• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 30: The New Canterlot Republic

Disembarking from the Sweet Candy took about half an hour, and we Drifters spent most of it standing guard while watching the reception from the NCR roll out for us. There was a lot more tension in the air than I would’ve at first expected, but considering that news of the Golem’s attack upon the fort was probably spreading, and I could imagine a few ponies were probably wondering just why that attack just happened to correspond with the delegation from Skull City arriving. Hell, I could imagine more than a few of the NCR’s higher ups were wondering just what the Golem was. It had to be unsettling to have your nation attacked by some massive war machine that literally comes out of nowhere, crushes one of your larger border forts, and vanishes into the forest in your literal backyard.

That being the case I could understand why a number of the NCR troopers who were keeping watch on us as the delegation unloaded from the airship had itchy looks about them, as if they were expecting another attack at any moment. Most the troops were equipped with simple but effective looking battle rifles, each having a sort of uniformly clean and rust free look that made me think the weapons had been pretty recently built. The soldiers uniforms were primarily of a light gray color, with blue trim, consisting of a heavy looking flak vest and rounded helmet. Each had a patch with the NCR’s symbol on the shoulders, along with what I assumed were rank insignia. The soldiers looked competent enough, but I noticed that there was a clear age gap among their ranks, with a lot of soldiers being pretty young, perhaps even younger than me, with only a hoof-full of older looking troops.

As the ponies representing the different Skull City guilds and Princess Purity’s group were coming down the ramp from the ship a number of ponies arrived from the side of the airport, riding upon a set of skywagons pulled by a few pegasi and griffins, the first griffins I’d seen in the NCR. Spike had remained airborne above us, the dragon slowly circling, but at the appearance of those skywagons I saw him move to a descending arc that let him land heavily beside the Sweet Candy at about the same time the skywagons did. The impact of near a hundred tons of dragon landing less than fifty paces away nearly shook me, and everypony else for that matter, onto our flanks. From the wry, fang filled half grin that Spike sported he knew it, too, and took the sort of gratification in the fact that I think you needed to be a dragon to understand.

Arcaidia was watching Spike with awed appreciation for the rather majestic spectacle he made of himself, but her eyes also gleamed with curious and eager appreciation for all the new sights around us. I had to admit it was impressive to see any place as well maintained as this airfield after spending so long traipsing around the remains of old Equestrain civilization. Even the skywagons that were landing had a new, fresh painted look about them, all sparkle and polish. I didn’t know if this was standard in the NCR, or if these ponies were just trying to show off to us.

While Arcaidia was on my right, B.B and Binge were on my left, both looking alert, although Binge was worrying me with the extra tension she seemed to be carrying in her shoulders and tail. Usually her fluffy if poorly groomed tail bounced around like it had a mind of its own, but now it was stiff as a board, and her eyes had a flat, guarded edge about them. LIL-E hovered a bit behind me, keeping quiet, but bobbing in a way that made me think the eyebot was on edge as well. We were covering one side of the area along the Sweet Candy’s boarding ramps, with Hawkeye and Crossfire’s groups on the opposite end making a sort of corridor for the delegates to walk between. Applegate was at the head of that group, sword on full display and her ears perked up with keen attention. We weren’t expecting trouble, really, but the Drifters were here to be guards, so that’s what we were doing, presenting a competent and deadly presence, even if it was all simply for show, no different than the NCR soldiers watching us.

As the skywagons landed, hatches opened up on their aft sections. Each skywagon was a slim, long box shaped affair with a pair of pegasi in NCR uniform pulling them from metal spokes. A trio of wheels gave the wagons something to balance on when landed, and their metal hulls were painted in white and blue. From the open hatches a number of ponies emerged, and a pair of griffons. Most of them wore actual well tailored clothing, or at the very least clothes that didn’t look as if they’d been patched up or moth eaten. Most of these individuals didn’t leave a huge impact on me, but there were two who immediately stood out and arrested attention, simply by the way they carried themselves.

First was the griffon in the lead. She marched with the solid, panther grace of a hunter and had the bearing of someone who knew they were in charge and didn’t particularly care of anypony else agreed with this assessment. There was a zero bullshit tolerance gleam to her eyes that told me this griffin would generally treat obstacles like most armor piercing bullets treated drywall. She was the only one there not wearing a suit or blouse/skirt combo, and instead was clad in a set of well maintained, black combat armor that looked ancient, but so well cared for that it was practically a second skin the griffin wore. A pair of pistols hung from holsters strapped to either side of her chest, the curved leather handles hanging loose and ready to draw at a moment’s notice. My limited knowledge of firearms couldn’t even guess at their caliber, but the barrels looked... intimidatingly large, for pistols.

Walking beside this griffin and just a step behind was the other one who caught my attention. She was a unicorn mare with sooty, near charcoal black fur. She was wearing a slimming and very well cut gray blouse and suit skirt that flattered her figure. A very well groomed mane and tail hung long and mostly white, save for noticeable and striking stripes of yellow and orange that ran through the otherwise snow colored hair.

Both the mare and the female griffin looked to be in the middle aged years, the griffin closer to the later part of those years if not older, while the unicorn carried her years with a still fairly youthful air that could of probably let her pass for younger. They led the group of NCR delegates to meet the entourage from Skull City, Applegate, Princess Platinum, and Whiteheart leading that procession. They met between us and the NCR troopers, pausing a few paces away. There was a brief pause before the female griffin spoke, her voice solid and tough sounding as she looked.

“I am Gawdyna Grimfeathers, President of the New Canterlot Republic. On behalf of my people I welcome you to our nation in the spirit of goodwill and hope for lasting peace and prosperity between our territories.”

The words were a bit stiff, as if President Grimfeathers wasn’t used to speaking in a diplomatic manner. However when the unicorn mare beside her spoke it was with a singing chime of a voice that made it sound as if she’d been born to use her words to make anything she said sound reasonable and inviting.

“I too extend our warmest welcome to you who have traveled so far, and I hear through great peril, to meet us in the open desire to negotiate a strong and lasting partnership between our peoples. I am Velvet Remedy, Chairpony of Diplomatic Affairs and member of the Advisory Council. It is a pleasure to meet all of you.”

Whiteheart was quick to respond with a warm smile and bow of his head, “We thank you for your kind welcome and it is an equal pleasure to finally be able to meet you esteemed leaders of the New Canterlot Republic. I am Whiteheart, Guildmaster of the Drifter’s Guild. The mare beside me is Miss Applegate, my head of security for this endeavor.”

Applegate nodded, only briefly meeting eyes with President Grimfeathers, both of them having the steady but wary acknowledging look in their eyes that two hardened warriors shared off the battlefield.

Purity stepped forward, dipping her head in an elegant bow, a wide smile on her face that made her golden eyes all but sparkle, “I am Princess Purity of the Kingdom of Neighlesisus, representing the interests of the Protectorate. I have long heard stories, since practically fillyhood, of your noble deeds, President Grimfeathers, Chairpony Remedy. It is an honor to meet you in the flesh, and I truly hope our negotiations prove fruitful for the sake of creating a better world, recovered from the pains of the past.”

Introductions went on from there, taking a bit of time as each representative from our end and theirs took turns exchanging words, bows, hoofshakes, ect. The NCR had brought a number of ‘Chairponies’ like Velvet Remedy, most of them seeming to head up groups not unlike the Skull City Guilds. There was a Chairpony of Agriculture, a wrinkled yet hard looking yellow stallion who made me think of ancient tree roots from his reedy form, and a Chairpony of Domestic Affairs who looked almost as young as I was, a bubbly mare with a pink coat and bright blonde mane who smelled faintly of something sugary. Most of the Chairponies sounded fairly normal, except for one who stood out, an elderly pegasus mare with a lime green coat and tightly pulled back black mane peppered with white. Her name was Blue Moon and she was Chairpony of Pegasi Integration... whatever the heck that meant.

With introductions out of the way President Grimfeathers’ expression turned stormy, a hard lined frown forming on her beak, “While the plan is to show you around the Capital Building and do a brief tour of the facilities, I’m afraid I must first ask what you may know, if anything, concerning the attack on Fort Lightbridge. As of now our military is on full alert and seeking the attacking party, and any information you might have would be useful.”

Hearing that made me blink, feeling a bit like a fool for not really considering that point earlier. After all, my friends and I had been there when the Golem had awoken. We knew what it was, and even a decent grasp on its capabilities. That would probably be pretty useful information for the NCR right now. The only problem was that volunteering that information might lead to a lot of awkward questions concerning just where the Golem came from and how we knew what we knew. It might come out that we had a part in awakening the Golem in the first place, or that Arcaidia wasn’t exactly a normal pony from this neck of the woods. How would these ponies respond to knowing that? Could I risk jeopardizing our own goals in order to provide the NCR what might be vital information?

While I hesitated, I felt Arcaidia bump my hoof with her own. While I could see worry swimming in her silver eyes, there was also conviction there as she nodded at me encouragingly. I gulped, nodding.

“We may have come from the north,” Whiteheart was telling President Grimfeathers, “But our only encounter was with some unfortunately tenacious sky pirates, which is sadly why we are presently lacking Guildmistress Star Soul from our company. As to what attacked your fortress, I-”

To be honest I had no idea if Whiteheart was planning to volunteer information or pretend ignorance. I knew he was at the very least aware of what the Golem had done to Saddlespring and that I was involved with it, as Crossfire would have told him the whole story. Regardless of what he was intending to do, I’d made my choice after Arcaidia’s encouragement, and spoke up loudly.

“I know what it is. My friends and I were the ones who first encountered it, uh... Madame President?”

Grimfeathers eyes fixed on me, and I felt a cold sweat bead on my forehead and a sudden desire to hide behind something. There was a distinctly unnerving nature to the NCR President’s stare that I felt could probably strip the nerves from the most jaded Wastelander. Her voice was, in a word, intense. “I want details. The friends that were with you, they the same ones with you right now?”

“Y-yes ma’am,” I stammered.

“Good. I want to speak with you all privately. Remedy, you can handle the rest of the diplomatic crap?”

Velvet Remedy coughed politely, affecting a long suffering smile at the griffon. I got the impression these two had similar conversations like this often, “Why yes, Gawd, I’ll take care of the... diplomatic stuff from here. You will be gentle with this young stallion, please?”

Whiteheart cleared his throat, not quietly, casting half a glance my way that I couldn’t tell if he approved of what I’d done or not, as he said, “Longwalk is a Drifter under my supervision, and if he and his team are to be interrogated I would insist that at least one other member of my staff be present for the duration.”

“Not interrogated,” muttered Grimfeathers, “Questioned. If he’s offering information I value I’m not going to harm him for fucks sake. But something killed a lot of my soldiers this morning and I’m, put simply, pissed the fuck off about it. I’ll play diplomat with you all later when I don’t have something out there that likes killing my people and blowing up my forts. You, kid, grab your pals and follow me.”

She turned with a near whip crack of her tail and started marching off towards the airfield’s main building. At a gesture several NCR soldiers peeled off to follow her. I looked to Whiteheart nervously, and said, “Sorry to cut you off like that, just figured you’d want them to know what we do. Might create some goodwill, right?”

Whiteheart sighed, nodding, “Yes, you made the right call. I was going to offer anyway, so go, and see if you can say anything that might unruffle the President’s feathers. Crossfire, go with them.”

Crossfire gave a sour look, but nodded and trotted over. I exchanged quick looks with my friends. None of them had any objections, so with Crossfire tailing us we marched off after President Grimfeathers. Behind us Velvet Remedy started to recover the situation and start leading the Skull City delegation to the skywagons, presumably to go the Manehattan Capital Building to begin their initial tour of the area. I imagined we’d join them later, once the President was done with us.

I sincerely hoped we’d still be intact by the end of that.

----------

Lucky us, we were. At least for the moment. My friends and I were seated around a large metal conference table in a brightly lit, faded gray meeting room somewhere tucked into the center of the airfield base. A pair of surly looking NCR soldiers stood guard at the door, but I somehow doubted President Grimfeathers even considered them necessary. I had a feeling if we’d had any reason to offer the old griffon any violence, she could have taken the lot of us together. Even with Crossfire there.

President Grimfeathers was seated at the head of the table, her talons steepled before her and her eyes making unreadable thoughts as we explained what we knew about the Golem, aka Roaring Metal, aka Diablo, aka Really Bad Fucking News. I’d tried to do most of the talking, but Arcaidia slipped in any chance she got to try to make the affair sound more like she was responsible for the Golem’s release from the Saddlespring Ruin and that I was just along for the ride. Crossfire was surprisingly cooperative as well, though she painted a dry picture of events and her own involvement with it, merely stating the facts and keeping any emotional context out. She made it all sound like a simple job that went severely off the rails, which I supposed was technically true, but most ponies botched jobs didn’t involve towns burning to ash.

The only real element that was left out of the story was any direct mention of Arcaidia hailing from an alien, space faring civilization, and any of the broader connections to our travels after Saddlespring. We kept it pretty much focused on the Golem and how dangerous it was.

A quiet and uncomfortable minute followed our story as the NCR President regarded us with those hard, calculating, and exceedingly unsettling eyes. When she spoke it was with a tone matching her look. “I’ve been around this dustball for awhile, and seen some remarkable shit in my time. My threshold for what I’ll believe to be possible or not has gone up considerably since my simple mercenary days. My ability to detect horseshit is finely honed as well. So I can tell that you’re not lying. Not giving me the whole truth of it, but not lying either.”

She leaned back, slowly, unlacing her talons from one another and started to tap one of the claws lightly upon the metal desk, making a slow but steady *tick* *tick* *tick* as she looked at me. “A less understanding individual might blame you for releasing a powerful and destructive machine from a bygone era upon the world. They might even hold you responsible for the deaths of fifty three good NCR soldiers. Mares and stallions with families who died defending Fort Lightbridge from a menace that wouldn’t have been walking around if not for your presence in that Ruin. They might also take you to task for any further damages this monster might inflict on the nation they’ve sworn to protect and have spent the better part of two decades trying to build up from the ashes of the Wasteland.”

Her eyes pierced me as hard as Gramzanber itself could have.

“What have you to say to that?”

Arcaidia opened her mouth to speak but I held up my hoof to halt her. She gave me a worried look, jaw clenched tight, but she nodded reluctantly and let me speak. I won’t say I wasn’t scared, or that I had an entirely steady voice, but I did meet President Grimfeather’s eyes as I spoke.

“The only thing I can say is that I’m willing to take responsibility for my mistake. No matter what ways one might try to look at that situation, come the end the call to try and open up the Golem’s coffin was mine. I could make all kinds of excuses to try to shift blame. I could say Crossfire forced us down there, or that the Labor Guild would have eventually sent somepony else down there to open it thinking there’d be something of value to loot. But none of that matters, because I was there, I told Arcaidia to try opening it, and that’s the simple truth of it.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my nerves, “Whatever you decide to do as punishment should then also be mine alone to bear. I offered this information because you needed to know about how dangerous that Golem is, so more lives aren’t lost dealing with it. I knew that’d likely mean taking responsibility for unleashing that thing in the first place, and I accept that. It’s more important that you know what you’re facing, rather than more ponies and griffons die tackling an unknown foe.”

I almost couldn’t stand Grimfeathers’ silence. She didn’t take her eyes off me, holding me transfixed as easily as if she’d had me already bound in chains and was being marched off to the gallows. I could all but feel her weighing me on her mental scales, and I had no idea what tally she was receiving from the process. Finally, after what felt like a cold eternity, but was likely less than ten seconds, she leaned forward.

“In your estimation, if I sent my troops in after this thing, once we find it, the death toll is going to be a high one?”

I gulped, mouth dry, and nodded, “Your people will no doubt fight bravely. They’ll die just as bravely. Roaring Metal is a monster. It survived a bombardment from an airship using railguns and just walked away. Maybe... maybe if you had every airship and soldier in your military surround it on an open field and hit it with everything you had, you could take it out. But going into that huge forest where you’d be stuck taking it at close range and limited numbers? It’d be a slaughter. I’m not even sure conventional weapons can hurt it.”

Arcaidia did speak up then, a stubborn, sharp note in her voice, “Magic can damage Golem. So can ARM. I have big magic, Longwalk have big ARM. Responsibility for past wrong need be taken, let us take it by destroying Golem.”

Grimfeathers glanced at Arcaidia, hard griffin eyes meeting cold unicorn filly’s. “I could just as easily have the lot of you tossed in prison, or have him executed, then afterward take that weapon of his to have somepony else deal with this. I have trusted, highly skilled soldiers who abilities I know and can rely on. You lot are an unknown factor.”

Arcaidia’s eyes turned to silver frost, and though her horn didn’t light up or anything, I swear the room became several degrees colder. “Then I give you knowing of one factor. If you bring harm to ponies I care for, then NCR will need new President, as old one will be enjoying new job as holiday lawn ornament.”

There was a shifting of leather and the click of readying firearms as the guards by the door started to move, but President Grimfeathers simply raised a talon, halting them. She met Arcaidia’s eyes for several heartstopping seconds... then closed her eyes and chortled, gasping out a series of short, choking laughs as if she wasn’t really used to doing so. This went on for about a minute, as I and Arcaidia exchanged glances, and the rest of my friends just looked equally bemused.

Eventually Grimfeathers got her laughing under control, shaking her head, “Ah, okay, after the absolute shit day I’ve had so far, I needed a decent laugh. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pissed about the loss of good people under my command, but I’m not a fucking idiot. I could bring you up on all kinds of charges, but that wouldn’t accomplish dick for those already dead and even if you all swung from a noose, I’d still have a giant, ancient death-dealing warmachine to deal with. So here’s the deal. You want to take responsibility? Good. You and your merry crew will help my troops take that Golem to the scrapheap. We need to find the damn thing first, and with the Everfree’s size that might take awhile, but you’re here as honor guard for those Skull City folk, so you’ll be here for a bit anyway. I know Spike is chomping his claws off wanting to go after that Golem, and he can probably sniff it out quick enough. A day or two, tops. When that goes down, you go in alongside my best Rangers, and take that metal motherfucker out. Do that and we’ll call the scales balanced.”

She looked at me expectantly, and I didn’t make her wait long before extended my hoof, nodding gravely, “Deal.”

Her talon was rough and sharp, like a thorny branch, and gripped my fetlock tightly as she shook it. For the first time I was able to read something in her eyes; satisfaction.

“Deal. And on that note, welcome to the New Canterlot Republic.”

----------

By the time we caught up to the rest of the delegation they were already being shown the room where the majority of the negotiations would be taking place. It was in the very center of the NCR’s Capital Building, which in turn was almost directly in the center of Manehattan itself. Manehattan was mostly built upon an island, but one so large you would never imagine it was one while you were wandering the city streets. The skywagon we rode flew low over the buildings, most of them showing the old signs of damage from the Great Fires of the war, but heavily built upon by newer construction so that much of the city breathed with color and life. Not a single building was entirely intact, but there also wasn’t a single one that wasn’t sporting fresh sheet metal or wood panel walls, flashing neon signs, colorfully painted artwork, or actual functional roofs of either canvas or shining metal.

The streets teamed with the rainbow pattern colors of hundreds of ponies, and the city pulsed with life. I couldn’t wait to explore it, but business came first. The Capital Building was a tall, three story structure of solid stone, with only its upper roof showing any residual signs of the damage from the old war. In front of the marble columns of its front entrance stood a tall pole with the flapping flag of the NCR. A long stretch of actual green grass made a lawn in front of the building.

To either side of the building there was a raised set of of what looked at first like concrete streets, but I noticed there were actually metal rails set into them. Much of these tall bridges looked like they’d undergone recent repair, and I soon learned their function as I saw a set of boxy metal cars all hooked together moving along the rails. These cars moved past the Capital Building and proceeded further into the city, moving along their track’s winding path to apparently make their way towards one of the city’s largest remaining towers in the distance. This tower drew my eye, as unlike most the rest of Manehattan, this building didn’t look like it’d taken any real damage from the balefire bombs.

“Tenpony Tower,” LIL-E told me as I’d stared at the building, her synthesized voice oddly quiet, “One of the only buildings to survive the balefire bombs due to the magic that shielded it. Used to be one of the few points of light in the Wasteland, before the NCR came around. Still is. Wonder if she’s still broadcasting?”

“Her? Her who?” I asked, and LIL-E told me to check my Pip-Buck’s radio signals. I usually forgot the thing could even pick up random radio signals, given I wasn’t much for tuning into static, but upon checking I found there was a new channel available. Republic Freedom Radio. Curious, I turned it on, and a rich masculine voice came on.

“-and that was the weather, now with one hundred percent less gunfire and chance of radiation poisoning. And no, I never get tired of reminding myself of that, my fellow post-apocalypse survivors. Unfortunately kiddos I do got a nasty spot of news to go along with what’s been otherwise a spectacularly and gloriously peaceful day. I hate bringing this stuff to you folks, but if I don’t bring the truth, what’s the point of tuning in? At around seven o’clock this morning contact was temporarily lost with our northern border outpost, Fort Lightbridge. Now we don’t yet have an official statement from the government on what the cause of this disruption in communication was or what the status of the fort is, but all roads heading north have been closed off and there’s been a noted increase in military activity, including two of our Raptors heading towards the Everfree. Now I’m not here to cause alarm, I’m just telling you what I know, which isn’t much, but it's better than nothing. Soon as I do get word from up top what the situation is, rest assured I’ll be telling you. Until then, folks, keep calm, think of your loved ones, hold tight, and I’ll bring the truth to you soon as I can. This is DJ Pon-3, and to help ease up the tension, here’s Velvet Remedy’s sweet, sweet voice.”

With a flicker of static the newscaster’s voice was replaced by the smooth, gentle notes of a mare singing her soul out, and it took me only a few seconds to recognize it as belonging to the NCR Chairpony of Diplomatic Affairs. I’d thought her voice had sounded musical before, but that had just been her talking normally. Her actual singing voice was the audio equivalent to dunking my head into fresh water after not having a drink in days. Cool, soothing, and shockingly intense all at once. I barely even heard the lyrics. That mare’s voice alone could have made me believe in anything she told me.

Arcaidia had seemed equally impressed, turning her own Pip-Buck to the same channel, and I think she actually started recording the song. Binge, if anything, seemed a bit disturbed by the singing. No, strike that, a lot disturbed by it. She was holding herself with her fore hooves, and seemed to want to curl in on herself, shaking slightly.

“Binge? Binge what’s wrong?” I scooted closer to her, but she just scooted away and shook her head.

“Bad, old thoughts, bucky. The voice from the past digs right to the nasty spot. Please, turn it off.”

“The song?”

Binge closed her eyes, nodding, voice turning small, almost foal-like, “Please...”

I glanced at my Pip-Buck, and didn’t hesitate more than a second before turning it off. I looked to Arcaidia, who was looking at us strangely, but she relented and with a reluctant looked shut the song off on her Pip-Buck too. I tried to coax what that was about from Binge, but she just clamped her mouth shut and didn’t say anything else the rest of the trip. I exchanged worried looks with the rest of the group, B.B just giving me a helpless shrug and Arcaidia shaking her head in baffled confusion that echoed my own.

What was going on with Binge?

I hadn’t time to think on it, as we’d been shuffled out of the skywagon after it landed and led into the Capital Building, where we’d caught up with everypony else. President Grimfeathers led the way, clearing us past all the security checkpoints like a breeze. In short ordered we entered a large chamber where the crowd of delegates were being shown around, and as soon as we entered Knobs spotted us and waved merrily, splitting off from the crowd to wheel over to us.

“Hey guys! Isn’t this place amazing!? It's so clean and way more official looking than anything we’ve got back home! I think they’ve got actual working robots that keep everything dust free.”

I had to admit she was right about how impressive the seat of the NCR government looked. The interior of the Capital Building was as pristine and clean as near any place I’d been to in my journeys so far, with varnished walls of dark paneled wood, floors of polished marble tiles and clean, consistent electrical lighting that bathed everything in warm, yellow tones. The room we’d entered in particular was grand in scope. Stadium seating filled much of it in a downward slope towards a huge set of curving tables set in a circle in front of a raised stage with thick blue curtains covering it, like a theater. A second floor was formed from an encircling of wooden balconies with more seats that looked down upon the rest of the room. Security here was tight, with guards at every entrance and more than a few armed robots that, while shaped like ponies, rolled around on wheels instead of walking on hooves.

I gave the room an appreciative look, then noticed Knobs didn’t have Blasting Cap with her.

“Where’s the murder scamp?” I asked with a bit of a wry smile.

Knobs blinked, then chuckled, “Anypony not directly part of the negotiations had to be taken to the hotel in that Tenpony Tower place, which is where we’ll be staying while we’re here. I made Blasting Cap promise to be a good little filly, otherwise I wouldn’t cook her dinner.”

“The horror,” I said.

Arcaidia nodded sagely, “Food is best lever for exertion of control. Knobs is smart mare to extort filly’s good behavior with power of cooking.”

“Longwalk, so glad you and your team could rejoin us,” said Applegate as she approached, giving us all pointed looks, “I take it your discussion with the President went smoothly?”

A fidgeted on my hooves, “Well, about that-”

President Grimfeathers had stepped back to let us chat, but now stepped forward and said, “Your Drifter comrades have generously agreed to help us deal with a security issue concerning the thing responsible for attacking my border fort. I’ll be talking with your boss soon enough to work out details, but I’d say keep Longwalk and his team on standby for that operation in the next couple of days and keep their security duty here light.”

Applegate’s eyes narrowed slightly, her tail swishing, “I see. I’ll have to inform Guildmaster Whiteheart as soon as possible, and I’m sure he’ll happily discuss the matter with you, Madame President.”

“Seriously, just Gawd, until you’re stuck talking to me in an official sense. Titles make me gassy,” the griffiness said with a dry grumble, “Speaking of official crap, I’d better get this damn tour finished so we can actually get down to business.”

As she swept by, heading towards the delegation, Knobs hung back and said, head cocked slightly, “She’s kind of odd, isn’t she?”

Crossfire just grinned thinly, “I like her.”

Knobs flicked her tail at Crossfire with a laugh, “Of course you do. Oh, hey, guess what? There’s going to be a special, formal dinner party tonight, hosted in an actual ballroom they’ve got set up here in the Capital Building!”

Crossfire blinked, then narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “Yeah... so?”

Knobs’ smile turned devilish as she bumped Crossfire’s flank with her own, “Soooo, it’s the perfect chance to dress up and have some fun! C’mon Crossfire, we’re in one of the biggest cities in the world, and there’s going to be a party with fancy food, music, and dancing. And I bet I could find a decent dress for you to-”

“Nope.”

“Awww, Crossfire, you’d look good in the right dress! Please?” Knobs turned on the wide, puppy eyes, sticking out her lower lip in a pout. Even as a ghoul, it was hard look to resist. Even I kind of wanted to just nudge Crossfire encouragingly. Crossfire, stubborn as ever, still kept a flat look on her face.

“No. Dress.”

Knobs let out a deep sigh, hanging her head. Crossfire, cheeks taking on a faint brush of the lightest red hue, conceded, “Maybe if you can find one that isn’t too... glitzy. Something sensible, that I could still fight in.”

Knobs’ grin returned and the whole room seemed a brighter place for it, “I’m sure I’ll find something perfect for you! How about you guys?” she asked, turning to us, “We could all go shopping for outfits together.”

I coughed politely, “I’ve had enough dress wearing for one lifetime.”

B.B elbowed me, “Ya could always try wearin’ a tux, Long.”

I just looked at her sidelong, “What’s a tux?”

“A penguin suit,” Binge said. She still had this subdued look about her, but some of her spark seemed to enter her deep blue eyes once more, her tail giving a small wag, “I’d dress you in red, personally.”

“Maybe we can discuss party plans later,” said LIL-E, “Let’s catch up with the delegation before they start thinking that we’re being anti-social over here.”

What in the name of the Ancestor Spirits is a freakin’ penguin? I wondered as I joined the delegation and started following along with the tour of the Capital Building.

I can’t say it wasn’t informative. the Capital Building was huge, and largely consisted of administrative areas from which the rather mind bogglingly monolithic task of running an entire nation was mounted from. The whole place was divided into wings that handled different aspects of the nation’s affairs, from the military to the domestic. The NCR had over thirty different settlements, each larger than Saddlespring had been, scattered across a fairly vast territory that stretched from one end of Equestria’s heartland to the other. Communication between these settlements and the capital were largely handled by an extensive service of dedicated couriers who ferried messages. This was largely due to the fact that actual radio communication was limited to the area between Manehattan, and the nearby industrial center, Fillydelphia. Longer range communication was possible, but spotty due to the still limited availability of radio equipment. That meant that there was a lot of the space in the Capital Building given over to a filing system that kept paper records of all physical communications.

Aside from file rooms and administrative rooms there was the ballroom where the dinner party would be held later that evening, on the top floor of the building. The conference room we’d first entered was in the very center of the building, directly below the ball room. Then there was the President’s personal offices, situated on the top floor as well, as well as her personal quarters.

Finally there was the basement sub-levels, but we weren’t taken down there, merely shown the thick steel doors that were the entrance to them. Apparently that whole area was restricted, and more heavily guarded than even the President’s office. I didn’t even want to guess at what they might have down there.

The tour served well to get us all familiar with the building’s layout, and I could hear Applegate whispering discussions with Whiteheart on the best ways to deploy us Drifters for security during the negotiations. The main issue was that there weren’t many ways in and out of the building; just the main doors, and a set of emergency exits on either side of the building. Sure, it limited the ways someone might break in, but it also meant evacuation would be a bitch. I got the feeling the NCR probably had some tricks up its sleeve for that, we just weren’t being told yet.

Once the tour was done President Grimfeathers informed us that we had about four hours to get settled into our rooms at Tenpony Tower, then wander the city to do as we liked, until the first round of negotiations would kick off at three o’clock in the afternoon. I was still a little iffy on how the modern concept of telling time worked, but Arcaidia was nice enough to point out that my Pip-Buck tracked that. Left to our down devices, the vast majority of the delegates decided to head to Tenpony Tower. The odd set of metal boxes I’d seen traveling along the bridge rails around the city were called a ‘tram’ and apparently we could ride it right to Tenpony.

Standing in the Capital Building’s main lobby while the larger chunk of the delegates headed out to await the tram to board, I turned to my friends.

“So what do we want to do? Head to this Tenpony place to rest, or see what there is to the see around town?”

“Town!” was Arcaidia’s swift and eager reply, her eyes shining, “I want to see what city with more friendly ponies is like.” She then seemed to think of something, her eyes darting towards her saddlebag, “Hmm, Captain Bartholomew did give memory orbs for viewing. Have not had time yet.”

“Ya could always catch up wit us later if you wanna take some time ta check out them orbs,” said B.B, pointing at Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck, “Ya can track Long wherever we end up roamin’.”

Arcaidia hesitated for a moment, thought creasing her brow, until she sighed and nodded slowly, “Should watch orbs. Don’t know why griffin gave them to me, but better I learn sooner than later. I catch up with you all later.”

“I might join Frostyblue in the hotel,” said Binge, eyes glancing nervously at the doors leading out towards the city, “They have booze there. I could use a bottle or twelve.”

“Binge, seriously, are you okay?” I asked, stepping towards her, “You’ve been acting a bit off.”

“Off? Hehehe, I’m always off, right? Yup, crazy Binge, just being weird,” she said with a throaty, yet somehow forced, laugh. I stared at her, my worry only magnifying. She must have noticed it, because her nervous smile faltered and her ears curled to the back of her skull, “If it’ll make you feel better, Longykins, I’ll bounce along with you through the city. I just don’t really like this place.”

Before I could ask why, a pony approached us. He was an older stallion, with a deep blue coat and a head of frizzy black mane peppered with gray, from which a stubby unicorn horn protruded. He wore a plain gray suit over his slim frame, and on his flank was a cutie mark that looked like a brain that was half organic, and half like a chrome chip of circuitry. He had a wide eyed, friendly manner about him, but also jittery as he spoke in a halting voice.

“Excuse me! Excuse me. Yes, um, hello. My apologies for interrupting you, but we really must speak.”

We all turned to face him, and I heard LIL-E make a strange choking sound and say, “Professor Breakthrough?”

The stallion smiled, showing teeth with a slight overbite, “Ah-ha! You remember me! Fantastic! Your memory banks are fully functional even after so many years of unsupervised field action! Marvelous! I can’t wait to get you back to the lab to do a proper shakedown and analysis, Number Eight!”

“Number Eight?” I asked, glancing back at LIL-E, while Arcaidia scratched at her head and B.B frowned. I tensed, realizing that this stallion, Professor Breakthrough, must have been one of the ponies in the NCR responsible for LIL-E’s construction. I’d been keeping my mouth shut about her true nature, but now it looked like her cover was blown. I knew she’d been afraid of this happening, but I’d figured if anypony was going to come for her it would’ve been when we’d first landed. I looked at Breakthrough, taking stock of him. He hardly seemed aggressive, and certainly not the least bit angry. He didn’t have any guards with him to haul LIL-E away. Perhaps we could talk this out.

“What’s this guy goin’ on ‘bout LIL-E?” asked B.B curiously.

Breakthrough smiled brightly, “Oh, did she never explain what she was? How odd. She’s programmed to introduce herself fully upon any first contact with new individuals, but I imagine the accident may have damaged that core programming. I was ecstatic beyond belief when we detected her signal returning to the NCR! I thought you were returning her to us...um, you are returning her, yes?”

“Hold on a moment,” I said, keeping my tone level, “We don’t know anything about any Number Eight or whatever you’re talking about. LIL-E has been a companion and friend to us for awhile now, and is part of my Drifter team. Now, could you please, slowly, explain. If it's okay with LIL-E, that is?”

LIL-E lowered in the air until she was eye level with Breakthrough, slowly floating towards him. Her voice had a resigned note to it, “Professor, my... companions don’t know what I am. I’ve been pretending to be a pony remotely controlling a modified eyebot.”

Breakthrough blinked, “Why, whatever for?”

“It doesn’t matter,” LIL-E said, her mechanical voice sounding tired, “Because you’re not going to allow me to continue operating independently, are you?”

“Well, you weren’t meant for entirely independent function, Number Eight. At most the Littlepip Interception and Longrange Enforcement robot was designed for perhaps six months of field operation without maintenance. I’m very curious how you managed to go years without a repair bay.”

“I learned to repair myself, Professor,” LIL-E said, “And I modified myself as needed as time went on.”

“Amazing!” Breakthrough exclaimed, “Those skills aren’t part of your programming, so I can only assume you drew upon them from your memory orb control core? How did you access... well, nevermind, I’m sure I’ll find all the answers once you’re safely back in the lab.”

“Professor, I... I don’t want to go to the lab,” LIL-E said.

“Hm? But why not?” asked a clearly bewildered Breakthrough.

“I’ve operated independently for a long time, Professor, and have been able to fulfill my function better doing so than I would locked away in a lab,” LIL-E said, “And because I don’t want to.”

I stepped between the two, holding up a hoof to get the Professor’s attention, “A further point, she’s with us, and I wouldn’t look favorably upon a friend of mind being taken anywhere against her will.”

“Against her will? But...” Breakthrough shook his head in clear bafflement, “She’s a robot. Robots, no matter how sophisticated the A.I guiding them, do not have ‘wills’ my boy. It’s just corrupt programming, probably from too much sustained damage out there in the Wasteland. Number Eight is merely behaving on damaged code. Once I’ve got her back in the lab I can correct any errors.”

“I don’t think you’re listening. She’s not going with you to any lab,” I said, my voice hardening. I was keenly aware, however, that there were a number of NCR guards hanging around the lobby, and they were taking note of the heated turn of the conversation. I frowned, reminding myself that we needed to talk our way through this, not start a fight in the seat of a nation’s government. I kept my tone firm, but put a more understanding note into it, “If you want to examine LIL-E, then if she gives you permission you may, but try to understand that to us, she’s a friend who’s saved our lives. We don’t want her taken apart or ‘fixed’. Anything you do, is only if it’s something she approves of. And you do it at Tenpony Tower, where my friend here,” I gestured at Arcaidia, who smiled coldly at the Professor, “Can make sure you behave.”

He stared at me, saying bluntly, “Number Eight is still technically property of the NCR. I could get an order for you to turn her over to us, as stolen property.”

“Actually, I’ve studied up on some NCR laws in preparation for the trip here,” said the smooth and dulcet tones of Wellspring Whistles as the Radio Guild mare trotted up to us, wearing a pointed smile. “Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. Now, as I was saying, I’ve gained a familiarity with NCR law, and I believe that there is a expiration clause concerning salvage rights to NCR property if it is lost in the field beyond NCR borders. I believe the stipulation that any equipment lost outside NCR territorial borders for more than one year's time is to be considered legal salvage for any who find it. This is to prevent claims of stolen property on salvaged materials merchants from beyond the borders might bring in, yes? Well, LIL-E here, or Number Eight if you want to call her, was lost more than year ago, correct?”

Professor Breakthrough sucked in a breath, lips compressed tightly before he admitted, “Yes. Closer to...um... eight years now.”

“Then I think by the letter of your laws LIL-E is legally salvaged by whomever claims her as such. Longwalk, this robot is your legal salvage?”

I hesitated a second, glancing at LIL-E, but she didn’t really give me much of a response to go on, still silently facing the Professor. I quickly stammered, “Y-yeah, I found her,” or rather she found me, “And she’s been my, er, salvage since then.” A friend, actually, but I guess the legalities we were dealing with required the word ‘salvage’ instead valuing the far more personal word ‘friend’. Either way, I’d take what loopholes I could get.

Wellspring turned to the Professor with a satisfied and thin smile, “Well then, if I’m wrong feel free to correct me, but I believe that means LIL-E belongs to Longwalk, by law.”

“She is a valuable and nearly unique prototype weapon!” Breakthrough said, flustered and red faced, “Only one of ten we ever built! You can’t expect me to just ignore her presence here as if she were some common eyebot! Number Eight belongs here.”

“Look, I told you if you got her permission you could examine her or whatever, but you’re not taking her,” I said.

Breakthrough made a sound like steam slowly escaping an pressurized pipe, but composed himself and said, “Without my equipment in the lab it would be pointless to examine her, as I wouldn’t be able to do a proper diagnostic of her systems. I know the laws this mare is quoting and I’m certain they don’t pertain to top billed government R&D projects.”

He looked at me with a frustrated shiver in his eyes, but a certain amount of sympathy as well, “I know you must think you’re doing the right thing by defending what you see as a friend. I can even appreciate the sentiment and the fact that you’ve apparently established some connection of trust with Number Eight. However the LIL-E series was never designed to behave in such a manner, and if she is operating with that level of independence, it’s due to errors in her programming that could prove dangerous if left unexamined. I cannot in good conscience allow a well armed and deadly prototype combat robot remain in the hooves of freelance mercenaries, not without doing all in my power to get her back where she belongs. I cannot force the issue now, but I will take this up with higher authorities and if need be obtain the warrant I need to bring her home.”

His eyes turned to LIl-E one last time, his tail twitching, “Please, Number Eight, I implore you to avoid such a confrontation and come with me willingly.”

LIL-E answered only with silence, and after a moment Breakthrough hung his head, sighing, and turned away with equal silence to trot away.

“He’s gonna be causin’ us trouble soon,” B.B said, frowning, then glanced at LIL-E, “Is all he just said true?”

LIl-E’s mechanical voice quavered slightly as she said, “Yes. I’m... sorry, to deceive you for so long B.B.”

“I just don’t git why. Ya think we would’ve thought less o’ ya if we knew yer were a’ bot instead o’ a pony?”

“Maybe you would have, maybe you wouldn't, but I spent so long convincing myself that I was a pony that by the time I accepted the truth, it’d become habit to let others think I was a flesh and blood pony like them,” LIL-E said, hovering around to face all of us, “Can you blame me for wanting to keep things simple?”

Arcaidia, peering at LIL-E with fresh curiosity, said, “My brain is lost. If you artificial mind, why this matter? Still mind, yes?”

“It’s complicated, Arcaidia. My series was built with something special inside us, meant to give us an unique edge over other robots,” LIL-E said, hovering down slightly and facing me, “You’ve seen it, Longwalk. The memory orb.”

I recalled that day I’d come upon LIL-E repairing herself after the struggle in Stable 104, and the memory orb fused into LIL-E’s circuitry. I nodded to her, “Yeah, I didn’t want to pry at the time, but I thought it weird you had one inside you. Whose memory is in that orb?”

LIL-E’s voice dropped a few ticks of volume, her version of a whisper, “The orb is a copy. It took specific memories out of another memory orb, distilling them, rearranging them, emphasizing certain ones... it was meant to make us LIL-Es the best defenders of the downtrodden and weak that we could be, with all of her skills, and more importantly, all of her determination and drive to protect others. To sacrifice to protect others. That, and her wrath to destroy the wicked.”

Arcaidia and I exchanged confused glances, but B.B blinked in shock, putting a hoof over her mouth, “Dear Goddesses, you’re talking about her aren’t you? The Lightbringer? They took her memories and put them inside you!?”

“Me, and all the other LIL-E series robots. Not a complete memory, just the recordings from the memory orb she used to create a record of her actions during the war against Red Eye and the Enclave,” LIL-E said, “We only had access to her skills and specific, key memories meant to emphasis our programming to defend lives or destroy certain targets like Raiders. The idea was to create a robot that had the capacity to operate over long periods of time to secure trade routes or wild territories against all the common Wasteland threats, with all the zeal and skill she had.”

“Soooo, uh... I’m feeling a bit clueless here,” I said, shuffling on my hooves, “Who’s this Lightbringer again?”

B.B smacked a hoof to her face, “I keep fergettin’ how outta the loop ya are, most the time. Coulda swore we brought this up before.”

I shrugged, “You might have, but with everything that’s been going on I probably forgot. I just don’t know how all this matters. LIL-E is LIL-E. I don’t see how whose memory she’s got fused into her really makes a difference, and also I don’t care that she’s a robot. LIL-E, you’re part of the tribe, far as I’m concerned.”

There was a sound akin to a sigh from the eyebot, “I really wish I had hooves sometimes. I can’t really hug you, but I’m thinking about it really, really hard. Still, I’ve been needing to get this out, Longwalk. All of it.”

B.B winced, her ears drooping, “I can’t say I don’t understand that sentiment. The need to get a secret out, most of all to the ponies you trust. Still, to have the memories of that pony bouncing around inside you. That’s got to be... heavy.”

“It wasn’t so bad at first,” said LIL-E, “In the beginning I was exactly what Professor Breakthrough still believes I am. A robot, driven by programming. I still had emotions, and in some twisted way I, like every other LIL-E, thought I was the pony whose memories they shoved into us. But it was like being in a dream, where the things that didn’t make sense, like being a floating metal ball, just didn’t register as out of the ordinary. Where our directive to obey commands from our handlers didn’t break our mental illusion that we were... a pony whose primary drive in life had been to defend good ponies from the horrors of the Wasteland.”

“What changed?” B.B asked.

“An accident, during our fifth test run in the field,” LIL-E said, or rather began to say, but halted herself as she noticed that Wellspring was leaning in rather closely. The Radio Guild mare smiled sweetly.

“Don’t mind me. I’m not even taking notes yet.”

“I... would prefer you didn’t put this into any news stories, please,” said LIL-E flatly.

“Perish the thought. Well, for the immediate future at any rate. I can’t imagine the NCR would like to have any bit of dirty laundry aired during a delicate diplomatic visit, so I have no reason to want to shout out over the airwaves that they lost one of their prototype weapons to any kind of accident. Besides, you might want to put the rest of your story on hold, considering we’re still in such a public space.”

She had a point. While the main lobby of the Capital Building was large and mostly devoid of ponies save for a few guards by various doors, and we were keeping our voices down, we’d also drawn the attention of the few ponies trotting by on government business, and the guards were also staring at us rather intently. I was as eager as anypony to know the full story behind LIl-E’s current condition, but here and now probably wasn’t the time and place for it.

“Yeah,” I said, “Might be we should get moving.”

“Okay, point taken,” said LIL-E, “I’ll finish the story tonight when we’re safe in our hotel room.”

“Assumin’ that Professor fella don’t git a’ warrant to nab ya ‘fore the day’s done,” said B.B, “Just what’re we gonna do ‘bout that anyhow?”

It was a legitimate question, and I didn’t have an immediate answer for it. Going against the NCR authorities was not something I wanted to do if I could at all help it. Yet there was no way I intended to let anypony take any of my friends anywhere against their will. I couldn’t think of any way to stop Breakthrough from going to get his warrant from some higher authorities that could overturn that salvage law that Wellspring had brought up, so the only idea I could think of was to hide LIL-E when the time came, or cover for her so she could make a getaway on her own.

“Don’t suppose we can just skin the science pony and dump his body in the sewers?” suggested Binge, to everypony giving her staring looks, to which she smiled and shrugged, “It was just a suggestion.”

I might’ve been more disturbed by her ‘suggestion’ if it didn’t make me feel relieved and actually a bit warm inside to see her actually smiling. I could tell it was strained, however, like she was forcing on a mask that wasn’t quite fitting right.

Nopony else had any ideas on what to do if and when Breakthrough came for LIL-E, so we ended up quietly agreeing that if worse came to worst that LIL-E would try to stow away back on board the Sweet Candy and hide in its cargo bay. It wasn’t exactly a foolproof plan, but it was the best we had.

After that we headed out into Manehattan, Arcaidia taking the tram alongside Wellspring to go to Tenpony Tower, while I, B.B, Binge, and LIL-E took to the streets to see what there was to see of the NCR’s capital city.

----------

Putting aside my growing worries, both for Binge and now for LIL-E, I was able to quickly let myself become lost in the awe and energy of the sights of Manehattan. I’d seen Skull City, so this wasn’t my first time encountering a place with so many ponies packed together, but comparing Skull City to Manehattan was like trying to compare fire to water.

However if I had to make a pick as to which city I preferred, well, Manehattan hadn’t tried to kill me yet. Emphasis on the ‘yet’. In Skull City there was a clear divide between those with wealth, and those without. The Outskirts with its boiling sea of cramped together folk trying to survive, divided into competing gangs, and the Inner City comprised of the powerful Guilds and their members living well but under strict rules. Skull City wore its Wasteland heritage openly, displaying the bones of the dead as decoration, and always poised for conflict, like a tense animal ready to strike the unwary.

Manehattan was like somepony had taken the Outskirts and washed it of most of the blood and mud, and replaced the skull motif with the colorful repair work of a thousand different builders all trying to wipe away the scars of the Wasteland and create a place that was vibrant as it was busy. Yeah, busy was a good word for the streets of Manehattan, as if everypony who lived in the once-ruined city was single mindedly determined to remove the taint of the old war by sheer force of willpower and optimism.

It did wonders to energize me as I walked along the lively streets alongside B.B, Binge, and LIL-E. I was still worried for LIL-E and how she was handling our recent encounter with Professor Breakthrough, but the eyebot deflected any of my questions and instead took on the role of tour guide as she showed us around the city. Apparently she’d been programmed with a fair amount of detail about the present city’s layout, with all the newly constructed homes and businesses that turned what was once little more than charred city ruins into a bustling capital of one of the world’s newest, growing nation.

Beyond the government district center there was a bustling market area situated at a major crossroad of main streets, what LIL-E told us was once called ‘Time Square’. Dozens of open tent stalls filled the sidewalks and many of the buildings, even the ones still missing sections of wall, had been appropriated to house storefronts where ponies of all shades hawked their wares to an eager crowd of browsing civilians. What caught my eye was that most of the ponies I saw walking about weren’t wearing armor or carrying weapons, and instead tended to either trot around without clothing or with a few simple shirts or hats. There were still a few more rugged looking folk about, and there didn’t seem to be any laws against wearing a firearm, as I did see a few guns strapped to flanks or chests, but these were the exceptions, not the rule.

In fact I was pretty sure myself and my companions were the most heavily armed people out and about, and we were definitely getting looks, not all of them friendly. First of all my ARM was drawing more than a few gawking eyes. Even among the heavily armed ponies of the Wasteland the oversized, silver spear was not a normal sight, and I heard a few whispers as I trotted past. Binge also got a fair number of unpleasant looks. It was as if the civilians of the NCR could smell the Raider in their midst, or at least sense the aura of unstable violence that tended to cling to Binge even when she was being fairly ‘normal’, by her standards.

I found myself trotting a bit closer to her, actually, feeling an urge to show some solidarity. She was mostly ignoring the stares and stink eyes being shot her way, but Binge’s normally bouncy steps seemed flat and less lively than I was used to seeing. It was hard for me to believe, but I kind of wanted the crazy, erratic Binge back. She might have unnerved me, but she was usually also vibrant with a kind of lust for life I was now sorely missing from her sallow features as we walked the Manehattan streets.

B.B seemed to sense the group’s unease, and she flew in front of us, gesturing a hoof towards a nearby building from which the sweet scents of cooking food wafted. “Hey, whaddy’all say ta grabbin’ some grub? Ain’t a’ good idea to go trottin’ all over town on empty stomachs, right?”

“Food sounds good to me,” I said, turning to Binge, “Hungry?”

She responded with an absent nod, licking her lips, “I could nom. I could also not nom. Everything is too shiny around here. Its like its all wrapped in plastic.” Her nose wrinkled, sniffing, “If you sniff real hard you can still smell the Wasteland underneath it all. They put in nice new rugs, but that doesn’t get rid of the corpses beneath the floorboards.”

I blinked at her, “I’ll take that as a yes?”

She smiled at me, a flash of sad, yellow teeth, “Yes, bucky, let’s eat.”

The restaurant was built into a wide, three story building that lacked a roof, and most of its top two floors, but that hadn’t stopped the ponies who owned it from turning it into a warm and welcoming spot to sit and grab a bite. Colorful cloth strung up between metal poles covered the empty gaps in the ceiling, and makeshift electric lights hung between the folds of this cloth roof rained down multi-colored light onto a well swept tile floor below. A score of tables, salvaged from a dozen different places judging by their varied shapes and sizes, filled the floor space and about half of them were occupied by happily eating and chatting ponies.

A few conversations went quiet as we entered, and I felt an awkward need to smile at the room and wave. B.B, bless her, cleared her throat and did the talking for me, giving the room a sweeping look and said, “What, ya’ll never seen hungry travelers before? C’mon folks, we’re just here to eat and shake off some dust from beyond yer borders. Any o’ ya are feelin’ chatty might be we’ll even share some tales o’ far off places ya ain’t even heard of!”

Her tone was friendly but firm, and it seemed to put a number of the ponies present at ease, but at least one or two still looked at us askance as a mare with a bright blue mane even more sharply neon in shade than my own trotted up to us. She had equally harsh, neon pink fur covering her plump body, and glittering gray eyes. A cutie mark of a steaming bowl of soup graced her flanks as she gave us a short bow of her head and said, “Ah, um, welcome to the Scarf Stop. I’m Ladle. Please, take any empty seats you like and I’ll be with you shortly. Menu’s are at each table.”

“Thank you,” I said, and let my companions to one of the available tables, finding that I unconsciously had chosen one towards a back corner of the room where we could keep our backs to the wall and watch the door. Wow, Longwalk, you getting paranoid much? Well, considering the last time I went out to explore a town and stopped at an eating establishment I ended up being chased by bounty hunters... yes.

Once we’d all settled into our seats, with the exception of LIL-E who just sort of floated along the edge of the table, B.B let out a sigh and looking around to see that most of the restaurant patrons were now trying to ignore us. “Ain’t the most friendly reception we’ve gotten lately, is it?”

I kept my voice down as I responded to her, “I’m guessing they don’t get a lot of travelers around here.”

“Most o’ these folk remember a’ time before the NCR,” B.B said, equally quiet, “They remember wakin’ up each mornin’ not knowin’ who or what might kill ‘em that day fer their food and water,” a glance at Binge, “Or just fer kicks. Ain’t suprisin’ that most o’ ‘em don’t got a’ lot o’ joy to share at seein’ folk like us that still got the stink from the Wasteland on us.”

“Makes them scared,” Binge said, staring at her forehooves, “They want to believe the Wasteland is dead and gone. They don’t like reminders that outside the fence they’ve penned themselves in it's still there... waiting.”

I found myself glancing at her, asking uneasily, “Waiting for what?”

She looked back at me, and her eyes stared right through me. “To come back.”

Just a moment after that perplexing response Ladle trotted to our table. We hadn’t taken a look at the menus yet, but she only wanted to know if we wanted anything to drink. I just went for water, while B.B asked for some Sparkle Cola. Binge was unresponsive for a few seconds, but then asked of Ladle had any alcohol. The Scarf Stop didn’t have any hard liquor, but they had a solid stock of beer, and Binge ordered a bottle.

We settled into a silent few minutes of checking over the menu’s, a concept that was a little new to me. The list of food items was enticing, however, and the prices all listed in standard bottle caps, a currency the NCR still used, seemingly for convenience as opposed to the difficulty of trying to generate a new currency of their own. We were still pretty flush with caps from the bounty paid off on Redwire, and the selling of weapons from that battle, so I didn’t much worry about what we're spending. I ordered the largest, juiciest sounding meat-based product on the menu, a moderate steak sandwich. My stomach started to growl and gurgle at the very thought.

“Yer droolin’, hun,” B.B warned me with a wry smile, and I quickly wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my armor.

“Sorry, just, steak sandwich. Just the name alone makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside,” I said, envisioning the delicious meat experience that awaited me. My friends also ordered some food, and as we waited I took another look around the room and felt a nervous jolt through my spine as I felt something was suddenly, undeniably off. It took me a moment to realize that the reason for that was because all the ponies in the restaurant were suddenly behaving strangely. They still talked and “ate”, but they kept repeating conversations, and nopony actually chewed or drank anything, merely mimed the motions.

“Guys...” I began to say, and B.B was already turning in her seat, and Binge drawing out a knife into her hoof with the casual flick of her tail bouncing the weapon to her waiting grip. LIL-E had also turned, the pistol turret on her undermount tracking left and right.

“What’s wrong with everypony? “ askd LIL-E, “It’s like their brains just got hornfucked.”

Binge’s nose twitched, “There’s blood in the air.”

B.B reacted with a stiffened back and her eyes turning wide like violet moons, “I know this.” Her voice had lost its accent, speaking now in clear crystal chimes, “I’ve felt this. They’re hypnotized. There’s a spell dropped outside too, warding off anypony from even glancing this way, or hearing anything.”

“How do you know that?” I asked her, standing from my seat and reaching for Gramzanber.

Longwalk, I’m sensing a magical field around this building. I believe your pegasus ally is correct in her assessment, the ARM stated, and I sensed its ready energy, prepared to sync with me in battle.

B.B in the meantime went still like a alabaster pillar, face set in a grim and frightened mask, “I’ve seen this before.” She took a breath and spoke loudly, not to me, but to the room, “Come out Scythe! If you’re here to take me, I’m not going quietly!”

In response to her words the air rippled at the entrance to the restaurant, like a stone dropped into clear and still water. Then as if moving a curtain a rich brown hoof moved aside the very air itself, unveiling a unicorn stallion who’d been standing there and now appeared from behind some magical barrier that’d been obscuring his presence. He had stark blonde locks of mane moving in smooth waves around his strong, masculine features. Even I, a completely straight male, had to admit this stallion oozed a potent, sensual grace just standing still, with long stately legs and a well muscled body that looked custom made to attract others. He had swirling, dark tattoos covering his chest and limbs, like flickers of black fire. He wore a crimson red vest that matched his eyes, and he flashed us, or more specifically B.B, a white smile.

“Take you, big sister? Perish the thought. If the Mistress wanted us to use violence against you she’d have sent Black Petal again, with about half a dozen of our best soldiers. No, Blood Bloom, I’m not here to fight with you. I’m here to talk, if you’ll agree to a civil Accord on this neutral ground, by your binding word.”

There was a certain resonance to his voice, making it sound like it wasn’t just being heard, but felt, like something hot and slippery was sliding down my ear canal. It made my head feel fuzzy, but the sensation was broken as B.B said, in an equal resonate voice, “Stop it Scythe. I won’t have you bewitching them like that. If you seek to talk under an Accord, you leave their minds untouched, otherwise we fight here and now.”

Just like that the slippery feeling in my brain vanished and Scythe gave a warm, disarming smile as he raised a hoof in a peaceful gesture, “So be it. Can’t blame a stallion for trying. Truthfully I don’t want any of your herd listening in on matters that don’t concern them. This should be between us Family members, but you seem to insist on staying attached to your food.”

“They are not food. They are friends,” B.B said, and I recovered my own wits enough to talk.

“We also have names,” I said, shaking my head to clear the last of the buzzing cobwebs from whatever Scythe had been trying with his voice. I turned a hard glare on the stallion, putting on my best ‘don’t screw with me’ face. “I’m Longwalk. Who in the damned hell are you?”

He looked at me with an expression that gave me swift and unpleasant flashbacks to Shattered Sky. It was the same, faintly sneering way that he looked down his snout at me, as if I were a dung covered critter that just crawled out of a rock and he was sincerely debating if I was worth crushing under hoof. However unlike Shattered Sky he managed to wipe the look away with a cordial smile that was so drenched in poisoned honey that I felt a bit sick to my stomach.

“As you have already heard, my name is Scythe. In our dear sister’s absence from Family affairs, a rather foolish self-imposed exile I might add, it has fallen to me to take up her duties as our Mistress’ chief enforcer. Now, please, I would appreciate it if you would keep silent as I’ve come only to speak with Blood Bloom and could care less about those she’s decided to cling to as some surrogate family in place of her true Family.”

“B.B?” I asked, glancing at her, “You got this?”

She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes closing as she gave me the smallest of nods, “Yeah, let me handle this. No offense, but if everypony played twenty questions with him this will take all day, so it’d be best to just play along with him and keep quiet until I sort this out. Alright, Scythe, I’ll agree to an Accord, by my sworn oath of blood, but only on the condition that you swear to me that you will do no harm whatsoever to any of the innocent ponies in this country until we’ve settled matters between us.”

His smile thinned to something akin to razors, “Ah, but you remain appropriately cruel, Blood Bloom. Do you expect me to torture myself like you do? I shall not abstain from partaking of the sweet blood you deny yourself, however I know how your mind seems to pine for the lives of the food. I shall agree only to not taking any lives of innocent ponies in this country, as long as they are not attacking me, until our affairs are settled. However I also require your oath that you shall not reveal my presence to the authorities of the NCR, and agree to meet me in two days time, alone, at the ruins of Canterlot, where we can settle this matter.”

B.B grimaced, her wings twitching, but she nodded grimly, “Not alone. My friends will be there, Scythe, but I will swear to you they won’t interfere. Agreed?”

Scythe gave a curt not, “Agreed.”

“So be it. The oath is given, the Accord is in place.”

Rather abruptly a glowing sigil of crimson light appeared on the chest of both B.B and Scythe, a symbol in the shape of a curved, jagged rune. It pulsed several times with an audible thump of a heartbeat, then the symbol faded and both of the ponies of the Family seemed to relax, as if a tension had faded from them. Scythe brushed his chest as if to remove some errant dust and sauntered towards our table. Not a single one of the ponies present in the restaurant responded to his presence, all trapped in their cycle of mindless conversation and not eating.

“Good, we can talk cordially now. It’s been a very long time, sister-”

“First of all, stop calling me that,” B.B said harshly, “We’re not siblings. Not anymore, not ever.”

A look of genuine hurt seemed to cross Scythe’s features, but it vanished in an eyeblink as he shrugged, “Delude yourself as you like. You may have turned your back on the Family, but we never turned our backs upon you. If you insist I not call you what you are, I shall, but only as a token gesture. Truly, pretending to be one of these normal ponies has done terrible things to your mental state. You’re little more than a shadow of your old self, Blood Bloom. You didn’t even sense me following you through the city. You had to see me controlling the minds of these weak herdlings before you even realized I was here.”

B.B growled, a low menacing sound deep in her throat, “Get to your damned point, Scythe.”

“Only that you’re diminished, Blood Bloom. Terribly so.” He sat down a few paces from us, gesturing his hoof at B.B, up and down, as if to indicate the whole of her, “You couldn't feel my presence, whereas in the past you could have tracked me across an ink black night for miles, despite my best efforts at concealment. I’m certain your physical state is horrifically weak as well. I remember when you could tear asunder steel with your bare hooves and dance through a storm of gunfire without taking a mark upon your flesh, yet now I hear Black Petal of all ponies gave you trouble? In times past she would have soiled herself at the thought of challenging you to battle. You’ve fallen, Blood Bloom. Without blood, without feeding, you’re little better than the chattel you now claim as companions.”

“Still now hearing a point anywhere in all this verbal diarrhea,” B.B said with a hard tone, mane bristling.

Scythe’s lips curved downward in a tight frown, eyes flashing like crimson stormclouds, “You know that the Mistress wants you returned to your proper place. There are some among the Family that would rather see you dead for your betrayal, but the Mistress’ love extends its protection to you and she is willing to give you a chance at redemption if you would but accept that love for the gift it is. I am her emissary in this, extending this final offer to you. Come home. Come home and be accepted back within the light of our Mistress’ love, and take your place once more at her side. Do this, and all shall be forgiven. There will be no retaliation against you, or the ponies that have been involved with your... excursion among the masses. Even that cursed stallion that turned you from us in the first place shall not be targeted, on the Mistress’ word.”

“Well that sounds all very well and good but you can tell the Mistress she can go shove a-”

“I’m not finished,” Scythe said, interrupting B.B, who shot a dagger filled glare at him, but waited for him to continue, which he did by saying, “Beyond ensuring your companions’ safety from retaliation, the Mistress also offers to lend the Family’s aide to them in their quest to defeat the menace from the stars that threatens us all.”

That got my attention enough to blurt out, “Are you serious?”

He turned heated eyes towards me, “It is no lie. The Mistress recognizes the threat of the creatures from the stars. It is why she sought alliance with the organization called Odessa. It is only proper, after all; we Crimson Nobles were created in the distant past to battle the enemy from the stars.”

“That might be true, but there’s a problem with what you're proposing,” said B.B, “Longwalk’s tribe is held hostage by Odessa, and they’re still hunting our friend Arcaidia. Is the Mistress willing to turn on Odessa, just to get me to come back?”

“No,” Scythe admitted, “But the aide she proposes does not contradict our alliance with Odessa. We would prepare some of our own soldiers to come to his assistance, but only when doing battle with the alien menace, not when he makes his foolhardy attempt to rescue his tribe. In that battle we shall not interfere, and if Odessa captures him or the one called Arcaidia, we will not assist there. But when battle is joined against the Hyadeans, we would be there. As would you, as our Mistress’ enforcer once more.”

I didn’t like it. Even if it might be useful to have some super-powered mutant, blood sucking ponies show up at the right time to help out fighting the Hyadeans, if it meant B.B had to go back to a life she clearly didn’t want to return to then I couldn’t support the idea. Everything B.B had ever told me about the Family, and judging just by Scythe and Black Petal’s attitudes towards normal ponies, I wasn’t at all sure I’d want help from them in the first place. They clearly didn’t think of ponies outside the Family as anything other than a source of food. They didn’t want to fight the Hyadeans out of anything other than a desire to protect their food supply.

B.B apparently agreed with me, because after a moment’s consideration she said, “No. It's a more generous offer than I expected out of the Mistress, but my answer is still no, Scythe. I won’t be returning.”

He was silent for a second, then said, “Don’t be so quick to decide. I shall be here for a time longer, watching, and your mind may change before this issue between Skull City and the NCR is resolved. There are benefits to returning to us, Blood Bloom, not the least of which is ending your own torment. I know it must be painful for you. Denying the thirst. Hearing the blood beating in their hearts, hot and sweet-”

“Stop it. Right. The fuck. Now.” B.B was growling once more, and her eyes had bled to crimson orbs, her breaths coming in quick pants.

Scythe looked at her with true, pained sympathy, “You see? How long can you last? Why do this to yourself? That Doc Sunday poisoned your mind so thoroughly, but surely you can see it... you don’t belong with them. You belong with us. But I can see you won’t listen to reason yet.”

“Are you done talking?” B.B asked, visibly struggling to get herself back under control.

“Almost. I have one last thing I wanted to do; to give you a gift. The Mistress wouldn't approve, but I personally cannot abide the idea of you going into battle so weakened, so I pulled some strings with our Odessa allies to acquire something that will be of use to you. Of course they didn’t know that I was going to give this item to you, but by the time the find out, I doubt it will matter.”

He reached to his side, and much like when he revealed himself in the first place, he pulled the very air aside as if drawing back a veil, and revealed a large black suitcase sitting next to him. He must have carried it along with levitation, though I hadn’t seen his horn light up. He gestured for B.B to take the case, but at her hesitance he rolled his eyes, a very brotherly expression, and said, “If I was going to be so crass as to trap a gift under an Accord of peace the Mistress would have my head and you know it. Stop being squeamish. It doesn’t become you.”

B.B snorted, but bent to examine the case, picking it up and setting on the table. At this point Binge bent forward, sniffing at it, “I don’t think its going to pop on us, and I do like presents. Does the scaly unicorn have any more?”

Scythe sneered, “Scaly pony? I don’t need nicknames from gutter trash. Even your blood smells rancid, wench.”

Binge bounced her knife up and down in her hoof, “And you smell like oil and dead things. Coating your mouth with sugar doesn’t make you any less a snake, scaly pony.”

It was Scythe’s turn to growl, and LIL-E responded by opening her side hatch and extended her rifle barrel, “Go ahead. Give me a fucking reason.”

B.B held up her hoof, “It’s alright, guys. I don’t smell any chemicals for poison or explosives. It's probably safe. If not, well, at least I won’t have to listen to him talk anymore.”

That said, she opened the case, and curiosity got all of us peering inside. I blinked at the contents, at once impressed and concerned at the same time.

“Odessa seriously gave you this?” I asked, disbelief practically bursting from my tone, “And now you’re giving it to B.B?”

“Of course. Odessa has finished its first generation trials and now can produce these second generation models quickly enough to afford giving several to its allies, such as the Family,” said Scythe, smiling smugly, “I don’t mind giving one to Blood Bloom. Even if she ends up turning it upon the Family one day, it's more important she live long enough to decide to return to us. Consider it a gesture of goodwill.”

Inside the case was black padding that housed a pair of shining silver objects, the metal clearly the nanomachine material of an ARM; particular the artificial ARMs built by Odessa. The two objects were shaped the same, like smooth, cylindrical gauntlets meant to fit over fore hooves. Circular bands with blue crystalline cores wrapped around the gauntlets in a spiral pattern, ending at the open slots where hooves would fit inside. The top portion of the business end of the gauntlets contained large, snub nosed pistol barrels, hexagonal in shape. At the bottom end of the weapons were smaller housings, from which extended slim, segmented silver blades, with sharp, square tips.

Written in barely visible silver script just a shade darker than the rest of the ARMs, each gauntlet bore the name “Twin Fenrir”.

Binge’s eyes sparkled, “Ooooo, shiny.”

B.B looked at the ARMs, then up at Scythe, “You do realize this doesn’t change my mind. If I take these, I’m just as likely to use them on you as anypony else.”

“A risk I accept. As I said, you’re too weak Blood Bloom. Without feeding you may well not survive the battles to come. Even if you refuse me now, or even kill me... I must hold faith that one day you will see the light and return to our Mistress’ loving embrace. To facilitate that I gift you these weapons to help keep you alive until then. If I must face you in battle thusly armed, so be it. After all-”

Scythe gestured once more, pulling aside yet another veil of illusion. It revealed that floating by his other side, in a tight grip of red magic levitation, was another ARM, this one in the shape of a massive silver scythe. The huge, curved blade of high-tech looking silver metal bore the name “Azrael” in gleaming script.

“-I too will be well armed for our confrontation.”

Damn. Odessa was seriously stepping up its game if it was producing new artificial ARMs fast enough to give two away to the Family. Maybe even more. I had no way to be sure. I set my jaw in a tight clench, reminding myself that no matter the opposition I couldn’t let myself even think of turning back. Still, not encouraging to think my friends and I might have to deal with even more foes equipped with the deadly power of ARMs. Then again, having B.B well armed would help level the playing field, especially if we were soon to go after a Golem.

The hesitation was clear in B.B’s eyes, however, as she said, “This could still be a trap, Scythe. Odessa could have put a tracking device in all their fancy toys. You could have set this thing up with any number of unpleasant surprises for me.”

“Your paranoia knows no bounds,” Scythe said with what sounded very much like a groan of brotherly frustration, “Must I open a vein to convince you of my sincerity!?” His horn glowed crimson, and I saw the magic shape itself into a small knife of raw arcane energy. We all tensed, but the blade didn’t go towards us, but to his upturned hoof, cutting red line across his brown hide. A welter of blood rose, and B.B stiffened, her nose going wild. Scythe offered her the hoof, “Go ahead, taste my lifeblood. Tell me then if there is any deception within me.”

B.B’s tongue darted out, seeming unconsciously, to lick her lips, but she shook her head. “Scythe, you’re insane. You know that, right?”

He smiled thinly, “Sanity is a matter of perception. To me you seem quite mad for turning from the charmed life you led, on the weak philosophy of an old stallion with a soft heart.”

Her voice was hard as gunmetal as B.B said, “That ‘old stallion’ had the integrity and compassion to show a foolish, self-destructive monster that she had the freedom to choose to be something better than what she was. It's a choice I make every day of my life. I won’t return to the Mistress. Ever.”

“You may feel differently, soon enough, but I can see I can’t get through to you here and now,” said Scythe, “But please, take the gift. Use it to protect yourself, at least. I can do that much, even if I fail to convince you of your errors.”

B.B eyed the twin ARMs in the case, frowning, then with a heavy sigh nodded, “Fine. Now go. I don’t have the patience to listen to you anymore.”

Scythe bowed deeply, “By our Accord, I will bring no harm to anypony in this nation until our conflict is settled. I shall see you in two days, Blood Bloom. Remember, the ruins of Canterlot is where I will await you, and you know that failing to show will have dire consequences, for that will break our Accord. Farewell for now, Blood Bloom. Hopefully in due time you’ll learn to see things from the perspective of my sanity, rather than yours.”

I stepped towards him, causing Scythe to looked at me sharply, and his lips pulled back to bare fangs at me. I ignored that as I said, “I just want to make this clear, in case you had any funny ideas, if you hurt anypony around here I will personally see to ensuring you pay for it.”

“I see. You think you could kill me?”

“I didn’t say kill. I said pay. And yes, I can.” I held his gaze steadily, despite the fact that I felt more than a little unnerved by his unblinking red eyes. At length Scythe gave a small huff of a laugh and turned away from us with a flick of his blonde tail.

“We will see, won’t we?” And with that his form shimmered, along with that of the silver scythe ARM at his side, and he vanished behind a veil of illusionary magic. B.B closed the case with the Twin Fenrir in it and set it next to her, glancing at the crowd in the restaurant. Less than a minute after Scythe departed the ponies in the Scarf Stop resumed talking and eating normally, not even missing a beat. It was as if Scythe’s mental interference had simply never happened. Admittedly it was rather unsettling to see.

“Your family is made up of some seriously creepy pieces of work,” said LIL-E.

“And that was Scythe on a good day,” said B.B in reply, shaking her head and with a cough adopting her accent once more, “I gotta wonder how he tracked me down.”

Binge gave me a bump with a hoof, “Longy made a big splash in Skull City. Probably just followed the ripples.”

“Huh?” I asked in my usually eloquent manner.

B.B rubbed her chin, “Guess he could’ve been keepin’ an eye ‘round the Guilds an’ spotted us at any o’ the times we were headin’ in or out of the Skull Guild or Drifters Guild. Lends a bit o’ credit ta his word if he ain’t called in a squad of Family soldiers ta bring me in wit force.”

“Still, how’d he follow us all the way to the NCR?” asked LIL-E, “That’s not exactly a quick trot across the park.”

“Willing to bet Odessa had something to do with that,” I muttered, “He could have hitched a ride on one of their ships, if one was heading for this region. Given how important this whole diplomatic delegation is it wouldn’t surprise me if Odessa had a ship in the area to monitor things.”

“Too many birdies in the sky,” whispered Binge, then made a small whining sound, “Where’s the beer? Binge needs to wet her innards and feel the numbing hug of Mr. Inebriation!”

Fortunately our food arrived shortly, with Ladle cheerfully delivered our order with a smile, and only a casual and curious glance at the black case now by B.B’s side. She didn’t say anything about it, however, only shook her head as if convincing herself the case must’ve already been in our possession and she’d simply missed it. As if by some unspoken agreement my friends and I delved into companionable silence as we tore into our food. I didn’t want to press B.B about Scythe too much, at least not until we got back to the hotel and could bring Arcaidia up to date. Besides, it was hard to think about talking about much of anything while my mouth was being made love to by the delicious, succulent, utterly satisfying goodness that was my steak sandwich.

I had never tasted anything so good, and I actually ended up thumping my leg on the floor in a kind of pleasured, rhythmic twitch as I ate. I may never have had sex before, but I was pretty sure it couldn’t be much better than this steak sandwich. I didn’t even know what molerats were, but I wanted to eat more of them. Whoever said ponies weren’t meant to eat meat apparently had never sat down for a meal at the Scarf Stop.

After paying our bill and profusely thanking Ladle for the unbelievable meal, which may or may not have involved impromptu proposals of marriage amid a food coma stupor, we headed back out into the downtown Manehattan afternoon. There was some brief discussion of beating around the market, or going to wander the residential areas further out, but the mood turned quiet and I could tell my companions weren’t as interested in wandering as I was. LIL-E floated around almost listlessly, while Binge had gone back to a quiet, faint morose manner. She had gone through half a dozen bottles of beer before we’d left the restaurant, and had a bit of a stumble to her trot. B.B now was also tense, glancing at shadows that weren’t there, carrying the case with the Twin Fenrir in it like it was still some sort of bomb about to explode.

When I made the suggestion to head to the hotel in Tenpony Tower there was no objection.

----------

I had to admit, Tenpony Tower was a lot more impressive up close than when I’d casually glanced at it during the short flight to the Capital building. It was by far the tallest building in all Manehattan, at least, in terms of it still being fundamentally intact. It wasn’t quite as large as the Skull Guild’s headquarters tower, but it was honestly in much better repair, comparatively speaking. We entered from a set of well guarded front doors, just beneath the overhanging tram tracks above us. Apparently the guards were well informed on our identities as part of the Skull City delegation, but even so we had to go through a lengthy process of checking our identities before entering.

I thought this a tad strange, given we didn’t have to go through this at the Capitol building, where you’d think security would be tighter, but apparently whoever ran Tenpony Tower took no chances with outsiders and there were rules to be followed. I didn’t mind so much, despite the questioning. Both my ARM and B.B’s newly acquired case got careful and delicate examinations by the guards, who apparently had never seen anything like the ARMs before. Since I didn't imagine they'd believe the truth about the weapons I simply used the line everypony in the Skull City Wasteland believed about the weapons, that they were relics from the Ruins dotting that region. Technically true, if nowhere close to the whole truth.

Once we’d been poked, prodded, and questioned until our identities were confirmed, we were allowed inside the tower. The front foyer of Tenpony Tower was larger than most homes I’d seen, and had the kind of sharp lighting and chill air that reminded me of being inside Stable 104. There weren’t many ponies inside the tower, and most of the ones I saw trotted about in surprisingly clean and elegant clothing, most of them giving me and my friends sidelong looks that carried hints of either disapproval or outright mistrust. It made my hide crawl a bit, but I tried to shake the feeling off as I led my friends towards the elevators we were told led to the hotel floors. We’d been given our room number by the door guards in a tone of voice that said they expected us to go their swiftly and not bother the tower residents.

As we approached the elevators along one side of the main entryway, I spotted Wellspring Whistles standing there, speaking in quiet tones to another mare I didn’t recognize. This mare was fairly petite, with dark gray fur and a bright mane and tail of shining blue. I couldn’t see her cutie mark because she was wearing heavy saddle bags that covered most of her flanks and sides with a quartet of pouches, laden heavily with some kind of electronic equipment.

Seeing me and the others approaching, Wellspring turned to me with a smile and nod, “Ah, there you all are! I was just beginning to wonder if you’d be dropping by here or not. Enjoy the sights around the city?”

I flicked my eyes towards B.B, who saw my questioning look and gave me the smallest of shakes of her head. Okay, so not mentioning Scythe yet. I gave Wellspring a return nod, “I’m hoping to see more of it soon. We hit up a nice spot to eat called the Scarf Stop. If I could somehow bottle their food and bring it with me wherever I go I’d probably die a happy pony.”

Wellspring laughed, as did the other mare, though in her case it was more a knowing chuckle as she said, “I’ve been there. Ladle knows how to whip up some unbelievable meals from practically nothing.” She glanced at all of my friends in turn, and I had the impression she was cataloging every detail about us, filing it away for future reference. “I’m Homage. I assist the local news jockey with his work.”

“That guy we heard on the radio?” I asked, the Homage gave a quick nod, and I went on to say, “So do you and Wellspring know each other from the radio or something?”

“Or something,” Homage said, tilting her head at Wellspring, “The airwaves have always been ridden by a pretty exclusive club of ponies, so those of us on the air tend to hear about each other. Wellspring’s Radio Guild has been instrumental in arranging this whole political pow-wow, and the broadcasting station here in Tenpony Tower has been a go-between for the NCR government’s communications since practically day one.”

“I got to know Homage a little via something of a information exchange,” said Wellspring, “Since her, ahem, ‘DJ Pon-3’ is always looking for news just as much as I am, we’d exchange stories every now and again when we managed to cross airwaves with each other. Kind of a long distance relationship. Star crossed voices passing in the night.”

Homage smirked, “Yeah right, more like you trolling for scoops while I had to constantly sort fact from fiction from your own tall tales. I still don’t buy that you found an alien machine tower underneath your city. How gullible do you think I am?”

“It’s absolutely true,” Wellspring said, jutting her chin out, then winked at me “Right Longwalk? You can corroborate my story. You’ve seen the tower too, after all.”

This got Homage to glance at me sidelong, raising one neon blue eyebrow, “Is that right?”

I licked my lips, not sure I liked the intense way either mare was staring at me, and said, “It’s, uh, yeah, kinda true. I mean, there is a huge tower underneath the city, at least.”

I didn’t think I could technically call it an ‘alien’ tower, given that from what I understood the tower was actually built by the Elw, who weren’t aliens, just our ancient pony ancestors. I also knew that the Hyadeans wanted to get inside that tower, as did Odessa, and that they couldn’t only because of a magical barrier keeping them out. Kind of important information, I suppose, but I wasn’t sure I should go around spouting off that kind of stuff to just anypony. It did sound rather insane, if I stood back and tried to look at it from an outside perspective.

Homage had a very strong poker face, as the moment I was done talking she looked at me with an entirely inscrutable look. This expression changed drastically to one of mute shock as Binge stumbled forward and sniffed her, still smelling faintly of alcohol herself.

“Heheh, you smell like wildberries and secrets. Also sweat. Sexy sweat.”

“Excuse me?” Homage blinked rapidly, and LIL-E floated forward to literally bonk Binge on the head.

“Stop smelling ponies without permission! For fucks sake, could you act normal around other ponies for five minutes?”

“In some cultures smelling is considered a traditional form of greeting,” said Binge in a slight slur, wagging her tail.

“What cultures!? You don’t even- You weren’t ever... ugh, does not compute.”

“And on that note I think I’ll get this gear back up top, before DJ Pon-3 starts wondering what’s become of me,” said Homage, edging towards the elevator and tapping the button, perhaps a bit faster than was strictly needed.

Wellspring rolled her eyes and said, “I do hope the repair parts do you some good. The Radio Guild is always stocked with more than it needs, and if this treaty goes through we’ll be able to drop by more often with better parts for you to use.”

“True,” said Homage, still eyeing Binge sidelong, warily, “But I’m not sure a treaty is going to happen. There’s a lot of ponies in the NCR that aren’t keen on playing friendly with a slaver city.”

“Oh please, Homage, we’ve been over this so many times. Skull City is not a slaver city. We have indentured servitude via a perfectly legitimate Labor Guild.”

“Semantics, Wellspring, semantics.” Homage said dryly as her elevator arrived, and she stepped inside, “I’m just saying, while I’m a proponent of peace, certainly, I don’t know how long such a peace can last as long as you’ve got ponies in your city that don’t possess the same rights to freedom and liberty that the rest of you enjoy.”

The elevator doors slid closed, and I saw Wellspring puff out her cheeks in a small huff, smoothing down some of her stray blonde mane. “Stubborn mare, always has to have the last word...” Wellspring muttered.

I coughed, “She, uh, kind of has a point, doesn’t she? I mean, if the NCR doesn’t have slavery, won’t the Labor Guild be kind of a sour point in the negotiations?”

“Perhaps, but ultimately a pointless one,” Wellspring said with a deep sigh, “The Labor Guild provides for far too much of Skull City’s ore to just be abolished outright. Then there’s their V.E.C to consider. That ‘volunteer’ corps of trained killers is on par with both the Security Guild and Enforcer Guild in terms of military power. We can’t just dismantle the Labor Guild without tearing Skull City itself apart in a civil war we wouldn’t survive. The best we can hope for is to mitigate their power, do what we can to ensure they follow guidelines of minimum well treatment for their contracted laborers, and... hope for the best.”

Wellspring sounded suddenly very tired, as if she’d had this kind of argument hundreds of times before, and had used the same counter arguments each and every time. There was an undercurrent of pain and frustration in her voice too, as if she wished she didn’t have to make the argument, and herself wished that there was another way. I could completely understand. I’d seen both ends of the equation, through admittedly as still something of an outsider. I knew a pony who worked for the Labor Guild, and had seen the lengths Iron Wrought went through to protect his family. He was a good pony. Rough around the edges, but a solid stallion who was just trying to make a life for himself in a tough world. The Labor Guild was probably full of ponies like him; fundamentally decent folk who just ended up in a hard, unpleasant job that was still necessary to feed themselves and their families.

I’d also seen the Labor Guild’s ‘contracted laborers’, and knew for a fact that it was nothing short of slavery, plain and simple. Shale had been a good pony as well, a courageous mare who’d had far too hard a life that ended too soon, all because of the Labor Guild. How many more like her were out there now, with bomb collars around their necks because of a ‘perfectly legitimate indentured servitude’?

I could understand why Homage thought the NCR would never accept Skull City as an ally as long as the Labor Guild existed, yet I could also understand Wellspring’s position and frustration. After all, how could the Labor Guild be removed without a fight? A fight that would lead to the deaths of many a good, decent pony.

No easy answers in the short term. And here I was with far too much else on my plate to even consider how I might help. Instead I just put a hoof on Wellspring’s shoulder and gave it a comforting pat.

“Hey, at least you can still hope, right? That’s better than nothing. Maybe an alliance with the NCR will put pressure on the Labor Guild to ease up on its practices? They could treat their ponies like actual employees, instead of slaves.”

She gave me a faded smile, “A nice thought, but probably a pipe dream. Begonia isn’t letting up on her control of the Guild any time soon, and I’m not sure if anypony who replaced her would be much better. But I think that’s enough talk of politics for now. Going to be plenty of that soon enough, and I think I need a palette cleanser. Something bubbly and inebriating.”

Binge pumped a hoof into the air, “Hear hear! Preach it sister! Salvation in a bottle, for all us lost souls.”

“Eh, I think you’ve had enough already Binge,” I said, to which she gave me a stubborn pout and stomped a hoof.

“Never! Give me booze or give me death, for this is the hour of my discontent, and I declare in one loud voice that I shall not walk quietly into soberness! You can take my life but you can never take my... uh... what was I talking about again?”

I rubbed my face with a hoof, “Okay, everypony into the elevator, before my brain dribbles out of my ears.”

----------

Our room was rather spacious, though with two beds at least one of us was going to be using the floor. As usual I volunteered for that position, because I was fairly comfortable on the floor, and with the way my brain had occasionally gone gutter diving lately I wasn’t sure I wanted to try sharing a bed with any of the mares in the group. It was either a sign of the underlying problems troubling her, or a minor miracle, that Binge didn’t even try to convince me to hop into bed with her.

There was an adjoining bathroom, and when we entered I heard the shower running in there, and assumed it had to be Arcaidia cleaning up. By the time the rest of us were done settling in this was confirmed as a still mostly wet Arcaidia, using several towels levitated in frosty magic to dry herself off, trotted into the room.

She paused upon seeing us, a hesitance in her features before she said, “Hello fellow companions of travel. Was city nice?”

“Yup, disturbing family visitations aside,” B.B said, and laid out the encounter with Scythe in short order, to which Arcaidia immediately went over to the pegasus and leaned towards her with a concerned look.

“You are well, ren bruhir?”

B.B licked her lips, sitting on the bed and taking several deep breaths, “Much as I’m gonna be. Wound tight as a spring, but ain’t nothin’ fer that ‘till Scythe makes his move. Thing is, I wasn’t expectin’ him. I figured the Family would send a hit squad after us. Deadly as radscorpion venom, but straightforward. That kind o’ threat I know how ta deal wit. But Scythe... he’s the kind o’ guy that’s gonna hit us sideways. Today was just him sussin’ us out. When I go ta face ‘im in two days, all bets ‘r off, an’ I don’t know what kind o’ tricks he’ll have up his sleeve.”

There was a stark current of genuine fear in her voice, but also a strain of hot anger as well, B.B’s eyes rimming with a circle of red as she growled, “All I know is that I ain’t lettin’ him hurt none o’ ya! Ain’t no way I’m lettin’ nopony get hurt on account o’ me.”

Binge, rolling onto her back on the other bed, made a sort of neighing exhale that was one part forlorn, two parts resigned, “Ponies will always get hurt birdie, no matter what. You can’t be everywhere, and your little bloody bro can do quite the ghost act. Maybe you could sniff him out and put a gory end to him before the meeting?”

B.B turned a sharp gaze towards Binge, “It ain’t that simple. In order ta git him ta agree not ta hurt nopony I also had ta agree ta show up fer the meetin’ in two days. Swore it via a blood oath, and a blood oath made under an Accord can’t be broken by either party.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s blood magic, Long. Ancient stuff the Mistress taught all us Crimson Nobles. Ya felt it when ya fought Black Petal, remember?”

I thought back to the fight with Black Petal at the church, and the way it felt as if she’d tried to worm her way into my thoughts with just her voice. It was eerily similar to how Scythe had mentally controlled the ponies at the restaurant.

“So... that ability to screw with the mind is blood magic?”

B.B gave a grim nod, “Part o’ it. Consuming blood makes my kind stronger, an’ some o’ that is from the magic we can work through the blood. It ain’t like unicorn spells. It’s all more subtle stuff than that. But it's powerful, an’ bindin’. I can’t break my oath to Scythe any more than he can.”

“What will happen if you break oath?” asked Arcaidia, eyes wide.

“My blood’ll turn against me,” B.B said, licking dry lips and shuddering, “First it’ll hurt. Then it’ll hurt a lot. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll die ‘fore it hurts so much I go insane.”

“Well... shit,” I said, “I guess we can’t do much until the meeting.”

“At which point we might as well brace ourselves fer whatever tricks he’s got fer that encounter,” said B.B, “I’m sorry Long, we ain’t got a lot of options. Scythe didn’t show up the way he did without plainn’ ta git that agreement outta me, and if we’d fought then and there in the restaurant... he’d have killed most everypony there.”

“And we can’t even tell anypony else about him, can we?” I asked, “Because he made that part of the Accord or whatever, too?”

“Just ‘bout the size o’ it,” B.B said.

I ran a hoof over my mane, grunting, “I don’t like the idea of you having to deal with him alone. Are you planning to try using that ARM he gave you?”

B.B grimaced, eyes uncertain, “I ain’t inclined ta trust he’d just give me such a potent weapon... but ya remember him asking if I wanted ta taste his blood?”

“Yeah, which was exceedingly creepy and kind of gross,” I said flatly.

“Well one bit o’ blood magic I could still do is read the feelin’ and intent o’ those who blood I drink. I’d have known if he was meanin’ ta make them ARMs as some kind o’ trap. Still, he’s a slippery sort. Coulda found a loophole.”

“Could you beat him without the ARMs?”

B.B gave me a wane smile, and beneath the aura of calm she was trying to project I could see the icy undercurrent of fear in her eyes, “Ain’t even sure I could beat him with the ARMs. I’m way outta practice fightin’ my own king, Long. Black Petal was tough enough an’ she ain’t in Scythe’s league.”

Her eyes hardened with fierce determination, “Still, I gotta try. It’s high time this matter was put ta rest. I can’t run from my Family no more. So one way or another, I’m ending it.”

Arcaidia looked at B.B with a stern gaze, “You will be much careful, yes? Do nothing foolishy and let us help however we can?”

B.B put a comforting wing around Arcaidia’s shoulder, pulling the shorter blue filly close, and the two shared a tentative look as B.B said, “I promise I won’t do nothin’ ta git hurt, Arc.”

“Alright,” I said, “We’ll deal with Scythe when the time comes. For now we’ve got a job to focus on. The peace talks start soon and we’ll need to be sharp and ready for playing our part. On that note, uh, Binge, maybe you should stay here and rest?”

She eyed me with what I could only describe as ‘grumpy eyes’, “Whyyyyyy?”

“Uh, because you're a bit drunk?”

“I’m not even close to drunk, bucky. You haven’t the faintest clue what I’m like when I’m actually proper drunk.”

“Even so,” I said, “Maybe you ought to stay in the hotel and rest for now, Binge. I mean, you’re not exactly at a hundred percent, right? So why not relax here while the rest of us do the security detail this afternoon?”

Binge made a face, “Are you going to tether my leash here, bucky? I don’t like being left behind.”

I shifted uncomfortably, meeting her gaze with a concerned one of my own, “For one, Binge, even if you deny it it's pretty clear you're a bit drunk right now. I’d rather you sleep it off and get sober for when we’ll need you alert. For second, you’ve been acting weird ever since we got here. Why?”

I could see the doors slamming closed behind her eyes, the way she mentally and emotionally turtled up and set a stubborn pout on her face, “Don’t wanna talk about it. Big Sis Binge is fine. You go play security. Binge will just sit here and sort her collection of stabbies. And I’m not drunk. I’m buzzed. Pleasantly. I’d need to knock back half a factory’s worth of harder shit than that beer to get really smashed. But no, that’s fine, I’ll stay here and think squishy thoughts.”

I took a deep breath, “Blast it, Binge, we’re friends. If there’s something wrong, you can tell us. That’s part of the gig.”

Binge just shook her head, a few small knives tumbling from her poofy mane to bounce on the bed. She began absently sorting them, from smallest to largest, muttering unintelligible things under her breath. I didn’t even question the fact that she’d gotten those knives past the tower’s front door guards. Sure they’d pattered her down like the rest of us, but Binge was Binge. If she didn’t want you finding the sharp objects on her, you wouldn’t find them.

With a frustrated grunt I glanced at the others, but none of them had any helpful advice to offer.

I knew I could try pushing Binge, but dammit I wanted her to open up willingly. I could tell something was hurting her, more than any physical pain I’d seen her in, and I couldn’t figure out what. I gave Binge one last worried look, feeling something twisting about in my chest as I did so. It wasn’t as if I could force her to talk, and it wasn't as if I didn’t have literally a dozen other problems pressing in from all sides, including the recent development with Scythe, but somehow Binge’s weird mental state was bothering more than all the rest combined.

If I’d been examining my emotions more closely I might’ve realized what that meant then and there, but at the time I was just too confused and frustrated to think straight.

Instead I was distracted by Arcaidia changing the subject, her chiming voice cutting through the malaise and fog settling over my mind.

“If nothing else to be spoken of, I had want to look around city too,” she said, hopping off the bed and shuffling over to her saddlebag, where she got out her simple, deep blue dress and slipped it on over her head. “Now that I done looking at memory orbs, I can go enjoy looking at sights.”

I blinked at her, having completely forgotten about those memory orbs Bartholomew had given her. “Right, those! How were they? I mean, what was on those orbs and do you know why the Captain gave them to you?”

Arcaidia, adjusting her long silver mane to smooth it out over the back of her dress, gave me a puzzled tilt of her head, “Is very confusing. Orbs all about ponies who make movie, and bad things happen to them. There is Elw shrine they film at, and...” her face flushed cherry red, “... and some ponies get very close, during bad situation. Then rainbow mane pony show up and capture them all, and take to strange place. Last memory is of mare talking to rainbow mane mare about an...” she made a vague gesture, frowning, then glanced at B.B, “B.B, what word for place with tiny foals without family?”

“Orphanage.”

“Mmm, that, last conversation in memory is about an orphanage. I not know why it important. Bartholomew strange griffin, to give me such memory orbs.” She looked at me and pointed at the drawer next to her bed, “If you want look, they in there.”

“I kind of do, now that you’ve described them,” I said, as baffled as Arcaidia was, but at the same time intrigued. It sounded like the memory orbs pertained to that film Trixie and Money Shot were making, centuries ago. What did any of that have to do with what was happening now, and why did he give the memory orbs to Arcaidia of all ponies? “Well, I don’t have any time for it now, but maybe later.”

Arcaidia nodded and trotted for the door, looking over her shoulder at me, “I know you just get back, but any of you want to come and see more city?”

I cast a hesitant look back at Binge, who was stubbornly pulling out yet more knives from hidden places in her mane, tail, and barding, arranging them in ever more complex and hard to understand patterns on the bed. My eyebrow shot up in pure puzzlement as I also saw her add a spatula to the dizzying array of sharp objects growing around her. LIL-E floated a bit closer to me and bobbed up and down, as if to assure me she’d keep an eye on things. B.B got off the bed and said, “I’ll come. I’d go stir crazy stayin’ put anyhows. Long?”

I bit my lip, and said, “I think I’ll stay here and catch a nap before the negotiations begin. It’s going to be one of those days, I’m thinking.”

----------

I said I was going to nap, but honestly I couldn’t. My mind was too much of a mire of rather useless, circular thoughts. I kept worrying about everything from what would happen when we went to face the Golem, or Scythe, or whether Odessa would end up tracking us down. And when I wasn’t worried about that my brain kept turning towards my friends, examining each and every one of them in gut churning circles of concern. Would the NCR scientists take LIL-E away from us, dragging her against her will to laboratories to be disassembled into tiny mechanical pieces, destroying whatever spark of life and personality she had gained for herself over years of independent operation? Would Scythe prove too strong for us to defeat, or worse, might he somehow plant enough seeds of doubt in B.B’s mind to convince her to return to her ruthless former Family? Would we be able to find any trace of Arcaidia’s sister in the limited time we’d have to search between the negotiations occurring here in the NCR, and how would what we found affect the blue filly from the stars?

And then there was Binge. What was getting under her hide so much, and what could I do to help? Why did it bother me so much to see her like that? As I lay there on the bed, trying to force myself to relax, I could hear her shuffling about on the other bed, along with the small scrap of knives as she began to sharpen her collection.

For some reason it started sending less than virtuous thoughts running through my mind, thinking of her sitting there, lithe and stretched out. If LIL-E wasn’t here... if me and Binge were alone together...

I turned on my side, back to Binge and LIL-E, hoping to fall asleep before my mind’s strange thinking started causing certain reactions I didn’t need in my body at the moment.

Eventually I gave up on sleep and with a huff I rolled out of bed and mumbled something about a shower, not even waiting for a response before I quickly trotted into the hotel rooms adjoining bathroom. The compact little shower was a bit different from the roomy communal showers at Stable 104, but it operated the same way, and I for a time just let myself enjoy the wondrous invention that was indoor plumbing. I didn’t think I could easily return to tribal living if my tribe didn’t figure out some way to bring the joys of hot showers to our otherwise simple lifestyle.

Unfortunately my brain continued to betray me, even in the shower, briefly imagining Binge in the shower with me, her tongue caressing sensually along my-

“For Spirits sake, what’s wrong with me?” I growled in frustration.

It wasn’t that I disliked Binge or anything, but I literally had a mountain of other issues I ought to be worried about more, but it felt like every spare bit of room in my head was being taken up either worrying about what was bothering Binge and how I could help her, or fantasizing about bending her over the nearest available flat surface.

Nope! Just gonna go ahead and suppress this whole pile of nope right here and now.

I fail to see how this is productive. said Gramzanber, the ARM resting on the wall outside the shower. You continue to overanalyze what is otherwise a set of simple problems.

“Oh, that right? Tell me how simple they all are, o’ wise space stick.”

You are concerned over the Golem; then destroy the Golem. You are concerned over the new enemy Scythe; defeat him. You fear Odessa discovering you once more; defeat their efforts to capture you. You are fearful of the mental state of the female, Binge-

“If you suggest ‘destroying’ her...” I grunted, half jokingly.

Some modern forms of slang might refer to the act of copulation in that fashion, depending on how much force is used in the physical act.

I groaned and planted my head on the shower wall, “Gram, could you not? Please?”

I fail to understand your reluctance on this matter, Longwalk. It is unhealthy, both physically and mentally. You do not understand how complete my awareness of you is, and I can tell that you exhibit all of the signs of a healthy young adult male ready to mate. You furthermore exhibit specific signs of desire to mate with Binge, who while older than you is still within a healthy age range as an acceptable sexual partner, who also exhibits signs of desiring you as a mate. Wherein lies the issue?

“I... I...” I just stammered for a moment, mentally reaching, “I just don’t know how I feel about her, Gram. Just because my nethers get stiff doesn’t mean I should ‘mount up’.”

Why not? Is not arousal the primary method of determining when to mate?

“No, dammit! It’s not! It just means-” I halted my sentence as I realized I was raising my voice. The last thing I needed was for Binge or LIL-E to hear any of this. Luckily the shower was loud. I took control of my voice, lowering it back to normal, “It’s not that simple. Or at least I don’t feel like it should be. Maybe for some, it is. For me, though, I want to be sure. It’s... it’s just important to me that if I do that with a mare, it's because we share something that goes beyond just being hot and bothered. I don’t want to screw up something that important. Not just for me, but for her too. I don’t want to use Binge like that. Even if she’s willing, she’s too important to me to just relieve my stress on like that, as if were just a matter of convenience!”

I paused as I said that, thinking. Gramzanber too was silent for a moment, and it said out loud the thoughts that were going through my own mind.

If Binge is important enough to you to warrant that consideration, does that not answer the question of how you feel about her?

Shit, he had a point. The thought hung in my mind, glittering and dangerous. Was I actually falling in love with Binge? I shook my head, trying to dislodge the notion, but it stuck like a particularly pesky itch.

“Do you think it's that simple, Gram? Could I really just let it happen, and see where things went?”

Again, I have no practical experience to draw from. My only concern is your well being, which by my estimation means finding a way to alleviate this confusion and tension inside you concerning this cognitive dissonance between your overstimulated sex drive and your rather stringent romantic ideals. We are facing multiple battles soon, while needing to remain vigilant for further dangers. You being distracted by sexual fantasies about a prospective partner who has already demonstrated a willingness to fulfill those fantasies strikes me as counterproductive to having you prepared for the conflicts to come.

“I see what you mean. It is kind of hard to focus with Binge running around in my head. Just don’t rush me on this. I need a chance to talk to her, alone, and before I even try to get our feelings figured out I got to get to the bottom of what’s eating her right now.”

Clearly not you.

“Gram!”

Sorry, I am attempting to learn how to properly use humor to disarm awkward situations. Clearly I require more practice. In the meantime I would advise that you at least relieve yourself while you are in a position of privacy. As I said, sexual distraction could prove fatal in a combat situation.

I felt raw heat flush to my face as I gulped, “Dude, seriously, I’m not doing that in front of you.”

You are not in front of me. You are in a shower with the curtain drawn.

“That’s besides the point! You’d know! You could, like, hear me and... and stuff. It’s not happening! At least not while you or anypony else is nearby.”

So be it, but I believe this is a tactical error.

“Duly noted, now please give me some peace so I can finish showering off without any more awkward conversation?”

Gramzanber went quiet, but I got the distinct impression that somepony was laughing at me as I continued to shower, and wrestle with the maelstrom of conflicting emotions inside me.

----------

We managed to go the rest of the time until the beginning of the treaty talks without incident. Arcaidia and B.B returned from exploring downtown Manehattan, Arcaidia herself trailing an extra saddlebag containing freshly bought fruits and vegetables from the NCR farming market, and a few knick-knacks she was happy about which included a folding paper fan with the design of a scaly creature I’d never seen before painted on it. It was a weird silver thing with fins, and when I asked what it was Arcaidia rolled her eyes and told me it was a fish.

I had to ask about what a fish was. Apparently they were weird scaled things that lived in water. Like geckos, only in the ocean or rivers. We’d never had any in the stream my tribe had made its home next to, so this was the first I’d heard of them. I wondered if they tasted good?

Binge had hidden all her knives away back on her body, and I’d been rather shocked at the sheer number she’d had out to sharpen and clean by the time she’d been done and started putting them away. When I asked how she’d collected so many, she only gave me an empty look and said, “They find me. They know I’ll take good care of them.”

She still smelled a bit of alcohol, but wasn’t as obviously tipsy as before. “Look, Binge, if you don’t want to stay here, then I won’t force you-”

“It's okay, bucky. I was mad for a bit, but you’re right,” Binge said, giving a big, wide yawn, “I don’t like being left behind, but it’s just going to be a lot of mouths saying big words that mean nothing of what the hearts behind them feel. I can skip that.”

She came up to me and I felt her neck nuzzle up against mine in a touch so brief I almost didn’t realize it happened.

“Go do boring guard stuff and stop worrying about me. I think I know what I should do now. I’ll make the ghosties stop, and get back on my own.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, but she just shook her head and didn’t say anything more. I was stuck puzzling over that for the entire walk back to the Capitol building.

Applegate didn’t seem too bothered if my team was down a member. I got the impression she wasn’t particularly convinced of Binge’s dependability anyway. In short order she brief us and the other two Drifter teams on our jobs. Crossfire and Shard would work alongside the NCR guards at the front doors giving access to the conference room. Hawkeye and his team were joining a group of NCR Rangers on the roof as long distance surveillance and eyes on the sky. Me and my friends were assigned to the conference room interior, where we’d each take a corner of the room and keep an eye out for signs of intrusion. Applegate would be in there as well, ready to respond to any emergencies.

I found myself in the southwest corner of the conference room, standing just beneath one of the second floor set of balcony seats and within spitting distance of the front meeting tables. The peace talks between Skull City, the Protectorate, and the New Canterlot Republic began with surprisingly little fanfare or formality. On one side of the meeting tables the representatives and various guild heads from Skull City took their seats, with extra guests and witnesses taking seats in the conference room stadium seating. Princess Purity and her entourage took up another third of the meeting tables. Next to her was a giant, bulky brute of a pony with deep brown fur and a bristling black and white mane that after a moment I realized was Phalanx without his power armor. He looked like a slab of stone, a living boulder next to the slim and pale form of Princess Purity.

President Grimfeathers and a group of ponies that represented the entire NCR cabinet of representatives took up the other side of the meeting table. Most of them I’d seen during the introductions when we’d disembarked from the Sweet Candy, including Velvet Remedy, who had a spot on President Grimfeather’s right side.

“So,” Grimfeathers intoned, “Let’s get down to business.”

There was a charge to the air in the room as everypony (and griffin) present seemed to become more alert. It almost felt like the stirring of tension that came right before battle, as if everypony at the negotiating table was preparing for something as draining and deadly serious as lethal combat. Given that the following talks would affect the futures of thousands of people across the Wasteland, one might say the stakes were higher than any one battle might be.

“It’s been the policy of this government for some time now to avoid entangling ourselves without affairs outside our borders,” said the NCR President in a heavy tone, casting a glance sideways at Velvet Remedy, “However there has been enough voices speaking out within various communities of our nation that say it’s time we try to extend the good will and hope for a better future we all fought for eighteen years ago to the lands that are not as fortunate as the New Canterlot Republic. We’ve agreed to these talks with representatives of both Skull City and the Protectorate in good faith and that, with some work, an agreement can be reached on terms of a treaty that will solidify relations between our respective nations.”

The elderly griffiness took a deep breath, tapping one talon on the hardwood table, “That being said, there will likely be several concerns that need to be addressed before any such treaty reaches the first draft stage, not the least of which is the continued utilization of slavery in Skull City, and the remaining tensions between Skull City and the Protectorate. The NCR does not nor will it ever condone any form of forced labor, within its borders or with any group, organization, or nation it would consider an ally. It will also not be pulled into a war not of its own making. Before these talks go any further than this I would have the representatives of Skull City and the Protectorate state their own view on this matter, otherwise we’re all wasting our damn time sitting here.”

A bit of President Grimfeather’s earlier impatience and irritation was already visible, and to me it looked as if she was struggling to maintain a diplomatic air. I suppose it could’ve been worse. There was a stir of exchanged looks among the delegates from Skull City, and I saw Begonia stirr, the large mare composing herself and leaning forward with her hooves held calm and steepled in front of her, elbows resting on the table. Next to her Iron Wrought was sitting, looking like a sour statue.

“Madame President, mares and gentlecolts of the NCR, I am Begonia. I am the Guildmistress of the Labor Guild, and I believe it falls to me to answer your concerns regarding the methods utilized by my guild and its labor force.”

“Labor force!?” suddenly spat another pony at the NCR table, a reedy looking earth pony stallion with scarred yellow fur and a stringy brown mane, “Call it what it is; slavery!”

Velvet Remedy, through looking no less disgusted than the stallion, looked to him and said in a calm, gentle voice, “Please, Chairpony Shamrock, I understand your feelings completely but we must give the mare a chance to speak.”

“But-”

“Pipe down,” said Grimfeathers, casting a sharp looking at Shamrock, until the stallion took a deep breath and sat back in his seat, glaring heatedly at Begonia. The Labor Guild leader took a moment to let things quiet down before nodding to Velvet Remedy.

“I understand the concerns of your compatriot, Chairpony Remedy. After all, your fine nation rose from the ashes of a most deplorable and brutal regime under the notorious Red Eye. I am all too aware of the utterly hellish conditions he kept Fillydelphia under, and his slaver empire was a blight upon the land in every sense of the term. However I assure you the Labor Guild is quite different. Every single pony under my guild’s employ is an indentured servant under a legal and binding contract to serve as adaptable labor for any number of needed business ventures until such time as their contract is paid up. We offer numerous means to shorten their contract terms via performing additional work shifts, performance bonuses, or volunteering to help defend everypony’s home in Skull City by becoming part of the Volunteer Enforcer Corps. While not ‘paid’ per se, our employees are not slaves, but contracted laborers. We provide for their training in various vocations, ensure they have adequate room and board, and that they receive medical care when needed. The average Labor Guild laborer is significantly better off than anypony who had the misfortune to live as a slave under Red Eye’s order.”

I had to stop myself from growling as I heard Begonia talk. It was an utter load of gecko shit, but she spoke it with such eloquent conviction I would’ve believed it if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes how the Labor Guild treated its slaves. The rational part of my mind kept kicking my brain, telling me to keep my mouth shut, but it wasn’t easy. With every word Begonia spoke I could only remember seeing the miserable slaves that I’d seen Crossfire and her team escort to Saddlespring all those weeks ago. How many had died underneath those Ruins? Had the Labor Guild looked after their well being then!? I remembered Shale, how desperate she’d been for freedom, sold to the Guild as a foal and barely knowing any other life than their hard labor until she’d died saving me and my friends.

Could I just let Begonia spout that crap without saying anything? Yet... if I did, wouldn’t I be jeopardizing the peace talks? How many ponies, thousands of them, would benefit from the alliance that might come about as a result of these talks? If I risked that, if I derailed this whole conversation because of my anger, I’d be throwing countless lives to the proverbial wolves. Not to mention that if the Labor Guild as ever going to be changed or confronted, it needed to happen via negotiations exactly like this. I couldn’t just personally go to Skull City and start cutting down the entire Labor Guild, and even if I could... would it be right? As horrible as it was, a lot of ponies depended on that guild, along with all the others, to keep things running in Skull City. Change, if it was to come, might happen faster at the edge of a spear or barrel of a gun, but would the bloodbath that resulted be worse than waiting to do it the slow, peaceful way?

I didn’t know if it meant I was a coward, or if I’d grown more mature, that I managed to keep my mouth shut and wait. That as much as I hated the Labor Guild and what it did, I wasn’t about to throw away the value of these peace talks to satisfy my outrage.

Shale, I don’t know if this is right or wrong... what would you have told me to do, I wonder? What would you have wanted?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried so much, for it seemed Velvet Remedy was several steps ahead of me and Begonia both, “I am pleased to hear that you take the well being of your... employees, so seriously. That being the case I’m certain you’d have no objection to the Followers of the Apocalypse setting up aid stations at various Labor Guild operations, yes? If you are unaware, the Followers are a rather large organization of volunteers here in the NCR who dedicate themselves to traveling out into the world to provide food, medical aid, and various forms of other succor to those in need. I’m sure they’d very much enjoy serving the needs of your laborers, and would ensure that your assertions of looking to their well being are... accurate. And of course if there are inconsistencies, I’m certain those could be corrected swiftly, couldn’t they?”

Begonia smiled, but her eyes had a cold flash of anger in them. If Velvet Remedy cared at all, she didn’t show it, and merely returned a thin and steady smile that also didn’t touch her eyes. I could almost see sparks leaping between the two mares. Begonia eventually nodded, saying, “I would be honored to allow these Followers set up aid stations. I’m sure they’ll find my guild’s operations to all be as I’ve described them. If there are... instances of inadequate care, they may be due to lower level managers being overzealous in their desire to meet quotas. Any such instances will be dealt with, I assure you.”

Somehow I felt as if Begonia wasn’t giving up her guild’s practices of forced labor so easily, and thus far there’d been no mention of the bomb collars that all of the Labor Guild’s slaves were forced to wear, but I wouldn't be shocked if Begonia had some sort of back up plan for that. Regardless, with that point cleared up for the time being the negotiations moved on to other matters.

First, Princess Purity spoke on the matter of the recent war with Skull City that happened a number of years back. Technically both groups had been under a cease-fire order without there being an official end to the war, but the Protectorate was willing to put a permanent peace agreement on the table under the condition that Skull City agree to a trade deal in which Protectorate ore could be traded for food from both Skull City and the NCR. Apparently food was the commodity the Protectorate was shortest on, despite having several small patches of farmable land, but they had more than enough ore mines in the mountains between them and Skull City. The war itself had started over some sort of confusion over seizure of farmlands, but Purity was willing to put that matter to rest as long as she could ensure her people were fed.

I lost a little track of the talks from there. Not only was I focused on keeping alert for possible dangers, but the details of the talks started to seriously go over my head. Numbers of crop yields, discussion of trade value on different ores, or how Skull City’s Mechanics Guild could offer machine parts that the NCR’s own industrial base in Fillydelphia lacked, all of these were minute details that just made my eyes glaze over. Its not that I didn't care, its just that much of this talk went way over my head. Like when the representatives of the Mechanics Guild started talking about the NCR's severe lack of stable energy and the possibility of repairing old pre-war power plants I just couldn't get my head wrapped around the details. I paid a little more attention when Knobs was called down to the table to speak on behalf of the Skull Guild, with Star Soul no longer there to do so herself. The nervous ghoul-mare had slowly wheeled herself to the front of the table to speak in a nervous but still exuberant voice on the methods of the Skull Guild, using magic and alchemy to tame the many feral ghouls in the Wasteland around the city to serve the people of Skull City.

This also led to questions concerning the reason Star Soul had gone missing, and Knobs, along with several others including Whiteheart himself, gave testimony as to the pirate attack upon the Sweet Candy. President Grimfeathers only said that if there was to be a rescue attempt, it’d have to come after the treaty was signed, and then she’d be open to ideas on a joint operation to deal with the pirates.

It was a bit of a sour note to end the day’s talks on, but after five hours of talking it seemed like things were moving along smoothly, and President Grimfeathers adjourned the meeting for that day amid a series of hoof shakes, and hopeful smiles. Maybe they’d really do it. Whatever bumps in the road were to come, it could just be that I was witnessing the start of a long term alliance between the Wasteland’s biggest powers.

It was us Drifter’s job to escort the delegates back to the hotel, so Arcaidia, B.B, LIL-E and I waited alongside Applegate for the Skull City delegates to gather to leave. Whiteheart came up to use, alongside Knobs, looking at us with an appreciative smile.

“Fine work today, but the job is only half done, my Drifters,” said Whiteheart, “The talks may be done for today, but we have another appearance to put in tonight. At eight o’clock, which should be in about three hours, there will be a dinner and dance at this building, and I do expect all of you to attend.”

“Uh, just gonna point out that we ain’t technically all Drifters here,” said B.B, “An’ I ain’t exactly in a partyin’ mood, Mr. Whiteheart.”

He glanced at her, but before he could say anything Arcaidia leaned in to B.B and whispered something I couldn’t make out, but caused B.B’s face to flush slightly red. “Then again, guess I could use the excuse ta unwind.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Whiteheart and as we began to escort him and the other delegates out of the building, Knobs came up beside me, her wheeled hind legs squeaking.

“Whew, that was pretty nerve wracking. I’ve never had to talk in front of so many ponies before.”

“Sounded like you did pretty good to me,” I said, to which Knobs nodded gratefully, then turned her eyes to Arcaidia.

“Oh, how are you doing with the replacement limb there? Still giving you trouble?”

Arcaidia tossed her mane a bit, holding her head high, and waggled the metal peg leg as she trotted along, “Is not always easy to step right. Feels like weight is off, but am managing. Have not yet galloped much. Hope not to trip on face if that happen. Hope not to trip at dance, tonight, either.”

Knobs winked and gave Arcaidia a wide, toothy smile, “Well if you want once I’m done checking on Blasting Cap at the hotel I can help you practice! I know a lot about moving with a fake leg, so I bet I can show you a few tricks to help get used to it.”

Arcaidia returned Knobs’ smile with a warm one of her own, “I like that, yes.”

I found myself gulping in a slight fit of nerves, “Are, uh, all of us going to be expected to dance at this party?”

Arcaidia turned a wide eyed, innocent look to me, “Why ask, ren solva? Dancing is fun!”

“Y-yeah, if you don’t trip over your own tail,” I muttered, recalling memories from back home. My tribe generally made it a point to find an excuse to have a celebration around once a month, whether due to a birth, or a bonding ceremony, or some young one’s first hunt, or just a good hunt. Dancing was an inevitable part of such celebrations, and early in my youth I discovered that I had about as much talent for dancing as I did for doing complex surgery. In short, any such attempts were complete messes of tangled limbs and possibility for internal injury.

Knobs let out a laugh, but not a mocking one, just a rather bubbly one of encouraging amusement, “It’s okay Longwalk, I have wheels for legs so its not like I’m going to be cutting an expert rug out there. Just relax and sort of shake around a bit in a vaguely dance-like pattern, and we’ll both have fun looking silly together.”

Arcaidia nodded firmly, “Yes, ren solva, we just have fun. Not enough fun in our lives of late, so we make time for it, yes?”

“I suppose so,” I said, rubbing the back of my head, not entirely convinced it was a good idea, but it was hard to say no to the combined power of Arcaidia and Knobs. I suppose with so much danger and doom hanging over our heads it might not be bad to spend at least one night cutting loose and unwinding. Maybe Binge would want to dance? If she wasn’t busy going after any available booze. Then again, maybe a party was just what might pick her mood back up?

The return to Tenpony Tower was swift and without incident, the Skull City and Protectorate delegation dispersing to their hotel rooms swiftly, most of them to prepare for the evening's upcoming festivities. I spotted Crossfire and Shard in the tower’s main entry, along with Hawkeye and his team of Drifters. Hawkeye saw us approaching and with a hard look turned away and stalked off into the deeper corridors of the tower.

“What’s his problem?” I asked as my friends and I came up to Crossfire, Knobs wheeling along behind us.

“Hawkeye?” Crossfire said, shrugging her shoulders and making a small scoffing noise, “Beats me, and don’t really care. Guy’s been pissy since day one of this job. As long as he doesn’t let it get in the way of the payday, I could care less what kind of mood he’s in.”

“C’mon Crossfire, he’s your comrade, right?” said Knobs, “You should buy him a drink or something. Help him relax.”

Crossfire sighed, “I’ll... take it under advisement. Be plenty of drink at this party tonight. Ugh, at least I won’t have to wear a damn dress.”

“I still think you should. You'd look amazing in the right dress,” Knobs said, looking crestfallen, to which Crossfire winced slightly.

“Whiteheart still wants one team on security, even at the party, and I volunteered me and Shard for the job. We’re still stuck wearing something formal looking, but we’ll still be in full gear.”

Knobs seemed to consider this, then said, “So technically you could wear a dress, you’d just need to have your gun on hoof?”

To this Crossfire looked a bit panicked, backing up a startled step, tail flicking, eyes wide, “Uhhh... kind of?”

Shard snickered, “Oh, boss, you shouldn't have said that.”

With hopeful noise and a shining look in her eyes, Knobs stepped towards Crossfire and pouted, “So you'll reconsider the dress? Please?” She put in just the right amount of tail wagging, and fluttered her eyes, "...For me?"

Crossfire gave me a pleading look, but I just held up a hoof and said, “Don’t look at me. You’re on your own. Near as I can tell I’m slated to get stuck in a penguin suit, whatever that is, and dance at the very real risk of breaking my neck. I’ve got no help for you.”

Crossfire blew out a neighing noise of resignation, eyeing Knobs flatly, but with a relenting nod, “As long as it’s not something too ridiculous, then fine, I guess I’ll...” she made a look as if she was throwing up a bit, “wear a dress.”

Seeing that look on her face was more than enough to lift my spirits. What? If others could have fun at my expense it was high time I got to feel some amusement at the discomfort of somepony, especially if that somepony was Crossfire. I did manage not to laugh, though, and instead just grinned at Crossfire as she let herself get dragged off by a squeeing Knobs, presumably to go check on Blasting Cap and then dragging that poor filly into the dress seeking shopping excursion Knobs had planned. Crossfire gave me a withering stare in return, and Shard did his best to hide his own amusement behind his bandanna mask.

My steps were a bit lighter as my friends and I exited the elevator on the floor of our hotel room, but my light mood vanished as I opened the door and found the room in complete disarray.

“What the...?” I stepped into the room, feeling a clammy, sickly feeling creeping up my spine as I saw the room’s table overturned, one of the chairs broken, several knives I recognized as Binge’s embedded in the wall, and several smears of blood both on the floor and wall.

Arcaidia saw it and let out a sharp breath, “Dis mas! What happen here!?”

“Binge!” I called, looking around with frantic eyes, quickly checking around and under the beds, but she wasn’t there. Even the restroom was empty.

LIL-E floated towards the window, which was slightly ajar, “This was opened up from the inside...”

“Is she...?” I began to ask, fearing the answer, but LIL-E just swiveled in the equivalent of a head shake.

“No body at the bottom, and if she had jumped I think we would’ve seen something on the way in.”

B.B, frozen at the door, had her nose flaring as she sniffed the air, “No... shit, no, I’m such a bucking idiot!”

She’d completely lost her accent again and I turned to look at her with fearful eyes, “B.B, what is it? Do you know who did this!?”

“Scythe! That bastard, his scent is all over this room along with Binges. He must have taken her. Why didn’t I think things through better!?”

“What do you mean? How could he have done this!?” I was near shouting, “I thought that Accord thing meant he couldn't hurt anypony!”

“Innocents... dammit all, Long, the exact words I had him swear by was he couldn’t harm innocent ponies while he was in this country,” B.B said, her voice tight with self reproach as she shook her head regretfully, “I’m sorry. I was careless. Too long not dealing with my treacherous Family, I should have thought of that loophole. Binge, she’s pretty damn far from innocent, so by the word of the blood oath, she’s fair game to him.”

“Longwalk,” Arcaidia said, standing at the smaller side table between the two beds. She was levitating up a note that had been sitting there. “Read this.”

I looked at the note, which was written in blood... probably Binge’s blood, and swallowed past a suddenly very dry mouth. The script was elegant, clean, and with the kind of flare that I felt somehow fit a narcissist like Scythe.

”If you would like to see your rather less than innocent friend alive and well, the ponies named Longwalk and Arcaidia, and the robot designated as LIL-E shall come alone to this mare’s old homestead. Arbu, I believe the place is called. Abandoned, still, after all these years. I’d advise against alerting the authorities as to what’s happened, as by the word of Blood Bloom’s oath that would violate her word and have the appropriately dire consequences. And no tricks, Blood Bloom. This is a game for your friends and I to play. You stay on the sidelines. If I so much as catch a whiff of your scent, I’ll end the Raider mare’s life. Consider this a taste of things to come, if you continue to resist the will of the Mistress.

Now, Longwalk, Arcaidia, LIL-E, I eagerly await your arrival at Arbu, as I know Miss Binge must also be quite eager to show you around her hometown. Ah, the scars of the past cut so deep. I think you’ll find our game an enlightening one. Do be quick, however, as I am starting to get ever so hungry, and I do not know if I’ll have the patience to wait long before making your companion my evening meal.

-Cordially, Scythe.

I read the note twice, just to make sure I got it all. I could all but hear the bastard’s smarmy, smug voice in each perfectly curved letter written in my friend’s blood. I felt my hooves shaking with a heady mix of cold fear and piping hot rage as I set the note down and emphatically growled, “Sunuvafuckingbitch!”

Now, I’m not expert on... well, pretty much anything; but least of all the intricacies of international law and politics. I was pretty sure if I took this to any level of local authority it’d raise questions that would swiftly land me and my friends in a pile of steaming shit with the NCR. What was that? You brought a psychotic raving, bloodsucking unicorn into our borders, because he’s chasing his estranged reformed sister, and he’s ponynapped your ex-Raider not-marefriend? Why sure we’ll help, and not even ask how or why that mess got started in the first place. Not to mention it’d probably trigger that stupid blood oath thing on B.B and start killing her in an excruciating manner. Something I’d rather avoid.

So that meant we were dealing with Scythe on our own. That was fine by me. The things I wanted to do to him right then didn’t need an audience. I mean, yes, I have this thing about avoiding unneeded killing. Recent experience notwithstanding I was generally pretty good about not making a trail of corpses wherever I went.

That being said, Scythe had just risen on my threat gauge from “kind of annoying jerk” to “just how much of Gramzanber can I fit down his throat without him immediately dying?”

... huh, the murderous feeling in my gut was probably a fairly solid indicator as to what my feelings towards Binge really were, but I wasn’t thinking terribly straight at the time. All I knew was that whatever ill-defined method I had for estimating threats that I could safely take down without lethal force and which ones needed to be impaled violently on my glowing space spear had identified Scythe as somepony that fell more closely to the later category than the former.

“B.B, do what you can to clean up here,” I said, already turning for the door, “If anypony asks, Binge just got a little too drunk and wild and is sleeping it off in the tub.”

B.B gave me a look somewhere between the realms of understanding and deep concern, “Long, it's a trap. Ya know he’s gonna be ready fer ya’ll. An’ Binge, she... she might not even still be alive.”

I clenched my jaw, sucking in a breath, my heart scrambling like a freaked out gecko in my chest. My mind's eye was being a total dick and showing me images of a still, unmoving Binge, her eyes empty of any lively spark. My voice was tight and clipped. “That thought had crossed my mind. I’m going anyway.”

“I... figured ya’d say that,” said B.B, taking a deep breath, “I’ll do what I can ta keep things under wraps here. Ya’ll, be careful. Avoid direct eye contact an’ don’t let him get a’ taste of yer blood. He'll try ta mess wit yer heads, an' back it up wit illusions. ”

Arcaidia, her eyes hardened to shards of silver ice, had already joined me at the door, her saddlebag slung over one shoulder and her starblaster holstered on the other. “We be careful, ren bruhir. You know this pony well, yes? How we best fight him?"

B.B bit her lower lip, sucking in a breath, "Its been long 'nough since last time I saw him in action that I can't rightly say what new trick's he might have, especially considerin' he's got an Odessa ARM ta play wit. His magic is all 'bout weavin' illusions, so don't trust nothin' ya see or hear. He's specializes in mind manipulation. Ya'll feel it if he stars tryin' ta root 'round in yer skulls, but ya can resist as long as ya stay focused." She sucked in a breath and shuddered, "But if he gets a' taste o' yer blood, its over. He can use the blood ta forge a bond 'tween him and his victims that make it impossible to fight against his mind powers."

She looked at me then, fearful and serious at the same time, and not a small hint of sympathy, "Which is why ya gotta be prepared Longwalk, in case o' the worst. Even if Binge is alive, she might not be... herself, anymore. Not if Scythe's gotten in ta her head."

I closed my eyes and nodded slowly, "I can't do anything until we face him, which is why I'm going now." It was hard to keep a certain manic note of desperation out of my voice and I was ready to start literally carving holes in the floor just to get out of Tenpony Tower faster.

Arcaidia gave me a look and said, "But, Longwalk, where we go? I never hear of this Arbu before.”

I had, but only because of the dream I’d witnessed in Binge’s mind. I knew it was an old settlement, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was in the New Canterlot Republic, or rather had been. It couldn’t be far, however, otherwise Scythe would never had told us to meet him there. It had to be somewhere in or near Manehattan. I figured if I asked some locals I could get directions.

Then LIL-E solved the issue by simply stating, “I know where Arbu is.”

Her mechanical voice held a strange note of grim finality to it as she floated out the door, “Follow me, I’ll take us there. It’s not far.”

I followed LIL-E out the door, while Arcaidia gave B.B a final, quick hug before following me. I saw B.B watching us go with fearful and guilty eyes. I just gave her a shake of my head, wanting to tell her this wasn’t her fault. I was the one who told Binge to stay behind at the hotel, alone. I should have realized there’d be danger, but being in the NCR had made me drop my guard. The general peaceful air of the country, and the friendly bustle of Manehattan, had made me forget that my friends and I were targets of more than one group that wanted to do us harm.

Well, no point in doing anything other than charge face first into the problem and smash it apart, hoping to come out the other end with myself and those I cared about intact.

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Footnote: 50% to next level!

Author's Note:

Hello folks and thank you all for coming, hope the wait wasn't too long for this chapter. Been a rather busy holiday season for me. Anyway the plot thickens here in the NCR and several plot threads from the past rear their heads, including the Golem set free all the way back in Saddlespring and B.B's ties to the Family coming to finally bite the party in the collective rear, while Binge has her own past issues to face, a home long gone and its many ghosts.

As some of you might have picked up on, I've kept up the tradition of using song titles from the various Wild Arms game soundtracks for chapter titles, each linked to appropriate piece of music. In this case I deviate, however, as The New Canterlot Republic clearly isn't a Wild Arms song, but it is linked to one that is very special to me, the "Town" theme of Wild Arms 1. To me its the quintessential rpg town theme. I've listened to it countless hundreds of times. Its my zen music. What I put on when I'm feeling down and out, tired, or frustrated. it always perks me back up, makes me think of hope. Its what the NCR is supposed to be, post Sunshine and Rainbows. Not perfect, but a beacon of hope in a still harsh world. When I first started this story so long ago, this was one of the few chapters I knew what song I was going to use for, even if I couldn't just call the chapter "Town" but would have to name it something else.

Anyway, I thank you all for reading, and as always give my sincerest thanks to those that have helped me get this far, and hopefully all the way to the end. Ref, Doomande, thank you both.

'Till next time, folks.

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