I spent the remainder of the time we had left that first day after departing Skull City out on the deck. Part of it was I simply liked the feel of the constant wind blowing through my mane, and part of it was because I wasn’t eager to get cooped up in the tight spaces below decks with at least two ponies I knew that wanted me dead. At one point or another my friends had all gone down below for one reason or another, either for food or to grab a spot of rest in our bunks. B.B had told me we were given only one room to ourselves, so we’d have pretty cramped sleeping arrangements, but I could live with that. For one it’d keep Binge from trying anything. I hoped.
Eventually I’d have to go down, if for no other reason than to answer the call of nature, but I was fine for now just enjoying what I could of the view. By now the sun had become little more than a liquid line of gold dusting the horizon as the land turned to dark twilight, purples fading to darker blues as the light faded bit by bit. The only point of light I could make out was a series of faint flickering dots of white and orange to the southeast, where I noticed something odd about the landscape change, as if a line cut across the even Wasteland desert and turned it into two shades, one almost black, the other rolling and white.
“Confused, buck?” asked Crossfire, surprising me with just how quietly she’d come up behind me. Crossfire and Shard had been working their guard detail on the deck, which I knew my friends and I would be up for soon. I knew I needed to go get a few hours shut eye before then, but I hadn’t wanted to miss the sights while there was sunlight to see them.
“Well, a bit, I suppose,” I said, tilting my head towards the strange land features I couldn’t recognize, “I’m not sure what I’m looking at out there. Maybe if there was more light I could make it out, but- hey, stop laughing!”
Crossfire was snorting out a scoffing laugh, but it didn’t last long as she shook her head, “I keep forgetting you’re one of those tribal ponies that’s lived most his life thinking sharp stones and sticks are the height of weapons technology.”
“Yeah, pardon me for my ignorance,” I said sardonically, “You going to explain what I’m looking at out there or are you just going to keep making fun of me?”
“I can’t do both?” she quipped with a snarky smirk.
“Is there ever going to be a point where you stop giving me a hard time?”
“Probably not,” Crossfire said, but soon enough her smirk faded and she nodded towards the distant, strange terrain features, “What you’re looking at out there is your first gander at an actual ocean.”
“... A what?” I asked, picking my brain for what the word meant. I’d heard of it before. Ocean... ocean... my eyes snapped wide, “Wait, you mean one of those mythically huge bodies of water? Like, so big it crosses the world?”
“Just about. That’s the edge of the Celestial Sea you’re looking at. The coastline runs south all the way towards our destination in the NCR capital, Manehattan. The other weird terrain feature you’re seeing out there is the Bleach, the desert of white sand and death that separates the NCR from the Skull City Wasteland. And that little collection of lights sitting right where the sea meets the edge of the desert, that’s Port Needle.”
I could barely make it out, especially with dusk turning darker as the minutes ticked by. My mind turned towards Trailblaze, remembering that my friend, last I’d heard of her, was on her way to this ‘Port Needle’ In search of another Guardian Shrine. “What’s Port Needle like? Is it anything like Skull City?”
“Oh, the Port is its own little slice of hell,” Crossfire said with a mirthless chuckle, “The Mechanics Guild holds some power there, but it’s mostly gang run, each gang based out of one or more of the boats that run the coast. Little more than slightly organized pirates, but they play ball with the Mechanic’s Guild because they open the door to food, water, and other goods being transported down from Skull City. Town is mostly filled with warehouses, whorehouses, gambling dens, taverns, and about one decent pony for every hundred that’d slit your throat soon as give you the time of day. Fun place, if you got caps to spare and enough guns to keep the smarter thugs at bay.”
And my best friend is walking straight into such a place? I thought with dry bitterness. I knew Trailblaze was capable, able to take care of herself, but Crossfire’s assessment of Port Needle didn’t leave me feeling a great deal better for knowing Trailblaze’s journey wasn’t going to be an easy one. She had Whetstone with her, sure, but that just meant I had to worry about Whetstone’s safety alongside Trailblaze’s.
She’s the one with the magical fire bird inside her granting her superpowers, Longwalk. If anything it’s probably the ponies of Port Needle I ought to worry about more than her. If any of them got in her way they’d be lucky their town doesn’t end up burning down around their ears.
I tried to take some comfort in the thought, but mostly I just wished there was some way I could be in two places at once. Crossfire was looking at me, lips pressed tight in a frown.
“What?” I asked.
“You should get your ass down to your bunk and sleep. You’ll be up for guard duty soon and I won’t be getting any easier shut eye if I know you’re up here being half asleep on the job,” she said, “That’s why I came over, to tell you to go get some damned sleep. Which I shouldn't have to be doing, by the way. I’m not your foalsitter, kid.”
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning wryly and letting out a quick chuckle, “I didn’t know you cared.”
“I could throw you off the ship and probably only get docked to half pay,” Crossfire said coldly, yellow eyes flashing dangerously and her tail swishing angrily behind her. I just kept grinning.
“What, and lose all those caps just for a moment’s satisfaction? Not the Crossfire I know.”
She hung her head with a growling snort, ears flat to her skull with a thin frown on her face that matched her thoroughly annoyed tone, “My life was so much simpler before Saddlespring.”
My mirth died rather quickly at the memories her words brought up and I let out a small sigh, my thoughts of Shale and the town that was no more, “So was mine.”
Her eyes looked at me sidelong, narrowed, but thoughtful, and she raised her head to look me over from snout to tail. It was an oddly penetrating look, leaving me feeling uncomfortable and I shifted away from her a bit. Crossfire didn’t seem to notice. Her gaze only lasted a moment longer before she made a small scoffing sound in her throat and looked away.
“You got the look of a real Wastelander about you, now. Not quite the same greenhorn tribal I met a few weeks ago. You’ve shed some real blood, both yours and others.”
I winced, then hardened my look, meeting her eyes, “Never because I wanted to, and never for any reason less than keeping others from harm.”
“Yeah, you’re blooded, but still got that hero complex,” Crossfire muttered dryly, “I’m thinking you won’t lose that flaw until you’re a corpse. And even then I suspect you’ll die doing something stupidly heroic. Trying to, anyway. But you know how much that shit hurts, now. You’re understanding there’s a cost, even if you haven’t paid the highest one, yet.”
She drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a long, almost sad sigh, “You square with what happened to your nutty blue marefriend? Losing a leg like that isn’t something to shrug off.”
Shame and anger sparked inside me with near equal measure, my voice snapping, “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
She just gave me a flat look, and I belated recalled that Crossfire had personal experience of her own with a friend taking such a terrible injury. Knobs’ condition flashed through my mind and I grimaced. Crossfire didn’t know that I was aware of her guilt over Knobs losing her hind legs, but she definitely was seeing a parallel between myself and her in regards to Arcaidia’s recent, similar loss.
“I’m making it my business, buck, because I’ve been where you are myself. Like it or not, that bunch of headcases follow you, the icemaker included. You know damned well whose fault it is she got a leg torn off, and it’s not because of that crazy Raider bitch. She was just the same kind of nasty shit that’s everywhere in the Wasteland. No, your friend got taken from having four nice, pretty limbs to just three because you screwed up and dropped your guard.”
Her words sliced into me as thoroughly as if she’d snatched up Gramzanber from my side and laid into me with it, and I found myself grinding my teeth together hard enough to nearly bleed my gums. “You think I don’t know that!? That I haven’t been thinking it over and over again since it happened?”
“With you it can be hard to tell when you’re thinking at all, but I’m not telling you this to just piss you off, even though that is kind of fun,” Crossfire said, smiling briefly, but only half heartedly as her expression turned serious, “I’m reminding you so you understand something I need to make damn clear to you, now that we’re both Drifters, and on the same job together. You can’t afford to fuck up like you did with that Braindead asshole. You can’t afford to be that naive and trusting anymore. Next time it could be far worse than somepony losing a leg, and now that I’m here, now that Knobs is here, I’m not accepting anything less than your best while on the job. You make another mistake on the level you did back in Skull City...”
She turned away from me, trotting away, only pausing briefly to look back at me with hard, golden eyes, “I’ll kill you.”
I stared at her with a level look of my own, “Good to know where we stand with each other, Crossfire. And here I was just starting to think we might be becoming pals.”
“Hmph, you don’t need more friends, Longwalk. You need somepony to keep you from fucking up again, and if I got to step up to the plate, I’ll do it, because I’m not taking any chances when Knobs’ safety is on the line. Now go get your flank in bed and sleep, before I drag you to bed myself...”
She paused, then made a sickened, choking sound, “Okay, that sounded just plain wrong, didn’t it?”
I nodded emphatic agreement, “Wrong on every level. I’m going to bed now. Now dragging needed.”
“Good. Ugh... need brain bleach.”
I left Crossfire to her mental scouring and further guard duties, and made my way to the hatch leading into the Sweet Candy’s below decks. The first deck was almost entirely comprised of crew and passenger cabins, along with the galley towards the back. The hallways were cramped, to the point where I’d need to flatten myself against the wall just to let another pony pass, though there weren’t many ponies moving about at this point, most of the passengers having retired to their cabins. There was still some noise filtering down the hallways from the galley, however, and I went there first, hoping to grab something to eat before heading to sleep.
The galley took up most of the aft section of the first deck, an open kitchen at the back of a room set up with a number of short tables. Each wall had at least one large, circular window, though most the light was now being provided by small lanterns hung from the ceiling. There were a few crewponies here, and a hoofful of the delegates grabbing late dinners like myself, and I recognized Knobs sitting at one of the tables next to the starboard window. She was talking with another mare, the one with the honey colored mane who’d given me a curious look when she’d come aboard. Knobs was laughing at something the other mare was saying, but when she spotted me she smiled warmly and waved to me.
“Hey Longwalk, over here!”
I trotted over, noticing that the gray coated, blond mare next to Knobs was looking at me once more with intense curiosity. Somewhat self consciously I took a seat, “Evening, Knobs. The food here any good?”
It looked to me like she was scarfing down something out of a can, some kind of oatmeal that I suspected was one of those preserved pre-war kind, but it looked warm and didn’t smell half bad. I despaired at the apparent lack of meat. In response to my question it was the blond mare that spoke, in a smooth, pleasant alto.
“Captain Bartholomew keeps a well stocked ship, if somewhat lacking in flavor. A little spice could go a long way, but the food is filling, and oftentimes that’s about all one can ask for,” she said, and then extended a hoof to me, “Wellspring Whistles, official representative of the Skull City Radio Guild.”
I accepted her hoof, giving it a firm shake, which for some reason seemed to surprise her and made Knobs chuckle lightly. Shrugging it off I just said, “Longwalk, uh, I suppose I’m officially part of the Drifter’s Guild, now.”
“Just so. Knobs has been telling me some interesting stories concerning you and your friends,” Wellspring said with a quirking half-smile, leaning her chin upon one hoof as she eyed me, “It sounds as if you’ve performed some noteworthy heroics, saving Knobs and those refugees from a Raider attack on the road. Then before you were a guest in our fair city for more than a few days you rescued yet more ponies from the clutches of another mad Raider from the depths of a true hellhole. Now you’re assigned to this prestigious venture in diplomacy to the NCR. Quite the rising star, I’d say.”
I fidgeted in place, glancing towards the kitchen and wondering if I should just go ask for food? Wellspring’s words just made me feel nervous, for the most part, as I hadn’t done any of that with a desire for recognition. If anything recognition was the last thing I needed, given that I was being hunted by Odessa. “My friends and I were in the wrong place at the right time to do some good, so we did. Any of them deserve as much if not more praise than me for it.”
“Oh if I can I’d like to interview all of them,” said Wellspring with an eager light in her eyes, “As the Radio Guild’s premiere story correspondent I have a keen interest in keeping folk informed of tales like yours. It's the kind of proof ponies need every day to remind them the world isn’t all toil and torment. Knobs has been kind enough to tell me what she knows, but I always prefer to get the story from the proverbial horse’s mouth, if you have time?”
“I, umm... well it's not that I’m not flattered by the idea, but I’m not much of a storyteller, and I’d probably get all sorts of details wrong,” I said, waving a hoof haphazardly, as if to ward off the eager mare leaning towards me.
“No worries there, Longwalk,” she said with a wink, and seeming to magically produce a notepad and beat up old pen from seemingly nowhere, “I’m an expert at ferreting out the facts and filling in the blanks. I won’t take up much of your time. How about just some basic questions to start us off?”
Knobs looked at me, then shook her head with a helpless laugh, “I think you’re scaring him, Wellspring. Maybe you could tone down the reporter instincts a bit?”
“Now, Knobs, I’m certain that if Longwalk really wanted to say no, he’d just go ahead and say so, wouldn’t he?” Wellspring said, reaching over a hoof to pat at mine gently, batting her eyes, “It’s okay that I ask a few teensy little questions, right? You don’t mind, do you?”
“Oh good Goddesses,” Knobs said, giggling under her breath, “You never let up.”
“Not when I smell a story.”
I gulped, and carefully, gently, removed her hoof from mine, then said in as firm a voice as I could, “While I don’t have a problem answering questions, Miss Whistles, I can’t really go into too much details of my story, if you plan on putting it out there on the radio. I’ve... I’ve got ponies out there that are looking for me and my friends, and not for any pleasant reasons. I can’t have anything out there that’d point them in our direction, you understand?”
Wellspring gave me a long, considering look, then nodded, “I can only assume you’re talking about something other than your bounty, as I know that was removed before we departed. Very well, I understand. I give you my word I won’t put anything you tell me into a story, printed or put on the air. Still, my curiosity is sparked, and I would like to quench some of it. If you wouldn’t mind a few questions while we eat?”
I sighed, then nodded, “Fine, but just keep in mind I wasn’t lying when I said I’m not much of a storyteller.”
I first went to the kitchen to get a bowl of the oatmeal that was being served, along with a few small, rather puny carrots that were apparently common fare from the farmsteads north of Skull City. Munching away I let Wellspring ask her questions and did my best to answer them between bites. I left out a lot of the more fantastic or bizarre elements of my journey. Arcaidia went from a mysterious space pony in a metal pod Trailblaze and I found in a cave to a pony who merely wandered into our tribal lands while in search of her sister. Saddlespring was hard to talk about in general, and I skipped over a lot of it, but I think Wellspring still picked up on the fact that Odessa was the group hunting me and Arcaidia. Strange that she even seemed to know what Odessa was. I tried to skim over Stable 104, but Wellspring had an uncanny talent for pulling details out of me.
“An entire Stable occupied by intelligent pony/spider hybrids? Fascinating. And instead of wiping them out, you managed to strike up an alliance, even after all that violence? Impressive,” she said, pen scrawling away at her notebook.
“They wanted to be free from Midnight Twinkle. I mean, I think they really want to reconnect with the surface, they’re just... nervous about it. The surface is a dangerous place.”
“It certainly is. Sadly. Now what happened next?”
I pursed my lips, hoping I could skip over most of the details of what occurred at Silver Mare Studios, but once more Wellspring had questions that were like spiked barbs, dredging up the truth before I even realized what I was telling. I gave Knobs an imploring look, but she just kind of sheepishly shrugged at me as if to say, ‘sorry, you got yourself into this’.
“Surviving an encounter with a Hellhound is no mean feat, and you faced that terror all for the sake of saving the lives of those who were your enemies? A rare quality of compassion to see in anypony, though I suppose Crossfire would simply call it foolish.”
Knobs snorted a chortling laugh, “Crossfire would use much harsher language than that, Wellspring.”
“You know Crossfire?” I asked, to which Wellspring nodded with a long suffering expression capped by a wane smile.
“I do. I met her around the same time Knobs did, six years ago. Quite the little adventure that was...” Wellspring’s eyes turned briefly sorrowful, glancing at Knobs’ wheeled back legs, “You probably don’t need me to tell you that Crossfire can be rough around the edges and takes a bleak view of the world. I imagine a kind hearted stallion such as yourself irks her to no end.”
I laughed bitterly, “Yeah, that’s an understatement.”
“Still, interesting that you happened by Silver Mare Studios. One of the more intact landmarks out in the surrounding Wasteland. I went there once, in my more adventurous youth.”
I raised an eyebrow, “Really, with a Hellhound there?”
“Oh, there was no Hellhound back then. Raiders, yes, but I can handle myself around that sort. I went to there to retrieve any intact cameras and film equipment I could find. Half of the gear the Radio Guild still uses came from that salvage excursion. Heh, interesting bit of trivia, but did you know the last official voyage the Sweet Candy made before the balefire bombs fell was part of a film production originating from Silver Mare Studios?”
I recalled the memory orb where I’d last seen Trixie, departing with Money Shot aboard the Sweet Candy, “I, uh, may have noticed something saying that while I was there. There was a poster for a movie, umm... Daring Do and the something-something...”
“Daring Do and the Search for the Guardian Shrine,” Wellspring supplied, “Sadly a doomed production. I actually have some of the old Daring Doo radio plays, and Guardian Shrine is quite the popular one. The film version would have been something to see.”
“Doomed production?” I asked, curiosity piqued, my food momentarily forgotten as I leaned forward, ears perking forward keenly, “Do you know what happened?”
Wellspring cleared her throat, suddenly looking a bit embarrassed, “To be honest I hardly know the full story. You’d be better off asking Captain Bartholomew about that. He was there, after all. However I doubt you could get the old bird to talk much about it. I’ve been trying for years to get that scoop out of him, and he’s very tight beaked on the subject. The most I know is this; the film crew, along with the Sweet Candy and a small team of mercenaries, traveled to the Frozen North to film on location. Two weeks into production radio contact with the expedition was lost. A week after that search and rescue teams found only four survivors out of what had been an expedition of over fifty souls. One of them was the Captain. Another two were among the mercenary team, though I don’t know their names. The final survivor was one of the actresses, a mare of no notable reputation named Trixie Lulamoon. There are no official records of what happened in the Frozen North, and Captain Bartholomew has never told me more than what I’ve just told you.”
“That’s... pretty damn mysterious,” I said, feeling a tad depressed. I knew those ponies had all been dead for centuries anyway, with the exception of the ghoulish Captain Bartholomew, but I still felt bad thinking of those faces I’d seen in the memory orb and knowing now that so few of them had returned from their expedition to the north.
The north, where you’re going to end up going as well, to where your father’s lab is. That has to be coincidence, right? But that film title... the Search for the Guardian Shrine. It hadn’t meant anything to me back then, but now that I know who the Guardians are, could the expedition have actually stumbled across one of their shrines up north?
“I hope that’s enough for now, Miss Whistles-”
“Please, just Wellspring,” she said, finishing jotting down some final notes. For somepony who wasn’t going to put my story out there she sure seemed to want to jot down as much as she could.
“Alright, but yeah, think I need to turn in so I can rest up for my guard shift,” I said, rising from the table, “It was good meeting you. And Knobs, always a pleasure.”
“Same to you Longwalk. I’m happy you managed to get into the Drifter’s Guild and were brought along for this trip,” said Knobs, her thinly haired tail wagging behind her, “It should be a breeze, and after all you’ve gone through you could use a break.”
“I’m not certain how much of a ‘breeze’ it will be,” said Wellspring, a thoughtful look in her eyes, shaded by a shadow of concern, “We’ve got something of a melting pot on our hooves, with so many Guild representatives in one place, all set to meet up with the heads of both the NCR and Protectorate, both of which we Skull City folk have bad blood with.”
Knobs frowned, holding out a hoof placatingly, “Hey, the whole Red River incident happened a long time ago, and we can’t hold it against the NCR ponies. As for the Protectorate, isn’t it a good sign that their Princess could visit our city and not get harassed or attacked?”
“Only because she was under close guard by her own elite guards, and had the further protection of the Skull Guild itself,” said Wellspring in a almost lecturing tone, “Do remember, Knobs dear, that your Guild is feared for good reason. Not a single Outskirts gang or another Guild would risk moving against Princess Purity while the Skull Guild had her under its protective gaze. In fact, I’d dare say this whole diplomatic endeavour would be impossible without your guildmistress dragging everypony along by the ears.”
“Aww c’mon Wellspring, it's not like that!” said Knobs, “Star Soul might be the one who started the move for this alliance between all the big Wasteland powers, but none of it could have happened if the other Guilds didn’t want to back it. It's not like Star Soul is forcing anypony to do something that don’t want to do.”
“All I’m saying is that, less than a year ago we were all poised to restart the war against the Protectorate, and the streets are still filled with ponies who resent both them and the NCR enough to never consider coming to the negotiating table,” insisted Wellspring, “Yet now here we are, desperate for a chance at forging an alliance with former enemies and ponies who hadn’t given a single, and pardon my language, flying fuck about us until now. Why do you think that is?”
I’d considered leaving the table to just go get some sleep, like I’d said I’d do, but I was interested to hear what Wellspring was saying. I didn’t grasp much of anything about politics, but during my time in Skull City I’d gotten the distinct feeling something was off about the way events were unfolding there. No, even before I’d arrived in Skull City, I’d been encountering hints of something unusual going on in the city. I mean, besides the whole alien menace issue. Binge’s Raider group had been working for somepony else, I remembered. They’d been set up to take over Saddlespring, given aide by some outside force. Even Redwire had been unusually well supplied, beyond what I would have thought the Hyaden aliens would have bothered giving her. Then there was the Raider army putting pressure on Skull City, no doubt one of the main reasons the Guilds were willing to fall in line with Star Soul’s plan to negotiate an alliance with the NCR and Protectorate.
“Do you think somepony intentionally created all the problems Skull City is facing because they want this alliance to happen, or at least the talks to negotiate it?” I found myself asking, though mostly I was just musing out loud to myself.
Wellspring and Knobs were both looking at me now, Knobs with confusion, and Wellspring with a contemplative and approving expression. “That was my conclusion as well,” the Radio Guild mare said, “While it’s speculation with no proof, I’ve looked it over from several angles, and our present circumstances smell manufactured to me.”
“But surely not guildmistress Star Soul...” said Knobs, “She wouldn’t put the city at risk for something like this.”
“Why not?” Wellspring asked bluntly.
“W-well because she’s always gone out of her way to help Skull City and all of its inhabitants!” said Knobs, “Ever since she arrived she’s only worked harder and harder to make Skull City, both the Inner City and the Outskirts, safer and better to live in!”
“Yet the Outskirts remains just a few steps short of pure anarchy, and the Inner City maintains its calm only through the constant vigil of the Enforcers, while more and more Ruin monsters appear both in the Wasteland outside our walls, and most recently inside the wall,” replied Wellspring, “You can’t tell me that the corresponding troubles appearing alongside this recent push for an alliance is coincidence. I’m not saying it’s your guildmistress that’s responsible, Knobs, but my nose is twitching with certainty that somepony has pulled a lot of strings to make sure events followed the path that’s led us to this point. Personally I’m not a fan of being a puppet.”
Knobs made a small whining sound, looking down at her food, “I just don’t want to think that something that’s as good as everypony finally being willing to take steps towards establishing a lasting peace is because of some... some kind of creepy, manipulative conspiracy. Can’t we just be doing the right thing because its right, and not because of some ulterior motive?”
Wellspring smiled, though it was the long-suffering smile of one who was talking with the naive. “Your altruism is, as always, an inspiration.”
“Why do I feel like when you say that you’re just making fun of me?” said Knobs with puffed out cheeks and an onry look in her eyes.
“Not at all, Knobs, I do honestly admire that ceaseless optimism of yours. A trait I think you and our young friend here share,” Wellspring said, gesturing at me.
“Optimism isn’t such a bad thing,” I said, glancing briefly at my cutie mark, thinking of the contrast between the white and black wings, “Just as long as you balance it out with something else.”
“Like what?” asked Knobs, and I could only grin at her sheepishly.
“Not sure what words to use, honestly. Practicality? Pragmatism? It's just a matter of being able to feel out when pure optimism won’t be enough and it's time to get a little harder with things, you know?”
Knobs looked at me for a few seconds, then cracked a grin that lit up her teal features even past the leathery ghoulified flesh, “You know, you really just reminded me of Crossfire, just now.”
I blanched at that. Of all ponies quite possibly the last one I wanted to be compared to was Crossfire. “Okay, on that entirely spine chilling note, I think I’m going to bed.”
“Sleep well,” said Knobs, Wellspring also bidding me a goodnight.
It wasn’t hard to find my group’s cabin, as most of the passenger space was located along the same stretch of the ship. A simple wood door led into a small room with just a single bed, a few shelves and a trunk for storing gear, and a single manalamp hanging from the ceiling, though that was currently turned off so my companions could sleep. Arcaidia and B.B were sharing the bed, sleeping back to back Binge had claimed the patch of floor at the foot of the bed, curled up like a cat, lazily twitching her tail as she snored away. LIL-E was set against the wall opposite the bed, the eyebot gently rocking back and forth with the sway of the airship. I wondered if LIL-E, being truly a robot, actually needed rest? Regardless, I kept as quiet as I could as I walked into the room, closing the door behind me and picking a clear spot to the right of the bed to take off my saddlebags, pulling out a small comfy sleeping bag that I’d picked up from Stable 104.
I took off my armor, piling the pieces of gecko hide backed security armor in a neat pile beside my saddlebags. I set Gramzanber down alongside the sleeping bag next to me, patting the spear affectionately as I snuggled into the bag.
“G’night, partner,” I whispered to the spear.
I do not sleep, but I accept the sentiment, and shall remain vigilant for threats while you and your companions recover your physical energies.
“Hey...” I said, feeling sleep rapidly take over my tired body, “Do you know if I’ll.. have any more weird dreams?”
I cannot say. But the probability is...
I fell asleep before Gramzanber finished telling me.
One thing I could count on with these more unusual dreams, I could always recognize when they were happening. Going from falling asleep on the Sweet Candy to standing in a the bleak stone corridors of Skull City’s salt mines was a good sign I was dreaming. I wished my dreams had taken me to a less depressing place. I shivered slightly, calling out, “Gramzanber? You here?”
No response. Great. Well, as strong as our bond was getting I suppose there was no reason to think the ARM would be able to get into my dreams. Maybe that other spirit that was attached to Gramzanber was here, though?
It sounded like little more than a whisper at first, but in a few moments I heard the distorted female voice of the spirit that Gramzanber had absorbed into itself to help interface with me. “I’m here, Longwalk. It's hard to do this while you’re dreamwalking towards your companion’s dreams.”
“Is that what’s happening? I can’t see you anywhere,” I said, looking around. Last time the spirit had appeared in a misty, obscured fashion, but now all I could hear was her faint voice. The mine shaft kept stretching in front of me, but I could not see offshoots going off to the left and right, one from which a strangely sterile, bright light shone, and another that flickered with orange light, akin to flames.
“I can’t...” the voice floated in and out of audible range, “... not fully... dreams of Arca... blaze.”
The voice then faded entirely, leaving me facing the two branching mine shafts with a frown on my face, “Well, I suppose it’s either go see what my friends are dreaming about, or sit here until I wake up.”
I had no way of knowing whose dream I’d be walking into, and a part of me was hesitant to do so. There was an issue of privacy, here. I couldn’t help seeing my friend’s dreams before because I hadn’t been fully aware of what I was doing. Now that I knew, I could just choose to do nothing, and let my friends dream. I didn’t actually have any right to peek into their heads like this. Now that I knew, perhaps staying put was the right call.
“Yeah, I’ll wake up eventually, and I won’t be seeing things they might not want me to see,” I said to myself, sitting down and wondering just how I’d pass the time until I woke up for our guard shift. However the moment I sat down I felt the mine shaft heave beneath me and throw me bodily forward, tumbling me towards the shaft of white light.
“Oof!” I landed hard on what felt like cold metal, my eyes temporarily blinded by extremely dense light. Groaning, I started to pick myself up, hearing a series of beeps and a gentle hum in the air, alongside voices rapidly speaking in a language I quickly recognized as Arcaidia’s native tongue.
“Esru dol tiagoz vi shirai est hri...hro... hrai!”
“Corzian esru gorlmazai, chirshi Luminarsio, ti mira.”
“Mas, chirshikai Feryedoon..”
Looking around at my surroundings I was amazed to find myself in a wide, oval shaped room, made of shining silver metal and bright white plastics. One wall was dominated by what looked like a huge, wall hugging screen that showed a vast, shining blanket of stars. In front of that screen were two different consoles with plush white chairs. At one of those chairs was Arcaidia, wearing her blue dress, but also a slim, narrow brimmed cap with a insignia consisting of several inclined dashes. She was using her horn to manipulate buttons on the flat console in front of her, the same way the being in the chair beside her was using its own odd appendages to touch keys on its console. That being I knew was a Veruni. I’d seen one before, when I’d seen Arcaidia dream about her sister Persephone. This one looked different, shorter with a mane of neatly cut, black hair reaching to her shoulders. I think it was female anyway. It was hard to tell with these weird bipedal creatures with their pale, hairless skin and flat faces, with odd, if somewhat cute, little snouts.
There were other Veruni in the room as well, some operating consoles along the back wall, and others seated on a set of chairs towards the middle of the room on a raised platform. I was reminded of the bridge of the Varukisas that Odessa controlled. This had a similar feel, if not nearly as huge, but much more streamlined. All the Veruni were wearing tight, skin hugging uniforms in blue and silver colors. None of them were quite like Arcaidia’s dress, but then again she was the only pony on the bridge.
Sitting in the center most chair of the bridge was who I guessed had to be the captain, a tall Veruni with broad shoulders and a hard lined face. He had a gray mane, unkempt and short, held up by a strange circlet of dark blue metal, set along its length with blue gems. It was this individual, a male I thought, whom Arcaidia had been speaking with. I had landed against one of the walls, just behind a console, and I don’t think she saw me as she glanced back at the captain.
“Corzian esru di mas, tivion dol divrehkol est tulzun.”
The captain nodded, as if approving of what Arcaidia had said, “Ti dol.”
One section of the wall towards the back slid open suddenly, barely making more than a light hiss of noise, and another Veruni strode onto the bridge. I recognized her from her purple mane and similarly colored violet and white clothing immediately as Persephone. The Veruni female made a saluting gesture to the captain, speaking in Veruni. It was around that point I started to wonder why I was only hearing them speak in Veruni. I mean, I understood of course they’d be talking in their own language, but the last dream I had with Arcaidia and Persephone, I’d been able to understand them.
It was like thinking about it had flipped a switch in my head, and the unusual sounds of the Veruni tongue started to resolve into understandable Equestrian.
“We’ve just come out of warp, Sentinel Persephone,” said the captain, “We’ll be passing the planet’s moon in a few minutes, then enter orbit. Specialist Arcaidia was just starting the long range scan of the planet so we can get an idea of what its condition is after twenty years.”
“Thank you, Captain Fereydoon,” said Persephone, her flat features breaking into what I thought was a smile, “It feels good to return, at last. There are few things that left as bad a taste in my mouth as leaving my previous task unfinished, having to abandon my mission back then.”
Fereydoon nodded in understanding, “You were needed elsewhere, and the expedition had taken many casualties-”
“I don’t need the reminder, Captain,” said Persephone, “Let’s just focus on the present, shall we?”
“Of course. Take a seat, if you wish.”
“I’ll remain standing, if it's all the same,” Persephone said as she strode over to where Arcaidia was at her console. The unicorn lit up happily, smiling widely at her sister.
“I’m finally here, Persephone. I can’t wait to see my homeworld. If it's half as beautiful as you described it will be a jewel of the Empire, once it is brought into the fold.” She spoke with the sing song happiness that I’d only rarely heard in Arcaidia’s voice since meeting her. She was vibrant, beaming with palpable anticipation and joy that brightened her whole face. There was also the clear gleam of admiration in her silver eyes as she looked at Persephone.
I found Persephone hard to read. She seemed more reserved than Arcaidia, satisfied and eager in her own way, but there was tension in those bipedal shoulders. “Let’s remain focused, Arcaidia. We still need to finish a full survey before we even begin planning for this planet’s annexation. The last attempt at this led to a failure of which you were the only good thing to come out of it.”
“I... I’m sorry, sister. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories,” Arcaidia said, ears drooping slightly, but soon they perked right back up as she used her horn’s magic and push a few buttons on her console in response to some flashing signal, “Captain, we’re passing the moon’s orbital path. Shall I bring it on screen?”
Fereydoon nodded brusquely, “Do so.”
The large wall screen flickered and showed the sight of a shining gray and white expanse that seemed to cover half the view. The moon’s surface, this close, looked like a pockmarked ball of silver-gray canyons and rolling mountains, a faded, otherworldly landscape devoid of any color besides pale, cold shades.
“Scans show some interesting formations,” said the Veruni with darker hair in the chair next to Arcaidia, “Consistent with the reports from the previous expedition. Hard to believe primitive pre-space flight civilizations managed to put actual facilities on their moon.”
“You’ll find much of this world and its civilizations are not like what we’re familiar with,” said Persephone in a cool, measured tone, arms crossed beneath the odd mounds on her chest, “One of their potent, magical monarchs was imprisoned on that moon for over a thousand years. That palace you’re detecting near the northern regions belonged to her.”
“A fascinating species, the ponies,” stated Fereydoon, “Naturally occurring dimorphism creating multiple subspecies, including a ruling caste. That kind of thing is almost unheard of outside of insectoid species. I wonder if they were victorious in the conflict that was still ongoing when your previous expedition was forced to leave the planet?”
A pinched, sour look crossed Persephone’s face, “There didn’t seem to be an easy end in sight to that war when I left. Both sides remained evenly matched. That said, in twenty years I can’t imagine they’d be able to continue to maintain that war. It’s likely over, by now. Personally, my bet would have been on the ponies.”
Arcaidia gave a small grin at that, while Fereydoon simply asked, “Why do you say that? I’ve read your reports thoroughly and it seemed to me the more naturally militaristic zebra had the superior instincts, not to mention numbers, to eventually win what appeared to have become a war of attrition.”
“Adaption,” said Persephone, “Ultimately the whole of ponykind demonstrated an uncanny talent for adaption that I suspect the zebra lack. Then again, it’s a moot thing to speculate upon. We’ll know one way or another, shortly, what’s happened in the past twenty years.”
“Passing the moon’s gravitational pull, making final approach to planet LV-996,” said Arcaidia, her eyes now rooted to her console. There were several long minutes of silence before she spoke again, “Visual range confirmed. Scan commencing.”
“On screen,” Fereydoon said, and blinked at the image that appeared on the monitor. I blinked as well, and I think just about every Veruni on the bridge stared at the screen with equal parts confusion; save for Arcaidia who alongside her confusion had a look of painted horror seeping into her features.
“Persephone, is this what the planet is supposed to look like?” asked Fereydoon in a dry mouthed voice.
“No...” Persephone responded, tone hollow, “No, this isn’t right at all. Is there some kind of interference with our visual feed? Arcaidia?”
“I...uh,” Arcaidia gulped, pressing a few quick buttons, “N-no, ma’am. The visual is clear. And the scans are r-returning their data now. There’s... there’s lifesigns. Initial estimates show an approximate population of around...” Arcaida’s face paled visibly, her voice uneven and barely above a whisper, “Eight million.”
“Didn’t the previous report show a planetary population ranging closer to two billion?” asked Fereydoon.
Persephone’s eyes closed painfully, “Yes. Give or take. Stars preserve... what happened here!?”
I, of course, knew exactly what had happened. The world I saw on the screen was a dry, dead looking ball of sickly brown and gray colors. Huge swaths of continental mass were covered by little more than white cloud, but in other areas the land was like baked dirt, all in shades of burned brown or faded red. Only a few, small patches here and there, often on offshore islands or far away locations nearer to the poles showed any green, and only in small quantities. The seas even looked less a vibrant blue and more a muted greenish gray. The world, my world, looked like a sick and dying thing, hanging in the black void like a lonely, diseased fruit.
That was what the Great Fires, the balefire bombs, had done to the planet. I wasn’t sure just what the Veruni had expected to find, but this clearly wasn’t it. Most of all I felt a horrible stab of pain as I saw the look on Arcaidia’s face, like a clear window breaking. She had the look of devastation being covered up by a wet blanket. Her eyes were barely keeping in welling tears. She was holding onto her discipline, but only by a thread. Persephone reached down with a pale hand and gripped Arcaidia’s withers in a gentle, comforting gesture.
“Captain, we need to prepare for a landing party immediately,” said Persephone, “This is no longer a matter of infiltration, but of damage assessment. I need to find out what’s happened to this world.”
Fereydoon’s face was grim, “I can’t authorize that just yet, Sentinel. Until we know more I don’t want a single Veruni setting foot on that planet’s surface. Specialist Arcaidia, I want you to start a deep scan on all energy spectrums immediately.”
Persephone made a frustrated noise, eyeing Fereydoon coldly, “Scan all you want, but I can already tell you what you’ll find. Excessive levels of residual magical radiation, right down to the bedrock. Most of it is probably faded to background levels by now, except I’ll bet in certain major cities or key areas where military facilities were located.”
“What do you know?” asked Fereydoon.
“You read my reports, Captain. The very last thing my team discovered before that damned rainbow maned maniac managed to force us off planet was that both sides of the war had developed new, experimental magics that could magnify the power of conventional spells to unbelievably destructive levels,” said Persephone, turning eyes brimming with heated anger at the image of the planet on the screen, “Megaspells. They must have used them. I can’t think of anything else that could have caused this amount of destruction.”
“Captain!” called Arcaidia suddenly, “I’m detecting an energy reading, three degrees off the port bow, distance three kilometers.”
“What? What didn’t we detect anything earlier, that close?” Fereydoon said in frustration, “Give me visual and signal a yellow alert.”
“Yellow alert,” said the black haired Veruni, “Raising shields.”
“Getting visual now,” said Arcaidia, sounding alarmed, “Captain, the energy is spiking higher!”
The screen flickered, showing a closed in view of the orbital horizon of the planet, but also an object sitting in space. It looked like a long, telescopic tube with several large, gleaming panels of glass flowing off it like wings. Those panels were glowing with white hot energy, and a large, gathering pool of that same sunkissed light was forming at a needle point at one end of the tube... not unlike a giant laser gun, I thought. Then I paled. Oh, shit.
“Captain, it just locked on to us!” said Arcaida, “And I’m reading two more energy readings at differing locations!”
“Shields are up Captain,” reported the Veruni with black hair.
“Its firing!” Arcaidia shouted.
“Brace for impact,” said Fereydoon in a tight voice as the object cut loose with a brilliant white beam of energy that looked like it was launching a spear from the sun itself. A second later the entire bridge shook, hard, nearly pitching Veruni from their chairs and making me bump my head against the console I’d been hiding behind. None of the Veruni noticed me, but I smelled smoke and saw one console across the way had sparked and fizzled out.
“Damage report, begin evasive maneuvers,” commanded Fereydoon “And get me a damned weapon lock on those satellites! Arm all missiles and particle beams.”
“Front shields down to fifty four percent, Captain. Power fluctuations across all decks, and engine room reports a drop in sub-light drive speed,” reported the black haired Veruni in a rising pitch, belying her fear.
“From one hit?” Fereydoon breathed in disbelief, “What kind of weapons are those? Persephone, when did the ponies develop anything like this?”
“Megaspells,” Persephone muttered, as if that explained it all, “Captain, we need to retreat. The Arc of Destiny is not equipped to handle excessive combat and those satellites, if they’re equipped with magic of that power, will tear a ship like this to shreds.”
“I will not run from primitive satellites!” said Fereydoon in a hard tone, “Arcaidia, get me those lock ons, now!”
“Yes sir! Locking weapons now! Enemy satellites finishing charge. They’re firing again!”
The whole ship felt as if it lurched, and I held tightly to the console in front of me to keep from being knocked around like a rag doll. I heard Fereydoon shouting, “Return fire!” and then Arcaidia gleefully reporting, “Direct hit. One satellite destroyed. Re-arming missiles. Starboard particle beam nonfunctional.”
“Damn it all Fereydoon, I’m ordering a retreat as my authority as a Sentinel appointed by the Queen herself!” shouted Persephone, and that seemed to throw ice water upon Fereydoon’s fire. However, before he could respond Arcaidia cried out, “Another barrage incoming!”
“Sir, the shields are below twenty percent,” said the black haired Veruni, “They can’t handle-”
Then the whole front of the bridge seemed to explode in sparks and flame. I heard Arcaidia scream, and others cry out in pain. I was thrown back and skidded across the cold floor to slam into the far wall. Dream or not, this hurt, cracking my head and filling my vision with stars. The acrid scent of smoke and sharper, more chemical smells punched my nose, and I started coughing as it burned my lungs. Shaking the daze out of my head I looked around, fearful for Arcaidia, even though I knew this was just a dream.
The front viewscreen had exploded, and a portion of the ceiling had collapsed in a combination of metal shards and sparking, phosphorescent cables. Fires burned briefly but small robotic drones descended from panels in the ceiling to rapidly flit about and shoot off small jets of blue liquid that rapidly put out the fires.
I saw Arcaidia, her face smudged with only a bit of blood from a cut cheek. She was otherwise unharmed, but she was now desperately trying to heal the black haired Veruni who’d been sitting next to her, Arcaidia’s horn a blazing beacon of light. The Veruni had a metal shard impaling her chest, dark crimson blood pooling like ink beneath her limp body. The vacant eyes already made it clear the woman was gone, but Arcaidia was trying, regardless. I recognized that determined, rigid look in her eyes, the kind that reminded me of frost covered steel. She’d try until there wasn’t anything left in her. Fortunately her sister was there, Persephone’s hand gripping hard on Arcaidia’s leg.
“She’s dead, Specialist Arcaidia. On your feet.”
Arcaidia grit her teeth hard, only reluctantly dropping her magical field from her dead comrade and following her sister’s instructions, standing and wiping unshed tears from her face.
Other members of the bridge crew were injured, but none of them dead, it seemed, most recovering from the hit the ship had taken, but they all had worried looks many looking towards Captain Fereydoon, whose expression was pained but schooled to almost impossible calm.
“Someone get me a damage report. Arcaidia, what’s our weapon status?”
Arcaidia moved like a machine, all forced self control as she checked her console, which miraculously was still functional. Her voice was cold, muted, like a snow covered plain. “Shields are down and the generators overloaded. We’ve lost all but one dorsal particle cannon. Missile bays have been destroyed. Those last hits tore hull breaches across decks four through ten. Overall hull integrity is down to forty percent.”
The ship started to shake. I could feel the vibration humming through the cold deck floor beneath my hooves. Arcaidia’s voice continued to read off her report, “Engines have lost almost all power, Captain. Sub-light drives are only at six percent capacity. We’re being...” she breathed deeply, face a frosty mask, “We’re being pulled into the planet’s atmosphere. The Arc of Destiny doesn’t have enough engine power to avoid crashing into the surface.”
The bridge was quiet for a moment, save for the growing vibrations running through the bulkheads, and the soft whine of an alarm that accompanied flickering red lights along the walls. With a heavy sigh Fereydoon reached to his chair arm, pushing a button. “This is Captain Fereydoon to all hands. The ship is critically damaged and losing orbital stability. This is a priority one order; abandon ship. Repeat, all hands; abandon ship.”
He then said, “Arcaidia, contact the Com-Sat and relay a distress signal back towards the Empire.”
She nodded, but after only a few key presses, all while the shaking of the ship got more and more intense, Arcaidia visibly gulped and looked back, “Captain, I cannot reach the Com-Sat! I think it’s no longer there.”
“How? Stars curse it did the enemy satellites destroy it? We followed its signal here, so it must have just happened.”
“I’m detecting debris where the Com-Sat was located,” reported Arcaidia, “Likely, yes, the satellites that fired upon us destroyed it as well.”
“Why haven’t the satellites finished us off?” wondered Fereydoon.
“They appear to be cooling off after suffering overheat from repeating firings,” said Arcaidia, her eyes maintaining calm as they scanned her readouts, “Temperature data suggests as much.”
“It's all a moot point,” said Persephone, “We must get to the escape pods.”
“But without a Com-Sat, we can’t send a distress signal back to the Empire,” said Fereydoon, “And worse, no rescue attempt could locate this world again without the Com-Sat’s guiding signal. Arcaidia, launch another Com-Sat, we should have enough time to deploy it before our orbit entirely decays.”
“We have minutes, Fereydoon,” urged Persephone, voice hissing.
Arcaidia pursed her lips in a tight frown, “The launch bay doors for the Com-Sat backups was damaged in that last hit, Captain. We can’t deploy.”
Fereydoon struck his armchair with a hard fist, “Damn! Very well, we’ll have to deploy from the planet’s surface, assuming the Com-Sats can be salvaged. Arcaidia, place a maximum strength stasis field around the Com-Sats. It should help them survive, even if the Arc falls apart. Any survivors that make it to the planet’s surface will have to make getting to those Com-Sats a top priority, otherwise we’ll be stranded on this planet permanently.”
A few more keystrokes and Arcaidia chirped, “Done!”
Fereydoon nodded and stood, casting a solemn gaze among his bridge crew, “Then there is nothing more we can do. Everyone, get to your designated escape pods. Stars and Queen willing, we will meet on the planet’s surface. Arcaidia, set the autopilot to try and plot as stable a landing course as possible.”
By now the deck was vibrating so badly that it was rattling my teeth. I saw Arcaidia made a quick series of final adjustments on her console, then all but threw herself out of the seat as she joined her sister, Captain Fereydoon, and the rest of the bridge crew as they rapidly vacated the bridge. I was pulled along like an unwilling ghost, spectrally slipping through bulkheads as I followed Arcaidia down shining silver corridors tinted with warning lights of neon red. At points debris and flame choked some hallways, but always the Veruni ran faster around smaller side halls, and before long they were in a circular, tube-like chamber that stretched dozens of paces ahead, with circular platforms lining either side leading to spear-shaped pods... identical to the one I’d found Arcaidia in, weeks ago.
Persephone paused next to Arcaidia as other Veruni were clambering into their pods, one by one the pods descending into tubes at the bottom of the corridor. The purple haired Veruni knelt down, her red eyes hard and serious as she put one hand on Arcaidia’s shoulder.
“Take this,” Persephone said, reaching to a side pocket and pulling out a familiar silver sphere, the base form of Gramzanber that I remembered Arcaidia throwing to me on our fist meeting. Arcaidia looked at it, wide eyed.
“Is this the ARM I was assigned?”
“Yes, but the data wasn’t fully downloaded to it yet, so don’t use it unless you have to,” said Persephone, removing a small blue pack from the small of her back that I hadn’t noticed before, but also recognized as Arcaidia’s saddle bag, “I’d been packing for our first landing. I thought I’d give you these as a present. Now you’ll need it to survive. There’s a device in there that’s mocked up to look like what the ponies call a Pip-Buck, but it's also a field agent PDA that should pick up any Veruni signals. I’ll send this Pip-Buck a signal once I’m on the surface. Use it to find me.”
Arcaida nodded, face twisted with concern and sisterly love as she took the saddlebag, looped it over her shoulder, and placed the ARM sphere within it. “I will, sister. I’ll find you.”
Persephone smiled, ruffling Arcaidia’s mane, “I know you will. But above all else, remember who you are. You are First Specialist Arcaidia Luminasario of the Veruni Exploration Fleet. Your top priority, first and foremost, is to survive, and to serve the Empire's interests. If you can’t find me, find the Com-Sats, and get a signal back to the Empire.”
“You can count on me. I won’t fail you,” Arcaidia said firmly, sniffing as she held back unshed tears. The two shared a quick embrace, while dull vibrations and the sound of distant explosions rocked the ship. The two then quickly parted, Persephone to her own pod, and Arcaidia to her’s. The pair shared a final look, Arcaidia waving as the pod closed on her. Then the pod dropped into its tube and as it descended, so did I, a hapless passenger dragged along with Arcaidia’s dream of her own recent past.
I saw little else coherent as the pod was flung from the ship. I got the impression of a blue horizon, the blackness of space, then the rush of air and clouds as the silver streaking pod rocketed towards the surface. I caught a brief glimpse of the mountains of my home, and the sight of burning debris rocketing down alongside the pod towards the barren, dry forest of the foothills where I’d found Arcaidia’s pod.
There was a crash of intense noise like the striking of a sledgehammer on a boulder magnified to a factor of one hundred, then there was darkness and silence. All I could make out was the faint impression of the pod, lodged in the wall of the stone cave where Trailblaze and I had been chased by geckos. I approached the pod, and out of curiosity, stuck my head inside.
Arcaida rested, secured tightly in a vertical bed, and looked like she was sleeping. I saw a small screen bathing her in blue light and could read on the screen-
Dangerous radiation levels detected. Lifepod distress signal active. Malfunction in release mechanism.
It repeated that message in a ongoing scroll over and over again. Whatever the pod was doing, it looked as if it was keeping Arcaidia asleep... but for how long?
How long had it been since the pod fell here, and when Trailblaze and I stumbled across it? How long had Arcaidia been kept asleep, due to some sort of pod malfunction? I had no way of knowing, but I got the impression that it was a long time. A very long time.
I backed away from the pod, feeling as if I understood Arcaidia a little better now. It really must have been hard for her, waking up in a world completely different than the one she’d expected to see. She’d come hoping to see Equestria as it’d been once long ago, still green and vibrant despite the war that was being waged on it. In short order she’d seen her world as a barren husk, then had been thrust into an emergency that, from her point of view, had only just happened. And yet despite all that she had persevered through only having a couple of local tribals who couldn’t even speak her language as a guide, followed me into the unknown Wasteland in search of her sister, stuck by my side through one danger after another, and all the while learned my language and aided me in my crazy side-tracking adventures even when it might have been much easier for her to just go her own way.
“You’re really something else, Arcaidia,” I said, chuckling, “I really hope we find your sister.”
I was just starting to wonder if I was going to be pulled into anypony else’s dream when I felt a sudden shake on my shoulder, and when I blinked-
-I was looking up at Arcaidia’s face as she smirked down at me, giving my shoulder a shake.
“Up ren solva, the sleepy time has now come to end and we perform duties.”
I yawned, stretching in my sleeping bag, still feeling the heavy weight of fatigue on my body that said it still wanted more sleep, but I rubbed at my face with a hoof to banish the thoughts of snuggling back down and instead sat up. “Already? And only you got a turn tonight.”
“Turn?” Arcaidia asked, her head tilting curiously.
“N-nevermind,” I said, wishing my brain pony was as awake as I was, now. Everypony else was up as well. B.B was already waiting by the door, looking far too bright eyed and bushy tailed for whatever early hour it was.
“Up an’ at ‘em, Long,” the pegasus said with a grin as she stretched her wings, “Might be yer first shot at catchin’ a real sunrise, an’ it’d be a right shame fer ya to miss it.”
“Real sunrise?” I asked, curiously, “I know I like to sleep to sleep in, but c’mon, I’ve been awake at sunrise before.”
I felt something swat the back of my head and glanced over to see Binge wagging her tail at me as she trotted past, “The sparrow is talking about the gold lights, silly. The Goddess’ Eye, all blinding and judging. There’s no blanket out here to hide it from us.” The mare shivered, her smile turning sickly, “I’ve never seen it either.”
“I still don’t get it,” I said as my companions and I shuffled out of our cabin, LIL-E brining up the rear as she slowly floated behind us.
“We’re far enough south by now,” said LIL-E in her machine monotone, “That we’ve reached the edge of the zone where the cloud cover is cleared up.”
I looked at the eyebot incredulously. The constant blanket of overcast clouds had been a feature of my life for as long as I was able to remember. The only time I’d ever seen anything other than a sky painted in shades of gray and black was when I’d been briefly above the cloud cover in the Odessa warship, Varukisas. Even that small glimpse of blue sky had fascinated me, driven a spike of longing into my heart. I suppose it should have occurred to me that I might see something like that again, being once more on an airship, but I didn’t know what LIL-E meant by a zone where the cloud cover was clear, so I asked her.
“The pegasi, as a race, closed up the sky with clouds after the balefire bombs fell,” LIL-E explained briefly, with a hesitant pause before she said, “The NCR found a way to remove the cloud cover, one that extends over a wide area.”
“But not up in Skull City?” I asked.
“Or any of Equestria’s most outlying regions. The entire center of the continent is clear, but fringe areas like Detrot are outside of the range of...” LIL-E paused, “Well, they’re just out of range.”
“But now we’re enterin’ that range,” said B.B as we came out on the top deck, the air cool and crisp, a solid breeze doing wonders to wipe out the last of my fatigue. B.B turned and grinned at me, fluttering her white wings in an eager gesture, “So you’ll be gettin’ an eyefull o’ proper sun this mornin’.”
“Well, not good smartness to look direct at sun,” said Arcaidia, “Just look quick before eyes go bad.”
“Orrrrr,” Binge rummaged in her tail and seemed to materialize from the depths of its poofy tangel a pair of dark glasses that she plopped onto her snout with a smirk, “You wear protection! Important rule to remember, Longy.”
“Uh, where did you get those?” I asked in a deadpan voice, looking at the odd, dark glasses, wondering what function they might serve and why I thought they looked kind of cute perched on Binge’s snout like that.
“I found them!” she answered happily.
“In somepony’s saddlebags. When they weren’t looking.”
Arcaidia let out a hissing sigh, snatching the glasses off Binge’s nose with her magic and folding them, hanging the glasses off her dress hem while ignoring Binge’s whining protest. Arcaidia then shot the mare a stiff glare, “I return stolen property when we find who is missing sunglasses, stick hoofed one.”
“You’re such a rules lawyer,” said Binge with a huff, then seemed to forget her indignation with a smile as she licked her lips, “You know, if you’re so hard into discipline Arc, you should get a whip and some tight, sleek leather number to wear- Aaah! Cold!”
“Arcaidia, please stop freezing Binge,” I said in a tired voice, causing Arcaidia to grumbled as she stopped the ice and dropped Binge back to the deck, trotting away with a snort.
It was still dark outside, but nowhere near as much as I expected. It seemed the entire ship’s deck was awash with a faint silver glow, and when I went to the side of the deck to peek over the rail I was amazed by two things. One was that we were now sailing over a seemingly endless stretch of rolling white that glittered in the night like a carpet of gems sprinkled amid an ocean of sand. I’d only seen the edge of this great desert earlier, but now we were truly in the Bleach, each edge of the horizon nothing but bone white dunes. The other thing that lifted my heart into my throat in awe was the sky above.
There were still a few wispy bits of cloud here and there, but otherwise the sky was a dark blue bowl as endless as the desert beneath us, and just as sprinkled with gems of light that shone above like diamond dust. Then I saw, amid that black ocean of glittering lights, was the pale orb of the moon, blazing full in the sky and illuminating the night clad world in a coating of silver. I gulped, sitting down on my haunches. Not only was the sight beautiful, but given my recent dream-peek into Arcaidia’s memories, it was an overwhelming thought that she had passed by that moon on a ship not unlike what we were riding on, only vastly more advanced.
“Alright, git yer jaw off the deck, hun,” said B.B, “Show ain’t even started yet.”
“I...uh, is the sky always like that, without the clouds?” I asked.
For a moment B.B’s eyes dampened with a deep rooted sadness, “Most the time. Kinda weird ta think the sky don’t change much, no matter what we down here, huh?” She shook herself, as if tossing whatever sad thoughts she had aside, “Which means it's good ta appreciate it when we can take a’ break from the dirt an’ grim down here. Figure after all ya’ll went through back in Skull City ya could use somethin’ bright ta look at.”
I wished I had a way to show my appreciation for that sentiment besides just grinning at her like a dork. She seemed to find that thanks enough, returning my grin with a knowing smirk. Our duty on deck was to act as sentries, and it wasn’t quite sunup, so we got to work taking watch posts at each cardinal direction, Binge taking the port side, Arcaidia starboard, B.B aft, and me at the bow. We’d agreed to switch positions every hour for the four hour watch shift, not that we were really expecting a big shift in scenery for today. B.B explained to me that we wouldn’t be out of the Bleach until it was evening again, and then by tomorrow morning we’d be entering the NCR. The Bleach itself was entirely devoid of settlements, with not even a single oasis or rest stop from one edge to the other.
When I asked why the desert was like that, completely sand without any sign of the usual Wasteland ruins and clutter of the pre-war civilization, B.B just said that nopony knew for sure, but most rumors said the zebras had used something other than a balefire bomb in this stretch of land, and whatever it was had utterly crushed and stripped the land until not even the barest hint of life remained. Apparently stories of the large caravans and Mechanics Guild steamships that used to regularly cross the Bleach told stories of there being monsters in the Bleach’s sands that were viscous beyond most Wasteland critters, and that there were hidden Ruins buried beneath the dunes.
I couldn’t help but gaze down at the unending stretches of white sand and wonder if there was anything looking back. I remembered that the Golem that’d destroyed Saddlespring had marched in this direction, afterward. Was it still down there, somewhere in this massive desert? Why had it gone this way, in the first place?
Ruins beneath the sands... the zebras used a different kind of weapon here... hmm... my thoughts wandered, and I suddenly felt Gramzanber speak, his voice resonant in my head.
You’re wondering if the zebra knew about the Ruins the same way it seems the Equestrians did, and if they specifically targeted this area to try and destroy any Ruins in this area.
“Huh?” I said aloud, almost jumping at the ARM’s sudden voice, then with a face tinged red with embarrassment whispered, “Sort of. I mean, yeah, why not? I remember Rainbow Dash was forced to kill to try and keep some kind of secret with the Ruins, so it makes sense the Equestria of old knew something about the Ruins and their connection to alien threats like the Hyadeans. Why wouldn’t the zebras have known as well?”
It is a plausible theory. Sadly I lack information concerning the Veruni’s previous visits to this planet, so I cannot confirm anything for you, Longwalk.
“That’s okay, Gram. I was just musing, anyway. I’m more worried about the here and now than the past. If that Golem is down there in that desert somewhere, it’d be a serious threat. I mean, I know we’re all the way up here in an airship, but I remember that monstrous thing firing on an Odessa airship, after surviving a bombardment that flattened what was left of Saddlespring. Running into it again would be seriously bad.”
My data on the Golem weapons forged by the Elw is exceedingly limited. I know there were eight; Lolitha, Barbados, Lucifer, Sado, Berial, Diablo, Leviathan, and Asgard. The one you encountered beneath Saddlespring I believe was Diablo, code named ‘Roaring Metal’. However that is all I know. The Golem’s individual capabilities are not information I possessed, but I would recommend avoiding combat with one if possible.
“Yeah, no shit,” I said, eyeing the horizon to the port of the bow as the sky started to take on a distinctly lighter tinge.
As the minutes passed my eyes became rooted to that distant line between earth and sky, and the growing light of dawn began to grow brighter. The sky slowly became painted with strokes of warming blue and enchanting purple, while the horizon itself started to blush with a rose and flame tint that belied what was coming. I’d never truly seen the sun before. I knew it was a ball of light in the sky, but the constant cloud cover I’d known my whole life had cloaked the truth from me. The blinding, golden light of life that was cresting the horizon pierced me. It began as a liquid blaze of light that caressed the horizon with brilliant spears of light, then grew into a rising point of shining gold that washed all the sky in vivid hues of intermixing blue and red that dazzled my eyes.
Then there was the warmth of it. I’d never felt the sun’s naked rays on my fur and flesh before, and I shivered in their kind, warm touch. That light and warmth spoke of a never ending, always present gift inherent in being alive, and I just stood there in awe of it for a few minutes, forgetting all of my fears and worries while feeling that warmth of a true sunrise for the first time in my life.
Then, very suddenly, I didn’t want to be feeling it alone. I turned grinning, trotting from the bow towards the port deck where Binge was sitting, staring out towards the sunrise as well. Arcaidia joined us from the starboard deck, and I saw B.B slowly floating our way on lazy wing flaps.
“It's amazing! Hey Binge, you haven’t seen this either, right? Its... great?”
When I got a look at Binge, I paused, tilting my head. She was staring into the sunlight, the gold rays lighting her tired, scarred face in a way I had never really seen before. Everything about her seemed to pop out more clearly and stark, the horrible scars on her body standing out against the few clear patches of her green fur. Her blue eyes were dull, her mouth oddly slack, and even her poofy mane seemed somehow deflated. When she looked at me, I couldn’t tell what she was feeling, as if her emotions were being shoved down somewhere deep in her eyes.
“Its pretty,” she said, voice somehow subdued, “Is it real? It doesn’t feel real.”
Arcaidia had a strange look on her face, looking at Binge as if unsure just what to do wit her, “Sun is big real, I give you words of truth. Just like star but close to planet.”
“Binge, what’s wrong?” I asked, hesitantly.
She looked away from the sunrise, seemed to fix her gaze southward, and shook herself, patting her face with a hoof, then suddenly was all back to normal; feral grin and all. “Nothing’s wrong, silly! Big Sis Binge just had a teensy little brain spurt and forgot herself for a sec. Too much shiny, burns the soul.”
“Well, if you’re sure you’re okay...” I said, not really liking the way she’d seemed to zone out there and look so desolate for a moment. Arcaidia and I exchanged worried glances. Even Arcaidia seemed concerned, but was equally baffled as I was. B.B sensed our mood but didn’t bring it up as she landed next to us.
“Figure it's time fer a’ spot shift. Hope ya ‘liked the view Long.”
I managed a smile for her, which wasn’t too hard as I had genuinely loved the sight of my first sunrise. I just wished I knew why Binge had seemed so bothered by it. “Sounds good to me.”
We shuffled guard spots, and I ended up taking the port side, with Binge heading for starboard. Arcaidia took aft, and B.B the bow. LIL-E floated around on a roaming pattern around the deck, using her scanners to keep an eye for anything the rest of us might miss. Slowly the hours crawled by. The sky became painfully blue as the sun rose higher, and the only real noise for a good long while was the regular hum of the engines and the whir of the propellers cutting the air as the Sweet Candy continued to sail southward. Crew members would pass along the deck going about their business, not that the ship seemed to need much regular tending to keep its course. Captain Bartholomew rarely left the wheelhouse, keeping a steady eye on our progress. I did catch him occasionally looking at Arcaidia, however, and once more wondered why.
I’ll ask him soon as I’m off guard shift, I mentally resolved, but as the final hour of our guard duties were coming to a close something else came up. The first I heard was Crossfire’s raised voice, even before the hatch to the deck opened, practically being slammed by Crossfire’s crimson magical aura.
“I told you Applegate, drop it!” I heard Crossfire snarl in a voice of utmost scorn. She trotted out, shoulders hunched like a cat with its hackles raised, head lowered as if she wanted to skewer something with her horn. Right behind and beside her was Applegate, trotting with the stiff shoulders of a mare being patient with a young, ornery adolescent.
“If you’d just talk to her you might find something of value besides what comes from the clink of bottlecaps. She only wants to reach out to you.”
“What am I to her? A name even I don’t give a shit about? She doesn’t know me.”
Applegate’s eyes gazed at Crossfire levelly, “A fact she most fervently wishes to change, Crossfire. You won’t even give her a minute to speak to you. You can’t always run away from this. It’s a part of you. She’s a part of y-
“I don’t need you lecturing me!” Crossfire’s voice rose to a dark, heated pitch, the kind that sent warning shivers down my own spine. Applegate took it in stride, only halting to face Crossfire with a even, stone carved expression. Crossfire continued to speak, each word acidic, “You left, the same as me, and how’s that knightly honor holding up after so many years, huh, Applegate? I was just a soldier, and my duty was done. You? What made you leave your sworn duties for the mercenary life? Last time I checked Whiteheart pays you the same way he does me, so where the fuck do you get off lecturing me?”
“There’s more to duty than following the strict codes of honor,” said Applegate, voice steady, but there was a twinge of regret in her face, “My duty has carried me here, through many winding paths. Yet through all of it I remain a loyal servant of the Twin Thrones of Neighlesusis and Applehyde. I am still a sworn knight of the Protectorate. Do not mistake my work with Whiteheart for the petty pursuit of wealth. And do not change the subject.”
“No,” Crossfire said, her eyes finally glancing around as if only then realizing their conversation was audible to just about everypony on the deck, including me. Indeed her eyes fixed on me for a second, narrowed, then returned to Applegate, “We’re done talking.”
With that Crossfire stalked towards me, and Applegate sighed. I then noticed Shard stick his blond maned head out from the hatch.
“Is it safe to come out?” he asked, to which Applegate nodded with a disgruntled look.
“Yes, Mister Shard, your companion and I seem to be done with our... discussion, for today.”
“Oh, good, was worried you two were about to have it out right here on deck,” Shard said, trotting out, noticing my friends and I and gave us a quick wave.
Meanwhile Applegate grimaced and started towards me, reaching me just behind Crossfire. The two mares still had an electric tension between them that felt like I could cut it with Gramzanber. Crossfire, pointedly ignoring Applegate beside her, said to me, “Guard shifts up, me and Shard are taking over.”
That rather surprised me. “Weren’t you guys just on the last shift?”
“Yeah, but Hawkeye is indisposed,” said Shard, rolling his eyes, “Apparently he didn’t mention to anypony that he gets motions sickness. Only thing he’d be spotting on guard duty is his lunch going over the side.”
Crossfire snorted, “It's fine by me. I wouldn’t trust him or those mooks he brought along for his team to do much more than fiddle with their privates instead of keeping an eye out for trouble.” She eyed me, “Half surprised you and your hero squad didn’t have some kind of circle jerk up here yourselves.”
By now my friends had come along, and LIL-E spoke up in a sharp monotone, “Even if we did we’d keep a better watch than somepony whose nose is buried so deep in their own bullshitting asscrack.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, before anypony else could speak, “Let’s all pretend we’re adults here for a second, and leave the insult competition for when we’re not trapped together in a confined airship for the next day and a half. I’d like to get to the NCR without any explosions, if I can.”
LIL-E whirred around to face me, “But explosions can be a lot of fun.”
Binge nodded enthusiastically, “And hydrogen inside an airship burns very nicely.”
Arcaidia blinked, “Shivol bir knows this how?”
“Don’t think it matters how Binge knows much o’ anythang,” drawled B.B, then glanced at Crossfire, “So iffin’ yer talkin’ over, might as well git to it ‘fore somepony catches us wit our tails raised.”
“Indeed,” said Applegate, looking to me, “And I hope you are prepared for your training session, young Longwalk?”
“Uhh... sure?” I said, “Right here?”
The mare nodded to me, inclining her head back towards the open portion of the center deck, “There shall suffice.”
Crossfire had a strange smirk on her face, “This ought to be good for some on duty entertainment.”
“Hey Long, why don’t we go ‘bout rustlin’ up some grub in the mess hall while you do yer training bit, an’ we’ll bring somethin’ up fer ya?” suggested B.B, and I nodded to her, knowing I’d probably be starving before long.
“Sounds like a plan to me. You guys go eat. I’m certainly not going anywhere.”
As my friends went off down below decks and Crossfire and Shard went to take up slowly patrolling watches along the sides of the deck, Applegate and I went to the very center of the airship. There was a lot of space there, easily a good fifty feet of clearance between either side of the ship, or before the fore or aftcastle created a wall. It was sort of like standing in a little wood arena. As we stood across from each other I could see up into the pilothouse, noticing Captain Bartholomew handing over control of the wheel to another crewpony. The grizzled ghouled griffin slowly walked out onto the aftcastle’s higher portion of the deck to look down on me and Applegate with a curious look, pulling out an old wood pipe and sticking it in his beak as he watched us.
It made me a bit self conscious, but I supposed the old bird had been staring at the horizon all night and might want something else to do to break up the routine. I focused my attention upon Applegate, seeing her, strangely enough, not using her mouth to unsheath the large blade on her back but rather reaching over with her right hoof, gripping the weapon with a fetlock and drawing it forth while keeping a surprisingly tight looking hold on it.
Then, surprising me further, she reared up on her hind legs, balancing on them with seeming ease as she held the sword with her fore legs. My shocked look must have been quite obvious, for she smiled slightly and said, “I imagine you haven’t encountered many ponies who fight using this style.”
“You’re literally the first I’ve run into who does,” I said, shaking my head, “I mean, I’ve done it a bit myself, but that's for... well I won’t go into the reasons, but it’s weird. Ponies aren’t really meant to do that, are they?”
“You’d be surprised at how flexible a pony’s body is,” said Applegate, doing a quick, elegant flourish with her sword as if to emphasis her point, keeping her balance as she shifted on her hind hooves to move with the flourish. “Or I should say an ‘equine’ body, since this fighting style originated from the zebra, at least the version that was taught to me.”
“What’s the benefit, though? Why fight in a way that looks so uncomfortable?” I asked, for the moment ignoring the fact that when I’d done it it’d actually felt rather natural, in a strange way. I knew now that was because the alien nanomachines inside me were imprinting knowledge into my brain, including fighting techniques, from an alien creature that was bipedal. I’d assumed that whatever changes that made inside me also made it so fighting on my hind legs didn’t feel too wonky, but apparently equines had fought this way before and it wasn’t too outside the realm of what my body could do.
Applegate held her sword up, balancing its blade on her shoulder, “There’s two key upsides to bipedal combat. First is that while our neck muscles are plenty strong, we can simply get more power out of strike by using our forelegs.” To demonstrate she slashed downward, not close enough to hit me, but even so I felt the air whoosh by me from the force of the strike, and got the impression that she could split a pony in half with ease.
“The second benefit is the ability to rapidly move over a short distance, with much better agility,” Applegate said, nodding to me, “Attack me, and I’ll show you what I mean.”
I was a bit hesitant, as Gramzanber was the kind of weapon where if I misjudged my strike or she mistimed a dodge, I could end up doing a lot of harm. One slip up could get somepony killed. Namely Applegate. Yet the confident poise with which she held herself, watching me patiently to unsheathe my weapon and attack her, told me I needed to show a little trust in her. She wouldn’t be asking me to do this if she didn’t know what she was doing. I hoped.
I didn’t use the same bipedal stance Applegate was. I wasn’t really comfortable with it yet, especially knowing that the reason I could do it so easily in the first place was because of the Hyadean nanomachines in my blood. The whole notion just left me feeling itchy in my own hide. I drew Gramzanber, holding it in my mouth, and tensed myself to strike. Applegate waited for me, eyes still pools.
When I lunged I tried not to hold back. I somehow felt that doing so would insult her. I needn't have worried. She moved like a whirlwind. Gramzanber struck nothing but air and in the blink of an eye I felt the cold steel of Applegate’s sword resting on the back of my neck. She’d somehow moved to the side of me in an instant and lowered her sword in what would have been a perfect, decapitating stroke if she’d been serious. I just gawked at her, almost losing my mouth’s grip on Gramzanber.
Applegate stepped back from me, still poised on her hind legs, and asked, “Did you see how I did that?”
I just shook my head, numbly. She nodded as if expecting the answer and said, “Come at me again, more slowly. Watch my hind legs as you do.”
I did as she bade, tensing and lunging once more, but checking myself and making sure I moved a bit slower, and specifically kept an eye on her legs. As I watched she took her left hind hoof off the deck and used her right one to pivot. Her whole body swung around with incredible ease, avoiding my blow with the bare minimum of movement, yet fluidly putting her place beside me to strike down with her sword wielded in her fore limbs. It was so simple, yet elegant, graceful as a swirling dust devil.
“On my hind legs I can shift my weight much faster than I can if I’m standing on all fours,” Applegate said, stepping back from me once again, “Once balance is achieved, it's possible to maneuver in ways few ponies are prepared to counter. On four legs we’re fast in a straight gallop, and can charge with great strength, but on two legs a trained fighter can avoid blows far easier while striking with versatility and power.”
“It’s impressive,” I said, “You say the zebras came up with this?”
“Its origins go back to their tribal roots, though the style I use has been modified over the centuries and adapted for ponies. In Applehyde, my hometown, the style is traditionally taught to all who are appointed the rank of knight.”
Thinking back to the conversation between her and Crossfire I found myself asking, “Is that where Crossfire is from too? Applehyde?”
Applegate’s eyes shifted to glance towards where Crossfire was patrolling along the bow of the ship, well out of earshot. “I shouldn’t have spoken so loudly of private affairs. I forgot myself. Truthfully I feel I can’t speak much on Crosssfire’s past. I can tell you that she is not from Applehyde, but rather its sister city-state, Neighlsius. The twin cities that form the Protectorate have stood against the ravages of the Wasteland since the falling of the Megaspells. Survival built upon strong traditions of mutual trust and self-sacrifice of souls willing to shed blood to protect our land. None represent that more than the Crown Princesses; Princess Purity of Neighlisus, and Princess Goldring of Applehyde. It is a noble land of good, hardworking ponies, who know the importance of the ties that bind families together.”
There was a hard look in her eyes now, a long simmering frustration that made her features seem like rough cut granite, “Crossfire refuses to acknowledge who she is, and has stubbornly done so since I first met her so many years ago.”
“I... can’t really claim to understand what you mean,” I said, blinking in confusion, “I’ve only known Crossfire a short time, and that first meeting didn’t exactly go over smoothly. Kind of convinced me she’s a cap grubbing mercenary. Only Knobs has given me any reason to think there might be something decent about her, and while she’s fought beside me, I’m still leagues away from being able to call her a friend. So, even if you’re from the same country she is, I’m not sure I get why you’re so worked up about her.”
Applegate smiled sadly, “I suppose from an outsider’s perspective it would seem strange. Never mind it, young Longwalk. We have training to focus upon.”
“Young Longwalk?” I asked, “You don’t look that much older than me.”
“Sometimes just a few years experience can add up to a lifetime,” said Applegate somewhat mysteriously and gestured at me with a free hoof, “Now, come. Hold nothing back.”
We began to spar in earnest, and I lost track of the time. Applegate continued to move like a twisting viper, pivoting away from my attacks with the kind of agility that’d make dry leaves on the wind envious. She struck back with equal speed and grace, yet I was able to work myself into a rhythm of bocking and counter attacking that kept her large blade from touching my hide, at least most of the time. She never wounded me, but she did strike a few glancing blows, pulled back just so I knew that if she’d wanted to injure me, she’d had the opening. It only encouraged me to try harder, push myself faster. I didn’t use Accelerator. I wanted to learn the skills of combat in this instance, not rely on my ARMs power to win. This wasn’t about winning, it was about learning.
Again and again my spear met with her blade, a high shriek of striking metal cutting the air with each blow. Sweat was pouring off of my body in heated rivers and only the swift, cool breeze of the Sweet Candy’s flight kept me cool as Applegate continued to press me, ever forcing me to move and react faster to keep her blade from tapping me. I hadn’t at first noticed, but before long we’d drawn a crowd.
Not only crewponies, but a number of the passengers had come up on deck, either just to see the view from the airship rails, or specifically drawn by the sound of my sparring with Applegate. Besides my friends, who crowded up on the forecastle to watch me with Arcaidia and B.B trading bets on whether or not I’d ever hit Applegate or Binge lustily cheering me on, there were others who watched us intently. I noticed Iron Wrought by the starboard railing, watching me with quiet intensity. Whiteheart had joined Captain Bartholomew, exchanging quiet words with one another. Knobs was there as well, with Wellspring and Blasting Cap. The Raider filly was scowling like usual, propped up on Knobs’ back, while Wellspring had a notepad out, jotting something down.
Then there was Princess Purity, gliding up on deck like a pale ghost, peering around at everything with open curiosity, her guardian Phalanx trailing her like a power armor clad shadow. I couldn’t help but notice Purity exchanged a brief look with Crossfire, glancing away as Crossfire snorted and pointedly turned her back on the young monarch.
Also among those watching us was the poncho wearing griffin I’d seen briefly when passengers had been boarding the ship. I didn’t know his name, only recalling that Binge had suggested he was either with the Enforcers or Security Guild. He was the only one besides Applegate who was armed with a sword. Perhaps that’s why he was watching us so intently?
I must have been too distracted by noticing the crowd because Applegate snuck in a swift blow past my guard, reversing the hold on her sword and striking me across the jaw lightly with the pommel. “Watch me, Longwalk, not them. Distraction in battle is a rapid road to defeat.”
“Nice slogan, ought to be hung on a sign,” I said, a tad sore over the hit to the jaw and retaliated by focusing all of my attention back on her and attacking with abandon to try and finally get her on the defensive. I’d continued to watch the way she pivoted with her hind legs, and was getting the timing of her movements down. While the pivoting was swift, it was still limited in where she could go. She could only really pivot to my right or left, and stick within a pace’s distance.
Hoping to catch her off guard I swallowed my pride and discomfort and when she pivoted away from a fainting lunge, I pulled back, reared up on my hind legs, and spat Gramzanber out into my waiting fore limbs. I shut out the thinking part of my brain, letting my ingrained skills and instincts from the Hyadean nanomachines help guide the unusual bipedal movement, pivoting with Applegate to match her speed. I’d intended to use the back of Gramzanber’s shaft to trip her... but the moment I moved to strike it was like my body refused to follow the plan and my brain lanced with images, memories not my own.
-the Veruni warrior pivoted, meaning to strike me down with his blazing ARM, trailing brilliant thermal heat energy from its superheated edge. The fool had underestimated my reach, however, and Gramzanber’s dark, bloodthirsty edge. I pivoted with the doomed warrior, ignoring the howl of battle around us, and pulled Gramzanber back, deflecting the Veruni’s ARM and then thrusting Gramzanber forward in a blow that-
Would cut right through Applegate’s throat! I threw the aim of the deadly blow aside at the last second, even as she herself reacted to the strike with incredible speed, jerking aside. Gramzanber still cut a red, painful looking mark across her right foreleg, the crimson droplets of blood spattering the deck as we jumped apart.
I was breathing hard, the sweat on my face now running ice cold as I stared at Applegate, and the fresh wound on her leg that could have easily been something far worse had it not been for her quick reaction and me being able to pull out of the memory at the last second. There was a collective series of gasps or sighs of relief from the crowd watching us, only Binge sounding happy as she shouted, “Woo-hoo, first blood!”
Arcaidia rolled her eyes, reaching over to whap the other mare.
Meanwhile I stared at Applegate, gulping, despite a very dry mouth. “Y-you okay?”
Applegate examined her wound, face remarkably calm for somepony who had nearly lost a throat a moment earlier. “It isn’t deep. A little stitching and bandaging ought to suffice.”
“Please,” Princess Purity said, stepping forward, horn already lighting up with magic, “Allow me to tend to that, Dame Applegate.”
“That isn’t necessary your Highness, it's little more than a scratch.”
“Nonsense. Now, please be still. Phalanx, if need be, sit on her,” said Purity, managing a stubborn look she still somehow managed to make appear regal. Phalanx, obeying his mistress’ command, stomped over, his blank power armor helmet staring at Applegate until she sighed and sat down on her haunches to allow Purity to tend to her. Meanwhile I awkwardly shuffled away, but Applegate spoke up.
“Longwalk, that last strike...”
I turned to look back at her, guilt and nervousness twisting my features. Applegate looked at me squarely, but not in a judging manner, merely curious.
“That didn’t come from you, did it?”
I could only shake my head helplessly at her, answering honestly, “I don’t know.”
She accepted my answer with a slow nod, “We can speak of it next time. For now I’d say we’ve trained enough, this day.”
I hardly had any desire to disagree with her, feeling shaken down to my bones as I slowly trotted up the stairs to the forecastle to join my friends. LIL-E bobbed towards me, turning to her side and opening up a side compartment on her chassis. Within was a small paper plate with a pile of small vegetables, and a bowl of steaming stew that I could smell the chunks of meat in. Disturbed as I was by what had just happened, the food did wonders to settle me, setting my stomach growling.
“LIL-E, you’re an angel.”
“Of badass wrath, but yes,” said LIL-E, “You look like you could use it.”
I could. Even putting aside the nerve wracking close call that could've led to me accidentally murdering somepony, I had worked up an appetite. I took the plate from inside LIL-E’s compartment (there had to be a euphemism somewhere in there but I’m a gentlecolt, thank you very much) and set it down to munch away and try to forget what had just happened. Unfortunately I wasn’t going to be allowed to do that because not more than ten seconds later, before I could even get to the meaty bits of the stew, there was a shout from the aftcastle of the ship.
“We’ve got something incoming!” shouted Shard, waving from the back railing.
There were a few murmurs of concern from the crewponies as several scrambled back that way, along with the Captain and Whiteheart. Crossfire passed by, already unslinging her rifle from her back. I exchanged looks with my friends.
“Don’t suppose your Pip-Buck is picking up anything?” I asked Arcaidia, and she shook her head. “Yeah, mine neither. Guess whatever it is is outside the range of the E.F.S. Should we go take a look?”
“Its our job ta protect the ship, so I’m thinkin’, yeah we oughta see what’s comin’,” said B.B, taking to the air and winging towards the back of the ship. We all moved to follow her, but I noticed Binge pausing, a strange look coming over the mare’s scarred features.
“Binge?” I asked.
Her eyes looked like they weren’t seeing anything for a moment, before she blinked and shook her head, ears twitching fiercely, “Ghosties don’t want to be giggled at, bucky. They’ll reach out and choke you if all you do is laugh. We got ghosties in us, and something dancing in the air here wants to make them come play hardcore.”
“What are you talking about?” That was starting to become a common thread between me and Binge. Puzzling out what the mare meant could become a full time job to anypony crazy enough to try. Oh, wait, I was pretty much already doing that. Well, I already figured I was at least partially crazy, so no worries there.
Binge just sniffed the air, ears still flopping about like they were itching, “The bits in you that dream different than you, the air here makes ‘em sing. I can feel it too, because you bleed into me. The tiny bits from another ghost.”
“Wait...” my eyes widened slightly, “You’re talking about the nanomachines, aren’t you?”
“Duh, bucky, I felt them. Almost made me sleep forevers when you put them in me. They’re making you see ghosties. Like just now, a ghostie almost got you cutting the throat of the apple mare. I’m seeing ghosties too.” She sniffed, again, licking her lips, “Bad things happened here, bucky, way back when. Blood in the air, so old, but not gone.”
More shouts came from the back of the ship, and I saw Arcaidia looking back at me and Binge with worry in her eyes. I put a hoof on Binge’s leg, gulping, “Let’s worry about ‘ghosties’ later. Right now I think we’ve got something else to deal with.”
“Mmm, fun fun fun, in the sun sun sun,” murmured Binge, and I took that as agreement. She followed me, at any rate, as we joined Arcaidia and all trotted along to get to the aftcastle where we found B.B alongside Crossfire and Shard as they all peered out at the sky behind the Sweet Candy’s path. Captain Bartholomew was there too, with a long brass tube pressed near one eye, Whitemane standing stoically beside him.
“What do we have, Captain?” asked the leader of the Drifter’s Guild.
“Looks like an old Enclave Raptor,” said Bartholomew, beak tight around his pipe, “Engines stripped, replaced with twin dirigible balloons. Full retrofit. Red paintjob, and I’m seeing a black emblem like a bird. Yup, it’s the Black Swans.”
“The what?” I blurted, blinking. I couldn’t see much, only that there was a dark dot on the horizon behind us and a little to the north. I couldn’t really make out any details.
“A band of pirates, or rather I should say ‘privateers’,” said Whiteheart, eyes calm and contemplative, “Not the usual riff-raff that occasionally prey these skies. They usually operate much further to the east, around what’s left of Griffinstone. They’ve only come out to our neck of the Wasteland once or twice to raid shipping out of Port Needle, and I’ve never heard of them coming out over the Bleach.”
“Damn well armed,” growled Bartholomew, “One of the few intact Raptor’s outside the NCR’s airfleet. Lost their engines about ten years ago and have been running those balloons with coal powered engines ever since.”
Crossfire frowned, “Sounds to me like you know these pirates pretty well.”
Bartholomew shrugged, “Ain’t a lot of folk ply the airways, missy. You do it long enough you tend to rub shoulders with just about everyone in the business. I know the Captain of the Black Swans. Georgia used to be Talon before she took over the Raptor from its old Enclave commander and turned the crew into her own merc outfit. Hard, tough bird, and merciless while on the job. She won’t be reasoned with if she’s here to sink the Sweet Candy.”
“Can we outrun them?” asked Whitemane.
“The Raptor, yeah. She must’ve run the engines ragged to catch up this much with us. The Sweet Candy is lighter and swifter than that bucket of bolts. Problem is, it ain’t the Raptor we need to outrun,” Bartholomew said, peering through that brass tube again and he bite out a sharp swear, “Shit, that’s what I figured. She’s launching fighters, and those we can’t outrun. Alright! All crew, battlestations! We’re in for an old fashioned brawl!”
I had difficulty making it out, but it looked as if a small swarm of smaller dots had dropped from beneath the larger, distant dot, and were rapidly approaching. I felt a cold unease settle in me as I watched them approach, gradually and making out the shapes of small machines flying through the air on black, canvas wings, two sets stacked atop each other on either side. Single buzzing propellers were mounted at nose of each craft, and a small tail extended out behind them with stabilizing fins. I couldn’t see weapons yet, but no doubt each ‘fighter’ was armed, otherwise they wouldn’t be clearly on their way to attack us.
“Alright, you heard the Captain!” shouted Applegate, her wound bandaged and clearly not giving her any problems as she cantered towards us, “Prepare to defend the ship. Crossfire, Shard, take the starboard side. Longwalk, your team take the port side.”
Crossfire gave the other mare a dry look, “And what about you, knight? Going to throw your sword at them?”
Applegate just smiled thinly, reaching into a pocket of her coat to expose the handle of a leather wrapped semi-automatic, “While I dislike using guns I do have a practical side, Crossfire. Not all battles can be ended with a blade.”
“Practically from you? I’m fucking shocked,” said Crossfire, eyeing the gun with a critical eye, “That looks like one of Rupert’s. You actually borrowed a gun from the Enforcer Guild’s head honcho?”
Applegate sighed, “Like I said, practical. He offered, I accepted.”
“Bet the bastard just ate that up.”
“There was a certain smugness to his smile when he tossed me the gun,” Applegate admitted.
To that Crossfire just laughed, then cast a sharp glance at Shard, “Let’s go.”
As we took up our positions I saw it wouldn’t just be us Drifters fighting. The crew of the Sweet Candy had also broken out an impressive assortment of weapons. Many were armed with rifles, but several were also mounting machine guns drawn up from below decks, setting the heavy belt-fed weapons up at several intervals along the railings. At least two of the crew also carried rocket launchers, though I had difficulty imagining them hitting a swift moving fighter with those. Captain Bartholomew had gone back into the wheelhouse, but I saw him also carrying some kind of large weapon that looked like it was designed to fire small harpoons.
There were several of the delegates armed and staying up top to fight as well. Phalanx, stomping around in his power armor, looked ready to jump off the ship to physically tackle the pirates. The griffin in the poncho was joined by the blond unicorn mare in the matte black armor I’d seen earlier, the unicorn floating at least four different guns around in a dull green aura around her, while the griffin just spun a pistol in one talon casually. I noticed him smugly smiling at Applegate as she trotted by and he tipped an invisible hat at her.
“Enjoy the loaner, I want it back intact, Lady Applegate,” said the griffon.
“You’ll get your gun back in good order, Rupert, don’t worry, and thank you for your kind consideration for loaning it to me,” replied Applegate cooly, and then she nodded to the unicorn, “Armitage.”
The unicorn just nodded once, eyes unblinking past blond bangs, paying more attention to the guns she was floating around herself, loading them one by one. “Applegate.”
There was a bout of coughing from one of the hatches down into the ship and I saw the gaunt form of Hawkeye trot out with his cadre of four other ponies. He had his long sniper rifle on his back, but the stallion looked incredibly pale.
“Glad to see you decided to stop throwing up for a few minutes,” said Crossfire, to which Applegate gave her a hard glare before approaching Hawkeye.
“If you’re up to it, take the bow,” Applegate said, “We’ve got pirates just minutes away.”
The stallion muttered something under his breath and nodded with a slack, tired look, but set his jaw tightly and led his team to the bow.
Among those gathering for the defense I also saw Iron Wrought, and I felt a strange sense of relief when he looked my way and trotted over, already arming his sub-machine gun.
“Iron, it’s good to see you again,” I said, just glad to be able to talk to the other stallion, even if we were about to be tossed into a pitched fight.
“Not now,” he said, expression drawn in a deep frown, “We can catch up when we’re not about to get shot at.”
“R-right,” I said, playing off my disappointment with a nervous laugh. Iron Wrought glanced at me and let out a frustrated sigh.
“Fine. Good to see you too. Try not to get killed in the next ten minutes.”
That put a grin on my face, which only made Iron Wrought roll his eyes as he took up a position beside us. We all had our weapons out, though I was lacking in any ranged weapons. Even Binge had acquired a firearm, and I had to raise my eyebrow at it.
“Binge, did you get that from the Gobs?” I asked. The gun she had whipped out from the wild mass of her tail was one of the jury rigged weapons the Gobs had been using in the mines beneath Skull City. However this one seemed somehow even more madly cobbled together than normal. Its mouth grip was wrapped in black tape, and its barrel was longer than normal, dotted with holes. A nasty, rusty looking knife was mounted beneath the barrel, and instead of a normal clip the “gun” had a drum mounted into its firing chamber.
Binge smiled at me, “It's beautiful as a fresh corpse, isn’t she? One of the big Gobs had her in his cold dead hands, and I just couldn’t leave her behind. She called to me, a kindred soul cobbled together in gunk and blood. I named her Miss Sunshine.”
Iron Wrought grunted, “They’re coming in. Chitchat later.”
By now I could hear the incoming fighters. Their engines generated a hollow buzzing noise in the air, like a swarm of large, irate insects. Peeking over the rail towards the aft of the ship I could see the flying machines coming up fast. There were ten of them, each split into two groups of five in a V-formation that looked like they were circling out to the sides of the Sweet Candy so they could coming in from both sides at once. I could make out the small open spots behind the propellers where pilots sat, ponies in leather caps and goggles obscuring their features.
I swallowed, steadying my nerves and taking a deep breath. Slowly I drew Gramzanber, sending my thoughts towards the ARM. Gram, if I throw you at any of those craft can you teleport back to me?
I can, but I’ll warn you to be careful doing so too often in too short a time. I estimate you have about eight or nine throws before the energy needed to return to you will start to impact you physically.
That’ll do for now. I get the feeling this will be over before I get off more than a few tosses, assuming any of these things get close enough for me to hit the mark. My intentions were to maybe get the engines or clip a wing. I was only a little hesitant. While the idea was to disable the fighters, they’d plummet down to a very explody destruction on the desert below. My hope was that the pilot’s were pegasi or griffins that could abandon their craft and fly to safety. And if they weren’t...?
I glanced back at my cutie mark and took another steadying breath. I would do my part to defend the Sweet Candy. I prayed to the Ancestor Spirits that the number of deaths would be small, because I was no longer naive enough to believe there wouldn’t be any. With some good fortune I wouldn’t be causing it myself, but I wasn’t going to stand there and do nothing either.
There was a strange quiet among the crew as we waited those last few moments before the Black Swans attacked. All was still save for the buzz of the fighter’s engines and the throater, deeper sound of the Sweet Candy’s propellers. Then, quite suddenly and sharply, the fighters knifed in at us. Just as they did so I heard Captain Bartholomew’s voice shout over the ship’s speaker system.
“Light them up!”
The air roared with gunfire, both ours and theirs. Machine guns from the Sweet Candy barked out streams of tracers at the incoming fighters, and I heard the loud retorts of rifles and other small arms firing away, including the harsh blast of Crossfire’s massive rifle. Arcaidia’s starblaster cut silver streaks through the air, and my ears became deaf for a moment from the coughing blasts from B.B, Binges, and Iron Wrought’s guns beside me.
In return the Black Swan fighters cut loose with machine guns mounted on the lower set of wings, and I flinched as bullets tore into the deck below and the railing beside us, showering me with wood chips. I saw at least two of the fighters were actually aiming upward, stitching bullets into the Sweet Candy’s balloon. I tried to ignore the sounds around me, including the sharp scream of pain from a pony a ways down the starboard side towards the bow, one stallion being knocked away from his machine gun by several bullets ripping bloody gouts through his body.
I saw Arcaidia’s starblaster beams burn holes through one fighter’s wings, but it kept on coming. Binge was firing rapidly with her new gun, and I had to wonder how much ammo that drum held, because she was shooting almost as fast some some fully automatic weapons could. Still the fighters kept in on us, tearing into the deck and the balloon above us with machine gun fire. Still too far away for me to make a throw, so I set my legs and waiting, teeth tight around Gramzanber.
To my left I saw the unicorn, Armitage, levitating her own cadre of guns around her in a tight cloud, clustering them together to fire upon the same pirate Arcaidia had hit, tearing more bits out of its wing. When machine gun fire slammed towards her I saw Armitage raise a bubble shield of green light and deflect the rounds, all the while with a calm, almost disturbingly blank expression.
Then, finally, the pirate’s were close enough for me to hit them.
I narrowed my eyes, focusing all my attention upon one of the fighters shearing towards us. Each craft bobbed in the air, some diving to go beneath the Sweet Candy, while others sought to climb above it. I picked one heading down, judged the distance, speed, and wind, and then threw Gramzanber with all my might.
The spear sailed down, but didn’t quite strike the wing full on as I’d hoped, but instead tore through the edge of it. The blow still caused the fighter to rock in the air, but I couldn’t tell if I’d accomplished more than that as it zipped beneath the Sweet Candy. With a call of mental focus and held out a hoof, and with a shimmer of silver light Gramzanber returned to me. Doing so caused a lance of discomfort to hit me, not unlike using Accelerator, but much more manageable.
That’s not so bad, I thought, and Gramzanber quickly responded.
It will get worse each time. As I said, don’t overly rely on this ability until I gain your species’s calibration data.
Just as one group of fighters had vanished beneath us on the starboard side, the other group flew out from both above and below, heading out from us, having coming in on the port side. I chanced a glance behind me to see how they were doing over there. I saw one of the crewponies was down, clutching at a bleeding wound in her leg, while another was flat on his back, staring upward with glassy, dead eyes. Others of the crew went to the wounded, dragging them away from the line of fire, and another got on the machine gun the dead pony had been on.
I couldn’t tell if we’d gotten any of the fighters at first, but as I counted the ones coming in at us on the port side again, I only saw four. The fighters circled out and towards the bow of the Sweet Candy, just as the ship itself shifted and the deck tilted slightly as it turned hard to the port. I glanced back to see Captain Bartholomew hard on the wheel, aiming the bow of the ship towards the four fighters. I heard an eruption of gunfire from the bow, more machine guns and the sharper retort of a sniper rifle, probably Hawkeye.
I saw one craft get hammered by machine gun fire, its engine belching out thick black smoke and a trail of fire as it spun out of control and started to fall earthward. I didn’t see if the pilot got out or not. For all I knew they’d been chewed up by the gunfire as badly as their machine. I didn’t have time to pay more attention as the other group of fighters, still a full five, had come up behind the Sweet Candy and were pouring bullets into the rear of the ship and its balloon. Bullets tore past us, and I felt one, perhaps a ricochet, slap into my armor, knocking the breath from me.
Arcaidia glanced at me, then lit up her horn, “Shield time is now.”
One by one me and my companions shimmered with Arcaidia’s magical energy as she placed her shield spell upon us. I could feel the crackling, protective field of force settle over me, faster and more snug than the previous times I’d felt Arcaidia use the spell. She must have been practicing at some point. A good thing too, because while the fighters weren’t specifically targeting my friends and I, the wide burst of gunfire was impacting all over the back of the ship and some rounds were snapping towards us, regardless. I saw B.B take a hit to the chest that would have been a lot worse without Arcaidia’s spell dispersing the force, though it still knocked the pegasus on her butt.
“Argh! Dangnabbit, that smarts! I gotta invest in a’ longer range gun,” B.B said, glancing at her revolvers with frustration.
Arcaidia, scowling at the fighters, began to stride towards the aft of the ship, but then we all saw somepony else step up to the aft railing amid the hail of enemy gunfire. Applegate and Phalanx stood side by side, the power armored stallion ignoring bullets bouncing off his thick, metal carapace, while Applegate seemed to have an instinctive sense of where to stand to avoid the bullets ripping the air around her.
Both ponies acted as one, Applegate drawing the gun she’d borrowed from Rupert in her mouth and rearing up on the railing, taking careful aim, while on the sides of Phalanx’s armor boxy attachments cracked open and the shapes of twin, multi-barreled gatling guns extended.
With Phalanx it was a hissing thunder of rapid gunfire that shredded one of the fighters head on. In Applegate’s case, it was just one, single blast that must have gone right to the pilot of another fighter, because all I saw was a streak of blood and that fighter rolled over to start diving towards the ground. The other three fighters broke off their attack, banking hard to the starboard side of the Sweet Candy. Though they’d lost two of their number in that pass, I couldn’t help but notice that smoke was now trailing from one of the ship’s engines, it making coughing, sputtering sounds as it struggled to keep going.
“Everypony starboard side!” shouted Crossfire, “They’re grouping up for a big pass! Let’s take ‘em down!”
There was no hesitation in responding to her call. Crewponies mounted machine guns from the port side and rapidly ran them over to the starboard, while the rest of us gathered up in one long line, weapons ready. I even noticed Deadeye and his team rushing over to the starboard side of the bow, though they stayed up on the forecastle. Arcaidia looked along at the line of ready ponies and I heard her say under her breath, “Too many to cover the all, but have to try.”
Her horn became overlaid with additional layers of magic, a rapid circle of crest symbols appearing around the horn as she cast her shield spell again, only this time the protective energies snapped into place around over a dozen more ponies in the line around us. Many of them looked at themselves in confusion, but Arcaidia spoke up, despite the strain in her features, “No fear fellow ponies, I cast protection spell. Ugh, c-can’t cover more than this.”
They seemed to accept this, mostly because there wasn’t any time to question it. The pirate fighter craft were coming in fast, the remaining six having joined up into a formation with three on bottom and three on top, spread out so we couldn’t easily catch multiple fighters in one strafe of machine gun fire. Everypony readied their weapons. Gramzanber was a hefty weight in my mouth, and I picked my target as the middle bottom fighter. My plan was to try and take out its engine.
I breathed deeply, calming myself and focusing my attention on my target as everything else got drowned out by gunfire. The combination of the fighters cutting loose with their machine guns and every one of the Sweet Candy’s defenders opening fire at the same time created a deafening storm of noise and tore the air apart with bullets, streaking rockets, and Arcaidia’s starblaster beams. Bullets ripped into the deck, and even with Arcaidia’s protective spell I heard screams of pain. The fighters were soaring closer, and I estimated they were almost in range for me to make the throw.
I heard a sharp shout of agony right next to me, and caught out of the corner of my eye B.B’s shield being overwhelmed as several machine guns rounds raked over her. The shield held until the last bullet snapped through her right wing, causing her to fall back to the deck with her face twisted in pain, even as her eyes turned red and she growled, still firing at the oncoming pirates.
My attention stayed rooted on my target, but now I felt a tighter, cold clench in my gut as I reared up, prepared to throw my spear to try and disable the-
-Veruni starfighters strafing the mountainside. Rapid fire particle beams tore apart the cliffside above and below me, but I ignored the rocks bounding off my hardened armor, raising Gramzanber in my hands and sneering at the oncoming silver, dart-like starfighters. Laughing uproariously at the heated joy of war, I hefted Gramzanber’s dark edge and poured magical power into its hungry blade. The Veruni fighters came on, unaware of their impending doom as I muttered one word: “Impulse”
I cast Gramzanber forth to smite the fools before me-
And blinked, unaware of what had just happened. I was standing on my hind legs, my forearm already extended, having just thrown Gramzanber with incredible force. I could see the ARM streaking away from me, and its distinct, intense blew glow, like it was wreathed in azure fire.
I just used Impulse!? But I didn’t mean to!
The charged spear flew like a blue comet, and while the pirate fighter I’d been aiming at tried to roll out of the way, the pilot wasn’t nearly fast enough. Gramzanber slammed straight into the fighter’s engine, then cut deeper into the hull before the energies of Impulse were released. I gaped, watching helplessly as the fighter craft exploded in a flash of azure energy. I was too stunned to do more than stare at the pieces of flaming wreckage as the pieces fell to the world below.
The other fighters had broken off their attack after Gramzanber had struck the lead craft, though the intense gunfire from the Sweet Candy’s defenders had severely damaged one of the other craft to the point where its smoking engine stalled and it too began to fall, through from that fighter I could see a pony shape bail out, spread wings, and start to fly away from the falling craft. The surviving four fighters didn’t loop around for another pass, but instead started to fly back towards their distant parent ship, still following a long distance behind us.
I just stood there, still gawking in stunned, cold shock at what I’d just done. More than a few of the others around me were staring too. I heard a sharp whistle of appreciation coming from Rupert, the poncho wearing griffin rubbing his chin, “Damn, so that’s a real ARM in action, huh? Not bad.”
I felt exhausted as the strength drain from using Impulse hit me, but I barely noticed it, still too baffled and disturbed by what had happened to really feel it.
Longwalk, do you intend to summon me back sometime before I strike the ground? asked Gramzanber in my head, and I blinked, shaking my head to try and get my brain jump started to working order. I held out a hoof and called Gramzanber back, the ARM appearing once more in my waiting hoof.
Sorry about that... I just... what happened back there? What’s going on? I felt chilled inside. First Applegate, now this? What was going on with me? I kept getting these flashes of memory from what had to be the Hyadean, Zeikfried, but why was it that this was happening now? Somepony had just died because of it, and while I was willing to deal with the necessity of killing on my own terms, I wasn’t about to start letting it happen by accident.
I am unsure. It is an anomaly born of the Hyadean nanomachines within you, and I cannot influence nor comprehend more than that. However it is obvious that something recent has triggered these memories, as you did not have this issue until now.
That wasn’t encouraging. I still had a cold feeling tickling my insides, and whispered a prayer to the Ancestor Spirits to look after the soul I’d just inadvertently sent their way. I’d have to figure out just what was wrong with me and if I could control it, because I couldn’t afford to lose control of my own actions in the middle of a fight. For the moment, however, I pushed that thought aside and turned to B.B. She was grimacing in pain, her wing bent at an awkward angle around the bullet wound that’d torn a hole through it. I sucked in a breath, seeing bone.
“B.B, we need to get that looked at,” I said, moving towards her and reaching to pull out a healing potion from my saddlebags, but as I did so she held up a hoof, her voice low and strained.
“Stay back, Long, don’t git close ta me,” she said, teeth grinding, and scooting away from me as she held one hoof to her nose, “Dang it. Everythin’ is smellin’ like blood.”
All I had to do was glance around the deck to see the problem. The pirates might have broken off their attack, but they’d done plenty of damage in the few passes they’d made on the Sweet Candy. At least six of the crew were down, and I could see two of them were dead. Blood trickled across the wood deck in small rivers from the dead and wounded, and despite the breeze there was a tangy scent of blood touching the air. B.B’s thirst had to be getting to her, especially with a fresh, painful wound like that. Her eyes were pure red now, and she was breathing heavily, near panting.
Still, while I understood why she didn’t want me getting close, we had to take care of her wound. Other ponies were already moving to tend to the wounded, including Applegate, who once the pirates had ceased attacking had pulled out a small medical kit to start tending to the ponies still breathing. I also noticed that from the hatch below deck Princess Purity raised her head, trotting up with a determined look on her face as she marched towards the nearest wounded. Phalanx saw this as well and moved to intercept her.
“Princess, you must return below deck. It is not safe here, yet.”
“I hear no more gunfire, Phalanx, and there are those that need my healing magic. Let me pass.”
A grumble issued forth from the power armored stallion, and he stepped aside, “So be it, but you return below the moment the pirates attack again.”
“How likely are they to make another go at us?” asked Hawkeye, shouldering his sniper rifle as he came down from the forecastle with his team of Drifters. He halted at the bottom of the steps, and I saw him eye B.B with a strange expression. He hid it quickly and looked away, but for a second the Drifter had looked almost... haunted? Like he’d seen a ghost, his white and brown splotched coat turning paler.
“I doubt they have more fighters to throw at us,” said Crossfire, frowning as she glanced up at the Sweet Candy’s balloon, “Of course they might not have to.”
Arcaidia had come up to me and B.B by now and was looking at B.B’s wound with intense concern. She met B.B’s eyes and said, “Let me help?”
B.B winced, closing her eyes in pain, “J-just keep yer guys’ distance fer a bit, Arc, Long. I gotta-” she stumbled to her hooves and almost drunkenly started for the hatch, “-just gotta be alone fer a bit. I’ll be okay.”
Arcaidia moved to follow, almost stumbling over her metal peg leg in her haste, and I reached out a hoof to both steady her and stop her. “Arcaidia, wait.”
“But she is bad hurt! Can’t let wound fester!” Arcaidia said with equal parts outrage and desperation. She looked genuinely fearful for B.B, and I felt the same way, but unlike Arcaidia I’d seen how bad B.B could get when wounded.
“We’ll help her, but we need to give her a few minutes alone first,” I said, suspecting that B.B was getting out of view of anypony else for good reason. I knew Misty Glasses had kept some blood packets in Stable 104’s medical lab, and while I hadn’t asked B.B, because to do so would’ve been pretty untactful, but I imagined B.B had brought along some of those blood packs in our supplies. I knew blood helped her heal, perhaps better than an actual healing potion. If we just gave her some time, I was willing to bet B.B would be feeling better and be willing to let Arcaidia finish the job of healing what the blood started.
Instead I asked Arcaidia to go help Princess Purity with the other wounded, which she did so reluctantly, hobbling along with her fake leg and three flesh and blood ones. I felt a flash of guilt at the sight, both for the leg and the fact that I had to ask Arcaidia to hold off on going to B.B. At least the peg leg hadn’t gotten too much in the way during the fight, but then again, we hadn’t needed to move much.
“Hey, Longwalk, we got a problem,” said LIL-E floating beside me and bobbing to point at Crossfire. Looking over I saw Crossfire still gazing up at the ship’s balloon, and I trotted over to check what was wrong. Iron Wrought joined me, as did Binge, the two exchanging looks with each other. Binge just grinned at Iron Wrought, who frowned at the mare deeply.
“Isn’t it always fun around Longykins?”
Iron Wrought grunted, “At least I got a couple days peace and quiet before having to deal with this shit again.”
Ignoring the two for now I came up beside Crossfire, glancing up at what she was looking at. I saw it immediately. One of the engines mounted on the starboard side of the ship had been torn apart by the pirate's strafing, and large portions of the balloon had been stitched full of bulletholes. There was smoke trailing from the dead engine, leaving a oily slick cloud of black in the air like a trail of blood.
“Yikes. That, uh, that looks bad,” I said.
“Brilliant deduction,” said Crossfire, “Those fighters didn’t need to blow us out of the sky, just slow us down enough for their main ship to catch up to us.”
I glanced back at the sky behind us. I couldn’t tell if the pirate airship was getting closer or not, but it certainly wasn’t getting any further away. “Great, so we’re not out of trouble yet?”
“Wouldn’t count on it,” Crossfire said, turning to look as Captain Bartholomew came out of the wheelhouse with Whitemane, the Captain looking grim and Whitemane looking... generally unconcerned, all things considered. Bartholomew came down to the main deck and approached Applegate, Whitemane still trailing behind him.
“I just got off the radio with Georgia,” Bartholomew said, “She’s demanding our surrender.”
“Expected,” said Applegate, eyes still focused on wrapping up the wound of a crew pony with a bullet through his leg, “Can we still outrun her?”
“Not with the damage her flyboys did to us,” said the Captain with a hard look, his rotted wings flapping once in frustration, “I can keep us airborne, but we’ve lost enough speed that her Raptor can catch up to us in less than an hour. When that happens there’s not a lot I can do. That thing’s plasma cannons are still operational and can knock us out of the sky easy as slapping down a parasprite.”
“She has guaranteed the safety of the crew and the majority of the passengers,” said Whitemane, brushing some errant strands of red mane from his face, “Provided we hoof over one particular passenger.”
“Who?” Applegate asked, and Whitemane nodded towards Princess Purity. Applegate’s response was an immediate, “Out of the question!”
Purity, hearing this, raised her head, eyes wide, “They’re only after me?”
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Phalanx, “Who’s hired this skybound ruffians to come after our Princess?” He stomped towards Whitemane, “Is this a Skull City plot to take one of the Protectorate’s leaders!?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, my good stallion,” said Whitemane, “Why would so my Guild leaders put themselves in harm's way just to hand over one Princess to a gang of pirates?”
“If you were in collusion with the pirates your danger would be minimal, and with the Princess in pirate hooves she could be used as leverage against us!” growled Phalanx, but Purity put a hoof on his armored shoulder, gently stepping forward.
“Sir Phalanx, stand down. Such paranoia is of no use to us and only taints the purpose of our mission.”
“But your Highness, I-”
“Guildmaster Whitemane, I believe you when you say Skull City has nothing to do with this,” Purity said, taking a deep breath, “The Protectorate and Skull City both have enemies, and there are many who’d benefit to taking me for ransom. There’s no need to go pointing hooves in blame for this. If there is no way for us to escape those chasing us, then you can tell the pirate Captain that I shall obey her demands, so long as she keeps her words to harm nopony else.”
Captain Bartholomew raised a talon, shaking his head, “A fine enough gesture, but trust me, I wouldn’t put it past Georgia to just blow us out of the sky as soon as you were on board her ship. Just because we can’t outrun her, and can’t outfight her with the Sweet Candy, doesn’t mean we’re out of options.”
“That was what we were discussing before coming out here,” said Whitemane, demeanour as calm as ever, “The Raptor is only a threat due to the fact that is currently faster than us. Disable its engines and we’ll be able to outrun it just like before.”
“That’s all well and Dandy, Whitemane, but how do you plan on pulling that off?” asked Rupert, idly twirling his gun in his talons. Beside him Armitage hadn’t put away any of her own firearms, the weapons lazily spinning around her in a green telekinetic field. “We have no means to strike at them at this distance.”
“Can’t we just teleport over there?” I asked, blinking and feeling very self-conscious as many eyes suddenly turned to me. I gulped, “I mean, uh, Crossfire, you can teleport, right? So you could pop us over there, we blow up some engines, and then we just, you know, poof back?”
Crossfire looked at me like I was asking if she could sprout wings and fly, “You’re talking about teleporting, accurately mind you, onto a moving object that still miles away, with only minimal visual means to even aim where I’m going... yeah, no. Just, no. Try again, buck.”
“Actually,” said Whitemane, smiling knowingly, “Longwalk has hit upon the plan most aptly.”
Crossfire just raised one eyebrow quite high at the Drifter Guildmaster, “You’ve got to be kidding Whitemane. A teleport of that distance and accuracy can’t be done. Not by any unicorn on this ship.”
“Quite correct, I’m afraid,” said a smooth, regal, voice as Star Soul joined us on deck, the tall, dark purple alicorn spreading her wings and looking at us all gravely, “That is why it falls to me to perform the act myself.”
All eyes turned to the Guildmistress of the Skull Guild, and Crossfire narrowed her eyes slightly, “What, you can read minds, too?”
Star Soul laughed dryly, “No, but I have exceptional hearing, and the moment I heard Whitemane mention what was needed I could guess what his intentions were.” She looked to Whitemane, expression serious, “I assume that is what you intended? To have me take a group onto the pirate vessel to disable its engines?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” said Whitemane with a wry look in his eyes, “We are, after all, somewhat deprived of other options.”
Star Soul nodded, stretching her wings and craning her neck to get a glimpse of the approaching pirate vessel, which I could tell now was indeed slowly catching up to us. “I can take, three, perhaps four with me, and still make that distance accurately. I will only take volunteers.. Teleporting is draining, evening for me, so taking more than four would be problematic. I’ll need to save some magic to aid in disabling the pirate ship’s engines.”
“We only have to destroy one or two engines, right?” I asked, “I mean, we’re not going to fight the whole crew. We pop in, smash an engine, then get out.”
“Are you volunteering?” the alicorn asked me, and I felt suddenly rather small as the ludicrously tall Star Soul turned her full attention to me. Her eyes were bizarrely piercing, the violet orbs seeming to stare straight through me.
“I... yes, yes I am.” I said, and Star Soul nodded in acceptance.
Arcaidia almost immediately stepped forward as well, “Where ren solva go, so go me.”
Star Soul glanced at Arcaidia’s leg, to which Arcaidia just stiffened and held her head higher, but the alicorn said nothing and just said, “Very well. We need two more.”
Binge bounced up and down, holding up a hoof, “Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me!”
Crossfire rolled her eyes, “We’re not sending all of the buck’s team. You need somepony with a bit more practical experience in blowing things up.”
Binge stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry, “Balls to that, Binge knows how to explode all of the things! It works best with fire.”
Crossfire just glanced at Star Soul, “Take me and Shard as your other two.”
After a moment’s consideration the alicorn gave a final nod, “So be it. We’re short of time and cannot argue the matter. I shall take you four, now. Gather closely, and put your hooves upon me. And do not move too much, if you can.”
I glanced at Binge, “Sorry, just, uh, keep an eye on things here for me, okay? Especially B.B. She’s injured, and I think she went to our cabin to look after herself. Just, like, give a knock or something to make sure she’s alright.”
She gave me a scrunched faced frown and said, “I’ll check on the injured birdie. Better not have too much fun without me.”
“I’ll bring a souvenir,” I said, trying to play off the situation lightly despite the fact that I was actually rather terrified. But I’d volunteered and I wasn’t going to back out. With luck I could just make sure we took out the engine quickly and kept it fast enough that we could get out with minimal loss of life on either end of things. Assuming I could keep control of myself. Assuming I didn’t have another random flash of memory to an alien warlord’s life that left me lethally slaughtering anything in my path. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead as me, Arcaidia, Crossfire, and Shard gathered around Star Soul.
Gramzanber, hope you don’t mind, but for this I’m going to use the shock stick. At least until we figure out what’s with these memory flashes. I thought as I secured the ARM back in its sheath and got into my saddlebags to pull out the taser I’d recovered after the fight with Redwire.
A logical course of action. However I would recommend you don’t hesitate to use me if the situation demands a greater response than what you could garner from that... inferior weapon.
Are you jealous of the shock stick?
I just shook my head in wonderment, while Star Soul spread her wings as we each placed a hoof on her withers or sides, and her long, pointed horn began to glow with fierce amethyst light. A dome of energy swirled around us, and I felt my fur prick up and tingle as Star Soul’s magic surrounded us with deep violet light sparkling with twinkling motes of energy.
Then the world flashed deepest purple, and I felt like I’d dropped right off the face of the world.
The inevitable disorientation from going through a teleport spell thankfully wore off fast and I found myself standing in the archway of a connection hallway to the open wood deck attached to the side of one of the massive dirigible balloons that looked as if it had been welded onto the side of the steel hull of the massive pirate airship. The wood deck extended along the length of the balloon for well over a hundred paces, and above me I could see the airship’s main hull rising about two or three decks above my head. I hadn’t really gotten an appreciation for how large this ship was compared to the Sweet Candy until then, and it made me gulp in realization that if we didn’t do this fast, chances were we’d be in big trouble with what was probably a very large, exceedly well armed crew.
Fortunately our sudden appearance on this side deck took the few pirates in the area completely by surprise. There were five ponies, all pegasi clad in patchwork armor that looked like a mix of leather and ceramic plates, many wearing bandanas dyed combinations of red and black, who were milling around the front rails of the deck, paying more attention to the slow chase of the Sweet Candy than to the deck behind them when Star Soul and the rest of us appeared. The pirates were hooting and hollering at each other, pointing at the distant Sweet Candy.
“Whoohee! She’s slowin’ down good! We’ll be on her in no time, and then we’ve got ourselves a serious payday!” shouted one stallion, stomping his hooves.
“Shouldn’t have taken so many of our damn fliers to do it,” muttered another, scratching at an eyepatch, “Who’d imagine that little ship would pack that much firepower?”
“Eeh, those bi-planes are easy to rebuild,” said a pegasus mare, licking her lips, “With the kind of scratch we’re making on this job we might actually be able to get one of the Vertibucks up and running again!”
As they chattered among themselves I glanced at the others with me and whispered, “Can we sneak past them?”
Crossfire aimed her rifle at the group, face steely, “It’d be faster to kill them.”
“And make noise that’d alert literally everypony on the ship that we’re here,” I pointed out.
Arcaidia looked hesitant for a moment, unholstering her starblaster, and said, “Engines making much noise already. Gunshot not be immediately noticed, ren solva. We must take engines down fast, so sneaking take long time and maybe not so good plan.”
She didn’t sound happy about it, but she was already adopting that cold, eerily still expression she got when she was both prepared and able to do what was needed. It was only slightly tinged by a certain sympathy for me, but I understood as well as she did that she was probably right. Stealth took time, and time we didn’t have. Especially when one of the pirates, a dusty brown mare, heard the magical pop of the teleport spell and glanced back at us, eyes wide. I heard Crossfire working the bolt action of her rifle to fire, but I moved first. If stealth wasn’t an option, then I was willing to fight. Even kill, if it came to it, but I still had options, so I was going to use them.
I didn’t need to be holding Gramzanber to use the ARM’s power when it was still attached to my side. The world snapped into slow, azure blue focus, everything moving in slow motion. Even weakened as I was from the earlier use of Impulse I still felt strong enough to rush forward in the slowed world of Accelerator, shock stick at the ready. The brown mare went down from a hard, electrified slap to the face, and I didn’t slow down moving among the other pirates, jabbing the sparking weapon hard into any exposed area I could find. The pirates had barely had time to turn around and start clearing weapons from holsters before my high speed attacks had rendered most of them twitching and unconscious on the deck. Only one I didn’t get to before he’d gotten a gun, a snub nosed revolver, drawn and ready to fire, but even as I turned to try and knock him out with the shock stick I saw a large caliber bullet sail slowly into the stallion’s head. I got an unpleasant slow motion rendition of the round, fired from Crossfire’s huge rifle, tearing the pirate pony’s head into wet, bloody chunks, some of it splattering my face even as I backed away and shut down Accelerator.
The world returned to its normal color and speed as the pirate’s convulsing, headless body dropped to the deck, and I grit my teeth both against the backlash pain from Accelerator, and the sudden need to vomit. Crossfire glanced at the other, unconscious pirates, and gave me a brief, shrugging look.
“Let’s make this fast, before the whole crew wises up to us being here,” she said in a hard tone, already galloping for the dirigible balloon, which I noticed had several rope and wood plank walkways strung up along its top. Arcaidia, starblaster out and floating beside her in a blue glow, gestured at the archway behind us. “I buy us some time.”
She didn’t wait for a response, instead going to the archway and lighting up her horn as she began to fire a magical beam of frost to start sealing the opening with a wall of ice. Star Soul watched her with a curious look in the alicorn’s eye.
“Strange, I don’t recognize that brand of magic she’s using,” Star Soul said, almost to herself, “Were the Goddess still alive, she might have found it intriguing.”
“We don’t exactly have time to stand around and shoot the breeze,” said Shard, “Even with the filly blocking off that area, there’s other spots the pirates will be able to get here. Move it, folks.”
He was right and we didn’t waste any more time. I just gave Arcaidia a quick nod, telling her, “Catch up quick.” Then we were galloping after Crossfire. Well, me and Shard were galloping. Star Soul took to the air, her huge wings helping her sail after Crossfire faster than any of us could run. As we hit the walkway arcing over the top of the dirigible we heard the hard bark of Crossfire’s rifle firing. I saw only a flash of her tail going over the top edge of the balloon, so I couldn’t see who she was firing at, but I heard the chattering stutter of return fire and knew she’d run into trouble up there.
The walkway swayed in the wind, making my run turn into a bit of a stumble, and I had to use one fore leg to grip the rope to keep myself steady as I went. My eyes sort of naturally wandered downward and I could see the walkway actually suspended us over the vast desert below. There were large steel beams the kept the bottom of the dirigible balloon bolted to the side of the Raptor, but I could easily imagine bouncing off of one of those if I fell off the walkway. There were similar steel beams also stretching across from us, steadying the top of the balloon, and I noticed those beams had another set of upward angled beams that attached to the roof of the ship... Where I couldn’t help but notice several ponies looking at us in surprise. Then start to draw guns. Shit!
“Shard, behind us and above!” I shouted, fumbling into my saddlebags in search of a flash grenade. I saw him turn and look behind us as well, groaning at the sight of the pirate ponies aiming assault rifles at us and opening fire. Fortunately the shaky, swaying nature of the walkway worked in our favor here, as the bullets tore the air around us, but didn’t manage to hit. At least not yet.
“Go!” I shouted, pushing Shard ahead of me while I got the flash grenade into my hoof, having to hold the shock stick in the crook of my other arm while I pulled the stem from the top of the apple-shaped grenade. It wasn’t a short distance to throw, but I generally had faith in my throwing arm. However I also underestimated the drain on my strength from Impulse, and when I threw the flash grenade it landed far short of my intended target, bounding off the hull a deck below the firing ponies on the airship’s roof and exploding in a flash of light that was effectively harmless.
“Aw hells,” I muttered, scrambling to follow Shard as more bullets rained down from above, one snipping by and grazing my flank. The armor held, but there’d be a nasty bruise there later, and the blow almost knocked me off the walkway.
Arcaidia had finished with her ice wall and seeing me and Shard in trouble she ran across the deck to the walkway and then spun around, her starblaster blazing several silver streaks of light up at our foes. I saw them duck back from the deadly blasts, and Arcaidia backed up onto the walkway, following me and Shard as she kept up a suppressing fire with the starblaster.
We rushed as fast as we could up the rest of the walkway, which was also strung across the top of the dirigible. There was a circular platform here, like a big wooden lookout point. There were two dead pirates here, one a pegasus, the other a griffin, the former with his chest blasted out and the later with her throat cut through. Crossfire’s bayonet was covered in blood as she fired at a machine gun emplacement built along the outer side of the dirigible, where another pair of pirates had taken cover and were returning fire with pistols. Star Soul was still in the air, flying further down the length of the balloon where I could see half a dozen engines with swiftly spinning propellers mounted.
“We’ve got company behind us,” I told Crossfire as I came up behind her, “Kind of forgot to ask before we bamfed over here, but how are we taking out those engines?”
“Leave that to the freakin’ alicorn, buck, and help me deal with these assholes!” shouted Crossfire, floating her rifle over the downward curve of the balloon and cracking off another shot at the pirates below. I managed a quick peek to see the pirates were using some sort of hatch into the interior of the balloon as cover, the machine gun emplacement actually having an overhanging roof that made it easier for them to hide.
“I’ll handle it, boss,” said Shard, glancing at me, “Toss another grenade.”
“I’m heading down too,” I said firmly, fishing out another flash grenade. When I tossed it down there I heard the pirates swearing profusely, then heard the loud bang and saw the burst of light from the grenade going off. Shard and me both went over the side, where a wide ladder of rope and metal planks gave access to the top of the machine gun emplacement. I judged the drop and let myself fall the last bit of distance, hitting the sheet metal roof above the machine gun, Shard not far behind me. The emplacement itself was little more than a wood and metal platform about two paces wide, with a large double-barreled machine gun mounted on the edge on some kind of swivel mount. I jumped down onto the platform, seeing the hatch behind me where two pegasi were rubbing at their eyes and swinging pistols towards the hatch, despite being both blind and deafened. I didn’t have time to think, so I just tackled the first pegasus, hitting him in the chest and sending us both rolling along a metal catwalk that spanned part of the interior of the dirigible.
He elbowed the side of my head, and buffeted me with a wing, but I held firm to his midsection and hauled him into a body slam that made him lose his mouth’s grip on his pistol, the weapon skittering away. The pirate swore, breathless, but managed to smack me with his wings and then get a hind hoof into my gut to kick me off of him. I landed on my back, then saw the pirate pulling out a large, nasty looking machete from a belt sheath as he flew up, near to the roof, then turned to dive bomb me. I staggered up, and thinking of my sparring match with Applegate, I rose to my hind legs. Just as the pirate was about to dive into me, machete first, I pivoted on my hind legs, swinging my body just out of harm's way. The pirate wasn't prepared for the move and ended up smashing gut first into the safety railing of the catwalk. He nearly went over but I hauled him back at the last second from a potentially fatal fall.
"Ugh, t-thanks," he said, think blinked at me with his face twisting up in anger as he remembered we were enemies. I then smashed him squarely in the face with my shock stick, sending him to unconsciousness with a blue flash of electricity. The other pegasus started firing randomly, his semi-automatic weapon sending bullets sparking around, which struck me as extremely dangerous in an area close to potentially highly combustible gas sacks. Whether by luck or some built in safety precaution the bullets didn’t actually ignite anything, but one of the rounds did hit my leg, knocking me to the grating of the catwalk. Pain exploded through my leg and I found myself slipping off the catwalk, only hooking myself around one of the vertical rails at the last second to keep from falling off into the latticework of beams and canvas gas bags filling the interior of the dirigible.
By now Shard had come down onto the machine gun platform, and knives literally burst from him like a cloud of spores, all of them spinning like buzzsaws in his yellow magical aura. They shot forward, impacting among the still standing pirate in a shower of blood and screams. I winced at the sight, clambering back up onto the catwalk in time to watch the pirate’s body fall limply with entirely too many knives sticking out of his flesh. The knives then rather sickeningly slid out of the body and floated back to Shard in a bloody swarm as he glanced left and right to make sure there weren’t any more pirates around.
“Have I ever told you that your method of fighting is actually kind of disturbing?” I said, trying to choke down my feelings bitter chill.
“That’s part of the point,” said Shard, “Intimidation tactic.”
“It works,” I said, “I’m feeling plenty intimidated.” I glanced at the dead pirate’s body, “Pretty sure he is too.”
Shard went through a rather smooth set of motions in cleaning his blades off, wiping them on his barding, and he shrugged. Then the entire dirigible shook violently, causing both of us to almost lose our balance. I heard a sound of metal being torn apart, a high pitched squeal of sound beyond anything a pony’s throat could make, and then several explosions. Suddenly the sound of gunfire from outside intensified, and Shard and I exchanged looks, both of us making for the ladder back to the top of the dirigible.
There, I saw that one of the engines mounted along the side of the dirigible had been torn free, its propellers bent and ripped, and the metal casing of the engine wrenched open where flames and smoke poured out. I saw Star Soul swoop along the side of the ship, her horn blazing purple, and another engine became wreathed in violet light, the alicorn’s telekinesis spell tearing into that engine too and ripping it free from its metal mounts. At the same time other pirates in machine gun mounts further down the balloon were opening fire, trying to knock the alicorn out of the air. Then I saw one machine gun emplacement suddenly turn frosty blue and then explode with shards of ice, and I looked up to see Arcaidia and Crossfire running along the top of the dirigible, Arcaidia’s horn flashing blue with magic and crest symbols.
I felt the whole dirigible shake, Star Soul ducking and diving through the air to avoid streams of machine gun fire as she ripped apart the second engine with her magic. Shard and I climbed up the ladder, wind shear buffeting us both. When I got to the top again I gulped, seeing that the roof of the main airship’s body was now a lot more crowded, over a score of pirates having arrived there now, most of them taking to the air and winging right towards us.
“Okay, engines ruined, time for us to go,” I said, and me and Shard started galloping across the top of the dirigible to catch up to Crossfire and Arcaidia. I put away the shock stick and drew Gramzanber with a grim determination. I was still concerned over the risk of control, but with so many more pirates showing up, I needed the edge. Crossfire spotted the incoming pirates and started firing, dropping one or two before the mix of pegasi and griffons started strafing us, bullets tearing into the dirigible roof. I didn’t hesitate to activate Accelerator, returning to the world of slow moving blue.
I let Shard slowly gallop past me, and then kept pace with him as I saw the bullets now raining down on us in syrupy slowness. Any that would have hit me or Shard I knocked away with Gramzanber’s broad blade, feeling each impact jarring me like pushing on a boulder, but even so I could handle the strain. What was probably just a span of a few seconds took from my perspective more than a minute, deflecting a veritable storm of gunfire before the pirates finished their first pass and gave me a brief reprieve to deactivate Accelerator. I grit my teeth hard against the pain of the power’s backlash, feeling a bit of blood dribble out of my nose, but I kept standing.
Crossfire glanced at me, but only for a second, her rifle blasting away until her clip rand dry and she slapped in another. Almost each of her shots had been accompanied by a pegasus or griffin pirate being jerked out of the air in a spray of blood, some screaming as they spun towards the distant desert below, others more mercifully silent. Arcaidia’s starblaster joined the rifle in putting out a withering fire at the pirates, less accurate, but no less deadly when it struck, some of the pirates being turned to little more than glittering cinders by the weapons lethal beam. The number of pirates was too many to stop them from coming around for another pass, however, and we were incredibly exposed on top of the dirigible balloon.
Star Soul landed among us, tall and silhouetted by the sun above us. It somehow struck me as wrong, in that moment, that even with the sun out and shining and the sky so beautifully blue that there was still ponies killing each other. If anything the stark sunlight just made the blood seem more harshly real than ever. The thought passed quickly under the urgency of the situation.
“If we’re leaving, now would be a good time for it,” I told Star Soul.
“Indeed, we’ve done sufficient damage,” the alicorn said, horn flaring as she threw up a bubble-shaped shield around us to absorb the new fusillade of gunfire that smashed towards us from the circling pirates. Her face became strained, wincing. “Unfortunately I am not as talented or strong in magic’s use as some of my sisters. I... regret to say I don’t think I can teleport all of us back. Ugh, I’m sorry, but I can’t maintain this shield and teleport us all at the same time. I underestimated how much strength I’d need to destroy the engines.”
“Great, just fucking great,” muttered Crossfire, and before any of the rest of us could say anything she added, “I’ll stay.”
“The hell you will, boss,” said Shard, closing his eyes, sucking in a deep breath, “You know I’d never be able to look Knobs in the face again if I let you do that.”
I shook my head, brain working a mile a minute, “Before you volunteer yourself Shard, let me do it first. I’ve got experience escaping from airships. I can get out of here on my own after you guys teleport back to the Sweet Candy.”
Arcaidia literally growled at me, “You no do toaster headed ideas this time, ren solva. You stay, I stay, and we just... just... take over airship for ourselves!”
Star Soul smiled down at all of us, “It is good to see all of you little ponies are brave enough to take such a risk, but no. This mission was facilitated by me, and it shall be ended by me. I have wings, after all, I may well be able to escape on my own. Do tell Whitemane, in case I don’t return, that I leave the success of the negotiations with the NCR in his capable hooves.”
“Whoa, waitasec-” I started to say, holding up a hoof, but Star Soul lit up her horn even brighter than before, almost blinding me with its violet radiance. I felt as if my body was being stretched out for a moment, the world falling away beneath my hooves, and then suddenly the world returned into sharp focus and I was being dropped, along with Crossfire, Shard, and Arcaidia, onto the deck of the Sweet Candy.
… Star Soul was nowhere to be seen.
Footnote: 50% to next level!