• Published 20th Nov 2013
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FoE: Snippet Story - Windrunner



Set at various points in the Fallout: Equestria universe. Each chapter is intended to be a unique story unto itself. So many references, both ludicrously obscure and blatantly obvious. Even the title. No, not that. You will never figure them all out.

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A Traveler's Tail or Two

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It hurts, those moments pondering, lost in the dark. What do we do? The grim world around offering no comfort, no relief. The quiet darkness which settled over the land nearly a mocking joke in itself against the sanctity of life. It has been this way for several eternities already. Those struggling just to remain alive feel no joy, no happiness. There is none to share, no revelry. Carve out your path or fall to the wayside, beaten and broken like tides upon the unyielding rocks. There are no tides now, and little else. What other way forward can there be? Take what you want, or have it taken from you. This is how things are. How it seems to have always been. Where is the light?

Not even a dim spark has been offered since quiet darkness covered the land in empty eternal silence. Those possessed of the darkest hearts still know loss. Is this truly what they sought? Could it be they too made a mistake? A serious miscalculation beyond the scope of of what was sought? Both the dark and the light make mistakes. This blanketing quiet may be an epic blunder wrought by both sides. There is nothing to gain when everypony is dead, and they are still dying to this day. Everything is. Every number of them, slowly. The world itself lay worn and faltering. Not a single cadre of any size could hold onto life for long. Not like this. Who will remember after the last pathetic spark of life goes out?

It is a shrill and screaming silence. Everything dies sometime. Fast or slow, but not like this. Will the dim shadow cast by what little of their great civilization still remains standing be around long enough for something, anything, to see it? It was once said there is always hope. What hope could possibly be here, in this? You live a short span in this place, and if truly fortunate, you die quickly. The ever dimming light grows weaker by the day. With every dull second it loses more and more ground. Soon, there will be no hoofprints left in the sand. What grim shadow reaches out now, how could things possibly be worse than this? They say you should never ask such questions.

Doing so invites pain and misery to come crashing down from on high. Does some invisible entity sanction this act? Perhaps it is just another aspect of that intangible force that grants ones mark, whatever it might be. Time still moves, albeit slowly. Still struggling? You should give up and in. Be crushed, and finally let it end. Equestria lays in heaps of little more than monumental ruins full of dust and ash. A world devoid of hope. Hope, dreams, and life itself. These things are and were always fleeting. At one time, some may even have attained such dreams for an all too brief moment, but the tears of the broken fall in all times and all places.

The great pony races dreams were an ever higher aspiration towards peace, happiness, and prosperity for all. These dreams lay shattered in the briefest instant, the result of simple misunderstanding to be mired in growing hatred. The past is still calling to their hearts even now in some twisted way. Where their world could be now if this did not happen is anyponies guess. Few dare to dream anymore. Look what it got them. The slightest light of hope dimming, still flickers in the darkness. One ember, one spark remaining is sometimes enough to rekindle that blazing fire. The rising hope of one may embolden others to step forward into the quiet night in search of that spark.

One little light, holding out against all the darkness the whole world can muster. Dying candles often burn brightest just before going out. A light strong enough to find a path ahead must be bright. Is there such a thing? Could a reprieve from the empty silence blanketing all things truly exist? How can anyone uplift a whole world torn entirely asunder? Life struggles just to keep some grip on existence in this heartless drudgery. Hope is a concept few still conceive of. What point is there of hoping in this place? Who cares? Violence is the usual response. Help each other? Who would be stupid enough to do such a thing? Working together for the common good is a nearly foreign concept here. Alien in the very thought.

The light stands right on the very edge of going out completely. It would be incredibly easy to finally abandon this miserable place to meet its end, but what's this? A few ponies actually trying to right things, can it be so? Why would they even try? It is impossible. It cannot be done. They should just give up like everypony, and everything else. After all, they stand no chance whatsoever, their time is already up. Come and gone. Why won't they give up? Time always passes. It never stops. No matter how powerful one may be, there is no holding it at bay. Each tormented moment since the end falling dead as the last, filled with pain. The suffering and torment of those lost to the ages ignored. It must be.

To listen to those voices from long ago can bring only despair and pained longing. Trying to make sense of a destroyed world is futile. Enforcing your will upon it is another matter entirely. The dust never truly settled. The faltering strength of the ponies is barely able to hold up any light within these dull and endless years. Those above, still know the sun and moon. Their lives are little better for it. They might as well be shrouded in darkness as well. Those below, are left to their own devices. The grand mission of the pegasi, once to protect. They serve only themselves now. A young filly just reaching adulthood has decided to accept her fate and throw herself wholeheartedly into her task.

Given by her father, a tarnished golden chalice to fill, taken up without choice. A task begun in sheer desperation. The waterworks come and gone, she now takes it upon herself to bring life where there is none. Traveler quickly found the longest road to tread is one with no friends. She may have gained one, perhaps another. After a brief delay and a quick acquaintance with true pain, she returns to her mission, her quest. In the wasted lands of their once great world lie many terrifying encounters waiting to spring upon the unwary. So far she and her lone companion have been just fortunate enough not to die or run across the worst of them. How long this sort of luck may last, who can know? Seeking a book writ down long in yesteryear may be nothing more than a pipe dream.

An impossible mad gamble for a light in her darkened world. Their hopes of finding this gloried object dashed once against the rocks already. They trudge along steadily now, the miles passing as they seek to catch up with a surprisingly fast-moving team far ahead of them. Their first shaky decisions now stand behind. In addition it seems there may be a somewhat unusual follower. Both of their armor suits look strangely unblemished and bright in this endless dullness. That blaze of golden-white armor was such a high-intensity white color it made him look extremely out of place in this morass of destruction. The once gleaming hidden gilded name tag spoke only to past failures.

For a time they'd ventured through the ruins of buildings and broken, wasting technology. Sitting in the vastness of a world so long fallen silent. Leaving the outskirts of the city had felt poignant to Traveler. Most was ruined and useless, few treasures waiting to be found. This was not to say there were none left buried to find. You might not want to find them though. Without the support of a large group It was just too dangerous remaining in one place for very long. A long yearning glance over the shoulder and they'd set off once again. What did she hope to see? There was nothing there. Just another quiet tomb where the fabled ponies of times past fell where they stood, trembling in fear.

Most, unknowing the horror to come down atop them. What must it have been like to hear that subtle rumbling as it closed in on all sides? A soft sound growing louder until the deafening cacophony spilled past, rending all in its path and leaving nothing behind for those unlucky enough to remain standing? What of those that survived? The sting of losing all they ever created must have spurred deep. An insult to all that lived. Some watched it happen. Her thoughts wandered over these things as their journey continued for some days. Down Range told her their world was once bright and beautiful to behold, filled with so many things that fired her imagination. His descriptions of how it once was were grand and too few.

She could get very little of it out of him despite her curiosity. It must have been wonderful. Yet, his words about it felt and sounded cautious, guarded. Like something was wrong even then. It perplexed and bothered her. Something was indeed wrong then of course, the state of the world now showed just how far that truly reached. The few times Traveler asked he nearly cringed before wearily granting some insight. She felt bad about it. It was just so interesting. It sounded so colorful and glorious back then. What could possibly have gone so wrong in a world filled with such wondrous things? Nothing looked so bright now.

All of it drained away by the harsh encompassing reality that was now the wastes and collapsing ruins. The roaring end of the war was heard and felt everywhere, and then..nothing except deafening silence. The world long ago gave up on anything resembling color. Down Range admitted the grand armor he wore was a self-indulgence he never expected to actually take into combat. Upon attaining his rank of General it effectively precluded ever returning to the front lines during the war. He'd been through enough by then anyway, and seen too many good ponies die in horrible ways. Including friends of his. The real reason he ordered the suit in secret was due to the war being over.

He assumed just like every other pony the end of the war was near. If he held any idea what the real end would result in, he would certainly have done things differently and saved as many as possible. Nearly a hundred fifty miles, and even more thanks to their other effort already lay behind them. The distance to their next objective measured almost four hundred more. Longer than her original trip to escape. It would be a long, slow, and wearying road. It already was. They'd wasted some time heading to another city before setting out proper. That was perhaps not the best decision Traveler made so far.

It was indeed a mistake, but the experience gained in doing so gave her a far better understanding of just how bad things out in the crumbling world might be. Knowledge she intended to put to good use. The gamble in going there did not pay off in what she could deem a tangible way, but it imparted a different sense of hope. There might still be some power of good out amongst the ruined vistas of the past. The silent rocks hide much, far too many secrets lost to time and memory. As much as Traveler hated to admit it, there was a certain air of freedom and adventure now that she was no longer all alone. Down Range was right though, the pain of loss did feel like it would never truly go away.

On more than one occasion she found herself entertaining the idea that dying alongside her parents would have been preferable. Why did she feel guilty? There was nothing she could have done to save either of them, and would certainly have died as well if she hadn't ran. It was a nagging sensation that refused to let go of her thoughts.

"No!" She jolted awake and panted heavily while looking around. The image of her parents lifeless bodies once more awakened her to find only the desolate wastes awaiting. They would never comfort her again. She knew this, and as another night passed, another awful mirage of her parents lying there in a heap.

Their group would move on again shortly. She slipped into the greatest gift her father could ever have given her, the armored stealth suit Moonlight. What was now known as day passed much too quietly, like it always did.

"Down Range, how is it these suits never seem to get very dirty?" Traveler questioned via the radio as they walked on. The strange fellow by the name of Tanner followed uncomfortably closely behind him despite being warned of the potential danger of doing such a thing. Traveler, at least, was more than happy enough to have him along. She said it was only fair to let him tag along if he wanted, considering she'd effectively done the same with Down Range.

"Simple enough. The outer shell is partially composed of something new they were calling untaintable or unstainable steel I believe. Something like that. I didn't really look into the details very deeply before.. Everything about them was state-of-the-art when they were built. My armor has a few special modifications I requested." Down Range sounded a bit forlorn. He did live through the end of the world after all. In his every word and action there felt as if some great heaviness weighed them down. That was easily forgivable. What pony would not be left shaken and sad at having lost everything and everyone they held dear? He'd lost far more than only those things.

The entire world as it was, torn from under him in what for him felt only to be a short amount of time. In all fairness, he was coping surprisingly well now. Traveler still worried over things she might say to him. Sadness was not what she wanted to bring to others. Her own sadness still stung terribly. Like a poison in her heart which would never cease hurting. A hurt she was still struggling to hold at bay and come to terms with. At least she didn't cry at the slightest thing anymore, feeling that it was at least better. Tanner listened to anything that was said openly between them as if hanging on every word for some reason. Their endless marching did not seem to bother him very much at all. Traveler was left in charge.

This was her mission, and her decisions were what they would follow. Despite his past, Down Range usually declined to take the lead. She wondered if it was out of simple respect or something else. There was such a long way to go. Could they even make it there and back? For now, they were following the sparse remnants of what at one time was a rail track to the west, once surrounded by a dense lush forest to the south, and a mountain to the north. The mountain was still a long way ahead, the track followed the bottom of it uncomfortably closely, within its shadow. If it could cast one. Had anypony ever climbed it, even before the world stopped? The forest long lay a dead and uninviting place.

The intervening years did little to make this better. It may be faster to head down south through the huge and unfriendly seeming place and turn west, but it would also mean coming near to the Haysead Swamps. Down Range remembered them as the Hayseed Swamps, just an immense bog of no particular note bordering Horseshoe Bay and far down the coast. Once, a draw for adventurous souls looking to get away from it all. Now, a place marked by the griffons as an unknown and potentially very unsafe area left unscouted since the war leveled much of the world. Many places were similar, but what little they could learn of the place from the few ponies encountered thus far was not encouraging.

Old half-remembered stories of terror and pain told by a frightened face or two here and there. Altogether it painted only a bleak picture of yet another danger to be avoided if possible. Traveler asked what a coast was, that drew a laugh from him. She liked hearing him laugh so much it didn't even matter it was at her questions. He did his best to explain. She then asked what the ocean was. Explaining all that took a while. They had nothing but time to spare as they roamed. Though she'd seen it back at the small firebase, she did not truly know what it was she was seeing. She had no prior idea as to the extent of it. It also sounded like it was much more interesting when it was lively.

The tainted water was so flat and still, dead. When they camped that night, Down Range approached her before she went to sleep as she was slipping out of Moonlight in that required awkward way. She looked up curiously at him.

"I want you to have this." He opened and levitated something strange looking out of his heavy kit. It looked curved and smooth, like a fan. It was very pretty. Both the inside and outer portion almost seemed to glint and capture the slightest light.

"What is it?" Her eyes widened at the sight of the pretty thing. She'd never seen anything like it before.

"It is a seashell. It once belonged to a living creature from the sea. Don't worry, it was empty long before I got it. For me it has been a good luck charm. They say if you hold one up to your ear just right you can hear the sounds of the ocean. Be careful though, they are very brittle." He was giving it to her? Surely she didn't deserve this gift.

"But, this is yours. I can't take it." She told him, but he insisted. Curiously she gently held it up to her ear to be surprised at the hissing and whooshing sounds it seemed to make.

"Oh!" She gasped as Down Range chuckled at her reaction.

Even just a little away from her ear it did not make any sound at all. How did that work? Tanner looked on curiously as well. He'd clearly never heard of such a thing either. She reached out to hold it up to one of his his ears as well.

"I don't hear any..oh!" They would over the next few days spend quite a bit of time listening to it when resting. A simple trick of how sound and air works, it seemed like something magical from a time none recalled.

"How long do you think before we catch up with those guys?" Traveler asked as they camped in a little hidden spot they'd come across. It was a good place to make a fire as it would be very difficult for anything to see it.

A previous fire was already set here. The group they were after probably found the same spot. It also proved they were probably close to catching up with them. After their failure to find an intact Farmer's Almanac in Baltimare they were not feeling too hopeful, but a strange experience there did keep these hopes up somewhat.

"We were delayed by our little side trip. From now on, I think we should trust the griffon intel implicitly. Unless we have very good reason to go off track again it is probably not a good idea. From what we know, Tasket's group is very fast and skilled. They must be moving at a pace almost matching our own. I'm impressed." Down Range certainly looked surprised.

It was nice to see him without that helmet on all the time. He sat there in his gleaming armor. He still kept his gilded nameplate obscured. Did it really matter so much? It was sheer happenstance she or Tanner recognized him from some ancient comics. Few if any other should even have a clue as to who he was.

"Okay, but who is Intel?" Traveler asked. This drew a snort and a smirk from both him and Tanner. After taking a moment to explain what that actually meant, he continued.

"I am kind of surprised to find this firepit here. Due to our little misadventure in the outskirts of Baltimare and their apparent speed, I expected we would be traveling parallel to them on the opposite tracks and meet up where they used to join. They ran alongside both faces of the mountain. Come to think of it, why would any of them be in such a hurry anyway, and why did they switch to this route? You told me they are going a very long way indeed. Why wear themselves down like this? They certainly do not have suits like ours. This worries me. There should have been no good reason for them to change plans." He frowned. Something did seem wrong about that.

All she knew is that they were going a tremendous distance, and anticipated them keeping to the shortest route. Instead, a couple wasteland ponies they'd encountered and convinced to talk with some gentle coaxing, and some of their fresh water, said they'd seen them and set out down this path. The ragged pair were taken aback that she insisted they take an extra bottle with them. Keeping up enough of a pace to still be ahead of where they were now was strange. They'd been going as flat out as they dared for a week, and only now did it seem they were catching up at all. Something about it seemed desperate or wrong. At least they appeared to finally be closing in on them.

If they did not catch up within another two weeks, they would run the risk of not having their assistance searching the next possible site that may hold a copy of the Almanac. Traveler still did not know what she would actually do if it were located. Should she even bother returning home? It felt like a different life and a lifetime ago even though it was really only a short while which passed.

"Down Range?" There was something she wanted to ask privately. He looked over to her curiously.

"What is it?" The timbre of his voice was nearly melodic as usual. She enjoyed hearing it.

There was something comforting in those saddened notes. She wished hard to hear it without the heaviness it carried. Tanner looked on as usual. He'd set down his own unwieldy pack. It looked to be stuffed to overflowing with who knows what. That thing must be heavy. She'd offered to haul it in her cart, but he declined, saying he would carry his own weight. It was probably just as well, the cart saw better days long ago. It would require some sort of repairs sooner or later. She was not certain they could even make them. It was holding up surprisingly well, but the condition was definitely deteriorating. They would all hate to lose the cart.

It was not only useful, but her only other tenuous connection to home aside from the powerful machine she'd inherited. A machine Down Range still insisted could be dangerous in some unspecified manner, though he seemed more relaxed around it by now. She could not bring herself to believe that. If Moonlight was really so dangerous, why wouldn't he tell her what could be so wrong with it? So far it proved extremely reliable and saved her life at least twice already. In some way just its presence nearby made her feel better, more secure in unfamiliar environs. In some way she found herself considering it a friend.

"I Know you said you think finding the book is a good idea. It's just... I..I don't know if I really want to go home. I saw my parents die there. I watched my dad get killed and I couldn't do anything." She huffed. It was clearly very hard for her to speak about this.

"Hey, take it easy. From what you told me you did do something, something very brave. You stayed alive, and you've kept trying like they would have wanted you to." He smiled at her reassuringly. Hearing this was very comforting. Her heart still fluttered sometimes when he looked at her. What was she thinking?

"Stop that." she whispered to herself.

"What was that?" He asked.

"Uh, nothing. Thanks. I suppose I really should go home after everything is said and done. I don't exactly have anywhere else to live anyway. Will you go with me?" Traveler didn't mean to, it just slipped out. She sighed and took her nightly ration of water. She'd tried to strike a strict balance with Down Range of consuming it at a pace that would last for the most possible time. It still would certainly not last the entire trip if the next location did not pan out.

They might be chasing nothing more than the notion of a shadow of a dream, but it could be worthwhile. If the book could be found in good condition, it would help at least partially fulfill the dying wish of her father. They were really only just setting out on this journey despite the distance covered already. He remained silent about that question. Maybe he didn't catch it? He went over towards Tanner.

"I will take first watch tonight. You know how we do things now, Tanner. You get the next. I still can't say I understand why you're willing to travel with us so far, but I'm not complaining about having another set of eyes. I do hope that rickety looking .44 of yours is at least functional. We will soon be walking beyond any territory the base griffons have any information about at all, aside from this just about useless map." He hovered the scrunched up map back into the armor storage container on the side. The kit resembled the shape of a saddle-pack more for aesthetics than usefulness. A familiar looking piece of an entirely alien looking thing.

"I don't like it. Things have been too quiet since we left Baltimare proper. I'm not complaining about having an easy time of it, but something about this strikes me as very odd. The group we should have met up with a week ago is moving at a tremendous pace for some reason, almost as if they are trying to catch somepony or get away from them, but we've seen no evidence of either. Very puzzling." Down Range frowned before refitting his helmet on his head. He had to put it on slowly to get it down correctly over his horn.

He'd explained that the heaviest power armor built during the war was intended for use by earth ponies only, and that they were almost not built at all due to bad blood between some factions that worked on creating the originals. When the finished prototype was finally revealed it was so impressive that a great deal more resources were poured into them. His suit was specially crafted just for him by his own secret order. It was special. He left that part out. His suit was indeed special, one of only two or perhaps three intended for unicorns to wear. Unicorns mostly tried to avoid up close brawls and fighting. As the war progressed that proved a reliable and outright necessary tactic. He glanced towards Tanner.

He seemed and acted friendly enough. Definitely no threat to either of them, but remained strangely silent so far about why he'd followed. Their first meeting was quite a shock to Traveler, and proved something amiss with their suits which both missed picking him up for some reason. It was not a good feeling knowing something may be wrong with both of them. Otherwise they were as solid as always. Once was a fluke, twice certainly gave the feeling there was a potentially serious problem. Both were as advanced as anything produced during the war. Each did have some specific flaws inherent to their designs, but nothing that felt like it might inadvertently endanger either of their lives.

It was puzzling how they did not detect him. Ever since he'd shown up as one of the friendly blue indicators. They'd kept careful watch since, but it remained the entire time. Perhaps it was just some unexplainable anomaly. This made several unexpected things encountered on their journey so far. The first was an earthquake that almost wound up being the death of Traveler. It was a strange occurrence. Almost unheard of. That was odd in itself. The second was something they simply could not explain. Down Range didn't think Tanner was dangerous, but his presence was a little unusual. It was about time to get a clear answer from this fellow.

He did know Tanner was interested in him from the start for whatever reason. The little group took to rotating watches each night. All got an equal amount of time to rest. The difference each night helped ensure none of this unlikely trio would become too accustomed to a routine or complacent about the fact they were in potentially hazardous territory. Nothing life threatening was encountered since before the stopover in the ancient city. It proved to be a a near-total bust and little was gained for their efforts. Since then they'd simply been endlessly trudging forward. Traveler still found this so much more pleasant than when she was all alone and desperately seeking help.

By some instance of sheer luck she'd found herself setting out again with a pony whose age was difficult to comprehend. Tanner offered little explanation why he'd come so far after them. He did seem to have quite an interest in a pony from the distant past. A past so long out of memory little of it was recalled except a horrible war that leveled nearly everything at its end. Such an ending could hardly be forgotten, leaving the world so still as it did. So lifeless. What constituted life now might hardly be called such. It was mere existence with nothing to look forward to, except perhaps a bad end somewhere out in the dead of the wastes amidst deathly silence.

Nothing could be claimed to be solid or enduring. Down Range barely spoke of the past. When he did it was usually of some memory or some fact they were not aware of, it was never really happy. Traveler truly wanted him to be happy, as impossible a thing as that seemed. If any pony deserved happiness it must be him, she thought. He'd lost so much more she could barely conceive of what it meant. His family, his friends, his world. A bright and thriving world which reached heights she would never know and could only distantly dream of. Everything he ever knew from a world filled with happiness and light, until it took such a sudden and drastic turn for the worse there was no stopping it.

She was certainly interested in seeing more of a city than the brief glimpses she'd got, and wanted to return to one at least once with him when time was not so pressing a matter. At least with companions, it didn't feel as lonely out here. The feeling never really left. There was little life or movement in the world. When there was it was more often dangerous than not. They were gaining some ground on the other group. It could still be as many as five days before catching up. It would be close if they really wanted their help. If failing to join up where the ancient rail connection once met there would be no choice but to go it alone and hope they didn't run into anything too difficult to deal with without their support.

"Alright Tanner, You've been with us ever since we left the city and still haven't told us why you really want to come along." Magnificent insisted Tanner also call him Down Range. Perhaps the past simply hurt too much still, or maybe it was something else. He'd endured a sort of pain no pony, or indeed anything that has feelings for another should ever have had to. Losing a whole world must hurt so unbearably badly.

"We may be going a very long distance. Hundreds and hundreds, even more miles perhaps. From what little the griffons could tell us we might be in for a very rough ride along the way. Before you go to sleep, I want you to understand that first and foremost I am here to protect her, and if it comes down to it I expect you to do the same with your life if you insist on following." He looked over to Traveler and back to Tanner. In the dim firelight he didn't seem to notice her eyes were not really closed yet as she slightly coyly looked away, or her slight blush either.

"It's nothing personal, but if you get in trouble you may find yourself on your own out here. Do you understand?" It was clear he was not trying to sound mean, only truthful.

"I understand. I can take care of myself in a jam. Anypony that can't doesn't tend to live too long, in case you hadn't noticed." Was he being snarky? It was difficult to tell. He seemed like a strangely happy and upbeat sort, most of the time. How he stayed this way was hard to understand. He did obviously harbor some deep respect towards Down Range for some still undisclosed reason.

"Okay, Tanner. Now that we've got that out of the way. If we are going to be together for possibly such a very long time, may I suggest we get to know each other a little better? We can both start by being brutally honest with each other about things. So why, are, you insisting on tagging along with us?" He stood there in his brilliant gleaming armor awaiting this new companions response. Tanner sort of shuffled around nervously a little before opening a flap on one side of his strange makeshift pack. There were many such pockets on it. How could he possibly remember what was in each? Yet he always seemed to pull out whatever it was he was after with unerring accuracy. It was a bit of a marvel.

From within the pocket he produced one of the ancient comics he'd scraped together. It must have taken him years to find just a few intact. The cover of this one displayed a sketched likeness of Magnificent, shouldering some terribly heavy weapon, looking stoic as he stared down some unseen horror lurking just out of frame. It was clearly drawn by a truly talented, if demented pony artist of old. The title read 'This weeks exciting adventure: The Left Hoof of Darkness.' On the very bottom left at an angle was a little strip saying 'Free Maregan oil sample. Tips on keeping your mane looking its best while adventuring in back!'

"What the?.." Down Range went to ask as Tanner flipped to a specific page within. He held up a page within for him to see, containing some dialogue near the end of whatever grand adventure happened inside of the worn pages.

"Magnificent, the day is won thanks to you!" A bunch of ponies of various builds and colors were all standing about cheering, smiling and altogether looking far too happy. Almost disturbingly so. Magnificent was holding up a hoof for them to quiet down.

"Neigh, good ponies. I could never have done it alone. Without my friends I would have stood no chance against that bizarre menace to decency. My dear friends are what truly made the difference here. Remember kids, true friendship is the real magic." Down Range stared at it for a long moment, unmoving. Tanner looked down tensely before closing the comic and slipping it back into its pocket.

"Tanner. I'm not him, that version of me is just something that was made up to cater to my own ego..I never even saw those anyway...I'm not him.." His voice seemed to waver a little bit, but it was hard to tell through the suit amp.

"I know, and yet you are. Whether you believe it or not, the way you speak and carry yourself is uncanny. They really got you right. The you in these is a hero to me, and the reason I'm still alive." Tanner spoke quietly. Down Range tilted his head a little to one side curiously. What was Tanner getting at? What did this have to do with wanting to come along? If anything, some of the panels in the comic made it look like being anywhere near him was an extremely dangerous proposition. Tanner seemed to be, crying? Crying a lot as he looked up.

"I want to come with you because... because.." He seemed to be stammering a little. Was he okay?

"My entire family is dead. First my brother, then mom and dad. At least they taught me to read before... They all died a really long time ago, and I never had any friends. No one does, not really. Not here, not now. When they died I was left all alone with nothing. Nothing..all by myself. No one was around to help. No one ever helps anyway. I was dying, thirsty and starving when I found this. I read it because I was just a colt, and I was going to die anyway." His tears were streaming heavily as he went on. Traveler was listening to all this with her eyes closed, but neither of them would notice right now. Down Range was completely silent.

"On an earlier page you speak to those around you to, tell them go on trying no matter what is in front. No matter how much it hurts. That just giving up is pointless. Try, and keep trying no matter what you face. Pain has no meaning if you just quit over some hardship." Tanner gulped before going on. This was very obviously cathartic for him.

"It did hurt so much, but I took that advice and kept going. The very next morning I finally found some food and water. You saved my life. I want to go with you because I owe it to you. I also..want to know what it's like to have friends. Will you have me?" He sobbed a bit before quieting down. It was a quiet and touching moment as he sniffled.

"Tanner, you don't owe me a thing. I didn't save you. You saved yourself, and obviously learned how to stay alive since. You're a strong fellow. You are welcome to tag along if you want, but you should be careful who you choose as heroes..my friends tend to die." With that the pony once known as Magnificent slowly turned and began his patrol around the area.

"I don't care. You are something new here. Maybe it will turn out to be something big, maybe it won't. You're still my hero." Tanner whispered to himself, wiping his eyes. As was becoming usual the night seemed quiet and uneventful. For a change, Tanner fell asleep quickly. Traveler did not know what to think of this. He'd lost his family as well?

That meant all three of them knew a similar pain. She'd noticed during the brief time they'd been together that Tanner did not seem to get to sleep very easily. Now, it made sense. Why did he say nothing until now? Was it just hard for him to think of as well? Should she say something about it, now that she knew? Tanner did not yet know she'd lost her family in such a gruesome way. She hadn't felt like talking about it. What happened to his? For the moment she dare not ask. He was, perhaps, a kindred spirit who suffered in much the same way she was now. Worse, he'd lost a brother in addition. Was everyone still clinging to life in this world destined only to suffering and misery? Her thoughts were troubled this night.

Eventually, she drifted off to an uneasy sleep. Some hours later it was with great shock she was awoken to find Down Range tapping her gently with an armored hoof. Her eyes popped open.

"Traveler, shh. Quickly, slip into your armor and prepare for battle." His tone was dire. What!? He furtively looked around. Something was very wrong.

"Hurry now. Somehow we have been surrounded. Just remain calm and get ready." He turned and stood guard as she she got into her suit. As the dials and gauges popped into her vision they confirmed he was correct.

No less than a dozen threat signatures entirely ringing them. What was happening here? This could be bad. Now feeling a little more protected she asked if he knew what they were.

"I do not know. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Might be why Tasket's group is moving so fast. Spread out a little and stand back to back so we can see in all directions." He'd already informed Tanner who was facing the other way with his .44 off safety. Something felt really wrong here. What were they? Some strange fear felt like it was creeping over her. Traveler panted and nervously looked side to side.

"Down Range, I..I don't like this." She was almost trembling as Tanner said almost exactly the same thing at the same time, then placed the bit-catch firmly in his muzzle, ready to fire. The presence of the heavily armed and armored pony was the only thing preventing Traveler from running off wildly.

"Traveler, listen to me. Whatever they might be, we are carrying tremendous firepower. I know you're scared, and that's perfectly fine. Do not let it overwhelm you. Think straight, and act. We are facing a problem. What do you want to do?" Hearing his voice was very reassuring. Think and act. Alright. Think, think.

Traveler engaged the suit speaker amp at a high level.

"Identify yourselves or we will fire." She spoke as calmly and deeply as she could. A response was awaited with baited breath. Nothing was forthcoming. The threat indicators continued to slowly circle at a distance. Down Range spoke once more.

"Looks like it's no good, Traveler. If any of them step within firing distance fire a single warning shot first. We don't want to engage in a fight if we don't have to. Pointless battles are nothing but a waste of ammo and effort." His words sounded reasonable.

If she'd been facing something like this alone she would likely have run off already only to get killed. Was she really such a scared filly? So much for being grown up. This was embarrassing feeling and not a good thought. What could they be? Why were they doing this? More importantly, this was the third time his armor did not pick something up on approach. Could there be a problem with their suits? Better worry about that later. Time crawled. Whatever it was certainly seemed threatening. Having given warning they still did not respond. The passing minutes dragged on interminably. What did they want? How long was it? Only five minutes passed so far.

The dim and dull light of what she knew as dawn was still two hours off. Ten minutes. Twenty. What were they waiting for? This was frightening beyond compare. Though her suits night vision provided a fair view, it was still not that great at this distance. Some images were fuzzy or grainy and difficult to identify in the green tinge it gave to everything. Suddenly a shot rang out making her jump. It was Tanner firing past something which stepped closer. One warning shot. At least he'd listened. Was he shaking? The figure was nearly impossible to make out and immediately darted back. It looked twisted. Like some distorted nightmarish thing just outside their field of view. Don't panic. Don't run.

Traveler kept telling herself she was safe here with her two companions. It was barely enough. that creeping fear taking hold of her heart refused to let up or let go. Half an hour. An hour. Why won't they go away? Go away! She was trembling heavily now too. Occasionally they found themselves having to fire off another warning shot. Every time her nerves were rattled so horribly. Was she honestly so scared? Surely she was braver than this. This seemed unnatural. Muttering to herself, she was just hanging on against this incredible fear. She took an unsteady step out of nervousness, prompting Down Range to speak in that soothing voice of his.

"Do not run." His tone was measured and so calm. How could he or Tanner stand this? How did he know she was so close to running? By now she was practically shaking visibly. By this time though, Tanner was obviously shivering as well. What was going on?

"Both of you, you must listen closely. They are using some kind of spell, I am certain. I couldn't tell at first, but I can sense it now. This is a trick. Neither of you are so easily scared as this. I do not know a counterspell to whatever it is. We just have to endure it for the moment. Hang on and we will be fine, I promise. They must be trying to separate us, do not let them." He positioned himself a little differently. Down Range chambered something in one of his launchers.

This horrible increasing fear was some kind of trick? What a horrible thing to do to somepony. It felt so real.

"Tanner, I am going to fire a light flare into their midst. It is magically enhanced and will be terribly bright. I hope to blind them. Shield your eyes." He did as he was told and held a hoof up to his face, closing his eyes tightly. The launcher crackled as it launched the magnified flare. As it landed in the middle of the closest threats a terrific glare lit up the area. It was the brightest, shiniest thing Traveler could ever have imagined seeing. The stealth suits automatic systems instantly darkened the visor to protect her eyes. Even with the suit responding that way it almost hurt.

In the distance the shadowy figures almost seemed to be screaming. It appeared to her like they were simply melting out of view. What in the world? The other figures continued to circle like nothing happened. The flare slowly died down. Another half hour, and another. This was wearing on all three of them. What was driving these things? Did they want something? It was maddening. Since the magic flare landed the figures hadn't taken a single step closer. Ever circling. Finally, the sky began the slight transition towards what might be called daytime. As it did, the figures simply retreated into nothingness. The threat indicators faded and they all gave a sigh of relief. Two full hours passed during this odd encounter.

The incredibly and almost debilitating fear faded like it was never there to begin with. Traveler was glad they couldn't see her face right now. Tears forced their way out despite herself. Tanner was beginning to tremble less.

"What were they!? I feel like I've been through the worst fight of my life and we never even got into it. What happened? I can hardly breathe I'm shaking so much." He looked totally whipped. Did it take as much for him to hold his ground as it did her? When she finally felt better she slipped out of Moonlight and much to the surprise of Tanner gave him a warm hug. He eventually stopped shivering as she held him close.

"I..thanks." Was all he said in response. She let go and turned to Down Range. He was the only reason they managed not to do something stupid. If he hadn't been with them, things would have turned out much differently.

"Thank you so much. You saved us. I couldn't..I would have ran. I'm sorry..I would have ran away." She was stammering as he took off his helmet and looked at her intensely. It was only obvious now that he was just as worn from the experience. It was not what she was expecting to see. He was in the same condition?

"Relax. Relax. You both did just fine. I suggest we just rest a bit and move on. We should try to put as much distance between us and here as possible." That lovely voice of his. It might just be her imagination, but was he trembling too? It was difficult to tell. Was he saying that to himself as well? He always seemed so strong to her. To see even him spooked was unnerving in the worst possible way. She might just be imagining things though. He'd already been through so much, it seemed impossible he could be easily frightened. After a much-needed rest they set off once more on their long journey. Was this sort of thing a normal happening around here? The whole experience felt entirely unnatural, almost ghostly.

What could those things have been? None of them were caught in sight of the light. Hopefully they would not run across them again.

"Say guys, was it just me or did those things seem to avoid your suit lamp, and like..melt when you fired that flare off?" She asked. To Traveler it did look like they simply evaporated into thin air when the light struck them, leaving some hideous momentary fragmented image in the wake of the light. An entirely unwanted sort of sight.

"It did look that way to me, but I could hardly see." Tanner took to walking in between them.

The strange things clearly left him nervous and feeling vulnerable. She felt pretty bad for him. He'd come with them hoping for a positive experience and one of the first things that happened could easily have resulted in his death. He looked very forlorn. Down Range walked slowly behind, deciding to say something.

"Tanner, wait.. Don't come with us just because you feel like you owe it to me. Come with us because you want to try and make the world a better place for yourself and everypony else. If you truly feel that in your heart, then, and only then should you continue on with us. Think hard about it. I refuse to get another pony killed without a good reason." He said in a friendly way and gave Tanner his space.

For a while they all continued their weary trudging in silence. What happened was so unpleasant. Tanner was obviously conflicted about this idea now. Some miles passed in this fashion before he finally said something once more. He'd been thinking about it in silence for hours. Once or twice it seemed he might simply turn and leave. This must be extremely difficult for him. Looking between them he stopped and they did the same.

"Look, I have only been truly scared once in my whole life. When I was first left alone with nopony else at all. The first time I was ever truly alone. When there was no one else I got so scared. That comic I showed you, those words that saved me. I read those words every day for a month, and very often after. It was all I had. Yes, I feel like I owe you for what little good feeling I've ever felt in life, but you're right. I have made my decision. I do want to come with you, for the right reasons. Whatever it may bring. If we can do something, anything to make this world better, happier, I will do it. Even if it costs my life." He sounded and looked better, more confident. He was almost in tears again.

"I'll hold you to that, friend. We both will." Down Range assured. Tanner smiled at being called their friend. Traveler knew too well what it was like having never really had any herself. She decided that sooner or later she would tell him all about herself and what she'd gone through. Maybe knowing she understood his pain would be a good idea. She felt pretty bad he'd endured such a harsh life all by himself even though her own was pained. Were these two really her friends? It was difficult to believe she really did have some now, after being alone so long. Being tired out from the previous night meant their pace wavered over the duration of this day.

They did seem to be having a more relaxed time speaking to each other about things. Traveler was still afraid to say the wrong thing, or perhaps hurt either of their feelings inadvertently. Having really just gotten to know both of them she did not want to drive either of them away, still holding so little experience dealing with others. It was not as rattling as it was at first. It still bugged her. These two strong stallions were potentially putting themselves in harms way, just for her and what might be nothing more than a daring gamble for something better. It was a bit much to accept. Tanner may be doing it more for other reasons, but now he'd made the promise. It was flattering and a bit disconcerting.

She couldn't quite figure out her own feelings towards Mag..Down Range. She almost forgot sometimes he did not want to be named such in front of others, at least for the moment. It was a bit of an odd thing to want. Why did he care so much about that? She found him so handsome and alluring, but it might just be because he was her first companion. Somepony she latched onto because he was there and willing to go with her. In truth she'd only known either of them a very short time. How they would react in different situations was not something she could yet truly gauge. What if neither turned out to be who she thought they were?

Sighing to herself she just figured on being cautious until there was a little more certainty. Traveler didn't think either of them was lying or anything like that. She just knew so little and the lack of experience was not helping. It was a truly frightening and disturbing thought to imagine winding up on her own again. Would her father have trusted either of these two? What if one or both of them died? What if she found herself with no one again? What if.. she shook her head vigorously. Better not to think about things like that. The familiar positional pings of her two companions upon her display was becoming a comforting sight to her. They were always there.

It felt good knowing they were always right behind, ready to back her up. This trip into the unknown could be turning out to have serious consequences for all of them. She knew she had to accept this was a fact, it was difficult. Any of them, including herself could very well die out here and none would really care to know what happened to those three mysterious ponies that passed by one time. Caring for yourself first was just the order of the day. Was how the world found itself now really any particular ponies fault? Traveler found herself wanting to ask Down Range so many more questions than she already did, but continually held it back. It was rather frustrating.

She wanted to ask about so many things, but he just always seemed so sad about almost anything from his time. Maybe she could talk to him about that instead? Perhaps ask if there was anything she could do to truly ease his suffering. This last experience left her feeling more frightened than ever before. Even facing off against that monster some time ago was nothing like that was. It was a fake fear forced upon them, but it engendered in her an understanding of how much fear could drive her own actions. She didn't like how weak it made her feel or know what to do about that feeling inside. Another bitter experience to temper her decisions. Did they actually kill some of those things back there? It was difficult to know. It was too dark, and then too bright. When the sky lightened up the things all seemed to simply be gone.

They'd just danced around them the entire time. What did they want? Would they be back? Was holding them at bay really the only thing they could have done? This was not a thing to like either. Something far ahead glinted dully. What could it be? The terrain in the area was slightly hilly, and in places they might be following the old tracks or not. There were quite a few dead trees blocking sight ahead. The mountain to the north loomed like some distant sleeping giant of yore as they passed beneath its nearly nonexistent shadow. Did that also look more beautiful and majestic in times past? Would it ever again? She announced to her companions about the soft gleam off in the distance.

They could not make it out from this far away.

"I don't know about you two, but I don't feel like any more surprises right now. Should we try to avoid it and head south some?" Tanner looked less nervous than earlier. More confident than before, but that would be easy to do considering what happened.

"I wouldn't, and I know this might be a risk, but going around would be a real pain. Just look how thick the trees are surrounding us here. We would be slogging through them for hours just to make a little headway. Let me take the lead. You two stay well behind me, just in case." He sounded so commanding and confident. Traveler supposed that made sense.

Down Range did know this area better than them so it made sense for him to go ahead when things looked questionable like this. As quietly as possible they approached the slight glinting. From afar it was impossible to identify. As they got closer the armor display tagged four living creatures. One listed as hostile. How did it know this stuff anyway? They could not really go around them anyway. Nearing, they kept themselves hidden from view as much as could be done. They could just make out a large and strangely gaunt pony. His coat was a multitude of grey as dull as could be imagined.

Attached to him were eight heavy chains as he walked forth, dragging a griffon and two ponies in small wheeled cages, almost too small for their captives. Weapons were strapped to the tops out of their reach. Also being dragged along was a strangely tall and large rotting looking crate on weird looking wheels with a little slot at eye level in back. There were many other smaller, thinner chains trailing from him as well, attached to other smaller wheeled boxlike things. Could that be the group they were trying to find? Why would they be prisoners? If this was them, then who was it that got spotted going along the other tracks matching the same descriptions?

"Down Range, is that?..." Traveler went to ask but he held up a hoof.

"Yes, I know. They match the description. We have to get them out of there. I know you two might not be ready for another fight yet, but we can't lose them. Alright?" He looked at her for a moment. She knew what his expression must be under there, concern.

"I'm..I'm okay, really. Let's just do what we need to do. They need our help. We try to do everything peacefully first, right? Tanner?" She took a deep breath. He and Tanner nodded in unison as she looked between them.

They ditched the cart and Tanner's pack well out of sight for the moment. Moonlight marked their location. How did it know to do this stuff? They didn't even have to tell it to do so.

"Alright, here's the plan. Traveler, you and Tanner take position off to the sides. Tanner, up that slope. You, down over that way. Try to stay out of sight while I see if I can find out what's happening here and get them free. If things go really wrong, give me covering fire so I can take them out. Do not risk your lives, and don't fire towards the prisoners whatever you do. We need allies, not enemies. Go, quickly now." Down Range walked straight on along what was presumably a part of the old tracks.

They were either not visible, buried or totally destroyed here. He would certainly be seen by anypony ahead quite rapidly if they so much as looked back. Traveler and Tanner quickly moved themselves where they'd been told. They both quickly snuck off to the positions they'd been given. Nothing lately felt quite right to Traveler. Neither did this. Was it just her nerves or something more? She did still have trouble admitting to herself she was truly scared out here. It was not an easy thing to come to grips with. Her introduction to the wider world of the wastes beyond the old farm was a hasty and harsh one. Perhaps more harsh than some. Down Range trotted confidently forward towards the strange pony ahead.

He must be so very strong to pull so much along behind him. Was that really the group they were looking for being held prisoner, what for, and where could he be taking them? After giving them a moment to get into place Down Range called out.

"Pony ahead, please halt. I wish to speak with you." He stopped where he was at, definitely within his firing distance. The large pony stopped walking as his ears pricked up and swiveled as if considering this. It reached a hoof up towards the chains connecting it to the trailing wheeled cages then put its hoof back down with hard thump.

Did she actually hear that at this distance? That couldn't be, could it? A mare in one of the cages started yelling. "Help us! He's a monster!" A monster? What was she yelling? At this instant a terrible deep voice sounded off but it was strangely high in pitch at the same time. It made Traveler feel queasy just to hear it dully in the distance.

"Silence. I thought that Repulse secured that passage already. How did you get past the Fear Mongers!? AIEeeeE." It screeched horribly. It almost hurt. What could this be? Repulse? Passage? Fear Mongers? Was that what those things were earlier? This was already not going as hoped.

The strange pony stopped and then continued ranting as if nothing unusual just happened.

"No matter. Repulse shall end it all for you. Give them peace, Pommel Horse! Destroy this pathetic pawn and meet me at the rendezvous point." After saying this the gaunt pony began walking forward once more at a slow pace. From within the odd wheeled crate through the slot could be made out strange flickering blue bars in the shape of eyes. What did he say, Pawn? Repulse? Peace? Pommel Horse? What now? A booming response came from within. It sounded vaguely similar to her suits strange mechanical voice, but the similarities ended there. Her blood ran cold upon hearing its echoing tones.

The volume was so loud she could easily hear it from where she stood.

"ORDERS RECEIVED. OPERATION: CLEAR AREA. ELIMINATE ENEMY COMBATANT." Oh no. This was bad. She could just feel it. It was so deep and loud. A slow rhythmic rumble could be heard rising. What could it be? The large crate door fell open to reveal a large hulking metallic thing in a shape vaguely resembling a pony. It was twice as large as any of them. The bottom did not have legs but wide solid metal skirts all the way down to the ground as it rolled forward out of the ironclad box. A thick rust-covered heavy plate in front looked substantially strong.

Strange treads could be made out rolling just beneath. On one side was a large round protuberance along with a smaller one her suit systems were jumping between identifying. On the other was at least three guns of varying caliber in a stacked arrangement from the bottom, largest to smallest. Moonlight issued an urgent tactical warning advising against engaging this target. Down Range was already backing away and firing occasional shots. This was not what they expected to deal with at all. What should she do? This unexpected things eyes consisted of three shorter and longer bars which swiveled and turned independently of each other in odd offset counter-rotating circles.

The blue glowing color would almost be pretty if it hadn't just been ordered to kill her friend. It raised and lowered its head which then quickly swung towards Down Range as it turned. She'd been told about robots, but this thing was huge. What was it doing here? How could he be in control of it? Down Range said the battle robots being fielded during the war were incredibly dangerous.

"PRIORITY: HEAVY ARMOR DETECTED. ENGAGING." It bellowed. This cannot be happening. As he was backing away Down Range let off a full burst from his automatic which did little but bounce off. The machine seemed to be glimmering.

What could that be? A strange glow was slowly forming inside the smaller ring on the odd heavy robot which coalesced and shot outward in a tight sweeping beam from left to right which he bent forward just in time to duck. It sparked off the back of his armor. Some kind of beam weapon, but still not identified by her suit. As it fired her suit tagged it as a Focused Maser Emitter. A what? The strange pony was already getting farther away with the group yelling for help. There was nothing they could do about that right now. Tanner and Traveler opened up on the thing at the same time. Their rounds would do little but distract it, but it was better than nothing.

It rapidly panned its head from side to side at them for a few seconds but immediately disregarded them and continued to fire at the pony it probably deemed to be the most threatening. Down Range sidestepped just as the seemingly crazed thing fired a large burst of dangerous explosive rounds to land behind a small pile of rock. It was nothing very much and would do little to deter this thing. He could not retreat and hope to get away. This thing had to be destroyed before it tore him to pieces. He radioed Traveler.

"Get back so I can use my launchers. Run, hurry!" He ordered. She motioned Tanner and they immediately withdrew.

The vile machine was pressing forward. Action must be taken now. Having only nine spell compaction casings left, Down Range did not want to risk using them too soon into their journey. Fortunately he did have numerous E.M.P. rounds. They could not inflict physical damage on their own, but might slow it down. When he thought her far enough away not to affect Moonlight he chambered a round and fired. A perfect hit to the central plate as the blast pulsed outward. The robot fritzed and turned about a little exposing one of its slightly less armored sides. Perfect time to fire an armor piercing round. He fired and the bullet connected, or so he thought. Something was wrong. It did not do any damage at all. How? It hit.

It must have. The robot was already recovering from the magnetic blast and reoriented itself towards him. There should be a gaping hole in its side. What happened? There was that soft glimmer around the machine again. He quickly stood and tried again. The E.M.P. worked as before, and again the piercing round hit it with no visible result. What was going on? From a distance Traveler could just make out what was happening. She quickly called him and told what she was seeing. The bullets were not even contacting with the robot but deflecting away before even hitting it for some reason.

"It has a kinetic deflection shield!?" Was his response. A what? She'd never heard the word before.

"Anything moving too fast towards it will just bounce away or explode before hitting it." He anticipated her question. How did he know what that was? This was crazy. It is too powerful. What could they possibly do now? Throw rocks at it? There must be some way of stopping this thing. There was no choice. Down Range stood up and aimed the spell compaction launcher straight at it. What was he doing? He was too close. No no no. He'd told her all about his weapons as they'd walked amongst the cracked buildings and ever more worn technology strewn about Baltimare. At one point afterward he'd gone exploring through the ruins on his own for a little while. He did not tell them why.

Over the rattle of heavy bullets ricocheting off his armor was just heard:

"Goodbye." Did he really say that? No! A terrific blue glow was forming in the large ring on the side of this vile robot. As it appeared, her suit finally identified it as a particle cannon. What was a particle cannon? That sounded bad. Down Range fired a spell compaction round of some sort that seemed to have what looked like lightning trailing behind it. Just as he fired the large blue orb launched forward from within the weird steel ring. As it was lobbed towards him they connected midway between.

A tremendous clash of energies burst outwards in every direction like streamers of lightning and engulfed them both. Tanner reached her position just as it happened. Nothing could be seen except smoke and dirt. A grinding noise brought their attention back to where the robot was. It was smoking and sparking in places, but it still clanked and ground as it moved about. Where was he? He seemed to be gone. He wasn't vaporized was he? The terrible and dangerous machine was still speaking.

"TARGET: DESTROYED. CRITICAL DAMAGE TO PRIMARY ACTUATORS. SECONDARY WEAPONS DISABLED. BATTLE PARAMETERS WITHIN TOLERANCE. CONTINUE SWEEP. SECONDARY TARGETS IN IMMEDIATE VICINITY." Target destroyed? It's impossible.

"Magnificent, no!" Traveler yelled as she went to run down. Tanner blocked her way.

"Stop. We have to get away from here right now." He said direly. She tried to go past him, but despite the suit he remained directly in her way.

"He's not dead. He's not!" She was panicking. Tanner dug in and pushed back against her suit with both hooves.

"He's not!" Traveler was crying yet again.

"Alright! I believe you, but we have to go, NOW!" He looked straight into her visor as he spoke. That was enough to snap her out of it. The damaged robot might still be a serious threat and not something she could likely deal with on her own. Any second now it could be coming for them. She did not have any experience dealing with real enemies, let alone some huge demented robot. Right now it did not have their current location fixed. It may be their only chance to escape.

They fled in an opposite direction through and behind dead stands of ancient trees. Fifteen minutes later they stopped running and after a few tense moments deemed it was not following them further. It must have determined the area to be clear and turned around to do whatever it would do. Traveler sat there in her armor, quivering and crying. Horror. So much.

"We left him! We just left him..He can't be gone. He can't." She was practically mewling and sobbing. Tanner was looking down at the ground. Both were incredibly distraught over this. It was horrible and impossible. Her first friend, dead? Gone already? It hurt so much. She barely just met him. It has to be another bad dream.

She might even have...It must be another bad dream. It has to be. Please, wake up. Tanner was walking in circles in the little grove they'd found themselves in amidst the old decayed logs and somehow still standing trees. Most were long dead. Mostly empty, lifeless things to echo their hearts. As he marched around Tanner suddenly cried out, knocking Traveler out of her misery.

"What. What is it?" She asked and slowly wandered over to where he stopped moving. She gasped audibly. There were three little pony skeletons in ancient tattered decaying clothes laying about.

These poor ponies must have been traveling when the war ended long ago. They looked almost jovial. One wore a broad-brimmed hat. At one time red, it was adorned with a single long feather probably once belonging to a pegasus, stripped by age. The second was wrapped in a once white cloak with a triangular red border. The third lay back against a tree in an ancient blue tunic and wearing a hat a scarecrow might, clearly dying as all three did. A rotted empty travel sack lay pinned nearby. This was not the sole cause of his outburst. There, covered in moss and rust was an odd mechanical looking thing. Unlike the robotic monster, this mostly bronze colored relic somehow evoked a sense of companionship.

They could not know that it bore the colors once worn by the elite royal guard. One of its sides showed exposed large gears and other internal assemblies. Were they trying to fix it? Attached to the head by rods was something resembling a helmet crest. Its face if it could express any kind of emotion looked sad for all the world. A dead machine to pay tribute to its fall. On the back was a large slot that something seemed intended to fit in which was not apparent.

"What is this thing? It looks like they were walking together. This feels sad somehow. They look like they must have been really young when they died." Traveler muttered. Just another sad thing in the world to lament.

An added sorrow to heap upon its torment and pain. This bitter scene nearly brought more tears to her eyes. Tanner just stared at them for a few moments. A lot more time passed than they thought. It was nearing that modest shift to the darkness of night. She'd been watching her suit tags, desperately hoping to see her companion pop up once more. He wasn't coming. He could be dead. Wiped from existence just like that. After a while the suit marked the area on her mission maps as 'Mechanical Grove'. What did that mean? How it knew to do these things she truly did not understand. At last Tanner spoke.

"We need to rest. I think camping here would be alright. It doesn't look like anything or anypony has disturbed this place in a very long time." He spoke forlornly. Rest? How could she rest now? At him saying it, the feeling hit of how tired she really was. Actually nearing exhaustion. The true mental strain of what happened hit her hard.

"We will need to be rested before continuing on." He said. Continuing on? After this?

"Tanner, we left him..." She went to say but he lifted a hoof to stop her.

"He told us not to risk our lives, remember? We tried to help him, and we failed. That's just how it is. Maybe you should consider turning back." This statement made her heart beat hard. It was painful. She'd taken on a quest, one she'd sworn to complete or die in the effort. What would her father say now? She found herself thinking a for a hard moment and could almost swear she heard him.

"You took a bad hit, so what sweetheart? That's not enough to stop you. I know you can take it. Surely you aren't really going to give up that easily?" He smiled and the image in her head was gone as quickly as it showed up. She blinked.

Keep going. It sounded good, but she felt so unsure about it now.

"Alright, dad." She whispered. Tanner flicked an ear. She just couldn't talk about it right now.

"What was that?" He questioned.

"Nothing. Alright. Take first watch, okay?" Traveler asked. He nodded. During their travels she'd finally figured out how the defense tags in her suit worked and what they were for. It could be set to inform of movement and react to threats of its own accord to varying degrees, but only in a wide arc of one direction.

She'd marked Tanner as an ally so it would not harm him. Far from perfect, setting it to defend them made her feel much more secure. Drifting to sleep was not very easy. This fresh pain hurt so deeply. Was he really gone? She'd never had a friend to lose before. Could he really be here and no more with not so much as a trace he ever existed? She quietly cried herself into a strangely dreamless slumber under the watchful gaze of Moonlight. A darkness in which she could only feel that pained sadness in her heart. This feeling remained until gently woken for her watch. At least some rest helped. Tanner looked totally exhausted by now. She was glad to take over. Traveler examined the strange pony machine to amuse herself.

It looked so different from the horrid battle machine they'd faced. It held an entirely different tone. An almost wistful device from a time long ago, when the world was happy and hopeful. Was there a future to be had, or would it all end like this hunk of rusted metal? Quietly and alone? For ages this sad halted machine watched over its dead charges in solitude. Did it watch them die, unable to help? Was it supposed to protect them? Did it think? Was it capable of having regrets as they were now? Did it feel the same in losing its companions? Surely not. It was a machine as much as Moonlight was. Still, somehow it almost had that same feeling to it she associated with her armor. It felt, friendly.

Not at all like the terrible war machine just escaped from. Why did ponies ever build those awful things? They were so smart. Were they really that desperate to win a fight? Why did it come to make the whole world a miserable shell of a place like this? It was wrong of them, and whoever they fought. Why did they do this? Everything lay a blasted wasting ruin. Nothing like the happy places she dreamed of. Somepony has to fix this, make it right. Somehow, but who could possibly make that happen? The world was so much bigger than she ever knew. Full of wonder and horror. The terrifying experience of the previous day left her dull and listless feeling. She did not want to think about it.

When morning approached she slipped out of her armor for the usual rote motions of some awful cereal and a sip of water to chase it down. It didn't matter at all. There was plenty of it left. Whatever was in it was at least nourishing and filling. A type of fullness she'd never actually known before getting it. Traveler decided against it. The water nor the food supplies would last the entire trip. Something to deal with as it came up. Both Tanner and Down Range offered her some of their other foodstuffs before to change it up, but she refused. Until her own ran out she would not burden them further by asking. They would need it all by the end certainly.

Now, she felt a dim sadness that she did not accept their offer to share such a meal together.

"Tanner, what have you got to eat?" He looked up at her question, startled from his thoughts. It was not a thing she'd asked before.

"Oh, uh. I have quite a few old ration packs actually. Some kind of hard candy I think, and a few pathetic vegetables left I managed to barter for from some old geezer that somehow manages to grow them, somewhere. Don't know how he's still alive honestly. Most ponies..don't live so long." These words of his were true.

An elderly pony in this world must have been incredibly lucky or terrifically talented in some way to survive into old age.

"Probably why nopony has offed him. Best not to get rid of whoever is useful." He continued. Was this really how the world worked? Be useful or get killed for no other reason than that? Traveler looked towards the ancient machine standing in the dead grove. Why was it so different? Did all good really flee this place? The pain inside was too much. Magnificent was gone. She'd come to know deep sadness and sorrow. So well, so fast.

That morning they both shared a meal together in quiet reflection. Something she should have done from the start. It felt nice. Far removed from loneliness and pain. No. This is not how it goes. The world should feel like this more often, not so unhappy. A short while after finishing she stood up suddenly.

"NO!" She yelled angrily, startling Tanner into almost tumbling over backwards as his eyes went wide at her and sat heavily.

"He is not dead, do you hear me!? He is NOT dead! He does not get to die that easily. No way, and neither do we. I won't let us! We will meet up with him somewhere down the road, and that's it!" Tanner gulped as she stared at him. Traveler realized she'd genuinely frightened him. That was very surprising. She felt weird and kind of bad at having done so. This pony was not easily spooked, but this unexpected blow clearly left him sad and shaken. More than he was admitting.

"I'm sorry about that. I won't give up on him or my goal so readily. Will you stick it out, Tanner? Really? Go all the way to the end, whatever awaits us? It might hurt. It might hurt a lot. It might get much worse than this. We might well both die, but will you?" She held out a hoof and helped him up. He'd been startled rather badly. He rubbed his back a little, having landed on his rump pretty hard. It took a long moment looking back at her before he gave his answer.

"I get you. I hear. This is to make things better, right? No one ever tries to make things better. They just tell you there's nothing we can do about it and give up. You aren't like that at all, are you? I will throw my life on the line for this. What else could be worth more?" He almost looked ready to cry again. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, flustering him a little.

"You are a good pony." Traveler said directly. He really did tear up at that and rubbed his eyes.

"No one's ever said that to me, not even..." He didn't finish that thought. Collecting himself they got ready to move out. It wasn't difficult to gather up what few utensils they carried. A few battered plates to eat off of and a pan to cook with if there was occasion. Weighing yourself down with other junk was useless unless you intended to try and sell it. Plates were easy enough to find. The world still contained lots of those. At least there was still plenty of water, for now. She took one last good look at this place. A hidden and peacefully serene place where light once shone.

A forgotten trio once trod upon this now dead soil. What were they doing here? Who were they? Did they deserve whatever painful end fell upon them so long ago? Yet, this place felt calm. Secluded and undisturbed since the war. That awful war she knew little of. From what she could get out of Magnificent it was truly horrible. There was no clue to what happened to these three. Were they part of it? If they were out here when whatever happened, happened.. She couldn't help but think about it. Were they friends, together at the end? If they were friends, at least they didn't die completely alone. Their silent mechanical guardian had kept vigil over their final resting place since time immemorial.

Were they at peace? Surely no spirit would linger here. She almost found herself crying once more at imagining these poor young ones finding their end way out here, with no one to help and nowhere left to go. Surely nopony that young could have deserved to find themselves facing their entire world ending and being left by themselves with nothing. They were just kids. Were they like her and Tanner? Forced to grow up suddenly and without any mercy dished out from a harsh reality? She hoped it ended quickly for them. Traveler fought back tears and turned away. Time to move on.

"Do you think that robot thing is still there?" She asked Tanner as they walked.

She was having great difficulty thinking of a plan to defeat it as yet.

"You tell me. You're the one with the armor. What I can tell you is I have never even seen anything like that before. It was..big." Was his reply. It was true enough, but neither her or the very dissimilar armor their missing companion wore quite seemed to be functioning properly of late. Perhaps it was just a fluke of bad luck they both missed something important lately. Hopefully.

"I think I have a plan. First we have to catch up with them. We should be okay for that. He seemed kind of slow." She'd been thinking a great long while as they walked back in the direction they'd fled the previous day. They spoke as they walked. It would be some time before they could catch up to them anyway, provided they kept going the same direction. Hopefully the weird pony ahead was keeping to the same path they were.

"I hope it includes some way of taking that thing out without getting us mowed down." Tanner did not sound too sure.

She wasn't all that sure herself, but the last thing they expected to face off with was some ancient war machine. It was incredibly powerful and carried weapons even Down Range never mentioned. He did manage to damage it before they got separated. That might help.

"We might not have to fight it at all. My suit has a special function I have only used once. When I was learning how to use it my dad told me about it. It can turn invisible for two minutes every hour, but it has a big problem." She explained. Tanner's expression was one of shock.

"You mean to tell me you could have done that at any time?" He almost sounded angry.

"What? No. No I could not." She did not want him to be mad, anything but that. Just hearing that, his expression lightened some.

"Not only does it not last very long, It leaves the suit sluggish, slow for a long time after. If I got caught during that it could leave me in serious trouble. It was meant to aid in avoiding enemies, not taking them on." He seemed satisfied with that explanation.

Her father did not know all that much about this suit either, but his explanation of that seemed reasonable to her at the time. She took it as truth.

"I guess you mean to sneak in when it's dark and free them then?" He asked. Tanner was quick to catch onto things even if he did seem a bit strange at times.

"Yeah, and get their weapons, too. My suit showed there were some on top of the cage and in one of those other crates. If we did wind up having to fight they would help a lot." She said, unable to stop thinking about what happened to Magnificent. He cannot be dead.

There was no way he could have went down that easily, was there? His armor was far heavier than hers. If all that could not protect him, then what use was her suit? He must be out there, somewhere. He had to be. Traveler shook her head. Bad thoughts were not going to help. What if she was wrong? If he was really gone? She took a deep breath. They were getting close to where it happened. The sight of the area where they battled the day before loomed into view. Her suit was not picking anything up at all. The overlays in her vision revealed nothing. There were scorch marks where the clashing energy weapons scoured the ground in a wide sweeping and jagged circle. It looked terrible.

Most who just happened to see this sort of destruction would surely turn tail the instant they came across it. There was a small mound of dirt probably flung up when the terrible energies careened into each other. It was devastating and left little hope that her friend could be alive. No, she would not believe that. There was nothing here to prove he was dead. That actually struck her as strange. Surely there must be something? Nothing around at all. No broken steel. No anything. It was weird. Nothing about this seemed quite right anyway. From what little both Tanner and Down Range knew of them, the group they were trying to meet up with would not have been taken prisoner very easily.

That robot probably had something to do with it, but why take them prisoner at all? Their goal was very far away, having nothing at all to do with any in-between. It was plainly odd. Where and how did the strange pony get hold of such a machine anyway? It was then Traveler realized happenstance could be a very fickle thing. The very suit she wore now was obtained through the results of apparently random unrelated events. With dread in her heart they hurried on past the area where it seemed Magnificent may have met his end. It looked bad. As they passed, she found herself thinking over the conversations he shared with her in the brief time they were together. He truly seemed like a good pony to her.

Weighted by an unbearable sadness, but nice. He didn't deserve to end this way, did he? They'd barely got started. She kept her thoughts to herself as they cautiously journeyed onwards. What were they about to face?

"He's not dead. He's not. He is tough and powerful. No way." Her thoughts meandered in the way they do when something has gone so terribly different than imagined. Was there anything she could have done? Did they do something wrong? Could she and Tanner have helped more? It would still likely be hours or perhaps another day before they caught up with their quary. Why did the weird pony do this, anyway? He didn't even ask why Magnificent stopped him.

Without so much as looking back he Just started barking things about ending and sent a crazy machine after him. It was so weird and somehow felt out of place. What was really out of place in the world now, though? Her father said there were many strange and dangerous things in it as a direct result of the great war. A war she knew from Magnificent to have started almost like a bad joke, only to become brutally savage as it progressed. She did not truly understand the implications of what a war was. Traveler had never been in one. The little she could glean from him made it sound truly horrific. Some ponies now might be dangerous, but entire cities worth of them, even more perhaps, fighting to the death?

In comparison, their little flight of fancy to obtain a book felt nearly inconsequential. It was something barely fathomable. She asked him how many ponies fought alongside each other. It was far more than she could ever have imagined. He'd seen a bright world she would never know brought to the brink and pushed over the edge into the abyss, watched his friends fall and die. What was the final price for that going to be? How much pain would be enough to pay for the past?

"Tanner, I have to admit I'm scared. Are you?" She looked back.

He was hanging back just far enough that if something did show up he should be safe. They'd retrieved the cart and his pack. Traveler removed herself from Moonlight. They both definitely needed a drink by now. It was good to take a moment.

"This time, you bet I am. That thing almost killed all of us once already." His words were blunt, but true.

"Well, Down Range did do some damage to it. It even said so." Upon considering this she found herself wondering just how much he'd actually hurt it. It was built to fight and destroy.

"I miss him already. He told me one of the reasons he fought was to prevent the world from becoming like..this." She swept a hoof, pointing across everything that lay in front and sighed. Tanner just grunted. They knew it well enough. Magnificent had only been thrown into the world as it was by sheer bad luck, left to realize every single pony and thing he'd ever known were gone for ages by the time he was awoken. Did anyone truly deserve such a fate? The world was nothing but a sad shell of its former glory according to him. Empty of anything that ever held meaning for him. That he would place his life in danger to protect her spoke to just how good he truly was.

"You are trying to make it better." Tanner hadn't spoke much during the day. Probably lost in the same thoughts of surprise and pain she was. Both still reeling from the shock. He seemed more resolute now. Determined as he was before. Even with help, was it at all possible to make it better? Few seemed to hold any hope. The battered countryside lay before them as they finally passed from beneath the looming mountainside to the north. The terrain would force them to turn that way for a while. A pony pulling something as the one they hunted did would have no choice but to do the same. They would not catch up with him today. Perhaps the next night.

For the weight he pulled he was fast enough, and must be terribly strong.

"We might as well just rest here. I doubt he would turn around or anything, and with those other things back there I don't think anypony will be coming from that direction either." She didn't say it aloud, but if anyone did try to come that way they would likely die for their effort. Just thinking of those things made them both nervous. A lot of distance lay between them now, but the idea they were back there was in itself a concerning prospect. It seemed safe enough here. What would tomorrow bring? Getting the three captives loose was important. What other dangers might that pony pose?

They both hoped to free them without another fight. She struggled against herself not to start crying again. It was a shock and too soon.

"Do not cry. He's fine. I know he is. If I start crying I'm never going to stop." Traveler thought to herself as Tanner wandered about, lost in his own thoughts. She rubbed her eyes.

"Say, do you think that gear pony thing back there might still work?" Just making conversation now. There was little else to do and she did not quite feel like sleeping yet.

"Oh gosh. I never even thought of that. I kind of hope not. All those old things seem horribly dangerous, don't they?" Tanner was just finishing looking around the area. It felt safe enough, but not a good place for a fire. Too exposed. They could not risk alerting the pony they were after to their continued presence. Traveler looked up at the forever darkened sky, and for just a moment let herself relax.

"What do you think stars look like?" She said. He tilted his head at her curious question.

"I think they look like a big bright ball. My dad..told me stories about them. The sun and the moon, the stars in the sky at night. They sound beautiful. I'd really like to see them, just once even." She dreamily said. He chuckled at her words.

"What's so funny?" She gazed at him with mild annoyance.

"Don't get your fur all ruffled now. I don't usually think about things like that. I think about where I'm going to get my next meal. Where I'm going to get water or caps to buy stuff with. There's been nothing else, for me or anypony else in a really long time. Maybe there never was anything else, and it's all just a big lie." He looked at the ground for a while.

A lie? What was he saying? He sat there for a long moment.

"What do you mean?" She was quite interested in this now. He rubbed behind his head in thought.

"They say the world used to be so good and all that, but what if that's not true? What if it's always been this way? I want to think maybe it was, but it's so hard. Almost my whole life I've been alone. I never tried to get close to anypony else, and I didn't want to. Then, you two showed up, like something out of a grand dream." His expression was hard to read. She wasn't sure what to say to this.

"I followed after Magnificent when I realized he'd left the camp on a whim. The off-chance that maybe he was the real thing, maybe it really was like that once. It was probably a really stupid thought. After I caught up with you, spent time around you both, heard what you were after.. I realized how lonely and empty my life has been. It's totally meaningless." He was on the edge of crying. They both seemed to be doing that a lot lately. Having left Moonlight sitting on guard, she moved close to Tanner and draped a hoof over his shoulder. It almost felt like he jolted. He looked up to see her smiling broadly towards him.

"Easy. You're telling me you aren't worth anything? Living isn't meaningless, silly. If you weren't alive I would be all alone right now, and scared half to death. I might even have done something stupid. Maybe..maybe that's why you lived, so you could save me, and so we could be friends with each other now." He looked almost shocked at her words as she smiled down at him.

"You..you really think so?" Was what he managed to say to this.

"Do you think it'd be safe to just leave Moonlight on guard tonight? We are both very tired, and I don't want to mess up again. I trust him." Traveler asked.

"Him?" He looked at her with a puzzled expression. She laughed a little at his question.

"It's just something my father said. It feels..friendly. Like it wants me to be safe. I know it's probably just silly, but that's how it feels." Traveler looked to where Moonlight sat. It really did make her feel safe. Yet it, too, was built to go to war. It was unlike the terrible robot at all.

"Your father? Sounds like he's a real strange pony, no offense." Tanner didn't know yet. Now might be as good a time as any.

"He's a pegasus." She stated just as a fact.

"What!? Your father is a pegasus? One of those crazies?" Tanner let his jaw just kind of drop open.

"He wasn't crazy." She continued. He stared for a moment at her words.

"Are you sure about that? Not to be rude, but I've only heard bad things about them." He did look concerned.

"Well, he's not really my father." She wasn't quite sure of his reaction just yet.

"He's not?" Tanner looked confused. She was actually kind of having fun with this.

"I was adopted, but my parents are gone now. They were both murdered in front of me." It just finally slipped out. He blinked a few times, and cautiously offer to pull her into a gentle hug which she accepted. They enjoyed each others warmth for a few moments.

"I'm sorry, about your parents I mean. What happened? Please, tell me?" It was difficult as she went about explaining the odd circumstances of her life, and the terrible end of her protectors. How much they cared. It was a long story, she told it all up until they'd met. She also told the sad story the pony from the distant past conveyed to her.

He sat there quietly as she spoke, taking it all in.

"So that's what he meant. Wow. Both you and Magnificent have been through some really weird and terrible stuff, Traveler. I can't imagine. I thought I had it bad. I mean, I knew he must have gone through something horrible, but everypony has, haven't they?" He trailed off. For Magnificent, it was probably worst of all. How could you lose more than everything and even everypony else? It was a lot to tell. Traveler felt a little closer to this pony now. He did take a risk for them. That must mean he is truly genuine, right? She thought to herself.

"What do you think that pony was rambling about? I couldn't make it all out, but he called Down Range a pawn or something and said some other odd stuff. That was pretty strange, right? You have any idea what he was talking about?" For now, she'd talked about herself long enough.

"Probably just another crazy pony. There's lots of them. What else could it be, anyway?" Tanner did look perplexed as he answered her question. It really was pretty strange. Why was that gaunt pony even saying such unusual things?

"My dad said you should stop and analyze what others do and say if you have the chance, but I don't think we got enough out of what he said to do that." Traveler was considering the upcoming encounter. They would certainly overtake him by the next night. She felt kind of cold thinking about it. She and Tanner both knew this was going to be very dangerous. It could easily result in one or both of them being killed in a matter of seconds if they made even the slightest mistake. Even more than before, she really did need to free the three captives. Without Magnificent she felt much more vulnerable. It felt like he'd been with her a long time, even if that was not the case.

"There is another problem. The weird pony won't see me, but neither will they. I will only have two minutes to get in, free them, have them grab their stuff and get out. We need some way to tell them I'll be there first." Traveler was puzzled by this one. How could they get a message to them to be ready without alerting their captor? There must be something they could do.

"Why don't you just do it twice?" Tanner said.

"What?" Twice? She did not like the sound of that.

"Two minutes every hour or so, right? Not very much. Just get in, tell them the plan and what to expect, and to be ready in an hour. Then get out of there quick." Tanner's idea was good. Why didn't she think of that?

"That's great!" She voiced her approval so enthusiastically he almost seemed to be turning redder.

"Let's hope so. It would be nice to avoid that weird guy." He was definitely right about that. The odd pony was clearly very dangerous. Not one she or Tanner wanted to tangle with directly if it could be avoided. On his orders something from the old world might possibly have killed her friend and sworn protector. No. Do not think such thoughts.

He's out there somewhere, maybe hurt. Her suit did not pick up any signal from him since. He must have been forced into retreating as they did. He must have. There was no other explanation in her mind. There could be none. The thought he was gone would not hold a place. To give into thinking he was truly dead.. No.

"I still do not really like this idea, but it works. I will be in danger twice, and I haven't used this more than once. I don't know how reliable it is, so I have something to give you." She pointed at her cart. Tanner tilted his head, curious as to what she could possibly have. She rummaged in the creaking cart, pulling out something round.

"Down Range said he wanted to make sure there was something I could use if he was not able to protect me. Something only to be used as a last resort." Her thoughts went back to the conversation. At the time it didn't seem like it would be something she would ever need, but here was something truly dangerous, maybe even more so than the maniacal robot.

"He said this is something called a resonance agitation grenade he got somepony to make, back during the war. Said somepony that loved music suggested it or something. He told me nothing could possibly stand up to it, no matter what. It is the only one he carried. I want you to hang onto it. All you do is pull the pin, throw it far, as close to the enemy as possible, and run. The distance it can hurt things up to is pretty massive. Don't use it unless there is no choice at all." She explained. Tanner was going wide-eyed at hearing how dangerous this fairly innocuous looking thing was.

"Is it..is it safe to be around this thing? I mean, if that went off right now.." He looked nervous as he spoke.

"He said it is alright, and will only go off after you pull out that round thing there. There is a four second delay before it starts." She pointed a hoof at the ring attached to this little ball of destruction. Traveler looked at it in contemplation. This tiny ball could cause so much damage it was incredible, unbelievable. Why did such things have to exist? There was nothing she could do about that. Things like this were made for a war long before her time, but perhaps she could try to make the future better. That was the whole point of this excursion after all, wasn't it? She did not start out on this trip just because she wanted something to do, did she? Thinking that might have been the case felt bad.

It would have been easy enough just to hang around back at the griffon base, or would it? She didn't know anything about how life really was back there. The Captain was probably only friendly because he owed her father, somehow. Just how far did that go? What could he even have done for them that was so valuable? She would have to find out sometime. If she survived this excursion into nowhere. How did anypony ever carve out any kind of living in places like these? Again Traveler found herself thinking about things much larger than herself. Glancing over at Moonlight gave a little solace. A gift from her father, but not what he truly wanted to give her.

He'd wanted to give her things like music boxes and pretty things, and..happiness in this dull and lifeless world. She found herself tearing up a little.

"You tried. You tried so hard, dad, mom. I'm sorry I didn't appreciate it." It was okay. She found herself thinking. They really did their best, and if they could go so far to try and give her a good life, she could try just as hard to do at least something they wanted to strive for. Even if it could never do what her father imagined, doing something to help life itself recover was a grand goal indeed.

Already almost four full months passed since she was forced to abandon her life at their little rundown farm. For the first few weeks she'd journeyed alone, in pain and torment over their deaths. Sad and empty. That took a toll, everything took a toll. Having just another pony to talk to, to be with, made it so much better. That another should have shown up, one who truly wanted to help was incredible luck indeed. It felt like losing Down Range was some kind of terrible payment for this relatively easy time they'd been having up to now. What would happen tomorrow, would they succeed, gain new friends? Get killed? The possibilities of the coming day, of what may be, were difficult to bear.

Being out here impressed upon her just how small of a pony she really was, how small they all were. Was life ever better, really? Now she was thinking like Tanner was before, and shook her head.

"I know I should be sleeping. I just feel so nervous." Traveler said, not really to Tanner, but just to say something.

"I feel the same way, but we really should try. I've taken a good look around. We should be safe here for now." She agreed with him. The true depth of fatigue upon her finally set in. They'd been going rather quickly to try and catch up with the strange pony. Finding no sign of Down Range weighed so heavily.

Would he be trying to follow and keep pace with the pony as well? She did not know what he would do on his own, separated like this. Just separated. He is not dead. Finally, sleep overtook them both as Moonlight sat there, as if in contemplation of the countryside. It's head occasionally panned slowly from side to side. It was not a robot per se, but it could act to defend it's occupant and itself to some degree. How it knew to do these things was beyond their knowledge. Traveler simply knew she felt safe within the tight confines of the suit, cared for. It was an odd feeling for it to evoke. Her father said the same of it.

It gave some feeling of quiet gentleness that just did not seem to fit with this thing built to help fight a war long since lost. She was glad it felt that way. It seemed more than just a simple machine, almost pleasant to be around. What made it feel this way, who could know? Something about the way it talked? The way it acted? How it seemed to know what might help its user feel a little better from time to time? These were probably just coincidences and quirks of design which just happened to work very well together. It was all Traveler could imagine of it. What else could it be? It did have several light weapons attached to it, but these were primarily for a short defense.

Its intended purpose was to sneak quietly, something which it excelled at, and hopefully would serve them well in the upcoming days. For all the wear and tear which was put upon it thus far, it looked almost new. A few scrapes and dings to be sure, but that only served to give the dark metal exterior some character. Occasionally Traveler found herself still having bad dreams, leaving images of her dead parents etched in her waking moments. Why wouldn't they stop? Sometimes they didn't even feel so bad, oddly. It was discouraging to keep seeing them, lying there. Sometimes she could swear she heard one or both of them whispering, calling for help. It was not all the time.

Why she would dream such a thing was not something within her understanding. Maybe it was just the brutal and violent end they met that kept her dreaming of it occasionally. Hopefully it would pass completely with time. More than a quarter year out in the dead wastes. So long wandering, already. Time felt to be moving so slowly before, now it almost felt too fast. So many things happened to her in this short span. Some good, some bad. At least she wasn't dead. This meant she was tough enough, right? She'd been thinking so much lately that her head almost hurt from it. Eventually they woke to face yet another day in the wastes. So desolate and empty. So lifeless. This was lush, green and great once?

Traveler could barely envision such a thing. The colors she knew most of her life were barren and dull. If she'd thought life hard before, the idea had been so wrong. Now she knew just how terrible and terrifying it could be, how painful and filled with sorrows, and regrets. How quickly things could go from bad to worse was astonishing to her. In a mere instant her life was turned completely upside down, and now she found herself out here pursuing a potentially deadly pony. It was not something she would ever have imagined in her wildest dreams before, but this was adventure, right? Sometimes she hoped to wake up, to find her mother and father standing there, saying she was just having a bad dream.

To tell her that everything would be alright. That was never going to happen. How she longed to feel their warm embrace once more. The both of them. It was not nearly as embarrassing feeling as she once thought it was. Not being able to have it, and never again made that so crystalline clear that it hurt. Thankfully this night she did not dream anything. It was a welcome relief. Once again she skipped breakfast, not wanting to ask Tanner for too much. That he shared with her the previous day was enough. Those boxes of cereal really did taste terrible, but the stuff in them was so filling it was nearly ridiculous. What could they possibly have packed into that stuff?

If anything it seemed to have that effect even more than those packets Tanner was carrying, and they really did keep one going. Was all food like this long ago? There were so many things she would like to ask, and might never get to. If Down Range was found she would insist he tell her more about things this time. It might hurt him, but she genuinely wanted to know what the world and life was like before it was half burned to the ground.

"Alright, time to get going." Traveler said as she went to get into her suit and promptly banged her head against it. The suit did not open. Huh? What was this?

"Uhh, Moonlight?" She tried the usual approach again. It remained tightly closed. Tanner looked on in puzzlement. She strode and looked around the suit. It still seemed to be working as usual as she tried tapping on it in various places.

"Hey, we need to go. Come on..open..up!" She tugged and prodded against it with her hooves, but it would not open.

"What is going on? We need to go. Open!" She struggled to get the suit to respond. Why was it doing this? She waved a hoof in front of the visor.

"Hello? It's me. Come on, we have to go now.." It did not respond to her words.

The machine stubbornly remained closed. Was something wrong with it?

"Please? I know we've been going an awful long way..I hope you're okay. I'm sorry if I did anything wrong." She said, almost feeling like crying. Why wouldn't it open? Why did she feel like that?

"You know you're talking to a big chunk of metal, right?" Tanner chimed in. Oh. Now she felt a little embarrassed. It really was just a machine.

"Well, it still needs to be taken care of, like anything else." She retorted.

He was kind of giggling at her efforts to open the suit as she fell backwards from pulling on it.

"Oof!" She landed on her back in front of the machine as she slipped while banging on it, looking up. Imagining it was laughing at her as it continued to pan its head side to side. That was impossible. Tanner laughed out loud.

"Oh, come on." Traveler laughed too. This was just too silly. The back entrance panels parted with a hissing whir. What?

"Really? All that, and now you open?" She dusted herself off, feeling rather silly. What was that about? She clambered in like she'd done so many times before.

"Very funny, Moonlight. Let's not do that again, okay?" What was she saying? It's not like it did it on purpose, right? It could be another odd thing she might never figure out. If it started doing this continually it could be a major problem. Nothing more went wrong as they steadily moved on, certain to find the pony ahead soon. Eventually the suit visuals tagged several living things ahead, one hostile. It must be them. How the suit seemed to know these things before she did herself was a real marvel. For several hours they trailed at a distance a pony with unassisted vision could not possibly catch sight of them. This would be the first time Traveler tried anything like this herself, where real lives were at stake.

It left her nervous and feeling very apprehensive. The pony ahead must be getting tired by now, surely? Hours passed and hours more. On into the very beginnings of night he kept moving. Didn't he ever get tired? Finally, he just stopped. It was impossible to see him. None of them got a good look at him in the earlier scuffle either, being in front of the strange carts left him obscured from view the entire time. Essentially they had yet to even really see what he looked like. An offside angled view from behind was not nearly enough to make out any features of his face or anything else aside from his gauntness. Nothing could be assumed aside from the fact he was tremendously strong.

It would be a good idea to avoid him entirely if at all possible. It was almost time to engage in this dangerous endeavor. She was glad Tanner could not see her almost trembling within the armor. It tagged the hideous robot from before as being within the crate once more. One thing she most definitely did not desire to do was try and outfight that thing. It already bested a pony far more powerful than her. They stopped at a safe distance.

"Tanner, I'm ready. Got that thing?" He grimaced at her question and held up the terribly dangerous concussive sound expansion grenade. Neither wished to test just how much damage it might actually inflict.

It sounded ridiculously dangerous to both. Would Down Range have used it if he'd known what was coming? It was difficult to tell.

"Alright, Traveler..you can do this." She said to herself and swallowed hard. In and out. Get to them, tell them what to expect and retreat for an hour. Easy.

"If anything goes wrong it will be pretty obvious I guess." She said to Tanner, very possibly about to face her death.
Ever so slowly she approached the spot where the odd pony was camped.

He obviously did not imagine anypony else would come across him here, or perhaps did not care at all if they did. It was a relatively open spot, leaving her only so far she could creep closer before having to engage the suits invisibility system.

"Moonlight, I am so scared. He said..that's normal. I should be. Oh, I hope the ponies that built you knew what they were doing." She steeled her nerves. It was time to turn it on. A timer settled into the corner of her vision. It would have to be quick and quiet. The leg joint was of particular concern.

If he heard a sound like that and saw nothing more than a slight glimmer.. Don't think about it, just do it. Like her father once said, act when you must and trust yourself. There were prisoners in need of saving. Closer, and closer. Not a lot of time. Slipping up beside the almost too small cage she was becoming more and more nervous. Quietly. Slowly. The timer ticking down already read a half minute gone. No matter how fast it seemed to go down she must be slow or risk alerting him to her presence. The captives did not look too good, and tired but were definitely alive and awake. Two ponies and a griffon. Tanner said he knew who all three were, but didn't really know them. Here we go.

She spoke, hoping she'd adjusted the suit amp speaker volume low enough.

"Listen." As she said it they startled. No no. The three were looking around, seeming terrified.

"Shh! Don't speak or he might hear you! I'm here to help. If you want out of there listen carefully, now. I don't have time for any questions so I'm only going to say this once. Get it right. Can you move and walk?" Traveler spoke authoritatively and they all nodded to the empty air. The three did look around in concern, trying to find the exact source of this disembodied voice. Down to one minute already. She must leave.

Rapidly as possible she explained the plan to them and retreated with only twenty seconds to spare before becoming visible and being slowed terribly. Out of sight just in time as it shimmered into view. Too close. She did not see exactly where the odd pony was, and no time to look. He must be asleep, hopefully. So far, so good.

"My heart." She could feel it. It was pounding heavily as she waited for the system to recharge. Was that really two minutes? It felt like it went by so fast, and yet every second an eternity. Having returned to Tanner she relayed they were ready. The next hour felt like it passed in a void. Empty and slow. She was so on edge during the entire time. Is it time yet?

Not yet. Now? Keep your wits about you. Was the suit ready to go again yet? Stop it. One hour.

"I do not like how this feels, and I don't feel so good either." She thought to herself. Almost feeling sick to her stomach. This was so much of a strain, and it was only going to get worse. The real test was getting the prisoners away from this guy safely. He'd already proven willing to kill without so much as a glance. If anything went wrong they could all die. If that happened she would never forgive herself, providing she survived either. Shaking her head, Traveler watched as the suit readiness indicator slowly rose back to normal. She motioned to Tanner it was time. Hopefully they were ready.

Traveler closed her eyes for a moment, trying to steel her nerves, almost shaking. While closed she got the oddest flicker of an image in her head of the strange pony, pointing at her as he was surrounded by a flickering ring of colorless flames. Getting closer to her, she was going to die, consumed in an unquenchable fire. Her eyes jolted open. What was that? Don't start thinking like that now. He's just some crazy pony. Stick to the plan. She got into position and enabled the system once more. This would make only the third time she'd ever engaged it. Like many things it was not something to be relied upon. Merely a tool to use. For this, it appeared to be working exactly as intended.

Approaching as quickly as she dared it was apparent the prisoners were ready. A quick escape would be much preferable to another fight. One she might not be able to win. Moonlight was a true marvel of the arcane and the mechanical combined, but it was still a machine. Prone to all that a machine might be affected by, if tougher by merit of design. Compared to the strangely named battle robot, it could hardly hold up. Why did he call it that anyway? Did it have some deeper meaning? It might mean nothing at all, he'd said some very strange things already. Quickly she pulled down the weapons strapped haphazardly to the tops of the cage, giving them to their rightful owners.

One of the ponies owned a particularly vicious looking sniper rifle, the other a pair of shotguns and pistols, and the griffon his own odd looking set of pistols each equipped with a sort of strangely squared barrel with slots running down the sides, her suit could not seem to identify them properly. She hoped this was not another problem with it. There were enough as it was. This was frightening, truly frightening.

"He said if you aren't scared when you do this stuff, then you're doing it wrong. Just keep going." She whispered to herself as she used her suit as leverage to pop off the locks on their cage. It made short work of them.

They made little clinking noises she winced at each time. Again she was already down by thirty seconds, they all must leave before it wore off. The mare with their group pointed to one of the other crates and motioned her to open it as well. Not much time. No time to argue. Traveler quickly popped it off and saw why. Some kind of unusual armor she quickly and quietly slipped under and into to carry off. That was different. She motioned to another crate for some reason. No time, Traveler shook her head and quietly admonished them to get moving. Time to go, now. As she went to turn and leave, that quick slight squeal from the damaged leg joint let out.

She stopped and felt her heart skip a beat as she looked around furtively. It wasn't that loud. Just enough. For a second it did not seem anything noticed it. The threat tag still showed the weird pony up in front of the crates and things it dragged, unmoving. She hadn't really noticed before but there were actually quite a few other small weird wheeled crates being pulled along attached to chains as well. What was in all of them? How could he be dragging all this behind him? His strength must be immense. Even her suit might struggle a bit to pull all of this. No time to wonder. As she went to leave, out of the corner of her assisted vision she saw a shadowy figure rise in front. Uh-oh. Oh no.

Traveler commanded the others to run towards her friend behind them and keep going no matter what. They readily complied. Something about how quickly they did as she bid. This is feeling weird and off. Traveler felt her blood run cold immediately. Something was wrong here. As wrong as if the world itself was somehow falling away beneath her hooves. He was moving, reaching up to unclasp the unwieldy steel harness and loop holding all those chains to him. The pony then laboriously turned as if some great vessel at sea. He knew. How did he know she was here? It should be impossible for him to know. Traveler could still run, but somehow she knew too.

In the tinted night vision of her visor, seeing that spiked mane, the blood-streaked barding. It was him. The pony that killed her parents stood before her. Why him? Why here? A horrible feeling of rage and anger she'd never known was rising in her heart. She was practically shaking, seething. He was right there, she could kill him right now and he might never see her. Something held her back. As foreign a feeling as any. At this moment moment Traveler truly wanted to kill this pony that tore her parents from her, and stole her whole life away. Instead, that mysterious something made her stare in rapt wild and wide-eyed wonder. A horrible, yet exciting feeling was sweeping through her. He must pay, he must.

Yet, that strange feeling holding her back let her notice something, a terrible thing that made her tremble instead of moving. He looked straight at where she stood, could he see her? No. It was not possible. In fact, he should not be able to see anything at all. Where his eyes should be were only uncovered wide empty sockets. She found herself panting, on the edge of straight panic at the sight. What happened? How did he know where he was going? She shook inside this suit meant to protect her, feeling as vulnerable as if wearing nothing at all. This was a true monster. She should leave. Move. Leave, now. Traveler could not. Some energy, some force was creeping around her even now. It held a terrible cold feel to it.

He howled with a terrible deep laughter like nothing she'd ever heard before.

"You, filly. Stupid, stupid filly. I know you are there. You did this to me! I really must thank you. I owe it to you." He took a step closer. How did he know it was her? His voice was deep, nothing like it was before. What was happening here? What could he possibly be talking about? She'd never done anything to him. Her only past experience with this pony deprived her of her parents, left her running for her life, and very nearly ended it. This was not like anything she'd imagined. She'd felt anger towards him his whole time, but what could this be? This was not right.

"What happened to your eyes!?" She stood there as this thing seemed to look straight through where she was. Could he really see her? How? The eyeless gaze of this thing felt like it was piercing right into her soul.

"Where we're all going we won't need eyes to see. Boss does not appreciate failure. He gave me this gift for it." He chortled. Gift? What did that mean? He strode directly towards her. He did know exactly who and where she was, somehow. Traveler disengaged the suit stealth system and it shimmered into view. There was no point draining it all the way down now, and no escaping a fight with this thing that looked like a pony. The suit would still be more sluggish, but not as badly.

"Did you really think a worthless parlour trick would hide you from me?" His voice was gravelly, not at all like it was when she first heard him a couple months ago, and not even like he sounded earlier on. Parlour trick? What was the deal with this pony? Somehow, with no eyes he'd seen right through the suit stealth system, walked all this way pulling ridiculous weight behind him. There was no logic to it, how? There was no time to think about this.

"All I cared about you stole from me. We never did anything to you. You took my parents away!" Traveler hoped he could not hear the tremble in her voice, her doubt about taking him on.

"Pawns know nothing." Pawns? With that he charged straight towards her, leading her to jump to the side just in time. An unexpected rushing move. He held no weapons the suit could detect, and nothing she could see. Didn't he know she was wearing armor?

"He's kinda quick for somepony so large." She observed to herself. Almost unreasonably fast. Her dodging left him smashing through one of the smaller crates, totally destroying whatever might have been inside. Whoa. Something about that also wasn't right. Nothing about this felt at all normal. Did she just hear something else as he smashed through it?

A voice? It was difficult to tell. Taking that straight on could have been bad even with the armor. He'd struck through the box with far more force than he should be able to possess.

"A few hits like that and I'd be killed for sure." She swallowed hard. It was a humbling realization. Try to remain calm, think and analyze while under attack was something you must be able to do, her father taught. Let panic impair your judgement and you will surely lose a fight. Thankfully this guy seemed intent on fighting her himself and was not involving the robot, or maybe it was more damaged than she thought?

He did not seem like the sort that might know how to repair such a thing. Perhaps he was just holding off using it for some reason. Her opponent was already coming at her again. He did not appear to have any care about the armor she wore. Traveler fired a shot from one of the suits few light weapons. A nine millimeter round blasted right through his shoulder and he stopped for a mere instant, or did he? What was that? Some odd feeling as the shot struck home. He still slammed into her, making the suit vibrate. It was enough to hurt even through it. How did that happen? Before there was even time to consider he reached his forelegs around the suit and lifted. What? What was going on? What is he doing?

"Be stilled wretch." Another odd thing for him to say as she felt herself and the suit being lifted upwards and flailing. This was far too much strength. There was no way he could be this strong, to lift this suit and her with it? It was impossible, yet she was being flipped right over as he bent at an odd angle to hold her aloft. He was going to drive her straight into the ground. It almost felt like she was moving in slow motion towards it. This was going to hurt very badly. Closer, closer. From this position there was nothing she could do but flail her legs. It was doing no good. Any second now she was going to crash into the ground and die. Shutting her eyes tightly she nearly found herself calling for her parents.

They were gone for so long already, they could not help her anymore. A quick flashing memory of her father and all his advice. Do not be intimidated. It was okay to be scared, but act. Her eyes popped open. At the very last instant before smashing into the ground in a way that would surely break her neck she snapped all her legs as hard as the suit could manage, it was just enough force to send her tumbling instead of being killed. The disturbing pony grunted at the upside down suit impacting against the top of his head, causing him to heave her away. It was the first pained sound she'd heard him make. He didn't make the slightest peep at being shot.

Kicking that hard hurt herself, but it was far better than what would have happened if she didn't do it. How could he have done that? The suit issued a short heavy impact warning as he'd somehow lifted the suit with her in it and only through her own action sent it flying to roll a couple times and land upside down in a heap. His strength was incredible, ludicrous. She'd been told by her father he thought she was fairly strong physically. At least insofar as being an earth pony ever granted, but this was insane by comparison. An inverted tag showed in her vision before righting herself. The way she'd landed could have been so much worse.

It was still enough to make her wonder just what she was really facing in this guy. Was some kind of magic or something else placed upon or around him? Her suit was not reading or picking up anything special or unusual about him at all. His strength and lack of eyes seemed to defy being so completely ordinary. So far, thankfully Moonlight took no real damage. If it did, nothing was apparent. This was not a fight she wanted to be having, never imagining the pony was her parents murderer. She wasn't ready. This was all happening too fast. She noticed the spot where her bullet hit whilst bloody, looked healed already. Could anypony really heal that quickly?

His neutral though disturbing expression revealed nothing. Firing another round proved as futile as before, but this time she moved aside after it hit him right in the center of his neck. It drove right through. Traveler was ready this time if it still didn't stop him. It didn't. For the briefest instant it looked as though he went to reach for the spot where it impacted, but he barreled towards her again to just miss. It was difficult to tell if she'd really seen that or not, it happened too quickly. She got up quickly, there was no time to wait. A moment to rest or recover would be too much to ask for.

"You should accept your end, before Boss brings it to you. You won't enjoy it very much." That voice of his was so gravelly and terrible. What happened to this pony? The way he spoke and acted was so much different she wouldn't even have recognized him compared to the first time. What was he talking about? It was not making any sense. This entire fight made little. Why was he here? How did he get so far ahead of them anyway? She thought he'd still be very far away. Either he could move much faster than he was letting on or something was even stranger.

Traveler was beginning to have second thoughts about this. It was nothing like she ever imagined it might be to face the one that stole her parents lives. On seeing him at first she felt such terrific rage, but it seemed gone. Now, engaged in battle with this terrifying pony felt totally opposite what she expected. This was not what she wanted, but what did she really want or expect? Nothing could make up for taking her parents away. It struck her heavily, she didn't desire this. Not really. Killing anypony was not what she wanted to do.

"Please, stop. I do not want to do this!" She stated factually as she faced him. This elicited the strangest reaction yet.

"You don't want, to fight?" He spoke in that terrible voice then reared up and began cackling maniacally and jumped towards her so unexpectedly she almost didn't move. It was an impressive leap for any. He only just missed connecting. What was he doing? He moved just quickly enough, a backwards kick which only grazed her armor. It made a little tinging sound. Traveler found herself shoved sideways by the softest impact. A small cracked groove appeared in the left side surface of the armor. It was so slight. The kick barely touched it, yet the force was enough to do that? A few direct hits like that might be enough to break straight through her suit.

She'd expected it from the instant she saw him and realized who it was, but knowing he really would destroy her given the slightest chance was beyond some kind of disconnect with her feelings. He really was a killer. Cold and calculating. Were the things he was saying just meant to be confusing? She turned and faced him once more. He did not look to really be moving that quickly. Something was just not right about it. The way he acted and moved.

"Tell me, why did you kill my parents!?" She did want to know why, if only to give some reason to their deaths, and perhaps her own.

"So pathetic. All will fall. It is Boss will. He has opened my eyes." Was that some kind of sick joke he made? His eyeless expression betrayed that, and was twisted into a sneer as he spoke. His will? Was this pony going to say anything that made sense? He was so difficult to gauge, and the feeling of strangeness surrounding just didn't stop. Was he simply crazy? No. He was too calm and collected, it must be something else.

"I did your parents a favor. Allow me to do the same for you. Give in now or suffer mightily." His demeanor changed. A favor? By killing them?

"I Should just stop listening to this guy and find a way to stop him." She could only think to herself now. If that was even possible. There was no getting out of this. She would have to kill him even if she didn't want to. Traveler fired again. It hit him right between where his eyes should be. The same off motion again. There must be something to what he was doing. Some trick, some bit of information that would let her put him down. As he went to run at her again she fired another round which struck home, right through the side of his neck this time. Any other pony would be dead three times over now, why was he still alive?

Again, almost imperceptibly it looked to her as though he went to reach up to where the bullet hit, but continued forward instead. Whatever happened now she must not let him hit her. Without the suit the slight blows she took so far would have been crippling. His kicks were absolutely devastating. How he knew exactly where to aim was disconcerting by itself. That was one of the armors weakest points. She was definitely faster than him, just a little. Even with the suit dragging a bit. It was such bad timing. If it was not lagging like this she might even be able to avoid him entirely. Perhaps she shouldn't have told the others to run, but they weren't in much condition to fight right now.

Especially in the dark, could they have helped anyway? So far he seemed practically invulnerable. Left desperately searching for any thought about this which could stop him. Tanner would not approach unless the robot was involved. Was he watching from somewhere? The prisoners must have reached him by now. If she could just hold out long enough they might be able to tell him something useful. Feeling colder than ever. What was this cold? What was going on here?

"Can you not, see?" He asked her as if having a cordial conversation.

"Stupid filly soon off to bed. You should stop shooting me in the head. Don't you know you can't kill what's already dead?" This pony was twisted. Vile and sickening. The way he looked. The way he spoke and acted was repulsive. Traveler was feeling genuinely ill. That off feeling surrounding was so dark.

"What are you ranting about?" She asked. It was a genuine question, but maybe keeping him talking was distracting. Anything to give her more time to think.

"No." Was all he said. No, what? Another unexpected jump towards her. He was very good at doing the unexpected.

Traveler was not fast enough, with no other choice this time she went to kick backwards at the same instant, as her armored hoof connected dead on with his she felt the most odd sensation. Like it smashed against some impossibly solid wall. A mountain. He rolled away from the heavy impact, and the outer casing of the suit leg buckled slightly as a crisscrossing pattern of shattering metal material sheered off the outside surface, sending her careening away from him in pain. Whoa. Without the suit it would surely have broken her leg. As it was it caused such terrific hurt. Some of the worst pain she'd ever felt. What was it going to take? Putting a stop to this was all but impossible.

She limped a little, trying to shrug it off. He'd already ignored being shot through multiple times. Did he have no weakness? Strangely, he remained prone. What happened there? Did meeting his kick with equal force actually hurt him somehow? A short moment passed and slowly he began rising to his hooves once more. A blow like that amplified by her suit would almost certainly have broken a normal pony in half. It was not as powerful as the suit Magnificent possessed, but gave a nice passive boost of almost two times her own strength. Was this pony..really already dead? Traveler shook her head. That's impossible.

"Don't be stupid. It's just some kind of spell or something. It must be. Think." Her thoughts raced on what to do next. Taking just a single direct blow from her opponent proved it to be something best avoided. He stood there facing away from her, ears twitching. His head snapped quickly towards her. That was disturbing in a way she'd never imagined. That creeping cold feeling surrounding felt worse still.

"For that, I am going to tear your limbs off one by one. After I rip the coat from you." Traveler shivered as his demeanor changed once more. His voice was so much different again, it sounded an even more serious note. Such a horrible voice.

Almost felt more than heard. That threat was horrific. What was this guy? Surely somepony like this was not just crazy? There was something at work here she could not understand, something dark and unknowable. He turned towards her. Why did it have to be him they ran across? It just wasn't fair. She was going to die here. Her efforts to fulfill her fathers dying request would come to nothing after all. She felt terrible about this thought, but there was nothing to do. What would he say if he was here? It was difficult to keep her mind on the fight in front with such thoughts.

"Pawns should stay out of others affairs. Let me stop you, before Boss does." There he went again.

Why did he keep calling her that and talking about some pony she'd never seen? Maybe he really was insane, but that couldn't grant him this ridiculous strength or odd abilities. All she could do right now was hit with everything. Her thoughts resolved into one idea alone. Instead of anger a strange calm overcame her.

"You know what my daddy told me?" She said. This both looked and sounded like it enraged him further.

"He taught me that sometimes you have to make tough choices, and no matter how much it hurts you have to see them through. I am probably going to die right now, but that's alright because I know I have given it my best shot." Traveler's words were angering him greatly. She could have sworn if he still had eyes they would be glaring at her with an intensity unrivaled.

"You keep talking about somepony else, but you never say anything about yourself. Have you no will of your own?" As she spoke these words, he actually growled. Why did saying that get to him so much? That might never be answered.

It was time. Through tears she spoke for probably the final time towards the confines of the suit.

"Moonlight, I don't know if you can understand me. I don't know if you have feelings or are nothing but a machine. All this time you've felt like..a friend. I choose to believe I have friends now, even if I didn't have them very long, and that you're one of them. Give me all the power you've got." All parts of the display went blank except the very important ones. Maybe it really did understand, somehow.

"Let's go, friend." She reared up and so did her opponent. On landing they both ran straight towards one another like streaking missiles to collide with each other. At them meeting a terrific crackling sound was heard between them.

At the instant he struck towards the front of her armor the AEGIS deflection tag lit up for a brief second and a bright glow sent both him and her hurtling backwards in opposite directions. Some time passed before she regained her wits. Blinking, she jerked at the realization she'd blacked out for about thirty seconds. Her ribs pained from the jarring and being thrown around like that she slowly managed to stand up again. Where was he? The threat indicator was still there. Directly away behind where she landed. Her landing was so hard it actually carved a groove in the ground. Turning her head looking around hurt. What just happened? He was bounced away like a bullet?

What luck of chance, but how much force could he possibly have behind him? The deflection system was not like the kinetic shield the robot had. Its function was based solely on the willpower of the user. That happening was the rarest instance of luck. Somehow for a brief instant she'd focused so much and intently it actually worked. If he'd not been charging at her it still wouldn't have had that effect. Traveler literally got lucky enough to ram him with a shield, but he'd even knocked that back somehow.

"Well, bet he wasn't expecting that. I know I wasn't." Traveler coughed and stumbled slightly.

The previous injury to her ribs was hurting badly again after those terrible jolts and tumbles. All four legs hurt to stand on and felt like they were quivering and shaky from the impact. Not good. At least nothing was broken. A great amount of dust was thrown up from where the two ponies made such contact. She could just manage to make out the outline of a pony laying on their side over there.

"D-d..did we get him, Moonlight?" She managed to stutter and struggle. It felt hard to breathe. The armor was power cycling after that. It would be a full hour before she could move at a full pace again. Not good.

It didn't take more damage that could be seen. Good. If that wasn't enough to stop him there would be nothing else she could do. In great pained strides she limped towards where he lay, then stopped at the terrible sight of him rolling over and slowly starting rise up once more.

"I guess not..thanks anyway, Moonlight." She said, huffing and resigned to her fate. However, he was moving much more slowly as well. Maybe there was still a slim chance. Was he groaning? Perhaps she really did hurt him that time. It wouldn't matter. He was just too strong. All the advantages she'd thought the suit gave her were negated by this..thing.

There was no way he was really a pony. How could he possibly be? The suit never registered anything unusual about him at any time. As the dust from their collision settled it became clear he really was actually injured. What about those impacts hurt him when bullets could not do the job? Good. He should feel pain. He deserved it.

"I think I'm starting to figure this guy out, maybe." Traveler thought, panting heatedly from the exertion. Only two physical blows actually connected with each other, yet she was nearly knocked out of the fight despite her armor. No wonder the captives hadn't escaped of their own accord from that flimsy rolling cage.

Even trying would have been pointless without assistance. Why did he take them prisoner anyway? Not the time to be thinking about that. She wasn't angry at all anymore. There was nothing but sadness. She'd never see Magnificent or Tanner or anypony ever again. She stepped closer.

"What did you think of that huh, big guy? Care to try it again? That all ya got?" She sort of coughed out. Ominously those eyeless sockets slowly turned towards her once again, otherwise his expression was one of pure hatred. It was creepy and disconcerting. Almost as much as him knowing exactly where she was all the time.

How was he doing any of this? Now she could see, his leg was bleeding straight up from where his hoof hit the deflection field. He turned to face her straight on, not saying anything. This was probably going to be very bad. Was this fight without end? He'd seemed untouchable, but he was definitely not invulnerable. If he did heal rapidly that blow was still enough to leave a real and lasting injury. Here he comes. Slower than before for certain. Almost as slow as she was confined in the suit. There was no time to exit Moonlight. Even if she could get out in time, it was the only thing giving her any chance at all right now. She could not abandon it and hope to run away. Leave her armor?

Not a thought she wanted to consider. She could not win. Not against this. It was clear.

"Hold together, please?" Traveler silently asked of her stealth suit. It was so dissimilar to the armor Down Range wore. Quieter, smaller, lighter. Would his heavier armor be faring any better against such an enemy? It did not seem likely. His armor was powerfully built, this was a given, but it was definitely not as fast. In this state it might almost be faster than hers. She could not engage the high-speed travel options with it like this. It left no choice but to face her opponent. There must be an option. Wasting more rounds was pointless.

Her father gave so much advice on fighting, there must be something. She tried very hard to think. Analyze and think was something he stressed. If you cannot outfight them then outsmart them. Some hint to a real weakness must be there. In the things he said, in the few times they indirectly and directly made contact, it must. Sheer luck saved her once, wasting another chance would be terrible. Her position left her in front of the large crate the robot was housed in. Something she wasn't entirely conscious of at the moment. He screeched. What the?

"You ignorant foal! How dare you? How DARE you!? You would slight and disgrace me in Boss' eyes!? You're nothing but an insignificant little filly! You will pay!" He was screaming? Boss again? Who was he? Why did he keep going on about him? What did he mean to this pony? He moved much faster than she was anticipating and found herself rammed up against the large wheeled crate. She was pinned in the air against it. How strong was he!? With his leg like that he could not move as fast, but it was still enough. This was bad, in mere seconds he would shatter her suit and she would die. Tears welled.

"I tried. I tried so hard." Her thoughts were on her parents as she choked up.

They would be okay with this, she knew they would. Traveler had given it her all. She'd at least hurt the awful pony that killed them. That was good enough. Everything she brought to bear against this guy just wasn't enough to finish the job. Tilting her head down to look at him she said what would likely be her last words. An oddly intense quick image of her mother flashed in her blurring vision.

"Not yet dear." This ghostly mirage whispered and the image flicked out. What could that have been? Was it just something brought on from expecting to die?

"I pity you." If Traveler was not wearing armor she would have spit in his face. At this he growled as fiercely as could be and pulled his right hoof back, the other holding her pinned to the tall crate. He was going to punch right through her armor. It would surely kill her. As he went to end her life a shot rang out in the distance, clipping through his shoulder. Again it looked almost like he reached to touch where it struck, but did not. His head twisted in that sickening snapping motion towards where the sniper shot came from. In an instant this brief flicker of distraction set him up for a moment of extreme irony.

The suits amplified strength went straight into him as it let her aim a kick to his groin with a terrible crunching sound. This sent him rolling about the ground screaming, throwing her to the side. It was a hard landing, so rough the armor actually bounced. Bullets might have done little, but just plain hitting him seemed to cause true lasting damage. At last, he was really hurt in some manner.

"Oww. Ohh. Wait, I'm still alive? Run." This thought sent Traveler running, as fast as her suit could still move she ran. In the distance behind she glanced to just make out him yelling between agonized pained moaning.

Some of her fathers advice was to never look back when running, but she couldn't help it. She'd really managed to injure him with that last kick. This felt satisfying in some way she could not really express to herself. Just keep running. It hurts so much. She was limping quite a bit after all that. Alarm bells were ringing in her. That terrible dark cold feeling creeping around felt even worse than before. What was up with that?

"Pommel Horse! Get me out of here!" He screeched in apparent agony. Oh no. The terrible machine sprang to life in its large crate. Those eerily rotating barred blue eyes spinning as it revved up.

"ORDERS RECEIVED. OPERATION: ASSET EXTRACTION." That awful booming mechanical voice broke the night. Asset? Everything it did was so loud. If she wound up in a fight with that thing she'd be torn to pieces in seconds. The powerful war machine rolled out of its crate and the entire top section spun around to aim weapons in her direction as it continued to roll towards him. Remembering her fathers advice she was running in a zigzag at angles away from it, trying to stay out of its line of sight using the tall crate. The limp was slowing her down further. Her legs were hurting so much. A few pinging rounds bounced off the suit at bad angles. Without it those definitely would have killed her.

While fleeing for her life she took only that one quick glance back. Run run run. It was not coming after her. Finally, Traveler figured she was probably outside its effective range. The horrible pony even injured as he was climbed atop the hideous machine and clung to it while it trundled off at a very fast pace. The battle robot did look far more damaged than she was able to see earlier. She was nearly hyperventilating. Traveler sort of just stopped for now. They were gone. He was gone. Several times in that brief fight she'd nearly lost her life. Tapping out the exit command she tumbled out the back of Moonlight and lay on her back panting like crazy.

Staring up at the ever obscured skies, Traveler was nearly hyperventilating. One of the ponies she saved must have fired that shot, she would have to thank them for granting such a chance. Closing her eyes tight, she coughed a few times.

"I'm alive! Hahahahaha. I'm still alive.." She burst into giggling fits which hurt her aching ribs. Oww. There was no way she could have lived through that, but here she still was. Tilting her head to the side she could see Tanner and the others quickly approaching. So they were watching. The mare wearing the strange crossing armor draped over her stood there, muzzle agape before speaking.

"Holy moly girl. You must be either the craziest or the bravest pony I have ever seen. Either way, you're absolutely bad-ass!" The mare in the unusual armor gushed. Traveler felt like she was blushing all over upon hearing that. The tough and grizzled looking griffon with them simply nodded his head.

"You saw?" Traveler panted.

"Night scope. You did light up the place a couple times too." The mare was pointing at the other ponies sniper rifle. The big griffon stepped forward.

"I approve. I hate to admit it, but I couldn't take him. I don't think most griffons would have survived a dust-up like that. Fine work." He reached down in offer to help her up which she gladly accepted. Tanner somehow looked pale despite his red coat.

"Where was he taking you anyway?" Traveler risked her life saving them in order to further her own ends, but was very curious. The pony with the dangerous looking sniper rifle spoke up.

"Good question, Absolutely no idea. So, who ARE you anyway? I recognize that one." The griffon pointed at Tanner and spoke with a heavy tone. All three seemed friendly enough.

"Tanner, coin." Traveler pointed a hoof at his pack. He set it down and promptly fished it out to show them. As always he found what he was looking for nearly immediately in all those pockets and held it up. Impressive that he could do that.

"The captain sent you? That's his mark for sure. It wasn't after us I hope." The other mare stated.

"No. We just wanted to ask your help searching for something in a place you're going to be passing by anyway." Traveler was able to breathe easy once again as she calmed down, the adrenaline rush was wearing off and leaving her feeling slightly woozy. Her legs and ribs would likely be aching for days after all that. She could just tell.

"Good, I didn't think he'd disrespect us that way. So you went through all that just to get our help, huh? You sure you need it? I am glad you came along though. I'm Tasket, that's Tisket. The tough guy there is Gunnar, but I think you hold the title for that." Tasket told her. Gunnar looked away a bit indignantly.

Traveler never heard names like those before, still feeling a bit embarrassed in a good way.

"Pleased to meet you. I must admit I wasn't expecting meeting you to be..quite like this." As Traveler spoke her words got a laugh out of the three. That was such a pleasant thing to hear, especially out here. This was a good start.

"I hate to say this and please don't take it the wrong way, but you three look pretty beat up." She could see it in their faces and eyes. They must have taken quite a beating themselves.

"He took us down pretty fast. You've seen what he can do, and felt it. He just showed up out of nowhere three days ago. Naturally we tried to fight. He knocked those two out real quick. I couldn't even slow him down and then he just threw us in those wheeled cages. Kept mumbling something about someone called Boss the whole time. Something about him isn't normal, if you hadn't guessed that already." Gunnar looked perturbed by this fact as he spoke. Not normal. No kidding. He must be about as far from normal as could be.

"We should see if there's anything in that mess we can use. Maybe there's something helpful in one of those box things. I doubt even he would be coming back after a few blows like those." Tanner was looking towards the crates while speaking. Ever a consummate scavenger. Still, it was a good way to be these days. It obviously served him well. It might be worth a look anyway. Perhaps some clue to what he was doing was there. They casually walked over to where the fight took place. It left a true mess of both the strange boxes and the area itself.

"Something about one of those small boxes concerns me. We could never quite see properly, but I swear we saw might have saw these little things that looked like tiny ponies with wings. It was impossible to really see or hear mind you." Tisket pointed a hoof at the small box the terrible pony crashed through, went over to it and slightly lifted the edge to look under. Traveler twitched slightly. Oh no. No. Did she get somepony else killed? There didn't seem to be anyone else around. Tisket peered under the broken board, then gently set it back down and looked like she was going to be sick. She took a deep breath. Traveler felt her good feeling evaporate instantly.

"I don't know what they were. There were two of them. Poor little guys. They do look a bit like ponies, had antennas too. Sorta like those roach things. Cuter. Never seen or heard of anything like them. Any of you know?" Traveler's heart sank at Tisket's words while they all said no. She went to pull back the board, but Tisket stopped her and shook her head.

"Don't look." Tasket looked ill as she went over to talk to her companions.

"Tanner, I killed them. I don't even know if they were ponies or what, but I killed them." Traveler trembled as she spoke.

"Traveler, no. If anypony killed them it was him. It looks pretty clear to me none of them were going to survive whatever he was planning to do with them." Tanner cautiously reach out and patted her on the back gently.

It was nice of him to offer. He was likely right.

"Don't beat yourself up, okay? Look what you just went through. I don't know how you survived all that, but if you hadn't they would still be prisoners and we would all probably be dead. No quitting, right? We should all get some rest now." He looked her straight in the eyes. Rest. Yes. That sounded very good. Traveler took a deep breath and sighed, closing her eyes tight for a moment.

"A-alright. I just feel bad I didn't save them." He nodded as she spoke.

"We couldn't have known. They didn't really know either. I think we're in the clear on blame, okay?" Tanner motioned for her to go get some sleep. She gladly did so. It didn't take much to fall asleep. She was hurting, sore and tired from all that. It left her dreaming in odd stilted scenes of the fight, and the moment he crashed through the box. The little things stood no chance. Nothing about it was right. Hours later when she finally woke it was not to feeling much better, perhaps a little. Less tired. The feeling was anguishing. Tanner's words helped. It wasn't really her fault. There was no time to find out, and it was not really a mistake. Just something that happened.

She wandered over to the others who were still rummaging through all the wheeled crates. Most of it was not useful.

"What is all this junk? Most of it is total garbage. barely worth a few caps at all. Why was he dragging all this along? I can't understand it, and you called my stuff junk, sis. The only thing that isn't worthless is the extra water." Tasket was saying. One small crate of water packs. Enough for one pony on a really long trip. Maybe enough for their whole group to add an extra couple weeks worth. Good anyway.

"Something else is strange about that. Look at these packs, I've never seen anything like them. They almost look..new." Tanner sounded worried about this. They'd all clearly got some rest as well while Traveler was sleeping. What could this mean? New? Almost nothing ever looked new in the wastes. Maybe Down Range would know, if he was here to say.

"Hey. Are we all done here?" Traveler made a sweeping motion across all the chained wheel-boxes. They were finished combing through it all in the marginally better light of day.

"Now that I don't feel like I've been hit by a building I need to ask, will you help us? It won't be very far out of your way I promise. Maybe a few miles at most." Traveler didn't have a chance to really ask earlier.

"I can't be leaving such a debt owing. You did save these two." Gunnar told her. Save those two? What about him? She went to ask. Tisket interrupted.

"Big guy there is in charge on this mission, what he says goes for us." He looked over at Traveler.

"Say, you're kinda young, aren't you?" Tasket asked. Traveler glanced sideways at her with a sort of vague glare without quite realizing she was doing it.

"Whoa. Relax. No offense." Tasket was definitely surprised by that.

"Oh. I'm sorry. I just haven't been having a very good time lately. Uh, for a long time." Traveler took a deep breath and went to go get in her armor. It was only minorly damaged in two places aside from the leg joint. The armor integrity was down a bit. If this sort of thing kept up it would be totally destroyed before she got to her destination. That could not happen. It mustn't. Without it she would surely have died by now numerous times. She pat the thing before getting in it.

"Sorry, Moonlight. He was so powerful. You saved my life again. I swear I will try to get you repaired, somehow. There must be somebody that can do that, right?" A bit forlornly she once again found herself walking along pulling her families old cart.

In a way it was comforting to hear the constant sound of the wheels rolling behind as always. One of the few constants in her life since running from home in a panic. The others talked openly about their objective as they trod forward for several hours.At least they could make some distance before night fell once again. Traveler kept staring ahead, watching for any hint Magnificent was out here. There was nothing. Always going forward. Was this all she'd ever do again? Walk? Occasionally she caught bits of what the others were saying, paying little attention. It was a strange thing this Gunnar was doing. What would happen if he actually got where he was going? Just go out somewhere and die?

That was how it sounded. Tanner sort of trailed behind her, listening to their chatter. Traveler didn't care much at all right now. Her thoughts were a bit of a jumble about all the strangeness lately. It was all just so wrong. Everything. Bad dreams were one thing, encountering such terrors in reality was a far different matter. Strangeness almost seemed consistent now. The prisoners were safe and free now, but why did this even happen? What could he possibly have been planning to do with them? Her thoughts returned to home. Something she tried not to think about for the moment. She might have died right there, or here.

Facing off against the one that stole everything from her turned out to be so much different than expected. Deep in thought she just walked along for a few hours in front of the others. Oddly, nothing really felt like it mattered right now. A terrible sadness fell over her. So long she'd dwelled on what would happen when if they ever met.

"All this time I felt I wanted to kill him, but seeing him... I.. thought if I ever saw him I would just end his life like he ended yours, mom, dad..it's....I...was I wrong to want him dead, daddy? Daddy, why? Why are things like this!? Why?" As she thought this to herself Traveler stopped so abruptly that Tanner almost crashed right into her cart along with the others who were quite surprised by the abrupt interruption.

"Traveler? What is it? Is something wrong? Heya, snap out of it. Are you okay, Traveler?" Tanner stepped up beside her as she backed out of the suit in the usual awkward looking fashion. He could tell something was amiss. This was not a way he'd ever seen her act before. Only knowing her for a short bit still let him see something was terribly wrong. She stood there a moment in silence, staring blankly at the suit, then the ground.

"What's going on girl, you alright?" Tasket never saw anypony with an expression on their face like this before. Traveler took a few steps haltingly, starting to shake heavily.

"Traveler, are you sick, hurt? What's wrong?" Tanner was very confused by now, as they all were. Finally, she mouthed some words in a whisper he couldn't hear. A deep frown crossed his face. After another moment of this she raised her voice so sharply and suddenly they all jumped a little.

"It was him. It was him!" Traveler almost fell over as they all reached out to catch her.

"Him? Him, who? That pony? I don't know what you mean." Tanner gently eased her to the ground where she lay trembling. She sobbed and the tears she'd fought to rid herself of were pouring down once again.

It was too much to have seen and fought that wicked pony.

"He took everything away from me. He was the one that killed mom and dad! I hate him. I hate him. I HATE HIM!" Traveler lay there screaming incoherently and quivering, wracked with sobs as the others looked on in stunned silence. No longer really wanting to kill the mad pony who hurt her so, she could not contain her anger towards him for what he'd done. It seethed in her heart. Tanner's eyes were wide with shock at her words.

"Guys, give her space." Tanner bid them back away.

Ever so slowly he held himself over her back, gently laying his head against her neck comfortingly. Unsure, he held her.

"What can I do, Traveler?" He asked softly, hesitant and unknowing. The tears kept falling. It all hurt so much. Everything. She bawled and tears streamed down. Tasket's group looked on in silent concern.

- - - -

What dangerous game is this they are playing? Who is really moving the pieces? If they are mere pawns, why is the game so hard to play?

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