• 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 19: Parting, Bonds, Setting Out

It had been two days since the battle at the church.

Most of that time I had spent either trapped in the medlab being treated, poked, and prodded by Misty Glasses and a small team of spider pony researchers, or being tossed into any number of testing chambers to provide data on Gramzanber. It wasn’t that the spider ponies, Misty Glasses in particular, were being rude, or pushy about it, but while they were taking care of my wounds they seemed more than a little eager to study me while they still had me around to do so. They seemed to think that if they didn’t take advantage of the chance now, I might do something crazy, like die, in a few days and deprive them of the chance to gather data. Given that they were providing healing, food, and shelter to me, my companions, and the survivors of my tribe I felt it a small price to pay to let them run some tests on me.

Our return to Stable 104 had been courtesy of what Misty Glasses called a ‘Transdimension Singularity Projector’. When that name had made my eyes glaze over she re-termed it a ‘portal device’, which I more or less understood. Sort of. Technology and magic by themselves were hard enough for me to get my head wrapped around. Mix them together and the results tended to melt my brain. All I knew was that the giant ring-like device the spider ponies had set up in Stable 104’s vehicle hangar opened up holes between two spots that you could walk through like a door, instantly going from one place to another.

Apparently this was one of many projects the Ministry of Arcane Science had been working on in Stable 104 before the balefire bombs of the Great Fire scorched the land. The device itself was based upon one found in a Ruin near one of Stable 104’s sister Stables, 106. The researchers had never figured out exactly how the device in the Ruin worked, but they’d learned enough to start attempting to build a similar one, albeit with far more limited potential range and stability. At most Misty Glasses said the portal device could potentially open portals to locations within a hundred miles, give or take, but theoretically the original device in the Ruin near Stable 106 could reach anywhere on the planet. Little wonder the ponies of Equestria had wanted to learn how to use it. I could only imagine what a device like that might have done for the Equestrians in their war against the zebra.

The project had been left unfinished with all the other research projects the Stable had been working on after Odessa had raided the place and the remaining Stable ponies had subsequently been transformed into spider hybrids by the work of the Hyadean creature that had come upon them in the aftermath. With the death of Director Twinkle, however, Misty Glasses had been putting her spider ponies on getting back to work on all the Stable’s old research projects, prioritizing ones that would make life easier for them in adapting to the Wasteland, and to make life easier for me and my friends so we could better aid the Stable.

To that end she’d put completing the portal device as a high priority, and the spider ponies had quickly gotten a semi-stable prototype working just a day before the battle at the church. My friends who’d been left behind after my capture by Odessa had returned to Stable 104 to plan out how to rescue me, and when Misty Glasses told them about the portal project they decided that’d be their best chance to get me away from Odessa. Of course I’d managed to escape along with my tribesmates, which made things easier all around. Stable 104 had equipment to track any Pip-Buck, which came from Stable 104 anyway, so they had known where I was. They’d used the Pip-Buck’s coordinates to determine where to place the portal. My friends had loaded up the Ursa and gone through the portal assuming I’d be in trouble and in need of immediate help.

When I asked why they’d assume I was in trouble Iron Wrought had been first to answer, with a scoffing, “Because it was you.”

Sad thing was, I couldn't even argue the point.

I’d sustained a lot of injuries in the fight with Shattered Sky and Black Petal, but nothing rest and the concentrated medical expertise and magic of Stable 104 couldn’t take care of. I was still sore two days later, but at least I could walk. As for the testing, Misty Glasses was highly interested in trying to define just how Gramzanber interfaced with me and how I used its abilities. To that end she’d had me use Accelerator and Impulse both in controlled situations, usually in test chambers designed to test fire experimental energy weapons.

By this point using Accelerator felt as natural and instinctual as blinking, and I had discovered I had a better sense of how long I could use it before risking serious backlash. Impulse on the other hoof was taking some getting used to. I could activate it just fine when I felt the right amount of pressure from Gramzanber. Distance, aim, and any kind of precise control of the blast was proving difficult. I nearly detonated the thing right in front of my face my first time trying to use it in the test chamber. I also discovered I could really only use it maybe twice in a row before the drain on my body was so much I could barely stand, let alone keep fighting.

I was also... ambivalent about the force behind Impulse. Misty Glasses informed me, perhaps a little too cheerfully, that the blast was slightly stronger than that of a thunder cannon, but still quite a bit weaker than the explosion of something called a ‘balefire egg’. I didn’t get what that meant, having no idea what either a thunder canon or balefire egg were, but it was clear the destructive force was pretty high. Which mean I couldn’t really use Impulse unless I was certain I was willing to kill whoever I used it on. It’d really been pure luck, and the power of his artificial ARM, that Shattered Sky had survived my first use of Impulse...

… not that doing so had done him any good, come the end.

I hadn’t had a chance to talk with Trailblaze about that, and I sorely wished to. Not to accuse, or confront, but to make sure she was okay. Killing, no matter the circumstances you do it in, is going to leave a mark. There’d been no time, and I hadn’t actually seen much of Trailblaze anyway since we arrived. She and the others of my tribe had settled in, at least, through from what I’d seen they were still a bit skittish around the spider ponies. For the time being they were safe, and for me that was enough to lift my spirits and make the soreness in my body feel a little less painful as I trotted to the residential quarters of the Stable.

They also grumbled about the confined spaces of the Stable. I couldn’t blame them. While I was getting used to it, I thought I would’ve prefered to sleep in a tent out under the open sky. On the other hoof, beds were a wonder I hoped to introduce to my tribe if... no, when I rescued the rest of the tribe and went back to Shady Stream. I found myself fantasizing about the soft bed, nearly falling asleep before I even entered my room. Yawning I stripped off my armor, which I’d been wearing even in the Stable out of habit, and set Gramzanber aside next to the bed. Stretching, not having bothered to turn on the lights, I hopped into bed and started to get comfortable.

Rolling over, stretching out a hoof to try and snuggle a pillow, I instead ended up grabbing something that was altogether too warm and pliable to be a pillow. Pillows also didn’t giggle in disturbingly high pitched voices.

My tired eyes snapped open to see, in the dark, Binge’s smiling face inches from my own.

“Nom,” she said as she proceeded to bite my nose.

More out of shock than pain I found myself giving my lungs a workout as I yelled and scrambled out of my bed fast enough that I might as well have used Accelerator and gotten the same result. Breathing heavy and laying on my back on the cold metal floor in shock I saw Binge creep up to the side of my bed like a cat stalking a mouse, her tail wagging in the air above her.

“Binge, what are you doing in my room!? Again!?” I asked. Completely calm...

… Yeah, okay, I’m lying. I wasn’t calm, I was two seconds away from a panic attack. It didn’t help that I noticed Binge had a particularly hungry look about her tonight. She licked her lips as she giggled at me again. Cold sweat beaded on my brow at that giggle.

“Sleeping in your bed, silly. Isn’t it obvious? I know the nice doctor spider put you back together and juiced you up with all that healing goo, so your eyes work, and your ears, and your other parts.”

I stayed on my back, still too surprised and fearful to even think about trying to stand. I was noticing, as my eyes adjusted to the dark, that Binge had made some... additions to my room. For one, her own armor and other acquired knick-knacks were strewn around the bed like a little nest of random junk. I had no idea how I’d missed tripping over any of it when I’d first gone to the bed. There was also the beginnings of what I tended to consider Raider “art” on the walls.

“Uh, Binge, that’s not blood is it?” I asked, pointing at some of the scribblings. They were hard to make out, but I could tell they weren’t quite like the more conventional Raider graffiti, which seemed obsessed with dismemberment and putting ponies in sexual positions, often at the same time. These were... well they were as crude as other Raider drawings, but looking at them I noticed they were less focused on gratuitous sex and violence and more just... weird.

I don’t know everything that goes on in Binge’s mind, but I got the impression the wall scrawlings of her sitting on a giant throne constructed out of lollipops and bones while I fed her slices of meat from a platter was a peek I didn’t need. The pictures with the rampaging horde of little fuzzy animals was cute, though, if you ignored the teeth. And I have no idea to this day what the picture of Arcaidia flying around in what looked like a weird saucer-shaped thing with antenna poking out of her head as she fried fleeing ponies with her starblaster was all about.

“Hehehe, well duh its blood, silly,” said Binge with a lick of her lips, “I couldn’t find any red paint! Except inside me!”

She wiggled one of her hooves at me and I saw the fresh cuts, some of them still bleeding. A few specs got on my face. All at once my fear twisted into genuine concern and my face tightened in a frown, “Binge, you shouldn’t hurt yourself like that.”

She responded instantly with a little reverberating noise rising in her throat that was half growl, half purr. Binge bounced off the bed, landing partially on top of me with her nose poking against my own and her crazed blue eyes glittering down at mine. The blanket on the bed had gotten tangled in her hooves and was now covering us partly, and I was painfully aware of just how... warm, Binge was. It could feel her against me like a breathing, heated blanket, and as nervous as I was the feeling of the mare that close was making my head feel light.

“It doesn’t hurt one teensy itty bit,” she said, petting my head with one hoof, her touch surprisingly gentle, “Don’t you worry your pretty head, bucky. Oh, but it does make me feel all fuzzy and hot inside to know you care.”

I gulped, my heart beating faster in my chest. I was trying very hard to ignore the way her belly rubbed up against my own, and how lower parts were... also in remarkably close proximity. Uncomfortably close. Or too comfortably close, depending on how you view these things. There was a distinct line of inappropriate thoughts running through my head that I was working fast to put the brakes on. I tried thinking of Trailblaze but that didn’t help at all, instead just serving to remind me of my guilt and frustration over learning about her and Whetstone.

“B-Binge,” I said, putting a hoof on her chest and slowly pushing her up as I tried wiggling out from under her, “I, uh, look, if you want this room, it’s all yours. I’ll find another place to sleep.”

Binge let me push her up but as I was wiggling away I felt her hind legs clamp around mine, and she kept stroking my mane with one of her hooves. I then heard a distinct scraping of metal on metal and noticed that with her tail she was idly running one of her knives along the room’s metal floor.

“You don’t have to go, bucky, this is your room after all,” she said, licking her lips.

“You... um, you seem like you were planning on sleeping in here,” I said, my logic centers having trouble working as they were quite distracted by the dual sensation of Binge’s legs wrapped around mine and the constant ‘schkkk’ ‘schkkk’ of the knife’s edge on the floor.

“Mmmhmm, and you were gonna sleep here too,” she said, leaning over me, her voice turning into a sympathetic coo, “I can see into you. You’re like a party balloon that’s about to pop.”

She licked my nose, “Let’s snuggle and see how much air I can suck out of you.”

Yup, that was my cue to leave! Binge, for all her... grabbiness, wasn’t prepared for a properly motivated Longwalk when he wanted to be somewhere else. With a tiny yip of surprise Binge found herself being bodily lifted away as I, abruptly, went from simply trying to wiggle free to being on my hooves and tripping over the bed sheets to get to the door. However I myself had underestimated just how quick and agile Binge was, and as I got to the door I found the mare had somehow gotten under me, popping up between my forehooves while laying on her back as she grinned up at me.

“Is that a no?”

I stared down at her, hoof halfway up to touch the button that’d open the door, but I found myself meeting that gaze of indigo eyes, and hesitated. My instincts were torn. My little brain pony was screaming at me to just get out of the room, now. Common sense told me being alone with Binge was dangerous. My sense of morality also told me that if Binge was offering what I thought she was that I shouldn’t just jump at it, no matter how... pent up I was.

If being pent up was enough excuse to sleep with a pony then nature wouldn’t have given us hooves!

But damn me if a part of me wasn’t intrigued. Tempted. Would it really be so wrong? I was a stallion in all ways save two; no cutie mark, and never mated. The only mare I had ever had feelings for was into mares herself. Now I had a strange, admittedly alluring if somewhat crazy pony, who was seemingly more than willing to show me exactly what I was missing.

At what cost? Could I even trust her? What would she do with that knife, if I dropped my guard? Did it matter? What would my friends think? Did I care?

“You think too much,” Binge said, sighing, “Why do you think so much?”

“I’m pretty sure you’re the first pony who's ever accused me of that,” I said, backing away from the door and getting Binge out from under me. She stood with speedy fluidity, and the knife that had been in her tail was now in her hoof, bouncing up and down as she looked at me with her endlessly blue eyes.

Ancestors, they looked so much like Trailblaze’s, I realized. The comparison ended, there, however. I’d looked at Binge plenty of times, but that night in my room I started to really... look at Binge, as a mare, and not a Raider, or ex-Raider, or ally, or possible still enemy. She was dirty, and messy, and unkempt, and somehow made that all look alluring with a simple crooked, yellow toothed smile and tilt of her head that promised she could do all sorts of things I wasn’t sure I wanted but knew I’d never forget. Her eyes were where the comparison to Trailblaze ended. Trail was athletic, well muscled, a full bodied mare, whereas Binge was almost painfully lean and whipcord thin. Yet I still wondered what it might feel like to hold her. That knife kept bouncing up and down, twirling in the air.

“You think I’ll do bad things to you?” asked Binge.

“Maybe. That’s part of it,” I said, shaking my head and stepping back from her, “Why do you want to do this anyway? I mean, with me?”

Binge giggled, dropping her knife, though she didn’t seem to care as she sashayed closer to me, “Why, bucky? What do you think I want to do?”

I cocked my head, still stepping back to keep some distance between us, “Seriously? I know I’m not the brightest colt in my tribe, but if you’re not trying to get me to mate with you what are you doing?”

“Oh I’m definitely trying to get you to do the sexy with me!” said Binge with an excited swish of her tail, “I just think its funny the way your brainmeats work. You worry and worry and worry about everything you do! All these little knots in your head, winding tighter and tighter until you can’t do anything. There’s nothing to worry about my precious puppy. I won’t hurt you. A lot.”

She stepped forward and I stepped back, again and again until my back was against the wall and she reared up on her hind legs, planting her forehooves on the wall on either side of my head. She leaned forward, lips inches from mine, but I hold a hoof up as well, pressing against her chest, keeping her back.

Something in Binge’s eyes changed, a shimmer of hurt, and her voice turned... frustrated, “Why not, bucky? I know you’re hurting, inside and out. Let me make it feel a bit better. Let me give you something to smile about.”

“Binge, I can’t,” I said, taking a few deep breaths, which didn’t help because it just meant I was breathing in her thick, musky scent, which made my brain light up with all sorts of impulses I knew I couldn’t afford to give into, “I really can’t.”

Binge gave me a coy look, her eyes sliding downward. I didn’t get what she was looking at until her hoof started going down, down, and further down past my waist, to pat at something that made me yelp and try to jump back, but there was kind of a wall in the way. All my movement did was jostle Binge even closer to me.

“Can’t? Not according to this little guy,” she said with a smile that nearly broke away the little control I still had left.

Nearly.

“Binge. No.”

Again I saw that faint shimmer of hurt in her eyes. She stared into me, blue glittering eyes stabbing into me in a way her knives probably never could. I gulped, feeling a tightening in my gut, wondering if I was making the right choice here, but I couldn’t do this. Not like this, not here, with her. Putting aside the fact that I didn’t know just who would be sticking things into who if I did accept Binge’s offer, I just didn’t know her well enough. I didn’t... feel for her? There was a surprising amount of hesitance in my own heart when I thought about her. Could there be something there?

Binge, after a slow uncomfortable minute of staring into my eyes let out a hissing sigh and backed away from me, looking at me with confusion in her eyes.

“You want to, I can see it,” Binge said, looking down, and I self consciously adjusted both my hind legs and tail to hide my... er... physical reaction to Binge’s prodding earlier.

“Well, its not like I can control that,” I said, feeling the rush of warmth in my face.

“So you won’t cuddle and snuggle with me?” Binge asked, “Even if I promised to only cut you a little bit?”

I blinked at her for a few seconds, “Uh… let’s just... yeah, no. No cutting. Even if, someday, I do decide to do that with you, no knives.”

“But the knives are the funnest part,” she complained.

“Binge, no knives in our theoretical future sex!” I said with a firm flick of my tail.

“What about razor blades?”

“No!”

“Barbed wire?”

“NO!” I said, but found I was smiling a bit, unable to help a bit of laughter at the turn of the conversation.

“Gee, maybe I don’t want to have the sexy with you then,” Binge said with a turn of her nose and a small huff, but she was sharing my smile as she slide up to me again and whispered, “But I’m glad I could get you to laugh. Its a good laugh. Do it more.”

I obliged, laughing as I suppressed a yawn, “No promises, but I’ll try. So, uh, can we just pretend this incredibly unsettling conversation didn’t happen? You can sleep in this room, I can go find another.”

“Nope!” said Binge as she glided over to the door, “I have lots of rooms, and you’re still skittish. Sleep, Longwalk, and have warm, messy dreams.”

As she slid out the door I saw her pause, then grin at something, or somepony, in the hall, “Heya birdie! I didn’t wear him out, so he’s all yours!”

I felt a little of the blood drain from my face and imagined my ears had just drooped as much as my mane as Binge giggled and skipped off, a very bemused looking B.B trotting to the door while looking where Binge had gone. B.B’s look towards me involved a highly raised eyebrow and something akin to a smirk.

“Whatever you’re thinking B.B, we didn’t do it,” I said, my voice a tiny squeak.

B.B let out a chiming chuckle, shaking her head as she entered my room. I noticed on her back was some oddly shaped black leather case and she shrugged her shoulders to let it slide off to the floor, “Don’t ya worry none, Long. Yer forgettin’ I got a’ sharp nose. I’d smell it iffin’ ye an’ her took a’ romp in the hay.”

That was a good point. A good, somewhat disturbing point. I managed to take a calming breath and sat back on my bed, looking B.B over. She wasn’t wearing her normal violet dress or armor, and it occurred to me I often didn’t see her without either. It made her cutie mark stand out all the more. I glanced away, realizing I was staring. Binges... antics, were having some lingering effects. I really did just need to get to sleep, maybe, er, ‘take care of’ my problem before drifting off.

“Ya want me ta go, Long?” B.B asked and I blinked, shaking myself.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I said, “Just... Binge. I can’t figure that mare out. I don’t know if I will if I spend years trying to.”

“Looks like she got ya a tad riled,” B.B remarked, nostrils flaring a bit, a small tint of rose coloring her face, “Ya... were ya thinkin’ ‘bout it?”

“No!” I said, probably far too fast for it to sound convincing, “I mean, I wouldn't do that with Binge. I don’t feel that way about her. I mean, I’ve only known her for a matter of days, and our first meeting was, if you recall, kind of violent. There was punching and stabbing involved.”

“Right, I trust ya. No need ta convince me,” B.B said as she tapped a hoof to the black case she’d brought in, “Ain’t why I came anyway, ta talk ‘bout yer love life.”

“Not that I have one to talk about,” I said while getting comfy on the bed, “So what’s with the case?”

“It’s fer a cello,” B.B said, flipping a few hatches on the side of the case with her nose and tipping it open with a wing. The inside was empty, however, and I gave her a questioning look. B.B rolled her eyes with a small smile, “Ain’t no cello in here, plain ta see, but I was thinkin’ ya could use this case fer lugging ‘round yer spear.”

“Huh...” I took a closer look at the case. It did look like I could fit Gramzanber inside, but... “Why? I mean, I got a sheath for the spear attached to my armor. Why would I need this, uh, what did you call it again?”

“Cello case,” B.B said, “It’s a’ ol’ fashioned string instrument. Real classical like. One o’ the ponies livin’ here ‘fore the whole turnin’ inta spiders thing happened used ta’ play.Way she tell it she’s related ta’ a pre-war cellist or somethin’. She got this spare case an’ after I asked she let me have it.”

“Nice of her,” I said, nodding, “But still, not sure why I’d need it.”

B.B looked at me with that flat expression of hers that said I was being simple, “Long, we’re headin’ off ta Skull City tomorrow. Teleportin’ wit that niffy machine ta’ git most o’ the way, at least. Ain’t ya forgettin’ somethin’?”

“Um... what?” I asked, wracking my brain. I did feel like I was forgetting something. Something about a... radio broadcast? Why was I thinking of caps and Crossfire all of a sudden?”

“Yer bounty!” B.B said, wings flaring, “Ya got a bounty on yer head, Long. So, iffin’ yer rememberin’ the plan is ta have ya disguise yerself. Given Gramzanber there’s a’ dead givaway as ta who ya are we need ta keep it hidden too. Figure this here case’d be perfect fer that.”

“Oh, right, that. I think my brain conveniently decided to erase all memory of that plan in a futile effort to save my sanity and sense of self-dignity,” I said, and reluctantly hopped off the bed to retrieve Gramzanber from the wall.

“Oh c’mon Long, it ain’t gonna be that bad. Ya make a’ right fine lookin’ mare,” B.B said, and I couldn’t honestly tell if she was being sarcastic or genuine. Quite possibly both. Also...

“Wait, what? Why would you know what a ‘fine lookin’ mare’ looks like? And no I’m not one, for your information. I’m a butch, muscular, incredibly masculine mare! Stallion! I meant stallion!” I said, realizing even as I spoke just how peevish I probably sounded. Sighing, I set Gramzanber down into the case, and had to admit that B.B had it right. Not about me being making a good looking mare, obviously! About my spear! The weapon spear. Not the... other... spear... ugh! Gramzanber fit in the cello case near perfectly, is what I mean.

B.B was hiding her laugh with a wing and looking at me sidelong, “First o’ all, just ‘cause I ain’t a fillyfooler don’t mean I can’t recognize a’ good lookin’ mare when I see one. Second o’ all, ya are kinda cute when we dress ya up all feminine like. Its ’cause ya got just the right bit o’ muscle on ya that makes ya stand out as a’ mare.”

She gave me an affectionate pat on the head, “Don’t ya worry yer pretty head, we won’t let any disreputable types have their way wit ya.”

I gave her a deadpan look, “Thanks. Anyway, looks like you were right, Gram fits just fine in here.”

B.B nodded in satisfaction, “Good. Pretty much was why I dropped by. That, an’ I caught a whiff o’ Binge heading towards yer room an’ figured ya might need a hoof wit her. Had a’ feelin’ ya might end up wit her puttin’ the moves on ya.”

“I have no idea why she wanted to,” I said, returning to the bed and laying down, lowering my head to rest atop my folded forehooves, “Then again, I never have idea what that mare is thinking.”

“Part n’ parcel wit bringin’ a’ Raider along fer the ride,” said B.B, looking pensively at me, “Glad ya were able ta keep it under yer tail, at any rate. I’ll let ya git some rest. We’re gittin’ up early in the mornin’.”

She turned to go and the thought occurred to me that there wouldn’t be many opportunities in the coming days to talk to her alone, and despite how incredibly comfy the bed was, luring me towards sleep, I spoke up, “B.B, can I ask something, real quick?”

She paused, turning her head to look back at me questioningly.

“What happened,” I said, awkwardly searching for words, “With... that mare. Black Petal. She knew you.”

“...Yes, she did...” B.B said, her accent dropping away.

“She’s like you. Feeds on blood. B.B, I won’t force it if you don’t want to, but is there anything we need to know about this? Is she, or others like her, going to be a problem?”

I felt bad having to ask, but I didn’t want to just leave this matter hanging. I didn’t think B.B owed us any kind of explanation, and I was serious when I said I wouldn’t force the issue, but if there was any chance that B.B’s past was going to come and bite the group’s collective flank I felt I needed to at least see if B.B was ready to talk about it. B.B’s face was like a stiff board for a second, lips pressing tightly together, wings tipped downward. Then it was as if she wrestled down something inside herself and her whole body relaxed.

“Yes, Black Petal is going to be a problem. By now she’s probably informed the rest of my family that I’ve been found,” B.B said and held up a hoof to forestall and questions for me, “Theres way too much for me to tell right here and now. I need time to get my thoughts in order, figure out where to begin. Look, Longwalk, this is going to get dangerous, having me in the group.”

I let out a small laugh, “Can’t be any more dangerous than what we’ve already been through.”

B.B gave me a serious look, “You fought Black Petal. Now imagine fighting a dozen more like her at the same time.”

That did get me to flinch, “You’ve got a big family.”

“You have no idea,” B.B said with a quiet sigh, brown mane falling across her face, “Long, I’m not exaggerating. Having me around is going to get dangerous. My family will come, and when they do it’s going to be hard, fast, and without any mercy. I don’t know how long we have, maybe a few weeks, a month at most, but when it happens I don’t know if I can protect all of you.”

I was silent for a few seconds, digesting that, but really there was only one response I could give. I hopped off the bed, went over to her, and threw my arms around her in a tight hug. B.B gave a tiny yelp of surprise, but soon enough relaxed, hugging me back.

“Let us do the protecting B.B, “ I said pulling back enough to look her in the eye, “Whatever your old family brings against us, they’re going to have a tough time dealing with your new family.”

“Thanks Long, I...” B.B sighed, her accent coming back like she was wrapping a protective blanket around herself, “I’m a’ right lucky pony ta have ya’ll ta count on. Gimme ‘till we git ta’ Skull City an’ I’ll figure out just what I can say ‘bout my family that’ll make any sense.”

“No rush,” I said, “When you’re ready, and only what you’re ready to tell.”

After she left I slowly got back into the bed, glad to finally be able to get some sleep, to the point where I wasn’t even thinking anymore of needing to ‘take care of’ my pent up sexual frustrations. Might take a long shower in the morning, though. Not even bothering to wrap the covers around myself I just snuggled the nearest pillow and started to rapidly drift off to sleep.

----------

It took me a few moments to figure out that I was, in fact, dreaming. It was one of those incredibly lucid dreams where I had complete control and awareness of myself, in the way natural dreams almost never allow. I was in a depressed pit of slate gray rock, with holes burrowed around the perimeter at seemingly random, and scaffolds of wood and metal leading up to the lip of the pit at each of the cardinal directions. The sky above was overcast and gray with the rain that was lightly falling, wetting my face as I looked up.

“Sorry about the setting,” said a voice behind me, “I just had Gram make something quick so I wasn’t talking to you out of thin air.”

I turned around fast, but saw nopony there. The voice was still there, though, distorted and so familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. All I could tell was the voice was female. When she spoke again all I saw was a faint, pony shaped shimmer in the air.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile Longwalk. I need to tell you something important and-”

“Who are you?” I asked, waving my hoof at the shimmer in the air, “Why can’t I see you?”

“Hey! Stop that! Seriously, I’m trying to tell you something important here, ah, stop, that tickles!”

It tickled my hoof as well as I waved it through the shimmer, feeling little tickling pin pricks across my fur, “You’re the one whose voice I keep hearing, right? When I’m in danger, or am using Gramzanber, its you who keeps trying to talk to me.”

“Yes, but it's not important who I am,” the voice said as I saw her shimmer float up and away from my searching hoof, “And no more touching! Geez. Now stop asking questions and just listen!”

I gave the shimmer a pouty look, realized I must have looked quite silly doing so, and sat on my haunches with my forehooves crossing over my chest, “Alright, Miss Voice, what did you need to tell me?”

She waited a moment, as if not believing I wouldn’t interrupt her again, then the voice started to speak once more, the wavering shimmer in the air floating back down to my head level, “Right, here’s the short version; Gram isn’t calibrated to interact with your body properly. He was built to deal with an entirely different species than ponies. You’re able to survive bonding with him because your body isn’t quite... normal, and because he’s using me as an adapter of softs. Me and your friends.”

“Waitwaitwait, what!?” I near shouted, “I don’t care about the short version, this sounds like something that requires the long version! What’s wrong with my body and how is Gramzanber using you and my friends to... adapt?”

“Longwalk, I don’t know exactly how this works because Gram can’t explain in terms I understand. That, and I don’t think even he knows what’s going on with you,” the voice had a hesitant quality to it, and even without the body language I could hear the frustration in the distorted tone, “He’s told me your body is different from a normal earth pony’s, that’s it. Not how, or why. As for me and your friends, Gram’s been forming links to them, the same way he tethered me to him. Me he grabbed because he needed something to use as a... a... well, its like being an adapter to an electrical plug. Gram was having trouble syncing with your spirit, so he used another spirit to be like the glue that’d bind you to him better. Then he started forming tethers to your friends to reduce the strain on your body when you use his power.”

My face scrunched up as I digested that, “Is it dangerous to my friends? This tether or whatever?”

“No, no. Believe me I had words with Gram about that when I found out what he did, but he assures me your friends aren’t in any danger. Not like you are, and that’s the main thing I need to tell you. Longwalk, you have to stop using Gramzanber’s abilities so much. You’re not immune to... to the way ponies die when trying to use an ARM. You’ll still die, its just the results have been delayed because of your unusual body. But instead of just a few days, like normal ponies, you’ve got closer to three months before Gramzanber’s power ends up killing you.”

I blinked a few times, feeling a strange, metallic coldness inside me. I looked at the ground for a second, then glanced back up at the shimmer, “So... I’m going to die in three months.”

The voice was silent for a minute before saying, “If we don’t find a way to stop it, yes. But we can stop it, Longwalk! First off, if you slow down how much you use Gram’s power, it’ll buy us extra time. But more than that the people who made Gramzanber have the calibration data to allow a pony to use an ARM without any trouble.”

“The Veruni, right? Why would they have information to let ponies use their weapons?” I asked, curious, and mostly trying to distract myself from the prospect of imminent death. Three months... damn.

“It’s because of Arcaidia,” the voice said, “She’s a normal pony, and was supposed to receive an ARM to use. I think Gram might’ve been meant for her, but he wasn’t calibrated before their ship crashed here. The data we need is on that ship, the Ark of Destiny. If you find that ship, you can take Gramzanber to the bridge and he can retrieve the calibration data. Do that and you’ll be okay.”

“Where’s this ship then?” I asked, suppressing my curiosity and urge to ask just how and why this ship crashed in the first place. Why had a Veruni ship been here? Hadn’t Moa Gault told me that the Guardians had hidden the world after the last invasion? Or had this happened during that period, thousands of years ago? Had... had Arcaidia been sleeping in that pod for that long? No, I had a feeling there was more to it than that. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle yet.

“We don’t know,” the voice admitted reluctantly, “Gram has a limited scanning range. If you get within a certain distance of the Ark, Gram will detect it. He assures me it had to survive the crash. Veruni ship’s are pretty durable.”

Again, then how did it crash? I almost asked, but kept my curiosity in check. Chances were the answer would be cryptic anyway. Besides, Arcaidia likely knew. If I needed to I could ask her.

“So, what, I just wander around aimlessly hoping I get close enough to this ship for Gramzanber to detect it?” I asked, trying to keep myself from a rising sense of panic. How could I help Arcaidia or any of my friends, Trailblaze or my tribe, if I ended up dead in three months? Could I manage to make sure Arcaidia was reunited with her sister and my tribe rescued from Odessa inside that time frame?

“Well, Gram isn’t sure where the Ark of Destiny went down, but he wasn’t even fully functional until he bonded with you. However Arcaidia might know. She was on the ship’s bridge herself until at least the point where Gramzanber’s ARM sphere was given to her. She might have gotten an idea of where the ship was falling. I’d try asking her.”

There was a heavy strain of worry in the voice, and I found myself wanting to put on a confident smile, if only to let this pony, whoever she was, feel more at ease. Pulling up as much good cheer as I could I smiled, hoping it didn’t look too forced, “Better than nothing. Knowing my luck it’s on the other side of the world, but at least Misty Glasses has that portal working. Maybe if they learn more about how that thing works they can get the original working. It’s supposed to have a worldwide range.”

There was a pause, then the voice said, “I hope so. Sorry to have to tell you this, but you needed to know. I can let you get back to dreaming now.”

“Wait,” I said, thinking of something, “I want to ask, is it this tether with my friends that’s allow me to see their dreams?”

“Oh, that” the voice sounded embarrassed, “Yeah, that’s kind of a weird side effect of the tether, but also something else.”

“Like what?”

Another pause, longer than the last one, “Gram says there is a likelihood that this is happening because of the parts of you that aren’t earth pony. That aspect of you is interacting with the tethers, possibly creating a bridge for your dreaming mind to touch your friends. He won’t say more than that.”

I frowned, flicking my tail, “You know, if Gramzanber has things to say to me he can do it himself. I’ve been wondering if there was a… well, person, or consciousness, in there. If we’re working together I ought to at least meet him.”

“It’s not possible right now,” the voice said, “If it was he wouldn’t need me to be the adapter. I‘m pretty much the go-between here.”

“But I’ve heard what I’m pretty sure is Gramzanber’s voice in my head too!” I argued.

“That’ll happen sometimes, especially as your sync rate between the two of you gets stronger, but it’s not strong enough yet for Gramzanber to communicate directly. Maybe after you get the calibration data. Don’t feel bad, I’ve been stuck with him for over a week now and he’s not much of a conversationalist. Took me forever to get him to stop talking like a robot.”

“Alright, well, tell him I said I’m looking forward to talking with him, when the time comes,” I said, “And that I’m grateful for all the help he’s given me. Without him I’d be dead a dozen times or more by now. As much as Arcaidia, I owe him my life.”

“He knows. And he’s grateful too. I don’t know how ARMs are supposed to work, but I get the feeling they’re… happiest, when helping the one they’ve bonded to. If a machine can be happy. I don’t really know. Anyway, why did you ask about your friends’ dreams?”

It was my turn to sound embarrassed as I rubbed the back of my head, “Well, I was kind of wondering if it’d happen again. Or if I could control it at all.”

This pause was the longest one yet, however I now understood this voice was conversing with Gramzanber. A minute or two later she said, “He says it’ll probably happen every now and again. No way to predict when and he says he doesn’t think he could stop it if it did, not until we get that calibration data anyway. Looks like you’re stuck being a peeping tom.”

“Doesn’t count if I’m not doing it on purpose,” I said with a small pout.

The voice let out a distorted laugh, “Good night, Longwalk. Try not to wander into any inappropriate dreams.”

The pony shaped shimmer faded away and soon enough the rocky pit began to grow dim, and with it I grew more and more tired. Soon darkness overwhelmed me, but rather than frightening, I felt relaxed, and comfortable. A sense of peace drove away the worries the voice’s words had brought. Whatever happened, I certainly wasn’t going to be facing it alone.

----------

I didn’t dream anything else unusual that night, though a part of me was disappointed at that. I wasn’t necessarily eager to go traipsing through my friends’ dreams again, but I couldn’t deny I was curious. Then again, remembering Binge’s last dream, and her sudden apparent growing interest in me, it might’ve been for the best that I didn’t go into any of my friend’s dreams that night.

I shook my head, putting the thoughts from my mind as I grabbed a shower and then made my way to the cafeteria for breakfast. I found Trailblaze and Whetstone both there at one of the tables, though the way they sat suggested they really weren’t used to the benches at the steel tables yet. I didn’t see any of my other tribesmates there, but I did see Arcaidia sitting across from Traiblaze, the two chatting. Even from this distance, however, I could see that Trailblaze was letting Arcadia do most the talking, and had a distant look to her.

I didn’t see any of my other friends, but that didn’t surprise me much. If I was getting the hang of reading the clock on the wall of my room then I had seriously overslept. It was actually kind of surprising Trailblaze and Whestone were still eating breakfast, but looking closer I noticed their trays of food were already empty.

I trotted towards the table and Whetstone spotted me and smiled brightly while giving me a wave, which in turn caused Arcaidia and Trailblaze to look in my direction. Arcaidia gave me a bright, cheerful smile and waved as well, all but mirroring Whetstone. Trailblaze smiled, but hers had a subdued, wane qaulity to it. Reaching the table I sat next to Arcaidia.

“Morning,” I said.

“Afternoon, practically,” said Whetstone.

“Sleep be good, ren solva?” Arcaidia asked, stretching her haunches, “Bed much gooder than dirt. Very bad we cannot take beds.”

“Meh, you're just soft from all that fancy living I’m thinking you did before you found us honest tribal folk,” said Whestone, patting her stomach, “Though I have to say the food here isn’t too bad. I might get used to this place.”

“It’s not home,” Trailblaze said, “We’re just here until we rescue the rest of the tribe, then we’ll resettle at Shady Stream.”

“I know Trail, I know,” said Whetstone, “Still, we can enjoy what we can.”

Trailblaze nodded, slowly, almost as if to herself, then she glanced up at me. Her eyes had an intense quality to them, like there was a force there that almost pushed outward. Still, this was Trailblaze, and I smiled at her. It was good just to be able to sit next to her again, no immediate threats or dangers. After a second she returned the smile and she looked like her normal self again.

“Longwalk,” she said, “I heard from Arcaidia that you and that group of yours is leaving today.”

I glanced at Arcaidia then back to Trailblaze, “That’s right. We’re going to Skull City. The plan is to find B.B’s father, and hopefully with his help find somepony that can get us into the NCR to look for Arcaidia’s sister.”

“And Odessa?” Trailblaze asked pointedly.

“Well, there are Guilds in Skull City, and B.B’s father told me that if there was anypony who knew anything about Odessa, it’d be one of the larger Guilds. So while we’re there I was planning to see what I could dig up. Odessa has to have a base or camp somewhere, a permanent place where they keep their big airships when they need to be repaired or refueled. I figure if we find this base, we can find our tribe. Or at least somepony who knows where they were taken.”

It wasn’t a great plan, I knew. Much as was the case with Longwalk Plans they were full of potential pitfalls and dead ends. What if this Odessa base was too heavily guarded to get into? What if our tribe wasn’t there? What if nopony there knew where they were, or wasn’t willing to talk even under threat of death; a threat I wasn’t at all sure I could carry out if I wanted to. What if none of the Skull City Guild’s had any information on Odessa? My plan was as tenuous and unstable as a pile of sand.

I felt a hoof pat my shoulder and Arcaidia was smiling at me with confidence brimming in her silver eyes, “Fear bad, ren solva! We do much good things together as group. Learn where tribe taken, beat Odessa to icy pulp, and go to far away NCR to get Persephone! Everything be better when I find Persephone.”

“I hope you’re both right,” said Trailblaze, her expression turning sour, ears twitching as she stared at the table. I couldn’t stand seeing her like that, not after we’d finally managed to get somewhere safe and rest. I reached across the table and put a hoof on hers.

“Trail, you okay?”

She looked at me, startled, and seemed to withdraw for a second before taking hold of herself and saying, “I’m fine. Fine as I can be with most of our tribe in the clutches of an insane army of pegasi and griffins. I just want to get going. To do something. Sitting here is just…”

Trailblaze didn’t have to finish her sentence, I could see the way her entire body was wound tight with tension, her mane all but bristling. She looked like she was a short way from exploding. It left me concerned, and also brought up an important question I had to ask.

“I understand Trail, which leads me to ask; what do you plan to do? Are you coming with me to Skull City?”

“No,” she said, and she had said it quickly and with a great deal of finality. That hit me a bit, like a swift blow to the jaw, but Trailblaze saw my look and I saw her eyes soften, “Not because I don’t want to, Long. I can’t. I’ve got… a different path to walk.”

Her hoof reached up and brushed the mark on her chest, the black marking of the bird’s talon. Moa Gualt’s mark. A brief flicker of flame played across her hoof and vanished, and Trailblaze sighed deeply. When she looked at me again it was with a sad smile.

“I have to seek out the other Guardian Shrines and find the Mediums that will awaken them. That’s the task Moa Gault has given me. If I can somehow work around that to rescue my tribe Moa Gault won’t stop me, but he’s made it pretty clear that the Shrines come first.”

Arcaidia had a sour look on her face, her silver eyes narrowing, “Stupid bird not give orders! Trailblaze free pony. Tell bird to sit on egg and spin butt feathers!”

Whetstone snorted a bit at Arcaidia’s attempt at swearing in Equestrian, but Trailblaze had a serious look that didn’t drop as she said, “It’s not that simple. I need his power if I’m to have a chance at doing much of anything, and he can pull that power from me as easily as he granted it. The thing is, there can be any number of potential Mediums for a Guardian to work through, so he doesn’t need me the way I need him.”

“You don’t need him,” I said, “You’re pretty amazing on your own.”

Again her smile, that smile I’d walk through fire for. Had walked through fire for.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence, but right now having the ability to summon flames at will is probably going to save my flank, and our tribe’s flanks, before this is over. It's… not that bad, Long. I’ve got lots of leeway in how I go about this ‘quest’, just as long as I look for these Shrines while also looking for our tribe.”

I tilted my head, thinking it over, “How are you supposed to find these Shrine’s anyway?”

“Moa Gault knows where the closest ones are, and if I can find Mediums for those ones the Guardians of those Shrines can lead us to others. This is important, Longwalk. We’ll need the Guardians to fight against Odessa and the other threats that are out there,” Trailblaze said, and for a moment I saw her eyes flicker towards Arcaidia, but it was so fast I barely noticed it and I don’t think anypony else at the table did. Did… did Trailblaze think Arcaidia was a threat?

“So where will you be going?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound as uncomfortable with this conversation as I felt, “Where are these nearby Shrines.”

“Closest one is in the mountains near where Shady Stream was,” Trailblaze said, “More north, but in the same chain. Going to be a lot of climbing involved.”

“And you’ll be passing by Skull City anyway,” I said, hastily, “It pretty much is right between us and the mountains. You could come with us part of the way-“

“Long, your spider pony friends have already offered to make one of those magical doorways to take us most the way,” said Trailblaze, “As long as we do a favor for them when we get there.”

At my questioning look Whetstone spoke up, “It’s like this, me and Trailblaze are the only one’s going for these Shrines, the others are staying here. In exchange for taking care of our own and letting us use their magical portal thingamajig, these spider ponies want us to lead a little expedition into one of their other Stable things. 106 I think they called it. Don’t know why these guys number everything. That’s a boring way to name things. Like I’d say call this place Metal Pit, or Web Tunnel. You know, something with some oomph to it!”

“Whetstone, focus,” Trailblaze said, giving Whetstone an affectionate pat, then turned back to me, “Basically that’s the gist of it. The leader here, Misty… Glasses, right? She laid it out for me. The tribe gets food, housing, and I get access to the useful magic and technology they have, and in exchange I help them explore Stable 106. Misty Glasses seems to think the place might make a good second home, or there might be useful research or something there. Either way, she’s sending a team of her security guards with me and Whetstone and we’ll scout this Stable 106. Once that’s done, we’ll go for the Shrine in the mountains. Moa Gault doesn’t care as long as we get to the Shrine.”

It sounded a lot like the deal Misty Glasses had made with me and my friends. It wasn’t a bad deal, per se, but I wasn’t happy that Misty Glasses was sending Trailblaze and Whetstone into a potentially dangerous, unexplored Stable. Then again what right did I have to question how either Trailblaze or Misty Glasses wanted to do things? Trailblaze had every right to decide what to do with herself, and if this was what she wanted to do, I couldn’t stop her. Not even if I wanted to. A lot...

No matter how I looked at it, I still loved Trailblaze. I wanted her to be safe. But safe wasn’t going to happen. She was right; she had her own path to walk, and that path… much as it hurt to admit to myself, wasn’t one that had me walking alongside her. I just had to have faith in her and Whetstone, that they could look out for each other and that our paths would cross again in the future. A future I was starting to fear, with the many unknowns hiding within it. Gulping, I gave Trailblaze a stiff nod.

“That sounds like a solid plan,” I said, “Misty Glasses is trustworthy, and she’ll take good care of our tribe while we help out around here. Just be very careful at this Stable 106. There’s no way to be sure what you’ll find in there.”

“Hey, no worries Long!” said Whetstone, her eyes brimming with confidence as she flexed with one of her forelegs, “Me and Trail, we’re a tough pair. Going to take a lot more than a gloomy hole in the ground to get the better of us.”

I sincerely hopped so. I prayed to the Ancestor Spirits that it’d be so.

If only I could be there myself to make sure it’d be so.

----------

I caught up to Trailblaze a short while later outside the cafeteria. She and Whetstone were trotting along down towards one of the wider common rooms where the members of my tribe had set up a sort of communal gathering place, like the village center back home. Blankets had been scavenged to create mock tents, and various chairs and benches had been gathered in a circle around the center of the room.

As we entered Stone Carver approached, wearing a makeshift spear strapped to her broad back, and gave us all a curt nod before addressing Trailblaze.

“Going out hunting and scouting.”

“Alone?” Trailblaze asked, eyes narrowing slightly.

“No, couple of them bug-folk are coming along,” said Stone Carver, a faintly uncomfortable twitch of her ears signalling her unease at the prospect, “Figured I oughta show them the proper way to hunt, if we’re going to be neighbors for awhile.”

“Good idea,” I said, “Be careful though, there are some strange geckos out there. Gold scales. A lot stronger than normal ones. Let the spider ponies use their guns if you run into any gold geckos. Also, watch the sky. Odessa could still be watching this area.”

Stone Carver rolled her shoulders in a small shrug, “Do what I can.”

After she trotted away Trailblaze looked at me, her eyes thoughtful, “You think Odessa will come for us here, Longwalk?”

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully, knowing my own expression probably looked more than a little worried, “MIsty Glasses tells me the Stable’s sensors haven’t detected anything since Odessa pulled out of that excavation site, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back. If they do Misty says she and the others can hide in the natural caverns beneath the Stable, making it near impossible to find them if they want. But there’d be little chance they can fight if Odessa decides to check this place out again. That’s why you’re going to check out Stable 106, right?”

“I suppose it is,” Trailblaze said with a tired sigh. Whetstone patted her on the withers.

“It’ll all be okay Trail, don’t lose your mane worrying about it,” Whetstone said forcing a cheerful smile.

“Yeah...” Trailblaze said, still looking distant. I frowned, knowing that we’d be leaving soon and I might not get another chance any time soon to really talk with my friend. I glanced at Whetstone.

“Hey, Whet, you mind if I talk with Trail alone for a bit?”

I got weird looks from both mares, but after they shared a glance with each other and Trailblaze nodded Whetstone smiled and said, “Alright, you two don’t get into any trouble. I’ll just go find a wall to stare at for the next ten, fifteen minutes.”

Whetstone wandered off, muttering something about murals, and leaving me and Trailblaze relatively alone. She was giving me a sidelong look, and she didn’t look nearly as relaxed or pleased as I’d want for a private chat, but then maybe she knew what I wanted to talk about.

“So, uh...” I started, a little tongue tied as I tried to figure out how to begin. Well, might as well dive right into the deep end, “Are you holding up okay after all this?”

Her eyes flashed with anger, but she didn’t immediately explode at me (figuratively or literally), instead keeping her voice tightly controlled, “Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?”

I took a deep breath, “Just worried a bit Trail. The church... that pegasus, Shattered Sky, he-”

Trailblaze cut me off sharply, “Longwalk, don’t.”

“Trail, I just want to know you’re okay,” I said, stepping towards her. She didn’t step away, so that was something. I looked her in the eyes, holding the stare as I kept talking.

“I don’t want you burying anything. I’m here to talk, if you want to talk about it.”

“Well, I don’t,” Trailblaze said firmly, looking away from me, “I did what I did. No changing it, and I don’t... I don’t regret it. He deserved what I gave him. Just drop this, Long. I’m not going to forgive Odessa for what they’ve done. Any of them.”

I stood there for a long, quiet moment, watching my best friend stand there, refusing to look my way. I could see a slight tremble in her stance that went from snout to tail, as if she was shaking under some incredibly heavy burden. All I wanted to do was hold her and take a share of that burden off of her proud, unbending shoulders. I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone.

I slid close enough to her that I could lean a leg against hers. She stiffened a bit but didn’t pull away. We stood there for a few quiet seconds before I said, “I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen next. I do know the world’s a lot harder than either of us ever knew, and its only going to get tougher if you try to face it all by yourself. If you can’t talk to me, then promise me you’ll talk to somepony. Whetstone, or Arcaidia.”

After a moment Trailblaze gave a small nod, “Alright. I’m sorry Longwalk. I got a lot on my mind. I can barely keep it straight. Everything is just... so messed up right now. I’ll try to talk with Whet. I have, already, but we’re both... well, you know Whet, she’s hard to have a serious conversation with.”

“Heh, tell me about it,” I said, remembering my talk with Whetstone on top of the church. I hugged Trailblaze, “As long as you talk about it with somepony. I’m always here for you, you know.”

“I know. Okay, I think we’ve done enough heart to heart,” Traiblalze said, giving me a playful shove, “We’ve both got work to do before its time to leave.”


----------



I found myself playing pack mule, cheeks puffing in exertion as I pushed heavy plastic crates into the back of the Ursa. Wiping sweat off my face I sat down after getting one such crate packed into one corner of the A.T.W’s passenger compartment and shot a look towards my friends gathered nearby.

“Anytime one of you want to pitch in,” I said suggestively, waving my hoof at the two or three crates still to go.

“I don’t have limbs,” LIL-E pointed out.

Arcaidia actually looked rather innocent and sincere when she looked at me from where she’d been dragging a black duffle bag across the hanger with her magic and said, “You already pack big crates mostly. Good strength what you do best. Everypony busy. No complaining, ren solva.”

I sighed, shoving myself back to my hooves and heading for the next crate. The others were technically busy, I supposed. Iron Wrought was working on downloading navigation information into the Ursa’s computer and apparently going through final maintenance checks. B.B was checking our load of ammunition and spare weapons. Binge was... actually I didn’t know where Binge was. She knew we were leaving soon, right?

Looking at the duffle bag Arcaidia was carrying I noticed a sweet mix of smells in the air, “What’s in there?”

Arcaidia set the bag down and zipped it open, with a somewhat pensive look on her face, as if she didn’t really like what was inside. Within I saw a number of clear plastic bags containing a collection of... carrots? And apples!

“Hey, this is the stuff they grow here in the gardens,” I said, taking a closer peek, “Food provisions?”

“Partially,” said Misty Glasses as the spider pony descended from the ceiling on a gossamer string of webbing. Her black and orange spotted form landed in front of me, her glasses perched precariously on her equine snout.

“There are normal carrots and apples in there, preserved inside these bags that have spells to keep them fresh for weeks. If you need some of it for food supplies that is fine, but the real reason I’m sending this food with you is to be a trade item. We can’t eat these vegetables and fruits any longer, but it could prove a useful bartering tool for you in Detrot.”

“Neat,” I said, placing my hooves on one of the crates and beginning to push it towards the Ursa, “Between this stuff and the food, we could probably buy whatever we need.”

“Not all of that is for trade,” Misty Glasses said, keeping pace with me, “Some of it are tools, weapons, materials, things to barter with like the food. But I’ve made sure to label the crates with the devices I’d like you to deploy. Please follow the instructions and don’t break anything.”

I nodded, grunting as I put my shoulder into getting the crate up the ramp. Misty Glasses had requested that my friends and I, on our way into Skull City, set up a pair of devices for her. One was a scanner that would detect any useful pockets of materials that the spider ponies might want, allowing them to send salvage teams to recover anything they might want. The other device was a communications beacon that’d act as a relay back to Stable 104. It meant I’d be able to stay in touch with the Stable via my Pip-Buck a lot easier, and more importantly it meant Misty Glasses could monitor and stay in contact with Trailblaze and her team as they explored Stable 106.

If anything went wrong there, Misty Glasses could contact me and let me know. And vice versa, if I needed to call for help from the Stable, I could.

Trailblaze and Whetstone were already gathered by the portal device, and once I had the last crate loaded I went around the side of the Ursa to see that they were standing in front of the device with four spider ponies. The spider ponies were wearing makeshift armor clearly made from modified padding from normal security armor. These spider ponies were also armed, having been able to alter the triggers on some of their guns to be be mounted like battle saddles on their arachnid mid-sections.

Trailblaze herself bore little besides a small pair of saddlebags and a simple knife, her eyes staring at the large ring-shaped metal device that was built up from a platform along one wall of the cavernous vehicle bay. She looked... resolute. The lines of worry in her face were clear as was the tense set of her shoulders, yet she stood tall and straight as a pillar, eyes determined.

I wanted nothing more than to go to her and wrap my hooves around her, hold her close and tell her everything I still felt for her. I suppressed the urge, though I no less decided to trot over. It was time to set out, for both of us, and I was going to say farewell properly.

Whetstone was a bedecked antithesis of Trailblaze’s threadbare approach to journey preparation. She was wearing a heavy set of security barding, with two sets of bulging saddlebags the contents of which I could only guess at. She was strapped with multiple weapons. A long, scoped magic energy rifle with a thin, tube-like barrel was slung across her back. She had two different pistols, one being the same style as the Odessa box-shaped pistols, the other a much more bulky affair with a thick barrel and set of green magical gems embedded along its sides. The mare looked happy as a filly could be, practically bouncing on her hooves, her black braided mane flopping about.

“You got enough stuff there, Whet?” I asked playfully, trying my best to keep my trepidation buried.

“Hey, these awesome eight-legged friends of yours offered us whatever we wanted, so you’d better believe I’m taking what I can. Besides these magic pew-pew guns are great!” Whetstone said, patting the larger pistol strapped to her side affectionately, “Seriously, I’ve spent my whole life poking things with a pointy stick and here ponies had gone and built stuff that shoots fire. Hunting is never going to be the same again.”

I wondered just how serious Whetstone was taking this, or if she understood that these weapons weren’t toys. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, however. She’d survived our escape from Odessa and had seen first hoof what the weapons she was wearing could do. Whetstone may have acted lighthearted but I think she knew the severity of the weapons she carried and what she might have to do with them to protect herself and Trailblaze. At least I hoped so.

“As long as you’re a better aim with them than I am,” I said, coming up to Trailblaze. She turned to look at me with a knowing, wane smile.

“So, this is it,” she said, “Another goodbye.”

I shook my head, “No. Not like last time.”

I reached out, hesitantly, then felt Whetstone push me from behind, saying, “Hug her you dolt!”

I ended up unbalanced, falling onto Trailblaze and we both went down with a pair of confused yelps. Whetstone laughed, looking at me and Trailblaze tangled up with each other, and then dogpiled on as well. In seconds we were all laughing, Whetstone wrapping both me and Trailblaze in a tight embrace.

“Longwalk’s got the right idea Trail,” Whetstone said, “This ain’t a goodbye. We’re all coming back here, so none of that gloomy shit! There’s going to be a lot of rough times ahead, but we look out for each other, and come back here to swap stories of our kickass adventures! No matter what.”

Trailblaze was still laughing, but it was... tinted with a note of sadness, “Whet, you’re impossible.”

“You know you love it,” Whetstone said, and I had to look away as the two shared a fast kiss. Trailblaze, face bleeding into a pink blush, shoved Whestone away with a playful bat of her hooves.

“Alright, alright! Enough already, I get it! See, I’m smiling, no more moping for me,” Tailblaze said as she stood up from the tangle and I joined her, though Whetstone seemed content to lay there looking at us with amused eyes.

Trailblaze and I looked at each other, but before either of us could say another word Misty Glasses approached, along with most of my friends. I noticed Binge had joined the crowd, seemingly materializing out of nowhere. She had something wrapped up in a thick set of blankets and tied to her back. I had no idea what it was but Binge had an immensely large and pleased smile plastered on her face. I wasn’t sure if I should be worried or not. Probably... yes, worry would be warranted.

“Ya’ll make a’ cute pair,” B.B said with a wink, and I realized she actually had no idea that Trailblaze and Whetstone were together. That explained the confused look that came across her face as Whestone grinned and wrapped a hoof around Trailblaze.

“We try,” she said. Trailblaze rolled her eyes but said nothing on the subject, instead looking towards Arcaidia.

“Arcaidia, I know it’s going to be pretty much impossible, but think you can keep the idiot here out of trouble? Or at least alive, when he does get into trouble?”

Arcaidia solemnly nodded, putting a hoof to her chest, “I make swear that ren solva not die while I breathe air. His toaster brain make trouble, but I turn trouble into frozen cube shaped objects! Glad I wll be when seeing you again, friend Trailblaze.”

“Ya’ll don’t need ta fret none,” said B.B with a firm nod. She was back to wearing her violet dress underneath a set of light security armor, and alongside her saddlebags I noticed she had a small medical box strapped to her flank, and a satchel on the other that I could see the hint of a blood pack poking. B.B had a calmer air about her than I’d seen in days, certainly more so than last night when I’d asked about her family.

“Iffin’ Long bits off more ‘n he can chew, we’ll all be pitchin’ in ta pull him outta the fire.”

A soft, annoyed whinney escaped me, “As if I’m the only one that might end up in trouble...”

Binge patted me on the head like I was a tiny foal as she said sweetly, “Course not bucky! I’ll be sure to stir up some fun for both of us!”

Trailblaze’s eyes looked at Binge sharply, “If you get him hurt, Raider, there won’t be enough ash left of you to even cause somepony to sneeze.”

Binge tittered, lickng her lips, “Wouldn’t ever dream of hurting my Longykins. Me and Mr. Happy will keep him safe as a foal in her mother’s unpunctured womb. Isn’t that righ Mr. Happy?”

Up came the bloody sock puppet, Binge’s voice poorly ventriloquizing, “Yuppers we will! We certainly won’t be watching him sleep at night from a ventilation shaft!”

General silence all around.

Misty Glasses coughed politely, adjusting her glasses in a manner that unfortunately reminded me of Shattered Sky, “Ahem, all banter aside, if you are ready to begin we shall start the activation sequence for the portal.”

Nopony disagreed that it was time, and in short order we were standing aside while spider ponies operated the control terminals set up alongside the giant metal ring. There were a series of green orbs set into the circumference of the ring, and as the spider ponies under Misty Glasses direction began to turn the device on the ring started to spin. The spider ponies chittered and squeaked in their own hissing language, Misty Glasses speaking through her voice box to keep us informed of what was happening.

“We are using the last known coordinates from transmissions we received from Stable 106 prior to losing contact. They had a small surface outpost from where they conducted forays into the Wasteland, and that is where we’re sending you. Miss Trailblaze, do be careful. Stable 106 was primarily under the purview of the Ministry of Peace, and I cannot be certain what the state of any of their medical experiments might be after all this time.”

Trailblaze simply nodded, Whetstone at her side, the four security spider ponies going with her arrayed behind her. By now the spinning ring was moving like a blur, and the green orbs set into it were now forming a near solid band of light as each gem flared to life with magical arcs of energy. Soon those arcs of energy reached into the open space within the ring, forming a solid sheet of green. The air around us started to smell of ozone, an acrid tingle touching my nostrils and making my hairs stand on end. The energy built until, with a flash, the green sheet burst like a bubble.

Now within the ring was a different space, an open hole that showed not the wall of the vehicle bay, but the open, daylit rocky expanse of a shallow mountain valley. I could just make out the faded, squat form of a concrete building off to the right, but other than that the view through the portal was too small to see much else.

“Please hurry,” said Misty Glasses, “The portal can be kept open for only a few minutes.”

Trailblaze turned her head, looking at me, her blue eyes filled with an intent light, as if she was trying to burn the memory of me into her mind. With a final smile she said, “Not goodbye. Just until we see each other again.”

With that, without looking back, the same way I didn’t look back when I had left her and my mother on that morning that felt like ages ago, Trailblaze galloped through the portal. Behind her went Whetstone and the four spider ponies, and when the last one was through there was a shimmer inside the ring, like a rippling pool of water... and the portal vanished with another flash of light.

And that was that, Trailblaze was now all the way across the opposite side of the land, walking into her own dangers and trials. I kept that image of her in my mind, and tucked her words away deep inside my heart. Not goodbye. Just... until we see each other again.

----------

We all strapped into the Ursa as Misty Glasses got the portal ring revving up again. Iron Wrought at the wheel, me buckled in next to him. Binge and Arcaidia were behind us in the extra passenger seats, leaving LIL-E and B.B in the back passenger compartment. Out of the front windshield I saw Misty Glasses wave one of her many legs at us from the portal ring’s control panel. Her voice spoke over the Ursa’s com unit.

“You’ll be coming in from the southeast, on what used to be South River Freeway. We’re using one of our old expedition’s beacons to figure the portal’s position, but we haven’t had anypony out that way in around twelve years, so we will have no way of knowing just what conditions will be like. I recommend going in prepared for any possibility. When you get to the other side try to find a high position, like a building, but somewhere also decently hidden if you can. Set up the scanner and com relay in such a place. Speed of the Goddess be with you, A.R.M.S.”

I hit the transmission switch and said, “And Ancestor Spirits watch over you and yours, Misty Glasses. Heh, I’d nearly forgotten we’d given ourselves that name.”

“We haven’t,” said Misty Glasses, “Stay in touch.”

“We will,” I said, and leaned back in the seat as the portal device’s ring spun faster and faster, its green lights of magical energy building up until it flashed to form the hole in space we’d be driving through. In that hole I saw what looked to be the cracked, barely visible remains of an ancient street, a wide band of dirt and dust interspersed with chunks of partially buried concrete amid a sea of suburban ruins.

“Hold onto your flanks, kids,” said Iron Wrought as he put his hoof to the pedal and the Ursa jumped forward, rushing right up the ramp and through the hole. When I’d gone through a portal to get back to Stable 104 I had felt a strange, teeth aching buzz through my body, and this time was the same. The buzz, like the hum of a thousand little bugs, warped through me from snout to tail, making me shudder.

The Ursa bounced a little when it hit the road, or rather what was left of it, but the rugged A.T.W kept us from jarring about too much and soon we were comfortably cruising along the Wasteland ruins southeast of Skull City. Looking left I imagined somewhere not far in that direction would be the church. To my right, through gaps in the passing tangle of charcoal black and gray ruined structures I caught sight of a expansive sickly brown band of water that was easily several hundred meters across. It ran east to west, towards the distant black spires that was the center of Skull City, still scores of miles away.

“If nothing gets between us and that city we’ll be there in a couple of hours,” said Iron Wrought, jaw tight, eyes focused on the path ahead. The Labor Guild pony’s entire body was rigid and tense and I felt a spike of worry for him.

“You okay Iron? We’re on our way there. It won’t be that much longer, like you said.”

He didn’t even glance my way, green hooves tightening around the wheel, “At this point it’ll be a miracle of the Skull Guild hasn’t assumed I’m dead. Or maybe they’ve assumed I’ve run off. Either way there’s no telling what they’ve done to my family, if they think I’m not coming with the research data they sent me to get.”

“We do have it, though,” I said, nodding towards his saddlebags, “You’ve got your copy of Lemon Slice’s research. They’ll have to let your family go now.”

“If they didn’t kill them already, or if they don’t want to keep using me as an agent against the Labor Guild,” Iron Wrought growled, “Sorry, buck, but I can’t... I don’t want to talk about this. I never wanted to get involved with any shit like this, and if I can get out, I will. I’d appreciate it if once we’re in Skull City you just forget about me. I don’t need to get stuck in your affairs anymore, and you don’t need to worry about mine!”

Binge giggled and Iron Wrought snapped at her, “The fuck you laughing at Raider!?”

“You, silly grump,” Binge said with a rictus smile, “Thinking Longikins will forget you like that, or that you can get away from him. Can’t you see? He’s like a big bouncy ball! And we’re all the cat’s stuck chasing it through the minefield!”

Arcaidia looked at the passenger side door of the Ursa, then looked at me with flat, serious eyes, her tone matching, “I maybe make loud shivol bir quiet by throwing out door? She make less noise, and smell not so bad, then?”

“Nopony is throwing anypony out doors,” I said.

Iron Wrought grunted, “That’s still your worst mistake so far. You’re better off if you let your ice filly do what she says and kill this Raider trash. Before she ends up doing something you’ll regret.”

The bitter anger made his voice hard as stone. I didn’t want to argue with him. Not because I thought he was right, but because I didn’t want us to run around in circles over Binge. Until Binge gave me a reason not to trust her she’d at least earned some trust from me. I understood that Iron Wrought had every reason to want Binge dead, however. He’d been the captive of Raiders, and I still didn’t know the extent of what might have been done to him during that time. Had Binge herself done things to Iron Wrought?

“Look, let’s just try to focus on getting to Skull City,” I said with as much of a calming, diplomatic tone as I could muster, “Keep watch for any danger. Sound good?”

Iron Wrought spared me a brief, guarded look, then huffed out a short whinny of agreement. Or at least I think it was agreement. He didn’t argue further and just silently kept driving.

After around half an hour my ears twitched, flicking left and right as I heard a faint popping noise. Glancing left and right I didn’t see anything around us, but I was certain I was hearing a strange sound. I looked back at Arcaidia and Binge. Binge was sleeping, head lolled back, lightly snoring, but that wasn’t what I was hearing. Arcaidia was clearly alert and I noticed she too had her ears cocked as if she was hearing something.

Seeing my look she nodded to me, “My ears eat sounds too, ren solva.”

“What?” asked Iron Wrought, glancing at us askance.

“Slow down,” I told him, and unbuckled, “Don’t stop, but slow us down a bit.”

At his glare I hesitated and added, with a sheepish grin, “Uh, please?”

I felt the Ursa start to slow as I went towards the passenger compartment. Back there I found B.B and LIL-E had been sitting at the dining table. Well, B.B had been sitting, LIL-E had landed her eyebot to rest on the table itself. I raised an eyebrow at the sight of a bunch of cards laid out on the table, the same kind I’d seen B.B use in her show back at Saddlespring.

“Something wrong?” LIL-E asked.

“Maybe,” I said, “I’m hearing something. Thought I’d head up top to take a look around. Wanted your help, since that robot’s got all that nifty tech in it.”

“I’ll head up too,” said B.B, setting her cards aside and pointing with a wing towards one of the small window slits that was open, “Caught a’ whiff o’ smoke an’ was thinkin’ I’d tell ya ta stop a spell so we could take a peek.”

I went up first through the top hatch, with LIL-E and B.B flying out behind me. I paused there on the roof of the Ursa, briefly reflecting on the fact that the last time I’d stood here I’d grappled onto a flying Vertibuck in the middle of a deadly chase. I really needed to figure out how to get my life back to something resembling normal. Lucky me the spider ponies had fixed up my Grapple, so if I wanted to go Vertibuck hunting again I could. Which I wouldn’t. Because that was probably somewhere in the top five most insane things I’d done so far... and I kind of hated the fact I had to use the qualifier ‘so far’ in regards to that list. But if I was being honest with myself the chances of more such instances was likely. It was just the pattern of my life right then. Still, next time Odessa came after us with Vertibucks I really did need to have another option than flinging myself through the air at it with a hook and wire.

Fortunately there didn’t seem to be any Vertibucks in the air today. The sky was clear, if you didn’t count the massive gray blanket of cloud cover. Some of the sky had a darker cast to it. Rain, and probably not too far off I would guess. At first I thought the sounds I heard might have been that of thunder, but no, after listening for a few moments the sounds of distant booms and pops were too frequent and irregular. With a widening of my eyes I realized I’d heard sounds like this before.

Distant gunfire. The faint, yet loud booms had to be explosions.

“A battle,” LIL-E said, floating alongside the Ursa next to me, “A large one.”

“Can you tell how far away it is?” I asked.

The eyebot didn’t immediately respond, instead rising higher into the air. We were coming around the bottom of a hill that had a half collapsed metal bridge spanning between another hill. Bodies were strewn about like broken pieces of kindling and the Ursa stopped fully before we went under the bridge.

“Not far,” said LIL-E, and I had never heard a robot sound sarcastic before, but now I could check that off my list.

I went to the front of the Ursa, gazing at the carnage before me. It was clear that the battle we were hearing off in the distance had rolled through here not long ago. There were several dozen bodies littered around the bridge or beneath it on the street. Most of them had been savaged by gunfire, bullet holes and splatters of blood marring the ground. There were a few explosive blast marks, I was guessing from grenades, dotted about, and looking at the bridge I realized the partial collapse of it wasn’t from old age, but recent battle damage. The sides of the small bridge was lined with a makeshift barricade of metal sheets and autowagon parts, but that was blasted apart, or burning in places.

The bodies were of two varieties. One set were clearly Raiders, the dead ponies sporting the patchwork, hide-like armor with random spikes and barbed wire. The other type weren’t any less dirty and bloody than the Raiders, but they were marked apart by their more well repaired leather armor and the distinctive bright yellow vests they wore. My eyes narrowed as I noted, to my surprise, the sight of something familiar on the necks of these ponies.

Bomb collars.

B.B swiftly landed on the ground by one of the bodies, carefully looking about, “These here folks are V.E.C. The Labor Guild’s Volunteer Enforcer Corps. Been awhile since I’ve gotten a’ gander o’ so many o’ them outside a Labor Guild camp.”

I heard the window on the side of the driver’s compartment roll down and heard Arcaidia’s voice, “There reason we stop?”

I jumped down from the top of the Ursa, landing heavily and turned to see Arcaidia with her head curiously poking out the window. She didn’t look alarmed, just wondering. Apparently all the bodies didn’t really bother her. For me, I didn’t think I’d ever get used to it. Knowing that at least half of these bodies were ponies like Shale just left me feeling cold. The Raiders had hit these ponies hard, and in some places a few of the bodies were desecrated, making it clear which side had won, at least in the short term. One poor mare... a sharp piece of rebar from the barricade on the bridge had been used to impale her through... well, fuck it, you know... and from the look of things she might have been alive when it happened. She wasn’t the only one, either, there were a number of other ponies similarly impaled, lined up along the road, like warning signs, entrails hanging down.

“Oooo, messy messy messy,” said Binge, hopping down from the driver’s compartment passenger door. She skipped up to one of the Raider bodies and kicked the mare over onto her back, the head lolling unnaturally. Binge sniffed the body, then made a clucking noise as she poked at the chest, to a symbol burned into the dead mare’s pale yellow hide.

“Yup, Bursters. One of the Big Two! We’d better be extra super hyper careful kiddies, Big Sis Binge knows the Bursters pretty good! They love to party with toys that go ‘BOOM’!”

From the Ursa I heard Iron Wrought let out a swift, vehement, “Fuck”, and I glanced back at where he was pounding his head into the steering wheel.

Arcaidia had drawn her starblaster, the weapon hanging in a cold blue aura of magic as the unicorn filly carefully exited the Ursa, eyes becoming alert. She came up alongside me, and apparently seeing me staring at the torn up and impaled bodies she put a hoof on my leg, her silver eyes softening for a moment.

“It okay. This not thing you could stop.”

I looked at her, about to protest that I’d been thinking that, but at her look I found I couldn’t form that protest, and instead just sighed, “I know. I know. Just... getting tired of seeing this kind of thing. Want to be able to stop it.”

“Cannot. World too big, you little pony. Need big, world sized things to fix big world sized problem,” said Arcaidia, and gave me a firm nudge, “You fix Longwalk sized problem, not worry about world sized problem. Come, lets look at noise, see if problems still near.”

I wasn’t sure how much I could believe in what she said. Seemed to me like one pony should be able to tackle any sized problem, but then again, here I was, standing amid a field of bodies, with not much I could do about it other than move along. Even giving these poor ponies a burial seemed unlikely, if the fighting was still nearby. We didn’t have time to bury them, and smoke from burning them would give our position away. At least I resolved to take down the ones who’d been impaled, before we moved on. Perhaps it’d be enough just to move the bodies off the road, at least.

Arcaidia started making her way up a small path going up the hill on the right to the bridge, and I followed. I saw LIL-E up there, hovering and apparently scanning the horizon, with B.B rummaging around the barricade. Binge remained below, picking over the bodies, presumably for anything useful. I didn’t tell her to stop. I didn’t see any guns around, supposedly because others had already taken those, but maybe Binge would scrounge up something we could use.

Iron Wrought remained in the Ursa, and I felt a pang of worry for him. He wasn’t banging his head on the steering wheel anymore, but he was just sitting there with his head hanging down, hooves partially covering his face. I was fairly certain he was worried this nearby battle meant we’d be delayed even more getting to Skull City, and hence returning him to his family. I felt a heated spike of determination to make sure that wasn’t the case, that we’d get him to his family soon.

That determination got a dousing of cold reality as I got to the top of the hill, just alongside the entrance to the bridge. Now with this higher vantage point I could see out along the suburban desert before me, a vast expanse of blasted out residential houses to the north and east, with a single, broken highway winding through it towards Skull City. I got an even better look at the river now, seeing its path leading from the distant eastern mountains to its curving path towards Skull City, where it split, one end forming a small lake near the city itself, while the other end turned northward around the city. There were larger bridges that spanned the river at a few points, though most of them were also damaged or completely broken. Only two were intact; one a cage-like affair to the east behind us, where I saw the fires of what looked like a large camp, and the other bridge a high, gray steel affair with two pairs of spire-like spokes connecting a web of thick cables across its expanse. This bridge was fortified with what appeared to be sheet metal and concrete miniature walls, and I saw the forms of dozens of makeshift wagons moving across it, and the dots of distant shapes of ponies.

In the forest of suburban ruins south of the river and bridges a battle was being waged. I couldn’t make out details, we were too far away, but I could see that it was a fight that had to have involved hundreds, perhaps thousands of ponies. All I could make out were the lines of orange tracers from gunfire, trails of smoke from launched missiles and rockets, and the constant popping and flashes of explosions. The fighting was taking place up and down a line of battle that I thought might have covered a few miles of ground. It seemed a swarm of ponies, clumps of disorganized yet ferocious Raiders, were pushing at a hard line of ponies defending entrenched positions. I could barely make out the faint yellow dots of the same kind of vests the V.E.C ponies dead in the street were wearing, through I could tell others were fighting alongside this group.

I'd never seen anything like it, the storm of gunfire and explosions looking like two forces of nature clashing with another. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the scale of what I was seeing. There was also the painful realization that every second that passed meant dozens of ponies were dying. It left me with a tight, sick feeling in my gut. At the same time I felt a heated urge in my chest to rush into that fight, to force an end to it. Utterly crazy, but the urge was there.

“You want to go down there, don’t you?” LIL-E asked, floating down next to me. The robot’s ‘face’ had turned towards me, her mechanical voice carrying a hint of sympathy, though perhaps that was just my mind playing tricks on me, “I understand. I’m not thrilled having to watch this either, though there aren’t a lot of ponies down there I’d be eager to help.”

I frowned at LIL-E, a far off explosion making me flinch, “Why?”

“I’ve gotten a zoomed in look at the combatants. Most of them are Labor Guild. I have no love for slavers, and less for Raiders,” LIL-E replied bluntly.

“From what I’ve been told the V.E.C are just slaves being forced to fight,” I said.

“Kinda,” B.B joined us, landing on my opposite side, “They’re all volunteers. Volunteer Enforcer Corps. Ain’t a’ pony down there that ain’t picked up a’ weapon by choice. Some o’ ‘em are just desperate folk hopin’ ta fight long ‘nough ta earn freedom. Others ‘r just violent crazies not much better n’ Raiders. Ain’t just V.E.C down there. I caught a’ gander o’ Skull Guild ghoul wranglers an’ a’ few groups o’ gangers too.”

I found myself pacing with pent aggravation. My instincts screamed at me to rush headlong into that battle, to help where I could, however I could. Even if we couldn’t do anything to really shift the course of a battle that large we could still likely make a difference for a few ponies down there. The problem was that I knew our goal wasn’t to get stuck in another battle but to get into Skull City. All leaping into this fight would do is sidetrack us and possibly get any number of us killed. I didn’t like it, but I had to remind myself that this wasn’t like Silver Mare Studios. We didn’t have ponies calling for help. This was a battle that fundamentally had nothing to do with me or my friends, aside from it being an obstacle in our way.

I took a deep, frustrated breath.

“Long?” B.B looked at me sidelong, questioning, but with a supportive stance, tense and ready. I got the impression that if I did decide to rush headlong into the fight that I’d find B.B flying right alongside me.

“We’ll see if we can get around it,” I said, pitching my voice loud enough that I hoped everypony could hear me, “Ideas?”

“The fighting is mostly concentrated just south of that bridge,” said LIL-E, “But my scanners are picking up skirmishes all along the route we’d normally be taking. We could head south far enough to go around but that’d tag on an extra day or two to our travel time.”

“I’d like to get us to Skull City as fast as possible,” I told her, glancing back at the Ursa, “Iron Wrought’s been waiting long enough.”

Arcaidia, who’d lightly cantered over to the bridge’s barricade, climbing up a wooden ramp to a small platform where she peered at the far off battle, turned to me and said, “Why no drive through?”

“Arcaidia, case ya didn’t notice, kinda a’ lot o’ ponies down that way wit a’ bunch o’ guns that’d probably be takin’ pot shots at us if we went drivin’ on by,” pointed out B.B, a wry smile on her face as she flew up a bit, gesturing at the battle, “I mean, I know yer a’ confident sort, but ya gotta admit that ain’t a’ smooth ride yer talkin’ ‘bout.”

Arcaidia smiled nonchalantly, “Bad ponies shoot at we, we shoot at bad ponies. What problem?”

She looked over the side of the bridge’s barricade, a dry Wasteland wind blowing out her ridiculously long mane as she flicked her tail, eyeing the distant battle, “No see other way through. What else we do?”

“While I don’t need any encouragement to put bullets into Raiders, B.B’s right,” said LIL-E, “All it would take is one of those motherless bastards getting a lucky shot with a missile launcher to put us in a pinch.”

I was about to point out that the Ursa could probably take a missile hit or two when the world went dark as a pair of hooves snapped over my eyes and I felt hot breath on the back of my neck as Binge’s voice range out, “We play peek-a-boo!”

I stiffened, and no, not in that way, and with a sight I reached up and gently pulled Binge’s hooves off my eyes. I looked over at the mare as she bounced around to stand in front of me, wearing her normal manic grin, and I asked, “Play peek-a-boo?”

Binge nodded enthusiastically. She’d apparently acquired a few random odds and ends from the bodies, stripping extra saddlebags stuffed with any trinkets she’d lifted from the dead, “Hard to shoot what you can’t see. When its dark we go, hidden by nighttime’s warm, cozy blanket.”

That got all of us looking at her, and after a second B.B slapped her forehead, “An’ why didn’t any o’ us think of that?”

LIL-E bobbed up and down in what I recognized as the robot’s version of a shrug, “The simplest solutions are often the easiest to overlook. To be fair, however, I’m not sure how much safer crossing the battlefield at night will be. I know between myself and the Ursa’s navigation features we could get across the terrain no problem, but the Raiders are likely to be just as active at night as they are right now, and if we get caught, well, nighttime battles are a bitch.”

“I don’t think we’re going to find a perfect solution to this,” I said, unable to keep some of my pent frustration from bleeding into my voice, “We still need time to set up Misty Glasses devices, so unless anypony objects with a better idea I say we take care of that, then rest up until twilight hits. Then we cross through wherever the fighting looks thinnest.”

There was a moment of silence amongst my companions, most of them looking like they were thinking it over. Except for Binge, who sat on her haunches as she rummaged in her new saddlebags while humming happily to herself. Arcaidia’s thoughtful look soon turned to an amused smile as she laughed lightly and hopped down from the barricade, striding over to me.

“Not toaster head plan, ren solva,” she said, “I no object.”

“Just remember that if we do get caught up in a night fight, check your targets twice,” said LIL-E, “I don’t fancy getting shot up by my own team.”

“Don’t think we’d be mistakin’ the flyin’ metal beach ball with guns fer a Raider,” said B.B with a friendly elbow at the eyebot. LIL-E swiveled around, her voice buzzing with mechanical laughter.

“Your saying that has just jinxed it, you realize.”

Returning down to the Ursa I noticed that Iron Wrought had gotten out of the vehicle and was looking at one of the bodies. The dead pony was a brown stallion, middle aged I’d guess, with a faded, red mane. I didn’t know what his cutie mark was because that part of his flank was barely intact. It looked as if most of this poor stallion’s back half had been hit by an explosive of some kind. A grenade, or maybe a rocket. I looked at Iron Wrought, whose expression was hard, but I could see a flash of pain there.

“Was this somepony you knew?” I asked, wincing a bit as Iron Wrought turned an angry gaze towards me.

He let out a harsh snort, shaking his head, “Yeah. Pitton. Overseer for a caravan that ran a route among the mills upriver. Used to be guards together until he got promoted. Heh, guess the extra caps didn’t help you out in the long run, did it Pitton?”

I frowned, not sure how to take Iron Wrought’s forced mirth. His black mane shook as he laughed, “I used to get so pissed at him for getting higher up. He could be such an ass about it, but he still took the time to share a beer or two anytime he was back in town. Now he’s dead and it looks like all the mills upriver are probably fucked by Raiders.”

I didn’t understand if Iron Wrought was driving at any point or if he was just... venting. The others had gone back to the Ursa, besides LIL-E, who remained floating above the huge six-wheeled A.T.W’s roof to keep a lookout for trouble. I turned to Iron Wrought and raised a hoof to pat his shoulder but thought better of it and said, “We’re heading out soon. Fix up Misty Glasses tech whatsits, then see about breaking through the battle lines come nightfall.”

Iron Wrought didn’t respond immediately, his eyes staring at the dead body of his... friend? Associate? Something. Eventually he laughed again, in that forced, blank manner, “It could be worse. It can always get worse. Going around to the south would be safer.”

“It’d also take longer. I want to get you home,” I said.

“... Thanks,” he said, roughly, and quickly turned away to head back to the Ursa.

After giving the bodies one last, sad look, I sighed and joined him.

----------

We were all on high alert as we searched for a good spot to set up the communication and scanning equipment Misty Glasses had given us. The actual fighting between the Raiders and Skull City forces might have been a good distance off, but the chances of running into straggling or patrolling groups of Raiders was high enough that we couldn’t relax our guard.

We slowly drove the Ursa off the remnants of the highway, examining the nearby ruins, until we came across an unusual looking building. It was like a tall cement block set on its end, lined with a metal staircase that went from top to bottom of its fifty pace height. The top of the building had broken off, the rubble laying in broken pieces around the base. Next to this tall building was a more squat building, that had its entire south facing wall missing. A pair of what appeared to be huge open garages lines the west end facing Skull City, and I saw the wreck of a huge, rusted autowagon laying on its side in the street just outside the building. The autowagon seemed odd to me, having some kind of large ladder assembly on its roof, and what little paint was left on it was a cheery red.

“Its a’ firehouse,” said B.B upon seeing my curious expression, “Folk use them big wagons ta’ fight fires wit water hoses an’ such. Bet that there cement tower was fer trainin’.”

I had no idea how ponies would fight fires with hoses. Actually I wasn’t certain what a ‘hose’ was, but I just took B.B’s word at face value on this one. Looking the cement building over, I also carefully searched for any sign of Raider habitation. My E.F.S was clear, the only dots in my field of vision being those belonging to my companions.

“If this place is clear, that looks perfect for what we need,” I said, getting no disagreement from anypony.

We were cautious in our approach, and took our time checking both buildings to ensure no unpleasant surprises were waiting for us. The interior of the firehouse was, ironically, utterly burned out. The upper floor had collapsed into the bottom floor, creating an interior almost hollow if not for the crushed rubble. Picking through it had revealed little of value, though B.B scavenged some yellow hard hats apparently part of the firefighting outfits worn back in the day, and Iron Wrought found an intact fire axe that he seemed to take a liking to.

With the area secured we set up inside the still mostly intact garage, parking the Ursa inside. It was late afternoon by then and getting time for lunch, so while B.B volunteered to start cooking something up and Arcaidia decided she’d take first turn as lookout, and Binge scampered off somewhere to do... whatever Binge does by herself, it fell to me and LIL-E to set up Misty Glasses devices. Well, LIL-E would do the actual setting up, as she had something of an understanding of how the machines worked. I would, once more, be regulated to pack mule status.

“You know,” I said between labored breaths as I lugged the crate up the stairs, its heavy weight attached to me via some vinyl rope that let me pull it along, “I don’t know why we couldn’t just take the devices out of the crate, and bring the parts up in lighter loads.”

Floating along beside me LIL-E turned, letting out a buzzing chuckle, “Oh, I thought of that. I just wanted to see if you’d actually haul the whole thing up here.”

I paused, nearly losing my balance and getting dragged back down the stairs by the heavy crate before I dug my hooves in and steadied myself. I glared at LIL-E.

“What?” she asked innocently, “I have to get my entertainment out here somehow, don’t I? Besides, you’re a big, strapping stallion. This shouldn’t be hard for you.”

I grunted, pulling the crate up to the next landing, and took a minute to wipe sweat of my brow, “This stuff weighs as much as a boulder!”

“Oh, where’s your earth pony pride?”

“I think I sweated it out two floors ago,” I said, stretching my hooves to work out a few knots, still feeling the sweat drenching me as I then shook myself from head to tail to try and clear it off. LIL-E floated to the side to avoid the droplets.

“Hey, watch it! Don’t get that stuff on my sensors! Eww, its on my camera lens!”

“Bah, that’s what you get for making me do all the physical labor around here, pushy robot.”

For all my complaining I managed to haul the crate to the top of the building before long. There wasn’t much up here besides a plain, empty concrete room, with blackened marks along the walls. There was some old unidentifiable piles of goo here and there that suggested something had nested here before, but thankfully there was no current inhabitants that I needed to do battle with. Just a faint, musty odor and the lonely sound of the wind passing through the windows.

“Well, at least the view is nice,” I said as I unstrapped from the crate and took a look out one of the windows, then frowned at the distant plumes of smoke and balls of fire from the occasional rocket explosion, “When ponies aren’t murdering each other.”

“Just pray they don’t end up drifting over our way,” said LIL-E as she deployed one of her tiny manipulator arms and opened up the crate, grabbing and pulling out the components, “I figure we can take on a few dozen Raiders, but with hundreds of the fucked up bastards on the loose I’d just as soon let the slavers spill their own blood dealing with the mess.”

I glanced back at the eyebot, raising an eyebrow, “You really don't’ like the Labor Guild do you?”

“I don’t like slavers,” LIL-E clarified, working with remarkable speed and dexterity, assembling pieces of the first device, something that looked like a big cylinder set on a tripod, “Far as I’m concerned they’re just a tiny shade better than the Raiders.”

“I’m sure Iron Wrought would appreciate the comparison,” I said dryly.

“Nopony forced him to make his living off of depriving others of their freedom,” LIL-E said, “Just like nopony forces Raiders to spend their lives making the Wasteland a miserable place for the rest of us. They all chose it, Longwalk, whatever excuses you’ll hear from them as to why they think they didn’t.”

I really didn’t want to get into another moral debate with LIL-E, so it was time for a subject change. Taking off my saddlebags I turned to LIL-E, examining the device she was assembling, “Need a hoof?”

“Not really. These things pretty much build themselves. It’s all about fitting things into the properly labeled slots, reading the directions and all that. Any foal could do it, and multiple hooves won’t make it go faster,” she said, turning the finished cylinder up on its tripod and pulling down a small folding out keypad. Her manipulator claw poked away at the buttons and soon a long antenna slid from the top of the cylinder and deployed a circular dish with a smooth metallic click.

“Which one is that?”

“The long range multi-scanner,” said LIL-E, not even pausing before getting to work on the next device, which looked more akin to a squat hexagonal affair with a few tiny prongs sprouting from it, “It’s basically the big cousin to the scanners built into this chassis. It’ll give the spider ponies a decent look at the local area. Misty Glasses sounded eager to find anything to scavenge out here.”

“As long as they’re careful about it,” I said, settling down next to my saddlebags, since LIL-E didn’t want any help with the devices. I was worried about the spider ponies. Worried that Odessa might piece together that Stable 104 was still inhabited and attack it. Worried that they might get into trouble with Raiders or worse while exploring for salvage. Worries made worse by the knowledge there would only be so much I could do to help.

I wondered what Trailblaze was doing right at that moment. Was her explorations into Stable 106 going well? I hoped it was boring, with nothing but lots of empty, undangerous corridors and rooms to explore. I sent a quiet prayer to the Ancestor Spirits that Trailblaze and Whetstone weren’t fighting for their lives, or if they had to, that they would be able to look out for each other.

To take my mind off my worries I rummaged through my saddlebags. There was plenty of fresh supplies there, but there were also a number of the odds and ends gathered over the course of my journey so far. I made a small grunt of surprise as I fished out two small pearl shaped orbs. One was the Memory Orb that had belonged to Airheart and shown that poor mare’s last moments of life, ended at the hooves of a reluctant Rainbow Dash. The other was the Memory Orb I’d snatched from the safe in the basement of Silver Mare Studios. Granted, both being black orbs made it hard to tell which was which. Did I want to see what was on the one I found in Silver Mare Studios? My little brain pony gave an enthusiastic yes. I looked up at LIL-E. She had the communication array already half assembled.

“Hey LIL-E, you mind keeping an eye on me while I check this out?” I asked, poking my hoof at the Memory Orbs. She turned from what she was doing, the eyebot floating over to me with surprising speed, and focusing on the two orbs at my hoof. She turned her grilled faceplate towards me.

“Where did you get the second one?”

“Back where we rescued Glint and his squad,” I replied.

The eyebot paused, and for a second it seemed to me that she was making a few low frequency hums and buzzing noises, before said, “I’ll keep watch, just tell me all about it when you get out. Also, before you waste an hour, this one’s the one you want.”

She tapped the orb furthest from me and I blinked at her. I’d just planned on guessing. I mean, hey, fiffty-fiffty sounds like good odds to me.

“How can you tell?”

“Not all Memory Orbs have identical characteristics. Slight fluctuations in size and surface contours. My scanners can pick up those small differences.”

“What would I do without you?” I asked with a chuckle, pulling out the Recollector from my saddlebags and fixing it onto my head, settling down into a comfortable position so my legs wouldn’t fall asleep while I was out.

“I imagine you’d manage without me,” LIL-E said matter of factly, picking up the Silver Mare Studios orb for me and pushing it into the slot on the Recollector, “Have fun in there. Bring back a souvenir.”

Before I could comment on the general impossibility of bringing back anything I felt myself grow light headed and slip into the Memory Orb.

oooOOOooo

The first thing I noticed was that the pony whose memory I was experiencing was a stallion. I would’ve breathed a sigh of relief if I could have. Being trapped inside a mare’s body last time had just been too weird. There were some differences with this stallion through that still left me feeling a tad off and disoriented, however. He was shorter than I was, but that wasn’t the strange part. It was the unusual feeling of something on my forehead, putting the slightest pressure on my skull, and somehow, deeper into my mind, that felt like a constant faint tickle. I didn’t understand what it was until the pony approached a set of big wooden doors in front of him and the knobs became shrouded in a glow of green magical light. The horn on my, or rather my host’s head, had to be glowing as well. I felt the magic tingling through his body. I don’t know how to properly describe it in words, like a warm tingle in my chest that flowed up to concentrate in the head with a feeling almost like the warmth of a fire on my face.

Yet somehow it was a warmth I could also direct like I would a limb. I had no idea how the stallion knew what to do, but I could feel the warmth of his magic gripping the door knobs like I’d grabbed it with my own hoof and then turn them open. As he did he turned and I felt him smile brightly.

“Remember, I told you when you signed on that you’d get to see some sights. Well, consider this the first downpayment!”

He was addressing a mare. A unicorn mare I’d seen before, but only in posters. Looking at her in the flesh I was indeed struck by the incredible resemblance to Arcaidia. The same silver mane, though I could see a faint double tone to it with a streak of palest blue. Her coat was the same azure blue as Arcaidia’s. The eyes were different, this mare’s being a light violet hue.

Trixie. A mare from two hundred years ago whose poster had inspired B.B to take up stage magic.

She looked a bit nervous, her return smile small. She was wearing a faded purple cape speckled with stars, and a pair of similarly colored saddlebags. I saw the tip of a pointed hat poking out from inside one of the saddlebags.

“I just can’t thank you enough for this opportunity Mister Shot,” she said, in a voice that hit me between the eyes with how similar it sounded to Arcaidia’s, “There’s truly no way I’ll be able to replay you.”

My host chuckled, shaking his head, “Just Money Shot, Trixie. We’ll be working closely on this film and I prefer to leave formalities by the wayside where they belong. Now, let me show you to our first ‘set’.”

He led Trixie through the doors and out into bright, open space. We were standing on a wide concrete area I recognized as the roof of a building, a fairly tall one. The sky above was painfully bright and blue, with a shining sun hanging at nearly its apex. A pleasurably cool wind was blowing steadily, taking off the edge of what had to be summer heat. The roof was occupied by several dozen ponies, many of them loading cargo and luggage onto a ramp attached to what was moored to the roof.

It was an airship. Unlike the sleek technological marvels created by Odessa this airship held an air of age to it, all wood and canvas, with barely any metal to be seen. It was like one long, smooth cigar shaped balloon, a faded parchment beige, with curving elegant fins flowing from its stern and middle like those of some aquatic predator. Slung underneath it, cradled by line after line of thick rope, was a large fish shaped wooden structure. Lined with small circular windows I could tell the structure had to be the main body of the airship, with at least two decks on the inside, along with the top deck upon which I could see ponies working along the rigging between the cabin of the balloon. Numerous propellers sprouted from the back of the cabin, and from a set of spars mounted at an downward curved angle from the bottom of the ship’s hull.

“Let me proudly introduce you to the Sweet Candy, our conveyance for the duration of shooting the film, and one of our primary sets!” Money Shot said with a flourish of his hoof.

Trixie looked at the airship with wide eyed amazement, stepping forward as if drawn to the airship, “Where did you get the money for this?”

“Ah, don’t you worry about such details my dear,” said Money Shot, a keen laugh on his lips as he led Trixie towards the airship, “Connections are more valuable than bits. At any rate, the Sweet Candy is going to be our home away from home for the next few months. What? You didn’t think we’d be traveling all the way to the Frozen North by walking did you?”

A shiver seemed to go up and down Trixie’s back and she wrapped her cape tighter around herself with her own violet magic, “Well, no, but I wasn’t imagining this. It’s amazing Money Shot. I...”

She trailed off, swallowing and looking away from my host, who I felt frown as he moved to keep her face in view, “Is something wrong, Trixie?”

“No!” she said, rather quickly, wiping at her face almost frantically and putting on a smile, “Not at all. Gah, I feel like such a foal. It’s just been a lot to take in. Things were... well, you know what I was doing when you found me.”

Trixie’s eyes took on a hollow cast for a moment, her voice growing quiet and laced with pain, “I never want to live like that again. You’ve given me a chance to find a better life. A star role in a film! A real film! And now this!? An airship, to take me away to a distant, exotic land? Can you blame me if I get a bit overwhelmed by all of it? I still keep expecting to wake up from this dream and still be back in that horrible apartment in Manehattan, no food, no rent, wondering what I’d do if I ended up on the street... if I’d need to sell my-”

“Hey, no more of that kind of talk,” said Money Shot, putting on a wide smile and placing a hoof on Trixie’s shoulders, “All of that is behind you my dear! No more need to even think about it. Trust me, stick with me and you’ll be a goddess of the silver screen!”

A sardonic half smile played across Trixie’s features, “Goddess? Somepony certainly enjoys exaggeration.”

“Hardly. Don’t forget, I saw you perform while you were still a traveling magician. Your stage presence is exemplary my dear! You’ll do splendidly on the big screen, trust me!”

“Hopefully with no humongous space bears to ruin my life,” I heard Trixie mutter but Money Shot didn’t comment as they reached the airship. There were plenty of ponies about, some appearing to be crew for the airship if I was judging right based on the uniforms of sky blue and white they wore. Others I guessed had to be part of Money Shot’s filmmaking team. One mare, a peach colored earth pony with a curly yellow mane and an inkwell cutie mark trotted up to Money Shot and Trixie, a notepad balanced on her hoof.

“Money, glad you could finally make it,” the mare said with a quick huff, “Captain Bartholomew needs you to sign off on the injury and death disclaimers before we can set off.”

Trixie blinked rapidly a few times, “Injury and death disclaimers?”

Money Shot was quick to chuckle, but I felt his heart rate increase, “Just a simple formality. Happens anytime one engages in a technically ‘dangerous’ expedition. Keeps the lawyers happy and all that. Not that we’ll be in any real danger during filming of course. Hah, right Dotted Line?”

The peach mare, Dotted Line apparently, shrugged, “Right. The mercenaries also wanted to talk to you. They seem to want half their payment up front.”

“Payment up front?” Money Shot asked, sounding less than pleased.

“Mercenaries?” Trixie asked at the same time, one eyebrow shooting up to match her dubious tone.

Dotted LIne glanced between the two of them, asking flatly, “Money, have you actually explained anything about this expedition to this mare?”

“Trixie, Trixie Lulamoon, not ‘this mare’,” said Trixie, in a frosty tone that once more keenly reminded me of Arcaidia, especially the look in her eyes as she glanced at Money Shot, “And I thought he did. Is there more I need to know?”

Money Shot had started to sweat a bit, running a hoof through his mane as he smiled at Trixie, and even though I couldn’t read his thoughts I could tell the smile was a tad forced, “Nothing truly important my dear. Dotted Line is making it sound bad, but really the mercenaries are a formality, nothing more. The Frozen North, specifically the eastern region we’ll be entering, is international territory, owned by no country. There are... local tribes, and possibly dangerous local wildlife, so by the letter of safety laws we’re required to have a proper contingent of security on site during filming. No different than the safety equipment we bring. Its all quite normal, and I assure you, quite safe. Correct, Dotted Line?”

Dotted Line sighed, “More or less. The danger should be minimal, no more than what’s to be expected when filming on location in one of the world’s most remote and barely explored regions.”

Money Shot gave Dotted Line the stink eye but the mare didn’t seem to care as she looked back at him flatly, “The merc captain is just over by the ramp there. She seemed eager, so I’d suggest talking to her first. Oh, and Fleetfoot is looking for you too. Some foalish thing about there not being any tea, I don’t know.”

“Yes, thank you,” said Money Shot, waving the mare off and Dotted Line sighed and trotted away, apparently going back to overseeing the loading of the airship. Meanwhile Money Shot made his way for the airship’s ramp, with Trixie trotting along next to him.

“I thought we were filming near the Crystal Empire?” asked Trixie.

“Well, we will be passing through on our way to the Frozen North. And technically the region we’ll be filming in is right next to the Crystal Empire. Territorially speaking. I mean, we’ll be hundreds of miles from any civilization, but technically the next nearest border is the Crystal Empire so we’ll be near it in that sense. Trust me, everything will be fine. I have this all well in hoof!”

I could see Trixie’s features tremble, a crease of worry being fought back by a deep breath she took, apparently calming herself until her expression was once more of gratitude and trust, “I understand. You wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t prepared for it. Its all for authenticity, right?”

“Exactly! No cheesy sets. Nope, Daring Doo and the Search for the Guardian Shrine will be filmed in authentic, real locations! No filmmaker since the debut of the medium has been willing to go through the trouble to find such an exotic real-life location to film in! Silver Mare Studios will be the first!” I could feel the energy building in Money Shot’s voice along with the eager, happy bounce that entered his trot, “It will be incredible Trixie, just you wait! And you’ll be a fantastic Madame Rapier!”

The pair reached the ramp, and standing next to it was a small group; three ponies, and one griffin. All three ponies were pegasi, I noted, but more than that, the griffin, or rather griffiness was one I immediately recognized even before she took note of Money Shot and Trixie approaching and addressed them.

“Money Shot,” Odessa said, tone firm and formal, “Been a screw up in communication between your studio and my outfit. Blacksky Company contracts demand half payment up front, and we haven’t gotten that yet.”

It wasn’t the young Odessa who was currently head of the organization of course, but rather the Odessa I’d seen in the previous Memory Orb. She looked a bit older here than she had when I saw her as part of the Shadowbolts. It made me wonder just how much time had passed between this memory and the one I’d seen before. A few years at least. Looking at the others in the group I realized one of the pegasi was a mare I also recognized from the last orb, the jasmine pegasus with the teal mane; Raindrops. She looked even more weathered than Odessa did, with a clear, ragged scar running across half her cheek and down her chin. The other two pegasi were a stallion and mare. The stallion was a very light blue, almost white, but with a much darker blue mane, slightly spiked and combed back. His green eyes looked... tired, as if he didn't’ sleep much. The last pegasus of the group, a mare, was vibrant with energy and wore a cocky half grin. She had a coat of a tint like mixing blue and green into one off color, with a wild orange and yellow streaked mane that reminded me of Glint for some reason. Orange eyes glittered with amusement like the mare was thinking of a joke only she knew the punchline of.

All of the mercenaries were wearing a uniform of familiar color and trim. White and gray fatigues, with off white body armor. It bore different insignia, a white batch with a black cloud on it, but the designs of the uniform were clearly similar to those the Odessa organization used. They were armed with an assortment of firearms, pistols and compact assault rifles, though the blue maned pegasus stallion bore a shotgun strapped across his back.

Money Shot cleared his throat before speaking, “Odessa, I apologize for the mix up. Your company didn’t inform my secretary concerning any ‘up front’ payments but rest assured I can have the bits transferred to Blacksky’s account within the hour. Now, I trust everything else is in order?”

“Aside from the horseapples of being stuck babysitting a bunch of film geeks while we freeze our plots off?” asked the mare with the orange mane with a roll of her eyes.

“Can it Lightning Dust,” said Odessa sharply then turned back to Money Shot, also giving Trixie a critical once over, “Everything is smooth on our end once we get our pay. We’re equipped for three months of cold weather operation and I fully intend to brief your crew thoroughly on how to not die out there. Its going to be important that you and your crew defer to me and my mercs in all matters of safety.”

“Of course, of course,” Money Shot waved his hoof, “As long as it doesn’t interfere with filming we-”

“Even if it does interfere with filming,” Odessa cut him off, “There will be no argument from this Money Shot, let me make that clear. If you got to miss a day of filming so my team can make sure an area is secure, or if a shot is going to look too dangerous, your ass is to stop what you're doing and follow my instructions to the bucking letter!”

I felt Money Shot stiffen, and his jaw clench. It was odd feeling all the physical cues of a pony’s anger as if it were my own body but not being able to feel any of the same emotions or thoughts. Next to him Trixie looked pensive but spoke up.

“Is it really going to be that dangerous? It’s mostly just snow out there.”

This earned a derisive snort from Lightning Dust, then Raindrops said, “The Frozen North isn’t the most deadly environment in the world, but its no walk in a warm Canterlot park. Temperatures get low enough at night to freeze you dead in minutes without proper clothes or a magic talisman for protection. There are predators out there that will attack ponies if they’re hungry enough, and while the local tribes are not aggressive, there are smugglers who use the remote region as a staging ground for their operations and wouldn’t think twice of... making inconvenient ponies disappear if you stumbled across them.”

As Trixie’s eyes got wider the pegasus stallion stood forward, smiling softly. His voice had a calming, kind tone to it, “Don’t be too scared, miss. Raindrops is just outlining worst case scenario dangers. We’ll be well supplied, and as long as you let us do our jobs we’ll protect you.”

Suddenly another voice spoke, female, but with an odd, breathy lisp to it.

“Hah! Maybe some of them can do the job, but you, Soarin, couldn’t protect a pie at a baker’s convention!”

Heads turned, including Money Shot’s, giving me a look at a new pony who trotted up to the group. She was a pegasus, a blue akin to the sky above us, with a sleek swept back white mane, and flinty jade eyes. She was looking squarely at Soarin with a hard, deep set grimace, and Soarin seemed to wilt under that stare.

“Fleetfoot...” Soarin said, looking away from her.

“What are you doing here Soarin?” Fleetfoot looked him over, apparently noting all the gear he was wearing, “A mercenary now? Hah! Too chicken to actually volunteer for the war? Get your fill of letting your friends down?”

With each word I saw Soarin seem to sink deeper into himself, cringing more and more as if he could just fold into himself and disappear. His ears were flat to the sides of his head and his mane seemed to droop like a dying plant. His fellow mercenaries all looked equally pissed, Odessa about to open her beak to speak, but before she could Trixie suddenly stood between Soarin and Fleetfoot, her own eyes suddenly blazing with anger.

“Hey! Who are you to speak like that to one of the ponies who will be risking his life to protect us out there!?”

Fleetfoot looked at Trixie with an air of somepony that had just spotted a piece of dung in their path, her nostrils flaring, “I’m the only reason this film’s got any chance of making it big, but besides that, I’m Fleetfoot, former member of the Wonderbolts, back when that name actually meant a damn! So why are you so quick to defend this guy,” she pointed at Soarin with one of her wings.

“You don’t know him, or what he’s done. You trust him to protect you, trust me, he’ll let you down. Isn’t that right Soarin? Just like you let the team down? Let Spitfire down?”

Soarin didn’t respond, his eyes downcast. With a growling huff Odessa put a claw on Trixie’s shoulder and gently moved her aside, the griffiness’ eyes heated.

“Thanks for the support, but I got this,” she told Trixie, then looked at Fleetfoot, “Miss, I am well aware of Soarin’s record among the Wonderbolts. I know he was there when the team dealt with those zebra pirates. I also know you quit the team to pursue an acting career well before that happened, so maybe you don’t have any place to judge him. Now, are we going to all make up and play nice, or will Money Shot need to find a new lead for his movie?”

“Are you threatening me?” Fleetfoot asked, askance.

Lightning Dust laughed, “Bitch, Dess doesn’t make threats. Go ahead, press her. I’d love to see her toss you off this building.”

“I’m a pegasus you moron,” Fleetfoot said.

Lightning Dust grinned, “A pegasus with her wings torn off is just a real weak earth pony.”

That gave Fleetfoot pause. She gave Money Shot a pleading look, but Money Shot just sighed, shrugging, “Fleetfoot, please, whatever... issues you happen to have with Mister Soarin, can you be professional about them and leave such private affairs out of our work?”

Fleetfoot grit her teeth, but finally nodded with an explosive sigh of aggravation, not saying another word as she stomped her way past the group and up the ramp into the ship. Apparently whatever issue she’d had about ‘tea’ that Dotted Line had mentioned before had been completely forgotten. With her gone the group seemed to collectively relax, but Soarin still looked miserable. Raindrops bumped him with a wing.

“You alright, pie guy?”

He shook his head, “Sorry, I hoped she wouldn’t react that badly to me. Guess she hasn’t forgiven me for what happened to the team.”

“The fuck does she care?” asked Lightning Dust, “She wasn’t there.”

Soarin sighed, “No, but she was close with everypony on the team. Especially Spitfire...”

There was pain in his voice I knew all too well. The pain of remembering somepony close to you that has died. I saw it in his eyes, a haunted pain that never quite went away. I wanted to give the poor guy a damn hug. Trixie, surprisingly, did it for me, making most everypony there blink in surprise.

“I don’t know what happened to you,” said Trixie, “But take it from me, you can’t let yourself get weighed down by what you can’t change. I, personally, look forward to working with all of you and trust you and your comrades will do a fine job protecting us while we make an incredible film!”

“I… uh, yeah,” said Sorain, apparently at a loss for words. Then he blinked, looking confused, “Um, who are you?”

Trixie blinked, then it was her turn to sigh, looking dejected, “Trixie Lulamoon. I used to perform all across Equestria? The Great and Powerful...? Nevermind, it was a long time ago.”

Money Shot cleared his throat loudly, “Indeed she’s quite the skilled stage magician and performer. Now she’s to use those talents for our co-star role. All of you are to give her and Fleetfoot both your best, professional attitudes. No... personal issues, yes?”

“Let’s hope so,” said Odessa, “I won’t tolerate another outburst from Miss Fleetfoot, star of the show or not. So keep a reign on her, and I’ll keep an reign on my mercs. Sound good?”

“Stellar,” said Money Shot as he moved over to put a hoof on Trixie’s withers, and pointedly gave Soarin a look that I didn’t quite understand. Again, as just a passenger I lacked emotional or mental context, but to me that look felt... pointed, “Now, my dear, shall we board?”

Trixie nodded, taking a deep breath, “Yes, let’s. It’s going to be good to be working on stage again.”

Money Shot smiled, “My dear, as I promised, it shall be an experience you will never forget.”

oooOOOooo

When I came out of the Memory Orb it was darker, the light of day quickly fading into the faded colors of evening. I was starving, as my stomach clearly announced with a rumble as I stood up and stretched my legs, removing the Recollector from my forehead. Nearby the two devices, both the communication array and scanner were fully built and steadily humming.

It took me a moment to spot LIL-E floating by the doorway to the stairs back down. She turned at my movement.

“Was it an interesting Memory Orb?” she asked.

“That’s... actually I’m not sure,” I said, rubbing my chin as I slowly reviewed in my head all I’d seen. So the original Odessa had become a mercenary sometime after her tenure in the Shadowbolts. Had Rainbow Dash fired her? There hadn’t been any indication in the orb, through the older Odessa had seemed to me to be a bit more mellow in personality than last I’d seen her. As for Trixie, Money Shot, and the film they were making... well I didn’t know what to think of it. I knew the Odessa organization had been gathering information on that movie, or something tied to it. I had no idea what the connection might be, but I had a suspicion that something must have gone wrong in the Frozen North. Then there was Trixie herself. Was it just coincidence she bore such a resemblance to Arcaidia in both appearance and voice? I supposed it was possible.

LIL-E was eager to hear about it so I gave her a rundown as we climbed back down the stairs and started heading to the old fire station, where I saw the rest of my friends bathered around a small fire, the smoke and light of which were being blocked by the bulk of the Ursa.

LIL-E paused in the middle of floating alongside me as I finished recounting the contents of the Memory Orb. I paused as well, giving her a curious look.

“LIL-E?”

“Sorry. Thinking. Believe it or not this isn’t the first time I’ve heard the name Trixie Lulamoon mentioned in a Memory Orb.”

That got my attention, “Really? Where?”

“I don’t want to say quite yet. Not until we know more. I know that, based off other things I know about Trixie, that this movie of hers either didn’t finish, or didn’t release. Its probably not connected to what happens to her towards the end of the war... at least I don’t see how it could be.”

“You know what happened to Trixie before the Great Fires came?” I asked, surprised. Why would LIL-E know anything about some random unicorn mare from two hundred years ago? It wasn’t as if Trixie was some big-shot like one of the Princesses or Ministry Mares. What would make Trixie important enough that she’d be in multiple Memory Orbs? Actually...

“I do,” LIL-E said, ignoring the suddenly thoughtful look on my face as my brain raced down a different line of questioning, “It’s a complicated story, but the short version is that she... well she was part of an experiment that went wrong. I don’t want to go into details, really. Suffice to say she’s dead, like just about everypony else from back then.”

I wondered why LIL-E was hesitating to give details, but maybe she just didn’t want to distract me or anypony else in the group with unrelated information while we had other problems to deal with. My curiosity was burning, however. I wanted to find out more about Trixie, Money Shot, Sorain, Odessa, and their expedition to the Frozen North. Not just because I was curious about what happened to them, but because I felt like it might shed some light on Arcaidia.

That aside, I’d realized something else, “Question. How are Memory Orbs made?”

LIL-E hesitated a second before answering, “Well, there are a lot of ways to do it. Spells can extract the memories and put them in the orbs. There’s machinery that does it, also the Recollectors like you have.”

“And to make one that works with a Recollector you need to use a Recollector, right?” I asked.

“Far as I know.”

I frowned, “That’s interesting. Money Shot wasn’t wearing a Recollector.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Completely. I was paying attention to his head because having a horn felt really, really weird, and I remember clearly feeling nothing else on his head. What does that mean?”

“Maybe nothing. If he didn’t use a Recollector to record the memory, the only explanation I can think of is that somepony used magic to extract the memory later on, then put it in a black pearl Memory Orb so it could be viewed via a Recollector. Why somepony would do that, well your guess is as good as mine.”

I didn’t have an answer any more than she did. With a frustrated sigh I laughed and said, “Well, another Memory Orb that gives me a whole avalanche’s worth of questions, and not a single decent answer.”

LIL-E’s mechanical voice buzzed with laughter, “And you just want to find another one to see if the next one will provide a better view of the puzzle, don’t you?”

“How did you guess?”

“Let’s just say I’ve been there, done that, and am right there with you.”

Laughing together at the hopelessness of our mutual curiosity, we rejoined our friends at camp. I wish I felt like the future had a more solid sense of certainty to it. Often I felt as if a hundred spears of various schemes and dangers were hanging over our heads, just waiting for the right moment to descend on us. But I could at least face that uncertainty with the knowledge that I had these companions facing it with me. All I had to do was take one look at them to confirm that.

B.B was bent over the fire, stirring a pot of soup, while Arcaidia and her practiced words together, Arcaidia’s face beaming with each phrase she got right. Before long she might be talking like a native Equestrian. Binge was playing with a suit of firefighter gear she’d apparently stuffed full of old rags and had set up to be a practice dummy for... oh dear Ancestors had that mare tied a bunch of kitchen knives to a length of barbed wire!? It was like a barbed wire... knife... whip... thing. She spun it around gleefully to tear up the dummy she’d created, ignoring the way the barbed wire would also scratch at her own hide. Not far away Iron Wrought sat and glared at the mare grumpily while stroking his sub machine gun.

So, basically all was normal and well with my friends. As normal as it got for us.

“Took you guys long enough,” Iron Wrought said as me and LIL-E joined everypony at the fire, “Could you talk to your crazy Raider pet and get her to stop playing with that damned thing before she hurts somepony and I have to shoot her? Actually, on second thought,” he pulled the bolt on his gun, “Don’t stop her.”

“Binge,” I called out, causing the mare to halt in trying to strangle the dummy, “Foods almost ready. Kill the poor defenseless dummy later?”

“Food?” Binge called, eyes shimmering in the firelight.

I glanced at B.B, who gave me a confirming nod, saying “‘Soups on everypony!”

And so we all gathered around the fire. LIL-E couldn’t eat obviously, but she stayed nearby, her scanners acting as our early warning system as we ate. It was warm, relaxing, and filling, exactly like I remembered meals being back home in Shady Stream.

The only thing missing, I realized, was my tribe. For a moment fear for those still held by Odessa gripped me, for my mother most of all, but I felt a hoof touch my shoulder and I looked over to see Arcaidia giving me a reassuring smile.

“No worries, ren solva,” she said, and sat next to me, floating over a bowl of soup with her magic, “Eat yummy soup. Recover strength for tonight. Many battles ahead for us. Fight them all together.”

Returning her smile I took the soup and ate eagerly, letting both the warmth of the food and that of those around me push back my fears.

----------

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Bonus EX-File: Binge’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L Stats

STR = 6
PER = 5
END = 6
CHA = 4
INT = 5
AGL = 6
LUK = 8

Author's Note:

And so Disc 2 begins! Not a lot of action, mostly focusing on the characters here. We also get our second Memory Orb scene. They're oddly fun to write. This time around I need to thank not just Doomande for his help with pre-reading, but also referee who has been kind enough to jump into the pre-reading crew! So thanks you guys, the help is much appreciated. And of course thanks to KKat for created FoE in the first place and to all the many side-fics that have come after that continue to inspire me to write. Here's hoping you folks out there are enjoying things so far. As always I'm open to all comments, critiques, questions, and thoughts you might have.

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