• 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 25: Black as Sin, Red as Blood

Mistakes. I knew I’d made my share of them. I knew I was often naive, trusted too easily because I wanted to believe in the better nature of those around me. Still, I couldn't blame anypony for thinking I was a colossal idiot for letting Braindead get the drop on me like he had. That small warning signal in the back of my brain had been my common sense screaming at me to be wary, to be vigilant while I was seperated from my friends, weakened from the fight with the bounty hunters, and vulnerable while alone with a stallion who I had so little reason to trust.

A part of me just wanted to believe that ponies could change. A part of me may always believe that. Without that belief what was the point of ever giving another pony a second chance? But there was no denying my mistake as I twitched on the cold tile floor while Braindead dragged me onto his back and started trotting fast back down the tunnel away from my friends and allies.

My vision was coming in and out. My consciousness was flickering like a bad light bulb. I briefly saw that Braindead was holding a small radio device with an antenna in one hoof as he rushed down the tunnel, a snarled female voice speaking from it.

"-down the second door on the right, dumbass. Follow the stairs down then turn left and hit the elevator. It'll still be working. Take it down to-"

I passed out for a moment, blackness clouding my mind, then blinked awake to see we were heading down dingy stairs into darkness, only a faint light from my own still active Pip-Buck lighting the way. My mind duly realized that with my Pip-Buck and the spell Arcaidia had placed on me she and the others could still track me. Didn't Braindead know that too? He'd been there while we'd planned this whole business with the Bounty Guild, so he had to know. Arcaidia and the others had to be coming after me by now.

Confirmation of this arrived when I heard Arcaidia's distant voice. I couldn't tell what she was shouting, perhaps my name, but she was clearly following us. I tried to shout, but I could barely work my throat and my head swam with pain and a foggy fatigue that pulled me under as surely as quicksand.

My next clear memory was of Braindead entering the dust filled box of an elevator, its small panel of barely operating lights sparking on and off as he jabbed a button that sent us lowering further into the depths beneath Skull City. Then the darkness swallowed my mind again, my last sensation being the sound of Arcaidia's desperate call of my name, somewhere above my descending form.

----------

When I managed to crawl back up from the syrup of dark unconsciousness I quickly noted the fact that I was stripped of my armor and saddlebags. Naked save for the Pip-Buck on my left arm, I hung suspended from a ceiling of stone where a thick, rust spotted steel beam was looped with a set of solid chains that wrapped around my fore legs so tightly I could feel the metal gouging into my flesh. The chains were secured by a large padlock. My hind legs were similarly bound, pulled taut by chains that were bolted into the stone floor by large rivets. The result was that I was stretched and hung up like a slab of meat with little room to move my body except for my head and some slack to bend my legs a little.

I craned my neck left and right to get a look at my surroundings. I was in a dry stone chamber, its smooth walls and ceiling telling me that it wasn’t natural but rather dug. The steel beam I hung from was just one of many support struts that laced the walls and ceiling like the dark bones of some long dead creature. The wall directly across from me had a stone ramp carved out that led up to a second level where a tunnel mouth loomed ominously. The cave I was in was perhaps about thirty or forty paces across, oblong, and lit by a few electric lamps set hanging off the steel beams, casting the cavern in dim orange light.

My parched mouth felt sticky and sour, and glancing down I could see a dark trail of vomit I must’ve upchucked at some point while being dragged down here, stunned and dazed. I coughed, taking my first shuddering breath and felt a chill in my stomach as I saw a few more details about the cavern. At several points on the wall, including the one directly below the second level tunnel across from me, were sets of manacles and chains bolted into the stone. Dark red stains marked those chains and the floor and walls around them. The old coppery scent in the air left little doubt as to what the stains were.

Where was I? It had to be beneath Skull City still, but what could this stone cavern be? Glancing up at my Pip-Buck I saw the device’s screen was black and dead. I don’t know how my captors had turned it off but even if the Pip-Buck was still on I was in no position to reach its knobs to try and call for help.

I just have to trust Arcaidia’s spell can lead her to me... Ancestor’s damn it all, why did I drop my guard like that?

The shame burned, but I tried to think past it. Even if trusting Braindead had been stupid of me, I wasn’t going to escape by hanging there feeling sorry for myself. Experimentally I tugged at my chains. They clinked and jingled, the sound echoing loudly in the cavernous chamber. Gradually I pulled harder, straining my muscles. Five minutes of this was enough to show me that these chains weren’t going to conveniently snap for me anytime soon. I wasn’t too daunted by this, figuring that if I kept at it I might eventually loosen them, but thoughts of a quick escape were rapidly dwindling.

Then I heard hoofsteps approaching from the dark tunnel mouth. More than one pony was coming, and I could hear coming with the hoofsteps a strange, guttural chattering that sounded like a pack of wild animals barking at each other and trying to make words out of it. I watched the tunnel entrance with grit teeth, waiting until my captors appeared.

First came short, shaggy creatures I’d never seen before. They barely stood as tall as my chest, but that didn’t do much to lessen their intimidating features. Broad, pale green heads were covered in thick coarse hair that ranged from dark green to black. Sharp angled eyes held pin-prick pupils, and their faces bore wide mouths of numerous pointed teeth. They wore clothing of patchwork metal and leather, and the spiked nature of it reminded me immediately of Raiders, although these creatures weren’t ponies but rather had bipedal bodies, their grasping hands clutching at makeshift rusty axes or blades that looked like they’d been built from the liberal application of wire and duct tape to every piece of scrap metal with an edge these creatures could find.

Four of these creatures padded into the room and marched down the ramp, taking up positions that were clearly that of guards as they chittered with each other and looked at me with hungry eyes. Behind them were two ponies. One of them was Braindead, his head hung low, his eyes very pointedly avoiding me as he trailed behind the other pony like a shadow.

The other pony was Redwire. I barely remembered her, but seeing her now my memory did flare a bit brighter. The unicorn mare’s red coat and purple mane was much the same as I’d seen it when I’d let her and Braindead go free after the fight outside Saddlespring, her mane still sporting the same braids with bits of interlaced razorwire. However she now wore a stark white robe over her body, the voluminous garment shockingly clean for being donned by a mare whose lifestyle predominantly involved such hobbies as evisceration and disembowelment. When she cantered into the cavern it was with the confidence and ease of a mare entering her home, and the look in her eyes as she saw me awake and looking at her was coldly menacing.

“About time you woke up,” she said in a smoothly unpleasant tone as she strode down the ramp towards me, “I was starting to worry I’d have to start the party without the guest of honor.”

“Never was much for parties anyway, so don’t feel too bad if I decide to skip out on you,” I said, figuring that if she wanted to trade quips I’d keep her talking as long as I could. Every second bought for Arcaidia and the others was going to count. “Speaking of which, mind doing something about these chains? They’re kind of cutting off my circulation.”

Her features twisted into a nasty snarl as she got within a pace of me, Braindead still just behind her with his head bowed to the ground as he looked everywhere but at me. Redwire’s hoof shot out, a straight, hard punch square to my groin. Pain exploded through me and made me retch.

“Yeah, I wasn’t planning on playing the banter game too much, just so you know,” Redwire said with icy firmness as she sent another punch into my gut, causing me to cough and convulse, “You’re here to hurt. I’m going to hurt you. A lot. Not kill, yet. No no no, you don’t get to die for awhile. Remember what I told you? Back when you fucked up and showed me mercy like I was some kind of little bitch you couldn’t bring yourself to kill? I promised I’d kill your friends, one by one, and anypony else you remotely care about, and only after I’d broken you would I even consider ending your worthless fucking life.”

Her hooves reached up and squeezed my face from either side and I could see the raw madness and rage burning inside her dim blue eyes, “So I’m going to break you. Right. In. Here.”

One of her hooves tapped on my chest, right above my heart.

Recovering my breath I looked at her, struggling to keep my face neutral as I asked, “Are you coming on to me?”

This earned a hard hoof to my jaw that probably loosened a few teeth. Redwire was smiling at me, looking me up and down like a pony eyeing a particularly irritating bug they intended to step on. “I do hope you keep up the spirit. That’ll just make it all the more satisfying when I tear it out of you. Believe it or not, this isn’t all about you. My new benefactor, in exchange for performing some very enjoyably bloody tasks, has given me some unique... enhancements.”

As if to emphasize her words something moved beneath her robes, like a slithering snake’s body twisting under the pure white cloth. Seeing my confused and disgusted expression she laughed. Faster than my eyes could see something extended from the folds of her robes, swift and dark as it lashed across my chest. Blazing pain burst across me from a deep laceration that started to soak my tan coat red and I grit my teeth to keep from crying out. Blinking, I watched as I saw a dark, steel gray appendage like a long, vine-like tentacle wave in the air in front of me. Its surface was covered in thorn-like blades, glinting wet with my blood. Redwire extended her tongue and licked the blood off the tendril, which then retracted back into the depths of her robe, leaving no trace that it was there.

What in the name of all the Ancestor Spirits sweat soaked balls had that been!? Where had it even come from? She certainly hadn’t had freaky razor tentacles last time I’d seen her.

Redwire ran a hoof over the fresh bleeding wound she’d put on my chest, petting the torn flesh as I winced, “Now that we’ve established how fucked you are, I have some preparations to make. I know your little band of dipshit buddies are coming to rescue you. I’ve got quite the reception planned for them. You’ll get to see every second of it, I assure you; a front row fucking seat, in fact. Before that, though, we’ve got lots of fun activities planned for you, and now that I know you’re awake I can get things started.”

She looked back sharply at Braindead, who backed up a step from her, “Keep an eye on him and if he tries anything, fry him some. In fact, fry him a bit anyway, just make sure he stays conscious. I’m going to go get our first set of party guests.”

Braindead nodded, but then Redwire gestured towards him. All she did was raise her hoof slightly, and her horn glowed a fierce purple. Only then did I realize her horn, which last time I saw her had been cracked, was now whole. The moment she gestured at Braindead he let out a choking sound, breathing rapidly as he clutched at his chest. For a second I thought I saw something moving underneath his hide, like a pulsing bulge.

Redwire glared hard at Braindead, “When I give you an order, what’s the appropriate response?”

“Y-yes Redwire!”

She twisted her gesture and I saw Briandead convulse, dropping to the ground as he screamed, “I-I mean yes mistress!”

Nodding firmly she lowered her hoof and Braindead started to breath easier. She strode past him, giving him a hard kick with a hind leg that knocked him over onto his back as he went by.

“I’ll get you trained eventually, assuming I don’t just kill you. Don’t forget who holds the leash, Braindead. Without me, you’re nothing. You don’t breathe if I don’t command it. Don’t piss me off and you get rewarded, if I feel like it. Piss me off, and you’ll end up like the others.”

“Yes mistress. I’ll do anything you command. Please... just... just please take it out. You told me if I brought him to you that you’d remove this-” he pointed at his chest, coughing, and looked at Redwire in horror as she raised her hoof again. He recoiled, but nothing happened as Redwire laughed, a sound that echoed off the walls in a mad echo.

“Remove it? I never promised that. I told you if you managed to bring this dumbass colt to me that I’d consider rewarding you. And I have. By not killing you just now. So shut up your sniveling mouth and do as I ordered. I want him to be tenderised by the time I get back.”

With that she trotted out, braided tail flicking from beneath her white robe. The four hairy critters stayed behind, shuffling about in their guard positions in clear boredom as they chattered ceaselessly amongst themselves. With their bizarre chittering as the background noise I hung there looking at the terrified Braindead, not sure what to think of what I’d just seen. It looked like Redwire had some kind of magical hold over him, but what was it exactly? It was as if there was something inside him that tied him to her magic.

Anger and confusion fought back and forth within me. He’d betrayed my trust and my friends were in danger because of it. Yet I hated seeing anypony being controlled like that, and it was clear Redwire had leverage on him that he couldn’t control. Moreover, I needed information about where I was, what Redwire had planned, and just how she’d gotten into a position where she could do any of this. Braindead was my only possible source for answers.

“Hey,” I said, causing him to start and glance towards me, but he still refused to look at me, “Look, Braindead, I need info. Can you answer some questions?”

His eyes screwed shut and he shook his head, voice hissing, “Can’t talk to you. S-sorry, can’t. Redwire finds out she’ll kill me.”

“I just want to know where I am and what she’s doing down here. How’d she even set all of this up? I get it if you don’t want to risk answering, but if she’s not getting back for a few minutes you can at least answer that much, right?”

I saw him shudder as he got to his hooves, his eyes darting towards the hairy bipedals who had now gathered by the ramp and were playing some kind of game involving small chips of something white that I gradually realized was bone. Braindead took in a deep breath and slowly looked up at me with a wretched expression.

“I’ll answer, but it won’t help. Redwire is going to kill your friends, and then you. I wasn’t lying about everything I told you. She really does hate you for letting her live.”

I couldn’t begin to grasp the logic behind that, but I figured questioning why Redwire felt sparing her life was so enraging I instead focused on more practical questions, “I’ll just assume she’s consumed too much of the crazy sauce. So what is this place? This doesn’t look like the sewers.”

His hoof weakly gestured at the stone walls around us, “These tunnels are old salt mines. There’s miles of them underneath Skull City, below the sewers and tram system. Redwire read about them in some old book. I guess Detrot, before everything went to shit, got its start with these mines. Doesn’t matter now...”

His eyes went downcast again as he stared at the cold stone floor, “We fled, just like I said, and we even planned to join the Raider horde attacking the city. But Redwire wanted an edge. From boss Bloodtrail we knew where a Ruin was north of that town we were going to infiltrate. Redwire thought she could find a weapon or something there to use against you inside it. What we found instead was... was this monster. It captured us, but it wasn’t like other Ruin monsters. It was smart. It talked. I... I don’t think it actually was from the Ruin, but rather was there studying it or something. Redwire talked to it, and it... it decided to change her. It took her on as some kind of apprentice. Gave her power, and a task. It sent her down under this city to sow confusion and panic in the population with these monsters she can create.”

“Monsters?” I asked, feeling a cold sweat break out on my brow, “What kind of monsters?”

A haunted look came over his gaunt features, “There’s a few kind, but mostly it’s the skeletons. She uses ponies. Living ponies, captured from that huge shanty town outside the city, or from anywhere else she can, and she changes them into the skeletons. She plants this-” he touched his chest, “-seed inside a pony. Then all she has to do is use a little magic and it just melts the flesh off the pony, decomposes them, rots them alive, until they’re a skeletal fucking monster she can command. That’s what she’s going to do to your friends. She’s got a small army of those monsters already and is going to ambush your friends when they come to rescue you... then change them in front of you.”

I wanted to throw up, my mouth drier than the stone around me and my head swimming with fresh fear. Even so I had to focus, and get as much information as I could, as any of it might help down the road, assuming there was a ‘down the road’. “You said she got this power from a monster you ran into at this Ruin? What was it?”

“I don’t know!” he near shouted, “It floated around and had this huge golden mask with eyes redder than freshly gouged wounds. Its body wasn’t shaped right, all these odd angles, covered up by a white robe.. Same kind of white robe it gave Redwire after it took her on as a disciple. Only parts of it I could see past the robes were the giant, golden metal claws and a barbed tail. Fucking thing has this weird ass, choking laugh that made my head hurt. It called itself... fuck what was it? Alhazad. That was it. Alhazad.”

The name rang a bell with me. It was the same name of the Hyadean creature that Misty Glasses claimed had changed her and the residents of Stable 104 into spider ponies.

So, now the same Hyadean had changed Redwire somehow, giving her power so she could create an army of monsters beneath Skull City to sow chaos on the surface? Was that what the attack on the Skull Guild’s basement level was all about? It seemed plausible enough, but there were still a few things that didn’t make sense to me.

“What was this Alhazad doing in that Ruin?”

Briandead looked at me as if I’d asked him what the inner workings of an Odessa airship was. “No idea. Didn’t ask. I spent the entire time following Redwire’s lead and trying really hard not to draw attention to myself.”

“If there’s anything you can remember-”

“I don’t fucking know okay!?” he growled, stepping closer to me and reaching to where the stun baton he’d lifted from me now dangled from a leather cord around his leg. The weapon crackled dangerously with energy as he lifted it and pointed it at me, “You keep asking questions but has it sunk in yet what’s happening to you!? What’s about to happen!? You’re Redwire’s now, just like me. You can’t escape, and even if your friends managed to fight through all of Redwire’s ambushes and traps she’ll still kill you long before they can rescue you! You’re fucked! Boned! Screwed six different ways and the Goddesses don’t give a shit! So why are you so damned calm!?”

I just blinked at him, the pain from the bleeding, oozing cut on my chest still causing me to grimace, “Calm? I’m not calm. Not even close. Trust me, if it’s me being scared you want, the only reason I haven’t pissed myself is because I relieved myself right before you, you know, betrayed me.”

My words seemed to sting him, as I saw the way his ears wilted and the air seemed to leak from his bluster, and the stun baton lowered. “I don’t have a choice. I don’t. If I’d warned you about Redwire, she’d have killed me the second I didn’t report back or she even suspected I’d turned on her.”

His voice lowered to a pained whisper, a desolate tone of a pony who had watched their last shred of hope dry up before their eyes, “I was an idiot to think there was even a chance for me to have something good.”

When he looked at me again it was with a cold anger that made me flinch, “I get why Redwire hates you so much. Good ponies are supposed to die in this world. Why the fuck do you think we butcher and rape like we do!? Because we’d die if we didn’t! But here you are, trying to show that it can be some other way when it CAN’T! It… it can’t...”

With an almost desperate look in his eyes he suddenly raised the stun baton, its crystalline tips burning with cobalt electricity, and he jabbed it into my ribs just below the cut Redwire had put in me.

“It can’t!”

Pain sizzled through me, my body convulsing in its constraints, the chains jingling with the dance of suffering as Braindead shocked me several more times, each instant just a few seconds, not enough to knock me out but drawing out the pain. I groaned, coughed, nearly threw up again as I hung there. Braindead had backed up, his eyes wild and shifting between disgust and... and just looking tired. He dropped the stun baton and shook his head, looking more beaten and defeated than I did.

“She won’t make it fast. Maybe if you’re lucky you can piss her off enough she’ll kill you in a rage. But... you probably won’t be that lucky. Heh,” he let out a dry, desiccated laugh that was filled with more self hatred than anything else, “Heheh... nothing either of us can do...”

He went to the wall and slumped against it, his whole body sinking to the ground. He stared at me with dull eyes, looking like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world than where he was. It was... hard to feel too sorry for him, given my situation, but I didn’t enjoy seeing a pony look that broken and lost.

As for myself, all I could do was conserve my strength and bide my time. Unlike Briandead, I wasn’t about to give up on hope.

----------

The first sound to reach my ears from the tunnel was the echo of a pony’s pained cry. I had been twisting my forelegs around, not to try and break the chains but instead to see if there was any give in them to let me any amount of movement. Short of awkward hip thrusting I wasn’t going to be able to move much. Any further thoughts I had on how to possibly escape was drowned out at the sight of Redwire returning, and she wasn’t alone.

More of those bipedal hairy creatures prodded along a trio of ponies who were bound in manacles that allowed them just enough room to move but hardly run, and barely resist the armed creatures around them. The creatures weren’t gentle in their prodding, one hard stab from a knife cutting a bleeding gouge in one of the prisoner’s flanks that made her yelp, the same voice I’d heard just moments before. Redwire herself led the procession, ignoring the ponies as one of them, the youngest looking of the bunch, sobbed loudly. The other two held stronger looks about them, but their hollowed expressions could only hold so much defiance. Two of the ponies were mares, including the youngest one, and the other was a stallion. All earth ponies.

She’s not risking bringing unicorns in here, I realized. If Redwire had unicorn prisoners they were probably kept somewhere else, away from any tools they could levitate to use as weapons or a means to escape. Looking at the three prisoners I could see they’d already been abused, their naked bodies bearing wounds, some fresh, others old and scabrous, and in a few cases clearly infected from the purple flesh around the edges of the wounds.

As Redwire led the grim parade down the stone ramp the other creatures who’d been playing their game of bones quickly got to their feet and hobbled to guard positions. Braindead, who had barely shifted from where he’d been sitting against the wall, now blearily stood with a gulping expression of fear as Redwire looked his way.

“Enjoy each other’s company?” she asked with barbed sweetness.

Braindead shuddered slightly, stammering his reply, “W-what’s to enjoy? He’s just another dead pony.”

A knowing, thin smirk crossed Redwire’s features as she gesture for her minions to secure the new prisoners to the chains hanging from the walls. One ending up on either side of me, while the third was directly across, bound tight and drawn up to their hindquarters, forelegs stretched above them much like I was.

By now these ponies were looking at me, one of the mares with a light of recognition in her eyes.

“You!” she shouted, and suddenly she seemed vaguely familiar. “I remember you...”

I stared at the mare, whose coat and mane were a coppery color reminded me a bit of Sunset, although her eyes were pink and she was an earth pony, with a map for a cutie mark. I couldn’t recall where I’d seen her before.

“You do?” I asked, while Redwire looked between us while still wearing that annoying smirk.

The copper mare nodded, sagging in her chains, “I’m Copper Shell. I saw you when you came to Saddlespring. I gave you directions to the market.”

“...Saddlespring?” I asked as my eyes grew wide. I still didn’t entirely remember her, just that a nice guard mare had given me directions at the town’s front gate. This was her? But... but that meant...

“You’re the refugees from Saddlespring,” I breathed, then turned towards Redwire, whose smirk had turned into a full, vicious grin. “When? How!?”

I felt a sick shiver run through me. I’d sent LIL-E to search for the missing survivors of Saddlespring, and she hadn’t reported back. Had LIL-E somehow been captured too!? And what about B.B’s father, Doc Sunday? Had all the survivors been caught by Redwire? My distress was clearly Redwire’s pleasure as she laughed, the sound crawling over me like a slick oil.

“These tasty morsels stumbled into the same Ruin I met master Alhazad in, and capturing them wasn’t difficult. My master didn’t care what I did with them, and I knew that if I kept most of them alive they’d be useful in hurting you. Since the Ruin connected to these old salt mines it was easy to move them here and start my work underneath this putrid city.”

I remembered LIL-E saying something about Doc Sunday knowing of a Ruin that connected to Skull City that he could move the refugees through. The whole point would have been to avoid Odessa or the Labor Guild. Who could have guessed they’d run into something so much worse? A part of me wanted to ask about B.B’s father or LIL-E, but didn’t want to risk it. If LIL-E hadn’t run into Redwire and was still out there somewhere searching, perhaps even sneaking through the mines at this very moment. If that was the case, I didn’t want to tip Redwire off. As for Doc Sunday, if he was still alive I didn’t want to give Redwire a reason to target him over anypony else.

“I still don’t get something,” I said, willing to take advantage of any chance to keep Redwire talking, because I could already see where this was going and was desperate to stall for as much time as I could. “How did you know Braindead was going to find me? Skull City is massive. You couldn’t have known where to look.”

She approached me with sinuous movements, another one of those bizarre tendrils snaking its way out of her robe. I could hear ripping, fleshy noises with the tendril’s movements. Seeing it again I noticed it had this odd texture, like something that was both metallic and organic simultaneously. Its bladed, gray surface waved underneath my chin. The bio-metal was warm to the touch and I could feel Redwire’s pulse through it as she cupped my chin with the sickening appendage and forced me to look her in the eyes. There was terrible strength in the tendril, and I felt like she could break my neck in an instant if she wanted to.

“It scares you, doesn’t it? You know what I’m going to do and you want me to waste time blabbing meaningless details. Heh, but you know what, I don’t mind indulging you, because it won’t make a difference in the end. I didn’t know where you were, only that you’d end up in this city sooner or later. So I cast a wide net. Braindead was just one of dozens of ponies I... convinced to serve me. Them, combined with my friendly little army of Gobs were all keeping an eye out for you. It was only a matter of time before I figured out where you were. And when Braindead happened to run into you at that dive tavern, well, stroke of luck for me. I had him stick close to you, and he reported your movements, including that plan of yours to turn yourself in for your own bounty. Ballsy move, by the by. Stupid, but ballsy. If I hadn’t tipped off the Wild Bunch about your plan, it might’ve worked. I knew Braindead would have his best chance to get you to me either during or after your scuffle with the Wild Bunch.”

“How do you know those bounty hunters?”

“Ah, we aren’t all born Raiders,” she said with a snicker, “Braindead was born to it, but me, I was a bounty hunter before I was a Raider.”

“What?” I blinked, confused, “How in the flaming Ancestral Spirit teats did you end up as a Raider then? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Her bladed tendril slashed across my face, blinding pain shooting through me as my muzzle was cut from snout to cheek. Suddenly Redwire’s face was in mine, her eyes blazing as she roared, “Do I look like a mare who gives a fuck about making sense!

I coughed as she slammed a hoof into my chest and she backed up, running a hoof over her barbed mane, “This isn’t storytime. This isn’t the part where you hear about my tragic past and try to convince me there’s a better way. Fuck that. Fuck you! You don’t need to know why I choose to live the only sane way a pony can live and you don’t get to ask any more questions. Now... now the screaming starts.”

She turned and started strutting towards Copper Shell, whose face started to go pale, and I pulled hard on my chains, “No! We are not doing this shit Redwire! You have a problem with me, you damn well do things to me! Hey! You listening you psycho!?”

Redwire tilted her head coyly, a dark smile on her lips and a hellish enjoyment in her eyes, “Hmm? You say something?”

One of her bio-metal tendrils slithered out of her robes and started waving through the air towards Copper Shell, who visibly gulped and recoiled in her chains from the sight. I felt the hackles of my mane rise as I stared at Redwire, feeling a white hot anger building in me that mixed poorly with the oily fear drenching me.

“I said if you want to slice up ponies, then do it to me!” I growled past clenched teeth, “I’m the one you’re pissed off at, right? I’m the one you hate for some stupid ass reason! So hurt me. I don’t care what you do! Cut me up more, or break my freakin’ legs with a hammer, whatever makes you grin. I’m not pretending to be tough, I’ll scream plenty the whole damn time. You want me to beg? I don’t give a shit about my pride, so I’ll beg all you damned want! Just. Leave. Them. Alone!”

“You really do care about other ponies, no matter who they are, don’t you?” Redwire asked, her tendril retracting from the shaking Copper Shell for a moment.

Then Redwire’s eyes narrowed to slits and the tendril shot forward, plunging deeply into Copper Shell’s shoulder, twisting and burrowing into the helpless mare’s flesh. Copper Shell screamed, a high pitched wail that echoed off the salt mine’s walls as Redwire laughed at my look of horror.

“That’s why I’m going to enjoy every second of this!”

I threw myself against my chains, no longer caring how strong or tight they were. I yanked and strained, muscles struggling against unyielding metal. Copper Shell’s howls of agony added a punctuation for every thrashing of my body as I tried to break free of my bonds, yet the chains and the steel beams they were attached to held firm. I was trapped in place, unable to look away as Redwire began her bloody work upon the helpless mare in front of me.

The pain of my own wounds were completely forgotten, and all I could feel was an overwhelming need to put a stop to what I was seeing. Redwire was digging her tendril slowly through the surface area of Copper Shell’s hide. I could see the bladed appendage worming like a cancerous bulge beneath the skin, and I knew every second those razor bladed protrusions were shredding furrows through Copper Shell’s body.

“It always amazes me how much punishment a pony’s body can take,” said Redwire casually, sliding up to Copper Shell and placing an almost affectionate hoof on the thrashing mare’s cheek as her tendril continued to torture her captive, “How much blood we can shed, how mutilated our flesh can become, and still our heart keeps pumping. Its as if we were born for the sole purpose of enduring pain. It’s beautiful, really. Even as a foal I figured that out. My cutie mark shows just how good I am at inflicting pain.”

Said cutie mark was little more than a set of blood drenched razor wires, and as she withdrew her tendril from Copper Shell’s body the crimson soaked appendage looked like nothing more than a twin to Redwire’s cuite mark. Copper Shell sagged in her chains, the wound in her shoulder leaking a river of red down her side as she sobbed ragged breaths. Redwire looked back at me, waving her tendril through the air as if to show it off to me.

“What do you think is worse? Killing her now, fast and clean? Or drawing this out for, mmm, hours? Days even? I can end her suffering in an instant.”

Suddenly a second tendril appeared from her robes, opposite the first, and lashed around Copper Shell’s neck. The mare’s eyes widened in terror as the tendril constricted, blades starting to cut into the soft flesh of her neck, but not quite enough to cut off air or break into anything arterial. Redwire held off, just a centimeter from inflicting fatal harm as the other tendril started to lash across Copper Shell’s belly, cutting shallow but painful lacerations across the mare’s exposed barrel.

“What do you think? You’re the ‘good pony’ here, after all. Should I kill her now, end the pain? Or should I keep her alive, keep hurting her, and hurting her, and hurting her on the small, miniscule chance that you, the ‘hero’ might find some way to save her?”

“Ancestors fucking damnit Redwire just stop! What do you want from me!?”

“What do I want?” Redwire asked innocently as more of Copper Shell’s blood coated the cold stone floor, “I want you to see. I want you to know. I want you to understand.”

“Understand what? That you’re a sick, delusional nutcase?”

“No,” she replied as her eyes fixed on mine, and inside those eyes I saw the barren expanse of desolation and ruin that was reflected in every patch of the dried up Wasteland, “I want you to understand that you can’t win against it.”

Her tendril around Copper Shell’s neck loosened, but only so that tendril could join its twin in lashing and flaying the rest of the mare’s body. Small splatters of blood flew through the air like tiny red jewels as Redwire said, “Nopony beats the Wasteland.”

“F-fuck...you, bitch. Just kill me and get it over with!” Copper Shell managed to gasp, her screams weakening.

“Ah ah ah, flattery gets you nowhere. You want the pain to stop, it has to be his call,” Redwire said in a sickly sweet voice, pointing back towards me while lifting Copper Shell’s chin with one tendril. I saw the agony swimming in Copper Shell’s eyes as she looked at me. Already her body looked like a swollen, red mass of cuts that shed a curtain of blood down her body, and it made me realize that Redwire wasn’t lying. Ponies could take an incredible amount of punishment without dying, and Redwire very well could keep this up for days.

But I knew she didn’t have days. Arcaidia and the others were coming. She had to know that too, otherwise she wouldn’t have turned off my Pip-Buck... although...

The thought struck me with sudden clarity. Redwire turned off my Pip-Buck, but why would she bother doing that if she also knew that Arcaidia had placed a tracking spell on me? She’d know my friends would search for me, perhaps even find their way down here, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she likely was betting on having days to work on torturing me. She’d assume my friends would need that time to search, without a way to directly track me. She didn’t know about the spell! But why? Braindead knew about it, and he would have...

My eyes glanced towards Braindead, who had shuffled off to the side of the room and was making a point of looking at the ground and drawing as little attention to himself as possible. He certainly didn’t look like he was enjoying any of the proceedings.

He didn’t tell her. He knows my friends are coming, and a hell of a lot sooner than Redwire is prepared for!

Had all of his words and anger towards me been an act then? No, I didn’t think so. It had seemed too real, too genuine. My guess was that Braindead was as conflicted and confused as anypony could be. He didn’t want to live like a Raider anymore, but it was so ingrained he couldn’t entirely escape it, either. He had to obey Redwire to keep from being killed, but he, perhaps on a whim, kept vital information from her that might lead to both her and him being killed by my friends, perhaps on the off chance he might escape and gain his freedom in the fight.

It was all guesswork, but I was grateful for this small stroke of luck. But it didn’t help the immediate situation, as Copper Shell’s eyes were losing focus, tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her face was etched with the anguish Redwire was inflicting on her with every razor cut, but the mare hadn’t passed out yet.

I had to do something, even being chained up as I was.

“Copper, listen to me. Look at me, and listen,” I said, meeting her eyes and trying to pour as much conviction and strength as I could into both my voice and eyes, hoping to reach her and instill any kind of comfort, “I know it hurts. I’m so, so sorry this is happening. You don’t deserve this. But you have to endure it! Every single second you can hold on matters.”

As our eyes met I could see her struggling with the pain Redwire was inflicting on her, but I also saw something else, a spark of strength as she grit her teeth and nodded at me. Redwire merely laughed.

“Adorable. I think I just shed a tear. No, wait, that’s just some of your blood that’s gotten on my face,” Redwire said with a voice dipped in sarcastic amusement, “Now let’s see if you can keep this up after I’ve removed half your skin.”

Before she could do more, however, one of the shaggy bipedal beasts, Gobs I think Redwire had called them, shuffled from the tunnel and made a bunch of loud chattering noises. Redwire groaned, eyes rolling as she looked up at the thing.

“What is it!? I’m busy!”

With some animated arm flailing to compliment its guttural language the Gob excitedly pointed back down the tunnel, jumping up and down a few times like its feet were on fire. Whatever it said its words caused its fellow Gobs to start grunting excitedly amongst themselves, banging their rusted weapons together. Redwire’s below was punctuated by a whipcrack of one of her tendrils.

“Oh for fuck’s sake” she pointed at the one that had just shown up, “Go tell the rest of your clan to gather in the chapel chamber. Do it quickly. This doesn’t change anything, other than the main event is starting sooner rather than later.”

With a savage snarl she turned to Copper Shell, the tendril around the captive mare’s neck tightening for a moment, “Don’t get too comfy there cupcake. I’ve got lots left to do to you before you can even dream of getting any release, and you can thank the colt dangling there for every ounce of pain you’ll get to feel before you die, because the only reason I’m doing this to you is because I know it just twists him up inside. Oh, and you want to know the best part? He had a chance to kill me, once, and the naive little fucker let me live. So the only reason you’re here, and the only reason any of your friends have died, is because of his cowardice. Enjoy that thought, sweetness, and we’ll be seeing each other again real soon.”

She turned swiftly, giving Copper Shell one last, casual laceration with her retracting tendril, then trotted up the stone ramp. “Braindead, heel!” she snapped like a master commanding a dog. Braindead jolted to his hooves and with a nervous twitch to his steps followed Redwire out of the chamber. The Gob that had arrived went with them, but the rest remained on guard, watching us prisoners.

Had my friends shown up already? I hoped so, but I couldn’t rely solely on them, if it was their arrival that had caused this distraction and temporary reprieve. I pushed aside my own pain, which was still pretty damn intense from the nasty cuts across my chest and muzzle. Copper Shell looked much worse off, and I was scared at seeing how much blood she’d lost from the oozing wounds covering her now. Redwire’s words cut me deeper than any wound her tendrils could inflict. She was right, this was all happening because I’d let her live. She’d told me to my face, back then, that she’d hunt me and my friends, but I’d turned her loose anyway. I just... hadn’t wanted the blood on my hooves.

Seeing the blood coating Copper Shell’s body and splattering the floor around her tortured form I realized I’d only traded one kind of blood on my hooves for another, and this blood was innocent. I took a deep breath before I spoke.

“Copper, are you...?” I couldn’t quite finish the sentence, but she knew what i meant, and I saw her dredge up a small smile.

“I’ve... had better days...fuck...this hurts.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so-”

“Heard you th...the first time. Just save it,” she gulped, shuddering, “Save it for... for when we kill that bitch.”

She looked at me hopefully, “We do have a plan to do that, right?”

I looked up at my chains, tugging at them again. Yup, still stuck. I looked back at her, “Working on it. Umf, so far the brute force method isn’t working.”

“Th-they ain’t taking any chances with us,” said one of the other prisoners, the stallion, an older fellow with a leathery blue hide and a mane of dirt brown streaked with a single band of gray. His eyes had a haunted, sunken look to them, “That monster keeps most of us locked up in one of the mineshafts, been dragging folk off one at a time to do Goddesses knows what. Is it true what she said? You let that Raider live when you had a chance to off her?”

There was hot accusation in his eyes and I felt myself wither under the stare, but I didn’t look away. “I...yes, I did.”

“Why the fuck for!? I watched that bitch drag away my brother and heard his screams echoing through the whole damn mine! You telling me that’s your fault!?”

“That’s enough Bass!” said Copper, “Guilt won’t get us out of this mess.”

Her voice was strained and I could see how much she was trying to keep the pain off her face. While Redwire’s cuts had been shallow, they’d been placed to maximize pain, and the twisting of Copper Shell’s features as she spoke was just a hint of what I feared the mare was enduring just hanging there in the aftermath of Redwire’s hoofwork. Yet despite all that pain, suffered only because of my mistake, she was still defending me.

I didn’t know whether to feel even more ashamed, or be in awe of her own fortitude. It seemed I had this knack for running into ponies who had far stronger spirits than my own. I wanted nothing more than to become a pony worth knowing such souls, and to see them guarded against the Wasteland that seemed ever bent on claiming them through either death or corruption.

“How are we going to get out?” asked a wispy voice, coming from the last of the three prisoners Redwire had brought in. This was a small mare, a yellow coat marked with dirt and grime, and a long unkempt mane and tail of a tan not too far off from my own coat color. She’d been shivering silently the entire time Redwire had been torturing Copper Shell, and now she looked at us all with desperate brown eyes. “Even the doctor couldn’t save us. What chance do we have of escaping on our own?”

The doctor? Doc Sunday! I looked at the mare hopefully, “What happened to Doc Sunday? Do you know?”

The mare wilted from my look, looking away from me, “H-he led us into the Ruin. He said it’d be a safe way to get to the city. But it wasn’t. The monsters were waiting for us. He fought the one with the gold mask...”

She trailed off, shaking and sobbing. Copper Shell took in a deep breath and finished the story for her.

“Doc Sunday put up a hell of a fight against that masked sonuvabitch, even bought a few of us time to escape out of the Ruin, but the rest of us got caught and last I saw of the Doc he was knocked down this big chasm in the middle of the Ruin. Too deep and dark to see the bottom, and sad to say the Doc wasn’t any pegasus like his girl B.B, so...”

My heart sank into a cold bog, my head hanging. I hadn’t even known Doc Sunday very well, but I remembered the stallion’s kind demeanor. Just the fact alone that he’d taken B.B from whatever life of violence she’d known among her previous ‘Family’ and raised her to be the mare I’d met in Saddlespring was more than enough to mourn his loss.

“Even if he was here,” said Bass, “He’d be just as screwed as the rest of us.”

“We’re not dead yet,” I said, “And there may be help coming. We just have to make sure we can hold out until it gets here.”

“Rather figure out an escape myself than wait on others,” said Copper Shell, closing her eyes for a second, “Not to make you feel worse off than I figure you already feel, but I don’t honestly think I can take another session with that bitch’s freaky ass tentacles.”

“Let’s get thinking then...” I said as I cast my look around the room once more. If just pulling on my chains wasn’t getting me anywhere I needed a tool or some other advantage. Could there be something I’d overlooked so far?

The Gobs had been bordely ignoring us, instead chattering in their language among themselves, two by the bottom of the stone ramp and another two moving to the top of the ramp by the entrance to the tunnel. They didn't seem to care about us ponies talking, but I wasn’t sure if they could even understand what we were saying. The one who’d spoken to Redwire had seemed to understand the Equestrian she’d spoken back, but these other ones hadn’t reacted so far to any of the talk between me and the other prisoners. Maybe only a few of them understood Equestrian, then? I could only hope. I didn’t like the looks some of them were giving us. The eyes of these creatures expressed a hungry and violent light that led me to think these really were just Raiders of a different ilk, and they’d be as eager to mutilate and destroy as any pony Raider might. I could only imagine fear of Redwire was keeping them in check, and that Redwire wanted all the fun of harming us to herself, so these Gobs weren’t indulging in what many of them clearly wanted to do to four helpless, chained up ponies.

Each bore at least two makeshift weapons, and if we could somehow get out of our bonds and miraculously overpower these guards we’d be armed, but the chances of being able to take the guards by surprise and beat them in melee seemed slim. Perhaps our chains themselves could be used as weapons, but getting out of them would still need to be accomplished first.

I could only assume the padlock on my chains or the other’s manacles had keys to them, but I was willing to bet Redwire was the only one with those keys. I didn’t want to risk waiting until she came back for some half-assed attempt to snatch the keys off her if she happened to bring them along, so that idea was out.

This all would have been so much easier with Gramzanber. The ARM would make short work of these chains. I could feel my spear’s distant presence, the faintest pressure in my mind, but that was it. Even knowing it was a foalish notion I still tried to call out to the spear. I sent a mental plea towards the sensation of pressure, tried to focus on the image of Gramzanber in my head and will the spear to me. No such luck, unfortunately, though I did get a quiet, barely perceptible return sensation like feeling the lightest touch of wind across the back of my neck. I didn’t know if that was Gramzanber trying to reach out to me, but the feeling was at least a little comforting. I wondered if I died down here what would become of the ARM? Probably Arcaidia would reclaim it, perhaps find another wielder. I hoped she’d find somepony to help her look for her sister. B.B could likely be counted on in that regard.

Okay, I need to stop thinking about what happens if I die, it’s not helping! Think, you slow witted stone brained moron! There has to be a way out of here. Something that Redwire overlooked! She’s not that smart, and while you’re no mental giant you ought to be able to outwit somepony whose collective talents could be described as “being crazy evil”!

“Do you need to use the little colts room or something?” asked Bass dully as he grimaced at me.

“That’s probably just his thinking face,” said Copper Shell, breathing hard, and clearly trying not to laugh because laughing equaled terrible pain for her. “Y-you got any ideas yet, Longwalk? Sorry to say that my own plan of bleeding on the floor so much that the bitch slips and breaks her neck probably won’t work as well as I dream.”

“I’ll admit it was a lot easier to say we should escape than its so far been to figure out a way to do said escaping,” I said, taking another look around the room and at my own bindings, my eyes narrowing as I looked at my Pip-Buck once again. It being off had made me discount the machine, and more importantly what was attached to it. The Grapple attachment was still there, the shiny cuff with its magical node plugged into the back half of the PIp-Buck as if it were just a simple extension of the device itself.

Wait... does the Grapple work on its own, even if the Pip-Buck is off? I know the interface lets me use S.A.T.S with the Grapple, but I can fire it on its own, right?

I tried to recall if I’d ever used the Grapple without relying on S.A.T.S, and I thought I had back at Silver Mare Studios to climb to the roof. I’d just gestured in the right way and the Grapple had fired. Still, even with this possibility, what could I do with the Grapple here? I knew it had spells that could either lighten myself or the weight of whatever it wrapped around, but how would I use that to effect an escape? I couldn’t move my fore legs much at all anyway, so the range of things I could aim the Grapple at was limited. With the right twisting I could get the Grapple aimed towards only whatever was more or less in front of me and at or above head height. That didn’t leave a lot of potential targets, and I started to carefully examine everything in that area for any ideas.

At least two of the Gobs were in range, but what good would hitting one of them with the Grapple do? It wasn’t as if any of the guards had a set of keys on them, and their rusted looking weaponry, even if I could manage to snag one and pull it back to me, wouldn’t do much good in breaking the chains binding me.

Looking more carefully I could see that, atop the stone ledge that led to the tunnel out of this chamber there were some stacked crates and tools, all of which looked dusty and old. Likely that stuff was leftover from when the mine was still occupied. However among the tools I noticed a few were neatly stacked atop one of the taller crates. These tools were things like small saws or hooks, things that didn’t look like mining equipment, but rather... less pleasant instruments. Most of them had a reddish tint of bloodstains both old and recent.

Among those tools one stood out to me. While I wasn’t familiar with very many modern types of tools, my tribe having used next to none of them outside of the most rudimentary, I could still surmise uses for a tool just by looking at its design, and this one in particular looked like a pair of heavy sticks connecting to a thick metal cutting head, like a bladed clamp.

“Hey,” I asked my fellow prisoners, “Could anypony tell me what that tool leaning against the crate there with all the other bloody tools is?”

There was some confused silence as the others all strained to turn their heads and get a look at what I was talking about. Copper Shell wasn’t in a good position to see it, but Brass was, and said, “You talking about the bolt cutters?”

“Is that what they’re called? The thing that looks like Radscorpion pincers in reverse?”

“Weird way of putting it, but yeah... why? I mean, if you’re thinking to use those to cut the chains, nice thought, but we can’t get at them in case you hadn’t noticed,” Brass said in a dry, cracking voice.

“I might have an idea,” I said, frowning, “Though I wonder why Redwire even has those down here if they can be used to cut chain?”

Copper Shell looked at me with pained eyes, “Anything that can cut chains are also good at cutting ponies. Besides, if she loses the keys to these manacles she’d need another way to remove the bodies after she’s finished with her sick business. Brass is right, however. The bolt cutters are way out of reach.”

I wiggled my Pip-Buck clad leg, “I might have a device that can snag that tool and reel it back to me. Assuming I aim well enough, then can figure out how to use the tool while still mostly bound to cut my chains before our guards decide to do something to stop me.”

“If you got a device that does that, well, shit it might work,” Copper Shell said, her eyes shifting in a nervous glance at the Gobs, who were quite immersed in their own chatting and only gave the ponies in the room occasional, bored looks. “The guards might decide to stab us all before you can get free, but that risk sounds better than waiting for that crazy bitch to come back and keep playing redecorator with our insides.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Brass.

“I was. But really, what are our options right now?” asked Copper Shell, “I don’t see any of us coming up with any miraculous plans. You got any bright ideas Brass? How about you, Whisperwood?”

Brass’ face hardened but he looked away, and the other mare, Whisperwood, gulped and looked up at the ceiling. “I, um, well, I don’t think we have many choices, but can you really free yourself and deal with the guards all by yourself, Mr. Longwalk?”

Her voice had mostly been resigned up until this point, seasoned with fear, but now there was an edge of hope in it. I didn’t want to let that fragment of hope down, and I gave her my most confident smile, despite how much the motion caused the wound across my muzzle to hurt. “I don’t know, but by the Ancestor Spirits I’m about to damn well try.”

My answer got a confused if still hopeful look from Whisperwood, which was fine by me. She didn’t have to believe in or understand what I meant by “Ancestor Spirits” to feel that flickering, fragile spark of hope that we could escape from this wretched situation. If I managed to escape an Odessa airship then a monster ridden mine should be doable.

Yeah, ignoring the fact that I had a lot more help escaping Odessa, and even then not everypony got out of that alive... no, stop thinking about it. Just focus, and act. Take this one step at a time. First step; snag those bolt cutters.

I waited a few seconds until I was sure none of the Gobs were looking my way, then I wiggled my wrist into position. It was a painful angle, the chains digging like hard, rough coils into my chaffing hide, but inch by inch I forced my wrist into line with the distant set of bolt cutters. I mentally pictured the Grapple, its hooked end, and its trajectory once I fired it. I made tiny adjustments, accounting for the arc that gravity would create. I made further little adjustments, knowing I’d need the hook to fire at a slight curve to wrap around one of the handles of the bolt cutters.

It was sort of like planning the toss of a grenade, only about ten times harder with my fore legs chained up and my viewpoint at the target less than ideal.

Finally there was no more adjusting I could do and win or lose, I had to act, or risk the lives of innocents on the non-existent mercies of a psychopath. A psychopath I resolved to not allow to escape with her life to harm others a second time.

Deep breath, in and out, then I twisted my wrist just a bit more, activating the Grapple. The hook shot materialized from its compacted magical space and with a quiet *pfft* of noise it fired. The glinting wire and hook reflected the cavern’s dim light like a strand of spider silk, and I held my breath as I watched it go. The hook touched off the bolt cutters, wire wrapping around the handle four times before the hook settled around it. My blood alighted with adrenaline as the first Gob make a short, barking grunt of bewilderment as it noticed what was happening.

In the time that the Gob took to start jostling its companions to the point that they would ignore their game and pay attention I’d already twisted my wrist again to signal the Grapple to reel the bolt cutters to me. Even as the other Gobs began to also look at what was happening the bolt cutters sailed across the room and back to me, dangling from the Grapple line in front of my face.

I immediately reached out with my mouth and snagged one of the handles. Now the hard part. I had to bend my head at a upward angle to get the bolt cutters to tip upward, using the crook of my left elbow to snag and hold the other handle still while using my mouth to manipulate the tool. By now the Gobs had overcome their shock and realized what was happening, and were scrambling to grab up their weapons.

The seconds slowed to molasses crawls of time as I tried once to snag the chain links with the open bolt clamps, failed, and tried again. The first Gob was rushing me, a rusted hatchet held high. My second try managed to catch a chain link and without waiting I used all my neck strength to push down on the handle. I felt the metal resist, then part under the exceedly sharp and strong clamp, then snap altogether.

The Gob had reached me and snarling something in its own language hacked at my flank. The rusty axe head bit into me, eliciting a choked half scream from me. The creature hadn’t struck hard, as I imagined it was under orders not to kill me, but the wound was a painful one in a meaty part of my flank. As the Gob pulled the axe back to hack again, its fellows close behind it, I got the bolt cutters around another chain link and snapped that one.

That was enough to unravel the bundle and the chains came loose from around my fore legs, dropping my entire body down fast and hard. I landed right on top of the first Gob in a mess of limbs and grunts. I immediately set about flailing in hard punches at anything moving around me, first smashing one Gob’s gut hard enough to knock it off its feet and clobbering the one beneath me over the head.

Orders or no orders the Gobs turned immediately vicious and I was soon in a maelstrom of sharp rust covered weapons stabbing and cutting at me as I rolled away and desperately punched out to ward off the blows. My efforts kept the jagged, dirty blades from finding my vital spots, but my legs took several nasty cuts in return. As one Gob lunged at me, screaming incoherently as it thrust a stained kitchen knife at my chest, I grabbed up some of the freed bit of chain and lashed out. The chain smashed across the Gobs face in a shower of broken teeth and it reeled back, out of my range to pursue due to the chains still around my hind legs, but close to Copper Shell.

She didn’t hesitate. Moving with lightning speed for a pony as wounded as she was Copper Shell used her limited range of movement to still lash out with her head and crack the staggered Gob hard in the back of its skull with a fierce headbutt. The creature’s eyes crossed and it dropped like a brick.

The last Gob still standing was smashing a meat cleaver down at me as I blocked with the loose chain between my hooves. When one hefty blow knocked the chain out of my grip I had to grab the next swing bare hooved. For such a small looking creature with spindly arms it had a impressive amount of strength, and its lips curled in a snarling grin as it pressed the meat cleaver closer to my exposed neck. Looking around I saw the hatchet from the first Gob I’d knocked out earlier, just a few inches away.

Turning my head I snagged the axe’s filthy handle with my mouth, nearly gagging at the combined smell and taste of it, and thrashed my head back the other way. There hadn’t been any time to think about aiming, or turning to use the flatter end of the hatchet. I just swung, desperate to dislodge the Gob before it got its meat cleaver through my neck. My hard, reckless swing bore out bloody results as the hatchet blade hit solid Gob flesh. With a instinctive burst of horror I saw I’d hit the Gob in its own neck just as it’d been trying to do to me, and felt hot blood splattering across my face from the deep wound.

The Gob gurgled and howled in frothing agony, blood bubbling from its lips as it fell off me and weakly clutched at its hemorrhaging neck. I rolled to my hooves, face aghast, and I even started to move forward, thinking to perhaps stem the flow of blood with my own hoof... but the Gob thrashed one last time and lay still before I finished my first step, its eyes glazed.

I gulped. I hadn’t intended to kill any of the Gobs if I could help it. I knew I might have to depending on how the escape went, but the hope to avoid it stuck with me. I shuddered and took a deep, deep breath, letting it out slowly. Rescuing as many ponies a possible had to be my focus. I wouldn’t kill without need, but the line between “need” and “would make things easier” was getting blurred by a tint as red as blood.

Does that blurred line also apply to Redwire...? some back part of my inner self asked, and I told it to shut up and not bother me. Redwire was... a matter to deal with if and when I was in a position to do so. A sinking, cold, yet somehow solid feeling in my gut told me that only one of us was ever going to leave this mine alive. It scared me a little that the thought didn’t upset me like it may have once.

With the Gobs down and out nothing stopped me from grabbing up the bolt cutters and finishing with the chains holding me down. In seconds I was free and approaching Copper Shell to cut her own chains. She looked at me, then at the remaining unconscious Gobs.

“It’s dangerous to leave them alive,” she said simply.

I drew in and let out a ragged sigh, “If you want, chain them up and gag them go for it, but my only goal is to get us, and as many other ponies as I can, safely out of here. I’m... I’m trying to avoid killing until I’m out of options..”

“Do you think we’ll have the luxury of other options? Honestly?” she asked, a frank and open look on her face, if not without sympathy.

“No, I don’t,” I answered with equal frankness, and looked her in the eyes, “If it's between them and us...” I nodded at the dead Gob, the hatchet still in its neck, and said no more.

“Can we save this conversation for sometime never!?” shouted Bass, “We need to get going, now!”

I didn’t argue his point, and set about freeing both him and Whisperwood. All three Saddlespring ponies were quick to arm themselves with the Gobs’ discarded weapons, even Whisperwood who despite seeming so nervous gained a heated, fierce look in her eyes as she snatched up the meat cleaver. Bass took the kitchen knife, while Copper Shell armed herself with the nail ridden pipe the fourth Gob had held, leaving me with the hatchet. I retrieved the blood coated weapon with a final, apologetic look at the Gob I’d killed. I didn’t know if these creatures believed in an afterlife, but I said a silent prayer in my mind anyway, asking the Ancestor Spirits to look after any lost souls they might find in the everafter in the coming hours.

Somepony needed to carry the bolt cutters as well, so we quickly strapped those to me with some salvaged lengths of chain, securing the tool to my barrel for when we found more prisoners to free.

“This way,” Copper Shell said, “I think I can remember the way back to where the rest of us were being forced to work.”

She started to trot but almost instantly staggered, sagging on her hooves with a grunt of pain. It was little wonder. Redwire had left the mare’s body looking like a map of pain carved in wicked red inked lines over her tender hide. Looking at her, and at the wall and ground she’d occupied while chained, I was shocked cold by how much blood Copper Shell had lost. I was immediately at her side, letting her lean against me, feeling the sticky heat of her blood coated body against my sides.

“Are you going to be able to walk?” I asked, “It might be better if one of us carried you.”

She looked at me and the flash of heat in her eyes made me almost regret what I said, but I held firm and match her look with my own. She took a breath, then another, and grit her teeth hard. “I’ll live. It looks bad, I know, but the bitch didn’t do anything I can’t walk off. Earth ponies aren’t made of tissue paper.”

Her lips curled in a quick, if pained, smile, “Especially the mares.”

Thinking of Trailblaze and Binge respectively I let out a short laugh and nodded, “Don’t I know it? Okay, lead on, but if you collapse, I’m still carrying your flank.”

“Well... I guess letting you take some of the weight won’t crush my self-image as a tough badflank too much,” she said and let me take one of her hooves around my shoulders, allowing me to take half her weight as we trotted out of the chamber. Before we left we made sure to secure the surviving Gobs with the remains of our chains, binding them tightly and making sure they were gagged.

The tunnel beyond the torture chamber was a long, wide affair with metal and wood beams supporting smoothly carved walls. Magical lamps hung periodically from the ceiling, casting ponds of flickering orange light from their ever burning embers. It wasn’t long before a set of stairs, or more accurately a steep carved slope in the stone laden with log insets to provide steps, was to our left, but Copper Shell directed us past it.

“I think that goes towards a section of the mine that connects to a deeper shaft,” she said, “It might also double back towards the chambers above us, but I know it's not where we were being forced to dig.”

“What was Redwire making you all dig for?” I asked.

Whisperwood answered, her breathy voice quiet so I barely heard her over our own hooves on the cold ground, “To hurt us. To make us weak.”

Brass spat, face a scowling mask, “She sure as shit ain’t after the salt down here. The chamber we’ve been forced to dig in ran dry on its salt viens ages ago, but there’s something else in there. Some kind of ancient Ruin horsehockey.”

I frowned in thought. More Ruins from the ancient war between the Guardians, Elw, and the alien invaders. Redwire had already revealed she was working for a Hyadean alien, and that part of her mission was to disrupt the city above. Did she also have some kind of task related to the Ruins? Maybe she was digging for one of the Golems? I could only imagine what kind of damage a thing like that could do if let loose inside Skull City.

“Could you describe what this ‘Ruin horsehockey’ looks like?” I asked, mouth feeling dry as I dreaded the answer.

Brass’ face screwed up in a peculiar expression that I imagined was a mix of deep thought and perplexity as he tried to describe what I asked, “Kinda hard to explain. It’s like a bunch of pipes covered in lines and patterns that don’t make any sense, and the pipes themselves are all at mixed up angles too, like... like...”

“Circuitry,” said Whisperwood, shrinking back at bit at our looks, “It’s just, my brother used to repair terminals, and I kind of know what arcane circuit boards look like, and the pipes Brass is talking about kind of look like really big circuits to me.”

Well, it wasn’t a Golem, which was a relief, but I wasn’t sure if I liked the sound of this much more. What could these be about? Were they connected to something? If so, what? Clearly Redwire wanted them for something, or rather, her masters wanted them for something. I suddenly felt the urge to see if I could turn my Pip-Buck on. The thought had just occurred to me, among other things.

Stopping our slow trot with a quick word the others watched me curiously as I fiddled with my Pip-Buck.

“What are you doing?” Copper Shell asked.

“Uh, trying to turn this back on,” I said, turning the device left and right as I peered at its myriad buttons and dials. Fortunately the thing was designed to be all but idiot proof, so it only took me... several minutes of fumbling to finally find the giant red button with the ‘On/Off’ next to it.

...Oh, shut up.

I had to watch a scrawl of confusing green text flash across the screen as the Pip-Buck booted up, displaying a friendly and altogether too happy looking miniature pony giving me a ‘hoofs up’ sign before the main displays came up. Instantly my vision swam and the familiar compass display and E.F.S came online. I breathed a little easier seeing there were no immediate red dots nearby. I’d need to pay careful attention to that, to avoid us running face first into any patrolling Gobs.

Toggling through the menus I hit up the radio and keyed in Arcaidia’s frequency.

“Hello? Arcaidia? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the Pip-Buck. Unfortunately I only recieved static as my uncomfortably chilling reply. Copper Shell looked at me with a comforting nudge.

“That your blue friend you’re trying to reach? I remember she had a Pip-Buck too. Chances are this far underground you won’t be able to get a signal out. Way too much rock in the way.”

I sighed, “I know they’re on their way to find me. Arcaidia put a tracking spell on me, and I’m willing to bet my friends getting close is what drew Redwire away back there. I just hope they can deal with whatever that monster is throwing at them.”

“Let’s just make sure that we’re still alive for them to charge in and rescue,” said Brass.

“The others, too,” Whisperwood said, gulping but squaring her shoulders and gripping the meat cleaver even tighter, “We’re not leaving without them.”

“Didn’t say otherwise,” said Brass, then to me, “You done with that toy or what?”

I nodded, and we got going again. It was a shame the radio was useless. Besides Arcaidia I’d also seriously been considering calling on Sunset’s frequency. While Odessa and I weren’t allies, I could foresee the enemy of my enemy being, if not my friend, an ally of convenience. Odessa would want to know about a Hyadean servant down here, indeed the very source of the bio-soldiers that had Odessa concerned about the safety of their own base somewhere beneath Skull City. If I’d been able to call Sunset she could probably sick Odessa on Redwire’s little operation and wouldn’t that have been one hell of a surprise for the Raider to contend with?

It was just as well. Even if Odessa could help, it’d only be until Redwire was dealt with, and then I’d have heavily armed and angry pegasi to contend with. That would be a complication for another day, assuming I survived long enough.

The long unused mine tunnels widened at seemingly random points, showing ancient rest areas where the miners digging might have taken breaks, or kept currently used equipment stored. All that was left in these areas now were faded, empty crates, and a smattering of rust spotted fold out chairs. Some of the tunnels widened so large that one could fit vehicles down here, and I noticed the old faded lines of ancient tracks suggesting the ponies who mined these tunnels did exactly that. The air down here was stale and picked at my nostrils with acrid dryness.

Copper Shell’s breathing was getting more ragged by the minute, and I kept looking at her with worry, but she just shook her head when she saw that and wiped sweat off her brow and doggedly kept trotting on with my aid. Behind us Whisperwood and Brass trailed silently, Brass keeping a close watch behind us. After several turns and twists down the confusing maze of tunnels, making me wonder just how Copper Shell had remembered the way so clearly as I imagined I’d have gotten pretty lost by now, we slowed down as Copper Shell whispered, “We’re close, keep quiet and stay low.”

This was followed soon by sounds echoing down the tunnel ahead, sounds that made a nasty feeling of cold clamminess creep along my spin. Pained cries and hideous laughter.

The tunnel opened into the bottom of a large, irregular chamber roughly circular in shape, and with a ceiling of high walls stretching upward into a massive shaft. The walls were encircled by a thick patchwork lattice of wooden and metal scaffolds, stairs, ladders, and criss-crossing ropes. Chunks of wall had been dug out to form platforms and small clefts, some housing tiny shacks or fenced in sections between bridges of planks connecting platforms. Everything was lit by a haphazard scattering of magical lamps or a few brighter electric lights powered by small generators. At a guess I estimated the shaft was at least eighty or so paces tall, perhaps more. I couldn’t quite make out the top, through there were shadows of machinery up there, and the various stairs and platforms all gradually rose towards the top, with at least a few carved out curving ramps in the stone walls also granting upward access.

The floor was the site of excavation, with huge chunks of the floor dug out to reveal, much as had been described to me, a network of bright metal pipes. They were thickly set in the ground, crossing the chamber at sharp angles, some connecting back into one another, while others spread out like the webs of a spider. I wasn’t certain about the others “circuitry” analogy, to me the pipes look more like... like blood veins made of metal.

The chamber was hardly unoccupied. The source of the noise was immediately apparent, even as I and my fellow escapees crept behind a metal shack built into the side of the wall at ground level to provide cover as we watched what was happening.

There was a cluster of about ten Gobs, all sitting on barrels or crates and laughing amongst themselves, slapping each other on the shoulder or pointing in excitement, at a unpleasant and at first confusing scene in front of them. At least twenty ponies were chained together and kept under guard by a couple of Gobs armed with what looked like makeshift firearms made from welded pipes, nail boards, and duct tape. These ponies were beaten, bloody, and exhausted looking as they watched on with mixed looks of horror or despair at one of their companions, unchained, but unarmed, who’d been shoved into the center of the room.

This pony, a scrawny teal stallion with a dirt covered white mane and tail, was facing off against what looked like a small pack of three Gobs... only these Gobs were much smaller than the others, with spindly little arms and legs and smaller heads that somehow emphasized the size of their eyes. These three jumped and jostled one another, each armed with only a simple piece of sharp metal with a duct tape wrapped handle to make for a basic knife. At last one of the tiny Gobs got shoved forward by its fellows, and with a terrified squeak it made for a random slash with its knife at the pony. The pony, equally looking terrified, jumped back from the slash, backpedalling until one of the larger Gobs watching aimed its makeshift pistol and fired of a cracking shot that impacted just behind the stallion.

“Kill kill!” the Gob shouted, “Fight kill, dumb pony! Do or die!”

“B-but...” the stallion stammered, “Th-these are your kids! What in the Goddesses names is wrong with you!?”

The Gob with the pistol laughed, aiming his pistol at the stallion, “Gob child need kill, learn kill, or not Gob! Pony lesson. Pony die! Gob child can’t kill pony, then is no Gob!”

All the other Gobs, all the other adult Gobs nodded their heads sagely, some of them with solemn looks on their faces, others with simple amusement.

“Gob! Gob!” they chanted, “Gob kill! Gob strong! Gob! Gob!”

The Gob child who’d been pushed forward looked no less frightened, but I saw it gulp, clutch its knife in its tiny hands, and under the chanting of its adult kin I saw it gather itself up, puff out its tiny chest, and let out a howling little yell as it charged the stallion again. The stallion, looking sickened, punched out with his hoof, knocking the Gob child off its feet with a solid hit to the face. The child screamed, and the adults laughed, the other two Gob children looking at each other as if to decide who’d go after the pony next.

I felt sick to my stomach, turning a glance at Copper Shell, “What are these creatures?”

She shot back a subdued look at me, face cold, “Gobs. Worst pests Skull City’s ever had to deal with. Thanked my lucky stars there weren’t any tribes of these vermin down south by Saddlespring. Merciless little bastards, in case you couldn’t tell.”

“We have to stop this,” I said firmly, wincing as the Gob children started to circle the stallion who was starting to panic, looking left and right with wild eyes as the tiny Gobs began to flank him.

“How?” asked Whisperwood, “At least half of them have guns.”

We didn’t have long to plan anything fancy, as the Gob children were getting bolder, darting in and taking slashes at the growingly desperate stallion who tried to punch and buck the tiny creatures away and got a few deep bleeding cuts on his limbs for his efforts while the adult Gobs laughed. My eyes rapidly roved around what I could see from our hiding spot, and looking at the tangled maze of scaffolds and ramps above us, and the Gobs themselves, a mad plan sparked in my brain.

“If I draw off most of them can the three of you take down the remainder?” I asked, shuddering as the stallion managed to get a deadly back kick in on one of the Gob children, hitting it in the throat. The small creature fell back coughing and sputtering as it clutched at is throat, and the stallion’s face was a stony rictus of guilt mixed with determination as he backed away from the other two Gob children, who were staring at their fallen companion with fresh fear.

Copper Shell took a deep breath, eyes narrowing with deadly intent, “You’d need to get most of them after you, because I’m thinking even with the element of surprise we could only take three or four of these buggers.”

Whisperwood’s face was scrunched in fear, but she nodded, “I-I think we can, but what about you?”

“She’s right,” said Brass, “You’ll get your ass shot off trying to distract most of them, and then we’ll all be fucked.”

“If we do nothing then we’re just as screwed,” I said, licking dry lips as I picked out the spot I wanted to use; a long jutting metal pulley that looked like it’d been once used to haul crates further up the shaft. It was a good thirty or so paces above the cluster of Gobs watching the bloody show, just about the right spot for what I had in mind.

“Stay back and hidden until it’s clear I’ve got their attention,” I whispered to the others, and though they all exchanged nerve wracked glances, they did as I asked and backed up down the tunnel out of sight. I then took a deep breath that honestly did little to steady my racing heart, and with the pained shout of the teal stallion as he took another cut from a darting Gob child I crept forward.

Not letting myself think about it any further, I fired the Grapple upwards so it hooked around the pulley beam above the main group of Gobs. I then sucked in a breath and jumped out of hiding, shouting at the top of my lungs, “Hey! Guess what’s tan, blue maned, and totally escaping your crazy torture mine? This pony!”

Reeling myself upwards with the Grapple and a running jump I went flying through the air at a slight angle, arcing towards the stunned cluster of Gobs even as the Grapple yanked me vertically. The swing took me right over the Gobs at head height, and I kicked out with both hind legs to smash one of them across the face, sending the creature bowling over into a pile of crates as I sailed overhead. There was the railing of a platform in front of me and I halted my forward swing by kicking off of it, then let the Grapple haul me in a rapid ascent that had me nearly to the pulley before the first Gob had gathered its wits enough to even react to what had happened.

The first bullet snapped past my head as I reached the pulley, wrapping a hoof around it to start shimmying over to the platform and shack the pulley was attached to. Down below the Gobs had gone into a riot, the ones bearing the crude pipe, wood, and duct tape guns aiming them and firing in a stuttering series of sharp snap shots. With scrambling hooves I threw myself onto the platform, sparks of near misses showering around me as I rolled away from the Gobs’ line of sight. I heard their roaring shouts and gibbering snarls, bullets still impacting the wood and sheet metal of the platform as I crawled towards the further cover of the shack. There was no door, just an opening where the door would be, the shack little more than a small space for a few bedrolls and a table piled with random junk and empty beer bottles.

“Is that all you got!?” I shouted over the gunfire, “You morons couldn’t hit me if I stuck my butt over the side and waved it at you!”

The response was more gunfire and the sound of swift footfalls on planks as quite a few of the Gobs, having only seen one young, unarmed pony decided to go charging up the platforms after me. Which was exactly what I’d hoped they’d do. I was also hoping they didn’t have nearly as much ammunition as they apparently did, because my body was getting peppered by wood chips and other flying debris from the stitching of gunfire from below. I considered myself lucky that those makeshift guns didn’t seem to be firing high caliber rounds, and their jury rigged nature made them about as accurate as spitting into the wind.

Knowing I’d be swamped in homicidally pissed of Gobs in seconds I dashed to the table of junk and wiggled under it until it was balanced on my back, moving it to the opening facing the quickly growing noise of my enraged pursuers. The very second the first angry Gob face to appear around the corner of the opening got a bucked table straight to the face, sprawling it backwards into the Gobs immediately behind it. I was already scrambling out the other end of the shack making a break for a ladder leading to a higher platform, not wanting to get surrounded.

Ladders still gave me trouble but it’s amazing what a healthy dose of fear and adrenaline can do for my ability to move fast, even without Gramzanber to give that boost I’d gotten so used to. I was sorely missing the ARM now. It had made sense at the time to leave the weapon behind, though to be fair even if I’d brought it Redwire would have just taken it like the rest of my gear. Yet Gramzamber’s presence was still with me, and I could feel it sensed the danger I was in. The distant pressure of the ARM felt almost like a comforting hoof brushing over my mane, and I knew my ARM, while unable to help me directly, was giving me all the moral support it could.

Granted, moral support wasn’t much proof against bullets, but that’s what dodging and running around like a half blind, constipated gecko was for.

Behind me I heard Gob gibbering, including some of it in almost comprehensible Equestrian.

“Get back here pony so Gob make hat from tiny mating bits!”

My face flushed red as I reached the top of the ladder with long, hauling strides of my limbs, and shouted back, “Whoa now! Am I insulting your parts, buddy!? I know you want to kill me but can we keep this relationship professional-AHHH!”

The ladder broke under me, I assume due to shoddy craftsponyship, and I nearly fell right back down, only barely holding onto the ledge of the next platform and pulling myself up as a trio of Gobs arrived through the shack, two armed with pistols and another armed with a similarly shoddy weapon but with a long stock and barrel for a makeshift rifle. I rolled over the edge of the platform just as a hornets nest of riled bullets chewed the air around me, one of which was so close I felt my mane part from it.

This platform was narrow and long, bending around the curve of the stone ramp that also encircled the shaft. It immediately occurred to me that the Gobs could be using that too, and this was confirmed by the sound of more feet pitter pattering on the carved stone, loud and close. I beat hooves and went right back into a exceedingly awkward yet speedy gallop only achievable because I was a pony who up until the recent misfortune had grown accustomed to the benefits of ballistic armor and only now realized he’d just pissed of a whole room of violent individuals armed with guns.

Still, I wasn’t faster than bullets. Damn I missed Gramzamber. Gramaznber missed me back. The bullets just missed. Mostly.

Ahead of me this platform ended up extending underneath a much larger overhanging scaffold higher up, with a small forest of support beams stretching in front of me. Here it seemed the old mine ponies of ancient times had decided to lash up a number of barrels, as if this was just the most convenient area to stick them so they wouldn’t get underhoof. Lucky me these barrels along with the support beams made for a excellent gauntlet of cover to throw myself into as my pursuers spent more ammo trying to turn my flank into a lead repository.

My scramblings were getting less and less coordinated as I became more desperate to put distance between me and violent death, and I got a face full of barrel and/or support beam at least three or four times as I ducked and rolled and speed crawled forward as the Gobs formed a literal firing line behind me and started emptying their clips in my general direction. The barrels turned out to be either empty or filled with a sharp smelling clear liquid that I was guessing was some kind of booze, not that I was planning to stop to check.

By this point pain hot as coals was searing across my body. Redwire’s earlier tender treatment of me was taking a toll now that I was doing more than just a light trot. I wasn't as bad off as Copper Shell, but the deep lacerations across my face and chest, not to mention the sore groin from the low blow, was making my current mad running an exercise in agony. Fortunately, in a twisted sort of way, I was pretty experienced by now with dealing with pain. The trick to it was mostly just letting the pain hurt and accepting it as you would any other sensation. Don’t try to ignore it and instead let it be a part of you.

That way you can act and think without being crippled by the pain.

I got through the other side of the collection of scaffold beams and barrels and found myself facing a steep drop back down to the bottom of the shaft, not even a railing to protect against accidental falls. I managed to halt in time, glancing left to see the curving wall of the mine shaft bearing a large, carved cleft of stone that was part of the ramp swirling upwards, and that in the wall was the mouth of a narrow mine tunnel. This was all above me, across the gap in the middle of the shaft, but there was a railing along the edge of that cleft that my Grapple could attach to. I didn’t waste a moment doing exactly that and sent myself swinging across the gap.

In doing so I caught a glimpse of my plan’s progress. Down on the ground floor there were only three or so Gobs remaining, all staring up the shaft at the chase. Crawling over the mine shaft’s various scaffolds and ramps the rest of the Gobs formed a raving, frothing miniature horde that scampered like ants after me, split between two groups; one that was going directly after me through the barrels and support beams I’d just cleared, and the rest using the stone rampway to try and beat me to the next level.

More importantly, I spotted Copper Shell, Brass, and Whisperwood sneaking up on the Gobs left down below. Hopefully they could deal with that while I kept the rest busy chasing me upwards. What would happen when I reached the top of the shaft? Well, one thing at a time.

I hit the hard wall of the mine shaft with a jarring rattle, but held firm to consciousness as my Grapple reeled me up to the stone cleft. I got over the side well before the one group of pursuing Gobs got over all the barrels to draw a bead on me, but the other group rushing up the ramp had an angle and started taking pot shots, forcing me to duck and make a break for cover. It was then I noticed the stone rampway had an unusual feature, metal rails nailed into the floor, side by side. I wasn’t sure what they were for until I saw the large metal cart parked up ahead on a level portion of the ramp. As I galloped past it I gave the cart a hard kick, starting it on a slow roll down the ramp that quickly picked up speed as it careened along the rails. I didn’t even look back, putting my head down and running as hard as I could.

I heard a few quick howls and shouts from below, but I didn’t chance a look to see if the cart had hit any of the Gobs coming after me, my attention intent on the ramp ahead. I was following its spiraling path upwards, and could finally see the top of the shaft clearly. The stone ramp ended at a encircling overhang of stone where a wooden bunkhouse was built along one wall next to a large tunnel entrance. Two halves of a metal, mechanical bridge lay upturned across the shaft, the only possible way to cross from one side of the shaft to the other at this level. There was a metal stand with a terminal attached to it next to either side of the bridge, and I figured that must be the control for it.

Before I could reach that level, however, something flew above me and smashed into the stone ramp right in front of me. There was a shattering noise of glass and suddenly flames engulfed the path, forcing me to backpedal from the searing heat that nearly licked my hide. I let out a startled shout, and glanced back to see the Gobs were lower on the ramp, at a point just across the mine shaft, and that while the others drew a bead on me one of them had pulled out small bottles with stuffed rags in them, and lit another rag before throwing the bottle my way.

“If tiny bits can’t be hat, tiny bits be barbeque!” the Gob declared as it put its hands on its hips and watched proudly as the bottle nearly smashed into my head, only my ducking at the last second saving my face from being roasted. As it was the bottle still smashed into the wall right behind me and I yelped, galloping away as bits of glass and flame rained down around me.

“I told you stop it with the ‘tiny bits’ routine! Don’t you have anything better to insult me over!?” I shouted back down the shaft, then jumped back as bullets chewed up the stone around me.

“I insult stupid blue mane instead? Or ugly pony face?” the unusually chatty Gob shouted back in query, “I insult all you want if it make pony feel better-”

The Gob was cut off by one of its comrades who smacked him upside the head, chattering, “Shut face Gibble! Kill pony, not talk!”

Gibble snorted, crossing tiny arms over his chest, “Just want have fun, no need be mean.”

“Have fun by killing pony then!”

“That what we always do! Gibble want diversification of hobbies! Hat making sound fun, so Gibble make hat from pony. Then pony get killed and Gibble gets hat. All win!”

“How about I just, like, buy you a hat instead, and you let me go?” I shouted back as I looked around for cover. This scaffolding at this level lacked any convenient shacks like down below but there was another pulley that had some stacked crates near it. It was better than nothing, and the flames were still burning hot and blocking the stone ramp.

The Gobs caught up to my level just as I dove behind the crates, and a storm of bullets chased me, tearing up the wood in splintering chunks as I curled up behind them. Over the gunfire I heard Gibble’s voice surprisingly loud and clear.

“How nice a hat?”

“A good hat! The best hat!”

“Hmm, sounds nice- Ow! Hey, stop hitting Gibble!”

“Then stop talking to pony!!!”

“But pony buy Gibble best hat!”

“Pony is lying dumb, ugly Gibble!”

“...now that just hurt Gibble’s feelings.”

The back and forth banter, while leaving me with a surreal feeling, also bought me time to look about for anything useful to use against the Gobs. The crates were light and felt mostly empty, which meant while they were only subpar cover, they could make for excellent projectiles. I also noticed that across the shaft and directly above us was platform that extended out from the scaffolds towards the center of the shaft, from which a larger pulley crane was set up that looked as if it was set up to move cargo up and down the whole length of the shaft. Its ropes were attached to a wood plank laden with crates like the ones I was hiding behind, and the pulley crane itself was on a swivel that let it move that platform in a nearly three hundred and sixty degree angle.

I glanced at my Grapple, and at the pulley, with its crate filled wood platform nearly at the same height me and the Gobs were at.

On the bright side, I’ve had worse plans, I thought as I turned around and proceeded to buck the crates I was using for cover, one after another, like I was skipping rocks across a stream. My legs propelled the crates straight at the Gobs, seven of them I saw now, who all gave out various colorful expletives as the crates smashed into them. Several were knocked off their feet, while others scrambled out of the way. One with another flaming bottle, I could only assume he was Gibble as it was hard to tell the Gobs apart physically, dropped the bottle and hopped back from a crate that almost crunched his face. Instead he dodged the crate, but also had to dance back from the broken bottle that now spewed out a blanket of flames. He managed to avoid being doused in the fire and ended up only with smoking feet he hopped about on, trying to blow out the flames while giving an entirely too detailed description of what he intended to do to my mother, most of which I didn’t think was possible for a bipedal species to do with a quadrupedal one.

I hadn’t been staying still while the Gobs recovered from my crate barrage. I immediately fired my Grapple to latch onto the end of the arm of the big pulley and let the Grapple use its magic to reduce the pulley’s weight. This made it much easier to haul on as I put my back and legs into yanking on the Grapple line as hard a I could.

The pulley swung, along with its platform full of cargo.

The Gobs had gotten back to their feet and were aiming their guns again just in time for the sizeable wood plank and its dozen or so crates to smash into the wall above their heads and rain down a storm of shattered wood and tumbling crates on their heads.

Most of them went down under the pile, and I, with a echoing hunter’s cry, charged straight into the confused mess and tackled the first Gob that was still standing. The creatures didn’t weigh that much and I bore the first one down to the ground in a series of swift punches that left the thing cross eyed. I rolled off that one just in time to avoid a swift pistol shot from another Gob trying to extricate itself from the pile of broken wood and it received a backwards kick from one of my hind legs. I felt its jawbone snap as the Gob went limp. Suring onward I saw another Gob trying to get out from under a crate and I jumped, landing on the crate with a full body slam that broke the crate, and smashed the Gob underneath. I wasn’t sure if it survived, and while a part of me hoped it wasn’t dead, I was too drenched in adrenaline and blood at this point to slow down and check.

Another Gob had managed to get out of the wooden rubble and came at me with a swinging cleaver of blood stained rust; who knows how many ponies it might’ve cut into with this weapon before for it to be stained so red? I bounced on my hooves, sidestepping the blow, then head butted the Gob in the side, sending it sprawling even as my head swam from the blood loss of previous wounds and exertion. I heard a scuffle behind me and saw another Gob aiming one of their makeshift pipe rifles at me and I ducked on instinct.

The shot went above my head and hit the Gob with the cleaver who’d been getting back up. That Gob screamed and went tumbling over the scaffold rail. I heard its scream echo all the way down the shaft.

The Gob with the rifle flinched, and I learned it was Gibble as it said, “Meh, Gibble no like him anyway. Now give me groin bits pony for hat!”

Gibble aimed the rifle again as I charged him, the bullet grazing me but not stopping me as I tackled Gibble. He was shockingly slippery, however, and managed to wiggle away from my grip before I could drag him to the ground. He swung his rifle around and I kicked at it, knocking the barrel off course as it fired, sending the bullet zipping off into the black.

“Seriously what is it with you and hats!?” I shouted, grabbing the rifle's length with my mouth and yanking it from Gibble’s wiry, fur covered hands. The Gob in response tackled me in turn, wrapping spindly arms around my back as he jumped on my back as if meaning to ride me like a mount into battle.

“Gibble is very insecure about his bald spot!” Gibble replied as he began pulling at my mane and then sank his teeth into my ear.

“Gaaaah! My ear! Why always my ear!” I shook around and spun, bucking my legs for all I was worth to try and throw Gibble off, who seemed entirely happy to keep chewing on my poor ear as he held on tight. It didn’t help this was the same ear Crossfire had shot a part out of way back when, and that Binge also had an unhealthy focus on. It was perhaps the most unlucky ear in the Wasteland, at least at that moment.

With a rabid Gob doggedly attached to me I galloped for the wall at full speed. At the last second I threw myself into a sideways slam that would put my back, and hence Gibble, straight into the wall. I felt the slick, slimy Gob move like a skittering spider and immediately crawl off me even while I was in mid-slam, hopping off me and leaving me to smack painfully into the wall, while Gibble landed neatly and without harm a few paces away.

“Ha! You think outsmart Gibble!? Gibble is best Gob, and he doesn’t care what Gibble’s mother said! ‘Gibble you’re so dumb I must have drunk antifreeze while pregnant!’ ‘Gibble you’re so ugly I dropped you on purpose to try and fix face!’ ‘Gibble you never be successful lawyer or president of big company without good education, which you can’t get because you stupid Gob!’ But Gibble showed her! Gibble is fifth in charge of an entire mine shaft, which... which doesn’t sound very impressive to Gibble really but just you wait Gibble has plans to build a giant drill filled with molotov boom boom bottles to drive right into middle of Yolo’s bunkhouse on poker night then we’ll see who cheats who out of Gibble’s money... where’d pony go?”

While Gibble had been having his... moment, I’d slinked off around behind him, picked up a piece of broken crate to act as a makeshift club, and in Gibble’s moment of confusion I popped up behind him and gave him a solid smack across the back of the head. The wood plank broke and Gibble looked back at me. His beady Gob eyes narrowed.

“Now you make Gibble very ma... oh, unconscious now,” he tettered over, hitting the ground out cold.

In fact, looking around, I saw I’d managed to down all the Gobs that had chased me up the mine shaft. I panted fow a few seconds, sweat dripping off me, as the adrenaline rush played its course and my heart started to return to a normal rate. Realizing how quiet things had gotten I looked over the side of the scaffold and peeked at the bottom of the shaft.

I could see ponies moving around down there, and Gobs on the ground, and more than a little splattered blood. It was hard to make out any further details, and with a deep breath I started to head back down. I paused, only long enough to quickly double check to make sure all the Gobs around me really were unconscious and not just playing dead. I wasn’t in the mood for surprises. Luckily, aside from the one Gibble had shot, it didn’t look like any of them were dead. In bad shape, especially the pair I found a few levels down that’d been hit by the mine cart, but not dead.

So what? You’ve already killed one of them. Is this a numbers game now? One out of ten is an okay score? some growingly cynical part of my brain pony chimmed. I told it to mind its own damn business and not bother me unless it had something useful to say.

At the bottom of the shaft I heard raised voices and saw a troublesome sight.

Of the Gobs that had been left behind when their companions had chased me the four adult ones were all quite thoroughly dead. Their bodies were beaten to crimson and pink pulpy smears, in one case with limbs torn straight from its thin body like the wings snapped from a fly. The ponies who had moments before been prisoners were the clear culprits as evidenced by the blood coating many of their limbs and chains, chains that looked as if they’d been used to beat and strangle. Many of them stood with shell shocked looks, except for a bulky brown stallion with a blood spattered blonde mane who stood shouting with the teal stallion from before, and Copper Shell.

Behind Copper Shell I saw Brass and Whisperwood were guarding the three Gob children, who were backed into a corner, disarmed, and all looking horrified and scared out of their wits as they clung at each other.

“Monsters are monsters,” the brown stallion was saying, his blue eyes tired by steadfast, “Doesn’t matter that they’re young ‘uns, it’d be like leaving alive a baby Radscorpion in yer yard!”

The teal stallion shuddered out a heavy breath and shook his head, “I am not letting you kill them Softheart, so leave it be.”

“That goes double for me,” said Copper Shell, her face coated with sweat from the exertion of just standing. I saw she’d replaced her spiked club with one of the makeshift pipe guns, a rifle not unlike the one Gibble had been using. She’d slung a bandolier of bullets across her chest and held the rifle in the crook of one fore leg as she stood firm in front of the Gob children. “I’ll kill a Gob to free us from this hellhole, but child murder isn’t on my to-do list, either by participating or standing by and letting it happen. We tie them up and leave it at that.”

The stallion, Softheart, grunted, “And leave them to grow up and kill more ponies a few years from now. Buckin’ brilliant. I know you ain’t a violent type Coal, but this ain’t the time fer being soft.”

“I suppose we could have just snuck out on our own and left you all here,” I said, stepping into the conversation as I trotted over to the group. “Would have been a lot easier than trying to rescue you all, but what can I say... I’ve got a soft heart.”

Softheart glanced at me, “You get all them Gobs? Shit, figured we’d only have a few minutes before them assholes came back here, but if they’re dead and gone that’s one problem out of the way.”

“They’re not dead,” I said, “Not all of them anyway. Knocked out most of them.”

Softheart blinked. Then he blinked again before saying, “You don’t mind my askin’, what the hell for? You kill ‘em and we got less to worry ‘bout down the road.”

“Only road I care about is the one that leads out of here,” I said, and looked to Brass and Whisperwood, “Hey, uh, we don’t got a lot of time. Can you got gather up the weapons and gear of the Gobs I left up there?”

Brass nodded, “We’ll be fast. C’mon Whisper...”

As they trotted off I was left to stand between Copper Shell, Coal, and Softheart. They and the rest of the chained up ponies were looking at me. Even the three shaking Gob young were looking at me. I felt suddenly uneasy at all the eyes on me, but I didn’t have time, we didn’t have time for slowing down.

“Look, all of you, we don’t have time to argue or discuss things. Any minute Redwire, the crazy ass pony that put us all here, could figure out there’s an escape going on, then we’ll all be swamped by more Gobs than we can deal with. Now, I have friends fighting their way down here but I don’t know how long it will take them to get here. If we move fast and don’t stop for anything then we can find an exit and link up with them.”

I unslung said bolt cutters and held them out for all to see, “So anypony who wants to follow me out of here, step up and we’ll get this get-the-fuck-outta-here-train underway!”

As it turned out there wasn’t much argument, and the ponies lined up one after another for me to cut their blood soaked chains. Softheart was the last to step forward, and when I cut his chains free he looked down at me with an odd expression of guarded reserve.

“Fine talk but there is one problem with your plan, kid. This ain’t all of us. Redwire snatched some of us less than an hour ago for... for one of her ‘sermons’ at the chapel.”

The way he said ‘sermon’ had a frozen edge to it and I saw many of the other ponies, Copper Shell included, shiver at it. Brass and Whisperwood had come back with a bunch of the Gobs guns and assorted melee weapons on their backs, and set them down in a pile next to the gathered group as I looked among them and asked, “What are these sermons supposed to be?”

Whisperwood suddenly let out a whimper and curled up, Brass frowning and putting an arm around her in a comforting hug.

Copper Shell had her eyes closed as she said, “It's where she changes ponies into those monsters. She’ll take ponies and make them play twisted fucking games just to figure out who gets to watch the others die... oh Goddesses if she’s doing that right now...”

Softheart nodded, then looked at me, and picked up one of the Gob guns from the pile, a pistol he checked the load on and snapped the clip back into with a firm hoof, “Alright, kid-”

“Longwalk.”

He nodded acknowledgment, “Longwalk. Some of us might want to try and escape right here and now, but I can’t do that. One of the ponies that got taken fer today’s sermon is my wife, and I know there’s friends and family fer a lot of us survivors that got taken too. So I can’t go nowhere...”

I stepped up to him and with a heavy weight pulling at me I said, “I’m not one for leaving ponies behind. Do you know where this chapel is?”

“Most of us do...” said Whisperwood, regaining a bit of her composure as she looked at me with glassy, haunted eyes that were filling with the phantoms of memory, “I...I had to watch my brother die. Redwire force fed him the seed and turned him right in front of me. She laughed the entire time.”

“Sermons take a few hours,” said Copper Shell, spitting, “Bitch loves her theatrics. Don’t doubt she planned to drag you into this sermon once it got to the nasty bits. Nastier bits. If we’re planning to break this sermon up it won’t be easy. She gathers up most the Gobs for it, we’re talking one, maybe two hundred all packed into a gigantic chamber. We’d be outnumbered ten to one.”

“We got the element of surprise,” said Softheart.

“That won’t be enough,” I said, my brain pony turning my mental gears laboriously. The ponies around me, even Softheart with all of his seeming stone hard determination, were all bruised and battered from their captivity. While I saw in many of their eyes a burning desire to strike back against their tormentors and rescue their kin, feelings I could more than empathise with, it was clear the few weapons we had combined with how drained all of us were would lead to disaster if we struck without some kind of significant set of advantages.

“Alright,” I said, “All ideas on the table, no matter how crazy they might sound. If some of you have been in that chapel chamber is there anything in there we can use or take advantage of?”

Whisperwood spoke up, biting her lips pensively, “T-there’s a couple of old abandoned vehicles in there that I think used to be military. I don’t think they drive or anything and I have no idea why they’re down here, but they had big machine guns mounted on them. if somepony could sneak to one of them that’d help, right?”

“Anypony sneaky around here?”I asked. As a pony who’d spent a good chunk of his young life hunting I could sneak around some, but it wasn’t my specialty.

There was a lot of silence before Whisperwood, looking even more nervous, said, “I can, sort of. I used to play hide and seek a lot when I was little and was always pretty good at it.”

“Can you even use a machine gun, Whisper?” asked Brass.

“No, but, it’s a machine gun. I just sort of have to hold it in the direction of the bad guys and hold the trigger down, right?”

“Oh sweet Celestia we’re boned,” said one of the other ponies, who promptly got smacked upside the head by one of her fellows.

“Right, so there’s one possible advantage, any other ideas?”I asked.

“How about some of those molotovs these Gobs love to use?” said Coal, face grim, “When a few of the Gobs were forcing me to serve them drinks while they were playing dice I saw a whole stack of those in their bunkhouse up top. We snatch them and we can lob them into the crowd.”

Softheart looked at Coal incredulously, “First you defend the snot nosed kids, but you’re now cool with burning the adults alive? Not complaining, mind, but how do you figure that logic?”

Coal’s eyes swam with troubled ripples, and I could tell he was a pony much like myself who abhorred the idea of killing, but like me he was also learning slowly and hard the times it might be needed. His voice reflected this with a steady calm that only wavered slightly, “I don’t relish the thought, Soft, but if we’re saving your wife, everypony else, and getting out of here alive... we do what we have to. Doesn’t mean I condone murder when it isn’t life and death. Saddlespring was a town of peace, and I don’t want that dying with our old home.”

Softheart heaved out a sigh, “Fair ‘nough. So we grab the molotovs, set up an ambush firing line at the tunnel entrance at the top back of the chamber, then what, wait for Whisper to sneak to one of these military trucks and get on the machine gun?”

I’d been thinking during the conversation on how I might best help, and had come to my own inevitable, unpleasant, messy conclusion. “That’s fine, but you let me be the signal to start the attack. Above all, more than the Gobs, its Redwire we need to deal with. She uses her magic to activate these... seeds she plants in ponies to turn them. If we’re going to save anypony from that fate the only way I see to do it is to... kill Redwire.”

“Obviously, kid, but how are we going to do that without killing all the Gobs she’s got between us and her?” asked Softheart.

I took a deep breath, scared of the plan I had, but having no idea what else might work, “I get close to her. She’s after me to torture, to hurt, to break. So I go back to the chamber she had me in and wait. She won’t come herself is she’s doing this sermon thing, but I think I know who she’ll send to retrieve me.”

----------

When Braindead returned to the torture chamber he was alone. I could see the etched worry on his face and hear him talking to himself as he walked, hidden as I was behind the few crates in the torture room, with Copper Shell and Brass at my side.

“It’s crazy,” Braindead was muttering, “All crazy. Aliens and prophets, and she’s just fucking nuts, but what do you do Braindead? You can’t kill her, it has to be the others that do it, if anypony does it, or you’re a dead pony. Do you want to be dead? No of course not, that’s why you had to do it, turn the colt over to her, fuck fuck fuck. Never ever going to change are you? Betrayal is all you’re good for, all your cutie mark ever meant-”

He stopped mid rant as he reached the edge of the top portion of the chamber that looked out over the rest of the room, seeing the empty chains and the tied up, still unconscious Gob guards, and the one dead one soaking in a pool of its own blood. I saw the black stallion’s fur turn a grayish shade paler and his eyes pop out wildly. Before he could shout or react we were on him, charging out from behind the crate.

He had the air knocked out of his lungs as Copper Shell and I both tackled him at the same time, with Brass close behind to hold his back legs down as he tried to struggle against us. However three on one we had him easily and Copper Shell shoved a hoof into his mouth while I kept his upper body pinned with my own. The fear in Braindead’s eyes was palpable, like twin beams of white terror and I almost saw him pass out from it, but I got right in his face and spoke in a firm, low tone.

“We won’t kill you but if you make a single sound without our say so then you won’t give us much choice. Now, I have things to say to you, are you going to listen quietly?”

Braindead looked at me and I could feel his whole body trembling, and the cold dampness of his fur. Gulping visibly he nodded slowly, and I looked at Copper Shell. With a shrug she took her hoof away from his mouth but she patted the pipe pistol she now had holstered across her shoulder as if to emphasize what would happen if Braindead tried anything. She was almost as pale as he was, and I had to wonder if she was doing any better. We’d scavenged some medical supplies from the Gob bunkhouse just minutes ago, among which was a pair of healing potions I’d all but had to force Copper Shell to take. She had been far worse off than me, after all, than practically any of the freed prisoners. After downing the two potions most of her wounds had scabbed up, but she still looked like a freshly raised corpse than a living pony.

Turning my attention back to Braindead I steadied my breathing and my thoughts. It was not lost on me how screwed up it was that my plan now hinged on a pony that had betrayed me once already, but Iet me just say that I wasn’t trusting Braindead’s good nature any longer. Instead I was placing my bet on his clear desire to survive, at any cost, by any means. That, and the fact that he was the only one who could get me close enough to Redwire, past her army of Gobs, to take her down.

“After what you’ve done I have every reason to hate you, Braindead, but this might come as no surprise that however I might feel about you, Redwire is the real problem here. For both of us. I... am not forgiving what you did to me, but in a strange way it’s been a stroke of luck. I wouldn’t have known what was happening down here, or been in a position to help these ponies, if you hadn’t brought me to Redwire. Now I have a chance to stop her, and you’re going to help me.”

He began to shake even more, started to shake his head as well, face screwed up in terror, but I continued on, putting a hoof on the side of his head and fixing him with a hard look.

Think about this, Braindead. Think about it real hard. You know Redwire. You know what kind of pony she is. No matter how good a toady you are to her, no matter how hard you work for her, do you really believe she’ll ever take that seed out of you? Do you honestly think that she won’t eventually one day get tired of you and kill you simply for the fun of hearing you scream? You know the answers to those questions; otherwise you wouldn’t have already betrayed Redwire by not telling her about the spell Arcaidia placed on me.”

At last Braindead spoke, voice a choked whisper, “I... I don’t want to die. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Every day is just more ways for me to die. I have to betray everpony I’ve ever met to stay alive. It’s my talent. Betrayal is all I’m good for. All I’ll ever be good for.”

“Redwire knows that, which is why she’ll eventually get rid of you,” I said, putting my other hoof on Briandead’s shoulder, “Help me, and use that talent to free these ponies from her cruelty. I can’t promise any of us will live through this, you included, but I can promise that if you help us take out Redwire it may be the one good thing you can do with your talent... and maybe survive another day. You sure as hell won’t if you stay with Redwire, and I think you know that.”

Seconds dribbled by at a glacial pace as I awaited his response, this pony I had every reason to mistrust, to hate, but who in this moment held the fates of myself and every pony in this forsaken mine in his trembling hooves.

I saw him make his decision as a small spark of light in his eyes as he said, “What do you want me to do?”

----------

“We’re both going to die. Horrifically. Like, nightmarish screaming horrifically. You know that, right?” said Braindead as he lead me down a narrow mine corridor towards an increasingly loud by still indistinct sound of a large, unruly crowd.

“Think of it like this,” I said, “It’s either risk dying horrifically now, or guarantee dying horrifically later. Neither of us are exactly drowning in stellar options at the moment.”

His fearful, jittery posture didn’t change much, and I could hear his rapid breathing reaching near hyperventilation levels. I was back in manacles, but they weren’t properly locked and as long as nopony looked at them too closely to see that I’d be able to free myself of them in a few seconds. I didn’t appear armed, but the shock stick Braindead had taken from me was returned now and hidden inside my tail, tied by a few blue strands amid the large unruly mass. Getting to it would be as simple as flicking my tail around, clamping my teeth down on the weapon, and giving a good tug to free it. It was the best weapon for what I needed to do. One of those pipe pistols would just be dead weight to me; I was a horrible shot even with guns that were well made and had sights. The hatchet might be more deadly, but if I was off the mark by a few inches then Redwire wouldn’t go down. The shock stick, on the other hoof, could drop her even if I just grazed her with it. Chances were I was only going to get one shot.

The plan was simple and only somewhat suicidal. As Braindead led me to the chapel chamber where Redwire was conducting her “sermon” the rest of the escapees were taking position at another entrance to the chamber, one that was higher up the wall and would give them a commanding view of the room and a good position to fight from. Despite my misgivings Whisperwood still seemed determined to be the one to sneak to one of the military vehicles supposedly parked in the chamber and take control of its machine gun.

Ideally if I got the drop on Redwire and took her down with the shock stick then the combination of the escapees opening up on the unsuspecting Gob crowd might well cause a route before the fight even started.

Ideally.

I wasn’t counting on things to turn out ideally. It was the best plan any of us had, however, and I didn’t think we had time to concoct another. Instead I just focused on mentally preparing myself for my part of it; taking down Redwire.

Or, to use the harsher phrase Softheart had used, “Killing the absolute shit out of her.”

His parents must have huffed some serious herbs when they named that stallion. The only thing soft about him had been his willingness to downgrade from murdering unconscious Gobs and Gob children to just throwing them headfirst into a tool shed bound with enough chain and rope to gag a whale.

Much as his choice of words might’ve grated on me I understood he was right. I knew what I needed to do, and knew I had every reason to do it. It was just a long, hard drop from the high road I’d been trying so hard to walk. I’d taken lives several times so far, but each time, even the recent Gob who was unlucky enough to get a hatchet to the neck, had been the result of either an accident, or just being out of options... and they’d all been spur of the moment in the heat of a fight.

This was different. I was planning to murder Redwire. No clean way to put it; this was premeditation. Monstrous bitch that she was, much as she clearly needed to be removed from the world’s collective gene pool, I was planning a murder. Once Redwire was knocked out by the shock stick I’d still be my job to finish her off... probably by crushing her neck. It’d be the swiftest, cleanest way, but the thought left my stomach churning.

It wasn’t even really a question of keeping her alive. There was no telling when she’d recover, and if she did, she could use her magic to murder a lot of ponies, not to mention what those razor tentacles of hers could do. I’d spared her once already and this present screwed up situation was the result, so I couldn’t even use the excuse that everypony deserved a second chance. Redwire had pissed hers down the drain and had laughed while doing it.

This was what I kept telling myself as the sound of hundreds of gibbering voices echoed louder and louder down the tunnel like a babbling brook, if it was filled with garbage. The smell hit me next, almost making me retch. The sour meat smell of so many unwashed bodies, excrement, and the old coppery slick smell of blood mixed with bile.

Braindead must have heard me make a slight gag sound because he said, “If you think the smell is bad, try not to puke at the sight. Redwire went a bit overboard on the chapel, even for Raider taste.”

Before I could I ask what he meant by that the question was answered as the tunnel opened up into a vast chamber. The stench redoubled and the sound hit me like a wall, but Braindead was right. The sight was worse.

The ceiling was sloped down from right to left, like the room was one large cut out wedge, about two hundred paces lengthwise and a hundred wide. The far right wall was covered in the same kind of scaffolding as the mine shaft had been, and I could see a tunnel opening up there where I knew Copper Shell and the others would be sneaking to. Whisperwood might even already be stealthing her way down the scaffold, but I couldn’t see her, which was of course a good thing.

Across from the tunnel Braindead and I had emerged from was a square building with a slanted roof, brick walls, about two stories tall. This was the chapel. I recognized the sun and moon symbol carved into the roof above the doorframe. There was a vehicle parked next to it, a large green autowagon with an open back bed, and I saw the mounted machine gun on the roof. I might have wondered both how and why there was such an autowagon down here, but my eyes were drawn to the far less mundane aspects of the room that my brain had registered.

First of all there was a teeming mass of Gobs occupying much the center space, at least two hundred of them. They all stood in a bouncing, tightly packed crowd that jostled and gibbered at each other in excited voices that combined to pound the ears with a constant blast of noise. They seemed violently charged, hitting and biting each other or even using their rusted weapons to make shallow cuts on their flesh just so they could toss about some blood like it was paint.

There was no shortage of blood. Ropes and chains dangled from the walls and ceiling, coated slick with congealed gore. The viscera ran like old rain stains down stone, and the origin of it all was dozens upon dozens of bodies. Most looked only days old, and each of them had been strung up or nailed somewhere. I saw empty, black eye sockets and gaping mouths with swollen tongues frozen in screams I felt I could hear even through these dead ponies had long been silent. Not all were ponies, there were a few griffins among the dead, and more than a few whose state of decay suggested they were ghouls before they were rendered fully and truly dead.

Each body I saw felt like a hammer blow. Every single life destroyed by Redwire in this hellhole was partially my fault. Redwire was the one truly to blame, I knew that, but she wouldn’t have been able to cause this much harm if I hadn’t let her go in the first place.

It was a mistake I had to take responsibility for by correcting it here and now.

To the left of the chamber, where the slanted ceiling began to reach the floor, metal posts had been erected, like a small field of rusted trees. Here bodies had also been lashed together, but the state of them was harder to grasp. Parts weren’t where they were supposed to be. Either there were extra limbs or they’d been moved, sewn or otherwise surgically rearranged. Instead of the more conventional mutilation of the bodies on the walls, these poor folk attached to the posts looked as if they’d received specific attention, as if somepony had decided to test different ways to pull apart and put together the equine anatomy. Tables had been set up between the posts where I could see specific organs, limbs, or bones had been set, perhaps for later use... and everywhere the ground was coated with a layer of dry or drying blood.

The chapel itself seemed almost humble by comparison, until I realized that what I thought were normal curtains around the windows wasn’t at all made from cloth, but the patchwork of countless pony and griffin hides.

Though this wasn’t much worse than the other Raider den’s I’d seen, the volume of it was overwhelming, as if Redwire had gone out of her way to try and explode every ounce of uncaring celebration of violence all over the chamber in an orgy of unnecessary gore.

If I wasn’t so sickened by the sheer amount of suffering it all represented it might have found it comical.

I couldn’t have been further from laughing. In fact as close as I was to toss what little bile I had left in my stomach I was also growing hot with a rising sense of choleric anger. Braindead must have sensed something because I saw him flinch and shake his head at me, as if to remind me I was supposed to still be a prisoner and to look the part. I ground my teeth but nodded at him, but also hissed through the noise, “Why? Why all this? Who are all these ponies?”

As he led me forward to the left, going around the side of the mass of Gobs and heading for a spot near the left end of the chapel, he said, “Because she likes it. As for who; refugees the Skull City gangs don’t care enough about to look for after they go missing. These are the lucky ones, the ones who either get tossed to the Gobs for fun, or pulled apart so Redwire can practice better ways to hurt.”

I felt cold despite the sweat breaking out on my forehead, “What happens to the unlucky ones?”

Braindead’s voice felt dry and lifeless as the corpses around us, and his hoof rubbed at his chest as he gained a sickened look, ”The seed gets planted in them, then...” he shook his head, “You’ll see. She won’t let this end without showing you what she intends to do to your friends.”

When the first Gob saw him the excited clamour rose to a fever pitch, as if they’d been waiting for me to show up. It left me feeling like I’d just stuck my head in the mouth of a hungry gecko as it growled, getting ready to snap down on my neck. Above that din rose Redwire’s voice, snapping like a whip.

“Clear a path! Don’t want our esteemed guest feeling too crowded, do we?”

The Gobs backed away, opening a way through the crowd straight to the chapel. As I trudged forward, Braindead beside me, I saw that Redwire was waiting for us there on the far side of the building. There she’d set up more of those metal posts, a wide circle of ten of them, all evenly spaced out, forming a ring maybe ten paces wide. Ponies were tied to these posts much like the others, only these ones were still alive, their forms coated red from fresh wounds.

Despite all the blood in the air Redwire’s white robes remained immaculately clean, and her eyes blazed at me and her mouth cracked a feral smile at the sight of me. Her voice was sharp as fangs.

“Welcome, Longwalk. So glad you could make it...” she trailed off, eyes narrowing at Braindead, who froze in place, “Where are the other ones?”

“D-dead,” he stammered, “The guards got bored. You only told them not to touch this one.”

Redwire made a scoffing sound, and didn’t press any more questions, “Too bad. Would have enjoyed finishing things with that smug bitch. No matter. Bring him here.”

Braindead shoved me forward, forcing me to stumble into the middle of the circle of posts draped in bloodied ponies. I caught sight of their faces, most of them wearing taut masks of desperation and fear, a few looking so drained and hollow that they appeared resigned to death. Their bodies were abused to the point where there was more torn and bruised red and purple flesh on them than colorful pony hide. I couldn’t even get a clear view of any of their cutie marks, for all the blood caking their fur.

If If it means rescuing any of them from this hell, then I can kill... I can.

The thought was a stray one amid the anxiety and fear trying to push its way into my mind, but it stuck and left itself hanging there, not fully realized, but waiting for something.

Despite the vast distance separating me from Gramzanber I could still feel the ARM. The pressure had become hot in my brain, like Gramzanber was trying to lend me some strength, sensing the danger I was in. Maybe it also sensed my intentions towards Redwire, and was perhaps disappointed, if the weapon could feel that emotion, that it wouldn’t be here to plunge into the Raider itself.

I was snapped out of my thoughts by a sharp pain that cracked across my cheek, along with a small spray of blood, as one of Redwire’s barbed tentacles took a chunk out of flesh. She made a ‘tut-tut’ sound and walked in front of me, our eyes locking.

“If you keep staring off into space like this a mare might start to feel ignored,” she said, her cold tentacle wrapping around my throat and pulling me close to her face, “I want you to take this seriously. I went through so much trouble to prepare this stage for us. So. Pay. Attention.”

Each word was punctuated by a tightening of her tentacle around my neck, until the razor barbs drew blood. Then it withdrew quickly and she stepped back, leaving me coughing and catching my breath. I almost went for the shock stick, but her eyes were glued to me, and I knew I wouldn’t make it if I went for her now. I had to wait until she was distracted.

“Good boy, that’s more like it. Let’s begin,” Redwire said, strutting around me like I was some kind of display item at a merchant’s stall. Suddenly her voice got louder, reaching out across the chamber as she addressed the Gobs, despite her eyes never leaving me.

“Strong Gobs of Skull City, you have for generations been trapped living beneath the surface dwellers! These very ponies whose bodies coat our hallowed hall spent their lives lording it over you, enjoying clean water and food while literally shitting on your entire race!”

These words were met with raucous and angry shouting, not directed at Redwire, but at the entire surface of Skull City as the Gobs spat and roared, shaking fists and weapons at the ceiling. Redwire’s voice cut over it all like a peal of thunder. I could see her horn glowing; she was using a spell to augment her voice.

“But the suffering of the Gob race will soon end! The holy ones from the stars have come to deliver all the strong from the oppression of the weak, to peel away the lies of the world and leave only harsh, bloody truth! You have seen the blessed body the Hyadean masters have granted me, their prophet! Soon such power will be yours as well! You have seen the loyal warriors that serve me, and hence the holy Hyadean masters, whose forms are born from the flesh of your oppressors!”

Redwire stamped a hoof and I saw, shuffling from the deeper shadows of the chamber, lines of creatures. Hyadean bio-soldiers. The skeletons were the most common, pony and griffin shapes whose bones were infused with that violet goo that seemed to give the skeletons unnatural life. There were a small number of the creatures with spear-like arms, but I saw none of the Big Ass Troopers around. That was a small comfort, at least, but not much so as I saw easily more than two score of the skeletons, arrayed like troops ready for inspection.

The Gobs cheered and stamped their feet, growling and roaring in pleasure.

“With every pony you steal from the surface our army grows,” said Redwire, “Soon there shall be enough to launch a unmitigated attack on Skull City. You will not need to hide and fear any longer, but instead unleash your justifiable rage on the ones who force you to keep living in the sewers and caves where there is so little food and nothing but suffering and disease. Gobs, you will have vengeance and it will be I that delivers it to you.”

I consoled myself that Redwire’s grandstanding speech was at least making enough noise that Whisperwood could have sung a ballad and still been able to sneak around unheard. Unfortunately I couldn’t risk looking to see if the others were in position, as it’d tip off Redwire that I was planning something. If she wanted to talk, I’d let her do it as long as she liked, play along as best I could, to buy time until we were ready and she let her guard down.

“And now, here before us, we have ourselves a pony who thinks he’s some kind of hero!” Redwire continued, bringing all the eyes of the Gobs to glue themselves to me as she stabbed at hoof in my direction.

“This pony seems to think he’s above all the blood and shit of the vast, uncaring Wasteland. He came here to rescue all his fellow ponies. Wasn’t that sweet of him? Not to do anything about what you Gobs have suffered, nope, he’s just here for his fellow ponies. A born hypocrite if ever there was one!”

The Gobs howled and jeered at me, seemingly easily led by Redwire’s words. I somehow doubted anything I said would matter, but I spoke up anyway, shouting into the crowd, “She’s just using all of you! Do you really think she cares!? Attacking the surface, even with these monsters helping, will just get you all killed! If you want a better life you’re not going to get it this way!”

It was useless. They weren’t listening. Redwire looked at me with cold amusement as the Gobs spat and yelled obscenities at me. She strode closer to me, pitching her voice so I could hear it, but it wouldn’t likely carry over the sound of the Gobs. “Learning anything yet, Longwalk? Gobs, ponies, griffins, doesn't matter. We’re all the same. Violence, lust, rage, it’s all there, just waiting for the bullshit facade of civilization to get torn away like the fucking scab it is. This is the simple truth the Hyadeans are going to bring this world.”

Her eyes glowed with viscous intensity, though her voice, for a second, was oddly serene, “Everything will finally make sense.”

She then turned back to the crowd, and I almost went for the shock stick as her back turned to me, but I saw two more of her barbed tentacles flow out of her robes and both hovered around me like snakes waiting to strike. Could she see through those things? Or maybe she just sensed movement with them? Regardless of either possibility I couldn't risk making a move yet, not while she was clearly still paying too much attention to me.

“So we’re going to have some fun with our guest, aren’t we my friends? A good show to get the blood boiling for our attack on the city above! What’s even better is that Longwalk here brought friends! That’s right, he has a group of friends who are right now trying to fight their way here,” Redwire chuckled dryly, “Of course they’ll have their work cut out for them.”

Her horn glowed and seemingly sent a command through it, for all the Hyadean bio-soldiers as one turned and went to march out of the chamber through a side tunnel I could see at the back of the room. This tunnel was right next to an even wider opening, one that took up almost the entire center of that far wall. Beyond that opening was a short span of floor that then dropped off into... well nothing. It looked like just black, unlit space, as if there was a huge open shaft that went up and down into darkness. I only caught a slight hint of something monolithic and metallic in that darkness, but I couldn’t make out what.

Mostly because Redwire’s tentacle had gripped my face and turned me towards her, her visage a stained grin in front of me.

“I know your friends might fight their way through all those, but by the time they get here they’ll be wounded and tired, and still have a few hundred riled up Gobs to contend with. They’ll be captured, and you’ll get to watch every second of me taking them apart. But first I want you to have a preview of that will be like.”

She looked up at Braindead, “Cut down one of these fine ponies. Oh, that one,” Redwire pointed at a mare, whose coat was so stained with blood it was hard to tell if she was actually red or if that was just the stains. What was once maybe a flouncy blonde mane was now a tangled mess, and her teal eyes blinked in confusion and outright fear as Braindead undid her bindings and let her drop to the ground.

Braindead, a sour look plastered on his face, glanced at Redwire.

“Go retrieve a seed and a knife.”

He sighed, nodded, and trotted towards the chapel. Meanwhile the mare seemed to recognize what was happening and began to babble.

“P-please, no!”

She tried to get up to run but Redwire wrapped a tentacle around the mare’s barrel and dragged her to the ground. My face was still being held by another tentacle, so I couldn’t even move to go for my shock stick. My only consolation was that, out of the corner of my eye, I briefly caught sight of a darting pale form on the roof of the chapel. Whisperwood. She’d somehow gotten up there and was making for the autowagon with the machine gun. She was there and then gone into the shadows before even I could be sure I’d seen her, but it gave me hope.

Braindead quickly returned. He was carrying thick sackcloth on his back, and a knife... no, two knives in his mouth. Before Redwire looked his way I noticed him tuck one of the knives into a sheath he had hidden behind his left fetlock. When Redwire did looked up at his approach he just had the one knife in his mouth, and no sign of the second one.

“Fast and efficient,” Redwire said, smiling, “See, there are a few reasons I haven’t killed you yet. Now, I’ll take those.”

Another pair of tentacles extended from beneath her robes (how many of those things did she have!?) and wrapped around the knife and the sackcloth. The prisoner mare, upon seeing the cloth, redoubled her struggles, “NO! Get that thing away from me!”

“Shhhh,” Redwire’s voice cooed in mock sympathy, “Don’t be so ungrateful. I’m a very generous pony and I don’t like having my gifts turned down. You see, I’m giving you something I haven’t given many lately. I’m giving you a chance. So, what’s your name?”

“Huh?” the other red mare blinked behind her blonde bangs, confusion clouding her features.

Redwire constricted her tentacle around the mare, causing a squeak of pain, “Your name. Don’t make me ask again.”

“V-Vanilla Shot.”

“Cute. So, Vanilla Shot, see this knife?” Redwire dangled it in front of Vanilla, whose eyes tracked its sharp edge back and forth, “I want you to take it. I want you to use it. To kill him.”

She gestured at me. I stared in mute surprise. What was she playing at!? Vanilla seemed just as shocked because she didn’t say anything either, just staring at the knife. Redwire shook her head, chuckling with dark amusement. “For fuck’s sake, you’d think this would be obvious. Neither of you have ever been in a good old fashioned pit fight? Who am I kidding, of course you haven’t, but trust me, it’s easy. Kill or be killed. Or in your case, Vanilla Shot, it’s kill or be... transformed into something more useful.”

As she spoke one of Redwire’s free tentacles wiggled its way into the sackcloth and wrapped around something, withdrawing an object that looked like a strange, deformed fruit. It was spherical, with numerous spine-like protrusions extending from its dark purple form. As Redwire held it I saw the object pulse and shiver as if it had a heartbeat of its own. When Vanilla Shot saw it her eyes went wider than plates with tiny black pin pricks, her voice a whisper, “Please don’t...”

Redwire just grinned, “It’ll only hurt for a second. Or ten.”

She then shoved the object onto Vanilla’s Shot’s chest, the spines piercing the mare’s hide. The second those spines made contact I saw the object pulse again and glow with a inner violet light. Vanilla Shot screamed, a sound long and piercing as the mare’s body flailed in the grip of Redwire’s tentacle. My whole body tensed, wanting to do something, but Redwire’s other tentacle tightened around my face, holding me still and forcing me to watch.

The object, the ‘seed’ as I now understood, began to spin as it burrowed its way into Vanilla Shot’s chest. I thought for sure this would kill her, but while the hole was bleeding profusely and seemed like the kind of thing that would be fatal, the ragged hole began to actually knit up and close behind the seed as it drilled its way into her chest. Once it was fully inside the hole actually mostly healed up until all that was visible was a raw, fresh scar where the hole had just been.

Vanilla Shot was very much alive, and breathing rapidly, drawing in fearful gasps of air as her horrified eyes looked at where the seed had entered her. Redwire looked pleased with herself as she waggled the knife in front of Vanilla Shot again.

“Like I said, kill the colt here, and I’ll remove it. Fail, and you’ll join my growing army. Oh, and just for funsies, I’ll say you’ve got, oh... three minutes to do it,” Redwire stepped back, dropping Vanilla Shot and the knife both, and said, “Starting now.”

She’d released me as well, though she’d stepped back far enough that rushing her would be risky. I was sorely tempted to try anyway. This was twisted. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still sickened by what she was doing here. I understood that this was a game to her, meant to test and hurt me. She knew that Vanilla Shot probably couldn’t kill me, not unless I let her... but if I didn’t do anything to stop this then this innocent mare would die anyway, and in a manner more horrible than anything my imagination could conjure. I really didn’t want to know what a transformation into one of the skeletal bio-soldiers looked like.

Three minutes wasn’t a long time, but maybe it’d be enough for me to find an opening to get at Redwire. I had no intention of just letting Vanilla Shot kill me, or watching her die as a result.

Vanilla Shot was looking at the knife at her hooves as if it were a live radscorpion, face torn in a cascade of conflicting expressions of horror and desperation. She looked at at me as if I might give her an answer. I didn’t have one, not that I wasn’t trying my hardest to think of something. Redwire’s voice cut at both of us.

“Tick tock ponies. Twenty seconds wasted already. I imagine you’ll look a lot better as a mindless skeletal monstrosity. Easy wardrobe, not much need for hygiene. A real load of your mind, aside from the agony of the transformation itself,” Redwire teased with the casual air of a mare playing a game.

“I...” Vanilla Shot gulped as she reached for the knife with her mouth, “I’m sorry.”

She was talking to me, shaking as she picked up the knife and then lunged at me. It wasn’t an uncoordinated or sloppy strike, either. Whatever life Vanilla Shot had led up until this point, she clearly knew how to use a blade. If I hadn’t been exposed to constant life or death situations since leaving home, sharpening my own combat skills, she would have gotten me with that first move.

I managed to sidestep her, barely. My movement was little more than an awkward shuffle due to the manacles still on my legs. I could only move so fast without risking the manacles slipping off and giving away just how free to move I actually was. Even so I shuffled back away from Vanilla, putting a little distance between us. Around us the other ponies tied to the metal posts watched on with wide eyes mirroring each other’s despair and hopelessness, knowing that one way or another they’d have to watch another pony die.

Pain wracked my body from all the injuries I’d taken, no healing potions or the soft touch of Arcaidia’s magic to heal any of it. The injuries slowed me almost as much as the manacles, but I pushed aside the pain and kicked my brain into overdrive. I had an idea on how to save this mare’s life and buy me a little more time, though it was going to hurt.

I licked my dry lips and focused all of my attention on Vanilla Shot, who was circling me with a desperate, pained look on her face that was slowly transforming into a expression of violent concentration. I moved with her, keeping her in front of me. I saw Vanilla tense just a split second before she came at me again, this time feinting to my right with fast hoofwork. If she wasn’t also being slowed by injuries from Redwire’s torture this would have been a lot harder. As it was I could see her feint and shifted my own weight to my left to meet her real attack. I ducked under her swing and pressed my body into her chest, hooking her right foreleg and yanking her into a throw that slammed her down onto her back.

The knife came free of her mouth and I caught it with my own. Before she could recover I jumped her, wrapping her into a grapple that I hoped to Redwire looked chaotic, but I had a plan. Vanilla fought back, punching at me, but amid our struggles I whispered, “Play along, I have a plan.”

She blinked confused eyes at me as we wrestled around, and I whispered, “Keep fighting, make it look real. Just trust me, please.”

She gulped, then punched me, but I saw right before that her quick nod and hopeful look. Right, now for the hard part. A few more punches and kicks as we rolled around landed me on top of her. My back was to Redwire, so she wouldn’t be able to see everything that was happening. More importantly, my tail was tucked underneath Vanilla Shot, including the shock stick. I saw her flash a worried look at the feel of the weapon. I leaned down over her, wedging my left fore leg between her chest and throat as if I was holding her down. I brought the knife close, but rather than touch it to her throat I pressed it against my leg, “Struggle, then play dead. I’ll take care of the rest.”

She responded by flailing about, wildly and convincingly as if she was trying to keep me from slitting her throat. In reality I winced as I cut my own fore leg, spilling blood across Vanilla’s throat. Second, as she did a fairly good job of pretending to go into death spasms, even adding some praise worthy gurgles to the mix.

I had to make the cut deep, feeling the searing pain of the cold knife through skin and muscle, so there would be enough blood to make it look as if I’d cut Vanilla Shot’s throat. I had to tighten my jaw shut to keep a scream from escaping my lips as I finished the cut. She helped a bit by lolling her head to the side and letting a fall of her blonde mane cover most her face and neck, so unless Redwire got close to inspect the “body” for a wound, it’d look real enough. Vanilla Shot just had to play dead.

Panting, I schooled my face into one a look of horror, not hard considering the circumstances, and got off of Vanillas “corpse” and, still holding the bloody knife in my mouth, turned to glare at Redwire. Her cold eyes regarded me, expression like chewed granite. Her voice betrayed a wisp of surprise combined with barely contained rage.

“That didn’t take long, did it? Thought you’d hold out until the last second, but no, you just straight up killed her. Where’s all that moral fiber you’re supposed to be spewing out your ass about? Put your life in danger and suddenly you’re as cold a killer as anypony, hm?”

Her eyes bored into me, and i met the stare with my own shaking gaze, ad libbing for all I was worth, “What did you expect Redwire!? I wasn’t going to watch you turn her into one of those things, and there wasn’t anything I could do to save her... so I at least tried to make it quick.”

“Mercy kill, is that it? Amazing how fast even the righteous can make up horseshit to excuse all the blood they get on themselves. Me, I’m an honest pony. Never bothered with the excuses. Kill for food, kill for caps, kill for fun, in the end it's all the same and it's all any of us ever do. Some of us are just better liars than others about why we do it. Don’t tell me a part of you didn’t get a little thrill watching the life drain out of her just now. Only thing more intimate than sex. Well, looks like you survived the first event... let’s see how you deal with the next one.”

There’s not going to be a next one, I thought as I watched her turn to Braindead, presumably to tell him to go get whatever she needed for her next “game”. For an instant her eyes weren’t on me. In her mind I was injured, manacles, unarmed, and probably too tired to even move.

She was right about the injuries and being incredibly tired. Unfortunately for her she was wrong about the manacles and me being unarmed, and tired as I was, there came with that a certain numbness that let me ignore the pain in order to move. I wasn’t Accelerator fast, but I pushed myself faster than even I thought I’d be able to move, leaping to my hooves and tossing off the loose manacles in the same moment. I then rushed the distance between Redwire and myself before she even began to turn back my way.

I dropped the knife and flicked my tail forward, twisting my head back to grab the firm form of the shock stick, tearing it free in the same movement. By the time Redwire had turned around, her tentacles raising around her like ashen gray vipers, I was already in striking range.

My teeth bit down on the trigger, sending a bright azure flare of electricity through the prongs of the shock stick, thrusting the weapon right for Redwire’s face.

There was a flash of light as the prongs struck, Redwire convulsing and her eyes going cross as the electric currents flickered and flowed like cobalt rivers over her body. I imagined I must have looked the same when Braindead had hit me with this thing. Her tentacles danced and shivered, and a little too late I realized the danger of being this close to her while those razor sharp appendages flailed around.

Several deep cuts lacerated my sides, but worse than that, one of the stray tentacles knocked the shock stick from my mouth, sending it sailing away.

Redwire, body smoking, staggered, but my blood froze in my veins as I saw that, unlike with me, she soaked the blow and remained standing.

Okay, so the Hyadean’s did more than just give her new, freaky limbs. She’s tougher than a normal pony too.

Breathing hard, clearly in pain, Redwire raised her head and piercing me with eyes that practically glowed with violent intent, “That... was a mistake-”

Before she could get out the last word the entire cavern was filled with deafening thunder. The machine gun mounted on the autowagon was firing, sending a deadly stream of high caliber rounds into the tightly packed crowd of Gobs who had all of their attention riveted on me and Redwire, rather than the rest of the cavern. Blood sprouted from bodies being torn apart like kicked twigs, the Gobs taken utterly off guard by the fierce assault. I could see Whisperwood barely holding onto the machine gun, her teeth chattering and eyes wide as she tried to control the spray of powerful rounds slamming from the weapon she swiveled across the front ranks of Gobs.

Before even a few seconds had passed even more gunfire filled the cavern with ear splitting cracks. Copper Shell, Brass, Softheart, and all the other ponies who had remained hidden at the cavern entrance up the wall and scaffolding now rose from their hiding spots and began firing into the Gobs with their captured guns. While these jury rigged weapons didn’t have the raw destructive force as the machine gun the combined fire of nearly twenty guns dropped over a dozen Gobs in just a few blinks of an eye.

Amid that chaos I was stuck facing off with a very pissed off Redwire.

From the look on her face I didn’t think she was interested any longer in toying with me, let alone keeping me alive. I was fine with that, because the feeling was mutual. Blood dripped from my body as I stood before Redwire, the cacophony of gunfire and screams echoing around us as the Gobs began to organize and return fire at the escaped prisoners that had been raining death down upon them. I saw Whisperwood forced to jump from the autowagon as several Gobs lobbed some of those burning bottles at it, bathing the vehicle in fire. I didn’t know if Whisperwood got out in time or not. Despite the withering fire pouring down from the ponies up on the wall opening the sheer volume of Gobs now returning shots was forcing them to duck back, and I saw at least one pony cry out as a round struck him and caused him to fall down and through a tangle of the scaffolding in a shower of dust and splintered wood.

With the element of surprise gone things were quickly looking to turn dire, but I had no time to dwell on that. Redwire’s tentacles shifted in the air, then cracked at me like whips. I backpedalled, feeling the barbed appendages snapping at my hide, drawing blood even as I evaded the initial brunt of the mare’s attack. I turned and dove for where I’d dropped the knife, but a tentacle lashed out and knocked the weapon away from my grasp, while another lashed around one of my back hooves. I felt the sting of the barbes digging into flesh, then monstrous strength lift and throw me like a foal’s toy. I hit and bounced off one of the metal posts with a still captive pony, who cried out at the impact, but there was little I could do as I slid to the ground, coughing.

“You know, I have to wonder, just where did you get that taser from, hm? Or slip out of your manacles so easily?” Redwire said in a tone like frosted needles. “It’s almost as if a certain somepony got really stupid and decided to help you.”

Braindead, eyes wild and filled with desperate terror, appeared behind her with the second knife he’d hidden on himself raised to strike at the back of her neck. In a blinding flash her tentacles slashed behind her, cutting into him and wrapping around him tightly until he was bound up like a bleeding caterpillar in a horrific cocoon.

“But that would just be crazy, wouldn’t it Braindead?” she cooed as she swung him around in front of her, bringing her sweetly smiling visage of promised death close to his cringing expression.

I struggled to my hooves as I heard Braindead say, “You were going to kill me anyway...”

Redwire laughed, a howl of pure joy, “Of course I was, eventually. Now you won’t even get that. I knew your talent was betrayal, but I thought you’d have the sense to try it for a better reason than helping this idiot.”

Her horn started to glow and I saw Braindead’s eyes go wide as his body started to shake and convulse in the grip of her tentacles. An agonized scream tore itself from his mouth and I saw purple veins pulsing across his hide, his eyes starting to leak the violet liquid.

I hauled myself forward into an awkward charge, shouting, “Stop!”

Whatever he’d done to me, I didn’t want to see this. I galloped headlong at Redwire. One of her tentacles struck out, fast as an angered asp, but I jumped over the strike and tackled Redwire head on. She let out a grunt as my body slammed into hers, and I felt her body beneath her robes. It didn’t feel right. LIke it was made from a writhing mass of ropes rather than normal flesh. Though I managed to knock her to the ground she fought back with terrific strength, wrenching me off of her in moments and kicking me hard with a hind hoof that blasted the air from my lungs and sent me sprawling.

But she had been distracted by me, her grip on Braindead loosening just enough for him to free a hoof. Redwire’s magic was still going, still triggering the seed planted inside Braindead to transform him from the inside out, yet even as his body began to melt and deform he moved in an act of admirable willpower for a pony who told me he had trouble even controlling his own thoughts.

His free hoof, managing to still grip the knife in its fetlock, lashed out and buried itself into Redwire’s horn in a sound of cracking bone.

Redwire’s scream mixed with Braindead’s as her magic went haywire, spewing magical sparks and light over the room like a strobe.

She let go of Braindead and his body hit the ground, and she staggered to the side, howling in pain and shaking her head like a mad pony.

I caught my breath and once more stood, and rushed to Braindead’s side. His body was still shaking and spasming, and to my stark horror I saw his flesh was slowly turning into a viscous, bubbling purple goo. His eyes were filled with fear and pain as he coughed up the violet bile, and he looked at me as if pleading for me to do something to help. I didn’t have anything I could do. Even with Redwire’s horn broken the spell had triggered the seed enough to see it finish its work, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Braindead managed to get one more word out from his melting throat, “...kill...”

I saw bone now beneath his rotting flesh, the bones becoming interlaced with the purple ooze that seemed to becoming solid in places, like artificial muscle, the same kind that drove the skeleton bio-soldiers. I felt like time had frozen, through Redwire’s pained howling mixed with the thunder of gunfire echoed around me as I stared down at Braindead. He couldn’t get out any more words but the way his desperate eyes looked at me, it was clear what was asking me to do, and it was clear there wasn’t much time left for him. I looked around and saw the knife Redwire had knocked away from me nearby and with hooves feeling like lead I rushed to it, taking it up and quickly returning to Braindead just as his chest was starting to expose the rib cage, and the pulsating seed lodged into his heart. The process of his transformation wasn’t complete, and he was still alive, in unimaginable pain. He looked at me holding the knife over him... and he smiled, nodding once. This was what he wanted.

And damn me I wasn’t about to deny a dying pony his last request.

I drove the knife down hard, the steel piercing the seed, sliding through it’s pulpy alien flesh, and Braindead’s frantically beating heart.

He went still mercifully quickly, and the seed along with him. The last look in his eyes was one of tear streaked gratitude.

Pulling the knife free I looked up to see Redwire still alive and pulling the other knife free from her sputtering horn. Somehow the mare was still staying standing, though from the random crackles of energy spraying from her horn it looked like her magic was out of commission. Braindead might not have intended it, but he’d probably just saved anypony else from suffering his fate, at least at the hooves of this psychotic mare.

Now I just had to finish the job.

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Footnote: %50 to next level!

Author's Note:

Whew... this one took awhile, didn't it? Part of it could have been factors like the holiday season, not to mention a certain game coming out that sucked out my free time like a vacuum made of other, smaller vacuums. But here we are, and I sincerely hope you folks enjoy.

Many thanks to my pre-readers, referee and doomande for helping me out finding errors and smoothing things that needed smoothing. Of course if there's any we missed, folks, don't hesitate to let me know post haste.

Now, for my customary shout out to another FoE sidefic, this chapter I'm shining the spotlight onto Infinite Potential, by Borsuq. This is a relatively newer story, with a interesting premise as it follows the journey of a scientifically minded, but morally twisted, mare who has an interesting personality.

Thanks for reading folks. As always I welcome any and call commentary, criticism, questions, or random thoughts about the nature of the universe. 'Till next time.

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