in the Princess’s Royal Air Force.
What had it all come out to?
Ω Ω Ω
Perhaps drinking a bottle of vodka and then falling asleep hadn’t been the wisest of decisions.
My head was pounding. My tongue retained all the humidity of dry sand. My bladder was bursting. My bed was not nearly as comfortable as it had been when I fell asleep. The alcohol may have helped me with some of my problems, but one of the unwelcome side effects was the addition of new ones.
I groaned, opening my eyes as I rolled over. Thankfully, it was nighttime. I was greeted by not the harsh white glare of the sun, but instead the gentle yellow glow of candles. My head hung limply off the side of the bed, and I focused in on a bucket on the floor beneath me.
I fell off the bed, somehow managed to not tip the bucket over and spill its precious contents. I climbed to my hooves, stopping momentarily to rest on the edge of the bed before dunking my muzzle into the bucket and drinking the warm water within in one long sip.
The bucket tipped over as I lifted my head, scanning the room like a starving stallion stumbling into an oasis. Exe was sitting before the window calmly, looking out into the street. His axe was lying on the bed where it had been before, and my saddlebags lay haphazardly at the foot of my own bed, contents strewn about chaotically.
“How long was I asleep?” I asked. I didn’t want to miss my meeting with the recusants. I had helped them, and I was expecting to get some kind of share for my efforts.
“About seven hours,” the bear said.
I relaxed, falling back onto the bed. My stomach rumbled, but I wasn’t in the mood for eating anything. Half an hour passed in silence.
“Aren’t you gonna ask where I was?”
“I’m not your mate, pony. Where you spend your nights is of no concern to me.”
I cocked an eyebrow at the ceiling. “But aren’t you my guide, or something?”
“I said I would help you find your crew. I have no advice as to how.”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “Do you know where Harvest City is?”
“Of course,” he scoffed. “Is that where you intend to go?”
I nodded, even though I doubted he was looking at me. “Yes. But first I need to take care of some business in New. Would you be ready to travel with me in a couple days?”
He grunted. “I think we may need to leave sooner than that.”
“Didn’t you say you used to be a slave for the Baron?”
He narrowed his eyes at something in the street, a soft growl rising from his throat. “Let’s go downstairs.” He grabbed his axe, slipping it into his sheath before walking out the door.
I hesitated, confused, and followed him down the stairs to the main room. It was unusually quiet, despite being just as full as it always was. Exe paused to raise his hood before taking a silent position at the bottom of the stairs, and I stopped behind him.
Straining to see over his sizeable girth, I saw the patrons all focused on a group of three ponies standing in the center of the room. They weren’t like any ponies I had seen before, in Equestria or the Outer World. They each wore heavy steel barding, stained with the marks of several battles. Rune guns were strapped onto their backs, with packs of bullets hanging beneath the swords and shields on their sides.
“Have I got your attention yet?” one of them roared. He kicked a small pile of guts by his hooves, and I noticed the five griffon corpses lying in puddles of blood around him.
Nobody in the inn dared to challenge him. He had a single grey wing extended, the blade attached to his feathers dripping blood. Silence filled the room, broken only by the sound of the red drops breaking against the wood as he scanned the crowd with hard bronze eyes.
“Listen up this time! I’m here to spread news, not kill you.”
“My name is Ashfall,” the pegasus said. “I am here as the direct representative of the Baron. Anything I do is done with his blessing. If you question me, you are questioning the Baron, and I will strike you down just as quickly as he would.”
He paused, daring any brave souls present to challenge him. Exe locked eyes with Sinnel, who was trying to remain unnoticed behind the bar, and they exchanged a brief nod.
“The Baron has recently had something stolen from him. Something precious. It was taken by a group of escaped slaves, and I am here to bring it back. My search begins here. You’re going to help me.”
I heard a small noise by my side, and glanced down to see Sinnel standing with his back to the stairs. He was holding a key in an upturned palm, shaking it gently to get my attention.
Ashfall nodded to the unicorn standing beside him, and he levitated a rolled up sheet of parchment above the crowd. With a flourish of magic, the scroll opened itself, revealing a carefully sketched picture of an airship.
“If any of you have any knowledge of this ship, you will come to me immediately. If your tip proves fruitful, you shall be rewarded! Whether you want for gold, trade, or power, the Baron will deliver!”
The unicorn walked up to the message board hanging near one of the hearths, grabbing a nearby hammer and some nails. The room watched in silence as he pounded the nails into the cork, pinning the image of the Omega up for all to see.
I bent down, using the banging of the hammer as cover while I fumbled for the key with a hoof, afraid that magic would give me away. He probably knows all the unicorns that are supposed to be outside Equestria. Each strike of the hammer felt like another nail in my coffin.
With another swipe, I grabbed the key, quickly tucking it away in my mane. I nudged Exe with a hoof, and he glanced back to nod his acknowledgement.
The crowd was pushing closer to the message board now, muttering amongst themselves. Exe and I were beginning up the stairs, quietly slipping away, when one of the patron’s rose his voice.
“Hey, I know that ship!”
I froze, looking back.
A wolf had stepped forwards. “I recognize that ship. It docks in New, at the Jackal’s tower.”
Ashfall smiled, and I felt a chill. The expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Is it there now?” he asked.
The wolf shrugged. “I’m not sure. If not, it will be!”
The grey pegasus nodded, putting a wing on the wolf’s shoulder and guiding him to the door. They began to speak, and the wolf’s tail started wagging happily.
I slid closer to Exe. “We need to get to that tower, now!” I hissed.
“I presume you think your crew to be there?”
“Yes! We have to get to them before the Baron!” I levitated the key before my eyes. “What does this key do?”
“It leads to the Out Tunnels,” he said. “Meet me outback.”
I nodded, trotting for the door. Exe headed for the bar, and I overheard him exchanging a few words with Sinnel.
“How much for the room?” he asked.
“Half off for you, old friend. Go redeem yourself,” the innkeeper replied.
The door closed behind me. I paced nervously in the streets, looking up to the Baron’s skydock. There were a few more ships than usual floating around it, silhouetted by the moonlight. I switched my gaze to the Jackal’s district, searching for a familiar shape under its red flag. There!
I wasn’t sure how to feel about the sight of the Omega tied to one of the piers. I had found my crew, but so had the Baron. How have I not seen that ship until now?
Exe emerged from the inn, beckoning to me with his head as he made for the alleys. I sighed. I hate the alleys.
“So what are these Out Tunnels?” I asked, coming up to his side.
He pointed at a heavy metal door built into the side of The Hub. “It’s dangerous owning an inn or tavern in New. They’re burnt down often, and innkeepers are often subject to interrogation by the factions in this city. They’ve all built a system of tunnels under the city, to flee to other inns when they’re in danger.” He smirked. “I hear they also play cards there.”
I slipped the key into its slot, triggering a loud click. I pushed, and the door creaked open to reveal a staircase, descending down into shadow.
Exe pushed me forwards, closing the door behind us and engulfing us in darkness. Lighting the way with my horn, I led us down the stairs.
“Why are they called the Out Tunnels? Do they lead out of the city?”
He snorted. “No, unicorn. They lead to other inns and taverns across New. They call it the Out Tunnels because they thought it would be too obvious if they called them the Inn Tunnels.”
I spent a few seconds working that out.
We arrived at the bottom of the staircase, coming out onto a circular room with crude stone halls stretched off in every direction. There were signs nailed to each path, but the writing on them appeared to be in some kind of code.
I looked to Exe hopefully. “Can you read these?”
“Don’t worry,” Exe said. “I know how to read Sinnel’s atrocious scribblings.”
He started down one of the tunnels, and I followed. With the exception of my horn, there weren’t any light sources to be seen. It was pitch-black ahead of us, and pitch-black behind us. I found myself walking close to Exe, eyeing the shadows nervously. The only sound was the scrape of claws and clop of hooves. Nothing to see and nothing to hear. It was enough to make one doubt their very existence.
We came out to another crossroads. The signs here were written in the same code as the last ones. After a quick glance at the signs, we plunged back into the dark.
We passed through several more crossroads, each time taking a path just as dark and silent as the one before it. I had no idea where we were relative to The Hub. I felt the paths sloping down and up, but in the infinite dark of the tunnels it was difficult to perceive any concept of direction at all. It was just walking.
We stopped in another of the dim underground chambers. I waited patiently for Exe to lead the way down another path, but he just stood in the center of the room, squinting at the signs.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
“No. We’re here.” He started up a rickety ladder leaning against the wall, and I followed. We came out in a small stone construct, with nothing in it but a single door.
I squinted against the light filtering through a large crack in the wall. After so long with nothing but hornlight to see by, my eyes were almost painfully sensitive. “Where are we?”
“The Jackal’s District. We should be close to his main tower,” Exe replied. He pushed through the door, and we found ourselves in the middle of a narrow street.
I peered up, raising a hoof to block the rising sun, and spotted the Omega. It was on one of the higher levels, floating between two larger airships. Merchant ships, no doubt.
“How do we get up?”
“We walk.” Exe pulled up his hood. “Stop fidgeting.”
I obeyed as best as I could, stifling my nervous energy while we turned a corner and headed down the street. The city was drastically different so close to a major skydock. Aging wood apartments and thrown-together shacks were replaced with stone palaces and marble statues. Tight alleyways draped in shadow had been forsaken for open plazas, the sun shining on the wealthy merchants who made their home here. The silky robes and elaborate dresses of the rich made a stark contrast against the worn leather armor and weaponry that was the norm in the rest of the city.
“I’ve never been close to one of the skydocks before,” I said. “It’s different from the rest of the city.”
Exe grunted. “Many people come to this city in search of quick riches off West Coast trade. Few of them succeed. These extravagant homes are displays of wealth from the rich, right under the towers that their gold flows through. Everyone else lives in their shadow.”
“Hrm.” I scanned the crowd. There wasn’t a blade in sight. “They seem more civilized here.”
“Don’t believe the show, unicorn. This place is just as dangerous as the wilderness. The only difference is the means of your death.”
He stopped, pausing to eye the tower ahead of us. A gargoyle and a zebra sat to either side of the gate, two additional guards on each side of it ensuring that nobody broke through without permission.
“Let me handle the talking,” Exe said. He took a step forwards.
Suddenly, a familiar grey pegasus landed a few feet away from the gate, a black cape now adorning his armor. He pulled a scroll out from under a wing, hailing the tower’s guards as several black-clad griffons landed behind him.
“Shit!” I hissed. “He got here first.”
Exe grunted. I looked up to him expectantly, but to no avail. He stood there silently, eyeing the griffons thoughtfully. He grinned.
“Luckily for us, unicorn, it seems the Baron’s pegasus has decided to try and take your crew by surprise.” He scraped a few claws against the road.
“How is that lucky for us?”
“It means that, should we warn you crew, we would be able to escape before that pegasus can get back to his own ship, which is no doubt tied to the Baron’s tower.”
“But they’re ahead of us.”
“Yes, they are, aren’t they?” He grinned. “I suppose we’ll just have to fight our way through, then.”
I blinked. “What?”
“To battle!” he roared. His claws scraped against the stone as he sprinted forwards, charging for the freshly alerted group of griffons scrambling to form a defensive line. They were too slow.
He slammed into the mercs, bowling them over as he tore at them with his claws. With a quick lunge of his teeth and a pull, a griffon’s head went soaring through the air to land at my feet.
My mouth fell open.
Exe stood, rising up to balance on his hind legs as he pulled his axe out of its sheath. Two of the griffons launched themselves at him, and he swept them both aside with a single swing. Blood spurted onto his face as he turned to face me.
“Go, unicorn! I will follow!”
I jumped into action, drawing my two swords as I galloped for the gate. Two of the gargoyles that had been guarding it stepped in front of me, brandishing their halberds. I narrowed my eyes.
I won’t let you stop me. Kill or be killed.
They weren’t used to fighting unicorns. They had their blades pointed at my chest, which made it easy for me to reach out and slit both of their necks. They grabbed at their wounds, dropping their weapons as they fell over, and I leapt over their squirming bodies.
Now inside the gate, I sprinted for the lift built into the center of the tower. The zebra clerk occupying the desk in front of it drew a dagger, holding it shakily in his teeth. I easily shoved him aside, skidding to a stop on the lift.
“Exe!” I called.
“Patience, unicorn!” The bear tossed a griffon off his back, twisting around and chopping the merc in half before he hit the ground. Sliding his axe into its sheath, he fell back to all fours and ran for the lift.
“Up, mongrels!” Ashfall barked. “Kill them!”
I slammed the lift’s gate closed, smacking the lever on its control panel forwards. With a strained groan, the lift began climbing up the tower. I sighed in relief, leaning against one of the railings.
“Fool!” Exe snapped, causing me to jump. “What are you doing relaxing? They have wings!”
A trio of griffons swooped over us, wingblades extended as they wove through the skeletal structure of the tower. I ducked, and Exe reached up with a claw. One of the griffons squawked in pain, losing control and slamming into a steel beam with a sickening crunch.
Four more landed on the lift with us, accompanied by Ashfall. “You four get the bear! I’ll handle the pony!” he snarled.
My eyes widened as he pounced for me, and I just barely rolled out of the way of the claws strapped to his hooves. “You’re one of those slaves, aren’t you?”
I raised my swords, clumsily parrying the flurry of steel claws reaching for my face. “Leave my crew alone! We just want to be left alone!”
He spun, sweeping me off my hooves with an outstretched wing. “You stole my ship! That ship was supposed to be mine!”
My horn glowed as I grabbed one of his hooves in my magical grasp, desperately pushing it away as he strained to slide a claw into my face. “We needed that ship to escape!”
He roared as he put all his weight into the claw, and I just barely managed to shove it aside. I rolled away as he struggled to pull it out of the metal surface of the lift, bouncing back to my feet and grabbing my swords.
I took advantage of his temporary immobility, raising my swords to stab them into his spine. He twisted out of the way, using his wings to evade the attack and pull the claw out at the same time. Scowling, he glanced to the side.
Exe was standing on his hind legs, a single bloodied griffon held in his claws. Another griffon was crawling limply for the edge of the lift, axe buried in his back. The other two mercs were scattered around the lift in various states of dismemberment.
The griffon screeched as he was ripped apart.
I staggered, catching myself on the railing. So much… blood.
“Fuck!” I looked back to Ashfall, eyes wide. With one final scowl, he turned and leapt off the lift. With a few flaps of his wings, he swept through the tower’s structure and began flying for the Baron’s skydock.
Exe came to my side, offering a red paw. “You okay, unicorn?”
I grabbed it, allowing myself to be pulled to my hooves. “Just a… a lot of…” I trailed off, dazed.
He looked up and walked to the control panel, pulling the lever back into the neutral position. "I believe we’re here,” he said.
I turned around. A wide circular platform surrounded the lift, with thick metal piers jutting out into the sky. Twenty airships floated on this level, gently swaying in the wind, held in place only by the thick ropes tying them to the piers and the ship-sized balloons they rested upon. I focused in on one ship in particular. For a few seconds the bloody mess behind me faded away as the sight of the Omega, finally back within my hoof’s reach, brought a smile to my face.
The single wolf standing on the platform glanced over us idly. He looked away. He looked back, eyes wide as he took in the body parts scattered around the lift and the blood dripping from Exe’s fur.
I took a step off the lift, heading for the Omega. The wolf shrunk down, whining as he cowered in the shadow of a heavy trade ship.
Stopping before the hatch, I raised a hoof and knocked. Exe’s heavy steps came to a lumbering halt behind me as I waited. Looking down, I suddenly noticed the blood sticking to me and hastily tried to wipe it off with an equally bloodstained hoof.
I heard the hatch opening, and looked back up to offer a wide smile.
My face screwed up with surprise.
What the fu-
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