“Damnit!” Applejack swore, as she slowed out of her futile gallop after the metal creature; she watched, slightly amazed, as it vaulted over Fluttershy’s cottage and disappeared into the Everfree.
“What in the hay was that?!” A voice came from the doorway, where a weak Twilight stood, her knees shaking, her normally strong confident voice reduced to a hoarse whisper barely heard by Applejack, who was only 20 meters away.
“Ah don’ rightly know… But Ah’m sure as sugar going ta find out. Y’all better rest for the time being…”
Applejack trotted back into the infirmary, and back out the front door, a weak Twilight in tow.
“Ah said rest up! Ah’ll take care of this, sugarcube.”
“And miss a research opportunity? Not a chance, whatever that… thing was, it needs to be captured, analyzed and…”
Applejack whirled around, anger boiling up inside her as she addressed the purple pony. “Tha’ ‘thing’ jus’ saved your life! Tha’ ‘thing’ can talk, walk an’ make conversation. Ya know Twi, they’d put rainbows in zoos if they could.”
The lavender unicorn drew back at the venom in her friend’s voice. “I… I know… All I meant was that it needs to be… studied, before we can really let anypony outside of Ponyville know it’s here. What if it’s dangerous!”
“Twilight, for a bookworm ya sure can be thick at times. Why in the hay would something dangerous save your life like tha’? Moreover, if it was dangerous, why din’ it jus’ take us out when it had the chance? You saw tha’ thing… Could probably take on an Ursa hoof-to-paw and win, easy. B’sides, while you were bein’ almost crushed ta’ death, everypony saw it come in.”
“I couldn’t help it! I was just going on a walk, I heard a loud BOOM! And before I knew it, concrete paving slabs were flying at me!”
“You was goin’ for a walk… at three in the morning…?” Applejack asked incredulously, one eyebrow slightly raised.
“I was stargazing,” Twilight said matter of factly, seemingly regaining some of her energy as they slowly strolled back to the impact crater, hooves clopping softly on the slightly charred ground as they got nearer, kicking up small piles of black ash as they did so.
The two walked in silence as they made their way to the crater, now deserted. Most everypony wanted nothing to do with the metal giant, even if that meant shunning the areas where it had walked. As well as steering clear of anypony it had had contact with.
Applejack paused as they reached the crater, noticing the strange L-shaped hunk of silver metal it had dropped hanging out of a saddlebag strapped to her little sister, Apple Bloom. The yellow filly turned and began to walk slowly in the direction of the Everfree Forest.
“Now where in tarnation d’ya think you’re headed, missy?!” Applejack forcefully inquired, reaching out a hoof and spinning the small yellow filly to face her before she could get away.
“Ah was goin’ ta find him! He dropped part of tha’ suit thing he were wearin’!”
“Oh no you ain’t, missy! Wha’ kind of a big sis would Ah be if Ah let you jus’ waltz into the Everfree Forest, alone?! Home, now!”
“Wait a second Applejack…” Twilight intervened, “Apple Bloom was the first pony to make contact with the thing, maybe it would be good to have a familiar face come with us?”
“Twilight, Ah’ll say it again, y’all can barely walk…”
“I’m fine, really,” Twilight interrupted, a faint purple aura of magic forming around the unicorn as she spoke, the bags under her eyes and saggy stance becoming less pronounced the longer the aura was around her. “I’m the Element of Magic, remember? Just a quick rejuvenation spell to keep me going,” she added at the two earth pony’s confused glances.
Applejack turned back to her sister. “Well… all right… but you stick behind me an’ Twilight, ya hear?”
The yellow filly beamed. “O’course, big sis! Maybe we should go see Zecora about all this too, if anypony would know how ta track it, it would be her!”
“The thing is so big though, it can’t be that difficult!” Twilight added, a slight tone of indignation creeping into her voice near the end of her sentence.
Famous last words.
James lay in the underbrush peering out at the small town, mentally kicking himself. He had left his sidearm in the possession of a potentially hostile civilization, a massive violation of the Cole Protocol, punishable by death or life imprisonment. Though while he was sure that it wouldn’t come to that, as being a Spartan II he was too valuable to the war with the Covenant, it could still be a problem for him in the future. He didn’t know how long he would be stuck on this planet and if the miniature horse-things he had met were as intelligent as they seemed, he had just given them a massive tactical advantage.
He shifted his weight slightly, pushing the zoom on his visor to maximum setting as he watched the conversation between the two mares and the filly. He was able to lip read a few words, such as “everfree,” “giant,” and “scary.” What he couldn’t lip read, he just managed to make out, his augmented hearing straining slightly to make out each word.
“Well, don’t that just take the cake...” he muttered within the confines of the helmet.
James slowly crawled backwards as the three horses neared his position, still chattering about his arrival. It was easy now to follow their conversation as they reached the edge of the massive forest, pausing for a moment to stare upwards at the huge trees before the little yellow filly plunged on ahead down the path.
James killed the various external status lights on his suit and buried his reflective golden faceplate in the mossy ground as the three trotted quickly past him and rounded a bend in the path, the smaller yellow one keeping up a constant dialogue as they did.
He stood slowly, making hardly any noise, a feat astonishing for something his size and weight, and followed the trio deeper into the forest. If what he understood so far was true, the three were searching for him. The purple one to study, orange to keep an eye on, and smaller yellow one to return something he had dropped. While he was sure their intentions were harmless he might as well track them deeper into the forest; the farther away from civilization they were, the better.
“Ah told you we should’ve taken a left at that last fork!” Applejack complained as they reached a large clearing. “The way ta Zecora’s is left, left, right, left, right, left!”
“Oh lighten up big sis, It’s an adventure!” Apple Bloom called excitedly, darting out into the clearing and pausing to experimentally prod, sniff and generally play with every rock, stump and other piece of scenery available.
“She’s right, Applejack; maybe we can take this opportunity to rest for a while,” Twilight chimed in while examining a particularly oddly-shaped bush covered in bright red flowers.
“Aw hay, why not,” Applejack muttered and opened her single saddlebag, pulling out blanket and two large apple pies.
She spread the blanket on the soft, somewhat moist ground before laying the two golden brown pastries on the top of it.
“B’sides AJ, the Everfree Forest really isn’t that scary in the daylight!”
“Now, that’s what we want you to think…” came a gruff voice from just beyond the bushes in front of the lavender unicorn.
The two mares and the filly jumped backwards in surprise, as four dark heavily scarred earth ponies and an axe-wielding minotaur jumped out from behind the foliage. The one who spoke first turned to the minotaur and asked:
“How much ya think we’ll get for these two, Bill?”
“I don’t know, maybe 20,000 bits apiece? Strong earth pony, good-looking unicorn…” The minotaur looked them over, smiling slightly, before turning his gaze to Apple Bloom and hefting his axe. “The filly probably nothing, just as well; I was beginning to feel a bit peckish…”
Applejack lowered into a fighting stance, and Twilight’s horn glowed a bright purple as the five strangers began advancing on them.
“Slave runners… Y’all are the scum o’ the earth, ya know that?” Applejack shouted as she spun to kick a dirty brown colt in the face, who neatly sidestepped and grabbed the mare, forcing her to the ground.
“Oohoo! Boss, we ‘got a live one here… Maybe we can have a little ‘fun’ with them before the sale?”
Twilight’s horn glowed and the black colt advancing on her flew backwards and slammed into a tree. While Apple Bloom rushed over to the minotaur, bucking him as hard as she could in the shins, causing the creature to grunt slightly with pain before grabbing a fistful of the small filly’s tail and lifting her to eye level.
“I don’t see why not…” he replied in a deep voice, before turning and whipping Apple Bloom with all his strength in the direction of a large boulder - but she was softly intercepted by a silvery metal hand, attached to a huge translucent green metal golem, a single golden eye reflecting the minotaur’s shocked expression and a mean-looking serrated blade clasped in its left hand.
James caught the little yellow filly deftly, moving his arm backward slowly with the motion in order to better disperse her momentum. While keeping his faceplate locked on the eight-foot-tall Minotaur, he turned his eyes to the small yellow filly, who looked up at him with huge pleading orange eyes.
With a quick flick of his wrist he sent the bowie knife flying, burying itself handle-deep into the neck of the dirty brown colt who was attempting to mount the orange mare, sending the colt’s lifeless body tumbling backwards in a spray of blood and gore. At the same time, he pulled the M6 from the filly’s saddlebag, flicking the safety off and firing three shots into the faces of the remaining colts as a targeting reticule flickered into life on his HUD.
The minotaur bellowed and lunged at him, axe raised for a brutal downward sweep. Dropping the smaller filly softly into a small bush, he discarded the M6 and rushed to meet the beast, grabbing and ripping the battle axe’s shaft out of the thing’s hands with his robotic hand, at the same time driving a powerful kick into the thing’s chest. He felt the ribcage give way under his boot as he sent the minotaur flying; it landed about 10 meters distant with a sickening crunch against the same tree trunk Twilight had sent the first colt flying into. Somehow the thing managed to raise itself to its knees, but James was already behind it and had grasped its head by the chin and back of its skull, quickly twisting it 360 degrees with a wet snap.
The minotaur crumpled to the ground with a sigh, all the life gone from its broken body as James walked slowly over to the dirty brown colt. He plunged his right robotic hand into the wound, grasping the handle of his serrated combat knife and fully decapitating the dead colt as he pulled it free, before kicking the carcass and the head into a nearby ditch. He cleaned the black hardened blade on the grass next to him before sheathing it and recovering his pistol, attaching that to the magnetic holster on his hip.
As he turned to face the other three ponies, he almost tripped over the small yellow filly, who had materialized at his legs and was attempting to wrap her hooves around his thick metal-plated right calf.
“Tha’s the second time you’ve saved mah hide t’day, mister!”
“Uhhh….” he tried; Spartans were rarely thanked for their aid and he wasn’t sure how exactly to reply to this.
“See Twilight!” the yellow filly shouted in the direction of the other two ponies. “He’s saved all three of us, for two of us it’s the second time today! An’ he don’ even know us or nuttin’!” She stared up at him again. “How could somethin’ willin’ ta risk his life for a couple o’ ponies he barely met be bad?”
James rolled his eyes behind the visor; he would’ve saved the lives of anything sentient in that position, except any of Covenant of course. It was his job. He silently pulled off the yellow filly, carrying her over to the other two ponies and depositing her in their awestruck stead, before making his way to each of the bodies, picking them up two at a time and throwing them all into the same ditch as before, their crimson blood rolling off his invisible energy shields, leaving a crimson trail on the ground behind him.
Turning, he made his way back to the large rock the yellow filly had almost been dashed against, picking it up and carrying it on his back to the ditch, looking like a modern-day Atlas carrying the Earth on his back. Throwing the boulder into the large ditch after the bodies, he smiled as he heard a sickening squelch, accompanied by several crunches as the huge stone monolith buried the bodies of the unlucky highway ponies and the minotaur.
He struck something metallic with his boot as he turned around to face the three ponies. Looking down he discovered the object to be the battleaxe he had stripped from the minotaur, during the brief albeit bloody fight. Picking the weapon up, he twirled it experimentally in his grip, reminded slightly of the massive stone hammers the Brute Chieftains of the Covenant carried. Placing the massive weapon on the magnetic holster on his back, he restarted his journey towards the three ponies; it would probably come in handy somewhere.
“S-stay back!” the purple one shouted nervously, her horn beginning to glow as his energy shields sparked slightly, the status bar on his HUD draining a fraction of a millimeter.
“Twilight!” The small yellow filly shouted, but was interrupted by the orange one.
“Twi, he’s not gonna hurt us. As Apple Bloom jus’ said, he’s saved our lives… Ain’t twice enough for ya?”
The unicorn sighed, the odd purple glow around her horn fading to nothing as his shields stabilized, then sparked slightly again as they quickly recharged.
“Y’all must be hungry, sugarcube, why don’ ya join us?” the orange one asked, gesturing to the still amazingly untouched picnic blanket.
James glanced between the three and the food, before making up his mind and pulling off his helmet. He couldn’t last on wakeup and nutrition stims forever.
Princess Luna watched the armored giant from her lofty perch on top of the stratocumulus. Clearly Celestia had underestimated him, thinking that this was just another simple human. She narrowed her eyes, pouting her lip; what made it worse was that it had already made contact with her subjects. Getting rid of this thing was going to be more difficult than it originally seemed.
“Oh well, never send mercenaries to do an alicorn’s job!” she muttered to herself, spreading her wings and diving off the cloud. Her horn charged with magical energy as she approached the thing, like a midnight blue MAC round.
James saw the last pony just in time. Shoving on his helmet he diverted his entire shield’s energy to those covering the back of him and his head, before jumping on top of the three startled ponies, both locking up and overcharging his shields and armor, able to contort his body into a sort of protective shell, not unlike a turtle’s. It still wasn’t enough.
The midnight blue projectile slammed into him, the sharp point of a long, ferocious looking horn driving through his shields and glancing off his green armor, propelling him 20 meters off the three stricken ponies and into a tree. The pony stayed with him, intent upon finishing the job when he came to a stop. Dazed, he reached up with his right hand, clasping his titanium grip around the pony’s neck, intent on ending it quickly. To his surprise, the pony merely stared at him, astonished as he squeezed; feeling about as much resistance as she wore armor not unlike his. It felt like he was trying to one-handedly crush one of the large Fuel Rod Guns the covenant hunters carried on their arms; difficult, but not impossible for a Spartan.
“Princess! NO!” the purple unicorn shouted, her own horn glowing bright, throwing the midnight blue pony off of him.
He shot up, ears ringing and aching all over – a good sign, it meant he didn’t have any crippling injuries. Throwing himself at the midnight blue pony, he dropped his entire half-ton weight on top of her before she could rise, grabbing the sharp horn before she could use it against him, causing a pained expression to come over her face and her to go limp; apparently this was a severe pressure point. She wasn’t unconscious, but was obviously incapacitated.
Chinning on his helmet’s external speakers, he stated, “Ma’am, to be frank, I come in peace.”
She sneered up at him, then winced in pain again as he squeezed the horn slightly harder. “We’ve already told your ‘prophets’ that we don’t want any part of your Covenant… I’m not letting you back to your superiors with knowledge of how to get inside our Dyson Sphere.”
“Covenant?!” He exclaimed. “Ma’am, do I look like one of those split-jawed Elites to you?” Unclasping her horn, he got up off of her, holding his palms towards the pony at chest height in what he hoped came off as a peaceful gesture. “Us humans are at war with the Covenant, have been ever since they glassed our colony on Harvest.”
She jumped to her hooves, eyes narrowed suspiciously and lips slightly pouted. “Prove it…”
Chinning a few controls, he tapped the side of his helmet and nodded to the pony, whom he finally noticed possessed both a unicorn’s horn and a set of wings. “Can you project video with that magical horn of yours?”
The pegasus-unicorn screwed up her eyes, a blue aura forming around his head and a miniature holo screen appeared in midair, depicting images of his brief firefight on the hull plating of the Circumference. The stills clearly detailed the faces of the vac-suited Jackals and Elites, before the images began spinning as the needle that had hit his thruster pack detonated. As the images stabilized, the helmet cam panned to take a good look at Reach, surrounded by Covenant corvettes and one massive Carrier, all raining plasma fire down on the surface and into nearby human ships, trying desperately to defend the only ‘home’ he ever really knew. The screen crackled and went deep red as a bolt of plasma cracked by the helmet cam, it panning to the source: a large Cruiser bearing down on top of him.
“I think that’s enough,” he calmly muttered, flicking the helmet’s player off with a quick thrust of his chin.
She stared at him, still slightly suspicious. “How do I know you didn’t fabricate this? That you aren’t some sort of spy?”
He flexed his robotic arm, wiggling the fingers. “Got this compliments of the first Hunter pair we ever encountered. Plasma blast boiled away the original. I have video of that too, if you must see it?”
She recoiled slightly. “No… That should be fine…” Then pawed at the ground slightly menacingly, “Okay, you aren’t Covenant… But that still doesn’t explain why you’re here… or what you are!”
“Human. I’m human. Thought I made that clear. As to why I’m here, your guess is as good as mine. One minute I was floating in space near Reach, next I got sucked into a slipspace field and was here…”
She laughed. “Ha! Since when is a human nine feet tall?! Nice try!”
“It’s a long story…” he said, pulling off his helmet so she could get a good look at his pale face. “I’d be glad to share… so long as you promise not to try killing me again?”
“We’ll see…” the midnight blue pony stated, grinning slightly and trotting over to him, stretching out a hoof for him to shake. “I’m Luna, by the way.”
Bending low to take the hoof, he replied, “James – Spartan 005, Petty Officer Second Class, UNSC Navy. At your service.”
High above the planet, a small purple shape flared into existence over the inky blackness of space. It was a small craft, no larger than a small house; a two-crew fighter most likely. It looked almost like a big purple horseshoe crab, tumbling end over end and trailing blue plasma fire as it approached the small moon near the planet’s gravity well. It managed to right itself just before impact, streaking upwards and entering a low orbit around the natural satellite, slingshotting itself around it and descending down into the planet’s atmosphere; just as the sun peered over the horizon. It’s rays reaching out as if it had detected the intrusion and was searching for the small fighter…