The Beginning Part
For over a millennium, the benevolent Princess Celestia has brought happiness and prosperity to the land of Equestria. But beyond the kingdom’s seemingly endless borders lies an expanse, devoid of joy and friendship; where darkness reigns supreme, and a violent war, centuries old, wages on in secrecy.
To the citizens of Equestria, the space beyond is no more than an old pony tale. But for the dwellers of Raincap Village, a small town nestled on the edge of Celestia’s scope, it will soon be learned that some pony tales really are true.
I’ve always felt that the most difficult part about telling a story is finding the proper place to begin. I’ve found that this is especially the case when trying to tell somepony’s life story. You can’t begin at birth, or even infancy for that matter, as I have yet to meet a pony that can accurately recollect the happenings of their life at that point. And even then, to start at a point that serves memory perfectly is an even greater challenge. Not so much do to the dichotomy of deciding when to start, but rather where to start. Within the myriad fascinating occurrences in the life of any given pony, which would serve the purpose of being an interesting point by which to begin one’s story? This challenge of choice could understandably drive a pony to give up before even getting out of the gate. I mean, if your opening is a load of horse apples it doesn’t matter if your story is Celestia tier; nopony will want to suffer long enough to hear it. Fortunately for me (or perhaps unfortunately) this is a problem I find myself completely devoid of. Life in Raincap Village wasn’t exactly what one would call ‘exciting’. It’s a secluded town that lies on the literal border of Equestria, so the fact that we were virtually unknown to anypony in civilized places like Ponyville or Fillydelphia came as no real surprise. I suppose that’s why when it happened, things seemed all the more incredible.
And look at that, in all my rambling I’ve forgotten to introduce myself. My name is Periwinkle. And yes, I do know that’s a ridiculous name. And I suppose you deserve a reward for suffering through my little rant, so I will tell you what it is. It is the story of my life, and I know just where to begin…
Unrelenting boredom as a side effect of rampant and poorly concealed jealousy; or in lay-pony terms, how I felt having to sit through these things every year.
Another one came slowly and gracefully trotting down the vibrantly decorated runway (which was actually more interesting to look at than most of the mares using it). She gave an obviously practiced wave and smile, then proceeded to regale us with all of the wonderful things she would do if she were a Princess of Equestria. I severely hated being here, but it was ‘Vanity’s big day’, the Raincap beauty pageant; or rather what it should have started being called after she had won for the fourth year in a row: The “Everypony bring your daughters to this contest in their best dresses so you can watch them cry when they lose to the only alicorn outside of Canterlot” pageant. I had always figured that it was just my jealously talking when I thought such things, but still, being a flightless pegasus with an alicorn as a sister was more than a little bit embarrassing.
My mother and father stood on either side of me on the trimmed lawn of the Raincap public park, modestly applauding the starry eyed young mares while anxiously waiting for their own to arrive and remove any hope of victory from the other participants. For such a small town, I always found it odd that Raincap Village (a misnomer I know) had rather nice amenities. I mean, what other backwater rim towns had a beauty pageant sponsored by Fancy Pants himself?
The next contestant in the race for second place trudged out from behind the curtain with much less grace than the last. I could plainly tell that she was uncomfortable in her dress, and maybe even uncomfortable having so many ponies watching her. I felt a little sorry for her, but that didn’t stop me from having to hold back a chuckle when she lost her footing and tumbled off the runway. After a brief delay, the show got back underway.
I was getting bored with this quickly. As model after model strutted down the catwalk I found myself imagining Vanity backstage constantly swapping her number with those of other ponies just so she could go last. Then, just as I felt like I was going to begin shouting obscenities that would make even a draconequus shoot me a dirty look, the curtain began to flutter, and out stepped the mare of the hour. I could almost feel the other fillies’ parents simultaneously sigh in disappointment and gasp in awe at the sight of her; and I could very much hear my parents as they began to shout and cheer only a few inches from my ears. Her walk was far more refined than those of the other challengers. It was like watching a professional ice skater go up against elementary school fillies in a battle of style and grace. And as much as I knew I should feel proud of my sister, I could only ever be envious of her. I mean, how is it even remotely close to fair that the universe saw fit to grant her our mother’s magic and father’s flight, but pawn off these thinly feathered excuses for wings on me? And I didn’t even get a damn horn! But worst of all is that she didn’t even know what she had. She was one of those ponies that acted like they didn’t realize that every stallion and even most mares had at least one eye for her, and what was even more insulting was that she was honestly too dense to notice!
After handily removing all hope for what must have now been a dozen or so weeping mares, Vanity delivered an ‘If I were Princess’ speech that came right out of a movie. It was disgusting, but they all loved it. Even the other fillies’ parents couldn’t help but nod and applaud as if they didn’t realize their own little mares were somewhere beyond the curtain having their dreams crushed into powder. And the pony shattering their hopes and aspirations was blissfully unaware of the fact that she were doing so. I bet myself that she’d honestly be surprised when she won. It made me sick.
I was getting heated, and Vanity wasn’t the last pageant hopeful. I wasn’t about to stand there and be angry at my sister for being all and all the most unnecessarily modest pony in all of forever, and the thunderous applause she got as she strode back to the curtain provided the perfect cover for my escape.
I slipped out from right under my mother’s nose and darted out of the park like a stampeding bunny. I needed time to be alone. Not that I was usually surrounded by droves of eager ponies wanting to befriend me. Being a cripple in the eyes of most of my peers didn’t exactly spell ‘popular pony’ into my coat. In fact, any time any of my class mates ever spoke to me it was in a terribly disguised attempt to get closer to Vanity. I wanted to be alone because I was always alone, and as depressing as that was, it had been the case for so long that it was really the only way I felt comfortable. That, however, didn’t make it any less devastating to my self esteem.
Great, now I was angry and sad.
I stopped running when I reached the fence that curled around the Southern portion of Raincap. As a little filly I used to always wonder why there was a fence around our town, and why just beyond that fence grass seemed to disappear and become replaced with endless dunes of wavy sand. And as much as the older ponies would tell me there was nothing beyond the barricade, I still asked so many questions about the border and what lay beyond it that for the longest time it was predicted I’d have a question mark cutie mark before anyone else in my class would even know what a cutie mark was. I always disagreed of course. I wanted a cool cutie mark like a map or a compass. I wanted to be an adventurer and be the first pony to traverse the great expanse beyond the Raincap gates. That, of course, is not what happened. And for those wondering, my cutie mark is actually, brace yourself, a blotch of color. Yep, a patch of blue slightly darker than the coat color that served as my namesake…and I was the last in my class to get one. I guess feeling blue was my destiny after all.
My self pity was curtailed by a colossal uproar of dust right outside the fence. I dove onto the ground and covered my head from the falling pebbles and globs of dirt. When I stood back up I was in a sort of semi-panic. I had been caught so much by surprise that I didn’t know how I should react. The mere nature of what had just happened could only mean something bad, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near it. Only, I did.
I found myself pressing my face against the crisscrossed metal gate, trying to get a better look at what had just happened. In the sand I could see what looked like a massive skid mark several yards away from where I was standing, as if something had fallen from the sky and didn’t have time to slow down before eating dirt, literally. My gaze followed the gash to a mound of sand, under which was certainly whatever it was that had dropped to Earth with such incredible force. A voice in the back of my head was reminding me of how much the idea of adventure enticed me, how much I loved the feeling of discovery and knowledge, and it wanted to know what was buried in the sand. A voice in the front of my head swiftly silenced it by kindly asking me if I had lost my bucking mind! The realization of what had just happened planted itself into the side of my head like a sack of ripe apples. Something had just happened outside of the fence. Nothing was supposed to even be beyond the fence. Now I was in full panic. My first instinct was to run back to the pageant and get help, but then I remembered that my parents would be upset that I had ditched on Vanity’s event, but this was certainly far more important than any silly contest. It was quite the dilemma. Fortunately for me (or rather unfortunately), as soon as I turned around to start back to the park I was met by the sight of everyone in Raincap staring on in awe at what lay behind the fence. Apparently everyone had noticed the crash and come rushing over without me even noticing. It was only then that I realized how badly my ears had been ringing from being so close to the impact.
“I can’t believe you would do that to your sister! And on such an important day!”
“I must agree Periwinkle. What you did behooves me.”
This was ridiculous. Something had happened outside of the fence. An anomaly that nopony in this town had ever experienced had occurred and these ponies, my parents, somehow found it possible to place importance on the fact that I had wandered away from the pageant.
“Hey sis, I won. Look it.”
Vanity had stood quietly between them as they laid into me, a diamond tiara on her head and a sullen expression on her face. I knew that look. She wasn’t sad that I had left her show, that I had proven how little I cared about her ‘big day’. She was sad for me. Sad that yet again I was being reprimanded, or made fun of, or belittled while she was being held in high esteem. From atop her lofty pedestal, Queen Vanity had found it in her heart to have pity for the less fortunate.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself young lady?” spat my mother.
“You know what?” she interrupted “I don’t even want to hear it. There is no explanation for this. You are to go straight to your room when we get home and are not to leave until I tell you otherwise. You hear me?”
I looked to my father for any sympathy he might be able to offer.
“Dad, something happened beyond the gate. And I was the first pony to see it. You know how important this is! I mean, Vanity has one of these every year, but this. This has never happened before. Something fell from the sky! I saw it.”
He regarded me for a moment, taking in what I had said.
He considered my words a moment more.
“Sorry dear, but you know your mother’s word is final.”
I couldn’t sleep that night. My mind kept shooting between thoughts of how unfair my punishment had been, and all manner of thoughts about the thing I had seen outside the fence. What was it? Where did it come from? Well, that was obvious. It had come from behind the fence, but how? I had been skimming through every book I had for clues on what I had seen, but not one of them mentioned anything about the land beyond the fence. In fact, not one of them mentioned the fence at all, or Raincap for that matter. Hell, I had looked through every history book I had and none of them even had a map that labeled anything beyond Equestria’s border. The thought made me fret with excitement. I had seen history! Nopony had ever seen anything like this. At least that is, if the history books were to be trusted, and of course they were. They wouldn’t have this stuff taught in school if it wasn’t true.
On the way home from the Pageant I had noticed what looked like a group of ponies that I had recognized from news broadcasts as being Royal Government ponies. No doubt they were in Raincap as a result of what I had seen. And that meant…No! I couldn’t let them just take away my discovery like that. I had to know what it was that had fallen from the sky into the desert beyond, and I couldn’t do that from inside my room.
I’d have to sneak out tonight. If I knew anything about government ponies it was that things like this tend to be covered up pretty quickly. At least, that’s how it was in all the movies I had seen where fancily dressed stallions in sun glasses rode around in Foals-Royce wagons and snatch innocent ponies up off the street who are then never heard from again. That being the case, I had to work fast. By now they had to have taken the thing in from behind the gate and were likely readying it to be sent to Canterlot or Fillydelphia where they had scientists and what not. I emptied my backpack of most of my school supplies, save for a few notable texts, and began to stuff it full of snacks, a blanket, a few pieces of clothing, and a travel pack full of first aid gear. I had the notion that when my parents found out I had left they wouldn’t want me to ever return. And to be honest, I was actually hoping for that. I had grown sick of Raincap, sick of being the most pathetic pony in town. I figured that if there were flying things behind the gate, there had to be civilization. Maybe if I returned whatever it was that dropped, they’d accept me as one of their own. I knew it was a long shot, both because it wouldn’t exactly be easy to steal from Celestia’s government ponies and because I didn’t know anypony who would take in a lame pegasus like me as a hero, even if I returned their first born colt. But still, anything was better than life in Raincap.
I moved as quietly as I could, sliding open the locks on my bedroom window and slowly pushing it aside. By now my parents probably thought I was asleep. I had been trapped in here for over five hours now; and even though the sun had just set, I could see anypony passing out from sheer boredom after that long, let alone one that bored as easily as I do. I crept slowly out of the second story window and pulled it closed as I hung from the ledge.
“Oh horse apples,” I whispered.
In my haste to make my day dreams into realities, I had forgotten to plan for how I would get down from my room. I hung there for what felt like several minutes, feeling stupider than anypony could ever have felt in all of history…maybe. I realized that as much as I liked to think to the contrary, I was, in fact, not a clever pony.
“Uh…Peri, what are you doing?” The voice was sweet and curious, a hint of bubbliness trailing off the question.
“Vanity! What are you doing out here?”
I felt a chill. Were my mother and father right there with her? I tried to turn my head to see and in my panic lost my grip on the ledge. My eyes squeezed closed as I prepared for the impact that never came. I felt my hooves gently make contact with the ground. Had I…had I flown?! My eyes shot open as I looked about in glee. I saw Vanity standing right next to me. She had caught me. My entire face became tinted deeper than a red delicious apple. I shoved her away and turned to hide my shame.
“Leave me alone Vanity. Don’t you see I’m running away?”
“What?! No, you can’t run away!” I could hear the sadness in her voice, and couldn’t help but feel a twinge of it myself. I turned back to her.
“No, I have to do this. I’ve outgrown this town. I’m off to bigger and better things. Tell Mom and Dad what I’ve told you.” I thought for a moment then added “But wait till at least tomorrow.”
“I…you can’t…” I could tell she was about to cry. So I milked it.
“I don’t know what you want me to say sis. I’ve outgrown you. Don’t worry; there will be plenty of new friends for me where I’m going.”
She stood silently, staring at me intently. Her eyes were watery but her look was contemplative.
“I’m coming with you.”
“Like I said, I…wait what?”
“I’m going with you. To the place you are running away to.” A devilish smile formed on her face “And before you say-“
“No. Not a chance.” I stomp the ground with conviction.
“I figured you’d say that. Okay, goodbye Peri. I’ll just go tell mom and dad not to expect you back till never.”
“Wait, I said not until-“
“Did you? Hm. All I heard was to make sure they know where you are. So, bye.” She started to walk back towards our house.
I dove after her but ate soil as she took off into the air.
“Hey, get down here!” I was fuming. It was one thing to rescue me with her flight, but to literally hold it over my head was just plain mean.
“How about this. You let me go with you to our new home and nobody will ever have to know…until they realize we’re gone.”
“Wait, what? Why would you want to leave Raincap? Everyone here loves you. If I were you I’d never leave!”
“Well…I…I just don’t like it here anymore is all. But that doesn’t matter now does it?”
Yes. Yes it does. I doubt Celestia or Luna would ever want to leave Canterlot, so why would Vanity want to leave Raincap?
“So, can I go with you?” She knew she had me in a corner.
I was already thinking of ways to ditch her before even reaching the gate.
“I still can’t hear them. Take us lower.”
Vanity lowered our altitude a few more pony lengths, trying to remain as quiet as possible. Below us, several of Celestia’s government ponies were grouped together behind the local coffee store talking to the Mayor of Raincap. The idea of having Vanity carry me was humiliating, but if we were to find out what was going on, this was as good a way as any. As we descended I began to be able to make out parts of the conversation.
“We don’t need this in our town. We’re peaceful ponies. Just take that thing out of here and let us be done with it.” The Mayor spoke with authority, but nothing could hide the fear driving her words. One of the government stallions answered back.
“Let’s not play cute Ma'am. We all know what Raincap is. The underground research lab here is the only placed we can run these tests outside of Canterlot.”
“Then take it there.”
I had a feeling they had probably already considered that option.
“There are things about this that you don’t understand. If we could just move him to Canterlot we would have already.”
“What am I supposed to tell these ponies? As far as they know there’s nothing behind that fence except for sand and clouds. What they saw today can’t be reasoned away by telling them they all just imagined the same thing together.”
I felt a sudden jolt.
“Peri, I’m getting tired. I have to land,” I heard my sister whisper.
“Dammit Vanity. Put us down on the roof of the coffee house.”
As quietly as she could, Vanity let us down onto the roof of the cafe. I scurried over to the edge of the roof to continue listening in on the government ponies.
“Not even I would believe that. ‘A meteor’? In the middle of broad day light? And somehow nopony saw it in the sky?” rebutted the Mayor to a suggestion I had not heard.
“Actually, it would be a meteorite.” One of the younger suited ponies mirrored my thought.
“Enough of this!” The government pony across from the Mayor seemed frustrated by the argument. “Whether or not they believe you is irrelevant. You’ll tell them what we tell you to tell them. When we complete our testing we will leave this rat hole of a town and you can go back to throwing your little beauty contests.”
I felt like hugging him.
The government pony turned to his entourage and signaled for them to move out. They all trotted to a wagon parked in front of the coffee shop and went on their way. The Mayor stood for a moment then let out a shiver and trotted away.
I turned away from the ledge and began to contemplate what I had just witnessed. The things those ponies had said made almost no sense. I had searched out every nook and cranny in Raincap during my younger years while playing adventurer, and I had never seen any signs of an underground testing lab. And what did they mean by ‘you know what Raincap is’? Raincap was a town, that’s what it was. And the thing I had seen behind the gate was…
“Peri, what are you thinking? I know that look, and that look means you’re gonna do something that’s gonna get you in trouble.” Vanity was right, but only partly. What I was going to do would get me in trouble, but only if I got caught.
“What am I thinking?” I could feel myself smirking “One of those ponies said that what they found behind the gate was a ‘he’.”
Vanity stared at me, perplexed. “A ‘he’? As in like a boy pony?”
“Exactly.” What I had seen behind the gate was a creature falling from the sky. A creature pony enough to be referred to as a he, and durable enough to survive a drop that made my ears ring.
“And what I’m thinking is that I would very much like to meet this ‘he’”.
“Still not gonna work.”
“What? What do you mean ‘Still not gonna work’? It’s a foolproof plan!”
We had been at this for hours. I’d detail a strategy for getting an audience with the him being held underground, and Vanity would somehow find a way to reason out why it was destined to fail in a manner so eloquent that I couldn’t even think to rebut her. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t try.
“Peri, you basically just said that we should sneak in and try not to get caught.”
“Yeah, I did. Would you rather we just run in and hope he’s waiting there for us?”
“You know what I meant. And plus, you could make the best plan in the world, but we still wouldn't even know where this ‘underground testing lab’ is.”
Dammit, she was right. I had of course known of this problem while formulating my plans, but I was actually hoping that it would somehow resolve itself. Those agent ponies had coughed up just about everything just a few hours ago, but had conveniently left out the location of the lab. This meant that either the Mayor already knew, or that those government ponies didn’t want her to. Either outcome posed its own set of problems. If the Mayor did know, there was the dilemma of somehow getting her to spill it to us; and if she didn’t, we’d have to figure out a way to either follow the suits there or get them to tell us where it was. This did not look promising.
“Didn’t you say they mentioned moving…’him’ to Canterlot?” asked Vanity.
“We could always wait till then. I doubt we could miss them moving something out of Raincap’s one exit,” she clarified with a sense of accomplishment.
“No. We need to get in there tonight. We have no idea when they’re gonna move it, and mom and dad will notice we’re gone by then.”
“Oh, right.” said Vanity, her head sulking.
I was having a hard time reading her tonight. I could usually tell exactly what my sister was thinking. It was how I had become so good at manipulating her (I got myself out of a fair amount of trouble in this way). But this was different. I could tell she was sad, that was obvious; but I couldn’t figure out why. She was the one who had insisted on coming with me, so I doubted she was feeling bad about leaving Raincap. And it wasn’t like she had anything else to be depressed about. I mean, she was her. Still, I could tell she was feeling bad, and I couldn’t have her slowing me down if I was going to be sneaking into a super secret government lab. I suddenly realized something I had already known, but just never took the time to ponder over.
“Duh!” I sighed, facehoofing.
“What is it?” Vanity asked softly.
“When the agent pony called the thing a he, the Mayor didn’t seem surprised at all. She must have already known.”
“So, she probably knows who ‘he’ is, and thus, where the lab is. Come on Vanity, you gotta put two and two together.”
She regarded me cautiously.
“Four?” she offered in her confusion.
I facehoofed once more.
My brain was able to work much more efficiently now that I had a plan. I didn’t plan on coming back to Raincap once I got past the fence, so kidnapping the Mayor really came at no consequence. Barring of course, the effort it would take to actually capture her.
Vanity and I had been following Mayor Misty Shores’ hoof prints for over an hour. I started to wonder if she had expected to be followed and purposely took the most complicated route from the coffee shop to her house. My suspicions took on a different color when I noticed the tracks led into the Raincap public park. Vanity and I exchanged quizzical looks and proceeded onto the perfectly trimmed lawn. The trail went dead in the grass, which was much less susceptible to transform under the weight of a pony’s hoof than the dirt roads of Raincap.
“What do we do now Peri?” asked Vanity, a hint of defeat in her voice.
“Just give me a second to think,” I answered.
I had no idea what to do next. The trail had gone cold. For all I knew, Misty Shores could have trotted into the park and just suddenly disappeared. I surveyed the park, looking for anything that might serve as a lead to the Mayor’s whereabouts, but saw nothing but trees and that ostentatious pageant show piece.
“Peri. You do realize that the Mayor was probably home by the time we started looking for her right?”
“Well then how do you explain her tracks leading to the park? Trust me, just look for anything out of the ordinary.” The task seemed mundane enough to keep her quiet while I pondered my next move.
“I don’t see anything here that I don’t see every day,” she said wryly. “The only thing in this park is grass, trees, and the runway. And all those things have always been here.”
It was as if both Vanity and I had simultaneously come to realize the same set of implications. I had never questioned why the pageant stage stayed up year round. It had been such a familiar sight that it would have seemed odd for it not to be laying there smack dab in the center of the recreational grounds. Vanity and I exchanged a confirming nod and galloped over to the robustly decorated catwalk.
“Well…what are we looking for exactly?” Vanity asked. That was actually a fair question, I had no idea exactly what it was I thought was odd about the runway being present in the park year round. Maybe it was too heavy to move, or maybe the city council felt there was no reason to move it since there was a pageant every year.
“Look for anything unusual,” I suggested.
“I don’t know, anything that looks like it might lead to an underground lab.”
Vanity flapped up onto runway and began inspecting the glittery path as if expecting to find some sort of clue hidden in plain sight. I turned my attention to the crisscrossing of bars underneath the structure. I squeezed between the support poles and began crawling around in the space beneath the runway. The support structure of the catwalk was much less glamorous than the actual walk way. Down here it was dank and crowded. Surely anypony tasked with having to repair any of these bars would have to be at least as small as I was, and even then it was cramped. But as luck would have it, sunlight could not reach the space below the walkway. And as such, grass gave way to firm mud.
These tracks didn’t belong to Mayor Misty Shores. The hoof prints in the mud had been slightly faded, suggesting they were at least a few hours old. I shimmied through the maze of metal rods, trying to follow the trail of shallow tracks. My heart jumped from my chest as a sudden flash of light snapped across my eyes.
“Unauthorized occupant, request for access denied.”
I leapt back and struck my head against one of the support bars. The voice was inorganic and thoroughly awful to listen to. It’s monotonous, emotionless buzz slowly repeating the message several times before silencing. I rubbed my head gently while examining the odd looking panel which housed a glowing glass orb that must have been the source of that far too bright light. I could hear Vanity hop off of the catwalk, no doubt having heard my head acquainting itself to the support railing.
“Peri? Are you okay down there?” She shouted in a whisper. “It sounded like something got hit.”
“I’m fine, that was just my head.” I tapped the glass of the panel and the thin beam of light shot out again, this time catching only the bottom of my hoof.
“Invalid entry, request for access denied.”
“Did you say something?” called Vanity’s voice.
“No. Well wait yeah, come here.”
Vanity eagerly squeezed through the railing under the runway, quickly making her way through the crisscrossing to meet up with me. As she approached, the bright beam shot out and flashed in her eye. She shrieked and leapt into the air, just avoiding smacking into the same bar that had struck me.
“Unauthorized occupant, request for access denied.”
“What is that thing?!” She squeaked.
“Well, as far as I can tell it’s something that scans ponies’ eyes, and obviously our eyes don’t work.”
“So whose eyes do we need?”
“Anypony’s who’s been here, duh.”
“Well then I guess we have to give up. Let’s just go home and pretend like this never happened.”
“So much for not liking Raincap anymore,” I retorted insultingly. Vanity bristled.
The truth was I knew exactly what we had to do, for once. I just didn’t like it. Vanity knew all manner of cosmetic spells. Changing the color and shape of her iris would be as easy as a wave of her horn. And I knew if I asked her to help me she’d do it without hesitation, but it would show that had I not taken her I’d have had to give up and go home. It would prove that I needed her. But I really wanted to know what was down here.
“Hey listen Vanity,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my snout with my hoof “I didn’t mean that…I’m sorry.”
An elated smile spread across her abnormally cute face.
“Don’t let it get to your head!” I spat, turning to hide reddened cheeks “Anyway, I need your help.”
Her smile gave way to a smirk of realization. Then she seemed to ponder a moment.
“Fine, I’ll help you.”
Before I could say anything she pushed past me and stared into the glass orb on the small panel. The beam of light shot out and scanned over her eye.
“Registered occupant: Mayor Misty Shores. Request for access granted.”
A door that must have been camouflaged next to the panel slid open with a squeak. Vanity held her snout up and pranced past me into the open doorway, that devilish smirk worn across her mouth.
“Ah, watch the tail!”
I squished back as much as I could against Vanity in the confined broom closet as the sound of galloping hooves clopped by the door. We had gotten ourselves into quite the mess. Entering the base under the identity of Misty Shores hadn’t been as brilliant as we had thought. A small troop of armed ponies had come to greet the Mayor upon her supposed entrance. Vanity and I had made tracks down the adjacent hall and into the janitor’s supply closet to avoid detection. Based on what I could here from the hall beyond the door, the absence of Misty Shores was causing a stir.
A set of galloping hooves stopped in front of the closet; four small breaks in the light pouring in from beneath the door. An ice cold chill passed through my spine and a lump blocked up my throat. Behind me Vanity had gone stiff. Just as I had convinced myself that we had been found, the pony began to speak.
“Cheshire, hold up!” called out the gruff voice from just beyond the door.
I heard a brisk trot, then noticed a new set of hooves outside the closet.
“Yessir.” This voice was sprightly and enthusiastic, no doubt belonging to what I figured must be a ‘new guy’.
“Are you nuts leaving your post?! Get your flank back to the lab and guard the package!” roared the seasoned voice of the commanding officer.
“I…I’m. Sorry Sir, but I thought in lockdowns we…”
“In lockdowns you do as you’re told! Y’hear?! We need someone looking after the package, no chances can be taken.”
“Yessir!” shouted the young soldier. I could hear the sound of heavy clops as he and his officer galloped down the hall in opposite directions.
I pulled myself away from Vanity and pressed my ear against the door. All clear.
“Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do this,” I said, turning back to Vanity. “I’ll go and get ‘him’, and you stay back here and keep watch. If you hear those ponies coming back, use this.” I pulled one of the short range radios out of my backpack and gave it to her. “I’m on channel three.”
She stared at the device morosely then turned her gaze at me. “Peri, what are we doing?” The corners of her mouth bent into a frown.
“What are we doing? And better yet, why are we doing it?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know how to answer her.
“What happens when you do find this pony? We’re just supposed to assume that he’ll wanna be our friend? For all we know he’s down here because he’s a criminal,”
My mind seized, realizing it hadn’t even considered this very real possibility. Vanity didn’t let up.
“So, what? Are you gonna sneak in just to see what it is? Is that what this is about? I just…I don’t get this Peri, and I’m not sure you do either.”
My lower lip quivered.
“Why am I doing this? Because of you Vanity.” Her eyes shot open then sunk into a distraught expression at the accusation. “Because I can’t go back home and be the Raincap Pageant Queen’s poor crippled sister. I can’t go back to being the laughing stock of a whole town because of something I didn’t even get a Celestia damned choice in!” I whipped my face up to meet her stare. “I’m doing this because maybe…maybe if I can save this thing…bring it back to where it belongs. Maybe then I might actually be able to be somepony.”
There was an odd, eerie silence. Vanity seemed to be searching for her voice.
“I…you’re somepony to me.”
Her eyes went wide, her frown fading into straight face. She regarded me momentarily, then began to nod.
“Okay. I’ll stay in here, but remember that there is somepony guarding the lab.”
I smirked, unclasping my backpack.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got that covered.”
I slipped past another hallway as the security camera spun to scan the opposite end of the path. The walls of the underground base were a deep steel grey, looking nearly black in the low light provided by hanging lamps spaced out wide enough that they might as well have been kept out of the final design all together. Large metal sliding doors adorned the base’s narrow hallways, which were all home to at least one ceiling affixed swiveling camera. I was trying to track where the young soldier pony had run off to after being ordered to guard over the package in the testing lab. The wall mounted signage did little to aid in my attempts. The labyrinth of thin, intersecting hallways had had me travelling in circles…or rather squares, since leaving the broom closet. If the guard troop had decided to forgo their search for Mayor Misty Shores, spotting me darting up and down the halls would be an inevitable certainty. This raised the question of why seemingly everypony down here had gone rushing to the main entrance, leaving only one to guard their precious find. Had the discovery not been as important as I had thought? It was apparently still worthy of at least one armed guard, but given the gravity I had placed on this because of its link to an event outside of the Raincap fence, I would have at least left a troop of ponies to guard it. Not that more than one would be needed to incapacitate the likes of me.
I stopped in a corner hidden from the sight of the swiveling eyes and brought out the syringe I had taken from my first aid kit. The simple device was loaded with a powerful painkiller guaranteed to put a pony to sleep after just a few seconds; the medication I had been given when I tore open, and subsequently broke, my right hind leg while trying to fly from the roof of my house. My mother had taken the majority of the serum from me out of fear that I would grow too fond of its narcotic effect, making for the most painful six weeks of my life. But finding her stash had been an easy task, and I pilfered a tidy bounty of the medicine just in case of emergency situations. I figured this one was pertinent enough to qualify. I tested the syringe’s pressure then grasped it in my mouth.
The mounted camera swiveled around to monitor the other end of the hall, its flashing green light disappearing from sight. I swiftly crawled out of the corner and threw myself against one of the many unmarked doors along the long, narrow hallway. It hadn’t been lock. I burst into a room full of high shelves lined with all manner of unpronounceable medications and the types of tools you hoped you’d never need used on you in the hospital. I reeled, trying to avoid crashing into a shelf stocked with what looked like the devil’s cough medicine, and managed to only bump it slightly, causing the jars of syrup to rattle against each other like a wind chime.
I was breathing heavily. An inch more and I would have drawn far too much attention to myself.
Click. The door opened.
“Hello? Is there someone in here?” asked the voice of the young soldier who ought to have been guarding the lab.
Fear gripped me. My sinuses felt clear as mountain air and my lungs tightened in my chest. I slid behind one of the tall shelves and ducked as low as I could. As he entered the room I had to struggle to keep from gasping on my own stifled breath.
“Hello?” he asked again, this time with an edge of concern.
Beads of sweat trailed into my mouth and mixed with the cold taste of the syringe. The guard pony’s eyes narrowed and he began to walk between the isles of medical supplies. My heart was racing. I began to backpedal as he neared the shelf I was hidden against. He stopped in the next aisle over, noticing that the jars of red syrup had shifted from their organized norm. He straightened them with a gentle tap of a hoof then let out a sigh of relief.
“Jeez, I really gotta calm down,” he said with a smile. “Just keep it together Che…”
A few seconds of convoluted mumbles were all he was able to muster before slipping into the warm embrace of unconsciousness.
The inside of the air ducts was cold and uncomfortable.
After taking care of the lab guard (who wasn’t much of a guard really, since he strayed so far from his post) I slipped out past the nosey camera and down the adjacent hall, which was generously devoid of wandering eyes. Then there it was; at the end of the hall stood a large metal door labeled ‘SM182 Testing Laboratory’. The glee of my discovery had gotten the better of me, and I dashed into the door. It had been locked.
All around me I could hear the dull buffeting of fans. The distance from the vent entrance to the lab wasn’t more than a few yards at most, but slithering through the tight corridor made the trip feel like an eternity.
The duct gave out an agonizing whine as I neared the vent over the lab. I froze, but even my lungs’ gentle pulsation was enough to coax tiny squeaks from the shifting metal. I had to work quickly. I shimmied to the vent and tried to pull my foreleg up from my side. My struggling forced another whimper from the duct and I gave up on the campaign.
“Well shit,” I said with a sigh. “Guess it’s time to use my head...literally.”
I pulled my head back as far as I could in the narrow tube and brought it down on the vent. I didn’t expect this to work as well as it did. My momentum sent me spilling out of the duct as the vent detached from it’s hinges and crashed to the floor below, myself only a split second behind.
My everything hurt. The fall was an easy twenty feet, and I hadn’t exactly had time to brace myself. I squirmed to my hooves and took in my surroundings. The room was dimly lit, bordering on dark. The walls were colored a slightly reflective grey dull enough to be the inside of a mental ward. Dents and deep gashes populated the far wall around a chained closed emergency exit. Tall rolling trays scattered with surgical tools took up spots next to stained medical beds. This was not a testing lab meant for any form of science I knew of. This wasn’t even a lab, it was a torture chamber. My gaze followed the rows of gurneys, and then I saw it. Under the room’s one ceiling mounted lamp stood an upright metal slab. Strapped to the chunk of steel was…
My eyes fixated on the stallion. He was unlike any pony I had ever seen. His coat was blacker than the darkest night sky. His short cropped mane even darker, save for a thick orange stripe cutting through it. He was heavily restrained. There were thick leather straps fastened over his chest and legs, and an odd metal restraint fitted to his torso. It looked as if he was asleep, but the trolley in front of his slab told a different story. The blood stained scalpels and slightly damaged pliers made it apparent that this pony had been tortured. I was so taken by his striking (and actually kinda hot) features, I didn’t even notice that I had begun to shift around the room. That is, until I bumped into a medical tray, sending its contents falling to the cold ground in an orchestra of clinks and clacks.
The stallion stirred awake. I froze in place, my jaw hanging agape as I gasped for breath. The buck’s eyes slowly opened and began to blink into life. Even his eyes were odd, being of a shape more common to zebras than ponies. They found me, and I noticed something even more strange. This pony had no pupils! Trapped within the whites of his eyes were balls of brilliant amber that glistened under the hanging light. His stare was pitiful, and for good reason, I thought. Over the past day this pony had likely suffered all manner of atrocities at the hooves of those government ponies. The sight of me must have seemed more insulting than intimidating. I found my voice and began to stammer.
“H-h-h-hello. M-m-my name is Periwinkle.”
His brilliantly exotic eyes narrowed and his head cocked slightly.
“I…would you like me to help you?”
For all we know he’s down here because he’s a criminal.
I remembered what Vanity had said, but I had never heard of police ponies torturing prisoners. This was something else, something wrong.
His head cocked even further.
“I mean, just, I noticed you’re stuck, and I- I was just thinking maybe you don’t want to be, or…”
He raised his head high, silencing me, then gestured towards the opposite wall. I followed his gaze to see a small control panel. I nodded to him with a smile and scurried over to the mounted computer. The controls were overly simplistic. I pressed the large red button labeled release and heard a loud thud behind me. I turned to see the buck struggling to his hooves, and was startled by yet another revelation. The odd metal torso piece was not a restraint. The slick black onyx colored cuirass hugged the stallion’s chest, a small neck guard collaring around his lower crest. I stared, half admiring how snugly it fit him and half marveling at how bewildering this all was. As he wobbled to his hooves, my gaze washed over the armor, and then I saw them. On either side of the sleek carapace were…wings. Edged, angular, unimaginably sharp wings made of the same material as the armor itself. The buck began to stretch, spanning the things in his new freedom. The sight of these wings filled me with emotion. Mostly fear. My own limp appendages twitched slightly as I slowly stepped back. The stallion smirked as he postured himself, blinking his brilliant pupil-less zebra eyes as they adjusted to the low light. I noticed that a similar orange stripe ran through his short cut tail. As he scoured the room with his gaze, my own fell on his flank, which was adorned with the image of an ember of flame. I looked up and noticed him staring at me. Oh goodness! He thought I was staring at his flank…well I was, but not that way!
My embarrassment was seized by the blasting of an alarm. The room erupted into a show of red light and blaring sound. The black buck went into a defensive position and I began to trot in place anxiously. What happened? I hadn’t been seen by any cameras. Had they found the guard pony in the medical supply room? Or…had they found Vanity? Curse my luck. I conjured up an image of her jauntily prancing out of her hiding place looking for me, only to be intercepted by the returning guard troop. No, that was ridiculous. I had given her a radio. Surely she would have contacted me first. But what if she…
My mind cut itself short as the stallion pulled out of his combat stance, his expression softening. I turned and my suspicions faded.
She was standing in the doorway of the lab, a dreadful expression on her face. She seemed stunned. Her mouth hung open, quivering as if she were trying to speak, but no words could find their way out. Her flaxen mane was undone, and her big blue eyes glistened with tears. Even in my confusion I couldn’t help but notice how in the dim light, her brilliant white coat took on a very pretty smoky hue.
“They…they killed them…” Her voice was a forced whisper, barely escaping her.
The strange buck pushed past me to Vanity, placing a hoof under her chin and making her eyes met his.
“What is it? What killed them?” His voice was calm yet urgent, the very slightest hint of masculine gravel underlying his smooth whisper with a cool rasp.
Vanity just stared at him, her lips trembling as tears trailed down her reddened cheeks.
Krak! Krak! Krak!
A wicked sound echoed through the entire facility, vibrating my eardrums painfully. The stallion perked up at the report.
“Gunfire…” He moved his hoof from Vanity’s chin, and with a growl, galloped past her into the maze of hallways. I scampered over to my little sister and placed a hoof on her swollen cheek.
“Vanity,” I began, myself on the verge of fear driven tears. “We have to go. Okay? Come on little sis.”
She looked down at me, her shock melting into a smile. “Peri.” She threw her forelegs around me, sniffing away her sadness. I squirmed out of her embrace and met her eyes with mine.
“Listen Vanity, we have got to go. Now!”
Her trance seemed to break, and with a few quick nods she joined me out of the lab and back into the bowels of the morbid place.
The stench didn’t hit us until we emerged from under the catwalk. I began to gag as the odor stifled the air around me. Rot. The only word that could describe it was rot. The world reeked of rancid milk and sour apples, wrapped in the horrific pungency of putrefaction. A constant droning buzz filled the air, almost fully drowning out the sounds of muffled screams coming from the town proper. The thickness of the atmosphere was enough to make movement, and even breathing, difficult. Behind me I could hear Vanity violently heaving. I looked back at the abnormal state of my sister; her mane was disheveled, and her swollen face was speckled around the lips with chunks of vomit, her trademark cheer replaced with a dour distance. I nodded for her to follow me and quickly weaved through the runway’s criss crossed beams. Vanity followed with urgency. Whatever she had seen, it had frightened her enough that she clearly did not want to be left alone. We galloped out of Raincap Public Park and beamed towards town center, cutting through the sickly greenish haze filling the air. Within the mist swarmed thousands of screeching insects blitzing around in tufts of rabid consumption, devouring any trees and shrubbery in their wake. The sounds of chaos filled the air; screams of agony and the wicked echo of gunfire filling me with fear. I wanted for this to be a dream, a terrible nightmare that I would jolt out of to find myself safely in my bed. I’d gladly accept the unfairness of my parent’s punishment if it would mean the end of this bizarre and cruel turn of events.
I slid to a stop at the Raincap market square. Within the square, the town’s folk of Raincap bolted about in panic. The limp bodies of ponies littered the ground like a demonic mural, their corpses mangled and already festering. Intermingled with the fleeing ponies were something else. Hellish and putrid, the creatures were pony only in general shape: a head, four hooves, two eyes. The monsters looked like ponies that had been dug up from their graves and left to spoil in the sun for days. But they were alive, and they were killing the citizens of Raincap! Droves of the wretched beasts gave chase to the fleeing ponies, their lifeless eyes and razor toothed grins savoring the evil they planned to commit. I stammered, taking no more than a step back before Vanity collided with me. We both fell to the ground. I didn’t even have time to reprimand her. As I lifted my head my eyes fell on one of the debauched pony beasts. It hovered over me, rancid yellowish drool dripping from its decayed mouth. I tried to scream, but terror stole my voice. The creature railed up, its foul, fleshy hooves preparing to squish my head into mashed potatoes. My eyes squeezed closed, my muscles tensing in preparation for the eminent blow.
Warm, putrid smelling liquid splashed on my face. I opened my eyes, gagging in disgust. Before me stood the headless body of the rotted pony. It quivered for a moment, then slumped to the ground. I caught a glint of light from the corner of my eye and turned to see the black, metal winged buck crouched in the dirt, an outstretched wing dripping with the creature’s rancid life blood. The stallion spun around, glaring at Vanity and me.
“If you want to live follow me and stay close. And do not stop flying.” With a slash of his wings he launched into the air and began sailing through the vile fog.
I shot Vanity a look that we both knew the meaning of. She scooped me up in her forelegs and took to the sky, trailing the sharp winged pegasus as best she could with the added burden. Just below us a spectacle coughed up from the most vile horror stories was playing out as an unbearable reality. Armed townsfolk gathered alongside familiar suited ponies attempting to gun down the horde of corrupt creatures. They didn’t last long. Through the cloud of green mist and swarming insects I could see them panicking. At first a few civilians broke away from the group, then one of the government ponies was tackled and the others dispersed in frenzy, leaving him to be torn apart. I saw one of the demons sniff the air, and with a freakish grin it looked directly at our guide, and then at Vanity and I. It let out a broken, hellish shriek and a group of the monsters began to give chase to us on the ground. Vanity was a decent flier, but she wasn’t the strongest. Having to hold me, as diminutive as I was, was taxing her strength; and as such, forcing her to fly lower than she normally would be capable of. Low enough for the group of creatures to take furious bites at my dangling hind legs.
“AAAYEEEE!” I screamed as one of the beasts hit home, digging its razor sharp teeth into my ankle. Its fangs slid out of my flesh, taking in them a souvenir.
Vanity’s eyes grew wide, and with a high pitched grunt she flapped her wings with all she had, raising us out of the reach of the horde. I threw my stare away from my leg, the sight of my own blood making me cringe. In front of us was the Raincap fence. Through my tears I could see the black pegasus hovering over sand on the other side of the gate. He was shouting something at Vanity about not stopping, and waving a hoof. I noticed we hadn’t been moving. I looked over my shoulder at the town proper. A fire had broken out somewhere in the market center and was spreading throughout the town. The last of the town’s ponies were scrambling to wagons or just running as fast as they could to get away from this horror. In only a matter of minutes, Raincap had been turned into a scene out of a horror film, the likes of which would haunt you long after the spectacle had ended. I looked up at Vanity, we had no other choice now.
“Go,” I said in a low, heavy murmur. Vanity looked down at me, her face full of anguish. I stared back, unwavering. My sister let out a trembling sigh, and began to beat her wings; and just like that, we crossed over the fence. The black pegasus turned and continued to dash away from the city. Vanity gave chase, flying as fast as she could over the endless sands.
I looked back once more. The sounds of gunfire echoed on the red tinted horizon, and with each passing moment, the small town of Raincap grew smaller and smaller in the distance.
What Time is it?
In the darkest hour, when all that is held to be good and sane is shattered in one passing instant, life ceases, and despair takes hold of even the strongest hearts...
I had thought I was dead. I couldn’t remember falling asleep. I could just remember hovering there, the Raincap fence before me, and the death of all I held dear at my back. Then we crossed over. Everything beyond that was a blur.
I couldn’t move, my muscles felt exhausted, like I had just competed in an iron pony challenge. The sand shifted beneath me as I breathed, and the faint sound of muffled voices pulsed in my eardrums. With effort I opened my eyelids. My vision was blurred, and moving my eyes took effort. I was tucked under the blanket I had stored in my backpack; and Vanity was lying next to me, asleep. I tried to shift. A sharp pain shot up my right hind leg. I gently wiggled my ankle, pulses of discomfort accompanying the movement. I could feel that my wound had been tended, my ankle was wrapped in gauze from my first aid kit. The voices grew slightly clearer through my daze.
“…would have to at least check in at Canterlot before making such a trip.” The voice was of a mare, a mare whose inflections suggested a command over her language.
“There’s no time. You know how fast these ponies work.” This voice was familiar; I had first heard it only last night.
“Yes, but protocol...”
“Oh come now Twilight, let him do something good for a change,” another mare interrupted. This voice was regal and elegant, bearing an accent I couldn’t quite place to any specific origin.
I heard a deep sigh. “Fine,” started the first mare. “You may travel to Smuggler’s Cove to search for these ponies, but you’ll be on your own. The area is protected under treaty; we can’t send anyone to accompany you.”
“I understand. Thank you Twilight,” said the male voice.
“Okay!” began the mare with the accent. “Now that we’re through here, shall we be off Twilight?” She sounded rushed, nervous even.
“Nice to see you too Rarity,” the voice of the buck deadpanned.
I struggled, my eyes lurching up enough to see the three ponies in conversation. Across from the black, metal clad stallion stood a lavender unicorn with a purple and pink mane and tail. She stood postured, eyes focused on the buck. Next to her was a breathtakingly beautiful white unicorn with a purple mane and tale. Aside from maybe Vanity, I had never seen such a striking pony. In fact, she was even more of a sight to behold than the Raincap Pageant Queen. But only just. She was noticeably bothered, attempting to seem unperturbed even though she was clearly trying to stay as near to her lavender friend as she could.
“Oh…I…I’m sorry Warrick, dear. You know I am. It’s just that you’re so…” she seemed to scour her vocabulary. “Creepy.” A bit of an understatement, but I could tell she was being polite.
The black pony…Warrick, snorted at her gesture.
“Anyway,” interjected the purple unicorn, Twilight, drawing the attention of the others. She turned to Warrick. “Just remember, we won’t be able to maintain any contact with you once you enter Smuggler’s Cove. So please, for Luna’s sake, try not to cause any trouble. We really don’t need any added stress, especially not after yesterday’s incident.”
“Ugh! What a mess that was!” added the other mare, Rarity. “You must tell us how you got yourself into that debacle.”
“We’ll all get together and have story time over some roasted marshmallows,” retorted the stallion.
“Warrick, Rarity, if you don’t stop bickering I swear I’ll turn you both into potted plants,” reprimanded Twilight. A motherly tone colored her voice in the same way my mother’s did when she was punishing me.
My thoughts immediately returned to the horrors from the night before. In the chaos of it all, I hadn’t even thought to look for my mother and father. What had happened to them? Had they escaped the hell that Raincap had become? I began to fluster, my weakened body taxing itself further to accommodate my frantic mind.
“Anyway Warrick, once you’ve finished at Smuggler’s cove you are to rendezvous at Ponyville II for briefing on our plans for the Pestilence strike team.”
Warrick nodded, taking a few steps back from the pair of unicorns. The unicorn I now knew as Twilight raised her glowing horn. The beautiful Rarity wrapped her forelegs around her friend and threw one last glare at Warrick, who sneered in response. There was a brilliant flash of light, and when it passed, the unicorns were gone. My vision began to fade, my spastic thoughts running them selves down. My head grew heavy; blackness filled the outer ring of my sight. I allowed myself respite from my raging mind, and passed out.
“...jiggle your tail, hmhmhm…”
I startled awake, the weight of exhaustion having loosened its grip over me.
“Wriggle your snout, hmhmhm…”
I blinked my eyes, adjusting to the unforgiving brightness of the desert sun. My ears perked at the sound of a soft melody.
“Wiggle your rump, hmhmhm…”
I was feeling much stronger now, strong enough to stagger to my hooves. A surge of pain lashed out at me from my injured hoof, and I dropped to my haunches. The sand was warm against my skin, its comforting embrace helping ease away the thought of pain. I looked down at my wrapped ankle. The gauze was stained through with my blood. A sharp pain pulsed within the bandaging, matching the beating of my heart. Vanity was still asleep, wrapped in the blanket we had shared, her shallow breaths blowing small tufts of golden sand into the air with each exhalation. The singing had stopped. I looked around, curious as to its origin. A glint of light reflected into my eye, forcing me to squint. A black pony was seated on his haunches, perched like a guard dog next to where Vanity and I had slept, the brutally vibrant rays of sun gleaming off his metal chest.
Warrick. That’s what those mares had called him. I couldn’t help but ponder over how silly of a name that was. I had never heard of a pony with such a name, but considering how strange the odd name’s owner was, it seemed almost natural that it would be something so ridiculous. Not that I was really in any position to talk. I was named after the color of my coat.
“Uh...hey there,” I said, waxing awkward. The last time I had spoken to this pegasus my home was being burnt off the face of Equestria.
He turned his head slightly towards me. “Good morning.” His tonality had changed. Gone was the commanding essence from the night before, replaced with a level inflection that complimented his light rasp nicely. “I’m glad you’re awake. I didn’t get a chance to thank you and your friend for helping me yesterday. Thank you.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. And she’s my sister actually,” I said, a bashful smile on my face.
“Ah, well you and your older sister really-”
“I’m the older sister,” I interrupted, a touch defensively.
His head cocked slightly, his expression curious. “Oh...well,” he raised a hoof and pointed to Vanity. “She’s taller than you.”
Ouch. Thanks a lot captain obvious. And to think I had thought you were cool. Jerk. I frowned weakly.
He squinted in confusion. “Uh...sorry?”
My frown faded. I suppose he was just pointing out a fact. And he had pretty much saved mine and Vanity’s lives just the night before. I guess this could be forgiven.
At my change in expression he seemed to grow more confused, then his eyes widened and he face hoofed.
“Sorry, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Warrick.”
“I know,” I said immediately, then bit my lip, wishing I hadn’t opened my mouth.
He grew befuddled yet again. “And how is that?”
I felt a dry shame nipping at me. “I...I heard you talking to your friends, those two unicorn mares, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Rarity’.”
He seemed surprised by this. “I take it that isn’t all you heard.”
My shame doubled. “I might have caught something about some cove and looking for somepony, but that’s it I swear! I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop.”
He shrugged. “I figured I was talking too loudly. Probably my fault you woke up.”
“You knew?” I asked, now both confused and ashamed.
“I wouldn’t be much of a guard if I couldn’t tell whether the ponies I’m watching are sleeping or not.”
The logic of the statement belied the absurdity I was feeling.
“Thank you,” I said, a more serious tone driving my words, “For helping Vanity and I get out of Raincap safely.”
He nodded. “The way I see it, I owed you at least that much. You and your sister helped me. I don’t know why you did, but you did. And bravery like that is rare in ponies these days. So I appreciate it, but you don’t have to thank me.”
I smiled. I needed that. To feel like I had done something good.
“Was that you singing?” I asked, changing the subject.
“It was more like humming,” he clarified “But yeah, it was.”
“What song was it?”
“One I heard from a friend.”
I heard stirring from next to me. Vanity rolled onto her hooves, stretching out of her slumber. She shielded her eyes with a foreleg as she was met by the sun’s harsh vibrance.
“Peri? Is that you?” she asked. Her voice was slightly hoarse, as if she had been crying.
“Yeah, I’m right here, Vanity.”
She wobbled as she stood, her eyes still squinting. When she opened them, her gaze fell on Warrick. Her eyes widened and she looked from him to me.
“I...I thought it was just a dream,” she said, her voice weak and raspy.
Warrick stared at her, his expression betraying guilt.
“Nice to see you up again Vanity,” he said softly. My sister looked to him, a weak and forced smile spreading across her muzzle.
“Thank you Warrick,” she whispered, then immediately turned to me. “Peri, is your leg okay?”
I quickly looked at the blood soaked wrapping on my hoof, then back at Vanity. I pointed between her and Warrick. “You know each other?”
“You were out for a while,” said Warrick. “Vanity was very helpful when it came to taking care of you. Wouldn’t even let me help, actually.” The thought of that irked me; having been at her mercy. I’d have rather lost the leg.
“It still hurts, and you did a pretty shabby job of wrapping it too,” I chided.
“Oh...sorry.” She dropped to her haunches, sulking.
I rolled my eyes. “Oh come on Vanity.” I wiggled my hoof, sharp twinges running up my leg. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not that,” she breathed softly. “It’s just...mom and dad.”
I froze. All my thoughts became of my parents.
“I didn’t see them. When we got to the fence I looked for them, but I...I couldn’t find them.”
I looked to Warrick. “Did...did you see them? Did they get out?” I pleaded.
“Raincap was a massacre. I didn’t exactly have time to count bodies. And even then, I don’t know what your parents look like.”
A deep depression gripped my heart. I felt like curling up and sleeping forever, just to hide from having to face what was now reality. But why? This is what I had wanted wasn’t it? To leave Raincap for a life of adventure and heroism. I had even broken the law to do so. Spat in the face of respected order to satiate my desire for acceptance. I hadn’t planned for my actions to hurt anypony, but had I ever even stopped to question whether or not they would? A new layer of depression crushed down on my already heavy heart. Had what happened to Raincap been my fault? Had mine and Vanity’s descent into places unwelcoming to our hooves been a trigger for atrocity?
I sunk into the sand, burying myself in its gravely warmth, and began to cry softly. Vanity lied down next to me, placing a foreleg over my head. I could feel tears running from her cheeks onto my neck, dampening my coat.
“They may have made it out.” Warrick’s voice was subdued; he had little faith in what he was saying.
I forced myself to stop crying, sniffing back mucus and air as I looked at the pony that had saved me and my sister.
“The attack on Raincap was too abrupt, it all happened way too quickly. It wasn’t a planned assault. Those husks couldn’t have come from…” He paused, stopping himself. “They must have come from closer by. A few miles from here is a settlement, Smuggler’s Cove.” He looked at me. “The one you heard mentioned before.” I felt a pang of guilt for having eavesdropped. “If there were any prisoners taken from Raincap, and if those husks came from where I think they did there definitely were, they’d be taken to Smuggler’s Cove.”
I wiped the moisture from my eyes. “And why were you talking to those unicorns about this place?”
“I was asking for clearance to travel there.”
I looked to Vanity and she nodded. “When I told him about mom and dad he offered to help.”
I turned back to Warrick with a confused look on my face.
“Like I said,” he began. “I owe you at least this much. Now gather your things, we’re leaving in ten minutes.”
The world beyond the Raincap fence was astonishingly massive. As far as I could see, the golden expanse of the desert sand dunes dipped and peaked like waves in an ocean of glistening amber jewels. Small metal pikes poked out of the sand at apparently random intervals, small green lights affixed to the tops of the poles blinked lazily. The sky above was obtrusively blue, and completely cloudless, itself reminiscent of the actual sea. As I stared up into the endless slate of solid blue I allowed myself to imagine that once, all of Equestria’s clouds had been here, and that the pegasi had taken them for themselves, leaving the sky over the world beyond barren and eternally blue.
We had been walking for an eternity, or at least what felt like one, constantly treading on identical stretches of desert under the endlessly identical sky. The sand offered a malleable and cushioning surface, sparing our hooves from the pains of extensive travel; which was especially gracious to those of us forced into an awkward limp as per recent events. The depression I felt surrounding the fate Raincap had suffered was beginning to alleviate. Although I had just met him, I trusted Warrick. He had led Vanity and I to safety; and if his plan was to get us far enough away from civilization that nopony would notice him killing us, offing us in our sleep had been an option. Plus, he was from outside the fence; I couldn’t possibly test his knowledge of things out here, and if he felt there was a chance that my mother and father were being held prisoner, that was good enough for me. Well, that and the fact that I was living the dream, or at least some twisted version of it. I had finally left Raincap; and if this didn’t count as adventure, I don’t know what would. Heroically traversing a vast desert with a hot blonde (albeit my ditzy sister) and a mysterious dark stallion in search of my long lost parents in an attempt to rescue them from certain peril. Daring-Do would be proud. But looming doubt was still weighing heavily on me. In an attempt to banish such emotion, I had taken to passing the time by assaulting our guide with questions about himself and the world we trekked through. Questions that he, for the most part, either avoided or blatantly refused to answer. After several attempts to inquire about his chest and wings (a few of which drew concerned glares from Vanity) I had ditched the campaign and took to regaling him with stories of mine and Vanity’s time on the Raincap public school volleyball team, and various other exploits from my admittedly less than glamorous life. When that failed to illicit any interest, I turned to sight seeing.
“Why are there no clouds here?” I pondered aloud as I gazed into the endless blueness of the sky.
“Does it look like there’s any water here for the sun to evaporate?” Warrick answered with a frustrated query of his own.
“Well yeah I know, but aren’t there weather teams out here?”
“Maybe they like the color blue,” Vanity suggested, now staring upward.
“No, that’s dumb. They’d need rain right? And plus, it’s way too hot for them to enjoy this year round,” I reasoned. Then my thoughts turned to the actual landscape. “Hey Warrick, how can there be settlements out here? How is sand a proper foundation for construction?”
Our guide broke stride, stopping abruptly, then turned to Vanity. “Does she always ask this many questions?” Vanity shrugged, trying to cover a nod. “Well then can I ask you a question?”
“Of course!” I blurted. I figured any interaction was better than walking in silence, and maybe I could glean some clues as to our guide’s background through such conversation.
“Okay. How is it that you’re just a pegasus? How come you’re not an alicorn like your sister?”
I choked up. That was not the type of question I was expecting. And it was one I couldn’t answer. I had been asking myself that same thing since I was old enough to think, and the best answer I could come up with was the cruelty of the gods, the general unfairness of life, or a symbiotic amalgam of the two.
“Well,” Vanity interjected swiftly, coming to my aid yet again. “Our mom is a unicorn, and in science class they said that unicornness is re…regressive? Or was it dominant? I don’t know, but unicorn parents might not even have unicorn babies. And our dad is a pegasus, and that is just like being an earth pony, so we both got wings. Mom always said that it was just luck that I got a horn too.” Her eyes began to dart around. “And that makes sense, right?”
Bravo Vanity, you’re an idiot.
Warrick raised an eyebrow at her. “Sure.” He began to turn.
“Wait!” I called out, stopping him. “Now that we’ve answered a question about us, doesn’t that mean you owe us a question?” He turned back towards me and glared, his eyes narrowing. I had caught him in his own logic.
“Fine. One question.”
I thought carefully, and then it came to me. “Why were you being kept in that place under Raincap?”
My question had the same effect that his inquiry had caused me. He regarded Vanity and I for a moment, taking in our curious gazes.
“Because the ponies in your little town didn’t want anypony to see it when they killed me,” he said, altogether too matter-of-factly. Vanity gasped and my eyes went wide. Warrick turned and continued walking. I had a feeling we wouldn’t be doing much more talking on the way to Smuggler’s Cove.
Warrick stopped walking in the middle of the endless sand sea. I looked about, searching for any sign of a settlement. There was nothing but sand and sky. The only remarkable formation was an unusually large sand dune several hundred feet in front of us. If that was what ponies outside of Equestria called settlements, than maybe they needed to consult a dictionary.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
Warrick began to step towards one of the pikes jutting up from the sand.
He lowered his head and a beam of light flashed over his eye. The green light stopped blinking, and turned red. Warrick stepped back, rejoining Vanity and I.
“Now, if at any point in time you feel a need to say or do something while we’re here, don’t. Just stay close to me and try to keep quiet.” Warrick sighed, then postured himself. Vanity followed suit, as did I. The light on the marker switched from red back to a solid non-blinking green. I heard an electronic warping sound coming from under us that sounded like what I imagined a wet microwave would sound like. Beneath our hooves the ground began to glow a deep purple that was visible even through the sand. The glow formed a circle around where Vanity, Warrick, and I were standing. The sound grew more intense and began to fluctuate between the extremes of high and low pitches. Then there was a blinding flash, and the desert was gone.
I unclenched my eyelids, taking in the new venue. Before us was a large bronze door adorned with a carved mural that depicted several alicorns apparently in combat, similar to the pictures one could find in school text books symbolizing the struggle between Princess Celestia and Nightmare Moon. On either side of the door stood guard ponies. One, a mare, had a deep green coat. Wisps of silver mane hung down between her eyes. The face of the other was shrouded behind the hood of the stark white cloak both were sporting. They stood completely still, not even turning their heads to look at us. Warrick began to walk forward towards the door. Vanity and I exchanged stares. Her eyes were opened wide and I was sure mine were too. A gleeful smile spread across her muzzle.
“That was so pretty!” she squeaked. Warrick broke stride and glared back at her. Vanity threw a hoof over her mouth.
I cantered around, taking in the entirety of the area. We were standing in a large clearing with a several story high ceiling that looked like it was made out of…sand? Behind us was a massive curved wall also made of the crystalline dirt. It was as if we were somehow inside of a giant hollowed out dune. I turned back to see Warrick had begun to advance again. As he approached the door the two guard ponies stepped inward so they were directly in front of the decorated entrance.
“State your name and business,” demanded what I now realized to be a buck under his hood, without even looking at Warrick.
“I’m here to inspect your prisoners from the Raincap assault,” our guide responded.
The two guard ponies broke their stillness, exchanged glances at each other. The evergreen mare observed Warrick with caution. “What is your clearance level?”
“Higher than yours. Now step aside.” The guards held their ground. The tension was palpable; I could almost see a cloud of pure anxiety forming between them. Warrick’s razor sharp wings unfolded slightly and his knees bent a little.
The guard mare sensed the tension and began to fret. She looked quickly between Warrick and the still stoic guard buck. “Well if you were able to get past the retinal scan that must be right. Right? No need for any of this malice.”
Warrick turned his head from the stallion to mind the guard mare. In that instant, the guard buck whipped his head back. His hood slid off, revealing a bald headed old stallion, and the odd contraption on his face. The barrel of a gun rested on top of his snout, a strap with a pressure trigger wrapping around the top part of his mouth connected to the barrel, serving as a firing mechanism. He pointed his face at Warrick and bit gently on the trigger.
“Naa. Uh tinf ooo shud eeev,” the aged guard mumbled.
Warrick’s eyes moved between the guards, his hooves began to slowly shift in the sand. Next to me, Vanity was trembling. I just stood there, transfixed on what was happening, desperately waiting for what was going to happen next. The guard mare was shaking, her wide eyes darting about the room. The two bucks stared each other down, neither moving an inch. Then, Warrick’s hooves left the ground and the guard buck lifted his head to follow him. I winced and Vanity covered her eyes.
“WAAAAIIIIIIIT!” The overly excited voice seemed to bellow out from all around us. Warrick froze in the air, his black steel wings flapping slowly. The old guard pony stood still, bearing his teeth over the trigger of his weapon.
The ground began to rumble, and with the grinding sound of metal on metal, the large door began to open. All eyes turned to the entrance. From within the shadows of Smuggler’s Cove emerged a diminutive grey stallion garbed in a decorated white cloak. Flanking him were two similarly dressed guard bucks. As he stepped out into the open space, the two door guards leapt back to their stations beside the entrance and returned to standing eerily still. The small grey pony wore a wide grin as he approached Warrick.
“Well if it isn’t the pony of defense himself,” declared the grey buck. “To what do I owe this great honor, old buddy old pal?” The pony’s voice was full of charisma; enough that I almost forgot that our guide had just nearly painted that lovely door in elderly pony blood. I imagined that he would make a fantastic salespony.
Warrick landed softly, his eyes narrowing at the lavishly dressed buck. “Brazen Charm,” he hissed. “I see nothing has changed around here.” Warrick’s wings folded up, his muscles also relaxing.
“Oh Warrick, I’m hurt. Is that any way to greet an old friend?” Brazen Charm placed his hoof against his forehead theatrically and mimicked a fainting daze. “And what’s this I hear about you nagging your elders?” He gestured towards the old guard buck, who bristled at the thought of being called an elder.
“I’m here on business. Your guards refused to let us in.”
Brazen leaned past Warrick, looking at Vanity and I. He shot me a friendly smile and cantered past the black buck. “And who are your lovely friends? And for that matter, why were you hiding them?” He lifted Vanity’s hoof and gave it a small nip. “Such beauty should be displayed readily.” He turned to me. “In all capacities.”
Warrick pushed the grey buck’s hoof off of Vanity’s and moved between them. “Listen. I’m here to inspect your prisoners from Raincap. Allow my friends and I passage and we’ll have no problems.” I knew it was merely a figure of speech, but to have a pony other than Vanity refer to me as a friend gave me a warm feeling.
Brazen Charm narrowed his eyes, contemplating something. He looked Vanity and I up and down. I followed his inspecting eyes and realized I was filthy. My coat was still stained with the rank blood of that husk monster Warrick had saved me from, sand had found its way over a large amount of my coat in a consistency that kept me from being able to shake it off (my tear reddened cheeks offered a nice canvas for the dirt to congeal), and the blood stains on my ankle wrapping were beginning to brown. Vanity was similarly disheveled, but as usual still managed to look far better than I. The grey pony’s eyes went wide and he began to laugh an infectious laugh that I would have shared in were I not so nervous and confused. He clopped Warrick on the chin playfully. The black pony’s eyes went wide with fury, those pupil-less amber orbs seemed to ignite. Brazen’s grin widened.
“Oh Warrick, I never knew you for the type to take part in charity.” His laughter continued. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll take you to the prison quarters so you may ‘inspect’ our stock. Consider it a favor, for an old friend.” The hooded grey stallion spun around and trotted back into Smuggler’s cove.
Warrick stood rigid, I felt like his mane and tail might erupt into flames right then and there. I opened my mouth.
“Not. One. Word.”
Ow. Ow. Ow…
The flooring inside of the Smuggler’s cove settlement was made of iron. Every step sent a stream of pain running up from my ankle, and Brazen Charm was taking his time. Regardless of Warrick’s attempt to keep this visit strictly business, the seemingly delightful grey pony had demanded that Vanity and I be given a tour of Smuggler’s Cove. The base itself was as strange as the ponies it served as sanctuary to. Brazen Charm and his guard ponies were leading us through the cove (which was more like a makeshift town built into the walls of a cave) via a system of catwalks that connected together over the settlement. Below us, dozens of cloaked ponies went about with their day to day lives. The town itself was made up of many amateurishly welded shacks being used for homes and storefronts. On nearly every corner stood a statue of an alicorn that seemed to be missing pieces of flesh from its torso. In the center of the camp was an immaculately beautified building with steeples at each corner. Groups of ponies flocked to the building, most bearing smiles, but I could almost hear the groans of the fillies and colts being marched in by their parents. It struck me as odd that they all chose the same form of dress, but I reasoned that it was likely designed to help when they ventured out of their home and into the sands of the desert. It was also odd that there was a vegetable garden in nearly every yard. There was no sun down here, or rain. Brazen noticed me staring at the structure in the town center.
“Ah, yes. I see you have an eye for our place of worship. Few can say they have resisted the power of the word,” the grey pony said proudly.
“Well yeah,” I began. “In Equestria, if you break the Princesses’ law, you get arrested.”
Brazen chuckled. “My dear, we don’t recognize the word of tyrants as law in Smuggler’s Cove.”
“No, you worship a psychopath,” Warrick retorted.
Brazen Charm lifted his head, the corners of his mouth turning down. “Oh ye of corrupted mind, may our wise lord have pity on your treacherous hearts when he doth rise to rightful power.”
This was all very confusing. These ponies weren’t even from Equestria. How could they claim to know the princesses, much less make ridiculous accusations that they were somehow tyrants?
Warrick rolled his eyes and signaled for Vanity and I to continue walking. Brazen and his guards returned to point and the three of us followed.
“We don’t have time for this Brazen. Just take us to your prison quarters so we can be on our way,” Warrick demanded.
The grey pony turned his head, his hood hiding all but the smirk on his muzzle. His reminded me of the smirk Vanity would wear when she actually managed to outsmart some pitifully unintelligent pony (which you’d have to be for the likes of her to get the better of you). “But of course. Right this way honored guests.” There was something off about his tone that I couldn’t place.
Brazen led us to an elevator set in the merging of the catwalks’ paths. He nodded and one of his guards pulled the gated door open. Brazen and his guards stepped inside, and then gestured for us to follow. One of the guard ponies pushed a large red button on the elevator panel. The gate closed and the cart began to descend with a melody of squeaks and grinding noises. We passed what I thought was the ground level, sinking past the ponies traversing the town proper. Everything went black as the cart dipped down under Smuggler’s Cove. Then everything became stiflingly hot. The cart slid down into a vast open sector beneath the settlement, into hell. The entire area bore an overwhelming red hue. Bursts of flame bellowed from stacks standing behind a massive open pit where several filthy and emaciated ponies walked between the corpses of hundreds more. A huge stove like furnace spit plumes of smoke and flame into the air that danced about the room. The stench of death was made thick by the humid heat. Breathing was a struggle, as was fighting back the urge to scream; an urge which Vanity could not contain. Brazen smirked at the sound of her shriek. I stared at the pit strewn with dead and dying ponies. Ponies wearing those odd snout guns walked around the rim of the ditch with their hoods down, groups gathering to watch and smile as the starving prisoners withered away. The elevator came to an abrupt stop. I stepped out as the doors folded open and leaned over the railing of the large circular walkway overlooking the furnace and prison pit. I couldn’t see my parents. Vanity propped up on the railing next to me but couldn’t bring herself to look down at the hell below.
“Is this some kind of cruel joke?” I heard Warrick ask. “How are all of these prisoners dead already?”
“Whatever do you mean old boy?” queried Brazen sarcastically.
“The attack was less than a day ago, how are these ponies dead of starvation?”
Brazen feigned confusion, then revelation. “Oh! Silly me. These are just the leftovers.”
“Leftovers?” Vanity asked, her hoarse voice full of sadness.
“But of course. Here, we are companionate even to our prisoners. All are given a choice. Either they may choose to be enlightened to the wise one’s plan, or they are kept here to see the error of their selfishness. Of those taken from Raincap, most made the right decision. The rest were gracious enough to provide warmth for their fellow guests.”
Oh dear sweet Celestia.
Before I could even turn to see it, Brazen was up against the elevator door, Warrick’s foreleg pinned against his neck. The two decorated guard ponies whipped off their hoods and pointed their face guns at the steel chested buck. Before they could shoot, our guide outstretched his wings and positioned one against Brazen Charm’s throat.
“Weapons down gentlemen,” the grey pony ordered calmly. The guards exchanged looks and removed their face mounted weapons, dropping them to the ground with a pair of clangs. “Now Warrick, is this any way to treat a friend?”
Warrick pushed against the smooth talking buck, slamming him against the rattling gate. “Enough of your games,” he growled. “If these are the ones that refused your little cult, then where are the ponies that you let live?”
Brazen began to breath heavily, but kept his mouth shut. Warrick’s wing dug into his neck and the guard ponies gasped. “Okay!” shouted the hooded grey buck. “The wise one took our stock early this morning. By now he’d already have them in his temple. If you want to take it up with him, be my guest,” wheezed the cultist from behind Warrick’s foreleg.
Warrick loosened his hold on his old friend. “Pestilence was here…” Warrick stepped away from Brazen. The grey pony fell to the ground. The guard ponies immediately picked up their snout guns and pointed them at the stunned black pegasus stallion. Vanity gasped and leapt in front of the guards, throwing her forelegs around Warrick’s neck.
“That will do boys,” said Brazen Charm through his coughs for air.
“Fut sirf, thif non feliefer attaft ooo!” raged one of the guards.
Brazen stood up and brushed off his robes. “Indeed my boy, but this non believer is protected under our treaty with the vile witches of Canterlot. Should we do the wise one’s will and strike him down, as tempting as it may be, our people would not be safe from the evil of the tyrant Celestia and her bitch of a sister, Nightmare Moon.”
At this, Warrick pushed Vanity away and thrust his wings open. He turned to Brazen and growled, dipping into a familiar battle ready stance. And that was all he did. The black pony with the orange stripe in his mane took ferocious deep breaths as he glared at the smirking grey stallion. I thought I could see smoke puffing from his nostrils with each exhalation. Vanity whimpered and crawled in between the two.
“Please,” she begged. “Stop.”
Warrick’s eyes softened, his breaths began to shallow. He stood slowly, his wings folding back in next to him.
“Wink. Come here,” ordered the razor winged stallion. It took a moment for me to realize he was speaking to me. I had never been called Wink before. In truth, I was actually shocked he had even remembered that much of my ridiculous name. I slowly backed away from the railing over the Smuggler’s Cove hell hole and stood next to Warrick and Vanity.
Brazen Charm stood between his honor guards, wearing proudly an expression too smug to bear. So I didn’t.
“Look at it this way my little ponies, at least if the ones you are looking for deny the wise one, he shall grant them a quick and-“
Brazen let out a high pitched squeal as my hooves made contact with his snout. He stammered back behind his body guards, a hoof held over his bloodied muzzle, and scurried off into an open door way along the walkway, shouting something as he fled. The guards turned on me, clenching their guns’ pressure triggers.
I doubled over as one shot grazed my flank, the other burrowing into my right hind leg. For a moment everything went white. The world faded away, being replaced by an all encompassing pain.
I had been shot. Twice.
When my senses returned, I realized I was whimpering spastically. Warrick dashed at the guards, and rolled between them. Before either could turn, those frighteningly sharp wings burst open, slashing the soft tissue behind the guards’ hind knees. The hooded ponies fell to the ground, writhing. I felt nudges on my back and turned to see Vanity prodding me to get up. I was in too much pain to move, I felt like I would pass out. There was my pain medicine, but now didn’t seem like the ideal time for a nap. I tried to roll to my hooves. Unholy pain engulfed my entire back end and I fell back onto the unforgiving metal walkway.
I felt myself get whipped up into the air, and landed painfully on my hooves, nearly buckling again. Before me, Warrick was gliding down the walkway towards a quickly closing automatic door. All around the border over the pit similar doors were sliding closed. Vanity grabbed me in her forelegs, but let go at the sound of my pained shriek.
“Just go, I can run just fine!” I commanded, clinching my eyes to hide tears of pain.
Vanity stared at me frantically. As dumb as she was, even she could see through my pride. So I hit her. Nothing too bad, just a clop to the cheek. She recoiled, raising a hoof to her face.
“Hurry up! Those doors are closing!”
Vanity watched me for a moment more, tears in her eyes. I hadn’t hit her that hard, had I?
The pretty white alicorn, who’s cutie mark was a glittering star with a tiny little heart under it (a constant reminder of her aptitude for all things girly-girly) flapped into the air and dashed after Warrick.
I forced myself up, barely containing a scream as I planted my right hind leg down. I couldn’t use it. Between the bite wound and the bullet lodged somewhere in there I would be lucky if I ever could again. I steeled myself as best I could and began an awkward three legged gallop for one of the sliding doors. On the other side Warrick and Vanity had just landed. The door was about to close. I slid to reach them but Warrick had to pull back Vanity’s reaching foreleg from under the door as it sealed.
I was trapped in Smuggler’s hell. And I was alone...
I was trapped in Smuggler’s hell. And I was alone…
Alarms; I was really beginning to hate alarms.
I couldn’t see any flashing lights, but that was most likely because the entire under level of Smuggler’s Cove was permanently tinted under a reddish hue. But the blaring sound of the siren made it clear that everypony in the underground city knew I was here. And it was only a matter of time before they found me.
Prying open the elevator gate had been far more difficult than it should have. The rusty hinges provided a surprising amount of resistance to my yanking.
The elevator’s control panel didn’t offer many options: one floor above and one below. I knew I couldn’t go back up to the settlement. It didn’t take an egghead to know they were probably prepared for that.
I pushed the down button and the elevator began to descend, leaving behind the stifling warmth of hell.
I had no idea what to do next. I had been separated from Warrick and Vanity, and without the former I had no way of knowing where I was going in this place. Of course I had to find a way out of Smuggler’s Cove, but even if I could manage to get back to where we had entered, I’d still be stuck. Whatever magic had been used to warp us from the desert outside into the settlement was foreign to me. I was alone, and I was trapped, and it was all my fault. Warrick told me. He told not to do anything, not to say anything. But I couldn’t just be still, and now all three of us where in danger.
I had to do something. I left Raincap under the auspice that I was going to go off and become some big hero. And what kind of hero can’t even make a daring escape from hostile territory? That’s practically entry level. But if I was going to try anything I’d have to at least be somewhat prepared.
I pulled open my backpack and emptied its contents on the elevator floor. First things first, I needed to do something about my leg. Vanity had wasted most of the cotton balls and gauze in her attempt to treat my bite wound, and a fair portion of the lower level chewable pain killer was also missing. Fortunately I still had tweezers and disinfecting rub. Unfortunately I had to pull a bullet out of my thigh.
I took the remaining gauze from my kit and stuffed it into my mouth. I remembered from history class that in the old days, ponies would bite down on things during surgery, as there was no painkiller. I grasped the rubbing alcohol in my hooves and poured a few drops on the bullet wound. A muffled shriek found its way through the gauze. And I used to think it hurt to have this stuff dabbed on scraps and scratches. I took a short breather then picked up the tweezers, pouring the alcohol on them for sterilization.
“Okay, I can do this. Just don’t think about it.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The tweezers were now dangerously close to the bloody wound. My hooves were shaking and a bead of sweat ran down my forehead. I bit down on the gauze as hard as I could and stuck the tweezers into my leg.
As a little filly I was well known around Raincap as something of a daredevil. When you’re a pegasus that can’t fly you try to find other ways to compensate. So I tried all manner of sports, from scooters to skateboards, volley ball with Vanity, I even tried out ice skating once. Being a pony who wasn’t exactly born with a natural aptitude for athletics, I suffered more than my fair share of scraps and bruises. The school nurse was a regular acquaintance of mine, as was Dr. Clip n’ Snip (Raincap’s only physician). But between every injury I ever sustained due to sports, or exploring my home town, having a chunk bitten out of my ankle, and even being shot, nothing had ever been as horrible as those tweezers in my leg.
I was just laying there, a line of spittle running out of the corner of my fabric filled mouth intercepting the tears streaming from my eyes. I wasn’t moving, or making any noise that I can recall, just lying there, with little metal pincers sticking into my flesh. It was then that I realized how long the elevator had been descending. Unless the ponies of Smuggler’s Cove had built a vacation spot somewhere near the center of the earth, I should have been where I was going by now. That is, if the elevator had been moving. In my pained paralysis I hadn’t noticed that the cart had stopped squeaking in steady decline. I forced myself to sit up. The tweezers were halfway rammed into my leg, the prongs on either side of the bullet.
Okay, time for round two.
I bit down on the wad again, and closed my eyes. There was a dull pain in my thigh as I placed my hooves on the graspers. In one quick motion I pinched them together and pulled up. There were two light clangs as the tweezers and bullet hit the elevator floor. I opened my eyes to see blood that must have been stopped up by the fragment began to gurgle out of the wound. I spit out the gauze ball and pressed it against the bullet hole (which actually helped alleviate some of the pain). Then I just held there for a moment, pressing down. After a while the bleeding stopped and I dropped back onto the floor, letting out a relieved sigh.
“Not so bad.”
Six apples, one jar of sugar cubes, a sand covered blanket, four books, an assortment of mine and Vanity’s dresses, and a now nearly empty first aid kit; somehow it didn’t seem like I was as prepared as I would have wanted to be for something like finding my way out of a completely foreign and hostile underground sanctuary. But my thoughts were focused on something a might more frivolous. I had only packed three books when I left my home a night ago.
Pinkie Pie’s Magic Song Book
The cover of the book was adorned with the image of a pink mare with a pink mane and tail, and balloons for a cutie mark. She was wearing an oddly festive dress that had lollipops stitched into it and a matching hat. Cartoonish musical notes trailed out of her open mouth as if to indicate that the words she sang were as fun and joyful as such a happy looking pony must be.
Feeling curious, I flipped open the book to somewhere in the middle.
“…Don’t be too hasty. Cupcakes! Cupcakes! Cupcakes! Cupca-“
I jumped and slammed the book closed.
“Jeez,” I complained, placing a hoof over my pounding chest.
I poked at the bright pink hardcover with my hoof. Nothing happened. Slowly, I picked the book up and opened the front cover. The table of contents was just a list of song titles, and a page number for each. As I read down the list one caught my attention: Oink Oink Oink. I flipped to the page that corresponded with the song and the book began to sing.
“First you jiggle your tail, Oink Oink Oink; then you wriggle your snout, Oink Oink Oink; then you-“
I closed the book again.
“Oh dear Celestia,” I let slip, and then covered my mouth to stifle a giggle.
I knew the song title had sounded familiar, and now I knew why. This book must have belonged to Warrick. It made sense, he had no other way of carrying it, but I didn’t remember seeing him with it. Either way, I told myself that I’d have to annoy him with questions about it…if I ever saw him or Vanity again.
I stuffed everything back into my book bag, except for the three syringes loaded with instant sleep pain killer, which I kept in a makeshift holster I made by tying a piece of gauze around my left foreleg.
The elevator had arrived at its stop what felt like a half hour ago. But between my impromptu surgery and taking careful note of my less than stellar inventory, I hadn’t even had time to think about how dangerous it could be to stay stationary for so long. But I could walk now, and I needed to start looking for a way out.
I rose to my hooves and gently stretched my right hind leg. There was only a numb pain now, thanks to a strong helping of fruit flavored chewable pain relievers. I was actually quite proud of my work. Sure, all I had done was stuff cotton balls in the bullet-hole and wrap up my leg in spit soaked medical fabric, but it was still better than what Vanity had done for my ankle. Walking would still be a chore, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding to death anymore.
I put on my bag and stepped out of the elevator.
The bottom level of Smuggler’s Cove was nothing like I had expected. Upon exiting the elevator cart I was treated to a view of a very clean looking hallway. It was in stark contrast to both the shabby settlement and hellish prison above. The silver walls of the corridor nearly glistened under the bright lights on the ceiling, and the floor looked spotless enough to eat off of. The majesty of the hallway would be common place had I witnessed it only two days ago. But this was the first area I’d seen that was neither covered in dirt, blood, or some other bodily fluid since leaving Raincap, so that had to count for something out here.
Crouching as low as I could, I began to make my way down the hall. It was too quiet. The floor above was raging in alarm and light, but I could see or hear none of it down here. I couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad for my cause, so I just kept sneaking down the hall. As I reached the corner I heard the sound of an automatic door sliding open, then hoof steps. I hugged up against the wall adjacent to the door, listening intently. The door slid back closed.
“‘Private conversation’ my left flank. That’s not what he was saying last night.” The voice belonged to a rather disgruntled mare. Her hoof steps grew louder as she approached the corner.
I panicked, and jumped out in front of her. It was stupid, but there wasn’t much else I could do other than try to run back to the elevator, which would be impossible with my leg in the shape it was in.
The mare’s eyes went wide. We just stood there staring at each other; neither of us fully sure of what had just happened, or what to do next.
She made the first move, striking me down with a buck to the face. Before I could react she delivered another kick straight to my chest. I gasped for air, but choked up as she proceeded to unleash a barrage of quick jabs to my face and body. After a few moments of savagery she stepped back, taking witness to her work.
I was cringing. The sour metallic flavor of blood flooded over my taste buds. I opened my mouth and the sticky red liquid puddled on the hard floor. I’d suffered worse beatings from the rabble of angry children at my school.
The mare, who was wearing a familiar white cloak, grinned arrogantly.
I hated to hurt her pride, but I wasn’t just going to lay there and die from a few love taps. I lifted myself up and wiped the blood from my muzzle.
The mare’s eyes fluttered in surprise.
“You’re pretty tough for a kid. I admire that,” she admitted. Then, she became rigid, almost frightening. “But now it’s time to go to sleep.”
She dipped down into leaping position.
My wings unfolded and spanned at my sides.
The mare loosened her posture. Of course I couldn’t fly, but she didn’t know that. What she saw a pegasus about to take to the air.
I pivoted forward and the mare’s head whipped up anticipating my ascension. As fast as I could I pulled out one of the syringes strapped to my leg and three leg sprinted straight at the bewildered mare. The needle stuck into her neck and I bit down on the plunger. Her eyes went wide and she struck me across the side of my head, knocking me back to the ground.
“You little bitch.” She bit down on the syringe and pulled it from her flesh. “Thought you could just…just pull one over…” She fell to the ground with a thud.
“Ha!” I squeaked victoriously, sounding all together too much like my sister.
I cautiously stepped over the unconscious mare and approached the door she had exited. I placed my ear against it, but could only hear faint mumbles. I needed a way in. Scouring the hallway, I could see nothing that seemed remotely like an alternate entrance.
Then I saw an air vent.
The room the mare had come from was Brazen Charm’s office.
The air tunnel led to a vent on the far wall of the room just above the ground. At least I won’t have to fall out of this one I thought. From behind the vent I could see almost all of the office. Brazen was standing in front of his desk looking up at a wall sized screen. He looked anxious. I could only make out the lower corner of the screen, but the white light emitting from it was bright enough to pour out over the entire room.
Suddenly the light dimmed, a dull greenish hue taking its place.
“My Lord,” said Brazen, taking a knee and bowing his head.
“Rise.” A chill ran down my spine. The voice coming from the screen was lifeless, a hollow echo resonating off the end of the word.
Brazen did as commanded. He was nearly shaking, like a child being forced to admit to their parent that it was they that had taken of the sugar cubes.
“Wise one, forgive me for disturbing you. Your time is precious to us all and I hate to intrude-“
“If you so value my time…” the speaker took in a long, broken breath “…you will make haste to your reasons for taking it,” the voice said, interrupting Brazen Charm.
“Of course Wise one.” He sighed. “As you know, yesterday marked our first action against the vile Tyrant Celestia on her own land,”
“Your stock was…” another breath “…adequate. Many have chosen to join our cause,” the voice declared. For some reason, that left an insipid flavor in my mouth.
“Praise to you my Lord. But that is not why I have requested your presence,” Brazen clarified, a hint of apprehension in his voice.
There was silence..
“After you left with the new hopefuls we where visited by Luna’s dog.”
“What?” The lifeless voice changed almost completely. What ever was on that screen, it had just become very interested.
“Yes. He came with two young mares and asked to see those that we captured from-“
“Where…” inhale “…do you have him?” the screen asked, almost sounding gleeful through the hollow echo.
Brazen went stiff. His eyes began darting around the room and his lips quivered, searching for words.
“Where is he?” the voice asked flatly.
Brazen stood shivering for a moment, his eyes clenched and his head hung in shame. He opened his eyes and postured himself, looking up at the screen. “He is still here, in Smuggler’s Cove. We are doing our utmost to locate him so he can pay for his actions.”
“Yes Wise One, but-“
“But what? You said it yourself. Luna’s dog sets foot in blessed land, and yet lives. Is that not true?” The voice from the screen stated the obvious in the way you do when you’re incredibly angry, too much so to even yell.
“My Lord, he is protected under our treaty with the Princesses.”
There was silence again.
“Pestilence, please.” Brazen began to sweat, his lip quivered.
Pestilence; I had heard that name before. Pestilence was here. That’s right; Warrick had mentioned it, the purple unicorn, Twilight, too.
The light coming from the screen grew brighter, illuminating the whole room.
“I will find him. I…I understand now, and I will find him.” Brazen was sobbing now. He dropped to the ground and continued to beg.
As evil and hate able as he was, I couldn’t help but feel at least some pity. I knew how it felt to be a disappointment.
That incessant buzzing, the sound of a million little bugs zipping around, began to vibrate out from the speakers on the screen. Brazen suddenly started to convulse violently. His sobs gave way to screams muffled under a gurgling sound in his throat. I gasped and moved to push open the vent and run to him, but stopped, remembering why I was here in the first place.
The grey buck’s eyes bulged and become bloodshot. His wild spasms grew in ferocity, until it was like a scene out of some horrifically twisted movie.
Brazen Charm tore in half.
“No!” I don’t know why I screamed. I hated that pony. I hated what he did to other ponies, for what he might have done to my parents. But seeing somepony like this…it just wasn’t right.
Both pieces of Brazen Charm fell to the ground with a wet thud. As the light from the screen dimmed, a greenish fume emptied from Brazen’s rent innards. His flesh began to warp and melt until all that was left was a pile of rancid filth with several small plant-like growths sprouting from it. I felt like I might vomit as the stench reached me.
Everything was quiet for a moment. I could hear moist, heavy breathing coming from the screen. “What’s this? A little voyeur?”
Pestilence took in a deep breath that sounded like metal grinding wood. “Yes. I…can feel you.”
I inched slowly away from the vent.
“No doubt, you are the Raincap survivor.” another hideous inhalation “No?”
“Yes, linger a moment. I wish to speak to you.”
Oh no. Oh no, no, no. I was shaking with fear. I could barely contain the urge to turn and make a b-line back to the elevator. But if what I just witnessed was any indication, I wouldn’t get far. I stammered a moment. Maybe he was just bluffing; maybe he didn’t know I was here. I had screamed, he must have heard it.
“Do you fear me young one?” asked the lifeless echo, between its breaths.
Yes I did, far too much so to give my hiding spot away.
“Worry not; I will do you no harm.”
I stared at what used to be Brazen Charm. It was just pony enough that you could tell it had once been alive. And if it still had eyes, they’d be looking right at me.
The pony, or whatever it was, on the screen must of figured I would, and said, “Oh, him? I assure you, that is something I have been meaning to do for some time now.”
I was speechless, now less out of fear than out of disgust. These ponies were blindly worshipping someone that would remorselessly kill one of their most loyal servants. They must not have known who they were really following. I doubted any of them had ever even seen this monster before, except maybe Brazen Charm. And from what I just saw, it seemed like fear of death was more of a driving force to his zeal than a righteous desire to serve.
“Now listen to me my dear,” he began, pausing to breathe. “You have been made audience to happenings beyond your station, and have found yourself on the wrong side of this struggle. If you have any reasoning ability, you will banish yourself from this place and go back to the monotony of your negligible existence.”
Even if I wanted to turn back, there was nothing left for me to go back to. This monster had made sure of that.
I took in a deep breath of my own. “I have nowhere to go. You destroyed my home.”
The light glowing from the screen shifted around the room like a searchlight looking for an escaped prisoner.
“Your home was the first of many that will be purged along this conquest. Celestia will know that nopony that serves her is safe.”
“You’re wrong. The Princesses will find out what you’re doing. They’ll stop you.”
Pestilence scoffed. “You are so lost that you place trust in a child’s fancy. Perhaps in your story books that is the way things end, but not here.”
“No, they have Elements of Harmony. You can’t possibly-“
“What?” Pestilence interrupted in a mocking tone. “The magic of friendship and harmony is all I have to fear?” His voice grew dark, sinister. “I assure you my little pony; you will learn that no such thing exists.”
“That…that’s not true.” Just because I had never experienced it, that didn’t mean it wasn’t real. Did it?
“Is it not? Tell me, did you not come here with two others?”
“And yet you now hide alone, bathed in your own terror. Your ‘friends’ abandoned you to die. Where’s the magic in that?”
Yet again I had nothing to say. He was wrong. They hadn’t left me. I told Vanity to go without me. And Warrick…well he was clearing the way. He couldn’t have turned back.
Oh Celestia, he was right. Warrick and Vanity were probably long gone by now. I had been left behind.
Ghastly mist and fleshy vines crept out of Brazen’s corpse and between the spaces in the vent, slowly inching toward me. I scurried back till I bumped into the cold metal of the air duct.
“There you are,” Pestilence breathed.
I whipped out a medical syringe and jammed it into one of the meaty tentacles. The appendage went limp and dropped down. Before I could pull out my last syringe another tentacle wrapped around my injured leg; I yelped as it tightened, squeezing blood from the healing bullet wound. The fleshy vine began to pull at my leg, slowly dragging me towards the vent. I was fretting, trying to pull against it, but it was so strong, and I was so tired. Those chewable pain killers chose the perfect time to rear their side effects.
Another tentacle tore the vent off the wall, then lurched into the duct and wrapped around my other hind leg. Fighting it was useless, they were too strong. So I stopped. I let myself go limp, and began to be pulled a bit faster. Why should I fight? There was no one left that cared about me. And if what Brazen had said was true, at least it would be quick.
The tentacles pulled me out of the vent and into Brazen’s office, hanging me in the air so that I was facing away from the screen. Pestilence’s breathing had calmed to a dull rumble. It almost felt like he was right there in the room, breathing down the back of my neck. It felt disgusting.
As I prepared for the inevitable pain, I almost thought I could hear Vanity’s voice, that silly little chirp of hers. I guess it wasn’t the worst thing to imagine before you die.
But then I heard Warrick’s voice, then both together.
The door to Brazen’s office erupted into the room followed by a plumb of flame. The tentacle monster Brazen dropped me to the ground. I took the initiative and scampered away from the blob and back into the vent.
Behind me I could hear Warrick and Vanity. I stopped crawling though the duct and listened.
“EEEEEEEK! Warrick, shoot it! Shoot it!” Vanity shrieked, no doubt catching sight of Brazen Charm’s animate remains.
“Gef baf Fanify!”
Two shots sounded off, both hitting the screen. The room went dark, and the corpse of Brazen Charm ceased movement, and died, again.
Warrick pulled the muzzle canon off his face and began looking around the room.
“You said she was in here,” he said, turning to Vanity.
“I heard her voice. I thought she would be here,” Vanity said sadly.
I crawled out of the air vent and plopped into the office with a light thud. Warrick’s razor sharp wings whipped out and he turned towards me. Vanity turned to me and smiled upon realizing who it was. She galloped across the room and grabbed me up in a hug.
“Thank Luna you’re okay,” she cried, weeping into my coat. “I was so scared.”
Warrick folded his wings back at his side and nodded at me.
“Okay, now that we have her, let’s go,” Warrick said, waving towards the door.
I pushed Vanity off me and got to my hooves. Warrick galloped out the damaged doorway. Vanity and I followed.
“You know, you could learn a thing or two about subtlety.”
It was a little shocking really. Warrick wasn’t even mad that I had attacked Brazen Charm. The way he mentioned it, it almost sounded like he was jealous it had been me to do it. He was only mad that I hadn’t done it in a more covert manner.
“Sorry.” I wasn’t really sorry. Real heroes don’t wait for the opportune moment to clop an evil pony. Then again, real heroes are usually the ones in the Taken Too Soon section of the obituary.
All around us the alarms were blaring. The pristine corridors of the lowest level of Smuggler’s Cove were awash with the reflected red lights and the piercing siren noises engulfed everything and everpony in its brutally obnoxious screams. I was really starting to hate alarms.
Vanity glided through air behind us as we cut through halls of what Warrick called the loading area. I was barely able to hold onto him, he flew so fast. My forelegs were wrapped around his neck as firmly as I could manage (I actually feared I might accidentally choke him to death) but being so close to those hellish wings made my whole body stand on pins and needles, the butterflies in my stomach begged me to let go of him and fall safely away from them. But there was the little issue of all the world’s guard ponies being hot on our tail.
“There!” Vanity called out from behind us.
Warrick banked around a corner and flew straight for the door at the end of the hall. When he didn’t slow down I nudged him with my hind leg. When he lowered his head and sped up even further, I buried my face in my forelegs and braced for impact.
The door smashed open and Warrick and I slid to a stop on the cold concrete floor of what looked like an oversized garage. Vanity landed next to us, looking from Warrick to the door then back again.
“It wasn’t locked last time,” she said.
Warrick stood up and stumbled around a little, his eyes going in different directions. “No time,” he said in his daze. He shook his head, snapping himself out of it, and began to gallop deeper in to garage.
I rose to my hooves and looked at Vanity.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“The place where we found the car,” she said, her eyes brightening as she mentioned it. “Come on, I’ll show you!” She gestured for me to follow and went after Warrick.
All around us, strange looking vehicles were parked in neat groups. Things that looked like the love child of a quadracycle and a helicopter, snow plows for winter wrap-up, even pegasus drawn chariots. But nothing that looked like a car.
Keeping up with Vanity and Warrick was torture. Not only was I forced to run on three legs, but the drowsiness I was feeling from the pain pills I took was threatening to sap me of any energy I had left.
Finally they slid to a stop in front of the most ridiculous looking vehicle I had ever seen. It was a large red cabin with an attached lip protruding out in front of the head lights. Two large wheels affixed to the front and two small ones at the back. The strangest things about the oddly proportioned vehicle were the podium and armchair built onto the jutting lip. It looked like something a travelling Politian could make use of.
“Uh, what is this thing?” I asked.
“Repurposed juice maker, and our way out of here,” Warrick said, climbing up onto the vehicle. He looked down at Vanity and I and shrugged his shoulders. “Are you coming?”
Vanity and I exchanged looks and climbed into the cabin of the repurposed juice maker. The engine rattled and sputtered before finally roaring in a symphony of deep revving sounds. I looked out the left side window and noticed how fast we were going. At this rate we’d hit the wall of the garage before we even had time to find a way out.
Vanity and I were bounced into the air by the sudden violent bump. I fell on one of the hard bench seats, hurting my wrapped leg. I looked back out the window. We were going up at a dangerously steep angle. I could see light reflecting off the floor, and from the angle of its rays I could tell it was coming from in front of the juice maker car. It was a warm light, welcoming. Not like the eerie glow from Brazen’s office screen or the artificial flickering of the lights in Smuggler’s Cove’s hallways.
It was the light of Celestia’s sun.
The sound of gunfire barked behind us. I barely ducked under the bench seat when the bullets began to tear through the cabin, sending splinters of wood dancing through the air. Vanity huddled up next to me as the car was riddled with hot metal pellets.
“Hold on!” Warrick shouted back to us.
There was a loud crash, and the revving sounds stopped, then a split second of weightlessness. The juice maker landed and an explosion of sand kicked up around us. Vanity and I remained under the bench, waiting for whatever was to come next. Rays of soothing sunlight poured into the cabin from the dirty windows and the bullet holes in the walls, illuminating the dusty old wagon in a diluted glow. I heard the sound of somepony’s hoofsteps from above, then the sound of sand shifting. The door opened and Warrick flapped up into the cabin.
I crawled out from under the seat, waving a hoof over my head. Warrick sighed, presumably in relief, and stepped out of the wagon. I followed, jumping into the golden sand. A burst of dull pain shot up my right hind leg. I didn’t care, I was just glad to be out of Smuggler’s Cove. Vanity stepped up beside me, and we just stood there a minute, enjoying the warmth that I had been cursing as way too hot less than a day ago.
Warrick hopped off the juice maker car pranced over to Vanity and I.
“Not bad right?” he asked way too smugly.
Vanity grinned and kicked sand at him. “I’m the one that said to take the car!”
“And I’m the one that drove the thing. You have any idea how hard it is to operate something like that?”
I lay down in the sand, staring off into the horizon.
“You wanted to take the propeller thing. I made the good choice,” Vanity demanded, sticking her snout in the air.
“You only chose the cider press because you liked the color! You two almost died back there!”
I began to fade from consciousness, the full effect of the pain medication finally taking hold. The sounds of the warm breeze and my sister arguing with our now two-time savior, the warmth of the desert sun, the gravely feeling of the sand against my skin. It all began to fade away. And as my vision of the endless blue sky left me, I thought I saw a single cloud marring the otherwise clear expanse.
A single grey cloud.
Silly Cone Die Ox Hide
If there was one good thing that could be said about the ponies in Smuggler’s Cove, it was that they didn’t give up easily.
I hadn't even had time to properly lose myself to the void of unconsciousness when they came running out from underground, guns blazing. About a half dozen of them, chewing away at those pressure triggers, sending bits of lead whizzing through the dry desert air.
I moved as fast as I could. A hop, skip, and a jump and I was back in the juicer under one of its bench seats. I heard hooves meet wood as Vanity and Warrick flapped up onto the juice truck to take cover behind the cabin.
It was strange. Even though I ought to have been hyperventilating into a paper bag out of pure terror, all I could think about was how much I wanted to buck Warrick for dropping the gun he had used to shoot the screen in Brazen’s office. Because now we were pinned down by gunfire, while trapped in a juice machine on wheels. And it was all his fault. However, considering that the whole reason we even went to Smuggler’s Cove in the first place was to look for my parents, this is all technically their fault for allowing themselves to be captured. But then if you want to get really technical, you could say that it was their parent’s fault for birthing them in the first place. And by that logic, you could trace this all back to the beginning of time. In which every event that has ever transpired in all of history has in a some way, shape, fashion, or form effected the universe and brought it about that at this exact interval of time, I am here, under a seat in a juice car, waiting to be perforated by a bunch of slack jawed cultist ponies while my sister and the creepy sexy cyborg pony that we saved get the same treatment just a few feet away. And this all gets to happen in the middle of the Celestia damned desert!
Or, Warrick could just wait until they have to reload and turn them all into cold cuts.
It all happened incredibly quickly. A slight wobble in the cart’s chassis as he took flight, then the cacophony of sounds that would make the toughest of toughcolts cringe.
I curled up against the hard cabin wall and listened to the sounds of nature.
The familiar sound of somepony’s head leaving their shoulders.
Bones snapping in the dry desert air.
A...Well I’m not quite sure what that was, but it certainly wasn’t enjoyable for whoever it was directed at.
It was like watching a horror movie with the video turned off, and it was horrible. But I had been more relieved at that moment than I had ever been since leaving Raincap. We were, at least for the time being, safe. At least, that’s what those sounds made me think. Then again, for all I knew Warrick could have just been shot dead and I was in here listening to him die thinking everything was sugar and rainbows.
“Well, I suppose if that is the case, I might as well meet my end with dignity.”
I crawled out from beneath the bench and made my way to the cabin door. Before I could even raise a hoof, the door swung open and there was Warrick, holding two of the guard ponies’ guns in his mouth by the leather straps. Redemption for his prior stupidity. He tossed them into the truck and wiped his mouth, cringing at the taste. I looked at the weapons. There had been at least six guard ponies, I was sure of it.
“Why only two?” I asked.
“The others had blood on them,” Warrick stated, shrugging off the question.
“But, couldn’t we just wash them off? We might need them later.”
Warrick waved me off.
“Come now Periwinkle, we’re not savages.”
“Awfully snooty,” I chided.
Especially for somepony that seemed perfectly fine with drenching himself in the bile of mutant ponies not but a day ago. But I held my tongue. Warrick seemed like the type of pony that needed a reason to make a decision, and if he chose to only take two, there must have been a better explanation than that it made us look barbaric. At least I hoped so.
“Uh, can I get up now?!”
“Oh, damn it Vanity,” Warrick sighed, climbing up onto the chassis of the juice car.
I lurched out of the cabin and into the sand, letting it warm my hooves for a moment before following Warrick up onto the stage-like front end of the juice car. There was Vanity, huddled under the podium like a filly hiding from the imaginary monster in her closet. Warrick stepped over to the podium and waited a moment.
“Guys? Are you there?” Vanity asked, a bit of concern in her voice.
Warrick looked at me and smirked. He bucked the podium lightly and Vanity shrieked, jolting out from under it and falling into the sand.
I snorted and began to giggle. Vanity got to her hooves and joined in the laughter while dusting herself off.
Warrick approached the front of the juice car, sitting in the plush red recliner chair flanked by a system of levers that appeared to have been thrown on after the fact. I noticed something on the door of the truck that I hadn’t before. Scratched and faded lettering that I could hardly make out. From what I could tell, it had once said Super Cider Squeezy and then some number that had several zeros.
I had figured (and hoped) Warrick was just kidding about us having been riding around in a juice maker.
The Cider Squeezy’s engine roared to life as Warrick pulled and shifted the levers. He grinned and let out a grunt like cheer. I hobbled over to him, trying my best to keep weight off my bad leg.
“So, where are we off to next?” I asked.
“Depends, do you still want to find out what happened to your parents?”
“Of course.” I answered, a touch defensively.
“Well then,” he said, getting comfortable in his chair, “Next stop, Ponyville II.”
Sand. A naturally occurring material made up of the the coarse, finely granulated remains of minerals such as silica (usually in the form of quartz) or calcium carbonate. In some instances, sand can even be comprised of more exotic things such as bits of sea shell or coral.
From a scientific viewpoint, sand is quite fascinating. It’s simply mind boggling to try to imagine that over countless eons, massive chunks of mineral and stone slowly eroded, being chipped away piece by piece; then those pieces became smaller pieces, and then those became smaller ones still. Until eventually what were once enormous structures, mighty and formidable, are evolved into a sea of wavy grains that can be seen everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Because sand gets everywhere.
As brief as my time in the desert had been, I was really beginning to hate sand. And between trying to get the devil’s dirt out of my bandages and having to hear Vanity’s constant spoutings of “Are we there yet?”, I was becoming more than a bit perturbed. So I decided I’d take to my new favorite activity; pestering Warrick with questions.
“Who’s Pinkie Pie?”
I thought he was going to cough out a lung the way he choked up at the question. He regained what composure he could and shrugged as if no one saw what just happened.
“Why do you ask?” he queried, without looking back at me.
“Well,” I said, pulling the magic song book out of my backpack, “I found this in my bag, and it’s not mine. And I don’t think it’s Vanity’s, so I just assumed that-”
He leaned off his chair and snatched the book out of my hooves, meticulously examining it for any imperfections. I couldn’t help but smirk like an evil little bitch.
“So, it is yours then,” I remarked.
Warrick stopped eyeing up the song book and slowly turned towards me, his eyes narrow.
“What’s Warrick’s?” Vanity asked, climbing out of the cabin and into the brutally hot sun.
“Nothing,” said Warrick, sliding the girlishly decorated book under his chair.
Vanity’s horn began to glow a pale white and the book floated out from under the red recliner. She brought it to her face and began examining it.
“Pinkie Pie’s Magic Song Book?!” she exclaimed with her stupid little voice. She sounded like she was more excited to crack the thing open and have a party than to ridicule tough guy Warrick for having something so filly-esque.
Warrick’s eyes went wide and he climbed under the chair looking for the book. His head poked out from beneath it and he saw Vanity holding it in her magic. He leapt out from under the chair at her, his fore legs outstretched. A cloud of pale white engulfed him, stopping him in mid air. Vanity walked past him, the book still held to her face, as he thrashed about, trying to break free from her hold.
“Warrick. Why would you hide this from us?!” She asked, a broad smile growing on her lips.
Warrick stopped struggling, a puzzled look on his face.
“Wait what?” he asked.
“Just think of all the fun we could have had with this when we were walking in the sand! I mean I was so bored, we were walking fooooooreeeeeverrrrrr and had nothing to do but play ‘I Spy’ but that wasn’t even fun cause you guys kept guessing ‘sand’ are you were always right. But with this we could have had a blast!”
Okay, now I really wanted to buck her.
“Here let’s see.” Vanity opened the book to a random page.
“...Both our diets I should mention are completely vegetarian. We all eat hay and oats, why be at each other’s throats? You gotta shaaaare, you gotta caaaaare...”
Vanity smiled and giggled like a buffoon as the book belted out lyrics that might as well have been straight out of some kids show teaching the values of friendship and all that stuff. She didn’t even notice that her hold over Warrick had faded. He scampered over to the book and closed it, hugging it in his forelegs and glaring at Vanity, practically daring her to try her levitation trick again.
“Okay,” he began. “One rule.” He looked at me. “Ask all the stupid questions you want.” He looked at Vanity. “Make all the dumb, annoying comments you want. Just leave my shit alone.”
“Then keep it out of my bag,” I challenged, smirking.
He glared at me, then shook his head and went back to his chair, stuffing the book under the cushion and sitting on it. Vanity gave me that look she would always give when I’d talk back to our mother or father.
“What? He started it!” I argued.
She just lowered her head and went back into the cabin, leaving Warrick and me out in the uncomfortably hot, and now also uncomfortably awkward desert.
“Are we there yet?” asked Vanity, for the Celestia-knows-how-manyeth time.
“Are you serious? I mean where do you see anything other than sand? Tell me. Otherwise, at least wait till we arrive at some sort of landmark before asking that again.”
She groaned, and leaned dramatically over the driver’s chair.
“Can’t this thing go any faster?” she whined, through her moans of boredom.
“It wasn’t exactly designed for off road travel. If I push it any harder the whole engine could flood with sand. Then we’d have more to worry about then impatience,” the black pegasus explained. “But, you know, if you would have listened to me and we had taken something more practical and less ‘pretty and red’, we might already be there.”
Vanity groaned and slid off the chair in an over dramatic gesture, laying next to it completely taken by boredom.
“Why did you only take two guns?” I asked, breaking what had been at least a two hour silence. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, as small as it was. It just made far too little sense.
Warrick looked back at me, giving me only the corner of his eye.
“Oh, so you’re talking to me again?”
“I’m bored, and you said I can ask questions,” I said, shrugging.
“Guzuntite,” Vanity squeaked, her voice partially muffled by the wooden panel her face was buried against.
“They had blood on them,” he answered, reiterating the same strange excuse he had originally offered.
“So what? It’s not like you’re scared of blood. Not from what I could tell at least.” Wow. Less than forty eight hours in the ‘real world’ and I was talking like a true psychopath. Maybe he had some sort of moral or religious reason for not wanting to take something stained with blood. Maybe it’s a hygiene thing. Maybe I need to think about these things before firing off with questions and arguments more fit for a hardened convict than a Raincap High Honor Roll student.
Warrick gave me a strange look. As if he was just as surprised to hear that sort of talk out of me as I was.
“Blood has a very distinct smell,” he began. “A smell that attracts all manner of things. And some of those things are things I’d very much like not to attract. Is that a good enough answer for you?”
Dangerous wildlife? In the desert? I suppose it’s not as strange as teleportation pads or putrid psychic monsters, but still, I’d read my biology book cover to cover and even I couldn’t think of any desert dwelling species that would serve as any sort of feasible threat to three ponies.
“Yeah, I guess that’s good enough.”
“Good, cause we’re here.”
Vanity’s head shot up, her eyes wide in delight.
“And before you ask. Yes, really.”
Vanity flapped up into the air and turned to face the front of the Cider Squeezy. She stared out ahead at the endless and unbroken plain of sand dunes. She looked at Warrick, then back at the expanse ahead, then back at Warrick.
“You liar,” she said, her face scrunching up into a pout and her tone wholly judgemental.
She was right though. There was just...sand. I couldn’t see anything that remotely resembled anything but...sand.
“No, we’re here,” he said, as if she had just been being silly.
“I hate to degrade myself, but I have to agree with Vanity,” I admitted. “Are you sure the heat isn’t getting to you?”
He looked at me and rolled his eyes, his head going mockingly limp.
“Haha. Is that your professional assessment Doctor Periwinkle?”
I felt myself blushing. He used my full name. I hated that name.
“But no, I’m sure we’re here.” He got out of his chair and stretched briefly, then climbed off the Cider car and into the sand.
Vanity and I looked at each other in confusion.
“Peri, I think Warrick’s crazy. We should get him a glass of water or something.”
I face hoofed.
“Vanity, we’re in a desert. There is no water. Let alone a glass to put said water in.”
“Oh yeah...I forgot about that,” she said, grinning
Dear sweet Celestia nopony can be this dense.
“Um, ladies,” Warrick called out. “If you’re done chatting I’m going to need some magical help for this.”
“Coming!” Vanity called back, gliding down to him.
“Flight is overrated,” I mumbled, climbing off the Cider Squeezy and hopping into the warm sand. As much of a pain as it was to get the stuff out of certain...tender spots, I had to admit the warmth of the it mixed with its granular texture did make for a uniquely pleasing feeling against my coat. I trotted in place for a second then joined Warrick and Vanity, who were standing a few paces away.
“So yeah, about this encampment of yours. Where is it?” I asked, feeling overly smug.
Warrick ignored me, looking to Vanity.
“Would it be incorrect of me to assume you know spells that can be used to alter the appearance of things?” he asked.
“I know like all of those! I can make your mane green, I can put stripes on your coat...” She perked up as if reaching some epiphany. “I can give you pupils!”
Warrick’s pupil-less eyes narrowed.
“No, thank you. I was thinking more along the lines of light refraction in order to counteract invisibility spells.”
Invisibility spells? Did he mean Ponyville II was right here in front of us? I wasn’t sure what was more impressive about that possibility: the fact that such a spell could be cast on something as large as a town-sized encampment, or that Warrick was able to know just where it was in the middle of a desert where everything looks exactly the same.
Vanity was stumped by his request.
“Uh...I don’t really know what any of that means,” she said, shrugging her shoulders in insincere guilt.
“If something is here but we can’t see it, can you make us able to see it?” he asked.
“Oh! Why didn’t you just say that?! I used to do that all the time for competition, but backwards to hide icky stuff like zits.” She stepped back, taking a deep breath. Her horn began to glow that pale translucent white and beams of magic shot out into mine and Warrick’s eyes.
“Last chance Warrick, are you sure you don’t want pupils? I could do purple, or, oh gosh! Imagine a nice deep pink! Maybe some-”
“Fine,” she said, clearly disappointed at a missed opportunity to beautify something.
The beams of magic faded, leaving floaters and a blinding white light in their stead. I blinked wildly to regain my sight and began to rub my eyes.
“Oh no...” Vanity’s tone was stirring. That taste, the one you get in your mouth when you just know that something horrible has happened but you want to think you’ve heard wrong. The very copperish taste. It filled my mouth.
I turned slowly around, removing my hooves from my face. There it was, Ponyville II.
And it was burnt to the ground.
A Brief Respite
Whoever it was that said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” had obviously never spent an entire morning venturing through the desert only to find that your destination had been turned into a smoldering pile of ash.
In reality though, I should have been able to predict this outcome. The ‘cloud’ I had seen on the horizon was exhibiting very strange oscillation behaviors for condensation. Anypony with a trained eye could have identified it as smoke. But I had been exhausted so I gave myself the benefit of the doubt and decided to mentally pawn off the blame on Warrick for not even noticing the plume of smoke in the distance. Not that it mattered at that point. Ponyville II was not much more than burn residue and the haunting carcasses of what had once been rather impressively designed buildings, before being burnt to the ground that is. Which of course raised the question of who it was that started the fire. A question for which I was quite sure Warrick had at least an idea of the answer to.
“Shh.” he commanded in a harsh whisper.
“Fine,” I whispered back, a tad miffed, and went back to crawling through the burnt out interior of what looked like a classroom of some sort.
There was ash everywhere. You couldn’t take even the lightest step without sending tufts of the stuff into the air. And Warrick had us doing a military crawl as to “Maintain the element of surprise." So I was breathing in what was surely an unhealthy amount of it. But he had a point. It didn’t take much to put two and two together. Pestilence’s zombies had burned down Raincap, and it didn’t take a genius to guess why. They were after Warrick. And they probably expected this to be the place he’d be heading next, and they were right. So it wasn’t hard to believe they were still here searching. So maintaining silence was pretty important.
Vanity however, did not know the meaning of the word.
“Ahhhh...” She reeled back, gasping a plume of ash and fighting the urge to sneeze. Warrick and I froze solid. She exhaled peacefully and we continued crawling.
“Ahhh....” We froze again. I could feel a bead of sweat rolling down my temple. Vanity trembled, trying to hold it back. She was too weak.
“Eeechew!” It was a sneeze even a small rodent would regard as tiny. I could barely hear it, so there was no possible way anypony else could have.
CLICK CLICK CLICK CLACK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLACK CLICK
“Make one more move and the whole building comes down! We have you surrounded!”
Luck. A force that brings about fortuitous, yet completely chance events that are beyond the control of those that witness them. Events such as missing a pop quiz because you couldn’t catch the bus, being the millionth customer at a restaurant, or finding out that the group of ponies that just surrounded you with enough firepower to turn you into a pile of chunky salsa just so happen to be friends of the mysterious black buck you’ve been travelling with.
Another of Vanity’s tiny sneezes cut through the awkward silence of the room. It had turned out that the ponies who had cornered us were soldiers, and the only other ponies left in Ponyville II. They had us waiting in what must have been their barracks while one of them went off to go fetch their commanding officer. And by “had us waiting” I mean they were holding us at gun point until their boss came and decided whether or not he wanted them to turn us into Swiss cheese. Fortunately, Warrick seemed rather confident we’d be okay. Then again, Smuggler’s Cove had been his idea as well.
When I had tried to query the guards about what had happened they had made it clear that silence was the order of the day. So I took to observation. When they had ordered us out of the class room I got a pretty decent view of what Ponyville II looked like, and from what I could tell, it was similar to what I had seen in my social studies book regarding the actual Ponyville. At least, in terms of civil design. Whereas in the real town there were libraries, bakeries, and stores that sold quills and sofas; in Ponyville II there were armories, training gyms, and classrooms designed for the teaching of battle tactics. Or at least the charred remains of those things. The barracks itself was still impressively intact. From the outside it looked like it had taken a bath in soot, and been vandalized by the troublesome local kids. But for a building caught in a town sized blaze, it was in uncannily good shape. Inside, you could hardly tell anything had happened at all. The beds were all made neatly, and each had a chest at its foot, presumably to store the owner’s belongings. The barracks building had several levels, but they were holding us on the base floor. Probably to ensure the least amount of property damage when they decided to fill us full of holes.
The soldier ponies themselves all looked eerily similar. They all wore thick utility vests and helmets that looked like salad bowls repurposed as protective head gear. And all their tails were trimmed down to almost nothing. Same with their manes. Or at least I assumed as much as I couldn’t see any hair poking out from under their helmets. Then again they could all just be suffering from early hair loss. It would certainly explain their abrasiveness.
“Okay! Nah what’s this Ah hear about trespassers?” Put lightly, the voice was comical. Like who ever it belonged to was trying their very best to sound as masculine as possible but only managing to sound like somepony with a frog in their throat and a very pronounced speech impediment.
When I saw who the voice actually belonged to, I decided to keep my thoughts to myself.
The soldier that had left the barracks entered first, followed by a stallion so massive he could hardly fit through the door. He was the kind of pony that would make my dad say “You’d have to shoot him, cause there’s no way you can fight him.” His coat was a pale evergreen, like there were years of stress greyed into it. But apparently stress had no effect on one’s musculature. The obviously-on-steroids pony stopped short as he entered, looking us up and down and smirking.
“Well Ah’ll be damned. If it ain’t Luna’s shield himself. Long time no see Warrick.”
Long time no see and the last time was fun and rainbows? Or long time no see and now we get torn apart in a hail of bullets?
“Weapons down boys. Wouldn’t wanna get court martialed nah would we?”
The soldiers lowered their heads and removed the face cannons from their snouts. A few of them left the barracks while the others went about their business, seeming to lose all interest in us now that shooting was no longer an option. Vanity looked around, noticing the soldiers dropping their staunch demeanor in favor of a more relieved aire. Sensing the positive change in mood, she stepped forward, raising a hoof to the giant, a smile on her lips.
“Hey! My name is Vanity. Who are you?”
The monster stallion looked down at Vanity, then back at Warrick. She lowered her hoof and stepped back in line with us, sulking.
“Ah gotta say Warrick, yer lookin’ spiffier n’ a million bits,” he said, in a tone I wasn’t altogether sure was sincere.
“Fourleaf,” Warrick began.
“Ah just got one question,” the commander, Fourleaf, interrupted. “Where the fuck have you been?”
Well that didn’t sound very good.
“Did you forget or somethin’? Or did ya’ jus’ not care that you were supposed to rendezvous with us here a day ago?”
Warrick looked back at him narrow eyed.
“But Ah guess that’s alright since apparently instead of doin’ yer job and y’know, defendin’ shit, you were out chasin’ tail!” He pointed at Vanity and me. “And wait just a damn second! Who the hell are these ponies?!” He pointed to one of his men. “Get ‘em outta here! Drug ‘em or somethin’! They’ve seen too much!.”
Two of the cadets looked at eachother then began making a move. One of Warrick’s wings shot open and the soldiers drew back.
“They’re with me.”
“Ah can see that. What Ah wanna know is why?”
“Raincap Village,” Warrick began.
“Huh?” Fourleaf interrupted again. If he was trying to come off as being a belligerent imbecile, he was doing a good job.
“It was hit last night,” Warrick continued.
Fourleaf froze solid.
“They’re....they’re attacking within Equestria?” he asked.
“Uh....no,” Warrick began, sounding embarrassed. “They were looking for me.”
“An’ what in tarnation were you doin’ inside the damn border?!”
“I got shot down outside the fence. The Raincap ponies found me and locked me up in that abandoned underground lab. Apparently they had found it and turned it into some kind of drug cooking plant.”
Vanity and I exchanged wide eyed glances.
“How industrious,” Fourleaf remarked.
“Yeah, well I guess kidnapping and torture aren’t that much of a moral conundrum for drug dealers. They had me strapped to a medical bed. Did a number on me trying to get me to tell them where I was from, who I was. I was sure they were gonna lynch me, until these two came along and set me free.”
That was news to me. The Mayor of Raincap never struck me for the type that would be involved in such a base practice as drug dealing. Then again, she was always rather charismatic, which would serve a salespony well. Oh, and as I recall it was me that set Warrick free. Alone.
“Well in that case Ah suppose you had a good reason fer...wait a minute. Lemme get this straight. You mean ta’ tell me, you were rescued...by a couple a’ school fillies?!”
Fourleaf looked around to his soldiers, inciting them to join in as he laughed at the apparently unbecoming events surrounding Warrick’s continued existence.
“That’s not important!” Warrick asserted, defensively. “How about you tell me what happened here? Last I checked, using military installations as fuel for bonfires was a big no-no.”
Fourleaf stopped laughing.
Warrick nodded like he had already known, but was just making sure.
“Figured as much. They burned Raincap down as well. It’s strange though, I didn’t see any bodies out there.”
“Funny story ‘bout that. Pinkie Pie was here yesterday. Had one of her weird muscle spasms an’ said we needed to evacuate. I had no idea what was goin’ on, but Twilight took it real serious so we did as we were told.”
“She was...here?” Warrick asked, his voice carrying something I hadn’t heard in it before. Was that...concern?
“Don’t worry, everypony important got out long b’fore we got hit,” Fourleaf assured him.
“Good,” Warrick said with a sigh. He looked up at Fourleaf, his expression betraying confusion. “If there was an order to evacuate, why are you still here?”
“An attempt to protect the instillation. Ah had a hoof full of mah best stay behind to try t’ fight off whatever it was that wanted in.” He lowered his head. “Ah’m ashamed t’ say that when Ah saw what we were up against...Ah ordered mah boys t’ hide an’ wait the whole thing out.” His teeth were grinding together, like he could barely contain himself. “We jus’ watched as they burned the whole damn place down.”
“Good thing too,” Warrick said, as if praising Fourleaf for his cowardice.
“Youre bodies would have just added more fuel to the fire, might’ve caused even more damage.”
Fourleaf looked back at Warrick as if he were staring at a madman. Then, as if realizing that yes, he was, he composed himself.
“Well anyway, since ya was bein’ tortured an’ all, Ah guess I got no reason to be mad about ya missin’ the party yesterday Warrick. And if that’s the case then Ah owe an apology t’ ya’ little lady,” Fourleaf said, looking at Vanity. She lit up and dashed over to him, raising a hoof.
“Apology accepted! I’m Vanity! Who are you?!”
Fourleaf looked at Warrick in confusion.
“She always like this?”
Warrick shrugged his shoulders.
“An’ how ‘bout you?” Fourleaf asked, nodding at me.
“Me?” I asked, barely able to get the word out. It was strange, like it was hard to open my mouth, or even breath for that matter. I felt weak. “Yeah...you know, I’m...me...blue...my name...”
Warrick and Vanity turned to me quickly.
“You okay?” Fourleaf asked.
“Oh....” Warrick’s eyes went wide as his gaze fell on me right hind leg.
I slowly lowered my head, looking for myself. The bandages on my leg were soaked red, and blood was flowing out in a torrent. I stared at my wounds, half in shock and half in a state of mental absence.
“Hmm. Paralyzing exhaustion and sporadic mental delirium as side effects of traumatic blood loss.” I looked up, nodding at the three of them. “I think I’ll pass out now. Vanity catch me.”
“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” Get a million ponies all together in the same place, get them all talking at once, and I could pick out that overly high pitched, sweeter than sugar, unrelentingly annoying voice without even trying.
I blinked my eyes open, adjusting to the light of the room. I was in a bed, with an intravenous tube in my foreleg. Beside me, Vanity and a unicorn buck with an orange coat and dark brown mane looked over a screen with a read out of my vital signs. Or rather, the orange buck was examining the screen while Vanity shoved her way beside him to have a peek. She gasped, pushing his head down with her hooves and placing her face directly on the screen. She lifted his head back up, smearing it against the monitor.
“What does that mean then?!” she demanded.
“It means your sister is going to be fine,” the buck mumbled.
“How would you know?! You can’t even see the screen!” she argued.
“Then maybe you should stop crushing my face,” he said flatly.
“Oh...sorry.” Vanity released him, an awkward smile on her face.
The buck looked at the monitor then at me.
“She lost a lot of blood, but we had more than enough synthetic stuff to thin out what she had left. She’ll need to rest for at least a day or two, but she’ll be fine.”
“Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!” Vanity threw her forelegs around the buck and began squeezing the life out of him.
“You’re...welcome,” he wheezed.
Vanity released him and trotted over to my bedside.
“Hear that Peri? You just gotta sleep a little and you’ll be A-okay. And don’t worry, I’m gonna be right here the whole time to talk you through it!”
Two days with nothing but Vanity’s endless filibusters to keep me company? Yeah, I think I’ll go ahead and take the sleep option.
Six apples, three school textbooks, a sand covered blanket, a jar of sugar cubes, some dresses, and an old novel by Anima Roads. My backpack was getting lighter and lighter every time I opened it.
“Where’s my first aid kit?”
“Oh, the orange guy took it. He said there was only a little stuff left in it, so he took and said it was payment for making sure you lived.” Every word out of her mouth was punctuated by her smile. Seeing me awaken from my exhausted daze was to her what Hearth’s Warming Eve was to preschool fillies.
“Did somepony say ‘the orange guy’?” The orange pony entered the room carrying bandages and a bottle of chewable pain killer. “I see you’re up. I’d give you a tour of the infirmary, but you can get the same effect by looking left, then looking right.”
He wasn’t kidding. The “infirmary” was the size of most small kitchens. two beds, the machine for reading vitals, and enough room to fit two or three non-patient ponies. And it was anything but sterile. Just looking at the walls was enough to make me fear infection. The orange pony trotted over to the bed and lifted the sheets off me. The set of bandages I had on were slightly tainted.
“Well, well, well,” the buck began, examining the bandaging. “I guess I’m a better healer than I thought.”
“That puts my mind at ease,” I remarked.
As he undid the old wrappings his eyes trailed up to my wings. He lowered his head.
“Damn cultists will even go after a mare’s wings.” He looked up at me apologetically. “I’m sorry, there was nothing I could do to fix them, they’re already set.”
“Oh...um yeah, don’t feel too bad about that.”
“Have been like that since birth.”
He stared back at me awkwardly for a moment then began running a hoof through his mane and smiling.
“I’m really sorry about that,” he offered, raising his hooves apologetically.
“Don’t worry about it.”
He nodded and went back to changing my bandages.
“Hey,” I began, remembering my manners. “I don’t think I got your name.”
“Oh yeah!” Vanity exclaimed. “Me neither. I was just calling you the orange guy.”
The buck let out a small sigh and muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?” I asked.
“My name is...Clementine...”
“Huh? I couldn’t hear yo-”
“My name is Clementine!” he shouted, cutting me off.
Vanity and I exchanged glances. I could tell she was trying as hard as I was not to let a giggle slip out.
“That’s a very...” I paused, trying to think of some word that, under the circumstances, couldn’t be taken in an insulting manner.
“It’s a girl’s name,” said Vanity, biting back laughter.
Clementine sunk his face into the bed and finished wrapping my leg.
“There. I’m gonna go drown my shame in those sugar cubes if you don’t mind.” My jar of treats levitated out of my bag and Clementine began to trot out of the room.
“Hold up,” I said, halting him. “Where’s Warrick?”
“He’s off talking to Sergeant Fourleaf. Making plans or something. Why, is there something you need?”
“Tell you what. I do mind you eating my sugar cubes.”
‘Huh?” He looked at the jar and began to lower it. “Oh...sorry I guess. I just-”
“But,” I interrupted. “You can have the whole jar if you’d be willing to answer a few questions.”
He looked at me cautiously, then at Vanity, then back at me.
“What kind of questions?”
“I want to know about Pestilence.”
Clementine was taken aback. He stared at me for a moment, then levitated the jar of sugar cubes over to the bed and released it.
“Sorry, but there are some things that aren’t for everypony,” his tone was absolute. He continued, but this time with a smile, “Plus, I really should be cutting back on the sweets.” He turned to leave.
“That’s not the answer I was looking for. Vanity, the door.”
The door was wrapped in white magic and swung closed. Clementine looked at Vanity, then began laughing and turned to me.
“What? You’re threatening me?”
“Threatening you? What? No, no. Why, should we be? I was under the impression you were going to help us. Was I wrong?” Evil little bitch mode: Activate.
“Okay listen to me. This isn’t funny. I don’t know what you think you know, but even if giving that kind of information wouldn’t cost me my position and maybe more than that, I still wouldn’t tell you. I’m sorry you lost your home, and I know you must want answers, but I can’t be the one to give them.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Please, don’t push this.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what. You tell us what we want to know, and I we won’t tell your officer that he has an attempted rapist in his squad.”
Evil little bitch mode is very aptly named. Even I felt dirty saying that.
“You can’t even be serious right now. You’re joking right?” He was in shock that I’d suggest such a thing. And to be fair, he had the right to be. But I needed answers, and I wasn’t getting them from Warrick. It was a brash decision, but it was too late to go back now. “They’ll never believe you,” he reasoned, an aire of hatred in his voice.
“Oh really?” sweet Celestia why couldn’t I stop? “Because I think all it would take is one little scream. One scream and they’d all come running. I could tell them what ever I wanted then.” I looked to Vanity, who seem more disturbed by this than anypony. She’d forgive me though, she always did. “You’re a pretty good actress, right Vanity? How about a little scream?”
Vanity took a deep breath.
“Okay! Fine! Just stop it!” Clementine protested.
I smirked at him and he shook his head in disgust. Vanity just sighed and sat down on the floor. Clementine took a breath, then began.
“Four ponies, four roles, one united Equestria. That was the idea. That was the goal.”
“The goal? For what?”
Clementine sighed. “Okay, I’ll take it from the top, but I don’t know everything.” He said that as if it would actually deter me from asking anyway.
“That’s fine, give me the abridged version.”
“Fine. Princesses Celestia was afraid for Equestria’s future. There were so many beings that wanted to see civilization burn, just for the hell of it. Even Luna had gone bad, but I’m sure you’ve heard about that. Celestia realized she couldn’t do it alone. She couldn’t protect Equestria and be there to ensure it went on prospering the way it normally did. So she found help.”
Help? I’d never heard of anything like that before.
“Four ponies, four roles, one united Equestria,” Clementine continued. “She figured that if there was one pony for each role needed to keep Equestria functioning as the utopia it was, she could simply sit as the figurehead, a symbol for the people, and everything would still get done. So she found four she thought she could trust: Vitality, Immunity, Prosperity, and Defense.”
“Celestia called them ‘The Four’, and they were supposed to be Equestria’s eternal salvation. Their roles were pretty self explanatory. Vitality, Immunity, and Prosperity worked in tandem, ensuring that Equestria stayed beautiful, lively, and infinitely bountiful. And Defense, Defense did the things Celestia could only trust Defense to do. I don’t know the specifics, but barring cataclysmic events like the return of Nightmare Moon or that run in with Chrysalis, when was the last time you heard of violence in Equestria?”
For the first time in a long time, I was stumped.
“Exactly. Which I guess means he was doing his job well. That is, until it all fell apart.”
“What happened?” I asked, craving more knowledge.
“Greed is a funny thing. It can corrupt anypony, even if they already have something worth living and dying for. In the case of The Four, it was a lust for power. At least, it was for three of them. In a coup that had been being planned for who knows how long, Vitaly, Immunity, and Prosperity turned on Celestia. It was a miracle she was able to survive, let alone cast them out of Equestria. But the victory didn’t last. In their exile they allowed their hatred and greed to consume them. Made them even more powerful too. They were no longer care givers of Equestria, so they formed a new pact, and adopted new titles: Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War.”
“Yeah, we used to make that joke too. Turns out it was just a coincidence,” Clementine clarified.
“Wait a second. You said they changed? What is Warrick doing here then?”
“I don’t know, magic? See, Death, Pestilence, and Famine are alicorns. When they turned, they figured their old friend Defense would be right there with them. So they took it upon themselves to try to turn him. I don’t know how that was resolved, but obviously they failed. Either way though, their little trifecta didn’t last long.”
“But why? You said they grew even more powerful. Why not just topple Celestia?” That’s what I would have done...were I a psychotic megalomaniac of course.
“Greed is a funny thing. It can corrupt anypony, even if they are already rotten to the core. From what I gathered from the teachings, there was an argument amongst them as to who would be the true ruler of Equestria once they had taken it from the Princess. So they ended up splitting. Now they each reside out here, in the place outside Equestria, biding their time till one of them gets bold enough to take a shot at the homeland. That’s all I know. But, I have a question for you.”
That was a surprise. “Okay, shoot.”
“How did you know about Pestilence?”
And just like that I was back in that vent, watching Brazen Charm get wrenched in two by that disgusting green magic. I couldn’t help but tremble.
“I...talked to him.” Lowered my head and looekd away. That had been one of the most harrowing moments of my life. Well wait no, what am I saying, that was the most harrowing.
Clementine wasn’t expecting that answer. He sighed deeply and walked over to my bed. “Listen Periwinkle-”
“Okay...listen Wink, I’m sorry.”
“What? I just threatened to lie and tell everyone you were the scum of the Earth. Why are you sorry?”
“Because keeping guys like Pestilence out of places like Raincap is our job. And you being here means we failed. And for that, I think we all deserve to get at least a tongue lashing from the people we were supposed to protect.”
Either he was trying to get my guard down so he could smother me with my pillow, or he was actually just that...good.
“What do you know about Smuggler’s Cove?” I asked.
“More?” He sighed.
“I did say ‘a few’.”
“It’s an underground base several miles from here. It was originally used as a military hub for Celestia’s people. Pestilence owns it now.” he paused as if coming to some realization. “You were there weren’t you? That’s how you know Pestilence? Well, not know him, but know of him. But yeah, you were there weren’t you?”
“The crops,” I mused. “They were growing without sun or water, or even soil. Just growing right out of the sand.”
“Well, it’s Pestilence. He didn’t just lose his magic when he stopped being Immunity.”
Things were starting to make a bit more sense now that I had at least some context.
“Hey listen,” Clementine began. “I should get out of here. You need to rest, and I might be needed elsewhere.”
“Okay. And thank you.”
He smiled and waved me off. “Talking? That I can do. Just don’t ask me to do anything hard like calming down a rampaging ursa. I might actually have to break a sweat for that.”
I smiled. Some humor was just what the doctor ordered right about now, which was ironic since he was a doctor. And speaking of humor, Vanity had been uncharacteristically quiet during that whole thing.
“Vanity?” I leaned over to see past Clementine. Vanity was still in the room alright, and she was out like a light. I suppose it shouldn’t have come as any form of surprise. She did that all the time in history class. Learning was something she had a natural aversion to.
“I’ll take that!” Clementine offered in a humorously direct tone. He wrapped the sleeping Vanity in his magic and opened the door. “Now as for you, I expect nothing more out of you except the light breathing of a sleeping mare. Doctor’s orders. Oh, and I’ll take those.” He levitated up the jar of sugar cubes and left the room, closing the door behind him.
I had just been laying there for hours staring at the ceiling since Clementine had left with Vanity. Moonlight poured in through the room’s one window. This was the first time I had actually been fully conscious during the night time out in the desert, and I was exhausted, but with so much on my mind getting much needed rest was becoming a challenge. I buried my face in my pillow and tried to clear my mind. I reeled back, catching a whiff of the odor emanating from the pillow. The smell was thick and musty. It was like the time I was sent to the colt’s locker room to deliver a note to the polo coach. I had been so nervous. Walking into a room full of colts while they were all changing. Granted, we don’t normally wear cloths, but it was the principle of the matter. But I digress. The point is that the pillow smelled like a mixture of buck sweat and raw ass. And that was all it took to stir up memories of the home I had lost. And that was all it took for my tear ducts to spring a leak. It helped though, I suppose. At least I was able to cry myself to sleep.
“Nah, Ah’ve heard a’ cutie mark envy b’fore, but what in Celestia’s green Equestria is that on yer flank?”
The next morning Warrick and Fourleaf had come to check on me.
“Ah mean seriously? What’d ya splash paint on yerself or something? That’s a little extreme don’t ya think? Did a good job a’ gettin’ it pretty even on both sides though.”
“That is my cutie mark,” I explained. He was right though, not even I knew what it was. “And wait a second! What are you doing staring at my flank?!”
Fourleaf choked up. He looked around the room like a colt that had been caught with his hoof in the cookie jar. He smiled coyly “Can a buck be blamed?”
“That’s about enough of that,” Warrick said, pushing Fourleaf out of the infirmary and closing the door behind him. He turned around and nodded to my leg.
“It’s fine. Clementine did a good job.” He nodded and turned to leave. “What have you been up to?” I asked. I needed someone to talk to. Someone familiar.
Warrick turned back around and sighed. “Well, I just spent I don’t even know how many hours trying to explain to those degenerates why I’ve been running around with a couple of high school mares. That was fun.”
“Hey, you’re barely older than us,” I contested. An attempt at humor. More for myself than for him.
“Yeah...” Warrick looked at me. For a brief moment I could see guilt in his eyes, but it was replaced by a reassurance that I could tell was forced. “We’re gonna find your parents Wink.”
That was unexpected. At least, coming from him.
“What? Yeah, I know that, what are you-”
“I know teary eyes and sleep deprivation when I see them.”
Damn it. My cheeks must have been as red as macintosh apples. This is what I get for not packing tissues.
“It’s okay. Just make sure you get your rest. We’re heading out tomorrow.”
“The only other place the Raincap prisoners could have been taken...”
The Morning After
“Well...at least you can walk normal now.”
“I’m sure that’s really easy for you to say Ms. Raincap Pageant Queen. You’re not the one with the half shaved flank.”
I wasn’t normally one for glamour and the like, but this was just low. According to Clementine, there were still fragments of lead left in my thigh from the gunshot, and in order to make the removal go more smoothly he had to shave a small patch of hair from my flank. It looked ridiculous.
“What are you talkin’ about?! I think you look great! Right guys?!” one of the soldier ponies who must of over heard Vanity and I shouted . His buddies joined him in howling and whistling at us.
Four Leaf’s soldiers all seemed to share the same sentiment about Vanity and me. But then again, Celestia knows when the last time any of them had seen a real mare was. And plus, standing next to a pony like Vanity either made you look incredibly plain by comparison, or in a case like this, made even a tired, angry, shaved ass mare worthy of praise. But I took it anyway. I Even joined Vanity in shooting them a wave or two.
“I see you guys have made some friends.”
I quickly brought my hoof down and turned away from the group of soldiers working on the Cider Squeezy in the town square. The last thing I needed was for Warrick to see me acting all girly after what I pulled with his Pinkie Pie book two days ago.
“N-no. Vanity and I just thought that if we were nice to them they’d be more inclined to work harder.”
“Huh? I thought we were waving because they said they thought you looked great?” Fillies and Gentlecolts, Vanity.
“Huh...okay then,” Warrick said, looking at us sideways and nodding slowly. He then turned his attention to the soldiers and his jaw nearly hit the ground the way it dropped. His eyes went wide like a filly in a candy shop at the sight of what Four Leaf’s ponies had turned the Cider Squeezy into. Gone were the wooden spoked wheels. In their stead were massive rubber tires over steel bases. Removed was that obnoxious armchair and those protruding levers; replaced with an actual cockpit extending out of the main cabin, giving the whole vehicle a much more aerodynamic and functional look. And in all honesty, it did look pretty good. Like a big aggressive dune buggy. And it came in red.
Four Leaf trotted up next to us and noticed Warrick standing there grinning like an idiot at the sight of our updated transportation.
“Yeah, she’s a beaute ain’t she? When the boys saw what you’d brought ‘em I weren’t sure whether ta have ‘em fix it or toss it in with the burn debris. But they were goin’ on about how it’s a classic an’ how they only ever made one of ‘em an’ all that mumbo jumbo. They took to beefin’ her up like they were gettin’ paid for it.” He looked at Vanity and me. “Course, havin’ a couple a’ pretty mares around to impress didn’t hurt none neither.”
Without taking his eyes off the vehicle or breaking his smile Warrick bonked Four Leaf on the head with a fore hoof. The Commander smirked.
“Oh! Oh!” Vanity started shouting and waving her hoof through the air. Warrick looked at her and cocked his head slightly. “I named it!” she announced with a grin.
“Huh?” Warrick asked, unsure of exactly what it was she had named.
“The driving thing silly! Clementine said that any good ship needs a name, so he made me name it!”
“But...it’s not a shi-”
I looked at Warrick and shook my head. Might as well just let her have her fun.
“Okay. What did you name it?” he asked.
“Sandy.” Fillies and Gentlecolts, Vanity, again.
Warrick squinted at her a second then smirked. “Perfect.”
Four Leaf turned to his bucks “Kay ya bunch a’ parasprites, it’s break time! Ah know little fillies like ya’ll can’t take workin’ fer too long; might chip a hoof. So take five an get yer things together!”
The soldiers shouted their ‘yessir’s and made their way back to the barracks. Warrick looked at Four Leaf a bit curiously.
“You’re heading out already? I thought we agreed to wait to travel by night so the buggy-”
“Sandy,” Vanity interrupted.
“So that Sandy could charge,” Warrick finished.
“Charge?” I asked.
“Yeah, it runs on solar energy. It’ll need till at least tonight to charge enough to actually make any headway.”
Storable solar energy efficient enough to power a vehicle as big as Sandy? Fascinating.
“No. You’re gonna wait ta’ travel by night,” said Four Leaf. “Even if all my guys could fit in that thing, travelling together in a pack that large is too dangerous. We’ll rendezvous back with ya’ll at the bog.”
“And you think going alone is any less dangerous?” Warrick asked, shrugging.
“Ah at least wanna make it there alive. Rather die fightin’ than get picked off by some monster in the sand.”
All I needed to hear was sand and I agreed with Four Leaf.
“Fine,” Warrick conceded.
“Perfect. But first Ah think ya’ll are gonna be needin’ some supplies fer the journey.”
“There’s an understatement,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m lucky I even have a backpack to carry things in after Clementine's little sampling session.”
“Well then Ah guess today’s yer lucky day! We were able ta save mosta’ what we had from the fire. Got a couple spare chests full in the barracks. Just follow me.”
Four Leaf turned and started trotting through the ash that covered most of the walkways of Ponyville II. Warrick and Vanity flapped a few feet into the air and followed, not wanting to get the sticky dust in their coats. I walked.
This was the first chance I had really gotten to see Ponyville II without having to look through a tiny infirmary window or fight through the daze of heavy blood loss, and as I had surmised before, it was basically a block for block recreation of the real town with the civilian stops traded out for military applications. It was like a poorly conceived attempt at political humor; “Mirror a peaceful town in terms of appearance, but instead of making cupcakes, we’re making hoof grenades!” I don’t know, maybe somepony might find that funny, or maybe I was just seriously over thinking this whole thing ‘cause I didn’t wanna think about the fact that walking through this ash made me look like a grey and blue mottled pony after I had just got done taking my first bath in days only a few hours ago.
I was paying such little attention that I accidentally walked right into the barracks door and hit my head. I fell back into the ash, getting almost completely covered in it. I felt like I was going to cry.
“Heh heh.” Warrick’s response didn’t help.
“Well aren’t we anxious,” Four Leaf joked, pushing open the door and walking in. I dusted myself off and followed with Warrick and Vanity.
Four Leaf’s soldiers were all over the barracks emptying their chests and stuffing what they could carry in saddle bags. It was all very chaotic, but there was a certain military precision to it. No one got in anyone’s way even though what was going on might as well have been an in door hurricane. It was like watching a musical. Four Leaf led us through the maelstrom and over to an area where there were several unclaimed chests lined up against the wall. He opened one and rummaged around, eventually pulling out two sand colored camouflage body suits.
“Here ya are.” He tossed them to Vanity and I. “Ya’ll can change upstairs. You’ll need them there if yer gonna be travellin’ through the desert. The rest a’ this stuff Ah’ll have mah boys load up in Sandy.”
I looked to Warrick and he nodded to the staircase at the other end of the barracks.
“I don’t know, at first I thought the whole one piece thing was outdated, but this doesn’t look that bad.”
The room Four Leaf had us changing in was rather out of place compared to the rest of the barracks. It actually looked like a changing room. Albeit one with mirrors suffering from extensive fire damage, which made it rather difficult to see anything in them. But I could see enough to know that the camo suits Four Leaf had given us were pretty cool. They even had a hood, supposedly to keep sand out of one’s ears, and holes for your tail and wings, regardless of how useless the latter were. And yeah, they looked pretty nice too.
“Right Vanity? You’re usually a lot more enthusiastic when it comes to new clothes.” I turned around to see her sitting on the floor in her suit, staring at the ground. “Vanity?”
“What are we doing Peri?” She asked, her voice even smaller than it normally was.
“What are you talking about? We’re going to find mom and dad.”
“No, I mean like-”
“Like what? You’re making even less sense than usual.”
“I mean...what are we gonna do? Like...our house, and Raincap. They got burnt. They’re gone. And all the ponies...”
Of all the times to pick from, she chose now to face reality? Well forget that, I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. And especially not after I’d just spent far more than my fair share of time trying to blanket those emotions while hold up in a medical bed.
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“We didn’t do something wrong, did we? We were just living and then you said something fell outside the fence and no one cared, but I believed you. Then you tried to run away and I got so sad but you actually said I could come with you and I got so happy, then we met Warrick and he was kinda scary but now he’s not any more and we’re friends...but...our home got destroyed. And now we gotta go to this place where this scary monster is and...what if mom and dad-”
She lifted her head and looked at me, her cheeks wet with tears rolling down from her glistening eyes.
“For once in your life, could you not act like such a little child?”
For a second she actually looked surprised. Her lip even quivered a bit, but then her expression became uncharacteristically stoic, and she slowly lowered her head. “...okay.”
I heard the door open.
“Ah ain’t lookin’, Ah ain’t looking. Alright, Ah’m lookin’. Oh, ya’ll are ready. Good.”
“Oh, hey Four Leaf.”
Warrick landed next to Four Leaf and nudged past him, looking into the room.
“Everything alright in here?” He sounded uncharacteristically concerned. He noticed Vanity staring at the ground, moping. “Vanity, are you okay?” For a split second I thought I saw Four Leaf narrow his eyes at Warrick.
Vanity’s head shot up, a big smile on her face. “Well, duh! Have you seen these clothes?! They’re super cute!”
“Uh-huh, cool,” Warrick said, peering around the room.
Four Leaf cleared his throat. “Now ya’ll could use some armament as well. If ya follow me-”
“That’s fine, I know the way to the armory,” Warrick said. “Plus, I should let them know the details of our plan.”
Four Leaf grumbled something and trotted away.
Warrick looked to me and gestured with his head for us to follow. I bucked Vanity lightly with my forehoof and she got up and followed me out of the dressing room. Warrick led us out of the barracks and towards the armory.
“So what was that all about? We already know the plan. We head out in Sandy and meet Four Leaf and his guys there, right?” I asked.
“Well that’s a very generalized version of it, but yeah. But I think you should know a little more about what’s actually going on.”
Well there’s a shocker, Warrick actually giving up information
“To get to Pestilence’s Bog from here takes a few days. Those crates they loaded into Sandy are full of ammo and food. If we’re lucky we’ll only have to use one of those things.”
I hadn’t actually given that any real thought. Even now, while being led to an armory to get weapons, I couldn’t help but wonder if anypony actually expected Vanity or me to fight. I mean, what good could I possibly do? I doubted Pestilence would be susceptible to my sneaky painkiller induced sleep strategy. And even if he were, I was all out of the stuff.
“Well uh, I assume by that you mean we won’t have to use the bullets right? So thinking optimistically, Vanity and I really shouldn’t even need guns right?” I asked, laughing nervously.
“Well, yeah. Assuming diplomacy prevails,” he answered, shrugging.
“And if Pestilence decides he’s not feeling particularly reasonable?”
“Well that’s simple. I’ll have to kill him.”
A rather casual outlook towards taking a pony’s life, but the context still made me chuckle.
“You seriously think you’d have a chance fighting Pestilence?” I laughed.
Warrick scoffed. “And what exactly are you implying?”
“It’s just, I saw what he was able to do. and that was through a TV screen. Super sharp robot wings or not, I just don’t see how you think you can stand up to alicorn magic.”
Warrick’s eyes narrowed. “I think you underestimate just how sharp these ‘super sharp robot wings’ are. If he tries anything funny he’ll find himself significantly shorter when I’m through with him.”
“You’re going to decapitate someone that can turn ponies into micro fungal gardens just by looking at them?” I asked with an air of flat sarcasm.
“Yep,” he stated plainly. “Gonna slice his head right off and stomp it into the ground. Splsh, splsh, splsh,” he added, stomping his forehooves to punctuate his words. “Oh, and next time you see Clementine, tell him he’s an idiot and a blabber mouth.”
Dammit. How could I be so loose lipped? I just don’t see how you think you can stand up to alicorn magic. How else could I have known Pestilence was even a pony?
Warrick stopped at a building shaped like a small barn. Through the smoke discoloration it looked like it had even been red and white once. He placed a hoof on the small metal panel next to the door and a beam of light shot out, reading his print. The device beeped. Warrick sighed and looked around.
“Never anypony around when you need them.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I need somepony to do a retina scan,” he explained.
‘Why can’t you-”
Warrick raised an eyebrow at me. I suppose being without pupils could have something of an unwanted effect on such technology. I turned to Vanity.
“Did you get a good look at any of the soldier’s eyes?”
She looked up at me and nodded, then walked over to the panel and stared into the beam. Her iris morphed, taking the color and shape of Clementine’s. The machine gave off a joyous sounding beep and I could hear the tumblers within the lock unlatch.
“That’s a nice trick,” Warrick said, pleasantly surprised by Vanity’s magic. She forced a laugh and smiled.
Warrick pushed open the door to the armory. It was a small building on the outside, and even more so inside, but they still managed to stuff it full with an unholy amount of weaponry. Warrick placed a hoof on his chin and looked around the assortment. He moved in and shifted the weapons around, searching for something. I cringed, fearing one might go off due to his lack of caution in handling them.
He reached in and pulled out two weapons similar to the ones he had taken from the Smuggler’s Cove guard ponies.
“Wait, aren’t those-”
“Yep,” he said, nodding.
“Because protocol dictates that when entering an allied camp one must surrender any weapons they possess.” My eyes shifted to his wings. He noticed and rolled his eyes. “Unless they’re attached to you.” He closed the armory door and turned to Vanity and I, giving us each a weapon.
Just holding it made me nervous. I mean, watching movies and reading novels about ponies that use these things is one thing, and hell I’d even been shot...huh, I’d been shot. But anyway, regardless of all that, holding one of these things was still nerve racking. It was heavy, even heavier than it looked. This was a tool designed to take a pony’s life. In fact, how many lives had this specific weapon taken? It wasn’t brand new, Warrick had taken it off the dead body of somepony. Did that mean it was looting? Was stealing from somepony that was trying to kill you the same as normal stealing? But he was dead so it isn’t really stealing. Unless; did killing somepony, then taking something off their dead body count as theft? Why am I asking so many questions to myself?
“Wink?” Warrick’s voice pulled me out of my trance.
“Huh? What?” I asked, looking around from Warrick to Vanity.
“You were spacing out. You okay?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well pay attention, because this is important. I assume you both saw enough in Smuggler’s Cove to know how those things are operated. But seeing it done and doing it are different things all together. Now hopefully you won’t have to use these, but in the event you do, it’s pretty simple. Put the strap around your face and bite the button. That’s about it.” He turned and started heading back to the barracks.
“Wait, seriously?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s something about making sure to tense your neck so it doesn’t snap from kickback, but those are advanced techniques, no need to concern yourself with those.” He waved his hoof though the air, as if that last bit of information was of no importance, and continued over to the barracks.
I looked at Vanity, expecting her to meet my confused glare as usual. She was just staring at the ground like some depressed mope.
I galloped back to the barracks with Vanity following slowly behind. She wasn’t even making any sense. Not that she usually did, but still; one second she’s all aboard, and everything is smiles and sunshine, and the next she’s acting...well, like me. Only difference is that she really had no right. But like I said, whatever. She wanted to drag herself around in a cloud of self pity that was fine by me. At least I didn’t have to hear her voice.
Back at the barracks Four Leaf’s soldiers had nearly completed packing their things for the journey ahead. The speed in which they were able to stuff away all those supplies would make the Wonder Bolts’ heads spin. They were just clearing out now, rounding up any things they may have missed and loading them into saddlebags and travel packs.
Since things seemed to be winding down, and also because we had at least a few hours before it would be dark enough out for us to effectively travel by night, I took a second to just stop and think. Something I had been doing an alarmingly decreasing amount of recently. I also had to wipe all this ash out of my mane. I pulled one of Vanity’s dresses out of my backpack and did just that, then stuffed it back in my bag and found a bench to sit on.
The things Clementine had told me were prodding at the part of my brain responsible for that rampant curiosity. I wanted to know more about what was going on outside Equestria, and about why I had never heard of Celestia’s whole Four Ponies Four Roles spiel. More specifically though, I wanted to know more about Warrick. For all intents and purposes, he was still a stranger to Vanity and I. Sure we had been going around the desert with him for a few days now, but I couldn’t remember ever actually having a real conversation with him. Hell, I didn’t even learn his name from him actually telling it to me. It seemed weird that I could actually consider somepony I knew so little about to be my friend. That, and the fact that if what Clementine had said was accurate, Warrick was at one point in time a very important pony. So if anyone could shed more light on what Clementine had told me, it was him. Come to think of it, we were about to set off to go confront another member of The Four in just a few short hours. If ever there was a time where being well informed was especially pertinent, it was when you were about to go try to wheel and deal with an alicorn evil enough to take pleasure in wrenching one of his own worshipers in two for no apparent reason.
I hopped off the bench. It was good to be able to move normally again. All that time hobbling around with bullet fragments in my thigh and a chunk of my hoof missing had actually started to worry me. Not to mention how unbearably painful it had been. But now I was back to normal, albeit a normal with slightly less hair on one side my flank.
Warrick had finished speaking to Four Leaf so I trotted over to him. I had plenty I wanted to ask him, and he never did actually get around to telling us the details of the plan, so there was that too. All in all I had enough stimulating conversation starters to last us all the way up until it was time to leave Ponyville II.
He lowered his head “Is it time to annoy Warrick with questions already?” he sighed.
“You are correct sir! But before that, you said you were going to run down what the plan is for when we meet up with Four Leaf. What exactly is the plan?”
“For you? It’s simple: we park Sandy about two or three miles outside of eye shot of anypony there, then I go and meet with Four Leaf while you and Vanity wait. If everything works out, we’ll have someone get you to confirm the identity of your parents.”
Say what? I squinted at him in confusion.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, his tone implying he already knew the answer.
“Well...yeah. It’s not like I particularly want to be involved in anything potentially life threatening, I just...what you just said kinda makes me feel like-”
“Like I think you and Vanity would be completely useless in that type of arena, and therefore you are questioning whether or not I place any worth on you as a potential help to me at all?”
“Yeah, exactly!” That was pretty good. Kudos to Warrick for that deduction.
“Good. Because I don’t. Glad I could clear that up for you. Better we set the records straight as to what the roles are from now.”
Okay...what? My mouth hung open as I tried to find words. Was he serious? Did he forget that it was me that pulled his ass out of dodge back in Raincap? And more importantly, that was way too mean.
“But,” I began, trying to make sense of what he had just said. “I thought our roles were that we were friends.”
He looked at me, raising his eyebrows sarcastically. “Oh! Is that what you thought? Well allow me to clarify what’s really going on here. You helped me out back in Raincap; so the way I see it, I owe you. This, what we’re doing right now, this is me paying you and Vanity back. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“But...” I was speechless. But in truth, I really don’t know why that had been such a shock to me. I was the one that put the idea that we were friends in my head.
“But?” he asked, cocking his head slightly.
I looked away from him. Why did I even care? He was right, once we rescued my parents that would be it. He’d go back to wherever he’d go, and Vanity and I...well, we really had nowhere to go.
“Well,” I began. ”Vanity and I are still a part of this right? Even if it is unintentional. So at least let me help you.”
“Help me?” He sighed. “Listen, Wink. Even if you were capable of helping in any way, you have literally no idea what we’re dealing with here. Working to pay you back will be for nothing if you die before I can even get the job done.”
“That’s where you’re wrong though. I do know what we’re-”
“Oh really?” Warrick asked, cutting me off. “What do you know? What some over eager Buck Private spewed out ‘cause he couldn’t keep his mouth shut? No. This isn’t something you can learn from a book, or get from word of mouth.”
“I saw it for myself, unless you somehow forgot,” I contested, my voice growing more intense.
“All the more reason you should realize that you have no place in these dealings.”
“Warrick, I can help you! Why is that so hard to believe?”
Then he lost his temper.
“Fine! Okay then! I’d like you to explain to me exactly what you think you could do to help me. Go ahead, I’m waiting. Let me know what kind of help I could possibly receive from a pageant pony with the IQ of a bowl of kimchi, and a pegasus that can’t even fly!” The last few words of his rant escaped on a faltering breath. The look in his eyes betrayed that he wished he could have them back, to keep them from ever being heard. But it was too late.
I didn’t respond. How do you respond to that? Instead I just looked back at the pathetic excuses for wings poking out from my body suit like disturbingly misshapen jack in the boxes. They really did look silly. Thinking about it, what he said was probably right, given how useless everything I’d ever done had been. You can work as hard as a farm pony, but some ponies just aren’t born to be-
My head shot up at the sound of a hoof striking flesh. Warrick stood with his head turned sideways, a small trail of blood running from the corner of his mouth. Vanity stood across from him, a look in her eyes I don’t think I’d ever seen. She was actually angry. Everypony in the room was staring now, waiting on baited breath to see how the razor winged pegasus would react. Warrick wiped the blood from his face and looked at Vanity. She glared into his eyes, not once wavering. Warrick turned away and walked out of the barracks. The soldiers all wore surprised looks on their faces. A few began to silently cheer, but were clearly too afraid to actually celebrate Vanity’s apparent victory. She turned to me with pain in her eyes and raised a hoof to my face. I moved away from her and she pulled the hoof back, holding it close to her chest. I turned from her and ran upstairs into the changing room, slamming the door behind me.
Common sense is defined as sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of a situation or a set of facts. By that definition, one could justifiably assume that if somepony retreats from the company of a crowd and locks herself away in seclusion, that it means that they would prefer to be left alone. It truly baffled me that at this point in my life I hadn’t yet realized that I could always, regardless of the circumstance, rely on Vanity to do the exact opposite of what common sense would dictate. Yes, you see to her, phrases like get out and leave me alone translate more closely to, ‘Consistently ask me if I’m feeling okay until a point in which you realize that you will not be afforded a response; and when this realization finally becomes apparent, you leave...and then come back with Clementine.’
“I wish all my patients shared your attitude. I’d have a lot less work.”
I lifted my head from the pillow I was laying on and looked at him. “You’re a doctor, you have to help ponies.”
He shrugged. “Meh. If the sick pony doesn’t care, why should I?”
I shook my head and laid back down. “Why are you even here?”
“Well, I was getting ready to pack up the rest of my things when Vanity came trotting up. She told me I had to come quick, said you were looking really blue.”
I looked up at him. He was grinning with supreme pride at the glory of the piece of comedy he had crafted. Between just how bad the joke was and the absolutely ridiculous look on his face, I couldn’t help but have to stifle a laugh. Clementine’s grin grew even wider.
“Aha! Now that I’ve cut through the cloud of desolation, I can get down to business. So, what’s wrong?”
I sighed. I guess having someone to talk to wasn’t that bad. “Warrick’s an asshole.”
He paused for a moment and looked at me as if he hadn’t taken me seriously. “Hm. I gotta say, I’m a bit disappointed in you Wink. For a mare so interested and involved in education and knowledge that you walk around with academic texts in your bag, it took you far too long to come to that rather obvious conclusion.”
Believe me, I was thinking the same thing.
“But, I really don’t get it,” I started. “One second he’s asking me if I’m okay and telling me everything’s gonna be fine, and the next he doesn’t even care what I have to say. And then he won’t even tell anypony why he’s got to act like he’s got a massive rod shoved up his flank.”
Clementine shrugged. “Well ponies are weird. They’ll pay a penny for your thoughts, but they won’t accept your two cents. And as far as Warrick goes, he’s got a reputation as somepony who’s got a halo that’s held up by two big old horns. I’ve never seen another pony like him that just does the right thing for the sake of it. But, just don’t expect him to be all sweet and nice about it.”
“Well...I hope you’re right,” I admitted. Maybe the stress had just gotten to him. I mean I never even stopped to think about what kind of responsibility it would be to have to look after two other ponies while you have your own things that need taking care of. Things that could potentially concern the entirety of Equestria.
And then Warrick showed up.
Clementine turned to see him standing in the doorway of the dressing room. “Ah, look at that. Speak of the devil,” he said.
“And he just might come,” I added.
Warrick narrowed his eyes and looked at Clementine, who smiled and waved.
Clementine pointed a hoof at Warrick. “You got it boss.” He scurried around him and out the door. Vanity began to follow.
“Not you,” Warrick said. Vanity stopped and turned around to face him. Warrick gestured towards the door and she closed it with her magic. He sighed deeply, lowering his head. Without looking up he spoke. “Do I even have to say it?”
“Yes,” I said plainly.
His head shot up and he glared at me. “If you know what I’m going to say then why do I have to say it?”
“Cause I wanna be able to make fun of you for it later. Now say it.”
He turned to Vanity, but she just shrugged and looked away from him, raising her eyebrows. I knew she’d forgive me (even though I really hadn’t done anything wrong). She was always on my side, no matter what. Warrick looked back at me with narrowed eyes and an uncharacteristically cutesy pout on his face.
“Fine. I’m sorry. To both of you.”
“Wonderful. So now will you allow me to explain to you why-”
“Wait, I’m not finished,” he interrupted. Strange, it wasn’t like him to actually want to say things. “I have a confession to make, and it might make you hate me more than you probably already do.”
“I don’t hate you!” Vanity exclaimed, her tone implying the very thought insulted her.
Warrick rolled his eyes and smirked. “Thank you, Vanity. But you might not feel the same way in a second.”
Vanity pulled her head back in confusion. I have to admit I felt equally baffled. Other than being a general douche, he hadn’t done anything wrong towards us. And he just apologized about the douche thing.
“There may or may not be more to why I decided to take you and Vanity with me back at Raincap then just the fact that I felt that I owed you for helping me.”
Well that...didn’t really make any sense.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well at first that was it. After you freed me from that test bed I got out of the lab and was just about ready to make my way out of Raincap. But I couldn’t just leave you guys there. You helped me, so I had to at least help you. After that though, while you were passed out Wink, and then again after I spoke to Twilight and Rarity, I realized that there was a potential benefit to having you around.”
“So, what you’re telling me is...what exactly?”
“That I’ve been using you two for Vanity’s magic.”
Well that was exceptionally forthright.
“What?” Vanity asked.
“I assume that Clementine told you about The Four, correct?” Warrick asked, looking to me.
“Yeah, he told me all about it. Why?”
“Well then you know that I’m the only one that isn’t an alicorn, correct?”
“When you asked if I think I could fight Pestilence. I told the truth of course. Just a slightly embellished version of it. The fact is, if he ever even got within eye shot of me that would be it. This very embarrassing fact has thus far rendered most attempts to do something about him and the others pretty much vein. But then you two showed up.”
I didn’t like where this was going.
“What are you saying exactly?” I queried.
“The spell that was used to hide Ponyville II was cast by one of the most powerful unicorns I’ve ever met. I mean this is somepony that used basic spells to stop a rampaging ursa minor. Vanity was able to neutralize it without even breaking a sweat. That’s alicorn magic. That’s the kind of power needed if we even want to stand a chance against Pestilence when we get to the bog.”
“So the whole wait in the car thing was total crap then?” I asked, my tone much more stern than I thought I was capable of.
Warrick looked at the ground in shame. “That’s why I’m telling you this now. It took me far too long to realize how disgusting it is to ask something like that of you two. It just seemed too good to be true. Out of nowhere an alicorn just falls into our laps? I never stopped to think that that alicorn is somepony. For that, I understand if you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” Vanity said, in her small little voice.
“Heh...well then you’re a much better pony than me,” he said.
I found myself feeling the very familiar twang of neglect. It made sense though. It was always Vanity. She was the perfect one. I wasn’t even worthwhile enough to be manipulated by somepony. Not that that’s something I’d aspire to have happen to me, but the fact remained the same. It was just like back at Raincap. All I was good for was to be a portal through which ponies could get to Vanity.
“So this whole time you were just trying to get to Vanity?” I asked, my head hung low.
“I thought I needed Vanity, for her magic. But I wanted you, Wink.”
He said what now? I looked up, one eye squinted. I could feel myself blushing. Warrick’s eyes shot open and he began to shake his head.
“No! What I mean is that you’re smart! And good in a tight spot! Like...no...wait, just hold on a second.” He took a deep breath. “You were able to make your way through the underground lab at Raincap undetected, rescue me, and then escape one of Pestilence’s raiding parties with only a minor wound. Then, after that, you took a bullet to the leg and still managed to survive in Smuggler’s Cove, alone. And on top of that, you survived an encounter with Pestilence himself. Those are things that those hardened soldier ponies out there joke about being able to do. And you did it all with nothing but your wit. Having someone like you around would be invaluable against a pony as devious as Pestilence. Or at least it would have been. But that’s enough about all that. We have a new plan, one that’s much safer for you two. And it will work. I’ll bet my life on it.”
As tempting as that offer sounded, I had something else in mind.
“We’re going with you,” I ordered.
“What?” Warrick asked, seeming genuinely perplexed.
“You keep talking about how much you owe us, but the way I see it, the slate is pretty much clean. Had you not come back for us in Raincap, we’d be dead right now. So you saved our lives just as much as we saved yours. So we’re even.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” he contested.
“It sounds right to me!” Vanity offered.
“See, even Vanity gets it. Now, you’re doing us a favor by helping us rescue our parents. The least we can do is, you know, help with that. Especially seeing as how one of us is the craftiest pony you’ve ever met, and the other is a super magic pony god child.”
“Warrick. Yes. And you really have no say in the matter to be honest. If I wanted, I could just have Vanity put you in bubble and we’d be carrying you to this bog.”
He stared at me for a second, then turned to Vanity. “And you feel the same way?”
“You’re stuck with us like when glue makes things get stuck to other things!” she exclaimed, grinning ear to ear.
“Well in that case I have to tell you that you two are simultaneously the bravest, and most thick headed-ly stupid mares I have ever met. And fortunately for you, I’m the bravest and most thick headed-ly stupid buck I’ve ever met.”
“We’re like three peas in a pod,” Vanity suggested.
“”It would appear so,” Warrick said in agreement. “Well if this is really what’s going down, you two will need to get your rest. The bog is a few days away, but you should be preparing from now. There won’t be any place for mistakes because you’re tired once we’re there.”
He turned around and opened the door.
“Wait!” I called out, stopping him. He turned to me. “So does this mean we are actually friends?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“Alright! Geez! I get it Vanity, you’re bored. Good god!” I rolled over, wrapping my forelegs around my head.
The boredom was getting to me too. Since there was nothing for us to do anyway, Vanity and I decided to just wait in the newly remodelled Sandy. It felt almost like a compact school bus, with the bench seats and all. Not to mention the cockpit was actually inside the cabin now. The whole thing just felt more open and spacious. Not that it made the lethargy any less prevalent.
We had already bid Clementine, Four Leaf, and the others our fond farewells, and now we were just waiting for Warrick to finish saying a few last things to them. Then we’d be able to begin waiting a bit more until the cover of night so we could finally leave Ponyville II.
Waiting was quickly bearing down on sand on my list of things I hate about the land outside Equestria.
The cockpit glass let out a hiss and began to lift open, allowing the stifling rays of sun to pour into Sandy’s cabin. Warrick landed in the cockpit and got comfortable in the new driver’s seat. He began familiarizing himself with the controls. By which I mean he started pressing every button on the control panel until he finally found the one that closed the cockpit.
Okay, now it was just a matter of playing the waiting game till night fall.
“Ah, got it. Okay, now we can go,” Warrick announced.
Or maybe the waiting game could wait.
“Huh? I thought Four Leaf said we should wait until nighttime to leave,” I said.
“And since when do we take orders from Four Leaf?” he asked.
“I guess. But...I don’t know, maybe-”
“Oooo! No! No! Let’s go now! Please! I can’t take another second of just waiting here. I might die, like right here. I’m not even kidding,” Vanity pleaded.
“See Wink, even Vanity gets it,” Warrick said, smirking.
Warrick pressed the ignition and Sandy’s engine roared to life. Vanity let out a cheerful howl at the sound.
You know what? Screw it. For once she was right. Sucks to this over cautious attitude that had been threatening to take me over. What happened to Periwinkle the adventurer? What happened to the pony that wanted a map and compass as a cutie mark? Granted that very same pony was walking around sporting a royal blue blotch for a mark, but the principle remains the same.
“Okay, yeah. Let’s do it,” I said. It felt good to feel like my old self again. If not just for a moment.
Vanity gleefully hugged me. I pushed her off, sneering. Warrick turned back to the controls. He revved Sandy’s engines a few times, warming up the new motor, and then we were off.
New Sandy was fast. We were putting so much dirt behind us that I wondered if we couldn’t reach Pestilence’s Bog before tomorrow morning. Then again I had no idea where it was, so I could wonder all I wanted. Still, it was nice to be able to travel faster than a snail’s pace. The new off road tires ate through the sand; and thanks to the fact that the whole thing was fully enclosed now, and the body suits Four Leaf had given us, I didn’t have to worry about getting sand...everywhere.
Vanity and I had taken seats on either side of Sandy so we could stare out the windows as we rolled along through the desert. The scenery was pretty static, but I must admit it was quite exciting every time we went through a small dune and an explosion of sand kicked up against the glass. We’d been driving now for what felt like a little over an hour. Ponyville II was too far removed to even be visible. Of course that could just have been an effect of the concealment spell. In addition to spouting ‘Oooo’s and ‘Ahhhh’s whenever we rode over a conglomeration of sand, I was keeping myself entertained by picking out any interestingly shaped rock formations or desert plant life and cross referencing them with the geography section of my science book. It was not as fun as it sounded. Until I saw what looked like a town in the distance.
Vanity peeled her face away from the window she was staring out and turned to me. “What?”
“Nothing, I just thought I saw an actual town out there. Like an old Appaloosian styled one.”
“No,” she said shaking her head. “I meant like what’s a ‘mirage’?” She looked at me curiously.
I placed a hoof on my forehead and sighed. “It’s when-”
“Before you go quoting the dictionary, I think you should know that what you saw wasn’t a mirage,” Warrick clarified, interrupting me.
Vanity turned to him. “Which is...?”
“Wait,” I began. “You mean there are actually settlements out here that aren’t military related?”
“It’s not as barren out here as you might think. There are a whole bunch of settlements scattered around. Some are military like Smuggler’s Cove and Ponyville II, but there are other ones that are just like any other town. You guys aren’t the first ponies from Equestria to leave you know.”
“So, there is civilization out here?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t go that far. But there are some small towns. Mostly though, it’s just camps where ponies will spend a night or two then leave. There are a few like that in the direction we’re headed, but we don’t have enough fuel to reach any of them.”
“What? But I thought we purposely waited to leave just so that Sandy could charge.” As silly as it was, the name was growing on me.
“We did. But we only actually got about 4 hours of true charge time, and the solar panels they were able to find and slap on this thing weren’t exactly brand new,” he said.
“Well...if we couldn’t even make it to a shelter on what we had, why did we even bother leaving Ponyville II? We could’ve just waited till night and we’d have had more power.”
“I guess. But then again I’d rather have to worry about finding a place to sleep than be dead.”
“Dead? What?” I looked at him queerly. That...didn’t make much sense given the context.
“By now Ponyville II has likely been overrun by Pestilence’s ponies,” he explained. “That’s how he always does it. He has his horde burn a settlement to the ground, then he has them return and sends his loyal followers to colonize his newly coveted encampments. I can’t imagine he’d pass up the opportunity to take Ponyville II, even if he didn’t get what he was really after.”
Kinda like a reverse version of the scorched Earth tactic my history book said the ponies of the Frozen North used to use. It was a pretty smart tactic in all honesty. Flushing everypony out with a fire ensures that you won’t really have to do any work to clear the place out. And I was sure Pestilence would have some way to justify to his blind followers why every time their holy crusade bore new land, it was always a smoldering pile of ash.
“Warrick!” I shouted, causing him to duck his head. He rubbed his ear and looked back at me.
“Yes. That’s me...right here. Two feet away from you.”
“What about Raincap?!” Had Pestilence already taken it over? Maybe my parents were still being held there. This whole campaign would be for naught if that were the case. Not to mention the fact that an evil psycho alicorn would have a hoof hold right there in Equestria!
Vanity’s eyes went wide and darted to Warrick. He laughed.
I reeled back. “What’s so funny?! Did you not here what I just said?!”
“Oh I heard it. That’s why I’m laughing,” he said.
Vanity looked at the ground as if searching for something. She looked back up at Warrick. “But that’s not funny.”
No, it wasn’t.
“Well of course it is. But I guess you wouldn’t really know why.”
“Well then why don’t you explain it Mr. Comedian?” I asked.
“Pestilence is bold, but he’s not stupid. The only reason he even considered pulling something inside the Equestrian border is because he was sure he’d have gotten me. I guarantee that right now he’s praying that Luna and Tia don’t notice it was him and decide to retaliate. He’s nowhere near ready for that.”
‘Luna and Tia’? A rather...informal way to reference your Monarchs. But that wasn’t really important right now.
“So...Raincap is fine then?” I asked, cautiously.
“Well, as fine as a town that just recently got burned down can be.”
Vanity let out a sigh of relief and went back to staring out her window.
“Well then, if you’re just about done laughing at our trauma, do you have a plan for where we’ll be spending the night?”
“Oh! We can sleep in that big cave over there,” Vanity suggested, hitting her hoof against the wall of the cabin as if trying to point to what she was referring to.
Warrick looked at a glowing gauge on Sandy’s control panel that I assumed was some sort of fuel counter and began to steer in the direction Vanity was tapping.
“Looks like we have no choice. We’re just about out of fuel and Sandy eats it faster than she charges,” he said.
“I’m not sure about this. Didn’t you say there was wild life out here?” I contested.
“Oh come on Peri! It will be just like camping!”
My biology teacher once told our class that if somepony had enough adrenaline coursing through their veins, they would be capable of performing incredible physical feats. One of which, as she mentioned, was the unheard of ability to run literally up to twice as fast as that pony normally could. I felt the strong desire to find her and kindly inform her that she had severely underestimated the power of that specific bodily chemical.
We had been searching for a serviceable place to sleep in the cave Vanity had insisted we bunk down in and were greeted by the gargantuan snake that had been sleeping a few pony lengths from the cave’s mouth. Yes, that’s right. A snake. A massive snake. And not massive as in like an anaconda or some other really big snake you might see on the nature channel and say ‘That’s a really big snake’. I mean like a snake so big that it could swallow all three of us in one bite, then go outside and swallow Sandy whole. And then still not be full. It was the most terrifying creature I had ever seen. The fact that it was asleep was a stroke of sheer, glorious luck. But when has life ever seen fit to grant me fortune, right?
True to form Warrick was able to ruin our luck by finding a way to awaken and anger the monster, and now we were fleeing for our lives from the demonically vicious serpent. I could hear Warrick beside me yelling words of challenge at the beast in that foalish manner used by stallions when they want everyone around them to think they can win a fight, but deep down know they could never do so. I wanted to turn and tell him to shut his stupid mouth, but I didn’t dare break stride, not even for a second, lest the creature get close enough to skewer me with one of its nightmarish, pony sized fangs. Vanity was in a cold sprint, managing even to keep a few paces ahead of me. I felt myself taken by a sort of jealous awe at how she managed to look gracefully dainty even when running for her life.
I snapped out of my envious daze at the familiar sound of Warrick’s metallic wings slashing through the air, no doubt in an attempt to injure the monster. Only this time was different. There was no grotesque sploshing sound, no sickening report of steel slicing through flesh that made me want to plug my ears and curl up in a fetal ball. This time Warrick had missed, and for the first time, I was upset that he had. Because his target was unmissably large; and the fact that he had meant it must also have been impossibly agile for its size. Even more so than the Horse of Wa- Defense, himself. The very thought sent an ice cold chill through my spine from flank to neck.
I struggled not to let my fear take full hold of me. My legs and lungs were on fire and I had to think quickly for another way to slow the enormous creature. I was really starting to regret the decision not to bring that face canon with me when we left Sandy. Warrick wasn’t fast enough to be useful in combat (that felt weird to say, even in my head) but he could at least distract the behemoth long enough to give me a clear shot, had I been armed. That was it. Good. I had a semi sensible battle plan: get back to Sandy, get a gun, and shoot the damn thing. I just had to find a way to fill Warrick in on the details. When he wasn’t at my side when I finally looked over, my fear turned to a suffocating terror.
It’s incredible how many thoughts can surge through your mind in just one instant. All at once, I imagined all the various ways the snake must have killed Warrick only a few feet behind us. I fought against the dizzying images and convinced myself that even if he was alive back there, I still had to kill the legless lizard before I could be sure. I sighed mentally when I realized what I needed to do.
“Vanity!” I was surprised I was able to shout so loud while running so hard.
Without even turning to me she shouted back. “What?!”
“I might need your help in just a second.”
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m in the middle of something!”
“Just SHUT UP and fly when I tell you to!” It was painful just saying those words. Being a flightless pegasus with an alicorn for a sister was more than a little bit embarrassing, but I could hear the hellish animal’s body slamming against the ground as it slithered after us, and my desire to live was just a bit stronger my disdain towards having to ask for my sister’s help.
I had to gauge this just right. I couldn’t risk slowing down or the monster would be on me for sure. I’d have to get ahead of Vanity then slow just enough so that I could leap onto her back without slowing her down either. My legs were burning, like worse than they had been when I got shot. Well perhaps not that badly, but the pain was still very noticeable. And it made things difficult. Fortunately Vanity wasn’t that fast, and it had been my own desire to conserve energy that allowed her to be ahead of me in the first place. I added a painful extra gear to my pace and over took her by nearly a pony length.
“Get ready!” I shouted. Vanity gave a small nod and spread her wings, readying for a quick take off.
My legs were about to give way, but I steeled myself and with the slightest hop I found myself laying on Vanity’s back.
“GO! FLY! FLY! FLY!” I barely had time to wrap my forelegs around her neck before we were off the ground and blitzing through the air away from the hellspawn down below.
But the fun had only just begun. Thinking we were out of the proverbial woods, I turned my head to look down at the beast. Only the snake wasn't laying there on the ground wishing it had been just a little bit faster. It was right there still chasing us, as if slithering up some invisible wall. Half its body was still on the ground, and that was enough that it would catch up to us long before it collapsed under its own weight.
Vanity was giving it all she had, but with the extra weight of me on her back, she just couldn’t fly fast enough to outrun it. It was so close now. All it had to do was open its mouth and we’d be nothing more than a tasty pre-dinner snack.
Or at least that’s what would have happened had Warrick not done what it was he did next.
The tip of one of Warrick’s wings poked out through the back of the snake’s throat, right behind the meeting of its head and body. The beast faltered for a split second, then the wing proceeded to tear its way up the length of the monster’s head, cutting clean through its skull and brain. As the creature fell back down to the Earth, Warrick burst out of the freshly made wound, covered in blood and slime. He went spiralling through the air, just barely correcting in time to tumble only semi-violently to a stop in the sand.
“I know,” she said, her voice full of concern.
She banked towards him and began to descend rapidly. I closed my eyes so bits of sand floating through the air wouldn’t scratch them. I felt Vanity land and released her, sliding off her back. I rubbed my eyes and opened them, looking around for Warrick. Vanity was hovering over his motionless body. I galloped over as fast as my burning legs would take me. He was just laying there in a big puddle of snake blood and some other really thick, really gross liquid. It didn’t look like he was breathing. Vanity and I looked at each other, then back at Warrick. Was he...
“Warrick?” Vanity sounded like she was on the verge of tears.
Warrick was alive! And what the hell, had he been mocking us? He stood up and shook himself off. He looked at Vanity and me as if everything was completely normal. Vanity stood wide eyed, tears glistening around her irises. I just shook my head and sighed.
“What? Did I miss something? You two look like you just saw a ghost.” The idiot couldn’t even contain the stupid smirk on his face.
Vanity’s horn began to glow and she whipped her head at him. A wave of magic knocked his hooves out from under him and he fell face first into the disgusting pile of snake juice. We turned around and began walking back towards Sandy.
“Good job Vanity.”
Night time in the desert. As desolate, lifeless, and honestly just not good the desert seemed during the day, I had to admit that there was little I could think of that matched the sight of a sky littered with stars; and to be able to see them all, without any clouds, or trees, or anything in the way was hard to beat. At night the desert was so much less hostile. It was peaceful. But good god was it cold.
After the whole ordeal with the snake, we went back to the cave (this time Vanity and I were armed). It wasn’t actually that big inside. The snake had had to remain curled up in order to fit. But it was the perfect size to serve as a place for us to spend the night. And it was big enough that we could actually stretch out. Oh, and Sandy was just the right size to fit in the entrance of the cave. We figured that would likely keep most creatures from wanting to try to probe deeper.
Warrick had used gun powder from a bunch of the spare bullets we had to start a fire, using his wings to make a spark. We were all just laying around it, sharing in its warmth. It hadn’t been this quiet between all of us since we first set out with Warrick towards Smuggler’s Cove two days ago.
Surprisingly, Warrick was the one to break the silence. “Thank you.”
“Hmm? Did you say something?” Vanity asked.
“After you guys saved me from the lab under Raincap, I never thanked you.”
“No way. I’m sure you did. A few times actually,” I corrected.
“But I never meant it. Not sincerely. But this time I do.” He seemed solemn. Like he didn’t even expect us to even accept his thanks.
“Awww.” Vanity rolled over to him and hugged him. “You’re welcome!”
She let him go before he could pass out from oxygen deficiency and went back to her spot around the fire. Warrick turned to me and raised an eyebrow.
“You’re welcome,” I said. He nodded and went back to staring at the flames.
After that there was another bout of silence. Only this time it was significantly more awkward. Until out of nowhere Vanity shot up into the air, landing softly on her hooves.
“I know!” She flew over to Sandy and went inside the cabin. Warrick and I exchanged glances then went back to observing whatever Vanity was doing.
We could hear her moving around inside Sandy. She let out a gleeful squeak when she had found what she was looking for. The cabin door opened and she flew back to her spot around the fire, holding Pinkie Pie’s Magic Song Book in her forelegs. She placed it on the ground and looked at Warrick and I, a big smile on her face. She looked to me and I just shook my head.
She didn’t care.
She flipped the book open to a random page and Pinkie Pie’s voice began to echo through the cave.
“When I was a little filly and the sun was going dooooown...”
Vanity began to hum along to the beat. Nudging her head towards me trying to get me to join her. There was no way I was gonna sing along to that.
But Warrick would. In clearly practiced harmony he began to match the lyrics the book was belting out.
“I'd hide under my pillow from what I thought I saw, but Granny Pie said that wasn't the way to deal with fears at aaaaalllllll”
“I'd hide under my pillow from what I thought I saw, but Granny Pie said that wasn't the way to deal with fears at aaaaalllllll”
While holding that last note he looked at me and began nodding like a buffoon, urging me to join in. I really didn’t want to, but his face was just so damn persuasive.
“Fine!” I shouted.
I joined Vanity in humming that unimaginably catchy melody while Warrick and the disembodied recording of Pinkie Pie’s voice offered lyrics. It was ridiculous. But sitting there around that fire, singing along like a bunch of idiots to a song written by some crazy pink party pony, I felt something that my life in Raincap had never afforded me.
I felt like I had friends.
A warm breeze washed over me, stirring me awake. Sunlight poured in past Sandy to illuminate the cave with warmth. The desert seemed much more homey from inside that cave, if not also a lot creepier.
I rolled over and sat up, rustled my mane with a hoof. It was a good thing I kept it so short, otherwise I might have to worry about having to get sand out of it. I had nothing to really complain about though (y’know, besides the whole ‘home got burnt down so now I’m in the desert’ thing); I hadn’t felt this well rested in a while. Like, not even back when I was sleeping in my own bed in Raincap.
We had spent the better portion of the night flipping through Pinkie Pie’s Magic Song Book picking different tunes and trying to sing them, usually failing in a hilariously incompetent fashion as Warrick was the only one that knew any of the lyrics or melodies. I couldn’t even remember falling asleep, and I had no idea what time of day it was. But the sun looked like it was really beating down outside, so Sandy would probably have a lot of juice by the time we were ready to head out. Speaking of which, I didn’t see Vanity and Warrick anywhere.
I got up and stretched out before heading over to Sandy. I figured they were probably just waiting for me in there. Before I could even raise a hoof to the door Vanity burst out and slammed into me, sending us both down into the sand. I pushed her off me and rolled to my hooves.
“Ow! What’s the big deal?!” I asked in that ‘I just woke up and I’m grumpy’ sorta way.
She flapped up off the ground, sending up a plume of sand. When she landed she turned quickly to me with panic in her eyes.
“It’s Warrick! He’s...he’s like...gross!”
“Aw, come on. The no pupils thing is kinda weird, and the robot wings are a bit scary, but ‘gross’ is a little harsh.” And if he was gross, what did that make me with my gimpy cripple wings?
“What? No, I mean like right now. Like not always he’s gross, just now...Like...ungh!” She shook her head, trying to think of a way to explain. ”Just come here!”
She scooped me up and flew into Sandy.
Vanity knew. She knew how much I hated being flown by other ponies. Whatever she was on about, it better have been important.
She let me go when we were inside and scurried over to the cockpit. I dusted myself off and turned towards her.
“Oh good god!” I shouted, shocked by what lay before me.
“Please, call me Warrick.” His voice was about ten times raspier than usual and he was just laying there on the cockpit floor looking like one of the emaciated foals that they showed on those charity commercials. And he looked clammy. Like really clammy, and moist all over. Like a sick cat.
I shook out of my panic and turned to Vanity.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head spastically. “I just came in here and he was all...gross!”
“It’s the snake,” Warrick weazed.
“What? But you killed it.” Giant snakes were one thing, but giant snakes that could revive themselves...
“It ate me, remember? I must’ve gotten some of its venom on me.”
‘Some’? If that puddle of gunk he was bathed in yesterday was venom, he had been exposed to a bit more than ‘some’.
“Well...what’s gonna happen to you?” Vanity asked, her eyes wide and her lips pouted.
“I’m probably gonna die, slowly and painfully.”
Vanity’s face went pale...well, paler than white already was. “What...?”
“Haha, very funny,” I said, trotting over and knocking his head with my hoof. “Just tell me what to get out of the crates in the back to heal you.”
“Food and bullets, remember?”
I had hoped he’d just been kidding.
“Well...then...what are we going to do?!” Now I was panicking again.
“Grab some popcorn?”
“This is serious!” Vanity shouted, bucking him in the stomach.
“Ow. Okay, okay. But if you two beat me to death then there’ll be nopony to save.” He tried to move to get to his hooves but didn’t budge an inch. He had a brief spell of violent coughing.
I placed a hoof on his chest. The cold steel of the breastplate sent a chill up my leg. “Can we take this thing off, so you can breath better?”
“Without the right tools you’d rip my body open before it came off.”
“But as far as saving me goes, you’d need anti-venom.”
“Where do we get it?” Vanity asked immediately.
“Anypony that lives around here would know about the snakes. They’d need to keep a supply of it. But it’s too dangerous.”
“What? That makes no sense. There was a town, I saw it remember? I could just go there and ask for help. We could trade them food or something,” I reasoned.
Warrick tried to laugh, but just ended up coughing. “Not that easy. The ponies out here aren’t as welcoming as the ones in Equestria.”
“Then I’ll just have to steal it,” I said, shrugging.
“Hey, I was able to sneak around in the lab under Raincap right? I know how to be quiet. And plus, if I get caught, I could always try to weasel my way out. I did survive an encounter with Pestilence himself.”
He just stared at me, his heavy wheezing the only noise in the air.
“Look Warrick, you have two choices: lay here and die; or lay and be dying till I get back with the anti-venom. And plus, you aren’t exactly in any position to stop me.”
He looked at Vanity. “Go with her.”
“No,” I contested. “You can’t stay here alone, and I’ll be able to be more sneaky if I do this alone.” I sighed. “If only Vanity knew some healing spells she could at least-”
“Oh that’s right!” Vanity shouted. Her horn began to glow and she touched it to Warrick’s side. He shivered a little then began to look around.
“Well...I’m in significantly less pain right now. How did you do that?”
“Clementine,” she answered.
“He taught you medical magic in two days?” I asked.
She giggle-snorted. “No silly! I just saw him do it. It’s really easy if you see somepony do it first.”
“Well whatever it is you did, keep it up till I get back.” I looked from her to Warrick and nodded, then turned and began to climb out of Sandy.
“Wait up!” Warrick called out. I turned back to him. “You’ll probably be needing something.”
“Oh yeah!” I said, facehoofing.
I grabbed my gun.
I had underestimated just how fast New Sandy had been. The distance we had driven from where I saw the town, to where the cave was, was a lot lengthier when taken on hoof. I kept telling myself it wasn’t that bad though. Not only was I on a heroic rescue mission, braving the barren plain in search of a curing elixir to save my ailing companion, I could also take solace in the fact that the bodysuit Four Leaf had given me pretty much eliminated my having to worry about sand.
Eyeballing it, the town looked like it was maybe another mile or two away, so at least I was close. But I found myself thinking more about what Warrick and Vanity must have been feeling than my own frustration with having to do something as simple as walking. I mean, I wasn’t the most physically adept mare out there. I was no slouch mind you; getting onto the varsity pegasus volleyball team was a mean feat for a flightless pony (even if they did just let me on to make Vanity happy), but this was still a pretty tall order, so I knew they must have been worried. Especially Vanity. So in a way my mission was really two fold; sneak into a potentially hostile settlement in the middle of nowhere to get anti-venom to save Warrick, AND prove to both of them that I’m not that useless. Which in all truth, couldn’t be that difficult. I mean I’d been sneaking out of my room to go stare out the fence for years. I was like a certified ninja, only y’know, without any real formal certification.
It still bothered me though, having others worry about me. Not so much because I didn’t want them to feel bad, I mean they were the ones that chose to worry, but because it made me feel bad. It was like having messed up wings made you completely worthless. And while I may have tended to adopt a similar sentiment during my tyrades of self pity, logic prevailed. If having no flight made you useless, what about earth ponies? There were plenty of them that did pretty amazing stuff. Sure, this would probably be much easier for Warrick or Vanity since they could just fly in, grab the stuff, and fly out, but that didn’t mean it would be impossible for say, a very well prepared earth pony. And I was basically an earth pony with hood ornaments glued to my torso. I’d be fine.
It was quiet, and pardon the cliche, but it was actually far too quiet. I wasn’t expecting the hustle and bustle of a big city, but it was like a ghost town there.
I was keeping close to the worn out wooden buildings, which were built to form an osculating circle around the town center. I hugged against their outer walls and scurried between them quickly to avoid being detected by ponies that weren’t there. I had my hood on for extra camouflage, and my face canon was securely strapped around my snout. It was even heavier when being held up by neck strength alone, and the revolving chamber and barrel reduced my field of vision pretty significantly. If there had actually been somepony else there, they wouldn’t even have to sneak up on me. Just stay directly in front of me and they’d be golden.
And then I heard something. It sounded like it was coming from the center of the town. Convoluted chatter followed by sporadic outbursts of what sounded like staunch disagreement.
Trying to remain as stealthy as possible, I snuck around what looked like a tavern to get a look at what was going on in the town square.
A large group of ponies was gathered there. A small partition of about a dozen were segregated from the group, and there was one standing at some sort of podium. One pony, who looked like he had been severely beaten, was standing away from the group, looking down at the ground with a mix of panic and shame.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say this wasn’t a trial. But I did know better, so I could tell that it was, in fact, a trial. Hardly an official one though. This looked less like the due process and more like the ‘somepony did us wrong so let’s beat him to a pulp and then formally punish him’ process. Either way, I wanted no part of it. The type of ponies that would perform this manner of vigilante justice weren’t the type I wanted to be caught sneaking around by.
As I was turning away to continue my mission, I noticed a box with a red cross on it through one of the building’s windows. That had to be first aid, unless these ponies used it for something else, like to store booze. Which, judging by the size of the tavern, may not have been a far fetched assumption. But it was still my best bet. The only problem was that the building it was in was directly in the line of sight of the group of ponies attending the hearing.
“Dammit,” I whispered under my breath. I didn’t have time to wait for these ponies to finish their little farce and go home. Warrick was dying and I needed that anti-venom.
I slowly crawled back behind the tavern and considered my options. There wasn’t much to consider. With luck, they’d be too absorbed in the trial to notice me for the split second I’d be visible while I slipped through the entrance into the infirmary.
I continued sneaking, now with an actual target. As I crept behind the makeshift homes and shoddily constructed establishments I could here as the ‘judge’ tried to take control of the excited crowd.
“Order! I will have order in this court!” He slammed his hoof against the podium, mimicking the act of banging a gavel. “Now, the accused claims that his actions are justified due to the fact that according to his account, he acted only in self defense.”
The crowd erupted into a torrent of profanity and disdain.
“Order! We will have order!”
From the glimpse I had gotten, the judge was an older stallion with a light brown coat and a greying mane. Going off how he sounded, he really didn’t care much for order at all. He seemed more anxious to get to the sentencing than anything else.
“Now,” he continued. “Does the accused have anything else to say for himself?”
There was a short pause. I stopped walking and waited to hear something.
“Yes, I do.”
I continued on.
“I did nothing wrong. I just wanted to trade supplies so I could get some water. Your people attacked me!” He spoke in such a collected manner that I couldn’t help but feel he was telling the truth.
“So, you expect me to believe that a group of ponies from this humble village would attempt to rob an innocent wanderer? Now why would they do that? If I may be so bold as to ask.”
“Are you mad?! We’re in the Celestia damned desert! You know how hard it is to come by anything out here. When they saw what I had they must have figured it would be easier to just take it rather than trade for it.”
The crowd went into uproar again. The judge banged his hoof against the podium.
“Aha! So by your own words, I can assume that you yourself were lacking of a proper amount of supplies!”
“What? Yes, I just said that. That’s why I needed to trade for water!”
“That’s why when you saw a group of peaceful ponies that had water, you killed them and tried to take it for yourself!”
The ponies began to clamber, but this time it was in agreement. They actually believed that sack of crap. This was just ridiculous.
“No...no that makes no sense! How could you think that?! I just needed some water!”
“You are a murderer! Do you know what the punishment for murder is here?”
The ‘accused’ was a tan earth pony with a dark brown mane that looked like it had once been perfectly quaffed before the dishevelling nature of the desert had gotten to it; and he had a typewriter for a cutie mark. Somehow I doubted that the act of taking life was one of his special talents. But it was none of my business, nor was it any of my concern. Plus, he could’ve just been a really good actor.
As they continued to go back and forth, I finally arrived at what I assumed to be the infirmary. I could see the medical kit through one of the grimy side windows. Now I just had to get inside without being seen.
I got ready to sprint in and get to work looking for the anti-venom, but I had to wait for the opportune moment.
A snide comment from the judge, a rebuttal from the defendant, and the outraged roar of the crowd.
That was my chance!
I slipped out from behind the infirmary and towards the entrance. Right then, just before I could get inside, he saw me. Not the judge, or anypony in the audience. Him, the pony on trial. Our eyes met for a brief moment, and in that moment I knew exactly what was about to happen.
“Thief! A thief! He’s armed! Look, all of you! There’s a thief!” He began hopping up and down, pointing his hooves at me frantically. The others weren’t falling for it, until I did something really stupid.
“Fhey! I’m fffnot a ‘fhe’!” I shouted, then immediately cringed back at the realization of my fault.
Everypony turned to me. Their eyes fell on the weapon strapped to my face and several of them pulled out their own, putting them on with practiced speed. I wiped my hood off and began to unstrap my face canon.
“Waif! Waif! I’mf nosh fhere for troufle!”
I tossed the gun into the sand and threw my forehooves into the air, falling to my haunches.
“I’m not here for trouble. I just need-”
The judge raised a hoof, silencing me. He turned to the mob and gestured for them to lower their weapons. They reluctantly complied.
The judge looked back at me. “Who are you my dear?”
I took a deep, relieved breath. “My name is Wink. My friend got eaten by a giant snake and needs anti-venom.” It wasn’t until after saying it that I realized how ridiculous that sounded.
“Your friend was eaten by a giant snake, and now he needs antivenom.” The judge nodded slowly. “Well, disregarding that fact that you are armed, camouflaged, and were just sneaking around in an attempt to remain undetected, I see no reason to not believe you.”
“Listen, I know it sounds strange. And yeah, I have a gun and I’m wearing this camo stuff, but I’m telling the truth. That’s why I was heading for this building. I saw the first aid kit and-”
As I spoke, one of the ponies turned back to where the criminal had just been. He was gone. In the distance you could almost make out what looked like the silhouette of a pony fleeing like a runaway slave. The pony turned back to me, her eyes wide.
“She was with him! Look!”
They all turned to where the tan buck had been standing.
“She was a distraction so he could get away!” the mare shouted.
The ponies in the crowd nearly instantly brought back out their face canons and took aim at me.
I smiled nervously. “I suppose you’d find it hard to believe if I were to say that this is all just an incredibly huge and unfortunate coincidence, right?”
The judged glared at me, his eyes narrowed. “Take her.”
Of all the potential things that could have gone wrong, of all the dangers I faced in taking on this task, my downfall came in the form of the loose lips of some coward that saw an opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up. In truth though, I couldn’t really blame him. It’s not like I was planning a daring rescue for him. For him, it was either do what he did, or be at the mercy of those diluted vigilantes. But I still hated the douche bag.
A guard pony walked up to my cell with a large bowl and some sort of ladle. She placed the bowl on the ground and scooped out what looked like oatmeal, only green, and spilled the slop onto the floor in front of me.
“Soup’s on,” she mumbled, the ladle still in his teeth.
I looked down at the pile of vomit, then back up at my server. I shook my head. She just shrugged and went to the next cell.
The pony to my left was devouring her soup. Some of the other prisoners were even sticking their hooves through the bars of their cells, trying to grab at the bowl and begging for extra helpings as the guard pony did her feeding rounds. That same guard had confiscated my face canon upon my arrest, and had it not been for the fact that the thought made her face flush red, she might have stripped me of my body suit. Fortunately I had at least gotten to keep that.
Regardless, this was a serious problem. Not only was the clock ticking for Warrick, but I had already been locked up here longer than it should have taken me to get the anti-venom and get out. Every second I spent here was another second of concern weighing down on Vanity and Warrick, and the last thing I needed was for the former to do something stupid in the vein of rescue.
I surveyed the jailhouse, looking for anything that may aid in my escape. The place was right out of an old Western film. The windows were barred off, with no actual glass pane in the opening, allowing for sunlight to flow unfiltered into the dingy building. There was a wooden desk with a single chair in the center of the one roomed structure, and out cells populated the wall opposite the one entrance. The jailhouse wasn’t in the best condition. It looked like it hadn’t been properly maintained against the harsh conditions of the desert, or maintained at all for that matter. But as run down as it may have been, it was still fully intact, and that was enough to make the notion of escape little more than a fleeting fancy. I might as well have been locked up in a high security prison.
My ears perked at the sound of a withered, raspy voice coming from the cell to my right. I looked over to see a decrepit old grey stallion leaning against the bars between our cells. He smacked his toothless gums together and his foggy eyes went unnaturally wide.
“Hey, you,” he repeated.
I looked around, then pointed a hoof at myself, shrugging.
“Yeah, you. I see you got them wandering eyes.” He smacked his lips together. “Yeah you do. All the new ones do. Trying to find some hole, or some crack that they could squeeze through. Give it some time, them eyes’ll eventually stop wandering.”
I moved closer to the old buck, sitting down next to the bars that separated us. He didn’t seem to notice. I raised a hoof and waved it back and forth in front of his big, cloudy eyes. They slowly followed, sometimes failing to notice the movement.
“So, if you can’t even see my hoof right in your face, how could you know what my eyes are doing?” I asked snidely.
He laughed at me. “I’ve been locked up in this jail house since the day after it was built thirty three...or wait, it musta’ been a good thirty eight years ago...or was it fifteen? Well either way, I’ve been here long enough to know what ya’ll new recruits is doing once you first get thrown in. I did the same thing.”
“Well that’s good for you, but I don’t have time for the dour. I have to get out of here. There are ponies depending on me.”
“Yeah, that’s what everypony says. What makes you different?” he asked, his face smearing closer against the bars.
“The fact that I haven’t committed any crime,” I offered, matter-of-factly.
He laughed even louder at that. “Yeah, you’re gonna fit in just fine here. So, what are you really in for?”
I rolled my wandering eyes. “I just told you, I did nothing-”
He burst into laughter yet again. I stared back at him pouting.
“If you’re not even gonna listen, I’m done talking to you!” I turned away from him and continued scouring the room for an escape route.
There was a short moment of silence. It was broken by the sound of something breathing very close to my neck. I turned around and was greeted by the snout of the old stallion poking through the bars, hovering only a few inches behind me. His big, bulbous eyes were squishing against the bars that he had slipped his mouth through. Had it not been such a shock, this actually might have looked kinda funny.
I gasped and jumped back, placing a hoof over my racing heart. This sparked another bout of hysterical laughter from the stallion. He pulled his face free from the bars and began to roll around and kick his legs while cracking up.
“Crazy old fool.”
He sat up and wiped away his tears of laughter, getting ahold of himself. “Alright, okay. Wooo, that was fun. Haven’t had a laugh that good in, oh...I don’t even know.” He approached the bars and stuck his hoof between them, offering it to me. Only he was about three feet to the right of me.
I stood tongue in cheek, staring at the wrinkled old nut case. Obviously time had not been a friend to him. but maybe I could be. I stepped over to him and shook his outstretched hoof.
“Nice to meet you, little lady. My name is Hardknox.”
“Nice to meet you too, Hardknox.” I thought for a moment. “Wait, what am I saying? It’s not nice to meet you. All you’ve done is creep me out.” I pulled my hoof away from him.
“I...” He turned away in shame. “I was just trying to make a friend. I’ve been here so long...nopony even talks to me.”
I groaned and stuck my hoof between the bars. “Fine. My name is Wink.”
He slowly turned to me and approached my outstretched forleg. He reluctantly brought up his own hoof, his eyes going wide at the thought of pony contact. Then he lunged forward and started to lick my hoof furiously.
“Gah! What the hell is wrong with you?!” I pulled my hoof away and rubbed out his saliva on the ground, then thanked all things holy that I had still had my body suit on.
“Hey! You didn’t tell me you were wearing clothes! That ruins the whole joke!” He crossed his forelegs and sat looking cross.
I just shook my head and laid against the concrete back wall of my cell. Hardknox mirrored the action, laying against his own wall and staring up at the ceiling of his cell.
“It’s a hard life,” he said solemnly.
“You do realize that I’m not gonna pay attention to anything you say, right? I’m not even going to respond to you.”
“You just did,” he contested.
“I meant after that.”
“You just did again.” He smirked.
I closed my eyes and sighed deeply. “Why me?”
“Because you chose to go it alone.” His tone was different, drastically so.
I turned my gaze on him. He was still staring up at the ceiling, but gone was that demented grin he wore so proudly. In it’s stead, he bore a stoic, contemplative demeanor. Either he was being serious this time, or he was just trying to fool me again.
“What do you mean? You don’t know anything.”
“I know that you had friends you could have taken with you. But you chose to do whatever it is you were doing here alone. That’s why you’re in the mess you’re in right now.” He turned his head to me and shrugged.
“How do you know that?!”
My thoughts began to race. Had Vanity and Warrick been captured, or worse?
“Because you told me so yourself. You said there were ponies out there depending on you, correct? Well if they were any real friends, they’d be right here with you.”
“Whatever. I don’t have time for you; I still need to think of a plan,” I said, waving him off. I couldn’t afford to waste time getting my feathers rustled by this idiot.
“A plan? You’re still on that whole escape thing? I thought I told you there was no way out.”
“Well unlike you, who’s given up on the idea, I can’t afford to think like that. My friend is dying and I need to get him medicine.”
And that wasn’t looking too good. The crazy old fool had been pretty much spot on. The only way out of this jail cell was with a guard escorting me; and without a weapon, I had no real chance of getting away if and when that came to pass. In all honesty, I’d likely spend the rest of my very short life in this cage.
“How long?” the old stallion asked.
“Till what? I go nuts, reach through those bars, and ring your neck?”
“Till your friend dies?” he clarified.
“Oh...that.” I hung my head. “I don’t know.”
I was only now beginning to realize how dire this situation was. Until now, I had just seen it as a chance to go off and be the hero for a change. But Warrick was actually dying. And if I didn’t find a way to get out of here and get him the anti-venom, he was going to die. We had only just started to get to know each other, and I was already in detriment of losing the only pony I could even think to being able to call my friend. Other than Vanity that is, but she didn’t really count.
“I can help,” Hardknox said, his tone more level and reasonable than I had thought it capable of.
“With what?” I asked.
“To get you out. Just agree with whatever I say, alright?”
“You’re kidding right?”
“You want to get back to your friends or not?”
“Fine.” It wasn’t like anything he could do could possibly make my situation any worse.
“Hey! Guard! We got an eager one over here!”
Or maybe he could...
Hardknox waved his arms at me and shouted at the guard sitting at the desk in the center of the jail house. After a moment the guard groaned and slid out of her seat. She stretched and made her way over to our cells.
Hardknox glared at me quickly. “Remember, just agree,” he whispered.
“What is it now you old psycho?” the guard asked.
Hardknox grinned smugly and gestured towards me. “This one here says she wants her trial now. Thinks she’s been ‘falsely accused’.”
The guard laughed. “Yeah, sure. I’m supposed to believe somepony is dumb enough to think they could beat Judge Honeypony.”
I looked to Hardknox, who opened his eyes wide at me.
“Yes, it’s all true,” I blurted.
The guard stopped laughing and looked at me funny.
“Yeah, I figure that since they threw me in here on a BS accusation I can just beat this thing real quick and be on my way. Might even demand to recompense for you guys wasting so much of my time.” I shrugged haughtily.
The guard was squinting at me, her face contorted in confusion. I had a feeling not many ponies had ever been this eager to face the music. She turned back to Hardknox.
“Is she for real?”
He nodded, smiling. “And I believe her too! She has one darn good case if you ask me!”
An anxious smile formed on the guard’s face. “Okay then. I actually wanna see this.” She trotted back to her desk and took up her key ring. She came back and unlocked my door.
I looked at Hardknox from the corner of my eye, but I noticed him shake his head subtly.
The guard pulled open the cell door. “His honor is taking a case right now, but I’ll make sure you go next.”
She pushed me along, closing the cell door behind me. As she walked me out of the jail house I stole one last glance back at Hardknox. Lip reading wasn’t something I could claim to be adept at, but I could tell he was mouthing something. It looked a lot like: