Chapter 31: The Scars of Leftover Memories
I didn’t bother with the elevator and instead hit the stairs leading to Tenpony Tower’s bottom floor, bounding down three or four steps at a time and all but galloping out the door. My speed was halted abruptly by a tug on my tail and I glanced back to see Arcaidia’s magic holding me still as she took the stairs at a slower clip, her metal peg leg slowing her down.
“No point in fastness, ren solva, unless you want all ponies to see us and wonder what is wrong.” she said, her smooth, controlled features starkly contrasted with the deep shimmer of worry in her eyes.
Behind her LIL-E floated down, and past me, “She’s right. Let’s not give the guards at the door any reason to wonder why we’re in such a rush. I know how you feel, Longwalk, but this Scythe asshat is probably expecting you to charge in headfirst. No reason to give the bastard that satisfaction.”
They were both right, I knew that, but it still took an effort of will to slow my pace and try to adopt a look of calm when I was feeling anything but calm. My mind kept showing me nightmarish images of what might be happening to Binge at that very moment, and with my own torturous capture by Redwire still fresh in my memory, my mind could conjure some particularly unpleasant images. However at the top of my list of fears was not finding Binge tortured (although that thought alone made my stomach churn), but of finding her dead. After all, Scythe didn’t necessarily have to keep her alive to still use her as bait to draw us in.
That fear was a knife edged in ice cutting right into my gut as I trotted in as casual a manner I could manage across the main lobby area. I nearly got to the door before I heard a cheerful voice call out to me from across the way.
“Hey! Longwalk, Arcaidia, LIL!” Knobs said with a loud and happy voice, the wheels of her artificial back legs squeaking as she wheeled herself over towards us with Blasting Cap’s surly looking form riding atop Knobs’ withers while Crossfire trailed behind them, frowning.
I halted reluctantly, forcing a strained smile onto my face. “Hey guys. Uh, what’s up?”
“Not your IQ, obviously.” Blasting Cap spat towards me, and Knobs gave the filly’s head a brief flick with her tail before looking to me with an easy smile. It was the smile of a mare who didn’t have a friend in mortal danger. Compared to my stiff, unnaturally forced smile, Knobs’ beamed with glowing warmth.
“We were just heading out to shop. Turns out I didn’t have anything to put little Blasting Cap in for the dance tonight, and the dress I want to put Crossfire in is, by her definition, too ‘frilly and stupid’ so we’re going to see about finding something with a bit more slink. Wanna come?”
Crossfire emitted a sound somewhere between a hissing steam pipe and a growling Hellhound. “I didn’t say anything about a dress with more slink, but something practical, Knobs.”
“And high cut dresses that show of your flank is practical! Practically stunning! Oh, and you could totally fit a sexy leather holster for a pistol there.”
“I don’t use pistols.”
“Well, buy a pistol then. Diversify your arsenal. Accessorize girl!” Knobs said, all but prancing in place happily.
I cleared my throat nervously, eyeing the door, and Arcaidia stepped forward and gave Knobs a short bow, managing to smile far more convincingly than I was. “We would muchly enjoy the barter trip with you, good friend Knobs. But I ask Longwalk to show me to building in town called ‘orphanage’. Is important personal matter.”
Knobs looked at us curiously while Crossfire’s eyebrow raised, her lips pressed in a tight, suspicious line.
“An orphanage?” Knobs asked, “I guess the NCR would have a few of those going, but why do you want to visit one?”
Actually that was an excellent question. I knew Arcaidia had brought it up earlier in regards to the memory orbs Bartholomew had given her to view, but I had no idea what she’d seen in the or what they had to do with this orphanage. Arcaidia’s expression transmuted into one of conflicted unease, and I couldn’t tell if she was acting or not when she said, “I have reasons to think orphanage is place where I come from. May not be orphanage anymore, but building is important. So I ask Longwalk and LIL-E to come for moral support.”
“Why not bring your whole gang?” asked Crossfire, still looking at us suspiciously, “Where’s your pegasus pal and the pet Raider?”
“Binge drank a bunch and is sleeping it off,” I said hastily, “So we asked B.B to keep an eye on her and hold down the fort while we’re gone.”
“That right?” Crossfire looked me squarely in the eyes, and I could see she wasn’t convinced. “You’re sweating an awful lot for a colt who’s just taking his marefriend out to check on some orphanage. Also noticing you’re shifting on your hooves a lot.” She leaned towards me, yellow eyes flashing dangerously.
“What’re you hiding?”
I clenched my jaw, saying past my grinding teeth, “Nothing.”
I turned to leave, but Crossfire moved swift as a bullet to slap herself into my path, getting snout to snout with me. “Don’t hoof me that shit. You’re heading out, fully geared up, so scared you’re sweating rivers, with two of your team oddly not with you, and you expect me to buy it's to take the little filly on an excursion to some orphanage? Horseshit. What’s really going on here, and is it a threat to the job we’re doing here?”
I forced myself to take deep breath and let it out slowly, steadying my frayed nerves. “It’s got nothing to do with you, Crossfire. Now move.”
“Or what?” she said with a low and dangerous tone.
“Or I’ll move you.” I replied, dead serious.
“Heyheyheyhey!” Knobs managed to push herself between the two of us, forcing me and Crossfire apart with a surprising amount of strength in her little ghoulish limbs. “We’re all friends here. No reason to get all snarly with each other. Crossfire, whatever they’re doing, it's not really any of our business if they don’t want to tell us.”
“I beg to differ. Whatever this buck gets his nose stuck in tends to lead to complications, and right now the last thing this job needs is some Longwalk related insanity derailing an otherwise smooth job.” grunted Crossfire, looking away from Knobs with a sullen grimace, “Besides, I’m bored. If there’s some action going down, I want a piece of it.”
“I’m sorry Crossfire,” I said, sighing, “But this is something only me, Arcaidia, and LIL-E can deal with. If I thought I could bring anypony else in on it without making things worse, I would. You’ll just have to trust me on this.”
“So something is going down!” Crossfire snapped, then let out a frustrated whinny at Knobs’ pleading look. “For fuck’s sake... if this is something that’s going to bite us in the ass I’m putting a bullet in you, buck. Whatever shit you’re in, get it sorted out.”
I nodded with the feeling of the world’s weight crashing onto my shoulders, but really it was the weight of a single life. Then again, perhaps those two things weight about the same.
“Was what you said true?” I asked Arcaidia as we cantered at a swift pace down the Manehattan streets, heading west from Tenpony Tower while following LIL-E’s lead. The eyebot claimed she knew where Arbu was, and was taking us along the fastest route to get there by hoof. All she’d said so far was that Arbu was on the north side of the city, across the river, and that it’d take a few hours walking to get there.
Meanwhile I decided to distract my worried thoughts by asking Arcaidia about what she’d seen in the memory orbs and what this orphanage had to do with it.
“Is what true, ren solva?”
“About the orphanage and you coming from there.” I said, “What did you see in the memory orbs to make you think that?”
Arcaidia looked thoughtful for a moment, chewing her lower lip. She idly kicked a rusty old can out of our path, the can bouncing with loud, metallic tings as it bounced down an alley. Arcaidia’s tail twitched about beneath her deep blue dress. There was a hesitance in her voice when she finally said, “I see many things, much still not make sense. But last thing I see is pony putting small filly into orphanage, and small filly was me. So young I don’t have memory, but it was me. If that true then...”
She trailed off, then shook her head sharply, “Not matter right now, Longwalk. Binge more important. Focus on mission. Make plans of battle for defeating stupid Scythe pony.”
While I was deathly curious about this orphanage and what it might mean for Arcaidia, I couldn’t deny she had the right idea. We needed to be focused on getting to Binge and dealing with whatever Scythe had in store for us. A plan of some sort might help with that, despite my track record with plans. Well, maybe if I just helped Arcaidia and LIL-E plan, then it’d avoid my aura of bad luck. Not that making any plans while we were walking through crowded streets seemed like a good idea to me, so we waited until we’d left the more crowded streets around the central area of Manehattan behind and were instead walking along pathways mostly clear of anypony besides us. While restoration efforts could still be seen in evidence in almost all of the city, it was clear the further one got from the center the less work had been done, and I saw more rubble strewn between alleys, buildings with knocked out walls, and streets that were occasionally blocked by fallen pieces of former skyscrapers. LIL-E navigated it all with smooth ease, as if she’d been here a hundred times.
“So, uh, about Arbu,” I said to LIL-E as we crossed a winding alley between two former office buildings, “What can we expect to see when we get there?”
“Not a lot.” replied LIL-E, slowing her floating pace slightly to let me and Arcaidia catch up to her. “The prison that was built there is now mostly just a burnt out hollow. The blaze that started from the prisoner riot was pretty damn bad. I got files in my memory banks concerning the incident. Some Enclave war criminals tried digging a tunnel out of the prison, and incited a riot to cover their escape attempt. Problem is, their tunnel hit an old gas line, and somepony somewhere must have used the wrong gun or spell, so... boom. The President didn’t bother having the prison rebuilt after that, and frankly most of that area hasn’t been hit with any restoration efforts yet. So what we can expect is a charred ruin, with maybe some of the buildings still standing, but not much else.”
“What about before it was a prison?” I asked, my curiosity driving the question as I recalled that horrific dream I’d shared with Binge, what felt like a very long time ago. I remembered her hometown, with its friendly atmosphere, and the images of Binge’s mother and brother, just moments before they’d been killed. Was that vision of blood and fire true? I had a feeling LIL-E knew the answer, but she took a long time giving it, as if the eyebot herself was remembering things she didn’t want to.
“It was a settlement. Then... it wasn’t.”
LIL-E’s response came sharply, the eyebot spinning towards me with a sense of forceful anger that took me by surprise. “There’s nothing else to say! It happened a long time ago and doesn’t matter anymore! Arbu was destroyed, and most ponies were better off for it!”
I blinked at the eyebot, hearing a popping, static noise that I think was LIL-E simulating breathing hard, as if her emotions bypassed her mechanical nature to simulate the kind of ragged breathing an upset pony might have. I softened my tone, holding up a hoof.
“I’m sorry LIL-E, I didn’t mean to dig into a sore spot. But I think... no, I know what happened in Arbu is what was getting to Binge. Its her home. She was... she was just a filly when it was destroyed. She watched her family get killed in front of her.”
Arcaidia, whose eyes had gotten a tad wide at hearing this, said, “How you know such things, ren solva? I never hear Binge speak words of home.”
I licked my lips, hesitant to talk about my dreams, because either I’d sound crazy, or my companions would find the fact that Gramzanber had established a connection to them that had the side effect of showing me some of their own dreams to be a violation. After a moment of hesitation I took a deep breath and told them exactly how I knew about Binge’s home. LIL-E was quiet, while Arcaidia just blinked at me.
“I hear of ARM users that...” Arcaidia seemed to struggle for words, “Estu... ren tiverich hirva dol gravae vir. I don’t know right words. Make bridges with comrades. Bonds. Not common gift, but makes ARM user stronger with team. You do this, ren solva?”
“I don’t really understand the particulars.” I said with a shrug, “I just know I’ve occasionally seen dreams from you guys, like I was physically there. I saw a dream, a nightmare, of Binge’s where her hometown was wiped out by some pissed off madmare who was armed to the teeth and didn’t have much of a sense of mercy.”
“You don’t know anything.” LIl-E said with a static laden hiss. “She... that ‘madmare’... arrrgh, what the fuck’s the point!? I could tell you, but it won’t change anything! We just need to rescue Binge, deal with Scythe, and then leave Arbu where it belongs; in the past.”
LIL-E went silent then, floating along faster now, and refused to answer any further questions, even when I tried to ask her. She just stayed dead silent, save for the soft murmur of her robotic floating device. Arcaidia trotted beside me, alternating between giving me and LIL-E equally worried looks. I just gave her withers a comforting pat and nod, and we continued onward at a swift pace. My thoughts were still mired, but I tried to push aside concerns over Arbu’s fate and focus instead on the notion of rescuing Binge from Scythe’s clutches. I didn’t have much of a plan as of yet, but so much depended upon what we’d find at Arbu that it was hard to decide on a particular set of tactics.
Arcaidia and I whispered between ourselves, pitching ideas. Given Scythe had incredible potent illusion powers we’d need a way to pin him down. Arcaidia agreed to focus on that part of the fight, suggestion she’d might use her ice magic in a few ways that might reveal invisible opponents. She wanted to put her shielding spell on us before we got to Arbu, as she doubted she’d have time to do it once we were inside. As for me, I planned to put the paralysis toxin Misty Glasses had made for me to good use. The toxin was supposed to stay potent on the blade for around a day, and theoretically would paralyze normal ponies for hours with just a scratch. I had no idea how well the toxin would work against Scythe’s mutated body, but I was also ready and willing to do a lot more than just scratch him, too.
I wasn’t going in there intending to kill, but I was afraid for the life of a friend, more than a little pissed off, and was more mentally and emotionally prepared for the possible necessity of ending a life, especially if it was a psychotic bastard like Scythe, who so far seemed not too far off from Redwire in terms of general disposition. I certainly wasn’t planning on holding back, when the time came to fight.
Still, my anger must have showed, because Arcaidia leaned towards me and said quietly, “Is your mind in right place, ren solva? Can you fight with clear head?”
“Of course I can!” I barked, but quickly shook myself and said, softer, “I hope I can. I’m sorry Arcaidia. I’m... everything is out of whack, right now. I’m getting tired of my friends being in danger. This country was supposed to be safe Ancestors dammit! And I knew, I knew that Binge was feeling out of sorts... but I left her alone anyway.”
The guilt hit me harder than I thought it would, like a spiked hammer right past the rib cage. I’d left Binge all by herself, when I had known she wasn’t feeling right in the head. I had just assumed she’d be okay for a bit, that I had time to sort things out. Now she could be going through literal hell because I’d been careless. She might be dead... and if not, she might soon be. The thought twisted inside me worse than Redwire’s tendrils had lashed my flesh. Part of it was the pain of fearing for a friend’s life and all the guilt of believing the fault for it was your own.
And part of it was something else. Something deeper. Something I really didn’t want to acknowledge yet, partially out of stubborn ignorance, and partially out of simple fear of what I was feeling.
Regardless, I had to get Binge back, no matter what it cost me.
Arcaidia, staring into my face with at first deep rooted worry that soon shifted into a stoic, icy mask, shook her head at me. “Don’t wound self before even meeting enemy, ren solva. Guilt kills, in battle or not. We save Binge.” Arcaidia’s voice became solid steel, like an anchor that pulled me up from the dredges of self doubt, “I swear it on my name, we save her. Veruni take name-pledges very serious headed, so know I not stop until Binge safe, yes?”
Her words helped me get a hold of myself and fortify my emotions, wrangling them back under control. “Thanks Arcaidia, I think I really needed to hear somepony else say that.”
“Most welcome, ren solva. I know you well, like brother. You get head twisted up easy,” she smiled and swatted at the back of my head playfully with a hoof, “But give it good smack and you think straight again.”
“Oh, brother is it? Does that make you the little sister?”
She smirked and tilted her head up in a challenging look, “Little? Very much big sister to dopey little brother.”
I held up a hoof, checking my height in comparison to hers, which hadn’t gotten any higher than my shoulder since I’d met her. “I don’t know, I think it's pretty clear which of us is the older pony in this hypothetical sibling relationship.”
Arcaidia’s eyes flashed mysteriously at me and her smirk turned coy, “You may find surprise in learning truth, Longwalk. I much older than looks appear. Veruni medicine very good, make body age slower.”
“That right?” I blinked, wondering at the implications of what she was saying. “So, um, just how old are you?”
Her smile didn’t falter as she chuckled and flicked her tail at my snout. “A lady not tell her age.”
As I gave her a flabbergasted look LIL-E slowed down ahead of us and said, “We’re almost there.”
We’d come upon the banks of a river that cut through the northern most edge of what was Manehattan’s main city area and the former suburbs that lay beyond. The waters ran smooth and clear under the late afternoon light, and looking around I saw there was next to nopony around. The area across the river looked all but abandoned, the restoration efforts having not reached here in any meaningful manner. there was a makeshift bridge of pontoons with well welded planks of sheet metal that cross the river off to our right, not far away. To our left, more distant at maybe a quarter mile away was a much larger bridge, clearly pre-war in its construction. It didn’t look particularly intact, and I saw what looked like some sort of collection of buildings clustered around the center of the bridge, though they looked abandoned.
“We need to cross the pontoon bridge. Once we’re across Arbu is just a little ways further.” LIL-E said.
As she led us to the bridge, I took a deep breath.
Hang on Binge, we’re coming.
I wasn’t certain what I was expecting to see at Arbu, but somehow the charred husk I witnessed was worse than my mind had conjured. I had seen it once, in Binge’s dream, as a settlement formed from the ruins of a strip mall, with a simple but solid junk-forged wall around a set of low and long buildings that the ponies there had transformed into homes.
This looked nothing like that.
First, it was obvious that the strip mall itself had been built upon and re-purposed, with an entire new level built atop the roof of the two different sections of the strip of buildings, made from what had once been tall wooden panels and sheet metal. The old wall had been all but torn down and replaced with a wall of wood planks and poured concrete, topped with loops of razor wire and guarded with twin towers at either end... only now the wall was all but burned to its concrete foundation, with the towers like dark shafts of broken bone. I could see where the fire had raged across the front of the prison, consuming the interiors of the former strip mall’s buildings to only leave ash ridden ruin. Each building was like a blackened skull, the windows akin to hollow eyes, filled with foreboding shadow. The ground itself was still scorched, as if years of time and rain couldn’t erase the scars left behind.
I felt like I was looking at a corpse, not even still rotting, but long since stripped to its bones. More than that, the moment we stepped within a few dozen meters of the place the air started to feel heavy and cold, like we’d just had a cloak of chill fog draped over us. I wasn’t the only one to shudder. Arcaidia shivered as well and gave me a sidelong look.
“This land is bad.” she said, licking her lips.
“It feels wrong here.” I admitted, “Like stories the old shamans told of cursed land.”
Arcaidia shook her head, “What I mean is that I not feel Leylines right. All land is having Leylines. It is what help me fuel Crest Sorcery. But... the Leylines in this area are wrong. Twisted.”
“What does that mean?”I asked, and she frowned deeply, a haunted look briefly flashing through her eyes before she hardened them with steel composure.
“I not know, but will lay bet Scythe is pony to blame.”
No argument there from me. Keeping my eyes carefully roving over the ruin of Arbu for any signs of movement, I said, “LIL-E do your sensors pick up anything?”
“Nothing I can make sense of.” LIL-E replied after a long pause, the eyebot slowly rotating on its hovering axis from left to right, then back to left, clearly scrutinizing the area. “There’s distortions on my readouts that suggest magical interference, but I can’t pinpoint locations or magnitudes. My E.F.S is picking up some hostile signatures but they keep blipping in and out. How about yours?”
Right, Arcaidia and I both had E.F.S on our Pip-Bucks, but I wasn’t seeing any readings on mine, hostile or otherwise. After a confirming glance at Arcaidia, who shook her head, I said, “It doesn’t look like either of us got anything on ours. Yours must have the better range. You can’t spot anything though?”
“Nothing that tells us anything useful. This place looks like it’s filled with ghosts, for all I can tell.” LIL-E made a muttering sound, floating a little lower to the ground as she growled in a muted, static pop, “Should've burned it all down back then. All of it. Down to the fucking rocks. Nothing good can come out of this Goddesses damned place.”
“LIL-E?” I asked, gulping at the angered menace I’d heard in her tone, but the eyebot just floated back up, turning towards me.
“What? Oh, shit. Sorry. I’ve got a lot of memories boiling up to the surface here, Longwalk. Her memories. I can see them all clear and loud in my head as if I was living it all myself. One problem with being a robot, you can’t really forget anything. If it's in my databanks, its permanent. Including the first time Arbu got burned.”
“Are you going to be able to hold up alright?” I asked, “I mean, once we go in?”
“I’ll be fine. I’m... not her. No matter how real the memories feel. I’m in control of myself, so don’t worry about me.” LIL-E made a low static sound very close to a sigh, “I just wish to hell and back that Binge came from anywhere other than here. No point wasting any more time. Let’s get in there and pull Binge’s scarred ass out of the frying pan.”
We moved in cautiously, myself taking point with Gramzanber drawn and in my mouth while Arcaidia kept to my right and LIL-E floated to our left. The charred rubble in the wall was simple enough to climb, and passing the threshold only increased the earlier chill I felt. Standing on the ground of Arbu itself, inside the walls, it set every hair of my mane to tingling with frozen unease. Everything felt too still and quiet, and every single one of our hoofsteps echoed like gunshots in my ears.
Almost immediately my eyes started to play tricks on me, making me think that every time I looked at a shadowed doorway or window that there was something moving there. I looked at my E.F.S, but it was all but useless, showing me nothing but the occasional blip that vanished as quickly as it appeared. I was attentive for anything resembling a trap, but saw no obvious tripwires or scuffed dirt to hide mines or the like. I also looked for any telltale glints from sniping scopes, but there weren’t many positions somepony could snipe us from that wasn’t in range of the E.F.S, and LIL-E scanners were even better than that.
Still, B.B had warned us that Scythe was a master illusionist, so trusting anything I was seeing felt like a bad idea.
“Alright, we’re here... now what? Do we just start searching the buildings?” I asked, but before either of my companions could answer, Scythes laughter echoed with phantom resonance across the ruined former prison and settlement. I couldn’t pinpoint where his voice was coming from, it seemed to just fill the air from all directions at once.
“Welcome, welcome! I’m absolutely thrilled you managed to make it. Miss Binge is also happy that you’re here to see her beloved hometown, despite its rather poor state of repair.”
“Where is she!?” I demanded, “Come out here and show her to me!”
“Ah ah ah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves my delightfully dense young friend. To meet with inheritor of Arbu’s restless spirit you must first become enlightened to this ground’s rather tragic and bloody history. I’ve gone through a great deal of trouble to dig up the ghosts of the past hidden in this soil, and I would just love to share what I’ve learned with all of you.”
“Why you do this show and dance?” asked Arcaidia, lips twisted in a disapproving sneer, “Come fight if one wishes but why play stupid games first?”
“Well I did swear an Accord upon my blood oath with my sister to bring no harm to innocent ponies while I was here in the NCR. That being the case I can hardly fight you, can I? Of course the terms of the Accord were that I not harm innocents. It said nothing of others doing the deed for me. And as you’ve likely guessed, Miss Binge is hardly innocent herself, so her body and mind have been free game for me.”
“You bastard!” I growled, “What have you done to her!?”
“Nothing she wasn’t equally willing to do to herself. Such a self-destructive mare. She takes so much after her mother. All the best intentions, yet so easily twisted. Fear not, I’ve not partaken of her blood. I can smell something wrong about it, and I have no desire for indigestion.” Scythe’s voice turned a dangerous octave lower, “I’ve merely fed her some of my blood to establish a link to her mind. It’s been a fascinating place to explore. I learned quite a lot in a very short span of time, and the rest I learned from... heh, well, you’ll find out soon enough.”
Everything began to darken around us. A thick fog, like sheets of solid white stone, rose from the ground, engulfed the walls of Arbu, then swallowed up the evening sky above us. In mere seconds we were surrounded by the fog, as if all that existed now was just us and the skeleton of Arbu. The cold in the air only increased, making me shiver, and Scythe’s voice echoed around us.
“Follow the path. See the echoes of the past, and if you can survive the vengeful ghosts of this place’s many tragedies, then you’ll see your friend again and have your chance to save her soul.”
“You didn’t answer Arcaidia’s question.” I said, “Why are you doing this!? Aren’t you here for B.B?”
“It’s precisely because I’m here to bring my beloved sister back into the fold that I am doing this.” Scythe said in a disdain filled tone, seasoned with the sharp spice of rage. “She belongs with her Family, yet I know she won’t see reason, no matter how I plead. So I must break her will. She taught me, you know. Taught me much of what I know of how to inflict pain. A better teacher there never was. To sunder her will to resist I will first break those she cares for. I must make her suffer, to remind her of who she really is. That’s also why I frame this as a game, because she taught me that you cannot break a pony’s spirit without first giving them hope. So... hope, Longwalk. Hope that you can save your friend, and when you fail... break.”
A pathway parted through the fog with a chilly, dry wind, leading to the remains of one of the buildings to the left. The swirling white fog looked to me like the foreboding shape of fangs surrounding the yawning darkness of an empty doorway leading inside. I took a deep breath, trying to settle my raw nerves.
“One day, I don’t know when, but one day I’m going to wake up and not have to wonder what’s going to try to kill me and everypony I care about today.”
“Patience, ren solva. All be better when enemies dead and gone and world safe again.” said Arcaidia, to which LIL-E quickly chimed in.
“Not nearly as easily done as said, Arcaidia. But let’s put the philosophy talk on the back burner and find out what horrorshow we’ve got to deal with here.”
I nodded slowly, my teeth tightening around Gramzanber, and trotted towards the doorway revealed by the parting fog. It was pitch black inside, so I turned on my Pip-Buck’s pale green light. The light barely seemed to push back the dark, just enough for me to see a few steps ahead of me. The interior of the building at first glance appeared to be cracked and blackened concrete flooring and the burnt remains of several desks along with a half-melted filing cabinets. Maybe this was some kind of office for the prison? I stumbled over the ashen bits of a burnt metal chair, the crashing noise startling in the dark and stifling quiet.
Then, as LIL-E and Arcaidia entered behind me, there was a bang like thunder as a door that hadn’t been there before slammed shut, trapping us inside. Arcaidia whirled towards the door, tail raising like a freaked out cat, and she seemed to nearly hiss at the door, but contained herself with an embarrassed smile.
“Stupid door trick. Easy to break down with ARM, yes, ren solva?”
“Yeah, totally.” I said, trying to force a smile. Sure, Gram could probably make short work of any doors or walls around here, but that wouldn’t help us find Binge. We were stuck following the path Scythe was laying out for us, and dealing with whatever dangers he left along that path, until we found our friend... and whatever condition she was in.
“Something’s coming.” said LIL-E suddenly, her pistol turret swiveling around, “My scanners are lighting up like crazy.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about until a few seconds later my own E.F.S started to go absolutely bonkers. Dozens of dots started to appear, both green and red, flickering between colors and moving about without any clear pattern. The air grew colder still and I swear I started to see frost built up on the charred desks and floor. Then, even stranger, there was a bone pale shimmer in the air, filling the room, and then my eyes blinked as everything changed.
The room shifted, transforming from a burned out prison office into a intact, if somewhat dirty space that resembled a living area. It was ramshackle Wasteland style, but there were couches and a few mattresses set up here and there, and a out of place metal shelf against one wall, piled with knick-knacks, and a fold out table surrounded by mismatched stools. A novelty lamp shaped like a toy rocket stood against one corner, and somepony had hung up a plant pot despite it only containing a leafless small bush. Everything was gray and pale, as if filtered through a veil of mist.
“What... is this?” I breathed, then nearly jumped out of my hide when a pony walked through me.
She was as pale and gray as everything else in the room, yet I got the faintest impression of color, the deep green of her coat and bright blue of her poofy mane. Her cutie mark stood out against her narrow flanks, the image of a trio of hearts.
“Isn’t it great dad!” said the mare happily, ignoring me, Arcaidia, and LIL-E, “I mean sure it needs a lot of work still, but the place cleans up nice and once we get the wall finished we should be pretty safe here too! Overwatch and Deep Pockets will be done scouting soon, so we should get the lay of the land in no time.”
There was a youthful exuberance to the mare, a healthy glow that arrested my attention, and I didn’t notice until a second later that the mare’s belly was prominently large with the late stages of pregnancy as she rubbed her stomach with a grin. “Just think of it dad, a safe place to raise a family. Something you and mom never could find.”
“That’s because ‘safe’ ain’t something you find, Heartchime. You make it, wherever you can, and that ain’t often.”
An elderly stallion walked into view, literally seeming to appear from the wall in a puff of fog. Like everything else, he was gray and ethereal, with barely any hint of color. He wore dusty leathers that hid his cutie mark, but even without the gray tone saturating him he looked old. And uneasy, with a worried look he gave the mare, Heartchime.
“Oh c’mon dad, you’re way too pessimistic. We’ve been wandering the Wasteland since mom was pregnant with me, and in all that time you couldn’t find one spot worth settling down?”
The old stallion grimaced, “It ain’t that simple. We thought our home was safe, but Raiders swallowed it up. We’ve stayed alive since by wandering, not sticking to any one place for too long. Settling here, settling anywhere, it's a mistake.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that's what ponies thought back then, but after twenty years of wandering, and being prey to any damn monster or bandit we ran across, younger and braver hearts have prevailed. The vote was cast, and it’s settled. We’re making our home here, in Arbu.”
“Damn stupid name for a town if you ask me.” the stallion muttered, and the mare laughed, a sound very much like beautiful, gold chimes. It was then I suddenly realized how much the mare resembled Binge, and I understood I knew this mare.
“Ancestor Spirits, this is Binge’s mother.” I breathed in a low whisper, then cast a equally shocked look at the older stallion, “And her grandfather.”
“What magic is this?” Arcaidia said with amazed curiosity, cautiously looking around while unholstering her starblaster and poking the barrel through the phantom image of Heartchime. She pulled the weapon back immediately and I saw a rime coating of frost on the weapon barrel.
Ignoring us, as if we weren't there, the... images, ghosts, whatever they were, continued talking, Heartchime coming over and giving her grumpy looking father a hug and a light kiss on the cheek.
“Maybe then name’s a bit silly, but it's the name of home. Maybe it won’t be perfect, and we’ll run into difficulties, but I have to believe it's worth making a go of it here. Don’t you want your grandfoals to grow up somewhere other than on the road? The same road that lost us mom?”
The old stallion blew out a reluctant sigh, “No, and much as I prefer the road, I get why all you young folk want to settle down. You’re not the only mare who’s gotten herself knocked up lately. Guess we older ponies should’ve figured our little colts and fillies would stop being so little, and might want a solid homestead.” He returned the hug slowly, but held his daughter tightly. “I’ll try to stop bellyaching so much. It’s just...”
Heartchime looked at her father questionly. “Just what?”
The temperature in the room dipped further, and I felt frost forming beneath my hooves as a dark and fearful look crossed into the eyes of the old stallion, his voice dropping to a ominous low. “Just that I got a real bad feeling about this place. Can’t rightly put my hoof on what, but there’s just something... wrong, here. Eh, maybe I’m just getting old.”
“Heh, nonsense dad, you’ve got lots of years left in you, and you’re going to spend them in peace, watching your grandfoals grow up. Just wait, you’ll see, everything is going to turn out alright.”
I felt my teeth rattling at the near unbearable cold in the air as darkness and shadow clung around the room now, the ghostly images drifting away like so much mist in the wind, leaving us once more in the burned remains of the prison office. Rubbing my forelegs to try to get some blood circulating, I chattered, “I don’t understand. Are these memories? They can’t be Binge’s, she wasn’t even born yet. How would Scythe know any of this? Why show us?”
LIL-E floated in front of me, swiveling around to face me, “He’s just trying to rattle us. None of this can be trusted as real, Longwalk. And... and this can’t be how Arbu began.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because Arbu was full of-” LIE-E began to shout sharply, but halted herself and said, more slowly, “Arbu wasn’t... it didn’t have good ponies in it. Not like... not like what I just saw. They weren’t like that.”
I looked at her with confusion, tilting my head. “LIL-E, what exactly happened in Arbu?”
“I killed... I mean, she killed them. The Lightbringer. Littlepip. It’s complicated Longwalk, okay? She came here thinking the Arbu ponies were just another settlement in need of help, and she found out they were...” LIL-E paused for a long time, as if trying to collect herself. “Cannibals.”
At that word it seemed like the shadows around us got even darker, and I blinked in mute shock at LIL-E. “What? Cannibals? As in... as in they ate other ponies?”
“Yes. That. When Littlepip discovered the truth she slaughtered the settlement. All except the foals. But you know that part, don’t you? You just didn’t know the why.” LIL-E floated away from me, turning to face one of the walls, her robotic chassis sagging in the air. “So that’s why all these images have to be horseshit. Good ponies who want to raise a family don’t turn cannibal.”
My own mind had a hard time processing that as well. When I looked at Heartchime I didn’t see anything resembling a murderous cannibal. I just saw a hopeful, excited young mare eager to start a new life in a safe home where she could raise her foals. How does somepony like that become willing to eat other ponies?
A small voice whispered in the back of my head, however, speaking with plain, hard logic. Your tribe hunts geckos for meat, Longwalk. In a time of famine, would it be such a stretch of the imagination to use another source of meat, if nothing else was available? And what about the spider ponies in Stable 104? They hunted and ate ponies, despite most of them wanting nothing more than to live peaceful lives. It's not so impossible, Longwalk. You’ve seen how it could happen already.
I shook my head, banishing the thoughts. This was probably what Scythe was after, to screw with our heads. “Okay, let’s just assume for the moment that whatever we see, we keep moving forward until we find Binge. Whatever the truth is, saving her is more important than worrying about what’s real here or not. Everypony on board with that?”
“If it gets us out of this Goddess damned shithole faster, then yes.” said LIL-E emphatically.
“Moving fast is good.” said Arcaidia, looking around with suspicious eyes at the encroaching shadows filling the corners of the room. “I feel sick to stomach thinking about cannibals, but finding shivol bir more important than throwing up lunch, yes?”
Just as she finished speaking, she looked at me, eyes popping wide, and her starblaster swung around in her pale blue aura of magic. Instinctively I ducked, Arcaidia firing the starblaster in a silver white-hot flash of alien energy. It streaked past me, though I could tell the bolt hadn’t been aimed at me, but instead in a shadow that had moved behind me. The silver bolt struck the shadow with a sound that pierced my skull with its high, scratching wail. I saw the shadow take the vague shape of a pony, translucent and seemingly made from dark gray shadows. Its shape was so twisted and jagged that it was impossible to tell gender, or facial features. I only saw two shining, star-like pin-pricks of light where eyes should be, and a gaping black maw where the mouth should be, which issued forth a howl that tore at my soul.
Arcaidia’s shot had forced the wraith (a name that popped into my head as fitting in that horrifying moment) back briefly, but it soon howled again and surged forward, flying across the floor in a frightfully swift glide. I backpedaled, Applegate’s training kicking in as I reared up onto my hindlegs and pivoted to avoid the wraith’s charge. Even just passing by me, the wraith’s near presence sent a cold shock through me, frosting my fur.
I slashed with Gramzanber as the wraith passed, and to my horror the ARM just passed through the ethereal thing while meeting no more resistance than cutting air. It still howled, a bit of its shadowy form tearing away from it, but while my strike might have hurt the thing, it seemed more pissed off than injured as it twisted around to come at me again.
LIl-E’s gunfire roared with deafening results in the confined area, her pistol turret tearing bullets through the wraith, albeit to seeming little effect, but it distracted the ethereal shadow just long enough for me to shift my hind hooves around to evade its second charge, swinging my forelegs with Gramzanber hard to cut another small chunk from the thing. It screamed in a manner that ran a icy razor blade down my spine, and vanished into the wall. Any relief I felt was short lived, however, as its voice was joined by a dozen other unearthly wails that seemed to echo from every wall.
“This way! Quick as wind!” Arcaidia shouted, pointing towards a staircase at the back of the room. Needing no further prompting we scrambled in that direction, charging up the wooden stairs. However they were old and burnt, and in seconds I felt my hoof break through one of the steps, nearly dumping me to the floor if Arcaidia’s quick reflexes didn’t allow her to catch me with her magic and haul me the rest of the way up the narrow stairs.
Wailing noises followed us, and I saw stains that looked like blood start to drip down the walls of the staircase as beneath us the doorway to the first floor turned into a black wall of dark, wraith-like faces. Only the swift slamming of the wooden door at the top of the stairs cut off the howls, the door closing once I was through much like the one on the bottom floor had.
Scythe's voice filled the shadowy space we were now in, laughing.
“What, scared a few ghosts? They’re just welcoming you to their home. The spirits of Arbu haven’t had a chance to show anypony hospitality since they were murdered brutally and mercilessly eighteen years ago. One might say they’re a tad... restless. But fear not, I can keep them in check. When I feel like it.”
“Stop fucking around with us!” shouted LIL-E, “Those were illusions. Had to be. You can’t raise the damned spirits of the dead!”
“Damned spirits? Hmm, apt choice of words. One could argue the philosophy of the afterlife forever I suppose, but when one knows the secrets of Necromancy one at least can confirm that something of us persists after leaving the mortal coil.” Scythe’s words dripped with mocking, taunting venom. “I don’t know if these spirits rested in a heavenly afterlife or roasted in a punishing hell. I only know that when I exhumed their bones and cast the right spells, they came to my call... and they are very, very angry. Shall I show you more of why?”
“More visions?” I asked dubiously, attention divided between trying to get my bearings and warily eyeing the door down the stairs. “Is what you’re showing us even real? And why show us?”
Scythe’s voice was chiding as he replied, as if mocking a foal. “They’re real enough to hurt. Binge believes them to be true, and seeing the story unfold, over and over again in her mind, has certain had an... hah, adverse effect on her psyche.” He chuckled in cold mirth, “That’s why I want you to see it as well, so you appreciate in full the painful weight of the scars your friend has inflicted on herself. Assuming of course you survive the continued attentions of Arbu’s former residents. I can only hold back their fury for so long, after all.”
I felt an intense chill coming from the door at the bottom of the stairs, and saw the door slowly frosting over. I wasn’t sure how long we had before the wraiths would be let off the leash again by Scythe to attack us, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.
Gram, I need to know, can you actually take one of those wraiths out? I thought at my ARM, and his voice resonated in my head a second later.
I cannot say for certain. They are ectoplasmic beings whose forms are made up of magical fields bound together by a central will that one might call a ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. I am designed to manipulate and connect to this type of energy, it is how ARMs bond to their wielders and utilize our abilities, but conventional attacks with my edge only carry minor traces of this energy. This means normal strikes will do minimal damage. I suggest using Accelerator or Impulse. Either ability infuses me with more energy, hence a potentially greater effect on these “wraiths”.
“Great...” I muttered.
“Not really.” Arcaidia said, glancing at me incredulously, “I think this may be most not great thing that happen to us in... um, two days? Three?”
“Let’s call it three.” said LIL-E, “That shit underneath Skull City was the pits.”
“That’s not what I meant, but yeah, our ratio of good days versus bad days isn’t nearly as skewed towards good as I’d like.” I said, trotting deeper into the room and putting distance between us and the frosting over door. It looked to me like we were in some sort of processing area. The prison probably sent prisoners through here to be registered, searched, fitted out in prison garb, all before being sent to their cells. I guessed this much just from the look of the long desk filling the center of the room, behind which were a number of bins, perhaps for storing items taken off of prisoners, and the rack of orange jumpsuits, all half burned, that lined the far wall.
“Should be stairs to the roof over there.” said LIL-E, floating forward, “Might be able to hop to the next building from there. Still don’t have a read on Binge’s location, but she might be in the other side of the prison.”
As we moved across the room, heading for those stairs LIL-E pointed out, the silvery glow of gray mist filled the room, just like downstairs. The grayish glow transformed the room once more into something else entirely, a sort of communal bunk room with many mattresses strung out along either wall, and a small dining table set up in the center. A number of ponies sat at that table, among them Heartchime, but now the ghostly mists formed several other ponies, including a young unicorn stallion around Heartchime’s age, perhaps a bit younger, who sat next to her with their tails entwined. However despite the cuddly appearance of the two, both ponies had worried, grave looks that were shared by the other ponies at the table.
“I know it looks bad,” said Heartchime, “But it’s only been a few weeks. We’re not done searching the ruins to the east, and-”
“And we lost Granite out there!” snapped one of the other ponies, a slightly older mare, eyes tear streaked. “Those Raiders blew his brains out not two paces in front of me! I’m not going back east. I’m not.”
“We’re dealing with the Raiders, Apricot.” said the unicorn stallion next to Heartchime, “We can’t let them stick around long enough to work up the nerve to hit Arbu. We’ll get them back for Granite, I promise you.”
“I don’t care about revenge, Nightdust! I... I want my brother back.”
Heartchime’s ears drooped and her face trembled with emotions she was clearly trying to keep in check as she said, “I’m sorry. None of us can fix what happened to Granite, but Apricot you know that the exact same thing could have happened if we’d been still wandering. I know this is hard. There’s not as much food as we hoped there’d be to scavenge, and the soil no more clean for growing food. There’s water nearby in the river but it's as poisonous as anywhere else. But there’s cover and shelter here, good salvage in the ruins, and by the Goddesses if we can just get some regular merchants coming through here we can trade for the food and water we need. It's hard, and we’ll take hits... but I believe Arbu is worth fighting for. We can make this work.”
There was silence for a few seconds, then another stallion piped up. “I’m all for digging our hooves in, but the Raiders are still a major problem. With them around we’ll have trouble getting merchants to come in from New Appleoosa or Friendship City. Then we’ve got other problems. Deep Pockets and me checked out the bridge to the south, and its occupied. I don’t know who they are, but they’ve got big, scary ass armor and weapons and didn’t look very friendly. They’ve got some kind of bunker built into that bridge, so I wouldn’t count on crossing using that. Then there’s rumors of the slavers up in Fillydelphia.”
“That’s miles away Two Bit. The slavers wouldn’t come this far out.” said Heartchime.
“We didn’t think we’d have Raiders this far from the city’s downtown area, but here we are.” Two Bit shot back, and Heartchime looked ready to retort, but a foal’s cries cut through the conversation.
“Whoops, sounds like our little colt’s awake again.” said Heartchime, starting to rise, but Nightdust put a gentle hoof on her shoulder.
“Let me dear, you finish up the meeting.” He gave her a quick kiss, “I know we can do this. I for one am in all the way, to whatever end.”
As the stallion trotted away from the table the silvery mist of images started to swirl away and Scythe’s voice cut through the dark, biting and amused. “This isn’t an uncommon story. I’ve seen it play out many times among these budding settlements. Hope, at first. Then the difficulties begin. Deaths occur, supplies dwindle, and with it that hope starts to transmute and twist, becoming rotten, decaying...”
“Shut it,” I said sharply, closing my eyes as I felt the sting of his words. I wasn’t stupid. I could already see where the story of these ponies was leading. I could well imagine how things would progress, with the trials and pains of the Wasteland pushing the ponies of Arbu further and further towards unsettling ends. I still couldn’t imagine how bad it must have gotten for them to resort to cannibalism, but I didn’t doubt Scythe would delight in showing us the gory details, soon enough. The thought made me sick, which translated into an acidic tone in my voice. “So what if things went bad here? So what if things go bad anywhere!? Just because hope is fragile, that doesn’t make it wrong to have!”
“Even if believing in it so completely is exactly why, when it fails, supposedly ‘good’ ponies turn into monsters?” asked Scythe with a pointed and condescending tone. “The ponies of Arbu weren’t the only ones. Even the NCR’s vaunted hero, the ‘Lightbringer’, believed so much in righteousness that the moment her fragile beliefs met with ugly reality she turned into a monster as well. Ah, and speaking of monsters, you might want to start running.”
I felt the chill at our backs even before Scythe was done speaking, and I looked to Arcaidia and LIl-E only long enough to shouted, “Move it!” and we all got to running.
Not a moment too soon either, as the stairwell all but boiled over with the writhing mass of shifting darkness that was literally dozens of wraiths. Their combined voices formed a freezing wail that scraped along my eardrums like icepicks, making it all the easier to gallop towards the stairwell as fast as I could. However I heard a yelp behind me and turned to see Arcaidia stumbling in her stride, her metal peg leg slipping on the charred floor. She wasn’t used to moving so fast with the artificial leg, and it wasn’t built for this kind of galloping in the first place. The wraiths surged forward, sensing Arcaidia’s weakness.
I didn’t hesitate to activate the power, letting the world shift to stark indigo clarity. My heightened perception of the world gave me a horrifying view of the mass of wraiths, allowing me to see the deformed and twisted cast of their shadowed faces. They looked like they were in pain. Each phantom of shadow had features I could barely make out, but each one had a look of both rage and anguish twisting what little of their visage I could see. The sight tore at me, as I pitied these poor lost spirits. Yet I couldn't spare much thought for them, as I took full advantage of Accelerator’s speed boost to turn around and cross the distance to Arcaidia in a cobalt flash of adrenaline.
I could see the fear and frustration etched in equal portions on Arcaidia’s face. She was still in mid-stumble when I reached her, trying to get her hooves properly under her as the jointed metal peg leg struggled to right itself. The wraiths were nearly on top of us, their mouths opened wide, screaming desire for blood, hooves like stretching, tarred claws reaching for us. I grabbed Arcaidia around the waist, careful to avoid hitting her with Gramzanber as I shoved her onto my back and awkwardly started to do a three-legged hobble towards the stairs, still using one fore leg to hold Arcaidia in place on my back so she wouldn’t slip. Under normal circumstances this would’ve been a slow way to try and move, but with Accelerator we managed to outpace the wraiths by a tail’s breadth. LIL-E had waited for us at the stairs, having shot open the door and pushed it open with her chassis.
All three of us hit the stairs running, or in LIL-E’s case floating. There was little elegance to my speedy scramble up the uneven stairs, tripping every third or fourth step. I didn’t dare end Accelerator. I knew I needed every ounce of speed I could squeeze from myself to stay ahead of the swirling pile of wraiths that I knew was still chasing us by the way ice frosted over the stairwell walls.
The door at the top of the stairs was a dark, charcoal mass that we easily smashed through in a cloud of ash, leading us up to the cold and frigid air of the roof. The mist still clung thickly around Arbu and I could barely make out anything around me, but I could still see a small armored catwalk on one side of the roof that, at least in theory, spanned the gap between the two long buildings of the former prison. Feeling Arcaidia tap my head, I glanced back to see her, in Accelerator’s slow motion, casting a beam of ice from her horn that covered the doorway we’d just come from. I had no idea if that would even slow the wraiths down, but since it was magical ice maybe it would work better than a mundane barrier?
I didn’t stop to think on it too much, ending Accelerator so I wouldn’t outright kill myself. The backlash ran through me in a hot sting that, while painful, actually helped push back the hold a little.
“Across the bridge!” LIL-E said, “Should be another stair access over there.”
“I-I can run, ren solva, no need to carry me.” Arcaidia said, voice tight with frustration as she hopped off my back and started to gallop, face cast in a hard and determined mask. I followed her just as the wraith’s wailing reached the iced up doorway, and I chanced a glance back to see the shadow draped figures seeping out of the sides of the stairwell and even through the floor of the roof, scrapping with hooves like corpses rising from their graves.
“Shitshitshit!” I sputtered, rushing behind Arcaidia and LIL-E as we hit the catwalk spanning the street between the two buildings, our hooves banging loudly on the grated metal. I saw movement beneath us and nearly screamed as I saw a flock of wraiths reaching up from below the catwalk, their dark limbs passing through the grating under our hooves. Arcaidia and I both awkwardly jumped about and side-stepped the grasping phantom hooves. Arcaidia snarled and fired her starblaster down into the mass if wailing ghosts, the silver beams painfully bright and driving the wraiths back like fish scattering from a rock tossed into a pond.
Once we were across I turned to see the wraiths that had chased us up to the roof were crossing over the catwalk. I wasn’t at all certain about how these things moved around, and if they could truly fly or not, but it looked like these ones were using the catwalk. That being the case I didn’t hesitate to swing Gramzanber around, severing neatly through the metal catwalk and causing it to bend downward with a metallic whine. The wraiths wailed as they tumbled off the catwalk, though I noticed they didn’t so much fall as just lightly float down before starting to hover and slowly rise, as if they’d only temporarily forgotten they weren’t living ponies who had to obey the laws of gravity.
As I turned to join the others in running across this roof towards a shed with a door in it, presumably stairs, the mist swirled in thickly around us, obscuring our view, and Scythe’s voice penetrated the air smugly.
“You’re good at running, at least. So were the ponies of Arbu, if only running from the truth of their situation.”
The mist parted around us to show that we were turned around, now facing the front courtyard of Arbu from atop the roof. The wraiths were nowhere to be seen, but I didn’t doubt for a second they were out there, only be held in check by Scythe as he shows us more of Arbu’s history.
I saw a group of ponies gathered in the courtyard near the front gate, the mists casting all in gray tones. The courtyard looked not like a burned out prison yard and now like a busy outdoor gathering spot and eating area, with several wooden tables set up on one side, and an open space where a pony with a big wagon was set up. Other ponies were gathered around this mare, an earth pony by the look of her who stood by her wagon looking tired, even scared. I saw Heartchime among those greeting this pony.
“Welcome to Arbu!” Heartchime said, “You’re our first merchant to come out here, so let us make you feel right at home, miss...?”
“Call me Chancy,” said the merchant mare, gulping, eyes shifting around nervously. She wore thick leather barding and carried several pistols strapped to her sides. “Look, I just made this run because I lost at drawing straws. Nopony from Friendship City wants to risk coming out here, but we heard you might have a regular source of food for trade.”
“Well, we discovered the river nearby has a population of gators in it, and we’ve experimented with hunting them for the meat.” explained Heartchime, looking embarrassed, “Thing is, the stuff is pretty heavy on the radiation. You can still eat it in small amounts-”
“Look, do you guys got anything useful to trade or don’t you?” Chancy said with a rough tone, voice shaking. “My tail nearly got shot off by Raiders on the way in, so you’d better have something to make this worth my while or you can forget getting any more of us out here.”
“No! I mean, yes, we have other things...” said Heartchime, gesturing towards the tables, “Let’s sit down and have a look at what we can do.”
As the two ponies headed for the tables the mists swirled and shifted, painting a fresh image of the Arbu ponies all gathered, looking worried and angry. Hooves were being pointed. Heartchime was not among the group, but Nightdust was, and he looked like a stallion in agony, face bent low as if he’d been crying.
“Two of us dead and Heartchime captured. I knew trying to take down the Raiders was a stupid idea!” spat the mare I recognized as Apricot, “Even if we cleared the roads, the merchants won't come! This is the end. We have to abandon Arbu.”
“What about my daughter!?” shouted the old stallion I recognized as Heartchime’s father. “We can’t just leave her in their filthy hooves! Nightdust, aren’t you going to do something, damn you!”
Nightdust looked up, eyes haunted and sunken, shaking. “I... I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Just then there was a shout from the gates. “Wait, somepony is coming this way! Shit! It’s Heartchime! Get the gates open!”
As the gates swung open I saw the smokey, ghostly image of Heartchime entering Arbu’s town courtyard. She looked like two shades of death rolled over by hell, covered in wounds, dirt, and blood. She carried a knife in her mouth, which she spat out as soon as she saw Nightdust and slowly started to trot over to him. Nightdust, along with all the other ponies, looked stunned, until Heartchime’s father broke the spell by galloping forward to put gentle hooves around his daughter.
“Thank the Goddesses, girl, you’re alright. What happened? We thought the Raiders caught you after our botched attack.”
“They did take me...” Heartchime said in a quiet, dull tone. “Took me and... did whatever they wanted to me. But, heh... heheh, they eventually let their guard down. Got two of them with the knife, then ran for it. They’re... probably going to come back, try and finish the job. Finish Arbu.”
Horrified looks crossed many of the gathered ponies faces, most of all Heartchime’s father and Nightdust, the later of whom rushed forward to carefully nuzzle the obviously traumatized mare. “Oh hun, I’m... so sorry. I should have fought harder. I shouldn’t have let them take you.”
“It’s not over.” Heartchime said, taking a deep breath, “They’re going to come again. Its us or them.” Anger, hot and blazing, entered her tone. “I’m going to make damn sure it's them.”
The scene shifted once more, the fog billowing around as if being directed by stiff breezes. I heard gunfire now, and glanced around to see the ghostly images had now taken form on the roof beside us. I saw Heartchime and Nightdust, along with several others, all wielding rifles as they took aim from the roof to fire down upon scrambling forms in the courtyard below. I saw the gate broken down and several dead ponies, both Arbu settlers and Raiders alike, scattered about.
“Don’t let them near the foals!” Heartchime roared, taking careful aim with her rifle and firing a shot that sent one Raider sprawling with brain matter splattering the ground. “We stop them here and now! Keep firing!”
Arbu ponies, both on the roofs, and behind makeshift barricades around the base of the buildings, held strong and fired into the Raiders rushing through the broken gate. The cacophony of gunfire was so intense it felt like one long wave of noise for a minute, but eventually the Raiders broke and started to flee, firing back as the few survivors rushed just as fast to retreat as they did to charge.
Nightdust let out a whoop, grinning at Heartchime. “We did it! I don’t believe it! We really beat th-”
A bullet, fired by the last retreating Raider at complete random, tore through the back of his throat in a gout of blood that, amid the gray mist making up this ghostly memory looked more like a puff of smoke than blood. Yet all the same Nightdust’s eyes went wide with shock for a second, then rolled up into the back of his head, glazed with emptiness of death before Heartchime even managed to reach his falling corpse.
“N-Night! Goddesses, no, Nightdust!” Heartchime reached him, tossing her rifle aside and cradling his body, shaking him. “Nonono, you... you, fuck...” she tried to stop the blood stemming from his neck, giving me an uncomfortable flashback to my own futile attempts to do the same when Shale had been bleeding out in front of me. Heartchime’s efforts slowly stopped as she stared at her dead mate’s eyes, and she just... I saw her collapse in on herself. Not physically, though she did curl over his body and start sobbing, but rather what I saw was the light flashing out inside her eyes, turning dark and heavy with pain.
The wail Heartchime let out over the corpse of her mate was a twin to those of the wraiths.
With a gust of wind the mists faded away from the scene, leaving us still shrouded in fog, but with the memories of Arbu for the moment now silent. Scythe’s voice didn’t mockingly accompany the following moments, and I wondered if this was because even he was giving us a second to absorb this. More likely he was just focusing on preparing the wraiths for their next attack, while letting us get unsettled by the sudden silence. Struck me as more his style. Either way, I was glad for the moment to think, though my thoughts mostly consisted of one word.
Arcaidia gave me a sidelong look, lips drawn down in a deep frown, but after a moment she breathed out a sighing whinny of agreement. “Is sad, but not make being cannibals have any more head sense. Still disgusting.” She hung her head, silver tail drooping, “But also I feel grieving for them. None should face pains like this. Is bad world, not bad ponies.”
“It's never that simple Arcaidia.” said LIL-E, tone stiff, even for her. “I get that the ponies of Arbu might’ve gone through a lot, but they still own their choices. They could have left, if things were getting too hard for them here.”
I shook my head, “Like you said LIL-E, never that simple, for either argument. But we’re just giving Scythe time to prepare his next nasty surprise for us. Let’s get to those stairs. Binge might be in this building.”
“He’s leading us around by the snouts.” said LIL-E, “Pisses me right the fuck off.”
“Hold,” said Arcaidia, eyeing us, her horn alighting with a halo of blue magic, “Should have thought to do magic thing earlier, to protect better from wraiths.”
Her magic flared, the symbols of the magical crest forming in a bright series of blue lines encircling her horn. Then the magic streamed over all three of us, encasing our bodies in a tight, form fitting magical shield.
“Huh,” I waved my hoof around, looking at the pale, near invisible barrier of energy. “This stuff works well for bullets, but will it work on those wraiths as well?”
Arcaidia nodded, “Should work. A little. Not stop them entirely, but maybe slow them. Best I can do.”
Despite the grim circumstances I managed to give Arcaidia a brief, but sincere smile. “I’ll take your best any day of the week. Now let’s move it, before Scythe decides to send the spook squad flying up our tailpipes again.”
The top floor of the second building was one wide cell block, with the darkness stretching out ahead of us in a long corridor. Barred cells lined either side of the wall, the bars slick and melted in places from the blaze that had consumed this place years ago. The air hung heavy with motes of ash, and I could almost still catch the scent of burned flesh, even though my brain pony bopped me over the head with the logical conclusion that there’s no way any lingering scent from the victims of the fire could still be present.
We trotted forward with our nerves stretched tight. Arcaidia kept her horn alight, bathing all in pale blue radiance, while I shone my Pip-Buck light into every empty cell we passed. I didn’t know what Scythe was cooking up, but I didn’t want to be caught unprepared when he decided to hit us with it. So far he made it a point to send the wraiths after us between each scene from Arbu’s history, so he had to have something prepared for us before we go too much further.
“Hey LIL-E, I don’t suppose you can figure out a way to detect where Scythe is with those fancy scanners of yours?” I asked, if only to break up the growingly heavy silence.
“I’ve been working on that since the second we got here.” the eyebot replied quickly, her from turning this way and that, her chassis making small whirring and buzzing noises. “I’m having a hard time believing how much magic this asshole must have to hit this entire area with illusions this thickly interlaced together. Its got to be his special talent or something, because this is alicorn-tier bullshit magic levels. Anyway, yeah, I’m trying to calibrate my scanners to cut through all the ambient magic to pinpoint where anypony real might be, Scythe or Binge. It's just not easy, even for a robot with a processor capable of millions of calculations a second. So, short answer; I’m working on it, but no ETA on when I’ll have something useful.”
We continued on, and it wasn’t until about five minutes passed before I stopped and said, “Wait... this isn’t right. We should have seen a turn, or a door by now, or something. This building can’t be this long, can it?”
Arcaidia paused, frowning as she looked at her Pip-Buck, “Map function not working. Showing only static.”
LIL-E halted as well, making a frustrated growl. “He’s got us trapped.”
Her words were punctuated by the return of the deep, dark cold as the floor both in front and behind us started to freeze over. The shadows gaping to either side of us started to shift, and the chilling wail of the wraiths returned. They were surrounding us, coming down both ends of the corridor while also slowly rising from the burned debris within the cells. Arcaidia and I went back to back instantly, while LIL-E floated above us.
“Arcaidia, LIL-E, we’re going down!” I shouted, following my gut instincts on this one and rearing up on my hind legs, grasping Gramzanber in my forelegs. As Arcaidia glanced back at my questioningly, I plunged Gramzanber into the floor and started to carve a circle around us. Arcaidia’s eyes popped wide.
“W-wait, ren solva! I not sure that such a non-toaster headed id-”
Before she finished I managed to get the circle around us carved, and the floor beneath us collapsed, dropping us down in a pile of dust and broken bits of wood and concrete. It wasn’t a long drop, landing us in a disorganized pile on the floor below. I rolled to my hooves, putting Gramzanber back in my mouth as I hauled an irate looking Arcaidia up as well. LIL-E floated above us.
“Guess that’s faster than stairs.” said the eyebot as we rushed away from the hole I’d carved, the wailing of the wraiths trailing behind us. We were now in what looked like another cell block, but this one was more shaped like a cross, with a T-section right where we’d dropped, and several hallways spanning in either direction. I just chose the one that had a visible door and barreled for it.
I didn’t slow down, smashing into the door with my shoulder with enough force to knock the already deteriorated thing off its hinges. As we emerged into the new room, we heard Scythe laugh... albeit with a bit of annoyed strain underneath the mocking tone.
“Now that was just cheating, Longwalk. I haven’t gone through the trouble of setting all this up just for you to bypass all the fun. Hmm, but I do suppose this is becoming a bit tedious for us both.”
“Then stop playing this damn game and show us where Binge is!” I shouted, my own patience running well past dry.
“Soon enough.” Scythe said, “You’re closer to her than you think, but there’s still a few twists and turns to go before I’ll allow you the privilege of seeing her.”
With that the room we were in was revealed in a silvery glow of gray mist that floated up around us in a torrent. The faded, fog-like memories of Arbu given illusionary life in front of us showed a scene in what looked to be a living area, similar to what we saw in the first memory. The room itself was empty, but the windows along the far wall showed the front courtyard, and from there I heard the shouts of an intense argument.
My friends and I cautiously approached the windows, and the door set open between them. Exiting out into the courtyard we saw what I guessed had to be most of Arbu gathered in a large group around one of the several tables set up as a communal eating area. The town’s damage had been clearly repaired, and the bodies of the Raiders long since cleared out. In fact I could guess some time had passed since Nightdust’s death, because I saw Heartchime standing atop the table and she was showing signs of pregnancy once more. There were a number of foals, many of them looking fairly recently born, among the crowd. Many of them were bundled up on their mother’s backs, or held close in the crooks of one foreleg. Heartchime’s own young colt was clinging to her back as she addressed the crowd, and its many angry faces.
“I know there’s no food left. We’ve rationed all we can.” Heartchime looked back at her son, who I couldn’t help but notice was rail thin, his ribcage showing through his hide. The foal gulped and hugged his mother tightly as she nuzzled him. She then looked back to the crowd, “But if we leave Arbu, not only are we risking the lives of every single one of our foals on a journey many may well die trying to make, but we’d be spitting on the memory of everypony that’s died so far to make this home a reality.”
“But there’s nothing left to eat!” exclaimed one mare, desperation thick in her voice. “We’re running out of water too!”
“We’ve got even more Raiders moving in to take over from the last bunch we fought off, so there’s no merchants coming either!” shouted another pony. “What do you expect us to do Heartchime? We’ve got no choice but to leave!”
From the crowd stepped Heartchime’s father, looking older and more tired. “They’re right, hun. There’s nothing more we can do but pack up and try the road again.”
Ponies shouted agreement, all looking worn out with flagging tails, hung heads, and defeated, hopeless eyes. I saw the same desperation shining in Heartchime, a deadly, dark twin to the hope that I’d first seen in them. With a fierce look she said with heavy firmness, “There’s a way. A way for all of us and our foals to have full bellies, and give the merchants a safe passage here, and goods to trade for more water.”
She hopped down from the table, ponies clearing the way for her as they all looked at her with mixtures of curiosity and unease. She trotted towards where several rifles lay propped up against one of the other tables. The tension in the air increased as she took the weapon up and started loading it. Her father looked at her with the most worry of all.
“Heartchime... daughter? What are you doing?”
She looked back at him, eyes like sharp flint. “I’m going to hunt, dad. I’m going to get us food.”
“Hunt what? There’s nothing around here but those gators, and they’re too radioactive to eat.”
Heartchime’s expression faltered for a moment, the sharp look momentarily showing all of the raw fear, doubt, and desperate need for hope bubbling underneath the surface. “The Raiders. I’m going to hunt the Raiders.”
For a moment, stunned silence. Then voices exploding into shouts and cries, some of shock, others of dismay or horror, certainly none in approval. Amid the shouting, however, it was as if the sound dropped away so I could only hear Heartchime and her father.
“Heart... what are you saying? You can’t mean that. You’re talking, seriously talking, about... eating our own kind?” the old stallion looked disgusted and in complete disbelief. In response Heartchime reached back and hugged her confused looking little colt tightly, while strapping the rifle to her back.
“Yes, dad, that’s what I mean. Its meat. Its food.”
“They’re ponies, girl! Other ponies!”
“The Raiders are barely ponies.” muttered Heartchime, eyes regaining their fierce, dark light. “You know what they do. None of us, not you, or me, or anypony else where would think twice about killing a Raider. So once they’re dead, why let that meat go to waste? It's as nourishing as anything else we could eat out here, and more to the point...”
She brushed past her father and approached the rest of Arbu’s settlers, eyeing them all with her head held high and challenging. “Our only other choice is to run away. Run away from all the work we’ve done here! Flee into the Wasteland, leaving our lives to chance on the unforgiving roads!”
She turned a hard gaze towards one mare. “Apricot, you just learned you and Whiteout are going to have a foal, right?”
“So what do you think will be safer? Traveling miles over Raider and slaver infested territory hoping we might find a place in Friendship City? What if the Fillydelphia slaves got to us first? Do you want to bring your foal into the world with a slave collar ready and waiting for them!?”
Apricot gulped, glancing uncertainly at a stallion at her side, who also looked worried, and held her close. Heartchime then turned to another pair, two ponies who already had two young foals with them, both looking as thin and hungry as Heartchime’s colt did.
“What about you, Smokescreen, Lilypad? Do you think your daughters will survive the road? Between us and Friendship city are Raiders, slavers, and monsters. If we head north the slavers get even thicker, and to the south there’s nothing but dead Wasteland. East, even more Raiders in the Manehattan ruins. West? Want to try your luck in Hellhound territory? How far before one of you dies?”
“Look, Heartchime,” said another stallion, one I recognized as Two Bit, “We hear what you’re saying, but... but to resort to cannibalism? That’s a leap I don’t think any of us signed up for when we decided to settle here.”
“Neither was watching my husband die in front of me!” shouted Heartchime. “I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m not watching somepony else I love die. Not my son...” she rubbed her stomach, eyes closed, watering. “Not the foal growing in me. I’m going to make a safe home for them. A place they can grow up full, happy, and warm. If I have to break a damn taboo to do that, so be it.”
Suddenly Apricot stepped forward, approaching Heartchime, looking scared, but also more determined as she reached out and put a comforting fore leg around the other mare. “Heartchime I... I understand. I lost my brother. I don’t want to lose anypony else I care about, and I care about everypony here. We’re all family.”
Apricot licked her lips, doubt creeping over her face, but also a sense of purpose as she stood beside Heartchime and addressed the crowd. “I know what Heartchime is saying sounds crazy to some of us. But she’s right. The Wasteland is too dangerous for us to travel. Not when all we have to do to feed ourselves and our foals is to kill a few monstrous Raiders and use them the way they’d use us!”
There were still numerous looks of mixed shock, disbelief, and outright disgust among the other gathered ponies, but I could see in their eyes that Heartchime and Apricots words were starting to sink in. Several ponies found themselves nodding, only to look confused and ashamed as the did so. One such pony stepped forward, one of the younger stallions, perhaps not much older than myself.
“Are you really sure there’s no other way we can feed ourselves? S-somepony could take the chance of traveling to the other settlements, trading what salvage we can to bring back food from elsewhere.”
Apricot glanced at Heartchime, who sighed deeply and went over to the young stallion, putting a kind hoof on his shoulder. “I don’t doubt you’d volunteer, as would others. And if some of you honestly want to try, I won’t say you can’t. It's not like I have that right. I’m no more in charge here than anypony. But the risk of trying to make our own trade route is high. If you didn’t make it through, we’d be left waiting for food that might never come.”
She stepped back, steel back in her eyes, “But the Raiders are food, sitting there and waiting. We know now that we’re stronger than they are, and can hunt them like they’ve hunted us. They’re not ponies, but animals, and I say we treat them like animals. That way, nopony in Arbu will go hungry again.”
“Never hungry again!” Apricot shouted, stomping a hoof to the ground, and very slowly other ponies joined in, until at least half of the town’s population had taken up the cry. Others still looked hesitant, a few still downright horrified, but the resistance to the idea had lessened significantly. As Heartchime gazed upon her fellow Arbu settlers I could still see that dark, desperate spark in her eyes where hope had been, now shining stronger in a way that was uncomfortably familiar yet disturbingly wrong.
And in the background, behind Heartchime, I saw her father, and the way his face contorted with both deep, wounded sadness and wide eyed rage.
It was then I noted the chanting cries of, “Never hungry again!” had also started to change and control. The voices of the ponies went from a desperate but normal sounding shout to a warbling, twisted chant. The voices then grew hollow and colder, intermixing and stretching out until each voice was a blood freezing wail.
The pony images contorted with their voices, each one slowly warping in disturbing flickers of movement into deep, shifting shadows. Within moments the misty images of memory were overtaken by the writhing reality of hungry, maddened wraiths that now advanced towards me and my friends.
Arcaidia spat out a curse, “Sivrial mas! I have enough of screeching dead ponies! Not what I traveled stars to deal with! Back! Back not living dumb ponies with heads of the worst toasters!”
Arcaidia punctuated her statement with a round of rapidly fired beams from her starblaster, combined with a swiftly cast spell that brought forth an entire conical burst of white and blue ice shards that spread from the tip of her horn to engulf the front ranks of the wraiths. The starblaster and spell only slowed the wraiths down a moment, but a moment was all we needed. Soon Arcaidia, LIL-E, and I turned around and rushed back towards the building we’d come from. It was the closest, and the door was still open, so it made the most sense to head for it. The wraiths let out piercing howls behind us, mingling into a black mass that tore after us in a churning wave of gaping maws and desperate glowing eyes.
Once we rushed back into the building I noticed there was a stairwell to the left leading up, but also a open door to stairs leading down, with a hallway in the middle.
“Up, down, or straight!?” I shouted.
“Down.” said LIL-E.
“Down!? Are you crazy!?” I balked at her.
“Why did you list it then!?” she shot back.
“I didn’t think you’d choose it!”
“Less yell more run!” Arcaidia yelled, taking the lead for the door leading down. With the wraiths right on our tails there wasn’t any choice but to follow her. We hit the stairs at a dead gallop and descended down their darkened steps without slowing down.
The stairs didn’t go down far, and we crashed right through the door at the bottom. I spun around to slam it closed, only to have a wraith right in my face, its screaming visage inches from my snouth.
“GAH!” I screamed, in my customary masculine warcry, completely free of pissing myself, and slashed with Gramzanber even as the wraith’s icy claws raked my chest.
Agonizing cold tore through me, making the breath in my lungs feel as if it was freezing up. I gasped, barely able to get air past my chattering teeth as I stumbled back. Gramzanber had cut a small chunk of shadow from the wraith, which flew off to the side while more of its brethren rushed into the room from the stairs, only to be met with a beam of ice magic tearing across the door, quickly sealing it off.
Still, several wraiths had gotten through and even as I stumbled back and tried to get my bearings I soon found myself surrounded. Once wraith flickered by my side, striking at my neck as if trying to wrap its claw around my throat. The claw glanced off a sparkling shimmer of Arcaidia’s shield spell, but I still felt the chill on my hide. The previous wraith must have gotten a particularly good shot in before, to hurt that much, but at least the shield was still active.
Arcaidia had thrown over a table of some kind with a rattle of old plates and silverware and threw it with her magic at another wraith. The table didn’t do much, but it seemed to make the wraith reflexively shift to avoid the hurled object, setting it up for a perfect shot from Arcaidia’s starblaster that caught it square in the face. That seemed to hurt it, making it howl as its head was blown into bits of twisted shadow, and the wraith fell through the floor. I didn’t think it was destroyed, but it at least was gone for the moment.
LIL-E fired a few rounds from her pistol turret, but soon gave up in a frustrated string of colorfully descriptive phrases concerning alicorns and their anal capacity for various objects. Unfortunately the eyebot was just not equipped for fighting pissed off ghosts. The problem was, neither were Arcaidia or myself. Our weapons could hurt the wraiths a little, but this was like trying to fight air. Angry air that could tear into your soul with a touch.
Slowly we all backed up, Arcaidia firing with calm, precise shots of her starblaster while I slashed at any wraith that got close. However it was clear we were in deep trouble. The ice Arcaidia had used on the stairs had slowed the other wraiths down for a minute, but I saw them slipping in through the walls and ceiling beyond the threshold of the stairs. Soon we were faced with an entire room full of wailing wraiths, and our backs hit the wall. We were in some sort of storage basement, I thought, but I couldn’t make out any details beyond that.
“Any bright ideas guys?” I asked, gulping, “Because hate to say it, I’m sort of fresh out.”
Arcaidia’s silver tail flicked behind her, magic flaring from her horn, “Go down fighting.”
“Was kind of hoping for a less death oriented plan.” I said with a labored sigh. If worst came to worst, I’d activate Accelerator again, and keep it active until there weren’t any wraiths left standing. I didn’t doubt the backlash would kill me, however. That said, it didn’t look as if there was much choice except to try it, and hope for the best.
“Arcaidia, be reading with the healing when this is over, because I might just keel over dead without it.” I said, and mentally prepared to activate Accelerator. Arcaidia seemed to realize what I was about to do, and I also saw the light of an idea spring into her mind, her silver eyes flashing wide and bright as she put a hoof on my shoulder.
“Wait, ren solva! I has idea!”
“Huh?” I glanced at her, only to see her horn start to flare with one, then two additional layers of glowing blue magic. Along with it several layers of complex Crest script flowed in multiple circles around her horn. She then gestured at Gramzanber.
“Quick, touch ARM to my horn!” she said, the wraiths just a few steps away.
Not hesitating, trusting my friend wasn’t crazy, I rose to my bipedal stance and tipped Gramzanber towards Arcaidia. She touched her horn to the ARM’s silver edge. Suddenly the arm glowed bright blue, becoming wreathed in warm, pleasant flame-like waves of indigo magic that felt quite familiar. The wraiths instantly recoiled from the light, hissing in one large mass, sounding like a gigantic snake.
“Wait, is this... healing magic?” I asked, dumbfounded as I looked at Gramzanber.
Arcaidia grinned fiercely, teeth flashing in the darkness, and she nodded. “I fuse healing spell with ARM resonance. Healing magic not mix with dead things. Old story sister Persephone tell me. Go, ren solva!” She pointed with her hoof dramatically, “Heal undead to death!”
Letting out a surprised laugh, I decided to give it a shot and advanced towards the wraiths, swinging Gramzanber in a wide arc. Most of them backed away, seeming to want nothing to do with my newly empowered ARM. One got a bit cocky, however, and after a hideous screech flew right at me. With a calm breath I followed my lessons with Applegate and pivoted, side stepping its lunge, and cleaved down hard with Gramzanber. The glowing ARM tore through the wraith as if it were made from solid matter, like cutting into soft flesh. The flaming blue aura around the blade tore through the wraith’s shadowy matter and it made an unholy piercing shriek as its form dissipated into motes of darkness.
I turned to the other wraiths, pointing with Gramzanber, “Next?”
The wraiths continued to fall back, until one by one they slipped through the walls or ceiling, still wailing, but clearly not wanting any part of a fair fight. After a minute the room was silent, lit only by our Pip-Buck lights and Arcaidia’s magic. Grinning from ear to ear I went back to all fours, Gramzanber comfortably in my mouth, and trotted back to Arcaidia and LIL-E.
“Okay, Arcaidia, I’m just gonna say this; you are an absolute genius! C’mon, bring it in for a hug!”
Arcaidia, blushing slightly, coughed and held out a hoof. “Hugs another time.” She showed me a smile that, after tangling with wraiths, did wonders to warm me. “Was good idea, yes? Not sure it work, but know principles of fusing Crest Sorcery with ARM.”
“That’s something you could have always done?” LIL-E asked incredulously. Arcaidia shifted nervously, shaking her head.
“No. Such... ah... Tivoro esru dol yirae vimarro... not knowing right translation. Combination... Arts? Such things done by rare Crest Sorcerers and ARM warrior with good, hmm... connection? Trust? Yes, much trust. Not work if not trust.”
I believe that Specialist Arcaidia is describing the bond an ARM can create with a wielders comrades. said Gramzanber in my head. When she used her Crest spell upon me, I was able to use the bond between us to draw in the spell and interlaced it with my energy matrix. Note, Longwalk, that the effect is not permanent and shall dissipate soon. I suggest haste in our search for the missing Binge.
“Right,” I said, looking at Arcaidia, “That’s still awesome. Gram tells me its not long lasting, but if more wraiths show up you can pull that trick again?”
Arcaidia wiped some sweat from her brow, and rummaged into her saddlebag, removing a vial of blue mana restoring liquid. After taking a long quaff, she wiped her mouth and said, “Now, yes. Very tiring. Not something to do often, yes?”
“I’m shocked that actually worked.” said LIL-E, drooping down slightly, “Be nice if you could pull that trick off with me. Getting real tired of not being able to shoot this screechy bastards.”
I hoof bumped her chassis, “Hey, you’re still helping out. Your scanners are our only real shot at finding Binge, or spotting that Scythe asshole. Uh, how’s that coming by the way? Picking anything up yet?”
The eyebot was silent for a second before replying, “Now that you mention it, I am getting a weak reading from somewhere nearby. Might be Binge. Might be a radroach. Given there hasn’t been a living thing here besides us, I’m guessing Binge is more likely.”
“Where? Can you give us a direction?” I asked, turning about, trying to get a better feel for the room we were in. It was a remarkably bare basement area, with plain concrete walls, floor, and a wood ceiling. The scorch marks of the long ago fire that burned down the prison had charred a lot of the ceiling, but the walls were mostly just blackened in a few spots. There was a door opposite to where the stairs were, a big and heavy looking metal door with a long handle.
LIL-E had turned towards that door, here voice getting a uneasy sounding hesitance to it. “Through there, not far ahead. Its... weird. Being down here. Its different than before.”
“Before what?” I asked.
“My memories from Littlepip. A lot of renovation went on down here since she... well, this is the area where she discovered the truth behind Arbu. Found their... pantry, I guess you’d call it. Everything went to hell from there. Weird thing is, I don’t remember that door. I don’t know if that was added after this place become a prison, or if it’s always been there. I have no clue where it leads. That’s actually got me a little freaked out.”
I couldn't help myself, laughing a tad hysterically, “What, the hungry souls of the tortured dead trying to kill us weren’t enough to do it, but a door is?”
“It’s a spooky door.” LIL-E said after a moment’s pause.
“Indeed it is a door of spooks.” Arcaidia confirmed.
I took a deep breath, facing the door. “And Binge is behind it. Alive. And Scythe has basically led us straight here.”
My fear facing the wraiths was nothing compared to the creeping terror that welled up in me as I looked at that door. In moments I’d find Binge. In whatever state Scythe had left her in. No doubt the bastard had some final horror to hit us with. He wasn’t letting us go without trying to pull something. Stepping through that door was the only option, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to turn around now. One way or another, however this went down, I was taking Binge away from this place. With that thought in my head I opened the door, its hinges groaning loudly in the dark, and stepped through with LIL-E and Arcaidia right behind me.
Beyond the door was a concrete hallway, which soon opened up into a wider space, perhaps ten paces across and three times that long. Small metal benches ran up and down the room in two rows, leading towards a raised portion at the far end with a few carved steps going up to a pew. I’d seen this kind of setup before, and felt an eerie sense of familiarity as I saw the statue behind the pew, set up in a simply carved fresco. The statue was of a combined sun and moon, encircled by twin alicorn figures. The sun and moon iconography was repeated in small carvings in the walls to either side.
“Its a chapel.” LIL-E said in a low, barely audible tone.
The reason for her keeping quiet was because the room, the chapel, wasn’t empty. Scythe sat in the middle of the room, in a awkward position with his hind legs crossed underneath him and his forelegs locked together before him in an odd arcane gesture. His horn was lit up with flows of gold and black magical energy, which extended to the circle of bones around him. The dark streams of magic that stemmed from his horn looked unnatural in the way it twisted and undulated, seeming more like it infected the more natural golden aura of his magic rather than worked with it.
The circle was a complex looking arrangement made entirely of the bones of ponies, with multiple rings each defined at regular points by skulls that absorbed the magic from Scythe like sponges.
I wasn't sure who fired first, LIL-E or Arcaidia, but both cut loose the moment Scythe was in view. However his image shimmered like water rippling in a pool, the bullets and starblaster beams alike passing through harmlessly. In response Scythe opened his eyes and smiled in a manner as polite was it was dripping with corrosive poison.
“I’m not actually here, my eager audience. My ceremony is being conducted nearby, but I did swear not to directly harm innocents, so I won’t be fighting you. However I couldn’t help but want to witness the fun, now that you’re here. Well done, by the way, driving the spirits of Arbu back, however momentarily.”
“Where’s Binge!?” I shouted, stepping forward.
“Right behind me. Here, let me show you.” Scythe smiled in cold, predatory fashion as he shifted his image, the view of him and his magical ceremony blinking out and reappearing deeper into the chapel, and to the left side, leaving the pew easier to see, along with the fact that Binge was laid out on the steps leading up to it, curled up as if she was sleeping.
“Binge!” I cried, galloping forward.
“Longwalk, wait!” I heard Arcaidia shout behind me, but I was already nearly to Binge, and I could only think of grabbing her and getting out of this place as fast as possible.
I was completely unprepared for when Binge struck. She went from seeming to sleep peacefully, to moving in an instant with speed that took me completely off guard. Only my modified Stable security armor saved me, the thick golden gecko scales deflecting enough of the knife blow that it merely cut a nasty gouge rather than stab straight into my heart.
I stumbled back, utterly bewildered, and would’ve likely had my throat cut right then and there if Arcaidia’s magic didn’t wrap around me and yank me back faster than Binge could make a follow up attack. Arcaidia deposited me right beside her as she and LIL-E moved up to face Binge, who remained back near the steps to the pew. Her head was hung low, one of her insanely sharp knives held in her mouth, her eyes momentarily hidden by her dirt ridden poofy green mane.
I winced, holding the wound in my chest as I faced her, mind reeling. “B-Binge?”
“Heeheeheehee!” Her giggle was high, strained, and somehow warped. The chapel became wreathed in flickers of strange dark flame that gave off ghostly grey light as candles mounted along the walls flickered to life. Shadows crept up around Binge, the smokey forms of wraiths crawling up Binge’s body, standing around her, floating to coil around her, to whisper into her ears. Binge’s voice didn’t sound right as she spoke, like it was being squeezed through a filth ridden tunnel.
“Mamma is hurting. Big brother is hurting. Everypony is hurting. The voices are all screaming. The bad ponies won’t go away! She’s hurting them! But it’s okay, heeheehee, it’s okay because I’m gonna make it all okay. I’ll stop the bad ponies. I’ll make them go away. Nopony will hurt mamma or big brother ever again, because...”
Binge raised her face, her eyes shining from behind her long hanging mane. Eyes that were solid white as she grinned, far too wide for a normal pony’s mouth to contain.
“Binge has come home.”
I felt the blood draining from my face, my whole body going cold in a way the wraiths alone could never have achieved. I stared at Binge’s mad, twisted visage, the wraiths coiling around her like a horrible cloak, and then turned to look at Scythe with pure fury boiling across my features.
“What in the name of the Ancestor Spirits have you done to her!?”
“Oh, nothing special. A little Necromancy to reunite her with her family.” Scythe showed fangs with his malicious grin, “I may have united them a bit too closely. The proper term in Necromantic jargon would be ‘Revenant’. A living vessel possessed by multiple undead souls, a conduit through which the vengeful dead can wreak havoc upon the targets of their fury. You see, wraiths normally can’t leave the boundaries of a limited area, usually where they died. But with a Revenant host they can take their vengeance on the road, so to speak. And while at least one of the ponies responsible for the destruction of Arbu are already dead, that leaves three ponies these wrathful souls would gladly go tear apart. It’d be too much to expect Binge to succeed in dealing with, say, the NCR’s vaunted Lightbringer... but Chairpony Velvet Remedy? I imagine she wouldn’t see an assassin of this type coming.”
That was a lot to take in all at once, and I struggled to understand it as I stalled for time by asking, “Velvet Remedy? What does she have to do with any of this!? I thought this was all about B.B!”
Scythe laughed in pure amusement. “Oh it is. I don’t care about the NCR’s Chairpony of Diplomatic Affairs, nor the peace talks currently occurring. As I said, my only objective is to bring Blood Bloom back to the Family. To this end I will do all I can to weaken her resolve. I imagine she’d hate to know one or more of her allies died while caught up in either attempting, or stopping, an assassination plot. After all, the only way to stop a Revenant is to kill it. Dismember it, actually. Full decapitation. So, Longwalk, what will you do? How far into despair will you fall when you’re forced to murder one of your friends to stop her from butchering one of the most famous leaders in the NCR?”
A deep throated growl escaped me as I pushed back the pain of my wound and took on a wide stance, Gramzanber at the ready. “Dude, you’re completely nuts. Is literally every screwed up asshole that wants to mess with me and my friends a pure whackjob? Is it some kind of contractual obligation?”
Scythe’s eyes darkened with dangerous rage, “I suggest you take this more seriously-”
“No, fuck off. I’ve had enough of this horrorshow. I’ll tell you what’s going down, Scythe, I’m saving my completely platonic no-sexual-tension-at-all crazy friend from your stupid ass Necrowhatever magic, then I’m going to find you and fuck your shit up beyond belief!”
Scythe was silent for a second or two, staring at me, then with a snarl he made a sweeping gesture at Binge. “Well then, let the violence ensue.”
To be honest I probably should have been paying more attention to Binge than Scythe in that moment, given that he was just magically projecting his image there, while Binge was the actual physical threat. Chalk it up to just how worked up and rattled I really was in that moment. I’d dealt with a lot of messed up things so far, but never a friend literally possessed by the vengeful spirits of her dead family. Who could think or act clearly in a situation like that?
When Scythe spoke, Binge shuddered and jerked about like a marionette with a drunk handler, letting out soul grinding sounds somewhere between crazed giggles and mewls of pain. I felt my heart freeze over and drop into my stomach as I saw the wraiths physically crawling inside Binge, like living shadows playing across her hide. Binge’s voice was broken up like static over a radio.
“Got to kill the bad ponies. All the bad ponies. No more hurting my home. No more no more no more nomorenomorenomorenoooooo!”
When she jumped it was like a puppet being pulled high into the air by invisible strings, limbs akimbo. Her tail flicked about like a writhing snake, and from it knives flew out like bits of sharp, deadly rain. I stumbled to the side while Arcaidia quickly backpedaled from the lethal barrage. LIL-E floated the opposite direction I went, a knife skipping off her metal chassi in a burst of sparks. I saw LIL-E’s pistol turret swivel to track Binge’s fall, and my breath caught in my throat as the eyebot fired.
Fortunately LIL-E was a crack shot and also understood full well that we weren’t here to kill Binge, no matter what insane schemes Scythe had. The bullets struck Binge in the front left fore leg, drawing gouts of blood. However when Binge landed it was as if the wounds didn’t even slow her down. Her giggles reached a fever pitch.
“Hahahaha! Bang bang bang goes the dead lump of metal! Who are you!?”
“Binge! It’s us!” I shouted, “I’m-”
She whirled on me, eyes solid white pits, mouth grinning. “Meat! Momma says you're all meat for the table! Got to keep the home fed. Bad ponies that hurt the family get cut up into bitty pieces, just like mamma taught her little Bingey!”
Her tail flicked about again, only this time it moved with prehensile agility to grasp something from her mane, pulling out a strange, compact object that looked like a long, smooth rectangle of silver metal. My confusion only lasted as long as it took Binge’s tail to snap out, making the metal rectangle extend and shift in expanding segments until it grew into the full and sinister form of the scythe shaped ARM, Azrael.
With a great deal of smugness infecting his words, Scythe said, “I thought allowing her to borrow the ARM would make this confrontation more interesting. And lethal. Especially given Azrael's unique power...”
To my wide eyed shock Binge started to single into the ground, wafting right through the stone floor of the chapel as if she herself was a ghost. There was a silvery glow of energy around the edges of her body as she did so, until she, and the scythe she still held in her tail, vanished from view.
“Phasing.” Scythe finished, “Perfect weapon for an assassin, wouldn’t you say?”
Glancing at my E.F.S readout, I couldn’t spot where Binge’s blip had gone. Gulping, I said, “LIL-E, Arcaidia, either of you got her on E.F.S?”
“Shit, no!” said LIL-E, “Buck my virgin plot with a bowling pin, I should’ve just shot her in the damn face! If she’s going for Velvet Remedy then we’re in deep, dark, dank excrement here! She could float all the damn way to the Capital building into Velvet’s office and... and... fuck.”
“I not think she’s smart enough to realize that.” said Arcaidia with heated intensity as her silver eyes burned, her horn lighting up fully. “Shivol bir want to kill us first.”
Which turned out to be true, and I felt a strange moment of relief when Binge rose out of the floor behind me, giggling as she swung Azrael at my back. At least she was only trying to kill us right now. Which was small comfort when the giant silver scythe was arcing towards my spine. With instinctive quickness I immediately activated Accelerator, having already been more than built up enough energy for it by now.
The world flashing to clear shades of glowing indigo only emphasized how tortured and twisted Binge looked, with her milky eyes solid like twin eggshells. Her far too wide smile somehow now looked more like a pleading grimace of stark pain, pleading for release. Every inch of her scarred body looked bent, the skin stretched taut and wane over her lanky frame. She looked so... tired and desperate while at the same time filled with the insane menace and dark hopelessness that had been mirrored inside the wailing cries of the wraiths of Arbu. The wraiths bubbled and boiled around her, shadows writhing over Binge’s body like an infestation.
With Accelerator’s speed I side stepped Azrael's edge, the scythe cutting a sparking path through the stone floor I’d occupied a moment earlier. Carefully, as gently as someone holding a newborn foal, I aimed Gramzanber’s flat end for the back of Binge’s head, acutely aware of how easily a misjudged hit could prove fatal rather than just knock her out.
To my heart clenching dismay Gramzanber passed through Binge as if she were a ghost, her form shimmering silver.
Immediately Gramzanber spoke in my head.
Longwalk, I believe Azrael is more aware than previous versions of Odessa’s artificial ARMs. I sense its awareness spreading through the room the same way mine does. It will automatically activate its phasing to defend against physical attacks.
Ancestor's dammit! Just like the wraiths! I thought in frustration as I backed away and quickly circled behind Binge, Is there a way around it!?
Azrael appears to need to solidify in order to strike. I do not believe it can deactivate phasing while already within an object or organism. Striking in the same instant she strikes, without evasion, could produce a solid hit.
You’re saying I have to let her hit me, to hit her back. Great. Just great. Nah, I can deal. No problem. That scythe is only the size of a pony. I’m sure I’ll survive taking a straight hit from it.
I can offer no better options at this time.
It would have to do. With a deep breath I deactivated Accelerator, soaking the shock of the brief backlash pain, and quickly backed away from Binge while waving for Arcaidia and LIL-E to back up as well. “Guys, stay back. I need to let her hit me.”
Arcaidia blinked at me, “That is stupid. It is the most of stupid that can be stupid.”
“Kind of on her side here, Longwalk.” said LIL-E, “That sounds exactly like the textbook definition of a bad idea.”
“Of course it is, it’s one of my plans. But it’s the only way to counter her phasing.” I said, keeping my focus on Binge, who stood between me and the rest of my companions at this point. I had my back to the stairs leading up to the podium, and kept backing up, hoping to lure Binge further away from LIL-E and Arcaidia.
That turned out to be a terrible idea, however, because with a distorted laugh, Binge turned and launched herself at Arcaidia, skipping across the pews like a foal at play. Arcaidia responded immediately with a large pillar of ice she summoned directly beneath Binge, but Binge phased right through it, then solidified to twist about and lash with the scythe in a wide arc that could have easily taken Arcaidia’s head clean off if the little blue filly didn’t quickly roll back, casting out another pillar of ice that absorbed the blow in a shower of ice shards.
Binge was wickedly swift, however, and phased back into the ground before any of us could respond, leaving us to look around nervously for where she might pop back up again.
Longwalk, I will also point out that even if we can inflict damage on Binge, it does not change the underlying problem. She is possessed by spirits, and as long as this is the case, she will remain a danger.
We are not killing Binge! I growled mentally, also letting out a deep growl physically as my mane and tail bristled. Even as I thought those words with sincere and absolute determination, there was a voice of reason in the back of my mind that told me that if it was a choice between Binge, and any of my other friends’ lives... what other option would I have? The thought made me queasy to my core. Losing her would split me wide open like a gutted gecko, the notion alone hurting enough to make me double-think just what it was I really felt about Binge.
Save her. Whatever it takes. Then after that, figure out what it is you’re feeling... I told myself. Fortunately Gramzanber had more to say as well, while Binge remained hidden, presumably waiting for the right moment to strike.
I was not suggesting eliminating her, yet. There is one possible method to free her from the spirit's’ control. Azrael appears to function in similar fashion to myself, including its links to its wielders. There is a dual link, presently, between her, Azrael, and Scythe. Scythe’s magic is flowing through this link, which may also connect to his blood magic and Necromancy both. If you can get me into contact with Azrael, then through that physical contact I can link you to Binge and Scythe’s minds. Form a sort of mental cage for all three of you. It will allow for combating Scythe directly, and possibly reaching Binge. It may also be possible to reason with the spirits possessing her. The only problem is this link risks all of your minds to potentially lethal bio-feedback. If you can accept that ris-
Let’s do it! I all but mentally screamed, tensing my whole body up as I looked around for where Binge would pop up next.
“Arcaidia, LIL-E, I have a plan. Just... whatever happens don’t hurt Binge. Promise me.”
“Ren solva, what are you-?”
“Promise me you won’t hurt her, no matter what happens to me!”
Arcaidia looked at me with naked worry, but nodded. “Is promise.”
LIl-E gave a popping, static sigh, but said, “Same here. Whatever you’re about to do, I hope to fuck it works.”
I was about to say that I hoped it worked as well, but Binge didn’t give me the chance. I flowed up out of the wall, coming at Arcaidia again, time from the side. Arcaidia, caught looking the other way, wasn’t moving nearly fast enough to avoid the shining scythe coming for her head.
Acting without bothering to think, I activated Accelerator again, already feeling the strain of using the power so soon after the previous use, and all but flew across the chapel. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it in time. I barreled into Arcaidia at full speed, shoving her out of the way as I tried to turn myself to intercept Azreal with Gramzanber. My angle was slightly off, Gramzanber impacting with the scythe ARM in a flash of silver sparks, but Azrael's blade crossed my vision in a blur. Pain exploded across my face, and I screamed, feeling scalding warmth blossoming over my face like liquid agony.
Then Gramzanber established the link to Binge’s and Scythe’s minds through their link to Azreal, and my consciousness was torn away from my body, the last thing my ears being able to hear was Arcaidia screaming my name in fear.
Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added - Claustroponia: Having spent entirely too much time stuck in tight quarters, whether underground or inside huge airships, you've gained an unusually sharp combat sense when trapped battling in limited spaces. Whenever you're in an enclosed space, your gain a temporary +1 STR and +1 AGI from your know-how in making the most of your limited area to move.
Quest Perk Added - Combination Arts: You're bond with your companions through your ARM has allowed you to access Combination Arts, powerful combo attacks that allows your friends to add their power to your ARM, and if they possess an ARM as well, vice versa. Combination Arts use the Force Gauge the same as your Force abilities. Each ally has their own set of unique Combination Arts to unlock, and these are not level dependent. Even if you reach max level, further Combination Arts may yet be waiting to be unlocked!
Combination Art Added (Arcaidia) - Healing Blade: By infusing healing magic into Gramzanber the ARM gains the ability to affect undead with +50% damage and can affect incorporeal undead. The healing energy can also be shunted from the ARM to heal the injuries of others like a normal healing spell.