• 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 21: Skull City

I had no idea what to expect from a place named Skull City. Even looking at it I still couldn’t decide what to expect from the sprawl of metal, rust, and bone that spread before me like a fungal mass. Buildings constructed of raw gray and rusted red sheet metal and dull brown mud brick flowed together in their countless dozens with no set pattern or uniformity to them. For nearly a mile in any direction the expansive shanty town that Knobs told me was called the ‘Outskirts’ encircled the center of Skull City as if it were a hungry ooze seeking to enclose and devour a victim. That 'victim’ was a massive wall, a gigantic edifice of concrete, welded metal, and in places stacks of fused ancient autowagons. Atop this wall were the squat gray concrete forms of bunkers and the bristling nests of weapon emplacements, though the city was still too distant for me to make out the guards who no doubt patrolled that wall. Beyond the wall itself I could see gleaming glass and steel towers, three of them close together near the center soaring above the others until their tops became charred, skeletal frames; save for the center whose burned top held a set of glowing pyres of flame that looked for all the world like the grinning face of a skull.

The bone motif had begun well before we’d gotten to this vantage point of the city, however. An hour ago the street my friends and I were following along with the refugee caravan had become more solid, in better repair, and yet had been part of among the more disturbing sights of my sojourn into the Wasteland thus far. For lining this well maintained road were bones. So many bones that I couldn’t fathom how many ponies they had belonged to. Not hundreds. Not even thousands. More than that, and my mind went numb at the thought. The bones, many charred gray or black, a few duller yellows and a few bleached white, were arranged in numerous ways along the road. First and foremost was the fence. Both sides of the road were lined with a fence of bones. Along that fence were posts. These posts bore complete skeletons in places, others with only skulls, but all had signs of sheet metal. These signs bore messages of services offered in the Outskirts; shops, taverns, inns, all boasting their prices and wares. To my shock more than few of these signs had working lights to keep them illuminated, and a few signs looked like salvaged and repaired neon signs.

It baffled me. This was horrific, yet to the refugees and Knobs herself this had all seemed normal. At my look Knobs had given me a wan smile.

“Kinda weird I know,” she’d said, the ghoulish mare’s eyes twinkling a bit as her cheerful tone didn’t waver, “But waste not want not, right? It’s kind of a traditional decoration in our city, because, well, there are a lot of bones and all...”

“I, um,” I gulped, unable to shake a queasy feeling at the sights around me, “I don’t think I get it. Why are there so many anyway?”

“Well, Detrot had a population of around two or three million when the balefire bombs hit,” said Knobs, her leathery ears drooping slightly, “A bunch in the downtown area survived because corporate big-wigs had paid for a powerful defensive shield to keep the center of the city safe. Well, safe-ish. But that left a lot of ponies on the outside of that barrier to either burn, or drop from the magic radiation. You see, the balefire that hit this area was an air-burst variety. Burned slower, spread the radiation to a wider area. Most ponies trapped outside died from the radiation. That’s where all the bones come from. Radiation preserves the bones. Weird necromantic magic. That’s also why Detrot boasts the most ghouls out of any area in the wide Wasteland.”

She sounded almost proud of that, oddly so to my ears but I just found myself shaking my head, “It’s hard to believe any of us survived long enough to have descendants from back then.”

“Ponies are tough. Some folk were far enough out of the center to get to relative safety. Guessing that’s where all the tribes in the mountains like yours came from. Others had shelters in their homes. It’s not like Equestria didn’t know about megaspells before they got dropped; that’s what the Stables were all about, right? Anyway, life goes on and all that. Ponies drift in from other places, survivors survive, have foals, and they survive and have more foals. Doesn’t matter how many of us get killed off, ponies keep going. Kind of encouraging, but also sad if you think about it.”

I supposed it was. I’d seen plenty of ponies struggling to survive in the world we’d inherited from the past and while I’d met some that I wouldn’t say were surviving the right way, there was a certain strange kind of hope that burned inside me as I realized that despite all that’d happened to ponykind we were still around and kicking. As long as we were doing that, there was a reason to keep fighting to make the world better, right?

Still, at the moment I was daunted. We had crested a small hill and were going down it towards the very edge of the Outskirts. Knobs was driving her wagon in the lead, the ghoulish two headed bovine creature pulling it following Knobs’ directions with quiet mindlessness. Behind us was the shining steel form of the Ursa A.T.W, and behind that the long line of refugee ponies and their wagons. I’d learned that the refugees came from numerous settlements that’d been in the path of the Raiders advancing army, Knobs and Vigil being volunteers working to bring such groups into the city safely past the lines of fighting between Skull City’s army and the Raiders. I hadn’t asked too many questions, just enough to know that the Raider army had begun its attack less than a week ago, and was being met by a combination of gang fighters from the Outskirts and a force of soldiers from Skull City’s ‘Inner City’ consisting of members of various Guilds, but mostly the Labor Guild’s Volunteer Enforcer Corps, the regular Enforcer Guild, and hired guns from the Drifter’s Guild.

Attacks like this were not unheard of, but according to Knobs the last time this many Raiders had gotten together to make this kind of go at the city had been before she’d been born.

That was part of why I felt daunted, knowing such a large battle was happening so close by and there was little I could do to help. The other part was the city itself and the enormity of my task here. I had to find some way to secure passage for myself, my friends, and Arcaidia to the NCR, and also find clues about Odessa and where they might be keeping my tribe. The only way to do that was to somehow get in good with the more prominent Guilds of this city, but just looking at the sheer size of the place I wondered just how I was even going to start.

As it turned out my friends knew exactly what needed to happen first. Much to my dismay.

“Looooongwaaalk,” called Binge’s sickly sweet voice from one of the open windows on the side of the Ursa, “It’s time!”

I felt a small shiver run down my spine. I knew exactly what she was talking about, and was hoping perhaps if I just ignored her she might go away. Unfortunately she was not alone.

“Ren solva, tu tiva shae vos! Get self in here,” Arcaidia said, sticking her head out the passenger side door of the Ursa. She was soon joined by B.B, whose head stuck out over that of the unicorn filly’s. Both were wearing amused grins.

“C’mon Long, ain’t no point pretendin’ ya can’t hear us. Sooner ya git yerself inside the sooner it’ll all be over.”

I kept stiffly walking alongside Knobs’ wagon, knowing my fate was sealed, but wanting to defy destiny for just a moment or two longer. Knobs, some of the muscles exposed on her partially decomposed face twitching as she gave me a bemused look, asked, “What’s that all about?”

I grimaced, letting out a deep sigh from the bottom of my heart, “Remember from my story how I kinda sorta got a bounty on my head from the Labor Guild?”

“Yup. And no worries, I ain’t turning you in. I know you’re not responsible for what the Labor Guild says you are,” Knobs said with a firm nod. I believed her. I’d been willing to trust her to a surprising degree since meeting Knobs only hours ago. I wasn’t at all certain why. It was as if I’d simply met a kindred soul, recognizing a simple, plain goodness about the ghoul mare that told me I had nothing to fear from her. If I was wrong, well... then I was wrong. I’d deal with that if it happened. I didn’t think it would, though, and smiled with a expression of self pity as I explained my friends plan to disguise me.

Knobs cackle-snorted. It almost hurt my feelings.

“Oh, oh I got to see this,” she said, making a shooing gesture at me back towards the Ursa, “Go on, don’t keep your friends waiting. I’m looking forward to meeting Miss Longwalk.”

I sighed again, hanging my head in defeat, “While I’m in disguise the name I’m going with is Blueberry.”

This earned another round of laughter. By the time Knobs got herself under control I was already on my way back to the Ursa. It was still moving, but at a slow enough pace to keep behind Knobs’ wagon and not outpace the rather slow refugees. Not many of them had really gotten much of a look at me, and I’d packed away Gramzanber inside the Ursa not long after the fight with the Raiders, so I didn’t think many of them would quickly or easily put two and two together if any of the refugees heard about my bounty. I intended to stay inside the Ursa for the most part anyway, until we were well into the city.

“Hey Longwalk,” Knobs called before I climbed into the passenger side door of the Ursa. I looked back at her.

“If you want, have your big autowagon follow me. I need to take care of a bit of business, but I’ll be heading to my place near the Wall afterward, and you’re all welcome to stay for a bit. I’ll make lunch. Help you find your bearings. Besides, you got to drop off that foal with me anyway, right?”

I nodded, wincing slightly at being reminded of the Raider foal, Blasting Cap. I’d managed to put the recent fight out of my mind for most of the walk to Skull City, but as I entered the Ursa the memory came crashing back with full force. I gulped, swallowing a well of conflicting emotions. I tried very hard to remind myself I had done the only thing I could under the circumstances. I’d given Blasting Cap’s mother every chance I’d been able to. I’d just... run out of options.

I still felt like the lowest form of life as I entered and caught a glimpse into the passenger compartment where Blasting Cap was still sleeping, tied up one of the compartment’s bottom bunks.

However my funk was only allowed to last as long as it took for my friends to grab me like a hungry pack of geckos and pull me to the front of the passenger space. Iron Wrought, still driving, gave me a slightly sympathetic look as I was dragged by, and I managed to say, “Follow the ghoul.”

He nodded, mouthing the words ‘good luck’. Then I was completely in the hooves of the female side of my little band of companions. Well, except for LIL-E. She, or rather her eyebot, was currently in ‘sleep mode’ it seemed, laying in one corner of the passenger compartment while the other mares dragged me back there to get to work on my disguise.

Arcaidia kept a critical, level head during the procedure, reigning in the other two when they got out of hoof and keeping them focused on making my disguise practical but presentable. I didn’t miss the slight, satisfied smirks that occasionally appeared on the unicorn filly’s angled features even as she tried to maintain an aura of cool professionalism.

B.B showed a surprisingly amount of exuberance for the task at hoof, displaying a feminine side that contrasted sharply with my normal mental image of her. She certainly seemed to immensely enjoy picking out which dress I was going to wear; which it turned out was a sharp, frilly green number with a long back train and little white lace at the cuffs, and oddly puffy affairs at the shoulders. Also a rather low v-neck front that left some of my chest fur hanging out. B.B told me it’d add the right touch of ‘tombuck’ to my get up. I required clarification for what a ‘tombuck’ even was.

Then there was Binge, who insisted on being in charge of the makeup. Where they got makeup I could only guess at. Probably Stable 104. I made a mental note to talk to Misty Glasses about what she let my friends take from the Stable. Or at least confirm what it’d be for. I said no to the cherry red lipstick. I said no to the blue eyeshadow. I said no to the cheek powder. Binge thought all of my ‘no’s were extremely funny and promptly ignored them. I resigned myself to being made a, and I quote ‘pretty pretty princess’.

All three of them conspired upon my mane and tail, each working a different part to comb and braid. Once again all attempts on my part to protest were met with futility. My handsome, wild mane was converted like the rest of me. My magnificent unruly tail was beaten into submission by a barrage of combs.

After about half an hour it was over and I was allowed to look at the results of my friend’s hard work in a small mirror above the sink. The pony looking back at me could have been my twin sister. I was still me. If I looked hard enough. Yet I couldn’t deny that, with most of my muscled frame put behind a well cut dress, and my mane and tail put into several fine braids and the rest combed smooth, combined with well applied make up... I made a halfway decent mare.

I had no idea how to feel about that, but at least the disguise would work. Anypony looking for Longwalk the Wasteland wanderer with his giant silver spear wouldn’t look twice at the mare I saw in the mirror. I felt a tad more vulnerable without my Stable issue security armor on, but I still had my Pip-Buck strapped to my right foreleg, the dress pulled back enough to keep it exposed, and my saddlebags fit snugly alongside the cello case containing my ARM.

“An’ ta complete the look,” said B.B, who hefted the large black cello case she’d shown me in Stable 104, “Yer luggage, Miss Blueberry.”

I rolled my eyes and grabbed the case with my mouth. It was heavy, indicating Gramzanber was already inside. After a moment I noticed the long black strap I could use to sling the case over my shoulder and did so, taking a second to adjust it so it rested comfortably enough on my back. I looked at the three mares who stood around me with an air of faint indignation and tried my best to affect a lighter, more feminine tone.

“Well, at least Trailblaze or Whetstone aren't here to see this.”

Arcaidia shrugged her dainty shoulders, looking at me with a critical eye, “Is good hiding. No eyes think you male, so no think you Longwalk.”

“That is the point a’ doin’ this, Long, so don’t fret ‘bout it none,” said B.B, her purple eyes winking at me, “An’ iffin’ any stallions give ya trouble, well ya just call in yer sisters ta set ‘em straight!”

Binge let out a high pitched titter, “If they want our bucky when he looks like this then they’re already straight.”

“Ha ha,” I said, “Now that I’ve left the last scraps of my dignity by the side of the road I think I’ll go up front and see what there is to see of this city.”

I went to the driver’s compartment, B.B and Arcaidia following me, but Binge remained behind. I glanced back at her and she smiled wide yellow teeth at me, though the expression held a hint of actual seriousness behind it as Binge nodded back towards Blasting Cap, “I’ll keep eyes on the tiny one. No stabby fun for either of us, promise.”^_^

I nodded, a little surprised that Binge seemed to be taking the matter with a serious attitude, but then thinking back to my most recent look into Binge’s past I realized that maybe Binge had more in common with Blasting Cap than ties to Raiders. They’d both lost their mothers before their very eyes. Perhaps it made sense that, as random and potentially violent as Binge seemed at times, she might have a soft spot for a filly who was in the same situation she’d been in once.

Taking a seat next to Iron Wrought I looked out the window to see that in the past half hour we’d gone the last of the distance and were approaching the Skull City Outskirts. Unlike Saddlespring there was no gate to mark the entrance to the city. One moment we were rolling along the street past ruins and bones, and then we were surrounded by metal shacks and a multitude of ponies. The street actually broadened somewhat, becoming hard packed mud, and to either side I saw the dense thicket of countless makeshift buildings. Many had walls of bricks or well preserved sheet metal, and looking at some of it I realized that there was no chance all of this was salvaged from the pre-war era. Some of it looked recently made. Iron Wrought must have seen my look of awe mixed with confusion.

“You’re looking at the Smiths Guild’s hoofwork out there. Lot of reforged metal and raw iron forged out of still functioning metal works in the Inner City.”

“Where do they get the metal, though?” I asked, knowing next to nothing about how such things were made. My tribe had only ever used leather or wood from the still intact forests of the mountains. Saddlespring had been my first time seeing metal being used in construction, and I’d simply assumed all of it had been scavenged from the time before the Great Fires.

“Mines, mostly,” said Iron Wrought, blowing out a sigh as if he had no taste for the discussion, “You remember I work for the Labor Guild, right? What do you think the Labor Guild sends its slaves to do? There are mines in the east mountains, and in quarries to the north. Lot of Labor Guild resources sunk into keeping those mines operational and trading the metals to the Guilds that work with it. Mechanics Guild and Smiths Guild both, not to mention the Sewer Guild needs plenty of metal for piping to keep the sewer system intact.”

My heart sank slightly as I remembered Shale’s story, how she’d told me of her time forced to work in a mining quarry. I wondered just how many ponies were ‘owned’ by the Labor Guild and forced to work those mines the same as she was. I looked out at the sprawling shanty city around me and felt a stab of conflicting wonderment and shame at the size of the place. Thousands of ponies must live here, sheltered by the buildings both small and large made from the metal mined on the labor of slaves.

Skull City’s motif of bones was in full display here as well and there was hardly a single building or street corner that didn’t display some sort of sign or decoration made either fully or partially from bones. Skulls in particular seemed a favorite to hang over door frames or windows, and I saw at least one home that had its roof almost entirely lined with leg bones. It gave the city a bizarrely morbid feel, yet nopony seemed to mind and the sheer hustle and bustle that passed by our Ursa left me looking on wide-eyed.

The sheer number and variety of ponies on the streets was astounding. I’d been impressed by Saddlespring, but you could plop that town in the middle of the Skull City Outskirts and it’d be swallowed up whole with hardly a notice. Every flavor seemed to be represented. In just the first few minutes of us following Knobs’ wagon down the wide central street I saw a dozen small foals running across the street chasing a pair of what looked like giant, leg-sized rats, the foals carrying pipes, sticks, and small knives as they ravenously chased their quarry; no adults even glancing at the foals. I saw a ramshackle mud hut with a sheet metal roof pass by with its windows hanging open, inside an obvious bar containing numerous ponies packed in sharing drinks while a hoof fight went on in the forefront that nopony even looked up at as one of the combatants threw her opponent bodily through the front door. I saw ponies both old and young living in simple lean-to tents alongside alley walls, while others operated open stalls by the side of the road selling everything from salvaged junk to freshly roasted sticks of meat that were clearly from the same kind of large rats I’d seen the foals chasing earlier.

There weren’t just ponies, either. I saw at least two or three griffins flying or walking about, and among the normal ponies there were a number of the sapient, intelligent ghouls like Knobs. I estimated there was maybe one ghoul for every ten normal, non-decomposing ponies trotting around. They all seemed in various states of unlife, not unlike Knobs’ cracked and rotted hide. I had a hard time imagining what it might be like to live that way, but Knobs didn’t seem perturbed by her state. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it looked?

Before we got far into the city Knobs pulled her wagon up to a two story shake that was mostly made from stacked bricks, its roof a sheet metal platform where an actual squat tower was built, several armed ponies keeping watch from within. There were also ponies out front of the building, all armed and wearing well maintained leather armor barding. These ponies all shared a fairly rough look about them and I noticed each bore a distinctive badge worn on the breast of their armor or clothing; a bright steel star inside of a circle. I had no clue what that meant.

Glancing out the window behind me I saw the refugees had been following us and were now milling about on the street, many of them looking tired and worried as they looked about their new surroundings. There was a distinct air of uneasiness as the refugee ponies stayed close together and eyed the local ponies passing by. The refugees were also being eyed by the locals, looks that ranged from open friendliness to equally open mistrust or disdain, as if the locals were split down the center in whether they welcomed or spurned the presence of the refugees.

With my head poking out the window I was privy to hearing the conversation between Knobs and one of the ponies from the building that approached her wagon, a short red earth pony mare with most of her green mane tucked into a brown leather wide brimmed hat.

“This all you’re bringing in Knobs?” asked the red mare with a clipped tone.

Knobs nodded with a small smile, hopping off her wagon and reaching into the depths of her black Skull Guild coat with her magic to withdraw a bag that clinked and jangled with the sound of small metal objects; caps mostl likely.

“This is it. We... lost a few on the way. One hundred and twenty nine ponies. Hopefully this will cover their entry and initial housing?”

Knobs floated over the bag and the red mare took it in a hoof, weighting it with a small purse of her lips. After a second she pocketed the pouch and said, “Shelter is tight. We’re having to use parts of the upper sewers in some places. Foods tighter. This will do this time around, but the High Marshal is raising the price. Just fair warning Knobs, in case you go out again to bring in more of these sorry souls for us to take care of.”

Knobs’ face briefly became crestfallen, but just as quickly bounced back with a bright smile, “I understand. Tell the High Marshal that push comes to shove I’ll cover what needs covering, though... well... I don’t know if I’ll be able to do another run. The battle line’s too close now and I honestly think this might be the last of the ponies that could get out of the way in time.”

The red mare stared silently at Knobs for a moment, then closed her eyes and let out a heavy sigh, nodding, “Fucking Raiders. I wish I was out there, putting some bullets into those lawless bitches. At any rate, we’ll take things from here and get these ponies situated. You let them know what to expect about living on the Marshal gang’s turf?”

“Mmmhmm, they understand. No breaking any laws. You might want to give them a rundown on what all those laws are, Pistolwhip. No need to put anypony on the gallows for littering.”

Pistolwhip coughed in a way that might have been a laugh, “Live on our turf, live by our rules. Only one punishment under Marshal law and that’s the noose. I’ll try to tell the street patrols to cut the refugees some slack, but the High Marshal runs things tight on our turf. You know that. Now then, who’re your friends in the fancy autowagon? Your caps cover the refugees but not these guys.”

I blinked, and glanced back at my friends. Arcaidia came up next to me with an encouraging smile and pushed open the passenger door, hopping out with a confident stride. I followed, a tad bewildered, and B.B flapped along behind us, hovering over my shoulder as we approached Pistolwhip and Knobs.

Arcaidia, with great gusto and a clear sense of assurance, held up her hoof in what I think was supposed to be a salute of some sort as she looked Pistolwhip in the eyes.

“Greetings pony of big city place! I am Arcaidia Del Chevail Del Luminariaso Dol Graza Venti Veruni Halastra Mi Surta! My comrades of great many battles seek shelter and knowledge in city! Direct us to nearest place of foods and sleeps!”

Honestly it was an improvement over her attempts at doing this before learning any Equestrian, so I didn’t feel any particular need to butt into her speech. B.B actually looked a bit proud, as Arcaidia had spoken without any drops into her own language this time, as she was wont to do usually. Pistolwhip, on the other hoof, didn’t look very amused. In fact if the furrowed brow, slight flare of nostrils, and quirk of the lips into a grimace I was pretty sure Pistolwhip was feeling on oncoming headache.

“Knobs, who’re these jokers exactly? You know what, nevermind. Alright, Arcawhatever, before you go traipsing about Marshal turf I need to know who all you got in that shiny wagon, what you’re bringing into our turf, and you need to pay the dues out of pocket depending on if you’re staying in our turf or just passing through.”

“They’re passing through,” said Knobs quickly, “I’m taking them to my place, just FYI.”

FYI? More acronym stuff. I wondered what that one meant, and made a mental note to ask Knobs later. Meanwhile Pistolwhip barked a few quick orders to some of her fellow ponies and a pair of them went off to start organizing the refugees. After that she fixed us with a suspicious glare, one that Arcaidia met with a simple, still quite confident smile. I was feeling less confident by the second, however, feeling more and more self conscious about my disguise. What if this mare found out who I was? Would these armed ponies suddenly turn on us, trying to collect on my bounty? I just hoped she wouldn’t ask too many questions and would let us move along.

“Right, so the toll won’t be too high. Now, I know one of your, uh, names, I guess. What about the rest of you?”

“B.B, ma’am.”

I cleared my throat when Pistolwhip looked at me, and tried my best to affect the feminine tone I imagined I ought to have if I were a mare, “B-Blueberry. Um, pleased to meet you?”

“Uh-huh... let’s take a gander inside then, shall we?”

A bit of panic rose in me as I realized we still had a tied up Raider in the back of our Ursa. A foal, perhaps, but still a Raider. And Binge wasn’t exactly the most subtle mare in the world either. This had the potential to get very complicated very quickly. Seeing the look B.B shot me I could tell she was thinking the same thing, the pegasus landing beside Pistolwhip and saying, “No problem ma’am, ya can look ‘bout all ya like. Three more o’ us inside, Iron Wrought who's in the driver’s seat there, an’ Blueberry’s sister’s, Binge an’... Maple.”

Right, B.B hadn’t actually asked what Blasting Cap’s name was, so she’d needed to make one up on the fly. But why claim Binge and the foal were my sisters? Then it occurred to me that while B.B and Arcaidia didn’t really share any traits with my physically, Binge at least was an earth pony mare. It was better than nothing, as far as cover stories went. I just found myself nodding dumbly.

“Ehh, heh, yeah, Maple’s been feeling kinda sick, so she’s all wrapped up in a bunk. Binge’s looking after her.”

“What are all of you supposed to be anyway?” asked Pistolwhip as we led her around to the back of the Ursa, “You don’t look like merchants, mercs, or settlers. And where did you dig up a vehicle like this? Looks practically brand new.”

I wasn’t so sure about the ‘brand new’ part of the Ursa. For the short time we’d had it my friends and I had put the A.T.W through some seriously rough situations and it was starting to show the dents and scrapes for it. But I supposed compared to any other wagon or similar vehicle one might find in the Wasteland the Ursa did look pretty new. I gave Pistolwhip my most winning ‘you can totally trust me and I’m not in any way lying or bending the truth’ smiles.

“New? Hah, that’s just because we found it in a mostly untouched underground... wagon... cave,” I blinked, suddenly realizing I had no idea where one might normally find something like our Ursa, but I kept my smile going and kept right on talking, “That’s what we do. We’re salvagers. Yup. And we salvaged this big underground cave with all sorts of neat stuff, like this wagon.”

Pistolwhip’s eyebrow crept higher as she looked at me with a flat expression, “Uh-huh. So you and your sisters and friends here are salvagers? You registered with the Salvage Guild?”

I cast a glance quickly at B.B and Arcaidia. Arcaidia looked clueless and just gave a tiny shrug while Pistolwhip wasn’t looking, while B.B gave me a quick, subtle shake of her head. Well, that was good enough of a hint for me.

“Um, no? Nope. We’re, uh... independent.”

To my surprise Pistolwhip gave a small, impressed nod, “Ballsy. Not a lot of salvagers out there willing to work for themselves instead of working under the Guilders’ eyes. Fair warning, when word gets to the Guilders, and it will get to them, fuckers eyes are everywhere, you’ll probably get pressured to join the Guild, just so they can take a cut of your profit.”

“Well,” I said, rubbing the back of my head, laughing off my nervousness and just glad she seemed to be buying the story, “Thanks for the warning. We’ll keep that in mind.”

We were now at the back hatch and my hoof raised to hit the button that’d open it up. I said a silent prayer to the Ancestor spirits that Binge would behave and not do anything to tip Pistolwhip off that there was anything off about our cover story. The hatch started to open, and I turned to Pistolwhip, “Anyway I hope you’ll find everything in order, so we can be on our-”

“I’M GONNA KILL YOU!”

The shrill scream made me turn my head just in time to get a facefull of flying, ballistic filly as Blasting Cap, bits of chewed through rope still clinging to her body, tackled my head. I reared back, forelegs flailing as I tried to maintain balance. Blasting Cap continued to shout incoherently as she punched and bit at me like a mad demon.

“Aaaaah! Get it off! Get it off! She’s biting my eaaaaaarrrr!”

Fortunately my screaming was naturally so high pitched and shrill I don’t think it broke my cover as a mare as I began to gallop around in a panic. That little filly’s teeth were sharp! She was treating my ear like it was a piece of jerky. I shook my head about trying to dislodge her, but all that accomplished was to cause her to bite down even harder and start trying to choke me with her tiny hooves.

In hindsight my panic was probably an overreaction. Blasting Cap wasn’t doing any real damage. Oh, don’t get me wrong, her little foal mauling was painful, but not doing any serious harm. She was scratching and biting and trying to choke, but she wasn’t exactly a paragon of strength, so mostly I was just shocked and after a few seconds of running about like a drunk gecko I got enough of my wits about me to reach up with a hoof and yank Blasting Cap off my head. I held her on my hoof, or more accurately she was biting my leg now and was dangling from it like some feral little critter while making tiny ‘Grrrr’ noises. I felt blood trickling from the bite marks and scratches on my face and ears as I frowned at the filly, then looked at the others.

Arcaidia looked as if she was unsure whether to laugh or be furious about the assault on me. B.B was less conflicted, using her hoof to hide her giggling. Pistolwhip was staring at us with wide, befuddled eyes. Good, her confusion would buy me a moment to think.

“Heeeey, Maple, little sister,” I said in my forced mare’s voice, “Heheh, so you’re still playing that... uh... ambush game we like to play. Because we’re sisters. You, me, and Binge. Where is Binge. She’s supposed to be watching you.”

“Yup, I am,” said Binge, who was suddenly beside me. I hadn’t seen her leave the Ursa and I almost jumped, but by this point I was actually getting used to Binge doing this so instead of leaping a whole pace into the air I just got an inch.

“Wha! Binge! What... nevermind, you were supposed to be watching her,” I said as I pointed Blasting Cap at Binge, the filly still trying to gnaw through my leg. Yes, it hurt. Yes I probably should have tried prying her off. What can I say? I was distracted.

“I was watching her,” said Binge, pointing her eyeballs at Blasting Cap, “It was really impressive how she gnawed through her ropes. I thought it’d take her at least fifteen minutes, but whaddya know, she did it in five! That earns a merit badge if I have anything to say about it. Heheh, she’s so cute.”

Binge reached out to pet Blasting Cap, and the small yellow Raider filly let go of my leg to snap her teeth at Bigne’s leg instead, sinking her teeth into Binge’s hoof. Binge didn’t seem to notice or show any pain as she laughed and held Blasting Cap up, “Cuuuute. Do we have to give her to the ghouly mare? I wanna keep her!”

My eye twitched slightly, sweat beading my brow as I smiled and said, “Binge, sis, our little sis Maple is part of the family. We’re not giving her to Knobs, she’s just, uh, staying there to see if Knobs wants her as an apprentice. Remember?”

I knew Binge was smarter than she often let on and hoped she’d quickly catch on to the nature of the situation. Binge pursed her lips, still ignoring the filly gnawing at her leg now, and eyed me, then eyed the still bewildered looking Pistolwhip standing with Arcaidia and B.B.

“Ah-hah, I get it. Sisters...” Binge got that wide, mad grin on her face as she hugged me, with the arm that had Blasting Cap on it, as Binge put her mouth near my ear and whispered, “Seriously, can we keep her?”

I suppressed a sigh, whispering back, “I don’t think that’d be good for her.”

Binge made a small huffing whine, her teeth nipping at me and her face gaining a difficult to read expression that was still smiling but somehow managed to look disappointed at the same time. She, with rather shocking speed, smoothly pried Blasting Cap off her leg and before the Raider filly could so much as get half a “Kill you!” out Binge put the filly in a simple but effective chokehold. Enough to keep the filly from talking but still get some air in her lungs.

“Rambunctious little sister you have there,” Pistolwhip said dryly.

“She snorted Dash as a foal,” said Binge without missing a beat and still smiling.

I blinked, this time not suppressing a sigh, “Aaaaanyway, Miss Pistolwhip, want to take a look inside our autowagon now?”

The inspection at least went smoothly once I had her inside the Ursa. Iron Wrought answered a few questions about who he was, and got a withering look when he mentioned he was Labor Guild and that we’d helped him out of a jam in the Wasteland. Basically true, actually, but I could tell by now that Pistolwhip wasn’t fond of the Guilds, or ponies associated with them. Still, she didn’t give us much further trouble, at least until it came to discussing the Ursa’s cargo.

“What are in all these crates, exactly? You said salvage, but what do you have specifically?” the mare asked as she flicked her brown tail and peered curiously at the metal crates we’d loaded on from Stable 104.

“Lots of things,” I said, waving a hoof in a vague gesture, “Food, water, medicine, a few weapons, ammo-

Pistolwhip held up a hoof to stop me, “So literally everything that’d be of incredible value to ponies living in this day an age. Got it. Okay, look, I’m not blind or stupid Miss Blueberry. I can tell there’s a lot more to your little ‘salvage’ crew than what you’re letting on. By and large I don’t care. I just need to make sure you won’t be a threat to my gang’s territory and to make sure you pay a proper due as you pass over our turf. Now we’ve got a serious issue with all these refugees coming into the Outskirts but the Marshals are a gang that try to make our turf better to live in than most. All the extra mouths to feed are making that tougher than it normally is, and it usually ain’t a picnic to begin with. So here’s the deal, hoof over a cut of the food, water, and definitely the medicine, and you’re clear to go. You won’t get any trouble while you’re on Marshal turf, long as you don’t break any of our laws; which basically boils down to don’t murder, steal from, or rape anypony. Sound good to you?”

It did. Those supplies were basically given to us by the spider ponies so they could be used to trade, buy goodwill, that kind of thing. Pleasing the gang mare who apparently was in charge in whether or not we got to cross her gang’s turf unmolested seemed a wise investment to me, and from the sound of things she wanted the stuff to help them take care of the refugees and that certainly sounded like a good use of it to me.

Granted the amount of food, water, and medicine she wanted boiled down to about a good twenty minutes of debate. I’ll spare you the details. In the end Pistolwhip let us go with a duffle bag full of the canned food, purified water jugs, and a few of our medkits. With that business concluded she waved to some of her ponies to take the goods into their building. She then gave me a small piece of metal that looked like it’d been cut from sheet metal. On it was an etching of the same star pattern as the silver stars the Marshal ponies wore, along with a small string of numbers beneath it.

“Carry that, and if any Marshal’s question you for your ‘pass’, show them that,” Pistolwhip said, “It’ll get you through our turf.”

“Right, thank you,” I said as I took the small piece of metal and tucked it into the neck of my dress. What? It’s a convenient spot to put things! It wasn’t as if I was getting comfortable wearing such a outfit... okay maybe I was getting a tad comfortable with it, but only because it did fit me quite snugly.

Pistolwhip gave us one last, wary look before trotting off to help with organizing the refugees. I could see the refugees were being similarly looked over and questioned like we’d been and it seemed as if they were being shuffled off in groups of around twenty to thirty. I silently wished them all luck and turned to my friends. Arcaidia was practically buzzing, her head snapping this way and that as she looked around with open interest and curiosity at the city around her.

“You okay Arcaidia?” I asked while I watched Binge out of the corner of my eye as she dragged Blasting Cap back into the Ursa, the filly struggling the whole way but her bites and punches ineffective against Binge’s utter nonchalantness.

“Hm? Oh yes!” said Arcaidia with a smile, “Find city place of big fascination. Barbaric, but interesting. Know too little of pony side, and wanted much to learn, that why I volunteer for mission to-”

She cut herself off, snapping her mouth shut and eyes going wide for a moment as if she just realized how much she was saying. She looked away in what I was pretty sure was an attempt to appear unconcerned as she said, “Nevermind my words, rens solva. We have many things to do in this place, yes?”

I chuckled, “Yeah, but we’ll also probably have time to relax a bit and explore if you want to see more of the city and, uh, your fellow ponies.”

Arcaidia coughed in a quiet, dainty manner as she tried to look away even more, “Exploring would be... acceptable. When we can.”

B.B fluttered over to us and said, “Knobs is good ta go when we are.”

I glanced over and saw Knobs back on her wagon, giving us a friendly wave as she spotted me looking at her. I waved back and said, “Right, let’s go then. I think I’ll walk along outside.”

“Ya been walkin’ all night, Long,” said B.B, “Maybe ya ought ta git a bit o’ rest?”

She was right, of course. Between the fight with the Raiders and trotting alongside Knobs’ wagon for the rest of the night into morning had left me feeling a hollow drain on my body, but I... didn’t want to ride in the Ursa any more than I had to as long as we still had Blasting Cap tagging along. I was trying very hard not to think about the filly or the fight with the Raiders. Maybe that was cowardly of me, but if I let myself start thinking about it I knew I’d end up losing focus. More than I would from just being a bit tired, at any rate.

“I’ll sleep soon,” I told B.B with as confident a smile I could muster, “Once we’ve got the foal dropped off and have a place we can bed down safely. Don’t worry, I’m not passing out on my hooves yet.”

B.B sighed, giving me a ‘yeah, sure’ look, but she didn’t argue as she flew up to the roof of the Ursa and perched there like some kind of sentinel bird.

I saw Binge re-tying and gagging Blasting Cap and she looked back at us with an innocent grin as she hugged the violently kicking filly close, “No worries Longy, I’ll keep a better eye on her now. No biting free or I’ll bop her on the head.”

Arcaidia gave Binge a cold look, “Yes, do job better, shivol bir.”

Her look instantly warmed as she smiled at me, “I walk with you, ren solva. You answer questions about big city.”

“Hey I don’t know anything about this place, either,” I said with a helpless laugh, “I was planning on chatting Knobs up about it while we walk.”

Arcaidia seemed to consider that for a second before nodding firmly, “Yes, esru vi golrav est mir vira haesh. Corpse mare know much, smart to use as guide. Come, ren solva, we go!”


----------


I enjoyed seeing Arcaidia being so energetic and happy. There hadn’t been enough chance for any of us to do more than deal with the next crisis at hoof, and while I was still shaken by the most recent fight, I had an easier time putting it from my mind with Arcaidia by my side. It occurred to me she acted this way when she was in a crowd. She’d been the same way when surrounded by my tribe. Bouncy and filled with eagerness. It was cute. I wondered if this was how she normally was when not on a ‘mission’. She had literally dragged me along faster than I could trot to catch up with Knobs’ wagon as it had begun to pull away from the Marshal’s guard post and the Ursa followed us soft hum of its engine.

In short order Arcaidia and I were trotting alongside Knobs and her wagon, which followed a winding path through the hard packed dirt roads that twisted and turned through the myriad, labyrinthine roads of the Outskirts. It wasn’t long before I’d lost all sense of direction and understood that if I wasn’t a local then getting lost around here would be all too easy. Yet I wasn’t worried. Knobs clearly was comfortable in where she was going and I could tell we were gradually getting closer to the massive wall that separated the Outskirts from the center of the city. So I ceased worrying about direction and just took in the sights, smells, and sounds around me, with Arcaidia by my side to share the experience.

It was a dizzying mix of new things, good and bad. This city hummed with life, but also with at times blatant disregard for the well being of ponies, as evidenced by the sound of distant gunfire that sporadically emanated over the buzz of conversing ponies and the fact so few of the Outskirts ponies even bothered to look up at the noise.

“Who’s shooting?” I asked, my own ear flicking as I tried to pick out where the sounds were coming from. Pretty far off, I guessed, but definitely deeper in the Outskirts.

“Oh, could be anypony,” said Knobs nonchalantly, letting out a small sigh combined with a helpless smile, “Maybe some gangs are tussling over turf, or some Gobs have broken into the streets and are being put down. Could also just be random violence; somepony on too much Dash getting trigger happy or a bar fight.”

Arcaidia tilted her head, “No law?”

“Laws change by which gang is running the turf you’re on,” replied Knobs, “We’re on Marshal turf, so things are pretty quiet around here. The gang takes after the old Equestrian lawponies, or at least they try to. They run this area pretty tight, but... well... there’s a downside to that too.”

Knobs words were spoken with a quiet sadness as she nodded towards one end of a open square we were crossing, and following her gaze I noticed a wooden platform built in the center of the square. I felt my good mood dampening almost instantly as I saw the crossbeam of wood that went over the platform and the ropes hanging from it, tied with nooses... and they weren’t all unoccupied. Two bodies swung from those nooses, and I couldn't be sure how long they’d been there, but a small black bird stood perched on one of the poor dead ponies, pecking at the corpse.

I swallowed, “This is the Marshal’s way of keeping the peace?”

Knobs nodded, her tone quietly tinged with resignation, “I don’t like it much either, but compared to the looser way some gangs run their turf a lot of ponies are willing to deal with the Marshal’s law opposed to taking their chances elsewhere. If it makes you feel any better they usually only hang a pony who did something pretty bad. Usually.”

“Usually?” I pressed.

Knobs shrugged, “The Marshals aren’t very good at investigating crimes. I can’t say that every single pony that’s found themselves on those gallows was guilty of whatever crime they hung for. At least not totally. The term ‘mitigating circumstances’ doesn’t really fly with the Marshals much. So, uh, just don’t get mixed up any anything shady while you’re around here.”

Well, good thing I didn’t have a bounty on my head. Oh, wait, nevermind. At least my disguise seemed to be doing the trick so far. Perhaps too good a job. As we trotted on past the square I noticed more than once that I was getting looks from a few of the locals; and not the kind of looks I was used to getting. It took the third time before I realized that the whistling I was getting wasn’t some strange kind of local greeting custom.

I wasn’t the only one, either. Arcaidia was getting more than her fair share of attention from locals, male and female alike. Like me she seemed initially oblivious to the calls and whistles, in her case even more so because she tried whistling back as if she was imitating an animal call. That got her some odd looks.

“Friendly place. Everypony want to show us good time,” said Arcaidia. I coughed.

“I don’t think you quite know what they mean by ‘good time’ Arcaidia,” I said.

“Good time is good time, yes?” she asked innocently blinking at me.

Knobs guffawed, “You two shouldn’t be going anywhere in this city unchaperoned. I kind of shudder to think what would happen if the pair of you went out for a night on the town without anypony to keep an eye on you.”

“You know, a part of me wants to argue with that,” I said, puffing out a huff and scratching at an itchy part of my dress, which nearly caused me to trip over the thing, “But knowing my track record, you’re probably right.”

“I still not knowing why having ‘good time’ with nice ponies is bad,” said Arcaidia with a frown.

“You look a little young to know anyway,” said Knobs, “Just trust me when I tell you that you get a stallion or mare being too friendly with you, keep that shiny shooter you got close at hoof.”

Arcaidia glanced at her starblaster holstered on her leg, then glanced with a quirked eyebrow at Knobs, “You very friendly.”

“I’m talking more the touchy-feely in bad places kind of friendly,” Knobs said, “That’s what those ponies are meaning by ‘good time’.”

Arcaidia’s silver eyes opened wider for a second, then she narrowed them with a firm nod, “I am seeing. Yes, good help words given. Thank you dead pony. Shall remember what you say and be ready to make touchy ponies not keep hooves if being too friendly.”

“Good, just try not to overdo it,” said Knobs with a sidelong look at Arcaidia that made me think the ghoulish mare was a tad weirded out by my little blue friend, then she perked up as we reached a small hill that was snuggled up right against the side of the giant wall, “Oh! Here we are. Home sweet home!”

Around the hill were a number of the same huts and shacks that made up a lot of the Outskirts, but the hill itself was mostly bare, its gentle sloping incline covered in tufts of dry, yellow grass, with a curving path leading to the relatively flat top. There I saw a simple, one story house. An actual house, made from red brick and with a shingled roof, with intact windows, and even a chimney. On the side of the house was a small trough of water, and it was here that Knobs drove her wagon and once there hopped off and unhitched the two-headed cow creature from the wagon.

“Okay Barry, Betsy, drink up,” she said, gesturing towards the trough, “And thanks for giving me such a smooth ride, even when the Raiders hit us.”

To my utter shock one of the cow heads turned to Knobs and smiled, saying in a slow, female voice, “Nah trouble t’all, hun.”

As the two headed creature went to start drinking Knobs trotted up to me and Arcaidia, and she blinked at our gaping expressions, Arcaidia’s jaw perhaps open wider than my own. Knobs chuckled, rubbing the back of her head.

“First time meeting a brahmin? Not all of them can talk, but you get a few like Barry and Betsy who lucked out and got enough brains to communicate. They help me out with the wagon, and in exchange I give them a safe spot to rest.”

Arcaidia just shook her head, “Planet gets weirder with each day.”

“I live on this planet and feel pretty much the same way,” I said, trying not to stare.

Behind us the Ursa had just pulled up, parking along the side of the house. Before long Binge had come up with a freshly retied and gagged Blasting Cap secured to her back, with LIL-E floating along behind them and B.B taking to the air to land off to the side. Iron Wrought climbed out of the driver’s side door, and began to trot towards me with a purpose in his steps. I could tell just from the tightness in his face and the way his ears lay back and twitched that he was anxious.

“Well, it’ll be a tad cramped, but why don’t everypony come on in and I’ll get cooking something for brunch,” said Knobs, flicking her tail towards the front door of her home.

“You all feel free,” said Iron Wrought as he reached us, “But I don’t have time for that. I have to get into the Inner City, and after that...”

He trailed off, looking at all of us in turn, finally resting his eyes on me with a heavy sigh, “This is pretty much where we part ways, buck.”

His words caused a slight clench in my heart, because he said them with a certain finality to it that I hadn’t really been expecting. I gave a half hearted laugh, waving a hoof, “Well, for now, yeah, you got things to take care of. We both do. But we’ll meet up again-”

Iron Wrought cut me off, shaking his head, his voice serious but carrying an underlying waver as well, “Longwalk, don’t take this wrong, but I’d just as soon you didn’t go out of your way to look me up after this. If everything goes right I’m going to go back to my life, with my family, working for the Labor Guild... and my employers don’t exactly like you right now. I can’t afford to get caught up in your issues, and you can’t afford to be seen with me. My family will be at risk if you come looking for me, and you’ll be at risk if the Labor Guild finds out where you are. So, bottom line buck, we won’t be seeing each other again after this.”

My mouth opened, but no words came out. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Iron Wrought, I hadn’t always seen eye to eye with him. Out of all my companions he was the most free with letting me know when I was being an idiot. It pissed me off sometimes, but I’d come to appreciate that I could trust him to point out my mistakes, because Ancestor Spirits knew I made plenty of them. He’d been among the first ponies I’d met in the Wasteland who’d been friendly, in his way, and taken the time to teach an ignorant tribal like myself a few things about the wider world.

But I had promised I’d help him keep his family safe, and now that he had the copy of Dr. Lemon Slice’s research on the Saddlespring Ruin to give to the Skull Guild and get his family back there wasn’t any reason for him to travel with me. In fact he was completely right that any further contact with me would be dangerous for both of us because the Labor Guild had that bounty on my head. If the Labor Guild suspected Iron Wrought had helped me at all there was no telling what they might do to him and his family, and they’d certainly use him to come after me.

So there was no reason for this to be anything other than goodbye.

Before I could think of anything to say Arcaidia patted me on the shoulder, trotted past me, and sprung on Iron Wrought with a fierce hug. Iron Wrought looked taken aback for a second by the little blue filly giving him such a warm hug, but Arcaidia didn’t give him time to respond, just finishing the hug, stepping back, and giving him a bright smile.

“Chir vas dol tira, Iron Wrought. Stars guide path. Take care of family. I take over duty of watching ren solva, correct his toaster head when he get crazy.”

Iron Wrought nodded then, huffing out a small chuckle, “Don’t envy you that job, Blue. He’s not good at listening to advice.”

I found myself pouting slightly, “I’m trying to get better about that.”

“An’ ya are fer the most part,” said B.B with a wry half-grin, “But yer still a’ right hoofful when ya git riled. Iron Wrought, ya take care of yerself, ya hear? Don’t take no chances wit either the Skull Guild or yer own, and don’t even think o’ hesitatin’ ta git ahold o’ us iffin ya need help wit anythin’!”

“If this goes right there won’t be any need,” said Iron Wrought, patting the breast pocket of his armor where the data disc was secure, “The Skull Guild wants this data, and as long as I’ve proven useful they probably won’t double cross me. I just hope they don’t come calling on me to do this double agent crap again anytime soon. The Labor Guild might seem like a bad group to the lot of you, but they’ve been good to me. Being forced to work against them doesn’t sit well with me. But I’ll do anything for my family.”

“So would we,” I said, finally finding my voice, taking a slight step forward, “Just... if anything happens, if you ever need us for anything...”

Iron Wrought looked at me, and for a second his eyes softened, and I saw a small light of respect in them, “I’ll remember.”

He paused, glancing away as if thinking about what to say next, his next words coming slower, “I still think you’re too naive Longwalk. Too naive and focused on doing what you think is ‘right’ instead of what’s smart. But I know what you’ve done for me. I’m not ungrateful.”

With a bit of hesitance he turned around, only turning his neck slightly to look back at us as he began to trot away down the hill, “So... thank you.”

He didn’t wait for a response, looking ahead to his path and trotting down the hill away from Knobs’ house. Arcaidia returned to my side and B.B stood at the other. Binge remained a few paces behind us, oddly silent considering the usually talkative mare. LIL-E floated nearby, next to Knobs, who’d watched the scene unfold with the kind of awkward stance and expression of a pony watching a personal thing between friends while being the outsider.

I watched until Iron Wrought disappeared into the crowd along the street, silently yet sincerely hoping that despite everything I might one day meet Iron Wrought again.

LIL-E broke the silence, floating over towards me and spinning to face me as she hovered at eye level, “On that note while you guys settle in here I need to go see about linking up with Doc Sunday.”

I blinked, remembering that on our itinerary of things to do in Skull City was meet with B.B’s father. It was at some kind of tavern or inn, through I couldn’t immediately recall the name he’d given us. Then I remembered one of the key features of Pip-Bucks, “Right, right, uh, let me see where we’re supposed to meet him.”

As I fumbled with my Pip-Buck, trying to select the screen that gave me that useful list of objectives, LIL-E interrupted me, “He said to meet at the Rust n’ Dirt Inn. It’s on the southwest end of the Outskirts. Both yours and Arcaidia’s Pip-Bucks have mag tags to the place. I’m just going there now to check to see if Sunday is still there. It’s taken us longer to get to the city than we expected and anything could have happened here in the meantime. I’ve got a line to both of your Pip-Bucks and can fly there fast and give a call on what I find.”

“Makes sense ta’ me,” said B.B, giving LIL-E a small bump with a hoof, “But don’t go fergettin’ ya ain’t the only flyer in the group. How ‘bout I join ya? We can both fly out there an’ see ‘bout hookin’ up with ma pa, an’ let the other’s rest up.”

LIL-E bobbed up and down in the robot’s version of a shrug, “Suit yourself.”

“Ren bruhir,” said Arcaidia, frowning, and bouncing a bit on her hooves as she looked at B.B, “Let robot do recon work! We must do important supply securing!”

B.B blinked, “What, like ya mean go shopping?”

Arcaidia grinned and chirped, “Yes. Shopping. Need experienced local to help with merchant talk.”

“Well I could help with that,” I began to say both mares and one robot all turned to me at once.

“Ya ain’t much fer barterin.”

“Ren solva lose all our money.”

“Better not, Longwalk.”

I grimaced at their combined stares and words, looking away with a slight huff to blow some of my mane out of my face, “Well excuse me for not being a master merchant. I guess I’ll just stay here, polishing my spear until you ponies get back... what? What’s so funny!?”

“Polishing your spear?” LIL-E repeated. I stared at the eyebot. LIL-E snorted again, “Right, euphemisms are lost on you. Nevermind. Okay, so B.B, you coming with me, or going shopping with Arcaidia?”

B.B flapped her wings as she lazily hovered, looking back and forth between the two. Of the pair Arcaidia was the one who looked ready to burst from excitement and was also wearing a wide eyed foalish expression. B.B sighed, “Guess I can do some barterin’ wit Arc. Ain’t sure what we all need.”

“Water,” I said, “Can’t have enough of that. Some local food, whatever you can find, just so we got some variety besides those apples and carrots from the Stable. And...er... if you can find some magazines.”

B.B smirked, “Got a taste fer literature do ya? No prob, iffin’ any local shops got somethin’ ta read I’ll pick it up.”

“Ohohoh!” Binge suddenly spoke up, hopping forward to join us, much to the clear consternation of the filly still tied to the ex-Raider’s back, “I need things too! Need strips of leather or rope, plus a good femur. A good, long femur. Or a table leg, that works too. A lead pipe if you can find one. Also need a ball. Several. Baseballs preferably, but bouncy balls work too. I want them, so birdy can get them, yes?”

B.B looked blankly at Binge’s grinning face, then looked at me, making a gesture with her hooves that I took to mean ‘Well?’. I nodded, and Binge made a quick ‘squee’ noise. In short order Arcaidia, B.B, and LIL-E were all off, the eyebot flying across the rooftops to the southwest to find the inn where B.B’s father might still be waiting for us, and the two mares to do a little shopping. That left me with Binge, the glaring Blasting Cap, and a somewhat bemused looking Knobs.

“Got everything sorted out?” Knobs asked me as I turned her way.

I gave her a helpless shrug, imagining that she was just trying to be polite, but a certain amount of sarcasm couldn’t help but creep into my voice, “For the next hour, at least. Past that, you might want to be ready to duck and cover, because I’ll be due for a fresh crisis by then.”

Knobs’ smile was at total odds with her rotted flesh, lively and colorful, “By the law of averages I’d say you’re due for a quiet day.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” I said, then cracked a small smile of my own, “But hey, you might be right. Now, you said something earlier about food?”

A satisfied twinkle crept into Knobs’ eyes as she motioned towards the front door of her home, “Food can be scarce but being part of the Skull Guild has its perks. I can whip up something mostly fresh and possibly even healthy! I make no promises about taste, but I’ve been getting better these past few years.”

Binge slid up next to Knobs, eyes eager and a hungry note entering her voice, “I can cook. Lemme cook with you ghouly girl.”

A flicker of concern entered Knobs’ eyes, though she didn’t drop her smile, “Let’s clarify first; when you say cook ‘with’ me you mean you want to help me cook. Not, you know, cook with me.”

Binge burst out in a titter, patting a wary looking Knobs on the back several times, “Of course not silly! Ghouls are bad for eating. Too tough and gamey. Longwalk would be far more tasty. Look at those well toned, lean haunches of his!”

“Uh, let’s not look at Longwalk’s lean haunches,” I said, “In fact let’s completely forget this subject and go inside.”

“Good idea,” said Knobs, leading us into her home. She whipped out a small brass key from an inner pocket of her Skull Guild jacket, using her magic to unlock her door, and judging from the time and the sound of clinks and clanks from inside she also moved several additional deadbolts. Cheerful or not she was appropriately careful. I wondered how she secured her windows?

The answer came once we were inside and I could see all the windows were covered with thick iron bars on the inside, the glare on the windows from outside having obscured them from my view. Besides those bars, however, the rest of Knobs’ home looked quite comfortable and a far cry from the usual ramshackle buildings I’d seen. While all of Skull City’s buildings had a certain lived in look to them that made them different from the ruins I’d seen around the Wasteland, Knobs’ place was the first I’d been in that felt like a warm, lived in home. Even Stable 104 by comparison still felt a tad cold and sterile by comparison.

The front door opened into a cozy living/dining room. The center was dominated by a large plastic table covered in a white and red checkered cloth and surrounded by half a dozen metal fold out chairs. A thick if faded couch with several patches for its visible signs of wear and tear was situated against one wall, and next to it was a shelf that was mostly empty but still had a few of a rather rare sight; actual intact books. The opposite wall held the fireplace, a brick affair with a simple bannister, upon which were a few candles and a device I recognized now as a radio. There was a light hanging from the ceiling that was on, indicating to me the house had working electricity.

“Feel free to make yourself comfortable,” said Knobs as she walked around the table towards a door on the other side of the room. She paused at the door and gestured at Binge, “Kitchen is this way, and also, uh, I got a guest bedroom where you can set down the filly. Going to want to chat with her pretty soon. Do you want something to eat, kid?”

Blasting Cap’s only response was a suppressed snarl from beneath her gag and Binge said, “I think that’s a yes.”

Knobs looked less convinced, “Best not to push her this early. C’mon, you want to help cook I won’t say no. Have a seat Longwalk. Food won’t take long.”

I took her advice and plopped down on one of the metal folding chairs at the table, shucking off my cello case and saddlebags. I was tempted to lay down on the couch but I’d probably pass out within minutes if I did that and miss out on food. Completely unacceptable after having the kind offer given. At this point I didn’t even care what Knobs and Binge cooked or what it tasted like, I was feeling famished enough to devour anything short of a live radscorpion.

Left alone for the time being I found myself getting fidgety. I amused myself by looking over my Pip-Buck, flipping through its various screens. I still couldn’t figure out how it organized my inventory or assigned values to my stuff. The ‘35.470’ next to Gramzanber I figured had to be pretty high, not that I’d ever considering selling the ARM. I’d cycled through the status screens for the fifth time and was debating turning on the radio by the time my nostrils caught the enticing scent of food cooking, hearing the associated scuffling and bang of pots from what I assumed was the kitchen. I felt a small stab of worry that Binge might get... rambunctious with Knobs, acting all Raidery at an opportune moment when she wasn’t under my observation and the rest of the party was off running errands, but I quashed it down. I had to decided to trust that mare at some point, otherwise there was no reason to let her tag along. Besides, Knobs seemed able to take care of herself.

I heard Knobs’ voice call out in a friendly sing-song tone from behind the kitchen door, “Hey Longwalk! I got a friend dropping by today. Expecting her soonish, so if you hear a knock at the door just answer it, or she might just barge in on her own. Either way, just a heads up!”

“Okay!” I shouted back, leaning back in my chair. I adjusted my dress, wondering how mares dealt with these things when trying to get comfortable. It was fine for walking but sitting down the garment seemed to like to get bunched in unpleasant places. I had to remind myself that this was just a temporary thing. As soon as our business was done in Skull City I could start dressing normally.

… Actually now that I thought about it did I have the slightest clue how long I’d be in this city? I needed to dig up information from one of the Guilds, and was hoping Knobs might help me out on that front, but it might takes days, even weeks before I could find a clue to my tribe’s location or a method to transport Arcaidia south to the NCR.

Weeks where I’d be stuck playing the role of ‘Blueberry’ the salvage mare. Ugh! Dear Ancestor Spirits give me strength! I didn’t mind the pig-tails in my mane but I was not wearing this dress for more than another day. I could get away with wearing armor. Plenty of mares wore armor! I’m pretty sure the dress was just B.B and Arcaidia’s idea of a joke. Binge too. She was culpable. A conspiracy against my stallioniness. Stallioniness. Was that a word? Screw it; it is now.

I’d just started to play a game where I used a tin spoon to launch caps towards a cracked mug on the other side of the table when I heard a shuffling at the door. No knock, but I assumed this had to be Knobs’ friend. The knob twisted and the door opened, and I noticed that the knob was covered in a faint aura of red magic. The next thing I saw was a mare striding into the house, and I heard a voice that was entirely all too familiar.

“Hey! Knobs! I’m assuming you’re home otherwise the door wouldn’t be... unlocked...”

Crossfire trailed off as she finally rested her eyes on me, her keen yellow eyes taking in the sight of me with a shocked blankness that slowly transmuted to recognition at about the time I was able to fully register that this was in fact the same mare I’d run into at Saddlespring. She was still wearing the same red jacket with leather cuffs and collar, and that ridiculously large rifle of hers with its massive bayonet was slung across her back. Pristine dark fur and a faintly messy blue mane tied back in a firm ponytail were just like I remembered, only caked with enough Wasteland dirt and dust to make her look rugged rather than disheveled.

There was a second of silence before Crossfire’s eyes narrowed dangerously and she moved with the slick, easy speed that’d impressed me so much when I’d seen her in action back in Saddlespring.

If I was a slower buck, as inexperienced as I’d been back then, her sharp swing with the butt of her rifle would have cracked me straight across the face. As it happened I managed to reach down with my hooves and lift the cello case with Gramzanber inside it fast enough to block the hit, though the force of the blow rocked me in the chair and tipped it right over, sending me spilling to the ground in a heap.

There was a crash of noise, a metal tray and a number of bowls splattering on the ground, previously held by Knobs who’d just entered the doorway from the kitchen. The ghoulish mare was also staring in shock, mouth gaping as she shouted, “Crossfire! What are you doing!?”

What Crossfire was doing, which should have been obvious to anypony watching, was beat me to a pulp as she advanced on me, swinging her rifle again in a sweeping arc I barely managed to roll away from, bringing the cello case with me and holding it up like an impromptu shield. Crossfire pulled back just enough to reverse her magic’s grip on her rifle, aiming its barrel straight at me, before Knobs’ voice spoke with a higher, sharper note.

“Crossfire!”

That seemed to break through the Drifter mare’s focus on me and she blinked. She didn’t take her eyes off of me, nor let the barrel of her rifle dip. I’d scrambled backwards, my back now up against the couch with the cello case held in front of me as my only barrier between myself and the high caliber firearm aimed at me. It might have seemed more silly if I didn’t know my ARM was inside the case and could deflect a bullet, through I wasn’t eager to test a ricochet in this confined space with at least one other pony in the room that I liked.

Crossfire, speaking through clenched teeth, said, “Knobs, hi. Question; what the hell is this buck doing in your house?”

“I was about to serve him breakfast,” said Knobs, a note of irritation clear in her huffing voice as she used her magic to pick up the bowls and tray she’d dropped. I could smell a rather tantalizing scent of something tangy and salty, some kind of soup or stew that scent alone sent my stomach into a happy convulsion.

“Breakfast...” Crossfire said the word like she was testing out its taste and didn’t like it, “Right. Okay. So, something you might not know; this buck has a rather high bounty on his head. He’s also primarily responsible for screwing up my most recent job.”

“I know,” said Knobs, and both me and Crossfire looked at the ghoul.

“You do?” we both said at the same time, causing us to exchanged annoyed, heated glances with one another.

Knobs looked at us like we were a pair of rather naughty foals who were horseplaying in her living room, which in a way I suppose we were. She set the tray on the table as Binge poked her head into the room from the kitchen. Her eyes took in the scene with a mirthful and tooth filled grin.

“Somepony having violent fun? Am I invited?”

“No, Binge,” I said, “No more violence, at least I’m hoping not?”

That I directed at Crossfire, with a questioning raise of one eyebrow and holding out one hoof in a placating gesture of peace. Her yellow eyes narrowed and I saw her mentally calculating whether it was worth it or not to keep trying to render me either unconscious or dead versus the earful she’d likely get from Knobs for doing so. After a tense moment she slung her rifle across her back and went to plop down in one of the chairs.

“Fine, he’s got a stay of execution. Knobs, please explain why he’s in your house?”

“Might be because I invited him to come over,” said Knobs, wheeling herself over and easing into the seat next to Crossfire. I couldn’t help but notice the way Crossfire’s eyes briefly flickered towards the wheeled prosthetic limbs and the momentary flinch in her eyes. Knobs looked at me and nodding towards the seat I’d so rapidly vacated.

Slowly I got up and returned to my chair, and soon found Binge had slid up beside me to sit down as well. She was looking at Crossfire with undisguised curiosity and I reminded myself I’d ended up with Binge in the group after the fiasco in Saddlespring. Well, the tail end of it at any rate. Crossfire and Binge might’ve seen each other for all of two minutes when we’d met up with the Saddlespring survivors. That had been the last time I’d seen the Drifter mercenary mare, after Arcaidia had healed one of her comrades, Brickhouse, and she’d left with a less than pleasant opinion of me after I’d played a part in mucking up the job she’d been hired to do in that town.

“Alright, we all sitting down, all calm and friendly like? Good,” said Knobs with a deep breath, huffing it out as she looked between me and Crossfire, “So, uh, first of all I’m sorry Longwalk. I, heheh, have a bad habit of unpractical jokes and thought it might be funny to see how you and Crossfire reacted to seeing each other, so I didn’t tell you I knew her.”

“Well, I didn’t tell you the name of the Drifter I ran into at Saddlespring,” I said with a small shrug.

“Oh, I didn’t need you to tell me her name, I could guess by context. I saw Crossfire off on that very job,” said Knobs, a frowning trace of sadness cross her face, “I’m sorry about how things went down there, by the way.”

Crossfire grunted, a tired, grim gaze looking at Knobs, “Don’t see why you need to apologize to him. Half of that crap was his own damned fault.”

Hot eyes glared at me, “But that’s neither here nor there. How did you meet my friend Knobs here?”

I had a hard time even processing how Crossfire could put herself and Knobs in the context of ‘friends’. The two mares seemed to have all of zilch, zero, and nadda in common. Knobs was patient, kind hearted, and generally had a sense of humor. Crossfire was... opposite of all of that. I had to seriously wonder how the pair had even met, let alone become friends. Yet Crossfire had backed down with only a few words from Knobs. That surprised me. Crossfire hadn’t struck as a mare who really listened to anypony.

Taking a deep breath I gave Crossfire the abridged version of the fight with the Raiders. I left out any mention of exactly where my friends and I had come from, only that we’d been making our way to Skull City when we’d run into the attack on Knobs’ refugee caravan. I also left out the detail about the Raider I’d killed and the filly Blasting Cap. Crossfire didn’t need to know that and I wasn’t keen to remind myself of it any more. When I was done Crossfire hadn’t lost that faintly glaring look, but it was mixed with a phantom of gratitude. It made her look as if she was tasting something sour.

“You helped Knobs out, then... fuck. I hate owing ponies I don’t like,” Crossfire’s nose wrinkled as if she was scenting something less than fresh, and fixed me with a arresting look that was hard to look away from, “You know you got a eight thousand cap bounty on your head, Mr. Hero?”

I blinked, furrowed my brow, tried to pick my brain for the memory of the radio broadcast I’d heard when I’d learned of the bounty the first time. While I couldn’t remember all of the details I did remember the bounty I’d heard back then was around three thousand caps, “back then” being all of, what... four days ago? Maybe five? I was losing track of time.

“I knew about it, but sounds like it’s more than doubled in just a few days,” I said, trying to sound calm. I somehow doubted I was succeeding.

Crossfire got a smug look, lips twisting in an amused grin, “Surprised me when I heard it was going so high. Not so much that you got one, but that the Labor Guild’s willing to pay out the ass for you being brought in trussed up on a platter.”

“B.B thought it had something to do with my spear,” I said, plopping my chin into my hoof as I leaned it on the table glumly.

“That shiny oversized hunk of metal?” Crossfire leaned back in her chair, thoughtful, forelegs crossing over her chest, “Could be. Somehow doubt it. Labor Guild is all about its bottom line, and there’s just not enough profit in snatching your fancy poking tool. They couldn’t use it, and they’d need a buyer. No, my take on this is that you got someone pissed at you on a personal level. Maybe one of the guards who died was the kid of one of the higher ups? I can see eight thousand caps for a vengence kick.”

She frowned, eyes slipping over me with a vaguely skeptical air as her tone went sarcastic to the umteenth degree, “This bounty why you’re playing at dress up?”

I met sarcasm with sarcasm, rolling my eyes, “No, I just wanted to feel pretty.”

“I’m not judging,’ Crossfire said, smirking.

“Yes you are,” said Binge suddenly, eyes intense, “I can see it. You’re looking and liking. Mentally clicking the thumbs up button! Heheh, you think he’s cute too!”

Crossfire didn’t look at Binge, instead sending an inquiring glance at Knobs and asking in a deadpan voice, “Hey, you don’t mind a bit of blood on the floor, right? If I promise to clean it up myself?”

“No Crossfire. You know my rules,” said Knobs, “You need to do something like that you do it on somepony else's time and property. My house is a violence free zone. Most of the time...”

“You pay the Marshals too much,” said Crossfire, “They can’t always keep as much control on their turf as they like.”

“Better than anywhere else except the Inner City, and... I don’t want to live in there,” said Knobs.

“Its a biiiiig wall,” said Binge, “Keeping things out or keeping things in, I wonder?”

“Both,” Knobs and Crossfire said at nearly the same instant. The two friends shared a glance, then they smiled at each other. I couldn’t be certain, but that smile spoke volumes to me about the pair. It made me wonder if Crossfire actually lived here or just visited.

The moment passed between the two and after a few seconds silence I cut to the chase I was still wondering about, “So, Crossfire... are you planning to collect on me or what?”

Knobs looked like she was about to say something but Crossfire held up her hoof and fixed me with as steady, measuring gaze. That calculating look was familiar. I’d seen it in Saddlespring. Cold, practical, and weighting options. This was the Crossfire I knew, the Drifter out for caps and nothing more.

“That bounty of yours is still under a double bonus from a deal between the Bounty Guild and Radio Guild. I bring you in that’s sixteen thousand caps. That’s a payout that’s hard to ignore, especially since I think I’m the only mare in town who can see through your disguise.”

“Crossfire,” Knobs began in a tone of voice somepony might reserve for a foal that was about to touch something they weren’t supposed to, but Crossfire went on, ignoring the ghoul.

“Out of respect for what you did for Knobs I’ll back off for now,” Crossfire said, “Give you a nice twenty four hour grace period. Past that, though, all bets are off, buck. I spot you on the street or anywhere else that ain’t at Knobs house, then it’s open season.”

Knobs made an unhappy, throaty noise, almost a whine if it could be more feminine and intensely displeased, but Crossfire looked at her friend with an exasperated sigh, “Knobs, I can’t just ignore a bounty that high because the buck happened to help you out!”

“He’s a nice pony Crossfire. I like nice ponies. You’re a nice pony too when you try to be.”

Crossfire rubbed her head with a hoof, right on her temple as she shut her eyes tight, “Okay, okay! Two days! I’ll give him two days!”

“A week,” Knobs said firmly.

“What? A week!?”

“A week, and you’ll help him with getting around town when I’m not available,” Knobs said with a firm nod, then her eyes lit up, “Oh! I know! Maybe you can introduce him to the Drifter’s Guild? Longwalk needs Guild contacts to help him get information, and the Drifter’s Guild is perfect for that!”

Crossfire looked helpless before Knobs’ bubbling enthusiasm, the first time I’d ever seen the tough dark furred Drifter looked out of her element, “Knobs, c’mon! You can’t just decide things like that. I have a job and reputation to think about. And if I wait a week I lose the bonus on him!”

Binge leaned towards me and whispered, “Bucky are these two married?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered back.

If looks could cause harm then Crossfire’s eyes may as well have been loaded with armor piercing rounds as she cast a withering glare my way, “I ain’t deaf, buck! Me and Knobs are not married!”

Knobs lips pursed in a wide pout, her eyes growing large and shiny “Aww, but I had a ring picked out and everything for the proposal.”

It was difficult to tell if Crossfire was about to go white as a cloud or red as blood, her face caught between wide eyed paleness and heated blushing. Either way, this was my first time seeing the mare appear as if she was about to go into cardiac arrest. I looked on with interest, both relieved to have some of the attention taken off me, and rather enjoying Crossfire’s discomfort. It was good to know the previously seeming unflappable Drifter could be taken off guard.

Binge, wagging her tail about playfully, licked her lips and leaned her elbows on the table, chin rested on her crossed hooves, “If you two are going to start making the sexy times can me and bucky stay and watch?”

My forehead hit the table, and I heard Crossfire sputter something that might have been a death threat, a fervent denial of sexual interest, or both. Probably both. Either way it came out rather garbled. Knobs began to giggle. Binge joined in. Dear Ancestors, they had practically the same giggle. Me and Crossfire were doomed.

Knobs, struggling to get her laughter under control, managed to choke out, “Ooh, okay, okay, guess we can’t take the joke that far.”

“Aww, why not?” asked Binge, who then blinked, “And who’s joking?”

“Much as I like seeing Crossfire go cross eyed I think we got to pull the conversation back to something serious,” said Knobs, grinning apologetically at Crossfire, “You do realize I was joking, right?”

Crossfire’s eyes darted around the room a bit before she looked away, putting on a mask of unflappable cool that I could not recognize was a mask. Had it been a mask back at Saddlespring?

“Of course I knew you were joking. Obviously.”

Knobs snickered knowingly, “Obviously. Okay, so, seriously, will you give Longwalk here an introduction to the Drifter’s Guild?”

“Hold on a sec,” I said, “Not that I don’t appreciate the help, but what good will being introduced to the Drifter’s Guild do? I mean, I’m not a Drifter, and wasn’t planning on becoming one.”

Binge’s hoof swatted the back of my head, “Oh don’t be silly, bucky! I know you’re smarter than this. Think about it. You want to find tasty infos about your stolen blood, and you gotta magic trick up a trip to the far away dreamland, the NCR. You don’t think anywhere in your delightfully virgin brainmeats that this Guild, that any Guild, would be able to help out?”

It was probably a bad sign that I needed Binge to point out logical thoughts I should have been able to think of on my own. I realized then just how tired I was. After the fight with the Raider’s I had walked all night talking with Knobs and hadn’t had much chance to just lay down and catch some shut-eye. On top of that I was still hungry. My brain pony was too exhausted for having logical thoughts. Binge was, of course, right. The Drifter’s Guild was as sensible a contact as any to make in Skull City, minus the whole bounty on my head.

“Right, sorry, I’m pretty beat,” I said with a sigh, “You’re right that the Drifter’s Guild could be helpful, but what about this bounty I got hanging over me? If Crossfire’s willing to beat me senseless over it-”

Crossfire gave a firm nod at that, smiling wolfishly.

“-then shouldn’t I expect the same from any other Drifter? Wouldn’t walking into their Guild be no different than if I went and turned myself in to Odessa?”

At that point Knobs got up, looking forlornly at her tray and soup bowls, “Well, while you discuss how to deal with that problem, I’m going to go get more soup to replace what we lost due to somepony jumping the gun and attacking one of my houseguests.”

Crossfire mumbled something that might have been an apology as Knobs trotted back to the kitchen. There was a brief, awkward silence, before Binge shrugged and said, “I don’t see any problems with you staying all pretty and dressed up, Longykins. Nopony will recognize you at the Guild if you stay looking so frilly and delectably bitable.”

My ears flattened, tail twitching, “Crossfire recognized me. Besides I can’t stay like this all the time!”

“Only reason I recognized you, buck, was because no matter how dressed up you are there’s now way I’d forget your dopey face. You just got a way of looking so mindlessly hopeful and puppy-doggish that it’s impossible to mistake you for anypony else,” grumbled Crossfire.

“I know right!” said Binge, squeezing my cheeks between her hooves, “Just look at him. He’s like a big pony shaped puppy!”

I frowned, face still being squeezed like cookie dough between Binge’s hooves as I sighed, staring at Crossfire, “I don’t even know what a puppy is, but it sounds unflattering. So you’re saying you think I’ll pass without trouble if you take me to your Guild?”

Crossfire blew out a snort, flipping her ponytail from her shoulder with a toss of her head, ”If you stick with the skirt look, you’ll probably fool most of the low rankers. Shard might recognize you, but he won’t make a move unless I do, and Brickhouse is still bedridden after bumping uglies with death, so no worries there. You plan on playing dress up the entire time you’re in town?”

I heaved out a sigh, looking myself over with a pensive look. The dress did fit well and I thought I could probably fight while wearing it. I’d rather wear my armor. Couldn’t be that bad if I wore it, as long as I kept the braided pigtails and maintained a feminine voice.

“Was rather hoping to get this bounty off my head somehow. Any way I can do that?”

Crossfire laughed, “Only two ways the Bounty Guild takes a bounty down. Somepony collects on it, or whoever issued the bounty in the first place withdraws it.”

My face drew down in a deep frown, but my mind was turning. Exhaustion plus hunger was not conductive to my brain pony drawing up ideas, but fortunately for me Knobs returned at this point with fresh bowls of soup. I couldn’t tell what was in the soup as she set the bowls out on the table. It was dark, and filled with bits of floaty bits that looked like some kind of meat and weird looking strands that when I poked at them turned out to be thin and ropey. There were slivers of some kind of plant in there too, but again, I couldn’t tell what it was.

“What... is this?” I asked. It smelled salty and delicious but my curiosity was piqued.

“Rat, onion, and noddles, an Outskirts classic dish,” said Knobs, winking at me, “Don’t worry, the rat meat is perfectly clean. I buy it from a nice gang of foals in the next turf over. They always make sure the meat is disease free.”

I made a small ‘Hmm’ sound and began to eat. Binge dove in as well, not even bothering with a spoon. She just went muzzle first into the soup and started lapping it up. It was... an interesting sight. I tried to ignore the way she got a lidded look as her tongue took long, slurping darts into the soup. Bad brain. No thinking sweaty thoughts. I shoved aside images of other things Binge might use her tongue on and focused on the soup. It was, much as it smelled, quite salty, but it had a mitigating flavor of spice that balanced it all out. I was done with my bowl before I realized it, and Knobs didn’t even wait for me to ask before smiling and taking the bowl, “I’ll go grab you seconds.”

Halfway through my second bowl I was crunching one of the bits of onion between my teeth and found myself asking, “Okay, what are these onions? They’re great!”

Crossfire got a unusually subdued look on her face as she said, “They’re what you see on my flank, buck.”

I looked, recalling that her cutie mark was three weird looking beige plants, with little twisty tops. I gave her a questioning look, quirking an eyebrow. Crossfire shrugged, “Don’t expect to hear the story behind my cutie mark. Or what it means. I grew up on an onion farm. Figure it out yourself.”

I decided to just let it drop, not wanting to get Crossfire angry. It was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk about it. Which made me wonder why she’d answered my question in the first place. After we were done eating I helped Knobs put away the dishes and clean up. I found her kitchen was pretty small and cozy, but much like the rest of the house it was clean and had a well cared for feel. There was a small hallway that was to the left of the kitchen that turned at a corner deeper into the house, with a door along the wall on the right side. I noticed that door had a padlock on it.

“The filly is sleeping in there,” said Knobs, noticing my curious look, “I made sure she was asleep before coming out to make food.”

I gulped, nodding, “Do you think she’ll be okay?”

Knobs gave me a subdued look for a second before her face brightened, “It won’t be easy, but I’m hopeful. She’s young. That’ll make it a bit easier for her to adjust, I hope. I intend to give her a few days to get used to me, and me to her. After that, I’ll play it by ear, see if she might be interested in the Skull Guild.”

“Good, good,” I said, finishing putting away the bowls after scrubbing them in a small wash bucket that had been filled with water from an actual working sink. I’ll say this much for the Guilds of Skull City, they seemed to get things working, though I wondered at how much an amenity like running water cost Knobs. The Skull Guild must have paid its ponies well. My thoughts turned towards the task I had to find my tribe and transportation south. Might as well start digging for information now.

“So, Knobs, does the Skull Guild do anything other than keep the feral ghouls in check?” I asked.

“Heheh, that job alone is big enough for the need of a Guild to do it, but, no, it’s not our only business,” Knobs replied, rolling about her small kitchen with deft grace, using her magic to float away the last of the dishes, “Everything we do involves ghouls to one degree or another, though. Aside from patrolling the roads to keep the ferals in check, we also train some ferals for more specialized tasks. With the right training a feral can become a simple laborer. We also do rehab for non-feral ghouls to help them keep their minds intact, offering everything from therapy to alchemic solutions to keep the more feral... urges in check.”

She’d paused briefly at the word ‘urges’, her eyes going distant for a second before she shook herself and smiled, “You don’t have to ask in a roundabout manner, Longwalk. If you want to know if the Skull Guild can help you, the official answer would probably be ‘no’, but since you're lucky enough to have met me then I can see about helping you out.”

“You don’t have to,” I said, looking down at my hooves, “Not if it’s going to get you in trouble.”

“Phfft, naaaaah, it’s fine! You’ll learn quickly that our Guilds are pretty fluid organizations. You’ll see what I mean when Crossfire shows you around the Drifter’s Guild. I can make a few inquiries among my peers about your situation with your tribe, and about Odessa. If the Skull Guild’s had any dealings with them I can find out pretty quick I bet. As for transportation, honestly I’d say that cool autowagon of yours would be faster than anything else you might get ahold of here besides the airship the Mechanics Guild maintains. Don’t know how you’d get them to lend you a ride in it, but, hey, for enough caps just about anything is for sale in this city...”

Her eyes went a shade solem at those last words, for the first time her cracked, leathery skin giving her a look of actual age and tiredness, “Wish sometimes that wasn’t the case.”

A part of me wanted to ask what she meant, but I didn’t want to crank up the awkward levels by prying. That’d be a poor way to repay this mare for her fast friendship, not to mention food. Wonderful, delicious food. Seriously, if Crossfire wasn’t marrying this mare I was considering my own prospects. The half-dead thing was totally overlookable if she could keep cooking like that.

Not long after that Arcaidia and B.B returned from their shopping trip, and I immediately took note of the fact that both mares looked somewhat worse for wear. Arcaidia was actually sweating, her long silver mane disheveled and her small body brimming with antsy energy. She was grumbling under her breath in her own language as she entered Knob’s house. Behind her B.B was half covered in mud, her own violet dress torn in a few places and a noticeable bruise on her cheek.

“Uhh... guys?” I asked as they both sat on their haunches inside the door, “Anything you’d like to share with me?”

They didn’t immediately respond to me, the two mares both glaring at a point behind me. I rather quickly realized that Crossfire was still seated at the table, right behind me, and she had a distinctively smug half grin on her face as she waved a hoof at Arcaidia and B.B.

“Why hello ladies? Have fun with the locals?”

B.B grimaced, damn near nearly snarled, pointing a hoof at Crossfire in a way that suggested she wanted her revolvers attached, “What’s she doin’ here?”

I blinked, glancing back at Crossfire, “Oh, uh, right. Her. Explanations all around then. Me first. Crossfire is friends with Knobs. Dropped by today for breakfast. We’ve got a kind of temporary truce going-”

“One week,” Crossfire reminded me.

“Right, one week. She’s going to help out by introducing me to the Drifter’s Guild. Please don’t shoot her.”

Arcaidia held her head high, turning her nose up at Crossfire, “We no problem if she no problem. Unlike some ponies who touch where they are not wanted!”

Arcaidia spat that out with an icy glare that didn’t seem to be directed at anything specific, just the city in general. I guess her fascination with Skull Cit was at an end after meeting too many of the locals.

“Oh, dear Ancestors, tell me you two didn’t kill anypony,” I said, rubbing my forehead with one hoof and feeling the beginnings of a headache.

B.B looked up, as if trying to recall details, “I don’t... think so? We didn’t shoot nopony. I might’ve introduced one stallion’s head ta a’ new career as a’ door stopper. Arcaidia froze solid one poor fella’s groin-”

“He touched my bottom!”

“-an’ I’m pretty sure they ain’t gonna be able ta clear that street o’ icicles fer awhile. Could be we ticked off, I don’t know, two different gangs? There were a’ lot o’ ponies chasin’ us until we managed ta lose ‘em.”

Amid Crossfire’s snickers and Binge’s giggles I just stared at the two mares in front of me, headache increasing. So, this is what’s its like to be on the other side of a Longwalk Incident? I took a deep breath and managed a small, strained smile, “At least you’re both alright. You two are okay? No injuries?”

Arcaidia took a long, deep breath, and her look of frozen death got replaced with her cheerful energy, “Yes, very good. Bad ponies not ruin my day. And we finish shopping!”

B.B nodded, rubbing her cheek, “One bastard got in a’ solid hit, but I’ve had worse. Way worse. An’ yeah, like Arc says, we got the goods. Put it all in the Ursa. The, uh, ‘event’ happened on our way back after we got done shoppin’.”

“What event?” asked Knobs as she came back into the room. It was getting a tad crowded in here. I decided to let the siren song of the couch take root and went over, flopping down on the plush pillows. It was just what the healer ordered for my headache, sinking into that comfy bit of furniture. Binge curled up at the foot of the couch, and B.B floated over to sit on the other side of the couch. Arcaidia took a seat at the table, eyeing Crossfire warily. Crossfire returned the look with a nonchalant expression that spoke of the complete lack of bucks she gave of Arcaidia’s distrustful glare.

Knobs remained standing, seemingly comfortable enough to just balance on her wheeled back legs.

After we were done exchanging updates Knobs let out a short laugh, shaking her head, “Well, I’ve heard of worse introductions to Skull City...” she cast a meaningful look at Crossfire at that, then looked back at Arcaidia and B.B, “Sounds like you two wandered out of Marshal turf. Good thing, too. If you’d started a fight on their turf I’d have some... unpleasant explanations to have to give to them.”

B.B did have the presence of mind to look apologetic, “Sorry, hun. Was hopin’ to avoid causin’ a ruckus on our first day.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Knobs, “Worse comes to worst you might have to avoid a few spots around town. Long as you're on Marshal turf you won’t have to worry much about reprisals. So, you folks staying over today?”

I perked up, speaking quickly, “If it’s not too much trouble. I want to give us a day to rest up. Also need to hear back from LIL-E before we can do much else. Maybe tomorrow Crossfire can take me to the Drifter’s Guild and we’ll figuring things from there.”

Knobs nodded, “Sounds good to me. I’ll check in with my Guild tomorrow then too and get the ball rolling on that end of things.”

“Ya plannin’ on joinin’ up with the Drifter’s Guild?” B.B asked me, violet eyes looking at me with open curiosity.

“I don’t know,” I replied simply, my own face turning thoughtful, “I hadn’t thought of it, honestly. I was just hoping to get some information from them about Odessa, but maybe becoming a member would make that all go over easier. Crossfire?”

The black furred unicorn leaned back in her seat, looking me square in the eyes, “You’d get access to more information and options if you joined, but joining wouldn’t be a walk in the park, buck. You’d need a high ranking member to sponsor you, and pass an aptitude test. If you’re serious, I might be willing to sponsor you. Shit, might make it easier for me to track you down later, if you don’t get your bounty taken off somehow. But what were you planning to do? Join up while pretending to be a mare?”

I groaned. I’d forgotten about that. Did I not have a choice, then?

Really prefer not to have to do that,” I said, “Maybe I’ll hold off on trying to join until the bounty is gone, one way or another.”

“Think on big matters later,” said Arcaidia, “Spend day resting. Think on new problems with fresh minds on next day.”

I was more than willing to take that advice. We’d had a long night and morning, and for once there was no rush to do anything. No immediate crisis, no need to get anywhere. We’d arrived in Skull City, and now it was going to take time and effort to uncover the information I needed to find my tribe and secure Arcaidia a fast trip to the NCR. We had no time constraints on these goals, at least none that I knew of. I wouldn’t mind a few days of taking things slow, for once. It’d give me time to get back in touch with Stable 104, ask about how Trailblaze was doing. I hoped she’d returned safe from her own expedition from Stable 106.

Knobs offered to get more bowls out and serve some soup to Arcaidia and B.B, and the two mares gratefully accepted. I lay down on the couch, slowly drifting in and out of sleep as I listened to my friends talk about nothing; just shoot the breeze. In between short naps I noticed Crossfire had left. Presumably back to her Guild, or home, or wherever. Knobs informed me Crossfire would be back in the morning to take me to the Drifter’s Guild if I still wanted to go. I did. Even if I didn’t join it in my ‘Blueberry’ persona I still wanted to get a look at the place.

Just as I was starting to get worried about LIL-E my Pip-Buck buzzed. I switched over to the communication tab and noticed that amid the various radio signals it could pick up there was one labeled as belonging to LIL-E, and it was blinking. I switched over to it with a few deft flicks of a switch.

“Uh, hello?”

At my words everypony else paused in their conversation to look at me, then leaned in to listen.

LIL-E’s monotone machine voice spoke over the Pip-Buck’s radio, “Longwalk? You hear me?”

“Yup, what’s up? Did you find Doc Sunday and the others?”

There was a pause that made my stomach lurch a bit. Please, let there be nothing wrong.

No such luck.

“No,” said LIL-E flatly, “Neither Doc Sunday, Dr. Lemon Slice, or any of the refugees have been here at the Rust n’ Dirt Inn. In fact I’ve inquired around and nopony has seen any sign of them in the Outskirts. From what I can tell they never made it to the city at all.”

----------

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Bonus Ex-File: "Boss Rush Stats! - Director Midnight Twinkle"
Location: Stable 104, Tram Terminal Station
Level: 16
HP: 650
DT: 25
Perception: 5
Attack Skill: 85
Scythe Leg Damage: 70
Fang Damage: 60, plus poison (-2 STR, -2 STA, 5dmg/sec)
Special Attack "Web Capture": Immobilizes target on hit
EXP: 600
Loot: None
Weakness: Lightning element attacks

Author's Note:

Transition chapters are always a little awkward for me to write because some back part of my brain is trying to figure out how to work in a few explosions or gunfights. Well, no explosions or gun battles, but you do get the return of Longwalk in drag, so it all balances out I hope. Oh, and Crossfire. Taking all bets on how long civility lasts between her and Longwalk. And have we seen the last of Iron Wrought? Probably not. Hope you folk all enjoyed the chapter, and as always never hesitate to let me know your thoughts.

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