After fricasseeing that feline back in the clearing, Shadow walked along one of the more well-beaten of the game trails that crisscrossed the forest floor, his falcon companion flying overhead and scanning the areas ahead in search of other possible threats. Shadow had disengaged his weapons systems for the moment, now that the danger had passed, but he still kept an ear to the proverbial ground in case something else decided to come along and pick a fight. Yet for several hours, nothing dared to show its face to the duo other than to scamper off into the foliage before either he or the falcon could get a good look. The light of the star overhead was just beginning to fade when Shadow came across something he hadn’t been expecting, and it proved without a doubt that at least some form of intelligent life had once called this forest home.
Standing in the middle of a much larger clearing, closed in on two sides by a deep ravine, was an ancient castle, although to say the structure was in a state of disrepair would have been an understatement. Most of the walls were either crumbling to dust or were so overgrown Shadow could barely make out the stone blocks beneath, leaving the once impressive building looking like little more than a pile of rubble.
Shadow carefully approached the structure, keeping an eye out for possible dangers as well as inspecting his surroundings as his falcon scanned the castle in its entirety from the air. Schematics and data readouts flooded his processors, and for a moment he was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer onslaught of information before his hypercore kicked into gear. The sophisticated piece of hardware was one of his last lines of defense if he or any of his fellow Cyber Wolves got into a particularly nasty situation where data overload posed a threat. To prevent a mandatory system shutdown, the hypercore compartmentalized all of the incoming information and stored it in compressed packages that could be accessed at a later date in smaller amounts. This allowed him and any of the others to continue functioning when other machines would have been overloaded and forced to power down.
As the data streams were condensed and stored away in his memory banks, Shadow resumed his slow walk into the castle entrance hall, or what little remained of it. His falcon flew in through one of the blown-out windows and landed on a boulder that had fallen from the ceiling overhead, providing overwatch with its long-range sensors as Shadow worked his way deeper into the building. The rest of the castle hadn’t fared much better than the foyer, although there was enough left to nearly force Shadow to activate his hypercore again.
As he entered what could only be the throne room, he was forced to pause and analyze the room around him as his optics roamed around the large space. Scorch marks old and new marked the stone where high-energy blasts had impacted the rock, melting the stone in several places and blackening the grey marble into smoky slag. The steps that led up to the twin thrones were shattered through the middle like something massive had impacted the site, and the gold and navy banners that hung behind the thrones were torn as if cut by a sword or shard of glass.
A battle had taken place here, Shadow concluded, and a very heated one at that. Judging by the heat needed to melt the stone, high-energy weapons had to have played a factor, even though the tech level implied by his surroundings suggested a more medieval civilization. Perhaps the castle had simply been used as a staging ground for a more modern conflict, but that didn’t explain the difference in age between the old blast marks and the new. Judging by the wear and weathering on the old marks, they had to have been created centuries before the new ones, and yet they resembled the new marks in several ways that implied the same type of weapon had been used in both instances. It was enough to make Shadow’s processors start to overheat, but before he could think himself into a forced shutdown, he received an alert from the falcon in the entrance hall. Long-range sensors had picked up a group of organics coming closer to the castle, and from the amount of noise they were making, things that were not afraid of making themselves known in the middle of a forest nearing sunset.
Thinking a bit of extra reconnaissance would do him a service in this situation, Shadow sent a wireless order to the falcon drone to fly out and spy on the nearing organics. Any additional information could prove useful in whatever situation arose from the nearing encounter. Watching the world move and shrink through the drone’s optics, Shadow watched as the mechanical bird flew up and over the castle, looping around one of the towers before flying out and over the forest proper. Within seconds, the drone’s sensors picked up the group of organics moving towards the castle, and Shadow zoomed in on the group to get a closer look.
They resembled earthly equines about as much as the cat creature from before had resembled a lion, meaning they had very little in common other than basic body type and proportions. All six of them had to only stand four feet tall at best, although the most striking thing about them was their color scheme. Colors that would be more at home in an artist’s gallery than nature covered these creatures from head to hoof, ranging from light blue all the way to neon pink and everywhere in between. Another thing that made them unique was the fact that only two of them did not sport extra appendages that normal equines lacked.
Two had short horns that sprouted from their brows, while two others had wings attached to their backs that seemed to allow for controlled flight, if the neon blue one hovering over the heads of the others had anything to say about it. Yet something wasn’t adding up. The wings were too small to carry the creature’s presumed weight, meaning they were either a lot lighter than they looked, or something else was going on here. As the group of equines neared the castle, the falcon’s sensors picked up another anomaly. The purple one with a horn was carrying what looked like saddlebags over its haunches, meaning that it either belonged to someone or had crafted the objects itself. This meant that either these creatures were the property of a sapient life form or were in fact an alien race in their own rite.
Given the fact that the creatures were walking along and conversing in rather loud voices, assuming the rhythm and syntax of their vocalizations formed into a true language, Shadow was inclined to believe that these equines were in fact a sapient race, although whether they were the ones that created the damage to the castle or if something else had done it remained to be seen. Knowing that the group was going to most likely enter the castle at some point, Shadow had two options. He could retreat and try to gather more data before engaging the locals, or he could reveal himself and try to initiate first contact. Falling back on his base protocols, Shadow realized that there was no protocol for first contact, although there were subroutines written into his core systems that allowed him to act as humanity’s messenger if the situation allowed for it. He had no authority to make decisions concerning relations between Earth and any discovered alien races, but he was allowed to act as the mediator and messenger between the two should the situation arise.
With that in mind, Shadow recalled the falcon and commanded it to remain hidden in one of the upper towers, lest its presence startle the equines as they neared the castle. With nothing better to do but wait, Shadow walked back to the entrance foyer and sat down in the center of the room, facing the broken main doors with the central staircase to his back as he settled in. Sooner or later the equines would enter the castle, if their presence and implied destination proved to be correct, meaning they would have to enter through the front doors, given the rest of the castle exits were sealed off after so many years of neglect.
Now the only thing left to do was to see how the equines reacted to him and see if they truly were an intelligent race.
Twilight was feeling both nervous and excited about what lay in store for her and her friends. From what her tracking spell had told her, the creature that had made the terrible roar earlier in the day had taken up residence in the Castle of the Two Sisters, although for some reason it was having a hard time telling her what it was that had made the sound. Usually a spell like Find It was able to give basic information about the creature or pony it was supposed to track, but somehow the spell wasn’t giving her anything other than the creature’s location. It was beyond frustrating, and it was only compounded by the fact that Pinkie and Rainbow Dash were talking nonstop about what they might encounter in the old ruins.
“Ooh, ooh, maybe it’s a new type of dragon that breathes clouds of cotton candy instead of fire.” The peppy pink earth pony exclaimed as she bounced along next to the others, “Wouldn’t that be amazing?!”
“I suppose a dragon would be cool,” Rainbow replied, “but I think it’s something we’ve never seen before. Some kind of super rare monster like the creatures Daring Do faces in her books. Something like that would make us famous for sure if we managed to capture it.”
Rarity scoffed as she rolled her eyes, “Honestly, do you really think something like that would end up this close to a pony town without somepony hearing about it? I mean seriously, we’re only half a day’s walk from Ponyville and I’m certain the weather patrol would have spotted something that big if it came anywhere near the edge of the forest.”
“Oh, I hope whatever it is isn’t looking for something to eat.” Fluttershy whimpered as she lowered her head and glanced around, “I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of whatever can make a roar that loud.”
“The only thing we’re going to do is get a look at the monster and then come up with a plan for what we do after,” Twilight said as she narrowed her eyes in concentration, her horn lighting up as she cast the Find It spell again, only to get the same frustrating results, “Ah! Now if I could only get this stupid spell to work properly, we’d have a much better idea what we were going to see.”
“Maybe the forest is messin’ with yer magic Twi’.” Applejack said as she took a look around for possible threats, “The Everfree can get pretty crazy when things start moving around that have any kind of power. Ah wouldn’t be surprised if it’s messin' with yer spell on top of whatever else might be goin’ on right now.”
“I just hope we can get to the castle before dark,” Twilight added as the group continued on their way, “the Everfree is dangerous enough in the daytime. I’d rather not find out what comes out to hunt at night.”
The others nodded their agreement, falling silent as the rope bridge leading to the Castle of the Two Sisters came into view. The dark monolith was still as foreboding as ever, although the added knowledge that there was a resident made it seem all the more ominous. Top that off with the fact they had no idea what they would find within the crumbling walls, and it added up to a huge ball of nerves that was wound tighter than a watch spring.
The sextet slowly crossed the bridge and made their way up to the castle proper, coming up to the old entrance and bunching up at the dark opening as their nerves got the better of them. Twilight swallowed thickly and glanced behind her at her friends, receiving nervous nods from most of them before turning back to the shadowed doorway. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to step forward and into the castle itself, hearing the others follow close behind as the sun began to set over the trees behind them.
She had only taken a few steps into the castle when her eyes locked onto a figure sitting at the base of the main staircase, her eyes widening in terror as the lithe form of a Timberwolf met her gaze. She yelped in fright before back-peddling straight into the others, knocking the whole group to the ground as their legs got tangled up in each other.
“What gives Twilight?” Rainbow asked as she gazed down at the tangled mass of ponies beneath her, “What is it?”
“T-T-T-T-T,” Twilight stuttered as she pointed at the shadowed figure at the far side of the room, “Timberwolf!”
All at once, the rest of the girls forced themselves to their hooves and formed a protective half circle as Twilight ignited her horn, charging up an attack as she locked her gaze on the glowing red eyes of the Timberwolf. Wait a minute, red eyes? Twilight paused for a moment as she took a second look at the lupin figure before them and noticed that the wolf truly did have red eyes, instead of the normal green glow associated with the Everfree’s most notorious hunter. Not to mention there wasn’t the normal stink that Timberwolves gave off like a bad attitude, nor did there seem to be more than the single figure before them. Twilight cast a quick Life Locator spell and was shocked to find that other than her friends and herself, there wasn’t anything else living within a hundred hooves of the group.
So, what did that mean concerning the wolf hidden in shadow across the room?
AJ and Rainbow were gearing up to fight as Pinkie and Rarity got into defensive stances on either of Twilight’s sides, while Fluttershy hid behind Twilight’s tail as a whimper escaped the timid pegasus’ mouth.
Thinking fast, Twilight yelled out with as much force as she could muster, “Everypony stop right where you are!”
Rainbow and AJ looked at her like she had lost her mind, while Rarity and Pinkie glanced at each other in confusion. Fluttershy simply ducked behind Twilight further, although she glanced up at the purple unicorn with an uncertain expression as Twilight stepped forward and narrowed her eyes at the lupin figure before them.
“What gives Twilight?” Rainbow asked, “Why did you stop us? We need to kick that thing to kindling before the rest of its buddies show up.”
“That’s just it,” Twilight retorted, “I’m not picking up any life in the castle except for us, so there aren’t any other Timberwolves in the area or my spell would have picked them up. Also, something about that wolf seems off. Anypony else notice that it doesn’t stink in here?”
The others took a moment to smell the air, and their eyes widened in surprise as they glanced between each other and the still form before them.
“Ah guess Ah didn’t think about that when ya said there was a Timberwolf in here with us.” Applejack said as she turned her full attention to the hidden creature before them, “But if that ain’t a Timberwolf, then what is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Twilight replied, “but it’s not coming up on my life spell, so maybe it’s a security golem that got activated at some point?”
“A golem?” Rarity asked in wonder, “But if it’s been in the castle for all this time, how could it still be working? Wouldn’t the magic that powers it have run out a long time ago?”
“That’s just it,” Twilight replied, “golems can recharge their animation spells if a special spell seal is woven into a room for them to use. It could have been feeding off the magic left over from the wards and security spells this castle used to have a thousand years ago. I just don’t know why Luna or Celestia never told us about it if it’s been here all this time. Surely Nightmare Moon would have activated it to fight against us during her return if she had it at her disposal.”
“Well why don’t we just ask it what it’s doing here?” Pinkie added as she bounced in place, “Who better to tell us why it’s been sleeping in the castle for so long than the golem itself?”
Twilight shook her head, “I’m afraid it isn’t that simple, Pinkie. Golems can’t speak, and even if they could, they have no mind of their own so all it would be good for is making random words or sounds.”
“Well we’re not going to find anything out sitting here all night.” Applejack stated bluntly as she began to walk forward, “What’s say we go and investigate this here golem and find out if that thing is what made that huge roar earlier today?”
“Be careful, AJ,” Twilight called out as the orange mare walked towards the shadowed figure, “we don’t know if it’s been tasked with protecting anything. It could attack you if you come too close.”
The apple farmer snorted, “Ah think a can handle a few pieces of rock and stone fused together by magic. After all, Ah’ve bucked a few boulders to pieces back on the farm. This won’t be any different.”
As Applejack stepped closer to the wolf, it stood up slowly and began to walk towards her, only to stop and sit down once more as it stepped into the light that was streaming through the doorway behind the gathered ponies.
Applejack stopped short as her body locked up in shock, the gasps of her friends echoing around the room as the wolf’s body was revealed in its entirety. Twilight’s mind felt like it was going into shutdown, because the creature before them was most certainly not a golem, or anything else that she had ever encountered before.
The being looked like a Timberwolf in general shape, but that was where the similarity stopped. Instead of being made of wood or stone, the glint of polished metal met her gaze as pistons and armor plating slowly shifted as the automaton sat back down on its haunches. Dark black alloy reflected the setting sun’s light as its glowing red optics moved from one mare to the next, seeming to inspect them one by one before turning its attention back to Applejack. The farm mare was scared stiff as she shook from ears to tail, her eyes pinpricks of fear as she slowly took a step back.
The wolf made no moves to follow, instead tilting its head to one side as if questioning her actions. Twilight noticed that the machine seemed to be acting more like a living creature than an animal and wondered to herself if it was more than what it seemed to be. The most advanced machines she knew of were her lab computers and other such things back at the library, but that was nothing compared to the engineering and technology required to make the automaton before her. It had to be decades, maybe centuries ahead of anything Equestria had at its disposal, which could only mean one thing.
“This thing isn’t from Equestria.” She said quietly, almost to herself, although it must have been loud enough for the others to hear because they all looked her way with surprise in their gazes.
“What do you mean this machine isn’t from Equestria?” Rarity asked, her eyes turning to inspect the mechanical wolf in more detail as the others muttered their agreement.
“I mean that the technology required to make something like that doesn’t exist yet.” Twilight explained, “It’s so advanced I can’t even wrap my head around it, yet it’s staring me right in the face.”
“So, what does that mean for us?” Rainbow asked as she landed, her wings still flared in preparation for a fight, “Are we being invaded by some high-tech creatures from someplace beyond Equestria?”
“I don’t think so,” Twilight replied, “otherwise they would have sent more than just one machine. Not to mention it hasn’t done anything to hurt us or even threaten us since we got here. I think it’s something else, for some purpose that we don’t understand yet.” She took a deep breath before stepping up to Applejack’s side, the wolf’s glowing gaze never leaving her face as she approached, “I don’t know what to expect, but I think we should at least try to understand what it’s doing here before we do anything else.”
“And how do you expect to get those answers?” Rarity countered, “You said so yourself that golems can’t speak so what good will questions do us?”
“That’s just it.” Twilight said, “This isn’t a golem, and with technology this advanced, I’m betting whoever made it gave it the ability to communicate in some way.” She stepped up to the wolf, trying to keep her thundering heartbeat under control as she got a very close-up look at the machine’s glinting fangs and claws. “Um, hello, my name is Twilight Sparkle. Can you understand me?”
The equines were speaking to each other, that much Shadow was certain of. It was too complex and too regular to be simple animal sounds, not to mention they seemed to be having a conversation about him as the purple one walked up to join the orange one before him. He couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but that was to be expected from an alien language. He was able to record everything that had been said up until the purple one stepped forward and addressed him directly, speaking what he calculated was a greeting of some kind.
Not knowing what else to do, he repeated the equine’s words back to her, only he used his own voice in doing so. The equine’s eyes shrank and for a moment he thought he had done something wrong, but then the purple equine began to speak very rapidly and bounce around on its hooves, adding to his growing list of word recordings for several minutes before coming down from its excitement. It immediately got back in front of him and repeated the words he had just spoken, gesturing to its chest with a hoof before pointing at his chest. For a moment Shadow wasn’t sure what it was doing, until he realized that it had just indicated its identifying nomenclature and then prompted him to do the same. In short, it had introduced itself and was asking for his name.
Shadow pressed a paw to his chest, noting how the equine’s eyes got wide again even before he spoke, this time changing in what he assumed was the equine’s name with his own, although he was forced to use English for that part because he lacked the knowledge to translate it into the equine’s tongue.
“My name is -,” The rest was unintelligible to Twilight, but she assumed it was the automaton’s name in its own language. She was so giddy she nearly jumped for joy, but at the moment she was too engrossed in trying to learn more about the mechanical wonder sitting before her.
“This is unbelievable!” She giggled to herself as the others gathered around, their eyes wide with wonder as they looked up at the machine with new interest, “I’m having a conversation with a machine, and it’s talking back to me!”
“So, this thing ain’t just a hunk of metal after all.” Applejack muttered to herself as she bent down to inspect the wolf’s claws, “Ah sure wouldn’t want ta get on its bad side if it used these things to fight.” She tapped one paw with her hoof, noting how the machine was watching her every move with what seemed to be blank interest, “These things are harder than the metal we got in the plow, and that’s some of the strongest metal around.” She shuddered as she sat back up and glanced over the rest of the hound’s metallic body, “If its whole body is made of that stuff, then it’s got to be nearly impossible to break with raw force.”
“What I’m interested in is how the designers of this thing got all of those little pieces to work together so well.” Rarity added as she inspected the small moving parts visible through the plating on the wolf’s chest, “It’s like watching water flow over stones the way they all move in perfect harmony with one another.”
“Ooh, maybe we can get Robo-wolf to tell us where he comes from if we teach him how to speak pony.” Pinkie exclaimed as she bounced around with excitement.
Twilight hummed in thought, “You know, that actually isn’t a bad idea. It’s obvious the machine can learn how to speak our language, all we need to do is give it some instruction and it shouldn’t be very long before we can get our answers.” She glanced over at the bouncing pink earth pony, “Good idea Pinkie.”
“What idea?” She asked, pausing for a moment to hold a hoof to her chin as she rolled her eyes upward in thought, “Oh, that idea. I guess I wasn’t paying attention to what I was saying again.” She bopped herself on the forehead with a wide grin on her face, “Silly me.”
The rest of the girls laughed, and for a moment the mechanized wolf seemed confused as to what was going on, although it quickly returned to its state of neutral interest as the girls got themselves under control.
“Oh Pinkie,” Twilight managed to say after she caught her breath, “never change.”
“So now that we have a plan,” Rainbow interrupted as she gestured to the robot in their midst, “what do we do with him?”
Applejack glanced at the sun as Princess Celestia lowered it below the horizon, plunging the castle into darkness as the moon rose in its place, “Too dangerous to travel back to town tonight. We might as well stay here and head back in the morning.”
Rarity yawned, covering her mouth with a dainty hoof as she nodded her agreement, “While I would rather enjoy sleeping in my own bed for the night, I would also hate to end up as some creature’s meal because I couldn’t rough it for one evening. I say we keep our new companion company and set out at first light.”
The rest of the group hummed their ascent, bunching up together for warmth as the moon rose higher into the sky. Applejack covered her face with her hat while Pinkie used her tail as a blanket, leaving Rainbow to rest her chin on Rarity’s back while the fashionista used Twilight’s saddlebags as a makeshift pillow. The purple unicorn curled up against Applejack’s side and rested her chin on her front hooves, letting her weight settle into Applejack’s warm fur as she settled in for the night. She watched as the robotic wolf looked them over with a slight tilt to its head, before it too lay down on its stomach and rested its head on its front paws. Twilight was just about to go to sleep, when she saw Fluttershy of all ponies walking up to the mechanical hound with her head held low and her tail tucked between her hind legs. For a moment Twilight wondered what the shy pegasus was doing, until they widened in surprise when the butter yellow mare lay down next to the machine and rested her side against the thick plating that made up its body.
Shadow didn’t quite understand what was going on, other than the fact that the timid equine had sought him out in search of what might have been comfort or protection. He had gotten a few scans of the creatures during their conversation and inspection of him, and had discovered that they were all females, at least compared to the sexes of earth-based creatures. He also now had a feeling that the equines were a herd-based society, at least given by how they used each other for comfort when they slept as a group, although it did nothing to explain why the yellow one had sought him out. As a machine modelled after a predator, her instincts should have been telling her to stay away from him, not sleep rested against his side. He had noticed ow the group had reacted to him upon first seeing him, including how the purple one's horn had glowed for a few seconds before fading out. They had been preparing to fight him, but for some reason the purple one had stopped them before anything unbecoming could occur. It was nearly enough to make his processors overheat from the lack of information eating at his operating systems, given he still had no idea what was being said between the small equines.
Yet, as the mares slowly fell asleep one by one, he couldn’t bring himself to bother trying to figure it out. The conundrum of why these creatures acted the way they did could wait until a later time, once he had a better understanding of how they worked, both as a society and as individual beings.
Shadow set the falcon on overwatch once more, making sure that it would alert him if anything came near the castle that could pose a threat. With that done he let himself power down, his optics shutting off as his processors slowed to a crawl, leaving only the most basic of functions active in case of an emergency. The last thing he filed away within his memory banks, was the small smile he had seen on the yellow mare’s face as she slept against his side.