“Legends are fiction, kid. Someone tells it, someone else remembers, everyone passes it on.”
Some of you reading this are probably asking yourselves why I'm bothering to write it in the first place. Truth is, I'd love nothing more than to live out my retirement in the relative comfort that suburban America provides, and to forget all about my past.
But I can't do that. My war may be over, but I still have a job to do. I have to see this age off, to leave behind my story so that future generations will remember me. The real me, free of the hyperbolic legends that have sprung up about me, free of the pariah caricature that the Patriots and their proxies drew of me. The true story of my life needs to be told, the whole truth, and nothing but.
To have come to this point in my memoir, you've no doubt read a lot of unbelievable claptrap. You've read unbelievable stories, the stuff of fantasy and science fiction. Stories with people like Psycho Mantis, Vulcan Raven, or Vamp, whose supernatural abilities defied the laws of reality. Heroes like Gray Fox, Raiden or Olga, whose bodies and souls were the playthings of an ancient conspiracy with no regard for personal freedom or self-determination. Through it all, there's one common thread: It all sounds unbelievable as sin.
I wouldn't blame you for discounting the words in this memoir. It'd be easy enough to dismiss everything I say as the demented ramblings of a senile coot. My doctor tells me that I'm pushing eighty, after all. For all I know, I really am nothing more than an old fool who long ago lost his grip on reality. But if you've kept reading through everything I've written so far, then you must see some sense in what it is I'm saying. That, or your suspension of disbelief is the stuff of legends. So I want to thank you, first of all, for sticking with me so long. And I beg your pardon in advance for taxing that trust to the utmost with what it is I'm about to tell you.
Because while my exploits may be almost common knowledge by now, thanks to the internet finally living up to the ideal of free information exchange, there's one story that I've always kept close to my chest. One mission I've never shared with anybody, at least outside of those who took part in it. It's almost embarrassing to write about, given the subject matter, which is why I've been hemming and hawing over it for this long. But it's got to come out sooner or later. And I'm not getting any younger.
It was in the wake of the Manhattan Incident that the book of my life began to draw to a close. Events that came to a head in 2014, when the Patriots were deposed from their centuries-long reign over the world, had their foundations laid in 2009, on a chilly April morning, the day before the 220th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as the first President of the United States. What began as an act of kidnapping by a terrorist faction became one of the greatest tragedies in history. By the next morning, the President and his predecessor were both dead, along with thousands of innocents, and Manhattan Island looked like God had driven his snowplow through it.
What happened that day had long-reaching consequences, a sort of domino effect upon the rest of the world, and the United Nations had its hands full playing damage control. Entire countries fell into chaos as America withdrew within its borders to lick its wounds. Nations that relied upon an American military presence to act as deterrence suddenly found themselves defenseless. The global situation grew increasingly unstable - all according to plan, of course, as the Patriots steered events their way, shaped the world in their own image.
And as war closed in around those nations who lost their American military backing, they began to realize the futility and the costliness of maintaining their own standing armies. It's here that the War Economy of the 2010s has its roots. Private military contractors grew in demand; private armies, without loyalty or ideology, began fighting broad-scale proxy wars on behalf of entire nations, driving their economic development and lining their own pockets with blood money. By the end of the year 2009, what would evolve into the War Economy had started to take hold of the entire world - all because of what transpired on that fateful April day.
It's important that you understand the framework of the War Economy that was responsible for the rise of the PMCs, because the story I'm about to tell concerns one PMC in particular. You probably had never heard of Pegasus Wings before now, and that's okay; they were nothing special. Numbered no larger than three hundred and fifty men at their peak, most of which were culled from the ranks of deserters, war criminals and the dishonorably discharged. Though considerably less professional than the PMCs that ran in the final days of the War Economy, they nevertheless raked in a fair amount of income from their deployments. Never made the kind of waves that the companies under Liquid's banner did though. At least, nowhere on Earth.
What you DID probably hear about was that report released in early 2010 that warned of the rising availability of black market nuclear materials. That was probably one of the last instances of information being freely distributed among the masses, before the Patriots seized total control of the digital flow of information. Well, Pegasus Wings was responsible for that, at least in part. Around Christmas of 2009, you see, they were able to secure for themselves a decommissioned Soviet nuclear missile.
Now, by this point, the SOP system didn't yet have complete control over every single gun in the world (that was a far more gradual process than the growth of the War Economy) but the Patriots did have a death grip over the world's stock of WMDs, and they were rushing, in a blind panic, to take control of what they didn't already own. That Soviet missile was one of the only ones of its kind left: a naked nuke, unfettered by nanocontrol.
You should also know by now that the specs for Metal Gear REX - the walking, nuclear-equipped death mobile that I destroyed on Shadow Moses Island in 2005 - had been on the black market for years by the time of the Manhattan Incident. And while years of anti-Metal Gear weapons development had, by that point, reduced the strategic importance of Metal Gear considerably, having one in your arsenal pretty much ensured that nobody but the ballsiest of nations would ever give you grief. Even if you didn't actually have a nuclear stockpile, owning a Metal Gear acted as an effective bluff and countermeasure, as long as you had a good enough poker face to convince the rest of the world that you had something for it to fire.
So it came to pass that a nuclear weapon fell into the hands - or, more fittingly, for reasons that will become apparent later, the hooves - of Pegasus Wings. And, to make an already bad situation that much worse, so too did a black market cookie-cutter copy of the Metal Gear that I had fought in Alaska all those years before.
If you've read this far, then you should be pretty familiar with my stance on nuclear proliferation, and on Metal Gear in general. But to reiterate both succinctly, I've dedicated my life to making sure they both go the way of the dodo. So when our contact in the Navy, a young Lieutenant Commander whose name I've conveniently forgotten in my old age, passed word to our group, Philanthropy, about Pegasus Wings' exciting new toy, there wasn't much else that Otacon and I could do but lock and load.
Pegasus Wings had its base of operations in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Our connections secured for us a landing spot at an old World War II-era airstrip that wasn't far from their island. Parachuting onto the island directly wasn't an option. Fforgetting for now that dropping down onto a strip of land that small from the height that we'd need to be at to avoid detection was like throwing a dart at a bull's-eye the size of a barnacle, I'd probably be shot to death hours before I even hit the ground. Flying in via helicopter wasn't an option either, for similar reasons. What self-respecting mercenary army wouldn't have a handy stockpile of anti-air missiles on hand? No, I had to keep a low profile, and that meant aquatic insertion, my least favorite, yet most frequent, method of infiltration.
Slapping on a pair of fins and some scuba gear, I made for the island. It wasn't so far out from the airstrip - we could see it from our landing site, even - so it didn't take me long to reach it. An hour and some change, if I remember right. I emerged from the ocean to find a dock that featured an industrial sized crane, dangling a long steel wire tipped with a hook the size of a sedan over a tanker lying berthed in the harbor. On the side of the tanker was an emblem of two blue, feathered wings, spread wide with their tips arcing upward like a grin. Between them was the face of a midnight blue warhorse with vacant black eyes, a helmet gird about its head.
You're not stupid, I hope, so you probably gathered that it was the emblem of Pegasus Wings.
Searching the ship seemed as reasonable a starting place as any, so I boarded and had myself a look around. It was easy enough to find my way about the place; the ship was the same class as the U.S.S. Discovery, the tanker that I'd infiltrated almost three years prior, and the layout was close to identical. It was markedly better furnished, however, stocked from bow to stern with high-tech electronic equipment and weaponry. The bridge looked like something out of Star Trek; very much unlike the spartan, computer-operated bridge of the Discovery. Plush chairs sat in front of complex, glowing consoles, and a gentle, humming pulse ran through the room. Lining the upper decks were gun emplacements, point-defense batteries, and missile racks; the ship was a floating fortress, armed to the teeth and fully capable of doling out as well as soaking up punishment. But more to the point, and most importantly, the ship was completely deserted. I searched that ship from one end to the other, and didn't encounter a single soul.
I contacted Otacon to inform him of my findings. “Do you think that the ship itself might be the Pegasus Wings HQ?” he postulated. “Speaking from experience, a mobile command base would definitely have its advantages.”
I thought about the cargo plane that I'd spent so much of the last few years aboard, the safe haven that had protected Otacon and I as we became wanted men, and couldn't help but agree. “But then, what about the island base?” I asked. “Some kind of supply depot, maybe? Even then, that still wouldn't explain the crew's whereabouts. You'd think that, even with most of the crew on dry land, they'd spare a handful of people to guard the ship.”
Otacon didn't have an answer for me, so I signed off and continued my exploration. I made my way down into the hold, following the familiar path through the mess hall (somewhat more lavishly furnished than the one aboard the tanker that lay dead in New York harbor) down to the engine room, and wove through the criss-crossing, dimly lit corridors that took me into the deep recesses of the ship.
The first few areas of the hold were completely empty, save for some empty wooden crates that lay tipped over, spilling packing peanuts, Styrofoam, and not much else. Whatever was being stored there had been moved some time ago. A film of dust coated most surfaces, and much of the remaining metal equipment—scattered crowbars here and there, a forlorn forklift in a distant corner—had begun to rust from disuse. Blame the salty air.
The last section of the hold was the same kind of cavernous room where I had discovered Metal Gear RAY in the bowels of the Discovery. But, to my mild disappointment, there was nothing there this time, save the same service walks and gantries that lined the walls of the Discovery's hold.
Again, I contacted Otacon. “There was definitely a Metal Gear aboard this ship,” I told him, “but it looks like it's been moved out already. That explains the heavy lifting equipment out on the dock.”
“The only place it could possibly be now is the island,” Otacon told me. “It must be the assembly point and staging area for Metal Gear. And if they've evacuated the ship completely, then it could be that they're planning to ditch it and fortify the island.”
I felt my stomach churn unpleasantly at the idea of another mercenary nation being founded on a remote island. This whole “Outer Heaven” business had been in vogue for far too long. Closing the link with Otacon, I made my way back out of the hold and off of the ship. I sped down the dock, determined to put an end to this new mercenary rebellion before it could begin in earnest.
The gate that led into the island proper was left cracked open. I found that more than a little perplexing. The only weapon I had on me was my modified M9 Beretta, and tranquilizers wouldn't be much use in a firefight, but I held it like a lifeline as I stole into the base, keeping it level and ready to fire at a moment's notice.
But the island base, too, was empty, and a massive contrast to the well-maintained and modern ship that sat vacant and forlorn in the harbor. This place reeked of obsolescence. There weren't any obvious indicators as to its age, but from the level of decay and the look of its equipment, I pegged it at around the 1970s at the latest. Otacon suggested that it and the airstrip that we had landed on used to be parts of the same facility.
The base's layout was simple: A barracks on the far left side; in the middle of the base, a rectangular hangar, and a larger, circular, domed structure. Inside the barracks, there wasn't much else besides rusted bunks standing row on row and a mess hall that stank of long-expired food. I did find a rusted Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle laying on a moldy old mattress. The relic caught my eye immediately, and I tried opening the chamber on the slim chance that there was still a round loaded. I wasn't altogether surprised to find that the action was rusted solid, but I was a little disappointed.
Leaving the barracks, I checked out the smaller, rectangular hangar. Not much in there; some old trucks with moth-eaten furniture inside the cabins. I didn't recognize the model off the top of my head, but they were at least as old as the facility itself, and each of them was stamped on the doors and hoods with a faded white star, a symbol that I recognized as the old American Army logo. That struck me as particularly unusual; there wasn't enough space on the island to justify the presence of one truck, let alone several. And why were there American trucks in the same base as a Russian rifle?
I left the hangar and took one last look around the place, but there wasn't much to see that I hadn't already seen. Steeling my nerves and once again gripping my Beretta, I made for the domed structure. There was a wide gate, like the entrance to a garage, and beside it a door. I gripped the door's handle, took a deep breath, and tentatively nudged it open.
The door to the hangar had groaned something awful when I'd opened it. Those hinges hadn't been oiled in who knows how long. But this one opened smoothly, with nary a sound. I noted the difference and stepped into the room, my gun held at the ready. Yet even in the darkness of this hangar, I could tell that it, too, was devoid of human life. There were no sounds besides my footsteps as I edged into the building; no telltale smells of sweat or cologne - even flatulence, if you'll believe it - that always gave away human presence. I was quite alone.
I was well past exasperated by this point. It isn't that I minded the lack of enemy soldiers to shoot and sneak past, but I was hoping to find something besides a worthless gun, Styrofoam and rancid odor on this mission. Pegasus Wings had a presence here; the ship was evidence enough of that, but what that presence was, I couldn't determine. Three hundred and fifty soldiers had vanished, taking with them a Metal Gear and a nuclear missile. Part of me felt like giving up, going back to the Nomad and getting some goddamn dinner, but I couldn't very easily ignore the mission that I had been given, so I resolved to keep searching.
My hand groped along the near wall, searching for a switch to provide the hangar with some illumination. I found it at least, taking it in my hand and pulling it down. It resisted, only slightly, but complied in the end. There was a spark from the switch, the sound of electric equipment stirring and coming to life, and suddenly, the hangar was bathed in fluorescent white light.
I don't find myself at a loss for words often (in fact, it's been said that I talk too much, for too long) so try and understand just how flabbergasting the sight before me was. I'll try to convey it with words, but whether it's my memory dulling with time, or that room being too wondrous for words to do justice by, I don't think I'll be able to do it right.
For starters, it was huge. I don't think the exterior of the building really captured just how big it was going to be on the inside. The place was enormous and shaped like a sports stadium. It was a single room, circular in shape. And every surface in the room was chrome. Everything, every panel, every instrument, the very walls themselves, reflected the fluorescent light from the ceiling. It was like being inside a lightbulb.
The instruments themselves - how to put this? I hate to bring up Star Trek again, but those are the best terms I can describe it in. You know the way that forward-thinking sci-fi tries to cast a certain futuristic look and feel onto everything? Trouble is, they're always trying to envision that future in present-day terms. It's hard to capture the look and feel of the far-flung future when you're constrained by the limitations of contemporary times, so everything winds up having this weird, sort of archaic feel to it. It's meant to look futuristic, but you can tell that it isn't.
Well, that's the way that the equipment in that room looked: like old equipment dressed up to look futuristic. The interior layout winded and spiraled downward. The whole thing reminded me of the seating in a football stadium, the way the consoles were arranged in the circular pattern, tapering down to a wide pit. I was standing close to a ramp that led from the entrance I'd come through to the bottom. It was wide, wide enough to comfortably accommodate one of those trucks that I'd found in the hangar. I guess they were used to run supplies up from the bottom of this room to the outside world. Or the other way around. Whichever.
As much as the scale of the place hit me, the quality of its maintenance was what really made it stand out from the rusted-out carcass that was the base. This place was so unlike that; it had a life to it, a beat, a pulse. I couldn't help but wonder what it could possibly have been built for.
Well, actually, it was three things that stuck out. The scale. The quality of its maintenance. And the big honking arch in the center of the pit at the bottom of the room.
Otacon rang me, said that he'd been keeping up on the visual data transmitted from my nanomachines. To say he was excited would be a gross understatement. I couldn't recall him ever being so animated, especially in the wake of his sister's death in Manhattan not so long ago. “Can you believe it?” he asked me, almost giddy. “It's like the Guardian of Forever, almost! Think it'll take you back in time if you walk through it?”
I didn't have the slightest idea as to what he was talking about. I've had a lot of time on my hands during my retirement, and this place gets cable, so I've since been able to educate myself on classic Star Trek. Actually, it's a funny story. Hearing “Guardian of Forever” on an episode brought me back to the memory of that day, reminded me of that mission I'd gone on. It's what prompted me to write this chapter, incidentally.
Where was I? Oh, right. Otacon. He wanted to know everything about that room, demanded that I bring back some sort of sensitive equipment for him to study. “Scientific curiosity,” he called it.
“Otacon,” I said to him tentatively, not wanting to burst his bubble too maliciously, “is that the same scientific curiosity that pushed you to develop REX?”
He got quiet, responding a few moments later with a mollified “touché ,” and signed off before I could apologize. I sighed to myself, pressing a palm to my forehead and squeezing my thumb and index fingers against my temples. I felt bad for hurting him like that - who wouldn't kick themselves after inventing a world-ending machine like REX? - but that man needed a spine in the worst way. Figured I'd bring him a shiny piece of metal and call it an apology gift.
Putting aside Otacon's oversensitivity for another time, I walked down the ramp, setting my Beretta back in its holster, no longer seeing a point in keeping it out. This place was as lifeless as the rest of the island, empty, and eerily sterile. Every step I took echoed loudly, reverberating off of the chrome walls; my every footfall came back to me as the stomping of a colossus.
I looked down as I walked, noting silently the black, rubbery tire tracks running down the length of the ramp. “There's one hypothesis confirmed,” I said to the empty room. When I came at last to the pit at the bottom (it felt like hours, honestly, the time it took to get down there) I stared up at the arch, which now towered above me.
This entire island was one of contradictions - the modern wonders of the tanker berthed outside, the hollow, derelict military barracks, the science fiction look and feel of this... whatever the hell this room was, and even the arch itself. So completely unlike anything else on the island. The military base may have been old; this thing was ancient. I didn't know how long it had been there, but it looked old. Like something out of a National Geographic article about ancient Egypt, or Rome, or some other dead civilization.
It was bigger up close than it had looked from the top of the room, more than tall and wide enough to accommodate the trucks in the hangar next door. It's funny; I could tell just by looking at it that it was old, but age didn't cause the thing to lose any luster. It was beautiful, exquisitely and ornately carved with inlaid patterns that I didn't recognize or understand, at least at the time. But even without comprehending, I couldn't stop staring.
At the pinnacle of the arch was the bust of a unicorn, resplendently white in the room's fluorescence. It stared down at me with shimmering eyes, an expression of serenity adorning its long face. I didn't realize that a horse's face could express something as abstract as serenity, but I guess that shows what an ignorant bastard I am.
It was the centerpiece of the room. Possibly of the base itself. I got the distinct impression that this building was built around the arch, that the arch was the sole reason for this base's existence. There was a sacredness about the place that was just now starting to creep onto me. It felt holy. Consecrated. Like a monument to some ancient faith or creed that nobody alive could now remember. Suddenly, I felt compelled to touch the arch, to feel it. To make that ancient history come alive just by cradling it in my hand.
But the buzzing of the Codec interrupted me before I could do something as stupidly sentimental as that, and I shook off the feeling. Otacon's voice still sounded droopy, but he was definitely intrigued by what it was we were seeing. “This room is important,” he told me, “though how, I don't exactly know. But we know that Pegasus Wings came here, and we know that they brought a Metal Gear. It's a small island. There aren't many places for them to have stashed it.”
I looked at the ground on a whim, and noticed something peculiar. The tire tracks ran from the end of the ramp, down the center of the arch. But they didn't come out of the other side.
Well. That was telling. “This arch is some sort of portal, Otacon,” I said, pressing a hand against its frame. To my surprise, it felt warm, almost hot, to the touch. “There're tire tracks that run right to its opening, that don't run out the other side. Whatever goes through here comes out someplace else.”
“Snake...” Otacon's voice was hesitant. I could predict what it was he was about to say, and I could guess why he held it back. “Do you think that they took Metal Gear through that portal?”
“At this juncture,” I said, “I can't think of anything else that would even remotely make sense.”
Otacon hesitated to speak again. So I went ahead and supplied the words that he was so afraid of saying. “I have to follow them, Otacon. I need to see where they've taken Metal Gear.”
He tried to protest, but his heart wasn't exactly in it. He had to have come to the same conclusion that I did. We couldn't very easily let a Metal Gear remain in the hands of potential terrorists. No way we could justify that, after spending four years breaching the sovereignty of recognized nations to destroy their Metal Gears. I knew damn well that whatever damage that Metal Gear caused, whatever blood it spilled, would be as much on my hands for my inaction as it would be on Otacon's for inventing it, if I walked away.
Otacon finally agreed with my assessment. There was more equipment arranged around the arch, control panels that glowed dimly, and padded, rotating chairs that faced away from their stations. He directed me to one of them, talked me through the process of starting the machine up. I'm not sure how he knew what to do to get it to work. Sure, he was always good with computers, but these were archaic machines from another era, hooked up to an ancient portal that would take me God knows where. Figured he'd have a little bit of trouble with them, but he talked me through the process like it was nothing. Maybe it was my nanomachines again, relaying information to him, or some other damn thing. I don't know; my job's to kill people and blow shit up, not mull CPU design.
But he got that computer to work, and as it hummed to life, the glow on the monitor readout intensified. The fluorescent light dimmed, and in the dead center of the arch, floating in midair, the tiniest ball of yellow light appeared. I watched it, mesmerized, as it grew in size, very quickly filling the massive frame of the arch. The fluorescent light winked out altogether as the light shone radiantly from every inch of the portal's maw.
It's funny. That unicorn bust that I was looking at before, the one that looked so white and beautiful and inviting—it was the one thing in the room that didn't reflect the yellow light from the portal. If anything, it darkened, shriveled, and turned a sinister ebony. The look of serenity twisted into a grim scowl, and finally extended into a mocking sneer.
And I? I stared back defiantly, refusing to be cowed by a shaped piece of rock.
“Snake,” said Otacon timidly as I stared into the sea of gold. “Did you ever see Stargate?”
“In theaters,” I replied. I stared deep into the portal, trying to discern something - a recognizable shape, some hint of what lay in store for me beyond - to no avail. “The guy at the ticket booth said I looked like Kurt Russel. Why?"
“Suffice to say, it's more than a little relevant right now,” said Otacon, forcing some cheer into his voice.
No kidding, I thought. “I could be out of contact for a while. If I'm not back in seventy-two hours, I'm not coming back at all. Take off and find help. Find Jack. Come in after me, and finish whatever I've started. We can't let this one get away, Otacon.”
“I'll come for you, Snake,” said Otacon. There was a hardness in his voice, a resoluteness that I wish he'd carry himself with more often. It was, and still is, very becoming. “But you make sure that I don't have to. Don't make me lose you the way I lost Emma.”
I couldn't help but smile sadly at the company he was putting me in. “Hold the fort, Hal,” I said quietly.
Filling my lungs with what could have turned out to be my final breath of Earth air - or my last breath of air, period - I stepped into the brightness, letting it swallow me, engulf me in its shining heat.
And then I was gone.
Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday
"Using the old cardboard box trick, huh? Looks good on you, Snake."
“...and so then Pinkie Pie said 'oatmeal? Are you crazy?!”
Raucous laughter erupted from the table in the Sweet Apple Acres farmhouse's dining room as Fluttershy finished her anecdote. “Dangit, Fluttershy,” Applejack panted, fighting against the giggles as she wiped a tear from her eye with a shaking hoof, “I can't believe I weren't there for that one. That story's a right classic.”
“Well,” said Fluttershy, pausing to take another sip of cider, “Ms. Cheerilee didn't find it all that funny at the time. The last time I paid her a visit, she still hadn't gotten the cheese smell out of her basement.”
“She'll come 'round,” said Applejack. “Time has a funny way of puttin' these things inta perspective.” She slid the nearest bottle of cider down the table into Fluttershy's waiting hoof. “Top yerself off there, iffin you like. We got plenty in the cellar.” She spared a worrying glance to Big Mac. “We do still got plenty, don't we?”
“Eeyup.” Big Mac smirked at Applejack, glancing at the half-empty cider bottle beside Fluttershy and arching his eyebrows.
“Like I said, then!” She turned back to Fluttershy with a broad smile. “It's been a pur-ticularly fruitful harvest, after all, an' we got plenty to spare.”
“Oh, you're too kind,” said Fluttershy, pushing the bottle back down the table. “But I think I may have had just a bit too much already. I think it's startling to - starting to afflict - start - ” Fluttershy took a deep breath, exhaled, closed her eyes and concentrated. “Starting to affect the way I chalk - talk! Oh goodness, I can't even speak properly anymore.” Her voice had a fluttering, buoyant quality to it, despite her angst, and she maintained a dopey, happy grin on her face, so very unlike her usual shy, quiet smile. “This is so embarrassing. Maybe it would be bitter - batter - better - if just stopped for the night.”
“Aw, don't be s'darn self-conscious. You ain't the first pony to get a li'l bit tipsy after imbibin' in Sweet Apple Cider.” said Applejack, relieved to no end that Fluttershy was calling an end to her bender. Sure, it was modest by most standards, but for Fluttershy, who hardly touched the stuff if she could help it, it was noteworthy. She'd invited the bashful pegasus to dinner with the hope that a social occasion would bring her out of her shell the slightest bit, and in that, the plan had succeeded, though she had to ply Fluttershy with considerably more cider than she'd thought. The anecdotes, however, were certainly worth the effort; Fluttershy was spilling stories that she doubtlessly would never have thought about sharing if she were sober. “The stuff has a funny way of muckin' up words," said Applejack with a wink. "Loosenin' lips. Lowerin' inhibitions.”
“Applejack says that cider's the reason I was born in the first place!” Applebloom chimed in cheerfully as she trotted into the dining room from the kitchen, precariously balancing a tray of apple fritters on her nose. She set the tray on the table, oblivious to the gobsmacked, open-jawed expression of her big sister, the blushing face and subdued giggling of Fluttershy, or the bemusement of Big Macintosh.
Applejack steeled herself, flushing visibly beneath her orange coat. “Applebloom,” she said, gritting her teeth tightly together, “do we need to have 'nother talk about what is and is not appropriate conversation when company's over?”
“Shucks, sis!” said Applebloom, nuzzling Fluttershy's side affectionately. “It's just Fluttershy! She's practically family!” She turned to her sister with bright, shining eyes. “An' if I can't talk that way around family, who can I talk that way around?”
“Preferably,” growled Applejack, “nopony. Yer too young t'be talking like that.” She paused. “Or to know what I meant when I said that.”
“Oh, cool yer wings,” said Applebloom, jerking her head in Fluttershy's direction. “Not like what I said's any worse than some o'the stories she's been telling.”
Fluttershy smiled, genuinely touched by Applebloom's kind words. “You're so sweet, Applebloom,” she said, ruffling her mane, eliciting a grin and a giggle from the yellow filly. “But m-maybe you should listen to your sister.”
“'Maybe,'” Applejack huffed under her breath. Big Mac chuckled from across the table.
“After all,” Fluttershy continued, picking an apple fritter from the tray. “As my mother always said, 'always keep your audience in mind,' I happen to know one or two stories about you that you wouldn't want to come out at a time like this.” She chewed her fritter somewhat more sloppily than she would have had she been sober, and set it down upon her plate.
“Is that right?” Applejack said, turning on Applebloom with a sinister grin on her face. “Now now, Fluttershy, don't y'all hold back on Applebloom's account. Let's hear some o'them tales.”
Applebloom's heart skipped a beat. She wasn't certain what, exactly, Fluttershy had in mind, but she was almost positive that, whatever it was, she'd either never live it down, or be grounded long enough to ensure that she'd be a blank-flank forever. Shoot, she thought, AJ'd probably skip my over my bedroom and send me straight up to the moon, Celestia-style. “Th-that's okay Fluttershy,” she said hastily. “No need to say nothin' you might regret later.”
“Well,” said Fluttershy, leaning forward and resting her chin on her folded front legs, evidently oblivious to Applebloom's protest. Her voice was faintly distorted and her words noticeably slurred from a night of moderate cider consumption. “There was that one time with the Cockatrice...”
Applejack's expression of sinister glee winked out of existence. She stared blankly ahead, her eyes going out of focus. She no longer looked at Applebloom at all. Rather, she seemed to be looking beyond her, at something not visible to anypony else. The filly, suddenly very nervous, edged uncomfortably away from her sister's unfocused gaze.
“Cockawhatnow?” asked Applejack expressionlessly, turning back to the table and staring blankly at Fluttershy.
“Oh, you haven't heard of them before?” asked Fluttershy, evidently too drunk to notice Applejack's change in demeanor.
“I do believe I have,” said Applejack in a slow, measured deadpan. “But why don'tcha remind me, jus' in case my memory's a tad foggy.”
“You know. A Cockatrice. Head of a chicken, body of a snake. They can turn you to stone just by making eye contact, you know. Very dangerous creatures.” She nodded at her own statement, leaning down to sip from her cider glass, forgetting momentarily that she had cut herself off for the night (and, more importantly, that her glass was empty).
“Yes. That's what I thought it was.” Applejack's voice was still eerily calm.
Applebloom gazed cautiously at her sister. Now, now, she told herself. Maybe she's not so mad. It's not like her eyelid's twitchy or nothin'. Boy, wouldn't I be in for it if it were.
Applejack's eyelid spasmed subtly. Horseapples, thought Applebloom sourly, wilting. She tiphooved towards the kitchen door, hoping to escape before the torrent of Applejack's fury hit.
“And what, pray tell, were the circumstances of Applebloom's meetin' with that bird-lizard?” asked Applejack in her worryingly passive voice.
Please, Fluttershy, Applebloom thought, willing her thoughts to beam into the drunk pegasus' mind. Please, please say that your lips ain't that loose.
“She and her friends ran into the Everfree Forest during their sleepover,” Fluttershy explained, her eyelids drooping sleepily. “And they almost got turned to stone too. Luckily I - ” She yawned a graceful, gentle yawn, her closed eyelids preventing her from seeing the throbbing vein in Applejack's forehead. “ - woke up and noticed they were out of bed,” she continued as the yawn drew to an end. “Otherwise, you'd have a rock for a sister.” Fluttershy giggled. “'Rocklebloom.' Oh, the fillies at school would tease her so...” She smacked her lips softly, snuggled her head into her forelegs and began snoring.
“Applebloom.” Applejack's sharp call froze the escaping filly in her tracks. Fluttershy jolted awake, startled by the sudden change in Applejack's tone. Sobriety hit her like a ton of bricks as she saw the joyless face of her friend and the fear that radiated off of Applebloom.
A cold chill crept up Applebloom's back as she nervously turned back to her sister. “Is what Fluttershy's sayin' true?” asked Applejack, her voice reverberating with barely restrained anger.
Big Mac's eyes darted from Fluttershy, to Applejack, to Applebloom and back.
Applebloom shuffled her hooves nervously, eyes riveted to the ground. “Well...there's a li'l bit more to it than that...”
“I didn't ask for no hemmin' and hawin',” snapped Applejack. Applebloom jumped at the harshness in her voice. I'm right bucked, ain't I? she thought desperately, looking vainly to Fluttershy for help.
“You tell the truth now,” said Big Mac sternly, leaning forward onto the table as he gazed at Applebloom. “Is what Fluttershy said true, or not? Yes or no'll do.”
Applebloom decided to stake her future on the chance that her family would treat her mercifully if she were simply honest. Planting her hooves and meeting Big Mac's gaze, she gave a firm, if timid, “yes.”
“Applejack,” said Fluttershy hastily, “if I could just explain - ”
“I'm thinkin' I've heard all the explanations I need,” Applejack interrupted, pushing away from the table. “Applebloom, you go to yer room and you stay there 'til I come talk to you. I'm going to see our guest out.” She trotted to the front door, keeping her eyes locked steadily forward. “Fluttershy, you'll come with me now.”
“Applejack - ”
Applejack stamped her hoof against the floor so hard that the wooden boards splintered and cracked beneath her. At that moment, the open, sociable, funny drunk Fluttershy evaporated. Drooping her wings and her ears in tandem, she slid off of her chair and sullenly fell in step behind Applejack. She glanced behind her back, hoping to catch a glimpse of Applebloom, but the yellow filly was gone from sight already. All she saw was Big Macintosh, whose stony gaze followed her to the door.
“AJ, please don't be harsh with Applebloom - ” Fluttershy began as they stepped outside together, but Applejack met her almost nose-to-nose and locked their gazes together, performing a near perfect simulacrum of the pegasus' legendary stare.
“I don't know what them fillies was doin' in yer house when they was supposed to be with Rarity that night,” hissed Applejack, “and I don't rightly care right now, though I probably I will when I swing by her place tomorrow mornin' to give her a piece o'my mind.” She jabbed a hoof accusingly at Fluttershy, who recoiled. “But for whatever reason, they was in your care, an' truth be told, that wouldn't'a bothered me none, iffin I'd known. I woulda figgered I could trust you with somethin' as little as my baby sister's life. Guess I know better now, on account of you lettin' 'em sneak out an' get jumped by a buckin' chicken-snake!”
“I-I didn't...” Fluttershy stammered. Abashed, she turned her head away from Applejack. “I-I wasn't... I wouldn't have - ”
“Wouldn'ta what?” asked Applejack, advancing on Fluttershy, even as the latter backpedaled. “Wouldn'ta let 'em get stoned? Or et?! I know what Cockatrices do to their prey, Fluttershy, oh do I ever know all too well what they do t'their prey! Yer dang right you 'wouldn't have,' 'cuz if I lost my sister on account o'yer negligence - let's just say there'd be a whole lot less talkin' right now.” Her eyes narrowed and her face darkened considerably. “An' a whole lot more whoopin'.”
Fluttershy's breath hitched and her chest heaved. She shut her eyes tightly, stifling the tears that Applejack's words had drawn out of her. But Applejack was unmoved, her anger providing a powerful shield against her friend's pathos. Still, unwilling to castigate the sobbing pegasus any longer - she had a sister who needed scolding, after all - she sighed and looked away. “'Git. We'll talk more 'bout this later, Fluttershy.”
“Applejack... I'm s-so - “
“Don't. Make me. Repeat myself,” said Applejack in a dangerously low voice.
Fluttershy nodded with a sniffle. Turning her back to Sweet Apple Acres, she trotted miserably down the road home, leaving Applejack to sweep up the tattered shreds of what had been, up until moments ago, a pleasant night.
Applebloom sobbed into her pillow, her muffled cries audible only to her. I'm such a loudmouth, she thought. Should'a never piped up. Fluttershy wouldnt'a got kicked out, I wouldn't be in no trouble, and we'd all be enjoyin' apple fritters right now. A fresh wave of tears spilled into her damp pillow. Or maybe if AJ weren't such a sourpuss sometimes. She didn't hafta be so mean to Fluttershy. Coulda let her explain... don't even understand what she's so rumphurt 'bout...
There was a harsh rapping at her door. Applebloom stiffened, swallowing her sobs as the door swung open, the silhouette of a pony in a Stetson hat obscuring the light that now washed into her room. She remained still, her back turned to the door, as her sister trotted in, her telltale heavy hooffalls giving the filly a glimpse at her older sister's anger. “You wanna tell me jus' what you were thinkin', chargin' into the Everfree Forest like it were some kinda game?” she demanded as she came to Applebloom's bedside.
Applebloom made no reply.
“Silly me, Applebloom,” said Applejack, “I phrased that like a request. It ain't one. Talk.”
At length, Applebloom gave a sullen reply. “Why bother? Not like you'd listen to me anyways.”
“Now don't go givin' me that bunk,” snapped Applejack. “Dangit, Applebloom, you're lucky I'm even givin' you a chance to explain! S'more than Fluttershy got, an' it's more than you deserve!”
Applebloom pulled her pillow tightly against her chest, curling around it. “How many times do I hafta tell you, Applebloom?” Applejack pressed. “How many times do you gotta put'cher self in this kinda danger 'fore it finally sinks in? You got jumped by a cockatrice, Applebloom. You coulda died! Is that what it'll take to get you t'finally listen to me? Getting turned to rock? Or getting' torn 'part by wild animals? Will you start listenin' then?!”
As if responding to a challenge, Applebloom whirled about, jumping to all fours atop her bed. “But I didn't, AJ!” she shouted furiously, tears clinging to her eyelashes. “Why are you even mad about this?! It was months ago! An' Fluttershy saved us 'fore anything could happen to us!“
“If it weren't for Fluttershy,” growled Applejack, “you wouldn't'a been there in the first place! If she'd kept an eye on you like a responsible mare - “
“'Responsible mare?!'” Applebloom laughed a harsh, guttural, very un-fillylike laugh. “You mean like you? How many bits didja bring home from the Grand Galloping Gala, huh big sis? Didja fix the leaky roof yet, you responsible gal you? Can Granny Smith walk more'n two steps without fallin' over herself?!”
Applejack planted both hooves onto her sister's bed and rose to stand on her hind legs. Beneath her Stetson, her eyes narrowed to slits, and her flared nostrils gave her the appearance of a bull about to charge. Applebloom wasn't quite sure what had gotten into her, that she was talking back to her big sister this way - they got on famously at the best of times, granted - but she rather liked being able to stick up for herself. Maybe the events of the night had brought a simmering undercurrent of sibling rivalry to the surface. Maybe the fumes from the cider had given her the extra nip of courage she needed to push back against her overbearing, overprotective guardian. Or, more likely, she'd gone insane from misery and didn't realize the danger she was putting herself in.
“You're the one in trouble there, li'l filly, not me,” said Applejack in that low, dangerous tone that she reserved for her most wrathful moments. “An' for your own sake, you better keep that in mind! I'm the one what puts food in your ungrateful belly, an' a leaky roof over yer head's miles better than no roof 't all! So I don't wanna hear that kinda backtalk from you, 'specially when I ain't done nothin' t'deserve it!”
“You're dang right I'm ungrateful!” Applebloom met her sister's stare, met it and returned it in full force. “An' who wouldn't be with you lookin' after them?! I didn't ask for you t'raise me. I wish ma 'n pa were still alive! Then I wouldn't hafta to be raised by some no-good buzzard!”
Those words were the first to penetrate the armor of Applejack's anger, and she faltered slightly before regaining her composure. “Applebloom, you don't know what you're sayin'!”
“I know dang well what I'm sayin'!” said Applebloom. The momentum had swung her way, and now she moved in for the kill. “I'm sayin' that I wish you was dead 'n not them!”
It was like being kicked full-tilt in the stomach. Applejack's eyes widened, the wind drained from her lungs, and her hooves slipped from Applebloom's bed, clopping against the floor. Applebloom knew she'd hurt her sister, though she couldn't have begun to guess just how deeply. And she didn't care. The fight now over, she lay on her bed and rolled around, once again treating Applejack to a view of her back.
She heard the soft tapping of hooves against the floor as Applejack exited the room, then the click of her door as it shut securely. And, as she strained her ears to listen for signs of life outside, she swore she heard a quiet sob.
Applebloom didn't give a good gosh-dangit-to-Pony-Heck how Applejack felt at that moment. She glanced at her window, still open a crack from that afternoon, when Applejack had told her to nudge it open a little bit to let the smell of their frying fritters waft out over Ponyville. “What better way t'drum up business for the Apple Family,” Applejack had said, “then by remindin' them what they're missin' out on?”
The memory wasn't a pleasant one anymore, and Applebloom repressed it. She needed to focus on the task at hoof, after all. She took her blanket in her mouth and, with a bit of finagling, began knotting it into a rope.
I don't know how long I was out for.
Couldn't have been much longer than a few hours. I could tell because I didn't feel any older. And maybe that doesn't sound so significant, but after Shadow Moses, I'd wake up after a full night's sleep, and somehow, I'd feel older. As if I could sense that I had aged, substantially, overnight. It was years before the physical signs of my aging began to show, and when they did, I can't say I was surprised that it was happening. Part of me could tell all along.
So it was important when I woke up from my nap, and I didn't feel any older. Meant that I hadn't been there too long, though that didn't help me in any event.
The first thing I felt, as I was regaining consciousness, was something wet and cold pressed against my face. I brushed at it, still mired in that no-man's-land between sleep and waking, and it went away, only to be replaced by something warm and wet dragging across my cheek.
“Cut it out, Meryl,” I muttered sleepily, rolling over to escape. But it persisted and intensified, even after I batted at my cheek to knock it away. I opened my eyes slowly, expecting to still be surrounded by the brilliant light that had knocked me out in the first place. But to my surprise, it was dark. Not pitch-dark; I could make out what was hovering over me, but dark enough that I had to strain a little bit to see it.
Beady black eyes stared into my own. Now very much awake and alarmed, my eyes flew open, and I immediately scrambled into a sitting position, my hand shooting toward the Beretta on my hip.
The thing that had watched me in my sleep cocked its head quizzically, and my mind registered it as a familiar, recognizable shape. It was a dog, probably a collie, given its coat and general look. Friendly enough, too. But then, I'd always been good with dogs.
...It seems that I actually said that last part out loud, and now Otacon is telling Sunny about the wolf-dogs that attacked me on Shadow Moses. If I weren't so busy writing, I'd give my side of the story. But then, I guess that's what this is for, isn't it?
I relaxed immediately after discerning that what had roused me was a harmless dog. It wore a collar with a dangling gold tag around its neck, meaning that the animal was domesticated. So wherever the portal had taken me, it was at least someplace civilized.
The first thing I thought to do was to call Otacon on the Codec. There was no answer but static on his frequency, nor on the emergency frequency that we'd set aside for rainy days. I'd been afraid of that, but I'd left him with instructions. All I could do was hope that he wouldn't have to follow them.
After the feeling of crushing loneliness subsided - I wasn't used to being totally alone on my missions; I'd had Otacon looking over my shoulder for so long, giving me intel, advice, technical knowledge whenever I needed it or asked for it - I took in my surroundings. There was a wooden crate sitting just behind me, lidless and propped upside down, the open end stuck into the ground. Had to wonder what the point of that was, but it was me-sized and conveniently located, so who was I to complain? Figured whoever it belonged to wouldn't mind so much if I borrowed it without asking. If it was just dumped here haphazardly, then what right did he have to complain?
My muscles were a little cramped from laying and sitting for who knows how long, so I decided to stand. I climbed to my feet, shaking off the cobwebs and stretching as I rose. Felt good to move again.
The dog darted between my ankles, looking up at me with a lopsided, tongue-wagging grin. Whoever owned this dog evidently did not train it to be a guard dog. What's the point of owning a dog, then, if it's not willing to fight and kill for you? It may be that I'd grown deeply jaded by that point in my life, but if I'm wrong about that, then dammit, I don't want to be right. It was a nice dog, though, so I reached down and scratched behind its ears. It liked that. I figured it would. I used to race dogs, you know.
I was in a barn, I realized, as I wandered around the place. On an apple farm, no less. There were dozens of barrels all over the damn place, each one stuffed like a turkey with apples in all the various hues and shapes that apples come in. A wheelbarrow full of hay, too.
My stomach growled. That was the second indicator for how long I'd been asleep; not long enough to have aged, but long enough to have an empty stomach. Well, I thought, I'm on an apple farm, surrounded by barrels of apples. When in Rome.
But then, I reasoned, I'd be devouring someone's livelihood. Wouldn't any farmer worth their salt-lick notice that someone had pilfered an apple or two from their harvest? It could raise an alarm. Could get me into trouble. Could get me noticed. Could make carrying out my mission that much more difficult to do.
Then again, I was damn hungry. And there were so many that, honestly, who would have noticed if one was missing? I guess I had started assuming, in my delirious, hungry state, that these farmers were not worth their salt-licks.
I reached into a barrel and selected a nice round golden delicious. I breathed on its skin, rubbed it off on the front of my suit (probably a bad call, given the amount of grime that's accumulated on that old thing over the years) and raised it to my lips.
The dog didn't like that. It started growling as soon as I picked the apple, but just before I could take a bite, it started barking this high-pitched, piercing yelp. Got annoying fast, let me tell you.
“There are plenty of other apples,” I said to it. “Who cares if I take one? Nobody'll notice.”
The dog didn't like common sense almost as much as it didn't like apple thievery. Its barks and growls rose in both volume and pitch. Got annoying even faster.
I wasn't so hungry that I'd lost all reason; I knew that I was on a farm, and I knew that the dog could raise an alarm, call in its owner and get me spotted. So I undid the holster on my hip and drew out my Beretta. I didn't like killing animals, Raven's ravens notwithstanding (bastards startled me, alright?!), but tranqing them seldom, if ever, had any long-lasting side effects. So I was guilt-free.
But apparently, I was too late on the draw, because I heard a voice calling “Winona? Winona, whassamatter?”
The voice was male, deep and rich, with a Southern lilt to it. The farmer, no doubt. That damn dog (Winona? Really?) had drawn some unwanted attention to my activities, something which, in my line of work, is generally considered a bad thing.
The upshot was that farmers generally carried guns with them to chase out rustlers, so if nothing else, I'd get some genuine armament out of this. I made for the upturned crate and raised the lip, sliding underneath into utter darkness. I could still hear the dog barking outside, giving away my location. Not that I forgot to tranq it in my hurry; it was a tactical decision to leave the dog awake and to let it narc on my hiding spot. I settled into a kneeling position, holding my Beretta tightly with both hands.
I heard hooves. Hooves. What kind of farmer rides a horse into a barn at whatever hour of the night it was to catch a rustler? The kind that doesn't need both hands to use his gun, that's what kind of farmer. So I'd get a handgun. Hoped it wasn't a revolver.
My stomach growled again. I wished I hadn't dropped that apple.
“What is it, Winona?” said the farmer's voice. He was right outside now, close enough that I could hear him clearly, even through the crate. “Somethin' under the box?”
How many unwary sentries had inadvertently made those words their last? Not that I was going to kill him. He was an innocent bystander in all of this. Probably.
“This hasn't been a good night,” said the farmer. “An' I don't have much patience left. I'mma count to three, and you better be out in the open before I get to the end. No tricks. One.”
I had this trick, back in my youth. Whenever some poor dumb soul noticed me slipping from here to there in my box, I'd sit still and turtle up while he examined my hiding place, and just when he started to lift the box to see what was underneath, I'd throw it aside, startling him, grab him in a chokehold, and snap his neck. Or I'd just shoot him. Or tranq him. It was a flexible maneuver, one of my favorites for that reason. I planned to do just that when the farmer inevitably finished counting down.
I thumbed off the safety of my gun.
“Three. Now, I warned y'all - ”
I exploded from beneath the box, tossing it rather higher into the air than I'd meant to, and raised my gun to what I had assumed would be eye levelt. I was, of course, stymied by the fact that my discoverer was not at eye level with me. He was several feet lower than that. Also, no less importantly, he wasn't a farmer with an antiquated gun, but a small red horse with freckles. And he stared at me with the same incredulity that I stared at him with.
The surprise made me hesitate for a heartbeat before I regained my wits, adjusted my aim, and fired. The gun emitted a pop, its report suppressed by its silencer, as the tranquilizer dart stung him in his throat before he could say a word. He hit the ground at the same instant that the box did, out cold.
The dog didn't like that either. It reared onto its hind legs and pounced on me, driven to attack by what it probably assumed was the death of its master. It only got up to hip level, and its teeth weren't so sharp, but it startled me, got the drop on me before I could ready my gun for another shot. I kicked my leg to dislodge it, sending it skittering across the barn's floor, but it wasn't done with me yet. It got its footing back and charged at me, barking madly.
I raised my gun and casually fired a second shot. The dog's momentum carried it a few feet more as it skidded along the ground, knocked unconscious, just like its master.
Its master who was a small red horse. With freckles.
I've seen some crazy shit in my time. My mentor being roasted alive. My best friend being ground underfoot beneath a giant robot. Big Mama's cleavage. But as far as sheer shock value is concerned, nothing quite beats the revelation that, wherever I had wound up, it was populated by sentient, talking ponies who practiced agriculture. Not a turn that I could have predicted.
The pony would be out for a while (those tranquilizers could take down an elephant) but there was always the odd chance that someone would come across him, or the dog. That wasn't a chance that I wanted to take.
I stooped beside the body and placed my hands beneath it, straining to lift it into the air. For something that was half my size, the bastard was heavy. His body was thick, powerful, and bulged with muscles beneath his red coat. This was a workhorse, one that could probably have done some serious damage to me, had my trigger finger not been so quick.
After a bit of effort, I got him into the air and slung him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Carrying him to the wheelbarrow of hay, I lowered him into it, then carefully arranged the hay over his body, leaving him room to breathe while still concealing him from prying eyes. I had meant to put the dog in there with him, but the pony was so big that there wasn't enough room for two. So I took the crate that I'd hidden beneath and placed it over the sleeping collie. The thing needed air holes though, so I picked up a pitchfork that rested beside the wheelbarrow and jabbed it through the top of the box. Instant air holes. I returned the pitchfork where I had found it and stepped outside.
On a hill, not far from the barn, sat a red farmhouse, two stories tall and kind of narrow. I didn't think much of it at the time, but one of the second story windows of the farmhouse was open, and a blanket, knotted into a rope, dangled from it to the ground. I figured that some debutante farmer's daughter had snuck out for a rendezvous, and briefly wondered how a horse would have been able to tie a knot with its hooves in the first place.
The night sky was beautiful, a rich purple blanket, studded with stars. The moon was waxing, but even with a portion of it obscured, it was a good size bigger than the one I was used to seeing, at least four times as large. Gorgeous as it was to look at, that really got to me. It wasn't my moon. The craters scarring its surface weren't my craters. This wasn't my world.
I drew a pack of cigarettes (a new brand that I was trying, The Boss) and lit one up. I missed Otacon's presence like hell, but if anything good came from being separated from him, it was that I could smoke in peace, without hearing the Surgeon General spiel. And I needed a smoke, right then and there.
I inhaled a breath of rich tobacco. The nicotine filtered into my system, and my nerves steadied. I held the smoke in my lungs for a few moments, then exhaled slowly, watching it curl and dissipate in the cold night air. I wanted to savor the few moments that I had to myself, outside of that big red barn, beside that big red farmhouse, because I knew, deep down, that I wouldn't be having too many like it for a while. So I stood there, alone in the nighttime chill, smoking my cigarette and reflecting on the turn that my day had taken.
There was a distant crack, a rapid sound, faint, but unmistakable as gunfire. I whirled in its direction, drawing my Beretta again. The sound had come from a ways away, I could tell, and there wasn't much else down the way it came from but a forest. I drew my scope and held it to my eyes, zooming in as far as it'd go, but I didn't have much luck. I couldn't penetrate that dense wall of foliage.
I heard the sound again - three-round burst fire, terminating as quickly as it had started - and asked myself what the odds were that a race of animals who didn't have the digits necessary to operate firearms could have made that sound. I didn't have an answer for myself.
Pegasus Wings had gone through the same portal that I did. Obviously, they didn't wind up in the exact same location as me, or else there wouldn't have been a farm left to wake up in. I found that curious. In any event, it meant that they were here, somewhere. I didn't have any back-up, nor any intel to guide me, and nothing at all by way of clues to go on besides the distant sound of gunfire. But something to go on was better than nothing at all.
I drew out my portable ashtray (a birthday gift from Otacon) and dropped my cigarette into it, hoping that I'd get another opportunity to smoke before too long. Taking one last look around the serene farmland, I stalked away, down the path that would lead me into the forest.
On the Ground
"Who would have thought that such a beast could have existed...?"
Something about walking through a jungle always gets me nostalgic. Not, oddly enough, for any of my past missions where I've had to go through a jungle, but for something else, something that's just beyond recollection. I hear there's such a thing as “genetic memory,” and maybe it's that, but I'll be damned if I can be bothered to look it up. I've heard enough gobbledegook about genes for one lifetime.
Judging by the position of the moon when I'd woken up, I put the time somewhere between ten thirty and eleven. It took me at least a half an hour to get from the farm to the forest where the gunshots had come from, partly because I needed to navigate through an unfamiliar town with a decently active nightlife. The streets were surprisingly well lit for such a rustic town, so I kept mostly to alleys, darting from one to the other whenever traffic cleared up enough to reduce the risk of being spotted. Shooting out the streetlights was an option, but not an ideal one, due to the risk of drawing attention to myself. Glass shattering tends to make a racket, never mind the sudden darkness. So I stuck to my pattern of hiding and evasion. It was slow work, but little by little, I made my way from one end of the town to the other, where a faded, beaten path led into an unpleasant looking forest. It was the kind of repulsive place you'd find in a Disney cartoon. The path continued past the entrance, but it was faded and overgrown from disuse. Obviously, the residents of the adjacent town avoided that forest, and judging by the look of it, they probably had good reason to. I wondered why a bustling burg was built on the threshold of such a horrible place.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I swallowed hard, kept a hand on my holster, and followed that ancient path into the forest's darkly grinning maw.
It was a while before anything happened; the first leg of my journey was entirely uneventful. I spent most of that time trying to mentally come to grips with just how strange a turn this mission had taken since I discovered that archway in the island base. Throughout my career, I've always been able to recover very quickly in the face of the bizarre, but there is a great difference between a floating psychic in a gas mask reading my PlayStation memory card data, and waking up in a barn apparently owned and operated by a red horse with an apple tattoo on its ass. And after passing through the town, watching diminutive horses talk and smile and laugh and do decidedly non horse-like things, my mind was working in overtime preserving my sanity in the face of increasingly insane developments, just the latest of which was this overgrown forest where the air hung stale and heavy and damn near palpable.
Never before had I felt so uneasy about a place as I did in that forest. I felt like an intruder, like I was trespassing someplace that I had no business being in. Now, I'm a professional trespasser, so trespassing normally doesn't bother me at all, but this was the first time I actually felt like I didn't belong. It was even a different feeling from the domed structure where I'd found the gateway. That place had felt sacred; this place felt the exact opposite. It felt and looked like a perversion of the natural order. It felt evil.
But hey, I'd heard gunshots come from this place, and ponies don't have the necessary digits to operate firearms, so evil be damned, I was going to pass through the place. And I don't think it wanted me to, not one bit.
The path, already faded and worn, disappeared after a while, leaving me with nothing to indicate where I was going, if indeed I was going anywhere worth going to, or if I was simply getting more and more lost in a forest that looked at times like it wanted to grind my bones to make its bread. What kind of PMC would set up shop in such a place, I wondered? The kind that wanted to avoid detection, keep its activities strictly clandestine. What better place to hide an army than in the one place you know that nobody will bother looking for one? I had to give Pegasus Wings' commander some credit on that one. Tactically, it was a good decision to choose the scariest damn place in the world to hide a Metal Gear. The atmosphere alone acted as a deterrent, never mind whatever may have been lurking within.
Suddenly, I heard a shrill, piercing scream. I drew my gun and held it steady, checking my immediate surroundings for danger. Nothing met me but a second scream, shriller and more frightened sounding than the first. This time, it lasted about a second before it was drowned out by a deep, bellowing roar. The screaming voice picked up again. “Help me! Somepony, please help me!”
The first sign of any life in that forest, besides myself, was a terrified scream. That didn't bode well for me. Still, it seemed worth following up on, so I raced off in the direction that the screams were issuing from, dashing quickly through underbrush and leapfrogging rocks and fallen logs until I came to a wide, oval-shaped clearing. I ducked, staying out of the open as I peered through the shadows at the scene unfolding before me.
A lion stood towering over a tiny yellow pony, pinning it to the ground with a ham-sized paw. Its face was pressed very close to the pony's; droplets of drool splattered onto its face and ran down its cheeks. I didn't see any gore, and the pony still thrashed and inarticulately begged for its life, so as far as I could tell, I'd shown up just in the nick of time. The lion pulled its lips back over its teeth and grinned as the pony begged for mercy.
I've seen animals kill and eat to survive. It's a part of nature; there's no more evil to it than if I were to eat a hamburger. But this was different. Fear was written on every feature of that pony's face, the kind of fear that a mere animal is incapable of experiencing. This pony - this child - was fully aware of what was happening to it, fully cognizant that its short life was coming to a brutal end. It wasn't my problem, and it wasn't a part of my mission, but nevertheless, I couldn't let that stand.
I rose from my place in the shadows and fired a tranquilizer round into the lion's flank. It yelped at the unexpected pain and stumbled off of the pony, whipping its great head back and forth in search of the source of the shot. The pony, perplexed, stared at the lion, perhaps trying to understand why it hadn't been eaten yet.
The lion caught sight of me (great night vision, those lions) and emitted a low growl. Otacon once told me that the tranquilizers in my gun could bring down an elephant. Now here it was, being tested against actual African wildlife, and it was working damn slowly, if it was even working at all. The lion was wobbly on its feet, sure, but it didn't seem to feel the full effects of the tranquilizer. But I did manage to get it away from the pony, which was a small victory, I guess. Of course, I also managed to make it angry at me. And I gave it an outlet for that anger (once again, in the form of me).
Whatever. I figured I could handle a big kitty cat, so I stepped out of the trees, into the clearing, and returned the lion's steely gaze. The pony, laying on her back between the two of us, rolled onto her belly, saw me standing there and gasped. I've always wondered what she must have been thinking right at that moment. Pity I never asked.
I cocked my gun. The downside to the modded Beretta was that I needed to manually load the next round whenever I fired a shot. Sure, it kept me from racking up a conspicuous body count, which made it invaluable on sneaking missions, but it was unwieldy in a fight due to the weak rate of fire, and at that point, it was the only thing I had on me. Of course, cocking a gun looks and sounds cool, and secretly, I've always gotten a little thrill from doing it, so it was worth the trade-off. “You don't look so tough,” I said to the lion.
The lion rebutted my taunt by unfurling a pair of leathery red wings and raising a multi-segmented, scorpion-esque tail of the same color. And by roaring. Loudly.
I may not be as familiar with mythological creatures as some of my more educated acquaintances. But I knew what a Manticore was. And that, my good reader, was a Manticore.
I was just asking myself how I could have ever missed seeing those wings and that tail when the Manticore lunged at me. I fired again, but the shot went wide right, and the beast crashed into me before I could load another round, knocking my gun from my hand. It flew out of sight behind me as the Manticore pinned me by the shoulders, snout pressed against my face, its hot, stinking breath searing my skin. Try pressing your face against a radiator covered in rancid meat and taking a big whiff sometime; you'll get an idea of what it was like to have that thing's breath in my face. Just as it had with the pony, it bared its fangs to me, opened its mouth and dove for my head. I caught it with both hands, straining hard to keep it away from me as it snapped its jaws and shook wildly to dislodge my grip.
My offensive arsenal being dangerously limited by that point, I took the only avenue available to me: I drove my forehead into the Manticore's nose with as much force as I could muster. The blow landed dead-on, although one of its teeth caught me by the temple, below my bandana, giving me a shallow, but painful, cut. I ignored the pain and butted it again, eliciting a snarl from the Manticore. It redoubled its efforts, bringing its jaws perilously close to my throat and snapping, millimeters away from tearing my jugular out. Realizing that I needed to get out from under that thing, I coiled my legs, pressed my feet against its belly and heaved.
Your average lion weighs somewhere on the order of six hundred pounds. My max leg press at the time was three fifty. Do the math. There's a disparity there. I strained against that monster's bulk, gritting my teeth and pushing as hard as I could, but to no avail. It was simply too heavy, impossible to lift.
So, as I often did in impossible situations, I changed my tactics.
The lion roared into my face; I opened my mouth and roared right back as I coiled my legs and slammed my feet into its muscular stomach. The Manticore wheezed and recoiled, stumbling backwards off of me. It recovered swiftly, but the momentary distraction was all the time I needed to recover. It shook its head and scowled at me as I leaped back to my feet and into a fighting stance, hands balled, shoulders squared, legs spread evenly apart. My gun was behind me, and even with the drugs pumping through its blood the Manticore was quick enough that it could have intercepted me before I could even come close to snatching it back up. Fleeing was out of the question too, for the same reason. It was a mismatch, even with the Manticore handicapped, but hand-to-paw combat was the order of the night.
The pony, like an idiot, had stuck around to watch the fight, standing well behind me and just to my left, staring, transfixed, at our battle. The Manticore's eyes flicked in her direction, then back to me. It dove at me again, but the glance it spared at the pony had prepared me for a feint. Sure enough, as it came within striking distance of me, it quickly adjusted its course and rushed at the pony, who yelped in fear and cowered. I tackled the Manticore in midair and we rolled through the dirt together. Eventually, I came out on top, pinned it on its back, and bashed my fists against it. Again and again, I rained heavy blows onto its face, punctuating each punch with a grunt as I battered it into submission.
Something sharp dug into my right shoulder, just beside my neck, and a searing liquid heat suddenly spread into my body. I cried out in equal parts shock and pain, and the Manticore, taking advantage of my lapse, threw me off of its body. I rose to my feet again, shakily this time. The heat in my shoulder spread rapidly, to my arms first, then to my legs. My limbs felt like they weighed a ton each, and I struggled to hold my balance.
The Manticore dangled its tail over its head, and I swore it smirked smarmily at me. Through my blurring vision, I could see a droplet of blood, my blood, dripping from its stinger, staining the grass where it landed crimson. Venom, I thought. It injected me with... with... My thinking grew sluggish, mirroring my physical deterioration. The effects of the venom were becoming harder to resist; simply standing on two feet now required a Herculean effort. I'd gotten careless, let an unfamiliar monster get the drop on me, and I'd been poisoned for my trouble. I knew I wasn't going to last much longer.
I thought about Otacon, and wondered if he'd be able to follow my instructions. I trusted him, trusted that he and Jack could get the job done without me. I was about to die, but at least the mission would be in good hands. And at least I'd make sure my last act had some meaning to it, if it meant keeping that idiot child alive.
My Beretta lay in the grass beside the filly, who, defying all conventional wisdom, still held her ground like a moron. The Manticore stood between the two of us, digging its paw into the dirt and preparing to charge again. I needed to be quick and decisive. With the venom coursing through my veins, that wouldn't be at all easy.
The Manticore came for me, sailing through the air, wings spread wide, claws out, fangs bared. And I dove. I rolled beneath it as it hung in midair, coming to a halt a finger's length away from my gun. I scrabbled vainly for it, my increasingly heavy and inarticulate hand grasping nothing but wispy green grass. Behind me, the Manticore landed on all fours, turned around to face me where I lay, and roared again. My fingertip brushed against the grip of the Beretta, inadvertently pushing it away a half-inch more, ensuring that it was completely out of reach.
The filly - I could barely make it out by this point, even with it standing less than a foot away - looked at the gun, then at my hand, and without further hesitation kicked it closer to me, right into my palm. I made an expression which I hoped turned out to be a smile, wrapped my fingers around the grip, rolled onto my back, cocked the gun, raised it into the air, pointed it at the Manticore and fired.
I make it sound easy, but take my word for it, it wasn't. I was sluggish, slow as molasses, and I suspect that the only reason the Manticore didn't snatch me up and shred me apart right then and there, why I'd survived for as long as I had, was because it, too, was sluggish from the first tranquilizer I'd fired into its body. The strength was nearly gone from my limbs too; the gun felt as though it were carved from lead. Raising it from the ground was difficult enough, but my numb fingers could barely grasp it well enough to work the slide and chamber the next round, and by the time that was all done, the Manticore was nearly on top of me. My vision had deteriorated to the point where I couldn't even see the laser painting the target, never mind the iron sights. It was all I could do to point at where I thought the Manticore was, shoot, and pray to whatever god this pony-infested deathtrap had that the shot was on the mark.
I honestly don't know what happened after that. My last memory of that battle was firing that last round. For the second time that day, I slipped away into unconsciousness, knowing as I did that my number had finally, definitively, come up.
Each pound to the door was like a hammer driving a nail into Fluttershy's skull. Moaning with head-splitting pain, she trudged through her darkened house to her front door on unsteady hooves. She nudged it open, blinking bleary red eyes and wincing as warm sunlight streamed onto her face. The light compounded her splitting headache, super-heating the nail in her skull to a glistening, white-hot spike, and she shut her eyelids tightly to block out the offending luminescence. “C-can I help you?” she mumbled to her early morning visitor.
The response was terse. “Is she here?”
Fluttershy's eyes snapped open at the sound of Applejack's voice. The sunlight fried her retinas and renewed her headache, and she squeezed her eyes shut again in the same instant that she opened them. “Appleja - n-no, I - is who here?” she asked cogently.
Fluttershy heard Applejack sigh heavily, then felt her flank brush against her wing as she trotted, unbidden, into the house. “Shoulda warned you about the consequences of late-night imbibin'. Guess that's another reason for you not to drink.”
Fluttershy groped for the opened door with a trembling hoof, found it, and shut it behind Applejack. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. The memory of their argument from the night before was still powerfully fresh in her mind.
“I'm gonna ask again,” said Applejack slowly. “Is Applebloom here?”
“Applebloom?” Fluttershy shook her head incrementally. It irritated her hangover too much to move her head any more than the barest amount. “No, she's not. Why would she be?”
Applejack sighed again, though this time, Fluttershy swore she heard a trace of a stutter in her breathing, like a half-choked sob. She turned away from the door and opened her eyes halfway. The drawn curtains and dim lighting in her house muted the pain of sight somewhat, just enough to make looking at Applejack bearable (physically, anyway). Fluttershy avoided staring directly into her eyes, not certain it she'd ever be able to look at her with openness after the incident at Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack, too, took great care not to meet Fluttershy's bloodshot gaze. Her expression remained carefully neutral, betraying no emotion, but her posture sagged and the brim of her hat was drawn farther down over her face than usual. A saddle was slung onto her back, from which a worn saddlebag hung.
“...She's missin',” said Applejack at length. “I woke up this mornin' to check on her, and she was gone. Her window was open and there was a blanket tied into a rope leadin' to the ground. She ran away.”
Fluttershy gasped sharply, her eyes flying open again, though she ignored the pain that it brought this time. “'Ran away'?” she parroted “Why?”
“We had a fight,” said Applejack. “'Things were said. Leave it at that. I ran for Big Macintosh the second I noticed, but I couldn't find him anyplace. Figger he started early out in the orchard, took Winona with him. I didn't want to waste time findin' him that coulda been spent findin' Applebloom. He can take care of himself. She...” Applejack's voice hitched again. She coughed and cleared her throat. “Anyway.”
“But why would she be here?” asked Fluttershy, trotting closer to Applejack.
Applejack shrugged. “It seemed a good place t'start lookin', after the way she stuck up fer y'all last night. Truth is, maybe I wanted to find her here.” She flashed a scathing glare at Fluttershy. “Woulda given me an excuse, if you catch my drift.”
The anger in her scowl startled Fluttershy, who froze in shock at her friend's dark tone. Tears once again brimmed in her eyes, and she whimpered pitiably. Applejack's hardened expression faded and she sighed a third time, lowering her gaze to the floor. “I'm sorry, Fluttershy,” she said, her voice even again. “I know you don't deserve that. Prob'ly didn't deserve half o'what I said last night neither.”
Fluttershy sniffled, dabbing at her eyes with her hoof. “I could blame it on the cider messin' with my head,” continued Applejack, “but that'd be the easy way out, an' my ma 'n pa always told me to take responsibility for my actions. Truth is, I was mad, dang mad. An' I let it get the better of me. I got the right to be sore with you, and I ain't yieldin' that. But I shouldn'ta flew off the handle like I did. So I apologize for actin' like such a... well...” Applejack laughed mirthlessly.
“...I... I appreciate that.” Fluttershy's tears kept coming, despite her earnest efforts. “And I want you to know how... how sorry I am for what happened the night of the sleepover.”
“I know yer sorry,” said Applejack with a nod. “I'm not ready t'forgive you just yet though.”
“But I need you on my side right now,” added Applejack hastily. “I got a sister runnin' loose in a big ol' world chock fulla all manner o'nasty things that'd look to hurt her. A filly's a filly; to hay with what she says.” She stepped closer to Fluttershy, smiling guardedly at the pegasus. “I need to find my sister, an' I could use an extra couple'a eyes. Think you can spare yours?”
“You don't even need to ask.” Through her tears, Fluttershy returned the smile. Whether it was a trick of the light, or her own sleepy vision playing tricks on her, she swore that she saw tears of her own welling up in those brilliant green eyes. But it was a passing thing, and any traces of mushiness on Applejack's part were gone as quickly as they'd appeared.
“Much obliged, Fluttershy,” said Applejack warmly. “I reckon we oughta start by roundin' up the others, six pairs of eyes bein' better'n two. First thing's first though.” She dug into her saddlebag, fished around for a moment, and retrieved a slender thermos with the Apple family crest stamped upon it. Applejack offered the thermos to Fluttershy, who hesitantly retrieved it and unscrewed the lid. Fluttershy held her nose over the thermos' opening and inhaled, her shy smile growing wider, less guarded. The rich scent of freshly brewed coffee danced in her nostrils.
“Yer prob'ly tired of bein' hung over, right?” asked Applejack as Fluttershy took a lengthy, savoring drink from the thermos. “This ol' family brew oughta fix you up right an' proper. Nothin' bucks a hangover like hot coffee, Apple-family-style. That'd be with cinnamon, iffin' yer curious. Don't tell nopony. Family secret.” She winked.
Fluttershy giggled into the thermos and smiled gratefully as the caffeine entered her system, her headache dulling to a low throb, as opposed to the stab of hot iron from before. “I do feel better,” she said, “thank you.”
Applejack shook her head. “Thank me by helpin' me find my sister. That drink don't come free, y'know.” She strode past Fluttershy, opened the door and stood aside. “After you.”
Fluttershy trotted out of her front door, nodding her thanks at Applejack, who shut the door and followed briskly behind her. Though Applebloom's disappearance had fostered anxiety in her heart, she couldn't help but feel a small tinge of relief as she stepped into the brilliant sunlight of a newborn summer day. A friendship she'd feared irreparable was on the mend.
But Applejack said herself that she hadn't forgiven her yet. And as the two of them cantered resolutely down the road to Ponyville proper, Fluttershy swore to herself that she would earn that forgiveness.
A Host of Sorrows
I stood in a dark enclosure, the ground soft and cold beneath (and around) my feet. Before me was a narrow path, flanked on either side by concrete walls that jutted high, vanishing into the blackness of the night sky. Behind me was a mechanical door, built into the rockface and stamped with the number four. When I looked down, I saw that the ground was coated in a blanket of stark white snow. A wet, cold pinprick needled my face, followed by a second, then a third and fourth. I shivered, breathed into my hands, and rubbed them together.
I wasn't sure how I'd come to be here; the last thing I remembered was pulling the trigger on my Beretta as the world went dark around me. But the place felt familiar, and as the cogs in my head ground back into working order, I suddenly realized why. This was the path leading to the Comm Tower on Shadow Moses Island. The door behind me led back to the underground path, where the wolf-dogs made their dens. The ground beneath me, I remembered grimly, was heavily mined, and I dared not move for fear of setting off a Claymore. The snowy road in front of me led to Tower A. On the gantry outside of the tower, Sniper Wolf had laid a trap for me, and sprung it on the wrong person. The snow at the tip of the path was fresh and white, as though blood had never stained it, as though Meryl had never laid in agony while Wolf toyed with her life. The memory of watching, powerless to save her as she bled out into the snow, replayed in my mind. I swallowed hard and tried to force it out, but it danced at the edges of my subconscious, mocking my failure. I took comfort in knowing that I'd saved her life in the long run. I don't know that I'd have been able to live with myself if she'd died.
I tried the door behind me; it wouldn't open. Obvious, of course, since I didn't have the PAN card key, and hadn't for years. The only option available was to walk the path, and see where it led. Watching carefully for any trace of a laser sight, following the steps that Meryl had taken around the Claymore mines so long ago, I found my way onto the path. With nowhere to go but forward, I set off.
It wasn't a long march from the door to the Comm Tower, and it shouldn't have taken much time to reach the end, but the march from point A to point B was far longer than I remembered. On top of that, the snow was picking up in intensity. Without my notice, it had turned from a light dusting that tickled my cheeks into a flurry that battered me, stinging my nose and ears and obscuring my vision and buffeting me with heavy winds. My feet sank deeper and deeper into the snow with each step. Before long, I was sunk up to my ankles, trudging through an ever-thickening blanket until I found myself too snowed in to move. I was contemplating digging into the snow and forming a temporary igloo to wait out the blizzard when I heard a ragged, raspy, whispering voice that made the chill of the frost seem like molten lava by contrast.
“You've returned,” it said to me.
A shape materialized through the whipping wind of the blizzard, black and billowing. My mind conjured images of the Grim Reaper, swaddled in a black cloak and brandishing a scythe. I thought, is that what's going on? Am I dead? The surreality of the situation made such an illogical thought oddly plausible. Assuming that it was Death, I decided that I wasn't going to let it take me without a fight. I still had a job to do, after all. My hand reached for my holster and drew the Beretta, and I fell into as steady a shooting stance as I could fashion while up to my thighs in snow. “Who are you?” I demanded. “Show yourself!”
And it did. Or, rather, he did. He came into the open, and even through the blinding snowstorm, I could discern him as clear as day. He was cloaked and hooded in black, and though his face was hidden in the shadow cast by his hood, a pair of eyes, burning red like coals, peered out at me. His legs were clad in camouflage pants, of a pattern and color that I had never seen on the field before.
So that was one request fulfilled; he'd come out into the open. But he still hadn't told me who he was. I asked again, more forcefully this time, but he remained passive, floating (yes, floating) in the middle of the blizzard.
Rather than answer my question, he posed one of his own. “Why are you here again?” His soft voice somehow carried over the din of the storm. “You passed through here before, but I sent you back. It wasn't your time. It still isn't.”
True, I'd been to this island before, but I didn't recall ever encountering him. Figured I'd remember something like that happening. Up to my ass in freezing snow and with no understanding of how the hell I'd come to be there, I decided to press him for more detail. “What are you talking about? Tell me who you are, now!”
The ghost complied, raised a dangling arm to his head and pulled down his hood, baring a pale, bespectacled face and a head of gray hair, combed back and hanging stiffly behind his neck. “I am The Sorrow,” he whispered, as if that was supposed to explain everything. “And you are your father's son.”
I tightened my grip on my pistol.
“I will not test you, as I did he,” said The Sorrow. “You still have much to do before that time may come. I will instead guide you back, as I did for you before.”
The snow picked up once again, obscuring The Sorrow in a shroud of white. I could feel it gathering, rising to my stomach and climbing at a worryingly rapid pace. I was going to be buried alive. “Wait!” I called. “What the hell are you even talking about?! Come back here!”
But he was gone. The snow climbed to my neck, edging past my jaw. I couldn't move any of my limbs; I was helpless, frozen, watching snow gather over my body. I heard The Sorrow again, just before my head was covered completely.
“You look just like him.”
My first reaction upon waking was to bolt upright and gasp, but I had only risen a centimeter before pain shot through every inch of my body, and I fell back onto the bed with an agonized growl.
Wait. A bed? I was on a bed? That struck me as unusual; I had been in a forest, then I'd been in the snow, and now I was on a bed. Something didn't add up. I decided to test my vision. It was still blurry, but beginning to clear, with shapes growing more defined and depth perception returning slowly, but steadily and noticeably.
I decided to take stock of my surroundings. First, I gingerly prodded whatever it was I was lying on. Definitely on a bed, not the softest or most comfortable I'd ever rested on, but a clear step above the floor of that barn from earlier. It was small, though, and I only fit on it from my head to my knees. Everything from my calves down dangled over the bed's edge. I was in a smallish, circular room. The walls, covered in wooden tribal masks, scowled at me from all sides. Tiny windows gave me vague peeks into the outside world. The wall of dark green that pressed against the them told me that I was still in the forest. I couldn't see any occupant, but then, I couldn't turn my head enough to look around the room completely.
My thoughts went to The Sorrow, and our encounter in the underground passage at Shadow Moses. I wanted to call it a dream, but it seemed too tangible, too real. The bitterness of the cold, the wet snow melting against my skin. Dreams are fleeting; they fade almost immediately upon waking. But what I had experienced was fresh in my head. It was so real, and yet it couldn't possibly have been.
“You've returned,” The Sorrow had said. Did he mean to Shadow Moses? I hadn't physically gone back there; that would have been quite impossible. To the memory of Shadow Moses? Deep down, I don't think I ever left that place. Was he speaking figuratively? Or was there something deeper to what he said, some meaning that was too far from the reality I confined myself to? My first impression was that I had died, that he was the Grim Reaper, but now that I was awake and removed from the situation, rationality cast a negative light on that assumption. Besides, I've never been dead, death being one of those things that's sort of hard to come back from, much less to. Saying “you've returned” wouldn't have made sense in that context.
A fresh wave of pain hit me and I groaned. Trying to puzzle out the meaning of that fever dream clearly wasn't doing anything good for me. I was restless and I wanted to crawl out of bed, but I could barely move. Whatever the manticore had injected me with, it was potent stuff. I lay there, letting the steady ache pulse through me.
I heard the sound of hooves clopping against the floor and turned my head in its direction, wincing as my stiff, sore neck protested. One of the tails of my bandana dropped over my eyes as my head turned, and so all I could see was a screen of dark teal. The clopping sound came closer; I heard a throaty chuckle, and felt something wet and a little fuzzy brush against my face for an instant. The bandana lifted from my eyes, but the shape in front of me was too blurry to discern distinctly. All I could see was a mass of black and white, and what appeared to be yellow here and there. I tried to talk, to ask who it was and what I was doing here, but my tongue was thick and numb in my mouth, and the only sound I could make was incoherent mumbling.
The black and white shape stepped back, enough that I could see it clearly. If there was any congruity between this world and mine, it was a zebra , albeit the most unusual looking zebra I'd ever beheld. Gilded jewelry ringed its neck and dangled from its ears, and its mane was done up in a Mohawk. The hell? First the lion-shaped manticore, and now a zebra? Was this supposed to be Africa?
The first impression I got was that of Mr. T in a zebra's body. The mental image drew a wet chuckle from me that built, despite the pain it caused me to laugh. As my fit died down, I silently wondered if it would talk like him too, call me a fool and tell me it pitied me, and I began laughing again, even harder. The pain grew with each exhale of breath, the ebbing ache rearing again to fill my entire body.
“You're laughing as much as your body will allow,” the zebra observed in a deep, yet distinctly feminine, voice. “Does that mean you're feeling better now?”
Oh no, it didn't talk like Mr. T at all. It rhymed. She rhymed. A rhyming zebra. This was too much. Too much. A talking horse with an apple tattoo on its rump? I'll see that and raise you Psycho Mantis. A manticore injecting me with a deadly venom? I'll raise you Fortune scattering missiles with her hocus-pocus. But this? This was one step too far. Too damn far. It was like a dam had burst. Every ridiculous, insane happening from that past night, from the mystic portal with the unicorn bust, to the city full of talking, diminutive horses, to this goddamn zebra, who had put me up for the night in its house, who wore jewelry like an African tribal - I couldn't stop laughing. The pain built with every guffaw, almost unendurable, yet still I laughed.
My host tilted her head quizzically. “Your boisterous laughter is troubling me. Is there something here that you find funny?” asked the rhyming, talking zebra with the Mohawk and the jewelry. I rolled over, howling now with laughter. Every nerve in my body was alight; every synapse in my brain blazed. It was like being strapped to Ocelot's torture machine all over again, except without the hope that it'd shut off after a while and I'd be free to gather my strength. I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't do anything but laugh myself to death. I slumped over the edge of the bed, reflexively propping myself against the floor with an open palm. There was no strength in my arms; my elbow bent and I collapsed against the floor, half of my body still hanging from the bed. Laughter gave way to wet, heavy coughing. Flecks of red spattered against the dirt floor.
“Zecora? Zecora! Is he alright?!” A girlish voice, squealing. Sounded so familiar.
The zebra has a name. I started to laugh again; it transformed into a cough midway through. My shoulders heaved and my chest pounded. Black spots danced at the edges of my vision. Red spots mingled and grew on the floor in the center of my vision.
The zebra moved swiftly. She nabbed a nearby clay bottle, yanked out the cork with its mouth, and shoved it into mine. She pushed her neck beneath me and, with a strained grunt, rolled my upper body onto the bed and rested me on my back. I coughed, choked, and sputtered on the bitter tasting yellow fluid. Most of it geysered out of my mouth, but I guess that enough of it went where it was supposed to go, because a warm feeling grew in my chest and, gradually, began to spread outward. It was unlike the searing pain of the manticore's venom; it was a different feeling entirely. Like cough syrup. You know that feeling you get when it gets in your gullet? That warm, settling feeling in your chest? Like that, but spreading to my entire body, to my arms and legs, even to my digits. My psychotic fit of laughter was gone. I still coughed, but only to eject the fluid that had gone down my trachea. I growled, clearing my throat, swallowed hard - it didn't hurt so bad anymore - and gestured to the zebra for more.
Looking profoundly relieved, she set the bottle in my outstretched hand. My fingers found some of their strength as I grasped it, and I raised it to my lips. It put considerable strain on my muscles to lift it; the bottle felt like it weighed every ounce as much as the Manticore, but I took a long swig. The drink tasted like crap, but I relished the way it washed comfortingly through my body. She watched me patiently, concernedly, as I digested the concoction she'd fed me.
The pain faded again, replaced by a gentle numbness. I dropped the bottle onto the ground, heard it impact but not shatter, and sighed, letting out a final, sputtering cough. I turned my head to the zebra to thank her, saw the Mohawk and the jewelry again, and couldn't help but let out a quiet laugh. The zebra - Zecora, that was her name - smiled back at me and offered a chuckle of her own, not understanding the joke, but wanting in on the laughter nevertheless.
My eye caught sight of a yellow-coated, red-maned figure peeking shyly from behind her legs. It was the filly I'd rescued earlier. She glanced at me, our eyes meeting for an instant before she averted them, hiding again behind Zecora.
I'm no good with kids.
Spike rubbed at his eyes fitfully as he opened the door to greet the fervent caller at the Ponyville town library, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. “Whuzzat?” he mumbled.
“Mornin' Spike,” said Applejack. “Is Twi in?”
Spike mumbled something affirmative through a yawn and stepped aside to allow Applejack into the building. “Twilight!” he called sleepily. “Got a visitor!”
“Is it Ditzy Doo?” Twilight Sparkle called back from the loft. “Ditzy, did you make sure to bring the actual order form? Because last time, you had me sign a receipt for muffins, and - ”
“Unless Ditzy turned orange and sold her wings to buy a hat,” said Spike, “I'm gonna say that it's Applejack.” He stumbled in the direction of the loft, passing Twilight as she descended the stairs to meet her visitor.
Applejack watched Spike retreat, then glanced at Twilight, her head cocked at a slight angle. “Expectin' a package?”
"She sent me a letter to tell me that I had a delivery coming. That Ditzy's a little off, y'know?" said Twilight, shaking her head with slight exasperation. The motion shook loose a hairbrush that was stuck in her bedmane. It bounced off of her back and fell to the ground. She smiled sheepishly. “Sorry about my mess. I'm afraid you've kinda caught me at an off moment.”
“Well, y'know I wouldn't trouble y'all this early if it weren't over somethin' important,” said Applejack with a sigh. “It's Applebloom.”
Applejack recounted what happened the night before, from the festiveness of the dinner, to Fluttershy's drunken admission, to the pitched argument with Applebloom. “And when I checked on her a li'l while ago, she was gone. Window was open, blankets were knotted up and hangin' to th'bottom.” She shook her head despondently. “If I weren't scared completely outta my wits, I'd be impressed with that girl. She's one o'the Apple Family alright, stubborn n'resourceful.”
Twilight listened to the whole of Applejack's story with a sympathetic facade, but her blood ran cold when the topic of the Crusaders' transgression came up. Applejack wasn't specific about what kind of trouble they'd run into, or where they had disappeared to that night, saying only that they'd sneaked out on Fluttershy's watch and nearly gotten themselves killed. She had no way of knowing, but Twilight didn't need to be told what happened, having been an actual victim of the Cockatrice. Afraid that Applejack would hold her partially responsible for knowing the truth and saying nothing, she elected to feign ignorance.
“Sssssoooo,” Twilight drawled, struggling to maintain a nonchalant attitude.“Where's Fluttershy now?” Her voice fluctuated on every other syllable, spiking noticeably in pitch. Applejack raised an eyebrow at her friend, and Twilight offered a shaky, nervous grin. “Sorry, um. My throat's always a little cloggy in the morning.” She forced a cough and grinned again.
Applejack's eyes narrowed. “Uh...huh.” With a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes, she continued talking. “T'answer yer question, I asked her to round up the others, said I'd get you myself. I told her it was 'cuz we'd get through it quicker that way, an' that's plenny true. But deep down, I think it was 'cuz I can't look at her without feelin'...what's a better word for 'angry'?”
“Livid?” Twilight suggested. “Outraged?” Scrunching her nose and tilting her head worriedly, she added “Equicidal?”
“Kinda all o'the above,” said Applejack. “'Cept that last one. Don't know what it means.”
That isn't much of a relief, thought Twilight.
“Dangit though, Twi, I don't know who I'm madder at right now, her or me. I can't rightly blame Fluttershy f'r nearly getting' her killed without bein' mad at m'self for lettin' her slip out on my own watch. An' o'course I'm mad at m'sister too, but more the scared kinda mad, less the 'I'mma buck you to th' moon an' let'cha play among th'stars' kinda mad.”
Twilight glowered at Applejack. This was not the first reference she'd heard about ponies being sent “to the moon” as a punishment, and they'd only gotten more colorful and frequent since Princess Luna's return. Applejack being one of the six who had facilitated that return, Twilight would have guessed that she'd be above such humor. Evidently, she was wrong. “And do you want to 'buck Fluttershy to the moon?'” she asked in a less neutral voice.
“Maybe. I dunno.” Applejack lay on the floor, folding her hind legs beneath her and her forelegs in front of her, resting her chin on the latter. Twilight had always regarded Applejack as one of the strongest ponies she'd ever known, as tough emotionally as she was powerful physically. Seeing her here, baring her soul in so vulnerable a position, was difficult to watch. She suddenly felt guilty for having the slightest amount of annoyance with her troubled friend.
“I mean, I've known the gal a long while,” Applejack continued. “We've always been sorta close, 'specially now, after everything we've all gone through t'gether. I figger somethin' like this ain't enough t'wreck years an' years of friendship, right? So I can't really bring myself t'hate 'er. But then I think about Applebloom, all alone an' scared wherever she is, an' I can't bring myself to forgive her neither.”
Applejack brushed an idle hoof against the wooden floor of the library. “Brought 'er a thermos of Apple Family-style coffee this mornin', told 'er I needed all the help I could get. Put on my very best face, smiled at 'er, treated the gal like my bestest friend in all th'world. An' you know what?” Applejack thumped her hoof lightly against the floorboards. “It felt all wrong. Unnatural. 'Cuz it weren't all true. I wanna forgive 'er, Twi, but I can't. An' at the same time, I wanna hate Fluttershy as if she killed Applebloom with her own hooves, an' I can't do that neither.” She buried her face in her hooves and groaned. “Dang, but I'm messed up in the noggin right now.”
“What about yourself?” Twilight asked softly. “Can you forgive yourself?
Applejack said nothing to that.
“Do you hate yourself?” Twilight pressed.
The bearer of honesty made no reply to that either. Twilight trotted beside her and rested a comforting hoof upon her shoulder. “If it were yer flesh n'blood, Twi,” said Applejack at length, “or, shoot, not even. If it were Spike, not Applebloom, in this situation right now, wouldn't you lay it on yerself? Wouldn't you have trouble forgivin' yerself over it?” She looked into Twilight's face, blinking rapidly over red eyes. “Wouldn't you hate yerself too?”
Twilight thought about Spike's close encounter with the hungry dragon. It hadn't been so long ago that she'd been in a blind panic over someone she loved dearly. “If it were me...” She didn't see any reason to talk about Spike's personal business (“Losing a friend's trust is the fastest way to lose a friend!” Pinkie Pie warned her in her head), but she felt that she could convey her sympathies while remaining comfortably vague. “If it were Spike who were attacked by a cockatrice, then - ”
“Hold on now.” Applejack's features hardened the moment Twilight said “cockatrice.” She brushed her friend's hoof off of her shoulder and stood. “Now, I don't recall tellin' you what Applebloom got attacked by.”
Twilight's bloodstream entered an ice age and her heart froze into a glacier. “Um... I... ” Her mind reeled. The little librarian in her head dug through every cliché, excuse and iota of knowledge she had, struggling to drudge up something that would satisfy Applejack. “I was doing some reading earlier about fauna in the Everfree Forest - ”
“Don't recall sayin' where she went neither!” snapped Applejack accusingly.
“Celestia buck me to the moon and let me play among the stars!”screamed Twilight's little librarian.
“Lee's ghost, Twilight!” Applejack shoved her snarling face uncomfortably far into Twilight's personal space. “You knew about this!”
“Applejack,” said Twilight hastily, “if I could just have a moment to explain - ”
“Yer gonna have to forgive me Twilight - Element of Honesty and all,” said Applejack sarcastically, wearing a false smile, “but it's a li'l hard for me to accept that so many of my friends would keep secrets from me, 'specially important secrets about my family that I got a right to know!” She whirled away from Twilight, who recoiled reflexively. Thankfully, Applejack was sane enough to not confuse Twilight's head with an apple tree in the heat of the moment (a defense which she'd learned, from a study of Appleoosian frontier law, could hold up in court), and she merely paced irritably to and fro.
“Everypony and their granny knows 'bout this but me! Of all the - I expected more from my - you and everypony else who - ” She whirled back to Twilight, stamping her hooves against the floor. “Dangit, Twi, she's my only sister! Does Rarity know too, or didja decide to leave us both in the dark f'r fun?! 'Hey, I got a doozy of an idea! Let's not tell Rarity or Applejack that their sisters nearly became lunch meat f'r a motherbucking cockatrice!'”
Amid Applejack's shouting, Twilight achieved a serenity that she didn't know she had. Her voice held a steady, even cadence, despite the furor in the Earth Pony's voice. She half-jokingly wondered if she was subconsciously certain that she was about to die, and if she'd simply accepted the inevitability. “I don't know if Rarity knows. But I imagine if she did, then she and Fluttershy wouldn't still be taking their weekly trips to the spa. It's not a grand conspiracy, Applejack; the only reason I know is because I was there!”
That caught Applejack's interest. She regarded Twilight with suspicion, but not with equicidal rage, to Twilight's relief. “Wanna tell me what'cha mean, sugarcube?” she asked, heaping acid onto the last word.
Twilight did tell her what she meant. She recounted her afternoon trot to Zecora's hut. She explained how she'd stopped to gather a particularly interesting specimen of clover off the beaten path. She expounded upon how she'd been attacked by the Cockatrice, and how the next thing she knew, she was facing a very relieved Fluttershy and three quivering fillies.
“She saved my life,” Twilight finished. Her friend still looked at her suspiciously, but her relaxed muscles and even posture told the unicorn that the fire had mostly gone out. Twilight decided not to relax, figuring that adrenaline was the only thing still keeping her going. “I decided that I wouldn't tell anypony what happened before Fluttershy did, because I didn't think it'd be right to go behind her back when she'd done that for me. I don't blame you for being mad at me, Applejack, but at least try and understand my side of it. And hers. Look at yourself right now, and think about Fluttershy. Can't you think of a reason why she'd want to keep what happened to herself?”
“You sayin' she didn't tell me 'cuz she was afraid of me?” Applejack scrunched her nose in confusion.
“Not afraid of you,” Twilight corrected. “But maybe of how you'd react. Looking at everything that's happened since last night, I'd say she had good reason to be.”
Applejack's eyes trailed away from Twilight's and down to the floor. She chewed her lip thoughtfully, her expression shifting from suspicion, to depression, to resignation. Twilight felt a weight in her stomach. Worry for Applebloom blended with empathy for Applejack. She feared for her friend and for the cheerful yellow filly with the ribbon in her hair, but part of her - and she couldn't tell if it was a selfish or a noble part of her - feared, above all, for the future of their friendship. If something happened to Applebloom, would things ever be the same between Fluttershy and Applejack? Or between Applejack and herself? Something like this could forever drive a wedge between the six of them, ruin the friendship that she'd grown so reliant upon. It could do to them what the banishment of Luna did to Princess Celestia. The loss of their friendship could rob the Elements of Harmony of their power once again.
“I'm sorry about Applebloom,” said Twilight. "I truly am. But if we're going to find her, then we can't be so preoccupied with whose fault it is and why. You gotta forgive Fluttershy, Applejack. But more than that, you need to forgive yourself.”
Applejack shut her eyes slowly, chewing her lip. Tears pooled between her eyelids and slid down her cheeks. “My sister told me she wished I was dead, Twi,” she said with a quiet sob. “That I was dead an' our parents weren't. An' if I don't find her, then those'll be the last words she ever said t'me.”
Unsure of how to react, whether pity would be welcome or met with more anger, Twilight simply stood as a silent witness to her grief.
“HellOOOOOOOOOO!” sang a sing-songy voice. “Anypony hooooooome?” Pinkie Pie poked her head through the still-open front door and smiled widely at Applejack and Twilight Sparkle. The former sniffed, exhaled and drew her hat's brim as far down over her eyes as she could. Then she craned her head around and smiled weakly.
“Pinkie?” asked Twilight. “Where are the others?”
“Waiting in the town square for you two!” Pinkie Pie hopped in place lightly on the tips of her hooves. “Rainbow Dash got bored with that fast, though, so she went looking in the air. I don't know what she's gonna find there though.” Pinkie shrugged. “Comin'?”
Applejack looked back at Twilight, her expression uncertain. “I don't know, Twi. Are we?”
“We are,” said Twilight with a smile and a gentle nod. “Always, no matter what.”
Applejack shut her eyes again and exhaled. When she opened them, they were still red and puffy, but her genuine smile belied her change in attitude. “I'm sorry,” she said, in a hushed voice that only she and Twilight would hear. “Guess I'mma be sayin' that a lot today.”
Twilight looped her hoof around Applejack's neck and pulled her in for a quick hug. Then the hug grew tighter as a third participant wrapped around the two of them, squeezing them against her chest tightly. “Oh, what the heck?” Pinkie giggled. “Everypony loves a good group hug!” She squeezed them together one last time before releasing them, and bounced out the door.
Applejack smiled gratefully at Twilight one last time before following Pinkie. Twilight started to follow...
“Hey, Twi? You got a second?”
...and slowed to a stop immediately after. Spike peeked at the retreating ponies from the loft. “Go on ahead,” said Twilight to Applejack. “I'll follow in a minute.”
Once they were alone, Twilight turned her attention to Spike. “Couldn't sleep?” she asked as he climbed down the stairs toward her.
“You kidding?” Spike said. “The way Applejack was yelling? No way anypony could sleep through that.” He sighed, holding his tail in his hands and twiddling it nervously. “Poor Applebloom, huh? Wonder where she is.”
“Yeah. All the more reason to find her quickly, right?” Her gaze drifted to where Applejack had knocked her hoof against the floor, and at the scuff marks she'd created. “Yeesh. Anyway, what was it that you wanted to say?”
“I wanted to thank you,” said Spike. He kept his eyes on the tip of his tail. “For not telling Applejack about what happened with me and that dragon.” He shuddered. “It wasn't my finest moment.”
“Hey,” said Twilight, nudging his shoulder with a playful hoof. “I wouldn't blab about your personal life for all the books in Equestria.” She glanced about the library shelves and winced. “Hey, speaking of, could you reorganize the books while I'm gone? Cheerilee brought her class in the other day, and they always make a mess of the stacks - ”
“Actually,” Spike interrupted. He wrung his tail a little tighter. “Actually, I was hoping to go with you.”
Twilight's jaw dropped. She shook her head and shut it again. “Really?” she asked. “Any reason why? Or are you just looking to get out of your chores?”
“Hey, what are you implying? I got reasons,” Spike said defensively. “I wasn't much help the last time Applebloom went missing, and I wanna make up for it. Besides...” He looked past Twilight, at where Applejack had stood mere minutes ago. “I've never seen her like that, Twi. I'd do anything to get the old AJ back.”
Twilight thought about the red-eyed, broken mare, who'd scuffed up her floorboards and snarled in her face. The mare who'd cried aloud where nopony but she could see, who was so unlike the bright eyed and easy laughing Applejack as to be almost frightening. “You and me both, Spike.” She sighed and lowered her head to the ground. “Climb aboard. Maybe you'll spot something the rest of us won't.”
His spirits brightened, Spike crawled up Twilight's neck, settling on her back. “Hey Twilight?” Spike asked as the door swung open in front of them, encased in a translucent purple aura.
“You never got to answer Applejack's question,” he said. “What if it were me out there, and not Applebloom?”
When Spike ran away, she and Owlowicious had found him just in time to save him from being devoured by a dragon. Had they been a few moments later, or had they not been able to pick up his trail at all... Twilight pushed the thought from her mind. “That won't ever be a problem, Spike,” she said.
“Really? You promise?”
“Of course, Spike.” She blinked, and in the moment of darkness, saw Spike's scattered bones amid a dragon's hoard. “I promise.”
My host was gracious enough to answer my every question, in exchange for the story behind my being there in the first place. So I offered her a very condensed version of the events surrounding the Pegasus Wings incident. Concepts like nuclear deterrence and military privatization would no doubt have flown over her head, so I gave her the gist of it and braced myself for questions. She had none, thankfully, so I took point instead. First and foremost, I asked where I was; she told me I was in the Everfree Forest, located on the fringes of the kingdom of Equestria. Appropriate name for the country to have.
The forest was some taboo location that few dared to venture into. I thought about the manticore and decided that these ponies had the right idea steering clear of the place. “To a pony, there is nothing more deadly than a manticore's sting,” said Zecora thoughtfully while gathering ingredients from the shelves in the hut. “Yet to you, it seems a trifling thing,”
I eyed the darkening red stains on her floor and wondered what her definition of “trifling” was. Guess I got off easy. How bad would it have been for a pony, though? “I'm of hardy stock,” I said. Immediately after, I coughed, and my mouth filled with the metallic taste of blood. I swallowed it and chased it down with another swig of Zecora's antivenom. The taste made me cringe on every swig; couldn't she just have injected it into me? Still, complaining out loud about the substance that saved my life would be a little classless, so I bit my tongue and held my nose whenever she wasn't looking. Didn't want to offend her, after all.
Zecora noticed anyway. She just smiled.
So what was she doing living in the forest, if it was such a deathtrap? Apparently, she liked her space. I got the feeling that there was more to it than that (what kind of insane loner would isolate herself in a forest filled with deadly supernatural beasts?) but she was evasive whenever I pressed her for more information.
“Alright, fine,” I grumbled after my third try. I sipped from the jar again. The stuff tasted like shit, but I was feeling much better. Not perfect, but not quite gagging on my own blood, like before. That was a step up. Zecora clearly knew her craft. “So what about her then?” I nodded at the yellow filly, Applebloom, who sat at the far side of the circular room, watching me and pretending that she wasn't. “Don't tell me she lives here too.”
“She lives in town, down the road away,” said Zecora. “Why she is here, she will not say.” Applebloom flushed and shuffled her hooves, staring silently at them. Was secret-keeping the national sport of Equestria? These things were damn good at it.
I asked her how she found Applebloom and I. “I was taking a late night stroll, you see, gathering herbs for herbal tea.”
Who takes a stroll that late at night? Either she was lying, or an insomniac. Or both. “During my walk, I heard a roar, and ran to find Applebloom at the mercy of the manticore.”
Her rhymes lacked consistent rhythm. I don't know why, but that just bothered me.
“By my honor, I would have intervened,” she swore, “but you had things under control, it seemed. When at last you bested the beast in the fight, I dared to see if you were alright.” She paused. “You were not.”
“Guess the tranquilizers did their job after all,” I muttered to myself. “Knocked it out before it had a chance to eat me.” The hand not clutching the jar of anti-venom reached for my hip holster to pat the Beretta appreciatively. It wasn't there. My breath hitched, and I quickly patted myself down in search of my one and only weapon, until Zecora cleared her throat to get my attention and gestured with her nose to where it lay on the nightstand.
“You have no idea how important it is that you saved that thing,” I told her. “So maybe you hadn't noticed, but I'm a lot bigger than you. Heavy, too. How'd you manage to get me from that clearing all the way back here?”
Zecora and Applebloom sighed the same tremendously exhausted sigh. The zebra's body sagged, and she smiled tiredly at me. That was all the explanation I needed.
I asked her if she'd seen anybody else like me, any other humans. Ponies being the dominant race here, and all, the likelihood of humans being indigenous to Equestria seemed slim. Unless this was some weird Planet of the Apes scenario. But that, too, seemed unlikely.
Turns out, she had. I had some conflicting feelings about that. On the one hand, I was relieved that I hadn't gone through that portal for nothing. On the other, there was an army of mercenaries with a Metal Gear REX knock-off hiding somewhere in Equestria. In some ways, a pointless journey based on a mistaken impression is the preferable alternative there.
“They appeared about a month or so past," Zecora explained. "Their forest forays grew bold, too fast. I would have gone to town and raised the alarm, but I feared that they could have done me much harm.”
I didn't know what to make of the zebra who'd saved my life. She was virtuous enough to nurse me back to health, but too cowardly to risk life or limb under serious circumstances. And she wasn't keen on telling me everything. I could almost respect that, let it go, but she was endangering countless lives through silence and inaction. From that point on, a lot of things happened at once, and it makes me wonder how much of the blame rests on Zecora's shoulders. I withhold complete judgment, though. Something tells me I won't ever have a full picture of who she was.
“You're right to be afraid,” I said as she busied herself over a bubbling cauldron in the center of the room. “But those patrols are far from the scariest things they're capable of unleashing. The army hiding in this forest possesses what could be considered the deadliest weapon ever devised.”
“And you are here to stop them, yes? Before they can turn this world to a mess?”
I shrugged. Most of my muscles were still sore, and the ones that weren't were numb, but I was regaining feeling fairly quickly. Reclaiming my ability to shrug properly was a small victory to me. “It's my duty.”
“But you said so yourself, my bedridden friend. That weapon could bring you to a nasty end.” Zecora fished out a ladle and dipped it into the cauldron, then carefully poured a scoop into into a bowl that she offered to Applebloom.
“Someone has to do it. It may as well be me.” Zecora offered me a bowl of the same soup. It smelled decent - better than the anti-venom, at any rate, and the rankness of the drug's aftertaste was the stuff of legends - so I accepted it gratefully, sitting up on the bed and crossing my legs. “Besides, I'm the only one around here with a history in this sort of thing. I think.” I sipped the soup. It tasted like boiled weeds with a hint of onion, which made it about twenty percent more palatable than the antivenom. “I am, aren't I?”
“To my knowledge, yes you are,” said Zecora with a smirk. “But alone, without help, you won't get far.”
“I don't need help.” That was a lie. If no one else, I needed Otacon. “Fighting nuclear-equipped terrorists is just another day at the office for me.”
“That wasn't what I meant to say. I mean that you do not know the way.” She poured herself some soup and lay beside the cauldron to sip from it carefully. “Nor do I, before you ask; I cannot help you with your task. I can tell you where they're striking from, but not how to get there, by what way to come.”
The most impressive thing about Zecora, besides her life-saving apothecary skill, was her commitment to her rhyme scheme. “You're saying that I need a guide.”
Zecora took a drink from her soup and nodded. Her eyes were closed as she relished the bitter taste of the broth. I took another sip myself and wondered how she could drink the stuff day in and day out and not be driven to suicide just to escape from the monotony. Applebloom's nose scrunched as she held her face over her bowl. The steam curling around her head dampened her coat and mane. As far as I could tell, she hadn't touched it yet. Kids are picky eaters.
“In a castle in this forest, far from here. A legend surrounds it, fostering great fear. The outsiders camp within its wall, hidden by the fable's pall. Few ponies know how to reach that cursed place, but there are six in Ponyville who can take you to the outsider's base.”
“Ponyville, huh?” Saying the name out loud nearly had me giggling like a madman again. “I passed through a town on my way here. Was that it?” Zecora nodded at me with a mouthful of soup. “Great. Backtracking. My number one passtime.” I drained my soup in one gulp and instantly regretted it, shuddering as the bitter mixture slid down my throat, burning all the way to my stomach. “How do I convince them to help me?” I asked. My scorched throat made my voice a little rougher than usual.
Zecora glanced at Applebloom and wiggled her eyebrows. “This one wandered away from the fold. Return her to them, and they'll be sold.”
“What?” Applebloom looked up from the soup that she was contemplating and stared at Zecora. “Whus goin' on now?”
“Bring them back their little lost filly? Sounds doable.” I brushed my gloved hand over the rough stubble on my chin, stroking it thoughtfully.
“Hey!” Applebloom jumped to her hooves. “Hey, don't I get a say in this?”
“No,” I said. “Eat your soup.”
“I don't gotta listen t'you!” said Applebloom defensively. “'N besides... s'gone cold.”
“What were you expecting?” I asked. “You've done nothing but stare at it.”
Applebloom glared at me like she wanted to dump her soup out on my head, but made no further argument.
I'm no good with kids.
Zecora sighed and smiled tiredly at me again. She trotted to Applebloom's side and bumped the filly's forehead with her nose. “You are dear to me, my Applebloom, which is why you should be far from this doom. Return to your home with our friend Snake, before this forest your life does take.”
She could butcher syntax for the sake of a rhyme, but she couldn't bother showing me the way to the fucking castle in the middle of the evil forest. Zecora was a creature of contradictions.
Applebloom sank back to her belly and buried her face in her folded arms (legs? Hooves?), mumbling inaudibly to herself. Zecora nuzzled her again, then looked at me expectantly.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, I was flying blind. I was a lone operative in an unknown land populated by the least probable civilization that anybody could imagine, cut off from all support, completely at a loss as to where I was or what direction I was going. My only lead was a phantom gunshot that I was starting to think I'd imagined, and my most meaningful conversation was with a phantom that may well have been a fever dream. Now I found myself pleasantly strategizing with a talking zebra and sipping soup that made me pine for the richness and flavor of a battlefield MRE.
This was a weird, weird mission. But someone had to get it done. And it wasn't like I had any better ideas. “Fine,” I said. “I'll play babysitter for a little while. Just, uh, just answer me one last question.”
“Anything and everything, my newest friend.” said Zecora. “Tell me, how can I bring your curiosity to an end?”
Friend. That was the second time she'd used that word to describe me. Were we friends now? I owed her my life. Experience taught me that that was a solid enough foundation for a friendship. “Just wondering...what's with the rhyming?”
“'Rhyming?'” Zecora tilted her head at me, perplexed.
“You speak in rhyme,” I said. “C'mon, don't pretend not to notice.”
“I... do not understand your question,” said Zecora. “You are suggesting that I rhyme in succession?”
She was messing with me. Had to be. There was no way she could be doing this unconsciously. We stared at each other silently for a little while, neither comprehending the other.
Finally, Applebloom broke the silence with laughter. She giggled softly at first, into her hooves, so gently and muffled that I thought she was crying. But then she lifted her face, and I saw her grinning. She looked at Zecora, Zecora looked back, and soon they were both laughing, either at some unspoken joke, or at me.
I just groaned, lay back on the bed, and turned away from them. “Everyone in this world is insane but me,” I muttered to myself. Somehow, they heard me over their own laughter, and that, of course, only made them laugh even harder.
Zecora mentioned six ponies who could act as guides. I hoped to high heaven that they were saner than she was. As I would later find out, that would be just one of the many disappointments I had in store over the next couple of days.
“My goodness gracious, it's finally happened!” groaned Rarity as Twilight, Spike, Pinkie Pie and Applejack approached. Fluttershy hovered beside Rarity, her wings beating gently and her face pensive. “You've cooped yourself up in that library for so long that you've utterly forgotten basic personal grooming!”
The unkempt Twilight looked sidelong at Applejack, who offered her a narrow-eyed smirk and a wink. Spike nudged Pinkie Pie with his elbow, and the pony giggled quietly. “Actually, Rarity - ” began Twilight, but Rarity would have none of it, zooming to the unicorn's side.
“Oh, but if we only had more time,” fussed Rarity as she inspected Twilight's unkempt bedmane. “Poor Applebloom must take precedence, I suppose. Still, this is at least a close second. Here.” Her horn glowed a pale blue and an aura surrounded Twilight's mane, smoothing it into a presentable approximation of her usual hairstyle. “Now, I haven't checked,” continued Rarity, “but I assume that you've neglected your shampoo cycle as well? Lather, rinse, repeat until it shimmers?”
“I don't - "
“Ah! I feared as much. Well, no matter, my dearest friend.” She cheerfully wrapped an arm around Twilight, waving the other in an arc for dramatic effect. “Once this is all over and dealt with, you and I shall enjoy an afternoon at the spa!” She looked excitedly to the unfocused and contemplative Fluttershy. “We have room for one more, do we not?”
“What?” Fluttershy started a bit, glancing quickly between Twilight and Rarity. “Oh! Um, of course! You're always more than welcome Twilight. I-in fact, you all are!” She forced a broad smile, but the strain in her cheeks was evident.
“But they never accept, do they, Fluttershy? Tsk tsk tsk.” Rarity shook her head, sighed, and sauntered ahead of the group. “Well, we'll just put that on our little 'to-do-list,' won't we?”
Twilight scowled. “Go one morning without brushing your mane, and suddenly it's time for an intervention.”
“I don't know Twi,” said Spike. He plucked a hair from Twilight's mane, drawing a startled “ouch” from the unicorn, and made a show of examining it closely. “I think Rarity's on to something. Have you seen these split ends?” Twilight bucked him off of her back and turned her scowl on him. Spike gulped and let the hair fall. “Just sayin' she's got a point, that's all,” he said, standing up and dusting himself off.
“Of course she does,” said Twilight. “And the fact that it was Rarity who said so has nothing at all to do with the matter, does it?” She smiled slyly at him.
Spike blushed. “D-don't go changing the subject now!” he stammered. “Hey, c'mon Twi; Applebloom's not getting any founded-er with us standing around like this. Get with the program!” His face now an interesting combination of purple and pink, Spike hurried ahead, a chuckling Twilight Sparkle in tow. Fluttershy looked to Applejack and Pinkie Pie, shrugged, and flapped tiredly after them.
In spite of her dour mood, Applejack couldn't help but smile and shake her head. “Tell you what, Pinkie,” she said, “I'm ever in a sour spot again, jus' remind me to look up Spike 'n Twi. Those two oughta go on tour.”
“I'd pay hoof over fist to see them on stage!” agreed Pinkie. “Not that I can make a fist anyway. Not that I'd even want to. Fists hurt, Applejack.” She nodded soberly.
“I reckon they do, Pinkie,” murmured Applejack.
“Aww. Don't be so glum, chum!” sang Pinkie, nuzzling Applejack's neck affectionately. “We'll find Applebloom before you can say 'Aeiou!' You'll see.” And off she went, whistling a song about giggling at ghosts, keeping her hoofsteps in time with the beat.
How's that song go again? Applejack found herself wondering. Somethin' like...”You gotta face your fears, learn to stand up tall...just laugh an' make 'em disappear.” She frowned. “Think I might be forgettin' somethin'.”
Well ahead, Applejack saw Pinkie catching up to the others, who came to a halt as a rainbow-tipped blur swooped gracefully in for a landing. Applejack frantically ran to catch up with her friends as Rainbow Dash completed her descent. She came within earshot just in time to hear Fluttershy ask “Did you find anything?”
Eyes closed, Rainbow Dash shook her head. “I scouted the entire town from the sky, even did a flyover of the surrounding area.” She looked apologetically at Applejack. “I wish I could have done more.”
“Ain't nothin' to be sorry for, Rainbow,” said Applejack. “Y'all did yer part, an' I trust your eyes more'n anypony else's. You say she ain't in Ponyville, she ain't in Ponyville.”
“Wherever she is, she didn't seek out her friends,” said Rarity. “I've thoroughly interrogated Sweetie Belle as to her whereabouts, and she swears up and down that she hasn't seen Applebloom at all.”
“Scootaloo too,” said Fluttershy. “I visited her just before I picked up Rarity.” She fluttered to the ground and folded her wings. “How strange. Why wouldn't she want her friends to know where she was going?”
“Didn't want them to talk her out of it, maybe?” Rainbow Dash suggested. “What if she had some crazy idea up her sleeve?”
“More like 'didn't want them to follow her,'” corrected Spike. “Crazy ideas are the Cutie Mark Crusaders' forté. And those three stick together like glue.”
“So you think she had an idea and wanted to do it alone, without help,” said Applejack. “But why?”
“To prove a point,” said Rainbow Dash, as if it were obvious. “I mean, that's usually the reason whenever I do something crazy. Somepony says 'Rainbow Dash, you can't break the sound barrier,' I say...” She inhaled deeply, then shouted at the top of her lungs, “'Sorry, can't hear you! This Sonic Rainboom's really loud!'”
Rainbow Dash glanced at each of her wide-eyed, ruffled friends. “Too much volume?” she asked sheepishly.
An uncomfortably silent moment passed.
“Think she was tryin' to stick it to somepony, huh?” asked Applejack at last. She chewed her lip and cast her eyes to the ground, fighting an uphill battle to keep her tears from welling. “Can't imagine who coulda done somethin' t'deserve it.”
Twilight saw the look on Applejack's face and quickly intervened. “Who says she's trying to prove something to somepony? She could be trying to prove something to herself.”
Applejack smiled at Twilight in a grateful, melancholy look. “Guess that could be the case. Don't much matter why she's doin' it though, jus' that she is. If her crazy stunt gets her killed, ain't nopony gonna care why.” Cept me, she added silently.
The group moved in unison, trotting as one body to the outskirts of town. “Whatever she's put her mind to, she's not doing it in Ponyville,” said Twilight. “That's obvious enough. So think, girls; where could she be right now?”
“Lessee,” said Rainbow Dash, tapping a hoof against her skull as she thought. “Well, she can't be in Cloudsdale.”
“Very astute,” Rarity complimented, shooting Dash a playful smirk.
Rainbow Dash frowned at her. “Lemme finish. What I'm trying to say is that she can't fly.”
“I know,” said Rarity. “And I think that's very, very astute of you.”
Rainbow Dash flushed beneath her cyan coat, her chagrin exacerbated by the giggling of Twilight, Spike and Pinkie Pie. Rarity batted her eyelashes at the flier.
“She's on hoof, okay?” sighed Rainbow Dash. “So her range isn't exactly very broad.”
“And she's only had a few hours to take advantage of,” added Fluttershy. “And a growing filly has to sleep, so she couldn't have used all of this time to walk.”
“Then she can't have gotten far,” said Rarity. “Off the tops of our heads, girls - ”
Spike cleared his throat.
“Oh, Spike,” said Rarity sweetly, “you're one of the girls and you know it.” Spike fumed and crossed his arms. “Where in the immediate area could she have gotten to by now?” she finished.
“Nowhere around here, I hope,” said Pinkie Pie. “There's nothing but spooky, scary places. Froggy Bottom Bog, the Everfree Forest.” She frowned pensively. “Ponyville sure does have a lot of deathtraps surrounding it. I can't believe we've never noticed that before! We really need to put up a sign or something. 'Welcome to Ponyville; Expect Death at Every Turn!”
“We're supposed to increase tourism, Pinkie,” Twilight said gently, “not drive it away. So, pick a compass direction, any one, and odds are you'll find a place that's infested with flesh-eating monsters. Any one of them would be a perfect spot for a stroll by a filly with a chip on her shoulder.”
“The question is, which one?” asked Rainbow Dash. “It's a lot of ground for us to cover. We need a place to start looking.”
“The Everfree Forest,” said Pinkie confidently. “If there's a spookier, scarier death trap in Equestria, I've never heard of it.”
“And it would make sense,” said Fluttershy. “If she were looking for something to prove, that is.” Applejack glanced over her shoulder at the shuffling Pegasus, but she looked away pointedly. “I-I mean... the last time she went in there... ”
“That is how this whole mess got itself started, innit?” asked Applejack, malice absent from her voice. Ahead of her, Rarity pursed her lips tightly. “But don't that mean she'd be less likely to go in there? Keepin' in mind what happened last time. Jus' seems to me like she'd wanna avoid it even more. Even if she's crazy in the coconut.”
“Well,” said Pinkie Pie. She trotted ahead of the group, holding her nose high in an astute manner. “'If you eliminate the impossible,' and we have - she isn't in Ponyville, she couldn't have gotten very far, and she's definitely not in Cloudsdale because she can't fly,” here she turned and winked at Rainbow Dash. “Thanks for pointing that out, Dashie.” On she went. “Anyway, 'whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth!'” She kept trotting ahead of the group a moment longer, before the hoofbeats behind her became conspicuous in their absence. Pinkie turned to see her friends standing stock still, their mouths agape. “What? Do I have something on my face?” She gasped. “It isn't bats, is it?!”
“No, not at all,” said Twilight, the first to close her mouth. “Just that... did you just quote Sherclop Pones?”
Pinkie Pie giggled a snorty giggle. “Oh Twilight. You think I never do any reading in that library of yours?”
“Very astute,” said Rarity. Her voice wasn't sarcastic this time. “So the Everfree Forest it is, then? My, with how often we venture in there, it's a wonder that anypony still considers it taboo.”
“Manticores, cockatrices, dragons, ursas both Major and Minor - all of them call that forest home,” said Twilight. “Forgetting that could be a death sentence.”
“Doubt she forgot. Applebloom knows dang well what's in Everfree.” Applejack's teeth set. “Supposin' she went in, then that's prob'ly why.”
Rarity cleared her throat loudly. It was a crass gesture that she was somehow able to make sound graceful. “Not to be a broken record, but... the Everfree Forest it is, then?”
Seven heads and six ponies turned their attention to the forest's foreboding maw; by unlikely coincidence, they had arrived at its entrance without realizing. “If she isn't in there, I'll eat Applejack's hat,” said Pinkie confidently. “Uh, if it's okay with her, of course.”
“If she is in there,” growled Applejack, “I may jus' stuff it down her throat m'self for puttin' us through this.”
My legs were stiff and my feet achy, and I felt about as limber as a cadaver, but I could stand and walk without falling over myself, so I marked it as time to hit the road. Applebloom chewed her lip nervously as I broke the news to her. Zecora seemed almost relieved.
She saw Applebloom and I to the door, offering some parting wisdom. “The path is worn and faded to the eye, but follow it carefully and you will soon see the sky.”
“I think I can keep my bearings well enough,” I said. “And I've got a decent enough guide, I figure.” I nudged Applebloom with my toe, and she glared at me. “How often do you navigate this thing, kid?”
“Hmph.” She turned her nose up at me and refused to look back, trotting ahead of me on the path.
“Something I said?” I asked, turning to Zecora. She clucked her tongue and gave me a sympathetic look. “I'm no good with kids,” I sighed, running a hand through my hair.
“An acquired skill, my friend. One you will gain before your end.”
“You say that with an awful amount of certainty,” I grumbled. “But you saved my life. I guess you deserve the benefit of the doubt for that.” I paused, unsure of how to properly express my gratitude. “I'm not very good at this, Zecora. Typically, people thank me for rescuing them, not the other way around.”
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” said Zecora, dismissing my gratitude with a wave of her hoof. “Keep that in mind, and consider it well. You'll need to remember it, I'm sure that time will tell.”
“I've worked on my own for most of my life,” I said to the zebra. “I'm grateful, don't get me wrong. But I know how to watch my own back on the battlefield.”
“From time to time, we all need a helping hoof,” Zecora insisted. “As a snake not created by nature, your existence is proof.”
A snake not created by nature. I heard the echoing caws of ravens as I remembered the last man who used those words to describe me. It wasn't a pleasant memory. I took a step toward Zecora, my eyes narrowing. “How the hell do you...?”
“Hey! Slowpoke!” Applebloom shouted from down the road. “You waitin' f'r me t'get gobbled up again or somethin'?!”
I stared intensely at Zecora, willing the zebra hermit to explain herself. All she did was smile blandly, keeping another secret to herself. She nudged me forward with her nose and backed into her open door, shutting it in my face.
I was a little too shocked to move from that spot. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to break down Zecora's door and demand an explanation.
“Snaaaaake!” called Applebloom in a sing-song voice. “I'm startin' to grow moss here!”
But, damn the luck, I had a world to save and a baby to sit. Zecora and her mysteries would have to wait for another time. Giving her door one last, lingering look, I turned my back on it and met Applebloom on the path. If I were a paranoid man, I would have sworn that I could feel Zecora's eyes on me every step of the way.
At night, the Everfree Forest was a grim and depressing place, where every step was met with trepidation and every moment that passed weighed tensely on my shoulders. I'd hoped that it'd be more cheerful during the daytime. It wasn't; if anything, somehow, it seemed darker. No idea how that would even work. Equestrian physics. Go figure.
Applebloom was quiet for most of the way. Her attention seemed elsewhere the entire time that we walked, her focus on some thought that lingered in her mind. Zecora was right about the path being faded and illegible. With that to worry about, along with my guide's lack of focus, I began to wonder if we were going nowhere in a hurry. So I voiced my concern. “You sure you know where we're going?”
“Whussa matter?” asked Applebloom. “Think I'm getting' us lost?”
“I didn't say that.” I totally did. “You just seem distracted, that's all. Should I be concerned?”
“That's no business of yours,” Applebloom said shortly. “I know where I'm goin'. Jus' trust me for once.”
“'For once?' You sure you don't have me confused with someone else?” I asked.
“No business of yours,” repeated Applebloom, her voice noticeably more acidic. And just like that, the discussion was over for the time being. We walked without a word passing between the two of us for a time. Only the constant pitter-patter of footsteps (with what sounded like more beats than Applebloom and I could make by ourselves) and the distant chirping of birds disturbed the silence.
After a little bit of time had passed, I decided to engage her again. “Zecora said you wouldn't tell her why you were out here. Any chance you'll tell me?”
“That's - ”
“'No business of mine,' right?” I supplied. “The thing is, it became my business the moment I saved your hide from that beast. You gonna tell me why I had to stick my neck out for you in the first place?”
“Why?” asked Applebloom. She came to a stop to glare at me, her brow furrowed and her face pulled into a frown. I had never thought that a pony's face could convey the kind of malice she beamed at me. “You havin' regrets?”
“Not what I meant,” I reassured the filly, craning my neck down to meet her testy glare. “Just curious, is all. I'd like to know what I got pumped full of venom over.” I gestured to the foliage on either side and nodded at the dense, green canopy overhead. “Besides, you can't fault me for curiosity. If you don't mind my saying so, you look a little out of place in this forest.”
“What, like you don't?” she retorted. Had to admit, the girl had a point. I was as much a fish out of water in Equestria as she'd have been in a radioactive wasteland.
“The difference is that I've explained why I'm here,” I said calmly. Years of living on the battlefield has given me a deep reserve of patience, the kind that pays off when you're playing predator, or when a little girl keeps shoving overcooked eggs in your face and you're not allowed to hurt her feelings. I had to draw from that particular well to weather Applebloom's irritability. Of course, when it comes to pissy children, there's only so much I can take before I get testy. A little less calmly than before, I said to her “If you weren't listening when I told Zecora about it, then I'm not going to explain again. Your loss.”
I probably should have seen her reaction coming. She beat her hoof against the dirt and stuck her neck out in my direction, as far as it'd go. I could tell that she was trying to convey anger and frustration, but on a little talking filly, the effect was altogether disarming. I maintained a stern poker face though.
“Why you gotta talk t'me like that?” Applebloom demanded. “Like I'm some dumb little filly, can't follow nothin' worth a hill o'horseapples? I ran away so that I wouldn't hafta deal with this kinda thing no more, an' you're takin' me home so that I can get it again, and worst of all, I gotta deal with it from you while you're takin' me home!” Groaning tiredly, she resumed her march, and I, a little shocked by the contempt in her impressive run-on sentence, followed along after a spell.
“So you're a runaway, huh?” I asked, once the initial surprise wore off. “What, things at home not going your way?”
“I got this sister,” said Applebloom. She spoke quickly; her rant was rushed, but impassioned. “This back-talkin' buzzard of a mare, thinks she's better'n me. Like she knows best a'cuz she's bigger 'n older. But she don't.”
More feuding siblings, I thought. This is the very best mission ever.
“You wanna know how I met Zecora?” asked Applebloom. “Everypony thought she was some creepy ol' witch, an' ran an' hid anytime she came to town, 'cept f'r me. Applejack got all high and mighty 'bout it, but in the end, I was right, an' she was wrong. Figger she'da learn somethin' from that, but she didn't! Still treats me like a little filly!”
“You are a little filly,” I pointed out.
Applebloom fixed me in a death glare. “I know that. What I mean is, she still treats me like I'm weak an' helpless.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You were almost eaten alive.”
“Ugh! You asked, okay?! Jus' forget it!” Applebloom hung her head and squared her shoulders, turning her back to me again. I just grumbled and looked into the forest, staring at nothing in particular.
I'm no good with kids.
The numerous beats that I'd heard earlier came into sharper focus as the conversation between Applebloom and I died again. She had twice my number of legs, and thus made twice the noise I did while walking. I heard the pattern in her steps, the four-beat repetition with every step she took, and could differentiate it from my own. Behind us - fainter, barely audible, but unmistakeably there - were more patterns. I couldn't tell how many; they were too faint for that. Nor could I tell what it was that was following us.
I momentarily wondered if I should break the news to Applebloom, but quickly decided against it. My awareness was the one advantage that we had over our stalkers. Any change in our behavior could squander that advantage and tip our hand to the attacker. I could easily feign ignorance, but I doubted that she could. She telegraphed her thoughts with her body language and demeanor. Kids do that; they can't help it. So I chose to keep that knowledge to myself for the time being while I worked out a plan in my head.
Applebloom ruined any chance at my being able to concentrate by breaking the silence again. “You got any sisters?”
I was mildly annoyed at the disturbance, but figured that more conversation would play to my advantage and make us look more vulnerable. “No,” I replied. “No sisters. But I did have a brother. A twin.”
“'Had?'” Applebloom echoed. “What happened to 'im?”
“Have,” I corrected. Figured I'd have to get used to referring to Liquid in the present tense, after what happened atop Arsenal Gear the previous Spring.
“Don't sound like you're very close, iffin' you're talkin' 'bout yer brother like he ain't even alive,” Applebloom observed. I eyed her curiously. Awfully perceptive thing for a kid to say. Of course, I was grading on a steep curve. “He ain't nice to you?”
“You see?!” crowed Liquid as he ground my best friend's corpse underfoot. “You can't protect anyone, not even yourself! Die!”
“Not especially, no,” I said, and Applebloom murmured knowingly. “But you should understand, kid, that he and I, we were sort of a special case. An extreme.” I noted my use of the past tense, and quickly amended. “Are a special case.”
“What,” said Applebloom, turning her head to face me as we walked. “Like you're the only one with a siblin' what treats you like dirt? Don't even look at you like yer yer own pony?”
I cleared my throat and looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She rolled hers. “Or whatever.” From behind us, I heard what sounded like a muffled chuckle, followed by a distinct “shush”ing sound. Applebloom's eyes widened and she began to crane her neck to look behind us, but I stopped her by clearing my throat again, catching her attention. She looked at me and I shook my head infinitesimally. Applebloom caught my cue and kept her mouth shut. She turned her head back to the road, an expression of worry edging toward outright fear on her face.
“Nothing like that at all,” I continued, as though the interruption had never happened. I hadn't counted on the girl becoming aware that we were being followed, and didn't count on her being able to disguise it effectively, not with it at the front of her mind. I decided that keeping her distracted would help. Only way that I could figure to do that (without knocking her unconscious and carrying her, which was admittedly not outside the realm of possibility) was to continue pursuing the conversation. “Actually, he tried to kill me a whole bunch of times.”
Applebloom shot me a skeptical look that suited her better than her worried expression. She was distracted and I had her attention, so I kept talking. “Really, he did. Almost went through with it each time, too.”
“But he didn't,” said Applebloom matter-of-factly, and I started to rethink my praise for her perceptiveness. “How'd you get away?”
I shrugged. “I'm a little tougher than he is, kid.” But not by much, I thought. “So then, maybe I'm no expert in healthy sibling relationships. But in light of that circumstance, can you really tell me that the way your sister treats you is all that bad?”
She didn't answer me, looking back to the ground instead. “Why'd you really run away?” I pressed.
“...AJ found out I nearly got killed in the Everfree Forest an' yelled at me,” she mumbled at length.
Again, I raised an eyebrow. “And to show her up, you decided to get killed in the Everfree Forest?” For such a perceptive girl, she lacked forward thinking in the worst way.
“It made more sense last night,” Applebloom admitted. “Had a whole plan for what I was goin' t'do. I forgot it the second I ran into the manticore though. Still can't quite 'member what it was,” she added with a quiet chuckle. The passion and defensiveness from before was gone from her voice.
“Let me make a suggestion.” The beats were becoming individually discernible; two-step beats, several pairs of them. Something bipedal. Humans? Either they were drawing closer, or just not bothering to mask their presence effectively anymore. Whatever the case, it was clear that they were planning to spring their trap soon. “I'm no expert in healthy sibling relationships, and I never had a nagging big sister treating me like a child when I was your age. Maybe I can't relate so well.” I strained to maintain nonchalance as my body shifted into combat mode. The lingering aches from the manticore's venom faded, adrenaline suppressing the pain. “But an older sibling keeping a tight leash on a younger sibling? Telling her to stay out of the creepy, monster-filled forest? Sounds to me like she was just trying to keep you from getting yourself killed. Considering what happened last night, with the manticore, I'd call that good advice, and I'd even go so far as to say that you overreacted to it.”
I could see the tears gathering in her amber eyes as I imparted the most sagely wisdom that I could drum up under the circumstances. “I told my sister I wished she was dead,” Applebloom whispered with a sniffle. She said it to herself, not to me.
I really, really did not want to discuss this matter any further than I absolutely had to. Working out sibling feuds (without resorting to violence), as I'd learned not so long before, was, is, and will forever be well outside my area of expertise. Fortunately, I had an excuse to cut the conversation short. “We all say things we don't mean sometimes, kid.” Applebloom began to reply, but I immediately cut her off in a hushed voice. “This isn't one of them: When I say so, make a break for the trees on our right and stay there 'til I say to come out.”
Applebloom's eyes widened again as the imminence of the danger took center stage. She sucked in a quick, quavering breath and nodded shakily.
“Now!” I snapped. Applebloom was off, sprinting off the path as quick as her tiny legs would carry her. Immediately, I spun around, and in a single fluid motion, drew my M9, raised it to eye level and found a target, sizing him up in the instant before I pulled the trigger.
Human. Male. Clad in navy blue camo below the waist and black fatigues above. Midnight blue combat vest. Black helmet. The letters “PW” were stamped in the center of the vest. And there were three others, two flanking him on one side, a third on his other. All of them carried Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Pegasus Wings troops, I thought grimly. Zecora was telling the truth.
I fired. The dart struck the soldier dead-on in his Adam's Apple. As soon as the round left the barrel I hit the dirt, rolling for some tall grass off of the path, on the side opposite the one that Applebloom had gone to. Automatic fire tore up the ground around me, but I reached my cover unscathed and lay perfectly still, flattening myself against the ground.
“Kirshner?!” one of the soldiers said frantically. “Get up, you Kraut bastard! That's an order!”
“No good,” sighed another, his deep voice embellished by a rich Caribbean accent. “He's out cold.”
“Hell, that's two of our number gone” said the third soldier. His voice, underscored with a subtle Canadian accent, was shaky, high and cracked just slightly. He sounded younger than the other two. “Where the hell did Trenton run off to?!”
“Cut it,” snapped the first. He tried to keep his voice firm, but his nervousness bled through nevertheless. I guessed that he was the squad leader, and thus wanted to exert authority over his troops, but if his voice was any great indicator, he was too easily shaken by the loss of one of his number. This man was not cut out for leadership. I wondered if the rest of Pegasus Wings was so poorly organized. “Split up. Baker, cover the left side. Keep an eye out for that guy. Ethelbert, the right; find that fucking horse. I'll cover the road.”
He was verbalizing his orders. Squads like that are supposed to operate via nonverbal signals, speaking sparingly (and quietly, if at all), and here he was proclaiming commands for the entire forest to hear. I reminded myself that a good portion of Pegasus Wings' ranks were wash-outs. Well, what idiot unit did this fool wash out from? Bad organization, poor leadership; these were the least likely conquerors in history. Equestria would have to be utterly demilitarized and helpless to be taken over by this pack of morons.
With my luck, though, these'll just turn out to be the bad apples, and the rest of the army will be competent. That was a happy thought to have while playing predator.
The three soldiers dispersed. I thought that I was concealed pretty well in the tall grass (or at least as well as I could be without any camouflage), so I stayed still, breathing shallowly, waiting to see if Baker would catch sight of me.
He didn't. His breaths were uneven and punctuated by nervous teeth chattering, and his footsteps dragged through the dirt loudly. I knew exactly where he was, could probably have guessed where he was looking too, just by the way he was carrying himself. Once again, I marveled at the discipline and rigorous standards of the Pegasus Wings PMC.
I spared a glance upward and saw Baker coming toward me through the grass, his back hunched, his knees trembling and his gun held entirely wrong. He inexplicably rested the barrel on his left arm, holding a knife in his left hand and the gun's grip in his right. His AK was pointed nowhere near me. He hadn't noticed me yet, but he was practically right on top of me. Be pretty damn hard for him not to notice if he stepped right on me, and I doubted that anybody could be that incompetent. There was something else about the way he walked, though. His stance, the way he carried himself, was familiar, if only distantly. It was almost like a Rorschach test, like I was being presented with an inkblot that was supposed to inspire a certain shape in my mind. I turned it over mentally, trying to match his pose with something recognizable.
Then it hit me. I knew where I'd seen his pose before. The stance was sloppy (his nervousness did nothing to help that fact) and he was holding his gun entirely wrong, but I was looking at what was supposed to be a standard CQC pose.
What happened next was instinctive, requiring very little conscious thought on my part. I sprang, rising suddenly from the grass, and caught the AK's barrel in my hands. And I swear, even through the tinted visor, I could see his eyes. They were as wide as saucers.
Immediately, I twisted my body out of his line of fire, and cracked him in the chin with the back of my fist, throwing his head backward. Using his weight for leverage, I swung the rifle up and over, catapulting him into the air and wrenching the gun out of his arms. He hit the ground hard, expelling the air in his lungs. I leveled the gun at him, daring him to rise, but he remained still, out cold from the force of his landing. Two down. I swiftly stripped the gun, removing the magazine, ejecting the round in the chamber and separating the barrel, tossing the disparate pieces to the ground beside Baker. I doubted that he could put it back together again.
I hadn't used Big Boss' style of Close-Quarters Combat since my days in FOXHOUND. Those techniques were taught to me by a man who turned his back on his unit and his gun on me, and I swore never to use them after that betrayal. But seeing Baker in his shallow parody of a CQC stance awakened something in me, a part that I'd buried for the last decade and a half of my life up to that point. Despite my self-imposed ban on the fighting style, it came to me as naturally as breathing. It was half instinct, half muscle memory, and as I experimentally fell into the basic stance, drawing my M9 and cupping my free hand as though gripping a knife, I felt myself wondering how I'd ever done without it. It was like seeing the world in color for the first time. The other techniques and fighting styles that I'd mastered over the years felt like sticks and stones unto a tank. With CQC, I felt unstoppable. With CQC, I felt invincible.
Unbidden, the memory of a grayed man with an eyepatch blazing machine gun fire at me darkened my spirits. Mocking laughter, taunts, threats from a man I'd considered my mentor and father figure echoed faintly in my mind. My free hand curled into a fist, and I returned my M9 to its holster.
CQC was the legacy of a traitor, an art I'd sworn never to use again. But these bumbling idiots brought it back out of me. I'd use it once, this last time, and never again. Until the next time some idiot mimicked Big Boss and came at me with that sick, cookie-cutter imitation, anyway. But really, I told myself reassuringly, what are the odds of that ever happening again?
More on that later.
I knew the moves, owned a gun. Now, to complete the set, all I needed was a knife. I liberated Baker's Ka-Bar, raising it to eye level to inspect the blade. It was rusty, dull and the point looked blunt, but it would serve my purpose for the time being. I looked at the unconscious soldier, and at the field-stripped firearm beside him.
Deconstructing the rifle let me get a good look at it, and what I saw astounded me. It was an AK-47. Mind you, that in itself isn't astounding; the AK-47 is ubiquitous on the battlefield, being popular among revolutionaries, terrorists and militias all the world over. But this was a professional mercenary army. I'd seen their ship. I'd seen the cavernous installation surrounding the portal that brought me here. They had to have the money to afford better. Yet here I was holding an AK-47. Not an AN-94. Not an AK-102. Not even an AK-74, but an AK-47. The grandfather of all assault rifles. Light, reliable, dirt-cheap and obsolete.
Were Pegasus Wings' soldiers mercenaries on a budget? Was that why they were hiring unseasoned soldiers and arming them with outmoded weaponry? Nothing about this situation added up. Once again, I wondered if they were all like this, or if I'd simply drawn the most inept squad in the unit.
I heard the terse muttering of the soldier watching the path and filed my thought away for another time. Still had a job to do, after all. Turning my attention to him, I stalked, slowly and silently, through the tall grass and back onto the path. He stood in the center of the dirt road, darting his head from one side to the next, occasionally swearing under his breath. He kept asking the air what was going on, except he used more expletives than I'd care to type to make his inquiry. I guessed that he hadn't heard what happened to Baker. It's my experience that the soldiers I encounter on missions aren't very perceptive. Not that I'm complaining.
I stole behind him, coming close enough that he could probably have felt my breath on his neck. Fortunately, I'm not that careless. Before he could notice my presence, I wrapped my left arm around his shoulders, pressing the rusty blade of the Ka-Bar against the flesh of his neck and followed that by kicking the back of his right leg, causing his body to buckle. I used my right arm to draw his own behind him at an incredibly uncomfortable angle and felt around his hip for a holster. Finding it, I drew his sidearm and thrust my arm across his right shoulder, staring down the sights of the pistol.
If the gun was ID locked, then my improvised plan wasn't going to work, and I'd need to improvise a whole new one. “Call him,” I ordered. He obliged me.
“Ethelbert!” he yelped in a voice tinged noticeably with pain. Quite a number I was doing on his arm. The last soldier appeared from behind a tree, AK raised. I pulled my handgun's trigger twice the second his head came into view; my hostage jumped with each report. Ethelbert's helmet deflected the first bullet, but failed to stop the second, and he toppled onto his back with a hole in his headgear. I noted with interest that the gun was not, in fact, ID locked.
The last soldier whimpered at the sight of his dead comrade. “Please,” he sniveled, “please don't - ” I cut him off with a hard shove forward. As he staggered and fell to the ground, I dropped his sidearm, drew my M9, cocked it and fired, hitting him in the groin with a tranquilizer dart. The commander briefly tried to rise, but his strength abandoned him before he could lift himself an inch and he collapsed with a quiet groan.
One soldier dead and three unconscious via the magic of CQC. Not bad for someone who hadn't used it in a decade. If the very use of the thing didn't fill me with such powerful self-hate, I might have decided to re-work it into my everyday arsenal. Still, wasn't there something that I was missing?
“Hell, that's two of our number gone. Where the hell's Trenton?!”
Right after I'd taken out the first soldier, too. There was still one more out there. I cocked the M9 and held it ready, scanning the perimeter for any sign of movement.
A cry from above drew my attention: “Snake, look out!”
I turned my head in the direction of Applebloom's panicked cry. A black shape, vaguely blue tinted, was descending fast, holding something that gleamed faintly in a downward position. A blade. A sword, more specifically, and there's only one type of sword that you'll find on a battlefield in this day and age: a High-Frequency Blade. A weapon utilizing ultrasonic vibrations to cut through objects on a molecular level. I'd seen them before, knew the damage they could do in the right hands. I dove, the sword missing by mere millimeters, and rolled headfirst, coming to a stop and rising to a kneel, then whirling to face my attacker as he recovered from his failed strike.
An almost featureless face with a single blazing blue eye stared back at me. He wore the same combat vest as the troops, but not the same uniform. His body was two shades of blue: The torso and everything down to the knees were a deep, midnight blue, and the shoulders, knees, calves and ankles were sky blue. In his right hand was the sword that had nearly impaled me. Slung under his left arm, a hand clamped tightly over her mouth, was Applebloom, who was clearly not happy with this turn of events. Her eyes stared fearfully at me as she struggled to escape the vise grip of her kidnapper.
This was no run-of-the-mill soldier. No incompetent buffoon who didn't know what end of his gun the bullets came out of. This was a Cyborg Ninja that I was dealing with, one of the deadliest things I have ever gone toe-to-toe with in my life. I've seen one shred a platoon of soldiers apart single-handedly; I fought him on equal footing and barely walked away. But this one? My body was still weak from the Manticore's sting. I could take down a foursome of buffoonery, sure, but any halfway competent idiot could do that. A superhuman abomination of science was a whole different ballpark.
I needed time. Needed to stall. That meant it was time to do what I did best: Talk.
“Trenton, I presume,” I said. My eyes flicked between Applebloom and her attacker, trying to determine if I could get a shot in at the latter without harming the former. “Are those suits standard issue now?”
Trenton responded by reversing the sword in his hand and leaping toward me, crossing the distance between the two of us in a single bound. Not the talkative sort, apparently. I had just enough time to roll again and evade a decapitating strike. Clambering to my feet and aligning my sights on the side of Trenton's head, I fired. Without looking, Trenton deflected the round, his arm moving in an imperceptibly fast motion.
Should have seen that coming. He wouldn't be a Cyborg Ninja if he weren't faster than a speeding bullet. Trenton came at me again, returning the sword to a standard grip. He delivered a series of shallow slashes, executed with slight, simple flicks of his wrist, reminiscent more of European fencing techniques than Japanese sword-fighting. I wove, evading his every strike, but only just barely; the ninja kept me very much on my toes. An opportunity finally presented itself when Trenton thrust the blade angled slightly upward. I side-stepped the lunge, caught him by the wrist in my left hand and pulled him toward me, simultaneously throwing a haymaker with my right. His head met my fist, resulting in a resounding metallic clang upon collision. Ignoring the throbbing pain in my hand, I quickly followed with a kick, pivoting on my back foot to drive it deep into his chest. The combat vest must have absorbed some of it, but there was still enough force in the kick to make him stagger backward, curling his body into itself. Yet Applebloom, somehow, remained tightly in his grasp, totally secure.
I couldn't go all-out against him with Applebloom held hostage like that, not unless I didn't mind hurting the filly too. “Maybe you should put her down,” I suggested, trying the dialogue tactic again. “Unless you don't mind an uneven fight.”
“Unacceptable,” said Trenton flatly.
As surprised as I was to get an answer out of him, what really got me was his voice. It had the same mechanical filter as the past ninja's voices, but his was unique somehow. His low pitch was an obvious computerized disguise; it was clear to me that his real voice was significantly higher. I wondered what the point of that was. Were they seriously trying to mask an effete voice by altering it to sound lower? For what, intimidation's sake? More than that, though less unusually, Trenton had an accent, one that I couldn't put my finger on, thanks to the mechanical distortion effect.
“Does that mean you want me to wipe the floor with you?” I taunted. It was equal parts stalling for time and trying to goad him into letting Applebloom go. With luck, she'd take off to safety while I distracted Trenton. Sure, she was an annoying little runt, but I was interested enough in her well being to take on horrific monsters that were trying to harm her. I'd saved her ass from the manticore; I didn't want to let her down against a ninja.
“Unacceptable,” repeated Trenton. “Your suggestion contradicts my directives.”
“Directives?” I asked. “Were you ordered to kidnap her?”
Trenton surprised me again by returning his HF Blade to his sheath. Far less surprisingly, he leaped toward me, arcing through the air with his right fist drawn back and descending almost right on top of me, driving that fist forward. I backpedaled, evading the strike, and his fist sank deep into the dirt. Trenton ripped his hand out of the ground, flinging clumps of dirt and roots into the air, and rose back to his feet. I jabbed with my left hand. He deflected it easily. Undeterred, I swung a right hook; he ducked under it. I spun, jumping off the ground to deliver a roundhouse kick, but Trenton reacted by putting Applebloom directly in my line of fire. She shut her eyes tightly and squeaked, but at the last second before impact I withdrew the kick. Doing so threw off my balance, however. Gravity yanked me to the ground, and I landed painfully hard on my side. My wits returned in time for me to notice Trenton's fist barreling toward me. I rolled aside, scrambled to my feet and fell back into my combat stance.
Using Applebloom as a shield. I took that to mean that he had to fight dirty in order to match me. If I weren't still sluggish from my fight with the Manticore, I might have been able to outfight him. Still, it was a cowardly move. This ninja had no scruples.
“I have been directed to maintain the secrecy of our operations at any cost,” Trenton informed me. His computerized voice was calm and even, as though the previous exchange of blows hadn't taken place at all. “However, I have also been directed to not take the lives of any... ponies... ” He spat the word with clear disgust, as though the absurdity of sentient, talking horses made it that much more difficulty to say. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't sympathize. “I cannot kill the child without violating my second directive, but the first must be obeyed at any cost. Thus, I have decided to capture her, in lieu of taking her life. It seemed a fitting compromise.”
My back and right flank ached where I had fallen. It formed an interesting combination with my lingering manticore venom soreness. “Yeah? So you and the Incompetence Brigade were sent out to silence her, specifically? Kind of funny that one little filly is such a top tier threat for a crack mercenary army.”
Trenton emitted a low, mechanical sound that I interpreted as a chuckle and squeezed his arm tighter around Applebloom. The filly let out a quiet puff of breath and stared helplessly at me. I set my teeth, smoldering with anger at Trenton's casual invocation of a child as an instrument of war.
“We discovered your presence quite by accident,” Trenton explained. “A manticore attacked a long-range forest patrol and devoured two of our sentries before we were able to drive it away. The cowardly lion fled at the sound of gunfire.”
That explained the rounds I'd heard the night before. Good to know I hadn't imagined them, though now I wondered why I never encountered the corpses of the slain soldiers.
“Rather than risk letting the beast live, I and this assortment of buffoons,” and here he gestured to the unconscious (and dead) soldiers, “were sent to track it down and eliminate it. Command determined that night-time operations needed to cease in light of that development, however, and so we delayed the hunt until morning.
“The beast was found and dealt with swiftly. Examining the carcass revealed a curiosity: It was stuck with a dart containing a rather potent elephant tranquilizer. Close inspection of the immediate area revealed the presence of three 9x19 millimeter shell casings and a trail composed of hoofprints that led deeper into the forest. The trail ended at a cottage built into a tree.”
They found Zecora. My throat tightened as concern for the cryptic zebra washed over me.
“I left a group behind to deal with the occupant. The rest of the soldiers followed me in pursuit of the filly and her companion. You see, we noted a set of human-shaped footprints beside a set of hoofprints. Under the circumstances, it struck me as odd. Wouldn't it strike you as odd?”
I couldn't resist a bemused smirk. “The week I'm having, I don't think I could ever consider anything odd again. So what about me? Planning to take me into custody too?”
“You are not a pony,” said Trenton with an out-of-place-looking shrug. “I can kill you without violating the first directive.”
Well. Look who had everything all figured out. “That assumes that you can kill me, Trenton,” I said. I began to pace, walking in a counter-clockwise circle, with Trenton as my locus. Trenton mirrored my action, his burning blue eye focused entirely on me. “The last two of your kind I faced couldn't. What makes you think that you can?”
“Progress does,” said Trenton. His mechanical voice resounded with what I can only identify as smugness. “The prototype was a failure, by all standards. Unstable, psychotic. A weapon is only useful if you know that it won't backfire on you. Gray Fox betrayed and murdered his makers, and that is a failing that I do not subscribe to. I am the second, the refined product, built on the foundation of the first without any of its flaws. Not unlike yourself, son of Big Boss.”
A shiver ran down my spine. “You know who I am?” This was the second person in Equestria who knew more about me than they let on.
“Word was that you perished in Manhattan Harbor in 2007. I admit, it pleases me that you did not.” The blue fire in his eye flickered in a curious way. “Though I am intrigued as to how you came to be here.”
“Same way as you, right?” I asked. I was coming closer to the body of the last soldier I'd tranq'd. His sidearm lay where I'd dropped it. I started to map out, mentally, how close I'd have to be to nab it and shoot without Trenton reacting. Odds were slim. “I went through the portal on the island.”
“That is the only way to get here, to my knowledge,” mused Trenton. “But we have the terminus tightly secured. The odds of one being able to slip through and out of our grasp are slim, even for one such as yourself. More to the point, the portal has been rigged to disperse the atoms of anybody who attempts to follow us here. A precautionary measure.”
I was supposed to be dead? I wrote that off for the time being; I was supposed to be dead a number of times over. What's one more unto the multitude? “Obviously, you didn't do it well enough.”
“Obviously,” the ninja agreed. “I cannot say that I am surprised. The technology on that island is no doubt unreliable.”
“Then why didn't you say anything to your commander?” I asked. “If you knew that there was the possibility that your plan wouldn't work, then shouldn't that have come up?” I was almost right next to the sleeping mercenary now.
“Commander Cain is a busy man,” Trenton replied. “I cannot trouble him with my every errant thought.”
“You may have wanted to trouble him with that one.” Dive, roll, nab the gun, line up the shot, take it, drop the ninja with a single bullet. I had a window of maybe a second, if that. No time like the present. I drew a shallow breath and prepared to lunge...
“'Ey you!” shouted a new voice, one that was female and rich with a rural, Southern-sounding accent.
Trenton about-faced sharply to meet this newcomer. His pose and body language told me that he'd been caught completely off guard. Suddenly, I found that my window had opened by a couple of additional seconds. I dove, rolled, nabbed the gun (an M1911; they were either on a budget or this Commander Cain appreciated antiques) and lined up the shot. In retrospect, I should have taken it, even though it likely would have been pointless. I experienced a momentary lapse, though, on account of what I saw just beyond Trenton.
Arrayed in a “V” formation were six ponies, each a different color. Two had horns (one was lavender and carried something pudgy, purple and spiky on her back; the other was brilliant white), two had wings (yet only one, the blue one with the rainbow mane, was airborne; the light yellow one stood on all fours), and two could have passed for normal equines but for their unsettlingly human facial features (one was pink, and the other, at the head of the group, was orange and wore, of all things, a Stetson hat).
Lucky for me, I'd gotten my giggles out in Zecora's hut. Otherwise, I might have experienced a full-blown psychotic episode.
Evidently, Applebloom recognized at least one of the ponies in the group, because she immediately wiggled free of Trenton's grip on her mouth. “AJ!” she shouted, her voice cracking on a high note. “Help me!” Trenton's hand clamped over her face again, and whatever else she had to say was shouted into the ninja's palm.
The orange mare with the hat (AJ, I guessed) dug her hoof into the dirt and bared her teeth at the ninja. “I'm only sayin' this once,” AJ said in a dangerous tone that left no room for debate. “Set 'er down. Now.”
Trenton responded by drawing his sword and holding the blade to Applebloom's throat. The cutting power of the HF Blade was such that the barest flick of his wrist would sever her head from her body. Of course, I knew that a Cyborg Ninja had the dexterity not to make such a mistake, and being under strict orders not to kill, he certainly wouldn't have done it on purpose. The threat was an empty one.
AJ didn't know that. With a mad roar, she charged at Trenton, closing the gap between them in moments. Trenton raised his leg high into the air and dropped his heel onto AJ's head the instant she came into striking distance. Her momentum vanished into the ether; she came to a full stop, stood stock still, wavered cartoonishly for a moment, and then toppled onto her side, groaning. Triumphantly, Trenton kicked her unconscious body aside. AJ rolled a few feet to the right, off of the path. Her hat fell off of her head and lay discarded on the road.
Suddenly, I remembered that I was holding a loaded handgun. Springing to my feet, I fired twice, striking Trenton in the back on both rounds. He jerked with each impact, but showed no other sign of harm, or even that he noticed my attack.
Lightning-quick, super strong and bulletproof. A winning combination for anybody to have. I was barely holding my own against him at reduced strength; I doubted the ponies had a prayer.
Four of the five who hadn't charged the freakishly powerful ninja snapped out of whatever trance they had been in and followed their friend's example, charging headlong. Purple Horn bucked its luggage to the ground before taking off, and it remained behind with the yellow coated, pink haired straggler. Rainbow got to Trenton first, turning in midair and bucking at his head with a pair of powerful back legs. Trenton sidestepped, raised his right arm and smashed his elbow, vertically, onto Rainbow's head. She fell beside his foot, unmoving but alive.
That seemed to stall the other three - Purple Horn, Curly Hair, and the Pink One - because they skidded to a halt upon seeing Rainbow getting dropped with one hit. Trenton took advantage of their shock; moving in a blue (and yellow, thanks to Applebloom) blur into the middle of their number, he set to work. A kick to Curly Hair's side before she could react to his presence sent her sprawling to the dirt with the wind knocked out of her. Another kick at Purple Horn was deflected by a sudden violet shimmer that seemed conjured out of nothing. Trenton recoiled and recovered in the same moment, switching his target to the Pink One. He attempted the same heel drop that had felled AJ, but the Pink One bounced (yes, bounced) aside. With the broadest, most out of place grin possible, she reared her front legs up and stomped both of of her hooves onto that foot.
Trenton's agonized, computerized screech filled the air. He was bulletproof, but not hoofproof. I wondered if that was a design oversight.
Purple Horn attempted a charge. Trenton planted his back foot onto her face and shoved her away. She skidded through the dirt beside the Cowardly One and the spiky purple thing. The former gaped, wide-eyed; the latter knelt beside Purple Horn and cradled her head. I chose that moment to sprint at Trenton, dropping the useless gun as I went. Trenton kicked the Pink One in the belly, hard enough to raise her up a few feet into the air, then spun, pivoted and kicked her again, launching her like a cannonball at me. She and I collided, and I was sent backward, landing hard on my back once again with the grinning pink pony on top of me.
“Hi there!” she said, looking into my eyes with an effusive smile. Our collision and the pain that it no doubt caused her apparently was not enough to dampen her spirits.
This was the very worst mission ever.
The Coward's shocked expression melted, solidifying into one of grim resolve. “No,” she whispered in a ragged voice.
Trenton hissed, but didn't turn to face her. His grip tightened on his sword. “No!” the Cowardly One shouted, this time with iron in her voice. “How dare you hurt my friends this way! How dare you lay your hands on Applebloom like that! Don't you have a single shred of decency in your being you monster?!” Her wings unfurled and beat furiously, drawing her into the air, and she advanced on the ninja at eye level. Finally, he turned around to meet her furious stare.
A pair of gentle blue eyes, forced into a mask of anger that they looked completely foreign in, met a single, ferociously burning blue eye that betrayed no emotion but rage. The mask faded; the anger in her eyes gave way to fear, and the beating of her wings slowed. The Coward drifted back to the dirt, staring at the ninja and quaking. “I...I...” she stammered. The iron was gone from her voice.
Trenton raised his sword. It was a dramatic gesture, but a pointless one. The sharp side of the blade faced away from the Coward. He was going to strike her with the blunted end. It was nonlethal, but debilitating; a hardy man (or pony) could withstand a blow like that, but she didn't look too hardy from where I was sitting.
I pushed the Pink One off of my chest and climbed to my feet, breaking once again into a full-tilt sprint toward Trenton. The sound of hoofbeats from behind told me that my collision buddy was following closely.
We didn't make it in time. The sword descended on the terrified pony.
From the side of the road galloped a rejuvenated AJ; she slammed into the Coward, knocking her out of the path of the blade. The sword struck AJ in the back of her neck, accompanied by the crackle of electricity. AJ yelped; she didn't have time for anything longer than that before she crumpled to the dirt and lay fetal and motionless.
Applebloom shouted the pony's name once (“AJ” stood for “Applejack.” I guessed that was the sister she'd talked about) before devolving into incoherent, babbling sobs.
Trenton spared a glance to the purple spiky thing, who still knelt beside Purple Horn and stared back at the Ninja with a frightened expression. He looked briefly at the Coward, who shut her eyes tightly and whimpered. With a disgusted grunt and a shake of his head, he turned his back on her, sheathed his weapon and leaped straight into the air. A moment later, he landed in front of me, his faceless mask and burning blue eye mere inches from me.
“No witnesses,” he said, choking Applebloom again to stifle her. I heard the Pink One growl at the act, but she made no move to stop him. “I will take her, and they will follow, and you will be among them.”
“Is that an order?” I whispered harshly.
Trenton headbutted me, driving his metal forehead into my bandana-covered brow, and kneed me in the gut. It felt like a locomotive had plowed into me at full speed. I gasped and fell, clutching my skull in one hand and my stomach in the other.
“Decide what it means for yourself,” Trenton said mockingly. “The castle in the forest's center. You will come. She will be imperiled if you do not.” I watched him shove the Pink One out of his path and stoop to retrieve my discarded M1911. He seemed to weigh the weapon in his hand for just a moment. Then he pointed it into the tall grass off of the path and fired a shot. The suddenness of the motion and the noise made the Pink One jump. I can't say it didn't surprise me too. Field commanders don't typically execute their soldiers for a poor job.
Trenton pointed to the first soldier I'd tranq'd and fired a second time, putting a bloody hole in his head. He aimed for the last one, the one I'd held hostage, and fired a third shot. The soldier jerked briefly in his sleep, then lay still.
The sound of the gunfire shocked Applebloom into silence. Trenton met my gaze again, leveling the weapon at me, and for a moment, I fully expected him to fire.
But he didn't. He hesitated. His hand trembled, and finally, released the gun, let it fall to the ground. Instead, he pointed at me with the hand that had held it. “No witnesses,” he repeated, as if that was all the explanation needed. And then he was gone, sprinting down the path into the forest with Applebloom in his grasp. In seconds, he was out of sight.
I'd saved her from the manticore, an otherworldly beast, only to let her get swept away by a monster that was far more familiar to me. Another failure for the pile of failures in the career of Solid Snake. Yet the pain in my head was excruciating enough to take top priority over flagellation, and the pain in my stomach made that look like nothing. I shut my eyes and ground my palm against the spot where Trenton had hit me, as though that would somehow make my migraine go away, and pressed my other hand tightly against my abdomen.
“Hey,” said the Pink One in her high, girlish voice as she trotted up to me and poked her face into mine. “You okay there?”
That was a very trying morning for me, one of the most trying I'd endured in recent memory. “Okay” was the last word I would have used to describe the situation, or myself. And yet, the question made me chuckle. The chuckle built into a pained, breathless laugh as I shook my agonized head and raised it to look the Pink One in her sapphire blue eyes. For an instant, I could have sworn that I saw the outline of a billowing black cloak in the air behind her.
“I haven't been okay in a very, very long time,” I replied through my fading laughter.
She always wore a smile on her face, even when locked in mortal combat with a monster. Against Trenton, it was one of glee. But the smile she offered me now was one of sympathy and reassurance. “At least you've got one thing down. When the world's got you on the ropes, sometimes all you can do is laugh.” The obtrusively pink pony with the cotton candy mane held her hoofed leg out to me. “My name's Pinkie Pie. What's yours?”
I heard stirring behind me, accompanied by the nervous voices of four young ladies. The rural Southern drawl, so similar to Applebloom's, was not among them, and in my heart was a festering concern for Applebloom. Not on account of her kidnapping. But on account of the idea that, for all she knew, she'd just watched her sister die.
I didn’t have a loving sibling relationship. My twin tried to murder me. On a personal level, the bond between Applebloom and her sister, the aptly named Applejack, was alien to me; I couldn’t relate. But I’d seen loving siblings, who had been torn apart by feud, be brought together again for an instant...before one of them died tragically.
Otacon cradling Emma’s bloodied body in his arms...
Applejack could lose her sister forever because of a misunderstanding. For all Applebloom knew, her own sister was dead, because of a misunderstanding. Otacon walked out of his family’s life, consumed by guilt, leaving behind a sister who thought that he abandoned them because of her. A grudge stewed in her heart that drove her to create a weapon of mass destruction, because of a misunderstanding. Both parties bore blame.
And me? My hands were in this too. I’d let Applebloom out of my sight long enough for her to get caught. I was given the opportunity to pull her out of Trenton’s grasp, and I’d squandered it. I put someone in harm’s way, someone who should never have been there in the first place. I watched an innocent suffer the consequences of my failure. Worst of all, it wasn’t even the first time I’d let it happen.
Meryl writhing in the snow, begging me to shoot her, a tiny red dot hovering over her body...
Not again. There would be no more Emmas. That filly was going to survive.
I took Pinkie Pie's hoof in my hand and shook once, with as much strength as my envenomed hands could summon, and forced a grim smile onto my face.
“Call me Snake.”
“Light is but a farewell gift from the darkness to those on their way to die.”
Applejack awoke to indistinct voices whispering around her. A terrible pain ran down her neck and to her back. She tested her legs, wiggling each one gently to ensure that she still had her physical faculties. Satisfied, she braced herself against the inevitable pain and tried to push off of the ground. She managed to rise a couple of inches before collapsing onto her stomach.
“Hey, she's up,” said a voice. “Applejack? You okay?” She felt a clawed hand rest upon her face. The voice belonged to Spike
“Careful, Spike,” a soften, calmer voice warned. Fluttershy, thought Applejack. “There's no way of knowing how serious her condition is.” Spike's hand was gone a moment later.
Condition? Applejack thought blearily. How bad did I get hit? She lifted her head and opened her eyes, blinking slowly to clear her vision. Fluttershy stood in front of her; Spike was out of her field of vision. The former eyed Applejack cautiously.
“Hey, partner,” said Spike, imitating Applejack's accent. “I've got something for ya.” Applejack heard a quiet rustling, then felt the familiar feeling of her hat enveloping the crown of her head. “You lost it when you went all hero on us.”
“Which I'm very grateful for!” Fluttershy added quickly. “Thank you, Applejack. You saved me.”
“Don't need no thanks,” Applejack said, her voice straining with effort as she attempted to stand once again. It shot up and down her back in waves, but she withstood it, rising to all fours with no slight effort. Years of applebucking had endowed her with an iron constitution which she prided herself on. No farmer worth her cider would let a little back pain keep her down when there was work to be done. “I'd be a pretty awful friend if I let that thing hurt anypony I cared about.” The horrifying sight of her sister in the clutches of that faceless monster flashed in her mind's eye. Almost as awful a friend as I am a sister.
Doubt and self-reproach gnawed at her as she silently chastised herself for failing to keep Applebloom safe for a third time. She kept the thought to herself, but her expressed sentiment brought out a guarded, but optimistic, smile from Fluttershy.
“Oh?” sniffed Rarity. “I suppose you're implying that Fluttershy is the only one of us about whom you care?” Ever graceful, she strode to her friends' side. Her expression relieved, despite her catty tone.
Applejack was well aware that Rarity was teasing her, but she still winced at the memory of the Rarity taking a shot from the kidnapper. “How're y'all holdin' up?” she asked.
Rarity made a brief show of inspecting herself and shrugged. “It hurt, if that's what you're asking, but it was more damaging to my pride than anything else. I'm more upset that I didn't get to return the favor.”
“Yeah. You an' me both.” Applejack worked her shoulders and cracked her neck. The pain in her body hadn't faded in the slightest, but it bothered her less as she regained her strength. “Was I out long?”
Spike tapped a claw against his chin. “Thirty minutes maybe. The others were on their hooves in about half that time,” he added casually.
Applejack scowled at him. The competitor in her was not at all pleased at being beaten to recovery.
“Then again,” Spike mused, not really noticing Applejack's displeasure. “You were hit harder than anypony else. I guess it makes sense that you'd take longer to recover.”
“Some iron constitution I've got,” muttered Applejack. “Speakin' of hurt pride.” A particularly bothersome spike of pain shot through her head and she shut her eyes tightly, willing it away. “What about the others? Twi an' Rainbow an' Pinkie?”
Spike clucked his tongue, but made no further answer. Applejack wrenched her eyes open, fighting the agony stabbing into her skull. Sweet Celestia, it's like every hangover I've ever had hittin' all at once, she thought. “You gonna tell me?”
“Oh, I was—” Spike cleared his throat. “Right, your eyes were closed. Uh. I did this thing. Heh.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and smiled sheepishly, blushing. Rarity and Fluttershy giggled. Applejack looked in the direction that he indicated.
Twilight Sparkle stood not far away, flanked by Rainbow Dash. The pegasus was massaging her rainbow-maned head with one eye shut tightly, still recovering from the savage blow that the kidnapper had laid on her. Nevertheless, she wore a tight-lipped smirk, a look she shared with Pinkie Pie. She sat in the dirt beside Rainbow Dash, a hoof pressed against her mouth as though she were fighting back giggles. Towering over the three of them, his back turned to Applejack, was a two-legged thing in a skin-tight blue/gray suit, who stood with his arms folded, furtively discussing something with Twilight.
He was just similar enough to the thing that had stolen Applebloom for Applejack to grow overwhelmed with irrational anger. She barked a challenge at him, drawing everyone's attention. “You!” She staggered toward them, collapsed after one step, then dragged herself through the dirt toward him rapidly. “You're one of them monsters what nabbed m'sister! You got some nerve stickin' around, you—”
“Applejack, calm down!” Fluttershy's legs clamped around her midsection. “Please, for your own sake, don't do something that you'll regret.”
“I'll regret not buckin' his face inta jam, that's what I'll regret!” snapped Applejack. “Now git'cher hooves offa me!” She wriggled free of Fluttershy and resumed her enraged crawl For his part, the blue-suited thing regarded her with a raised eyebrow. Now that he was facing her, Applejack could see a stubbly beard on his face, and a blue/green bandana tied around his forehead. She found him altogether quite ugly. It made her want to smash him more.
Rarity sighed. Applejack's body shimmered a faded blue, and she found herself floating just high enough in the air for her legs to not find purchase on the dirt. “What the hay? Rarity! Lemme down!”
“Applejack, it's alright,” said Twilight calmly as she edged toward her. She kept her voice as soothing as possible, as though she were speaking to a foal. The condescension only made Applejack angrier. “This is our new friend. His name is Solid Snake—”
Pinkie suddenly burst into a fit of laughter. The source of Applejack's frustrations grumbled something inaudible.
“And he's here to help us,” said Twilight. “He was trying to save Applebloom from that monster when we found them. Remember?” She grinned at him. “Help me out here,” she said through her clenched jaws.
Snake glanced at Twilight, then at Applejack. “So you must be that overbearing sister that Applebloom was telling me about.” His voice was deep and sounded like crunching gravel.
Overbearing...?! “Why you dirty, low-down, no-good son of a diamond dog!” yelled Applejack. “I'mma break outta this spell an' when I do—”
Twilight facehoofed as Applejack made several violent and profane promises. “I said to help. How is that helping?” she asked, exasperated. “How?!”
Snake shrugged. “I'm not exactly at a hundred percent right now. Under the circumstances, I think I'm doing pretty well.” He took a few steps toward where Applejack hovered, suspended in Rarity's magic field, and observed her like she were an animal in a zoo. Applejack seethed. “But if it'll make things easier for you, I suppose I can make an effort to play nice.”
He came within hoof's reach of Applejack. She swung at him; he backed out of reach. “Of course, it has to be a two way street,” he said to Twilight. “I need assurance that this one isn't going to go postal.”
“Y'all might try talkin' to me, for starters,” said Applejack curtly. “Twilight ain't my lawyer.”
“Maybe she should be. You aren't making a good case for yourself,” Snake countered. He came back within reach of Applejack. She swung at him a second time, but he caught her hoof and held it tightly, locking eyes with her. “The thing that took your sister brought her to a ruined castle deep in this forest. I don't know where that is, but I'm told that you do. If you want to walk right in there and confront Trenton alone, after what he did to you and your friends, then go right ahead.”
Her friends exchanged uncertain looks with one another.
“Or you could show some sense and listen to what I'm trying to say,” continued Snake. “We have a common enemy and a common purpose. Get me to the castle, and I'll help you get Applebloom back. But you need to put your trust in me.” His eyes were green and, somehow, ancient. “How about it?”
Applejack looked away from his face, to Twilight Sparkle behind him. She offered Applejack a nervous, encouraging smile and a slow nod. Please, the unicorn mouthed.
“Well...” Applejack sucked in a breath and exhaled it slowly, relaxing her muscles. “F'r Applebloom's sake, I suppose I got no other choice.” She glanced over her shoulder at Rarity. “Y'all can let me down now, sugarcube. No more rough-housin' from me.”
“Oh, thanks heavens,” breathed Rarity as her levitation field vanished. Applejack's heart fell at the sudden loss of buoyancy. She dropped, but was still suspended in Snake's grip, and dangled a foot away from the dirt, the tip of her tail brushing against the grass. Applejack glared daggers at Rarity. “My levitation isn't as powerful as Twilight's,” said Rarity, plaintively digging a hoof into the dirt. “It takes more effort to hold up something as heavy as a grown pony.”
“Yer lucky I ain't a sensitive gal, Rarity, or I'd think y'all were callin' me fat,” said a testy Applejack as Snake lowered her to the ground. She stood upon all fours, incredibly sore and deeply pained, but standing nonetheless. “I acted like a real buzzard just now,” she said, straining through the pain to look up at Snake's face. “This just hasn't been a good day at all. Not that that's any excuse.” She offered him a hoof. “Applejack.”
Snake knelt, took her hoof and shook it gently, mindful of the pain she was in. “Solid Snake.”
Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash erupted into full-blown belly laughs. Rainbow Dash sank to the ground and plopped onto her bottom behind Pinkie, the two leaning back-to-back as they roared with joy. Snake flushed and clenched his jaw. “Because 'Pinkie Pie' sounds so much better,” he grumbled.
“Girls,” said Twilight flatly. “Seriously? Are you four?”
With a mighty effort, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash forcibly repressed their laughter into less raucous (but still mirthful) chuckles. “Okay,” gasped Pinkie, in between bursts, “okay, you're right. I'm done. We're done” She grinned, giggled one last time, coughed, and grinned again, looking at Rainbow Dash. “Done?”
“Done,” agreed Rainbow Dash, returning Pinkie's grin.
Snake folded his arms. “You're crocked, aren't you?” he asked.
“Uh-uh,” said Pinkie, shaking her head. “I'm Pinkie Pie, remember? Silly.”
Snake pressed a hand against his forehead, shut his eyes, and groaned.
I hastily brought Applejack to speed, silently wishing that Twilight had waited until the orange pony regained consciousness before grilling me for answers. Would have saved me some time; I could have played the exposition game with all of them at once. Still, for someone who'd recently suffered a savage blow to the spine, no doubt impairing several cognitive functions, Applejack picked up the gist of my story with relative ease.
“You think that Trenton feller's usin' Applebloom as bait?” asked Applejack as she rubbed her sore neck. Fluttershy, the cowardly, butter-colored pegasus, kept shooting worried glances her way, but largely kept her distance. Figured I'd missed something; didn't care enough to ask what it was though.
“Possibly. He told me that he'd been ordered not to hurt any ponies he encountered.” The word “ponies” sounded thick and ridiculous in my mouth, and I hated myself a little bit more every time I found myself saying it. “But then he implied that she'd be in some sort of danger if I, or we, didn't come for her.” I drew my pack of cigarettes, selected one, and lifted it to my mouth. I hadn't had a smoke since waking up in Equestria, and it was starting to get to me. “Quite a contradiction.”
The cigarette left my mouth abruptly, dangling inches away from my face, wrapped in a translucent purple aura. I snatched at it; it danced away from my reach. Twilight Sparkle stepped in front of me and shook her head, dropping the cigarette to the grass. Shooting her the most antagonistic glare I could muster, I stooped, retrieved the cigarette, and returned it to the pack. I guess the universe figured that if Otacon couldn't be there to nanny me, then someone had to pick up the slack.
“Do you think that it was an empty threat?” asked the white unicorn, Rarity. I have never been and will never be attracted to an animal, but even I had to admit, there was a glamor to Rarity that was impossible to avoid noticing. “That he only said it to get us over there?”
“If that's the case, then we'd be waltzing into a trap just by showing up,” added Rainbow Dash. She hovered in the air with her hind legs dangling down and her forelegs crossed. Poor thing had a fine lump on her head. I thought about the pain that Gray Fox' punches wracked me with, then at the way he'd lobbed off Ocelot's arm, and reasoned that if a lump was the worst she got from a Cyborg Ninja, then she ought to have considered herself lucky. Felt bad for thinking that afterward, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
“Y'know somethin'?” said Applejack, looking at Rainbow Dash and Rarity. “I don't think I really care whether it's a trap or not. I ain't leavin' my sister with that monster.” She looked at me with those big green eyes (not a dissimilar shade from mine, now that I think about it), her face stony and resolute. “If you can help my sister, then I'll take y'all where ya need t'go, no question. You gals with me?”
I knew from experience how crippling a hit from even the blunt end of an HF blade could be, yet she not only withstood one, she was raring to go another round. No wonder Applejack was able to shrug off that spinal injury. Hers was clearly made of iron.
Rainbow Dash swooped in to land beside Applejack. “You can count me in,” she said with a grin. “Trap or no, I want to see that Trenton chicken try and take me on in an even fight.”
Rarity sniffed. “Darling, do you really think that you have to ask? I can't face Sweetie Belle and tell her that Applebloom's still lost out here.” She smiled. “I'm at your side.”
Pinkie Pie bounced forward, light and buoyant upon her hooves. “This Pie's never met a meanie she couldn't get a giggle out of! Except for that one. And that other one.” She looked intently at me. “Are these bad guys dragons? Or griffons?”
Fluttershy shuddered. She shuddered so often that I now find myself wondering if I should even bother pointing out specific instances where she shuddered. I stared, eyes narrowed, at Pinkie Pie, trying to decide whether I found the pony's non-sequitor-based method of communication charming or obnoxious. “I'll take that as a nope-a-roney!” She took her place beside Rarity and grinned at me. “And no more making fun of your name. Pinkie Pie swear! Cross my heart and hope to—”
She went on like that for a little while, illustrating the purpose and nature of a Pinkie Pie swear. I settled on obnoxious.
“Gotta admit,” said Twilight Sparkle, “I wasn't expecting to ever see that old ruin ever again. I guess history has a funny way of repeating—eek!” A look of surprise tinged with pain crossed her face. The pudgy baby dragon, the one who'd actually been less useful than a blunt and rusty knife in the fight against Trenton, had caught Twilight's tail. She whipped it out of his hand and glared at him. “Yes, Spike?” she asked impatiently.
“I just wanted to know, uh...” Spike dug his toe into the ground nervously and linked his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his feet. It was a very human gesture that looked woefully out of place on a foot-and-a-half-tall lizard. “If you were still cool with me coming with you.”
Twilight started, clearly taken aback. “You still want to—no! Of course not!” She recovered her wits and took on an authoritative pose. “Things have changed, Spike,” she said tersely. “I'm not comfortable putting you in harm's way like this, not after getting a taste of what we're up against.”
There was a familiarity in her voice that nagged at me.
“Oh, it's way scary,” Spike agreed, nodding. “And I'm not in any rush to look that thing in its big blue eye again, believe me. But at the same time...” He held his tail in his hands and wrung it, a gesture that I interpreted as doleful and submissive. “At the same time, I'm more scared for you guys, knowing you have to go up against it. And for Applebloom, too, knowing she's stuck with it. So going with you, and seeing it again, somehow seems less scary than sitting at home, knowing that you're in danger.” He made a face. “Does that make any sense?”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Not convinced, Spike,” she said flatly.
Spike sighed, dropping his tail to the dirt. “Okay. Let me put it another way...I don't know if I'd have been any help against Nightmare Moon, or against Discord. I'm no Rainbow Dash, that's for sure.”
“Aw, don't sweat it, Spike,” said Rainbow Dash, elbowing Applejack for some reason and smiling smugly. “Nopony's perfect.”
“But being with you, and trying to help, that'd be actually doing something, and that's a lot better than what I usually contribute. Which isn't a whole bunch.” His voice, which sounded on the verge of breaking when he started speaking, grew more confident and secure with every word. “I don't want to just curl up in a ball and be useless while my friends are out there, fighting the good fight. I want to help, Twilight.” Spike dropped his tail, folded his hands, and stared hard at Twilight, making the puppy doggiest eyes I'd ever seen. “Can't you give me that chance?”
Common sense demanded that she drop him in a hole and leave him there. I could see no practical function that a stumpy lizard could serve on a mission of tactical espionage. But something in Twilight seemed to think otherwise. I took note of the precise moment when she capitulated. It was easy to tell from the way the look on her face shifted from annoyed beyond all reason to frustrated. It was a subtle shift, to be sure. “You stay out of sight,” she ordered. “Anything happens, you stay out of trouble and out of the fighting. Don't try to be a hero. Got that?”
Spike's face lit up and he nodded, climbing quickly onto the unicorn's back. She turned to the rest of her friends. “He gave me the eyes,” she explained. “What was I supposed to do?”
Her friends got a laugh out of that. I didn't join in; I was too busy thinking of how doomed this mission was to laugh. I thought back to the discussion that Twilight and I'd had, which ended abruptly when Applejack regained consciousness. Twilight wouldn't budge when I insisted on only taking one of them with me to the castle: “We're strongest as a group. Where one of us goes, we all go.”
There was no denying her friends' commitment to one another, their courage in the face of the unknown. It was admirable, but it was also ignorant and borderline suicidal. Moreover, it was help that I simply did not need. Otacon was my friend and lifeline, true, but in the field, I was on my own, and that's always suited me fine. Babysitting one green rookie is always a trying experience, but least Meryl's butt was easy on the eyes. And Jack definitely could hold his own in a firefight, which went a long way toward mitigating him. But I doubted that these seven had any redeeming features of their own, could pull their weight in the event that something went wrong. And having them along on what was supposed to be a solo sneaking mission was unnecessary baggage that further jeopardized my already unlikely chances of success.
I wrote “seven” just now, even though one of them hadn't yet committed to joining our little endeavor. Fluttershy was still off to the side, laying with her legs tucked under her body, looking very alone and very confused.
“What about you, Fluttershy?” Applejack asked softly. “You still with me?”
Fluttershy looked Applejack in the eye for just a second before looking away again. Slowly, she rose to her hooves, looking very insecure upon them. “I... suppose I still owe it to you...” she said meekly.
“Fluttershy...” Applejack paused for a moment, biting her lip and closing her eyes. She looked at Twilight Sparkle, who nodded encouragingly. I still didn't get it, and still didn't care enough to ask.
Applejack looked back at Fluttershy, eyes teary. “Of all the ponies here, you owe me the absolute least, sugarcube. Jus' tell me if you're in or out. I won't hold it against you iffin' ya don't come with.”
Fluttershy's jaw went slack. She made a number of babbling attempts at vocalization before she was able to collect and articulate herself. “Th-then of course I'm going with you!” She galloped toward Applejack, sliding on her rump the last couple of feet and coming to a rest just in front of her. “If you really need me, that is.”
“We really do,” Applejack assured her. And then, in an action that made my blood sugar rise by a factor of twelve, they embraced, both of them shedding tears that rolled and splattered upon one another.
“I'm sorry for before,” Fluttershy said into Applejack's mane, her voice adorably muffled. Make that a factor of thirteen.
“An' I'm sorry about last night,” said Applejack, pulling back to look into Fluttershy's eyes.
Oh my God. This couldn't be what it sounded like. I turned away from the love-in and wrapped an arm around my midsection, groaning. It was a grand stroke of fortune that I hadn't had solid food in more than a day, and thus couldn't splatter the dirt with my breakfast, but that didn't diminish the feeling of nausea that wracked my stomach. With luck, I wouldn't start coughing up blood again.
“Uh, Snake?” asked Twilight Sparkle. “Are you okay?”
I glanced over my shoulder to see the entire group staring at me with confusion, including the still-embracing Applejack and Fluttershy. “I'll manage,” I said through tightly grit teeth.
This was the worst mission ever.
Our first order of business was to investigate Zecora's hut. I didn't need to lobby hard for that detour; Twilight and the others were adequately aghast at the idea of something happening to Zecora , and they accepted the suggestion readily. By the time Applejack awoke, it was set in stone that we were looking into Zecora first and foremost. Would have made life difficult if she'd objected. She did, but it didn't take much to bring her around. All I needed to do was point out that Zecora had saved her sister's life for her to fall in line with the others. So we took off, walking in silence for the first leg of the voyage.
About twenty minutes into our walk, Applejack abruptly broke her silence. “Can you tell me more about how Zecora helped y'all? You didn't say much 'bout it, jus' that she did.”
I actually had “said much 'bout it,” with Twilight, while Applejack was unconscious, and didn't care to repeat myself. Then again, her request wasn't unreasonable, so I complied. “After the manticore stung me, Zecora found us and brought us back to her place. Nursed me back to health overnight.”
“You were stung by a manticore?” Fluttershy gasped. “But its venom is the most potent known poison in Equestria! Nopony survives a manticore sting.”
Wasn't she listening when I talked about this before? With Twilight? Wait, she was looking after Applejack while she was unconscious, wasn't she? So I guess she wasn't listening at the time. Made sense. “Maybe my immune system's simply better than yours,” I suggested.
“I... see.” Fluttershy withdrew into herself after that exchange, staying silent for much of our stroll through the woods. I'd catch her sneaking glances at me from time to time as we walked, but every time I noticed, she looked away, finding something else to occupy her interest.
Ten more minutes of this cycle wore on my nerves, and on what had to be her fifteenth glance, I called her out. “What?” I asked shortly.
“Um, what do you mean?” she said with a slight stammer.
“You keep staring at me,” I said in a low voice. The others took notice, their eyes on me as I confronted the pegasus. “What do you find so fascinating?”
“I just...” She looked at the ground, at her hooves as they tromped through the grass. Despite her wings, she seldom took to the air, a fact that intrigued me. Maybe she just wasn't that good at it. “I've never seen anything quite like you before.”
Was she coming on to me?
“And I like to make a habit out of getting to know all the new creatures I meet,” Fluttershy continued.
Still not convinced that she wasn't coming on to me. I didn't think it was possible to feel any more uneasy than I did during her and Applejack's moment earlier, but wow. Outdone, and within an hour, to boot. This was a record-setting outing all around.
“So, um, if you wouldn't mind... when this is all over...”
I battled the urge to dry heave.
“...could I maybe sit down and talk with you for a while?” she asked meekly. “I just have so many questions about you, and your life, and your kind, and... well, and about everything, really!”
Oh. Well. Okay then. I'm not really one for interviews, but compared to what I thought she was proposing, anything sounded golden. “I'll think about it”.
Spike turned around from his perch on Twilight and smiled at me, leaning backward on a folded arm that was braced against Twilight's neck. “She wouldn't be Fluttershy if she didn't try to make friends with everything she met,” he said. Fluttershy blushed. I grunted something non-committal and looked away.
Twilight suddenly came to a halt and held her foreleg up. “Stop,” she hissed. I crouched and came up beside her, a hand on my M9. We'd arrived at Zecora's hut.
The door to the hollow treehouse appeared to be shut. The interior was dark; I couldn't see into it. No way to tell if there was something nasty waiting in there for us.
“Let's go quietly, everypony,” she whispered. “If there's anyone in there, we want to take them by surprise.”
I rose a little, hunching my back slightly to keep a low profile. “I'll take point,” I said quietly to her. “If there are soldiers in there, then you'll want me front and center.”
Twilight nodded. “Agreed. Spike? Remember what I said?”
“Man,” sighed Spike as he dismounted. He found a spot next to a bush, plopped down and cradled his chin in his palms.
I crept forward, slowly drawing the M9 from its holster. The soft, somewhat distant hoofbeats of the others followed me as I neared the door, settling into a CQC stance. It was incomplete without the knife, but with luck, I could spring on any hypothetical ambushers before they noticed how unarmed I was. And having a gun certainly made me feel better.
I reached the door and placed my free hand against it. It yielded slightly; evidently, it was left ajar. That didn't relieve me any. I glanced over my shoulder. The others were arrayed behind me in that V-formation. Their expressions were variations on either determination or worry. Fluttershy embodied the latter; Applejack the former. Twilight's face was somewhere in between. The unicorn swallowed hard and nodded at me. I turned back to the door, sucked in a deep breath, and shoved.
The door flew inward, striking the wall with a thunderous crack and rebounding toward me. It struck me in the shoulder; I barely felt it. I pushed into the house, gun at the ready, and quickly scanned the room for any threats. Visibility was nearly nil. I didn't see anything immediately obvious besides a bulbous, indistinct shape that cluttered the center of the room.
“Twilight,” I muttered. “Light?”
There was a hum behind me and a flash of pale purple light, and suddenly, a dozen candles around the room ignited.
Zecora's hut was empty. No zebra. No soldiers. No bodies. No immediately obvious signs or traces of battle. The hut was identical to how I'd left it, and I mean that literally. Nothing was different. And that's precisely what was so disconcerting. The object in the room's center turned out to be the cauldron, still full of that nasty soup Zecora had fed Applebloom and I. I dipped a finger into it; a skin had formed over the top layer, but the liquid was still lukewarm. Applebloom's bowl lay, untouched, where she'd left it, and the bed was still rumpled and unmade, just as it was when I'd finally risen.
The others had filed into the hut behind me upon realizing that there was no danger. Twilight pensively examined the pots and jars on the shelves. Fluttershy avoided glancing at the walls, where Zecora's collection of tribal masks scowled at us from all sides. I saw Applejack looking downcast, with Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash trying to comfort her. Rarity trotted up to the cauldron and stopped beside me. She leaned her face over the edge and sniffed, then recoiled with a wrinkled nose. “I don't understand. What does it all mean?” she asked.
“Probably that Zecora could benefit from a cooking class,” I said. Twilight glared reproachfully at me from across the room, then resumed her examination of Zecora's pottery. Was she cataloging it? Checking to see if anything was missing?
“Snake,” sighed Rarity. “I realize you aren't from around here, but surely where you come from, sarcasm is never your first response to a lady's query.”
“Yeah?” I said, not looking at her. “I ever see a lady around here, I'll remember that.”
I imagined Rarity scowling at me and allowed myself a tiny moment of self-satisfaction.
“Y'know,” said Rainbow Dash, floating in the air beside Applejack. “I think I know what might've happened to Zecora. Trenton killed those guys that went with him, right? His teammates?” She talked with her hooves an awful lot, spreading, waving, and somehow clenching them as she spoke. How the hell did she clench hooves? “If he was fine with killing them when they were on his side, then why would he let Zecora live when she obviously wasn't? He probably offed her and ran off wearing her head like a hat.”
“Rainbow!” snapped Applejack. Fluttershy let out a pathetic whimper. “Not appropriate!”
“What?” said Rainbow Dash said, dropping to the ground and coming head-to-head with Applejack. “Look, I'm not saying that I hope that's what happened.”
“Oh, Applejack,” breathed Fluttershy, her eyes going impossibly wide. “You don't think that they would actually do that to poor Zecora, do you?”
“I don't know what to think, sugarcube,” said Applejack. “But I know we ain't gonna get anywhere by goin' all morbid-like. Rainbow's just talkin' out of her—”
“'Outta my' what, Applesack?!”
“I can't exactly tell you what y'all are talkin' out of if you innerupt me, you big blue lummox!”
I pressed my palm against my face, poking my fingertips beneath my bandana to rub my forehead as Applejack and Rainbow Dash went at it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rarity performing a strikingly similar gesture, and I immediately dropped my hand back to my side. Damn, but those ponies could argue.
A sudden, sharp noise like a thunderclap interrupted the burgeoning debate and caused everyone in the room to jump a meter into the air. I whirled and leveled my gun at the source of the noise, which turned out to be Twilight Sparkle. She stared down the suppressor-equipped barrel, her eyes wide, and chuckled nervously. “Sorry to startle you, Snake, but they were yelling, and I didn't know how else to, uh.” She coughed. I lowered my weapon. “Anyway. She's alive.”
“You know that for certain?” Rarity asked. She sounded skeptical. “How?”
“Because,” said Twilight, indicating the shelf behind her with a sweeping gesture, “of what isn't here.”
We stared at that shelf in silence.
“Is this a riddle?” Pinkie Pie asked. She tilted her head and perked her ear like a confused puppy. “Is the answer 'melon?'”
“Oh,” sighed Fluttershy, so quietly that I nearly dismissed it as my imagination before she repeated herself louder. “Oh! I recognize some of those!” She took wing and fluttered toward the shelf, scrutinizing the jars and their contents. “This is phlegmlock; I use it to treat flu symptoms in my animals. Ooh, and fegelein—with the right ingredients, part of a cure for poison joke!” Fluttershy returned to the ground and folded her wings. “These are herbal remedies and potions!”
I holstered my weapon and crossed to the shelf, picking up a jar full of blueish gunk and examining it. “Zecora's some kind of witch doctor, huh?” I said, turning the jar over in my hands. It was labeled in some jagged script that I didn't recognize. “Can't argue with the results. Her anti-venom saved my life.” I turned to Twilight. “But I don't see your point.”
The jar was illuminated by a pale, purple aura and floated out of my hand. It hovered a few inches in front of Twilight's face. “Zecora and I have talked pretty in depth about potions and remedies in the past. Between our conversations and my own research, I've gotten to know most of her supplies and what they do like the back of my hoof.” The jar full of gunk floated back onto the shelf. “The one you were holding is a zebra analgesic, colloquially referred to as 'Bottoms Up.' It's used to treat hemorrhoids.”
I heard Rainbow Dash snicker behind me.
“My point is that a number of very potent potions, of various uses, are missing from this shelf,” said Twilight, ignoring Rainbow Dash. “Primarily healing potions, but there are several missing which are multipurpose. One in particular has psychotropic properties.”
Zecora manufactured the Equestrian equivalent of LSD? That was a surprise. “That doesn't prove anything one way or the other,” I pointed out. “For all we know, the soldiers left to guard this hut took them without knowing what they were for.”
Twilight shook her head. “There's a definite pattern to the potions that were taken,” she said. “Any idiot could fill a sack with them and be on their merry way. They'd have no way to distinguish between Bottoms Up and a bone-knitting potion. Whoever took these knew exactly what they were getting, and chose specifically.”
“That still don't tell us much,” said Applejack. “Jus' that Zecora was gone 'fore anyone could come lookin' for her. Don't say why she went, or where.”
I still respect Zecora for her pharmaceutical skill to this day (hell, with my body the way it is now, I'd kill for some of those potions Twilight mentioned), but I came away from that investigation with even less of an understanding of her than before. I started to wonder whether Zecora had some agenda of her own, and if she did, what exactly it entailed. She could have left Applebloom and I to die, but instead, she took us into her home, fed us, and nursed me back to health. Yet, at the same time, she did nothing to help Applebloom when she was waylaid by the Manticore, and did nothing to back me up when I intervened. If I hadn't attacked the Manticore when I did, would Zecora have done anything to save Applebloom? Or would she have left the filly to die?
Now that I'm thinking about it again, the fact that the soldiers only caught up to us after we'd left the hut strikes me as convenient. That she was absent from the house when we returned, and that many of her more potent concoctions were missing along with her, makes it that much more curious. Was she approached by Trenton and his soldiers? Did she sell us out in exchange for her own safety? Or was saving us, only to sic a cyborg ninja on us later, just part of the plan?
I suppressed a smoldering fire of anger and resentment toward Zecora. This was all speculation; I had no proof that she'd betrayed me. The worst she'd done to me was save my life. So I didn't voice my suspicions, reminding myself that there was a job to do, first and foremost. Condemning my savior could wait until Applebloom was safe and sound and Metal Gear destroyed. So we emerged from Zecora's tree house with more questions than answers, one of which Rainbow Dash decided to voice.
“So let's say Zecora did skip town. What about the soldiers?” She looked searchingly at each of her friends, expecting an answer, then back at me as I ducked under the low-clearance door. “Didn't you say that Trenton left a couple guys behind to keep an eye on the place?”
The distinctive report of an AK-47 tore through the air. My hand flew back to my holster as the ponies froze in place. There came more gunshots; rapid fire, full auto, not in the immediate area, but worryingly close.
“What's going on?” asked Spike as he waddled toward the rest of us. “Is that gunfire?”
Twilight turned to me. “Have we been spotted?”
I shook my head quickly. “If those shots were meant for us, we'd know it. But someone's in a firefight nearby.” I looked at Rainbow Dash. “You were saying?”
Rainbow Dash frowned and opened her mouth to reply, but another burst of gunfire cut her off. Twilight stepped away from the group, her shoulders squared and her head lowered. “That could be Zecora they're shooting at!”
Or it could be some redneck washout gone hunting, I thought. Twilight looked behind herself at us, her face grim and resolute. “C'mon, everypony! Hurry!”
“Right,” said Spike as he scrambled onto Twilight's back. He didn't look happy when she bucked him right back off.
“Stay in Zecora's hut, Spike,” she snapped. “Wait there, where it's safe, and we'll come back for you.”
Spike looked genuinely hurt. “But Twilight, I can help! You said - ”
“No buts, Spike! I told you to stay out of trouble!” She turned her back to him. “Let's go!”
Looking at those ponies, with their inoffensive color schemes and funny hats and tramp stamps, it was easy to forget that they were animals who were renowned for their swiftness. Caught off guard by their initial burst of speed, I briefly had to sprint to catch up with them. I spared Spike one final glance before we left Zecora's house behind.
He wasn't staying put.
Six ponies and a human raced headlong toward the sounds of battle. The automatic gunfire cut off suddenly, and for a moment, it seemed as though the fight had ended before they could make their presence known. A series of five booming reports, distinctly louder than what the AK was capable of producing, told them that the fight was yet undecided. Before a great amount of time had passed, they came upon a scene that quite defied their expectations.
A human in Pegasus Wings livery stood in an overgrown clearing with a single tree in its center. There were several large rocks scattered here and there, and a large boulder rested against the trunk of the central tree. The human was surrounded by multiple attackers, nine in all. They were short, but their heads and shoulders were well above the tall, unshorn grass, and they stood upon four legs. Their bodies were brown, twisted, and gnarled. Their canine faces were dominated by a pair of bright yellow eyes, which they had narrowed to slits. The lights in their eyes glinted against the chrome finish of a long-barreled revolver, which the human was desperately fumbling to reload as his attackers tightened the circle around him. His AK-47 lay discarded on the ground not far from where he stood, beside the broken and splintered body of one of his attackers. There were several empty magazines littered around it.
Snake and the others crouched in the underbrush outside of the clearing. “What the hell are those?” he asked.
“Those are timberwolves!” Fluttershy breathed, her face lighting up. “I've never had the opportunity to see them up close before.”
“Timberwolves,” said Snake sourly. He rubbed his temple. “Of course they are.”
The human snapped the cylinder on his revolver shut, leveled it at one of the wolves and fired. The gun emitted a terrible, thunderous report, like an explosion, that made the observers clench their teeth and cringe. One of the wolves' heads exploded into timber, and its decapitated body fell limply into the underbrush.
“I don't see any sign of Zecora,” said Twilight, once she'd recovered from the shock. “Whatever's happening here, I don't think she has much to do with it.”
Rainbow Dash whirled, turning on Twilight. “So what are you saying? We should just walk away?”
“He's the enemy,” Snake pointed out. “On the battlefield, one doesn't typically go out of his way to save his enemy.”
“So what?” Rainbow Dash turned on Snake now, her wings bringing her up to eye level with him. She stuck her face into his; Snake firmly held his ground. “He's in trouble, and he needs help. We can't just leave him like this!”
A second gunshot brought their attention back to the battlefield. This time, the wolves were ready for the human's attack; the one in his line of fire nimbly dodged, and the gunshot harmlessly tore into the underbrush. The soldier cocked the revolver and sought a new target, but at that moment, a wolf leaped onto his back and clamped its jaws onto his shoulder. It pulled hard and tore away a large section of his combat vest, spitting it into the grass, and attacked the flesh he'd just exposed.
The soldier valiantly tried to throw him off, but another wolf attacked him from the side, knocking him onto his back. The rest of the pack swarmed him as he screamed.
“You see that?” said Snake. Rainbow Dash trembled with helpless rage. “That's the universe taking care of a problem for us. We should take this opportunity to—“
“Stop!” cried Fluttershy. She leaped out of her hiding place and into the clearing. The tall grass rose midway up her legs, obscuring her full height and making her seem much smaller than she was. The wolves' ears perked, and they withdrew from the soldier, turning upon Fluttershy and baring their fangs.
“I'm rubbin' off on you, 'Shy!” crowed Rainbow Dash. She shot to Fluttershy's side and unfolded a wing, throwing it protectively in front of the yellow pegasus. The others raced to Fluttershy's side as well, taking up positions alongside her. Snake reluctantly joined them, towering over the others from the rear of the group.
“Hello,” said Fluttershy sweetly, a kind smile on her face. “My name is Fluttershy, and these are my friends. We were walking through this forest just now, and couldn't help overhearing the awful racket going on over here.”
“What the hell does she think she's doing?” Snake growled.
Pinkie Pie turned to him and held a hoof to her lips. “Shh! This is her thing!”
“Now, I know that you need to eat meat to survive,” continued Fluttershy. “And it would be terribly rude of me to tell you not to do that, or to try and shame you into not eating meat. You can't help what you are. You're predators, and predators kill to survive. I understand that completely.”
The wolves formed a line, keeping the largest and bulkiest of them—the alpha—in their center. He was a giant, larger than the average wolf, closer in size to a manticore. The second largest stood beside and just behind him; giant though that one was, it was easily dwarfed by the alpha. Though the pack kept their postures tense and their teeth bared, they held their ground and listened as Fluttershy spoke.
“But look at that poor thing,” Fluttershy cooed. “There are so many of you, and only one of him. You can't all possibly eat well just feeding off of him, can you? There isn't that much to go around, between the eight of you.” She leaned forward, bowing her head slightly and batting her eyelashes at them. “Surely, you can find a much more substantial meal somewhere else, right?”
The wolves' expressions faltered. Frowns crossed their wooden muzzles. They looked to one another, then to the alpha, who ran a long, leafy green tongue over thorny wooden lips. Then he bared his fangs again, this time in a sinister grin, and took a step forward. He barked twice, the second bark tapering into a prolonged, throaty snarl, and the other wolves soon joined in. Their shoulders hunched, their splintery heckles rose, and they began to advance.
Fluttershy's face went ashen. Her five friends snorted and dug their hooves into the dirt. Twilight Sparkle lowered her head and bared her horn. Solid Snake joined their ranks, arms raised and fists balled. “Very convincing,” he said to Fluttershy.
The wolves bounded forward. The ponies galloped to meet them. Snake held his ground and braced himself as a wolf broke rank and sprinted toward him, barking madly. It leaped and sailed through the air, its maw wide open, rows of black, gnarled teeth gnashing. Snake caught it in the air and threw it to the ground, using its momentum in concert with his beastly physical strength to enhance the force of the impact. The wolf yelped in pain, but the dense grass cushioned it enough to prevent the landing from crippling it. It scrabbled back to its feet and wove away from a stomp, then coiled its legs and jumped at Snake again. Snake caught it under its forelegs, twisting his neck to keep out of reach of its snapping, slavering jaws. Flecks of thick, sap-like saliva splattered his face and the front of his suit.
The wolf lunged with its face, again and again, and each time, Snake narrowly avoided having one of his cheeks or his nose torn away. He wrapped his right hand around the wolf's left foreleg, choked his grip upward toward the elbow, and began to twist. The wolf stopped moving and emitted a piercing whine. It struggled, vainly thrashing about to escape Snake's grip as its leg cracked, splintered, and finally broke off. The wolf howled. Snake beat his end of the broken leg against the wolf's intact foreleg, once, twice, a third time. The leg broke on the third strike, and the dismembered wolf fell into the grass, writhing and crying. Snake lifted his foot, preparing to deliver a killing blow.
A sharp bark distracted him, and he whirled around in time to see another wolf leaping toward him, slavering jaws bared for the kill. Snake spun on his back foot and struck with a kick that connected with the wolf's muzzle. Its body twisted in midair from the impact of Snake's foot against its face, and it fell into the grass. Quickly, it rolled back to its feet and bared its fangs. Snake left his crippled target where it lay and turned his full focus onto the newcomer.
Rainbow Dash locked eyes with one of the wolves and chose to meet him head-on. They closed the distance between them 'til it was mere inches, and the wolf snapped its jaws, expecting to bite down on supple pony flesh. But they clamped shut on air as Rainbow Dash broke her charge, unfurled her wings, and zipped to the side at a ninety degree angle. The wolf's eyes followed the spectrum of her contrail as she began to circle him, a whirlwind of color.
A hoof lashed out and smacked the wolf across the face. It retaliated with a fierce swing of its paw, but found no purchase, and received a kick in the back of the head for its trouble. Dazed and disoriented, the wolf didn't even notice when Rainbow Dash broke her pattern and shot straight into the air above the wolf. She peaked at the forest's canopy, flipped in midair, and hurtled at the wolf like a lightning bolt, keeping her body straight as an arrow. The wolf recovered its wits just in time to look up at the triumphant blue pegasus hurtling toward it, and folded its ears against its skull sadly. Rainbow Dash barreled straight into the wolf's back, bending its body inward and breaking its wooden hide in several places. She springboarded off of it, flipped in midair, and landed on all fours with catlike precision.
The wolf whimpered, writhing painfully in the grass, unable to fully move from the force of Rainbow Dash's attack. The pegasus shook an aching hoof, and held it to her mouth, sucking gently. “Oh, be quiet, you baby. You think you've got it bad? That hit gave me a splinter.”
A savage bark behind her drew her attention. A second wolf bounded toward her, grinning a toothy, wolfy grin. Rainbow Dash tensed and unfurled her wings, ready to take to the air, but a length of rope shot from behind the wolf and wrapped around the its neck, jerking it to the ground. It landed with a thud and immediately began struggling, gnawing at the rope and shaking its head back and forth.
Applejack held her lasso tightly in her mouth, straining as hard as she could to keep the wolf under wraps. “Rai'ow,” she slurred through a mouthful of rope, “a'y 'i' 'ow.”
Rainbow Dash tilted her head. “Huh? Oh! You want me to—yeah! Right!” She shot forward, skidded to a halt in front of the bound wolf and reared onto her hind legs. She struck quickly and powerfully, brief jabs with her left hoof interspaced with powerful hooks with her right. Each strike elicited a yelp and a growl from the wolf, who frantically tugged and chewed at the rope to free itself. But each blow cracked its wooden face a little bit more, weakening it for the coup de grace.
Finally, Rainbow Dash drew her right forehoof back and swung it 'round for dramatic effect. “Looks like your bark,” she growled, “is worse than your—“
The rope snapped. The wolf's eyes shifted to glare at Rainbow Dash. She froze. “Uh - ”
The timberwolf took hold the end of rope that Applejack held, and swung her toward Rainbow Dash. Pony collided with pony with a painful crash, and they rolled through the grass as a tumbling, entangled mass of legs.
Applejack shook her head and glared at Rainbow Dash. “You had to showboat,” she snapped. “Y'all jus' couldn't resist, could ya?!”
“Hey,” said Rainbow Dash defensively, “how often do you get to use a classic line like that, huh?”
The timberwolf barked, and the feuding ponies froze. It charged toward Rainbow Dash and Applejack, and they threw their forelegs around one another, screaming.
A white and purple blur collided with the wolf, knocking it off course and stunning it momentarily. Rarity landed, balancing on one hind leg, her other raised and bent at the knee and her forelegs held in a "Y" shape. The wolf regained its equilibrium and snarled at the insolent unicorn.
"And to think," said Rarity, "they laughed when I took that Krav Marega class. Well, who's laughing now?"
The wolf, who now assumed a defensive posture, stood midway between Rarity and a boulder. It leaped at her, but Rarity swung her outstretched back hoof and caught the wolf beneath the chin. The wolf staggered backward toward the boulder, caught off guard by Rarity's attack. Rarity pressed her advantage; she turned her back upon the wolf, leaned onto her forelegs, and struck the wolf in the face with a powerful dual-legged kick. The kick spun the wolf's neck around, causing its head to collide against the boulder. Weakened by the sudden avalanche of cranial trauma, the wolf could only wobble uncertainly on its legs, blinking rapidly. Rarity maintained a tense stance, staring it down, until the wolf's eyes finally closed and it collapsed into the grass beneath the boulder.
Panting, Rarity looked at Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Applejack glanced at the boulder that Rarity had used against the wolf, then at Rarity, and broke into a smile.
“Don't say it,” Rarity warned.
“Don't say what?” asked Applejack, her smile broadening.
“You know what I mean. I know you do." Rarity coughed. "The 'T' word?”
“T?” Rainbow Dash stroked her chin. “Timber? Like what a lumberjack says?”
Rarity huffed and blew a lock of hair out of her face.
A cry from Snake drew their attention. The human had a wolf pinned against a tree with his left arm and was punching it in the face with his right, but another wolf had leaped onto his back and was now snapping its jaws at his neck. Rainbow and Applejack extricated themselves, and together with Rarity, charged to Snake's aid.
One of the wolves circled Fluttershy, licking its chops. Fluttershy quivered; her every plea for reason was either ignored or met with another hungry look from the wolf. She was losing faith that she'd be able to end this particular conflict nonviolently.
The wolf lunged at her. Fluttershy squeaked and dove out of the way, and the wolf passed over her, landing in the grass. It whipped around to strike again. Fluttershy took to the air, beating her wings rapidly in a desperate bid to gain altitude, but the wolf's jaws snapped shut on her tail, and it tugged her back to the grass. She landed on her belly and rolled onto her back, scooting away from the wolf as it stalked toward her. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth; Fluttershy guessed it was either happy or hungry (or possibly both). She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face in her hooves.
Pinkie Pie suddenly bounced forward, interposing herself between Fluttershy and the wolf. “Oh hi!” she chirped. “I don't think we've met quite yet; y'see, I don't come into the forest very often and when I do it's usually for business and not pleasure, so I never get to make many new friends or meet anypony new! Oh, but I guess you're not really a pony, you're a wolf, so I should say 'anywolf' or 'anywolves' maybe if I want to go plural...”
The wolf took a stutter-step backward. Its swagger, its hungry confidence, were gone, and it now backed away nervously as Pinkie Pie bounced closer and closer, chattering ceaselessly. Frightened, it turned to run, only to find its path inexplicably blocked by the same pink pony it was fleeing from.
"Not to mention it makes my hair poof like kuh-RAY-ZEE," sang Pinkie Pie, sticking her face into the wolf's and rolling her eyes for emphasis. The wolf shut its eyes and snapped at Pinkie, but it came up empty. It opened its eyes. The pony had vanished. Perplexed and fearful, the wolf turned left and right in search of her, finding nopony but Fluttershy. It growled at her. Fluttershy winced, coughed quietly, and pointed at the wolf's back. The wolf craned its head backward, as far up as it could, to see what Fluttershy indicated.
“...so I said 'Oatmeal? Are you crazy?'," said Pinkie Pie, perched atop the wolf's hindquarters. The wolf's jaw dropped. It hadn't even felt Pinkie's weight until it noticed her. Suddenly, its legs buckled beneath it, and it collapsed to the ground, pinned by the pony.
"Hey, what's the weather like in here?" Pinkie Pie asked, once again shoving her face against the wolf's. "I guess because you don't have the pegasi regulating it it gets pretty hairy sometimes." She giggled, and the wolf moaned unhappily, physically pained by her pun. "Hairy? Like a dog? Geddit? Nah," she said, waving a hoof dismissively and obliviously smacking the wolf in the eye with it. "You wouldn't get it because you don't have hair; you're made out of wood. Do you ever get termites? Like some ponies get lice or worms? Ooh, can I check you for termites?!" Pinkie turned around and belly-flopped upon the wolf's back. It yelped in pain, the wind knocked out of it, and its wooden skin splintered from Pinkie's sudden drop.
"I never got them," Pinkie continued. "Not termites, I mean, you silly filly!" She propped her head up on her elbows, which dug painfully into the wolf's skin. "Even when I was living on the rock farm - oh, did I mention I grew up on a rock farm? Now THAT is an interesting story!" Pinkie began absentmindedly kicking her hind legs up and down, whacking the wolf in the back of the head each time. The wolf struggled to free itself from Pinkie Pie, but found itself impossibly pinned beneath her. Pinkie, for her part, failed to notice the wolf's efforts, or the pain she was inflicting upon it with her playful, girlish kicks. She looked and acted as though she were laying on her bed flipping through a magazine, not fighting for her life against a woodland beast. The wolf's struggles grew weaker with each blow and each passing second, but Pinkie Pie kept right on telling her story.
"Well y'see back when I was just an itty bitty little ittle twinkie Pinkie, I lived on a rock farm with my parents and my sisters, where there was no smiling or singing or laughing or even any cake. Can you believe it? Not even on birthdays!"
The wolf moaned pitiably.
"I know!" exclaimed Pinkie Pie. "It's like, DUH!" She punctuated her exclamation by slamming both legs, in unison, onto the wolf's head. It suddenly went very, very still. Pinkie Pie did not notice. "No, we had igneous rocks for our birthdays, and we'd carve them up and eat 'em with frosting - we did have frosting, but it was made out of shale and water - ”
“Pinkie,” said Fluttershy softly, and a little sadly. She placed a hoof on the party pony's shoulder, then gestured at the silent wolf who lay still and prone beneath her. Its eyes were glassy and unfocused, and its tongue hung out of the side of its mouth.
Pinkie removed herself from the wolf and stepped in front of it. She tentatively reached a hoof toward its face, tapped it on the nose, and withdrew quickly. The wolf remained still. “Did I? Huh. I guess I talked it to death. I didn't even know I could do that.” She looked at Fluttershy, frowning. “You don't get that bored with my stories, do you?”
Fluttershy said nothing. An overpowering wave of sorrow struck her in the shoulders, forcing her to drop to her haunches and sit in the grass. Her eyes looked into the faintly yellow, lifeless, darkened eyes of the timberwolf. "Fluttershy?" asked Pinkie Pie hesitantly.
The pegasus continued to stare silently into the dead wolf's eyes.
Twilight Sparkle dug her hooves into the dirt, staring down a large wolf who bulged with what could only be described as wooden muscles. It barked harshly at her, sap dripping from its chops.
A purple aura emanated from Twilight's horn. Thick, choking, purple smoke materialized between her and the wolf. The wolf's keen sight couldn't penetrate the dense haze. It tried to sniff out the illusive purple unicorn, but all it could smell was an overpowering grape scent.
There was a flash directly ahead of the wolf, and the silhouette of a pony appeared. Twilight’s horn shone brightly; a light expanded from it, tendrils of energy snaking in all directions like the rays of a miniature sun, before the light imploded inward, focused at the tip of her horn. A noise like a sonic boom ripped through the air and the wolf was gone, catapulted through the tree line and quite out of sight in less than a second.
Twilight Sparkle heaved a sigh and sagged her shoulders. “I wonder how high it'll go,” she mused to herself. “The stratosphere? At the least, according to my calculations.”
A low, rumbling growl behind her sent a shiver of panic down her spine. Her horn flashed as she tried to teleport away from the danger, but the wolf collided with her and broke her focus. Twilight lay on her stomach in the grass. She felt wooden paws pin her forelegs to the ground, and she had to grit her teeth to avoid crying out from the pain of the wolf's claws digging into her skin. Thick sap dripped onto her neck as the wolf lowered its muzzle to her neck.
“Hey!” shouted a boyish voice. “Get off of her, you big wooden jerk!”
Twilight's eyes widened.
She felt a sudden addition to the weight pressing down on her, heard a sharp intake of breath and the familiar searing sound of fire breath, and then the wolf was off of her, yelping and shrieking in pain. Twilight pushed onto her hooves, and saw a scene that made her heart leap with pride and sink with fear simultaneously.
Spike was on the wolf's back. His arms were locked around its neck and his face was pressed against its nape. The top and back of the wolf's head blazed like a vivid green mane. Tongues of flame licked at Spike's head, but if he noticed, he showed no signs of it. He lifted his head and sucked in another breath, but the wolf shrugged its mighty shoulders enough to break the grip he had around its neck. Then it bucked, catapulting him off of its back and into the grass. Howling with agony, the wolf turned and sprinted into the woods, its cries of pain echoing in the clearing long after it had vanished.
Twilight fixed Spike with a glare and sucked her teeth. The dragon smiled sheepishly, crooked his arm, and rested his chin in it. "C'mon, admit it Twilight," he chuckled. "You needed - "
A loud, feral, canine roar drowned the remainder of Spike's bragging. The dragon and the pony turned to see the timberwolf alpha, giant and bearlike, rumbling toward them like a freight train. Immediately, Twilight leaped in front of Spike and bared her horn at the wolf. She threw up a magic barrier, but the wolf barreled through it, breaking through without breaking stride. It swung a massive paw at Twilight, batting her aside, and she fell to the grass with a grunt. Twilight lifted her head, and was greeted with the sight of the timberwolf alpha clutching her assistant in its gargantuan jaws. It glared at her with furious yellow eyes, snarling at the unicorn.
Spike trembled. He stared into Twilight's eyes, silently willing her to do something. Twilight quickly ran through her options. Short of teleporting Spike out of its jaws, she could think of nothing. The wolf itself presented too great a variable for her to do that with any reasonable assurance of Spike's safety. In a best case scenario, Spike would rematerialize with wolf teeth embedded in his skin. In a worst case scenario, he'd rematerialize with the wolf's jaw phased through his head.
Twilight swallowed. On her own, she felt quite useless.
"Drop him," growled a low, gravelly voice.
Fortunately, Twilight Sparkle was not alone.
Solid Snake, flanked by Applejack and Rarity with Rainbow Dash overhead, rushed to her side. The human gripped a chunk of timberwolf leg like a cudgel. Behind the wolf, Pinkie Pie bounced lightly on her hooftips.
"Do what he says," said Twilight. She took a step forward. "Let the dragon down, and walk away from this." Her horn began to shimmer. "So help me, if you harm one scale on his head..."
The wolf barked through a mouthful of Spike and pounded its paw against the dirt. Twilight swallowed hard and tensed.
The sounds of the stand-off drifted through Fluttershy's ears. She heard them, but only distantly, as background noise. For the moment, the entire world was herself and the empty eyes of a lifeless timberwolf.
Not far away, another wolf whimpered and mewled, and for some odd reason, Fluttershy heard that more clearly than Twilight's menacing threats to the alpha male. A timberwolf, its forelegs broken off at the elbows, writhed in the grass, struggling to raise itself onto limbs that no longer existed. Syrupy blood dripped from the wounds.
It was the same everywhere she looked. Crippled timberwolves, their bodies splintered, shattered and broken, lay scattered all around. The acrid smell of burnt wood wafted past her nostrils, mixed with the lingering odor of cordite. Headless timberwolves lay as silent reminders of a fight that she and her friends had been late to. And, propped against a tree in the center of the clearing, a human tried desperately to staunch the flow of blood from a mortal wound.
A boulder hovered over the alpha wolf's body, outside of its line of sight. It was wrapped in a shimmering purple aura. Twilight Sparkle licked her parched lips.
And then, audible only to Fluttershy, came a loud, snapping sound.
"Stop it!" screamed Fluttershy. She took to the air, winging over the wolf and beneath the boulder and landing between the two groups of combatants. "Stop it! Stop, stop, stop it! Stop it right this second!" she cried.
“Move, dammit,” snapped Snake. “We're trying to clean up your mess.”
Fluttershy trembled, and she whirled upon Snake, her eyes wide and red. "I said STOP IT!" she thundered. "Both of you, all of you, just stop! Stop and look around! Look what all this fighting's done!"
Her friends did as they were told, and as they looked about the clearing, they beheld what she did: the broken, beaten bodies (lifeless and otherwise) of a pack of timberwolves. "Stop complaining," said Snake. "You were the one who wanted to get involved, remember?"
Suddenly furious and sounding quite mad, Fluttershy stomped toward Snake. "I wanted to help that poor human!" she rasped. Her throat was dry, parched from her screaming. "I wanted to prevent more violence and killing! I didn't want this! All this did was add to the body count! More bodies, more blood, more death!"
Snake said nothing, and did not move; if he was at all put off by Fluttershy's behavior, he did not give it away. Fluttershy turned her back to her friends and advanced upon the alpha male. It held its ground, eying her as though she were little more than a curiosity. The pegasus beat her wings and took to the air again, coming face-to-face with the alpha. "Why couldn't you have just listened?!" she demanded. "This could have all been avoided if you and your pack just left! All this fighting and carnage and death, all for what?!" Tears stung her eyes, flowed freely, but she didn't let up one bit. "Your pack is dead! The ones who aren't are crippled! You're the only one left standing, and instead of realizing what you've led them all into, you're still trying to pick a fight!"
The alpha glanced at the dragon in its jaws. Its grip relaxed somewhat.
"How dare you hold my friend hostage like that!" said Fluttershy, pointing at Spike. "How dare you use him as a tool in this ridiculous blood sport! This isn't hunting, this isn't living as a predator, it's meaningless - " Fluttershy's sentence ended abruptly in a hiccup. Her voice quivered. Anger was beginning to give way to sorrow. "Stop it now," she begged. "Let him down and take what's left of your pack and just go. Don't cause anymore violence or death today."
The timberwolf alpha turned away from Fluttershy. It gazed around the battlefield, littered with the remains and crippled bodies of his pack. It looked at the human, still alive and holding his shoulder and staring with interest at the drama in the clearing. Finally, it turned back to Fluttershy. The two's eyes met, Fluttershy's swimming with tears, the wolf's shining a pale yellow. It looked past Fluttershy, at her friends, who were still arrayed for a fight, and it bowed its head. Its great jaws released their grip on Spike, and he tumbled to the grass. Immediately, he vanished in a flash of purple, and reappeared at Twilight Sparkle's side. She pushed him behind herself with a hoof and held him there, her body still tense and her horn still glowing.
Slowly, the great wolf turned its bulk away from the group. Pinkie Pie quickly scrambled out of its way as it strode toward the crippled remains of the wolf who Rainbow Dash had beaten into submission. It leaned down and pushed beneath it, taking it onto its back. The alpha strode next to the wolf that Rarity had beaten, and gathered it as well. It looked across -the battlefield, at the remaining wolves, either dead or crippled, and bowed its head again. Then, mournfully, it strode out of the clearing and into the dark of the Everfree Forest.
Fluttershy gradually returned to the ground and folded her wings. Her body still trembled, and her head and shoulders slumped forward. Heavy, heaving sobs wracked her body.
"Fluttershy...?" asked Pinkie Pie. She tiptoed toward the pegasus and wrapped a foreleg around her shoulders. Wordlessly, Fluttershy turned into Pinkie Pie's hug and melted into the embrace. Pinkie wrapped her other leg around her and held the pegasus as she wept.
"It's wrong," she gasped between sobs. "It's killing, and it's stupid, and it's so... it's so..."
"I know," said Pinkie. "I'm sorry." She held her tighter and brushed her mane affectionately.
The boulder returned to the ground, unnoticed by all, and the purple aura faded. “'Naught's had, all's spent,'” Snake said under his breath, dropping his makeshift cudgel and drawing a cigarette from his belt. “'Where our desire is got without content.'” He placed the cigarette in his mouth and reached for his lighter.
Another purple aura yanked it from his mouth, let it dangle in the air for a moment, then dropped it to the grass. Snake sagged his shoulders and sighed.
I stared at the crippled body of the timberwolf whose legs I'd broken, and thought of the dogs I'd raised in Alaska a lifetime ago. Sure, the similarities were few and far in between. I didn't even know that these things could technically qualify as wolves. Wolves aren't made of wood. But that plaintive noise it made reminded me of a time when I had to put down one of my dogs. My favorite, actually. A sweet and gentle male who'd rest his chin on my knee whenever I was sitting down and stare up at me with big, soulful blue eyes. He'd broken his leg in three places and wouldn't be able to race again, wouldn't even be able to walk without enduring a very unpleasant agony. So I took him out back, alone, with an old Winchester carbine, and I let him die with dignity. And right before I pulled the trigger, he looked me in the eye, and he made that noise, that quiet, resigned, pitiable whine.
For a moment, I reached my hand toward the head of the timberwolf. I wanted to brush my fingers over its wooden skin. I wanted to feel it stir, see its head lift and its tongue loll happily out of its mouth. But it whined, loudly and shrilly, as my hand drew closer. I withdrew before I came into contact and clenched my fingers tightly, dangling my arm at my side.
The wolf didn't even move anymore. It just lay there, crying, and staring into space.
“Hey Snake?” Applejack nudged my hand with her nose. “Everythin' alright?”
I wasn't that obvious, was I? “Fine. Just a little sore, I guess.” I looked down at the orange mare. She was bruised all over, and there was some very odd chafing around the corners of her mouth, but she stood tall and proud on all four legs, no worse for wear. “You're pretty good, y'know that?”
“Shucks, stranger, same to you!” she said with a laugh. It was the happiest I'd seen her yet. “Happy t'have you on our side!”
“Yes,” agreed Rarity. She dusted herself off; it seemed pointless to me, because her effervescent white coat was still spotless, despite the tussle. “You know, you may be an uncouth ruffian, but you're handy in a tight spot.” She grinned.
I smiled grimly and turned away from them. Fluttershy was at the side of the Pegasus Wings soldier, who rested his back against the tree in the clearing's center. She examined his wounds while Pinkie Pie stood a little ways away, looking detached. A whole chunk of his shoulder was missing, and blood coated the entire left side of his uniform. I doubted he would make it, but sparing him some comfort was a nice gesture from the pegasus nonetheless.
I began to walk toward the two of them, just as I heard Rainbow Dash burst into laughter. “Oh, I get it now!” she gasped between chuckles. “The 'T' word! That 'T' word!” Rarity groaned.
Didn't care. Kept walking. The tall grass tickled my calves and shins.
“What did I tell you, Spike?” demanded Twilight. She and her baby dragon were at the edge of the ring of trees, sitting alone together. “I gave you one very simple, very specific instruction. Remind me, Spike, what was it?”
“To stay put,” he said glumly.
“And what did you choose not to do?” Twilight continued, in that patronizing tone that parents always used for children who disappointed them somehow.
“But Twilight, that thing was about to eat you alive! If I hadn't shown up when I did—”
“Better me than you, Spike,” Twilight interrupted. I admit that I was eying them now, mildly interested in their spat. Twilight rubbed the back of her neck with a hoof while glaring at the dragon who sat beside her. “One of the others could have helped me out of that spot. By stepping in yourself, by disobeying me, you put yourself in harm's way unnecessarily. You could have been killed, and what good would that have done? For me, for you, or for anypony?”
Spike heaved a trembling, wet-sounding sigh. “I just wanted to help you, Twilight. I'm sick of being useless.”
“You're not useless at all. You help me every day, Spike,” said Twilight. Her words were kind, but her voice was tense and authoritative.
Spike was silent. They sat there together like that for a few moments before Twilight wrapped a leg around him and pulled him against her chest. Spike's eyes opened in surprise for a moment, but then he nuzzled his face against her and returned the hug. “I'm not ungrateful,” she said to him. “I just don't want to lose you because you're trying not to lose me.” She ran her hoof over the scales on his head. “Thank you for saving my life, Spike.”
Another family that was nearly torn apart. I thought about Applejack and her sister, and wondered what Twilight would do if she ever lost that dragon. What was he, her pet? Not quite the same thing, I guess, but she seemed to care deeply for him. I returned my focus to the soldier and Fluttershy; they were holding a conversation now.
“Please don't talk like that,” Fluttershy said kindly. “With the proper treatment, you're sure to pull through!”
The soldier ran a gloved hand through her mane. She trembled slightly, and her eyes betrayed a hint of discomfort, but she didn't move. “That's great,” he said. His voice, though weak and faded, was colored by a strong New York accent. “Can you get me the proper treatment?”
Fluttershy looked away from him, blushing. “W-well...”
He laughed softly. “I didn't think so. But thanks anyway.” He looked past her, at me, and for a moment, his eyes widened just a bit. “Well now. You're not regular infantry.”
“No, I'm not. I'm...” I looked at Fluttershy, over my shoulder at Twilight and Spike, and over my other shoulder at Rainbow Dash, Rarity and Applejack. The group was heading toward us now, slowly, like a funeral procession. The crunching sound of hooves through grass alerted me to Pinkie Pie's presence. She was edging closer to us now. “I'm a...” I thought for a moment. Should I even bother with a cover story? Ah, the hell with it. “A veterinarian.”
He coughed an eerily familiar gurgly laugh. “Is that right? What, are you interning here?”
“Something like that.” I knelt in front of him and reached my fingers under the bottom of his balaclava. He said nothing, so I tugged it off of his head, exposing the face of a middle-aged man with a well-grown (if unkempt) yellow beard and fading blonde hair. The hair on his chin was stained red. His eyes were similarly bloodshot, so much so that I couldn't tell what color his irises were. They just looked black.
“Thanks, doc,” he said, breaking into a bloodied smile. “It was getting hot under there.”
I nodded. “What's your name? Your rank?”
He tried to hold his hand to his forehead in a mock salute, but stopped before he got anywhere near, gasping and groaning in pain. Fluttershy darted to his side and held his arm, gently pulling it back to his side.
“Case,” he said in a voice that sounded markedly weaker. “Captain Ronald Quincy Case, of the Pegasus Wings army. Second only to Commander Cain himself.” He paused, and made a face. “Or I was.”
“'Second in command'?” I repeated. “What's the second ranking officer of a military unit doing on a scavenger hunt out here?”
Captain Case bit his bottom lip and smiled. “'Scavenger hunt.' Appropriate.” With Fluttershy's help, he raised himself to a more comfortable sitting position against the tree. “There were seven of us. Five troops, myself. And the freak.”
“Freak?” A blazing blue eye flashed in my mind. “You mean the ninja. Trenton.” Fluttershy shuddered.
Case blinked. “You've met, huh? Yeah. He's a real charmer. Took the five shittiest troops in the unit and dragged me along with him to keep an eye on them. Time was, I wouldn't have had to do what he said, but Commander Cain's priorities have changed of late.” He spat. Rarity made a quiet sound of disgust.
“We were sent to hunt a big kitty. Did that. But there were signs, y'see, of human life out here in these woods.” He waggled his eyebrows at me. “So Trenton stuck us outside an abandoned house and went off in the woods to chase down whoever it was that was poking around in the forest.” Case closed his eyes and let out a pained breath. “That's when they came.”
“The wolves,” Spike supplied, and he nodded. “How did they get you so far from your post?” the baby dragon asked.
Case smiled sadly, his eyes still shut. “They got the drop on us. I didn't even see them 'til my partner started crying for help. By the time I noticed and went to help him, he was gone, dragged off into the woods. I pursued them. Then I got surrounded.”
I ran my tongue along the bottom row of my teeth as I processed this. “They killed your man to lure you into a trap. Interesting tactic.”
"Never found his body," grumbled Case. "Stupid kid, but he didn't deserve what he got." The captain gestured at the bullet-riddled wolf who was surrounded by spent magazines. “As for me, I wish I could have made a better stand for myself, but there were too many, and they were too quick.” He laughed. “I guess it's my punishment though; I used to poach wolves with my dad when I was a teenager.”
The aghast look on Fluttershy's face and the way she recoiled told me that she didn't care one bit for that revelation. “You said you were the army's number two man,” I said. “Why was Trenton able to treat such a high-ranking officer like a common grunt?”
“Well,” said Case, “because the Commander apparently thinks that he's more valuable than a man who's served at his side faithfully for fifteen years.” He finally opened his eyes and looked into mine. “Are you familiar with Zanzibar Land?”
Intimately. “The mercenary nation, right? The one that revolted in 1999?”
He made a finger-gun at me and pretended to shoot it. “Bingo, doc. Cain and I were both loyal members of the Zanzibar Land military. After the Christmas revolt, with Big Boss dead and most of our army in tatters, Cain and I, and about fifty others, took what little we could scrape together and fled, less than a day ahead of the NATO mop-up squad. We stuck together after that, went our own way as a mercenary outfit. Eventually, that outfit evolved into the Pegasus Wings private military. Not the biggest, nor the best armed, but we were good soldiers, and we carved out a living for ourselves. Bought a freighter, refit it as a warship, and lived the good life on the high seas.”
I couldn't imagine how lost the ponies were, with all this talk about NATO and Zanzibar Land and Christmas. Well, shit, I thought, see how they like being confused by strange terminology for a change. “So what changed?” I asked.
Case licked his dry lips. “That fucker Trenton happened. We were acting as private muscle to a Russian unit assigned to root out Chechnyan rebels when, out of nowhere, that one-eyed blue bastard showed up and started talking about some new job. One that'd pay dividends a million times over. I wanted to get rid of him, but Cain was hooked, and they spent days hammering out an arrangement while me and the rest of the unit swilled vodka by day and shot Chechnyans by night. Finally, we pulled out of Russia and went to some coordinates that Trenton provided.”
“That's when you found the island,” I said. I looked over my shoulder at Twilight and the others. “And that gateway.”
“Yeah,” said Case. “You catch on quick, for a guy who disempacts doggy bowel for a living.” Rainbow Dash snickered; I ignored her. “Cain and Trenton and I, and a few others, we went through, and... that's when we met our client.”
“'Client?'” I asked. “I thought Trenton was your client.”
“No, no,” said Case. “Trenton was just his representative, or somesuch. The client is some crazy pony fucker who calls himself Macbeth.”
“Macbeth?” asked Twilight, her voice suddenly fear-stricken. She pushed forward, shouldering past me to get into Case's face. “Macbeth of Stalliongrad? That Macbeth?!”
I glanced over my shoulder, at the rest of the assembled group. They all looked absolutely flabbergasted. Applejack looked expectantly at Spike, and Spike only shrugged in response.
“Well, he sure ain't the Thane of Glamis,” said Case, cracking a sardonic smile. He didn't budge an inch in the face of Twilight's sudden intrusion. “I take it he's a big name around here?”
Twilight pulled away from Case. “He's a revolutionary,” she said, still with that quasi fearful voice. “Years ago, he tried to start an insurgency against the Princess in the city of Stalliongrad. It got serious enough where Princess Celestia had to personally put it down.” She looked at her friends. “You guys have seriously never heard of this?”
They collectively shrugged. “I heard about some trouble in Stalliongrad about five or so years back,” said Rarity. “But I didn't know the specifics.”
“Then how come you do?” I asked, nodding at Twilight.
“The guardsponies talk a lot,” she said with a nonchalant air. “I never saw anything about it in the news, but I overheard a number of conversations between those who'd accompanied Princess Celestia on the mission.” Her face molded into a sly expression. “You'd be surprised how easy it is to overhear sensitive information when you spend as much time around the palace as I used to.”
State secrets being discussed openly by the people involved in them? Woodward and Bernstein would have turned Equestria inside and out in days. “Did they say what this revolutionary was like?” I asked. Case's face turned thoughtful, and he looked at Twilight with intrigue.
“Well,” said Twilight, shifting her weight from one leg to another. “It's been a long time, and I didn't overhear many specifics about the rebellion. But I do remember one guard saying how brave Macbeth was. How he looked Princess Celestia right in the eye and delivered a stirring and powerful speech.”
“An idealistic revolutionary who likes to talk?” I asked. I tried to picture Solidus as a pony, with writhing, mechanical tentacles instead of wings and a wakizashi for a horn.
“He's a fucking chickenshit retard,” snapped Case. He'd modulated his voice thus far in his discussion, but here he suddenly grew irate. The change was startling, to say the least. He spat again, and this time Rarity shuddered a little. “A raving asshole lunatic. Totally divorced from reality. I said as much to Cain, told him that nothing good was going to come out of this job, no matter what Trenton promised him.” He pronounced Trenton's name “Tren'n,” the “T” and "O" getting swallowed by the “N”s. “I was told that this was the direction that the army was taking, that if I didn't like it, I could take my walking papers and go back to America.”
“Why didn't you?” asked Pinkie Pie softly. I was startled; it was the first I'd heard her speak since Fluttershy's little speech.
Case fixed her with a stare. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and frowned. “I want to say that I had no place else to go,” he said at length. “Technically speaking, I'm a war criminal; I'd be thrown in the stockades the second I set foot in my home country. I hear some Zanzibar Land personnel were allowed to return to their countries. I knew one guy, in particular, this Inuit guy, who got picked up for an Army special operations unit.” He stared intently at me, then continued speaking. “But the truth is, I owe Cain my life. All us ex-Zanzibar Landers do. He kept us together, made us into something when we had no other recourse.” He leaned his head back against the tree and laughed. “Sounds stupid, I know. Following orders blindly, even when you know they'll go nowhere good.”
“Darn right, that sounds stupid," muttered Rainbow Dash.
"Rainbow," said Applejack in a low voice. Case raised an eyebrow at the pegasus.
Rainbow Dash shrugged. "There's a difference between being loyal, and being stupid. Friends don't betray each others' trust, and if they do, then they don't deserve any loyalty. Staying loyal to someone who betrays you is stupid."
"I don't believe the dying man asked for your opinion, Rainbow Dash," I said.
Case shook his head. The motion was slow and laborious. He was running out of steam. “Thanks, doc, but she's right. I was an idiot for following Cain after he turned on me. Especially when it turned out that I was right all along.” His eyes shifted back to me. “As soon as we took the job, we started making all these cutbacks. Had a platoon of ten M1 Abrams. Cain hawked 'em and bought a bunch of flatbed trucks and APCs instead. He sold all but six of our helicopters, and all but one of our gunships! You know what our standard issue weapon used to be? AUGs. Steyr AUGs, just like Zanzibar Land. Some Heckler and Koch rifles. Enfields. Cutting-edge Israeli rifles, even. Cain traded 'em in for those pieces of shit.” He pointed at the chewed and broken AK-47.
His voice now grew louder, bolder, full of zeal. For a man who was on death's door, who I thought was losing steam, he spoke powerfully. “Everything from sidearms to anti-armor weapons got downgraded. We're marching around with guns that haven't been cutting-edge since the fucking Cold War.” Case harrumphed. “That broke the camel's back for the last of the Zanzibar Landers; I'm the only one left besides Cain who's been with the unit from the start. Cain filled their spots with wash-outs like the ones I came out here with. Bunch of fuckfaces, can't tell CQC from CQD.” His chest and shoulders heaved with every painfully drawn breath. This tirade was sapping the last of his life. “I should have complained. I should have talked him down. I should have shot that fucker Trenton in the back of the head and fed his body to the wash-outs, but I held my tongue and followed orders like a good officer.” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “And then he brought Metal Gear into our ship.”
The ponies had a vague understanding of what Metal Gear was, but they couldn't appreciate what it represented, couldn't comprehend what horrors it was capable of unleashing. Equestria was a world that had never experienced nuclear armageddon; may it never. But Case and I knew. “I have no doubt that Big Boss would have used the power of Metal Gear judiciously,” said Case. “But Cain isn't of sound mind or judgment anymore. Trenton's poisoned him. And Macbeth?” He spat a third time; Rarity let out a miffed “oh honestly.” I don't know what her problem was. He couldn't even muster any saliva on that last one.
“Anyone who listens to that prick can't have good judgment.” The fire in his eyes was fading, but all their remaining intensity was now honed on me. “He's not going to use Metal Gear as a deterrent. He's going to use it as an instrument of open war. He has a nuclear missile, and he's going to launch it. I don't know at what, and I don't know when, but I know that he will. My gut tells me he will.”
I leaned forward and gripped his intact shoulder. “Tell me where it is,” I said. “At the castle?”
Case tried to shake his head and failed. “No, no,” he said instead. “A staging area. He's moved most of the troops and equipment there. And don't ask me where it is; I haven't been in the know for a long time.” He exhaled sharply; I took it to be a laugh. “Trenton might know. Beat the shit out of him and he'll tell you. Even if he doesn't, it couldn't hurt to try.”
Maybe I would have laughed with him if my stomach wasn't so knotted with trepidation.
“What're you packin' there?” he asked suddenly, indicating my holster with his eyes. “C'mon, show me.”
I drew my gun, a little surprised by the request. “Beretta,” Case breathed. “Woo's favorite. Tranquilizer variant, if what we found on the big kitty is any indicator. Not good enough.” He held up his right hand. The revolver he'd used to kill the timberwolf was still clutched tightly in his fingers. “Smith and Wesson Model 500. The gun my dad used on those wolves we poached.” He offered it to me barrel-first. I ignored the faux paux and took it. It was heavy, but not unmanageable.
“Thanks,” I muttered, examining the weapon. It had a chrome barrel, and a smooth, black lacquered grip. I opened the cylinder; three rounds were chambered. All in all, a nice gun, but not much more than a collector's item. The Model 500 was and is the most powerful handgun in the world, but the force of the recoil and its absurd weight makes it impractical and unwieldy. It was mildly impressive that Case was able to hit anything at all with it, but then, he'd also spent a full five rounds without any luck, if the earlier shots were anything to go by. A gun like that is really nothing more than a fancy, expensive paperweight, never mind the limited ammo.
Still, I didn't want to offend the dying man, so I took it without complaint. I looked at him again; he was holding three additional .500 rounds. In his hand, they looked like giant brass fingers. I took the bullets, nodded my thanks, and began sliding them into the two empty chambers. The spare I slid into a pouch on my belt, beside my portable ashtray.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Twilight Sparkle. “Why help us? You're betraying your friends by doing that, aren't you?”
Case breathed slowly, deeply now. He seemed more relaxed, at ease, having gotten all that he wanted off his chest. “Young lady, you never served under Big Boss, so I don't expect you to get much of what I'm about to say.” He rolled his reddened, dying eyes to look at me. No, not at me. Through me. “But you will. Oh, I know that you will.”
I froze, midway through loading the last round into the revolver, and locked eyes with him. “A soldier's just a tool, see, unless he's loyal to himself. Unless he's fighting for himself. Not for king and country. Not for an ideology. And certainly not 'for the mission.' A soldier must fight for himself.” The way he said it, stressing every individual word in the sentence, he made it sound like the most imperative, empirical, universal concept. It was certainly one that I was very familiar with.
“I followed Cain on a mission that I knew was wrong. I took my orders unquestioningly while he and his new inner circle ran our army into the ground. I sold myself for the sake of loyalty that my commander no longer valued. And worse, I knew full-well that I was making the wrong choices. I lost sight of what was important, and in doing so, I betrayed myself and my honor as a soldier.” His breaths grew shallower with every word he spoke. “If I'd died out here, without you finding me, I'd have died a tool. But you've given me a chance to fight for what I really believe in, even if I'm only helping in some tiny, insignificant way.” He smiled, shut his eyes, and inhaled one final, shaky breath. “You've given me a chance to make amends. And that... young lady... that is worth dying for.”
I saw a ripple of transparent black cloth appear in front of Case's body, and then his head dropped forward over his chest. He let out a final, gurgling breath, and was gone. He still wore his dying smile.
“What do we do now?” asked Fluttershy. Her eyes were red and her cheeks streaked with tears. She'd been crying again; I hadn't even heard her. I almost answered her question, but swallowed my response and glanced at Twilight. These were her friends. I was the outsider. Better to defer that responsibility to her.
“No sign of Zecora,” sighed Applejack. “The feller we found instead died anyway. An' we're no closer to shuttin' down that Metal Gear business, or savin' Applebloom, than we were an hour ago. In hindsight, comin' this way seems like a wagon-sized waste o'time.”
Twilight sucked in a breath through her nose. She about-faced and looked at her friends, one after another. “We may have lost time coming out here. We may not have found who we were looking for. But in taking this detour, we may have saved a person's soul, and that alone means that this wasn't a waste of time.
“There's more than that, though. We're not flying blind anymore, because we now know more about what we're up against. More than that, we know who we're up against. Macbeth of Stalliongrad wants a second revolution? We'll bring it to his doorstep.
“We've beaten Nightmare Moon. We've taken down Discord. These new bad guys might be unfamiliar, they might be powerful, but they are not at their level. Behind their scary weapons and blue-on-blue color scheme is just a pony, like you or me.” Twilight winked at me. “Maybe not so much like you.”
Spike coughed loudly. “Or you,” Twilight sighed, and Spike smiled. “My point is that we've saved Equestria from bigger and badder. So I know, in my heart, that we can save it now. We'll rescue Applebloom, take down Metal Gear, and hoof-deliver Macbeth to Princess Celestia.”
I could tell that Twilight was talking a big game for the sake of her friends. An unfortunate reality that being a leader presents is that you can't ever let on just how frightened you are, or just how high the odds against you loom. And Twilight, to her credit, was playing her role superbly, even if I saw through it. The others smiled, their spirits brightened; even Applejack looked somewhat relieved by the way she was speaking. Between the way they'd fought off the timberwolves, and the way Twilight rallied them, I was starting to develop a grudging, but genuine, respect for their abilities.
“Now, c'mon,” said Twilight, stooping to allow Spike access to her back. “Let's double-time it, everypony.” She trotted briskly ahead; the others fell into step with her.
I didn't. I glanced at the gun in my hand, and thought again of that long-dead dog. "Wait," I said. They stopped, mid-trot, and looked back at me.
"Snake?" asked Twilight. "Something wrong?"
I didn't answer her. Instead, I walked back to the wolf I'd crippled, coming to a stop just above where it lay. It was silent, but still alive, and we looked at each other for a long, long moment.
Rustling in the grass told me that the others were coming toward me. I heard the gentle beating of wings and felt a brush of wind against me, and I glanced to my side. Fluttershy hovered next to me. She looked me in the eye, tears still running down her face, and gave me the most minute of nods.
"You're not going to leave it there," said Twilight Sparkle softly. It wasn't a question. I looked at the revolver in my hand, then back at the wolf, back into its bright yellow eyes. My mind wandered, drifting to the memory of a nighttime blizzard on a secluded island, of a sobbing, broken man with a family of fluffy white dogs, and of a proud wolf lying defeated in the red-stained snow.
I raised the revolver and pressed it against the wolf's temple. "Everyone's here now," I whispered. "Rest easy."
Beside me, Fluttershy returned to the ground. She pressed her hooves against her ears and turned away from the crippled wolf.
My thumb cocked the hammer on the revolver. The wolf blinked its baleful yellow eyes. My heart cracked, just the smallest bit, as it whined one final time.
I squeezed the trigger, and the gun roared.
"Unfortunately, killing is just one of those things that gets easier the more you do it."
Coming out of the darkness of the Everfree Forest and into the daylight of the afternoon sun was an adjustment. Not so much because my eyes needed to adapt to the light after so much time in the dark, but because of how Equestria looked in direct sunlight.
The place was vivid. Brilliant, really. Everywhere I looked was saturated with color, from the sunlight that shone upon the blue bricks of the castle, to the bright, almost neon coats of my companions. By contrast, I and everything else from my world seemed drab and washed out. I kept looking down at my boots in the grass, and noticing how badly they clashed with the environment. I was a sore thumb which was not created by nature, and I put all other sore thumbs in history to shame. Camouflage, I decided, would not be an option.
In hindsight, though, I wonder how well the OctoCamo would have worked in Equestria.
The tree line terminated at the edge of a wide chasm, and we hid in the moderate cover that the trees and underbrush provided. Across the chasm was a metal bridge, which seemed to have been fabricated using whatever scrap was on hand. According to Twilight, the castle was comprised of multiple structures, though only the outermost parts of it were visible from our vantage point. A wooden guard tower, which appeared to have been made from native Equestrian wood, stood in front of what had once been the castle's gatehouse. A single soldier, clad in a black T-shirt and navy blue combat vest, stood at watch on the tower, resting a sniper rifle upon his shoulder. The tower was shorter than the wall, but it still offered him a decent panoramic view of the area in front of the castle. Probably a good thing that they didn't stick the guards up on the wall itself. That thing didn't look at all stable.
"At least they did something about that tacky bridge," mused Rarity.
"Hmm?" I was only halfway listening, preoccupied as I was with trying to plot a way across the bridge without being spotted by the sentry.
"That bridge. The one that's right in front of you?" said Rarity, waggling a hoof at it. "The last time we were here, it was a rope bridge. Personally, as shabby as this one is, I like it a bit more. It looks less likely to break and kill anypony who crosses it."
I eyed it dubiously. "That's an upgrade?"
Rainbow Dash snorted. "It's an upgrade, but only because when you're at rock bottom, you can't go anywhere but up. It's in one piece, and it isn't dangling over the side of the canyon. So, yeah. Upgrade."
Fluttershy tiptoed (or would it be tiphoofed?) closer to us. "It does look safer than the old bridge," she said. "That was very helpful of those soldiers to replace it with something more secure. I suppose that's one nice thing to take away from all of this." She offered me an optimistic smile.
I didn't return it. "They're here to kill you," I said, intentionally over-enunciating to patronize her. "Not to fix your country's crappy infrastructure."
Fluttershy's smile faded. She blushed and backed away, staring at the ground and mumbling contritely.
Twilight frowned at me. "That was unnecessarily rude, Snake" she admonished. She moved a little closer to me, close enough that I could see the clotted, discolored spots where timberwolf sap had splattered her, and spoke in a quieter voice. "After what happened back in the forest, I don't think that we should discourage Fluttershy from being optimistic."
I looked past her, at the baby dragon who sat a little detached from the group, and decided that I didn't want to take directions from someone who brought a child into a war zone. "I'm here to save your lives," I replied. "Not to wet-nurse you. There's no place for nannying on the battlefield." Forcing a subject change, I nodded in the direction of the guard tower and asked "Is that a new addition?"
Twilight clenched her teeth and narrowed her eyes at me, clearly unhappy with having her concerns dismissed out of hand. Then you shouldn't have brought that child into a war zone, I thought. She let out a sharp breath and rolled her eyes. "Yeah. The castle's new tenants probably threw that together."
Applejack trotted forward and knelt in the grass beside me. "Wonder what else they've done with the place," she remarked. "Could have all kinds'a nasty surprises waitin' for us in there."
"Yeah," said Rainbow Dash. "Sure would be great if we had somepony here who could, I don't know, fly or something. Then that somepony could get the lay of the land and come back and tell us what's waiting for us before we walk into it." She tapped her chin with her hoof pensively. Suddenly, her face lit up. "Wait a minute! I'M somepony who can fly! I can do all those things! Rainbow Dash, you are a genius!" She laughed and took to the air, darting toward the gatehouse.
Fortunately, her self-serving sarcasm telegraphed her intent, and I caught her by the tail before she could get out of arm's length. "Hold it," I said.
Rainbow Dash glared at me, fruitlessly beating her wings. "Hey, I don't care how cool hands are. Keep 'em to yourself." She tried yanking her tail out of my grip, but I held tightly.
"Then use your head," I said, gesturing at the gatehouse. "You can't just dash in there and look at stuff."
"Oh yeah?" demanded Rainbow Dash, rounding on me. "And why not?"
Twilight nudged the pegasus' shoulder and directed her attention to the guard tower. Rainbow Dash's ears drooped. "Oh. Right." She chuckled.
Not the cleverest creature I'd run into, but she was nothing if not zealous. Zeal gets you killed if you don't have a level head backing it up, however. "First thing's first," I said. "We take out the sentry. Once he's out of the way, you're good to go."
Fluttershy spoke, but her voice was quiet, and carried an air of dread. "How are you going to do that?"
"Think I'll try shooting him," I muttered.
Fluttershy made a little choking sound, like she was swallowing a sob. I saw Twilight giving me a look from the corner of my eye, and I sighed inwardly. It isn't as though I didn't sympathize with what Fluttershy was going through. Twilight was right; it was a small miracle that she was capable of any semblance of optimism after how badly she was affected by the scene in the forest. But there wasn't any time to take her personal feelings into consideration. This was a crisis that needed solving, and she'd chosen to see it through. I don't know what her reasons were for staying with us after the fight with the timberwolves, but she was committed, and she couldn't renege on that on account of hurt feelings.
Still, I thought, the least I can do is throw her a bone here.
I drew the M9 and held it up for Fluttershy to see. She looked fearfully at it. "This is a tranquilizer gun," I told her. "It's what I used to save Applebloom from the manticore. Completely nonlethal. It'll knock that soldier unconscious, and he'll be out for hours, but it won't kill him."
Fluttershy took her eyes off of the gun and looked into mine. She swallowed and gave a tiny nod.
Well, that was one problem solved... or at least delayed. I turned back to the guard tower and eyeballed the sentry. He was resting the rifle across his shoulders and, for some odd reason, descending beneath the wall of the guard tower, and reappearing a moment later. "What in the world is he doing?" I thought out loud.
"Squat thrusts," said Rainbow Dash. "The two-legged kind."
I gave her a skeptical look. "This is a crack mercenary army. They haven't exactly been impressive so far, but they're not that unprofessional."
Rainbow Dash sucked her teeth. "Live in denial all you want, Snake. That guy out there is doing squat thrusts."
"He is not doing - look, I'll prove it." I reached for the scope on my belt.
It wasn't there. "Where the hell is my...?" I patted the other pouches and bags on my person, thinking that I misplaced it at some point, but no. It was just gone. "When did I lose it?" I groaned, growing somewhat agitated. Did it fall out while I was fighting the manticore, or the wolves, or Trenton? That had never happened before. Did Zecora steal it from me while I was unconscious?
"Yeah," said Rainbow Dash with a derisive snicker. "You sure showed me, Snake."
"What's the matter, Snake?" asked Pinkie Pie, bouncing toward me. "Lose something?"
I frowned at her. "My scope."
"'Scope?'" asked Pinkie with a tilt of her head. "Like binoculars? No problem-o!" Grinning, she darted into the high grass. The only sign of her presence was a tuft of pink hair that poked out of the grass like a periscope. A moment later, she emerged, a pair of binoculars clamped in her mouth.
What in the hell?! "Where did you get those?" I asked, gesturing at the binoculars.
Pinkie trotted up to me, a happy smile on her face, and dropped them into her hooves. "Oh, I have binoculars stashed all over Equestria." She nodded. "In case of binocular emergency."
All over Equestra. Not even "all over Ponyville," or "all over the Everfree Forest." I didn't know how to react to that. I just knelt there, staring at Pinkie Pie, my mouth hanging open as my mind tried to process everything she'd just said and done.
The pony held her binoculars out to me. I took them, nodded numbly, swallowed, turned back to the gatehouse, and raised the binoculars to my eyes without another word. "Squat thrusts," I said. "I'll be damned."
Rainbow Dash floated beside me, her forelegs crossed, a smug expression on her face. "You've learned a valuable lesson today, Snake."
God, she was irritating. I lowered the binoculars and raised my pistol again. There was a little bit of comedy in it; what kind of sniper does squat thrusts in the middle of guard duty? Funniest damn thing I'd ever seen during a mission. For the first time in my career, I had to stifle a laugh as I prepared to shoot a man. This Equestria fiasco was full of firsts for me.
Some of you out there might be wondering why I chose not to use the Model 500 to take down the guard. Some of you might think it was a concession to Fluttershy. It wasn't (though like I said, I did sympathize with her). With respect to Captain Case, the Model 500 was not an option. Its ammunition was scarce, its weight was considerable, its recoil made it all but inoperable as a mainstay sidearm, and its noise made it absolutely useless on a stealth mission. I took it and kept it because it was a parting gift from a dying soldier, not because I foresaw any practical use for it. By contrast, the M9 was light, silent, and came equipped with a laser sight. It was the right choice.
Also, for obvious reasons, I really don't like revolvers.
I leveled the gun and waited for an opportune moment to pull the trigger. The sentry dropped into another squat, his head passed below the waist-level wall of the guard tower, and reappeared a moment later, right in my sights.
I fired. There was the usual soft hiss of the suppressed gunshot, and an instant later, I heard a muffled cough as the sentry dropped. Not a bad shot. "You're good to go," I said to Rainbow Dash.
"Thanks, dad," said Rainbow Dash sarcastically. I heard her wings beat and felt a faint gust of wind as she passed. She dropped into the chasm, pulled up once she reached the opposite end, and skirted around the edge of the gatehouse wall, keeping low. Not long after, she rounded a corner and was out of sight.
I settled in, stroking my stubble thoughtfully as I stared across the bridge. "How far across is that chasm?" I wondered out loud.
"I don't know," said Pinkie Pie from above me. In a very thoughtful, earnest tone, as though it seriously meant something to her, she added "I didn't bring my ruler."
Suddenly, I became aware that she was perched upon my shoulders, resting her chin on the top of my head. I shut my eyes and clenched my teeth. "Get. Off." After a moment, she complied. "How in the world did you get up there without me noticing?"
"Climbed," said Pinkie Pie. She wasn't looking at me; her attention was fixed on the gatehouse and guard tower.
"How could you climb on me without my - ugh, forget it." I lifted my borrowed binoculars again, keeping an eye out for any trace of Rainbow Dash. I caught sight of a prismatic contrail darting into the sky, disappearing into one of those cheesy clouds. What was she up to?
"If you're anything like me, then you're probably frustrated right now," said Twilight quietly. "Take my advice: don't try figuring out Pinkie Pie."
"Yeah?" I asked. The cloud was moving now, edging closer and closer to where we hid. "You've tried?"
I heard Twilight sigh. "When we get back to Ponyville, I'll let you flip through my six volumes of notes on her behavior. There's no pattern to anything she does. It's one of her charms."
"'Charming' wouldn't be how I'd describe it," I muttered. "More like 'insane.' I thought Zecora was as out there as it got, and then I met Pinkie Pie." The cloud was right on top of us now. I set the binoculars down and reached for my Beretta, not sure of what was coming. "I keep wondering how this place is going to top itself next."
Suddenly, Rainbow Dash dropped from the sky. She beat her wings to slow her descent and landed lightly in the center of the group.
What. Admittedly, I probably should have seen that coming - she did fly into that cloud, after all - but adjusting to a whole new set of physical laws was tough going. I didn't like it.
"Didja see anything?" Applejack asked, apparently unperturbed by her friend literally falling out of the sky. "Any sign of Applebloom?"
Rainbow Dash shook her head. "The gatehouse is empty, except for a bunch of tents. There're a bunch of giant thingies in a courtyard outside of the main part of the castle - "
"The keep," Twilight corrected.
"The what?" Rainbow Dash looked askance at her. "No, the main part of the castle."
Twilight huffed. "The main part of the castle is called - "
"Anyway," continued Rainbow Dash. Twilight pressed a hoof to her face. "One thing that's weird about the gatehouse though." She frowned. "Remember the pedestal where we found the Elements last time? Well, the statue on top of it is gone. There's just this giant box on it now."
"You keep using vague terms, nonspecifics," I said. "'Giant thingies.' 'Giant box.' Describe them a little more."
"They're thingies. And they're giant," said Rainbow Dash matter-of-factly. "And there's a box on the pedestal, and it's also giant." She shrugged. "That's all I got."
A moment passed where I stared at Rainbow Dash with a blank look on my face, and she stared back at me, oozing condescension. "Fine," I said. I holstered the Beretta and picked up the binoculars, tossed them back to Pinkie Pie, then turned to the bridge. "We should be on our guard. Just because the gatehouse is - "
"Is what?" asked Spike, speaking up for the first time in a while. "You planning on finishing that sentence?"
I didn't answer. I was completely focused on the ghostly figure in black which had appeared in the middle of the bridge. Glowing red eyes bored into me beneath his hood-covered face. Illuminated by the light of his eyes was a sinister, toothy smile.
It was him. The thing that spoke to me in my dream. The Sorrow.
"Do you see that?" I asked, keeping my voice level and turning to look at the others.
Pinkie Pie raised her binoculars to her eyes. "Do you mean that knothole a quarter of an inch below the platform on the guard tower, or the cobweb covering the rightmost brick in the gatehouse?"
"What? No. I mean the - " I turned back to the bridge, half expecting it to be gone, like in those horror movies where the second the hero takes his eye off of something unusual that only he can see, it vanishes. Reality defied my expectation, however. The Sorrow still stood there, grinning that shit-eating grin at me.
Son of a bitch.
"Snake?" asked Applejack. "Y'all look like y'seen a ghost."
The Sorrow was not a ghost. I told myself, over and over, that ghosts did not exist. It was a hallucination, probably brought on from the effects of the manticore's venom. It hadn't been that long since the sting; I was probably still feeling the effects of it, however slightly. That thing on the bridge, the one from my dream, was a figment, and nothing more.
Besides, I thought, what would the ghost of a human be doing in a world populated by talking ponies? More evidence that I was simply hallucinating. In the dream, it knew things that only I knew, and out here, only I could see it. It was a lingering effect from the manticore's venom, and nothing more.
Then I noticed that I was putting a substantial amount of effort into reasoning my hallucination away, and that my rationalizations were, themselves, somewhat irrational. And that only made me more nervous.
I ordered myself to shake it off. Freezing up like that in the middle of a mission was unbecoming. "It's nothing," I said to Applejack. "I thought I saw another sniper, but I guess I was wrong."
Pinkie Pie offered me her binoculars. "You wanna borrow these again and make sure? 'Cuz I see plenty of interesting things out there, but no snipers."
"It's fine," I said shortly. "Just a shadow. I must be getting old. Vision's starting to crap out." I drew my Beretta again, clenching it tightly in my hands. "Let's go."
I took point as we moved onto the bridge, stepping lightly and slowly. Upgrade or no, the bridge looked rickety as hell, and we were putting a lot of weight onto it together. I didn't want to take a chance by running across, putting undue stress on the thing. The Sorrow stood in the same spot in the middle of the bridge, smiling that ghastly smile beneath his hood. As I came closer to him, he moved aside, standing as far out of my path as he could. His feet made no sound against the metal floor. I couldn't decide if that was a good sign or not.
"What're you looking at?" I growled quietly. He remained silently smiling, his coal-like eyes following me as I passed, but I forced myself to swallow my discomfort. It's a hallucination, I reminded myself. Nothing more.
But, damn, couldn't I have hallucinated something a littler nicer?
The ponies and the dragon climbed the steps to the front gate. I lagged behind, staring up at the guard tower. "Hold on a minute," I called over my shoulder.
"What's the matter?" asked Rainbow Dash. "Looking for someplace private to stare into space and mutter to yourself?" I turned around and scowled at her, and she shrugged. "I calls 'em as I sees 'em," she said.
I pointed up the ladder leading from the ground to the platform. "There's a high-powered rifle up there," I said in a less-than-friendly tone. "That's the kind of thing that comes in very handy in a pinch." I looked at Twilight. "Unless you don't think we need the additional firepower."
Twilight waved a hoof exasperatedly. "You know best."
I nodded, gave Rainbow Dash one last smoldering look, and began to climb the ladder.
"I don't like him," I overheard Rainbow Dash mutter.
"It doesn't matter whether you like him or not," said Twilight. "We need him right now."
"Twilight's right," said Applejack. "Look, he's done right by us so far, Rainbow, and he sounds like he really wants t'help Applebloom. Ain't that really what matters?"
"I didn't say I wouldn't work with him," said Rainbow Dash. "Gosh, AJ, you know I'd do anything for you or Applebloom, even if it means I gotta work with some crazy shaved gorilla." She snorted. "I just don't like him. That's all."
It's cute how they figured I was out of earshot.
I pulled myself onto the platform. The soldier I'd tranquilized lay curled in a ball, cradling his rifle in the crook of his arm like a teddy bear. He snoozed quietly, occasionally smacking his lips, but otherwise remaining still and silent.
Slowly and carefully, I removed the rifle from his grip and examined it. It was an M24, an older bolt action rifle that's still in service with some armies around the world. Its age didn't bother me; as long as it could perform, I wouldn't complain. By the look of it, the gun was better maintained than the AKs that the soldiers in the forest had carried. I suspected that they had few dedicated marksman rifles in stock, and had to take special care of the ones they did have. It also had a sling so that I could carry it on my back; I wouldn't have to cradle it constantly.
I pulled back the gun's bolt. A live round sat in the chamber; presumably, it had a full five rounds in the magazine. I rolled the sleeping guard over to checked the pouches on his vest for additional ammunition, and was rewarded with multiple five-round stripper clips. Counting the rounds already in the gun, I had twenty-five shots to use against an army of more than three hundred. Maybe I'd get lucky. Maybe they'd all charge me in fourteen-man single-file lines, and I'd be able to fire each individual round from the front of the line to the back.
Or maybe I'd just have to make my shots count.
I glanced over the wall at the nearby bridge. The Sorrow had vanished. Good riddance. I slung the rifle onto my back and descended the ladder again, skipping the last two rungs. "You can crack all the jokes you want," I said to Rainbow Dash, "but I expect you to take them back when I save your ass with this gun."
"Oooooooh," said Pinkie, like a child who'd watched her sibling get sent to his room. Rainbow Dash gave me the stink-eye and turned away.
I knelt in front of the wooden door, drew my M9, and nudged it open. Aiming down my sights, I stepped inside, and quickly scanned the gatehouse's interior for any sign of threat, but it was as Rainbow Dash described it: full of canvas tents, broken columns, and not much else. There were six smaller tents set up with no thought to organization, alignment, or pattern, and a larger tent set up in the middle of the room. Towering over that was the pedestal Rainbow Dash had mentioned, where a giant black box rested. There was some lettering on the box, but I couldn't quite make it out from where I was standing.
Rainbow Dash floated past me, snickering. "As scary as those tents are, I don't think you need to pull your gun on them."
She was starting to get on my nerves. I grumbled and holstered my gun as the others filed past me. "I don't get it," said Spike. "Where are all the soldiers?"
"Captain Case said that they'd moved most of the troops to a staging area outside of the castle," said Twilight. "I guess it stands to reason that the castle'd be sparsely populated by now."
"But this is only the gatehouse," said Fluttershy, looking especially nervous. She must've had a phobia for old ruins. "The castle's bigger than this one structure, right? And there was that soldier in the guard tower, so we know it's not completely deserted."
"She's right," I said. "There could be troops in some of those tents. For all we know, this is the barracks." I looked at Rainbow Dash. "Good thing you loudly announced our presence as soon as we walked through that door."
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "And if there were any soldiers in those tents, they'd have jumped right out and attacked us the second they heard us coming. Right?"
An unsettling, silent moment passed between the eight of us as we looked from tent to tent. I half expected someone to jump out right then and open fire, but again, I was wrong. I did hear a nervous squeak from Fluttershy, who was no doubt contemplating the same possibility as me with a far less cool head.
The blue pegasus smirked. "See?"
I sighed and lowered my voice, speaking quietly. "As a general rule, when you're on an infiltration mission, you don't talk unless you're absolutely certain that there's nobody around to overhear. To hell with your assumption; there could still be soldiers in those tents waiting to ambush us."
"Snake has a point," said Twilight. She mimicked my low, quiet tone of voice. "Everypony, pick a tent. Let's clear this place before we do anything else."
The others scattered, each one selecting a smaller tent at random to poke around in, apparently leaving the large one to me. The only ones left standing there were myself and Spike the dragon. "So," he said, flashing me a fanged dragon grin, "I guess we're partners, huh?"
I raised an eyebrow at him. Bad enough that Twilight Sparkle decided to bring her pet child into a dangerous infiltration mission. One of us would always have to keep an eye on him, which made the situation so much more complicated than it had to be. Worse, though, was that she expected me to babysit him. If she were in earshot, I'd have given her a piece of my mind, but since she wasn't, I just turned away and walked toward the large tent.
"What do you think we'll find in that tent?" he asked. "You really think there's some - "
I looked down at him sharply and held a finger to my lips. He mouthed "oh," and pretended to draw a zipper closer along his mouth. I had the notion that if he were Pinkie Pie, he would have had a literal zipper to close. The thought was strangely therapeutic.
We reached the tent. I pushed the flap aside with one arm and thrust my gun inside with the other. Seeing no threats in the immediate area, I moved inside all the way, glancing quickly from one end of the room to the other for any signs of ambush. There were none. I motioned Spike inside, and he waddled in on his stumpy little dragon legs.
The tent wasn't palatial in size, but there was definitely more room to move around than the others had. There was a workbench and assorted clutter at the far end of the tent, and ammunition boxes stacked all over the place, though not so high that a man could conceal himself behind them. I lifted the lid of one experimentally. Inside were dozens of magazines full of AK-47 ammunition. Interestingly enough, there were no gun lockers or racks anywhere in the tent, so while they had plenty of ammo stored in there, they didn't have any guns to fire it with.
"You can talk now," I said to Spike as I holstered my M9. "Before you say anything though, I've got a job for you."
"Yeah?" asked Spike, his voice and face hopeful.
"Yeah." I tossed him one of the clips of rifle ammo I'd taken off the sentry. He caught it, turned it over in his hands, and frowned. "Find me more like that," I told him, and I headed toward the bench.
Spike made an unhappy noise. "That's it? That isn't very important."
"It's plenty important," I said as I reached the bench. "Could be the difference between life and death. You should be honored to root around for bullets." There were various gun parts littering the workbench's surface, along with a set of tools a vise, a typewriter (of all things), some scattered papers, and... was that a handgun? And not an M1911, at that? I blinked, shook my head, and reached out to touch it. The gun felt solid. Not a venom-induced hallucination.
"Give me some credit, Snake," said Spike. I heard him opening ammo boxes and rustling through their contents, heard the clicking noises of plastic against plastic and the jingling of unloaded bullets. I felt a growing irritation with the little dragon; even though I hadn't interacted with him much until that point, he was still getting on my nerves easily. At least Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash could contribute in a meaningful way. The dragon was ordered to find ammo, and he wasn't even fulfilling that role properly. Maybe I just have problems with children who develop self-importance issues.
"Any idiot can go on a scavenger hunt," Spike went on as he slid the lid back onto a box. "I want to do something important, something actually useful for a - "
I turned around sharply suddenly, my irritation with the dragon boiling over. "The last time you tried to be useful, you nearly got yourself eaten alive, and someone had to step in to save your life. Coincidentally, the same thing happened to the last child I spoke to, who also did something idiotic to prove herself."
Spike stared back at me, indignant and shameful. He had no reply, so I continued speaking. "This is a battlefield, and children have no place on the battlefield. If it were up to me, you wouldn't be here right now. But you are. So the least you can do is find me some damn bullets." I turned back to the bench. "Leave the fighting to the ones who know what they're doing." I didn't say it out loud, but regardless of our collective performance in the battle with the timberwolves, I think that group consisted entirely of myself. Possibly Applejack, too.
"Maybe you didn't notice," said Spike. His voice rose in volume as his own anger built. "I saved Twilight's life in that fight."
I inspected the gun on the bench. It was a Five-SeveN, a relatively new model pistol that fired 5.7×28mm ammunition. It was a superb gun with a high capacity, well built and well maintained. What the hell was it doing here? "I imagine that's the only reason Twilight let you tag along this far," I said to Spike as I examined my new sidearm. "But one lucky shot doesn't mean you've somehow proven yourself to be an asset." I looked at him again. "You aren't. You're a liability."
"Well, I don't want to be a liability anymore!" Spike shouted.
"Then go home." I turned back to the bench. "And grow up." There were two spare magazines of ammunition for the Five-SeveN; I pocketed them and slid the gun into the holster that I usually reserved for lethal sidearms. "Because the cruel truth is that you don't know how to handle yourself, and that means that one of us will always have to look out for you. And it's hard enough to watch your own back without having to worry about someone else's."
The papers on the desk were mostly reports regarding ammunition stocks, personnel evaluations, or medical exams. Everything was typewritten, which explained the typewriter. I couldn't find a single writing utensil anywhere, which made me wonder how one was supposed to sign off on anything, or keep any sort of checklist. Maybe they wrote in blood.
I did find a few interesting documents. One was a duty roster with only twenty-seven names on it. Four of them I recognized - Kirshner, Baker, Ethelbert, Case. Trenton led a party of six into the forest in pursuit of the manticore; all were killed, but the list didn't reflect that. I guessed that the other two troops, whose names I didn't know, were also somewhere on that list. Still, a handy thing to have. Assuming it was up to date (albeit imperfectly, if the dead soldiers names were still on it), that meant that there were only twenty-one soldiers occupying the castle.
The last was a memo. Whoever typed it must have been angry; there were holes in the paper where he'd struck the keys with unnecessary force.
TO: Quartermaster Loomis
FROM: Capt. Case
RE: Doing your ucking job for you
I went ahead and repaired Lucky Number SeveN for you. You're elcome, by the way. Just wanted to remind you that if we still had a single competent engineer on staff, your ass would still be sitting in a ell awaitin cour artial. This morning I asked myself if I hated you or that lunatic in the basement more, and when I saw that gun sitting on your workbench, I decided on you. I wouldn't trust you to shin the shi off my oots, let alone fix the commander's prcious sidearm.
Shape the fuck u. It's no secret around here that I'm slipping fast on the chain of command, but I can still fix guns better than you, which means that if I slip much farther, I might just wind up with your job.
If you get promoted to XO over me, I'll kill you myself.
I touched the Five-SeveN in my holster, and felt a trace of gratitude for the dead captain. Case was still giving me guns from beyond the grave. At least he gave me something useful this time. I pocketed the memo and the duty roster, and turned away from the bench. Spike sat with his back against a stack of ammo boxes, looking sullen. "Find anything?" I asked.
Spike glanced at me and narrowed his eyes. He tossed me the clip I'd given him; I caught it and returned it to my belt. "Does that mean you didn't find anything, or that you gave up and stopped looking?"
The dragon lifted himself off the ground, dusted himself off, and sighed. "I just want to help Applebloom," he said, sounding frustrated.
I pressed my hand to my forehead and closed my eyes. If I'd known that going through that portal meant spending so much time around whiny children, I'd have turned my back on it, gone back to the Nomad, eaten my dinner, and forgotten the whole thing. "We all do, kid. Look, you're here now, so you may as well contribute. Just don't do anything stupid." I knelt in front of the dragon. "I overheard your talk with Twilight back in the forest. She's right; don't get yourself killed because you're trying to help. There's no shame in realizing that something's out of your league. If we hit something that's beyond your ability to handle, then stay out of it, and leave it to us." Hesitating a little, I reached out and placed my hand on his tiny, scaly shoulder. "Alright?"
Spike glared at me, blushing. He brushed off my hand and made his way for the exit, leaving me kneeling alone. "Don't talk to me like I'm some stupid kid," he growled. He found himself entangled in the tent flap for a moment before he freed himself and left me kneeling alone in the tent like an idiot.
I'm no good with kids.
The others were gathered around the large pedestal when I existed the tent. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy floated next to the box, one on either side. Spike saw me coming and made damn sure he wasn't anywhere near me. Didn't care. It wasn't my problem if the kid wanted to be a brat, as long as he was a productive brat. "Find anything?" I asked.
"Just moldy boxes and yucky food," said Pinkie Pie. She held an MRE packet in her hooves and stared into it with one eye. "This one says it's supposed to be banana pudding, but it's all dry and powdery." She emptied its contents into her mouth, swallowed them in one gulp, and shuddered.
"It's an MRE," I said.
Pinkie blinked at me.
"You're supposed to add water before you eat it."
Pinkie tilted her head at a ninety degree angle and blinked twice.
Pinkie shook her head rapidly, her mane flying about like cotton candy caught in a tornado. "Oh, I almost forgot!" Out of thin air, she produced an object in one of her hooves, which she tossed to me. "I found a this thing. Don't know what it is."
I caught the this thing, and turned it over in my hands. It was a directional microphone, of all things, very similar to the one Jack had used during the Big Shell crisis. I had an antique one as a souvenir aboard the Nomad, though it was totally non-functional and strictly decorative. "This is a valuable piece of equipment," I said, looking at Pinkie Pie. "Could come in very handy." I eyed her suspiciously. "It was just lying around in that tent?"
Pinkie shook her head again.
Then where the hell did you...?! "You don't have directional microphones stashed all over Equestria, do you?"
Pinkie held her hooves against her mouth and giggled into them. "Oh, Snake. You're such a kidder!"
But that just raised further questions! I tried to demand more answers, but I caught a furtively hissed "psst!" from Twilight. I looked at her, and she shook her head, frowning. "Don't try figuring out Pinkie Pie," she'd said to me. Yeah, but... ugh.
I decided to change the subject completely. "So what're they up to?" I asked, nodding at the pegasi hovering around the box. Twilight's frown deepened, and she glanced at the directional mic with a cough. Relenting, I put it away, adding it to my steadily growing collection of new toys.
Twilight smiled brightly at me and winked, as if to once again tell me that she sympathized. I pray that I never reach her level of tolerance for insanity. "They're trying to make heads or tails of whatever's in there," she said. "Dash figures the lid's on the top, but they can't see any way to open it."
I folded my arms, chewing my lip idly. The less nicotine I had in my system, the more I'd chew my lips, and the more I chewed my lips, the more canker sores I'd have before the mission was over. Damn, I miss smoking. "How do you suppose they got that box up there?" I wrinkled my nose. "And why?"
"Every party's gotta have a centerpiece," Pinkie Pie chirped. "Although I don't know why they had to go with such a yucky one. Gosh, it's yucky." She looked at me. "You agree, right? It's yucky?"
I ignored her. "What do the markings say?" I asked.
"They're very strange," said Fluttershy. She landed on top of the box and curled up, then peeked down at me. "I think one of them is supposed to be a symbol... it's a triangle with a lower case 't' inside of it. I hope that helps."
Triangle with a lower case... I pictured the image in my mind, and was instantly hit with recognition. "The logo for AT Corp."
"AT Corp?" asked Twilight. "What's that?"
"Rarity, you agree with me, right?" asked Pinkie Pie, a little desperately. "That's one yucky centerpiece, right?!"
"It's a weapons manufacturer," I said. "Used to be called ArmsTech Inc., before they absorbed a bunch of other corporations and changed their name." I frowned. "So they got their hands on something built by AT Corp, huh? I'd like to say that whatever's in there is a component for Metal Gear, but the one that Pegasus Wings stole was a black market copy, not a factory-made one. Couldn't have come from ArmsTech."
"There's a word, too," said Rainbow Dash. She traced a hoof over the lettering. "And a whole bunch of letters that don't spell anything. Hey, what does 'IRVING' mean?"
"'IRVING?'" I thought hard, trying to come up with something to match the name, but I'd never heard it before in that context. I told them as much. "What do the letters say?"
Fluttershy hopped off the top of the box and hovered beside Rainbow Dash. "Excuse me," she said quietly, nudging her friend out of the way. "It isn't a word. Maybe an acronym? Hmm." She looked closely at the lettering. "'ATC...' and then there's a space. 'XMG...' then 'IRVING,' then '00'."
ATC XMG IRVING 00. I thought about what that could mean. "'ATC' obviously stands for 'AT Corp," I said. "The 'X' designation usually denotes a prototype weapon. 'MG...' could that stand for 'Metal Gear?'" I stroked my chin. "Maybe I was right the first time. IRVING is some kind of new component for Metal Gear that AT Corp was developing, and Pegasus Wings got a hold of it somehow. But what does it - "
"Doesn't anypony agree with me that it's a yucky centerpiece?!" Pinkie Pie all but shrieked.
I grit my teeth and snapped "Fine! It's hideous!"
Pinkie smiled. "Okie-Dokie-Loki!" I felt like hitting her.
"I don't think frettin' over what's in this box is gonna get us any closer to savin' Applebloom," said Applejack. "We'll worry 'bout it when it becomes a problem, but right now, we need to get back on track."
I nodded. "Agreed. I found a duty roster in the quartermaster's tent. It was the only one of its kind in there, so I assume that it's today's. Six of the names on it belong to the soldiers who were killed in the forest, which leaves twenty-one men staffing the castle. That's good news, because I might have to perform a top-to-bottom search of the castle to find Applebloom, and having such a small number of guards means that I can slip through - ”
"Hold on now," said Applejack, frowning. "Y'all keep sayin' 'I.' Not 'we.'"
"Yes. Because I'm going in there alone."
"My apple-buckin' hiney, you are," said Applejack flatly.
Could have done without the reference to pony butt.
"Her phrasing may be crude, but Applejack is right," said Rarity. "We're all here for Applebloom, Snake, and so we all go together." There was a slight look of disgust on her face, probably over what Applejack said.
"That's a lovely sentiment," I said, drawing once again on my deepest reserves of patience. "But - "
"'But' nothing!" snapped Rainbow Dash. She beat her wings furiously, raising herself to my eye level. "You listen here! We didn't bring you to this castle so you could ditch us at the home stretch and go off on your own."
"One of us stands a better chance of getting through the keep undetected than all eight of us," I calmly pointed out.
"Yeah, right," said Spike bitterly. He folded his arms. "You gonna give us all the speech about how we can't handle ourselves now?"
My eyelid twitched. I'd hit my quota of back-talking, arrogant children with Applebloom; I needed another one like I needed a melanoma.
"Everypony, stop," said Twilight in a commanding, authoritative voice, cutting me off before I could respond properly to Spike. "Girls, Spike, Snake, everypony just simmer down, and we'll talk this over." She looked at me. "Snake, I understand that this kind of mission is your specialty, and I get that you want to do things your way, alone. But you can't possibly expect any of us, especially Applejack, to stay behind when Applebloom's life could be at stake. We came out here to rescue her, and we can't just sit back and wait while you get the job done for us."
Twilight turned to the others. "And I know how desperately everypony wants to get Applebloom back. But Snake knows this business better than any of us. Second-guessing him at this point isn't going to get us anywhere." She looked back at me. "We're so close to finishing what we set out to do. We can't start bickering like this, or we'll never get anything done. So let's compromise."
Compromise. I could have been halfway to liberating Applebloom in the time it took to get through that argument, and Twilight wanted to compromise. Otacon didn't throw himself into rescuing Emma personally. He let Jack take care of it, because he knew that he was needed elsewhere, and that Jack was better equipped to save her than he was. Then again, these ponies had proven that they could handle themselves in a fight better than Otacon could (a fact which I promised myself I'd tease him about if I ever saw him again), which probably inflated their senses of how valuable they were to this mission. Fending off a pack of bloodthirsty monsters and slipping past heavily armed soldiers undetected were not the same thing, and they didn't seem to understand that.
There was a brief moment where I thought about tranquilizing the lot of them and getting Applebloom myself, but I decided not to do that. I didn't know that they'd all be awake by the time I got back, or that I'd be able to rouse them, and while I have a history of carrying copious amounts of equipment without trouble, I doubted that I could carry six ponies and a dragon all on my own. Compromise it was. "Assuming this memo is accurate, there are twenty-one soldiers in that keep," I said. "That means that they're spread pretty thin, but not so thin that all eight of us could sneak through."
"Okay," said Twilight. "Then how many of us could go without risking getting caught?"
I considered that for a moment. "Ideally, I'd go alone." Rainbow Dash flared her nostrils angrily. "Of course, that isn't an option anymore. So... two of you, I suppose." Honestly, the fewer of them that came along for the ride, the better, but Applejack would no doubt want to accompany me, and the other six of them wouldn't take kindly to being left out. I had to allow them a token presence, for the sake of unit cohesion.
"Prob'ly goes without sayin', but I'm comin'," said Applejack. Just as I thought. "Who else?"
"Well, um, before anypony asks..." Fluttershy looked meekly at Applejack. "I'm sorry, I know I said I'd go with you, but stealth is just such a stressful thing, and I - "
"Sugarcube, I meant what I said before." Applejack smiled kindly at Fluttershy. "Ya don't owe me anythin'. I won't hold it against you if y'all sit this part o'the trip out."
Fluttershy breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness." She nodded apologetically to me. "Sorry, Snake."
"Don't worry about it," I said. Silently, I added I wouldn't have brought you if you'd begged.
"Well, I think it's pretty obvious who should go," said Rainbow Dash proudly. "Between me and Applejack, you won't find a more butt-kickin' duo. And I have a true gift for staying out of sight. Remember how good I was at scouting earlier?" She smirked at me. "Sorry, Snake, but it looks like you're stuck with - "
"Twilight," I said.
Twilight Sparkle started, her eyes wide, and Rainbow Dash's jaw dropped. Pinkie helpfully reached over and closed it for her. "Uh, heh, Snake," said Rainbow Dash through grit teeth. "That isn't how you say 'Rainbow Dash.'"
"Twilight's horn gives her an added dimension of versatility," I said, avoiding the word "magic" at all costs. "Might give us an edge in there. Who knows?" I looked at Twilight, then at the group. "Unless there are any objections."
"Uh, well..." Twilight blushed a little. "Versatility? Really?"
I shrugged. Really, I was just fishing for an excuse to not bring Rainbow Dash along.
Twilight coughed and cleared her throat. "I mean, of course I'll go with the two of you. Happy to do it!"
Rainbow Dash folded her forelegs grumpily. "Yeah, 'versatility,' sure. Maybe there's a big scary bookshelf in there that needs re-alphabetizing."
"Oh, don't be so bitter," Rarity chided. "It's unbecoming." She looked at me. "What of the rest of us, then?"
I gestured at the door we'd come through. "Keep the exit secured. If we pull this off, we'll still need a way out. And if things go badly in there, we'll need reinforcements. Just wait."
"Sure. Waiting." Rainbow Dash fluttered back to the ground, trotted over to the pedestal, and flopped onto her belly beneath it. "I hate waiting."
"Don't mind her, Snake," said Twilight. "Rainbow's just passionate about getting Applebloom back, that's all."
I wondered how often Rainbow Dash had that excuse to act like a jackass.
"If there's nothing else," I said, turning back to the door that led to the keep, "then we we should probably get moving. Stay low, stay quiet, and stay out of sight. Don't attract attention, and don't get into a fight unless you have no other option."
"Don't get spotted, don't go buckin' critters left 'n right," said Applejack. "Sounds easy enough to remember."
My entire livelihood, boiled down to two sentences, spoken with a country-fried Southern accent. Never had I felt so belittled. I pushed the door open.
"Rarity?" asked Twilight.
I let out an exasperated sigh. What the hell -
"Look after him for me? Please?"
"Darling," said Rarity, sounding almost offended. "Did you really think you needed to ask?"
Twilight couldn't not have been aware of Spike's growing inferiority complex. I wonder how she figured assigning him a babysitter would help matters at all. Maybe she knew something I didn't.
Irrelevant. I drew Lucky Number SeveN and stared down its sights, holding the door open as my two new partners followed me out.
The gatehouse led into the remnants of a corridor that, I guessed, once provided a handy killzone for the castle's defenders in the event of invasion. There wasn't much left of the corridor's walls, but now and then we'd pass a mostly intact section with an arrow loop carved into it, or a taller section with a notch where I supposed the kept a boiling pot of lead. Old cliches are the best kinds of cliches. At the end of the corridor was another crumbling, unsound wall and gate. Taking point, I pushed the gate open, and scanned the area for threats. Finding none, I motioned the two ponies through and shut the door behind me.
We stood upon an ornately carved staircase that rose no more than a mater off the ground. The door led into the spacious, circular courtyard that Rainbow Dash described. Pegasus Wings had turned the courtyard into a makeshift helipad. Chinook helicopters, six of them, sat parked around the edges of the circle, in front of the twisted, broken remnants of what had once been a fence that ran around the courtyard's perimeter. The centerpiece of the helipad, as Pinkie Pie would put it, was a sight that made my heart sink: A fully armed Hind D gunship. All the choppers were painted in blue camouflage.
Immediately, I understood what Rainbow Dash meant when she said "giant thingies."
"What are those?" whispered Twilight. She crouched low to the ground, following my instructions appropriately, if too literally. "I can see windows in them, but they don't look like they'd travel well on land. Airships?"
"Not a bad guess," I said quietly. "They're helicopters."
"They're what?" asked Applejack, squinting at the docked aircraft. "Heli-what-now?"
The wonders of a society of Luddite ponies. "Aerial vehicles," I explained. "Smaller and faster than airships. The ones around the circle are transports. The one in the middle is an attack craft."
"Oh," said Applejack. "Neat."
The path leading to the keep's entrance was at the leftmost side of the circle. The keep itself looked to be in better condition than the gatehouse. Its upper levels were crumbling and broken, but everything below looked reasonably intact, if overgrown. Separating the courtyard from the keep was a mostly intact wall and a portcullis, which had a rather odd, lumpy patch of moss on it. The early evening sun, already starting to descend, shone on the far side of the portcullus and keep, which, if nothing else, told me which direction was west.
There was no one in sight, but that didn't mean we were alone. There were, after all, multiple vehicles for people to conceal themselves in. Possibilities ran from engineers addressing mechanical problems to some non-coms enjoying forbidden fraternization away from the prying eyes of the chain of command. So I holstered Lucky Number SeveN, wondering why I'd drawn an unsuppressed firearm in the first place, and unslung the sniper rifle (to scout, not to be a voyeur). Twilight noticed and asked "You aren't going to start shooting, are you? Because I thought you said to avoid conflict."
I glanced at Twilight and wordlessly tapped on the scope. She mouthed a silent "oh," (the same way, I noted, that Spike had) and went back to laying low, while I felt a slight pang of disappointment. I was kind of hoping that she had a hidden cache of binoculars that I could borrow from too.
Through the scope, I could see into the windows of the choppers. One by one, I checked them, but they all turned up empty. The crosshair fell on the Hind D, and for a moment, I contemplated taking a potshot at the rotors. A well-placed bullet might cripple the thing, saving me the trouble of shooting it down later.
The hatch on the side of the Hind suddenly opened, and out stepped a fair-skinned man with a buzzcut, wearing a stained, greasy jumpsuit. "Damn," I breathed. "Guess we aren't alone after all." And there we were, completely exposed.
I lowered the rifle and made for the left banister. Motioning for the others to follow, I vaulted over it and landed upon the grass below. Twilight and Applejack followed, one after the other, landing on either side of me. We moved swiftly, diving through a gap in the old fence, and took cover behind a Chinook. I dropped to my belly and crawled underneath the chopper, then stared through the scope at the man by the Hind. Judging by his clothing and state of cleanliness, I guessed that he was a mechanic. Judging by his presence at the helipad, specifically at the Hind, I guessed that he was performing some maintenance. Judging by the way he kicked at the gunship's chassis and swore in Finnish (faint echoes of which carried to our hiding place), I guessed that he wasn't having much success.
Good, I thought. If the Hind is down, then that's one less complication to deal with down the line. I crawled out from under the chopper, climbed back to my feet, and glanced out of our cover. Between us and the portcullis was another chopper, and between us and that chopper was nothing but open ground. I sucked in a breath. We'd have to go quickly.
"Something up on the portcullis just flashed," said Twilight worriedly.
"Flashed?'" I asked. "What do you mean 'flashed'?" I knelt beside her and raised the rifle's scope back to my eye.
"See that mossy overgrowth?" asked Twilight, pointing a purple hoof. "It was only there for a split second, but I definitely saw something flash."
Upon closer inspection, the overgrowth looked very odd and out of place. It was a different color than the rest of the moss covering the castle, and it didn't resemble moss at all. It looked more like grass. Lumpy, man-shaped grass, with a long, protruding section, which itself looked less like grass and more like the concealed barrel of a rifle.
"It's a ghillie suit," I said in mild amazement. "That's a sniper up there. That flash must have been..." I glanced over my shoulder, at the sun shining its orange light onto the portcullis. "It was the glare from the sun on the rifle's scope. There's just enough light there that the scope reflected it." With sincere respect, I added "That was a good catch, Twilight."
"What do we do now?" whispered Applejack. "That guy'll see us 'fore we get anywhere near him."
"I could take him out right now," I said. "But the gunshot would alert that mechanic, and he could call for help. The M9's suppressed, but it's too difficult a shot with a handgun." I lowered the rifle and swore.
Twilight patted me on the shoulder, looking quite pleased with herself. "You know," she said slyly, "Starswirl the Bearded once wrote 'Where conventional thinking ends, the unorthodox begins.'"
"Uh-huh," said Applejack dryly. "I think I got that in a fortune cookie once." Twilight glowered at her.
"You're suggesting we think outside the box?" I asked. "Do you have any ideas?"
Twilight looked long and hard at the sniper in the ghillie suit. Slowly, she turned to me, looking intently at my rifle. A sinister grin spread across her face.
If her suggestion was to shoot him, I'd whack her.
Designated marksman Dan Hoyer lay on his belly and stared through the scope of his rifle at the courtyard stretched out in front of him. He was not the sharpest knife in the squadron, having been forced into military service after failing the GED three consecutive times, yet even he had the sense to notice that his role was redundant and pointless, because if the gatehouse were actually well protected, there wouldn't be any need for a sniper to keep watch over the helicopters. He'd brought his concerns to Captain Case that morning, as the captain and a squad prepared to follow Mr. Trenton into the forest, in pursuit of the beast that had ambushed a patrol the night before.
Captain Case had listened thoughtfully to Hoyer's suggestions. When he'd finished explaining his feelings on the situation, the captain clapped him on the shoulder. "Son," he said, "I could spend the rest of my life writing about all the idiot mistakes that this army's made lately, and I still wouldn't scratch the surface."
"Then you'll talk to the commander?" Hoyer had asked hopefully.
When the captain finished laughing and drying his eyes, he said "If the commander gave half as many fucks about my opinion as he did about sucking up to our chickenshit client, we wouldn't even be here right now, and there'd be no need to complain." And that was that.
The ghillie suit was itchy, heavy, and uncomfortable, and barely resembled the moss it was supposed to mimic. His M1903 Springfield rifle, an antique in the 21st century, was badly maintained, prone to jamming, and the lens on the scope had a crack in it. He'd given it to Quartermaster Loomis to repair, yet it seemed to have returned to him in even worse condition than he'd left it. Just once, he wished he could use one of the M24s, but those were reserved for the front-line sentries at the staging area. If he ever found out that someone at the castle was using an M24, he promised himself, he'd steal it out from under the poor idiot's nose.
Once again, the sun glanced off of his scope, and he pulled away with a grimace. "Stupid sun," he muttered. "Thinks it's such hot shit." He shook his head, grumbling, and raised the scope back to his eye.
The gun suddenly began to shimmer. A purple aura encased it, barrel to stock, and to Hoyer's shock, it levitated out of his hands. "That's new," he said astutely. He grabbed for it, but it moved out of his reach, and rotated in midair until the barrel pointed directly at his forehead.
Suddenly, designated marksman Dan Hoyer felt very afraid.
"O, pathetic human!" the gun spoke in a deep, warbley voice. "Thou hast displeased the guardian spirits of this place! We have come to lay our judgment upon thee!"
Hoyer rose to his knees, trembling, and swallowed hard. "R-really? No foolin', huh?"
Far away, hidden behind the bulk of a Boeing CH-47 helicopter, Twilight Sparkle kept the rifle levitated, projecting her voice through the aura she used to manipulate it. Beside her was Applejack, her face hidden in her hooves. "Twilight, this is dang foolish," she said, her words muffled.
"Quiet," hissed Snake, kneeling behind the two ponies. He held the directional microphone in one hand and used the other to press an earbud, which was connected to the microphone, into his ear. "Dumbass is buying it. Pull back on the bolt. The little lever on the side."
Twilight felt through her aura for the lever Snake was talking about. She found it, but hesitated, and looked at him, biting her lip. "Will it...?"
"No," said Snake. "Just do it."
Relieved, Twilight complied, but it jammed before she could pull it back. She glanced at Snake, who just shrugged and waved for her to continue.
"Listen well, thou insignificant... worm!" said the gun. "In ancient times, we swore to keep watch over this place, in the name of our Great and Powerful lord... the Great and Powerful..." The voice paused, as if hesitating.
"...The great and powerful lord...?" prompted Hoyer. "Hey, is the gun jammed?"
"Thou impudent and wretched mortal!" boomed the gun, thrusting itself into Hoyer's face. Hoyer recoiled and fell backward onto his ass. "We expect patience when we pause for dramatic effect! Our lord, the Great and Powerful... er... Smooze... demands it!"
Hoyer glanced nervously between the gun's barrel and scope, wondering which part the voice was coming out of. "He demands patience, or long pauses?" he asked.
At the Chinook, Snake rose, patting Twilight on the shoulder. "Nice. Keep him focused on the gun. Take him out when we're through. Applejack, let's move."
"This is never gonna - "
"Applejack!" snapped Snake. The orange mare sighed, rolled her eyes, and darted for cover behind the next Chinook. Snake followed closely, keeping the microphone in one hand trained on the sniper, and his Beretta in his other hand trained on the Hind's mechanic.
"All this time, thou hast encroached here, and what hast thou given back to the spirits of this place?" demanded the gun. "Nothing but... iron deficiency, and a... a bloated, constricted... gastrointestinal system!"
"What the hell does that even - "
"Well, the spirits will have nothing more of it! The Great and Powerful Smooze will have thy backsides for lunch! And for dessert, he will devour... thy very souls!" Deep, forced-sounding laughter rolled from the rifle.
"I'm sorry!" said Hoyer. "I didn't mean to, uh... encroach! How can I make it up to you?"
Snake and Applejack passed beneath the portcullis, and Twilight felt fulfillment at the success of one of her plans. "Thou must nap! Yes, nap! For one thousand hours!"
"'Nap?'" asked Hoyer. "How will that - "
Twilight swung the rifle, hard, cracking its buttstock against Hoyer's face. The sniper fell, unconscious, against the cold roof of the portcullis. "I didn't realize being a ham was so much fun," she mused. "No wonder Trixie loves it so much." She galloped to the portcullis.
The Finnish mechanic chanced to look up as Twilight sprinted. He caught sight of the purple unicorn, opened his mouth to shout, and promptly collapsed into a sleeping ball as a 9mm tranquilizer dart stuck him in the neck.
Snake cocked the M9, nodding his approval at Twilight. He looked sidelong at Applejack beside him. "Some fortune cookie."
Applejack mumbled something defensive.
I didn't have any complaints about Twilight's plan, or its success. It was deeply gratifying to have the patented Equestrian lunacy working for me for a change. I figured that as long as the wind was blowing my way, I had no cause to bitch.
The double doors of the keep were shut. I braced myself against one door; Twilight and Applejack pressed against the wall behind me. I counted down from three; on three, I pushed my door open and moved into the keep's antechamber with my M9 drawn.
The room, while large, was smaller than the gatehouse, and had the advantage of an intact ceiling. It was rectangular, with the same worn, Roman-esque columns jutting from floor to ceiling. Wedged between two columns was a pair of man-sized lockers, which I took note of as potential hiding places. Crates and cardboard boxes were stacked along the wall on my left. Fluorescent lamps were placed in the four corners of the room, but the lighting they gave off was dim at best. Each lamp had a neon orange cord that ran down a winding staircase on the room's right-hand side. Besides that staircase, there were two other corridors that led out of the room. On the left was another staircase leading to the upper levels, which I only noticed after passing the stacked crates and boxes. By hiding behind them, I could avoid the line of sight of anybody coming from the upper level. Directly ahead of us was a corridor that stretched far, its endpoint shrouded in darkness. There was no way to tell how it extended, or in what direction it ultimately ran. Like the gatehouse, the antechamber was unguarded, a fact which I found difficult to swallow. There were supposed to be twenty-one soldiers in this castle. Where the hell were they?
Twilight trotted to the stairs on the right and looked down. "If I remember the layout correctly from last time, then there isn't much down the front corridor besides the great hall and a couple of adjoining rooms - the kitchen, maybe a lavatory; we didn't explore. I doubt they keep prisoners on the upper levels. If they're keeping Applebloom anywhere around here, it's got to be in the lower levels, out of sight."
"You sure 'bout that?" asked Applejack. "I could see 'em locking her upstairs in a tower or somethin', like in some old mare's tale."
"Could be," agreed Twilight. "But I think that following these cables is our best bet right now. What do you think Snake?"
What indeed. "Something isn't right here," I said. "Trenton all but threw the doors open for us when we fought in the forest. We've been here for a while now, and aside from a couple of idiot sentries and a mechanic, we haven't faced any opposition."
"You're suggesting Rainbow Dash was right before? That this is a trap?" asked Twilight. "If it is, it isn't a very good one. They could have ambushed us in the gatehouse as soon as we walked in, but they didn't."
"Maybe it isn't as simple as a trap," I suggested. "Maybe there's some other element at play here." Trenton made a threat on Applebloom's life to ensure that we'd follow him to the castle, even after telling me that he had standing orders not to attack ponies. It was an obvious ploy, but we walked into it regardless. So how come we hadn't been captured or gunned down yet?
The sound of footfalls descending the left-side staircase brought us back to the moment. I rushed to the stack of cardboard boxes. By a stroke of luck, there was one empty box piled on top. I looked at it, then at the two ponies. If a box this size could fit a grown man comfortably, it stood to reason that it could fit two miniature horses. "Here," I said, tossing them the box. "Get under there and stay quiet."
Twilight looked skeptically at the box. "How many missions did you say you'd gone on again?" she asked.
The footsteps drew closer now. I could see the shadows of two men cast upon the wall of the stairwell. "Just do it!" I hissed. Twilight didn't look sold, but she complied, levitating the box over herself and Applejack. The two ponies huddled close to one another as Twilight dropped it over them and, moving together with a surprising amount of efficiency, they scurried into the corner.
"...but you know what I miss the most?" asked a voice coming from the stairwell.
Hiding in the locker was not an option. I dove for cover behind the crates stacked against the wall, braced my back against them, and held the M9 ready just as the two soldiers entered the room.
"Not having to deal with that maniac Nigel every time you want to take a crap?" asked the other of the two.
"Close," said the first soldier wistfully. "Indoor plumbing." The two sighed together. I didn't want to think about it.
"Hey, wait a second." I heard a soft click; the sound of a safety being switched off. "That box."
"What about it?" said the first. "C'mon, it's just Loomis pulling the Solid Snake prank again."
I admit a slight curiosity as to how that prank worked.
"Loomis left for the staging area this morning," said the second. "Besides, after Nigel put him in a sling that one time, he wouldn't even think of trying it again." He edged toward the box with his AK leveled, walking right past the stacked crates I hid against. "Whoever's in there, come out now, and I only promise to shoot you a little bit!" He chuckled at his witticism.
My grip on the M9 tightened, and I inhaled deeply. I raised my gun, aiming for the soldier's neck.
A purple aura encased the box, and it flew forward, smacking the soldier in the face. It was a purely diversionary move (it reminded me of what I'd pulled on the red pony back in the barn), as Applejack pivoted on her front legs, reared her hind legs back, and bucked him squarely in the pelvis. The soldier went down on his back with the wind knocked out of him, dropping his AK.
Regardless of their quirks (or, in Pinkie's case, lunacy), these ponies had initiative, and I liked that in them. I jumped from my cover, spun around, and fired a dart into the neck of the first soldier before he could react. He thudded against the cold stone floor.
I released a long sigh of relief and moved to stand over the soldier whom Applejack had one-shotted. She advanced on him slowly, teeth set and eyes narrowed. The soldier struggled to catch his breath and draw his sidearm. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," I said, cocking the M9 for emphasis.
The soldier rolled his balaclava-clad head backward to look at me, and his eyes bulged. He'd managed to draw his M1911 halfway from its holster, but now his fingers slowly uncurled from it, and he raised both hands over his head in a submissive gesture. He still panted hard, and I think he was crying a little bit.
"Catch your breath," I ordered, kneeling beside him. I rested my arm on my bent right knee and leaned forward. "Then start talking. Where are the other soldiers?"
The soldier squeezed his eyes shut. He made a series of guttural choking sounds, but failed to form a coherent word out of them. "G... gg... " Gradually, he formed a syllable. "Go..."
"Gone?" Twilight supplied. "Gone where? And why?"
"God," he whimpered. "God, God, please God help me, please..."
Twilight pressed a hoof against her face and shook her head. My sentiments exactly, I thought. By Case's count, there were three hundred good soldiers in Pegasus Wings and fifty incompetents, and I kept running into the latter. Sure, it made my life easier, but it was also embarrassing to see grown men acting so pathetically.
The soldier's eyes opened. He looked around the room quickly, no doubt searching for a potential avenue of escape. Given how hard Applejack had hit his pelvis, though, I figured it'd take a miracle to get him mobile. His eyes fell on my right leg, where Captain Case's Model 500 was strapped to my ankle, and they bulged again. "God," he whimpered pitiably.
I set my M9 on the ground and drew the revolver, holding it up so that he could see it. "You know this gun, don't you?" I asked. "You know who it belongs to."
The soldier's lower lip trembled, and he nodded. "Trenton said that the captain got eaten by the big cat," he sobbed.
"Well, he done fibbed. Now, you're gonna answer my question first, y'hear?" said Applejack growled Applejack gravely. "We're lookin' for a filly, heard your buddy Trenton brought her here." She placed a hoof on his stomach and started applying pressure. "Be real nice if you could help us find her. I might even stop doin' this incredibly painful thing right here." The soldier's red eyes leaked a couple more tears. I glanced at Twilight; she was looking hard at Applejack, her mouth hanging open slightly, like she couldn't believe what she was seeing. I wondered if Applejack was typically this violent, or if she was just having a particularly bad day. With her sister missing, I could believe the latter.
"Dungeon!" he gasped. His voice was harsh and breathy; he still hadn't recovered from Applejack's attack "She's in the dungeon - oh God, help me please..."
Applejack leaned in close, coming almost nose-to-nose with the soldier. The length of her hat's brim was the only thing keeping them apart. "If any of you've done a thing t'hurt her..."
The soldier shook his head rapidly. "No! No! I mean, Nigel wanted to, but I stopped him! I-in fact, I tried to help her! I brought her food, and tried to get her to talk to me, and - "
"You think this is a pettin' zoo?!" snapped Applejack. The soldier shut his eyes tightly and sobbed.
Twilight interceded, placing a hoof on Applejack's shoulder and drawing her away. "Better not be lyin'," said Applejack. The soldier rolled onto his side and sniffled.
"Moving on to my questions, now," I said, pulling back on the gun's hammer (once again, strictly for emphasis). "For your sake, we'll start off slow. Who's Nigel?"
The soldier shook his head fearfully. "Oh, no no no no no, you don't want to fuck with Nigel, man. He's crazy."
"I asked who he was," I said. "Not for advice."
"Right!" squeaked the soldier. "Right! Nigel. He's on prisoner detail right now, because he spends all his time off duty in that basement. I told the captain not to let him watch her, but he said it was the commander's decision, and - "
"Enough." I exchanged a look with Applejack. She nodded, grimacing, and I almost pitied poor Nigel. "Where are the other soldiers?"
The soldier swallowed hard. He reached up to tug his balaclava over his nose, wiped it with his sleeve, and pulled it back down. "M-most of the army's at the... at the s-s-staging area already. The only ones left are the chopper pilots and the armor crews."
"'Choppers?'" asked Twilight. "Does he mean the - "
"Big metal thingies," I interrupted. "Stay focused." I leaned forward a little more. "Where is Metal Gear? Is it already armed with the nuclear missile?"
Our informant never took his eyes off of the revolver. "Staging area. We trucked it there in pieces, then started putting them together. I-I don't know if it's ready yet; I'm not assigned to that part of the base. And I don't know how close to being ready it is either!"
Dammit. Then there was no way to know how much time we had. "How do I get to the staging area?"
The soldier pointed weakly down the corridor at the front of the room. "Head out the Great Hall and take the path that leads past the way you came in. It's a couple hours on foot."
"'The way I came in?'" I parroted, confused. What was he babbling about? "I came in through the gatehouse."
"No, no, not that. Not the backdoor. I mean the way you came in here." His voice was stronger now, with a little more energy to it, and he wasn't sobbing on every other syllable anymore, which I guessed was progress. "There's only one way in and out, right? And we're sitting on it."
I glanced at Twilight. She looked away from Applejack to meet my gaze, and shrugged. "Thanks," I muttered, as much to Twilight as to the soldier. I returned the revolver to its spot on my ankle, collected my Beretta and rose to my feet. "You've been a real help."
"I just wanted to, you know, because..." He pointed at Applejack. "She hits really, really hard, and the guy who had that gun before you was a real badass... so if you killed him, that means you're an even bigger badass... so that means - "
Without looking, I shot him in the neck with the M9, and he fell asleep. "Threaten him into talking, and he never shuts up," I muttered, cocking the gun. I nodded at the two ponies. "Nice job on that ambush."
Applejack molded her grimace into a smirk that disturbed even me. "Years of applebuckin'. It's kept me in shape. That Nigel feller touches Applebloom, he'll get the same."
"Backdoor, huh?" Twilight murmured. I raised an eyebrow at her. She clarified. "He corrected you when you said we came in through the gatehouse. 'Not the backdoor.'"
That was a nice catch. I didn't even notice it; I was too busy trying to get a sane answer from the idiot. "The gatehouse is at the front of the castle, but the way he talked, it sounds like we came in through the rear of the base," I said. "But why would they leave their backside exposed like that?" I was silently grateful that Rainbow Dash wasn't there to hear that last bit.
"Well, they've got the Everfree Forest on their doorstep," said Applejack. "Guess they prob'ly figure that nothin's ever gonna get through that, so they don't need to worry so much 'bout coverin' it."
"We got through it," I pointed out. "Zecora lived in there."
"Didn't say it was smart, Snake," said Applejack.
Twilight levitated the cardboard box off the ground and floated it over to herself. "Does this trick ever actually work?" she asked, turning it over to examine the interior. "I can't see anypony being fooled so easily."
"I never used it on a pony before, so I don't know," I said. The red stallion flashed in my mind again. "Actually, that's not entirely..."
Applejack, apparently uninterested in the story, turned to the right-side staircase. "So I guess you was right after all, Twilight. Dungeon it is."
"Normally I enjoy being right," said Twilight. She dropped the box and peered down the staircase. "But I have some mixed feelings this time. Dungeons, ugh." She shuddered. "So cramped, so claustrophobic. So filthy."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "The way you're talkin', it sounds like we brought the wrong unicorn by mistake."
I looked between the stairway leading to the dungeon and the other corridor. The one that led to the Great Hall, to the staging area, to Metal Gear. The doomsday clock was ticking, and I had no idea how close it was to midnight. Metal Gear could be ready to fire at any moment; there was really no time to lose. But Applebloom still needed rescuing. That was still on my shoulders.
And then I thought I've gotten them this far. If they pull Applebloom out of this, then I'll have done my part to save her. If that idiot was right, then there was precious little standing between them and liberation. Just a crazed man named Nigel, and at that point, I didn't doubt the ponies' abilities against Pegasus Wings. And if the others stood their ground, as instructed, then there would still be a way out. They could coast on home and go back to their lives, doing whatever the hell it was that colorful ponies did when they didn't have to worry about nuclear annihilation. There were a lot of ifs, sure, but at least they were plausible ifs.
And I could do what I came to Equestria to do, and put an end to this insurrection once and for all.
"Hey Snake?" asked Twilight. "Are you coming?"
I looked past her, over her shoulder at the stairs leading to the dungeon, and shook my head. "Sorry. But I think this is where we part ways."
"What?" Applejack asked, incredulous. "What're you on about? You said you'd help me get m'sister back, remember?"
"And I have," I said. "The way is clear. Your friends have got the exit covered. Go down there, spring your sister, and go home."
"Well, what about you?" asked Twilight, looking worried. "What are you going to do?"
I gestured at the corridor that led to the great hall. "We don't know how much time's left until Metal Gear is ready to fire. If I'm going to have any chance at stopping that thing, I need to go now."
"Snake, get serious," said Applejack, adjusting her hat on her head. "How big an army are you goin' up against? You really think you can get through 'em and take out that weapon all by yer lonesome?"
"Three hundred and fifty strong," I said coolly. "And believe me when I say that I've faced longer odds than that." Truthfully, I hadn't; this was as bad as it'd ever been for me. At least on Shadow Moses, I was better armed. Right now, the biggest gun I had was a useless revolver. "We don't have any other options. For all we know, it's already too late. Get Applebloom back, go home, and get word out to the powers that be about everything that's going on out here. If I don't make it, then at least you'll still have a fighting chance."
Neither of them looked like the enjoyed the idea of me going off on what sounded like a suicide mission alone. But gradually, Twilight nodded, looking downcast. "If you're sure, Snake," she said softly.
"We might not meet again," I said. My throat constricted oddly for a moment, but it opened as quickly as it shut, and I went right on. "I couldn't have gotten as far as I did without your help." As with Zecora, expressing gratitude was not my strong suit.
"Neither could we," said Applejack. She doffed her hat and held it against her chest, smiling sadly. "I won't forget how you helped us, Snake. How you helped Applebloom... an' how you helped me. Thank you." Well, damn, why couldn't I have thought of that? She bowed her head, turned, and began making her way down the stairs, leaving Twilight and I alone.
I stooped to retrieve the box she'd dropped, walked over to her, and offered it. "Believe it or not, a cardboard box is indispensable on a sneaking mission," I said. "I can't even begin to list the number of agents whose lives were saved by a handy cardboard box."
Twilight blinked, squeezing her eyes shut a little longer and a little tighter than normal. She levitated the box out of my hands and smiled. "I'll keep it close, Snake. Don't get killed out there, okay?"
"You too." I was about to turn away when another thought occurred to me. "Assuming things go sour, though, I left instructions for back-up to follow me in. You'll know them when you see them."
"Back-up?" Twilight asked. "More guys like you?"
That was almost insulting. Not that she'd know. "Something like that," I said. "You'll be in good hands, take my word for it. Now go save the day. I've still got a job to do."
Twilight nodded. She gave me one last smile before she, too, vanished down the stairs and around the corner. The only trace of her was the purple glow of her aura around the box as she descended, and soon enough, even that was gone.
I felt oddly hollow with her and Applejack gone. Figured it was because I didn't do anything to directly save Applebloom, the way I told myself I would. It didn't matter anymore, though. Odds were good that I wouldn't be seeing them ever again, and I had no time to dwell on the thought.
The most pressing matter on my agenda was hiding the two soldiers I'd tranquilized. Fortunately, in a rare stroke of luck, the doors to the out-of-place lockers opened easily. One of the lockers was empty, to my disappointment, but it would still serve a useful purpose. I hefted the body of the first soldier, dragged him to the locker, and stuffed him inside, slamming the door shut and locking it after him. Then, because one good turn deserved another, I opened the second locker.
"Hot damn," I muttered.
Eight grenades (six of them frags, two of them incendiary) and a small supply of C-4 sat in a box inside of the locker. It doesn't sound like much, but without any sort of explosive or missile, I may as well have attacked Metal Gear with a toothpick. Finding those explosives was like finding an oasis after wandering in the desert for days without water. I thanked whatever idiot thought it would be a good idea to keep the explosives in so random a location, and pocketed them. Then I dragged the second soldier over, stuffed him into the locker, and shut it in his face.
Feeling better than ever about my odds, I drew the Beretta and continued on my way.
Twilight found Applejack waiting for further down on the stairs. "You know somethin', sugarcube?" she said, speaking softly. "Sure, Snake's kinda gruff, but I think I'm gonna miss him all the same."
"Yeah. Yeah, me too," said Twilight. She made sure that Applejack wasn't looking, then wiped at her eyes. "He's definitely a unique character."
"You sound upset, Twi," said Applejack. "Everythin' okay?"
"I... don't like goodbyes. That's all."
Quietly, they descended the stairs. There were incandescent lightbulbs strung along the ceiling, but their light was so dim as to be next to useless. The light from Twilight's aura was far more useful in illuminating the way. Their hooves against the stone steps made an unavoidable clopping sound, so they stepped as lightly and carefully as they could to minimize it.
Twilight kept her eye on Applejack as they wound their way down the spiral staircase, concerned. She could only imagine the extent of Applejack's duress, with her sister kidnapped and her body battered by the day's series of confrontations, but her behavior since they met in the morning exposed a side of her that she never thought she'd see. From her fury in the library, when Applejack discovered that Twilight hid a secret from her, to her advancing on that hapless soldier with murder in her eyes, Twilight actually felt afraid of one of her friends for the first time.
They were none of them killers. Even during the fight with the timberwolves, when their lives were at stake, they fought only to win, not to kill, and what death the battle did produce nearly broke poor Fluttershy's spirit. Sure, there were moments in the past - intense, life-or-death situations - where Twilight had asked herself how far she'd be willing to go, if she'd kill in a situation that necessitated it. Up until then, she never thought she could go through with it, but mere hours ago, she'd put a boulder over a wolf who held Spike in its jaws. She thought about Applejack threatening the soldier, hurting him to get the answer she needed, and realized that, at heart, the situations weren't so different from one another.
So, she thought, if Fluttershy hadn't stepped in and scared the timberwolf away, what would have happened? Would I have killed to save Spike's life?
"Applejack," she asked hesitantly. "I... can I ask you a question?"
"Ain't really the best time for it, sugarcube," said Applejack, keeping her voice hushed. "We've gabbed a lot durin' this mission, but Snake was right; it ain't smart t'flap yer gums when sneakin' around."
"I know that," said Twilight. "But I've been thinking - "
"See," said Applejack with a silent chuckle, "now there's your problem."
Twilight tried to laugh with her, but she couldn't find humor in the joke. "That soldier from before, the one you..." Applejack slowed, halting mid-step. Twilight took a deep breath. "What I'm trying to ask is... would you have killed him, if it meant saving Applebloom?"
Slowly, Applejack rotated her head to look Twilight in the eye. The glow of Twilight's aura, combined with the shadow cast by her hat's brim, kept most of her face shrouded in shadow. Her bright green eyes stood out, however, and the image disturbed Twilight enough that she had to look away from her friend's gaze. "Why do you ask, Twi?" said Applejack. "Worried about me? Or is it somethin' else that's botherin' you?"
Twilight forced herself to look Applejack in the eye, and tried hard to gather her thoughts. "You're scaring me," she whispered hoarsely. "I thought you might hurt me when we talked this morning, but I told myself that you were just mad because I'd mislead you. That you wouldn't ever do that. But then, when you interrogated that soldier, you..." She swallowed. "I've never known you to be like that. It..." She swallowed, tried to drudge up more to say, but nothing came.
Applejack bowed her head, sighed softly, and trotted back up the stairs to Twilight. She wrapped her forelegs around Twilight's neck and pulled her in for a hug. "I'mma say this once, an' I think you know me well enough t'know that I'm not blowin' hot gas by sayin' it." She rested her chin against Twilight's shoulder. "Applebloom is my flesh and blood, my one an' only baby sister, an' I promised myself a long, long time ago that I'd never let'er come to no harm. If it ever comes down t'takin' a life for her sake, then there is no choice to make, nothin' t'think about, an' nothin' t'feel guilty about." She pulled away, and held Twilight at hoof's length, looking into her eyes. "Remember before when I asked you how you'd feel, iffin' it were Spike an' not Applebloom? If you'd blame yourself? If you'd hate yourself? I didn't give you a chance to answer, an' that was unfair of me, an' I apologize. Apologize for scarin' you, too. But after what happened back in the forest, with Spike an' the wolves? I don't think I need an answer."
Twilight wet her suddenly dry lips. "What if it was one of us, and not Applebloom?" she asked hesitantly. "Me, or Pinkie, or Dash?"
Applejack sucked her teeth and looked away, knitting her eyebrows together in thought. She drew herself up, raised her head high, squared her shoulders, and looked Twilight straight in the eye again. "Y'all are my family. An' I would kill for any one of my family." Without another word, she turned away, and resumed her march down the stairs.
A few moments passed where Twilight, too stunned to move, simply stood rooted to her spot. She shook it off and galloped after Applejack, catching up with her quickly. "And," she said, panting, "is that a new feeling? Or have you always felt that way?"
"You might'nt have noticed, Twilight," said Applejack, "but my folks're dead. Losin' yer ma an' pa at a tender age makes you treasure the kin y'got left." She laughed once, quietly, mirthlessly. "Hated Braeburn when we was kids. Hated the way he never shut his dang mouth. Must've been all that time I spent doggin' Big Macintosh. I got used to the quiet, grew t'prefer it, even." Applejack broke off abruptly, and Twilight wondered if she would stop talking altogether.
"An' then my folks died." Applejack's voice was somber now, more quiet and reserved than before. "Suddenly, puttin' up with the chatter became a hay of a lot easier. Ain't just kin, neither. Once upon a time, I thought Rainbow Dash was a jackass, Pinkie was a brainless buffoon, an' Rarity was a stuck-up snob. Now? I'd lay my life down for any one of 'em. Got a funny notion of family, I s'pose." She paused in her stride, and Twilight had to stop at the last second to avoid colliding with her. "Guess what I'm tryin' t'say is that, deep down... yeah, I prob'ly always felt this way. Or at least, I felt this way f'r most'a my life. It just took somethin' like this t'bring it outta me." She shrugged and continued down the stairs, Twilight following close behind.
"And Fluttershy?" asked Twilight. "You wanted to buck her to the moon, remember?"
"Nah," said Applejack. "I've thought a lot about it since then, and y'all were right. I needed t'forgive her, an' I did. An' truthfully, if none o'this had ever happened, I'da just marched right up to her door, first thing in the mornin', an' apologized anyway for poppin' off at her."
The farther down they went, the colder it got. Twilight wondered how deep into the earth they were going, how deeply delved the castle's catacombs were. She began to notice a sour, acrid stench. It was light, for the time being, but the deeper they went, the stronger it became.
"So, hey, my turn to ask questions," said Applejack.
"You? Asking?" said Twilight, surprised. "I thought you wanted us to keep quiet."
"Yeah, well, these stairs're takin' a while," said Applejack. "Gotta pass the time somehow. An' besides, I'm a li'l bit worried about you m'self. Yer gettin' right morbid with yer questions. What's eatin' ya?"
"In magic kindergarten, I read an entire volume about proper autopsy procedure," said Twilight. "So this is comparatively normal, by my standards."
"Yeah..." Twilight looked down at her hooves, watching them tread the worn stone steps one by one. "Do you remember when Snake put down the timberwolf?"
"Considerin' it happened jus' a couple'a hours ago, yeah. Crystal clear."
"I think that's what got me thinking about... killing." The memories played back in her mind. The broken body of the wolf. The quiet, resigned whimpering. Snake's expressionless, emotionless face as he pulled the trigger, his enigmatic final words to the beast. "He was so... cold, so detached when he took that thing's life."
"Maybe not so much," said Applejack. "He seemed almost like he didn't wanna do it, from where I was standin'. I think it got to him a li'l bit."
"But he still did it. Regardless of how he felt, he killed that wolf without hesitation." The gun's deafening roar still reverberated in her mind. Patches of her face were still sticky from where the wolf's sap-like blood had splattered her "I don't want us to get to that point, where we become so desensitized to killing that it just comes naturally to us."
"We won't, sugarcube," said Applejack softly, comfortingly. "Things'll go back t'normal for us after this. You'll see."
"Everyone's here now. Rest easy." He pulled the trigger, and the gun roared.
"Maybe. I hope you're right, Applejack."
The staircase ended in a long, rectangular room, whose contents horrified Twilight. Decaying torture implements - a rack that still bore the skeletal remains of a long-dead pony, an iron maiden with its door shut partway, a board that held a variety of rusted, intact implements - littered the room. The walls of the room were lined with splintered wooden stable doors, each bearing a tiny, barred window, and a taller, windowless door that didn't seem to resemble a stable. A latrine, she guessed, which would explain the sour smell. She noted with detachment that the cables from the lightbulbs in the stairwell and the extension cords from the lamps upstairs led to a steadily humming generator at the end of the hall.
This is horrible. Ghastly, she thought. Another thought, unwanted but unshakeable, surfaced in her mind. The Princesses ruled Equestria from this castle a thousand years ago. This couldn't have been their idea. She ordered herself to believe that Princess Celestia disavowed any involvement with the inequinity of torture, but her heart still felt heavy and cold.
Applejack nudged her, hard, to draw her attention. The orange mare lay low, pressed closely against the ground, and she motioned for Twilight to mimic her. Applejack pointed at the left side of the room, which bore a long, wooden table and a single chair. A muscular giant of a human soldier, wearing a blue sweater embroidered with the Pegasus Wings sigil, camouflage pants and balaclava, sat in the chair, leaning its backrest against the wall behind him and propping his feet upon the table. His arms were folded and his head bowed, and he snored softly.
"That'd be our buddy Nigel," muttered Applejack. "S'bigger than I thought he'd be."
Twilight lowered the cardboard box over herself and her friend. "This place - it's a nightmare," she whispered. "You don't think Princess Celestia knew that there was a torture room here, do you?"
"It's her castle, sugarcube," Applejack whispered back. "I think it's dang unlikely that she wouldn'ta known about this.
"But - no! I don't accept that! I know her better than that. You know her better than that. This isn't like her!"
"It's a dungeon, sugarcube. What in the hay were you expectin'?"
"I..." Twilight faltered. "I wasn't expecting... Applejack, what if there's one in Canterlot too? Oh, Princess..."
"Twilight Sparkle, you will not go crazy on me. You will keep it together," said Applejack sternly. "I don't like the idea any more than you do, but it ain't worth losin' yer kibbles 'n bits over. Not right now."
Twilight heard, and understood, what Applejack said. She was right. But this wasn't the kind of thing she could just dismiss. "This is too much. Too much. I can't - "
"My sister is in this room."
Twilight's train of thought stopped cold.
"You think this doesn't bother me none? Of course it does. Makes my blood boil, in fact. But my sister bein' locked in this buckin' torture chamber is more important than some thousand year old skeletons in the Princess's closet. I need you in the moment, Twilight."
Still shaken, still unsteady, but remembering why they were there in the first place, Twilight gathered herself. She took a deep breath, sucking in the stale smell of thousand year old flesh, and let it out slowly. "You're right. You're right. I'm sorry."
"Don't need to apologize. You need to have a nervous breakdown every couple'a weeks to function. Puzzled that out myself a long time ago."
The joke brought a smile and a hollow laugh from Twilight. The specter of doubt still gnawed at her, but she pushed the thoughts from her mind, forced herself to concentrate on the moment. Whatever this room represented, whatever it meant, would have to wait. She would have to wait. And the Princess deserved a chance to explain herself.
"Now," said Applejack, all business again, "the guard's asleep, so we gotta move real quiet-like, an' those doors prob'ly need a key to open. Which he's prob'ly got on 'im. Ideas?"
Twilight gave her fears one final shove from her mind, and thought hard for a solution. "Searching him for the key would run the risk of waking him. We don't want that."
"We could break the doors down," suggested Applejack.
Twilight looked sidelong at her. "Don't be ridiculous. The noise would wake him."
"So we follow up by breakin' him down. Easy as line-dancin' with a rattlesnake."
"Be serious," said Twilight, smiling despite herself. She felt a deep-seated gratitude and affection for Applejack for making an effort to keep Twilight at ease, despite juggling her own distress. This is a nightmare for her, she thought. And here she is joking to keep me from losing my mind. There were some moments where Twilight loved her friends especially.
"Hey, jus' trying to keep our options open," said Applejack. "Not like we need a key to open a locked door, right?"
"If you want to do it the right - wait a minute." A memory surfaced from the recesses of Twilight's mind, a memory of long nights studying alone, pouring over scrolls defining the inner workings of a - "No. We don't need a key."
"Uh, Twi, I was jokin'. Bustin' the doors down is a dumb idea," said Applejack quickly.
"Yes, it is," said Twilight. Pride at her own ingenuity swelled in her, pushing her horror further out of her mind. "Fortunately, we won't have to. Because I happen to know how to pick a lock."
"How to pick a - what?!"
Twilight nodded, smiling. "One time, back in Canterlot, I had the misfortune of getting locked out of my dormitory, and I had to sleep out in the hall. The next morning, I marched straight to the library and learned everything I could about every type of lock in existence, promising myself that I'd never let that happen to me again." She turned her smile on Applejack. "Well? Think it'll work?"
Applejack's head was cocked, her left eye squinted, her right eye wide, and her jaw hanging open. She held that expression for several long moments, before she shook it off. "Sorry, sugarcube, but y'all broke m'brain for a minute there." Her face became stern and resolute again, and she tensed her muscles. "Alright. Let's get crackin'. Start with one door, an' move on from there. Quietly, now."
Twilight nodded and swallowed. "On three. One - "
The box suddenly lifted, exposing Applejack and Twilight. The ponies looked up to see the dungeon's warden towering over them, the box dangling from his right hand. From a distance, he'd been giant. Up close, he was nothing short of mountainous. He stared at the ponies like they were insects.
Applejack and Twilight glanced at each other, exchanging a blank look, then looked back at the soldier holding the box and glaring murderously at the two of them.
Reasoning that meaningful dialogue had to begin somewhere, Twilight cleared her throat and smiled sheepishly at the guard. "So..."
Nigel dropped the box and lunged. Before either of them could react, he'd wrapped a bear-sized hand around both of their necks, lifted them off the ground, and slammed them against the wall.
"How in the hell did you two get past security?" he asked in a calm voice that defied his violent demeanor.
"What security?" Applejack managed to rasp through his iron grip. The soldier slammed her against the wall a second time, harder, and she gasped a silent cry of pain.
"You smart-mouthed bitch." He began squeezing his thumbs against their throats, cutting off their airflow. Twilight choked and flailed, struggling to draw breath. Her lungs burned, and her vision swam, as oxygen deprivation started to take its toll. Her eyelids fluttered as her eyes rolled back into their sockets.
Distantly, she heard a voice screaming. "Please, stop! Whatever you're doin' out there, jus' stop it! Don't hurt 'em!"
And, closer to her, a response. "You'll be next if you don't shut your mouth, you - "
Twilight's eyelids snapped open.
The light that filled the room shone through her closed eyelids, and the thunderclap noise that accompanied the flash was deafening. Nigel flew across the room, propelled by the force of Twilight's attack, and Twilight and Applejack, caught in his grip, flew with him. They collided painfully against the cell door at the far end of the hall. Twilight heard the wood burst apart from the force of their impact, and felt Nigel's grip around her neck release. She rolled away from him, coughing heavily, struggling to breathe. She inhaled; her throat burned with every breath, but oxygen filled her lungs. She couldn't bring herself to open her eyes, but felt him seize her by her mane and pull. Twilight cried out in pain as he dragged her, blind and helpless. She scrabbled vainly for release, struggled to focus her magic for another attack.
There came a loud, cracking, snapping sound, like bone and cartilage breaking apart, and he released her again, screaming. Applejack? she thought. Was that her? What did he do to her?
"Fuck you!" Nigel shouted. Twilight heard a thudding, crunching noise, and a feminine grunt of pain. "Fuck you!" Nigel bellowed inhumanly. Gunshots, three of them, echoed in the torture chamber. "FUCK YOU!" A fourth. "FUCK YOU!" A fifth, a sixth, a seventh. She heard nothing from Applejack.
Twilight shut her eyes tightly, mustered what magical strength she had left, and stretched out with her senses. She felt the livid Nigel, distantly sensed a terrible pain like nothing she'd ever felt. She felt Applejack, alive, but hurting; she didn't know where or how. There was a third presence, too - Applebloom's - and, mysteriously, a fourth, which she couldn't quite discern. But she filtered the others out and focused on Nigel. The weapon she needed was in his hand. Twilight felt the metal frame of Nigel's pistol, and wrenched it away from him. She turned the barrel so that it faced its owner, who fell curiously silent midway through another curse.
Twilight's magic danced over the gun's trigger. She wondered how Snake felt each time he fired a gun, each time he took a life. She remembered his inscrutable expression as he killed the crippled timberwolf, and wondered what emotion it was hiding. Such a slight amount of pressure to fire so terrible a weapon...
She pulled on the trigger.
There was no explosive report, no sound of brain and bone splattering against the stone floor. Was it jammed, like the rifle she'd turned against the portcullis sentry? No. It was empty.
Laughter. The guard was laughing, at Twilight, at his cheating death, it mattered not. Something was outrageously funny to him. It built to a crescendo, then was cut off abruptly by another heavy, bone-shattering blow.
An eternity passed before Twilight heard Applejack's voice. "Sugarcube. Are you alright?"
Twilight numbly opened her eyes. Her vision had returned, though colors and objects still bled together. The only thing she saw, with any clarity at all, was the soldier who lay on the ground amid the indistinct fragments of the broken jail cell. There was an indentation in the side of his head, visible even through his balaclava. His left leg was bent inward.
"Twilight." Applejack's voice came again, more firmly this time.
Twilight heard Applejack, felt her comforting hoof upon her shoulder, but couldn't see her, couldn't see anything but the dead Nigel. The room around them moved out of focus. "He shot at you," she said in a vacant, lifeless voice. "Are you hurt?"
"Fit as a fiddle," said Applejack. Though the room faded around her, the sound of Applejack's voice still rang through loud and clear. "He missed every shot. Got me with a mean right hook though. Gonna bruise nicely."
Twilight became aware of the gun, still floating in the grip of her purple aura, and dropped it like it was diseased.
A quiet voice, resounding with barely constrained hope, carried to Twilight's ears from across the room. "AJ...?"
Twilight felt Applejack leave her, heard her hooves against the stone again. The room vanished completely, so that Twilight was alone with Nigel. She fixated upon the corpse, memorizing every detail. The left leg, bent at the knee, at so unnatural an angle that her gorge rose. The red fluid dribbling from his balaclava and down his neck. She wondered what his face looked like beneath that mask. She wondered if the expression that he wore into death was one of fear, or of pain.
He was laughing when he died.
"It's me, li'l sister. I'm right here."
"How can you be alive? That monster... his sword..."
"I'll always come for you, Applebloom. Even if I gotta crawl back from the grave."
I almost killed someone. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her throat burned and ached with every inhalation. If he'd pulled that trigger one less time, I would have killed him.
"Applejack, I'm sorry! I'm so, so - "
"Hush now, quiet now. I gotcha, li'l sister. It's gonna be okay."
Twilight Sparkle stared at the corpse of the man who'd nearly killed her, who she'd nearly killed in turn, and desperately repeated those words to herself. It's gonna be okay. It's gonna be okay.
Something took shape over the body of the soldier, a bespectacled human, cloaked and hooded in black. Fiery red eyes gazed at the body behind his glasses, regarded it expressionlessly. Then, as if noticing her for the first time, his head lifted, and he fixed his gaze upon Twilight. A thin smile curled across his lips.
It's gonna be okay. It's gonna be okay.
Slowly, the ghostly human shook his head from side to side. No, he mouthed.
Twilight shut her eyes as tightly as she could, willing the phantasm away. It's gonna be okay. It's gonna be okay.
It's gonna be...
"You've served your purpose. You may die now!"
In the context of the castle, the term "great hall" was a misnomer. I'm sure it was great, once upon a time, but all I saw was another crumbling ruin cluttered with the out-of-place trappings of modern civilization.
A hall of its size was probably used for social gatherings, feasts. Fittingly, Pegasus Wings had turned it into a mess hall. The path to the dais on the far end of the hall was lined on either side by rows of dirty aluminum benches. A chilly wind blew through one of the long-shattered windows lining the walls, tickling my unshaven face and tossing the tails of my bandana around my head. How the hell the troops ate in a room so exposed to the elements was beyond me. At least the gatehouse had tents.
The dais sat in front of a "U"-shaped alcove, and upon the dais rested a rotted, cobwebby throne. Assuming it was as old as the rest of the castle (and it suited the crumbling ruin atmosphere far better than the more modern aluminum benches), I couldn't figure out what it was still doing there. According to the others, they'd already replaced the old rope bridge and whatever used to rest on the gatehouse pedestal. Why remove them, and not the throne?
In the alcove behind the throne were a pair of moss-covered windows with only fragmented shards of glass stuck in the pane. Built into the right side of the alcove was a tall, wooden door, or rather, the bottom half of one; the top had long ago broken away. Curiously, the door was tall enough to accommodate me. I'd have to duck my head to get under it, but it was still significantly taller than it logically should have been. All the ponies I'd met up until that point were pint-sized, barely coming up to my hip. I think the red one in the barn could meet my stomach, but that was the high water mark for pony height. Comparatively speaking, this door was enormous. What the hell was it built for?
I leaned against the empty windowsill and gazed outside. The sun was almost down by then; the sky was a mix-mash of blues and reds, fading gradually into rich purple. The spectacular height of the great hall gave me a panoramic view of a courtyard far below, one which put the makeshift helipad between the gatehouse and keep to shame. This one was huge, and mostly empty, though the stony remnants of ancient buildings scattered about told me that it wasn't always so spacious. Many of the buildings still retained a semblance of form, but many more had simply been smashed to bits. That accounted for a lot of the rubble, which carpeted large swaths of the courtyard. I got the feeling that some sort of battle took place in that courtyard, one which shattered whatever structures had stood there so long ago.
Even with so much rubble, the size of the courtyard was such that there was enough room to comfortably house several trucks. I saw a flatbed, and a covered truck which I assumed was a troop transport. The courtyard was encircled by a looming curtain wall that was only slightly shorter than the window I stood at. The wall was cracked and weathered, but seemed to have held up rather well over time (or at least, better than most structures in that dump of a castle). Whatever fight took place here seemed to have largely spared that wall. That didn't make any sense, unless the fight was localized entirely in the castle. Maybe there was an uprising from within?
Off to the right was another partially intact structure: a tall, ring-shaped wall, whose circumference took up an absurdly large percentage of the absurdly large courtyard. I tried to get a glimpse into the ring, but the only entrance I could see was a colonnade that was perpendicular to my vantage point. The wall looked very much out of place, more elegant than the utilitarian gatehouse and keep. The rest of the castle was clearly built from individual bricks stacked upon one another, but this other wall seemed carved from one giant piece of granite. It was seamless, polished even. The dying sunlight glinted off of it.
At the far end of the courtyard was another gatehouse, which vastly outsized the one I'd passed through on my way into the castle. Instead of an enormous set of double doors, however, this gatehouse possessed a pair of portcullises. The one facing the inside of the courtyard was open; past it, I could see the one which separated the gatehouse from the outside world. Through that portcullis, I could see the shadowy treeline of the Everfree Forest. Flanking the gatehouse were two jutting turrets. I held the scope of my rifle to my eye, and saw sentries posted on either turret, one each, both armed with rifles whose states of disrepair would make Master Miller quiver with fury. I thought of the note tucked away in my pocket, and wondered just how bad Quartermaster Loomis was at his job.
The first portcullis was open, which made my job somewhat easier, but I'd still have to circumvent the second somehow. The mechanism to open it had to be inside of the gatehouse, but I couldn't open it without drawing attention to myself. There has to be another way, I thought, glancing at the parked truck. In the past, I've hidden aboard cargo trucks to get from place to place, but I didn't know if I had the time to wait for a driver. Stealing a vehicle would alert them to my presence, plus I'd still have to find a way around the locked gate. I frowned, straining to think of another option.
My mind drifted back to my previous missions, searching for something in my experience that would be relevant. I'd encountered a similar situation on Shadow Moses, when I needed to get through the tank hanger, but I had Meryl to open the hanger door for me then. In this instance, I was on my own. Sure, I could have doubled back and asked one of the ponies for help, but time was a consideration, and backtracking would only eat more of it than I could spare. Besides, I figured that they wouldn't have been able to do anything that I couldn't have done by myself, as talented as they were.
In any case, inspiration struck when I thought about the duel with Liquid's gunship on the comm tower. I didn't have enough firepower to take him on at that point, so I found a sturdy length of rope and rappelled down the side of the tower to get to a conveniently located Stinger missile launcher. I looked again at the manned turrets and the sturdy wall. Finding my way up there would be easy enough. Knocking out the guards, even easier. Now, all I needed was a rope.
I made a cursory search of the great hall, but I wasn't expecting anything, and found no lucky surprises. Backtracking is a last resort for me, so I decided to keep moving through the fortress. My hope was that I could find either a rope, or some other solution to my dilemma. So out the door I went, back into the chilly Equestrian early evening, and down an enormous and steep flight of stairs. Back in the old days, castles were built by sticking a wooden fort on top of a raised mound; they called it a "mott-and-bailey" fortress. Judging by the height of the keep and the slope of the hill I descended, I'd say that this particular castle was initially constructed under that principle. Everything else - the walls, the gatehouses, the other structures - must have been added over time.
I kept a careful watch on the sentries in the turrets, hiding and ducking behind rubble for cover, but I needn't have worried. They kept their eyes on the forest in front of them, without variation, without fail. I suppose there's something to be said for that kind of dedication, but the whole practice struck me as redundant and silly. There was nothing out there but the staging area, and nothing between the castle and the staging area to look out for. Everfree fauna, maybe? I guess they just didn't see any point in covering the courtyard, since the only entrance into it was adequately covered, or so they probably thought. Still, given what I'd seen from Pegasus Wings infantry up until that point, the fact that they were performing their duties at all was pretty admirable.
I decided to look in the ring-wall first. From a distance, I was struck by the grace evident in its construction, the way it clashed with the rest of the ruin. But up close, I felt - knew, with a certainty that made me nervous - that its appearance was a lie. It was old. The age and scale of the thing struck me; looking at it, I could tell it was a labor of love, a monument to something... or someone... long forgotten. A feeling of almost palpable sacredness radiated from the structure. I recognized the feeling; I'd experienced it before, in the sleek structure that housed the portal on the island base.
I knew, then, that I wouldn't find a rope in there, and what I did find would raise more questions and answer none. Metal Gear was still out there, waiting for me, but I felt irrationally compelled to see what was in there with my own eyes.
And, you know, there was always the possibility that what I needed was down there. Worth checking out, at the very least.
The space inside the ring spiraled downward, with circular rows of what looked like stadium seating flanking me on either side. In front of me was a path that descended down a steep slope into a deep pit, the locus of which was a wide, towering black arch, capped at its apex by a bust of a black unicorn.
It was even more magnificent up close. Its surface shone faintly in the dim light, as though painstakingly polished. No, "polish" implies that it was tarnished. This thing looked as though dirt and grime had never once touched it. Despite its fresh appearance, I knew, instinctively, that it was ancient, as ancient as the ring at the top of the pit. Yet it looked timeless, ageless. Pure.
I rested my hand on it gently, felt the cool, smooth stone beneath my palm. It was as faultless as it was clean; I couldn't feel a scratch or score, or even see a smudge, upon it. Through all the uncountable eons that this thing had lain in this pit, it remained intact, whole, and untouched by the passage of time. How could that be possible? But then, there was precedent for this sort of thing. The arch in the island base, while also clearly ancient, was just as intact as this one.
But there were differences between the two, besides simple color. Now that I was close, I could see the bust at the top in greater detail. The bust on the first arch had been of a white unicorn, gazing serenely at the world before it. This one was black, its eyes shut, its expression mournful.
Tire tracks ran from the entrance of the arch and back up the path I'd just walked down, yet they didn't run through the arch, just out of it. I'd seen the same phenomenon at the other portal.
“There's only one way in and out, right? And we're sitting on it."
So that's what the idiot soldier had meant. Pegasus Wings set up shop here because it was the point where their world - our world - intersected with Equestria. But then, I went through the same portal that they did, back on the island. Yet I had no memory of coming out through this one, slipping through the castle's defenses and out the back door, and winding up in a barn in Ponyville, unconscious and at the mercy of a red horse with an apple tattoo. I figured that Pegasus Wings emerged from the portal in another spot of Equestria, but that matter took a backseat to the mere fact that they were there and posed an immediate threat. Standing face-to-face with that mystery, though, I realized that I didn't know what to think.
“More to the point, the portal has been rigged to disperse the atoms of anybody who attempts to follow us here."
Trenton's words. I'd ignored them at the time; as with the mystery of Pegasus Wings' point of origin, Trenton's remark hadn't seemed worth dwelling on. Thinking on it, though, it sounded as if I should have died when I crossed that threshold. Yet I'd emerged, alive and intact, albeit in a barn. Maybe they rigged it poorly. Maybe, instead of turning my component atoms into nothing, they set it to rearrange me in some random location. That seemed the most likely explanation. Thinking back, Trenton had agreed with me when I pointed out that they'd done their job improperly, that passing through the portal wasn't lethal.
“You passed through here before, but I sent you back. It wasn't your time. It still isn't.”
Or maybe it was. That hallucination, The Sorrow, spoke to me as though I'd died once before. Could I have died crossing the portal into Equestria after all? Could he have "sent me back," so to speak, because it just wasn't my time? Up until then, I'd considered The Sorrow a hallucination, a fantasy brought on by an overtaxed mind, fueled by a potent nerve toxin. But seeing that arch turned my world upside-down, put all options back on the table. Suddenly, intervention on the part of a smugly grinning ghost seemed plausible.
I was jarred out of my ruminations by a sharp, furtively whispered "psst!" coming from above me. Startled, I drew Lucky Number SeveN and leveled it at a curiously low-hanging cloud that was almost directly over my head.
"Oh, put that away!" hissed a raspy, girlish-sounding voice. A rainbow-crowned blue head poked over the edge of the cloud and frowned at me. "Those things'll put your eye out!"
"Rainbow Dash." I lowered the gun and released a sigh of exasperation. Of all the ponies to tail me after I'd thought I'd parted ways with them for good, it had to be the least tolerable of the bunch. Pinkie Pie, even, would be an improvement. And how did she expect me to put an eye out with my own gun? It was a pistol, not a Red Ryder BB Gun. "What are you doing here?"
"What?" hissed Rainbow Dash. She cupped a hoof over her ear. "Speak up; I can barely hear you."
Not surprising; low-hanging as her cloud was, its altitude was several times my own height. Raising my voice ran the risk of alerting the castle's few sentries to my presence, and I didn't want to risk that just to accommodate the world's worst pony. I told her that, as patiently as I could.
Rainbow Dash did not appreciate my patience. "You're going to have to speak up," she hissed.
Of all the... Unable to articulate my exasperation with words, I pressed my fingertips hard against my cloth-covered forehead and grumbled.
"Fine, fine. I'll come to you." The beating noise of tiny wings grew closer and closer, until I could feel the slight gust of displaced air wash over me. "There," said Rainbow Dash, glaring sternly at me. "You happy now?"
I returned the look with my hand still cupping my forehead. "Ecstatic. Now, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I've been tailing you from the sky ever since you stepped into that first courtyard." she explained, her voice still bearing a sharp edge. "I came out here to ask you why all three of you went into the castle's main building, and only you came out the other side."
"There was a fork in the road. We split up."
Rainbow Dash skeptically raised an eyebrow. "Are you down here looking for Applebloom?"
"No, we found out where she was. Applejack and Twilight are getting her out as we speak."
Rainbow Dash lowered her brow and narrowed her eyes. "So why aren't you with them?"
"Because there was someplace else I had to be." I was starting to think that walking down that path to this secluded archway had been a bad idea. Rainbow Dash would not have had the gall to confront me in the open, with the sharpshooters keeping watch, meaning I'd have been spared another utterly tedious tactical debate. Maybe that arch had a will, and putting me under its thrall was just part of a scheme to piss me off. "We discussed this in the forest. I'm on a mission, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember that," said Rainbow Dash, the edge in her voice sharpening considerably. "I also remember you agreeing to help us rescue Applebloom, but you went ahead and ditched us the first chance you got."
"I didn't 'ditch' anyone," I said, growing defensive. "I suggested that we split up, and they agreed. I'll go on through the forest to the staging area to finish the mission, while you and yours get Applebloom out of here."
Her angry expression faltered, and she looked blank for a few moments, before incredulity crossed her features. "You suggested splitting up?" she asked. "And they agreed?"
I nodded curtly.
Incredulity gave way to anger, and she rose into the air, wings flapping furiously. "That wasn't the deal," she snapped. "You were supposed to help us get her out of here, which means that you were supposed to stay with us until she was safe. None of this 'splitting up' pile of horseapples."
"The situation's changed." I pointed off into the distance, in the general direction of the portcullis leading to the rest of the forest. "Metal Gear could be ready to fire at any moment. If I'm to have any hope of stopping it, I need to go, and I need to go now."
"So you just abandon my friends? Turn your back on us after all we've done to help you?!" She jabbed a hoof at me accusingly. "What if they get caught before they make it out of the castle?"
"Caught by what?" Now I pointed behind myself, back at the makeshift helipad. "Who's there to stop them? The only resistance they could possibly meet is unconscious."
"Did you forget that we were practically invited in here?" Rainbow Dash punched one hoof into the other. "Trenton told us to come, made it as easy as possible to get in - why?"
I stared at her coldly. "Why don't you tell me, since you're an expert on tactical infiltration all of a sudden?"
"You're supposed to be the expert," she retorted. "But you can't even see that Trenton made it possible for us to get in, and he's going to make it impossible for us to get back out! This is a trap!"
As if I hadn't considered that exact possibility. As if I hadn't sprung a hundred traps, knowingly and unknowingly, already. "Some traps are unavoidable," I said. "Sometimes, you have to spring them, and make it look like you blundered into them so that the enemy lets their guard down." I turned away from her, and began to climb the ramp that led back to the courtyard.
Rainbow Dash, however, was not finished with me. She darted over my head and landed in front of me, her wings splayed and her back flattened. "Maybe," she said. "But if you're going to do that, then you better damn well make sure you can fight your way out of that trap. And as much as I hate to admit it, our odds are better when you're with us than with you gone."
"This is bigger than you and your friends." I stared her down, meeting her outrage with a cool and steady gaze. "I want her safe, too, but none of what we've done today will be good for a thing if Metal Gear goes online."
"Snake." Rainbow Dash's voice sounded almost pleading now, and her expression of incredulity and anger softened to match her tone. "That trap, whatever it is... if it springs on my friends, then they could die."
My stomach knotted as Rainbow Dash's words sunk in. I'd watched whole fire teams gunned down, sat back in my cover and waited for the chop to die down while men and women dropped before my eyes. I'd listened to Jack babble in fear about a SEAL team being blown to bits by Fortune, and I didn't feel a damn thing. There was a disconnect in all of those instances, though. It's different when a comrade dies. It's different when someone you know, personally, lays the losing card on the battlefield.
I could deal with it. Maybe Rainbow Dash couldn't. I empathized with her; I'd been green once too, lost friends and didn't know how to handle it. But this wasn't Desert Storm. "And how many lives would be saved if I took out Metal Gear before it fired? If your friends' lives are the price of stopping a nuclear apocalypse, then so be it. I'll live with their deaths on my conscience." Leaning forward, towering over her, I asked, "Can you live with the deaths of thousands on yours?"
That froze her. She didn't reply for several moments. Figuring the discussion over, I stepped around her and continued on my way up the ramp. I didn't hear any sign of pursuit for the first few steps, and fooled myself into thinking that Rainbow Dash had chosen to leave me alone after that. Then came the sound of hooves beating rapidly against stone, growing louder as she drew closer to me. "You know somethin', Snake?" she asked. Her hoofbeats cut off, replaced again by the sound of her wings beating, fanning cool air over my shoulder. "I'm getting pretty sick of that attitude of yours."
"'Attitude?'" I swatted half-heartedly in her direction, but my hand didn't make contact, which only served to frustrate me more. "I'm trying to save your damn country from destruction. If you don't like that I have an 'attitude,' about it, then go back to your friends and don't deal with it anymore."
Rainbow Dash wove in front of me again and pressed a hoof against my chest. She pushed, putting enough weight behind herself to stop me from taking another step. It wasn't enough to set me off, but it did get me mad. "You shut up and listen," she said. "We've done a lot for you so far, enough to earn a little bit of respect. So I don't know where you get off treating us like we're just corpses in the final body count."
"Were you listening to a word I said?" I asked in a low growl. I placed my hand on Rainbow Dash's hoof and firmly pushed it off of my chest. "Metal Gear could fire at any moment. I stop to help your friends out of whatever trap's waiting for them, and thousands die. You care more about yourselves than preventing a holocaust? Fine." I jabbed a finger into her face, centimeters away from her eyes. "But stay the hell out of my way."
Rainbow Dash's eyes crossed, focusing on my finger. She clenched her jaw, bared her teeth, swatted my hand away, and struck me back-hoofedly across the cheek. Her hoof was like a rock, and she had a hell of a lot more muscle backing her punch than I'd have thought by looking at her. It was impressive.
It was also enough to set me off.
I aimed a haymaker at her face, but she dodged to my right, accidentally exposing her stomach as she fluttered away. Seizing the moment, I swung a left hook at her, and this time, my fist sank into her belly. She expelled a pained breath, but, unbowed, jabbed me hard in the nose. Cartilage crunched and snapped as her hoof made contact, and blood trickled from one of my nostrils down my upper lip. She jabbed again, but I wasn't so stunned that I didn't see it coming, and I caught her midway up her foreleg. I swung her, up and over my head, and threw her hard against the stony slope behind us. She rolled down the ramp, and I drew my M9, leveling it at her as she came to a halt.
Rainbow Dash scrambled back to her hooves. She panted, her chest heaving with every inhalation. Warm, sticky blood ran from my nose and down my stubbly chin. We stared at each other; she, silently daring me to take the shot, and I, daring her to test my shooting reflexes.
But neither of us moved, and the stand-off stretched on, until the rumbling, mechanical cough of an engine cut through the silence that hung between us. I glanced over my shoulder, tilting my head in the direction of the noise. "Do you hear that?" I whispered, tasting the tang of my blood on my lips.
Rainbow Dash cocked her ear. She didn't take advantage of my lapse in attention, so I assumed that meant she was listening too. The engine was idling now, and the steady, reverberating beat was joined by a cacophony of rusty, metallic clanking noises. The portcullis, I thought. The engine roared to life again, and I heard the sound of tires crushing ground underfoot, then the scraping of brakes kicking in.
I looked back at Rainbow Dash, gauging her intent. She still looked furious as all hell, but she wasn't glaring at me anymore. Her gaze looked past me, at the top of the ramp, where the noise had come from. The fight was over; there wasn't any point in continuing after that interruption. So I holstered the gun and ran back up the ramp, to the ring-wall's entrance. Pressing myself against the wall, I leaned out ever so slightly, peeking at a covered truck that had just pulled into the courtyard.
The portcullis, which had opened to allow the truck in, slammed shut immediately with a hideous shriek that grated on my ears. Out of the covered back end of the truck came a squadron of soldiers, five in all, filing out in an orderly fashion and forming a single-file rank beside the truck. How oddly professional, I thought. Behavior like that could only be expected from a military unit which met basic competency standards, a feat which I'd thought beyond the Pegasus Wings infantry. I guess I really had just been seeing the dregs of the unit.
I heard the cabin doors open and slam shut, and saw a figure disembark from the driver's side, though I couldn't make him out clearly with a wall of soldiers blocking my view. The distant sounds of conversation carried over to where I was; I presently remembered the directional microphone that Pinkie Pie had somehow retrieved, drew it, and affixed the accompanying earbud. I felt the gentle rustle of air being displaced beside me, and knew that Rainbow Dash had decided to be a looky-loo. As long as she stayed out of sight and didn't take another swing at me, she could do whatever the hell she wanted.
"...have your assignments," said a deep, baritone voice, rich with an English accent. "Stick to 'em. That'll be all, now. Get on with it."
"Sir!" said the soldiers in unison, snapping off crisp salutes. Two immediately turned and jogged to the keep, cradling their AK-47s in their arms. The remaining two moved out of sight, heading toward the spot where, I recalled, the other two trucks were. With the soldiers out of the way, I got my first decent look at the man who'd spoken. He was tall, thickly muscled, and wore a navy blue T-shirt beneath his body armor, and a ballcap bearing some sort of insignia that I couldn't make out (I guessed it to be the Pegasus Wings sigil). In one hand was a submachine gun of some sort, and I squinted hard to get a look at it.
"Looks like an HK MP-7," I murmured.
"What's that mean?" whispered Rainbow Dash. She peeked out at the courtyard from a vantage point behind my leg.
"Advanced gun," I said, using the simplest possible terms to explain. "More cutting-edge than what we've seen so far from these clowns."
Another voice came over the earbud; it was fainter and more distorted, but clearly higher in pitch than the muscular Englishman's. "Make no mistake; I'm glad that Mr. Trenton called us over here, but I worry that we'll fall behind schedule."
The Englishman looked over his shoulder to reply. "It'll be alright if we do. Not as if we're keeping to anyone's schedule besides our own."
"You sound less than enthused," said the other voice, coming through louder now. A shape on four legs came into view, trotting around the front of the truck and coming to a rest beside the Englishman. It was a haggered, emaciated old gray earth pony with a long, unruly beard that nicely contrasted with the clean-shaven face of his human contemporary. There wasn't anything on his ass where the other ponies had tattoos; nothing but a patch of pale, bare skin that was tinted slightly red. Maybe he'd had his removed.
"Macbeth?" whispered Rainbow Dash.
I nodded, swallowing. "He's got the revolutionary look down pat," I remarked. "Nice to see some stereotypes transcend borders."
"The guy with him," said Rainbow Dash. "Must be that Commander Cain."
Macbeth and Cain turned and walked, side-by-side, to the keep. "Looking forward to meeting the prisoners?" Macbeth asked, sounding casual.
Cain snorted. "More looking forward to asking Trenton how he got my XO killed. One-eyed prig had better have a damn good excuse. He can tell me all about it while they're offing 'em down here."
My heart skipped a beat.
Rainbow Dash whacked me over the head with a wing. "You can hear them through that, can't you?" she hissed. "What're they saying?!"
I glared at her briefly, then turned my attention back to Cain and Macbeth. "That'd be that trap you were so worried about. They're talking about meeting the prisoners."
"Prisoners?" Rainbow Dash said, her voice cracking. "As in more than one prisoner?"
"Yeah," I sighed. Macbeth and Cain were out of sight now, and I couldn't pick up anything else on the D-mic, so I put it away and looked down into the mussed and concerned face of Rainbow Dash. "Guess they got the others. It sounds like they're planning to stick them down in the courtyard and execute them."
"What?!" Concern bloomed into full-blown fear. "Then we've got to do something!"
The steady, rusty clanking of the portcullis, followed by the truck's motor roaring to life, reverberated in my ear again. I peered out from my cover, and saw the truck backing out of the castle's gate slowly. "Why didn't they just park outside and send the personnel in?" I muttered, thinking out loud. "Could've saved themselves the hassle of - "
"Would you focus?!" Rainbow Dash snapped.
"It's just odd, is all," I said, leaning back into cover. I unslung the sniper rifle and opened the breech, then looked at Rainbow Dash. "Looks like you got your wish." Her quizzical expression prompted me to elaborate. "If I want to move on and finish this mission, I'm going to have to help your friends out of this mess. Help you, help myself." I glanced into the breech to ensure there was a round chambered and slammed it shut.
"And that's all that matters to you, huh?" Rainbow Dash asked acidly. "Helping yourself?"
"If it were, I would never have come to Equestria in the first place," I replied. "Much less, stuck with you for as long as I have." Leaning out of cover, I raised the rifle's scope to my eye and danced the crosshairs over the sentry in the right turret. He was leaning over the wall facing the forest, gesturing to someone below. From the faint sounds of conversation that carried to our position, it sounded as though he was offering the truck's driver some direction. I turned to place the crosshairs over the sentry in the other tower. He still faced the courtyard, resting his useless Springfield on his shoulder. "How are they playing this? Execution by firing squad, maybe have the sentries... but no, there're only two snipers for five targets, assuming they aren't executing the children. Want to make it numerically even, or else they'd panic whoever didn't get shot straight away. Make it harder to get a clean shot. Maybe that's why they trucked in those extra troops... then again, there's already a garrison at the base. What would be the point of that?"
"I think the point of it matters less than the fact that they're doing it," said Rainbow Dash.
Had I been talking to myself? I suppose I've just grown so used to having Otacon on an open channel over the years that I think out loud out of habit. I returned to cover, leaning the rifle against the wall beside me. Rainbow Dash was getting twitchy; her feathers rustled and her right front hoof tapped rhythmically against the cobblestone. "If they're bringing your friends down to the courtyard to execute them, then we might be able to effect a rescue. First, though, something needs to be done about those snipers."
"You've got a gun," Rainbow Dash pointed out snidely.
"An unsuppressed gun," I said. I drew the M9 and held it out for her to examine. "This is the only weapon I have that can take them out silently, and it's an impossible shot to make from here."
Rainbow Dash snorted and rolled her eyes. "Thought you were supposed to be a badass."
I frowned, mildly stung by her barb, but mostly annoyed with her ignorance. "Quick lesson on guns, Rainbow," I said, holstering the M9 again. "Pistols are good for close and medium-range encounters, not for sharpshooting. At this range, the M9's useless. And this," I added, indicating the M24, "is perfectly suited for a shot like that, but it's conspicuous. I'd get one shot, and that'd bring the whole base down on us."
"Afraid to fight your way out?"
"Our only advantage is the element of surprise. We waste that, and we're as dead as the others." I glanced out of cover again. The other trucks, the flatbed and the covered one that were parked in the courtyard when I first passed through, were now passing beneath the portcullis. But for the ruined bits of castle dotting the area, the courtyard was now completely empty. Maybe they moved the trucks out to avoid the possibility of shooting them by mistake?
"Hmm." I cupped my chin in my hand, running my thumb along my jawline as I thought. If they sent the captured ponies into the courtyard, accompanied by a firing squad, I'd have to break cover and draw their fire. As soon as I did, the snipers would take me down, rendering the whole thing pointless. Snipers, I could handle. A firing squad, I could handle. Not together. No way to take out the snipers without drawing the rest of the personnel's attention. Might delay, or even ruin, the execution, but slim chance of making it out alive, myself. Other options?
I glanced at the frustrated cyan pony who'd bloodied my nose. She'd done a decent job as a scout before, managed to stay hidden. Might have been a fluke, given the understaffed nature of the base. Then again, maybe she was just that good. And she had that cloud manipulation ability. Couldn't argue against its usefulness.
Rainbow Dash shifted uncomfortably and averted her eyes. "Would you quit staring at me?" she muttered.
Odd; she didn't strike me as the self-conscious type. I briefly thought of Meryl, then dropped the thought with a shudder as I remembered what a pain in the ass the self-conscious type was to work with. "Don't flatter yourself," I said, rising to my feet and taking hold of the M24. She had a retort coming, but I cut her off before she could get the words out of her mouth. "It doesn't look like I'm gonna be able to take out those sentries. It'll have to be you."
"Me?" Her eyes widened, her body stiffened, and her unfurled wings drooped. "What, you mean - you mean kill them?" she stammered, her voice cracking on "kill".
"You don't have to." She seemed to relax a little. "At least, it isn't necessary. If you know a sleeper hold..." She shook her head. I considered. "A sharp enough blow to the head or the jaw should knock 'em out, if you think you can manage one."
"'Manage?'" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well," I said. "You got some shots in on me, and the worst you did was bloody my nose. Think you can do better on them?"
Rainbow Dash pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. "When this is over," she muttered, "you and I are going another round."
"One thing at a time," I said, nodding knowingly. "Get going, and make it quick. And don't worry; if anything goes wrong, I'll be watching from right here."
"And if it were anypony but you, that'd be a relief," said Rainbow Dash. She turned and fluttered down the ramp, back to the cloud she'd ridden in on. I turned back to the exit, dropped to my belly, crawled into the middle of the walkway, and pressed as closely as I could to the ground. In broad daylight, the poor camouflage might have meant my end, but hopefully, visibility was low enough to conceal me.
I rested the rifle's stock against my right shoulder, held the barrel steady in my left hand, and peered through the scope, running the crosshairs first over the sharpshooters in the turrets, then over the entrance to the keep.
Not much time on the clock, I thought grimly. Rainbow Dash had better pull through.
Twilight Sparkle blinked, and the ghostly vision was gone. She was back in the dank, fetid dungeon, with her friend, a filly, and a human corpse for company. It was like the set-up to a bad joke. "Yeah," she said. Surprised at how raspy and hoarse her voice sounded, she cleared her throat and shook her head. "Yeah, sorry. What were you... what were you saying?"
Applejack exchanged a look of concern with her sister, then turned it upon Twilight. "I said that we need to be on our way. We've still got a job t'do, an' all that."
Twilight nodded absently, muttering an affirmative. Her gaze drifted over the human guard's corpse, at the unnaturally bent leg and the concave wound in his head.
"Twilight...?" Applejack trotted to her side, hesitated, then extended a hoof toward her friend. "You in there, sugarcube?
She saw Applejack's hoof out of the corner of her eye and jerked away, wrenching her gaze off of the body. "I'm fine," she said quickly. Her heart hammered in her chest, her legs trembled, and she struggled to steady her breathing. "Just fine."
Twilight shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm fine, alright? I just - you're right, we need to get going. Like Snake said, we should get back to Ponyville and send a message to the princess."
"Snake?" asked Applebloom, sounding hopeful. "Snake's here too?"
"We separated a li'l while ago," said Applejack, "but he helped us get down here to rescue you." To Twilight, she asked "Are you sure you're alright, Twilight?"
"Yes," Twilight sniffed. Tears pooled behind shut eyelids, stinging her eyes, and she slowly released a long, staggering breath. Shake this off, Twilight, she ordered herself. There's a time and a place. This isn't it. Finish this crisis, and...
A phantom gunshot rang out in her mind, followed by the wet, splattering noise of a man's brains landing against the ground.
...and then worry about ever being able to look your friends in the eye again.
"I'll lead the way," she said softly. Her horn glowed with the same dim, purple light that had led them into the dungeon, and she strode upon shaky legs toward the stairwell. "Stay close behind me, girls."
There was no conversation as they ascended the stairs, the silence disturbed only by the soft clopping of their hooves against the stone steps. The eerie stillness was somewhat calming to Twilight, who, freed from the disturbing atmosphere of the dungeon, found herself lost in her own thoughts.
She'd told Applejack that casual killing was something that she'd wanted to avoid. Her attempt at shooting the guard hadn't been casual; there was no question that it was in self-defense. She knew it. Applejack, evidently, knew it, given how well she was taking this. And the gun had been empty anyway; there was no blood on her hooves.
But I did it without hesitating.
Even if she hadn't shot the human, the intent was there. She would have, could have, killed him. And in Twilight's mind, that damned her as surely as if she'd shot him dead herself. It was irrational, she realized, and she willed herself to rationalize it away. It was necessary. It was kill-or-be-killed. And I didn't even kill him, Applejack did. But her justifications rang cold and hollow, and her guilt was not so easily dismissed.
She could only wonder how Applejack felt.
It wasn't long before they reached the top of the stairwell. Twilight ascended the final steps and came into the keep's antechamber, lost in her thoughts and oblivious to the world around her. Applejack's sharp cry of surprise snapped her out of her stupor, in time for her to see a Pegasus Wings soldier on her right leveling his rifle at her. On her left was another; they must have pressed themselves against the walls beside the stairwell entrance to avoid detection. And she, so wrapped up in her ruminations, completely missed it. Stupid, she berated herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"Stay where you are," the soldier on her right commanded her.
Twilight's aura intensified. A brilliant burst of pink shot from the tip of her horn and struck the soldier in the chest, knocking him backward into one of the fluorescent lamps. Both tumbled to the ground, one of the lamp's bulbs shattering upon impact.
There was a sharp crack, the sound of bone shattering, and Twilight's eyes widened. She whirled, and saw the other soldier doubled over in pain, clutching his pelvis, Applejack standing with her back to him. The soldier dropped to the floor and lay on his side, curled into himself and gasping breathlessly.
"Trap," said Applejack. "Looks like Rainbow was right."
"Yeah." Twilight turned the the double doors that led to the makeshift helipad. "We need to book it. Keep Applebloom close." She inhaled sharply, dug her hoof against the floor -
The doors burst inward, their sudden motion and loud creaking startling Twilight into stillness. Into the antechamber came Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. Rarity looked dejected, Fluttershy terrified, and Pinkie Pie wore an apologetic smile. Towering over the three of them was Trenton, his burning eye focused upon Twilight alone. Slung under his left arm was a little bundle of purple and green, whose plump face was frozen in an expression of terror, and whose wide, green eyes darted fretfully around the room, before landing on Twilight and lingering there.
Twilight's breath caught. The shock of seeing Spike in Trenton's clutches was enough to wipe away any and all traces of conscious thought in her mind. A moment passed, and the shock wore off. The guilt of nearly taking a life, the trauma of the body sprawled on the dungeon floor, was nowhere in her mind anymore. All she saw was Spike in the arms of a monster. All she felt was an overriding need to protect him. A stray thought flitted through her mind - if she killed Trenton in Spike's defense, would she regret it?
Only one way to find out, Twilight, a cold voice in her mind whispered.
Trenton drew his sword in a flash and held Spike out in his hand, placing the sword beneath his chin. "This blade cuts matter at the atomic level," said Trenton, his voice perfectly conversational. "Your friends may not know what that means, but I know that you do."
All eyes were on the baby dragon, all save Twilight's, which burned white-hot at Trenton.
"I've long wondered whether that means it is capable of cutting through dragon hide," Trenton continued. "If you don't stand down, then I will settle that question here and now."
The glow enveloping Twilight's horn shone brighter, and her mane and tail billowed, caught up in a shimmering purple whirlwind that swirled around her body. A low, unsettling hum began to fill the room. All the while, Trenton stared, unmoving, his blade mere millimeters from Spike's neck.
"Twilight," Spike whimpered. "Please."
Spike's pitiable, frightened tone, and the pleading look in his eye, pierced the armor of Twilight's outrage. The blind anger that overtook her slipped away, and the heavy weight of the day's events again settled onto her shoulders. Unwilling to see her oldest friend added to the body count, she relented. The storm of her aura died down; her mane and tail hung limp and unkempt, and she lowered her gaze to the floor.
Trenton pulled his blade away from Spike's throat, and the dragon released a quiet sigh of relief. Applejack spat disgustedly. "Dirty coward. Hidin' behind children's all yer good for."
"The tactic works," said Trenton. He pointed his sword at the corridor which led to the great hall. "Walk. Make no move to escape, or we will revisit my theory."
Unable to look her friends in the eye, Twilight, head bowed, simply did as she was told.
From what she'd gathered, Macbeth was supposed to be a bold and charismatic revolutionary. He may well have been, but to Twilight, he certainly didn't look the part. The scruffy, unwashed gray earth pony, gray bearded and wild-eyed, stood on the dais at the far end of the great hall, in front of the old throne. At his side stood a tall, heavily muscled human in a blue T-shirt and combat vest, a Pegasus Wings ballcap on his head. In one hand, he held a gun that was larger than the pistol Snake had used, but smaller than the soldiers' rifles. The human leaned against the alcove wall, staring disinterestedly out the window. The old pony saw them, and curled his chapped and cracked lips into a pensive frown.
"Five intruders," said Macbeth. His decrepit appearance did not match his voice, which transformed every spoken word into a velvety, sensual purr. "Five intruders, for six elements. Mr. Trenton, forgive my skepticism, but I just don't know that these ponies are who you said they were."
Is that how Trenton recognized me? Twilight thought. Despite their status as three-time saviors of Equestria, she and her friends enjoyed a quiet life of anonymity in rural Ponyville. It was rare that somepony outside of their hometown recognized them; even among the Canterlot elite, they were simply nameless country folk. But Trenton knew who she was by sight. So did Macbeth, apparently. And that didn't make a great deal of sense.
"I assure you," said Trenton, "these are five of the six bearers of the Elements of Harmony."
So Trenton knew who they all were - or at least, he knew enough about Twilight to make an educated guess about the others' identities. She could write off his knowledge of the Elements of Harmony; it was a well-known and popular story, one that Macbeth would no doubt have been familiar with. But knowing who the bearers were, by sight, suggested that Trenton possessed an unsettling depth of knowledge. It was unlikely that Macbeth, a terrorist who'd been in hiding for years, would so much as know their names. She noted that Trenton and his employers did not seem to consider Spike an intruder, then noted (with a jolt of shock) that Trenton failed to mention Snake entirely.
She glanced over her shoulder at the ninja, whose fiery blue gaze stared straight ahead at Macbeth. What is he playing at?
"You said you had a complete set," said the human in a bored (yet alluringly accented) voice. "There's five of them; there ought to be six. Maybe you've got the wrong ponies."
"These are the same ponies I encountered in the forest - Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Fluttershy - the Elements of Magic, Generosity, Honesty, Laughter, and Kindness, respectively," said Trenton. The names of the five of them were underscored by a faint note of distaste in Trenton's voice. "Where the Element of Loyalty, Rainbow Dash, has gone, I know not."
Rarity's eyes lit up. "That showboat?" she said primly, tossing her head and throwing her mane about her shoulders. "She simply couldn't stand that she was part of the rearguard and decided to be a drama queen about it. We came to the conclusion that it would be best for everypony involved if she just left."
"Oh yeah," Pinkie said in a long, thick drawl, rolling her eyes. "I mean, Rainbow Dash has her bad days - I call those days 'Gildays' - but she just totally lost it this time."
Rarity and Pinkie Pie glanced expectantly at Fluttershy, who seemed to withdraw. After a few moments of nervous stuttering, she squeaked out an affirmative. "She had... hurt feelings."
Hurt feelings? Losing control? Ditching us because of an argument with Rarity? Twilight crinkled her nose. That doesn't sound like Rainbow Dash at all.
"Not that it particularly matters," Rarity added. "We do have an able replacement. Do we not, Spikey-Wikey?" She flashed the hapless baby dragon under Trenton's arm a comforting smile, and he, despite himself, returned it a little.
"Sixth member of their gang buggered off," the human remarked. He turned to regard the group directly for the first time. He looked old, maybe slightly older than Snake (though Twilight admittedly hadn't seen enough humans to make anything more than an educated guess on the subject), and his face, unlike Snake's, was hairless. "No telling what she knows. If she talks, that'll definitely complicate matters. We'll need to accelerate our plan."
Macbeth nodded without looking at him. "Agreed. However, for now, I believe I am satisfied regarding the identities of our prisoners ." He hopped off of the dais and trotted toward the prisoners, coming to a halt a few paces away from the assembled group.
"I know who you are," he said, and the stink of his breath forced Twilight to breathe through her mouth. Quiet sounds of disgust, and heavy breathing, told her that her friends had a similar reaction. To have such fetid breath as to disgust ponies standing so far away was downright impressive. Macbeth didn't seem to care. "However, there's still the matter of my introductions. I am called Macbeth; you may have heard of me. Or not. If there's one thing in this world which Celestia loves more than tea, it's airtight control over the history books."
Twilight scowled at him, miffed by his casual show of disrespect for the Princess.
"The gentleman behind me is Commander Alistair Cain, of the Pegasus Wings army, a mercenary unit which has pledged its loyalty to my cause."
Cain nodded at them, then turned his attention back to the window.
"And you have, of course, already met Mr. Trenton, the freelance specialist who brokered our arrangement."
Twilight looked over her shoulder at Trenton, to see if he had any sort of reaction to his introduction, but he stood perfectly still, at attention.
"Together," said Macbeth, drawing himself up proudly, "we aim to force an end to Equestria's thousand year history of unbroken autocratic rule." He threw a grin over his shoulder at Cain. "Isn't that right, Commander?"
Cain murmured in agreement, shrugged, and continued to stare out the window.
"Let me get this straight," said Twilight, her frustration with Macbeth beginning to peak. "Equestria exists in a state of utopia, which has persisted across a millenium, and you not only think that this is a bad thing, but you want to put an end to it?"
"Oh, it sounds silly when you put it that way," Macbeth chuckled, shaking his head. "Equestria has prospered, I do not deny that. But consider this: our nation is now as it was fifty years ago, and it was then as it was five hundred years ago. The evolution of our society has plateaued, and there is no change in sight." His intact eye flashed, and his grin widened dangerously. "I intend to force that change."
"But you just said that things were perfect the way that they are," chirped Pinkie Pie, tilting her head. "If things are dandy, why mess with 'em?"
"Because the world continues to change," said Macbeth. "And we do not change with it. And if we continue, dead in the water as we are, then the world will eventually evolve beyond our capacity to adapt to it."
"Equestria's been at peace for a thousand years," Twilight said skeptically. "I don't think that's something we really need to worry about."
"What you call 'peace,' I call 'stagnation,'" said Macbeth. His voice was cool and calm, and his every word sounded deliberate, as though rehearsed. He might have been planning to give this speech for a long time. Or, thought Twilight, maybe he's given it before.
"Change never comes of its own accord, Ms. Sparkle." Macbeth drew in a deep breath before he continued speaking. "This truth is written into our very history as a nation. Unless we will the change that Equestria needs into being, our society will remain static and unchanging for all time. The pattern of change, of forced adaptation, must continue."
"Yer really gonna lecture Twilight about history?" asked Applejack. "Ain't a contest of wits that yer likely to win, partner." Twilight's face flushed with modesty.
"The facts need no interpretation; they are what they are," said Macbeth. "One thousand years ago, Princess Luna attempted to seize the throne for herself. Conflict ensued, and Equestria was changed. Eons before that, Luna and Celestia cast down the demon Discord, and Equestria was changed. And untold eons before that, Discord wrested Equestria from the rule of the god-emperor, and Equestria was changed. Every iteration of our civilization came about as a response to a world-changing conflict; each time, the world was rent, and we ponies were forced to adapt."
"The god-emperor?" thought Twilight. What does that even mean? No history she was familiar with went much farther back than the union of the three races and the founding of Equestria. If he was referencing some event older than that, it was nothing with which she was familiar. Her mind was a vast repository of arcane and historical knowledge, perhaps rivaling even that of the Canterlot library. Pig-headed as it made her feel to think it, if she wasn't familiar with it, it likely didn't exist. There was no "god-emperor" in Equestrian history, and while the Princesses may have fit that bill, they never proclaimed themselves as such.
"Conflict is the greatest agent of change.," said Macbeth coolly. "This belief, I am quite certain in, and have been for longer than any of you have been alive. Meeting Commander Cain, and learning the history of his world, only confirmed my belief."
Cain released a minute, disgruntled sigh. "You wanna leave me out of this?" he grumbled.
"He's a fucking chickenshit retard," Captain Case had said of Macbeth. Twilight found herself beginning to agree with him. The Macbeth standing in front of her, speechifying with abandon, was a marked contrast to the charismatic revolutionary she'd overheard the guardsponies describing. Still, Macbeth feeding them his story and philosophy might have its benefits - "know thy enemy" was a cynical expression, but not an unwise one. "Is this why you staged that revolt in Stalliongrad, all those years ago?" asked Twilight.
Macbeth's eye focused on Twilight, and his grin took on a sly, fox-like quality. "One among the Elements has heard of me," he purred. "Celestia is losing her touch."
His sensual tone and continued disrespect for the Princess drew a shudder from Twilight.
"Before I met Cain, and learned of his wondrous human army," said Macbeth, "I raised a cadre of followers and assailed a very specific location in Stalliongrad, in order to bring about the change that I longed for." He rounded on Twilight, leaning close enough to her face that her horn poked noticeably into his forehead. She tried to back away from him, but he pressed closer, digging her horn deeper and breaking the skin.
"Do you know why I chose Stalliongrad, specifically, to launch my revolution?" whispered Macbeth. The stink of his breath was inescapable now, and Twilight's disgust was further compounded when she noticed a thin trickle of blood running down the length of her horn. "I'm waiting, Ms. Sparkle."
All eyes, even that of Trenton and those of the bored Commander Cain, were on Twilight as she stammered out a sub-audible "No".
"Because it is a symbol," hissed Macbeth. He pulled away, dislodging Twilight's horn. The gash in his forehead was not deep, but blood dripped down his muzzle all the same. "A symbol of Celestia's devotion to her static regime. Thirty-seven years ago, in the midst of a simmering dispute with the griffons, when war was all but inevitable, Princess Celestia vanished. By the time she returned from wherever she had gone, armies on both sides had mobilized; they needed only to fire the first shot."
"Now, that's as poor a fabrication as I've ever heard," sniffed Rarity. "The tensions with the griffons all those years ago are common knowledge, but as to your embellishment about the Princess disappearing? I may not be a scholarly as Twilight, but I know quite well that none of what you're saying ever - "
"The Princess tells you it didn't happen!" roared Macbeth, suddenly livid. "All information regarding her disappearance was suppressed to prevent the population from panic! To avoid tipping our cards to the griffons! At the time, nopony in the cabinet knew what had happened, but she was gone, and in her absence, with no clear line of succession, the Minister of War was named Regent! Me!" He angrily smacked his chest with his hoof. "I served Equestria as its highest officer; I alone was responsible for driving our great engine of war! For bringing about the conflict which would usher in the next evolution of our society! And then," he dropped his voice to a low, rumbling whisper, "then she returned. Said nothing of her whereabouts, nothing of what she'd learned. Only that it was enough to withdraw our forces from the griffons' borders. Only that it was enough to disband the military. Only that it was enough to cast me down and strip me of my title for 'failing to uphold the peace.'" He spat.
"You're talking about the Pax Equestria," whispered Twilight. "Almost forty years ago, the Princess declared that Equestria could never live up to our ideals of peace and universal friendship, so long as we maintained a standing army. She decreed that Equestria forever forsook war as a means unto an end, as a way of life."
"You never wondered why the Princess made that decree when she did? The timing was convenient, wasn't it?"Macbeth bowed his head and shut his eyes somberly. "When she declared the end of the Equestrian military, the change which we so desperately needed fell beyond my reach."
"So some of what'cher sayin's true," countered Applejack, "even if the rest of it sounds sour-er than a jug'a pony cider. What's that got ta do with whatever happened in Stalliongrad?"
Macbeth giggled - giggled, like an unhinged schoolfilly. The shift from livid to melancholic to manic was more disturbing than the tittering shrillness of the laugh. "Oh, everything, my little hayseed," he said, and Applejack snorted, stung and annoyed. "The war may never have happened, but the engine was never dismantled - merely retired, and left to gather dust. Equestria's entire cache of modern military marvels was not destroyed. It was put away, like a toy that a schoolfoal has outgrown. That cache was located in Stalliongrad. It took me many long years to learn this - and many more to formulate my scheme, still more to convince enough of my old lieutenants to follow me once more - but I finally seized that cache, and declared myself in open rebellion of the crown - foolish, really, as the crown soon arrived to personally draw my scheme to an end." His eye glinted. "Little did Celestia know that seizing the cache was never the whole of it. It was merely to act as a spark, which would ignite the flames of rebellion, all across Equestria. Only... that never happened." Disgusted, he shook his head. "The complacent ponies of Equestria failed to act by my example, and our stagnation continued unabated. And from that, I took the lesson that ponies cannot be counted on to advance their own society."
"A-and..." Fluttershy gulped as she nervously stammered her question. "And w-what did the Princess decide to do w-with you?"
The smarmy, self-satisfied grin that Macbeth wore wavered, shifted, until it changed into an expression of real emotion - a wan, wistful smile. Sad, reflective. "She knew I was broken. Knew I'd learned that nopony would ever side with me against her." A strange shudder ran down his body. "She exiled me from Equestria, for all time. And here, I came, to live out my final, agonizing days in seclusion." The mad grin split his face again, and he stared up into the blazing eye of Trenton. "But sometimes, the universe has different plans. Once again, I am given the chance to save Equestria from stagnation. I will not fail this time. I have learned the lessons of my past failures; I will not trust in ponies to bring about their own change. Humanity, instead, will be my sword and my shield."
Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes. "I've eaten chunky peanut butter that was less nutty than you."
"Genius is never understood in its own time." Macbeth's rust-colored eye narrowed. "I must admit, this is not how I'd hoped our meeting would go. When Trenton told me that the bearers of the Elements were on their way to storm this fortress, I entertained a fantasy of winning them to my cause. Surely, the six saviors of Equestria condemning Celestia would rally Equestria to my banner, perhaps even convince her to step down without my having to fire a shot." He sighed and drooped his ears, but brightened almost instantaneously. "Thankfully, I know another way you can serve the revolution. Trenton?"
A loud and sudden thud drew Twilight's attention to Trenton. The ninja had dropped Spike to the ground; he'd landed on his belly with a groan and a sheepish look. Trenton strode to the door in the alcove where Cain stood, pushed it open, and stood to the side, pointing stiffly through it like a wooden doorman. "Through there."
Rarity took a few steps forward and peered at the door. She stared up at Trenton, blinking in confusion. "You're not going to tell us how walking through a door will benefit your scruffy employer's cause?"
"Ms. Sparkle," said Trenton, "please inform your friends what it means for a blade to cut at the molecular level."
"Rarity," said Twilight. "Just do what he says, please."
Rarity scoffed and glowered at the ground, trotting reluctantly toward the door. "It figures. We're all going to be executed, and I'm going to die looking frumpy."
Spike followed Rarity, with Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie in tow. The pegasus looked the dragon over cautiously, examining him for boo-boos that the ninja's rough handling may have left on him. "You know," grumbled Spike as he strolled past the ninja, "you could have just set me down."
Pinkie nudged his rotund head with her nose. "Aw, like a little old pratfall could hurt a guy like you."
"Well, yeah," said Spike, casually rubbing his chest with his knuckles. "Dragon scales, and all that. It was just rude. Just because you're a crazy cyclops, you can't have manners? Geez louise."
Applejack and Applebloom walked ahead of Twilight, who felt Macbeth's steely gaze on her as she moved, sending a disturbed shudder down her spine. Trenton's eye was on Applejack as she passed through the door, but before Applebloom could reach the threshold, he stepped in front of her. "Not you," he said.
"What?" asked Applejack incredulously. She turned on Trenton and dug a hoof into the dirt. "You two-timin' snake! Get away from her!" She lunged at Trenton, who swiftly drew his sword and leveled the tip at her face. Applejack skidded to a stop with Trenton's sword centimeters away from her nose. Her gaze ran up the single-edged blade, to Trenton's eye, where she glared furiously at him.
Macbeth laughed and stomped his hooves in applause. "Oh, I thought something like this might happen. Allow me to explain." He trotted to the door and leaned in the frame, draping a foreleg over Applebloom and drawing her close. The filly's eyes went wide, and she released a quiet, mewling sound of discontent. Addressing Applejack, Macbeth spoke. "Miss... I'm sorry, what is your name?"
"Applejack," said Trenton, answering for Applejack.
"Miss Applejack." Macbeth dipped his head in a gesture that faintly resembled courtesy. "When Trenton informed us that we had a filly in our midst, and that there were six ponies en route to retrieve her, we determined that we had no compunctions against disposing of the latter, but that we were less inclined to let the former share that fate."
"Oh, give it to me straight," snapped Applejack.
"He means that they're fine with killing us," Twilight supplied, glancing from Trenton, to Macbeth, to Cain. "Just not with killing a foal, like Applebloom." She frowned.
"I couldn't have put it any better myself," said Macbeth. He paused to consider his words. "Well, actually, I did, and it was too much for your provincial brain to handle. Damned Ponyville bumpkins."
"I'll bumpkin you," Applejack growled. "We didn't march all this way out here just so you could - "
"Applejack," said Twilight. "Do what he says."
A look of shock came over Applejack's face, and she stared at Twilight open-mouthed. "You serious?" she asked. "You expect me to leave my sister with these sons of - "
"Yes," said Twilight tersely. "I do. Because if we do, then she'll at least be out of harm's way."
"So she'll be safe while we break free from whatever asinine trap they've laid for us," said Twilight, shooting the assembled group of villains a dirty look. "We'll come back for her."
"Such certainty," Macbeth cooed condescendingly. "Carry that certainty a while longer, and the next several minutes might be interesting."
Applebloom, fearful, looked at her sister with wide, watery eyes. "AJ..."
"S'alright, sister; no need t'fret." Applejack looked into the eyes of her sister, softening her stony expression. "Twilight's right. This ain't the worst jam we've ever been stuck in."
"I just got you back, Applejack." Applebloom looked away, at the floor, and shut her eyes. "Don't make me lose you all over again."
Applejack's expression softened further. Blinking rapidly, she ducked under Trenton's legs and embraced her sister tightly. The hug lasted mere moments, as Trenton roughly took hold of the back of Applejack's neck and pulled the ladies of the Apple family apart. Wresting herself from Trenton's grip, Applejack fired a final seething look of hatred at the ninja, and skulked away to join her friends in the expansive, ruin-dotted courtyard.
"I don't expect you to believe this, Miss Sparkle," said Macbeth. Twilight looked sidelong at him, narrowing her eyes. "But I do intend to take care of this little one in the absence of her family. I've always wanted a protégée of my own."
Applebloom's lips quivered, and she broke into open sobbing. Twilight felt cold anger once again come over her. "You're a hypocrite," she growled. "Ordering your cowardly minion not to kill ponies, only to turn right around and execute us."
"Trenton mentioned that little rule, did he?" Twilight froze, as she realized that she just came close to blowing their cover. Trenton inclined his head slightly at Twilight, as if to chide her for her imprudence.
Macbeth just shrugged and smiled blithely. "Tainting the revolution by spilling the blood of innocents before I reveal myself is not how I'd prefer to go about this, but one plays the cards that one is dealt. Ideally, Celestia would abdicate without my having to fire a shot. I don't long for bloodshed, Ms. Sparkle. I just accept its inevitability."
It was a lie. At best, it was a pathological lie. Case's warning about Metal Gear, and Snake's assurances of its raw power, mixed with Macbeth's megalomania to create the unsettling certainty that he planned to kill thousands with it, that he'd do so without a moment's regret. But if Trenton didn't tell them about Snake, then they couldn't have known that she knew about Metal Gear, and that was a precious advantage that Twilight did not want to give away. "And what about your treatment of children?" Twilight pressed. "You'll hide Applebloom under your skirt, but not Spike?"
Macbeth cocked his head and blinked. "'Spike?'"
Once again, Trenton clarified. "The pet dragon."
"Ah!" Macbeth chuckled and shook his head. "Of course; how silly of me to forget that dragons are people too. Just like pudding skins, and wheelbarrows, and Trenton here." He whacked the ninja in the thigh, but Trenton, rock-steady and dispassionate as ever, failed to react. "However attached you are to your pet dragon, it is a thing, and I will not afford it respect. The most I'll allow is letting it die with you, with dignity, and even that taxes the limits of my generosity."
"None of us are dying today," said Twilight firmly.
Macbeth reacted with the same knowing, condescending smile. "Again, Ms. Sparkle, I'm counting on that certainty to make what's coming interesting." He nodded in the direction of the stairs. "Go to your friends, now."
Once again, with no other visible option, Twilight Sparkle could only do as she was told, and slink away to join the others. None of us are dying today, she repeated to herself, again and again. She wasn't sure what to expect, or what Macbeth intended to visit upon them, but as she took in the familiar scenery around her, she remembered that the castle had already borne witness to their first great victory together, and that thought offered her some comfort through the uncertainty.
The one-eyed earth pony watched Twilight descend the stairs for a short while, before returning to the great hall to stand beside Commander Cain. Behind them both was Trenton, still and unmoving as a statue. Macbeth looked to his human comrade. "You seem rather disinterested in all of this, Commander."
Cain shrugged and adjusted the visor on his ballcap. "I've heard your sales pitch before. Can't say that it has quite the same impact after the ten millionth time." He raised and crooked his left arm, and glanced at his wrist-mounted keyboard. "Would have preferred that we just shoot them here and now, get on with the plan. We've got a genuine sense of urgency now."
"You can't fault me for trying to sway them," said Macbeth. He rested his chin on the bare window sill and deeply inhaled the chilly night air. "And besides, I'm eager to see if Trenton's machines live up to their considerable hype."
Cain glanced over his shoulder, regarded Trenton for a moment, then looked back down at his wrist. He raised his right hand to the keyboard and brushed the keys delicately with his fingertips. "Waste of time, waste of energy. But you're the one signing my paycheck."
Twilight joined her friends in the center of the courtyard, and was immediately greeted by a warm nuzzle from Pinkie and a proud grin from Rarity. "I'm beginning to wonder if I missed my calling," the white unicorn mused. "Perhaps I should have gone into acting, rather than fashion."
"Acting?" asked Twilight. She looked over her shoulder, at the glassless window where the revolutionary and his human minions stood watching them, and then back at Rarity. "What was the act?"
"Oh," said Rarity, waving a hoof, "that bit about Rainbow Dash getting her feathers in a fuss and flying off? A little collaborative misdirection that we all worked out together, just in case something went wrong."
Hope lit within Twilight's heart, and she cracked a tiny smile. "So Rainbow Dash, right now..."
"Is ready to swoop to the rescue at any moment!" said Pinkie Pie. "So don't worry, Twilight. We got this."
"Which is also why we let ourselves get captured, instead of putting up a fight," added Fluttershy. She bashfully lowered her head and glanced up at Twilight. "I mean, if it were anyone else, we probably could have... but Trenton grabbed Spike before we could do anything, and..."
Rarity stiffened at Fluttershy's words, and her grin faded. For a fleeting instant, she glanced at Spike, who sat upon a piece of rubble that was close to twice his height, cradling his head in his hands and resting his elbows on his thighs.
Fluttershy noticed Rarity's change in demeanor and sniffled. "S-sorry."
"Y'all made the right call," said Applejack. "For Spike, 'n for yourselves. This way, we got ourselves a fightin' chance."
"Yeah, yeah," Spike grumbled. He kicked the back of his feet against the heavy piece of rubble. "I still think I could have taken him."
Twilight's spirits, lifted briefly by the news that Rainbow Dash was their ace-in-the-hole, died down again at the sight of the dejected dragon. "Speaking of," she said, trotting to his side, "are you okay Spike? He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"Who, me? Nah." Spike shook his head emphatically.
He was making an effort to be brave, Twilight knew. Spending so much time with Spike meant that she could see right through him. "Still..." Twilight lowered her voice and leaned in closer, not wanting to embarrass Spike in front of their friends. "That had to have been scary, what he was doing to you. If you need to talk..."
"I'm fine," Spike insisted. "No need to worry about me, Twilight. It happened. I'm over it." His words were confident, but there was an uncertain waver in his voice.
Twilight leaned closer and looked him in the eye. "Spike..."
Spike sighed and turned his head away from Twilight. He shut his eyes and bit his lip for a moment, cupping his hands in his lap and nervously pressing his thumbs against each other. "Can we talk about it later, Twi?" His voice was quiet, but thick and choked; he sounded like he was holding back tears.
Proving himself had been Spike's entire motivation for accompanying them on this journey. Being held hostage by Trenton had to have been a serious blow to his confidence, never mind whatever psychological trauma it inflicted. His relative maturity made it easy to forget sometimes that Spike was still very young.
And I agreed to bring him along, Twilight thought sourly. She'd begun regretting the decision after the encounter with the timberwolves, and seeing Spike helpless in Trenton's grasp only reinforced her belief that she'd made the wrong call. Whatever happens to him out here is my responsibility. I can't let him go through that again. I won't.
Twilight bumped her nose against Spike's forehead affectionately, drawing from him a hiccuping laugh and a smile. "Of course, Spike," she said softly. "Whenever you're ready." She turned back to her friends and heaved a heavy sigh, bottling up her self-blame and crushing it down. They had to survive now, and she had to ensure it, so that she'd be able to castigate herself later.
"Twilight," said Fluttershy, in a meek and quiet tone. The pegasus spoke carefully, as though walking on eggshells to avoid another faux pas. "Where is Snake? He wasn't with you when we met up in the keep."
Applejack glanced at the nearby portcullis. "We split up. We heard that the bad guys' world-blowin'-up machine was just about up an' runnin', so he ran off in a hurry to take it out."
"Leaving us behind to fend for ourselves?" asked Rarity flatly. She raised an eyebrow. "How heroic."
Twilight glared at Rarity. "We wouldn't have gotten this far without - "
"Uh, Twilight?" Pinkie Pie interrupted, cutting off Twilight mid-rebuttal. "Sorry to butt in, but..." She turned and raised her rear into the air, looking over her shoulder at Twilight and blinking.
Rarity stared, perplexed. "That hardly seems appropriate, Pinkie. You've been consorting with Rainbow Dash far too often for your own good."
"Oh, get your mind out of the gutter," said Pinkie. "I'm trying to show you something important!"
Twilight was about to ask just what was important about Pinkie Pie's posterior when she noticed her tail. It was ramrod straight, and shaking rapidly. She blanched. "Twitchy tail."
"Twitchy tail?" Spike repeated nervously. He leaped off of the rubble and grabbed his own tail, wringing it tightly. "Twitchy tail?!"
The distant crash of heavy metal carried to their ears from the direction of the gatehouse. A second later came a noise that shocked - and confused - everypony in earshot.
"Um..." said Fluttershy, "there's no grazing land in the Everfree Forest... right?"
Twilight, trembling and backpedaling with a slow, tremulous gait, shook her head
"Then..." Fluttershy looked back at the keep. "Why did we just hear a moo?"
Occupying the pedestal in the center of the castle's gatehouse, where once the Elements of Harmony had lain dormant, was a large metal box, stamped with the emblem of an arms manufacturer and labeled with what appeared to be a nonsensical string of letters. Within the box was a slumbering giant, the first of a line of weapons meant to usher in a new era in unmanned warfare.
At an electronic command from Commander Cain, made via wrist-mounted keyboard and delivered via sophisticated CODEC technology, the giant stirred, awakened, and stretched its legs. The top of its head struck the lid of its container forcefully with a heavy clang, creating a convex dent on the box's outside. It crouched as low as it could, and sprang upward, this time knocking the lid of the box clear. The sound of metal striking metal with such force carried over the castle grounds, to the ears of five frightened ponies and a baby dragon standing in a courtyard.
It rose upon legs of cloned tissue, artificial muscle and sinew. Its head was a T-shaped metallic construct, a diminutive copy of the head of another two-legged engine of mass destruction. At the top of its head, a dome-shaped eye swiveled, taking in the world for the first time.
When designing Metal Gear REX, Dr. Hal Emmerich incorporated an element whose necessity his superiors questioned: a loudspeaker, and the ability to project an animalistic roar through that speaker. Officially, he contended that it was designed for psychological warfare, that the sight of so gargantuan a fighting machine roaring would cripple the morale of any enemy on the battlefield (off the record, he included it because he thought it was cool). But the designers of this weapon had a far different design influence. They wanted to put the enemy at ease, lull them into complacency, before trampling them underfoot.
And also, there was just something deeply ironic about a killing machine which mooed.
The weapon, now cognizant of its surroundings, quickly determined the fastest way to reach the source of the signal which awakened it. Coiling its mighty legs, it leaped through the hole in the gatehouse ceiling and landed in the makeshift helipad, barely avoiding (and entirely failing to notice) the sleeping body of the Finnish mechanic. In another bound, it landed on the arch where the ghillie suit-clad sniper lay unconscious. With a final bound, it landed atop the roof of the keep. Magic-enhanced masonry protected the ancient structure from collapsing under the weapon's weight, but the shock of its landing sent waves through the building's aged walls. A layer of dust shook from the ceiling of the Great Hall. Its occupants, save for the despondent Applebloom and the stoic Trenton, glanced upward as they were peppered.
In the courtyard, six pairs of eyes were drawn to the roof of the keep. Six jaws dropped, and six hearts skipped the same beat.
On a turret adjacent to the courtyard's portcullis, a young and tempestuous sniper rested his rifle against a wall and leaned forward, awestruck at the sight of the weapon. Behind him, poised to strike, was Rainbow Dash, who likewise forgot herself, and gaped.
Hidden behind a wall which enclosed an arcane portal, Solid Snake stared at the weapon through a rifle's scope. His jaw clenched, his teeth crushed together, and his finger lightly traced the trigger of his gun.