В общем ребят, я понимаю что я немного подзадержался с переводом (на 2 года, лол), так что я хочу попробовать немного другой подход.
Я буду выкладывать перевод по мере того как буду переводить, так что велика вероятность (100%), что в процессе чтения вы дойдете до английского текста. Не беспокойтесь я переведу главу полностью и когда я это сделаю я уберу из названия число, которое находится в скобочках.
Как вы понимаете число в скобочках это процент перевода, НО не окончательной вычитки.
И да вы правильно поняли перевод который вы будете читать пока что не является окончательным. Скорее это черновой вариант и велика вероятность, что в начале может что-то измениться(порядок слов, синонимы, ещё какая-то дичь), когда я дойду до конца главы.
Так что если вам невтерпеж, то могу предложить читать что есть. Если хотите всю главу одним куском, то придется немного подождать. Постараюсь успеть до 2022
(В некоторых местах я пропускаю сложные куски текста и перевожу что попроще, но в целом стараюсь идти от начала до конца, прошу не бить ногами слишком сильно)
“Волнуешься? Да расслабься. Ты всего лишь выйдешь перед большой толпой пони, которые будут наблюдать за каждым твоим действием и молчаливо судить тебя.
Каково это чувствовать себя в лошушке?
Подобно одиночеству, это нечто такое, о чем я ни разу не задумывался, пока не уткнулся в это носом. В моём случае, моя неудачная попытка побега из Филлидельфии.
Оглядываясь назад я вижу как совершил все возможные ошибки, из-за плохой подготовки к тому, что меня будет ожидать, когда я доберусь до Стены.
Я оказался в ловушке, запертым в том месте, где ты должен понять насколько важна свобода, чтобы иметь хотя бы крупицу решимости, необходимой для побега. Я никогда не забуду этот суровый урок, ведь он достался мне ценой боли и крови. Однако мои мысли вернулись к разговору с Протеже и его обещаниям о свободе. Мне было неизвестно говорил ли он правду или нет. Я не встречал ни одного пони, который пережил бы два года в этом котле, чтобы заслужить свободу от Красного Глаза. А у кого бы получилось? Два года исследований Центра Министерств, восстановление Стойла и жестокие подземные стычки внутри, около и вдали от высокорадиоактивного кратера? Конечно, это не включая всевозможных случайных задач, на которые рабы могут быть назначены.
И не только я был окружен стенами, я так же был окружен капризами моего нового хозяина. Который сделает мне такое расписание, что оно меня измотает до смерти, в то время как он будет говорить о важности моей службы на благо Эквестрии.
Может меня и разместили подальше от Стены, но я чувствовал как с каждым моим шагом моя жизнь становилась только ограниченнее. Начиная с Ямы и заканчивая моей болезнью, сейчас шансы на смерть были как никогда высоки. И действительно, я начал задаваться вопросом, что убьет меня первым. Умру ли я от какой-нибудь защитной системы в бункере? Убьют ли меня жители стойла, защищая свой дом? Лучевая болезнь снова начнет развиваться?
Или меня замучает мой Хозяин?
Чайнлинк Шейклз, хотя у меня никогда не хватит духу назвать его по имени, сейчас полностью владел моей жизнью. Он получил надзор надо мной, а я и представить не мог себе худшую фигуру, которая стояла бы надо мной. Протеже проявлял спокойствие и доброту к своим "рабочим", но всю грязную работу, которую ему необходимо было сделать, он перекладывал на Хозяина.
Я искал избавления от сковывающих моё горло нерушимых цепей, которые тянули меня на самое дно, где меня бы похоронили в бетоне. Я через силу преодолел свои страхи, чтобы просто броситься к Стене, ради избавления от боли, которую он мне предвещал. Несмотря на мои новообретенные эмоции и... я бы даже сказал мужество, этого было недостаточно, чтобы просто существовать рядом с ним. Он был моей противоположностью, моим истинным Хозяином. Живой символ рабовладения.
Все мои усилия, как подсознательные так и нет, были направлены на избавление от него или того, что он олицетворял в Эквестрии. Вот почему я пытался.
Вот почему после неудачи я чуствовал себя в ловушке. Подавленным.
И вот почему я боюсь. Так боюсь того, что он может захотеть сделать со мной, рабом, каким он всегда хотел владеть. Тем кто был рожден оказаться у него в услужении.
Я... я прошу прощения... я не хотел бы повторять из раза в раз одно и тоже... просто...
Он сказал что у него есть рейдеры, а я знал что они убьют любого пегаса.
Я чувствую словно все против меня. Что обычно делают после ошибки столь сильной, что даже просто мысль о новой попытке кажется страшной? Когда ты злишься на самого себя, за то что ты такой какой ты есть, и за то как ты все запорол, это очень тяжело. Так тяжело ошибаться.
И столь же тяжело принять свою ошибку и перестать себя корить за это.
Но ты должен. Другого пути, из места где ты заперт, попросту нет...
Не каждый жеребец бьет так сильно как меня ударила вода в лицо.
Кто-то пускал по мне казалось нескончаемую струю жидкости из брандспойта, чтобы "очистить" меня. В этом деле применялся напорный рукав, чтобы полностью смыть с меня всю грязь. По крайней мере, так было в теории.
На деле это было почти что пыткой.
Напор прижал меня к стене старой душевой и у меня едва получалось дышать. Стоило раскрыть мне рот, как он тут же наполнялся водой. Стоило мне взвыть, как они начинали смеяться, пока меня подкашивало и я падал под чудовищным напором воды по моему телу, голове и ногам. Я переставал что либо чувствовать, как от ледяной воды, так и от ощущения нескончаемого потока бьющего по мне. Содрагаясь своими копытами, я пытался подать им знак. Я не могу... я не могу дышать!
Поток прекратился и с бульканьем стекал в по грязному душевому блоку в подвал прямиком в канализацию. Я предположил что насос брал воду именно оттуда, чтобы использовать её в таком количестве на простого раба...
— Подняться, Номер Семь.
— Голос загремел из неосвещенного дверного проема.
Меня трясло, у меня не было сил что либо сказать. Только слабые всхлипы доносились из моего ноющего горла от появляющегося ощущения окоченения в моих недавно нечувствительных конечностей. У меня болело все, как будто тело стало одним большим синяком. Повернувшись я одним только взглядом пытался попросить их остановиться. Я не мог разобрать наблюдающих за мной в темноте, отчасти из-за помутненного зрения вызванного головокружением.
— Подняться, Номер Семь!
Я пытался выкашлять засевшую в легких воду и нормально дышать. Меня перекосило от внезапного спазма активности, пока я пытался подобрать под себя ноги. Мне не отдали мою одежду или мои пожитки. Мои крылья безжизненно свисали по бокам, напор из бранспойта вывихнул их с зафиксированного места, где до этого они поддерживались искалеченными мышцами. Я промок насквозь, с меня капала вода пока меня трясло от холода.
Богини... у меня не было сил даже зарыдать... так холодно...
— Медленно. Заново.
В темноте за пределами голубого света прозвучалщелчок бранспойта и вода снова ударила мне в лицо. Напор словно прикладом ударил в челюсть отчего у меня вновь зашатался зуб, меня подкосило и я свалился с ног. Я свалился прямо на крыло на замшелую плитку под ногами.
Мне пришла мысль что я могу крикнуть "Я уже чистый!" или потребовать чтобы они остановились...
Но он стоял там в темноте и командовал. Именно он решит когда хватит.
Меня трясло от холода, зажмурившись я пытался выдержать напор воды по-моему поддатливому телу. Но не смог... мои колени постоянно ударялись о пол, а мои зубы так стучали о друг друга, что начали болеть, и Хозяин делал все это не просто так. Передышка во время которой выкрикивались команды была не для того чтобы я пришел в себя, нет, она была для того чтобы убедиться, что я не потеряю сознание и не пропущу всё то что он запланировал, в своей извращенной интерпретации инструкций Протеже.
Хозяин всё заранее продумал.
Напор ослаб, болезненное давление на мою спину уменьшилось, оставив после себя нечто похожее на линии синяков и сведенные судорогами мышцы. Сквозь стиснутые зубы я тихо застонал и это единственное как мне удалось выразить, что я не могу этого вынести. Меня даже не очистили...
— Подняться, Номер Семь.
Номер Семь. Он придумал мне новую кличку. Как он обрадовался услышав, что у меня есть условный номер, которым он мог воспользоваться. Чтобы окончательно втоптать меня в грязь и сделать из меня просто число.
Я волочил копыта по кафелю, тихо всхлипывая, пока пытался встать на них... может если я буду достаточно быстр, то смогу угодить Хозяину. Может тогда он остано...
— Медленно. Заново.
Я даже не успел встать прежде чем меня впечатали в стену. Только моя предусмотрительность спасла меня от сотрясения мозга. Напор вырывавшейся из темноты воды только усилился, обжигая моё лицо, заставляя меня зазлебываться и сдавливая моё горло до того, что я начинал задыхаться...
Я запаниковал, я пытался закрыться, чтобы сделать хотя бы глоток воздуха, но лишь потерял равновесие и ревущий напор воды заполнил мои уши, все что я мог делать это судорожно бултыхаться. Я... я больше не чувствую своих ног...
— Подняться, Номер Семь.
— П... прошу...
— Подняться, Номер Семь!
— Х-холодно... я не чу...
— Медленно. Заново.
Меня оставили высыхать стоя посреди темной комнаты, напротив камеры, в которой я очнулся. Рабовладельцы сказали мне, что если я решу размяться или сесть, то меня вновь начнуть "чистить".
Чистым я себя не ощущал вообще. Всё тело болело, но никаких видимых следов не было и никто не мог узнать о том как обращается со своим любимым рабов Хозяин. Я мог чувствовать я скоро заболею и моя смертельная болезнь вот-вот даст о себе знать. И ко всему прочему я был один.
Однажды я поверил, что никогда больше не буду одинок. ДиДжей никогда не оставит меня, пока со мной был ПипБак. Теперь устройство потеряно как и потерян сладкий голос надежды и правды. Я не мог разглядеть даже стены, все из-за тусклой оранжевой лампочки под потолком, не дающей начать работать моему ночному зрению. Мои ноги задрожали как от холода так и от длительного стояния в одной позе уже... уже сколько? Часы? Несколько мучительных минут?
Время имело незначительную ценность в Филлидельфии. Что казалось тремя долгими днями, могло оказаться всего парой часов, и все из-за красной дымке, непрекращающейся работе и беспорядочному расписанию. У меня не было четкого осознания течения времени, даже на улице. Насколько я знал прошел всего один день с момента Ямы, а не три. Здесь же, время словно исчезло.
И к тому же комната была звуконепроницаемой. Проживя всю жизнь со сверхчувствительным слухом, мертвая тишина, кроме разве что капающей воды с моего тела, была похожа на тысячелетнее путешествие к луне.
Но по крайней мере у меня было время подумать.
Я хотел выбраться. И теперь этого не изменить. Хозяин мог бить меня, пытаться надломить, попробовать сделать из меня прислужника, но я никогда не потеряю своих фантазий. О моей мечте когда-нибудь вкусить свободу, которой так дразнил меня Протеже и моей надежде оставить эту дыру позади. И я не хотел этого через два года... я хотел этого сейчас.
Ну или чуть позже. Звучит хорошо... но я слишком слаб...
Я все ещё дрожал. Может я и хотел выбраться, но вся смелость и решимость, которые у меня были всего пару часов назад, просто... исчезли. Моя неудача что-то во мне надломила. Была ли это моя уверенность? Может моя воля? Я не мог сказать наверняка. В чём я был уверен — если мне придется пройти весь путь заново, я наверняка бы струсил. Шрам на животе от пули Раджини нестерпимо болел и заставлял меня дрожать и трястись, когда я просто думал, что мне снова придется проявить мужество. Я пытался убедить себя, что меня лихорадило из-за холодной воды, но я знал что это обыкновенный страх. И за мою жизнь... и перед ним. Что он задумал? Заклеймить мне? Отрезать мне крылья?
Глаза начали слезиться. Я боялся даже моргнуть, чтобы меня не уличили в излишних телодвижениях, что он сделает если я сдвинусь на пару сантиметров?
— Ты учишься, Номер Семь. Хорошо... хорошо.
— Хозяин едва смог протиснуться сквозь узкий дверной косяк. Его кожанный бард с металлическими частями цеплялся за стенки двери, когда он прошел внутрь комнаты. Я встретился с ним взглядом, после чего опустил свой на пол. Я видел взведенных рабовладельцев, но за один короткий взор я успел увидеть чистейшую, неподдельную ненависть.
— А теперь мы сыграем в небольшую игру, вдупляешь, Номер Семь?
— его голос действительно звучал лукаво, что было причудилво слышать учитывая его грубый тембр. Я мельком взглянул на этот ухмыляющийся гнилыми зубами рот. Эта ухмылка... будто бы она предвещала, что он воплотит все свои садисткие намеряния, едва я попробую ослушаться. Я старался не смотреть на эту кьютимарку, замкнутую цепь... меня начинало тошнить от самой мысли, что мне придется всю жизнь ему подчиняться.
— Я буду пробовать угадать детали твоей жизни, — он продолжил кружить около меня. — посмотрим сколько я угадаю, просто глядя на тебя, а? Кивай если я прав и отвечай, только если я не прав.
У меня нет глаз на затылке и я не осмеливался повернуть голову. Но я чувствовал его присутсвие позади себя. И у него в копытах могло быть что угодно. Я видел у него ножи, шоковую дубинку, хлысты...
— Начем, твоё имя... Номер Семь, так?
— Мурки Но... А-А-А-А-А-А-А-А-А-А!
Кожанный хлыст стеганул меня по спине. Удары Виплаша и рядом не стояли с его ударами! От силы удара у меня подкосились все ноги и я закричал во все горло. Я тут же зарыдал, когда ощутил будто мою спину разрезали на две части.
— Нет, ты глупый жеребенок! Твоё имя Номер Семь!
Я почувствовал как он наклонился ко мне и кричал мне прямо на ухо. Он отвернулся, поменял хлыст и прекратил орать, сразу вернув себе преждний лукаво грубый тон, как будто ничего не произошло. Я поднялся на мои дрожащие ноги.
— Значит тебя зовут Номер Семь...
Хозяин приблизился, наклонился ко мне таким образом что его нос стал на уровне моего носа и уставился прямо мне в глаза. Смрад был настолько силен, что меня чуть не вывернуло.
— Получается, у тебя была семья?
Его копыто встретилось с моим лицом с такой силой что я отлетел на метр. Великая Луна... его копыто было правкически размером с мою голову!
— Нет, что?
— Нет, Хозяин!
— Уже лучше, давай играть дальше...
Он снова стал расхаживать вокруг меня, но вскоре остановился. Мне пришлось пересилить себя, чтобы не заплакать от чувства такого нарушения личного пространства, когда он провел копытом по моей кьютимарке на моем левом боку. Он водил прямо по цепям. От ощущения потрескавшегося и шершавого копыта скользящего по моему телу заставило меня съежиться. Это... это было не правильно, я хотел отойти... но не мог.
— Кьютимарка — кандалы, мне нравится. Всегда на готове тебя сковать, если ты попробуешь убежать. Стал рабом уже при рождении, а?
Целых три секунды я пытался набраться мужества, я кивнул, быстро и нервно. Всхлип вырвался из рта, когда я ощутил как он поглаживает концы моей цепи, навсегда нарисованных на мне в знак моего пожизненного контракта на рабство.
— Так как так вышло, раб? Родители были заоблачнымиублюдками?
Я не мог пошевелиться, я зажмурился и дрожал. Я хотел чтобы он ушел... просто ушел...
— Нет? Ну тогда... — он мечтательно закрыл глаза и через несколько секунд снова наклонился ко мне. — тогда что у нас тут? Ты ошибка, Номер Семь? Седьмая по счету? Твою мамочку обрюхатили рейдеры, а? И что тебе нравится это, а? Сын убогого канибалла?
Я громко заскулил, застряс головой и заскулил когда меня уложили на пол пощечиной. Я пытался сжаться, но его копыто давило на моё лицо, заставляя меня извиваться в панике.
— Я приказал отвечать мне, если я не прав, раб!
— Его голос был таким же громким как магически усиленный голос Слит! Тесная комната усиливало громкость, так что даже земной пони, причинял мне физическую боль просто разговаривая. Задыхаясь, я закричал, — Я думаю... думаю мой отец был надзирателем!
— О как? Где это было, неподалеку от Разбитого Копыта? Я был там по заданию Красного Глаза давным давно, понимаешь? И я развлекался с несколькими рабынями, чтобы скоротать время... как ты смотришь на то что им мог быть я, а?
Моё сердце остановилось. Даже когда он убрал копыто, я продолжил лежать с широко раскрытыми глазами.
— Так или иначе, ты просто отверженный мелкий червь, Номер Семь. Твоя мать не хотела бы тебя, даже если бы её не отжарил случайный надзиратель с намерянием подцепить кого-нибудь той ночью! Родился рабом, жил рабом и сдохнешь рабом! Но ты мне нравишься, Номер Семь... и знаешь почему?
Я не шевелился, просто смотрел на него, пока его копыто не ткнуло меня в крыло, и он не особо церимонился.
— Пегас. Настоящий пегас прямо передо мной и я могу делать с ним все что пожелается.
Я попытался отодвинуться и спрятать крылья, как будто это что-то могло изменить. Я не соображал, он полностью контролировал ситуацию.
— Ваш выродок крылатых ублюдков убило стольких моих коллег за все эти годы. Понтующиеся солдаты Анклава рыскающие по округам или одинокие Дашиты, у них всех одно на уме, что они большие шишки на Пустошах. Никогда мне не доводилось наложить копыта на одного из них... до сих пор. Я был рожден специально для этого, понимаешь? Всю жизнь, у меня не было раба-пегаса, не говоря уже о таком, который выглядит словно рождет специально для меня.
Я не смог сдержаться.
— Я ни с кем из них не знаком! Я даже не могу летать! Я... я ничего не дела...
— МОЛЧАТЬ, РАБ!
Своим копытом он всадил мне так что у меня весь воздух вышел из легких и наступил мне на крыло, что вызвало жгучую боль, там где совсем недавно зажила рана от пулевого ранения. Сосредоточившись на том чтобы просто дышать, я не мог ничего делать и просто слушал.
— Я ждал такого как ты годы, Номер Семь. О, как мне нравятся все рабы, даже те которые сопротивляются... те которые пытаются одолеть меня. И все они облажались, понимаешь? Но ты, о, ты само совершенство...
Он остановился и навис всем телом надо мной и начал ещё сильнее ухмыляться. В его голосе появились хищные и садисткие оттенки.
— Как бы я хотел, чтобы это никогда не заканчивалось. Я хотел тебя только для себя, но Протеже добрался до тебя первым. Видишь ли... согласно его приказу мы сейчас пойдем в Торговый Центр. Жаль, что у меня нет времени разобраться с тобой раз на раз пока ты под "защитой" этого выскочки Но даже не думай что ты в безопасности, я всё ещё твой надзиратель. Считай то что произошло небольшим примером, что с тобой бы происходило, заполучи я тебя раньше, раб. Может я и не могу действовать как захочу, но...
— Он сделал паузу и поднялся посмеиваясь.
— ... кто сказал что по дороге у нас не может случится небольшого... несчастного случая... выдвигаемся к месте ещё большей радости, пока мы не закончили. В конце концов, я уверен, что слышал как Протеже сказал познакомить тебя с рейдерами...
Я закричал. Я взмолился, вскинув копыта ввысь, пытаясь добраться до его копыт.
— НЕТ! — взвыл я, яростно тряся головой. — Они... они не просто убивают пегасов! Я слышал о них раньше! Они ненавидят... они ненавидят пегасов! Они думают что во всем виноваты...
Его глаза снова излучали ненависть, к тому факту что я родился с крыльями.
— И это не просто так, пернатый ущерб. Несите кандалы! Напоминают твою маленькую кьютимарка, а? Тебе нравится? В конце концов, это твоя судьба.
Два единорога приблизились и одновременно сковали все мои ноги в сложную цепь, которая затрудняла передвижение. И надели на меня тяжелый проржавевший ошейник. Хозяин привязал цепь к своему барду.
— Давай малыш Мурки, — пролепетал он, — пойдем познакомимся с гниющим говном, который появился благодаря твоей расе. Не думаю что у тебя получится пережить знакомство, но даже если они не станут тебя убивать, не беспокойся. Я уверен они придумают что-нибудь завладеющее моим вниманием.
— Но... я ничего... я не...
Он не слушал, он просто вытащил меня из камеры. Только выйдя на свет я увидел что на мне нет ни единой царапины или синяка. Несмотря на все перенесенные страдания перед моей передачей Протеже от Хозяина, у меня не было никаких доказательств и признаков жестокого обращения. Хозяин был, в больной интерпретации, гением.
Всего за десять минут он практически сломал мой дух. Я уже слышал знакомый голос раба в голове, требующего чтобы я просто подчинился и надеялся что он будет обращаться как и со всеми рабами. Но я знал что этого не будет.
Но прежде всего, меня пугала одна вещь.
В сознании отзывалась леденящая мысль о том что могло бы произойти не попробуй я сбежать и просто оказался у Хозяина и был бы полностью в его власти. То что сегодня случилось было бы пшыком, по сравнению с тем что могло произойти. Что было бы не появись Протеже? Что было бы если бы у него был карт-бланш на меня... и он мог бы делать все что ему вздумается? Даже воспомнинае о его копыте на моей кьютимарке едва не заставило меня вывернуть желудок. Мысль заела в моей голове, будто сама мысль была для меня настолько мерзка, что заставила меня контролировать моё воображение. Я сопротивлялся, пытаясь думать о моём завете. Сбежать... сбежать наружу. В каком-то роде, в каком-то совершенно маленьком роде, это было крошечным и мимолетным утешением, если судить по результату. Мой просчет при побеге имел смысл, благодаря ему я избежал полного контроля Хозяина и попал в копыта к Протеже.
Однако я плелся за Хозяином... Моим Хозяином... не то чтобы мне это сильно помогало, ведь он меня вел наружу, к его "несчастному случаю".
Я чувствовал что мне просто хочется зарыдать, но я не мог даже набраться смелости сделать это рядом с Хозяином от страха перед тем что он запретит мне это делать.
Правду говорят, что у каждой пары крыльев в пустоши есть история.
К сожалению, здесь есть подвох. На каждую уникальную историю пегасов, есть одна одна определяющая и обвиняющая, которой придерживается большинство жителей пустоши, что пегасы по своей природе виноваты в текущем состоянии Эквестрии. Мама однажды рассказала мне историю. Когда Эквестрию уже казалось приговорили к смерти, Клаудсдейл, столица пегасов, была поражена первой и полностью стерта с карты. Зная о приближении еще большего количества мегазаклинаний, ракет и бомб пегасы закрыли небо и спрятались от полного уничтожения. Они оставили внизу пустоши, бросив их на растерзание огню и всепоглащающему разрушению, пока все их внимание было обращено в небеса. Прошло двести лет, но они так и не вернулись, чтобы помочь кому-либо. Если бы не старые легенды о редких пегасах в пустоши, никто бы и не знал что они существуют.
Но для тех из нас, кому не повезло родиться с генами пегасов, долго дремашими в крови их семьи, мы всё ещё несли ответственность и на нас влияли предубеждения порожденные, тем что пегасы оставили земных пони и единорогов умирать в одиночестве. Хотели мы того или нет, в наших крыльях они видели отсутсвие солнца и луны, которые могли помочь им. Они видели умершие поля, украденную погоду, предназначеную для выращивания пищи. Они все ещё ощущали гнев за всех умерших, пока пегасы улетали от пекла в небеса.
У меня закрадывается впечатление что это своего рода метафора для моей жизни. Наоборот. Я видел как Обитательница Стойла покинула этот котел и как и они отправилась в лучшее место оставив меня здесь. Но я не ненавидел её... скорее наоборот. Каждый раз когда я представлял её, мне нравилось за что она философия. Почему другие не могли думать так же? Неужели пегасы действительно были такими эгоистичными? Может все это было огромной ошибкой, в захолустьях неизведанной истории?
И когда меня выволокли наружу, я увидел многие не готовы со мной согласиться.
Это была долгая прогулка до "Торгового Центра" и я уверен что Хозяин намерено сделал её долгой. Запретив мне носить какую либо одежду, он оставил мои крылья у всех на виду. Рабы оставляли свою работу, которые работали без надзора, стояли и наблюдали. Замешательство уступило неверию, которое изменилось в нарастающий гнев. Уже совсем скоро я пытался укланяться от жестянных банок и камней. Охране приходилось сдерживать рабов... и не только их. Им приходилось сдерживать и своих товарищей!
Если Пустоши и испытывали к нам недоверие, то рабы, ниже которых никого не было, испытывали отвращение.
Я скакал так быстро, как мог. Сначала я попытался отстраниться, просто закрыть глаза и просто следовать за поводком Хозяина на шее, пока меня выставляли напоказ, как главное блюдо.
— Ебучий пегас!
— Че ты не улетишь, а?
Жестяная банка ударила меня в бок, заставив меня подпрыгнуть, больше от шока чем от боли. Но я открыл глаза и увидел группы рабов, бегущих по обочине и выкрикивающих оскорбления. Но не все так поступали, многие оставались спокойными и некоторые даже глядели на меня с грустью, пока фанатики решили что мир достоин услышат их точку зрения.
Он их было достаточно... кричащие, вопящие и напоминающие убогие теории о давно ушедшем прошлом, их стало настолько много, что Хозяин взмахом копыта призвал эскорт из грифонов.
— Ты видишь, Мурк?
Я снова задрожал, на этот раз определённо от ужаса, пока я наблюдал как жеребец единорог пытался подобратся поближе, чтобы метнуть в меня кирпич. Грифоны взмахом когтей и кучей нацеленных на него винтовок убрали единорога подальше. Я видел знакомые лица. Петля и Лимон глумились и бросали в меня все что подвернулось им под копыто. Я видел синего земного пони с рыжей гривой который раскручивал что-то на веревке, чтобы увеличить силу броска. Половинка кирпича врезалась мне в бок и я закричал во все горло. Я попытался бежат, но Хозяин дернул за поводок, заставляя меня поддерживать медленную поступь. Я слышал как он огласил толпе, что вот тот пегас, который пытался бежать и оставить всех позади, прямо как пегасы сделали давно в прошлом.
— Ты не нужен в мире. Они не хотят видеть твою расу в пустошах. Лучше остаться здесь, м?
Грифон уклонился от арматурного прута, который телекинезом запустили в меня. Заметив это я едва успел уклониться, запутавшись в цепях, тянущих меня вперед.
Шум становился невыносимым. Я слышал как кобыла кричала о каком-то одиноком "Дашите", который прикончил её семью и продал её сюда.
Я видел Виплаша. Он пристально уставился на меня, тем холодным взглядом, который часто возникал на его лице перед тем как он хлыстал своим бичом.
Одни требовали чтобы я вернулся на облака и перестать насмехаться над ними. Другие молили меня унести их отсюда в знак искупление за то что моя раса сделала в прошлом. Я мог только волочить копыта и продолжать свой путь.
— Я... простите... я не...
— Спорю что ты в сговоре с рабовладельцами, что продали нас сюда! Только пегасы на такое способны!
— Но... я не...
— Заберите его в Яму, я хочу видеть как раскромсают пегаса!
— Я... я...
— УБЕЙ ЕГО!
— Смотите, он плачет! Спорю Шейклз сейчас убьет его, так тебе и надо, предатель!
— Эгоистичные выродки!
Я метался из стороны в сторону, постоянно поддергиваемый поводком, я пытался держаться по дальше от маленьких глумящихся и кричащих групп пони. Мой дух сломился перед всеми ними. Я закричал в ответ, пытаясь облагоразумить их. Я хотел вернуть свой дневник и показать им рисунок моей мамы, показать им что я один из них! Я кричал им о моей кьютимарке, разве она не доказывает что я раб? Я... я говорил им что я не могу воспользоваться крыльями.
Они даже не слушали. Они не хотели слушать.
В проезжавшей тележке находился Сути Морасс. Его хриплый смех, когда он приметил меня, заставил даже меня разозлиться его високомерию и снисходительности, когда он высунулся из тележки и похлопал меня по гриве. Судя по всему, у него в подчинении было пара рабов в лохмотьях, которые тянули его тележку с запасами.
Хозяин вел меня по улицам, по загонам, по промышленным зонам. По дороге к старой тюрьме мы миновали молотилку. Мы пересекли растрескавщуюся главную дорогу для повозок и прошли к заводам. Рабы, которых я знал смеялись надо мной, говоря что они "всегда знали" что я неадекватный. Я видел как Викед Слит гналась за земным пони-рабом, магией бросила его на землю и приставила тот самый изогнутый нож к его глотке. Она кричала на него, что он работает хуже, чем мог бы.
Моё шествие привлекло её внимание и она даже забыла про жеребца и подошла к одному из своих охранников. Её взгляд упал на мои крылья и на то как я был прикован к Хозяину. Я попытался ускориться, но Хозяин жестоким ударом в грудь остановил меня. Я упал на землю и меня поволокли дальше. Я видел как Слит смотрит на меня сверху вниз, пока Хозяин тащил свою добычу дальше.
Я ожидал, что она скажет что-нибудь. Я ожидал, что она начнет кричать.
Она просто ухмыльнулась... ткнула ножом в мою сторону несколько раз и прижала клинок к своему горлу. Я сглотнул и затрясся, когда до меня дошел смысл этого жеста. Она же начала хихикать, постепенно заливаясь хохотом во всё горло. Пока я меня утаскивали от её завода к тому кого она уважала и чьим учением восхищалась я слышал её злобный визг. Даже когда она отвернулась и принялась пинать рабов и охранников, чтобы они возвращались к работе, она продолжала смеясться, остановившись только, когда заметила, что тот жеребец начал убегать. Её слишком знакомый крик ярости и звук скачущих копыт было последним что я услышал прежде чем она исчезла из виду.
И хоть меня унизили тем что выставили напоказ перед населением Филлидельфии, как неудавшегося беглеца и тем что я пегас... меня немного утешало, что она так и не узнала кто забрал её очки.
Казалось что все кто когда либо эксплуатировал меня увидели меня. Моё сердце сжималось ненависти со всех сторон, как от рабов, так и от охранников. Хозяин всё это продумал... должно быть он знал что это повлияет на меня...
Ведь когда он вел меня сквозь наполненные рабами кузницы, даже он не мог представить какое горе он мне причинит.
Среди всех рабов со всех сторон спешаших посмотреть на редкого пегаса, я увидел как одна пони пробирается сквозь толпу. Пони раступились... когда она вышла впереди толпы. Она убрала свою грязную, но при этом яркую оранжевую гриву с глаз и увидела меня закованного в цепях.
Никогда бы Хозяин не смог навредить мне больше, чем заставить смотреть как светлая надежда и оптимизм исчезают с её лица. Я посмотрел на неё в ответ, стараясь не зарыдать, когда я увидел её удивленные глаза. Она следвала за мной пробираясь сквозь толпу, изо всех сил стараясь не отставать от меня. Я увидел её умоляющий взгляд и смог увидеть как она говорила слова, хотя я не мог разобрать ничего в криках толпы.
— Мне жаль, Мурки...
Я мог почувствовать что она едва ли не плачет. Нет! Я... я не стану рыдать... не сейчас! Только не когда она видит меня. Я должен быть сильным, ради себя... ради нее.Я не хотел чтобы моё последнее появление она запомнила как то что я жалкий ноющий пёс. Я будто бы слышал как ДиДжей говорит мне набраться сил, подняться и продолжать бороться. Я вспомнил как Номер Шесть говорил мне не надо их раззадоривать. Я встал увереннее, вызвав заинтересованный взгляд Хозяина из-за чего он ускорил шаг.
The mare cantered to keep up, moving up until a chain around her hindleg locked and firmly stopped her from following any more.
Scarcely believing myself—I only knew I couldn't let her spirit break, even if I had failed—I tried to think of what to shout...
— Пошли, раб!
I felt the tug, tripping me over the heavy chains to force me to stagger onwards.
But instead, she shouted first.
— У него есть имя!
Она стояла во весь рост. Ponies split from near her, retreating quickly as The Master lowered his head and began to stomp slowly toward her. My heart skipped a beat as I saw him ready up his knife like before with a nudge of his jaw. I shook my head to the mare, wanting to scream at her to back down.
— Может повторишь это, раб?
The Master's voice was dry, his mouth still grinning through horrid teeth as he pulled me with a tug of his hoof up beside him and forced me to the ground, one hoof resting on my back to keep me there. His little pet underneath him.
— У него есть имя.
Весь двор внезапно охватила тишина. I wished I could move, to dive in front of the knife. I was no doubt being killed off anyway, better to die saving her. But no, his hoof held me solid on the ground, making me whimper as he placed some weight on my spine. The mare looked from me to The Master, right in the eyes. He cackled.
— Скажи мне, кобылка, какое у него имя?
— А, то есть ты знаешь его, м?
О, нет... нет нет нет...
— Достаточно чтобы знать что он не просто какой-то твой предмет! Он заслуживает свободы больше чем кто либо из нас, после того что он пережил! Смотри, ты знаешь что он измотан и ты знаешь что он тяжело болен! Он не годится для службы у Красного Глаза. Почему ты не можешь его просто отпустить?
— Хорошо... хорошо...
The Master turned away from her, letting me up. I felt her lean forward, offering her neck and shoulders to help me stand. I wished I could just stay here with her. Forget Protégé's offer, I just wanted to be near somepony nice now. It was all I needed. Just somepony nice. Her voice whispered in my ear,
“I'm so sorry it didn't work, Murky,” Her voice held a soothing tone, clearly upset for seeing me still in the city after my failure. “Please, just hang on. My buck and I...we'll try to help you if we can when we're together again. Shackles...he won't make it fast, I'm so...so sorry...but please, don't give up. There is a bright future. You will find your courage, Murky. We’ll come for you. We’ll come.”
Those words...like last time, filled with promise, hope and ever-comforting assurance. I wanted to reply, but I dared not raise my voice, she couldn't hear like I could. Softly resting her head against mine for just a second, I took comfort in feeling another pony so close and caring. A blissful moment, frozen in time for the half second it lasted, before the mare then turned back to The Master. He was grinning maliciously, his head held high.
“Hah, isn't that cute, then?”
“He's been in slavery all his life. Does he really deserve this?”
The massive earth pony turned away from the smaller unicorn once again, as though having to decide. Without warning he spun back, faster than I ever believed he could move.
His hoof fired out, striking her so hard that she hurtled over six feet away. With a crash, she hit three other slaves, knocking them all clean over a pile of wooden stands ready for tools. Clutching her side with a gasp of pain, she still managed to look up from the wreckage as he reattached his knife to the belt, apparently deciding not to use it.
“But I'm going to let your insolence go, little mare,” he casually intoned, “because he clearly means something to you. It'll be all the better for you to know he's got a date with the raiders. You can lie around, nursing those ribs, and just imagine the things they'll be doing to him...far away where you can't ask them politely to stop, eh? That ever worked?”
I tried to run to her side, but my own chains caught as The Master stomped on them before I could reach her. The mare looked breathless, unable to talk. I saw a couple of other mares rush over to her, helping her onto her side. At least she had some allies.
“Perhaps once I'm done with him, I'll come looking for you too. I don't imagine he'll last too long, after all...hehehe...”
The look in her eyes as The Master dragged me away gave rise to a new hatred, one of my captor and my overseer. He would...I don't know...pay? What could I do?
The most I could for now was try to assure her not to worry as best I could through trying to not cry as I once again left her behind. I tried to walk as tall as I could even as the jeering resumed, only looking back to try and mouth that it'd be okay.
She nodded sadly in return, briefly placing her hoof on her heart.
Then, as I was tugged harshly around a corner, she was, once more, gone.
Finally and mercifully the crowds ended. My ears ached from the hateful words and screams that had been directed at me, simply because I had two extra appendages on my torso. But here we were. The Mall, Protégé's 'worker camp,' rose from behind a wagon park like a giant that had fallen on its front. A massive shopping centre of old Fillydelphia, it looked like it hadn't shattered like other buildings on account of its massive size. Multiple storeys tall, its roof was too low to be seen over the factories and their towering areas but was well over fifty feet in height. Angular, strange geometry covered most of it in diagonal triangles or designed scaffolding to hold it all together like some giant metal and very angular flower facing to the sun. The large glass dome in the middle of the roof acting as the centre, with metal plates and angles floating out in all directions to form petals. Despite the horrid makeshift walkways leading from upper floors to nearby manufacturing factories and scrap watchtowers, it must have looked incredible from the sky. I tried to remember the flowers my mother had showed me in books...
The main entrance loomed before me. Covered in razor wire and barricades, it sealed access with multiple guards under the looming triangle of skeletal metal designs. I couldn't read the name, but I could see all of the letters of the middle word had fallen off so I presumed the two remaining ones left spelt out what I had heard.
I felt his front leg descend around me, as though hugging me with one arm. He stank of vile sweat, grime, and...and things I didn't want to think about. His other hoof nudged the bottom of my chin up to keep me fixated on the building.
“Beautiful, isn't it?”
I agreed, it was a marvel of construction, and tragic to see lying blasted and weathered from megaspells and two hundred years of improvised repair. But as much as the artist in me wanted to linger on the details, I could barely think about the building. I could feel his barding leaning against me...sweet Goddesses, I could feel the warmth of his body. This was too close, I didn't like my personal space being invaded. It took every ounce of restraint and fear to not flick a hoof backwards like before.
It got worse as I felt his head move down, inches from my ear. I could feel that hot sticky breath of his crawl over the sensitive edges of my ear...
“Home to the slaves who don't know any better and just want to kill things. Now, it's home to you as well. Protégé may say it's all for the cause but I know the truth, slave...I know ponies only come here who are too afraid to survive the lifestyle and want out. Them and the ones who don't know anything but violence. Four walls and multiple levels of slaves too desperate, violent, or deluded to go anywhere else. Think you'll survive it? Think you'll be able to resist taking a plunge to the bitter end from the rooftops?”
I shook my head by less than an inch, closing my eyes. I didn't want to risk my ear coming any closer to that mouth. For a moment, my mind panicked that he knew, somehow, about my...my...insanity on the control tower. What had I been thinking? But then, was it really so bad compared to what staying alive had brought me?
With relief, I felt him move away and reattach the chain to his barding, before striding forward.
“Good...because you won't. Oh and by the way...”
His face became deadly serious, the hilt of the huge knife tapping me across each cheek as he spoke.
“If you so much as hint to Protégé about our little time together, I promise you...that mare will be getting a 'visit' earlier than you might think. Slaves disappear so often in Fillydelpia...hehe.”
The chain pulled me before I could even stand back up. I pulled back, prompting a sharp look from the big earth pony. He had just threatened the one mare I knew I wanted to protect. The surprise made him cease pulling as I stood up of my own accord. I was a coward, yes...no doubt I would beg once we were inside.
But as I trotted on my own without him pulling, I wanted him to see that of all the things he had broken in me...of my lost confidence and lack of drive to dare do anything brave anymore, I still had one thing. He hadn't broken my link with her to take comfort and strength in her example to stand up to him.
The scourge of the wasteland.
Gangs were bad. They took over areas, attacked other ponies, killed merchants, stole goods, and generally made life a misery. Keen to be better and bigger, they made examples of those who crossed them and attempted to wrest control of areas from civilised ponies.
There were beyond sanity. Savage, ruthless, and powered by a drive to simply ruin the lives of everypony they met, they sought nothing more than just enough to see them through to the next day. They had no mercy, little things you could bargain with, and did not hesitate to take what they wanted.. I had once been in a caravan attacked by a small band of them between slave camps. The guards had fought them off, but only at terrible cost. Raiders had slaughtered my master's mistress, not even waiting till the firefight was done to explode her body with a grenade.
They were living symbols of freedom taken in the wrong direction. Their sick dreams had been realised by the lawlessness of the wastes, able to act out mentalities that had no place in pony society. Those that had fallen to insanity, or to realising that nopony was there to stop them.
Now, I was meeting them.
The Master dragged me through the Mall's corridors before emerging into the main hall. I had seen factories before and their cavern-like interiors, but something about the high glass skylight (how had it survived?) and curved surfaces designed to please struck me. They had been ruined, worn away and replaced by crude imitations and flakboard, surrounded by bars of metal and wire to hold together guard posts overlooking the shopping area, but they still held a timeless strength.
The layout was, simply, impressive. A giant balcony with no railings (why!?) lay before The Master and fell away twenty feet below into an area closed off by heavy scrap walls. Two levels of shops made up the outer edges, reachable by stairwells at either side near the back. Along each wall were repurposed small shops, each custom-designed to have a cage wall and door across the front for containment of slaves in smaller groups. Right now they all lay open, allowing slaves to wander amongst a common area around an old fountain still filled, somehow, with water, tepid and dark as it was. It was a shopping plaza, open and long, turned into a prison.
I tried to discern the old style, but the smooth rock design was so worn that I gave up at ‘creamish if you screwed up your eyes and pretended really hard.’ Rotten banners hung on all sides, bearing six mares of various colours, two of each type of pony. I recognised the yellow and pink pegasus from the poster and my lost saddlebag as she smiled an impossibly peaceful and honestly quite relaxing message of love to all looking upon here. There was also...
...oh no...oh please no!
She was here too. 'Pinkie!' Even now, her banner fluttered in a draft to turn and look at me briefly. I had to cut my own temptation to mutter under my breath for her to leave me alone just for once. The pony was as maddeningly whimsical as ever, hanging upside down on her own banner. Slogans embellished on the fabric were a mystery to me. Probably advertisements for the damn FunFarm...
I felt a weight release as magic gripped my shackles, unlocking and pulling them from me along with the collar. I shook, groaning as sore muscles gave their offended verdict at the unwanted movement. The Master's cronies trotted away from us into the irregular ranks of slavers who looked, if anything, like smaller and less imposing versions of The Master. His personal group, no doubt.
The Master chatted to his slavers briefly, informing them of some “fun’ that had to remain a ‘surprise.’ No doubt code to not let this slip to Protégé. Briefly I wondered what Pinkie would think of this type of surprise fun...her broadcasts in the FunFarm mentioned it often enough.
Blowing about in the draft (where was it even coming from?) the banner of her briefly fluttered out of sight.
“Raiders of the Mall!”
The Master's voice bellowed around the huge area of the Mall. It must have housed almost a hundred slaves with the amount of shops in the market area the cages were set into.
“Get out here! Get out where I can see your filthy hides!”
There was a commotion down below. I heard swearing and muttering before they emerged.
They came slowly at first. Emerging from the ground floor in ones and twos. Groups followed, before the upper floor began to fill, too.
There were dozens of them! I counted at least thirty raiders, as my heart began to beat far faster than it had any right to. Yet, I didn't properly sweat with terror until I actually looked at them.
Terrifying...foul...wretched. Mangy hides covered in scars and disgusting piercings. Some had scrap shoved through their flesh, others had bones. I prayed they were not from ponies, but they looked all too likely to be just that. Dyed and braided manes fell in greasy clumps around faces filled with the hate of the wasteland. Some looked so savage they barely seemed sane, snarling and howling up at even my small head poking over the edge. I saw two bump into each other before launching immediately into a snapping and brutal fight.
Even the saner ones seemed to lick their lips with some sickened mentality as they angrily saw what had disturbed them from their rest...or whatever else they were doing. Blood streaked the floors in places to give indications of past involvements and brawls. I saw non-raiders cowering at the back, presumably only alive due to the presence of the guards. There were far more of them than the raiders, however they clearly lived in terror of them. Despite that, they seemed unharmed. But then, none of them were pegasi...
Many raiders wore ruined pieces of torn cloth and barding. Some had face masks or wrapped scarves around their head. As they clumped together, their noise increased, as though in a greater mass they fed off of one another’s energy to act up and cause commotion.
The Master shouted down to them, prompting them to scream back a mass of insults that he only smiled at.
“You have shown great fury in your work in the last Stable! The dwellers stood no chance against your frenzied assault!”
A huge chorus of screaming and bellowing emerged from the raiders. Some brandished trophies...I saw one with a thread of ears around his neck. Suddenly my own mismatched and tainted ears felt a lot less repulsive, and more like a prize...
They began to quieten down.
“I have brought you a gift, for your entertainment!”
Their stomping and howling returned, even louder than before as they saw my scared face. Thirty or more raiders all glared at me with enough lust and sick wanting to make me shrink back from their horrid laughter. I could hear them begin to call for me to be sent down, for 'another toy.'
It dawned that I was not the first.
The Master held up a hoof. He clearly controlled them like this, offering sick rewards in return for owning a powerful workforce of brutal raiders adept at slaughtering anything in their path.
“...and it's a pegasus!”
A deafening explosion of screams, cheering, howls, and curses swarmed up and around the entire area. Even as I winced, I felt The Master's unicorns telekinetically shove me forward onto the balcony before The Master, my whole body on show to the raiders. Suddenly I felt very exposed...
Like an announcer, one hoof holding me in place, The Master crowed to them as though teasing a new item for sale.
“You want him?”
“You want him!?”
I quickly turned to face The Master, kneeling, placing my head to his hooves. I hadn't even noticed my instinctual tears any more. I...I couldn't go down there. The thought of all the things they might do to me...
“Please, Master, please! I'll...I'll do anything!”
He looked down at me, wearing that malicious grin only he could could pull off.
“Really, Number Seven?”
— ДА! I screamed, “ANYTHING!”
“Well...there's just one problem with that.”
I trotted back from him, shaking my head. “No...please...”
“I already promised them their prize, Seven. Hah! ENJOY!”
He twisted, turning, and bucked me hard enough to catapult me off the balcony. A horrible explosion of pain along my side gave way to an oddly calm and pregnant moment of terror as I felt weightless.
Briefly, I wished that I could only open my wings and fly away from all this. I tried...but they just didn't move. Instead, I hugged myself as tightly as I could, praying the fall would kill me. In that oddly long moment while tumbling, I wished to the Goddesses...please...make it quick.
They did not smile upon me. I landed in the fountain. I didn't even have time to scream after I felt my front right shoulder strike the marble wall when I ploughed into the surprisingly deep water. All sound deadened as the harsh slap of the surface knocked me senseless. My shoulder was wracked with pain, I wanted to cry out, but my mouth only filled with disgusting and filthy water. Alone in the brief quiet of the dark water, I didn't even know which way was up!
I...I realised I couldn't swim...
Not that I needed to. Masses of hooves reached in; I felt mouths biting, hooves wrapping around me, and a huge strength pulling me out. The muffled silence of the water ended as my head broke the surface, gasping for air and trying to cry out at the same time as I saw dozens of frantic and frenzied raiders grabbing hold of every part of me they could to pull me out.
I pleaded with them, they only laughed.
Hurling me over the side, my shoulder rattled off the ground. It felt loose, like my leg wasn’t entirely in its socket. I’d dislocated it!
They were fighting each other over me, I saw snarling bites and bucks as scarred and pierced ponies of foul appearance and savage looks clawed at me with their hooves. Despite my protests, I was pulled to my hooves and shoved around between them, much to their amusement. Efforts to keep my shoulder protected were pointless as was struck again and again, the loose joint sickeningly moving around the socket. One bit my ear until he fell away from the crowd pushing him. I felt hooves bash my wings, knocking me to and fro. Unicorn magic lifted me up, the raiders leaping after me as the unicorn tried to bring me to him.
My senses spun. The crush of bodies, the stench of blood and filth, and the sound of them braying reminded that their argument was my only reason to be alive.
It wouldn't last long. A larger earth pony dove up, grabbing one of my wings in his teeth to drag me back down. Bucking another raider unconscious, he dragged me to a clearer area beside the fountain as the raiders prowled in a circle, ready to try and get the prize back.
“I got him! I got him! It's my choice! Back off, you fucks!”
His hooves pinned me to the ground. I heard the others cease their arguments to instead shout at him what they each wanted. I heard many things. Some called to bash my head off the marble until it broke. Others wanted my teeth. One screamed to break my legs (one quarter there already...) and was shouted down as 'boring.'
But I whimpered and whinnied as I heard the overwhelmingly popular choice.
“Rip his wings off!”
The earth pony brayed into the air, stomping with a hoof on my head to hold me down. Without hesitation or anything like Noose or Lemon's posturing or taunts, he simply reached down and grabbed my right wing in his teeth before pulling sharply upward with all his might.
Before my eyes instinctively clenched shut, I saw The Master far above, standing with that grin...
My wing stretched, underdeveloped muscle and broken bone structure bending, and being yanked out of place as it extended this far for the first time since I was a colt. A sudden release of tension slapped it back to my side as I felt something pull free. Daring to open my eyes...I saw a few feathers in his mouth. Spitting them out, the crowd fought over them. A sickening sense of loss prompted a muffled and strangled cry from me. He reached down again, grabbing the stem itself tightly in his teeth, determined to get the full thing this time. With an almighty yank, it began. The pain was unbearable. My head thrashed, my hooves kicked, but they held me down, chanting.
“Pull it off! Pull it off! Pull it off!”
I felt the muscles stretching...they...they weren't listening to me.
“Pull it off! Pull it off! Pull it off!”
My entire torso side felt ready to rip off with it...oh Goddesses...please!
“Pull it off! Pull it off! Pull it off! Pull it o—
Every bit of tension disappeared at once with a snap, and I felt my torso fall to the ground again. Time was crawling as I opened my eyes...I saw blood...
The sound had come from above me, in the quarter second of realisation since the noise, I saw my tormentor's face deformed around a colossal hoof driven by immeasurable force.
The flow of time returned.
As did Number Six.
Driven by a gallop and dive over the fountain, his momentum carried him into the raiders like a dark crimson cannonball he landed amongst them. The raider atop me fell, utterly lifeless as the massive stallion carried past and thundered into their ranks with the bone-crunching sound of harsh impact. Six raiders alone were crushed under his sheer size and huge bony hooves powering on through the crowd. Flung aside like skittles, they rolled on the ground holding wrecked limbs and battered ribs.
But the rest were not cowardly Pit guards; they swarmed, pressing their sheer numbers in a frenzied counter-charge. The stallion whirled on the spot, teeth clenched as he bucked, swung, and threw his weight around with wild abandon. Raiders fell, receiving sickening stamps to their chests as they lay. I saw him grab one by their leather jerkin in his teeth, and spin so hard he actually threw them with his mouth across the room into another two that had been trying to catch him from behind.
Their great mass broken, Number Six went to work on the individuals. A dull thud sounded as his forehead collided with a unicorn, horn or not, putting him unconscious on the spot. A full buck sent another flying into the cage door used to access this area via normal means.
Three raiders galloped and leapt, landing on his back or dragging his sides. I saw him snarl as one bit into the back of his neck before he reared up and allowed himself to fall backward. The screaming raider, unable to let go, found himself crushed under the entirety of Six's considerable weight. The other two ran across, hurling rocks with magic, making him back off to cover his face before charging them. Shocked by the speed of such a huge pony, they were caught and brutally disabled as he reared up and lashed his front hooves out to slam their heads together. The sound was like two stones colliding.
The remainder of the group, well over half of the raiders, swarmed.
Number Six growled, turning to face them, standing between them and myself.
A gunshot rang out from above. Groaning as the adrenaline faded, and the pain began to return from my reverie watching the massive stallion at work, I saw The Master spit a rifle back to a subordinate.
“Enough! I give you lot a prize and all you do is fight over it like foals! Get back in your damn cages before you put us out of work for a month, you wretches!”
The raiders hesitated, they glared at Number Six, pounding the ground with their hooves and snarling. He matched them, his own hoof pound drowning the rest of them out.
“I said ENOUGH!”
The raiders began to reluctantly disperse, one by one in the same fashion as they had arrived, only now with furious disappointment in their bloodshot and yellowed eyes. On the floor lay half a dozen raiders that needed dragging off. Some just were not conscious at all. I had a nasty feeling the one on top of me had been killed instantly.
Gradually, they cleared the floor, other than the pony over me. Number Six simply watched them, snorting at any that got too close to us. Robbed of their fight, the raiders threw insults in their wake.
“Keep him for yourself then!”
“What you trying to do, get a little family, eh?”
“Can't hide our prizes from us forever, traitor!”
“Just you wait, betraying bastard!”
Number Six did not even reply. After they had gone, he cast a glance upward.
I saw the two largest, strongest, and most terrifying ponies I knew in all of Equestria lock eyes. Even from here, not knowing much about either of them, I could see every ounce of wishful violence between them. With a snort, The Master departed, moving out of sight, his fun spoiled.
Without a word, I saw Number Six turn and stare directly at me. In the odd silence, despite The Master leaving, I did not feel particularly safe. Not with a colossal pony I had witnessed take on an entire gang of raiders—and win—moving toward me. Immobile and lying down, my perspective of him was all the worse to look at. Frightening tribal dyed hair on his coat mixed with lavish scars of gunshots, blade wounds, and everything else across his almost grotesquely powerful body. I couldn't help but look at the flapping bit of skin remaining on his left ear. Those mismatching, one-half bloodshot eyes stared down at me as though contemplating something.
He pulled the dead raider from me, dumping him at the side before leaning down. I closed my eyes, squeaking loudly in fear as he came closer...
...and lifted me onto his back. Groaning in pain from my shoulder, even through my fear and abject disbelief, I felt myself slung over him (higher than I had ever stood) as he turned and began to trot back the way he had come toward a shop’s open cage door.
I was naked...bereft of everything I had ever made for myself. I wanted my journal so badly, to look upon the comforting images. Crushing desire to once again hear the radio clenched my heart. A guilt that I had lost Sundial's only message to the future began to creep in even as my drifting thoughts wandered from hardship to hardship while in the thrall of near unconsciousness from pain and adrenaline.
Once again, luck had thrown me a small bone to just barely keep me alive. But they had never lasted in the past, why would this earth pony be any different? He had abandoned me before, why come back now? Why was he in here?
Somehow, I couldn't quite feel the elation I wanted to be able to. I just wanted my things and a cosy pigsty until I could figure out another escape plan...one that would work this time, taking the mare and her buck with me.
The huge stallion lowered me down onto a rough bed made of multiple layers of damp cardboard, inside the shop. The movement gave me enough of a shock to open my eyes once again before squeaking in terror, pressing back against the wall. The squeak only heightened as the movement dislodged my right shoulder again. Staring with wide eyes, I dared not shift as I gazed upward at the colossal earth pony whose immense shape blocked all light coming into the shop through the door. He had yet to lean back, his gruff and ugly face staring directly at me for a few more seconds before standing taller (and taller) once more.
“D-don't hurt me...I'm sorry, really!”
I curled up, trying to protect my head, for all the good it would do. Why should he not hurt me? I had ignored his help before and now I was his prize as much as anypony's.
“I'm a born slave...I could help you. You can have my food! I'll watch your stuff! Just please, I don't want any more pain.”
I felt myself choking up.
“Everypony already hates me and wants me dead because of these two stupid things on my body. Please, Number Six, please...”
His head tilted to the side, the bloodshot eye narrowing in minor confusion. In the back light from outside, he was little more than an imposing sentinel of imminent violence. Even I could tell eyes that had seen too much blood and death. Only now I could get a better look, I saw that he was a good bit older than I'd thought. I’d thought him an adult, but his face bore a weathered look of a stallion long past his prime. Maybe fifty? Or more? I wasn’t exactly going to ask.
I tried to remember him from before, when he had apologised, saying I didn't deserve death. I hoped that still held true...or did he want a 'prize' just as much?
“Number Six?” His voice rumbled, repeating my words carefully.
Of course...I had gotten so used to thinking him by that name. I had just blurted it out.
“My name,” he continued, a slow drawl, “is not Number Six. Nor do I want to harm you, pegasus.”
I simply stared upward in near shock, elation and hope beginning to spring in my heart until it was beaten down by the reminder that nothing that I ever did turned out quite right...why should this be any different?
“Then what is your name?” I inquired quietly, desperately trying not to step on any thin ice.
He didn't reply immediately, glancing to the side before closing his eyes. Was that an element of sadness I saw briefly?
I blinked, watching his mouth slowly roll the single syllable out. He paused, before continuing.
“Murky Number Seven. Pleased to...uh...meet you. Thank you, for saving me, I mean. I...I just...”
I tried to stand so I could kneel to show my thanks. It was how I had treated every master when they had fed me, it was the only way I knew how to show a reverent gratitude. But the moment I moved, harsh pain wracked my shoulder, making me stumble and fall again. Breathing hard, hissing through clenched teeth, I whined into my other leg while cradling it.
Brimstone Blitz sat down beside me. It did nothing to reduce the impact of his height at all. His massive hooves reached out, taking my injured leg with an odd care.
“Where does it hurt?”
I was shivering, but the threat of his terrifying presence and size was enough to prevent me from resisting.
“M-my shoulder, please...don't...”
I felt his hoof brush around the area. I could hear raiders wandering the common area snickering at my rather pathetic little yelps and whines as he rolled a hoof over the joint.
“Aye, it's merely dislocated.”
I gaped. Merely?
Brimstone examined it, before nodding slowly. “Hold still, Murky Number Seven, I can reset it.”
“I...I'm not sure...please, I need a doctor...Protégé has—”
“Shut up and bite the cardboard below you. On three.”
There was a sudden pop.
“Yeearrghh!” I yelled out loud, pulling my hoof back from his grip.
Brimstone seemed to grin with only one side of his mouth. I could hear shrieks of laughter about the ‘filly whine’ I had made from the raiders outside.
“You said on three!” I protested in a high strung voice, rubbing my shoulder.
Brimstone huffed gently. “Stopped your whining, didn't it?”
I tested my leg: it moved again, if it was incredibly painful and stiff to do so. I didn't want to imagine how it might have gotten if I had left it longer. My head fell, resting on the cardboard as sweat dripped off me.
“Th-thanks, though. I wasn't whining...I was just complaining...”
Brimstone moved away, sitting against an old counter and watching the door. Only now did I get a good look around at the area he had clearly made his home. Most merchandise had gone, but a few old posters showed images of various forms of clothing. I saw dresses on pretty unicorn mares, tall and strong bucks wearing suits, and other, more casual, attire. I imagined the empty stands crammed in the corner had once held the stock.
A great many posters in one corner, though faded and wrinkled, showed nice-looking mares wearing socks. I had to fight down the urge to want to try drawing one of them, to refocus back on the important matters at hand. Besides, my journal was gone.
There wasn't a huge amount else behind the cage door that still stood open to the common area. The counter covered the front quarter to the side of the doorway, bereft of any cash machine. Behind it, I saw a door leading, presumably, to a stock room. Despite the fuzzy-headedness, I could swear Brimstone was sitting as though guarding the doorway.
He looked back at me. I shrank back out of sheer habit.
“You didn't deserve what they would have done to you, Murk.”
“That's not what everypony else thinks...why do you not hate pegasi?”
Brimstone blinked, sitting back before giving out a long sigh that ended in a snort.
“I do hate the pegasi. Those feathered bastards sit up there on their clouds, taunting us all by refusing anything to make things right. Live long enough, you gradually spot traces of em. But you? You're wasteland-born, clearly.”
He inclined his head toward the raiders mostly clustered on the opposite side of the Mall.
“Besides, I'm not in a position to judge anypony else, so I couldn't sit by and watch them do what they were about to.”
I shivered, curling up a little more tightly with one hoof rested over my wing. The sight of lost feathers, of the pain that still burned in my side...they had been about to...to...
The pulling. The feeling of it beginning to tear away. I hated my wings, but they were my wings. The shock of the entire traumatic day began to land home. Hundreds of slaves and guards all knew what I was now. All my things were taken. The Master had...oh Luna, he had hurt me so much.
Regardless of the embarrassment, I simply began to cry in front of him. Shuddering and sniffing, I tried to look away. Brimstone followed my gaze before simply shaking his head.
“Too weak. I don't know how you survived this long if all you do is start crying at everything.”
Through wet eyes, I turned to him.
“I don't know how to be strong. I tried to escape...and now it’s worse than ever.”
Brimstone Blitz furrowed his brow, snorting loudly.
Sniffing, I couldn’t look him in the eyes. “Because...because now they know I’m a pegasus. Not they know I’m one ponies are supposed to hate…”
He looked at me with confusion.
“You sound like you feel guilty for being a pegasus. Like you’re believing the hatred saying you bear the sins of the past done by completely different generations. Why do that? You can ignore it or avoid it, it’s not yours to feel the guilt. But be careful who you tell that to, especially to those who can’t push off the guilt to dead ponies.”
Brimstone grumbled, tapping a hoof on the counter hard enough to make it shake.
“Some things, you will learn, you cannot simply turn a blind eye to like that.”
Trying to calm my breath, I sat up, wiping my eyes with a filthy hoof and wincing as the rad-sores on my muzzle stung from the contact. Gulping, I opened my mouth to speak.
“What do you mean? What did you do?”
His front hoof went from tapping to a stomp hard loud enough to make me squeal in shock, holding my ears. Opening my eyes a little, I saw his teeth clenched as he swept away from me, each step of a hoof coming down far harder than it needed to.
“You make it sound like it was one thing, one little thing that was wrong, Murk. No, it was a lifetime. There are gangs, ghouls, and taint, and then there are ponies like me.”
Something clicked into my mind. The raiders, they had called him 'traitor.'
“You...you were one of them...you're an ex-raider!”
One of those giant hooves reached forward, closing the cage door over far harder than was needed. The loud clang made me jump up from the floor. With a shake, he hung his head, before turning and marching toward me with what amounted to fury in his eyes. The dyed hair tattoos rippled. The scars shifted. I began to back away before discovering the wall disappointingly close behind.
“No. I am not an ex-raider.”
Before I even knew what was happening, the massive pony had swept me from my feet with his hooves around my body, holding me in the air against the wall with one foreleg pressed against my neck. I tried to scream, instead spluttering out a choked gasp from the pressure. My struggles were pointless as I felt my hind legs dangle helplessly a good two feet from the floor. My eyes locked on his as I heard the growl of unhinged madness and anger. Staring into his gaze, I could see the years of borderline insanity still in there, furious that I had suggested anything other than the harsh truth.
“I am a raider,” he intoned with barely suppressed anger. “A life, longer than many in the wasteland, dedicated to the pursuit of brutality to get by! You sat in your guarded little pens, while I stormed the wastes. Had I met you, Murk, I would have crushed you like those wretches just tried to. Aye, I would have plucked those wee wings myself. I have killed, razed, and broken anypony and anywhere that wasn't in my clan for longer than you've been alive. I've thrown ponies like you to the vicious, sadistic ones like them before as a gift for them.”
Fear clenched my gut as I stared toward the massive raider. Those eyes...he was telling the truth. He was angry, whether at me or himself I couldn't tell. I felt him draw a long breath before lowering me to the floor and looking the other way from me. He shook his head, but I couldn’t see his face to read his expression. His voice however, didn’t seem to be angry at me. Almost as though he regretted what he’d just done.
“You don't simply turn your back on so much agony caused to others, on so much fucked up stuff like that, and say 'that's it, I'm an ex-raider now' and say it's all good now. It doesn't work like that!”
I was almost hyperventilating. My mind kept imagining myself as that poor buck. This was a raider. One even bigger than the psychopaths outside. Despite the Pit, despite him saving me, I was in the thrall of a raider. I prayed that I was right in my assumption that he was implying he sought to avoid falling to the madness any more.
“So...so why did you stop?”
His eyes closed as he took a breath, seeking to calm himself, apparently. I could see the thin line between now and the fury of the raider fought back down. Did he have that voice in his head? The raider in his mind? Just like I had a slave?
“The Goddesses are forever watching us, Murk. Do you believe in them?”
His voice had dropped, was he embarrassed at his outburst? I nodded shakily, thankful to see his face slightly relax from the rage that had overcome it.
“You might say that Fillydelphia gave me some perspective. To see what it was like from the other side. It's a good place for ponies like me, out of the way, forced to work to do something greater in the place of ponies more innocent. Like you. But I don't labour just to rebuild Equestria...no.”
He fixed me with a stare. He was deadly serious.
“I accept my slavery. Only through this place could I ever hope to even begin to atone for the sins I've done in the eyes of the two Goddesses. That was half the way to making me see past the insane rage...the other half...”
Brimstone lowered his head, looking outside at the other raiders milling around. I could see them still snapping at one another with pent up and yet to be vented aggression from earlier. Eventually, he turned sharply.
“Perhaps you should see for yourself. Can you stand?”
“I...I think so...”
I was wobbly, but the motion back in my leg felt better than locking solid in pain. Brimstone nodded to the door, but immediately stopped me with a hoof. It was like walking into a brick wall.
“I will warn you. If you try anything I will kill you where you stand. Understood?”
I nodded briefly, trying not to shake my head and back away. I'd faced the Wall. I could obey this command. Lowering the hoof, he led me into the back of the shop. I tried not to think too hard as I saw that it was very dark...
The sound of the raiders quietened through the walls. Free from their sick taunts and shouts at one another, I found a measure of peace in the surprisingly warm and still back room of the shop. I couldn't see further in for Brimstone Blitz's massive bulk in front of me, but a small light shone past him from the far end of the room.
He stopped. I only discovered this by walking right into the back of his leg before staggering backwards with a sore muzzle and limping on my front right leg. Brimstone merely turned, almost seeming to smirk at my staggering about.
“Would you have run into the Wall that blindly?”
“I'm just tired,” I muttered. “Being unconscious through a medical procedure from a gunshot was the closest thing to proper sleep I've had in a long time.”
“You can rest in a moment, then. We won't be needed for any jobs for a little while.”
He moved to the side, lifting a hoof. I saw the look in his eyes, watching me very carefully.
“Now...the other reason why I put away the life of the raider?”
I followed where his hoof pointed in the dark. I could see stock shelves and an old sofa near the one magically enchanted gemstone light that flickered with a dull orange. On the sofa, however, lay a mare
I don't know what I expected, it to be the mare? But no, that mare I had met before was the same age as me. Although this one was a unicorn too, she looked older than myself by perhaps six or seven years.
She was asleep, lying covered in a cloth blanket stitched together from every colour imaginable. I found myself trotting forward out of curiosity, what about her was special? But a look from Brimstone made me immediately stop in my tracks. Ok, ok! Not trying anything! Really! Look at me here not doing anything! Not even moving, not even breath—
The mare coughed, shivering, despite her covering.
She was sick. Her pearl white coat seemed slick with sweat while her short and thick two-tone pink mane fell tangled around her head. Around her lay, presumably, her and Brimstone's possessions. Not much, but a small case filled with little twinkling and sparkling orbs drew my eyes for just a second. The mare shifted, groaning, as my eyes flickered back to her, I saw her awaken rather lethargically.
The voice was weak, and stammering with fever. I recognised these symptoms all too well as acute radiation poisoning. Brimstone advanced slightly before kneeling down beside her with shocking gentleness.
“I'm here, Glimmer.” His voice was softer than I'd ever heard it. “Just keep resting.”
She didn't. Instead I saw her eyes casting about in the darkness, apparently missing me for a second before they refocused and settled upon my presence in the gloom.
Her eyes blinked, showing a surprisingly bright azure sparkle to them. Even while sick, I could see a spark of energy and life to this mare.
“Come here...don't be...scared...”
Her hoof inclined me to move closer. I looked to Brimstone, who stood and trotted backward with a small nod. Even now, I could see the look. 'One wrong move and you won't leave this cell alive.'
Limping, I trotted over as quietly as I could, head low, into the light.
“Oh...a little earth pony, aren't you...cute...”
She exhaled with great effort, before trying to smile through the clearly harsh fever affecting her. I presumed she didn't see my wings camouflaged by my dark green coat and feathers against my body in this gloom.
“I'm, uh...Murky. Sorry...Murky Number Seven.”
She shivered so hard that her words failed amidst a harsh gasping shudder.
The unicorn seemed to sag, the conversation alone exhausting her. But even so, she extended one hoof, gently moving my head to the side with great care to see something along my side. I closed my eyes, figuring it was the wings.
“What a beautiful cutie mark...”
Her voice was but a whisper, smiling before murmuring with dizziness and lying down again. I heard Brimstone trot up behind me with his slow, heavy steps.
“Rest, Glimmer. Save your strength. Murk? Back outside.”
I found it hard to move. What had she meant by beautiful cutie mark!? This gnashing and savage shackle on either flank was an insult to my wishes to be free! I wanted to reach forward, wake her up to ask...but somehow I couldn't quite bring up the courage to do so. I guessed it was the fever, she had probably seen something else. She hadn't even spotted my wings. Besides, why would I want to hear any comments on my damned mark anyway? I knew what it meant and I was going to prove it wrong some day.
Of course, having a colossal raider behind you who promised to liquefy your head should you make a wrong move was a pretty big deal breaker in not inquiring further as well...
Back in the front of the shop, I turned to Brimstone Blitz the moment he followed me. Glimmerlight intrigued me; just what did she mean to him? I stood up straight as I could on three functioning legs (why always the legs?) and followed Brimstone with my head as he moved to plant himself down at the counter again.
“So...you and her...I mean...are you two...uh...”
“Are we what?”
“You know...together? Is that why you stopped raiding?”
He laughed. A deep, rumbling, and somewhat disturbing noise before shaking his head.
“Kid, I'm a good few years older than her, where'd you get your relationship theories?”
I felt my face flush. Okay, that was a good point. But the level of care he showed her...
Brimstone coughed into his hoof, continuing even as he leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling. I could swear his voice changed, becoming less rough and more of a melancholy tone. I hadn't given the big brute enough credit as I once again saw that little light of civilised intelligence form from his words. That tone that gave me hope that the pony I was looking at was more than the brutes outside.
“When I was brought to Fillydelphia, I got thrown on the hard work. Huge load carrying, powering gears and servos, that kind of stuff. I got properly into it, from being brought down a peg or two myself, the idea of somewhere I could work off my sins in the eyes of the Goddesses was...appealing. Only reason they kept me around is I was worth more as a prize to Red Eye to have in here for how I acted though. I bullied others, harassed them, and when guards attempted to prod me around too much, killed them. ”
The way he said that, so simple. Like it was just any other action.
“Eventually, I met Glimmer after my second Pit victory as punishment for murder. Three of the raiders just outside were trying to drag her off between shifts, steal her stuff, the usual. I intervened, crushing them all. But even as I held one down, my hoof ready to split his skull...she begged me to not do it. I found Glimmer pleading with me to spare those who would have hurt her with no remorse or regret. That...had never happened to me before. After they had left, I knew I had to protect her. As I got older, I’d already been thinking a lot about life. Somepony in the clan, before we got caught, had already spoke about...hmm...nah.”
He cut off that last sentence, making me wonder who he meant. All the same, the real trigger for him was Glimmerlight. I could see him glancing back at the door, as though hurting over her sickness, something he couldn't stop with all his monstrous strength.
“Glimmerlight is something unique in the wasteland, Murk, at least as far as I have witnessed. She can forgive. Her home was destroyed by raiders, those she regarded close enough to be family raped and murdered before her eyes. Glimmer herself was taken prisoner, and eventually sold into slavery with Fillydelphia. She had her whole life ruined, everything she’d clawed out of those wastes stripped from her.”
I whinnied softly, lying down as I felt a couple of slow tears trickle on to my face. But she looked so full of life in those bright, if sickly looking, eyes...
Brimstone sighed, before doing something I did not expect.
“But she doesn't hate any of them. I don't think she’s capable of it. After the pain passed, all she wanted to do was make the best of things and forget the bad times as quickly as possible. Somehow she still thinks that the world can be better, that someday she’ll get out of here and go back to a good life, like nothing had ever happened. That's why I have to take care of her. Glimmer is a better pony than I ever could be any more. She deserves my protection until she either completes her plan to escape or passes the two year work mark. It's like a duty sent to me by the Goddesses. As though she was sent to be my moral compass to salvation. There are nice things in the world, Murk, yes. But...”
Was...was that a dampness in his eye? He turned away too quickly, walking to the cage door, placing a hoof on it even as he gazed upwards at the glass dome far above in the Mall. I looked up myself from the cardboard bed, glancing across at the big earth pony standing with a mixture of sadness and happiness etched on his big worn face, lit by the dull yellowed streams of light from the skylight. Slowly, he turned back to me with that same sad smile.
“The wasteland took everything from Glimmer, Murk. It destroyed her...and she forgave it for what it had done. Can you honestly think of anything more beautiful than that?”
I had been without my journal before. I had been without my...I mean, Sundial's PipBuck before.
This was the first time I didn't have either while waiting for the world to move on and for something to happen. However I was not without things to consider during the long times that Brimstone spent checking in on Glimmerlight, most especially the peculiar tale and somewhat tragic reality of this strange pairing of ponies. Brimstone was not what I had expected in either direction of thought. A raider by trade and filled with a thirst for violence held back only by the curious search for redemption, and a sick mare that had touched even his heart.
Try as I might, the thought of somepony like that sort of touched mine as well.
However, despite the obvious wonderment of their incredibly rare companionship, one thing he’d said was all I could think about.
Glimmerlight had a plan to escape Fillydelphia.
Since I had been shot at the Wall, my entire mindset had been turned on its head. Broken by The Master and condemned to servitude for two years, it seemed as though my efforts had only rewarded me with a greater burden of slavery. I had been ready to collapse into the routine and accept the horror if I couldn’t find a lifeline. But out of nowhere, there was one last little hope. That mare in the back, Glimmerlight. Brimstone had said she had a plan.
It wasn't much. I knew nothing about her or this plan. Perhaps she wouldn't want me along.
No matter! I had to try! There was nothing else left, only my wavering confidence driving me to stay alive. I couldn't get out alone now, so Glimmerlight was hopefully going to be what I needed to get back on my hooves properly. I had to help her somehow, to help Brimstone save her life. Whatever it took, like it or not, an unknown sick mare was the only path I saw open to me in discovering another way out of Fillydelphia.
Brimstone had left me in the front of the shop, citing that I was a distraction encouraging Glimmer to exert herself to speak to me instead of resting. I had thought to ask what was precisely wrong with her, but frankly, that was just an excuse to get a conversation. Since his admission, Brimstone had been oddly morose, as though ashamed that he had spoken so openly to me at all in the first place. The truth was, however, I knew what was wrong with her anyway, and what she needed. After all, I had the exact same thing, right? Radiation sickness. Mine was a little unique in that it stemmed from an irradiated lung infection, but the theory was the same. Rad-sickness needed Radaway. Not exactly a common substance to slaves in Fillydelphia, as I had found out the hard way.
I shivered, curling up on Brimstone's cardboard bed and rubbing my shoulder. Things hadn't settled in yet about my relocation. Too much all at once, too many emotions. I was afraid, an understatement, yes, but what else was there for it? Fillydelphia detested me before as the runt, the weakling who made mistakes and got everypony else in trouble. But now I was hated. The pegasus prize of Fillydelphia, a beacon to which they could all come together in unity and despise. Everypony who saw me would call me out or turn me over if I tried anything. How could somepony like me escape anyway? Not when it felt like everypony in the city wanted me dead just because I had wings.
Why me? Why did it have to be me they hated? I didn't want to be hated...
That thought hurt. It hurt bad. To look outside and realise that all it took was a few choice words to an uneducated mass to swing them to call for the death of one little buck like me who had never done anything to anypony in his life.
What if Glimmerlight was the same? What if Brimstone was subjective or exaggerating because he didn't know anypony better? What if she saw my wings and refused to help me?
Try as I might, the fear of rejection was in my mind. I needed to fight it down.
“Get your flanks back down to the storage rooms for the meeting! Move!”
That voice rang around the Mall's main shopping level as I heard some slavers jump to their hooves and gallop off.
Even now I was still struggling to grasp his threat. The horrible way in that his influence wasn't over me by the fear of pain or punishment, but by the fear of realising that he was the pony who deserved me as a slave by stint of destiny. The unsettling way he knew just how to get into my head and hurt me, often without needing to lift a hoof in anger was, if anything, proof that he was born to command me and understand what made me tick. Try as I might, I couldn't shake the harsh fact that he had brought the slave back to me. I had tried to escape him and, when under the presence of the mare, I had even stood up to show I wasn't afraid. But leave me alone with him and...and...
...your name is Number Seven...
...cutie mark of shackles, I like it. Ready to catch you if you'll ever run...
...you an accident, Number Seven? Седьмая по счету? Твою мамочку обрюхатили рейдеры, а?
...how'd you like it if it was me, eh?
Born to slavery, living in slavery, and going to die in slavery!
I couldn't help but bury my head in my hooves. Where did I go now? What would happen? I wanted to help this mare, but it might all just go wrong again.
A familiar fluttering sound made the hairs on the back of my neck crawl. Instinctively, I jumped on the spot, squeaking and clutching my scarred side. With a clatter of talons on hard concrete, Ragini landed heavily outside Brimstone's cage, magical rifle drawn and glancing warily at the raiders wandering back and forth. With a snap, her beaked head swivelled toward me. I had an uncomfortable feeling like I was being targeted again.
“Murky Number Seven?”
I nodded, hoping for Brimstone to re-emerge at any point right now.
“The Master requests your presence in his office. Alone.”
Every muscle tightened. I wanted to run. But where could I go? We were locked inside this Mall.
“Don't make me have to carry you, flightless.”
I caught her smirk and the look in her eye. She nodded her head toward the cage door leading out of the plaza.
I felt a part of me yelling that I should be trying to delay her until Brimstone got back out. If Whiplash or Slit had been demanding me, perhaps I might have. But The Master was different.
The taloned foot stamped into the shop, her voice of authority springing dormant instincts I thought I'd beaten into inaction. The Master had beaten me in more ways than physically. I was beginning to feel like I had before the Pit.
“I'm sorry, right away.”
Meekly, I got up and limped out toward the cage door. Ragini kept her magical energy rifle held ready, the low power sniper rifle that had almost taken my life slung across her back. Looking up at the griffon standing on her hind legs, a new wave of sheer envy crossed me in terms of size. Why did everything have to be bigger than me? Oh Stable Dweller, where are you, to be someone who understands what it's like to be a midget?
“Follow me, flightless. Make a move and I'll not miss your face next time.”
Again with the nickname.'Flightless?' That was just mean.
As I followed the black griffon, I saw one of the raiders waving to me. Stopping only partially, he held up three of my feathers tauntingly before laughing hysterically. Shuddering and trying to control my emotions, I kept close to the griffon. Only as I saw the cage door swing open did it really hit me that I was due for more treatment from The Master. The thin hallways gave way to a guard area made out of the old mall security rooms and eventually stairs to the management and storage rooms on the upper floors. With every step I found myself becoming slower and more reluctant. We passed from the staircase into an old staff canteen, where I was lethargic enough that Ragini clipped me across the head with her rifle barrel to get me moving. The sting of the tap gave me a reason to move, but when we finally arrived down the dismal corridors at the thick oaken door, realisation struck. This was an old manager's office. We were here. My legs jammed up, every instinct not wanting to go near him again. I couldn’t face him again...not again...not again...
“Don't use my name.”
“Sorry,” I whispered, not quite sure what to use “You...you don't have to do this, please?”
Ragini whipped around, talons extended before grabbing me by the throat. The sudden change of mood caught me before I could even shout.
“Get in, he is expecting you.”
“Please!” I pleaded, finding myself dropped only to try persuading her with tears in my eyes and terror on my face. “I can't take any more...”
Ragini threw open the door, virtually hurling me inside before slamming it shut. I curled up on the floor as I heard hoofsteps nearby turn to face me before advancing steadily. Eyes shut, I wondered if I could just blank it all...ignore everything and use my imagination...like the helter skelter...right? Imagination canvas, ignore the pain...ignore the pain...
“Murk, I must question why you cower. I assure you, I will not harm you.”
I opened my eyes, rubbing tears away to look up and see the master that Ragini had meant.
Protégé stood before me, holding a couple of books in his telekinesis with a genuinely curious look. That curiosity turned to slight confusion as I almost passed out on the spot with relief.
“I wanted another chance to speak with you, Murk. I regret that we did not have much of an opportunity last time. Although I had hoped that after being cleaned up and fed, your condition may have improved...”
I sat on the floor before his desk, atop an old red carpet that perhaps once was thick, but was now faded and thin. Protégé's office was, simply put, something clearly different from anywhere else I had ever seen in Fillydelphia. The old room had been renovated with either high condition or even newly remade objects, including a thick and ornate pre-war study table and large wooden bookcases; each crammed with a mixture of old frayed tomes and freshly printed thin books from Red Eye's industry. High quality gem lighting gave an amber radiance to the entire area, while the large window had been reinforced and replaced to overlook the corrupted majesty of Fillydelphia's industry. Between a couple of bookcases, a thick safe was embedded in the wall. I could see attached rooms, their flapping doors open, that led to an attached bathroom and two bedrooms. I couldn't see much, but one was clearly his own, and the other a much smaller one converted from a big cupboard. As polite as he was, even I could tell that big chart on the wall was the schedule for sending us all to our deaths in Stables and irradiated bunkers.
That, and it was all a bit of a mess.
Books lay strewn everywhere; over his desk, on chairs near the door and even on the windowsill. I could see some even sitting on his bed through the doorway. The bulky terminal on his desk (another book resting on top of it, naturally) also seemed to be peppered with small sticky notes to remind him of things.
“Yes, this is indeed my home, Murk.” He spoke with a thin smile, watching my head pan around. “Ragini is a top rate associate and bodyguard, but she isn't tasked to keeping many things in line. I do apologise for the mess.”
This nice talk wasn't sitting well with me. The black unicorn had passed back to the desk, sitting and leafing something in front of him, the pages completely hidden behind a stack of papers near the front. Between sentences, I could see his visible eye scanning each page for a few seconds before turning to the next.
“What did you want me for?” I spoke with deliberate wish to break through the nicety.
Protégé raised an eyebrow, looking up from the book of interest.
“No 'master,' for me? How unusual amongst slaves, usually they would be afraid of being punished for ignorance. But then, you are unusual to begin with, Murk, in more than one way as well. The pegasus who tried to get over the Wall to win the freedom he was denied by birth...there is a certain romanticism to it, don't you agree?”
Technically I planned to go under the Wall, but I didn't figure pointing this out would win me many points here. Try as I might, though, all I could remember was fear, pain, and blood. Nothing 'romantic' came out of lying in your own gore screaming for mercy from a griffon who had shot you.
“I failed, you know this...”
“Yes, Murk. But clearly I am not alone in how I feel, despite what you think.”
His horn sparkled red, lifting what he had been looking at. I almost rushed his desk on the spot. My journal! I could see the last image I had drawn, that of a pegasus flying free above the Wall. Witnessing my clamouring excitement to get it back, Protégé held up a hoof.
“Worry not, I intend to return it to you before you leave today. However, I have spent the last hour or so going through it. Images...drawings...it's such an interesting and alternative way of interpreting life compared to the words that I love so much. You seem to sketch from the heart, judging by the emotional nature of some of these...”
The pages flickered, revealing the last picture I drew from my subconscious before the Pit, lying before my killer. Lowering the journal, he continued to flip and glance as he went backward through my life as told by pictures. I was somewhat glad he had hidden it. I didn't want to see what I'd drawn while under the influence of slave indoctrination.
“You also seem to have a certain appreciation of shape and form as well, particularly with regards to ponies...you seem to be rather observant of all angles on them..”
He'd been flicking through all my pictures?
Protégé looked up. Was that a knowing smirk, or just normal for him? “Murk? Why are you blushing?”
“Um...I'm not! No reason...just, um...nervous, new place...and stuff...”
Not letting the smirk die, he sat the journal down before crossing his hooves on the desk. I tried not to headbutt the floor in an attempt to feel less embarrassed.
“Well, judging by your environmental pieces, you've been around a few places before here. A slave all your life...it's not fun, is it?”
I shot him a look, shaking away the blush (I really needed a second sketchbook just for myself...) and gave him my best 'What could you possibly know?' look that I could. If he cared, he didn't show it.
Instead he smiled, returning to his own books. They were picked up in his magic, before settling down, changing subject with little warning, he beckoned me closer to his desk. I sat before it, like I did with Wicked Slit.
“I must admit, I was rather disappointed to hear that you had been denied the opportunity to learn reading or writing skills. Almost tragic really.”
He held up an old red tome. I did my best not to look annoyed at my illiteracy being pointed out once more.
“The history of Equestria prior to the war, a very old volume. The ability to sit down, read and study what things were like before it all happened. If only more ponies would take the time then perhaps most of this unfortunate business need not happen. I do feel sorry for ponies like you, forced into such lives.”
He must have caught my disbelieving look.
“Truly, I do. That is partly why I expended so many favours to track you down and get Stern to let you live. You interest me, Murk. In a way, we are not so different. I know how you feel through all this, you know? If I may say, bringing you here, I do perhaps have higher aims for you than simple freedom.”
What did he mean by that? Nerves began to fray as I heard that last sentence. Higher aims? My heart was still beating faster than normal. Better than The Master or not, he was still my more 'official' master. Still a slave driver, no matter how often he said 'worker' instead, and still liable to use me as a resource rather than another pony. I looked to the side, unsure, biting my lip.
Protégé stood, moving toward me. Something clicked in my head, that red eye advancing on me...I recalled lying dying under the Wall...or The Master advancing on me in that cell to...to...
I shrank back, hooves skittering as I backed away from Protégé. Hearing a slight whimper from me, he stopped, mouth half open in surprise. To his credit, he backed up and gave me a little personal space.
“Are you alright?”
I managed to get back to my hooves, favouring my injured shoulder.
“Of course I'm not! I'm...I'm a slave! How could I be alright? You're just...just another one of them, no matter what you say! I want out of this city, now! But I can’t! Ponies like you stand in my way! How can I be...” I shuddered, losing my momentum from a slight tremble and a sob, “...al..alright?”
Protégé paused, not interrupting, before slowing his pace. He spoke quietly and carefully.
“Murk, I am trying to assure you that you are safer now. I had you healed, cleaned and fed before being brought here. I offer you the return of your artbook. Does that not say something?”
I just lay down against the wall, sniffing and trying to catch myself before I entered another crying fit. This was horrible. All these 'nice' things were nothing more than a façade to placate me into slavery! I knew it! I wanted out, but I just didn't have the confidence in myself after failing so badly any more. I couldn't control it, sniffing and wiping my eyes as I tried to avoid him noticing my reaction.
Instead, I heard Protégé sigh, before a slight click sounded in my ears. Looking up, I saw his magic remove the eyepiece and set it upon the desk, before glancing back across to me with both eyes. Despite his youth, I could immediately see a slight pain to his expression now. Somehow, despite not understanding why, it defused how I saw him. As though I was no longer looking at a slaver...
“Murk...” he spoke quietly, trotting around the other side of the desk and taking a stuffed bag from a clothes hanger nearby. I could see battle barding bearing Red Eye's mark upon the stand, beside a holster containing what looked like a scoped revolver. They shook as Protégé removed the bag. “Are you afraid of something?”
Despite myself, I nodded.
“What I had requested. To be cleaned and fed...that didn’t happen, did it? Please...answer me. Did Chainlink Shackles harm you?”
Protégé would have had to be an idiot to not spot the sudden widening of my eyes. I had to almost shove a hoof in my mouth. I wanted to spill it all, to cry and beg Protégé to help me. Surely he had some sort of way to stop The Master? But what if The Master’s cronies were to carry out the threat on the mare in his absence? What if her slave master was in on it? What if he slipped a word to the raiders to kill me for talking?
Protégé actually lay down on all fours near me. He genuinely did look concerned, so much so that I wondered if he had he suspected The Master for some time now. I wanted so badly to just grab his hooves and tell him everything...
“No...I just...sorry. The raiders...”
Well, it wasn't a lie. Protégé nodded slowly,
“Yes...I did hear about that 'accident' on your allotment.” He lowered his head. “I am truly sorry, Murk, for what happened. Perhaps I should have accompanied you myself. However, I hear our resident warlord has taken you under his protection.”
That got my attention. Gasping light, I looked up at him sharply.
“Yes. If I'm not mistaken, Brimstone Blitz was the pony who saved you?”
I shuffled up, sitting properly. My eyes were wet, but this genuinely intrigued me, what did he mean by 'warlord?'
“I suppose being a slave all your life, you wouldn't have had opportunity to know, but our Brimstone is not your average raider.”
Given the way he took an entire swarm of them apart, I had that sussed already; but I didn't imagine Protégé was talking about just his combat skills.
“Brimstone wasn't just a tough raider, Murk. He actually led one of the largest raider clans in the entire Equestrian Wasteland. The Great Raider Warlord. The Dragon. Brimstone Blitz. For the last forty years, he and his group, or clan as he says, laid waste to a significant portion of settlements. They were something of a thorn in the side of even the larger factions, Master Red Eye included, as well as other raiders. He would discover them and often challenge their leader to one on one combat for leadership of the tribe. He never lost once, and believe me Murk, his ferocity was legendary amongst those savages. But, at least to me, his most heinous act was the destruction of Ponyville.”
He turned to a large and frayed map on the wall near the window. His magic levitated a feather to point to a small town near a large forest.
“Settlers had finally began to restore that place into a little haven when his clan descended. Such a pity. It has such historical significance, that little town. The megaspells and poison were bad enough, but if you go there now all you'll find is devastation and whatever raiders are left over from his clan's passing.”
I wasn't really listening too closely. All I could think of was that massive earth pony and seeing him at the head of frothing and screaming raiders as they descended on a settlement. How could such a beast become what I had just witnessed?
“How he changed is rather interesting, albeit unknown to me. After Master Red Eye captured him as an example to the wasteland, he seemed to be rehabilitated by the work here. Possibly the only pony I've seen that happen to, actually. It's a great pity he refuses to tell me of why or how. Not that I’m complaining of course,” Protégé let out a small laugh. “I am rather glad of his presence to help keep those raiders with him under control, if only by fear. He is an exemplary worker, probably my best.”
I glanced back at Protégé's bright red eyes sadly. That word, 'worker', still stung badly. Was that what I was now? An enforced worker? All the same, I felt calmer for the discussion. Protégé was speaking to me as though we were equal. Despite myself, I couldn't help taking at least a little comfort in it. He got up, trotting backward.
“I should stick close to him if I were you, his protection, even in passing, will aid you on your quest significantly.”
Seemingly pleased whenever I actually engaged in conversation, Protégé nodded.
“Your journey, Murk. Two years stand before you filled with tasks to overcome in service to Master Red Eye. You can earn your freedom, improve yourself as a pony, and help Equestria all at the same time.”
His eyes narrowed, the smirk turned to a proper smile.
“Isn't that what you want to do, Murk? Isn't that what she would want of you?”
She. Okay...that was it. He could act all intelligent in front of the dumb and uneducated slave, but that was where I drew the line. I proudly brought myself up to be standing as high as I could and stared him sternly in the...neck.
One little sigh of exasperation later, I stepped back with a muttered curse about my height ruining moments when I was trying to be confident, and looked him in the eyes. My voice wasn't designed to sound big and imposing, but Luna damn it I was going to try! He wanted me to talk as an equal about what inspired me to run at the Wall? Well fine, he'd get it!
“The Stable Dweller would not want me working for you or Red Eye! You saw it, didn't you? How she broke free right in front of him and saved herself and another zebra too! She showed everypony there that there is something better to fight for than helping some mad pony!”
To his credit, Protégé did not reel or act offended with my little outburst. Stepping to the side to lean on a table, his reply was calm, but held a certain passion.
“The Stable Dweller, hmm? So...you were inspired by her? I suppose I should have guessed, you wore that PipBuck on your right forehoof, just like her. Only Master Red Eye does the same, and I doubt you were taking his example. The numerous images in your sketchbook were also hints to this end, I suppose. But Murk, can you not see? Master Red Eye is saving Equestria, I mentioned this to you before. If I were permitted, I would show you the children, safe and in a state of education just waiting for a better world to inhabit. They are well fed, fit, healthy, and have never been forced to kill anypony or consume meat just to survive. They truly are innocent, Murk, and we only have our Master to thank. Can you not see the need for ponies like you and I to give all we can? Was generosity not one of the sacred elements of old Equestria?”
Last time, I had been caught unawares after my failure. This time, however, he wouldn’t go without a response from me.
“She has another way! I...I heard it on the PipBuck! She's out there, saving ponies and helping places to survive. If we all just helped each other rather than fighting all the time then we wouldn't need to use slaves and...and...take children away!”
He listened. He never interrupted, keeping his voice level and trotting around to face me directly again.
“Murk...you say that if we didn't fight, but you use her as an example? She has killed more ponies in less than two months out of her Stable than I have in my entire life in the wasteland. How can this truly be the way to help Equestria? To keep shooting the bad ponies until none are left? Isn't that how we got in this mess in the first place? By starting shooting? Here in Fillydelphia we take the raiders away from those they could hurt and set them to tasks that help everypony.”
“But...but you have thousands of ponies who just wanted to be nice and live their lives. There are good ponies in here! There are good ponies dying in here! I've seen the executions, I've been beaten, whipped, fed almost nothing for months, and the work is killing everypony slowly and painfully. You know about my sickness! I've seen ponies taken and tortured or raped by slavers just for their fun!”
Protégé sighed, for a second I saw him have to think. In that moment I found a sense of triumph in my side of the argument.
“There are...not as many good ponies as there used to be, Murk. To have this work, we need the skills of anypony who can manage it. I don't particularly like having Shackles around, but he is a necessary evil to keep the raiders in line. We must sacrifice things if we are to save Equestria. Better us than the next generation of foals.”
“What if the Stable Dweller is right?”
“Then she is right.”
That caught me off guard. I had thought Red Eye and his little student Protégé would be insistent on their viewpoint. Weren't they evil?
“Master Red Eye possesses, and has taught me to have, humility. If she is right and we are wrong, we will gladly aid her cause. Interestingly, Littlepip and Master Red Eye do share one common goal as of the moment, you know.”
Wait...wait...who was this Little—
I remembered her size, she had been about the same height as me, if slightly better fed. She had a PipBuck as a cutie mark. Even my uneducated brain could piece that one together.
“Littlepip? Her name is Littlepip?”
“Indeed so, Murk. I felt that, given your obvious inspiration from her, you would appreciate knowing her name.”
His smile caught me unawares. Hadn't we just been arguing?
“I do want to help you, Murk. That is why I have brought you here. You may not agree, but I promise you, I do genuinely wish to see you attain that freedom you want so badly.”
Bittersweet care...I shook my head sadly, probably looking a little dejected, but he was my master, it sort of came with the expectation. I couldn't keep the saddened plead from my voice.
“Then why can't you just...let me go? I'm useless to you...”
“Useless?” He laughed. “Please, Murk, you do injustice to yourself. I am sure that you have it in you to overcome the odds when given a little encouragement. I have confidence that you will be a good worker for me. Do not feel I am unapproachable should you have any problems, I wish the same for all those under my roster. To be able to help Master Red Eye save Equestria...and then be on their way, hopefully a better pony than when they came in.”
Despite myself, I couldn't help but be swayed a little by his words. What if Red Eye was truly wanting to just help? What if this student of his and his more progressive attitude was a better system? Would more ponies succeeding convince Red Eye to abandon the brutal slave routine?
Нет! I batted my head with a hoof (no doubt Protégé was becoming slightly perplexed by the expressions I had evolved from a lonely life...) and tried to remember Littlepip. The DJ had spoken highly of her, about helping everyone! About fighting the good fight! Just believe in the goodness of others and try to do so yourself while staying free! Regardless of how Protégé talked it up, this was still slavery, ponies like The Master were still abusing and torturing others like me and the conditions of living were lower than anywhere I had ever been a slave before!
Protégé could see I wasn't in agreement with him. With a sigh he turned and trotted backward, lifting that bag from before.
“I can see we share differing values, Murk. I respect your wish, but I must deny it. However, I must say I have enjoyed an opportunity to talk to you properly. You are an interesting pony, Murk, I hope we can talk again in the future. If you are not required for work, feel free to come to me any time. For now, however...”
The eyepiece floated back to his face, clipping around his ear once again. The student of Red Eye was back. I lowered my head.
“You are assigned under me. You will begin work on the next available assignment for those who have selected or been chosen for two years of high value target clearance and retrieval. I wish you luck, it is not easy and indeed can be very lethal. However...”
The bag floated over to me, before opening and gently tipping the contents out. I gasped as I looked down.
“...perhaps these may help your mood for now to overcome the shock and help protect you from those who would judge you for your wings.”
My customised fleece, Slit's goggles, saddlebag and PipBuck.
Regardless of Protégé standing watching, I immediately began throwing on my jerkin, almost rolling on the floor in an effort to pull it over and cover those blasted feathers as fast as I could. Protégé seemed to let his eyes linger on my wings before they disappeared from view.
“Interesting, really. A pegasus...simple family genes and random chance or is there something more to you, I wonder?”
Feeling warmer and safe within my fleece, I reattached the PipBuck to my right foreleg with the leather cord before snapping the goggles onto my head and finally throwing on the saddlebag. It had been emptied...but in it I found three Radaways. Surprised, I turned back to Protégé with an open mouth ready to ask. He simply held a hoof to his mouth.
“Consider it my apology for the way Ragini treated you, Murk. Good day.”
He turned to his desk and picked up his quill and parchment again. Clearly, that was my signal to leave.
As I closed the door to his office, I couldn't help wondering about him. Was he really as nice as he seemed? Everypony else seemed out to get me or use me for something. Not to mention he was Red Eye's personal student.
As I trotted off down the corridor, following the waiting Ragini, I heard him speaking quietly to himself after he thought I was out of earshot.
“To my Master Red Eye...I feel I have an interesting report of what I have learned for you this week regarding the feelings of those who we rely on to rebuild Equestria...”
The moment I was past the cage door I galloped for Brimstone's cell. It hurt my shoulder terribly, but I knew exactly what was going to happen.
I heard clattering hooves from behind me as the raiders cantered out into the light from the shops near the entrance. I didn't even look back.
“Come on out and play, don't you even want those feathers back?”
They lightly chased me close to Brimstone's area, only after I had ducked in did I look back. The ragged leader was wearing my feathers around a band on his head! The small group of them clamoured around near the fountain, wearing clothing I could only hoped only looked like skin.
Brimstone was waiting inside. With a few stomps he made his way to the entrance, glaring back at the raiders through the cage.
“You can't keep our prize away from us forever, traitor! Not both of them!”
With a shake of his mane, Brimstone gave little heed to them, merely ushering me further inside while he watched the raiders back off. Not for the first time, I began to hate my sensitive hearing, as I picked up the remainder of the raiders laughing in their own spots. Alongside them, I could hear the groans of those slaves not lucky enough to enjoy the big warlord’s protection.
“Try not to entice them, Murk,” Brimstone's voice was as rough as ever, like gravel. “The guards, Shackles, and I keep them in line as best we can. But they are just waiting to let all that aggression out on somepony. You can't pen raiders up...”
“But I didn't-”
“You appeared. For them, that's good enough reason.”
Really, I didn't know what to say, but I got the hint. Stay hidden, stay low. I'd heard too many tales of what raiders would do. Torture, rape, cannibalism, and everything in between. I'd almost been their toy earlier.
“Look, Brimstone...I got something for her.”
I tapped my saddlebag, attracting Brimstone's attention more properly. Without a word more, he encouraged me into the back of the shop.
I slumped down on my haunches with a sigh, as Brimstone gently nudged the Radaway. There had never been any question that I would give it to her instead of using it to fight off my own disease. Already I could feel my lungs beginning to clam up a little more after the healing from Protégé's doctor some hours ago. I’d been where she was, I didn’t wish it on anypony.
“It's simple really,” Brimstone turned back to her, resting silently for now. “I could have got some from the slave markets...but Glimmer can't take Radaway. Something in it sets off an allergic reaction.”
“No matter, just means the first plan still has to go ahead, find the alternative.”
Brimstone clearly went into deep thought as he began piecing together his plan. Hesitantly, I sat and watched Glimmerlight. Her chest was moving so little, while she was sweating and quivering under her blanket. A bucket for rad-induced vomiting sat nearby. I could have sworn it had been red when I'd trotted by it.
But I didn't simply see a mare who was sick. Past my natural distrust of all ponies I hadn't met, I saw in her one last chance. Alone, I didn't have a hope. I was weak, scared, uneducated, and utterly naïve of the world around me that wasn't a slaver demanding I work. (And I wasn't even very good at that work either.) By all my heart, I wanted out. The sketches of freedom I had left in my journal and on Whiplash's walls proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But since my failure, the thought of running at that Wall again felt like madness. Once again I arrived at the same horrid feeling.
I was exactly what I had been like before the Pit again, too afraid of repercussions and punishment to have the courage to do it. Whatever had driven me before was beginning to fade fast.
But that was where Glimmerlight came in.
By Brimstone's story of her life, she sounded like my best chance to find somepony who wanted the same thing as me. Who wouldn't judge me and would be willing to maybe, just maybe, help me. The unknown mare had shown me that ponies could be nice, now I had to trust in her belief about there being other good ponies in Fillydelphia besides her.
If I ever wanted out of here, I'd need them. Right now I had no direction, and no drive pushing me to do something before an event happened like before. My life had been thrown into the grind of slavery once again. If I were to just let it happen, I knew I would be lost forever to the slave in my mind.
Glimmerlight might be my last hope. She could very well be the first step to doing something to build toward an escape attempt again! No matter what, I couldn't let her die, or I might see all my chances go with her.
Taking a deep breath, I looked up at the big raider. “So...what do we do?”
Brimstone looked sideways at me with a severe expression.
Truth be told, I hadn't properly thought this through, but I knew I wanted to.
“Look...you say she wants out. So do I, right? But I tried to escape and failed badly, Brimstone. I...I'm scared of doing anything, even if it helps me in the end. Really scared! Protégé seems okay but...but The Master...”
I lost my train of thought, the feeling of him beating me to the ground, the harsh sensation of his cracked hoof playing along my cutie mark. Shifting back into the dark of the gloomy back room, I heard Brimstone glower a little at my natural habit to seek a dark hidden place to hide in. Even the big raider could see the pain in my eyes.
“He hurt you.”
“Yes...” Little more than a tiny whimper. “Water...and hitting me...I...I thought he was going to break me...”
Brimstone's expression didn't change much, but I know he'd seen The Master buck me to the raiders. I tried to dry my eyes, moving out and standing up before Brimstone to attempt an appeal to his respect of bravery.
“But from the kind of pony you said she is...then I know I need to save her, Brimstone, just as much as you need to. That and...I've been where Glimmerlight is now. That's why I wanted to give my Radaway to you. I knew I'd want someone to do it for me.”
Still that stone faced expression didn't move. For a good half minute he simply stared at me, before shaking his head.
“I must be getting too much of a softie these days...alright. You could come in handy anyways. If you could get to the Wall, you can clearly stick to the shadows. But know this. Like before, if I feel you are ever threatening the success of this then you can trot home and explain to Protégé yourself. Understood?”
I gulped, wondering just what I'd gotten into...
“Okay...so...what are we doing?”
His plan was remarkably simple, yet fraught with intense levels of danger.
There was a renovated hospital near the Fillydelphia crater edge, just outside of the exclusion zone. Due to the ambient radiation however, it was often more used for important slave workers, rather than any of Red Eye's group. As such, it was a lot less defended or guarded and held overall less medical supplies than those closer to the hub of the city. Brimstone explained the name to recognise it as the ‘Hearts and Hooves Hospital.’ Of course, I'd never be able to identify it by words alone, so he had said he'd simply point it out instead. I had asked why Protégé hadn't gotten any for her, but the answer was simple. Glimmerlight didn’t qualify for rare stocks, even with Protégé’s influence. As such, Brimstone was aiming to find and simply take whatever stock they kept.
How we got there was most interesting. The cell had a backdoor that was jammed shut. It led to the outside, an old delivery door apparently. Protégé and the slavers believed it unusable because of the thickly rusted hinges, but Brimstone had a theory that it was simply blocked on the other side. With a little clearing and his strength to push it, the door might open. The problem was clearing it. He was heavily guarded whenever taken for a work detail, due to killing guards in the past. As such, my part of his plan was to crawl through the air ducts and drop off outside, then clear the doorway. As a pair, we would make our way to the hospital around the edge of the crater away from attention, Brimstone would get me past whatever guard existed at the supply door and I would sneak in to find the medicine. Hopefully, I might be able to steal some RadAway, too, to help with my disease.
I didn't particularly like my roles, if I was honest. Sneaking through cramped air ducts in pitch blackness, skirting a balefire crater and sneaking into a place I didn't know to find something I probably couldn't read the name of didn't feel too reliable.
Of course there was another problem. Me.
Today had not been easy. I was still partially a nervous wreck, held together only by a mission to achieve and the fact that I possessed my journal and PipBuck again. But even with my fleece again, I had a horrible feeling that everypony would still recognise me and know I had wings. Even as I sat flicking through my journal, waiting for Brimstone to give the go, I gazed almost longingly at the sketches I'd done of myself without wings.
I was tired...oh so tired. If I closed my eyes I began to sweat in a fear that The Master would be the one waking me up. Sometimes, if I saw Brimstone in the darkness of the store's back rooms I would yelp in fear and turn to run before I remembered it wasn't the horrifying form of The Master. The closest I took to solace was glancing at Glimmerlight. Even while sick, she looked somewhat peaceful. Her white coat would have shone had it not been coated in the dust and dirt of slavery. But her short, two tone pink mane still held so much colour. Briefly, I felt regret at only having charcoal and not coloured chalk to draw with.
Really, I was only seeking distractions from the real problems.
How could I do this? What had I agreed to? Brimstone had let it known that if I wasn't up to it, I was getting left behind. My shoulder ached, I was sure I'd caught something from the freezing water of the hose, and my mind was a mess trying to stop the indoctrination of the slave from controlling everything I did again.
Only my drawing was keeping me ready to do this at the minute. I sat in a corner of the back room, using the flickering light from my PipBuck to lighten up my journal. Muttering my mantra in my head, (Lines became curves...) I sketched out the first thing that came to mind. Imposing and terrifying, Brimstone Blitz stood over the weakened form of Glimmerlight, steadfastly protecting her against anything and everything that dared come his way. Even as I drew it, an envy crept in. I found myself wishing I had somepony so determined to help me as that. Somepony to watch over me.
Well, there was the mare, but destiny seemed determined to separate our paths at every turn.
I flipped away from the image, going back a few pages. Quite by accident, I landed on the one of just myself in the bottom left of the page, the rest left completely empty. Looking at my smiling face, I tapped a hoof against the paper, almost pathetically really. I just wished I could be that pony, the one who seemed to be laughing through that big grinning smile, his wings spread proudly either side of his body, worn openly.
Who was I kidding? Dreams and fantasies, that's all I drew. I was no free pony, just a pegasus too scared to show his wings for the judgemental hate he would receive. I was even afraid of ponies on my side.
The rough voice was spoken just loud enough not to wake Glimmerlight. I saw Brimstone looming in the darkness.
I'd been in the Mall less than a couple hours, and already I was about ready to sneak back out of it. Despite my fear, some part of me congratulated myself for not having lost all of my momentum, even if I still wasn't mentally ready to start preparing another full escape attempt.
But if this all worked out, perhaps I wouldn't be alone in that endeavour.
The ventilation was located near the back of the slave area in the Mall, just off one of the staircases leading to the upper level of slave cells. Brimstone settled down low enough that I could clamber onto his back and reach the ventilation shaft. A little dexterous hoof and mouth work with a steel bar and I had prised the mesh cover free just enough to slip in. Tall and wide enough to permit me to at least turn and moderately sit up, it was almost a perfect fit for me, even if I knew it would cause a stooping pain by the end of the run. Even so, compared to the filthy drain pipe I'd inhabited before, it was wondrously dry and surprisingly cool against the humid heat of Fillydelphia. Momentarily, I kept it in mind as a possible hiding spot, where nopony else could reach me, safe in its hidden, sheltered tunnels.
I turned back to Brimstone to pull the mesh shut, seeing his beady and mismatching eyes staring up at me. Holding it up for me, he paused before it closed over.
“You alright finding your way, Murk?”
“I think so...just keep heading toward the walls until I find somewhere I can prise though, right?”
Brimstone nodded. I'd hoped for a smile at least, but he just remained grim. “Aye, that's right. Knock four times on the shop's back door when it's clear and I'll buck it open. Just make sure you stand back. Remember, four times, or I won't open. Got everything you need?”
I checked myself over. My now unarmoured fleece, goggles and PipBuck stayed with me, in addition to a length of rope Brimstone had within his own possessions in the cell. While waiting, I had cut my fleece down a little. Fillydelphia's atmosphere and temperature was far too high for a fully covering tight thermal fleece like I had designed for the wastes outside. Now, it only went down to just before my cutie mark. It left my hind legs uncovered to fight the heat while still having enough leeway to hide my wings rather reliably. A noticeable absence of my inventory was my butterfly yellow saddlebag and journal.
“Don't you worry your head about that book, it's safer with Glimmer right now than clogging you up in the tunnels.”
Was my face really that transparent of what I was thinking about? Celestia help me if I ever got a marefriend in my life...
I pulled the mesh back over with my mouth and slipped my goggles over my eyes, pausing only for a second more.
I bit my lip, talking to this 'warlord' had always been somewhat awkward, even when he opened up a little...
“Thank you. I mean, really...for helping me. I hope I don't let you down. I'm not too reliable at succeeding at anything in life. Even...even aside from that, Glimmerlight is the only hope I've got to find somepony to help me right now, I just don't want to fail you.”
Brimstone looked almost confused why I'd even spoken, I was confused about what I'd said. But the big raider just tapped the mesh lightly. To my surprise, he smiled.
“Do this for me, Murk,” he whispered, “and you'll have at least a modicum of my trust. She means everything to me, Murk...everything. Not many ponies would even try to help the way you're doing.”
“Good. I'll wait in the shop. Try not to get bucked off another balcony without me around to raise some hell for you, okay?”
I could swear he was grinning as he turned and trotted away from me. Taking a deep breath I turned and crawled away into the vent systems. The thick darkness ahead of me made my skin crawl...but I couldn't help but feel I wasn't quite out of the saddle yet for finding a way out of this nightmare.
Time to go save a life...a life who could possibly end up saving mine in return.
There were many ponies I had to thank in my life. The Stable Dweller. Brimstone. The mare. My mother. The DJ. Even Glimmerlight already, for having smiled at me, and being a goal to me in these times when I feared I might lack a direction.
But right now, Sundial was the one directing light into my life, quite literally.
His PipBuck's flickering and half broken torchlight was about the only thing keeping me away from a panicked state of claustrophobia. Sometimes I wondered, did that word mean I had a phobia? I hoped not. How were you meant to tell? How would I ever tell? I was scared of my own—
I dived away, rolling and curling up as I saw the shadow of somepony else crawli...oh.
Well, didn't I feel like an idiot.
What could I do? I was nervous, trotting along a hoof at a time in almost pitch black. Of course I was jumpy! I honestly didn't have a clue where I was. On rare occasions, I had passed a vent going downwards, sometimes with faded light drifting in from the room below, but I didn’t recognise them.
The creaking and often haphazardly bending air ducts seemed to threaten a collapse any time; and worst of all, I heard things. Skittering noises, and clicking from down other tunnels. After the drainpipe before, I didn't dare imagine what little horrors lurked around in the darkness waiting for an almost blind pony to stumble across their lairs. Often, I'd had to turn back from a route after the duct had gotten so thin I could barely crawl under it. Why were some bits pony sized and some not? Didn't they think of tiny escaping pegasus when they designed it? Why think of a glass roof to resist a Balefire Megaspell and nothing to let somepony get back out again? What kind of builder made this place?
Every tunnel felt like an inaccessible wall of black. I wasn't making any progress in a quiet and terrifying environment like this. Reluctantly, I reached to my PipBuck and flipped the radio on a low volume. Technically a bad idea, but I wasn't getting anywhere without some moral encouragement.
Now...what was the DJ's station position on the dial again?
...remind every worker of Fillydelphia, you have given again and again for our great cause. Fear not for the future, for you are ensuring i-
You gotta shaaa—
-many times do I need to tell you, wastelanders? Ghouls are ponies too!”
With a relieved sigh, I relaxed as that soothing voice came to my ears for the first time since my escape attempt. Something about that familiarity, that informal intimacy of just me and his messages helped give me a better feeling that I wasn't alone in this dark and dreary place.
“Hasn't our resident muffin lovin' trader shown you all something? Well let me set the record straight once and for all. A ghoul is just a pony without the hair and skin with the added ability of being more or less immortal so far as we know.
Making better progress with the comfort of sound to only my ears, I felt happier about this mission. I could see a small bit of light up ahead, perhaps some place to get my bearings.
“They feel, they care and they hurt just like any of us. So next time you see one, do ol'Pon-Three a favour, will ya? Give em a little smile, just to remind them that not everypony out there is a judgemental old relic of the past, eh?”
Stopping for just a second, I sighed. Ghouls I was alright with, one of my masters had been one and I hadn't ever judged him for his skin...or lack of it. Okay, I did once call him “rotten corpse” in my head once, but only because he had hit me first! But, I wasn't hearing any big calls for an ease up on pegasi any time soon...
“Of course, zombie ponies? Yeah, give them the fast track to a little peace at last, everyone. Just learn to tell the difference. It's no fun living in a world where everypony else wants to shoot you for just looking a little more varied than your average pony we see every day.”
Lying down on all fours, I gradually scooted up to the vent the light was peering from. I could hear voices...
“Now, in further news...how about those events over near the old Sweet Apple Ac—
“Master, why didn't you let us finish off the basta-”
“Silence. You know why.”
I felt a chill pass through me. That voice, even just the one word, silence, made me freeze on the spot and not dare make a sound lest I be punished for speaking out of turn. I tried to remind myself I was only staying quiet to remain undetected.
I wished that were the only reason. Peeping down, I saw a filthy room with an old metal table, racks of slaver tools like whips, knives, and magical shock rods and a single bed more filthy than most ones I'd seen exposed to the outside. Against the wall, there was a single door to some retrofitted cupboard. I couldn't see much more, although it seemed relatively cluttered with random bits and bobs, but I had a single chilling thought as I looked in from the vent above the bed.
This was his room.
I could see The Master standing behind the metal desk, while the raider he was talking to was out of sight. I was shaking so much I could feel my loose tooth rattling. Part of me began to worry it'd fall out and give me away.
“That pegasus bastard can offer much more than just one quick event to me, raider. I'm a slaver, I don't make my life by killing those I have control over.”
“Not how we do things.” The voice was uppity.
The Master cut him off with a growl. “Get used to it. How you do things doesn’t matter in here to me. I have plans for him the moment Protégé isn't around to do his ‘best little student’ act. That little green buck is mine. You just keep me informed, that is all.”
I was shaking. Part of me wanted to drop down...give myself up. The slave spying on his Master was wrong! Disgusted that my mind even still responded to him, I cursed my indoctrination and tried to fight the urge. Thoughts of a dying unicorn on a sofa were enough to solidify my thoughts for now. Concentrate on the goal, not on the slavery. Instead, I reached out, stretching over the vent to try and get a look at who the informant was...
“When we were out there with Brimstone Blitz we—”
“Raider, I don't care.”
The Master's voice had dropped. I still couldn't see the raider. I stretched out just a little more, pushing my hoof forward to balance myself on the other side.
“You are not 'out there' any more! I keep you from the worst of things because you are useful to me. You keep the various packs of your kind down there in line, now that their old leader is under some 'repentance' crusade. Now get out of here and return to your cell. I'm not in the mood for you.”
“Just one thing...”
He must have been right at the doorway, trotting away just as I thought I was about to find out. Dammit! Sweating, I brought my whole body weight forward over the vent to try and glance right down through the grill from the opposite side. I could feel my aching shoulder beginning to shake.
His voice slapped into every instinct of mine to perk up. I faltered, jerking and struggling to stay upright. Oh, this was a bad idea, a very bad idea. I could feel my hoof slipping.
“What do you want with him, anyway? If it's pain you want...we could arrange that.”
Oh Goddesses help me and give me the strength to not slip...
The Master chuckled lowly, a sick sound promising all of his sadistic nature.
“I'm a born slaver, raider. I simply want him to be commanded. To do everything I tell him. He is a born slave, you know? Everything I could want, a pegasus and a weak little slave all in one. I don't want to kill him, oh no.. No...I would rather he be worn down...day by day. I'm not a simplistic sadist brute like yourself, raider. I don't want his death. I want his life. He dropped into Fillydelphia so perfectly. It could only have been better if he had dropped right into my room.”
My hoof slipped.
I felt my entire body weight collapse downwards toward the vent cover before jamming to a halt just as quickly with a painfully loud squeal. My PipBuck! The edge and the tough leather had caught on the gap between vent and mesh! Praying for it not to break, I pulled my weight back up. With a leap as silent as I could, I dove over the vent with a dull thud and turned off the light.
“The fuck was that!?” The raider cried out.
I curled up in a ball, afraid to move. The Master's hoof must have come crashing down, for I heard a painful smack of hoof to skull.
“Don't you step toward me in my room!”
Okay, that was pretty hair triggered. I might have thought more on why he had been so suddenly angry, but I was too concentrated on trying to make no noise.
Another harsh cracking sound and a dull cry of pain.
“I don't like your tone one bit, raider! You are the slave! I am The Master!”
Despite the beating, I could still hear resistance in the voice. I imagined raiders used to independence were more resilient to The Master's beatings and overbearing nature than I was. Really, was I that pathetic? The imagery of the everlasting chain in my mind begged to differ. The Master was right, I was meant to be his.
But he wasn't going to get me...not forever. I couldn't bear the nightmare, to have him control my entire life. I had to escape him.
I had to...
Even as I heard The Master throw the raider out and return to sit upon his bed, muttering about radroaches in the ducts, I lay right above him, silently willing myself out of a frozen state of terror. Even without seeing me, he could still hurt me.
I had to escape him. I had to, before he dug his chains in any deeper to my life.
Remaining still until The Master had left, my continuation through the ducts was hesitant and without the illumination of my PipBuck light. After one near miss, I didn't dare turn it on again. At first the cloying darkness had led to near disaster by almost falling down a thinner shaft. My heart still raced as I imagined the implications. To be stuck, unable to move and wedged in a thin shaft, vertically, with nopony ever able to respond to my screams...
But since, my eyesight had begun to adjust a little as I got used to it. There was actually some light from occasional grates, so staying only on natural sight allowed me to stay unseen and focus on direction. It had taken me some wandering, but eventually I was certain that I had to be near the outer rooms of the Mall, and chose a vent to exit from.
Bucking the vent off the wall, I dropped into the darkened room. Dust swirled around my hooves, making me choke and cough as I found my chosen room to be seemingly untouched since, presumably, before the megaspells.
Before the end...I didn't want to spend much time here. I didn't do pre-war investigation.
Coughing into my hoof every few steps and rolling my sore shoulder out from the scamper through the air ducts, I made my way through the preserved space. It looked like an old janitorial station, thick with centuries of dirt and dust, and occupied by creepy thick webs covering the roof, furniture and corners. They caught on my hooves and dragged behind me everywhere. I could see two doors barred and locked from the inside with thick metal bars; while masses of empty food, drink packagings, and a ton of used Radaway sachets littered the space. Most was situated around a central desk that held various terminal monitors that flickered and fizzed eternally from some error. One of them was flashing a message on screen, on and off, a large red word seemed like a warning while scrolling text ran over and over beneath it.
Somepony had barred themselves in here to survive. But if there were barred doors, then where were they?
A little hunting for a way to unlock the doors later, I found him.
An old buck, preserved even in death. He was lying on a small makeshift bed in the cleaning cupboard, and around his bed's side lay dozens upon dozens of inhalers. The smell was not fresh, but a sweet, musty and sickly defilement that had lain here for generations. My heart began to tighten at my imagination beginning to take off.
Imagery and visualisation...it was doing it again, piecing it all together, working out the last moments, the reasons why, and the visual memory of what had happened here when the spells detonated across Fillydelphia. Had I missed photos? Did he have family? What did he hear? What was that little glint coming from his saddlebag? What was it like living alone in one room until you slowly died...
I literally slapped myself across the face with a hoof, throwing cobweb into my face. I couldn't afford another breakdown of sadness about the past; Brimstone and Glimmerlight were relying on me now! I turned and ran from the cupboard, leaning against the monitors to catch my now rasping breath. Taking a few seconds to compose myself, I moved to the door with an exit symbol above it and shoved the crates out of the way to reveal the lock.
I knew where I'd seen the key. Of course it had been on him.
I knew I had to hurry, but I had to take a few moments to rest. My shoulder ached and throbbed; while the stiffness from The Master's treatments and raider beating were coming back to haunt me.
“Okay...okay...just a corpse...just a fresh looking corpse...you've been in sewage...”
I continued my mantra until I was back in the cupboard. Shaking, I lowered my head to the saddlebag and bit the thin loop of string that held the key. There...nothing...nothing to it.
My imagination was hard to turn off. This felt wrong. I was disturbing the gentle sleep of the long dead. This poor stallion had died alone in his probably workplace, desperately trying to stave off sickness and radiation, and now I was stealing from him? Was I really that kind of thief already?
The key came loose, and the saddlebag dropped to the floor; the long worn canvas loops simply falling apart at a mere touch. The body shifted as it lost the extra weight, gurgling from expelled air. I fought the urge not to be sick, and desperately tried not to breathe through my nose. Carefully, so as not to disturb his long rest further, I stepped back with my eyes closed in respect and looped the key around my neck on the string.
“Please forgive me, it's for a good cause...I promise. Goddesses let you rest...”
I opened my eyes.
And found his face staring back at mine from less than an inch away, eyes open.
For a second or two, it stared, twitching and making small clicking sounds.
And then, it howled.
There was dry intake of air, before an unholy screech of corrupt and petrified vocal chords filled the room, echoed in my ears, and froze every muscle in my body through a terror I had never known in my life. The corpse's mouth distended, opening far more than a pony's mouth had any right to be. Lacking control, I felt myself collapse before it, mouth open, unable to scream at all, as my eyes watered and yet dared not blink
The corpse began to thrash with spasms, with old muscles long underused coming back to life in necromantic horror. I began to scream as it clawed its way across the bed toward me on broken and limp legs. Survival instinct kicked in, and I began pulling myself from the room. I begged my body to work well enough to stand! I...I couldn't. Paralysing fear filled me, freezing my every motion. Behind me, it screamed again, yanking itself across the covers furiously enough to make the bed slam into the wall behind it.
Falling against the desk, the monitors fell from the table, smashing and fizzing as I used the table's edge to get to my hooves. Shifting and flopping, it fell from the bed; a ruined body animated even after all this time! Finding my hooves, I galloped for the door and began fumbling, trying to get the key in my mouth.
The thing howled, wailed, and screamed as it pulled itself on one good front hoof after me across the janitor's office. Its mouth waggled loosely, and it began to claw and tug my way with a frenzy that seemed beyond anything I had seen any raider do.
“Come on...come on, please please please!”
I almost dropped the key before working it into the lock and turning it. The door refused to move. Was this the wrong key? I could hear it just a few feet away behind me, but I couldn't look! The sound came closer...closer! Nothing else to do, I bashed and pushed against the door, begging at the top of my voice for it to open, praying to the Goddesses while trapped in this tiny space with...with whatever that was!
Ramming my whole weight into the door, it finally began to budge...by an inch.
“Come on! Help! Somepony!”
Ramming myself against it again and again, I didn't even notice that it was my injured shoulder bashing on the hard metal outer door, such was the terror that propelled me as I turned and saw the...the...ghoul? Was it a zombie ghoul? It was flopping over the monitors, hooves outstretched to drag me in. On my fourth strike it was close enough to rub my back hooves with its front ones as I felt cold dead flesh drift over me.
Screaming, I pushed myself through the gap, kicking backward and struggling on the other side to shove the door shut. With a final wail, I slammed the door shut, hearing it screaming after me from the inside, dulled by the doorway. Slight thumps impacted against the door as the beast rattled itself against it in an effort to get at me. Sitting with my back to it until the thumping stopped, I listened to the groaning shifts from the ghoul pulling itself away inside to...to do whatever it did when alone again. Before me sat the open nightmare of Fillydelphia, and a vista of the Balefire crater. Below the security walls surrounding it, it glowed an unearthly red in the haze of the smog covering this city. That scar on the world that had caused such abominations as the kind that now were me through this door. It was unnatural, like a hazy that grew and fell like some open wound upon Equestria that pulsated, never closing.
I might have thought that despite that sight, the open world was simply the most beautiful sight I had ever seen out of nothing but relief to be of the claustrophobic ducts and deadly abandoned halls.
But I was too busy laying down on the catwalk fire escape and crying to even care.
I sniffed and kept trotting slowly around the Mall.
“Hey! Hey buck! Buddy! You alright?”
Raising my head, I wiped my eyes to look at the speaker. Another slave, a bright young earth pony buck of cold blue and a fiery red mane. I could see radsores like mine on his flank, actually damaging his cutie mark of a bouncing ball. He was cantering across from a small group that were passing by toward the industrial lines. The rest didn't stop.
“What's wrong? I've seen upset slaves...then there's you.”
He seemed to have been on his way to some workplace judging by the slip tucked into his clothing. Some slavers gave them to slaves to deliver to new work masters with instructions. He kept trying to walk in front of me as I plodded along, looking for the doorway to release Brimstone.
“Forgive me, buddy. You don't look it.”
I cast him a stronger look. Not that it said much for me. He seemed nice, but I was just too tired and fragile at the moment.
“Hey, sorry...just asking...”
Stopping and sitting down, I rubbed my eyes and sighed. Perhaps I'd been too harsh on him, how often did a slave ask to help anyway?
“No, no. Sorry...hard day, more than most.”
Accepting this, he settled and nodded, wandering around to face me.
“I hear ya. What's your name?”
— Мурки. I muttered it, fearing if I spoke too loudly, the crack in my voice would be too obvious.
“Flippy Bit, glad to meet you. Could swear we've been near each other on shifts, y'know. I'd remember a pony as small as you...”
Gee, thanks. He was right though, I didn't tend to remember faces. Before I'd been woken up by the Stable Dweller, I had simply existed as an ongoing bad dream, not paying much attention to anything. That said, the bright blue face of this pony did ring a bell.
He didn’t miss a beat, filling in as I stayed quiet.
“Us slaves, y'know? We need to stick together, buddy. Support one another to get through this as best we can.”
After the horrid encounter minutes ago, the sound of somepony saying things I could agree with was an unimaginably thankful thing to hear. Almost surprised at myself, I allowed my head to turn to him with a smile.
“Yeah...slavery isn't great. I've only gotten this far because of the help others gave me, Flippy. Gonna get out one day though, I gotta...”
“Hah! High order for yourself, Murk. Gonna take all us with you?”
“If I could!”
After a wary moment, I caught his smile grow bigger. He giggled, and I felt compelled to do the same. Before I knew it, we were laughing. There was something simple here, a genuine little acknowledgement of a shared hardship that I rarely received. The mare was so...so different and determined for her place in life to change. Brimstone was...well, Brimstone. But this 'Flippy Bit?' He was just...just normal and friendly.
“You know Murk, I know I recognise you from somewhere. You ever work the Parasprites? Wait, wait, southern wall reinforcement?”
“Then where in the hell do I recognise you from, buddy? The riots? Aah, nevermind. Hey, your fleece...what's it made of? Cotton?”
His voice changed. That last question had been rushed. I’d heard his train of thought change mid-sentence. Why was that? Feeling a little unnerved, I spoke quietly.
“Yeah, kinda...acquired it...from the thresher.”
“I see...seriously nice fleece though...”
He reached out, stroking it with a hoof. I made to stand up and move away, but with a sudden movement, he pulled it up even against my offended shout. A second later, he was on his hooves. The friendly smirk was gone, as my wing was on full display.
“I knew it! I knew I recognised you! You're that pegasus!”
My mouth hung open. I wanted to just plead. Please just forget about them, we'd been getting on! We could have been friends! The scowl came back to his face. I recognised him at last. He had flung the half brick at me in the parade off of the lasso.
“You don't have to hate me...”
“You? It's not you, it's all of you! What do you think you're doing down here taunting us all with your wings! Why don't you just fly away? I bet that's what the PipBuck is! It's for spying, isn't it! I can't fucking believe I was being nice to you!”
He reached into a small pouch, and to my horror he drew a craft knife.
I began to back away, my heart thumping hard. A spike of adrenaline at the danger made me shiver. I couldn’t handle this. Not today.
“You've got all the food up there, don’t you? My nana told us the stories! You left us to starve! She told us how they tore up her hilltop home! They shot her husband for going to pick flowers from the summit!”
“FLIPPY! PLEASE! I'm not from there! I...I can't fly!”
“You're just lying! Stop it! If I know one thing from growing up it's that pegasi are all the same! They all act shifty, don’t they? That’s what everyone says! I knew if I ever met one that my momma and papa would be right!”
Taking the knife in his mouth he flew at me. Squeaking, I fell backward and rolled, narrowly missing the slash from his mouth held weapon. I had just faced a zombie, I wasn't going to freeze here! With a scrambling of hooves I upped and galloped off, hearing him chasing me with the knife swinging around his neck on a small leather line. Diving over a heap of scrap, I used it as a barrier.
“We're not all the same! It's just how I was born, I didn't ask for them!”
He galloped and dove over the scrap. I screamed over my back while I galloped myself as fast as I could. But I was limping every few steps, losing ground. I tried to convince him, but it fell on deaf ears. What was wrong with this world, when ponies were being born and cast as slaves, raiders, and bred into hate because of the sins of some past generation?
The chase continued around the back of the Mall. Only one thing came to my mind; find the door and get back inside with Brimstone, he would frighten Flippy off! Spotting the door, I began to gallop for it.
Or I did, until my injured limb gave out with a sharp jabbing pain.
Rolling on to my back, I saw the knife descend and, even while shouting in panic, got my PipBuck in the way of the blade itself. The jarring impact knocked both of us flat to the ground where hooves began flailing. Hoof to hoof combat was never a particularly clean affair, given more to throwing yourself in with luck and guts. I apparently had neither, but it was enough to find one of my hooves connect with his mouth and knock the knife out. In return, I felt him pound on my chest, driving the wind from me.
Scrambling, we separated even as I dived back at him again. I couldn't give him time to retrieve that knife in his mouth that hung around his neck. Rearing up, I tried to emulate what I had seen Brimstone do and use my front hooves to slash and strike. Flippy was faster, diving forward into my midsection and taking us both down again. Rolling, I swung him off to one side by tucking my side in to stop him getting a grip. Hearing him curse about my lack of size to get a hold of, I took the opportunity to limp as fast as I could for the door.
My heart leapt as I saw it was only kept in place by a few metal pipes that had fallen from the overhang above. Although enough to stop it opening, they shouldn't prove much of an obstacle to shift. Simply barging into one and yelping at the shocking impact down my back it fell to the side. The second fell away with it! Putting my back to the third I began to push even as Flippy caught up with a stinging blow to the shoulder. Crying out, I went down.
“Damn it...why couldn't you just stay away from us all? Your kind chose to save yourselves at the cost of betraying all of us. You brought this on yourselves!”
Struggling, trying to shift back while keeping my hooves raised, I shook my head. “Flippy...why do you have to do this? I...argh...I don't want to even know you never mind harm you! I'm not a cloudborn peg—”
His eyes were wide, but his pupils small. He shook with bitterness and psychotic outrage.
“All I know is my old folks were never wrong! You all gave us this waste!”
“BUT I DIDN'T!”
“I DON'T CARE! YOU'RE ONE OF THEM!”
I...I didn't understand. How did a couple of wings make such a difference? It didn't change who you were.
I saw him raising the knife even as I pushed the third pipe away with my front hooves and desperately rolled to the side as the knife clattered off the ground and away from his mouth. I leapt for the door, hammering it so hard my hoof stung. How many times was it? Three? Yes, it was three! One, two, three!
The moment I was done I felt Flippy dive for me a second time, his front hooves grabbing me to try and bring my neck up to slit. A horrid moment passed as I felt the cold metal slide lightly against my neck. Why wasn't the door opening!?
We struggled, thumping into the door one more time before I finally was thrown to the ground painfully, mewling in pain as he stamped a hoof on my shoulder to keep me there.
Lying at the side of the doorway on my back, I felt Flippy round off and take the knife in his mouth. He walked in front of the door toward me, a baleful look in his eye.
Brimstone bucked the door open with a force that defied belief.
Trotting out, the massive earth pony looked around before settling on me.
“Murk? What happene-”
“BRIM! BEHIND YOU!”
My warning seemed to fall on deaf ears as the raider warlord turned nonchalantly. Nothing happened. With an annoyed glance that told me to stop shouting he closed the door again.
Only then did the lifeless body of Flippy Bit fall to the ground, his neck broken from being struck by the door.
Hate. I'd been disliked and mistreated all too often, but I'd never experienced 'hate' until I came to this city.
He hadn't just hated me. Or my wings. He had shown a real, underlying, and educated hate against anything I stood for, miniscule or otherwise. So many ponies had done the same this morning while they pelted me on my parade from The Master. He hated pegasi, too, to the point he wanted to ruin my life. The raiders had wanted to pull my wings off. Ragini had called me “flightless.” Even Brimstone admitted he hated the pegasi...
Out in the wastes the distrust was bad enough.
In here, where pegasi were seen as a convenient target for hurt slaves to take out their frustrations on, it was terrible.
I'd been running ever since the Pit. From my slave life, from death, from The Master, and from the opinion everypony had of me, just because I had feathers. But the truth was, I had been running all my life time and again from master to master, fellow slave to fellow slave. Even while covered I knew I couldn't get too close to most ponies. I hadn't been exiled from the clouds, but their deeds still cast down upon me in the hell beneath them. I was no Dashite, but I was an outcast all the same.
No longer could I handle it.
These wings had been useless to me. They had hurt me, taunted me with their inability to even move or spread out, and now all day they'd brought nothing but pain.
Rolling up my fleece, I gently pulled one of my stiff and painful wings around in my hooves. The wing stem felt limp, and the feathers still on it were caked in dirt and unkept. An embarrassment of a wing.
“I wish I never had these things.” I found myself muttering quietly, almost forcing it away from me. The hatred for my own body felt uncomfortable and hollow. It felt wrong, but undeniable.
As I lay shuddering, trying to make sense of what my screwed-up mental state was thinking, I heard Brimstone advance on me. With a sigh and a glance at the direction we should have headed in, he stared down at me looking at my frayed wings.
“You helped get that door open, so I'll give you a little respect, kid. What do those things mean to you? What do they tell you?”
I sniffed, trying to hide soft sobs as I avoided his piercing gaze.
“That I'm to blame for a lot of bad things that the pegasi did. That there are some sins that ponies haven't forgiven them for yet, and these wings put them on my shoulders, too.”
The massive raider grumbled, his old face wrinkling and staring into nothingness with a surprisingly weary look.
“Did you do any of it?”
I shook my head. “No! How could I? It was hundreds of years ago!”
“Then why are you wishing to be punished for it? Picture yourself taking that pony's knife, and cutting them off. Just imagine walking away and leaving your wings lying there in a heap. Forever lost. Do you want that?”
That gave me pause, and for a moment, I actually imagined doing that to myself.
I suddenly felt ashamed for even having thought it, like someone had dumped cold water over my thoughts. The imagery was uncomfortable; unspeakable.
No, I didn't want it. Gently, I hugged my own body, protecting them. I was just hurt, and in the pain I was lashing out at myself.
The same way others had at me.
Brimstone Blitz seemed to not need an answer. He sat up again and turned away, as though about to leave. I thought he was done talking, until he stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“You're a pegasus, Murk. Wings alone don't change that, and they aren't all that defines what being a pegasus or any other kind of pony means. You'll always be one, even if you didn't have them. Something inside you; your soul, magic centre or whatever. It's always going to be that of a pegasus. Born for the clouds, bound to the open sky, and all that other airy nonsense. It's who you are.”
I could have sworn I saw a knowing rise of an eyebrow.
“You don't just turn your back on stuff like that. It doesn't work that way.”
I stared back, before daring to rise to my hooves and lowering my head.
“I'm just afraid. That buck wanted to be my friend until he saw them.”
“Not all ponies are like that. You met many, but not all are. Glimmerlight wouldn't care if you were a winged zebra. What do you think I go through? I'm the raider who many ponies can say killed someone they knew through commands to my clan. So from experience, you learn to live with it. You learn to understand the good it’s given you. For me, it's the reminders that keep me on the path I'm on. For you? Well, maybe it's already done more good for you than you've realised yet.”
I had to admit, after this day of hell, that last line gave me a small warmth of hope to cling on to. I'd been pushed into action by watching someone fly. I always looked to the sky above the walls.
Brimstone glanced away again and started trotting forward.
“Now come on, I'm no good with this youthful cheering up crap. Once we're moving you'll have more things to consider than depressive escapism. Not like I could cut off my clan markings.”
I followed behind him. After all this, I'd need time to think. I still hadn't quite come to terms with the thought that not a day ago I had been close to hurling myself from a tower, but Brimstone's words had struck deep, and for the first time since I felt anything other than numb about who I was. He was truly an unusual pony.
I needed time. Time to let it all out and to speak to someone about it all. Maybe Protégé would listen...
As I saw Brimstone start to trot off, I cantered after him, limping badly and pushing everything I could to the back of my mind. I didn't quite manage it, but the action of starting this small dangerous journey galvanised my mind to think more actively and stay in the moment.
“Wait, wait, Brimstone! What about Glimmerlight?”
“She'll be safe, aye, safer than us. The raiders think I'm sleeping in there guarding her, they won't come near to her or your little mare book.”
That caught me off guard enough to splutter and blush. Why did this always happen to me?
“Y-you looked at my journal?”
Brimstone actually grinned as he looked back and down at me.
“Told you before, patience isn't my strong point. Seems you have some interesting tastes...”
My mouth just hung open as I stumbled on limp legs and fell, covering my face with my hooves in embarrassment. Her was exaggerating about it. I knew he was, but it didn't make it feel any better.
“Oh come on, Murk. It's not like I'm going to judge you...”
Looking up, I saw his dry grin. True to his word at least, he seemed to have at least a small degree of tolerance for me after helping him to get out of the Mall.
He terrified me. He had often spoken of how he would leave me behind or kill me if I caused him problems. In Fillydelphia, one’s own needs often came above temporary companions.
But right now, he was my ally and I had attained a certain level of trust from him in this task to save his friend; to save the mare that promised him salvation, and me a step toward escaping.
As the pair of us prepared to canter into the red haze of Fillydelphia, I flipped down my goggles, shuffled to get my wings comfortable in my fleece and tightened the strap on my damaged PipBuck before standing as tall as I could. I had faltered. I had failed and been hurt by it, but so long as I had a direction, some goal and something to hope for, I was not about to stop yet.
I'd failed, but I'd try again to reach the sky beyond.
I'll follow you out of here yet, Littlepip. Just you wait and see.
Footnote: Perk Attained!
Luna's Moonlight – After some time to get used to the dark surrounding you, things have began to seem much clearer now. Your eyes now adapt well to low light conditions, who says the night need last forever?